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The Warmth of Winter

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"I hate winter," Merlin said after Kilgharrah landed and Merlin had slid off the dragon's back to plant his boots into the snow. Kilgharrah's sharp claws dug through the ice to cling to the stone that covered the cave dwellings the Druid clans made their home base during the frigid winter months.

It also housed the Royal Dragonlord family of the Druids, so it was Merlin's home year round, aside from when he was out on tours and other duties in the kingdoms of Europe. Sometimes he and Kilgharrah went as far as Asia, or south to Africa, both of which were now covered in blankets of snow in degrees that had never happened Before. On the other side of a meteor shower that pounded into earth and ocean, and sent the world into a time of chaos and desperation, the world's winters had been plunged into an icy, polar state. But it had also woken dragons and magic from the depths of Earth, where they'd been slumbering for a long, long time. And without them, the humans probably wouldn't have survived. People, though much less of them now, prevailed as they always do, and broke through to the other side of that darkness.

Those other kingdoms that weren't part of the European Council had their own Druid clans and dragons to help people survive, and so Merlin's travels there were no more than diplomatic visits. Still, it was good to keep up those connections. Networking, his father Balinor called it; Balinor and Hunith -- Balinor's wife and Merlin's dear mother -- were much better at it than Merlin, but he tried to follow their example as best he could, even if he bumbled through it occasionally.

"No, seriously," Merlin repeated, his cheeks feeling wind burned from the short trip he and Kilgharrah had just made to the southern Spain kingdom, "really hating winter right about now."

"You say that every winter, young warlock," Kilgharrah said. His voice lacked the dry humour it usually had, but Merlin bet that Kilgharrah was probably eager to get inside to warm up too, though he'd never admit it next to Merlin's complaining. While Kilgharrah was more than capable of making his own way to the cave den where the dragons took shelter, Merlin accompanied him, leading the way over the icy path.

"Because it's true every winter," Merlin said. "Every single winter. What I wouldn't give for some summer heat now."

"You complain about summer heat every single summer as well. You hate it."

"I don't hate it," Merlin said. "But I learn to miss it when winter comes."

"Spring?"

Merlin made a face. "Too soggy."

"Is there any weather you do like?" Kilgharrah asked.

"Autumn," Merlin answered immediately. "Autumn has three weeks of beautiful weather and changing leaves and peacefulness. I like it."

"All right, then, Goldilocks."

"Oh, hey, I know that one!" Merlin said happily. "My mother told me that story as a child."

"I know," Kilgharrah said fondly. Now that they were in the mouth of the caves, and the air already felt a notch warmer, it seemed he was getting his good humour back. "The following morning after you first heard it, you rushed to tell me. It was still dark out, no one else was awake yet. You told me and then curled up under my wing and fell asleep. And when day broke, your mother stormed into my den in a rage for you going missing. Of course, she knew exactly where to look, but that didn't make her less angry."

Merlin laughed as he recalled the memory. He hadn't come into his Dragonlord powers yet at the time, being much too young, but he had always felt a connection to the dragons, just as he had with magic. It was something he was born with, so deeply ingrained in him. And Kilgharrah had always been his favourite, right from the beginning, even though they often butted heads and argued, and loved defying each other's word. It was a thing they did.

"That was in England," Merlin mused. "When we were still at St. James's Palace."

"Yes, it was."

Merlin felt something in him shift, as it did any time he thought of England and St. James's, which was part of Fort Buckingham. It made him quiet, thoughtful. Longing. God, how he missed it there. Merlin had been six years old when the dragons were banned from England by crazy King Uther -- his mother would scold him for referring to him as that, but Merlin couldn't help but feel that way, and didn't understand how she wasn't more outwardly angry at him. After all, the Druids and the Dragonlords followed, and they were only allowed back on the island with special permission, and that did not happen very often. Merlin had only got to see his home -- what he thought of as his real home, anyway -- a handful of times in the past decade and a half since they had to leave.

Uther was gone now, though. The news had spread fast across the kingdoms of Europe, and had fuelled the rumour mill for over a year now as to what was going to happen with the bans England implemented. And while dragons and their Lords and Ladies, or Druids and their magic, had not been welcome back fully -- well, maybe things would change.

"England in a less than a week," Merlin mumbled aloud, though he meant it for himself. Of course, the dragon heard. What more, he understood.

"Yes, my dragonlord," Kilgharrah said. "Young King Arthur has invited us to renegotiate, is my understanding."

While Merlin's stomach twisted at the very mention of Arthur, he tried to ignore that and looked at Kilgharrah sharply. "That is classified information."

Kilgharrah snorted, and a little bit of smoke puffed from his nostrils. The energy of his dragon fire was building up again. "I am a dragon," Kilgharrah said. "There are no secrets from me here. I knew before the information even reached our caves."

"Then why didn't you tell me!" Merlin exclaimed. He'd only found out the day before. He had full intentions of telling Kilgharrah, of course, but their morning had been spent flying around the countryside and reheating fort dwellings so that people did not freeze to death. That was certainly more important than gossiping about a trip to England. And while in the new year they had planned on travelling out to forts further away, nearly to the edge of the Europe-Asia border, those plans would change now and another dragonlord would go. Merlin was determined to make it to England.

"Classified information," Kilgharrah replied snottily.

Merlin rolled his eyes. "Well, I wonder which dragon I should take with me? Presul? Or maybe Coniecto, I bet she would love to go to England--"

Merlin cut off with a laugh as a rumbling growl came from Kilgharrah. The dragon bared his teeth and lowered his snout, but Merlin just grinned and rubbed a hand over some scales. He leaned his forehead against Kilgharrah and whispered, "We're going home."

"For a visit, at the very least," Kilgharrah answered.

"Hopefully more. I'm sure my father will ask for more. I will fight for more!"

"I'm sure you will," Kilgharrah said. He pushed his snout lightly against Merlin's side. "You will be of no use if you fall ill. Get inside and warm up. Eat soup. Rest."

"Yes, Mum," Merlin said, making a face. But he grinned at Kilgharrah and listened to his advice -- this time, it suited Merlin to, as his stomach had started grumbling. He said goodbye, and took the path that led from the dragons' dens to the main part of the cave dwellings, nodding hello at the other dragons he saw along the way.

---

Merlin made his way down the steps of the narrow stairwell that was carefully carved into the stone of the cave. He stripped off his outer layer of clothing, slightly damp from the snowfall of earlier -- beanie, mittens, scarf, coat, overtrousers. He still had on a pair of dry jeans and a heavy jumper. It got warmer and warmer the further down the stairs he went. Going by the rudimentary science he’d learned as a boy (he’d always fancied magic much more), he knew that it should probably get colder; but, well, they had magic and the fire of dragons, and he knew that helped keep the stone of the caves warm for them. He brushed his hands against the walls, smiling as he felt the warmth coming off of them. It was cozy where they lived, despite the stone and windy drafts, and he was grateful for it amidst the harshness of winter.

It didn't take long before he was in the foyer of the Druid cave settlement. The foyer was large and open, lit by the balls of magic that were in the sconces anchored into the stone walls. It was easy to see stairs and openings that led to other parts of the deep caves; the royal chambers, other private chambers and rooms, common meeting rooms, the library, off to the kitchens, and egresses to the world above in case of emergency.

"Oh, Your Highness, let me take those," said one of the staff as he headed off to deposit them into his quarters.

Merlin startled for a moment, still so unused to being called 'your highness' or 'sire' or Prince Emrys, the Druid name that'd only been bestowed upon him a couple years before, after the Royal Trials. His father had been leader of the Dragonlords, called King for so long, but their ruling lineage was done differently than the traditional non-magic royals. Magic was measured and quantified, then tests and quests to prove worthiness had to be passed. It hadn't been a surprise to anyone that Merlin had been named Prince, the next in line under Balinor, rather than another apprentice to be taken under his wing. Apparently, Merlin's magic had been the strongest there had ever been, born with it rather than learned. But still Merlin could not get used to having such a title, even though he’d always been part of the royal family before being named Prince. He felt no different than he always had.

He covered it up rather well, he thought, giving the staff girl a smile. Her accent wasn't English, as many of those around here weren't, though she spoke it quite clearly. The boundaries of Europe had long changed, amalgamated to become one, though there were kingdoms and districts within; even though they were in the caves under one of the Spanish districts, she sounded like she was from a French one. She smiled back at him and looked eager to help.

"That's quite all right, it's a handful," he said from behind the pile of clothes he had in his arms.

He had never been entirely comfortable with having staff around, though he was happier for it this way than that of the non-magic royals. They all had servants, men and woman born into the roles; it had been a long time since the Druid royals lived in such a way, and Merlin had been a boy who hadn't really understood. Their staff here amongst the Druids were like the Druids themselves, in that they came from all over and sought shelter from the places they could not be. Merlin still felt bad for ordering them around, though he was always appreciative of their help when offered, and more than happy to give people who needed it a safe place to spend the winter.

"Please, I will take it," she said, and started taking the damp clothing from his arms. "The King Dragonlord and his Lady were looking for you a little while ago, to see if you were back yet. Perhaps you should find them?"

Merlin nodded, and relinquished the bundle of clothes. "All right then, I will do that."

"I'll be sure these find their way to your quarters," she said.

"Thank you," he said with a smile. Inside, he was racking his brain. He knew there must be some sort of spell out there, magic that would just dry clothes, instead of hanging them up to do so by air, or draping them over warm rock to steam. It was a silly thing, really, and it annoyed Merlin that it was out of his grasp of knowledge. They could hang magic on walls for light, and could warm stone forts and castles and caves with naught but magic and dragons' breath to last weeks, but not dry clothes? Hogwash, it was, and he would find the spell to cure that little problem some day, he knew it.

Still pondering it, he made his way up another set of stairs. He passed a couple Druids by, both who bowed their heads slightly and said respectfully, "Prince Emrys." When asked about his parents, they directed him up to the council room. Merlin was thankful for that, because there would be less chance of having an audience, unlike if they were in the throne room.

"Dad, Mum," Merlin greeted informally when he found them by themselves, sitting at the table and poring over some parchment. There was a large map of Europe and Asia spread out across the table.

"Ah, there you are," Balinor greeted gruffly. He wasn't the most open or friendly of people, a little rough around the edges from a tough upbringing, they said, but he was a good man. He clapped Merlin on the shoulder when Merlin grinned at him.

"How were your rounds this morning?" Hunith asked, tilting her head a little when Merlin bent down to kiss her cheek.

"Oh, everything was fine. Began to snow a little, but I think it'll clear up quickly." Merlin grabbed a bun from the bowl off the side-table -- he missed the summer, when it was full of apples. He was going to have to remember to go to the kitchens and nick some dried ones from the pantry. He bit into it as he slumped down into chair next to his mother. His eyes scanned over the map in front of them. "Everything all right?"

His parents exchanged a look, and Merlin could tell that this was going to be serious. He stopped chewing and swallowed a lump of bread. "What's wrong, then?"

Balinor answered. "I will not be going to England."

"Dad!" Merlin exclaimed, throwing his hands up in the air. Little bit of crumbs from the bun scattered across the map. Hunith leaned over and brushed them away. Merlin kept on waving his hands around. "Dad, come on! It's England, it's home, I hear the royal prat--"

"Merlin, respect," Hunith said. "You can't speak of him like that."

"-- fine, fine, His Royal Highness King Arthur the freaking Great--" Hunith sighed, but Merlin ignored it and steamrolled through "-- wants to negotiate with us. There's a chance that he wants us to go back! To help his people, who are our people too, which is the most important thing. But, also, home."

Balinor merely looked at Merlin and said mildly, "There are reports of Morgana advancing the north-east border."

"Oh shit," Merlin said immediately. He jumped up and leaned over the map, poking a finger at it. "Here?"

"Just about," Balinor said, but pointed higher. "Here."

"Damn," Merlin said, slumping down into his chair again. "It must be really, really cold there. How can they even advance in that? They'll be frozen slabs of traitors soon enough."

"Well, she also reportedly has three dragons on her side. Her and her small army are probably kept quite warm," Hunith said, sounded like she ate some very bitter fruit and had to try to talk around it.

"Crap," Merlin said angrily.

Merlin remembered the Morgana of his youth well, the one that he played with at St. James's Palace or ran through the Fort Buckingham corridors with, before he'd left but then also knew upon his few visits back to England when they were a bit older. She had been strong and passionate and rather kind, even to Merlin. She’d been like Merlin too, an outsider -- part of a noble, royal family but not really. She was ward of King Uther and foster-sister to Prince Arthur, but not a princess herself, just like Merlin was son to a king but not a prince.

In the end, after Merlin and the Dragonlords and Druids were long gone, she had rallied against Uther. At first hearing the news, Merlin had been overjoyed -- finally, someone standing up to him on behalf of the magic folk, telling him how important it was that they came back to England. Unfortunately, she herself had ended up banished from there.

But then there was some mess of a rumour that she was actually his illegitimate daughter, and she had a claim to the throne, especially once Uther was dead. And, also, her new propaganda had been that Druids and dragons should rule over everyone, all the kings and queens and ordinary people of Europe. She believed that they were treated as slaves, bound to the human royalty to keep the people warm and safe, when it should really be the magic folk in charge.

That part of her plan --- well, not all the peaceful Druids believed in it, since they did not see themselves as slaves to any treaties but helpers in society who agreed to the terms. Although there were some factions that didn't think so and also defected to her side. She seemed to find some asylum in Asia but was not willing to stay there. But now she and her followers had to be stopped, for war was not what their people wanted, as they'd been living in peace for centuries and matters of survival were more important than those of rule.

It made Merlin angry that that would be her priority, her prerogative, some stupid throne and title, rather than the safety of the human race. They'd been through a lot already, and war and battle was not what they needed. He'd happily give up his title if it meant keeping people safe; but then again, Druid royalty and non-magic human royal lineages were quite different. And Morgana was clearly not the woman he remembered from their youth, who had power, yes, but had never used it so selfishly as she was now.

He waved his arms again, this time with more pointed anger rather than childish disappointment. "How is it that she can do this? Justify doing this to our kingdoms? We have peace accords for a reason, and she wants to walk all over them? Well, she can't. We can't let her -- No! Just ... no!"

"Yes, I'm sure yelling that at her will stop her in her tracks," Balinor said, deadpanned.

"Ha bloody ha," Merlin muttered.

"But since it might not work, it seems that I will be going out there as well. A request from the European royal council."

Merlin nodded. It made sense, and they would probably be taking several of the dragons with them. Their resources might be spread a bit thin, but they had more than enough. "When are we leaving?"

"We?" Balinor said.

"Yes, you, me, Kilgharrah. I assume Belynda--" who was Balinor's favoured dragon "--you know, we. Mum, you coming too?"

"No, I will be staying at the caves, making sure things run smoothly here, that everyone gets their heat treatment," she said.

