"What are you standing idly about for, Merlin? I need my horse."
Merlin whipped round, the sound of Arthur's voice making him start. He looked down at the washing in his hands, then back to the prince. Sure, he'd been daydreaming a little, but he'd hardly been standing idly about.
Things had settled down after Arthur's near death from the poisoned claws of the Questing Beast, but this most recent incident with Cedric (the imbecile) had severely shaken Merlin's faith and his strength of purpose. Though not as strong a sorcerer as Merlin, Cedric had set Merlin up and usurped his position as Arthur's manservant in order to gain access to an accursed treasure in the vaults of the castle. When he'd proved traitor, Arthur had apologized in his own, misguided way, but that lack of trust cut deeply.
"Of course, your highness. Right away." Merlin tried, and failed, to keep the sarcasm from his tone; thinking about Cedric had riled him up again. He made a show of wringing the garment in the basin, snapping it with a flourish and sending droplets of water flying towards Arthur, who tried not to make a face.
When Merlin tried to pass Arthur, the infuriating pillock framed the doorway with his body, not letting him through.
"You're in quite a mood lately," Arthur said, drawling out the word in a particularly cow-like manner.
"Am I?" Arthur's eyes were the most infuriating blue, especially as they had the additional effect of lessening Merlin's anger whenever he was annoyed. This was one of those times. He felt himself softening, the tension leaving his body as he regarded Arthur's lips, wet as though he'd spent some time licking them. How Merlin would like to lick them . . .
"You aren't still upset about that business with Cedric, are you?"
Merlin gave an offhanded shrug and tore his eyes away.
"Ha!" Arthur clapped his hands together and leaned against the frame. "I knew it."
"I'm not upset," Merlin said. He wouldn't give Arthur the satisfaction of admitting it. "I just . . . I'm tired."
"Don't lie to me, Merlin; you're terrible at it."
Arthur always said such things; they made Merlin want to laugh. If his prince only knew what a skilled liar he'd become.
"Fine, I'm still a bit irritated. You were wrong. And you didn't apologize."
"I did!" Arthur protested, throwing his hands in the air. "I think."
"By making me polish your armour and muck out the stalls—all the stalls?" Arthur had a peculiar way of showing his remorse when he'd made a mistake—and if he thought that Merlin would just take whatever he decided to dish without complaint . . .
"What did you expect? Flowers? Perhaps a candlelit dinner?"
Arthur advanced, diminishing the space between them. Merlin could feel the rushed heat of Arthur's breath. In a moment like this, it was almost as if . . . he could lean forward and Arthur would welcome his kiss.
He decided to press his luck. "Maybe."
Arthur's eyes dropped down, showcasing the unusually long eyelashes Merlin wanted to feel brushing against his cheek. Before the thought got further than that, Arthur stepped back, the incredulous look on his face sobering.
"You can have . . . a day off," he said.
"A day off."
"Yes," Arthur agreed, already turning to leave. "After you ready my horse."
Merlin watched him disappear down the corridor, trying to ignore the wistful tightening in his chest.
Merlin had loved Arthur from the day he first saw him. That wasn't quite true. He'd certainly thought his highness an oblivious prat, but he'd found him extraordinarily handsome as well. It wasn't until perhaps his fourth (or fifth) day as Arthur's manservant that he fell in love with the prince, in spite of his tendency to bully and assign Merlin the most ridiculous, demeaning tasks.
It was with some shame, then, that Merlin came to accept and even enjoy the role he'd originally assumed out of necessity. Arthur was a git, but he was Merlin's git. And being Arthur's servant allowed Merlin to be close, to protect the prince even though he didn't know he needed it. He could never know about Merlin's magic, not while Uther lived and sorcerers faced the threat of death. Outwardly, Merlin pretended he didn't desire closeness with Arthur for other, far less appropriate reasons, but he was no good at lying to himself.
One day Arthur would be king and he would marry a princess—a woman, in any case—and she would bear his young, thus assuring the continuation of the Pendragon dynasty. Merlin sighed and plunged a dirty tunic into the sudsy water to soak before he could do something foolish—like bring it to his nose and inhale Arthur's scent. Then he shook his head and followed Arthur's footsteps down the corridor towards the stables.
Arthur was never cruel; however, he did appear to receive a strange sort of pleasure in ordering Merlin about. Clean my leathers, Merlin, and Merlin, have you mended my woolen socks? Merlin grumbled under his breath and fetched and carried, trying not to be too resentful.
The balancing act he'd been living for the past year—reining in his magic to protect himself and exploiting it to protect Arthur and the kingdom—had become second nature. He'd saved Arthur's life, and been saved in return, countless times. Merlin had learned not to feel bitter when credit for a feat he'd performed was given to someone else. He had learned to quiet his desire to say Arthur, look at me, and Arthur, I'm more.
A few days later, back in the prince's chambers, Merlin tried not to watch too closely as Arthur unlaced his breeches as if Merlin wasn't even in the room, tossing them on the pile of washing with something of a wicked smile.
"Make sure to remove the stain on the left leg—oh, and Merlin?" Merlin stopped and heaved a sigh.
"My armour needs polishing."
It always did. Merlin fought a grimace.
"Such insolence. Have I ever told you you're a terrible servant?" Arthur thrust his hands on his hips, and Merlin thought it rather absurd that he could look so haughty while half undressed. Still, he couldn't stop himself from glancing at the well-defined thighs, hoping Arthur didn't notice the lust surely reflected in his eyes.
"You do, sire. Every day."
"It's true every day," Arthur grumbled.
Merlin turned and whispered under his breath, just loud enough to taunt. "And you're a clotpole every day."
"I thought I told you," Arthur called as Merlin left his chambers. "That isn't a real word."
Months passed and Merlin found himself embroiled in a series of near-catastrophic events, not the least of which included himself and Arthur scrambling through dank caves and barely avoiding becoming dinner for Wildren—overgrown, blind, ferocious rats. But it was the loss of Freya, the only person (other than Arthur) he'd ever had feelings for, and Arthur's budding romance with Gwen that took the deepest toll.
Aside from Gaius, King Uther's physician and Merlin's long-time mentor, Gwen was Merlin's closest friend. The two of them were equals, and he enjoyed spending time with her, talking and gossiping about Camelot life and soothing each other when times got difficult. Merlin didn't know how to reconcile his friendship with Gwen with his own jealous feelings. He tried not to resent her, even when he knew—knew—that Gwen loved Lancelot. Yes, she cared for Arthur, but if Lancelot had never decided to step back in favor of the prince and leave Camelot, she'd have chosen him. Perhaps she still would, if he ever returned.
For Merlin, Arthur would never be second best. The love he'd had for Freya was sweet, their bond intense, but brief. He'd been swept up befriending someone with magic and carried away by the idea that she could love him back. Now he realized it wasn't the same kind of love he had for Arthur. No, he could never truly love another because Arthur took up all of the space in his heart. There was no room for anything, or anyone else. But Merlin's role was to protect Arthur, and in order to keep him safe, Arthur could never know.
"What do you think of Guinevere?" Arthur asked as they stumbled back to his rooms after a long night of revelry. The prince could drink a staggering amount of mead, thought Merlin, his back strained to breaking as he helped ease Arthur onto his bed. The laces on his tunic were partly untied, giving Merlin more than a fair glimpse at the light smattering of hair on Arthur's chest. Merlin knew how soft it was from the times he'd inadvertently brushed his hand against it while helping Arthur dress. The sight caused an uncomfortable stirring in Merlin's pants, made brutal by the content of the question.
"She's a good friend. A loyal one," Merlin replied.
"Mmm hmm. She is that." Arthur's head hit his pillow with a gentle thud. He closed his eyes. This was how it was to be, always Merlin watching, wishing things were different.
"Why is the room spinning?" Arthur asked, his words stopping Merlin as he turned to leave.
"Because you've had quite a bit to drink, sire."
"Make it stop." He cocked his head, opening one eye and raising his fist toward the ceiling.
Merlin sighed and tucked one of Arthur's feet back under the covers. "I'm afraid the only remedy is a good night's sleep." Yes, he knew a few sobering charms that had been very helpful throughout the years, but Arthur couldn't know that.
"That's terrible." The prince seemed fascinated by his hand, clenching and unclenching it, his eyes nearly crossing with their focus. Merlin bit back a laugh.
"You'll feel better in the morning," he promised.
"Where're you going?" Arthur called after him, stopping Merlin once again.
"To my room."
It was silent again and Merlin swallowed, his heart fluttering stupidly.
"Okay," said Arthur. And Merlin thought he heard something else, mumbled. Something like, "you're a good friend, too."
But he couldn't be certain.
He did yearn to be Arthur's friend. They had that now, at least, despite the fact that Merlin kept secrets from him—about himself, Morgana, Gwen, Gaius and even Uther. Always, he dreaded the day he'd be forced to reveal his magic. Despite Arthur's swagger and bravado, and his annoying tendency to slurp his mead, he had a pure, loyal heart. Merlin knew Arthur loved him in his way—if not the way he wanted to be loved, and he never wanted to be the cause of his pain.
