syllic: ([merlin] whyever pass up a crest icon)
[personal profile] syllic

Now that he knew that his father was alive—disgraced, sent away, but alive—Arthur felt that it was impossible for him not to see him. He spoke briefly about it to Morgana, who said that Hunith and Merlin had always allowed those who wished to do so to visit Uther, and in fact encouraged small acts of kindness towards him.

He asked her why it was that Uther had been banished from Camelot, but that she would not speak about. He tried to tell her that if she did not inform him he might let something that was not proper slip, but she only said that Uther would not notice, and that as for his madness and his treason, the history of the two would become clear the moment Arthur and Uther spoke.

She was willing to explain that Merlin’s birth had triggered some sort of flourishing of power in Camelot, and that this had continued and intensified throughout their childhoods. After Merlin’s birth more individuals had begun being born with stronger magic to wield, and some men and women who had never shown signs of any magical skill suddenly showed signs of power. The woman Morgana had told him about, who had had the ability to manipulate time, had only been able to make the feeling that time had passed burst into being in people’s minds, before Merlin’s birth.

Gaius and Morgana had concluded much of what they believed about Merlin’s focusing power from the events that had taken place after his birth. Morgana hinted that her own magic had come with Merlin, too, and that it had seemed to flare more brightly and become more powerful because of her close contact with him, but this seemed to be tied in her mind to Uther’s banishment, as Hunith had suggested, so she did not really elaborate.

The entire story made Arthur reconsider the events that had taken place in his own Camelot over the past two years, and question whether Merlin’s arrival might have had anything to do with the sudden intensity with which they had had to ward off attacks in the city. It was difficult to tell, because Uther had been tightening his own grip on the kingdom well before Merlin had come to court, and no-one would argue that that had not had an effect on the feelings and actions of his subjects.

Arthur had to spend two days gathering his courage to ask Merlin for permission to go to Uther. When they were both lying in Merlin’s chambers after the midwinter feast, pleasantly full of food and drink, Arthur finally deemed it a good time to ask, as respectfully as he could.

(In the aftermath of the council, Arthur realised that he had not truly felt the difference in stature that had always stood between him and Merlin in this place until his confidence in his own worth had been shaken. Somehow, prince and manservant had meant nothing to him, but son of a good woman and born of a traitor had made all the difference to that. The knowledge of it had changed all the interaction he had had with Merlin since, in a way that he disliked.)

“Merlin,” he said, and Merlin turned to look at him from where he was sprawled on the bed. “I would like to see my father.”

He supposed, in retrospect, that he hadn’t so much asked as said, but he had infused his voice with as much deference as he was able to.

“Of course,” Merlin said quickly, and then, immediately, “When would you like us to go?”

“You want to come?” asked Arthur, completely taken aback, and Merlin did his best to hide the hurt that washed across his features at the question. He was not at all successful.

“Not if you don’t want me to, of course,” he said coolly. His eyes betrayed him. “But you have never gone alone before. Is everything all right?”

“Yes, yes, of course,” said Arthur, and he tried to think about some way to wave Merlin off without wounding him further.

The truth was that he would not have minded the company, but despite Morgana’s reassurances, he was afraid that if someone else were there to see, he might make a botch of it and give himself away.

“Arthur,” said Merlin quietly, as Arthur was trying to come up with a plausible reason why he wished to go alone.

“I have noticed— That is to say, this past week you have … not been entirely yourself. I know that the midwinter feast is always difficult for you, that it brings back unpleasant memories. But I can’t help but wonder … does this have something to do with what happened in the woods, when you hit your head?”

Arthur laughed harshly—he couldn’t help it—and Merlin turned his face away.

“No,” said Arthur, sensing he had somehow just hurt Merlin’s feelings even more than he already had. “No— It’s only that I remembered something funny.”

It was rather weak, but Merlin rallied gamely and smiled. Arthur thought of all the kindnesses that Merlin had done him so far, and then about the kindnesses he and Hunith must have done the other Arthur in the past. To keep a banished man within riding distance, and guarded not to avert danger but for his own protection—Morgana had told him this was the case—out of love for two people was perhaps kinder than any queen or prince should be.

“Merlin,” he said, still afraid that something might go awry during the journey, but unwilling to deny Merlin anything—he and Hunith had hardly denied Arthur anything. “I would be very pleased if you would come with me.”

They rode out the next day at dawn. It was almost as if Merlin could sense the strange urgency Arthur was feeling: he felt, somehow, that this was the crux of it, what Morgause had intended for him to learn here. Her hatred of Uther, whether one believed her story or not, was absolute. (And Arthur had felt the doubt that her story was false, which he had worked so hard to shut out after confronting his father, creeping out from the crevices into which it had never fully disappeared every day since he had been here.) What else could she hope to gain by this immensely complicated and dangerous act, if not to force Arthur to see his father laid low?

Arthur wanted it over with.

Merlin was silent on the ride there, which took over half a day. Every so often he glanced over at Arthur as if to ascertain that he was still there, and that he was well, but he never voiced any of the questions he clearly had out loud. At one point he pointed out a hawk flying overhead, tail and wings fanned and flapping powerfully, and Arthur looked up without comment, though he did his best to smile to show his appreciation.

The sun had moved on far beyond the highest point in the sky when they reached a small cottage in the forest, nestled next to a lake.

Merlin called out a loud “Hello,” perhaps sensing Arthur could not do it himself, and Arthur sat up straighter on his horse and braced himself.

When the door opened slowly, almost as if the person inside were mocking Arthur’s fear, however, it was not his father’s face that looked out. Blue eyes in a girlish face blinked owlishly in the weak winter light, and it took Arthur a moment to place the face.

“Sophia?” he asked, incredulously, and she acknowledged him with a duck of her head and an unhappy smirk.

“Sophia,” said Merlin, somewhat nastily. Arthur looked over at him in surprise.

