The Night of Your Heart
Summary: There's a new knight in Camelot and there's something about him Arthur really doesn't like. Arthur/Merlin slash. Romance, humour. Warnings for some violence and spoilers for most of season one.
* * *
Well, Arthur is. Merlin is following in that sulky way he has when he wishes he wasn't there. Arthur can sense Merlin's stroppiness so well and he wonders when Merlin's going to end the 'silent treatment' and start stamping his feet and whining.
Arthur spots a large hare just a few metres in front and gestures behind him.
"Merlin," he whispers, "bow."
There's a moment in which Merlin, behind him, doesn't do anything. Then Arthur hears a sigh.
"Any day now, Merlin," says Arthur. Finally, Merlin hands him the cross-bow. Arthur takes aim, the hare right in his sights –
There's a pained-sounding yell from deeper in the forest. It sounds like a man who's just been gutted or had his limbs hacked off, or worse.
The boys both stand upright, backs straight as they listen to the yell die. "What was that?" exclaims Merlin. The hare, unnoticed, runs away.
They look at each other, grim. "I don't know," Arthur answers, voice low, "but it doesn't sound good. Let's go."
Arthur and Merlin sprint through the forest toward the direction of where the yell had come from, Merlin only a step behind Arthur. Arthur has the cross-bow in one hand and his other on the handle of his sheathed sword, ready. The forest becomes denser, the air thicker yet still chilled, and the shadows from the foliage of the trees paint the ground in light and shadow.
They stop in a small glade and there is a man standing with his head bowed and his back to them. There is something about him, or perhaps the glade; how the light from the sun blinded and the air has the faint smell of smoke. "Hello?" says Arthur, wary. The man is as still as death.
Arthur can feel Merlin standing close, breathing harshly from the run. It's a moment that's so strange, so unmoving –
It's broken when the man lifts his head and gracefully, as if he is like silk, turns around and faces them. He's a handsome young man about their age – blonde hair, blue eyes, a knight's build and clothing – nothing out of the ordinary, in fact, but Arthur feels the unease creep up his back like a spider.
The man looks at Merlin first, and smiles, slow and predatory, gaze heavy-lidded and watching.
Arthur turns his head. Merlin, naive and adorable as he is, visibly relaxes and smiles back at the stranger, stepping closer. "Hi," says Merlin, giving the man a small wave, "are you alright? We heard screaming."
The man's smile slips into a frown for just a second and his eyes go dark – but just as it went, the flirtatious smile is back and his eyes are on Merlin, who is now holding out his hand to shake. The man stares at it.
Merlin keeps his own smile, though he's starting to look uneasy with the stranger's silence. "I'm Merlin – "
"And I'm Arthur Pendragon," says Arthur imperiously, stepping forward, "prince of Camelot."
The man's gaze snaps to Arthur, looking stunned as if it is the first time he's even noticed Arthur standing there. His smile is completely gone, and there's a flash of an angry expression – almost a snarl – before the stranger kneels and bows his head. "My Lord!" he says, then lifts his head to look Arthur. "Sire. I am Caelin, son of Eadwyn, at your service."
"Hm," says Arthur, unimpressed, "you may rise, Caelin. We heard someone yelling from this direction. Have you heard, or seen anything?"
Caelin does rise, though slowly, and he's not paying attention to Arthur at all. He's looking to the side towards Merlin, his gaze locked on the boy's face. Merlin is watching Caelin curiously.
They keep looking at each other, and it makes Arthur angry. He growls, too low and quiet for Merlin to hear, but Caelin does. His sharp eyes snap to Arthur's.
Merlin, oblivious, starts nattering and walking back the way they came. "Shall we go, Sire? It will get dark soon." He looks over his shoulder at Caelin. "Are you heading to Camelot?"
Caelin cocks his head to the side and gives Merlin another of those irritating smiles again. "Is that where you are heading, Merlin?"
"Well, that is a coincidence, is it not? For I am heading there too."
"Oh are you?" says Arthur, his voice still a growl. Merlin throws him a strange look, and Arthur twists his lips and marches ahead of them. "You better follow us then, wouldn't want you to get lost."
