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Stardust

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Arthur had never been one to look at the stars, always too afraid of someone saying he had his head in the clouds.

But those who did look up, did not often wonder if the stars were looking back. And perhaps they ought to, for the stars could see all. They could see every detail, every war and all peace, all love and hate - so perhaps we on the ground should think of them when we look up. Think not of the stars existing, but the stars seeing, for there is nothing they miss.

The stars did not miss when Arthur was born, a child they knew was meant for greatness. They did not miss when he, as an infant, was put into the care of a village physician. And they did not miss as he grew from a boy into a young man.

———

“I’ll be quick!” Arthur protested, pulling his coat on in a hurry.

“Don’t make me send guards after you again, staying out late– And don’t forget the flowers!”

The flowers felt weirdly heavy in his hand as he stood on the cobble street, a pebble in his other fist. They were only wildflowers, which seemed to dislike the cold night air. Arthur tossed the rock up so it tacked on the upper window of a home. Not just any home though, it was Guinevere’s home. He knew every detail of its facade, knew precisely how to throw a stone so it would knock and not break the window. He knew she was always quick to answer, with the candlelight of her room and whatever available moonlight making her all the more beautiful. So there was no surprise when he window clicked open and her head appeared, though the call “Lance” as a hello left a bitter taste in his mouth.

“No, it’s just me, it’s Arthur,” he cleared his throat, lifting his hand to show the bouquet. Other voices carried down from the open window, and he felt ridiculous standing there, feet shifting in the thin layer of dirt. “I just came to-“

A sword to his chest, knocking the flowers to the ground, cut him off. Lancelot.

Hopefully the stars did not watch everything, so they would no see Arthur humiliated outside Gwen’s home. He was quickly knocked to the ground, with no real defense. He left as quickly as he came, filled with embarrassment and sucked of all confidence. The sight of Lancelot wooing Gwen, with a much more substantial bouquet of roses was nauseating to him.

And Gaius was not much consolation. He told Arthur that his chance would come, that he was destined for greatness and his true love would come to love him eventually. That did nothing to solve that in that very moment, his true love was under the spell of Lancelot du Lac and could not care less about him. “If she is to love you, then she will, my boy,” the old man said, clapping Arthur on the back.

“If that’s the case, then if she is meant to love Lancelot, then she will love him! Which leaves me without any chance at all!”

Gaius merely shrugged as he worked on an ointment. Arthur was tired of Ealdor, he wanted something more from life. He was exhausted of running errands for Gaius and Geoffrey and Alice, tired of feeling pathetic for loving Guinevere and hating Lancelot.

“If you think any harder, I swear your brain will burst,” Gaius finally huffed, looking up from his work. “If you want her, you must fight for her! You spend your time here, with me, wallowing when I see no reason at all that you should condemn yourself to be less than what she deserves. You’re a wonderful young man Arthur, much better than Lancelot, so please prove that to her instead of complaining in my shop!” He meant well, and Arthur knew it, so he departed again with a smile and a plan.

He needed to woo Guinevere, he needed to be better than Lance by a thousand- no, by a million! He had to prove he was worthy, that he’d do anything for her.

Arthur spent what he had of both money and time setting up for the evening. He returned again to Gwen’s window, only now she joined him.

The night was cool with the changing of the seasons and winter was fast approaching. Ealdor bordered a forest, many of whose trees were rapidly turning red and gold. The ground was littered with pine needles swept around by cool winds; leaves always managed to find their way into the town square despite the distance. Past this forest was a wall, separating the fields of Ealdor and the fields of some unknown. The wall could not be crossed, and the only thing resembling an entry was guarded constantly. The guard was old and crotchety, but still no one had crossed before and that was a legacy meant to remain. And by this wall Arthur had set out a blanket, candles, food and drink and everything he could think of to win Gwen’s heart.

“No, I mean it,” the both of them laughed, and Gwen’s champagne almost sloshed out of her glass. “There’s so much out there in the world, why would I stay here?! I would stay here and farm, or run a shop just like everyone else; I’d grow old and sad without having truly lived! No Gwen, I plan to leave Ealdor, to see everything and everyone I possibly can.”

She only laughed louder between sips of the sweet alcohol, “but that’s so grand, and fanciful! And it would be so expensive. See, Lancelot says the same things. He’s going to travel everywhere, even London to buy me a ring!” Her eyes widened like that was the biggest deal. And yes, that was some fifty plus miles from Ealdor, but that wasn’t what Arthur meant.

“But Gwen, I’m talking about the world . I’m talking about overseas, not just going to the nearest city. More than Ealdor, I’m talking about seeing castles and kingdoms, going east and- A ring? Why would he-“ The realization was just as bitter as his departure the night before. A ring. Lancelot would propose, and Guinevere would say yes, and that was it.

It was clear to Gwen that he’d realized what it meant; a sly smile pulled at her lips as she took another sip of champagne. “Yes, he said he’ll go get the ring and be back in time to propose on my birthday.”

Arthur shook his head, hating Lancelot more by the second. “And you’ll say yes… Guinevere, you deserve so much better than that! For your hand in marriage, I’d go further than any city , I’d– Well I’d go west and fetch you mountains of gold, I’d go south and find you a diamond, a diamond as big as your head!” And he couldn’t help but smile, but he meant every word, and she only laughed, clear and bright as the night sky above them. “I’d bring you the finest silks from the east, the largest gems as well! And I’d kill a polar bear and bring you its head!”

“A polar bear !” Gwen sat straight, pulling back from Arthur. Before he had been so stupid as to mention something so gruesome, she’d been leaning into him. He’d ruined his chance of a kiss. “What would I do with a polar bear’s head?! Arthur,” she sighed, and embarrassment welled in him, “you’re sweet. But when Lancelot proposes, I’m going to say yes.” She made a turn to go, but two things stopped her: Arthur pointing out they had champagne left, and the sight of a shooting star streaking across the sky.

You see, at that very moment, there was something much more exciting than Arthur’s picnic happening. All the stars in the sky watched, as just beyond the wall he sat by, in another realm, the fate of the world was being decided.

Uther Pendragon lay on his deathbed, and in his final breath he must set the future of Camelot. Around him stood his remaining heirs, men who had been advisors and cousins, for Uther Pendragon never had children. But among this group, no primary heir was known.

“This is rather unfortunate,” came the king’s shaky breath, “I had not hoped so many of you would still be living by the time I was so ill.” Before him stood Tristan, Agravaine, Cenred, and Caerleon. He’d named them all heirs to the throne of Camelot, and they were the ones who had survived. Bayard, Alined, and Olaf has all been named heirs as well, but they’d been killed years before. That was the idea, by naming so many heirs, he’d still have one by the time he died. Though, he hadn’t anticipated having so many left. “And I cannot name one of you the sole heir, it would be against custom.” And against Uther’s one beliefs, but that was a given.

Around his neck was a thick gold chain, a beautiful necklace with an ornate ruby fixed to it. He tugged it free before lifting it to the eyes of all present. “In fairness, this will be your key to succession.” The gem turned clear as he spoke, “only a true male heir of Camelot can return the ruby to its original state. And he that does will become the next king of all of Camelot.” Before any greedy hands could grab either chain or stone, the necklace shot off into the sky, and as it did, Uther drew his last breath. No one watched him though, all eyes turned to the streak in the sky.

The necklace went beyond our atmosphere, soaring through space before it came hurtling back, an explosion of speed. It shot back through the heavens to crash back into Camelot.

“A shooting star!” Gwen smiled, nudging Arthur. The light shot across the sky, heading east, past the wall.

Arthur watched it as it passed behind tree tops and was no longer visible. And without fully processing what he was saying, he opened his mouth, “for you Gwen, I’d get you the fallen star. I’ll cross the wall, and get you your very own star, for your hand in marriage.”

“But that’s ridiculous, no one crosses the wall!”

“I would- I will! I’ll cross the wall and get you that star, and I’ll do it before your birthday, before Lancelot proposes!” Arthur grew more determined. A star must just be a hunk of rock anyway, it couldn’t be that hard to bring back to Ealdor. And the wall was guarded by an old man, so the hardest part would be finding the star, but if in the end it meant that Gwen would love him, it would all be worth it.

They clinked glasses and it was agreed

------

“What happened? Did you try to fight Lancelot again?”

Arthur sat at their kitchen table with a wet cloth over his face. He had firmly believed crossing the wall would be easy, but the guard had quickly shown otherwise. The moment he tried to cross, the man’s walking stick hit him in the face. Gaius sat down by him, pulling up a chair and batting Arthur’s hands away so he could look at his injuries.

“No, it wasn’t Lance,” not this time at least, “it was the guard, at the wall.” He hissed when Gaius dabbed some alcohol on a cut at his brow.

“Arthur, that guard is older than me!”

“So he’s had a lot of time to practice. He had no right-”

“And why were you trying to cross the wall?”

He pushed Gaius’ hands away and sat up properly, “because I told Guinevere that I would cross that wall to find a fallen star, and I would give it to her to ask for her hand.” Gaius didn’t look pleased, but Arthur only continued, “If I don’t do this now, then she’ll end up with Lance. He’s going to propose in a week, and I have to beat him to it. This is the only way I have even the slightest chance I’ll end up with her, if I do this, then she’ll maybe possibly think about saying yes- or think about not immediately saying no.”

“Which sounds very promising,” Gaius shook his head, “but my boy, in that case you need to cross the wall. And I may know how to help. You see, when you were given to me, you weren’t alone in your basket.”

”What is that supposed to mean?”

”With you, was a note and some other things.”

Gaius had stood from the table and beckoned Arthur follow him. Twenty two years ago, Arthur as an infant had been brought to Gaius’ door by the guard of the wall. He had no idea as to why, but with the child was a note, saying Arthur was destined for great things but he could not be raised by his actual parents, for him to even stay in his birthplace may be a threat to his life. The mother claims she had met Gaius once, when she had passed through Ealdor and that he was the only person she knew outside Camelot. Now, the physician had never heard of “Camelot” and had no memory of an Ygraine, but he could do nothing with the baby but raise it as his own. Given his age, others in the village helped, mostly Alice. So when Arthur said he wanted to cross the wall, Gaius knew he could not stop him. If Arthur was destined for greatness, then he would not achieve it in Ealdor. He likely would not achieve it chasing after Guinevere or getting into fights with Lancelot either, but perhaps he would realize there was more to life if he went on this adventure. Gaius always knew the boy would never be happy staying in the village anyway, only this was all much sooner than he had anticipated.