“I assume the two of you are here to see the fool, the loon,” she said, sing-songing in her childish voice, and Merlin’s voice cracked through the air like a whip in response.

Do not call him that,” he said, and his voice sounded terrible, commanding and dark.

Sophia shrank back against the door, hunching into herself, and Arthur was about to say something in her defence when Merlin continued, his voice severe.

“You asked for our permission to dwell here to await your father’s return, Sophia, though we have told you before that we do not believe he is coming back. You asked us to spare your life despite your crimes, despite your attempts on a courtier’s life, whatever your reasons might have been for such an offence—”

Merlin’s eyes flicked towards Arthur. It was only for an instant, but Arthur had a sinking feeling he knew who the courtier might have been.

“We granted that wish under the condition that you provided for Uther if he could not provide for himself, and if I find that you have neglected your duties, Sophia, you can rest assured our mercy will not be long-lived.”

“Sire,” she said, and now her voice was meek and pleading, more like Arthur remembered it. “As you know, I believed at the time that Arthur had committed treason against the court, too, as his father had, and I believed the price that I had to pay in order to return to my people was to take a traitor’s life, for justice’s sake. I was clearly mistaken, of course, and I am happy to pay the price for my mistake. I am grateful for your compassion.”

She curtsied, bowing her head below her doorway.

Merlin’s eyes said that he did not believe any of it: he did not believe she had thought Arthur guilty of anything, and he certainly did not believe she was happy to serve any sentence, or that she felt any gratitude. It was clear, however, that he and Hunith had, for whatever reason, accepted this story when it had first been told, and so he could hardly take back his belief now.

“Very well,” he said, and his voice still sounded like ice and fire. “We will ride on, then. You do not require anything?”

“Nothing, sire,” she said, and as she bowed again Arthur could have sworn he saw an unnatural blueish glow about her face.

It reminded him of the light he had seen in the clearing when this had all begun, though he somehow knew the two were not the same.

They rode on for a very short time, taking a path through the woods, and Arthur was momentarily distracted from the thought of his father by the thought of what his own Sophia might have done in his Camelot, that the two of them had disappeared together and Merlin had followed, but only Arthur had returned.

How naïve he had been, to think no sacrifice had been made for his return.

“We are here, Arthur,” Merlin said quietly, and Arthur pulled his horse short and looked assessingly at the squat building in front of him.

It was little more than a shack, covered in strange symbols and thatched unevenly.

“The roof needs repairing,” said Merlin, as they gazed upon it. “I will send someone to do it as soon as we return.”

“How do you make sure that they stay here?” asked Arthur, suddenly, for even Merlin’s and Hunith’s benevolence could not stretch to letting two criminals roam at will, surely.

“The same wards that I put in place when we first brought your father here were extended to include Sophia two years ago,” he said, still quiet and cautious. “And only recently Gareth added protection at the lakeside, and Ragnelle protection in the woods.”

Arthur nodded. He made no move to approach the cabin, and Merlin did not rush him.

They sat in silence for a while longer. A length, Merlin asked,

“Would you like me to call for him?”

Yes, please, Arthur thought. Out loud, he said,

“No. I will do it.”

He drew in a slow breath through his nose, and let it out slowly. Then he gathered his voice and called, “Father! Father, are you there?” as loudly as he dared.

There was a beat of silence, and then,

“Father? Father?” came a low, gravelly voice from inside the hut.

Arthur felt an urge to turn his horse and flee, but Merlin’s hand, which landed suddenly but not entirely unexpectedly on his thigh, gave him the courage to stay where he was.

“Who calls for a father?” came the voice, still from inside the shack.

Nothing could have frightened Arthur more than the terrible expectation of who might emerge from the door, in time.

I certainly do not have any sons. I do not have any daughters. I am an unfortunate man indeed, to have lost my wife and my children. For any children of mine would have surely never left me to live in darkness.”

With this rather cheerful pronouncement the door swung open, revealing Uther’s shockingly familiar face.

He would have thought his father the traitor would look different. He looked exactly the same, though, except for the shabbiness of his clothes, which were nonetheless of good quality. Arthur suspected Merlin and Hunith’s handiwork.

“Hello, father,” he said again, not sure what else he could say.

“Hello, Arthur,” said Uther, but his gaze was fixed on Merlin. “Brought your sorcerer, I see. Or perhaps he brought you, as he is the one that has had you bewitched all these long years.”

“I have bewitched no-one, Uther,” said Merlin, and then, as an afterthought, “Hello to you too.”

Arthur,” said Uther, and unexpectedly his voice grew desperate and plaintive, like a man pleading for his life.

“Arthur, my son, will you not see the truth? Can you not see that sorcery is evil, and that Hunith’s court is beset with this darkness all the way to its core? It is his fault,” he said, pointing at Merlin with an outstretched arm, “His fault that Hunith was ensnared and turned all of Camelot to dimness in her confusion. He and others like him— they corrupted Morgana first, Arthur, but now they have also corrupted you. Don’t you see? You are bewitched, which is why you cannot see that all magic-holders want is to breed dissent and war and fear, and that they have caught all of Camelot in the midst of this chaos.

This cannot be allowed to continue, Arthur, and it is within your power to end it—he trusts you enough to sleep in your sight, does he not? He cannot always keep his treacherous eyes open. Camelot will fall if he is left unchecked, do you not see?”

Morgana had said she would see their father’s madness plainly as soon as the two of them were together, but all Arthur heard were things that had been familiar to him all his life. If strange glyphs had not been painted on Uther’s house, and if he had not drawn coarse symbols with soot on the backs of his hands, Arthur was not sure he would have realised anything was amiss.

