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What Infinite Heart's Ease - Part 3b

Arthur woke disoriented, aching all over, but with a sense of peace that had been missing for a very long time. Almost immediately, he realized the source of his contentment—the warm body pressed to his side, arm draped over his stomach. Merlin, dead to the world. He didn’t even move as Arthur shifted next to him; he must be exhausted, Arthur thought. Curious, Arthur raised his hand toward his face and was amazed to see the results of Merlin’s efforts. It was still swollen at the knuckles, cuts scabbed over, but all the broken bones looked as if they had been repaired. Feeling a surge of hopefulness, he tried to discover if his leg had fared equally as well. When he tried to move it, however, the leg felt as if it were bound to the bed. Magic, Arthur assumed. Nonetheless, it was without a doubt still attached to his body.

A myriad of emotions swelled up in his chest. Sick with fever and half out of his mind from pain, Arthur hadn’t been able to give much thought to the loss of his sword hand and the use of his leg, beyond a sense of despair. But now the future unfurled before him again. That Merlin had given him this gift, even after all that Arthur had done, filled him with gratitude. He didn’t understand why Merlin had acted as he had, but hope took root deep inside him. Turning his head to the side, Arthur buried his face in the thatch of dark hair nestled at his throat and breathed deeply, kissing the top of Merlin’s head. “Thank you,” he whispered, even though he knew Merlin couldn’t hear him. Then he tightened his arm around the familiar presence at his side, pulled him just a little bit closer, wanting to hold on to this moment as long as he could. His eyes grew heavy, but he fought to stay awake, not wanting to waste a single second of having Merlin in his arms again. Exhaustion won out and he drifted back to sleep, the last thought on his mind before he sunk into oblivion: Merlin.

When Arthur next woke, Merlin was gone from his side. He wasn’t surprised, but he felt a pang of disappointment anyway. He looked around the cottage, taking in the warm fire, the rumpled bedding on the floor near the hearth, the smell of bread. Merlin wasn’t in sight. Wanting the reassurance of the healing Merlin had performed, Arthur held his hand up to his face once again, noting it was as he remembered from his fevered state. He turned it this way and that, bending his fingers, marvelling at the skill that must have gone into mending his injuries. Merlin came through the door carrying buckets of water just as Arthur was closing his fingers into a fist.

“Don’t,” Merlin cautioned.

Arthur stilled his movements immediately.

Merlin set the buckets down and hurried to his side. “Sorry,” he said. “I didn’t mean to alarm you. It should be fine to move. But I don’t want you picking up anything or using it for anything strenuous for at least a fortnight.”

“All right,” Arthur said, lowering the hand to his side.

“I’m confident you’ll regain full use. I’ve never done this sort of healing before, so I wasn’t sure how far I could push it. I thought it wiser for the bones to finish knitting naturally on their own.”

Arthur nodded in understanding. “And the same for the leg? I should stay off it for a while?”

Merlin grimaced. “I’m afraid the news is not as good for the leg.”

“Will I walk again?” Arthur asked, spirits falling, almost resigned to hear the worst. He knew how severe the damage had been; indeed, he’d been surprised to find the leg still attached when he had awakened previously.

“Yes,” Merlin hastened to assure him. “Gods, Arthur. I didn’t mean that kind of news. It was… very damaged, but I think in time, it will be fine. It’s just a matter of how much time. At least a month, probably. Maybe longer.”

Arthur nodded. “Whatever it takes.”

“You say that now,” Merlin said, smiling. “But I know you. After a few days, you’ll be going crazy from inactivity.”

Arthur gave a little huffy laugh and looked at Merlin, smiling in return. His stomach twisted a little at the familiarity of the moment, how similar it was to all the many times they had teased each other in the past. Their eyes locked and the air became charged. Arthur felt as if he couldn’t breathe. He didn’t know how to describe the feelings he was experiencing—longing, for what they had lost, discomfort, a jumble of too many emotions to name. Merlin looked away first, turning his back on Arthur and walking over to pick up the buckets of water he had set down in the middle of the room.

“Are you hungry?” he asked without turning back around.

Grateful for the opportunity to focus on something other than the moment they had just shared, Arthur considered the question. “I’m starving.”

“I thought you might be.” Merlin busied himself at the table and returned to Arthur a few moments later, carrying a plate of food. He set it down on the stool by the bed. “Here, let me help you sit up.”

His manner was professional as he assisted Arthur to an upright position, the expression on his face guarded and distant. Arthur was surprised by how weak he felt. He supposed he shouldn’t be, but for someone who had always been physically strong and active, having to struggle to complete even the smallest of tasks was humbling. Once he was settled, Merlin placed the plate of food on Arthur’s lap and sat down beside him. When Arthur’s hand trembled as he raised the piece of bread to his mouth, Merlin took the food from Arthur’s hand and tore off a bite, feeding it to him like a child. Arthur wanted to protest, but Merlin’s was so matter-of-fact about it, he swallowed his pride and ate the offering gratefully.

After the sharp edge was taken off his hunger, Arthur could no longer hold back. “Why are you doing this?” he blurted out.

“Doing what?”

“Helping me. Healing me. Why did you rescue me?”

Merlin’s expression shuttered closed. He sat back, spine ramrod straight, and didn’t answer right away. “I don’t think we should talk about this now,” he said, leaning over to gather the now empty plate, then standing and walking away, busying himself at the table.

“Why not?” Arthur demanded, ever the one to address things head-on.

Merlin turned to face him, but stayed where he was, leaning back against the table. “You’re still feverish and your body is weak. You need to rest and heal.”

“I’m well enough to carry on a conversation, Merlin.”

“It’s not the time.”

“Why not? I feel up to it.”

“Maybe I don’t,” Merlin bit out then stood to turn away from Arthur again, his fingers gripping the edge of the table.

Arthur stared at Merlin’s back, noting the tense line of his shoulders, his rigid form. Another rush of emotions overwhelmed him, this time overlaid with guilt and regret and sorrow. Somehow even at the mercy of Morgana’s sorcerer, Arthur had never felt more helpless than this very moment.

“All right,” he said, overtaken by a sudden wave of exhaustion. “All right,” he said again, softer this time. He closed his eyes and tipped his head back to lean it against the wall. Lost in thought, he didn’t hear Merlin approaching.

“Here, drink this,” Merlin’s voice said from close by.

Arthur opened his eyes to see Merlin holding another draught of medicine out to him. He took it without a word and brought the phial to his lips, drinking it down in one swallow.

“Thank you,” he said handing the empty phial back and holding Merlin’s eyes with his own. Then Arthur slid back down into the bed, starting to drift into sleep almost immediately. He hoped Merlin knew everything he meant by those words.

