Disclaimer: I do not own Merlin.

Warning: AU, SLASH

Arthur/Merlin – pre-slash

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When he first found him, Merlin had been strolling through the forest, as he usually did after doing his chores. Ealdor was a small village surrounded by the vast forest on every side of it, and it only helped them feel more like an independent village and not a part of Aesctir, King Cendred's kingdom.

Thus they were usually quite happily ignorant when it came to the affairs of the kingdom or of the surrounding kingdoms. As a village, Ealdor was small, but it was beloved, and while mostly everyone knew of everyone's secrets, they took care of each other.

Merlin, most of all, was grateful for this. While Aesctir in itself didn't ban magic like in the bordering kingdom, Camelot, did, it was frowned upon and those found practicing magic were 'politely' asked to leave and find residence somewhere else. This had been part of the fragile treaty between King Cendred and King Uther of Camelot.

None of this would have mattered if Merlin hadn't been born magic. It was a white-hot energy that'd been as much a part of him as his skin since birth, and it'd been impossible for the villagers not to discover it.

And yet the son of Hunith wasn't outed. His magic was at times uncontrollable and frightening due to the apparent lack of limits to what he could do, but he'd helped the crops flourish, had managed to awkwardly scare away some very superstitious bandits who terrorized the surrounding villages, and Merlin himself was such a fumbling, bumbling, klutzy sweet thing the villagers couldn't help but love him and protect his secret as theirs.

So it was during one of his walks throughout the forest, communing with nature and wondering about the power inside of him that'd left Will hanging upside-down after an argument the two had had over something tremendously inconsequential, that Merlin came upon the bloodied body of the golden haired youth who couldn't have been more than two or three years older than him.

For a moment Merlin had been still, horrified at the bloody mess before him. He'd been sheltered from a lot of the evils of the world, Ealdor was basically a paradise for those who enjoyed simple lives, and even during the bandit raids of his youth he'd never seen anything like this.

A weak sound emerged from the torn body.

Eyes wide, Merlin hurried towards the young man and went to his knees. "You're okay. You're okay. I'm going to help."

Slowly, painfully, those eyelids lifted to reveal blue eyes that mesmerized Merlin with their intensity. "Cant—need—hide."

And then his eyes rolled back in his skull, leaving Merlin worried and wondering what exactly to do with him. The boy needed medical help, immediately, but it was obvious he was hiding and didn't want Merlin to take him to his village.

He might be part of a group of bandits, or might have killed someone or done something to deserve what'd happened to him---but the more Merlin thought of it the more he doubted it…and the more he realized that he couldn't leave him there to die of his wounds or get eaten by a wild animal.

Taking in a deep breath, Merlin's eyes flashed golden and the injured man's (though, truly, he seemed like only a boy) body rose limply into the air.

While he felt a little odd doing this, Merlin brought the unconscious boy to the secret cave he'd found and played in as a child, and was glad that he'd brought his own things to make it more comfortable. There was a bedroll on the ground and a pail of water that hadn't gotten completely stale. He could also bring some fruits or some meats as soon as the injured one was strong enough to chew.

Lowering the blonde on the bedroll, he hesitated for a moment before looking around for a pair of shears and beginning to cut away at the clothes. They were sticking to the man's body due to the dried blood, and when Merlin finally got rid of the material he winced in horror at the slices and injuries on that body.

Shaking his head, unable to believe that someone could do something like this to someone else, Merlin pulled off his neckerchief, motioned over the pail of water from his last visit, and ducked it in. He didn't know much about healing, but he knew that whenever the women of the village tended to wounds they washed away the dirt and blood with warm water to keep them from getting infected.

Eyes flashed gold as he looked down at the water, watched as slowly it began to grow warmer and warmer until he couldn't take the heat anymore and took his hand out. The young man squeezed out all of the excess water and began to softly cleanse the wounds.

He didn't know how long he was there, all he knew was that the water was red with blood by the time he was finished, and the wounds looked worse now that they were uncovered. Merlin could also now get a better look at the face of the other man.