Merlin caught where Arthur’s eyes were looking, and he whispered out of the side of his mouth,

“He is not alone, your father. Not far from here lives a man who believes it is his calling to hunt sorcerers, and he is the one who has taught your father how to ‘ward’ against magic. He took the money we used to send your father for many months before we realised what he was doing, but by then he had already painted the symbols on the house, and taught Uther to paint them on his own hands.”

“I see,” said Arthur, and, as if the act of saying the words had unlocked some truth inside him, suddenly he did see.

There was nothing to discover here, other than what he had already seen: this, this hatred of magic that Arthur knew so well, this was the madness that Uther had been banished for.

His father did not look so very different, or sound like someone else. He made sense when he spoke, and believed what Arthur had always known him to believe. The only difference was that in this Camelot, Uther had had no power. Arthur’s mother’s death had engendered this hatred of magic in him, but he had not had a throne from which to sentence men and women to death and make his beliefs law. Magic had flourished around him in spite of his wishes, and the people of Camelot had seen the great good it could do, if it was harnessed. Uther had not been there to sow fear and hatred in their hearts, at first, and when he had spoken of his fears ‘for Camelot’, they had seen them for what they truly were: fear and hatred of his own, rather than fact.

In this Camelot, Uther also hated magic. But he had no power, and so they called his ravings madness rather than the king’s decree.

They rode away after they had been there long enough for Merlin to leave some bread and meats at the gate, beyond which Uther would not allow him to pass. Uther spoke the entire time that they were there, repeating variations of what he had already said, and in this repetition, Arthur did hear madness. Perhaps Uther had not been mad, not at first, but his time alone in this cabin with only his fears for company had driven him away from sanity by now.

“Are you ready?” Merlin asked quietly, when Uther had turned away to re-trace a glyph on the walls of his house with a piece of coal.

“Yes,” said Arthur, but he could not seem to make his legs work to encourage his roan to motion.

Merlin did not say anything, but he reached out a hand towards Arthur’s horse’s rump and smacked it once, and then he inclined his head in the direction of the path, and the roan went. Merlin rode next to him, close enough to touch, and when they had passed Sophia’s cottage and Arthur felt he could speak again, he asked,

“Why did you send him here? I mean … I understand why you needed to keep him in check, but why not the dungeons? Why not—”

The noose, the pyre, he wanted to say, but suddenly he was not sure Hunith or Merlin were capable of building the sort of kingdom in which men were sentenced to the ultimate punishment.

Perhaps the Arthur of this place had never asked Merlin this question before, for after looking at him shrewdly, as if wondering whether Arthur really wanted to hear what Merlin had to say, Merlin began to speak, and did not stop for a long time.

“He was not always as he is now,” Merlin said, cautiously, which Arthur had already figured out. “At first he seemed sensible and knowledgeable, and mother and others were hesitant to ignore his concerns, even. When Morgana’s magic manifested, however, it was as if someone had lit a fire inside him. He stopped sharing his anxieties in council and took them to nobles away from the court, and to the markets. He incited others to hatred and he won the heart of many before my mother gathered strength in her own heart, and sent him away.”

His father had incited peaceful people to violence against their neighbours. Arthur wished he could say that that was different in his Camelot, but it was not.

“I think it was,” Merlin said, and then stopped. He seemed to think carefully about what to say, and then started again.

“Your father has always loved you, more than words can express. But his grief consumed him, so that he almost forgot that love. It did not help that at that time Nimueh was still with us,” he said, and Arthur’s ears perked up at the familiar name.

“I now believe that Nimueh did not fully understand magic, either—not any more than your father does. But at first it was difficult to tell that she was different from the others who were manifesting after I was born, whose strength was increasing. Gaius said to me once, when I was very young, ‘Use your magic, Merlin; do not let it use you.’ It is simple and a bit trite in wording, perhaps, but it is still the best advice he has ever given me.

I believe Nimueh did not understand this. She was sometimes thoughtless with her power and with the responsibility of guarding the wishes of others. She would not listen to reason, or to anyone who spoke of moderation. Your father’s hatred burned hotter and hotter in the face of her defiance, of her reckless and hazardous use of magic.

Your father was not right about me being dangerous, and he was not right about Morgana or any of those who live with us at court now. But he was perhaps right about Nimueh, about her thirst for knowledge and power, and it took us a long time to realise that she needed to be checked as much as he did. Together they wrought great havoc in the city—unlikely allies in chaos, though they hated each other fiercely—and when your father asked you to ride out against one of the beasts Nimueh had bred in the forest—”

Merlin looked conflicted, as if he were making some terrible choice now, rather than recounting something that had happened in the past.

“You must understand, Arthur. We were only young. My mother could not risk losing you, and so she sent the Lady Arianna and Sir Bedivere to ride against Nimueh, and asked Uther to ride with us to this place, where we put up wards instead of listening to what he had to say, as she had said she would.”

Merlin looked away into the distance, and Arthur looked away, too, because Merlin’s eyes were glistening and he did not wish to embarrass him.

“We did wrong by your father, Arthur,” he said, as if admitting to some great crime, rather than relaying the story of what any good ruler would have done. But all Arthur saw was two leaders left without a choice, one too young to fully know what to make of all that was happening and one grieved by the loss of a friend.

“Then again,” said Merlin, and his voice had that strange fire in it again. “He did wrong by you. And for that reason alone, I do not regret what we did.”

Arthur stopped his horse, looking at Merlin’s back for two or three paces, until Merlin stopped his horse, too, and turned it around to face Arthur.

Arthur thought of the times he had ridden out to face some danger—always with an odd joy in his heavy heart, because it was his duty to defend his people and he relished their trust in him. But his father … his father had stayed behind more than once, unwilling to risk Arthur but more unwilling to give up the stubbornness that his endless store of fear lent him. And though before this moment Arthur had never wanted anyone to speak on his behalf at those times, now that he saw Merlin doing it, becoming angry at Uther’s choices, he found that he had been lacking it, and that he had wished it, though he had not allowed himself to think on it.