Merlin stood in a strange box that seemed to move by magic. He looked down, noticing he was wearing peculiar clothes—tight trousers that looked to be made of some sort of blue cloth, and an odd jacket. Glowing numbers flashed and a bell dinged. Then the doors to the box opened and he stepped out into a magnificent room encased by glass windows. But the strangest thing was that he knew he'd just exited the lift, that the trousers he wore were called jeans.
He dropped the object in his hands as if he'd been burnt and scrambled backward over the forest floor, trying to make sense of what he'd seen. He knew that the Crystal of Neahtid held a terrible power—the ability to grant its handler glimpses into the future. Morgana, who'd been flirting with switching allegiances ever since she'd learned of her own powers, had procured it for Mordred and the power-hungry sorcerer Alvarr. While Merlin had sworn he wouldn't look, once he'd recovered it, he couldn't resist the temptation.
Beyond the glass, horseless carriages darted between one-another, stopping and starting, making loud trumpeting sounds. They, too, seemed piloted by magic. Merlin pushed open the door and raised his arm to alert one of these beasts—a taxi—as if it were the commonest thing in the world. People rushed everywhere, some of them holding little black objects and talking to themselves. A woman wearing trousers like a man bumped into him and gave him a flirtatious smile. And then a taxi pulled up. Before he climbed in, he raised his head and looked up. It had begun to snow.
London at Christmas.
With a gasp, Merlin was jolted back to the present. He needed to get the Crystal back under lock and key, and quickly. It was playing tricks on him, making him see things that weren't real. He shook his head to clear it and tucked the Crystal into his rucksack.
Merlin thought back on a previous vision, one of the Dragon wreaking vengeance on Camelot. That once had come to pass; indeed, Merlin himself had been the one to release the Dragon. But these visions had absolutely no context. It didn't make sense.
Then the dreams began.
He was happy to be back in London after a year abroad. His umbrella had almost turned inside out in the wind as he made his way back to his flat, but he grinned in spite of the weather. He kicked off his wet trainers inside the door and dropped his bag on the floor. Spain had been lovely, and a wonderful place to spend his writing fellowship, but it wasn't home. This, this grey, gritty, lovely place—Camden. This was his home.
Merlin woke, panting in a cold sweat. London? A strange sounding, yet indescribably pleasant word . . . it was home, but it wasn't. He'd never been there. Buildings stood twice as tall as the highest turrets of Camelot and were square in shape. Merlin couldn't fathom how they stood without falling.
Magic. It must be a place of magic.
Unlike the visions he'd seen in the Crystal, which had invoked a sense of double consciousness, familiar and unfamiliar, the dreams felt more like lived experiences—or memories. They started as nothing but flashes, snippets that were easily shaken off when he rose in the morning, but gradually they became more insistent, more real.
He saw things he'd never seen in this world—didn't know if they were even possible.
Merlin smiled, glancing out the window of the plane at the wing. He loved flying, still got as excited as he'd been as a ten-year-old on his first trip to Greece.
"Would you like a drink, sir?" The flight attendant drew his attention away from his crossword puzzle, cocking her head to the side.
"Just a Coke is fine. Thanks."
She nodded and filled a cup with ice, passed him a can.
He suspected the dreams were in some way related to the Crystal, but hesitated to bring them up with Gaius or the Dragon, the latter which, now freed and under his command, had become even snarkier than usual. They seemed harmless enough, after all, and they were fascinating. Surely Gaius would suggest a sleep draught as he had for Morgana . . . or, worse, think Merlin completely insane.
Eventually, the pieces started to become pictures; the pictures started to create a narrative of another life. His life, he became more and more positive, but one he hadn't yet lived.
He saw himself at university, with friends who weren't his and parents he didn't know—only they were his friends, they were his parents. His mother's name was Agatha and she was much shorter and rounder than Hunith, but she had a laugh like a bell. His father was tall and gangly like Merlin and still looked like a boy at fifty. He'd never taken a sick day from work.
There were lovers—one woman—but more men. One of them, he loved. Alex. Tall, broad-chested, blond, and blue-eyed. Merlin saw him in bed, the sheets threaded between long legs. His dream self ran his fingers through Alex's hair and kissed his forehead. He didn't love him enough.
"Why?" Alex asked the question Merlin couldn't himself answer. He shook his head, nothing to say but I'm sorry. I'm sorry.
"I have to do this." How could he explain he was seeking something else? Something more?
Sometimes when Merlin woke up, he was disconcerted to find himself in his uncomfortable small bed at the back of Gaius's chambers, sure he belonged in his Camden flat, his cock hard and aching for someone just out of reach. 2011. That was the year he'd dreamt. A thousand years from now. Merlin knew it was possible, of course, for sorcerers to have visions—to see things that had not yet come to pass. But a thousand years?
Another strange thing about his dreams; his dream self didn't seem to know about, or to practice, magic at all. But it was there, bubbling under his skin, seeking outlet.
And the place he lived—London, a city in Albion—was magical indeed.
"How can they not see it?" Merlin asked, frustrated, kicking the ground.
"I told you to let her die, young warlock." A burst of smoke singed Merlin's hair as the Dragon laughed.
A year after the Great Dragon burned Camelot and Morgana fled, Merlin, Arthur and the knights had discovered her wandering in the woods, confused, battered, and afraid. Or so she'd seemed. Uther was beside himself with joy at her return, as was Arthur. Merlin knew better than to be fooled when she attempted to rekindle their friendship. She was no longer the girl he knew; she'd been changed, made bitter and vengeful, steeped in hate. Her loyalty lay with Morgause now, not with the people she'd once claimed to love. Life in the castle became frustrating, to say the least, when neither Arthur nor Uther sensed her duplicity. For Uther it made sense, since she was, after all, his illegitimate daughter, but Arthur was even more oblivious than normal, which was quite a feat. Merlin had been poisoned, and Uther nearly driven mad, and the entire castle overrun with an army of the dead, and yet Morgana still somehow remained unscathed, her relation with the sorceress Morgause unknown.
To them, Morgana could do no wrong, and so Merlin's focus turned to thwarting her schemes while keeping her in the dark about his own powers. The Dragon was no help when Merlin complained.
"I know," replied Merlin, bitterly accepting the I told you so he deserved.
He hadn't been able to kill her, and he hadn't let Mordred die either. Perhaps by ignoring the Dragon's warnings, he'd doomed them all. Maybe Merlin was too weak, too easily swayed by his emotions to help Arthur come into his own as Albion's king.
"But Arthur . . ." Merlin said, unable to keep his flush down when he thought of the prince.
"Arthur will see, in time," came the reply.
"But how can I . . . I can't sit by and let her do this to . . . Camelot." Merlin strongly suspected she was after the crown, but he was more worried about her potential threat to Arthur. He didn't like the idea of Morgana living under the same roof while Arthur still held her in such esteem.
"If you accuse her, who do you think will be the one at the stake—Morgana? Or you?"
Of course Merlin knew the answer to that question. He just wished it were different. It was so unbelievably maddening.
"Arthur is not ready to know the truth," said the Dragon. "But he needs you. He always will."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"In time, you too will see." The Dragon chuckled.
With that enigmatic statement, he flew off into the night, and Merlin stomped back to the castle.
"Which would you rather be—a tortoise, a hare, or an eagle?"
Merlin snorted at Arthur's question. The answer seemed so obvious. "A tortoise."
"Ha!" The prince seemed pleased. He gave his horse a little pat and whispered into her ear, "I knew that's what he'd say. It suits him, really."
"Well, it's clearly the only right answer. Tortoises can live for hundreds of years; they have hard, protective shells. I think I'd be rather happy as a tortoise." He didn't know why he was so vigorously justifying his answer, only that Arthur's self-satisfied grin annoyed him. He rolled his eyes. "I suppose you'd pick the eagle."
"Of course. There's nothing more majestic than an eagle. Nothing braver."
"I disagree. The hare is braver, as is the tortoise."
"And why is that, oh wise one?"
"Because they both have to contend with the eagle."
The two of them had set off early on a routine patrol along the border of Cenred's kingdom. They rode in companionable silence, breaking it once in a while to make an observation or tell a joke. Arthur could be quite funny when he wanted to be, but he was also very sensitive. He didn't entirely appreciate Merlin's reminders of how he'd recently been made into an ass by a mischievous goblin. The braying had lasted days, even after the spell had been removed, but Merlin saw a certain poetic justice in it. What Arthur didn't need to know was it was Merlin himself who was responsible for unleashing the ridiculous creature in the first place.
It was only to be a day's trip, but they found themselves waylaid at a small outlying village that had been looted just hours before. The culprits, reportedly Cenred's men, had made off with spoils from several homesteads, gravely injuring the owner of one, a farmer with a wife and four children. With only hearsay to go by (and knowing Uther wouldn't want to get embroiled in any skirmishes to retrieve the goods of peasants), there was little to be done.
