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First Snow

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The first snow of the season comes at the tail end of a long, hot summer that never quite gave way to fall. It begins very late at night, when Gaius has been snoring away for hours, and Merlin has stilled from his usual thrashing about. Cook sees it, sitting awake as she stares down at the scrap of blanket she once darned for her youngest child, and thinks of how sad her little ones always were when the first snow refused to cling to the still too warm ground, melting away just as it touched down.

It's a surprise, then, when Merlin awakens to more than usually frigid air and stumbles out of his room to find that outside the window everything's gone white. Merlin has some sort of bodily awareness that it's still quite early, but with the snow outside the window blanketing the ramparts and covering over the courtyard completely, it's almost as though he's standing outside of time. No one's been out yet to brush the snowdrifts away from their doors, and not a single footprint mars the carpet of white that glistens in the early morning light.

Merlin shuffles back to his bedroom, still wrapped in his coarse woolen blanket, and dresses as quickly as possible while huddled back into bed. Despite the chill in the air, he can't quite get rid of his grin, and it takes him only a moment to rouse himself well enough to slip down to the kitchen to fetch Arthur's breakfast, on time for the first time, well, ever.

Everyone's in high spirits. While the older servants periodically mutter about how it won't be so lovely when they're all breaking ice on the buckets and sweeping great heavy piles of snow off the courtyard stairs, even they can't help but smile as the kitchen hands drag in piles of rushes to brush clean and spread over the floor of the great hall, loudly planning elaborate war games that will be vastly more entertaining with the inclusion of snowball fights.

Merlin is infected with this good humor, filled with a reckless exuberance that prompts him to filch an extra hind of the spiced fruitcake that Arthur can never quite admit to loving, and he bounds up the stairs from the lower kitchen with twice his usual energy.

He slips into Arthur's room, feeling uncharacteristically charitable. Arthur's still asleep, twisted deeply into a knot of thick blankets, so while building up the fire, Merlin mutters an incantation that warms the chilled-through room to a cozy temperature. Arthur's face is softly lax, his lips parted slightly as he presses his nose in toward his chin, his cheek heavy upon his favorite pillowcase, the one embroidered by his nursemaid when he was a tiny, prattish child.

Merlin lays out Arthur's softest, warmest tunic and doublet before the fire, soft, supple blue linen and leather. He waits until they're pleasantly warm to awaken Arthur, sliding his thin linen night shift- much too light for this weather, Merlin will have to find him something warmer- over his head and down the lengths of his arms, as Arthur shivers sleepily and tries to wriggle back into it.

"Mrrrph," says Arthur piteously, but Merlin just bats his hands away and helps Arthur into his heated clothes while he is still drowsy and pliant and mostly horizontal, so as not to waste the warmth.

After, he places Arthur's breakfast in his lap, watching Arthur sigh in appreciation at the solid heat of the plate in his lap. Merlin tucks the furs and woolen blankets back around Arthur's shoulders and into the hollow of his neck, then steps back to draw aside the heavy winter drapes over the window, hissing at the sudden rush of cold air.

It's entirely worth it, to see the look on Arthur's face.

Merlin has begun to know Arthur in these last few years, and he's aware that Arthur smiles often and laughs oftener. Despite that, there's always just the slightest tinge of worry, guilt or responsibility that tempers his expression and pulls his jaw tight. It's something Merlin has become adept at reading, and he has found that it's often accompanied by a tensed shoulder or a pair of fingers closed tightly over the corner of Arthur's tunic. He's always careful to keep these tiny gestures of not quite happy, not completely at ease, under tables or beneath his armor, and away from scrutiny.

Merlin, though, sees him always and from so many angles, and has grown used to being the person to whom Arthur finally says a word or three about whatever's upsetting him. He's begun to think he ought to write some sort of comprehensive book about the little half gestures and noises that are Arthur, but whenever he thinks he's got him sorted, Arthur surprises him with something new. It's never before been such a good surprise.

Arthur's whole face is alight, painfully, unbearably perfect in his happiness, and at that moment, Merlin swears to do whatever it takes to be able to bring that look back to Arthur's face again and again, even if he must become master of the weather itself in order to do so.

