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Braver than We Are

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High in the crown of a sprawling aspen tree, perched on a thin branch and nearly hidden amongst the flickering silver-green leaves, a small brown-flecked falcon screeched his displeasure.

Merlin glanced up, eyes finding the little prey bird after a moment of searching the breeze-tossed foliage. “Yes, yes. I know. I’m sorry to have disturbed you.”

The bird ignored him, loosed another piercing cry and then launched itself into the air.

Watching it rise up, flapping hard against the air currents until its wings caught an updraft, Merlin smiled. It soared in a vast, slow circle overhead and then in a swift move it folded its wings to its side and dove out of sight behind the trees. “Good hunting,” Merlin whispered and then let his gaze drop back to the road in front of him.

Days like this, Merlin decided, made it very difficult to remember that he wasn’t back in Camelot. He’d wandered the darkling woods on many a day, letting the noises of birds, and the sounds of trees and – most often - his own riotously churning thoughts distract him. It took a concerted effort to remember that he wasn’t just out on an errand for Gaius, and wasn’t going to come through the verges of the woods to see the castle, and Arthur, waiting for him.

He was, in fact, alone.

And Camelot had crumbled to ruin many years gone.

But something in the peace of the morning, sunlit and summery warm, shaded under a tunnel-like canopy of bright green trees that covered the road, reminded him so very much of those days.

Who was he kidding? Everything reminded him of those days.

Merlin walked slowly along, trying very hard to not fall into the – admittedly too frequent – habit of losing himself to the past. He spent far, far too much time remembering, and not nearly enough focused on doing little more than surviving these days.

It seemed that the more time went on, and the longer he lived, the less he cared about anything other than the passage of time. Well, forgetting how much had passed and yet waiting anxiously for it to pass further.

The morning around him certainly was lovely, and the rumbling creak of wagon wheels navigating the ruts and rocks and bumps of the road accompanied by plodding, unshod, hoof beats provided a lulling counterpoint to the birdsong and whispery rustle of wind-tossed leaves.

Those things, Merlin told himself firmly, should be enough to root him to the present. Those things were real and substantial and now.

Then both the wooden creaking and the sound of hooves hitting dirt went silent, and Merlin found himself jerked abruptly back as the slack lead rope that had been held loosely in his hands suddenly went taut.

Cursing under his breath, Merlin turned to look back at the stubborn mule hitched to his small cart. The offspring of some kind of heavy draught and an unfortunate donkey, Audrey the mule was an ungainly, knobby-kneed, ruddy primitive bay whose moods toward Merlin were as changeable as the weather. She could be as sturdy and dependable as any loyal destrier one moment, and as pig-headed, intractable and downright mean as the name of her breed implied the next.

And apparently, somewhere nearing the end of their nearly two-league journey, she’d decided she’d had enough of cart-pulling.

“Oh, come now,” Merlin chided. “You can’t be stopping now. We’re nearly there.” He could see the shapes of buildings through the distant trees where the woods were thinning.

Letting out a petulant bray as if in response, the mule planted her hooves, pinned her over-long ears back, and then gave a wide and demonstrative yawn.

Merlin sighed. “Audrey, please.” He tugged gently on the lead rope, encouraging the mule forward; pulling too hard, he knew from experience, would only cause the recalcitrant animal to balk further. “There’s a tasty carrot waiting for you if we get to the market in time.” Pleading with the beast wasn’t likely to work either, especially as he didn’t actually have a carrot – or any other tempting treat – on his person.

“C’mon, Audrey.” He pulled just a bit harder and took a step backward. “There’s a good girl. Let’s get moving.”

If anything, she seemed to square herself further, to brace for whatever attempt Merlin might make to get her moving.

Then suddenly the mule’s ears swiveled forward, perking upright and taut, and for a moment he thought she might actually be cooperating.

“Master Emerson!”

It wasn’t cooperation, he realized with a grumble, but curiosity. Despite being interested in whomever it was approaching – though Merlin suspected he knew, as the voice was high and familiar – she still clearly had no plans to move.

Frown becoming a smile of greeting, Merlin turned to the child who’d called his name. Children, he corrected himself, seeing that there were three of them gamboling his way down the narrow, slightly overgrown road.

“Are you coming to town, Master Emerson?” a boy called John, the Miller’s son, asked before Merlin could call out a greeting of his own. He’d beaten the others by a few yards and rocked to a halt just an arm’s length away. “Is it a market day?”

With a laugh, Merlin nodded. “Hello, John. And, yes. I’m headed to market. That is, if I can get Audrey to cooperate.” He nodded as the other two – brother and sister called William and Margery, children of the local Chandler – finally caught up with John. “Hello.”

William, the younger and shyer of the two, lifted a hand and waggled his fingers, while Margery settled into step right beside him, asking, “Have you new buttons, Master Emerson?” Bold as brass, that one.

Merlin pretended to consider it a moment, scratching fingers through his somewhat scraggly beard. “Hmmm, I don’t recall if I have any new buttons, Margery.”

Margery frowned until Merlin gave an exaggerated wink.

“Oh! Can I see them? And combs; have you any new combs?”

Before he could answer, William piped up.

“What about tops?”

“Oh yes,” John bounced on his heels. “Tops or whirligigs.”

Crouching down, albeit slowly in deference to his aging knees and the twinge in his lower back (from too many long nights spent at his worktable) he invited the children close by spreading his arms. Eagerly they crowded around. “I’ll tell you what. If you three can convince that mule of mine to get us to town, there’s a special treat in it for each of you.”

With delighted shrieks they all darted past Merlin and as he slowly rose to his feet, he could hear them cajoling Audrey to move. It wasn’t any trouble for him, as he always brought a few extra bits and baubs into town to give away to the children, but they didn’t need to know that. And if they got Audrey walking again, the cost of a few hours of carving were more than worth the price.

Not to mention, he was fond of these children, even if their parents and the rest of the townsfolk weren’t quite so fond of him. His current incarnation, carefully crafted over many years, was an aging and somewhat doddering tinkerer who lived alone on his small bit of land a few miles out of the town, and was seen as just a touch too odd, too much of a recluse.

Although, Merlin couldn’t really blame them for their upturned noses and skeptical expressions whenever he came into town. For many years on and off, though long ago, he’d done things to help people – positioned himself as an apothecary or physician or a healer. But as the world changed and magic faded back into myth, he found his desire to assist waning. Caring and forming relationships… it had backfired on him too many times. He’d had to abandon his home and his established persona to escape persecution more than once.

For the last few ‘lifetimes’, he’d simply survived; he plied a craft and sold his wares and lived alone in his little stone-walled house. Several decades now he’d been a carver and crafter of small personal goods, like combs and buttons and the occasional toy. He’d chosen it because it was work that he could do that relied on very little interaction with people. Most of the materials he used he gathered himself, and he only had to deal with the locals when he needed to sell his goods.

Making toys was his one concession, as it usually endeared the local children to him, and their parents were less likely to want to cause him any troubles. Not to mention, the children were easily susceptible to his occasional weariness-driven spates of petty bribery.

Of course, much to his chagrin, not a moment after thinking that thougt Margery cried out in delight, “She’s moving, Sir!”

Twisting up his mouth wryly, Merlin could only shake his head at the mercurial moods of the mule. “Very good. Let’s get to market then, shall we?”

He let the children prattle on as they made their way through the thinning woods, answering them when the occasion called for it, but mostly just let their chatter go on around him. It was a pleasant enough distraction for the short remainder of the journey into town, and if nothing else, seemed to keep Audrey’s attention. In truth, he was a bit more focused on figuring what he’d likely sell at the market – once he actually arrived – and what provisions he’d need to see him through the next several weeks.

He definitely needed oats, as his barrel was down to the dregs of chaff at the bottom, and if anyone were selling, more salted pork or perhaps duck confit would mean less time away from his worktable to hunt and work his traps, and more time to craft. It was late summer still, the trees still green and bright, but he knew from many, many long years of experience – several dozen lifetimes worth, really – that it was never too early to prepare for the upcoming winter.

Only half-listening to the children, it took Merlin a moment to realize he’d been asked a direct question by John. A bit abashed at having been caught woolgathering, he asked, “I’m sorry, John, what was that?”

Blithely unaware of Merlin’s inattention, John repeated himself. “Did you hear word of Master Clavell? He nearly got himself snatched by the faire folk, night before last, as he was at the lake after dark.”

About to playfully chide the boy that he’d not even been to town in over a fortnight, so he’d heard none of the latest gossip, the actual substance of John’s words sunk in. Stomach clenching, he asked, “What happened to Master Clavell?”

Eager to contribute, Margery hurried on before John could. “My Mum said that Master Clavell was to meet a lady there.”

“No,” John argued, screwing up his face in childish disgust at that notion. “My Da said he’d been to the tavern and it was the Baker’s boy and Master Thatcher who bade him go to the lake, as part of a wager.”

Merlin couldn’t quite figure why the Thatcher and Baker’s apprentice would want Richard Clavell, the local levyman, to go to Avalon Lake – or what he’d once known as Avalon, which the locals colloquially referred to only as ‘the lake’. It wasn’t even a proper lake anymore; more of a swampy mire giving way to deeper marsh water only once it got close to the island hill it surrounded.

Most of those in the town and surrounding villages avoided the place for reasons both pragmatic and superstitious. It was dangerous terrain and had been known to capture a stray sheep or pasture animal in its bog-like reaches; once or twice a person was said to go missing there as well (those disappearances attributed equally to the land and the fairies). Folk often made signs to ward against evil whenever it was mentioned; fear of the faire folk, the sidhe, still a strong enough deterrent to keep them away. And considering Merlin’s concerns with the location, he was glad of their fear.

He didn’t want to seem over anxious, but Merlin desperately wanted… no needed to know what happened to Clavell there. “How fairs Master Clavell? When you say he nearly got snatched, do you know what happened?”

John seemed to shrug, arms flung about loosely, and then shook his head. “My Da said that that Master Clavell saw one of the Kindly Ones, out on the hill, and had quite a scare.”

Next to him, Margery gave a theatrical shiver. “I’d be scared if the faire folk tried to snatch me up.”

Perhaps the children weren’t the best source of information.

“Oh, me as well,” he agreed readily, but his mind was already moving ahead, trying to decide how best to find out what had actually happened. Though from the little that John said, Merlin figured he could interpret well enough. Clavell lived nearly a mile from town; he’d likely been wandering home from a night at the tavern, got a bit turned round in the dark and ended up near the boggy fringes of the lake. Anything from the shadow of a tree to a startled stag could’ve looked fey through a wine-colored haze.

Really, it could be nothing at all. It very probably was nothing at all. After all, he’d had plenty of his share of false alarms over the years: reports and stories that had risen his hopes high, only to have them dashed when he’d arrived at Avalon to find nothing amiss.

The responsible thing to do, he knew, would be to finish his business in the market. To sell his wares and purchase or trade for the things he needed, and then return to his home before setting out to investigate.

But… Merlin never was very good at doing the responsible thing. Especially where Arthur – even the mere idea of Arthur - was concerned.

Still, he couldn’t just go hieing off to Avalon, not when he still had a wagon-load of his goods to deal with.

When he reached the market, he was quick to share out his promised gifts to the children and send them on their way. John and William both took whirligigs on strings, and Margery vacillated between a wooden top painted with flowers and a fairly plain boxwood comb, before deciding on the latter. They thanked him profusely, but he had no trouble encouraging them to be off.

It took a bit longer than he’d have liked to get through the business of buying the things he needed to stock-up on, and also selling the buttons and combs and other sundry items he’d carved and crafted over the past few weeks. At least the commerce gave him a chance to chat with some of the more garrulous townsfolk. He even went so far as to buy a completely unneeded barrel of pickled herring because the woman selling it was one of the biggest gossips in the market.

By the time his cart was empty of his own goods and loaded with provisions, Merlin had pieced together much of the story of Master Clavell’s ‘run-in’ with the Kindly Ones.

It was exactly as he’d assumed. Clavell had been drinking, quite to excess, and had gotten himself a bit lost on his journey home well after dark. He’d apparently fainted from shock (or passed out stinking drunk, more likely) and awoke the next morning with a blistering hangover, and a tale of harrowing escape to tell.

Though, Clavell had sworn adamantly to anyone who would listen that he’d not just been seeing spirits roused by heavy drink, and that he’d really spotted one of the sidhe in the distance on the island hill. There’d been a flash of lightning that had caught his eye and drawn his attention to the top of the mound, he’d said, and it had come from a sky free of clouds. After that, he’d spotted the Fair one in the distance; there’d been a ‘glow’ about the figure, Clavell had claimed.

However influenced by drink, the story was one that Merlin couldn’t ignore. Just as he hadn’t ignored any of the other, similar stories, throughout his long years.

Fortunately, Audrey was much more cooperative leaving town than she’d been arriving, and Merlin led her and the wagon as far as he could toward the center of Avalon before the marshy terrain made hauling the wagon impossible. He unhitched Audrey from the cart, but tied her lead to a tree nearby. With any luck, she’d still be there when he got back.

Just as a precaution, he also took up his emergency pack.

Several unpleasant instances and run-ins in his past taught him that the ability to flee at a moment’s notice was essential – no matter how well things seemed to be going with the locals – and he almost always carried a carefully stocked satchel on his person, or kept it nearby.

This one was loaded with a waterskin, some long-lasting provisions, a spare set of clothing (double the socks), several other sundries he’d learned he’d rather not do without (even just a spoon was a luxury sometimes), the few personal items he’d be loath to leave behind (specifically a ring and bronze sigil that he’d fought very hard to recover more than once), a stash of coins or gems or other quickly moveable currency, and his most recent acquisition: a flintlock pistol.

There was also one bit of magic he needed to perform before going on to the isle.

Whether it was the way that his very existence was tied to Arthur’s destiny, or some perhaps kind of curse (there were definite days he suspected the latter), Merlin had stopped getting older after Arthur died. When the people he knew in Camelot were greying and wrinkling around him, Merlin hadn’t looked a day older than the day he lost Arthur.

As a result, he’d always been careful to properly ‘age’ himself so that the locals didn’t get suspicious. He’d perfected the aging spell many lifetimes ago, fine-tuning it to the point that it would age him slowly as time passed, with no effort needed on his part.

His current guise was that of an old man: not quite as old as the character of Dragoon, but still bearded and greying and stooping with age.

But now, no matter how infinitesimal the chance that this was anything other than a drunken man’s ramblings, Merlin needed to change back. He couldn’t meet Arthur as anything other than the man he’d remember.

With some effort – as his connection to the earth had waned and this was no simple bit of magic – Merlin slowly spoke the words of the spell that would restore him to his natural, younger-bodied form. He felt the change come slowly over him: shoulders straightening, odd aches and pains lifting, beard disappearing from his chin. It always took him a few minutes to adjust to being himself again, the absence of pain and sudden surge of vitality always left him a bit dizzy. He inhaled deeply through his nose and then exhaled slowly through his mouth, feeling his body settle into itself, and then gave a firm nod. “Right. Ready now.”

Shouldering the pack, Merlin left Audrey with a promise, “I’ll be back soon, girl. Don’t wander off.” And then he made his way deeper into the lands of the lake.

Merlin had ventured to the island with its massive hill and falling tower in the center of Avalon Lake many, many times over the long years and he knew the hidden paths where rills of earth rose above the water-line and fallen trees created bridges, so his feet were mostly dry by the time he’d reached what remained of the lake itself. There he’d stowed a small raft, kept concealed by bushes and marsh plants. Not that he’d really worried anyone would find it and steal it - fearful as the locals were, they’d never venture this far in – but replacing the thing was an absolute pain in the arse.

He’d also gotten quite adept at navigating the waters on his raft, using a long sapling with the branches trimmed off as a pole. It didn’t take him long to get the raft on the water, gain his balance and push off from the muddy bank. The pace was slow-going, but as the lake shrunk further and the land turned to soggy marsh, the distance of open water to cross had at least grown shorter.

The afternoon warmed considerably, the sun now at its apogee, and Merlin’s shoulders were still sore from a night spent hunched over his worktable, so he was a sweaty, aching mess by the time he poled the raft to the edge of the island. Nothing seemed amiss when he stepped onto the grass and secured both raft and pole (he’d let them drift away once and had to half-swim, half-wade to retrieve them; a lesson well-remembered). He set his pack down as well, as he likely had no need of its contents on a –probably, almost surely – empty island.

There were no marks upon the grass, nor anything unusual visible at the top of the peak near the aging stone tower. Still, he wasn’t going to lose heart immediately… even if this was how every other visit here had gone.

The thing that made this a fool’s errand was the fact that the timing was far, far too soon.

Merlin had spent literal decades researching every prophecy and augury, seeking out every oracle and soothsayer and studying every sign and portent that were even remotely related to Arthur or Emrys, or that barely hinted at mention of ‘The Once and Future King’. He’d poured over ancient texts, pieced together seemingly random scraps, and struggled through translations in tongues that had gone dormant long ago.

The summation of all of that study and effort was fairly conclusive: Arthur’s destined return was still a very, very long way off.

Merlin had already waited over ten centuries, and he fully expected to wait at least that long still.

Despite all evidence that there was no chance this could be Arthur returned to him, Merlin clung to that tiny seed of hope planted deep within his heart. Each time he made this trip to Avalon to fruitless results that kernel withered a bit more, but he couldn’t help privately nurturing it, sometimes letting it go dormant just to keep it alive. And all that it took was a word or rumor to encourage its growth once more.

Hiking to the top of the peak put a strain on his already twinging thighs – he really was going to have to get out hunting more often – and he found himself needing to stop and lean against the cool stone of the moss-covered tower to catch his breath. He pressed his palms to the well-worn stone and then laid his forehead against it, wincing at the touch of chilly granite to overheated skin.

“Took you long enough.”

Jerking back in shock, Merlin’s feet got tangled about each other and he just had time to glimpse a figure rounding the tower – an achingly, heart-crushingly, desperately familiar figure – before his tired legs got the better of him and he went arse-over-tip, tumbling back down the sloping incline he’d just marched up.

Landing in a supine sprawl on a hummock of grass, luckily just shy of the water, Merlin blinked up at the over-bright sun in the cloud-tufted sky. He took stock of himself, twitching fingers and moving his feet, and came to the quick realization that aside from a few new bruises and bumps, his little spill had left him unharmed.

Then a shadow fell over him as someone stepped in front of the sun. Merlin stared, eyes watering, until his vision adapted to the dimmed light.

“Arthur,” Merlin rasped out, his breath once again gone from his body.

And indeed it was Arthur Pendragon standing over him, staring down with a devastatingly oh-so-familiar grin of fond amusement on his face.

He looked…

He looked identical to the last day Merlin had seen him. Except whole and alive and vibrant! Haloed by the sun, his hair shown golden and the chain of his mail gleamed as if freshly polished. His cloak looked newly woven, and even the leather of his gloves and boots appeared brightly burnished. And his eyes… oh, his eyes. Even shadowed, they glistened in that shade of stormy blue that Merlin swore he’d never seen before or since.

“I’m dreaming, aren’t I?” Merlin asked, voice a plaintive whisper. Because this was impossible. He knew this was an impossibility. It was too soon.

Arthur shook his head and held out a hand. “No. And you’re still clumsy as ever. Good to see some things haven’t changed.”

And that voice, it skirled through Merlin’s ears and straight into his breast and tears sprung in Merlin’s eyes.

Without realizing he’d even reached up, Merlin found his forearm gripped tight and then felt himself being hauled upright. He scrambled to assist, hardly needing to make the effort because Arthur’s strength drew him up easily. He barely got his feet under him before flinging his arms about Arthur and pressing his face into Arthur’s neck.

Merlin groaned. Arthur even smelled the same.

He tried, he really did, but he couldn’t help the hiccupping sobs that burst out of him on every desperate exhale, and he clenched his fingers tight into red wool and boldly into the hair at Arthur’s nape.

After a moment he felt Arthur’s arms come slowly around him. The embrace was tentative at first, hesitant, hands gently patting at Merlin’s shoulders, but after a few minutes Arthur’s grip tightened, squeezing Merlin close as his cheek rubbed softly at Merlin’s ear. “It’s all right, Merlin,” he said softly. “I’m here.”

A splash of wetness fell on Merlin’s neck. His tears? Arthur’s? He couldn’t tell.

“How?” Merlin finally managed to blurt out wetly. “It doesn’t make any sense.”

He felt Arthur shrug. “I’m not sure. I… think, I mean, I have some memories, but they’re vague.”

Many long moments passed.

Finally, gently, Arthur took hold of Merlin’s hands and unwrapped Merlin’s clinging grip. Merlin let himself be pried loose, and as he stepped back –just a pace, just far enough to look Arthur in the eyes – he took a deep, shaky, trying-to-steady-himself breath. He knew he must look dreadfully pathetic: red-eyed, wet-cheeked, blotchy and peaked, and staring at Arthur like he was the only thing to exist in the universe.

In contrast, even with glittering eyelashes, a slightly parted mouth and hair mussed from Merlin’s fingers, Arthur looked regal. Too perfect.

Merlin gulped in air again, trying to gain a modicum of control. “You remember?”

Despite how vague the question, Arthur seemed to understand. He nodded. “I do. It’s… strange there. Wherever I’ve been. But, I have knowledge of time passing, though it’s different there than here.”

He pressed his lips tight a moment, eying Merlin with sympathy. “I remember dying and I remember everything you said and everything you did.” His expression went briefly distant, lost in some reverie, but he shook it off and smiled softly. “There is knowledge of the world beyond the realm of the fae,” he spread his hands, “but, I don’t know why I’m here, now. That part I can’t remember. There’s just a sense of urgency…” He scratched at his jaw, beneath his ear.

“Arthur, I…” Merlin let his gaze fall to the ground between them. He didn’t know quite how to finish that sentence. “I’m glad you’re back.”

The truth, but also so far from what he really wanted to say.

Arthur’s hand cupped his shoulder and gave a firm squeeze. “I’m glad to be back.”

Merlin looked up again, managing a wobbly grin. “We should go. Get you back home.” He blinked, realizing that nothing in this world and this time would be familiar to Arthur. “I mean, my house.”

Seemingly following Merlin’s thoughts, Arthur’s mouth dipped down at the corners. “How long?” he asked softly. Before Merlin could respond though, Arthur continued. “I know it’s been many long years since I died. I do know that. But, as I said, time passes differently in that realm. I…”–he shrugged helplessly–“don’t really know how long it’s been.”

Arthur’s hand, which had not fallen away from Merlin’s shoulder, gripped tighter. Like he was bracing for the answer. Merlin hesitated. This was a heady conversation to have standing on a small island in the middle of a boggy marsh under the afternoon sun.

“Arthur, maybe we should wait.” He lifted his own hand to cover Arthur’s.

“No.” Arthur shook his head. “I need to know.” The quavering note to his voice belied the surety of that statement.

Moving his fingers to curl tenderly around Arthur’s wrist, Merlin nodded. “All right. Just, uh… please don’t be too alarmed.” Taking a steadying breath of his own, Merlin stated, “It’s been over a thousand years.”

For a moment Arthur didn’t react. Then his nostrils flared with a heavily in-drawn inhale, and suddenly his knees buckled, and he nearly went down. Merlin hurried to grab at Arthur’s other arm, trying to hold him up, to steady him. It was a testament to the shock of those words that he clung to Merlin’s shoulder and arm, like they were the only things keeping him from flying to pieces.

“That long?” he gasped out.

“I’m sorry,” Merlin told him, repeating it hoarsely. “I’m sorry.”

Arthur didn’t respond, but he did seem to gain a bit of control. He straightened, feet squaring themselves in the grass. One hand migrated to the back of Merlin’s head and he pressed his fingers into Merlin’s neck. “I didn’t realize.” He spoke the words softly, barely above a whisper. “I knew time had passed… but, not that much.”

“Arthur–” Merlin began but Arthur cut him off.

“No, don’t apologize, Merlin. There’s nothing for you to be sorry for.” He gave Merlin a little shake, palm hot against Merlin’s nape. Then he used that grip to draw Merlin forward.

Perplexed, Merlin let himself be drawn in, until Arthur’s bowed forehead pressed against his. Merlin blinked at the closeness; so close he could see nothing beyond the blue of Arthur’s eyes. So close Arthur’s nose brushed his and his breath warmed Merlin’s chin.

“I’m the one who’s sorry, Merlin,” Arthur rasped. “That you’ve waited… that you’ve been alone all this time.”

It was Merlin’s turn to be staggered. If he weren’t still practically holding Arthur up, he likely would’ve toppled again. As it was, his knees definitely felt a bit like jelly, and the hard press of his forehead to Arthur’s felt like his only solid connection to the world.

Arthur’s reaction to time’s passage hadn’t been because of how much had gone by, but because Merlin had spent it waiting for him.

“Arthur,” Merlin said urgently, needing Arthur to hear this. “I promise you, it’s all right. I promise. I’d have waited a thousand years again… more, forever… whatever it took. And it would be worth it. For you it would be…”

“Merlin…”

And perhaps they’d have stayed like that, connected by the press of their foreheads, the clutching grips on each other, their locked gazes – for minutes, hours… hell, Merlin didn’t ever want to pull away. This, moment, Arthur alive and holding him, was everything he’d waited for.

But the spell was broken only a few seconds later by the odd echo of a braying mule that disturbed the stillness. Arthur jerked back, blinking as if come awake from some hazy daydream. He let his hands fall away from Merlin then, sliding slowly off of his neck and easing their grip around Merlin’s arm before disconnecting completely. He stepped back and gave a whole-body judder, like he was resettling into his own skin.

Merlin knew that feeling well.

“Perhaps we should get going,” Merlin suggested. “That was my mule.” He gave a loose gesture with his thumb over his shoulder. “She’s probably bored and I’d better get back to her before she chews through her rope and wanders off.” He was definitely babbling a bit.

“Right,” Arthur nodded. “That’s probably a good idea. This island is a bit dull and I was starting to get rather bored.” He gave a half-hearted chuckle.

“This way,” Merlin instructed, leading Arthur to the waiting raft.

Arthur eyed the ramshackle structure a bit warily. “Will that hold us both?”

“It should,” Merlin replied, gaze darting from Arthur to the raft and back again. “Um, perhaps you should remove your armor, uh, just in case. The water’s not too deep,” which he knew from experience, “but I’m sure you’d rather not go for a swim.”

That got him an amused scoff, but Arthur complied easily enough. “Right, I’ll do that.” He unwound the cord tying his cloak and whisked it off in a practiced move.

Like stepping back into the past, Merlin immediately moved to assist in unbuckling the fastenings on the pauldron. Perhaps it should’ve surprised him how easily his fingers feel into the still familiar motions. Together they eased the plate gorget over Arthur’s head, and while Merlin set it carefully on the raft Arthur shimmied the mail hauberk over his head. The padded gambeson beneath it followed leaving Arthur in only his red tunic.

“Strange,” Arthur muttered.

Tying his pack and the rest of Arthur’s armor to the raft Merlin asked, “What’s strange?”

“Taking that off,” Arthur said. “I feel like I’ve never been without it.”

The statement made Merlin wonder what things were like for Arthur, wherever he’d been. He’d said that he was aware of things in this world, but Merlin wasn’t entirely sure what that meant. Now, however, wasn’t the time for those kinds of questions.

“All right,” Merlin began, “we’re ready. Just uh, try not to move around too much.” He stepped onto the raft which was floating just at the water’s edge, braced one hand on the pole and then held the other out to Arthur.

Arthur rolled his eyes, just a bit, but he still took Merlin’s hand and let himself be guided onto the small craft. He placed his feet carefully, and then rather decisively curved both hands around Merlin’s waist. “Just go slowly,” he advised, grinning.

“Right,” Merlin agreed, smiling that same sort of silly, eager smile. “Hold on.” He pushed them away from the island with a firm, slow shove. The raft rocked beneath them, and there was a precarious moment where Arthur leaned one way and Merlin the other and the counterbalance seemed to sway them further, until things steadied.

“Whew.” Merlin huffed out on a heavy breath. “I think we’ve got it now.”

Arthur didn’t reply, but his momentary death-grip on Merlin’s hips eased somewhat and he made a similar sound of relief.

The crossing took much longer than it had earlier, slow as Merlin was going. And it was definitely made a bit more awkward by Arthur’s proximity and his hold on Merlin’s waist. Though heavy conversation probably wasn’t a good idea – Merlin didn’t want to get too distracted from his careful, repetitive poling – a little distraction couldn’t hurt.

“Arthur,” he began curiously, “what did you mean before? About getting bored on the island? And the first thing you said, that it ‘took me long enough’? Just how long have you been waiting? I mean, in this world,” he hurriedly tacked on, to clarify. Not wanting them to get drawn back into heavy contemplation about all the centuries that had passed.

“Oh,” Arthur said with a bit of a chortle. “That. Yeah, I woke up yesterday. Perhaps early evening?”

“Yesterday?” Merlin asked, puzzled. He glanced over his shoulder to see Arthur nod. “Why did you wait around then?”

Arthur’s fingers twitched a little, and Merlin fought the urge to squirm. “Well, aside from the fact that I was alone on an odd little island in the middle of a lake, surrounded by woods in seemingly the middle of nowhere?” His tone made it a question.

Merlin chuffed a laugh. “Right, aside from that.”

His own laugh a warm puff of air against Merlin’s ear, Arthur explained, “Well, aside from that, I knew you’d be coming to get me. So I just settled in to wait.”

“You knew? How?”

One of Arthur’s hands came loose a moment, like he needed to gesture. Merlin couldn’t quite see the motion, as Arthur was stood behind him, but he got the feeling it was a shrug.

“You know, I’m not quite sure.” Arthur finally said. “I just knew. Like, how I knew time had passed, back when I was in that other… place. Other realm.” He squeezed again and this time Merlin did flinch slightly. He couldn’t help it; it tickled. “I just woke up with this knowledge that all I had to do was wait, and you’d be there.” Arthur’s voice dropped lower as he added, “It was rather a comfort, actually.”

Knowing that his neck was probably reddening because he could feel the heat of a spreading blush, Merlin coughed out a rather hoarse, “Oh. Oh, well that’s good.”

“What about you?” Arthur asked, before things could get too uncomfortable. “How did you know to look for me?”

A safer topic, Merlin chuckled again. “Oh that. Local drunk wandering home from the tavern. Apparently he saw lightning strike the island and swore to any who would listen that he’d been moments from being snatched up by one of the sidhe.”

“You know, I do recall a sort of flash right when things changed. One moment I was in that other place, and then there was that light, and a roaring kind of sound. Then I was here, in this world.” He sniffed. “And then I fell asleep.”

Merlin could see where that led.” And then you woke up yesterday evening?”

“Precisely,” Arthur confirmed.

By that time they’d reached the firmer ground of the marsh and once Merlin could propel them no further forward he declared, “All right, this is as far as we can go on this thing.”

He turned carefully, to see Arthur looking about them with a frown. “That doesn’t look much dryer than the water we just crossed.”

“Don’t worry,” Merlin hurried to reassure him. “I know the safest paths and mostly importantly, driest way through. And I’ve a mule and cart waiting where it’s dry.”

Arthur nodded, and finally let go of Merlin’s hips. “Right, lead on then.”

They were equally careful disembarking. Arthur balanced on a wide stance while Merlin stepped off the raft onto a nearby hummock, and then gingerly handed over Merlin’s pack and his armor. They set the armor aside while pulling the raft back into the marsh grass, but Arthur collected it once they had everything hidden away.

“Just follow where I put my feet.” Merlin advised, and then began picking his way carefully through the marshland.

Dutifully, Arthur did exactly that.

To Merlin’s great relief, they came out of the trees right where Merlin had planned. Only a few yards away were his cart and – thankfully – Audrey. Though she did have her lead rope in her mouth, she hadn’t quite chewed through it.

“Here we are,” Merlin declared, practically hopping across the last few watery runnels to get to firm, dry land.

He tossed his pack into the cart and then when Arthur joined him, stowed his armor and gambeson away as well.

“Your cart and mule, I take it?”

“Right,” Merlin nodded. He untied Audrey’s lead and began backing her into the traces. “Arthur, this is Audrey. Audrey, Arthur.”

He heard Arthur honk out a rather obnoxious laugh. Pausing in getting the mule re-hitched, he turned to look at Arthur with a question on his raised brows.

One which Arthur understood immediately. “Your mule is called Audrey?”

“Yes,” Merlin nodded. “Why is that funny?”

Shaking his head and chuckling still, Arthur walked close enough to pat Audrey on her broad roman nose. “Because that was the name of Cook. In Camelot’s kitchens. Don’t you remember?”

Merlin blinked. “Really?”

Arthur sobered, smile falling away. “You’d forgotten?” He sighed. “I suppose that’s a silly question. It’s been… forever, really.”

“Well, I must not’ve forgotten entirely,” Merlin hurried to say, hating to see that sorrow on Arthur’s face. “I mean, as soon as I saw her at the livestock fair, I knew that such a stubborn, cranky animal must be called Audrey.” He snickered. “Obviously the memory is still in there. But can you blame me for leaving that one buried?”

In truth, he had forgotten her name (though not her wickedly wielded ladle or her chewy dumplings), but most of his memories of his time at Camelot were still rather strong. Much more so than many of the other memories of all the years that had passed since his time there. Hell, he’d be hard pressed to remember anything beyond the last few dozen years. It was probably because he revisited those cherished, albeit painful, remembrances so very often, for fear of losing them.

Mollified, Arthur smiled again. “Well, you weren’t exactly her favorite person. And, uh,” he stroked a hand over Audrey’s neck, “I can’t say there isn’t some resemblance.”

The laugh they shared was much more genuine.

“Come on, we’ve a few miles to go and I’d like to get back home before dark.”

After they both got settled on the bench seat of the wagon and Merlin –thankfully – got Audrey walking, Arthur asked. “We’ve a few miles, you said?”

Merlin nodded, clucking his tongue to try to encourage the mule into something a bit faster than her normal plodding amble. She began to jog rather half-heartedly for all of a dozen paces and then slowed to her lazy walk once again. He sighed.

Arthur shifted in his seat, getting comfortable and then looked over at Merlin. “I know you’d probably rather not discuss anything too serious right now, but would you tell me about the world? About what’s changed?”

He held up a hand then, forestalling Merlin’s immediate response. “And don’t worry about upsetting me, Merlin. As I said, I do know some of what’s passed. I had some awareness of the real world.” He looked away, staring straight ahead though it didn’t look like he was really focusing on anything. On his regal profile, Merlin could see a thoughtful kind of sorrow. “I know that Camelot is gone. Not just the castle, but the land… the name. All of Albion, really. It’s all changed.” He turned back to Merlin. “So do not think you have to spare me, all right?”

“All right,” Merlin agreed.

He sat quietly for a while, just thinking about where to begin. Arthur waited patiently, but Merlin could tell from the way his elbows were propped on his knees, chin in his hands, that he was curious. And more than anything, Merlin wanted to assuage that curiosity. Merlin wanted him to be happy.

So he talked of perhaps not the simpler, but the broader things, the things that were beyond the scope of a single life. How the world had changed. He explained how the lands and borders had joined and expanded and how England came about. He talked of changes in politics, in religion, and the arts (devoting probably a bit too much time to the plays of Shakespeare), improvements in medicine and communication and technology (he was particularly fond of the telescope and the printing press).

All the while Arthur listened quietly, nodding along now and again, frowning and smiling both. Occasionally he asked a question.

Naturally, he was especially interested in the politics. Merlin struggled through recounting the most recent events (trying to explain civil war and the formation of the Commonwealth and then the Protectorate under Oliver Cromwell nearly had him flailing). Even though those events been turbulent and far-reaching and well-documented, Merlin had done as much as possible to avoid any involvement, keeping his head down and doing just enough to survive, so his knowledge was rather limited.

He apologized when he couldn’t answer some of Arthur’s questions. “I’m sorry, Arthur. I just don’t know.”

“It’s all right, Merlin.” Arthur shouldered into him companionably, like he’d done many times in their past. The gesture so familiar and so very welcome. “I don’t expect you to have the answers to everything.” He jabbed lightly with an elbow. “Just almost everything.”

“Oh,” Merlin quipped, “only almost everything. Well that’s all right then.” About to tease a bit more –finding such joy in the familiar banter and how easily they fell back into it – Merlin held his tongue. Further down the narrow forest road he spotted some familiar figures. “Damn,” he muttered.

“What is it?” Arthur asked, looking around rather frantically.

“Those children up ahead,” Merlin hissed out, giving a curt jerk of his chin towards the group of kids – still some distance away. “They know me. And they’ll know this cart and Audrey.”

“And that’s a problem because?”

Right, Arthur wouldn’t understand. “You see, I don’t look like I normally do. I mean, to them.” He hurried to explain because Arthur still looked puzzled. “I don’t age, Arthur. Not since…” he let that trail off. “But, obviously it’s very difficult to maintain any kind of normal, unobtrusive life if I stay perpetually young. So, to fit in, I use magic to age myself.”

“Right,” Arthur said, nodding slowly. “The old Sorcerer. The one who defeated the Saxons.”

Unable to help but grin at that memory, Merlin bobbed his head approvingly. “Exactly. So these kids know me as Master Emerson. A rather doddering old fellow, with a grizzly greying beard.”

Arthur nodded again. “I understand. You’re worried they’ll recognize the mule and the cart and wonder who you… well, who we are.”

Sighing in relief that Arthur was picking things up so quickly, Merlin said. “Yes, exactly.”

While Merlin tried to steer Audrey to the far side of the road, hoping the children were too distracted by wherever they were going to pay him and Arthur any mind, Arthur scratched thoughtfully at his jawline.

“His nephew,” Arthur said, snapping his fingers. “You’re this Emerson’s nephew and I’m your companion and we’re just in from…” he trailed off. “Well, somewhere. Perhaps that London place you mentioned?”

Feeling a bit foolish that he’d been so nervous, Merlin agreed. “You’re right. That’s easy enough to explain away.” They were children for goodness sake. They’d likely believe anything he told them.

He could only assume that he was being especially paranoid – not to mention utterly thoughtless –because of Arthur being back. Every interaction, every person whether familiar or a stranger, every situation was something new and a potential risk.

Arthur was back, and Merlin wasn’t going to let anything happen to him this time.

“Just you watch,” he said softly. “It’ll be the little girl who questions us. Her brother is the smaller boy. They’re the children of the local Cooper. The other lad is the Miller’s boy.”

The kids had spotted them some time ago, but now they seemed to recognize Audrey and hurried over. Merlin hauled on the mule’s long reins and drew her to a stop.

True to his prediction, Margery was the first to pipe up. “Sir. Good evening, Sir. Who’re you? Why’ve you got Master Emerson’s cart?”