“Merlin,” he said, thinking suddenly of what Merlin had said in the library, after the council. You have made a life with me out of duty, he had accused, and suddenly Arthur felt it was vitally important that he know otherwise.

“The loss of my father, and everything that happened then—it still weighs heavily on my heart. But you said the other day that you believe I have made my choices since based on that weight, and— I do not serve you because I feel guilty, Merlin. I serve you because you are a good man, and it is an honour and a pleasure to stand by your side.”

He was thinking of some way that he might embellish this, and make it convey more fully what he meant—the safety and joy of this sense of companionship between the two of them, which they had in his Camelot, despite the many distances that had lain between them at first, and which they clearly had here, too.

He stopped his efforts at the sight of the look on Merlin’s face, though.

It was the look that Merlin had shut away from him once or twice before since his arrival, but Merlin did nothing to disguise it now. It shone brightly from his features: it was in the heat of his eyes, and in the tiny pink space between his lips, where he was drawing breath. It was in the flush in his cheeks and the set of his jaw.

It was devotion, the sort of devotion Morgana had spoken of the Arthur of this Camelot having for Merlin, and Merlin for him, and it was—

It was longing.

It was longing to see Arthur happy, and longing to make him happy. It was longing for Arthur himself—not the superficial longing of knights for scullery maids, but the sort of longing that Arthur had seen in his father’s eyes when he looked at his mother’s throne, and the sort of longing he had heard in Gwen’s terrible cry when her father had been taken.

It was desperate in a way that was ghastly to look upon, but it was also hopeful and ferocious, and it seemed to spark an answering heat in Arthur.

Arthur found himself thinking, suddenly, that he wanted this. He wanted someone to want him like this. He wanted someone to put his happiness first, or together with his own, and to love him this fiercely.

Merlin wanted him, and when Arthur saw it in his eyes, he remembered what it was to want anything at all.

It had been so long—so long since he had expressed need to others, so long since he had even admitted needing something to himself—that he had forgotten how wonderful it was to wish for something, and to know that it was yours.

Arthur spent the next two days riding in the woods around Camelot, jumping his horse over frozen streams and trying not to think of anything. The days after the castle’s midwinter feast were always lazy, as people consumed the last of the food and drink, and so Merlin waved him away happily when he asked for permission to go riding, though he seemed a bit uncertain as he watched Arthur depart.

Arthur tried to think of nothing as he rode, which of course meant that he could hardly do anything but think. He thought of his father, yes, but oddly he spent much more time thinking about the people in this Camelot than he spent thinking about his own loved ones.

He thought of the prosperity that Hunith and Merlin had built and nurtured, the sort of prosperity that allowed them to seek out responsibilities as they had with Ealdor, and allowed them to bargain with other rulers by enticing them, rather than by attempting to cow them. He also thought of Hunith’s polished wooden table, of the haphazard way in which she encouraged her subjects to sit around it, and of the fact that she encouraged anyone who wished to sit to do so, if they had something to say.

The two things were twinned together, he knew.

He thought of Morgana, from whom a great weight seemed to have lifted when he had visited her after returning from seeing Uther, and had said simply,

“I do not blame you for father leaving. I could not, because you had no hand in it. I do not believe your Arthur has ever blamed you, either, and you should stop blaming yourself.”

She had turned away, and at first he thought he had only managed to make her sadder, but a few hours later he had walked past Guinevere’s rooms and seen the two of them laughing inside, laughing and laughing as if they could hardly help it, and he had smiled as he passed.

Mostly he thought about Merlin, though he tried not to admit to himself that that was what he was doing. Unlike with the others, however, he spent most of the time thinking about his own Merlin, at home. He felt as if the Merlin here were some important piece of a puzzle, which had allowed him to see the Merlin he already knew for who he truly was.

If this Merlin was powerful, then Arthur believed his own Merlin was powerful beyond anything he could have imagined two weeks ago, too. Perhaps he would never have the control of the Merlin here: he surely had not been trained from childhood, and he had surely been taught to hide and fear his magic, rather than to take pride in it, to share it.

But he had to be nothing like the man Arthur had imagined he knew, before arriving here. Every time some suspicious blow had knocked Arthur unconscious at some critical moment, someone had made sure that he had not just closed his eyes for the last time. It was Lancelot, he had told himself, or luck, or his own unbelievable prowess, which—he supposed, now that he thought about it—he believed served him while he was lying on the ground as well as it did when he was standing on it.

It was mortifying to discover that Morgana had been right all along: that sort of wishful thinking was best left to children and dullards, and Arthur had known it, but he had entertained it nonetheless.

The Merlin who lived in this Camelot made no secret of his devotion: to his mother, to Morgana and to Guinevere and to Gaius, and most of all to Arthur. Arthur could well believe that people here might be more aware of the fates that Morgana had spoken to him about, and they seemed to assume that his and Merlin’s lay tied together. They did not seem to think anything was very odd about that.

In his own Camelot, Arthur had not had the privilege of growing up in a court like Hunith’s. For he saw now that it was a privilege, being able to value people based on the strength of their convictions and their hearts rather than on the depth of their purses or the vastness of their armouries. But while he acknowledged that he had not necessarily been taught any better, he could perhaps not excuse the way in which he had worked, almost tirelessly, to replicate the wrong things his father had taught him, even when he had suspected that they might not be entirely good.

He had embarrassed Merlin because he could, more than once. And though he hoped that he had told him, also more than once, that his company was valued and his courage and loyalty were admired and appreciated, he had only done so when faced with some extenuating circumstance—say, death.

