It was a Tuesday, when Arthur received the notice of conscription into His Majesty’s Armed Forces.
Merlin had never much cared for Tuesdays. Now, at last, he knew the reason why.
A few years into the war, both of them had begun to hope, foolishly, like only young folks who fancy themselves invincible could, that the time would never come for them. That their lives would be an endless summer of dazing on the back porch of Arthur's father's estate, swimming in the pool, filling their time with nothing and everything, every moment an infinity, a possibility. The war never anything but a distant threat, never really real.
Yet now, the now being this impossible time which is always endless yet always fleeting, their infinity was over.
Arthur had talked of fighting in the war, of course. Merlin had been deemed unfit to fight, due to the extenuating circumstance that he could not fight (and maybe due to something Arthur had whispered in the supervising matron's ear when he'd thought Merlin wasn't looking), and so they'd always known that whatever happened, they would never be sent to the front together. They had somehow managed to ignore the reality of this, however, in all their talk of honour and glory and winning back Britain for the British ("And anyone else who wants to call this rock their home," Arthur had declared heatedly one lazy afternoon in the shadow of their favourite birch tree).
But now, there were no dreams or plans left to make, only the stark reality and inevitability of war and pain and darkness, and Merlin must say goodbye to his best friend for what felt an awful lot like forever.
They did not speak, from the moment Merlin woke up in the guest bedroom of the Pendragon estate that morning, to the moment they stood on the platform of the train station. The car ride had been tense; Arthur's father had not said a word, either, and his sister Morgana had only occasionally voiced her (usually so outspoken) discontent about the fact her father had made sure she would never get the opportunity to fight in this war, which was clearly affecting her as much as anyone else.
On the platform, Arthur hugged his father first, then Morgana, who had held on longer and more tightly than anyone would ever make her admit.
Then Arthur turned to Merlin and he smiled, sadly; the first smile he had managed since he had been called to action. So Merlin smiled, too, not caring at that moment that tears were blurring his vision, wanting nothing more than to take Arthur home and keep him there, and hide them both from the world until the world stopped turning.
As it were, he could do nothing but offer his hand, in place of his whole life. And when Arthur took it, and their eyes met, he felt everything unspoken and saw it in Arthur's eyes, too. And Merlin could not speak or breathe for one endlessly long moment as he thought, Oh, but then Arthur was letting go, pulling away, stepping back, and the moment was over.
And yet, Arthur did not look away from him as he stepped backwards onto the train, and it was Merlin's eyes he held as the train began to pull away from the platform; as all around him fellow young, doomed men were putting on false cheer and kissing their weeping sweethearts farewell, with empty promises to see them soon and write often.
Arthur made no such promises, but he did not bid any of them farewell, either. He simply held Merlin's gaze, the same Oh reflected in his pained, suddenly desperate expression.
And then he was gone.
Merlin let Morgana hug him and finally allow her tears to fall on his shoulder, but he saw nothing but Arthur's eyes, felt nothing but Arthur's hand in his, and it was not until Uther Pendragon gently cleared his throat and Merlin noticed a faint glimmer of tears in the older man's eyes that he remembered where he was, who he was, and tried to stop thinking altogether.
It was autumn, and Merlin was going to school.
Arthur had been meant to join him at Oxford, of course, but Arthur was in Austria now, last Merlin heard, three weeks ago to the date, and Merlin was doing everything in his power not to unravel at the seams.
He had been looking forward to going to Oxford. He had been proud of his merit scholarship, excited about the prospect of his own room, his own life, in this beautiful town of green lawns and bright limestone and black capes and ancient tradition.
But without Arthur, the lawns were brown and the limestone was yellow, and the traditions were meaningless - although the gowns were no less black. Without Arthur, days and nights and days blended together, the splendid dining hall became an oppressive pit of noise and false cheer, the portraits on the walls daily reminders of all those the world had lost and as good as forgotten.
It was after one such dinner that Merlin arrived back in his room - the one he was meant to share with Arthur - to find his roommate Gilli waiting for him with a worried expression, holding a sealed, faded envelope.
Merlin's heart stopped, and he thought, This is it.
But it wasn't.
It has been a while. Hasn't it? I am not sure when this letter will arrive, although I promise it has been no more than a week since I received your last. I would have written sooner, I tried to, but I have been struggling to find the right words.
We have only been on the front lines for a few days, and the truth is, Merlin, there are no words to describe what I have seen here. And I know that, as much as you will protest this, you will not want me to try.
"Would too," Merlin mumbled, voice raw, closing his eyes for a moment and collecting himself because he did not want Gilli to see him cry.
I have been keeping my spirits high, though, you'll be glad to know. My troop is great, I wish you could meet them. Although, that would mean that you'd be here, so scratch that. Not that I wouldn't want you to be here. No, you know what, I don't want you to be here. I want you to be safe, at home.
Merlin let out a shaky laugh, unable to stop the tears from falling and staining the page. Only Arthur.
Not much was left of the letter now, and a part of Merlin wanted to stop reading, wanted to keep a word to himself every day and delude himself into thinking that when he reached the end of the letter, Arthur would come back to him.
He read on.
You know, Merlin, there is so much I want to say. About
what we how Ihow I'm feeling, what I'm thinking, what I miss about life back home... what life after the war might be like if Iwhen I return.
I can't begin to know what it is like for you, well, I can, because I remember what it was like when your father was sent abroad last time. Oh hell, I'm sorry for bringing that up. I'm crap at letter writing. My point is, over here in the thick of it, you begin to think. About life. About what is important. And all I wanted to say is that, well, you are.
Merlin put the letter down, lifting his gaze to stare at the wall, unseeing. He could imagine Arthur clear as day in front of him, hunched over the letter, scrawling out his train of thought as he searched for these words, words that would say nothing to anyone who read them, and yet would say everything to Merlin.
And Merlin suddenly felt like he was on the brink of some important truth which he still couldn't quite grasp; something he should have known, something he should have understood.
I am struggling with my words now, but don't judge me, you know that it is you who are the writer, not I,
and oh, how I miss you your stories. I try to recall them, sometimes, as I lie in my bunk after lights out, trying to ignore the sounds of war around me.
They are calling me out now. I fear that this will have to do, for now, as I want to send this to you today along with letters for Father and Morgana.
I shall see you again.
P.S. Let me know of your studies, and please tell me that Oxford is as dull as I imagined so that I shall not feel too jealous. Don't you dare go rowing without me.
Merlin did not allow himself to think a single thought as he carefully folded the letter, over and over until it was a tiny square, using his nails to sharpen the edges.
Then, he pulled his favourite book, Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, off the shelf and placed the letter inside, on his favourite page, the one on which the Count suggested that Jake and Lady Brett get married. This was a wonderful notion, and yet the tragedy of it all was that these two individuals were too damaged, and although perfect for each other and very much in love, would never be able to choose each other.
It reminded him of something, though he could not put his finger on what it was.
The book was not really a hiding place; Gilli was in the room with him at that moment, after all, probably nosing and itching to ask about the contents of the letter. But Merlin knew that even if Gilli should succumb to his curiosity and go snooping, he would find nothing but a letter from one friend to another, written in the heat of war, full of the juvenile denial and thinly veiled desperation of the doomed.
And, Merlin thought, maybe that is all it is. What else could it be?
The Arthur who Merlin remembered, who would laugh at Merlin, and tease him about his ears and his hair and his skinny arms, and who would whistle and cat-call when the mining superintendent's daughter walked by in her yellow sundress, was a tangible human being with limits and restrictions and everything else which stayed Merlin's hand even when he wanted to reach out for something intangible, something he knew he needed but could not quite define.
But this Arthur, who was away, whose feelings and thoughts came from another time and who might already be stardust floating towards the heavens, he was abstract and mold-able, and Merlin's only comfort was that he now had the ability to fill in the spaces between the words written on the pages of his letters, to infer what must never be inferred, to believe what must never be believed.
I miss your stories, Arthur had written. What Merlin chose to read was, I miss you. You are important to me. I will come back to you.
Yours, he had written. Only yours, Merlin wanted him to say.
And that, maybe, was the intangible made tangible. But it was okay - it wasn't real. It was only a thought. Arthur was gone; only a word on the page.
Lights out. Merlin prepared for bed, and heard Gilli do the same. It did not take long before the other boy was snoring softly, and Merlin sighed, remembering that Arthur did not snore, and wishing Gilli didn't either so he could imagine it was another boy's steady breathing he was hearing across the room; a solid reminder of life and safety, of here and now.
Once upon a time, in another life, Arthur and Merlin had laid like this, side by side in beds much closer together in Arthur’s bedroom, and in the black of night when the rest of the Pendragon household was asleep, Merlin had told him stories.
Arthur had asked for stories about knights, and magic, and dragons and great evils that he and Merlin must defeat together. And they had always defeated them, in Merlin's stories. They had always come home safe, together, always together.
I miss your stories.
Merlin sat up in his bed, opening his eyes wide and staring into the impenetrable darkness.
He had wondered how to respond to Arthur, how to impress upon him just how much he was missed, just how much he was wanted - home, wanted home, of course - but, of course. Of course.
Arthur was lost, just as Merlin was, and he was scrambling for something to hold onto. He might not be real here, but he was out there, somewhere, solid and breakable and real. And damn it, Merlin was going to give him something to hold on to.
Empowered with a new sense of purpose, Merlin pulled the covers back and got out of bed, slowly, carefully moving to his desk while Gilli continued snoring away, oblivious.
Knowing that the hall guard had already made his rounds tonight, Merlin felt safe in lighting a small candle, sitting himself down carefully and pulling out a few sheets of paper, unscrewing the cap of his ink bottle and preparing his pen (the one with the golden tip, which Arthur had given him two years ago, with the stipulation that Merlin would only use it to write down the wonderful tales which Arthur knew existed inside his head).
Merlin had never set the pen to paper before. Not before now, now that he realised what purpose his stories would serve, how worthy they really would be.
He began, then paused. This wasn't how he wanted his story to start. And yet, he must.
I received your letter, three weeks after your last. I think you need a new postman.
He winced at his bad joke; for all he knew, Arthur’s postman had been blown to pieces. But now was not the time for self-doubt. Now was the time for action, the only way Merlin knew how.
I know you said you don't, but Arthur, I do, wish I was there with you. Because then I could keep you
But yes, I suppose I am enjoying Oxford - you know me, I enjoy the quiet life. And no, I have not been rowing, you clotpole, and I am deeply offended that you think I would ever do that alone. Then I'd have to actually row!
Right. Enough of this. Merlin took a deep breath, looking out the window down at the darkened grounds, before dipping his pen in the bottle and setting it to paper once more.
You do not want to know of my adventures into the library, I am sure, as perilous as crossing the old librarian might be. Those tales would never top your exploits with your new friends, I'm sure. Ironic, that this is where you would finally find the band of knights you always so desired, isn't it? I hope you are making due without your wizard.
Except, Arthur, I imagine that the story should be quite different, had you had your wizard by your side.
Your wizard. Yours. Merlin smiled, feeling that this was somehow exactly right. And knowing now how his story must start, he began it thus:
Once upon a time, a very different time to the one we live in now, there was another Arthur.
This Arthur was a great King, clad in shiny mail and armour which glinted silver in the sunlight. His hair was golden and his eyes were blue, and he was a great and benevolent leader, whose people loved him and whose enemies feared him. He never lost a battle, and he never wanted for anything. But that is the happy ending, of course, and you already know that part.
This is the story.
Long ago, before the sun shone down on King Arthur's shiny mail and hair, Arthur was a little boy in a cold and drafty castle, where spiderwebs and dust covered every unused surface and the servants' steps were hurried and afraid. For their King was not great nor benevolent; Arthur's father King Uther was a tyrant, and a menace to his people.
Merlin stopped, smirking slightly. He felt only slightly guilty for portraying Uther like that; Arthur would get a kick out of it, he knew.