“The note was signed by your mother,” and Gaius handed over the parchment as he dug out three more items. A small chain, a candle, and a round pendant. “I never read the letter, I knew it was yours. All of these things are. I can’t say I think they mean much, but there must be some significance to them or she wouldn’t have left them.”

But Arthur was only half-listening. He’d never thought he had a mother. Well- of course he had a mother, but he’d never met her and Gaius had never really mentioned either of his parents. It had always seemed that Gaius knew as little about them as he did. But a letter. It made him hope she was still alive, it made her a more clear picture in his head and less of just an idea. She wanted to see him, was deeply sorry she had to give him up, and he was grown now. He could go find her, and her letter said all he needed to do was light the candle. Light the candle and think of her. “And she lives across the wall?” He asked, looking up to Gaius from where he sat on the floor. Arthur ran his thumb over the pendant. It was like a coin, with a symbol or even a seal of some sort on it. It was like a cross, or a knot. It wasn’t familiar but he couldn’t help put trace the pattern over and over again.

“When you were given to me, the guard said he found you at the wall. My only guess is she lives beyond it. If you travel to her, it may help you find this fallen star for Gwen.”

“How is this supposed to work then? I light the candle and think of her, and that does it?” Arthur rolled the wax between his hands. The candle was black and clearly unused, but it wasn’t particularly long and he had no clue how this was supposed to help him get to his mother.

“The best way to travel is by candlelight,” Gaius echoed the letter’s sentiments before striking a match. With a flicker the candle was lit and Arthur disappeared.

Though only a moment after he disappeared in Ealdor, he reappeared in Camelot, crashing to the ground in the same clearing that had been formed not an hour before.

Only, he wasn’t alone in this newborn geographic feature, and not only was he not alone, but he’d managed to crash into the only other individual present.

“Mum?”

“Do I look like your mother?”

Generally, that was a question Arthur couldn't really answer. He had no clue what his mother looked like, so the answer could have been yes. However, as this other individual he had crashed into and was still on top of was a man, “No, probably not.”

“Then get. Off.” Arthur finally clambered off the other and extended a hand to help him, but it was ignored.

“My… apologies. You see, I wouldn’t really know if you were my mother. I’ve never met her. I mean - for obvious reasons, you’re clearly not her - but she should be here.” He turned in his spot, surveying the area. The rest of their clearing was still entirely empty, and no sound came from the surrounding night. “All I had to do was think of her and I should have gone to where she is… Only, for a moment I thought of Gwen, and the star. So since you’re not my mother-”

“Obviously,”

“Then this must be where the star is!” Again Arthur turned in his spot, as though the things he was looking for usually appeared after he’d spun around a few times.

“Are you joking?” The man, still on the ground spoke up. Arthur had quit pointlessly rotating and looked to him. “Yeah well, the star was up there , minding his business until some ridiculous necklace knocked him out of the sky and that is where he crashed into this clearing, and this is where some clotpole knocked him over and accused him of being his mother!”

Clotpole - Wait, but you can’t be-”

“If you were expecting some hunk of celestial rock, then I’m sorry to disappoint.”

Arthur shook his head. He had promised Gwen a star for her hand in marriage and meant to deliver it within a week; this was quite the complication. He had expected a rock, or at the very least something inanimate. How… A person. A man. Granted, Arthur didn’t know what a star was supposed to look like, but something sparkly wasn’t totally different from the picture in his head. This however, was a man as real and non-sparkly as Arthur was, with dark hair and dressed all in blue; he was pale, sure, but he didn’t even qualify as reflective.

“Yes, well you’re meant to be a present-”

“A present?!”

“Yes, for my beloved-” The man - the star - scoffed. He still hadn’t moved from the ground, and only now did Arthur notice that he had a hand cupped to one of his legs. “I promised her a fallen star to ask for her hand in marriage, and I have to do it within a week or she’ll say yes to someone else. So, I have to get you back to Ealdor so I can present you to Gwen.”

“Right, I can tell that Gwen is a very lucky woman and as flattering as that proposition is, why should I go with you?’

Arthur patted his pockets, “I’m very sorry to do this, but you haven’t much of a choice.” In a moment he wrapped the thin chain gifted to him around one of the man’s wrists. He hadn’t really known what to expect of it, but it lengthened as he needed. It also felt surprisingly strong, not as feeble a necklace chain as it appeared. Once secured, he lightly tugged, but the star refused to budge.

“No! I- Even if I wanted to go with you, I can’t. I hurt my leg and besides, I need to find a way back home.”

”Home? Well where is that? We might be close to it in Ealdor.”

”I’m a star, my home is up there,” the man pointed up to the glittering heavens.

Arthur went back to digging through his pockets, “Well there’s not much I can do for your leg, but it’s a shame because I was going to give you this.” He pulled the black candle back out.

“You’ve got a Babylon candle!”

“Yeah, a bubbling candle”

Babylon.”

“That’s what I said. After I showed you to Gwen, I was going to give you this so you could go home. But if you won’t come with me, then I guess not,” and he stuffed it back in his pocket. The star stumbled forward in some attempt to stand.

Fine, I’ll go with you.” Anything he could do to get home, even if it meant accompanying the moron to see his “beloved.”

Chapter Text

“So you know we’re going the right way because ‘you just do’?”

“Yes, I know where I’m going because you can always tell where you’re going with the evening star -” Arthur looked up to the sky and pulled the chain. He abruptly stopped though and sent the star stumbling. “Wait, that’s odd. You can always see it.”

“That’s hilarious.”

“I swear it’s always there!”

“Really, I don’t see how you can’t just win Gwen over with you abundant humor.” As Arthur looked to the stars - particularly where one was clearly missing - the other man sat at the base of a tree.

“No, Marlin what are you-“

“It’s Merlin. Mer lin.”

“Right, Mer lin, we have to keep going. I said we could stop at the next town or inn,” Merlin refused to get back up. He’d let Arthur drag him through the forest all night. The path was rough and there had been no sign of any nearing civilization. The promise to stop was empty and the star was still injured. It was almost morning and he was exhausted, tired of Arthur and tired of hearing about Gwen and Lancelot and Ealdor.

Arthur relented “Fine, you’ll stay here and I’ll find us food and firewood.” There was no trust in the statement: he wrapped he chain around the tree trunk so Merlin didn’t even have the ability to run off.

———

The remaining heirs had set out immediately. Well, Tristan, Cenred, and Agravaine had set off. Caerleon had not simply because Agravaine had managed to poison him before he had the chance to.

As they raced for the necklace, Arthur did his best to lead the star back to the wall. He thought of Guinevere, how she would like the gift. He thought of her smile to motivate him while his present company was so much less riveting. 

Yet at the same time as all of that, the star was sought after by others.

Everything was simple in Ealdor, there were no prophecies, no kingdom whose fate hung in the balance of a stone, and there were absolutely no witches. The realm of Camelot had the wonderful ability to complicate everything tenfold. 

There were three witches in Camelot who had noticed the star fall. It had been four hundred years since the last fallen star and and each woman was filled with excitement at the opportunity. You see, to have the heart of a star is to have the key to immortality, and there are few things witches covet more than that. Many people in general share the same desire, but witches in particular search for longevity.

There was an added benefit that the heart of a star also made one very beautiful.

With a star, they could have immortality and ultimate power. They’d lived four hundred years as pathetic echoes of their true power and finally they could rise again. The trio had saved a portion of the heart of the last star they’d killed, and with the power from it, one of them could go to fetch their next victim.

The witch Morgana would take such a responsibility.

“My sisters, I will not fail you,” her mouth spread into a grin that would send shivers down any mortal’s spine. “We’ve lived in squalor for too long, but I promise I will restore our youth.”

“Yes sister, but you must act quickly. You know you are not alone in seeking out the star.” The witch Nimueh offered the other a blade and runes. If properly executed, she would need nothing else.

———

“Merlin?!”

To say Arthur was out of his element was an understatement. He just wanted to get back to Ealdor, where fallen stars weren’t stubborn men who magically disappear even when chained to a tree. The ground was clear, no sign of a broken chain or that Merlin had wandered off. It was like he was never there. The only upside was Merlin wasn’t there to complain about the predicament, their complete lack of food.

But everything hit him at once. He had no idea where he was, and since he was supposed to be leading the fallen evening star to Ealdor, he had little to guide him. There was a good chance Gwen would turn him down even if he hadn't lost the star.

It felt hopeless to walk any further, to keep looking for any sign of Merlin. He was exhausted; it should be morning soon enough and they’d walked for hours. Arthur plopped by the tree same as Merlin had. He wanted to rest, to go to sleep and wake up back in Ealdor where everything was normal. He could find some other way to woo Gwen since getting the star had gone pear-shaped in record time.

He drifted, thinking of Gwen and of home. Clouds shifted overhead, it grew colder and he was determined to keep his eyes shut and stay put. It was astonishing there was no sign of a nearby village or town, or even just an inn. He wouldn’t complain though, he’d settle fine with the dirt and the leaves; at least it was dry.

But he’d reached that state of bliss, that sweet spot of half asleep and half awake where you feel like you’re floating. Arthur felt high in the clouds when he was shocked awake by this faint warmth and blue lights. Orbs of light floated around him and Arthur was terrified for a moment that somehow he’d taken Merlin’s place in the sky. But he was still in the forest, and surprisingly not dreaming as he heard voices raise from the lights.

They warned him, they begged him. Things were not as they seemed in Camelot. Merlin was not safe there. There were those who would gladly kill him, something about eternal life and power. 

You have to save him Arthur. A carriage is coming and you must get on it. It is the only way to get to him in time. You must hurry.