Although not incredibly prescient, Merlin’s words about Arthur’s ability to withstand prolonged inactivity proved all too accurate. Once he had fully recovered from the fever and had stopped sleeping most of the day away, Arthur became restless and irritable. He also became increasingly uncomfortable with Merlin waiting on him hand and foot. It was true Merlin had tended to even the most intimate of tasks when they were back in Camelot, but things were different between them now. Having Merlin not only feeding him, but bathing him and helping him relieve himself bordered on humiliating.

Arthur had already tried to get out of bed once to take care of this necessity on his own, but Merlin had rounded on him so furiously, accusing him of trying to cripple himself after all the trouble Merlin had gone to rescuing him and healing him, that Arthur was quite abashed. Merlin always attended him in such a perfunctory matter-of-fact manner that Arthur’s discomfort was diminished, but he still bristled at how helpless he felt. And he almost wished Merlin’s professional veneer would crack; he found himself missing their old easy companionship—the teasing between them, the jocular insults.

They still hadn’t returned to the conversation Arthur had tried to initiate earlier regarding Merlin’s reasons for helping him. Numerous times Arthur had wanted to broach the topic, but he half feared the answer. As long as they didn’t address it directly, Arthur could still hold onto the idea that Merlin was helping him because somehow, in spite of all Arthur had said and done, he still cared. The other reasons that inevitably crossed his mind—Merlin’s betrayal still cut deep—weren’t anything he could protect himself against anyway, not while confined to a bed. Eventually, he knew they’d need to have it all out, but for now, he tried to rein in his impatience and concentrate on getting well.

Such a task was easier said than done.

“I’m not an invalid,” Arthur snapped as Merlin attempted to bathe him with a wet cloth.

Merlin stopped his motions and raised his eyebrow, giving Arthur a pointed look.

Arthur huffed and rolled his eyes. “I mean, I’m not completely helpless. My one arm is perfectly fine. I think I can manage to wash myself. And feed myself. Anyway, shouldn’t I be starting to use my other hand by now?”

“It’s only been days,” Merlin snapped back. “I told you at least a fortnight.”

“It seems longer.” Arthur’s face set into a scowl.

Now Merlin was the one who rolled his eyes. “You always were the most terrible patient out of anyone in Camelot. I’m tempted to make some of Gaius’ old sleeping potion and force you to rest.”

“You wouldn’t dare.”

“Oh, wouldn’t I?” Merlin crossed his arms across his chest and they glared at each other.

Arthur broke eye contact first. “Fine,” he huffed, giving in. “But when it’s time for a meal, I promise I can handle it myself.”

Merlin gave a small nod of acquiescence and went back to his task.

Later, when Arthur’s hand trembled so much while trying to eat that the broth was spilling out of the sides of the bowl, Merlin took it from him without a word and held the bowl to his lips, wiping his chest clean with a cloth. After Arthur finished his meal—the broth and some bread which Merlin also fed to him—he lay down with his arm over his eyes.

“I hate feeling so useless,” he said.

He heard the sound of Merlin coming near, the rustle of his clothing as he sat on the stool beside the bed.

“I know. But it’s only for a short while. It’s important that you let your body heal.”

“I know.”

“Do you?” Merlin asked, a smile in his voice. “Because it seems as if you keep forgetting.”

“Good thing I have you to remind me.”

“Good thing.”

Arthur removed his arm from his eyes and looked at Merlin who was smiling softly at him.

He felt as if his breath was being stolen from his chest. He reached a hand toward Merlin’s face, heart full. “Merlin, I—”

Merlin pushed back abruptly, out of Arthur’s reach, and stood, turning his back on Arthur whose hand dropped helplessly to his side.

“I need to gather some plants before the sun goes down. And…” Merlin trailed off as he bustled around the cottage, gathering a basket before letting himself out the door without another word.

Arthur’s eyes followed him; the feeling of helplessness returned and settled like a heavy stone in his stomach. He closed his eyes and tried not to think about everything they used to be.

Ever since the day Merlin had recoiled so abruptly from Arthur’s outstretched hand, Arthur had been careful to maintain his distance—at least as much as was possible while confined to a bed with Merlin tending to him. Whereas before they occasionally seemed to be slipping back into old familiarity, now they were as strangers—overly polite—treading cautiously when the other was near. Arthur took to watching Merlin as he moved about the cottage, sometimes feigning sleep, studying Merlin when he wasn’t aware he was being observed. Deep in thought, Arthur would compare the man whose care he was now under to the one who had once served him in Camelot. Merlin moved confidently, with a self-assurance no one would ever mistake for a servant. But then again, looking back, Arthur wasn’t sure Merlin had ever acted as a servant ought.

He was still as beautiful as ever, Arthur thought ruefully. Arthur found it difficult to not regard Merlin as he once had when he was so near, bending over him, the long line of his neck so close, the memory of how Arthur’s mouth would move over his throat, tasting it, sucking marks into his skin, as clear as if it were yesterday. Merlin’s shirt would gape as he’d lean forward, his collarbones visible, peeking out from the neckline. Only his eyes were different. Still that brilliant deep blue, but now also a glowing gold, transforming Merlin’s entire face into a stranger’s. He didn’t know this Merlin, the one who wielded incredible power as if it were child’s play; Arthur found it difficult to reconcile this sorcerer with the boy he once knew.

So Arthur brooded, the majority of his days spent lost in thought. Without conversation beyond the necessity, the days dragged endlessly. Arthur had far too much time to think, too much time to turn over all his mistakes in his head. Merlin’s magic, the secret that tore them apart, was often on Arthur’s mind. Arthur had been raised to fear it, to think it evil. Yet, his exposure was limited; he had rarely seen it in use. Arthur watched as Merlin tried to light a fire one evening, the spark from the flint refusing to catch. Merlin had struck the steel again and again and again, pursing his lips to blow on the carefully gathered tinder, attempting to coax it to life. All to no avail. Finally, with a look of annoyance, he had waved his hand and a flame burst into life, the stacked wood catching fire immediately. Arthur shivered at the raw power exhibited so casually, at Merlin’s ability to command the elements themselves.

Unable to stop himself, Arthur asked, “Exactly how powerful are you?”

Merlin looked up and his cheeks pinked as he realized Arthur had been watching. He stood and rubbed his palms on his thighs, a nervous gesture Arthur recognized. This Merlin, at least, was one he knew.

“I don’t know.”

“You must have some idea.”

“Some.”

“Just now… the fire… you just waved your hand. Why didn’t you do that the first time? Why even bother with the flint?

Merlin paused and regarded Arthur, perhaps wondering if Arthur was truly interested in the answer, if judgments were already in place before he even spoke. Whatever was going through his mind, Arthur was pleased when Merlin chose to answer.

