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Linger On Your Pale Blue Eyes

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Arthur ripped off his gloves as he stomped into his chambers, tossing them onto the ground as he went. On the table there was a tray of half-eaten food that certainly wasn’t his, since he had been gone for two days, which meant Merlin had been eating in his rooms and also hadn’t cleared away his mess. It only doubled Arthur’s anger. He pulled off his vambraces and threw them next to the dishes with a loud clang.

Merlin! ” Arthur bellowed.

There was no answer, which was infuriating. Arthur tugged off his belt and let it clatter to the floor, along with his sword. Merlin could deal with it later.

Merlin!

This time he heard stumbling footsteps and a bang as Merlin ran into his chambers’ door. A moment later the door opened and Merlin fell into the room.

“You’re back!” Merlin panted in astonishment. 

“Can’t keep anything from you, Merlin. Truly a brilliant mind between those ears,” Arthur gritted, already turning away from Merlin, who looked far too pleased to see him. He always had that wide grin when Arthur came back from a long trip. Arthur tugged off his chainmail and let it fall to the floor.

“You weren’t supposed to be back until tomorrow!” Merlin said as he picked up the belt and sword, placing them on the table. His eyes never left Arthur’s form and a part of Arthur truly hated the undivided attention. “Did you find the sorcerer?”

“No,” Arthur snapped. 

What he had found was a young girl, nothing but a child desperately holding her mother’s hand.

It had been cold, she had cried. She had wanted to be warm, she had pled. She was sorry. She hadn’t meant to burn those houses in the lower town. Please don’t kill her, she had begged. 

In the middle of the woods, the mother held the little girl close and looked into her Prince’s eyes with utter terror. Behind him, the knights were still looking for an evil witch.

“If you didn’t find the sorcerer, then why are you back early?” Merlin picked up the chainmail with a clatter, breaking Arthur’s thoughts.

“The trail had gone cold,” Arthur said blankly. “Any whisper of sorcery and my father stops listening. I told him the fire had probably started by accident. We have visiting nobles coming the day after tomorrow and I don’t have time for a wild goose chase.”

Merlin snorted, “I’m sure the King took that well.”

At that reminder, Arthur tore off his gambeson and threw it onto the bed. It wasn’t as heavy as his armor, so it landed with a soft whoosh instead of a satisfying thump, which of course only increased Arthur’s displeasure. Of course the King had taken Arthur’s orders to call off the search as a sign of disobedience. Barely minutes after he had returned, the King had berated Arthur in front of the entire court about vigilance and integrity. He had been banned from leading patrols for the next month. This might have been seen as a reward to someone who didn’t know any better, to be relieved from duty, but it was a punishment in the sense that it was humiliating to be First Knight and yet treated like a child who was not worthy of the title.

“Of course not, you idiot.” Arthur snapped, “My father would have me in the woods for weeks searching out god knows who, until he just had someone- anyone- to burn at the stake.” Arthur huffed, unlacing the top of his boots and tearing them off his tired feet. “He hasn’t a clue how the people see us. He tells me to go into the lower town, like I’m his lackey not his heir, and I have to look people in the eye as I tell them the King has decreed another bloody search of the lower town.”

The boots thudded as they hit the stone floor, leaving Arthur wearing only his under-tunic and breeches. Somehow he felt heavier than he had before. He sat on the edge of his bed, miffed that Merlin had made it, so he had nothing to yell at him about.

Merlin picked up the gambeson, “You think that?”

“What? That my father sees me as a lackey? Perhaps not, but I’m certainly not given any special treatment.”

“No… That the fire was started by accident?”

Arthur looked away from Merlin’s earnest eyes.

The little girl had been shaking when she had said, ‘It was an accident, I swear, please, please-’

Arthur had cut her off, unable to hear her begging for her life,  ‘There’s a druid encampment in the East. They will help you.’

‘Sire-’

‘Run,’ Arthur had checked to see if the knights were still far enough away, ‘If they see me with you, I will have no choice but to arrest you.’

‘Thank you, sire,’ The mother had said with too much gratitude for what he had given them. She had grabbed her daughter’s hand and fled from their Prince.

Arthur turned away from Merlin, wishing Merlin would stop looking at him like he had done something grand by calling off the search. It had made him feel sick to his stomach because all he had done was not murder a child while also committing treason against his King.

Arthur huffed, “I’m sure whatever happened, no one meant to burn down their own home.”

Merlin reached out, as if he was going to touch Arthur’s shoulder, and probably say something completely inappropriate, but Arthur stood up and walked toward his desk. Merlin’s hand was still outstretched, as if Arthur might gravitate toward it.

Arthur raised his voice, “What are you looking at? Stop wasting time. I need my armor polished and my sword sharpened. And fetch my dinner, would you already?”

“Yes, sire.” Merlin pulled back his hand toward his chest, a sad look in his eye.

Arthur ached.

***

The following week, when it was time for the first patrol of the month, Arthur spent his time on the training field. The body of a First Knight needed to be in peak condition, especially one who had been publicly chastised by the King. He needed to prove that he was worthy of that title.

At the edge of the field, Arthur could see the knights leading their horses to the citadel’s front gates.

Arthur turned his back, giving his attention to the weapons rack instead. A moment later he felt a presence step up behind him. He figured it was Merlin, who had disappeared after breakfast, claiming he had an urgent errand to run for Gaius.

Instead he was surprised to hear, “Sire.”

He turned with surprise to see Sir Leon standing before him, donned in Camelot red and his hand on his sword.

“Sir Knight,” Arthur nodded in greeting. “You are holding up the patrol.”

“I would stay behind if your highness wished it.”

It was hard to be irritated with such a good friend, but nonetheless, Arthur felt his hackles rise. 

Sir Leon had been knighted the year before Arthur had started training as a squire. Arthur had always looked up to him as a boy might look up to an accomplished older brother. It had been hard, when Arthur had been named First Knight, to stop seeing Leon as his superior. Arthur constantly struggled with being a leader while knowing he himself was one of the youngest knights of Camelot.

So despite the well-meant gesture, Arthur was irritated by Sir Leon’s words. 

“You are assigned to the King’s patrol, Sir Leon,” Arthur said, turning his attention back to the weapons. He picked up a sword and inspected the blunted blade. “You will train with the rest of the knights when you return from patrol.”

“Sire,” Leon nodded his head in subservience. 

He turned to leave but stopped himself. Leon wasn’t the type of man to pause, but now he cautiously stepped forward. He reached out his gloved hand and rested it on Arthur’s shoulder.

When their eyes met Arthur was surprised by the earnest expression in Leon’s. Arthur opened his mouth to say something, anything, but nothing came to mind. 

Leon’s hand squeezed his shoulder, “Train well, sire.”

Arthur nodded.

When Leon turned away and his hand slipped from the prince’s shoulder, Arthur wasn’t sure what he felt. He was surprised that the first word that came to mind was loss. 

Arthur watched as Leon joined the rest of the knights, cape splayed out behind him. When he reached the front gates, he mounted his horse, but he did not take the lead position. Instead he fell back with the rest of the second-position knights. There was a distinct open space at the front where the First Knight always led the patrol. 

It was a display that the King would never notice but that the knights themselves would recognize. Arthur wondered if he deserved such a display of loyalty.

***

Arthur ran around the field until his legs burned. He went through the basic positions with a two-handed claymore until his shoulders couldn’t stand the weight anymore. He was about to give his arms a break and take another run around the field when Merlin appeared. He usually stayed back when Arthur went on patrols, but obviously he had found where Arthur was.

From the look on his face he had been watching Arthur for a while now. 

Arthur opened his mouth to tell him off, but his mind was sluggish. Merlin beat him to it.

“You smell like the entire patrol put together. And it looks like you did training enough for all of them.” Merlin wrinkled his nose, “Come on, I brought food to your chambers.”

Arthur did not have much of a choice. Merlin took him by the arm and led him away from the field. His hand was gentle as he guided him and Arthur wondered when was the last time someone had taken his arm in a soft manner. He couldn’t remember. He tugged his arm away and took the lead, letting Merlin trail after him.

When they arrived at Arthur’s chambers, there was indeed food sitting at the table, but before Arthur had a chance to sit, Merlin pushed him over to the changing screen.

“If I have to be in this room with you then you need to change and wash. You smell like the inside of a campaign tent.”

“As if you would know what that smells like. You’ve never seen battle.” Arthur grumbled to himself as he pulled his clothes off and threw them at Merlin, who spluttered indignantly. Behind the changing screen Arthur dipped a cloth in water, which Merlin must have freshly poured because it was still warm. Looking at himself in the mirror Arthur wiped away the sweat and grime that came with training.

In the winter months, Arthur had lost some of his muscle. Winter weather did not permit for constant training and patrols were greatly diminished. He hated it. He felt vulnerable during those months, like a Knight without proper armor. Now his muscles ached from exertion, and he felt useless. An afternoon of training should feel like nothing to the First Knight. It was no wonder the King had punished Arthur for slacking. He couldn’t even complete a little extra training without feeling weak.

He smacked the cloth down onto the washing table, wiping his face with his hands and running his fingers through his hair. His hands shook.

“Are you washing up or taking a bath in that bowl? Come on, your food is getting cold.”

Arthur couldn’t help the smile that came across his face. Merlin never failed to say something ridiculous to bring him out of his moods. Arthur wished he had better control of his own temper and bad moods. Merlin usually bore the brunt of them. Not that Merlin ever let that stop him from yelling right back at Arthur.

Arthur wiped his hands dry, “You told me to wash.”

“I did, but I’m not lugging up water for a bath. So you better come here and eat the food I brought from the kitchens. I’m going to Gaius to see if he has anything for you.”

“Me?” Arthur came out from behind the changing screen wearing a loose white tunic and his favorite worn breeches. He sat down in front of his food. “What would Gaius have for me?”

“If you’re going to train like that,” Merlin made a general gesture in the direction of the training field, “for the rest of the month because you’re not on patrol, then I’m going to have Gaius make more muscle tincture for you.” 

Merlin paused, his expression turning from annoyed to considerate. Before Arthur knew what he was doing, Merlin touched the nape of Arthur’s neck. It was a gentle touch. His thumb rubbed back and forth, so close to his damp hair and his fingers skimming beneath his white tunic. “Stay right there and eat your food. I’ll be right back.”

He left without another word. Normally Arthur would be frustrated that Merlin had commanded his Prince, but not now. Unconsciously he reached up and held his own neck where Merlin had touched him. It ached more than if he had been hit with a mace. 

When was the last time anyone had touched their prince like that? The body of a Prince was not like anyone’s. His hand only ever held others in a firm handshake, and rarely without gloves. Sometimes he would raise the delicate hands of noble ladies to his lips for a brief kiss, but it was all out of propriety. He rarely touched others, but what was even rarer was others touching him. The only ones who dared were his knights, and even they only smacked his shoulder or patted his back in friendly roughhousing. Gripping each other’s arms before battle was the most heartfelt touch they exchanged. Lingering soft touches were not done. Any lingering touch on his person could be interpreted as political movements. After all, Arthur’s body wasn’t his own. It never had been. He was Camelot’s first and foremost. Even above his own needs and wants.

But none of that applied to Merlin.

When Merlin returned Arthur had planned on telling him something about not touching the Royal person, but as soon as Merlin came in, he didn’t have the chance to open his mouth before Merlin’s was talking.

