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

Summer, Part II
The castle seems oddly quiet to Merlin the next day. He still feels so dizzy with the memory of the night before that he chalks it up to his own inability to hear or see or even think straight.

In the afternoon, Arthur collects him from the kitchens and the two of them ride out to the fields adjacent to the city and walk aimlessly between the stalks of wheat, weaving between them with their hands joined.

Merlin doesn’t really bother to listen for the sound of footsteps approaching; he simply trusts Arthur to look out for them, as he always does.

Arthur is overseeing the maintenance of the city’s fortifications, and when he and Merlin are not walking the perimeter so that Arthur can direct the workmen, who continue making repairs diligently even in the unforgiving heat, Merlin finds other reasons to be out of the castle. He picks up what Arthur needs from the merchants in the city, and gratefully does the steward’s bidding, picking up accounts from the traders before the harvest arrives.

They leave the castle at dawn and Merlin returns at dusk, scurrying down the corridors straight to Arthur’s chambers. Three days speed by, marked only by the wet sound of mortar patted onto the walls and the constant shift from blazing sunlight to cool darkness as Merlin ducks into shop after shop. Each time they fall into Arthur’s bed, the night seems to stretch out before them.

Then the sun rises an instant later, and the illusion is gone.

Two days later the heat turns suddenly, sharply unbearable, and when Gawain comes to find them in Arthur’s rooms, saying simply, “River?” Merlin nods gratefully as Arthur stands up, peeling his sweaty back away from his chair.

They ride as quickly as they can without breaking the horses, trying to create an artificial breeze through determination alone. Gawain’s hair has grown to his shoulders since he had it shorn it at Easter, and he sighs contentedly when the damp curls lift away from his neck and into the wind.

They unsaddle the horses with their eyes already on the water—Merlin cinches the saddle tighter rather than loosening it before he realises what he’s doing, the cool water so close he can almost feel it on his skin. When Gawain splashes in with a joyful yell, Merlin hopes he won’t break an ankle in his haste.

They float, belly-up, clinging to the reeds to stop themselves from drifting, though the heat seems to have slowed the river current to a lazy, swirling, drift.

None of them suggest it, but they linger in the water as long as possible, and when they finally drag themselves out through the mud, fingers pruned and Arthur’s hair slicked down onto his forehead like a drowned rat’s, it’s clear that no-one has any intention of riding back to the city that night.

“It’s almost August,” Merlin says wistfully, and Gawain looks at him oddly before saying, teasingly,

“Usually the state of affairs at the end of July, yes.”

Merlin waves him off rudely, trying to remember that there’s no possible way that Gawain can understand what he means. When he looks up, though, Gawain is inexplicably looking at Arthur suspiciously, almost reproachfully.

Arthur turns his head away.

Gawain shakes his head, and before Merlin can ask what the matter is, he stands up, knees creaking, and unties the woven net with which he’d trapped four fish earlier from the branch to which he’d tied it, dangling the fish in the water to keep them cool.

Arthur starts a fire, shielding Merlin with his body so that Merlin can light it when it becomes clear that Arthur’s having no success striking the flints, and they burn the fish on it because none of them are very good at roasting things over open fires.

Merlin scalds his fingers and his tongue on the hot meat, smears grease on his lips and licks it up with the delight of the summer’s day bubbling in his chest.

Gawain and the rest of the knights have managed to spirit away a barrel of strong plum wine from the kitchens, and when he brings out a skein filled with it, they drizzle it down their throats like water, passing it between them as they lie on the ground. When they finally stop, sated and content, Merlin turns on his side to watch the last of the fire die out, twigs cracking protestingly in what remains of the fire’s glow.

Gawain’s eyelids are drooping, seemingly heavier every time he blinks. Merlin is drifting off, too, staring at Gawain across the fire, when he feels an arm creep over his hip and around his waist. He stays as still as he can—he doesn’t know if Arthur knows Gawain’s awake—and does his best not to tense, or move aside.

Gawain’s eyes are alert in the shadows, and he doesn’t look away, not even when Merlin forces a small, “Arthur,” past his dry throat.

Arthur doesn’t move, either—he only nuzzles at Merlin’s neck, tentatively, his face hidden from Gawain’s. Arthur’s arm is tense, though, and Merlin realises he must know Gawain is watching, must be choosing to do this in front of him.

Merlin feels something crumble inside him; he relaxes into Arthur’s arms, but thinks, This was something different only as long as it was only ours. This was meant to be Arthur’s, shared with no-one else, but in Gawain’s steady gaze Merlin feels it reduced to one more thing that Arthur has tried this year, one more thing he has taken up to the entertainment or approval of others, only to be left aside when September comes, whether by necessity or choice.