Merlin pretended not to notice when Arthur gave the wife of the injured farmer a small bundle of gold coins.
"Thank you, thank you, sire," she said, smiling with gratitude through her tears. She clutched his arm and he nodded.
"Make sure the children have enough to eat."
"I will, sire."
And of course Merlin made sure Arthur didn't notice him creep into the tiny house and whisper Ge hailige, exiting as the a healing spell began to knit the man's tattered body.
Dusk fast approaching, they set up camp near a field in order to give them plenty of vantage in case the looters decided to pay another visit during the night. While Merlin busied himself with making the fire and getting dinner together, Arthur tended the horses without complaint.
"Oh, this is just brilliant," Arthur said, letting out a harsh laugh.
"What is it?" Merlin ceased stirring the pot of stew he'd heated and turned round to face Arthur. His blond hair was all disheveled, and his face wore the pained expression reserved for instances of Merlin's most grievous ineptitude.
"There's only one blanket. Ergo, one of us gets to sleep in the cold. Lovely."
Merlin bent down again and tossed another log onto the fire. "I suppose I know which one of us that will be."
"Oh, really?" Arthur said, gesturing. "Just look at you." Merlin straightened and glanced down at his shirt, trying to discover the reason behind Arthur's condescension. He wore the same clothes he always did.
"Well, you're skin and bones, aren't you, and it'll be below freezing tonight. I'd rather you have the blanket than cart home your frozen carcass tomorrow morning." He paused, narrowing his eyes. "The horse won't enjoy carrying such a load."
Merlin's lips twitched into a smile. "I'll stay by the fire. I'll be fine. You take it."
"Don't be such a bloody girl, Merlin." Arthur said, throwing the coarse woolen bundle at him. "You have more of a need for it than I."
"I didn't know we'd be away the night." Merlin glanced down at the blanket in his hands.
"Well, we are. We best make due."
With a little more grumbling, they set about eating their dinner; Merlin made sure to give Arthur more than his share, since he felt guilty about the blanket situation. By now he should have known there was nothing routine about any trip they made together and prepared accordingly. Of course Arthur would let him use the blanket. Of course. It was his nature to be self-sacrificing. Merlin sighed and wrapped the itchy thing around his shoulders, leaning against a log.
Even with the blanket, night fell with a bitter chill. Merlin's whole face, down to his eyelashes, grew painfully cold. He huffed warm air into his hands and wondered if Arthur would notice if he performed a heating spell—just a simple one. It was tempting, but he didn't want to risk it. He'd already nearly been caught so many times; it would just be his luck to be found out for something so trivial.
From the other side of the fire, Arthur's face glowed, half illuminated. His jaw trembled slightly, but his eyes had drifted closed. Merlin watched him sleep, as he often did, wondering. Did Arthur dream of battle? Or of calmer, more peaceful times? Did he dream of Gwen becoming his queen . . . or of Merlin at all? They never spoke of such things. Just a few seconds later, Arthur hitched a breath and started, legs kicking out.
His eyes snapped to Merlin's.
"Sire?" Merlin asked, concerned. "Are you all right?"
Arthur looked surprised to see him there. He nodded and scrubbed his hands over his face. "Yes. It was just a dream. A strange, strange dream."
Merlin nodded, waiting for him to go on, but Arthur stayed silent, watching the smoke rise through the canopy overhead. He shivered slightly and Merlin resisted the urge to go to him, and wrap the blanket around them both.
"It is quite cold," Merlin said.
"It's not that bad."
"Hmm," Merlin said, making a show of snuggling into the blanket. "Not under here. I'm actually warm. Snug as a bug in a . . ."
"Oh, do shut up, Merlin." The admonishment had a teasing ring to it. But Merlin could hear the tremble in the voice. Arthur was cold, although he'd never admit to it.
"Arthur," Merlin said, trying to maintain the calm of his voice. "Why don't you come over and share?"
"Yes, simpleton," he said, adding the last word under his breath.
"I heard that."
"Ah, so you have ears too, then."
"Merlin, with appendages like those, I'm not sure it's wise to be commenting on anyone else's ears." Arthur stood and stretched, a hint of stomach peeking from beneath his risen tunic. Merlin glanced away, face hot, trembling not from the cold but from something else as Arthur stalked toward him, beckoning for him to move over. He did, offering half of the blanket, which Arthur took, settling down close enough to touch. Merlin tried not to focus on the tiny space between them, space he could easily breach by inching over, excuse as a desire to seek warmth.
Arthur closed his eyes, his body gradually seeming to relax. Merlin's chest ached as he watched his prince's profile—the strong jaw, the straight, fine nose. He looked like such a boy.
"So," he said. "What was the dream about?"
A sigh came from beside him, and, was he imagining things or was Arthur moving closer?
"Just about . . . I don't really know how to explain it."
Something about Arthur's expression made Merlin's gut swim. Could he be having similarly strange dreams—dreams of his unknown future, perhaps? A thigh moved against his and made his breath hitch.
"I dreamt of the army of the dead. We couldn't stop them."
Perhaps not. "Yes?" Merlin asked, trying to disguise his disappointment.
"And . . . it was odd. Morgana . . . she was laughing."
Merlin swallowed, feeling faint. Perhaps now was the time to tell Arthur . . . The words died in his throat, however, when he remembered the Dragon's warning.
Now an arm brush turned into more of a press, and Merlin held his breath. Never had he been so . . . close to Arthur. The proximity was almost more than he could bear.
"It was just a dream," Arthur finally said. "It didn't mean anything."
"Sometimes dreams hold truth." Merlin couldn't stay completely silent on the matter.
Arthur gave him a funny look.
"Not always, of course," Merlin hedged. "And I don't mean literal truth. But sometimes. I think dreams may reflect what the heart most deeply desires . . . or fears."
"That's positively poetic, Merlin," Arthur teased. Merlin felt the blood rush back to his face. He glanced away, hoping it wasn't noticeable in the darkness.
"Sometimes you confound me." Arthur's murmur sent heat up Merlin's spine and made his blush deepen. "Times like this . . . if I didn't know you. I'd almost believe you were wise."
They were silent until Arthur's breathing became heavy and even. His head listed to the side, catching itself on Merlin's shoulder. Just this once, Merlin thought, letting his lips brush against the soft fringe of blond hair. But he couldn't stop. His lips longed for skin, and so he risked it, pressing them on Arthur's unlined brow. When Arthur moved closer, his body unconsciously seeking warmth, Merlin let himself melt into his side, the heat making him groggy. Just this once.
Merlin kissed his lover's wrist. His husband. Their old, gnarled hands, blue-veined and spotted with age, clasped tightly together. Next to the bed, the heart monitor sounded in slow, long beeps.
He was still with him. They still had time.
I love you.
"Dad?" A light touch on his shoulder made Merlin turn around. All he saw were his daughter's concerned eyes.
Blue. His husband's.
"Oy, Merlin!" Sir Leon's voice jolted Merlin out of the vision. He started, dropping the tray he was carrying with Arthur's breakfast.
Leon grimaced and bent to help as Merlin gathered pieces of broken crockery. This couldn't keep happening. Ever since he'd foreseen the future once again in the Crystal Cave, the dreams had begun filtering into his waking life.
Just as with the Crystal of Neahtid, it had begun with a vision of Camelot. Merlin saw Morgana kill Uther with an ornate dagger and, not understanding the treachery of the visions, had inadvertently set that future in motion. Again, his decision to save Morgana's life to spare Arthur pain had backfired terribly. He'd only barely stopped the murder from coming to pass.
The visions in the Crystal Cave had been treacherous. If these waking dreams were anything like them, how could he trust them?
But they felt so . . . right. They gave him hope. He loved the man in his visions with the same consuming passion he felt for Arthur, but this time the man loved him in return. Strange, then, that he couldn't see the other man more clearly. He'd seen almost every part of his husband's body, but never his face.
"Sorry about that," Leon said when the two of them had straightened. "I was just wondering if you were bringing that to Arthur." He motioned at the ruined breakfast with a sheepish expression.
Merlin repressed a sigh. "I was."
"Right. Well, when you do, finally . . . er, get him his breakfast, will you pass along a message from Gwen?"
The hollow in Merlin's chest opened wide. "Sure."
"She says yes to the meeting by the lake at two."
Arthur was in a grumpy mood when Merlin finally arrived with his breakfast. He passed along Gwen's message, avoiding looking at the prince. Sometimes his beauty was blinding.
Skin, warm skin. Breath tickling his ear.
"You're so gorgeous," said the voice, a hand moving down his body, catching Merlin's morning erection and giving it a squeeze. "I just want to devour you."
"Mmm," Merlin replied. "Please."
Sometimes, Arthur caught him standing and staring blankly when a strong vision overtook him. Explaining such moments became increasingly difficult, his excuses more and more feeble. And sometimes, if the vision had been particularly erotic, it was downright embarrassing.
He had to talk to Gaius.
"You've seen the future in your dreams," Gaius said, disbelief on his face.