“So I asked Gaius what would be best for sore muscles and he gave me this, which is a tincture that you massage into the skin that should help loosen up the muscles. And he gave me this which he said should ease any lingering pain. You should take half of that now with food and then the rest before you go to sleep. I’ll be sure to bring you some bread and cheese before bed, because Gaius said not to take it on an empty stomach. The last thing I want is to deal with is you being sick all over the floor.” He poured half of the potion into a goblet and handed it to Arthur, “Drink up.”

Arthur opened his mouth to argue but found he was too tired to even begin to sort through all of that information.

That evening Arthur was rather grateful for the potion. It had worn off about an hour ago and his muscles were killing him. He couldn’t wait to have the rest of the potion and go to sleep.

At the end of the day Merlin returned from the last of his chores with a plate of bread and cheese, as promised. But before he gave Arthur the rest of the potion he held up the muscle tincture, and ordered Arthur to remove his tunic.

Arthur huffed, “You know, you’re really not the one who gives the orders around here.”

“Really? Never noticed,” Merlin said with a roll of his eyes. “Now take off your tunic and sit in the chair.”

Arthur decided it wasn’t worth the argument. He pulled off his tunic and straddled the chair, his arms resting on the chair back.

“Not like that,” Merlin tutted. He pushed Arthur’s arms so that they hung by his sides, his body hanging over the chair back.

“I’m not sure why you are the one doing this,” Arthur grumbled as Merlin positioned him. 

“Would you rather have Gaius? Because I’ve had him massage tinctures on me. I don’t know where a man of his age gets that kind of strength but I swear my back hurt more afterwards.” 

Arthur heard the shuffle of Merlin rolling up his sleeves and then the pop of a cork coming loose from a glass bottle. 

The first touch was to the top of his shoulder. The tincture was warm, so at least Merlin knew to warm it before smearing cold tincture on his prince’s shoulders. Despite Merlin’s earlier warnings about Gaius, Merlin’s touch was not gentle. His fingers dug into the muscle and the base of his palms pressed deeply. Arthur was tempted to wince a few times, but he restrained himself.

“Relax your shoulders,” Merlin said after a while, pressing his slick hands where shoulder met neck. Arthur pulled in a breath and let it out, dropping his shoulders as he did. 

“Better,” Merlin said as he moved from Arthur’s shoulders to his arms. He started with the left, working the tincture into his upper arm and moving down to his forearm.

The process was slow. Merlin paused every once and a while to replenish the supply of tincture on his hands, but it only lasted for a moment before he resumed his work. Slowly Arthur felt his muscles relax under Merlin’s careful massage. Arthur’s eyes drooped as he watched the candles flicker on the table in front of him. His head lowered until his cheek pressed into the fur that had been laid over the chair back.

The rhythm of Merlin's touch lulled him, and his mind began to wander. 

Merlin never made sense to Arthur. People had roles in Arthur’s mind. He was a prince, and Merlin was a servant. There shouldn’t have been anything between them besides one being in charge of the other. But Merlin wasn’t like that. He argued back. He cared for Arthur. He touched Arthur like he was a friend but also like Arthur was precious to him.

The candles flickered with a bit of draft. Merlin moved to Arthur’s right arm.

Arthur hadn’t thought much about the physicality of Merlin. Usually he thought of him in the sense that he wasn’t a knight and therefore wasn’t very physical in any sense. Merlin was clever and often used his mind over his body. But Arthur had never noticed how lithe he was. He noticed now. His arms were thin but lined with muscle. Merlin’s hands, which Arthur had never paid attention to before now, we’re not delicate like one would image. They were the hands of a servant. They were broad, with wide palms and long fingers. There were calluses on his palms from all manner of chores. As Merlin’s hands pressed firmly into Arthur’s shoulders, Arthur could feel the rough press of calluses across his slick skin. His hands were strong too, Arthur noted as Merlin’s thumbs pressed down on Arthur’s shoulder hard enough that Arthur couldn’t even hold back his hiss of pain. It made Arthur’s entire body tingle, as if he had entered his fire-warmed chambers after being in a snowstorm. 

“Alright?” Merlin asked as he moved from Arthur’s arm to his back. He spread his hands until they were fully open and then he pressed them down Arthur’s spine, leaving two strips of tincture as he went.

Arthur closed his eyes and tried to ignore the fact that he had just shivered. 

“Fine. Continue.” 

Merlin’s hand came up to the nape of Arthur’s neck, his palm resting there. His fingers massaged lightly at his neck but they were mostly just a comforting press. “If you push yourself this hard, you’ll be like this every night.”

Arthur tried to remember why that was so bad. With Merlin’s warm hands on him, he hadn’t felt this good in ages. 

“I’ll be fine Merlin, you worry like a fishwife.”

“Someone has to worry after you. No one else seems to.”

Arthur was surprised by the sting in Merlin’s voice. He obviously had an opinion on the matter.

Merlin ,” Arthur warned.

“The King is a fool if he thinks you don’t care about your people just because you won’t ride out on his every whim.”

Merlin ,” Arthur repeated. If Merlin said any more he would be edging on treason.

“And you are an utter idiot,” Merlin’s hands pressed almost savagely into the muscle of Arthur’s back. It felt heavenly. “If you hurt yourself from training where will we be if there’s an attack? Without our best Knight, that’s where we will be.”

“Merlin,” Arthur said softer this time, ignoring the fact that all the hairs on his body were raised. Merlin’s hands were doing wonders.

Merlin seemed to relent at Arthur’s tone. He sighed, his hands loosening their grip and rubbing slow circles into his muscles. He pressed his thumbs into the small of Arthur’s back and Arthur closed his eyes and held back a mewl of pleasure. Merlin, who hadn’t noticed, continued, “It’s alright. I’ll be here to take care of you when you’re being a prat.”

Arthur didn’t open his eyes and relaxed further into the chair, allowing the warmth from Merlin’s hands to spread throughout his entire body.

***

Arthur was beginning to realize how little he interacted with people. On a normal day, the most interaction he had was with his knights who, at most, would only ever pat him on the back or grip his hand after a good bout of training. Other than that, he couldn’t think of anything besides kissing the hands of court ladies. 

When he was a boy he used to tussle with noblemen’s sons, but that stopped as soon as he started training to be a squire. As he grew older he realized fairly quickly that lingering touches could mean sexual advances. He had fallen into bed with a few noblewomen, but rarely had he spent more than one night with anyone. He was the Prince. He couldn’t be seen having a favorite, and all of his partners had known that. So their nights together were quick and rough with very little lingering. It had been good. Arthur didn’t think he or any of his partners didn’t enjoy themselves. But there was something deep in Arthur’s stomach that made him long for someone to linger. For someone to lay by his side in bed, and smile at him as he told a story. For him to wake up and see his partner sleeping in bed next to him, content after a night together.

There was a type of companionship that he wanted. It was almost like what he had with the knights, but deeper. Softer. He couldn’t describe it. Words were never his strong suit.

But one thing was certain. If he had to imagine anyone in that role, it was Merlin. Of all the people, Arthur probably would have never guessed that he would want Merlin. Not only as someone he took to bed, but as someone who would linger there. 

But Arthur did not have time for these revelations, which was part of the problem. His life didn’t allow for a slow, lingering courtship. He would be married to a noblewoman of a strategic family. They would probably like each other but never love each other.

This was a headache that plagued Arthur for the next week on top of everything else. Spring had arrived, which usually was a blessing, except that it had brought rain. Rivers swelled beyond their floodplains and outer villages were losing crops the more it rained. While Morgana oversaw the citadel, which was filling with people who had lost their livelihoods, Arthur had ridden out with his knights to protect villages from the bandits who had been taking advantage of the vulnerable homes.

To say it had been a busy couple of weeks would have been an understatement. Arthur usually came back from the outlying villages sore, rain-soaked, and disheartened. He was beginning to realize that rain left you continuously damp, especially in chainmail, which left little opportunity to keep warm. He had fought off more bandits than he could remember and his back twinged with every move from riding his horse for days on end. When he came back from a patrol of the river lands, Arthur hadn’t even greeted Merlin. Instead, he had immediately ordered a bath.

“Yes, sire.”

The fact that Merlin hadn’t back talked or complained meant Arthur probably looked as horrible as he felt.

The worst part of this spring was that Arthur felt even more strung out than normal. He felt bereft of something that he wasn’t sure he ever had. He was tired and he knew that he had snapped at his men more than normal. Everyone was tired and his knights had surely chalked up his poor moods to the weather. Arthur felt guilty for the true reason. When he was out on patrol there was little time for pause. Those pauses were when Arthur took time to recollect his thoughts and ready himself for the next day. But more importantly, Merlin was usually there with a comforting word and a tender hand. But Merlin had stayed in the citadel. He had been helping Gaius with those who had fallen ill due to the wet weather while also keeping Arthur’s household running while he was away. 

No, Arthur was in a bad mood because he just wanted someone to touch his arm and tell him he had done well. He wanted this so badly that his arm had actually begun to ache with a phantom touch.

Merlin returned to Arthur’s chambers with two large buckets of warm water and two servants carrying the basin. Arthur must have been sitting in his chair thinking for longer than he expected. Before he realized it, they had filled the bath with warm water and Merlin was ushering the two servants out.

“Come on, up you get,” Merlin took Arthur by the arm and pulled him out of the chair.

Arthur’s arm strained with the touch.

Merlin shed the armor and chainmail from Arthur’s body. His hands were deft, untying knots and slipping buckles out of their holds in a very calm but efficient manner. This was likely how Merlin always attended Arthur, but he had been trying to remember Merlin’s hands so frequently in the last week that now Arthur’s sole focus was on Merlin’s hands, as if he could memorize their feel for the next time he was away from Merlin. His palms were red from carrying the buckets up and down the stairs. His wrists were pale in comparison to the redness of his knuckles. Arthur wanted to press a delicate kiss there.

Merlin worked silently, which wasn’t his usual way of doing anything, but he must have sensed Arthur’s mood and had decided to play it safe. Arthur wasn’t sure if he preferred it this way or if he wanted Merlin nattering at him like an excited squirrel. 

Finally Arthur was stripped to just his underclothes, and Merlin turned away as he usually did, allowing Arthur to strip bare and sink into the bath.

As Arthur sank into the water, his whole body shivered until it adjusted to the heat. It almost felt like being wrapped in someone’s arms. Almost.

Arthur closed his eyes and leaned his head back, slowly making his muscles relax.

He heard the scrape of a chair against the stone floor and he remembered that he had yet to dismiss Merlin.

“You may go.”

Arthur opened his eyes to see that Merlin was standing nearby, holding a wooden stool that he had been about to set next to the basin. 

“Uh,” Merlin paused, his eyes going to the soap and cloth that he had already set next to the bath.

Merlin’s sleeves were already rolled up to his elbows. His forearms were lined with muscle and his wrists were so thin. His knuckles had turned white from clutching the stool. For some reason, seeing that Merlin had readied himself to accommodate Arthur’s needs, made Arthur want to cry.

“Never mind that, come on,” Arthur gestured behind himself where Merlin had been headed with the stool. 

Merlin set the stool behind Arthur and then he heard the creak of wood as he sat down. There was a pop of a cork, and the smell of lavender wafted through the room. 

Merlin’s fingers ran into his hair and gently pushed down, “Close your eyes,” Merlin whispered.

Arthur did as bid, closing his eyes and dunking his head under the water to wet his hair. When he resurfaced Merlin’s hands pushed his hair out of his eyes. But Arthur didn’t open his eyes. He didn’t think he could bear to face this feeling.