He could not help but be a product of the home in which he had been raised, but now that he saw the way in which Merlin looked at him here he wondered whether Merlin ever looked at him like that at home, and whether he had missed it for his obstinacy. Because he thought he knew now what all sorts of what he had thought were unnamable feelings had been: his desire for Merlin to be around to aggravate him, even if that’s all he did, for one. His desperation to make sure that Merlin did not rush into danger, thinking he could face it (he had been able to do it all along, of course, but Arthur only knew that now), all spindly limbs and frail ribcage. His ability to confide in Merlin what he had never told others, not in the almost twenty years of life he had had before Merlin arrived.

He had not thought it possible that he might feel anything for Merlin beyond a sense of companionship and mild irritation, but he had not thought all manner of things were possible, until he had come here. But now that he had seen the heady look in Merlin’s eyes, he could tell that he had craved Merlin’s devotion, perhaps without realising it fully, because he himself was devoted to Merlin. He had done his best to pretend otherwise, but some part of him—the part of him that had ridden to Ealdor, that had swallowed the liquid in the goblet before Merlin could look, that had pushed Merlin to stand behind him every time danger showed its face—had always known that to resist what he felt was hopeless.

Arthur rode and rode and rode, and when his horse grew tired he tied it to a tree wherever he could find something that was still green for it to eat, and then he would walk in large circles around the area until he judged enough time had passed. At that point he would get back on the horse, and ride again.

He was not sure when the jumble of thoughts in his head put themselves into some sort of order, but from one instant to another he ceased to feel the urge to flee, and he turned his horse and cantered it back towards Camelot. He rode it first to the clearing where everything had begun, where Morgause had landed him without warning, and he was startled, but not entirely surprised, to see Merlin waiting for him there. He dismounted from his horse and walked over to him, and Merlin handed him a flask of wine, which he took gratefully.

Merlin was wearing the same fur-lined hooded cloak that he had worn the day when Arthur had first seen him here, and the same fine boots. He stood completely still as Arthur walked around the clearing, stretching his legs and noting each of the different things he had first seen two weeks ago—the bushes, and the gnarled tree in one corner, and the grey sky above.

“Merlin,” he said finally, when he had had enough of looking and felt ready to say something.

“Mmh?” asked Merlin lazily, and as Arthur walked up to him, his eyes looked impossibly blue, even in the hazy light of the December sky.

“What was I doing?” Arthur asked, finally putting the pieces together so that he knew that this was the right question. “Before I fell and hit my head?”

“You weren’t doing anything, Arthur. You tripped,” Merlin answered, but there was a slight coyness in his voice that Arthur had known to listen for, or perhaps had hoped to hear, when he asked.

“Merlin,” he repeated. “Tell me. I want to know.”

“Well, Arthur, if that’s what you really want,” said Merlin, and his lips curved up into a smile. “Then I am happy to tell you we were doing this.”

And when he leaned forward and kissed Arthur, Arthur was not at all surprised.

It was strange, taking off his clothes in the middle of a frost-covered clearing and not feeling even a hint of the cold. Merlin had done something to the ground, or to the air, or perhaps to both, because Arthur felt as if he were undressing in the middle of his rooms with a fire blazing, instead of outside on a winter morning when he should by all rights be freezing.

He felt shy, but utterly unashamed: he was certain no-one would happen upon them (because they weren’t cold, and Merlin could do that sort of thing), and some hot flame inside his belly felt as if it would sputter out and die if Arthur did not do this right now.

Merlin ran his hands down Arthur’s arms, and then up the soft skin on the inside of his thighs, and there was a moment when Arthur felt as if Merlin must have arms everywhere, like some sort of sea creature.

(The last was a fairly unappealing thought, so he turned his mind away from it determinedly.)

Arthur had imagined that if it came to this—and he had certainly thought it might, in these long days of riding—all the thinking he had done over the past two days would somehow stand him in good stead, so that he could lie with Merlin without any of the shadows of his past clouding the view.

In the end, of course, that was not true at all, and when Merlin rolled them over to lie on top of Arthur, Arthur pressed one foot against the ground and rolled them back so that he could lie above Merlin, rather than the other way around. He pinned Merlin’s body between his arms and made himself into as solid a presence as he could, the way he had been taught to do as a young knight, before he realised what he was doing. When he tried to pull back, though, to yield as he had hoped to be able to do, he found that he could not.

But it was as if Merlin knew exactly what was going through Arthur’s head. Arthur had thought this same thing every time Merlin had showed no surprise at the poor grace with which Arthur served him. Merlin seemed to understand that an inability to compromise on certain things was somehow at the heart of who Arthur was, and he did not seem to want to try to change it, or to want it changed at all. It made Arthur think that the Arthur of this Camelot was probably not comfortable with giving way, either, and that Merlin understood that. But that knowledge did not help him: it only made doing this, lying here with Merlin’s body soft and warm underneath his, seem almost impossible despite the desire with which he wanted it.

And then Merlin, who seemingly knew his Arthur better than that Arthur perhaps knew himself, and who seemed to have an uncanny understanding of Arthur now, too, let himself relax under Arthur’s hands, let his body become yielding and pliant. He allowed Arthur to bite at him and to press his fingertips against his wrists, against his hips, and if Arthur was a little forceful, eager and terrified, Merlin did not say.

Arthur wondered if Merlin would bruise, but when Merlin arched up and moaned softly, exposing the long line of his neck and the curve of one knee, Arthur found he could not bring himself to worry overmuch that Merlin would.

Merlin pressed his hands flat to the ground and lifted his hips insistently, asking for all sorts of things without words, some of which Arthur could not fully imagine. He was asking Arthur, and yet the warmth of the air around them and the sound of Merlin’s soft, keening gasps, which seemed to press onto Arthur’s skin, made Arthur feel as if it were him that was pinned between Merlin’s arms. He licked down one of Merlin’s sharp collarbones and up the other, and he held Merlin’s cock firmly in his hand and tried to do everything he knew he liked, not sure if that was the right place to begin.