“All magic has a cost, even simple spells like that one. If a task can be done without magic, then most often that’s the wiser course to take.”

Arthur latched onto one of the words. “Spells? I didn’t hear you speak.”

Merlin’s blush deepened. Arthur was intrigued by his reaction and waited for him to say more.

“Yes, well, for simple magic, I don’t usually need to speak the words out loud. It’s more of a natural reaction for me.”

“Interesting. And are others the same?”

The tips of Merlin’s ears now turned pink and he fidgeted, looking uncomfortable. “None that I know of,” he said.

Arthur pondered his response, wondering if Merlin’s discomfiture was because they were talking about magic itself, when previously, any such talk put one at risk for execution, or if it was because Merlin’s own magic seemed to be different from others of his kind.

“Then your magic is different somehow? More powerful?” Arthur asked.

“So they say.”

“Who is ‘they’?”

Merlin froze, fear plain on his face.

Arthur cursed inwardly and was filled with disappointment. The rift between them was still wide. He was quick to surmise, however, the origin of Merlin’s fear.

“Gaius’ safety is assured. You may speak freely.”

Merlin still hesitated.

“How much more powerful?” Arthur asked, trying to prod Merlin toward a response. “I’ve already seen you pull moisture from the air and command fire at your fingertips, not to mention move the bones beneath my skin.” He gave a small laugh trying to think of an outlandish task that would serve to lighten Merlin’s unease. “What else? Can you also cause the plants to spring to life from the earth and pull lightning from the sky?”

Merlin only looked more uncomfortable and Arthur’s laughter died on his lips.

“You can do those things?” His voice was tinged with awe.

Instead of answering, Merlin said, “I’ve been told I’m the most powerful sorcerer alive, that a great destiny awaits me.” He cast his eyes downward, no longer looking at Arthur. “I think they must have been wrong.” His voice was barely above a whisper.

Arthur stared at Merlin’s bowed head. The urge to reach out and run his fingers through that familiar night-dark hair was strong. Instead he said, “Show me.”

Merlin’s head lifted. “What?”

“Show me,” Arthur repeated.

“Show you?”

“Yes. Show me what you can do. Your magic. I want to see.”

“What do you want me to do?”

“Anything. Whatever you want.”

A few seconds passed while Merlin considered his request, then he held up his hand, palm up, and whispered a few words, his eyes glowing gold. Arthur watched his face transform, tried to recognize the familiar, tamp down the uneasiness he felt as Merlin was momentarily replaced by a stranger, quell the involuntary shiver he felt in reaction to the magic being performed before his very eyes.

A soft blue light appeared above Merlin’s palm. The light started to swirl, dancing in circles, faster and faster until it coalesced into a ball. It hovered, shimmering softly, until Merlin whispered again and it rose from his palm and travelled around the room, lighting the shadowed corners, darting here and there, until it came back toward them, stopping above Arthur’s bed.

“I recognize that,” Arthur said. “I’ve seen it before.” The memory of being lost in a cave and being guided out by a similar ball of glowing blue light was clear in Arthur’s mind. The incident had happened long ago, shortly after they had first met. Arthur narrowed his eyes. “What else?”

-o-


Arthur lay with his face turned toward the wall. He was even more conflicted now that Merlin had demonstrated his powers. After the ball of glowing blue light Merlin had shown him many other aspects of his magic—the protection spells on Arthur’s armour, transformation spells, even tricks to make Arthur laugh. Objects danced in the air, animated by Merlin’s outstretched fingers, like puppets to entertain a child. The afternoon culminated in an amazing display of thunder and lightning as rain pounded down on the roof of the cottage. Merlin stood in the middle of the room, legs wide, arms lifted toward the air, fingers spread, head tilted back, eyes glowing fire. The storm raged outside and Arthur shivered at the raw power Merlin commanded.

He was beautiful like this too, Arthur admitted, as he felt a stirring in his groin, even as a frisson of fear shot through him. What kind of man could harness the very elements themselves? For a fleeting moment, he understood his father’s crusade against sorcery. But as he stared, watching Merlin call down lightning from the sky, the stranger he morphed into—this formidable sorcerer inhabiting Merlin’s slender form—looked all at once both foreign and familiar. Arthur recognized those long elegant fingers, remembered a different power they held, the way they could take him apart, leave him breathless and trembling. He recognized the long column of his throat, the knob of his Adam’s apple, the way it felt when Arthur ran his mouth over it, the slight scrape of Merlin’s beard against his tongue when he hadn’t shaved. Arthur recognized the bulge in his trousers, the way the power seemed to stir something in Merlin too. He resisted the urge to reach down between his own legs and rub the erection beginning to grow. Instead he stared, mesmerized, and tried to understand how this magnificent being could be the same Merlin who had been his servant, his companion, and eventually his lover for all those years.

The beat of rain on the roof began to lessen and the room brightened as the sky began to clear and the clouds dissipated. Merlin lowered his arms and for a moment looked as if his entire body was outlined with electricity, the subtle glow disappearing first from the top of his head, and travelling down his torso, his legs, his feet, until it faded completely away. The golden fire in his eyes dimmed as well, the familiar blue returning. Merlin’s face, however, still shone, as if illuminated from within—lit with a smile, his whole being alive and vibrant.

With a small laugh he said, “Sorry, I got a little carried away.”

“Impressive. You said all magic carried a cost. What sort of cost does summoning a rain storm bring?”

Merlin shrugged. “I’ll probably pay for it tomorrow. I suppose I couldn’t resist showing off a little.”

“Pay for it how?” Arthur asked, setting aside the admission that Merlin was showing off for him.

“I’ll likely be dead tired. Needing to replenish my energy.” He tilted his head. “Similar, I suppose, to one of your intensive training sessions, when you’ve been working hard with your sword and you’re exhausted and sore later.”

“Like wielding a weapon, then?”

The smile disappeared from Merlin’s face. “That’s not what I meant.”

“Merlin, I—”

Merlin cut him off. “Now you’ve seen it. I’ve shown you everything.” His voice was heavy, as if the exhaustion from his exertions was already setting it. “Now you know who I am.” His shoulders seem to droop and he turned his back on Arthur so his face wasn’t visible. Arthur frowned, wanting to say something, but not sure what the right words were. Once again the chasm between them seemed too vast to bridge.

In the days that passed following Merlin’s demonstration, Arthur became more and more withdrawn. His interactions with Merlin disintegrated even further. Their earliest days together had held at least moments of light hearted banter. Yet those moments had ceased and polite professionalism had taken their place. Now even that was gone; Merlin was curt, when he did speak at all. He still treated Arthur’s injuries with the utmost care, but it was clear he would rather be anywhere than by Arthur’s side.