Merlin nodded. That much he figured; she was excellent at organising and would make sure that all the forts and castles had enough heat to survive, and that the dragons, dragonlords, and dragonladies did not over do it.

"I will be going alone," Balinor said. "Well, Belynda and I. We will be doing some reconnaissance as we can get to Morgana's camp more quickly. And then we will report back and likely go up to meet her head-on with some of the European guard."

"But I can go with you! I need to learn this stuff too."

"You do," Balinor said. "But I also need you to represent me in England."

"I thought you said we weren't going to England."

"No, I said I wasn't. You, however, will be going to do the negotiating with King Arthur."

Merlin's jaw dropped. Then it flopped open and closed like a fish before it finally snapped shut. He stared wide-eyed at his parents.

"I'm sorry that we can't all go to England for Yule like we had hoped," Hunith said gently. That had been the plan they spoke of the night before, upon receiving the invitation from King Arthur, when there hadn't been a potential crisis on their hands. The Druid royal family, presenting a united front in England. And over Yule too, which was to be a celebration of them being in there again. "But with the possibility of your father engaging in battle, one of us really must stay here. And only a dragonlord royal can negotiate on behalf of the Druid council. It's you or your father, and Balinor will be otherwise occupied."

Even though she had no magic of her own, Hunith was beloved by the Druids, and accepted as the King Dragonlord's Lady, and mother of the chosen Prince of Dragonlords. She was smart, kind, and compassionate. She would do well running their cave settlement and making sure they kept their promises to keep countryside settlements warm through the winter.

And Merlin. Merlin was to go to England and face Arthur on his own.

"I can't, I can't go to England. I shall go to the East in Father's stead," Merlin said firmly. "He can go to England."

He was proud of himself when he didn't cower at his parents' looks, even though he sort of wanted to. He knew those looks -- he wasn't about to get away with anything.

"This is not something up for negotiation," his father said.

"Actually, isn't that what it is? Exactly that? Something up for negotiation, and that's our allowance back into England, permanently, and I really don't think I'm the one -- okay, okay," Merlin said when he saw the look on his father's face. "It was a joke!"

"Not a time for jokes, Merlin," Hunith said with a sigh. "I don't understand why you aren't excited and willing to do this."

"It will be a very good thing for our people," Balinor added. "And you love England and always ask when the next time we're allowed to go back is. I would think you'd want this opportunity to accomplish this for us."

Well, now Merlin was starting to feel guilty. He couldn't just tell them the reason why he was so unsure about going there by himself, without his father to do all the talking parts. Merlin just wanted to go and sleep in his old rooms at St. James's Palace, walk the halls of Fort Buckingham, go out into the field even though it was covered in snow, and take Kilgharrah to the dragons' shelter, provided it was a structure still standing after so many years without use.

But dealing with Arthur? Hell no. His father was supposed to do that part.

Hunith reached out and patted Merlin's arm. "Is this about Arthur?"

Merlin blinked at her. "Are you reading my mind? I thought you didn't have magic."

She smiled and shook her head. "I know the two of you haven't always got along, but you needn't worry about that."

"Understatement, Mother, understatement," Merlin muttered.

"You're a prince now," Balinor said, "and are in line to be the next King of the Dragonlords. You belong there as much as any other royal. If I remember correctly, he is a good man and he will respect that."

"Yeah, but I'm not sure he actually respects me," Merlin said with a sigh.

Both his parents blinked at him. His father asked suspiciously, "What did you do?"

"What? What do you think it's something I did?" Merlin asked, holding up his hands defensively. "I will have you know that Arthur can be a git, we all know this, and he's always lorded the fact he was born prince, and guaranteed to be king, over me. He loves to do that. What makes you think he'll be any different now?"

"Because you're no longer children," Hunith said.

"Oh, believe me, I know," Merlin said without thinking. And then he winced.

"Oh lord," Balinor said, rolling his eyes. "What did you do?"

"I'm not talking about this," Merlin said flatly. "Especially with my parents."

Hunith tilted her head to the side. "Oh. Oh, this is about the last time we saw him, isn't it? Right before your Royal Trials. You snogged him."

"Mother!" Merlin said, scandalised. "How did you know that?"

"Who didn't know that is more the question," Balinor added. And there was finally an amused twinkle to his eyes, just as there was a grin tugging at his mother's mouth.

"This isn't funny!" Merlin said. "This is … this is … this is a bias for negative negotiations."

"Oh, I'm sure it wasn't that bad, honey," Hunith said, patting his arm again. Balinor outright laughed.

"That's not -- Mother!" Merlin scolded. "That's not what I meant. And this is a serious situation here!"

That made Balinor stop laughing immediately, and heavy lines set on his face again. Merlin felt bad for bringing it up.

"You're right, Merlin," his father said. "This is a serious situation, and very important. But I know that both you and Arthur are mature enough to not let some teenaged tryst get in the way of something that is so important for our people. Druid and dragon presence is crucial in England for its continued survival, something that Uther refused to see, but Arthur is willing to take into account. We need you to go to these negotiations for us."

Merlin sighed and waved his hand absently. "Well, when you put it that way." But by their encouraging smiles, Merlin knew that his parents knew he was going to take this very seriously.

---

When Merlin told Kilgharrah that it was just the two of them going to England, and that Merlin would be the one to deal with King Arthur and his council on the negotiations, Kilgharrah laughed. And laughed. And laughed some more. He laughed so hard that he had little puffs of smoke coming out of his nose from trying to contain his fire.

Merlin refused to speak to him for three days after that.

But after Balinor had said his farewell to his family and to the Druid people, and had taken flight to go East, Merlin made his way up to the dragons' den. He found Kilgharrah and curled up on a bit of hay, using Kilgharrah's palm as a pillow. Kilgharrah found a scrap of blanket that made up part of his nest and covered Merlin, and this time used puffs of smoke to help keep him warm.

---

 

"You're going to be late."

"Mum, we'll be fine," Merlin said. He smiled at her as he pulled on a leather strap, buckling it closely to Kilgharrah's side, but making sure the dragon had enough room to move properly in flight. "England isn't that far."

Hunith was bundled in her winter clothes, determined to see Merlin off for his journey. She looked out to the mouth of the cave from the dragons' den. The sky was overcast and grey, as it always was in the winter months, but the air was crisp and clear.

"It's going to snow," she said. Looking back at Merlin, she appeared anxious. "And that will make you late, which will reflect poorly on the beginning of negotiations."

"Nah," Merlin said easily. "It's not going to snow, and I'm not going to be late."

Merlin was preparing Kilgharrah for the journey over to England. It was a rather lengthy flight, and they had to be better prepared for it than their usual short runs. A saddle of sorts was strapped to the dragon's body, though it was mostly just a thick blanket held into place to prevent cold scales chafing Merlin's skin, even through his rider's wear. There was also a pack that had to be strapped on carefully; it held a few of Merlin's belongings, but also some extra food for Kilgharrah. While they were certain that Arthur would show hospitality to his guests, including a dragon, Merlin wasn't very confident in Arthur's knowledge of how to provide for dragons. It had been a long time since England had to, save for a handful of visits, and while Uther had a resentful knowledge of it, it may not have been passed on properly to his son. And it certainly wouldn't do well for negotiations for Kilgharrah to illegally hunt on Arthur's lands, and very difficult to do in winter as it were.

"I don't know that that's necessary," Hunith said, eying the large pack on Kilgharrah's back. "What if Arthur finds it insulting? They were expecting at least two dragons, actually. I'm sure they have more than enough to provide for them."

"You know this food is better anyway," Merlin said. "They don't need to be using up resources when we can help provide."

"That isn't the point," Hunith said. "And it's not tradition."

"Well, it's a new era of royalty, innit?" Merlin said. "Tradition can change." He grinned cheekily at her. "Isn't that the point of this whole thing?"

"I thought the point was to help the people of England," she said dryly, though there was a grin tugging at the corner of her mouth and he knew he had won.

"Always," Merlin agreed, and was thankful when she didn't argue against it any more. He turned to the final stone crate they had to take. He frowned at it. "Now, are you sure about this?"

"Yes," Hunith said immediately. She went over to the crate and crouched down beside it, slipping off her glove and running a hand over the top, no doubt checking to see if it was still warm, as it needed to be. The word Fragile was painted across the top of it in red. "Your father was very clear about that. It is a gift for King Arthur and England, from us and the Druids and the dragons. To show our faith and commitment to this treaty."

"I know, I just … what if this isn't something that he wants?" Merlin said. "What if he ends up finding this insulting?"

"Well, that is why there are instructions to give it as a present of goodwill after the treaty is signed."

"And if it doesn't go well and it doesn't get signed?"

"Then make sure it gets home to us. But I do not think that would be the case."

"That seems rather rude. But necessary, I suppose. And it would make a rather lovely Yule gift, now wouldn't it?"

"I thought that's why you packed the mulled wine."

Merlin glanced up to the pack on Kilgharrah's back, where the skins of wine were carefully stowed away. "Perhaps that would make a better gift before the negotiations. A thank-you for inviting us, you know?" Merlin shifted on his feet uncertainly, scratching a hand at the back of his head. "Right? I've seen Dad do something like that before."

Hunith smiled softly. "Yes. Yes, I think that would be a very good idea. See? You're learning."

"More like hoping to get them all drunk so this goes much better. Mum, I'm kidding," he said, rolling his eyes when she scowled at him. He started to wrap a leather strap around the crate. "All right, then, let's get this one secured to the front of your chest, yes, Kilgharrah? It must be kept safe."

"There will be no problem," Kilgharrah answered. "I'll guard it with my life." Of that, Merlin had no doubt.

It was usually out of the ordinary for Kilgharrah to be quiet and keep opinions to himself, especially when Merlin was concerned, but he was always silent and respectful of the times Merlin had to leave the settlement and was saying goodbye to either of his parents. Even if it was only for a day or two on a quick run through the countryside, though this was something much more significant. Merlin almost wished Kilgharrah would prattle on with a little familiarity to help settle his nerves. He was assigned a very important, heavy task, not to mention he'd be seeing Arthur again after nearly two years, and Merlin was rather anxious about it all; some of Kilgharrah's teasing would be a relief right now. Well, until it was too annoying, anyway.

Hunith smiled up at Kilgharrah. "Keep an eye on him. Keep him safe."

"Mum," Merlin said, pouting. "I can do that on my own."

"As always," Kilgharrah said, "it would be my honour."

"Oh, sure," Merlin said, "you say that to her. You usually tell me what a pain in the arse it is."

"Hush," both his mother and his dragon said. Merlin huffed, but he shot them a quick grin before he got back to work. For his part, Kilgharrah carefully held the crate to his chest while Merlin worked on tightening the strap.

"There," Merlin said a moment later, jumping down from where he'd been perched on Kilgharrah's leg to do his work. He pulled his mother into a tight hug. "Everything will be fine, Mum. I am going to knock their socks off at this negotiation thing, really."

She laughed and squeezed him back. "I'm sure you will, dear."

He planted a kiss on her cheek, and then pulled the balaclava down over his face. While he wasn't expecting a storm, they were going to be flying higher than usual, and the winds would be bitterly cold.

He tugged on his large rider's jacket, pulling up the fur-lined hood, and tied a scarf around his neck. He was bundled up very well, but they were going to have to leave soon before he overheated. He patted his mother on the shoulder, pulled on his large gauntlet-styled mitts, and climbed up onto Kilgharrah's back.

"Oh, you're going to be so late," Hunith said, looking out the cave again. She waved them on. "Be safe. Happy Yule, both of you."

Merlin nodded and waved, and Kilgharrah walked his way out of the dragons' den, but took flight as soon as he was able to.

Merlin let out a giddy whoop, unable to contain it, as muffled as it was in his winter apparel. They were going to England.

---

They were going to be late to England, thanks to the unexpected snowstorm that hit them while flying over France.

Merlin sighed, snuggling closer to Kilgharrah's side, keeping fairly warm in the dragon's shelter they'd manage to find and get permission to use. Kilgharrah was kind enough to huff his dragon's breath across the stone floor, heating it so that Merlin could lie down on it without chill seeping through his clothes and blanket.

His mother was never going to let him hear the end of this.

He doubted Arthur would either.

---

One of Merlin's favourite things about flying was being able to see an aerial view of the land below. There was much less to see in winter, though, just miles and miles of white blanket dotted with the occasional winter fort settlement or icy, winding river. Even if summer did not last very long anymore, it was a burst of colour on the world, vibrant greens and fields of wheat and crops. In the summer, there was a better chance of seeing the old ruins, the huge settlements from Before, which were now just skeletons of iron carved out with thick, grey roads. No matter the season, people tended to stay away from those fallen cities, the ones that hadn't been cleared and cleaned up and made into a fort settlement.

Most people moved from their summer homes in the fields up to the main forts in the winter, to use less resources and have a better chance at survival. It was near impossible to get through all the ice and snow if there was an emergency, if medical help was needed, or rations had run dry. Safety in numbers, with others to help you out if the occasion called for it.

Easier to keep warm, too, because the Druids and dragons did their best to add heat to the forts and castles that people took refuge in.

England was different now, Merlin knew. Once the magic folk and beasts were banned, the population lived differently. There were still the big forts -- Buckingham being one of them, with the St. James's Palace on those grounds as well, and goodness Merlin was excited to go back there -- but heat and energy came from different sources. From the old ways, coal and lumber, which had to be hard to accumulate enough before the snows to last winter long. It was easier to heat smaller dwellings like this, so people were scattered and often on their own. Merlin didn't know what the survival rate was really like, if it was better or worse that way. But he would bet on worse, since Arthur was willing to bring magic and dragons back. There had to be a reason.

And despite the anger and resentment he felt at being kicked out of his home, excitement and wonder rose to the surface as he and Kilgharrah flew over the channel. The bitter winds of the open water whipped at Kilgharrah's wings, and Merlin felt it to his bones, despite being bundled as warm as he could be. Still, Kilgharrah forged on, and soon they were back over land.

The terrain wasn't as familiar to him as continental Europe was, but he recognised it as home. He could feel it, the magic in him singing with familiarity, the way peace and hope came to him just from being there. Kilgharrah easily navigated his way to their destination. Fort Buckingham was in the London district, which had once been a huge city, Merlin had heard. One time when he was a child he’d even seen an old painting of what it had looked like a long time ago. It was hard to imagine it, though, because in this world, he only knew homesteads and large fields, not buildings upon buildings that rose high into the sky and appeared to twinkle with magic of their own.

Merlin let out an excited whoop when he saw the familiar Fort Buckingham, which stood out amongst the high drifts of snow. There was a large patch behind it that was cleared out -- it looked like a training field of a sort, a gladiator's ring dug out down to the dirt though surrounded with high walls of packed ice and snow. It was as good a spot as any for Kilgharrah to glide down and land.

Merlin immediately slid off the dragon's back, and when his boots hit the cold, hard dirt, he laughed a ridiculous giddy laugh. It was muffled when he exclaimed, "We're here!" but from Kilgharrah's chuckles, Merlin knew he had heard.