Of course, little Prince Arthur did not know this. Little Prince Arthur knew only that his father was to be honoured and respected, for he was the only parent Arthur had ever known.
This bit was more tricky. When Merlin had told Arthur stories in the past, he had often left his late mother Ygraine alive, because he knew that this way he could allow her to live on, if only briefly, in both their minds. But not this time; under the circumstances, it didn't feel right. And so he continued.
The Queen Ygraine had been beautiful, kind and fair, but had perished while birthing Arthur, her only child.
And although Uther did not blame Arthur for his wife's passing, his fury reigned supreme upon the kingdom, for he saw but one culprit: magic.
Before Ygraine's death, the magical people had lived side by side with everyone else, and it had been a happy, peaceful time. But after the evil witch Nimueh had used Ygraine's life force to grant Uther the child he so desired, Uther had taken it upon himself to destroy all users of magic.
His retribution had been swift, and merciless. Men, women and children had burned upon the Camelot pyres, and no one with even the slightest spark of magic had been left alive. At least, that was what Uther thought.
Merlin smiled. Arthur knew this part of the story, too, as it was one he had often recycled in the past, and yet he always took great pleasure in describing it. Merlin had dreamed of doing magic since he was very young, and while Arthur had teased him with it, insisting that it was only because Merlin wanted to live up to his mythical namesake, Merlin had never stopped imagining what it would be like to really be able to do all the things he dreamed of doing. In his stories, at least, he would always be able to.
The little boy Merlin was born far away, in another kingdom, out of Uther's greedy grasp, his magic a secret from everyone but his mother. He knew nothing of Arthur, and Arthur knew nothing of him, and yet soon their paths would cross - and the kingdom of Camelot would never be the same.
In the meantime, Arthur grew up, oblivious to his father's crimes, believing as Uther taught him that magic and those who wielded it were evil and must be eliminated to keep their subjects safe.
Arthur trained every day with the sword and lance, and grew strong and fierce, the best among warriors. As he began to come of age, he grew more arrogant, as spoilt princes are wont to do. And yet...
Merlin paused again. And yet what? Arthur had been ignorant and entitled when they'd first met, too; had called Merlin names and refused to speak directly to him.
And yet there was something about Arthur, a compassion and a kindness of heart which his father would never understand, which must be experienced and cannot be explained. A force so all-consuming, those who stood before it felt like they were staring into the sun; powerless to look away, even though they knew they would end up getting burned.
But Arthur was yet but a glimmer of this man, and it would take him many quests and adventures to end up the King we know he would become.
Arthur's story truly starts on the day which saw young Merlin set foot in Camelot for the first time, having left his home of Ealdor days before to get to the castle, where his destiny awaited. Merlin did not know this, of course. All he knew was that an adventure was going to happen.
Merlin set the pen down, in its holder, looking back over the words he had written. He wanted to write more, so much more, and yet he knew he had to pace himself. It was a long war, and he wanted to give Arthur something to wait for. Needed to believe that Arthur was out there somewhere, waiting for more.
I read your letter, then re-read it, and read it for a third time before writing to you.
How is it that you always seem to know exactly what I need? Reading your story, I can just imagine how you would speak it out loud, and you have no idea what comfort it brings me. And god knows, I need the comfort. We all do.
This isn't a fairytale. And right now, lying in the trenches, it is hard to imagine that it could ever have a happy ending. I only hope that your story will.
It was almost too much for Merlin to bear. He could feel the fear, the quiet desperation radiating off the page. And worst of all, the hopelessness.
Oxford lay covered in the year's first snow, and it was the most perfect, picturesque sight Merlin had ever seen - and he hated it. How cold Arthur must be, with no comfortable bed to return to after a long day out, no common rooms with roaring fires nor warming soups and toddies in the evenings.
How cold his hands must be, writing this letter to Merlin. No wonder it was so short.
And yet somehow, Merlin knew that Arthur would not have burned the first part of his story, not even for warmth.
This was what prompted him to keep going, writing the second part of their tale while sitting outside in the grounds, on a freezing bench, wanting desperately to feel closer to Arthur in any way he could.
Considering what you already know of the pair's future adventures, the first meeting of Prince Arthur and Merlin may surprise you.
These two young men were not instant friends, oh no, quite the opposite in fact. Merlin's arrival at the castle happened to coincide with the gruesome execution of a man accused of sorcery, and so Merlin was already in a contrary mood when he ran into the Prince and his posse on the training grounds.
'Friend,' Merlin had called Arthur, and yet Arthur had scoffed at him, laughed at him, and commanded him to walk on his knees. Not exactly the stuff legends are made of, is it?
Merlin chuckled to himself. That was, in fact, almost exactly like the two boys' first meeting had gone, five years ago when Merlin had enrolled at Arthur's school and had dared to challenge the schoolyard bully's authority. The schoolyard bully happened to be Arthur, and the pair had quickly found themselves in a scuffle which ended with them both in detention - and the rest, as they say, is history.
Arthur had been an ass back then, even he could admit that now. Merlin hoped that he, too, would get a chuckle at being reminded of that now.
And so Merlin had walked away, very much aghast at the notion that he would some day have to call this royal prat his King.
Arthur, for his part, did not spare much thought for the lowly peasant who had somehow, miraculously (magically, but of course Arthur did not know that) come out of their encounter unscathed.
Here the story might have ended, with Merlin staying out of the Prince's way as much as he could while serving the elderly Court Physician, Gaius. And Arthur would continue to be a prat of a Prince until his father eventually passed on and left him his kingdom.
But that was when a little thing called Destiny interfered in the young men's journeys, and pushed them together for what would be a much greater one. For this was the day when Merlin met the Great Dragon who rested underneath the Castle of Camelot.
Merlin hesitated. Arthur loved dragons, of course, there was no question that this story must have one. But usually Merlin's stories involved dragons flying free, with the two of them befriending them or taming them or slaying them, whatever Arthur requested. But this was a different story, and this was a different dragon. Of course it lives under the castle, Merlin thought, wondering why that made so much sense to him.
The Great Dragon was a fearsome creature indeed, and ancient too. It had been trapped many years ago by King Uther, who had slain its entire kin, and unbeknownst to Merlin, the Dragon had spent all this time plotting its revenge.
However, the Great Dragon had no qualms against young Prince Arthur, and the words it spoke of their joined Destiny rang true as only a prophecy can:
'You are the other side of Arthur's coin,' the Dragon told the bewildered young wizard. 'And the half cannot truly hate that which makes it whole.'
With that it laughed its wheezy, chill-inducing laugh and arose onto its hind legs, taking flight and disappearing up into a crevice of its gloomy cavern, thick chain rattling below; Merlin left shaken and alone.
'The other side of Arthur's coin,' Merlin repeated to himself, feeling that this could not possibly be true. ‘There is no way I can be in any way tied to that clotpole!'
And he believed it, with all his heart. He believed it as he attended a royal gathering in the Great Hall, and as he first laid eyes on Arthur's half sister the Lady Morgana, whose charms at that moment overshadowed what he would later learn was a fiery temper.
Arthur had always been annoyed by the fact that Merlin had had a bit of a crush on Morgana when he'd first met her. Feeling mischievous, Merlin added,
(But in that instant, Merlin thought her nothing less than ravishing, and even his less than favourable thoughts of her brother flew out of his head when the Lady Morgana threw a smile in his direction.)
Merlin wasn't really sure what made him write that. No such thing had, of course, happened. (Morgana was great, and had become a good friend, but his schoolboy crush had been nothing more than that; fleeting, overshadowed by his friendship with her brother.) Maybe he just wanted to give Arthur a reaction, any reaction, that would make him feel alive. He was, after all, very protective of his sister.
That was all it was.
Merlin continued to believe that he would rather lick a thousand goblets clean with his tongue before showing any sign of affection towards Prince Arthur, right up until the moment when an evil sorceress enchanted the party of guests at the banquet and threw a dagger at Arthur's heart.
Merlin acted without thinking; using his magic, he slowed down time itself (because he was one such powerful wizard, even then) and hurtled himself forwards, only one thought on his mind: 'I must save Arthur.' And so he did, and was proclaimed his Manservant from that day forth.
Merlin frowned. Manservant? Where had that come from? He had started writing this story believing that Merlin and Arthur would fight side by side on their adventures, but somehow, after their shaky introduction, that hadn't felt quite right. But manservant?
He supposed it must be a subconscious decision, to shift the focus to Arthur's heroic deeds, relegating his own character to the background. He was writing for Arthur, after all.
Taking a moment to dip the pen in his inkhouse, Merlin looked around at the snow-covered grounds, shivering as even more snow drifted down around him. Was it snowing in Austria, or wherever Arthur was stationed right now? Was Arthur fighting at this very moment, or was he resting, maybe looking out at the falling snow himself, remembering happier winters of snowmen and snow ball fights (Arthur against Merlin and Morgana, as that was only fair), and warm cocoa and blankets by the fire?
They had all gathered close, he remembered now: himself, Arthur and Morgana as their coats dripped melted snow on the stone floor and their noses and cheeks slowly returned to their normal colour. As they sat on the large, thick sheep's fur in front of the fireplace, Morgana had draped a number of blankets around them, pushing Arthur closer to Merlin to make the blanket fit more tightly around them all, and then leaning herself against Arthur's other side, keeping him warm and close to them both.
Merlin wondered, suddenly, about the look which Morgana had given him at that moment, the uncharacteristically soft smile made even softer by the firelight, the way she had pulled Merlin's arm in, giving Merlin no choice but to align himself flush against Arthur's side.
He had had no complaints, feeling the heat of Arthur's body thaw him out faster and more pleasantly than any fire ever could. And Arthur had shifted to allow Merlin to lean against him, too, and it had been so warm and comfortable that the next thing Merlin knew, the fire had burned out and he was waking up, head on Arthur's chest and arm across his stomach, and Morgana had been nowhere to be seen.
Coming back to the present, he looked over what he had writen - and, as an afterthouht, added a final line:
This marked the beginning of Merlin and Arthur's great, if reluctant, friendship. And the beginning of so much more.
It had been over a month, and there had been no word from Arthur.
On December 12, Merlin became so desperate as to plead with his English Literature lecturer, Professor Kilgarrah, to let him telephone Morgana from his office.
"Morgana Pendragon speaking, who is this?" Morgana's voice sounded over the telephone after only the second ring, and Merlin immediately felt terrible, hearing the frantic note in her voice - clearly the unexpected call had given her quite a fright.
"Morgana," he said quickly, "it's only me – it’s Merlin."
There was silence for a few long, endless seconds before Morgana's voice came over the line, much calmer than it had been before. "Oh, Merlin. It is so good to hear your voice."
Silence. He knew it was custom for her to ask him about Oxford and his studies, and for him to reply in kind with questions of his own, but they knew each other too well to waste time with such empty pleasantries.
"Any word from Arthur?" Merlin asked, voice breaking on the name - he hadn't realised before now that he had gone months without speaking it aloud.
Another silence, this one almost unbearable for Merlin to take. “No,” came the eventual reply, and somehow this one word managed to both make Merlin intensely relieved, and fill him with a new, much more concrete terror.
Morgana offered nothing else, and so he swallowed thickly and managed, for both their sakes: "But... no news is good news, right? Isn't that what they say?" he added, almost pleading.
Another silence, shorter this time. "Yes. Yes, that is what they say."
The thing which frightened Merlin more than anything was how subdued Morgana was, how hopeless she sounded. Had she already given up?
Merlin had a sudden flash of memory, back to only a month before Arthur was drafted, when the three of them had been lying on the back porch of the house, sipping lemonades in the shade of the Pendragons' absurdly massive parasol.
'Uther has had an accident,' Morgana had said suddenly, sitting up and knocking her drink to the ground, halfway towards the main house before Merlin and Arthur had even processed what she'd said.
Despite their protests, they were in her convertible and on the way to the hospital within the hour, and sure enough, when they arrived it was to find Uther's secretary pacing the floor, explaining frantically to them that their father had taken a fall and broken his arm.