Merlin’s fingers lathered soap into his hair, his fingers gently massaging his scalp, and running down to the base of his neck. Then he coaxed Arthur to rinse it out. Then he switched soaps, this one smelling of mint and made Arthur’s skin tingle. Merlin’s hands gently massaged Arthur’s shoulders before pushing him forward so that he could wash to his back. Arthur curled in on himself while Merlin scrubbed his back with a cloth. 

With his head on his knees and Merlin at his back, he wondered if Merlin did this willingly. Certainly Merlin had never withheld his displeasure with his other chores. He had refused to do tasks before and had definitely yelled at Arthur if he thought something was unfair. But Merlin was loyal to a fault. If he thought Arthur needed him, would he stay because he felt obligated?

“Arthur?” Merlin’s hands touched Arthur’s shoulder. 

Arthur didn’t move or open his eyes. “Hm?”

“Are you alright?”

Arthur realized he was curled up in a ball away from Merlin and forced himself to relax a little. With his eyes still closed he laid back with his head resting on the basin rim. How could he explain that he just wanted someone by his side? He was naked in front of the man he wanted, and yet he wasn’t even hard. It was a little pathetic. Not that he wanted to embarrass himself in front of Merlin. But he didn’t even want sex so much as a hug and that was far more embarrassing than accidentally getting hard during a relaxing bath.

“I’m tired,” Arthur had meant to say that with an indignant tone, but it had come out as a tremble.

Merlin’s hand brushed away some hair from Arthur’s brow, while his other one gently touched Arthur’s shoulder. It felt so natural that Arthur strongly believed Merlin didn’t even realize he was touching Arthur in a way that no one else did. 

“Then let’s get you to bed.” Merlin’s hand slipped from his shoulder, allowing Arthur to finish bathing while he gathered Arthur’s sleep clothes.

Arthur finished and stood up from the bath feeling much more at peace than he had only an hour before. Before he had thought about it, Merlin was in front of him, handing him a sheet and cleaning up the bath. By the time he was clothed in his sleep pants, the bath felt like a distant foggy dream.

Arthur sat on the edge of his bed, which Merlin had already turned down.

“Merlin?”

Merlin paused. He had Arthur’s clothes tucked under one arm and he was leaning down to blow out the last candle in the chambers. The single flame cast him in a warm glow. In daylight Merlin’s lanky appearance usually made him look sharp and cool. Here, in the candlelight by Arthur’s bed, he looked soft and warm.

Arthur didn’t know what to say. He never did. He reached out and touched Merlin’s shoulder before he realized that he wasn’t sure what he was doing. Obviously he wasn’t the only one because Merlin was looking at him with a single raised brow. Merlin’s shoulder felt so thin under his touch.

“Arthur?”

Arthur changed his touch from a caress to a grip, and he said, “Get some rest, Merlin. I’ll see you in the morning.”

Merlin smiled, though his eyes still looked a bit confused. “Goodnight, sire.”

When Arthur lied on his side that night, he looked at the other side of his bed and wondered what it would be like to have Merlin lying there.

Would he stay on his side of the bed? Or would he crawl close to Arthur and revel in their shared warmth? Would he talk until he yawned and turned over to sleep? Or would his mouth be used for other things? Would he wake Arthur when he left for his duties in the morning? Or would he press lingering kisses to Arthur’s shoulders until Arthur woke to a warm chest pressed against his back.

His chest ached as if it were hollow. Arthur held a pillow to his chest, trying to fill the ache. 

When he woke the next morning, the pillow was still in his arms.

***

Days passed and Arthur had allowed the aching feeling to settle over him. He had gotten used to it, as if it were a new pair of boots that had needed to be worn in. He had almost gotten adjusted to it, except he still woke most mornings with a pillow tucked close to his chest.

One evening, Arthur entered his chambers after a council meeting to find Merlin polishing his armor. Arthur didn't immediately notice that something was wrong. It was a normal sight and did not give him any red flags. It was only after he had taken off his boots and sat down at his desk that he realized Merlin hadn’t said a word since he entered his chambers. At the very least, Merlin usually greeted him.

A quick observation told Arthur that Merlin’s eyes were on his task but his mind was clearly elsewhere.

“Merlin?”

“Yes, sire?” He seemed to say on rote, not looking away from the empty space in front of him.

Arthur walked toward Merlin and stood behind his chair. He rested a hand on Merlin’s shoulder, catching his attention.

“Alright?” He asked.

Merlin looked up and although it might not have been obvious to someone who didn’t know Merlin, Arthur could tell that his eyes were a little redder than usual. 

“Alright,” Merlin gave a small smile that didn’t reach his eyes. It was an obvious lie. But now Arthur had to make a decision on whether or not he would challenge his bluff. Arthur’s first impulse was to ignore it. It was usually what Arthur did if he noticed that one of the court ladies was upset. It was best not to point these things out. His second impulse, if he were to mention it, was to tease Merlin. Arthur did neither of these things.

“Is it something with Gaius?”

“Arthur,” Merlin dropped his smile. He huffed, obviously annoyed with being prodded. 

“Your mother?” Arthur asked. Although their trip a few months back to Ealdor had been brief, Arthur remembered how close Merlin had been with his mother.

Merlin turned away, setting aside one vambraces and picking up the other to polish.

As Merlin remained stubbornly silent, Arthur realized that not only did he want Merlin to be someone he turned to for comfort but he also desperately wanted to be that shoulder to cry on when Merlin needed him.

Arthur reached out and took the rag out of Merlin’s hand.

“Hey! You can’t just bother me because I’m not entertaining you, you royal prat.” 

Arthur sat in the chair next to Merlin’s, and angled it so that he was facing Merlin. Seeming to acquiesce, Merlin folded his arms in front of himself and waited for Arthur to speak.

“Was it the execution?”

Merlin looked away. Arthur continued on that route.

“You don’t have to attend.”

Arthur wished he didn’t have to attend, but he was the Prince and it would be a very obvious statement if he did not attend a criminal’s trial and execution. But there was no reason that Merlin would be required to attend. In fact, he probably should have been doing some other chores this morning.

Merlin swallowed. He looked sad, but there was also a frown on his brow that pointed to unspoken anger.

“I should be there.”

“Why?”

Merlin looked at Arthur, his eyes scanning his face. Arthur wondered what he was looking for.

Merlin didn’t answer. Instead he asked, “How can you stand it?”

Arthur looked down, watching Merlin’s hands open and close nervously on his own knees. There was nothing Arthur wanted more in the world than to take those hands in his own and reassure him of whatever was bothering him.

“I wish I wasn’t used to them,” Arthur said, surprised by his own honesty. “But I’ve been forced to attend them since I became a squire.”

“I know the man was a thief,” Merlin started tentatively. “He had cheated people out of money and he had been a dishonorable man, but I can’t help but think-“

“That he didn’t deserve to die?”

Merlin bit his lip, obviously trying to decide if he had said too much.

“If he hadn’t used magic,” Merlin’s words trailed off, his meaning obvious.

“My father is blind when it comes to magic. I only wish I had been the one to catch him. I would have mitigated his punishment.”

“You would do that?” Merlin asked with surprise.

“I have in the past, though not as much as I would like. The punishment should fit the crime. Thieves pay their debts, plus a fine.” Arthur shifted uncomfortably. There had been one time when he had caught a thief who had used magic. He had pretended not to see the spell, but he had dragged the man to the dungeons and threatened him so badly Arthur was positive the man hadn’t stolen again, magically or otherwise.

“You believe the law is too harsh?” Merlin’s eyes were wide, and Arthur wasn’t sure if it was out of surprise, distrust, or both.

He had to choose his next words carefully. He was toeing the line of treason, but that was only the second thing on his mind. He feared that he cared far more for what Merlin thought of his answer than what he knew his father would think of it.

“I think execution is a harsh punishment for theft.”

Merlin nodded, looking thoughtful. He tapped his fingers as he said, “You helped the Druid boy.”

“I did,” Arthur answered, wondering how they had gotten to this point of conversation. The young boy hadn’t done anything wrong and Arthur could never bear to see an innocent child killed. When he had caught Morgana trying to escape with the boy, he remembered thinking that he wished he had been alone when he found them. If he hadn’t been surrounded by guards, he would have let them escape.

“Have you ever helped others?”

Merlin’s face was suddenly very earnest. This was important to him and Arthur couldn’t figure out why.

“Never like that before. Not as much as I would like,” Arthur looked down, not sure why he was admitting this to Merlin. He had told himself that he would never tell anyone these treasonous thoughts. “I do what I can and turn a blind eye when I can’t do anything better.”

Merlin’s lips turned up in a small smile, but that wasn’t what caught Arthur’s attention. Merlin’s eyes were rimmed with tears. Arthur recognized that look. It was the same expression that had crossed a mother’s face when a knight of Camelot had let them run free. It had been such a small act but it had meant the world.

“You have magic, don’t you?” Arthur felt cold creep up his neck.

Merlin’s eyes widened and his lips opened as if to protest before he turned his head away. 

“I just want to protect people.”

Arthur closed his eyes as he let that trembling but stubborn voice wash over him. 

Arthur often pushed aside thoughts of what happened when one of his people discovered they had the ability to cast spells. That little girl must have been terrified when she finally realized what had been happening to her. Arthur couldn’t think on it long without feeling useless. And now that person had been Merlin. He must have been so scared to find out about his magic while living in Camelot of all places. Arthur had never wanted to clutch anyone to his chest, as if he were a mother with her newborn, but there was something about Merlin, who was brave and consistently loyal, that made Arthur want to be brave and consistently loyal for him too. 

Then Arthur realized exactly what this meant, and his heart sank. 

“It’s going to be fine,” Arthur reassured Merlin even as he felt his own hope drain from his body. “The Druids will take you in. You need to learn to control it before something happens that’s suspicious enough for someone to notice.”

Merlin sniffed and wiped away the few tears that had fallen, but his brows pinched together with confusion, “The Druids?”

Arthur nodded, “We should get you to the Druids sooner rather than later. How long ago did you realize that you had magic?”

“When?” Merlin shook his head, “Arthur I’m not going to the Druids. I’m not leaving Camelot.” 

Arthur was surprised by his firm tone. He would have thought it was obvious that Merlin’s discovery of his magic would mean that he had to leave. Although Arthur wished it wasn’t true, Camelot was the worst place for Merlin.

Arthur gave a smile and hoped that it looked genuine despite his heartbreak. “I know you like it here. Your friends are here and you’ve found a place for yourself, but you can’t stay.” As much as Arthur wanted him to.

“I’m not leaving you!”

Arthur was confused. Merlin had never appeared to care that he was a servant to the crowned prince. Leaving his position should have been the least of his problems.

“Look, Merlin. I really appreciate that and I will surely miss you not cleaning my chambers, but you need to be thinking more long term. You can’t stay here. My father would have you-”

Merlin reached out and took Arthur’s hand in both of his. Suddenly Arthur couldn’t finish his train of thought, let alone his sentence. His sole focus was on Merlin’s hands. Merlin’s fingers squeezed his hand and pulled it close to his own chest so that Arthur’s knuckles brushed Merlin’s tunic. “Arthur, I’m not just someone with magic.”

“What?” Arthur asked, looking up from their clasped hands to Merlin’s earnest face.

“I’ve had magic since I was born.”

