"What are you moping about, Merlin?"
"What?" Merlin looks up from his melancholy (read: slow) wiping-down of the table in Arthur's antechamber. "I'm not moping."
"Yes," Arthur says, coming around to the other side of said table, "you are." To prove his point, he leans forward to scrape his nail against a rather disgusting crust that may or may not be some form of vegetable. "You missed a spot. You may be the worst manservant in the history of man, but you never miss a spot."
Merlin glares at him, scrubbing at the crust. "That's because you always huff and refuse to eat when I do. I'm just a bit distracted. It's just been ages since I've been home to Ealdor." Quietly, he adds, "I miss it a bit."
Arthur resists the urge to sigh dramatically and throw his hands up in the air. In accusing Merlin of moping, he'd rather hoped Merlin would just come out and say something to the effect of, "Why, yes, Arthur, I am moping, because I really miss my mum and I want to go home." He's said just about as much within the past month, anyway.
"You want me to sack you? You can finally go home and I can finally hire a decent manservant. It'd work out for the both of us!"
"Actually," Merlin begins, and Arthur's a bit disappointed that Merlin thinks he was serious. Then Merlin seems to change his mind: "No. My mum sent me away for a reason; I suppose she'd be doubly disappointed in me if I let myself get sacked."
He moves to wipe down random other things that probably have been wiped down recently and don't need it again: the legs of the table and its single chair, the seat of the chair, the mantle above the fireplace, slipping easily around Arthur out of his sight as if he expects to be ignored. On second thought, maybe he's not so much being thorough in his job as trying to change the subject in his annoying "Oh, don't mind me, I'm only long-suffering" way.
Arthur turns around so that he can see him. "You know, if you wanted to go back to Ealdor, all you would have to do is ask. If you want me to tell you the truth -" (Arthur is briefly interrupted by a "No, I don't" and ignores it) "- you're being annoyingly obvious about it. I can manage an excuse to get away for my birthday, and that way I won't need to sack you at all."
Merlin stops, turns around with the rag still in his hand. "You would really do that for a manservant as terrible as me?"
Arthur scoffs and walks over to the door to his bedroom. "No," he says, "I'm doing it for myself. I hate birthday feasts, anyway. But I expect a better birthday present than last year."
Merlin looks confused. "I didn't get you a birthday present last year."
"Exactly," Arthur says, and turns to walk into his bedroom and hide the blush arising on his cheeks at Merlin's smile.
He throws open the wardrobe door and even as he stands there trying to find his jacket he hears Merlin quickly enter from the other room. Merlin reaches into the wardrobe and grabs it, holding it out for him to step into. "I suppose you're meeting Uther about it, you can't look like you just got out of bed, sire."
Arthur sighs. "You're insufferable."
"But I do suffer," Merlin quips, "at your hands, sire." He smiles, though. Arthur fights the urge to smile back at him, seeing Merlin's almost child-like joy at being able to go home once more.
"Come," he says instead, and they leave.
"Please, father, I told you I don't want a birthday celebration this year."
"Just a small feast, Arthur, that's all -"
"I believe your idea of a 'small feast' is not quite the same as mine."
"We must have some celebration, Arthur; you're the crown prince of Camelot! If we didn't have a celebration, no matter what excuse we use, it would look as if the kingdom is doing badly. The fact that the harvest this year wasn't the best is no reassurance."
Arthur sighs. "Then tell them that instead of spending his birthday rolling in piles of gold and stuffing his face with cake the crown prince has instead decided to visit Camelot's surrounding villages and grace their crops with his presence or something. We'll figure it out."
"You wish to spend your birthday with peasants?"
Arthur shrugs as nonchalantly as possible. "My manservant has been skiving off his duties. It seems he misses his home. I thought I might let him come with me; I won't even need to take him to his own home, as I doubt he knows the difference, anyway."
"Hmm," Uther says, "He isn't the brightest, is he. However, I worry that you're willing to do so much for your manservant's happiness. I've had word that the roads are quite dangerous of late; it would be too great a risk for one lowly soul."
In the corner of the room, where he is pretending not to listen, Merlin shifts.
