syllic: ([merlin] sun)
[personal profile] syllic

Spring, Part II

It’s not that Merlin wants to be the herald of his own victories, or anything of the sort, but in the days that follow Arthur seems to be in as good a mood as Merlin has seen him all year.

He seems relaxed, and though he can’t quite keep a smile on his face that makes him look like the cat that got the cream, it seems to creep out only when they’re in private. In front of others, Arthur goes out of his way not to let anything slip: he touches Merlin as he’s always touched him—no more, no less—and looks at him as he always has. He’s obviously putting effort into keeping this for himself, and Merlin’s never been happier to have Arthur—brilliantly dense Arthur—read Merlin’s intentions right.

Merlin can hardly fault Arthur for being oblivious when he’s been little better himself, failing to see Arthur’s small overtures until the two of them were practically pressed against a cliff’s edge with no room to do anything else. But he caught on in the end, and if there’s one thing he’s learned while in Camelot, where a test of will seems to always be waiting around the corner, is that it’s better late than never.

They argue as they always have, and after every messy, brilliant fumble, it’s Merlin who has to take the linens for washing, but Arthur has clearly been holding back all sorts of impulses—to kiss against walls, and bedposts, and hearthrugs, to laugh freely and to say all sorts of honest and unexpected things.

“How many times have you been to Ana’s, then?” asks Merlin on the night at the end of the April tournaments, which Arthur holds mostly for training purposes, but which he can’t ever seem to bring himself to lose—not even now.

“I’m sure I don’t know what you mean,” Arthur answers.

His mouth is twitching, and he’s teasing—laughing gently, not at Merlin but with him.

“Arthur,” says Merlin. He turns his face a little into the pillow when he realises the answer matters to him, in some odd way, afraid some of it might show on his face.

Merlin,” says Arthur, kissing him, but just as Merlin begins to relax into the puddle of sheets beneath him, Arthur says,

“Once or twice.”

“With that boy?” asks Merlin, morbidly unable to stop himself from pressing further, but also honestly interested—there is still a part of him that marvels at the things that Arthur has revealed this year, with a sort of straightforward, objective, curiosity.

“No,” says Arthur, looping one arm around Merlin and pulling him onto his chest, so that Merlin can’t quite see his face. Merlin can feel his cheeks heat, though, and he breathes deeply into Arthur’s hair.

“I—that was the first time I asked Ana. For that.”

Merlin had thought her offer of her services to be more familiar, and he says so.

“I send her business, sometimes,” says Arthur diplomatically.

Merlin raises an eyebrow, and Arthur explains,

“Sparring and discussion in the chambers are all well and good, Merlin, but sometimes the best you can hope is for men to forget what is troubling them.”

Arthur’s voice sounds like a king’s, resigned to the harsher realities of his kingdom but full of love for its inhabitants nonetheless.

“Are there things that trouble you?” Merlin asks.

“Yes,” says Arthur, simply, and Merlin frowns. “But I can assure you that whatever they are, my cares are fewer than they were before you ruined my wedding breeches.”

Merlin smiles—softly, but not too softly, in case Arthur is setting up one of his elaborate insults—and Arthur brushes Merlin’s hair back from his forehead, almost roughly, and says,

“Turn out the light.”

Sir Blaise comes back at Beltane, like an overly jovial head of cattle that is brought out only for feasts, and Merlin stores the crystallised fruits away in the back of the castle’s larders the moment he sees him rolling off his horse in the courtyard.

His re-appearance seems to please Arthur—Sir Blaise really is the convivial sort, Merlin supposes, and his repertoire of stories is actually fairly funny when you bother to listen. He’s been on campaigns for both Sir Cormorant and Uther, but he’s the sort of man who seems to draw disaster to himself, so that most of his tales involve outrageous mishaps from which he only escapes by sheer, blind fortune.

“You seem happy,” says Gwen, when they’re in the gardens gathering flowers to decorate the trees and the spinning-wheels for the feast, and Merlin pats at his hair, trying to obscure the places that make it clear that fingers have run through it, and says,


He aims for cheerful surprise, but Gwen raises an eyebrow at him, smiling. She keeps her eyes on the rosebushes, though—the wonderful thing about Gwen is that she never pushes—and eventually Merlin says,

“Arthur’s happy. I think.”

Gwen blinks lazily in the sunlight, and threads a rose from her basket through Merlin’s neckerchief as she says,

“Yes, I think so too.”