He shot a quick, sideward look at Arthur, expecting him to be smiling at the precocious little girl, but was surprised to see a puzzled frown on Arthur’s face.

Merlin realized the cause the moment he voiced his reply to Margery. “Good evening, young miss.”

When Arthur first spoke to him on the island, it had just been… instinct to reply in kind; in the words and dialect they’d shared all those centuries ago. But now, speaking to Margery, he’d shifted back to modern modes of speech. It hadn’t even occurred to him how much language had evolved since Arthur’s time.

Trying with his eyes to communicate his apology to Arthur for overlooking something so significant, Merlin hurried through his explanation to the little girl. It wasn’t that he worried over what a few village children thought, but the gossip they carried back to their parents could cause trouble. “I am um, Merlin, Master Emerson’s nephew.” He gestured to Arthur. “This is my friend Master… uh,” –Pendragon might raise eyebrows, so he scrambled for something fitting– “Pendrake. He’s from a rather far-away place and cannot speak as we do.”

That turned three sets of inquisitive eyes on Arthur.

“I’m sorry,” Merlin said softly, speaking for Arthur’s ears alone. “I forgot… it’s been so long. The language we knew has changed quite a bit. I’ve told the children you’re a foreigner.”

Arthur nodded, first at Merlin and then – wearing a wide, friendly grin – down at Margery and the boys. “Hello,” he said, the word a complete garble to anyone’s ears other than Merlin.

They stared at him, William ducking behind his sister shyly but peeking out to stare, wide-eyed. Arthur must’ve appeared as quite the oddity to children who’d likely met no one ‘foreign’ ever. Their little town was hardly a hotbed of travel. Merlin had witnessed that even visitors from large cities like London drew a crowd of spectators and curiosity.

Merlin didn’t want them too curious, though. “My friend and I are visiting my Uncle and he gave us leave to use his cart and his mule. We’re just on our way to his home now.”

Leaning down closer, and dropping his tone to a conspiratorial whisper, Merlin continued, “If I may ask a boon of you. My friend is actually in some distress in his home country. So we’ve brought him here to protect him. I’d kindly ask that you tell no one that you’ve seen him.”

“You’re hiding him, Sir?” John asked, and looked rather intrigued by the idea. “Are there dangerous folk after him? Brigands and blighters?”

“Yes,” Merlin nodded slowly, though he wondered what kind of tales John was being told that he immediately assumed such a thing. “Yes, that’s exactly right. They’d be no danger to anyone else, just to Master Pendrake, so we need to keep him safe. Can you three keep this among yourselves? I know my Uncle will gladly reward you for your loyalty.” As this was a much more worthy cause than just getting his mule to move, Merlin felt no compunction over offering yet another bribe. “A brand new top for each of you, perhaps?”

Three heads bobbed rapidly. Merlin didn’t know if it was just the offer of new toys, or the idea of being part of something secret that had them so agreeable. Probably a bit of both, especially for John whose face was bright with excitement.

“You’ll not speak to anyone else about Master Pendrake? Not even your parents?”

William nodded, while John and Margery both shook their heads. Merlin chose to interpret both reactions as agreement.

“Good. Very good.” It happened that he had a few remaining toys stowed away in the back and he twisted in his seat to shuffle through the packed cart to wrangle them out. He shared them out to eager hands with a final, “Our secret, remember.” He pressed an index finger against his lips.

John and William were too distracted by their new tops, but Margery mirrored Merlin’s gesture with a sly little grin.

Merlin waved them off then. “All right, go on home you three. I must see my guest to my Uncle’s.”

The boys hurried off – likely eager to play – but Margery stayed long enough to curtsey and wish, “A pleasant evening to you Master Merlin, and to your friend.”

Arthur bowed to her, formal as he could while seated on a mule cart, and Margery ran off after the boys trailing giggles behind her.

“You bought them off, did you?” Arthur asked, once the three had disappeared behind the trees at a bend in the road. He turned to grin at Merlin, eyebrows rising inquisitively.

“Figured that out, huh?” Merlin’s cheeks warmed. “Well, it seemed the easiest way to get them to stop asking questions and to make sure they didn’t tell anyone about you.”

Arthur canted his head. “Why don’t you want them to tell anyone about me?”

“I’d just like to avoid any undue attention from the townsfolk.” He flipped a hand, trying to explain it. “It’s just easier if we can figure things out without nosy busybodies stopping by.”

“Is that likely?”

Merlin shrugged. “It could be. If the children told their parents that Emerson had a visitor from a distant land, and their parents mentioned it to some of the local gossips, it could raise some questions. Plus, that aging spell wears me out, so I don’t want to have to keep doing it. I’d rather stay like this if at all possible.”

Arthur nodded. “I understand.” He looked like he might have more to say, opening his mouth slightly, but then his parted lips pressed tight again and he was silent.

That was fine with Merlin, as he had something he needed to say. “I’m sorry, Arthur.”

“Sorry, for what?” he frowned.

“The language thing.” He gestured between them. “I should’ve thought of that sooner. I mean, when I heard you talking to me on the island, it just felt right to–”

“Merlin,” Arthur interrupted, “it’s fine. Really. I wasn’t necessarily surprised by the changes. It’s another of those things I was vaguely aware of.”

Merlin frowned. “Then why did you look so troubled by it?”

“Ah, well,” Arthur ducked his head, “for some reason I didn’t consider that you’d be talking that way too.” He glanced up, sideward and rather sheepishly. “Though, I expect that if I need to get along here, I’ll need to learn.”

“Right,” Merlin agreed, though he had no idea how to even go about teaching such a thing. “I’m sure we’ll work that out.”

“Good.”

“Good, yeah.” Merlin repeated. At a loss for more to say, Merlin instead took up the long reins and clucked his tongue at Audrey to get her moving. She snorted and her overlarge ears twitched and her tail lashed against her flanks, but she started walking readily enough.

Beside him, Arthur chuckled. “We must be getting close to your home.”

Merlin nodded. “Yeah, we’re about a mile away now. How could you tell?”

Arthur lifted his chin, jutting it forward. “Audrey. This is the most lively she’s been. I used to have a horse that took endless amounts of prodding to get any kind of speed from. He was just stubborn. But once his nose was pointed in the direction of the stables, it was all I could do to keep him from running right into his stall with me on his back.”

“I remember that horse,” Merlin said, somewhat surprised at the recollection. He’d forgotten the cooks name, and a thousand other details of his life back in Camelot, so why did a random horse – one of dozens Arthur had owned – stick out so clearly? “That was the dark bay gelding, right? The one that spooked during that ride on your and Gwen’s anniversary, when we discovered the sabotaged cinch strap?”

“Yeah. That’s the one.” He eyed Merlin oddly. “Funny you remember that.”

Merlin gave a half-hearted laugh. “Yeah, odd isn’t it?”

Of course, it wasn’t the memory of the horse itself; he remembered it because of Arthur; because it had been associated to a significant event in Arthur’s life. Which was probably true of most of his memories of that time. The little things, the insignificant things, even larger important events had faded from even the deepest reaches of his mind over time. Yet, anything that could be tied to Arthur – even those small, easily forgettable details – were carefully locked away and left untouched and unmarred by even time’s ravages.

They rode in silence the rest of the way, and Merlin didn’t need to do much encouraging to keep Audrey jogging. Soon the forest began to thin, and then as the slender trees gave way to brush and then to open fields, Merlin’s home came into view.

He glanced at Arthur, saw him staring and wondered what his little house would look like to him. How different was it than the homes from Arthur’s time? He couldn’t quite remember. With its red-brick framing, stone walls, white window frames and thatched roof, Merlin always found it quite appealing. Thin, wispy tendrils of smoke stilled trickled from the chimney and the fire he’d banked before leaving for the market this morning.

“This is your home?”

Merlin nodded. “Yes. It’s not much, compared to a castle, but–“

“Shut up, Merlin.” Arthur interrupted, a small smile playing at his lips. “I like it. It reminds me of, well...”–the smile went a bit sheepish–“I’d once told Gwen that I’d sometimes dreamed of leaving behind the life of a prince, and running away to live on a farm.” He waved toward the cottage and the small outbuildings and neatly fenced plots. “This is the kind of thing I imagined.”

“Oh, that’s… I’m glad.” And he was, that Arthur could so easily think of Gwen, but something about Arthur’s reminiscing left him a bit sad as well.

Arthur turned to him, grin now cheeky. “Of course, I told her I’d have taken you with me, to handle all of the work.”

Just as quickly, the sorrow was quashed by a kind of joy. He ducked his chin, “I’m glad to hear that too. I mean, not the work part, but the coming with you.”

“Of course,” Arthur replied, looking like he was confused over the appreciation. “I mean, where else would you be but at my side?”

Joy blossomed into all-over warmth and Merlin could only nod and say, “Right, yeah.”

He drew the cart to a stop just in front of the door, although Audrey stubbornly tried to keep going towards her warm byre. “I’ve got to unload the cart,” Merlin explained.

Arthur hopped off the wagon, asking, “Do you want me to get Audrey settled?”

“Um, sure.”

Already working on unbuckling the mule from her traces, Arthur added, “And then I can come back and help you get this unloaded.”

“Arthur,” Merlin protested, “you don’t have to. I can…” he trailed off as Arthur looked over the mule’s withers to glare at him.

“You’re not my servant, Merlin. You don’t have to do everything for me.” His expression softened then, the line of his mouth relaxing into a warm grin. “It’ll take some getting used to, but you’re not alone in this anymore.” He waited until he got a nod from Merlin, and then went back to work on Audrey.

Merlin could only shake his head ruefully as he climbed down from his seat. It had just felt so ‘right’ to step back into the role of subservient to Arthur’s ‘king’. He hauled the first of the crates – a rather extravagant purchase of fresh produce – over to stage it outside his door. After a few minutes, Arthur came back from leading the mule to the small, penned-in shed, and he joined Merlin at the back of cart. “I found some fodder for her, from that stack against the wall. And I fed your cow and those chickens as well. Is that all right?” The look on his face was a strange duality of eager and apprehensive.

Fighting down the urge to praise him excessively, Merlin just gave a quick nod. “Yeah, that’s great. Thank you.” He handed over a small barrel of oats. “Just set that outside the door. We’ll get it all moved so I can sort it before bringing it inside.”

Between the two of them, it didn’t take all that long to get the goods and sundries moved from the cart. It felt a bit strange to Merlin to direct Arthur where to carry things, but Arthur seemed pleased whenever Merlin gave him something to do. He even told him how to get the cart pushed back into place on the side of the byre, and Arthur completed the task quick and efficient.

This was going to take some getting used to.

“C’mon,” he said when Arthur returned to his side, “I’ll show you the house.”

He led Arthur inside. Though nearly dusk, there was enough of the setting sunlight streaming in through the windows that the interior was warmly –if dimly – lit, and at a word from Merlin, all the candles suddenly flamed to life.

Arthur startled a moment, and the gaze he turned on Merlin was slightly wide-eyed. “I’d almost forgotten,” he said softly, staring at Merlin’s eyes. “I mean, what it was like.” His smile became self-deprecating. “Not that I ever got to see a lot of it.”

Merlin rubbed hand over his forearm, feeling self-conscious. “I uh, don’t do a lot of it these days. It’s safer not to. Magic isn’t…” Wow. How to explain that? “Magic isn’t acknowledged anymore. It’s not… There are very few who believe it’s actually real or ever existed. And even fewer still who can actually wield it. I’m the only one I know, these days.”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t know.”

“It’s all right, Arthur.”

Smile softening, warming, Arthur gave a slow nod.

They stared at each other for another of those long, heavy moments. Finally Arthur cleared his throat, looking away. “So, uh, your home?”

Merlin coughed as well. “Um, right. There’s not much too it, really. Just this space,” he gestured to the mostly open area, centered around a homey hearth, the coals still glowing with heat. The walls were whitewashed stone above wood panels, with wide oak beams crossing the ceiling. There were two chairs – recent acquisitions and a bit of an extravagance for his simple peasant cottage – facing the fire. Against the back wall was a long, low cabinet and occupying most of the right, behind a half-wall of bookshelves that separated the space, was Merlin’s worktable. The table itself was hemmed in by laden shelves and a low bench was shoved underneath. He pointed to the left, where another wall partially divided an area from the main hall, “Through there is the kitchen and pantry. There’s a cold storage cellar below us.” He tapped a boot on the wooden floorboards.

Arthur glanced around slowly, seeming to take it all in. “And upstairs?” he asked, with a nod to the walled alcove where stairs could be seen.

“Sleeping quarters.” Merlin explained. He had a bed in his work room as well, but he wasn’t going to explain to Arthur that most nights, after long hours spent hunched over his carvings, that he didn’t bother with going upstairs. “There’s a small garderobe under the stairs as well.” Another not-so common addition to the architecture, but Merlin had borrowed elements from the different housing designs he’d observed over the years and during his travels.

“It’s a lovely home, Merlin.”

Merlin waved him inside.

“What about the supplies,” Arthur asked, hesitating stepping beyond the threshold.

Much as he wanted to suggest that he could handle that task on his own, he knew Arthur would argue. It was easier to give in. “Right, we should get that taken care of first.”

In truth, it probably would’ve gone easier if Merlin had done the work himself – he spent more time trying to explain to Arthur where things were stored than if he’d just put them away – but Arthur seemed pleased at being able to help. When they were done, he insisted that Arthur take a seat.

“I’ve got to get dinner made,” he said, “and that’s something easier done by one.”

“Right,” Arthur replied a bit sheepishly. “Sorry if my help was more hindrance than anything else.”

Merlin waved that off. “I appreciated it, Arthur. It’s good that you get to know the place.”

Arthur smiled at that, but didn’t say anything in return.

Cooking for someone other than himself was something that Merlin hadn’t done in ages. He wanted to provide something nice for Arthur, but was rather limited as he’d not been out to check his traps the last two days, and the shoulder of beef he’d picked up in town would take too long to roast. There was absolutely no way he was serving Arthur the pottage hanging over the fire.

Still, he had found some pheasant confit in the market, and had a basket of fresh vegetables. “I hope stew is all right?” he called out. He had to fight to keep from peeking into the main room, to make sure Arthur was still there. It was an odd compulsion, one that he couldn’t seem to shake.

“Of course,” Arthur replied, his voice closer than expected.

Pausing in his efforts to chop the array of parsnips and potatoes and onions laid out on the sideboard, Merlin looked up to see Arthur leaning against the doorway. He was grinning again.

“I’ve always been fond of your stew.” He gave a sort of loose gesture to himself. “Um, do you have some place I can clean up?

Merlin looked over his shoulder at the wooden washtub propped against the wall. Another not-as-common extravagance, but Merlin hadn’t ever been able to break himself of the habit of regular bathing.

“A full bath’s not necessary,” Arthur hurried to say before Merlin could offer. “It’s just that I feel like I’ve been wearing that armor for… well, a lifetime.” He grinned.

It was impossible not to smile back. “Right. Um, upstairs there’s a pitcher and basin, and some clothes. Please help yourself to whatever you like.” He thought for a moment about the need to blend in. “It’d probably be best, actually, if you did find some things to wear. We can get you more at the market, but my things should fit. Styles are a bit looser now.”

Arthur’s brow went up. “Is the clothing all like yours?” He gave Merlin a long, slow once over, taking in Merlin’s somewhat loose breeches tucked into hose and boots, and the slightly voluminous sleeves of his tunic that was held tamed by a belted and sleeveless leather jerkin.

Blushing for no reason he could identify, Merlin bobbed his head. “Well, uh yeah. I mean, you’re actually lucky, Arthur. This is peasant’s garb. The clothing of the aristocracy is much worse.” He laughed and used his hands to mime puffier sleeves and pants. “I do long for the simplicity of a basic tunic and trousers. Hell, even the official uniform of the servant of Camelot would be welcome.”

Accompanied by a shake of his head, Arthur loosed a rather undignified snort of laughter at that. “You know there was never such a thing, right?”

“I suspected,” Merlin replied flatly. “Especially when the other servants asked me why I was dressed like such a fool.”

“It’s just quite strange to see you dressed like this,” Arthur admitted after swallowing down the last of his laughter. “I don’t know why, but I think I expected you to look exactly the same as I remembered. At least the colors are right, though. And I’m damned glad to see that neck scarf.”

One concession Merlin had always made to adapting to whatever the fashion of the time dictated was the scarves. He’d never been able to leave them - in some form or another – behind. And, Arthur was right, even if it wasn’t always appropriate for a man of his means and station, Merlin tried to incorporate colors that reminded him of his days in Camelot. While his jerkin was rich brown, much like his old coat, the shirt beneath was a muted blue and he kept his red scarf tucked in at the collar.

Merlin returned Arthur’s rather expansive, all-over look. “You do look exactly as I remembered. And, you don’t have to put on this kind of clothing if you’re not comfortable with it.” Though, there was a part of him that wouldn’t mind seeing Arthur in a doublet and hose.

“It’s fine. If we’re to be out, I’d rather not draw attention to myself by not dressing the part.” He stared at Merlin for another of those overlong, searching moments and then gave a quick nod and left the doorway.

Unsure what to make of that, Merlin got back to work. The sounds of Arthur’s footsteps above him, and the occasional muted muttering (Merlin would’ve loved to know what inspired that chatter) were a strange comfort, despite being unfamiliar. It just felt so right having Arthur in his home. He still couldn’t quite believe the truth of it.

And yet beneath the joy and the wonder of it all, remained that small, lingering bit of doubt.

But Merlin wasn’t going to focus on that.

By the time Arthur came back down the stew was bubbling and a quick spoonful told Merlin that the vegetables we’re almost cooked through. He’d bought fresh bread loaves at the market – far too busy these last few days to make his own – and he had cheese and butter. He’d have preferred wine, remembering that’s what Arthur used to have with his meals, but only had weak ale to drink.

“Smells good.”

Merlin turned and his hand flew up to cover his mouth. He wasn’t sure what reaction he was trying to stop, but it certainly tried to escape the press of his fingers.

Arthur looked…

Well, Arthur looked different, that was for certain. Even his most ostentatious court jackets had nothing on current styles. He’d chosen mink dark breeches, and an equally dark jerkin in blue, and his shirt was creamy linen. The colors were actually flattering, and the cut – while a bit snug – was likely better than any of the items fit on Merlin. What was throwing Merlin the most was the hose and boots. Something about Arthur’s knees and calves in the off white stockings struck Merlin as positively indecent. Which was such a strange thought, as he’d seen Arthur’s naked calves plenty in the past while helping him dress.

“Is it that bad?” Arthur asked, quirking one side of his mouth and squinting an eye.

Merlin hurried to shake his head. “No, it’s not. It’s really not. I’m just…”

Arthur finished that thought for him. “Not used to it.”

“Right,” Merlin nodded with a relieved sigh.

“It’s a bit more confining than I’m used to.” He lifted his arms and twisted side-to-side, testing the limits of the fabric. “But I could still fight in it if I needed to.”

Suddenly overcome by a strange sort of roughness in his throat, Merlin coughed and had to turn away. “Um, there’s supper,” he said hoarsely. He spun back to Arthur and gestured to the table and benches. “There’s really no formality here, so uh, just have a seat.”

Doing as he was bade, Arthur settled on the far side of Merlin’s small table. As he lifted the pitcher to pour liquid into his cup, Merlin hurried to say, “It’s just ale. I mean, I don’t have wine. I’m sorry.”

Arthur set the pitcher down and frowned up at Merlin. “You don’t have to keep apologizing that things are not like they were at Camelot,” he said, rather insistently. “I already told you, I’m not expecting you to be my servant here. You and I,” he gestured between them with a hand, “are equals. Actually, no. We’re not. If anything, I should be helping you, supporting you, for taking me in.” The gesturing hand became a waggling finger. “You need to let me earn my keep.”

Taken aback by the adamancy in Arthur’s tone, Merlin could only nod. “Oh, um. Right. Sorry.”

An elegant brow lifted rather pointedly, but Arthur didn’t chastise his apology.

Since he couldn’t seem to say anything without wanting to add an ‘I’m sorry’ to it, Merlin continued to serve the meal in silence. He set the pot on the table, handed Arthur a ladle and then cut them both some bread. Luckily, Arthur seemed accepting of that, and he merely readied his own meal and then scooped a portion of stew into Merlin’s bowl.

“It’s very good,” Arthur said around a mouthful of stew-soaked bread. He chewed and swallowed and then added, “You’ve not lost your touch with stew.”

Merlin gave a half-hearted shrug. “It’d be better with fresh game. We can go out for some tomorrow.”

That earned him a grin. “I’d not mind a chance to go hunting.” He took another spoonful and then said, “Which reminds me. What happened to my sword?”

Luckily Merlin managed a gulping swallow and didn’t choke on the mouthful of savory pheasant he’d been chewing, though it was a near thing. “What was that?”

“My sword? I know I had it when we were trying to get to Avalon. I mean, you used it to kill Morgana. Everything else that I had on me returned. My armor, my gloves, my belt.” He lifted one shoulder in a half-hearted shrug. “Seems odd that my sword didn’t come back with me.” His nonchalance seemed feigned, but Merlin couldn’t figure out why.

“Oh, well,” Merlin dragged a spoon through his bowl, separating out the remaining chunks of meat from the thick broth. “That’s because it wasn’t with you. I…um, threw it in the lake.”

That actually got a reaction beyond that faux-indifference. Arthur set down his spoon and folded his hands on the table and nearly hissed. “You threw my sword in the lake?”

For all that Arthur had seemed different since he’d come back – wiser, kinder-edged, thoughtful and philosophical in ways he’d never been before – there were moments where he was exactly the man that Merlin had known all those decades ago. This particular moment felt about three seconds from flying crockery.

“Well, yes. But there’s a good reason for that.”

“Let’s hear it then.”

Explaining the truth behind the sword’s origins led to the story of Freya, and then to the Fisher King, and finally to the entire truth about the sword and the stone. Arthur’s reactions varied throughout: sympathy, curiosity, definite irritation and plenty of questions that Merlin struggled to field. Finally, after trying to sum it all up as neatly as possible, Merlin concluded, “So, because of your destiny, the knowledge that you would return someday, I knew the sword had to go back to the lake. To be kept in safe hands, in a safe place, until then.” He shrugged somewhat uncomfortably.

Arthur made a thoughtful noise. “Hmmm, I do have to wonder why it didn’t return when I did, then. Don’t you find that odd?”

Shaking his head, Merlin said, “No. Not at all.” And if he answered too quick and a little high-voiced, well that didn’t mean anything.

“Merlin–” Arthur started, but whatever he’d been about to say, Merlin cut it short.

“Oh, but you won’t need a sword.” Merlin pushed away from the table. “Just hold on, I’ve got something to show you.” He hurried to find his travel satchel and carried it back into the kitchen. “Here,” he rummaged through the pack and pulled out his pistol. “This is a new kind of weapon. It’s called a flintlock.”

Arthur held out a hand for it, but Merlin hesitated. “Perhaps I’d better explain its use first?”

Grudgingly, Arthur lowered his hand. “Fine, but I’m assuming it has something to do with that trigger mechanism there?” He pointed.

Twisting his mouth wryly, Merlin handed over the weapon. “Well, yes. Just, don’t pull that trigger in here, all right? I mean, it’s not kept loaded, but better not to chance it.”

While he gingerly accepted the flintlock and began to examine it, Merlin stood at Arthur’s shoulder, describing each part. “You see, it’s quite like a crossbow in that it fires a projectile. But it’s much smaller. There’s a powder inside that’s sparked with flint and steel. It catches fire and pushes out a small ball of lead at incredible speed.”

“And something so small can kill more efficiently than a sword?”

Merlin nodded, but with Arthur’s attention on the pistol he added aloud, “Yes, it can. Tomorrow, I’ll show you.”

Arthur handed the flintlock back. “I’d like that. I do feel a bit strange not having some sort of protection.” He shrugged. “All my life I was armed. It was rare that I didn’t have sword or a dagger or a crossbow at hand.”

Merlin remembered that very well. “I know. I do have a bow and a few other weapons. We can find you something you’re comfortable with.”

“Thank you, Merlin. Now,” he waved a hand at the table, “finish your supper, would you?” To demonstrate, he scraped up the last morsels in his bowl into a heaping spoonful and scooped it into his mouth.

Merlin’s bowl, by contrast, was still half-full. “Why don’t you finish mine,” he offered. “I’ve had plenty.” His stomach was unsettled and he knew that no amount of food was going to help. When Arthur looked like he might protest, Merlin all but pushed his bowl into Arthur’s hands. “Really, I’m fine. Please, help yourself.”

Only a little bit reluctantly, Arthur did so.

Unfortunately, without the distraction of a meal, or even sharing new weapons, Merlin had little to do but putter. He cleaned up the empty pot, scrubbing it out with sand and water, and did the same with the other abandoned dishes. He retrieved the uneaten bread loaf, covering it with a cloth and put it and the cheese on the small pantry shelves.

Finally Arthur pushed the nearly empty bowl aside. “Will you stop hovering and sit down.”

“Sorry.” Merlin knew it was the wrong thing to say the moment it left his lips. Arthur fixed him with a look of pure exasperation. Reluctantly, Merlin sat back down on the bench.

To Merlin’s surprise, Arthur reached across the table and took his hand. He laced his fingers through Merlin’s, squeezing tight. “You’re panicking, aren’t you? I’ve come back and you didn’t expect it and I’ve completely upended your life, haven’t I?”

Merlin started down at the knot of their fingers, once again something thick and tight at his throat making speech difficult. “I had hoped, desperately, every single time that I went to that lake, to find you there, Arthur.”

Which wasn’t any kind of explanation and Arthur saw through it immediately. “That still doesn’t mean you were expecting it this time. You have to stop trying so hard to make things seem normal and all right. Please don’t feel like you have to make things easier on me by making things harder on yourself.”

Arthur was right. He was just making things worse on himself. “I’ll try, Arthur.” It was the best he could offer. Somewhat reluctantly, he unwound his fingers from Arthur’s grip. “Can I share something new with you? Just something that I think you’ll like.”

“Of course.”

“It’ll take me just a few minutes.” He hung a small pot of water on the stove hook and scooped a dark powder into it from a small crock and then added a small amount of sugar. It took a few minutes to boil, but Merlin just stirred it occasionally and waited. He’d found this to be a calming activity, and doing it now – even knowing that Arthur was watching him – helped to still his roiling thoughts. When it was done and he’d let it settle, Merlin poured out a steaming mug and then turned and presented it to Arthur. “Try this. Drink it carefully; it’s hot.”

Arthur took a cautious sniff, and looked up wearing an expression Merlin could only call speculative. “It uh, certainly smells interesting.”

Merlin rolled his eyes. “Just try it, Arthur.”

There was enough dare in his tone – just as Merlin had intended – that Arthur did. He drank slowly, warily and then after a long moment, swallowed. The look on his face became inscrutable. “What is this?” His tone was inscrutable too.

“It’s called coffee. It’s made from a small bean, like a seed, and comes from a land that’s far away and has an entirely different climate. It’s quite popular. There are shops in London dedicated to drinking it.” He didn’t know why he was so vociferously defending the drink to Arthur. Perhaps just because the first time he’d tried it he’d thought of Arthur, and how much he’d wanted to share it with him.

Arthur took another drink. And then another.

“Well?” Merlin had to ask when the silence continued, punctuated only by the sounds of Arthur’s slow, considering sips.

Finally, Arthur gave a half-hearted sort of shrug. “It’s not bad.” He grinned over the top of the mug.

Merlin slumped against the wall with a sigh of relief. “You like it then?”

Arthur nodded. “I wish we’d had something like this back in Camelot. Are you going to have some?”

There was enough left in the pot, so Merlin poured himself some, careful to stop before the thick sludge of grounds at the bottom followed the hot coffee.

“So how is it that you make it?” Arthur asked.

While they enjoyed their coffee, Merlin explained the brewing process. He also told Arthur about tea and chocolate and promised that he’d find some of both for Arthur to try. Both were as difficult to procure as coffee, and he didn’t often have them on hand. Thinking to the days ahead, he also quickly showed Arthur where various things in the pantry were located. Arthur made definite noises of interest at his various fruit preserves, which came as no surprise since he’d always had a bit of a sweet tooth.

After they both finished and Merlin cleaned-up their cookware (though Arthur wrangled a promise from him that he’d let him take on that chore the next day) they returned to the main chamber.

“This is one of my favorite spots,” Merlin told him, inviting Arthur to sit in one of the comfortable chairs in front of the hearth. Settling in the other chair, Merlin leaned back and stared into the crackling flames. “I often like to sit here in the evenings with a book.”

“You’ve quite a collection, I noticed.” Arthur gestured to the over-laden shelves. “Though, that doesn’t surprise me. I remember the array of books in Gaius’ quarters well enough.”

Merlin laughed softly. “You likely have no idea how many of those were actual magical references.”

Arthur hummed considerably. “I’d wondered. I mean, I always assumed that if my father had allowed them, they couldn’t have been too terribly subversive. Then again, my father had a bit of a blind spot where Gaius was concerned.”

“Sometimes,” Merlin conceded. “Although, I think he and I just got lucky that most of Camelot’s guards who searched the place had no idea what they were looking for, as often as that happened.”

Arthur went quiet a moment. “I’m sorry for that, you know. For every time that I ever did anything against sorcery that inadvertently caused you pain.”

It was odd to hear Arthur speaking of things that had happened so long ago, like they still troubled him. “Arthur, you’ve no need to apologize.”

“It’s strange, Merlin. All that while in Avalon, I could see the world as time flowed past, but there’s a part of me that still feels as if our time together in Camelot was only days ago.” His fingers drummed restlessly on the arms of the chair. “So, I know the things that I still feel so strongly are probably long-faded in your memory, but they’re fresh in mine.”

“I’ve probably forgotten less about those days than you think,” Merlin told him, reminded of his thoughts along that line earlier in the day. “I mean, sure some things are lost to time, but I never wanted to forget. Everything that happened to you and to us, it deserves to be remembered.” He wasn’t sure why he was so certain, but Merlin knew that someday that knowledge would be important. “I think I’m meant to remember. I mean, I think that’s one of the reasons I’m still here.”

Arthur turned from his contemplation of the fire to stare at him. “You think so?”

Merlin could only shrug. Nothing about his existence was ever certain to him. “I think that’s one of the reasons.”

He watched as Arthur lifted a hand to his mouth, thumb going to rub habitually at the empty spot on his finger where a ring used to rest. It was an old habit of Arthur’s, a rote action that Merlin doubted he was consciously aware of making.

“Your mother’s ring,” he nodded toward the fidgeting fingers. “I have it.”

“You do?” Arthur asked sharply. “Why?”

How to explain? Merlin settled for the bald – if somewhat embarrassing – truth. “Because I wanted to have something of yours. Something I could hold onto and carry with me, always.” He dropped his gaze to his own hands that he’d folded in his lap. “Probably also so I could give it back to you someday. Do you uh, want it back?”

When no reply was forthcoming, Merlin turned his head to the side to see Arthur staring at him. He didn’t know what to make of the odd little frown or slightly furrowed brow. “Arthur?”

Eventually, Arthur just shook his head. “No, you keep it, Merlin. I’d like it if you did. I’m glad it’s somewhere safe.” That strange contemplation was gone, replaced by a faint, but relaxed smile. “Perhaps I’ll ask for it back someday.”

There was a weight and a promise to those words that Merlin didn’t quite understand, so he just inclined his head. Before he could ask after it, he saw Arthur yawn. “Tired?”

“A bit,” Arthur nodded after his jaw clacked shut. “I feel like I shouldn’t be tired considering how much I slept after I came back into this world. Maybe that just takes a lot out of you?” He raised both arms above his head, stretching them out.

“You can take the bed upstairs,” Merlin offered.

Arthur drew his arms back from their full extensions only to cross them over his chest. Again, he fixed Merlin with an indecipherable look. “Merlin, I’m not kicking you out of your own bed.”

“You’re a guest, Arthur,” Merlin protested. “Besides, I’ve got a cot over there behind the bookshelf. I often sleep there when I’ve had a late night at my work table. It’s no hardship.” He pointed to the corner but Arthur didn’t look away from him.

“I’m not putting you out of your bed, Merlin, and that’s final. Besides, your bed is plenty big for the both of us.”

Merlin blinked dumbly. He couldn’t have heard Arthur right. There was absolutely no way that Arthur was suggesting they share Merlin’s bed. “I’m sorry?”

“You heard, Merlin.”

“Arthur,” Merlin felt compelled to point out, “you once said that you were willing to face ‘all manner of horrors’ but sharing a bed with me was not one of them.” It seemed safest to err on the side of levity.

“Haven’t we already agreed that that was a very long time ago, Merlin? You said you’d forgiven me the foolish and close-minded things I said back then. I’d hoped that was one of them?”

Oh, he was very good at manipulating Merlin still. If Merlin disagreed, it called into question all his earlier words. On the other hand, agreeing meant sleeping in the same bed as Arthur.

“Fine,” Merlin grumbled. He swallowed down the nerves that thought engendered. “Why don’t you go up now, then. I’ll join you there later.”

Arthur shook his head. “I’ll wait until you’re ready.”

“You don’t need to stay awake on my account, Arthur.”

The sound that came from Arthur’s throat could only have been described as a growl. “Merlin, I know you’re just trying to make me comfortable, but please, stop it. Stop playing at generous host, or dutiful servant. That’s not what you are.” He paused, and when he started speaking again his words were measured, calm. “I just want to be here with you. To sit here and talk, or read or just sit quietly in front of this nice fire. And then, when we’re both tired, we can go up to your room, and share your bed and sleep side-by-side. Do you understand?”

Merlin thought he did. It sounded like the very same undercurrent of desperation that thrummed beneath every breath he drew and every beat of his pulse. The sensation that this wasn’t real, and that as soon as he closed his eyes or let Arthur out of his sight, he’d blink and find it was all some sort of terrible, wonderful dream. He just hadn’t realized that Arthur felt the same.

“Yes, I understand.”

“Thank you.”

At somewhat of a loss, Merlin offered, “Would you like a book? I do still have a few very old ones that you could probably still read.” They were mostly bestiaries and pharmacopeia, but Merlin didn’t feel the need to elaborate as Arthur was already shaking his head.

“No, that’s all right. I mean, if that’s what you want to do.”

Merlin had no interest in reading. Even if he did, there would be no way he’d be able to concentrate with Arthur sitting silently next to him.

“We could just talk, you know.” Arthur suggested. “There’s still so much I don’t know about what things have been like for you. I’m interested.”

“I’m not even sure where to start.” A thousand years of history was a lot to sort through.

After giving it a few seconds of thought, Arthur suggested, “What about your travels? You’ve mentioned having wandered quite a bit. Where did you go?”

While that narrowed things down, Merlin had spent the better part of two centuries on the move, so it was still a rather broad topic. He decided to start with his earliest journeys, and see where the conversation took them. For all that Arthur had seemed weary, he stayed interested in everything Merlin had to say and his questions prodded Merlin to remember details and events long forgotten.

Eventually, the long night and highly improbable, miraculous day caught up with him and he fought against the dragging weight of his drooping eyelids and the tightness in his jaw as he tried to stifle yawns. The fireplace had burned down to glowing coals and the candle flames guttered, casting everything into flickering, dancing shadow. Merlin trailed off, mid-sentence, and then tried to recall what he’d just been talking about.

Arthur just shook his head. “Now you’re just being pigheaded. You’re tired. Come on, we’re going up to bed.” He took up Merlin’s arm and nearly hauled him up from the chair.

“I may be tired, Arthur,” Merlin protested, “but I’m capable of getting up the stairs on my own. You’ve no need to carry me.”

Pointing at him, like it was some kind of threat, Arthur said, “Don’t think I wouldn’t.”

Merlin just rolled his eyes and then with a quick mutter and wave of his fingers, banked the coals in the fire and doused almost all of the candles. He noticed Arthur staring at his eyes and he was glad the sudden darkness would hide his flushed cheeks. “It’s handy when I’m tired,” he said just a trifle defensively.

Arthur lifted his hands. “I’m not judging, Merlin. It was just,” his gesture was hard to follow. “Your eyes,” he explained. “Seeing them glow like that. As I said earlier, when you lit the candles, I’ve not seen it often. It’s rather mesmerizing.”

Scrubbing at the back of his neck, Merlin could feel the flush chase all the way up his scalp. “Uh, well. It’s just part of the magic.” He waved Arthur ahead of him. “Let’s just go, shall we?”

Arthur nodded and moved toward the stairs. Merlin took up the remaining candle, shielding its flickering wick from drafts as he followed after. There were more candles lit upstairs and Merlin got the banked fire in the small hearth blazing with another quick bit of magic, brightening the room further.

“It’s a small wonder my chambers in Camelot were always warm, even on the coldest days,” Arthur remarked, already working at the laces on the jerkin.

Merlin stared, torn between a nearly instinctive urge to help and an equally overwhelming urge to flee. He turned away from Arthur and started on his own clothes with fumbling fingers. “I may have used magic a time or two for that purpose. But really, it was for my own benefit. My fingers got cold polishing all that armor.”

The laugh Arthur gave at that was muffled through cloth and Merlin could very easily imagine that he did it while in the midst of pulling off his tunic. Not that he was going to turn around and check… or even peek over a shoulder, just as Arthur’s back was bared.

“Oh really? Never used that trick for my benefit at all?”

Talking was good. Talking distracted from the fact that they were both stripping down and were about to share a bed. “Well, maybe once in a while, when you were especially grumpy. Kept you from being such a grouch in the mornings.”

A lump of crumpled cloth impacted with the back of Merlin’s head.

“Oh didn’t take long for you to start throwing things, did it?” Merlin complained, though it was made a bit less effective by the fondness in his tone. He was tempted to toss his own balled-up shirt back, but that would mean turning around and facing Arthur while he was shirtless. Not to mention, Arthur would likely be shirtless too. He remembered suddenly that in warmer months Arthur most often slept only in a pair of light bottoms with no nightshirt at all.

Merlin didn’t exactly have those options for him. He retrieved his things from the tall wardrobe in the corner, hurried to pull his own nightshirt on and then awkwardly tried to cover himself as he removed footwear, hose and breeches. He had a pair of lounging pajamas – another newly fashionable item discovered on his last trip to London – and debated offering them to Arthur. It would leave him bare-legged, but perhaps would be a good compromise between the pair of them? Unsure, he turned to face Arthur finally.

Who had apparently made his own decisions about his sleep attire; he’d changed out the borrowed breeches for his regular trousers, though was barefooted and bare-chested. He was seated on the edge of Merlin’s bed, one leg crossed over the other, hands splayed out behind him and propping him at angle that showed off his chest and taut belly to…pleasant effect.