"Anyway," Uther continues, "we can't simply give all our wealth to peasantries as if it's nothing. We have Mercia pressing on our borders, Arthur, and we must put our money there."
"There's enough wealth in this castle to feed countries, father! I agree that we should look to threats first and foremost, but you should realize, too, that the reason we're alive at all is because of the income of crops from the very peasants you debase!" Merlin coughs; Arthur quiets. "I just want to visit them and be sure next year's crops are coming along well; I'll return with a report and figure out what to do for them myself, if no one else is behind me. At times, father, it seems you forget that my manservant is the only one who stands behind me. If you wonder why I'm doing this, remember that he's saved my life."
Arthur turns to leave. Uther's voice, more quiet than normal, stops him, though Arthur does naught but turn his head slightly in acknowledgement. "You should take your knights with you, Arthur; and do not tell the villagers that a solution will be immediately available, should you find problems. I fear war will be on us before we know it. And please have a list of villages you plan to visit and a timeline in my hands tomorrow."
"Certainly," Arthur says, turning his head back to the door. Merlin barely slips through it before it shuts behind them both.
"Thank you," Merlin says, even as Arthur storms down the corridors. It seems to take all Arthur's effort to banish his anger toward his father long enough to turn and smile at Merlin.
"So," Merlin says, pacing across Arthur's floor as Arthur stares at him, obviously annoyed. "Uther said the roads were dangerous. How many knights shall we take?"
"I'm not taking any knights."
Merlin stops. "What? Arthur, did you hear nothing your father just said? Do you really trust me to keep you from getting killed? I should remind you that if you're killed Uther will have my head. If no one else gets it first." He gulps.
"Just as well. And in case you need reminding, you've saved my life before. And, er," he waves a hand in the air dismissively. "At the very least I can use you as a human shield," he finishes rather awkwardly. Merlin gets the feeling that wasn't what he had initially intended on saying.
"Right," he responds, slightly flustered from all that pacing. And the thought of saving Arthur's life once more, and perhaps at the idea that Arthur trusts him to save his life. "Well, then, what villages will we be visiting?"
"Well," Arthur says, shoving a piece of parchment over for Merlin to read. "I would only visit Ealdor, but seeing as I had to improvise, and I can't exactly abandon my duties, I thought we should visit a few of the villages on the way there before arriving, spend a bit of time there, and return. I wasn't entirely sure how much time you wanted to spend in Ealdor itself, but I was hoping the journey would only take a week or so in all. And seeing that my father will want me to take knights, I thought I might make a list of villages they need to visit in the south while we're in the north, and hopefully we'll be able to meet them in time to return to Camelot and appear as if nothing's awry."
Merlin nods as he sits down and looks at the parchment. "Arthur, nothing is written down but a bunch of scribbles."
"Exactly. I was hoping you could help me with that."
Merlin nods. He should probably be upset with Arthur but, somehow, isn't. "Could I see your quill?" He asks gently. He shakes his head, looking at the parchment carefully. "You have Liferbýl written down here; I stopped there on my way to Camelot, and I doubt they're suffering too much - and at any rate the people there are vile. You know they use all their excess crops for ale, though, I think your father should probably look into that."
"I'll certainly let him know, after I tell him I'm not going to take my knights after all. So why so vile? They wouldn't let you sleep at the inn?"
"They said I was too enthusiastic for the middle of the night," he says, nonchalantly. Noticing Arthur's raised eyebrow and disbelieving expression he answers, "It's quite nice traveling by night. It's not my fault they have to get up before the sun."
"Merlin, if it weren't for your duties you wouldn't get up at all in the mornings."
Merlin smiles and puts a finger to his lips. "No one has to know," he says, and adds a note to the parchment. Arthur swallows the sudden lump in his throat.
Merlin could swear Uther is using telepathy to ask the parchment whether his son is telling the truth. Or he might, if Uther advocated the use of magic.
Arthur is agitatedly tapping his fingers on the corner of the chair as the king examines the list. Uther's brow furrows and Arthur looks back at Merlin. Merlin smiles gently.
"When are you going to set out?" Arthur turns back to his father and takes the parchment back.
"Tomorrow morning," Arthur says. "As close to dawn as we can. I was going to alert my knights soon after I met with you today."