Merlin moaned as if everything were wonderful, though, and he did not stop even when Arthur did, sitting back on his ankles to consider what he might do next. Eventually Arthur crooked one finger into him and then another, using his other hand to hold Merlin’s knee up and to the side, marvelling at the sight of the two of them melting into one another. Merlin had brought some sort of oil with him, and Arthur did not think he would ever smell rosemary again without thinking of this moment.

“Arthur, Arthur, Arthur, please,” said Merlin, finally, speaking for the first time, and Arthur was only too happy to do as he asked.

Arthur also knew he would never forget the sound that Merlin made when Arthur slid into him, a rumble that sounded as if it came from somewhere low in Merlin’s throat and seemed to say, I give you permission to call me yours the way I call you mine.

Arthur pushed into Merlin evenly but a little desperately. He lowered a hand and felt the sweat on their bellies and the slick place where they were joined, and he whispered,

“You are beautiful, Merlin,” into Merlin’s ear.

He leaned back to look at Merlin’s face, just in time to see his eyes flash gold before they shut in pleasure.

Arthur Pendragon did not know how to yield, but he would do his best to show Merlin how deeply he desired to learn how.

They walked back to the castle together. It took hours, and it was dark by the time they reached the courtyard, Arthur leading his roan by the reins with one hand. His other hand was clasped tightly with Merlin’s, and as the sun disappeared entirely behind the horizon and the night draped inkily across the sky, not a star in sight, it had sometimes seemed as if he only knew where he was going because Merlin was with him.

They slept tangled up in Merlin’s sheets—which were, like most things Arthur had seen in his short time serving Merlin here, better than Arthur’s own—and woke each other up with languid kisses. Merlin had business to attend to, so Arthur let him get up, but not before he had made him almost inexcusably late. Afterwards, he allowed himself to lie in bed and enjoy the certain knowledge that no-one needed him to be elsewhere.

When he finally got up, he made his way slowly to Morgana’s rooms, stopping to say hello to those people he recognised as he passed. Gwen was just going into her chambers as he walked past the door, and she caught sight of his face and asked, cheerfully,

“What are you smiling about?”

The answer was on the tip of Arthur’s tongue before he caught it, and with the thought of what Gwen might have thought if he had answered, of what others might think, Arthur felt the first flash of uncertainty skip across his mind.

He did not answer her straight away, but she only waited for him, smiling curiously.

“Why do you think I have chosen to stay with Merlin, all these years?” he asked finally, requesting reassurance in the only real way he knew how.

She, too, was silent for a long time, long enough that Arthur wondered whether she would answer at all. Finally, though, she cocked her head and said,

“I think Merlin sees you for who you truly are, and that you do the same for him. I think that makes you both better men. When he looks at you, he does not see your father’s son, or his manservant, but you—Arthur Pendragon.”

(Not your father’s son, and not the prince, but you.)

He could tell the moment he entered Gaius’ workroom that this time Morgana had figured it out, that she had some answer ready for him. It was in the tired but relieved lines around her eyes, and in the strands of hair fluttering messily about her face.

“So— what is it?” he asked loudly as she was bent over a book, and she stood up with a start and clearly prevented herself from gracing him with some rude gesture only through discipline.

“Come here,” she said, and he walked over to where she was still working on the same piece of paper, which now had one more rune written on it, in the centre of the page.

“I think I have finally made sense of the last element of the spell,” she said musingly, and Arthur fought the urge to hurry her along.

She knew how anxious he was, and he was sure she was anxious, too, but she would clearly get there in her own time.

“It’s this.”

She pointed one long graceful finger at her own writing.

Choice, Divergent Paths. It is hidden, almost out of sight, but it is what is binding Morality and Discovery and Transformation together. I could not see it at first because it was not meant to be seen. It’s the trick of the spell, if you will, meant to be invisible until the enchantment is broken.”

“So you’re saying,” Arthur said, smiling widely because it was so ridiculous, “That I simply have to choose to go home, and I will?”

It seemed too simple, like a child’s puzzle box whose only trick was that it was not a puzzle at all. Then again, deciphering the key to the spell had been anything but simple, and perhaps it was only that Morgause had not counted on Arthur having Morgana on his side.

“No, I—” Morgana seemed a bit flummoxed. Then she smiled, too, and said, “Well. In essence, yes. Merlin will have to be around, mind.”

“To focus the spell,” he said.

“Yes,” Morgana answered. “But I believe you need only to think it, to truly wish it, and you will be home.”

Arthur laughed—cackled, really, though he did not like to think of how the sound had exploded out of him—and she joined him. They stood there, bracing their hands on the countertop and gasping for breath, until he surprised himself by saying, slowly,

“You know, I have the oddest feeling—as if I’ve somehow known that all along.”

He hugged Morgana goodbye, and thanked her for her trust and loyalty, which he had not had a chance to earn before she had given them. He made sure to pass by Gwen’s chambers on the way back to Merlin’s, to smile at her one more time and to thank her for their conversation earlier.

The best description that Arthur could think of for what happened after he left Gaius’ workrooms was that Morgana’s revelation had somehow loosened the bonds between him and this world, which now seemed familiar even though it was not—not truly. As he walked through the corridors, it was almost as if he could see the gaps through which the spell must have squeezed him to get him here, as if the space between Morality and Discovery had become a visible thing.

He looked around Merlin’s chambers and saw his own things placed on the chests and tables, and when Merlin came in Arthur believed for a moment that his cloak, clasped at the neck, was a raggedy piece of cloth.

“Arthur,” he breathed softly as he came towards him, and Arthur let him—let him come forward and lick at Arthur’s neck and run his hands across his chest and clasp them behind him.

He let Merlin tumble him onto the bed, and let Merlin muss his hair every which way. When Merlin shimmied forward across Arthur’s body and nudged his cock past Arthur’s lips Arthur felt a sharp jolt in his chest, and though he tried to tell himself that it was mostly surprise, it was not.