Well, at least that gave him an answer about the lounge pants. The least Merlin could do was offer him a nightshirt. He had a spare tucked away in a wardrobe. “Um, I’ve got another nightshirt, if you’d want one? Though, it’s warm and I remember your aversion to them in the summer…” he trailed off.

Arthur just looked amused at his rambling and shook his head. “I’m fine like this. C’mon,” he patted the feather-down mattress topper.

Merlin swallowed, feeling a strange dryness in his throat. “Right, um. Just a moment.” He turned away as he pulled on the sleep trousers. Once that was done, his discarded day clothes needed to be folded and placed back in the wardrobe. And of course, the coals needed tending. It wasn’t always an easy thing to bank them properly so they didn’t burn so bright but continued to put out enough heat to last the night.

“Merlin, are you afraid to get into this bed with me?”

“No. Course not.”

Merlin moved to stand before the fireplace, hands held out to capture the heat. Even in only the thin linen nightshirt, it wasn’t that chilly in the room, yet warmth seemed to elude him.

“Then what is it?” Arthur asked from where he was still sitting on the bed.

Shaking his head, Merlin muttered a quick, “Nothing. It’s nothing.”

Unfortunately, that only seemed to encourage Arthur to get up and cross the room to stand behind him. “Merlin, tell me what’s troubling you.”

Mouth a thin, hard-pressed line, Merlin only shook his head again, sharp and jerking.

“Tell me, Merlin.” Arthur’s tone picked up a note of command. Something about it –the familiarity, maybe – compelled him to respond.

“You’re here Arthur,” he blurted out. “You’re standing right there and yet I’m afraid that if I go to sleep, I’m going to wake up tomorrow and find you gone. Like this is some kind of dream.” That wasn’t the whole of it, not by far, but Merlin couldn’t admit the rest out loud. Couldn’t admit to the trepidation he felt about joining Arthur in his bed. Or the fear that he’d let too much show… and push Arthur away from him when he’d just got him back.

Merlin felt hands on his shoulders and then the press of warmth against his back as he was drawn against Arthur’s bare chest. “Merlin, I’m here. I am. I’m real.”

“I’m sorry,” Merlin gritted out through teeth that kept chattering no matter how he tried to stop them. He was weirdly cold, shivering despite standing in front of the cheery fire; to say nothing of the heat forming against his back.

“Shut up, Merlin.” Arthur spoke low, into his ear. “You’ve nothing to apologize for. I cannot imagine what this has been like for you. Alone…. All these years. Just waiting. To have that come to an end…” Something tickled against Merlin’s ear: Arthur’s fringe as he shook his head. “It must be so very strange for you. I’m the one who’s sorry, Merlin. That entire time I was in Avalon, I knew you were here, in the real world, waiting for me. And it made me ache for you, and all the loneliness that you were feeling. But… time was different there, and I couldn’t feel the same loneliness.”

“I never wanted you to feel lonely, Arthur,” Merlin protested.

The huff of Arthur’s breath was another warmth along Merlin’s neck causing a shiver of a different sort. “I know that, Merlin. But I never wanted that for you, either. I know, now, that you and I are tied by some kind of destiny and honestly… I’m not sure which of us has it worse? My time in that other place is… hollow. I know things and sense things, but I can’t act on them. I can’t do anything but observe rather helplessly, and it’s frustrating.”

Arthur slid his arms further forward, palms flat against Merlin’s chest, before crossing and linking them and holding Merlin in a firm, unquestionable embrace. “But your time here must’ve gone by so slowly. And you were so alone. And I’d not wish that on anyone.” He paused, hardly noticeable but for the slight indrawn breath, “To say nothing of someone who loves me being made to suffer so.”

The latter was a whisper, and Merlin’s skin juddered down the length of his spine, though he was no longer the slightest bit chilled. “You know?”

Arthur blew out another scoffing breath against Merlin’s neck, this one rather damp and noisy. “Of course I know, Merlin. How could I not? I mean, I probably suspected for a very long time, but never really allowed myself to think on it. Not then. But I knew it when I was dying.” He said it quietly, like he was careful of admitting that truth. “When I had the chance to look back at my life, at the life we’d shared and to finally understand everything you’d done for me. I know we had – and still have – some grand fate tying us together, but there could only have been one reason you did everything you did, why you put up with it all.”

Something heavy and tight pressed at Merlin’s breast and he couldn’t quite get enough air. “This has to be a dream,” Merlin muttered, a little wildly. “This cannot be real.”

“Am I wrong?” Arthur asked, somewhere between arch and vulnerable.

Slowly, Merlin shook his head. “No, you’re not wrong.” Even if Merlin had long ago denied the true motivation for everything he’d done for Arthur, even when he’d called it destiny and couched it as something he was born to do, the truth of his feelings, his devotion, had always run much deeper. It was only long years after Arthur was gone that Merlin even admitted as much to himself.

It wasn’t easy being faced with it now. His back was to Arthur, and Arthur’s words may have been gentle and his voice soft, but Merlin couldn’t see his expression. What if that revelation offended him, or disgusted him or had just shocked him into temporary civility?

“Arthur, I don’t…”

Arthur hushed him. “You don’t have to explain yourself, Merlin. “

Despite that offer, Merlin did have to explain. “I never wanted you to know, Arthur. You weren’t supposed to know.”

“Why not?”

Merlin couldn’t tell if he heard curiosity or censure in Arthur’s tone. “Why not?” he parroted, with definite disbelief in his. “I could never have told you. Just think, Arthur. How would you have reacted back then, had I told you such a thing.”

He was glad that Arthur didn’t answer right away, and seemed to be giving it thought. What puzzled him was that Arthur’s thinking process seemed to require him to rest his chin on Merlin’s shoulder. This casual, almost offhand touching and contact was confusing to say the least. Especially in the context of such a heavy, strange and heady conversation.

“I think,” Arthur began after a long span of silence, “that it would’ve entirely depended on when you told me. Obviously, in our early years, I’d have probably laughed at you or had you in the stocks. Later, after everything with Morgana and my father, I honestly don’t know how I’d have reacted. It may have been too much for me.” His heavy sigh felt strange against Merlin’s cheek. “I don’t think I’d have handled news of your magic well then either, if I’m honest.”

“You were dealing with so much then, Arthur.” He’d long forgiven Arthur any of his behavior back then. “And that’s rather my point. There wasn’t any time, in those days, where I could’ve admitted such a thing to you.”

The pivoting of Arthur’s chin against the arch of his shoulder told Merlin that he was shaking his head. “I don’t think that’s true. I think that if you’d told me on the way to Avalon, I’d have accepted it. I’d have appreciated it for what it meant. Just as I did with your magic.”

Merlin frowned. He didn’t know what to make of that. “What do you mean? That you’d have appreciated it for what it meant.”

Arthur’s reply came easily. “It’s just as I said. I understood why you hid your magic from me, and why you risked using it for me at all. Not to mention why you put up with being my servant all those long years. It wasn’t just about destiny, Merlin. You all but admitted that you loved me by finally sharing the truth of your magic.” He said it so nonchalantly. Like it was easy.

With the press of Arthur’s chin, Merlin couldn’t shrug, but he uncrossed his arms and spread his hands. “I don’t know what to say.”

“Tell me it’s true. Tell me you love me.”

He felt Arthur’s whole body rock with the strength of his heavy inhale. When he let it out, slumping further forward, arms falling slack; Arthur just took that as his cue to cling tighter. Eyes stinging, he spoke the words on a shaky breath, “It’s true. I love you.”

“Was that so hard?”

Merlin scoffed. “You have no idea.”

“Perhaps I’ll give it a try then. See how easy it is?”

And for all that Arthur’s tone was light, it took Merlin far too long to understand the context of his teasing. He went still, body tensing, even the breath catching in his lungs. “Arthur?” he struggled to get just that much out.

Another of those very long, heavy moments hung between them.

Merlin had to be the one to break it. He had to know if he’d understood. “Arthur… are you…?” But he couldn’t finish the question, because there was no possible way the answer wouldn’t shatter him.

In lieu of an answer, Arthur’s head came off his shoulder and his arms drew back as well. Merlin expected them to withdraw completely, so was surprised when they only slid back far enough curl around the points of his shoulders again. Then Merlin was spun around bodily, until he was facing Arthur. The distance between them had hardly changed with the maneuver, they were still so close, and Arthur’s hands somehow remained cupped over his biceps.

Like earlier, on the isle of Avalon, Arthur leaned in to press his forehead against Merlin’s. Despite the proximity – or perhaps because of it – Merlin could see in the wrinkling around Arthur’s eyes that he was smiling. Reflected firelight danced in streaks of gold and amber through the stormy blue of his eyes.

“It’s true,” Arthur said, voice almost a purr.

Merlin nearly pulled back to frown. “What’s true?”

Arthur shook his head, rocking Merlin’s side-to-side with it. “No, Merlin. I’m telling you it’s true.”

His own words from a few moments ago suddenly sprang back into his mind. But it couldn’t be… Arthur couldn’t mean–

“It’s true,” Arthur repeated, and then concluded with a warmly whispered, “I love you.”

Merlin gasped. He jerked his head back, eyeing Arthur in shock.

“I love you,” Arthur said it again, firmer and more sure. Then Arthur licked his lips, and his gaze fell to Merlin’s mouth. He stepped the half-pace still separating them, closing the gap.

“What are you…?” Merlin trailed off as Arthur ducked his head closer. “Arthur?” His voice shook. The intent seemed so obvious, yet Merlin couldn’t bring himself to believe it.

Arthur’s head angled, mouth only a hairsbreadth away, and he caught Merlin’s gaze. “I just said I love you, Merlin. What do you think I’m doing?”

“But… I… I mean…” Merlin sputtered, “loving and wanting are not the same thing.”

Arthur’s soft laugh ghosted over Merlin’s lips. “Well, true,” he conceded. “But right now, for me, they are.”

His mouth connected, lips alighting against Merlin’s like a soft caress. They were warm, a damp, plush heat that felt so, so right brushing against his own.

And yet…

“Arthur, stop.” Much as he couldn’t believe he was doing so, Merlin spoke a protest against Arthur’s mouth and lifted a hand to interrupt the press of their lips. “We can’t.”

Though Arthur pulled away in an instant, he was frowning. “Why not?”

Merlin stammered, “Because… because we can’t. It’s just… it’s not right.”

Blowing out an upward stream of air that unsettled his fringe, Arthur shook his head in confusion. “I don’t know why you’re saying that, Merlin. It feels right to me. And I thought you felt it too.”

“I…it doesn’t matter what I feel. What matters is what you feel. Because it’s not real.”

Now, Arthur looked offended. “You can’t tell me that what I’m feeling isn’t real. I know how I feel about you. I’ve just told you.”

“You have no idea how much I want for this to be true, Arthur. All of it. There’s a part of me that has wanted this for so long I don’t know if I’ve ever lived without feeling it.”

“Then what’s wrong? Why don’t you believe me?”

Judging from the way that Arthur reared back at Merlin’s expression, he assumed the sheer exasperation he was feeling had been sufficiently communicated. “Arthur, in all our days, did you ever once give me any indication that you felt this way about me? It’s just this,” he flailed his arms between them rather helplessly, “this whole situation. It’s because you’ve come back from someplace into a strange and new world, and I’m your only connection to anything familiar here. It’s not me. It’s just… the situation,” he finished lamely.

“That’s not true, Merlin. What I’m feeling isn’t just some obligation. Or because of familiarity.” He took hold of Merlin’s shoulders again, staring deep into Merlin’s eyes. “It’s not. I promise you.”

There was sincerity in his gaze, and Merlin wanted nothing more than to believe it. It was only fair to share that with Arthur. “I want to believe you. I do. It’s just…”

“Just what?”

“This doesn’t happen. You’re… you. Arthur. You’re not supposed to want me.”

“Didn’t I once say ‘there’s something about you, Merlin’?” he teased lightly. When Merlin just continued to frown he sighed and went on. “I don’t know if I can explain this, but all that time I spent in that other place… as strange as it was, as disconnected from time and reality as I was, I could still think and consider and remember. And I did a lot of thinking, Merlin. About you; about us. I knew I was going to see you again, that we’d be together again. And this is something I’ve thought about and wanted for… well, time has no meaning there but it feels like forever.”

Merlin’s mouth fell open as he considered how he could reply to something like that. He saw Arthur’s gaze drop, and he reflexively licked his lower lip. Arthur’s pupils contracted and the line of his throat worked around a swallow… and, that couldn’t be feigned? Right?

So why was he having so much trouble accepting this? It was everything he’d ever wanted being offered to him. And perhaps that was it? It was… too perfect. Too amazing. And in Merlin’s long experience, perfect and amazing things were too good to be true. It felt like accepting this would only mean that things would eventually go terribly, horribly wrong.

Maybe they would. But what would be worse: not letting himself give in to this, and facing that inevitability never having known it, or giving in and having the memory of something so wonderful when it finally came crashing down.

The former, he decided easily.

“Yes,” Merlin said softly.

“Yes?” Arthur echoed. “You mean…”

“Yes,” Merlin said again, nodding. “Yes, I want this.”

“Oh thank god,” Arthur barely managed to gasp out before ducking his head to capture Merlin’s mouth in a searing kiss.

Accepting it now, wanting it now, Merlin could focus on every single sensation of Arthur’s lips pressing against his. The heat of it, the way Arthur sucked at his bottom lip and his tongue teased the seam of Merlin’s mouth. He opened to it, groaning as Arthur’s hands came up to cup his face, holding him firm so he could kiss so fervently, with so much passion, like all he wanted to do was hold Merlin there and keep kissing him endlessly.

Threading fingers of one hand through Arthur’s hair, Merlin got his other hand on Arthur’s hip, pushing at him, encouraging him to walk backwards.

“Something on your mind, Merlin?” Arthur asked against his mouth, the breath of the words tickling Merlin’s kiss-numbed lips.

“You were the one who wanted us in my bed,” Merlin reminded him, grinning playfully. “Thought I’d finally give in.”

Arthur nipped lightly at his jaw and then caught Merlin’s earlobe gently in his teeth. “I’m glad to have brought you ‘round to my way of thinking.” His voice was a low rumble that made Merlin’s knees tremble. He continued to tease Merlin’s ear, scraping the edge with his teeth, running the tip of his tongue all along the outer curve.

Merlin squirmed at the sensation. “You’re making it kind of difficult to cooperate, you know.” He tightened knuckles against Arthur’s scalp, silky hair pulled taut in his grip.

“Sorry,” Arthur replied, completely unrepentant, though he let Merlin’s earlobe slip from between his lips and started to walk them across the room. When they reached the bed he fell backwards on to it, pulling Merlin down on top of him. “Better?” he asked, eyes bright and playful.

“Much,” Merlin agreed, even as he lowered his head to capture Arthur’s mouth again. He let his hands roam over Arthur’s chest, scraping his blunt fingernails along his ribs just to feel Arthur writhe beneath him. He teased at the edge of Arthur’s trousers, and traced his fingers over Arthur’s groin, feeling the hard line of his cock straining the cotton. He cupped his palm over the length, learning the shape and feel of him.

Arthur groaned low in his chest, the sound rumbling against Merlin’s belly. “You really do give in wholeheartedly.” He was smiling, but there was something wary around his eyes.

Merlin sat back. “Is that… all right?” Suddenly the speed at which all this was happening seemed, well… fast wasn’t enough to describe it. Was he pushing Arthur too much? Should he not have touched? Maybe kissing was all that Arthur was after?

“It’s more than all right, Merlin.” Arthur said fervently. “I’m all for… all of this. We’ve waited long enough, haven’t we? It’s just, you were... hesitant. I don’t want to rush you.”

Rush him? Shaking his head, Merlin told him, “No, I’m good. I’m very good. Like you said, I’ve been waiting for this for too many lives. I want… everything.”

“Good,” Arthur said on a laugh. “Everything is shall be, then. Sit up a minute,” he suggested in a panting breath, pushing himself up on his elbows. “We’re too dressed.”

Merlin couldn’t argue with that. He knelt over Arthur’s lap and started to shimmy backwards, but was stopped short by Arthur’s hands catching at the hem of his nightshirt. “Let me,” Arthur offered.

Mouth going dry, Merlin nodded.

Together they managed to tug the flimsy linen over his head and Merlin flung the garment away carelessly.

“Come here,” Arthur urged, apparently having forgotten his desire for them to get undressed in his urgency to feel Merlin’s skin against his. Arthur’s hands were hot where they curved possessively around his ribs and the point of his hip, and his fingers pressed in greedily. He drew Merlin down against him, mouth once again nipping and sucking at Merlin’s lips and then his throat and the line of his shoulder.

Merlin did his own share of exploring with his lips and tongue. He’d wanted to know the feel of Arthur’s skin and to taste the salt-tang of it for so very long, it almost overwhelmed him to have it all laid out before him, free to his every touch of mouth and fingers.

Their hips rocked together, and Merlin couldn’t help rutting against that pressure. He worked a hand in the space between them, rubbing his knuckles over the ridge of Arthur’s confined cock, at the same time palming his own, trying to gain just a bit of relief from the exquisite ache that was building.

“Hey now,” Arthur muttered, leaving off sucking a mark just below Merlin’s collar bone. “We’ve waited too long for this to just rub off with our damn trousers still on.” Like it pained him to do so, Arthur pushed Merlin up and away from him and then scooted back on the bed. “Take them off,” he ordered.

Eager to comply, Merlin stepped down onto the floor and his fingers fumbled clumsily at the laces of his sleep pants. Any other time he’d have had the knot untied and the cloth bunched around his feet in a matter of seconds, but Arthur was proving… a distraction.

Laid out on the bed fully, Arthur was sliding his own hands slowly down his chest, over the firm pectorals and peaked nipples, and then the soft flesh of his faintly padded belly. He caught his thumbs beneath the edge of his trousers.

Merlin’s mouth watered.

Well-aware of the show he was putting on, Arthur pushed slowly at the cloth, revealing angular hip bones and the divots beneath that arrowed inward invitingly. He let the rolled edge of the trousers bunch up beneath the bulge of his cock, pushing it taut against the fabric. Merlin had to reach out to touch, tracing his fingers along the hard line of it.

Arthur’s eyes rolled back and he let out a low, breathy groan.

“C’mon,” Merlin pleaded. “I want to see you.”

“Right,” Arthur nodded, face flushed and a sheen of sweat glistening on skin that shown golden in the candle light. He eased the trousers carefully over his cock, and then pushed them down to bunch at his knees. Merlin stepped in to help then, tugging them off of his feet, leaving Arthur laid entirely bare before him.

Merlin wanted to tell Arthur how beautiful he was, how every single inch of exposed skin, every single familiar scar and imperfection made Merlin’s heart pound against his chest and made him want… so very badly. But he stayed silent and trusted the heat in his eyes and his restless, reaching fingers and the eager jutting of his own cock to say it all for him.

Damning the knot in his trouser laces, Merlin yanked them loose with a sharp snap of cord and hurried to shove them down his thighs. He hopped on a foot, dragging the sleep pants off on leg, and then kicked them away with the other. And then he stood naked in front of Arthur and there was a moment where he wondered why he’d been so eager to do so. He’d never felt so… exposed.

Of course, that changed a second later, when he took in Arthur’s covetous, hot-eyed gaze. Arthur held out a hand to him and Merlin took it, letting himself be drawn back down to the bed. He got his knees on either side of Arthur’s hips, and then folded forward to bring their bodies together.

They both gasped at the first press of skin-to-skin and Merlin shifted, slotting their hips against each other. Arthur’s cock was like a brand against his thigh and Merlin had to reach for it, to get his fingers around it and tug at the foreskin and explore the slick, plump tip. “Here, let me,” he mumbled into Arthur’s shoulder and shimmied sideways until he could get both of their cocks into his hand. “Oh, god…” he exhaled sharply. The sensation was almost too much to bear. Overwhelmed, he bent his head to catch Arthur’s lips, kissing him fiercely even as he began to slowly rock his hips in short little bursts of motion.

Arthur clawed at his back and bucked his own hips up, and he kissed back, messily and clumsy and desperate.

“Wait,” Arthur groaned, a few minutes later, tearing his mouth away. “Wait.” He caught at Merlin’s fingers, pulling them away, and got his own hand around both their cocks. Not stroking or moving, just holding them very still.

“What is it that you want, Arthur?” Merlin asked breathily, unsure how he was holding back enough to keep from spilling over the tight grip of Arthur’s clenching fingers.

Arthur didn’t answer him with words. Instead he released his tight grip of both of them, shifted further up the bed a bit and rolled over to lie on his belly. He crossed his arms under his head and then bent one knee up until it was hindered by the press of Merlin’s thigh. The invitation was unmistakable.

“Oh,” Merlin breathed out, more a gasp than a spoken word.

Head turned to the side and pillowed on his folded arms, Arthur asked, “Will you do this, Merlin?”

For the first time tonight, Arthur looked… nervous. Like maybe he was afraid he was asking too much. Which was silly, really. Merlin would give him anything he asked for.

“Of course, Arthur. You know I’d do anything…” He couldn’t finish saying it aloud, but just as Arthur had, he’d let actions speak for him. He reached over to the bedside table and rummaged through the drawer.

“What are you–“ Arthur started to ask.

Merlin held out the little jar of salve in Arthur’s line of sight. “It’s.. uh. Handy for things like this.”

“Right,” Arthur nodded, though a flush chased up the whole of his torso. “Just uh, go slow.”

“Don’t worry, I will.” Merlin promised. He laid himself along Arthur’s side, draping a leg over his thigh, and after dipping fingers into the salve to coat them generously, he probed slowly along the crease of Arthur’s arse. He explored cautiously, letting the pads of his finger push the slick unguent into the wrinkled skin. Finally, when all was slick and hot, he gently pushed in with one finger, easing firm and steady past that initial resistance.

“Careful,” Arthur cautioned, squirming slightly at the press of Merlin’s fingers. “You’ll want to go slow.”

“I have done this before, Arthur,” Merlin told him with a breathy laugh.

“You have?”

“Well, yes.” He could see the barest traces of a frown on Arthur’s profile. “I’ve been alive for a thousand years, Arthur. Did you think that I’d never–“

“No,” Arthur interrupted, but Merlin didn’t think he was imagining the faint jealously in his tone. “No, it’s just…” But he didn’t seem to have any way to conclude that.

Concerned, Merlin asked. “What is it?”

“Nothing,” Arthur said, sounding petulant now. For a moment it seemed like he might stay stubborn and not answer, and so Merlin started to pull away. He eased his finger almost all the way out, but then Arthur sighed. “It’s just this is my first time doing… well, this.” He moved one of the hands that was folded beneath his head and gestured backwards awkwardly towards their bodies.

“Arthur, we don’t have to do–”

“Shut up, Merlin,” he bit out. “I want this. You don’t know how long I’ve thought on this very thing.”

Merlin’s brows went up. “Really?”

Looking back at him sideways, Arthur said, “You sound surprised.”

“Well, not at the idea. Just that this is what you imagined while you were… dead. Or, well. Waiting, in that other place.” He shrugged, trying to measure it against the oddness of having this conversation while his finger was still inside Arthur’s arse. “It seems so prosaic.”

“It was all rather abstract, but I could think and remember and feel. I thought about a lot of things. A lot of it was about you, Merlin. And some of it was the things we could finally do when I came back. This… uh, being one that I thought on rather a lot.”

“Oh.” Why that made Merlin feel warm all over he had no idea. “Okay, well.”

Arthur smiled, reaching back to slap Merlin on the hip. “So c’mon. Get on with it.”

Though he rolled his eyes, Merlin followed that instruction. He pressed in again, slowly, easing his finger inside Arthur. “Shhh,” he crooned when Arthur’s body started to tense around him.

Arthur snorted irritably. “Stop that,” he chided. “You don’t need to treat me like I’m made of glass.”

Fighting another eye-roll, Merlin shot back, “Well I don’t want to hurt you. So I’ll be as careful as I feel I need to.”

“Fine,” Arthur blew out a breath, but Merlin didn’t think he was mistaking the way that his body loosened up slightly at the reassurance.

He pulled out to gather more salve and then Merlin eased the finger back in and carefully worked in a second. He inched them in and then, when Arthur’s body went further lax and he started to push back against the intrusion, began to thrust them slowly a few inches out and then back in. Beneath his reaching fingertips, Merlin felt for a faint bump beneath the surface and once he found it, he let his fingers glide over that spot with each shallow, steady thrust.

Arthur groaned raggedly, his body starting to shake and rock against Merlin’s easy rhythmic motions. Merlin pushed in deeper, letting the roll of Arthur’s hips provide all the momentum while he focused on stroking gently over that spot that made Arthur mewl and whine.

“All right,” Arthur panted a few minutes later, sounding utterly wrecked. “That’s enough, I’m ready.”

Merlin shook his head. “No, you’re not. Arthur, I don’t want to hurt you.”

Arthur was stubborn though and he brought his knees beneath him, dislodging Merlin’s fingers –though he gasped brokenly at that. “Merlin, don’t make me beg.”

There was a split second where he was tempted to reply that he’d like nothing better, but Merlin didn’t want to tease him any longer. He wanted Arthur, and Arthur wanted him and he wasn’t going to delay that any further. Shifting onto his knees he got an arm around Arthur’s waist and pulled at him. “It’s easier like this,” he explained at Arthur’s questioning noise. “Get your elbows beneath you.”

That brought Arthur on to all fours, his forehead hanging low against the pillow. Merlin had to look away a moment… because the sight of Arthur like that, ready for him… not just ready, wanting to be fucked. It was too much.

“Haven’t got all night, Merlin.” Arthur griped.

Knowing that Arthur’s snark was just a mask for his nerves helped to calm Merlin somewhat. He knee-walked into position, placing a hand on Arthur’s hip and wrapping the other around the base of his own cock. “I’ll go slow,” he said through tightly clenched teeth. “And if it hurts, at all… you stop me. You tell me and I’ll stop.”

Arthur huffed out a protesting, “Merlin–”

But Merlin cut him off. “No, I meant it Arthur. Promise me you’ll tell me if you want me to stop. I can’t do this if I know I’m going to be hurting you.”

Arthur didn’t say it aloud, but he bobbed his head and made a noise of assent.

“Good,” Merlin breathed. “Okay, just…” he pressed forward slowly, guiding himself with one hand and then feeling the tip of his cock catch at Arthur’s rim. He pushed firmly past that first resistance, biting his lip as the tight heat enveloped him. “You okay?” he managed to gasp out.

Arthur’s own reply was a curt, “Yes. ‘m fine.”

He pulled his hand away from his cock, and clutched at Arthur’s ribs. Beneath the grip of both of his hands Arthur’s sides were heaving with bellowing, panting breaths. But his body pushed back into Merlin, and after a few long seconds, Merlin’s hips pressed flush against Arthur’s arse. He stilled a moment, fully seated, all that snug unforgiving heat squeezing his cock so, so tight. He was nearly too overwhelmed from just that long slow slide inward.

It was Arthur who started them moving again. He lurched forward, somewhat clumsily but then eased back with a smoother motion. “C’mon, take me, Merlin. I won’t break,” Arthur urged with a low, husky laugh.

So Merlin did, starting a slow, but steadily increasing rhythm of firm, long strokes. Arthur was so responsive beneath him, his body surging back to meet Merlin’s; the flex of his back and the arc of his spine was a stunning sight to behold.

Merlin’s control slipped and his tempo increased, and the thrusts became shallower, his motions arrhythmic. He folded himself over Arthur’s back, wrapping one arm around Arthur’s heaving chest and dropping his forehead between Arthur’s shoulder blades. He reached around Arthur’s hips clumsily, flailing and then finding Arthur’s half-erect cock. He gave a slow tug in the same motion as the thrust of his hips and Arthur moaned low and reedy. His cock hardened in Merlin’s grip with each steady, firm roll of their joined hips.

“Arthur,” Merlin choked out, voice scraping hoarsely against a parched throat. “Arthur… I can’t…” It was too much sensation, too good. He wanted to bring Arthur over with him, but his own bollocks were tight and his belly was quivering.

Beneath him, Arthur shifted, and then Merlin felt a hand wrap around his as Arthur laced their fingers around his own cock. “It’s okay… Merlin. Please…” And then Arthur gave himself several hard, fast strokes and Merlin could only slam his hips forward in two…three more short, sharp thrusts and then he was coming.

“Arthur,” he rasped, his body shuddering and jerking with the intensity of his release.

Even as he collapsed over Arthur’s back, Merlin felt Arthur’s body shake beneath him and then Arthur grunted, low and primal, and wet heat spilled over their joined fingers. Merlin’s fingers twitched and Arthur’s body jerked and even more wetness trickled out. “Merlin…” Arthur exhaled in a whine.

Merlin had enough sense of mind – albeit barely – to carefully pull out, but then he fell over on his side and went boneless in the mattress. He felt Arthur flop heavily to the bed beside him, and the whole thing shook with the jostling of their gasping, panting breaths.

Eventually, Arthur rolled to his side and flung an arm over Merlin’s waist.

“You all right?” Merlin asked, suddenly worried that he’d let his own passion overwhelm his consideration for Arthur’s well-being.

“Stop it,” Arthur grumbled.

Merlin blinked. “Stop what?”

“You’re worrying. I can feel you starting to panic. I’m fine. I’m very, very good, in fact.”

“Oh,” Merlin replied, quietly pleased.

He floundered in the bed for a few seconds, shifting closer to Arthur and tugging at the covers that had tangled around their legs. Eventually he managed to get the blankets pulled up far enough to cover them to their waists, and he settled back into the pillows against Arthur’s side.

Arthur was warm, comfortable to lie against, and his labored breathing had finally begun to slow after many long minutes.

“You’re different, you know,” Merlin said softly, into the silence that wrapped around them.

“Different?” Arthur asked, and from the way his voice lowered he was wary of the word.

Merlin nodded. “Yeah. You’ve changed since… well, the old days.”

“I’m still me, you know.” His response was immediate and petulant. “It’s not like I’m someone else.”

“Oh, I know,” Merlin hastened to reply. “I don’t doubt that at all, Arthur. I just mean…” he didn’t know how to put it into words that wouldn’t be insulting. “It’s just, you used to hide all of this,” he gestured loosely at the two of them, sprawled in the bed with the blankets haphazardly tossed around their legs.

Arthur’s cheeks colored. “This wasn’t really… I mean, there was Gwen and–”

“No, not this, this. I mean, your feelings. It was just the way things were between us. Both of us, not just you. Whenever we got a little too close to being honest about how we really felt. Remember in the tunnels when we fled Ealdor? You said that you came back for me because I was the only friend you’d ever had and you didn’t want to lose me.”

“Right, well, I meant that.”

“See, that’s my point, Arthur. Back then, when I asked if that was really true, you told me not to be ridiculous.”

“It was true though,” Arthur objected.

“Oh, I know. But you’d never let it show. Neither would I, for that matter.”

Arthur nodded thoughtfully.” Like back when you went to face the Great Dragon with me. Cared a lot about my armor, I think you said.”

Merlin smiled. “Yeah, that’s exactly what I mean. But here, now? You’re not hiding those genuine feelings behind jokes and insults.”

He looked grumpy again. “Merlin, trust me when I say that death has a way of changing your perspective. And an endless amount of time in whatever that realm beyond really is…”

“I wasn’t complaining you cabbagehead,” Merlin protested, knowing he probably sounded utterly besotted.

“Oh, well good.”

Settled back into the pillows, bare shoulder pressed against Arthur’s chest, Merlin drowsily let the whole of the day’s events wash over him. “You know, I’m still not entirely sure this is real,” he murmured though it was with little conviction.

There was a sharp pinch in the skin below his ribs, and Merlin flinched and squirmed away. It tickled.

“Does that feel real?” Arthur asked, spreading the offending fingers out into a soothing caress that swept low across Merlin’s hip and then over the flat of his belly.

Merlin’s toes tingled. “Yes,” he sighed, blissful. “Yes, it feels real.”

“Good.” The hand pressed, becoming possessive.

Though his body made a half-hearted effort to respond, cock stirring sluggishly – it had been so long, and Arthur’s hands were so very welcome – Merlin was fairly exhausted. He tugged at Arthur’s arm, trying to encourage him to recline further. Arthur obliged, shifting so that one arm was beneath Merlin’s head, pillowing it, and the other draped over his chest, essentially caging him. It was the safest Merlin could ever recall feeling.

He held onto one of Arthur’s arms, hugging it tight. “I think we should sleep. Today was a very long day.”

Arthur nodded his head, moving Merlin’s with the motion. “Yes, it certainly was. And I’m sure tomorrow will bring the same.”

“Tomorrow,” Merlin began, already half-drifting, “we’ll work on getting you more clothes and figure out what extra stores we’ll need. And, I’ll show you how I check my traps tomorrow too, and then the day after we can go down to the coast and we can collect oysters and maybe even do some fishing. It’s only half a day, there and back.” He thought about it, sleepily distracted. “Well, we’d probably have better luck fishing elsewhere, but we could try.”

Arthur nodded along with every suggestion, humming thoughtfully. “That all sounds nice, Merlin, but when are we leaving?”

“Leaving?” It was like being doused with cold water. Suddenly Merlin was alert and wary.

“Yes. To find out why I’m here. Why I’ve returned.”

Stubbornly, Merlin insisted, “You’re here because it’s your time to be here. There’s nothing else to it.” He lifted his chin, resolute, turning away from Arthur’s eyes.

“Merlin, we can’t just stay here and wait for the changing world to pass us by.”

“Why not? Why can’t we do that? I’ve been doing it for centuries, Arthur.” And that was definitely a whine coming from his own mouth.

He was desperate and he didn’t know why.

Well, that was a lie. He did know the cause.

Just as his instincts had told him before he’d gone to Avalon, he knew this wasn’t the right time. Deep down, Merlin knew this wasn’t the time of the Once and Future King.

And Arthur knew that Merlin knew it. His expression gentled and he cupped a hand against Merlin’s cheek, turning his head to look Arthur in the eye. “Merlin, you know why. There’s something I’m here to set right. We can’t hide from that.”

Covering Arthur’s hand with his own, Merlin implored, “Yes, I can, Arthur. You can too.”

Arthur shook his head, but it was kind. “We can’t, Merlin. Much as I wish the rest of my life, the rest of our lives, could be you and I in this cottage of yours to the end of our days, that is not our destiny. Not right now anyway.” He smiled, and it was sweet and soft and a little sad around the eyes. “Maybe someday it will be.”

He pulled Merlin close, drawing him in, even when Merlin pushed against him. Not that he struggled too hard.

“Arthur, I cannot have you back only to have to give you up again. You can’t ask me to do that.”

“I don’t want to give you up either, Merlin. But you know there’s something I’m here to do. I can feel it deep within me.” He took Merlin’s hand and pressed it, palm flat, against his bare chest over his heart. “There, just there, is this kind of pull. It’s telling me I’m running out of time. That there’s some wrong I must right, or some task I must complete. It’s almost an ache, Merlin. I cannot ignore it and neither can you. You know that.”

The skin beneath his palm was warm and still dewy with sweat, and Merlin could feel the steady, strong beat of Arthur’s heart thumping like he was holding it cupped in his own hand.

“I’m sorry, Arthur. I didn’t know.” Although, in a way, he did. He knew, far too well, what it was like to be compelled into doing something no matter how hard his mind and heart fought against it.

“Look,” Arthur said, like he was reading Merlin’s mind. “I won’t force this on you. We both know what it’s like to have our lives controlled by things beyond us. My father, the pressure of ruling; hell, you and your entire destiny. I won’t make you do this, but I will ask you to.” He pressed a kiss to Merlin’s forehead. “Just think on it, will you?”

That much, Merlin could agree to. “I will.”

Seeming satisfied with that answer, Arthur nestled back into the mattress, once again pulling Merlin tight against him. Though he grumbled a bit at being manhandled, Merlin focused on the feeling of being in Arthur’s arms, and tried to let that be the only thing in his mind. The thought of what Arthur’s task might be, and what it might mean for how much time Merlin would have with him were things he couldn’t let overwhelm him.

He drifted off eventually, though his sleep was restless. Arthur’s didn’t seem too much better. He woke more than once to Arthur’s arms blindly grabbing at him when he’d rolled away. When he did sleep, his dreams were troubling and full of hazy images that he couldn’t recall whenever he woke.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The first light of coming dawn brightened the room to hazy greyness and found Merlin lying, curved against the cradle of Arthur’s body and wide awake. He’d been like that for some time, torn between the urge to stay comfortable and secure next to Arthur’s naked warmth, and to rouse and begin what was sure to be a very long, tiring day.

Arthur’s late-night request had hardly left his mind since he’d asked it, and no matter how Merlin tried to struggle through the decision, all that he could hear in his head was Arthur’s voice. Merlin knew, without a doubt, that if he asked it Arthur would stay with him. Even against the urging of fate and the pull of ‘something’ in his breast. He would do it for Merlin because he didn’t want to leave Merlin alone again.

It was that willingness to sacrifice – which came as no surprise, really – that made Merlin’s decision for him. He’d waited a thousand years; but he’d told Arthur he’d have waited twice that and more, and he’d meant it.

If, whatever the reason for Arthur’s early return concluded with Arthur returning to his ‘rest’ in the realm of Avalon, then Merlin would say his goodbyes, send Arthur off with his love, and settle in to wait once more.

Someday… they’d get their chance to be together. He would trust in that.

Decision made, Merlin carefully eased out of bed. He slid Arthur’s arm off of his hip and slowly rolled away from the press of Arthur’s body. He tucked the heavy, down-filled quilt in his place, making sure Arthur wouldn’t feel the cold of a room gone chilly after the fire burned low. Of course, then he made the mistake of looking back at Arthur, and for a very long moment the urge to rejoin him and the urge to get moving warred within him. He’d forgotten how tempting Arthur looked all snuggled up in the bedclothes with his pillow-mussed hair and slack mouth.

He resisted, albeit barely, collected his clothing and crept out of the room and downstairs to dress and ready for the day. They’d need to travel and Merlin had a lot to do to make that possible. Audrey and a cart weren’t going to be the appropriate mode of transportation this time. He’d need horses and the right gear for nights spent in the wild and under the stars. Luckily he’d squirreled away coins and though he didn’t ever like to be seen spending too many of them (preferring to rely on his trade and not providing too tempting a target for thieves, especially when he was guised as an old man), this called for an exception to that rule.

As he left his little cottage and stepped into a cool summer morning, he hoped Arthur would forgive being left behind.

It took perhaps longer than he’d have liked, morning already well-underway and edging towards noon by the time he got back, but Merlin managed to accomplish everything he’d set out to. He rode back onto his land on the back of a new horse, trailing both Audrey and another sturdy gelding and he had the mule loaded with goods and gear.

