It began with the pies.
Actually, no, it began with Arthur, who'd managed to get himself in trouble yet again. Of course Merlin could deal with the assassin, but he'd needed a disguise to do it without getting caught.
Magic might have been legal in Camelot for a few years now, but that didn't mean Merlin was ready to have a very uncomfortable conversation with Arthur, one that would lead to discussions about trust and hurt feelings, then very likely end with Merlin being named court sorcerer.
Making the king's bed was by far preferable to being the king's bureaucrat. Besides, Merlin was pretty sure Arthur would have him magicking the bed made if he knew (not that Merlin didn't already do such things when no one was watching) and why on earth would Merlin possibly want a council position added to his regular chores? No. Better (and easier) to keep the magic a secret, even if it did sometimes require Merlin to hobble through the castle corridors as Dragoon the Great.
And that was exactly how it started. Merlin, or rather Dragoon, had saved Arthur, and the king had seen him do it. In Uther’s day it would have led to a call for the guards to apprehend Merlin. Now, in this shining new era of acceptance and reconciliation, Merlin still had to run, or rather totter away, fleeing an entirely different kind of danger.
Impressed with what he’d seen, Arthur was trailing after Dragoon, calling out his thanks along with a job offer.
“You can read this parchment if you’d like,” Arthur panted from behind. “It outlines all the benefits of government service. Court sorcerer is a full council position. At your age, wouldn’t you like something less physically demanding?”
Yes, Merlin thought, yes he would. But not a council position.
Arthur had almost caught up with him (Dragoon's aged joints could only carry him so quickly) when Merlin bumped, quite literally, into an unexpected savior.
“Oi! Watch it. You almost made me drop my… oh, hello.”
Merlin recognized the look of desire on the old woman's face for what it was. He’d seen it reflected back at him in the mirror countless times as he’d helped Arthur dress, not that Arthur ever seemed to notice.
“Are you, um, coming to the meeting? What am I thinking? A handsome figure such as yourself has better things to do. Unless…”
“Is the meeting in a room with a door that closes?”
“And does the king ever attend?”
She shook her head no. “We don’t get many gentleman callers.”
The thundering footfalls behind them made Merlin’s mind up for him. “There’s nowhere else I’d rather be.”
The meeting, as the old woman had called it, turned out to be a kind of elderly women’s social club that met in what appeared to have been guest chambers at one point. The bed was missing, as was the wardrobe, but there were chairs arranged close to the hearth. A long table stood next to the wall, laden with numerous covered dishes.
A group of about fifteen women stared at him as he walked through the door.
“What? Haven’t you ever seen a good-looking man before?” Merlin’s companion asked.
“Of course we have, Beatrice,” one of them said. “Just not with you.”
Beatrice responded with a string of profanity that would have made Gwaine blush.
“Have a seat,” another said, gesturing to a chair. “We’re getting the refreshments sorted but there’s plenty of pie to go around.”
“Good thing I was able to keep ahold of it,” Beatrice said, placing her own dish on the table. “Mister…”
“Dragoon,” Merlin supplied as she looked expectantly at him.
“Mr. Dragoon nearly knocked it out of my hand when he crashed into me.”
“More likely that you crashed into him,” another woman chided. “Don’t think we’ve forgotten how you conveniently ‘fell’ into Geoffrey of Monmouth’s lap at the Yule feast last year. I swear, Beatrice, there are easier ways to find a husband than…”
“Like you’d know, Ethel. You’ve never found one.”
“That’s right. I found a wife and Ingrid’s been my sun and my moon for fifty years now.”
Ethel patted the hand of the beaming woman sitting next to her.
“And I’m happy for you,” Beatrice continued. “But my Charlie’s been gone fifteen years now and a woman has needs.”
“Which have been met, and rather frequently, considering what you’ve told us about Henry, Edward, Thomas, Erik…”
“Yes, yes. Stop airing an old woman’s business. We’re glad you’re here, Dragoon. Don’t listen to anything Ethel says, except that you are welcome to pie and any of the other refreshments.”
“Thank you,” Merlin said, accepting the plate Beatrice was handing him. Unsure of what else to do, he took a bite of the pie. “Blackcurrant. It’s delicious.”
That earned him a warm smile from Beatrice before she busied herself tucking into her own plate.
