Everyone had been surprised when the army came flooding back into camp, far earlier than expected and far louder. At first, the camp had panicked, rushing about to pack up whatever they could in anticipation of a quick retreat, or at least a shifting of the battle that necessitated their moving, immediately. But the army had arrived in a wave of glinting armour and deep voices cheering and singing and laughing and shouting, and the servants had relaxed. Merlin had been fetching firewood, and though he had run back as soon as he heard the commotion, he had missed the army's grand entrance, and could not spot Arthur anywhere.
Luckily, Merlin had--quite by accident--developed an extensive intelligence network.
"Did you hear!?" Gawain, Sir Aelthred's squire, grabbed Merlin's sleeve only moments after he entered the crowd.
"No." Merlin looked down at the boy, whose head barely reached Merlin's chest. "What happened? And where's Arthur?" He was still scanning for the familiar sight of Arthur's golden hair, for his particular gait and bearing; that presence he had that set him apart from everyone else.
"It was a miracle!" Gawain enthused, and Merlin stopped his scanning and focused on the conversation.
Gawain stared up at him, earnest and awed, but he spoke in a low voice; words that, at the castle, would have been whispered only in shadowed corners, if at all. "Prince Arthur--the gods themselves favour him! You should have seen it!"
He explained, and Merlin's blood turned to ice.
Arthur spun, flipping his sword in his hand, but it was late, too late, and the point of a long, sharp blade was coming at him, was piercing through his mail shirt and into his chest. Arthur felt the cold steel slide between his ribs, shred his heart and tear through his lung. Light flashed in his eyes, golden and blinding and strangely familiar, and Arthur was dying, Arthur was dead.
But the light remained, and he could no longer feel the cold metal in his flesh. He could feel his heart beating, still beating, and when the bright spots cleared from his vision, the battlefield was silent and still, and the knight who had... who had killed him was staring at him with glassy eyes and a slack jaw. The man gasped and gurgled, blood staining his teeth and lips, and more spreading over his tunic, dripping to the ground from the wound in his chest. The wound in his chest, where his own sword had run him through. The knight fell in slow motion, tilting to the side and down, and down, and down, hitting the ground with a crash.
Arthur only barely managed to keep his grip on his sword, but it didn't matter. King Talfryn was a man of old beliefs and older superstitions, and he offered Arthur his full and complete surrender within the hour.
"Arthur!" Merlin flung the flap of the tent out of his way, rushing in and looking around wildly as if he hadn't actually expected to find Arthur there. Arthur had been sitting at his small table, but he looked up at Merlin's brash entrance. Merlin stopped in his tracks, mouth half open and working as though he meant to say something and couldn't quite get the words out.
"Arthur--" he choked, and then he was there, hands fluttering over Arthur's face, neck, shoulders, chest. His fingers stilled over the gash in Arthur's shirt, where the sword had ripped through, delicately tracing over the frayed edges of the fabric.
Arthur felt awkward, sitting there and allowing Merlin to handle him like that, but it was almost reassuring. If someone else could be convinced that he was still alive, perhaps he could convince himself. He didn't feel alive. He felt like he was walking through a dream world; everything was hazy and indistinct and blending together, except the feel of Merlin's hands on him and the way Merlin was looking at him, as though he was the miracle, not ... whatever had happened on that battlefield.
Merlin's hands urged him up and he went, standing and allowing Merlin to strip his shirt off and add it to the haphazard pile of his armour. He should have taken better care--his father would have had him beaten black and blue for such laziness when when he was a boy--but he had been too shaken, too sure that once he took it all off he would find that he was wrong, that he wasn't alive at all. That the gaping hole in his chest would be there, mocking him. He already knew he would have nightmares about those brief, sickening moments, and Arthur did not frighten easily after everything he had been through. Merlin's hands were a comfort, Merlin's presence its own assurance that once that last layer of clothing was removed, he would still be in one piece.
Merlin laid his palm across Arthur's chest, warm where the tear in Arthur's shirt had been, and Arthur finally felt that he could breathe. There was no wound; nothing but flesh and blood and bone, all in the same order that it had been that morning, when Merlin had dressed him for battle. Merlin's fingers stroked him, blunt fingernails scraping lightly, until they caught around the pendant that lay against his skin. Arthur had had it tucked beneath his shirt, and he hadn't paid it any mind until Merlin's soft intake of breath. He looked down, and took in a breath of his own.
The carved stone of the pendant was blackened and cracked; even Merlin's delicate handling threatened to crumble it to dust. The silver of the fitting was equally charred and melted out of shape. It was as if the thing had been tossed into a fire of unimaginable heat and left to burn.
Arthur reached up to take it out of Merlin's grasp, and Merlin stepped away slowly, though he didn't go far.