* * *
In his short life Arthur has been in a hundred fights, had a hundred servants look after him and had a hundred peasants plead to him. He's had a hundred women look at him in want and a hundred boys look at him in jealous hate. It's all a large barrel of nothing, as far as Arthur is concerned. One fight won and he revels for a day, one look from a girl and he forgets in a minute.
Merlin is something else altogether. He can't put his finger on what it is about him, can't place him in a category. A fight with Merlin pains him to his very soul; a plea from Merlin is a lethal demand on his heart; a laugh, an innocent touch, a conversation, a look - these things he takes and keeps inside himself like a treasure. He pulls the memories out when it's dark, when he's sad.
He doesn't know what it means, though. He supposes it's because they're friends, and Arthur could say he's had a hundred friends, but it would be lie. Merlin is the only true friend he has ever had.
* * *
Uther looks pleased. "Caelin, Fifth son of Eadwyn. And how is Eadwyn keeping these days?"
Caelin smiles a polite smile. It's different from the one he'd given Merlin earlier in the day, Arthur notices. "Well, Sire," he replies.
"Good to hear." He gives a sweeping gesture to Arthur. "You shall be tested by my son, Arthur, tomorrow. And by God's good graces, by evening Camelot shall have a new knight."
Now Caelin's smile is much more genuine. "Yes, Sire, thank you." He looks to the side, to Arthur, and they exchange cold glares.
* * *
Merlin's dark fringe falls into his eyes as he concentrates on clothing Arthur in his armour.
"You should get someone to cut your hair," Arthur tells him.
Merlin lifts his head and gives him one of his silly grins, his eyes slitted in joy. Inside Arthur something warm swells and his breathing changes. Merlin gives him a sympathetic look. "You nervous?"
"What?" barks Arthur, thrown by the question. "Why would I be? What's there to be nervous about?"
Merlin shrugs, unfazed. He rubs one hand over his eyes before picking up Arthur's crimson cloak and draping it over his shoulders, and Arthur realises, belatedly, that Merlin looks really tired. "Just thought, you know, Caelin looks like a good fighter. Knight material. Strong." He smooths the cloak over Arthur's shoulders and steps back, looking pleased at his handiwork. Then he looks at Arthur's face and his happiness slips away to confusion and concern. "Arthur," he says, "are you alright?"
Arthur's eyes are narrowed to almost slits and his jaw is clenched so hard it's a wonder he can reply at all, but he does. "I'm fine," he grates. "So Caitlin or whatever his stupid name is is strong, is he?"
"Er – "
"Why are you so tired?" Arthur demands. Merlin looks thrown by the abrupt change of subject, as was Arthur's intention. "I need a servant who is alert at all times to – um, service me. Get my helmet and sword!"
"Yeah alright," Merlin says in exasperation. Arthur notices him roll his eyes just before turning away to pick up the items and hand them over.
"Good luck," Merlin says as Arthur enters the training ground.
"I don't bloody need it!" Arthur shouts back at him.
Caelin looks as calm as collected as usual in his knight's coat of arms and chainmail. His eyes sweep over Arthur briefly before falling on Merlin, who is standing on the edge, arms crossed and appearing positive. When Merlin notices Caelin's long seductive look, he gives the other man a hearty wave.
Arthur grinds his teeth.
Later, after Arthur beats Caelin (of course, Arthur thinks to himself, did I ever doubt it?) Caelin, who had lasted longer than a minute in battle, is knighted.
Even more later, there's a celebratory feast (because Uther Pendragon is both a hard man and a man who likes to party). Arthur's in a bad mood for most of it, though, because he feels that he should be able to trust every one of his knights, and yet he cannot trust his newest one because he keeps talking to the servants. Or rather, one servant in particular. Merlin looks pretty happy to have someone other than Guinevere to talk to though; not that Merlin doesn't like her, only that Arthur knows that the servants aren't allowed to approach the higher class so they get stuck talking to each other every single gathering.
Morgana slips into the seat next to Arthur. "Arthur," she says in that low, slow voice she uses when she's either about to manipulate him or make fun of him, or both, "what are you glaring at? You look all – intense and strange."
Arthur rips his gaze away from where Caelin is murmuring into Merlin's ear and making him laugh. "I don't trust the new knight," he admits quietly.