"Snow," says Arthur stupidly, and Merlin's chest feels tight.

Arthur finishes his breakfast in a chair pulled up to the window, letting in the cold air and spoiling all the trouble to which Merlin had gone to make the room pleasant. It's alright, though, because Arthur barely bothers to hide his delight at the fruitcake, which he eats with a great smacking of lips, and even offers some to Merlin. He takes it, because Arthur would think it an offense if he didn't.

"I shall cancel training," Arthur says musingly. "The weapons'll just get slippery, and everyone's hands will freeze to the hilts."

Merlin decides not to point out that weather has never before deterred Arthur from training. He has very vivid memories of Arthur shouting, "Battles don't wait for fair weather, you louts," and knocking his knights about the wet, muddy lawn with the flat of his blade as Merlin watches from indoors, fretting about the state of Arthur's finest suede jerkin. Yes, it's clear that Arthur has ulterior motives for canceling the training, and Merlin, who already has a suspicion as to his plans, is convinced when below them, the servants begin a rousing bout of some barbaric yet extremely complicated game in the snow, and Arthur's mouth twitches into that look he gets whenever he's about to suggest something completely ill-advised and inappropriate.

Merlin decides to save him the trouble of plotting.

"They look as though they could use some tactical expertise," he says with a smirk, nodding at the servants as they lob great armloads of snow at one another below the window.

Arthur looks over at Merlin, and his eyes glitter in an actually quite dangerous way.

"Well," he says slowly. "What sort of prince would I be if I didn't aid them in their time of need?"

They sit still for a long moment, Merlin waiting for Arthur's composure to crack, before it finally does and they're leaping up to pile on heaps of clothes and clatter down through the stairways and along the hallways out to the courtyard.

"C'mon, then," Arthur cries, and they shove open the great wooden doors with too eager shoulders braced into the cold, oak planks.

Outside, the air is crisp upon Merlin's face, and he can feel his ears going red with the sharp chill as Arthur grabs him by the wrist. He drags him along toward where all the other young people are laughing and dancing around one another as best they can, through the drifts upon the great, empty field behind the castle.

It's harder work than expected, being dragged through snow that's at least knee-deep, and Merlin is quite short of breath from all the laughing and pushing as he and Arthur stumble into the crowd of servants and knights and townspeople.

That is to say, what began as a crowd of servants and knights and townspeople but quickly transforms into a much more orderly group of frightened subjects of Camelot.

Merlin watches their reactions, their well programmed fear and obeisance. He can see it without ever looking at these people, reflected clearly on Arthur's face. The initial good humor slowly fades away, replaced by Arthur's usual, slightly resigned air of authority. He straightens, fractionally, going from young, happy man to regal crown prince in the space of a single breath.

Merlin's chest twists unpleasantly with it, aching over the loss of that spectacularly pleased face that Arthur's been wearing all morning, and in that instant he knows that sometimes people have to make sacrifices in the name of doing the right thing, so he leans smartly over, clasps up an enormous handful of snow, and without any further preparation, lobs it straight at Arthur's face.

The great, loosely packed snowball hits Arthur straight on, collapsing against the strong line of his tense jaw and catching in the fringe of his hair from brow to sideburn. Arthur is perfectly still as it goes soft against the warmth of his cheek and begins to drip icy water down the collar of his greatcoat. Nobody breathes, Merlin included.

Then, in a motion so quick that Merlin suddenly remembers why you don't ever aim projectiles at Prince Arthur unless you're absolutely certain they will finish him off, Arthur tackles Merlin with a magnificent flying leap, sending them both sprawling into a vast pile of snow, attempting to rub an enormous handful of snow into Merlin's face. Merlin laughs so hard he thinks he'll choke on the joy, and flips them over to tousle Arthur's perfect, sunny hair into a thousand icy tendrils.

At Arthur's first sharp squawk of laughter, after Merlin's ineffectual scrabbling can't prevent the snow down the front of his shirt, the crowd breathes a collective sigh of relief, and everyone goes back to thrashing around and tossing one another into the drifts.