"I'm not sure. I think it's the future. My future. Only . . ." he drifted off. It even sounded absurd to his own ears, and he'd been living this way for almost two years.
"Only what, boy?"
"It's not this life. It can't be. It's different. There's a city—London—and cars. The tube, though, is how I prefer to get around. And the telly. Oh, Gaius, you would love the telly."
"What on earth is cars? Telly? Is that some sort of cheese?"
Taking a deep breath, Merlin embarked on explaining what he probably should have unveiled months ago. Gaius listened attentively as Merlin tried to describe the sights and places of his dreams—things that once seemed completely foreign and disturbing and now seemed nearly commonplace. He skimmed over the more intimate bits, but mentioned that he seemed to have gotten married at some point and had a daughter. Or would be getting married at some point. And he couldn't quite explain the daughter. Perhaps they had adopted.
It was all so very confusing.
When he was finished, Gaius shook his head.
"You think it has something to do with the crystals?" Merlin had already made the connection, but he wanted it confirmed.
His mentor nodded, a thoughtful expression on his face. "I would be very surprised indeed if it didn't. And you said this has been happening with regularity. How often?"
"Every other day," Merlin confessed. "Sometimes more."
"I wish you had brought this to my attention before now."
"I know. I just didn't know how to explain it."
"Nor do I. But there are some books I'd like to reference . . . some has been written on the effects of the crystals, especially on memory and long term use. I think we best consult those sources first."
Merlin nodded. "That sounds like a good idea."
"In the meantime," Gaius said, "write everything that you see down, no matter how trivial. And if they change, become more sinister, or start happening more frequently, by all means let me know."
Thinking about some of the visions he had, especially concerning his faceless, nameless husband, made Merlin flush. His cock twitched inopportunely. "Everything?"
Gaius seemed to catch on. He grimaced and shook his head. "I don't think you need to go into extreme detail, my boy."
"Right. Good." Merlin stood to go, suddenly lighter than he'd been in months.
"Oh, and Merlin . . ." Gaius said. "You say there are ships that sail in the sky and take people across oceans?"
"Yes," Merlin said, rolling his eyes at his own inadequate description. "They're called airplanes. And they're not exactly like ships. They're covered on top, and they have wings on each side, like a bird."
"Extraordinary. It must be a time and a place of magic." The awe in Gaius's voice expressed Merlin's feelings exactly; somehow his role here in this life might pave the way for a wonderous future.
Merlin couldn't contain his answering grin. "It is."
Morgana left Camelot, forsaking the kingdom forever in favor of the Dark. The following evening Gaius broke down.
"Perhaps I was wrong all these years. I only hoped to keep her out of it all—keep her safe."
Merlin nodded and sighed, offering his old mentor's arm a comforting rub. There was no use in thinking of what could have been.
"You couldn't have known," he said, though he felt partly to blame. If he'd told Morgana of his own powers when he'd had the chance, perhaps he could have shown her another way. Or perhaps not. Merlin didn't know.
He couldn't offer words of comfort, however, not when he had none. Morgana's betrayal had shaken all of them, but it had hit Uther and Arthur particularly hard. At least Merlin and Gaius had had time to come to terms with Morgana's travels down the wrong path. Gaius worried Uther might never recover after the loss of his daughter.
Gaius patted Merlin's hand. "You did well tonight, my lad. Let me say it, since you won't hear it from anyone else." Defeating an army of immortal soldiers hadn't exactly been the most pleasant task, but it was all in a day's work.
"Thank you, Gaius," said Merlin. He smiled and let his hand drop, turning to walk away. The victory seemed more like defeat.
And then he felt a familiar rush of fatigue . . .
Merlin was standing in line at Marks and Spencer holding a container of sushi when someone elbowed him from behind.
"Sorry, sorry," said a voice. Merlin turned around, irritated, to find a young woman with long black hair standing on one foot, leaning down to adjust her high heels. One of the ankle straps seemed to have broken. "Fuck."
"It's okay," he said, staring at the hand she'd placed on his arm to steady herself.
"These blasted shoes." She straightened and offered Merlin a winning smile and her hand for a shake. He smiled back and took her hand . . . the woman seemed so familiar.
"Thanks for letting me use your arm. These things will be the end of me." She motioned at the floor.
Which is where Merlin lay when he came to, splayed on his back, the cobwebs on the ceiling dancing lightly in the candlelight.
"Merlin?" Gaius's voice sounded tinny, faraway.
Head aching and more than a little nauseous, Merlin sat up with Gaius's help, bracing himself on one arm. A cup of water was thrust into his other hand.
That's who he'd seen—she looked exactly the same. He shook his head to clear it. No one from his visions had ever been familiar . . . until now. He'd even learned to accept that perhaps, for some reason, he was glimpsing his own future. But how in the world was it possible for him to see Morgana's as well? And to meet her?
"Are you all right?" Merlin looked up into Gaius's concerned face.
"I . . . think so. Just tired." He didn't want to alarm his friend unnecessarily, not until he had some time to figure out what had happened. Perhaps he'd just hit his head a little harder than he thought.
"You've over-exerted yourself, as usual. Off to bed with you. And have a bit of a lie-in tomorrow; you've earned it!"
"Right . . . ow." Merlin rubbed his head where he'd hit it. An egg was already forming. Yes, perhaps all he needed was rest. He'd practically concussed himself on the floor; no wonder he'd seen visions of Morgana. They had just been speaking about her, after all.
Merlin somehow found his way back onto his feet and into his room, where he flopped down on the bed and stared blankly into the dark.
Gaius and Merlin had spent months researching, but none of the texts they'd yet referenced described experiences similar to Merlin's. Apparently, it was quite common for unskilled sorcerers to become obsessed and lose themselves in the crystals, and no one had ever reported seeing other lives, or any future beyond two hundred years.
It was discouraging, to say the least, especially as Gaius had begun to fear that perhaps Merlin had been enchanted. The main suspect, as usual, was Morgana. And now here she was, finding her way into his waking visions. It only seemed to confirm Gaius's fears.
Unsettled, Merlin climbed back out of bed and wrote an entry in the journal he'd been keeping. Morgana. How could it be possible?
"Have you thought about speaking to the Great Dragon of this?" Gaius asked the next morning. "We've had no luck with written texts, but he is well-versed in the prophecy. He might be our only hope."
Merlin agreed. He'd put off the conversation long enough. "Please, if Arthur comes looking for me, don't tell him I've gone to the pub."
Gaius wasn't exactly the most gifted fibber, and his half-witted explanation for Merlin's periodic absences from court had earned him extra chores on more occasions than he cared to remember.
Once out in the field beyond the castle gates, Merlin gathered his breath and bellowed:
"O drakon, e mala soi ftengometh tesd'hup anankes! Erkheo!"
Seconds later, the shadow of the Dragon's great body blocked out the sunlight; he beat his scaly wings and made a graceful landing. Merlin grinned. It never grew old, being a Dragonlord; though, of course, the price he'd paid had been great. He'd only earned the power after his father's death, and Balinor had died before they'd barely gotten the chance to know each other. It was one of Merlin's deepest regrets, and he'd give up the power in an instant if it meant having his father back.
"You summoned me, young sorcerer?"
"There's something I have to know—about the prophecy. I've been having dreams . . . and visions during the day. I think they're about the future. My future. Only, they're not . . . It's a life I've not lived."
"You've seen a future life," the Dragon said. He appeared remarkably nonplussed.
"You don't seem surprised."
"That's because I'm not."
"But . . . it doesn't make sense."
"When did you start having these visions?"
Merlin told how they'd begun after his first encounter with the Crystal of Neahtid, how they'd changed, gaining in frequency and intensity once he'd visited the cave. The Dragon listened, never interrupting.
"Hmm . . . interesting that you will meet Morgana again. Very interesting, indeed."
"Interesting? She's tried to kill me at least ten times. Forgive me for being a little alarmed. And what do you mean I will meet Morgana? You think I'm really seeing my future?"
"I do. A wizard of your power: it would be very unusual for you not to be reborn again. Each man and woman lives countless lives . . . but circumstances change. The Morgana you've seen in the future may be quite a different person from the Morgana you know in this life."
"But I'm the same," Merlin said. "Well, mostly."
"I'm glad to hear it." The Dragon chuckled fondly.
Merlin sputtered, still shocked by the Dragon's calm response. "But . . ."
"Are the visions worrisome?"
"Not really. They're mostly . . . pleasant." Merlin flushed, remembering hands on his body.
"And yet you worry."
"Well yes. They're . . . distracting. Arthur's getting suspicious. I can't live like this for the rest of my life."
"I believe the visions will end when you've seen everything you need to see."
"What in the world is that supposed to mean?"
The Dragon smiled knowingly, displaying his terrifying teeth. "I believe you've been given a gift, Merlin. Perhaps it is in compensation for the sacrifices you must make in this life." He rose on his haunches and began to flap his wings, gaining altitude while Merlin stood with his mouth agape.
"Wait, what sacrifices?"
"Your future is great, but it is also terrible. I'm sorry for that."