"My mother gave me this." Arthur murmured, staring at the ruined pendant in quiet, stunned disbelief. "My nurse told me, a long time ago. I've barely taken it off since then."
Merlin licked his lips and shifted his weight nervously. He took a deep breath, then said, "I'm sorry."
Arthur shook his head. "There was nothing you could have done about it. I didn't even notice--" but Merlin shook his own head in return.
"No, I mean..." He took another deep breath. "I'm sorry. I didn't know... that it was your mother's. I wouldn't have..." He paused again, and Arthur wanted to tell him to get on with it already, but the hesitant, strangely scared expression on Merlin's face quieted him.
"I didn't know," Merlin repeated helplessly, "and I didn't know it would... ruin it, like that. If I'd known, I'd-- I would have put the spell on something else."
Arthur was sure, in the silence that followed, that he could hear Merlin's heart thumping quick panicked beats like a jackrabbit in a snare, but he couldn't think what to say.
Arthur knew. He'd known. Somehow. Somehow, he'd known, though he'd tried not to. But this was Merlin telling him, and that was wholly different. It was significant, it was important. It was Merlin's hands, searching for invisible wounds. It was Merlin's back, warm against his chest when they curled up together, and the way Merlin stopped trembling just a bit sooner each night. It was Merlin's tongue on his fingertips, Merlin's disapproving glares, Merlin's stupid ears and the way he laughed when it was just the two of them.
It was a burst of golden light that wrapped intimately around and through him, and dragged him unwittingly back from the razor's edge between life and death.
Arthur stepped forward, reaching out. Merlin flinched as though he expected a blow, but Arthur grabbed him by the back of his neck and brought their lips together. Merlin's mouth was soft and slack with surprise, and his lips were just slightly chapped. Arthur let him go after a moment, though Merlin seemed disinclined to move. Somewhere along the way he had closed his eyes, and when he opened them they were hazy and unfocused.
"Arthur...?" Merlin looked a little lost, and Arthur took it upon himself to kiss him again.
"You." He muttered, leaning his forehead against Merlin's and running his hands down and up and down Merlin's arms. So much to fit into one word. You saved my life. Again. Again again again-- and You ended this pointless war and You're stupid and reckless and going to get yourself killed, damnit and You made me love you, how did you do that? But Merlin seemed to understand--at least some of it, maybe all of it--and he melted against Arthur.
Merlin's hands were everywhere, and Arthur's seemed to have picked up a few of their tricks. It helped that he had grown used to un-knotting Merlin's odd little neck scarves, to getting Merlin's tunic over his head in one quick sweep of fabric. But he had not allowed himself this liberty, to touch as much as he wanted to; Merlin's involuntary, nervous shivers were more of a deterrent than any verbal denial would ever have been, though Merlin had never pulled away from him, even in sleep. The waiting hadn't been as much of a hardship as it might have been, if Arthur hadn't been so worn from the constant fighting, strategizing, moving constantly as the tide of the war turned first one way, then another. It had been enough that they were building to this, that it lingered in their future; like the promise of peace, like the promise of heaven.
Arthur had only narrowly avoided that last, and his lifeblood thrummed in his veins, surging through him and urging him forward to back Merlin down onto the bed they'd grown used to sharing, though never yet like this.
"I'm never letting you go." Arthur warned, Arthur promised, Arthur swore. He pressed Merlin down into the thin mattress as Merlin's naked thighs gripped his waist. There was some sort of salve, a pot of the stuff that Merlin had rubbed into Arthur's bruises, but it worked well enough. Merlin whimpered, his head thrown back as Arthur pushed inside him by inches, bending him nearly in half so Arthur could lick along his collarbone. Then they were moving together, sweat and skin and pounding pulses and life, he was alive and breathing and Merlin was there, hot beneath him and around him, alive and breathing the same air.
"Arthur--gods--!" Merlin arched, golden-eyed, his spine bending impossibly as he came, semen slicking his stomach and chest, and his fingernails cut shallow crescent-moon lines in Arthur's shoulders. The bite of it, the stab of pain and the way Merlin tightened around him and the sharp, sudden tang of blood in the air threw Arthur over and he came down hard, spilling himself into Merlin's body as his breath ran out of him. He hardly noticed that they had fallen together; back onto the mattress from where Merlin had hung them in the air, a handspan above it.
They were still entwined, sticky and curled together, when Arthur kissed Merlin's neck and said in a stunned voice, "We're going to rule the world."
Awe and fear and terrible hope; Merlin reached out and took hold of the charred pendant that had remained around Arthur's neck, miraculously still whole, and kissed the corner of Arthur's mouth.
"No," he answered, eyes sparking with determination and purpose and destiny. "We're going to protect it."
Arthur pulled him close and said, "Yes."