Despite his many bruises and cuts, the swelling in his cheek, and the black eye, the man was beautiful. Merlin was sure that had any of the girls from the village been the ones sitting here right now they'd have swooned before taking care of the man.

Shaking his head at the thought, Merlin sighed as he rubbed his hands together, feeling them warm up with his magic, and then he rested them on the torn body. He couldn't control his powers enough to fully heal the wounds, but enough to close them up more, to try and dull some of the pain.

Standing up to lean over the body, Merlin paused when a groan escaped those lips and those eyes opened halfway, looking up at him.

"It's okay." The young warlock repeated, meeting that gaze and giving the man a weak smile. "You're safe. Try sleep."

He seemed to be trying to say something, but then his eyes closed and he slipped back into unconsciousness.

Merlin got up and realized he'd need some salve and some bandages. He wondered if he could go home and get them from his mother, with maybe another bedroll, before the stranger awoke again. His mother would understand, and while she would want to come and help as well, she'd understand, she'd send him off with what he'd need and wish him the best.

Giving the sleeping stranger a last look, Merlin left.

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Arthur drifted in and out of unconsciousness. He didn't know how long he was like this, but he did know that he was being watched over by an angel. During his few moments of consciousness he'd be confronted by the caring face of his savior, blue eyes would stare down at him and a soft voice would tell him everything was fine, that he was safe.

And, despite the fact that he didn't know who his rescuer was, despite the fact that his situation proved that he shouldn't trust anyone, Arthur trusted him.

He was the only one Arthur could trust.

"Shhh," there was a cool hand on his feverish head, cooling him down. "Go back to sleep, you're safe now."

Arthur wanted to reach out and grab that hand, to keep it against his skin, but he was too weak.

Thankfully, though, a cool rag was soon pressed to his forehead as the person continued to rub down his feverish body.

Safe

Arthur hadn't felt safe since what'd happened while he was returning with his knights to Camelot from their trip to King Cendred's court. As sole heir to the throne of Camelot, it was his duty to make sure that he developed a good relationship, a solid trust, with the neighboring kings so that when he ascended to the throne he wouldn't have to worry who his allies were.

Sure, you could never be too certain who wanted your death, but Arthur believed himself a good judge of character, and while King Cendred seemed wary of him he hadn't harbored any ill will towards Camelot or its crowned prince.

Appeased with this, Arthur and his knights had spent three days of merrymaking in King Cendred's Court and had then went off on their way back to Camelot to bring news to his father that the once fragile treaty was now stronger than ever.

Now that he thought of it, Arthur should have been more wary, but he'd been arrogant and self-righteous and hadn't thought that anyone would dare attack the prince of Camelot while surrounded by his best knights and on a peace mission.

He'd forgotten how King Bayard of Mercia saw the strengthening of the truce with Aesctir as potential problems for his own kingdom. He should have expected Bayard to act in some way to break the alliance. But he hadn't. So when Bayard's most trusted men ambushed Arthur and his knight on the border between Camelot and Aesctir, dressed in Aesctir uniforms, the prince and his followers hadn't been ready.

Arthur didn't know who exactly had been lost, but he knew that there'd been heavy casualties on both sides…and the enemy had been too vast a number.

In the end he'd been tortured and ridiculed and left for dead.

If it hadn't been for the person backlit by the sun coming upon where his tormenters had left him for dead, to be eaten by the birds of prey or the animals of the forest, he'd have died.

What's your name? He thought, feverishly, trying to force his eyes open so he could catch another glimpse of his rescuer. Who are you? Why are you helping me?

"Shhhhh, rest." The voice soothed him.

Arthur pressed his face into the touch of the damp cloth, and despite his every efforts to stay in this half conscious state, he fell asleep knowing, somehow, that he was safe.

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On the fifth day, the young man's fever broke and with the daily ministrations his wounds were healing favorably. Merlin himself was no good when it came to conventional healing and medicines and such, but his magic seemed amazingly in tune with this stranger, working easier, more controllable than it had ever been before.

