Merlin found Arthur in nearly perfect health when he returned with Gaius from the Isle of the Blessed. He said nothing about Merlin's absence, or his own miraculous recovery, when Merlin brought him breakfast the next morning.
Instead, Arthur sighed at the beautiful strawberries--which Merlin had added to the otherwise rather dull-looking tray on the way up, only remembering afterward to glance around and check that no one had seen--as though they were an impossible task set before him. Merlin suffered a moment's fear that Arthur would suspect about the strawberries, but they'd still had them last week; he could claim these were the very last of the season.
"When I was small, we used to have peaches," Arthur said, sounding a bit distracted. Apparently even strawberries were not enough to tempt him to his breakfast; Merlin would have to pester Gaius to check him over again. Perhaps he had some lingering touch of fever. "I don't suppose you had those in Ealdor."
"No," Merlin said slowly, trying to guess what peaches were. Other than probably peach-colored.
Arthur prodded a strawberry with his finger, as though he suspected it of treachery and wished to see how it would react. They were perfectly ordinary strawberries, though; Merlin had tasted one to be sure. "They're like fuzzy apples, to look at. But soft and golden inside, with this stone at the center like a walnut--I used to throw them at Morgana when her father brought her visiting."
"Where do they grow?" Merlin had ridden to the Isle of the Blessed for Arthur, he could go fetch some fruit--though not right now, of course. Gaius had a list of chores a mile long for him today, and if he kept disappearing like he'd been doing lately, Arthur was bound to suspect something. But he could get Arthur peaches, if Arthur wanted peaches.
"There was just the one man who grew them, up in the hills." Arthur turned his gaze out the window, squinting at the light, as though he could see the very hills from here.
Then Arthur shrugged and looked down at his breakfast again, and his voice was matter of fact as he went on. "Turned out he was using sorcery to keep the orchard warm enough for the trees to bloom, and my father had all his lands burned and sown with salt after he was executed. Along with his wife and sons, I think. No more peaches anywhere in Camelot after that, even by trade."
"Ah," Merlin said. So he couldn't go and get the peaches, then. Now that Arthur mentioned it, Merlin thought he knew where it must be; everyone avoided that wasteland.
Arthur shook his head and crammed two strawberries into his mouth at once.
"I have no idea what reminded me of that," Arthur announced as he chewed. "Perhaps the fact that my stables will also have to be burned and sown with salt after the way you've neglected them lately. Muck them out today, Merlin, and take the dogs for a good long run, they're getting fat."
Merlin eyed Arthur's rapidly-emptying plate--he'd found his appetite, at least--and covered his pleasure under a mournful sigh. "Yes, sire."
Lying in bed that night, aching in every muscle and still smelling faintly of dog, Merlin couldn't stop wondering about peaches. Arthur's description wasn't especially informative, but he had sounded so wistful as he spoke of them. They must have been something quite wonderful. Something worth using sorcery to grow, apparently.
Ever since he'd faced down the dragon and Nimueh--had broken with one and killed the other--Merlin had been feeling as if some dam inside him had broken. He thought briefly of getting out of bed and going to look through Gaius' books to learn from whence he might summon peaches, and how. Strawberries were easy. He knew what strawberries were supposed to be like, and could grow them from motes of dust, but peaches would be a challenge--and then there was a soft, firm weight in his hand. Merlin sat up, candles lighting themselves around him as he raised the peach to study it. It did look a bit like a fuzzy apple, all red and gold and wonderful to touch. It felt faintly warm in his hand, as though a moment ago it had been ripening in the sun.
He bit into it cautiously, but it tasted like sweet summer, golden indeed. He understood the longing in Arthur's voice when he spoke of peaches.
There was a soft thumping then, raining down all around him, and Merlin laughed softly--his bed was full of peaches, rolling off onto the floor, as though a whole tree had just shed its branches for him.
For him and Arthur.
Merlin hid most of the peaches in a sack in his cupboard, and gathered the prettiest ones into a bowl he'd washed thoroughly since Gaius last used it for scientific purposes. He covered the peaches with a clean cloth and took them along when he went to fetch Arthur's breakfast, informing the kitchen girls that the bowl contained a nasty-tasting experiment of Gaius's that needed constant watching.