Ethereal voices echoing in his head save him. Arthur sprinted back to the path and could hear the carriage coming more than he could see it. The yell of it’s driver was like a shock to his system and without thinking, he threw himself into the road intime to collide with the carriage. He was hoping to slyly hitch a ride but had ungracefully sprawled back to the road after causing the loudest thunk a person could create with just their bare body.

Another yell and the whine of horses then the thing came to a halt, Arthur groaning not far behind it.

The driver pulled a sword as Arthur stumbled onto his back. He was a naturally intimidating man, the sort to kill first and ask questions later, which is why it seemed luck when he demanded “Speak quickly: do you work for the heirs to Camelot?”

“I don’t- I don’t know who that is- who they are!” Arthur tried to look back at the man but the sword was proving to be a distraction. The blade didn’t move. “I’ve lost a friend of mine and I think he’s in danger- Please, I just need a ride.”

The man huffed, “And you swear to neither know nor work for either the Lords Tristan du Bois or Agravaine, because I will not hesitate to gut you.”

“Sir, I promise you I do not know the heirs.” The sword lowered and Arthur righted himself. No longer being threatened, he took a breath and gained the tiniest bit of confidence, “I only need transportation.” But also, at this point, he could be killed and it wouldn’t even matter. He’d lost the star and with it all chance with Gwen, and he had little else going for him in Ealdor. What did it matter if he lost his life as well? 

But the man resheathed the sword and returned to the front of the carriage. With a grunt and the smallest of waves he allowed for Arthur to follow.

———

“Stay where you are sister. The star is coming to you, but it is weary. You must set a trap to make it shine before you cut the heart out.” The witch’s voice rippled with her reflection in the pool. Morgana had been led by the runes to a roadside devoid of anything, so it certainly didn’t hide the star. Despite how it drained her power, she called to the others but even then Morgause wasn’t much consolation. She made that sound easier than it would be.

Dark, heavy clouds moved overhead. It was still dark, but morning wasn’t far away. But if the star was weary, she would be its savior. 

A cottage, cozy and warm, with smoke from the chimney and the smell of a cooked meal. There were no villages near, no other homes for miles: what Morgana built would be heaven. 

The cottage and all it’s hominess appeared in swirls of smoke as Morgana chanted. It wasn’t grand, but it didn’t need to be. She added a vegetable garden and a barn, so it appeared a small farm that could manage to live so far away from society. Inside Morgana set a blazing fire and made a comfortable bed visible behind a partition. A bathtub, fresh bread and stew cooking, bottles of cider and wine. Drying herbs hung from the rafters.

As predicted, the star arrived in a pathetic state. The clouds that gathered overhead erupted into a horrible downpour that left Merlin drenched.

As to how he had managed to get there, his savior and steed was a snow white unicorn. It is said unicorns would go to the aid of those who are pure - whether that is pure of mind or body or heart is up to interpretation, but when you’re a star all of the above are generally true. It had been able to break the enchantment in the chain even when his own magic could not. Stars have an odd sort of sorcery that is as natural and volatile as the forces of earth while also being completely different. There are rare moments when a star is in control of their own power, which meant that Merlin was truly stranded.  

Though Arthur had sworn there was no one nearby, Merlin thought nothing unusual of the cottage and only felt relief at the sight of it. There was a brief delay in when he knocked and when a woman opened the door. She had kind eyes and a soft smile as she ushered him in. He vaguely heard her say she’d put his horse in the barn as she sat him down, huffing over how wet he was. 

“I know, I’ll run you a bath so you can warm up and relax while your clothes dry. How do you like your water?” 

Merlin shook himself, trying to reel his mind back into reality, “I don’t really know.” She had this look that seemed almost like she knew why. She didn’t comment though, just smiled sweetly and nodded before stepping away.

He was undressed and in the tub before he knew it, and only warmth and the presence of water brought him back to his senses. It wasn’t only that he was brought back to himself, but now things seemed very real. Overwhelming real if he was to be honest. For a moment he was left alone and he almost cried out. He was stuck here, on Earth, with no hope of getting back. He knew nothing of society or starting a life and his only hope of getting back was Arthur. And Arthur was a complete cabbage head who would probably get them both killed in his quest for love and Guinevere. Oh god, and Guinevere, if he had to hear the name one more time… 

“I’ve brought you some cider, and when you’re all washed up you’re welcome to as much bread and stew as you want. How’s the bath?” The woman had peeked back around the partition and set down a steaming mug. Her smile was as warm as the bath water. And her eyes reflected the fire light just a bit in a way that almost made Merlin afraid, or some feeling very near it.

But at her mention of food, that thought vanished. Until then Merlin had hardly noticed how hungry he was. He’d never really experienced hunger before, but now the emptiness of his stomach was at the forefront of his mind. “Thank you- the bath is wonderful.” His leg felt better as well. At some point in crashing down from the sky and landing on the earth, he’d managed a huge gash in his leg. It’d been matted with blood and dirt the whole time Arthur was dragging him around and ached in a way he’d never imagined. It was like magic, how deeply relaxed she’d made him. His inhibitions could not possibly have been lower. His body felt so light that he could have sworn he was back among the other stars again, though he knew very well that wasn’t true.

Everything before now had been like a dream, the ridiculousness of meeting and being stuck with Arthur was fading from his mind. His injuries washed away along with his dirt and sweat. And soon he could eat and sleep; his problems would have to wait for tomorrow- but if he could manage it, they’d wait forever.

------

The man was named Cenred, and Arthur only listened to him, afraid to speak. The heirs he had mentioned before were those competing for the throne of Camelot. The king, Uther, had just died, and now the four men sought power. Well- there had been four men, but one of the other heirs had managed to kill the fourth before any of them had set off. Something about poison and a chalice; Arthur half listened, terrified the man would change his mind and pull his sword again.

The rain surprised them both. Arthur had seen the storm clouds gathering and darkening the covering morning for some time, but the severity was shocking. The trees whipped about, one splitting with a deafening crack and almost falling into their path. 

“We’ll have to stop, it isn’t safe to travel like this!” He yelled over the wind, and was met with a glare of Cenred’s. 

Wet hair was plastered over the other man’s eyes, his brow knit while he pulled the reins with a grit of his teeth. “Of course I know that,” his look was positively menacing. Arthur knew there was nowhere to stop and no villages were nearby. They both knew setting up a camp of their own would be impossible. The only real option was to keep going.

Arthur felt like he was hallucinating when through the haze of rain he could see lights. He thought it was the fairy lights again and was going to call out, but Cenred jerked the carriage. The words that had been on the tip of his tongue were ripped from him along with his breath. It was a cottage, set in an amber haze of candlelight reflecting on the rain and sitting on the roadside. He wanted to protest that it hadn’t been there before, but something told him Cenred wouldn’t have cared what he said when he drove the carriage faster.

“Stay with the carriage,” Cenred leapt down before the horses had even fully stopped. “Looks to be a barn there,” he had to shout to be heard over the animals in question and the storm. The heir didn’t bother to give Arthur any more instructions before stomping to the cottage door. He pounded on it hard enough to be heard, but with force frightening enough he could have knocked it down. 

Arthur forced the horses under the barn’s protection after unhitching them. They didn’t want to listen to him and he knew little of controlling animals. He’d always been horrible at it in Ealdor and gotten the broken ribs to prove it. The thunder and unfamiliar surroundings didn’t help ease the horses or him. Some muffled noise made him turn his attention from the animals and to the cottage instead. A soft glow from inside made it clearly so much more welcoming than this muddy barn and its over-excited inhabitants. Ignoring Cenred’s instructions, Arthur decided his comfort came over that of the horses.

Merlin had dried off and dressed in a thin robe the woman gave him. It was plain and she tried to apologize for the simplicity of it but it felt like the most comfortable thing in the world and he wouldn’t hear it. She’s been far too kind already, and he was moments from slipping into sleep. She’d told him to go lay down, given him some sweet bread as well. He noticed when she came back to him, could tell she was standing by the edge of the bed. He could see her form in his half awake haze, lying back with eyes nearly closed, able to murmur soft but genuine “thank you”s.

“It’s nothing dear, why don’t-“

but a thundering knock cut her off. Merlin blinked his eyes open to see the woman shifting her apron as though to hide something, but he didn’t ask when she smiled, reaching a hand to pat his shoulder and steady him. 

“I’ll just be checking who that is. Gods know anyone could be caught out in this storm. You just rest now, I’ll only be a minute.” And she was gone again, he heard her footsteps behind the partition and the door opening. 

Morgana knew she had been so close. The star was positively glowing, dazzling where he lay on the bed. The meal had really done it, after the bath and healing his wound. But the moment someone knocked all that progress was chased away and his light faded. She’d have to work quickly to get it back, so her hand did not leave the dagger in her skirt.

It was raining even harder now, and the leather-clad man at the door was drenched. He was also incredibly forward, demanding “a bed and a meal, shelter from the storm,” the moment she opened the door. Reinforcing that sickly sweet smile, she let him in.

Maintaining the insufferable ruse, she held up a hand, “I have another guest, so I ask you be patient and not too loud.” He only gave some low response and a huff, shaking water out of his hair. It was appalling and Morgana longed to plunge the dagger into his heart.

“I’ve horses in your barn and a boy with my carriage.” It seemed useless information to her, but still she nodded promising “to see to them when she could.” It pacified the man, who after a few steps noticed the pitcher of cider. Freely he helped himself while pulling off layers until he was down to pants and a simple tunic. “I will stay until the weather lets up. Have you a bed?” 

“Not one free to use, sir,”

And again she was returned with a gruff response.

“Is everything alright?” Merlin appeared from around the partition and changed both the others moods. The man straightened as though he now had reason enough to behave properly. Morgana only nodded, harping on that matronly string once more. The star still had this lost look about him, like a doe or a child rather than a great ethereal being. Yet still he glowed no longer, and Morgana with all her might suppressed her rage at that fact.

“Yes, this man was caught in the storm same as you. I can be with you in a moment, though-“

Merlin understood that as a polite dismissal and would have gone to lay back down if the man didn’t hold up a hand.

“What is that? That you have around your neck?” It was hardly a question in either tone or physicality. The man was practically bristling, eyes dark and he looked ready to strike something. Merlin’s hand flew up to his throat, to the chain and the pendant hanging on his chest. He’s nearly forgotten about it, the bloody thing that had knocked him from the sky in the first place.