He tipped his head back and let Merlin do as he wished, and for an instant he felt a twinge of sadness that when the spell reversed these things (their gasps and their warm breath and the words they were whispering in each other’s ears) would wind back on themselves, as if they had never been.

Then he thought of the Arthur of this Camelot, who had been on the cusp of discovering this for himself, and he allowed himself to enjoy the thought of re-exploring everything for the first time, though he himself would not be there to do it.

Merlin cradled Arthur’s jaw between both of his hands, and pushed forward into Arthur’s mouth with a gentleness that only seemed to make Arthur hungrier for Merlin’s touch, and more expectant for whatever else was coming. He could hardly feel the bed under him, but he could feel each of Merlin’s muscles shifting under his hands as Merlin moved above him.

When Merlin came into Arthur’s mouth, on his lips and on his cheek, Arthur thought Oh, and then, as he lay there panting, Oh.

Merlin had done something, maybe before he’d arrived in his rooms—had made himself ready so that Arthur only had to think Please and then he was inside Merlin. He moved his hips lazily and trailed his fingertips up Merlin’s ribs, and he did not say I love you.

He did love Merlin, in a way he had not imagined he could (despite having felt it for a long time), but this wasn’t the place in which he was first meant to speak those words.

Arthur threw his head back and moaned other things, though—amazing and always and some mumbled words that were little more than gibberish—moving his hands to fist against the sheets. He could not get enough of the certainty in Merlin’s eyes, which said, I will never leave you much more loudly than Merlin himself did—and it was not as if Merlin were being quiet about it.

Afterwards, they curved into each other like spoons, and the last thing Arthur saw as he closed his eyes was Merlin turning to smile at him, his hair dark as it fanned against the pillow. His lips moved—Arthur could have sworn he said, Goodbye, Prince Arthur. Be well, but that could hardly be possible—and then something shifted, and he was seeing Merlin’s face outlined by the grey light of a pale sun, and the leaves were rustling in the trees.

Arthur opened his eyes a minute later to the sight of seven magpies streaking across the top of the clearing, their shapes dark against the white clouds and the muted grey of the sky. He tried to remember what it was that seven magpies meant—he’d had a nurse who had sung the rhyme to him as a child—but couldn’t.

“Arthur?” he heard, and he turned his aching head to find Merlin looking down at him from directly above his face, crouched over him so fully that he was almost curved in on his own knees as he knelt on the ground.

“Merlin,” he said, and he grinned as he caught sight of the small dip in Merlin’s left cheek, which deepened when he smiled. He was hardly smiling now, but Arthur could see it as clearly as if Merlin were grinning back at him.

The other Merlin had smiled more, but that small dip had never been visible.

Arthur’s body felt as if it had been lying there for weeks, which he supposed it had been. He dragged his head around to look across the clearing and saw his knights blinking sleepily, looking around as if waking from some long dream. He looked more carefully, half-expecting to see the pink arc of Morgause’s smile peeking out from between the trees.

He was pleased when he did not find it amongst the branches: he did not think he would have known what to do with her, just now.

He perhaps would not ever know what to do with her, or what to make of what she had done.

“Arthur,” Merlin repeated above him, urgently.

He looked intently into Arthur’s left eye, then into the right, then at Arthur’s hands. His fingers pushed Arthur’s hair back from his forehead, then patted at his chest and cheeks.

“Are you all right?”

“Merlin,” Arthur began. When his voice came out in a croak he cleared his throat and whispered, once more, “Merlin.”

Merlin, whose eyes seemed wild with the fear that Arthur might be about to expire right then and there, leaned over him completely, his ear almost to Arthur’s lips. Arthur felt a brief urge to shout as loudly as he could, but he repressed it only because he had something terribly important to say, and he could not waste this chance, while his knights were still getting their bearings and could not hear.

“Arthur, what is it?” asked Merlin, his voice creeping distressingly towards panic, and Arthur murmured,

“Merlin. What were you thinking, jumping in front of an unknown spell like that? It could have been anything. Have you no sense at all?”

Merlin was close enough that Arthur could actually see the muscles in his neck tense. He could feel the muscles in the rest of Merlin’s body clench, too, where his knees and thighs were pressed against Arthur’s chest, and where his arm brushed Arthur’s shoulder.

“What?” Merlin asked in a dry whisper, pulling back and looking at Arthur’s face.

Arthur did not know what he would do if Merlin tried to pull off one of his awful, transparent denials, but Merlin stopped before he said anything else, and looked intently at Arthur’s face. Arthur was not sure what he saw in it, but suddenly Merlin grinned—dip in his left cheek and all—and said,

“I may have no sense, Arthur, but you can trust me when I say that on that point, I have always felt in good company.”

Arthur tried to think of some rejoinder. He felt relaxed and oddly content, though, as if he could sleep for a week and could not be bothered with bickering, and so he only smiled in return. Merlin seemed somehow more terrified by this than he might have been by any other reply, and he pulled back warily, as if expecting some trick. He clearly was not afraid, however—despite Arthur’s best tantrums, he wondered if Merlin had ever felt afraid when Arthur ranted. Probably not.

And if Merlin’s eyes were anything to go by, he was not only unafraid, but also as happy as Arthur had seen him in a long time.

“Sire,” called Gawain, and Arthur turned his neck again to find him propping himself up against a tree as if he might fall over if he did not. “Are you and Merlin hurt?”

“No, Gawain,” he answered, using his stiff arms to raise himself so that he was sitting upright. Every bone in his body creaked as he did so.

Gawain nodded smartly and did not ask any more questions, as if it were taking all of his concentration to stay standing. Arthur almost laughed at how easily they all accepted things like unexplained explosions of eerie blue light: they, who lived in this world where supposedly there was no magic to be had.