He understands why Arthur has to do it now, with the wedding so close, regardless of whether he wants to. There is no knowing if anyone has found out about this, despite what they might think, no knowing if someone will decide to tell, if they know, and by showing it freely to Gawain Arthur is taking away its power to be used against them, is turning it into one more thing he tested to see if he could get away with it.

“Merlin,” whispers Arthur against his ear, and then says, slightly louder,

“Good night, Gawain.”

“Good night, Arthur. Good night, Merlin,” Gawain answers.

Merlin looks directly at him, and Gawain smiles kindly, genuinely. Something aches high in Merlin’s chest, and he feels a little cold despite the heat and the weight of Arthur’s arm, warm around his middle. But he also thinks, unexpectedly, This means someone else will remember.

The knowledge of that is worth much more than Merlin would have thought.

Arthur wakes Merlin up with slow kisses on the Monday that he starts up his regular training sessions again, and Merlin drags himself clumsily from the bed to help Arthur put on his partial armour and his sword belt.

The sun is high in the sky when Merlin hears the familiar sound of Arthur’s voice counting off from the courtyard—One. Two, and parry. Three, and feint—and it’s odd to hear his higher pitch instead of Tristan’s good-natured grumble or Perceval’s low, steady, drone. It’s not that Arthur hasn’t done this at least once a week this year, but the knowledge that he’ll do it every day again from now on makes Merlin realise how used he’s gotten to the variation.

Arthur eventually moves the knights from the courtyard to the fields, and Merlin brings Arthur’s second sword and shield out to him before he asks, trying to avoid him shouting his customary, “Whenever you see fit, Merlin!” over the wall.

He’s putting the sword down on the rack when Rivalen jostles his shoulder, stopping to steady Merlin when he sways and saying,

“Sorry, Merlin,” with a rueful little twist of his lips.

“When did you get back?” asks Merlin, double-taking at the sight of him.

“Last week,” says Rivalen with a smile, but just then Arthur calls loudly,

“Rivalen, we all know your mother won’t let you leave the house until she’s served you your breakfast and watched you clear the plate, but anytime you’d like to join us …”

Rivalen raises his hand in a second apology to Merlin and jogs up to the ranks on the field, muttering something about shodding horses and inadequate fires at the smithy’s. When Merlin continues to stare fixedly at him, Gawain lifts a finger discreetly to indicate Merlin to Arthur, but Arthur only turns around for a moment, waving off whatever Gawain says to him, too low for Merlin to hear.

Merlin watches for a few more minutes, then departs to deliver Gaius’ medicines for him. Though the apprentice that Uther brought in to learn under Gaius has proven much more adept at actually making the draughts and unguents than Merlin ever was—he breaks, on average, about two glass beakers fewer than Merlin did a day, which is to say none—Merlin still likes to help where he can.

When he returns to pick up Arthur’s armour after completing the rounds, the knights are gone. Merlin is heading away from the field with Arthur’s things when he catches sight of Gawain and Arthur standing under a copse of trees at the top of the field.

He’s heading towards them when he realises they’re arguing, Gawain’s face screwed up in confusion and Arthur’s set in his characteristic stubborn glower, and Merlin catches,

“Why should I say anything, when nothing good is likely to come of it, Gawain?” on the wind.

Merlin inches closer as stealthily as he can, which of course means that Gawain catches sight of him immediately. For a moment it almost looks as if he’ll continue speaking as if Merlin weren’t there, but in the end he flicks his eyes away from Arthur and towards Merlin, and Arthur turns, going quiet immediately.

“I came to get your things,” says Merlin, unnecessarily, and Arthur looks at it all piled in his arms before he comes forward and takes the shield and both swords, the heaviest things Merlin is carrying.

“Come on then,” he says amiably, and they all begin to walk towards the castle.

Merlin glances inquisitively at Gawain, whose typically open face is unusually mulish, but Gawain gives a tiny shake of his head, something in his face somehow communicating, Later. He doesn’t say anything out loud.

Merlin is just beginning to believe that he might have imagined the look on Gawain’s face in the sparring field when he appears in Gaius’ rooms, saying,

“Uh—I need Merlin?” as he stands awkwardly by the door.

Gaius arches an eyebrow at Merlin, as if to say, If this is another one of your mishaps, I don’t want to know, and Merlin shoots him an insincere smile, designed to make Gaius as nervous as possible, as he heads towards Gawain. Gaius can see straight away what he’s trying to do, obviously—there’s no making him sweat for fun anymore—but he laughs and shakes his head, clearly amused, as Merlin and Gawain shuffle out.