"Certainly," Uther says. "Well, you are dismissed, but I was quite hoping you would dine with me tonight."
Arthur nods. "Of course, father."
Arthur pays a personal visit to Merlin's room the next morning. It's still dark, and the scarce light of the moon illuminates the gold of his hair and the glint in his eye.
"I just fell asleep," Merlin complains weakly, and is promptly attacked by a piece of clothing via the prince himself. "Why on earth did Gaius let you in?"
"He didn't. Does he keep the door unlocked often? That's not safe." Merlin turns his head and looks at Arthur questioningly, who only looks down to where Merlin's holding the sheet against him and shrugs. He looks away, leaving Merlin unsettled in the wake of his gaze.
Merlin dresses as quickly as he can and tries to sort out his room while Arthur wanders about. "I suppose you need to eat?"
"Erm," Merlin says, hastily putting the Book under his pillow. "That would be nice."
"I'll get something while you're gathering your pack. Meet me at the stables when you're done."
Merlin nods. "Right," he says, but Arthur's already out the door.
Merlin shifts from one foot to the other, watching his breath puff out into the cool gray air, his face lit by a single lantern.
"Here," Arthur says behind him, and he jumps about five feet in the air.
"Thanks," he says skeptically, briefly looking into the bag Arthur hands him, handing Arthur the lantern and already digging in. "What -?"
It's the most beautiful food Merlin has seen put right in front of him; he can't fathom why -
"We've a long day ahead of us; I know your stamina isn't the best - some may even say terrible - so I thought you should require a larger portion," Arthur answers. "Anyway, the cooks didn't have to know it wasn't for me."
"Thanks," Merlin says, smiling and sitting down on the ground to eat quickly. "Are you sure you haven't been enchanted by anyone lately? You seem…human."
Arthur scowls at him. "Did they pack the apples?" he asks, grabbing the bag from Merlin and looking into it quickly. "Ah, yes; we should save those for later. Hurry up, you eat slower than anyone I've ever seen."
They're off at the first light while the sky is still a thousand fiery colors.
"You know, as much as I hate getting up before sunlight," Merlin says, "it really is beautiful."
Arthur scoffs at him, but lightly. "You really are a girl, Merlin, I swear."
Merlin kicks his horse to let it trot ahead a bit, laughing at him.
They see the first building of Corngesælig, their first village on the list, when the sun is reaching its zenith. It is the grain store, and when Arthur dismounts his horse to have a peek inside (against Merlin's protestations - "You realize they'll think you're a thief if they catch you") he realizes it is locked. "Well," he says, mounting his horse once more and riding forth, "I suppose we'll find out how their stores are when we find someone."
They do, naught but a few minutes later. It is a man going in the same direction with a small bag of grain. He stops and turns to them as they approach.
"Sir," Arthur greets him, "I am the prince of Camelot. I've come to inquire on your grain stores this season. You live in Corngesælig?"
"Yes, sire," the man says, bowing low. "My name is Odin. If you'll just follow me, I must be home with this wheat for my wife and I'll tell you as much as I know."
Arthur and Merlin are sitting around a small table with Odin and his wife, Mildred.
"The recent crop wasn't our best, and, though we're glad the village is growing, we haven't been able to feed everyone as well as we always have," Odin says, "and we've been forced to determine who we should feed first. We have weak children and weak grandparents, those crippled by disease and those we rely on the most for their strength."
"It becomes an issue of who needs it the most," Mildred adds, and Odin nods in agreement. "Seeing as Odin and I are older, and childless, we've been one of the families not taking as much as we usually do."
"I'm sorry to hear that," Arthur says. When they'd entered the couple's small abode, they had immediately been told that food would be prepared for them if they had enough for guests, but when Mildred brought out a small single loaf of bread to serve them for sustenance, Merlin had noticed that it was barely even enough for the two of them.
"How long has this been going on?" Merlin asks.
"The rain has been scarce for the past two years or so, but we hardly had any rain this season," Mildred says. "We were forced to bring in some of our crops early, and unfortunately the rest died before we could bring them in as well."
"Could we have a look at your fields?" Arthur ventures.
"Of course," Odin says, and leads them out the door.