Merlin gulped and shook his head, dread tightening his chest as the Dragon rose, then disappeared into the blue.
On the day Uther died, Arthur stayed with his father's body in the throne room to mourn. While the rest of the knights and the servants retreated to their chambers for the night, Merlin slid down the cool granite wall outside the hall and waited. He didn't sleep a wink, imagining Arthur in his grief, alone. It was Merlin's fault Uther was dead. He'd tried to use magic to save him, but Morgana had ensured that any healing spell performed on the king would rebound a hundred fold, thus killing him.
How naïve he'd been. Merlin had hoped that by healing Uther, he would restore Arthur's faith in magic. He should have suspected Morgana would never allow Uther to live—he should have known. But he hadn't, and now that he'd failed, Arthur's heart would be forever hardened against magic.
The thought was a lead weight on Merlin's heart. Destiny. Yes, it was his destiny to forge a new unified Albion at Arthur's side, and now his overconfidence had ruined everything.
The next morning the door opened with a creak. Merlin's head snapped up, his eyes immediately latching onto Arthur as he stepped out into the light streaming from the high windows above. His blond hair was mussed, as if he'd been pulling at it—a tendency of his whenever deep in thought.
"Merlin," he said, his voice quiet. "You're here."
"Where else would I be?" The words cracked as they emerged from Merlin's throat, dry from disuse. He swallowed, eyeing Arthur. Perhaps he'd be displeased Merlin had waited the night.
Arthur simply nodded and reached out his hand.
"Come. You must be hungry."
"Good. You can cook us breakfast." He smiled, but the half-hearted tease didn't reach his eyes.
Merlin stood with some difficulty, feeling ancient and tender from a night on the wooden floor. But his pain was nothing compared to Arthur's. His prince, now his king, clapped his hand against Merlin's back.
"Thank you, old friend. I can always count on you."
Those words did little to lighten Merlin's spirits. He nodded grimly. Arthur didn't remove his arm, though. It slid around his shoulders more firmly; Arthur seemed to use Merlin as a crutch, leaning some of his weight as they retreated down the corridor toward his rooms. They hadn't been this close since the night they'd slept against each other near the fire. Of course the next morning it had been as if nothing had happened, though for weeks after Merlin could have sworn Arthur watched him out of the corner of his eye. He'd even dared to hope . . .
No. He was Arthur's friend. Nothing more. Would they even have that when Arthur found out the truth?
"Ready the horses," Arthur told Merlin one morning. He was up earlier than usual, lacing his boots when Merlin arrived with breakfast. "I'd like to hunt."
Merlin frowned and set down his tray.
"If you don't wish to come . . ." Arthur said.
"Of course I'd like to come."
"Well then. That's why I said horses."
Merlin's traitorous heart thundered in his chest. "Shall I . . . tell the others?" Surely it wasn't wise for just the two of them to hunt unchaperoned. Now that Arthur was king, he needed all the protection he could get.
Arthur looked at him as if he'd grown a second head. "No. I'd prefer to be by myself for once."
"Sire . . ." By this point Merlin was thoroughly confused. Did he want to be by himself or not?
"I don't want the knights along. They're good friends, but their chatter can drive one mad after a while. It's been ages since I've been off on my own."
Merlin sighed. "I thought you said . . ."
"I want you to come. Us. Alone. You don't . . . you're not . . ." Merlin tried to recall ever seeing Arthur so flustered. It did things to him—hopeful, unhelpful things. Finally, Arthur sighed. "Oh, bother, just ready our horses."
With that, Merlin nodded and turned on his heel, grinning a stupid grin at the wall, which grew even bigger and stupider when Arthur called after him to pack provisions for an overnight trip. He might have danced a jig once he was safely out of sight. Our.
Perhaps this was a chance to get things back to the way they used to be.
The day Arthur became king was one of the happiest of Merlin's life. He'd stood among the knights, cheering along with the rest of the crowd, but louder. It felt like what it was: the dawning of a new era. Hope had burgeoned once again in his chest, igniting his dormant optimism. Arthur would need him now more than ever, and he would do his best by his king.
Of course, because that king was Arthur, it was never that easy. Weeks had gone by as Arthur stepped into his father's mantle, and Merlin often felt the brunt of his frustration and anxiety. The closeness they'd developed over the past few years grew strained under the tension of Arthur's new role. He aged five years in months, a seriousness replacing the carefree attitude of privilege and youth. He smiled less and frowned more, and Merlin felt the weight of responsibly as if it was his own. It was, after all.
Luckily, he had the support of his knights. Percival, Gawain, Leon, and Elyan were loyal and steadfast, more friends and compatriots than servants. They gamely accepted Merlin into their midst, and though their treatment of him often bordered on patronizing, Merlin grew to care for each of them, especially Gawain, with whom he developed a close friendship. He trusted they all would protect Arthur when he could not.
Morgana grew more powerful by the day, and Merlin had several unfortunate run-ins with her, one that had nearly caused Arthur his life. It was as if she had no human feeling, no sentiment left at all, which made her extremely dangerous and cruel. Her one weakness was her fear of the sorcerer Emrys. Little did she know that the white haired, ancient sorcerer who went by that name was Merlin himself.
He often wondered when Arthur would finally make Gwen his queen. Now that Uther was dead, he could easily change the laws and take her hand, but the needs of the kingdom always came first. It would happen, though, Merlin was sure, and he waited for that day with increasing dread. Securing Gwen's happiness would mean the end to his. The bitterness of that reality was hard to accept.
In any case, he didn't seem in any rush to marry, and for that Merlin was thankful. And now Arthur wanted to go hunting with Merlin alone, which meant perhaps he was reconsidering his rather cold attitude.
"What are you so happy about?" Gawain asked. He was in the stable saddling his own horse as Merlin bridled Arthur's favorite mare.
"Happy? I'm not. Me?" Now it was Merlin's turn to be flustered. He hadn't realized how obvious he was being.
"You're whistling . . . I haven't heard you whistle in quite some time. Going for a ride?" He gestured at the two horses.
Merlin nodded, trying to control his face, though the muscles kept trying to twitch up into a smile. "Arthur wants to hunt. I'm going along."
"I see." Gawain's voice was all-too knowing. Merlin ducked his head, his face flushing with shame.
"It's okay to be happy," said Gawain. He smiled wistfully. "You deserve it more than anyone."
There had been a time when Merlin thought he and Gawain could have been more than friends, but he'd realized it was unfair to embark on any sort of relationship while he was in love with another. Things had been awkward for a spell, but Gawain seemed to understand. Until now, Merlin hadn't realized how much.
"Just be careful," Gawain said softly. The weighted meaning of the words wasn't lost on Merlin as he turned and led the horses out.
Arthur wanted to go far afield, so they spent most of the day on a hard ride, only stopping for a quick lunch and to water the horses.
"What exactly are we hunting for?" Merlin asked, panting and out of breath, as they finally slowed to a walk in a denser part of the forest. They were approaching Camelot's southern border, and would either have to make camp or turn round soon.
Arthur, who had been mostly silent for the day, seemed perplexed by the question. "Pheasant," he said finally.
"Yes, pheasant. You know, speckled bird, very tasty."
Merlin nodded, but frowned. Arthur never hunted pheasant in the summer, and when he did, he always used hounds to retrieve them. They were also a little too deep in the woods for the birds, weren't they?
"Something wrong, Merlin?" Arthur asked.
"I'm just a bit confused . . . isn't the season in the fall?" He didn't dare mention the hounds.
Arthur sighed. "Fine. Then we're hunting deer."
Merlin glanced at Arthur's provisions—he hadn't brought the strong crossbow he used to bring down larger game.
Merlin was about to point out that fact when Arthur held up his hand.
"The truth is I don't want to hunt anything. I'm so very tired of hunting things. I used it as an excuse to get away from the castle. And if you ever, ever, tell anyone, I'll set you in the stocks for a week."
With that, Arthur nickered at his horse and set off at a trot, leaving Merlin stunned and thrilled behind him.
They set up camp near a stream, and Merlin found himself whistling again. This time, they'd brought two blankets and a tent big enough to share. The knowledge that Arthur had wanted time alone, seemingly with him, made Merlin giddy. He barely noticed Arthur's irritability, and set about making a stew with some root vegetables and herbs while the king sat and brooded.
It stayed light for quite some time, though night was finally falling by the time the food was finished. Merlin spooned some for Arthur and took a bowl for himself, sitting a couple feet away. No longer occupied with preparations, the silence stretched out, became awkward.
Merlin glanced to the side and noticed Arthur wasn't eating. Instead, he was regarding Merlin with an odd expression.
Swallowing the bite he no longer felt like eating, Merlin hesitated, then asked: "You don't like the food?"
"But you've barely touched it."
Arthur looked to the bowl in his hands as if it were a strange animal he didn't even know he was holding. His brow darkened, blue eyes narrowing slightly when he met Merlin's again.
"This is difficult, so I'm just going to come out and say it. I know about your magic."
Merlin dropped his bowl, sending stew over the ground between his legs.