Merlin drinks too much that night, and watches in amusement as Gawain attempts to lure the Lady Ragnell onto the part of the courtyard that has been cleared for dancing. She’s one of the shyest women Merlin has ever met, in court or elsewhere, but though she blushes to the roots of her auburn hair and does not budge from where she’s standing with her handmaiden, she consents to talk to Gawain, who seems hard-pressed to think of what to say when he realises dancing is not on the cards.

Merlin walks by, swaying slightly, and hears Gawain say, “And embroidery—do you enjoy it?”

He widens his eyes to—he hopes—communicate Not an ideal topic, Gawain, but judging from the way Gawain turns to look behind him in surprise, then returns his eyes to Merlin as if to say, What is it? Merlin isn’t completely successful in relaying his message.

Gwen and Morgana are whirling in a corner of the courtyard, and even Uther looks surprisingly cheery in a red doublet, holding a tankard of ale in an ungloved hand.

There seem to be more people than usual there for the celebration, and more young people flocking to Arthur, some stringing ribbons on his wrists, some giving him flowers. It’s very clearly a pre-wedding Beltane, and when Merlin thinks what a post-wedding Beltane will be like the year after, something surprisingly sour twists out of his stomach and into his throat, and he scowls as he goes to fetch more ale.

The thing is that Merlin has a series of true reasons to dislike Sir Blaise now—while his visit at midwinter had annoyed Merlin at a time that he’d felt shut out and confused, trapped in the castle with its blazing fires and its hundreds of people as snow melted lazily outside, now it’s different.

Merlin understands now what this wedding will mean: if not for the court or the kingdom, and if not for Prince Arthur, then at least for Arthur, who laughs low in his belly when he’s lying down and who wraps his fingers around Merlin’s wrist as he sleeps. Merlin remembers his silly fancy at the break of winter into spring, when he’d vowed to find some petty mischief to help Arthur feel freer from others, and he feels trapped now in the knowledge that the true boundaries are different from those established by the court. They are the ones Arthur has created, those he believes are necessary, and they only leave him a tiny space in which to be himself.

Merlin resents the Lady Elise not for taking a place in Arthur’s life—he understands now that Arthur does not necessarily look on that as something negative—but for giving Arthur one more reason to curtail his own satisfaction, by giving him one more subject to protect and one more loved one not to disappoint.

Sir Blaise is a reminder of this—of the hot summer months and the harvest bearing down on them, of the pavilion that will be set up to ward against the August sun’s glare. The more Merlin grows to like Sir Blaise as a man, the more he dislikes him as an envoy.

Arthur has spun away from the last group of young men and women who had approached him to pin colour to his tunic, and Merlin keeps his eyes on him as he drops into a chair next to Sir Blaise. Sir Blaise gestures at a pretty girl and says something, pulling a face, and Arthur laughs loudly, throwing his head back and exposing his neck.

When he looks back down, his eyes catch Merlin’s, and though Merlin fights to keep his face open and expressionless—him, him, it always has to be Arthur who chooses this for himself—Arthur must see something in his eyes. He puts one hand on Sir Blaise’s forearm, ducks his head to say something, and heads away from the party and into the castle, flicking his eyes towards Merlin, then the castle’s doors, as he goes.

Arthur is waiting behind the door when Merlin enters, and he pushes Merlin onto the bed in a smooth movement that sends the blood rushing away from his head. He feels dizzy with ale and with the heat of the evening, which has made his shift cling to his skin under his arms and at the small of his back.

“Always looking, Merlin,” Arthur murmurs against his skin, and Merlin says, cheekily and a little bolstered by drink,

“Only returning the favour, sire.”

Insolence,” says Arthur, pulling Merlin’s boots off, then his breeches, and Merlin wriggles his hips to help him along and laughs.

Arthur’s mouth is everywhere, almost as if he knows he doesn’t have to do much more than be there to make Merlin’s head spin pleasantly, but wants to make sure Merlin sinks completely into his kisses. Merlin fumbles, his hands awkward and clumsy, and touches everything he can reach—a shoulder, an elbow, Arthur’s belly, his hip.

“I want—” says Arthur, and before he can complete the thought, Merlin stretches against the linens and lets his legs fall open, and says,


“You don’t have to ensure I experience every possible pleasure before this wedding, you know, Merlin,” Arthur huffs against Merlin’s sternum. “There will be other days after that.”

