Merlin shook the glass tube again with vigor. It did not turn a different shade of brown, nor did it miraculously turn into the pale pink color it was supposed to represent. It continued to be a stubborn shade of brown that did not bode well for those who might have an inflammation of the liver.
"I should make Gwaine drink it anyway," Merlin muttered angrily, waving his hand with as much contempt as he could muster, banishing the botched concoction away. He wasn't a completely rubbish potion master! He wasn't, all right? He could mix poisons and antidotes without even paying attention. He just couldn't manage to fix something not damaged by magic and it was startlingly inconvenient.
It didn't help that not many people in the castle were brave enough to test his healing powers, still convinced that he might turn them all into animals. (In his defense, when he turned Percival into a bear, it was an accident! And honestly, look at him; he's a mountain of a man.) The result being that the castle was now a cesspool of infection and disease, with the only cure coming when they're so close to death because, of course, that's when his magic leapt to attention to cure the patients nearly on the brink of death. Needless to say, they were having a bit of a problem since Gaius retired to the country.
Merlin scowled at the scry.
No matter how powerful he'd become, no matter how many lands he and Arthur had conquered or lives they saved, speaking to Gaius through a pool of water always brought Merlin back in time to the boy he used to be, all knobby knees and pent-up boyhood frustration. (To be fair, his knees were still quiet wobbly and he was only three-and-twenty now, although it felt like it had been much longer.) Merlin hated feeling young, almost as much as he hated the entire castle thinking he was a temperamental warlock not to be trifled with and yet, one arch of Gaius' eyebrow had him spiraling so fast into adolescence, it felt like he had never left.
"Meddling old man," Merlin cursed with an involuntary smile. He called Gaius once a week since the physician had travelled out to the country with a deaf squire and a pack-mule so overloaded, Merlin was sure they would all end up in a ditch between here and the cottage they were bound for.
He would be mortified to, once again, admit that his preventative healing skills were woefully inadequate unless mortal peril was involved. Gaius always sounded impossibly disapproving over scry and something about the watery image made his lectures more painful than when he was physically here, raised eyebrows and down turned mouth staring Merlin in the face without a kind pat on the back that usually followed extensive berating.
Merlin was in the middle of making a flannel shimmy down his work table to clean up the splotches from his potion making, when there was a tentative knock on his door.
He cringed. "Yes?"
The expected awkward and fearful pause came, as if they thought him to be sacrificing baby animals and plotting treason without even barring the door. The minds of nobles and castle-born servants had ceased to be something Merlin strove to fathom. He put them all in the same category as Arthur's desire to slay wild animals for sport—it was beyond his capability to understand.
Merlin strode to the door and opened it with only a thought, hands placed on his hips to prevent him from doing something drastic in his frustration.
"I am not anyone's Lord," Merlin thundered, as much as he could. The long day mixing healing draughts had made his voice reedy from the smoke. "I have suffered many names from this castle's inhabitants but I will not be called a lord," he spat with distain," because that is a category for privileged fools."
Before him, Bartholomew trembled a bit. Merlin tried to steel his resolve but it always crumbled in the face of anyone actually being afraid of him. Bartholomew, almost twice Merlin's age, looked close to tears.
"Bugger," Merlin mumbled, trying to draw himself down, somehow make himself less formidable but it only served to make Bartholomew shake more. Merlin gave up. "What do you need?"
"The king sent—"
"Arthur is a prat," Merlin interrupted. "Don't let him bully you into coming up here. If you don't want to play messenger between him and I, you don't have to, do you understand me?"
Bartholomew looked like he was going to be sick. "Y-yes, My Lord."
"Merlin, my name is Merlin."
Bartholomew blinked, slowly, like panic was welling up and paralyzing him. Merlin sighed and felt like he hated the world, wanting desperately, if only for a few minutes, to go back to the days when he was just little Merlin from Ealdor and the only people afraid of him were the chickens in his mother's coop.
"What do you need, Bartholomew?"
The man just squeaked a little, stepped to the side and fled down the hall without another sound from him, except for the rapid tapping of his feet as he barreled down the tower stairs. Merlin was about to shout after him, tell him to stop running on his stairs because his tower, his bloody sentient tower, would get offended and Merlin would be stuck levitating himself up them for a week's time (Arthur yelling and threatening beheading the entire time). However, Merlin was distracted from hollering after him by something very odd. Where Bartholomew had stood just moments before was a very small, very dirty peasant girl.
"Well, hello," he said, accidentally—the words just tumbling out at the sight of the girl. She didn't respond to them, her large brown eyes staring unblinking at him. Her face was grimy but Merlin could spot what looked to be freckles spanning from one cheek to another. Her nose was button cute, her cheeks round and her hair fell to her thin shoulders, tangled and curling in a way that reminded him of Morgana's when she woke from a nightmare. The girl before him couldn't be a day older than thirteen.
"Um," Merlin started when the girl didn't respond. "Would you like to come in?"
He moved a little to the side of the door and gestured for her to come further into his chambers. Again, she didn't make a single sound but shuffled into the room. Her feet, tiny and dirt streaked were bare. Merlin felt something tighten in his chest at the memories of Ealdor this peasant girl provoked. He pushed them aside as he closed the door. When he turned around to face her, she was politely inspecting the rest of the room with wide eyes but she hadn't moved from her place near the door. Merlin cleared his throat.
"I'm Merlin, I'm the Court Sorcerer—not a Lord, yes, erm, sorry about all that," he said, wincing at his babbling. The girl stopped looking around, turning her giant brown eyes onto him. She didn't, however, say a word. "Sorry if I scared you. I'm harmless, really. Bartholomew is just a milksop."
"Can you tell me your name?"
There was a long pause, where Merlin fiddled with the hem of his robes and cursed Bartholomew in his head. What in the world was that man thinking, bringing a little girl like this into Merlin's rooms? He didn't know what to do with children. Sure, he had loved to interact with the local kids when he went down to the lower town and many of them were so brazenly honest that it was refreshing, asking him to do innocent tricks instead of cowering inside their houses like many of their parents. The rumors were terribly exaggerated concerning his plot to enslave the children of Camelot as his magical army of witches and wizards.
When the young girl didn't answer, Merlin stepped closer to her, watching as shadows passed in her eyes and tension flowed through her body. She was scared, maybe a little wary, but only since Merlin was advancing on her and not before. He stopped a little ways from her and slowly lowed himself into a crouch.
"I'm not going to hurt you," he said. "Although, I imagine everyone says that, even if they don't mean it."
The girl blinked at him, her hands lying limply by her sides. Merlin sighed and tried a little bit of a smile before saying, "Can I show you something?"
She didn't run in the other direction, nor did she come any closer or speak a word. He took that for as much as permission as he was going to get from this mute-thing and held out both his hands toward her. Slowly, speaking a soft spell he conjured a tulip flower, holding it out between them like a peace offering.
The flower was meant for her, a little too small in his hands—too delicate—and as he put it between them, he snapped the green stem in half.
"Sorry," he said, clumsily. "It's for—" his words skidded to a stop as she stepped closer and touched her finger tip to the broken stem, still looking at him and not the flower.
Magic flooded the space between them with a soft blue light, hemming the stem together and leaving a very bright and beautiful smile on her face.
"Oh!" Merlin said happily, unfurling his palm to see the stem whole. "You've got magic, haven’t you?"
The girl continued to smile, taking the flower from his hand. The tension in her shoulders had left but she still wasn't speaking. Merlin watched her as she inspected the flower, like she was checking his craftsmanship, before she slipped it behind her ear. This time, her smile was shy and Merlin felt the strings of his heart tighten.
"You look lovely," he said softly.
Underneath all the dirt, he could see her blush.
Merlin introduced her to Gwen after an hour of talking to her without response. It was clear that she didn't want to leave and Merlin didn't know if it was because the tower buzzed with the hum of powerful magic that she might find comforting. or if she was just attached to him.
"Go on," he whispered to her, crouched again to her level. "Gwen will help you get clean and find you some proper clothes."
The girl frowned and took a step toward him. Merlin felt his heart soar a little and smiled, kind and truthful, when her eyes turned away from panic and to curiosity. He conjured another tulip, forgoing the spell, this one was pale pink (the color his potion was supposed to be) and Merlin held it up between them.
"Let's make a deal," he said. "If you go with Gwen, just for a few hours, we can have dinner together, here in my tower and if we're lucky, a friend of mine will stop by. How do you feel about that, little witch?"
There was a moment, when it seemed as if she would stay and not permit Merlin to find out more about her. But she finally took the tulip, a ghost of a smile settling on her lips as Gwen took her hand and led her down the stairs.
Merlin was not far behind them.
Council was coming to a close, the remaining people of the court hovering around King Arthur. Merlin didn't stop or wait to be beckoned forward, he nodded at Leon who was trying to usher the people out of the hall so that Arthur could move onto a Round Table meeting with his knights. The people around them didn't seem inclined to leave quickly.
"A word, Sire," Merlin boomed, sweeping into the room with a dramatic flair that he usually saved for Arthur's most frustrated moments. Merlin noticed the way Arthur's face lit up for just a second while the court turned at Merlin's entrance. Merlin fought his own smile in return for this success.
When Arthur's days were bogged down with the heavy responsibility of the Crown, Merlin was making a complete and utter arse out of himself as a sacrifice for just one Arthurian smile. It was pathetic and not at all subtle, but Merlin was quickly becoming tired of subtle.
They had been waiting a long time.
First, it was because of Merlin's magic—the secret between them that kept them from warming each other's beds. The war came second and there was no time for declarations then, just a flurry of trust that ran so deep Merlin felt he might break from it. And now, Merlin wasn't sure what held the third obstacle between them. Maybe they were waiting for the dust to settle, peace had been only blanketing the land for the past winter and Arthur's coronation had only been at Yule.
Or maybe Arthur had tired of him, their friendship enough to keep him happy. It was perfectly understandable, if unwanted, and Merlin was not blind—the idea that a queen would convince Camelot of Arthur's stability, of his fatherly love for the land and its people, was not an unpopular idea.
Merlin loathed it.
"A word," Merlin repeated. This time, the whole hall startled and many of the council members fled without a backward glance. Leon looked apologetic but wary.
"Do you really need to speak to him? Because we're already late and I'm sure Percival has convinced Gwaine that gambling at a Round Table meeting is exactly what the king wants," Leon said, stepping between Merlin and the throne.
Merlin waved a hand and rolled his eyes. Percival loved to gamble away his knight pension in the lower taverns any way he could. More than once, Merlin had been summoned from his bed to save Percival from having to use his brute force in order to keep himself alive. Arthur's knights were not quiet, nor were they particularly aware that they were no longer boys, but men bound under a fairly strict code of law.
"I promise to only be a minute," Merlin said. "Bartholomew—"
"Have you been scaring the help again, Lord Merlin?"
Merlin tilted his head and looked around Leon's broad shoulder. "Been torturing your people with the wretched sound of your voice, Your Highness?"
Arthur laughed. Leon shook his head.
"Just send him along when you can," Leon finished, striding out of the room with a resigned sort of air about him.
(Merlin would bet a good deal of coins that when Arthur finally did arrive at the Round Table, Leon would be a week's pension behind.)
"Bartholomew is a bloody nuisance," Merlin stated firmly.
"So are you."
"He almost cried today! And he delivered me a child! Without a single explanation, Arthur." Merlin tried to sound stern but failed, mostly because Arthur's face shifted from amused to concerned at the mention of the girl.
He still looked beautiful, leaning against his throne in full armor and his favorite cape draped across his shoulders. There was something regal about him, naturally, but also kind and approachable in his features. Although Arthur was raised an arm's length away from true affection, he didn't rule his kingdom that way. Merlin was constantly surprised, heart always lurching to fill up with more love for this man when Arthur proved how far he'd come since the prattish man who assaulted peasants without thought.
"He didn't tell you?"
"No," Merlin sighed, stepping closer automatically. "He left a mute peasant girl in my care and didn't say a damn thing. Where did you find her?"
Arthur shook his head, brow furrowed. "She was found in the lower town two days ago, naked and silent."
"No one recognized her?"
Arthur looked away, eyes falling on his ring—which could only mean one thing as it was the only thing the castle still held of Morgana. The ring had been a gift from Morgana after Arthur had completed his first quest in the summer of his sixteenth year.
"Gwaine thinks she's from the Druid people," Arthur forced out. His voice was tight and wounded, like he was doing everything not to rage because he felt so much more than just anger. "There have been rumors."
Merlin reached out to twine his hand into Arthur's cloak without thought. He tugged a little until Arthur looked at him.
"That Morgana has turned against the Druids and reigns without mercy on the last of them," he said softly. "There have been reports of Druids on our borders, seeking shelter in small towns and trying to find one another."
Merlin immediately thought of Mordred, eyes just as wide as the young girl's. With sadness, he knew Mordred's would no longer be as innocent but mostly ringed with the power of Morgana's madness. Guilt, always present, wrapped tighter around his chest and he fisted Arthur's cloak with more need.
"You will send aid?" It was a question but Merlin made his opinion clear with his eyes. Arthur looked affronted.
"It's the discussion at the Round Table," Arthur said and then added, "not if but who, Merlin. I will not leave a peaceful people defenseless."
Relieve swept through him, he tugged at the red fabric. "Mostly peaceful, your highness," he said.
Arthur snorted. "Yes, well, plots against my life aside. Bartholomew brought the girl to my attention this morning and I thought—"
"That she would be more comfortable around me," Merlin finished for him. "King Arthur, what an oddly sensitive thought."
He put a mocking tone to it but they both know that Merlin's backhanded compliments were not just laced with humor. It hung in the air between them before he had to physically force himself to unhand Arthur's cloak and look away from the steady pulse in the tantalizing display of Arthur's neck.
"Do we have any other knowledge about her?"
Arthur's voice was just as rough as Merlin's, "Not at all."
"If it is Morgana, there will be few survivors," Merlin murmured. "She might be a threat."
Arthur shook his head.
"We've been wrong before."
No, it was not a 'we'. Mordred's destiny was Merlin's fault, not Arthur's and Merlin felt the regretful smiled twist over his features.
"You'll care for her?"
Arthur's face, gods, Merlin wanted to trace it with his hand and memorize it just the way it was, filled with so much hope, so much trust and desire. Merlin longed to know exactly which parts of him put that look on Arthur's face—which parts Arthur wanted to keep only for himself.
"I can hardly care for myself," Merlin said instead, smile rueful. "But the evidence of my care of others lies in your breathing body."
"You're awfully cheeky," Arthur replied. His eyes were amused and twinkling in the dying sunlight that filtered through the Great Hall's endless windows. Merlin couldn't stop himself from staring and basking in the small moments here, where he was the sole focus of Arthur's attention.
"Well, you know what they say," he says, turning away from Arthur and forcing himself to walk away. He needed to focus, with Morgana purging the Druids and all that it implied; he would need to have his wits about him. Not to mention the lost little girl who he had left with a promise of a meal with him.
