But I’m a fire and I’ll keep your brittle heart warm
if your cascade, ocean wave blues come
All these people think love’s for show,
but I would die for you in secret
It begins on a warm spring night in the middle of May, a few weeks after Arthur takes Camelot back from Morgana.
The castle is still being cleaned and rebuilt in certain places, and during the day the courtyard is filled with laborers helping to reorganize, the harsh sounds of tools against stone echoing in the air.
At night, however, the noise finally stops. A tense sort of silence settles over the castle, and as Merlin makes his way across the courtyard, the moon high in the dark sky, he gets the sense that the quiet has somehow changed over the past month or so, as if the castle itself has shifted.
The daylight feels dimmer, but not quite to the point of being gloomy. A gentle darkness seems to have settled over Camelot, turning the colorful hues down a notch. The reds bleed darker and the golds gleam softer. The navy light of the late night wraps itself around the castle like a thick blanket, both oppressive and protective, as if serving as a barrier while Camelot licks her wounds.
The warm breeze tickles Merlin’s cheeks as he climbs the staircase that leads inside the castle, leaving the courtyard behind for stone walls that glow with soft torchlight. It’s not inappropriately late for a social call, and Merlin passes a few fellow servants as he walks towards Lancelot’s chambers, giving his usual friendly nods and grins and acknowledging a few by name.
Not that Merlin would care if it were too late, of course. Not that Lancelot would care, either. As he walks, he ponders the last few weeks, thinking of all the nights the two have spent together, simply sitting in Lancelot’s new chambers ‒ and sometimes in Merlin’s, for old time’s sake ‒ talking through their troubles and their delights, drinking wine until their faces are flushed and their words come all too easy.
Warmth trickles through Merlin’s body like a pleasant slant of summer sunlight as he reminisces, and when he stops in front of Lancelot’s chamber door, he’s feeling lighter than he has since Morgana stormed the castle.
He knocks once, and a moment later, the wooden door creaks open. Lancelot stands in the threshold, dressed in naught but his sleep clothes. Merlin quirks a brow.
“Already headed to bed, Lancelot?” he asks. “It’s not that late. Getting old, are you?”
Lancelot rolls his eyes, but his smile is warm and fond as he steps aside, letting Merlin in before closing the door.
“Some of us actually make it a priority to get a full eight hours of sleep,” Lancelot says, going over to the fireplace and lifting a chair to set in front of it. Merlin does the same, and the two settle down.
“Besides,” Lancelot continues, “Arthur wants us to do early training tomorrow, at the very crack of dawn.”
“Not terribly surprising,” Merlin remarks, scooting his chair a bit closer to the flames and lifting his palms, relishing in the feeling of the heat on his skin. After a moment, he looks up at Lancelot and, smirking a little, says, “You ought to pair up with him for sparring. Kick his arse as revenge. I’m sure the other knights would appreciate it.”
Lancelot blushes at the implied compliment, and Merlin’s smile widens at the sight. He’ll never stop feeling amazed at the depth of Lancelot’s modesty.
“You overestimate my skill, Merlin,” he says, running a hand through his dark hair. Merlin watches as he does it, and, not the first time, feels a slight warmth blooming on his own cheeks.
“Don’t try to tell me that you don’t hold back when you’re dueling him,” Merlin says, pinning Lancelot with a look that says I know you better than that. “You could beat him if you really wanted to.”
Lancelot shrugs. “Maybe,” he admits, and Merlin knows it’s the closest he’ll get to an acknowledgement of the knight’s skill in fighting.
He looks at Merlin, then, his brown eyes very soft. “How are you, Merlin?”
Merlin glances away, fixing his own eyes on the flames, resisting the urge to sigh.
They’ll be talking about that, then.
He doesn’t want to. Has never wanted to. The only reason he has before is because Lancelot knows him better than anyone else ‒ knows all his secrets and the weight that carrying them places on Merlin’s shoulders ‒ and insists on making him open up about it. It’s not healthy, he says, keeping all that inside.
And Merlin understands, on some level. Or, perhaps, he understands about the magic.
He’s not sure it’s necessary to talk about the other thing.
“I’m fine, Lancelot,” he says quietly, giving his friend a soft smile.
Lancelot looks utterly unconvinced. He’s always been able to see right through Merlin’s lies, and the present moment is no exception.
“I just…” Lancelot begins, and then trails off. His brow furrows a bit, his struggle to find the right words making him look uncharacteristically frustrated. “I just know that today must have been...difficult for you. And I want to make sure you’re alright.”
He looks directly at Merlin, then, face so open, so filled with compassion and concern that it makes Merlin’s chest ache a little.
“It’s not the first time I’ve had to deal with it,” Merlin says quietly, thinking back to the day’s afternoon. It’d been spent mostly with Gwen and Arthur, as they had stolen away together for a few hours of picnicking and horseback riding in the forest, with Merlin accompanying as always.
“Besides,” Merlin says, “it’s not like I’m the only one getting hurt in this scenario, Lancelot.”
He quirks a daring eyebrow at his friend, who turns red. Sadness crawls over his features, then, and Merlin feels an immediate pang of guilt.
“I’m sorry,” he says softly. “That wasn’t fair.”
Lancelot shakes his head. “No. You’re right. It’s not fair for me to ask you about Arthur and not expect you to ask about Gwen.” His eyes catch on Merlin’s, seeming to flicker with amber in the soft glow of the fire. “I’m sorry, too.”
And that’s the heart of the issue, isn’t it? Lancelot loves Gwen. Merlin loves Arthur. And Gwen and Arthur love each other. The irony of it doesn’t escape Merlin’s notice, and as he watches Lancelot’s solemn gaze shift to the hearth, his mouth downturned and shoulders drooping, he feels such a wave of compassion and empathy for his friend that it nearly knocks him flat.
I know, he wants to say. I know how you feel. I know it’s nearly impossible to bear.
But bear it they must. Because they both know that, in the end, the happiness of those they love is more important than any unrequited feelings they may harbor.
Merlin’s pulled from his thoughts when he sees Lancelot look at him once more, from the corner of his eye. He meets his friend’s gaze.
“Do you ever think about…” he trails off, and Merlin watches with curiosity as a deep blush reddens Lancelot’s cheeks.
“About what?” he prompts, sensing, somehow, that Lancelot is about to say something rather important.
Lancelot shakes his head, looking quite embarrassed. “Nothing. Forget it.”
Merlin sighs, a mixture of fondness and frustration arising in his chest. Leave it to honorable Sir Lancelot to feel ashamed for voicing anything that isn’t pure and noble. “Lancelot,” he says lowly, questioningly.
The knight runs his hand through his hair once more ‒ a sort of nervous tick for him, Merlin notes, whereas Gwaine, ever aware of his charming good looks, does it more for the way it draws the eyes of both women and men his way.
Merlin wonders absently if Lancelot knows that he draws eyes, too, when he does it. Probably not. The thought makes Merlin blush, and he tears his own eyes away, fixing them on the stone floor.
“Do you ever,” Lancelot begins, “think about...finding someone else?”
Merlin’s eyes flick right back up to Lancelot’s face, previous shyness forgotten. “What?”
Lancelot looks terribly embarrassed, face redder than Merlin’s ever seen it, but he forges on, albeit quietly. “It’s just…” he sighs, running a hand over his face before letting it drop back onto the arm of his chair. “I know that Guinevere is it for me. I look at her sometimes and I just get this sense that it will always be her. And maybe that’s stupid of me. Maybe it’s naive. But I just know. Yet there are times when I feel so terribly…” he trails off, looking at Merlin hopefully, as if maybe he’ll understand without him having to speak the words aloud.
He doesn’t, of course. He may know Lancelot well, but he’s not a mind reader, and Lancelot finishes, very quietly, “...so terribly lonely.”
It’s an incredibly vulnerable admission, and Merlin not only empathizes, but feels a wave of deep affection for his friend wash over him at knowing that Lancelot trusts him enough to say such a thing to him.
“Yes,” Merlin says. “I feel the same.”
Because just as Gwen is it for Lancelot, Arthur is it for him. There are a number of things Merlin is unsure about ‒ his destiny, his own abilities, whether or not he’s made the right choices in the past ‒ but if there is one thing of which Merlin is positively certain, it’s that he will never ‒ never ‒ love another as he loves Arthur. It is horrible and wonderful and everything Merlin never knew he was capable of feeling until he walked through the gates of Camelot those fateful three years ago.
He hates it sometimes. He also doesn’t regret it, could never bring himself to regret the way his heart leaps and soars when Arthur’s eyes meet his.
Lancelot must be able to read it on his face, because he nods and says, “I figured as much.”
A silence falls over them, then, the flicker of the flames the only noise in the otherwise quiet evening.
Then, softly, Lancelot asks, “Is there anyone else you’d ever consider…” He bites his lip, and there’s that blush again. Merlin can’t help but chuckle a little.
“Spend quality time with?” Merlin supplies, and he’s a damn hypocrite because he’s blushing, too.
Lancelot’s lips turn up in the smallest of shy smiles. “Yes,” he answers, and the reply is so genuine that Merlin finds himself feeling a bit off-kilter. Lancelot is no Gwaine, after all, and he and Merlin have only ever skirted around such topics.
He pauses, then, assessing his friend. He’s holding himself strangely, eyes flitting from Merlin to the fire, and then back to Merlin again, over and over.
He looks nervous .
“I wondered,” Lancelot continues, and Merlin feels the crest of a wave of realization begin to hit him, “if maybe, you…” He sighs, rubbing at the back of his neck, and when his eyes meet Merlin’s, they’re filled with something very akin to intent, and ‒
The crest washes over him, and Merlin realizes in an instant what Lancelot is asking him.
Lancelot clears his throat, looking away once more. “Yes,” he says softly.
Merlin feels a wave of something hit him ‒ something new and unfamiliar, yet not. He shifts in his seat, glancing quickly at Lancelot, eyes catching on his collarbone, almost golden in the firelight, peeking out from the neckline of his white tunic.
It’s not like he’s never thought about it before. Lancelot has always been beautiful, and warm and sweet and good, and Merlin is only human. He’d just never known that such thoughts were returned.
Possibility becomes to thrum in the air, hot and heavy and full of life, and Merlin feels his heart speed up as Lancelot finally raises his eyes to Merlin’s.
“I’m sorry,” he says, voice soft, but also a bit rougher than before, and now it’s Merlin turn to blush. “I didn’t mean to make you feel uncomfortable.”
Merlin shakes his head. “No, Lancelot, you didn’t…” he lets out a deep breath, sitting up a bit in his chair and saying firmly ‒ “I’m not uncomfortable.”
Lancelot’s eyes widen slightly in realization. His mouth parts a little, as if he wants to speak but can’t find the words.
So Merlin speaks for him.
“I would,” he says, so very simply. “If you wanted to, I...I wouldn’t be opposed.”
Lancelot is quiet for a very long moment. Then ‒
“I just...I wouldn’t want to take advantage ‒”
Merlin raises a hand, cutting him off. “You wouldn’t be taking advantage.” He pauses, assessing the look on Lancelot’s face ‒ a mixture of hope and caution ‒ and realizes he’ll have to put it simply if his friend is to let himself do this. Lancelot is nothing if not a man of honor, and he’ll have to know that Merlin really, truly wants this.
So he lets his eyes dip to Lancelot’s lips, feeling his heart beat faster and his face flush as he says, honestly, ‒ “I want to.”
Lancelot bites his own lip, eyes darkening a little. Merlin’s breath comes quicker. “Are you sure?” he asks, firmly, because of course he does. He’s Lancelot.
“Yes,” Merlin says, the word nearly a whisper, quieted by the nervous anticipation rising in his chest.
There’s a moment of silence. Then Lancelot sucks in a deep breath, eyes never leaving Merlin’s, and says, “Okay.”
He rises from his chair. He walks slowly towards Merlin. The glow of the fire is golden on his skin, and Merlin is struck with the urge to lift the tunic he wears, to let his hands glide over the expanse of that skin.
When Lancelot stops in front of him, he extends his hand to Merlin, who grasps it. He’s pulled to his feet.
“Lancelot,” he breathes.
Their gazes catch and hold for a very long moment.
And then Lancelot kisses him.
Lancelot in bed is so different from what Merlin imagined that, when they’re finished, he finds himself staring up at the ceiling, breathing fast and heavy, playing over the events of the last two hours in his mind over and over.
Because, yes ‒ he did imagine it. Occasionally. Who wouldn’t? Lancelot is the sort of beautiful that makes sunsets look plain, that strikes men and women alike with both envy and appreciation. Indeed, he’s only been a knight for a few weeks, and already the castle maids blush when he passes by, already Merlin sees the stable boys eye him as he readies his horse for a patrol.
And Lancelot is so very sweet, so kind and gentle, that Merlin had imagined such characteristics would almost certainly carry over into other activities.
And that’s true, to an extent. Merlin looks at Lancelot, now, dozing softly on the right side of the bed, dark hair mussed and chest bare. He’d been nothing if not considerate, had treated Merlin and his body with respect and care. He’d made sure that Merlin had enjoyed himself before worrying about his own needs.
Yet he’d also been so incredibly passionate. Merlin recalls the noises he’d made, the words he’d whispered, the way he’d moved. Even now, the thought of it makes Merlin feel hot all over.
He reaches up, fingers trailing his own collarbone, feeling the mark that Lancelot left there. He takes a moment to thank the gods for his inclination towards neckerchiefs.
Letting out a contented sigh, feeling more relaxed than he has in ages, he snuggles deep under the covers and slowly drifts off to sleep.
The following morning, Merlin wakes at dawn to the sound of Lancelot shifting around in bed.
For a moment, he’s filled with confusion as his eyes open to reveal his surroundings, before the events of the night before come rushing back.
That damned blush makes its way back onto his face as he watches Lancelot dress, watches him pull a tunic over his broad shoulders and quickly run a comb through his hair.
“You really need a trim,” Merlin remarks sleepily.
Lancelot turns around, sets the comb down on his bedside table and smiles, soft but warm. “Good morning to you, too,” he says, and yawns.
Merlin can’t resist.
“So much for a full eight hours.”
Lancelot pauses in his dressing ‒ trousers on, but not yet tied, shoes still off ‒ to give Merlin a look of playful annoyance.
A moment later, however, his expression shifts into something surprisingly tender. Merlin watches as he walks towards the bed, bends down, gently presses a hand to Merlin’s cheek and kisses him, so very softly. Warmth pools in Merlin’s chest.
He pulls back, leaving Merlin feeling rather dazed, and turns around to finish dressing. Merlin watches him both appreciatively and curiously, a bit taken aback by the blatant show of affection.
Sex is one thing. Casual intimacy, such as what Lancelot just showed him, is something else entirely. Yet as Lancelot turns to him before he walks out the door and says, “I’ll see you later, Merlin,” giving him that lovely smile, he can’t bring himself to feel regretful.
Rather, Merlin finds himself thinking: Perhaps this is exactly what we both need.
“Where were you this morning?”
Merlin turns around from where he’d been facing the window, arms crossed, watching as Arthur storms into his chamber. The prince’s face is lined with annoyance, the look in his eyes damn near vicious as he walks up to Merlin, stopping a few feet away from him.
“Well?” he asks, before turning around and placing his arms out for Merlin to undress him. “What’s your excuse? I do hope it’s a decent one, for your sake.”
Merlin begins removing the armor piece by piece, rolling his eyes and replying, “I slept in. Sorry.”
Arthur makes a disgruntled huff. “You haven’t slept in in years. I can’t even remember the last time you weren’t there to wake me. I was nearly late because of you.”
Merlin goes to stand in front of him as he removes Arthur’s vambraces, looking up to see the prince’s eyes narrowed in suspicion. “You were out late at the tavern, weren’t you?”
Normally, Merlin would take the out, but Gaius has used that same damned excuse so many times that it’s starting to get ridiculous, quite frankly, so he says, “ No, actually, I wasn’t. I was just tired. Am I not allowed to be tired occasionally?”
“Sure,” Arthur responds. “So long as you don’t let it interfere with your duties.”
Thankfully, he lets the subject of Merlin’s evening whereabouts drop, and a few minutes later, he’s free of all his armor and his clothes and is sinking into the bath that Merlin had spent the morning preparing for him.
He lets out the smallest noise of appreciation as the water covers his skin, and Merlin turns away, unable to stop a slight blush from rising to his cheeks. Arthur always looks unfairly lovely after his training sessions, face flushed prettily and golden hair mussed, and ultimately it just makes Merlin ache, makes him long for all that he can’t have.
So he asks Arthur ‒ “Anything else I can do for you, sire?” ‒ hoping that the king will give him an excuse to leave.
For once, luck is on his side. Arthur dismisses him with a list of chores to do, and he’s walking out the door of the prince’s chambers a moment later, letting out the smallest breath of relief as he enters the relative quiet of the hall.
It takes him a few hours to complete all his work, even with the occasional use of his magic, and the next time he sees Arthur, it’s when Merlin is accompanying him at a round table meeting. He stands, as always, a few paces behind the acting regent, and as one of Arthur’s many political advisors drolls on about strengthening Camelot’s alliance with Mercia, finds his gaze drawn to where Lancelot sits, a few seats down from Arthur.
The knight’s eyes are fixed on the advisor as he talks, but Merlin knows Lancelot all too well; he easily sees the cloudiness in Lancelot’s stare, sees the tiredness, too, in the way his eyelids occasionally droop.
It occurs to Merlin that he’s the reason Lancelot is tired, and he has to fight off a blush at the thought, shifting on both feet and clasping his hands behind his back.
The movement, however slight, draws Lancelot’s eyes to his, and the two men simply gaze at each other for a long moment. Merlin feels a wave of deep fondness hit him as Lancelot offers him the smallest of smiles.
When the meeting concludes, Arthur takes a moment to pull Sir Leon aside to chat about increasing the number of patrols in the coming weeks, and the rest of the crowd disperses. Merlin watches as Lancelot makes his way toward him, looking almost shy as he approaches.