Merlin knows that Arthur means that they’ll be other pleasures to be had after the Lady Elise comes, but it gives him a small thrill to think that Arthur might be hinting that they can have this—the heat, and the shared air, and the sheets tangled between their legs—for longer than a few stolen months. It’s a dangerous thought, and Merlin shoves it away quickly, pressing his hips into Arthur’s and breathing sharply when Arthur shifts and takes them both in one of his large hands.

He knows that he’s been obvious in his attempts to make a space for Arthur to enjoy himself since coming to the realisation that Arthur, if left to his own devices, would continue to close doors he once enjoyed opening the more he approached his kingship. Merlin brings him fruit the moment it’s delivered to the kitchens, and holds Uther off when Arthur has not yet returned from riding: all things he did under orders, once, and now does even when he’s asked not to.

Arthur says things like this now, sometimes—I do sometimes do things for myself, you know, Merlin—almost as if he’s recognised that Merlin has begun obsessively planning to ensure that Arthur will always have access to fleeting indulgences, if he wants them. It’s almost as if he knows Merlin is terrified that he will fail, and wants to assuage his fears.

“You can have anything you want, Arthur,” Merlin corrects himself, and Arthur reaches over the headboard to grope for something in the space between it and the wall.

“Can we—?” he says, a small bottle of one of Morgana’s perfumed oils in his hand, and Merlin nods against his lips,


Arthur rolls him over onto his stomach, one hand on Merlin’s shoulder and one on his hip, and Merlin shivers—the contrast of Arthur’s battle-honed efficiency of movement and the ragged things he whispers in Merlin’s ear sometimes, like a man who’s never had a practical thought in his life, will never cease to be thrilling.

They’ve never done this before—Arthur had stolen Morgana’s oil in plain sight of Merlin, when the maids in Morgana’s rooms were flustered with Beltane preparations, but he had said nothing for days afterwards. Merlin had not wanted to press, but he has been waiting for the night when Arthur would want this, and he spreads his legs wantonly and arches into Arthur’s touch.

Arthur’s fingers are slippery when his hand cups Merlin’s arse, and though he’s a little clumsy at first—he goes too fast, and Merlin feels all the breath rush out of him in a gust—he adjusts his movements quickly, rolling Merlin onto his side, whispering,

“Are you— Is this—” brokenly in his ear.

Yes,” Merlin says, when Arthur tilts him forward with a hand on his shoulder and his fingers brush something inside Merlin that makes something unknown, sharp but heavy, spark up his spine. “Yes to everything.”

Arthur eases inside him slowly, carefully, so unwilling to make anything but a perfect show of this, and Merlin opens his mouth against the bed and pants hot breaths against the sheets, unable to control a short little keen from escaping his lips when Arthur reaches around to take Merlin’s cock in his hand.

“Faster, faster,” says Merlin, but what he means is At whatever speed you want, and Arthur seems to take it as it is meant, because he keeps his thrusts slow and languorous, licking a stripe up Merlin’s neck and panting little groans into the base of Merlin’s skull.

“What do you want?” asks Arthur, rolling his hips, and Merlin’s fingers scrabble against the corner of a bedpost as he answers,

“Whatever you— I want what you want. What you want.”

“What do you want?” asks Arthur again, as if Merlin hasn’t answered, and Merlin, who wants to ask nothing of Arthur but seems to be getting everything he does not want to say without ever having to open his mouth, says,

“This. This. You. I want you.”

Merlin spends the next few days in a pleasant haze, serving Sir Blaise with a good-natured ease that has Sir Blaise asking Arthur,

“New manservant, sire?” though Merlin is not sure if he’s making a joke or asking in perfect seriousness. He’s strange enough for both.

Sir Blaise’s departure is set for the end of the week, and the castle steward has already begun overseeing the loading of the carts—five this time, and Merlin mutters lowly to Gwen, They’re only coming in four bloody months—are they really going to eat eight joints of meat before then?

Sir Blaise will be taking someone from court with him, too—some sort of complex custom that involves the bride’s house welcoming an individual from the groom’s court to show hospitality and good will. Merlin, without being prompted, has nominated Caradoc the younger, who has taken advantage of Arthur’s newer, looser definition of discipline to the utmost, and has become unbearable as a result.