“That doesn’t happen,” Arthur said incredulously.

Merlin smiled sheepishly. “It happened with me. I’m sorry I never told you. I… Well. I thought you were like your father.”

“I understand,” Arthur would be lying if he said he wasn’t hurt that Merlin had thought Arthur would send him to the pyre, even after a year and a half of service, but he also understood that Merlin feared for his life. “If you already knew you had magic, then why come to Camelot at all?”

Merlin smiled, as if it were funny to have his life at risk. “It’s a long story. You know, I used to hate my magic. I didn’t understand why I could do these things. I felt like my life my pointless. But when I came to Camelot I found out what my magic was for.”

Arthur opened his mouth but no words came out. It was too much to understand all at once. All he could think about was that Merlin was still grasping his hand like it was keeping him tethered in place.

“I want to protect people,” Merlin said, “But more specifically, I’m meant to protect you.”

Merlin ,” Arthur was embarrassed by the crack in his voice. He cleared his throat and placed his other hand on top of Merlin’s. “That is more than I deserve. I don’t know where your loyalty comes from, but you can’t put your life in danger out of some sense of duty. It will be much easier for you to leave now than for me to smuggle you out of the dungeons.”

Merlin shook his head, “You're such an idiot. Even when I tell you about my magic, you still don’t get it.”

Arthur raised a brow, “And that is?”

Merlin smiled as if they weren’t discussing his possible execution, “I’m staying because I want to.”

Arthur couldn’t help the incredulous laugh that escaped him. “Why? Do you have a death wish?”

Merlin cleared his throat as he tried to hide his grin, but he was clearly happy as he whispered, “I secretly love polishing your armor.”

Merlin pulled his hands away from Arthur’s, standing up to move Arthur’s armor from the table to the chest in the far corner of the room. Arthur felt bereft without his warmth.

“Wait,” Arthur opened his mouth to say more but Merlin didn’t give him a chance.

“You can’t get rid of me that easily,” Merlin said with a cocky smile. Underneath Arthur could see the genuine emotion running across Merlin’s eyes. “I can tell you more after dinner. But for now, we both have duties to attend to.”

With a short bow that he usually forgot, Merlin left. Arthur had always thought that Merlin was a mystery, but this clue hadn’t solved him. In fact, Arthur felt like he had more questions about Merlin now than he did before. 

Arthur leaned back in his chair, trying to puzzle him out. As he thought, he lifted his hand to his lips, pretending that he could still feel Merlin’s touch.

***

There was something different about Merlin after that day. Arthur was still trying to figure out if it was the fact that Arthur knew about Merlin’s magic, and therefore he was paying more attention, or if it was because Merlin was acting differently. It might have been a bit of both. Arthur had caught Merlin lighting the fire with a quick word in the morning, but he had also noticed that Merlin was quicker to smile, his eyes crinkling with genuine mirth when he caught Arthur’s eye.

Arthur had tried to convince Merlin a few more times to go to the Druids, but he kept insisting that his place was in Camelot. Despite Merlin’s insistence, Arthur wasn’t convinced that Merlin was meant to protect Arthur. Merlin had tried to tell him about the things he had done since he arrived in Camelot. During the first few stories, Arthur nodded thoughtfully throughout Merlin’s explanation of the charm put on Knight Valiant’s shield and the enchanted lance used to kill the griffin. But halfway through Merlin’s recounting of the incident with the Questing Beast, Arthur could not stand to hear anymore. He wasn’t sure he wanted to know how they all made it out alive. After all, it was probably best if he didn’t know the particulars, if Merlin was ever caught. 

So far, the most magic Arthur had seen Merlin wield was when he started the fire in the mornings and when he stopped the pillow Arthur had thrown at him in midair. Merlin had smiled rather proudly after the latter. Arthur knew it was absurd to be disappointed he hadn’t seen more. In fact, it was good because the less he used it the less likely he would get caught. But the casual nature of these spells did confirm one thing for Arthur. Magic was a tool like any other, and Merlin had just happened to have been born with a natural talent for it. Arthur was almost jealous of such a gift. Even though Arthur was the best warrior in Camelot, it hadn’t come easily. He had had to train and refine his skills every day, while knowing that some of his peers were more naturally talented than him.

That was the extent of what Arthur had seen Merlin cast. Until a few weeks later.

There were reports of a creature in the woods west of Camelot. The rumors varied, some of the commoners who had seen it said it looked like a bear with horns and wings. Another said a boar with a tail like a snake. As ridiculous as the accounts were, three people had already died and Arthur needed to send out a patrol. 

It was an odd situation, but typical for Arthur. What had given him pause was that Merlin asked to accompany him. 

Arthur squinted, “You never want to go on patrols.”

Merlin gave an innocent smile, “I’m interested in the patrols?”

Arthur waited with a raised brow.

Merlin huffed, “Alright, fine. I think this creature is magic and if it is, you’ll need me.”

“And what are you going to do?”

“Well I don’t know yet. We don’t exactly have any idea what it is,” Merlin put his hands on his hips, “But I’ll be able to do more than you, if it is magic.”

Arthur weighed his options for a moment. 

He sighed, “Fine. I'll tell the knights I’m bringing you because you’ll be able to talk to the villagers more easily. Sometimes we have trouble getting them to be honest because they’re intimidated.”

Merlin grinned, “Sounds like a good idea, even if it’s just a boar.”

Merlin looked so pleased Arthur couldn’t deny him even if he wanted to.

They rode out the next day; the Prince, his manservant, and a dozen knights. 

Arthur had been right. The people were intimidated when they saw the prince riding into their small farming village. Luckily, Merlin was just as friendly and talkative with the common folk as Arthur expected. Soon enough Merlin came back to the knights who had been watering their horses in a nearby stream with the news.

Merlin pulled Arthur aside, his hand on the crook of Arthur’s arm. Arthur had a strange urge to press his hand over Merlin’s, before he mentally shook himself and focused on Merlin’s words.

“They’re absolutely terrified, Arthur. That poor woman... Some of the men went out hunting and of the ones who came back, all of them had a different description of the beast.”

“What do you think of it?” Arthur asked, looking out into the woods which, at the moment, looked very lovely and not at all ravaged by a magical creature.

“I think if we don’t do something quickly, those different descriptions are going to change from one terrifying beasts with three descriptions to three separate beasts that are ransacking every village in the area. Gossip is our worst enemy right now.”

Arthur nodded, understanding in a way that he wasn’t sure he would have if he had just asked the villagers himself.

Arthur turned to the knights, “Gather the horses. We ride into the woods as soon as we are ready.”

Arthur mounted his horse, and the others followed suit. First, Arthur led them to the village where some of the villagers were watching them. He led the knights through the small village, their red capes flying behind them. If a dozen of Camelot’s finest knights riding out to protect them wouldn’t ease their fears then Arthur hoped that he could end this tirade before it worsened.

When they made it into the woods they slowed their riding to a trot. The ride was easy. There wasn’t a single soul in the woods, and it made their ride quiet, except for the talk between the knights. But as they rode further into the woods, Arthur noticed that Merlin hadn’t said a word since they left the village.

“Something wrong, Merlin?” Arthur said, his voice joking enough that the knights wouldn’t catch his true meaning.

Merlin’s eyes were watching the spaces in between the trees closely, as if he expected something to be there at any moment.

“We haven’t seen anything,” Arthur said, “Maybe it’s moved on.”

“It feels…” Merlin shook his head, “There’s something wrong.”

Arthur was about to make a joke at Merlin’s expense, but he was cut off by a loud bellow. Arthur wondered if his own expression looked as shocked as Merlin’s.

Arthur turned to his knights, “Formation.” They hesitated and Arthur shouted, “Now!”

They quickly kicked their horses into formation. Merlin situated himself next to Arthur in the circle of knights, and Arthur opened his mouth to tell him to take cover but before he could, there was a beast charging through the woods directly for them. Arthur didn’t have time to look at it, let alone describe its features, but one thing he knew for certain was that it wasn’t natural. All he could see in that moment was a creature as large as a bear, with huge claws, tusks like a boar’s, and an unnaturally fast gait. 

“Fall back!” Arthur shouted, scattering his knights and praying they would be quick enough. Only a second later it barreled through where their horses had just been standing. If they had been in its path, Arthur had a sinking feeling they wouldn’t have slowed it down one bit.

Arthur turned to Merlin to make sure he was alright, but Merlin was already rushing to Arthur’s side.

“Give me your lance,” Merlin said, already reaching for the lance that was attached to Arthur’s saddle.

“What?” Arthur said, his eyes not on Merlin but on the path. The beast had disappeared into the woods again, but somehow Arthur knew it hadn’t gone far.

“I’m going to try something. Make sure the knights aren’t looking.” Before Arthur could ask, Merlin had already grabbed the lance and had started to chant. 

Arthur quickly turned to his knights, “Face east! It will come back, and this time we will be ready for it.”

The knights obeyed and they turned away from their prince and his servant, whose eyes were flashing gold as he continued to whisper over the lance. 

Everything happened so quickly, Arthur wasn’t sure how he saw everything that he did.

First, there was the sound of something tearing through the woods. Too late, Arthur realized that the beast was not coming from the east like he had anticipated but it had circled around and was coming from the west.

The second thing he registered was the lance that was shoved into his outstretched hand. He hadn’t remembered holding out his hand for it, but it must have been instinct as Merlin tossed it to him.

In the next breath, he turned his horse around to see the beast barely a few feet away from him, and coming closer still.

Out of the corner of his eye he saw a flash of gold. In that half second he wondered how he had ever missed it, but then he realized that he had never been looking for it before. All the knights were focused on the beast, and no one had given Merlin a second glance.

Then, time resumed its normal pace. Suddenly Arthur and his horse were flung back. To the untrained eye it looked like the creature had knocked Arthur aside. Even though all this had happened in the span of a second, he was certain that the beast had been mere inches from him, but it had not touched him.

As Arthur hit the ground, he felt all the air in his lungs rush out of him and it took him several seconds to regain his breath. His destrier had regained his footing a few feet away, but Arthur didn’t have time to mount him again. Arthur scrambled up to his feet, instinctively grabbing the lance that had fallen a few feet away. The blade at the end of the lance was glowing with a faint golden light that he hadn’t noticed before. Something else that he probably wouldn’t have noticed in the middle of a battle, if he hadn’t known to look for it.

The beast was charging again and Arthur didn't think. He threw the lance with all his might and watched as there was a short burst of golden light before it penetrated the beast’s hide. The bellow that escaped the beast rung in his ears long after it had fallen with a ground-shaking thud. 

With a victorious cry, Arthur turned back to his fellows. His eyes scanned his knights, some of whom were still mounted and others who had been flung from their horses when the beast attacked. But Arthur’s eyes landed on a crumpled form against a tree, which was situated only a few feet away from where Arthur had been flung back by some invisible force.

Arthur rushed forward to Merlin, who was curled in on himself. 

Without a thought, Arthur slid to his knees, gripping Merlin’s shoulder, “Are you alright?”

He was obviously out of breath, but he smiled through a grimace, “If it worked then I’m alright. If it didn’t, I’m going to be very put out.”

Arthur couldn’t help the surprised chuckle that escaped him. Arthur was just about to ask Merlin where he was hurt, when he was interrupted.

“Sire, I shall help Merlin so that you may see to the beast,” Sir Kay stepped up beside Merlin with an open palm that Arthur had the strange urge to smack away. But then Arthur turned his eyes to his knights and realized they were watching him. He couldn’t tend to Merlin now, not in the way he wanted. He had to ensure the beast was dead, and take its head to the village to mollify their fears. 