He turned at the door. Arthur was a few steps from the throne, like he had tried to follow Merlin and then stopped himself. Merlin closed his eyes before meeting Arthur's, still blazing blue, across the room.
"What do they say?"
"Oh," Merlin said softly, "just, if we don't laugh at the circumstances of our lives, then we'll weep."
Arthur's laughter followed him out of the room.
With the sun falling beneath the horizon, the stone of the castle was cooling. Merlin walked up the stairs of the tower lost in thought, thinking of all the things to be done about the Druids, and by the time he crested the top of the stairs, he was rather cold.
The tower was a very large room, circular and the ceiling stretched tall above him. It was sparsely decorated, since he'd only been in it for a few weeks and before that, he was used to having only a bedroll and the comfort of Arthur's safety in the form of his steady breath only steps away. He had indulged, stealing a mattress fit for a king and three times the size of the one he used to sleep in. There weren't any furs, because Merlin had felt too weird to take any, but he had grabbed more than his fair share of warm blankets and soft linens. The mountain of pillows was particularly useful when he was hiding from the world or lying to himself, denying that he had plans to share this too-big bed with someone in particular. The room was largely dominated by the bed but his work table and a bureau for his clothes were both large items. He had plans for bookshelves as well, soon.
Merlin shook his head and nodded twice, watching as the room whirled to life. Rags leapt to wash the floors of dirt, a broom crawled out from under his bed to tend to the cobwebs and soon the fresh smell of cedar filled the room.
While the room sorted itself out (it got angry when Merlin tried to help and he always wondered when his magic became something to be courted like a fickle infant), Merlin went to the window. He inhaled hard and when he opened his mouth, the trickle of bird calls came out. It lasted hardly a few minutes before a great owl showed up, perched on his sill.
"I need to know about Morgana," he whispered. The owl scowled, or at least what Merlin thought was a scowl and hooted softly before lifting a wing for Merlin to stroke.
"Will you go to the Druids as well? They know you're a bird of peace and a sign of my kinship," Merlin cooed. He was oddly attached to this ridiculous owl and had hoped, in vain, to endear the owl to him and keep her in the rafters above the room. But, like all things Merlin had affinity for, the owl was rather temperamental. "Please? They need you."
The owl looked skeptical.
Merlin scratched underneath the owl's wing until she nudged harder into his hand. He smiled and prodded the bird with his magic, letting it hover around them and expand. The owl seemed to enjoy this, as she gave a sharp cry and took off into the quickly darkening sky.
"God, Morgana," Merlin said into the golden air. "What have you become?"
There was no answer on the winds.
Thankfully, the terror of Merlin's magic didn't reach to the squires. To them, they saw someone who would help them with their endless chores at the war-camp. They were all young but most of them had lived through the war and hardened with it. Merlin often found himself wishing he knew them all before they saw the bodies crumbling at the hands of magic and singing steel swords—he wished he could bask in their innocence once more. Nevertheless, he left his rooms still buzzing with magical housekeeping and hurried out to the armory, where most of the squires gathered while Arthur met with his knights in the bowels of the castle.
"Tristan, if you sharpen that blade anymore, it'll cut through the stone," Merlin chastised as a hello. The boys laughed but it was hollow. Merlin pushed aside the sheets of armor and hopped up to sit on the table. "Any news?"
"They're still in," Kay's squire, Tomas added. "But me ma has been hearing word about the Druids for days now."
Merlin nodded. "My guess would be that Lancelot goes," he said, catching Alain's eye. "He knows the people the best, maybe Elyan because he has a hand at healing and they both have enough rugged charm to sweet-talk gold from the mouth of babes."
The tension in the room eased as the boys all smiled knowingly. Merlin arched an eyebrow. Tristan shrugged, looking down at his hands. "Druids are all right, yeah? But if they're runnin' scared, don't want to be going toward what's killin' em, do we?"
Merlin felt something in himself settle. They were only afraid of Morgana, not the Druids, and that made Merlin feel loads better. Having to deal with refugees, magical ones, on top of commoner resistance wasn't something he was looking forward to. He gave them all a reassuring smile.
"Travel safe, lads," Merlin said, thinking of how he will wake early in the morning and sneak down to charm the knights' blades and lace their armor with enchantments, not forgetting to place the same on the squires' cloaks. It was the least he could do for these young men, so full of promise as the rules of knighthood changed and shifted, opening up opportunities that put fire in their hearts.
They all had expansive dreams.
"Now, there's a few coins in it for anyone who wants to serve me and a guest dinner tonight..."
His room was admittedly the cleanest it had ever been. It smelled like fresh cedar, a smell he distinctly associated with home because of the dense cedar forest that bordered Ealdor to the north. When he was younger, his mother would send him out to peel the bark back and shave off slivers of wood and she’d boil them in water, filling the house with the soft fragrance. He hoped the smell would be as comforting for the young girl, a potential Druid refugee, as it was for him.
“Knock, knock,” Gwen’s voice said through the door and Merlin scrambled to open it, before realizing he needed only open it with his mind. It was difficult to get used to performing magic in the castle again, out in the open and unashamed. When they had been at war, the traveling camps were easy with magic and Arthur was constantly encouraging him to perform magic in the open as to ease the minds of the people and the soldiers. Being back in the castle was an entirely different matter.
“Hi,” Merlin said awkwardly when the door opened to reveal Gwen and the girl. Gwen was wearing a kind smile and the young girl was dressed in breeches and a tunic, a surprising choice for a girl her age. Merlin approached them both with a smile of his own. “Did you pick your clothes out?”
The girl didn’t answer, although Merlin noticed that she still had the tulip gripped in her hand—it was a little soggy but the sight made joy bloom in his chest.
“She didn’t fancy the look of the dresses,” Gwen said kindly, “so I snuck in and nabbed something a bit more to her taste, didn’t I?”
There was a brief pause before Merlin said, “Listen, someone will bring us supper soon. Would you like to draw? I’ve stolen some of the Prince’s paints. They’re over there on the table.”
It took a minute but the girl finally looked away from Merlin’s face and ran over to the table, spreading out the precious paper (which Arthur never used unless he was illustrating a war effort) and lined up the ink wells. There wasn’t a smile on her face but she looked intent. Merlin turned back to Gwen.
Gwen’s smile waned a bit, touched with sadness. “She didn’t like to be touched, which is understandable if she’s a survivor.”
“Just rumors,” she said softly, her mouth set stern. “My father always said that before the purge, working for the Druids was the best business experience he’d ever had. They were always kind.”
Merlin nodded. “It’s hard to imagine a solid reason why she would go after them,” he replied, although his mind drifted to Mordred. “Maybe she’s truly lost her mind now.”
“Being defeated by you and King Arthur didn’t help,” Gwen said, pride in her voice but empathy as well.
“Even six months ago, I wondered if it was really her or if Mordred...” Merlin whispered.
Merlin shook his head. “Most likely, it seems like the only logical explanation. Mordred hated his Druid roots, blamed them for siding with me when I came into my power and a whole host of other things his mind had warped into false truths.”
Merlin tried to offer a comforting smile but he knew it fell flat when Gwen took his hand, rubbing her fingers over his knuckles. They were both in an odd place now, no longer servants of any kind and yet unaware of the future. Taking a title seemed awful, some sort of betrayal of their parents. So they did what they wanted and helped where they could because there was nothing else to do but wait.
Waiting felt like a curse.
He turned to look at the girl, her hair still in wild curls shadowing her face as she furiously scribbled with the ink and charcoals Merlin had found.
“She hasn’t spoken a word,” Gwen murmured. “But I’m fairly certain she understands us when we talk.”
Merlin nodded. “Yes, I think so too. I’m going to try and get some information out of her through the drawings. I’ll let you know if anything changes,” he replied, releasing her hand with a squeeze. “Thank you for helping.”
With that, she was gone down the stairs and Merlin was left alone with a furiously drawing child. Merlin gathered his robes around him, careful not to trip over them, and made his way over to her. She was hardly frightening and if she was a trained assassin then they had been hoodwinked by someone who knew them well. Her hair was partially obscuring her face from view but what Merlin could see was her tongue poking out in concentration.
“Can I see what you’re drawing?”
She stilled and pushed the delicate paper across the table. Merlin climbed over the bench just as his fingers were grasping the paper. There were two figures drawn, one was clearly the girl dressed in the clothes she showed up at Merlin’s door with, and a large black ‘x’ was drawn over her mouth. The other figure looked suspiciously like Merlin, although the shade of his robes wasn't that vibrant of a purple and surely his hair wasn’t that unruly. Above both of the stick figures were runes.
“You’re learned,” Merlin said softly, looking up to see the little girl smile. “I’m not familiar with it but I have lots of books,” he continued and nodded to the stacks of books on the floor. “Are you a Druid?”
For a moment, it seemed as if the girl wouldn’t answer but slowly she nodded her head and then promptly burst into tears.
“Oh no!” He said, panicky. “Um, don’t cry? Please? Because I’m rubbish with anything that isn’t magic, dammit,” he continued as tracks of big, silent tears made their way down the girl's cheeks. “Do you...”
Merlin scooted forward and held out his arms awkwardly. “Do you want a hug? Gwen said--” Before he could finish, the young girl had crawled up and over the table to land in Merlin’s lap, burying her wet face into his robes.
“Wow, okay, you’re um... safe, yeah?”
He was absolutely awful at this.
He dropped his arms to cradle her small frame as she seemed to burrow more intently into the barrel of his chest and the heavy draping of his robes. He still felt awkward, not knowing exactly how much she wanted to be touched but after a few moments, Merlin risked running a hand down her curls and cooing at her like he did with his favorite owl. She didn’t pull away or bite him, so he counted it as a win.
This business of comforting was difficult.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I didn’t mean to upset you.”
There were only snuffles in response.
With a whispered spell, he levitated his Druid teachings book toward him and thumbed to the pages on Druid languages. Although many of the Druid people spoke the same language, their dialects were vastly different from one another based on region. Thankfully, their written language was consistent. His next stop was the alphabet.
He stared at the pages and compared them to the girl’s sloppy writing.
“I know this is a strange question, but are you sure this is right?”
The little girl didn’t answer. Merlin moved onto the lettering above the figure that looked like him. There, the letters spelled out E-M-R-Y-S in very distinct writing. If the writing didn’t give her away, then her knowledge of who he was did—only the Druids knew him by that name. Other magical folk understood who Emrys was and who Merlin was, but they hadn’t put the two together. The Druids had always know who he was and what he was meant to do.
He tapped the girl on the shoulder.
"You're name is Wart?"
She nodded her head fiercely, almost defiant, before more runes appeared.
“Is it a nickname, then? Is your given name Arthur?”
The crying child lifted her head. Her eyes were ringed-red and a bit of snot was running out of her nose but the frown on her face was distinct. She was giving him a look that indicated that she thought very little of his intelligence.
“Or, em, sorry, I mean, you didn’t write Arthur, so I guess you must not like to be called that,” Merlin babbled. “You like to be called Wart?”
The smile that bloomed on her face was genuine.
“Well, I’m going to admit that it’s a bit strange that you’re, you know, a girl and you have the same name as my male best friend,” Merlin said. “But if that’s what you want to be called, if that’s what makes you smile like this, then Wart it is.”
Wart, smile still plastered on her face, waved at him. Merlin laughed and pushed her hair out of her face. “You don’t have to call me Emrys,” he said absently, “I’m not even sure what that means, really. All that prophecy stuff might be nothing. I just don’t want to get your hopes up, yeah? Arthur and I--”
Wart frowned and Merlin stopped talk, shaking his head.
“Not you, Wart. I have this friend, his name is Arthur. He’s actually kind of important. He’s the King of Camelot,” Merlin said brightly. Wart, bless her heart, didn’t look moved by this information. “You’ll meet him soon, by my guess. Although, to warn you, he’s a bit of a prat.”
Wart wrinkled her nose.
“Yes, well,” Merlin laughed out. “I could see how you would think that, but he’s my best friend and according to your people’s prophecies, him and I are supposed to do some pretty amazing stuff.”
Wart blinked at him.
Merlin sighed. “I’m just saying that if you call me Emrys and I don’t unite Albion or become the most powerful wizard in all the land, don’t be mad, okay?”
This time, Wart smiled wildly and tugged on his clothes. She was incredibly endearing and Merlin felt his heart grow four sizes just under her gaze. She still had snot running down her lip and if this, if this adorable little girl was a spy, Merlin would wear formal robes for the rest of his life.
“Supper will be here soon,” Merlin said absently. “Why don’t you go back to drawing and I’ll try and figure out a way for us to communicate that doesn’t involve you speaking, sounds good?”
Her only answer was to pat his head again and then move off of his lap, resuming her furious coloring on the other side of the table. Merlin tried not to smile too widely and went searching in the stack of books he had on Druids and communication spells.
Merlin stared at the mass of unruly hair peeking out from underneath his covers. Wart had spent the whole night drawing pictures of Merlin and her, doing magic together and all sorts of other things (one of which looked like a mutant horse—some kind of unicorn-dragon combination—but Merlin was putting that down to emotional trauma) and finally, after practically licking the plate she was given, she had devoured half of Merlin’s meal and crawled into his bed when he wasn’t looking.
She was fast asleep.
After learning of her unfortunate name, Merlin had found himself marveled at how much she shared in common with his Arthur. She ate her weight in food, frowned at Merlin whenever he babbled too much, looked at him with those lovely eyes that spoke volumes and—well, she was huddled up in his bed, hogging all the covers and if that wasn’t a royal trait, he didn’t know what was.
(More than once, Merlin had found Arthur taking a nap in Merlin's tower. He had been shocked at first, seeing Arthur's sleeping form so at home in Merlin's bed, but Arthur had awoken shortly afterward with a mumbled explanation and sleep flushed cheeks. Apparently, he couldn't get a decent nap without one or more people interrupting him and Merlin's magical tower was the only place he could be undisturbed. Merlin ignored the flimsy excuses that made his blood boil and took what he could get—the sight of Arthur curled up in his bed.)
She looked like Morgana and Arthur had merged together and created Wart, orphan Druid, who still had a bad habit of sucking on her thumb.
Merlin tried not to smile look a loon, but it was hard.
He whirled around to see the small basin by the window rippling with Gaius’ image. He walked over with a smile, waving his hand to put up a sound barrier to keep from disturbing Wart’s rest. (Although, to be fair, if she was anything like Arthur then she would sleep through a siege on Camelot.)
Gaius squinted at him. “You look tired, my boy.”
“Ha! You don’t know the half of it.”
“Oh dear,” Gaius said wearily, “you'd best tell me then.”
Merlin started with the potion, ranting and raving about how no matter what kind of preventative healing he tired, he failed more miserably than the last attempt. Gaius, evil old man that he was, just looked at him disapprovingly.
“You’re not patient enough,” Gaius rumbled. “You rely too much on your elemental magic to guide you and until someone shows you how it feels to heal people, you best not touch them. You might kill them instead.”