Arthur knew he had only himself to blame. He understood his reaction to Merlin’s magic was not what it should have been, not what Merlin had been hoping for. He could tell by the way his face—lit with joy—immediately darkened when Arthur compared his magic to a sword. But was it not? A sword, he mused, was not inherently evil. A weapon was a neutral instrument, one that could be used to protect as easily as harm. Was magic not the same?

His father would have had him believe otherwise, and perhaps Arthur’s upbringing was too firmly rooted for him to articulate a more nuanced understanding. He’d never been good with words. He didn’t know how to convey to Merlin he’d understood what he’d been trying to show him. Arthur had seen his own father struck down by magic, had seen Merlin call down lightning from the sky. Merlin, Arthur knew, had the power to kill; he had witnessed its use when Morgana’s guards fell lifeless to the ground. Yet Arthur recognized the ball of light which had brought him to safety; he listened as Merlin demonstrated the protection spells he’d placed on his armour for years. Perhaps his understanding had simply come too late.

His thoughts drifted toward Morgana. He had avoiding thinking of her in the early days of his recovery, in too much physical pain to try and cope with the reality of her actions. But now she was constantly on his mind—how he’d failed her, how he should have seen sooner the secret she’d concealed. How terrified she must have been living under Uther’s roof. His understanding of her fear and his failure, however, didn’t assuage the deep hurt he still harboured from her torture of him, how he’d been nothing but bait to attract the sorcerer who’d felled her lover, how she’d been willing to let him die. He had loved her like a sister. He laughed ruefully to himself, reminded of the other revelation he had yet to examine. How many secrets had he not known?

And now she was in league with Cenred to conquer Camelot. Arthur wondered if they had begun the attack. Where were his men? Were they still out looking for him or had they gone home, given him up for dead? Gwaine knew, at least, what Cenred planned. Even though they had parted with harsh words, tempers high, Arthur hoped he had returned to Camelot and was helping prepare for the inevitable assault. All Arthur’s previous anger turned inward; he castigated himself yet again for all the time he had wasted—chasing shadows, as Gwaine had called it. And to what end? Merlin was within a stone’s throw from him, yet he felt farther away than ever. That familiar feeling of helplessness overtook Arthur. What could he do, confined to a bed, his leg not yet ready to bear his weight? Would Camelot fall while he lay impotent?

Helpless… the word triggered a memory of the conversation he had with Morgana. “How does it feel?” she had asked. Morgana had wanted him to feel helpless, the way she had all those many years ago. He tried to imagine what she must have gone through, concealing her secret while watching others—young girls like herself—burn on the pyre. Uther had obviously been aware of her parentage; surely, he would have spared his own child were Morgana’s magic discovered? No, Arthur realized, he couldn’t be certain of the answer to that question.

He felt another pang of sympathy, thinking of Morgana living with their father but never being acknowledged. He wondered when she had found out. Arthur had always felt a strange kinship with her, both having lost a mother. He had envied the way their father had doted on her, not begrudging her the attention, but only wishing some of the same for himself. Now he wondered if Uther was trying to make up for his own sins.

Another uncomfortable memory slipped into his mind—this one regarding rumours surrounding the death of Morgana’s father. Even Arthur had heard the whispers that Uther had intentionally sent him on a military campaign that was certain to end in failure, knowingly sending Gorlois to his death. Arthur had always dismissed the rumours in the past, knowing the deep friendship the men had shared, but so many other beliefs had been shattered. Was there also truth to this story?

You remind me so much of your mother,” Uther had often said to Morgana, caressing her cheek with his hand. As yet another memory rose to the surface, a chill swept through Arthur.

“Merlin,” he called out, breaking the silence that had hung heavy in the cottage between them. “What did Morgana say about her son? About Mordred?”

“What?” Merlin asked, stopping the work he was doing with some herbs at the table and walking over to Arthur’s bedside.

“She said something about his claim to the throne.”

“When was this?”

“Before… before you found me. You were talking to her in the other room. About her plans for Camelot, to restore magic to its rightful place. She said something about Mordred.”

“That when he came of age, he’d take the throne?”

“No, not that part,” Arthur said. The memory he’d been trying to grasp suddenly came into focus. “She said he had an even larger claim than either of us.”

In an instant, everything crystallized and Arthur knew. He felt sick. “Mordred is Uther’s son.”

“What?” Merlin looked shocked.

Arthur’s head was spinning with his realization. Other moments between his father and Morgana raced through his mind, taking on new meaning as Arthur viewed them from this new vantage point instead of through the eyes of a child. “No wonder she hated him. Hated me. She said, ‘I was just a girl. You did nothing’.” Arthur covered his face with his hands, fighting back nausea. “What kind of man was my father?” he whispered.

“You were a boy. You couldn’t have known,” Merlin said.

Arthur pulled his hands away to look at Merlin. From the expression on Merlin’s face, Arthur could see Merlin had already accepted the truth of his conclusion, now seeming so obvious in hindsight. “Couldn’t I?” he asked.

“Arthur—”

But Arthur shook his head, not wanting absolution from his guilt. He turned his back to Merlin, facing the wall. Arthur could feel Merlin’s eyes on him, knew he was holding back words he wanted to speak, but he remained silent. After a long moment, Arthur heard a heavy sigh then Merlin moving away from the bed, back to his work at the table. Arthur shut his eyes, heart heavy; sleep would be a long time coming this eve.

The chasm between them widened further in the coming weeks. Arthur sunk deeply into a black mood, spending most of his day trying to lose himself in sleep, seeking an escape from the thoughts that plagued him when awake. He grappled with this new image of his father, the man whose approval he had long strived to receive. Arthur had always considered Uther to be a good king, even as he disagreed with him on matters such as the persecution of magic users. Yet he had never taken a stand against the practice. He had made excuses in his mind due to the manner of his mother’s death; Uther had always claimed magic was the cause and had been devastated by her death.

How then could a man so supposedly in love become enamoured with another, enough to orchestrate the death of a man who was not only her spouse, but his own friend? What kind of man bedded his own daughter, would have burnt her at the stake were her own powers revealed? By now, Arthur had come to accept Morgana would have been shown no leniency. He understood her desperation, the attack against their father, could only imagine her fear when she discovered she was with child, knowing the fate of her unborn babe were he to have magic too.

I was just a girl. You did nothing.

The guilt weighed heavily on Arthur. How had he been so blind to everything around him? His father, Morgana, Guinevere and Lancelot… Merlin. Old doubts about his fitness to rule resurfaced and intensified. Maybe he should stay missing, let the world think he had perished.

“Camelot is better off without me,” he muttered.

“What?”

Arthur started, not realizing Merlin had returned to the cottage.

“Nothing.”

“No, not nothing.” Merlin moved to the side of the bed and sat on the stool, leaning in, elbows on his knees, hands folded. “You’re wrong,” he said.