“I- I don’t know,” Merlin felt the stone, glanced down at it but then back up, hesitant to oppose this man. “I found it, I wasn’t sure what it was-“

“Bring it here!” The man’s hand was suddenly gripping the sword at his side and even Morgana looked shocked by his demeanor. “You have no idea what that is, boy. It belongs to me.”

“Right well it knocked me over, so goes to show how well you’ve kept onto it.” This whole mess was because of this ridiculous necklace and Merlin wasn’t going to have some prick belittle him over it.

“I swear- I am heir to the throne of Camelot and that necklace is key to my place on the throne. If you do not hand it over I will cut you to pieces and-“

Blood spurt from the man’s mouth as he bit off some additional threat. He choked out more blood before his eyes lost focus and he dropped to the floor. Morgana stood behind him, dropping dagger in hand and a look on her face Merlin had not seen. It was beyond menacing, something far more sinister, too bemused by the now-dead man’s pain. “I thought he would never leave,” she sighed, voice all too calm. If she was an ocean, her voice was that deceitful calm before a storm, and her eyes were the murderous waves, with no mercy and a pain beyond vengeance.

In the next instant the door opened again, without a knock, now instead kicked down by the great hooves of the unicorn, again coming to Merlin’s rescue. It led with it Arthur, who looked so shocked beyond words that he himself was surprised to process anything quickly enough to see Merlin across the cottage. With the next sweep of his gaze he saw Cenred dead on the floor and the woman still looming over him. “How many interruptions must I have before claiming your heart?”

She made to lunge at Merlin, but the beast crossed her, blocking the way while Arthur rushed to his side. Merlin’s eyes were wide with fear, reflecting the firelight at their side. He almost stumbled back into the bed, but Arthur gripped him, “What are you doing- How did you get here?”

“That unicorn freed me from your ridiculous chain and I was trying to find any one even the least more competent than you,”

“Oh yes because the fault is all mine and nothing to do with you running off!”

“Running off! Yes because I would have been so much better off chained to a tree, defenseless and alone.”

Ending their feud, they watched as the witch with some unseen force sent the unicorn flying and crumpling against the nearest wall. Her hands dropped and there was a flash of her eyes glowing gold before turning back to their normal green, now so much more evil. Her power so visible now made her seem almost grotesque, body tense and limbs extended, hair in disarray and face wild. She met them with a predatory grin, “what a disappointment. A star is best when shining, but a dull star is better than none at all.”

The air crackled and her eyes glowed again, dagger raised in one clawed hand. 

Arthur wrapped an arm around Merlin’s waist, pulling his other hand from his pocket, eyes locked on the terrifying spectacle before them. “Think of home,” he demanded, struggling to keep fear out of his voice. They both saw the witch throw the dagger, and Merlin heard Arthur cry out as the blond plunged his hand into the fire. With a jolt they were ripped from the cottage.

Morgana was left to watch her dagger shatter against the hearthstone.

Chapter Text

When Morgana abandoned the cottage, so did her magic. The building vanished, leaving the body of Cenred and his horses alone on the muddy ground. The horses were able to leave, so don’t worry over them, they ended up fine.

But Cenred’s corpse was abandoned at the roadside, to be found by Agravaine the next day.

“And you swear he does not have the necklace?”

“No sire. It’s not on him, or in the carriage.”

Agravaine swore and stalked back to his mount. He hardly cared what had happened to kill the other man, but he had the reassurance that only one rival was left. Unfortunately Tristan was the best of the lot, the worst to be up against in the end of things. Still, Agravaine was certain he could find the stone first, guaranteeing him the Camelot throne.

It made no sense. Whenever he would consult runes or a soothsayer, the direction always changed. Again though he tried, throwing up the bone tiles and watching as they landed. “We head west then, and leave the body.”

———

The jolt had ripped them out of the cottage and saved them from the witch, but not entirely. Yes, they were no longer facing a murderous sorceress with glowing eyes and a penchant for hearts of stars, but they’d managed to stick themselves in the clouds of the dying storm.

“This is all your fault!” Arthur yelled over the rolling thunder, very tempted to shove the star.

My fault? How is this my fault?! You said to think of home! And my home is in the sky you idiot!” Merlin was honestly missing the cottage, near death experience and all. At least it had been warm there, and dry, and safely on the ground.

“Sorry for not being more specific while saving our lives-“

“Saving our lives?! Oh so what’s the plan now? The candle’s hardly got one use left- you’ve wasted it and damned us!”

Arthur still was holding the candle stub. Annoyingly, the star was right. The Babylon candle was reduced to a stub in Arthur’s now burnt hand. He hardly knew a thing about magic, but it didn’t look like it had enough left to get Merlin back to the stars when this was all over. This didn’t really seem like the right time to say that though, so he stuffed the stub back in his pocket. “We’ll get out of this somehow, just let me think!”

Merlin was also tempted to shove his companion and would have no regrets if it would send Arthur falling to his death. He was so very tempted when the idiot just stood there, brows knit together trying to figure out a solution and absolutely failing.

But something caught them both up from their place in the clouds. A net enveloped them, both accidentally kicking and elbowing the other, the movements only settling them lower in the weaving. Again Merlin yelled this was all Arthur’s fault, his brain running wild with all the ways they could die right now.

And as Merlin pondered their demise Arthur saw their net was connected to a great vessel, flying through the air smoothly despite the storm. He saw lightning strike its hull, then crackle through metal rods without destroying anything. Now he purposefully elbowed Merlin, trying to get the other to shut up and look at what had caught them. The net was lifted up until it was dropped on deck and Merlin just thought of all the bruises that fall would cause.

Through the net and the darkness and the storm is was still hard to see anything, but a nearby voice incredibly loud called out “Captain! We got something!”

Then there was a face, close to the net. But Arthur cared less about the face and more that it was attached to the hulking form of a man who looked like he could kill someone with only one hand. Merlin absolutely muttered something about how they would both die but he would kill Arthur himself if he could.

From the net they were carried down to the hold and tied to two chairs, back to back. They sat in silence for once as the sun visibly peeked through the window. The storm had broken up now, making the morning beautiful and bright. Arthur would have loved to see it truly but he was sure if he made a comment about it Merlin would manage to make true on his promise to kill him.

Luckily Merlin spoke first, “I have watched humanity my whole life. I saw so much, could see every war and all sorts of horrible things, but for some reason, I always wanted to be a part of it. And now that I am, I’ve spent every moment trying not to die.”

“Well,” Arthur cleared his throat, noticing it was remarkably dry. It also occurred to him how long it had been since he’d eaten or slept. “you know what they say about being careful what you wish for.”

“My god you’re insufferable!” Merlin scoffed and Arthur could picture the insulted look on his face.

“I don’t mean it like that,” he quickly tried to defend himself. “I just mean- I get it. Back in Ealdor I couldn’t do anything. I couldn’t do anything right that is. I wanted to prove myself and go on an adventure. I want to see the world.” Guinevere flashed through his mind again, the promise he’d made. So did Gaius, and how he always told him to go and get out there. Arthur sighed, turning his head though it wasn’t enough to see Merlin behind him. “But this has all gone horribly. We’re tied up here, you were supposed to be some celestial rock-“

“Sorry to disappoint,” but it was said with a smile Arthur could hear.

“and now I won’t get back in time to propose to Guinevere. I’ll have to just become a shop boy or something, or keep working for my uncle.” Arthur had to keep from cringing at the thought, though it was nothing against Gaius. It was against the idea of being less than he could be, or worse, that being some errand boy was the height of his potential.

“Arthur,” he wasn’t sure Merlin had called him anything other than insults so far, so his name was a surprise. His tone even was much kinder and Arthur wished they could see each other. “do you know why I always wanted to come down to earth? It wasn’t because of the wars and things I saw most of the time, it was for everything else. It was because even with all of that, you are all so capable of peace and love. I see so much happiness here, and when you’re a star you don’t feel any of that, not really.”

“Why would you want to go back then?”

There was a choked noise, something between amused and incredulous, “because I have to. You said it yourself, you rely on the stars to navigate. You relied on me… Why would you want to go back, if your home is like you said?”

“For Guinevere.” Arthur’s answer was quick and certain, much like Merlin’s.

Then there was a pause, which made Arthur feel that somehow that was the wrong answer. Then Merlin asked in yet another new tone, a soft one, “Why do you love her?”

And it was Arthur’s turn to prolong a response. Why? Because she was Gwen; she had this way about her that was beautiful and self assured. He’d always liked her so it seemed obvious he should love her. She was kind to him, despite Lancelot not being so. And she would always ask for him if he was in the shop. She would walk with him and he’d carry her things, and she was the closest thing to a friend as well. “I- Well why wouldn’t I love her?” Perhaps that was too defensive, but he couldn’t find the words to explain it. “You wouldn’t understand. It’s just this feeling I have, when I’m around her. That's just what love is like, I can’t describe it but I know what it is.”

Again Merlin didn’t answer and again Arthur felt he had stupidly said the wrong thing. Desperately he wanted the man from before to just toss him off the ship so he didn’t have to face this embarrassment.

Like an answer to that prayer footsteps down the stairs and then the door swinging open. Only, the man wasn’t the same Arthur had thought of. A smaller man, with something about his figure that was more mischievous than imposing. “Ah, our two stowaways-“

“We’re not stowaways sir, we didn’t mean to come aboard. You were the ones who caught us anyway-“ Merlin was muttering for Arthur to shut up and stop rambling. The man grinned stepping into the dark of the hold where he could be seen better, no longer blocking the light from above deck.

“Blaming it on me then? That’s bold of you princess, especially since your life’s in my hands right now.” He put a hand in his coat and Arthur was terrified to have another manic encounter with a dagger but he only pulled out an apple. “Now,” he spoke around a bite, “what’re you doing on my ship.”

“You see sir-“

“Call me that again I swear I’ll throw you off the ship.”