“I hope Arthur’s not working you too hard,” the knight says by way of greeting, eyes flickering to where the prince stands a few paces away, deep in conversation. He’s got that intense look in his eyes ‒ a sort of seriousness that has only grown in his past few weeks of being Camelot’s regent.
“He’s changed,” Merlin says quietly, in lieu of responding to Lancelot’s gentle teasing. “Arthur, I mean. He’s...I don’t know, exactly. More…”
“Kingly?” Lancelot supplies. Merlin lets out a soft huff of laughter.
“Yeah. I guess so.”
Lancelot looks over at the prince once more, chewing his lip thoughtfully. “It suits him, though. Leading. Being king.” He looks back to Merlin. “Don’t you think?”
Yes, Merlin wants to say. Yes, it suits him. It’s what he was born to do, what I was born to see, and seeing it makes me feel more alive than anything in this world. More so than magic, sometimes.
The good thing about Lancelot, though, is that Merlin doesn’t actually have to say it. He only has to meet the knight’s eyes, nod, and say, “I do,” for the other man to understand.
After a few moments of silence, Lancelot clears his throat and asks, more softly, “I was wondering ‒ does Arthur have anything planned for you this evening? Or Gaius? I was hoping…” he trails off, and there’s that shyness again, and damn it, Merlin doesn’t quite have it in him to control his blush this time around.
“I don’t think so,” Merlin replies, smiling a little. “And if either of them try to shove any more chores on me ‒ well.” His smile widens. “I’m sure I can figure something out.”
Which is code, of course, for I’ll just use magic, and Lancelot rolls his eyes fondly before replying, “I’m sure you will. But please ‒ don’t get yourself executed for trying to make it to my chambers sooner.”
Merlin’s opening his mouth to retort when a voice asks, “Who’s going to whose chambers?”
Merlin startles slightly, eyes snapping over to Arthur as the prince comes to stand beside them, brow furrowed slightly. Not in annoyance, per se; he looks more curious than anything.
“Oh,” Merlin replies casually, the picture of innocence, “Lancelot was just inviting me to his rooms for a game of chess.”
Arthur raises a disbelieving brow. “You know how to play chess?”
“Believe it or not, I do have some skills,” Merlin says dryly. Lancelot bites his lip to hide a smile, ducking his head.
To Merlin’s surprise, Arthur actually frowns. “How come you’ve never asked me to play, then?”
He’s so taken aback by the question ‒ why does Arthur even care? ‒ that it’s a long moment before he answers, “I suppose I just worried that being beaten by a servant would injure your pride, sire.”
The quip seems to improve Arthur’s countenance, an amused smile alighting his face. “That’s a good one, Merlin. Although I’ll have you know that I haven’t been defeated in chess in at least five years.” His blue eyes brighten with humor and he adds, “If your pride isn’t in shambles after Lancelot beats you, perhaps we should have a game.”
And well, Merlin’s a bit fucked, now, as he actually has no idea how to play chess. But he’ll look like a coward if he turns Arthur down, so he just gives the prince a smirk backed up by no real confidence whatsoever and says, “I look forward to it, sire.”
Arthur gives him one last, long look ‒ Merlin can almost imagine that that’s fondness in his eyes ‒ before nodding to Lancelot in acknowledgement and turning around.
“Meet me in my chambers in an hour, Merlin!” he calls as he walks away, crimson robe trailing behind him.
Lancelot turns to look at Merlin, eyes sparkling with amusement. “You don’t actually know how to play chess, do you?”
“Lancelot,” Merlin says, “I’ve never even looked at a chess board in my life.”
Merlin meets Lancelot in his chambers that evening. And the next. And then the next.
Before he knows it, a week has passed, and he’s spent all but two nights of it with Lancelot, and damn it all, he’s feeling better than he has in months.
There’s something about the closeness they share, about not only what happens during their meetings, but what happens after. Moments where Merlin, sweaty and still shaking a little, turns his head on his pillow to meet Lancelot’s eyes. Moments where Lancelot pulls himself over Merlin’s body, lowering his head and barely touching their lips together, the two men taking a second to just breath each other in. Moments where Lancelot rises from the bed and goes to stoke the fire, chest still bare, and he looks so lovely that Merlin feels his breath catch a little.
He feels good. He feels lucky. And there’s a moment, after their fifth night together, when Merlin is lying there and he thinks: this wouldn’t work with anyone else.
He loves Lancelot. Lancelot loves him. But they’re not in love with each other, and there’s no danger of it, either. Because in the end, there’s still Gwen. And there’s still Arthur.
But they can have this, in the meantime. For however long it lasts, they can have it.
A month passes before Merlin trips up.
It’s such a little thing, really, but it’s enough to make him realize that the passing of time has made him and Lancelot’s thing ‒ Merlin doesn’t really give it a name in his mind; how could he? ‒ a little less discrete than he’d hoped.
It’s morning when it happens. He’s serving Arthur breakfast, and is in the midst of pouring the prince water when Arthur asks, very quietly, “Where were you last night?”
Merlin puts the water jug down, frowning. “With Gaius,” he says. “He needed some help with putting new labels on a few of his tonics.”
Something flickers across Arthur’s face, then ‒ something Merlin can’t read. Which is disconcerting, because Merlin has been Arthur’s servant ‒ his best friend, really, even if Arthur won’t admit it out loud ‒ for years now, and thinks he ought to know the prince’s expressions by heart.
“Hm,” is Arthur’s only response. He takes a sip of his water, then, and Merlin lets his mind drift towards other things, (for a moment, a recent memory of Lancelot’s hands skimming his waist, his eyes dark as he gets to his knees, rises in Merlin’s mind and he coughs a little, feeling warm all over) thinking that Arthur has let the subject drop.
Only, a moment later he says, voice stony, “That’s interesting, Merlin, since I actually went to see Gaius last night.”
Arthur’s not looking at him; rather, his eyes are fixed on the wooden door to his chambers, finger tracing the rim of his cup.
“And you were nowhere to be found,” he finishes, a moment later, and only then does he look up, eyes meeting Merlin’s. “In fact, if I recall correctly, I believe I told you to meet me in my chambers to help me with the speech I’m preparing for next week.”
Shit. He’s right. And Merlin may not be the most competent servant in Camelot ‒ although, in his own opinion, he’s not nearly as terrible as Arthur makes him out to be ‒ but he rarely forgets when Arthur asks for his help with something this important. He knows the prince has been worrying about this particular speech for a while, now, had been able to read it on his friend’s face, even if Arthur never spoke the words aloud.
A sliver of guilt trickles down Merlin’s spine and he says, with sincerity, “I’m sorry, Arthur. I...I forgot.”
I was a bit distracted is the full truth, but Merlin figures it’s close enough.
“Hm,” says Arthur again. Biting his lip, he digs a fingernail into the wood of the table and is silent for a good long while.
Merlin, assuming that Arthur’s letting him off the hook for once, finishes setting up the prince’s dinner and is turning to leave when Arthur says ‒
“You didn’t answer my question.”
Merlin turns around. “What?” he asks, feigning innocence to stall because he’s wracking his brain for an excuse and is having trouble coming up with anything believable.
And it’s funny, because that’s not usually important, is it? Arthur’s clever when it comes to many things, such as battle strategy and working through conflict and chess, apparently (though Merlin has yet to see this first hand; thankfully, Arthur seems to have forgotten his proposition), but he tends to accept Merlin’s excuse without a second thought, most of the time.
But Merlin has the feeling that Arthur’s not going to be as gullible in this particular moment, so he simply stands there, eyebrow’s narrowed in faux confusion, pretending he doesn’t know what Arthur is referring to.
“In case you’ve somehow forgotten in the last two minutes,” Arthur says, voice hard, “I asked where you were last night. I’m assuming you have a good excuse for lying to me just now.”
“I ‒ ” Merlin’s voice cuts off, and he’s turning red now, because it’s been a damn long time since Arthur has caught him in a lie and he’s not sure what to say.
“Yes?” Arthur prompts, eyes nearly flinty as he looks at Merlin.
Flinty and hurt, Merlin realizes. Arthur’s not just angry. He’s upset. Upset that Merlin didn’t show up for something important.
Merlin isn’t sure whether he ought to feel touched or offended. On one hand, it’s always nice to know that Arthur cares about him, even if it’s only ever expressed in these small, usually conflict-wrapped ways.
On the other hand, Merlin has a life too. He can’t spend all his time running around after Arthur; he’s allowed to have other people in his life. Other relationships.
And it’s this train of thought that leads him to snap ‒ “Believe it or not, Arthur, you aren’t entitled to know everything about my life. I’m sorry for forgetting about the speech, but I’m not sure my personal life is any of your damn business.”
He regrets the words as soon as they leave his mouth.
Because Arthur just sits there, stunned into silence, and the look that rises to his face is so hurt that it hits Merlin like a mace blow to the chest.
A cold wave of guilt washes over him, and he’s opening his mouth to say ‒ what, exactly? I’m sorry, I didn’t mean it. I was just angry.
He doesn’t get the chance. Arthur schools his expression into a mask of neutrality and says, “Right. Of course.” Then, to Merlin’s surprise, he adds ‒ “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t ‒ ” He cuts himself off with a slight shake of the head and waves a hand carelessly in the air. “You’re dismissed.”
Merlin hesitates, shifting back and forth between both feet. “Are you sure? I ‒ ”
“Quite sure,” Arthur interrupts, tone leaving no room for argument. “You may go.”
Merlin does, the chamber door shutting behind him with a thud that echoes off the castle’s cold stone walls.
He tells Lancelot about it later that evening, when they’re curled up in bed together, sheets and blankets tangled around their bodies.
Lancelot seems more amused by the story than anything.
“He’s probably not used to you spending time with someone who isn’t him,” he says, smiling slightly. And there’s something else in his voice, too, besides amusement. Something a little less sweet.
Merlin doesn’t dwell on it, though. Rather, he gives an annoyed huff, says, “Well, he’ll just have to get used to it, then,” and gets to his knees, moving over on the bed until he’s hovering over Lancelot’s chest. Bending down, he presses his lips to the knight’s neck, sweet and soft, before biting slightly.
Lancelot sucks in a quiet, sharp breath. A moment later, he’s pulling Merlin’s face to his and capturing his lips in a deep kiss.
And there’s something hungry in the way he kisses him, something almost harsh, almost ‒
No, Merlin thinks, cutting off that line of thought.
Lancelot is a lot of things, as a lover. He’s giving and ‒ fuck, he’s talented, Merlin thinks, as the knight flips them over in one swift movement, hands skimming across Merlin’s chest, down his sides ‒ unafraid to be passionate.
What Lancelot is not, however, is possessive.
It takes two and a half months for Gwaine to find out, and if Merlin’s being entirely honest, he’s surprised the knight didn’t figure it out sooner.
Gwaine, after all, isn’t nearly as dimwitted as he puts on. Indeed, Camelot’s most notoriously reckless and salacious knight is actually one of the most perceptive people Merlin’s ever met. He’s not one for books or poetry or art, but he’s got this other, more subtle sort of intellect, the type that gives him this uncanny gift to look at someone and get an immediate sense for who they are ‒ and what they’re hiding. Merlin counts himself as lucky, really, that Gwaine has yet to figure out his secret.
Well. He has yet to figure out about the magic. If the occasional knowing glances and suggestive comments that Gwaine makes whenever Arthur is in the vicinity are anything to go by, Merlin’s not quite as good at secret-keeping as he thought he was.
In the end, the thing that gives Merlin away is so small and inconsequential that it winds up making him feel rather embarrassed.
The heat of midsummer has begun stirring the air at Camelot, and the training sessions get harsher as the days grow hotter. One particular morning, Merlin sits by the side of the field, as is typical, watching as the knights break off into pairs for sparring.
Legs spread out before him and crossed, Merlin leans back and props himself up on his palms, wishing for all the world that Arthur would just let him go inside and get some chores done instead of just sitting here and boiling.
Merlin typically doesn’t mind watching Arthur and his knights train; he may not have much of an interest in swordplay, but there’s something undeniably thrilling about watching Arthur fight. Merlin finds his gaze drawn to the prince now as he spars with Elyan, face tight with intense focus.
It only takes a series of quick parries before Elyan is disarmed; the knight looks at Arthur with an expression that’s nearly bashful.
Arthur, however, just gives him a good-natured smile and says, “You’re improving, Elyan!” He claps the other man on the shoulder. “Just watch your left side more.”
Elyan’s expression eases and he nods, and the two men get back into position to fight once more.
Merlin can’t help but smile a little, feeling a soft sort of pride at seeing Arthur treat his knights with such kindness and respect. Merlin’s met enough royals to know that not all of them are as good to their men as Arthur is, and as he watches the prince hold his sword aloft, gold hair nearly shining in the sunlight, he’s hit with such an intense wave of longing that he has to look away, chest aching.
He presses a palm there, just for a moment. Then, he lets it drop, puffing out a breath and looking back to the field, eyes roaming among the other knights.
Lancelot is paired off with Gwaine today, and the sight makes Merlin perk up; those two are nearly matched in skill, with Lancelot only having the slightest edge. Watching them spar is always a treat.
Merlin’s eyes immediately go to Lancelot. The knight runs a hand through his dark hair, sweeping it out of his eyes, face flushed red with exertion. Gwaine, standing a few paces away, holding out his sword, gives the other man a crooked grin before, out of nowhere, launching forward with a swift attack.
In the end, however, it’s Lancelot who prevails. Gwaine, on the other hand, ends up flat on his back, the tip of Lancelot’s sword hovering above his chest.
“Do you yield?” Lancelot asks, and there’s a confident, almost commanding note in his voice that makes Merlin’s heart skip a beat. As the days have passed, Lancelot has grown surer and surer in his new role, and seeing him standing so tall, yet still undeniably humble, makes Merlin feel so deeply proud.
When the sparring is over, Arthur calls for a short break. The men immediately make their way over to the water, a few paces away from where Merlin sits, and Lancelot, after gulping down a few drinks, walks over to Merlin and plops down right beside him, grinning.
“You did well out there,” Merlin says. Lancelot’s cheeks, already flushed from the workout, somehow turn even redder.
“Thank you,” he says, and Merlin almost wants to laugh, thinking wow, he’s never going to change, is he?
There’s a moment of contended silence between the two, and Merlin feels comfortable enough to fall onto his back, fanning his face with his hand.
“Gods, it’s hot today,” he mutters. Lancelot makes a noise of agreement.
And then, without warning, Lancelot reaches over and begins to untie Merlin’s neckerchief. Merlin quirks an eyebrow.
“Er ‒ what are you doing?”
Lancelot rolls his eyes, hands working deftly at the knot. “Helping you out. I imagine you’d be a bit cooler if you weren’t wearing this.”
He’s on his knees, bending over Merlin as he unties it, and Merlin takes a moment to let his eyes roam the other man’s face, to appreciate the dark brown of his eyes, the way he bites his lip as he works.
“Please,” Merlin murmurs, with an off-kilter sort of humor, because he’s a little busy being distracted by Lancelot’s unfairly beautiful features. “You’re just looking for excuses to undress me.”
Lancelot pauses in his untying, looking Merlin in the eye and lifting a brow. “I didn’t think I needed one,” he says, tone mostly teasing, but the innuendo is enough to make Merlin flustered.
Lancelot laughs, and then, bending down a little further, murmurs, “Don’t dish it out if you can’t take it in return.”
Having finished untying the knot, he unwraps the neckerchief. Merlin lifts his head a little, eyes still locked on Lancelot’s, as the knight pulls it out from under him.
He gets off his knees, then, sitting cross legged instead, playing with the red fabric in his hands. Merlin sits up, resuming his initial position, and realizes that Gwaine, still standing by the jugs of water, is staring right at them.
Merlin smiles, raising a hand. “Hey, Gwaine!” he says. “It seems that Lancelot here is still getting the best of you.”
Gwaine, to Merlin’s surprise, doesn’t respond for quite a long moment. And he’s got this look on his face ‒ something not unlike puzzlement. His eyes flit back and forth between him and Lancelot, eyebrows narrowed.
A moment later, however, his expression shifts into its usual cheekiness.
“Just you wait, Merlin,” he says. “Soon enough, Lancelot will be the one knocked on his back.”
Gwaine corners him in the armory after training is over and the rest of the men have gone. He says, without preamble ‒
“You’re fucking Lancelot.”
Merlin damn near drops Arthur’s training sword as he raises the blade to put it back in its place, letting out a soft curse and giving Gwaine a sharp ‒ okay, probably more like panicked ‒ look.
Gwaine rolls his eyes, going to lean back against the wall of the armory. He crosses his arms and fixes Merlin with a piercing look.
“Don’t try and deny it,” he says. “I saw you two today.”
Merlin coughs awkwardly, sliding Arthur’s sword into place and turning to face Gwaine fully.
“Doing what, exactly? Talking? Last time I checked, friends talk to each other all the time. In fact, I think that may be the point of having friends in the first place.”
Gwaine lifts one very unimpressed brow. “He untied your scarf.”
“So? It was hot.”
“And then he kept it.”
Merlin unthinkingly reaches up to his neck and feels the bare skin there, stomach clenching as he realizes that Gwaine’s right; Lancelot never gave the neckerchief back. He must’ve tucked it into his pocket before heading back to the field.
“Not to mention,” Gwaine goes on, “how defensive you got just now. I think you repeated the word friend at least three times. Almost as if you’re overcompensating.”
Merlin sighs, shoulders drooping in defeat. Gwaine seems to take this as confirmation, letting out a soft chuckle and muttering, “I’ll be damned.”
And it’s not like it’s the worst thing in the world that Gwaine knows. Hell, Merlin doesn’t really care who knows. It’s not like it’s unheard of; the idea of men sleeping together isn’t entirely uncommon in the world of knights, given the frequency and length of campaigns. Merlin doesn’t care if Gwaine knows, or if Kay knows, or Leon or Arthur ‒
That line of thought immediately runs into a wall, shattering into a million different pieces.