Arthur turned his head away and stared at the wall, the position he’d most often assumed in recent days.

Merlin placed his hand on Arthur’s arm. “You’re wrong, Arthur,” he said again.

Arthur turned his head back and stared at the hand resting on his forearm, the long elegant fingers that were so familiar. It was the first time in weeks Merlin had touched him voluntarily for anything other than necessity. Instantly, Arthur felt calmer, reassured, while at the same time, inexplicably bereft. Merlin had always had this effect on him, had become the one Arthur would turn to when the weight of his father’s disappointment was difficult to bear. Merlin had always had faith in him, shored him up. Even now, when Merlin by all rights should hate him, he was still able to make Arthur feel like he was worthy, that he was capable of being king.

The hand on his arm gave a gentle squeeze. “Do you hear me? You’re wrong.” His voice was firm. “Camelot needs you. You’ll be home soon. It won’t be much longer.”

Arthur wouldn’t meet his eyes, but he nodded his head in acknowledgment, letting Merlin know he had heard. Then he turned his head away again and heard a heavy sigh as the hand was removed. Arthur’s feelings were mixed. He was glad to hear he was making progress in his recovery, yet he was reluctant to have his time with Merlin end. What would happen when he was well enough to return home? Would Merlin disappear into the night? Was Arthur to lose him all over again? Even though it wasn’t rational, Arthur almost wished his injuries were more severe, if only so they could have more time. As distant as they were from one another right now, the thought of Merlin leaving was unbearable. He closed his eyes, not wanting to think about how much still divided them—lies, betrayal, his own rash actions and lack of faith. Instead, he listened as Merlin moved about the room, pretending they were back in Camelot and Merlin would soon slip into the bed beside him and hold him close.

-o-


“I said slowly,” Merlin snapped as Arthur grabbed at him, lightheaded as he stood too fast, eager to be moving again now that Merlin had been letting him out of bed to exercise for short periods of time.

“Sorry. I’m just anxious to get back.”

Merlin’s expression shifted into a scowl. “I’ve told you; you won’t be of any help to anyone if you re-injure yourself by pushing too hard.”

“I know that,” Arthur snapped back.

All their exercise sessions seemed to go this way, tempers flaring, sniping at each other, both of them relieved to be done. Arthur would become agitated with the way his body would react to Merlin’s proximity, instinctively moulding against his side when Merlin wrapped Arthur’s arm around his shoulder for support. Merlin’s scent, so close, would trigger memories that left Arthur tossing and turning into the night. It was torture to touch him, yet to still be so estranged.

“Then act like you know it. You always were a stubborn clotpole. Sometimes I wonder why I even bother.”

Fed up, Arthur bit out, “Then why do you? Why are you helping me anyway?” He was tired of side-stepping the issues. Time was running out. He wanted answers.

“I told you before; I don’t want to talk about it.” Merlin’s expression shuttered closed.

Something inside Arthur snapped. The underlying anger that had coloured his every thought and action for months reared to the surface. “Well I do.”

Merlin jerked away from Arthur. “Tough luck.”

Arthur grabbed his upper arm before he could escape. “Enough. Stop running away.”

“Let me go.”

“No. We are having this discussion.”

“I said, let me go.” Merlin’s voice was steel.

“Or what? Will you use your magic to make me?”

A look of complete devastation broke through onto Merlin’s face. “How do you still understand nothing?” he cried out.

A cold hopelessness spread through him at Merlin’s reaction. Arthur almost felt like giving up—maybe there was too much hurt between them to overcome, but his anger propelled him forward. How could he possibly understand when everyone around him kept secrets from him? Merlin included. “Make me understand,” he roared, giving Merlin a shake.

“I would never use magic against you. Never.” He pulled away again, this time with enough force for Arthur to lose his grip on Merlin’s arm. “You keep asking why I came for you… why I’m helping you, but you should know. You should already know.”

The answer set off another burst of anger inside of Arthur, in part because it mirrored many of his own thoughts, triggered his feelings of guilt. So many things he should have known… “How am I supposed to know? How can I know anything when everyone has been lying to me for years?”

“I had to,” Merlin yelled.

“You should have trusted me.”

You should have trusted me,” Merlin countered, and the anguish was plain on his face. He continued, obviously distraught. “How could you think I would act against you? Attack your own father? You should have known I would never do anything to harm you.”

“You lied to me,” Arthur shouted. “For years, Merlin. How am I supposed to know anything?”

“You should have known that I loved you.”

Arthur’s chest tightened hearing Merlin reference his feeling as being in the past. So, that was the way of it. He had surmised as much, but it still hurt more than he could have imagined to hear it confirmed.

“Do you want to know why I’m here? Why I searched for you, rescued you, healed you?”

“Yes. I’ve told you, I don’t understand,” Arthur said, agitated. Had he not said as much?

“Because I can’t help myself. Even though you hate me now. Even though you see me as nothing more than a threat, a dangerous sorcerer. Even though you would have had me killed, I still couldn’t stop myself.”

Arthur’s mind reeled listening to Merlin. None of those statements were true. He latched onto the last one: “I was not going to let you burn.”

Merlin’s eye flickered up to Arthur’s, disbelieving. Arthur’s own feelings of betrayal were mirrored on Merlin’s face.

“I wasn’t.” He shook his head, his shame surfacing, knowing he did not speak the full truth; there had been moments when he wanted Merlin to die. Arthur tried to clarify. “I was angry. I regret… many of my actions. But I would not have let you die.”

“You immediately thought the worst, threw me in the dungeons.” The raw hurt was naked on his face. Merlin repeated his earlier statement. “You should have known I would never...” he trailed off, overcome by emotion.

Maybe Arthur should have, but he wasn’t magical. He was no seer. He was only a man, full of faults. And he had been surrounded by lies; Merlin wasn’t the only one carrying a deep hurt.

“You betrayed me,” he yelled.

“No,” Merlin insisted.

“For years, you lied to me. Years, Merlin.”

“Only because I had to. I had no choice.”

“You did have a choice.”

“No. I didn’t believe I did. You can’t know how many times I wanted to tell you…” he broke off, overcome. His cheeks were damp.

“How can I make you understand?” Merlin pleaded. “Everything I’ve done has been for you. I came for you because I had to, because I still love you, no matter how your heart has turned against me. You’re my king, Arthur Pendragon. Everything I am is in service to you.”

Then he dropped to his knees in front of Arthur. “Everything. I submit myself to you. Even if your decision is to take me back to Camelot to burn, I am yours to command. To do with as you will.” He bowed his head and repeated the words, “I submit myself to you. Everything I am is yours.”