After looking at the bare fields and listening to more of Odin's story, Arthur asks to speak to Merlin for a moment.
"What?" Merlin asks, shaking Arthur's hand off his arm and leaning against the wall of the couple's house.
"You used to live like this," Arthur says, "do you know if Ealdor had any implications in place to help in such cases?"
"Actually," Merlin says, "some of the farmers used this - system of furrows. I'm not entirely sure how it worked, but -"
"Do you think it could work here?"
"I suppose - of course it should, if we do it right. Like I said, I'm not sure how to go about it, exactly, and plus the point is to build furrows and fill them with water, or ensure that they're filled. And seeing as it's not been raining -"
"They may not have the water to fill them. I suppose it's worth the risk, though."
"How did you say it worked again, boy?"
"You make a sort of small hill in between fields, and make a ditch in the hill to fill with water," Merlin says, showing him with a pile of dirt. "You put siphons in the furrow to allow the water to go down the hill into the fields, and - it should fairly equally distribute the water."
"Where are we going to get all that water, though? We've been short lately, of course, and though we're trying not to use as much -"
"You have wells, don't you?" Merlin asks. "And winter's coming soon; you could always gather any snowfall into the wells and use it come spring."
"And you should probably get a start on digging now while the earth's still somewhat soft," Arthur adds.
"Good, good," says Odin. "That's excellent. We'll get started straightaway; will you be overseeing our labor, sire?"
Arthur shakes his head. "Unfortunately, we've only begun traveling this morning. We have other villages to attend to. I would help if I could, though." He stands up and Merlin follows suit. "As soon as we can once we get back to Camelot, however, I'll try to see if we can't gather resources of our own to send out here for you."
"Thank you so much, sire," Mildred says. "We'll be sure to talk with the others about it."
By the time they're far enough from Corngesælig that they cannot see even a hint of its fields it is dusk. There are woods near, and Arthur stops underneath a group of trees that stand slightly aloof from their brethren, as if guardians of the forest. "We should stop for the night," he says. "Good spot; not too open, yet not far into the woods where we may run across dangers."
"Thank you," Merlin says, and grunts as he practically falls off his horse. His legs are wobbly from riding and walking all day and his skin is still warm from the sun.
"Graceful," Arthur comments, and slides easily off his own horse. "Now, once you've stopped being an ass, you can unload our packs and get camp set up. I'll get a fire." He's off before Merlin can complain.
"That was a good idea you had, there," Arthur says, and puts a few random twigs onto the fire. "About the furrows, I mean. Possibly one of the only good ideas you've ever had."
"A few of the other good ideas including those to save your life, of course."
"Oh, right; how could I forget," he responds sarcastically, and fishes the leftover apples from breakfast from his pack. "Dessert?"
Merlin catches the apple that's tossed to him and chomps down on it hungrily. Juice runs down his chin and he wipes it away with his sleeve.
"Your face is red," Arthur says, oddly.
"Your face," Arthur emphasizes, "is red. Suppose it's from the sun, though. No worries."
Merlin suddenly feels very self-conscious. "Is it terrible?" he asks.
"I mean," he asks again, "what type of red is it? The sort of color of a pink rose or a bright bloody red?"
Arthur raises an eyebrow. "Rosy pink, Merlin. Just like a blushing maiden."
Merlin really does blush at that, but doesn't get the chance to respond because Arthur turns away. "I'm going to sleep."
"Right," Merlin says thickly around a mouthful of apple. "Er, 'night. I'll join you as soon as I'm done. Uh, sleeping, I mean. Over there," he points, unnecessarily, and Arthur waves a hand up in dismissal from underneath his blanket. Merlin notices he hadn't taken a single bite of his apple.
They arrive at Lyfthelm around mid-morning only to find it in a similar state as Corngesælig. They give them the same advice as they did the others and are on their way, refusing the meager food so kindly offered them.
By nightfall they've reached the northern borders of Camelot - specifically, Liferbýl. Merlin groans.
"We have to stop here for the night," Arthur says, "unless you'd rather continue the journey in the dark?"
Merlin curses the new moon, for without it he wouldn't complain against traveling at night. "They may eat me."