They stay outside for as long as the daylight remains, only stumbling inside when the last rays of sunlight have gone gray and tired, and the servants have all dragged themselves inside to warm their tired bones upon the kitchen hearthstones.

Merlin can't help but stare at Arthur as he half limps back inside. He's utterly bedraggled, his hair tangled into frozen clumps and still dripping with melting snow. His cheeks are flushed pink, high above his sucked in cheekbones, and his eyes are bright with laughter. His hands are red and chapped, unflinchingly clasping the iced-over handle of the doors at the top of the courtyard as he pulls it slowly open, not even wincing at the bite of the metal. He's surely frostbitten, Merlin realizes belatedly, and drags Arthur upstairs to his chambers and the merry fire that he manages to spell awake as Arthur sluggishly follows him around the last corner.

In Arthur's chambers, Merlin drags the furs off Arthur's bed and places them before the fire, then helps him out of his sodden clothes and into a clean, dry tunic and braes. He rubs Arthur's calves dry with a linen cloth, then the surprisingly fine bones of his ankles, and the smooth arches of his toes. Every bit of Arthur is chilled through, and Merlin rubs circles over his flesh with his own half-numb hands, willing the sensation back into Arthur's limbs.

He coaxes Arthur down to lounge in the pile of furs, then draws back to clasp Arthur's heel in the crook of his elbow, working a dry woolen stocking up over his foot and slowly unrolling it up his calf. Arthur sighs, a sound that comes from deep within his chest but is somehow still breathy, and for the other stocking, Merlin leads the way of the wool cuff with his still-cool fingers tucked around the weave, dragging his fingertips lightly up Arthur's ankle.

Merlin kneels before Arthur's still-outstretched leg for a long time, unmoving. He feels pinned, caught in place by Arthur's soft, contented sighs. He can feel the little puffs of warm breath just as they fade to cool against his collarbones, and the sensation runs a tight line to his chest.

He doesn't even realize he's shivering until Arthur waves a lazy arm at him and says,

"Go on then, borrow some dry clothes. If you freeze to death I'll have to get up and deal with it, and it's too cold for that."

Merlin raises himself up, slowly. It feels as though it's only been a moment, but his limbs are stiff with disuse, and he realizes he has perhaps been here, in this place, for a very long while.

He stands behind Arthur, out of his line of sight, to strip off his wet clothes and search around for something close to his size. He almost can't stand the idea of Arthur settling his gaze upon Merlin's bare body, pale and thin as a reed, and sharp angles where Arthur is all smooth skin and long, glorious muscles.

He settles upon a faded burgundy shirt and a pair of stretched-threadbare braes. The fabric settles about his body, too loose yet still close and thick with the scent that sometimes lingers at the corner of Arthur's jaw when Merlin bends too close to wake him.

Arthur shifts to glance back at him, then, and he chuckles quietly at the sight of Merlin, and extends an arm to beckon him back to the fireside.

Merlin sits to Arthur's left, leaning forward to rest his elbows upon his knees and lace together his lax fingers. The fire's warmth presses against his tilted upward face, almost too warm but so very satisfying.

Arthur sighs luxuriously, and stretches out his toes so far that Merlin has to restrain the urge to scold him away from the coals. "Can you read?" Arthur asks, surprising the thought out of Merlin's head.

" 'Course," he responds. "Gaius taught me. Latin and a bit of Welsh. Enough for the stories and whatnot."

He turns, slightly, to gaze at Arthur, the question, why, implicit in the lift of his brow.

Arthur exhales again, slowly, and when he speaks again his voice has gone soft and almost uncertain. "There's a book over there," he says, "In the cupboard. Will you read from it?"

Merlin has seen this book before, when pretending to tidy things up. He's never looked in it, assuming that it holds dreary figures or military maneuvers or some such. Now, standing smoothly and crossing the room to the wardrobe, he's amazed that he never before noticed the whorls set deeply into the leather binding, tracks of fingers that have brushed the surface over and over for years.

He brings the book back to the fireside and opens it carefully. It's old, and at first he finds the spindly writing difficult to read, as he puzzles out the old spellings. Once he feels he's able, he turns back to the first page, and reads aloud.