“Thanks for your vote of confidence,” Merlin mumbled, scowling across the basin. “But healing castle-folk is the least of my problems.”
“What did King Arthur do now?”
“The king? Thankfully, he’s being rather tame. Although, who knows how long that will last—I swear to you, the longer that crown sits on his head, the more he desires nothing more than to do terrifyingly dangerous things clad only in his breeches. However, I’m talking about another Arthur, one that goes by Wart.”
And then he explained, as much as he could, to Gaius. Thankfully, Gaius was quite used to hearing insane and improbable stories from Merlin. Gaius looked shocked at first, drinking heavily from his mead, but by the end of the story he was chuckling at Merlin’s misfortunes with the small Druid child.
“Isn’t it daft?” Merlin said at last. “Her name is Arthur. How could that possibly be a coincidence?”
“Most likely not, although it's not entirely insane.”
Gaius snorted. “No need to get snippy. Druids are known for taking herbs to induce hallucinations or visions right before birth. Many use these prophecies to name their children properly—to prepare them for the world they will grow up in.”
“Wait,” Merlin interrupted. “Like, giving their kid a warrior name if there’s conflict in their future?”
“Yes, or naming them Arthur, despite their gender, if the vision foretells a child’s journey into Camelot or maybe, a meeting with the most prophesied wizard in the land,” Gaius added.
Merlin blinked. Druids were fascinating but sometimes, their customs astounded Merlin. Who took hallucinogenic drugs while with child? Or named their little girl after a king, just to make sure Merlin took notice of her in the changeable future? Bloody insane was what it was.
“So you think it was seen that she would be here?”
Gaius shrugged. “It’s possible that her fate lies with you and your name hasn’t been mentioned in Druid lore without Arthur’s for quite a long time, lad.”
“Can I just say something?”
“Don’t be silly boy, no one cares what you say,” Gaius chuckled into his cup. “Now, tell me more about these rumors about the Druid refugees...”
And so, Merlin did.
The candles were almost half burnt, signaling that it was nearly the middle of the night and Merlin hadn’t managed to find out anything new from his bird-messengers, nor had Arthur traveled up the tower to see him.
Merlin usually gave in to his curiosity and went to find him but he didn’t want to leave Wart by herself, just in case she woke and was scared. (The entire time he watched her sleep, an ache had started in his chest and he had to physically restrain himself from trying to scry his own mother.)
There were a few spells that helped lift speech curses but Merlin was convinced that she was choosing not to talk. Trauma could manifest in myriad ways and Merlin didn’t want to mess with the healing process. If Wart was a survivor of Morgana’s attack, no doubt subject to horrifying displays of violence, death and torture, then she needed to heal—that was much more important than getting information for Merlin.
The other spells required her to wake and so Merlin would wait until she did. He spent the rest of the evening trying to learn the Druid alphabet because the safest spell allowed her to write words in the air, visible for a few seconds—just long enough to read—and that would be very convenient for them to communicate. He would have to see if she could cast it in the morning.
He pondered Wart’s magical skills extensively. Most Druids had some elemental magic but even the simple spell of knitting the tulip’s stem back together was more complicated than anything he’d ever seen from a Druid, especially one so young. (Mordred didn’t count. He was unnatural.) Even then, Wart had done magic wordlessly, a skill that was usually learned. Merlin was wondering if her skills were specific in flowers, possibly just living things or magical things, when Arthur entered the room.
“You should probably knock,” Merlin said, casting a sound barrier spell over them to avoid waking Wart. She was sleeping fitfully, tossing and turning in his bed. The only sounds she made were nonsensical and even though Merlin could soothe her sleep, natural sleep—even troubled—was better than a magically induced one.
“You never do,” was Arthur’s response when Merlin looked away from Wart. Arthur looked tired but the set of his shoulders wasn’t tense, which meant the meeting with the knights went well. They were probably over the moon with something to do—they hadn’t been back long but many of them weren’t used to the lazy way of castle life. (The other day, Merlin had almost conjured up a magical beast for them to fight just to give them something to do that didn't involve bedding chamber maids, setting up a gambling ring or, in Gwaine's case, convincing Merlin that being educated on all things magical was utter nonsense and that wouldn't their time be better spent getting pissed on the local honey wine and making horrid decisions?)
“Is that her?” Arthur asked, voice lower now and Merlin blushed at his wandering mind.
“Oh yes, she fell asleep when my back was turned and has claimed the bed for herself,” Merlin replied with amusement. “She seems to act first and beg forgiveness later. Given her name, I shouldn't be surprised.”
“She told you her name?” Arthur said with eyes wide and ridiculous looking in his surprise but Merlin marveled at those expressions that were rare, so open and truthful now that Arthur was king and every emotion was guarded or faked for an audience.
“No, she hasn’t spoken since she got here. She wrote it down.”
Arthur’s mouth gaped prettily. “She’s learned?”
Merlin laughed. “Don’t sound so shocked, Sire. The Druids are generally very good with their education.”
Arthur ignored that. He never once questioned the fact that Merlin was learned before he came to Camelot, but Arthur generally assumed that everyone was simple unless they were brought up inside Camelot's high walls like him.
“What’s her name?” The look in his eye said he was ignoring Merlin’s lecture on underestimating the peasants for today. Merlin smirked.
“Her name is Arthur,” Merlin drawled for effect, watching as Arthur stilled in shock. “Although, she prefers Wart to her given name.”
“You’re pulling my leg.”
Merlin smirked. “Oh no, she lives up to her name too. She ate her entire weight in food from the kitchens and snuck into my bed to steal all the covers. I’m afraid to touch her to see if she is as grumpy as you are when you are awoken.”
“Kings are not grumpy.”
“You’re a bloody terrible liar,” Merlin commented. "And I've the memory of several unsavory bruises as a result of mornings where you'd rather have been left undisturbed." Arthur glared and went to pace the room in thought.
“How are the knights?”
Arthur threw his hands up, as if to say, unruly as usual and then added, “I’ve sent Lancelot to the north with riders and Elyan to the south. They’re supposed to send word three days hence, if not sooner, with what they've found.”
Merlin watched as Arthur continued to wear the length of the floor with his boots. His jaw was tight and Merlin felt a twinge of sympathy—Arthur hated to stay behind. If one of them were to run into trouble, he would never forgive himself. Merlin trampled down the urge to go to him.
“Thank you,” Merlin said instead, “for offering aid. They haven’t always been kind to you.”
“Don't be ridiculous, Merlin.”
Merlin shook his head. “Just because it’s the right thing to do, doesn’t mean it’s easy, Arthur.”
There was silence from his end, head bowed as a blush worked up Arthur's cheeks. Arthur could gloat and be an arrogant pillock most of the time, but when it mattered, the praise made him sheepish and uncomfortable. There were times when Merlin wanted to praise him with other words and see just how far the flush of his noble heart went.
“They have judged you for your father’s mistakes more than once,” Merlin said, “you owe them nothing and yet you often extend peace to them. Why continue to offer them your kindness?” He was curious. It was not long ago that Arthur blamed the rot inside Morgana’s heart on the Druid people and the thought of a boy like Mordred bringing any King of Camelot to his death was not news heard lightly by Arthur.
“I don’t—" Arthur stopped and frowned, looking away to the window. His voice was vulnerable, soft around the edges and pool deep. Merlin’s chest ached violently. “I don’t want to lose you.”
The line of Arthur’s back was straight and Merlin stared, willing him to turn around and speak face to face about these things. He longed to see Arthur’s eyes during these rare confessions. So often the moments they had together were veiled with something else and they rarely revealed true honesty on all fronts.
“I failed Morgana that way, keeping her in fear—never reaching out to her,” Arthur continued stoically. “I could see it in her eyes, after a night of visions, how she longed to stop lying and I ignored her, pushed her away for selfish reasons. Even my father's wrath shouldn't have stood between our siblingship." Merlin felt his heart quake, ever so softly, at Arthur's self-reflection. He still hadn't turned but Merlin watched the line of his neck as he continued talking.
"Madness took her while she was waiting for me, Merlin. What happens when you tire of waiting? What will happen when I can’t do enough for you and I lose you, as well?”
This time, Merlin didn’t hesitate. He was up and out of his seat to be there, a hair’s breadth of space between his front and Arthur’s broad back. Arthur smelled like the cold stone of the castle, armor, sweat from climbing the stairs and something else that was softer, masculine and bone deep, but subtle in the way that it smelt, undeniably, like home. It made Merlin’s cheeks heat with arousal, yes, but also the uncomfortable feeling that they were missing something, that they were always one step behind what they wanted.
“I will never leave you,” Merlin whispered. The power of his breath fluttered the hairs at the base of Arthur’s neck.
“Don’t make false promises.”
Merlin closed his eyes. Gods, there was something about Arthur’s voice that gnawed at him, laid him bare without his permission and urged him to fall to his knees. Before Camelot fell to Morgana, the lengths he was willing to go for Arthur scared him. Now they were just facts, unchangeable and solid in the place they held in Merlin's self-identification but there seemed to be this impossible void that he couldn't surmount, couldn't get Arthur to understand—not even death would part them for long.
“I don’t make promises,” Merlin pleaded, knowing that his words felt inadequate. “I’m a very powerful man, Arthur. I tell the future.”
Arthur scoffed. “You’re no seer.”
“I do not have to have the talent of the future to know this,” he said, angrily. “I have waited for you to be king, through the dark times of our past and the uncertainty of our present because I am certain of our future.”
Not truly a lie, but not complete truth either. Merlin was sure of the future he desired but unsure if they would ever achieve it. Love was never plain—nothing was plain between the two of them—but love felt hopeless and it wasn’t fair. Was this to be their destiny; always dancing around each other and trying to figure out if there was time to be selfish, time to figure out if this unnamable but invincible thing between them was worth exploring—because Merlin had neither the heart nor the courage to be alone forever.
Arthur looked back, his face tilted over his shoulder as if he was watching an enemy from behind. Except his face had lost its sharpness, his jaw was less tight and the tiny lines by his eyes were gone. He looked unabashedly open and vulnerable, like everything he knew was written in this moment.
Merlin's breath left him in a sharp exhale when he felt Arthur reach back and their fingers brushed. His fingertips tingled as Arthur explored them awkwardly, running a finger over the bones of Merlin's hand like he was reading them and memorizing the messages they contained. It reminded Merlin of the old blind woman who lived at the very edge of town in Ealdor; how she would run her hands over everyone's face or how she would trail her fingertips over everything around her as if she was translating the texture into memory and visualizing how things took shape. The memory was fond and Merlin's chest throbbed, his ribs feeling too tight around the rest of his organs.
A pull came at his robes.
When Merlin turned around, his fingers desperate to keep contact with Arthur's, Wart was there at his side tugging at his robes and looking adorably disheveled from sleep.
Merlin tried to keep track of Arthur's fingers but they were already chased back to his side and Merlin tried not to let the disappointment show on his face.
"What are you doing out of bed, it's still late," Merlin said, bending down to her level. She smiled softly at him and then squinted up at Arthur with a frown. "Oh, that's my friend."
"Merlin, what have I said about introducing me like that?"
Merlin glared back over his shoulder. "That you love being introduced as my friend because most of the time it stops you from getting attacked by overzealous magic-doers."
Arthur pouted, looking haughty and very dignified, even though he was still blushing from their conversation. Merlin wanted to push him out the window or kiss the down turns of his mouth—he couldn't quite decide.
"This is Arthur," Merlin said, turning back to Wart's sleepy face. "He's the King of Camelot and a very good friend of mine."
Wart seemed to consider the imposing figure of Arthur, who puffed out his chest and generally was ridiculously uncomfortable around children, and then shrugged, shifting her attention back to Merlin. Her namesake, it seemed, was of little consequence to her. She reached out her hand, only to retract it at once, as if she was having second thoughts.
Merlin held out his hand. "It's alright," he said. "What do you need, Wart?"
She looked determined as she reached out again and grabbed his hand. Merlin decided that his smile probably looked goofy and a little delusional it was so wide but how was he supposed to remain sane-looking when adorable orphan children wanted to hold his hand?
Wart tugged a bit and Merlin nodded, grasping her hand tightly in his. He turned back to Arthur, remembering that only a few moments before, it was Arthur's hand in Merlin's.
"Where are we going?" Merlin said, turning back to Wart as she pulled on his hand.
Wart padded silently over the floor and dragged Merlin over to the bed where she crawled in and gave a little bit more of a tug until Merlin followed.
"We're sleeping now? You're awful pushy, you know," Merlin murmured as she launched herself at his chest and burrowed her head into his robes. "Just like another Arthur I know," he continued, staring at Arthur from where he was standing across the room.
Arthur sighed, his facial expression hard to read. "Please stop comparing me to children," he said but his heart wasn't in it and if Merlin wasn't hallucinating, there was a hint of smile on his face.
"Turn out the candles?"
Arthur arched an eyebrow and Merlin fought a blush.
Arthur didn't reply, but he moved about the room softly to extinguish the candles floating at eye level. It was domestic and heartbreaking, watching him move so easily around the room like it was his home. The tension in his shoulders was gone, leaving him looking tired but still regal and masculine in the dying candle light. Merlin openly watched him, not bothering to conceal his attention and when Arthur came to the candles over by the bed, Merlin met his gaze with, what he hoped, was a resolute and honest one of his own.
They wanted this, right? There was thickness between them that promised so much more if they just reached for it. Merlin looked Arthur, gorgeous and noble Arthur, in the eye and tried to convey with as much blatant honesty as he could, that he wanted this and that he wasn't going anywhere.
Arthur's face was soft, open and Merlin fought the urge to surge up and kiss him, if only for a moment, to taste what that look meant—to touch it with his tongue and memorize the flavor there.
"Goodnight, Merlin," Arthur rumbled, voice low.
He extinguished the candle and swept out of the room before Merlin could respond.
"Oh, Wart," Merlin mumbled into the girl's hair, pulling her closer to him and lying back into the pillows. It was a long time before he found sleep but it was the earliest he had managed to get to sleep in weeks.
When Merlin woke the next morning, Wart was already taking porridge at the table and drawing pictures. The sun was barely up and Merlin wanted, quite desperately, to tell her to go back to bed and wake him up at a more reasonable hour. However, seeing as she was a traumatized war victim, he figured he could handle a few early mornings.
But they really were going to have to break the habit.
She grinned and waved him over to the table. There were dozens of pictures, mostly of Wart doing some fun activity or another. Merlin blushed when she presented one that looked oddly familiar.
"You are shameless," Merlin said, trying to fight his laughter. Wart just held the picture up and giggled.
It was of Merlin and, assumedly, Arthur, holding hands with hearts draw between them and floating around in the air.
"You know, he's King of Camelot. This could be treason."
Wart stuck out her tongue.
This time, Merlin did laugh. "You are more like him than you will ever know," Merlin mumbled. "Now, as much as I would like to watch you draw all day long, we've got to find a way for you to communicate with me."