Once he’d unpacked the mule and the horses were settled in Audrey and the cow’s little byre, Merlin headed back to the house. He eased open the door, trying to make as little noise as possible, but as soon as he peeked his head in, he realized he needn’t have bothered with stealth.

Arthur was standing near the hearth, arms crossed over his chest. “And where were you?” he asked irritably.

Merlin might not need to step carefully, but he had to tread that way nonetheless. Arthur’s temper – especially in the mornings – was something he’d not forgotten. Spreading his hands, Merlin offered an apologetic, “I’m sorry I didn’t wake you, Arthur.”

“Why didn’t you?” His reply was quite petulant.

“Because I thought you might want to sleep?” Merlin didn’t really have a good excuse, other than the fact that if he’d woken Arthur up, seen him all sloe-eyed and sleepy and pillow-mussed in his bed, he’d never have talked himself into leaving. And, despite the way things had changed between them, he didn’t think he could admit that aloud.

“That doesn’t tell me where you were.” This time the petulance was accompanied by confusion. “I’d have gone with you, you know.”

“I know, Arthur,” Merlin hastened to say, not wanting him to feel this as some kind of slight. “I know. And I only went alone because I needed some time to think. To face this for myself.” He drew in a deep breath, and on the exhale blurted out, “I bought us horses.”

Arthur’s face twisted up funny. “Horses?”

“Yes, and travel gear.”

Realization dawned on Arthur’s face, like sun breaking through clouds, and his eyes got all sympathetic. “Oh, so you…” he waved kind of vaguely.

Merlin understood. “Yes. Much as it hurts to accept it, I know you’re here for a reason, and we need to figure out what that reason is.”

Arthur crossed the room then, pulling Merlin away from where he’d been essentially hovering in his own doorway, and hugging him tight.

He still wasn’t used to this easy affection from Arthur, but he damn sure relished it. He hugged back, relieved at being so easily forgiven.

“I know this isn’t easy, Merlin. But, thank you.”

Pulling away from the brief but fierce embrace, Merlin smiled. “It’s the right thing to do.”

Returning to the one of the chairs by the hearth, Arthur sat back down and clapped his hands on his thighs. “All right, let’s talk about this then. How are we going to figure this out? Have you got a plan? How do we even begin to understand what I might need to do?”

His eagerness stung a little, but Merlin wasn’t the one with some kind of compulsion telling him there was something he needed to do, didn’t have some task that was calling to him. Arthur’s restlessness could definitely be understood. He kicked the door closed and then joined Arthur by the fireplace.

Next to Arthur’s chair Merlin noticed one of his heavy mugs on the floor. Ah, so his restlessness was also induced by coffee.

Arthur followed Merlin’s gaze and then gave a sheepish little grunt. “What? It’s good. And I was hungry. I ate the last of the lingonberry preserves with some bread.” He said that a little defiantly.

Merlin deserved that. He’d mentioned they were his favorite. “That’s fine, Arthur. What’s mine is yours.” He couldn’t help but grin. “But go easy on the coffee. I’ve only that little bit. It’s expensive and not easy to procure outside of the cities.”

“Right,” Arthur agreed. “I’ll remember that.” He took up the mug and sipped slowly, clearly savoring it.

Leaning back into the chair and kicking his feet out, crossed at the ankles, Merlin explained his morning’s adventures. “So, as I said, I’ve procured us horses. I got a few supplies for travelling. Bedrolls, blankets and the like. I’ve also made arrangements with another farmer nearby. In exchange for the chickens and a tidy little sum, he’s willing to keep Audrey and the cow on his land.”

“You expect we’ll be gone that long?”

Merlin shrugged. He didn’t really know how long it would take, a day or two, a week, more, but he wanted to be prepared. He said as much to Arthur. “I know that the first destination I have in mind will take us at least two days on horseback, and beyond that…” he trailed off, spreading his hands helplessly.

“And where is that first destination?”

This was a topic he was somewhat fearful to breach. “Well, we need to see an old friend of mine.”

Arthur turned a frown at him. “Old friend? I didn’t realize you had any…” He must’ve realized how that could’ve sounded and tried a different tack. “I mean, who is this old friend? How long have you known them?”

If Merlin didn’t know any better, he’d say that Arthur appeared a little bit jealous.

“Well, she’s a very dear friend,”–and that was definitely a scowl–“and I’ve known her almost as long as I’ve known you.”

One of Arthur’s eyebrows lifted and then his face fell. “Oh, is this the woman you were telling me about last night? The one with the sword? Freya?”

Freya? Where on earth did Arthur get an idea like that? Merlin didn’t want to be cruel but he couldn’t help the little snort of laughter that slipped out. “No, Arthur, it’s not Freya. No, um, this friend is a bit different. You’ve actually see her before, though you’d never been introduced, but you did meet one of her kind.”

That agile brow curved up again. “Her kind?”

Merlin nodded. “Yes. You see, she’s a dragon.”

Arthur’s mouth fell open. “A dragon?” he asked after gaping for a long while. “And I’ve seen her before?”

“Um, yes.” If the news of Merlin’s friendship with a dragon was startling enough, he suspected the remaining details wouldn’t go over any better. “You see, when you saw her she was still young and–“

“You’re not talking about that ghost white beast of Morgana’s are you?”

Merlin nodded again. “Yes. Her name’s Aithusa.”

“Oh, she’s got a name,” he said with a mocking scowl. “Merlin, she tried to kill me, and you, on more than one occasion. She was under Morgana’s control.”

Those things seemed so long ago. He tried to wave that away. “She was a young, impressionable creature then, Arthur. It’s partially my fault that she ended up with Morgana. I failed her, to be honest. I didn’t know it at the time, but I should’ve been there for her. But that’s a story for another time. She’s been my friend these long years,” he frowned, missing her with a suddenness that was unexpected, “though we’ve not spoken in quite some time.”

Apparently his sympathy for Merlin’s loneliness overrode his apoplexy over the dragon because he was quiet when he asked, “Why is that?”

Merlin sighed. “She’s been asleep for a very long while. With magic waning, and belief in the old ways long since gone from this world, it became dangerous for her. She couldn’t hunt, she couldn’t fly. Her existence was empty with only this old Sorcerer for the occasional company.” He gave a self-deprecating grin. “Anyway, dragons are very long-lived. And to sustain herself she went into a very deep sort of hibernation.”

“So will you wake her?”

“Yes. She’s very wise, and dragons tend to know many things about fate and destiny, trust me on that. She’ll not mind being awoken briefly to help us out. ”

In fact, the fact that she was still asleep – something Merlin could sense even now – should’ve been one of Merlin’s first clues that this was not the right time for Arthur.

“All right then. Where do we need to go to wake this dragon?” If Arthur was still reluctant about her being a dragon, he didn’t let show.

“It’s about two-days travel along the coast. She’s hidden away in some caves along the sea.”

“When do we leave?”

Merlin took a slow glance around the room, staring for a long while at his work table and the space he’d made for himself to continue on in this staid, placid… non-existence. Suddenly, with an almost physical pain deep in his gut, he wanted to leave all of these trappings behind and actually do something. Actually live for a change. “I’d like to say today, but realistically, tomorrow morning?”

Arthur nodded. “That sounds good. Just let me know what I can do to help.”

“Well, we can start by readying the cottage. I’ll need to close it up. And we’ll need to go through the rest of my stores to see what we can take with us. Some of it will need to be disposed of. I suppose I could convince Farmer Hedgeson to take that lot as well.”

For the remainder of the morning Merlin and Arthur planned, and then after a simple lunch of the rest of the loaf of the dark, grainy bread, plus apples, cheese and slices of salted meat, they got to work.

There were moments that reminded Merlin of being nothing more than Arthur’s servant back in Camelot. For all Arthur’s changes since coming back, it was apparently quite easy for him – both of them, in truth - to step back into their roles of King and Manservant. The trouble was that Merlin didn’t mind all that much. He liked the easy familiarity of their banter and even felt strangely warm and joyous when Arthur called him an idiot and told him to ‘shut up’.

Of course, he gave back as good as he got. It had been a dozen lifetimes since he’d called anyone a ‘prat’, but it came naturally to his lips when Arthur was being particularly stubborn about the weapons they’d need to bring. Luckily, only one piece of crockery got broken – and that by accident when Merlin knocked it off his worktable with his hip.

“Is this what you do then?” Arthur asked after picking up the shattered pieces of clay. He was standing next to the worktable, holding an intricately carved button in his fingers and staring at it in interest.

Merlin joined him there. He nodded. “Yeah. Lately that’s how I’ve been getting by. Carving boxwood combs and hair pins and buttons from horn and bone and wood and sometimes shell pieces.” He felt a little embarrassed that this was all he had to show for the last centuries. “It keeps me busy,” he added, a trifle defensively.

But all that Arthur said was, “It’s good work, Merlin. The details are really finely done.” He set down the button and picked up a whirligig. He held it out, turning it from side-to-side. “And what’s this?”

“A toy,” Merlin explained. He took it from Arthur and pulled the strings taut. The little disk in the middle spun, it’s scalloped edges making a whirring noise, while the colorful design on either side flashed like it was moving.

“Clever,” Arthur said, grinning. He took the toy from Merlin and tried it on his own.

The little laugh he let out, genuinely joyous and delighted, made every single moment Merlin had spent waiting worth it.

“Let me show you this.” Merlin picked up one of the very colorful tops and set it spinning. He started two others while the first was still going. “More toys. They don’t bring in much money, as people in small villages like the one nearby don’t often have coin to spend on frivolities, but they’re my favorite things to work on.”

Arthur repeated Merlin’s efforts with the tops once they’d stopped spinning and fallen over to their sides. His spins weren’t as smooth, but he got them all going at once. “I can see why they make for good incentive to get the kids to keep quiet,” he said, recalling Merlin to the scene yesterday with John and Margery and William.

Sheepishly scrubbing at the back of his neck, Merlin nodded. “Well, that too. Every few decades when I have to reinvent myself, I show up as the nephew or son of Master Emerson. And the first thing I like to do is ingratiate myself with the children. Their parents are less likely to distrust someone their children are fond of.” He picked up the spinner disc again. “Things like this make it easy to earn their trust.”

For some reason that Merlin couldn’t fathom, Arthur took up one of the tops and tucked it into the pocket of his trousers.

They returned to work, moving down into Merlin’s cold cellar below the house. It was another uncommon thing in most houses these days, but Merlin had run across the concept at some point in his travels and found it to be quite convenient. Most of what he had stored down there was in barrels of salt or brine, and could stay, but he had Arthur haul up the baskets of potatoes and turnips and other root vegetables that might turn in the time they were gone. His neighbor would certainly appreciate them and Merlin didn’t want to end up coming home to bugs or rot.

They did pack up a good amount for travel though. Game and fish would be plentiful enough on their journey, but there was only so much meat one could eat on the road. Merlin would likely get plenty of practice making stew.

He took a break to set the whole of the beef shoulder roasting on a sturdy spit pole over the fire. They could have a nice supper at least. He’d wanted to have more nice suppers, perhaps even get Arthur to London to see one of the hugely popular coffee houses, and to see what a modern city was like. The likelihood of all those frivolities was slim, of course, but Merlin would make do where he could. He tried not to let those thoughts – of what ‘might have been’ – distract him too much.

Which was sometimes made very easy, as they also got caught in the occasional moment – passing by each other in the doorway, kneeling side by side to sort through baskets, once carrying either end of a heavy barrel of ale – when they’d pause, one would catch the other’s eye, and then lean in for a kiss. Arthur especially seemed fond of catching Merlin’s lips when he was babbling, effectively shutting him up. Merlin much preferred that to being ordered silent.

It was strange only in the way that it wasn’t strange. And every time it happened Merlin had to remind himself that no matter how ‘right’ it felt, and how perfect… it was only temporary. Perhaps he should’ve stopped it then? Kept them focused on Arthur’s yet-to-be-discovered task, but he couldn’t. It felt too good and too right, and if Merlin could only have it for this very little while… then he’d take that.

Arthur didn’t seem to mind too much when Merlin would grab at his shoulders a little too hard, or cling a little too long or kiss a little too desperately. He just made soothing sounds against Merlin’s mouth and held on just as tight and just as long.

A few hours later Merlin declared them done. “I can’t think of anything else we need to do,” he told Arthur, dusting his hands off on his thighs and scrubbing the back of a sleeve over his forehead to mop up a sheen of sweat. “I’ll secure the door when we leave and make sure the fires are cold, but otherwise,” he hefted weary shoulders.

Looking equally weary, Arthur nodded. He’d never bothered dressing that morning in Merlin’s new-style clothes and instead returned to his regular tunic and trousers and there was dust on his shoulders, dirt on his knees and cobwebs in his hair.

At first Merlin resisted the urge to reach up to brush them out, but then remembered he didn’t have to anymore. He carded his fingers through Arthur’s hair, tugging loose the threads and debris. He let his fingers linger a bit longer, scraping gently at Arthur’s scalp.

“Maybe we could have a bath tonight?” He offered, remembering suddenly what Arthur’s hair looked like when it was all dark-gold and damp.

Arthur’s eyes widened and seemed to light from within. “Oh, I’d definitely like that, Merlin.”

Merlin swallowed against a mouth suddenly gone dry. “Um, after supper though.” Why was that? For a moment he couldn’t remember. “The hearth, um… lots of water to heat.”

Well, that wasn’t precisely true. Merlin still did ‘cheat’ now and then, even if the magic was harder to pull to the surface.

“Right,” Arthur agreed, stepping back. “Later then.”

They did, however, wrangle the wooden tub out of the kitchen, settling it in front of the hearth in the central room. Normally Merlin bathed in the kitchen, but as soon as Arthur had made the suggestion – reminding Merlin how much he’d enjoyed his baths in his chambers with the warmth of the fire nearby – Merlin had been hard-pressed to come up with a reason to disagree.

The tension between them stayed palpable; a solid presence much like the sense of nearby person just hidden from sight. Though he’d put quite a bit of effort into preparing a very nice supper, by the time they sat down to eat it, Merlin didn’t really taste much of anything. Arthur complimented the roast, and expressed surprise at the greens and begged the last bite of mince tart from Merlin’s plate, and yet nothing of the meal stood out as memorable to Merlin except the way that Arthur glanced at him now and then, from beneath lowered lashed; a sly smirk just playing at the edge of his lips.

Cleaning-up afterward was torture. Merlin fumbled with the dishes and put the bread in the onion basket, and bobbled a precious jar of spices (though Arthur managed to catch it before it could shatter on the floor).

It didn’t make sense that he was so on edge. He and Arthur had been intimate the night before and his nerves hadn’t been nearly this bad. Then again, the previous night had been as much about admitting their feelings as anything physical. He’d been so…raw, and laid bare that sex had just seemed an extension of that emotional outpouring.

His focus tonight was almost purely on the physical. And if Arthur’s constant touches and playful glances were anything to go by, he was focused on the very same. Still, it wasn’t quite fair that Arthur was clearly having an easier time controlling himself.

Once they’d finished putting the kitchen to rights, and packing up the very last of the stores that would leave with them the next morning, Arthur lifted a wooden pail. “Shall we get to fetching water?”

Merlin shook his head, ruefully. “You really have no idea just how long it takes to fill a bath, do you? To say nothing of heating all that water. And I’ve only got the one bucket.” He indicated the one that Arthur held. “At least back in Camelot I could carry two, and the kitchen had room to heat more than one at a time. Still, it was a wonder the water was still even warm by the time I carried it all the way to your room. And I’d even go so far as to reheat the water on your hearth just so that you could have a nice hot bath.”

Arthur’s only response to his sudden rant was to raise an eyebrow. “Well, how do you do it when it’s just you then?”

A bit sheepishly Merlin admitted, “Well, I use magic of course.”

Too knowingly, Arthur asked, “And how often did you use magic to fill or heat my bath back then?”

“Not every time.”

Arthur canted his head, both eyebrows lifting expectantly.

“Just… most times. But,” he said in his defense, “it wasn’t like I could just summon a bath for you, with no one the wiser. I needed to keep up the illusion that I was doing the work manually. So I carried plenty of buckets I’ll have you know.”

“Well this time, I’m offering to do the carrying, Merlin.” Arthur rattled the bucket.

It felt like he was letting Arthur off the hook too easily, but Merlin just shook his head. “There’s no need.” He walked over to the tub and held out a hand. “Brimstreám.” At his word, water began to slowly fill the large wooden vessel. He concentrated his magic until the tub was filled to just a few inches below the rim and then lowered his hand.

When he turned to look at Arthur, his smile was incandescent. “Is it terrible to admit that of all the reasons I wish I’d known sooner about your magic, the chance to have baths anytime I wanted would’ve been quite high on the list?”

“Oh, but I’m not done yet,” Merlin told him, grinning and eager to show off just a bit more. He eyed the tub and muttered, “Onhǽte þá wæter.” Within a few seconds the water began to steam.

Arthur’s groan was pure decadence. “That is brilliant.” He immediately scrabbled at the belt around his tunic. “Well c’mon,” he urged, tugging the leather strap loose.

“Oh!” For some reason he’d thought that Arthur would be the one taking the bath and he’d… well, he didn’t quite know the answer to that. Watch, maybe? Scrub Arthur’s back. When he hesitated too long, Arthur abandoned his hastily discarded tunic on the floor and stepped over to start working at the laces of Merlin’s jerkin.

He made a noise of complaint. “I’m really not fond of these clothes. Too much like trying to get out of armor.”

If he had any sense left at all, Merlin probably would’ve tried to help. As it was, the whole concept of being undressed by Arthur left him a bit less than nimble-fingered, and his efforts were more hindrance than anything. But Arthur was determined, and between the two of them they somehow got Merlin out of his layers and nearly stripped down. He batted away Arthur’s hands when they started on his breeches, playfully chiding, “Do your own.”

Arthur gave a mock put-upon sigh, but hastily went back to his own disrobing, kicking off his boots and shoving down trousers and small clothes all together, leaving him standing in only his socks. It probably should’ve looked ridiculous, and it wasn’t as if Merlin hadn’t seen Arthur naked before, but for a few moments he lost track of his own actions and merely stared. Firelight always did such lovely things to Arthur’s skin, gilding it and accentuating the lean lines of muscle and softening the shadowed curves where he was a little extra padded.

Balancing on one foot to pull off a sock, Arthur grinned quite knowingly. “I know I’m amusing to look at, Merlin, but I think you’re getting off track here.” He switched to the other foot, hopping to maintain his balance and… okay, that did look a bit ridiculous. Arthur’s half-hard cock bounced against his thigh and Merlin let out a very undignified giggle.

“I’ll have you know it’s nearly impossible to look anything but amusing when you’re naked and trying to get in the bath.” As if to prove his point, Arthur stepped into the tub gingerly, and held the rim in both hands while he lifted his other leg exaggeratedly high to clear the lip.

Still snickering, Merlin remarked, “If you say so, Arthur.”

Fully in the tub, Arthur lowered himself slowly into the water, a look of pure bliss coming over his face as he did so. He settled against the wall of the tub, laying his elbows just on the edge and letting his bent knees splay wide. “Go on then, let’s see you do it.”

Unable to turn away from that playful challenge, Merlin hurried to toe off his boots and socks and then he finished undoing the placket of his breeches and shoved them down his thighs. It certainly felt strange stripping to his skin with an audience outside of his bedroom, but Arthur was just watching him silently. Left standing in only his hose and short pants, Merlin hesitated. “Is there enough room in there for the both of us?”

Arthur seemed to take up most of the tub, and the water sloshed dangerously high to the edge.

“Oh yes,” Arthur nodded slowly. “Now stop dawdling.”

“Dawdling?” Merlin huffed. He bent to tug off the knee-length hose and then straightened again to push his under clothes down his hips, letting them fall to his feet where he kicked them away. He stood naked and tried not to seem like it was in any kind of defiance, even if it felt a bit that way.

“Very good,” Arthur drawled. “Now, let’s see you get in here.”

Perhaps Arthur had a point, it was fairly impossible to clamber into the tub without looking quite awkward. He nearly scraped the top of his foot on the edge and if Arthur’s hands hadn’t shot out to his hips to steady him, he might’ve toppled right back out.

When he did finally lower himself into the steaming tub, his back to Arthur’s front, the water that had been splashing at the lip sloshed over the edge, spilling in rivulets over the floor. “My floor is going to be soaked,” he complained half-heartedly.

“You can dry it, I’m sure,” Arthur pointed out. He pulled Merlin into the cradle of his body, his knees on either side of Merlin’s, and rested his hands on Merlin’s thighs.

Merlin let his head fall against Arthur’s shoulder and Arthur hummed pleasurably. “I’m starting to wish we’d done this back in Camelot,” Arthur muttered. “I’d probably have enjoyed my baths quite a bit more.”

“Hah!” Merlin retorted, “As if you didn’t enjoy them. You indulged in them often enough.”

Arthur slapped a hand at the water, splashing him. “I said I’d have enjoyed them more, Merlin. Clean those ears out, would you?”

Wiping rather ineffectually at his face, Merlin scoffed. “And I’m sure it would’ve gone over quite well… you bathing with your servant.”

He felt Arthur shrug. “Well, perhaps that might’ve been a bit of a stretch at the time.”

“Perhaps,” Merlin agreed flatly.

They soaked for longer than should’ve been possible, but whenever the water started to cool, Merlin would reheat it with a glance. After the third time Merlin insisted, “We should wash, Arthur. My fingers are pruning.”

Of course, Arthur’s agreement to that suggestion was coupled with the idea that scrubbing each other down would somehow save some time. Which was how they ended up with Merlin in Arthur’s lap, facing him, both their cocks held in Arthur’s slowly stroking grip.

“Arthur,” Merlin whined, his temple pressed tight against Arthur’s and his fingernails digging sharply into the edge of the tub. Arthur had been toying with them, teasing them and bringing them so slowly to the brink.

“Merlin,” Arthur moaned in reply. “Just stay with me… c’mon.”

“Please, Arthur…” Merlin pleaded breathlessly. “I need…”

“I know. I know…” Arthur ground his hips up, pressing his cock harder against Merlin’s. He jerked them harder, faster, water splashing wildly with the motion. “Your hand,” he grunted out urgently and flailed at Merlin’s arm with his free hand.

Barely coherent, Merlin finally understood what Arthur was after when he clumsily dragged Merlin’s arm back into the water. He reached into the barely-there space between them, where Arthur’s forearm rubbed his belly on every stroke, and somehow got his fingers tangled up with Arthur’s. He squeezed them both and his hips rocked in counterpoint, and when he realized that Arthur’s low ululation was just the repetition of his name over-and-over in a reedy, desperate breath, Merlin finally let go.

He cried out, trying to muffle the sound against Arthur’s neck, and felt both their cocks pulse and throb. Arthur’s own shout was cut off with the sharp snap of teeth and finished as a muffled exhalation. They stayed like that, pressed together and panting, until finally Merlin began to realize that his knees were getting a bit uncomfortable against the wooden bottom of the tub. And, though he’d not complained, the wooden planks couldn’t be all that comfortable against Arthur’s back.

Merlin eased himself out of Arthur’s lap, sitting back against the opposite side of the tub. “It’s a good thing we’re in the bath,” he remarked with a soft laugh.

Without Merlin’s weight on him, Arthur stretched out his arms, arched his back and rolled his neck. “Easy clean-up,” Arthur agreed, slumping back when he was done and grinning all sloe-eyed and lazy.

“We should still get out,” Merlin admitted a few minutes later.

Arthur sighed heavily, though Merlin could tell it was mostly feigned. “I suppose you’re right. It’s getting late and we’ve an early start to make tomorrow.” Still, he didn’t move.

Merlin stood, careless of the water that sloshed over the sides – Arthur was right, he could just dry it using magic- and he held a hand down to Arthur. “No sleeping in the bath.”

“I’ve never fallen asleep in the bath,” Arthur protested, but he took Merlin’s hand and slowly stood.

Though Merlin didn’t say anything, he did lift an eyebrow. When Arthur spotted it, he gave a culpable nod and acknowledged, “All right, perhaps I did once.”

“Remember who you’re talking to, Arthur.”

“Okay, perhaps twice,” he amended. And then he touched Merlin’s jaw. “I never forget who I’m talking to.”

They helped each other out of the bath, wrapped up in the drying cloths Merlin had set on one of the chairs and while Merlin used magic to clean up the floor and empty the tub, Arthur went upstairs to fetch their clothes. He looked around, seeing what else he might be able to address with his magic when a sudden pang of… something struck him. His face got hot and his eyes began to sting.

It was all so… domestic, so perfect.

This is what they could have if there was some way to stop whatever it was that had called Arthur back. Merlin didn’t want to lose this. It was everything he’d ached for in all the long years he was alone. He’d never wanted destiny or fate or prophesies. He wanted a life like this, something quiet and simple, with Arthur by his side.

He deserved a life like this. And so did Arthur. Despite his earlier acceptance of Arthur’s fated return to Avalon, his promise to himself that he’d take only as much as he was given, and not ask more, Merlin felt that resolve shattering. Maybe there was a way? One that would answer whatever ever destiny that had called Arthur back but also ensure they could stay together. He made a new promise to himself, then and there, that he would do whatever needed to be done to make that a possibility.

Hearing Arthur’s footsteps coming down the stairs, Merlin wiped hastily at his eyes. When he spun to face him, he’d already fixed a smile in place. “I uh, got everything except the tub. Hard to get that back in place using magic.”

Arthur laughed, and the ache in Merlin’s chest intensified. He wanted to hear that laugh every day for the rest of his life. “I’ll give you a hand,” Arthur offered.

As they rolled the tub back into the kitchen, Merlin silently convinced himself that even though he knew this was too early for Arthur’s time, that didn’t mean it couldn’t become his time. There had to be a way to make this real.

When they headed up to bed, it took Merlin far too long to fall asleep. His mind warred with itself. Acceptance… defiance… He didn’t know what was the right thing to do. So often in the past he’d made one decision, thinking it would lead to good, only to see all his hopes crumbled to dust for his poor choices. He tried to clear his mind and not let it trouble him, but even in the comfort of Arthur’s arms, he struggled to find his rest. It was finally the sound of Arthur’s soft snoring, the feel of his heart beating beneath Merlin’s cheek, that drew him to sleep.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

“Merlin.”

Merlin woke to the sound of Arthur’s voice and a gentle shaking. He blinked to awareness, saw Arthur smiling down at him and decided this was the best possible way to come awake. He may have muttered that thought aloud, judging by the way Arthur’s smile grew rather pleased and pert.

“C’mon,” Arthur urged. “What was it you said to me once? Let’s have you lazy daisy?” He grew decidedly less gentle when he slapped a hand over Merlin’s bare thigh. “We’ve a long day planned.”

“Ow!” Merlin barked out, though less in pain and more protest. “Ugh, I’m awake.”

“Good. I’m going to finish readying the horses. You get dressed.”

“Ready the horses?” Merlin mumbled, but Arthur was already half-way across the bedroom. “Right,” he muttered to himself, remembering their intention to head out early. He was quite surprised that Arthur was already so awake and alert, and apparently busy by the sounds of it. He wasn’t usually at his best in the early hours. A thought occurred to him. “Have you been at the coffee?” he shouted.

Arthur didn’t answer, but his laugh could be heard echoing up from downstairs.

Grumbling, Merlin got out of bed.

It really didn’t take him all that long to dress for the day and pack up his last few necessary belongings, and when he joined Arthur in the kitchen, he found a steaming mug waiting for him.

“There’s nothing left to do except close up the house,” Arthur told him. “Then we’re ready to be off.”

Merlin nodded. “Right, that’s good.” He took a long drink, savoring the heat and flavor. Though he’d packed up the last of his supply of coffee to bring along, he wished there’d been time to find more. Enough so they could have it every meal, since Arthur enjoyed it so.

“How are you?” he asked, noticing that Arthur seemed to be fidgeting more than usual: picking up a cup and setting it back on the shelf, pushing about small canisters of spices, tugging at the hem of his jerkin.

Arthur shrugged. “Nervous about this, I think. The more I thought on it, the more I realized that whatever this thing is, it’s got to be fairly important. I mean, it necessitated bringing me back.”

“We’ll figure it out. I’m sure it won’t be anything you can’t handle.” But Merlin understood his reticence. He didn’t like marching off into the unknown any more than Arthur did.

They were both quiet, lost in their own thoughts, when Merlin finally closed the door to the cottage behind them and locked it. He’d ensured that all the fires were well-snuffed, and the windows secured and the last of the perishables was loaded into the wagon to be dropped off with Farmer Hedgeson on their way.

It felt strange leaving all this behind, even knowing he’d be returning to it eventually. Probably because he wouldn’t be returning the same; this place would always hold memories of Arthur now.

He watched surreptitiously as Arthur took one last long look at the small house and the lands, twisting in his seat on the wagon as Merlin clucked encouragement at Audrey to get her moving. There was something in the way that Arthur stared, a longing that Merlin could see even just in his peripheral view, that told him this was the last time Arthur expected to see this place. Much as he’d hoped otherwise, Merlin was starting to believe it to be true.

When they delivered Audrey, the cow – called Daisy – and a cartload of caged chickens and other foodstuffs, Farmer Hedgeson was both pleased and only slightly curious. It was the latter that made him Merlin’s first choice to seek out for help. His silence, and strict policy of ‘keeping to no one’s business save his own’, was exactly what Merlin needed in this situation.

When he’d made arrangements the prior morning, he’d spun a fairly innocuous tale about his mother having taken ill, and his uncle (the elder Master Emerson that all those in the village were familiar with) having set-out immediately to return to her side. Young Merlin and his companion had simply stayed behind to see Emerson’s home and affairs taken care of before they too would depart.

“Thank you for doing this for my Uncle.” Merlin told him. “Hopefully my mother’s health will improve and he’ll be able to return home soon.”

“It’s no trouble, young Master. I’m happy to look after the beasts. And I’ll be sure to send my lad to the house now and again, to see that there’s nothing amiss.” He nodded toward a young man with Hedgeson’s features and sandy hair who had already started to guide Audrey and the cart toward a large byre.

“That would be appreciated. I’ll be sure to mention your kindness to my Uncle when we rejoin him.” He waved a farewell and rejoined Arthur who’d already mounted one of the horses and was waiting for him on the road.

“They’ll take good care of Audrey, I’m sure,” he said, mistaking Merlin’s general anxiety for something more specific.

Merlin nodded. “I’ve no doubt. It’s just strange leaving like this. It’s been so long since I’ve done anything other than just live my quiet life, that setting off like this isn’t something I’m accustomed to anymore.” He heaved himself into the saddle a bit awkwardly and grimaced. “Not to mention riding. It’s been a number of years since I’ve sat in a saddle.”

Arthur laughed. “Yes, I remember your complaints of a sore bottom when we’d go out hunting or on a patrol.”

“I feel it’s only fair to point out that you were the one who kept mentioning my bottom.” He tapped his heels to his bay gelding’s barrel and shot Arthur a cheeky grin as the horse lurched into a trot and he passed by.

“Yes, well,” Arthur urged his own mount forward and caught Merlin up quickly. “It was distracting, and that’s entirely your fault.” He stuck his tongue out as his cantering horse passed Merlin by and he took the lead.

The lighthearted bickering continued as they rode out and became an ongoing chatter throughout the day (though, Merlin conceded after the first few hours, that Arthur was right and his backside was rather uncomfortable).

The morning had dawned cool and bright and made for perfect riding weather, and the day progressed in much the same way. The sky stayed cloudless and the temperature warmed pleasantly and during the height of the afternoon when the sun was brightest, they took to the shade as often as possible.

They followed stone and dirt roads for as long as they could, but soon enough their route took them off of the main paths and eventually even the long over-grown wagon tracks and goat trails were left behind. Merlin directed them using the handful of old maps he’d acquired, and they relied on Arthur’s natural sense of direction and the wilds, though once in a while – when the woods grew thick and dark and hid away the sun – Merlin used his magic to find them the right path.

Most of the terrain was easy enough on their horses: wide, stony fields, stretches of gorse and heather, sparse forest. They talked when the landscape allowed them to ride two-abreast, but even when they rode single file in care of their horses’ footing, the silence between them was companionable. Arthur seemed most interested in hearing more about what Merlin’s centuries of living had been like. Questions about how he kept busy, about the people he’d known and about the things he’d like best or least about each era kept Merlin chattering away until his voice went slightly hoarse with it.

It took them until nearly dusk to reach the coast, though they stopped about a league shy of the water. “Good place to break camp,” Arthur stated, drawing back on his reins as they entered a small grove not too distant from an eagerly burbling stream. The trees formed a natural barrier against the elements and the ground was relatively flat.

“Yeah,” Merlin agreed. He pointed to the brook. “I’ll bet there’s fish in there. Should we try and catch some before it gets too dark?”

“Sounds good.”

After they’d bedded down the horses for the night, Merlin retrieved his fishing pole and pieced the whippy hazel top into the firmer piece of ash of the base. Arthur watched curiously as he strung the horse hair line and tied off the whalebone hook and baited it with a bit of suet.

“Certainly different than I remember,” he remarked.

Merlin handed him the readied implement. He’d meant to purchase a second, for Arthur, but had run short of time. “They’ve improved on the old ways quite a bit. You’d probably be surprised how often people fish for sport these days. You go ahead. Give it a try.”

Arthur… tried. After his fourth attempt ended with the delicate whalebone hook tangled in the bushes Merlin stepped in to help. It was surprisingly easy to step up behind Arthur, to slide his hand down Arthur’s arm to show him the right hold, and to cup Arthur’s hip to guide the twist of his waist.

“Are we fishing here, Merlin?” Arthur chuckled as he asked, but there was heat there too.

“Just follow along, Arthur,” he instructed, laughing. Perhaps he had pressed a little bit deliberately against Arthur’s back. “I’m really just trying to teach you to fish. I can’t help that you were the one who spent all morning talking about bottoms.”

It took a bit of practice, Arthur muttering vaguely threatening things under his breath the whole while, but eventually he got the hang of it and Merlin felt confident –if a touch reluctant – to leave him to it. His first few casts were unsuccessful, but by the fifth he suddenly jerked back on the line and Merlin helped him haul it in and they had a nicely sized brown trout flopping on the stream bank.

Arthur whooped joyfully. “I’m starting to wish we’d done this back in Camelot.” He flashed Merlin that beaming, joyful smile.

Merlin returned it, but somewhere deep in the pit of his stomach there was that sharp pang. He’d almost forgotten… It had just felt so right and so natural to be out in the wilds, spending time with Arthur, laughing with him and teasing him and being teased. It made no logical sense… how could Merlin – who’d lived enough lifetimes for a score of men – have so easily forgotten all of it simply being in Arthur’s presence again?

Luckily, Arthur didn’t notice when Merlin’s smile fell away. He’d cast out again and was concentrating on catching them another fish for their dinner. By the time Arthur’d pulled out three more, Merlin had regained a fingertips grip of control and merely praised Arthur for the size and quality of his catch. It was good timing too, as they’d nearly lost the light. Just the sliver of an orange sun still peeked over the horizon, casting amber highlights over the water and the trees and Arthur’s skin.

“Let me get these ready,” Merlin offered. “Would you mind setting up the fire?” There’d been a moment where he’d hesitated asking. It hadn’t quite felt right to ask that of Arthur; preparing camp was Merlin’s job. He gave a soft cough to disguise that slight pause.

Apparently he’d not covered it well enough because Arthur frowned at him. Though all that he said was, “Of course I can, Merlin.”

Full dark had fallen, the night blanketed in star-strew black, but Arthur had their fire well-built by the time Merlin finished readying the fish for cooking. “These shouldn’t take long,” he said, jabbing the sticks with their skewered fish into the ground. He’d stuffed the cavities with wild garlic and fennel and sprinkled them with salt.

Arthur poked at the logs, resettling them so they burned hot and cherry red beneath the cooking fish. “Thank you, Merlin.”

“My pleasure, Arthur.” Merlin settled onto his bedroll, staying close so that he could monitor the fish cooking and rotate the skewers as needed. He looked across the fire, and noticed Arthur staring into it, his expression somewhat distant… dreamy. “What is it?”

“Oh, nothing.” Arthur gave a little shake of his head, like he was shaking away cobwebs. “Just thinking.” He eyed Merlin with a strange sort of gaze. “Tell me,” he began, “how long did you stay at Camelot? I mean, how long after I was gone?”

Merlin hesitated. They’d been avoiding heavy talk of their time together all those years ago. Oh sure, they’d laughed over things, and referenced their shared experiences, and Merlin had shared years and years of his over-long life, but they’d not let things delve any deeper into their own shared past. It was probably time they talked through it all.

“Oh, several generations actually. Though, toward the end it was less often and I was travelling a lot.” And because he knew Arthur wanted to know but was afraid to ask, he went on. “At least while Gwen’s direct descendants had the throne. My involvement lessened as the years went on. I became less an advisor and more a curiosity and a relic.” He sighed, remembering how out of sorts he’d been during those final years before he’d moved on entirely. “Finally, I knew there was no more place for me. Camelot was changing, fading from the world.”

Though he listened quietly and seemed intently focused on everything Merlin said, he knew that Arthur’s attention had been caught by one name.

“She had children then? A family?”

Merlin nodded. He’d been afraid of this part, but Arthur deserved to know. “Yes. She, uh… married Leon, actually. They had three children. Two boys and a girl.”

Arthur smiled and it looked genuine and happy. “I’m glad.” He must’ve sensed Merlin’s skepticism, or seen something on his face because he huffed out a short breath and went on. “No, I really am, Merlin. More than anything, I wanted Gwen to be happy.” He scratched idly at one cheek. “I think… well, no. I knew that Leon always had a fondness for Gwen.”

At Merlin’s raised brows he hurried on. “No, not… nothing like that. Nothing untoward. Just, he respected her and cared for her as more than just a soldier. He was her friend and she was his and I knew that he’d always look after her and take care of her, and she him. So, I’m just glad they found each other.” He smiled again, wide and a little dreamy. “I bet they had lovely kids.”

It was easy to acknowledge that. “Oh, certainly. Adorable, curly-haired little devils.” Their faces were a bit of a blur in his memory, but he remembered enough of them to state that with certainty. “Their oldest boy, Elyan”–here Arthur’s grin got a bit wobbly–“went on to inherit the throne. He was a wise ruler. And Albion was peaceful then.”

He sighed gustily. “It was that lasting peace, and the changes wrought by your sacrifice that I’m sure are responsible for the world as it is today.”

That made Arthur’s brows draw in and his mouth turn down at the corners. “I’m sorry? I don’t understand.”