“Now,” Ethel began between bites, “let me tell you the latest news about Susan.”
For the next few hours, Merlin sat listening as the women talked. They caught up on gossip, traded details about aches, pains, and afflictions, and debated the finer points of recipes. Some brought their knitting, others had embroidery to work on.
There were a few more questions for him – was he married, had he ever been, did he know how to get the blackcurrant stain out of his robes after he dropped a bite of pie.
His answers (no, no, soapwort) earned him more than a few eager looks.
“Though there is someone I care for,” he added, not wanting to get anyone’s hopes up. “I just haven’t told them.”
“Well you should,” a woman called Gretchen said. “At our age, there’s not a lot of time left.”
“I’ll… keep that in mind,” Merlin said.
“See that you do. Now let me tell you what my fool of a son-in-law did last Wednesday…”
It was well after midnight when Merlin finally made it to his bed, transforming from Dragoon in an empty alcove before he began climbing the stairs to the infirmary. By any measure it had been a good night.
Things had been a little dicey there for a bit, but Arthur was safe, Merlin’s magic remained a secret, and he’d learned a new recipe for spice cake. All in all, a success.
The women had been a lot of fun – it was almost like hanging out with the knights, except the food had been better than anything the Rising Sun served and there had been more needlework and fewer swords.
(Agnes, it turned out, had one tucked in the folds of her skirt. Elderly women were to be underestimated at one’s peril, Merlin decided.)
Besides, it had been nice to talk with people who didn’t tease him for knowing how to cook and clean and were content to listen to his complaints about his sore knees and aching back.
The evening had been so pleasant that he’d almost slipped up and accepted their offer to return the following week. He couldn’t. Magic transformed Merlin into an octogenarian. He wasn’t really an elderly man and anyway, Arthur kept him far too busy to spend his nights socializing with a bunch of old women he barely knew. No, Merlin could never go back.
Except he did.
Over the next three months, Merlin did everything in his power to ensure his Friday nights were free. He turned down Gwaine’s invitations to the tavern, shrugged off Gaius’s offer to discuss herbalism (letting slip some of Ingrid’s remedies had convinced Gaius that Merlin had a knack for medicine), and even excused himself from dinners with Arthur.
It wasn’t that he didn’t care for the others – but he got to see them regularly throughout the week. Friday nights were reserved for a kind of camaraderie, one free of destinies and duties, that didn’t expect Merlin to be brilliant or exuberant.
All he had to do was bring a dish to share and Merlin could sit in easy company that wasn’t offended in the slightest if he drifted off in the middle of a conversation. Sometimes by Friday, Merlin was so exhausted from the week of chasing after Arthur that it was nice to just doze by the fire.
(It wasn’t like he was the only one who did it. Jeanine, a woman whose hundredth birthday had come and gone when Arthur was still Camelot’s prince, sometimes snored through the entire meeting.)
Which didn’t mean that he was always silent or asleep. He had more than a few stories to share about castle intrigue and knew a thing or two about making a good stew.
They attempted to teach him knitting (it was a disaster) then settled on cross-stitch (a better choice, though still not Merlin’s calling in spite of the repairs he’d made to Arthur’s clothes over the years).
Not a Friday passed where they didn’t coax out details about his love life, or lack thereof. Why Uther had confined suspects to the dungeons or the stocks, Merlin couldn’t say. If you wanted to get information out of someone, just leave them alone in the company of a group of inquisitive old women.
Despite his efforts to keep his affection for Arthur a secret, the group had learned that the person Merlin loved had blue eyes, was a man, could be obnoxious, but had a kind heart underneath.
“If you saw him in the street, you’d think he was an ass,” Merlin told them. “That’s what I thought the first time I met him. But once I got to know him, I realized it was mostly an act to protect his heart. His father was… not the best. Anyway, that was ages ago and he’s come a long way since then. He takes care of me, not that he’d ever admit it, and I can’t imagine life without him.”
“Then tell him,” Gretchen said. “Every week you tell us how you’re pining after him, but you still haven’t told him how you feel. If he’s an ass about it, we’ll send Agnes.”
And the night when he’d slipped up, his magic catching Ingrid when she’d nearly fallen, no one had batted an eye. Instead, Ethel helped her wife into her chair while the others sang Merlin’s praises.