Arthur shrugs. "It's a risk we're going to have to take." They dismount their horses, finding the inn quickly, and Arthur knocks on the door.
They are greeted by a scruffy-looking old man - or it may be a terribly hideous woman - who stays behind the threshold of the door except for the arm holding the lantern, which reaches out to illuminate their reprobate faces. "Yes?"
"We come from the court of Camelot; we seek housing for the night."
The man-woman looks Arthur up and down and flicks his gaze to Merlin. "Maybe you, sir," he says, "but not that one. I remember him."
"Perhaps," Arthur says, "but whatever trouble he's caused in the past shall be eradicated from your memory. He is with me now."
"What will you be wanting, then?" says the innkeeper.
"A room with two beds."
"Aye, sir, we only have single-bed rooms open tonight," the innkeeper responds, with a glint in his eye. "Unless, of course, you'd be willing to pay to kick one of our current customers out of their own room - by the crest on your tunic I'd say you would."
"I have fled the court of Camelot," he says, "I was a knight, but my prince wronged me. Now you must give me quarters for the night. We'll take a single bed."
The innkeeper smiles and retreats into the inn, opening the door wide for them to enter. Arthur pays him a small fee - though, small as it is, it seems to Merlin to be more than necessary - and tells Arthur which room it is. Arthur comes back to the doorway. "I'll get the horses," he says.
Merlin reluctantly enters the inn and, under the watchful gaze of the innkeeper, enters the room and is immediately greeted with a chill air and a stench of sweat. He covers his nose with his neckerchief.
Taking advantage of the prince's absence, Merlin tries some spells to warm the room, as well as a few to make the air smell better - and after trying a few spells that make the room smell in turns like various flowers, he finally conquers a spell that, somehow, makes the room smell all at once familiar and nice, and Merlin knows he must be mimicking the smell of another room he knows, only he can't pinpoint it. At any rate, it's better than the inn's own horrid musk. He pulls back the sheets of the bed - scarce, they are - and runs his hands over the lumpy mattress, muttering heating spells along the way.
"What on earth are you doing?"
Merlin jumps at Arthur's voice in the doorway - he hadn't even heard the door open - and waves his hands around nervously, hoping that the spells were indeed quiet enough that no one could hear them.
"Just, er, feeling the bed. Just lumpy enough for me, but I'm a bit worried about your royal arse -"
Arthur scoffs. "I'm sure I'll be fine," he says, and then stops and looks curiously around, appearing to sniff the air. "Hmm, that's strange."
"What?" Merlin asks, slightly paranoid.
"It reminds me of my room," Arthur answers distractedly. "I was expecting it to smell like horse manure, actually."
Merlin shrugs, suddenly a bit embarrassed. "Who knew?" he asks, and his voice is a bit too high-pitched to be believable. Luckily, Arthur's distracted enough that he doesn't notice.
"Yeah," the prince says, half to himself, and begins bringing out their own blankets and laying them atop the bed's own.
Once he's done, he stands there with his hands on his hips, looking at Merlin. "Well, go on. I'm not particularly tired."
"Oh," Merlin says, "thanks." He turns around and strips down to his tunic and pants, and immediately regrets not at least keeping his neckerchief for the chill air. He turns around quickly and almost topples into the bed, noticing that at some point Arthur has turned away, to the window. Merlin settles in, trying to make the sheets ever warmer with more quietly-uttered spells and his body. He watches Arthur for the longest time, the prince remaining an immovable presence by the window, and blearily notices just before he slips into unconsciousness Arthur's face turning to look at him, and he smiles at it.
When Merlin wakes up, he has Arthur's snoring head on his shoulder and Arthur's leg thrown over his and Arthur's arm across his torso and Arthur's erect penis digging into his thigh.
He makes a small sound and tries to shove Arthur off him, but somehow he doesn't budge. And all Merlin can think about is how this isn't supposed to be like this, how maybe it would be alright if he woke up like this in Camelot and they were - well, if they'd done this before; and then he can't even believe he's thinking about it at all.
"Arthur," he groans dramatically, trying to mask his own interest and suffering after nearly getting Arthur completely off him only for the prince to fall flat on his chest once more, causing all Merlin's air to leave his lungs. Instead, he digs his fingers into Arthur's biceps painfully, being rewarded with a yelp directly in his ear in response.