“Good riddance, I say,” says Merlin cheerfully as he serves Arthur lunch in his chambers.

And probably well deserved, he thinks uncharitably about Caradoc’s arrival in Cormorant’s manor. He wishes they could send both of Sir Caradoc’s sons there. Forever.

Merlin’s suggestion is—surprisingly—not as popular as logic would dictate it should be. Two days later, when Uther asks for dinner to be laid in one of his larger antechambers, no decision appears to have been made on whom to send. Gwen and Merlin are asked to serve, and when they arrive, they’re surprised to find Lucan, Uther’s manservant, setting the table alone.

“King Uther wants the three of us only,” he says shortly—Lucan is rather taciturn—and Merlin raises his eyebrows at Gwen, who whispers,

“I think this is about Sir Cormorant’s request. Morgana says Uther wants to send someone able to negotiate for Camelot, not just a visitor, because Sir Cormorant’s lands apparently produce more grain and fruit than what he contributes to the court, and because he’s looking to split his land between his older sons. Uther thinks that’ll weaken the defences against Mercia, and Morgana says she agrees.”

Merlin nods, squirreling the information away. He and Arthur have not discussed this except in jest, when Merlin was suggesting ways to fool Caradoc the younger into volunteering, but Merlin has been trying hard to pick up information about this betrothal, and about the court in general, where he can.

When Uther walks in from his private rooms, only Arthur and Morgana are with him. A few moments later Lucan leads in Rivalen and Gawain, and two of Uther’s senior counsellors—Sir Ector and Sir Anselm—follow, bearing sheaves of parchment affixed with Uther’s seal.

Gwen raises her eyebrows at Merlin, See? before the two of them head towards the serving table, where Lucan morosely hands Gwen a tureen of soup and passes Merlin a ladle.

Lucan does most things morosely.

They have to keep darting outside to collect the plates left there by the kitchen staff; Uther gave strict instructions that only Lucan, Guinevere and Merlin were to be in the room, and the kitchen has had to prepare two meals, because elsewhere in the castle, Sir Blaise is being entertained by Sir Tristan. Merlin would actually pay—actually pay (if he had anything to pay with, that is)—to gaze upon the spectacle that that will no doubt turn out to be.

He doesn’t get to hear everything as they fill and clear plates on the table, but he does gather that Uther is worried, particularly with the wedding so close, and that Sir Ector doesn’t think Cormorant’s accounts match up entirely. No-one thinks Sir Cormorant’s plans to split his lands are a good idea, and Sir Anselm suspects foul play from Sir Cormorant’s second son.

“If the lands are divided between Piculet and Dacnis as Cormorant intends, the mountain pass from Mercia will be left vulnerable,” says Uther as Gwen and Merlin are bringing in the rabbit, and from the discomfited looks that pass around everyone at the table, Merlin gathers that this is completely undesirable.

“We need to use the opportunity of Cormorant’s invitation to the fullest—we must send an envoy that is able to broach these topics with him, and to put forth Camelot’s desire in the matter forcefully, but with care.”

“Sir Cormorant is eager to split his lands equitably, sire, and he must make the divide at the pass if both pieces of land are to have access to water,” says Sir Anselm.

“Then we must make it clear to him that if he is able to wait but a few years, his daughter’s position in this court may well facilitate… the arrival of further resources to divide amongst his sons. Passing his current lands to Dacnis as they are would make sense then, Anselm,” says Uther.

“Rivalen, Gawain,” he continues, turning his attention to the other end of the table, “You are called here today because I believe that either of you would be able communicate Camelot’s interests in this matter. If you are fostered with Cormorant as Camelot’s envoy, you must tread very carefully—give no indication that we are committed to increasing Cormorant’s lands more than we already have, but suggest that we might if it appears that he remains committed to dividing the lands he already owns. Make discreet enquiries where you can—someone in the steward’s rooms will probably be able to tell you how much grain Cormorant’s lands are producing, and I want the amount compared to the levy he pays and what he has declared. I do not want him aware that we are interested—it will only cause bad blood before August—but I want you to return with the information we need. It’s a task that will require great delicacy, and I—”

Uther drifts off, then firms his jaw and turns to Arthur.

“I am still not entirely convinced we should not send you, Arthur. You wouldn’t be able to stay, of course, but we require someone who can get the information and assurances we need without giving insult.”

