Nights bring the chill, and the air chases every loose fold of clothing to nip at a man’s vulnerable skin.
In the weeks before, there is a rush to harvest and gather before the true cold of winter seeps in. Camelot has always been blessed—but this year the harvest falls short of the mark. There will be strict rationing, and no-one will starve this winter if Arthur can help it.
They don’t talk about Uther.
The old king clings on to the last vestiges of his life, stubborn to the end, as a flickering candle that is nearly burned down to the bottom of its wick.
The people celebrate with bonfires lit on the hills around Camelot, dancing and making merry. It is the last night of festivity before they shut themselves in from the biting winter. But their king-to-be is nowhere in sight.
Merlin’s thoughts linger on Arthur as he searches for him in the usual places.
Arthur has been exhausted of late. There are shadows under his eyes, and the skin of his face looks stretched paper-thin.
He wears his grief like a shield. He has to remain strong before his people and his men, his council. Merlin worries about him and does foolish things like spelling his socks to keep his toes toasty-warm.
Merlin has no love for Uther, a king who was oft a stern judge and a cruel executor—but he was also a father, and it is the loss of one’s father that he so keenly understands. Despite his faults and cold nature, Uther had loved Arthur, enough to go to battle in his place, once upon a time. Arthur returned that love, which had been a desperate need for approval in the years as a young and untried prince.
But Arthur has grown into himself. Now, he is a leader, a man on the cusp of kinghood, who inspires his men to battle, but who has also a strong sense of justice and compassion for his people.
Merlin knows this, as sure as he is of their bound destiny.
He’s discovered Arthur now, in a spot between two hedgerows, and plops himself down. Their knees knock by accident, and a warm fondness blooms in his heart.
“It won't be long,” Arthur says.
“No,” Merlin replies. Of that they are certain, and the thought weighs his chest down like a stone. Not for Uther, no, but for his prince.
“I will do my best to be a good king.” His King.
The words are weary, though Arthur has not even begun. It is the sound of someone burdened by the weight of rule.
“I know,” he replies, his voice deliberate, firm, and full of faith. If he could, he would take all of Arthur’s self-doubts and recriminations; toss them from the highest cliffs into the deepest oceans. The lengths he would fain go for this man are unfathomable.
Merlin looks up, and, with a moment of brief hesitation, takes Arthur’s hand in his. Their fingers slot together perfectly, one large-knuckled and rough with calluses from the sword, the other with the drudgery of menial work. Before, he has never dared take the liberty. Now, it seems—fitting. His hand tightens on Arthur in scant comfort, hot like a brand.
“Don't be a king like your father, though,” he says, as if he does not already know that Arthur will surpass Uther in every way.
“My father is a greater king than I could ever be.”
Those words stir something in him—a mad idea—to the surface, for what better time than now? What better time to show Arthur that he will be greater—the greatest king this land has ever known, with Merlin behind him, protecting him?
In the dreams the Dragon has shown him, he has seen a hint of their shared destiny. A land golden with harvest, with people hard-worked but happy, who love their king. The colours are always bright, almost blindingly so, and he can never quite make out the face. But the glint of hair which halos a beloved head, that he knows.
“I have to show you something,” Merlin says, tense. He sucks in a breath for courage. It will be alright. “Come on.”
With nary a care that he is dragging the future king behind him, he leads them hurriedly into the approaching forest. It looms, dark before them, and the trees hum with an energy as ancient as the Earth. There is an air of expectation, almost as if they know that something is about to happen. The symbolic passing from the old to the new perhaps, of knowledge, of eyes un-clouding and secrets revealed.
Merlin unclasps his hand from Arthur’s and walks to the trunk of a tree, settles down. He wonders how to start. Looking up, he sees Camelot which seems so small from here, the turrets reaching into the sky in the distance, the windows like so many tiny lit-up squares. The memory hits him at once—the first night he had looked out from one with childlike wonder.
Arthur follows. There in the darkness he is pressed to his side. Merlin shivers. Arthur is leeching his heat, the cold press of his thigh and shoulders warming up from him. The air is still.
“They love you, you know,” Merlin murmurs softly, breaking the silence. “They'll mourn your father, but they know you'll be a great king.”
“I wish I had their certainty,” Arthur says. He sounds bitter.
“I wish you did, too,” he replies. “I wish you could see yourself sometimes, I wish you could see Camelot as it's going to be, when you're king.” Because I have seen you in my dreams, and you were shining as bright as the sun. Because you are—will be—a king, tempered by warm compassion that Uther never had, he doesn't say.
His fingers slip into Arthur’s again. They are in each other’s space, just breathing.
“You said you had something to show me,” Arthur says.
Merlin closes his eyes for just a moment and thinks, his mind racing. “I hope the Dragon was right,” he finally says, gripping Arthur’s hand for courage. He concentrates, and then the seasons change around them, flitting from the faded autumn’s foliage to the bare, bitter winter, and finally, spring. A myriad of flowers burst into bloom around them, and there is the light scent of pollen before he sneezes.
“You’ll be the greatest king. The king of all of Albion,” he says shakily, worried about Arthur’s blank expression, wanting to express his faith in Arthur, trying to make him see.
And then Arthur pulls him onto his lap and kisses him desperately, while his mind whirls in complete and utter shock. Arthur’s tongue slips between the crevice of his mouth, bold, robbing him of breath, before he withdraws, breathing hard.
“I’ve… I’ve always sort of suspected,” Arthur says. “I was waiting for you to tell me.” There, there’s the weary taint to his voice again, and Merlin’s heart sinks in guilt. He lifts a hand, lightly tracing Arthur’s jaw, intending to comfort, but not knowing if it is himself or Arthur that the sentiment is meant for.
Arthur catches his wrist, his eyes mellow now, and his face lifts towards his again.