“Don’t look so worried, Dragoon,” Agnes said. “I know that even with the laws having changed, there are a good many sorcerers who choose to keep their magic a secret. Our lips are sealed. Imagine if Ingrid had hit the floor. You know falling is dangerous at our age. Here, have some more cake.”
“I told you he was a gentleman,” Beatrice added. “It’s what I’ve said since the first day I met him.”
“Uther Pendragon was a damned fool,” Jeanine chimed in, presumably awakened by the excitement. “We’re all old enough to remember what Camelot was like before he stole power. I’m not scared of magic – half my family were sorcerers and not a one of them was evil. Now someone get me more wine. I just remembered the story of what happened to my Uncle Herbert when he got cornered by a goat in heat. If Herbert hadn’t had magic…”
Merlin let out a breath he didn’t know he’d been holding and sank back against his chair, relieved to finally have a group of friends who accepted him as he, more or less, was.
All good things must come to an end.
Merlin knew he wouldn’t be able to keep up the ruse forever. As the months went by, Arthur grew increasingly suspicious of what Merlin was getting up to on Friday nights.
“You’re in a hurry to leave,” Arthur said on the Friday things finally fell apart. “I would think you were off to see Guinevere or the knights, but when I asked them…”
“You asked them?”
“I’m the king, Merlin. I need to know what my people are getting up to.”
“By ‘your people’ you mean me.”
“Are you not mine, Merlin?”
Always and forever, Merlin thought as he made a rude gesture at Arthur.
“What a man does in his free time is his own business,” Arthur continued, “but it is a bit odd that no one can ever find you on Friday night. If I didn’t know better, I’d say you were seeing someone.”
There was a sadness in Arthur’s tone Merlin hadn’t expected.
“It’s fine, of course.” Arthur would never last a day as Merlin – the man couldn’t lie to save his life. “I was just trying to figure out why you wouldn’t want to spend Fridays with me.”
Merlin hesitated. Gretchen had been telling him to confess his feelings and now seemed as good of time as any, especially with Arthur looking at him like that.
But then there was a knock at the door. George arriving with the king’s dinner broke the spell and Merlin hurried out, still not entirely sure of what had happened.
He’d been distracted all through the night’s socializing and the rest of the group caught on. All it took were a few pointed stares, some not so subtle questions, and Beatrice waving her knitting needles to get the relevant bits of the story out of him.
“You’ve been turning down your gentleman to spend nights with us?” Ethel sounded scandalized. “You’re always welcome here, Dragoon, but maybe tonight you should go back to him. Every day you wait to tell him is a day you’ve lost.”
The others murmured in agreement.
“Fine,” Merlin said, “I’ll do it. But I may be back soon if things don’t go well.”
“They’ll go fine,” Gretchen said, “but we’re always here if you need us.”
Gathering all the courage he could muster, Merlin strode out of the room as tall as his aching body would let him. The cheers echoing behind him gave him a bit of confidence. He hadn’t imagined it. Arthur had been looking at him with something that suggested… well, Merlin wasn’t sure of exactly how to classify it, but it had been promising.
All that was left to do was duck into the alcove he regularly used for his transformations. Aging or regressing – the process was never pleasant, but it was nice to have the knee cartilage of a thirty-year-old again. Adjusting his clothes, Merlin turned around.
They stared at one another. Merlin stayed silent, wishing he knew how much Arthur had seen before he began his attempt at damage control.
“I’d wondered where you were getting off to,” Arthur finally said, “so I followed you. I confess I was a bit confused when you disappeared in here and the old man stepped out, but now I see that you have been keeping…”
“Don’t you hurt him,” a familiar voice called out. “King or not, you’ll regret it if any harm comes to him.”
Halfway down the corridor stood Agnes, sword raised. Her arm was shaky, but her eyes were fierce.
“That’s right,” Beatrice said, brandishing a knitting needle. “Dragoon is our friend and we’ll protect him.”
“I am one hundred and seventeen years old,” Jeanine added, “because death is afraid to take me. You’d be wise to keep that in mind, Arthur Pendragon, before you go threatening my friend.”
“What? I… no. No one is threatening Merlin, or Dragoon, or... Magic’s not even illegal anymore.”
