Actions

Work Header

Dower the Stars

Chapter Text

Truly, Arthur thinks as he descends the throne to greet the latest envoy of Druids, it takes the end of an era to understand exactly how much he would give to keep it.

It seems there are far more Druids in the Five Kingdoms than Arthur was ever aware, certainly more than Uther had been aware. The censuses only happen once a year, they only cover those living within Camelot’s borders, and only then if people bother to respond to the census taker when he arrives and yells that he’s brought extra cheese wheels from the king’s larder and would everyone please come out and be counted? If Arthur were in the middle of working a horse, plucking chickens, or god forbid, bathing a small and slippery child in a river, he wouldn’t bother showing up for cheese wheels either. When his father took censuses, he didn’t even offer cheese wheels, just a royal decree with a reminder of the standing laws about sorcery on the side.

So of course there are a lot of Druids now when before there was nary a whiff on the wind. And of course, they’ve come for Merlin.

It’s not the first time the Druids have come for Merlin, or the fifth, or even the fifteenth. But it is the first time Arthur will actually have to let Merlin go.

**

It starts with the spring equinox, and a single Druid begging an audience with the royal court during petitions. The entire royal court, it turns out; all his knights present, those that are in the city at any rate. The Druid doesn’t look like an elder and wears no identifying insignia of leadership, but Arthur’s seen enough of the illustrious and ill-mannered Dragoon to know that where sorcerers are concerned, physical appearance means next to nothing.

She’s alone, which is interesting. Gray robes so fine they look silver, and green and gold twine woven into her braids. She carries a single satchel, wears traveling shoes, and bears no walking stick. She bows low when she reaches the center of the throne room, and wishes the king and queen a pleasant and fruitful turn of season.

“And to Emrys,” she adds, “I bring the well-wishes and gifts of my clan, in preparation for the coming conjunction in the heavens.”

Arthur knows there are several stars aligning in the next quarter year or so, in as much as it will affect the planting season and therefore the harvest, and has planned with Gwen accordingly. He isn’t a disciple himself, but many in Camelot are these days. The best way to keep a happy populace is to let the celebrants of the Old Religion take time off to lull about in the hedges and drink themselves into song and dance when the heavens call for it. Most of the time it coincides with festivals he does observe anyway, but this one (according to Gaius) only happens once in three lifetimes. Red Sulis Tarui has been bright over the horizon for months, with Druuios ever present in the night sky above. Eventually they will align with two other stars, heralding good fortune and health to all.

A single look to his right shows Arthur that Merlin expected this and knows exactly how to respond to such a proclamation: “My thanks to your clan for their generosity, and to you for bearing it here.” But he does look a little puzzled. Arthur agrees; she’s only carrying the one bag and she brought no train of wagons with her. Nevertheless, he sets the back of his mind to compiling a list of what Camelot can spare in both staple and supply to send back with her.

“Oh, it is my great honor to be the one to come here, my lord Emrys, especially in honor of your—” And she says a word Arthur has never heard before.

It sounds like slee chua lagaa.

Arthur, in spite of himself, leans forward. There is a wrinkle to Merlin’s brow, and damn it, if Merlin is curious, then Arthur will soon be beside himself wanting to know. Once there had been a time when the mere word ‘Druid’ sent his hand twitching for a sword. Now Arthur welcomes each new facet to the culture his father had long put down. Knowledge truly is the only power worth having, and ends up leading to all the rest.

“I bring tidings.” The Druid speaks to Arthur now, friendly and guileless. “This is a rare and extraordinary moment in the long life of our world. Preparations have been in the making for centuries, ever since the prophecy that told of the coming of Emrys, and of the Once and Future King. If it please you, Your Highness, in the coming weeks, many more of my people would welcome the chance to enter your city and give their own offerings to Emrys.”

Arthur and Gwen share a look. “We would be honored by your people’s presence,” Gwen says, and Arthur follows it with “Please pass along the invitation of myself and my queen to visit in peace and be welcomed likewise.”

The Druid bows again to Arthur and Gwen in turn, then faces Merlin. Her smile widens. “Now, my lord Emrys, if it is to your liking, I would be the first to offer of our gifts.”

Merlin raises an eyebrow at Arthur—Arthur raises his own right back—then descends the dais, coming to a stop in front of their visitor. She takes his elbows with both hands, a familial embrace, and speaks just between them in a language Arthur is dismayed to find he only understands half of. Any anxiety over this is erased, however, when she then looks around the gathered members of court and translates in Camelot’s English: “My revered lord, the Druids of the Western Wood do hereby swear their fealty to you, and to your king and queen. May our gifts and skills be one with yours.” She speaks to Merlin again, foreign words low and intimate, then translates. “May our paths ever align beneath sun, moon, and stars. May the grace that we now share flourish in this world and may we protect it hand in hand.”

She steps back and raises a hand toward the back of the hall. A swoop of wings, startled exclamations from those awaiting audience, and a falcon that glows like newly beaten copper sweeps in from some perch Arthur had not previously noticed, alighting with regal grace upon her wrist. She strokes its feathers, murmuring to it, and turns to Merlin again. “My lord,” she says, this time so that all may understand, “this is Anarawd.”

Appreciative chatter this time. Merlin hesitates, a smile breaking over his face. He and the bird share a stare. Arthur can see the glint in the falcon’s eyes from where he sits.

“A gift?” Merlin asks, wondering.

“A request.” The Druid grins. “From Anarawd himself.”

Arthur sits up straighter, eyeing the falcon with more interest. Merlin holds out a hand and the falcon side steps onto it, its black talons pinching visibly at the pale skin of Merlin’s wrist. Merlin winces, expectant—Arthur can read every tic of that face—but there is no apparent pain.

An extraordinary bird. Arthur is not the falconer in his band of knights, but he’s never seen the like, even from among Tristan’s birds. Merlin looks the creature right in the eye—or perhaps it is the other way around. There is something about the glimmer there, a knowingness, that makes Arthur’s spine tingle just as it does at every shiver of Merlin’s magic. Arthur could swear there is a whole conversation going on between the two that he has no inkling of.

His world has truly changed, from the hibernating Camelot of his father to this constant sense of waking: every day a new door opens and reveals a bold and clear light that a part of him has somehow always known about but that he has never seen. Magic was always here, Arthur knows, but still he feels as though Merlin has brought all of it. Without Merlin, none of the rest would have followed.

“And now for my gift.” The Druid’s words jar Arthur from his reflections. Her smile sharpens, one side tipping up much higher than the other, and the falcon takes flight from Merlin’s hand to rest on one of the ornate candelabra. That word again, oh, slee chu ach lagaa, rather— “for your continued health.”

And she leans in and kisses Merlin full on the mouth.

Arthur’s glad no one is looking at him anymore because his mouth drops right open and hangs there. Beside him, Gwen lets out a small hup of laughter and covers her mouth, and Arthur is aware, sort of, only he can’t quite focus because—good god. Good god, the Druid is not stopping. She takes her time with Merlin’s mouth, a long and thorough laving, and Arthur can tell from the throne that this is no chaste press of lips. The Druid’s eyelids flutter closed; she tilts her head, raises her hands to Merlin’s face, and the kiss—well, the kiss becomes quite explicit. For his part, Merlin’s eyes start out wide, as shocked as he should well be, but slowly his lids dip, until his gaze becomes almost contemplative, and, well, there is time to think all of this through, isn’t there? Arthur continues to gape, Gwen to press her lips flat with one hand, and then the air fizzles like woodtick larvae in a fire and something passes from the Druid’s mouth to Merlin’s in a wild ruby rush, skating over skin. Merlin rocks back on his feet.

A gasp goes up. Gwen goes rigid and Arthur is nearly out of his chair, hand fast round the dagger hilt from his boot. But Merlin’s hand snaps up, staying Arthur’s lunge. Merlin stares at the Druid, breathing as though he’s run the circumference of the city.

“It’s alright,” he says, sounding half there. All in the hall can hear, but Arthur knows in his bones that the reassurance is meant for him.

The Druid’s expression is dazed. She gives Merlin’s face a brush with her fingertips. “Ah, well,” she says, and smiles somewhat dopily.

Arthur shares a look with Gwen. She is composed again, if still wary. But Merlin just blinks, a child’s wonder. He takes a careful step back from her, looks to Arthur and opens his mouth, then closes it.

The Druid turns to the dais. “With your leave, Your Highnesses, my duty is done and I must return to my clan.”

“We thank you for your visit to our court.” The etiquette never fails Arthur; it is etched so deeply he might one day prove he can broker peace while asleep. “You are most welcome at any time that you wish to return.”

“I’ll… see you to the gates,” Merlin says.

She bows a final time, Arthur and Gwen inclines their heads, and she takes her leave. The falcon leaps from the candelabra and follows them out, winging behind Merlin. And the court remains gobsmacked, whispers on the fringes. Arthur feels a frenzied and entirely inappropriate laugh building in his throat.

“Master of audiences,” he manages instead, waving a hand and settling back as the massive door closes behind Merlin and their guest.

The petitions continue, jumping back up to speed now that the magical element has left the room. The king and queen sit, attentive to their subjects’ frets and concerns, at least outwardly.

Only the one word was completely alien. Arthur puzzles over it through the proceedings, and during the presentation of suits, a much less fraught section of daily court than it ever was during his father’s reign, Arthur leans very slightly to his left. “Slee chu ach lagaa?”

“I’ve no idea,” Gwen says immediately, showing that she has been as distracted as he. Gwen has become very good at talking out of the side of her mouth. Better than Arthur even, and he grew up doing it. Two farmers agree upon the merits of sharing their land while their rulers smile benevolently and wonder how they might find out about this slee chu ach lagaa, and then, during the burst of applause at the resolution, Gwen turns to him at the same moment he turns to her.

“Merlin,” they say together.

Course of action settled, Arthur turns his mind fully to the dwindling line of petitioners.

**

But Merlin is not so easily consulted. Once the Druid emissary departs, there are the wells within the walls to be re-purified for the season, and the wells without to be re-shielded; a bevy of great orange cows lowing a soothing dirge in the center of town, twenty percent of which have come up lame; and a roomful of snuffling children with which Gaius will need assistance, though whether that’s physicking them or herding them away from all the fragile bottles along the walls is anyone’s guess. Arthur knows all this—he’s the one who approved Merlin’s duties, after all—but the timing is especially irksome when there is information he simply must know.

Gwen, an admirable devotee to her royal calling, has no time to hunt Merlin down and interrogate him herself: she must go to the midwives’ gathering in the lower quarter of Camelot, to ensure that their grievances against an upstart sawbones will not go unheeded (and the upstart sawbones will not go uneducated about the true scope of his practice within this kingdom, thank you).

She has a glorious and frightening gift for arbitration. Glorious to Arthur; frightening for anyone awaiting her judgment.

Arthur, of course, has this and that to do. Outlying estate intelligence comes in stacks of parchment bearing seals that only the king may break or ‘the lords will know, my esteemed liege,’ probably because the squire delivering them will snitch. There’s the bulge in the eastern border where it swings round Ealdor: by the end of the day, this must swell across every official map to embrace Shevely, Oak Tor, and five other towns, all without touching the Forest of Oredwyll (though Arthur means to take that as well, quietly over the next week while everyone in Rience’s rabble argues over who gets the rights to the river’s southern bank. Oredwyll has the thickest timber and right now there are rogue knights using the cover it provides to loot the settlements on the edges). There’s also that nasty bit with the soldier-turned-mercenary who raided a bardic encampment, burned the place to the ground, and would have done worse to its inhabitants if not for the timely arrival of Camelot’s greeting party (in short, Percival, who took one look and knocked all the bastard’s teeth out of his mouth with his own cudgel), and Arthur… well, he does not forget about Merlin’s mystery word. But he slots it aside into the list of other curious but non-life-threatening issues, of which there are always far too many to handle in one day.

At dusk, down a hall filling with the mouth-watering scents of the evening meal, he swings up behind his court sorcerer and jars him with an elbow. “What was it, then?”

Merlin jumps a mile. “Don’t do that.”

“The gift, Merlin.” Arthur tugs off his gloves, tucks them under one arm, and wiggles all ten of his fingers between them. “What did she give you?”

Merlin slows, the disdainful frown he saves just for Arthur going thoughtful. Of all the looks that grace Merlin’s face, Arthur likes this look the best, especially when he thumbs absently at his bottom lip. “Fortitude, in short. Just a simple spell.”

“Hm, yes. Certainly looked simple.”

“Your crown, Sire,” Merlin intones blandly. “It’s crooked.”

Arthur knocks it further askew just to watch Merlin’s mouth quirk. “Come on, skinnybones.” He hooks Merlin with an arm round the shoulder and wheels him into the dining hall.

**

Afterward, as Arthur readies for bed—he does have a manservant, but not for much other than cleaning his chambers and deciphering the abominable riddle of royal clothing he often needs of a morning—Merlin sweeps into his chambers without knocking, spilling light into the hallway behind him and voices from without into Arthur’s rooms. The falcon perches upon his shoulder. Merlin is conversing with it.

“…and here we are, right on time. Didn’t I say I would?”

The falcon inclines its head.

“You’re welcome,” Merlin says.

Arthur’s world has become very strange indeed.

“Merlin,” he sighs, then rolls his eyes and throws his breeches aside. Why bother, anyway? “Would you please shut the door.”

“Oh.” Merlin waves a hand at it. It shuts. He grins at Arthur, coming to a stop at his side. “Sorry.”

Arthur despairs of bare and kingly legs on view to the whole of the castle. It wouldn’t be the first time.

The falcon sidesteps rapidly down from Merlin’s shoulder, distracting Arthur and forcing Merlin to raise his arm out beside him to keep the bird from falling off. Arthur stares into beady black eyes, now a foot from his own.

Expectant is the only word for that look, and for the look on Merlin’s face. “Sire. May I present Anarawd.”

It seems strange to address a bird directly, yet impossible not to. Arthur clears his throat and manages something in between. “Yes. Hello.”

This time Merlin is the one to roll his eyes. He gives his arm a bounce just as the falcon heaves up off it. There’s a great rushing flap and before Arthur can blink, those worrisome talons latch into the sleeve of his nightshirt. He raises his arm instinctively, sucks in a breath. Can’t help it. The falcon is heavy and its spurs are like sickles. It eyes him for a long, long, long moment.

“He asked to meet you properly.” Merlin’s words are far off. Arthur can focus on nothing but the soul before him.

“Nothing proper about this,” he murmurs. He’s half naked. Hardly majestic. But what in god’s name is he thinking anyway? It’s a bird.

Anarawd sticks his face right into Arthur’s and cranes his neck around, back and forth. Arthur has seen owls do this right before they bite the head off a mouse. Is he supposed to say something else? Offer it victuals? This creature is making him feel absurdly like a poor host.

Before he can do anything, however, Anarawd gives what can only be a decisive nod. His talons clench briefly at Arthur’s arm, putting Arthur in mind of the squeeze Gwen gives him after a particularly difficult border council. Anarawd turns to Merlin and lets out a piercing squawk.

Merlin’s smile goes soft. “I told you he was,” he says in such a way that Arthur feels like he’s intruding.

“He quite likes Gwen,” Merlin says to Arthur, back to normal. “We just caught her in the north gallery. Says she’s an old soul. I told him of course she is, we all know that. It’s nothing to what he says about your soul, naturally, but we can’t all be the Once and Future King. Some of us have day jobs.”

“Merlin,” Arthur interrupts, of half a mind to demand exactly what this bird has been saying about his soul. Anarawd has resettled himself upon the table to meddle with the quills and parchment there—and damned if he doesn’t look like he’s reading the treaty drafts. Arthur gestures uselessly, first at the bird, then he gives up and gestures at himself. “If you don’t mind?”

Merlin finally seems to notice Arthur’s state of dress. Or, undress. His eyes sweep up from Arthur’s bare feet until they hit the same place Arthur’s shirt does, mid-thigh, and widen. “Right,” he says. “I’m—You’re tired already?”

Arthur glares, withering. “It’s been a long day. Though I suppose if we’d all been lucky enough to suffer such invigorating kisses—”

Merlin’s cheeks pink. “Clotpole,” he mutters and turns with a huff. Anarawd flaps up to join him again, a wing trailing gently along Arthur’s cheek as he passes.

“Good night, o revered sorcerer,” Arthur calls, and laughs as the door slams indignantly. Then he touches his cheek.

Except— “Damn it.” He still hasn’t asked Merlin about the meaning of that word.

**

The next morning, two more Druids arrive, tall women in cloaks the rich green of the millpond. Their faces are half inked, vines or tendrils or possibly snakes. The elder of the two proceeds to ravish Merlin’s mouth right there on the castle steps.

Passionate is not a descriptive enough term for it. Arthur, frozen three steps above them, is just addressing his shock yet again when a silvery rain over them both ends the embrace and the younger Druid steps into her compatriot’s place. At the touch of her mouth, Merlin lets out a small, reedy sound from somewhere in his throat. Arthur’s belly twists. The younger Druid’s eyes flash gold, and Merlin’s eyes fly open, a perfect match.

She ends it with a nod and then they both wish much prosperity from the Seal Islands to Emrys during his slee chu ach la goht yeh and ask to stay for a week.

And that’s about the time Arthur decides he’d better figure out exactly what slee chu ach whatever is.

During his father’s reign, the library was Geoffrey of Monmouth’s well-trodden terrain, but in the years since Arthur’s coronation it had been gifted first to Gaius for better care of his medicinal tomes, and then, as magic became an everyday word again, to Merlin. Chest upon stone chest has been unearthed from the lowest dungeons Arthur ever found in the castle, and the opening of each one spilled book after book concerning The Thing About Which We Do Not Speak. Apparently even Uther had not believed his own rhetoric enough to risk destroying such magical objects en masse. They had, of course, been forbidden until Merlin pulled them out into the light and lined the vast arches and alcoves of the library with them. The first thing Arthur noticed was their obvious fit, a thing of beauty. They belonged here in dust-moted light, their elaborate bindings beckoning to all fingers: come, pull me down and learn.

Arthur does just that, sequestering himself in the hindmost chamber where it will take several twists and turns for an industrious hunter to locate a king (which will happen sooner than he likes, he’s sure, seeing as he’s somehow left Gwaine in charge of a visiting dignitary from up north), and begins the laborious process of researching the Old Religion.

It’s fascinating stuff; even if he weren’t distracted every third chapter by some titillating ritual for celebrating stars in early winter or dressing in foliage, even if he wasn’t constantly pointing at pages and saying, “Ha!” at something obviously ancient that Merlin’s tried to act like he invented, Arthur would find the task lengthy and utterly engrossing. When he had first gone looking in these books, a mere day after Merlin dropped a boulder on his heart with a single confession, he’d stolen in in the dead of night under torchlight and turned the pages gingerly, expecting to find them full of ugliness. Not so, not at all. Certainly there were spells that caused damage, but to Arthur it read much like a combat manual, with instructions and diagrams: here is what you can do to another with a blade or shield or lance, so above all be mindful. The respect one must have for the power of each spell was clearly stressed, and none but the blackest of books ever couched a spell as created purely for killing.

Given the bitterness and betrayal in Arthur’s chest at the time, the fact that he’d not been able to find devilry on every page only made the truth of magic more apparent.

Merlin, he now knows, is different even from that. For him, magic is no sword he picked up and learned to use. The comparison is more suited to a voice. Inherent, something he just has, like eyes or lungs or teeth.

Arthur’s sure by now that his father never actually cracked any of these books; if he had, he would have known of the possibilities for encouraging crop growth or a healthy populace within the fragile balance that must be maintained in order to call upon natural magic. He’d have recognized that most of these spells and enchantments have very little to do with magic and quite a lot to do with trust and an understanding of nature. Yes, there is most definitely the sparkly, searing, explosive sort of sorcery in these pages. But to use it properly, there is an acknowledgment that all things must be weighed, and that this weight will always return upon you eventually.

He spends all morning holed up with brittle pages that rasp when he turns them and volumes that smell sharp, minty, acidic by turns: Merlin has said that this is the magic woven into them, the potential of what they contain. Arthur looks in agriculture, because Druids just love their solemn promenades in the verge. Those pages smell sweet like flowers and blue like water, fresh as clouds and loamy with tilled dirt. He tries books on the passage of seasons and the circling of the heavens, as this slee chu ach lagaa is apparently contingent upon the movement of the stars; before this, Arthur had no idea what night might smell like, but now he knows it is of rich, dark lilies, of airborne frost and vanishing heat. He does find inscriptions about the conjunction of the stars, but nothing of any particular significance involving abnormally strong warlocks foretold by destiny.

The books of battle, interestingly, smell wholly of earthbound iron, of steel. This gift of the Druids’ is clearly meant to grow Merlin’s power, but Arthur can find nothing in those pages either. He moves on, to thaumaturgy, to elemental ritual, to contagious sorcery, to healing enchantment, and at one point, to a completely ridiculous brick of a book written by a batty monk in the northernmost islands, on magicking all manner of seafaring birds so that they might recite epic poetry in skaldic verse. As Arthur has not heard any raucous odes to elvish warriors bellowed at him while he traipses the shores along the coast, he’ll assume Brother Hrypa (“the shouter,” how very appropriate) was unsuccessful.

It’s well into the afternoon when he gives up on magic’s theory and turns to its etymology instead. The problem is, he has no idea how the word is spelled, or if it’s even one word at all and not two or three mashed together. These Druids speak tongues he is familiar with, but that word doesn’t seem to fit any of their rules. Perhaps a proto-language? Something they all drew upon.

Except there’s the matter of this preposterously tiny writing.

“Of all the ridiculous—Damn.” Arthur fishes out the perfectly round, perfectly clear glass lens from inside his shirt. Merlin made it for him after the blow he suffered at Lindum, to combat the (slight, Merlin, barely there at all!) fuzzing of the vision in his right eye.

(Though Colgrin got the worse end of that stick, no two ways about it. Even after Arthur was done with him, Merlin had the usual bone to pick. Arthur doesn’t know details, having been unconscious by then. But he can extrapolate.)

No matter; there’s no one here to see him use the lens. “Try proving a thing, Merlin,” he mutters, guiding the lens down a page in a volume as big as his chest.

There are a few words that could apply. A word for ‘awake’, a word for ‘be’. If the Seal Islands Druids are pronouncing it differently than the Western Woods Druids, surely there are many more interpretations for the basic sounds. Arthur quite likes embibolgon, although he can’t find any way that it relates to this ritual gift giving. There’s a term for ‘bedfellow’ that makes him pause, but he dismisses it until he comes across φoklo and lekkā and tuwedī, all of which refer to binding or marrying of some kind. By the time he’s covered ‘desire’ and ‘copulate’ and ‘sex’, he’s glaring, incredulous, down at the page.

“Arthur?”

Merlin, in the stacks. Arthur inhales slowly and waits for his manservant-cum-all-powerful-warlock to find him. When he does, taking in all the piles of books Arthur has unearthed, Arthur raises an eyebrow at his bewildered ‘what?’ and taps the page in front of him.

“Slee chu ach lagaa?” he enunciates, and smirks slowly, putting as much filth into his voice as can possibly fit. “Merlin.”

His all-powerful warlock turns the color of a summer tomato.

**

“It’s a sex ritual,” Merlin sighs, “as best I can figure.”

Arthur spits out a chunk of apple and barely catches it before it goes sailing over the edge of the parapet. They’re out on the battlements, lunch in hand and feet dangling over the side of the castle’s oldest rampart. Anarawd wheels overhead in the warm breeze. “Sex ritual? Did I miss something back on the steps yesterday?”

“That wasn’t the ritual,” Merlin moans, and rubs his face. “That was just the test.”

“Test.”

“The whole thing is meant to share power, to line up along with the heavenly bodies and to consolidate the natural gifts of the earth. And I’m Emrys, so...”

“Their great messiah.”

Merlin eyes him. “Don’t say it like that. Besides, I’m not their messiah. You are, Born King.”

Arthur grunts. He still doesn’t see how a mortal man with no magical breath in his body could ever save a people who can bend the waters and winds to their will. He takes another bite of his apple instead of agonizing over it again. “Fine. The kissing?”

“They’re offering to increase my strength.”

“Yes, I got that.”

“So they’re testing my compatibility with their magic.” Merlin’s expression is wry. Some days he really looks his age, and his true level of power. “They each have different strengths of their own, different focuses to their magic. The kiss is to test the waters, I guess is the best way to put it.”

Arthur remembers the wistfulness on the first envoy’s face, and the calm resignation of the two women from the isles. An unpleasant sensation grows in the pit of his belly. “And when the magic matches up?”

Merlin smiles, faint. “Well, then, I will have touched the magic that can truly intertwine with my own.”

“Ah.”

“That’s where the ritual comes in,” Merlin goes on. “The actual ritual is… well, it’s…” He makes the obvious obscene hand gestures. “And then that’s me and whoever it is, bound together forever. But think of it. Our magic would enhance threefold at least. Depending on what the other person is capable of, we might be able to see and hear the interwoven elements, influence the night skies, maybe even time itself. Know when the other is troubled, or happy. Feel each other every moment of every day.” He flushes, then smiles sideways at Arthur. “That’s why they’ve been waiting for me, I guess. I walk hand in hand with the man who will save them all. Such power comes only to one who will not abuse it.”