They looked skeptical, but they handed over Arthur's breakfast without argument. Merlin considered it a job well done and hurried up to Arthur's room.
Arthur had progressed only as far as sitting on the edge of his bed with his hair sticking up in all directions, looking mildly annoyed, so Merlin was practically early. He set down Arthur's breakfast on the table, ending with the bowl of peaches.
"You'll never guess what I found!" He flipped the cloth back triumphantly.
Arthur squinted, yawned, and then unfolded from the bed and stalked slowly over to the table, graceful as a cat. In combination with his state of undress and his gold hair sticking up in the early light--Merlin had to look away, just for a moment. But he couldn't miss watching this, so by the time Arthur reached the table, Merlin had looked back.
Arthur stared at the peaches with ten times the skepticism he had bestowed on yesterday's strawberries. In a deeply dubious voice, Arthur said, "You found peaches."
Merlin beamed, nodding.
Arthur looked from the peaches to Merlin. "You just... found some peaches."
Right, Merlin was actually going to have to tell him something; obviously last night's idea that Arthur would be too distracted by the peaches to wonder where they'd come from had been overly optimistic.
"I found this man--um, no one I recognized, I guess he must have just come to the city, you know--and he was in the market, selling fruit. Well, sort of outside the market, but--he had these!" Merlin gestured helpfully toward the peaches, which were what Arthur really ought to be paying attention to, here. "I would have thought they were apples gone fuzzy if you hadn't mentioned them yesterday. So I told him people in Camelot don't like peaches and then I bought the whole lot. And then I think he was leaving anyway, um, because he seemed sort of worried about the business with the peaches and things."
"Ah, you bought peaches," Arthur said, with an air of correction. He ran a finger gently over the fuzzy red-gold surface of the most perfect peach, which Merlin had carefully positioned on top. "Last evening's market, I suppose. You can't have gotten down to the market and bought these already this morning. I can scarcely believe you've already been to the kitchens."
"Yeah, of course," Merlin agreed cheerfully. Arthur was making this ridiculously easy, although Merlin could wish he'd stop talking and enjoy his present already. "It was last night. Pretty late, actually."
"Mm," Arthur said, turning the peach this way and that as he scrutinized it. "You'd think, if it was that late, other people would have seen the peaches before you got there."
"Oh, well, I'm sure they would, but he'd been late getting into the city. Most everyone was done shopping for food by then. Just chance I saw him, really." Merlin was nearly out of improvisations, and Arthur was still studying the peach.
No, actually Arthur was holding the peach to his lips, brushing them over the soft ripe curve of it. Merlin bit down on his tongue. He couldn't make himself look away, even though he should.
Arthur looked up abruptly, frowning, and Merlin straightened and smiled his most innocent smile.
"These are all the peaches the man had brought? You brought all of them to me?"
"Nnnno?" Merlin tried, groping for the answer Arthur expected. "Well. I had to try one."
Arthur's frown broke, like a cloud giving way to sun, and Merlin grinned.
"Or two! I just--was testing that they were all right for you, of course, sire. I mean, what kind of servant would I be if I brought you bad peaches?"
"A servant in the stocks, and wouldn't that be a shame--still, seems you've suffered no ill effects." Arthur gave him a thorough up-and-down look, and Merlin tried to keep very still while also looking extremely healthy. Arthur's gaze seemed to linger somewhere lower down than Merlin's eyes, and he couldn't help glancing down to see if he'd slopped his own breakfast--mostly peaches--anywhere.
He looked up just in time to see Arthur take a bite, his eyes fluttering shut as his teeth broke the skin. Juice leaked down the corner of Arthur's mouth, and he made a little sound that was positively mesmerizing. Merlin watched helplessly as he chewed and swallowed and licked his lips, and then Arthur said, "I know what this is, Merlin."
Merlin felt his eyes go wide, but he tried to keep calm. Arthur was probably just going to tease him about something. "A peach?"
Arthur smiled, and didn't stop smiling even as he raised the hand holding peach and licked a little of the juice from the side of his hand. Merlin stared for a few seconds, distracted, and then tried smiling back, then stopped, totally confused. If Arthur knew what this really was, he couldn't possibly be smiling, but...
