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Enough for Now
Merlin crouched in the reeds, shivering and trying not to yawn. The sun was just coming up, its heat turning the autumn fields into a misty golden haze. Arthur had insisted on rising early to go duck hunting. He knelt next to Merlin, an arrow loosely nocked on his bow. Merlin had been grateful for the addition of two dogs, so at least it would not be him wading out into the cold water to fetch the birds.
He shifted slightly, trying to ease a cramp in his leg, and the reeds crackled loudly. "Be quiet," Arthur hissed.
"Sorry," Merlin muttered and prayed silently for some ducks to show themselves. Nothing happened, however, and soon he found himself lapsing back into the dark thoughts that had plagued him since his battle with Nimueh. One more example of how deadly and dangerous magic could be. How would he ever be able to convince Arthur that not all magic was evil with people like her on the loose? Even worse was the sting of the dragon's betrayal. He had let himself be used. And now doubt festered in his mind. What if it wasn't his destiny to help Arthur? Was he just wasting his time on some illusion that would never come true? If it wasn't his destiny, he could leave, go somewhere his magic would be appreciated.
Merlin sighed and glanced at Arthur. He wouldn't leave. Destiny or not.
Arthur tensed and raised his bow. Listening, Merlin heard the beating of approaching wings. A flock of ducks appeared, angling to land on the water. Arthur's bow twanged, and a bird tumbled from the sky. The others scattered, honking loudly. Arthur whistled, and one of the dogs took off, splashing into the pond.
"Well shot," Merlin said, standing up and stretching gratefully. "Shall we be going back now?"
Arthur looked at him in disbelief. "Go back? We've only gotten one! There's sure to be more flying through here this morning. Now sit down." He reached over and jerked Merlin's arm, pulling him back to the ground. "They won't come with you standing there plain as day."
Suppressing a groan, Merlin settled back into a crouch and tried to drive away thoughts of breakfast by a warm fire.
Several hours later, when the day had turned warm and fine, Merlin stretched out beside Arthur, bit into a crisp apple, and sighed happily. They had taken a detour on their way back to the castle, Merlin carrying a brace of ducks, when Arthur spotted a few lonely apple trees on the edge of some farmer's fields. Merlin had climbed up and picked some ripe apples, and they had settled down into the stubble of a hay field to enjoy them. Surrounded by the warm smell of hay and soaking up the sun, Merlin found his dark mood lifting.
"My shoulder was better today," Arthur said, flexing his arm. "I should be able to manage my shield soon."
"Just promise me we won't go chasing off after any more monsters—it'll be winter soon and I don't fancy wading through snowdrifts after Questing Beasts and griffons."
"It has been an eventful few months," Arthur said. He gave Merlin a gentle shove. "I don't remember my life being this complicated before you showed up."
"It has nothing to do with me," Merlin protested. "I didn't ask for raiders to show up at my village or for druids to wander into the city or any of it—believe me, I'd be much happier if none of it had happened."
"I suppose that's true." Arthur sighed and lay back into the grass, closing his eyes. "I hope it's a quiet winter, too."
Merlin watched him. Arthur's face was peaceful, a slight smile on his lips. He shivered, remembering having to see Arthur with his face twisted in pain, sweat plastering his hair to his forehead, after he had been bitten by the Beast Glatisant. For a few awful hours he had thought Arthur was going to die. No—he could never leave him. A breeze blew Arthur's hair over his eyes and without thinking, Merlin reached over and brushed it back. Arthur's eyes blinked open, and he caught Merlin's hand.
"You—you had something in your hair," Merlin stammered.
"Oh." Arthur released him and sat up. "We should be getting back I suppose. I'm to inspect the storage facilities with my father this afternoon—make sure they're ready for the harvest."
"Right." Merlin scrambled to his feet, gathering up their things, glad for the excuse to hide the blush staining his cheeks. Although why he should be blushing. He dressed Arthur every morning, put on his armor—they had touched hundreds of times. Trying to push his sudden confusion away, he followed Arthur down the road, whistling for the dogs to leave off hunting in the bracken.
A baron came to visit the next evening, which occasioned a formal dinner in the Great Hall. Merlin tried unobtrusively to sidle closer to the fire as he waited on Arthur. The nights were growing increasingly colder. Passageways and windows that had provided pleasant breezes during the summer now flooded the castle with a chill wind.
Managing to attain a spot where he could feel the warmth of the fire but still see Arthur, Merlin beckoned for Gwen to join him. "It's warmer over here," he said as she hurried over.