"What?" he croaked. "How?"
"I followed you . . . I saw you summon the Great Dragon." Arthur's embittered voice stung. "It's alive. You told me I killed it."
Merlin's ears grew warm—he didn't even want to think about what Arthur might have overheard. "I . . . I . . ."
"You were speaking to it. Like a friend." A touch of awe cut through the anger of Arthur's tone. Merlin chanced a look, wincing at the glower he received in return.
"It is a friend, in a manner of speaking," Merlin admitted.
"That beast nearly destroyed Camelot."
"Yes, I know. But," he hurried to explain, "it's not an evil creature. It wanted revenge for being trapped for so long; it wouldn't see reason. You were knocked unconscious so . . . I . . . made it stop."
"You made it stop." Incredulity and alarm battled for supremacy on Arthur's face. The only way to get him to understand would be to explain everything. Merlin nodded and tried to think of what to say.
"I'm a Dragonlord. The last. My . . . Balinor was my father. When he died, his power passed to me." He swallowed, remembering the pain of his father's dying breath. "The Great Dragon is a creature of magic—like me. I had to set it free, and it has to obey. It's no longer a threat to Camelot, though. I swear you don't have to worry."
"You . . . I trusted you. Thought I knew you. I . . ." Arthur trailed off, and then stood up, not meeting Merlin's gaze. "I can't even look at you." Without another word, he strode away into the dark.
Now it all made sense—why Arthur had wanted the two of them alone. But Merlin didn't have time to be disappointed.
"Arthur! Wait!" he called, scrambling to his feet. He took off in the same direction, surprised that Arthur had stopped just a few feet from camp. "Wait! You need to let me explain, please."
Arthur whipped around, his face livid with anger. "Explain what? How all these years you've been playing me for a fool? Lying to me? Did you enjoy it, making me look ridiculous? You and Gaius, was that it? Were you in on this together? Or do more people know? I bet I'm the last in the whole bloody kingdom." He huffed and crossed his arms like an angry child.
"It wasn't like that," Merlin pleaded. He always knew this day would be bad. He just wasn't prepared for Arthur to look at him with such . . . scorn. "You must believe me when I tell you I didn't want to lie."
"I don't know that I'll ever believe anything you say again."
"You can't seriously think I've enjoyed this . . . never being able to show who I really am? Always having to hide? For years you've thought I was some sort of idiot, a simpleton. All I wanted was your respect, your—" He stopped himself before he said something he would really regret.
"I never thought you were a simpleton."
"Ha!" Merlin scoffed.
At least Arthur had the decency to look momentarily chagrined. "But why?" He gestured between them. "Why . . . are you doing this?"
"Magic is my life. It's who I am. I'm . . . destined to protect you. To help you. The prophecy—"
"What prophecy? I don't even—"
"—you will be a great leader. And magic will once again be—"
"—what you want. Magic killed my parents! My father—"
"—didn't know what he was talking about! He was too afraid of what he didn't understand. You must know I'm—"
Merlin barely knew what he was saying. All he knew was he had to make Arthur understand magic wasn't evil—that he wasn't evil. That he wanted nothing but the best for Camelot and the King. But Arthur wouldn't listen. He was too wrapped up in his own pain and deeply ingrained prejudice. Merlin brushed away hot, angry tears, turning away. Here he was, weak once again.
Arthur threw his hands in the air and groaned. "Please tell me you're not crying."
"I'm not!" Merlin said. "You're such an arse."
"ME? I'm an arse? I've never lied to you! I've never deceived you!"
"But look at you!" Merlin fought for control of his voice. "You won't give me a chance to explain. I know you're angry, I know you're hurt . . ." He ignored the dismissive scoff. "And I'm sorry. So sorry you can't even imagine. But you can't just shut me out, not after—"
Arthur held up his hand—a gesture he'd learned from his father, the insufferable tyrant.
"You say the only reason you've been with me . . . been my servant all these years is to protect me because of some bloody prophecy, and I'm supposed to trust you? You want to bring magic back into the kingdom, when all it's ever done is cause me pain. Morgana—"
That was it, the last straw. "I'm not Morgana. And if you want to talk about how much magic has helped you over these years, how much I've helped you, without so much as a lick of thanks, well, I hope you have a couple days free. Magic is only as good or evil as the person wielding it. There are good sorcerers as well as bad, and more in-between—just like regular people. Your father couldn't see that, but I know you can, if you just let yourself."
"And I suppose you're one of the good ones?"
Merlin didn't like the glint of suspicion in Arthur's eye. "How can you even ask me that?" he said, throat tightening. "Everything I've ever done I've done for you."
Prophecy or no prophecy, Merlin had failed. Arthur would never see his side—it was fruitless. Pointless. Barely able to see in the dark, Merlin stumbled back towards the campfire. He would pack his things and go . . . away, back to his mother's village. Even farther. Maybe beyond the sea . . .
A hand clamped down on his shoulder, tugged.
"What did you mean?" Arthur's voice was softer now, though still edgy. Merlin ducked his head and looked away, aware that he was still stupidly crying. Good, let Arthur think him useless and foolish. Maybe he'd let him go without a fight. "I asked you a question."
"What did I mean when?" Merlin asked, irritated.
"Back there . . . you said everything you did you did for me."
Merlin nodded, craning his head so he wouldn't have to see Arthur's stupid eyes, his stupid lips.
"Why? Because of the prophecy?"
"Look at me."
And, gods help him, Merlin did. He looked at Arthur, felt the warmth of a hand on his arm, the shock of another hand squeezing his shoulder. Sandy blond hair and lips flushed red in the firelight, he was distressingly beautiful.
"Why?" Arthur asked again.
Merlin knew he had nothing left to lose. He let out a shuddering breath, felt all his strength go out of him. "You're everything to me."
He looked away once more, sure he was about to be pushed to the ground or punched, perhaps both. But nothing happened, and Arthur didn't relinquish his hold. He did, however, notice that the breath in his ear had grown louder, closer . . . it hadn't been so close before and oh! . . .
Soft, so soft. Lips pressed hesitantly against the side of Merlin's face. They trembled, sending little ripples of shock down Merlin's body. They moved, this time just grazing the edge of Merlin's. He froze.
"Sorry, sorry." Arthur stepped back, let him go. The look on his face was pure embarrassment. "I thought . . . I . . . you meant as a friend. And I . . . gods." He ran a hand though his hair.
What had just happened? Arthur was touching him and kissing him and saying confusing things that made it seem like he wanted Merlin when, as far as he could remember, it was always the other way around.
"I'm just going to . . . go to bed . . . now." Arthur mumbled and retreated to the shelter, his body disappearing inside.
Arthur had said—oh!
Merlin sprang into action, his heart close to exploding with the speed his blood rushed through his veins. He tore open the flap to the tent. He could just make out Arthur's form: sitting, head in hands.
Merlin clambered inside, tripping over the edge of the blasted thing and falling, quite literally, into Arthur's lap.
"I didn't mean as a friend," Merlin said, gripping the back of Arthur's neck, resisting the urge to lick and bite at it.
"No. No . . . I . . . well . . ."
He couldn't get the words out, mainly because Arthur's lips had covered his—but also because it was friendship and more—it was everything, there was no other way to describe it. The kiss was sloppy and wet and full of years of need and repressed desire. Merlin carded his fingers through the hair he loved to touch, scratching his nails against the scalp. Arthur moaned, shifted, and toppled Merlin over onto tangled blankets.
For a second Merlin balked, worrying this was just another one of his dreams, but then there was Arthur's mouth at his throat, sucking and tonguing, nipping with sharp teeth, and Merlin realized he was very, very much awake. This was happening. Arthur's thigh was moving between his legs and pressing against his cock, his own erection firm and hot against Merlin's hip.
Merlin groaned at the contact, blissed out, toes curling, feeding his tongue into Arthur's mouth and rubbing, rubbing. He could barely catch his breath; Arthur took his air and gave it back, lips barely parting for an instant.
"Gods, I've wanted you for so long," Arthur said, breaking away. Now that his vision had adjusted to the darkness, Merlin could see his face, the wide, serious eyes searching as if his life depended on what Merlin said next.
Of course he said the only thing he could. "Always . . ."
As they began kissing again, things grew more serious, laced with intent to do more.
"Want to see you," Arthur panted, pulling at Merlin's tunic. He laughed, feeling weightless, yanking it over his head and grabbing Arthur's at the same time, wanting the clothes gone, wanting bare skin. He had seen Arthur's body many times before, but never like this, never when he could touch and curl into the secret places. Never together.
Arthur whispered things like beautiful and stroked him reverently, firm hand gripping Merlin and pulling until he was afraid he'd spend before they got further.
"What can we do?" Arthur asked, a whisper of breath against Merlin's ear.
Merlin showed him how to stretch the tiny pinprick of his arse, how to make it wet and welcoming for a cock. Always a quick learner, Arthur buried his head between Merlin's cheeks, lapping and licking into his hole with his notorious single-mindedness, making Merlin writhe, his prick smearing dew over rough blankets.