Does he care if Arthur knows? He thinks back to what he’d told Arthur over a month ago, when he’d defended his absence with a sharp ‒ “You aren’t entitled to know everything about my life.”
It seems he does care. And Merlin, as he stands and thinks about it now, isn’t entirely sure why that is.
“I’m a bit surprised, I must say,” Gwaine admits. “Out of everyone I thought you’d be interested in shagging, I never thought ‒ ” He cuts himself off, a brief flicker of something flashing across his face, as if realizing he’s said too much.
Merlin almost prompts him into finishing that thought, but there’s a part of him that’s unsure he really wants to know.
A moment later, a sort of twinkle lights Gwaine’s eye as he says, “I can’t help but be a little hurt, Merlin. I propositioned you twice and all I got was cold, cold rejection.”
Merlin rolls his eyes, unable to hold back a smile. “You’re different,” he says, and at Gwaine’s inquiring expression, elaborates, “Lancelot and I ‒ we aren’t looking for anything…” he trails off, unsure as to how he should put it.
“Serious?” Gwaine supplies.
Merlin nods, and Gwaine snorts and says, “I think I made it quite clear that I wasn’t looking for anything serious, either.”
“I know, I just ‒ ” Merlin pauses, sighing, the smile slipping from his face. Much more softly, he says, “Lancelot’s heart belongs to another. So there’s no risk that he’ll fall in love with me.”
Gwaine is silent for a long moment after that confession, and Merlin is worrying that perhaps he’s said too much when the other man finally replies, uncharacteristically quiet, “You’ve got a funny way of looking at things, Merlin.”
Merlin frowns, meeting Gwaine’s eyes and seeing something there that he can’t quite decode. “What do you mean?”
Gwaine chews on his lip, and his stare is intense as it bores into Merlin’s, as if he’s trying to figure something out ‒ as if whatever he sees in Merlin’s face is just as puzzling as what Merlin sees in his.
After another moment of tense silence, Gwaine gives Merlin an almost sardonic smile and says, “Oh, nothing. I suppose it’s just that you’re something of a riddle, Merlin. One I’m not sure any of us have the hope of solving.”
He pushes off the wall, uncrosses his arms, walks over to Merlin and squeezes his shoulder. “I’ll be seeing you later,” he says, giving Merlin one last smile before letting go and walking past him.
Merlin simply stands there, listening as the armory door closes and feeling a bit strange, as if he’s taken a wrong turn on a well-known path.
Two months pass, and Gwaine is still the only one who really knows, although Merlin wouldn’t be surprised if some of the other knights are starting to suspect.
In all honesty, Merlin’s surprised it’s even lasted this long. A part of him, he supposes, always figured that Lancelot would eventually get bored of him, that he would eventually pull away, too distracted by his love for Gwen to stay.
Merlin sometimes feels that way. There are these moments, so mundane yet so strangely, deeply important, where he’s walking with Arthur through the castle halls, or having lunch with him in Arthur’s chambers ‒ the prince has become prone to sharing meals with Merlin in his good moods, over the years ‒ or simply bantering back and forth while Merlin sits at Arthur’s table and sharpens his sword, and Merlin just looks at Arthur and thinks: gods above, I love you.
His feelings for Arthur are as much a part of him as the blood in his body, as his magic. And there are moments when he’s with Lancelot, and they’re sleeping next to each other as the night grows dark, or moving together, Lancelot’s face pressed into Merlin’s neck, breathing fast and heavy, and Merlin gets this feeling of utter guilt.
Which is ridiculous, of course. Merlin’s feelings are just that ‒ feelings. Arthur is with Gwen. And Merlin is with ‒
Well. Not with. But he and Lancelot have something, even if it’s not love, and Merlin feels foolish for letting his mind drift to a man he can never have while in the arms of another.
And the worst part is that Lancelot can always tell. He’ll pull back, sometimes, press his forehead to Merlin’s and just leave it there for a moment, giving them both space to breath. Merlin suspects that he thinks of Gwen in these silences, suspects a similar sort of guilt rises up in him, too.
But the moments are rare, and usually short-lived. For the most part, they're completely comfortable together. Comfortable with what they have.
They’re at a feast one late summer night, for a visiting lord, when Lancelot beckons Merlin over to his chair. He bends down, and the knight murmurs, quite close to his ear, “I think I’m starting to regret the whole knighthood thing.”
Merlin chuckles, taking a moment to pour Lancelot more wine. “If it makes you feel any better, you’re quite good at all this. The visiting ladies are quite taken with you, I think.”
Lancelot makes an uncomfortable sort of noise, which only serves to make Merlin laugh harder. A moment later, Lancelot gives him a fond grin and says, soft enough that only he can hear, “Too bad for them, I suppose.”
Merlin stands up, clutching the wine jug to his chest, and gods above, he’s blushing. He’s starting to think that Lancelot’s ability to fluster him is innate and completely incurable.
He gives Lancelot one last, warm look before turning around. He’s making his way to his usual position against the hall’s wall when he glances towards the head of the table and realizes that Arthur is staring at him.
He pauses in his walking, taking in the prince regent’s rather strange expression. He’s frowning a little, eyebrows pulled together, lips in a thin line.
It only lasts a second, though; when he realizes that he’s been caught staring, his eyes immediately flit away, back to the lord who sits next to him, talking animatedly.
Ultimately, Merlin brushes the incident off. Arthur’s not much of a fan of banquets and feasts and all that.
He’s probably just tired, Merlin thinks, and puts it out of his mind.
It keeps happening.
Only occasionally, but often enough for Merlin to take notice. There are times where he’ll be talking with Lancelot on the edge of the training field and, out of the corner of his eye, see Arthur looking their way. Other times, they’ll be walking the halls together, just chatting and laughing and doing nothing out of the ordinary, and they’ll pass Arthur by.
The prince will give his usual nod of acknowledgement, but the friendly smile is missing. In its place is an expression that’s not quite angry or irritated, but not particularly amiable, either. Merlin isn’t sure what to make of it.
Does he know? Merlin doubts it. Besides the incident with the scarf, along with being a bit more openly affectionate around each other, he doesn’t think they’ve done anything to give themselves away.
Perhaps he’s found out through the castle grapevine? After all, Merlin doubts the servants have missed his frequent presence in Lancelot’s chambers, doubts they’ve missed the way he often stays through the night, leaving at the first hint of light in the morning.
And, well ‒ they’re not always particularly quiet, either.
Merlin just wishes he knew, wishes Arthur would give some sort of signal that he’s aware. It wouldn’t be a terribly strange thing to do or say; Merlin is, after all, his servant, is the person Arthur spends the most time with by far. And even though Merlin meant what he said to Arthur those few months ago ‒ about the prince not needing to know everything about his personal life ‒ there’s no shame in being a little bit curious.
But Arthur gives no such sign. Outside of the occasionally curious look sent his and Lancelot's way, nothing much changes. Arthur still teases him and loads him with chores ‒ and still invites Merlin to share lunch with him, still gives him fond smiles and throws an arm around his shoulders, sometimes, when they walk the castle grounds.
So Merlin’s worries drain away as the weeks go by, as summer finally ends, a gentle autumn taking her place.
It’s the time of year when the leaves are just beginning to change when there’s a particularly close call. It’s late in the evening ‒ the sun set at least three hours ago ‒ and while there’s still the occasional set of footsteps in the castle hall, the people within have mostly settled down for the night. Merlin enters Lancelot’s chambers, shutting the door quietly behind him.
The knight is on his bed, on top of the covers, wearing his white tunic and a loose pair of brown trousers. He looks utterly relaxed, eyes closed, seemingly not having heard Merlin come inside.
He does, however, hear Merlin’s footsteps as he approaches the bed, and he raises his head, smiling softly. “Hey,” he says, and sits up.
Then, to Merlin’s surprise, he gets off the bed, walks up to him and pulls him into a hug.
Merlin makes a startled but not at all displeased sound, pressing his cheek against Lancelot’s and delighting in the way warmth blooms in his chest. And it doesn’t stop there, seeming to travel all through his body, from his head to his arms to the tips of his toes.
“Hey,” he murmurs in reply.
The feel of Lancelot’s body against his own makes that warmth transform into something hotter, and after a moment, Merlin pulls back a little, letting his lips hover over Lancelot’s and just taking a moment to breathe the other man in, to enjoy the delicacy of the moment.
Lancelot, it seems, has over ideas.
Suddenly, he’s being walked backward and pressed ‒ slammed , really ‒ up against the wooden table, Lancelot’s hands tight on his waist. The knight’s breath quickens, and he pulls a back a little, eyes boring into Merlin’s. There’s an intensity there that makes Merlin feel almost light-headed, that has his blood thrumming underneath his skin.
“Lancelot,” he whispers, and his voice comes out sounding almost fragile with desire.
The knight swoops forward and kisses him, passionate and deep. And Merlin gives as good as he gets, pushing his body up against Lancelot’s, aligning their hips. He rolls them once, sharply, and Lancelot lets out a choked sort of noise before wrapping his hands behind Merlin’s thighs and lifting him ‒ dear gods, Merlin thinks ‒ onto the table.
The display of strength is enough to make Merlin let out a low, appreciative moan. A few minutes pass, then, of their lips moving together, Lancelot’s hands running up and down Merlin’s sides.
And then, out of nowhere, a sharp knock on the door.
Both men immediately jump apart. Lancelot gives him a look, then, something that’s somehow both disappointed and nervous. “Just a second,” he calls out, voice gravelly, and gives a little cough.
Merlin considers hiding, for a moment ‒ but that’s just silly, isn’t it? It’s not like what they’re doing is illegal. Besides, he’s perfectly capable of making himself look presentable. Getting down from the table, he smooths out his clothes and settles himself into one of the chairs. On second thought, he hurries over to one of Lancelot’s cabinets, retrieving a water cup and setting it down in front of the jug that sits on the table.
Lancelot’s lip quirks up in amusement and he shakes his head slightly before heading over to the door, smoothing down his own clothes and running a hand through his hair as he does so.
A moment later, the door opens.
Arthur walks inside.
“Lancelot,” he says, perfectly amiable. “Sorry to intrude at such a late hour, I was just hoping to talk with you about ‒ ”
He pauses, in both speech and step, when he sees Merlin sitting at the table. There’s a rather long moment of silence.
“Merlin,” he says, finally, surprise alighting his features.
“Arthur,” Merlin says, attempting an innocent smile.
The prince looks to Lancelot, and then back to Merlin. He does this two more times before his eyes settle on Merlin. He watches as Arthur’s face tightens, very slightly.
To anyone else, the change would’ve been imperceptible. But Merlin has spent the last three years studying Arthur’s expressions, learning what the little eyebrow raises and lip bites and nose scrunches all mean. He’s seen this look on Arthur’s face before and instantly recognizes it as barely repressed anger.
“I need to speak with Lancelot alone,” Arthur says, tearing his eyes away from Merlin as he speaks the words. When Merlin doesn’t move, only lifting a disbelieving brow ‒ because, really, what does Arthur have to say to Lancelot that he can’t say in front of Merlin, or that he can’t wait until tomorrow to discuss? ‒ Arthur adds, voice almost cold, “You’re dismissed, Merlin.”
Merlin catches Lancelot’s eye, watching as something quite akin to irritation flickers across the knight’s face before he suppresses it.
Sighing, Merlin nods, getting up from his chair and muttering, “Alright, then.” When he leaves, he lets the chamber door shut behind him with an audible bang.
The next morning, during the knights’ training session, Arthur splits the men up into pairs for sparring.
Elyan and Gwaine, Leon and Percival ‒ and Arthur and Lancelot.
Merlin watches from his usual spot on the sidelines as the two men circle each other, swords held aloft. The prince’s usual focus seems to be slipping, though, and every parry he makes is blocked with swift effectiveness.
This only serves to make Arthur even more determined, however; his strikes, though lacking in grace, are carried through by a fiery sort of strength. Merlin watches, almost entranced, as the prince moves this way and that, stepping forward and swiping and stabbing, brow furrowed, sweat beading on his forehead.
Lancelot seems to sense the change in Arthur’s attitude, too, and slight surprise arises on his face as he blocks Arthur’s moves, graceful and powerful as always.
Eventually, it gets to the point where the rest of the knights pause in their own sparring matches, opting to stand and watch as Camelot’s two finest warriors go toe to toe.
And there’s a brief moment where, in the midst of it all, Arthur catches Merlin’s eye. It’s just for a split second, but the expression on Arthur’s face ‒ gods above, he’s actually angry ‒ is enough to make Merlin’s hair stand on end.
The prince begins to beat Lancelot back with inspired fury, and not a minute later, Lancelot is on his back, the tip of Arthur’s sword quite dangerously close to his neck.
“Do you yield?” he asks, and it’s much more like a shout ‒ like an order ‒ than a question.
Lancelot is breathing hard, looking up at Arthur with a mix of surprise and confusion. A moment later, he nods.
“I yield,” he says.
The words seem to cut through to Arthur, somehow, seem to almost snap him out of whatever mood he’s in. He steps back, letting his sword fall.
“Training is done for today,” he says, tone unreadable, and marches towards the armory without so much as a backward glance.
That night, the knights gather at the tavern, Merlin coming along, as he often does. They’re seated at a long table near the back of the room, Merlin sitting in between Gwaine and Lancelot.
“I invited the princess along,” Gwaine says, when conversation dies down, taking a sip of ale. “Said he was too busy, as usual.”
Kay snorts. “If by busy he means spending quality time with Guinevere, then I suppose he’s being nothing but truthful.”
Merlin frowns a little; not at the insinuation, necessarily, as the two’s courtship is well-known throughout the castle, but the almost snide way he says Gwen’s name. He looks to his right and sees that Lancelot looks similarly annoyed, though the knight probably hides it better than he does. Luckily for Kay, Elyan chose not to come along tonight, or Gwen’s brother would probably smack him upside the head for even bringing his little sister up.
“I don’t know,” Gwaine says, looking thoughtful. “I heard that they haven’t been seeing much of each other, lately.”
“Come on, Gwaine,” Leon says, looking reproachful. “You’ve really resorted to listening in on castle gossip?”
Gwaine raises both hands defensively. “Hey, hey ‒ just telling you what I heard, that’s all.”
“I doubt it’s true,” Percival says. “We’ve all seen them together. They’re besotted with each other.”
Once again, Gwaine shrugs. “I suppose,” he says, tone unreadable, and takes a long drink of ale. “Speaking of the princess ‒ he sure was in a shit mood today, wasn’t he?”
“I’ll say,” Kay says, and gives Lancelot a grin. “I’m betting you’ll wake up bruised tomorrow, Lance.”
Said knight only chuckles good-naturedly, although Merlin can see in his eyes that Arthur’s damn near vengeful dueling today is still troubling him. “It was a good fight,” he says, after a moment. “It’s healthy to be challenged every one in a while.”
“There’s being challenged,” Gwaine says, “and then there’s being beaten. No offense, Lancelot, but Arthur looked like he wanted to open up your goddamn neck for a second, there. Not that he would, of course ‒ he just had that look in his eye.”
There are a few murmurs of agreement, and Merlin finds himself thinking back to the day’s training session, feeling uneasy at the memory of Arthur treating Lancelot so harshly. He looks to the man on his right, then, feeling a sense of protectiveness rise up in him as his eyes roam his friend’s face.
Lancelot’s gaze catches on his, and he smiles softly. Underneath the table, he reaches for Merlin’s hand and squeezes it gently.
When Merlin finally pulls his gaze away, the men have veered into talking about more castle gossip, but Gwaine is eyeing him knowingly. He lifts his mug of ale, takes a long drink, and winks.
Arthur tells himself, over and over again: It simply isn’t possible.
He’s seated at his desk, staring at the blank piece of parchment that lies there. It’s meant to be scrawled with Arthur’s latest speech draft, but as the minutes drag on, the man who is King of Camelot in all but name can think of only one thing, and it isn’t what pretty words he ought to be writing down.
It’s not possible. It’s not.
Arthur heaves out a sigh, dropping his quill and running a hand over his face. He feels exhausted. Exhausted from learning how to run a kingdom, from worrying about his father nearly every minute of every day, from worrying about Morgana, and now this.
It isn’t possible.
Arthur squeezes his eyes shut, giving a little shake of the head. An image of Merlin arises in his mind, unbidden: cheeks flushed, hair mussed, sitting at the table in Lancelot’s chambers. The guilty little look that had flashed over his face ‒ so quick he nearly missed it ‒ when Arthur first met his eyes.
He thinks back on the previous months, then, on the many, many times he’s seen Lancelot and Merlin together, walking the halls or laughing on the training field. He thinks back to the feasts they’ve had since they took Camelot back from Morgana, nearly six months ago, now, to how Merlin has taken to hovering behind Lancelot instead of him.
Instead of him.
Indeed, for the last three years, it’s been him that Merlin stood near during long, oftentimes painfully boring feasts and council meetings. It’s been him that Merlin would lean down and whisper to, murmuring a snide comment that had Arthur equally amused and reproachful, that had him biting his lip to hide a smile and drawling Merlin’s name in faux affront.
It’s been him that Merlin would visit in the evenings. It’s been him that Merlin would share meals and wine with, him that Merlin would chat with about silly castle gossip, along with the occasional baffling, but nonetheless appreciated, token of wisdom.
And now Arthur is sitting here, at his desk, alone, wondering what the hell changed. Because Merlin’s supposed to be here right now; Arthur specifically asked him to be here.
It’s the second time now that Merlin has forgotten about their plans, and the thought of that ‒ of Merlin forgetting him at all ‒ is enough to make him feel physically ill.
Feeling as though something is crawling underneath his skin, Arthur abruptly stands up, intent on seeking out Merlin himself, when the door opens with a bang.
Merlin rushes inside, breathing heavily, expression written in lines of guilt. “Arthur,” he breathes, coming to stand before his desk. “I’m so sorry, I forgot ‒ ”
Arthur’s gut clenches at the word and he lifts a hand, cutting Merlin off mid-sentence. “It doesn’t matter, Merlin,” he snaps, even though it does. “Just don’t be late again.”