Gwen nodded. "I made Lady Morgana wear her furs this evening. It's freezing out there in the middle of the Hall."
"Although they are enjoying hot mulled wine," Merlin pointed out. "And mutton stew." He sniffed appreciatively, and his stomach rumbled.
"I'll make sure you get some later," Gwen said, sounding amused.
Arthur was seated next to the baron's wife. Whatever she was saying to Arthur, he kept blushing every few minutes.
"How are things with Arthur?" Gwen asked, noticing the direction of his gaze.
Merlin glanced at her, then looked back at Arthur. "The usual—he orders me around—acts like a spoiled prince."
"Judging by your smile, I wouldn't say you mind too much."
"My smile? I'm not smiling."
"You were before," Gwen said, trying to hide a smile of her own. "It's sweet, how much you care about him."
"Of course I care about him—he's our future king, isn't he?"
Gwen patted him on the arm. "If that's what you want to believe, Merlin."
"What do you mean? What should I—" But at that moment the company rose from the table, and Gwen hurried off to help Morgana.
Merlin trailed after Arthur up to his room, Gwen's words echoing uncomfortably in his head. "What was the baron's wife saying to you?" he asked Arthur. "You blushed every time she spoke."
Arthur grimaced. "She kept telling me what a beautiful daughter she has—with rather detailed descriptions—and making not so subtle hints about what a wonderful wife she would make me."
"You've never even met her!" Merlin said hotly.
"And with a mother-in-law like that—no matter if she was the most beautiful girl in the world, I'd think twice."
Arthur looked at him. "Good? What, have you got the future queen of Camelot picked out for me?"
"No! I mean," Merlin softened his tone, "I just don't think you should marry someone for their looks, that's all."
"Give me some credit, Merlin," Arthur said, sounding exasperated.
As Merlin lit the candles in Arthur's bedchamber, he asked himself why he was so bothered that the baroness had tried to foist her daughter off on Arthur. It had almost been as though he was—jealous. Merlin shook his head. No, that couldn't be right. He had just been upset at the crass behavior of the baroness.
Considering that a few weeks before, their crops had been stricken with a magical plague, the harvest went amazingly well. In fact, according to the farmers, they harvested more wheat and barley than ever before and the apples were unusually large and sweet. And they might have been starving—would have been starving—if I had failed at the Labyrinth. Arthur took a deep breath. But he hadn't, not with Merlin's help. Part of him still couldn't believe it—that Merlin had been willing to drink the poison, had been ready to die so he lived. And it hadn't been the first time, either. The rational part of him said that it was because he was the prince—because he would be king—and that Camelot would suffer upheaval and strife if Uther's only heir suddenly died. But part of him hoped that Merlin had done it because of Arthur, because Merlin cared for him and saw him as a friend.
He hoped Merlin knew that he thought of Merlin as a friend, not just a servant. Arthur realized he wasn't very good at showing it. He had always had to keep his distance from people, maintain the detached, commanding air of royalty. Not to mention that Merlin could be incredibly annoying at times. But things that had bothered Arthur in the beginning—particularly Merlin's clear lack of respect for the mere title of prince or king—he had come to value. He knew Merlin would tell him the truth, even if it meant disagreeing with him and risking his anger. Merlin would side with him against Uther, if necessary.
So the depression and anger he had sensed in Merlin recently had been particularly troubling. He didn't know if he should ask Merlin what was bothering him or not. Or, if he did, if Merlin would even answer. Arthur often felt that he didn't really know Merlin. Just when he thought he had Merlin figured out, he would do or say something that completely overturned all the conclusions Arthur had made.
Then, to make matters worse, Merlin had started acting oddly. His skills at putting on armor, which Arthur hadn't believed could ever be any shoddier than the first time he tried, disintegrated. Suddenly Merlin was fumbling with his gauntlets and dropping things and getting pieces mixed up. Arthur chastised him at first, but Merlin obviously realized his mistakes, blushing and mumbling apologies. He didn't improve, though, so finally Arthur just endured the process in silence.
Merlin also seemed reluctant to spend time around him, which, considering Merlin was his personal servant, was ridiculous. Merlin kept coming up with excuses about having to do errands for Gaius and took to cleaning and straightening his room when he was training with the knights. Before Merlin had seemed to make it a point of cleaning when he was there—usually trying to read—and talking the whole time, which was completely irritating. Now, though, he wanted Merlin back and—Arthur reluctantly admitted this—felt hurt that Merlin was avoiding him.
"Remind me," Merlin said, peering out from beneath his hood at a steady downpour of rain, "why we are out here in this? I'm completely soaked!"