They were home.

---

"Lord-King Balinor, welcome. Did you run into some nasty weather? I hope you and yours are well."

Merlin had been walking up to the fort, still bundled up in his rider's wear, hoping to find someone who could tell him where Kilgharrah should take shelter. He looked up at his father's name being called out, Arthur's voice easily echoing off the high walls of snow and ice around them. Arthur was walking out of the back of Fort Buckingham, dressed in warm winter gear and a cape in Pendragon red billowing around him. There was a sword strapped at his side. Merlin's heart pounded -- with nervousness, really, that's all, at being mistaken for his father. He contemplated momentarily if he should continue to let Arthur think that, as a lark, but then decided that it was probably not a good foot to start out on.

Merlin unwrapped his scarf, pushed down his hood, and pulled off his balaclava. Arthur had approached close enough that Merlin could see the look of surprise flicker across Arthur's face briefly, but it did not last but a moment.

"Merlin," Arthur greeted smoothly. Merlin kept the balaclava off but pulled up his hood once more, protecting his ears from the winds. "I didn't expect to see you. I mean, I did, but …" Arthur frowned. "Is your father well? Is everything all right? Do we need to send for help?"

Merlin held up one hand. "Hello, Arthur. Yes, my father is well, thank you. He is not stuck behind in weather, but is otherwise detained." Merlin had to struggle to keep formality, when all he wanted to do was burst out and tell Arthur what the real problem was. He was going to eventually, of course, but it was probably not proper to do so in front of the knights that were following close behind Arthur, and the servants that were standing at the doorways. Merlin was maybe not entirely used to the formality of being at court, but he did remember it from the few visits both here in England as well as with other European royalty, not to mention when he was still a child and lived at St. James's Palace too, running in and out of chambers playing tag with Arthur and Morgana. That was a long time ago, though. Merlin's father had always been very good at propriety, even though the Druid royals were much less formal at their own settlements, but Merlin struggled to be the same.

Merlin spread his arms out in a 'this is what you get' gesture. "I am here on my father's behalf."

Arthur frowned. "Merlin … this is a very serious matter, I was hoping that the Druids would see how important it is."

Merlin stood up straight, tried not to appear too offended but he was. "Of course we do. Why do you think I'm here? Because you invited us."

"Yes, but I invited the Druids to conduct official business."

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"It means," Arthur said, looking like he was barely containing an eyeroll. The tone of his voice reminded Merlin of when they were much younger and Arthur constantly called Merlin an idiot. "It means that I needed to conduct negotiations with the Druids."

"Well, that's why I'm here," Merlin said dryly. "My father sent me in his place. Is there an issue with that? Or, what, am I not good enough, Arthur?"

Arthur's jaw ticked. "To start off with -- in case you've forgotten, Merlin, or perhaps haven't heard yet, I am King Arthur Pendragon of England and I know you've always had a bit of a problem showing me due respect, but please address me as Sire or Your Highness or perhaps even M'Lord would work."

"Well, Sire," Merlin said, laying it on thick, "in case you've forgotten or perhaps haven't heard yet, I have been named the Dragonlord Prince Emrys of the Druids, and you should be addressing me as the same, should you not? And, on that note, as I have been named as such after passing the Royal Trials, I have been appointed by the Druid King to represent him on this official matter as he is needed elsewhere. He has put his trust in me to do this, and it would be greatly appreciated if you would do the same. Or, at the very least, recognise my position here."

Arthur blinked at him as if he'd never seen Merlin before. It was gone in an instant though, and Arthur was smoothly in royal form again. "Of course," he said, graciously. Merlin narrowed his eyes; he knew when Arthur was trying to cover something up. Likely that he didn't think Merlin deserved the same due respect, just as he'd always done. But that would not stop Arthur acting properly now. "Prince Emrys, forgive me, I truly did not mean to offend."

Well, that was … unexpected. Arthur didn't tend to give in too easily to Merlin. In fact, he never had at all (except that once, but they weren't going to talk about that now, obviously). Merlin searched Arthur's face, though surrounded by hoods and half covered by a beanie, trying to find something that showed Arthur was pulling his leg. When he found none, Merlin let his defensiveness drain away.

Merlin waved a hand around. "Yes, yes, all's forgiven." Arthur's eyes flashed slightly at being the one who would have to be forgiven, so perhaps he wasn't quite at ease as he was trying to seem, and Merlin couldn't hold back his cheeky grin if he tried. Arthur rolled his eyes.

"So, we're good?" Merlin asked.

Arthur nodded. "We're good."

"Brilliant," Merlin replied. "And as lovely as this getting reacquainted with each other is, we're unnecessarily standing outside in this bitter English cold -- which is not nearly as bad as the continent, come to think of it, but all winter is rotten, yeah? -- and I was wondering if I could get someone to show me to where Kilgharrah will be sheltered." Merlin pointed behind himself to where the large dragon just happened to be standing, looking on with unconcealed amusement. At least, Merlin knew him well enough to know it was amusement, and Merlin shook his head at Kilgharrah to cut it out. Kilgharrah only huffed.

"Right, of course," Arthur said, looking beyond Merlin. For his part, Arthur didn't look at all nervous or thrown off by having a large dragon standing in the middle of his training grounds.

The knights and servants, on the other hand? Merlin could feel the nervousness pouring off them in waves.

"Do you have a servant with you?" Arthur asked as he and Merlin strode back to Kilgharrah.

"Uh, no. That's -- no, I do not," Merlin said. "Tell me where to take him and it'll be fine."

"I thought as much, I have assigned Morris to help you," Arthur said. He beckoned a teenaged boy to come over. He ran from the doorway of the fort, but stopped short and didn't come too close.

Merlin could hear Arthur sigh. "It's fine, Arthur," Merlin said lowly so that no one could hear him. "I understand that your people are not used to dragons, especially the young ones. Look, I'll unload our stuff and perhaps someone can take it in for us?"

Arthur's face finally melted into something less regal. "That would be appreciated. Thanks, Mer-- I mean, Prince Emrys."

Merlin waved a hand around again. "You kidding me? I much prefer to be called Merlin, so please, feel free. Although, M'Lord does have a nice ring to it, eh?"

A small smile graced Arthur's full lips. "Still the same then, Merlin?"

"As if I could be anyone else," Merlin said merrily.

Arthur made sure that Merlin and Kilgharrah were seen to properly. As his mother had predicted, there was one tense moment when Merlin pointed out the sack that was full of the dried, preserved dragon's food and Arthur insisted that he could see to his guests properly. Merlin explained his reasoning, and also told Arthur about how the Druids had created a new high protein mixture for the dragons for the winter that gave them sufficient nutrients and energy and used much less resources. Arthur listened attentively, and with each word, his put-out expression eased away.

"We thank you for your hospitality," Merlin said as he watched Kilgharrah settle into one of the old dragon's dens that had been cleaned out and freshened up for Kilgharrah. "We just don't want to be a drain on your resources. This big lug here would have to take a lot of slabs of meat to be satisfied."

"As if you're not stuffing your face every chance you get," Kilgharrah said. He curled up like a really big, scaly cat, his head down on the ground while he watched Merlin and Arthur chatting as they stood in the mouth of the dragon's den.

"I do not!" Merlin said.

Arthur grinned. "If I remember correctly--"

"You don't," Merlin said airly. "Clearly, neither of you have any idea what you're talking about."

Arthur and Kilgharrah snuck a look at each other that was not sneaky at all. Arthur seemed to realise what he was doing and then stood up straighter, losing his informal posture. "The people of England appreciate your consideration for our resources."

Merlin turned a mild expression to him. "That is why we're here, is it not?"

Arthur pursed his lips together but gave a single nod of his head. He turned to address Kilgharrah. "I hope you find these dens satisfactory. It has been a while since they were in use."

"It will be fine," Kilgharrah answered.

"I know when you lived here, you used the royal dens at St. James's Palace, but during the winter months there's no one there so I thought it best to keep you at Buckingham."

Kilgharrah lifted his head, tilted it to the side as he assessed Arthur. "The royals always took residence at St. James's, winter months or not."

St. James's Palace was just up The Mall's broad red road, now covered with ice and snow, but not far from Fort Buckingham at all; however, it was a private residence the royal family used to stay at. It was even where the Druid royal family stayed, when they were still permitted, taking up one wing while the non-magic royal family took up the other. Merlin had many good memories of his time there as a child, running through the halls, tagging along after Arthur and Morgana, who had been a few years older than him, but the three of them causing enough trouble to give the two kings more grey hair. He'd even stayed there a few times when he was a teenager and on official visits with his parents, though it'd always been in the summer months then. Then there was that last time he was in England, and spent the night passed out in Arthur's chambers after Arthur's crown prince coronation. Merlin had been hoping that, well …

"Yes, Arthur," Merlin said, coughing and trying to distract his thoughts. "What about the palace? There’s no one there?"

A flicker of … shame, was it? Maybe just pain and longing … briefly flickered across Arthur's face but it was quickly gone.

"Not right now," Arthur said. "With only me, I do not think it very prudent to stay there by myself. I stay here at Buckingham during the winter months. Merlin, we have guest chambers that I hope you will find satisfactory."

"Arthur, I live in a cave," he said dismissively, indicating any chambers would be more than fine. He tilted his head to the side and asked, most sincerely, "What is going on here?"

"I don't know what you mean."

"I think you do," Merlin said. "Not opening up St. James's Palace is one thing, it’s frugal and does make sense. But inviting the Druids and dragons and magic back to the land? That means something is amiss, I know it."

"Well, that is what we will be talking about over the next few days, isn't it?" Arthur said. He was closed off, once again formal and not at ease as he had been. "This is not the time or place for it. Please, let us go inside. You can rest and wash up before dinner tonight."

"Dinner?" Merlin asked hopefully. The Pendragons always had known how to put out a spread.

"Yes, dinner," Arthur said, a ghost of his relaxed smile returning again. "I trust you'll be all right here, Kilgharrah?"

"Yes, yes, take the young dragonlord inside to warm up. He will pretend he doesn't need it, but rest will be required very soon. It was a long, difficult and chilling travel."

"Kilgharrah, you old ninny, I'll be fine," Merlin said, scowling.

Arthur smiled at that. "Thank you, Kilgharrah, we'll make sure he's looked after."

"Of that I have no doubt," Kilgharrah said. Merlin made shooing motions at him, hoping he'd bloody shut up already, but followed Arthur back outside onto the path carved deep in snow.

"Your belongings should be in your chambers now," Arthur said as they entered Buckingham. A bright-eyed and eager servant who Arthur called George approached, taking the gloves and beanie and scarf he started to strip off. Morris was there to do the same with Merlin. Merlin smiled thankfully at him. "Morris will take you there where you can rest and freshen up, and then he'll fetch you in enough time for dinner."

"Yes, thank you. Arth--Sire," Merlin said, causing Arthur to pause in his tracks and turn to Merlin with a raised eyebrow. Merlin smiled widely. "It's good to see you again, Your Highness."

Arthur smiled back. "You as well, M'Lord."

Merlin laughed at how cheeky that actually sounded, but he rather liked it. He turned to follow Morris before Arthur's voice rang out and stopped him again.

"Oh, and Prince Emrys?" Arthur said lightly. "You were late. Not very princely, is it? Nor a good way to start treaty negotiations."

Merlin scowled at him. "You heard the dragon. Long, difficult, and chilling travel. Which actually means a snowstorm. I know it's been awhile since our wonderful presence has graced these lands, but you're well aware Druids don't actually control the weather. We wouldn't be buried in snow if we could."

"Oh, I'm aware. I seem to remember an incident when you were, what, four or five--"

"Enough," Merlin snapped, and Arthur laughed at him. "I'm tired and shall retire to my chambers."

"Now that sounded regal and princessly--"

"Arthur!"

"Rest well, Merlin," Arthur said with a grin. He turned away, completely ignoring the odd looks from his servants and knights, and gave Merlin a wave over his shoulder without turning around.

"I forgot how insufferable that man can be," Merlin mumbled to himself. He smiled when he caught Morris grinning, but didn't say anything else as he followed him through the familiar halls.

It really was good to be home.

---

Merlin's rooms were more than satisfactory. No, it wasn't St. James's Palace, but Merlin knew that Fort Buckingham had actually been a large royal residence in the time Before, and there was still an elaborate, sophisticated wing closed off for the royals, knights, and important guests. The room Merlin was shown to was large, which should've made it feel drafty, but it had been prepared and a warm fire of crackling wood was already stoked in the fireplace.

Morris helped Merlin out of his winter rider's clothes and hung them on a stand near the fire. He pointed out the washbasin, the extra firewood, and the desk that had some ink, a quill, and paper were Merlin to need it. Merlin's bag had been put on the large four-poster bed, and the stone crate was sitting on the floor next to it. Morris asked Merlin if he'd like him to put Merlin's belongings away, but Merlin shook his head. He would much rather do that himself, and he told Morris he didn't want his belongings, especially the stone crate, to be touched by any others. Morris nodded his head seriously.

"Oh, but one moment before you leave," Merlin said right after he'd dismissed Morris. Morris paused at the door to look back at him. "Would you be able to deliver a note to King Arthur for me?"

"Of course," Morris said eagerly, young eyes shining with the thought of such an important task.

Merlin jotted a quick note on the paper provided from the desk, a sentiment and information he hadn't the chance to depart on to Arthur quite yet, but thought he should be prepared with it. My father sends his regards and is sorry he couldn't be here. European Council has requested he go East to the borders to investigate a mutual threat. -- M.

Merlin left it at that, not mentioning Morgana or her army by name. Even though Merlin couldn't be one hundred percent sure, not having been able to discuss it with Arthur yet, he would bet that Arthur was well aware of his sister's activities, for both a personal inquiry and for the security of his nation.

Merlin gave the note to Morris and bid him goodbye, and Morris said he'd be back in time to fetch Merlin for dinner. Alone in the room, Merlin ran his fingers against the stone walls. They were cold and unforgiving, unlike what Merlin was used to in the caves or other forts he spent time in on the continent.

"I hope this goes well," he said as he pushed the stone crate closer to the fire. It was the only stone in the room that felt warm to the touch, but it would be prudent to put it a bit closer to the fireplace to make sure it kept warm. It had had a long, chilly travel as well.

Merlin put his belongings away in the wardrobe, pulling out a pair of nice, thick brown woolen trousers and blue jumper to wear to dinner, laying them over the back of a chair. He tugged off his sturdy boots, hissing when he placed his socked feet to the floor, feeling the chill even then. He spied a pair of slippers by the fireplace that were likely meant for him, but he ignored them for now, instead jumping onto the bed. He burrowed down under the covers. They were thick and heavy, keeping the chill away, and in no time he fell into a deep sleep to recover from a long, cold journey.