“Maybe not, but you sounded angry with him,” Gretchen said.
“I suppose I did,” Arthur replied, “but only because I was surprised, that’s all. I didn’t know he had magic, much less that he could change his age. It was a bit much to take in. Why am I even telling you this?”
“They have a way of getting you to talk,” Merlin explained.
“Although you never told us you were actually a dashing young man,” Beatrice said, her eyes running the length of his body. “It’s a shame you’re spoken for.”
“Is he, though?” Ingrid asked. “We know his heart belongs to someone, and it’s a pretty safe guess as to who that might be considering that there’s an obnoxious blue-eyed ass standing in front of us, but…”
“I’m not obnoxious,” Arthur cut in.
“But you are an ass,” Merlin countered.
“How do you figure?”
“Well, only an ass would go stalking their friend.”
“It’s not stalking. It’s just… checking up on you. To make sure you’re not in trouble. Or seeing anyone. It’s ok if you are, I mean. I just…”
“That answers your question, Ingrid,” Gretchen interrupted. “Dragoon…”
“Merlin,” Arthur corrected.
“…is spoken for. Now that that’s settled, let’s give these two some privacy. I imagine they have a lot to talk about without an audience.”
“You just want to get back to the pie,” Beatrice said.
“So what if I do. Dragoon’s, I mean, Merlin’s, apple pie is divine.”
“You’d better not eat it all, Gretchen.”
“Then hobble faster, Ethel.”
Merlin waited until the procession had disappeared around the corner before he turned back to Arthur.
“I imagine you have some questions for me.”
“You imagined right. Although I think they’re better asked in my chambers. I’m not sure how long pie will keep them at bay.”
The walk to Arthur’s chambers passed in silence, the flights of stairs leaving Merlin grateful that Arthur had caught him after he’d transformed back from Dragoon. He wasn’t afraid, so much as anxious. Just because Arthur wasn’t mad didn’t mean that Merlin was overly excited about an interrogation.
“So… questions. Ask away.” Merlin said when Arthur’s door was closed behind them. He wanted to look nonchalant but his nerves were getting the better of him. For lack of anything better to do, he began adjusting the blankets and pillows on Arthur’s bed.
“I’m the king, Merlin. I’ll decide when to ask them. Which, incidentally, I plan to do now.” He leveled a glare before Merlin could voice his witty retort. “I could ask how long you’ve been using magic to protect me, why you were pretending to be a doddering old man, and what you were up to with a group of ferocious old ladies. I could even ask you who your heart belongs to. But I won’t.”
“You won’t?” Now it was Merlin’s turn to feel surprised.
“No. At least, not yet. For now, there’s a much more urgent question that needs answering.”
Before Merlin realized what was happening, Arthur had grabbed him, turning him around before pinning him down on the bed. It was like something out of his dreams, the ones that always left him flushed the next day. Arthur was on top of him, mouth so close Merlin could feel warm breath on his lips. Bright blue eyes searched his own as gentle fingers traced along his cheek.
Arthur let his other hand wander lower. This really was turning into one of Merlin’s dreams, as Arthur was now fighting with his tunic.
“Merlin,” he said, still struggling with the fabric, “Will you…”
“Anything,” Merlin gasped. “Whatever it is, yes.”
“Become court sorcerer,” Arthur said, pulling out a piece of parchment that had been tucked between his belt and his tunic so he could wave it in Merlin’s face. “As you can see, it’s a full council position with a generous compensation package. And since you’ve already agreed…”
“I didn’t agree.”
“You most certainly did. Just now, you said…”
“Yes, I know what I said.” Merlin squeezed his eyes shut as he felt his face burn. “But I thought you were going to… not say that.”
“Then what did you think I was asking?” There was laughter in Arthur’s voice, but also something else, something that made Merlin feel unexpectedly brave.
“If you could have your way with me.”
There was a hitch in Arthur’s breathing. “And that’s something you’d like, is it?”
“Yes. But only,” Merlin added, “if you’d like it as well.”
“Mr. Dragoon, you drive a hard bargain. A very hard one judging by the state of your…”
“Gladly,” Arthur said, before pressing his lips to Merlin’s.
The parchment fluttered to the floor, forgotten as the king turned his attention to more pressing matters.