Sitting up the figure, Merlin forced water down his throat, and wet his chapped lips. He wondered when he'd wake up, when he'd be fully conscious and able to speak to Merlin.

He really wanted him to speak.

These last five days Merlin had found himself spending less and less time in the village and away from Will, and more time next to the stranger's side. He even spent the nights here, keeping watch over his restless sleep, making sure that the fever didn't get worse.

He found that despite the fact that he doubted the man could hear him, Merlin spoke. He spoke about himself, about Elador, and about life in general. He spoke about his mom, about Will, about the villagers, about the crops and the harvest. Merlin even found himself talking about the father his mother would never speak about, and how he'd wondered all his life why it was that she wouldn't even give him his father's name.

And, of course, Merlin was shocked when he shared his greatest fear with the stranger. The fear that his father might have been some monster who'd forced himself onto his mother.

For what other reason could his mother have for not wanting to tell him of the man?

It was odd, how he felt safe telling this blonde stranger his many doubts and fears and secrets.

Though he never mentioned the magic.

He didn't know why.

Even when around someone in a near coma he was cautious.

"You're a troublesome prat, you know that, right?" Merlin asked, sitting on his bedroll and leaning forwards to brush some golden strands of hair out of that handsome face. "You should have been awake by now. I'm sure of it. But you're just enjoying making me worry, aren't you?"

There was no answer as the man remained still, breathing evenly.

Merlin sighed, tilting his head to the right. "What's your name?" He asked, not realizing that his thumb was trailing down across that noble forehead. "Who are you?" He gazed upon that face that he now had committed to memory. "Why would someone do this to you?"

Hearing a twig snap, Merlin jerked away from the bandaged stranger and stood, turning in time to see four injured men, wearing uniforms with the same crest his patient had worn. They had their swords drawn, and while they looked worse than the one he tended to they seemed more worried and relieved to have found him.

"What have you done?" The first glared at Merlin. "Have you hurt him?"

"Does it look like I've hurt him?" Merlin asked, not sure why he wasn't more afraid considering that there were four swords trained on him.

"Down, Bors." Another stood forwards, sheathing his sword. "The lad has been taking care of him." He turned to Merlin and bowed. "Thank you for tending to his wounds. We----when we couldn't find him we were so worried. We searched for days, fearing that he'd been taken or----."

They all winced, not wanting to think of the other option.

Merlin nodded, realizing that the blonde man lying on the bedroll must belong to this group, whoever they were.

"We must take him with us." Bors announced, sheathing his own sword. "We are not safe here, we must leave." He sent Merlin a worried glance. "Is he healed enough for travel?"

Merlin nodded. "His injuries are mostly healed and his fever broke last night."

"Good." Bors nodded. "Gawain, Kay, come help me with him."

The other two nodded and went forwards.

Merlin watched them take the man carefully, all treating him as if he were precious.

Something clenched in his chest at this but he pushed it away. He should be relieved that the man's comrades had found him and were taking him somewhere safe where a true physician could look after him.

That didn't mean though, that he didn't watch the blonde longingly until the men disappeared out of the cave, taking the blonde with them.

"We are forever in your debt," the one who'd remained with him bowed slightly.

"Anyone would have done the same if they'd found a stranger dying in the forest." Merlin stammered, blushing slightly.

The man straightened himself and looked at Merlin oddly. "You---you do not know who he is?"

Merlin frowned, finding this odd. "Should I?"

The man paused, considering. "No, I suppose not." He smiled at Merlin. "Thank you again." With that he turned to leave and join his other companions.

Merlin opened his mouth, closed it, bit on his bottom lip and then gathered his courage. "What's his name?"

The man paused at the entrance and then turned to Merlin and smiled. "Arthur." He hesitated for a moment. "And yours?"

"Merlin." The young peasant didn't see the harm in giving his name to a man he'd never see again. "My name is Merlin."

"Thank you, Merlin." The man repeated. "Thanks to you, Arthur alive. This shall not be forgotten, I promise you this."