He wants to say this is getting a little ridiculous , or what’s so important that you keep forgetting me?
But then he thinks of that day, those many months ago, when Merlin snapped ‒ “I’m sorry for forgetting about the speech, but I’m not sure my personal life is any of your business,” ‒ and clenches his jaw to keep the words from slipping out.
He remembers the cold, annoyed look on Merlin’s face when he’d said it. The image makes Arthur feel cold himself. He doesn’t want to see that look again.
Merlin looks a bit surprised, but also relieved, giving a little nod and sitting himself down in the chair in front of Arthur’s desk. He reaches for the parchment, sliding it over, and his face immediately shifts into an expression of amusement.
“Gods, Arthur, you haven’t even started?” He looks up, and there ‒ that’s fondness in his dark blue eyes, and the sight of it makes something shake loose in Arthur’s chest.
He’s about to respond with a quip, say well, maybe if someone had gotten here sooner ‒ but then his eyes dip to Merlin’s neck and he freezes, all words immediately fleeing him.
A mark is imprinted there, right above Merlin’s neckerchief. It’s obviously fresh, is tinged with red, and looking at it makes Arthur feel as though he’s been punched right in the gut.
His stomach churns and he can’t look away, can’t ignore the fact ‒ the realization ‒ that Merlin is sleeping with someone.
Arthur’s heart is suddenly beating faster, and he doesn’t know if it’s from anger or confusion or what. He looks up, then, at Merlin, watching as his manservant’s eyebrows narrow with puzzlement, or maybe even concern.
“Arthur?” he asks. “Is everything alright?”
No, he wants to say. No, because you’re seeing someone, and you didn’t tell me. Because you’re seeing someone and you’ve been lying to me about it.
Since when has Merlin lied to him?
“I’m fine,” is what he says, instead. “Just a bit tired.” He pauses, clearing his throat, finally tearing his eyes away from the man who sits across from him, fixing them on the desk. “Actually ‒ I think I might rest for a while. We can worry about the speech tomorrow.”
We. It’s funny how Arthur is still using that word for him and Merlin, is grouping them together into a unit even though he clearly belongs to someone else.
Because that mark isn’t accidental. Whoever put it there knew it would be visible, even with Merlin’s scarves. Whoever put it there wanted the rest of the world to see it and think ‒ I am not allowed to have this man.
And fuck if that doesn’t make Arthur furious, if it doesn’t make his blood boil. Because the whole damn castle knows that if Merlin is anyone’s, he’s Arthur’s. Maybe not in that way, but in every other sense, Merlin is his man, just as he is Merlin’s. The thought of anyone trying to encroach upon that makes him feel lightheaded with anger.
“Arthur?” Merlin asks again, and gods above, Arthur needs him to leave now.
“I’m fine, Merlin,” he snaps, looking up for long enough to give his manservant a hard look. “You’re dismissed.”
He watches as something akin to anger rises on Merlin’s face, watches as his best friend nods sharply, standing up and turning to go with a quiet, cold utter of sire.
When he’s gone, Arthur brings his elbows to the desk, letting his face fall into his hands. He sits there, unmoving, for a very long moment.
He thinks of Lancelot. Lancelot, who is Arthur’s best knight. Lancelot, who is brave and true and noble. Lancelot, who, despite everything with Guinevere, is Arthur’s friend.
It’s not possible, he tells himself again. Merlin might be seeing someone, but he is not seeing Lancelot, because Lancelot wouldn’t do this to Arthur. He wouldn’t.
Arthur finds out, three weeks later, that yes, Lancelot would.
The fall has settled in for good now, all traces of sweet warmth gone from Camelot and its citadel. It’s a rare occurrence ‒ it didn’t used to be, Arthur thinks bitterly ‒ where Merlin is accompanying Arthur in his chambers for the evening, and the prince watches as the dark-haired man bends down next to the fire, poking at it, a thoughtful expression on his face.
“Play a game of chess with me,” Arthur suggests.
Merlin visibly tenses, pausing in his stoking of the fire. A moment later, he resumes, asking in a quiet voice, “What?”
Arthur rolls his eyes. “I know it was a while ago, but surely your memory isn’t that terrible. You said you’d play me, remember?”
Merlin stands up, placing the fire poker back into its holder and turning to face him. And Arthur feels something a lot like apprehension trickle down his spine, because that’s definitely nervousness on Merlin’s face. Nervousness and guilt.
Arthur quirks a brow, hoping to maintain a casual air despite the tension Merlin’s expression has brought to the room. “What?” he asks. “Are you that afraid of getting beaten? There’s no shame in losing to a prince.”
Merlin bites his lip, wringing his hands together. “I, um ‒ ” He pauses, reaching up to rub the back of his neck. “Here’s the thing, Arthur...I don’t actually know, um...how to play.”
After a moment of silence, he adds, “Chess, I mean.”
“I assumed,” Arthur says quietly, because he’s not sure what else to say. Because he’s just caught Merlin in yet another lie.
And gods, why would Merlin lie about ‒
Arthur freezes, the realization hitting him like the crash of a violent wave against a rocky shore.
“Lancelot was just inviting me to his rooms for a game of chess.”
He’s assaulted with a series of images: of Merlin and Lancelot together, lying side by side on the training fields. Merlin and Lancelot laughing at feasts, his manservant’s blue eyes bright and fond. Lancelot throwing an arm over Merlin’s shoulders, Lancelot placing a hand on the small of Merlin’s back as they walk together, Lancelot smiling at Merlin from across the banquet hall, eyes lit with adoration.
Merlin simply stands there, fidgeting, as Arthur’s entire worldview flips in an instant.
Because Merlin isn’t his anymore. He’s Lancelot’s. Lancelot’s.
Arthur sits there in his chair, staring up at his manservant. He feels as though he can’t breathe. He feels off-kilter, feels wrong, feels ill.
“Okay,” Arthur finally says, because he’s not sure he’s capable of forming any coherent thoughts outside of why wouldn’t you tell me ? and why him? and what about Guinevere? Lancelot loves Guinevere and what about me? You love ‒
No. No. Arthur cuts that line of thought off immediately, because that’s dangerous. Danger he can’t go back from if he lets himself consider it, even for a moment.
“That’s fine,” Arthur finishes, shifting in his chair, feeling both hot and cold at once.
“Arthur ‒ ” Merlin begins, looking terribly uncomfortable, looking guilty, and there’s a part of Arthur, deeply hidden, that relishes in that, that’s glad that Merlin feels bad about this.
He doesn’t continue, though. Just says Arthur’s name and then looks away, at the floor, shifting from foot to foot.
And Arthur isn’t sure why he asks. Isn’t sure what compels him to spit the words out. All he knows is that one moment, the room is utterly silent, and the next, Arthur is asking ‒
“Are you sleeping with Lancelot?”
Silence. Arthur forces himself to look up.
Merlin’s eyes are locked on his, and Arthur watches as his face changes quite rapidly, going from shocked to panicked and settling, finally, on resignation. Arthur knows what his answer will be before he says it.
The word is uttered so very softly, yet it may be the loudest thing Arthur has ever heard.
And Arthur? He’s not sure what to say. Not sure that there is anything to say. From Merlin’s point of view, this is probably a non issue. It should be a non issue.
But Merlin knows him. Gods above, he knows him, better than Arthur knows himself. He senses Arthur’s discomfort and begins, “Arthur, I’m sorry ‒ I ‒ ” He pauses. Lets out a soft sigh. “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you. I just...I don’t know, I guess I just wanted to keep it between us.”
Arthur nods slowly, hearing the words but not really processing them. His mind is still catching up, still reeling at the fact that Merlin and Lancelot are sleeping together.
His best friend and his best knight.
“For how long?” he asks, finally.
Merlin’s face is the picture of guilt when he replies, “Almost six months, now.”
Arthur’s stomach drops.
Because ‒ what? Arthur’s whole body goes cold when he realizes that that’s, give or take a few weeks, exactly how long it’s been since Lancelot was knighted, since they took the castle back from Morgana.
He’d imagined that they’d been ‒ what, together? ‒ for a few months. Three, at most. Not six. Not for half a fucking year.
“Oh,” is all Arthur says. Because in this moment, all he feels is foolish. He feels blind.
Fuck ‒ he feels betrayed.
And that’s not fair. Not fair to Merlin. Not fair to Lancelot. They’re not doing anything wrong. And then waves of guilt are crashing over him, because Arthur realizes, quite abruptly, that he has no right ‒ none whatsoever ‒ to be reacting like this. And Merlin shouldn’t be standing here, looking so pale and worried and concerned, as if he’s wronged Arthur, because he hasn’t.
No matter what Arthur thinks, no matter how he feels ‒ Merlin hasn’t wronged him. Neither has Lancelot.
And so Arthur takes that hurt and betrayal and anger ‒ gods, the anger ‒ and shoves it down. He balls it up and locks it up and throws the mental key into the darkest corners of his mind.
“I’m sorry ‒ ” Merlin begins, and Arthur shakes his head, feeling nauseated.
“You have nothing to be sorry for, Merlin,” he says, forcing every ounce of conviction he can utter into his voice. He looks Merlin in the eye. “I understand why you didn’t tell me. It’s okay.”
The words taste like ash in his mouth.
Merlin’s mouth parts in surprise. “I ‒ are you ‒ ”
Arthur waves a dismissive hand, leaning back in his chair. “It’s fine, Merlin. Really. As long as you don’t let it interfere with your duties, I don’t care who you’re courting.”
Merlin, to Arthur’s confusion, frowns at that. “I’m not courting Lancelot,” he says, brow furrowed.
Arthur stares at him for a very long moment. Then he says, slowly, “But ‒ you just said that you were ‒ you know.”
Gods above. He can’t even bring himself to say the words.
Merlin’s face turns red, his eyes flitting away from Arthur’s, landing somewhere over his shoulder. “I mean ‒ we are. But we’re not ‒ I’m not ‒ ”
His manservant’s expression is the picture of confusion, as if he’s undergoing some kind of taxing mental battle. “We’re not like that,” he finishes.
Arthur, however, is still perplexed. Because he’s been watching Merlin and Lancelot for a while now, even before he suspected that they might be involved. The two men spend nearly all their free time together, are openly affectionate and sweet with each other. It’s quite obvious that it’s like that.
Merlin must be able to read the confusion in Arthur’s expression, because he lets out an almost resigned sigh and, looking terribly embarrassed, concludes, “We’re not... in love. Or whatever.”
Arthur can’t keep from frowning, can’t stop himself from asking, “Then...why are you ‒ you know. Together?”
Merlin, to Arthur’s utter bafflement, turns even redder. And something flickers across his face, then, something similar to guilt, but not quite.
It’s secretive, almost. As if his manservant has something else to hide. His blue eyes flick up, meeting Arthur’s for a short moment before fleeing again.
“I don’t know,” Merlin answers, and that’s definitely a lie; Arthur can see it in his face. “Why not?”
“Why...not?” Arthur repeats, disbelieving.
The thought of Merlin being interested in unattached, unemotional sex...it just doesn’t fit with what Arthur knows about him. Merlin is sweet and sensitive, is the type of person who cries over unicorns and picks flowers for fun. He’s the epitome of emotion.
And Lancelot ‒ he’s not so different from Merlin in that sense. Arthur finds it hard to believe that his most noble knight would ever involve himself with someone he didn’t love ‒ on some level, at least.
Something in Merlin’s countenance snaps, then, and irritation settles over his features as he says, “Look, Arthur ‒ you said it was fine, right? I really don’t want to talk about this.”
Arthur keeps looking at him, peering into the dark blue of Merlin's eyes, as if he can read all the answers he wants there.
But Merlin ‒ Merlin is a riddle. He’s an ever-evolving mystery, and Arthur often finds himself wondering if he’ll ever truly know his manservant, if he’ll ever know what lies within his heart.
It hurts, sometimes. Because when it comes to Merlin, Arthur doesn’t hold back. Sure, it takes a while for Merlin to wrangle his feelings out of him, but he always manages it eventually. And truthfully, Arthur is glad for it. It's comforting to know that he has someone in whom he can confide completely, someone he can trust without reserve.
To know that such trust isn’t returned, that it’s one-sided ‒ that’s fucking painful.
For now, however, Arthur just nods. He nods and says ‒ “Okay. Alright. You’re dismissed for the day.”
Relief sweeps over Merlin’s face, Arthur tries to ignore the way his gut clenches at the sight of it. Nodding once, he says, “Thank you, sire,” and all but flees the room.
Merlin only ever calls him that in jest, or in public. When they’re alone, it’s Arthur. Just Arthur.
Arthur’s not sure he’s ever hated a word more.
Two weeks later, Arthur is at the tavern with his knights. It’s a rare occurrence when the prince comes along, but given the recent developments in Arthur’s life ‒ remembering that conversation with Merlin still makes him feel sick to his stomach ‒ he figures he’s earned a drink or two.
As it is, a drink or two turns into four, and soon enough, Arthur’s feeling a bit more loose-lipped than usual. He rests his chin in his hand, watching fondly as the knights who are gathered ‒ Leon, Percival, Elyan, and Gwaine ‒ laugh and joke, relaxed and happy for once. Times have been stressful lately, to say the least, and seeing his men so carefree makes Arthur feel more at ease than he has in a while.
Naturally, it’s in the midst of this good mood that Elyan, sitting up straighter and grinning wickedly, says, “You’ll never guess what I saw the other day. Couldn’t believe my goddamn eyes.”
“Do tell,” Gwaine says, taking a gulp of ale. “And it better be good, if you’re building it up like this.”
“Two days ago, after morning training, I went back to the armory to get something I’d forgotten ‒”
“Your wounded pride from losing our sparring match?” Percival cuts in, and Elyan punches him on the shoulder, giving the knight a mock-hurt look.
“Shut up, Percy. Anyways, I walked in and ‒ you wouldn’t believe it, I’m telling you ‒ ”
“Spit it out, Elyan,” Gwaine says, grinning. “I’m getting nervous!”
“Doubtful. I’m not sure there’s anything that could shock you, Gwaine,” Arthur comments, earning a few chuckles.
“Merlin and Lancelot," Elyan finishes, looking terribly proud of himself for bringing this piece of gossip to the table. “They were snogging. ”
There’s a very long moment of silence among the men, the noise from the other tavern goers filling the abrupt quietness.
And then Leon, Percival and Gwaine erupt into laughter.
It’s not disbelieving laughter ‒ it’s decidedly, purely amused. “By the gods, Elyan,” Percival says. “You didn’t know?”
Elyan looks utterly confused, and Arthur ‒
Arthur can only sit there, desperately contorting his face into something that he can only hope looks casual, as his blood turns to ice.
So much for forgetting his troubles, it would seem.
“Wait. You guys already knew?” Elyan asks.
Even Leon looks amused, smiling slightly, eyebrows raised. “It’s pretty obvious,” he says. “I almost feel a bit embarrassed for them, sometimes.”
Gwaine nods in agreement, though Arthur notes the way his eyes flick briefly to meet his own before looking back to Leon. “It’s so sweet that it’s a bit sickening,” he says. “They’re so…”
“Besotted?” Percival suggests, grinning. “Smitten?”
“I was going to say in love,” Gwaine says. “But those work, too.”
Arthur’s body goes hot, and fuck, there’s that anger, breaking free from that locked cage in his chest and before he can think better of it (damn the alcohol) he’s saying, “They’re not.”
The table goes silent, all eyes flicking to him. Arthur, however, only looks at Gwaine as he clarifies, voice low, “He told me. The other day.”
There’s something unreadable on Gwaine’s face as he says, almost softly, “Did he?”
If Arthur didn’t know better, he’d say that there’s something of a challenge in Gwaine’s eyes, as if his knight is saying: perhaps you don’t know him as well as you think you do.
The thought makes Arthur’s insides clench. He knows Merlin better than anyone. Anyone. Knows him better than Gwaine does, and he certainly knows him better than Lancelot.
They’re a pair. Merlin and Arthur. Arthur and Merlin. Everyone knows that. The whole damn castle knows it. Where Arthur goes, Merlin follows.
And vice versa. Even if it remains unspoken.
“Yes,” Arthur answers, finally. He tears his eyes away from Gwaine, looking at his other knights. The sight of their expressions, lined with confusion and even concern, has him clearing his throat and fighting to keep his own face neutral.
“It’s just sex,” he finishes.
“Hm,” is all Gwaine says in reply, taking a drink of ale. His eyes don’t leave Arthur’s.
The prince is the first to look away.
“I don’t know,” Percival says, frowning. “Maybe for Merlin, that’s true. But Lancelot…” he shakes his head. “I know him. The man’s in love, or damn close to it.”
Elyan, who has been following the conversation with rapt interest, turns to Leon and asks, “What do you think?”
Leon looks vaguely uncomfortable, and if they were discussing anyone else, Arthur might find it amusing. “I’m not sure it’s my place to say.”
Gwaine rolls his eyes. “Oh, come off it, Leon! Say what you think for once.”
There are a few echoes of this sentiment from the other knights, and Leon finally heaves a sigh and mutters, “Alright, alright.”
Leaning back in his chair, expression shifting into something quite thoughtful, the eldest knight says, “I think Percival is right about Lancelot. The way he looks at Merlin…” he shakes his head, smiling a little. “If he isn’t in love, I’d be deeply surprised.”
“What about Merlin?” Gwaine asks.
There’s a certain layer to his curiosity that separates him from the other knights, Arthur thinks. The way he says the words, the look in his eye ‒ it leaves Arthur with the sense that Gwaine knows something they don’t, that his inquiries are more prompts than actual questions.
“Merlin’s a little harder to pin down,” Leon concedes. “He hides his feelings well.”
Arthur can’t help but let out a little laugh at that. The knights’ eyes all go to their prince.
“Merlin’s more emotional than most maidens,” Arthur protests.
Leon shrugs. “I don’t wish to offend, sire,” he says, “but being prone to emotion doesn’t always equate to honesty. Everyone keeps secrets, including Merlin.”