Merlin dragged out his large tome. "There's this spell, that allows you to draw in the air..."
Wart leaned over and studied the book.
"I'd cast it on you," Merlin said, "and then you could draw runes in the air. Um, well, it's the safest thing because forced telepathy is scary. I tried it with my owl, well she's not my owl but she seems to put up with me fairly well. It was a complete and total disaster. She still hasn't forgiven me."
She smiled at his rambling and Merlin tried not to blush. She seemed to consider him, as if she was assessing whether or not he was fit to be casting spells on her. Finally, she peered at him through her lashes, pointed at the spell-book and nodded.
Merlin felt a small burst of pride. "Let's see then!"
The next two days passed by in a blur. Arthur was, predictably, nowhere to be found and whenever Merlin did find him, he was wrapped up in one thing or another that pretended to be important (Merlin was still skeptical that that many things in Arthur's life were vital). Although, there was a steady stream of food being brought up to the tower, without Merlin having to send for it, and several items of clothing had been commissioned from the seamstresses, delivered to the tower and were way too small for Merlin. Wart, being young and more interested in learning magic than what the gifts meant, was happy to wear them. Merlin just squinted at his favorite type of pastry and felt like stabbing something.
He didn't want to be wooed. Dammit, he just wanted to be in the same room with Arthur and have an actual conversation—to move forward instead of treading water and waiting for everything to fall apart.
But there wasn't much time to dwell on what was or wasn't happening between him and Arthur. Indeed, most of Merlin's time was occupied with Wart, who in addition to having a fair amount of raw magical talent, also had a knack for fixing things.
(They figured that out when Merlin knocked over the same bowl for the fifth time that day and it was just too tired of his clumsiness to mend with his spell. Wart touched it and not only was it mended, it looked shinier than before.)
The day before, after another disastrous attempt at mixing a potion for a common head cold, Merlin was giving serious consideration to seeing if Wart's talent for fixing things was limited to certain things or if maybe healing was something she would enjoy. He spent the night thinking about it, even going as far to consult Gaius about teaching a silent orphan any sort of complicated magic. But in the end, the result was the same: Camelot needed someone who had some iota of talent in healing and Wart was here, intelligent eyes trusting Merlin to take care of her.
Merlin stared at Wart over a vial. "Would you like to try healing? It's like, fixing things, but harder and of course, if you muck it up too much, you might off someone."
She wrinkled up her nose, thinking or mocking him, Merlin wasn't sure. "Um," he stuttered. "I doubt you'll really be dealing with mortal peril on the first lesson?"
Wart, precocious thing that she was slowly revealing herself to be, considered him and then winked.
"Of course you find the potential of death to be alluring," Merlin laughed out and shook a finger at her. "Well, all right then, come over here. I've translated this book into something that I hope you can understand because I can't show you all these spells and potions without putting us both—oh hell, the entire citadel—in mild danger."
Wart waved her hand at a few ruins appeared, shimmering blue, in the air. Why? Merlin cringed.
"I'm rubbish at healing spells."
She raised her tiny little eyebrow and more ruins appeared. But you're Emrys.
He didn't feel necessarily embarrassed about not being able to heal very well... but yes, okay, he did feel marginally embarrassed that he could open the heavens and the earth—that he could rule all the lands with the flick of his wrist—and yet, patching up a broken nose or speeding up the recovery of a cold was near impossible for him.
"I'm more of a life and death kind of warlock, okay?"
Wart blinked her big, brown eyes and drew: Can you only save Arthur?
"If you weren't so cute, I'd probably throw you out and make you live on the streets like a cur," Merlin muttered. "Stop talking about King Arthur and start reading. We'll make a physician out of your ridiculous curiosity about my private life—because, my dear, curiosity's consequences don’t just limit themselves to cats."
She rolled her eyes at him but happily moved to take the book and climb up to sit in the window sill. Merlin puttered about, pretending he had something important to do before he gave up and put on a cleaner tunic and his favorite breeches.
"Will you be all right, I'm going out for a while?"
Wart shrugged. I can send for you.
Merlin laughed, remembering the minor debacle of her last summons. "That would be perfect, but maybe a little softer this time, okay?" She nodded, unabashed, her fingers playing over the book. "Also, call for me if any of my fowl friends return."
Wart was already absorbed in the pages of the book. Merlin took a moment to admire her freckled face, the way her nose wrinkled up a bit and how she nuzzled against the window sill like a great cat. Then, tying his neckerchief, Merlin left the tower behind him.
He wondered around the castle, in clear denial that he knew where he wanted to go until he couldn't stand himself anymore and just headed for the practice fields. They were sparser than usual, having two envoys of knights out to assess the refugees, but still busier than most of the castle, seeing as how Arthur gladly invited anyone to come and watch the training of the knights. He claimed the reasoning behind it was because since knighthood had been opened up to commoners, there were still few applicants—people feared change and humiliation.
Merlin was sure that it was just another way of feeding Arthur's ego.
Sure enough, as Merlin neared the center of the field, there was Arthur. He was, naturally, devoid of any proper armor and had decided that swinging around a stick with the butcher's son, Tommy, wearing only his dirtiest breeches was appropriate. Merlin tried not to stare but it was hard, when Arthur was glistening in the sun, skin tan and freckling and all those glorious muscles bare for Merlin to fantasize about. It was embarrassing the things he wanted to do to that ridiculous man.
"Come for a show?"
Merlin didn't even bother to turn and see Gwaine's expression, eyebrows waggling and lewd sneer, which he most certainly would be donning with that sort of tone.
"He's such a prat," Merlin said instead, ignoring the fondness in his voice. "I hope Tommy gets a hit into his bad shoulder."
Gwaine laughed. "I see you two are having a lovers' tiff."
"You know that to be blatantly untrue."
"Ahh," Gwaine said, bumping their shoulders together. "His shining display of masculinity only upsets you when he's being a twat."
Merlin sighed. "He is a twat."
"Also, he's been a right git the past few days."
"Look at us," Merlin mumbled, "gossiping about the mood of the king."
Gwaine's arm was heavy around his shoulders but not unwelcome. It was hard not to tell Gwaine everything, tell him all the secrets and how tired Merlin was—Gwaine, out of everyone, understood the burden they carried and how much Merlin struggled with what he wanted and what he was allocated.
"Has he, though?"
Gwaine laughed, a soft rumble in Merlin's ear that had him blushing faintly and wanting to push him away.
"Yes," Gwaine said, leaning into to whisper into Merlin's ear. "He's been more dreadful than usual."
Just then, Arthur met Merlin's gaze across the field with his eyes narrowed down to slits at the sight of Gwaine hanging off Merlin like he had a dowry or access to the pub's mead supply. (At least the latter was true.) Merlin watched, desperately trying to keep his expression neutral, as Arthur fought with Tommy but didn't stray from keeping his eyes on Merlin.
"You aren't clever, Gwaine. He's not a big enough brute to be compelled out of—" Merlin paused, waving his hand around to indicate whatever it was that was keeping them apart, "just because you don't understand how to keep your hands to yourself."
"Jealousy is a powerful motivator."
Merlin scoffed. "You have no idea what you're speaking of, Gwaine. We're not peasants. This isn't a game," Merlin hissed, quickly turning red with anger and shame. "We've no room to act like stable boys giving in to any and all passing fancies."
Gwaine nosed at his ear until Merlin swatted him, finally breaking away from Arthur's gaze to look at Gwaine. Instead of finding amusement, he found longing and a sadness he wasn't expecting.
He shook his head and tightened his hand on the back of Merlin's neck. "You two have a very precious thing and you're just going to let it fall by the wayside, for what? Destiny? Fear? You once told me that there was nothing the two of you couldn't surmount together. Does this not count?"
"Certainly not so much as you two are making it," Gwaine replied, squeezing Merlin's neck and pressing closer until his lips were grazing Merlin's ear. "Some things, even between kings, are very simple."
Merlin wanted to cry, there in Gwaine's arms, because Gwaine had this horrible ability to reduce Merlin to the rags on his back. Gwaine thought he was a king—a magical beacon—he wouldn't be convinced otherwise and yet, he managed to strip Merlin down to just the messy emotions he carried around with him but never got to feel. Merlin tried to breathe but Gwaine was still there. Eventually, he smiled softly, mouth curving against Merlin's ear, and turned away.
"Have you heard from your birds?" Gwaine said, tone a blatant lie.
Merlin cleared his throat. "No. I expect tonight, though."
"I fear we will start a war, caring for these refugees."
Merlin scoffed, his heart stammering. "You do not fear war, Gwaine. Don't be ridiculous."
Gwaine pushed him away and walked, backward, toward the field where Arthur was done and talking to the rest of the group. Arthur was watching them both with a careful eye. Merlin scowled at Gwaine's cheerful and mischievous face.
"But I do fear the complicated love games of warlocks and kings!" Gwaine cried, clutching his chest and laughing his way out of sight.
Merlin wanted to curse him. He really did. A nasty one.
When Merlin returned to his rooms, after bellowing at Bartholomew just to relieve some of the tension in his neck, he found a very odd scene.
Wart was standing on top of a chair, shaking her finger at the owl that Merlin had quickly become fond of, and staring at the bird with obvious intent. It seemed they were having some sort of silent conversation because before Merlin could announce his arrival, the owl stuck out its wing and Wart promptly dropped a very large book on it.
The owl and Merlin made disturbingly similar sounds.
"Wart! What are you—"
But she only held up a hand, not turning to face him as she considered the mangled wing. The bone was sticking out and there was a smattering of blood on the owl's feathers. Merlin watched, a little horror struck, as Wart took the wing in hand and closed her eyes.
Merlin shared a look with the owl. She, for her part, didn't look traumatized at all. In fact, she looked shrewd, a little judgmental and like all this business with humans was very beneath her. Merlin wondered, briefly, if everyone in his life was suddenly acquiring the traits Arthur held that annoyed Merlin the most.
When she broke the gaze, her beady eyes were directed at the soft glowing light above her wing. Merlin walked slowly and softly, trying not to disturb Wart too much as she worked, still silent but brow lined in concentration. Her palm was hovering over the wing, light blue light surrounding the slowly mending broken wing.
Wart opened her eyes, smile tentative and the owl flapped her wing. It was flawlessly healed.
"Wart! This is amazing," Merlin whispered, still staring between the owl and Wart's bright face. "I can't believe you just did that. A little brutal in the execution but it's only been a few hours and—you're clearly much more apt for healing than I am!"
She beamed at him, looking at him shyly until Merlin hugged her. She giggled, joy clear and hugged him back until the owl hooted, breaking them apart.
"Oh yes," Merlin said. "I assume I should thank you, you know, for being a test subject for Wart here. Impressive really."
It looked as if the owl was arching her eyebrows and judging him.
"Knock it off! Do you have news for me or are you just feeling high and mighty for no reason?"
The owl bristled, her feathers moving in a wave around her. Merlin walked forward and closed his eyes, letting himself settle into deep breaths before he felt the nudge of the bird's head against his hand. Slowly, magic coursed through his mind and resonated down his arm to flow through the owl's mind.
The picture was fuzzy, memory playback always was but it was exaggerated through differing species. Merlin found that when he tried it on humans, the experience was rather painful and too intense. If it was an easier processes, he would have considered trying it on Wart but delving into a mind that young and clearly traumatized could not be taken lightly.
The images trickled in. First, a flash of a rag-tag group of Morgana and her followers. They seemed to travel mostly by magic, moving quietly through the country and collecting numbers. They were still small, maybe a count of twenty, but they used manipulative magic and charmed smiles to gather forces—attractive lies. Merlin watched as one scene depicted Mordred, wrathful power rolling off of his small body in waves as he mounted an attack on a small Druid camp. It made Merlin's stomach pitch. He pushed the image away and focused on their whereabouts, just beyond Cenred's kingdom to the west, and concentrating on smaller villages where the magic-folk were more desperate for community.
Merlin listened to a few snippets of conversation, nothing important, just idle plans and delusional musings. Morgana, for the most part, seemed genuinely mad. Her ramblings were almost incomprehensible and Merlin saw, more than once, Mordred dosing her to keep her under and seeing. It was dangerous. Induced magical sight was hardly ever right—much like torture—sure, she would see but there was no telling if what she saw predicted this future, other futures, certain paths or just the dark recesses of her mind. Either way, the longer she stayed under, the madder she would be.
Merlin felt the sour taste of guilt, disgust and shame roll through his belly and swell at the back of his throat.
He disengaged the magic and blinked back into the room. Wart was staring at him in wonder while the owl looked bored.
"Thank you," Merlin muttered, nodding at the bird. "I appreciate your help, I know it mustn't be pleasurable having to follow them around for me."
She fluttered her feathers and Merlin thought, not for the first time, that he really needed to give her a name. She was so very useful and although she grumbled, judgmental eyes always searching his, she always did what he asked.
"Here, I have a present for you," Merlin said, whispering a few words that created a lovely gold glow. When he turned his palm upwards, there was a cluster of almonds. The owl hooted in pleasure, grabbed them up with her claws (completely unaware of how brutal her talons were on Merlin's skin) and took off out the window. "You're welcome," Merlin yelled after her.
When Merlin turned away from the window, Wart was staring up at him and chewing on her bottom lip.
"I would say that she's normally quite nice but that's not quite true."
What did you see?
Merlin sighed. What was he supposed to tell her? Lies would serve little purpose here.
"They're trying to gather forces," Merlin said, bending down to her level. "Mordred is exacting revenge on any Druid camps he finds in retaliation for siding with Camelot when I came into my power during the war."
Her eyes, big brown pools of emotion, swelled. She trembled slightly, words appearing above her head.
They came for us.
"You're safe now."
She shrugged, looking down at the floor. You have to stop them. Merlin stared down at the crown of her head. They couldn't go to war again—Arthur would, if Merlin asked him to—but the kingdom needed time to build and define itself. It was clear that Arthur could run a land in wartime, he could hold the whole world on his shoulders if he knew it would save lives, however, the people didn't know him in peacetime. They wanted to; they adored him and had so much hope. It wasn't fair to them and although Albion was the goal, the people of Camelot had to come first.
"Wart," Merlin said softly. "Camelot can't go to war again. It's too soon."
This time, when she looked up, her jaw was set. There were still tears but there was a fierceness about her that reminded Merlin so much of Arthur when he was just a prince that Merlin felt rocked from how long ago it seemed—practically a lifetime ago.
They believe in you. Fix it.
Merlin stared at the runes, then back at Wart's stubborn face.
You don't need war to unite, Albion. They will come if you call them.
"All the kingdoms except for Cenred's have leaders. People won't abandon their leaders for Camelot's, it doesn't make any sense."
Wart shook her head. No one stands for peace.
Albion had been at war for a long time. Before Uther, Camelot had been a territory fought over and its people simply pawns in war games, but Uther had come to power with force. He raised an army and fought with ruthlessness that made the people fear him and respect him. The kingdoms around them had followed suit, forcing peace with an iron fist. Albion had never been at peace, not truly, simply playing a waiting game between wars. The kings were greedy, for land and wealth, and the thought of their people's goodness had been left behind long before Merlin was born.