"No," she says in agreement, just as quietly. Arthur is surprised and gives her a sharp, questioning look. She tries to smile reassuringly, and fails. "I don't like him because..." she trails off and gives him a searching look. "Just because. Call it a feeling."
"Hmm, you have a lot of those 'feelings', don't you Morgana?"
She turns her face away and picks up her goblet of wine. But Arthur knows her all too well – she's trying to hide her face so she won't give away her expression. When she turns back, she's smiling wickedly. She must be drunk already because she leans forward and murmurs in his ear. "Hey Arthur."
Arthur gives a long suffering sigh. "What, Morgana?"
"I have a really large bottle of sloe gin in my chambers." She giggles. "How about we leave these dullards and get really sloshed."
"If this is a ploy to get me into your bed – "
"Oh don't flatter yourself!" she practically shrieks, leaning back. "It wouldn't just be us – we could have a little party of our own – "
"Excuse me," says Arthur, getting up and leaving the table. He goes straight over to Merlin, who watches his approach and continues to watch. "Merlin," says Arthur, interrupting their conversation, "I think Morgana would like some more wine."
"What?" says Merlin, looking completely thrown by this, for some reason. It is, after all, his job to keep everyone's goblets full. He gives Arthur a small, petulant pout for a moment, making his cheekbones more prominent and his mouth –
Arthur blinks the thought away. "Go now, Merlin."
Merlin gives Arthur one more look, before walking off with his pitcher. Arthur can't help but watch him walk away, then talk to Morgana briefly while filling her glass. He's forgotten why he's standing there until a silky voice speaks quietly into his ear.
"You know," says Caelin, "where I'm from, we take our servants to bed."
"Oh really?" Arthur watches him from the side, his eyelids lowered. Caelin is smirking and looking far too smug about something.
"Yes," the knight answers. "I enjoy many maids and menservants alike." He lowers his head and gives Arthur a sly look. "I don't enjoy sharing, though."
Arthur moves into Caelin's personal space, his chin lifted and his jaw clenched in anger. His body is as tense as a bow string. He tells Caelin, his voice pitched low, "If you touch Merlin in any way, I will kill you."
Caelin is unfazed, his eyes calculating and his mouth still curled into that infuriating smirk. "How sure are you," he asks slowly, "that I haven't already?"
Arthur feels as if the air is knocked out of him – that the room is spinning, that he doesn't know where to look – but he does look, he looks at Merlin, who looks back from across the room, frowning in concern.
Arthur knows Caelin is still watching him, still calculating, measuring Arthur's every move. "Did he look tired today, Sire?" Caelin continues, and Arthur whips his head round to stare at him. "Huh. I can see by your expression that you noticed."
Arthur wants to throw Caelin against the wall, bash his head against the flagstones until blood pours from his skull. He wants to gut Caelin with his sword, cut his throat, hack off his legs, slice off his mouth.
He almost does all of these things and more, but instead he turns on his heal, strides over to Merlin, grabs his arm and drags him out of the room.
"What's going on?" yells Merlin, alarmed as Arthur pulls him by the arm through the corridors and up the stairs to his chambers. Merlin sounds almost afraid. "Arthur. Arthur, what's the matter?"
"Nothing's the matter," says Arthur through clenched teeth. "It's just – it's just, I can't stand it any longer!"
"Can't stand - ? What – ah!"
Arthur practically throws him into his room, kicks the door shut, whirls on Merlin and points a finger in his face. "Last night! What did you do? Who were you with? What did you get up to with that – that – imbecile!"
Arthur thinks that Merlin should look embarrassed, or stammer out a lie. But, watching closely, Arthur sees that Merlin does none of those things, he just looks confused as he tries to smooth down his hair. "Arthur," he says finally, "I don't know what you're talking about."
Arthur lets himself relax a bit, swallowing thickly. He takes a deep, relieved breath. "Well," he says, nodding, "good."
But now Melin's giving him a side-ways look - slow smile building - the kind of look he uses when he's trying to figure Arthur out. Arthur tries to look strong under the scrutiny.
Merlin opens his mouth to ask something but Arthur interrupts by demanding, "So why were you so tired today?"
Now Merlin does look embarrassed, turning away to pull out a chair and sit in it. "It's hard to explain."