---

As he'd promised, Morris had come back and roused Merlin from sleep in enough time to get ready for dinner. He'd even brought a bucket of heated water with him, dumping it into the washbasin, and retrieving clean linens for Merlin to use. It did not take long for Merlin to be ready, feeling fresh and spry after a quick yet deep catnap. He told Morris he remembered where the dining hall was, and that he'd like to take quick tour through the fort again, since it'd been a couple years since he'd been there. He promised Morris he'd make it to dinner on time.

Morris looked suspicious; either he didn't trust Merlin to make it to dinner on time or perhaps just in general, or he thought that Merlin would get lost. He told Merlin he'd accompany him, and as Merlin didn't want to make any waves -- or at least, any more than his very presence already did -- he happily agreed.

As they walked through the halls of Buckingham, Merlin took note of the differences since he'd been last there. In recent years, his family's short visits had been in the summer months when the stone walls were helpful in keeping out the heat. Now, there were many tapestries hung all over the place, used to try to keep the winter freeze at bay and trap any heat in. How useful that was, Merlin wasn't sure, since he still felt the cold of the air down through his heavy jumper. He feared he'd never be warm again in this large fort; though, he noticed the people that they passed, whether servants or perhaps residents, were warmly dressed and did not seem to suffer too badly. Arthur was taking care of his people the best he could, that much was clear. It warmed Merlin's heart.

Something else he noticed was that things looked more ... shabby, now. And more sparse. He was certain there should be more tapestries, but there were large open spaces of cool stone along the walls, and there was nothing covering the glass windows to keep air from leaking in. The rugs that lined the floor did not look as well kept as Merlin remembered, and there were not very many sconces on the walls lit. In fact, Morris carried a lamp for them to help light the way, as there were a number of corridors that had no real light to them at all.

"What happened here?" Merlin mused aloud at one point.

He was surprised when Morris answered. "The new king does the best he can." It sounded defensive, as if Merlin was giving a personal attack against Arthur.

"I'm sure he does," Merlin said, both to soothe Morris but also as a personal belief. He'd never expected otherwise. "And the old king?"

Morris shifted uncomfortably. He didn't say anything for several long moments, but then he shrugged his shoulders. "Times were tough. Still are."

"I'm sure they have been," Merlin said. "Winters are hard to endure."

"Are you really here to fix that?" Morris asked. "Can ... can dragons and magic really help?"

It sounded skeptical and unsure, but there was also a little bit of ... desperate hope, perhaps, that lined the words. Merlin turned to look at Morris -- who was thin and had dark shadows under his eyes, his clothes old but cleaned in a proud way. Morris blinked at him, guarded expression, but attentive and eager for an answer.

Merlin chose his words carefully, remembering that he was here as a representative for positive relations, but he certainly couldn't put down the English for lasting so far.

"The English are strong, and survivors. Always have been," Merlin said. "But, yes, dragons and magic can help, in different ways. Nothing needs to be fixed, but hopefully I can help improve on quality of life."

Morris nodded, as if this was something he'd already known. "I hope so too."

He didn't say anything else, but continued to lead Merlin down the corridor. Merlin felt lighter, as if there was some unknown weight lifted off his shoulders, or that he'd just passed some test he didn't know he was taking.

Closer to the dining hall, Merlin stopped in front of a large tapestry. It was deep scarlet red, and had a golden dragon right in the middle of it. Merlin was surprised to see it; while it was the Pendragon crest, Merlin thought the use of it had been discontinued years ago, instead replaced with nothing but an expanse of red.

A new voice greeted him. "He had that hung that in your honour."

Merlin turned, a smile wide on his face. "Gaius! I was hoping I would see you."

"Of course you would see me, where do you think I would've gone?" Gaius approached Merlin, his walk slower and more hobbled than in years past. There were more wrinkles on his old face, his long hair thinner and more grey than ever. But his eyes were bright and alive, and there was an ever familiar smirk on his face.

Gaius, while not a dragonlord, had been a Druid a long time ago. He knew Balinor and Hunith well, and was also very loyal to King Uther. When the king made his decrees that banned the Druids, Gaius was able to stay behind by promising to give up his old practices. Gaius was seen as a traitor by some, but Balinor always insisted it was because Gaius was an Englishman through and through, and wanted to do all he could to help support the royal court, and in turn, the people of the country. As a child, Merlin had been sad to lose a friend and mentor, but he grew up to agree -- who knew what further paths of madness Uther would've gone down without Gaius as an advisor.

"It's good to see you," Merlin said, taking the hand Gaius had held out, and carefully pulling him into a quick hug. Gaius umphed in surprise but then laughed and patted Merlin on the back.

"And you as well," Gaius said when he pulled away. He turned to Morris. "You can go down to the kitchens to see if there is help needed, if you'd like. I'll make sure he gets to dinner. I'm heading there myself."

Morris bowed his head briefly, and handed Merlin the lantern he'd been carrying. He flashed a quick smile to Merlin, "Your Highness," and then took off down the corridor.

"Yes, Your Highness," Gaius said with a raised eyebrow but a smile on his face. "I was not surprised but very happy to hear you had taken the Royal Trials. I had expected that you would be chosen Prince since you were a boy."

"Thank you," Merlin said, the unexpected praise warming him. "I missed having you mentor me, though. I'm sure I would've done even better if you had."

"From what I understand, you passed the Trials with flying colours. An old former Druid like me couldn't have taught you anything else."

"That's a lie if I ever heard one," Merlin said. "I hope we have the chance to sit down for some serious educational sessions some day."

"Yes, perhaps you can teach this old man a thing or two," Gaius said.

Merlin's smile faded a little. "I suppose we shouldn't get ahead of ourselves, yeah? Depends on how the next couple days go."

"Very true," Gaius said sagely. "I heard it is just you here on this official business. Very serious task, leading up treaty negotiations."

"Oh, no big worries, but someone has to do it," Merlin said with a nonchalant shrug. He laughed when Gaius rolled his eyes. Merlin added, "As well, my father is away on serious business himself."

"Yes, so I've also heard. Trouble to the East."

"Arthur tell you?"

"Kilgharrah, actually."

"Ah, you've already been out to visit, have you? Did he insult you horribly?"

"Not horribly," Gaius answered happily. Merlin smiled softly; he imagined Gaius was happy to be in the presence of dragons once again, even if Kilgharrah was a bit snotty towards him nowadays.

"I just can't believe her, you know? The trouble she's trying to cause."

"I know," Gaius said. "To warn you, it is a bit of a touchy subject around Arthur."

"Of that I have no doubt," Merlin said. They both turned to look at the tapestry again. Merlin sighed. "Gaius, what happened here? No one seems to be able or willing to explain."

"Happened? What do you mean?" Gaius sounded generally surprised.

Merlin shrugged. "Well, I'm a dragonlord standing in Fort Buckingham. Welcomed and invited, even, and about to engage in negotiations to reverse the bans. That ... seriously, what happened?"

"Nothing happened, Merlin," Gaius said, "other than the death of a king who had been heartbroken over the death of his wife. And now Arthur is alone, but willing to make concessions."

Uther's hatred of magic had come from it being unable to save his ailing wife, who had died when Arthur was but seven years old. It had sent Uther into a kind of madness, heartbroken and unwilling to bend, even for the good of his people. Merlin had thought that magic would never be allowed back into the land because of it, not even when Arthur became king. Merlin ... well, Merlin always thought, despite their differences, that Arthur was a hundred times better a person than his father was. He'd had hopes once that Arthur would change things, but there was evidence that Pendragons did not do well with grief so Merlin also imagined Arthur would honour his father in death by continuing on the same path. To be frank, Merlin didn't know what to expect from him, and no one was giving him any clear answers.

"Are you telling me that Arthur isn't as full of hate as his father?" Merlin asked.

"You know the answer to that, Merlin. I don't have to tell you."

"Indulge me anyway."

"I know that you and Arthur haven't always got along--"

"Ha! You can say that again."

"-- But he's grown up into a fine young man whose heart belongs to his people. He wants what is best for them. He's willing to see what Uther could not -- that England may very well be doomed without the help of magic."

"You've explained this to him, have you?" Merlin couldn't get his head around the fact that Arthur had come to the decision all on his own.

"If I recall correctly, you certainly have."

Merlin tried not to blush. On his last visit to England two years before, he and Arthur had got into quite a heated argument in the middle of Gaius' chambers. Merlin knew how lucky he was that Uther never heard of it, or Merlin probably would've been exiled for life, or possibly worse if Uther was in a particularly nasty mood and not caring about public relations.

Arthur had walked out of Gaius' chambers in a fury, and the next time Merlin saw him, it was the following day at Arthur's coming of age ceremony and becoming the crowned prince. Later that night, there'd been some mulled wine and a momentary truce while they, well, snogged and then passed out.

The dragonlord royal family had to leave in a rush the next morning, for reasons Merlin still was not entirely sure. Merlin never had the chance to talk to Arthur about what had transpired between them, and Merlin had spent two years convincing himself it meant nothing. Because it clearly didn't, if Arthur's less-than-joyful greeting of Merlin's presence over his father's was any indication.

"You didn't answer my question," Gaius said, pulling Merlin from his thoughts. Merlin glanced over and saw that Gaius looked very amused, as if somewhat aware of Merlin's internal dilemma.

Merlin waved a hand around. "Yes, yes, of course I told Arthur that. Several times, in fact. But not for a few years, and you know he has never taken me seriously. He's never listened to a word I've said. This must be your influence over him, not mine."

"I think it's his people's influence," Gaius allowed. "He cares about them much more deeply than himself, or even his father's beliefs. You're here because of them."

"All Morris would say to me is that there've been tough times."

"Morris is correct," Gaius said. "We've managed to survive, but in truth, the winter survival rate is nothing compared to what it was before the bans. There are many winter-related illnesses that cause death simply because we cannot keep people warm enough. Winter months are long and vicious, and we're not doing as well as we could be, nor as well as Continental Europe is doing. Arthur sees that. After his father died last year, Arthur ruled a winter as Uther would. But Arthur is not willing to continue to make some of the harsh choices Uther did in order to save a few, not when he can make other choices that will save many."

"Choices like allowing the help of magic and dragons."

"Precisely. To be honest, Merlin, I don't think these are going to be very difficult negotiations for you at all. I've advised Arthur as best I can on how it was in the years before the bans, and how to reintegrate it back into our winter survival plans. You just have to go over it and let us know what will and won't work for you, and how much support you're willing to provide."

"Not me," Merlin said. "Stop saying 'you'. It is the Druids, our people, and the dragons. Not me alone."

"Of course," Gaius said. "It is but a figure of speech."

"I know," Merlin said. "But I am here as a representative of the Druid people as a whole. I will also do what is best for them."

"I understand. And Arthur will too. Come now, enough of this," Gaius said, taking Merlin's elbow and starting to lead him down the corridor. "Believe me, there will be plenty of talk of this over the next couple of days. Let us get to dinner before we're late, and speak of simple small talk to catch up, yes?"

"Sounds like a plan to me," Merlin said happily. With a final glance at the dragon tapestry behind him, Merlin followed Gaius down more familiar halls to meet Arthur for dinner.

---

The dining hall looked like it had once been several smaller rooms but had the walls knocked out to make one large area. It was filled with rows of different kinds of tables. Some were sturdy wooden benches with thick tabletops, others had metal frames with surfaces made from something that was called plastic, a remnant material from Before in a variety of colours, with mismatched chairs for people to sit at.

Merlin followed Gaius as they stood in line to get served a bowlful of soup and receive a piece of bread with a small cup of milk. Merlin could see that everyone in the dining hall, whether noble or right down to the servants, received the same amount of rations, and that they all sat at the tables, mingling together. There was still a sense of propriety, and Merlin heard snatches of My Lord and My Lady throughout the conversations, but the fact that the nobles were there amongst the others surprised Merlin. He didn't remember it being this way when Uther ruled, when there had been a separate dining area and a clear divide.

Merlin also saw fingers pointed in his direction and heard whispers floating on the air. Dragonlord. Druid. Magic. Prince. But no one looked frightened or hateful, nothing like what he remembered from King Uther's reign. There was curiosity, mostly, and hope. Merlin smiled and nodded at those brave enough to do the same to him, and even to those who weren't, and he moved gently around those who had a faint nervousness.

Merlin and Gaius sat at one of the tables at the back of the room, more out of a chance to get a bit of privacy and quiet rather than anything else, so that they could have a few moments to catch up on the small talk Gaius initiated. Merlin had been right in the middle of a sentence when he heard a familiar voice carry proudly on the air.

Glancing up, he saw Arthur walking down a row of tables. One of his knights was directly behind him, but they were smiling at the people as they moved along. Arthur stopped a moment and bent down, receiving a pat on the cheek from an old woman with a dried, cracked hand. Arthur smiled at her in kind, and Merlin could feel himself mirroring one of his own.

In that moment, Arthur glanced up and his eyes met Merlin's directly. Merlin tried to fight a blush at getting caught spying, at seeing the way Arthur's features softened just a second before ironing up into something more regal, appropriate. Arthur nodded at Merlin, and when Merlin nodded back he tried to squash down the feeling in his stomach as he saw Arthur start to make his way over to where he and Gaius were sitting.

"Merlin? Merlin, did you hear what I told you?"

"Hm?" Merlin said, turning back to Gaius. "Oh, sorry, I just saw Arthur, that's all."

Gaius looked faintly amused. "Distracted by Arthur, as it's always been."

"What does that mean?" Merlin asked. But there wasn't a chance for an answer before Arthur approached their table.

"Good evening. I trust you rested well?" Arthur asked Merlin, though he patted Gaius on the shoulder in greeting.

"I did, thank you," Merlin answered.

"This is Sir Leon, I'm sure you remember him," Arthur said, gesturing to the knight beside him.

"I do, of course. Hello, Sir Leon," Merlin greeted with a genuine smile. He'd always liked Leon, who was strong, brave, incredibly loyal to the Pendragons but especially Arthur, and had a hidden sense of humour behind all the formality.

Sir Leon bowed his head briefly. "Prince Emrys, welcome back."

"Thank you," Merlin said. He was pleased but not at all surprised that Leon would remember to use Merlin's new title.

"I'm sorry that this is not a feast in your honour," Arthur said, frowning as if upset with himself over that circumstance. "I realise that it should have been, with you and your family expected here, but with Yule so close … well, I hope you understand. We will have a feast then, and of course you'll be the guest of honour. But until--"

Merlin held up his hand to stop Arthur, not giving any regard to annoying Arthur with an interruption. He really needn't carry on, as Merlin understood perfectly what he was trying to get at. "Please, that's fine. This is great, really."

In truth, Merlin had been slightly surprised when first entering the hall that there wasn't an elaborate feast put out, as there had been when his family had previously visited. Uther never seemed very happy with it, but it was the tradition and he did love to show off. But Merlin didn't need that, not for himself and certainly not in the middle of winter when food was less plentiful, though he appreciated Arthur's explanation.