To hold kingdoms together by peace? Surely it was too difficult to be done if no one had ever tried.
"But how would it work," Merlin though aloud. "Just, open up our borders and invite chaos?"
Then again, no one cared about the border lands. If Camelot took them in, earned the trust of the people—but, no... an Albion at the hands of the peasants? Not only would the peasants have to swear their fealty to Camelot's quest for peace, but they would have to fight for it; it would be a kingdom decided on the whims of the masses.
"A rule like that, Wart," he said, not looking her in the eyes. "I'm not sure if it's possible. Peace is a compelling argument, yes, but so is fear. Our Camelot is not yet strong enough to take on kingdoms for the sake of peasants. It would require reform and so many men, knights and commoners alike, to go to war with their own kingdoms with only the promise of peace to keep them going."
And yet, who had ever promised them peace before? Who had ever returned magic to the land and then stoked the fire of life back to Camelot? If there was any kingdom capable of convincing the commoners of other kingdoms to revolt—to get the borders to blur until Camelot leaked into the other kingdoms and slowly took them over from their heart...
She smiled a very soft smile and Merlin's stomached knotted.
It wasn't a completely insane idea. Naïve, maybe, and too hopeful—too much faith in magic, in the good of people, in the power of Arthur's noble heart. And yet... the refugees...
"I'll think about it," Merlin settled with. "The knights we sent out to the borders will be back tomorrow and I'll throw the idea around with them, speak to the king for you—but you mustn't get your hopes up, Wart. Politics of kingdoms often follow laws that don't make sense in terms of humanity or magic."
She frowned but nodded and Merlin pattered her shoulder, straightening up. "Now, show me what else you've learned today."
Wart smiled, moving toward the book but before she opened it, runes appeared next to her.
You will fulfill your prophecies, Emrys. Love always triumphs.
Merlin stared at the space where the runes where, long after they had faded from sight.
Night settled heavy on Camelot. Merlin had spent most of the day distracting himself by teaching Wart. She had trouble with anything that explicitly required speech but many of the healing spells were hands-on magic, requiring a knowledge of how the body wants to be. It was interesting and delightful to watch Wart's face as she learned, soaking up whatever knowledge Merlin could impart and teaching him a thing or two.
He had taken to feeling the magic through her, trying to learn a healer's magic through Wart's natural disposition for it. Although he was clearly not an expert, he was more apt to try the most basic spells on his own. Before long, Wart had gotten tired and after supper, she curled up in his bed with an anatomy book and fell asleep.
Merlin watched her for a while. It had only been three days since her arrival in the castle and yet, she had come so far. She had clung to magic, the only thing familiar about this strange place, and the advances she'd made were amazing—even for a Druid of her age. Merlin often wondered about her life before. Druids were a family who passed on their trade through the female line, as it was thought that mothers carried the most powerful magic and passed it on to their daughters. He wondered if Wart's mother had been a healer, or possibly an architect of magic, as both required as grasp of object-magic and an easy magic that linked with fixing.
He watched her sleep until what was left of the candles burned down, even though it was still before the midpoint in the night. Finally, he pushed his speculation about Wart's life away and with it, the memories of Morgana that seemed to surface when Merlin was alone with his thoughts. He shucked out of his robes and, with a moment's pause, decided on a pair of breeches that were well worn in the knees, soft as the finest silk and hung off his hips as if he were the orphan boy. These breeches were a guilty pleasure, not because they were so thin that they were nearly indecent, but because they weren't his. They were Arthur's.
They had ended up in Merlin's possession fairly innocently. Merlin had been carrying a batch of laundry down and picking one up and they got mixed up, since they were so threadbare and awful, the laundresses assumed they were his and not Arthur's.
That was before.
Merlin retied the breeches, cinching them tighter around his hips and taking a deep breath. It seemed so long ago that Merlin had pulled on the breeches for the first time and blushed, warmth flooding his belly, when he realized who they belonged to.
He placed a few protective wards over the sleeping Wart and left the room as quietly as possible.
The castle was quiet and Merlin nodded to the people he recognized as he passed the servants. Most of the nobles were at dinner, a subdued affair but Arthur had been making them mandatory in order to keep an eye on any wandering loyalties. So far, Merlin had only been forced to banish one unfortunate looking lord but, in Camelot's defense, he already looked like a goat before Merlin got hold of him. (And really, now that he thought about it, maybe the castle had a point about him turning people into animals—dammit Arthur.)
Overall, Merlin had most of the castle to himself. He wandered a while, passing by the Great Hall with open ears but heard nothing but murmurs. War was profitable for the lords and ladies of the court but decreased the popularity of their station with the peasants underneath them. The rumors about the refugee Druids were growing larger by the day and who knew what kind of news Lancelot and Elyan would return with.
It was peaceful in this part of the castle.
What a strange feeling, after so long of unrest, and as ashamed as he was to admit it, but his magic missed being at war—missed being endlessly useful and tirelessly worked. Bringing Albion together under the hand of Arthur was his destiny, which was ultimately the purpose of his magic. Reigning down terror and furious elemental magic was very useful, sure, but it also made Merlin twitch in the lull. Before the war, he hadn't felt this much power and now that he's come into it, stretched his wings and learned how to wield it all with wrath he didn't feel—well now, it doesn't know what to do with itself.
Coming into his magic hadn't been dramatic or really anything Merlin had expected considering the only evidence of such a phenomenon was in stories of the old gods. It was just after the first battle and Arthur was locked up with his knights for hours, leaving Merlin to either tend to the wounded or catch up on sleep. Being absolutely rubbish at healing had him in his tent before the first fires had truly gone out but he wasn't able to sleep. He had wandered around the woods, a small ball of magical light bopping in front of him. And then, as quick as a candle being snuffed out, Merlin had dropped to his knees in pain. The pain had been overwhelming, twisting up from his gut and bubbling beneath his skin like it was burning to get out.
He didn't even cry out, his voice had been choked with pain and he passed out into darkness.
When he woke, it was to Gwaine shaking his arm but there wasn't any time to explain as Morgana was on the attack again. Merlin hadn't noticed anything different until he took the field. The magic came easier, with only a passing thought but it was powerful and the more he cast, the more he felt an intense sensation—like he'd been there before—it had swirled around him, time slowing to expand and contract around him. Light cascaded up from the earth and Merlin stared as he could see the tendrils of magic flowing out of him and into the earth. He felt ancient for only a few seconds, weathered and thirsty like the trees in Ealdor, before reality warped back and Merlin was watching the soil rise up in pulsing waves, seeming to crawl up the enemies' legs and pour itself into their mouths. Merlin watched, shocked but acutely aware as his magic urged the earth to stuff them full and choke the life from them.
After that, it had felt the same as when he was on the Isle of the Blessed—like the entire world was at his fingertips and that time was collapsing and expanding to feed him with magic that felt old, familiar and overwhelming. He hadn't known what was happening, what to expect as his magic ceased to be under his control and instead, anticipated his thoughts and his feelings, bending to his whims without him truly being aware of it. His magic seemed to meld closer to him, while simultaneously becoming a sentient being.
The Druids had surrendered soon after. They certainly hadn't joined Camelot's forces but the awe in their eyes was apparent and they laid down their magic without force. They claimed that the Old Religion had chosen the way it would return to the land.
Arthur hadn't argued. Merlin hadn't known what to say. He was left with magic he didn't wholly recognize but that wrapped around him in ways that felt pleasant, like the comforting weight of Arthur's arms, but also suffocating—like Merlin was simply a man to be swallowed by the sea.
And now? Now this was his magic and he barely remembered what it felt like before he came into it—before he was no longer kin of the Old Religion but Old Religions itself.
He sighed and let it trail behind him, opening up his magic to dance in a golden twine of sparkling light. It hopped from cobblestone to cobblestone, pinging a little between the walls. Most of the time, there was so much of it inside of him, he didn't know what he was supposed to do with it.
But see... objects had started moving.
The other day, he had woken up to freshly brewed tea and a platter of cheese and bread. No one from the kitchens accepted his thanks. The day before his botched potion—before Wart—he had gone to his bookshelf and realized he couldn't find a damn thing, not because he was dim, but because at some time they had reorganized themselves alphabetically. Even when he had set the room into full cleaning mode, he had felt the pull of his magic a little wildly, like it was itching to keep going and just never wanted to stop.
It was beginning to scare him.
He had read books in fear that detailed the madness of magic. It was the madness that haunted his dreams, not only for himself but reflected back in Morgana's eyes.
Merlin turned left and headed up the stairs of the North Tower. It used to be Queen Igraine's tower, abandoned for most of Arthur's life, but was slowly being uncovered by servants. Arthur hadn't decided what he wanted them to be used for because although Merlin was fairly sure that Arthur would gladly move his chambers up there if it wasn't for the stairs that would inspire a host of complaints from the castle. However, that was exactly why it was so appealing to Arthur—he was sure he would get more sleep. But, unfortunately for Arthur, he was not allowed to pout, or to avoid his kingdom's most annoying advisors and so, the North Tower was still awaiting appropriation.
Behind Merlin, his magic was twisting in loops and circles, blooming in the space to dance in the shape golden figurines. Merlin smiled, as two unicorns galloped in a sparkling magical field of sunflowers, feeling sad and awful and just a little bit alone.
He didn't stop in any of the rooms, just continued all the way up until the stone spilled out to the battlements and turrets. In terms of courtyards, it was smaller and faced the Woods of Fenice. Long before Uther, the forest had burst into flames each Yule and the magic would be born again from the ashes to bring new life to the area. It was rumored that all the largest game had once come from those Woods but that since magic had been purged from the kingdom, the forest laid dead and haunted for having its rebirth denied. The Phoenix Forest had been the name Merlin had heard in the stories his mother would tell.
Merlin hoped, foolishly perhaps, that the woods would burn this winter. That at least he could do that.
He watched his magic manifest around him, a pack of wolves ran along the highest battlement, chased by a stag larger than anything Merlin had ever seen. Despite his feelings about the way his magic needed to manifest—needed more than Merlin could provide—it still felt happy. This magic, which conjured silly golden shapes and trailed out like veins from Merlin's feet and fingertips, this magic seemed content to exist with Merlin as he was, even if it had to spill out in excess.
He settled against an alcove, mesmerized by the sight of his golden hue trailing down around the castle's walls and winding through the Woods of Fenice. He just breathed, letting his mind feel blank and devoid of anything but the simple pleasure of doing magic—what he was born to do.
Merlin wasn't jolted out of sleep, a typical predicament for someone who accidentally slept standing up, but he came to slowly. First, was the clean smell of Camelot's soap—the lye imbedded with so many herbs that left a subtle smell that visiting dignitaries were heard to have coveted it for so long that many of them moved to Camelot just to be able to use it. To Merlin, it smelled like sandalwood and stems broken open when they were too bright green, of bedded down grass and of course, Arthur. When Merlin had shifted, skirting the edge of wakefulness, he had pressed closer to the smell and inhaled deeply, only to discover that it smelled more of Arthur than of Camelot's soap but by that time, he was already nuzzling his face into Arthur's worn jacket.
It wasn't unusual for Merlin to fall asleep in odd places around the castle. When he was just a lowly manservant, he was constantly falling asleep in secret rooms where he had settled to conceal how he was making his magic knit the broken links in Arthur's chain-mail or how he had set five different needles to do the mending. After the war, Merlin had often found himself waking up all over the castle after he had gone for a walk late into the night, the castle too quiet for him to sleep, and managed to fall asleep leaning against a wardrobe or against a window outcropping.
What was unusual about this moment was that Merlin could have sworn he was up on top of the North Tower when he fell asleep and not, let's say, in the king's arms.
He told himself not to panic.
"I could have sworn the North Tower didn't move," Merlin mumbled, body tightening as he realized that Arthur, was indeed, carrying him down the tower's steps.
"You've been mistaken before," Arthur's voice said, low and soft from somewhere above Merlin's head. It was a tone that shot low in Merlin's belly and he curled further, having no choice but to tighten his hold around Arthur's neck.
"Be quiet," he said, his chest rumbling against Merlin's side. "You'll wake the castle."
Merlin's brain was too muffled from sleep to process much and he could only press his face into the soft material of Arthur's shoulder and breathe deeply. He was too sleepy to resist the smell and warm comfort of Arthur's body against his, even if it meant that he was to be manhandled back to his room like a princess being rescued from a tower.
He listened to Arthur's rhythmic footfalls on the stone steps and let them lull him back to sleep.
The next time he woke, it was because Arthur was tucking him into bed. Only, when Merlin turned to bury his face into the pillows and deny the king the pleasure of talking about this, he did not find the comforting cedar smell of his own pillows. Nor, when he squinted open an eye, did he find Wart's mane of hair fanned out on the adjacent pillow.
His bed linens were nice but not nearly as soft as these.
"Did you know your magic finds me at night?"
Merlin opened his eyes fully and turned his face toward the sound of Arthur's voice. He was sitting on the edge of the bed, facing the windows and Merlin felt something painfully familiar clench inside his stomach.
"What do you mean?"
Arthur didn't look back but stared out, hand flexing in the duvet. "It trails out of you when you're sleeping, winds all over the castle until it slips underneath my door and wakes me up."
Merlin swallowed. "I'm sorry it wakes you. I didn't know."
"I used to wake up and it would just be pooled in my hand," Arthur continued, as if Merlin hadn't apologized. "But after a while, it started tugging until I woke up and followed it. The first time, I thought I would surely be taken by some unruly magician looking for Pendragon revenge but I found you instead, fast asleep in the stables."
Merlin closed his eyes. He tried to picture Arthur, following the mysterious trail of golden twine and finding a sleeping Merlin at the end of it. He licked his lips and opened his eyes. He didn't know what to say. What was he doing here?
"Your magic, it comes to me, even when you won't."
Merlin frowned. "Arthur, I don't intend—"
"That's the crux of it!" He shouts but it's frustrated, not angry. "You don't intend anything and I cannot live without your intention. I cannot sit and wait, ruling Camelot with a distracted heart because I cannot give it my full attention."
This was the way it had always been and would probably always be, a kingdom of riddles spanned between them.
Arthur ducked his head, the warm valley of his neck exposed. "We cannot do this any longer, Merlin."
"I know," Merlin said, his voice sticking to the dry walls of his throat. "I'm sorry. I just—I didn't want to let go, yet."
"What were you waiting for?"
Arthur's tone was guarded and Merlin sighed, flopping back into the pillows. He felt defeated.
"You, I guess. Destiny? Fate? I don't know. I was waiting for a sign that I wasn't going to cock it all up and send us all spiraling into madness but I was being selfish," Merlin finished with a whine. "I should have distanced myself, told my heart that I couldn't have you and made my intention—my allegiance clear. You have to know, Arthur, I would never leave you, no matter the state of my heart. I know you will take a queen soon and I will not stand in the way. You—you will always have my blessing in whatever your heart wishes to pursue."