"A-Arthur," he moaned, unable to keep silent.
Arthur screwed his thumb inside and pushed and Merlin cried out at the new pressure . . . he'd only done this once before, and that had been years ago with Will. It stung, but it was a good sting. He wanted it to hurt, wanted his body to remember in case this never happened again.
"This okay?" Arthur murmured. He withdrew the digit, added another finger and went deeper. Merlin nodded frantically, face down, arse up, feeling a complete and utter wanton as Arthur worked him.
Just when Merlin couldn't wait any longer, Arthur reared up and grabbed Merlin's hips, fingers massaging. "Are we . . ."
"Push inside. Please." He wriggled and Arthur groaned. Merlin felt the first press of the head against his tight ring of muscle.
"Never done this," Arthur said. "Don't want to hurt you."
"You won't . . . I'm . . . ahhh . . ." He was going to say ready but his words slid into a sigh as the cock worked its way into him, inch by inch. Once he was sheathed all the way, Arthur fell forward, shuddering against Merlin's back, holding him. From the way Arthur was breathing, Merlin could tell he was only seconds away from release. He resisted pushing back and let Arthur calm.
Then Arthur began to move, slow, shallow strokes, staying close, his heat and sweat covering Merlin, making him feel owned. He cried out as the thrusts became deeper, and groped blindly for Arthur's thighs, wanting it faster, wanting his seed. It was an odd thought to have, really, since obviously there was no biological rationale behind it, but still Merlin wanted to be filled, to have a part of Arthur no one else could have. His own cock hardened, full to bursting at the idea. There was a place inside him, and oh, Arthur was rubbing it and oh he wanted to scream and never, ever stop doing this.
"It's . . . I'm . . ." With a grunt and a final thrust, Arthur went rigid behind Merlin, his cock twitching as Merlin spent himself uselessly onto the blankets below. He hadn't even touched himself.
They lay beside each other in the aftermath, arms still entwined, lost in thought. Merlin wondered if this changed anything. He hoped . . . He looked to the side and noted the troubled knit of Arthur's brow.
"I'm sorry . . . I'm sorry I lied to you."
"I know. Just don't . . . do it again."
Merlin nodded, knowing there was so much more to say and most of it could wait for tomorrow. But there was one question he had to ask.
"What will happen?" With us? With this?
Arthur drew Merlin closer, pulled him so that Merlin's head rested on Arthur's chest.
"I don't know."
"You have to meet my brother," Morgana said, blowing on her coffee. In the weeks since Merlin had first met her at Marks and Spencer, she'd become a good friend. "You two would get on, I just know it."
He nodded. "So you've said."
"He's a really lovely bloke if you can get past him being an utter bastard."
"Oh, do tell me more." Merlin joked, taking a sip of his tea. He was feigning resistance, but he secretly thought that if this brother was anything like Morgana, he'd like him a great deal. As far as Merlin was concerned, the only thing his new friend lacked was a penis.
Just then, Morgana's eyes widened in recognition, and Merlin turned to see what she was looking at. A tall, blond man who could have walked straight off the pages of a magazine was standing just a few feet from them, grinning at Morgana. Lucky bitch. Merlin was just about to say so when Morgana interrupted him. "Looks like you can hear more directly from the horse's mouth," she said.
The blond stopped next to their table, his eyes darting from Morgana to Merlin.
"What sort of lies are you spinning about me, sister dear?"
The voice was deep, teasing. And those eyes—oh God, Merlin had always been a sucker for blond hair and blue eyes.
"Sister?" Merlin nearly choked on his tea. "This is your brother?" Aside from their clear, almost preternaturally smooth skin and bright blue eyes, they didn't look related at all.
Morgana's brother chuckled, grabbed a chair from a nearby table and slid into it. Merlin realized with some embarrassment that he was staring.
"Don't look so horrified. I'm a hideous specimen, I know." The blond turned back to Morgana, who, Merlin noted, had a certain crafty glimmer in her eyes. "You said you wanted to spend some quality time together. I didn't know we were allowed to bring friends." He glanced back at Merlin, his mouth parting and showing a glimpse of charmingly crooked teeth.
"Hmm. Oh, right. I must have forgotten to mention Merlin was coming along. Merlin, this is my idiotic brother, Arthur. Arthur, this is my new friend Merlin, who is way, way too good for the likes of you."
"Merlin?" Arthur asked, incredulous. Merlin sighed. He often got teased for his unusual, and rather famous namesake. What could he say? His mother was a hippie.
"And you're Arthur?" He rolled his eyes. Perfect. He could just hear his friends joking now.
"See?" Morgana said, "A match made in heaven." With that, she stood and threw down her napkin, flipping open her cell phone with a frown. "Oh, bother. It's work. I must fly. But you two stay! Have a drink on me." She threw down a twenty-pound note. "Ta!"
Merlin stared after Morgana, feeling quite foolish. His cheeks flamed. Next to him, Arthur chuckled.
"That's Morgana for you," he said.
"I didn't know she had to work," Merlin replied lamely, chancing a glance at Arthur. He didn't look too displeased to be sitting alone at a table with Merlin.
Arthur smiled, showing those lovely white teeth. "Do you ever get the feeling you've been set up?"
"Hmm," Merlin mused, grinning back. "I do, actually."
"She could have been a little less obvious, wouldn't you agree?"
"I give her a five out of ten for stealth."
Arthur moved his chair in a bit closer, bumping his knee against Merlin in the process. The touch lingered even after the knee drew away.
"A five? You're awfully generous."
"Well, she did leave us twenty quid." Merlin held up the note. "I'd say that's enough to buy a bit of generosity."
"Hmm. We probably should use it."
"It's the right thing to do."
"I agree completely."
Arthur glanced around at the coffee shop; it was nearly empty, and so was Merlin's cup. "Fancy a pint?"
The situation should have been awkward, but it wasn't. While he was normally shy in such situations, he felt strangely at ease. He spilled out of his seat and followed Arthur out the door, noting the firm ass under the well-tailored jeans. How had he gotten so lucky?
Arthur grinned at him, their arms brushing against each other as they made their way to the Queen Vic. He didn't know why, but he had the curious need to touch Arthur . . . to make sure this was really happening. Strange, beautiful men didn't just walk into his life and want to have drinks with him. It was too surreal.
"You look familiar to me," Arthur said as they reached their destination. "Are you sure we haven't met before?"
When Merlin awoke, heart pounding, he found himself alone in the tent.
Arthur . . . it was Arthur in his dreams. It couldn't be. It was. He knew it as sure as he drew breath. The man. His husband. The voice. It was all Arthur . . . how could he not have seen it before?
"Arthur?" he called out. No answer. Hastily pulling on his trousers and shirt, he bolted out of the tent. The remnants of the fire hissed, dampened by overnight rain, but Arthur's horse was gone. Merlin was alone.
"Have you bewitched me, Merlin?"
"What? No! What are you talking about?"
By the time Merlin had reached the castle, the sun had nearly set. He'd gone immediately to Arthur's chambers but had been turned away by Guinevere, who said the king didn't wish to be disturbed.
Merlin felt completely, utterly bereft. Gwen re-entering Arthur's chambers added salt to the wound.
Then Arthur had shown up early in the morning, half-drunk and seemingly half-mad, accusing Merlin of using sorcery on him. Luckily, Gaius was out. He hadn't yet told him Arthur knew about the magic.
Arthur swayed on his feet and Merlin worried he was about to fall, and then hoped he would fall, knock himself unconscious, and put an end to the entire painful situation.
"I dreamt . . . you made me dream things," Arthur said, a hiccough punctuating his accusation.
"I did no such thing." He balled his hands into fists; the traitorous things wanted to reach out and touch the drunken buffoon.
"You did. I saw you . . . a strange place. It had beer and Morgana was there with the money."
"Doesn' make sense."
Merlin's mind was racing . . . the dream . . . his dream? Could Arthur have dreamed the same thing?
"You said you dreamed of Morgana giving us money?"
A sleepy nod was the only reply. Arthur had finally found a chair and lurched into it, and now he seemed near comatose.
"Wait, wake up. Arthur." Merlin shook him, startled when a hand reached out and touched his face.
"You didn' need to do that."
"I didn't. We need to talk about this. I think I know what you dreamed, if you just . . ."
Snores filled the room, making further attempts at conversation futile. Merlin sighed and touched Arthur's forehead, trying to smooth away the wrinkles.
"Do you ever want to have children, Merlin?"
The question surprised him. It was late on a Sunday evening and he and Arthur were curled up on the couch in their new flat. They'd been dating a little over a year now, but hadn't really discussed things beyond the immediate future.
"Was that a stupid question?"
"No, no. Sorry." Merlin pressed a kiss against Arthur's scruffy cheek. He never shaved on the weekends and Merlin loved him like that. "I was just thinking. I hadn't thought about it. But yeah. I guess, maybe. Someday. Why, do you want them?"
"I'd like one. I think."