Merlin added, "This soup is super fantastic. Seriously, I've missed English soup, so this is great."

"I'm pleased to hear that," Arthur said. "We'll make sure to pass your compliments on to the head cook."

"As if she needs that going to her head," Gaius said, but he sounded happy and fond. "Impressing more royalty. She'll love it."

"I'm sure she will," Arthur said. "But, please, the two of you are invited to join me in the ante-chamber when you're done. Merlin, you can meet a few others that will be involved with the negotiations. And we'll break out the mulled wine that Merlin generously brought with him."

"Oh, man, that'll be trouble," Merlin said with a snort and complete lack of formality. Leon and Gaius chuckled, but when Merlin looked up, he saw there was a bit of pink dusted on Arthur's cheeks that hadn't been there a moment before. Merlin wondered if his mind was going back a couple of years too, a memory brought up to the surface at the mention of mulled wine.

"Yes, well," he said, and coughed to clear his throat. "We'll do our best to behave on the eve of a treaty, shall we?"

Merlin swallowed hard. "Right. Of course. We should probably do that."

"Still," Gaius said, seemingly unaware with what he was interrupting, "it'll be nice to have a fine Druid wine. I've certainly missed that."

"Well, we'll take a few minutes to celebrate that, and the arrival of Prince Emrys. We'll see you shortly," Arthur said, composure back in place. He turned to make his way through the rest of the hall. Leon gave a quick nod and followed.

Gaius watched them leave. "Well, that was a little off."

"What?"

"Arthur. And the way he acted about the wine."

"Haven't the foggiest," Merlin said, and took a bite of his bread. It was probably best not to bring it up at all. He had the feeling Arthur didn't want to.

---

Merlin and Gaius had indeed retired to the ante-chamber for a glass of wine and to sample from the platter of Yule treats laid out that the baker had already started preparing -- a small perk, then, in being close to the king and a guest, even if it wasn't a large feast. Arthur was polite and cordial to Merlin, and took up the duty of introducing him around the room. Merlin remembered many of the men as part of Uther's council, but it felt different now, being introduced as Prince Emrys. They all looked at him differently too.

Even Arthur, which wasn't very fun at all.

Now that Arthur was king, or perhaps now that Merlin was a prince, Merlin had no idea how to read Arthur. He was being ridiculously formal and guarded. He kept insults to himself, even if Merlin did catch him in an eye roll or two, when Merlin fumbled on his own formality. And he kept from laughing right out loud at Merlin like he used to, good-natured or not, even if there was a tiny tilt to the corner of his mouth from time to time.

Merlin did his best to forget about what his parents decided to call a 'teenaged tryst'. Whatever it had been, it was not on Arthur's mind and he did not seem to wish to pursue that avenue. He was all work and no play, which -- well, Merlin could hardly hold that against him. And Merlin himself knew that he had to become better at it, if he were to perform well in this new role. This was official business, yes, and must be taken seriously.

Though Merlin couldn't help but miss the days when he and Arthur would snark at each other, tease or mock or push each other's boundaries. Merlin hadn't been challenged, or had the opportunity to be challenging, like that in a long time.

After what was probably an hour or so, the crowd began to disperse. All of Arthur's council made a point of stopping to bid Merlin goodnight, and he made sure to address each of them politely and by name.

When he felt it wouldn't be rude to do so, Merlin wandered over to the glass window, feeling the cold air of the night seep in along the edges. He used his fingernail to scratch away the thin layer of frost; it was dark out, save for the few tall torches that were lit around the empty training field, and the light coming out of the windows of the distant stable where Kilgharrah was housed.

"Looking into the dark for something particular?" Arthur asked, coming up beside Merlin and peering through the cleared area of glass. He probably knew his grounds so well he could pinpoint everything out the window while blindfolded anyway.

"Not really," Merlin said. "It's just nice to be able to look."

"I'm sure it is," Arthur said. He stood up straight and swirled the half glass of wine that he held in his hand.

"Not enjoying it this time?" Merlin asked. When Arthur looked blank, as if he wasn't sure what Merlin was asking, he gestured at Arthur's glass.

"Ah, yes, your Druid wine. No, it's fine."

"You haven't had very much," Merlin said helpfully.

Arthur looked pointedly at Merlin's glass, which was nearly empty but only his first. "You haven't either."

"Trouble," Merlin said. He tried to find something in Arthur -- a twitch, a smile, a happy sigh -- that betrayed anything, but he gave nothing away.

"Right," Arthur said, and he set down his glass. It was Merlin who sighed, but it wasn't happy. He set his glass down next to Arthur's, and looked at Arthur curiously when he held out a stack of papers. "These are for you."

"What are they?" Merlin asked as he took them.

"An outline of what we would like to negotiate."

Merlin was surprised. "What? Is that … is that something that is usually done during negotiations? You just telling me things before we even start?"

"Yes, Merlin," Arthur said, and this time he didn't hold back the eyeroll at all. "I tell you things, you rebut it, and then we work it out."

"That seems … easy." Merlin raised an eyebrow. "Where's the trick?"

Arthur sighed. "There is none."

"No, seriously," Merlin insisted, "are you trying to dupe me?"

"Am I -- what? God, Merlin, stop being so damn paranoid."

"I just don't get your angle," Merlin said. "It's you and me, and you and me don't do things very smoothly."

"You and I are grown adults, rulers representing our people, and working out a negotiation. Why are you so suspicious?"

Merlin opened his mouth, closed it, and then finally said, "Would you have done this for my father? If it's not a trick, it's not you going easy on me, is it?"

"Do you really think I would?"

"No," Merlin said immediately.

Arthur gave a half-smile at that. "Then, there you are. I would have done this for your father as well. Read through it, and then you can show up tomorrow at the table prepared. We all want this done as quickly and as smoothly as possible."

"All right," Merlin said, narrowing his eyes suspiciously at Arthur. But then he looked down and scanned over the first page. "Oh," he said when he noticed something, "oh, yeah, the logistics of that won't work at all."

"See? This will help, if you'd like to make notes or whatever, for what you're able to bring to the table." Arthur paused for a moment. "You do know what you want to bring to the table, right?"

Merlin looked up sharply. "Of course I do. I'm prepared, Arthur."

Arthur held up his hands. "I know you think you are, but you're new to this and, let's face it, Merlin, it's out of your usual scope."

"Oh, there we go," Merlin said, rolling his eyes. "I was waiting for this, you big-headed clotpole--" Merlin stopped when he saw the smirk tugging at Arthur's lips. "Yeah," Merlin said with a sigh, "totally walked into that one, didn't I?"

"What kind of welcome would it be if I didn't mock you at least once on your first day here?" Arthur asked, completely unconcerned with his near destroying of public relations for the day.

"To be honest, that was rather mild," Merlin commented.

Arthur shrugged. "Much more important things to focus on."

Merlin shook the papers in his hand. "Too true. But, seriously, I do know what we're capable of doing and how we can help. My father and I spoke extensively before he left to go East."

Arthur paused for a moment, and his teasing expression completely disappeared as he tapped his thumb against his lower lip. "I don't suppose you've received any word from him?"

Merlin shook his head. "He did not leave long before I did. No word before Kilgharrah and I left to journey here."

Arthur nodded. "Yes, I suppose so -- we only received word a couple of days ago ourselves, about her advances on the borders."

"My father will find out what is going on, and report back to the European Council. They'll decide action from there."

"I wish I could contribute more," Arthur said, his brow furrowing. "It seems only fair, doesn't it, since she's my family and all? She's gone round the bend because of -- well. But my men -- the manpower is needed here, to help my people."

"Don't worry about it, Arthur, it will be taken care of," Merlin said, confidently. "One thing at a time, yeah?"

"Can't believe I'm saying this, but you're right," Arthur said, his voice firm, as if he wasn't so concerned a moment ago. He clapped Merlin hard on the shoulder. "I should take my leave of you, let you get through those. We'll give you the morning as well, to finish and get settled. We'll meet in official capacity tomorrow after lunch. One o'clock?"

"Sounds fine to me," Merlin said. He watched as Arthur left the room, saying goodnight to the couple of folks left and George following in his wake.

Morris came up to Merlin and asked if he was ready to turn in for the night. "In a fashion," Merlin said, holding up the stack of papers at Morris' inquiry. "I do need to get back to the guest chambers, though it looks like I'll be working a bit into the evening."

"If I might suggest, don't stay up too late," Morris said as they made their way back. "King Arthur is an early riser."

"Ah, yes, but I don't have to meet him until the afternoon," Merlin said happily.

Morris gave Merlin an askance look. "There is breakfast at the hall, which Arthur likes all to attend as they do not keep the buffet line open. He may make allowances for you, though. And, also, the feeding of your dragon -- I've been tasked with that, but, well. I'm sorry, I may need assistance. I'm really sorry, I shouldn't be asking--"

"Oh, yes, I'll be up in time for that," Merlin said. "Don't worry. He may look scary, and he's a grumpy old goat, but you don't need to be frightened of him."

"If you say so," Morris said, but he didn't sound that confident about it.

Once to his rooms, Merlin dismissed Morris because he really could get ready for the evening himself. He changed into sleepwear, putting on the slippers and heavy robe that was provided. He also added more wood onto the fire that Morris or another servant must've kept stoked throughout the evening. The room did feel warm, but he knew that would not last while he was sleeping.

Merlin glanced around. Not that he was worried about anyone being in there, but he knew how the English felt about magic -- at least, the English laws, and the last thing he needed was to get into trouble. But, of course, there was no one around to take notice. So Merlin reached out his hand, and muttered the spell; the flames burst very bright and warm for a moment, but then continued crackling on like nothing had happened. Merlin knew otherwise. Merlin knew that the fire would not go out during the night, even if Merlin didn't throw any more wood onto it.

It was an energy saver, and he was being careful of wood resources, he told himself. England should be happy for that.

And if the use of magic settled something happy in the pit of his stomach as he sat down to review the documents Arthur had given him, well that was all right too, in his opinion.

---

"Merlin," Arthur said, exasperated, as he burst into Merlin's guest chambers in the morning.

"Oi!" Merlin said from where he was behind the changing screen. He poked his head around the side of it as he tugged up his pair of jeans. "You're lucky I'm behind here, or you would've got an eyeful of my naughty bits, you would have."

Arthur seemed to be in a real snit, because that didn't even phase him. He pointed at the fire. "What is that?"

"A fire," Merlin said. He ducked back behind the screen and pulled a face. Damn it, how did Arthur know already?

"Yes, a fire. A fire that supposedly went on all night and didn't need any more logs put in it."

Merlin pulled his jumper over his head and stepped out from behind the screen. He said blandly, "I have no idea what you're talking about."

"Lying to me doesn't bode well for the beginning of today's negotiations," Arthur said tersely.

Merlin sighed and threw out his hands out to the side. "I was just trying to save resources. I don't see what the big deal is -- how did you even know?"

"You just dismissed Morris, yeah?" Merlin nodded his head, but obviously Arthur already knew. "I just saw him walking down the hall with a handful of firewood he was told to bring up to you -- we keep inventory, you see -- but apparently you didn't need it. It's the middle of winter. Of course you need it!"

"Well, I didn't," Merlin pointed out. He sat down on the chair and started pulling on his boots.

"Might I remind you that use of magic is illegal and punishable by death?"

Merlin paused halfway through pulling on a boot. He straightened up in his chair and glared fiercely at Arthur. "Might I remind you why I'm here?"

"I know why you're here, but nothing has come to pass and what you did last night is illegal. It is also unfair to the rest of the residents of Buckingham."

"What, that I didn't use up their firewood?"

"That you kept yourself warmer. Damn it, Merlin!" Arthur exclaimed, slamming a fist down on the top of the chest of drawers he was standing next to. The bang echoed off the stone walls. "You can't go around doing that, it could unravel all that I'm trying to do here."

Merlin had to bite his tongue before he said something that he might regret. He glared angrily at Arthur, who was breathing heavily and glaring right back. But Merlin gave himself a moment to let the anger wash away; he knew better, knew Arthur was dealing with a circumstance which he had been dealt by his father, but that he was trying to change.

Merlin swallowed, and after a couple tense moments, said, "So, you're not going to execute me, right?"

Arthur rolled his eyes. "Of course I'm not. How would that go over for diplomatic relations? Executing the Druid prince, and son to the king, no less. Jesus, your father would have an army of dragons swooping down on me. But don't be an idiot, and don't use magic again. Not until … well, give me time, okay?"

"Okay," Merlin said, nodding. He added, softer, "I'm not used to not being allowed to be myself. To not use my magic. And so I didn't think. I'm sorry."

Arthur nodded. "I know. I know that."

"Okay," Merlin said, trying to be more jolly as he stood up. "I've got to go see about a dragon, because he's a cranky bastard when he gets too hungry." Arthur snorted. "But then I'll be back for breakfast and to go over my notes. Big day, eh?"

"Big day," Arthur agreed. "I'll see you later."

"Oh," Merlin said, stopping Arthur in his tracks. "Is there something you wanted?"

"For you to not break the laws," Arthur retorted immediately.

"Yes, yes," Merlin said, waving a hand absently. "Were you coming to my chambers for a reason? Other than yelling at me about my impending death, I mean?"

"I -- well," Arthur said, shifting a bit awkwardly. "I just wanted to make sure you made it through the night all right without your usual conveniences. Not a problem, then," he added dryly.

"No, not a problem," Merlin said with a grin. "But … thank you."

Arthur nodded once, and abruptly turned to leave. "I'll see you later."

"Later," Merlin said, and Arthur was gone again.

Morris poked his head into the room once Arthur was out of earshot and winced. "Sorry. I didn't mean to get you into trouble."

Merlin waved a hand absently. "No worries, no worries, you didn't do anything. It was my fault, not yours. I should've known better. I did, I'm just not always good at following the rules." He grinned cheekily at Morris.

Morris stepped into the room and looked at the fire. It was finally starting to go down, the magic wearing off, and would soon be out altogether. "Did you really -- was that magic?"

"Please don't tell anyone," Merlin said. "I really don't want to cause any more trouble."

"Oh no, I won't," Morris said. "It's just … it's just, that would be such a good thing for everyone to have, wouldn't it?"

"Yes," Merlin said, wincing. "But that particular thing -- it can only be cast by someone who has magic on a fire that's already been lit, and it only lasts a few hours. There are logistic problems in having that done to all fireplaces in all of the land, because I just couldn't do that." Morris looked a little disappointed, and Merlin was discouraged by the thought too. Along with drying clothes, it was on his To-Do list for figuring out its magic. "I'm trying to find a spell that will be able to make wood burn longer -- one spell to cast over, say, a stock pile? No luck yet, unfortunately, but I'll keep trying."

Morris nodded. "Then, if I might ask -- how are the Druids and the dragons able to provide heat? What's the big deal?"