"It's only a bit of water, Merlin," Arthur said, looking back over his shoulder. "Don't carry on so."
Urging his horse forward, Merlin drew level with Arthur. "And why am I along, anyway? I'll hardly be of any help checking Camelot's defensive outposts."
"I thought you might enjoy it, seeing a bit of our country," Arthur said. "I didn't mean for it to rain."
"Oh." Arthur had wanted him along—wanted Merlin's company. Merlin felt a warm sense of relief and happiness. He knew he had been behaving oddly lately and was sure Arthur had noticed as well. He had felt increasingly uncomfortable in Arthur's presence—just trying to put on Arthur's armor made him blush and stammer like an idiot. He had been trying to stay away from Arthur—until his emotions were under control. "I don't really mind the rain."
"Good. Now come on, I'll race you to the bridge!" He dug his heels into his horse's flanks and bolted forward. Merlin followed with a shout.
Arthur won—of course. "Why do you have to be so good at everything," Merlin complained as they resumed their journey at a slower pace.
"I'm a prince, Merlin," Arthur said. "It's expected." After a moment he went on, "I'm not really, you know. I make mistakes—all the time. Sometimes I think I'll never be the king my father is."
"The people of Camelot love you," Merlin said. And you'll be twice the king Uther is, he added silently.
Arthur twisted the reins in his hands, not looking at Merlin. "Yes, but—what if I fail them?"
"You will be a great king," Merlin told him and tried to put all the faith he had in Arthur into those words.
They stopped the night at one of the small guard outposts on the frontier. The captain gave them his room and went to sleep with his men in the barracks. The bed was adequate but certainly not comfortable, Arthur reflected, shifting about. The mattress was so thin he could feel every rope beneath him. Merlin was curled up on a straw pallet by the fire. Arthur had almost told Merlin to join him in the bed—it was going to be a cold night—but hadn't. He wasn't really sure why.
You will be a great king. Closing his eyes, Arthur pictured again the way Merlin looked when he said those words—his eyes clear and confident, a small smile on his lips. It felt—wonderful—to have someone believe in him so completely. Arthur wondered again who Merlin saw—the prince or the person behind the royal trappings.
Turning onto his side, Arthur looked down at Merlin. Merlin seemed to be asleep, breathing deep and slow. The blanket had slipped down, leaving his shoulders exposed to the cold. Arthur pulled it back up, then rolled over and tried to find sleep himself.
Hadn't his life been difficult enough? Hadn't he had enough secrets? Groaning, Merlin buried his head in his hands and ignored the sunlight creeping through the shutters. He couldn't handle another day of this. He should have been taking Arthur's breakfast up and opening the curtains to Arthur's chamber (secretly enjoying Arthur's muffled protests that it was too early to rise). Today, though—today he usually drew a bath for Arthur. And the thought of that torture was too much. He didn't trust himself. Scrubbing Arthur's back, holding out towels for him—what if he did something that made it perfectly apparent that he was...attracted to Arthur.
Oh gods, it was hard to think that. It had taken him awhile to realize it and even longer to openly admit it to himself. But he couldn't deny it. His feelings for Arthur had somehow gone wild, had transformed from friendship into something else. Oh, the friendship was still there, but it had been completely overshadowed by desire. It had finally dawned on him during their trip to the border. He had awoken earlier than Arthur that morning and spent a good twenty minutes simply looking at him, resisting the impulse to run his fingers through Arthur's hair and waken him with a kiss.
It was a disaster. A complete disaster. He had no idea if Arthur had ever been attracted to men, had ever considered the concept. And even if that were a possibility (unlikely), Merlin was his servant. A servant that Arthur had come to like, or at least tolerate, but a servant nonetheless. Not to mention the issue of his magic, which Arthur still knew nothing about. Pulling the pillow over his head, Merlin prayed that everyone forgot he existed.
His prayers—as usual—were not answered. A knock at the outer door came minutes later and he heard two voices—Gaius and (inevitably) Arthur. Wanting to know where the hell Merlin was, no doubt.
And then a soft knock on his door, and Arthur was saying, "Are you all right, Merlin?"
Taking a deep breath, Merlin removed the pillow. "I was—" he fished around for an excuse, "not feeling well," he finished lamely.
"What's wrong?" Arthur sat down on the bed next to him. Merlin tried to inch imperceptibly away and kept his gaze averted.