The secretary had seemed very bewildered that the three youths had shown up in the hospital out of the blue, until Arthur told her that a policeman had been kind enough to take the trouble of calling on the house after learning of the incident.
They had never spoken of it again.
"Morgana," Merlin whispered now, gripping the receiver and pushing the mouthpiece closer - feeling, absurdly, that if he could make her believe that Arthur was safe, he could make it so. "Arthur will come back. He will."
"How do you know that?" came the almost inaudible reply, and if Merlin didn't know any better, he'd think Morgana was crying.
He shook his head. "We have to keep hoping."
A wry chuckle, and Merlin could almost hear her roll her eyes. Well, it was a start.
"I wish I had your conviction," she said at last, and although she still sounded defeated, Merlin chose to believe that there was a note of hope in her voice which had not been there before.
Merlin heard his Professor step quietly into the room, and knew that his time was almost up.
"Hey, listen, Morgana, if you hear anything..."
"You will know," she interrupted him.
"Right," he said, "thanks. I appreciate it."
"No," Morgana said, and Merlin frowned. "If anything happens, Merlin... you will know."
With that, Morgana terminated the call, leaving Merlin holding the mouthpiece and receiver in his hands, completely bewildered as to what she had meant.
That night, he sat down at his desk overlooking the now brown and frozen grounds (all hope of a white Christmas seemed to have vanished around the time the large Christmas tree in the town square had been lit), and after some deliberation, set pen to paper once more.
That the Lady Morgana was Arthur's sister is a fact known so far in the story only to Uther Pendragon, and the reader of this tale. She had grown up in the castle believing herself nothing more than the King's ward, unaware of the illicit affair which had brought about her conception.
What nobody knew, and what Uther especially must never know, was that the Lady Morgana was also a Seer.
The truth came to her sporadically, in dreams, and when she woke she could make no sense of them. It was a magic so unlike Merlin's, so uncontrollable and unpredictable, and if not guided and sheltered as she began to discover her abilities, they would certainly lead her into ruin.
But now we are getting ahead of the story.
For this is of course the tale of the great King Arthur, who is at this stage still the pratty Prince Arthur, although we will soon begin to see the first sparks of change as Arthur gathers around him his band of faithful companions: the Knights of Camelot.
Merlin paused, trying to recall the names of the men in Arthur's garrison, who had made enough of an impression on Arthur for him to relay his acquaintance with them to Merlin in his letters.
He hoped that Arthur would forgive him for chronicling the lives of these men, should they prove to be long dead in the real world.
There was Sir Leon, of curly hair and scraggly beard, whom had served King Uther for many years before coming under Arthur's command, and who was the most loyal man the kingdom would ever know.
There was Sir Percy, the tall man strong enough to fell a tree with his bare hands. He was of few words, but the Knights loved him dearly all the same.
There was Sir Elyan, the dreamer, whose persistence would always see them through.
There was Sir Gwaine, the charmer, the scoundrel who did not choose the Knight's life as readily as the others, and yet served as valiantly and truly as any of them.
And finally, there was Sir Lance, the one most noble and true, and the one...
The one who most deserves to come back from this alive, Arthur had written. Merlin had almost crumbled up the letter and thrown it out the window when he'd read that; thinking that Arthur - the stupid, self-sacrificing idiot that he was - had better not put a stranger's life above his own.
The one most gallant, most honourable, and most favoured by Prince Arthur - although he did truly favour all of his men greatly.
And then, of course, there was Merlin - lest you had forgotten. The manservant, the inferior, and yet somehow, the truest friend of them all.
Where Arthur went, so did Merlin also. Merlin may not be a knight, but Merlin would follow Arthur to the end of the earth, keeping him safe and giving him all - enveloping him with his magic, even if Arthur could never know the truth of that. For magic was outlawed, of course, and King Uther would have him flogged, beaten and burned if he ever found out.
And who knows how Arthur would react, if he learned of Merlin's magic. Would he accept it, or cast Merlin away, old prejudices and mistrust of what he did not understand winning out over his compassion for his friend?
Merlin did not know, and he did not trust his luck to find out.
Merlin looked back over what he had just written, and swallowed. He suddenly felt like maybe magic, which was the only element of the story so far (well, that and the Dragon) which had no basis in fact, was perhaps not what he had been writing about at all.
He considered crumbling up the page and starting afresh. But something stayed his hand. If he did remove it, that would mean what he had written was wrong, somehow, and he did not want - no, he could not see what that should be.
"It's only a story," he mumbled to himself, ashamed of the heat which was rising in his cheeks although he was alone. "It's only a fantasy. It has knights and princes, for crying out loud. There is no truth in fairytales."
So Merlin stayed by Arthur's side, as a friend and as a servant, watching as his Prince learned and grew and changed. Holding his magic over Arthur's head like a halo, protecting him, never asking for credit nor reward. Arthur's truest and most loyal friend, even if Arthur would never know the full extent of it.
But Arthur cared for Merlin, too. It may be true that Merlin followed where Arthur went, but more often than not, it was Arthur who commanded Merlin to come along, to stay by his side and experience the wonders of the world with him, while keeping him close enough to keep him safe.
Thus Merlin and Arthur protected each other, side by side, against the world and their many formidable foes.
But who were these foes? I hear you ask. What beasts did they slay? What monsters did they defeat?
I shall tell you it all.
Merlin capped his pen, screwed the lid onto his inkhouse, and blew on the paper until it dried. Then he carefully folded the pages, slid them into an envelope, and as an afterthought uncapped his pen again and quickly scrawled on the back,
There is more to come.
Hoping that Arthur would see it as the message it was: Don't you dare die before the end of this story.
What is to live if not to dream, if not to lose yourself in your own mind and in that new and unchartered space discover yourself to be limitless?
Merlin looked at the words he had just written, then scrunched up his nose and scratched them out, starting again:
Beware of dreaming, for it comes at the expense of all reason.
True, he thought, but still not quite right.
His holiday assignment for Creative Writing was to record his dreams, and write a 20-page report on the subject of dreaming.
He scratched out the new words, too, and dipped his pen in the ink again before writing:
I dream only of you. Is that so wrong?
He'd scratched out the words almost as soon as he had written them, and kept scratching until nothing but blackness covered the letters.
It had been months, and still no word from Arthur. Merlin was due back at Oxford tomorrow after the gloomiest Christmas he could remember since the year his father had been reported missing in action.
Although his mum had only met Arthur a few times, when she had made the trip to visit Merlin at public school and the one memorable Easter break when Arthur had followed Merlin back to Ealdor, she seemed almost as filled with worry for him as Merlin himself did.
'I know how much he means to you,' had been her only response when he had asked her why, and then she had run her hand through his hair and kissed his forehead, and he had not asked again.
Abandoning his report (he would have all weekend when he returned), Merlin retrieved a fresh piece of paper and began to write:
I am afraid. I am afraid to close my eyes and not see you there, because it is the only place I still can. I am afraid of the silence which already haunts my every waking hour, and I am afraid of sleeping, because I might wake up to a day which will finally bring me the news I dread.
It has been three months since I last had word from you, since any of us did. But Arthur, you and I both know that this is not the end of
ourthe story. And so I will keep it going, even if you cannot. And even if my words alone cannot bring you home, maybe when you close your eyes, you will feel like you are.
Three months ago, never in his wildest dreams would Merlin have imagined putting words to such intense emotion, even to Arthur, even in a letter. But now? Now, it was all he had left to give.
That, and his stories.
'You mustn't be frightened,' Arthur told Merlin, seeing his servant hover towards the back of the group of Knights who had accompanied them on their quest into the woods, where they were about to face a vicious troll.
'I'm not,' Merlin replied through clenched teeth, and that was the truth of it, because Merlin was probably the only one there strong enough to face the troll on his own. And yet it was not quite the whole truth, for he was in fact terrified - not for himself, but for Arthur and his men.
'Good,' Arthur cried, in good spirits knowing that valiant deeds awaited him, 'then let us face this formidable foe, Merlin, and let the bards sing songs of our victory for eons to come!'
And with that he strode forward, into the mouth of the cave without as much as a backwards glance. 'Stupid, brave, foolish, noble Prince,' Merlin sighed, but he could not help but smile as he followed the Knights into the cave, knowing by now that Arthur would often talk himself up to Merlin in front of the Knights, only to then turn around the moment they were alone and treat him like the equal he should be.
'How can you abide this?' Sir Gwaine whispered to Merlin in the darkness, falling into step with him, chainmail rustling as he walked.
Merlin's only reply was: 'I live to serve.' Which was true, except Merlin did not serve Arthur in the way they all thought he did, and he did not live to serve any one but Arthur.
'If it were me,' Sir Gwaine whispered, 'I would leave.'
At that, Merlin had to laugh. 'Leave? But Sir Gwaine, where would I go?'
There was no place on earth, no person alive, who could sway Merlin from Arthur's side. Merlin knew that to some extent, Gwaine understood this - he and Arthur were brothers in arms, after all, and would die for one another.
Merlin was no brother, and yet, he would stay all the same. Until the day one of them died, and Merlin was beginning to wonder if even that could keep them apart.
"Merlin!" Merlin started, pen falling from his hand and landing on the page, rolling across a bit of the still-wet ink and leaving smear marks behind.
"Yes, mum?" Merlin called back, gingerly removing the pen and blowing at the paper - wondering if he should take this as a sign to start writing about their adventures instead of their emotions. He'd had all the best intentions to write about the troll, truly he had.
"Merlin..." his mum's voice was much closer now, and he turned to see her standing in the doorway, tears in her eyes.
What is it? Merlin wanted to ask, but as he opened his mouth, he found that the words would not come.
Luckily, he did not need them, because a moment later, his mother stepped aside to reveal Morgana, long dark hair flowing freely behind her, dark blue dress making her look as cold as the winter outside and yet as welcome as any vision.
"Morgana," Merlin managed, rising to his feet, and before he knew it Morgana was in his arms and they were embracing. And Merlin tried not to imagine that it was Arthur he was embracing instead, tried not to wish that it were, but found that he couldn't.
They stayed in their embrace for longer than was probably proper, but Merlin did not care. He would prolong this moment forever, because he was scared of what would happen when it ended.
As Morgana's grasp loosened at last and they pulled apart, Merlin saw that his mother had gone and closed the door behind her. Had he been more aware, he might have wondered why she had no worries about leaving her 20-year-old son alone in his bedroom with a young single woman, but as it were, his mind was too full of Oh no, Please God, not now, and all the variations thereof.
Only then did he notice that Morgana was holding three sealed letters in her hand, and that she was smiling.
"They were delivered to our house, along with ones for us," she said, holding out her hand to him, and he saw the words MERLIN EMRYS printed across the top envelope and felt his heart soar.
"Why..." he wanted to ask her so many things. Why were they not sent to me? Why are you here? Why are they only arriving now?
Luckily Morgana seemed to be having one of her prescient days. As Merlin had made no move to take the letters she pressed them into his hand, holding on to it and leading him to his narrow bed in the corner of the room, where she perched herself delicately on the edge.
"They arrived at the same time. There must have been a problem along the way with the post," she said, tugging on Merlin's hand until he finally managed to make his legs bend and sat down heavily next to her. "Father wanted to send them along to Oxford, to be there for you when you arrived. I protested, saying that you deserved to get them straight away. He didn't argue, Merlin," she added, looking at him imploringly as though this fact was of some great importance. Whatever that might be was lost on him though, his mind already inside those envelopes.
"I... thank you," he managed to collect himself long enough to say, forcing his eyes to remain on her and not stray to where their hands were still joined on the letters.
"That's not the only reason I brought them to you, though," Morgana added, biting her lip, looking suddenly shy. Merlin had a brief moment of very self-aware panic that he might have been totally misunderstanding their friendship, before she explained, "Arthur did not address these letters to you at Oxford. I believe... I mean, I've heard the rumours, of course, that all mail sent to universities is being monitored. Perhaps... perhaps he hoped that those sent to a private estate, his own no less, would be safer."