Arthur snorts. “And they think that’s you.”

“Yes,” Merlin frowns, straightening. “Well, they think that’s Emrys, anyway.”

“Emrys.” Arthur extends his arms out over the whole of his city. “Who floats shoes onto Libera’s hooves rather than walk her two doors down to the royal blacksmith. Emrys, who ruins pudding because he can’t be bothered to boil the cornmeal properly. Emrys, who dumps filthy water all over the head of his lord and liege when he’s in a strop—”

Merlin punches him in the arm. Arthur laughs and punches him back, and tries to ignore the pinching in his gut.

Chapter Text

But it’s the next contender for Merlin’s favor that sends it all sideways.

This group is larger: three men and five women. Arthur does not have to check the instinctive unease that robes, cowls, and that watchful silence have always brought: these Druids are louder and wear far less clothing.

They hail from the high and icy north, descendants of tribes even the Romans could not subdue, and they do not favor the immersion into peaceful worship that their southern kin uphold. Arthur has seen their predatory skill in force. They celebrate the land with devoted prayer and bloody their blades to keep that same land sacred and free.

No, the instinct Arthur feels in their presence is of quite a different sort.

But they are not here to fight. They lay their weapons on the ground at the foot of the castle steps one by one, gazing up at Merlin in genuine joy. All are thick and robust, clad in hide trousers and leather jerkins that would never hamper a sword arm or catch at the draw of a bow. Second skins. The man in front is solid with muscle. His skin, bared from the hips up, is heavily bronzed, almost gold, and the wode is so dense across his flesh that different symbols twist through each other like serpents. His hair is knotted at the nape, shaved up the sides and raised from his scalp in intricate, bristling braids, and Arthur, as tempered by battle fire as he is, would think twice of his chances against him.

He doesn’t doubt he could beat him, of course. Eventually.

The man’s smile is wide. He clasps arms with Merlin and introduces himself as Cináed. “Well met, Emrys.”

Arthur is eyeing the formidable women behind him. One is taller almost than Percival—she’ll have to stoop to get a proper angle; another is so heavily tattooed that Arthur cannot make out which are her eyes and which are the facsimiles above, below, and aside of them. The third leers, openly appraising of Arthur at first, but then of Gwen as well, and Gwaine, and Elyan, oh, especially Elyan, and the fourth—

Cináed gathers Merlin in both arms, almost off his feet against his broad chest, and Arthur’s lungs drop into his boots with a thunk.

No matter how many women have kissed Merlin, it has been hilarious and awkward and ultimately tolerable, but a man does it—this man, naked to the waist, painted with magic, as sharp and deadly as any of Arthur’s knights—and Arthur cannot breathe.

He stares, frozen as Cináed plies Merlin’s mouth with excruciating focus. Stares as chins bump and noses nudge, as lips press and part and breath escapes. Stares as Merlin’s eyes slide languidly shut, as a golden glow slinks between his lashes, as his brow crimps in exquisite almost-pain.

Arthur cannot breathe.

And then it gets worse. Merlin gives a great shiver, head to foot, and surges forward, fingers seizing for purchase at the man’s sides.

Seconds. Nothing but a moment (forever and a day), and they pull apart, leaving appreciative silence and satisfied nods from the other Druids. The breeze sends the flags on the turrets flapping. Arthur’s pulse knocks in his ears.

Cináed breaks the stalemate.

“No?” he murmurs, sounding drunk, sounding naked and abed and, and Merlin, there, right beside him in front of everyone! There might as well be no one else here, though; he caresses Merlin’s face like a lover. He drinks Merlin in with his eyes. He hasn’t released him from the embrace. “Pity.”

Arthur hears Merlin swallow. Merlin steps back, straightening the lay of his jacket with one flattened palm. It’s his good jacket, the dark gray wool with the double stitching. Arthur watches the passage of Merlin’s hand, a brief press, whitened fingers against the black of his trouser leg. “You’re disappointed.”

Cináed takes Merlin’s hand up again, to Arthur’s dismay, and lays it against his lips. “Never,” he says. It’s a Druidic dialect, one Arthur knows. “Just a little heartbroken.”

“Why?” Merlin asks.

The man answers softly in the other language, but Arthur has studied through the years, hears as though his ears have been peeled roughly back, exposing every nerve.

What Cináed says may as well be “Oh, my lord. We are all of us mad for you.”

At last, the Druid steps away from Merlin entirely and bows low to Arthur. “Your Highness. We thank you. It is a great treat to partake of all the treasures Camelot has to offer.”

Here he side-eyes Merlin. It’s hardly proper, in word or deed, but Arthur summons his obligations out from under all the ferocious foot stomping inside. “You are welcome here,” he says, somewhat stiffly, and nods to the rest of the party. “For as long as you have need.”

He can feel Gwen’s eyes on him. Cináed eyes him as well, a blatant pass up and down, and his smile slumps into a smirk. “Your prowess with a blade is praised in the north. I would dearly love to test you while I’m here.”

“Name the time,” Arthur says immediately, but Gwen slides her hand round Arthur’s elbow. Her thumb presses firmly into his muscle.

“Perhaps not just yet,” she says. “We’ve a luncheon laid in your honor and it would be a shame to waste it.” Ever the diplomat, Gwen then takes their guest’s arm, guiding him and his envoy with smiles and laughter toward the great hall. After a moment, and a curious glance at Arthur, Merlin follows.

Just as well. Arthur thanks his wife silently. Surely there should be a grace period between being greeted by the king and being stabbed at wildly. He draws a deep breath, wondering at how long it’s taking to steady his nerves. This isn’t the first Druid to kiss Merlin after all.

He’s just the first one Arthur wants to knock into the dirt.

**

After dinner, in a fit of restlessness and much to the horror of the stable master, he cleans out his horse’s stall.

Libera is utterly black, a glistening masterpiece of a horse, much taller than any other mare Arthur has seen. Arthur wrestled her off a man whose mistreatment of his livestock immediately got his lands revoked and him banished from Camelot for the rest of his days. The enraged scream Libera let out while trying to kick in the head of said owner that day both curdled and stirred Arthur’s blood. Her feet are big enough to crush a man’s skull—and crush them she has, in the fiery midst of battle, rearing higher than the enemy is tall and bringing down all her weight and Arthur’s upon their unlucky foe’s head. She must look a right demon through the smoke and blood, her armor a cold and bottomless black, studded with spikes down her nose, across her chest plate and haunches. She’s large enough to bear the weight of chain mail, though Arthur has only ever used it once. It took three months of near constant attention (Arthur), delicate calming charms (Merlin), and incessant purring (the barn cat) to get her to the point where she would trust any of them.

On the battlefield, she is a fire-breathing beast of legend; Arthur’s heard the stories. But here in the stables, she’s a well-bred lady, and she listens very politely to Arthur’s muttering and kicking around.

“Overrun with Druids at this rate. How fast are they traveling anyway? Are they flying to get here so quickly?”

No doubt there are grooms huddled outside her stall, gaping as their king gripes at his horse, but Libera just whuffs and shifts her weight as he moves around her, brushing, currying, plaiting her mane full of decorative knots. By the time he has walked her out and brought her back into a clean stall, he has thoroughly decried the usefulness of planetary conjunctions throughout their land’s long history and has moved on to tangential topics.

“The Romans at least stayed well away from sex rituals. They would never have allowed this… this nonsense to occur. Well, but they were an uptight bunch,” he allows, rubbing Libera’s flank down with one last fluffy cloth, “and quite pompous about magic in general. Never mind.”

Still. What has the world come to that they have moved so decisively from stringency and order to a state where the only way to get anything done is to kiss Merlin?

“And why would they not, I ask you?” He shakes his head and picks up the hoof pick. Libera wickers over Arthur’s shoulder then snorts into her food bag. Arthur leans into her chest, props her forefoot against his knee, and sets to the unenviable but highly satisfying task of digging muck from her hoof.

And, if he’s honest, a certain warrior Druid from his mind.

It works about as well as he expects. Eventually he dubs it a bad job and lets Libera out into the fields despite her newly groomed coat and the further squawking of the stable master, then leans with his arms spread across the fence behind him in the twilight, watching her roll in the grass to her heart’s content.

All in all, relations with the Druids are considerably better than they have been in past years. He should be relieved, grateful even, that it’s all kisses and happiness now.

His first foray did not go nearly so gently.

Three months into Arthur’s rule, Merlin revealed his greatest secret. Arthur thinks he took it rather well. The first few days were the truest definition of a nightmare, beyond the Questing Beast’s bite or his father’s role in his mother’s death. Merlin. His Merlin. A sorcerer. He couldn’t think except to relive, to understand down to his very marrow what it was to not know someone at all.

He doesn’t like to think of the first few days.

Afterward, he began the process of repealing the ban on magic. It was a war all its own. If not for Gwen, if not for the knights and Merlin himself, he’d still be fighting it, in words and ink and parchment as his father’s counselors ripped into the very notion of there existing a good magic-user in this world. But as in every battle that mattered, Arthur persevered until he won, toppled the last of the old guard, and embarked on an era in which he would be able to sleep at night again.

He was so drunk off his kingship; Morgana had vanished to lick her wounds, leaving a nation finally under his control, the ability to make things better at his fingertips at last. A sorcerer, the most powerful in the land, loyal at his side for years, and in that sorcerer’s hands, a prophecy.

Arthur remembers, bitterly, that heady sense of calm, of everything at last slotting into place: that there was nothing he could not do.

He called a conclave with the pastoral Druids to the northeast. They came. They heard his apologies and his promises, and they gave him his truce. They told others, and in no time at all, a second conclave was called, this by the warrior Druids to the northwest. The Silurian descendants were always the real threat, but the southern clans encouraged the meeting. Arthur took the majority of his knights and his sorcerer, and went to their land under the banner of peace—not a show of force but a demonstration that all his considerable power was here in hand, swords sheathed, never to be used against the western clans again.

Instead, the Silures devastated five Essetian villages to the east.

By the time they got word, the villages were in ruins. Arthur spent hours rescuing stored goods and putting out fires while the people of the first village hung at the edges of their once-home, staring blankly at the carnage. He’d gone down to the river to wash his hands and in an instant of weakness had collapsed on the muddy banks. Merlin found him there, after his face had dried and he gazed red-eyed and unseeing across the gently flowing current, wondering how he could have been so stupid.

“These are my deaths,” he said before Merlin could speak. Croaked it, through a throat cracked by grief and smoke. Merlin froze beside him, then sat the rest of the way down, tucking his cloak around his legs. He smelled of magic, sweet and thick like summer shadows. Excalibur lay in the mud. What good had it done him, this hallowed sword? What in god’s name had Arthur thought to do? They, these people, needed their prophesied savior. Instead, they burned. His father would never have been so foolish. “I’m no king.”

Merlin’s hand crept over his and closed across the backs of his fingers, and Arthur almost shook him free. There was so much blood on his hands, and filth and ash. Lives that he’d been too arrogant, too trusting to save. “You are their king.”

“Why? Because a dragon says so?” He’d just pulled the body of a little boy from the wreckage of a barn, for all he knew a mere minute too late to save his life. “I’m unworthy of their loyalty.”

Merlin faced him and threaded their fingers, though Arthur’s shook. “Look at me.”

Arthur did. He would always submit to Merlin’s judgment, perhaps the worst punishment he knew to inflict upon himself.

“Do you think I follow you because a dragon told me to?” Merlin’s eyes were dark and earnest, hurting just as Arthur hurt, but something in them told Arthur, incredibly, that this pain was not for the ruined villages. “Arthur, you are good, and brave, and utterly selfless when it matters most. You care more for your people than you do for your own head. God knows I’ve had to save it enough.”

Arthur stared at him mutely, feeling himself crumble, knowing Merlin could see it. Merlin took his hand into both of his and set his forehead, grimy with sweat and dirt, against Arthur’s knuckles.

“You trusted. That’s all. That’s what was needed.” He held Arthur’s hand close between their faces. “Who do you think the other Druids look to now to answer their blood debt? You? You did not ask for parley and then betray their good faith. You did not cut these people’s throats or raze their homes with fire. Your men did not do this. You proclaimed safety, you offered sanctuary, and you held to that promise. No tricks. No feints.”

“Should have feinted.” His throat ached. “They’d still be alive.”

“Maybe. None of us can know what would have been.”

“Can we not?” Part of him wondered, with all Merlin’s power, if this were not in fact possible. He hadn’t meant to ask it. Merlin answered him just the same.

“Arthur, that is the way to madness. There is much magic can fix, but there comes a moment when what we do, what others do, cannot be undone.”

Merlin most likely never knew, but Arthur took that as his primary tenet.

**

When he ushers Libera back into her stall a second time, he has to take up the comb all over again to get the grass from her coat and then spends a good half hour picking it out of her plaits. But she’s happy and refreshed, and if he may say so, he is too. The place smells hay-sweet, warm with the late sunlight slanting in. He doesn’t feel like a king.

He’s going over her flank when Libera shudders, hopping up off her front legs and backing unexpectedly into him. “Whoa, whoa.” He splays his hand on her rump to remind her he’s there, but she continues to snort, ears flattening to her head. Her face swivels from side to side; even from behind, he can see the whites of her eyes. “Libera, whoa. What is it?”

The stables are quiet, though he can hear unrest from the surrounding stalls as horses pace and circle. There’s no one outside in the paddock. A thin layer of cloud hangs over the city, feathering the higher it rises, and the dying sunlight streams off it in a last bid for clemency. Arthur eases around his unsettled horse and cranes his head into the corridor. It’s empty. The heat is lazy, swirling with motes of dust and straw, but... Arthur stills, his senses pricking. The air vibrates, the whisper-tingle that reminds him of Merlin when he’s weaving the shielding spells over the gates. But there’s a foreign taste to this. He retreats into the stall, to the sword that sits in the corner and lifts it to hand, his other braced on the scabbard but not yet pulling the blade free.

Anarawd sails through the open window in a rush of feathers.

“For god’s sake.” Arthur rolls his eyes and sets the sword back in place. The tingle is gone as though it had never been. He rounds on the falcon where it now stands regally on the bottom half of the stall door, surveying its kingdom with puffed chest. “Oh, you’ll fit right in around here.”

Anarawd eyes him beadily, then shuffles along with wings raised until he reaches Libera’s head. Libera isn’t shocked in the least. They seem to be communing. Figures.

Moments later, a step sounds down the length of the corridor, and Merlin appears in the aperture. His eyes sweep the entire stall, glancing over Libera and Anarawd and coming to rest on Arthur. He stares at him for a long second. “Why can you not behave like a king?”

Arthur leans his forehead against Libera’s neck. “Gods above. When I make other people clean up after me, my royal birthright, mind you, he complains. When I fail to take advantage of all the shiftless servants around here and do it myself, he complains. Libera, I’m distraught. I’ve no notion of what my life means anymore.”

Merlin rolls his eyes. “Are you alright?” There’s nothing absent about his tone now. Arthur curls his fingers in Libera’s braids.

“Yes. Should I be otherwise?”

Merlin peruses the space again. One of his hands rises, fingers splayed outward. He mutters under his breath, and magic stirs the fresh straw like a gust of wind. Arthur waits.

Merlin inhales and lets it out. “No.” He turns to Arthur. “Felt something out here. But it’s gone now.”

Arthur grunts, and runs the brush one last time down Libera’s shoulder. He felt it too, and if Merlin did... but if Merlin’s satisfied, Arthur sees no sense in raising the tension. “Oh, that wasn’t your great bloody bird, then?” He winks at Anarawd and flicks him a treat out of Merlin’s line of sight, one of the dried bits of chicken gizzard he keeps in his pocket for the barn cat.

Merlin laughs, but it’s preoccupied. Finally, he seems to shed whatever weighs upon him; his shoulders drop back to their comfortable slouch and he enters the stall fully, clicking his tongue at Libera. Who absolutely adores Merlin, of course she does.

Merlin strokes her nose for a bit, then heaves a mighty sigh. He hoists himself up on the sill of the stall door—using magic to help, no one could hop that high—and kicks his feet against the wood. “He ought to peck your eyes out. Not fawn all over you.”

“Treason,” Arthur throws over his shoulder, returning the brush to its bag. He digs around in it, intent on not turning before he has to. “So. Fire magic?”

Merlin only takes a beat to get at Arthur’s meaning. “Heat, I think, primarily. Light, warmth. But yes. From what I’ve gathered, Cináed’s the foremost practitioner of fire magic. Be useful in a cold snap or a blizzard.”

Camelot doesn’t suffer that many of either, really. “Quite.”

“Lust and desire, even,” Merlin goes on, sounding thoughtful. “They’re not that far off. Most of magic can be attuned to people as well as to nature. Cináed says he can foment emotional goodwill alongside the, well, the more primal emotions.”

Arthur rears up at that. “He can make people fall in love?”

“No,” Merlin laughs, “nor would he want to. There’s nothing that can do that and be real, or lasting. No, it would be more of a nudge than anything; general warmth of feeling. Brilliant skill. Can you imagine if we’d had him around in Lothian?”

Yes, Arthur can. And he’s running out of brushes and combs to pick through. He clears his throat. “Will this be the intertwining, then?”

An answer is so long in coming that Arthur can’t help but turn. He finds Merlin’s eyes on him. A smile flickers across Merlin’s face. “No. Our magic isn’t as agreeable as all that.”

“Hm.” Arthur returns to Libera’s head, brushing at an invisible blemish in the lay of her forelock. “Looked rather agreeable to me.”

Merlin’s gaze has wandered over Arthur’s shoulder. “Yes, well.” His tongue darts out to moisten his lips and retracts slowly, savoring. Remembering. “He’s had practice in... things other than fire magic.”

Arthur snorts. “I’m sure.” But it’s easy to smile now, and suddenly, he’s famished. Hasn’t been hungry all afternoon. He knocks his brow gently against Libera’s, then moves away, snagging Excalibur from its perch. “Come on, then, Merlin. Late for dinner and we have guests.”

“Finally,” Merlin sighs, hopping down from the door. “One of these days, you’ll find that your starving subjects haven’t waited for you.”

“Of course they will. I’m the most interesting person there.” He can practically hear Merlin’s head shake. Barring sating his rumbling stomach, it’s the perfect end to his day.

**

He gets his bout with Cináed the next day. What follows is a whirlwind of ferocity, adaptation on the fly and, on Arthur’s part at least, grudging admiration.

The Druid is a boar in muscle and a swallow in maneuverability. His blows are ruthless, fully trusting in Arthur’s ability to block them. He swings in from above, angling his blade to send sunlight into Arthur’s eyes. Neither of them wears proper armor—Cináed barely wears clothing—and by the second minute of the bout, Cináed fights mostly left handed, leaving his right hand free. The whispered word here and there leaves Arthur in no doubt as to why he should bend so one-sided, and he can see from the hooding of Cináed’s eyes that he fully expects to win.

But Arthur has spun steel since he was four, turned losing battles on the rim of his shield. He trains all his knights himself because there is no one better. Six days after Merlin revealed his magic, Arthur gritted his teeth and forged his dread into one more weapon in his arsenal: since then, he has fought against everything he could think to make Merlin throw at him.

And then there’s Excalibur. The sword has the gift of cleaving straight through the small storms of heat Cináed sends his way, which surprises his opponent but which Arthur can only feel is a leveling of the playing field.

Everyone has turned out for this. The knights cheer Arthur on openly, as they used to at every tourney before he was crowned king. Cináed has his own contingent of supporters. Merlin watches over it all, arms folded beneath his cloak as they bump and clash and parry, driving each other around the makeshift field with clanging blades.

“Is that fair?” Cináed addresses the onlookers, dancing back and waving cheerily at Arthur’s blade. Several of the Druids laugh.

Merlin’s voice comes from behind. “You would take magic out of it entirely then?”

No, Cináed most certainly would not, and Arthur doesn’t waste his breath.

Nine minutes finds Arthur snicked and stinging, but with a pulse of life pumping through him that he hasn’t felt since before his sister left. Every parry is a glance off steel, every slice a vibrant thrum that sends the runes on Excalibur’s blade glowing. The magic scatters, rebuilds at Cináed’s word, but Arthur can feel every hiss, sense the tendrils as they slip-slide around him, trying to get behind. He’s winded, sweating through his shirt and trousers. His bad eye is fuzzing his periphery, his shoulders ache and his thighs burn, but the Druid is just as bruised, and no longer assured of victory. He assesses Arthur now with the eye of an oft-blooded soldier, trying to guess his steps, to come in unexpectedly. Arthur parries, spins under his blade, comes in from the side, hears the whistle and carves through magic instead. Their swords meet and jar, meet and jar.

Thirteen minutes in, Arthur is just a little bit faster.

A resounding ring of steel, and Cináed staggers back instead of forward, dropping his blade to the ground. He raises both hands before him. “Enough, my lord,” he gasps, each word a separate breath. “I yield.” He bends, bracing his hands on his knees. His ribs expand and contract, the sheen of sweat reflecting the light, and he watches Arthur.

Arthur’s too busy heaving for air himself, hunched forward by the weight of his sword. He does inventory: a blow to the hip and the kick of a boot that tried to crook round his leg and bring him down. A deep tenderness he’ll be sorry for later, just across his left knee from when he was forced to roll. There are little stripes of blood on his forearms where he wasn’t quick enough. Nothing deep. It’s a good several seconds before he can straighten up and properly agree to a halt.

Cheering erupts, from Druids and Camelotians alike. Cináed comes forward and clasps Arthur’s arm, giving him a hearty shake. “You do not disappoint, my lord Pendragon,” he says, smiling from a flushed and sweating face. “I would be proud to do battle at your side.”

Alas, Arthur cannot help but like the man. A little. “As would I at yours.”

Cináed takes his arm and raises it between them, drawing another raucous cheer from the crowd. But Arthur only looks to Merlin. Merlin is grinning.

**

Cináed and his entourage stay on, surrounding Merlin whenever they can to impart to him the secrets of their individual gifts. It’s a delightful spectacle full of sound and fury, spinning dishware and swirling flame, but on the third evening, even though it means leaving Merlin alone amidst such open adoration, Arthur makes his excuses.

Tonight he is needed elsewhere.

Love is a strange thing, full of facets he would not have anticipated as a boy, would have scoffed at as a youth. He is almost thirty now, by all accounts middle aged, and still he discovers pockets to this thing filling his chest, troughs he did not know existed until they scald their way through the skin over his heart and pour down into the rest of him. Guinevere in particular, daughter of a blacksmith, has a way of easing his heart out into the open before he knows it and teaching him who he really is.

Some days, he knows he has done them both a disservice—a queen with no real king, a dynasty with no heir—and that he ought not to continue the charade. That he should settle down, turn his thoughts and his heart back to her, and strike this spark of theirs to flame again. Live and love, offer a family that both of them are sorely in need of, and try to bring her natural ebullience back into the light.

But then he comes upon her standing at the window in twilight, gazing northward toward the Isle of the Blessed and the dark forests that swallowed his first knight. She fingers a bracelet he surely did not give her, and he knows he has not made a mistake, that to turn what they have into another false reflection would do neither of them good.

He knows that whatever treasures they might give each other, he can’t use his marriage to feed the coil of hunger in the corner of his heart.

Certainly not today.

On this day, years ago, Lancelot stepped through the veil into the darkened lands, the same day Merlin threw his life into the hands of the Dorocha. But Merlin came back to them, and this has always been a vigil for the sacrifice that did not return. Of the three of them, Merlin was Lancelot’s oldest friend. Some years, he is here. But the first year she was crowned, Gwen asked this of Arthur alone, to stand at her side while she remembered. Arthur accepted, proud and humbled at once. On this anniversary of Lancelot’s first, true death, he loops an arm round Gwen’s waist; they watch the candle she has lit flicker cheerily on the sill, and eventually, Gwen sighs and lays her head on his shoulder.

Once again, this night passes.

Chapter Text

Slee chu ach lagaa.

How he has come to hate that word.

**

There is no end to it.

Twrr Druids. Maulden Wood Druids. Dál Riada Druids. Druids from the Arcaibh Islands. There are even Druids from the great green isle to the west. It’s an unbroken line of people tramping up the castle steps, sometimes with gifts of beasts and bounty, sometimes with children to be blessed by Emrys, but mostly with mouths puckered up to be soundly kissed.

Arthur imagines striding down off the dais and yanking them apart, growling Excuse me, and showing them that there is someone here who will kiss Merlin with more fervor than they ever could. His kingdom, damn it; his sorcerer supreme. They might know Emrys, but he knew Merlin and Merlin’s true worth first.

A week and a half in, Arthur decides he has just got to find this funny or he’ll drive himself mad.