"Arthur." Merlin tried the name on his tongue as the man left, deciding that the name fitted the blonde perfectly. "Arthur."

At least, he thought as he sighed and leaned against the wall, hugging himself. At least I learnt your name.

He hugged himself tighter, wondering why the cave felt so cold all of a sudden.

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When Arthur had awoken days later in the safety of his own room, with Gaius looking after him and Morgana and her maid keeping him company, he hadn't been in the best mood. He'd waited for so long to get the strength to wake up properly, to see his savior, and the opportunity had been taken away from him. He knew he was being spoilt and ungrateful and difficult, but he didn't care.

Morgana had grown angry with him only minutes after he'd awoken and had stormed out of his room, vowing to never worry about him ever again, and Arthur had even ignored his own father when he'd come to see him. He'd barely remembered to tell his father about Bayard's involvement (just barely stopping a war with King Cendred's kingdom before it could begin) before he'd asked who'd found him and brought him here.

The four surviving members of his knights had found him, scouring the land for him, and they'd found him and brought him to Camelot.

That had been Gaius' story, at least.

Arthur, thoroughly unimpressed with said story, had ordered the four knights to his quarters and interrogated them intensively. Bors and Kay and Gawain only could take him so far in the story to the part where they'd come across a very well hidden cave in which a young man with blue eyes and black hair had been tending to him. But it was sir Galahad who had more of a story to tell.

"He didn't know who I was?" Arthur didn't know how to feel about that. "He honored my wish to remain hidden and took care of me day and night and he didn't know who I was?!?" By now he was feeling anger. "The idiot! I could have been a murderer who'd done something to deserve what'd happened to me!"

The knights frowned at that.

"He seemed like a genuinely kind spirit, sire." Sir Galahad defended. "He was young not only in age but in spirit and innocence, and he tended to you diligently. It is thanks to his care that you are well. Or so the Court Physician told His Majesty the King."

Arthur nodded from where he still sat in bed, pale and weak and hating it. "Do you know anything else?"

"No sire." Sir Galahad then paused. "Ah. His name. He gave me his name."

The prince looked up at that, a hungry feeling greedy and controlling deep inside of him. "What was his name?"

The knights shared looks.

"Merlin." Sir Galahad replied.

Arthur's face went pale. "Thank you. You may now leave."

The knights left, and only when he was sure they were gone, Arthur forced himself out of bed and fought against the nausea and pain. He put on boots and grabbed a cape and a lantern and snuck out of his room through the secret passageway behind his bed.

His father had stationed guards outside of his room, making sure that no one entered or left without his knowing, and Arthur was about to do something he didn't want his father to have any knowledge of.

Continuing downwards through the secret tunnels, Arthur finally entered the underground lair and this time the Great Dragon who'd been talking to his mind ever since Arthur could remember, was waiting for him.

And Arthur could have sworn it was grinning smugly.

"I see that you have found your destiny, young Pendragon." The Great Dragon announced, leaning forwards. "I told you this day would come, did I not?"

"When you said 'Your destiny is Merlin' I thought you'd meant the bird." Arthur accused. "I thought it was a metaphor for a kingdom or something of the sort! Not—not a boy!"

The dragon continued to watch him, decidedly amused.

Arthur frowned at the beast. "What do I do now?" He winced in pain yet refused to let his discomfort show in his voice. "I—he—I'm at the top of a mountain and he's in the valley below. All I can do is go to the edge and look down!" He growled. "What do I do now?"

The dragon was silent.

"For years I have ordered you to leave my mind be and stay your infernal tongue, and yet now that I am asking for your advice you stay silent?" Arthur snapped. "I order you to answer me! What do I do once I get to that edge and there's no way down?!"

The dragon grinned. "You jump, Arthur."

Arthur paused, blinked, and ran a hand through his hair. "The fall will be rough, and I'll hit a lot of things on the way down."

"But there's a cool lake below waiting to soften the blow." The dragon declared.

Arthur chuckled against his better judgment, shaking his head. "Merlin, huh?"

The Great Dragon nodded, teeth showing in his happiness. "Destiny."