Arthur stood in shock, emotions whirling. Both anger and sadness filled him over the knowledge that Merlin could still think Arthur would put him to his death. But stronger than either of those was the hope that flared hearing Merlin still loved him. He had thought such a thing impossible, that he had destroyed any such feelings when he towered before him in Camelot’s dungeons and unleashed his wrath.

Reaching down, Arthur pulled Merlin to his feet, then crushed their lips together. He met no resistance as Merlin’s mouth opened against his, and his heart raced as their tongues slid together. Gods had he missed this. He plundered the inside of Merlin’s mouth, tasting him, licking behind his teeth. Arthur breathed deeply, filling his lungs with Merlin’s scent. “Even this?” he asked pulling away, panting, staring at Merlin’s flushed face. Gods he was beautiful.

“Everything,” Merlin said, his eyes fluttering shut with a moan when Arthur kissed him again.

Arthur didn’t know where to touch first. His hands roved over Merlin’s body, slipping under his shirt, desperate to feel his skin. He pulled the garment over Merlin’s head, staring at the expanse of creamy pale skin he had just exposed. He wanted to taste every inch, bite those gorgeous collarbones, flick his tongue across Merlin’s chest and tease his nipples to hardness. But first, he was driven by one overriding desire. Arthur sunk a hand into Merlin’s dark hair and tilted his head sideways, exposing the long expanse of his neck. He moved his mouth to Merlin’s skin, to the sensitive spot behind his ear, and sucked, hard enough to bring the blood to the surface. Merlin went still the moment Arthur’s mouth latched against his skin. When Arthur pulled away to examine the mark, Merlin sagged slightly, as if his knees were giving out, and grabbed Arthur’s biceps, holding tight. Arthur moved his head back down, running his tongue over the mark, and when he began to suck again, Merlin’s fingers tightened against his arm, digging into his skin, as he hissed out a soft breathy, “Yes.”

Merlin’s response, in addition to seeing his mark back on Merlin’s neck, stirred something primal in Arthur. His fist tightened in Merlin’s hair and his other hand pulled Merlin close. When Arthur bit down on the tender spot, pinching the skin between his teeth to ensure his mark would last, Merlin bucked against him, moaning deep and low, his hardness rubbing against Arthur’s thigh.

Arthur’s own response was immediate. He tore his mouth from Merlin’s neck and brought it back to his lips in a bruising kiss. His own member strained at his trousers and he pulled Merlin even closer, tilting his hips, seeking friction, shifting back and forth so he could feel Merlin’s erection against his own. Then he pulled away, taking Merlin’s hands from his arms and turning him around so his back was to Arthur’s chest. Arthur’s hands roved over his stomach, up his chest, pinching his nipples as his mouth sucked more bruises into the back of Merlin’s neck. He slipped his fingers through the fine trail of hair at his belly, sliding the tips of his fingers under the waist of his trousers. He rocked his hips against Merlin’s backside, sliding his length between the crevice of his arse.

The desire to claim Merlin, to make him his, grew stronger. He manoeuvred them over to the bed and pushed Merlin forward, bent over with his chest resting on the mattress. Arthur tugged Merlin’s trousers down with clumsy hands, revealing his rounded backside, aroused even further by the submissive posture as Merlin allowed himself to be manhandled and exposed. Then he draped himself across Merlin’s back, mouth moving across his shoulders, erection fitting back against the cheeks of Merlin’s arse. “This too?” he asked, rutting against him.

Merlin nodded, his head turned to the side, eyes closed, lashes fanned across his face, mouth open and panting. “Yes,” he gasped. “Anything. Everything. I’m yours.”

Arthur pulled back to remove his own clothing, stripping his shirt and trousers quickly, arms and legs getting caught in his haste, his muscles still clumsy from lack of use. Already he missed their connection. When he finally freed himself, he turned around and his breath caught at the sight he was met with; Merlin had his arm bent behind his back, two fingers buried deep in his arse, the jar of salve kept by the bed opened next to him on the mattress.

Immediately, Arthur fell to his knees behind Merlin, staring at those long, agile fingers moving in and out of his slick pink opening. He placed his hands on the globes of Merlin’s arse and gently held them apart for a better look. He watched, mesmerized as Merlin stretched himself open. Then Arthur reached for the salve, dipped his finger in and brought it up alongside Merlin’s fingers. He heard Merlin’s breath hitch, hips bucking backward at Arthur’s touch, as if he couldn’t wait for more. The action reminded Arthur of all the times Merlin had worked him open, all the times Arthur had lain vulnerable, bare, how angry he’d been remembering his complete submission when he’d found out Merlin had been lying to him all along.

Arthur gripped Merlin’s hip with one hand, holding him still; he could see Merlin struggling to comply, the muscles in his arse twitching, the delicate pink skin surrounding his fingers pulsing almost imperceptibly, as if Merlin was unable to control his need. A spike of anger mixed with desire shot through Arthur and he leaned over, sinking his teeth into the fleshy skin of Merlin’s cheek while pushing his finger into Merlin’s hole, alongside Merlin’s own fingers, in one determined move.

He held his finger still, deep inside Merlin’s body, mouth open with his teeth resting motionless on Merlin’s skin, ready to bite down again if necessary. Arthur shut his eyes, concentrating on the heat, the tight channel, the feel of Merlin’s fingers pressed against his own. Then he slowly slid his finger out, then back in, holding tightly onto Merlin’s hip, warning him not to move.

His own erection was throbbing; he could feel the smear of moisture from the tip across his thigh. After another few times of pushing his finger deep, he pulled it out and used that hand to grab Merlin by the wrist, removing his fingers as well. Then he stood, moving Merlin’s hand up by his head and placing his own hand on the back of Merlin’s neck, holding him down while he lined up his erection against Merlin’s slick opening. Arthur didn’t ask this time, just thrust into him with one forceful push, feeling Merlin’s body accept his length, hearing the ragged gasp from Merlin’s mouth as Arthur entered him. The sensation was intense, Merlin’s body tight around him. He thrust again and again, grunting as he slammed into Merlin’s body, the exquisite pleasure magnified by the realization that the world’s most powerful sorcerer, a man whom the elements themselves would obey, was his to command; Merlin’s complete submission was both arousing and satisfying beyond belief.

He thrust several more minutes, slowing down his movements, driving deeper, revelling in the grip of Merlin’s body, the slick hot glide against his length. Even though he felt his body starting to tire, Arthur felt powerful, as if each thrust he made reinforced his claim. He paused, still deep inside, and leaned over Merlin’s back, resting his head between Merlin’s shoulders blades, trying to catch his breath. His heart pounded. He knew he didn’t have the stamina to keep up this pace, his body still so recently healed, but he never wanted this to end, never wanted to let Merlin go, not now that he finally had him in his arms again.