"The big deal? The big deal is in the stones of forts and castles." Merlin reached over and placed his hands on the stone wall. "So cold, these wall here. They don't keep the inside air warm."

"What do you mean?" Morris asked, and brushed his fingers against the wall himself.

"What I was just explaining, about the long-lasting burning logs of fire? Well!" Merlin clapped his hands excitedly. "A long time ago, there was a discovery on how to do that -- to heat stone with magic and dragon's fire breath. But it lasts longer than a couple hours -- a couple months, they can bleed the heat out of stone. It's what's helped keep people alive and warm for so long."

"You didn't heat your room like that last night."

"Well, no. I definitely would've got into trouble for letting Kilgharrah breath fire on the side of the fort just so I could be warm."

"It's not done like that here in England."

Morris was young enough that he wouldn't remember, not really, the way it used to be before the bans. Merlin nodded gravely. "You're right, not in England. Not anymore, but it used to be that way. Hopefully it will be again."

"If you can do it to an entire fort, how come you can't to a stockpile of logs to last for months?"

"Well, dragon's fire would just engulf it whole, and I don't have the spell for that."

"Why not? You have it for one tiny log for a couple of hours."

"Magic is a tricky thing, and if you don't have the proper spell for it, it won't work. Theoretically, it should. But I can't put it into practice."

"Why not?"

"Well, it's said that there was magic in the world a long, long time ago. But it went to sleep deep down in the core and it was lost to humans and the surface. The meteors woke it up, but not all of it has been found again." Merlin shrugged. "I'm the best there is at finding lost magic, but I haven't been able to find that one yet. I'll keep trying."

Morris nodded again. He opened his mouth, as if to ask another question, but quickly snapped it shut, his eyes going wide. "I'm sorry. I'm sorry, I -- it’s not my place--"

Merlin held up a hand. "It's all right, I don't mind. I want to be able to answer questions like that."

"But I'm just your servant, I shouldn't be overstepping, I don't have the right."

"In my opinion, all servants should have the right," Merlin said seriously. Then he grinned. "You can probably tell I'm not used to servants. Staff yes, but not quite -- " He waved a hand in Morris' direction. "But I promise, I won't tell anyone. Especially if you don’t tell about my fire."

"I won't," Morris said seriously. "And we really should be going."

"Of course," Merlin said. He helped Morris fetch Merlin's heavy outerwear to put over his clothing to brave the winter winds, even if they were only going out to the stables. "We have a dragon to feed."

---

Gaius had been correct in his prediction that the negotiations would not be difficult. And Merlin knowing what the English were interested in achieving really helped the proceedings. The first afternoon went rather smoothly; it mainly consisted of ironing out the fine points of the first half of the treaty. Merlin spent a lot of time patiently explaining to Arthur and his council what could and could not be done. Gaius had obviously spoken to them about it previously, but even Gaius was out of touch with how the Druids ran their supportive operation now. There were a couple points some of the council seemed to want to stick to but Merlin could not possibly allow -- mainly, the number of dragons that would be provided to England in the winter months. For not allowing any for so long, they now seemed to want all of them. But there were a great many other forts and nations that the Druids assisted, and England had to accept they would not have it all.

Arthur was extremely helpful in smoothing over those brief tensions, mitigating between Merlin and his council while pressing the point that coming to an agreement that suited all was best. Merlin had forgone any nervousness or lingering feelings he might have had for Arthur during the meetings; while a bit playful earlier, relaxed and kind, it was King Arthur sitting at the table. He clearly favoured his own council over Merlin, but still was respectful to all. While he was open-minded when it came to ironing out the treaty, he seemed personally closed off to Merlin, remaining professional in his interactions.

Even as the day came to an end, Arthur nodded a goodbye to Merlin and retired to speak with his council. Merlin did not see him again at dinner nor afterwards, and Merlin himself went to bed a little sad that he hadn't the chance to speak to Arthur in a non-official manner. Perhaps it was for the best, though, as Merlin had much else to focus on.

The first real problem that arose came on the second day of meetings, when they approached the subject of the number of Druids that would reside in England at a time, and where they would have their lodgings.

"We hoped that the royal court would return to stay in St. James's Palace," Arthur said.

"It's possible they may stay there from time to time -- long periods, even -- but I can not guarantee that this will be so," Merlin said.

"And why not?" Arthur asked. "It's tradition."

"It has been, in the past," Merlin agreed. "But that tradition was broken fifteen years ago, if you can recall--"

"Of course I do, there's no need to continuously point it out," Arthur said, sounding irritated for the first time in two days.

"Yes, well, it's an explanation as to why the royal family will not be returning permanently," Merlin said. He was trying to keep his own anger quelled; this was so like the Pendragons, now that they were allowing the Druids back, they wanted the royal family nearby to keep an eye on, or have under their control. But Balinor had been very adamant on this point when Merlin and he spoke before Balinor left for the East -- the royal family had a residence of their own now.

Merlin needed to stress this on behalf of his king. "The people who fill the royal roles, and their families have a permanent residence now. It's our home, and our headquarters. It's more easily accessible to all of Europe by being on the continent. We do not want to return to having that sort of separation."

"It's not a separation," Arthur said. "You'll still be able to keep your responsibilities to the European Council, and all the people you help there. And of course not all the Druids would be required to make England their residence."

"Just the ruling ones," Merlin said dryly.

"Well, yes," Arthur said.

"No," Merlin replied. "We can not do that. I'm not saying that the royal family will never be here, but we no longer claim to take residence in any royal court other than our own."

"No deal," Arthur said, shaking his head.

"Arthur," Gaius said gently from Arthur's left. "This is a very reasonable point. And the time they have allotted to England is more than generous. It's as much, if not more, than before the bans."

"England is their permanent home," Arthur said firmly.

"Not anymore," Merlin said. It felt like a knife twisting in his stomach to say that; yes, he loved England, and yes he thought of it as his home, but he had to remember that wasn't the point of all this. It wasn't just about him and his desire to be here.

As if reading his mind, Arthur asked, "Are you saying you don't want to be here?" His voice was thin and his eyes narrowed.

"Oh for crying out loud," Merlin said, rolling his eyes. "Do you think I'd be going through all this if I didn't? It's not about that."

"Oh, really? You seemed to be fighting this."

"No, you seem to be, Arthur," Merlin said. "Would you stop being such a wanker and just let me explain?"

That ... was probably not the best thing that Merlin could've said, especially in front of all these important people, and he realised it as soon as he saw the put-out look on Arthur's face, along with the gasps and disapproving glares of the rest of Arthur's council.

"Perhaps we should take a break," Gaius said, "and let us all take a moment to think about--"

"How the Druids are being difficult?" Arthur supplied snottily. "How Merlin -- oh, forgive me, Prince Emrys -- is?"

"Of for the love of--" Merlin cut himself off with a slap of his hand on the table. He stood up and pointed at Arthur. "It's not I that is being so difficult. You don't want me bringing up the past? Well, I'm sorry, but I have to. It's because of your father that we have to go through all this, and yes, I believe it's for the best but no, neither the Pendragons nor England get to put a personal claim on the Druids anymore. We are not slaves, not to any court, contrary to some of the propaganda that is currently circulating."

Merlin did not mean that as a low blow, given Morgana's personal beliefs on it and how sensitive Arthur was to anything having to do with his sister. Merlin had a feeling it was taken that way, though. Arthur's eyes went wide at that, and one hand curled into a fist. "I never said that you were. That is not the meaning behind this. I would never think that."

"Then what is the problem here? You'll be provided with members of our clans to help you."

"I believe that, of course," Arthur said. He paused for a moment and met Merlin's eyes, holding fast. "You belong by my side."

In that moment, it felt like the wind was knocked right out of Merlin, something squeezing right around his lungs and leaving him with no air.

"The royal family," Arthur said, voice strong and not wavering, nothing like how Merlin felt at the moment, "alongside this one. As always."

Merlin swallowed and shook it off -- of course that was what Arthur meant.

"Besides," Arthur added, "this is your home, and King Balinor's. Why wouldn't you want to take residence here again?"

That got Merlin back on track, and it made him angry that would be used against him. Merlin wasn't going to fall for it.

"The thing is," Merlin said, "this isn't about King Balinor. It isn't about me, or even you, but about everybody. Yes, England is my home, and the King's home, but our royalty does not work the same as yours. It's not about heredity, but individual strength and power that will be pledged to the good of all. The next king or queen, or the next prince or princess, they may be Spanish, or Serbian, or German, or Italian, or any other great nationality and no one has the right anymore to tell them they must live in England with the English royalty. We have our own residence now, yes, but we still must maintain a sense of being nomadic because that's what's best for everybody. Stop being so bloody selfish, Arthur!"

Arthur blinked at Merlin, looking positively stunned at his outburst. Not surprised, exactly, but stunned. And the other members of his council were starting to look quite angry. Crap.

"I mean, Your Highness," Merlin added on weakly, the gravity of his outburst hitting him. Oh god, this was not going to be good, and he possibly just destroyed all the work they'd put into it.

Arthur cleared his throat. "I think you're right, Gaius," he said, voice sounding very guarded and reserved. "We should take a break. We all have to think about this."

"I'm sorry -- I mean, I'm not sorry for what I said, per se, but how I said it," Merlin offered, now that he was calming down and dread was starting to settle in.

Arthur held up his hand. "No, Merlin, you make excellent points. It's something we must consider. If you would please excuse me so I can speak with my council?"

"Okay, yeah, sure," Merlin said. "I will also go and speak to mine -- Kilgharrah," he amended when he received odd looks from some of the others. No, he didn't have anyone else with him here, but he had his dragon, and he needed to see a friendly, familiar face right now.

"Of course," Arthur said, nodding. "We will reconvene after lunch, then?"

"Yep, I'll be there," Merlin said, and winced at himself for being so informal. No one seemed to mind, though, and they were all quiet until he left the room. As soon as the heavy door closed behind him, he heard a chorus of voices. He sighed, and made his way to his rooms to retrieve his outdoor clothes and go to visit Kilgharrah.

---

Merlin felt much more calm after seeing Kilgharrah. The dragon had listened to Merlin rant about Arthur, and about how the English council was so damn demanding, and wondering what Balinor would do in this situation. Kilgharrah wasn't big on advice, surprisingly, since Merlin was convinced he spoke on and on self-importantly just to hear the sound of his own voice, but prompted the right questions and allowed Merlin to come to a conclusion of his own. Merlin thanked him, and after rubbing some of the scales on Kilgharrah's feet, he returned to his chambers. There was a small meal put out for Merlin there, and Merlin sat alone eating it. He returned to the council chambers in a much better mood, but sincerely hoped the council was feeling the same way.

When they all sat down to resume, Arthur spoke first.

"Firstly, I would like to apologise to you, Prince Emrys, for seeming so unwilling to compromise on that one point."

Merlin nodded his head. "Thank you. But, really, it is I who should apologise, to both you and your council, for my outburst. It was not an appropriate way to behave, and I hope you do not take it as a sign I do not wish to continue these negotiations. I do, of course I do."

"Thank you for your apology," Arthur returned. "You manner of speaking was rather ... unorthodox for these type of proceedings," he said, and there was a small tug at the corner of his mouth when Merlin ducked his head sheepishly, "but you got your point across. We're sorry that we did not consider that view beforehand."

"I'm sorry, Your Highness," Merlin said, maintaining his conviction, "but I can not budge."

Arthur made eye contact with several of his council members, each one of whom nodded. "We understand," Arthur said, "and we will concede to this. We would still be very honoured if your royalty would consider stationing here for some length during the year, especially winter, but we understand that we can not monopolise all of your time."

Merlin nodded. "And the current royal court would very much like to spend as much time as allows back home, and will take every opportunity available to do so." Merlin paused for a moment, and then said much more relaxed, "Especially me, oh my god, I miss England. Even if it means getting into rows with you and your thick head."

Arthur laughed at that, bright and clear, and other members of his council also chuckled. "Well, I look forward to it," Arthur said. "Someone's got to keep me on my toes."

"Will do so gladly," Merlin said happily.

Arthur smiled back, keeping Merlin's gaze for a moment, before he looked around to the rest of the table. "All right then, if we're agreed on this point, it's time to move on to the next."

Merlin settled into the rest of the discussion feeling as though his father would be proud when he heard about how this particular day went. He couldn't wait to rush out and tell Kilgarrah.

---

The negotiations took two more days to go through. Merlin went through periods of feeling incredibly bored with the tediousness of it, to feeling alive and eager when he had to explain points of the Druid way of life. By the end of the third day, which happened to be the eve of Yule, they had come to the end of their discussions. Other than the one major row Merlin and Arthur had, the rest went relatively well, and they finished up as quickly as they could.

"This will be such an excellent announcement at the Yule feast tomorrow," Arthur said. He watched on contently as Geoffrey, one of his council, jotted down some final notes on the last page of the working copy of the treaty.

"If both you and Prince Emrys would please initial this final page," Geoffrey said, rather unnecessarily as it was a procedure they'd been doing on every page as the points had been gone through, "it will make these agreed upon changes official." Geoffrey pushed the stack of paper in Arthur's direction. "I will write out two copies tonight, one for the English court, and one for Prince Emrys to return to the Druid court. You'll both need to sign them in the morning."

"But this makes it final?" Arthur said, initialing where Geoffrey pointed.

Gaius, who was standing to Geoffrey's left, smiled proudly at Arthur and Merlin. "That it certainly does."

"Then I'm happy to do so," Merlin said, taking the pen from Arthur and adding his own initials next Arthur's.

"So that's that, then?" Arthur said.

Merlin grinned at him. "Yes, Your Highness. It looks like we're back in business." He held out a hand to Arthur.

Arthur took it and they shook hands. Arthur's smile was wide, happy, and Merlin's breath caught in his throat. It was the first time in days that Arthur had looked at Merlin like that.

Perhaps Arthur sensed something, because he squeezed Merlin's hand once but quickly dropped it and took a step back. "I'm happy for it," he said.

"As am I," Merlin said quietly. "It's the best for everyone."

"I agree," Arthur said. "I'm sorry, M'Lord, but I must excuse myself. I still have plenty of other work to go through."

After saying goodbye, the first thing Merlin did was dress warmly and run out to the stables. Kilgharrah knew already -- of course Kilgharrah knew already -- but he seemed ridiculously pleased, even for his usually grumpy self. Merlin whooped and hollered, and could not keep from boasting.

"I did it -- well, not just me but -- it's done. It's -- goodness, we get to come home."

"In a fashion," Kilgharrah reminded him.

Merlin nodded. "Well, yes, but -- well, I shall put in a request to my father and our council to be here as often as I possibly can."

"Of that I have no doubt," Kilgharrah said. He tilted his large, scaly head to the side. "I'm sure Arthur will be pleased."

"I have no idea what you're talking about," Merlin said airily.

Kilgharrah snorted, a rush of warm air swirling around Merlin. "Of course you do."