During this time of strife and vexation, there are great benefits to being king of (most of) Albion. One such is being able to say, “Your pardon, needs must,” and drag his sorcerer out of kissing range to go sit on the council and help him sort out his kingdom’s little messes. The beauty of it is that Arthur doesn’t even have to lie. For a land at peace, Albion is rife with knots and tangles: land ownership disputes, brides with too many bridegrooms, brigands in the forests and bandits on the roads, border towns wincing under the greedy eye of a neighboring lord, neighboring lords wincing under the juggernaut of Camelot’s sovereignty. It’s much like it always has been; the only difference is that most of the troubles have nothing to do with magic these days.

“That’s because all the magic is coming here,” Percival says, plunking his gauntlets one after the other on the table and rubbing at clammy wrists. He’s just back from the southern edge of the kingdom, where a recent mudslide had clogged a waterway usually rife with fish. “I couldn’t find a single practitioner to clear the river by Lewes Ford. We had to cut the blockage apart with axes and shovels.”

“Which I’m sure you absolutely hated,” Gwaine says, his chair rocked onto its two back legs. It’s just the queen, the sorcerer, and the captains of his knights today, and they’re using the original smaller table for their meeting. If it were not quite so round, Arthur might try his luck at kicking Gwaine the rest of the way over. “Poor Perce, forced to exercise his bulging muscles yet again.”

“At least I was accomplishing something. You try hacking at a hornbeam with a hurlbat.”

“Oh, we were all occupied here,” Gwaine assures him, sitting upright with a thump and leaning toward Merlin. “Some of us more occupied than others. One in particular continues to have a very busy schedule, has he told you?”

“Still?” Percival looks Merlin’s way. Merlin’s cheeks color.

“It’s amazing he’s here at all,” Gwaine drawls, “what with the constant demands upon his person.”

“Alright, enough,” Arthur raises his voice above the laughter. This has only been going on for an hour. “Let Merlin alone.”

“Sire,” Gwaine starts.

“We’ve business to discuss, Sir Gwaine.” There is some clearing of throats. Arthur looks around at each knight. “Manners. Anyone unable to exercise them can surely take over the extra tasks in the kitchens and scullery between now and the evening meal.” He pauses. “You’ll all be grateful for this when Merlin saves Camelot from a massive flood or other disaster someday.”

“He was so much less stodgy as a prince,” Gwaine whispers loudly to Percival. He leans back with a sigh. “I miss that.”

“Do you know what I miss least about being a prince, Gwaine?” Arthur retorts, clipping all sound into silence. He turns a stern eye on each council member, finally landing on Gwaine. Gwaine fidgets under the scrutiny, but keeps eye contact.

Arthur raises an eyebrow. “The endless parade of princesses vying for my hand.”

Dead silence. Then Gwaine laughs so hard he nearly sends his chair over on his own. Gwen and Elyan have identical giggles, though Gwen is trying her level best to look disapproving. Tristan pounds the tabletop appreciatively and Percival slaps Merlin’s back; even Leon is snorfling into his palm. Amidst the hilarity, Arthur props his chin in one hand and grins at Merlin, who is red as an apple.

“Shut up, prat,” Merlin grinds out between twitching lips.

“That’s my lord Prat to you,” Arthur says.

Another guffaw from Gwaine. Merlin flicks his wrist and the quill three feet from him bounds up from the table toward Arthur’s face. Arthur bats it away one handed.

He loves his strange little family.

But the next day it’s back to the procession of contenders—water wielders and flame dancers and beast masters who envelop Merlin in emerald and sapphire and silver, who stay afterward to meet old friends and share a wealth of knowledge. Arthur looks at Merlin’s face during each kiss and his protests grow ever quieter.

He can feel the magic whenever they touch Merlin. It’s like an ocean wave sometimes, crashing up and over Arthur’s knees. At others, it’s a curl of air cupping his nape. They are heady magics, from mountains and rivers and the sky itself, and though his heart sputters with every kiss and rabbits in relief each time it fails to take, Arthur knows he’s only staving off the inevitable.

Because what can Arthur Pendragon possibly give to Merlin Emrys?

He has no magic. No seer’s eye or healing touch. He has a sword burnished in dragon’s fire and armor woven with sigils, but those were Merlin’s gifts to him. They are all Merlin’s gifts to him, to make him stronger, to keep him alive. In return, Arthur has done and will do everything of which he is capable: he has legalized magic, made it safe to practice within Camelot’s borders, offered protections to the persecuted against all comers, and fought off those who would sweep in to ravage the vulnerable in the void left by Uther’s reign of terror. In the smallest hours of the night, he likes to think he has given Merlin his life back, and he knows he is not owed for this. It has always been Merlin’s right to live unfettered, and yet Merlin chose to stay with him. This is the least Arthur owes him, not the other way around. If Arthur could do more, he would. Instead he must be content with upholding what is right, making certain that Merlin never has cause to fear a Pendragon again.

Beyond that… Well. If he and Merlin were to kiss there below the dais, nothing would pass between them. No golden shimmer or copper rain. He’s just a man, and Merlin, whatever he says about it, might well be a god.

Arthur has his queen. His kingdom, too, and both are all he could ever ask for. He has people of all shape and stripe who follow him, who trust in his judgment and uphold his values. He has an ally who would bend heaven and earth for him. For a while, an eddy in time’s current, he was able to play at having more: Merlin, at his side in every way. Merlin, more than just the fierce and loyal friend—nay, brother—that he has been for years.

Arthur watches another Druid approach, younger than he, skin blue with ink and eyes like glass. He watches the Druid curl his hand round Merlin’s nape. He feels the torrent of magic, witnesses the wonder and the want splay Merlin’s face open like a child’s, and thinks, even kings can’t have it all.

The second week, a trio of Druids approaches the castle steps. Merlin’s late; Arthur left him in the entrance hall with Cináed—will that man never leave?—arguing about the uselessness of robes on a battlefield or some such, but Arthur’s pleased to see that these newest visitors come straight for him and Gwen instead of the usual doe eyed requests to see the great Emrys.

“My lord Pendragon,” the man in front says, and extends an arm. He and the one directly behind him are dressed similarly in tan trousers and wrapped tunics. The third wears dark green and has no visible tattoos. Clearly from a separate tribe. The third Druid is young, looks barely old enough to be an apprentice in a smithy let alone a celebrated practitioner, but if he’s come alone, then he is the representative of his clan and here on behalf of their particular magical concentration.

Arthur takes the first man’s arm firmly, then the second, welcomes them, and learns they are from a wind-whipped stretch of Cornwall that boasts eerie fog and excellent fishing. He introduces Gwen, then turns to the third man, who hangs back a step or two, and extends his arm. “Welcome.”

The young man unfolds an arm from his cloak, stretching to grasp Arthur’s. He is inches away when a screech cuts in from above. Arthur glances up, sees Anarawd circling overhead. A familiar vibration hits Arthur low in the chest, curls like fire up his spine, just as another hand snaps round the young Druid’s wrist, wrenching it up into the air.

Merlin stands between the Druid and Arthur.

“Do not touch him.” It seethes from Merlin like steam. Everything goes dead quiet. To the left, the other two Druids have frozen, their eyes as wide as Gwen’s. Arthur’s muscles all tense at once, but he’s very close, too close to draw his sword without harm to Merlin, to any who stand near him. The best course of action when Merlin looks like this is to hold as still as possible.

The young Druid gazes coolly at Merlin. His fingers do not move, curled slightly in the air. His eyes slide once to Arthur, and Merlin’s stance shifts with the speed of a striking snake, his thumbnail hitching into the blueish bundle of veins at the Druid’s wrist, twisting the fragile bones with his grip until the Druid goes rigid. The sleeve of the man’s cloak slips down to his elbow; when Arthur sees it, his insides go quietly numb.

“Silures,” he breathes.

“That is not our name,” the Druid bites out. But it is the only name Arthur knows, the one the Romans forced upon them centuries ago. He’d thought the original clan dissolved. All his old biases about magic come roaring back; he places himself fully in front of Gwen, curling a hand round Excalibur’s hilt.

“Did you think you could just mount these steps?” Merlin says, so softly that Arthur is sure he’s the only other one who can hear. “That I would not feel you coming?”

“You couldn’t possibly have seen,” the boy sneers. Arthur thinks he really is just a boy, not masking anything.

“You mean to do him harm,” Merlin snarls, loud enough for all this time, and anyone in the courtyard not yet aware of what is going on is watching now. Merlin pulls the boy closer. Arthur feels the air crackling. The knights are close, but not close enough to do anything. He becomes aware of Cináed to his right, as still as death, hands lifted with fingers outstretched. There is energy coming from him, too, but nothing like the tremble that seeps from Merlin’s skin. For the first time, the Druid boy looks afraid.

“Leave,” Merlin says. “Go back the way you came.”

Even now, the boy glares at him, defiant. Merlin’s face darkens. He tugs him closer still, intimate. Arthur hears the near-soothing whisper. “You have done nothing yet. Try again, and I will return it upon you tenfold.”

Some intangible fight slumps out of the boy. Merlin does not release him, but backs him down the steps to the bottom before letting him go. For a second, they stand there facing each other. The boy’s face grows mutinous, but eventually he bows—not low enough to lose eye contact—and retreats. Gwaine paces him from the right and Tristan from the left, well away but with swords drawn until he clears the castle gate.

When he remembers, Arthur draws a deep breath, and then another.

“That is what I felt before,” Merlin asides to Arthur’s ear alone. The other two Druids have moved off to a slight distance, away from Gwen and as watchful of the knights as the knights are of them. “In the stables. It’s the same sort of magic.”

“He was here then.”

“Perhaps. Maybe someone else.” He frowns down the path the Druid took, then turns to Arthur, lifting his chin. “I’m sorry, Arthur. I’ll greet every one of them myself from now on.”

It’s not your fault. If it’s anyone’s, it’s mine. His doing, and his father’s. In the end, Arthur just clasps Merlin’s arm silently.

**

For the rest of the day, Merlin remains at Arthur’s side. There is no kissing of visitors. Just a vague and unsettling vibration coming off Merlin.

To be clear, Arthur’s not unsettled. To him, it feels like a warm breeze. But he can see from the expressions worn by everyone else, including an envoy of bewildered Druids from the mountains who show up just as the sun is setting, that it is not the same.

The Druid leaders call for a meeting the very next day.

“I’m coming with you,” Merlin says, striding beside Arthur down the corridor. He’s in black today, the high-collared, intimidating leather coat Gwen commissioned for him before the battle at Celidon, which Merlin then promptly wove full of spells in glinting thread. It makes him look a bit like a raven: sharpens his frame, shoves his height to the fore, and curls darkness like a glove around him. White wrists, long fingers, pale throat.

Arthur sighs. “No, you’re not.”

Merlin hauls him to a halt just outside the small council chamber. He ticks fingers meaningfully off Arthur’s armorless shoulders and chainmail-free chest. “Where’s Excalibur?”

“Not here.”

Merlin throws his hands up, turning away only to round on Arthur again. “And what made you think that was a good idea?”

Honestly, it’s a terrible idea. Only his heaviest mail and helmet, utterly saturated with Merlin’s magic, would feel comfortable to him now. But that is no way to join a gathering called in peace by people who have done him no harm. A white shirt and brown leather vest were his eventual choice, even if he’d rather be wearing whatever color would allow him to vanish against the wall. “A sword has no place in that room.”

“You could at least bring the scabbard,” Merlin argues.

“That would indicate a belief that they wish me harm.”

Merlin snorts, twisting his mouth and nodding to himself.

“Oh.” Sometimes Arthur thinks Merlin truly despairs of him. “So you don’t trust them?”

Merlin jerks his head to the side, staring at the floor with pinched brows. His breath sucks audibly in and out through his nose, the truest sign of his discomfort. “I trust them,” he allows at last.

Good. He really doesn’t need Merlin feeding his anxieties right now. “Then what’s the problem?”

Merlin opens his mouth, then shuts it. He rakes a hand through his hair. “It’s different with you.”

“How so?”

“It just is!” Merlin rubs his face with both hands. “Arthur.”

His heart is slamming against his ribs. “No.”

Merlin grabs his hand, then falters. “Arthur, you’re shaking.”

Arthur twists to extricate himself, but Merlin just jumps his fingers up to Arthur’s wrist, pressing to his pulse. His eyes widen.

Before Merlin can say anything, Arthur succeeds in wresting himself free. But the game is up.

“You’re not going in there alone,” Merlin declares.

“Well, I’m not going in with you.”

“At least let me—”

“No. They’ll feel it.”

“I want them to feel it!” Merlin snarls, eyes spearing gold. His hands curl into fists and an odd thud reverberates through the floor beneath their feet. Or maybe just through Arthur’s chest. Merlin’s shoulders hitch.

God. He wants Merlin to follow him in. Better yet, to lead, to wipe that room free of any and all foreign magic. Merlin, in his deep, dangerous black, the gold sizzling in his eyes like sap bursting in dry wood. Arthur wants to snap his hand round Merlin’s wrist and join them together, show the Druids that he is not weak, he is not powerless. He has their greatest son on his side.

But the diplomat in him, the ruler of more than half this isle, knows that would show them nothing, and everything, about who he is.

He steps back, easing free of Merlin’s tumultuous atmosphere. “I’ll be fine.”

“Arthur.”

“Stay,” Arthur orders, backing up and pointing at the floor.

Merlin stays, and Arthur goes, glad of the chance to school his face just in front of the chamber doors.

The truth, a truth he has not even told Merlin? Magic still unsettles him. There’s a slither to it, a coiling down his spine, fingers up his nape, ingrained in his gut from every last attempt on his father’s life, every furious curse from those burned in the castle’s square. He tries again and again to shake it, a battle he must constantly fight for ground already gained. When the magic is not Merlin’s, it shoves the oily specter of smoke into Arthur’s nostrils. It reminds him of all that he ever feared.

But he is the king. The king will not allow his ghosts to endanger this peace.

The Druids gather in a tight circle in front of the table, discussing tensely. On his arrival, they fall silent. Drawn countenances, all. Arthur pauses, then shuts the door and crosses the room. They step aside, giving him a strategically wide birth.

Arthur nods in greeting. Inside his chest, his heart skips and bounds.

“My lord,” says the leader from Twrr. “Please accept our deepest apologies for the behavior of our compatriot. What he planned to do, what he has done, is unconscionable.”

The woman who heads the Dál Riada stirs. “All of us are prepared to offer our solemn word that we had no knowledge of his plans.”

And then they wait, fidgeting.

It dawns on Arthur that they fear he is about to throw them out. That they are desperate for him not to, on the same tenterhooks as he.

Perhaps some of them are even afraid of him.

Arthur exhales and crosses to the table, dropping into a seat facing the window. The full Round Table, the one he had commissioned when he was crowned, sits in the throne room, ready for dozens of knights. This, the original table, is the one they found in the castle of the kings, the one at which his most beloved friends all came together to save Camelot.

There are spaces around this table that he favors other than his own. Guinevere’s seat, he finds, lends him a calm head in times of discord. Leon’s, a certain degree of prudence and forethought. As for Merlin’s chair… Well, it need not be said, and Arthur doubts he could find words for it anyway.

The one he has chosen today was Lancelot’s, though Tristan now sits in it. Arthur takes a moment to run his hand over the word and the sigil there.

He doesn’t know the ancient language, as the Druids likely do. The word he does know, similar enough though much younger than such old tongues, is devotion. To a king, to a cause. To an ideal. “Please, have a seat.”

They hesitate. Confusion clutters the room. But his hand remains outstretched, and eventually, chairs scrape as the Druid leaders find space to sit. Several of them run their fingers over the carvings, same as he did, then peer around the table trying to read them all. One, a middle-aged man Arthur remembers as traveling from east of here, watches him with ill-concealed suspicion. Even the pointed glare of the other leaders does nothing to quell it.

Arthur looks away, around at all of them. “This table is round for a reason.”

They exchange glances but no one speaks, even though some of them must know why. For an instant—a spark of clarity—their magic fades away, leaving cautious and ordinary people in the place of magic users: people who care for their land, who miss their homes, who remember the father and don’t know if they can trust the son. Who can’t predict what will happen next but soldier on anyway.

It is that spark that fixes Arthur’s words and eases them from his chest. “It makes us all equal. All one. A knight and a king, a sorcerer, a servant, a farmer, a queen; when you sit here, you agree that there is no person more important, no opinion worthier, no one valued over all the rest.”

Perhaps it’s a goal rarely met, but it’s something to strive for day in and day out until he and his knights, his queen, his friends, become those better men and women. He looks from face to unfamiliar face around the circle and decides, what the hell. “I mean you no harm.” It feels silly saying it to them, all so much more powerful than he. But it also feels right. “No blame. I know that you see my father here in these shadows. I know some of you see him in me. I will bear that shame to the end of my days. There is nothing I can do, no gift and no promise, that can ever make amends for the horrors Uther visited upon your people or… or those I have committed in his name.” He endures his dishonor as he always must, looks the suspicious Druid in the eye and gets a begrudging nod for his efforts. “I would try, though, if you will let me: in action, in deed. I give you my word of honor, on my life—and I know now that words have far more power to bind than most are aware—that you are safe here. You will never be harmed by me or mine when you come under a flag of peace. You are welcome in my home. And if you sit here now at this table, to me it means you have stayed in spite of your misgivings. You have come to make right and remained to see it through. That’s all I need to know.”

They nod, some of them. Others fix their eyes to his face as though absorbing him. He doesn’t know what they’re seeing. He never knows what any of the people, even the ones he loves dearly, see.

“Now.” He clears his throat and sits back. “Please, tell me: are we in further danger?”

They tell him of the Druids of the Earth, the ones the Romans called Silures: scattered now, melted into the wilds or absorbed by other clans. When Arthur’s parley years ago was betrayed and the villages razed, these Druids around this table were the ones who came down hardest on the betrayers afterward, who exacted their own vengeance on those who nearly crippled a long-awaited and bloodily won peace. They explain that the Druids of the Earth are not wiped out, merely joined into the greater tapestry, but that there are still outliers, those who could never accept yet another Pendragon on Camelot’s throne. The Druid leaders admit that there are similar outliers from all the clans, but that those people stand on their own, do not speak for the clans themselves, and will earn a sound punishment for any violence they enact against an ally.

When they adjourn, Arthur finds Merlin sitting against the wall of the corridor, bent knees splayed while he tips a ball of blazing white light back and forth between his hands. His fringe hangs over his eyes, shadowing his study of the Druids as they pass.

Arthur seeks patience from the vaulted ceiling. He waits until the last Druid has turned the corner, then hunkers down before his sorcerer. “Merlin.”

“Arthur,” Merlin mutters, mutinous.

“So.” Arthur reaches, dipping his fingers into the light as it rolls by. It’s cool as water. Not a sharp edge anywhere. “Who in there should I worry about most?”

Merlin’s eyes jump to his. Arthur smiles, and at last, Merlin smiles back.

**

The grounds surrounding the castle are so full of encamped tribes that the field is a rippling sea of color. Merlin does indeed meet every envoy himself, clad in daunting, high-collared black. Though he is polite, as welcoming as Merlin has always been, the statement is not missed.

Perhaps it is for the best, Arthur thinks as yet another group mounts the steps toward Camelot’s royal entourage.

The man laughing over goblets of wine in the dining hall every night is Merlin head to toe, his grin so wide it nearly shuts his eyes, heaping ease on knight and Druid alike. He and the other Druids swap spells, teaching each other and showing off, and it’s all so good-natured that Arthur can’t help but enjoy himself. So far, there have been no takers for Merlin’s mystical bond. Merlin’s gloss seems to be unique: there are similar sparks, eyes flashing brightly as gossamer birds flitter among the candlesticks and emerald snow flurries above their heads. But none have the same rich luster as Merlin’s eyes, no whispered word equal to the casual twist of Merlin’s wrist, the subtle lift of his chin.

Arthur can see them all taking it in, entranced by Merlin’s mute control of his gifts. He knows Merlin doesn’t do this all the time, that he relies on spoken spells often, but these people do not know that. Afterward, the nights are theirs, his and Merlin’s. They retire to Arthur’s rooms and chuckle at the open-mouthed amazement on Cináed’s face when Merlin nearly upended Gwaine’s soup over his head with a flick of a finger rather than the carefully worded charm Merlin prefers.

“Have to give them a show, don’t I?” Merlin says, collapsing back into his chair with his goblet lolling in his fingers.

Arthur toasts him, and kicks his foot where it splays against the rug until Merlin is kicking halfheartedly back. “Yes, you do.”

They both know that the man standing between Arthur and their visitors must always, always be Emrys.

Today, the Druids are women, too young to really remember the purge. Merlin’s age, and Arthur’s; all they have are stories. They look around with open wonder, admiring the castle and its flapping banners, blushing at the knights, bowing low to Arthur and Gwen and generally bringing a good deal of youthful delight back into the place. They take their kisses quickly, without lingering, clearly just glad to be here, and Arthur is proud of his home all over again.

Merlin bears it all with reddened cheeks; even Gwen is laughing at all the oohing and aahing. The fourth woman faces Merlin gamely, and Arthur has just enough time to recognize shy apprehension in her eyes before she shuts them and presses her mouth to Merlin’s.

The air… swoops. Funnels around them. Arthur feels icily cold, then blisteringly hot in the space of a single heartbeat, and then, the purest, most brilliant light erupts from between them, gold and silver twined together. Merlin gasps, just as the woman does, their mouths opening at the same time, and the magic pushes them together with a resounding clap.

Merlin kisses her. Really kisses her, and everything goes quiet, even Arthur’s heart.

He doesn’t know how much time has passed. Can’t feel the tick of seconds so much as the tick of his life, years bumping past one another, breaths he drew, sighs he released. Merlin’s arms creep up around the woman, clutching her to him. Her hands seize in his black jacket. More light spills in a river, splashing against the stones and then rising around them in a spiral, weaving them even closer. Arthur feels sharp pain in his hands. Merlin’s eyes open at the same time as the woman’s. Both are alight, silver-gold.

They part to absolute silence, staring fixedly into each other’s eyes. The light fades away. Merlin breathes hard, swollen-lipped, heedless of his slack mouth.

Arthur looks down. His nails have cut into his palms. Blood slinks from the half-moon wounds.

A massive cheer goes up, voice upon voice. The young woman gives an astonished laugh, pressing a hand over her mouth, and Merlin laughs with her, squeezing her arms. Gwen is staring at Arthur just as fixedly as Merlin stares at the woman, and then another Druid grasps her arm and Merlin’s, lifts them high, and yells, “It’s Enaid! Enaid has matched!”

“Enaid!”

“Enaid and Emrys!”

Arthur sways, and tries to breathe, and feels Gwen watching.

**

Their marriage is not traditional, not for a king and his queen. One day, someone will come beating down the gates demanding they produce an heir or hand over a crown, and… well, Arthur always figured they’d sort it when the time comes, somehow.

For now, though, it’s been his understanding, and Gwen’s. He’d always thought it was Merlin’s as well.

**

The Druids are in ecstasies, Camelot’s citizens have caught the festive air, and the wine is liberally flowing. The hall reverberates with laughter and song, triumphant magic and good cheer. Druids and knights alike surround Merlin and Enaid, touching them one by one, gripping their hands together, congratulating. Though windblown, Merlin smiles and greets, tries to talk to his new partner amidst the revelry, and ends up laughing helplessly in the contagious atmosphere. This is a celebration for the Druids: the beginning of a new era, but also the greatest of them finding his anchor not only in the earth but in their way of life. They truly find joy in Merlin’s gain and in his happiness.

Arthur is the only one here who is not glad.

He stays as long as is necessary to his station, then begs off with the excuse of reviewing the most recent trade demands from the Lochlannacha. And he fully intends to do that. But when he gets to his room, he sees the chairs splayed away from the table where he and Merlin sat picking at breakfast. The rug before a cold hearth, and Merlin and his long legs splashed with firelight on many a night. The bed where Merlin has lain only once—Arthur took him there after Gaius closed a gaping wound in his side, a wound meant for Arthur, as they all are—pale as chalk against rich linens. Arthur’s weaker moments are far between but he has them; with them, other imagined images of Merlin in that bed.

His whole room is full of Merlin.

His lungs revolt against him. Arthur ends up in a chair facing the window, a hand pressed to his mouth to stay the burning in his throat.

Not long after, the lock on his door clicks open. Steps cross the room. There are only two people with the keys to the side door of his chambers, and Merlin’s stride has never sounded like this. Arthur keeps his eyes on the line of lush trees in the distance, tracing back and forth from one side of the window to where the castle wall cuts off the view, and hears his visitor come to a stop behind his chair.

Arms enfold him; Gwen’s flowery scent flows over him. He means to greet her. He does. But at her touch, his eyes well and his throat closes completely. He knows he’s trembling. It’s all he can do to sit there soundless.

Gwen presses a tender kiss to the side of his face, so close he feels the brush of her eyelashes. She doesn’t say a word. He grips her arm where it rests against his chest, then slides down until he finds her hands. She immediately winds their fingers together. The only noise is her steady breathing.

When he can, he clears his throat, tilting his head toward hers. “Quite a pair, we are.” His voice sounds like an old man’s.