Safer? Merlin frowned, unable to keep his eyes off the envelopes a moment longer. What could they entail that would need them to be kept safe?
"I'm not a spy," he said automatically, feeling foolish as he spoke the words.
He felt even more foolish when Morgana laughed, removing her hands from his only to pat his cheek like a child. "I know you're not a spy, silly." When he still looked bewildered her smile faded slightly, but it was clear that the good cheer she felt at having solid proof of her brother's recent activities (and that he'd been alive to have activities at all) would not easily leave her. "Just... read the letters, Merlin. And take comfort in their words."
She began to rise from the bed and Merlin rose with her, following her to his door mutely, suddenly not wanting her to go. She was, after all, the closest thing he had to Arthur (apart from those letters, of course).
"When will I see you again?" he blurted out, and she turned, arching an elegant eyebrow at him in a gesture so like Arthur's he almost wanted to kiss her.
"Merlin," Morgana said, putting a hand on either of his shoulders, "I fear I will see so much of you in my lifetime, we'll end up quite sick of each other." With that she kissed his cheek gently, winked at him, and was out the door before he could as much as wave goodbye.
Like all the other women Merlin knew, Morgana certainly was an enigma he would never understand.
But he could not think on that now. He looked back towards his bed, where the three letters had been left in a neat pile, waiting for him.
He approached them almost fearfully, knowing that whatever they contained, that was it - that was all he'd get, until only God knew when.
Oh, how he wanted to rip them all open. But he mustn't. For the first time in months, here was a new piece of Arthur, and after the hell he had endured without a single word, he knew he must at least try to savour them this time.
He picked up the top letter, which was dated November 1944. This was the first. He would allow himself this, now. He had waited long enough.
You, a manservant! I must still my pen until I have stopped laughing. Oh, Merlin, you who can't even fold your own socks. And the dragon, trapped under the castle. Only you could come up with something so marvellous. So we have a Destiny, do we? I shall look forward to learning more about this.
I hope this letter reaches you in good time. I have addressed it to Father's house, sending it along with his and Morgana's letters. I do not much trust the postal service, and I don't think you should, either. Not that you ever listen to me.
Percy and Gwaine and I have had many a late night in the barracks recently, talking about home. We are the only ones who do not have sweethearts, and have thus bonded, although Gwaine suggested to me the other day that I talk enough about you that you might as well be my sweetheart! Can you imagine that? Preposterous. We laughed for a long time, as you can imagine.
Merlin paused, frowning. He actually could not imagine himself laughing at such a thing, and wondered if Arthur truly had.
We do laugh together a lot, me and Percy and Gwaine. Which is good. It is good to laugh. Even if I would rather be laughing with you.
Isn't that something though? Here Lance is kissing the picture of his fiancée every night before he goes to sleep, and Leon is always telling us of this fiery Northern girl he has plans to marry... and here I am, wishing for no company but yours?
I will anxiously await the next part of our story, Merlin. The Knights - that is what we are fashioning ourselves now, thanks to you - are very curious to hear the tale, too. I might have to read parts of it aloud, which I hope you won't mind. And even if you do mind a little bit, I hope you will forgive me, because it has given me such comfort and I would like to pass some of that comfort on. In this place, every little bit helps.
I must end this letter now before I begin to write down all my errant thoughts which are better left unwritten. This is truly the best day I have had in weeks, and your letter played no small part in that. I only hope my letter can do the same for you.
Merlin wiped his eyes with the back of his hand as he finished the letter, feeling something inside of him both burst and break, and simultaneously as if it were knitting together and becoming whole.
He found that all he wanted was for Arthur to have kept writing, and perhaps voiced a few of those errant thoughts...
Arthur had been talking about Merlin with his fellow soldiers - no, his Knights. Could it be that Arthur might be thinking of Merlin as much as Merlin had been thinking about Arthur?
It was easy to sit here in his old bedroom, looking at the faded wallpaper and flowery bedspread, and imagine that it were true. To forget the reality of war, and the rules of the world, for one simple moment and let himself believe that these letters held the only truth he ever needed.
So elated was he, that he could not stop himself from opening the next letter.
And then, almost immediately, he wished he hadn't.
It is strange of me to write of this to you, because you never knew him, and so you cannot mourn him like I am. And yet, you were the first person I thought to tell.
Last night, our squadron leader sent us out on a patrol. I cannot give details, of course, but I can tell you that it was completely routine. And I am ashamed to admit that some of us were perhaps not as vigilant as we should have been. (At least this is the thought which keeps haunting me.) We were ambushed, and it was the most gruelling experience of my life, I cannot even explain it to you, and in some ways I don’t want to.
Anyone who tells you that war is glorious, Merlin… do me a favour and punch them in the face.
We made it back, by some ridiculous miracle, but not without sustaining injuries - I myself suffered only a few shallow cuts and bruises, but I am afraid that one of our team was not as lucky.
Elyan Smith was the one who'd drawn the short straw and was walking at the front of the line. He's the one who walked into the ambush, triggering a grenade which blew off half his right leg. The bleeding was too severe,
he beggedhe wanted us to take it off, but we could only take him back to camp. The medics did what they could, but he was dead within the hour.
I want to go home, Merlin. I know I should be telling you I'm fine, and not to worry, and I am so sorry I cannot offer you this comfort. Maybe tomorrow when the sun has risen and Elyan's body has been sent home, I will look back on this letter and regret it, but I need someone, no, I need you to know how I feel, at this very moment. Because maybe the sun will not rise tomorrow.
I need you. I suppose that needs to be said, just in case I don’t get another chance to say it.
It was pain. It was the worst kind of pain, and Merlin did not know how to make it stop. And the guilt, that came too, of knowing that whatever pain he felt, it was but a fraction of Arthur's. He felt guilty for the gratitude he could not help but feel that Arthur was sharing this part of the war with him. The part which could not be explained, and probably should not be shared. And yet Arthur had needed to tell him, and what could Merlin do but let him? This would help keep him strong. This would keep him fighting.
Mostly, though, Merlin just felt guilty because he was so desperately relieved that Arthur had not been walking at the front of that line. How selfish was he, that he would so willingly put Arthur above any of these strangers?
Would the Merlin in his story do the same? he wondered, brain flashing to the cave with the troll. Would that Merlin have sent Elyan in first, if it meant keeping Arthur safe?
He shook his head. This was reality, and not the time for stories.
Merlin could not even bring himself to focus on the final sentence of Arthur’s letter, could not make himself cherish the Love which had replaced the Yours. Refused to let himself wonder whether it had been a mistake, or if...
No. He could not wonder. He would not.
All he wanted was for this war to be over, for Arthur to come home. For this nightmare to end, even though he wondered if it could ever truly end for any of the men and women who had to endure it. Sometimes, when Merlin stopped to worry about anything but Arthur, he wondered if Britain would ever truly heal.
'Keep calm and carry on,' that was the British way. Just ignore, and pretend, and uphold the status quo. But how long could they keep doing that? How long until the universities closed down, how long until the Germans had left all of their cities in ruins? How long until there was nothing left to carry on with?
He dreaded opening the final letter, which was addressed only a week ago. But he knew he must. He had to know.
I fear that my letters are not getting to you. But perhaps, if they have not, that is for the best. I cannot deny that these past months have been hard, harder than I had been prepared for. I fear my upbringing has been much too sheltered. I wasn’t ready for this.
But it is my life now, and all I can do - all any of us can do - is keep fighting, each day that we are given to fight.
Our squadron has moved; we are no longer in Austria, and we have been told it is safest not to disclose our new location in our correspondence. If you do write, you can send it to the former address, and efforts will be made for the mail to reach us.
We have lost several members of our team, including our squadron leader. They brought in someone new, but he only lasted a week. Then they chose to put me in his place, which was unexpected, but it is a role I take very seriously. I will not lose any more men, at least not without … well, I am sure you understand my position.
When I left England, a lifetime ago, I remember thinking, 'Right, let us get this war over with and then go home.'
Now, I see how naive that was. I was a child, who still believed that I had any life which wasn't this.
I feel ashamed of the letters I have sent you over the past few months, because it has not been fair to you. I do not want
youany of you to sit around, waiting and hoping for my return. I want you to believe in Britain, in the nation we are fighting to protect, and I want you to cheer for her victories. But I don't want you to wait. Please don't.
P.S. I received the second part of your story, and it is safely tucked away with the first. Thank you.
You have a real gift, Merlin. Whatever else you do in life, use it.
Of all the letters Arthur had sent in the past, this was the hardest to read. After he finished, Merlin could do nothing but stare at the words, unseeing. He did not have any emotion left but hopelessness, and it sounded like Arthur didn't either. Well, hopelessness and bravery, because this was, after all, still Arthur.
Brave Arthur, whom Merlin now knew for a fact was not expecting to come home. He was trying to say goodbye.
"Fuck you," Merlin spat, filled suddenly with an unexpected rage. "Don't you dare."
He looked towards his desk, where the third part of the story was waiting to be finished, then back down at the letter in his hand. The tones of Arthur's three letters had changed so drastically, and it only reminded him how fast things could change. How much Arthur was being changed. If he came home, would Merlin even recognise him?
The first letter was lying on the bed, discarded when he tore into the second.
Here I am, wishing for no company but yours, Arthur had written.
And even in the second letter, when Arthur had been overcome with grief, he had said, I need you.
There was no power on this earth, not even Arthur himself, which could make Merlin turn away from that.
He rose to his feet, placing the letters in a neat pile - first letter on top - and went back to his desk. He'd worried the story was becoming a little too sappy, and now he knew he was right. It was time for a change of pace.
A loud ROAR! from inside the depths of the cave spurred the Knights and Merlin into action, and they raced after their Prince to find him already battling the beast, sword swinging masterfully through the air as the troll stomped and raged. It was ugly as a rock, dumb as a rock, and unfortunately also thick-skinned as a rock, but luckily Arthur knew its weak spots - the armpits and the backs of the knees - and he was able to slay it single-handedly before the Knights had even as much as drawn their own swords.
Even Merlin was impressed, and was quick to tell his Prince so. 'Although you should have let the Knights help you,' he added in an aside later, as he was helping Arthur out of his heavy chainmail. 'You work best as a team.'
Arthur sighed heavily. 'I know,' he confessed. 'But they are my men. I would rather keep them safe. All of my men,' he added, meeting Merlin's eyes. And for a moment, Merlin glimpsed a man who would some day bear the world on his shoulders.
Merlin only hoped that he would not have to bear it alone.
Her name was Sally Hope Francis, and she was a student at St Hilda's College in Oxford who happened to share one English Literature seminar with him due to the fact that Professor Kilgarrah was very progressive.
Merlin had noticed her bouncy, bright red hair on the very first day of class, and had even complimented her on it - and that, perhaps, had been the reason for her persistent attentions ever since.
"What are you writing?" she asked him now, approaching in the library and ignoring the death glare of Mr Monmouth, the ancient librarian.
Merlin tried to shield the paper with his hand, but too late - Sally Hope Francis had reflexes as quick as her wit.
"Oh!" she exclaimed delightedly, brown eyes lighting up as she snatched the paper up and held it carefully up to the light, "is it a story?"
Despite not hearing back from Arthur since sending off his letter at Christmas, Merlin had been working on the next part of his Arthurian tale. However, he had trouble deciding where to take the story next. His brain seemed to have made up a very dire tale which saw Morgana turning to the dark side and eventually betraying the kingdom, and had Arthur marrying Queen Guinevere as he would have in legends… but he hesitated to put that to paper. After all, what would that accomplish? This was not that story, this was their story, and one he wrote for Arthur alone.
He certainly did not write it for Sally Hope Francis.
"Er, yes," he admitted, trying to grab it back, but she kept holding it out of his reach. "And it's private."
"Oh, even better!" she giggled. "King Arthur and Merlin, why of course. You must feel a certain kinship with those legends. I have always fancied myself a bit of a Guinevere, do you think I look like her?" she asked, doing a ridiculous little twirl as if she was showing off a fancy ball gown, not a standard college uniform.