He patted Merlin on the shoulder, giving him one last glance, hoping that he conveyed his thanks with just one look, before he rose to his feet.

“Sir Leon, help me with the beast,”

He turned his back as Sir Kay helped Merlin to his feet, and he tried his best to ignore the ache in his chest that was swelling all over his body.

***

That evening, after they had returned to the citadel and recounted their victory, at least ten times to several different people, Arthur was back in his chambers staring at a full plate of food. He was exhausted, and although he knew he should have been hungry, he couldn’t manage more than a few bites.

He had given up on his own appetite and had moved to his chair by the fire. He was watching the flames, sipping on his mulled wine, when his chamber door opened. To his surprise, Merlin slipped inside.

“What are you doing here?” Arthur winced inwardly at the harshness of his tone.

Merlin gave him a look that said he thought Arthur was dim, “Well, you see, at night, for the past year and a half, I attend to you. Are you sure you didn’t hit your head today?”

Arthur turned away from him. No, Arthur had made it out of today’s incident with barely a scratch. His shoulder was bruised from where he had fallen, but other than that he was fine. Unlike Merlin, who had bruised most of his side and had sustained a twisted ankle. Injuries that Arthur was fairly certain he would not have sustained if he had pushed himself away with magic, instead of Arthur.

“You should be resting.”

Merlin ignored him and walked further into Arthur’s chambers. Or rather, hobbled. Arthur gritted his teeth as he listened to the uneven steps behind him.

Arthur tilted his head to the side, watching as Merlin gathered the mostly full dinner plates.

Merlin frowned, “Are you finished with these?”

Arthur turned back to the fire, waving his hand as he said, “Feel free to take the rest.” Merlin usually didn’t ask, but tonight Arthur didn't bother to pretend that he didn’t know that Merlin took bites of his food.

“That’s not what I meant,” Merlin took the dishes, but he left a small plate of bread and cheese. “I’ll leave some in case you change your mind.”

Before Arthur could protest, Merlin had left for the kitchens. Arthur looked at the plate and sighed, doubting his hunger would return to him.

When Merlin returned Arthur still hadn’t turned away from the fire. His mind was foggy and his thoughts were slow. He shook his head and tried to focus on something, anything, but he kept getting distracted by Merlin. He wasn’t even doing anything particularly noteworthy. He pulled out Arthur’s sleep clothes and folded down the bedding, which Arthur normally would have never noticed. But this evening, he watched the flickering light play across Merlin’s dexterous hands and the features on his face. He wondered if Merlin sat by the fire and shared Arthur’s mulled wine, if his hands would be warm when he casually touched Arthur’s arm. He wondered if Merlin would allow Arthur to reach out and touch.

Merlin turned to the bedside table where the wash bowl and pitcher sat. With a whispered word, Arthur heard the water swirl in the bowl and watched steam rise from the pitcher.

Arthur wondered how many times he had done that. He wondered how many chores Merlin actually did manually. Certainly he wouldn’t put his life at risk just to go through one chore faster? Except he probably would. He had put his life at risk every day because he believed he should protect Arthur. It was understandable to want to protect Camelot and all the people Merlin had come to know and love, but why protect the Prince? Especially when less than a month ago, he wasn’t sure if Arthur would have sent him to his death. 

Arthur’s eyes were on the fire and his mind was miles away. His focus was so clouded that he hadn’t noticed Merlin pausing his chores to look at him.

“Is everything alright?” Merlin asked, looking like he already knew the answer but wanted to see if Arthur would deny it.

“Today has left me tired,” Arthur said, trying not to think about how true that statement was.

“Are you certain that is all?”

Arthur glared at Merlin, hoping it looked intimidating enough for Merlin to leave him alone.

There was a brief moment where they just glared at each other, where Arthur was too stubborn to admit something was wrong and Merlin was too insistent to let Arthur deny it. Eventually, Arthur must have won, because Merlin let out a sigh, and said, “I’ll take my leave then.”

Merlin turned his back, as if he was about to leave, but before he took another step, he swiveled on his heel to face Arthur. He opened his mouth to speak and Arthur huffed, waiting to hear whatever it was.

Merlin’s voice was a little high pitched as he said, “ But if something was wrong . If it were, I think I would want to know because when something’s wrong then you run yourself ragged or do something equally idiotic, like drinking an entire pitcher of mulled wine and then I have to deal with you.”

Considering that those had been his two first options Arthur thought he might be a little too predictable. Or that Merlin knew him too well.

“Is it about the magic? I thought you’d be pleased,” Merlin pouted. “You killed the beast, which usually cheers you up. My magic only helped, really.”

“No, it’s not that,” Arthur said, wanting to clarify that if it wasn’t for Merlin, Arthur was certain that he would have lost some of his best knights. “You did well today, Merlin.”

“Is it something the King said?” Merlin coughed awkwardly, “I know he said that you rid the land of another magical creature, and magic is a plague, and all that, but I thought you would be used to that.”

Arthur huffed. He should have realized that Merlin wouldn’t have let it go that easily. If he didn’t give Merlin something, he would never hear the end of it.

“It’s nothing like that,” Arthur said.

“So what is it?” Merlin stepped closer, so that he was standing right beside Arthur’s chair. Arthur inwardly cursed himself for not dismissing Merlin when he had the chance. Not that Merlin would listen to him. He rarely let things lie, which was a quality Arthur actually admired about Merlin, surprisingly. 

“Arthur?”

He must have been silent for longer than he had thought because he was jolted out of his thoughts when Merlin touched Arthur’s shoulder. It was a touch that was barely there. Merlin’s fingers grazed Arthur’s shoulder, and yet Arthur couldn’t help but remember that Merlin was truly the only person who ever touched him. Would this be all Arthur would ever have? Would he be doomed to a future where the only affectionate touch he received was the fleeting touch of his one friend?

“Sometimes, I want…” Arthur huffed and realized that a Prince wanting for something would sound pretentious to a peasant servant. Arthur rubbed his forehead, “I’m a prince, and I’m sure that to you that means I’m…” Arthur failed to think of a proper word for what Merlin considered him.

“A spoiled brat?” Merlin offered.

“Fine,” Arthur rolled his eyes “But I don’t have many choices in life. In fact, I don’t have a say in most things that happen to me.”

“Such as…?”

“I have a duty to my kingdom. I have a duty to my father. I am not my own person. In a way, I am bound to Camelot.”

Merlin frowned. 

“What happened today that would have been different if you weren’t a prince?”

Arthur chuckled darkly and stood up. In front of the fire he paced, “Where to start? If, as you say, your duty is to protect the Prince of Camelot, then you wouldn’t have been by my side. You certainly wouldn’t have pushed me out of the way when you should have been shielding yourself from that damned beast. And if you had been injured anyway, I would have been able to help you, to comfort you, and to stay with you as Gaius examined you. But instead I had all eyes on me. The knights’. The villager’s. My father’s. A prince cannot show such favoritism. Especially to a servant.”

Merlin looked particularly shocked by this outburst and even after a long beat he still hadn’t said anything.

Arthur’s skin crawled at the growing silence.

“If you’re just going to stare at me, then at least sit down.” He gestured to the now open chair, “The last thing I need is for you to make your damned ankle worse.”

Merlin did not do as bid. 

“Are people watching now?” Merlin asked, his voice tinged with defiance.

Arthur sighed and rubbed his forehead, “That’s not the point.”

“Then what is the point?”

Arthur opened his mouth, but realized he wasn’t sure what point he was trying to make, other than the fact that he liked Merlin, which was rather embarrassing. 

Merlin continued, “As far as I can tell you may be a prince but you are also a person. And people need friends. Right now I don’t see a prince, I see a man in a room with his friend.”

“Princes aren’t people,” Arthur said, a little wildly as he tried to make his point. “Any move I make has consequences. I never know if my actions will be taken as an offence, or if someone is only pretending to like me for clout, or-”

“We are done discussing this,” Merlin announced.

Arthur was about to tell him who gave the orders between the two of them, but his sentence was cut off with a huff as the air was knocked from his lungs. Merlin had marched forward and flung himself onto Arthur. His arms wrapped around Arthur’s shoulders and his head bumped into Arthur’s as he tucked himself into a tight hug. He was standing so close that it made Arthur stumble back with the sudden weight. Merlin did not seem to mind any of this though and continued to hold on.

Arthur was frozen in place. His arms were still outstretched to balance himself, even seconds after Merlin had latched on.

After a moment’s pause, Merlin shifted, and Arthur could feel Merlin's hair brush his face.

“I have a feeling you haven’t had many of these. But they are usually a two-sided affair,” Merlin said, in what was obviously meant to have been a lighthearted tone, but his voice had been too soft. They were so close that when Arthur swallowed, he wondered if Merlin could hear his throat click.

Arthur relaxed his shoulders, but hesitated when he realized he didn’t know where he was allowed to place his hands. Merlin’s shoulders would have been a simple choice but with Merlin’s arms around Arthur’s shoulders, that would have been difficult. He could pat Merlin on the back, and play it off as Merlin being ridiculous, but Arthur already knew he wasn’t strong enough to just have that. Not when Merlin was giving this to him. So he decided instead to wrap his arms all the way around Merlin’s skinny waist, feeling Merlin shift as Arthur’s arms unintentionally moved him forward. Their chests pressed together and Arthur nuzzled his face into Merlin’s neck, his nose pressing into Merlin’s neckerchief.

They stayed there for a while. Arthur reveled in Merlin’s warmth. This close, he could smell the herbs that Gaius must have put on Merlin’s bruises. He wasn’t sure he had ever embraced someone like this. Merlin might have been only an inch or two taller than him but with his arms around Arthur’s shoulders it felt like Merlin was fully encapsulating him. Merlin was undoubtedly skinny, as evident in the fact that Arthur could feel Merlin’s hips and ribs when they were pressed together, but it didn’t make the hug any less warm and comforting. 

Arthur hoped Merlin wasn’t wondering what the hell he had gotten himself into. Now that Arthur had taken the hug, he couldn’t deny that he had wanted one. He wondered if Merlin would tease him for it. They had been known to hold things over each other’s heads, but it had always been in good fun.

Merlin shifted his arms, but he did not pull away. He cleared his throat.

“Let me just say this without you interrupting me.” When Arthur didn’t say anything, Merlin continued in a voice barely above a whisper. “I don’t protect you because you’re the Prince of Camelot. I protect you because you’re my friend and I believe you are going to be a great King.”

Arthur tucked his head into Merlin's neck, closing his eyes against the emotions flooding him.

“I also understand that Camelot’s court probably isn’t the easiest place. We didn’t have ranks in Ealdor. Open affection was normal. In the winter my mother and I would sleep by the fire for warmth. After Will’s father died, Will stayed with us during the winter. I imagine that was the exact opposite of your world.”

Arthur huffed out a small laugh.

“There isn’t strict etiquette in Ealdor like there is in Camelot. That was something I wasn’t used to when I came here. I had to remind myself not to hug Gwen when I saw her because that would be seen as inappropriate here.”

Arthur laughed, “That certainly would have caused a stir.”

“I can see that now. I can also imagine that being the prince of Camelot might mean there are even more rules for you to follow.”

Arthur’s silence must have been an affirmative for Merlin. 