"Oh, my stomach, probably ate something that disagreed with me. I'm feeling better now. In fact, I probably won't even need one of Gaius's horrible remedies. They really taste awful, you know. I think he deliberately does it, I mean nothing could taste so terrible naturally." Running out of words, words that he could say at any rate, Merlin stopped and shut his mouth tightly. An awkward silence fell.
"What is the matter, Merlin?" Arthur finally said. "I—" He stopped, then went on, "Have I done something?"
His question surprised Merlin into looking at him. "No! No, you haven't done anything!" Why did Arthur have to look so hurt and puzzled? Merlin wanted to throw his arms around him, reassure him that everything would be fine. He forced himself to look away again. "It's just—"
Merlin shrugged and fidgeted. "I don't know," he finally muttered.
"You don't know," Arthur repeated, anger beginning to filter into his tone.
Arthur stood abruptly. "Well until you do know," he said, "I will find someone else to carry out your duties. Someone who can actually perform them adequately," he continued angrily, "and as you never wanted to be my servant in the first place and seem intent on avoiding me, the arrangement should suit both of us." He strode from the room, slamming the door behind him. Feeling even more wretched, which he hadn't believed possible, Merlin suppressed the urge to call Arthur back. What would he say to him? How could he ever explain?
"You look grim this evening," Morgana said, coming through the door.
Arthur looked up from the table, where he was moodily pushing around bits of a dinner that he didn't feel like eating. "You're welcome to come in, Morgana," he said sarcastically. Couldn't she ever knock?
Morgana ignored him. "Where's Merlin?"
Arthur shrugged. "How should I know?"
"Well he is your servant," Morgana pointed out.
She frowned. "What do you mean?"
"He obviously didn't care for it so I let him go."
"That's ridiculous. Oh, perhaps he doesn't enjoy washing your clothes—and I can't blame him—but he cares about you, Arthur. And what will he do?"
"I don't know. Work with Gaius."
"Gaius hardly has enough to keep Merlin busy—besides, he doesn't care for medicine. I can't imagine he wanted to be let go because of that. What reason did he give?"
"He didn't," Arthur muttered.
"Oh, I see. So you simply decided that you would get rid of him on a whim!"
"No—he was, I don't know, acting strangely. He wouldn't tell me what was wrong."
"And so instead of trying to find out, you pushed him away."
"He wouldn't talk to me," Arthur said through gritted teeth. Of course Morgana thought it was all his fault!
"He's probably afraid how you'll react, afraid you'll be angry."
"Why would I be angry?" Arthur said, incredulous. "What could he possibly have to tell me that would make me angry?"
Morgana looked at him for a few moments, then shook her head. Sighing, she put her hand over Arthur's. "It's obvious that you care about him—or you wouldn't be so upset. Promise me you'll talk to him?"
"Fine, yes. I would have, anyway."
Morgana raised her eyebrows but refrained from commenting.
After she had left, Arthur went over to the window and opened it. The moonlight cast strange shadows on the castle's turrets and eaves. It was very quiet. How many nights had he spent like this, looking out on Camelot and feeling the weight of responsibility pressing down on him? It always made him feel so alone, so isolated, knowing he could never admit his fears to his father. Sometimes he had imagined that his mother was standing with him, taking his hand in hers, comforting him with her silent presence. Tonight, though, he was startled to realize that it wasn't his mother who came into his mind but Merlin. Merlin's fingers wrapped over his own, Merlin's arm around his shoulders.
Troubled, Arthur closed the window and latched the shutter tightly.
The next morning Arthur went to find Merlin. He wasn't in his room or anywhere in the castle. He checked Guenever's house, but neither she nor Merlin was there. Growing increasingly irritated (and anxious) Arthur ordered his horse saddled and cantered off down the road. The last pleasant day of autumn had slipped away, and a cold wind blew down the empty highway scattering leaves before his horse's hooves.
Merlin could be anywhere. Arthur remembered hearing Merlin talk about a place near Camelot, though, a small hamlet of perhaps five houses in a meadow near which he and Gaius had gathered some herbs. Merlin had commented on how it reminded him of his home. So Arthur decided to try there, for lack of any better ideas.
The forest drew right up to the edge of the meadow, the trees leaning out as though catching the rays of the sun. Smoke rose from a few chimneys, and Arthur saw a man out chopping firewood. Dismounting, Arthur led his horse slowly along the outskirts of the clearing, staying just within the trees. A hill rose on the east, overlooking the village, and Arthur clambered up it. At the top, the remains of a stone wall lay tumbled on the ground, tall grasses almost hiding it. Merlin was sitting there. He saw Arthur coming but did not acknowledge him. He didn't run away, either, which Arthur took as a good sign.