Merlin gestured wide, encompassing. “Everything the world is now, is down to that time. I know it sounds… crazy. Impossible. But I spent nearly a century studying and researching to understand your ultimate destiny.” He dropped his chin, gaze falling away from Arthur to land on the ground at the edge of the campfire. “I needed to know why.”

“Why what?” There was no censure in Arthur’s tone, only curiosity.

Merlin looked up at him again, pressing his lips tight a moment before answering. “Why you had to die. Why that was your fate. Why I could do nothing to change it no matter how hard I fought.” He laughed, harshly. “You have no idea how hard I tried to stop it happening. How many terrible decisions I made and horrible things I did, just to try to fight against it. And for all that pain, and all that suffering and all that sorrow, I had to know if it was worth it.” He was practically panting when he finished speaking.

Arthur, in the meantime, stared over the fire at him with that soft-eyed sympathy that Merlin still wasn’t accustomed to seeing on his face. “And was it?” he asked softly.

“I don’t know yet,” Merlin answered honestly. “I have trouble believing that anything could be worth that.”

“Merlin…” Arthur’s voice cracked. “You can’t mean that.”

Lifting his chin in defense of his conviction, Merlin stated easily, “I can, Arthur. And I do. There’s nothing in this world now that holds meaning to me. Not as you do. There is nothing I wouldn’t give up, nothing I wouldn’t trade or sacrifice.” A taint of bitterness worked its way into his words. “Back then, everything I worked for was to keep you safe so you could bring forth a Camelot where magic was free and people no longer had to fear. And yet, I’d been warned of Mordred’s betrayal and still failed.”

“Warned? I don’t understand.”

Merlin sighed. These were the hardest memories to bring to the surface. Things they’d never gotten to air between them on those last days as Arthur edged closer to death and Merlin fought so hard to prevent it. “Do you remember when we rode through to Annis’ lands and came upon a Druid camp that had been decimated by Morgana’s army?”

Arthur nodded. “I do. It was on our way north to Ismere to rescue Gwaine and Percival and the rest of my men.”

“Right. While we were there I came across a dying Druid. He was in a cavern, near a pool of water. He wasn’t just a Druid, he was one of the Vates, their most revered seers. He showed me a vision in that pool. In it, I saw a massive battle and I saw Mordred. In that vision I saw him kill you, Arthur. I saw him run you through.”

Frowning, Arthur asked, “Why didn’t you warn me? When we first met with Mordred on our way to Ismere?” He wasn’t accusatory, just confused.

Merlin sniffed irritably. “And you’d have believed me if I told you that a dying Druid showed me a vision of your future in a puddle?” He jerked his head in the negative. “If there’s one thing I learned in all my years trying to look out for your destiny, Arthur, it’s that visions and prophecy and fate are seldom as simple as they appear. I was meant to protect you from him, and to set your fate on the right path.” The bitterness was like an acrid film on his tongue. “I truly did not know what to make of that vision. And the Mordred who came back to Camelot was likeable, kind and trusted by all. I began to question my fear of him. But then we encountered the Disir. Do you remember?”

“Yes,” Arthur nodded again, eyes hooded and brows drawn in. “And I remember sitting across from you at a fire much like this one, and asking you if I should allow magic to return to Camelot.” He frowned, the ‘v’ between his eyebrows deepening. “You said there could be no place for magic in Camelot.”

Merlin gave a sharp nod. “Yes, I did. Because when the Disir said that to save your kingdom and all you held dear you needed to embrace magic, I thought that meant saving Mordred’s life. And yet, I knew that his survival could mean your doom. In my mind, it was a choice between no longer hiding my magic or losing you. It was not a difficult choice to make.”

It only took Arthur a moment to understand the implications of that. “Oh god. They misled you. You thought if I denounced magic, Mordred would die and I’d be saved. So you advised me to reject their words, no matter what it might mean for you, but when I did, Mordred survived.” He rubbed a hand over his mouth, like he was holding back something terrible, then dragged his palm down his face, and seemed to swallow it down. “Merlin, I… God, I’m so sorry. How could they… why would…? I don’t understand. Wouldn’t they have wanted magic to return to Camelot?”

Taking time to rotate the skewered trout, Merlin thought about how to answer that. Once each stick had been rotated a half turn he sat back and looked across the fire. “I don’t think it mattered to them to be honest. Well, that’s not necessarily true. Perhaps they did genuinely mean to warn you and set you on a different path. But I’ve found that it doesn’t matter.”

“How can you say that?”

Merlin shrugged and tried not to look as world-weary as he felt, “We’re here, aren’t we? This was always where we were going to end up.”

“I’d accuse you of being defeatist,” Arthur tried a half-hearted smile, “but I get the feeling there are quite a few situations of a similar nature that have given you good reason to be jaded about this.”

“And I’d accuse you of being observant,” Merlin quipped, smirking back despite himself, “but I’d not want to flatter you too much.” He tried to hold on to the levity, but the topic was too heavy and too long held back. “I worry that some of those situations you referred to, were I to tell you about them, might change how you think of me.”

“That’s impossible, Merlin. I already told you, and I’m getting a bit irritated at having to repeat it, but I forgave you everything long ago.”

Merlin sighed. “And I know you meant it, Arthur. But, you don’t know the truth of everything.”

Settling onto his side, propped on an elbow, Arthur gestured for Merlin to continue. “Go on; tell me one of these terrible things that would change how I feel.”

Where to start? Merlin shuffled through the memories that he’d held closest, the ones that he would revisit late in the night, lying awake and troubled, second-guessing every choice and wondering how things might have been. It was impossible to pick the least damning, so he settled on one at random. “I was the old Sorcerer who tried to heal your father.”

Arthur’s eyes narrowed. “Did you let him die on purpose?”

“No, of course not,” he bristled. “I couldn’t save him because Agravaine had given him a medallion from Morgana that had a spell on it. It caused any healing done to him to kill him twice as fast.”

“But you didn’t know about this this medallion?”

Merlin shook his head. “No. Else I’d not have tried to heal him.”

“Then why are you even concerned over this? I knew you were the old Sorcerer. I did recognize him, well you, on the battlefield at Camlann.”

“It’s just one example of many, Arthur.” He started to worry that Arthur would only try to silence him if he pressed on.

“Merlin, why are you doing this?”

Not quite silencing, but questioning Merlin’s need wasn’t much better. “Because you say you love me, you say you’ve forgiven the lies between us, but there’s so much you don’t know. I’ve had lifetimes to think on all the things I’d want to admit, all the lies I wanted to set right if given the chance. I don’t know that I’d ever feel we were equal if I still had secrets from you.”

“Listen to me, Merlin: there is nothing, nothing you can tell me that is going to change how I feel.” Arthur sighed, though he didn’t seem annoyed, only resigned. He scrubbed a hand over his face. “Look, obviously you won’t let yourself believe me when I say nothing will change how I feel. So go ahead with your confession.” Even with the firelight between them, Merlin could read the sympathy in Arthur’s eyes. “I can’t even imagine how long you’ve been fighting these particular demons and I can only hope that excising them will offer you relief.”

“Thank you,” Merlin replied, desperately grateful that Arthur at least understood where this urge was coming from. He wanted nothing more than to believe Arthur, but… a score of lifetimes of self-recrimination were impossible to put aside so easily.

Flipping a hand, Arthur invited him to keep going.

He sorted the memories and chose at random again. “I killed Agravaine. In the tunnels when we were escaping Ealdor. I used magic and I killed him.”

“Good.” Arthur nodded decisively. “I’m glad one of us got to do it.”

“I tried to kill Morgana.”

Arthur frowned. “Well, yes. And you succeeded.”

“No, long before that. When Morgause spelled the entire castle to fall asleep, and sent the Knights of Medhir to kill your father. While you were fighting off the Knights, I gave Morgana a poisoned waterskin.”

“Why would you have done that?” There was no censure in the question, just confusion.

“The spell that kept everyone asleep. It was tied directly to her life force. There was never any potion that kept her awake, it the magic of the spell. The only way to save you, and your father, from the Knights, was to destroy the source of the spell.”

Nodding slowly as he processed it, Arthur asked, “Is that why Morgause took her?”

Merlin nodded. “Yes. I offered her a bargain. That she call off the Knights and lift the spell over Camelot in exchange for the name of the poison I’d used.”

“Did Morgana know? That you’d poisoned her, I mean?”

“Yes,” his gaze dropped to the hands resting loosely in his lap. “And I held her through it as she lay dying.”

“I’m sorry,” Arthur said, genuinely sympathetic. “That must’ve been awful.”

“Yes, well. If I hadn’t kept the truth of my magic to myself, and had let Morgana know I was a sorcerer, she’d likely never have turned evil.”

He tried not to feel hurt when Arthur groaned.

“Merlin, I’m sorry, but that one you cannot take on. That was on Morgana. She made her choices. There were things we all could’ve done differently, but the only one responsible for Morgana was Morgana.”

“But–”

“No,” Arthur shook his head adamantly. “I can’t let you blame yourself for that.”

Merlin blew out a frustrated breath, but bit his tongue when Arthur looked like he might argue further. Fine, if Arthur didn’t want to accept his culpability for Morgana, then Merlin had plenty of other situations to bring up.

“I was the one who freed the Great Dragon from beneath the keep.” He waited for a reaction.

Though Arthur’s lip curled a bit, he just lifted his hands dismissively. “I wasn’t certain, but I actually suspected that one when we were trying to get to Avalon.

That was strange. “What made you wonder about that?”

One of Arthur’s hands lifted to rub knuckles against his chin. “Well, oddly it was the dragon of sparks that got me thinking on it. It reminded me of the great dragon. And, later, when I know you probably thought I was already gone, I have the vaguest memory of flying on the back of a dragon.” He grinned crookedly. “I still had enough sense of things that I actually wondered if it was normal for dragon’s to carry souls beyond the veil. Plus I heard you talking to it.”

“Oh,” Merlin frowned. “I don’t think I realized you were still with me. I asked you to stay with me.”

“I know. I’m sorry I couldn’t.” Arthur stared at him for a long while and then blinked a few times, very fast, and looked back down at the fire. “So, are you done trying to–?”

“I lied to you about your Mother,” he spat the words out quickly, before Arthur could bring this conversation to a close. “That was your Mother’s ghost that Morgause summoned, and everything she told you about your father was true.”

Though Arthur’s lips pressed flat, he nodded. “I don’t think I ever fully believed my father. But, I hadn’t really wanted to kill him. Can you blame me for accepting an easy-to-swallow lie as the truth?”

“Well, no. But–”

“And you only told me that lie because you knew I’d have never forgiven myself if I’d killed my own father.”

“Yes, but I–”

“Then you’ve nothing to feel guilty for. You did the right thing. You kept me from making a horrible mistake and you even helped improve my relationship with my father for a time.”

That might not have gone as expected, but Merlin swallowed hard, bracing for this last admission. “When Lancelot came back from the dead, that wasn’t Lancelot. It was a shade – a kind of spirit – that Morgana had summoned. And he’d given Gwen an enchanted bracelet that bewitched her. That’s the reason she betrayed you with him. If I’d been honest with you then, admitted to having magic, you’d never have had to banish her.”

Arthur sat up suddenly and Merlin flinched.

“Your fish is burning.”

What? What did that mean? Merlin wrinkled his nose trying to parse the strange phrase.

“No, you idiot,” Arthur said urgently, “the fish,” he jabbed his hand toward the fire,” is burning.”

Merlin blinked. Oh.

“Oh! Damn!”

He managed to rescue the trout that had caught fire, and luckily it was only the tail that had blackened. “I think it’s okay,” he said, once he’d taken all the skewers away from the flames. As he worked to remove the sticks from the well-cooked fish, Merlin felt compelled to ask, “Did you hear the last thing I said, Arthur?”

Looking up from where he was digging through one of their packs, Arthur nodded. “About Gwen and Lancelot? Yes. I heard.” He went back to his rummaging. “I know you packed some of that dark bread. Where is it?”

“The other satchel,” Merlin instructed. “And, uh… don’t you have anything else to say?”

Arthur looked over at him then. “Yes, you’re right. I do.” He pursed his lips thoughtfully. “Did we pack any butter?”

“Arthur!”

Letting the pack fall to his lap, Arthur sighed. “Merlin, what do you want me to say? Do I feel some regret about that? Of course. I’d never have wanted to cause Guinevere any pain if I could’ve helped it. But, Gwen and I came together in the end, and we were stronger for it. We had our time, Merlin. And I loved her and she loved me.”

A bit wistfully, he went on. “That time was a very literal lifetime ago for me. And, I don’t hate you for any of the things you’ve told me, because if they had gone any different, would we be here now? You and I? You yourself said it was meant to be.”

The fight drained out of Merlin then, and with it went a thousand years of anxiety. Well, perhaps not all of it, but enough that it no longer felt like a physical weight that he had been carrying across his shoulders.

“I hate that this has burdened you for so long, and I hate that we couldn’t settle all of this before I left you. I really can’t imagine how difficult it’s been for you. How have you managed all this time?”

Merlin responded with a gesture that didn’t know if it wanted to be a nod or a shrug. It was easier to answer that while he worked on readying their meal. The trout, at least, wouldn’t be staring at him with pitying eyes. “I’ll be honest, Arthur, these many, many years have not been easy. At first it was all I could do to figure things out, to understand what it meant that you were the ‘Once and Future King’. I researched, I traveled, and I clung desperately to any sign. I wanted nothing more than to find a way to get you back.”

He paused to dig out pouches of parsnips, leeks, and wild mustard that he’d wrapped in damp burdock leaves and buried at the edge of the coals. While he picked at the ashy, wilted leaves, Merlin continued. “When I finally admitted defeat, I focused on doing good. Using my magic and the skills Gaius had taught me to heal people and to help. That lasted a long time. Perhaps as long as two centuries. But… I soured to humanity eventually. It just felt so insurmountable; all the pain and suffering.”

After plating the vegetables alongside the fish, Merlin handed one over to Arthur. “Since then, I’ve pulled further and further away from society. As, I’m sure my current lifestyle shows. I’m surviving, but little beyond that.” He accepted the slices of dark, butter-slathered bread that Arthur gave him in return, but stared down at his meal instead of eating it. “I think that if you weren’t here now, if I’d gone any longer without any hope… I might have gone a bit mad.” He forced a chuckle. “Perhaps I’m closer than I realize. I’d even begun to ponder if there were a way I could use my magic to go back and fix it all.”

Merlin looked up then, cringing in anticipation of Arthur’s reaction.

But Arthur was merely nodding, like everything Merlin had said made sense to him. “I don’t know if you expected my censure, Merlin, or my pity, but you’ll get neither.” He smiled, crooked and fond when Merlin frowned. “You’ve lived a thousand years, Merlin. That’s… that’s a kind of crazy all its own, and more than any man should ever face. It’s not a failing to have lost faith or felt despondent or even pondered wild ideas to help you through.” His mouth turned down at one corner and up at the other, giving him a lopsided sort of expression. “I’d say it’s a wonder you’ve not run off to join this dragon we’re seeking in a cavern by the sea.”

Between the suggestion and Arthur’s expression, a sputter of laughter slipped out of Merlin’s mouth before he could stop it. This wasn’t supposed to be amusing.

But by then, Arthur was grinning too. “It’s good you can laugh, Merlin. Now let’s see if you can eat your dinner. Though, in truth this is not the conversation I expected to have over our roasted trout.” Arthur said with a quiet chortle as he picked at the fish on his platter.

“Well, we probably should’ve had this conversation sooner.”

“Probably,” Arthur agreed with a thin, sideward smile. “But there were other things that needed to be said too, and I’m glad we got them out of the way first.”

Merlin frowned, puzzled. And then Arthur’s brow lifted significantly and Merlin went hot all the way to his ears. “Oh, right.” He pinched a large piece of flaky trout between his fingers and quickly popped it in his mouth to cover such a silly lapse. “Me too,” he said around his mouthful.

“This is delicious, by the way,” Arthur said after seriously applying himself to his dinner.

Chewing and actually tasting his food this time, Merlin had to agree.

As heavy as the conversation had been, the silence that fell while they finished their dinner was oddly comforting. Merlin didn’t feel compelled to fill it with anything other than a stray comment about the quality of the vegetables or to ask Arthur to pass the waterskin. When they finished the meal and had the fire banked down for the night, Merlin fetched his bedroll from the saddles. “What are you doing?”

Merlin looked up from where he was laying his blanket over his bedroll. “What do you mean?”

Arthur waved an arm between them. “Why are you planning on sleeping on the other side of the fire?”

“Um, because that’s where I usually sleep.” Which was such a strange thing to say; it hadn’t been since Camelot that he’d slept around a fire with anyone.

“Yes, but I thought that now that… things have changed between us,” he made an indecipherable gesture. “Well, I thought you’d sleep by me.”

“Out here?” Merlin asked, genuinely surprised by the suggestion. “In the open?”

“Merlin, who’s going to see us? We’re in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by trees and wildlife. Unless you’re worried about particularly voyeuristic deer?”

For a moment – too long of one, really – Merlin wondered if he’d need to explain certain things to Arthur: there were laws against buggery; it was punishable by death. But he shook those thoughts off with a mental snort. What did it matter? Did he care about the laws of men? Would he let such narrow-minded views rule his time with Arthur? Not a chance.

Still, he pretended to hem and haw about for a bit longer. “Well…I suppose I can tolerate the deer. So long as they don’t interfere.”

Arthur laughed, loud and boisterous. He dragged Merlin’s bedroll and blanket next to him and arranged the pair of them into one large pallet. “There. That’s better.”

Once they got settled, pressed close together and sharing the same blanket, Arthur reminded him, “You know, this isn’t the first time we’ve slept close like this.”

Merlin did remember. “Yes, but back then you still had your armor on and you spent half the night elbowing me. It was a bit uncomfortable.”

“And freezing. I nearly lost a toe.”

Merlin snuggled closer, sneaking his hands under Arthur’s tunic to press chilly fingers against his ribs.

“Hey!” Arthur squirmed. He took hold of Merlin’s shoulders and manhandled him a bit, rolling him to his side so that he could pull Merlin bodily against him, fitting them together tight. Merlin’s rear snugged into the cradle of Arthur’s hips, and Arthur wrapped both arms around his chest.

“Ow,” Merlin complained, though he didn’t really mean it. “Arthur, what are you doing?”

“Keeping warm,” Arthur said into his neck, lips tickling the thin skin there.

Merlin shuddered.

Then one of Arthur’s hands deftly worked between his tunic and the hem of his trousers.

“And now what’re you doing?” Merlin’s voice dropped low and breathy.

Arthur’s breath was a furnace against his neck. “My hands are cold. I need to keep them warm too.”

“Oh, well then. I suppose I could help with that.” He grabbed Arthur’s hands in his and tucked one beneath each armpit. “There,” he said, “that should do it.”

Merlin,” Arthur whined. “That’s not what I meant.”

Just to be contrary, Merlin pushed his rear into Arthur’s groin where he could already feel evidence of Arthur’s arousal pressing insistently.

Arthur moaned and uttered a wordless protest in the same breath.

“You felt a bit chilly there,” Merlin told him impishly. “Thought you could use some warming up.”

“Yeah,” Arthur agreed in a strained voice, and then nipped at the thin skin of Merlin’s nape. “Good thinking. That’s definitely cold too.”

“Ow, hey,” Merlin protested both to the soft bite and the fact that Arthur tugged his hands free.

“Sorry, weren’t warm enough there. I can think of a better place for them.” He resumed his task of working at the placket of Merlin’s breeches, deftly getting them open after only a short effort. He drew his hands away then, and from the knuckles pressing against the backs of Merlin’s thighs, Arthur was apparently doing the same to his own trousers. It wasn’t easy to wriggle breeches and small clothes down his thighs under the blankets, but Merlin managed. He started to work them further off, but Arthur stopped him.

“No, like this,” he said, wrapping a hand around Merlin’s cock. “Just like this.”

“What about you?” Merlin asked after letting out a low hiss on the first touch.

Arthur huff a laugh into his neck, and kissed him there. “Oh, I’ve got something in mind.”

Merlin heard the slick sounds of Arthur’s mouth, wet and messy, but it wasn’t against his skin. Then he felt Arthur’s arm moving against his back, like Arthur was stroking himself.

“Arthur–” Merlin started to protest. He wanted to touch, to be responsible for bringing Arthur pleasure.

“Trust me, Merlin.” Merlin felt a hand come around his hip and an insistent press at the bottom of his arse and he realized it was Arthur’s spit-slicked cock. It pushed forward, sinking into the snug gap between the tops of Merlin’s thighs.

Merlin’s eyes rolled back as Arthur’s first tentative thrust slipped smoothly into the tight space and rubbed against that tender place right below his bollocks. “Oh,” he breathed, high and sharp and then it drew out into a long, low groan of pleasure as Arthur’s hand resumed pulling at his cock.

“Warm enough now?” Arthur purred into Merlin’s ear.

Somehow Merlin managed enough control of his tongue to utter, “You were the one who was cold,” although the last two words came out nearly inaudible when Arthur began to thrust faster and his thumb swept over the tip of Merlin’s cock. Lost in sensation, Merlin could only pant hoarsely as Arthur stroked his cock and rutted urgently between his thighs.

Teeth bit hard into the arc of Merlin’s shoulder and Arthur’s fingers pressed with bruising intensity into Merlin’s hip. In just a few moments Arthur’s thrusting and breath both grew ragged and then he let out a low cry as wet heat spilled between Merlin’s thighs. Somehow, through it all, he continued to work Merlin’s cock.

Merlin gave a few urgent jerks of his hips and then his whole body tensed as pleasure surged up from the base of his spine and through his bollocks and he came messily all over Arthur’s fingers. Arthur’s fingers kept squeezing, milking the last pulses of his orgasm from him until Merlin flinched and slapped weakly at his hand.

Chuckling wearily, Arthur let his hand drop and he wiped messy fingers into the bedroll.

“Arthur,” Merlin laughingly complained. “I have to sleep there, you know.” And he needed to do something about the stickiness between his thighs.

Arthur solved that problem at least. He tugged at Merlin’s scarf asking, “Do you mind?”

That only made Merlin snicker more. “I don’t think I’ve ever used one of these for anything like this before.” He untied it though and handed it back to Arthur.

“Really?” Arthur asked. “I imagined they would’ve come in handy for all sorts of things.” He tenderly worked the cloth at the space between Merlin’s legs, and then over his spent cock, wiping him down thoroughly. It felt strange for Arthur to be so at ease with such intimacies. “Have you got a spare?” Arthur asked after tossing the soiled cloth aside.

Merlin thought on the extra clothes in his pack. “Yeah,” he nodded. He usually had at least one extra.

“Good,” Arthur replied. “I don’t like to see you without one.” He sounded strangely adamant about it.

It was such a silly thing to say but it warmed Merlin’s heart.