“But not when you’re alone. You pretend we’re not friends, but I thought we were past that after everything I’ve told you.”

“We are friends,” Arthur said into Merlin’s shoulder.  “But I don’t need to be coddled like a child. I shouldn’t feel...”

Merlin sighed, and Arthur felt his head shift beside his own. He didn’t dare move, hoping this moment could be stretched out forever. 

“Everyone needs a friend,” Merlin said as he pulled away. Arthur stepped back, already feeling his stomach drop with disappointment, but Merlin grabbed his hand to stop him from pulling away entirely. “Especially princes that are too hard on themselves.”

He couldn’t express what he was feeling. It felt overwhelming. His body was tingling with a mere hug and he wasn’t sure if he could handle Merlin’s open praise. It was hard to face that raw emotion when he felt like he might keel over at any moment.

Instead of answering, he turned Merlin’s hand over and lifted it to his lips, where he pressed a soft kiss to Merlin’s chore-worn knuckles. He wondered if Merlin knew the intricacies of court, and that a knight only kissed the hand of someone who was of equal or higher standing than himself. He wondered if it was a step too far.

When he looked up, he was a little pleased to see that Merlin was struck dumb.

“Thank you for what you did today, Merlin.” Arthur turned away from him, leaning an arm against the mantle, and looking down into the flames, hoping the warmth would hide the flush in his cheeks. “Rest. If your ankle permits, I will see you in the morning.”

After a long pause, he heard, “Good night, Arthur.”

Arthur didn’t look up until he heard the door latch behind him.

***

Arthur did not see Merlin the next morning. Arthur wondered all day if it was because he was resting his ankle or because Arthur had pushed past Merlin’s line of comfort. And if it was the latter, what had been the point of no return?

But the following day, Merlin arrived in the morning and never mentioned anything besides the fact that his ankle was feeling much better. Arthur decided that Merlin must want to act like nothing had ever happened. Nonetheless, an array of emotions was still wreaking havoc inside him, but he buried them both deep down. He had duties to attend to, and he did not have time for his emotions about one measly hug to overwhelm him.

For one thing Arthur was grateful; Merlin had not withdrawn his casual touches. Although Merlin would not realize it, if he were to retract all his friendly intimacy from their daily lives, it would surely break Arthur. 

Instead, Arthur kept the balance as best he could by pretending everything was the same as before. He watched Merlin hobble on his twisted ankle for a few days, and several times a day he had to stop himself from reaching out to steady him, because they were in front of the court, or the knights, or the lower town folk. Then, when they were alone in Arthur’s chambers, there was always a thick tension, that Arthur wondered was part of his own imagination or if Merlin could feel it too. But every night Merlin would ready Arthur for bed, pat Arthur on the shoulder as he wished him good night, and then leave without another word.

After a few more days, Arthur decided that life had continued on without change. He wasn’t sure if he was relieved or disappointed, or maybe a combination of both.

But Arthur’s life was rarely normal. As he was walking through the lower town, making his presence known in what he hoped was a reassuring way. He spoke with Tom the blacksmith, and discussed his business. He wasn’t the royal blacksmith, but Arthur still liked to hear about the work of the lower town. He dropped by the tailor, who was all too delighted to see Arthur, and asked if he wanted any more jackets because he had just finished one that he thought would suit the prince well. 

His afternoon went on like this, in its normal way, until he stopped by the weaver’s shop.

When he opened her door, he was surprised to see the young woman standing over a pot of dye, while her weaving continued on behind her. The yarn lengths moved on their own as they moved in between the warps of a large half-finished tapestry.

Arthur froze in place, his eyes on the floating spools of yarn and the woman who was standing too far away for him to pretend that he hadn’t seen.

On a quick exhale, he heard her whisper, “The prince.” 

There was only a moment’s pause before she frantically started looking around, her eyes landing on the closed window to her side. She made a dash for it, but the latch was jammed tightly. With fear-stricken hands she pulled on it uselessly.

Thinking quickly, Arthur did the first thing he could think of. He slammed the door shut behind himself and unbuckled his sheath, dropping it to the floor and kicking it away from himself.

Hearing the loud clang, she looked behind herself to see the sword, which was now closer to her than to him. It made her pause.

“Jocelyn,” He said as softly as he could.

She looked up with wide eyes. Obviously she hadn’t thought he would remember her name, and Arthur was certain that under different circumstances the Prince knowing her name would have been a compliment. But not now. 

He raised his hands so they were in front of him. He wasn’t in his armor, for which he was grateful. With his sword cast aside it was clear that he wasn’t armed.

“I know this may be hard to believe, but I won’t hurt you.”

“You saw. You saw me,” She looked at him and down at the sword. With clumsy hands she grabbed it, and unsheathed it. She had obviously never held a blade any bigger than a knife because she held it with two hands and still struggled to hold up the iron blade.

“Jocelyn, you’re going to hurt yourself,” Arthur said, knowing full well that swords were dangerous to those who didn’t know how to wield them. “Look, you may hold it all you like, but I swear on my honor, that I will not arrest you for a natural talent that you were born with.”

Her hands shook, “But you’re the Prince of Camelot.”

“I am,” Arthur smiled, “I am also a man, and men are allowed to disagree with their fathers.” He kept his tone light. “I would not have you sent to the pyre just for weaving.”

Her hands shook and the blade dipped down, the edge skimming the ground. Arthur tried not the wince as the sharpened blade connected with the stone floor.

Tears welled in her eyes, “I just wanted to be with Eliza. I thought I could be careful.” She sniffled and Arthur knew that he was on very dangerous ground. He had never been good with crying women. He wasn’t in any kind of position to comfort her, regardless.

Luckily, that was when there was a knock on the door. As the worst servant in all the five kingdoms was wont to do, Merlin walked in without anyone bidding him.

Merlin stepped into the room, half a sentence about wool out of his mouth before he halted in place, his eyes widening as he looked between Arthur and Jocelyn. Jocelyn, who was obviously on edge, raised the sword immediately, and Merlin, the fool that he was, immediately pushed himself in front of Arthur.

“Merlin, stop! Jocelyn isn’t going to hurt me!” Arthur tried to push Merlin aside, but Merlin was stubborn as a mule when he wanted to be.

“I think I’ll be the judge of how safe you are, thank you,” Merlin said, still blocking Arthur’s body with his own.

“She is just protecting herself,” Arthur said, looking at the young woman in front of her. “She was weaving when I came in,” Arthur gave Merlin a meaningful look, “Without her hands.”

Merlin looked back to Jocelyn, his mouth opened in a small ‘oh’ when he finally understood. In an instance, Merlin dropped his protective stance. He stepped toward Jocelyn, completely ignoring the way she steadied the sword in her hands. He held out his hand and whispered a word. Arthur could tell when Merlin’s eyes turned gold because the blade went lax in Jocelyn’s hands and the edge scratched along the stone floor again. A small fire danced in Merlin’s hands, and it shifted into a dragon. Arthur was surprised to see the Pendragon crest.

“I understand,” Merlin said, with a small smile that looked more sad than joyful.

Jocelyn looked at the dragon with wonder. She spared Arthur a brief look, before looking at Merlin. “I had no idea that you…”

“Well, that is rather the point,” Merlin gave a cheeky smile that made Jocelyn laugh, and finally she dropped the sword. Arthur let out a small sigh of relief, for Jocelyn’s sake, but he did not move to pick it up.

That was when she began to cry and Arthur was overwhelming grateful that Merlin was there. Merlin comforted her and led her to the table, where she sat and told her story. Arthur stepped into the shadows and listened as Jocelyn explained how she had met and fallen in love with Eliza while she had been visiting Jocelyn’s village in Essetir.  Jocelyn had been determined to follow Eliza back to Camelot, even though they had known it would be a risk. 

As Merlin told her about his own magic, she seemed to calm. No longer crying, her eyes started to watch Arthur carefully, her gaze flicking between Merlin while he spoke and Arthur while he listened.

“May I say something?” Arthur asked. Merlin nodded his head in response, but he was looking for Jocelyn’s approval. She was watching him warily.

“Jocelyn, do you know of the druids?”

She nodded, “They came to our village for supplies, once.”

“It’s not safe for you in Camelot,” Arthur continued even as she flinched, “It might be wise for you to seek them out.”

“I’m no kin to them.”

“That won’t matter. They are a peaceful people and they take in those who need guidance.” Arthur stepped forward, “I would give you an escort to them, to ensure your safe passage.”

Her mouth hung open, and Arthur tried not to look at Merlin, who was certainly frowning at him.

“But speak first with your Eliza.” He gave her what he hoped was a kind smile, and slipped out. He left his sword behind, hoping that Merlin would have the sense to take it with him when he left.

***

Arthur didn’t see Merlin until after dinner. When he arrived back at his chambers after dining with his father and Morgana, he spotted his sword lying on the table beside his chainmail and pauldron. It wasn’t until after he had disrobed himself and sat at the fire with nothing but his sleep clothes on, that Merlin appeared. Arthur was surprised to see him, thinking that he wouldn’t see him until morning, despite the fact that he had never dismissed his wayward manservant that day.

Merlin set down a jug of warm mulled wine, and poured a goblet for Arthur without asking if he wanted it.

“How is Jocelyn?” Arthur asked as he took the goblet. 

Merlin’s expression was completely masked. Arthur had seen that neutral look on him before, and it reminded him of how much Merlin had been hiding not that long ago. He wondered why he wore a mask now and what Arthur had done to lose his trust again.

“She’s worried. She knows that someone caught her today because she wasn’t careful. It could have been any one on a list of people that she has been dreading.”

“I am fairly certain that I was on that list, actually,” Arthur said.

Merlin gave him an apologetic smile.

“You helped today, Merlin,” Arthur said as he looked into her goblet. “I’m not sure I could have convinced her that I wouldn’t have hurt her.”

“Fear is powerful,” Merlin said, “As your father well knows.”

Merlin’s tone was bitter, and once Arthur would have scolded him, but he let Merlin have this, even if it made Arthur flinch. He knew his father was cruel, but he still couldn’t reconcile that with his love for him.

After a moment’s thought, Arthur gestured to the fire, “Sit with me.”

Merlin’s eyes widened and he hesitated, looking down at the jug of wine still in his hands.

“Pull the chair from my desk,” Arthur said, and waited for Merlin to do as bid, ignoring the nervous bead of sweat that rolled down his back. He wondered if Merlin would make an excuse not to stay.

After another moment’s pause, Merlin set down the jug and moved the chair beside Arthur’s. He sat down, but quickly repositioned himself so that his legs were underneath him, with his body leaning against the arm of the chair. Arthur couldn’t help the smile that he hid behind his goblet. Only Merlin would refuse to even sit properly. For a dangerous second, Arthur imagined sharing his chair with Merlin and how improper that would be, before he focused himself again.

“Is there another goblet?” Arthur asked.

Merlin grimaced, “In the kitchens. I’d rather not grab it. I don’t need-”

“Can you,” Arthur made a motion with his hands, “another one?”

“Oh. Really?” Merlin asked, looking at Arthur suspiciously. Arthur didn’t blame him, since he had never asked to see Merlin’s magic, especially for such a frivolous reason.

Cælc ,” Merlin whispered, and in his cupped hands, a simple silver goblet formed. Arthur was surprised by the sudden thought that Merlin’s golden eyes suited him just as perfectly as his deep blue eyes.

Merlin smiled proudly as he poured the wine into his newly materialized goblet.