With a muffled sound, Gwen buries her face in the curve of his throat and hugs him tighter. Arthur squeezes his eyes shut, blurring out the fine spring day outside.

Chapter Text

He wakes in the night covered in sweat and sure that his heart is fracturing. He fists sore hands in the sheets, not certain if he is weeping into the darkness or dreaming it. When he rouses in the chilly light of morning, he drags himself into his antechamber to find that Merlin has not in fact consummated anything.

“Up at last.” Merlin, busy filling a cup with water, gives him a bright smile. “Good morning!”

Arthur stands in the doorway in nothing but his breeches, blinking at the sight. “What are you doing here?”

Merlin pauses, lifting an eyebrow at the spread of completely unappetizing foods he has laid across Arthur’s table. “Breakfast? Usually comes after waking?”

“Yes, but.” Arthur sifts through his mind and finds very little he can use. Merlin is clothed in soft green, a shirt and trousers that he sometimes wears on hunts and that Arthur has lately deemed unfit for any room where nobles are present, but it’s still one of the better outfits Merlin was given when he was elevated to Court Sorcerer.

“You should see the crowd outside,” Merlin says, summoning more water into the pitcher with a curl of two fingers. “It’s astounding. I’d have thought they’d all be flat on their backs with their skulls pounding. Clearly Druid wine is more potent than Camelot’s.”

Arthur rubs his face, half expecting Merlin to have disappeared when he opens his eyes again. “Why is there a crowd?”

“They’ve all gathered to watch Enaid and me.” Before Arthur can get properly horrified at what they might all expect to watch Enaid and Merlin do, Merlin dashes the drapes back and swings two chairs out for them at the table with a wave of each hand. “She’s like me, Arthur.” He plants himself in one of the chairs and grabs a slice of apple from the platter to dip in the honey dish. “Natural flow, living things. I’ve so much in mind to try. If she can do even half of what they say she can, we’ll barely have to work at all to make things line up. Here, eat.”

He slides an empty plate to Arthur, nodding at the spread, then frowning when Arthur doesn’t move.

“I thought,” Arthur says, careful, “that you matched. That that was it.” Only one thing left to do.

“Well.” Merlin harrumphs a little, pinking in the cheeks. He concentrates on filling his trencher properly. “Yes, my magic and hers match, but.” His hand waves about and nearly upsets his cup. “They don’t really know each other yet, you know? We want to give things a chance to mix a little. See what we can draw out.”

“So you…will test it.”

Merlin rolls his eyes. “You’d think it was a Roman pantomime, the way they’re all carrying on out there.” He starts waving morsels onto the empty plate, absent wrist flicks until all of Arthur’s favorites are present. “I think Cináed’s crowd are actually placing bets.”

“Yes,” Arthur answers, dazed. He feels hollow.

Time. He has time.

He clears his throat, sits, and nibbles at food he never thought he’d have a taste for again.

**

Arthur waits for Merlin to leave, then puts his manservant, who never brings breakfast anymore and has shown up only to help him dress, to work. Arthur selects a riding coat in bold blue, belted at the waist and falling nearly to his ankles. Dark brown trousers, matching hunting boots and tan gloves with double tooling round the cuffs. He settles the coat’s collar high to frame his jaw and takes up Excalibur, then sends his manservant to relay what is happening to Gwen.

He leaves his crown where it sits on the table, but that has never mattered when he needs to feel like a king.

All the way down to the castle courtyard, Arthur’s determination builds. Some god has seen fit to grant him a reprieve and he’d be an utter fool not to take it.

He must tell Merlin how he feels. Merlin is his own man, fully capable of seeing to his needs and desires. Arthur has never been one to flout a lesson that has been shoved in his face, as the small, dreadful hours of this morning have done. He will lay it all before Merlin, his unhappiness over this whole business, his hopes for the two of them, most of all that Merlin leaving may actually physically cripple him, and then he’ll let Merlin decide.

A sweep of wings is all the warning he gets to raise his arm before Anarawd sails in and settles, claws digging into the thick leather of his glove. Arthur smiles at the bird as it postures with wings spread, liking the weight of him. A confirmation.

The crowd is large and growing, cheerful people with their breakfasts in hand waiting for the fun to begin. Merlin stands with Enaid in the center, a wide berth around them both. Gwen is already present, standing by Leon and Elyan in lustrous red. When Arthur arrives, the crowd murmurs, heads craning for a glimpse. Though he himself is not convinced, he’s reminded that he is their prophesied king, the ruler they’ve been waiting for.

When Merlin sees him, though, all sound mutes in Arthur’s ears. Merlin’s eyes widen. He takes in Arthur’s finery and stance with a lingering gaze. His shoulders straighten, his frame drawing up. Arthur gives him a subtle nod. He knows what he looks like: capable, regal. Accessible; none of the dour black of his father, no reaper’s robes, no glittering chains and pendants that speak to a wealth most of these people will never have or even want. Arthur’s gloves are as utilitarian as they are decorative, his coat elegant but slit up the back to allow for ease of movement. Merlin’s hawk, obviously self-aware, is on Arthur’s arm.

This is the man Emrys allies himself with, and Arthur wants them all to know it.

Unencumbered now by more than a ghost of grief, he takes a moment to look at Enaid. She is shorter than he, with a pixie’s delicate eyes but cheeks that go round and rosy when she smiles. She, like Merlin, has chosen clothing she can move in, though it is still far nicer than the traveling robes she wore into Camelot. She has short fingers on small hands, and a watchful mien. Right now, she looks at up him, flushing and blinking, and he tries to remember the delighted girl of the day before, the one he had no reason to dislike.

He doesn’t quite succeed.

There is no fanfare this time. No speech. Enaid merely nods, smooths her shirt, and raises a hand into the air. “Wyrdda!”

Leaves and shoots erupt from her fingers and shower down around her, blossoming with petals as they fall. As the spell quickens, the greenery takes on shapes: holy knots, spirals in the vines. The Druids clap, smiling at each other as the entire tangle comes to rest at Enaid’s feet, a hillock burgeoning with life. Arthur and Gwen join in the applause.

Merlin waits for the clapping to die into an expectant hush. His eye catches Arthur’s once.

A flutter of fingers, and a flock of birds bursts from the trees, dipping and darting, the red patches on their black breasts dragging at Arthur’s eye. They arrow up and fan out, sweeping straight toward him. Anarawd glares them fiercely down, twitching on Arthur’s arm, but Arthur just smiles: at the last instant, they part, angling up overhead in an arresting coil of black and red before wheeling into the sky.

More applause, and elated laughter. Enaid watches Merlin for a cue of some kind. Merlin glances at Arthur again.

From there, it just gets headier, and watching Merlin perform magic is Arthur’s favorite thing in this world.

Merlin in his forest green could be the god of old, the bringer of sunlight after months of ice and darkness. His magic floods his eyes, limns his fingertips in gold, turns him luminescent with the morning’s cool bite. As usual, Arthur has to remind himself that there are other people here, that he has appearances to maintain. While weaving magic, Merlin ceases to be the boy that tripped his way into Arthur’s life a decade ago, aging right before Arthur’s eyes. The power sings from his skin, crackles around him in an invisible aura. In a single instant, the world grows small, lost in Merlin’s shadow.

Whenever Merlin stops, that cheeky grin and those fidgety shoulders will reappear and somehow, that boy will be back, the swiftness of the change tugging at Arthur’s lungs. But now…now he is limitless.

Merlin has said that Enaid’s magic matches his own, but side by side, Arthur can see nothing but disparity. Enaid’s stunning enchantments—grass flowing in a wave up and over the battlement to their left, clouds twisting together into animals that seem to live and breathe—are always accompanied by her soft, droning words. Next to Merlin’s utter silence as he weaves fire into a gem of light and heat, and finally into a dragon that unwinds from the flagstones and slinks to curl at Arthur’s feet, Enaid’s words are as loud as thunder.

Arthur knows most Druids do not, cannot, cast wordlessly. But seeing the watchers’ faces as they take in the true scope of Merlin’s abilities—something that Arthur has been comfortable with for ages—is sobering. The mood turns, just a touch; Arthur feels another level of ease slot into place inside him. Tension he hadn’t been aware of drains silently away.

He forgets himself, just for a moment, and turns all thought to Merlin.

The magic grows greater, showier. Soon Enaid and Merlin’s spells begin to work off each other: water feeding vines, clouds pursuing clouds. Enaid darkens the sky for a few minutes, and Merlin lifts up a glorious aurora, pale ribbons chasing each other through the black. A hum begins in the stones at Arthur’s feet, but there is nothing anxious about its build. Rather, it is the purr of a cat lazing in the sun.

They find a sprig growing up through the crack in a paving stone and together they raise a gargantuan tree in the middle of the courtyard, with branches that stretch overhead for ages and blue-green leaves so thin that the sunlight glows through them. Still, its leafy shade is immediately cool and the lowest branches meander close to the ground in dips and humps. Perfect for sitting upon. When it has stopped creaking and groaning, Enaid steps back, blows out a breath and wipes her brow. She cranes around and shares a satisfied nod with Merlin.

The crowd cheers and claps. Gwen smiles at the burst of blooms Merlin presents to her, intertwined with a mist of tiny white blossoms from Enaid’s hand. Percy laughingly fights off a bear made of water and fog, and raises his victorious sword to the hoots and hollers of Cináed’s crowd. Someone rolls out a keg and cracks it open, and then wine flows into cups that were not there a moment before. Arthur toasts to everyone’s health, and to Merlin and Enaid’s good fortune. The mood grows jolly, and the morning stretches into afternoon.

In contrast, the sadness gone dormant in Arthur burgeons again like one of Enaid’s lively vines.

He’s not sure why. It’s a beautiful day. Everyone is having fun. Merlin is here, potent and extraordinary. Gwen looks happier than she has in ages. His knights, even Leon, have left their wariness at the door. But piece by piece, Arthur finds his heart cracking. It isn’t until the end, when the sun has begun to sink in the west and the Druids from the green isle conjure floating lanterns to light everything in dusky yellow, that he recognizes the understanding growing like a seed in his mind.

**

Rain rolls in, cold and relentless, bringing the rumble of thunder. Still the castle echoes with merriment, an impromptu festival that scurried inside to escape the storm. Arthur thinks to spend the time finalizing an agreement over the care of a peninsular settlement lying between Rheged and Gwynedd, two kingdoms itching to expand. He goes to Gaius when the fogginess in the side of his vision blurs holes in the text and drives him nearly mad.

Gaius turns Arthur’s head side to side with a frown. There’s a faint tremor in his hand where he holds Arthur’s chin. “Has it worsened noticeably?”

“No,” Arthur sighs, looking straight ahead so Gaius can check his pupils. “Just especially irritating today. The range is the same.”

“But denser tonight?”

“For some reason.”

“Perhaps to do with the weather, sire. It has been postulated that changes in the air, when the cold or heat rises for example, may have much to do with the worsening of old injuries. I’ll give you a tonic to curb the headache, but I suggest you postpone the treaty review until this storm runs its course.”

By the time this storm runs its course, the little country in question may well have been flattened by the lords on either end of it. Before Arthur can answer, however, the door opens. “Gaius, have you seen—”

Merlin stops, taking in Gaius’ hold on Arthur’s face. Arthur looks away, and swallows into the silence. A second passes, and Merlin comes forward. He’s in his green trousers, but the coat is gone and a gray tunic sits loosely round his shoulders. “It’s late, Gaius,” he says, voice much softer now. “You should take your rest. I’ll take over.”

Arthur nods, and Gaius pats Merlin on the arm. “Thank you, my boy,” though Merlin has not been a boy in some years. “Goodnight, your Highness.” He shuffles, slow and unsteady, up the set of stairs to the room in the back and closes the door behind him. Both Arthur and Merlin watch the door for a moment. The fires cracks as a log settles, casting the room into deeper orange.

“Your eye again?” Merlin asks at last.

Arthur says nothing, but Merlin never needs him to. He tilts Arthur’s head into the light, easing his right eyelid high with a careful thumb and peering at the tissues revealed. Arthur can smell hearth smoke in Merlin’s shirt, and other people’s magic. There’s a reddened mark just under his jaw, as though Merlin scratched there with a fingernail. The hair curls out now at his nape. Soon he will want to cut it.

“You usually come to me for this,” Merlin says presently.

For everything, really. There’s a question there, but not quite a reprimand. Arthur doesn’t have an answer Merlin will want to hear, not with the Druids in force, sharing their considerable wealth of knowledge. Merlin will have been sitting with Cináed. With Enaid. He gives the only response he can, and knows it for the excuse it is. “I didn’t wish to disturb you.”

Merlin turns Arthur’s face in silence, much as Gaius had, but his fingers hold firm on Arthur’s chin. Arthur watches him. He can do nothing else. Merlin holds a hand up just inside Arthur’s range of vision, a pale blot to his right. “How many fingers?”

“It’s too blurry.” He doesn’t see the point in pretending anymore.

Merlin’s brow creases. “I want to try something new.”

“From Enaid?” He doesn’t think his voice sounds any different. It must though: Merlin stills.

“From Braith.”

He doesn’t remember that name. Wonders if Braith kissed Merlin too, if Merlin remembers it.

Merlin’s fingers slide two by two down the side of Arthur’s face, starting at his temple and lifting halfway down his cheek where his beard begins. Once, twice, thrice: fire warmed and callused. He lays his thumb at the corner of Arthur’s eye, then leans in until his cheek just barely brushes Arthur’s, and whispers a word against his skin. His free hand comes up, cradles Arthur’s face and Arthur holds very still.

Merlin smells of...of…

The air tingles. Arthur blinks his eyes open, and the fog is still there, but—He leans back, and Merlin’s hands slide off his face and hover. Arthur tilts his head.

He can’t… see it, but he can sense the cabinetry a pace away, knows the dark blur for what it is without having to think. Wood and woven baskets, pottery flasks and slender glass vials. He reaches out for the end of the table, and he knows before his hand closes round the edge exactly where it will be, that the corner is chipped and grooved, that just to the left of his thumb he must take care to avoid splinters. When he turns his head to verify, he sees everything in its right place, just as he felt it to be.

He looks at Merlin and finds him faintly satisfied. “What…”

“Sense spell.” His hand comes back to cup Arthur’s face. “How many fingers?”

“Two,” Arthur says immediately, because there are. He doesn’t know how he knows. “I can feel them.”

“It enhances your other senses when one is damaged.” Merlin sighs and lets him go, stepping back. “I can’t fix the eye. But this will help you work around it.”

There is that apology again, the one Arthur will never validate, not if he lives to be ninety. Merlin has nothing to be sorry for. Arthur stretches out again, not with his hand but with this new prickling along his right side. He will need to go at it with sword in hand, get the proper measure of this new sensation. “Thank you.”

“No need.” Merlin is peering at him now, and the question is back, heavy in the room. Arthur gets up and straightens his shirt. “Arthur…”

“Are the revels over?”

“For me, they are.” Merlin casts a glance behind him in the direction of the feasting hall. “I’ve the trilith to check.”

The focal points of the city’s shielding. Every week, Merlin makes the rounds, shoring up the magic, checking for chinks in a wall Arthur will never be able to see. Merlin has never failed, regardless of the weather, and Arthur knows he shouldn’t, that he will only regret it come morning, but—

“Would you like company?”

Merlin doesn’t answer immediately. Another log shifts in the fire. “Always.”

Arthur gestures at the door. “Lead on.”

**

He can’t avoid Merlin. What’s more, he doesn’t want to.

There’s a war going on inside him, the edges of which he can’t define. He refuses to look at them too hard, just knows they are there, growing into an insurmountable mass the longer he leaves them be.

All he allows himself to know is that something is coming, and if he does not distance himself from Merlin, it will strike him a mortal wound.

For one day he is able to keep to his intent. But the next, he feels Merlin’s absence like a limb lopped off, flaying at every nerve. He holds off all day, and then at sunset goes to the feasting hall, unable to help himself and craving the comfort of his and Merlin’s usual dinner and wine.

But he doesn’t find Merlin there, and traverses the castle again. Merlin is not with Gaius, nor is he to be found in the library or the stables. Arthur goes at last to Merlin’s rooms.

They are nearly as large as Arthur’s, though Merlin had groused over that well enough when they were bestowed. It had been the first time since the revelation of his magic that Merlin attempted his usual grumbling. The injury had still been fresh, the two of them skirting round each other like beaten dogs. Arthur had feared he would never get back the friendship they’d had. And then he’d gifted the rooms to Merlin, and Merlin had walked in, looked around, and carped at him for the extravagance.

He’d done it with darting eyes and a hitch to his breathing. Arthur had immediately embraced it, feverish for relief, and pulled it back into his heart where it belonged. It was the beginning all over again.

He finds the door open, and is about to knock when he sees them through the aperture.

Emptied plates are strewn at their feet, the remnants of a meal picked over. Merlin sits on the rug, his knees bent inward toward Enaid where she rests in a mirror position. They sit before the hearth, so close that a mere sliver of firelight exists between their bodies; they hunch into each other, heads bent together. Merlin’s hands take flight between them, gestures meant to enunciate. He speaks, but Arthur is too far away to hear. Enaid shuts her eyes and cups her hand in the air. Merlin goes silent, and for a long time, nothing happens but that Enaid’s breathing grows faster, more labored. Tension flits across her brow. Merlin leans closer, pressing his side against hers. He cups his hand beneath hers, not touching, just watching her profile with an intensity Arthur can taste, and Arthur feels he is witnessing an intimacy as breathless and heated as any embrace shared by lovers. Then light sparks, sweet and pure in the center of Enaid’s palm. She gasps aloud, a shocking echo of another sort of pleasure. In an instant, she has opened her eyes, cradling the spark carefully with both hands. She eases it from her hands to Merlin’s. The whole time, neither has spoken a word.

Merlin smiles, radiant. He murmurs something to Enaid, and she laughs, a bright sound, flinging her arms round him and rocking him backward. The little spark goes out as Merlin’s hand finds purchase on Enaid’s shoulder instead.

Arthur’s misery becomes a silent and desolate valley. He looks at Merlin and wonders when he will leave.

He vacates the doorway as noiselessly as he came, walking the long hall to his rooms and cursing himself for a fool. He knew better. He knew better, and still he let himself be swayed. Idiocy is a luxury he cannot afford, not if he wants to maintain any sort of clarity.

But his heart hurts. It just hurts.

He forgoes his bed, watching rain slink down the window glass to pool on the pane. The night is dark over Camelot, though the sky is clearer to the west and the moon lights the world in wet silver. The turmoil beckons at his thoughts but he pushes it away. Still it grows. He stands until he cannot anymore, then paces his bedchamber, thrumming his hands mindlessly against his thighs. He pulls the drapes, plunging his room into blackness, and when his eyes adjust he continues to pace. At some point, exhaustion catches up with him and he drops into the chair he favors just as the morning begins to lighten edges of the curtains.

The door jolts, then sounds with a rapid knock. Merlin’s voice calls through it. “Arthur.”

Arthur stands, stumbling stiffly away from the chair and smoothing a hand over hopeless hair. His state couldn’t be more obvious. Merlin at least will notice he is in the same clothing as the day before. But there’s no time. “Yes,” he gets out just as Merlin opens the door himself, coming through and waving it closed behind him.

Arthur straightens rather painfully and prepares for the barrage of Merlin’s particular brand of insight into his troubles.

It doesn’t come. Merlin’s eyes are alight, his face flushed. Alive. “Arthur,” he says, crossing the room. He tosses his jacket—his travel jacket—over the nearest chair, then waves the curtains open. Dawn’s dull light washes over them, and Arthur inhales. Merlin has changed his clothing; his collar is open, shirt askew, baring throat and chest to just above his heart. His hair bears the ridges of finger tracks. His fingers or another’s—there’s no way to tell. As Arthur watches, Merlin does it himself, scuffing backwards and further displacing the tangle.

“Do you have a moment?” Merlin asks. “To talk?”

Arthur nods. Merlin paces a half circle, comes to a stop, then takes another turn, and Arthur just stands there like a fool, uncertain what’s to come next. Finally— “Merlin, it’s bloody early. What?”

Merlin’s throat reddens. He stands still, but his hands flutter about. “I’ve an idea. Something I want to, well, been meaning to try except I could never do it, never even attempt it before now. On my own.”

“What is it?”

Merlin opens his mouth. His brows knit; he drops his chin and peers at Arthur from underneath them. “You know I would tell you. I would. Only I’m not certain it will work and I don’t…” His sigh is a great deal heavier than seems warranted, and in the next instant he looks weary, older than ever. “Don’t want to get anyone’s hopes up.”

Arthur worries his teeth with his tongue. Merlin’s eyes follow. “Will it harm anyone?”

A pause. “No.”

There’s more to that than meets the eye, but Arthur lets it pass. Whatever else, Merlin has not outright lied to him once since he revealed his abilities. “Will it help?”

The change is astounding: Merlin’s eyes widen, and he steps forward, hands rising between them as though he means to take hold of Arthur’s shirt. The weight on his features falls away, slack, yearning, and his breath rushes in and out. “Yes. Oh, Arthur, yes.”

Arthur peers at Merlin’s face, his own pulse quickening. “Then you have my blessing.”

Merlin grins. “Thank you. I promise you won’t regret it.”

“I’d better not,” Arthur admonishes, cocking an eyebrow. A laugh escapes Merlin. Arthur smiles back, turning to look for wine, goblets, but of course there are none. He should send for breakfast, even if he’s not sure he can eat. “Tomorrow then? Alright, what chamber or field shall I clear next for the massing hordes?”

Merlin’s smile falters. “Oh… I can’t do it here. Enaid and I will need several days. At the isle.”

Arthur stops. “The isle. Of the Blessed?” At Merlin’s nod, all good feeling flees. Arthur remembers magic piling upon itself, drifting, settling, whirling. Always, always there, threaded into the very air. And that great tear in the world, with a vast immortal darkness so much bigger than he washing from it. He takes a guarded breath and faces Merlin again. “You and Enaid.”

“Just the two of us. I can’t do it by myself. And together, our magic may be too much for anyone else to handle.” His hands rise again, but this time they clutch at something Arthur cannot see. “She is so resilient, Arthur, have you any—She wields magic like another limb, it comes straight from her heart, not from outside of her like the others. She has taken to wordless magic so quickly. The level of power that I believe she can withstand… Don’t you see? I would be able to unleash it all. Do things I could never do before, not without risking…without risk to the people of Camelot.”

“I’ve seen what you can do together,” Arthur mutters, thinking of the radiant tree and the tiny spark.

“No, Arthur, that’s nothing. Nothing.” Merlin’s gaze falls to his own hands, now open-palmed as though gripping the air itself. “I have never met anyone else like her. What we can do together… Arthur, if this works, we will have unearthed a whole new realm of possibilities.”

What we can do together. Not what we could. Arthur, against a voiceless dread, seeks it out in the familiar thrum of Merlin’s presence. But he can’t tell. He can’t tell it... If hours or even minutes ago, Merlin—

Merlin and Enaid.

He longs to stretch out, touch Merlin. Feel somehow whether she is on him, her heat on his skin, the ghost of her fingers twisting in his hair, her sweat salting his lips. Her essence in his bones.

But Arthur will never be able to tell, not that way. He has no magic.

The two of them, alone. His mind tries other less selfish schemes: What if she is like the other Druid? What if she means Merlin harm? But Merlin is powerful, astute, has proven himself more than able to take care of himself. He is not afraid of her and has given Arthur no reason to be either. The two of them alone is what Merlin wants.

So he agrees. Damn the world to hell and back, what else can he do?

Merlin takes his hand, and Arthur can’t help it: he jerks. There’s no difference to the touch. Just Merlin’s steady heat. If she...if they... Arthur does not know.

“Thank you.” There has rarely been such fervor in Merlin’s voice. Once, after the Questing Beast. So many years ago. Merlin’s purpose, his chosen fate, shining through. Arthur hadn’t seen it for what it was then.

“Merlin,” he starts, still trying to find the proper words, “you would tell me if—” But there is no proper way to ask this, if Merlin would love, would fall, would bind himself to another in every way. Heat climbs into Arthur’s cheeks. The more he struggles, the more he is convinced he has no business asking such a thing.

Merlin frowns at him, curious. Silence plucks between them. Arthur finally manages a smirk.

“If you were putting yourself in danger.”

At that, a smile melts onto Merlin’s face. He clasps Arthur’s shoulder, gives him an affable shake. “Of course. You’d never forgive me if I left you out of all the fun.”

**

They leave that afternoon, the pair of them walking side by side through the gate with travel packs over their shoulders and a week’s worth of provisions. Throngs gather to see them off at the gates of the castle, at the edge of town, and lining the road on its way into the forest.

Arthur sends Gwaine, Percival, and a small cohort of knights to see them to the original borders of Camelot. The Druids send their own contingency. Arthur sits astride Libera at the mouth of the road, clad in his mail with gloved hands clutching the reins, wishing that he were the one going with them.

**

He begins to suspect the very next morning.