Arthur pushed himself up with his forearms, back arching and looked down at Merlin’s face which was turned to the side on the bed. A chill raced through him when he saw that Merlin lay with his eyes closed, perfectly still, while tears streamed down his cheek. A sick feeling in his stomach replaced his previous enjoyment. His chest felt tight. Arthur silently berated himself. How could he still get everything so wrong?

He pulled out immediately, contrite, loathe to lose their connection, but fearful of making things worse.

Hesitantly, he asked, “Merlin?”

“It’s all right,” Merlin choked out, voice shaky. “I’m all right.” More tears slipping down his cheeks betrayed him.

Arthur shut his eyes, swallowed against the tightness in his throat, his earlier hopelessness hovering at the edges. He wasn’t going to let it in, though. They would not go backward from here. He would fix this.

Moving completely off Merlin, Arthur rolled him over and picked up his legs, moving them onto the bed. He rebuked himself again when he realized Merlin’s trousers were still caught around his ankles; in his haste to get inside Merlin, Arthur hadn’t even fully undressed him. He pulled off his trousers then lay beside Merlin in the narrow bed.

Merlin hadn’t moved. His eyes were still closed, drops of moisture leaking from the corners. Arthur shifted onto his elbow and reached out a hand to gently wipe a tear away with his thumb, running his fingers down Merlin’s cheek in a soft caress. Arthur leaned over and followed the path of his hand with his lips, tenderly kissing the corner of Merlin’s eye, his cheekbone, his chin, his lips.

“You’re mine,” he said softly against Merlin’s mouth.

Merlin nodded, breath hitching, eyes still remaining closed.

“And I’m yours,” Arthur continued with another soft kiss, licking the seam of Merlin’s lips, gently probing into his mouth. “I’m yours,” he whispered again, cradling Merlin’s face in his hand as he kissed him.

He reached down between their bodies and pushed Merlin’s thighs apart. His finger found Merlin’s opening and he probed gently, watching Merlin’s reaction. When he didn’t flinch or protest in any way, Arthur moved over Merlin, tucked his knee up toward his body and lined himself up again. This time he pushed in slowly, inch by inch, letting Merlin know, with sweet kisses, with his lips and his tongue, how grateful he was.

Arthur tried to go slowly, but the feeling of being inside Merlin was overwhelming; it felt like home. Like love. As he moved his hips in long deep strokes, heart pounding, he covered Merlin’s face in kisses. Reaching between them, he found Merlin’s erection, as rigid as his own, and wrapped his hand around it, giving it long firm strokes. Merlin answered with a low moan.

“Open your eyes,” Arthur said. “I want to see you.”

Merlin did as he requested and Arthur’s heart skipped a beat as those familiar blue eyes stared back at him, full of hope, dark with desire, and with unmistakable love.

Arthur wanted to convey the depths of his own feelings, his deep remorse, his abiding devotion. He tried to think of the words, but he was awash in feeling, and afraid he’d once again say the wrong thing. Then in a moment of blinding clarity, he knew.

“I want to see all of you,” he said. “I want everything.”

Immediately, Merlin’s eyes glowed gold and his body arched against Arthur’s, mouth opening in a gasp, as if it had been a struggle to hold it in. Arthur stared into his eyes, fascinated, stunned by their beauty. He writhed in pleasure as Merlin’s magic washed over him, like a sensuous wave of unbearable pleasure, caressing every inch of his skin. He felt vibrant and alive, every nerve ending electrified. With one more deep thrust he was coming, his body shaking as he emptied himself inside Merlin, the magic swirling around him like an eddy, keeping him riding on a wave of ecstasy surpassing anything he had ever known. He cried out again as Merlin found his own release, his seed shooting between them, coating Arthur’s hand. As Merlin’s stiffened beneath him, body tightening around Arthur’s sensitive length, Arthur shuddered, wondering if it were possible to survive such bliss.

Then the magic slipped away, whispered touches against his skin; the gold in Merlin’s eyes faded back to blue. Arthur covered his face in kisses, murmured soft words against his skin—how beautiful he was, how perfect, how much he’d missed him, how deeply he loved him. He pulled him close, burying his face in Merlin’s neck, whispering against his skin, “You’re mine, Merlin. Mine. And I’m yours.” Merlin’s hands reached to wrap around Arthur, stroking down his back, holding him close. Arthur sighed as he felt Merlin bury his face in his hair.

“My Arthur,” Merlin whispered in return.

-o-


Arthur ran his fingers through the dark head of hair resting against his chest, enjoying the silky slide against his fingers, the press of Merlin’s body against his own, their ankles hooked together. His other hand splayed across Merlin’s back and he revelled in the gentle movement of Merlin’s lungs expanding and contracting as he slept. Arthur knew he should probably be sleeping as well, but after being apart for so long, Arthur didn’t want to miss a single moment with Merlin. They had spent the last few days reconnecting in every way possible, relearning each other’s bodies, hours lost in pleasure, talking far into the night.

The conversations had been difficult. Arthur learned how Merlin had gone to Ealdor after he escaped Camelot, home to Hunith while he healed. Arthur heard the heartbreak underlying Merlin’s tale, recognized the deep devastation Merlin had felt. They were lying in bed, Merlin’s voice impassive as he related the events. Arthur’s guilt felt like a crushing weight on his chest. He wrapped his arms around Merlin, draping his leg over his body, burying his face in his neck, holding him close. His eyes stung with unshed tears. “Can you ever forgive me?” he whispered against his skin.

Merlin’s arms snaked around his back and he stroked his skin with soothing motions. “Shhh,” he said. “I forgave you a long time ago. It’s in the past.” Arthur wondered how that could be true.

In turn Arthur tried to convey his sense of betrayal—how vulnerable he had let himself be, how Merlin had been the one he had clung to when everywhere else he was surrounded by uncertainty and lies. His refuge.

Now it was Merlin’s turn to ask, “Can you forgive me?”

“There’s nothing to forgive,” Arthur answered. “I understand now.” He meant what he said.

Arthur also learned how Merlin sought him out as soon as he was able, following him at a distance, determined to still keep him safe. He heard about his fear when he had lost track of him, confused as well by the magical fog, not realizing at first what was happening, his shame at allowing Arthur to be captured.

“The most powerful sorcerer in the land, brought down by a little fog,” Merlin said, his voice tinged with bitterness. “I’d never forgive myself if I had lost you. Never. Gods, I was almost too late.” He clutched at Arthur, fingers digging into his shoulders, then kissed him frantically, as if to reassure himself Arthur was real.

Arthur’s hands gentled him, stroking down his arms. He slowed their kisses until they turned soft and sweet. “But you weren’t,” he said tenderly against Merlin’s lips. “You weren’t too late. I’m here thanks to you.”