“Do you think Jocelyn will take me up on my offer?” Arthur asked, suddenly.

Merlin settled into his chair even further. The reflection of the fire in his eyes was strangely similar to the magic that had just been in them.

“She might,” Merlin said, “She knows it's not safe, but she was beginning to make a home and she would be loath to leave her partner.”

Arthur nodded.

“Why did you offer to take her?” Merlin asked.

“It’s not safe for a woman to be traveling alone. Besides, it might be nice to get out of the citadel for a while. I’ll tell my father there is another beast in the eastern woods but I need to confirm the rumors. We can be gone for a night and no one would be the wiser.”

“You’ve thought of this before,” Merlin said with an amused tone.

“I’ve had to think about what I would do if I needed to smuggle-“ Arthur realized what he was saying and stopped himself. “I’ve been thinking about it. That’s all.”

Merlin gave him a painful little smile, but didn’t look at all scared or insulted that Arthur had imagined he might need to be smuggled out of Camelot.

They sat there drinking for a few more moments, content in the silence shared together. If it was odd to Merlin that Arthur had invited him to stay without any excuse of chores, he didn’t mention it.

“She seemed to calm once you told her of your own magic.”

“There’s a relief that comes over you when you meet someone who understands,” Merlin said, “It’s hard to explain.”

“Try?”

There was a long pause as Merlin drank his wine without answering. Arthur had to bite his tongue to stop himself from changing the subject, embarrassed that he didn’t understand what Merlin had meant.

“It’s lonely…” Merlin said, his eyes downcast. “You feel like you can’t turn to anyone. I’m lucky to have Gaius. But even then, it’s hard when you think the whole world will hate you, if they knew the truth. But meeting just one person who understands, who is in the same position as you, makes that loneliness dissipate. Just a little bit, but it’s enough to make you want to keep going.”

“I think I do understand,” Arthur said, “At least, I know what it means to be alone.”

Arthur looked back to the fire but he could see that Merlin had turned to look at him. He wondered what Merlin was thinking, but he didn’t dare push. Not after the last time he had pushed Merlin’s boundaries.

“How about a game of cards?” Arthur said instead, putting on a wider grin than he felt. 

Merlin’s eyes were sad, but he matched Arthur’s smile. “Sure. If you want to lose your dignity to a servant.”

Arthur didn’t think he would have minded that as much as Merlin’s tone implied.

***

The next day, Merlin informed Arthur that Jocelyn had decided to take his offer, with the addition that she would be taking Eliza with her as well. Only a few hours later they set their plan into motion and by the end of the week Arthur was riding into the woods, followed by Merlin and the two women a few hours later.

For the first few hours they mostly rode in silence. Jocelyn and Eliza were on their way to a new life, and Arthur imagined they had more important things on their minds than trying to make small talk with the Prince of Camelot. When they stopped to water the horses, Merlin started chatting about the woods near Ealdor and how he used to play in them as a child. Neither Jocelyn nor Eliza noticed, but Arthur could hear in Merlin’s voice the omittance of someone else playing in the woods with him. They continued on like that for a while, exchanging stories about their villages, until they had all forgotten about the task at hand. Once again, Arthur was grateful for Merlin’s ability to befriend almost anyone he met.

When they crossed the border into Essetir, Arthur should have gone on alert, but instead he felt himself relax. He noticed that he wasn’t the only one either. He caught Jocelyn letting out a breath, as if she had been holding it for a long while. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Eliza reach over and take her partner’s hand with a comforting squeeze. Their fingers stayed tangled together, as best they could between their mares. Unintentionally, Arthur’s eyes strayed to Merlin, who was watching the path ahead, unaware that Arthur would have given anything to reach out and hold his hand in the same way.

The sun was setting behind them when they were halted by the sudden appearance of three figures. The orange glow of the sunset cast them in a warm but ethereal light. The tallest one in the middle pulled back his cowl to relieve himself to be Isledir, the Druid leader that Arthur had met once before.

“Arthur Pendragon,” said Isledir, “I was hoping we might meet again.”

Arthur nodded. He respected the Druids, and what they stood for, but he could never sit easy, knowing who he was to them.

“It’s an honor, Isledir,” Arthur said, trying to treat the man as if he would any foreign leader. “But I do not come for myself.  I have a pair who needs your shelter, if you can spare room for two more.”

“Of course, we always have room for those who need us.” Isledir opened his arms, “Please, stay with us for the night. We can introduce your friends to my people and you may rest your horses. I’m sure you have had a long day.”

As they dismounted their horses, the two Druids that stood beside Isledir removed their cowls and took the reins from their guests. They followed the Druids in silence for what Arthur guessed to be half a mile before they came across the encampment. Merlin and Eliza stepped forward, ushered by some Druids who had been waiting for them, but Jocelyn had stopped. Her hand reached out to grab Arthur’s arm but she must have thought she shouldn’t, because her hand stopped before it touched him. 

He paused, turning to her with a raised brow.

“I wanted to say thank you, sire,” Her eyes looked into his for a moment before looking to the ground again. “I can tell that you,” she paused, stumbling around her words, “Well, by the way you act with Merlin, and that you obviously care about him despite his magic, I can see that you are truly doing this out of the goodness of your heart. So, thank you.”

Arthur, for reasons he wished he didn’t understand, felt his throat tighten with emotion. “I don’t care for Merlin despite his magic. As I’m sure Eliza cares for you, not despite your magic but because of who you are to her.”

“Oh,” Jocelyn said with rounded eyes. Arthur realized he had said too much, but he wasn’t about to retract his words. 

Arthur turned away from her, not able to stand seeing the pity in her eyes. He held out his arm to her, “Come. I’m sure they’re wondering where we went.”

She carefully looped her arm around Arthur’s elbow, and with a small smile, she said, “Maybe one day we will return to Camelot.”

Arthur’s heart pounded in his chest with her implication.

When they entered the encampment they found Merlin flocked by a group of children, all of whom seemed to be demanding something.

“All right, all right,” Merlin said between his own laughter. He bent down and picked up one of the Druid children, a young boy who couldn’t contain his giggling. “ Hafenian !” Merlin laughed as he cast the spell, and tossed the child playfully into the air where he floated for a few seconds, to the child’s joy, before falling back into Merlin’s hands. Arthur had never seen magic spoken in such a playful manner. He had never seen Merlin as free from worry as he bent to pick up the next child who demanded to be next.

“I’m going to find Eliza,” Jocelyn said, slipping away and disappearing further into the encampment.

Arthur chose to stay back. He leaned against a tree on the outskirts of the encampment and watched as Merlin played with the children. He showed them all manner of spells, but they obviously wanted Merlin to play with them rather than teach them. 

“Your highness.”

Arthur was pulled from his thoughts by a woman, who he immediately recognized.

Arthur opened his mouth to speak, but was at a loss for words. She gave him a kind smile and offered him a waterskin. “You must be tired from your ride.”

He nodded and drank the water gratefully, before handing it back to her.

“I’m glad to see you made it safely to the Druids,” He finally said.

“Thanks to you, sire.”

Arthur wanted to protest but decided it was best not to. “How is your daughter?” Arthur asked.

The woman smiled, tilting her head to the group of children surrounding Merlin. “Currently, she is having the time of her life.”

Arthur chuckled as he watched Merlin trip over his own feet as the children chased him. One of the young girls looked familiar, and Arthur was pleased to see that she was not only safe, but happy. 

The mother must have noticed Arthur’s gaze wandering back to Merlin because she said, “The boy is very powerful.” 

“Is he?” Arthur had no frame of reference. He had only ever met sorcerers who had wanted to kill him or were running away from him. He hadn’t had time to stop and ask about their skills.

“He is not casting any spells. He is only speaking the words of the old religion. There are not many who can merely speak a word and have it be true.”

Arthur looked back to Merlin, who was now sitting on the ground surrounded by the children, playing some kind of game that involved patting everyone on the head. Arthur had noticed that Merlin’s magic seemed to come naturally to him, but he hadn’t known enough to ever think that Merlin wasn’t even casting spells. 

“He doesn’t seem powerful,” Arthur said, trying not to laugh as Merlin was being chased by a little girl who barely came up to Merlin’s hip.

“And if you were to go where no one knew who you were, you wouldn’t look like a prince.”

Arthur opened his mouth, but closed it when he realized he didn’t know how to respond to that. He had never been somewhere where no one knew him. The only person who had never treated him like a prince was now being tackled by a little girl, and laughing loud enough that it filled the entire encampment.

That evening they ate their dinner around a large communal fire in the center of the encampment. Strangely, it reminded Arthur of feasts in Camelot’s great hall, except there were trees in place of the large stone walls, logs and quilts instead of long tables, and the crackle of fire as the only music.

Across the fire Arthur could see Jocelyn and Eliza enjoying their dinner, seated on a quilt next to some older Druids who had been showing them around the encampment.

Merlin had been in and out of Arthur’s sight since they arrived. He seemed to be very popular with the Druids. Arthur couldn’t tell if the deep feeling in his stomach whenever he saw Merlin chatting freely with one of the Druids was from happiness or dread.

Arthur ate his share of dinner on the edge of the group. He watched the children be ushered off to bed. After some protests which were overtaken by large yawns, they were finally led to their tents for the night. He watched as one of the elders began to tell a story. Some people rolled their eyes, as Arthur figured they had heard the story many times before, but others indulged the old man, and listened with rapt attention. He watched some of the couples press close together, despite the fire at the center burning fiercely. One pair stood up and slipped away, their hands intertwined as they found their way to their private tent.

Arthur looked away, instead focusing on his hands, which were clutching the wooden bowl in his hands so tightly that his knuckles were white.

Arthur’s thoughts were interrupted when he heard a loud sigh and a thump. Arthur found that Merlin had plopped himself down by Arthur’s feet, his back leaning against the log that Arthur was sitting on. He laid his long legs out in front of him and tipped his head back against the log, so close to Arthur’s thigh that Arthur could feel the hairs rise on his body.

“Did playing nursemaid tire you?” Arthur teased.

Merlin groaned, “And I thought looking after you was hard.”

Arthur laughed, kicking Merlin in the thigh and delighted when Merlin shoved him back.

“Not looking to have children any time soon?”

Merlin snorted, but didn’t answer. Instead, he tilted his head toward the fire, “Jocelyn and Eliza will love it here. I’m sure they’ll miss Camelot, but I think they will be fine.”

Arthur looked across the fire to where the two women seemed perfectly at ease only a few hours after arriving.

“I think you’re right,” Arthur felt his stomach twist as he looked down at Merlin.

“Here, I brought you something,” Merlin said, pulling out a small bundle wrapped in wool from inside his jacket. “One of the Druids gave it to me, but I think it would suit you better.”

Arthur tentatively took the bundle and pulled away the wool to find a white stone necklace. It wasn’t intricate or made with fine materials, but it had obviously been made with care. The stone was opaque, but clear in some places where Arthur could see the fire shining through. Thin metal had been wrapped around the top several times to keep it in place, with a thin chain that was long enough to slip over one’s head.

“It’s not magic, or anything like that. I checked. But I’m not really one for adornment,” Merlin gestured to himself, and Arthur couldn’t help but think Merlin would look beautiful with a jewel or two.

Self-conscious, Arthur twisted the rings on his fingers and felt the red boar’s tusk necklace hanging around his neck.

Merlin bumped his head against Arthur’s arm, making Arthur’s arm twitch. Merlin teased, “Come on. Is it not up to your royal standards?”