It’s a simple sentiment, really, and yet hearing it uttered out loud makes Arthur feel strange ‒ as if there’s a truth to it that he’s been ignoring up until now.
There’s always been a rather mysterious quality to Merlin. It is, after all, why Arthur frequently refers to Merlin as a “riddle,” both aloud and in his head, as he had during that conversation those two weeks ago.
But the idea of Merlin purposefully keeping things from Arthur ‒ whether it be feelings or relationships or whatever ‒ is difficult for him to consider, even as each passing day makes it more and more apparent that it’s true. Merlin does keep secrets.
Merlin is also a servant. And Arthur is a prince. As such, there’s no reason for Arthur to be at all interested in these secrets. Yet as time goes on, Arthur has realized that it’s nearly all he can think about.
“Well,” Gwaine says, “just as Percival knows Lancelot, I know Merlin. And I daresay that the man is in love.”
Gwaine says the words so very easily ‒ I know Merlin ‒ and Arthur feels a rush of anger that the knight would be so presumptuous as to claim that he knows Merlin ‒ Arthur’s manservant, Arthur’s best friend ‒ better than he does.
“Well, Gwaine, I also like to think that I know my manservant fairly well, and I daresay he’s not,” Arthur snaps, fixing the other man with a hard look. “Especially since he told me he isn’t.”
Rather than looking admonished ‒ then again, does he ever? ‒ Gwaine only raises a challenging eyebrow and asks, tone overly curious, “Say, your highness ‒ how did this topic of conversation even come up? Do you and Merlin discuss his love life often?”
There’s a low chuckle from Percival, but Leon and Elyan look almost alarmed, as if sensing that Gwaine has begun to creep over a proverbial line.
“I ‒ ” Arthur begins, and then breaks off abruptly, realizing that if he is to tell the truth, then he’ll be forced to admit that he only found out about Merlin and Lancelot a few weeks ago.
And admitting that while knowing that Gwaine and Percival and even Leon all already knew ‒ well. It would injure his pride, to say the least.
“Yes?” Gwaine prompts, eyes flashing with something unnameable, and that’s when Arthur realizes that Gwaine knows.
He knows that Arthur only recently found out. That’s precisely why he asked such a question. He’s trying to bait Arthur into admitting that he may not know his manservant as well as he claims to.
“It doesn’t matter,” Arthur snaps. “All that matters is that he told me about his feelings for Lancelot, and it’s not ‒ they’re not ‒ ” Arthur pauses, struggling to find the words, before continuing, “ ‒ he’s not in love. Neither is Lancelot. They’re just...I don’t know. Having fun, I guess. Whatever.”
He takes a long drink of ale, sets his mug back down, and rises from his seat. “It’s late. I’m tired.” He gives Gwaine one last hard, long look; the knight just looks back at him with that same unflinching sharpness. “I’ll see you all bright and early tomorrow.”
There are a few murmurs of affirmation ‒ and a quiet groan from Percival ‒ and then Arthur is turning and walking away.
Somehow, he can sense Gwaine’s eyes on him as he leaves, piercing through his very skin, all the way to his heart.
Now that he knows what to look for, it’s glaringly obvious.
Arthur watches from his place at the water station as Lancelot sits down next to Merlin on the edge of the training field. Merlin gives a little shiver ‒ the fall is beginning to turn its eyes to the oncoming winter, now ‒ and Lancelot immediately wraps an arm around his shoulder, bringing the other man up against his side. Merlin looks up at Lancelot, then, and his expression is so fond that it makes Arthur feel guilty for looking, as if the moment is too intimate for an audience.
Which is ridiculous, really, considering they’re acting like this all out in the open for anyone to see. Arthur glances at his other knights, wondering if any of them are noticing such a blatant display of affection occurring right in front of their eyes.
As it is, his men are completely oblivious, chatting among themselves as they take turns getting water.
Another day, a week later, Arthur is heading a round table meeting when he looks up at Lancelot and notices that his knight’s eyes are fixed on a point over Arthur’s shoulder.
Where Merlin stands, of course. His expression is mostly neutral, but there’s something that almost looks like longing in Lancelot’s dark eyes.
Which is also ridiculous, Arthur thinks, because Lancelot is literally sleeping with Merlin. What does he even have to long after?
It’s completely baffling.
A month or so after Arthur found out about their relationship, Merlin approaches him one evening while he’s relaxing in his chambers. He’s just got back from a visit with his father, whose health only declines with each passing day, and sits in a chair in front of his fireplace, hoping to drown some of his sorrows with a nice, warm cup of mulled wine.
“Arthur,” Merlin says, looking almost wary as he comes to stand in front of him. And gods, that, above all else, is what’s truly ridiculous. Since when is Merlin wary of him? Their entire relationship is based on the fact that Merlin, more than anyone else, is ready and willing to challenge him, to stand up to him.
“Yes, Merlin?” he asks, amiably enough, because even though he’s still unsettled by the revelation about Merlin and Lancelot’s relationship, Merlin is still his best friend. He’s still Arthur’s confidante.
He isn’t sure what he would do if he ever lost that.
So he’s been working to keep normalcy between them, has tried to make things as they were before. And while he’s not been entirely successful, he hasn’t failed, either. Things between them are a bit tense, but the situation certainly hasn’t broken them, either.
Arthur doesn’t think anything could break them. They’re too tangled up with each other, too in tune with each other’s moods and thoughts and feelings. Merlin is part of Arthur’s life, is part of his world. Arthur could no more imagine an existence without Merlin than he could an existence without Camelot herself.
“I’m thinking of visiting Ealdor next month,” he says. “For Yule.”
Arthur can’t help but frown a little. “You’re always in Camelot for Yule,” he says, hating the way his voice sounds nearly fragile when the words come out.
It’s true, though. Whenever winter rolls around, Camelot has a week-long Yuletide festival, concluding with a huge feast in the citadel. The castle is decked out in holly and mistletoe, in wreaths and ornaments and sweet-smelling candles.
And Merlin is always there. For the past three years, Arthur has enjoyed Yule with his manservant at his side, oohing and aahing at the beautiful decorations, walking through the lower town to check out the festival wares, watching performances and clapping as loud as anyone.
Growing up, Arthur always despised the winter. Winter meant no patrols and no training. It meant muscle weakness and cold that seemed to seep into the stone of the castle, chilling his entire body during the long, dark nights. It meant being cooped up in his chambers for hours at a time, learning from tutors and getting lectures from his father and, worst of all, being left with time to think.
About his future. About where his life path would inevitably lead. And while Arthur was proud to be heir to the throne of Camelot, was content with the fact that he will one day be king, that didn’t make it any less stressful to think about.
Winter always left far too much time for pondering.
And then Merlin stumbled his way into Arthur’s life, all cheeky smiles and insubordination and sparkling blue eyes. That first Yule after becoming Arthur’s manservant, he insisted on accompanying Arthur throughout all the festivities, insisted on trying the different foods and watching visiting performers and talking to the folk of the lower town, learning their names and hopes and wishes.
And even in the frigid months that followed the festival, he remained a constant presence in Arthur’s life. Whenever Arthur had too much time to think, Merlin was there, always ready to lend an ear or, on occasion, give advice.
It’d been much the same for the next two Yuletides. And now ‒ now Merlin is leaving.
Now, when the castle is covered in decorations and the smell of pine candles fills the halls, when the banquet room is prepped for the feast of a lifetime, Merlin won’t be there to ooh and ahh, won’t be there to make sarcastic comments when a visiting noble trips over his own robe and take Arthur’s mind off the fact that his father is slowly deteriorating and his sorceress half sister wants him dead.
In the end, Arthur only asks ‒ “How long will you be gone?”
And when Merlin leaves the next month, he takes Lancelot with him.
It rarely snows in Ealdor.
Merlin used to joke with Will about it, when the other boy found out about his powers, claiming that it was his magical presence that kept the bad weather at bay.
Merlin has always hated winter, and the snow in particular, and he’d say that the snow missed Ealdor over the sheer force of his will.
And Will would laugh and throw an arm over his shoulder and say, “I think you could do just about anything through force of will, Merlin.”
Perhaps it’s his absence, then, that is to blame for the blankets of white that greet him and Lancelot when they cross over into Cenred’s kingdom.
Lancelot only chuckles at Merlin’s complaints. Later, however, as the flakes begin to fall hard and heavy, he unties his cloak and hands it to Merlin, refusing to listen to Merlin’s protestations.
“You’re shaking like a leaf,” he says. “I’d be quite sad if you froze to death before I could meet your mother.”
Hunith, unsurprisingly, positively adores Lancelot.
As do the other villagers. Arthur’s aid in warding off the bandits, despite being nearly four years ago, is still remembered well, and Lancelot, as one of Camelot’s knights, is welcomed with open arms and open hearts.
That night, the villagers all pitch in for the annual Yuletide dinner. In Ealdor, only one day a year is set aside for the celebration, as opposed to Camelot’s week-long festivities. There’s far too much work to be done to spend any more time vacationing from their duties.
But what the village lacks in free time, the villagers make up for with enthusiasm. Drink flows freely and the food is in turns sweet and savory, and as the night falls over the land, Merlin finds himself in a circle of people within someone’s hut. He’s not sure whose, but in times like these, it feels as though it hardly matters, as if all the houses of the village become one for a single evening.
The candles glow with ethereal yellow light, casting a golden glow on the wooden walls of the house, and as Merlin takes sips of his wine, his arm looped through Lancelot’s, he feels utterly free and content.
Lancelot tilts his head towards Merlin’s, murmuring right next to his ear, “I think you’re a bit drunk, Merlin.”
Merlin just laughs, loose and high and sweet. “I think you ’re a bit drunk, Lancelot,” he replies, and his chest flutters with delight when Lancelot responds with a lovely laugh of his own.
“Maybe,” he admits, giving Merlin a cheeky grin. His dark eyes glow amber in the candlelight, and Merlin has to crush the urge to lean forward and press his lips to Lancelot’s cheeks, to his forehead, to his lips.
He thinks he sees that desire reflected in Lancelot’s own eyes, and after a few more minutes of chatting with the rest of the people in the circle, he gets up, reaching down to tug at Lancelot’s hand.
“Come on,” he urges.
He doesn’t have to ask twice. Lancelot stands up, fingers laced with Merlin’s as they walk, footpaths perhaps a tad bit crooked, out the door of the hut.
That night, Hunith stays over at another woman’s house ‒ her longtime friend, Elin ‒ and Merlin and Lancelot have the family hut to themselves.
As soon as they get inside, Merlin is pressing Lancelot up against the wall, resting his forehead against the other man’s and breathing him in. The smell of the candles mixes with the heady scent of wine, and Merlin feels almost dizzy with contentedness.
“I wish we could stay like this,” Merlin murmurs, trailing his lips down Lancelot’s neck, placing a kiss on his collarbone. “Wish we could stay like this forever. I feel so happy.”
Lancelot sucks in a quiet breath and then exhales, deep and slow. He whispers, “Me, too.”
That night, they make love, taking their time to map out each other's bodies, fingers trailing across skin, sweet words whispered like spoken hymns in the dark. They go for hours, and then they go again, and eventually they fall asleep, sweaty and worn out and utterly at peace.
The next morning, the snow that blanketed Ealdor when they arrived has melted.
It’s been two weeks since Yuletide, and Merlin is still gone.
Arthur watches from his window, scowling, as snowflakes fall from the sky, watches them land on the stone ground of the citadel and hopes to all the gods there are that they’ll melt when they hit the slightly warmer surface.
No such luck. The snow is sticking, it’s colder than it has been in months, and Merlin still has yet to return from Ealdor.
Arthur isn’t moping. He’s not.
He repeats this in his mind three times before pushing himself away from the windowpane and yanking the curtains shut. He’s being ridiculous. It’s not like Merlin will magically trot in on his horse if only Arthur wills it hard enough.
And besides ‒ when Merlin does come home, he won’t be alone.
Shaking that thought away ‒ Arthur has really, truthfully done a spectacular job at not thinking about that over the past few weeks ‒ he walks over to his armor chest. For a moment, he contemplates going out and training despite the cold. Sure, he may lose a few fingers, but he’s gotten so restless that at this point he thinks it may be worth it.
Thankfully, he’s pulled out of this vaguely reckless line of thought by a soft knock on the door. Arthur calls out come in, and a moment later, Gwen walks in, smiling softly.
“Arthur,” she says, in that gentle way of hers, and just the sound of that voice is enough to help ease the tension in Arthur’s chest.
“Guinevere,” he replies, stepping forward and, almost without thinking, opening his arms for her to step into it. He tucks his face into the crook of her neck, breathing her in, a sweet sense of calm settling over him.
“I’ve seen so little of you,” she says softly, pulling back to peer up at him. The words aren’t said with irritation or melancholy ‒ just worry. “Is everything alright?”
Arthur sighs, stepping away and going to sit down at his table, sinking into the chair with a tiredness that’s been eating away at him since he watched Merlin ride away with Lancelot four weeks ago, since the winter came in full-force, as if filling in the spaces Merlin left behind with frigid cold.
Gwen sits down in the chair next to his, pulling her winter shawl more tightly around her body. She places a palm on top of his. “You know you can tell me anything, Arthur.”
Only Guinevere, Arthur thinks, is capable of saying that and not sounding pushy. Rather, the words are a gentle invitation, and the prince finds himself admitting, a moment later, face a bit red, “I miss him.”
Gwen gives him a soft smile. “Merlin?” she clarifies. Arthur nods, feeling horrifically embarrassed.
“I know, I know ‒ it’s stupid. I just ‒ I don’t know. It’s weird not having him around. Sometimes I don’t know what to do with myself.”
“It’s not stupid, Arthur,” Gwen protests firmly, and squeezes his hand. “He’s your best friend.”
It’s funny, really, how Gwen is able to say it so easily, so readily, when Arthur’s not sure he’s ever admitted that out loud.
“It’s perfectly normal for you to be missing him,” she continues. A moment later, though, something different flickers across her face.
Hesitation. Arthur gets the sense that she wants to ask him something, yet isn’t sure how.
Finally, after a brief silence, she asks, “Are you ‒ ” She breaks off, chewing on her lip, looking quite conflicted. Then ‒ “Are you still upset about him and Lancelot?”
Arthur freezes; he’s quite sure his face is an open book, written in words of surprise and maybe even guilt, as if he’s fourteen again and has been caught sneaking out of his daily tutoring sessions.
And Guinevere ‒ Guinevere has this strange look on her face, as if talking about this isn’t any easier for her than it is for him. But Gwen’s never been one to back down from difficult conversations, so she continues, “These past few months, whenever you’re around them, you’ve been acting strange.” She pauses, fixing Arthur with a look that manages to be piercing without any of the confrontation. “If I didn’t know any better, I’d say you were jealous.”
Arthur gives a little laugh that sounds fake even to his own ears. “Gwen, I’m not ‒ it’s not like ‒ ” Gods above, he’s actually spluttering. He feels his face turn red. “I’m not jealous.”
Gwen sighs. “Arthur, your best friend of three years has suddenly started spending almost all of his free time with someone else. And don’t deny it ‒ I know you and Merlin used to be nearly joined at the hip, and not just because of his job. He was always going to your rooms in the evenings and accompanying you on rides and hunts, and now…” she trails off, and there’s that look again: something almost like hurt. “Now, he spends most of that time with Lancelot. Of course you’re jealous.”
Arthur is silent. He turns Gwen’s words over in his mind, biting his lip and wringing his hands together, and fuck, she’s right. She usually is.
“And of course you miss him,” Gwen adds. “I think you were missing him even before he left for Ealdor.”
And there it is, Arthur thinks. It’s such a simple truth, and yet hearing it makes him feel ashamed. Guilty. What right has he to Merlin’s time? Merlin may be his manservant, but what he does in his free hours is no business of Arthur’s.
Yet Arthur has found, over the past few years, that even though he and Merlin spend an almost ungodly amount of their day with each other, whenever the work is done and he’s got a few hours to relax, it’s Merlin who he wants to talk to. Not about what chores need done or advice on drafting his latest speech, but about stupid, meaningless things, like the latest piece of castle gossip or tales about Gwaine’s latest exploits at the tavern.
Or sometimes, things that aren’t so meaningless. Tales from Merlin’s childhood, and even Arthur’s, when the prince is feeling up to it. Talk of their wishes and hopes, of their musings about the future and their worries over the difficulties that are surely to come.
It’s not that he can’t talk to Gwen or his knights about similar things; it’s just that, with Merlin, Arthur feels comfortable saying damn near anything. Sometimes, Arthur even finds himself thinking that he could probably tell Merlin his deeply-buried doubts, his most troubling secrets, and receive no judgement in return.
What is Arthur supposed to do without that? How is he just supposed to let something like that go, let Merlin find someone else to share that sort of trust with?
“I just want things to be how they were,” Arthur admits, very softly, almost like a confession of sin. He’s not sure why it feels that way. Isn’t sure he wants to know.
“I know,” Gwen says, and Arthur looks at her and sees, for the first time, his own feelings reflected in her eyes.
He wonders if she’s feeling jealous, too, wonders if she looks at Merlin and Lancelot and gets those same sharp, hot spikes of envy at the closeness they share.
The prospect ought to be troubling. As it is, Arthur can only empathize with her, can only peer into the sweet brown of her eyes, see the quiet aching there, and think: I know.
The thought comes from deep within, and Arthur only lets it breath for a moment before crushing it, before suffocating it.
I know what it means to love two people at once.
When Merlin and Lancelot finally return, the two men are closer than ever before.
Indeed, Arthur’s not sure he’s ever seen Merlin in a better mood. He greets Arthur with a cheery grin when he rides back into the citadel square; it’s a smile so bright that not even Arthur’s immediate you’ve got chores to make up for, Merlin can lessen it.
In the following weeks, he whistles while he’s working, whether he’s sharpening Arthur’s sword or scrubbing his chamber floor. Arthur sometimes looks up and catches him gazing out the window, a light smile on his lips, and the prince just knows, instinctively, that he’s thinking of Lancelot.