"There once was a man named Gw- Gwydion," he begins, "Who vowed to, uh, help his friend on a quest."

Arthur sighs and turns onto his side, curling up around the rugs and settling his head upon his bent arm. "Go on."

Merlin continues, and the writing is a little easier to make out, now. "Gwydion had agreed to help his friend, who was called Gilvaethwy, the son of Don, for that is how those who care truly for their friends must always behave. And so, though the son of Don's desires were frivolous, and would bring strife upon the land, Gwydion, as always, agreed."

Arthur shuffles a little closer, blinking at Merlin until he licks his lips and reads on, squinting at the faded text.

"So Gwydion and his friend decided upon a course of trickery, and they went to the lord Pryderi of Prydain to lay the seeds of their plan." He clears his throat. Arthur's forehead is so close to his side that he can feel the slide of the silken tips of his hair as it drags across a tiny stretch of blanket beside him.

"Gwydion was a great sorcerer," he reads quietly, and when Arthur doesn't so much as stiffen, continues, "So he created from the air a collection of fine creatures, beautiful steeds and sharp-nosed hounds, and traded these for Pryderi's most prized possession, a herd of swine."

Arthur chuckles into the fabric, and though the top of his head is just barely nudging Merlin's thigh, so softly he could almost have imagined it, he understands and relaxes backward, lifting his arms so Arthur may lay his head upon Merlin's lap. He does, sleepily.

"So Gwydion took the pigs and hurried north with them, to the land of Math, lord of Mathonwy, where he could claim shelter, and there he waited for Pryderi. His enchantments were fickle, and he knew they would hold not a day and a night before Pryderi would see how he had been tricked.'

Merlin's hand falters, then descends to rest at the base of Arthur's neck. Arthur mumbles something incoherent and wriggles into the touch, and Merlin softly, slowly flexes his fingertips against the tangle of Arthur's hair.

"So Pryderi came north, with his warriors, but was convinced to fight Math of Mathonwy alone, for the honor would be far greater. And they fought, and thanks to Gwydion's enchantments, Pryderi fell.

"And when Math returned to his chambers- hang on, this part's a bit smudged. Oh right. When Math returned to his chambers, it was only to find that Gwydion's companion, the frivolous Gilvaethwy, had gone there in his absence, and taken up his place. And then it was clear that all of the strife of Pryderi and Math had been but for this, and-"

Merlin glances down at Arthur. He's asleep, his warm breath coasting over a small patch of Merlin's inner thigh.

It'll soon be dinnertime, but Merlin is content to continue slowly drawing his fingers across the back of Arthur's neck, to wrap his other arm about Arthur's back and clasp his shoulder in warm, outstretched fingers as he basks in the warmth, and to watch Arthur's chest press up and back as he sleeps.

An indeterminate time later, Merlin realizes that he's managed to doze off, too. They wake up to a tray of still-hot soup on the floor beside them. While sharing it between them, still so drowsy that Merlin fears one or both of their heads will drop into the bowl, he asks, "Who used to read those stories to you? Have you had that book since you were a child?"

Arthur is too relaxed to act like he minds the inquiry. "My nursemaid, as early as I can remember. But-" He founders for a moment, but when he continues, it's smooth, without pain. "I think it was my mother's, first. Sometimes, when I had nightmares as a child, my father would read from it until I could go back to sleep."

He smiles, a carelessly tender gesture that Merlin can almost feel against his skin. "Your voice is nice, when you read."

Merlin can't think of any words that aren't so forced that they lose all of their intended meaning, so he abandons speaking altogether, and silently draws Arthur to his feet, his hands clasped around Arthur's from wrist to knuckle. He helps him into his boots and wraps a thick winter cloak about his shoulders, and at Arthur's easy nod, Merlin dons his spare cloak, which smells a bit horsey and warm and of fresh hay.

Merlin leads the way, Arthur's wrist clasped in his hand. His fingers feel narrow and fragile, pressed around the elegant sinew of Arthur's arm.

They leave the castle again, but this time they slip out through a small, crude door that lets them out into a deserted bit of courtyard. The snow is still falling, thick and heavy, and fat snowflakes drift lazily into Arthur's hair and eyebrows and make Merlin sneeze in surprise.