He was considering how he might manage to get up when a hand appeared in front of his face, and he looked up to see Merlin, shifting on his feet as if nothing had happened, as if he were ready for the next thing.

Of course.

“Arthur,” he said as Arthur tried to get his body to cooperate. When Arthur looked up at him, he said fondly, “Let’s get back, all right?”

The nine of them wound their way back to Camelot slowly, a raggedy band of men with aching joints and one sprightly companion. They did not meet anyone as they made their way back to the castle, and for that Arthur was desperately glad. He knew how cowardly it was, but the truth was that he could not begin to think how he would greet Gwen, or how he would start to apologise to Morgana.

He certainly had no earthly idea what he would do when he saw his father. He wondered what Uther would look like to him now: he had the feeling it might be a bit like gazing upon a straw man in a faraway field, whose shape would suggest one thing until you forced your eyes to look more closely in order to see another.

The gleam of a polished chest as he entered his rooms reminded him of Hunith’s table, and as Merlin heated his bathwater—properly, if you please, none of that pretending you can only lug up two pots of hot water from the kitchens at a time—Arthur tried to remember what his Gwen and his Morgana looked like, here.

All he seemed to remember clearly was the firm set of Gwen’s mouth, because she held her fierceness in check, here, and the deep grooves of Morgana’s drawn features, behind which she kept her fears and weariness to herself.

He thought suddenly that if nothing else, he would do his best to make them look as they were meant to—whatever that might mean for them.

You have taught me something about what true nobility might be, he would say to Gwen, and to Morgana, You are never alone, sister.

Then he would repeat the latter, as often as he had to.

As for his father— Well. A time when it became impossible not to face him across some fault line would come soon enough, he suspected.

He did not have to think on Merlin, who was there already, puttering about the room as Arthur undressed, almost as if he knew Arthur needed him not to leave. But then Arthur snuck a careful glance at him, and the sight of his cheerful face, so empty of the hot, heavy look that Arthur had come to take for granted, felt not unlike a blow to the chest.

Arthur did not think he had made a sound, but a moment later Merlin was crouched beside the basin in which Arthur was bathing, looking into Arthur’s face worriedly.

“Arthur? Is something the matter?”

Arthur could not bring himself to say No, but neither could he say what it was that was wrong: how could he possibly begin to put any of it into words?

“You know?” Merlin said, as if he and Arthur had been in the middle of a conversation, rather than sitting together in the weight of Arthur’s silence. “For a moment, earlier? Before you opened your eyes, after the light had knocked us both down?”

“Yes?” Arthur said, trying to disguise how urgently he wanted to know what Merlin was about to say.

“It was almost as if… ” Merlin continued, his voice light, as if Arthur hadn’t spoken. “Almost as if you weren’t quite there, in the clearing. As if the person on the ground was you, but also not you. I know it sounds mad, but I could have sworn for a moment it was as if you were somewhere else entirely, and the man lying next to me was a complete stranger.”

Arthur laughed—a sort of choked, relieved, desperate little laugh.

“Well, not a complete stranger,” he said, thinking of all the things that had linked his and Morgana’s Gwen, and Gaius, and Merlin so closely together.

And then, because Merlin had given him the perfect opening and because he suspected that if he did not do it now he might never do it, and that was no way to begin this return to his old (new) life, he told Merlin the whole story: runes and tables and clumsy wine-pouring and all.

Merlin listened intently for the entire time it took Arthur to tell him everything. He was only as far as his third day when he had to climb out of the tub, because he was cold and his skin was pruning, which was something he had always hated. The two of them sat next to the fire after that, and Arthur told Merlin every detail he remembered: the smell of the books in the library and the scent of Hunith’s hair, how proud his people had been of Merlin, and how stark and sharp the bones in Uther’s fingers had seemed.

Merlin did not say, What did you think when you saw that? or Wait—repeat that, please. At no point did his face show any sign at all of I don’t believe you, and in retrospect it was probably this quiet faith and his patience that drove Arthur to blurt out the one thing he had told himself he would not say, not yet.

“Do you know what the worst part of it is?” he asked, and Merlin said nothing, only inclining his head to show that he was listening.

“The worst part of it is that though I know I was not meant to be there, and though I thought about the place where I was meant to be for most of the time that I was there, looking back on it there are things about being there that I wish I had not had to give up.”

Merlin spoke for the first time in the whole telling of it, and asked, quietly,

“Like what?”

“What I miss most,” Arthur began, swallowing around a dry throat and telling himself not to be a coward, “Is the look that you—that Merlin, that is—always had on his face. All the time you looked at me with something in your eyes like—”

Merlin’s brow knotted as he listened, and Arthur rushed out,

“It was— Like knowing we would never have to leave each other. Like certainty. Like home, even though it was everything but. Like … I couldn’t possibly explain,” he finished, because he really didn’t know what else to say.

What little he had managed had been vague, but also specific enough for his purposes, if Merlin could hear it.

Merlin raised himself onto his knees and moved towards Arthur carefully, kneeling beside him and looking straight into his eyes.

Then he turned to stare into the fire, as if he were deciding something. When he finally looked back at Arthur, he leaned back on his heels and said, softly but clearly,

“I think you’ll find—” he looked up, and his eyes were golden— “That you don’t have to explain it.”

Arthur looked at him in the faint glow of the firelight. His eyes were full of fire and his mouth was soft with wonder and affection, and in his face Arthur could see the past that he’d had a glimpse of, as well as the future he wanted.

Arthur smiled widely, touching one finger to that place on Merlin’s cheek.

“No,” he said. “Perhaps not,” and leaned in towards Merlin’s lips.

One for sorrow,
Two for joy,
Three for a girl,
Four for a boy,
Five for silver,
Six for gold,
Seven for a secret never to be told.

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October 2017


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