Merlin finished as strongly as he could. It was true. He would never jeopardize their world for his foolish dreams. Their destiny was bigger than this, his love reaching out and begging Arthur for some small scrap of affection or understanding. He was selfish to ever expect Arthur to sacrifice—anyway, they were the passing fancies of the little peasant boy inside of Merlin, the dreams he held when destiny was too much.
Arthur's calloused hand settled over his and Merlin jerked up out of the pillows. He was warm, always so warm, in the cool night of the castle but his face was still turned down and away.
"Arthur, you must—"
"We are no longer boys," Arthur said, his voice still gravely serious. "The road ahead is... unpredictable."
Merlin turned his hand until their fingers laced together. "My future is with you, no matter the circumstances that surround us. Even if I have to watch you love another for a thousand lifetimes, it will be enough that I am here, even if I am not allowed as near as I'd like."
There were parts of Merlin that wanted to deny this—parts that wanted to rage and declare it nothing but a falsehood—however, Merlin knew that stripped bare of anything, he was more selfish than any of them would ever know. He would endure a thousand heartbreaks for one smile, for one shared moment, for the intimate knowledge that at least, in this, Arthur was his alone.
Arthur pulled away but before Merlin could take it all back, replace it with something less broken open and vulnerable, Arthur was moving to the chest at the end of his bed. Merlin blinked, realizing that his face was flooded with tears and his vision clouded. He wiped furiously and felt his cheeks heat, with embarrassment and shame that he feared he might never overcome. The bedding below him shifted as he moved to the edge and tried to find some sort of composure. His head was bowed as he breathed deep and slow, attempting to calm his heart.
"I want to give you something," Arthur said, firm and resolute. "A fashion of my dominion, if you will."
Arthur settled the crown on Merlin's head, shifting it around until it laid flat over his unruly hair. It was lighter than Merlin had always imagined it would be, as he'd seen it day after day adorning Arthur's head.
Merlin frowned, his fingers going to touch the cold gold that dug into the flesh of his ear. Arthur was looking at him, face guarded but eyes wide with wonder. Merlin felt nothing for a moment, just the blank shock of confusion, watching the hope—the hope written on Arthur's face that this scrap of metal would be enough to make Merlin stay—like he could be bought with trinkets, to keep his fickle feelings from interfering with his duty.
Arthur sat down on the bed and Merlin struggled to push the filthy metal off his head.
"No, Arthur," Merlin mumbled, looking away and trying to give the crown back. Something ugly crawled up and ate at his throat. "This isn't what I want. Not from you."
Everything stilled between them. Merlin wondered, just faintly, if he slowed time but gods, why would he—this moment was awful. This wasn't what he wanted, this wasn't what he and Arthur were made for. This couldn't be their destiny. Was this honestly what—
"I meant it," he choked out. "I would be happy to serve you for the rest of my life, but Arthur, I don't want this. This promise doesn't hold the weight, I need from you. Your crown means nothing in comparison to your—"
Merlin closed his eyes. Why was this so hard? He felt the shame burn again, livid and hungry, in the pit of his belly.
"In comparison to my what, Merlin?"
Arthur's voice was neutral and, yes, this was what they were always afraid of: being two sides of separate coins, the match to each other and yet, somehow, not on the right precious playing field.
"Your kingdom, I don't desire it at all. I am not a ruler of people—I am no king," Merlin whispered, his voice rich with shame and bitterness. "Your crown—Camelot—it all means nothing if I can't have what I truly desire. I would rather have nothing but the place at your side."
Merlin felt the gold crown bump against his hands and he opened his eyes. Arthur was staring down where their fingers were both wrapped around the metal with white-knuckled desperation.
"What could mean more than Camelot?" Arthur said, voice trying for teasing but falling flat.
"You," Merlin snarled, snatching his fingers back. "Do not give me consolation prizes because they will only burn unused. It all means nothing to me, if I can't have your heart," he choked out in the end, tears threatening to make their appearance.
"I don't know what this means," Merlin said honestly.
They had waited too long. There was nothing for them now, not here—not where Merlin needed it the most. And hadn't that been his fear all along? Never once had he thought that they would actually get to this point and fall away. Sure, Merlin had thought that they would never talk about it, that this would settle into nothingness between two old men who were filled with selfish regret but never once had he thought that they would make it here and then fall short.
He felt sick.
"I should go," he said. If he didn't get out of there, he might blow them both up in rage. It wasn't fair. Nothing about this was fair. What was the point in having the world at his fingertips, the loyalty of nations of people, the power of the Old Religion with a wave of his hand—what was the point of everything if the things that mattered the most—if Arthur and his pure heart were out of reach?
He was at the door before Arthur could speak.
He traced the wood with his fingers, letting the magic bubbling up inside of him to burn into the wood.
"It was never supposed to be this unfair," Merlin heard himself saying. "I always thought, in the end—"
"You must know," Arthur said, voice so tight with emotion that Merlin had to turn and look at him, crown tossed on the bed, his head turned toward the window, as if looking at Merlin while he said this would break him. His jaw twitched and Merlin tried to push away the longing he had to feel that jaw underneath his mouth. "Merlin, you must know—it's all because of you."
"Arthur, I do not need your kingdom at my feet to stay."
"You and Camelot are one and the same," Arthur's shaky, unraveled voice said. "It's always been about you, Merlin. Camelot was nothing until you filled it up with meaning; gave these people voices that could be heard, forced their prince to open his mind and his heart to their trust—you've made me the man that I am and the king that Camelot's people deserve."
Merlin had expected blinding happiness. Gods, Merlin had expected much more than that—explosions in the sky, a feast for kings—he had expected his heart to leap out of his chest but nothing like that happened. Something soft unfurled around his chest and he felt that for the first time since coming to Camelot, he could breathe easily. Instead of all the epic displays of love fueled-destiny, all Merlin felt was the unbearable lightness that came with being in love with Arthur. He also smiled, wide and goofy and just stared for a few moments, trying to memorize the moment. Arthur, so tense and vulnerable—hating every moment of this—sitting on his bed, staring out the window and trying to physically will this to work out for them. Arthur hated asking for things as much as Merlin hated the feeling of taking things. They were a mess.
"You would have been a great king without me," Merlin said and it was true. Arthur was all the things he was today when Merlin had first met him. They were dormant, waiting to be awakened, but they were there. Merlin didn't create Arthur, just as Arthur didn't create Merlin—they were just better together. They had strength in the valleys between them and the invisible magical strings that held them together. "Arthur, you must know that you would have been a great king."
"A good king? Possibly. But greatness comes from a place I would have never been able to find without you."
Merlin walked over and picked up the crown. "Okay," he said softly, and tried to keep the undeniable affection out of his voice but failed. "Okay," he repeated and settled the crown on his head. It didn't feel any more comfortable this time than it did when Arthur first put it on him but it settled a little better and Merlin didn't feel like it was going to fly off any moment.
When Arthur finally looked away from the window, Merlin had already climbed onto the bed and was ready for him.
"Okay," Merlin whispered, taking Arthur's face between his hands and mouthing a soft line of kisses down the slope of his cheeks, across the bridge of his nose and then up to his forehead. "I just didn't know," Merlin breathed against his skin. "You're so hard to decipher at times, so important to so many people—I didn't want to ask for something that wasn't ever mine to hope for."
Arthur snorted. "Like you ever ask for permission."
"I am now," Merlin said, amusement in his voice but also relief as Arthur's shoulders sag. "I won't entertain delusions of grandeur simply because you are afraid to lose me. I need nothing but this," Merlin said, pushing his hand against Arthur's chest, "to stay by your side."
Merlin kissed his blond brows and, having held off long enough, he pressed open mouthed kisses to Arthur's jaw, scraping his teeth along the edge until that beloved muscle twitched underneath his mouth.
"Gods, Arthur," Merlin moaned, clutching Arthur's hair with his fingers and sucking hard on the skin beneath Arthur's ear.
It seemed Merlin's breach of silence compelled Arthur into a flurry of motion.
Arthur was suddenly there, not clumsy or uncertain, but strong and demanding, pulling at Merlin's head to press harder—to suck deeper at the flesh until they were both keening. Strong, amazing, commanding Arthur was there, guiding their mouths together.
The flurry of happiness that was supposed to come earlier bloomed in a rush. It felt broken up inside Merlin's chest, like a box dropped down the castle's stone steps that erupts with dozens of sun-warmed flowers, fresh from the fields.
"Arthur," he moaned, opening his mouth to Arthur's sure tongue. He clung, hands scattering to latch onto all the parts of Arthur he had so desperately wanted over the years. They were still young—they were still here--together and the thought made him want to cry, raise the dead from the grave and show them that, yes, they could conquer anything.
Arthur's lips were firm, unyielding as they mouthed at Merlin's parted lips and his tongue licked, strong strokes at the inside until Merlin could do nothing more than whimper for more. Arthur's tongue was methodical, licking every one of Merlin's teeth, tangling with Merlin's as they devoured each other.
"Gods, Arthur," Merlin moaned, as Arthur hissed and pulled Merlin into his lap. Merlin shuddered, thighs settling on the outside of Arthur's thick, muscled ones. "This—"
"I want you here," Arthur cut him off, eyes blazing. "I want you here, always."
Merlin curled his hands into Arthur's tunic and held fast, breathing in the moment. He wanted to still time and learn by rote every single fraction of that moment. He breathed, smelling Arthur's unique smell and the way his hands, sword calloused and so very large, gripped the span of Merlin's thighs like they were a touch-stone which he would never be free of.
"On your lap?"
"Yes," Arthur whispered, fingers flexing over Merlin's thighs and raking up to dig into his bony hips. He hissed with the contact, arching into it and pulling their faces closer together.
"I swear to the gods," Arthur continued. "There is no other place that could possibly need you more."
For the first time in what felt like years, Merlin laughed.
Arthur kissed him through it, tonguing at his smile and sucking on his lips until Merlin only laughed harder, writhing in his lap and letting Arthur lick into his mouth to claim the joy bubbling up inside his throat—sugary sweet and never enough.
They undressed with a carefulness that Merlin didn't feel. Arthur pulled off his tunic to trace over his skin with reverence and Merlin blushed into each touch, aching for more but giving in to the pace Arthur set. The soft slide of their mouths felt too good to leave and it was only the promise of more skin that made Merlin pull away and let Arthur lift off his own tunic.
The muscled structure of Arthur's shoulders gleamed in the candle light. Merlin couldn't suppress a moan at the sight, leaning down to suck a mark into the hollow of Arthur's throat. He moaned in response, pushing into Merlin's mouth and twining his hands into the hair at Merlin's nape. Merlin needed no encouragement to stay, trailing open mouthed kisses along his collarbones and leaning down to suck a pink nipple into his mouth.
"Gods, Merlin, your mouth," Arthur moaned, palming the back of Merlin's head with a heavy hand. "Oh! Ouch."
Merlin pulled back. "Did I hurt you?"
"No, no," Arthur said, pushing his head back down until Merlin's lips were against his skin again. "The crown dug—"
Merlin had forgotten about it sitting on top of his head. He moved back a little. "Let me take it off. I don't want it hurting you."
Arthur shook his head, a little frantic. Merlin cocked his head and Arthur groaned.
"No, please," Arthur said, voice gone pleading. He pulled Merlin closer until they were almost kissing. "I want to—please, please let me take you like this, wearing my kingdom—please..."
For all the things Merlin had prepared himself for, a pleading Arthur was not one of them. He couldn't say no, even if it was a little ridiculous—not when Arthur pressed sweet kisses to his mouth and palmed his arse through his breeches.
"Yes, gods, anything you want," Merlin heard himself saying.
"I know I can have anything," Arthur said without arrogance. "But can I have everything?"
"Always," Merlin threw back at him, biting at his lower lip. "Arthur, always."
They kissed, sloppy and messy and a little bit horrible as they undressed the rest of the way. Merlin hadn't time to examine their technique or focus on anything but the slide of Arthur's skin against his, or the way Arthur's cock wept beads of precome and bobbed against his stomach in need.
"Please, please," Arthur had taken to whispering against Merlin's skin and so lost in pleasure, Merlin just nodded, bending to whatever Arthur's hands willed.
Arthur pushed him onto his belly. Merlin moaned, twitching away from the sheets against his hard cock. However, when Arthur's mouth chased down Merlin's spine, it sending him rutting into the sheets as the hot cascade of Arthur's open mouthed kisses shot straight to Merlin's cock.
"Arthur, ohgods, Arthur," Merlin whimpered, trying desperately to say anything else but just then, Arthur mouth licked a thick stripe in the place between Merlin's cheeks.
"You said," Merlin heard Arthur murmur into his skin. "You said I could have it all."
With that final damning declaration, Arthur pushed two slick fingers into Merlin's entrance.
It burned, white hot but too good to stop. Merlin simply gave himself to the sensation, rolling his body back onto Arthur's blunt fingers and fucking himself in time with Arthur's thrusts. He was overwhelmed with pleasure; the fullness of Arthur's fingers stretching him and the delightful way Arthur kept sucking hot marks onto his shoulders and then sweeping down to trace the knobs of his spine. Finally, when the fingers in Merlin slid without hesitation and he cried out for more, Arthur bit at the globe of his arse, easing over it with his tongue before sucking hard and Merlin quaked.
"Arthur, please, please now," Merlin moan. His hands scrambled behind him to try and grab hold of anything that wasn't a pillow or a sheet. "Gods, I need you now."
Arthur slid inside of him, hands going to hold Merlin's as he rocked his hips and entered Merlin until his balls settled against Merlin's arse.
"You feel as if you were made for me," Arthur whispered, awed.
Merlin had nothing coherent to say in response because Arthur had begun to thrust, brutally slow so that everything around them narrowed to the thickness of Arthur inside of him. His entire body was covered with Arthur's muscled frame as he worked in and out of Merlin's quivering body. They both moaned, their voices rising as Arthur's pace increased—his control barely veiled as he fucked into Merlin. It felt amazingly beautiful, like pleasure was sparking out from them and Merlin could feel the magic pooling as his orgasm built. Arthur fucked him with a singular determination, as if nothing in the universe existed in more perfect union than their bodies writhing together.
Merlin could only arch back and whisper, words of praise and astonishment as he felt his pleasure heighten until it burned. He could feel the golden rods of his magic shooting out from him and tried to tame it but it was no use, not when Arthur was there, driving his cock deeper inside Merlin's body. Arthur panted against his neck, leaving sloppy and open-mouthed kisses all over Merlin's ear and shoulders as he neared his own orgasm.
"Merlin, gods, yes," Arthur moaned, breath hitching as his hips twisted wildly.
"Please," Merlin cried out. "Please, I need it—please, Arthur, I need it."