Arthur learned all the other times Merlin had used magic to protect him over the years, how much he had risked to keep him safe from harm. And Arthur let Merlin know his own role in Merlin’s escape, how he couldn’t bear to see him die, even if everything he thought he had seen proved to be true. He told him how he longed for him, dreamed of him at night, was driven almost to the point of madness to find him again.

They consoled each other, reassuring one another that they would never let misunderstanding or a lack of trust come between them again. That meant accepting Merlin’s words at truth—that he really had forgiven Arthur. Arthur would work on learning to forgive himself as well. He was determined to do better in the future, to be better, to build a future with Merlin beside him.

They talked of practical matters as well, what information Merlin had been able to gain about Cenred’s plans. Arthur knew his prolonged absence from Camelot put the kingdom at risk. Times of transition—the death of one king and the coronation of another—were tumultuous at best, often with neighbouring kingdoms primed to attack, eager to test the new king’s mettle. With Cenred’s gathering of magical allies, the risk was even greater; Arthur knew he needed to return home soon.

He still felt conflicted about his worthiness to be king; he was no better than any other man, save for his skill with a sword. But he had been born to the role; the people expected him to know the best course of action. He could only but try.

This acceptance of his role was something else for which he had Merlin to be thankful. The revelations about his father had been difficult to accept. The knowledge that he had not only violated his own daughter, but would have executed her and their son in his righteous stance against magic changed everything Arthur had ever thought about his reign. The long-ingrained desire for his father’s approval now seemed foolish, even as it was difficult to deny the habit.

Arthur’s understanding of duty had altered as well. Of what use was duty when one blindly followed a king whose actions were so heinous? He wished now he had done more to persuade Uther toward leniency. Not that it would have had much effect, he admitted. His father’s zealous persecution of magic users was like a sickness. Truly, Arthur half hoped that Uther had at some point veered into madness; it was unthinkable to believe his decisions were made with a rational mind. Arthur had, however, obeyed the laws and saw to their enforcement. Was he not complicit in this evil?

No longer. Coming to understand the depths of his father cruelty gave him the impetus he needed to mentally break from his father’s expectations. He thought of the times he had felt most capable of leading, the times when he felt like a king. They all came back to Merlin—his faith in Arthur, his reassurances he was a good man and would be a great king. Even here, before they had reached their understanding, he sat at Arthur’s bedside and said, words ringing with certainty, Camelot needed him.

Camelot may need Arthur, but Arthur needed Merlin. Arthur knew, without a doubt, he would defy his father were he still alive. He was unwilling to let Merlin go. He would change the laws, re-make the world into a place Merlin could stand by his side. His father would have called such plans the worst kind of betrayal, an abandonment of duty, but Arthur knew he’d never have peace in a kingdom crafted by hatred and lies.

Something Leon had said to him drifted into his thoughts: There is much value in surrounding yourself by men unafraid to speak their minds.

Arthur thought of Gwaine, how he’d knelt at Arthur’s feet when Arthur was committing an act directly against the crown. How he’d refused to follow Arthur blindly in his folly. His father would have considered it treason. Arthur saw his actions differently now, those of a man following his conscience, not letting duty stand in the way of what he thought was right.

Likewise, he understood better Lancelot and Guinevere’s betrayal. If their passion was even a fraction of what he’d found with Merlin, it was unstoppable as the tides. He loved them both, still. Now that he and Merlin had found each other again, Arthur could spare some small measure of happiness for them. Lancelot had always led with his heart; the old hero worship had faded, but the desire to be the sort of man to make Lancelot proud lingered. There were worse things to aspire to, Arthur decided.

But it was to Merlin Arthur looked now for approval. Merlin who inspired his passion to be king. Merlin he was determined to keep safe. Merlin he could not live without. When Arthur thought of the vast number of people who would be looking to him for answers, the responsibilities awaiting, the inevitable battle ahead, it was impossible not to be overwhelmed. When he narrowed his scope, instead thought of the impact each decision would have for Merlin, the way became smooth; he felt he’d know what to do. He would let his heart lead.

Merlin stirred against him, then lifted his head, eyes bleary from sleep, shadows dancing across his skin in the firelight. A slow smile bloomed across his face; Arthur answered with one of his own, tightening his arm around him.

“Can’t sleep?” Merlin asked, his voice rough and slightly slurred.

“Just thinking,” Arthur said.

“About?”

“Shhh. Nothing that can’t keep until morning. Go back to sleep.”

His heart swelled when Merlin shifted, draping his knee over Arthur’s legs, face nuzzling into Arthur’s neck. He buried his own face in Merlin’s hair, breathing deeply, then he closed his eyes and followed him into sleep.

-o-


“It’s time for me to return home,” Arthur said. “I’ll head out this afternoon. I shouldn’t delay any longer.” He stood in the doorway looking out into the trees, eyeing the weather. He still tired easily and his leg ached, but he was recovered enough to ride. Truly, he should have begun the journey days ago, but each morning he found new excuses; he knew the real reason was his reluctance to part from Merlin.

“I can’t go with you,” Merlin said, coming up behind him and wrapping his arms around Arthur’s waist. He rested his chin on Arthur’s shoulder.

Arthur wrapped his own arms over Merlin’s, holding him close, enjoying Merlin’s warmth against his back. “I know. But it won’t be long. I promise. I’ll call the Council immediately.” He intended to make the changes to the laws regarding magic users his very first task.

“They’ll resist.”

“It doesn’t matter. It won’t change anything.”

“Arthur—”

“No, the decision’s been made. I know some of my father’s men will fight me. But I also know others will welcome the change. Lancelot knew about you. Gwaine as much did. Who knows how many others were aware of your powers, how many other magic users may have been shielded within Camelot’s own walls.”

Arthur turned in Merlin’s arms so they were facing each other. He placed his palms against Merlin’s cheeks and looked deep into his eyes. “I cannot reign over a kingdom where you are not welcome,” he said, leaning to close the few inches that separated them, kissing Merlin on his lips. “They’ll see sense eventually. They’ll have to, especially if we’re to defeat Cenred’s forces.”

After hearing Merlin’s account of the allies Cenred had gathered, Arthur knew they needed Merlin if they were to have even a chance of defeating him. Rumour was he had more than one powerful sorcerer on his side.

“We will,” Merlin assured him. “Whenever you need me, I’ll come. Just call for me and I’ll be there.” They had already pre-arranged a way for Arthur to summon Merlin—twinned objects linked by a spell. Once Arthur spoke the words into his, Merlin’s would respond by glowing and turning hot to the touch. “I’m ready to fight by your side.”

“That’s where you should always be,” Arthur said, kissing him again. “By my side.” Merlin melted into his arms and Arthur knew he’d be delaying his departure for just a few hours longer.

-o-


Continue to Part 3c | Masterpost

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