Please, don’t let us have to ride back to Cormorant’s manor with Sir Blaise, thinks Merlin, his mind already picturing the amount of food that will have to be carted just for four days’ ride if that’s the case. Gwen shoots him a sympathetic look.

“Father,” says Arthur, and his voice is very measured, his tone formal. Merlin looks up.

“I wonder, father,” says Arthur, “If what we need is not for me to go, but to send someone else who knows this business well, who can act with diplomacy while being able to exert the influence of the royal court to get answers—”

“Yes?” says Uther, squinting from one eye the way he always does when Arthur is raising any sort of new idea with him.

“Perhaps, father—well, I think we have someone extremely suited to the role, particularly if we can send a different person to be fostered, as well. This could be a shorter visit, surely, simply to perform the tasks you have outlined, and we could—father, I think we should send Morgana.”

“I’m sorry?” says Uther, looking bewildered, and Arthur repeats,

“I think you should give Morgana leave to go.”

“Don’t be ridiculous, Arthur,” says Uther, glancing around the table, no doubt uncomfortable to be disagreeing in front of others.

Merlin follows his eyes and sees Morgana’s knuckles clenched tightly around her utensils, her hands pale from the strain.

“Father,” begins Arthur, reasonably, “Sire. You need someone that Cormorant will perceive as non-threatening, but who is wily enough to obtain information that Cormorant’s household will not want to part with. You want a royal envoy to communicate your desire that Cormorant not pass his lands on to his sons in parts, without expressly letting him know that it is the king’s wish that is being communicated, and without giving indication that you might grant him further lands in the future, though you want both ideas suggested. It’s not as if you require a martial man—a clever one will do much better. Morgana has ever been your ambassador in your own court, and properly chaperoned—I suggest Rivalen accompanies her, and remains to be fostered; we can send a small guard with them, and they can accompany Morgana upon her return—I am certain she would be more successful in increasing Camelot’s gains elsewhere than anyone else we could hope to send.”

Merlin almost can’t believe what he’s hearing, but he sees straight away that what Arthur is saying is being heard, is having an impact, precisely because it’s so unexpected. Sir Anselm and Gawain are already nodding, and Uther’s face is hard, but his eyes are assessing.

“Guinevere could accompany Morgana as her handmaiden,” Arthur is saying, and his voice is coaxing, “She’s shown herself to be loyal and extremely reliable in difficult situations—” Gwen flushes with pleasure, her cheeks dark as the red of Morgana’s formal dresses— “and as you yourself have told me, father, Morgana can be formidable when properly motivated. I am certain she would do her duty to Camelot admirably, especially if she is well accompanied.”

Morgana has said nothing—her eyes are on the table, but Merlin can see how tense her shoulders are, how hard she’s trying to give the impression that she will be happy with whatever decision Uther makes.

“The Lady Morgana, sire,” Sir Ector is saying tentatively, “May well be able to speak to the Lady Elise in private, or to the Lady Cormorant—she could, perhaps, speak to Sir Piculet’s wife, and find out if her husband’s intent is malicious, as we suspect.”

Sending Morgana to collect women’s gossip doesn’t sound anywhere near as glamourous as what Arthur is suggesting, but it’s clearly the right thing to say. Merlin can see the idea growing on Uther as he nods once, then again.

“There is merit in the idea of sending someone they will not expect, but whose diplomatic skills will be a match for theirs,” he murmurs, and Morgana’s shoulders tremble at the praise. She stays silent, though.

“Very well,” says Uther suddenly, coming to a decision as impetuously as he always seems to. “Rivalen, if you are willing, I would have you accompany the Lady Morgana and remain in Cormorant’s manor thereafter.”

Rivalen nods.

“Of course, sire. It is my pleasure to serve you.”

“Morgana,” says Uther, and Morgana finally looks up, her face composed. Merlin darts a glance at Gwen, whose mouth is slightly open as she watches. “What do you say?”

“Your highness,” she begins, her voice clearer than usual, “It would be my honour and my pleasure to do my duty to my king, and to Camelot.”

“It is settled, then,” says Uther.

Merlin can see the doubt that remains at the back of Uther’s eyes, but the king does not give voice to it.

Uther motions for Lucan to serve him more wine, and he turns to address Sir Anselm,

“You will record the figures for comparison for the Lady Morgana, and discuss with her what she should look for in Cormorant’s books.”