Arthur came with a shout, driving his cock impossibly deeper inside of Merlin until Merlin's body was almost suffocated by Arthur inside of him and the mattress against his cock. Arthur squeezed their hands together and levered back, his hips starting to thrust again, riding out his orgasm and Merlin could feel it. Merlin could feel the hot, gods, it was so hot, evidence of Arthur's release inside of him as it spurted—claiming him in ways that Merlin couldn't fully wrap his head around because he was coming.
His orgasm crashed through him in waves. He knew there was magic throbbing around them—knew that he was feral with it but he didn't care, not with Arthur there, thrusting inside him and whispering his name, again and again.
Merlin cared for nothing but this man.
Sleep didn't come swift and cloaking like it normally did after Merlin's climax. Instead, he listened to the heavy breath of Arthur's chest and the way he snored louder when he tried to suffocate himself in the pillows. He watched the silver light from the window play over Arthur's skin and then he let his own gold magic chase it off, rippling over the dip in his collarbones or scaling the secret places of his skin.
It felt like he was finally indulging in a desire that he hadn't even known he had.
At dawn, he stroked the vulnerable planes of Arthur's face until he woke.
"Hmm," he purred. "I'm not ready to rise."
Merlin laughed, pressing his face into the flat of Arthur's shoulder. "I need to get back before Wart sets fire to my things."
"I can see that you're already favoring her over me."
Merlin bit at the skin nearest to him, nudging until Arthur arched an elegant eyebrow and stuck out his tongue.
"She does have lofty ideas of our reign."
Arthur raised both eyebrows—Merlin wasn't sure whether it was in reference to the possession of the sentence or the idea of Merlin listening to advice from a child. Merlin shrugged.
"She thinks that Albion is in reach without drawing a weapon to bridge the gap."
Arthur, looking every bit the condescending and arrogant twat, only smirked. "Does she?"
Merlin rammed his elbow into Arthur's side, until Arthur yelped and wrestled him to the bed. He went willingly, letting Arthur pin him and loom.
"She's not wrong," Merlin started softly. "You haven't condoned a single war campaign for anything but peace. If you make the Druids an example, if you extend the kindness that I know, Arthur, I know, you want to—other people will see Camelot's people prosper. They will come, ask for your protection and you will give it to them. War will be waged, but not without the people's permission. If you give them this autonomy, it is the ultimate sign of trust and what king will be able to survive the revolt of his people with Camelot as enforcer?"
Arthur frowned, looking pensive but not averse to Merlin’s words.
Merlin pushed, eyes pleading. "Albion is more than just a prophecy, Arthur. It's an opportunity to give good people a chance to live their lives not only in peace, but prosperity that neither you nor I have ever known."
"It is," Arthur tried before looking away. "It's a tall order."
He looked unsure—unwilling to entertain the thought that people would follow him for more than just his sword. Merlin smiled, feeling his chest fill up with all those emotions that he had long worked at suppressing. He lifted his hands to frame and turn Arthur's face, bringing it closer until he was forced to lean down on his elbows.
"Arthur, they do not follow in fear of you or of me," he said, gently. "They follow your crown, yes, but they also follow your heart. You have proven yourself a worthy man to put their faith into. Wart is not delusional nor is she childish in her reasoning; she believes they will come to you and that all you will have to do is open the arms of your kingdom. The lines will blur fast and we will bleed into their kingdoms until we are their only lifeblood."
He knew he had pushed as far as he could go today. Without a moderate success from Lancelot or Elyan, this conversation meant nothing—just the idle fantasy of a Druid girl and a half-mad Warlock King. Instead, Merlin cut him off with a kiss, chaste but earnest. He pressed their mouths together until the tension in Arthur's neck soothed and Merlin smiled.
"She also believes that I'm infinitely more attractive and that you're just a silly figurehead."
This time, Arthur opened his eyes and they too were smiling, but also reminding him of everything that was said between them last night.
"She isn't wrong," Arthur replied.
Merlin blushed and then pushed Arthur off of him. He went with a small bit of flailing but without argument, the bulk of his body falling into the linens and bouncing slightly on the mattress.
"I'm leaving now," Merlin said, getting up and summoning his clothes with an idle hand. They happily peeked over the bed and then leapt into Merlin's arms, only narrowly missing Arthur's face. Merlin pulled a tunic over his head. "You need to get ready for council, my Lord."
Arthur glared, but it was halfhearted and Merlin tried not to let his eyes linger on the long lines of Arthur's body, built for strength and elegance, and instead pulled on his breeches—er, well, Arthur's breeches.
"With any luck," Merlin continued, tying his breeches and opening the windows with his magic, letting fresh air inside. The stale smell of sleep and coupling in the room was overwhelming in the light of day. "We will have news from Elyan and Lancelot before midmorning and then you can convince both royal council and the Round Table before lunch."
"You have too much faith in Leon's ability to scare royal council into shutting their mouths," Arthur drawled. He managed to look bored already. "I'll be lucky to meet with my men before nightfall with the way the royals yammer on."
Merlin rolled his eyes and turned toward the door. "I'm sure you'll be fine, send a messenger if you need anything, there are some things—"
"You'll be back?"
He turned to find Arthur sitting up in bed, face naked with want and hope that made Merlin want nothing more than to go back and ignore the day—turn back the clock to the depths of night and spend forever in the safety of this king's arms—to make sure that he fully understood his worth to Merlin.
"Yes," Merlin said, solemn. "I can't imagine where else I'd be."
With that, he slipped out of the room and made his way to his own tower. Thoughts filled his head and he tried his best to sort through them but it was impossible, between the two Arthurs in his life and the world barging down their walls—oh it was ridiculous to think he could think.
Merlin was pondering if it was possible to build a moat around his tower when he opened the door to his chambers.
Wart was practically leaning out the window, knees digging into the concrete of the window sill. Above, the owl perched on a rafter and hooted when Merlin shut the door.
But when she looked at him, there were tears streaming down her face. Merlin felt conflicted, not knowing if he should go to her and comfort her or wait for her to come to him. He was saved from, certainly, making the wrong decision when something miraculous happened.
"Emrys," Wart whispered, voice high and raspy with disuse. "Emrys."
Her voice was full of joy.
When Merlin looked over her head and stared out at the courtyard and lower town beyond, his breath shook from his chest.
"Dear gods," he gasped.
There were no less than two thousand Druids, maybe even more, walking into Camelot. Merlin's eyes searched but he could only find Elyan, a small child riding in front of his saddle and holding a flag emblazoned with the Pendragon crest. He couldn't find Lancelot anywhere.
"Is this just Elyan, then?"
Beside him, Wart nodded and Merlin could do nothing more than pull her into his side. They watched, fascinated as the droves of refugees flooded into the citadel. There were so many of them. Merlin had expected them to send a few envoys or maybe the women and children but it seemed that all the Druids who were displaced by Mordred and Morgana's hand were there, tucking themselves into the folds of Camelot's valleys.
It seemed endless.
Beyond them, Merlin seemed to see their future fanning out like water trickling into a brook.
"Look at that," he said after a while, listening as the castle seemed to come alive with movement. Soon, they both would be dispatched to help and their free time would be limited. "You were right."
Wart beamed at him, squeezing her arms around him.
"You might find someone you recognize down there," Merlin said.
She shook her head. I wish to stay with you.
It was very hard to argue with that.
The rest of the day descended into chaos, as Camelot was wont to do during times of surprise. Merlin had waited until the refugees reached the gate between the lower and upper towns before he turned to Wart.
"We should go," Merlin said. "They'll need healing and a magical presence—if what you say is true, they'll need to see me and know that I support this."
Wart looked as if she was considering him, trying to figure out if he was manipulating her or not. Merlin backtracked a bit. "Listen, you don't have to come. But I need to go to them, speak with Elyan and help find a place for the woman and children at the least."
She blinked and then nodded. Merlin sighed, trying not to show his displeasure. It had only been a few days and even though she had made progress, she wasn't going to get better overnight. He chastised himself mentally.
"I'd best go."
When Merlin went to go to the door, he realized that Wart was still tightly clasping his hand. She didn't look up at him but kept her head forward to the door. He wanted to say something, maybe about being proud of her or being impressed with her bravery but she squeezed his hand when he opened his mouth and he took it to silence him.
"Let us go attend the masses," he said, not without a hint of glee. They started down the stairs at a trot.
Gwen was the first person they met.
"Merlin! Oh, thank the gods you're here," she said, putting a lock of curl behind her ear.
"Where else would I be?"
"It doesn't matter. What are we going to do with all those refugees? Can you enlarge the rooms?"
Merlin frowned. "Not to what we'll need," Merlin replied. He looked down at Wart but she shook her head. "There's no way to make the rooms expand that much, making furniture fit is one thing but enlarging a room for a large amount of time? Not feasible."
"We'll have to put them elsewhere," she said with a frown.
"No, Gwen, we need them in the castle."
"You don't trust them?"
Merlin shook his head. "They don't trust us. We need to make sure that they know we're proponents of peace. They need to know that Camelot stands for everyone," he finished with a significant look. Gwen looked confused before comprehension bloomed across her face. She blushed prettily and smiled, a little in awe.
"You're really going to do it, bring all of Albion under King Arthur?"
Merlin felt his own blush at her tone, the bright look of hope in her eye and her wonderment. Somehow, things had shifted between them. Yes, there were still friends but she treated him differently, with a certain level of respect that he had only seen her give to royalty. It made him a little uncomfortable and yet, made him feel proud.
"We're going to try," Merlin said softly. "This is the first step."
"Well, we don't have room for them. Unless you want to oust the nobles, which—"
Although the idea did bring joy to Merlin's heart, he thought that angering the people him and Arthur were going to actually take land from wasn't the best of ideas.
"Put them in the North Tower," he heard himself saying.
Gwen looked shocked. "Merlin, I don't think—"
"If Arthur asks, tell him it was under my decree."
Beside him, Wart giggled. Merlin shushed her, although he was smiling, and rubbed his hand over her hair. She continued to giggle.
"I've been spending time up there," Merlin said, trying to be casual about it. "It's been kept clean and there is plenty of space for the women and children, Gwen. Besides, everyone knows the North Tower has magic, it'll be comforting."
Gwen looked uncertain.
"Gwen, I promise you that it will be all right. Just let me deal with the king. Try to get everyone settled and Wart and I will be up later to tend to the wounded."
At last, Gwen seemed to accept Merlin at his word. She nodded a bit and then smiled. Merlin reached out to squeeze her elbow, where her gown sleeves were pushed up in the heat. "King Arthur will be too busy to bicker and bemoan my decision."
This time, Gwen laughed. "Merlin, you know perfectly well that the king has never been too busy for that."
With that she swept down the hall, already calling for servants and yelling for laundresses to accompany her to the North Tower.
Merlin smiled after her and when Wart smirked at him, the runes Are you allowed to decree things? appeared above her head.
"You're a brat," he barked out, laughing, and they continued through the chaos of the castle.
By sundown, most of the Druids had accommodation and all of the women and children were up in the North Tower. He and Wart had spent the entire day healing and establishing a magical presence with the refugees. It seemed to work –Merlin saw the heavy lines of worry and skepticism on their faces fade just a fraction, but it was enough for him to whisper words of comfort and promise of the peace to come. That promise was the only thing Camelot would fight for and that was the only stance Merlin made clear as he made his way through them. He wasn't an ambassador by any means, nor was he capable of knowing exactly what Camelot could provide but he knew, between Arthur and him, that war wasn't going to be taken lightly—not over territory and not over petty royal egos. Any war that Camelot would wage would be in pursuit of peace, at the calling of the people and that was how they would rule Albion until the end of days.
Wart, bless her heart, did what she could. She held up most of the day, tending to the wounded and showing Merlin the extent of her learnings over the past two days. For the most part, she was more subdued and shyer than Merlin was used to her being but never once did she break down. Granted, she didn't talk the entire day, either.
It was a healing process, he reminded himself. It took time.
Merlin looked at where she was climbing into his bed, arranging the pillows until they were piled around her like a fortress. For a moment, Merlin thought she would collapse into the linen and straight into sleep—however, after burrowing down in the covers she peeked her adorable little face out of the linen and said, "Goodnight, Emrys."
Then she was asleep.
"Goodnight, Wart," Merlin said, indulging in the swell of affection he had and kissing her forehead before her breathing evened out.
Merlin cast a spell around the bed, shrouding her in silence and he got up to putter around the room. He set his magic to tend and organize things, as they had been used and not put back throughout the entire day. The one good thing about crisis was that the castle seemed to forget to be afraid of him, asking him for things and bustling up to his rooms if what they needed was there. It was interesting how everything was stripped back, bare to only need, when chaos reigned—how easily the castle could come together and forget their differences.
Merlin went to sit on the sill, observing the soft cedar smell of his cleaning. A rag started to clean the floor with vigor, books were being re-shelved and his potions set had leapt to attention, water already boiling for what he needed for some of the simple necessities.
For the first time since his magic had become sentient, Merlin closed his eyes and let go.
"You wouldn't happen to know why an old hoot owl is following Arthur around, would you?"
Merlin looked up from his place at the window to find Gwaine cleaning underneath his nails with a knife, looking smug and attractive in the candlelight as he leaned against the entrance to the room.
"An owl, you say?"
Gwaine laughed. "You coy thing! I'm surprised you didn't just brand his forehead," he said, fluttering his eye lashes and generally being appalling.
"I didn't send her."
"She's awful shrewd. Kay tried to shoo her and she bit a hole straight through his finger."
Merlin laughed, imagining the scene. "Oh dear," Merlin sighed, over dramatic. "I sure hope she's all right. Sir Kay can't be easy on her humors."
"I always knew a tumble would make you feisty," Gwaine leered.
"Oh shush. Stop poking around my business."
"You're my only friend in this over-run town, I shall do whatever I want with your business."
Merlin could only smile. Gwaine pushed off the wall and came closer, moving to stand at Merlin's side, pressed against him. Merlin leaned back and they both gazed out of the window.
"Lancelot get settled?" Merlin asked. The other knight had arrived with an equally large envoy, looking tired but happy. Merlin hadn't had time to check on him.
"Gwen is tending to him," Gwaine said with amusement. "I imagine she'll be at it all night."
"You are outrageously inappropriate."
Gwaine only hummed in response. Merlin couldn't help but feel... happy? It was odd, with so many people displaced and the castle full of people who had lost families and friends. But they had a plan now—Camelot was no longer waiting for anything and they were stronger for it.
Merlin was sure that if he could see the future, he would be able to see for leagues.
Merlin scoffed. "You really should call him King, now."
Gwaine flicked his ear. "You're both lucky I don't call him Princess in front of the court."
"I'm not above turning you into a very ugly, mangy, hound," Merlin threatened without a trace of heat.
"Anyway," Gwaine restarted, "he told us about your plan."
It was Merlin's turn to hum. He didn't know how the knights would take it, since they generally thought waiting around was a waste of time and that charging into dangerous situations, be it battle or a gambling tavern, was the quickest and best route.