Gawain walks slightly ahead of him. He’s heading towards the stables with his head down, looking almost as if he’s having to convince himself that this is the right thing to be doing. Merlin doesn’t push. He follows silently, though when Gawain sequesters them in the stall right at the back of the building, he looks around uneasily and hopes Gawain’s Later wasn’t, unbeknownst to Merlin, followed by a silent I will beat you violently.

“Merlin,” says Gawain, and Merlin answers, because he senses Gawain needs a minute,

“Yes, Gawain?”

“The truth is, Merlin,” he says, and Merlin tries to smile encouragingly, “that I’m not sure we should be discussing this at all. I’m certain Arthur wouldn’t want me to say it, and—”

“Gawain, don’t tell me anything he doesn’t want me to know,” Merlin interrupts in a rush.

He wants to know what’s happening, but not at the expense of Arthur’s trust.

“The thing is,” Gawain repeats slowly, “that I’m certain Arthur wouldn’t want me to say it, and yet I feel as if it would be better for him—for you both—if I did, regardless of what he thinks.”

Merlin nods, trying to convey that he’ll hear Gawain out for now (but unwilling to say so out loud), and Gawain lets his breath out in one long rush. He says,

“Arthur isn’t very good at saying what he’s thinking,” and Merlin raises his eyebrows—You don’t have to tell me that—as he goes on.

“I just … Merlin, you must know that he has to have a queen eventually,” and Merlin thinks, Uther’s giddy aunt, please no, because it’s clear that Gawain is trying to—to give him a speech that he and Arthur have skipped by mutual agreement.

“—but given a choice, he would choose the sort of person who … understood, which I hope you know,” Gawain is saying.

“I think he knows that you know that. But perhaps what— Well, it might be more important if you knew …. But he’s not going to say it to you, Merlin, partly because he thinks you don’t want to hear it, which if I’m understanding correctly, you do—”

Merlin doesn’t know what Gawain wants him to say. Of course he knows that there’s no escaping Arthur having a queen, knows Sir Cormorant and his wife and daughter are due any day now, and of course he would like he and Arthur to speak about it, though he knows they won’t. Merlin doesn’t know if either of them has it in him to.

Gawain has always been a peacemaker, the sort of man that will take a punch that’s not intended for him to stop two other men from fighting, and Merlin is thankful for the fact that he’s trying to help them, in his way. What he wants more than anything right now, though, is for Gawain to finish saying whatever it is he wants to say, so that they can both leave and so that Merlin doesn’t have to think about this again.

“I don’t know what he intends to tell you on Friday, when something you’re not expecting happens,” Gawain says, earnestly, and Merlin is too horrified by Friday to think about unexpected.

“But what I’m trying to say is— Merlin, are you listening to me?”

Merlin nods, lying.

“He’s afra—he’s uncertain,” Gawain corrects himself. “He’s uncertain about other things, but not about this—not about how he feels, Merlin. Not about this – about what he wants from this thing between you. But he’s not going to be the one to say it, obviously. And in some odd way he’s convinced himself that it’s … the circumstances, and not him, that you’re reacting to, so he won’t even tell you about what’s changed there, won’t risk hearing what he thinks you’ll say, though of course you won’t. And you should bear that in mind, if things are difficult at week’s end.”

Gawain is not unlike Arthur: they were both born into privilege, and they’re both charismatic and funny, with features that draw peoples’ eyes and broad shoulders that inspire confidence. Awkward is not a look that Merlin is used to seeing on either of them, but Gawain looks a second away from running to the forest to live among wild animals if it will get him away from Merlin in this moment.

He’s clearly making an effort, though, however misguided, so Merlin tries to disentangle what he’s just said, tries to do Gawain’s discomfort justice by hearing him out.

Arthur may be uncertain about dozens of things, Merlin thinks Gawain is saying, but not about his responsibilities, though he’s unlikely to say it to Merlin outright. He knows Merlin has been with him every moment of this strange year, even before Merlin had any real understanding of it, and he’s perhaps unwilling to be the one to say that it all has to change now. He cares—Merlin knows that. And he’s possibly afraid that Merlin might disagree with him or say he’s upset by it, though of course Merlin won’t.

He will be—more than upset—but he won’t add to Arthur’s concerns by saying it. To do that would go against the very reasons why they’d chosen to do this in the first place. And things will be difficult when the Lady Elise arrives—Merlin can’t begin to imagine what he’ll do, and he’s already thought about asking for Arthur’s leave to visit his mother for a few days—but Gawain is saying that Merlin should bear in mind that Arthur cares, that he does not mean to hurt him. It’s unnecessary advice, if well meaning.

Merlin already knows.

“Do you see what I’m saying, Merlin?” Gawain asks, his eyes intent, and Merlin says, unable to hide all of his despondence,

“Yes, Gawain—I see.”