Arthur crosses his arms and stands his ground. "Try me."
"Alright," says Merlin, glancing at Arthur then away, "I just couldn't sleep."
"What? That's it?"
"Yeah but," Merlin shrugged, his nonchalance belied by the slow blush creeping across his cheeks, "it was strange. I kept dreaming, even though I was awake. Does that make sense?" He laughs. "It's stupid; it was just a dream."
"What was in the – "
Morgana, three-sheets-to-the-wind, bursts into the room, a large bottle of sloe gin in one hand and Guinevere's wrist in the other. "Theeeeeeere you are!" She smacks Arthur on the arm. "You started the party without me, you bastard!"
Guinevere shuts the door behind her, looking embarrassed. "Good evening, Sire," she says to Arthur, before making a beeline for Merlin on the far side of the table.
* * *
When they were teenagers, Arthur and Morgana used to sneak wine into either of their chambers and get themselves so drunk they would be sick, taking turns to hold each other's hair while bent over the chamber pot.
Now they were older, wiser. But it's still fun, Arthur thinks, as Merlin struts around in one of Arthur's fancy tunics, telling the tale of Beorhtwen the Beautiful while Guinevere, wearing Merlin's silly hat that Arthur had made him wear that time, points and laughs and tells him, "Wait! But you missed the part of the story where – ". And Morgana takes her hair out of its braid, pulls it under her nose and around her chin as a pretend beard and tells the story of the dashing prince. Merlin and Guinevere clap their hands at her rendition.
Arthur, for his part, is strangely quiet. He watches Merlin's eyes bright with firelight and his cheeks flushed from laughing and gin, and a strand of hair falls into one of his eyes and it is the most beautiful thing Arthur has ever seen. Merlin looks over at Arthur, then walks over, sits next to him on the foot of the bed and slings an arm over his shoulders.
Merlin has never, ever touched Arthur in this way, with his hand curled next to Arthur's sternum and his breath on Arthurs face. Arthur knows Merlin's grinning, can feel his joy through where they're touching: shoulders, down his side. But Arthur, for the life of him, cannot look, afraid that if he'll look he'll tremble.
"Oh dear," Arthur hears Morgana say as he stares at his own knees, "Arthur's out of it, I fear."
After quick goodbyes the girls leave, and Arthur is left alone with Merlin, who doesn't say anything, or move, for a long time.
Finally Merlin whispers, "I should go, too."
"No," says Arthur, grabbing his arm, "you should stay."
* * *
They don't kiss.
They don't hug.
They don't lie together as lovers do.
They do touch though. At least, Arthur touches Merlin. Merlin, however, falls asleep very fast and when Arthur is sure that he is truly asleep, he touches his face, strokes his ear, his lips.
When Arthur sleeps, he dreams of a man with red eyes and wings like a bat.
* * *
Arthur awakes by someone shaking him and calling his name. He grabs them and opens his eyes.
It's still dark outside the window and at first he can't see the face of the person who wakes him. But he sees the fall of long black hair and knows it's Morgana. Then he looks at her properly: she's so pale she glows, her eyes are like deep ice, her teeth a sharp white against the blue of her lips. He keeps a hold of her arm, tight enough to bruise and knows without looking to the side that Merlin is gone.
"Where is he?" he demands, his voice pitched low and dangerous.
"I don't know," she says, her voice thick from crying and fear. They go to Gaius.
The first thing Arthur does when he gets to Gaius's rooms is check Merlin's room – perhaps Merlin had left during the night to his own bed – but Merlin's bed is empty and his room is ice-cold. It put it all in stark relief: Merlin wasn't here, he was gone, and he was in danger.
While Arthur was in Merlin's room, Morgana had woken Gaius. As Arthur comes back down the steps, Gaius is holding Morgana as she cries into his shoulder. "He's in danger, Gaius," she tells him, "I had a nightmare and he – he – "
Gaius looks over at Arthur and Arthur tells him, "I had what I thought was a dream, but now I think it was real." They both look at him now and he feels desperate for a helpless moment. "Someone or something was hovering over Merlin's body: a man with red eyes and wings like a bat – "
"Yes!" exclaims Morgana. "That's just what I saw, in my dream."