“Right, sorry s- then. We were just trying to get back to Ealdor, but made a mistake. We got stuck in the clouds and you saved us, honestly, but we meant no disrespect-“

“Does he always babble like this?” The question was directed at Merlin, who sat wide-eyed wondering how in the hell this was all really happening. Getting no response, the man rolled his eyes, “There’s really only one way I’ll have you prove your respect.”

He pulled out a sword and Arthur shouted a “please no!” and Merlin said something sounding too much like “he kidnapped me!” but the sword made contact with neither of them. It sliced through the air and cut clean their bindings to the chairs. “Above deck, now,” the captain commanded. Arthur and Merlin followed quickly with a whispered conversation.

“Did you just try to save yourself by blaming me?”

Merlin shrugged, “I’m right, you did kidnap me and I have had no say in what’s happened.”

“Neither have I, because oh yes I remember now how I planned on almost getting us killed twice-“

“If you two would stop bickering,” the captain had stopped them after crossing the deck. The rest of the crew was gathered on level or crouching from above, all watching though. “Time for you to prove yourself,” a sword clattered at Arthur’s feet, “you get to duel the champion of our crew, prove you’re worth keeping alive.” The announcement was met with a roar of approval from the rest of the men.

Arthur was going to ask who the champion was, terrified it was the man from before, who he could see from where his height made him visible over the crowd. But scanning that same lot he really didn’t want to fight any of those men. So instead he admitted, “I don’t know how to fight,” and this time the statement was met with laughter.

The captain held up a hand, “This’ll be quick then. Come on now, you can at least hold a sword, can’t you?”

While Arthur picked up the weapon. He felt lucky his dominant hand wasn’t the hurt one, because sword fighting for the first time with a burnt hand didn’t sound welcoming. At his side Merlin spoke up, “so who is this champion? He must be quite the coward if this is what he thinks of as fair.”

“Merlin, I swear- you’ll get us both killed you idiot,” Arthur cursed under his breath, wanting to hit his idiot partner. Better yet, he could test out the blade and stab him.

Robbing him of such a perfect opportunity, the captain spoke again with a wicked grin, making the answer clear enough even without words. “I am,” he confirmed, drawing his own sword and bringing with it another round of cheers.

Arthur’s eyes widened and he’d hardly secured his grip when the man lunged. He skirted back, flailing the sword in defense and barely keeping from getting shredded. Merlin had been pulled away from the action by some stoic bearded man with a vice grip on the star.

The rest of the men were far more vocal, yelling encouragements to “kill him already!” Arthur could see how the jeering spurred the captain on as the man made a game of keeping Arthur on his toes. It wasn’t a fight, it was a joke to him.

He managed to deflect a sharp stab, but glancing it off his sword made it slice along his arm instead. The cut was shallow enough and Arthur fought from crying out, but he did hear another voice yell. Merlin from the side had tried to break free and called Arthur’s name. His relief was visible that the man was still alive.

Alive or not, the fight wasn’t over, and Arthur’s arms were shaking from exertion. “Wouldn’t matter whether you wanted to give up,” his opponent growled, taking a step back and pushing hair from his face. “I wouldn’t let you.” He seemed unaffected.

Arthur straightened his shoulders, gripping the sword and trying not to think of the pain and blood. “Is that how you lead your men then?” If you was going to die, he wasn’t going to do it without trying. He tried swiping the sword but was blocked leisurely. “Do you show them how to kill a defenseless man? Do you say there’s honor in this?” He managed to block another blow, and they were locked, blades against each other and providing the only separation between their faces.

“Hate to break it to you princess, but you’re not very defenseless right now,” and to punctuate his point the captain slid their swords together before pushing with enough force to knock Arthur back.

He cut a jab back at Arthur but then they both looked shocked when he not only defended himself but knocked the blade away. One of their audience, angry at the turn, yelled for his captain and tossed another sword. Arthur hardly thought that was fair but he took his advantage and lunged back. It was weird, this feeling almost like he wasn’t himself, surprised at his ability. He would have laughed if it didn’t guarantee he would be stabbed.

With this weird rush it seemed they were matched, and Arthur could only think oh god what is happening am I not actually going to die? Their blades would meet and neither had the upper hand, locked again with the captain trying to use strength over skill. Again he knocked Arthur back, then took a step or two back of his own. He was breathing hard now, and looked over at his men but his eyes caught something else. His brow furrowed and he glared back at Arthur, who’d lost his footing. With a new determination and Arthur watching with fear once again, it was only one swipe, then another and his sword clattered to the ground. The captain ended things with a blow to the face.

For a moment no one spoke, his men too stunned to cheer, and when they’d realized the fight was over and it certainly was their man standing, the captain looked deadly. “Percival,” he pointed to the giant of a man, “bring him to my quarters, and the lad as well.” With that he stalked below deck and as instructed, Percival went to lift the now unconscious Arthur and follow. Merlin shifted from the bearded man’s grip to his, also too shocked to speak. Tears pricked his eyes but did not fall, for he felt certain they would be killed.

When Percival came back above deck, empty handed, the crew looked ready for an explanation until the bearded man spoke up, “Captain’s busy, so should you be.” And it ended all thought of gossip.

The captain didn’t speak while he waited for Arthur to come to, but he did stare between him and Merlin while taking the time to dress the wound he caused. At first Merlin had asked “Why didn’t you just kill him? Why did you bring us down here?” but at getting no response, he stopped.

When Arthur showed signs of stirring, Merlin tried to go to his side but a look from the man kept him back. “It’s not normal for people to be caught in the clouds, not something that one sees every day.” Merlin felt that was hardly important and switched between watching the man pace near his desk and watching Arthur slowly come to. “Which makes you both quite interesting. Not only one person, but two.”

Arthur tried to sit up, failed, and laid back with eyes open looking very lost. “So, what are you then?” The captain pointed with a knife, motioning between them only for the two fools to look pleadingly at one another. Delaying an answer, he continued, “I mean you come onto my ship, insult me” he looked directly at Arthur “and wonder why I don’t just kill you, almost rooting for me to kill your… companion?”

A little more aware of things now and definitely catching that last bit, Arthur glared at Merlin, who shook his head in denial. He had not been asking Arthur to get hurt, let alone killed.

Then there was the added question of their relationship and a sly grin by their host before he waved a hand, “You claim you can’t fight, and then shock yourself by almost beating me! Clearly an amateur though, you’ve horrible footwork. So again, what are you?”

“We’re just traveling. We didn’t mean to get up here, that was a matter of… miscommunication,” Merlin looked back at Arthur, still refusing to take the blame for getting them stuck up in the atmosphere.

“You’re not answering my question. I’m not asking what you’re doing, or who you are, or where you’re going. I’m asking what you are.”

“I don’t understand-“

“Of course you do!” He grinned like this was entertainment, but there was something beneath the look that made it clear how serious he was. “He- Arthur you said his name was? Up on the deck when you called out to him? Well our Arthur here admitted he can’t fight, and that was true for that first bit. He’s even down to one hand, already hurt going into it. Then I stab him, and suddenly we’re even. Suddenly he’s quite the sight with a sword! Thought he was just a liar, or really fuckin’ humble there for a minute. But then I look over at you,” and his eyes were sharp on Merlin, “and you’re glowing. Just a faint bit, but you’re shining in a way people don’t, and your eyes have gone gold. And it stops the moment I knock him out.”

As shocked as Arthur looked at that news, Merlin was that tenfold. He hadn’t meant to do anything, and usually his magic was far more volatile, but he couldn’t do anything about it. More than anything it meant they were lucky he hadn’t accidentally killed someone. “I can’t control it,” probably wasn’t the best defense, but it was Merlin’s answer. “I’m-“

He wasn’t even sure if he would be able to admit it but the man cut him off, “No need to really say it. Not many things glow, magic or not.” The captain even winked, as if to say your secret is safe with me despite having tormented them since the moment they arrived.

And Arthur still looked so thrown, half sitting up now, and looking between the captain and Merlin. It made sense, unfortunately, that his skill hadn’t actually been his. It was magic- It was Merlin . Which meant his biggest concern was really “Why the hell didn’t you do anything when we almost died?”

Merlin went from fearfully defensive to indignantly so in an instant, “I said I can’t control it! It’s not like I wanted my heart ripped out!”

“I burned my hand for you! And had to fight him!” Arthur pointed at the captain as if he hadn’t so obviously been there.

“Yes princess, and you’ll live. Now,” the man clapped his hands, dropping the knife and smiling entirely genuinely, “I believe you mentioned Ealdor. Tell me all about wonderful England.”

Arthur blanched. “Wait, so you aren’t going to kill us?”

The man’s face scrunched up in complete disgust, “No, don’t be ridiculous. If I wanted to kill you, then you’d be dead. Also, I wouldn’t kill you here because I’m not getting blood on this floor.”

Merlin’s shock on the other hand turned to humor and he laughed, a thing Arthur realized he hadn’t heard before. Granted, they’d only been together two days now and not under the best of circumstances.

“But please, it’s been so long since I’ve seen the country. Up in the air all the time, you know how it is,” Crossing the room, the captain waved a hand, as if being some sky pirate or whatever he was was usual. Arthur much better now, sat normally and watched, still wary. “And when I go to port no one tells me any mundane news. Everything is all business, which is just absurd. It’s always Captain this and Captain that, it’s exhausting really. So please, tell me all about the world now, and in exchange I’ll get you cleaned up.”

“You don’t have to do that,” Arthur tried to refuse but was met with a disbelieving look.

“Your shirt is bloody and torn, not to mention filthy, and he’s wearing a bathrobe.”

Somehow Merlin’s state of dress hadn’t occurred to them in all the chaos.

“Thank you,” the star in question piped up, “do you- What’s your name? So that we don’t have to call you captain.”

“It’s Gwaine, crew calls me just captain, or Captain Green sometimes. I don’t know where Green came from. Percy tried to explain it once, said it was something about this legendary knight. I just thought they’d known my favorite color,” and he had this almost distant look before grinning at the two again. Gwaine held up a shirt then swapped it for another. “Red’s more your color,” as a ways of explanation before tossing the garment at Arthur.