“C’mon,” Arthur clapped a hand on Merlin’s bare hip. “Let’s get some sleep.” They shuffled their trousers back into place and then Arthur laid back and Merlin pillowed himself on Arthur’s chest. The night wasn’t all that cool, and between the blankets and the warmth of Arthur’s body, Merlin fell into an easy, cozy sleep.

~~~~~~~~~~~~

They woke the next morning with the dawn. Sunlight crept over the horizon and filtered through the trees, scattering leaf-hued sunbeams over the pair of them. Arthur rolled into Merlin’s side, burying his face against Merlin’s shoulder. “Uhghh. Can’t you do something about the sun, Merlin?” he grumbled, voice still gravelly with sleep.

Merlin scratched lightly at Arthur’s hair, tracing his fingertips around his ear and trailing them down his neck. “Sorry, turning day to night is beyond my abilities.” He thought about it a moment. “Well, probably.”

That was enough to get Arthur to lift his head. “Probably? You mean you don’t know?”

With a shrug that was curtailed by the Arthur’s entangling arms, Merlin could only say, “Well, I’ve never tried it.”

Arthur stared down at him with something like wonder in his eye. “Gaius told me that you were not just a sorcerer, but the greatest sorcerer ever to walk the earth. Just… how powerful are you?”

“This is not a conversation I want to have before breakfast,” Merlin complained, though it was said lightly.

“C’mon, I want to know.”

“Um, well, as I said, magic is more difficult to access now. So my powers have waned with it. But back when I was at my peak, and had the chance to study all the different magics, the Old Religion, Druid magic and many others, I was quite powerful.” He toyed with the edge of their blanket. “I don’t really know how to quantify it for you, though. Sorry.”

“It’s all right, Merlin. I don’t think I’d even know the right things to ask so I could understand.” He pushed himself up and took a moment to stretch sleep-stiffened limbs. Then he reached down an offering hand. “Need some help?”

“Yesss,” Merlin groaned as he took Arthur’s hand and let Arthur haul him to his feet. His whole body ached.

Arthur winced sympathetically. “Sore?”

“Yeah,” Merlin nodded.

“The riding?”

Merlin nodded again, feeling as the motion pulled the lines of his neck and lower tight with pain. “And probably sleeping on the ground on top of it.” He didn’t mention their additional physical activities of the night before, but Arthur’s knowing eyebrow told him they were thinking of the same thing.

“Why don’t I pack us up then, and you can see about getting us something quick to break our fast.” He lifted eager brows. “And perhaps some coffee?”

“All right,” Merlin agreed with a soft laugh. “Though that might be the last of the coffee,” he added just a touch regretfully.

“Oh.” Arthur actually frowned. Then he perked up again. “You know, Merlin, that would be a good test of your power. I mean, you can summon water. You couldn’t,” –he made a vague flicking motion with his fingers– “magic us some more coffee, could you?”

Opening his mouth to protest – because, really, Arthur? – Merlin closed it with a snap. He’d never actually thought of conjuring coffee. Well, he’d not tried to create anything from nothing in ages. A faint memory came to him… trying to conjure strawberries for Freya. He smiled. That was something he’d not thought of in a very long time. And he’d failed that attempt, but he was more powerful now.

“I can’t promise,” he finally said, “but I’ll see what I can do.”

Arthur’s beaming smile was definitely worth it.

He made them the coffee, saving the last little bit to experiment with later and got them a simple meal of some bread with honey, apples, and cheese. They ate quickly, although Arthur took a few indulgent minutes to just enjoy his coffee next to the remnants of their fire. Once he was done though, he hurried to finish saddling the horses and get them packed up.

Merlin grumbled as he remounted.

“You’ll get used to it, Merlin. A couple of days and your body will adjust.” Arthur reached across the space between them to give his arm a squeeze.

Weirdly mollified by the gesture, Merlin gave a quick nod and then signaled for Arthur to ride out.

The chance for conversation was limited throughout their second day of travel, as the terrain along the coast got much rockier and uneven. More than once they had to backtrack to find better routes around unpassable obstacles and along steep, jagged rocks.

They rode through coastal towns twice, when they couldn’t be avoided without losing too much time, though Merlin preferred to keep to uninhabited lands as much as possible. A light rain found them late morning, a pervasive, chill drizzle that dampened cloaks and spirits both, so they decided to stop briefly in the second village.

They stayed long enough to have a meal in a tavern, tempted by the promise of fresh fish chowder and ale, and to dry off a bit (and Merlin made a few quick inquiries about the availability of coffee, to no avail) but Arthur’s limitations with the language made things rather uncomfortable for him, so they ate hastily and were quick to put populated areas to their backs.

It was late afternoon, sun still hidden behind grey cloud-cover but well above the horizon, when they reached the edge of a sea cliff and Merlin called them to a halt. The barren grasslands, thick with heather and wildflowers, billowed like a mare’s winter shag in the wind and the cliff’s edge dropped off sharp and immediate. Beyond the jagged wave-cut platforms and arches of limestone, the sea rolled into a rocky bay; foamy waves breaking on the stone with a rhythmic shushing sound.

“Why’re we stopping?” Arthur asked as he brought his horse beside Merlin’s. “We’ve still got a couple of decent hours of light yet.”

“We’re here; sort of,” Merlin explained. “This cavern I mentioned where Aithusa sleeps, it’s below us.” He pointed vaguely downward. “But we can’t actually get to her until the morning when the tide is at its lowest. Once the tide rises the entrance is below the water, and it’s not something I’d prefer to swim.”

“Right, so we’ll camp here tonight?” He gestured around at the vast expanse of open terrain.

Peaked drumlins and indented kettles rose and fell as far as the eye could see; the colorful undulating landscape blanketed in spring squill and burnet and red fescue and heath mingling through the darker gorse and bracken-covered slopes. Merlin turned his gaze slowly deasil, spying not a single sign of human habitation as far as he could see in any direction.

“It’s a bit exposed to the weather, but we’re alone as if we were the last two people alive.” He tried to smile as he said it but something in the implication of the words left him frowning.

Luckily, Arthur just nodded. “All right then.” He did his own share of studying the countryside. “There’s not a lot of cover for game. If we have the light, it might’ve been nice to do some hunting but…” he shrugged and waved a hand around him.

“We can likely scare up some rabbits, in those patches of bramble and hawthorn. Oh!” He suddenly remembered something he’d wanted to show Arthur anyway. “We can teach you how to use the flintlock.”

Arthur looked pleased at that. “I’d like that.”

“Great, then let’s hurry and set-up camp I can show you.”

They dismounted and Arthur untacked and rubbed down the horses while Merlin searched for enough stones to ring a small fire. He was just kneeling to set the last few in place when he noticed Arthur standing over him.

“Uh, Merlin. It’s lovely that you’ve made a place for a fire, but we’ve no wood or branches.” He swung both arms out. “No trees.”

Merlin just chuckled. “We’ll be fine. Trust me.”

“If you’re expecting that thin brush to burn…” he trailed off as Merlin shook his head. “What then?”

Merlin pointed toward the edge of the cliff. “There’s a pebbled beach down there, and there’ll be loads of washed up driftwood.”

Arthur nodded a moment and then slowly his head stilled as he began to frown. One eye squinted he stared at Merlin oddly. “That’s all well and good, Merlin, but how do you plan on getting down there? It’s rather steep, not to mention high. And we didn’t bring enough rope.”

“Oh! Well, there’s a path. Well, it’s more like a trail of steps,” he amended. “They lead down from just over there,”– he pointed further east–“and come out right at the tip of the headlands. There’s the whole of the bay to collect wood.”

“Steps? That’s odd.” Arthur remarked.

“Well, I thought they’d be useful. You know, for when I wanted to visit Aithusa.”

Brows going comically high, Arthur asked, “You carved steps into the cliff?”

Merlin held up a flattened hand and waggled it. “Eh, not really carved. I used magic mostly. Aithusa helped some.”

“How did a drag–” Arthur stopped himself. “Never mind. I probably don’t want to know.” He stepped back while Merlin stood up – his fire ring completed – and then asked, “So should we do that now? Collect fire wood?”

Merlin shook his head. “Nah, I can do that a bit later. Let’s teach you how to shoot first, and then maybe you can manage some game while I’m gone?”

Though Arthur only nodded along at the suggestion, Merlin recognized the eager light in his eye. He was definitely interested in trying out a gun for the first time. And Merlin was equally interested to see how he liked it, and how he did with it. He’d excelled at every weapon Merlin had ever seen him use. While the sword was his best and the one he was most comfortable with, Merlin knew he could comfortably wield maces and axes and spears and even lances. To say nothing of bows and crossbows.

He retrieved the flintlock, powder and pellets from where he’d kept them carefully stored (in oilskin wrapping to protect against moisture dampening the powder) and spent quite a bit of time showing Arthur how to load it properly. There was always the risk of accidentally igniting the powder, so it wasn’t until Merlin was sure that Arthur was comfortable and confident with the task that he moved on to actually shooting it.

“We’ll need a target of some kind,” Merlin said, scratching thoughtfully at the back of his neck. He probably should’ve planned ahead for that, or decided on this lesson at a better time, where there were trees and other things to shoot at. “Sack of oats?” They were carrying two small bags for porridge, but neither he nor Arthur would be all that disappointed at the loss.

“That should work.” Arthur agreed. He helped Merlin get it set up, finding a small hummock that would be suitable for elevation, and they marked a vague circle on the side of it using some ink that Merlin had packed.

Merlin talked him through aiming, trusting that Arthur would pick up on it better than he ever did. He may have carried the pistol with him in his emergency pack but he wasn’t the greatest shot.

Arthur’s first shot went wide. They could see where it kicked up dirt some yards behind the ‘target’. Still, it was closer than Merlin’s earliest attempts.

While reloading Arthur commented, “Well, it’s definitely got a bit more kick than a crossbow. I think I’ll get the hang of it. But for quick combat, this process leaves a bit to be desired.” Despite the grumbling, he was already quick and proficient at the task.

After widening his stance and aiming carefully, Arthur fired. The second shot struck the bag, hitting the edge of the ink mark and expelling a small but explosive puff of powdered oats.

“Woo!” Arthur exulted and when he spun around he was beaming.

“Nice shot!” Merlin congratulated him. “I knew you’d be a natural.”

“Want a go?” Arthur offered the flintlock to him but Merlin waved him off.

“Nah, I’m not that good. Why don’t you see if you can scare up some rabbits and I’ll see about gathering that firewood.”

Arthur hesitated just a moment. “Right. Perhaps I’ll take the crossbow along as well. Just in case.”

Merlin didn’t think he’d need to, but nodded. “Good luck.”

The cliff-steps were a bit more weather-worn and slipperier than Merlin remembered, though it had been several decades since he’d last been to visit Aithusa, and he doubted they saw use otherwise. Just as he’d expected, there were plenty of sun-dried logs and branches strewn over the expanse of the beach. He collected several bundles, tying them up with rope so they’d be easier to haul back up to the top of the cliff.

He’d also brought along a sack and used it to collect mussels that grew at the points of the headland where black seaweed flourished, and cockles he managed to dig up from the sandy soil. Several times as he slowly wandered the curving beach, Merlin heard the faint but distinct sound of flintlock fire. He hoped Arthur was having as much luck as he was.

Before he made the climb back up, Merlin took a few minutes to sit on the cold, damp stones near a particular rocky promontory where the seafoam swirled and spat. He knew that when the tide was lowest the seawater would drain away and the mouth of a small cavern would be exposed. It connected with larger tunnels and caves that wended deep beneath the cliffs. He sent out his ‘sight’ beneath the waves, following it down to make sure the narrow pathways were still navigable. It wouldn’t do them much good to make the attempt tomorrow and find the tunnels collapsed or get themselves trapped when the tides came in.

Fortunately, he was able to guide his sight all the way to the massive cavern where Aithusa slept and he let the spell fade. He reached out with a different sense, one he’d never been able to define, and felt for the dragon’s presence. Though difficult to reach – she was deep in slumber – that peculiar light and warmth of his Dragonlord magic told him that all was well with his old friend.

Satisfied, Merlin retrieved his firewood and his shellfish and made the slow trek back to the top of the cliff.

He timed it well. Arthur had already returned to their campsite and was working on skinning and gutting what looked like two large hare and a grouse.

“Went well, I see!”

Arthur looked windswept and ruddy cheeked and delighted. “Yes. That flintlock is certainly a useful weapon. Though, I ran through the powder, so I took that grouse down with the crossbow.”

 Merlin set his own bundles down and began to work on building them a fire. “I’ve more powder if we need it. You had fun though, didn’t you?”

He shouldn’t have looked so charming while yanking the entrails from a featherless bird carcass, but his grin was too endearing. “Yes. I did enjoy that. Thank you, Merlin.” He nodded to the rapidly assembled cook fire. “What about you? No trouble with collecting firewood, I see?”

“No. There was plenty. And still more if we need it, although I don’t recommend taking that path down to the beach after dark. I also got some mussels and cockles.” He showed Arthur the sack of them. “Plus, I checked on the entrance to Aithusa’s cavern. We should have no trouble getting to her tomorrow morning.”

“Good. It’ll be nice to finally understand what I’m doing here.” He’d turned his attention back to spitting the hares so he didn’t see Merlin’s face fall.

Merlin tried not to let it hurt; he knew Arthur was struggling with that sense of needing to be somewhere, to do something. The problem was that these past two days – riding through the wilderness, sleeping beneath the stars, eating meals cooked over a fire – it was so reminiscent of all the hunting trips and quests and journeys he and Arthur had known in their days at Camelot that he was getting lost it in all again.

And, if he was honest, he was reveling in the pretense. He wasn’t fighting to remember that this was nearly a thousand years later and that Arthur would likely only be around for as long as this mysterious task would take. He didn’t want to remember. And that was only going to cause him more heartbreak when it all came to an end.

“Merlin?”

Merlin startled, realizing from the way Arthur said his name that he’d repeated it more than once, trying to get his attention. “Sorry, I was uh,” –he scrambled for an excuse– “focusing on getting the fire burning.”

Which was pathetic as far as lies went, considering it only took him a look to set the kindling alight.

Very generously, Merlin thought, Arthur let the falsehood slide. “Right, well good. We’ll need a nice, steady fire to roast these rabbits. I was going to ask if you wanted me to fill the cookpot with water? There’s a stream not too far.”

“Yeah, that’d be good. We can cook these shellfish with some of the vegetables. Might make a nice soup. While we’ve still got light, I’ll do a bit of foraging for some greens and herbs.” There were plenty of edible plants nearby. He should’ve brought some kelp back when he’d collected the mussels, but hadn’t thought of it.

For a moment Arthur looked like he wanted to say something, and Merlin waited for him ask about the cause of his distraction, faintly hoped he would so that Merlin wouldn’t feel so burdened by guilt, but eventually he just sighed and then nodded. “I’ll just fetch that water then.”

Cursing himself as every kind of fool, Merlin left the fire and set out on his search. He saw when Arthur came back, having filled their waterskins as well as the cookpot, but Merlin stayed out scrounging until he’d found enough herbs and greens to make a worthwhile soup: mushrooms and ransom and wood sorrel and wild mustard. It felt a bit like buying his way to Arthur’s forgiveness, even though Arthur hadn’t said he was upset over anything.

Still, Merlin couldn’t quite look Arthur in the eye when he returned to their fire and started on cleaning the mussels. He heard Arthur working at his own tasks – getting the spitted rabbits and grouse over the fire, cleaning the crossbow – but Merlin kept his head down. Even while he awkwardly chopped carrot and potato, balancing a trencher on the flattest rock he could find, and he was sure Arthur must be watching his fumbling with amusement. It wasn’t until he had everything simmering in the pot and really had no other excuses that Merlin finally sat back and looked across the fire.

“Going to talk to me now?” Arthur asked, wryly amused. He was tending the roasting game, rotating them on a makeshift spit he’d somehow cobbled together with several of the driftwood branches.

Merlin sighed. “Sorry.”

“Well, I don’t accept your apology.”

Bristling, Merlin’s reply was a defensive, “What does that mean? Why wouldn’t you–“

Before he could finish, Arthur spoke over him. “I don’t accept it because I have absolutely no idea what you’re sorry for. Clearly, something’s bothering you.” He smirked. “If I thought it would help, I’d smack you on the arm, but we both know that doesn’t work.”

He knew Arthur meant it as a joke, but that was so close to the heart of the issue that Merlin couldn’t summon the smile the comment deserved.

“Okay, now I know something’s bothering you. Come on. Spit it out. What’s going on?”

There was no way Arthur would let it go. Plus, he didn’t want this to fester between them, souring their short time together. Reluctantly, he tried to explain it. “Look, it’s completely my problem. I just… I got upset that you seemed so eager to figure out what you’re here for. And I know I shouldn’t, but I just keep thinking that as soon as we know, that will just make your leaving again all the more inevitable.” He gave a guilty little shrug. “I was enjoying these few days we’ve had, and I guess they reminded me of before. And, I’m… afraid of losing that.”

Arthur nodded along as he spoke and then gave a rather lopsided smile; which wasn’t the response Merlin was expecting. “I feel the same as you, Merlin. I do. I’m trying not to show it, of course. But there is a big part of me that just wants to keep going. To pack up tomorrow morning, say damn the dragon and damn fate or destiny and just keep hiding away from acknowledging the world we’re in. But we can’t.” He went quiet a moment, firelight catching at the contemplative cast to his face while he turned the roasting meat.

When he went on, his voice was low, difficult to hear over the snapping and crackling of the fire. “I think there’s a part of me that just hopes that this isn’t all we get.” One shoulder lifted briefly – barely a shrug. “I mean, I think I’m hoping once we get past whatever this… task or quest or what have you, and then maybe that won’t be it.”

“Maybe we can get on with living our lives,” Merlin finished for him, because it was exactly what he felt as well.

Mouth twisting up, first a frown then a warped sort of grin, Arthur looked at Merlin across the fire. “Probably not, right?”

They both knew it wasn’t the right time. Merlin didn’t need to say that out loud.

For a few minutes Merlin focused on stirring his soup and Arthur on the roasting game and they didn’t say anything. “So,” Arthur broke the silence, “this dragon. How is it that you’ll go about waking her up? I’m guessing it’s not as simple as shouting ‘rise and shine’?”

Merlin chuckled. “No, definitely not. Actually I’ll do it using my Dragonlord powers. I’ll call her back to the present, pull her from her dreaming, by calling to her in her language.”

Arthur frowned. “Dragonlord powers?

Oh hell, Arthur didn’t know about that, did he? He’d assumed… what with Kilgharrah at the very end. Arthur’d not been surprised by the dragon, so Merlin never thought any more about it.

“Oh, right. Well, about that…”

“Merlin, I know you were responsible for letting the dragon loose, and I’ve come to realize that you were probably more responsible for driving it away from Camelot than I was, but I thought… well, I thought that was just your magic?”

Spreading his hands in a bit of a showy gesture, Merlin said, “Uh surprise. I’m also a Dragonlord.”

Arthur’s eyes narrowed. “But I don’t understand. If you’re a Dragonlord, why did you let Camelot suffer as long as you did? Why did we traipse days across the countryside to find that Balinor if…” He must’ve caught something of Merlin’s rapidly falling expression because he trailed off. “Merlin?”

“Well, you see, a Dragonlord’s powers are passed down from father to son, only upon death. So, when we set out to find Balinor… I wasn’t yet a Dragonlord.”

Realization dawned with terrible certainty on Arthur’s face. “Oh, Merlin. I’m so sorry. I didn’t know.”

Merlin thought he’d made peace with losing his father, especially when his father’s spirit or essence (or even just Merlin’s own imagination in the guise of Balinor) visited him in the Crystal Cave. He hadn’t expected it to hurt so much sharing it with Arthur.

“I hadn’t even known about him until just before you and I set out. Gaius told me the truth. Told me that the man we were seeking was my father. He hadn’t known about me either. He fled Ealdor before he knew my mother was with child.”

“Did you tell him? Who you were?”

“Not right away,” Merlin replied, recollecting just how conflicted he’d been. “I wanted to, but he… wasn’t exactly a sociable sort. Plus, you were hurt and he was willing to heal you. I didn’t want to risk that. It wasn’t until after he’d already agreed to go and we were on our way back to Camelot. When we were out gathering firewood, I finally told him.”

“How did he take it?”

“Well, he was probably as unsure about the whole thing as I was. He never knew that my Mother was alive, to say nothing of having a son. But, he accepted it quickly.” He remembered Balinor calling him ‘son’ with such poignancy. “We talked that night, when you were sleeping, about my magic and being a Dragonlord, and even of bringing him back to Ealdor to be with my mother. And he saved my life.”

Arthur’s frown deepened and he shook head sadly. “Why didn’t you tell me? If I’d have known he was your father…” Again, he didn’t seem to quite know how to finish that sentence. “Why didn’t you tell me after?”

“Arthur,” Merlin said gently. “You know why. It would’ve been as condemning as my magic in the eyes of your father.”

Arthur‘s head drooped and he gave a slight nod. “Right. I suppose that wouldn’t have gone over well. Still, I wish–” He stopped himself saying it. “I’m sorry I didn’t know. I’m sure I wasn’t exactly the greatest comfort after all that.”

“Actually, you were.” The little smile that had been playing at his lips at his memories grew fuller. “Don’t you remember that talk we had while you were gearing up for the battle? You told me that no man was worth my tears.”

Huffing out a brief laugh, Arthur bobbed his head. “Yes, I do remember. And I remember your cheeky reply as well. I just… when I said that, I hadn’t realized he was your father.”

“I know, Arthur. But you… well; you cared enough to try to make me feel better. Even if you didn’t understand why I was so upset.”

He seemed to think on that a minute. “Wait, so what did happen with the dragon, then? Did I strike him?” When Merlin didn’t answer right away, Arthur cringed. “He just knocked me out, didn’t he?”

Merlin nodded reluctantly. “You struck him, but it was just a graze. After he knocked you out, I commanded him to leave.”

“Right.” Though Arthur looked a bit chagrinned at the truth, he was smiling. “Well, I suppose that makes more sense.” His expression grew thoughtful once more. “So, where did this Aeth… Aithura?”

“Aithusa,” Merlin supplied.

“Right, Aithusa. Where did she come from?”

Ducking his head, Merlin grinned hotly even as he went all-over warm. “Oh, now that’s another story.”

He told it, enjoying Arthur’s play of reactions – disbelief, amusement, laughter, frustration, even a few seconds of apoplexy – and ended up sharing several more stories about things he’d done with his magic that he’d kept hidden for so long. By that time the rabbits and grouse were roasted and the soup was done. They stopped their conversation long enough to share out generous portions of each, and then picked it right back up.

Even though it didn’t reach the emotional depth of the conversation the night prior, it was every bit as cathartic to Merlin. It felt like he was opening himself to Arthur even more than he already had, and he hadn’t known that was possible. They laughed heartily, and things were heavy and hard to talk through a few times, once or twice there were tears, but by the time they’d finished eating and readied for sleep, Merlin’s sides were aching, and Arthur was wiping at his eyes.

Once again Arthur laid out their bedrolls side-by-side. “Not going to fight me on this, are you?”

“Nah,” Merlin shook his head. “I’m fairly confident we’ve got no amorous deer around this night.”

Laughing again, voice a little rough from it, Arthur caught him about the waist and neatly took him down to the ground. He rolled them so that Merlin was on top and then tugged insistently on his tunic.

Knees on either side of Arthur’s hips, Merlin fought the pull of Arthur’s hands only for a moment – just to be contrary, and to protest the rough treatment – but he gave in quickly. It amazed Merlin how easy this had become, how right it felt to capture Arthur’s mouth in a kiss and to seek out Arthur’s skin with his eager fingers.

Arthur seemed quite content at first to lie back and let Merlin set the pace. Though he was quick enough to help with getting both their breeches shoved down and the rest of their clothes off. No shy evening under the blankets this night. They lay bared to the stars. They tumbled in the bedroll, touching and caressing and rubbing against each other with wild abandon.

Eventually Arthur seemed to get a little impatient. He flipped them and pinned Merlin’s hips with his hands.

“Arthur?” Merlin asked, though he was merely curious.

“I, uh… want to try something. Can I?”

Merlin didn’t quite roll his eyes. “You can try anything you want, Arthur. You don’t have to ask.”

Arthur flashed a quick and quite dirty little grin. “Good. Just, um… try to hold still.”

That was all the warning Merlin got before he felt Arthur’s lips on his cock. He plunged his mouth down, roughly and awkward, taking Merlin nearly to the root.

“Arthur!” he cried out.

“What?” Arthur lifted his head, pulling off Merlin’s cock with an obscenely slick sound. “Did I do something wrong?”

Merlin lifted his hands from their death grip on the blanket to wave Arthur’s concern away. “No, it’s good, Arthur. It’s great. Hnggghh, it’s fantastic.” He was relieved to see Arthur relax at his fervent reassurance. “You uh, just caught me off guard is all.”

“Oh,” Arthur nodded like he was taking mental notes. “Right, bit abrupt was it? Sorry, I’ve uh… been on the receiving end but um, never done this before either.”

Merlin absolutely would not get all tender-hearted and teary-eyed at the idea of Arthur wanting so earnestly to give his first try at fellatio. “You’re doing great, Arthur. Just feel free to go slow. Ease yourself into it. No need to rush.” He had a thought. “Um, do you want me to warn you before I…” He gave a rather crude gesture.

“You mean so you don’t spend in my mouth?”

Gods, just hearing Arthur talk about it was going to make Merlin come before Arthur’s lips ever got back on him.

“Right,” Merlin acknowledged a bit hoarsely. “Yeah, uh, that can be unpleasant if you’re not ready for it.”

Arthur’s face twisted up in consideration. “You can warn me, but I’ll decide what I want to do in the moment.” He smiled. “Can I uh, get back to it?”

“Yeah, yes… by all means.”

And that was all the encouragement Arthur needed. Though this time he didn’t try to swallow Merlin whole with the first touch of his mouth. He was sloppy but enthusiastic, and he took Merlin’s cock deep, only pulling back when he began to cough. He brought a hand up then, circling the base, and then he set up a steady rhythm, bobbing up and down and stroking with his hand.

The sensations built rapidly and Merlin grunted and writhed and fought very hard to keep from thrusting his hips up into that hot, wet heat. Finally, when he knew he was only moments away, Merlin reached down to tug at Arthur’s hair.

Arthur ignored him, making some kind of noise of protest around Merlin’s cock that tingled all the way down to his bollocks, and that was all Merlin could take. He rocked his hips into the hard press of Arthur’s hands and came into his mouth and shouted with the unequivocal pleasure of his release.

A cough finally broke through his haze and Merlin blinked up at the starry sky, not realizing he’d had his eyes squeezed shut. He propped himself up on his elbows to look down the length of his own body. Still kneeling at his side, Arthur was wiping a hand over the back of his mouth and his shoulders were jerking roughly.

Hot with shame, Merlin hurried to reach out to him, touching him on the shoulder. “Arthur, I’m sorry… I didn’t mean–”

“No, Merlin…” Arthur dismissed that with a flip of his hand and when he looked up, even in the darkness Merlin could see that he was laughing.

“Arthur?”

“Sorry,” Arthur said, still sputtering, trying to get his chortling under control. “It’s just… it surprised me is all. The feel of it, the taste.” He smacked his lips. “It was just such a strange thing.”

Merlin sighed in relief. Well, laughter wasn’t the usual response, but he was glad Arthur was okay with what he’d done. And then he remembered that he’d gotten to come but Arthur was probably still hard and hurting. “Do want me to do that for you? Or uh,”–he hurried to add when Arthur looked oddly chagrined–“my hand?”

He was surprised when Arthur waved him off. “No, no… I um. Well, I’m done. I uhh, rather enjoyed that.”

It took Merlin a moment to catch on but when he realized that Arthur had just admitted to getting off while sucking Merlin, he felt his cock give a very interested twitch. Merlin flopped back into the bedroll, shaking his head. “You’re going to be the one thing that can kill me, Arthur,” he muttered.

Settling in at his side, Arthur pressed a kiss to Merlin’s jaw. “It would be a good way to go, you have to admit.”

“Oh, it’d be the only way I want to go.” He managed to find the blanket that had been tossed aside earlier and hooked it with two fingers. He dragged it over and then covered them both with it. He banked their fire with a whisper and snuggled closer to Arthur.

They talked and teased a bit longer, but it wasn’t long before Arthur was snoring softly against Merlin’s shoulder. Feeling utterly content, Merlin stared up at the sky, watching the stars whirl overhead until he finally succumbed to the pull of sleep.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Merlin woke first the next morning, before the sun. Though the indigo sky still held dominion, he could see the eastern sky purpling and a low, pinkish-gold line of clouds hinting at sunrise to come. He thought for a moment about lying there, waiting for Arthur to rouse, but his protesting bladder had other ideas. Rising carefully, he managed to slip out of their bedroll without waking Arthur.

He wandered a few feet away from camp to relieve himself and then as he walked back over to re-stoke their fire, he remembered his and Arthur’s conversation from the prior morning. He had a pinch of coffee left, and no need to wake Arthur this early, so he set to work trying to conjure it from thin air.

The sun had well and truly risen, the sky a riotous play of colors shading from plum to goldenrod, when he finally let out a triumphant, “Ha!”

“Arthur,” Merlin prodded at the sleeping form with the toe of his boot. “Arthur,” he repeated a bit louder.

Arthur made an indistinct grumble and then rolled over, pulling the blanket over his head.

Shaking his head and feeling ridiculously fond, Merlin tried again. “Arthur, c’mon. Rise and shine.”

That only got him more noises of dissent.

“Fine,” Merlin said airily. “But if you don’t want this coffee that I managed to magic into existence, well, I guess I’ll just have to toss it…”

The blanket was shoved away and Arthur turned his head enough to glare. “Don’t you dare.” Then he seemed to realize what Merlin had just said. Perking up a bit, he rolled up onto his side. “You created coffee? With magic?”

Feeling particularly pleased with himself for the feat (though he wasn’t going to mention his several failed attempts to Arthur – he still couldn’t quite get the taste of burned anise off his tongue) Merlin nodded. “Yes, I did. So you can drink as much as you want this morning.” He crouched down and held out one of the stoneware mugs they’d brought along just for that purpose, already brimming with steaming, fragrant coffee.

Arthur reached for it, but Merlin danced it just out of his reach. “Uh uh. First you have to actually get up.”

Merlin was starting to wish that coffee was something they’d had back in Camelot for how easy it was to get Arthur out of bed. So many mornings would’ve probably gone a lot easier. Waiting patiently until Arthur was at least sitting up in the bed roll, Merlin finally handed over the drink once Arthur glared and made grabbing motions with one hand.

It didn’t take long for the effects of the beverage to kick in and rouse Arthur further. And once he was up and fully dressed, they efficiently packed up.

“We’ll have to leave the horses here,” Merlin explained after they’d finished. “We’d never be able to get them down those steps.”

“Think they’ll be okay?”

“Yeah,” Merlin nodded. “We shouldn’t be all that long. But I can ask them to stay put.”

Arthur’s brows lifted but he didn’t say anything as Merlin spoke softly to each horse. He’d wondered – all those years ago – how Morgause had convinced Arthur’s horse to carry him along a decided path and so had figured out that bit of magic on his own.

He heard Arthur’s indrawn breath each time he used his magic, and he wondered if Arthur even knew he was doing that? He wasn’t going to point it out; he found it rather charming. Finished, he patted his horse between velvety nostrils and said, “That’s got it.”

Arthur gestured for him to lead the way. “Let’s go then.”

Carefully making their way down the stone steps, Arthur remarked more than once on the convenience of his magic. “I’m just saying, Merlin. It’s probably a good thing I didn’t know about you being a Sorcerer sooner. There are so many ridiculous things I’d have wasted your skills on.”

The fact that he could admit such a thing made Merlin laugh. “I can only imagine.”

“Of course, there are probably a plethora of things that you actually did use it for that I never realized.”

“Probably,” Merlin agreed. They reached the bottom of the steps where they emerged onto the pebbled stone beach. “It’s this way.” The rocky promontory where he’d sat down yesterday was fully exposed and the small cave mouth gaped dark and foreboding.

“Well that doesn’t look at all welcoming.” He heard Arthur remark, low and to himself.

“I’ll just light the way,” Merlin offered. He muttered a quick, “Léoht,” and a ball of light formed above his outstretched hand.

Again, he heard that slightly indrawn breath that wasn’t quite a gasp. “Let’s add that to the list of useful things, shall we? To think of all the times I wouldn’t have had to carry torches.”

Grinning, Merlin led the way down into the dark break in the rocks. It was a tight fit and even well-worn by water, the edges of the stone were sharp. Behind him he heard Arthur swearing. “It’s not too far,” he cautioned, “but watch your head. And feet,” he added when he missed stepping over a low spot where the water still pooled.

A few more curses and exclamations told Merlin that Arthur wasn’t making it through the narrow crevasse unscathed, but he was still following along gamely. The passage continued deeper and lower for several more yards, ending in an ink-dark well where the water never fully drained away, but there was a forking path twisting up to the right and that was the one Merlin followed.

“What happens if we’re still in here when the tide comes in?” Arthur asked suddenly.

“Uh, it wouldn’t be good. This whole tunnel fills up.” He ducked another outcrop.

Arthur didn’t answer for a moment, and when he did his voice was peculiarly tight. “Merlin, when does the tide come in?”

Merlin thought about it. He wasn’t entirely sure, but they’d be well clear of the tunnel before they had to worry. He said as much to Arthur.

The response to that was a very aggrieved sigh. “Merlin, we still have to wake up this dragon and have a chat with her. Unless that happens in the next few minutes, we’re going to be stuck down here until tomorrow morning.”

Oh! Merlin hadn’t thought of that. “Oh, uh… yeah. I didn’t think of that, did I?”

“You didn’t think?” Arthur parroted back mockingly.

Trying not to let that sting, Merlin explained. “Well, usually when I would visit Aithusa, it would be for a few days. Not just a quick stop like this. And it has been at least a century since I’ve been here, Arthur. I think you could forgive me the lapse.” The latter might have been just a bit prickly.

He could actually hear Arthur’s mouth snap shut. Much more chastened, Arthur spoke again. “Sorry, Merlin. I’m just not fond of being under the water or underground. I don’t relish the thought of us being stuck down here.”

The thing was, Merlin had gotten himself out of the caverns after the tide had come in, but he’d used magic to do it and… didn’t think Arthur would want to try that particular method. It had involved swimming. He’d wait and tell Arthur about it after they talked with Aithusa. “We’ll figure something out, Arthur. Don’t worry. And, we’re here.” He stepped up the last few meters where the tunnel opened up into a massive cavern. His voice echoed off the walls eerily and Merlin’s floating ball of light did little to penetrate the pure, unforgiving darkness.

Arthur moved close behind him, breath hot on Merlin’s ear. “So, where’s this dragon?”

“Back this way,” Merlin once again waved for Arthur to follow. “And I think a bit more light would help.” Like he was tossing stones, Merlin threw his arm out repeatedly, each extension sending another ball of light floating off into the darkness.

“Wow,” Arthur murmured.

Summoning a light orb, even multiple coruscating spheres of them, wasn’t all that difficult, but Merlin realized that for Arthur it was probably one of the most…explicit displays of magic he’d shown so far. He looked over at Arthur and the blue-white light cast ghostly shadows on a face that looked awed.

Blushing though he couldn’t figure out why, Merlin sent out one final sphere and sent it to hover over a massive pale form at the back of the cavern.

“Wow,” Arthur repeated, though this time with a wholly different tone. “Uh, she’s larger than I remember.”

“Yeah, she was still a youngster when you saw her last. She couldn’t even talk back then. Dragons are long-lived. They grow very slowly.”

In the eerie light it was difficult to make out the dragon’s features, but Merlin knew that she was sleeping with her head tucked under the fold of a wing and her tail wrapped around her nose. If she’d been little, it probably would’ve looked rather endearing. Her form was still as stone, though Merlin knew from communing with her yesterday that she was alive and well, her heartbeat a slow, but comforting thrum deep within him.

“So,” Arthur asked, moving to stand next to him. “What now?”

“Now I’ll call to her. I’ll ask her to wake from her slumber. It may take a few minutes for her to respond.” He’d never had to wake her up, not from this dormant state, so he wasn’t entirely sure how easy it would be to reach her. The last time they’d spoken over a hundred years ago, she’d been weary and sorrowful when she told Merlin of her intentions to go into hibernation. She hadn’t wanted to leave Merlin alone, and had promised that should he have need of her, he only had to summon her back and she’d wake willingly.

He drew on the Dragonlord’s power, felt it rush through him like heat and fire, coiling in his belly, and called out the request in a deep, guttural voice. “O drakon, e male soirwahhên dû lang slâfan.”

The command echoed around the cavern, filling the space with that strange other-worldly language until it slowly faded to silence. It went so quiet that Merlin could hear Arthur’s soft breathing. He looked over to see Arthur staring at him with more of that odd sort of wonder on his face. Perhaps even a bit of fear as well.

Rather sheepishly he ducked his chin. “Uh, that’s the Dragon’s tongue. It’s how I can call her.”

“Well… uh, that certainly sounded powerful enough to wake anything. Even Gwaine after a night in the tavern.” There was still a bit of temerity in his voice, but Arthur managed a soft chortle none-the-less.

“Oh, I dunno. Gwaine once slept through a brawl.”

Arthur rolled his eyes. “Yes, and it was a brawl that he started. I still remember the bill I got from the barkeep for that one.”

Merlin snickered, and Arthur couldn’t hold the disgruntled mien for more than a few seconds before he too was huffing in amusement.

“Your laughter is a lovely thing to wake-up to, young warlock.” A sonorous yet feminine voice called out.

They turned as one to where Aithusa was slowly easing out of her slumber. She lifted her head, serpentine neck arcing one way then the other. First the left wing and then the right unfurled in turns and stretched out to their full length before folding back to her sides. Her tail swept the cavern floor in sinuous arcs and she extended her forelegs far in front of her, dagger-sized claws flexing wide on her agile toes in a stretch and then dragging into the rock as she drew them back. The scraping noise they made sent the hair standing on the back of Merlin’s arms.

“Aithusa!” Merlin cried out in delight. “It’s so good to see you, old friend.” He hurried to grab Arthur’s arm, propelling him forward a step. “This is–“

“Yes, I know,” Aithusa interrupted before Merlin could make the introduction. “Of course I know the Once and Future King, young warlock.” Unlike Kilgharrah, Aithusa’s tones and expressions were easy for Merlin to interpret. She was quite delighted with Arthur if he wasn’t mistaken.

Aithusa lowered her head to their level and then inclined it rather formally. “Arthur Pendragon. It is an honor to finally meet you.”

Arthur looked askance at Merlin, hesitating just a very few seconds, before he faced the dragon and gave a formal bow. “It’s good to meet you as well, Aithusa. Merlin’s told me quite a bit about you.”

“Oh, I’m sure he has,” she said, clearly amused.

Before Arthur could ask about that – dragons, in Merlin’s experience, took far too much delight in being confounding and stirring trouble – Merlin stepped in, “I’m sorry I had to wake you, Aithusa, but I need your help.”

Settling her big head on the ground over crossed forelegs, Aithusa fixed her pale-eyed gaze on him. “It is no trouble, young warlock. I am always delighted at your visits. I’m only sorry that my need to stay hidden in this world and this time have kept me from you.”

“There’s no need to apologize for that,” Merlin insisted. “I understand. And I’d not have woken you if there wasn’t dire need.”

“And what is this need you speak of?”

Arthur stepped forward to respond. “Do you know why I’m here? Why I’ve returned now? I know… well, or I can sense that there is some task or duty that calls to me, but I don’t know what it is.”

“It’s too soon,” Merlin added softly, hating to say that aloud. “All of my studies and everything I learned over the years tells me that by rights, Arthur should not be here. Not yet.” He gestured with a sweep of his hand, fingertips brushing Arthur’s arm. “But here he is.”

Ice-blue eyes fixed, unblinking, on Arthur for many long seconds. Merlin saw him squirm under that scrutiny. Though he wasn’t sure Aithusa was genuinely looking for something, or just being troublesome, eventually she closed her eyes and breathed out a long, sibilant sigh.

“You are right,” she said softly. “This is not Arthur’s time.”

Merlin didn’t react, despite the fact that it felt like he’d been struck a blow to the gut and had his feet kicked from beneath him. He’d known… and yet, hearing it confirmed still hurt more than he could’ve anticipated.

He must’ve made a noise or let a breath slip free, because in a moment Arthur was next to him. A stolid presence, pressed tight to his side. Fingers sought his own and Merlin’s hand was gripped tight.

Aithusa eyed them both with what Merlin knew was sympathy. “As for why he is here…” she went back to the intense staring again, but Merlin didn’t think she was looking at him, but instead past him. “You are right, Arthur Pendragon. There is a task that lies ahead.”

Merlin felt Arthur shift impatiently and he squeezed Arthur’s hand. “What is this task?”

“Not far from here there is a small village. This one stands apart, as if time has passed it by. In this village is a young boy. He will be guarded, kept apart from all others. You must find a way to free him, and see him safely hidden from those who would do him harm.”

An image popped into Merlin’s head: a young druid boy, hiding from Camelot guards and asking for his help through only the voice in his mind. A chill ran the length of his spine. “Who is this boy?”

“Who he is now is insignificant. He is merely a peasant boy. Who will be because of him, is where his import lies.”

“I don’t understand,” Arthur took a step forward. “What does that mean?”

Merlin, used to the double-speak of dragons, answered for her, “It means that this boy isn’t important now. But someday day he’ll have a child who will have a child, and so on.” He made a flipping gesture with his free hand. “Eventually, one of his descendants will mean something to you future. What I don’t understand is why now? I mean, obviously this boy had a father and mother and so did they, and so forth. Why is he suddenly a concern?”

Aithusa lifted her head to give a slow nod. “You are correct, young warlock. Outside influences seek to disturb the paths that have been set for your shared destiny, and should this boy grow in the wrong company, his progeny may impact the future.”

Merlin and Arthur exchanged a look. “Outside influences?” They both said it in nearly the same moment.

The dragon canted her head to the side, eyeing both of them with a reptilian sort of amusement curling the corners of her mouth. “Merlin, you are not the only one aware of your King’s future. You are not the only one to have studied the prophecies. There have always been other influences working against you. You know this. They’ve not stopped.”

“But, Morgana–” Arthur started to say.

“Morgana Pendragon was as much a pawn of fate as the both of you,” Aithusa said with a prim finality.

Merlin winced. Even after Morgana’s death, when Merlin had tracked down Aithusa as a young dragon, bonded with her and helped to heal her and raise her with Kilgharah’s influence, she’d never fully blamed Morgana for what she’d become. Though she’d never blamed Merlin for what he had to do, either. Still, sometimes she got a little defensive.

“Right, I wasn’t going to disagree with that,” Arthur said carefully, looking a bit surprised at Aithusa’s vehemence. “I just thought that with her death, that it had been decided. I mean, fate?”

“Oh,” Aithusa managed to look chagrinned. And apparently dragons could flush because her pale, milky skin looked a bit pinker around the ridges of her face and eyes. “My apologies, Arthur Pendragon. And although Morgana’s death did ring out greatly in the universe, she was not the only one working against you. She had followers, and converts. They are few, but still a significant and growing threat.”

Merlin wanted to ask something then, but Arthur got a coy expression on his face. He raised a finger to point at the dragon. “This threat. When it reaches its peak, that’s when I’ll need to come back. For good, I mean. That will be the true time of the Once and Future King.”

“Yes,” Aithusa seemed pleased that he’d understood.

Suddenly, as Arthur made that connection, Merlin made one of his own.

Pulling away from Arthur, Merlin strode forward until he was nearly at Aithusa’s feet. She arched her neck back and angled her head to stare down at him. “Tell me something, Aithusa. This boy, he’s not being harmed, is he?”

Arthur answered before she could. “Merlin, you heard. They’re keeping him locked away. He’s being raised in the wrong company.”

He turned to look over his shoulder, “Yes, but she didn’t say they were harming him or had plans to harm him. Maybe they’re just keeping him safe.” He looked back up into a guileless blue eye. “I know what this is. I know what you’re not telling me.”

“And what is that, young warlock?” Merlin didn’t think she’d ever sounded so much like Kilgharrah.

“This boy, who he will be… or who he will eventually bring into this world. This is as much to do with me as Arthur, isn’t it? I mean, the decision we’ll face.”

Aithusa didn’t response, but her eyes narrowed. He saw acknowledgment there, even if she refused to admit it.

“I thought you were my friend,” Merlin spat accusingly at Aithusa.

She let out a heavy sigh, sides deflating and pushing out warm, sulfury breath like a bellows. “I am, Merlin. But I am also an agent of fate. As my kind have been since time immemorial. You called Kilgharrah a friend as well,” she pointed out, though not unkindly. “And did he not lay equal burdens at your feet?”

Merlin turned away, ashamed. He knew he was just lashing out, hurting her for no good reason.

“What does that mean, Merlin? What’s going on?” Arthur had stepped close to him again, and Merlin felt a hand on his shoulder.

“It means, that if this boy lives and bears children of his own and they have children, for however many generations are needed, the result will be as you said, Arthur. At some point, you will return again and have to face that person.”

Eyeing him askance, Arthur nodded warily. “Well, yes. Then what’s the concern?”

But Merlin didn’t answer and instead looked back at Aithusa. “The boy, now. The reason he’s being so well guarded isn’t to harm him, it’s to keep him safe.”

“Yes,” she told him. He recognized the way she was looking at him; that they’d reached an understanding about what was to come.

“Okay–” Arthur began.

“From me.” Merlin cut him short.

“What?”

The abject confusion in Arthur’s voice almost made Merlin back down, almost made him stop this line of inquiry because it wouldn’t lead anywhere good. All the wonder and joy of the last few days could be undone by this.

But Merlin couldn’t stop.

“It’s true, isn’t it Aithusa? That’s why it has to be Arthur who ‘rescues’ him. Because it’s the only way I could make the necessary decision.”

“I don’t understand, Merlin. Tell me what’s going on.”

He spun to face Arthur then, wild-eyed and shaking with rage. “Arthur, if the boy dies now, there will be no future for you.”

“Right. Exactly. I thought that’s why we were meant to rescue him.” His face told Merlin that he was trying to understand, but just didn’t get it.

Merlin shook his head vehemently, “No, they’re not hurting him. They’ve no plans to harm him at all. In the future he is meant to bring about another…. Mordred. Your doom. Someone you must face and defeat.”

“Yes, but if we save him now, we’ll change that.” He looked to the dragon for confirmation. “Is that right, Aithusa? If we save this boy now, it will change how he is raised and who has influence over him.”

“Arthur is correct, young warlock. Should the boy be raised to grow where he is and produce progeny under the influence of those aligned against you, that offspring will be aligned against you as well.”

“Right,” Merlin barked out, “and if we go and save him, and he’s raised by normal people away from that negative influence, then his children’s children will be different.”

Arthur nodded. “Yes. That’s why–”

“No, they won’t. Not really. His great great grandchild will still be fated to be the cause for your return. But if the boy dies, now, that will never happen.” He could already envision it. The decision they made now would mean the difference between producing a Morgana or a Mordred. They would both be fated to mean Arthur’s doom, but each for very different reasons.

From his drawn in brows and slanted, thin-lipped frown, Arthur still didn’t understand.

Taking a deep breath, nearly shaking with fear and rage and sorrow, Merlin explained. “Arthur, if he dies now, we don’t have to wait… we could have our time now. It wouldn’t mean waiting another thousand years. Lifetimes of waiting for the gods only know what… Maybe if we save him, we won’t get another Morgana. But what if does beget another Mordred. What if that’s your future? To come back only to be betrayed again, and killed? We could stop that ever happening. We could end all of this. We could have now.”

Arthur’s frowned deepened; he was shaking his head as he tried to parse it. “Then why bring me back at all? It doesn’t make sense, Merlin. Why am I even here then? If I hadn’t come back, if we hadn’t come to this cavern… you’d never have known about the boy.”

“Because eventually I’d have found out about this boy, isn’t that right, Aithusa.” He glared up at the dragon. “If not him, then one of his kin. And I’d have discovered who and what he is meant to bring about. And I’d have stopped it there. The fates or whoever has their hand in controlling our destiny, know that you are the only one who can stop me, Arthur. That’s why you’re here, now.”

“But it still doesn’t make sense, Merlin. If it is, as you say, the destiny of this child to father a line that will eventually become my ultimate enemy, then… if you stop it now, I won’t return. So, why would I have been brought back to stop you doing something you wouldn’t have done.”

Fighting the urge to tear at his own hair in frustration, Merlin tried to make Arthur understand it. “But I would’ve. Don’t you see that Arthur? If you’d not come back now, and I had discovered this on my own, I would’ve made that decision easily. Without question.”

Arthur stepped back from him then, gaping. “But… even though you know that would mean I’d never have any reason to come back?”

Merlin hung his head, but he still nodded. “Yes, but you wouldn’t be brought back only to suffer again. I’d never have known this,” he gestured between the two of them. “I’d only have known about a possible future where you were coming back, to face evil or betrayal,” his voice dropped to a hoarse gasp. “And to die in my arms again. And I would’ve done anything to stop that. To let you be at peace.”

“But… you’d be alone, Merlin. You’d have waited all this time for nothing.”

“I know,” Merlin gasped out. “But I would live a thousand lifetimes to spare yours.”

“No,” Arthur shook his head, vehement. “No, you don’t know that, Merlin. You don’t know that that’s what the future has in store for me.”

“I’ve been here before, Arthur,” Merlin implored. “I have tried so many times to change your fate. And that’s all this is. History doomed to repeat itself. I will not see you die again, Arthur. Not if I can stop it happening this time.”

“At the cost of a child’s life?” Arthur asked, like he didn’t believe he was voicing the question.

“Yes,” Merlin snapped.

“Merlin, you could… kill a child?”

Closing his eyes, Merlin gave a slow nod. He couldn’t face seeing Arthur recoil from him, or seeing those so-familiar, so cherished eyes staring at him with disgust and recrimination.

“I failed to make that choice long ago. I let a druid boy live… and he killed you, Arthur. It was my weakness, my failure… “

“Your humanity.” Arthur said softly.

“No,” Merlin shook his head, feeling wetness seep at the seams of his tightly-squeezed eyelids. “No, it was weakness, Arthur. It was my fault… I failed over and over. I let Mordred live. I didn’t let Morgana die when I had the chance. At every turn I was too soft-hearted and too kind and too trusting and too hopeful that there would be another way.” He let out a weary, heartbroken sigh. “And I failed.”

To his shock, Merlin felt hands cup his face. Thumbs swept across his cheekbones, leaving swathes of cool, damp skin in their wake.

Merlin slowly opened his eyes.

Arthur looked sad, but there was no recrimination, no abhorrence. Just… sympathy. “But don’t you see, it will be different, Merlin. This time there’s no hiding, and no need for lies and making those hard choices alone. We’re in this together, now and for whatever the future brings.”

He wanted to believe it. More than anything he wanted to believe that together they could prevent fate repeating itself, that they could succeed, thwart destiny, and have the rest of their lives together…

But when had fate or destiny ever been that kind?

And yet, Arthur was looking at him with such surety and hope. How could he deny Arthur anything?

He let his head fall forward, into Arthur’s cradling grip, and uttered a weary, “Yes. Yes, you’re right.”

Arthur pulled him in closer, tucked Merlin’s head against his shoulder and wrapped strong arms around him. “It will be all right, Merlin. You’ll see. Just trust me.”

“I do,” he answered into Arthur’s neck. And that was at least the truth.

From above he heard Aithusa say. “This is as it should be, young warlock. And this is the reason, I believe, that your young King was returned to you, perhaps ahead of fate’s design. That you would not have to shoulder this burden alone.”

Arthur’s hand came up to grip the back of Merlin’s neck and he gave a rough shake. “You hear that, Merlin? I’m here so you don’t have to make these decisions on your own. Together we’ll set this right.” He pushed Merlin away from him then, but not before pressing a quick kiss to his temple. “Now, we still need to undertake this task.” He looked up at the dragon, who was looming over them (Protection or threat, Merlin wasn’t sure. He suspected a bit of both). “Aithusa, where can we find this village?”

While Arthur got instructions from Aithusa, Merlin looked between him and the dragon wondered if they knew that he was lying to them both? He also wondered how much of Arthur’s understanding and surety was feigned. Because he knew there wasn’t any way Arthur could’ve simply dismissed his admission out of hand. Mostly he wondered how much Arthur was going to hate him when he did what he had to do.

He caught the tail end of Arthur’s conversation with Aithusa, and he nodded along like he’d been paying attention the whole time.

“So,” Arthur brushed his hands across his thighs, “is that all we need? I mean, are we ready to go?”

Ready to rush off to chase his fate, just like always. Merlin bit back a sigh. Or maybe it was a fond smile. Instead he looked up to Aithusa. “Is there anything else we need to know, old friend?” Despite his fit of pique, he’d already forgiven her.

Aithusa swung her massive head side-to-side like a great pendulum. “No, young warlock. That is all. But please, do come and find me when all of this is over. I would have you wake me more often.” There was a gentle chiding to her tone, and Merlin knew she meant it as a comfort. “Just because I cannot go above in the world, does not mean I wouldn’t like to know how you’re doing from time to time. Please don’t forget.”

“I won’t, Aithusa. Thank you.”

“And you, young Pendragon. It was an honor to finally meet you.”

Arthur bowed to her again, this time with no hesitation. “It was a wonder to meet you as well, Aithusa. I do hope we meet again someday.”

Corners of her reptilian lips curling into a weirdly mischievous smile, Aithusa tapped at the stone in front of Arthur’s feet with one foreclaw. “Oh, I’m certain of it, Arthur.”

“Farewell, then.” Arthur said, giving a little wave.

Merlin repeated the gesture. “I’ll see you soon, old friend.”

Aithusa inclined her head and then stood and walked back to the far wall of the cavern. She turned in a circle several times, and then laid back down, tucking her head close to her body and curling her tail along the line of her neck. Her wings shook out once and then settled down over her body like a blanket.

“Come on,” Merlin said, tugging at Arthur’s sleeve. “She’ll be asleep in moments.”

Arthur followed after, waiting until they’d reached the mouth of the narrow passage to whisper. “She reminds me of a cat. Well, a rather giant scaly cat, but a cat nonetheless.”

Merlin’s mouth tugged up at a corner. “Yes, she definitely has some feline qualities.”

“So,” Arthur said, somewhat expectantly. “How are we getting out of here?” He pointed to the tunnel and where it descended lower than the rock they stood on it was completely flooded.

“Uh, well. You’re not going to like this part.”

“Merlin,” Arthur growled.

“It’s just… otherwise we have to wait until morning.”

“Do we have to swim?” Arthur asked flatly.

“Yes, but–”

“Merlin,” Arthur cut him off. “There’s no way I can hold my breath long enough to swim that far. I have no idea how you’ve done it before… oh,” he pause, tone going wry, “with magic.”

Merlin nodded. “Exactly.”

Slumping against a massive stalagmite, Arthur sighed morosely. “We’re going to be soaked and get to spend all day in the saddle in wet clothes.”

“Uh no. Not exactly.” Arthur’s brow lifted a fraction. Encouraged, Merlin went on. “You see, if we strip down and bundle our clothes in your cloak, I can make sure they don’t get wet.”

It didn’t look like that was the solution Arthur was hoping for, but he nodded gamely. “And the swimming? How do we deal with that? What kind of magic do you need to do?”

The last time he’d done this, Merlin had made the swim when the tide was still low, so he hadn’t had nearly as far to swim. He’d merely slowed time around him so that he never lost his breath. But, that might be hard to control for the both of them for so long. And it really wasn’t the best time for experimenting with off-the-cuff magic. (While he’d long ago gone beyond the need for spell books and proper incantations, they did help with new situations like this.) He was rather sure he could think of something though.

“You can’t just move the water, I suppose,” Arthur grumbled.

Weirdly, that throw-away complaint gave Merlin a much better idea that would solve both of their problems at once. It would use a spell he already knew, although he’d never used this particular magic at such a scale before. Arthur had already begun irritably tugging at the laces of his jerkin, so Merlin reached out to stop him. “Hold on. I’ve got a better idea.”

He faced the tunnel, staring down at the water. Its surface shimmered and glistened in the blue-white glow of one of the light orbs that had followed him, but he could see where it dropped off into inky black depths. He held out a hand. “Arthur, stay close behind me.”

As soon as Arthur stepped into place behind him, Merlin called out a firm and slowly enunciated, “Scildan.” He closed his eyes a moment, visualizing the shield spell taking shape around them, forming a perfect bubble. The effort made him tremble, but after a moment he felt it coalesce, firm and solid. He held one arm outstretched, using it to hold the spell in place. “Let’s go,” he squeaked out, saving his breath as he concentrated on holding the spell.

“Be careful, Merlin,” Arthur cautioned, but he followed as Merlin stepped slowly forward.

Just as Merlin had hoped, the water was pushed aside by the shield, it flowed around them but the shield kept them dry. He could feel Arthur, so close behind him that his hands and knees bumped Merlin’s elbows or the backs of his thighs. He was glad of it though, because extending the shield any further likely would’ve been too difficult. As it was, just maintaining it as they made their way – agonizingly slowly – through the narrow, slippery tunnel, was draining.

At the halfway point, when the water pressed down so dark and heavy, he had to lift his other arm above his head, needing both hands to focus the magic.

Whatever Arthur could see by the dim glow of one of the light orbs that was bobbing along with him must’ve caused him some alarm because he whispered urgently, “Merlin, are you all right?”

Teeth gritted tight at the strain, Merlin couldn’t answer aloud, but he gave a curt little nod. Had his magic been at its peak, he could’ve managed this easily. But it was so difficult to draw it too him these days, and he’d used it for so little over the last decades, that it felt like stretching out muscles that had long gone stiff and tight with disuse. He was too hard-pressed by the effort to explain that to Arthur though.

“Merlin,” Arthur started, but apparently he didn’t know what he wanted to say – or knew, but figured it went without saying - because he just exhaled loudly.

They moved a few more yards, and Merlin finally had to pause, to catch his breath. He panted between his clenched teeth. The weight of it all was like having a massive stone settling in between his shoulder blades, pressing slowly down.

“Merlin,” Arthur said again, and this time – like he could sense the exact point of tension down Merlin’s spine – pressed the flat of his hand in the middle of his back.

Merlin gasped, sucking in air at the feel of it. Like being struck by a bolt it was a shocking jab that burrowed instantly into his core. But instead of pain, he felt a startling rush of heat and the strangest frisson of sensation, like lightning crawled down the whole of his body.

He felt invigorated.

“Merlin?” Arthur repeated a third time, and this iteration was a question.

“I’m okay,” he was able to hiss out. “Just, your hand…” He felt Arthur start to lift it away and he gave a quick, curt shake of his head. “No, leave it. Helps.”

The fingers pressed more firmly and Arthur stepped even closer. “Good. You can do this, Merlin. I know you can.”

Risking a quick grin over his shoulder, Merlin gave the barest nod and then focused on getting them moving again. When the pressure closed in and he could feel it sapping his strength, he focused on Arthur’s hand, the warm palm and splayed fingers such a solid anchor, and he drew succor from their connection.

They still crept along at a pace that would discourage a snail, but eventually the water brightened and the mouth of the tunnel came into view. Surging forward the last few paces, Merlin got them to the egress. The last few steps, climbing up and out, took a bit of scrambling and Arthur had to drop his hand away for a few minutes to help Merlin climb over the final lip of stone that brought them onto the tumbled rocks of the bay. Without the weight of all that water squeezing down on the shield, the force of effort to maintain it lessened, and Merlin was able to keep it solid until they finally reached the damp, sandy-pebbles of the beach.

Finally, he dropped both arms, the shield dissipated and he stumbled forward. Luckily, Arthur was right there to catch him before he went to his knees on the stones.

“Not that that wasn’t an impressive bit of magic, but next time,” Arthur chided, “we’re swimming.”

Wearily, Merlin nodded.

“Come on,” Arthur got a shoulder under Merlin’s arm and helped him further up the beach to the edge of the limestone cliffs, where there was scrub grass and the sand was dry. Levering himself to the ground, back against the stones, Merlin collapsed gratefully.

Arthur stood over him, staring down with concern. “Are you all right?”

Though he was still breathing hard, and there were spots of color dancing behind his eyes – a blistering headache was imminent – he bobbed his head slowly. “Yeah, I’m good. Just… took a bit more out of me than I expected.”

Arthur grunted, unimpressed. “If you’d have told me that was going to cause you so much trouble, I’d have stopped you doing it.”

“I know,” Merlin agreed.

“And that’s why you didn’t tell me,” Arthur finished for him; it was a statement not a question.

Merlin could only shrug.

“Stubborn idiot.” Despite the admonishment Arthur’s voice was fond, and there was definitely a smile playing at his lips. “Do you want me to fetch you the water? Or something to eat?”

“Nah,” Merlin shook his head. While those things would help, he wasn’t so bad off that they couldn’t wait. “Just give me a few minutes to get my breath back, and I’ll be okay.”

“Right.” He settled down next to Merlin, sitting with his legs crossed and his hands loose in his lap. He was close enough that leaning just a bit would press their shoulders together, but he seemed to be deliberately keeping that space between them.

Merlin just focused on breathing. Which was proving difficult as the air around them seemed to thicken with words going unsaid. He wasn’t going to break the silence though. If Arthur wanted to bring up the discussion from Aithusa’s cave, it was on him. Merlin wasn’t going to push… nor did he particularly want to revisit it.

To give Arthur credit, he waited until Merlin had his breath back and was simply sitting quietly, eyes closed, head reclined against the cool limestone.

“Look, Merlin,”–Merlin didn’t groan aloud, though he wanted to–“I just want you to know that I’ll understand if you’d rather not continue on with me.”

What? That certainly wasn’t what Merlin had expected Arthur to say. He started to respond, but Arthur held up a hand.

“Just, hear me out.” The hand lowered, but Merlin noticed that Arthur’s fingers toyed with the spot on his other hand where his mother’s ring used to sit, twisting at the skin there. “Aithusa provided me with clear enough directions. I can go to this village, find this boy and then I’ll…well, I’ll figure out what to do with him. I’ll ride far from here and take him somewhere that he’ll be safe. From the ones that have him now, and…” he hesitated, swallowing audibly, “and from you.”

“No,” Merlin stated, firm and unequivocal. “No, Arthur. I’m not going to make you do this on your own.”

“Merlin–“

Whatever argument Arthur was going to make, Merlin didn’t want to hear a word of it. “Don’t try to stop me going with you, Arthur. I won’t leave you. Not even if you ask me to.”

The only response to that was silence, so Merlin turned to look at Arthur’s face, anxious about what he’d see there. He was surprised to see that Arthur had his head tipped back against the stone of the cliff, and his eyes were closed. While Merlin watched his nostrils flared with heavy breaths and his throat worked around a swallow.

“Please don’t ask me to,” Merlin said softly.

One corner of Arthur’s mouth twitched inward just a fraction. The start of a smile or a frown, Merlin couldn’t tell. Finally Arthur opened his eyes, looked over at Merlin sideward, without moving his head away from the rock, and said, “You know I’m not going to let you kill that boy.”

“I wasn’t–“

“Merlin, I know you may not believe this, and I have years of evidence to the contrary, but there are times I can tell you’re lying.” A bit of lightness returned to his eyes at that. “When we were still down with Aithusa, I know you only told me what I wanted to hear.”

Blowing out a breath, Merlin turned away from Arthur, staring at the foam-capped wavelets that crept up the short. “I haven’t decided what I’ll do,” he admitted.

“I know. And I want to spare you having to make that decision. If I go alone, you won’t be put in that position.”

There were parts of this conversation that were eerily reminiscent of one he’d had with Arthur all those years ago, escorting him to Avalon at the end. “I can’t leave you, Arthur.” It was as simple as that.

Fortunately, Arthur seemed to accept that. “If that’s what you want.”

“It is.”

“Merlin, look at me.” It was a request that Merlin couldn’t ignore. He turned to find Arthur facing him, looking him in the eye with absolutely sincerity. “Merlin, whatever you decide about the boy, you already know my choice.”

No need to elaborate there. Arthur would do what he had to, and Merlin still didn’t know what choice he’d make when the time came. He nodded. “I understand.”

“Good,” Arthur flashed a quick grin. “You ready to go?”

He was. “Yeah.”

Arthur hopped to his feet with a speed and nimbleness that was enviable, and then held a hand out to him. Merlin was not above being helped to his feet and when he stood, he wondered if he should’ve given himself a bit more time to recover.

“You sure you’re all right?” Arthur’s eyes were narrowed with concern.

Wobbling a bit on shaky legs, Merlin nodded. “Yeah, I’m sure. Just, uh, maybe you should follow me up the steps in case I fall down them.”

“I’ll carry you, if I have to.”

He might have been kidding, but Merlin wouldn’t put it past him. Fortunately, though it took longer than his last trip up to the top, they made it with no troubles. And, much to Merlin’s great relief, the horses were exactly where they’d left them earlier. Merlin did need a leg-up into his saddle, but that was as much Arthur’s insistence on helping as it was real need on his part.

“I guess I’ll follow you then?” Merlin suggested hopefully. He really hadn’t been paying close attention to Aithusa’s directions.

Arthur eyed him a little funny, like he knew Merlin hadn’t a clue where they were headed, but he just nodded. “Sure. Aithusa said that if we stay close to the coastal cliffs for a few miles, eventually there’ll be a place where they give way to lower ground. And along there we can stick right to the shoreline.” He tapped his heels into his horse’s barrel and started the bay gelding walking.

Merlin clucked at his own horse, falling in line behind Arthur.

“I think a bit of speed might be good,” Arthur called over his shoulder only a few minutes later.

Trying not to sound aggrieved – though he couldn’t help but be bitter at Arthur wanting to rush off to end all of this – Merlin shouted back, “Why? We’ve still got most of the day. Shouldn’t we have a care for the horses?”

Arthur drew his horse to a halt and twisted in his saddle. “I’m having a care for all of us, unless you want to get caught in that storm.” He pointed to Merlin’s left, over the bay.

Glad that the heat rushing to his cheeks and the tips of his ears probably wouldn’t be visible to Arthur from the distance, Merlin tracked the line Arthur indicated and swore. “Damn.” So, he’d not been rushing them just to be contrary. Though still several miles out, a storm gathered over the grey water. Dark clouds roiled, the flicker of lightning throwing chiaroscuro flashes of light in their churning depths, and under the haze of heavy rain beneath them, the water of the bay was black and tumultuous.

“Right,” Merlin said, “speed would be good then.”

“Glad you agree,” Arthur quipped, flashing Merlin a quick, there-and-gone grin. He turned forward again and urged his mount to a trot.

The trot quickly sped to a ground-eating canter – alternating with a hard gallop when the terrain allowed it– as they raced to stay ahead of the weather. A few hours later, when the horses were flagging, they lost the race, and the leading edge of rain caught up with them. The light drizzle quickly grew to a steady patter in the briskly rising wind.

Their route took them off of the high peaked cliffs, where they’d been wholly exposed to the gusting winds and driving rains, down to the lowland edges of sea. Though it offered a modicum of shelter from the biting winds, it wasn’t much better when they rode along the strand and the waves crashed further and fiercer. Forced by slippery footing and limited visibly to a slow jog, Merlin huddled under his cloak and did his best to keep sight of the tail of Arthur’s horse. The worst of the storm was still behind them, but it wouldn’t be long before they were caught in its full fury.

Eventually he heard Arthur shout, though the sound was almost entirely drowned out by the rumbling and crackling of the sky. Arthur must’ve realized the futility, because he simply started pointing and then turned his horse toward what appeared to be the solid rocky wall of a cliff. When he disappeared behind it, Merlin realized that he’d discovered a cave. He urged his weary mount to follow.

The mouth of the cave was no larger than one of the castle doorways in Camelot, barely wide enough for the horse and Merlin had to duck his head going in, but it opened expansively beyond. While it was difficult to see much from the lingering grey light of a sun lost behind storm clouds, it appeared unoccupied.

 Ahead of him, Arthur had already dismounted and was shaking water off of his cloak.

“Lucky find,” Merlin said, easing himself slowly out of the saddle. There wasn’t a part of him that didn’t ache.

“Actually, Aithusa mentioned it would be here. I’ve been on the lookout for it for the past few miles. I got the impression she’d spent time here?” He shrugged. “She said that she had to abandon it when it was discovered by people in ships. Smugglers maybe?”

He approached Merlin and helped him off with his cloak. “How’re you feeling?”

Now that they were out of the weather and he wasn’t concentrating so hard on staying on his horse, the chill began to seep in. He fought to keep from shivering. “I’m all right. Cold. Wet.” His head chose that moment to remind him of the headache that had been building since his excessive use of magic earlier. “A bit weary,” he admitted.

Clearly reluctant, Arthur asked, “Do you think you could manage some of those lights? I’d like to scout a bit further in. See if there’s anything we can use in here for a fire.”

Merlin nodded. “Those are easy.” He muttered the spell through chattering teeth. The first orb was decidedly lopsided and flickered desultorily. “Uh, I can do better.” He tried again, firmer and more sure. The second ball of glowing blue-white shown much brighter. He sent it to hover over Arthur’s shoulder. “There, it should go with you.”

Clapping him on the arm, Arthur nodded. “Thanks, Merlin. I’ll just be a few minutes. Why don’t you sit down. Try to warm up?”

While Arthur explored further into the depths of the cave, Merlin glanced around. There really weren’t any good options for sitting, at least not this close to the egress where the rain and wind still crept in. Knowing it would likely get him chastised, he decided to start un-tacking the horses. They’d been run hard and standing around cold and wet with all of that gear wouldn’t do them any good. They needed a good rub-down and some fodder (he hoped their stores had stayed somewhat dry).

“Merlin!”

Arthur’s shout came a few minutes later. Bringing the wobbly light with him, Merlin ventured to the back of the cave where he could see Arthur silhouetted by the glow of his own orb. “What is it?”

“I think Aithusa was right. This looks to be a smuggler’s hideout!” He swept an arm out and Merlin saw that what he’d first taken for rocks and piles of stone were actually stacks of crates and barrels and other things unidentifiable in the dim light. There was even a clear swath on the floor of the cave littered with strategically placed boxes surrounding a well-blackened ring of stones. A ready-made campsite.

“We’ll have enough wood for a fire, that’s for sure.”

“Warm and dry. That’s enough for me,” Arthur said, grinning a bit madly. “I’ll go get the horses and our gear. Can you get a fire started?”

Merlin nodded. Fires he could handle. A bit of poking around turned-up a supply of driftwood, stacked in neat bundles, and in only a few minutes Merlin had a cheery fire burning.

Arthur made several trips, carrying over saddles and packs and finally leading the horses to an area of the cavern that seemed to be for just that purpose, where sand had been layered over the stone and a furrow in a shelf of rock – natural or carved, he couldn’t tell – could act as a trough. Merlin joined him and together they used some cloth Arthur had uncovered in one of the crates to get the horses rubbed down and as dry as they could. Fortunately the rain hadn’t spoiled the small bags of fodder, so they were able to get them fed and watered as well.

“I feel rather bad that we’re using their stores.” Merlin remarked, when Arthur pried open another crate curiously.

“They’re smugglers, Merlin. All of this,” he swept an arm out, taking in the entire back end of the cavern, “is likely stolen goods. They may be angry when they next arrive and find some of their things missing, but they’re lucky we’re not going to have off with their entire stash.”

That was true enough, he realized, feeling a bit silly that he’d thought about suggesting he leave some coin behind. They left most of the stash alone, besides. Taking only some dry grain to replenish their spent supplies and two bundles of straw to throw down at the horse’s feet.

“C’mon, strip down,” Arthur ordered as soon as they’d finished bedding the animals down.

“Huh?”

“Get out of those wet clothes,” Arthur explained, though he was grinning. “We can lay them out to dry.”

“The spares in our pack are probably damp as well,” Merlin stated, though he certainly didn’t object to the idea of getting out of the water-logged clothes that clung to his skin and felt like they were rubbing him raw in spots.

Arthur shrugged that off. “Then we’ll lay them out too. It’s not going to kill us to sit next to the fire in our skin, Merlin. It’ll warm up in here soon enough.”

It already had, Merlin noticed. The fire put out a heat that reflected off the surrounding rock, and whoever was responsible for this little hideaway also ensured there was a small gap in the overhead stone so the smoke was drawn up and out.

“Nice little set-up, this.” Merlin remarked even as he started struggling with the damp laces of his jerkin. It was strange, but the idea of sitting naked in a cave next to Arthur unnerved him for no reason he could identify. It wasn’t as if they hadn’t seen each other naked plenty, and the intimacy they’d shared should’ve put an end to any lingering shyness. And yet… his fingers were trembling as they worked the water-swollen fastenings and it wasn’t just from the cold.

“I wonder what’s in all those crates?” he continued, well aware he was likely babbling to cover his nerves. “You don’t think anyone would be foolish enough to risk this storm to check on this stuff, do you?” He’d started to shoulder off his jerkin after finally working the ties loose, but hesitated.

Arthur shook his head. He’d already gotten his boots and jerkin off and was tugging his tunic over his head. “I highly doubt it, Merlin. Doesn’t seem like there are people in and out of here all that often. There’s dust on this barrel,” he swiped a finger along the top of one and then held it up to show the streak of black on his fingertip. “I’m fairly certain we won’t have company tonight.”

“Oh, well that’s good.” No further reason to delay, he supposed. Skinning out of his shirt turned into a rather comical effort of getting tangled in the soaked linen, and when he finally let it fall to the ground with a wet slap he was left shivering.

“Hurry up. The sooner you get out of those damp things, the quicker you’ll warm up.”

He looked over to see that Arthur was stark naked and was laying his clothing strategically over the rocks to dry.

“Right,” Merlin replied. He yanked off his boots and then worked breeches, underthings and hose down his legs in a rolling bunch. Untangling them kept him distracted from his nakedness – at least a few minutes – and he followed Arthur’s example of spreading each article over the rocks and crates where they’d catch the heat. When he was done, he turned back to the fire, hands over his lap.

Arthur was watching him, eyebrows raised. “Really, Merlin?” He’d apparently found time to spread out their bedrolls and blankets and must’ve found some furs in the smuggler’s cache because he was seated in the pile of them, a blanket half-wrapped around his waist. He was holding the other end out in invitation.

The flush that covered Merlin from head to toe may have been a blush, or may have come as he stepped closer to the fire. “What? It’s cold.”

“It’s also nothing I haven’t seen, Merlin. Stop being such a girl’s petticoat and come here.” He waved the arm holding the blanket like a wing, flapping it.

Indignant, Merlin crossed the short space and flopped down at Arthur’s side in a huff. “Better?” he grumped.

“Better,” Arthur agreed, sounding pleased. He wrapped the blanket around Merlin’s shoulder and then hooked his arm around Merlin to pull him closer. The heat from the press of their bodies was warm… hot. Enough that Merlin started to wonder if they might be too close to the fire.

“Hungry?”

As if the question reminded his body of something he’d forgotten he was feeling, Merlin’s stomach suddenly felt hollow. “Starving,” he replied. “Should I get the cook pot?”

“No, I’ll get it in a minute. Let’s just warm up first. But here,” he handed over a trencher with a half a roasted quail, some of the leftover rabbit, and a few pieces of cheese. “It’s all that’s really left that we won’t have to cook, but I think it’ll tide us over. And, I’m fairly certain one of those barrels is going to be filled with ale or wine. Shall I fetch some?”

Picking at a strip of greasy rabbit haunch, Merlin nodded eagerly. He was ravenous and thirsty both. They’d emptied the waterskins some time earlier.

Arthur didn’t even bother getting up; he just reached across the space to the nearest of the small barrels, caught it with his fingertips, and rolled it over to them. He knocked the top planks in with a hard strike of his fist, splashing them both with – Merlin licked at one of the drops that landed on his lower lip – fortified wine.

Dunking one of the mugs they’d been using for coffee right into it, Arthur drew up the brimming tankard and handed it over. Merlin drank from it greedily, and then gave it back to Arthur, who drained it in one long swallow.

It was so strangely decadent, sitting naked on a pile of blankets and furs, eating with his fingers, drinking wine right from the barrel. Arthur’s skin was so hot where it pressed in to his, and soon enough they were both sweating. They finished the food, tossing the remains on the fire, and shared two more mugs of wine. Pleasantly full, and warm from the fire and the wine and the food sloshing in his belly, Merlin collapsed against Arthur.

“This is our last night, isn’t it?” he asked softly.

Arthur didn’t answer right away. Instead he shifted in the pile of furs onto his side and pulled Merlin down with him so they lay face-to-face. They shifted, slick skin sliding together, until their arms and legs were tangled and Arthur was half-reclined on his back, Merlin blanketing him.

“Now, what were you saying?” Arthur asked and as languid as his voice sounded and as lax as his body felt, Merlin sensed tension just below the surface. It was almost like he was challenging Merlin to break the mood and disturb this indulgent moment.

This needed to be said. “Tonight. It’s going to be our last night together.”

“What makes you say that?” Arthur’s hand splayed wide over Merlin’s back, fingers pressing possessively.

“It’s just… this is what it’s been leading to. The reason you’re here. Tomorrow we’ll find this boy, and we’ll rescue him and…” He let it trail off, not entirely sure what would happen, but certain that it would.

Arthur signed into the top of his head. “We don’t know that for certain. We don’t know anything for certain.”

Merlin made a considering noise, but didn’t answer. Somehow, he knew he was right. And he didn’t want his last night with Arthur to be filled with conversations that would make the both of them miserable.

 It was indulgent, and selfish, and wholly irresponsible but Merlin just wanted Arthur. He wanted to lose himself in the slick-silk feel of Arthur’s golden skin and in the masculine smell of him and the salt-tang taste and the desperate, breathy sounds of his pleasure and the sight of him come undone.

He let his actions speak all of this into Arthur’s body. He clutched desperately at Arthur’s shoulders and his mouth sought Arthur’s, kissing him with fierce urgency. He nipped at Arthur’s bottom lip, tugging it in his teeth and bit at his jaw and mouthed along the length of his neck. When Arthur tried to surge up, to meet his kisses and bring their mouths back together, Merlin pushed at him, pinning down.

“Merlin,” Arthur attempted to protest, but it trailed off in a hiss as Merlin continued the exploration further down Arthur’s chest with his lips and teeth and tongue. He laved the dusky flat disc of Arthur’s nipple, sucking and biting until it was pink and pert. Beneath him, Arthur writhed and gasped and bucked his hips under the press of Merlin’s body.

The gasps became a mix of nonsensical pleading and whimpers when Merlin moved lower still. He sucked a bruise at the point of Arthur’s hip and laid a circle of kisses around his belly button. He teased for a very long time, licking and biting all around Arthur’s eagerly jutting cock without letting his lips or his cheek or his chin do more than graze the sensitive flesh.

He waited until Arthur was nearly begging and he had to press hands to either side of Arthur’s hips to keep them still. And then he traced his tongue from the base of Arthur’s cock all the way up to the tip. The noise that escaped Arthur’s lips sounded pained, and so Merlin did it again. He swirled in circles all the way up the shaft and then pressed the flat of his tongue firmly against the flushed tip. Beneath him, Arthur’s hips jerked uncontrollably even with the weight of Merlin’s arms pinning him down.

Finally, Merlin took Arthur’s cock into his mouth. He sucked firmly and bobbed his head and swallowed around it and felt Arthur’s fingers thread through his hair, gripping almost painfully tight.

Arthur’s next groan rumbled so low Merlin could feel it vibrate the skin under his hands, and he could barely make out that it was his name. He drew back then, sliding his lips off of Arthur’s cock with a wet pop.

Arthur made a noise of protest and tugged at Merlin’s hair.

“Sorry,” Merlin said, though he wasn’t really. “But there’s something else I want.” He felt wild, decadent and desperate both.

“You can have it,” Arthur panted, hoarse like he’d just spend hours shouting orders on the practice yard.

Merlin muttered a spell, drawing his pack closer to him, and then he rummage through a pocket for the little jar of salve he’d packed but they hadn’t had the chance to use yet. Even by the dim glow firelight he could see Arthur’s eyes grow wide, irises nearly obscured by ink black pupils.

“Should I…” Arthur started to ask, but Merlin shushed him.

“No, just lie back. Let me do this.”

Arthur swallowed hard and nodded. He watched, rapt as Merlin scooped two fingers into the salve and then reached behind himself. It was awkward while he was straddling Arthur’s hips, but Merlin managed to get the fingers inside himself. He wasn’t gentle, and he pushed in messily, getting himself slicked up and just on the edge of ready.

“Oh… Merlin,” Arthur sounded broken, and Merlin felt Arthur’s hands follow along his own arms trying to reach behind him. He rocked forward, so Arthur could reach and he pulled his own fingers out to guide Arthur’s in.

“Like that,” Merlin told him hoarsely, using his grip on Arthur’s wrists to encourage short, sharp thrusts. Arthur’s fingers were thicker than his, and they curled in at just the right spot and Merlin saw spots behind his eyes as pleasure exploded through him. He nearly tumbled forward, dizzy with it, and he had to catch himself on Arthur’s chest. Clumsily he scrabbled at Arthur’s wrist. “Enough,” he mumbled, tongue thick and mouth slack… “That’s good. I’m ready.”

“Okay,” Arthur whispered. “Okay.” He was much more careful than Merlin removing his fingers. “Do you want me like this?” He asked, voice sharp and whining, anxious and excitable all at once.

“Yeah,” Merlin nodded. “Take hold of yourself,” he instructed. “Until you’re inside me. Hold tight.” He waited until Arthur had his fingers wrapped tight around the base of his own cock, squeezing hard enough that Merlin could see the tendons in his hand flex with it. He shifted back then, lowering himself slowly down while Arthur carefully aimed his cock inside.

Arthur breaching him made Merlin cry out and Arthur gasp hoarsely, and Merlin carefully eased himself down. There was the sharp pinch of pain as his body stretched to accommodate the intrusion, but the sting of it slowly eased as he sat fully down against Arthur’s lap. He didn’t move for many long moments, too busy staring down at Arthur beneath him. He had his hands clenched in the furs fisting them tight, his body was dewy with sweat and his head was thrown back in ecstasy.

He wanted more of that. He wanted Arthur lost… broken and wrecked by his own pleasure.

Merlin rocked up then, feeling his thighs tremble with how slowly he was moving, and then he came back down, eyes on Arthur the whole time. He splayed his hands over Arthur’s belly, leaning his weight on them while he started to roll his hips in short little arcs forward and back. It was already nearly too much, his pleasure building so fast and intense, but he gritted his teeth and wrestled it down. He rocked steadily, increasing the tempo as he rode Arthur’s body, taking him in deep and hard. Arthur’s hips thrust up to meet him, wild and uncoordinated.

Merlin fell forward further, bowing his head into Arthur’s chest and pressing his cock between the heat of their bodies. Every jerk of Arthur’s hips and every up and down roll of his own rubbed his cock against their bellies.

“Merlin,” Arthur cried out suddenly, and Merlin could feel him go all-over tense. He let go then, loosed that faint modicum of control he had on his own body and let the throbbing and pulsing as Arthur came deep inside of him be the thing that drew him over the precipice.

His back bowed and his whole body shook as wave after wave of pleasure surged through him. Through slitted eyes he watched as his release striped Arthur’s chest and abdomen. When the last shudder rocked through him, and he couldn’t hold himself up any longer on shaking arms, Merlin collapsed across Arthur’s rapidly rising and falling chest. He felt Arthur slip out of him, messy and uncomfortable, but Merlin didn’t care about anything in that moment except the feel of Arthur’s racing heartbeat drumming a counterpoint to his own against his breast.

Merlin was all over boneless, weak and bleary when Arthur finally sat up. He didn’t protest when Arthur rolled him onto his back and then got up to fetch water and some cloth. Nor did he do more than murmur his thanks while Arthur cleaned them both up. He was quiet in his ministrations, but tender and he touched Merlin’s face now and again, smiling down at him.

When Arthur was done, he lay down at Merlin’s side once again. He cupped the side of Merlin’s face and kissed him deeply. “Thank you, Merlin.”

It probably should’ve sounded strange… being thanked for something they’d shared and brought pleasure to them both, but Merlin understood and he smiled softly. He tried to stay alert after that, not wanting to lose a moment with Arthur, but between the physical exertion of their love-making, and the lulling warmth of their fur-lined nest, not to mention the soporific of the wine, Merlin started to drift. Then Arthur began to caress him, smoothing his hand along Merlin’s arm and over his chest and Merlin knew it was to soothe, not titillate and it was that soft, steady touch that finally eased him into sleep.