Things fall back to normal: audiences, suits, the thin miasma of everyday needs that Camelot heaps at his feet. Eventually his honor guard of knights return, as do the Druids. Arthur sends out the regular patrols, takes reports, holds council side by side with the Druid leaders and all of his knights at the larger Round Table, and tries to ignore the strange weather building to the north: slate gray clouds tumbling over each other, massing above the Isle of the Blessed where it crouches amidst dark forests.

By the third day, he’s certain of his suspicions.

Arthur ducks his duty, leaving audiences to Gwen and finding his way into the armory along a circuitous route that winds around the very edges of the castle: out a side door and along the muddy footpath between keep and grain stores. By the time Leon hurries in, armor clanking, Arthur is waiting for him, seated on a bench honing Excalibur’s blade with a whetstone.

“Sire,” Leon says after an awkward moment.

Arthur grunts, thumbing an edge carefully, testing the ting of metal. “Leon. Perhaps you’d like to tell me why you and Elyan have been dogging my every step.”

He’s a bit curious to see whether Leon will attempt denial. Instead, Leon resigns himself to his fate. He stands straighter and gazes respectfully over Arthur’s shoulder. “Merlin feared that, with the abundance of magic users around...” He flounders then, looks pleadingly at Arthur. “Sire, not all of them can mean you well.”

Damn Merlin. Suspicion is a blunt tool until confirmation rams it home. Arthur feels his lip curl. “And he believes me somehow unaware of that fact?”

To his credit, again, Leon demurs. “He asked that you not leave the protection of the city walls, my lord.” There is no doubt in that tone that Leon will enforce it, regardless of Arthur’s feelings on the matter.

“He didn’t ask me.” Why hadn’t he? Arthur slips with the whetstone, and would have opened up a finger were this not Excalibur, his sword sworn by spirit never to harm him. He swears he can feel the whetstone warping, he’s clenching it so hard. Is Arthur truly so incapable of ensuring his own welfare in Merlin’s eyes? “Well.” He gets to his feet, facing the rack of scouring straps and polishing cloths. “When Merlin returns with his intended, you may tell him that his king neither needs nor wants his misguided nurse-maiding.”

“Sire.” Leon bows and departs quietly.

How dare Merlin? How dare he? Arthur sheathes Excalibur with a snap and strides outside. The clouds to the north are now a thick, peeling black, flickering with lightning and stretching across the sky like fingers. He gets as far as the stables, saddles and bridles Libera before he stops, his hands already knotted in her mane to assist in mounting, the stable door open onto the main road, out of the city and beyond Merlin’s damnable wards.

He leans his forehead against Libera’s warm neck and breathes, in and out. In. And out.

He untacks her and lets her out to pasture in apology, then goes back to the castle where the council is just sitting down, and takes his seat beside Gwen to discuss propositions his retainers wish to put before the Druids for their help with the next harvest.

After they all leave, he sits facing the window, eyes on the thunderous clouds in the distance.

Chapter Text

But he is unable to confront Merlin in the end; when they return, there is a third person with them.

Arthur watches the trio cross the open fields directly in front of the city gates. They move slowly, a gait suited to Gaius, not the spryness of which Arthur knows both Merlin and Enaid capable. The next to spot them are the Druids encamped outside; shouts go up. The crowds form, trailing behind Merlin and Enaid into the city. Arthur would know Merlin’s shape in his sleep; Enaid, shorter and slighter, is not hard to pick out.

But the third person. The third gathers Arthur’s attention like air sucked toward a flame.

Even when they enter the walls proper, he refuses to acknowledge what’s before him, until his body does it on its own, propelling him away from the battlement and down the torchlit stairwell. “Get the queen, now,” he directs to a passing servant, then can’t remember if he’s actually done it or just thought about doing it. All his mind is turned to the trio outside.

Surely not.

He makes it into the courtyard before them. Gwen arrives moments later, her skirts shuffling as she crosses to his side. “Arthur, what is it?"

All he can do is wave at her like a child, fixated on the three silhouettes just crossing under the arch.

Merlin breaks from the shadows first. He’s pale in a way that makes Arthur’s heart clench, sends his fingers itching to maim whoever made him that way: sickly, with deep circles under his eyes, but he’s smiling so widely his teeth gleam. Enaid, too, is ashen-faced and happy, and then the third person steps free of the darkness and Gwen goes stiller than stone.

He’s just as Arthur remembers—not that hollow wraith of his friend, but the one who touched blade to forehead in silent salute: shorn hair, woeful eyes, his face grizzled with beard, just as he was the day he closed the door between two worlds. His happiness is subdued, and yet it leaks from him, the same unearthly calm Arthur had relied upon for months, had looked to for strength, had mourned again deeply when death took it from them all for the second time.

Gwen slants into Arthur’s sight. He turns, remembering her all at once. Her hands are fists at her sides. She trembles, on the tips of her toes but unwilling or unable to move. Her throat works, and her eyes dart around the courtyard before fixing again. He follows her gaze.

Merlin’s expression has sobered; his exhausted eyes seek not Gwen, but Arthur. Enaid looks to Merlin, and Lancelot, the first knight Arthur ever chose for himself, looks straight at his queen.

The crowd murmurs and shifts; Arthur notices almost by chance the other knights running in, moving to place themselves at their king’s side but halting once they realize who is in their midst. Leon stands agape on the steps just to Arthur’s left, his sword lax at his side. The look he turns on Arthur is equal parts shocked and troubled. It jars Arthur from his stupor.

“Inside,” Arthur says, waving them off the steps. Gwen backs up, then turns and hurries indoors. Arthur follows, directing her with a hand at her back toward the first chamber he sees. It’s a receiving chamber, dotted with maids washing the windows, replacing flowers, relaying the fire. “Out,” he orders. “Everyone.”

The castle servants immediately lay down their towels and flint and follow his order. One passes through the door just as Merlin and Lancelot duck inside. She gasps, a hand flying to her mouth, then rushes out in a hush of skirts. Leon comes in last, shutting the door firmly behind him, locking out the growing sounds of the mob and of the rest of his captains trying to maintain order. Arthur knows the news has already begun its rounds, that they have a half hour at most before questions will no longer be kept at bay.

But he can’t curb his own astonishment.

Brown tunic, black cloak. Silver buckle. Mud-spattered boots. It could well be exactly what he wore last, though the strange sense of disorder that surrounded him then is gone. His face is the one Arthur remembers from before the veil. Arthur feels the unrest like an old wound, coiled round his guts, and he can hear Gwen’s shuddering breaths beside him, knows the moment is only waiting for a chance to break.

“Is he…”

Merlin, wrapped in a dirty traveling cloak and swaying on his feet, lifts his chin. Arthur pries deep, looks him right in the eye, riding a turmoil that he hasn’t felt since the night Merlin knelt at his feet and spilled his most closely guarded truth.

Merlin’s gaze goes soft. He nods.

For the first time, Merlin’s word isn’t enough. The nightmarish shattering Arthur recalls now is not that of his own heart but of a heart he’d never in his life wanted to harm. He moves in front of Gwen, unthinking. If this is not the man himself, if it is as it was the last time Lancelot returned, Arthur will end it right here. He’ll not allow Guinevere to suffer that again.

Merlin drifts to the side, passing a hand over his face and waving Arthur’s knight-errant forward. Lancelot drops to one knee. His eyes never leave Arthur. The buckle on his borrowed cloak clinks, striking a frightening realism to Arthur’s ears.

“Speak.”

“My lord—”

The rage billows up. “Lancelot,” Arthur snarls.

Lancelot shakes as though buffeted. “Arthur,” he breathes, and his eyes snap shut in pain. He hauls in a quaking breath. Opens eyes bright with grief. “Arthur, I’m sorry. It’s me.”

The heat rushes from Arthur’s body as swiftly as it had hurtled in. He wavers, lightheaded. At his side, Gwen’s hands fist and fall, fist and fall, her breathing faster and faster, and yet she looks up at him, tilting from foot to foot, tears running down her face. She will not move, he can see it in her eyes. She’ll not leave him here.

Arthur scrubs his face, then gives up in a single humorless laugh. “Gwen, go,” he hisses, sweeping her forward with his arm.

She lunges. It’s the only word for it. The sob catches in her throat and she launches herself across the space between, skirts bunched in her fists. Lancelot staggers upright in time to catch her, an armful of brocade and perfume, rasping breaths. He hugs her so tightly he lifts her off her feet. Gwen’s arms lock round him like she’ll never let go. Her fingers snarl in his hair and her face disappears against his throat. Lancelot’s murmurs are unintelligible next to her ear.

“Merlin,” Arthur manages around a dry tongue. “How.”

“Blood sacrifice. Not anyone else’s. Just ours.” Merlin reaches out for Enaid’s hand and smiles at her. “Between us, we had enough.”

A lot of blood, from the look of them. Arthur waits for the confusion, the relief, the hysteria, anything. It remains remote, frustratingly far outside his reach. He should feel something. Aside from that glance to Enaid, Merlin is still looking at him. There’s a tumult of emotions too knotted to parse in Merlin’s eyes, but Arthur knows when something is expected of him. He has no idea what it might be.

“You brought him back.” Perhaps the more he hears it out loud, the more real it will become. And indeed something creeps in, but it isn’t relief or joy. It’s heavier than that, the knell of a bell.

“Yes.” Merlin steps closer and stops again. “Arthur, I… I had to.”

Arthur nods. Before him, Gwen is sobbing into Lancelot’s shirt.

“Are you angry?” Merlin asks.

“No.” He’s not. He can’t explain the hole inside, and he has a fear that it is merely building into a tower over his head, closer and closer to falling. He’s… glad. For Gwen. Lancelot is alive, living, breathing. Merlin did this. Merlin, in all his brilliance and splendor. Arthur didn’t get to see it. “Merlin, no.”

Merlin sways, shutting his eyes.

Merlin, what have you done to me? Arthur wants to ask, to beg. But it won’t come out right.

Enaid gazes upon the queen of Camelot in the ardent embrace of a once-dead knight with no surprise at all. And there’s the anger at last, that Merlin told her of all this, of Arthur’s sham marriage and Gwen’s age-old sorrow, of a happiness hard bought and two lives resigned to contentment. Those were their secrets, not meant for this magic girl.

Then Merlin’s knees buckle, and Arthur is moving without thought to anyone else.

**

Merlin collapses. And it is Arthur who takes him up, who carries him on swift strides through the castle to Gaius, leaving Lancelot and Guinevere behind.

Enaid follows, helped along on Leon’s arm and looking as sick as a dog but not as sick as Merlin. In Gaius’s workshop, she tips down onto a stool, looking on as Arthur lays Merlin on Gaius’s pallet, as Gaius begins his examination.

“You fool,” she mutters, and takes up Merlin’s hand, breathing against the back of it. Arthur watches, unwilling to let himself move for fear of what he might do.

“He took more than his share.” Enaid looks at the both of them, her frustration clear. “He hid it from me, how did I not see what he was doing?”

Arthur knows. He’s used to Merlin taking on more than his share and after over a decade, he has yet to figure out how to stop him.

Gaius finishes his examination, a few whispered words, a palm held to Merlin’s brow, then straightens and releases a sigh. “He has merely exhausted himself. Overtaxed his magic. He needs rest, but he will be fine. What has he done?”

“Brought Lancelot back,” Arthur croaks, and Gaius’s eyes go very wide.

“What?” He stares at Arthur, then at Merlin, then at Enaid. “As in…”

“No, not like last time.” But Merlin hadn’t brought Lancelot back last time. Merlin would never have condemned his friend to such a hell as Morgana did. Arthur still can’t explain it. He smiles grimly at Gaius. “He’s all back.”

“By the gods,” Gaius says faintly. His eyes fall on Enaid. “Your magic has made this possible?”

“I wonder,” Enaid mutters, but nods. “We combined our magic. He… wanted to bring his friend back.”

“At no cost of life?” Gaius peers into her face. “The balance of the Old Religion does not like to be upset.”

“We drew upon his life force, and mine. There was no other, and the magic was contained, I promise. That at least is a specialty of mine. He was adamant that no one be affected by our attempt.” She aims a small, private smile at Merlin. “It was done out of love. Perhaps it is only due to the alignment of the stars, but… between us, this time, we had the power to counter any cost.”

“If this is so, if you may bring life where once was only death, then there may well be no limits to what the two of you can do.” Gaius sounds hushed, as though speaking of holiness. Or taboo. The way people used to talk about magic during Uther’s reign. Gaius’s eyes light, and he runs a finger down the spine of one of his tomes, on pestilence and infection. “You could heal anything. Drive back plagues. Mend an utterly broken body. Battle wounds would be nothing, and people falling to sickness and premature bone ailments would not have to suffer.”

Enaid’s smile grows, sharing in Gaius’s awe. She touches the back of Merlin’s wrist where his hand lies over his chest. “On the isle, it was one moment, one heartbeat at a time. I didn’t think of the larger implications.”

“It does exact a price,” Arthur cuts in, hard. He wants to take Merlin’s hand, draw its warmth toward himself. He settles for gripping his shoulder. “He is weakened. You were both weakened. The healing of every malady in the world does not deserve the sacrifice of your health in return.”

“It can be practiced, like any field of magic. Exercised and strengthened. My lord,” Gaius says, half grim, half proud, “do you realize what this means for Camelot?”

Arthur’s swallow clicks. His throat is as dry as sand. He’s afraid of what it means, full stop.

But then Merlin blinks, smiles slowly, and sighs, “Arthur.” For a moment, the rest retreats: Arthur smiles back.

**

There is no way to describe the atmosphere. A reverence pours from every hollow, every cranny. Merlin and Enaid pass, and eyes are averted, heads bowed. Hands are touched, blessings whispered.

Arthur has known subservience. He has known allegiance, the purest fidelity and the most steadfast devotion. This is something even more than that.

The Druids remember Lancelot. During his travels away from Camelot, he had not been spare with his help where it was needed. Knowing what Arthur knows now, that Lancelot was the first after Gaius to know of Merlin’s magic, his favor with the Druids is a forgone conclusion.

So Arthur Pendragon gives up.

There are things in this world much bigger than his pain, more important than the happiness of one man. He thinks of Gwen’s face, the grief and the heartbreaking hope, the way she barely held herself together on that precipice. The sound she made when she threw herself into Lancelot’s arms. Merlin’s gift is extraordinary, and knows no equal anywhere in this world.

If that’s what Merlin can do with Enaid at his side, Arthur cannot possibly stand in his way.

It’s easy to continue on astride the shock. Arthur manages a day’s worth of duties, and a training with his knights—sans Lancelot. He tells himself it’s because he refuses to tear Lancelot away from his queen after so long, to bring any of that into the light before they are ready. But the reality is, he’s too shaken to open that door.

It was always the two of them, Arthur and Gwen, reconciled to their lack. They understood each other. When the pain finally fights its way past the numbness, for the first time in years, Arthur feels fully alone.

Chapter Text

It’s a long time before he can properly beat the hell out of something. Full dark two days later, in fact. The dummy’s wooden frame splits and splinters, giving way to Excalibur’s edge hack by furious hack.

He doesn’t think. He strikes harder for each glimmer that tries to lance in, destroys it as the blade destroys the frame. He listens to Excalibur sing. He revels in the clean weight of her. Steel, earth, wood: simple and crude, scents he associates with battle, with effort, with the most basic part of himself, a part he knew long before Merlin. Without Merlin, he would still have this. Without Merlin—

He slams the blade deeper. Cuts the thought in half.

Excalibur begins to hum. Arthur swings inward, ribs, sternum, ribs again, the hollow right above a hipbone, then huffs and steps back, unable to ignore the shiver of magic rising around him any longer. “Absolutely unnecessary.”

He can hear Merlin’s shrug, as placid as his gait. “You’re out here all alone. Not even a security retinue.”

“I am my own security retinue.” Arthur rolls the grip, flipping the hilt round his wrist and taking hold again. The strange new prickle at his right eye tells him exactly where Merlin stands. Arthur paces around the dummy, deciding on his next move. He feels Merlin’s eyes on him, wonders how long he had been watching before he came down here. “Where’s your friend?”

“Enaid?” Merlin cranes his head back toward the glow of the castle, and Arthur takes the scant second to look.

Merlin’s slender frame cuts a hole in the darkness, a thick white coat with the collar turned up against the chill. Wrist cuffs past his knuckles. Arthur’s lungs contract. Merlin’s hair falls loose over his brow, a warm, deep brown in the torchlight. Tan trousers shape the length of his legs. Gold thread gilds all hems, twisting with snakes and spirals. Marriage attire. Arthur blinks the unwelcome association away just as Merlin turns back.

“Entertaining the masses. I taught her that spell for weaving water. You know, shaping it?”

Into dragons. Arthur inhales. That was his spell. Merlin always performed it for him, until now.

Over the last day, the color has come back into Merlin’s face. He looks himself again, but the veneer is thin: fragility beats like a small heart. Merlin is slowly collecting his strength after Lancelot. He hasn’t cast a spell of any real weight since the isle, not that Arthur has seen.

“Our sort of magic,” Merlin says after a moment’s silence, which makes his words all the more unsettling. “Influence over the air, stone, the shifting of the earth…” Yes, all the things she could help him master, Arthur thinks bitterly. “It’s powerful. Intimidating.” He waits, but Arthur has nothing to say. “It would be good for the kingdom.”

“The kingdom will take care of itself,” Arthur grunts, cleaving a straw hand off the dummy with a flick of his wrist. He doesn’t even have to look anymore, merely to stretch out to his right and let himself feel. Yet another gift Merlin has given him, now only knotting his nerves further. He steps back, facing Merlin at last. “I’m more concerned about what you want.”

Merlin eyes him, then smiles skyward and shakes his head at the stars. “Can’t you for once,” he says fondly, “do something wholly for yourself?”

Heat spills into Arthur’s chest, razors through his limbs like bolts of lightning. The prickle beside his eye widens, spreading like chaff flung into the air. He brings the sword crashing down, splitting the dummy’s wood bole skull. “What, order you to do this? For the prosperity of Camelot?” Again, again, faster, harder, through timber and straw and wire weaving. He tastes the snarl more than he hears it. “Demand that you chain yourself to another for all eternity so that this castle can keep its hale walls?”

Merlin is silent, leaving Arthur to heave noisily into the chilly air. His breath puffs from him in ephemeral clouds. He paces the shattered dummy. If he stops, the rage will find him again.

“That was a poor joke,” Merlin says at last. “Of course you wouldn’t.”

“I would do as you will,” Arthur states, and lops a straw arm off—it’s half amputated anyway. He searches out his slippery principles, vows to hold onto them this time. “Whatever you will.”

Merlin hums. He takes a turn around the dummy, shadowing Arthur’s route, and they circle it on opposite sides, casting moon-shadows on the grass. No longer content to eviscerate straw and wood, Arthur arcs outward, marking a larger space between himself and his sorcerer. He points Excalibur at Merlin.

“Perhaps I should ask you why you won’t do something for yourself.” When Merlin doesn’t respond, Arthur flips the sword round his wrist again. Again. The breeze it creates teases his sweaty fringe. “God knows you’ve done more than enough for me.”

“I want what’s best for Camelot,” Merlin lobs back, a measured statement after more silence. Arthur’s not sure if it’s hesitant, and when did he become incapable of reading Merlin anyway? It ignites emotions already smoldering. He snicks off the dummy’s foot, then flips the blade into a reverse grip to keep himself from just bashing the pole until it falls to pieces and drops the dummy onto the turf.

“Hang Camelot, what does Merlin want?” He faces Merlin in time to see him blink, knows his voice is too loud, but damn it all, why can’t this break be clean? Why must he deepen the wound like this? “Do you desire this magic?”

Merlin frowns. “Yes—”

“Then take it!” Arthur flings his arms wide, Excalibur flashing torchlight from the castle wall. “For god’s sake, Merlin, take what they have to offer you. It’s obvious even to me that you crave it.” He knocks a hand against his chest. “Gods above, I can feel you longing for it. Like a weight hanging. And I know you, you never have the good sense to go after what you—No, actually, forget what you want, I know what you’ll say. What do you need?”

“I don’t understand.”

“You do.” Arthur jabs the sword in his direction and turns on the dummy again, the cloud over his shoulders growing ever denser and darker. “You do.”

“I have everything I need.” Merlin’s tone has edged into that neutral territory that means his spines are starting to come out.

Arthur side-eyes him in a way he knows will raise Merlin’s hackles. “If that were true, then they would not be here, and you would not enjoy them so.”

For a second, he’s sure Merlin will rise to it.

But he doesn’t. He doesn’t. Bloody infuriating man. Arthur beats the dummy’s head completely in, losing the battle with the emptiness seeping up from his belly. He’s afraid of what will happen when it reaches his heart.

“If you’re still looking for a fight, I won’t give you one.” Merlin’s eyebrow is high. Arthur’s anger spikes.

He throws his hands up, hampered by the sword. “Why did you bring him back, Merlin?”

Merlin’s lips purse. He looks skyward, but Arthur will not let him skirt it. “Lancelot,” he persists. “Why did you bring him back?”

“Because I finally could!” When Arthur gives him nothing—truly, he doesn’t know how to respond—Merlin huffs out an agitated breath. “I see Gwen’s grief every day. I see yours. And I missed him, Arthur. Alright? You missed him, like a limb. His absence was a hole in the fabric of this castle. He belongs here, with us. It was supposed to be me through the veil—”

“It was supposed to be me,” Arthur retorts, and Merlin’s brows draw together. “But we all know what happened to that.”

Merlin remains silent. Arthur is absurdly proud of him for not attempting an apology. Merlin is never sorry for saving Arthur’s life; he’s made that clear. Arthur fills his lungs, lets his head hang back and tries to shake off the anchors he has just tied to them both. The sky is clear as glass tonight, uncommonly cold. Overhead the aligning stars wink faint red and blue. He can detect the color only when he doesn’t look directly at them.

Has Merlin been blaming himself all this time? Wishing that someone else had walked through the veil that night? Of course he has. Perhaps the face of that sacrifice changes daily. Arthur can remember bouts of unconscionable stubbornness on his part, days on which he is now certain his was the visage worn in Merlin’s mind.

But he knows Merlin: the one who most often crosses through the veil instead of Lancelot is undoubtedly Merlin himself.

“It wasn’t your fault,” Arthur says, low. “He wasn’t your fault. This wasn’t.” He gestures at his bad eye. Merlin opens his mouth, but Arthur overrides him. “None of it was your fault and none of us are your responsibility. Or your burden. You don’t owe us your—” He searches out a word and finds himself deficient. “Servitude.”

“Servitude,” Merlin breathes, and it was not what Arthur meant, but maybe it’ll do.

“If this slee chu ach lagaa is what you need—”

“This isn’t about what I need!”

“It is, Merlin.” Arthur backs up, spreads his arms. Raises his voice. There’s no one else around to hear. “We’re not at war. There’s no famine, no drought. No sickness. No demands being made upon you. There is nothing here for you to do!”

Merlin’s jaw works. “It won’t always be this way.”

“Yes, but it is now.” How many times have they sat around campfires at the edge of smoking battlefields, wincing at wounds, reflecting on what they’d do once they were home again? And then doing none of it when they returned, pulled away by some other duty, lulled by the false forever stretching out ahead. “Do not wait for ‘a better time,’ Merlin.” Do not make my mistake. For an interminable instant, breathing is impossible, his anguish absolute. “I promise you, it will not come.”

At last, Merlin looks troubled.

Arthur returns to what’s left of the dummy, ten times as tired as he was before. But his skin is still crawling, trying to shed what ails it. He has the faintly horrifying thought that he will not sleep until this thing is done. Consummated.

And once it is, he’ll no longer care about sleep.

“Are you telling me to leave?”

Arthur lets the sword tip drop to the dirt. He kneads the back of his neck. Merlin is a lovely wan light along the edge of his new ‘vision.’ “No,” he says at last, and hates that his voice cracks. He faces Merlin again. For the first time, the sweat chills his skin. His fingers itch to grasp the material of Merlin’s coat and pull him closer. Never. Never; stay, you belong with me. If he says that, he’ll make Merlin’s choice for him, and then he’ll never forgive himself. “No, I am not.”

Merlin doesn’t say anything else, so Arthur turns away, awkward but stuck in his silence. He whirls Excalibur until the blade rings, until the ache in his muscles begins to dull the greater pain.

“Arthur.”

Merlin’s looking at him straight on, a waiting seneschal in white. Arthur’s sword arm drops to his side. “Yes?”

Merlin’s eyes trip up and down, taking Arthur’s measure. Taking his time. Arthur never feels as he does when others pierce him with their stares: unnerved, less than regal, and wanting. Not under the weight of Merlin’s gaze.

“Thank you.”

Arthur nods, not sure what else to do. Merlin turns to go.

“What are you going to do?” Arthur asks, because when it comes right down to it, he can’t keep quiet.

Merlin gives him his crooked, silly smile—rare these days—and sweeps into an exaggerated bow, arms spread out to his sides. “What destiny demands,” he intones. “Of course.”

“Of course.”