Gawain’s brow furrows.

“But then, why are you—”

“Gawain,” says Merlin heavily, feeling that he owes it to him to be honest, considering how hard he’s tried to share something with Merlin that he thought Merlin didn’t know.

“Of course I know what you’re saying. Of course things will change when Arthur gets married, and of course he won’t want to say that—he might not even know how to. But I—I love him,” Merlin forces out, feeling his cheeks heat and his eyes prickle at the corners. “That won’t change, though of course I’ll never do anything to make things harder for him than they already are. I know what he has to do.”

“Good,” says Gawain, sounding relieved, but then his face creases comically and he says, “No, wait—when he gets married…? You won’t do—? Merlin, that’s not what I—”

He cuts himself off abruptly, then gives a curt little shrug, laughing a little.

“You know, I see why you two have always been such a good match,” he says, smiling ruefully. “And I’m certain everything will work out. Thank you for hearing me out, Merlin.”

“You’re welcome,” says Merlin, not quite knowing why he’s saying it—but it’s only polite.

The smell of mud and hay and horse seems to have filtered into Merlin’s clothing in the few (granted, interminable) minutes that he and Gawain spent in the stables. Merlin would normally think nothing of it, but he doesn’t need a reminder of the conversation tickling his nostrils when he’ll have trouble clearing it from his mind as it is. He scrubs at his face and his neck at the pail Gaius keeps in his rooms, replaces both his tunic and his shift, and heads to Arthur’s rooms to air yesterday’s clothing, and the bed.

When Arthur comes in, cheeks flushed from whatever he’s been doing but smile soft the minute he catches sight of Merlin, Merlin thinks of Gawain, of his earnest, open face. In that moment he feels a heavy, pervasive fondness for both of them, the stupid lumbering oafs, because they both clearly don’t want to see him hurt.

When Arthur kisses him, later, the two of them spread out on the bed, Merlin clings shamefully but can’t bring himself to care. He wraps both legs around Arthur’s; he twines his fingers tight in Arthur’s hair; he twists their tongues together.

Arthur is clearly a little bewildered, but pleased. He keens into Merlin’s mouth and Merlin screws his eyes shut, mapping the shape of Arthur’s shoulders with his hands.

He opens his eyes and commits the planes of Arthur’s face, relaxed like this, to memory; he spends a minute admiring the oddly high arch of his foot, and works his tongue into the groove where his leg meets his hip, tracing the curve of the muscle.

He breathes from Arthur’s mouth as they move together, skin sliding on skin, silken-soft but sweaty, too, and it’s perfect, bittersweet.

Merlin memorises everything, making this one time completely about what he wants, what he needs, about keeping the memory of Arthur’s soft sounds locked away for the future, about keeping the feel of his skin stored in his fingertips.

Arthur pushes into him, seemingly as eager as Merlin, whose toes are curling with want, and Merlin thinks, This is for remembering.

The last three days before the Lady Elise’s arrival are torturous for Merlin.

He avoids everything and everyone, wanting to hear nothing about what everyone’s clearly lying in expectation of, wanting to keep the fiction of constancy alive for himself, if only for a few more hours.

Inevitably there comes a time when he has to come back to the castle, when he runs out of errands to run and herbs to collect (Gaius’ shelves are stocked twice over, now, and that’s not even Merlin’s job anymore).

Merlin tiptoes around the corridors, wary of seeing or hearing something he’d rather not.

When he walks past the kitchen to see Mayda and her friends standing beside Annis, Rowena, and Brimlad, the memory of walking in to see the group of them clustered together just like this at the beginning of the year hits him like a kick to the chest.

He shakes his head a little, to clear the odd sense of disjuncture between the memory and the sight of them now, just in time to hear Mayda say,

“It’s a pity, I tell you—it would have been wonderful. I’m sure it would have been brilliant, both the celebration and after—they say she loves to dance, not like the Lady Morgana. She always acts as if she’s got more important things to do, and that’s no fun. I’m sure the Lady Elise would have made the court much more joyful—you never know, the king might even have smiled.”

It’s not really an appropriate thing to say, and certainly nothing you’d want to have Uther overhear, but they all seem to agree—even Annis nods in unhappy agreement.

“Still … it was nice while it lasted,” says Brimlad, cheerfully, and they all laugh a little.

“And it’s not as if they won’t find someone else to marry him off to soon enough,” adds Mayda, matter-of-factly.

They nod again; one or two of them give heavy sighs.

Merlin stops.

This is just the sort of conversation he has been daydreaming about overhearing while wandering aimlessly in the city, and he’s—wisely, he thinks—extremely reluctant to jump to conclusions. This said, there are very few ways to interpret what he’s just heard, other than taking it to mean that Arthur is not getting married.