~~~~~~~~~~~~

A rhythmic shushing, rolling noise invaded Merlin’s dreams and he rolled and shifted, burying his head deeper into his pillow. He tried to pull a cushion over his head and then realized that he was groping a hand at soft, bristly fur. He rolled onto his back and opened his eyes with a wince. Pain stabbed behind his eyes and he recognized the sound that had worked its way into his dreams was the throbbing of his own head.

Gazing blearily at the ceiling of the cavern it took Merlin a good long while to realize that being able to actually see the curving stone overhead meant that there was light. And as the fire was long since extinguished, and Merlin’s light orbs had dissipated many hours ago, that meant it was sunlight, and that meant morning.

Groaning, Merlin rolled far enough to look to the mouth of the cavern, where the bright glow of an early morning sun crept white and fierce into the egress. Though he could see little more than a bit of scrub grass and sand and the barest sliver of the sea through the opening, it was clear enough that the storm had spent itself sometime during the night.

He rolled over into the lumpy bundle of furs that lined his back, expecting at any moment to roll into Arthur’s still slumbering form.

He kept rolling. There was nothing behind him. He flung an arm out, feeling for Arthur until his fingers were crawling over the stone floor where the bedroll and furs ended.

Sitting up so quickly wasn’t the smartest thing Merlin had ever done – his head swam for many long moments and he cursed the keg of fortified wine that he’d so generously indulged in. When he could see without things spinning, or threatening to upend the contents of his stomach, Merlin took stock of the situation.

He looked around almost desperately. Hoping beyond hope that Arthur had just shifted in his sleep, or perhaps gotten up early to relieve himself, or…

Snuck out.

Arthur’s horse was gone. As were his saddle and clothes and some of their packs.

“You bastard, Arthur Pendragon,” Merlin growled. “You utter bastard.”

He’d plied Merlin with wine, and wrapped him in the warmth of furs and blankets and his body and held him so close after their love-making… and all of it, every damned action, had deliberately led to this moment.

Calling on magic he’d not had cause to use in years – had forgotten he even knew, really – Merlin got hastily to his feet, and managed to dress, pack-up the remaining gear and even get the horse saddled in very little time. There were a few minutes where everything was a blur of chaos around him but he was too angry… too furious to notice or care just how improbable it all was.

The horse was rolling his eyes and twitching his ears when Merlin took up the reins to lead him out of the cave – though, Merlin couldn’t blame the animal for being wary when he’d essentially been saddled by magic. He crooned softly to the beast, apologizing,as they emerged into an over-bright morning. All around them the strand was littered with leaves and debris and though there wasn’t a sign of clouds in the sky, the waters were still choppy and a thick foam bubbled and spat on the churning edges of the tide.

One thing he also noticed were fresh hoof prints in the sand. They led away from the cavern and along the beach in the direction they’d been riding before the storm had forced them to seek shelter. There were several in a long arc being washed over by the rhythmic rolling of the waves, but the fact that they were still visible and hadn’t yet been erased from the sand told Merlin that Arthur didn’t have too long a lead on him. He climbed into his saddle and started his mount following their trail.

Urging his horse to a jog, Merlin kept an eye on the trail of tracks. For now, they were his only path to finding Arthur before it was too late.

Too late for what, Merlin didn’t entirely know.

After riding for more than half an hour Merlin began to curse himself that he’d not paid more attention to Aithusa when she was giving Arthur directions yesterday. He knew he was going in vaguely the right direction, but eventually Arthur had turned his horse away from the long swathes of sand and surf, and headed into the verges of a small forest that had begun to spring up. Merlin tried to find tracks after that, but they were lost beneath the grass and leaf litter. Desperate, Merlin flung out with his magic, sending his sight in one direction then the next and the next, hoping to glean some small sign of Arthur that would tell him where to go.

Picking up Arthur’s trail proved to be unnecessary a few miles later, when the sounds of shouting and commotion through the trees caught Merlin’s ear. He yanked hard on his reins, turning his horse toward the noises and urged him faster than was safe for running through a forest.

To his shock, Arthur appeared suddenly in front of him, leading his horse and carrying a small boy on his hip. Merlin pulled back hard and his horse slid to a rough stop, rear hooves driving and skidding in the dirt, and he was nearly flung from the saddle.

“Arthur!”

He was stunned not only to see Arthur, but to see him looking as the Arthur of old: clad in his armor and cloak and a sword in his belt. Where had he picked up a sword?

Arthur didn’t look at all surprised to see Merlin there. In fact, he waved him off urgently. “Go,” he hissed, “we need to run!”

Merlin looked past Arthur and in the distance, though mostly blocked from view by leaves and branches where the forest was thick and close, he could see movement. When he turned back to Arthur it was to see that he’d mounted up and had the boy held carefully on his lap, one hand on the reins, the other holding the child tight. The boy was wide-eyed, but silent.

“Merlin,” he said again, low and anxious. “Let’s go. We’ve got to get away from them.” As if to punctuate that, a shot rang out, whistling through the branches nearby.

Not waiting to see if Merlin followed – trusting that he would – Arthur wheeled his horse in the direction of the beach and kicked at his sides, urging him to lurch forward into an immediate run.

With no choice but to follow, Merlin heeled his own horse’s barrel, driving him after. They ran a dangerous race then, galloping through too-dense forest, dodging low branches and swerving between trees so close that they scraped against bouncing knees and stirrups.

He lost track of how long they went on like that, hardly seeing the blur of passing scenery except to identify when they left the woods behind and headed back out onto the shores of the sea, and then left the waves and sand at their back as well, and emerged onto the rolling hills and valleys that lead to the sea cliffs.

Finally, when their horses were blowing hard, sweat and spittle and foam flying in stinging droplets, Arthur reined in and slowed to a trot and Merlin did likewise. They let the animals jog for a time; going from that pell-mell dash to a full stop would wreak havoc on their muscles and joints… they’d be lucky if the pair would recover well-enough to do more than slow-lope the rest of the way.  

It also gave Merlin the chance to go from just chasing after Arthur to riding at his side. When he came abreast of Arthur, he was breathing heavy and his face was red and wind-burned, but he was grinning wide. Like that had just been some pleasurable race across the countryside.

“That should buy us a bit of time.”

Merlin rolled his eyes. “Oh, is that what we were doing? Buying time?” It was rather infuriating the way that Arthur kept smiling open-mouthed and pink-checked, like Merlin’s ire amused him. “You left, Arthur.” Merlin bit out, unable to hold back. “You’re lucky we’re still on horseback and I can’t reach you from here,” he threatened.

Still Arthur just smiled. “Due for a friendly slap, am I?”

Oh that bastard! Merlin fumed. Throwing a rather pleasant memory from their past at him like that. “You’re such a bas–” He bit off the invective, suddenly remembering the child in Arthur’s lap. Merlin looked at the boy; as before, he was a bit wide-eyed and his lips were pale and trembling.

The boy looked up at Merlin then and… he was just a boy. He didn’t know what he’d been expecting – dark, tousled curls like Mordred, or perhaps the beguiling green eyes of Morgana – but he was just a plain peasant boy; sandy-haired and brown-eyed and… innocent.

Damn. Merlin didn’t know what to do with that.

It was easier to focus on Arthur. Who was still utterly deserving of a punch to the face. “You really are a… a… clotpole.” He settled on the latter reluctantly; it didn’t have near the impact as a few other choice words Merlin wanted to use. And all that it did was cause Arthur to chuckle.

“I mean it, Arthur. I’m furious with you.”

Arthur at least acknowledged that with a brief nod, and he looked like he was trying to swallow his grin but failing. “I know, Merlin. And I’m sorry.” He didn’t sound it.

“Oh, you’re sorry?” He pressed his knees tight, moving his mount past Arthurs and then turning it to block Arthur’s path.

“Merlin,” Arthur complained. “Look, we should really get under cover. They’re going to catch up to us sooner than later. I’d rather it not be when we’re out in the open.”

“You left me, Arthur.” Merlin accused. “I woke up alone and you knew what that would do to me… and you left.”

Arthur’s oddly playful expression finally fell away. “I know, and I’m sorry. But we can’t do this here, or now.” He indicated the boy with a dip of his chin.

“Swefe nu.” Merlin’s eyes flashed.

The boy fell against Arthur’s chest and he scrambled a moment to keep him from slipping out of the saddle. “Merlin!” he cried out, “what did you do?”

Ignoring the ache in his chest that Arthur could assume the worst, Merlin snapped, “He’s fine. He’s just asleep. You didn’t want him to be a witness to this conversation. Plus, it’ll be easier on him this way.”