"Nope," Merlin said, shaking his head adamantly. But then he remembered the way Arthur had been behaving, even the way he'd acted once the deal was signed. Merlin frowned. "I don't think Arthur cares, really, if I'm here. In fact, I bet he would much prefer my father. He would seem much more powerful, important, if it was the king that resided here most often."

Kilgharrah laughed. "That is the furthest thing from Arthur's mind, I promise you."

"Oh, and you've spoken to him about that, have you?"

"No," Kilgharrah answered. "He's chosen not to approach me without you." Kilgharrah paused a moment. "Gaius and I spoke about it."

"Oh my god," Merlin said with a groan. "What are you old gits getting up to?"

"Nothing," Kilgharrah said innocently.

Merlin glared at Kilgharrah. He was known to speak in riddles, and this wasn't something that Merlin had any interest in putting false hope into. It would not do him well.

"But enough of that," Kilgharrah said, ignoring Merlin's sudden grumpiness. "Let's fly."

Merlin brightened at the thought. "Fly! It would be perfectly acceptable now, wouldn't it, for you to do so!"

"I haven't been grounded for this long since the last time I was in London," Kilgharrah said unhappily, shifting from side to side, careful to keep his large mass from knocking Merlin over. "I will not go without you, that will likely be pushing what they're ready for yet. But, if you have some time..."

"All the time for you," Merlin said, stepping to the side so that Kilgharrah could walk past him.

"That's an unintended lie," Kilgharrah said, and pushed the door open with his snout.

Merlin ignored him, but grabbed the saddle from where it was hanging on the wall. This was something very familiar, something that could ground him and make him feel like he was back in his own skin.

It was a perfect celebration of what had been accomplished.

---

After Merlin and Kilgharrah's terrific flight, Merlin accompanied Gaius for dinner in the hall. Word must've spread that the negotiations were finished, or at the very least going well, because he received many warm greetings. He couldn't help but smile when the elderly woman he'd seen with Arthur the first night he'd been there reached up to pinch his cheek.

She said into his ear, "It is so great to have you back."

He didn't remember her from when he lived here, and he wasn't sure if she had known him personally back when he was but a child and running wild through the halls, but he knew what she meant. He knew that she meant magic, and support. Hope. He kissed her forehead and told her he was very happy to be back.

Dinner was a pleasant, celebratory affair, but he knew it would be nothing compared to the feast the next evening. Fort Buckingham may be doing what it could to preserve the winter rations, but clearly they'd all been saving up for a magnificent holiday. A celebration of making it half way through the bitter winter months, and Merlin himself was mighty looking forward to it. There would be dinner, and some speeches and addresses from the king and the ruling nobles, and then there was to be some entertainment and dancing. Merlin couldn't wait; it was his favourite part of visiting forts, and he was glad he could have that, at least, before he had to return to his home on the continent.

After Merlin bid Gaius goodnight, Morris was waiting for him to go back to his chambers. Merlin let Morris come along, more for company than the need for help. When they arrived to Merlin's room, Merlin tried to dismiss him, but Morris seemed more reluctant than usual.

"But, sire, your fire," Morris said, gesturing to the hearth, where there were but embers glowing amongst the ash.

"Oh, yes, don't worry. I'll take care of that," Merlin said.

Morris paused a moment. "Well, yes, I was thinking that you would."

That caused Merlin to pause from where he was picking up his laundered nightclothes, and he glanced over at Morris -- who was looking rather hopeful, actually.

Merlin smiled and dropped his clothes. "I get you," he said, and approached the fireplace. "You'd like to see it, wouldn't you?"

Morris nodded eagerly, but then seemed to catch himself. He stood up straight, proper, and said, "If it would please Your Highness."

"Nothing pleases me more than showing off my magic," Merlin said, laughing. He gestured over to Morris. "Come, come. I'll show you."

It did not take long, really, to have a display of magic that made flames dance and crackle with warmth. Morris was wide-eyed and awed.

"Thank you," he said. "Thank you for showing me."

"Anytime," Merlin said. "Especially since I don't have to face execution over it anymore."

Before Morris could return any sentiment, there was a sharp knock at the door. Morris scurried over and answered it while Merlin went back to fetch his own clothing.

"Prince Emrys," Morris said, catching his attention. When Merlin looked over, he saw that George, Arthur's servant, was poking his head into the room.

"My master requests an audience with you," George said to Merlin.

"Oh, sure, right," Merlin said, standing straighter. "Where should I go?"

"No need," Arthur said as he pushed the door open and let himself into the room. George looked surprised as Arthur brushed past him, and both the servants were quick to bow their heads in his presence. Arthur turned to them. "Prince Emrys and I can take it from here."

"Oh, shall I wait in the corridor for you?" George asked.

"No thank you, George," Arthur replied. "You're dismissed for the evening."

"The evening?" George said, looking shocked. "But, Sire, your fire, and preparing for bed. I'll make sure your clothes are laid out--"

"That is quite all right," Arthur said.

"But what if you get thirsty during your meeting? Or hungry? I can run down to the kitchens--"

"George," Arthur said, cutting him off again. Morris was standing to the side, out of the king's line of vision, but was smiling into the fist he held up to his face. Merlin bit his own lip and exchanged an amused look with Morris; Merlin was grateful that George was not assigned to him for the duration of his stay, that much he was certain. He wouldn't be able to handle such constant attention, and admired that Arthur could. Though, Arthur was probably used to it.

Still, Arthur was kind yet firm when dismissing him. "George, if you could just hand over the package, you are free to go for the evening. You as well, Morris, as long as the prince is fine without your help."

"Oh, yeah, for sure," Merlin said, waving a hand and smiling at Morris. "No worries there."

Morris bowed his head. "Thank you, Sire. Goodnight."

"Night," Merlin said cheerily. "See you tomorrow."

Morris bowed his head and left the room. George stood there, a little stunned, but at Arthur's prompting, handed Arthur the package that was wrapped in brown wax paper. He said goodnight as well, tried telling Arthur he could wait in the hall, but quickly scurried off when Arthur looked pointedly at him.

"A very ... attentive servant," Merlin commented when Arthur closed the door after looking out in the hall and making sure George was gone.

"Can't argue that one," Arthur said. "But very devoted."

"I hear that makes the best sort of servants. Not that I know, really, we only have staff but they are equally devoted, I think."

"I'm sure they are." Arthur paused for a moment, fingers flexing as he held onto the -- well, it was obviously a book, Merlin guessed that much. "I hope you don't mind that I sent them away. I should've consulted you properly first."

"Oh, no, that's fine. No problem." Merlin wasn't going to argue having Arthur alone in his rooms. Although, he really had no clue as to why Arthur would be here. "Is everything all right? With the treaty? You're not having second thoughts, are you? Because we signed, it was agreed on--"

"No, Merlin, I'm not having second thoughts. Not about that."

It felt like there was a stone sinking in Merlin's stomach. "Oh," he said weakly. "Not that. Then what?"

"Nothing. No second thoughts," Arthur said quickly. "Not about anything."

Merlin had no idea how to read into that. "All right," he said cautiously. "Then, if I might ask, what are you doing here?"

"Right, of course," Arthur said, sounding slightly awkward. He held out the package. "This is for you. A Yule gift, I suppose you could say."

"A Yule gift?" Merlin said can't, stepping closer and taking it from Arthur. "Gee, I wonder what it is?"

Arthur smiled. "I bet you can't guess."

"Why are you giving this to me?" Merlin said, his fingers picking at the brown string that was wrapped around it. "Besides, tomorrow is Yule, isn't it? Shouldn't it wait?"

"I suppose that's the tradition, but I wanted it to be just you and me. We'll be very busy tomorrow, I'm not sure we'll have a moment alone."

Warmth flushed through Merlin's entire body and he couldn't hold back the smile if he tried. "All right, then," he said, and he tore the wrapping off the book. He couldn't help but gape as he saw the front leather cover. "No way. No bloody way." He went over to the desk, putting the heavy book down on it and started to carefully leaf through the pages. It was a book full of magic spells written on heavy parchment -- most of them in ancient Latin, but Merlin had been studying the language and could decipher much of it. He glanced over to Arthur. "Where did you get this?"

Arthur looked extremely pleased with himself, even as he admitted, "From Gaius. He found it in a vault under the old libraries back in the summer. Under the laws -- well, it should've been destroyed. But he reported it to me and told me to do what I thought best with it."

"And you didn't destroy it?"

"No. As soon as it was in my possession I thought of you." Arthur was determinedly looking Merlin in the face, but Merlin thought he could see a bit of a pink rise to Arthur's cheeks. Must be the magic fire. Arthur smiled. "I want you to have it."

"Oh, Arthur, I --" Merlin looked back down at the book and turned another page. "It's perfect. I hope it has the spell to dry clothes."

"To what?"

"Oh, nothing." Merlin laughed. "It's just some magic I'm trying to find."

"Well, if anyone can find it, I'm sure it's you. Even if it's not in there."

"I guess we'll see," Merlin said, smiling. "Thank you, Arthur, this is -- well, like I said, it's perfect, isn't it?"

"I'm glad you think so." Arthur paused, and then took a step closer. "Look, Merlin--"

"Oh!" Merlin said, interrupting him. He had no idea what Arthur was going to say, not with that serious look in his eyes, and Merlin wasn't sure if he was quite ready for it. A distraction would be best, yes, but Merlin did have something important for Arthur too. "I brought a gift for you as well."

"Ah, yes, the mulled wine. If you intended to make me lose a few of my inhibitions again--"

Merlin laughed nervously. "No, no, not -- that's not what I meant. Come, I'll show you."

Merlin walked over to the fireplace, where the stone crate had been sitting for the past few days, waiting for this very moment. It was fairly heavy and Merlin didn't intend to lift it, so he pushed it out into the middle of the floor so that he could kneel on the soft fur throw rug that was beside the bed. He gestured for Arthur to join him, and he did.

"This is actually a gift for all of England, though you'll be in charge of it -- no, wait," Merlin said. "It's less a gift and more something that is being returned to where it belongs."

"You've stolen something and are giving it back?" Arthur asked, raising an eyebrow. "Gee, Merlin, you shouldn't have."

Merlin laughed. "No, not like that -- you see, one of your father's knights found it, abandoned, and Uther probably would've destroyed it but apparently Gaius talked him out of it. It was given to my father on his last official visit here, but it seems to have been waiting to be returned home."

By the way Arthur's breath audibly caught in his throat, Merlin was certain that he'd figured out what it was. Merlin used his magic to unlock the crate, delighting in being able to do even a simple spell in front of Arthur, and very carefully took off the warm stone lid.

It was nestled in layers of hay and wrapped in a warm blanket. Merlin pushed the blanket away, revealing a perfect powder-blue dragon's egg.

"I remember the argument over this," Arthur said, staring at it. "It is alive in there?"

"It is," Merlin said happily. He laid a hand carefully over the top of the egg. "He's slumbering and not ready for this world, or not choosing to grace it with his presence, or what have you. But he's alive. I can tell."

"You're sure?"

Merlin nodded. "And even if I couldn't, Kilgharrah certainly could. He's been keeping an eye on it until we were able to return it home."

"This egg -- this dragon -- it's really English?"

"As English as it can be, I suppose," Merlin answered. "We don't know where it originated, exactly, or how old it is. It could've been newly laid but left behind fifteen years ago, or abandoned decades ago when dragons still lived here, or maybe it's been waiting a millennia or two for the right time. We have no idea, no way to tell. Even the dragons that work along side us don't know, for it doesn't belong to any of them. But they've been keeping it safe, ready to bring it here when it was allowed once again. You can touch it, if you want."

Arthur hesitated for just a moment, but then reached out and lightly placed his hand on the shell, a couple fingers overlapping Merlin's. "It's warm."

Merlin smiled. "One of the few things in this godforsaken winter that is."

Arthur laughed and pulled his hand away. "This is -- thank you, Merlin."

Merlin bowed his head. "It is not only from me and my family, but from the dragons and the Druids as well. A thank you for accepting us back."

"What would you have done if I hadn't?"

"Oh, you would've never known it was here," Merlin answered immediately. "We'd take it back with us so it would not be destroyed."

"I wouldn't have done that," Arthur said. "Even if it was illegal to bring it here in the first place."

"This is where it belongs. We had to chance it."

"I'm glad you did," Arthur said, smiling.

"Me too."

Merlin put the lid back on the crate and pushed it closer to the fire again. Arthur didn't move from where he was sitting on the rug, back against the side of the bed and one knee up with an arm resting over it. Merlin couldn't help but return to sit next to him; he hadn't seen Arthur so casual, so unguarded, like this since he'd arrived days before.

"I'm looking forward to the feast tomorrow," Merlin offered to the comfortable silence they sat in.

"Of that I don't doubt. Please don't eat my people out of house and home."

Merlin knocked his shoulder against Arthur's. "Don't be ridiculous. Besides, it's not as if I'll be staying very late. I'll have to get up early the following morning."

"Oh? Want to get to the leftovers before everyone else?"

"That is an excellent idea, I'll have to keep it in mind. But, no, I mean that it will be a long travel day, and it'll be better if Kilgharrah and I leave as early as possible."

Arthur became unnaturally still. "You'll be leaving that soon?"

Merlin half-turned to him, surprised. "Well, of course. I have to get back home, report on how everything went. Plus, if you want assistance as soon as the new year, then we'll have to incorporate England into our January plan and that'll probably take a few days to revise a new schedule."

"Yes, yes, that all makes sense," Arthur said reasonably, but not entirely happily.

Merlin searched Arthur's profile, as Arthur was still staring straight at the fireplace, for some sort of clue. Anything that would let Merlin know what Arthur was thinking or feeling right then. For a brief moment, with Arthur's concern that Merlin was leaving so soon, Merlin had thought that he'd been reading Arthur wrong these past few days, that maybe there really was something still there. But Arthur belied nothing now, and Merlin fell back to the conclusion he'd already come to.

"I thought you'd be happy to be rid of me," Merlin said, trying to make light of it.

Arthur finally turned to face him. "Is that what you really think?"

"Well, you know," Merlin said. He decided to just plunge forward -- he couldn't make this moment any more awkward, could he? "After the last time I was here -- and now this time you've been very -- I get the point, okay? Don't worry. We're good."

Arthur stayed silent, intense eyes assessing Merlin.

Merlin had been wrong. He definitely could make the moment more awkward. And did.

Merlin sighed. "Forget I said anything." He moved to stand up, but before he could get anywhere, Arthur put a hand on Merlin's forearm. It wasn't demanding or anything, but firm. He squeezed, and it felt more reassuring than anything.

"We never got a chance to speak last time," Arthur said, "after -- you know."

"I know. Those nasty Druids had to vacate your father's premises immediately," Merlin said flippantly.

"Don't," Arthur said. "None of that has anything to do with us. But I have had to be more careful the last couple days."