He walks down the corridors, which are oddly empty of servants preparing for Sir Cormorant’s family’s arrival. When he peeks into the rooms besides Arthur’s to find them empty, the draperies half removed from the walls and the new linens folded neatly into trunks, he spins and thunders down the halls to Morgana’s chambers. The memory of what it had felt like, running to Arthur’s rooms a year ago when he had thought just the opposite—that Arthur was getting married—is sharp and jagged in his chest, but that only makes him run faster.

“Guinevere,” he pants, bracing himself against the doorway, and she looks up quickly from mending Morgana’s hose.

“Merlin!” she says, rushing over. “Are you all right?”

“The Lady Elise,” he babbles, incoherently, but Gwen only cocks her head and says,

“Yes—it’s terrible, isn’t it?”

What’s terrible?” asks Merlin, a little louder than he’d intended, and Morgana comes out from behind a screen and says, bitterly,

“That a woman’s fate can be so subject to men’s whimsy, Merlin, that’s what’s terrible.”

She sits at her looking glass and begins to brush her hair with even, efficient strokes, and Merlin gathers from the stiffness of her posture that as far as she’s concerned, the fact that Merlin is a man means he’s implicit in the blame.

“I’ve not been in the castle much in the past few days, Morgana,” he begins carefully, and when she turns towards him he looks at her beseechingly, then moves his eyes to Gwen’s. “And Arthur and I have not really had a chance to speak.”

The latter is a lie—they spoke this morning, and the night before, but Merlin is willing to wait until he finds out what’s happened before he focuses on anything else.

Morgana’s face softens from ice-locked to merely frosty, and she says,

“Cormorant chose to ignore Uther’s advice, which you probably know. He divided his lands equally between his sons, and declared his intentions to have his titles split between them upon his death. Elise’s younger brother, Piculet, who we knew had been selling the surplus from his father’s harvest for his own profit, betrayed his father as soon as Cormorant had pressed seal to parchment. He’s never looked kindly on his older brother, who would have by rights inherited the entirety of the lands and titles, if Cormorant had not tried his best to be just.

He chased Dacnis out of his lands with the help of his brother’s own men, whom he has been paying for months, and he has confined his parents, his sister, and his two youngest brothers to a cottage in the corner of the easternmost estate.”

Merlin listens, wide-eyed at the thought of so much greed, forgetting for the moment about what this means for Camelot, and for him. He can’t believe someone would turn on his family like that, but Morgana appears to be taking the tale completely in stride.

“He’s not yet found a new groom for his sister, I don’t think. But he’s no doubt bound to as soon as he is able. I do not think he wishes to turn his allegiance from Camelot—for our sake, I hope he does not wish to plight his troth to Bayard. However, he knows Uther will not welcome him or his sister—despite the fact that she is completely faultless in the matter—in court when he has overturned the natural order of things so uncaringly.”

“So Elise—Uther has decided that the Lady Elise and Arthur aren’t to be married anymore?”

“Merlin,” says Gwen, a little curiously, “That’s been decided from the moment the rider came with the news. Surely Arthur told you?”

Merlin forces himself to smile.

“Well, as I said—we haven’t really had a chance to speak.”

“You know what he’s like,” says Morgana, airily, “Hates thinking about injustice he can’t do anything about, and he must hate dwelling on Cormorant’s misfortune, and Elise’s, when their only fault was to love their son and brother. The biggest question,” she continues, “is Mercia, of course, and the security of our border with them—something will certainly have to be done about that. But Piculet seems loyal to his king, if false to those he should have been truest to, so perhaps that’s something we can afford to think about at a later date.”

“So it’s back to where we were a year ago,” says Gwen with a small smile.

Merlin can tell she knows that something is not quite right with him, from the way her eyes linger on his face.

“And back to the starting board for Arthur,” says Morgana, sympathetically but not without a little anger.

Merlin suspects it will be a long time before any of them cease to hear about the Lady Elise.

Like it was a year ago, Gwen says; the starting board, says Morgana.

Neither of them say, But this year has changed Arthur forever. Merlin is sure that they must be thinking it—all three of them are silent with the memory of it.

“Well, thank you for explaining,” Merlin says to them, honestly. “I think I’ll probably try to avoid being away from the castle for so long, in future—clearly my idea that things wouldn’t happen if I wasn’t here wasn’t as sound as I’d thought.”

He forces a laugh; Gwen and Morgana look at him a little oddly.

“And I’m sorry about the Lady Elise, Morgana—I am,” he says, before his babbling lets something slip that he would not like to reveal.