"A peach, which you found for me," Arthur said, stepping closer. "You just happened to find it after I happened to mention peaches. Honestly, you couldn't be more obvious if you went around wearing a sign."
Merlin felt his smile freeze. Also, possibly, his heart. "I don't--"
"Merlin, did you honestly think I didn't know? I was trying to spare your dignity by not saying anything, since you seemed to imagine it was a secret, but I've known practically since the beginning. I've been waiting for you to just tell me."
"I--" Arthur seemed to actually be saying what Merlin thought he was saying, except he couldn't possibly be saying that at all. "I couldn't..."
"Tell me you're not really frightened," Arthur said, his voice low and stern in a way that had a really, really dangerous effect on Merlin's insides, which was entirely not the point right now. "You couldn't think--even if I wasn't pleased by this, you couldn't think I'd let any harm come to you because of it, not when I know your intentions are always good."
Merlin shook his head a little, dazed. He couldnt, not really. Now that Arthur said it he realized it wasn't a surprise--he'd known Arthur might be forced to send him away when he found out, if it couldn't be concealed, but he also knew Arthur wouldn't stand aside and let him be executed.
"It's not even your fault, really, is it," Arthur said, moving closer again, so that they were nearly nose to nose. Merlin was conscious of the heat and closeness of Arthur's body, the intensity of his eyes. The words almost got lost.
"I'm told no one can help who they fall desperately in love with, not even princes."
Merlin was stricken entirely dumb at the realization that Arthur didn't know--the relief filled him like the first breath on returning to the surface from the lake's bottom. If there was just a hint of disappointment at the thought of what Arthur might have meant, the acceptance Arthur might have given his magic, it was entirely swallowed up in the terror of realizing what Arthur did know. It had been too much to dream of keeping both secrets, he supposed, faintly.
Arthur's closeness suddenly meant something else entirely--wait, not even princes--and apparently it had meant that all along, and--and whatever Arthur might have thought about Merlin's magic, he wasn't angry about what Merlin felt, which was something.
"You're in love with me," Arthur announced, and surely if he minded very much he'd be saying it louder, and from much farther away. Merlin had imagined that sometimes, as a probably-less-lethal alternative to being found out as a wizard, being cast out for having unnatural designs on the prince. He couldn't imagine Uther being any happier about one than the other, and if he went to the stocks for this, folk might not only be throwing vegetables--but Arthur had been talking about this, when he'd said he wouldn't let Merlin come to harm.
Merlin's lips parted, about to demonstrate how very right Arthur was about Merlin, except that Arthur added, "I suppose that explains you being colossally, amazingly stupid. Even for you, which is saying something."
"I--wait, no, I'm--what?" Merlin leaned back from Arthur slightly, frowning. He could have sworn they were about to kiss--in glorious defiance of propriety, even, entering into the secret together--and now Arthur was insulting him.
Arthur jabbed him hard in the chest, finger pointed as a lance, making Merlin lose his scant breath for a second. "Stupid, incredibly stupid. Peaches, Merlin? Peaches?"
"I don't--I thought you liked peaches?" Perhaps they had been dangerously obvious, as a sign of his partiality to Arthur, but it wasn't as if anyone else had seen them, and Arthur obviously knew.
"I do," Arthur said, glaring down at the one he still held in his hand, and then back at Merlin with an equally thunderous expression. "But I won't die without them, and neither will anyone else, and no harm will come to the kingdom if I don't have them. You can't go around using your magic on fruit, Merlin--I was trying to warn you yesterday, when you brought those strawberries, I told you my father killed an entire family over using magic for peaches, but apparently that just inspired you to do it even more blatantly than they did."
"My..." Merlin must have poisoned himself eating too many peaches; he must now be in some sort of bizarre fruit-induced daze. It was the only reasonable explanation. Otherwise he would have to believe that Arthur knew all his secrets, held Merlin's life and heart and soul in the palm of his sword-callused hand.
"Honestly, if you're this hopelessly in love with me at the same time that you think I'm stupid enough not to have noticed, I really have to question your taste," Arthur said, and then sighed heavily and kissed him at last.