"No," Merlin said automatically, without realising that he had spoken aloud until Sally abruptly stopped twirling and blinked, looking vaguely offended. "Er, I mean," he said quickly, "it's not that you're not... it's just that Gwen was... Guinevere..." he trailed off, suddenly not sure why he was trying to explain the physical likeness of a mythical character (whom he hadn't even bothered to work into his own story).
But whatever Guinevere was, he couldn't help but feel fairly confident that she hadn't looked anything like Sally.
Sally's next "Oh" was more subdued, and followed up with an even quieter, "...so you don't think I'm pretty?"
The feeling which came over Merlin then can best be described as that feeling a deer must get as it realises those approaching headlights aren't magical balls of sunshine.
"Er," he said, and left it there.
It wasn’t that she wasn’t pretty. Even in the dim lighting of the library, her hair shone and almost glowed, and her skin was clean and bright and full of freckles, which was nice.
But for Merlin, the fact that a girl was pretty had never quite seemed to be enough.
It was something he'd sometimes thought might become a problem down the line, when he had finished university and was expected to begin looking for a wife. But that had seemed like a far-off, hypothetical problem, and he'd never really let himself think about it too much.
Now that she was here in front of him though, waiting for his response, he had a second to wonder whether the fact that Sally was pretty (and clearly did not find him repulsive, either) could be enough.
He could just say, Yes, I think you’re beautiful. It would not even be a lie. She would smile brightly, happily, and maybe he would even invite her for tea in the Gardens. They would talk about their favourite books, laugh and joke and escape the dreadful reality of the time they lived in just for a moment, and yes, maybe it would be enough.
Merlin thought of Arthur, and I don't want you to wait.
Sally bit her lip, and her eyes seemed at the precipice of welling up with tears. It would be so easy, to give her a little bit of joy in this horrid, dark time.
But then he thought of Arthur again, and I need you. And he knew, then, that Sally Hope Francis would never be enough.
Overwhelmed with the realisation, Merlin closed his eyes, his hand coming up to rest against the bridge of his nose.
"I'm sorry," he whispered, and there was silence.
The silence stretched.
He did not open his eyes until he heard her skirts swivel and her rapid footsteps retreat out of the library. He winced as the door slammed behind her, and several other students Shhhhh-ed her from their respective booths.
When he finally looked, he found that the page she had been holding was back on the desk, thankfully intact save for one wet mark, which had partially smudged the last word of the paragraph:
Arthur and Merlin would never speak the words aloud, of course, but they did not need to. For one does not need words to speak the language of the heart.
“I’m sorry,” Merlin repeated in a whisper, though he wasn’t sure if he was apologising to Sally, Arthur, or himself.
Allow me to ignore your clumsy attempt at telling me to go live my life. I tried that, it was boring without you.
You better be in good enough shape when I see you so I can punch you somewhere painful without having to feel guilty about it afterwards.
On that cheerful note, here is the rest of our story, because I know you want to read it.
And thus read the final part of Merlin's story, which he finally sent to Arthur after a long, gruelling process which all writers must go through: of writing, re-writing, starting over, and finally going back to pretty much what he started with:
'Having fun yet, are we?' Merlin grunted, heaving both his own and Arthur's gear up the steep hillside as the young King strode ahead, reaching the top of the hill and turning to grin down at Merlin.
'I am now!' Arthur called back, and Merlin had to chuckle even as he whispered a spell to partly lighten his load.
Arthur had been King for less than a year, but already the changes from Uther's tyrannous regime were striking. Magic was still banned, but users were not persecuted as severely, and when caught, Arthur tended to be lenient with their sentences.
And yet, Merlin had still not confessed to him his secret. It was not that he was afraid of being persecuted, because he knew that Arthur's fairness would extend even to him. He was afraid that, once Arthur found out, it would change things between them.
In the worst case, Arthur would send Merlin away. Merlin knew that he would not survive such a separation, and he could not bear to even think on it.
But even if Arthur kept him by his side, Merlin knew that things would be different. Merlin had had all the right reasons for keeping his magic secret, but he had still lied. He had still concealed an important thing about himself, something which made him who he was, and although he knew Arthur valued him greatly, he could not be sure Arthur would value this part of him, too.
He desperately wanted Arthur to know. He wanted Arthur's acceptance, forgiveness, and understanding. He wanted there to be no secrets between them. And yet, Merlin did not want to gamble the friendship they did have, because it was too dear to him to risk losing.
So what must he do but keep calm, and carry on? Be what Arthur needed, when Arthur needed it.
And right now, Arthur needed a packhorse, so this was what Merlin would be.
'Come along, Merlin!' Arthur called cheerfully, and Merlin huffed his way up the hill. He finally reached Arthur's side and tossed the packs aside to stand up straight, meeting Arthur's wide smile with an indulgent one of his own.
'So tell me, Sire, what have you brought me all this way for?' Merlin asked.
Instead of telling him, Arthur merely put his hands on Merlin's shoulders and turned him, so that he was facing the edge of the cliff. As far as the eye could see in front of them there was land; fields and forests and mountains in the distance, the sea off to the West and more land and mountains to the East.
'This is our kingdom,' Arthur exclaimed. 'This is Albion, Merlin. This is what we fight for.'
And he sounded so happy in that moment, so willing to share his life with Merlin. It was like a dam broke, and it was now or never.
'Arthur,' Merlin whispered, turning to his King. 'Arthur, I have magic.'
You did not honestly think I would give you the end, did you?! I promised you, there is always going to be more to come.
In fact, I don't even know the ending myself. After all, it is King Arthur's move. So you will just have to hurry up and come home and tell me what happens yourself.
Merlin agonized over the words for a long time. He considered changing the reveal, considered adding in the dragon and the Knights, maybe have Merlin's magic be revealed in a dramatic scene which involved him heroically saving Arthur.
But now, Merlin knew that this story was not really about magic at all.
It was criminal, the way he felt. It was shameful, it was wrong; no one talked about it, but everyone knew. And yet... and yet, how could love be shameful?
So he sent the letter as it was, and ran from the postbox as though that would somehow absolve him of blame for the words the letter contained.
"Yesterday morning, at 2.41, at General Eisenhower's headquarters, General Jodl, the representative of the German High Command and of Grand Admiral Doenitz, the designated head of the German State, signed the act of unconditional surrender of all German land, sea and air forces in Europe to the Allied Expeditionary Force, and, simultaneously, to the Soviet High Command..."
Merlin stood amidst the throng of students gathered around the radio in the common room, as stunned as the rest by Winston Churchill's seemingly inconceivable message:
The war was over.
"We won!" A boy exclaimed suddenly, breaking the silence, and it took only a second before the room erupted with cheers and cries of joy and laugher and more "we won! We won!"s.
Merlin's first instinct was to call his mum, until he remembered that she had been evacuated last month, and would be staying with his Uncle Gaius in the country. And Uncle Gaius did not own a telephone.
He felt the elation spread through him, the powerful surge of pride and disbelief and pure joy of knowing that they had truly done it, had defeated the Nazis and brought peace to Europe at last.
It was almost possible to let that hope consume him, to not let the fact that Arthur had not been heard from since before the New Year worry him in that moment. Almost.
In darker hours, Merlin had imagined this moment, and wondered if he would ever truly be able to enjoy it if he knew that Arthur had already been lost to them. He'd wanted to know, just to know, but right now he was glad he didn't. That way, as dire as it seemed, he could allow himself a speck of hope that Arthur was alright, that he was somehow listening to this too, that he would be coming home with the rest of Britain's boys.
He did cheer with the rest of his house that day, and did join them in the songs, and did feel an indescribable sense of relief that the tyrants had been defeated.
But that night, when he fell into bed, he could no longer picture Arthur's face and he cried for the first time in months, feeling suddenly sure that this was the end, that this had been the deadline, that if Arthur had not managed to get a message to any of them by now it was because he was already gone.
It took three days for the celebrations to die down, and then the students were sent home.
The Dean and Professors were not happy about this, of course, being so keen to put learning ahead of all else, but they had to give in when hoards of students began to abandon their houses to travel home on their own, either to help their families recover now that the future of Britain was finally looking brighter, or to greet their fathers and brothers and husbands and sweethearts as they made their triumphant return.
Merlin had no home to go to, as his mother was still in the country with Gaius. And so he was one of the only students to stay behind at the college, much to his Professor's surprise as he spotted him walking down the High Street.
"Mr. Emrys?" Kilgarrah called, black gown flowing behind him as he jogged to catch up. "You haven't left yet? I should have thought you would have been one of the first to go."
Merlin shrugged. "My mum is safe, and as far as I am aware, our house was not damaged. I have no reason to leave."
Professor Kilgarrah was silent as they walked side by side, and when Merlin glanced over, he saw that the older man was frowning under his thick moustache.
"Hmmm," Kilgarrah said, "forgive me if I am breaching a sore topic, but do I remember you being very keenly invested in the return of a friend of yours, last year? Has he...?" he trailed off, in that way people had started to do whenever they spoke of soldiers.
"I don't know," Merlin said, feeling hollow as he spoke the words. "I just don't know."
"Oh, come now, boy," Kilgarrah said gruffly, and Merlin turned in surprise at his tone. "Surely you know."
Merlin opened his voice to reply, but before he could form a question, the town clock struck one and Kilgarrah jumped, faded blue eyes widening.
"Dear me, but I must be off. Do not forget that essay on Druidic rituals, Merlin, a small little war will not stop the world from turning!"
And with that he was off, hurrying down the street in a much too nimble fashion for a man of his age, mumbling something which sounded curiously like, It certainly never has before.
Merlin was left standing alone, feeling no wiser than he had before. This was the second time someone had said something like that to him about Arthur. But how could they know? How could anyone know anything?
The truth of it was that Merlin felt like half of his heart had been ripped from his chest and he was left an empty shell, walking through the world like he no longer belonged in it.
When Arthur had been sent to the front lines, that had been devastating - but Merlin had still had the letters to look forward to, and the stubborn belief in Arthur's eventual return.
Now the war was over, and he had nothing. Nothing but an endless stretch of peace and happiness for everyone but him, which he knew should have been more than enough - so many people had suffered and lost people they loved, after all.
But he was selfish, when it came down to it; selfish for wanting nothing in the world as much as Arthur home and safe, and selfish in his desire to give his own life to bring Arthur back - and desperate in the knowledge that he could not.
So lost in his destructive thoughts was he that he missed the sleek black convertible parked in front of his hall of residence; missed the look the porter gave him as he walked past. So determined was he to get to his room and his bed and his solitude that, upon turning the handle and finding the door unlocked, he thought nothing of it.
When he found Morgana standing inside of his room, back turned to him as she faced the window, his heart plummeted, because he thought he knew exactly why she was here.
"He's gone," he breathed into the silence, and Morgana started and turned, having not heard him enter. When she turned, the tears in her eyes seemed to confirm Merlin's worst fears and for an impossible moment he was lost - but then she smiled.
"No, Merlin," she said, voice breaking, and for once she did not even attempt to hold her usual poise. "He's come home."
"He's..." Merlin froze, disbelieving. "He's alive?" he whispered.
Morgana merely nodded, too overcome to speak, and Merlin felt himself tilt backwards until he hit the doorframe, letting it support him as he stood, stunned, unable to believe the words.
He's come home.
He didn't tell me?
Merlin's head snapped up. "Is he alright? Morgana, is he hurt?"
Morgana shook her head, smiling through her tears. "No, no, he's fine. All arms and legs, fingers and toes. Shorter hair though, but it suits him."
Merlin would have laughed, he would have cried - he was happier than he had ever been, Arthur is alive! Arthur is fine! his brain was screaming.
He didn't tell me.
"Where is he?" Merlin asked, and Morgana's smile froze, only for a split second, but it was long enough for Merlin's stomach to drop.