Just as quickly as the disbelief and shock had crossed Arthur’s face, they were followed by a kind of wondrous joy. “Merlin you’re not going to–“

“I haven’t decided,” he replied sullenly, but couldn’t look Arthur in the eye when he said it.

“Thank you, Merlin.”

His argued, “I said I hadn’t decided yet,” was belied by the fact that he was already turning his horse forward again so they could keep moving. “C’mon. Let’s find some place we can get out of sight.”

“This way,” Arthur directed. “There’s trees and better cover.” He pointed further west.

They rode in silence for a time, though at a steady lope and not the breakneck gallop that had brought them this far, until they finally had the cover of trees. Once they were some distance into the woods, Arthur dismounted. “The horses need a break,” he explained. He eased the boy down and slung him gently over a shoulder.

Merlin climbed off of his horse and took up his and Arthur’s reins. “Right. How is he?” Merlin asked, looking over at the boy. His head was cradled against Arthur’s shoulder. He couldn’t have been more than seven or eight years old.

“Seems to be all right. Your sleep spell won’t hurt him?”

“No,” Merlin shook his head. “It’s harmless.”

“Good, that’s good.” Arthur navigated carefully through the boles of slender elm and ash. “What will you do with him? Do you know where you’ll take him?”

Ignoring the fact that Arthur’s questions were specifically singular, suggesting that Merlin would be alone in all these future actions, Merlin shrugged. “I think we should take him back home. Back to the town. There’s a seamstress in town that lost a son to fever last summer. She’s a generous woman who’s already taken in one orphan. I suspect she’d be hard-pressed to say no to this boy.”

“And that way he’ll be close,” Arthur remarked knowingly. “So you’ll be able to keep an eye on him.”

“Well, yes. Whatever his purpose, it’s clear he needs to be kept away from these extremists.” He looked over his shoulder, studying the woods behind them for a moment. “How far behind do you think they are?”

Arthur shrugged. “Not very, I’d imagine. They had horses and were already readying them when I snuck out with the boy.”

“What happened? How did you get caught?”

“Well, that was my fault,” Arthur sounded chagrined. “I knocked out the two guards that were in the house where the boy was being kept. I don’t think they ever expected any kind of resistance, to be honest. They weren’t trained, although they had weapons.” He patted the sword in his belt, grinning sheepishly. “I appropriated this. Felt too good to have a sword again.”

Merlin rolled his eyes, but a smile tugged at the corners of his mouth. Arthur was nothing more than a small boy himself when it came to his ‘toys’.

“Anyway, I didn’t realize there was a third man in one of the bedrooms. He was asleep, but must’ve woken up, seen the boy gone and spotted me sneaking into the woods with the boy in my arms. Just as I got to my horse I heard him shouting an alarm.”

This brought them neatly back to the subject Merlin knew Arthur had been avoiding and he wasn’t going to miss the opportunity. “You know, if you’d brought me with you, I could’ve prevented all of that.” He started lightly enough, but as he spoke his words got harsher, angrier.

Merlin–“

“No, don’t ‘Merlin’ me. Do you know how much it hurt to wake-up and realize I was alone? Do you know how terrible it felt to understand that all of your actions the night before had been a… a… ploy?”

Arthur turned sharply. “What actions? What ploy?”

Color rushed to Merlin’s cheeks but he answered without wavering. “Getting me drunk. Wearing me out further by sleeping with me so I wouldn’t wake when you snuck out?”

That stopped Arthur in his tracks. He spun to face Merlin, fury on his face. “You think I would… that I could do…” His mouth champed shut. “How could you think so little of me, Merlin?” he growled out between clenched teeth. “After everything we’ve shared, how could you think I would ever stoop so low as to do anything like that?”

“You abandoned me, Arthur,” Merlin shot back, bitter and livid and hurt beyond the telling of it. He ignored the little stab of guilt that Arthur’s reply engendered. “You left me to wake alone… after that night. You knew I’d be devastated to find you gone, Arthur. You knew how much that would hurt me.”

“Because I didn’t want you to have to face a choice about killing a damned child, Merlin!” He lifted his free hand, the one not holding said child over his shoulder, reached up to tug at his own hair. “I’d hoped… I thought I’d be back before you even woke up! I didn’t do it to hurt you, Merlin. I did it to keep you from doing something that would tear you apart.”

They were both flushed, panting and seemed to be at an impasse.

“I’m sorry, Merlin,” Arthur finally said, biting off each word in a way that suggested he didn’t necessarily mean his apology.

“No you’re not.”

“Augh,” Arthur blurted. “I am. I am very sorry, Merlin.”

“Well you don’t sound it,” Merlin shot back, knowing he was being far too petulant.

Arthur took a deep breath, held it for a long moment and then exhaled through pursed lips. The sharp angles of his face slackened, and his eyes lost their flinty cast. “I mean it, Merlin. I’m sorry. I know you’re angry with me for leaving you, and I didn’t want to, but I couldn’t see any other way to keep you from being forced into that situation.”

Merlin frowned and flung a hand out toward the boy. “I don’t understand, Arthur. The boy’s right here. If you were worried what I might do, why did you bring him back? You could’ve gone off in a different direction. Taken him away on your own.”

“Because you’ll need to be the one to keep him safe, Merlin. Plus, I knew that if he was with me, you’d start to feel differently. If you’d snuck in that village with me… and you’d been the one to find the boy first.” He gave a helpless, one-shouldered shrug. “I don’t know what you’d have felt you had to do. I couldn’t let you face that, Merlin. And I knew that once I had him, and came back for you, the decision would’ve been made. You couldn’t kill him in front of me.”

Stubborn still, Merlin was contrary just for the sake of it. “You don’t know that.”

Arthur just smiled, gentle and knowing. “I do, but I’m sorry I left anyway.”

It was just too easy… too unlike Arthur. “Why are you being like this? Why are you apologizing?”

“You said it yourself last night, Merlin. Today would be our last day. I don’t want to end things with you and I angry at each other.”

Merlin shook his head. “No, I didn’t mean that. I was upset.”

“No, you were right, Merlin.” Arthur stepped closer, reaching out to touch Merlin’s shoulder. He hesitated, like he was unsure if he’d be allowed that familiarity.

Merlin rolled his eyes and stepped closer still, lifting his own hand to grasp Arthur’s fingers.

“I know you don’t want to hear this,” Arthur continued, “but I know that you were right. Whatever’s left to happen, I can feel that it’s nearing an end. They’re not going to let me stay with you,” Arthur said sadly. “Not yet.”

Pressing his lips tight, Merlin shook his head. He refused to believe it.

“I’m sorry, Merlin. And I am sorry about last night. For all that I chided you about the two of us facing things together; I went ahead and made that decision on my own.” He pulled his hand away from Merlin so he could extend his pointer finger at aim it at Merlin’s nose. “But I do stand by it. I just hope you can forgive me.”

Anxiety clawed at Merlin’s chest. He wanted to keep fighting, because arguing with Arthur would mean that things weren’t settled between them… that they had more time. Arthur’s time couldn’t end while they were at odds. Fate could never be that cruel.

Merlin scoffed at himself for such ridiculous, romantic notions. Of course fate could be that cruel. It was fate that saw him cradling Arthur’s lifeless body on the shore of a lake… so close to saving him, yet forever denied it.

Merlin blew out a breath, feeling all the fight leave him on the exhale. “I do forgive you,” he said softly. “But only if you can forgive me as well. I said some terrible things. But I was hurt and–“

Arthur pressed his finger over Merlin’s lips, effectively shushing him. “Shut up, Merlin. I forgive you.”

But Merlin shook his head. “No, Arthur. I need to say this. I’m sorry because you were right.” The admission came on a heavy sigh and wasn’t easy to make. “You were right about the boy. I… was being selfish. I didn’t want to lose this, or lose you. And I might’ve…” The truth of what he might have done hung heavy between them.

“You did the right thing, Arthur, and you saved me from myself.”

Arthur smiled at him, and it was one of those tender, soppy smiles that pushed deep into his cheeks. “That’s what we do for each other, Merlin.”

The timing was terrible, and Merlin knew they couldn’t tarry, but still he lurched forward to grasp at Arthur’s shoulders and pull him into a kiss. Arthur moaned against his lips, kissed back fervently for many long minutes and finally drew away with some reluctance.

“We can’t,” he said regretfully.

“I know,” Merlin agreed. “There’s no time.”

“Do you think we can find and reliable shelter around here? I’m thinking that maybe…” Arthur started to ask then paused. He looked around, eyes narrowing, shifting side-to-side anxiously. After a few minutes he opened his mouth to finish that sentence, when a sound in the distance made them both turn.

“Was that them?” Merlin asked.

Arthur nodded grimly. “They’re going to run those horses into the ground. They don’t care if they kill them. They just want the boy back.” He scanned their surroundings. “We’ll need a defensible position.”

Merlin wanted to argue; defense should not be the goal, they needed to flee.

There,” Arthur pointed ahead of him where the valley dipped low and sparse trees and sloping earth gave way to shale; the walls of a deep gorge that split the landscape rose up. “Between those rocks. We can hold them at the entrance to that ravine.”

“Hold them?” Merlin shouted, but Arthur was already running in that direction. “Arthur!” He could only tug the horses along as he chased after.

They neared the break in the rocks. It was narrow – only wide enough for one horse at a time. “Take the horses through first,” Arthur insisted as they closed in on it. “And the boy.” He handed him over to Merlin mid-stride.

“What’re you–“ Merlin started to ask, even as he juggled the boy in his arms, trying not to drop him.

Arthur was already readying the flintlock.

Hurrying, Merlin led his horse to the gap and slapped it on the haunch. He followed right after, towing the other horse through and then turned to set the boy down behind the wall of stone so he could free his hands to help Arthur. “Arthur, c’mon!” he called over his shoulder urgently.

The shot came from somewhere in the trees that lined the valley, echoing around them with a sharp twang and going almost instantly silent on the end of a dull thud. It had struck something.

Merlin looked down anxiously, patting at his middle and chest. Nothing. And boy was already safely behind the barrier of stone…

He whipped around to stare over at Arthur, who was crouched down behind the rocks on the other side of the gap. He was looking down at his hand… and there was blood, red and glistening, on his fingertips.

“No,” Merlin whispered. He shook his head, fervent in his denial. “No, no…” Setting the sleeping boy down in the lee of the stones, Merlin dashed across the small space separating them. “Arthur, no.” More shots rang out when he passed the gap in the rocks, but Merlin flicked out a hand, shielding almost unconsciously. He felt a bullet ricochet but ignored it, his focus wholly on Arthur.

“Well, hell.” Arthur muttered as Merlin dropped to a knee and gathered him close. “Thought the armor would’ve stopped that.” Merlin ran his hands over Arthur’s torso, finding the hole in the chainmail, slick with blood and low on Arthur’s left side, below his ribs.

“You know,” Arthur grumbled, sounding more aggrieved than anything. “I’m getting entirely sick of being struck there.”

“Shhhh,” Merlin hushed him, trying to get Arthur to lie back. “Just hold still and I’ll–“

Arthur caught Merlin’s hands. “No, Merlin.”

Merlin refused to listen. He pressed a hand over the wound, eyes flashing as he muttered the words of an ancient healing spell.

“Merlin,” Arthur interrupted, pulling at Merlin’s arm.

“I can heal this, Arthur. Don’t…” But it wasn’t working… blood still trickled over his fingers and the wound wasn’t knitting together.

“Merlin, stop. It’s okay. Just stop.”

“Hush, Arthur. I can do this… I’ll figure it out. Just hold on.” He tried again, using a different spell. He felt the magic surge through him, drawn up from the very earth beneath his feet, and he pushed it deep below Arthur’s skin. He could feel it trying to work, but still Arthur’s body resisted.

“No, no…” he stuttered out, frantic. “It’s got to work. I’ll… I can make it work.” But no matter the words he spoke or the force of the magic, nothing was having any effect. “It doesn’t make sense,” he wailed. “It was just a bullet. There was no magic… no dragon’s breath. Why isn’t it working?”

“It’s okay, Merlin.” Arthur said calmly. He closed his fingers around Merlin’s wrist, drawing his hand away. “Please, just take the boy and go.”

“No, I’m not leaving you!” There had to be something he could do.

“Merlin, look at me. Look at me, please.” He touched Merlin’s jaw, lifting his head so that he could look him in the eyes.

Arthur’s eyes were still a vibrant, beautiful blue. “There, that’s better.”

“Arthur–“

Arthur shook his head. “Merlin, listen to me, please. Will you listen?”

What could he say to that? He could deny Arthur nothing, so he gulped and nodded.

“Good. Now, I’m telling you… this is why I’m here. It was to help you make the right choice… but also to buy you time. You need to get the boy to safety. You need to look after him and see that he’s raised right and free. And that his children and theirs and his line stays safe. You need to watch over them, Merlin. Don’t you see?”

He coughed, and it was starting to sound wet and rough. Tiny specks ofblood flecked his lips. “That’s what this child is. He’s not the next Mordred or Morgana. He’s the next you. He’s going to father the next protector of these lands. Someday there will be another you, Merlin… another child of magic who will be given guardianship of this world. And that’s when I’ll be needed once more. You and I will need to be there with him or her… to usher in a new world where magic will be free again.”

“No,” Merlin shook his head, tears flying off his cheeks. “You can’t know that.”

Arthur nodded, sure and firm. “I do, Merlin. Trust me.” One cheek turned up in a quick, lopsided grin. “Death brings a kind of clarity as it draws near. It’s how I realized… the last time, what you really meant to me. Why it was so easy to forgive you and to thank you for all you’d done for me. And now, I know what it means for us. What our future holds.”

“Arthur, I can’t… I cannot leave you. I cannot lose you.” He swallowed, barely able to choke back a gasping sob. “Not again. Not again… Please, don’t make me.”

But Arthur only smiled softly, and touched Merlin’s cheek. “Merlin, I love you. Hold to that. Be brave; keep faith in that and in me. I will come back. We will have our time together. I promise you.” His thumb swept Merlin’s lower lip. “Now, kiss me, tell me you love me, and then take that boy and go.”

Every part of Merlin, every fiber of his being, urged Merlin to stay… to fight for Arthur. But the surety in Arthur’s eyes, and the promise on his lips… he couldn’t ignore those things. Arthur asked for his faith, his bravery, and his hope. Merlin couldn’t deny him.

He stared for a long moment, memorizing a face he’d never, ever forget and then slowly dipped his head closer. He pressed his lips to Arthur’s firmly, greedily, feeling Arthur’s kiss him back with fervor and passion and love. Too soon, far too soon, Merlin drew back. “I love you,” he whispered in a voice choked with heartache.

Arthur’s kiss-reddened lips split wide in a boyish grin, eyes flashing and he nodded.

Turning away was perhaps the most difficult thing that Merlin could ever remember doing in all his too many, too long years. But he did it.

He crossed the gap in the rocks again, ignored the flintlock fire and the crossbow bolts, and scooped up the child. He set the boy in the saddle and then mounted after him. He took up the reins to Arthur’s horse as well, tying them to the saddle horn. He’d need to switch mounts often, to keep them fresh. Wind stung at the wetness on his cheeks as they began to canter away and he wiped an arm across his eyes in futility.

They had a long journey ahead.

Just before they reached the end of the ravine, and the turn into the trees would take him out of sight, Merlin took one last look back over his shoulder. It was ill-advised… futile… it would only shatter his heart further, but he couldn’t help it. He needed to see him… one last time.

Arthur had levered himself to his feet. He had a sword brandished in one hand and the flintlock at the ready in the other. His cloak fluttered like a banner, embroidered Pendragon crest glinting like burnished gold against the field of Camelot red, and even from this distance, Merlin could see that his teeth were bared in a vicious, gleeful grin. With a wordless shout Arthur charged out from behind the rocks…

“Thank you,” Merlin whispered and he stared, unblinking… unable to look away until Arthur disappeared from view. Then, swallowing down on the harsh, agonized scream that so desperately wanted to escape his chest, he looked ahead once more. Cradling the boy tighter against his chest, he spurred his horse forward.

They rode through the night, Merlin using his magic to help him see even when the moon was obscured by cloud-cover. In the morning, they stopped only long enough to allow the horses to graze and to fill up the waterskins. He conjured some apples and cheese for them to eat while still in the saddle, and then gave the boy a heel of bread to chew on – both to feed him more and keep him calm – while he allowed the horses to plod along at a lazy walk for several miles.

He kept alert, eyes and ears ever-searching for signs of pursuit. But if any of the villagers got past Arthur, Merlin saw no indication. Still, he pushed them at a relentless pace.

During those times he drove the horses at anything beyond a light trot it was easier to put the boy back to sleep, although when he started nodding off himself, he took steps to secure the boy to himself and the saddle. He avoided people at all costs, venturing off of roads when he spotted them in the distance, and he veered wide around town and villages.

It was late evening on the second day of his long, ceaseless journey that Merlin found himself on familiar lands. A waning gibbous moon hung high overhead, and its light shown down on the roof of Merlin’s home, like a beacon welcoming him home.

Wearily, Merlin dismounted and lifted the boy down. He rested him on the front stoop while he untacked the horses and got them bedded down in Audrey’s little byre. He missed his mule… and looked forward to going to get her.

When he finally let himself inside, the boy slung over his shoulder, his home was wholly familiar and welcome and utterly lifeless and lonely at the same time. He suspected it would never quite feel right again… and was resigned to that painful truth. Some warmth returned when he lit the fireplace and all the candles at once with a blink.

In the morning he’d take the boy into town. He’d find the seamstress and prevail upon her kindness, and he’d craft some story about the origins of the boy to tug at her heartstrings. In the meantime, he settled the slumbering child – natural sleep this time, not magical – into the cot by his workstation. Tucking the blanket around him, Merlin felt something odd in the boys clothing. He searched through a pocket in the boy’s ratty trousers and pulled out… a top.

One of Merlin’s. The one that Arthur had taken that night before they left.

Was in only five days ago? Merlin thought wearily. It seemed like a lifetime… and only yesterday. Smiling at the memory, Merlin tucked the toy back at the boy’s side. Arthur had wanted him to have it.

Restless, despite a bone-weary exhaustion he could feel sapping at him with every heartbeat, Merlin retrieved one of his clay mugs from the kitchen and then settled into one of the chairs by the fire. The left one… the right would always belong to Arthur. With a word, the mug filled with steaming, fragrant coffee.

As Merlin sipped slowly, he thought back over everything that had happened in the past few days. Already it was like some wondrous, amazing yet gut-wrenching dream. But unlike any dream, Merlin knew it wouldn’t fade and he’d never forget. He’d hold tight to every memory they’d made, every moment they’d shared and every word they’d spoken, and those would be enough – had to be enough – to keep the hope that Arthur had asked him to hold onto alive in his heart.

Exhaustion finally caught up with him, the bone-weary kind that he felt with every blink and every breath. Too worn and heartsick to do little more than set down his mug and dim the candles with a blink, Merlin dozed in front of the fire.

Merlin…”

A voice… soft and distant - it whirled through Merlin’s mind while he slept. It tickled at his thoughts, and flitted through his dreams elusive as a shadow.

Merlin…”

Blinking awake, Merlin found himself staring at cherry-red coals in a dark room. He sat up slowly, body stiff from having slept – an hour? Two? – in his armchair. He wondered at the voice that had drawn him from sleep. Something about it… was so familiar. He chased after the memory, puzzling at it, until it sounded faintly in his head again.

“Merlin…”

“I’m awake,” Merlin muttered, just to be sure. And he was. The voice had not only been in his dream. It was in his head.

Suddenly it struck him: Kilgharrah. The very first time he’d ever called for Merlin, he’d reached him as a simple voice in his head. Except Kilgharrah was long since gone, and the voice had been higher and lighter. Aithusa.

Of course. He’d promised her he’d come see her.

Was she really asking him now, though?

Still, there was something urgent about her summons… And he just knew, somehow, that she was closer than the cave under the sea cliffs.

Avalon. He had to get to the isle at Avalon.

Groaning, Merlin got to his feet. He lit the candles with a thought and nearly kicked over the half-full mug which had long gone cold. He picked it up and stared at the slightly oil-slick sheen on the surface, frowning. Still, he needed something to wake him up a bit. He gulped down the remaining contents, grimacing. Cold coffee would never be a pleasant experience.

He started to gather his emergency pack, still readied and sitting by the door with the other gear he’d hastily discarded, when he remembered the boy.

“Damn.” What to do with him? He walked over to his worktable and looked down at the sleeping form, still tucked into the blankets; the little top was now clutched in his fingers. Merlin thought about it and decided that leaving him alone – for a little while – was probably okay. He’d use magic to keep him asleep, and goodness knew the boy needed the rest. And he wouldn’t be gone too long, he’d make sure of that.

Still, after whispering his spell – which did little more than make the already heavily slumbering boy slump more deeply into the cot – Merlin felt guilt gnawing at him. Arthur’d trusted him with looking after this child and already he was rushing off and leaving him unprotected. There was more magic he could do at least. After he gathered up his pack and doused the fireplace and candles both, he closed the door behind him and locked not only with a key, but also a strong spell. No one would be able to get back in the house, save him.

He hated also to disturb the slumbering horses. They’d given so much in the past few days. But riding to the lake would go quickly and he could be home that much sooner. Besides, it wasn’t too far. He saddled the bay gelding that Arthur had ridden, the one he’d used less in his mad-rush to get back to his home.

He’d never ridden to Avalon, only used the cart and followed the roads, so even keeping the horse at an easy canter – in deference to the both the horse’s condition and the moonlit night – he arrived much sooner than expected. It wasn’t easy finding his little raft in the dark, but a summoned ball of light made the task a bit easier. Impatience made him clumsy and he nearly upended himself twice while poling across the water, and then again when he bumped up against the shore of the small island. Fortunately, with a bit of flailing, he managed to stay dry.

It felt so strange being back here, so soon. Merlin looked up to the crumbling tower, fighting off a sudden wave of sorrow as he recalled first spying Arthur there… coming from behind the wall of stone even as he was tumbling backwards in his own clumsiness. He slowly climbed the hill, wondering what had drawn him here this night, wishing for nothing more than Arthur to appear once more.

Merlin probably should’ve expected it when a figure stepped out from the shadows. For a moment he wondered if he’d conjured one into being by the power of his grief.

And then Arthur stepped into the moonlight.

“Arthur?”

“Took you long enough,” Arthur grinned.

Not trusting his own mind or his sight – these few days had taken their toll – Merlin walked slowly toward him, hand extended. “Arthur?” he repeated, somewhat frantically.

Arthur stepped forward to meet him. “I’m here, Merlin. I’m real.”

Merlin’s fingers touched the cold links of Arthur’s chainmail, then slide up urgently to press against Arthur’s cheek and skin that warm… whole… alive. “How?” The whisper scraped out of his dry throat.

“Aithusa,” Arthur replied, capturing Merlin’s hand in his own and using it to pull him close. He looked up a moment, lifting his chin for Merlin to follow his gaze.

He did, spying the pale shape of the dragon hovering silently above them, wings oddly noiseless as they held her aloft. How he’d not noticed her… how she’d stayed hidden, Merlin had no idea.

“Hello, young warlock,” Aithusa said, voice drifting down musically, and then she slowly circled around them before coming to land on the sloping grass a few yards away.

“I don’t understand,” Merlin looked back to Arthur. “How is this possible?” Hope blossomed within him, warm and bursting. “Is this it? Are you here?” But even as he asked it, Merlin knew the answer.

Arthur shook his head sadly. “No. This isn’t my time yet, Merlin. But, I… couldn’t let it end the way it did. And apparently the fates or destiny,” he shrugged, “or whatever it is that rules over all this madness agreed with me. At least I can say a proper goodbye this time.” He brought hand up to brush a thumb over Merlin’s cheek.

“But how is this possible at all? Arthur, you were dying.”

“Oh, well. I think I actually did.” He quirked his face oddly, curling a lip up and squinting an eye. “Um, die I mean. Not entirely sure to be honest.” At Merlin’s puzzled frown he went on. “When I saw you last, you were riding away with the boy and I went to make my last stand. I don’t think they were expecting that. The villagers.” His face went grim a moment. “They’d spent their shots on you, when you fled with the boy. They were hurrying to reload, but I came at them. None of them really knew how to wield a sword.” He left the rest of it unsaid, but Merlin could fill in his silence.

“And then what?” Merlin asked, fearing the answer. “Did I… did I leave you to die alone?”

Arthur cupped his face. “Merlin, you did exactly as I asked. Exactly as I needed you to do. Honestly, I don’t remember anything after the last man fell. It was… dark. Strange. And then suddenly I felt a warmth, and there was a dragon standing over me.” His gaze flitted over to Aithusa.

Merlin turned to look at her. In the night, seated on grass sapped of all its color and silhouetted by a midnight, silver-dusted sky, she was ghostly…eerily pale and ethereal and otherworldly. “I was given the gift to restore him, young warlock.” she explained. “Just that once, so that I might bring the Once and Future King here, to his place of rest.”

Sounding just a bit too gleeful, Arthur told him, “I got to ride on her, Merlin. We flew here.”

Looking back to Arthur, Merlin wasn’t at all surprised by the boyish wonder in his expression. “It’s quite something, isn’t it?”

“Yes, well,” Aithusa went on, again channeling her inner Kilgharrah. “While I appreciate that my skills as a beast of burden are appreciated, young warlock, we haven’t much time.”

“What? Why not?” Merlin looked urgently between Arthur and Aithusa.

It was Aithusa who answered. “Merlin, Arthur must go back. That is the way it must be, I’m afraid. And the night draws short. I must return to my cavern before dawn.”

Merlin wanted to argue, to rail against the unfairness of it all. Instead he let his head fall against Arthur’s shoulder and gave a weary sigh. “Just a few more minutes, please.”

“Of course,” Aithusa agreed. “I shall wait for you at the water’s edge. I’ll take you back to your horse.” In his periphery Merlin saw her stand.

“Thank you, Aithusa.” Arthur told her. “And farewell.”

“Farewell, young king,” she intoned and then she disappeared from view down the hill.

“Are you all right?”

Merlin rocked his head side-to-side against Arthur’s neck. “No. But there’s no choice in this, is there. We can’t just run away from here, can we?”

“I’m afraid not. Already I can hear the other side calling to me.” He wrapped his arms around Merlin, pressing a kiss to his forehead and then leaning his cheek against Merlin’s ear. “Though they can wait. We need a proper goodbye this time.” He held Merlin in the stillness, only their breathing and the soft sounds of the wind to disturb it. After a long while, Arthur lifted his head. “How is the boy?”

“Fine,” Merlin voice was muffled by the wool of Arthur’s cloak. “I left him sleeping in the house. He won’t wake before I get back.”

“You left him alone?” Arthur asked, sounding only slightly concerned by it.

Merlin nodded. “He’ll be safe there. The doors are sealed by magic.”

“Good. That’s good.” Arthur took one of Merlin’s hands in his own. “Come on,” he said, pulling Merlin to follow. “There’s a place in the ruins here, where the walls are still standing. We can have a bit of privacy.”

Trying to lighten the somber mood that had fallen over him, Merlin quipped, “Arthur, I really don’t think we have time for that.”

Shouldering against him playfully, almost rough enough to make him stumble, Arthur replied, “Don’t be cheeky, Merlin. I just don’t want the dragon watching when I kiss you.”

Heat suffused Merlin’s cheeks, and he hurried his steps as Arthur towed him past the tower toward what was left of a small building at its base. The wooden roof of the structure had almost completely rotted away, thought the remnants of a few rough-hew logs remained. The stone walls were collapsed on three sides, tumbling rock and clay mortar spilling out in messy piles, but a fourth wall and corner still stood. It was there Arthur took him.

“This is where I woke up,” he explained. “And where I waited for you to arrive. Kept me out of the sun at least.” He turned them and backed Merlin into the corner. His eyes lowered, gaze falling to Merlin’s lips. “And if this is where I need to be when I leave this world again, I want it to be with the memory of kissing you here.”

Merlin didn’t even have time to eek out a sound before Arthur’s lips descended on his. He kissed him like that first night, when it was still new to them, fierce and messy and thorough. Merlin threaded his hands through Arthur’s hair, and felt fingers curve tight around his hip and a palm press into his lower back, urging him closer.

Knowing that this was it… this was all they’d have, Merlin couldn’t stop kissing him. He focused on every touch of Arthur’s lips, and the slide of his tongue, and the press of his teeth and the feel of his breath hot against his own face. He needed to remember every wet, slick sound, every low moan and gasp, and to memorize the smell of him: sun warmed skin, sweat, the tang of armor.

Too soon, all too soon, Arthur began to pull back, talking softly against Merlin's mouth. “Merlin. We need…” He punctuated the gaps between his words with kisses. “It’s time, Merlin.”

Merlin made a noise of complaint, still peppering kisses over Arthur’s mouth and his chin and the line of his jaw. “Not yet, please.”

“If it were up to me, Merlin…” Arthur said raggedly.

Finally, Merlin drew back. There’d been something in Arthur’s tone that spoke of longing and regret… and finality. Staring into Arthur’s eyes – dark cobalt reflecting the moonlight – Merlin knew their time was nearly up.

“You have to go,” Merlin sighed sadly.

Arthur nodded. “It’s like this pull deep within me. I can feel it growing. And I don’t want to leave without getting the chance to tell you I love you.”

“I know, Arthur.”

“No, Merlin.” Arthur shook his head, though he was smiling faintly, and then he pressed his forehead to Merlin’s. “I mean, I know that you know. But I need to say it, and I need you to promise me that you won’t forget it. No matter what. No matter how much time passes or what changes come over the world. I need you to hold fast to that and never lose faith in me. I love you, and I will come back for you.”

“Arthur,” Merlin replied, chiding him gently. “You don’t need to ask any of that of me. A thousand years and I’ve never lost faith.” He said it with a soft laugh that Arthur echoed. “I have always known that you would come back to me. And I will always love you.”

They stared at one another, heads still bowed together. Merlin’s hand was on Arthur’s neck, thumb in front of his ear; Arthur had a hand cupped around Merlin’s jaw, the other gripped tight around Merlin’s wrist. There was no need to say another word. Around them, the wind started to pick up, and Merlin saw a pale blue light – just a flicker at first, but growing brighter – in the corner of his eyes.

This was it. This was goodbye. Merlin closed his eyes, pressed his lips to Arthur’s one final time, holding them there until the warm touch faded. When he opened his eyes, he was alone.

 

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Epilogue:

 

Sitting in front of a crackling fire, Merlin slid his thumb over the touchscreen of his phone in idle disinterest. He scrolled through news stories that made him frown, each more troubling than the last. He’d only picked the thing up because he’d gotten a Facebook notification. That had been good news at least. The McAllisters – husband Nathaniel a long time descendant of a boy he’d once rescued – had posted photos and a message to their friends and family (Merlin was an honorary uncle of sorts, though no one in the family could say for sure how they’d known him). They’d been thrilled and pleased to share the news of the birth of their daughter, Rose Elizabeth.

Everything else on his feed had just depressed him. Sighing, he reached for the mug of tea that was sitting on the little circular table between the two armchairs in his living room.

The large flat screen television on the far wall was on, but Merlin had muted it some time ago, tired of the alarmist journalists blathering about the latest disaster that was surely imminent. He only kept it on out of a sort of weary self-flagellation. Nights like this, when the animal shelter closed early and he had no other volunteer work on his calendar, always seemed to drag.

He thumbed to another app on his phone, figuring a game of Candy Crush or something else mindless couldn’t hurt and would probably annoy him less than picking up the TV remote to channel surf for the next few hours before he finally gave up being stubborn and went to bed. He was just about to start playing when the doorbell rang.

Merlin debated ignoring it, but he had a grocery delivery scheduled and he hated it when they didn’t stack the packages on his porch with the largest box on the bottom. He’d opened the door to toppled over boxes and bags and smashed eggs more than once.

The doorbell rang again. Too soon, by Merlin’s estimation. This delivery person was impatient. With a sigh he got out of his chair and made his way out of the living room and through the dining room to the large front foyer. “I’m coming,” he grumbled irritably.

The third repetition of the bell made Merlin scowl. He reached the door and yanked it open. “Yes? What is it?”

“Uh, I’ve got a delivery for a Mister … uh… Emerson?”

Merlin didn’t recognize the young man on the other side of the door. Spotty and messy-haired, he looked nervous, flustered.

His ire faded. This boy was clearly new, if not to the job then at least the route. More than once it had confused delivery services since everything came addressed to the ‘Avalon Estate’ and yet his last name didn’t match up.

“That’s me,” Merlin told the lad. “I’m Mister Emerson. Are you from Sainsbury’s?”

The young mad nodded, floppy hair bouncing with the motion.

“Have trouble finding the place?” Merlin asked.

“Yeah,” the young man said, scratching idly at his cheek. “It’s just this one house out here on all this land and the drive is pretty long. I mean, it’s a big house though.” He gestured up, like Merlin wasn’t aware of the size of his own home.

“It’s been in the family for a very long time,” Merlin explained. “The land and the house. Although the house has been rebuilt several times.”

Why was he explaining this to a delivery boy?

“Um, do you have my packages then?”

“Oh, right. Yeah. Just uh, I’ll go get them.” He hurried down the front porch to his waiting lorry. He came back a few minutes later with two bags balanced in one arm and a closed cardboard box in the other.

Merlin frowned. Did that look like enough to accommodate his entire order? He’d have to check his e-mail confirmation to see what he’d included in his latest online purchase.

When the boy returned, Merlin opened the screen door and took the parcels as he handed them over. He set the bags down at his feet and took the box under an arm.

The delivery kids were supposed to offer to carry things in, but Merlin could understand why this one didn’t. If he’d been in one of his aged forms, Merlin would’ve expected it. But he’d worn through the latest Old Emerson and had de-aged himself to start over again only a few weeks ago. A young, fit looking man could handle his own groceries.

“Uh, that’s it then.”

For a minute Merlin wondered why the lad was still standing there. He’d done his job. But then he remembered he was supposed to tip. “Right, hold on a minute.” He set the parcel down and dug into his pocket for his wallet. Of course, the only cash he had on him was a tenner. Fighting back a sigh, Merlin pulled the note out and handed it over. “Keep it,” he said, generously.

It wasn’t like he had any need of the money.

And it made the young man smile for the first time that night. “Hey, uh, thanks. Uh, sir.”

“You’re welcome. Same time next week.”

“Right, see ya.”

Of course, it probably wouldn’t be the same lad next week. Sainsbury’s seemed to go through their delivery folks in rapid fashion.

Merlin closed the door and then picked up his groceries. He carried them into the kitchen, sorting them onto the long counter before putting them into their designated spaces in the pantry and the refrigerator. He mentally tried to match the things he unbagged and unboxed with the order he’d placed earlier, and things didn’t quite seem to be adding up.

He was just putting a box of Jaffa Cakes into a cupboard – debating getting one out to snack on – when the doorbell rang a second time.

“All right, I’m coming,” Merlin grumbled, reaching into the pocket of his trackies for his phone. He was going to have call the store about the service. Nice as the young man had seemed, this was the second time in as many weeks that they’d forgotten to drop something off and had to come back. He yanked the front door open, already ready to forgive the apology he was sure to get, “It’s fi–“

“Took you long enough.”

The phone dropped from Merlin’s hand, landing on the marble tile with a clatter.

“Arthur?”

He blinked, and then brought his hands up to rub at his eyes. When he opened them again, Arthur was still standing on his front step.

“I’m dreaming, aren’t I?” he breathed.

Canting his head to the side, Arthur stared back at him speculatively. “Do you often dream about me?”

The smile that had been hiding behind Merlin’s abject shock finally worked its way out. “You’d be surprised,” he managed, albeit a bit breathlessly.

Arthur gave a little shake of his head, “I doubt it.”

Still processing what he was seeing – Arthur, in his cloak and armor, just the same as he’d looked the last time Merlin saw him – Merlin managed to ask, “How…?” He couldn’t even find the words to finish that sentence.

“How am I here?” Arthur filled in for him. “How did I find you?”

Merlin managed a shaky nod to both.

“Well, I’m guessing I’m here the same way as last time. I certainly woke up on that damnable island again. And as to how I found you, I remembered how to get here.” He gave a gentle grin. “I rather assumed you’d be in the same place.” He looked past Merlin a moment, staring into the foyer. “I like what you’ve done with it.”

“I’ve uh… expanded a bit.”

Arthur laughed, lines around his eyes crinkling with joy. “That’s an understatement.”

Merlin nodded again, lost for something else to say. “You’re here,” he managed, rather dumbly.

“Yes, and look what came with me,” Arthur reached to his belt and drew out a sword partway, so Merlin could see the hilt and the markings on the blade.

Merlin stared at it a moment, feeling a sting starting behind his eyes. “Is… that’s…”

“Yeah,” Arthur nodded, slotting it back at his hip. “I’m thinking this time is for good.” The smirk that had been playing at his lips grew into a wide, beaming smile.

Through a veil of tears Merlin smiled back.

It wasn’t clear which one of them moved first, Arthur stepping up into the doorway, or Merlin surging down to meet him, but they came together in a rush. Their lips met, Arthur’s hands cupping Merlin’s cheeks while he clutched desperately at Arthur’s shoulder, fisting in his cloak. Kissing him was like… coming home.

They kissed and kissed, and Merlin’s fingers moved to tangle in Arthur’s hair, while Arthur’s migrated down, one clutching his ribs, the other dangerously low on his back.

“It’s going to be quite the learning experience, this time, isn’t it?” Arthur eventually drew back to ask, though he looked undaunted by that prospect. “The world, from all I’ve seen of it so far, is far different than I remember.”

“Yeah,” Merlin agreed. He was too filled with amazement and joy to worry about that just now though. “But we’ll figure it out. Together.” He pulled back, just a fraction. “To that point, I should probably stop snogging you on my front porch.”

“Snogging?” Arthur’s brows dipped in, but from the cheeky smile he understood the context well enough.

Merlin’s cheeks started to hurt from the smile he couldn’t seem to control. “It’s certainly going to be quite entertaining bringing you up to speed. C’mon.” He walked backwards, tugging Arthur in the house with him.

“One question,” Arthur’s face went serious a moment. “I need to know.”

Breath catching in his throat, Merlin looked deep in Arthur’s eyes, ready to tell him anything. “What is it? What do you need to know?”

Arthur hesitated, like he was steeling himself for something unpleasant. “Is… coffee still around?”

Laughter bubbling out of him, Merlin started to tow Arthur down the hall. “Oh, Arthur… have I got something to show you.” He kicked the door closed, voice slipping out before it shut: “It’s called an espresso machine…”