Sir Anselm and Sir Ector say something in reply, but Merlin can’t spare any attention for them because when he looks up, Morgana is staring straight at Arthur, her eyes bright. She holds his gaze for a long moment, her bearing proud and the look in her eyes speaking volumes, before she turns back to her food.

A smile flashes on Arthur’s face for an instant, and he jerks his head towards Merlin, who comes forward with the wine.

Merlin wants to whisper something as he bends forward, but he wouldn’t know what to say even if he could. The fact that Arthur was willing to suggest that someone else carry out a request the king had clearly intended for him, the fact that he was willing to champion Morgana for the task—it almost defies belief. Merlin has never known Arthur to think of Morgana as anything other than a sister to be protected, someone to be kept away from danger at all costs. He remembers Ealdor, where Arthur had allowed her to carry a sword by his side—they all remember Ealdor—but the four of them had been so young then, so blissfully ignorant of consequence.

After Arthur is married, he will pass into a new role, a role in which he may be able to grant Morgana a greater voice in the court. But by giving Morgana the ability to prove herself to Uther now, in a test that the king cannot dismiss, Arthur is clearly giving her the chance to earn more weight for her voice, and to do so through her own skill. He’s pushing aside his concern for her, giving Morgana an opportunity despite his inclination to take the responsibility for Camelot on his own shoulders, and Merlin guesses that that is as much a sacrifice for Arthur as it is a pleasure.

He doesn’t think he’ll remember, years from now, what he and Gwen served, or even much of what she says to him—whispering excitedly by the serving table, wondering what visiting the border with Mercia will be like when she’s only left Camelot two or three times—but he knows he will never forget the sight of everyone exiting the room after the meal.

Uther and his counsellors head for his chambers, and Rivalen to the stables to check the horses, but not before Gawain gives him a small pat on the back. Merlin, Lucan, and Gwen are clearing the tables when Morgana and Arthur walk out behind everyone else, and right before they exit the room, Morgana’s hand shoots out, her fingers curling around Arthur’s wrist.

She doesn’t say anything, but she doesn’t take another step—her fingers tighten, and Merlin can see the places where her fingertips are digging into Arthur’s skin.

“I can’t think of anyone better,” says Arthur lowly, though she’s said nothing, and something unnamed but clearly significant pulses between the two of them as they stand by the door.

“Come on then, Merlin,” says Arthur impatiently after a minute, as if he’s already called several times, and Merlin scurries to follow him out.

Three days later they wave Morgana and Gwen off, each on her own horse though a cart has been prepared for them to ride inside if necessary. Guinevere looks ecstatic—she’s fighting to keep the grin from her face, but her success is minimal at best—and Morgana is calm and collected as she allows Arthur to help her onto her horse.

“I will return soon, Your Highness, with all that you require,” she says to Uther, and he nods at her as she turns her horse, fear and pride warring in his eyes.

With Morgana and Rivalen gone, and Tristan mysteriously absent—rumour has it he’s using the last of the cooler weather to seek out unknown places, which everyone understands to mean ‘unknown women’—Arthur’s free time is split almost equally between Merlin and Gawain.

Merlin counts only daylight hours—most nights, he and Arthur kiss slowly and continuously under sweaty sheets, and he can’t think that either of them spares a thought for Gawain then—but there is a slow, hazy quality to the daytime, too, with the three of them riding out almost every other day, to terribly important locations where Gawain and Arthur spar with staffs, or where the three of them skip stones over still water.

Merlin has had a pallet in Arthur’s rooms since being appointed manservant to the prince, but for the first year it remained hidden under an odd collection of Arthur’s things—a jacket with a sleeve ripped off, some parchment, a spare helmet—and Merlin did not discover it until much later. They’re happy for the excuse of it now, though, and it remains prominently displayed in the corner, clearer of litter than it has ever been since it was moved in.

Morgana returns in late June. She, Arthur and Uther sequester themselves in the king’s chambers for several hours: when Arthur finally returns to his rooms, Merlin is half-asleep on the pallet, and Arthur shifts him awkwardly onto his feet and deposits him on the bed.

They kiss lazily, Arthur reaching a hand between them to stroke Merlin until he comes, and in the dizzy afterglow Merlin rolls onto his belly and lets Arthur inside him, heat pressing against his skin and Arthur’s weight pressing him against the sheets.