"All of Albion, in the palm of our hands just for protecting people? It sounds exactly like Arthur," Gwaine continued. "You were afraid we wouldn't approve?"
"You all are very fond of action."
Gwaine laughed, his hand squeezing Merlin's shoulder. "So is our King. I believe you once called him the biggest, most danger prone twat of us all."
"I've tired of war," Merlin whispered. "I want to have a home and a life that doesn't involve my magic—my entire existence—as a weapon."
"Maybe you're right."
Gwaine squeezed his shoulder again. "Maybe I'll give peace a chance."
"You're a libertine, my friend," Merlin muttered. "I should have you put away from children."
Gwaine looked back at Wart, sleeping fitfully, and then to Merlin with a smirk. "A home indeed," he said with inflection. "A King to warm your bed at night, a child you're responsible for and an owl as a pet! My gods, Merlin, you're becoming a family man. Do you have plans to tend the land and grow cabbage?"
Merlin elbowed Gwaine in the gut but he only laughed. When they settled, Gwaine had worked his way onto the sill as well, arms and legs wrapped around Merlin and smiling softly.
"It will work," Gwaine said, quiet and sure. "You will bring peace to Albion. It's your destiny."
"I never thought it'd work out," Merlin admitted.
"Well, you haven't done it yet, mate."
Merlin blushed. "Not that, just," he waved his hand in the air, "everything else, you know? I never thought I'd get everything."
"You deserve it."
"Oh, do shut up," Gwaine said, slapping a hand over Merlin's mouth with glee. "Enjoy your moment, you love-sick fool. Arthur's still with Leon, mapping out plans for the refugee land, as well as a campaign along the borders, so you have at least an hour to suck it up and spend time with your only decent friend before you must attend to your Lordship."
"I did get rather lucky, didn't I?" Merlin said.
It was true, he thought, as Gwaine prattled on about Percival's battleaxe training. Out of all the outcomes on the path to this destiny, he never thought he'd get the one he wanted. Sure, there were causalities along the way and the hole where Morgana had been would never be healed—never replaced or mended. But he had Gwaine, magic in his veins, Wart's eager mind and, well, he had Arthur—he had an entire kingdom if he wanted and the choice to choose Arthur over it all.
So even if he couldn't brew one single fever drought, maybe he wasn't all that badly off in the end.
Merlin didn't bother to open his eyes when the door opened, he simply sunk further down into the too hot bath and enjoyed the way his muscles eased at the attention.
"Plundering the king's bath again, Merlin?"
Merlin smiled, feeling lazy and so dreadfully happy. "Are you going to lodge a complaint, my Liege?"
"It is startling how you make my title sound like peasant gossip."
"A talent," Merlin mumbled, slouching further into the water, stretching out his legs until his feet poked out oddly at the end. He really needed to get a bigger tub for them.
"Hmm," he heard Arthur hum, much closer than his other remarks. Merlin stopped himself from opening his eyes and just tried to relax and know that Arthur would come at his own pace. There was no need to mark his progress around the room.
"A cedar bath?" His voiced rumbled low, amused but fond too. Merlin shivered at the sound, certainly not cold from the warm water.
"They were out of lavender," Merlin teased. "I do know how much you pine for it."
Arthur snorted. "I made them use it all on Wart's linens."
Merlin laughed and shifted some more in the soothing water, hearing it splash over the rim of the tub. "She hates it as much as you do," Merlin said. "It terrifies me how alike the two of you are." Arthur was silent but Merlin could hear the scratch of wood across the floor and the subtle sound of fabric shifting.
"Hush," was his response and not long after, Merlin felt the familiar press of Arthur's fingertips to his ankle. "May I?"
Merlin pushed his foot further into Arthur's grip. "You have no need to ask," Merlin said firmly, finally opening his eyes. "You hold complete dominion over me."
Arthur had disrobed, leaving him clad only in his breeches and looking positively edible. His hair, stupidly shiny as ever, glowed in the candle light as he stretched out Merlin's leg, pulling the foot closer to him so that he could sit comfortably in the chair with Merlin's foot held to his chest. His fingers pressed, rubbing deep into the tissue and Merlin moaned, arching into the touch.
"Bartholomew told me you were on your feet all day," Arthur said, looking thoughtful and aroused. "Were you helping Wart?"
Merlin could only nod, the pathway of Arthur's strong fingers was enough to frazzle his thoughts and chase away the weight of the day.
"I'm sure you were a nuisance," Arthur mumbled and Merlin watched, enraptured as he brought Merlin's foot to his face and nuzzled it.
"Arthur—" he gasped out but Arthur didn't stop from pressing his face along the pale line of Merlin's foot and gods, Merlin trembled.
Merlin felt frozen as Arthur nosed at his foot, one hand holding it steady while the other trailed up and down Merlin's calf, pausing to circle at the ankle. The pressure of his fingers was light in contrast to his mouth.
But Arthur didn't stop, he pressed hot, opened mouthed kisses on the flat of Merlin's foot, stopping to sloppily tongue his arch and scrape his teeth down the tender side of it. Merlin moaned, surprised and shocked but undeniably aroused as his cock swelled in the bath water.
"Even here," Arthur said, eyes closed in his worship. "Even here you taste like strawberries and woodsmoke—everything about you is maddening."
Arthur continued his ministrations, licking around his heel and softly scraping his teeth up to where he pressed chaste kisses to Merlin's toes. Speechless, Merlin could only moan, hips twitching for friction as he hardened fully and ached to be touched. Merlin tightened his hands on the rim of the tub and waited for Arthur.
"So good." He took his time exploring every part of Merlin's foot and when he switched to the other one, he only used one hand to guide it to his mouth. His other hand groped at the heavy line of his erection. Merlin gasped, watching as Arthur palmed himself once or twice, gasping into the bottom of Merlin's foot before he started to stroke himself hard and heavy, almost violently, over his cloth-covered cock. Slowly, a wet spot spread halfway down his thigh and Merlin gasped too, watching as Arthur moaned again, hips jerking into his hand as he pressed wrenched moans and sloppy kisses to Merlin's foot.
"Arthur, oh gods," Merlin trembled, hips squirming for some sort of friction in the water. "Arthur—"
"I want," Arthur whispered into the arch, mouth sucking a hot mark there. "I want you to be inside me."
With that, he came, teeth sinking into the ball of Merlin's foot before breaking wide and crying out, as his hips jerked into his hand and flooded the front of his breeches with a rapidly spreading dark spot. Merlin watched, heart threatening to break free, as Arthur sobbed into his foot, orgasm rolling through him visibly. He came, for what seemed like hours, face cradled in the curve of Merlin's foot.
"You're so beautiful," Merlin whispered.
When Arthur's eyes opened, they were unrepentant and Merlin wasted no time. He scrambled out of the tub, feet too sensitive from Arthur's mouth and pulled him into a kiss. It was a blur of need, pushing and pulling until Arthur was on the bed, breeches catching on one of his feet before Merlin could bury his face in Arthur's spent cock. There was seed everywhere, filthy and cooling, but Merlin lapped, tongue desperate and thirsty for a taste. Arthur was too sensitive, jerking away and into Merlin's mouth, cursing at the ceiling and grasping at the curling strands of Merlin's hair. He licked and sucked all of Arthur's spent release until Arthur was twitching, cock half-hard and aching.
"Hurts," Arthur cried out, grinding up into Merlin's face despite his words.
"It will," Merlin said with glee. "It will hurt so much more."
With that, he slipped a finger behind the tense hang of Arthur's balls and worked it into the undiscovered area of Arthur's entrance. He looked up once, watching Arthur pant, eyes wide with fear and something else that made Merlin choke down a sob, biting down on Arthur's thigh and sliding a finger all the way inside of Arthur when he arched up.
Arthur's moan was panicked, almost painful but Merlin didn't stop, he magicked the oil closer to him and drizzled it down Arthur's balls, pausing to withdraw the finger only slightly to scoop up the slick substance. He drove the finger back in, hard, watching Arthur arch with pain and newly discovered pleasure.
"Gods, I need—" Arthur gasped out, head moving back and forth on the bed. "Merlin—"
"Fuck, fuck, shut up," Merlin said, burying his head into the crease of Arthur's groin and shoving two fingers into Arthur's spasming hole. "Just, quiet, I'll fuck you—I swear to you, I will take you soon."
Time slowed, contracting and expanding as Merlin willed the Earth to stand still. By the third finger, Arthur was glowing, Merlin's magic winding around him like a vice grip. Arthur was thrashing, words nonsensical as Merlin drove three fingers in and out of his body until Arthur was pushing back, growling and clenching his stretched hole on the width of Merlin's fingers.
"I want you inside me," Arthur repeated, voice choked and broken. "Now, Merlin—gods, I need you to take me now."
Merlin paused, thinking about the days ahead of them—when they would spend most of their time apart, Arthur readying his campaign along the border lands and Merlin, at his side but so distant as well. There was a spiraling future ahead of them, more uncertain and rocky than the days behind and quite possibly tragic. But here now, with Arthur writhing back to fuck himself more steadily onto Merlin's fingers—his tilting moans of more and Merlin, were enough to suspend lifetimes.
Merlin breeched him in one slide, fighting the tight clench of Arthur's body and his hoarse cries, until he was fully seated into Arthur's internal heat. He pushed and pushed until Arthur's legs wrapped around him and Merlin brought their faces together.
"Always for you," Merlin mumbled, their lips slashing savagely together. "Always," Merlin snarled before he snapped his hips back and fucked Arthur as if they would never have the chance to devour each other's bodies again.
Their future was uncertain, the precarious road of building a kingdom larger than all those who had come before them was a heavy and dangerous burden. It was a burden they would shoulder together. Tonight, here with Arthur's legs flexed in a wild bucking motion around Merlin's hips; with Arthur's voice raw from his cries and vicious pursuit of pleasure; with the sound of Merlin's cock plundering the vulnerable essence of Arthur's entrance; with the two of them wrapped in the golden heaven of Merlin's magic—nothing mattered but them—two unlikely boys, from different worlds, who fell in love.
Merlin fucked him into dawn, bodies writhing and twinning together like prophecies tumbling out of a Seer's mouth. He might have stayed there, ensconced in Arthur's personal kingdom—in the center of his vulnerability. They might have been there for the rest of their lives. There was nothing but soft kisses and whispered words that belied emotions felt only by the fierce love of them and by no one else before or after them. They coupled until they forgot the world around them and then they went beyond.
Arthur moaned, his voice crackling as his body writhed. Merlin gasped, forehead pressed into the base of Arthur's spine as his pushed two fingers into Arthur's entrance. They slid easily, the way paved from the oil but also—
"Gods, Merlin," Arthur panted, legs twisting and buckling as he pushed down. Merlin watched his spasming hole, scissoring his fingers and watching as hot strings of come ran down his fingers, pooling in his palm.
Below him, Arthur could only thrust back and cry out as Merlin's fingers pressed too hard on the nub inside him and Merlin could take it no longer, he pushed one thigh out of the way, leaving Arthur open for Merlin's mouth.
"No! No, no," Arthur sobbed, his arse shoving back to slam against Merlin's face, negating his words as Merlin worked the spear of his tongue into Arthur's sloppy entrance. It tasted of oil, a strange texture on his tongue, but beneath that was the thick, bitter taste of his own release.
Merlin moaned, feeling it vibrated up into Arthur as he thrashed back, fucking himself on Merlin's face and riding his tongue as if it were his cock.
"Please, Merlin--Gods," Arthur said with sharp cries punctuating each press of his body back into Merlin's mouth. "You have to—I need, dammit Merlin—just—"
Merlin's head was spinning, arousal clouding his vision until all he could feel was Arthur. Hungry for more, the taste of his own seed out of Arthur was addictive—he needed it—the heavy knowledge that was this taste, oil and Merlin's spent come all tangled together inside of Arthur—Merlin used his other hand to spread Arthur wider.
"I just," Merlin stuttered out, leaning back to watch as Arthur's greedy, so delightfully greedy, hole fluttered. "We taste so good."
With that, he fitted his mouth to that delicious hole and sucked.
Merlin's mouth flooded with their combined taste, coating his tongue with viscous fluid that had him desperate for release. Arthur tried to squirm away, only to push back hard into Merlin's face and scream again as Merlin continued to suck until his mouth was full to burst, the liquid slipping out of the seal of his mouth and running down his chin—smearing the already filthy crease between Arthur's cheeks.
Merlin sucked again, worming his tongue up to flicker over the hole to hear Arthur keen, sobbing in broken noises that Merlin knew to be his name.
When Merlin broke away, Arthur was completely incoherent and Merlin didn't pause. He hauled Arthur up on his knees and brought him back onto the length of Merlin's cock. It was a little rougher, all the fluid that was trapped inside of Arthur's hole still sitting in the cavern of Merlin's mouth.
The pace was brutal, they're both too close for it to last, and Merlin waited until Arthur was pushing back, mouth open and moaning as he fucked himself back onto Merlin's cock as if that was his only desire—to be filled up to the brim with Merlin.
Merlin moaned, watching Arthur's shuttering mouth until he couldn't resist the urge to touch it any longer. Mind dizzy with pleasure, Merlin shoved three of his fingers into his mouth and to make them wet with the fluid Merlin had sucked out from inside of Arthur. They were coated, dripping with the evidence of Arthur's complete abandon. Merlin shivered, orgasm burning hot in the base of his spine as he leaned over, hips still slamming into Arthur's body to meet Arthur's own disoriented and frantic thrusts. He sunk his teeth into the curve of Arthur's shoulder. Arthur arched, twisting until his mouth opened again in a moan.
Merlin shoved his fingers in deep, holding down Arthur's tongue and stuffing his face with the three fingers that he had caked in his own come from Arthur's arse.
It was only a few more thrusts, Arthur choking on Merlin's hand as he was fucked into the mattress—moaning and biting at the skin of Merlin's fingers until he came, squeezing around Merlin's cock like a vice and sending Merlin into his own spiral of ecstasy.
He tugged his fingers from Arthur's mouth, blindly petting at Arthur's face until he went to pull his softening cock out of Arthur's thoroughly debauched channel. Only, Arthur's strong hand held him fast at his hip.
"Stay," Arthur whispered, soft and small and Merlin almost cried from the tenderness of it. He pressed Arthur even harder into the bed, wrapped around him until there wasn't a spot of Arthur's skin that wasn't touching Merlin's and clung to him.
To think that they might have never gotten this stung Merlin to the core.
They fell asleep, Merlin's softening cock still buried in the wet, needy place of Arthur's body. Merlin curled around him, mind gone somewhere else as he nuzzled into the base of Arthur's neck, stroked his chest and whispered, "My liege, my King... my Arthur."
Later, Merlin would fall asleep wrapped in the heavy blanket of Arthur's solid body. He would think about destiny and how much he had hated it—such a fickle and meddling force—and yet, he would suffer destiny's manipulative hold a thousand times over for a single moment with this miraculous man.
And he would.