He just barely caught it and brought himself back to reality. “Ealdor,” he practically yelled it, making the captain look back at him with surprise and far too much amusement for his liking. Arthur cleared his throat, glancing at the shirt in his lap, “it’s fine. All of England is. Fine and as it should be.”

“That’s not true,” Merlin countered, having stood at some point to let Gwaine figure out clothes for him. “Arthur has complained a lot about good old England.”

“Oh has he?” Arthur detested how well the two were suddenly getting on, “Well do share.”

“He said it was boring. Quite boring really. That’s why he’s here, looking for adventure. Though I don’t think he expected adventure to be even half this dangerous.”

“Neither did you,” Arthur scoffed, changed into the new and tragically comfortable shirt. He could see Gwaine nodding his approval from behind Merlin and just rolled his eyes. “And I remember you saying a thing or two about wanting to come to earth, wanting to live as people do.”

“Yes well most people don’t live like this,” and the both had sense enough to not argue that point. Most people don’t go through a series of life threatening experiences including unicorns, egotistical heirs, witches, Babylon candles, and sky pirates with a penchant for fashion. Speaking of, Gwaine ushered Merlin off so he could go dress.

“Do the two of you ever not argue like this?” The captain asked, leaning against his desk with the biggest shit-eating grin.

“We don’t, no - Not like it matters anyway,” Arthur bitterly replied, slumping back on the seat he’d been laid on.

“So you’re the reason for all the antagonism, that makes much more sense,” Gwaine clicked his tongue and pointed in the general direction of Merlin, still off getting dressed. “See he’s too nice to be at fault.”

“Nice?!” Arthur spat “ Mer lin’s been a pain in my arse since we met.” Again it had only been two days since but it had been enough pain to last a lifetime.

“It’s been mutual!” Merlin came back out to the rest of the captain’s quarters, dressed normally for once. When he’d appeared- fallen? - he’d been in some thin garment and only changed out of that to be put in a robe. Finally he was appropriately fit, but in clothes that bordered in regal in their presentation.

Arthur glances down at his own shirt, “so he gets that and I get this?” because his gift was much more plain in comparison. Incredibly comfortable and fit perfectly, but less ornate. Merlin was in some dark formal jacket that made him look much less helpless. He looked respectable.

Merlin colored at that, seeming embarrassed at the idea of special treatment- or perhaps at the idea that Arthur was paying that much attention to his appearance.

Gwaine scoffed, muttering something about “ungrateful” and “lucky I don’t just-“ but Arthur knew what that threat was and stopped trying to listen.

But after getting over that offense, the captain turned attention to another matter: their story. After trying to keep from admitting anything at first, Arthur finally spoke. He told all, of Guinevere and of seeing the star. He spoke of how he came to Camelot and meeting Merlin. Sheepishly he admitted he took him - pointedly avoiding the word kidnapped - but then lost him. Merlin filled in the details on that, and finding the witch. Then Arthur added meeting the heir and their reunion. Then there was their arrival on the ship, to which they didn’t need to explain.

After a minute, Gwaine nodded. He had asked no questions, which surprised Arthur, and made no comments. And at the end of it, he hardly even seemed concerned, so nonchalant that it was like the story was unprompted.

This was not because he didn’t care, but because he needed that story for a less interested reason: figuring out a new one. They were already on his ship, and Gwaine couldn’t very well throw them overboard no matter how much he threatened to- not like he actually wanted to anyway. But they couldn’t just disappear so an explanation was needed for the crew, in the name of appearances, as to explain their presence.

“Couldn’t you be honest?”

“Couldn’t you just say we’re friends?”

“I don't see how we’ve done anything wrong in all this-“

“I agree with Arthur,” a statement to which the blond even looked shocked, “it’s not like we meant to be stowaways-“

“We weren’t stowaways- that implies it was on purpose, which is wasn’t-“

“Oh, stop being pedantic…”

Gwaine, meanwhile, rolled his eyes at their banter, waiting for it to subside enough. Any sort of front, though dishonest, would be easy. To an extent, his men wouldn’t care, but it was generally safe to have some story, and have it be consistent. This was especially the case given what Merlin was - all too clearly was - but that wasn’t something that could be fixed.

When they managed to shut up, he explained what he knew would be beneficial and to pacify Arthur, slightly true. After all, the best lies generally are. Merlin and Arthur would be advertised and accepted as passengers, they paid well for the trip but it was also a way for Gwaine to pay off an old debt, because he had enough of those that no one would doubt it. As a part of this and in the meantime, Arthur would be taught a thing or two about using a sword. Merlin could do whatever he wanted. This detail, Arthur objected to but Gwaine said Merlin hadn’t the temperament for combat, to which Merlin agreed if only to mock his companion.

The story didn’t need to be extravagant. If anyone asked, they were picked up at the northern border, near Mercia and would be accompanying them until the westernmost city, heading back to Ealdor. Gwaine added that port cities weren’t everywhere, so though he would get them close that stop was still some journey from Ealdor, and there was no guarantee what the weather would do to help them.

“It’s fine,” Merlin never imagined Arthur would be the one reassuring the captain. Shocking him though, he did, nodding at the plan and seeming to think it over, agreeing with it entirely. He even admitted “it’s kind of you. We’re thankful for all of it, not just the transport but the clothes and not killing us as well.”

Gwaine let his own surprise, much more mild, settle, before nodding as well with a knowing look, “no need to get so diplomatic on me. Pull the stick out of your ass or I’ll go back on my word on all of it.”

And so they all agreed, Gwaine with a swagger and smirk, Merlin with bright eyes and expectation, and Arthur with a reluctant nod and a poorly suppressed smile.

Chapter Text

Arthur and Merlin had safe passage to Ealdor, both of them clothed and clean for once. They were even able to eat and drink, joining the crew members who, like Gwaine, were more than met the eye. 

There was Percival, technically the first one they had met. He was the giant of a man who had caught them in the net, for which he’d now apologized for profusely. Then there was Leon, the equally kind bearded man. He seemed to be the first mate, or something to that effect, but was more of the silent type. He said little, but his actions and emotions said much more and gave comfort regardless. Elyan rounded out the trio, and together they with Gwaine were the loudest bunch and Merlin didn’t miss how Arthur caught on with them instantly. There was though, this unnamed thing between Arthur and Elyan that was near tangible with an undefined tension. It wasn’t anger or dislike or anything near it, and when Merlin has tried to needle it out of his companion was met with an uncharacteristic wall of unresponsiveness. 

“So you won’t tell me?” 

“There’s nothing to tell.” They were laying in the hold, the same place where they’d been tied up upon their arrival. Now those chairs were gone and two cots with barely any distance between them had been strung up. Arthur laid with his back to Merlin, who was sitting up and trying to get a peak of the other man’s expressions. He looked stone faced. 

“Of course there is. You think you’re good at hiding your emotions but you’ve your heart on your sleeve Arthur. Even if I can’t tell what particularly is wrong, I can tell that something’s bothering you.”

“Perhaps it’s your incessant chatter.”

Which all meant that Arthur had set himself quite against opening up, and it gave Merlin this weird feeling in the pit of his stomach that he’d never felt before. Though, all human feelings were still relatively new, but he knew he didn’t like this one. He felt there’d been some progress, if no other word better suited their situation, and that he was close to calling Arthur a friend; it all soured when Arthur would shut down with that brooding look and pursed lips. 

Though aside from that complication, everything was going swimmingly. Perhaps there was a better description to fit their environment, but both Arthur and Merlin felt happy and normal with the crew: having meals with the men and captain, visiting ports. 

At their second stop there had been whispers, which despite his intentions Merlin was never able to hear. Gwaine would always smile, lead him around, disappear, and next he knew they were back and the ship was setting sail. After such an occasion, finding Arthur and Elyan in some conspirators huddle, Merlin walked up and announced,

“I think I’ll just throw myself overboard,”

and he was met with wide eyes from one man and a blank look from the other. 

“Why would you-“

“He wouldn’t, it’s a bluff,” Arthur deadpanned. “ Mer lin is upset that I’ve not been telling him every detail of my life, so the only solution is for him to jump ship, clearly.”

“I’m not asking for every detail you prat, I’ve only wanted to know why you two are always engaged.”

A comment which made Elyan light up, and he had such a kind face and eyes always hinting at mischief, especially when other crew members were involved. “Arthur hasn’t told you?” A question which needed no answer as he didn’t wait for one. “I’m Guinevere’s brother.”

The sound of her name served as a bitter reminder of why all this started, and Merlin visibly darkened. He was ready to mutter his leave, make some excuse not to continue the conversation. It made sense, for Arthur to spend his time with the brother of his love, whom he had gone on this whole journey for. Merlin couldn’t fault him for that, for latching on to this man who was probably the closest thing to his normal life. 

But before he could sulk off, Elyan continued, “I left Ealdor ages ago, and Arthur and I started talking because- Well no one really leaves Ealdor, and no one really crosses the wall. As far as I know, we’re the only two that’ve done it.” He beamed and elbowed Arthur, who looked like he was finally warming up to the talk. But where Elyan looked proud Arthur still looked hesitant. “I asked him to tell me all about home, I haven’t seen Gwen in so long. And he wanted to know where I’d been, why I’d left and how I’d gotten here of all places.”

Which did nothing to explain why Arthur still looked apathetic. It did nothing to explain why Arthur kept all of this hidden, why he would smile and laugh but the moment Merlin has asked he would shut down. “How did you get here then?” Merlin asked, for it had to be some story for it to monopolize Arthur’s attention as it had. 

Elyan made to speak, but heard some shouting and clapped Arthur on the back instead, “Perhaps Arthur will enlighten you, duty calls.” And he scampered above deck. 

With him gone, Arthur let out a breath, put a hand to his face. Merlin, an eyebrow raised, was going to pose a question but Arthur preemptively waved it away, “we best go see what’s happening.”

That evening the stars were shining brightly but looked like such a comfort after a storm earlier. Now the sky was clear, the clouds had broken up, and the sun had long set so the sky behind the stars was as rich and dark as ever. With no storm, and a day before they reached another port, there was no work to be done. The crew lounged above deck and even Gwaine was relaxing proudly with an ale in his hands. 