Merlin had already been opening his mouth to argue with Arthur--or at least to demand to know what he meant, because he couldn't mean that, he couldn't know all of that--but Arthur's tongue slipped into his mouth, and Merlin gave up on talking to chase the summer taste of peaches in Arthur's mouth. Merlin grabbed at Arthur, getting fistfuls of his nightshirt, knuckles pressing against the hot skin beneath--he really must get Gaius to check Arthur for fever--except that he felt quite as warm himself, under Arthur's hands. Arthur tugged at him, and Merlin tugged back--there was a wall here somewhere they could lean against, that would be enough.
Arthur's hips pushed against his, and Arthur shoved a hard thigh between Merlin's legs. Merlin couldn't help rutting against it, pressing himself ever closer and Arthur bit down on his lip and then growled, "Wall or bed, Merlin, yes, but choose one."
"Oh, bed," Merlin agreed immediately, because Arthur's was lovely, even if it was inconveniently several feet away--well, that could be remedied. Time slowed for an instant--he could feel the slow, deep beat of Arthur's heart under his hands, and between one thump and the next the bed arrived at Arthur's back. Then time was rushing forward again, and Merlin pushed Arthur down to the surface of the bed just as the table and chair the bed had apparently knocked into on its way across the room hit the floor, scattering Arthur's breakfast everywhere.
Arthur's eyes went wide--Merlin caught the breakfast, porridge and toast and cascade of peaches, frozen in midair--and there was a shout in the corridor, and footsteps approaching.
"Merlin," Arthur hissed, "put it--"
And between one heartbeat and the next, before Arthur could even finish speaking, Merlin righted the table and replaced the breakfast and shoved the bed back where it belonged, riding across the room with it.
"--back," Arthur finished, and pushed to his feet, shoving Merlin away in the direction of the still-fallen chair, just as the door slammed open. Merlin managed to flip a cloth over the peaches as he dropped to his knees, half-hiding behind the table. Arthur shouted, "Clumsy idiot," as the guard said, "My lord?"
"Out," Arthur snapped, and the guard slammed the door shut, disappearing again. Merlin stayed on his knees for a few seconds after, waiting, and then Arthur knelt beside Merlin. He had a brief memory of himself and Will, playing under his mother's table--he remembered what Arthur had said about throwing peach stones at a younger Morgana, and wondered if they had ever hidden together the same way.
Arthur set a hand on his shoulder, squeezing almost painfully hard, and said, "Merlin--you can't--you really cannot--"
"Sorry," Merlin said, wincing, "I didn't mean to--"
"No, obviously, but this is what I was trying to tell you." Arthur shook him a little by the shoulder. "Obviously moving furniture was a bad idea and you will not be doing that again, but--peaches, you really must not--"
"I just--peaches, I thought..." Well, he hadn't thought, actually. That was certainly what Gaius would say. Merlin hadn't thought--but in his defense, he hadn't tried, either. The peaches had just happened.
"Just peaches," Arthur said flatly, "but peaches have stones."
Arthur looked away for a moment and then leaned past Merlin to pick up the peach he'd taken a bite from off the floor. He jabbed his finger into the bitten place, scowling as he worked his finger around inside the peach, until he drew out the hard, dark center, and held it up to show Merlin.
"Peach stones go into a slop pail with the rest of the food scraps. Slop pails go to the pig boys, and the pig boys poke through the slop, to see if there's anything the pigs shouldn't eat, or anything they want to eat before the pigs get their chance. Pig boys' mothers and sisters work in the castle kitchens, so when a pig boy comes to ask a cook or a kitchen girl what this is and whether it's good to eat, then the whole castle's going to know that there are peaches in Camelot, when everyone knows they don't grow within our borders or anywhere near. And then someone gets accused of sorcery, again, and I have to cover for you, again, and if Gwen cries because of you even one more time I just might set you on fire myself. Merlin, that's what comes of just peaches."
Merlin blinked. "You said--"
"I know what I said," Arthur snapped. "Obviously I'd put the fire out right away. But you must learn to be careful."
Merlin stared at Arthur, quite unable to believe his luck, like all the dice he'd ever rolled coming up right when he hadn't even known he'd thrown them, in a game with his life on the line. "How did you find out? About my magic, I mean."