The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Despite Arthur’s acceptance of his magic, Merlin still found himself running through castle hallways, trying to escape from Arthur’s constant pleas that he accept the position of court sorcerer. In public, Merlin could get away, but at nights there was nowhere to hide now that he and Arthur lived in shared chambers.
“I’ll advise you, but I don’t want the title,” Merlin said for what felt like the thousandth time. “I know how tedious those meetings get. Servants can slip out. Councilors can’t.”
“What if I amend the terms of the position to where the court sorcerer must spend the meeting sitting on the king’s lap?”
“I… alright then,” Merlin heard himself say.
Government service, it turned out, wasn’t all bad.
Merlin’s Friday nights were still spent in the company of his elderly friends, though as himself rather than Dragoon. The location for their gatherings had changed, the king insisting that they relocate to the best ground floor dining room.
“Jeanine is too old to be climbing all those stairs, Merlin,” Arthur said as they walked hand-in-hand toward the dining room door.
“Tell her that to her face, I dare you. Actually, don’t. She’d murder you and then I’d be sad.”
“Because that would leave Camelot without a king?”
“I suppose,” Merlin began, “though I was thinking more about how I would have to go back to sleeping alone.”
“I don’t know. I’m sure you could find someone willing to share your bed with you.”
“I don’t want someone in my bed. I want you in ours.”
“Right now? Because…”
“Do you remember when we were like that, Ingrid? Unable to keep our hands to ourselves for more than five minutes?” Ethel’s voice caused Merlin to catch Arthur’s wrist before his fingers could wander any lower.
“Of course I do, Ethel. It’s why we’re running late. You know I can’t resist when you…”
“Maybe we should all go inside,” Arthur suggested, stepping away from Merlin to hold the door open.
Most of the regular group was already there, along with some newer faces who’d recently started attending.
Elyan and Agnes were comparing swords, while Gwen and Gretchen tried their best to show Leon the basics of cross-stitch. His technique had improved from the week before, though he kept pricking his fingers as his eyes wandered to Gwen’s encouraging smile rather than the fabric in his hands.
“I’m sorry, Merlin, but things won’t work between us after you led me on as Dragoon.” Beatrice’s smile betrayed her stern tone. “Besides, now I have two handsome young men to show me a good time. Come on, boys, let’s check out the pie table.”
She had inserted herself between Percival and Gwaine, taking each of them by the arm as she led them to the food. Merlin would have felt bad for them if they hadn’t teased him earlier that day about the red marks on his neck.
So what if his neckerchief had slipped? So what if Arthur had been, um, enthusiastic the night before? It was none of their business and besides, it wasn’t as though Gwaine hadn’t shown up to practice wearing a tunic that was clearly cut for someone larger and missing its sleeves.
Jeanine’s voice pulled Merlin from his thoughts.
“I’m not getting any younger,” she was saying to Arthur. “If you want to see me dance at your wedding, you’d better hurry up and ask him.”
Arthur was about to reply when he looked up, his eyes meeting Merlin’s.
“You’re absolutely right,” Arthur told her. “I will. I just… there’ll be a lot of people and I’ll have to talk about feelings and…”
“You really don’t,” Merlin cut in as he took a seat next to Arthur. “I know and that’s all that matters. Besides, I’m not really sure that Geoffrey writing our names in a book would make us any more married than we already are.”
“He’s got a point, you know.” Ethel parked herself on the other side of Jeanine. “Ingrid and I never had our names written in a book. We tried, mind you, but we got turned away, being two women. It’s not allowed under the law.”
“Then consider the law changed,” Arthur said. “You don’t have to, obviously, but if you want to…”
Ingrid gave Ethel a shy smile and Merlin squeezed Arthur’s hand, trying his best to not kiss him senseless in front of the group.
“Good,” Jeanine interrupted. “Now that that’s been settled, we can plan the celebration parties. I don’t care if someone writes your names or not, I want to dance. Did I ever tell you about when I was twenty and the neighbor’s son… oh, go on and get in his lap. Everyone knows that’s where you want to be and we’re too old for you to shock us. At our ages, we’ve seen it all.”
Merlin did as he was told, relaxing in Arthur’s arms as he listened to their new friends spinning stories about the past, while daydreaming about their future.