Arthur gripped the necklace, trying not to cherish it as much as he knew he did. He wanted to reach out to Merlin’s head, run his fingers through his hair and thank him for the gift. Those two inches of space between them felt like miles, because Arthur knew he couldn’t. Not with what he was planning to do tonight.

“I’m going to get some rest. Don’t stay up too late, we leave in the morning.” Arthur saw the flash of disappointment cross Merlin’s face. He stood up and made his way to the tent that the Druids had provided for him.

Once inside he slipped the necklace over his neck, tucking the stone under his tunic so it was hidden. He started gathering the saddle bags that Merlin had packed. They hadn't taken much, knowing that they would only be gone for a day or two. Arthur pulled out the blankets and anything else he thought Merlin would need. He was left with a small bag of food that he would eat on his way back to Camelot, and everything else he left for Merlin. He was just about to slip out of the tent and find his horse, when the tent flap opened and Merlin barreled in.

“Look, I don’t know what’s been with you lately, but you can’t just be my friend and act like it sometimes and then-”

Merlin stopped abruptly when he saw the bag that was slung over Arthur’s shoulder.

Arthur gave an apologetic smile. Once he figured out what was happening, Merlin looked absolutely livid. His face flushed and Arthur could see his fists curl.

“You’re an ass,” Merlin snarled, and Arthur didn’t blame him. “We’ve talked about this.”

“Merlin,” Arthur could barely look at him as he said, “You shouldn’t come back with me.”

“How many times do I have to tell you? I’m not living with the Druids .”

“You aren’t safe in Camelot,” Arthur dropped his bag, wanting to grab Merlin and physically shake him until he would finally see sense. “You could be killed! Don’t you get that?”

Merlin let out a small bark of laughter, of all things, which frustrated Arthur. Through gritted teeth, Arthur said, “Gaius can gather your things and I can smuggle them to you when I’m on patrol.”

“Arthur,” Merlin reached out and touched Arthur’s arm, his touch too soft for what they were talking about. Arthur shook off his hand. Merlin sighed, and gruffly said,  “How am I meant to protect you when I’m not by your side?”

“Stop that. You aren’t my protector, Merlin.” Arthur felt himself shaking but he continued, “If someone catches you and tells my father, you won’t be anywhere, let alone by my side.”

Merlin smiled, more affectionate than Arthur expected. “I’m not staying here.”

“Damn it, Merlin!” Arthur raised his voice, but should have known that yelling wouldn’t have been the answer. Merlin only shouted right back at him.

“I’m not an idiot! I know the risk I’m taking!” Merlin snapped, “You cannot make my decisions for me. I belong in Camelot and that is where I will stay.”

He ran his hand over his hair. He was losing this argument, and at this point, he wasn’t even sure he wanted to win. 

“It’s not like I want to be rid of you,” Arthur sighed.

“I know that,” Merlin replied.

“You’re happy here,” Arthur offered.

“No, I am happy to do magic,” Merlin clarified. “I don’t have to travel with the Druids to do that.”

“But you can’t do that in Camelot, so I don’t see why you insist on staying.”

“When will you get it through that thick skull of yours?” Merlin snapped, stepping into Arthur’s space. Arthur tried to move back, but the tent wasn’t very large and he just bumped into the thick canvas walls. Merlin stabbed a finger at him, but his eyes caught on Arthur’s chest. Reaching forward, Merlin tugged on the chain that dipped below Arthur’s tunic and pulled out the white stone necklace.

Arthur’s heart pounded. With his back to the tent wall, and not much space to move, he felt cornered.

Merlin closed his eyes and let the necklace go, so that it laid against Arthur’s chest.

With a sigh Merlin said, “I will protect you, and I will stay by your side. You say you don’t want to be rid of me, and that were friends, but you keep pushing me away. So which is it, Arthur?”

“I don’t want to see you die! Is that so mad of me?” Arthur snapped.

Merlin groaned, “You’re so obtuse! Don’t you get it?”

Merlin took Arthur’s face in both his hands. 

“Everything I do is for you.”

Arthur had one second where his mind was completely blank, the only point of focus was Merlin’s callused hands holding his jaw.

The next second, Merlin was tugging Arthur’s face forward and kissing him frantically.

Arthur was overwhelmed in an instant. He felt the roughness of Merlin's fingers on his cheeks and the way his own nails dug into his palms. He heard the hitch in his breathing as Merlin deepened the kiss and the shuffle of Merlin’s feet as he moved closer. He tasted Merlin’s sweet lips, wondering if it was from the honey-covered berries he had been eating at dinner. 

After a moment, when Arthur realized that Merlin was kissing him and what that meant, he ran his fingers through Merlin’s hair and tugged him closer. He nipped on Merlin’s lips and reveled in the whine that escaped Merlin’s chest.

“Wait,” Merlin said breathlessly, pulling far away enough to look into Arthur’s eyes. But when he caught Arthur’s eye, he seemed to melt and forget what he was going to say.

“Hello,” Merlin said, a little cross-eyed from being so close to Arthur.

Arthur had obviously lost his mind too, because he answered, “Hello.”

Merlin pressed a soft but lingering kiss to Arthur’s cheek, “Stop trying to push me away.”

“I don’t know how to hold you close,” Arthur whispered.

“I’ll show you,” Merlin took Arthur’s hand, which was clenched in Merlin’s tunic, and led him to bedding in the center of the tent. He knelt down and Arthur followed. They removed their boots, jackets, and belts, but nothing more. Merlin laid back in the soft cushions and opened his arms to Arthur.

Hesitantly, Arthur laid himself onto Merlin. He didn’t want to crush him, but that didn’t seem to bother Merlin. They didn’t speak, instead speaking with their touches.

They kissed for what felt like ages. Arthur had never kissed like this, not frantic nor as a prelude to sex. He wanted Merlin, and he wanted him now, but he also wanted to wait for a proper bed in a proper room. It was driving him a little mad, as he pressed Merlin further into the cushions, feeling Merlin’s hands skim over his back.

“Slow,” Merlin’s voice was so much rougher, and Arthur shuddered at the sound. 

Arthur dipped his head to Merlin’s neck, kissing at Merlin’s throat slowly, as he had been bid.

Arthur pressed his forehead against Merlin’s, “You have to know that I want you to stay in Camelot, with me.”

Merlin gave one of those smiles that said he thought Arthur was an idiot.

“I know. But you’re being ridiculous because we’re arguing for the same thing. We both want each other to be safe, but I’m just as worried about you dying as you are about me.”

Arthur grumbled, not wanting to concede Merlin’s point.

Merlin nudged Arthur’s side with his knee. “No more trying to get rid of me?”

Arthur didn’t answer. Instead he pressed a kiss to Merlin’s lips. He cupped Merlin’s jaw, running his thumb over the day’s stumble. He nudged Merlin’s nose with his own, tilting his head for a better angle, and felt Merlin’s breath hitch. 

“I’m not very good at this,” Arthur said as he pressed soft kisses to Merlin’s lips.

“I would have to heartily disagree ,” Merlin said with so much insistence that it made Arthur burst out laughing.

“Not that, you dolt,” Arthur said, pressing another kiss to Merlin’s cheek, reveling in finally being able to. “I don’t know what to do when I… I don’t know how to do this with someone I actually care about.”

Merlin grinned up at him, looking very proud of himself.

“Oh shut up,” Arthur rolled his eyes.

“I didn’t say anything,” Merlin pointed out, but he was still smiling like a cat that got the cream.

“Gods, are you always going to be so annoying about this?” Arthur huffed, but couldn’t help the smile that broke through his facade.

“Absolutely,” Merlin said, “And you say you don’t know what to do, but how is this any different than being with someone you only plan to bed for the night? I don’t think the act itself changes that much.”

“It’s not the same,” Arthur shook his head, “Maybe for a commoner, but not for me.”

Merlin raised his hand and brushed his fingers through Arthur’s hair. Arthur caught his hand, and pressed a kiss to Merlin’s knuckles. Merlin’s eyes crinkled with mirth at the action. Merlin pulled Arthur’s hand toward his own lips, and kissed Arthur’s wrist softly.

“Is it one of those prince things again?”

Arthur closed his eyes and bit his lip as he admitted, “You’re the only person who cares about me, Merlin.”

“That’s not true, Arthur,” Merlin said firmly, “Everyone in Camelot loves you.”

“Camelot loves their prince,” Arthur said, “You have to know… I mean you have to have noticed that there isn’t anyone else who… I’m not a prince to you. You’re the only person who touches me without thought to my rank, and that should be an offense, but by the gods, Merlin, I didn’t know how lonely I was until you became my friend.”

Merlin’s eyes watered, and Arthur hated that. He wasn’t sure if Merlin’s tears were out of pity or sympathy, but either was unacceptable.

“Don’t do that. Stop it.” Arthur demanded, “It’s true.”

“I know it’s true Arthur. That’s why I’m sad,” Merlin whispered, “I know what it means to be lonely. I hate to think that you were too.”

Merlin leaned up and kissed Arthur, his arms wrapping around Arthur’s shoulders tightly.

“Come here,” Merlin whispered.

Merlin pulled Arthur down so that his head rested on Merlin’s chest. He wrapped an arm around Arthur’s back, so that his fingers played idly at the base of his spine. Arthur felt his whole body shiver and didn’t even mind when he felt Merlin’s chest expand under him with a soft chuckle. 

Hesitantly, Arthur ran his palm up and down Merlin’s side, not able to believe what his hand was doing. As Merlin’s tunic rode up, Arthur’s fingers grazed skin and it felt heavenly. He rested his palm on Merlin’s hip bone, unable to move it away, lest this overwhelming feeling slip away. All the while, Merlin ran his fingers through Arthur’s hair, tugging at the end and holding there for a moment, before letting go and repeating the process all over again. It was such a simple action, but it felt better than Arthur could describe. His entire body tingled in reaction to it.

Before he knew it, he had fallen asleep in Merlin’s arms.

***

When he woke in the morning, it was to the uncomfortable sensation of his arm being completely numb and the unfamiliar sound of snoring. When he opened his eyes, he saw that his arm was laid out on the cushions and Merlin was lying completely on top of it. His head was tipped back, his mouth slightly open, and with each exhale a small snore escape his lips.

Arthur smiled. For weeks now he had wondered what waking up with Merlin in his bed would be like. He had imagined all sorts of wonderful scenarios. This less than ideal one made it all the more real.

Arthur shifted his arm, wincing as it started to regain feeling. Merlin didn’t seem to notice or mind that his arm-shaped pillow had been moved. He turned over and tucked himself into Arthur’s side, mumbling something in his sleep. Arthur moved down so that he was face to face with Merlin, and pressed a lingering kiss to Merlin’s cheek. Merlin snuffled a little. Arthur repeated the kiss on Merlin’s shoulder.

Merlin’s eyes blinked open, surprise then realization crossing his features.

Arthur was about to wish him good morning and tell him that they should probably get ready to leave soon, but he was stopped in his tracks. Merlin closed his eyes, flung an arm around Arthur’s waist, and pulled Arthur closer until Merlin’s nose pressed into Arthur’s neck. 

“Not yet,” Merlin said, before his breathing evened out and he was asleep again.

Arthur couldn’t help the smile that spread across his face. So this is what lingering in bed felt like. Arthur closed his eyes, tucking himself closer to Merlin, and hoped that no one would wonder why they were late getting back to the citadel.