"He's at home," she replied, and judging from the tone of her voice, she suddenly understood what that meant.
"Does he know you're here?" he asked, although he thought he already knew. And Morgana's small, almost imperceptible shake of the head only confirmed his suspicions.
He didn't want me to know.
Morgana took a step towards him, then seemed to think better of it, stopping awkwardly in the middle of the room.
"He only just arrived last night," she said quietly, that initial elation at being the bearer of good news melting away before Merlin’s eyes. "I'm sure he wants you to come. That's why I'm here, to bring you home."
The way she said the word... as though she felt Merlin belonged there, belonged in their lives. Home. It was almost enough to assuage his worries - but Morgana wanting him there did not mean that Arthur did.
Hadn't Arthur told him, after all, to move on? And hadn't that been his last correspondence, even though Merlin had sent him multiple letters and pieces of story since then?
And yet… wasn't Merlin his friend? Wasn't it, at the very least, his duty to make sure that Arthur was alright? To see it with his own eyes? After a year of waiting, wasn't that... wouldn't that be fine? There was nothing shameful or wrong about that.
"Merlin," Morgana said gently, breaking into his reverie and taking another small step forwards, "he'll want to see you. You know he will. Don't blame him for not telling you; he did not even tell us he was coming home, we only received a telegram yesterday morning. You can imagine our surprise! But I wanted to come get you, please, come with me."
And she looked at him so imploringly, so clearly believing in what she was saying... and Arthur was there, in the house, home, safe - Merlin couldn’t believe it. He needed to see it. He needed to know.
"Alright," he breathed, feeling oddly like his heart was both leaping and plummeting at once. "Give me ten minutes."
It took him five, and then they were on the road. Merlin sat in the passenger seat of Morgana's automobile, trying to distract himself and not think about Arthur. About the fact that he was alive, that he was home, that in mere hours they would be face to face after almost a full year apart... that Arthur might have read everything Merlin had not quite said in those letters, and was now horribly disgusted.
But maybe Arthur wasn't that perceptive; maybe he had only read a story about wizards and dragons, and they could go back to their friendship.
Merlin wasn't as naive as to think the war would not have changed Arthur, maybe irreparably so. But he also knew that if Arthur let him, he would be there, in any capacity, to help him heal. He did not know what he would do if Arthur turned him away.
"Merlin," Morgana said suddenly, "you know you'll always be welcome at our home, don't you? No matter..." she paused, and when he glanced over he found her frowning at the road. "No matter what happens?"
Not for the first time, Merlin wondered how much Morgana knew, or suspected, about his feelings for her brother. But oddly, in that moment, he felt neither fear nor shame. Only an odd sort of acceptance of himself, the reality of who and what he was. It was like the moment he had gotten into the car, he had decided to own up to his feelings. Whatever Arthur said or did... that was almost secondary. This was about Arthur's homecoming and recovery, after all, not about Merlin.
But still, Merlin felt a deep sense of gratitude to Morgana at that moment, for being the person she was. For seeing, understanding, without judging.
"I know," he smiled, and he saw her frown transform into a smile, too. And he thought, No matter what, at least I'll still have you.
The rest of the way they did not speak much, and Merlin tried to focus on his joy and his relief. Arthur had survived this wretched war, they all had, and that was all he could have ever hoped for.
Once they pulled up in front of the house, all of Merlin's nerves rushed back instantly, almost overwhelming him to the point where he couldn't get out of the car.
"Come on," Morgana said, patting his knee before opening her own door and sliding out. "He's waiting."
Merlin glanced up at Arthur's bedroom window instinctively, but it appeared dark and deserted. He swallowed. "Right. Okay. I'm good. Let's go."
When he looked back at Morgana she looked like she was trying to hold back a smile. As he exited the car she held out her arm and he gratefully accepted it, knowing that while it appeared he was supporting her, it was very much the other way around.
"What if he throws me out?" he whispered suddenly, urgently, beyond caring that this would prove any and all of Morgana's suspicions right.
But Morgana only snorted. "Then I'll kick his arse, war hero or not."
Merlin almost started to laugh, until he registered her words. "Wait, did you say war hero?"
"He can tell you himself," Morgana said as they entered the house.
As they walked in, the place seemed deserted. Morgana let go of Merlin's arm, yet he continued to follow her as she walked slowly, carefully, almost as if afraid to disturb the quiet, towards the library.
Merlin held his breath as she slid open the door - but it was Uther whom they found sitting inside, alone, reading the paper.
He looked up when they entered, then did such an obvious double-take when he noticed Merlin behind Morgana, it would have been funny under any other circumstance.
"Hello Mr. Pendragon," Merlin said awkwardly, resisting the urge to put his hands in his pockets like he tended to do when he was nervous.
Uther's eyes flickered to Morgana before they settled on Merlin, his expression unreadable. "Merlin. That didn't take long." He shot Morgana a pointed look.
"He needed to know," Morgana said, with poorly disguised defiance. Merlin winced.
Uther said nothing for a moment, glaring at Morgana, and Merlin wanted nothing more at that moment than to slide back out of the house, back into the car, and backtrack to a much simpler existence.
But then Uther cleared his throat, and rustled his newspaper as his eyes settled back on it. "Yes," he said, voice carefully even. "Yes, I suppose he did."
And that seemed to be the end of that conversation. Merlin blinked, not sure if he was really hearing what he thought he was hearing, but when Morgana turned, he saw the victory in her eyes.
She began to back him out of the room when Uther called out, without raising his eyes, "I believe he is out in the grounds. Tell him we'll take our tea on the patio at seven."
"Er... yeah, alright. Thanks, Mr. Pendragon," Merlin mumbled, feeling like whatever words he could think of, they would be terribly inadequate right now.
"And Morgana?" Uther said again, stopping them both in their tracks for a second time. "Be a dear and tell the cook she'll need to prepare an extra portion for Merlin tonight, will you?"
"I... I will," Morgana said, sounding as stunned as Merlin felt - though she masked it a lot better.
She pushed him out of the room and slid the door shut behind her, meeting his eyes, her eyebrows so far raised they almost disappeared into her hair.
"Well," she said after a moment, regaining her composure as only a Pendragon could, "you heard him. I'll be in the kitchens."
And with that, she pushed Merlin in the direction of the patio, which would lead him out into the grounds - and to Arthur. He turned, and she gave him a little wave before turning away, not quite fast enough to hide her grin.
He watched her go, suddenly wishing she'd come with him. Morgana's - and especially Uther's – kindness at this moment was unexpected, and truly a marvellous thing, but right now, Merlin could not even feel any relief for the acceptance he appeared to have found.
Arthur was out there, and Merlin had no idea what to expect. Not only in terms of Arthur's feelings for him, but from Arthur in general. A war hero? Merlin had always known Arthur had it in him to be a leader, had always cast him as a great king in his stories... but the difference here was that Merlin had not been by his side through his transformation. He had missed the part of the story where Arthur transformed from the pratty Prince into the legendary King - and he had no idea what this transformation had done to him.
Merlin took a deep breath, which did not seem to help calm his nerves at all, and he felt the pulse point in his throat quicken as he forced his legs to move. He couldn't just stay standing here, as tempting as that was.
He walked outside to find the grounds just as he remembered them. The pool lay still and clear, only a few leaves floating on its surface. Beyond, the grass was as trim and green as ever, and the trees and hedges cut into beautiful (if a little too artificial for his taste) figurines.
This place had not been touched by the war at all, and Merlin suddenly wondered if this was why Arthur had come out here. If he needed that anchor to the past.
He could not see Arthur though, and it suddenly occurred to Merlin that he could be anywhere - it could take him hours to find him.
And yet, he was pretty sure he knew exactly where Arthur would be.
As he walked, he remembered all the times he and Arthur had walked or run across the grass together, racing each other through patches of trees and up and down the little hill he was crossing now, before arriving at their favourite place - the small lake in the clearing of the most expansive patch of trees in the grounds, which could not quite be called a forest and yet proved as quiet and tranquil as they would ever need.
They preferred the lake to the pool because it was fresher, full of dirt and weeds and sometimes ducks, too, and it was more fun to splash around and amuse themselves there as opposed to just swimming laps in a concrete box.
It was an age of innocence, and Merlin suddenly knew with startling clarity that this was where Arthur would go; this was where Merlin often dreamed he could go, after all, after that innocence was lost.
And sure enough. When Merlin stepped through the final few trees and found himself at the edge of the lake, it was to see Arthur standing only a few short paces away, looking at the water as if transfixed.
He did not seem to notice Merlin's arrival at first, and so Merlin allowed himself one moment to take Arthur in: he stood somehow more upright than before, making him seem taller, and as Morgana had said, his hair was shorter now. It made him look older, although that might also be the frown on his face. Arthur had never had much occasion to frown before the war.
He was tanned, too, and his t-shirt revealed much more defined arm muscles. Merlin tried not to let his eyes linger too long on them, instead focusing on Arthur's face, trying to make sense of what he saw there. Trying to suppress his emotions at seeing Arthur stand before him, as to not make a fool of himself.
"Arthur," Merlin breathed, mouth seemingly working independently of his brain, because he was not ready for the mirage to shatter, was not ready for this reality of being face to face at last.
He watched, not even able to breathe, as Arthur started, muscles tensing, turning and freezing as his blue eyes (oh, Merlin had missed those eyes) locked on Merlin's and widened.
"Merlin?" Arthur said, voice disbelieving as though he did not trust what he was seeing.
Merlin took a small step forward, as though every fibre of his being was drawing him to Arthur; unable to stay away now that he was so close, after so long.
"Welcome home," he whispered, knowing that Arthur would hear.
He watched as Arthur blinked, mouth moving as though he was searching for words and coming up short, and tried to hold back all the things he wanted to say.
I missed you.
I love you.
"Merlin," Arthur repeated, taking a small step forward of his own. Then, as if snapping out of a daze, he frowned slightly. "Wait, how did you get here?"
Emboldened, Merlin stepped forward again, letting the gap between them grow infinitesimally smaller.
"Morgana," he said simply, and watched as Arthur's confusion turned to understanding.
"Right, of course," Arthur said, shaking his head, still looking a little dazed. Not at all like the hard battle-worn man Merlin was expecting, although he saw a new pain, a new burden, behind those eyes. He ached to reach out, to smoothen the lines, to mend the wounds he could not see.
"Arthur, I--" Merlin started, but then Arthur took a quick stride forwards, then another, and before Merlin knew it, Arthur's arms were around him and his head was buried in his neck, and Merlin only hesitated a second before returning his embrace, pulling Arthur into him as tightly as he could manage, feeling Arthur do the same. It felt like he couldn't breathe, but in the best way; this was Arthur, he smelled like Arthur, he felt like Arthur, and for the first time since Morgana had picked him up this morning did he feel like Arthur was truly back with him.
Arthur breathed in deeply, shakily, and for his part Merlin could do nothing but hold on, breathing in Arthur and finally, finally letting himself feel the relief, the thankfulness, the release of all the tension he had built up over the past year.
Arthur whispered something inaudible, which almost sounded like I missed you, and Merlin thought, Me too, but he didn't say it, just in case he'd imagined Arthur’s words.
Finally, after what felt like an age and like no time at all, Arthur began to pull away, laughing nervously as he did so.
"Right," he said, "good. You don't hate me. Good to know."
Merlin frowned. "Hate you?"
Arthur scratched the back of his neck, in a painfully familiar gesture of akwardness. "For not writing. For not telling you I was coming home."
"It's fine, really," Merlin began to say, just as Arthur continued, "I'm sorry."
They both stopped speaking, catching each other's eyes and laughing nervously.
"I still feel like an arse though," Arthur said after a small, awkward pause.
Merlin shrugged, trying for a smile. "You're excused. You were kind of busy."
A shadow passed over Arthur's expression, just for a second, but it was enough.
"Shit, Arthur, I'm sorry," Merlin began, "I didn't mean--"
Arthur held out a hand, shaking his head, "It's fine, Merlin, really."