At this time of night, with the courtyard deserted and the moon hanging luminous and round in the sky, the air seems somehow softer, sweeter. Merlin gestures up at the castle's windows, where light drifts out to pool in the air, capturing the progress of countless, endless bits of snow, always falling but for pregnant moments, caught in that beam of light. There are so many of them that Merlin can't help but laugh, remembering childhood fantasies of being able to jump between the snowflakes, if he could just figure out their pattern.

Arthur doesn't laugh, doesn't make any sound at all, but for the quiet brush of his breath, but his face is open, unfettered, and Merlin can see the warmth there far better than anything that could have been summed up in words.

After what feels like endless, meandering years, they return to the castle, and Merlin relishes the feeling of his cheeks going full with warmth, sharp tinged as he realizes just how cold it was outside,as it's so much warmer in here.

They walk slowly, silently back to Arthur's chamber, and when the door is pressed closed behind him, Arthur reaches out for Merlin's hand and laces their fingers together. He draws Merlin nearer, and Merlin sighs with the weight of it, that tiny touch at the base of his arm that he can feel in his toes, and his knees, and in the taut press of his sinuses.

Arthur just smiles, gently, and slowly slides his hands along Merlin's arms, pulling his too-large tunic along with them. He eases his cloak up over Merlin's head, and then the shirt, and tugs Merlin gently toward the bed with his fingers tucked beneath the hem of his braes.

Merlin's mouth is dry, and his stomach twists as Arthur kneels down gracefully before him, and presses down the trousers, his hands slow and warm as they pull the fabric down the length of Merlin's thighs.

Merlin gasps, embarrassed, and shifts back, but Arthur just smiles again, that soft quirk of his lips that seems such a vast movement when his features are so relaxed, and captures Merlin's leg behind the knee, bending it upward and pulling the braes down and off, sliding his fingers along the hollow of Merlin's ankle then carefully replacing his foot upon the ground as he repeats the actions on Merlin's other leg.

Merlin stands before and above him now, naked in the moonlit room. For a long, painful moment, he half expects Arthur to turn away, now that he's seen the long, skinny mess of sharp hipbones and knobbly knees. He feels like a colt, spindle-legged and proud, yet barely able to stand upright.

Arthur just smiles again, soft and magnificent, and raises himself gracefully, gloriously tall, and with his arm outstretched, beckons Merlin to the bed.

Beneath the warm coverlets, they together divest Arthur of his clothes, and draw ever closer to tangle their legs together and wrap their arms about warm, close backs. It is only then, when they have already drawn so close and warm and melded, when their fingers have drifted over endless expanses and come to rest at the points of neck and hip, when their legs have twisted around and between one another and their stomachs have brushed faintly together, and when Arthur has sighed a beautiful, aching sigh, only then does Merlin close that last gap and press his lips to Arthur's perfect, parted mouth.

After that, everything is hot and slick and breathless, but the same, still, because they are close and warm and tight against one another, and after Arthur's mouth opens in a warm, amazed expression, and Merlin's matches his, they sink down, together, boneless and sated.

Merlin presses his nose into the curve of Arthur's neck, kissing drowsily at the sweat slicked line of his shoulder, and Arthur's arms go tight around his back, holding him ever, always close.

As Merlin drifts closer and closer to sleep, his mind catches dreamily hold of a memory. It's one that hasn't happened yet, though that's not stopped Merlin from knowing things before. He's always seen his life in bits, things that haven't happened and things that always happen, in no order that he's ever been able to discern. This, though, he knows as something that has already happened, a turning point, and something that he'll remember again and again, in all the times that come after.

He sees, in his not quite yet memory, Arthur's face as Merlin hits him with that perfect snowball, and a thousand mornings of waking to that same face that is lax with contentment before him now, though sometimes flecked with stubble, gaunt, or bright or pale or tan; countless emotions, expressions, innumerable words. He knows this man, Merlin thinks, as he curls more tightly into Arthur's warm and sated embrace. Despite these many surface variances, this man will always be the same, always his.