Sometimes, Arthur feels tempted to ask still not in love, Merlin ? The words arise in this throat, ready to be let out, sharp and cruel. But something always holds him back.
A part of him ‒ a very deeply hidden, quiet part of him ‒ sometimes wonders if it’s because he’s afraid that Merlin won’t deny it.
Arthur still gets that sick, unsettled feeling when thinking about his manservant’s relationship with Lancelot, still feels those sharp barbs of envy and irritation when he sees the two together. He’ll occasionally catch sight of a love bite on Merlin’s neck, or Merlin will walk into Arthur’s chambers looking flushed, clothes rumpled and hair a bit messy, and it takes all of Arthur’s self-control to not make a snide comment.
Yet Arthur finds that, strangely enough, it’s not the sex that bothers him most. Rather, it’s the quieter moments, where the intimacy between them is evident in the way they interact. Arthur will be talking with an advisor after a meeting, only to look over and see Merlin standing up against the meeting room wall, arms crossed, and Lancelot will be right there next to him, reaching out to place a hand on Merlin’s shoulder or arm. One time, when they’re at a small feast for a visiting noble, he even notices Lancelot squeezing Merlin’s hand, watches as their interlaced fingers slowly slip apart as Merlin walks away, returning to his place by the other servants.
What really eats at him, however, is a moment that occurs nearly a month after the two men return from Ealdor. Arthur’s on his way to his chambers one evening, hoping to talk to Guinevere for a while before he retires, when he passes Lancelot’s rooms and realizes the door has been left ajar.
Unable to reign in his curiosity, he looks inside and watches, stomach dropping, as Lancelot pulls Merlin into an embrace, wrapping his arms tight around the other man, face utterly content. His lips are moving, like he’s murmuring something, and Arthur hears Merlin give a quiet, happy sigh.
And then, so very sweetly, Lancelot pulls back and presses a kiss to Merlin’s forehead.
Arthur clenches his jaw and walks away.
The following weeks are cold as hell, and Arthur spends almost all of his time in the castle, in meetings, in his father’s chambers, in his own rooms. There’s a perpetual chill that leaks from the stone walls, that clings to his skin and gives him the shivers even when his fire has been going all day long.
And Merlin ‒ gods, the man is barely skin and bone. It pains Arthur to see him like this, all trembling and chattering teeth, and he makes a mental note to ask the castle tailor to leave a space open for a fitting sometime soon. He’s been meaning to have a winter cloak made for Merlin for ages now, and since things have been fairly quiet lately, Arthur figures that now is as good a time as any.
One night, Merlin and Arthur and his knights are all together in Gwaine’s chambers, gathered around the fireplace. A few of them sit on the floor ‒ Leon and Percival both gave up their seats, seeming to prefer the closer proximity to the flames, anyways. Arthur sits next to Merlin, and Lancelot sits next to him. Gwaine alternates between his chair and the floor, seeming to burst with energy despite the ever-present chill.
Merlin, even with his chair’s closeness to the fire, is still wracked with shivers, although Arthur can tell he’s doing his best to hide it, biting his lip and keeping his arms crossed tightly against his chest.
He’s damn close to hollering for a maid to fetch a wool blanket to cover him with when Lancelot unties his own winter cloak and passes it to Merlin. His manservant looks at him, and Lancelot looks back, and Arthur watches as the two have a completely wordless argument.
Merlin apparently loses; he wraps the cloak around his shoulders. The movement doesn’t go unnoticed, and Gwaine chuckles.
“How chivalrous, Lance,” he remarks, and the other knights cackle along with him.
“You know, you two take besotted to an entirely new level,” Elyan says, eyes sparkling with mirth.
“Shut up,” Merlin says, but he’s smiling a little. Arthur watches as he fucking snuggles into the cloak, that smile widening as he does so.
“How long have you two been together, now?” Percival asks.
A silence settles over the group; Arthur looks at Percival, surprised that he’d even asked. The relationship between Merlin and Lancelot is more or less a known fact throughout the castle, now, but it’s rarely ever spoken about, save for these brief instances of teasing.
Arthur waits, now, for either Merlin or Lancelot to clarify, to say: well, we’re not together, not like that, or to maybe just brush the question off.
To Arthur’s surprise, Lancelot, blushing, answers, “About nine months.”
Arthur, it seems, isn’t the only one who’s shocked by this response. Merlin looks almost startled, eyes widening a little as he glances over at Lancelot. The other man meets his eyes, and the two share a long, meaningful look. A moment later, Merlin relaxes.
“I think that’s about right,” Merlin says, quietly.
Gwaine lets out a low whistle. “Wow,” he says.
Percival snorts and says, “Gwaine here didn’t know it was possible for a relationship to last for longer than one night.”
The knights all laugh at that; even Gwaine lets out a good-natured chuckle, shrugging and saying, “What can I say? I’m untamable, lads.”
Arthur doesn’t laugh. He manages a small smile, though, and does his best to ignore the gentle ache in his chest.
February finally comes to an end, as does the worst of the winter chill. And while it’s lovely to see the light of the day stretching on longer, to feel a little bit of warmth when he steps outside, Merlin can’t help but mourn for the excuse that winter had provided for spending hours at a time with Lancelot.
Indeed, with the arrival of spring comes patrols and training sessions and everything that keeps the two apart. And Merlin knows that it’s silly, that he and Lancelot have been ‒ well, have been doing this ‒ for ten months now, knows that it shouldn’t be difficult, going back to the business of acting as knight and physician’s apprentice, rather than just Merlin and Lancelot.
But gods, Merlin misses him. Even when he’s on the field sidelines, watching him train, or when they’re all on patrol together, Merlin at Arthur’s side, as per usual. He’ll find himself glancing back every so often, to where Lancelot rides next to Gwaine, until Arthur says eyes on the road, Merlin.
And, well ‒ that’s one good thing to come out of this, Merlin supposes. Less time spent with Lancelot usually equates to more time spent with Arthur, and while Merlin misses the former so much it makes him ache, being in Arthur’s presence gives him a thrill of sorts, a completeness that he can’t find anywhere else.
It’s when they’re on a ride together in late March ‒ just the two of them ‒ that the full force of that hits him for the first time in a long while. Arthur is in a better mood than Merlin has seen in months, chatting freely and laughing and making snide remarks that Merlin parries with enthusiasm.
At one point, they stop to rest by a river bank. Arthur hops off his horse, tying her to a tree, and Merlin follows. He stays a few steps behind as Arthur walks up to the edge of the rocky shore, watches as the prince stretches, letting out a small contended noise.
He goes to stand next to Arthur and then sits on the rock, crossing his legs beneath him and closing his eyes. He breathes in deep, relishing in the sweet smell of pine and river water and clean, crisp air. For a moment, he lets his magic tickle his fingertips, lets himself connect to the world around him, feeling the energy of everything all at once.
He opens his eyes and looks up. Arthur is staring at him, a slight smile curling his lips, and the two men hold each other’s gaze for a long moment.
And then, very softly, Arthur says, “I missed this.”
It hits Merlin, then ‒ the sheer force of the love he feels for the man who stands next to him. It’s warm and cold and wonderful and terrible, all at the same time. Merlin looks up at Arthur, into those blue eyes, watching as the prince runs a hand through his hair and goes to sit down next to Merlin, pulling his knees up to his chest.
Merlin thinks: I love you, I love you, I love you.
He thinks it until it transforms from a thought and into a deep, undeniable knowing. Until it’s not a set of words, but an unchangeable part of his soul.
“Me, too,” he tells Arthur.
Camelot’s first annual tournament takes place in April, and while Merlin’s never quite understood the total appeal of a bunch of nobles dressing in armor that could, if sold, feed an entire village for months, and whacking each other with swords for days at a time, he thinks that he might be starting to get it. Just a little.
Because now the tournament is down to the wire, and it’s essentially turned into a set of duels for Camelot’s finest knights. Watching his friends go toe to toe, having real fun for the first time in ages, is entertainment of the best kind for Merlin.
He keeps his wagers purely mental, however, despite endless nagging from Gwen to make a bet.
“Oh come on, Merlin!” she says, grinning at him. They’re seated next to each other, as they usually are during tournaments, near the very front of the arena. “Surely you’ve got some spare change?” She eyes Percival and Gwaine, face alight with excitement. “I’m thinking this one will go to Percival.”
Merlin just laughs, shaking his head, and says, “You really are a blacksmith’s daughter, aren’t you?”
Gwen blushes a little. “It’s exciting!” she exclaims. “I’ve always preferred the spring tournament to the other ones. Just to disarmament, instead of first blood. I don’t feel as though I have to worry so much.”
Merlin nods. He understands that feeling all too well.
“I don’t know,” he says, after a moment, watching as Gwaine swiftly dodges one of Percival’s strikes. “Percival’s got brute strength, sure, but Gwaine is as quick as they come.”
And so they go on for the next half hour or so, chatting and cheering on their friends. Gwen is right, ultimately ‒ Percival beats Gwaine, albeit barely, and then goes on to face Lancelot.
Within three minutes, Percival’s sword is halfway across the arena, and Lancelot’s sword hovers a few inches from his opponent’s armored chest.
The crowd erupts into cheers, Gwen and Merlin perhaps the loudest of them all.
“Gods, he’s amazing, isn’t he?” Merlin says, unable to keep himself from gushing a little. His eyes roam Lancelot’s form, and he watches as the knight takes off his helmet and looks straight to the stands where Merlin sits.
Lancelot’s eyes are bright with the excitement of victory, with the thrill of the fight. And he’s got countless villagers and nobles alike cheering and clapping for his win, but those eyes ‒
Those eyes are only on Merlin.
A few minutes later, Merlin’s managed to make his way out of the stands with a little bit of a struggle ‒ the crowd, still restless from the long winter, is incredibly large today ‒ and is searching for Lancelot when a hand claps his shoulder.
He jumps, spinning around and coming face to face with Arthur. The prince is looking at him with a single raised brow.
“Perhaps you’ve forgotten,” he begins, “but I’m about to fight in the final match of the tournament, which means I’ll be needing help with my armor. You know. As always.”
“Right!” Merlin exclaims, blushing. “Sorry, sorry, I just got distracted. I was looking for ‒ ”
“Lancelot?” Arthur supplies. “You’ll do well to remember, Merlin, that you’re my manservant, not his. He’s perfectly capable of readying himself.”
Merlin frowns, shoving down the urge to snap back at the prince, reminding himself that Arthur’s right. Merlin is meant to be helping him prepare for the fight. It’s his actual job. He just wishes Arthur didn’t feel the need to be such a complete and utter prat about it.
“Sure thing, sire.”
After Merlin’s helped Arthur with his armor ‒ a task done in uncharacteristic silence, lacking any of Merlin’s usual helpful “tips” and pep talks ‒ he manages to steal away for a moment to see Lancelot in his tent.
“Ready to face the champion?” Merlin asks, grinning.
He’s all dressed, save for his helmet. And even though his armor doesn’t gleam quite as brightly as some of the other contenders’, even though his sword wasn’t made by the royal blacksmith and his cloak carries no family insignia, Merlin thinks Lancelot may be the most magnificent of all the knights here.
“As I’ll ever be,” Lancelot answers. He wipes a hand across his forehead before running it through his hair, recently cropped short (much to Merlin’s chagrin), and shifts back and forth on his feet a little.
Merlin frowns. It’s not like Lancelot to get nervous, especially for something as ultimately inconsequential as a tournament. Stepping forward, he places a gentle hand on the side of Lancelot’s face, running a thumb across his cheekbone. “You’ll do great.”
The knight’s eyes close, just for a moment. He lets out a soft, quiet breath, and the air ghosts across Merlin’s palm, making a gentle shiver run up his spine.
When Lancelot opens his eyes, there’s a determination in them that wasn’t there before. His lips quirk up into a smile, and then he leans forward and kisses Merlin, soft and sweet.
Merlin tenses a little, surprised, but kisses back after a moment, reaching up to wrap his arms around Lancelot’s neck.
It’s not like they don’t kiss outside of the bedroom ‒ hell, Elyan once caught them snogging in the armory.
It’s just ‒ they don’t normally kiss like this, all chaste and gentle. Not in any place that isn’t Lancelot’s chambers, or Merlin’s room. He’s not sure why. He only knows that they just...don’t. It’s an unspoken rule of sorts, he supposes.
One that Lancelot has taken initiative to break.
When he pulls back, there’s something unreadable in his eyes ‒ something that makes Merlin feel nervous.
And then Merlin, almost without thinking, is reaching up and untying his neckerchief. Lancelot watches, eyes widening a little, as Merlin holds it out for him to take.
“A favor, for the most noble of knights,” Merlin says, and even though he intended for the words to be teasing, the sentiment comes out sounding terribly sincere.
Lancelot’s eyes are softer than Merlin has ever seen them. He takes the scarf and ties it around his arm. When he’s finished with the knot, he looks back to Merlin and says, “I’ll wear it with pride.”
And then he takes Merlin’s hand, lifts it to his lips, and kisses it.
The crowds are loud and the spring air is warm and heavy with excitement as they step up to each other in the arena.
Lancelot holds his helmet at his side, as does Arthur, and the two men give each other short bows before snapping into position. Arthur lifts his helmet, about to place it on his head, and that’s when he notices it.
An unmistakable piece of red cloth, tied around Lancelot’s arm.
And Arthur thinks that he really ought to be used to it by now, thinks that it shouldn’t hurt so bad. But seeing Merlin’s neckerchief on Lancelot, fluttering gently in the wind, makes him feel as though a cold, dark pit has opened in the center of his chest.
And there’s something about seeing it here, in the fighting arena, that makes it even worse. Giving a favor is a blatant display of favoritism, is essentially an endorsement that says my money is on you.
And Merlin’s money ‒ metaphorically speaking, at least ‒ has always, always been on Arthur. He’d be loath to admit it aloud, but half the time he’s fighting in these tournaments, he’s riding high on the fact that Merlin is there, in the front row of the stands, cheering him on with a faith that Arthur’s never felt deserving of, but has always appreciated more than words could express.
Only now ‒ for this fight, at least ‒ it won’t be Arthur that Merlin will be cheering on. The thought is like a well-aimed kick right to his confidence, and he has to suck in a deep breath, reminding himself that he’s Arthur Pendragon, Crown Prince, acting regent of Camelot and the land’s finest warrior. He can do this, with or without Merlin’s support.
Except he can’t, apparently, because within ten minutes, Arthur is on his back and Lancelot’s sword is hovering just above his throat, and Arthur is saying, trying his best to preserve whatever pride he has left, “I yield.”
He watches as Lancelot sheaths his sword, brown eyes bright with victory yet still somehow maintaining that air of pure, untaintable humility, and reaches out a hand.
Arthur could ignore it. He considers it, for a moment. But Lancelot is giving him this look ‒ so open and kind and honest ‒ and when Arthur glances over to the stands, he sees Merlin sitting there, watching them with an almost cautious expression. As if he knows what Arthur is thinking.
Arthur clasps Lancelot’s hand in his own, and the knight pulls him to his feet.
Afterwards, as Arthur is making his way towards the changing tents, chest still aching with sheer embarrassment ‒ when’s the last time he lost this tournament? When he was fifteen, maybe? ‒ he catches sight of Merlin, on the other end of the arena. He’s made his way out of the stands, damn near bouncing with excitement. When Lancelot comes up to him, pulling off his helmet, Merlin smiles wide and proud and, without preamble, throws his arms around the knight.
Lancelot immediately drops the helmet ‒ Arthur watches, for a moment, as it rolls away into the dirt of the ring, utterly forgotten ‒ and hugs back, tucking his face into Merlin’s neck. They stay like that for a good, long while, completely oblivious to the world around them.
Throat tight, Arthur turns away.
The night of the tournament, Merlin and Lancelot get spectacularly drunk.
They’re in Merlin’s room, for once, since Gaius is on a short trip to the forests to gather herbs for the next few days. This side of the castle is quieter, especially in the evenings, and it brings about an air of privacy and intimacy that makes Merlin feel warm and content and utterly safe.
Lancelot is leaning up against Merlin’s pillow, and Merlin against his chest. They’re sharing a jug of mead, given to Lancelot by the castle cook as a reward for his victory.
“She’s always been sweet on you,” Merlin had teased him as they’d walked the halls towards Gaius’ chambers, nudging Lancelot’s shoulder and grinning. “The whole damn castle is sweet on you, I think.”
Lancelot had just blushed and shaken his head, and Merlin had grabbed his hand and pulled him through Gaius’s doorway with an I’ll get the cups!
Now, two hours later, they lay together on Merlin’s bed, the jug nearly empty, both of them flushed and smiling and laughing loosely at every little thing. A lovely sort of tiredness comes over Merlin, and he lets his head fall back against Lancelot’s shoulder, closing his eyes.
“You’re amazing, Lancelot,” he murmurs sleepily. The knight only laughs gently, chest rumbling, and the sound makes Merlin smile, makes him feel warm, as if he’s being wrapped up in a thick woolen blanket.
“You make for a great pillow,” Merlin says, and a moment later thinks: okay, definitely drunk .
“That’s very sweet, Merlin,” says Lancelot, and Merlin can hear the smile in his voice. But he’s got this urge to see it for himself, so he peels himself off of the knight, ignoring Lancelot’s quiet, almost annoyed protestations.
“Where are you going?” Lancelot complains, and the gentle whine in his voice makes Merlin giggle as he turns around, shifting about until he’s straddling Lancelot’s hips.
Bending down, he places a gentle kiss to Lancelot’s lips. Then, he pulls back, rests his forehead against his lover’s and murmurs, “Thank you.”
There’s a moment of quiet. Then Lancelot laughs a little and asks, “For what?”