Arthur watches him walk across the lawn, up the hill to the castle. He stands until Merlin is out of sight, then jams Excalibur into the ground and falls with a thump against the dummy’s base, shaking. It’s a long time before he gets up again.

**

He’d thought the breaking of his heart would be the end of it. Now it feels as though someone is spooning the shattered organ from his chest, leaving a hollow more cavernous with each thrust.

He must have felt this sort of pain before: in battle, when his father died, when he finally learned the truth about his mother. There are worse hurts than this. For the life of him, he can’t remember such an encompassing ache.

The firelight beckons, the sounds of carefree celebration. He’s put this off for too long; no doubt his absence has been remarked upon. The king does not even value our beliefs in this. What is to keep him from crushing them all over again when the fit takes him? But try as he might, he cannot get his feet to bring him to the firesides full of smiles. Now they might as well be grinning death’s heads.

He knows that he’s given in. And he’ll give up, too. He could put it off, allow himself a night. But one night will turn into three, and then into five, and then... It’s best just to shed it now. And he will. He just needs one damned minute.

He goes to the orchard.

In his father’s time, these trees were meticulously groomed, row upon row marching to the towering wall down the hill. Since the repeal of the ban on magic, nature has been given freer rein, the trees thinned so that their branches may push free of the symmetrical bulb trim that used to hem them in. Springy grass has covered the clearing between the little reinforced door and the treeline, and has swept amongst the trees themselves, creating hillocks over the roots, mounds on which to rest in the shade on a hot day. The orchard has grown dense, trunks fading away into darkness. The air smells of flowering plum.

All walls are thinner here. The magic is wilder, like the lakes he swam in of a summer, naked as the day he was born and lost in a sea of blue. Here, the earth breathes. Here, Arthur can breathe easier.

He closes his eyes. His childhood lies in this scent: wild or groomed, the fragrance is sweet and creeps over him like syrup. Here, Uther’s crimes were not yet realized; Arthur had not yet learned to miss his mother. He hadn’t known Merlin. The only residual pain comes from memories of Morgana among these stems, a bounding girl with round cheeks, hair falling out of its braids. But even that hurt is dim, overridden by the far more numerous memories of ease, approaching summer, friendship with the young woman who had always been and always will be his sister.

“This is not the end,” he whispers, “this is not your end.” If his father could go on with the knowledge that his actions had caused the death of his soulmate, then Arthur can certainly live knowing that his refusal to act has robbed him of what he loves most in this world.

But he will not go the way of his forebear. He has seen what his father’s selfish grief wrought, and he has hated the man Uther turned him into. The man Arthur let himself be turned into.

No more. He will remember who he is and what his duties truly are. He will stop doubting; he will be their once and future king. Today is the day he chooses to believe. He will learn everything the Druids care to teach him, he will banish this obstinate unease when it comes to magic. And he will expand the sway of the council, give the power of law to many voices, that they may check each other as Gwen and Merlin have always checked him. Never again will the king be the sole proprietor of a man’s fate.

He will stand at Merlin’s side, and he will protect his people as their king should, and when… if love finds him again, he will embrace it, he will move forward. He will not make the same mistakes.

Standing in the cold, quiet darkness, Arthur decides: he will start now. He will give himself until the sweat dries in the small of his back. Then he will go in, find Merlin. Congratulate him properly, join the celebrants, and put an end to this.

It prickles along his right side, an airy brush to his skin, but not air. Familiar; he’s put in mind of Libera’s stable, of the castle steps—

Not Merlin.

His heart jackrabbits against his ribs. He jerks Excalibur up and around, turned edge-out before his face.

The magic hammers out of the trees like a battering ram and cleaves around the sword, jarring Arthur’s arms, clouting the breath from him. He slides over the earth but keeps his footing, clenching hands to hilt, dragging air back into his lungs. Excalibur’s blade glows fiercely, the runes as luminous as stars. Arthur squints against the light.

“The once and future king,” says a voice from the darkness.

A man materializes, pulling free from the trunk of a gnarled tree not five yards away. He wears long, dark robes twisting with vines. At first Arthur thinks them decorative, but the vines climb and curl round the man’s arms, his waist. Alive.

“Impressive,” the man says, and smiles. “She told us about your sword.”

She. Morgana? He has no time to ask. The man whispers a word and the air resolves into a rotten knot, slamming into Arthur. Arthur slashes downward, deflecting the burst. He wheels as it comes for him again, slicing straight through the middle of it. The magic dissipates with an alien scream, not the sound of anything living.

The man’s expression twists. “That sword should never have been yours.”

All thoughts of Merlin flee. Excalibur’s magic thrums into him, stirs his blood, drives the weariness away. He has no shield, no armor, just the shirt and hide trousers. As with Cináed, only Cináed wasn’t actually trying to kill him. Arthur has no illusions that this man will do him such a courtesy.

“Son of Uther.” He’s a Druid, and he spits Uther’s name like bile. He throws back the edges of his cloak. Underneath, his muscles are sinewy, worn by a decade of life that Arthur does not yet have. His eyes glitter from a craggy face. Battle scars, both of metal and magic. “I prayed to meet you.”

Had Morgana helped him get in? Is she behind any of this? There’s no room for thoughts like this now, but the old pain comes just the same. Arthur lunges forward, feints for the man’s head with Excalibur but goes for his knife instead, a blade his attacker will not expect. His angle is off; the man gets a thick sleeve in the way before the point can reach his throat. Arthur nearly gets him then, while his eyes follow the smaller weapon to earth, but a wall of heat forces Arthur back just as he closes. By the time he cuts through it, they are yards apart.

The man’s arms are raised now, the tattoos on his wrists obvious, damning. He laughs at Arthur’s recognition. “We’ve been waiting to kill you for a long time.”

“Your first attempt failed.” Keep the words brief; save air. Arthur breathes in and out, in and out, as steady as his steps. They circle each other, Arthur angling the sword between them. It’s blue light flashes over the Druid’s face and throat, revealing more scars. Tattoos carved away by some instrument, then healed over in dense folds of flesh.

The man smirks. “Yes, but we learned. This time, your sorcerer did not sense us, and he is not here to interfere.” He flicks magic at Arthur with a string of words. Arthur parries it away. The force rattles down the blade, numbing his hands.

“And yet.” Arthur senses the next strike coming, the spell Merlin placed along his right side sizzling in warning. He hacks at disorienting coils of darkness, feels Excalibur chop into wood as well. In the light of the blade, roots shrink back toward the earth, clear liquid streaming where the sword bit through.

Merlin again floods his mind, but not as he did before. Arthur must win this fight. If he does not... The Druid will likely be stopped: there are far too many magic users in this castle, and Merlin himself is powerful. But this magic is old and somehow wrong. It shakes the earth beneath Arthur's feet and seeps from the orchard, snatching at his limbs as though it has always been there, waiting. No doubt it has, and this man can wield it as Arthur wields a dinner fork.

Arthur tastes the blood in it, wonders how many people died to give it life. He refuses to allow it anywhere near Merlin.

“You are not worthy of that sword!” the man screams, hands clenching. He hisses another spell: the tree roots shatter, shrapnel flying. Arthur ducks, shields his face, but a shard bores through his trouser leg into the meat of his thigh. He cries out, stumbling to one knee. The Druid hits him again with rank, compacted air. Arthur jabs through it with Excalibur, prompting another enraged growl. “Emrys should not have shared such secrets with a mere man.”

“Emrys does not answer to you,” Arthur grunts. His leg burns, but he does not look at it. Survive first; he can bind it later only if he is alive.

“He is a dog. He shames our people by stooping to a Pendragon. A family of murderers.”

There is nothing there that can harm Arthur. He knows what his family has done, just as surely as he is determined never to repeat it. But Merlin is no mongrel mutt tied by Arthur’s hand, and that is the dangerous stab, the one Arthur must ignore. “Your people do not follow you.”

“And they will never follow you! Not while I breathe.” This time, he hurls pure fury, made up of the earth, the air, the trees.

Arthur barely holds it at bay. He must. By now, Merlin will have felt this foreign magic, and if not he, then others. There are so many practitioners here, it cannot be missed.

“I will be your death, Arthur Pendragon.” The Druid’s whisper fills the clearing, sibilant as a snake’s hiss. “And when you are dead, I will kill him. Show everyone what their great Emrys really is.”

The swiftness of it all has run fire into his limbs, pumped his blood high, but reality is catching up. Arthur’s leg throbs. Blood soaks his trousers. He’s already badly tired from the training dummy. Sweat drips into his eyes and he shakes it away, brushes the ire aside. Wheels Excalibur one handed and carves through the next onslaught, and the next. Each spell grows wilder, losing control as the Druid’s rage swells. Arthur cannot stop the source, but he can wait for others who can.

All he needs is to hold out for a moment. Two.

A lull: the man falters, winded. Arthur is on his knees again, desperate for breath. His arms shake and his shoulders seethe fire. He takes the gift, snapping his fists one by one at his side to get the blood flowing back to his fingers, not trusting his legs enough to get back up yet. Here he is grounded, braced. But then the Druid’s head tilts; his eyes light with gleeful spite. He turns toward the passageway and Arthur—

Arthur feels Merlin coming.

“Emrys.” The Druid’s mouth stretches into a feral grin.

It is Merlin, Arthur knows it in his bones. A magic as cherished as memory bristles the air around him. The sense spell sings a low, clear note. Even as he thinks it, he hears Merlin call out his name. Arthur stabs Excalibur into the Earth and drags himself off his knees. He’s not near enough, not for blade or blow, but any moment, Merlin will race through that door, straight into a horror that screams in Arthur’s blood.

He dislodges the wooden shard from his thigh, flips it in hand, and throws it as hard and true as he can left-handed, right into the Druid’s shoulder. “Merlin—!”

The Druid staggers, seizing at the shard. He snarls a hate-filled word, and flings his bloodied hand out. A heat whiter than the sun spears straight through Arthur’s body.

He drops back to his knees, losing his grip on Excalibur’s hilt. For a moment, he can’t make sense of it. Everything is sharp and vibrant, the color bleeding out of the trees. He looks down.

There’s a root, curling like a gnarled finger through his belly.

It doesn’t hurt. It doesn’t feel like anything but a bulk inside him, almost pleasantly warm. He touches the end, wiping blood from the wood, and at that moment, Merlin stumbles through the doorway into the orchard.

He takes one good look.

“Arthur?” It jolts from Merlin as though yanked. It’s a horrible sound.

The Druid shouts, raising both arms above his head. He brings them down before him. Roots erupt from the ground in a mass, their razored tips hurtling straight at Merlin.

Merlin slaps them aside with a gesture.

Arthur tries to work Merlin’s name out of his throat. His body tingles all over, a shade too hot. Something deep in his gut itches. He can’t make his voice work.

Merlin tears his gaze from Arthur. His face twists, and gold sears from his eyes. Arthur winces at the light. Merlin’s palm splays parallel to the ground, his fingers wide. There are no words. No sound. Just a hum buzzing up from the earth like a nest of angry hornets.

The ground ripples, a stone tossed into a lake, except Merlin is the epicenter. The tremor hurls outward from his feet, ripping clods of earth as it goes, grass and vines exploding into the air with their roots attached, stones shearing out of the ground like honed arrowheads. The Druid barely has time to counter: he snatches a wash of green mist up from the untouched ground at his feet just as the quake reaches him. The devastated earth hits the barrier with the crack of a mountain splitting, digging into the mist even as the shield thickens, warps, contorts to hold itself in place. The Druid shouts incomprehensible words, hands weaving, and all the while, Merlin stands quiet, one arm out before him, body so taut he vibrates.

The mist and the tremor give way at the same moment; the Druid shouts another spell, as sour as rot. Blackness gathers in a vortex. It chops the torn earth to motes, shrivels the grass into ash, eats up the air itself as it roils toward Merlin. The void snatches at Arthur’s limbs. The trees bend and groan, their color leeching away as the chasm in the air grows even larger.

Merlin’s nostrils flare. His chest expands, a deep breath Arthur sees so very clearly. He slashes his arm from back to front, crossing his chest and ending straight out again in front of him.

Light so golden it bites between Arthur’s ribs flows down Merlin’s arm to envelop his hand. When it reaches his knuckles, it grows molten hot, pure and ferocious, tumbling round his fingertips like writhing snakes.

Merlin steps forward, and the light peels the blackness back.

The Druid calls more. It clambers up from rents in the ground, demons escaping a pit, and the black nothing howls down to meet them. The sound is what the world will make when it dies. Arthur fists dead grass in both hands, bracing against the trembling earth. Watches Merlin walk toward that roaring vortex, unable to stop him. Merlin’s torch-like hand meets the black. Arthur cries out, his voice lost in the maelstrom.

But Merlin’s hand, his arm, does not wither like the grass and the trees. It carves through.

Merlin’s rage beats from him like a giant heart. Arthur’s never seen such fury, such death in Merlin’s face. Not Merlin’s death, but the Druid’s, warping through Merlin’s snarl of a mouth and streaming out of his eyes. Merlin takes another step. His white coat billows back, trousers snapping to his legs. He stretches his fingers, digs into the black. The air shears off, metal scraping metal, and the black reels out, ceding a pocket of light round Merlin’s hand.

The Druid screams again. More black drains down from the heavens, bloating the vortex, and still Merlin presses forward. Still the nothingness gives way, melting out of existence through tears in the world. The air pounds around Arthur’s ears. A grinding stirs from below, quaking up through his knees. He sees movement beyond the flare and the void, people spilling into the orchard only to be buffeted back into the walls. The Druid tries another spell, and the black pours out of the forest this time, snapping tree trunks to splinters, seething through every living inch of green.

Merlin’s mouth opens, not a word, but a roar. It grows louder as his eyes grow brighter, as the air roasts, as the blackness boils away, as the incredible light pummels through, splitting the water of a filthy sea. The Druid’s face becomes a rictus of terror, his hands flashing so fast they blur, and still Merlin walks forward, burning further through the black with each stride.

The void dissolves with a mighty shriek and the world goes utterly silent.

For an eternity, Arthur can’t hear. His ears are stuffed with cotton, his own heart the only sound. It reminds him of a river, a beacon in darkness. He squeezes numb fingers and finds he is cradling the root through his belly in both hands.

He feels… not as he should. Arthur has been in shock before, from battle wounds, from infection, from utter cold. This is not the same. Where there should be pain, there is a pleasant heat, like the sun full on his face. The root is through him, slightly to the right of center, back to front and midway up his abdomen. His eyes tell him he should be dying, but he breathes and his heart beats. He’s thinking and reasoning, coherent, and maybe it isn’t all as bad as it seems.

Alright. If he can just hold still, not jar it and open a path for the blood to flow, there’s a chance that a healer with Gaius’s skill might be able to—

The world snaps to, sound bursting through the gauze. Merlin brings his hands together with a shredding of air: when they meet, the extraordinary blue light that Arthur has treasured for years in his dreams blasts forward. It swallows the Druid, who screams and screams, his clothing going up, then his hair and his skin. The trees and vines he’d bent to his whim shudder as one.

And then the Druid dies, and the root yanks free of Arthur with a squelch.

He tastes blood in the back of his throat, and something worse. He can’t stop the sway this time—there’s nothing to hold him up—and he throws out an arm to halt his fall. But maybe he didn’t at all because he hits the ground hard, jarring his elbow. Something deep and white within him blasts out from the center, until he can’t breathe, can’t think, imagines it must be pouring from his fingertips and toes.

He blinks, and he’s staring up at a star-studded sky.

The center of him has filled with ice where just before it was as hot as a blacksmith’s forge. He tries to breathe and can’t. Has to work at it for an endless minute, and then he drags air into his lungs and coughs it right back out. His belly clenches, heaves. Heat spatters his chin. He wipes at his face and his hand comes away bloody.

It’s gone into his stomach then.

“Arthur!”

He tries to rise, to get his arm under himself. The agony spears through his chest. Dropping back is even worse. Arthur hears a horrid noise and realizes he is the one making it. Hands land upon him, sliding down his face and coming to rest on his chest. Breathing is hard; little gasps that don’t expand his lungs into the realm of hot steel again.

“No, stay, stay still.” The hands sink lower, right into the cave of pain, and Arthur arches, screams. “Arthur.”

“Merlin,” he chokes. Sounds wet. His shirt is damp; he can guess well with what, feel it creeping across the small of his back, soaking the earth beneath him.

Merlin works his tunic open, splitting seams. Arthur knows the instant his wound is revealed. Merlin shakes like leaves in a breeze. His hands drop inch by inch, finally alighting on Arthur’s heaving torso.

“No,” Merlin whispers.

It breaks. Merlin throws his head back, raging at the sky as though calling dragons. Somehow, though, Arthur knows this fury is directed at the earth, the very roots and vines that rose up against Arthur, and he can hear the earth cringing away, cowering before Merlin’s incandescent wrath. At the same time, it brushes at Arthur’s skin, comforting touches, each heavy with regret.

How could you do this to him? Merlin roars without speaking. He is yours, how could you?

“Merlin.” It was not done willingly. Arthur knows. He could tell Merlin that the land did what it could. Kept him alive while the root was in his body. Soothed, eased. He knows it as though the woods is whispering to him. But the Druid was powerful, used blood magic, and the earth, the trees, they had to obey.

If Merlin had been there—He dismisses the thought.

“Enaid!” Merlin shouts. The word explodes across the clearing in a thunderclap, buffeting the trees as it passes. He curls over Arthur’s stomach, pressing both hands into the hole there. It feels like a maw. Arthur imagines it’s merely an inch or two in reality, a chunk torn out of him much like a sword wound. Always smaller than it feels.

Someone else thumps down to the earth beside him, but Arthur has eyes only for Merlin.

Merlin rattles off spell after spell, and Enaid shakes her head, adds some of her own, then tries to get his attention. Arthur can’t keep track of the words, just the growing frustration as Merlin skims his body over and over, attempting to stabilize him, losing against the sheer amount of damage done. A rivulet of blood trickles from Merlin’s nose. The cold pulls at Arthur’s legs, his arms, stretching inexorably toward the center of him.

Oh, god, it’s over. It’s come too soon. The unfairness of it is deeper than the hole in his body, grasping at him with bone-thin hands.

“Just—” He coughs. It shakes his belly back into fire. With a monstrous effort, he gets his breath back. Is he holding Merlin’s hand? He can’t feel. “Just glad you’re here.” At my end.

“No.” Merlin takes his face in both hands. “No, Arthur, look at me.”

“I am.” I always am. You can’t possibly know.

“Stay here,” Merlin rasps, “with me.”

He can’t. But he’ll try.

He fumbles for Merlin’s hand, and Merlin lets him, tangling their bloody fingers together and squeezing. His other hand roves unevenly over Arthur’s body. It takes Arthur a second to understand that Merlin has no aim in it, that maybe he can’t aim, that he might be...

He’s panicking.

“Merlin.” He’s steadily losing the breath he has left, but for this, for Merlin’s name, damn it, he’ll speak. With a coordination he’d thought long fled, he lifts Merlin’s fingers and presses his knuckles to his lips. He kisses again, again, shuddering breath and more blood over Merlin’s fingers, but if this is all he gets, the only kiss he’s fated to give this man, he’s taking it.

Merlin goes utterly still. It’s alright, Arthur wants to tell him, but he has nothing left. He’s thought before, during drills and runs and endless conditioning, during the throes of battle, that he’d reached this point, of not being able to take another step or draw another breath, but this crashes down into his gut like a bell plunging from a steeple. He knows.

He mouths Merlin’s name against his fingers.

Merlin’s eyes explode gold. He clenches Arthur’s hand hard enough to break bone, a radiant heat that carves through the pain for one blessed instant, then yanks his fingers from Arthur’s grasp. “Enaid.”

Her voice comes from somewhere near Arthur’s head. “Emrys—”

The tendons in Merlin’s neck throb. Now there is blood creeping from his ear toward his throat. “Again. Now.”

“It’s too soon,” she pleads. “Merlin, you’re not strong enough!”

“Please.”

A heartbeat, then Enaid’s hand darts forward to clasp Merlin’s. He places their hands flat on Arthur’s torso, and—and pushes.

It’s the only word what shoves into Arthur. He has the sense of everything stopping, and then the pain is a hundred thousand times worse—

**

He wakes once.

Enaid, above him. Her face lit bright. Her smile is pure ecstasy. Tears roll down her cheeks, and she laughs, gripping Merlin’s hand, heaving with an unspeakable joy that pours through her straight into Arthur’s body.

But Merlin…

Merlin glows so brightly Arthur can hardly make him out. Light streams from his eyes, his skin, raying over the clearing and up into the sky, washing the blood and the trees and the stars away. The air judders, great mountains grinding together.

And then—nothing.

Chapter Text

Arthur heaves a breath into his lungs, arching off the bed. Soft linens. Silver light and silence.

In an instant, a hand is in his. “Keep still. The magic, it... You’re still healing.”

That explains the silver light. Arthur gives it less than a second’s thought; Merlin is before him.

They are no longer outside. He’s in his chambers, the familiar smell of his bedclothes in his nostrils. He becomes aware of the fire roaring away on the hearth, throwing heat into the room. The curtain at the foot of his bed is drawn; he can’t tell what time of day or night it is.

Merlin rests on the mattress beside him, his hair falling over his eyes. His skin is pale, bathed in the light of his magic, and currents of it play like reflections off water, over Merlin and the rest of the room. Arthur raises a hand to Merlin’s face, and Merlin stills his plucking and smoothing of Arthur’s tunic: clean, Arthur notices absently. No blood anywhere. He strokes Merlin’s cheek, the heat at his temple, drunk on the sight and that for some undeserved reason he still gets to have it.

“Arthur?” Merlin’s own hand creeps up and covers his.

“I’m alive.”

“Yes.” Merlin’s eyes are tired, but so blue. As blue as the sky just before dawn, and still Arthur can sense that gold, hovering just beneath the surface.

“You’re magnificent.” It’s not description enough. This kind of magic defies belief. Obviously not nature; Arthur knows enough about it all to know it wouldn’t work otherwise. But he was dead, he felt it come for him. It slid through his body like a black river.

And Merlin—Merlin and Enaid—beat it back. Arthur swallows, pain and longing and resignation, all of it lodged deep in his heart, and then, in a quiet heartbeat, determines to let it go. “Finish it.”

Merlin’s brow creases.

“Go to her.” But don’t make me watch. Don’t let me witness the moment I lose you.

Merlin shakes his head. “Arthur, I don’t...”

Gods above and below, Merlin’s going to make him say it. And not through any sort of cruelty; Arthur can see that he truly doesn’t understand. No wonder, when his friend and king has been bleeding, dying, all over him. Distracting.

Still, he laces his fingers with Merlin’s, unable to keep from taking one last comfort. He’s due, is he not? A little bit? Arthur knows he would have been dead and beyond caring, but suddenly the thought of Merlin trying to save him and failing is terribly sad. Merlin would undoubtedly blame himself, even though what happened was no fault of his. Arthur presses Merlin’s hand to his mouth. Doesn’t dare kiss—he’s done enough of that. Just holds it there, savoring the warmth. And lets it go. “I saw what you did. I felt it. Merlin, you need this. Never have I seen you so...” So whole, so devastatingly beautiful. I wanted you more in that moment than I ever have. “Please. Finish the ritual, and get your due.”

If anyone deserves it, Merlin—who served in hiding, unrecognized and unlauded for years—does.

“And what exactly do you think is my due?” Merlin asks quietly.

“A full realization of your abilities.” He struggles to keep it clinical but it refuses to be so. Nothing about Merlin could be. “Your magic, celebrated and whole. As I have now seen it.”

This time Merlin holds Arthur’s hand to his face, laying his cheek against the back of it. “And how am I to get that?”

Tears prick his eyes. “Don’t make me say it, Merlin. Please.”

“Say what?”

“Wish you into...” It hurts. It’s the worst thing he’s ever done. “Into the arms of another.”

“I would never,” Merlin whispers, “could never.” And kisses the palm of Arthur’s hand.

It is not a chaste kiss. It is full of heat and meaning, a swearing of far more than fealty: of skin and sweat and delirious, insatiable fire. Arthur stares wordless. Merlin parts his lips against Arthur’s palm, baring damp heat. Merlin, his eyes tinged with gold, stares right back.

“You are Emrys.” He summons himself, to do his duty by Merlin first of all. “Your place—”

Merlin darts forward, his hands cradling Arthur’s face before he can give it further voice. “I could never leave you,” he utters, “never. You are everything. You are the reason for me.”

Arthur shakes his head, disbelieving. “What can I possibly give you?”

Merlin blinks. His eyes rove Arthur’s face, and an alarming devastation grows in them with each pass. “Arthur.” More a benediction than a name. “You don’t understand.”

“I saw.” It croaks from Arthur’s throat. “I saw her face.” The purest happiness. Arthur’s own yearning for Merlin writ large over another’s features.

“Because she finally felt it,” Merlin breathes against his skin. “My magic at its greatest height, capable of anything and everything. She understood at last why it will never bind properly with hers. It’s already bound to someone else.”