The next port though was their last, Arthur and Merlin’s at least. It was as far west as they could go before Camelot’s realm ended. To Merlin, there was some sense of that in the air, that this was their last night on board and there was a good chance he’d never seen any of the men again. Merlin was letting Elyan and Percival explain some game to him, but he didn’t understand it in the slightest, sitting and nodding as they argued over better gameplay strategy. Elyan was claiming defensive is the way to go, and Percival arguing for ruthless attack. Leon would make small, soft comments for Merlin’s ears only that they were both wrong. 

He and Arthur hadn’t seen each other for most of the day because Gwaine had made true on his promise. The two of them had been constantly training, working together so Arhur could be at least competent with a weapon. When Merlin asked how they were coming along, seeing an exhausted Arthur flopped down on his cot, Gwaine answered that “princess has some skill, but still no match for me” and winked. 

When Leon scoffed and said louder than he meant to “that doesn’t even make sense,” both Percy and Elyan leapt to defenses, starting a full blown argument over the game. Merlin, still only half processing things, was grateful when Gwaine swaggered over and saved him from the chaos. 

“So you’ll be off tomorrow, and I must admit I’ll be sad to see you go.”

“Not as sad as I’ll be, with you abandoning me to suffer through Arthur’s company alone,” Merlin grinned and scanned the deck but saw the blond nowhere. Some part of him mourned that, but he didn’t think too long on it and hoped his disappointment didn’t show. “You’ve been a great friend to him when you didn’t have to be. I thank you for that, we both do.”

“It wasn’t for him, dear,” Gwaine’s eyes seemed to soften a touch, reflecting a much more genuine emotion than usual. Throughout their stay Merlin has quickly learned that Gwaine cared and felt more than be ever let on, hiding behind jokes and bravado. He slid back into that light demeanor, saying no more on it but Merlin understood fine. “I’ve already made sure Arthur has everything you two will need. You’ll have money for lodgings when you reach town, I’m afraid this port is a ways off-“

“You don't have to do any of that, not when you’ve already given us clothes and food, and not killed us-“

“That’s not why I pulled you aside.” Again there was this note of sincerity. “More than clothes and money, or weapons and training I thought I’d give you advice.” His lip quirk, recognizing the irony of a man such as himself advising anything but his eyes stayed serious, “I hope you remember you can trust me, and my crew, because none of us have said anything. But Merlin, you’ll be in a real town again, and I must warn you that word has spread that a star has fallen in Camelot. You’ve already met the priestess searching for you, but I think we both know there’s more danger than that.” Gwaine’s gaze faltered, straying from Merlin’s face down to his open collar and a chain visibly leading under his tunic before darting back to his eyes. “You would do best to keep covert. I’ve been glad to see you happy but you’re not really discreet when you are.”

Merlin could feel himself flush at the comment, but he hadn’t noticed himself glow. He never did notice that supposedly he had some shine about him when he was glad, or that his eyes glowed when he did magic, though he hardly ever did magic on purpose. Both Arthur and Gwaine has informed him of those details but with his reactions to things as volatile as they were, he had no control over them. 

But he didn’t know why Gwaine had looked at him that way, and it made Merlin aware of that chain, that necklace, in a way he hadn’t been since the man who died (Cenred?) had asked about it in Morgana’s cabin. The thing had knocked him out of the sky, but after everything else he tried not to pay it any mind, but he wasn’t going to just abandon it. The necklace meant something - what, he didn’t know - but so long as he kept it hidden he didn’t think it an issue. 

“Thank you,” Merlin managed to finally say, meaning it entirely as he smiled back at Gwaine. The man had done so much for them and there was no repaying that. “If there’s anything-“

“I only ask that you’re happy, with him and after all this,” and then Gwaine just walked away, sipping his drink watching his crew with sharp but lidded eyes. 

For a moment Merlin stood, dazed, before shaking his head and passing of the comment as Gwaine just being himself and decided he might as well go below deck. He hadn’t the excitement in him to join the men in their games or their drinking, and there was little else to do. He was greeted with the sight of Arthur a lump on his cot announcing he’s “not ‘sleep, so you don’t need to tiptoe around like that.”

Merlin purposefully made more noise, slipping into a lighter tunic and flopping into his own cot, “I knew you weren’t, you’re far too quiet. You snore when you sleep.”

Arthur just threw something at him in response. 

A moment passed, Merlin sighing into the comfort of his makeshift bed and the night. He’d gotten used to diurnality now, able to sleep easily at night due to sheer exhaustion. He would have gladly just drifted off, but Arthur was the one to speak. 

“Are you upset with me? Over Elyan?”

It took Merlin a second, not expecting the question, before answering a soft “yes” and then chasing it with “I don’t know really.” 

Because he wasn’t sure. And he couldn’t put it into words. 

“Come on,” Merlin heard Arthur shift and then felt his cot move some, like it’d been nudged. “Don’t act so mysterious over it.”

“Look-“ Merlin didn’t enjoy the levity of Arthur’s tone, but he didn’t mean to sound so serious himself, “I don’t know, Arthur. All of my feelings are new to me, it’s different being on Earth and having this body and all of this- I don’t know what I’m feeling half of the time and I can’t really go around asking people to explain these basic concepts to mean-“

“I didn’t mean it like that,” Arthur cut in and Merlin was glad not to be facing him. “It was just that when Elyan mentioned Gwen, you looked like you wanted to throw up.”

“I don’t know what throwing up feels like but yes I think I wanted to.”

He meant it genuinely but earned a laugh from Arthur instead and weirdly it was a comfort. 

“It was odd, seeing him. I hardly knew him when we were younger. But I think that made me realize I hardly knew Guinevere either. It’s not like I ever really talked to her, I just saw her and thought I knew. I thought I knew everything about love, and that’s why I did all this. Now I’ve dragged you into everything and look at what a mess it’s been.”

Merlin scoffed, but didn’t say anything. He was smiling though as Arthur rambled on. 

“I realized, in talking to Elyan, that I don’t know a thing about her. Well- that’s not true. I know a lot about her, but she doesn’t know me or care about anyone else that much. I think I just idolized her.”

Merlin turned to face the ceiling, “Arthur, you made me listen to you go on about Guinevere for hours as you dragged me through a forest. I was injured, tired, and had only been in some corporeal form for a very short while and now you’re saying you don’t even love her?”

“No,” it was the clearest thing Arthur ever said. A solid, resounding statement. No. “No, I don’t love her,” he tacked on, just as clear. 

“I think,” Merlin flopped back over again, “ you have done far too much thinking and you’re going to hurt yourself.” But Merlin had this weird feeling in his stomach and he wondered again what throwing up would be like. There was a weird warmth in his face and he felt it all across his skin and he shut his eyes, worried he might even be glowing and he absolutely did not want to be. 

They didn’t speak again that night, nor in the morning while the crew was busy docking and Arthur was checking the bags Gwaine had given them. There was at least one change of clothes for each of them, Merlin knew that. Arthur had a sword around his waist now, and there was supposed to be a dagger hidden among their things. Gwaine has mentioned some food and money as well, but Merlin didn’t have a whole catalogue in his head of it all. He had himself, and Arthur knew the rest and that was good enough for him. 

Gwaine had been honest, this was a near isolated port. 

It wasn’t in or just off a town like the rest had been, but settled instead into a cove of cliff side ledges and a dark lake. There was a road, and Gwaine pointed them in the direction they needed to go as Arthur hauled some of their things to the ground. 

“And Merlin,” Gwaine said just as they were to be off, beckoning the star to him. His voice was low and in that secretively genuine way, “Arthur is too much of an idiot to say things, but know he means it.”

“What-“ Merlin was pulled conspiratorially close but felt what Gwaine said made no sense. 

The captain waved a hand, “Just because he hasn’t admitted things doesn’t make them not true. He’s done all of this for the person he loves, but not for Guinevere.”

Then he took a step back, waved a hand and announced in his usual voice, loud enough for all to hear “Make sure not to get killed on the road, and tell everyone at the tavern how dearly I miss them.”

Merlin stumbled away feeling lost and a little unsure of his body, but Arthur was at his side with this sort of easy, oblivious joy saying how nice it would be to walk on land again.

-

Morgana has gone west as soon as she’d recovered. The horror at the cabin had left her weary, looking ages older and infinitely more menacing. All her magic couldn’t tell her where the star was, but she’d managed to have a direction. It was little to go on, but something was better than nothing. 

Something was absolutely better when she still had Morgause and Nimueh pestering her at letting the star get away. In her state, she wouldn’t be able to kill the thing properly now and it was almost certain he wouldn’t glow when being ripped open. Still, a heart at all was powerful, even with the faintest shimmer. 

But just as she set off, so did Agraviane, equally determined. For all his power and status neither could he get a read on the necklace’s position. Rumors though, he’d heard plenty of. 

A star had fallen in Camelot. He knew what it would mean, to find not only the star but the necklace as well. He could rule with infinite power and time, to be king for all eternity. 

He only needed, of course, to find both things and kill Tristan before he did. He’d neither seen nor heard from the other heir since they’d set off, and the lack of information was killing him. How could he plan with such an unknown? 

Two days after finding Cenred dead, he’d traveled west and nearly crossed the realm. He hadn’t let himself stop for anything, only doing so when he had to change out horses in a town. His speed was relentless and he’d killed mounts going the pace he was. 

Some part of his fervor, the ego of his arrival, demanding a best horse from the city stables, and declaring his name quickly to incite fear, had caught people’s eyes. It was hardly surprising. Everyone knew the king was dead, knew what tradition dictated since no child was born to him. The disappearance of the queen so many years before had guaranteed that, and the naming of multiple heirs had made succession a convoluted thing. Tristan du Bois and Agravaine, at the very least, both boasted familial claims to the throne so at least the last options made sense. 

But even holding his status over the stable hand, there was a delay in his new horses preparation, during which a bundle of rags vaguely resembling a human form crept up to him. Agravaine tried to threaten the creature, which pulled back a shawl to reveal the stoney face of an old - but not kind - woman. 

“You seek the star,” she said. For all her wrinkles, grey hair and crooked form, her eyes looked young and bright and vile. “The star, but power as well. You, Prince Agravaine, seem the throne of Camelot.”