Merlin slumped back down. "What -- I don't know what you mean."

"This treaty was very important, and you know that. But I had been expecting to be negotiating with your father, not you."

"Right. The important one, not the lowly prince," Merlin said sarcastically. "I get it."

"Cut it out, Merlin. Stop putting words into my mouth and let me explain."

"Fine. Explain."

Arthur was quiet for a moment, clearly trying to choose the correct words. Merlin's heart was pounding and he felt like throwing up, and his patience was wearing thin. He sighed heavily and glared at Arthur, for it was his fault Merlin was feeling this way. He made a face. "Well?"

"Would you -- oh, for crying out loud," Arthur said, rolling his eyes.

And then he leaned forward and kissed Merlin.

Merlin made a surprised noise, but it didn't take long for him to recover. He was on the ball with this. It was what he'd wanted since he got to London -- no, this is what he wanted since the last time he left London, two years before. He pushed forward, slipping an arm around Arthur's neck, holding him in place so he wouldn't move away. Because this was real, not some sort of daydream or Merlin reflecting on a deep desire; it was Arthur sighing against Merlin's mouth, and Arthur's lips tasting faintly of the tea he loved to drink at dinner. But Arthur didn't try to move away, not at all. Instead, he shifted around so that they were facing each other, and put an arm around Merlin's waist, pulling him closer.

The kisses weren't hard or biting, but insistent and firm. Merlin's hand cupped the back of Arthur's head, fingers twining in soft strands of hair, and holding him in place while Merlin explored Arthur's warm, wet mouth. Arthur allowed it briefly before he started pushing back on Merlin. Merlin broke away so that he could lie back on the soft fur rug.

"Oh my god," Merlin said, "so you do--" want me was on the tip of his tongue, but he bit it back so that he didn't sound desperate.

Arthur seemed to understand what he meant anyway. "I do," he said as he positioned himself over Merlin. His forearms rested on either side of Merlin, propping him up while he smattered wet kisses along Merlin's jaw. Merlin shifted his legs so that Arthur was resting in the cradle of his hips, and hooked his heels on the back of Arthur's ankles. Arthur held himself up enough, though, so that there wasn't the pressure bearing down on Merlin that he wanted, dreamed about. He had to keep himself from bucking up, trying to keep patient so that he could get more of an explanation, and more of those amazing kisses too.

"You didn't -- but, this week --" Merlin moaned lightly as Arthur's teeth scraped over his neck.

Arthur pulled up enough so that his face was hovering over Merlin's. He looked directly into Merlin's eyes, held his gaze, while he spoke very seriously and endearingly. "It's not that I didn't want to, but this was a very important matter of state business. That's why I said I wished your father had been here, and it's not because I didn't want to work with you but because I would've much rather spoken to you about more personal matters."

"Like snogging," Merlin said, nodding seriously even as he tried to keep a grin away.

"Precisely," Arthur answered, though his eyes crinkled at the corner with amusement. He added on more softly, "I thought it best we dealt with one thing before the next."

"What thing? Before what thing?" Merlin realised that his foggy mind was distracted by Arthur's handsome face and lips being right there, so he didn't make much sense, but Arthur seemed to understand him anyway.

"We can strike a balance," Arthur said quietly. His fingertips brushed Merlin's cheek. "We can be -- this, on our own time, and remain professional when it comes to the matters of state business. Don't you think? I mean, I'd like that. I could do that."

"Me too," Merlin said, nodding quickly. The fur rug tickled the back of his neck, but not nearly as much as Arthur's light breath brushing over his mouth. "I want that too."

"I'm sorry that we didn't have a chance to work that out sooner," Arthur said. He pressed a gentle kiss to Merlin's mouth, sweet and chaste. "I would've liked to, but--"

"Oh no, that's -- it makes sense. It's okay," Merlin said to him. "After last time -- no regrets, then?"

"Only that that we didn't get past snogging," Arthur said with a wicked grin.

Merlin laughed breathlessly. "If I recall, you were the one who stopped it at that."

"We were drunk," Arthur retorted. "Besides, I didn't want it like that. I wanted us sound of mind so that we were on the same page. So that we knew, really knew, what we wanted."

"Can't say that I'm that sound of mind right now," Merlin said playfully. "You, Arthur Pendragon, drive me mad, I tell you, absolutely bloody mad."

He didn't give Arthur a chance to respond, instead pulling him back in for a heated kiss. Arthur didn't resist, not at all, instead pushing his tongue past Merlin's lips and kissing him more deeply. Arthur shifted his weight onto one arm so that he could wiggle a hand up under Merlin's jumper; Merlin flinched a little with how cold it was, but laughed against Arthur's mouth. Arthur's lips curved into a smile before dragging down to suck lightly on Merlin's neck. And then he pulled away altogether.

"Oh, no you don't," Merlin said, fingers scrambling at Arthur's sweater to try and pull him back up. "You're not stopping it right here again."

Arthur chuckled and pressed a kiss to the underside of Merlin's jaw. "Wouldn't dream of it." But then he shifted, knees on either side of Merlin's thighs, and pushed up Merlin's jumper, stomach exposed. Before Merlin could complain about the cold, Arthur leaned down and pressed warm kisses against bared skin. His fingers moved to pop open the button on Merlin's jeans.

"Arthur," Merlin choked out, hand coming to rest on top of Arthur's head. He lifted his hips up as Arthur pushed his jeans and pants down a little, exposing Merlin's hard cock to the air. "Oh god."

Arthur kept kissing Merlin's stomach, but his hand took a firm hold of Merlin's cock, stroking it. Merlin could feel his abdomen muscles contracting, moving underneath the assault of Arthur's mouth. Merlin bit his lower lip, trying to keep back a moan, but couldn't help it when Arthur twisted his wrist just so when pulling up on Merlin's cock.

"I want to hear you," Arthur said, looking up Merlin's body at him. His hand dipped down to cup Merlin's balls, rolling them around in his palm. Merlin's hips bucked up, thighs tense, straining for more, just more of it all. "Come on, Merlin."

"Well, I want -- I want--" What Merlin wanted was put on hold just a moment longer when Arthur swiped his thumb over the head of Merlin's cock, brushing away some of the pre-come that'd started leaking, causing Merlin to shudder and gasp.

"What, Merlin?" Arthur sounded entirely too self-important with how he was making Merlin feel. "What do you want?"

"To touch you too," Merlin said. "Please, Arthur, come on."

Arthur didn't even take a moment to pretend he was thinking about it or to tease, but shuffled up onto his knees. Though his hands and mouth were off of Merlin -- a sad, temporary loss indeed -- Merlin couldn't help but laugh at the eager look on Arthur's face, the quickness of his hands as he undid his trousers. He pushed them halfway down his thighs, revealing his thick, hard cock and the tops of his legs, dusted with fine blond hairs. Merlin pushed up onto one elbow, reaching a hand out so that it trailed over his skin and up to his cock. Arthur moaned when Merlin wrapped long fingers around it and began to pump slowly.

"I've never done this with before," Merlin said in wonder, "with anyone other than myself, I mean."

The words had tumbled out of his mouth before he could stop them, but now that he said them he felt like an idiot. Not a very sexy thing to say at all, and Arthur would probably tease him for it.

Except when Merlin looked up, Arthur was staring at him with such an intensity and fondness that Merlin had never seen from him before. Arthur cupped the back of Merlin's head and Merlin arched up while Arthur leaned down. They met in the middle and Merlin felt like he was suspended in the air while Arthur kissed him hard, nipping at his lips and sucking Merlin's lower one into his mouth.

"Me either," Arthur said softly. Merlin groaned and pulled Arthur back down.

They ended up lying on the rug on their sides facing each other, legs tangled together. They were both still mostly dressed, but their jumpers were rucked up and their trousers were down over their arses. They stroked the other's cock to get each other off. Merlin felt like he was soaring through the sky; dizzy and breathless, but exhilarated and free. It was Arthur that kept him grounded and in the moment, though; his little moans when Merlin sucked on the sweat-damp skin of his neck, or the way his hips stuttered when Merlin squeezed his cock.

Merlin felt his orgasm building up in his stomach, the tightness in his balls, until he groaned loudly and came with Arthur's hand fisted around him. He pressed his forehead against Arthur's neck, and Arthur murmured reassurances Merlin could barely hear through the pounding in his ears. Arthur continued to stroke him through it until Merlin shuddered at the sensitivity.

"Oh my god. Oh my god, Arthur," Merlin kept saying. "That was -- you're -- brilliant. All of it."

"Good," Arthur said, and kissed Merlin hard. "Not to be pushy, but ..."

It was then that Merlin could feel Arthur's erection pressing up against his hip, a reminder through Merlin's post-orgasmic haze. "Yeah, okay, yeah," Merlin said. He tried to push his hand back between them -- it had somehow ended up grabbing Arthur's arm while he came. But Arthur moaned and gripped Merlin's arse and pulled them closer together. Arthur was kissing Merlin frantically, just a mere mashing of mouths and teeth and tongues, and his hard-on pressed insistently against Merlin.

"Yeah, okay, yeah," Merlin repeated inarticulately, but he felt too gone for real words. He tried to keep up with Arthur's kissing, but they ended up just panting against each other's mouths. He pulled on Arthur's arm, until they rolled over a little and Arthur was over Merlin again. Merlin spread his legs, letting Arthur fit against him, and gripped Arthur's arse as he rutted against Merlin. "Come on," he said, moving to nip on Arthur's ear and pushed his hips up to grind against Arthur's cock. "I want you to come all over me."

Arthur's body went tense, rigid and in the next second he shuddered and groaned. Merlin could feel the warmth of Arthur's come as it splashed across his stomach. Arthur rutted a little more until he finally went loose and collapse down against Merlin, their soft cocks trapped between them.

After a few moments, Merlin started wiggling underneath Arthur. "You're too heavy," he complained. He liked the feel of Arthur against him, a firm weight holding him down, but he liked breathing even more. "And it's cold down here. My bed is right there."

"Why, are you inviting me to your bed? What sort of man do you take me for?" Arthur mumbled into Merlin's shoulder, not moving at all.

"A damn heavy one, that's what," Merlin said.

Arthur sighed but moved off of Merlin onto his back. He rolled too far and ended up halfway off the rug and onto the cold, stone floor. He hissed and rolled back onto his side. "Damn cold," he said grumpily.

Merlin grinned and leaned over, pressing a soft kiss to the corner of Arthur's mouth. "Just think, in a fortnight or so, it'll be heated again."

Arthur smiled. "Won't that be a wonderful thing?"

"Indeed," Merlin said. He paused for a moment, and then said, "And I'll do my best to make sure I'm the one here to make it so. I can't imagine the Druid council will argue much. It's a delicate matter, you see, bringing England back into the fold. Proper job for the royal court, yes?"

"So I hear," Arthur said.

"I wasn't wrong, was I?" Merlin asked.

"About what?"

"About your ridiculous outburst during negotiations," Merlin said, grinning. Arthur tried looking blasé, as if he didn't know what Merlin was talking about, or that it perhaps was nothing important. Merlin didn't buy it, and he wasn't going to let Arthur get away with it either. "You were being selfish."

Arthur paused. He didn't agree but he didn't deny it either. He reached out and traced his thumb along Merlin's eyebrow. "Not for the reason you thought."

"No, I suppose not," Merlin said more softly. "But if we're going to do this, we can't let it get in the way."

"I know," Arthur said. "It'll be fine, now that we've discussed it."

Merlin snorted. "Yeah, right. I suspect it'll cause a problem or five. But we'll work it out, yeah?"

"That's the plan," Arthur said.

"Good," Merlin replied. He lightly slapped Arthur's exposed stomach. "Now, come on. I'm getting cold and there's a perfectly good bed right there."

It took a lot to get his heavy, satisfied limbs moving, but Merlin pushed himself off the floor. He was getting cold, the sweat drying against his skin and making him shiver. He tugged off his jumper and threw it across the room to where the other laundry was.

Arthur got up too and eyed Merlin. "I thought you were cold."

"I am," Merlin said. He grinned cheekily. "But from what I hear, it's easier to keep warmer when skin is pressed against skin."

"I've heard that also," Arthur said, and didn't hesitate a moment further to tug his sweater off.

Merlin laughed and took off the rest of his clothing, and blushed slightly when he caught Arthur openly staring. He just leered and waggled his eyebrows suggestively, which made Arthur roll his eyes but at least he pulled off his trousers too. Newly naked, Merlin quickly hopped onto the bed and burrowed down under the covers, and was very happy when Arthur joined him.

"We still have a lot to talk about," Arthur said after they'd rearranged themselves. They were facing each other, just like when they were down on the floor, and sharing a pillow while pressed together from chest to toe, with the bedcovers pulled up tight around their necks. Merlin could just make out Arthur's face in the flickering firelight.

Merlin knew that they did, but he wanted to get a sense of what Arthur was thinking. "Like what?"

"Us. How we're going to make this work," Arthur said.

Merlin pressed his hips forward. "I think we've got a good start on that."

Arthur rolled his eyes, but didn't pull away. "Yes, but also if we're going to tell people. Like, for example, your parents."

"They'd be fine with it," Merlin offered. "Or, at least, will not be surprised."

"There's not being surprised, and there's bearing an army of dragons down on London," Arthur said dryly.

Merlin rolled his eyes. "You know that my father would not do that."

"I know, I know, but ... you know," Arthur said. He didn't give Merlin a chance to reply before he plowed on with, "And then there is Morgana."

"We're not allowed to talk about your sister while together in bed. Naked. No. Actually, no talking about any family, including mine."

"But, really, I need to do what I can to help your father defeat--"

"Arthur," Merlin said sternly. He was a little surprised when Arthur actually shut up and listened. Merlin placed a hand on Arthur's cheek. "Here's the plan. We will talk about these things and more ... in the morning. After breakfast. In a more official capacity. Because right now? We're going to nap. And then we're going to wake up and do that stuff we just did down there on the floor again. But in a bed. And maybe try something new. And then we'll nap more. And then we're going to do more stuff in the morning. And then we'll get up and go for breakfast and do an official talking sort of thing. Deal?"

Arthur raised an eyebrow. "Are you trying to negotiate our relationship already? I think the past few days have gone to your head."

"No, I'm not," Merlin said. "I'm trying to negotiate the next eight hours to be as pleasant and fun and naked as possible, before we get into the serious stuff. Because there will be plenty of time to deal with the rest of that, but I really want it to be just about us for even a little bit. So, do we have a deal?"

"Terms accepted," Arthur said, and kissed Merlin.

Merlin sighed happily. "Man, I am the best at this negotiation thing, yeah?"

"You'll do," Arthur said.

Merlin pressed his face into Arthur's shoulder and smiled. "I'm really glad to be back. I think this is the beginning of a long and happy future."

Arthur said softly, "Yeah, me too." He managed to squeeze Merlin even closer to him, as if he wasn't planning on letting go any time soon.

 

~end