Tying his horse to a tree, Arthur walked over to Merlin. A few minutes passed in silence.
"That could have been me," Merlin said suddenly, gesturing at the farmer down in the meadow. "If I hadn't—" He stopped, then went on after a moment, "If I hadn't come here. I'd have been chopping wood and plowing the fields. Just like my father."
Merlin had never mentioned his father. "And do you regret it?" Arthur asked carefully. "Coming here? Would you rather be back in your village?"
"I never want to chop another stack of firewood in my life," Merlin said with surprising vehemence. "And no," he added with a sigh, "I don't regret coming here."
Arthur scuffed his boot in the dirt. "I'm sorry about yesterday. I didn't mean it."
"I know." Merlin finally looked at him and managed a weak smile. "Does this mean I'm still to have the honor of cleaning your chamber?"
"Only if you want."
"I—I do," Merlin said looking away again. "Someone has to be around to get you out of trouble." Arthur started to protest that it was usually him getting Merlin out of trouble, but held back, wanting to hear what else Merlin had to say. "I just don't know if I can," Merlin finished, voice quiet.
"Why?" Arthur demanded. "Tell me what it is, Merlin. I promise I won't get angry with you, whatever you say."
Merlin murmured something that Arthur couldn't hear. Before he could ask what Merlin had said, though, Merlin was standing up, eyes suddenly level with his. And then Merlin leaned closer and pressed his lips against Arthur's. "That's why," Merlin said in a sad voice. Turning, he started to walk away.
Completely shocked, Arthur could only stare after him.
Merlin half-hoped that Arthur would call out to him, but there was only silence. He couldn't bear to look back and see Arthur's expression—probably outraged or disgusted. That was it then. Slowly, he wended his way back through the forest and trudged along the road to Camelot. He supposed he should pack his things. He'd come up with some excuse, tell Gaius and Gwen that he was just going to visit his mother for a few days. He didn't know where he would really go but couldn't summon the will to care.
He couldn't have kept his feelings a secret, though. It was too much to have to hide his magic—he couldn't manage this as well. And there had been the small hope that perhaps Arthur might feel the same way. He had been a fool to even entertain the idea.
Thankfully Gaius was not there when he returned. Going to his room, Merlin shut the door behind him and pulled out his pack. He rummaged about, gathering clothes off the floor. Coming upon his book of spells, he paused, running his hand over the cover. Another stupid wish. That if he told Arthur about his magic, he would see understanding and acceptance in Arthur's eyes instead of fear and distrust. Merlin angrily stuffed the book into the pack.
He heard the door open behind him. "Everything's fine, Gaius," Merlin said, not turning around. "I just got a note from my mother, asking me to visit for a few days."
"And were you planning on coming back?" a quiet voice asked. Merlin whirled. It was Arthur.
"I—" Merlin swallowed, unable to go on.
"You idiot," Arthur said, but his voice was tinged with affection. "I don't want you to go."
"But," Merlin fumbled for words, "but I kissed you! And you didn't seem too happy about it," he finished.
Arthur rolled his eyes. "It was a little unexpected. Or maybe I should have realized." He shrugged. "The point, Merlin, is that you startled me, that's all."
"Then you aren't…angry?"
"No. Well, perhaps a little—that you didn't feel you could tell me."
Merlin looked down at the floor. "I'm sorry."
"No—I understand," Arthur said.
Silence fell. Merlin kept his gaze on the floor, wondering desperately what he should say or do.
Arthur took a step forward and held out his hand.
Slowly, Merlin put his own hand in Arthur's. Arthur drew him closer and brushed Merlin's cheek with his fingers. "Look at me," Arthur commanded.
Merlin did. Arthur studied him, face serious. Merlin's heart was pounding, and he wanted to look away but at the same time never wanted to tear his eyes from Arthur. Arthur bent forward, bringing his mouth within an inch of Merlin's. He hesitated. Merlin shut his eyes and brought them together.
The kiss was tentative and uncertain, but Merlin couldn't stop the thrill of joy that rushed through him.
Arthur pulled back after a moment but kept his forehead resting against Merlin's. "I can't promise you anything," he whispered.
"You don't have to. I would never ask, never expect—"
"I know," Arthur said. "Merlin," he whispered, his voice caressing and wondering at the same time. "Let's just—try. Let each day be enough—for now."
"For now," Merlin echoed and pushing away all the worry and doubt, he wrapped his arms around Arthur and held him close, feeling Arthur's heartbeat pounding against his own.