He goes.

There is nothing Merlin wants more than to interrupt Arthur’s practice in the field, to march him back to his rooms, to make one last use of this mad year’s leeway by ordering him away in plain sight of everyone else.

Except they all know this year is over. All of them except you, Merlin remembers.

He knows Gaius and his apprentice will be at the edges of the city, gathering moss and mushrooms. They’ve been stockpiling what they can before the dry, hot days suck all the moisture from the air and from the stones.

Merlin turns out of the courtyard and follows the city walls until he comes across them, bent double and surrounded by baskets.

“Gaius,” he says quietly but forcefully, and Gaius hurries towards him immediately.

Isen keeps a respectful distance. Merlin will admit he’s always liked him more than he otherwise might have because though he’s been Gaius’ apprentice in medicine for long months now, he has always respected Merlin’s place as Gaius’ family.

“What is it?” asks Gaius, quietly, and Merlin can read the terrible fear—Has someone seen? Does someone know?—in his eyes.

“It’s not that,” he says quickly, and Gaius relaxes.

Gaius clenches his hand into a fist to stop it trembling, and Merlin reaches his own hand out to still it, wrapping his fingers around Gaius’.

“I’m sorry; I shouldn’t have arrived like that,” he says sincerely.

Gaius nods, visibly trying to clear his head. Soon, Merlin thinks, he can tell Gaius that even if Uther should never understand, this battle is not one that they will have to fight with Arthur.

“Arthur didn’t tell me about the wedding being cancelled,” Merlin says, trying to keep his tone light, unconcernedly confused, but Gaius’ eyes sharpen.

“Are things well between the two of you?” he asks.

“Yes,” says Merlin. “Yes—I don’t think it’s that.”

Gaius tilts his head, considering.

“You know Arthur,” he says, finally. “He finds change difficult. And ever since he was a child, he’s resented the thought that things happen simply because he’s the prince. He came to accept that that’s the way it was, with time, and I think at one point he even expected the privileges that came with it. But something like this, played out so publicly—a betrothal he didn’t expect, the consequences of it, which he may not have foreseen, and now this abandonment of plans long-conceived at the last minute, when he’s been preparing for it for so long—I’m sure he’s very uncomfortable. Perhaps he simply wanted to extend the illusion of normalcy for a little longer?”

Merlin thinks of his long days spent in the gardens, trying to pretend he didn’t hear workmen hauling furniture into what would have been the Lady Elise’s rooms.

“I suppose I can understand that,” he says finally.

Gaius shrugs, as if to say, I can’t be certain that’s right, mind you.

“I’ll talk to him,” says Merlin, and Gaius says, plainly amused,

“Yes. That’s probably for the best.”

Arthur still hasn’t returned to his rooms when Merlin finally gets back, but Merlin is strangely grateful for the silence. He even finds himself hoping that it will take Arthur a long time to return.

He changes the linens, polishes Arthur’s boots and scabbard and even the bedposts—he’s scrubbing furiously at wood that’s already gleaming, hoping that expending enough energy will somehow make things clear.

Arthur has known about this for days, and not only said nothing, but kept Merlin in his bed—kissed Merlin in his bed, and wrapped around him as they slept. He’s done this despite knowing that the bride that had allowed them to start this to begin with would not be arriving as agreed.

Merlin thinks back to the night when Arthur had come to him so desperate, when they had both acted as if they were starving for the other’s touch—the night that man had ridden in from Cormorant’s estate, the night that Arthur had found out. Merlin struggles to decide what to think. He wipes furiously at the bedpost for a few more seconds, then sits on the bed, hurling himself backward into the pillows.

Gawain had taken them fishing after that day, too. Arthur had known about Cormorant when he’d let Gawain see, and Gawain, Merlin thinks … Gawain must have known, too, because everyone had known, even the girls in the bakeries. Merlin, who had made such a conscious effort to know nothing about what was to come, was the only one who had managed to avoid the news, which would have been obvious if he’d only bothered to look around.


He’s uncertain, Gawain had said. He’s not going to be the one to say it. Bear that in mind if things are difficult at week’s end.

And things are difficult, Merlin supposes, because the line that had been clearly demarcated in the sand for them to use as a reference has been swept away with the news that the Lady Elise isn’t coming. And perhaps Arthur doesn’t know what to say to Merlin, now, how to explain that things have to be called off now that there’s no wedding to call them off for.

He’s uncertain about everything but this, Gawain had said, but that doesn’t make sense—surely there is nothing to be uncertain about. Surely there wasn’t anything to be uncertain about ten days ago, when Arthur had already known the wedding would not take place, and had known that Merlin knew how things would have to be.