Arthur looked down at his hands, the gutted peach in one and the stone in the other, and then set the stone on the floor and started licking his fingers clean. Merlin licked his lips--the taste of peaches lingered--and watched.
"It was little things at first," Arthur said. "During the tournament, you did the work of six servants in a single night, by yourself, but I thought maybe Gwen had taken pity on you and drafted some help. Then I put my helmet on and realized that annoying join that always caught at the back of my head had been pounded flat, and that was a bit strange, but I could have been imagining it."
Arthur took a bite of the peach and turned to sit on the floor instead of kneeling, leaning against the table leg as he stared toward the window. He chewed and swallowed, as though searching his memories. Merlin sat beside him, not quite touching shoulders, and searched his own memory, trying to remember any moment when Arthur had seemed to know, to deliberately turn a blind eye to his magic, or to any of it. Merlin had ignored his feelings as long as he could, and had thought he was hiding his magic, but Arthur had known all along, apparently, and Merlin had never spotted it.
"Then I was fighting Valiant, and I looked over at one point to see whether you were watching and you were standing off by yourself doing this," Arthur thrust the hand holding the peach out dramatically, the three fingers not required to hold the peach splayed wide. "And your eyes were all gold and you seemed to be talking though there was no one near you, and right after that snakes leapt out of Valiant's shield and he said he hadn't summoned them."
Merlin winced and looked down. Since then, he'd mostly managed to have fewer potential witnesses--though everyone, him included, had been unable to take their eyes off Arthur during the tournament, so he might as well have been alone. Except for Arthur.
"So at that point you might say I had some suspicions." Arthur paused--chewing, when Merlin dared a quick sideways glance--and then went on, "But I suppose the thing that clinched it was just that subtle little moment, you know, when you marched into my father's council chamber and announced to him and all his assembled advisers that you're a sorcerer."
Merlin's chin jerked up at that. "You didn't believe me!"
Arthur gave him a frankly disbelieving stare. "No, Merlin," he said slowly, "I persuaded my father not to believe you, so he wouldn't kill you."
"I had to save Gwen," Merlin said, his voice coming out smaller than he intended. Arthur had known, even then. Arthur had saved him.
"I know," Arthur said, a little wearily, and took another bite of the peach. "I wasn't going to let her die either, but I couldn't risk you. And because I kept you out of the dungeons, you found the way to stop the plague, so I was right. I'll keep your secret, Merlin--we all will, I mean, obviously Gaius must know, and I'm nearly positive Morgana does, and Gwen really wouldn't surprise me, at this point, and probably about half the castle..."
Merlin actually felt the blood drain from his face, "I--Arthur?"
"Oh, for--" Arthur's arm went around his shoulder, tugging Merlin in to lean against him. "Truly, it's like you're wearing a sign, but the sign says he means well in letters a foot high, and we can't resist helping you."
Merlin squeezed his eyes shut and tried to sort out the last several minutes. "So I--you--love me and know I'm magic and you're... angry with me over the peaches?"
"I am angry with you because you keep trying to throw your life away for no good reason and I happen to value it," Arthur said firmly. "As your liege I require you to stop that immediately."
Merlin nodded against Arthur's shoulder, even as he was thinking that if he didn't actually speak the promise, he could probably keep his own counsel about what was a good reason to risk his life. Arthur would doubtless be stingy about it, now that he had lost his compunctions about bossing Merlin around as regarded his magic.
"And I also require you to go tell Gaius I need you all day for a hunting trip, and put the peaches--all the peaches--in my saddlebags," Arthur went on, still with his arm around Merlin. "And we will go somewhere quiet in the woods, out of earshot of everyone, and eat all the peaches we can, and you will send back all the stones and the leftovers back to wherever you got them from."
Merlin nodded again, and straightened up this time, but Arthur leaned after him, giving him another kiss, a proper one, lingering and sticky with peach juice, and then just lingering and wet and faintly peach-flavored.
"And then we'll see what other ridiculous sorts of magic I can inspire you to work," Arthur murmured, his voice low and his hand lower.
Merlin met Arthur's eyes with a smile. He felt his eyes go golden-hot for an instant, just thinking of all the possibilities, and he gave his vow in all sincerity when he said, "I'll do my best, sire."