To Merlin, the thought of the wedding seems farther away every day, though everywhere he can see evidence of it looming. Chambers are being prepared next to Morgana’s, and another small set of rooms is being cleared next to Arthur’s. New flowers are being planted in a privy garden behind the courtyard, and the castle carpenter has been commissioned to carve a wooden lattice to surround it.

Summers are always easier than winters, though, and it’s hard to remain worried about anything for long when the sun is shining and food is plentiful. There hasn’t been a single (natural) drought since Merlin’s arrival in Camelot, and when cooler springs blaze into the bright sunshine of summer and the trees and the fields begin showing signs of bearing heavy fruit and golden grain, people are always happier. Arthur rarely has disputes to resolve, or skirmishes to settle—this June is no different.

Gawain and Arthur spend long hours playing chess in Arthur’s rooms, until they grow tired of the castle’s warm, still air, and Gawain says, “Let’s go hunting.”

The two of them practically race to the stables, and Merlin follows slowly, stopping to fetch cheese and bread and to let someone know where they’re going. When he gets down to the courtyard, his horse is saddled and Gawain and Arthur are already on theirs; Gawain is holding the reins so that Merlin can mount his roan straight away.

As soon as they pass the city boundaries Arthur and Gawain break their horses into a thundering gallop, and Merlin feels every jolt down to his bones as he attempts to keep up. The trees are a bright green blur against the clear blue of the sky, and Merlin feels a rush of exhilaration and terror as his horse stumbles slightly, then regains its footing.

“West woods or north forest?” whoops Gawain from his horse, and Arthur shouts back,

“You decide, Gawain.”

Gawain digs his left heel into his horse’s flank and steers them north, and Arthur lets him take the lead, keeping his horse a few feet behind.

They crash through the undergrowth and slow their horses down only when the trees get too thick to ride between, but Arthur allows Gawain to pick their course, and follows silently behind him. He rides up to Merlin’s horse and runs a warm hand down Merlin’s back; he moves away only when Gawain looks around, motioning ahead with one hand. They dismount and tie their horses to a tree near a pool of water, and Merlin follows as quietly as he can as Arthur hands Gawain a crossbow and falls into step behind him.

Merlin has never seen Arthur give someone else such a clear lead while hunting or while on the training ground, and Gawain seems surprised, too, but pleased. He leads them skilfully around a clearing and Merlin begins to see the trail he’s following—four years on he’s still as hopeless as ever, but he can see where the leaves have been crushed by hooves as animals have passed.

Gawain keeps glancing back at them, and Merlin assumes at first that Arthur has shared with him his philosophy that Merlin must be kept in sight at all times if disaster is not to befall everyone involved. But Gawain’s eyes are seeking out Arthur’s, not Merlin’s, and as they continue to creep forward quietly, Merlin realises Gawain is looking around for approval.

It’s the same thing Merlin has seen Arthur do with his father—show off a skill to please him, with an acknowledgment that anything done well is owed to the man who passed on the art in the first place—and it doesn’t take Merlin long to understand that Gawain is looking behind to a man he already sees as his king.

Merlin is abruptly proud of something he had little to no hand in, proud of Arthur, and as he watches Arthur give almost imperceptible signs of encouragement, small nods and hand gestures to press Gawain forward, he realises in a rush that he’s looking at Arthur differently, too.

His desire to enable Arthur to take small liberties for himself is still there, as is the stalwart, steady throb of his loyalty and love for him, but between the two of them, spreading outwards, is a warm satisfaction at seeing Arthur happy, at simply being beside him. The feeling is more knotted than it’s been in the past, tied up with yearning and possession and want, and Merlin puts a hand against a tree to steady himself, waving Arthur off when he turns around inquisitively.

Gawain and Merlin both followed a king here. But Gawain will lead them from the forest towards a wedding that he will rejoice at, as will the rest of Arthur’s subjects, while Merlin will follow reluctantly, and try his hardest not to grieve.

They ride home in golden sunlight, a young boar thrown over the back of Gawain’s horse and handfuls of mushrooms for Gaius crammed into Merlin’s saddlebag. At the edge of the woods, Arthur plucks an unripe apple from a tree, and lobs it hard at Gawain’s head as he rides ahead.

Merlin looks towards the distant shadow of the castle, and back at the small white flowers blooming on the trees, and laughs long and hard when Gawain almost falls off his horse.

Onwards to Summer, Part I


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October 2017


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