Why should I say anything, when nothing good will come of it? Arthur had asked Gawain, and that doesn’t make sense either.

Arthur was right to think that Merlin could not feel happiness at knowing … what? At knowing the betrothal had been called off? That’s ridiculous. Has he never stopped to look at Merlin’s face when he touches him, when they walk past any reminder of the wedding? And even if that had been the case, it doesn’t seem logical that Arthur would say that, for other reasons: Arthur avoids conversations because he dislikes having to say things, but not because he’s afraid of saying them.

Arthur is many things, but he is not a coward.

I would be grateful if you would wait, Arthur had asked Merlin.

Merlin thinks, Well, I would have been grateful if you hadn’t kept this to yourself.

But that’s not true, either—he is grateful that Arthur said nothing, that he bought them a few more days with his silence.

How could Arthur possibly not know—he’s uncertain; he won’t risk hearing what he thinks you’ll say—how much Merlin wants every moment they spend together to stretch out endlessly?

It can’t be possible that Arthur is uncertain about what Merlin feels. After every hungry kiss, after every drawn-out, desperate moment in which Merlin has wanted for them to never be untangled, has practically said so directly. But what else could make Arthur act the way he has been?

I know that you would like to give me something, for this year. That you’ve wanted to help.

Merlin had wanted Arthur to know that Merlin wanted him to have anything he wanted. That nothing made Merlin happier than seeing him laugh freely and unencumbered. That Merlin fell a little more in love with him every time the lines of responsibility seemed to melt from his face. And he doesn’t understand how Arthur could have misinterpreted that—

I know there are certain things I cannot ask you. That I would not like to ask you.

Arthur, Merlin thinks, and he feels torn between tears and hysterical laughter. You complete, utter idiot.

When Arthur walks in, two heavy tomes tucked under his arm—Merlin is glad to see that this particular habit might be here to stay—he shoots an inquisitive look at the furniture’s gleaming surfaces, at his neatly folded clothes, at the food steaming on the table.

“Where’s Merlin?” he asks, seriously, and Merlin offers a dry,

“Your wit, sire; it slays me.”

Arthur huffs out a laugh.

Merlin waits until Arthur has finished eating—he ladles more and more food onto Arthur’s plate, and watches in amusement as Arthur keeps eating, an uncertain look in his eyes. Merlin waits until he is certain that Arthur could not make an escape even if he wanted to, and only when Arthur is sprawled on the bed, breeches unlaced and chest rising and falling with shallow breaths, does Merlin curl up against his side and say, casually,

“I suppose that, wedding or not, things will have to go back to normal.”

Arthur manages to tense every muscle in his body at once, though it’s obvious that he’s so full that he can barely move.

“You do know,” he whispers, and Merlin answers,

“I didn’t until today, actually. But I heard it from someone who knew earlier. My choices were limited, you’ll understand, what with every other bloody person in the castle knowing what was going on.”

Arthur has the good grace to blush. But Merlin does not miss the panic in his eyes, which Arthur, also to his credit, tries valiantly to conceal.

“I’ve spent days away from the castle in the hopes that when I came back, this betrothal would have been fortuitously dissolved for an unlikely but compelling reason, Arthur. Yet when it turned out that, against all odds, that is exactly what had happened, you thought—what? That you’d let me drive myself half-mad for a few more days, and wait to see how that turned out?”

“I—you’ve … Half-mad?” Arthur asks.

He’s blinking quickly, as if someone has just asked him an extremely complicated question. Then suddenly something—Merlin can’t think of another way to describe it—something blooms into life on his face, and he says, quietly,

“You— you want this. Not just for now.”

Of course I want this,” says Merlin, quickly—too quickly to give Arthur too much time to think. “Forever, if at all possible.”

Keeping him off-balance is vital if he’s to get the whole story, he thinks.

“I thought— You said that you were doing it for me. So that I could have something. And I’ve— I’ve understandably always thought it was a part of your— Of this indulgence-facilitation campaign, the praises of which you’ve sung at every bloody turn since March, Merlin.”

“Just because I wanted to make you happy, Arthur, doesn’t mean that I wasn’t hoping that it could be something for both of us. That it didn’t make me happy, that I didn’t cherish it for me. That I didn’t wish that it might mean something about both of us, to you. That it might mean something.”

“I thought that— that this was something you’d agreed to do only for this year, because of everything,” Arthur tells him. “That you wanted to make me happy. That you were happy too, but I thought perhaps— that when you found out about Cormorant’s lands you would … that that would be the end of it. And then I thought that if I showed you that I wanted Gawain to know, that I wanted something more than a year from you— but you didn’t say anything, after.”