Merlin leans back, taking a moment to just look at the man before him. He’s wearing that shirt that Merlin loves ‒ the white one that dips down at the neck, exposing his collarbone and the muscled lines of his upper chest ‒ skin gleaming in the soft candlelight of the room, his dark hair ruffled and his eyes ‒
Gods, does Lancelot have pretty eyes. Merlin just stares into them for a long moment, utterly entranced by the sweetness he sees there, but then Lancelot’s lips quirk up in amusement and he prompts, “Merlin?” and said man remembers that he’s just been asked a question.
“Uh ‒ ” Feeling dazed, Merlin gives a little shake of his head before closing his eyes, trying to remember what he’d been saying.
Oh, right. Thank you.
“I just ‒ thank you, Lancelot.” Merlin has no idea what he’s saying ‒ no idea where the hell he’s going with this ‒ but he forges on bravely nonetheless. “For everything, for…” He pauses, reaching down and grabbing Lancelot’s hand.
“For sharing this with me,” he finishes, very quietly, eyes fixed on their interlaced fingers.
He marvels, for a moment, at the strength he sees in Lancelot’s hand, at the tough calluses on his fingers ‒ fingers that Merlin knows can trace the gentlest circles across his skin, that can leave him gasping and trembling, that can take him apart and put him back together again.
He meets Lancelot’s eyes, wary of what the knight’s response will be. Worried that he’s said too much, that he’s crossed that unspoken line.
But Lancelot just squeezes his hand and says, smiling as if Merlin has just handed him a star from Camelot’s dark spring sky, “Thank you. ”
Before Merlin falls asleep that night, face tucked into Lancelot’s chest, the knight bends down and places a kiss on top of Merlin’s head. He’s drifting off into that lovely darkness of sleep when he swears he hears it, swears the words are whispered into the quiet that belongs, for a moment, only to them.
I love you.
Merlin, resolutely, does not think about it. He doesn’t. He doesn’t.
Except, occasionally, when he’s got a moment of free time, he’ll be sitting in his room, studying his magic books, and think of that moment before he’d fallen asleep, of the reverence with which the words had been spoken.
Or, occasionally, he’ll be sitting on the sidelines of the training field, watching Lancelot parry and block and just be quite generally magnificent and the memory will pop up, unbidden, assaulting him and seeming to ask are you ever going to consider the implications of this, Merlin ?
No, Merlin tells the disembodied voice from within. Resolutely.
And then, one evening, Merlin is sitting with Gwaine in the knight’s chambers, in front of the fireplace, and in a comfortable moment of silence, that moment comes to his mind once again as he stares into the flames.
Merlin gives a very audible sigh.
Gwaine lifts an eyebrow. “You okay, Merlin?” he asks.
And although his tone is casual, Merlin need only glance at the knight to see the concern written, however subtly, into his features.
Gwaine, for all his posturing as a devil-may-care free spirit, is quite the worrier.
Merlin opens his mouth to say I’m fine, but what comes out instead is ‒ “I keep thinking about Lancelot.”
Gwaine snorts. “Well, Merlin, you are sleeping with him. If you weren’t thinking of him at least somewhat often, I’d feel a little bad on behalf of poor Lancelot.”
Merlin rolls his eyes; for once, he’s not in the mood for teasing. “I’m serious, Gwaine!” he exclaims, unable to keep frustration from creeping into his voice. “The other night, after the tournament, he…” he trails off, then, fixing his eyes on the flames and trying to ward off a blush.
After a moment of silence, Gwaine, sounding quite curious, prompts, “He…what?”
“Well, for nothing, it sure seems to have you stressed out.” He pauses, then adds, more serious, “You know can you tell me anything, Merlin. Whatever it is, I won’t judge.”
Merlin pins him a look of teasing disbelief. Gwaine smirks.
“Well, not too harshly, at least.”
The quip does the job of lessening the tension, and a moment later, Merlin says, “We got pretty drunk, and before I fell asleep, I thought I heard him say…” He trails off, unable to say the words, and gives Gwaine a meaningful look, hoping that the knight will understand.
He does, it would seem, because he just meets Merlin’s gaze and says, quite bluntly, “He dropped the l word, huh?”
A bit surprised at Gwaine’s lack of it, Merlin nods. Then, understanding dawns, and he says, not without a bit of accusation, “You’d already guessed.”
Gwaine shrugs. “Just a hunch.”
Merlin lets out a short, almost disbelieving laugh. “Of course you did,” he murmurs, shaking his head and smiling ruefully. “I think you missed your calling, Gwaine. You’d make for a hell of a politician.”
Gwaine’s face immediately twists and he mimes vomiting. “I think I’d rather fall on my sword.”
Merlin laughs for real this time and says, “I thought you’d say that.”
A comfortable silence falls over the two. Naturally, Gwaine is the one to eventually break it.
“How did it make you feel?” the knight asks.
He doesn’t need to clarify; Merlin knows what he means. He just isn’t sure how to respond, isn’t sure how to talk about this in any way that doesn’t make his stomach feel all strange and fluttery, that doesn’t make conflict rage like a storm in his heart.
And yet ‒ Merlin knows the answer, doesn’t he? He knows how the words made him feel, knows that that’s precisely why he’s been feeling so off-kilter.
“It was nice,” Merlin confesses. Which is, he thinks, a very gentle way of putting it.
In truth, hearing those words from Lancelot has taken Merlin’s world and shaken it, has made him question everything that’s happened in the last eleven months. It’s left him confused and, if he’s being entirely honest, a little bit scared.
Above all, though, it’s left him feeling undoubtedly, irrevocably good. When those three softly-spoken words were uttered into the late night, the first thing that Merlin felt wasn’t fear or uncertainty.
It was happiness. A sweet sort of joy that began in the top of his head, where Lancelot kissed him, before spreading to every other part of his body, from his arms to his back to the tips of his toes.
And then Gwaine says, perhaps more softly than Merlin has ever heard him speak, “You know he’s in love with you, don’t you?”
Merlin freezes, muscle tensing, heart damn near stopping. He rips his eyes away from Gwaine’s, feeling as though the knight’s words have stripped him completely bare.
“I don’t ‒ it’s not ‒” Merlin shakes his head, suddenly feeling very hot and uncomfortable, suddenly wanting to be out of this room altogether, away from Gwaine and his all too knowing gaze. “It’s not like that. With Lancelot. Even if he does ‒ love me ‒ it’s not in that way. We’re just ‒ you know.”
“What? Just fucking?” Gwaine rolls his eyes, then, continues, “If it were only that, I doubt it would have lasted this long. Besides ‒ I see the way he looks at you. And the way you look at him.”
Merlin isn’t sure how to respond to that. He knows, somehow, that denying it won’t do him any good. He just stares into the fire and feels off-balance, feels confused and feels the weight of Gwaine’s stare on him, feels the weight of everything on him.
It’s a last resort when Merlin says, very quietly, “I know I’m not in love with him, Gwaine.”
He feels more than sees Gwaine’s skepticism, eyes still fixed on the crackling flames. “Is that so?”
“Yes,” Merlin says. And finally, finally, he speaks the words out loud, the words that have lived and breathed and burned beneath his skin for years.
“I’m in love with Arthur.”
Merlin, feeling utterly raw, looks up at Gwaine. He’s not expecting shock, because he’s suspected that the knight has known about Merlin’s feelings for Arthur for quite some time.
He’s also not expecting what he does see written on Gwaine’s face ‒ that is, a sort of quiet puzzlement.
Then Gwaine says, so very simply, “You’re allowed to love them both, Merlin.”
And Merlin doesn’t know what to say to that.
Merlin lets Gwaine’s words ruminate in the weeks that follow their conversation. Things with Lancelot continue on as they always have ‒ Merlin realized quite quickly that Lancelot thought him asleep when he whispered his confession, and sometimes he finds himself wondering how things would be if he hadn’t ‒ and, contrary to feeling uncomfortable, Merlin feels as though their relationship is stronger than ever.
Yet Merlin can’t help but wonder at Gwaine’s words, can’t help but constantly think to himself, over and over ‒ maybe he’s right. Maybe he is in love with Lancelot, as well as Arthur.
Is it truly possible? For one’s heart to belong to two people at once? Merlin sits by the edge of the training field, one day, watching as Lancelot and Arthur spar.
Arthur’s attitude towards Lancelot has, thankfully, gotten better over the past month or so. He’s stopped treating spars with the other knight like battles with bandits, undignified and harsh and almost brutish, and has stopped being short with him in conversation.
Now, Merlin watches as the two men converse, Arthur just having bested Lancelot a minute or so before. Arthur runs a hand across his forehead, leans in to say something, and Merlin watches, surprised, as Lancelot actually laughs, that lovely smile spreading across his lips.
Arthur smiles a bit, too. Not that full-hearted grin that has a habit of making Merlin’s heart leap in his chest, but a smile nonetheless.
And then Arthur turns to the sideline and he and Merlin catch eyes.
He’s expecting a teasing remark, something along the lines of still being a lazy arse, I see, or I’m quite sure I gave you a list of chores to do.
Instead, Arthur’s eyes soften and that small smile that he’d given Lancelot shifts, turning so sweet and gentle that it makes Merlin feel dizzy.
It’s not often that Arthur looks at him like that. But when he does ‒ gods. Merlin finds himself thinking that it’s all worth it. The secret-keeping, the anxiety, the weight of his destiny.
He can carry the burden of it all if it means he gets to keep Arthur, if it means he gets the prince’s eyes on him like this. Like he’s special. Like he’s precious.
And then Lancelot turns, too, following Arthur’s gaze, and his dark eyes meet Merlin’s, so full of warmth and love and that’s when it hits him, all at once.
Gwaine, Merlin realizes, is right.
A week or so later, Arthur takes it upon himself to teach Merlin chess, much to Merlin’s chagrin.
“I told you, Arthur,” he complains, staring at the bored in frustration, one of his eyes damn near twitching from the force of his concentration. “I don’t have a mind for strategy.”
Arthur laughs, warm and full. “Merlin, you hardly have a mind for anything.” At Merlin’s sharp look, he adds, “Doesn’t mean you can’t learn, though.”
And by the end of the third game, Merlin thinks that, despite all odds, he’s starting to get a handle on it. He’s just executed a pretty clever move, and is looking at Arthur smugly when the prince says, quite out of nowhere, “You know I don’t really mean it, don’t you?”
Merlin’s smile fades, and he looks at Arthur curiously. “Mean...what?”
He watches as Arthur’s cheeks slowly bloom with red. “You know,” he says, waving a hand loosely in front of him, as if the answer to Merlin’s question is floating in the air above the chess board. “The jokes about you being an ‒ idiot or a fool or whatever, I…” he trails off, resolutely not looking at Merlin. “...I’m really only ever just teasing you.”
And then he does look up, biting his lip, eyebrows drawn together in what Merlin might even call nervousness. “I mean ‒ you know that, right?”
Merlin doesn’t answer for a moment, instead turning his gaze to the chess pieces in front of him and thinking what in the hell prompted this?
It’s not necessarily the first time Arthur’s apologized for being a prat ‒ even jokingly ‒ but it is the first time he’s done it in such a straightforward manner. In such an earnest manner.
And of course Merlin knows that Arthur rarely means his little comments, has known this ever since, before Merlin left for Ealdor that first time, Arthur gave him that deeply fond look even while saying ‒ Really. The worst servant I’ve ever had.
So he meets Arthur’s eyes and says, smiling softly, “I know, Arthur.”
He watches, then, as the prince’s face transforms, as all the anxiety slips away into what may be the loveliest look Merlin’s ever been on the receiving end of. It’s all warm blue eyes and lips tilted up in a sweet smile and Merlin thinks that, in this moment, he’s never loved anyone more.
“Okay,” Arthur says quietly. “Just making sure.”
After that, the moment passes, but as the two men continue their game, there’s a warmth in the air that seems to permeate their every interaction, their every word and laugh.
And when Arthur bests Merlin for the third time in a row, Merlin just grins and says ‒ “Okay, so maybe the third time isn’t the charm. Up for one more go?”
When the Dorocha come, May has just rolled in, bringing the end of the rainy season and the start of summer’s warmth. Yet with the Dorocha come cold , fiercer than anything Merlin has ever known.
The night before Arthur and his company is to set off for the Isle of the Blessed, their shrieks haunt the castle walls. Merlin lies awake after leaving Arthur’s chambers, huddled under his covers, feeling as though the piercing screams are pummeling straight through to the darkest depths of his heart.
He lies there and thinks and thinks, about the shrieks and about the veil and about Arthur.
Arthur, who plans to walk through the veil and sacrifice himself for his country. Arthur, who is so stupidly insistent, who is unwilling to let anyone take his place, who believes it must be Camelot's ruler who saves her.
As it is, Arthur isn’t the only one who’s meant to protect Camelot and her future. And Merlin has no intention of letting Arthur walk through that veil.
Perhaps that’s why Lancelot comes to see him.
Merlin is still awake after hours of late-night contemplation when he hears the knock on his bedroom door. He knows who it is immediately ‒ would know that gentle knock anywhere ‒ but doesn’t get to his feet. Dread coils like a snake around the bleeding muscle of his heart.
He doesn’t want to have this conversation.
A part of him had hoped that Lancelot would somehow ‒ instinctively, maybe ‒ just know. That he would guess about Merlin’s decision, but let it be. That he would understand.
The door opens and Lancelot walks through. He spies Merlin laying in his bed, on his back, and sits down at the edge of the mattress. He reaches forward, grabbing one of Merlin’s hands and tangling their fingers together. And Merlin, despite his nervousness, feels the cold that’s enwrapped his body fade, even if just a bit.
“Merlin,” Lancelot murmurs, and there’s something almost dangerous in his voice. It’s a single utterance of Merlin’s name, but it sounds like a warning.
“Don’t,” Merlin whispers.
He watches as Lancelot’s head dips down, watches as the knight draws in a very deep, slow breath. When he speaks, there’s this undercurrent of hopelessness, as if he knows, deep down, that his words are futile.
“You don’t have to do it, Merlin.”
Lancelot squeezes his hand, and Merlin’s not sure if he’s trying to comfort him or himself.
“It’s Arthur,” Merlin says, after a long moment, tearing his eyes away from Lancelot, unable to look the knight in the eye while he tells him this.
Because he knows what the words mean, knows that he may as well be saying yes, I’m choosing him.
Not Arthur over Lancelot. But Arthur over them.
Arthur over himself.
“I know,” Lancelot says, sounding hoarse. “But I ‒ ” Merlin risks a glance back up at him, watching as the knight shakes his head. Even in the dark, Merlin can make out his familiar features.
He looks lost.
“I just ‒ ” He cuts himself off before withdrawing his hand from Merlin’s and standing up.
Merlin watches as he paces back and forth for a minute or so, slowly. When he comes to a stop, he turns to face Merlin. Intensity rolls off of him in waves, and he says lowly, “I know what he means to you, Merlin. I’ve always known. But I just can’t ‒ I can’t help but want you to ‒ ”
His voice just breaks, then, and Merlin’s heart right along with it. His chest aches and twists and hurts as he watches Lancelot cover his face with his hands, watches him shake his head a few times.
Now it’s Merlin’s turn to whisper I know, but that seems to make something inside Lancelot just snap, and then he’s walking forward, falling to a knee in front of Merlin’s bed and taking his hand once more.
“I know it’s not fair of me to say it,” he says, sounding so completely broken, and fuck, this is why Merlin hadn’t wanted to have this conversation. “But I don’t know ‒ if you ‒ if you die, I don’t know how I’ll…” He sucks in a short breath. “I don’t know what I’ll do, Merlin. I won’t know how to ‒ I mean, you’re part of my life, now, and I can’t lose that, and I’m sorry, I’m sorry. ”
And it’s terrible, Merlin thinks, that Lancelot is apologizing at all. It’s terrible that he thinks he needs to get to his knees in front of Merlin and say I’m sorry for not wanting the man he loves to die.
Because now, as Lancelot looks up at him, something almost desperate in his face, Merlin knows that that’s precisely what they are to each other. For all of Merlin’s denial, for all of Lancelot’s reservation ‒ what they have? It’s more than sex. Maybe it started out that way, but it’s since transformed into something deep and loving and beautiful, into something neither of them could have expected.
And Lancelot, for all his honor and goodness and selflessness, doesn’t want to let that go. And Merlin can’t find it within himself to blame him, because he doesn’t want to let it go either.
But he has to. He has to.
“I’m sorry, too,” Merlin says.
Three words, but Merlin manages to fit within them every ounce of sorrow and regret and guilt he feels. And Lancelot must hear it, must understand that Merlin’s not going to be convinced, because a moment later, he lets go of Merlin’s hand and stands up, letting out a shaky breath.
He gives a nod ‒ sharp and jagged, almost ‒ and whispers, “Okay.”
A mask falling over his face ‒ since when does Lancelot go out of his way to hide his emotions from me? Merlin thinks, feeling almost mournful at the sight ‒ the knight turns and walks out of the room.
The door shuts quietly behind him.
Arthur knows that something has happened between Merlin and Lancelot.
After a year of the two spending almost all of their free time together, after a year of sweet smiles and stolen glances and open, physical affection, the distance between his best friend and his best knight is glaring.
Merlin rides at the font of the line, next to Arthur, and that in itself isn’t unusual. But when they stop to rest on the first night, Merlin stays glued to his side, rather than going off to find Lancelot as soon as they dismount. And when Merlin makes dinner and they all gather around the campfire, the usual chatter subdued by the knowledge of what’s to come, his manservant sits next to Percival ‒ and as far away from Lancelot as possible.
The following morning, there’s a quick interaction between the two; Merlin walks by Lancelot to get to his horse, and the knight stops him, touching him gently on the forearm and murmuring something too quiet for Arthur to hear.
Merlin responds a moment later, looking pained, and Arthur watches, shocked, as Lancelot’s lips thin and he walks away, eyes damn near stormy as he goes to climb on his own horse.
Arthur attempts to broach the subject an hour or so later, when he and Merlin are far enough ahead that they won’t be heard if they keep their voices down.
“What’s wrong?” he asks, figuring it's best to just cut right to it. Merlin shoots him a confused look.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he says, and Arthur sighs.