Gaius steps away from her to go look through a book and Arthur moves forward, grabbing her by the arms and shaking her. "What else did you see in this dream of yours, Morgana? Tell me!"
She snarls at him but answers: "He took Merlin west through the forest."
"Here!" Gaius exclaims triumphantly and they both go over to read the page of the book over the physician's shoulder. He points at a picture of a man with wings, hovering over a naked woman. "Did it look like this?"
"Yes!" says Morgana and Arthur together.
"It's an incubus, a kind of demon," Gaius tells them. "It seduces men in the night and takes their life force and their seed, then it seduces women, sometimes impregnating them. Victims feel the attack like a dream, and they usually feel tired after."
Arthur feels sick. He crosses his arms and feels the thunderous hatred thrum through his body. "How do I kill it?" he asks.
"Cut off its head," Gaius answers.
"Morgana, I'll need you to get my horse ready. I'm going to the armoury."
* * *
Arthur rides harder than he ever has in his whole life.
The chill wind pushes through his hair and his armour is heavy. He feels more desperate now than the time Merlin had been poisoned and he needed to get the Mortaeus flower; they had not known each other long then but even then, even then, he had loved Merlin with all his heart.
He feels the land tremble under his horse's hooves and he knows time is not on his side but something else is, something deeper and more elusive. He's connected to Merlin somehow, because he knows in which direction to go to find Merlin and in this he is glad, because it means Merlin is still alive.
He sees a body lying on the ground ahead and he gets his horse to trot to a stop.
Heart shuddering in his throat, he leans down without getting off his horse and uses his sword to turn the body over.
It's Caelin, and he's dead.
It doesn't make sense. What it does mean, however, is that he's close.
When he does arrive, it's at a small clearing and Merlin is pinned to the trunk of a very large tree by two slim daggers through his shoulders. He's moaning Arthur's name and looks on the verge of passing out. Arthur dismounts and rushes over.
He touches Merlin's bloody chest, his face. Merlin's eyes try to focus on Arthur's and Arthur wants to cry. Merlin's murmuring "No..." and telling Arthur to run and Arthur is shushing him, telling him it will be alright, it's over now.
There's a low laugh from behind.
Arthur turns around slowly. The man standing there is not quite a man – it's a mythical creature of long, pale limbs and eyes and as red as hot coals. It grins at Arthur, showing rows of small, sharp teeth, shaped like tiny heads of spears. It unfurls its gruesome wings and when it speaks, its voice smooth and coaxing, like a lover. "Step back," it tells Arthur.
Arthur feels a kind of sorcery making him step back and away from Merlin, then stop. The incubus smiles that slow, closed-mouth smile Arthur remembers being on Caelin's face. On the incubus, it is more seductive and sinister.
"You killed Caelin," says Arthur.
"Yes," it purrs, "I had to possess a mortal body to enter the city. He was a good lover, that boy, while he lasted. Merlin, on the other hand..." As he trails off he looks at Merlin, who's squirming a little, semi-conscious. The incubus looks less than pleased with Merlin, now. "Merlin had a strange resistance to my magic. The first night I was able to get some of his energy, but not much. I had to use all my power to get him here tonight." His eyes slide over to Arthur's. "I'm glad you're here, my prince, now I can kill Merlin and take you instead."
"No," Merlin moans, choking on his breath, "leave him alone."
The incubus slowly stalks towards Merlin and still Arthur is powerless to move. "Such a weak, naive boy. I chose the servant who would not be missed should he die; and yet – " The creature stops in front of Merlin and touches Merlin's cheek with a long finger. He looks at Arthur from under his lashes. "And yet, here is the prince himself, with no other knights, ready to die for a servant. How strange you humans are."
The finger moves from Merlin's face and dips into the wound of his shoulder, and Arthur almost cries when he hears Merlin's pained moan. The incubus takes his blood-covered finger and licks it, then gasps loudly.
It's a very strange reaction to see: the incubus steps back, eyes and mouth wide with pure shock as it stares at Merlin. Merlin looks confused, just as Arthur feels, but it's nothing like the alarmed confusion on the face of the creature, who falls to its knees. "Impossible," it whispers, "how can it be – but you are, you are a cambion. So you must be - "
Merlin opens his eyes and the incubus seems to quail under his stare. "Emrys," says Merlin.