"What was that for?" Arthur says, and in post-jump embarrassment, sitting down casually on the bed and trying to cover up his crotch, realizing - realizing. "Never mind, we should get going." He climbs out of bed, turning around and clearing his throat loudly, beginning to get dressed already. Merlin nods, pointlessly, and climbs out of bed himself, dressing slowly in the cool air. By the time he turns around, though, he has to laugh, because Arthur's put on his tunic inside out and backwards and, for all his standing and waiting impatiently for Merlin to finish dressing, hasn't noticed.
"What?" he asks huffily, throwing his arms out in exasperation and only magnifying his ridiculousness. Luckily, Merlin notices, he isn't hard anymore.
"If you were aiming for hiding the crest on your tunic, sire," he says, smiling widely, "you've definitely succeeded."
"What?" Arthur asks again. Merlin walks up to him and pulls on the tunic where the crest should be, and Arthur backs up, pulling it off with a barely-concealed blush and a scowl. Once he's got it on right, he looks at Merlin again, slightly annoyed at Merlin's still-smiling face, but everything in him seems to melt and he looks at Merlin seriously. They're very close, and if Merlin really thought about it he would think that it's too close, perhaps, particularly considering how he was awakened this morning (much more pleasant than the last two, actually), and how he really kind of wants to kiss Arthur right now.
Arthur clears his throat and turns to grab his pack. "We should be off," he says, "it's practically noon anyway."
"Of course," Merlin says, and can't help but feel a blankness somewhere inside or around him.
"I told you they were vile," he contends, and while Arthur doesn't argue, he doesn't exactly praise Merlin, either.
They'd made inquiries to the innkeeper about their grain stores lately - how their crops were doing, et cetera, and the innkeeper had only laughed and told them they've never had any problems with their crops. Arthur and Merlin had paid a visit to their grain store after leaving the inn and, looking through a rather convenient window (though it required Merlin to kneel rather awkwardly on his horse's back), had noticed that their stores were close to overflowing.
"They probably don't even use excess grain for ales; I bet it's all they need to live on."
"I'm sure, Merlin," Arthur says, rather bored.
"Anyway," Merlin says, "I suppose that was the last on the list?"
"Off to Ealdor, now. You did send your mum a letter telling her we were coming, right?"
Merlin's voice is very small when he says, "Uh, not quite. Anyhow I thought she would be delighted at a surprise."
Arthur runs a hand down his face. "Merlin."
"Well, she'll certainly be surprised, right?"
Arthur kicks his horse, causing it to run ahead. "Certainly."
Merlin is compelled to get his horse ahead of Arthur's, and if they're far more tired than in days previous when they stop that night, it isn't a bad thing.
The next day Merlin awakens to the sound of approaching horses. Shit, he thinks, and climbs out of his blankets, half-dressed, to see the men - four of them - approaching their camp.
"Arthur," he hisses, "Arthur."
Arthur doesn't wake up before the men reach their camp, and the man in front - the leader, apparently - greets Merlin.
"What do you want?" Merlin asks, skeptically.
"What do you have to offer?" the man asks, in response.
"Nothing," Merlin says. "We are armed."
The bandit laughs. "It would seem your companion may be well-armed, while you are not; and he is asleep."
Merlin shifts from foot to foot, turning swiftly when the other bandits try to circle around behind him. "Arthur," he tries again.
"We'll just be taking this, then," the leader says, dismounting his horse and walking over to Arthur's horse tethered to a tree.
"No!" Merlin says, "Forwiernan!"
The man lands with a loud thud on the ground and the other bandits immediately dismount and surround Merlin before he can realize it. He turns to them with his hands out, trying in vain to let the same spells course through both hands at once. It's something he's never done before, but he's read it in the Book, and it's worth a shot, anyway.
"Arthur!" he shouts, once he's knocked one of the men back. One runs after Merlin and another follows, and Merlin can do naught but run to where Arthur is sleeping and shove him awake.
Arthur jumps with a start, immediately recognizing the situation, grabbing his sword and going after the men. The one Merlin had managed to knock back comes after him, so Merlin runs away to keep him from Arthur. He can still see the prince, and doesn't even think twice about using magic against the man, his only weapon.