“But.” Magic binds to magic. He knows, to his detriment, more about this ritual than he ever desired. It doesn’t keep his voice from quaking. “I have no magic.”

Merlin’s eyes squeeze shut. He presses his face back to Arthur’s palm. Arthur has never been held like this. “If you think that, Arthur Pendragon, then I have failed you unforgivably.”

Arthur can’t wait anymore. He lifts off the bed, and it pulls at his abdomen, it smarts but it’s nothing to fisting his hand in Merlin’s tunic, to tugging him down, to fitting his mouth at last to the mouth he’s dreamt of for years. Merlin looses a broken sound and seizes Arthur, thrusting his chin up into the kiss and laying waste to Arthur’s thoughts. Merlin is warm, tastes of salt and the remnants of a magic Arthur will always know: pungent in his nostrils and down his throat, threading his veins. Beating in his heart.

Three devastating seconds, and Merlin urges Arthur away.

“No,” he rasps, “no. Gods, not yet.” His hand skates down even as he gulps for air, to Arthur’s stomach, right over the place he’d been run through.

“Merlin,” Arthur tries.

Merlin cajoles Arthur back down to the bed and presses his forehead to Arthur’s there. Together they breathe in unsteady silence.

When Merlin kisses him this time, it’s shy and pained, and so very careful.

“You can’t,” Merlin whispers, “not yet.” He brushes Arthur’s cheek. “I would do no harm to you, not ever.”

The scent of Merlin’s sweat is faint but comforting, exertion long since dried on his skin. So close like this, he fills all of Arthur’s senses. Arthur imagines Merlin flowing through him, fingertips to toes.

“You will stay?” He asks for so much more than the here and now.

Merlin cradles Arthur’s head, weaves his fingers into Arthur’s hair. Presses lips against his forehead for several seconds and huffs gently over his skin. “Yes. Sleep.”

**

When he wakes again, he has curled around Merlin: on his side with his knees tucked halfway up and his forehead resting against Merlin’s temple. Merlin is on his back, his legs thrown over the bend in Arthur’s, and he breathes as steadily as a heartbeat, in, out, in, out. The fit is that of light to day, of salt to sea.

Arthur has no idea what time it is. He feels no compunction to move; he has the foggy sense that if he did, he would upset a cocoon of heat and stillness, and he would never, not if he tried for the rest of his days, get it back again.

Light steals into the chamber. The sun is rising, pink sneaking around the curtains’ edges. The fire on his hearth roars merrily. Magic, then. Even asleep, Merlin’s presence fills the room, wrapped around Arthur in the bedding, cradling him with softest down in his mattress, slinking over Arthur’s skin like fingers.

He has looked at Merlin before. Of course he has; for far too long and with no reasonable excuse. But he has never seen Merlin asleep at his side, breathing and dreaming with the heat from his body creeping into Arthur, lulling him away from the daylight. Merlin’s hair lies loose over his forehead, so dark against pale skin. His eyelashes are long and sooty, and look soft enough to touch. Arthur trails his eyes over Merlin’s face, finally able to take his fill: angles and hollows and, and memory, no matter where Arthur looks. The first time he saw Merlin, he was younger, smoother, as fey as the Sidhe. Now there are faint lines round his mouth and eyes, an age Arthur has allowed to steal up behind them both. Each one marks a wealth of years that, as trying as they were, Arthur would never give up. Pain and regret and wisdom: he wants Merlin just as he is.

The scent of Merlin is something else.

Arthur presses his nose to the top of Merlin’s head and inhales, intent upon drawing more of his companion into his lungs, fully saturating his body. Green grass, and sun-hot earth. Nighttime flowers and the indigo murmur of water. He’d always thought it was the magic he smelled on Merlin, but now… Now he thinks the line between is far thinner.

Merlin stirs: his spine, arcing in sleep; his legs, drifting down off Arthur’s knee as he stretches. Arthur imagines feet straining, toes curling against the bedclothes. Merlin exhales, a lengthy sigh through his nose as his body goes loose again. He sags back into sleep. Back into Arthur’s arms.

But Arthur knows, for him at least, that sleep has fled. Whatever pain he felt before is gone. He stretches his own back, testing. Everything is whole; not a part of him twinges.

Merlin’s face is still disturbingly sallow though, darkness gathered under his eyes. An excessive heat prickles at Arthur’s skin. He sleeps as though on the edge of a fever. Arthur traces a finger across Merlin’s brow, feels the dryness of his skin.

He eases his arm out from under Merlin’s shoulders and gets up from the bed, the world as slow as a dream around him. Early warmth beats through the windows; though the drapes are mostly drawn, shafts of gold fall through onto the carpet, filigreed with drifting motes. He finds his trousers and tugs them up over his hips on his way to the window to look out, and then a spear of light catches him across the chest and he stands stone still within it.

He examines his abdomen in the milky light. The wound looks years old: a shiny flower of too pink flesh rising just under his last rib, the size of a small apple. It’s tender to the touch, but no longer hurts. Arthur prods at it carefully, finding his way over this new change in his body. His back will look much the same, he’s certain: a matching bloom where the root entered, likely edged by lines and divots from splintered wood.

What Merlin has done… should not be. Arthur watches his friend in the pinkish light, his skin warm and flushed with sleep. It’s on the tip of his tongue, the need to ask. But Merlin is here, alive and breathing, and Arthur is afraid to know.

Merlin was not well, still weak from resurrecting Lancelot. Even at his full strength—but has Arthur any idea of Merlin’s full strength? After what he has witnessed, he questions everything. Regardless, Merlin needed Enaid. He could not have done this alone.

Arthur thinks of his father, the price his mother paid, and knows there was a balance exacted.

But it is hard, even with such dour weight upon his shoulders, to not look out and enjoy the sunrise. Something in him had given up on that, too, perhaps when the root first penetrated his body. When he knew, for certain, that his doom had been sealed. Seeing fingers of gold and red and bronze leak over the horizon raises heat behind Arthur’s eyes and clenches the back of his throat. He touches the window glass, still cold from the night, and swallows as best he can.

He is alive. He exhales, shuts his eyes and rolls his shoulders. Listens to his own breathing. Presses the flesh of his breast and counts the beats of his heart. And then the atmosphere of the room shifts.

He—feels Merlin wake.

It’s the most peculiar quickening up his spine. Almost on their own, his eyes seek the bed and the shadows gathered there as Merlin twists, restless under the blankets. Merlin blinks his eyes open, and then the quickening is in Arthur’s head, a breathless rush. Merlin’s hand shoots across the sheets to the spot Arthur left. He lurches upward in the same motion.

In a single stride, Arthur is at the bedside, seizing Merlin’s forearm just at the inside of his elbow. Merlin’s hand locks round his arm immediately, a clasp like a handshake, except that Merlin’s fingers are trembling.

“It’s alright,” Arthur soothes. The first voice to sound in this room on this morning. He finds he has bent over the bed, his hand gliding up and down Merlin’s exposed side. Up. Down.

Merlin sucks in a breath. His fingers flex round Arthur’s arm.

“Sorry,” Merlin says, throaty. Still coming out of sleep. Arthur’s heart slows; he hadn’t realized it had sped.

Arthur says nothing, only runs his hand up the side of Merlin’s face until he threads into dark hair. He cups Merlin’s jaw, splays his little finger the span of Merlin’s neck. Rubs the corner of Merlin’s mouth with his thumb.

“Are you well?” Merlin’s voice is quiet, blending perfectly into the stillness of the room. Arthur nods, but Merlin’s brow does not smooth until he opens his mouth and speaks.

“I feel myself again.”

Merlin nods. His eyes drop to the bedclothes between them. His shirt lies open, framing his chest, still half tucked into his breeches. The indecency of it both imprints and passes by; Arthur has the sense that he has seen inside Merlin already, out in that orchard with all the magic in the land pumping through them both. Merlin’s underclothes, his body, are mere facets of the whole now.

And yet.

“Merlin.” He pulls away, then brushes Merlin’s face again, half-amazed that he can. “What have you done?”

He doesn’t have to explain. Merlin’s thumb ghosts the length of his forearm. “Brought you back to me.”

At what cost? Arthur struggles, but he must. He cannot have another’s death earning him a right to life. “Enaid—”

“She is well.” Merlin sits up fully, returning Arthur’s caress with one of his own. He touches Arthur like… Arthur has never been touched by anyone in this way before. “Wary, of me. Like all the rest. But well.”

“And the others?” Leon, Gwen. Oh gods, Merlin himself.

Merlin kisses Arthur’s lips, stopping the thought. “No one has paid for this, Arthur. I swear to you. All you love is unharmed.”

Then there is still a toll somewhere. But looking into Merlin’s eyes, Arthur believes him. Merlin strokes his face, his hair. “I’ll show you,” he says, answering Arthur’s unspoken question. “One day, I’ll show you how this came to be.”

But not today.

Arthur summons what must still be said. “Thank you. For my life.” For everything, really. But Merlin is already shaking his head.

“Don’t thank me for this.” His hand tracks over Arthur’s arm, up to his shoulder and back down, sliding inward toward his chest. “I did it as much for myself as for you.”

Arthur takes his face in both hands and kisses him for that, because thanks are necessary, but not for his life. What Merlin gave Arthur, what Arthur considers the true, overwhelming gift he cannot possibly deserve, was a chance at him.

Merlin goes utterly still, and then his hands creep to Arthur’s face, shaking as they touch down. Arthur cradles Merlin, reaches further, tastes of Merlin what Merlin will allow.

And then Merlin shifts, and he is suddenly all movement, tilting Arthur’s head, returning touch for touch and stroke for stroke. A moan slips between them, a fraught little sound that tears at Arthur’s heart for all that is contained within it. Merlin doesn’t kiss him; he lavishes him, he envelops him. He presses into Arthur, arched back and warm chest, and his mouth… his lips tremble against Arthur’s when at last they part.

Arthur takes a moment to just stare.

“Merlin, I had no idea.” Everything is easier to say now. And yet he only has the tip of an island jutting through the water. Something inside him knows it.

Merlin doesn’t look at him. He takes up Arthur’s hand, fiddles with his fingers, and doesn’t look.

“I tried.” Merlin sighs. “To do this thing they all wanted. You were safe, and, I thought, happy. I tried to care for her the way… that I was meant to.”

But he couldn’t. Arthur recognizes it now, where it was not at all plain before. All the mixing and melding of magic. The testing. It was so Merlin could have time to think, and to teach himself to feel.

“All I wanted was to be by your side,” Merlin says quietly. “For a long, long time, that was enough. But then it wasn’t anymore.” He mouths Arthur’s knuckles, warm breath, warmer lips. “It wasn’t.”

Simple. Nevertheless, the perfect description of the tangle in Arthur’s heart. He cannot believe that this is being given to him after so long.

“Show me.” A directive? A plea? Arthur doesn’t know.

Merlin gives a great shudder, so great that Arthur catches him at the shoulders and draws him in. “Merlin,” he murmurs, brushing his nose to Merlin’s temple.

“I’m sorry,” Merlin says immediately. His hands climb Arthur’s sides. It’s almost as though, after all they are and have ever been to each other, he’s afraid to touch. “I never thought I’d hear you ask for this.”

Arthur presses his nose firmly to Merlin’s skin. Inhales. Thinks of all the years, the layer upon layer of friendship and respect and trust. He pushes Merlin back enough, makes sure their gazes meet. He imagines he can taste the magic slipping over his tongue. “Show me?”

This time it’s definitely a plea. And Merlin answers: he moves slowly at first, tugging his shirt collar wider, then faster, faster—dragging the garment off over his head. He’s thin, fragile, beautiful like Gwen never was to Arthur, he’s ashamed to even think it, but it’s the truth and he’s done lying to himself. He wants Merlin to slow down, let him look, but there’s not enough to see, even when Merlin’s torso is bare to the world. Merlin’s hands drop to his laces, then pause.

He reaches for Arthur’s instead.

Arthur pushes to his knees, arcing his hips into Merlin’s hands. Suddenly it’s not enough to see; he must feel and… and know. It makes frustratingly little sense to him, and his heartbeat quickens again, aware of how close he is to everything he’s ever wanted and yet unable to find it, to get to it. Merlin’s hand settles at his bare waist, fingers splayed wide, and something pushes into him, all silver and shuddering.

Arthur gasps, drops back. Merlin knees closer, touching Arthur’s face, dropping his chin until he can meet Arthur’s eyes.

“Arthur?” he murmurs. Kisses the slope of Arthur’s nose. “Look at me. It’s just the magic.”

“I’ve felt your magic,” Arthur manages, and Merlin stills him, both hands on his face.

“Not like this. Not like I’ve wanted for—” a breath, another glancing kiss “—so long—”

Arthur drags him in, onto his lap until Merlin leans over him, until their mouths are one hot, dizzy mess, until the magic washes down upon him, pulse after glorious pulse.

Whatever wall Merlin has been holding up, he lets go. Arthur falls back, falls in, lush blankets beneath him and limitless power above.

Of course he has imagined what Merlin would look like during sex. Merlin every day is heat and life, a barrage of unbridled emotion that swings out to curtail Arthur’s more rash impulses, herding him back onto the course with nudges, shoves, and a maddening absence of apology. Merlin infuriates, drives Arthur as mad as he drives him to do good, until it is all Arthur can do not to lash back, to take his penance out of Merlin’s fiery heart. In Arthur’s mind, Merlin is at times synonymous with passion, as naked in body as he is in soul, lifting above Arthur only to thrust him down, push in and take Arthur apart.

But all his imaginings are dim and slight compared to this, to Merlin’s bare flesh under his hands. Merlin’s palms press unyielding on Arthur’s chest, bearing him down on his back into the blankets, and he curls over Arthur to touch their lips, trails his mouth down Arthur’s chin, dips into the hollow of his throat. Arthur chases his mouth; he can’t stop, suddenly can’t bear to let Merlin get any farther away from him than this. Everything about Merlin pulls at him: Arthur’s fingers trip up Merlin’s body, lingering at his ribs as they expand, pausing at the intense, dusky heat of a nipple, reading the heartbeat drumming in Merlin’s chest. He pushes up, kisses that thrum, then presses openmouthed round that nipple, breathing, then licking there until Merlin shoves him back. He takes Arthur’s mouth before Arthur can protest, a full-bodied kiss as he arches into Arthur, presses the full length of his front to Arthur’s. Arthur groans, slides his hands down to Merlin’s arse, works beneath the loose line of Merlin’s trousers and clutches, desperate to hold.

“S’alright,” Merlin whispers against his lips. He backs up, just enough to shimmy out of the rest of his clothing. “You have me. You will always have me.”

It’s as well an incantation; heat piles into Arthur’s belly and threatens to burst out between his ribs. It’s too much. He’s drowning, he can’t contain all of this, this… feeling, for Merlin, for one man. How can such love exist? How can it share space with the rest of him, with any of this world? He doesn’t realize he’s mumbling it aloud until Merlin clasps Arthur’s head to his breast and rocks him, the heat of his cheek pressed to Arthur’s brow and the pulse in his throat thumping a hairsbreadth from Arthur’s nose.

Merlin is beautiful. Thin and wiry and firm. Stark. Severe. A hundred other words. The same color hair as that on his head trails off-center down his belly and gathers at his groin, darkens the tops of his thighs. Arthur kneads the muscles there, ensnared by the rigid tendons that refuse to give beneath his fingers. He hooks his hands under Merlin’s thighs, finding softer flesh, and Merlin’s head knocks back at the touch. He sucks in a hiss, baring his throat to the firelight. Arthur nuzzles into it, tastes the ripple as Merlin swallows.

He’s not close enough, Merlin is naked and Arthur is not, and he no sooner thinks it than Merlin whispers a word, rocks against Arthur, and—Arthur groans at cool air suddenly against his legs, at no explanation for any of it, a thousand thoughts caroming through his brain, how, how, what spell and where learned, and gods on high, “What else can you do?” he hisses into the kiss. It’s a wonder Merlin can understand him, their mouths mashed together like this, but he feels the smile, opens his eyes and witnesses the guileless joy on Merlin’s face.

It stops him. “You’ve never. Never looked like this, Merlin.”

He knows the answer almost before Merlin says it. “Well, I’ve never had you.”

A tight coil blows apart under Arthur’s lungs, jolting at his ribs. He struggles to breathe, and then Merlin whispers another word, low and full of honey. He turns his face to the ceiling, eyes rolling up, lashes fluttering, and Arthur can see his hands, they’re in plain view, but he knows. He clutches Merlin close at the hips, feels him shudder and knows what Merlin’s doing to himself with his magic, and why.

At last, Merlin reaches behind and takes Arthur’s length in hand. His fingers slip up once, then down, making Arthur’s belly seize, his back arch. Magic tingles over him in the most intimate of places. Merlin tenses, then sinks down onto Arthur, taking his length into his body, slick and tight and unbearably hot inside, and it’s all Arthur can do to ride the onslaught. Somehow he’s silent, gritting his teeth, gripping at Merlin’s hips, then digging his thumbs into the humid hollows at Merlin’s pelvis. He hears Merlin’s breath leave him, feels their bodies finally meet, and can’t keep from twitching up.

“Merlin,” he whispers, sorry, but Merlin just swipes a thumb across Arthur’s lips, exhaling again and sitting back. His face is a blissful rictus, mouth half open and eyes squeezed shut, face lifted to the ceiling.

Arthur is beyond grateful for the stillness. If he moves now, he’s done for. He could never keep it back, not with Merlin vibrating around him, each heavy breath hitching down into where their bodies join and dragging Arthur’s control from him tendril by tendril. Merlin licks his lips, goes rigid. Sweat beads his brow. He drops forward, slow like syrup, until his forehead lands on Arthur’s chest. Arthur blinks at the bed curtains above, desperate not to give in.

“Alright,” Merlin slurs. His hand crawls unseeingly over Arthur’s chin, fingers bumping across his mouth to finally settle, cupped at Arthur’s jaw. “Alright?”

Arthur nods, and Merlin—god, Merlin rises into the light again.

He begins to speak: long, tangled words that Arthur has never heard before. Never studied this language, and yet he knows them all. He realizes he understands because Merlin does, because they are connected, and his heart gives a great shake in his chest.

The long muscles of Merlin’s thighs work as he lifts, then sinks. All heat. All fire inside, overwhelming Arthur with the barest shift of his hips. He pulls Arthur’s hand up and presses it flat to his chest. His skin is damp, his throat runs with sweat. His head drops back, and his eyes flicker, burnished copper as they slide shut.

Arthur sees gold.

Great swathes of grain waving in sunlight, heat throbbing from summer-baked earth, a harvest moon glowing like an ember. His eyes flood, and every cranny of him fills with a sweet, generous warmth, a yearning so perfect and so desperate that Arthur can’t help but cry out with it.

“It’s you,” Merlin gasps above him. His fingers clench round Arthur’s. “This is what I see in you. What my magic reaches for every second of every day.” He tips forward again. Their hands are aglow in Merlin’s shining gold, the light seething between their fingers. His eyes are dark and fogged, impossible to look away from. “Arthur, don’t you see?” he forces out, rolling their hips together, driving down onto Arthur with excruciating resolve, and then his voice breaks. “It’s you.”

It cannot be him. Something this lovely, this… this… Perfect. The word flies into his head and Arthur knows it is not his, but Merlin’s. “No,” Arthur grits out, overcome as Merlin clenches deliberately around him. His head falls back onto the bedding; his shoulders arch, a shiver nearly taking his words. “I’m not—”

“You are,” Merlin says, suddenly against his mouth, kissing at Arthur’s lips. “I have loved… everything that is you. For years, Arthur—”

Arthur heaves upright, tugging Merlin to him at the hooks of his hips. Merlin goes completely stiff, his thighs squeezing round Arthur’s sides. Arthur takes the instant of distraction and lifts Merlin, resettles him with a purposeful grip, and when Merlin curls forward, keening into Arthur’s shoulder, Arthur angles up, flexes his hips, thrusts tightly into him.

Merlin’s teeth clamp into his shoulder. “Arthur,” he rasps, the last half of his name on an inhale. Merlin’s eyes slide shut; his head drops back. Arthur mouths his throat, wondering, watching the strain in the tendons there, the blood climbing into Merlin’s cheeks.

A second later, or maybe a minute—maybe an hour, gods above, what is happening to him?—Merlin scrabbles back, pushes Arthur to lie flat again, and rises above him like a phoenix unfurling its wings. The air bursts with heat, and yet Arthur is warm and cossetted, safe. Not safe, his mind implores, nothing like safe! Merlin is awash in magic. It floods down like snowmelt from the mountains, whipping and frothing around Arthur, spurring him higher and higher. It’s euphoric. He clutches Merlin’s hips, his legs, anything to ground himself.

Merlin lifts up, straight-backed, his fingers sliding over Arthur’s chest. Ten fierce points of heat. “You want to know what I feel for you?”

Arthur hauls in a breath, straining upward. He can’t contain this, can’t handle it, there’s too much of Merlin to see and touch. To answer that question would fracture his heart into shards.

Merlin places his palm flat in the small of Arthur’s pelvis, just above where their bodies meet, and—and—Arthur gasps, Merlin’s eyes flare, and heat—He can’t speak. He can’t do anything but writhe in a stupor as Merlin’s magic bleeds into the core of him. Sweat stings his eyes, flavors his lips. Merlin’s fingers glide beneath his brows, wiping it away.

“Arthur?” Nearly a whisper.

Arthur shudders out a yes.

And then—

Then.

If Arthur had to give it a name, a sound, a blasted color, he knows he could never choose. It is all, everything, every sensation that has ever tripped over his skin or tantalized his tongue or dug into his belly, all the knowledge he ever learned and forgot, at once in a blink. He sees himself: a laughing flaxen haired child; a strong and supple youth; a stern, graying man; a wizened and withered lord, and always, always, grace surrounds him, a long-cherished mantle of sunlight and glory and peace.

“Emrys.”

The pain is exquisite and it will never, ever end.

“I’ll love you till the stars die in the sky.” Merlin’s voice trembles like an aspen in the wind. Until time itself ends. Until there is nothing left of me but you.

Arthur drags Merlin down to him, clenches a hand round a nape hot with sweat. Merlin cleaves to him. Licks into him. Arthur kisses him, for that is what it must be called, but it is a poor word, a human word, for what is the shaking of the very world.

“You are everything to me,” Arthur tries. “I would spit myself on the roots of magic itself to get to you—”

Merlin stutters a wealth of grief against Arthur’s lips. It explodes in his head, the twisting of orchard roots and the creaking of ancient wood through dearly adored flesh: Never again. I’ll never let it happen again.

It’s a promise even Merlin cannot make. Arthur knows just as surely that Merlin will try.

He takes Merlin’s face, firm enough to hold him still. “I would, Merlin,” he whispers. Vows. To save Merlin, Arthur would gift his soul to the demon himself.

For an instant, Merlin looks as fragile as a spider’s web. All the fear is there, the sorrow and the desperation. Arthur feels an emptiness that is not his own shove into him, the hole that Arthur would leave if he died. It’s horrible, to have hurt Merlin like that even if it was done unintentionally. Arthur can do nothing else: he must drive it out.

He wraps an arm around Merlin, arches up and flips them, pressing Merlin into the sheets. Merlin hisses, mouth dropping open. His face contorts as Arthur drives into him, hooks Merlin’s knee over his arm, Merlin’s other leg tight round his side, pushes so deeply and doesn’t withdraw, just thrusts there again and again, working himself into Merlin as Merlin has worked himself into Arthur. Merlin’s gasps are winded, halfway to words. His hand skates Arthur’s face from crown to clavicle, leaving embers in its wake, and Arthur hitches him even closer, presses their chests together as best he can. Breathes endearments between parted, panting lips.

“I love you,” he says. Feels, with all his heart. “Merlin, I love you.”

He has no magic. But he feels it when it takes. It grips him full-bodied, tight and fierce, the inferno of Merlin’s magic spiraling home. Arthur gasps and seizes, drunk on it as Merlin folds into him, as he himself expands outward. Something inside rouses with a heady rumble, too massive for any mortal, but Merlin is there, kissing into his mouth and hushing the thunder. Dragging Arthur into him where he will always be safe.

Arthur trusts, and lets go.

It sings, a plucked string humming from heart to heart. Merlin’s eyes open, the most wonderful gold, melted and lush and full of the sun’s heat. “S’you,” Merlin slurs, maybe against Arthur’s lips, maybe against Arthur’s mind, but the point is—

The point is—

Arthur sees himself, his true self, at last.

**

He can never be parted from this. He can never sicken, or die, because to lose this—to lose Merlin—would be to cease altogether.

It’s a bit much to take. Arthur tries, steadying his breathing, feeling the thump of his own heart. The thump of Merlin’s. Not against his chest where they press together, but in his veins alongside his own blood.

They’ve bound, to each other. Emrys to his chosen. Arthur’s skin is alive, tingling bright with magic, and it’s not just Merlin’s. He makes himself see it for what it is, dismisses the contrition as it forms and just… looks at it.