Oh, Arthur, Merlin thinks. And then, How was I supposed to know that you don’t know how to whisper in bed, when I’ve seen you shout so clearly to hundreds of men over battlements?

“You’ve been so … reserved,” Arthur says, and even as he’s saying it Merlin can see he realises the foolishness of it.

Merlin makes a face, thinks that Arthur must be remembering every gasped entreaty, every fingertip-shaped bruise, every morning of Merlin tugging Arthur back into the sheets, unwilling to let him go, every soft look and every desperate handclasp.

“Merlin,” Arthur says finally, looking at him helplessly, repentantly.

Merlin understands him, of course: after all, he can’t precisely claim that he was much quicker on the draw. He missed all of his cues, too.

He’ll admit that he had thought Arthur loved him but couldn’t possibly—couldn’t ever—be in love with him, not if he was to sit on the throne that has been waiting for him since birth. The thought has made his heart heavy for months. But he hadn’t somehow managed to convince himself, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, that Arthur didn’t love him at all, that he was biding his time until he could stop doing him some sort of bizarre favour.

“Arthur,” he says, running his lips softly across Arthur’s stubbled jaw. “Do you have some form of grave mental affliction?”

Arthur laughs.

They will never call it making love, though that’s clearly, embarrassingly what it is.

Arthur will tumble Merlin into beds, pin him against walls, push him into furs with the stars shining bright and waxy in the sky.

Merlin will mouth at Arthur’s neck, will whisper advice into the shell of his ear, will stand at his right hand in battle and curl into his left shoulder in sleep.

As Gawain had predicted, Arthur will, indeed, choose just the right sort of wife, someone who loves his people as much as he does, who knows him for who he is. Merlin will love Guinevere intensely for her blazing smiles and for the diffident way in which she will always wear her crown, and she will love him back.

Every few years, Arthur will take great pleasure in revealing some previously undisclosed habit—a love of radishes or otters or crockery that he has not ever shared with Merlin before. Merlin will never quite know what it is he needs to be kept on his toes for, but he will take equal pleasure in saying, “This doesn’t mean I don’t know you, Pendragon,” and in hearing Arthur grumblingly agree.

For now, though, Merlin thinks of nothing other than kissing. He traces the soft skin under Arthur’s eyes, and he grips his jaw between firm hands.

I want this,” he says, and Arthur shivers under him, the hand on his back pressing the two of them together more firmly.

“I love you,” Arthur whispers into his ear, his voice pitched low as if he does not want to startle Merlin by speaking.

Three windows crack suddenly behind him, and Merlin fits their lips together, not bothering to disguise the fact that he’s doing his best to twine their bodies so that they can’t easily be told apart.

Arthur tenses a little at the sound, then lets a tiny whimper past his lips.

“Me too,” pants Merlin, “I think—I know I have, for months. I think I’ve always—”

He mouths at Arthur’s collarbones and Arthur snaps his hips forward. He thrusts as if he can’t wait another instant, but just as Merlin begins to feel the heat pooling in his spine, Arthur stops, slows down to slide smoothly against him in drawn-out, languorous movements.

Merlin feels as if Arthur is somehow halting the thundering speed with which this year has sped past them—starting on the day that Merlin had rushed to Arthur’s rooms to ask about his future wife, culminating in the terrifying, headlong rush towards the end of August, which Merlin had wanted so badly to stop in its tracks.

The late afternoon sun is filtering through the windows, throwing the light of the cracked glass in patterns all along the floor, and this moment—Arthur’s breath in his hair, the slide of Arthur’s skin under Merlin’s trembling hand—feels interminable. A cool breeze is sliding in through the spaces between the windows, and beneath the crack underneath the door: the last of the summer heat will fade soon.

But autumn stretches before them, and then the autumn after that. They have nothing but time.



This story has been the most heavily edited piece of writing I have ever put together--it grew from 19,000 words to 43,000 after I thought it was finished, and changed in fundamental ways when I thought it was finished again.

I suppose this is appropriate, as it is, in many ways, a story about expectations.

I can't thank [ profile] nicolasechs, [ profile] arlad, [ profile] lynnmonster, [ profile] mamoru22, [ profile] staraflur, and [ profile] suaine enough, and I have to say again that [ profile] lilith_lessfair is responsible for catching everything from awkward anachronisms to muddy motivations.

She, [ profile] ctkelly and [ profile] the_rusty_bird caught this before this was ready, but their comments pushed me to keep working to make sure it worked, amidst worries of theses and moving house.

I also have to say thank you for this amazing opportunity to my bidder, and thank you for your patience and support.

Thank you for reading.

(I feel that I should also say: the conclusion to Easy There will be up as soon as I hand in my dissertation.)

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syllic: (Default)

October 2017


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