Arthur doesn't know what word Merlin speaks, but the incubus does, widening its eyes further, impossibly. "Yes," it whispers. "You are spoken of in prophecy. How could I not have known?" The incubus closes its eyes in despair and Arthur feels the bind of magic become lax. He carefully, slowly moves forward. "You seemed such an easy victim and yet – STAY BACK!"
Arthur freezes with the force of magic, hand on his sword. The incubus's eyes are completely red now, pupils and the whites.
Merlin is still shaking, probably from the pain, but his voice is steady as he tells it, "You've lost; he's going to kill you."
The creature looks afraid. "No, wait! Emrys, my Emrys – "
"Don't call me that – "
"I know who your father is!"
Arthur sees a flash of gold before Merlin shuts his eyes and shouts "Arthur, now!" and the bind holding Arthur is vanishes completely and Arthur takes his chance. He unsheathes his sword and brings it down, chopping off the incubus's head.
* * *
After the magical being has turned to ash and Arthur has pulled a bloody and pale Merlin from the tree, he rides back to Camelot proper with Merlin cradled in his arms like a precious burden. The dawn breaks in red and gold but it's cold, so very cold.
Merlin has finally passed out from the blood loss when they arrive at the gates, and Arthur dismounts and walks the rest of the way to the castle, carrying Merlin limp in his arms. He barely notices Morgana, Guinevere and Gaius rushing to his side. Guinevere has covered her mouth with her hands and Morgana and Gaius have a hand on each of his arms, steering him to Gaius's quarters.
Arthur spends the next two days in what feels like a living dream while Merlin truly sleeps. He has to explain to the court that Caelin had died fighting a demon, and Arthur had managed to finish him off before carrying his injured manservant back to safety. The part about Sir Caelin is a white lie; after all, it was really a demon who had entered Camelot that day.
Whenever he has time off he sits in a chair by Merlin's small cot and holds his hand.
* * *
While dozing one evening, forehead resting on Merlin's mattress, Arthur feels someone's fingers push through his hair. He looks up immediately and sees Merlin awake and smiling faintly at him.
"Finally," Arthur murmurs. "I am getting heartily sick of saving your life, Merlin."
Merlin snorts and his next words come out hoarse but sure: "Isn't that usually what I'm supposed to say?"
"No," says Arthur as he carefully pulls his hand away from Merlin's. Merlin seems reluctant to let go at first, but then lets him. Arthur can't look him in the eye. He gets up to leave and says, "I'll let Gaius know you're awake. And I better tell Guinevere too; she's been fretting the whole time."
"Oh," says Merlin, and Arthur peeks a look at him to see Merlin watching, his expression full an emotion Arthur can't really place. "And you?" asks Merlin. "Have you been fretting the whole time?"
Arthur forces himself to laugh as he leaves the room. "Don't be ridiculous," he quips, "I don't fret."
One week later, Arthur awakes in his own bed to find Merlin putting his breakfast on the table, then going to the fire and stoking it. Arthur rubs his eyes and tries to suppress the small glow of happiness at seeing Merlin first thing in the morning. "You're looking better," he comments.
Merlin comes over and leans against a bed post. "Yeah. Can't lift heavy things just yet, though."
Arthur sits up in bed and gestures for Merlin to come over. He looks reluctant, but does. There's an awkward moment where Arthur puts his hands on Merlin's arms then ignores Merlin's flinch, and he's trying to manoeuvre Merlin to come sit on his bed but it's obvious Merlin doesn't really want to.
Eventually Arthur gets his way. Merlin flinches again when Arthur's hand goes to the collar of Merlin's shirt and pulls it down a little to look at one of the wounds. Merlin is completely tense and Arthur looks at his face, which is red. He looks uncomfortable.
Arthur makes a face. "What's the matter with you?"
"Nothing," Merlin mutters and Arthur can't help but feel angry at both Merlin and himself, because Merlin looks as if he'd rather be anywhere else right now, while Arthur is enjoying having Merlin close and touching him like this, fingers resting against the nape of Merlin's pale neck.
"Take off your shirt," Arthur commands and Merlin's blush spreads across his neck and chest.