“You and Lancelot,” he elaborates. “You’re acting strange.”
Merlin actually scowls. “I’m not sure why you care,” he snaps, and his tone is so sharp that it actually takes Arthur aback.
Feeling almost admonished, he goes silent. He’s known Merlin for a long time, and while he’ll usually open up if Arthur’s insistent enough, Arthur also knows when to keep his mouth shut. Because Merlin very rarely gets like this in any serious way ‒ all cold and detached and even a bit mean ‒ so when he does, Arthur never knows what to say, what to do with it.
Teasing insults, mocking, sarcasm ‒ Arthur can work with that. But this feels frigid and untouchable, feels like something Arthur can’t hope to understand.
And as the group moves on through the forest, Merlin stone-faced and silent as they ride, he finds himself wishing that whatever it is that’s gone wrong with Merlin and Lancelot ‒ well, he wishes that it hadn’t.
Not too long ago, Arthur may have been secretly glad to see the distance between the two. But Arthur’s spent the last month or so fighting with himself, doing his best to find peace with Merlin and Lancelot’s relationship. He’s been better to Lancelot during training, has stopped being so harsh and cold, and has managed revived some of the warmth that used to be present in their interactions. He’s even started relieving Merlin from some of his duties to free up his evenings, every once in a while.
And it’s been good. Because Arthur has missed Lancelot as a friend, despite everything. And ever since Arthur started being more relaxed with Merlin’s time, his relationship with his manservant has eased. Merlin smiles at him more often, teases him and pokes at his ego while simultaneously giving him a confidence boost whenever he’s feeling particularly stressed about the duties that come with being regent.
Sure, it still hurts to see the two together. Sure, there are times when Arthur sees the open displays of affection that Merlin grants Lancelot ‒ the gentle touches, the arm around Lancelot’s shoulder ‒ and feels his heart ache a little. But he’s been dealing with it.
And now Merlin and Lancelot are on the outs, and instead of feeling glad, Arthur just feels bad. He looks at Merlin, who rides to his right, and the look on his manservant’s face ‒ stony, yet with tendrils of sadness breaking through the cracks ‒ makes him think that he’d prefer for them to work out their issues if it means that Arthur gets to see that cheeky grin.
Merlin has always looked loveliest with that happy light in his eyes.
And then Merlin ‒ that selfless fucking idiot ‒ throws himself in front of the Dorocha for Arthur and he’s dying and Arthur can’t think, can’t focus, can’t breath.
He’s barely holding himself together, is constantly blinking back tears because he can’t let his men see himself like this, he can’t. The sight of Merlin like this ‒ cold and shaking and dying ‒ fuck, he’s dying ‒ is enough to make him feel dizzy with fear, and when Lancelot offers to take Merlin back through the Valley of the Fallen Kings, Arthur almost refuses.
He almost calls the mission off. He’s this damn close to doing it, to turning them all around and rushing Merlin back to Camelot before he ‒
No. No. No.
But then he looks at Lancelot ‒ really looks at him. And in his best knight’s eyes, Arthur sees worry and fear and love, and thinks to himself, quiet within his own mind, that Lancelot’s eyes are a mirror of his own.
And that’s what makes him say yes.
He watches the two men ride away and knows, deep within, that Lancelot is the only man that Arthur could ever trust to get Merlin back safely. To keep him alive.
He knows it because when it comes to Merlin, he and Lancelot’s feelings towards him ‒ well.
They’re not entirely different, are they?
And then Merlin comes back to him, and when Arthur sees his manservant ‒ his best friend ‒ walking into that clearing in the Isle of the Blessed, grinning and lovely and alive ‒ he thinks:
No. Not different at all.
Lancelot is going to die soon.
He feels it in the air, in the cold, frigid wind that sweeps through the crumbling stone walls of the Isle of the Blessed; it’s a chill so deep that it quickly has him untying his cloak and covering it over Merlin’s shivering shoulders, one last time.
He feels it in his bones, in the way his back feels against the log where he lies, Merlin by his side, the fire crackling in front of them.
And he feels it in his soul, when he looks at Merlin. The other man is staring into the flames, expression solemn, and Lancelot supposes he’s thinking of the sacrifice he believes is to come.
No one is unafraid of death, Lancelot thinks. Not Merlin.
“Merlin,” he says, quietly. Said man turns to look at him, and Lancelot’s heart aches at the sadness he sees in those dark blue eyes.
They are eyes that Lancelot has learned to read very well over the past year, eyes that he has seen turn soft in their lighthearted moments of relaxation and dark in their moments in bed.
Lancelot looks into them now, long and hard, almost as if he can somehow memorize their color, as if he can take what he sees in them and bring it into his soul and keep it there, safe and warm.
It surprises him, sometimes, how visceral his protective instincts are when it comes to Merlin. Just the very thought of him stepping into the veil and being lost forever makes Lancelot’s heart thump harder, makes panic rear up in his chest, cold and harsh as a winter storm.
Now, he reaches out, grasping Merlin’s hand. The others are asleep, as far as Lancelot can tell, and far enough away that they won’t be heard.
Lancelot is going to die soon.
So, he leans forward and places his lips on Merlin’s, lets every single ounce of affection, of adoration, of love, seep into the way he presses against him.
Merlin kisses back instantly, and it’s as if all the tension of the past few days is momentarily forgotten. Lancelot cups Merlin’s jaw, gently licks the seam of Merlin’s lips, and then they’re parting and Lancelot is sinking into warmth and sweetness and it’s the loveliest thing he’s ever felt.
There’s still the sadness, resting deep within the back of his mind. There’s still the knowledge of what he’s going to do, whirling around inside his chest, turning his blood to ice.
Yet in this moment ‒ this one moment ‒ Lancelot feels the chill fade away, each second he spends with his hands tracing lines on Merlin’s cheekbones, with their lips moving against each other’s, making all of those awful thoughts go quiet.
Lancelot pulls away, only to lean back in and place his lips on Merlin’s neck, kissing gently. Merlin’s breath hitches, and then Lancelot is undoing Merlin’s trousers and stroking him, slow and easy.
Merlin places his forehead against Lancelot’s, eyes closed, his breath quick and warm against Lancelot’s cheeks. He murmurs Lancelot’s name, almost reverently, and the sound of it makes him ache, makes him feel as though his heart is heavy with things he cannot name.
It doesn’t take long. Even with Lancelot’s slow pace, it’s only a few minutes before Merlin comes, head falling onto Lancelot’s shoulder, a quiet moan escaping into the otherwise silent night.
Lancelot listens for a moment, but no one stirs. Then, Merlin is lifting his head up and undoing Lancelot’s trousers, and it’s his turn, now, to fall apart at the seams.
His movements, in comparison to Lancelot’s, are almost frantic, his hand moving quick, breathing still harsh. Lancelot can almost picture the thoughts running through his mind ‒ the sadness, the want, that certain longing for more that only comes when one realizes that time is running out.
Lancelot almost feels guilty, then.
But just for a moment. Because he knows, as surely as he does that the sun will rise tomorrow, that what he’s doing is right. And though it may take Merlin a while ‒ though he may curse Lancelot’s name for months, or even years to come ‒ Lancelot knows that he will eventually understand.
So, for now, he lets himself be. He pulls his forehead back from Merlin’s, his entire body feeling as though it’s burning in the most beautiful of ways, and looks into the other man’s eyes ‒ trying to memorize, still, that unnameable color ‒ as he comes.
A few minutes later, when they’ve settled back against the log, Merlin rests his head on Lancelot’s shoulder and says, so very quietly, “I’m sorry.”
It’s not an I love you, but Lancelot hears the hidden words nonetheless. Whether Merlin hears them or not is ‒ as it often is with him, Lancelot muses ‒ a mystery.
Lancelot says ‒ “There’s nothing to be sorry for, Merlin.”
In his mind, he whispers a quiet apology of his own.
A few hours later, he watches Merlin approach the veil. The Cailleach goes to stand in front of him, and the two circle each other. And Lancelot may not be of magic, but he’s sure that he can feel it thrumming in the air between the two, almost seeming to mix with the dark, cold energy that emanates from the veil itself.
Lancelot tears his eyes away from Merlin and looks into that swirling darkness, and every single fiber of his being is screaming at him, telling him to give into his fear and stay away.
And gods, does Lancelot fear. His heart is going wild and his gut is churning and with every moment that passes, it gets worse.
He breathes in. Breathes out.
And steps forward.
Every footfall is nearly silent; Lancelot works to make it so, knowing that Merlin can’t see him approach the veil, or it will all be over.
Every footfall is shaky; Lancelot feels like the very breath is getting sucked from his body, the closer he gets.
And then those footsteps bring him right up to the veil; he stands in front of it, trying not to tremble as he peers into what seems to be a rip in the very fabric of the Universe itself.
He thinks, then, of Guinevere. He pictures her soft smile and her warm brown eyes, lets the image comfort him as he approaches what he knows to be his end.
And he thinks of Merlin, too. He thinks of the past year, of the countless nights they've spent together in front of the fireplace and in bed, talking and laughing and just breathing in the space they created for themselves. A place for them, and them alone.
He hears the Cailleach say, “But your time among men is not yet over, Emrys. Even if you want it to be.”
He feels, rather than hears, Merlin turn towards him.
Their eyes lock. Lancelot watches as Merlin’s face transforms, as it goes from shock to fear to desperation.
Lancelot shoves every ounce of fear he feels down, and he gives the man he loves ‒ loves like it’s the only thing he’s ever needed to breathe, like it’s the most beautiful thing he ever did ‒ one last smile.
And then he turns, opens his arms, and steps into the veil.
When Arthur comes to, he’s staring up into darkness.
There’s the feel of cold air on his cheeks, and then his eyes are fluttering open. Above him is the open sky, swirling with stormclouds. For a long moment, Arthur lies there, disoriented and confused, his head aching.
And then the realization hits him.
The veil. The Cailleach. Arthur immediately sits up, wincing as his vision spins and blurs and his head pounds. He rubs his eyes, looks up and ‒
The veil has vanished, as if it was never even there to begin with. And whereas there was, before, the ghostly sound of the veil itself and the shrieks of the Dorocha that came from it, there is a complete and utter silence.
Yet Arthur thinks that quiet is somehow worse, as if it speaks to something far more disturbing than the veil itself.
Because the veil is gone, but sitting on his knees in the place where it once was is Merlin.
He is silent. Unmoving.
Arthur glances to his right, briefly, to see Gwaine still passed out on the ground.
And Lancelot ‒
Lancelot is nowhere to be seen.
Arthur stands up, fear and panic and this feeling of no no no overcoming him. He walks, slowly, towards Merlin.
Even when Arthur speaks his name, his manservant doesn’t turn around. He doesn’t move a muscle. Arthur goes to stand in front of him.
Arthur takes one look at his face and he knows.
Merlin doesn’t speak.
He doesn’t cry, either. He sits on his horse, riding next to Arthur, just as he always has.
And that’s wrong, Arthur thinks. Because things are not as they were. Things will never be as they were ever, ever again.
Not for the first time since they departed from the Isle of the Blessed, Arthur feels a wave of nausea come over him, born of grief and confusion and guilt.
He thinks, over and over in his mind: It was supposed to be me.
He voices it aloud to Gwaine, when they stop to rest for the night. The camp is utterly silent, and his knights move slowly, as if their very muscles are burdened by grief. The fire crackles, hot and blazing in the early summer air, yet Arthur cannot get warm.
So he goes to sit away from the fire, settling himself against a tree. He lets his head fall back against the trunk and closes his eyes.
He hears the sounds of the forest all around him, vibrant and full of life. It’s much more lively than it was when they first set off on their journey. It’s almost as if the woods and creatures within were waiting ‒ hiding out, holding their breath ‒ for the world to right itself before coming out again.
But the world hasn’t righted itself, has it? Not completely. Arthur squeezes his eyes shut tighter, feeling as though his heart is being crushed inside his chest.
He hears someone sit down next to him and knows immediately that it’s Gwaine. No other knight would have the courage to talk to him in a moment like this.
Arthur says, “It should have been me.”
There’s a long moment of silence. Arthur’s eyes remain closed.
And then Gwaine lets out a very deep, long breath and says, in a voice that Arthur has never heard from the knight before ‒ grieved, Arthur thinks, because Lancelot is dead ‒ “It shouldn’t have been anyone, Arthur.”
Arthur doesn’t say anything. He just sits there and hurts and wants for nothing more than to slip into a sleep that will last weeks ‒ months, maybe ‒ so that he doesn’t have to walk around Camelot with the knowledge that his best knight ‒ his friend ‒ is dead.
Arthur was supposed to protect him. He was supposed to protect them all. Lancelot and Merlin and Guinevere and the entirety of Camelot.
Gwaine rests a gentle hand on his shoulder, squeezing, and then Arthur hears him stand up and him walk back over to the campfire.
Gwaine is right, Arthur supposes. It shouldn’t have been anyone. Lancelot, Merlin, Arthur’s knights, even Arthur himself ‒ they’re all good people, he likes to think. Such a burden shouldn’t have been placed on any of them.
But Arthur has learned, in the past few years, especially, that the world can be far crueler than he ever could have imagined. Destiny cares little for the petty feelings of humans, for their happiness and love and hope.
He thinks of Lancelot, then ‒ of the knight’s pure humility, of his untaintable sense of honor. Of his kindness and compassion and endless capacity to love.
In a world as cold as this one, Arthur supposes it’s no surprise that it was Lancelot’s life that was lost in the end.
An honorable death, they’ll surely call it.
But for the first time in his life, Arthur finds himself thinking that there is no such thing as an honorable death.
There’s just death.
It ends on a warm spring night in the middle of May.
The darkness of the evening is settling in, and Merlin makes his way to Gaius’ chambers, head still fuzzy, body still cold and almost empty.
The physician is nowhere to be seen; Merlin supposes he’s purposefully giving him space. Gaius is clever, after all, and not immune to listening in on the castle gossip. Merlin’s sure he knows what Lancelot was to him.
Even the thought of the name makes his heart seize, makes him feel as though he’s tipping forward, as if he’s on the edge of a cliff and is pitching towards a dark cavern below. He makes it to his room, climbs into bed and pulls his knees to his chest.
He covers his face with his hands and tries to calm his breathing, but it isn't working, it isn’t working. He shakes his head, over and over, but the thoughts keep coming, keep assaulting him with all the fury of a violent storm.
He hasn’t cried yet. He knows it’s coming ‒ knows the hurt has yet to reach its peak ‒ but there’s something holding him back, something keeping him from letting it all out.
He falls back onto the bed, hands falling from his face. He stares up at the ceiling for a very long time. He counts to one hundred, trying to focus only on the numbers.
10, 11, 12.
Waking up to the sweet morning sunlight, looking to his right and seeing Lancelot there, already awake and staring at him with those eyes that make Merlin feel warm all over.
26, 27, 28.
Lancelot letting out a rare snarky comment during a feast, eyes sparkling, and Merlin laughing and laughing and letting his hands trail Lancelot’s shoulder as he goes to stand at his spot against the wall.
54, 55, 56.
Lancelot pulling his body over Merlin’s, hovering above him for a long moment before leaning down to press their lips together.
98, 99, 100.
Merlin opens his eyes, looking to his right.
There, sitting on a chair on the other side of the room, is Lancelot’s shirt.
The white one. That one that Merlin loves. The one he’d been wearing that night, one year ago, when Merlin came to his chambers and Lancelot asked ‒
“I wondered ‒ if maybe, you…”
Something in Merlin snaps.
He cries and cries and cries, cries until he’s choking on it, until he’s curled up, pressing his hands to his chest, as if that will somehow ease the pain.
It doesn’t, of course. It’s unbearable, and every single moment that passes only makes it worse, makes it feel like he’s on the precipice of death itself.
He keeps thinking to himself he’s gone he’s gone he’s gone, and with every utterance of the words within his mind, the tears come faster and harder and his heart ‒ gods, his heart ‒ feels like it’s about to break apart.
He’s not sure how long he lies there. The moment feels almost removed from time, as if it might’ve lasted twenty minutes or three hours.
All he knows is that, by the time his tears have begun to slow, the darkness outside has reached its peak. Merlin rolls over and stares out his window, gazing at Camelot’s night sky and thinking that he’d rather die ‒ would rather be stabbed right through his still-beating heart ‒ than feel like this.
There’s a very soft knock on his door.
Merlin doesn’t get up, but a moment later, the door opens anyway and he hears someone walk inside.
The door shuts. Merlin doesn’t have to turn over to know who it is.
“Merlin,” Arthur says. His voice is softer than Merlin has ever heard it.
He doesn’t say anything in response ‒ just lies there and shakes, tears still trickling down his face. He’s not sure why Arthur is here. He’s not sure he really cares.
All he can think about is Lancelot. Lancelot, who Merlin will never see again, who Merlin will never get to touch or kiss or hug or ‒
There’s a gentle hand on his shoulder, then, and Merlin turns over to lay on his other side and sees Arthur looking at him with eyes so sad and guilty ‒ I’m sorry it wasn’t me, Merlin sees written in them ‒ that it just breaks him apart all over again, and then he’s shoving his face into his pillow and shaking his head because he needs Arthur gone, because he doesn’t want Arthur to see him like this.
Arthur has other ideas. Merlin hears the bed creak, feels Arthur sit at the end of it, and then there are gentle hands on his shoulders, only pulling loosely, as if asking for permission.
Merlin gives it, lets Arthur pull him into his chest, and then he’s falling apart yet again. He cries ‒ these awful, wracking sobs that come from somewhere deep within ‒ and Arthur ‒
Arthur just holds him.
He doesn’t say anything, but he wraps his arms around Merlin, and Merlin tucks his face into the crook of his prince’s neck and weeps.
He only says one thing, in the end, and only after Merlin speaks.
“I loved him,” Merlin chokes out.
A moment of silence.
And then, Arthur whispers into the quiet, grief-laden darkness ‒
“He loved you, too.”