Fear was not something he was prone to, but caution he felt in bounds. He tightened his grip on the sword at his side. She crooned, “I mean you no harm. I only wish to help.”

She did not say her name, or what she planned to get out of the arrangement she purposed. She only promised that if he helped her get transport further west, he would get all the power he deserved. 

-

“Come on then!” Arthur was still far too cheery, leading along the path. “You saw the sign, we’ll get to town by nightfall. Then we can get a room at some inn, eat and relax, it’ll be wonderful.” 

This Arthur was far from the one not quite a week ago, when they’d met. He was still dragging Merlin along but they were both much healthier, and happier, and Merlin (reluctantly) was glad of the company. He was even tolerant of Merlin prattling on about everything they passed. The star marveled over so many little details of nature, since now he finally had a chance to look at things. Arthur would say they needed to be going, but never with any malice and never stopping Merlin from his explorations. 

It was in the middle of one of these moments, Merlin having led them astray to a where a great tree had fallen aside the road when Arthur did stop him with a raised hand. “Someone’s coming,” he breathed before hopping over the trunk, pulling Merlin after him. They laid in the sunken earth, hidden from view by the ditch and the decaying tree. Arthur put a hand over Merlin’s mouth, which he thought hardly necessary. 

They waited, the crisp sound of a horse’s trot coming closer and then passing away without slowing. There was nothing suspicious in that, likely just some traveler between towns, or maybe even a farmer. But Gwaine had warned him of what could happen along the roads and he couldn’t risk anything. Arthur looked at Merlin, whose eyes were positively murderous, when he pulled his hand away, seeing the man’s nostrils flare when he did. 

“Sorry,” he muttered, but still made no move to stand. He knew it was a weird and horrible moment to have these thoughts, but Merlin really did look otherworldly sometimes. Of course, he was otherworldly really, but there was just something about his features; everything just a little more prominent, his ears that stuck out and his eyes so bright, and this huge smile that took over his face. Though Merlin wasn’t smiling in that moment, just staring back at Arthur like he was off his head. 

“You’re glowing,” he finally said, though the light was really hardly noticeable. Arthur wasn’t even quite sure why he’d thought it worth mentioning but it had been at the forefront of his mind and suddenly it was out of his mouth. 

Merlin instantly dimmed and a glint of fear appeared in his eyes. Arthur quickly pulled them both to their feet, looking back to the now empty road. “It’s not that I mind it,” he sounded almost apologetic. He regretted saying it, missing how Merlin had looked a moment ago. 

Even if it was a look like Arthur was crazy, or exhausting, or pretentious - or some other thing on a list of all the insults Merlin had thrown at him - it felt different. Whenever he saw Merlin looking at him, it stirred up this deep, almost reverential feeling and he was just awed at everything. The way Merlin felt about all the plants and animals, the way he talked about human nature and history with such fascination, Arthur felt about him. 

It’s why he’d felt so horrible talking to Elyan. Being reminded of Guinevere wasn’t what he had expected. Arthur set out on this journey certain that he loved her and would do anything for her, his own promises to fetch her diamonds and a polar bear’s head echoed around his brain. He’d get Gwen her very own fallen star and she would love him immensely and indefinitely and all would be well. 

But now he’d gone on this whole journey which seemed so close to an end (yet somehow it hadn’t dawned on him that his original purpose was now irrelevant) and he still had such a certainty of that feeling . He hadn’t realized it at first, because honestly they were so caught up in everything else. But in some time aboard Gwaine’s ship, in talking to Elyan and seeing Merlin comfortable and happy, things had shifted. 

He would look at Merlin and he would see the stars, he would see the whole universe shining back at him in the little ways he would smile and his lip would crinkle up and his eyes would nearly shut in laughter. Arthur would watch as Merlin pretended to follow conversations among the crew and instead Merlin would gaze back at him and Arthur could swear he was glowing when he did. 

Then the moment would pass and he wanted it back as soon as it had come. He wanted to see Merlin shine like he knew he could, to see him not so restrained. 

That was one reason Arthur couldn’t bring himself to relay his and Elyan’s conversations. The other was that Merlin was right, he didn’t love Guinevere. 

Truthfully he never had. He’d adored her, and wanted her to love him, and he’d liked her a great deal. But that hadn’t been love, and with her it never could have been. 

He wasn’t quite sure how to qualify what love was, or what it felt like but Arthur was terrifyingly sure that what he felt towards Merlin was much closer to it. 

And Merlin, dazzling and brilliant said nothing of his feelings either and would just marvel at their world. Sometimes it felt that maybe it was a bit inappropriate for him to be so appreciative, given the whole “threat to their lives” thing. In comparison to Merlin though, nothing else seemed to matter. 

Merlin pulled him out of his thoughts with some comment on the wildflowers along the roadside. Arthur rather lamely commented they were probably poisonous. 

-

Gwaine had downplayed their destination. He said it was some market town and there was a fair there infrequently and that was the only time it was ever something. Arthur mostly noticed the streets were crowded and loud. Merlin took in the color and the lights, in the stalls lining the street and the brightly painted buildings and shop signs. 

They’d stopped in other areas with the ship but none seemed as lively as this. 

Quite turning the tide on things, it was now Merlin pulling Arthur along to look at wares and marvel at fine jewelry. “I’ve never seen anything like it!” He said for what felt like the millionth time while Arthur stared down the grimey looking shopkeeper. 

“Yes, well wouldn’t you like to look around after we’ve had a chance to rest? Looks like there’s an inn just ahead. We can eat and stay there if they’ll have us.” Arthur hadn’t presented it as much of a question, leading Merlin with a hand to his back. 

“What’re all these symbols?” Merlin asked and Arthur almost told him off because he was glowing, only faintly, again. The star was waving a hand to flags hanging from open windows and strung along above the road. 

“I just imagine it’s their flag,” Arthur replied - again, lamely - and truly looked up at one; a red banner with a golden dragon. 

He turned just enough to nudge Arthur’s arm, “No, you cabbage head , I know what flags are- I meant these .” Merlin pointed more specifically to a smaller crest. It adorned wordless posters, like a stamp, that dotted the sides of buildings and stalls. It was a marker that seemed fairly obvious now Merlin had mentioned it. And it was on certain flags, looking to have been slapped on by some passerby, never covering the larger crest but looking like a reminder just under it. 

What it meant, Arthur couldn’t say, but it made him almost gasp, a hand flying to his pocket. 

“Something wrong?” Merlin looked worried now, having stopped out of the way of street traffic. 

“No- it’s just I know that symbol-“ Or he didn’t really but he’d seen it and- 

From one of their bags Arthur managed to find it. Just like Merlin, Arthur had his own momento he’d managed to keep their whole journey, and something about it felt a little silly. But he fished out the round pendant Gaius had handed him before the Babylon candle whisked him away. 

“It’s from my mother,” Arthur admitted, glancing between the thing in his hand and Merlin. “I don’t know what it is, but it’s the same,” And it clearly was the same marker that dotted their surroundings. It was a wheel, only sort of, with four protrusions like spokes and two thicker round bands, and a heavy middle circle. 

“Have you had this the whole time?” Merlin raised a brow. He didn’t look offended at not knowing, just a bit confused that they could have gone through all they had and Arthur was still keeping things shut up. 

Arthur slipped it back away, “I didn’t really think about it, what with everything else and I don’t think you can blame me for that. Besides, you’ve got that thing around your neck and a man died for it.” He said the last bit much lower and right before leading them into the inn. It was a relief to find in less crowded than the streets, and it looked far nicer than Arthur had expected. He tried to let that, and the idea of a night not spent on a boat, occupy his thoughts instead of the guilt he saw reflected in Merlin over that man’s death. 

Not like it had been either of their faults, and the man was no saint, which Arthur had said as consolation later. Merlin lamented an innocent man dying when the sorceress really wanted him but Arthur admitted the man had tried to kill him when they’d met so truthfully, good riddance. 

They were able to get a room from a dozing attendant, though it was the last one available and they’d have to make do with the bed and no cot. Arthur had looked ready to argue but Merlin smiled and said “we’ll manage.”

“I don’t believe they haven’t got a cot or anything else to lay out,” Arthur huffed as they climbed a flight of stairs. When Merlin opened their door he could see him roll his eyes. 

“I don’t care whether he was telling the truth or not, there was no point in fighting over it.” Merlin stopped just far enough into the room where Arthur could squeeze in behind him. “Look at this,” the star sighed, putting down the bag Arthur had forced him to carry, “you can see into the street, and oh we’ve got a bathtub -“

Arthur watched him flit about, hovering at the window to look into the market square, running a hand along the tub - because neither one of them had been properly clean for a few days and the idea of freshening up was heavenly - then plopping down on an overstuffed mattress. “I’ll see about a bath, and some dinner,” Arthur nodded, turning right back out the door. 

-

“This is the first I’ve gotten a real answer in days.”

Agravaine pointed down at the runes before gathering them back up again, sharing a far too hopeful look with his companion. 

“We already knew to head west,” she glowered, hating almost every moment she spent with the heir. He was prideful and ridiculous, had some notion that everything would go perfectly for him. Though now he was always phrasing things that “they” and “we” would get what they wanted and she had to bite her tongue every time to not spit back that he wasn’t going to get anything. 

“What then do they say of the other man?” She asked, if only to sour his mood, “of your… competitor?” 

Her mission accomplished, his grin vanished and Agravaine tosses the runes high, muttering his question so they both could see them fall. 

“He’s here,” she read for herself when he would not voice the answer. “And what then, will you do when you find him.”

“I’ll kill him-“

“Easier said than done. You’ve said yourself that Tristan is no ill match; if he’s here in the city same as we then somehow I doubt you’ll just be able to find and stab him.” She gathered up the runes and tucked them into the folds of her plentiful fabrics. The witch took a step back and lounged, looking horrid in such a recline, atop a crate. They’d hidden themselves away in some storage shed at her request. The prince had been ready to storm the town and announce his arrival but she insisted on discretion. 

He waited, silent, as if to ask what her marvelous alternative was. She grinned, this wicked look and said “patience, my dear, is always rewarded.”