After a moment, Merlin complies. Arthur looks at the knife wounds. They're no longer bandaged and look tender but mostly healed. Arthur touches the skin just below one of the wounds with his thumb. He sees Merlin's head bow from the corner of his eye and wonders what he's doing, until Arthur feels warm, dry lips brush against his cheek.
Arthur shoots back and looks at Merlin in shock.
Merlin stares back for a moment, his expression both stubborn and embarrassed. Then, he slowly stands, looks away and mumbles, "Sorry. Didn't mean to – sorry," and leaves the room.
* * *
Merlin is only really awkward with Arthur for another day, but even after that it feels as if something has changed between them. It's as if Merlin is light and Arthur is an anchor and the very Earth itself is holding its breath, waiting for something. And it's not like Arthur doesn't want to – god does Arthur want to – but he knows it would be a mistake, it wouldn't work out; he could lose Merlin forever. He has to – he has to be a prince and marry some girl and it would all be a stupid, stupid mess.
One night, Arthur is sitting by the fire, thinking about these things, rolling them over and over in his head, when Merlin comes in. He sits next to Arthur on the rug in front of the fire with one of Arthur's slightly torn shirts in one hand and a sewing kit in the other. He's silent as he leans against Arthur a little and begins mending the shirt with thread and needle. Arthur thinks about the reasons why it would not be a good idea to touch Merlin, but the excuses he's had in his head for days are becoming less and less substantial. Especially when Merlin's leaning against him like this, head bowed. Especially when all he can he can think about is the feel of Merlin's lips on his cheek, the memory haunting him like a ghost. Especially when Merlin now, looks up and catches Arthur's eye and smiles.
Merlin moves forward, lips parted, ready for a kiss, and Arthur moves back.
"Don't," Arthur whispers, turning his face away.
"Why not?" pushes Merlin, voice full of emotion. Arthur closes his eyes.
"Because," he tells him, "it wouldn't be right."
He sees Merlin clench his jaw from the corner of his eye and knows that he's about to throw a typical Merlin tantrum, or worse, leave altogether, so he changes the subject by saying a single word: "Emrys."
Merlin looks at him, alarmed, and Arthur looks back.
"You said it in the woods, with the incubus. What does it mean?" And when Merlin doesn't answer, Arthur glares at him. "Merlin."
Merlin sighs and half-shrugs. "Remember that Druid boy we helped escape?"
"Mordred," says Arthur, "that was his name."
"Was it?" ask Merlin rhetorically, expression going dark. One blink later, and it's gone. "Well, he called me that name."
"That's it?" asks Arthur, unconvinced, when Merlin doesn't say anything more. "What does it mean? The incubus looked afraid when you said it."
Merlin shrugs again. "I know it did, but I really don't know what it means."
Arthur narrows his eyes, still unconvinced Merlin is telling the whole truth. Merlin, seeing his expression, bites his lip. "Arthur." He gives Arthur a pleading look and whispers, "Arthur, you have to trust me. One day, I'll tell you everything, I promise."
"Why can't you just tell me now?" Arthur asks, just as quiet, just as pleading.
"Because I'm afraid of what you'll think of me – "
"I would never – "
"Don't be so sure," Merlin tells him, voice deep and strong, suddenly. It shocks Arthur to silence.
After a tense moment, Arthur looks away and twists his lips guiltily. "I'm sorry," he says, "for killing the incubus."
When he looks back Merlin appears both confused and incredulous. "Why - ?"
"Because it said something about knowing your father. You don't know who your father is, do you? It could have been the last... living thing who knew who your father was. And I killed it."
"Oh," says Merlin, shaking his head, "it doesn't matter, Arthur."
"But it does."
Merlin grabs his shoulder suddenly, and looks him straight in the eye. "It was going to kill you. Whatever it was going to say, whatever knowledge it had – don't you see? Nothing matters if you're dead. The most important thing in the whole world is that you live."
Once again Arthur is stunned into silence. Merlin has said this kind of thing before, throwing Arthur's expectations of Merlin out the window with just a statement. Merlin takes his hand from Arthur's shoulder slowly and looks into the fire. "Besides," he says, "he's not the only person who knows who my father is."
Arthur nods. "Hunith."