His magic, very different from Merlin’s.

Could he truly have given Merlin up to Enaid? To anyone? Yes, undoubtedly so. He knows now that it would have been the beginning of the end for him, though, a creeping collapse that would have dogged him until it finally finished him. Years later, whether in his bed or on the field of battle, it is this loss that would have truly stilled his hands and finally, his heart.

Merlin’s arms tighten. “Don’t. Please don’t.”

“Can you hear my thoughts?” Arthur asks, marveling.

Merlin nods. He turns his face into Arthur’s chest as though trying to get closer to his beating heart.

Arthur drops his nose into Merlin’s hair and whispers an apology there. The day has gone again. They lie quiet, watching moonlight stretch the shadows over the floor, Arthur trailing his fingers up and down the knobs of Merlin’s spine. Merlin finally stirs, but only to lift a hand, to brush reverently at Arthur’s temple.

“You want to know what I think?”

“Always,” Arthur says.

Merlin’s fingers drift until they rest against Arthur’s lip. “I think your magic called me into being.”

I think you were born, and something in you summoned me up, to always be with you. So you would never be alone.

Chapter Text

The morning comes, and with it, a novel sense of serenity. There’s nowhere that Arthur needs to be and nothing he needs to do.

Logically, he knows that’s not true; if nothing else, there are people he cares about who need reassurance that he’s not dead. But with Merlin naked in his arms and their shared heat beneath the blankets, it’s a simple thing to let all the rest keep.

He kisses Merlin awake, over mouth and nose and cheek. Merlin shivers, a lazy stretch that could tumble easily into something else hot and dark and full: Merlin’s greeting huffs half formed over Arthur’s mouth, hovering on that very rim. Arthur runs his hands down Merlin’s sides and back up again.

Merlin’s mouth tracks down over Arthur’s sternum, across the muscle, then against his ribs. At Arthur’s side, Merlin pauses. He presses his forehead just over where Arthur knows the scar to be. For a long moment, Merlin doesn’t move, his breathing rough against Arthur’s flesh.

Arthur’s throat closes. He winds a hand into Merlin’s hair in lieu of words and blinks at the ceiling.

“Thank you.”

He looks down. “For what?”

“Coming back to me.”

Arthur just shakes his head and carries on combing his fingers through Merlin’s hair. That’s an unnecessary gratitude if there ever was one; he could do nothing else but come back to Merlin.

Tapping sounds at the glass. Merlin struggles up onto one elbow and wiggles his fingers at the window. It creaks open and Anarawd sails in, pinions fully splayed. He sets down gracefully on the bed—on Arthur’s knee, actually, atop a swiftly thrown fur—and sidles up Arthur’s thigh, keen eyes fixed upon him. Arthur fights the urge to draw the sheets around himself and cover everything up.

“Good morning?” Merlin offers, showing no such discomfort.

Anarawd looks between them, Arthur first, then Merlin. He ruffles his feathers, then snakes his head forward and nips Merlin on the thumb. Merlin snatches his hand away.

“Ow,” he says, sullen, and curls his fingers into a fist. Mutters, “I know.”

Arthur runs his hand down Merlin’s back, liking the heat, the moles and the scars, everything. The question, so difficult to find before all of this, comes easily now. “What did he ask you?”

Merlin peers back over his shoulder, his eyes heavy lidded. But even as he answers, Arthur hears it, not from Merlin at all, but from Anarawd. They’re not words, as such. It’s sight and sound, a feeling flooding all at once into every nook and cranny.

“He says I took too long with you. I should have done this sooner.”

Arthur cinches his grip at Merlin’s elbow, pulling Merlin inexorably down atop him again. Anarawd lifts off with a mild rebuke, but Arthur is no longer paying attention. “You should have,” he murmurs against Merlin’s lips, a kiss and a breath. Merlin’s nose bumps over his, and Arthur sighs. “But so should I have done.”

After a moment’s silence, “…and we can’t stay here forever.”

Merlin exhales into Arthur’s throat, burying his face. Arthur swallows, knowing he’ll feel it.

Arthur has no idea what to expect from the Druids. They must all have felt the magic; they will know exactly what has occurred. What will they make of it, of him, when they have brought their best and brightest to match with Emrys, only to have him stolen away in the end?

“Arthur.” Merlin sits up. He touches his lips to Arthur’s shoulder. “What has happened was meant to happen. Doesn’t matter what they think. It’s what I want.”

The worst part is that Arthur doesn’t even have to say it aloud anymore for Merlin to hear his dissent. He squeezes Merlin’s hand in apology for wayward thoughts and brushes a kiss over his knuckles. Merlin’s magic hums out to meet him, even in this small touch so much more potent than everything else. “Out of everyone here,” Arthur says, “I think I deserve you the least.”

“Arthur, do you not see what you are?” Merlin grips his hands and stares down at them as though the proof will be there lying in Arthur’s palms. “You are the king of thousands. Trouble to your people is a wound cut into your own side. You are the first to sacrifice, and when you do, you—” Merlin draws the rest back in visibly, but the thought rings louder than any spoken word could: you very nearly give it all. “You are the best of us.”

“No, Merlin.” Will Merlin never see his own light shining out, never recognize his own worth? “Beside you, and beside these people, I am near powerless.” He thinks it with force this time, frustrated into making Merlin hear him for once: I would have died in that orchard if not for you and Enaid.

Merlin flicks his fingers irritably, sending showers of sparks through the air. “So you don’t have this sort of magic. That’s why you are the best of us. Against impossible odds, you still stand, and you refuse to move, and yet you also steadfastly refuse to believe that someone could love you as you deserve.”

Arthur shakes his head, at a loss. “I’m just a man, Merlin.”

Merlin slides closer. “You have never been ‘just’ anything, Arthur Pendragon.”

**

Eventually they get up. Eventually.

Merlin dresses him attentively, almost reverent. His hands slide down Arthur’s arms, smoothing his shirt over his chest and lingering at his waist. He buttons and clasps, brushes and adjusts. He truly knows Arthur in his entirety now, but Arthur is struck by the understanding that Merlin has known his body for ages: how his clothing settles over it, the way he stands, the precise fit of everything in order to make Arthur look the best that he can. Arthur observes in silence as Merlin works, and takes what kisses he can get away with, relishing the moments he can make Merlin pause, lean in. Clutch.

When Merlin takes up his crown, Arthur shakes his head. “I don’t need that.”

Merlin studies his face. “Let me, please. Today, let me.”

Arthur looks him in the eye and, after a moment, acquiesces.

And when Merlin places the crown upon his head, it is different, as though he has been crowned anew with more weight and more light. Arthur feels more a king this morning than he ever did under Geoffrey’s stoic stare or amidst the pomp and circumstance of his coronation. The trilling heat that has dogged him since Merlin’s first kiss drains down through his feet into the floor, probably all the way into the earth far below, then beats immediately back up, the heady pulse of Albion. “Merlin,” he whispers.

Merlin meets his mouth again, and for several seconds, there is no further talk.

“Go,” Merlin breathes at last, ducking his head and patting Arthur’s chest. “Other people need you.”

Arthur smiles. “Much as you hate to admit it.”

Merlin’s responding embrace is perhaps too firm, too tight, to be a joke.

Arthur kisses his hand—gods, he could do that day in and day out for the rest of his life and not tire of it—then exits his room for the first time since his injury.

The hallway is, for the most part, empty: at the turn in the corridor, Lancelot comes up off the wall with a jolt, turning toward them. He looks frayed around the edges, but alert. He takes Arthur’s measure, and his shoulders lift and sink once; he turns to someone out of sight: “Go, he’s awake.”

The servant—for it must be a servant—scampers off, and Arthur approaches his oft-mourned knight.

“Sire.” Lancelot takes Arthur’s arms. Squeezes, and doesn’t let go. “I feared I’d returned only to lose you.”

“You know Merlin would never allow that.” He’s only partly jesting, and from the age in Lancelot’s dark eyes, he knows it too.

A rush of steps heralds Gwen, rounding the next corner fast enough to skid. Before he can blink, she has hold of Arthur. Her cheek presses to his; Arthur hugs her back as tightly as he can, shuts his eyes and inhales the scent of her. She’s wearing trousers and furs, the smell of bonfire smoke and the chilly morning air clinging to her hair.

“Thank god,” she huffs into his ear. She strokes his hair, his back, grips his nape, presses her forehead to his. There is so much movement in her. “Oh, thank the gods, Arthur.”

He murmurs nonsense at her, the meaning lost somewhere in his throat. When she lets go at last, it is only to turn on Merlin and tug him in instead. “Merlin, I don’t know how to—For both of them, I can’t even begin to—”

“You know there’s no need,” Merlin says.

Gwen’s face is wet with tears, but her smile is real.

And then there is Leon, Elyan and Percival, Gaius and Tristan. They gape at him as though they hardly recognize him at first, but there is no fear in their approach. Rather, Arthur feels as though they are drawn in, pulled toward him. They rub his arms wonderingly, they stare at his chest and then his face as though they haven’t enough eyes to see, they pull him close as they have rarely done, and they hold their embraces far longer. Arthur is befuddled by it, but oddly charmed.

It is Gwaine, of course, who finally gives it voice. He arrives behind the rest, and when he sees Arthur, he lets out a cheerful guffaw. “My god, what have you done?” He claps his hands together, then stretches them out, looking Arthur up and down like a prize stallion, and Arthur knows something more than his appearance has changed. Gwaine takes Arthur by the elbows and gives him an affectionate shake. “Oh, princess, look at you. None would dare stand against you now.”

As always, Gwaine’s joy is infectious: the others laugh and nod as though their friend has found all the explanation they could not. Arthur seeks Merlin, but Merlin’s expression is dark at the edges, and troubled. He keeps whatever thoughts he entertains to whispers, however, and Arthur cannot hear.

Later, then. Arthur will have it out of him.

“Arthur,” Gwen says, taking his hand and falling into step beside him. “You must see the Druids. They’ve been holding vigil, up until yesterday morning. That’s the only reason we’re as calm as we are; they said there was no longer anything to fear. But they have been waiting for you, and it’s… Well, you must come.”

“Let the man eat something,” Gwaine mutters behind them, but Arthur shakes his head.

“No, it’ll wait. My duty—”

“Is to my people, yes, we know.” Arthur can hear the grin behind Gwaine’s words, and the cuff Leon aims across the back of Gwaine’s head.

The castle staff are subdued, bowing and curtseying as he—as all of them pass. But they have always been respectful, and Arthur can feel the tension compounding the closer he gets to the doors. The mass sense of people outside hums around his periphery, building with each stride. They are Druids, and they have Merlin; Arthur will need no announcement. Still, he pauses just inside, his palm flat to the door, and leans his forehead against the solid wood.

Inhales.

A hand snakes into his. Merlin’s. Arthur squeezes back, then opens the door.

Whatever movement there was goes utterly still. The courtyard, filled to brim with people, is as silent as a grave, Druids and Camelotians alike. The magnificent tree in the middle waves in a clean breeze, tossing shadows and sunlight over face after face, and all eyes—all—have lifted to him.

Arthur swallows.

They line the steps, pushed right up to the threshold, and yet he does not feel confined as he steps out among them, wary suddenly of his crown and the finery in which Merlin so readily dressed him. The onlookers fold away from him as a tide parts round a rock, heads ducking as he passes. He turns, transfixed, a full circle to take in the sight. Merlin is a little way behind, placid in the simple gray he donned in Arthur’s chambers. His hands are folded before him, and he exudes an aura that twines round Arthur. It is strong, it’s all Arthur can feel, but… none of these people have spared an eye for Merlin. They stare as innocently as babes, their mouths half open.

He hears it, a whisper almost as of the wind: “High King... High King.”

High King? Not he, surely. He still has lands to unite, rivals to cajole or subdue. He has no right to the mortal title.

And the immortal one? Merlin slips it into his mind, along with a flash of something ages old that takes Arthur’s breath away. It’s gone before he can grasp it.

The most extraordinary part happens as he reaches the crowd lining the main walk. He begins to tell the Druids from the rest: as he passes before each, gold flashes through their eyes, there and gone, tethered to him like a sweeping beam raking the crowd.

“High King,” someone breathes deferentially directly to his right. He can see her, without turning, maybe even without Merlin’s bond—a Druid woman with a child settled on her hip—and that flash comes again: an image of himself on these steps that is not him at all, and yet it is all him, in ways Arthur has never considered.

He recalls what Merlin showed him just before the bond took, a sovereign leader Arthur could not help but recognize. This image, this… event… was threaded into that tapestry.

They are all whispering, in their heads and out, a low-key thrum of voice upon voice. It should be overwhelming. Instead it soothes, like hearing the breathing of your fellow soldiers in the middle of the night when the fire has died to coals and the battle ahead presses down upon you. In this moment, all these people are alive and all these people are with him.

Cináed unfolds from the crowd and comes toward him, alone. He is in the same hide pants as those in which he first arrived. The tattoos crawl over his arms and chest, the painted triskelions re-inked with fresh wode, but Arthur’s eyes have been opened by the mixing of his and Merlin’s magic: he sees so many more than were there before. Cináed’s body veritably glows with the power inside. He stops just in front of Arthur and bows, first to him, then to Merlin slightly behind. A smile steals across his face. “This,” he says, indicating Arthur’s whole self with lifted palms, “feels right.”

He hesitates, uncharacteristic, and holds out a hand.

At the first touch of Cináed’s fingers, a solid memory strikes. On one of those nights that Arthur lay unconscious, Cináed sat with him, Arthur’s hand in his just as it is now, his body fighting for life as Cináed breathed warmth, ease, comfort into the room.

Yes, Merlin whispers. He held you, tethered you here while I wept.

The image is one Arthur never saw with his own eyes. It wriggles under his ribs like a living thing. He buries it, as reverently as he once buried his father. If he stares at Merlin’s pain, his eyes will flood in front of everyone.

He takes Cináed’s arm firmly, grasps him tight. “Thank you,” he whispers.

For once, Cináed offers no wit. Just another smile, as warm as his magic, and a press of his fingers at Arthur’s elbow.

None of the expected resentment is apparent in this crowd. Nothing but bright, wide eyes, slack faces. Hands stretching to touch him. He turns to look for Gwen, his rock in every way, and finds her with the same awe in her eyes, standing hand in hand with Lancelot. Whatever she is seeing, whatever they are all seeing… well, he does not know.

One by one, the Druid leaders approach, to take his hand and murmur their blessings. Perhaps to be blessed themselves, but the thought bewilders Arthur in a way he remembers from childhood, when his father used to gaze upon him for whole minutes with nothing but silence and a smile.

He begins to search the crowd, looking for one face in particular. But the beaming countenances are too many, and she is nowhere.

**

There are no speeches. The Druids all seem to know whatever Arthur might have to say. But eventually, there is food, a lot of it, and laughter, and more magic.

And that is when Enaid finally emerges. Cináed is already there at Arthur’s other side, relaxed and slightly drunk, a personification of the atmosphere on the whole: whatever tension that clung to this crowd as Merlin’s prospects trickled into the citadel has vanished. Merlin might as well be at his side, despite being across the room. His emotions are always intertwined with Arthur’s, a constant susurration that curls into Arthur’s center and radiates warmth. Merlin’s body becomes an extra sense to him, and Arthur cannot imagine existing without this feeling at his core. He knows he must have but that time looks very dark to him now. One moment, Arthur is sharing what has—hopefully, but he fears not—been a brief look with Merlin; the next, he turns and finds Enaid seated at his elbow between him and Gwen, picking at a plateful of food with her fingers. She looks up at the same moment Arthur looks over, and his heart rabbits.

She is so young. He feels a lick of devastation for this girl, who came into the middle of Merlin’s and his confusion and only meant well. “Enaid…”

I’m sorry. I’m sorry for everything.

She side-eyes him a little. “My lord.” It’s chastising, but gentle. The corners of her mouth twitch upward. “I hardly know him.”

It shocks him into a smile of his own. He pushes it down, and her eyes flicker to follow.

At last she sits back and draws a deep breath. “Your majesty, I would stay on, to learn from him, if you will it.”

Arthur studies her, then shakes his head. “You will stay on if you will it. Not me.” He finds Merlin again, now off to the side with several Druids and some of the knights. “I know who he is. He will be glad.”

She looks relieved. He feels relieved. And that is that.

**

Many of the Druids leave. The colorful camp clears out over the next two days like sunlight draining from a lake at dusk, and the remaining visitors move into town. Some, into the castle itself. The leaders who must go bid farewell to Arthur and Gwen with congratulations to both—and Arthur really doesn’t want to think about that too much—and promises to return soon.

Cináed stays, with two of his compatriots, and together they spar with the knights, trading agile techniques across the training fields below the castle. Enaid stays.

They all know of Gwen and Lancelot. How could they not, when they also all know that the king is now the lover of Emrys? Old ingrained morals twinge at his belly, an entirely different sort of fealty sworn. But Gwen has never looked more at peace, and Lancelot dotes upon her without regard to what anyone else might think, and that is the kind of love they both deserve.

It is the kind of love that now consumes Arthur, body and soul.

Merlin is a true force of nature. Whatever power was there before pales somehow in comparison to this new energy. It is the same, and yet not the same at all. Arthur recognizes himself in it, in the way it gusts through the castle. Merlin smiles more, and that too is different. His happiness looks and feels so pure.

Arthur studies Merlin as he slides back into the business of being court sorcerer, and wonders. He can only hope that his emotional state brings Merlin the same comfort Merlin’s brings him.

That night, Merlin pulls him down in front of the fire, and traces sigils to match on Arthur’s body and his own. That night and the next, Arthur undresses late and takes Merlin to his bed, and together they forget all the rest, for a time.

Within a day, the remaining Druids meld seamlessly into Camelot’s crowds as though there had never been a ban on magic. It’s troubling how well they fit, not because they are anomalous, but because Arthur knows now: they should always have been here. Prying them free of this landscape left gaping holes that he only now sees for what they truly were.

There is of course, trouble of another sort. Even among non-magical folk, the story of Emrys’ bond to the High King of old spreads as fiercely as fire, and soon the closest border barons are knocking at the gates and invading council and looming before Arthur’s throne, insinuating as politely as possible that the one who calls himself their ruler has let himself be enthralled by a witch.

The Druids find this uproariously funny. Arthur hears what they say, laughing and shaking their heads: If anyone has ensorcelled another, it is the king who has bewitched Emrys!

Perhaps he has. Arthur drums his fingers against the arm of his throne, against Libera’s reins, against Excalibur’s hilt. He watches Merlin from the corner of his eye as he walks the castle and the city, as his power, subtly changed, sweeps rapt followers into his wake. He half waits for the end, half certain that an ending will never come.

One afternoon, Arthur returns from council with his mind at sea, to find Merlin lying across his bed with his boots off and one knee cocked up. Warm daylight spills onto stone and bedding alike. Merlin, dressed in comfortable blacks and grays, turns his head to Arthur, abandoning the stalk of wheat twisting between his fingers.

“There’s a field with souring soil to the east.” His knee drifts back and forth, shifting the line of his trousers. He drops an arm across the bed, fingers crooking in invitation. “Want to help me with it?”

His eyes skate deliberately, down and up. Arthur closes the door behind him and crosses to the bed.

Merlin’s smile when Arthur kneels onto the mattress, the ready way he shifts to tuck a leg between Arthur’s, leave no doubt as to interpretation. Arthur bends willingly, catching his lips and grinning, and Merlin murmurs up into the kiss, arching, making no bones about his enthusiasm for this. Arthur savors Merlin’s mouth for long minutes, until the heat burgeons suddenly around them and his skin tingles under each swipe of Merlin’s fingers.

Merlin divests them of their clothing with lazy hands, dropping it off the edge of the bed. He winds his foot round Arthur’s leg, presses an arm against Arthur’s heaving side. Kisses with fervor, with laughter caged behind his lips. The sun heats Arthur’s bare back, then Merlin’s, and Arthur feels it just the same. He pays thorough reverence to the body against his, fits Merlin into the cradle of his hips and locks him close with both legs tight around the backs of Merlin’s thighs. It goes on for glorious ages. When the magic rocks through them again, Arthur is wordless and utterly lost, and it is familiar as breath.

Afterward, Merlin rises from the bed. He doesn’t bother with his trousers or shirt, but takes up his top robe instead and swings it round bare shoulders, affixing the clasps with nimble fingers. Arthur pushes upright, untangling his legs from the sheets. Merlin’s fingers still. He leans in, kissing Arthur full on the mouth, a pointed search of tongue and teeth.

“Now what?” Arthur asks, breathing hard in counterpart.

Merlin’s hand skates his brow. Another smile gains rapid ground on his face. “Now we go to work.”

The field is not far, but each stride feels a mile long. As always, the power pulsing between them gathers a crowd: Druids, farmers, noble women, children. Arthur’s cheeks are hot and flushed. Merlin’s sweat is still damp on Arthur’s skin, cleaving shirt to chest. He wonders if what Merlin and he have only just done is as plain to them as it feels to him.

When they reach the field, the blight is plain in sagging stalks, bald patches, and cracked soil. Merlin, still afire with their magic, kneels, a hand to the earth.

Something pulses. Arthur shuts his eyes, sways, but it does not let him fall. The smell of loam and moist clay rushes to his nose, but from the inside, not from the world around him. Beneath his feet, the earth turns languidly.

When he resurfaces, it is to find the crowd quiet, and Merlin’s hand clasped in his. Merlin looks up, his cheeks sprayed faintly with freckles. His fringe, still damp, clings at his forehead. “Come, feel.”

Arthur drops to one knee, then the other. The ground beneath him is cool; moisture bleeds through his trousers. There is life here, bruised but stirring under the surface, and it stretches up toward him, toward the light, as gentle as the roots in the orchard. It whispers his name.

“Oh,” he rasps, gripping Merlin’s fingers.

Merlin’s eyes crinkle at the edges. He takes Arthur’s face in careful hands and kisses him, righ there in front of everyone.

And there, with the rocks digging into his knees, the dirt from Merlin’s palms on his cheeks, and sunlight spilling over his shoulders, Arthur senses eternity.

**
**
**

 

Epilogue

 

At the turn of the month, Merlin takes him out of Camelot into the forest, riding south. Arthur walks Libera sedately behind Merlin’s mount, observing the line of his lover’s back. Merlin has been subdued all week, quiet and with eyes far away in the evenings, as the sun sets over Camelot’s ramparts. There’s nothing strained to his silence, so Arthur has not pressed. Only watched.

After a few hours, Merlin signals a halt and they dismount, leading the horses to a lush run of grass and hanging the reins over the branch of a nearby tree. Merlin takes Arthur’s hand and leads him through dappled sunlight, lifting low hanging branches out of the way of their heads.

Within minutes, the trees open onto a devastating landscape, and Arthur stops. Merlin fades back a little, but Arthur looks on, eyes wide and mouth open.

The forest here is dead. No grass grows, no shrubs or flowers crowd the ground. The trees that still stand are withered and dark, as though the vitality has been sucked straight down from their centers. Fissures riddle the earth, a hatch-work of faults all the way to the next hill. Beyond, Arthur can see the far-off glint of the sea. The place is dead quiet.

Merlin’s arms come round him from behind and tighten over his stomach. Arthur allows it, anxious for the comfort. He clenches his hand over Merlin’s two, taking in the desolation.

“I asked, I... begged.” Merlin’s voice cracks. He presses his mouth to Arthur’s nape. Arthur feels Merlin’s whole body tense at once.

This, this… was the price for his life, this stretch of verdant wilderness drained clean away. Arthur shudders head to toe. He knows inside that it was swift: the trees have dropped where they stood or listed slowly to earth, and the bleached skeletons of bushes stab toward an unforgiving sky. There are ghosts everywhere. Merlin’s arms squeeze round him. Arthur’s heart aches at the echoes.

Merlin tries to hold it back, but Arthur threads their fingers, works it free of Merlin’s grasp until the hurt of it finally leaks through, and Merlin gives up. Sighs, and lets Arthur see the extent of it.

For a moment, Arthur looks it full in the face. Feels it. Then he turns, catching Merlin’s arms and drawing him into a full embrace. He buries his face in Merlin’s neck, pushing his chin into Merlin’s shoulder.

“I will never give you cause to regret that.”

Merlin’s throat tastes of salt. When he speaks, his voice is clogged and hoarse. “I know.”

When Arthur crouches this time and puts his hand to the earth, he feels no life. But the space is not empty; the memory of the spirits that were once here lingers at the edges. Already there are ribbons adorning the standing trees, hollow shells knocking together in the breeze and strips of cloth laced around the clearing’s rim. The place settles, hushed and grieving.

How can he ever repay what he has taken? How is he worthy of this sacrifice?

He lays his palm flat and thinks I’m sorry, and the land answers back.

It is not sorry. The same recognition, the same adoring welcome as in the orchard nestles around him, soothing the remorse lumped in his chest. There is no blame. The land is at peace.

Arthur shuts his eyes. He grips Merlin’s hand, willing him to feel it too, and to accept it. After a moment, Merlin squeezes back.

~fin~