"Right," Merlin said. Another pause, longer this time.
Arthur sighed, shaking his head, a sad smile on his face. "It's been a year."
"451 days, exactly," Merlin corrected automatically, and to his relief, Arthur let out a bark of laughter.
"Right. And don't forget the hours."
Their eyes met again, and the forced laughter melted away as they were once again brought back to reality. They were here. They were alive. There was so much to be said that could not be said.
"I haven't," Merlin said softly, and something seemed to shift for a moment in Arthur's expression. Merlin felt his pulse pick up again, throat going dry, but then whatever he thought he'd seen in Arthur's face vanished, and he tried not to let his disappointment take over. This was supposed to be a happy reunion. So why did he feel so sad?
Fighting for a change of topic, Merlin latched on to the first which came to mind - although he wasn't sure it would make the mood any lighter. "How are the... your men?" He wasn't sure Arthur would still be calling them Knights.
To his relief, Arthur's expression changed into a smile, and he seemed to stand up a little straighter as he said, "All healthy and home with their families."
"Guess Morgana wasn't lying when she said you're a war hero now," Merlin said, and noticed with fascination that Arthur's cheeks had reddened slightly with embarrassment.
"Still think that whole thing was a sham," Arthur shrugged. "It wasn't due to my efforts alone. The whole team fought valiantly."
"Spoken like a true leader," Merlin chuckled, enjoying the way Arthur's complexion darkened even further. Then, "I’m proud of you.”
Arthur looked up in surprise, and opened his mouth as if to speak, then seemed to think better of it, and instead merely smiled, nodding a few times, eyes roaming over Merlin’s face as though he was trying to commit it to memory.
“You’ve changed,” Arthur said suddenly; whether to change the subject or because it had just occurred to him, Merlin wasn't sure.
Merlin shrugged. “Hardly. Maybe you’re just so used to thinking of me as a wacky medieval wizard, you forgot what I actually looked like.”
Arthur snorted. “Not likely. Although..." he paused, tilting his head. "You do seem to be trying to grow the beard."
He reached out as if to touch the stubble which Merlin had not bothered to shave off this morning, but Merlin jumped back, laughing, relief flooding him as Arthur stepped forwards, grinning, attempting to grab his arm but Merlin was too fast, and although Merlin knew Arthur would catch him he ran, around the lake, hearing Arthur chasing him and laughing, and it was suddenly just like old times.
Except, when Arthur caught him, it didn't feel like old times at all, and Merlin did not think the reason he was suddenly so out of breath when Arthur's hand closed around his wrist had anything to do with his short sprint.
Arthur spun Merlin around, still laughing, and for a moment Merlin thought, This is it. His laughter faded.
But it wasn't.
Arthur's smile faded too, and he cleared his throat. "I think it must be time for dinner soon," he said, releasing Merlin's wrist and stepping back.
"Yeah," Merlin said, although what he meant was, No. Stay.
But Arthur was already walking away.
At dinner, Merlin sat back and let the family do the talking. He knew Morgana and Uther must still be ecstatic to have Arthur home, in the silent, proud way that Pendragons displayed emotion, and they seemed much more at ease asking him questions about the war than Merlin could ever be.
Merlin listened as Arthur explained what had happened to his troop, that he (even though he made it sound like a team effort) had brought every single one of them home. He told them where they'd been when they'd been told that the Germans had surrendered, and how joyful everyone had been when it hit them that they were safe, that their watch had ended.
Arthur's eyes met Merlin's many times during dinner, and yet it did not occur to him until afterwards that Arthur had not addressed him directly even once. Merlin himself had stayed silent, picking at his meal and allowing himself to be a fly on the wall, an intruder at a family reunion where he wasn't sure he belonged.
"Merlin," Arthur said, as they rose from the table, and Merlin started, not expecting to hear his name. "Will you follow me?"
I'll follow you anywhere, he wanted to say.
What he actually said was, "Yeah, sure," and rose from the table, trailing after Arthur and imagining he could feel Uther and Morgana's eyes on his back the whole way out into the corridor and up the stairs to Arthur's room on the second floor.
Merlin followed Arthur into the room, letting the door click shut behind him and allowing the silence which followed to stretch, trying to ignore his instinct to fill it with nonsense words and random thoughts as he would have done in the past.
It was painfully clear now that things had changed between them. That this war had changed things, irrevocably, and that whatever was different, it was weighing on both of them. They did not know how to be.
Arthur turned towards him, opened his mouth, then closed it, letting out a short, humourless laugh and running his hand through his short hair. "This is not how I imagined our reunion would go," he confessed, and what could Merlin say to that?
"I remember when it was longer," he blurted out, not sure why that thought - of all that were running through his head at that moment - was the one he chose to share. "You hair, I mean. When you used to do that... it was different. Cause you actually had hair to run your hand through, I mean..." he trailed off, shaking his head. "Fuck," he added. It was all going wrong.
Merlin fully expected Arthur to look at him like he was an idiot, or laugh at him for his babbling. He did not expect the soft, fond look which stole over Arthur's features.
He also didn't expect Arthur to say what he did next.
"I read the final part of your story. The magic reveal... cruel of you, really, to not give it an ending." Another dry, nervous laughter, and Arthur's eyes dropped to the ground as though embarrassed.
"Yeah, well," Merlin shrugged, trying for casual, though his own voice had gone suddenly hoarse. So they had arrived here at last. "I guess my superstitions got the best of me. I didn't want your story to end."
"Right," Arthur murmured, and Merlin noticed that he was picking at a loose thread on the bottom of his t-shirt; another familiar gesture. He suppressed the urge to reach out and still Arthur's hand.
There was a silence, and Merlin wished he knew what to say. He wished he could think of some clever or witty way to brush off this topic, which was clearly making Arthur uncomfortable.
He felt like this was it, the very verge of their friendship, and he was trying very hard not to panic at the thought that this could be the moment when it all fell spectacularly to pieces.
After what felt like forever, Arthur finally looked up at Merlin, eyes flickering over his face as if searching for something. "Of course, it would have saved me a lot of grief if you'd just spelled it out," he said, lip twitching as though he couldn't decide whether or not to smile. "Given me King Arthur's reaction so I didn't have to work it out myself."
"That wouldn't have been right," Merlin whispered, unsure when their voices had become so quiet, and when they'd come to stand so close together. "I... the story needs to end with Arthur's reaction. Not just what I hoped it would be."
"And did you think those two endings would have been so different?" Arthur mused, tilting his face to the side, and Merlin subconsciously licked his lips, pulse speeding up. Arthur's eyes flickered down to his mouth.
"You tell me," Merlin breathed, feeling at that moment bolder than he'd ever felt before, raising his chin a fraction, as much defiance as he would show.
Arthur laughed; a free, clear laugh, the first proper laugh Merlin had seen all day.
Merlin felt, suddenly, Arthur's hand in his own, and looked down in surprise before looking back up at Arthur, who was looking at him which such relieved, amazed fondness, it took Merlin's breath away.
Arthur leaned in, until their faces were only inches apart, and Merlin had to close his eyes as he felt Arthur's breath against his cheek, brain still unwilling to process what was happening.
"King Arthur gave his manservant an exasperated look, wondering for the hundredth time why he put up with someone so slow at catching on," Arthur whispered in Merlin's ear, and Merlin shivered, unwittingly tightening his hand in Arthur's. "And he said, 'Of course you've got magic, Merlin,’ rolling his eyes when Merlin gaped in that stupid way he sometimes did, which secretly made Arthur even more fond of him. 'Was it supposed to be a secret?’"
Then Arthur pulled back, his eyes once again flickering to Merlin's mouth (which Merlin vaguely registered must be open in exactly the kind of gape which Arthur had just described), before leaning in, slowly. And as their lips brushed, briefly, the slightest hint of a touch, Merlin finally understood.
"Arthur," Merlin breathed, full of wonder, his free hand reaching out and grasping at the front of Arthur's t-shirt, pulling him in and letting their lips meet properly.
Arthur pushed back, letting go of Merlin's hand to grab either side of his head, angling it to give them better access. Their mouths moved carefully at first, tentatively, and Merlin moaned helplessly as Arthur's thumb traced a path along his cheek, slowly, carefully, as though he was as overwhelmed as Merlin himself by what was truly, finally happening.
This is not a dream, Merlin had to remind himself. This is happening. Arthur is home. Arthur is alive. Arthur wants this, too.
Wanting more, Merlin let his tongue flicker out to trace Arthur's lower lip – because he really wanted to, because he had spent so many nights secretly imagining doing just that, to find out what Arthur felt like, tasted like, and oh, it was everything he thought it would be and more.
He never, in a million years, thought this could be real.
Arthur opened his mouth and Merlin gasped as his tongue met Arthur's; a jolt went through him at the contact and he felt his knees weaken, but luckily Arthur was there to steady him with a hand to his hip and he pulled him in, closer, their bodies aligning flush against each other.
Arthur groaned, and suddenly their tentative kiss was not tentative at all but frantic, desperate, a year and a lot more years of pent up frustration and want and need tipping over and making them desperate for this, more, now. Their tongues moved together in a passionate dance as their hands grasped at arms and clothes and hair; Arthur backed Merlin up until his back collided painfully with the door, but Merlin only moaned at the contact, which in turn made Arthur thrust against him, and Merlin felt Arthur's hardness through his trousers.
Merlin gasped, head falling back against the door as Arthur thrust against him a second time, and Arthur took advantage of the angle to dip his head to mouth at Merlin's neck, licking a path up as Merlin clawed at his back, feeling the new broadness and muscles and wanting to touch and feel every inch of him.
"I missed you," Arthur said as their faces aligned, before kissing him again, and Merlin shivered as Arthur's hands began to trail down his body, feather-light touches against his sides before closing around his waist, squeezing. "I thought about you, every day." Another kiss, as his hands moved up, under his t-shirt, blazing fire against the bare skin of his stomach, his chest. "I tried to tell you, in my letters." Arthur pulled back, and Merlin took the hint, lifting his arms and allowing Arthur to slip the t-shirt over his back.
"Me too," Merlin whispered, somehow completely forgetting to be self-conscious as Arthur's eyes roamed across his naked chest; feeling heat pool under his navel at the way Arthur's expression changed, the way he licked his lips.
"I wasn't sure," Arthur said, voice deeper, more hoarse, with every word. Taking a hold of Merlin's waist again Arthur began to move them backwards, slowly, not taking his eyes off Merlin the whole way to his four-poster bed. "I wanted to believe it." The backs of Arthur's knees hit the side of the bed; he sat down, spreading his legs and pulling Merlin in, Arthur's head level with his stomach. "I needed to believe it." Arthur leaned forwards and Merlin gasped as Arthur's mouth met his stomach, as he kissed and licked and let his teeth lightly tease the skin, moving up, until he couldn't reach any further.
Merlin let himself sink down, partly because he didn't trust his knees to keep him upright if Arthur kept this up much longer. Arthur let go of Merlin's hips, pushing himself further back onto the bed, watching as Merlin climbed over him.
"I wanted to tell you," Merlin confessed, leaning down and touching his mouth to Arthur's throat, smiling as Arthur's head tilted back, allowing him better access. "So much, so many times. But I was afraid."
"Like in the - uh - story," Arthur gasped out, breathing laboured. His knees came up on either side of Merlin's body and Merlin knew it was taking all of Arthur's restraint not to move, not to reach out and take control.
"Yeah." Merlin kissed a path along the side of Arthur's neck, ending at the hollow between his collarbones, just above the edge of his t-shirt. "Sit up," he commanded, and felt Arthur chuckle beneath him.
"Yes, sir," Arthur said, amused, and Merlin rolled his eyes as Arthur pushed himself up, making quick work of his t-shirt.
Merlin would have liked to say he didn't stare, but he couldn't help it - he drank in Arthur, feeling his throat go dry at what he saw. He had seen Arthur shirtless before, of course, but he'd never let himself look, never let himself acknowledge the feelings that he never knew could be reciprocated.