"Yes," Merlin agrees, "but she never tells me anything, and I have learnt to trust her. Perhaps it's better I don't know."
* * *
Another man is knighted and there's another festivity that Arthur must attend. He gets slowly drunk while Morgana, next to him, swoons and natters about Camelot's newest recruit.
"He keeps looking at me. He is handsome, isn't he?" She nudges him with a sharp elbow. "What do you think of him?"
Arthur rolls his eyes at her, but looks at Sir Redwald across the room. He is handsome, young and absolutely nothing like Caelin was, for which Arthur is glad. "He's..." he shrugs; gossiping with girls was more Merlin's forte, not Arthur's. "He's a good, strong fighter."
"I hope he's a good, strong lover too." When Arthur doesn't say anything snide, she looks at him in concern. "What is the matter with you Arthur? You've been in a strange daze ever since the incident with the incubus."
Mentioning the incubus forces Arthur to glance at Merlin across the room, who is, unsurprisingly, chatting happily with the maidservants. Arthur looks back at Morgana and makes a lazy sweeping gesture. "I'd feel a lot better if you stopped bothering me about which men you want to bed. Do you think me an idle gossiper?"
Morgana starts to shove Arthur surreptitiously. "Go away," she hisses, "Sir Redwald is looking this way and I don't want him to think I'm your betrothed."
Arthur takes a lazy drink from his goblet. "I don't feel like going anywhere; I like it right here."
"Don't be difficult," says Morgana, exasperated. "Besides, you should go rescue Merlin from Sir Osric. Rumour has it he likes young men and has had his eye on Merlin for ages; and he is sure to make his move after Caelin and Merlin made a bit of a scene that time – "
Arthur doesn't hear the rest because he's already moving away.
As he strides over to Merlin he thinks that he really should have known. He should have known that after Caelin there would be others competing for his manservant's attention. That unless Sir Osric, one of Uther's oldest and most trusted knights, has been a demon in disguise for the last twenty years Arthur isn't really isn't allowed to chop off his head. If only he could kill every man who comes across Merlin and becomes infatuated with Merlin's pretty face.
When he gets to his destination, he puts an arm around Merlin's shoulders and tells Sir Osric imperiously, "He is my manservant and you can't have him."
There's an awkward moment in which they all stare at each other, then Sir Osric bursts out laughing and exclaims, "Of course, Sire, of course!" then slaps Merlin on the back with a big meaty hand and departs to go annoy someone else.
Arthur and Merlin look at each other and Merlin gives him a cheeky grin. "You are really something else, my Lord."
"What I am," Arthur tells him, pulling away, "is strong and handsome and the best warrior in the land. Now let's get out of here."
"Yes Sire," Merlin laughs and follows him out.
"I have wine in my chambers still?" Arthur asks as they walk down the corridor.
"Yes but – let's just stop here for a minute." Merlin pulls him into a small alcove and there's an intense struggle where Merlin grabs Arthur and Arthur grabs him back and Merlin leans forward to kiss him, only Arthur resists. "Stop moving," says Merlin, still laughing, struggling to hold Arthur still.
"I will not," says Arthur, bunching his hands in Merlin's tunic and almost falling over.
"Everybody knows you like me Arthur – "
"They do not!" Arthur exclaims, voice a bit high-pitched with panic. He clears his throat as Merlin pushes a hand through Arthur's hair. "Stop lying, it doesn't suit you – "
"Just let me – "
"No – mmmph - !"
Merlin presses his lips to Arthur's in a closed mouth kiss and they both freeze where they stand.
Merlin pulls away and looks at him, eyes intense. Arthur feels strange and happy and mortified all at the same time. "There," says Merlin, "now I promise I'll never do that again."
Arthur doesn't move and just stares at Merlin, who watches him back. Then Arthur mumbles something.
Merlin frowns. "What did you say?"
"I said, you can do it again. If you want."
Merlin gives him a slow building, happy grin and Arthur practically melts into a puddle of goo. He thinks, Oh Merlin, then leans forward, runs his hands through Merlin's hair and kisses him properly.
And while the Earth sighs and the hawks cry and the stones thrum with the beat of music, Arthur takes Merlin to his chambers and does a lot of proper, thorough things there too.