"You'd make a hot dad," Merlin teased. They were only twenty-four, after all. They had their whole lives ahead of them.
"Mmm. So would you."
Arthur avoided him for days. He was relieved of his duty temporarily, said Gwen.
If the rest of the court noticed, no one said anything. Gawain kept throwing concerned looks that Merlin chose to ignore; the last thing he needed was pity. How could Arthur not believe him? How could he have just left him alone?
The dreams didn't make things any better. They seemed to gain beauty and intensity the more miserable he became.
"You can't be serious about this, Morgana."
"I've thought it through. It makes sense, doesn't it? I'm never going to have kids of my own. Hell, I don't even want kids. But you and Arthur want one. Let me do this for you. It'll be the closest you can get to having a child that's both of yours. Please."
"Why do you want to do this?"
"Arthur's my brother. And, I don't know. Good karma or something."
Merlin shook his head, shocked by her generosity.
"I'll talk to Arthur."
Merlin slumped against the wall, the words of the two stable hands repeating in his mind. The bucket of water he'd been carrying had fallen and muddied the ground under his feet, wet his boots, but he didn't care.
"You think it'll happen soon?"
"I dinnae ken. What ha' ye heard?"
"That the king'll be ready to take Guinevere to wife before the month is out."
"And where did ya hear tha, now?"
"My wife's a scullery maid up the castle. And she said she found a ring in the King's washing."
"A ring, aye?"
"Aye. And she said the King came in, thunderin' about in such a state, and that when he did find the ring again he was greatly relieved. A woman's ring, it was. A fine one."
"Leaving?" Gaius asked, incredulous. "What do you mean, leaving?"
"I mean I'm leaving. For a while. Going . . . to visit my mother." Perhaps it was cowardly, but he couldn't stay, not when Arthur wouldn't even look at him. And whether it happened in a week, a month, or a year, he would marry Gwen.
"But the King? How long—"
"I'm not telling Arthur, and I'd appreciate it if you didn't mention it until after I was gone." Merlin shrugged the bag over his shoulder and let himself be embraced, throat burning.
"Oh God. A-Arthur." Merlin screwed his eyes shut, the intensity of his orgasm, making his whole body jerk off the bed. Even after he'd been sucked dry, Arthur continued licking him, teasing his sensitive cock with the broad flat of his tongue. When he couldn't take it anymore, he pushed the blond head away with a shaky laugh.
"You love it."
"Hmmm," Merlin agreed, feeling completely boneless.
"Can you get hard again?" Arthur asked, nibbling at his ear, rutting at his hip. "I want you to fuck me . . ."
Those words were enough to make his softening cock take interest.
Merlin awoke in his childhood bed, sticky and alone.
"So what are you, a writer?" Arthur asked, nosing about though the papers on Merlin's desk.
"Hey, hey!" Merlin gave him a good-natured spank and gathered the manuscript on his desk together.
"Why so secretive? Writing porn?"
Arthur wiggled his eyebrows suggestively.
"I am a writer, actually, of the non-porn variety." This was their third date, and Merlin had finally gotten the nerve to ask Arthur to his apartment for dinner.
"So if not porn, what sorts of things do you write?"
The eyebrows stopped waggling and shot up Arthur's forehead. "Wow. You must be really smart, then."
Merlin grinned. "I'm a genius."
"He doesn't want to see anyone." His mother's voice made his ears perk up. Merlin sat in his room reading a book of spells about dreamless sleep. But it was the second voice, a man's, that made his stomach drop.
"It's urgent. As the King I demand you let me see him."
"With all due respect, your majesty, my son—"
Merlin was up and moving before he could stop himself.
"It's okay, Mum," he said. She turned around, giving him a pained little smile. While he hadn't told her everything, she knew enough to suspect the truth. As ridiculous as it was, he couldn't tear his eyes away from Arthur in the doorway.
"Merlin." The relief in Arthur's voice made Merlin's heart lurch to life, stupid, hopeful heart.
"I'll just . . . be out getting the bread." Hunith gathered up her basket and tied her kerchief around her head, vanishing so quickly it made Merlin's face flame. She wasn't exactly the most subtle woman where his happiness was concerned.
"Hello," Merlin said, not knowing what else to say. He glanced down at the book he still held and sighed. "I suppose Gaius told you where to find me."
Arthur nodded. "Please come back with me. We can sort this out . . . we can . . ."
Merlin snorted. "Why? Why would you want someone like me around? I'd just bewitch you. And anyway, I'm sure Gwen can mend your trousers and bring your food once you're wed."
"I heard you were to be married." Merlin tried to keep his tone light, but could barely whisper the words.
Arthur looked as if someone had fed him rat stew (which Merlin actually had on one desperate occasion). The memory almost made him smile.
"Gwen and I . . ." Arthur paused, looking around uncomfortably. "She doesn't love me. And I don't love her, either. Not enough to marry her. She'll be better off with Lancelot."
"I see." Merlin's heart stuttered. After nearly two weeks of living under an insufferable weight, he could breathe again.
"And I know you didn't bewitch me. I know. I spoke with Gaius, and I told him everything." Merlin glanced up sharply. "Not everything," he amended with a blush. "But that I knew about your magic . . . I told him about the dreams I had . . ."
"Dreams?" Merlin was confused. As far as he'd known, there was only the one.
"Every night . . . since . . . that night. I dream of you. Of another life, with you."
Merlin nodded. Oh, did he know.
Arthur seemed to grow more hopeful. "He told me you'd been having them for years. But he didn't seem to know . . . they were about me."
"They weren't," Merlin snapped. When Arthur looked crestfallen, he sighed. "Until recently. You were in them all along, only I didn't know it was you."
"So you think they're real?"
"So did Gaius."
"You listened to Gaius, but not me. You left me. You wouldn't speak to me. You're nothing like that man in my dreams." Merlin couldn't control the bitterness in his voice, nor the way his tone rose. He didn't care if the whole town heard.
"Forgive me. Gods, please forgive me."
Merlin wracked his mind, but he couldn't seem to remember a time when Arthur had ever said those words. That was shock enough alone, but when Arthur knelt in front of him, bowing his head in complete supplication, Merlin couldn't speak.
"I don't deserve it, but please forgive me. I . . . don't know what I'd do without you. You're my . . . you're everything. Please come back to me."
Merlin reached out and touched Arthur's head, the soft strands like silk on his lonely hands. No matter how much he might want to resist the man in front of him, he knew he never would. Arthur looked up, leaning into his touch. "I'll do anything . . ."
It hurt Merlin to see Arthur like this, abject and forlorn. Kneeling to him. It wasn't right.
A look of utter relief lit up Arthur's face. Before he could say anything they were both kneeling on the hard floor of Merlin's home, arms wrapped tightly, and Merlin heard the word he'd longed to hear for five years.
Love. My love.
Twenty years wasn't enough, thought Merlin as Arthur laced his boots. They'd been camped for weeks now, a standoff between Mordred and Morgana's army and Camelot's forces had left the latter greatly weakened. And with Merlin's magic rendered powerless on the battlefield, the inevitable had come to pass.
He knew what Arthur was planning and there was nothing he could do to stop him.
Even well into middle age, Arthur cut a fine figure in his armour. Perhaps it was due to the fine polishing Merlin gave it once a week, despite the fact he'd ceased being Arthur's manservant many years ago.
Arthur grumbled something, hands on hips as he scanned the room, and Merlin watched him, already feeling the void. He wouldn't last long after Arthur; there was some comfort in that, at least. Wiping a silent tear away, Merlin glanced down at his useless hands.
"Don't . . ." Arthur's voice whispered against his face, arms wrapping around from behind. "Not like this."
"I want to be selfish and ask you not to go."
"You won't do that."
"No." Merlin swallowed. "I won't."
Their lips met in a sweet, full kiss and Arthur hugged him so tightly, Merlin could feel the fear in it, the longing, the desire to stay.
"Do you think we'll see each other again?" Arthur asked as their mouths parted.
"Not in this life."
"I'll get to live a whole beautiful life with you."
"An ordinary one." Arthur smiled. It was all either of them had ever wanted.
"Until then . . ." Merlin held on until just their fingertips touched, arms extended. This. This moment. He'd burn it so deeply inside, sear it in his memory so he could never forget, no matter how many centuries passed.
Arthur left the tent they shared as the drums began to beat.
"Do you ever wonder what it would be like if you were born another person?"
"What do you mean?"
It was late—or early—depending on one's perspective. Merlin had been up half the night with little Hunith and had just fallen asleep, only to be awoken in the midst of one of the strangest dreams he'd ever had.
"Like, if you'd lived a life before this one?"
"Like what, like a past life?"
"Yeah . . ." Merlin trailed off, feeling silly. He wasn't a servant, and Arthur certainly wasn't a prince, though he could be a royal pain in the arse. "Nevermind. It's a ridiculous thought."
Arthur scratched at his head, making Merlin relax into the touch. "I rather happen to enjoy your ridiculous thoughts."
"It's . . . I just had the strangest dream."
"Tell me about it, love."
And so he did.