There was a long, thin scar across his chest, right above his heart. Already faded. Merlin reached out, and traced it with his finger; Arthur shivered. This was how close I came to losing you, Merlin thought, letting his hand close around Arthur's arm, pulling him close.
Their eyes met, and Arthur gave him a smile that said everything Merlin needed to know. I'm here. I'm fine. I'm yours.
Then, something shifted in Arthur's expression, and he surged in, kissing Merlin with a newfound passion, which he was quick to reciprocate.
Merlin wasn't sure how it happened, but suddenly he was on his back, and Arthur was still kissing him, pushing him into the mattress, and Merlin was suddenly painfully aware of his erection straining rock hard against his trousers.
"Arthur," he breathed against Arthur's lips, "Arthur, Arthur."
"Fuck, Merlin," Arthur breathed against him, panting heavily, and when he pulled back Merlin saw that his cheeks were flushed, his mouth was red, his pupils blown. Merlin thought it was the most beautiful thing he'd ever seen.
"Yeah," Merlin agreed, then laughed, the double meaning not escaping him. And by the way Arthur's eyes flickered down, it hadn't escaped him, either.
"Yeah?" Arthur whispered, leaning in, capturing Merlin's mouth in a brief, surprisingly tender kiss after the heated ones they'd just shared.
Merlin returned the kiss, letting his hands trail across Arthur's face, still amazed that he was truly here in front of him, that this was really happening. "Yeah," he said, smiling. Yes to everything, Arthur. Everything you want, I am yours.
And Arthur seemed to understand, because a moment later he was kissing his way down Merlin's chest, stopping briefly to lick at a nipple and making Merlin surge off the bed as though he really did have magic, before continuing his path down, down, down.
Then he stopped, and Merlin looked down, then wished he hadn't, because the sight that greeted him almost made him come right there. Arthur was flushed and panting, leaning over him, face level with his crotch, hands moving to the buttons there without the slightest hesitation.
When Arthur's fingers brushed the front of his trousers, Merlin felt his cock respond immediately, and he let out a low, surprised groan. Arthur carefully opened his trousers and Merlin's cock sprang free; Merlin watched as Arthur's look changed, as he swallowed and looked torn between arousal and apprehension. And Merlin wanted to tell him It's okay, and you don't have to, but then Arthur was leaning in, and Merlin had to look away or he would not have been able to maintain control.
When Arthur's mouth first brushed the tip of his cock, Merlin had to stuff his fist in his mouth to keep from crying out; he was suddenly, inappropriately aware that they were not alone in this house, and though the walls were thick, he certainly didn't want anyone to come running.
He was glad for that little distracting thought, however, because it allowed him just enough wherewithal to hold himself together as Arthur's mouth closed around the tip of his cock and began moving, experimentally, up and down the shaft, tongue coming out and swirling, tentatively at first and then with more confidence as Merlin moaned his approval.
Arthur used his hand to move along the base as his mouth moved up and down, and Merlin bit his lip, resisting the urge to look down, wanting to hold back his release for as long as possible.
As long as possible was not very long, however; the moment Arthur's hand closed around Merlin's balls, he was done, he felt his orgasm build and barely got out a warning, "Arthur, I'm--" before he was coming; feeling with amazement through a haze of ecstasy as Arthur kept sucking, taking all of it in, keeping at it until it was almost painful, when Merlin was spent and sated.
He finally dared open his eyes to find Arthur wiping his mouth, looking up at Merlin with that same hunger in his eyes.
"Fuck, Arthur," Merlin laughed, shaking his head disbelievingly as he used his legs to push his pants further down, Arthur moving to help get them all the way off. "Why didn't we do this ages ago?"
He watched Arthur crawl up his body, lying back and pushing up his legs, letting his heels trail off the back of Arthur's legs almost lazily. It was a strange feeling, right on the heels of his orgasm, because somehow he was not satisfied at all - he wanted more, so much more, and when Arthur's still-clad erection brushed his, he felt his own cock stir and his head fell back against the mattress.
"We're doing it now," Arthur whispered, mouth trailing across Merlin's face, as though he wasn't sure what to do with it now.
Merlin reached down to undo Arthur's trousers and Arthur bit down on Merlin's lip before kissing him, thrusting his tongue deep down Merlin's throat filthily, and a thrill went through Merlin's body as he imagined other kinds of thrusting, and his fingers trembled on the buttons of Arthur's trousers. He finally managed to get them open, and off, and he blindly reached for Arthur's cock, moaning into Arthur's mouth as his hand closed around it. Arthur, it seemed, was using all his efforts trying not to thrust, simply holding himself above Merlin, eyes locked on his own, mouths almost touching.
For a moment they stayed like that, breathing heavily, and as Merlin looked into Arthur's eyes he felt his brain slowly catch up to what was happening, what they were doing. They needed each other, at that moment; needed to touch and feel and know that they were here, together, alive.
They needed to know that this, between them, was real. And it was. Merlin never thought he could feel this happy.
He moved his hand, ever so slightly, and Arthur's breath hitched as his eyes closed.
"What do you want, Arthur?" Merlin whispered, as he began to move his hand slowly, up and down. "Tell me. Anything."
"You," Arthur managed, eyes still tightly shut, voice strained. "Just you."
And, yes, Merlin could give him that.
"I want you inside me," he whispered, and felt a thrill at speaking those words aloud - this fantasy, which he never thought could happen.
Yet now Arthur was above him, panting, whispering yes, god yes, and nothing turned Merlin on more than knowing that Arthur wanted it too.
Arthur opened his eyes, and without looking away from Merlin, reached out his hand, and Merlin heard the bedside table drawer open and close. When Arthur pulled his hand back, he was holding a small bottle of oil; Merlin looked at it in confusion before comprehension settled in.
"Oh," he said stupidly. "You just... had that?"
Arthur's cheeks redenned. "I was, er, not completely unprepared," he admitted.
"But... didn't you just get back?" Merlin asked, blinking, trying to clear the haze of lust to make sense of Arthur's words.
Arthur smiled. "I've loved you for a long time, Merlin. I actually thought you knew, and were trying to find a way to let me down gently."
Merlin blinked. "Arthur... I had no idea." He suddenly felt bad - it had taken a war to make him own up to his feelings, and here Arthur had been, waiting. Wishing. All this time.
"Hey," Arthur said, touching Merlin's cheek. "How could you have? It's not like... it's not like people do this."
Right. He had already come to terms with this, and he was pretty sure Arthur had, too. "That's their problem," he said, squaring his jaw - almost daring Arthur to argue. Giving him one last chance to change his mind.
Arthur said nothing; he only leaned down and kissed him, gently at first, then licking his way into Merlin's mouth and turning it filthy and sending all the blood in Merlin's head rushing south - and Merlin felt him pour everything into the kiss: relief, gratitude, and agreement. It was them against the world, the way it had always been. The way it should be.
While Arthur was still kissing him, he moved his hand down, hesitating for a split second before gently touching Merlin's opening with an oil-slicked finger.
"Fuck, Arthur," Merlin hissed, jumping a little at the contact; and he was now fully hard again, biting down on Arthur's lip as the other man gently pushed one finger inside him.
It was tight, and strange, but it also felt right. This was what he wanted, what he had been craving. What he only wanted Arthur to do, only ever you.
Arthur moved slowly, tentatively, and Merlin pushed his legs up to give Arthur better access. They were both new at this, both learning, but Merlin knew that with Arthur, anything, everything, would be amazing.
And then Arthur hit a spot within Merlin which had him seeing stars, and he gasped, grabbing Arthur's shoulders and digging his nails in.
Arthur broke away from the kiss, looking down at Merlin with alarm. "Are you... is this okay?"
"Yes, Arthur, god, yes," Merlin managed, pushing against Arthur to get him to move again. Arthur smiled in relief, and Merlin moaned as he added a second finger, then a third, picking up his movements again. Merlin shivered, realising that Arthur was getting him ready.
"You good?" Arthur whispered, and if the quiver in his voice was anything to go by, Arthur had realised this, too.
Merlin could only nod, and shivered again as Arthur's fingers left him. But only a moment later, Arthur was pushing off him, pulling up his legs; Merlin wrapped them around his lower back, trying to give Arthur the best angle he could. He caught a glimpse of Arthur's cock, which was hard and red and leaking, and thought he had never seen anything so beautiful.
Arthur maneuvered himself to Merlin's opening, and then looked up at him. Merlin knew, in that moment, that the look on Arthur's face must be mirrored on his own: want, lust, love.
"I love you," Merlin breathed, unable to hold it back any longer, suddenly overcome with the moment. The need for Arthur to know.
"I love you," Arthur echoed. No walls, no secrets, no shame. Only truth. His eyes didn't leave Merlin's as he entered him - slowly, full of so much control, and Merlin almost came apart right then at the intensity of his gaze.
Arthur slid in slowly, carefully, biting his lip, breathing heavily as though it was taking all his self-control not to thrust.
"You can go faster," Merlin whispered, using his heels against Arthur's back and shifting slightly in the process; they both groaned at the new angle. "Go faster, Arthur," he repeated, more heatedly, seeking that feeling again.
Arthur began to move; at first it was slow, wonderfully slow, but Merlin wanted more.
"Faster," he breathed, "Arthur, please, faster."
"Merlin," Arthur groaned, and then it was faster, then it was slamming into Merlin with every thrust, hitting that spot again and again, and it was too much, too good; Merlin clawed at Arthur's back, meeting him thrust for thrust, throwing his head back against the bed, trying with all his might not to cry out.
Arthur, at last was holding nothing back as he fucked Merlin into the mattress, and Merlin felt a year of fear, of pain, of separation in Arthur's desperate motions; he wanted nothing more than to offer that protection, that connection.
"Come on Arthur," Merlin whispered in his ear, "you're home now. You made it. Come for me, Arthur."
Arthur whimpered, the desperate sound going straight to Merlin's cock, which twitched in the space between their bodies. Their thrusts were becoming more shallow, and Merlin knew Arthur was close; he took a hand off Arthur's shoulder to wrap around himself and thrust, keeping pace with Arthur.
"I can't lose you again," Arthur whispered suddenly, as if overcome, as if unable to stop the words from pouring out. "That was all that scared me. Never seeing you again." Merlin realised that this was the first real emotion he had shown about the war, the first time he had truly let his walls break down, and Merlin tried to pull back from the ecstasy, tried to commit this moment to memory so he could come back to it, help Arthur heal.
"Come inside me, Arthur," Merlin whispered. "Come home." And then Arthur was coming, spilling his seed inside Merlin, and Merlin groaned as he fell apart, head falling back again, spurting into his hand.
For a moment there was only silence as they breathed heavily, frozen in place, both coming down from their orgasms. Then, Arthur slowly withdrew from Merlin and collapsed next to him; they both groaned, then laughed as their eyes met.
It felt so real, suddenly, what they had done. What they had found, with each other. What they had almost never had.
Merlin reached out and traced Arthur's cheek with his hand, and Arthur caught and held it, pressing a kiss to the inside of his wrist.
"What do we do now?" Merlin asked.
Arthur smiled. And though Merlin still saw the pain there, and the hidden wounds that might never fully heal, he also saw real happiness - and he knew, somehow, that Arthur would be alright.
"Now..." Arthur shrugged, lacing his fingers through Merlin's, "now we live."
And this is how Merlin's story ended:
Having accepted Merlin's magic, as any reader who has been paying attention to this tale surely knew he would, Arthur pulled his friend into an embrace, promising that this would change nothing between them - nothing, but the need to keep any secrets from one another from this day forth.
Merlin could find no words to express his gratitude, his loyalty, or his love, and so he only laughed through his tears and held Arthur tighter, knowing in that moment that everything would change - but only for the better.
As the sun set over the kingdom which they would rule together for many years to come, King Arthur and his wizard Merlin walked down the hill together, hand in hand. Knowing that at last, their destiny had been fulfilled.
And they lived happily ever after.