"Ymbbindan." The man's body goes completely stiff and he falls back like a board, and Merlin utters another spell so that everything he tries to say sounds like it's being uttered around a ball of fabric in his mouth.
Another man runs toward him, the only free one not fighting Arthur, and Merlin utters the same binding spell. Merlin muffles his voice as well, running to the horses to try calming them as much as he can.
"Merlin!" Arthur yells, and dodges a sword-blade. Merlin manages to do the same to these two, knocking them down in front of Arthur. Arthur knocks them cold with the flat edge of his sword for good measure. He then stumbles away, arm bleeding. "Think you can pin them to the tree?" he asks, and Merlin, too flabbergasted to say anything in response, nods, and Arthur gathers the men under a tree to allow Merlin to nail them to it with magic. In a fit of derision, he flips them all upside down before pinning them.
The bandits' horses have run amuck now, and Arthur goes to their own to quiet them. He grabs his arm where it's bleeding and kisses one horse on the nose. "So," he says, as nonchalantly as possible, "you're a sorcerer."
Merlin's blood runs cold and he nods, head suddenly feeling thick and full of lies. Arthur walks over to him and holds his arm out. "Can you heal me, then?" Merlin is so surprised he doesn't do anything but nod again, and puts his hand over Arthur's exposed wound to try and stop the bleeding, pulling off his neckerchief and tying it around the muscle for good measure.
He walks away even as Arthur thanks him and says quietly, "I expect we should be off," gathering their things and mounting his horse before Arthur can disagree.
As they travel further north, it becomes cloudy. It's been a quiet day, neither of them speaking a word since leaving camp, Merlin riding ahead to avoid conversation. Until now, Arthur has let him, but he can't let it go on until they reach Ealdor.
"Thank you, again, Merlin," Arthur tries, but Merlin kicks his horse forward.
"Will you please listen to me?" Arthur asks, his voice earnest as he pulls roughly on the reins to stop his horse. Luckily, Merlin stops his as well, and turns around to face him.
"Please, Merlin," Arthur continues, and his voice sounds tired and perhaps a little lonely. "If you want me to be honest I'll say I've had my suspicions that something was up - a puny bloke like you could hardly ever do much to save someone like me without help - but I'm not angry. I just want to know how long this has been going on."
"I've been able to do magic from birth. It wasn't exactly a choice."
"You came to Camelot, a sorcerer, knowing that my father had sorcerers executed?"
Merlin shrugs and looks down. "My mum sent me."
"It's a bit hard to hide being a sorcerer from the woman who raised you, yeah."
"You've been in danger this whole time," Arthur says, venturing to bring his horse closer to Merlin's. "Yet you've not left. Why?"
"I don't know," Merlin says, "to help Gaius. Because someone had to save your arse, and I thought that I might try to make sure the Pendragon line would continue while I was there."
Arthur scoffs. "As if I ever really needed saving -"
"Besides, you're a much better person due to my mentoring. You're still a prat, but at least you don't throw daggers at serving boys anymore."
Arthur smiles despite the interruption. "I could always pick up the habit again."
"No," Merlin says, turning back around and continuing riding, Arthur following suit, "you wouldn't be able to. My effects are rather permanent."
Merlin laughs and his horse trots ahead. Thunder rolls through the sky and it begins to drizzle. It only makes Merlin laugh the harder.
"You'll be responsible for making sure my chain mail doesn't rust, you know," Arthur says after him.
"It's fine," Merlin responds, "I've always used magic anyway."
And suddenly, while he runs ahead on his horse with his hands out to the rain and his voice ringing through the air, the sight of Merlin against a sky lit by lightning makes his throat close up, and Arthur wonders at the sight and the warlock himself.
They stop once they find an area of land untouched (yet) by the storms and Merlin sneezes.
"I think I've caught cold," he says, voice a bit thick. He coughs.
"It's your fault for frolicking in the rain," Arthur says, but smiles. "I'm only hoping it doesn't rain tonight. Could you possibly improvise a tent?"
Merlin shrugs, even with his arms held tight across his chest to keep him warm. "I could try," he says. Somehow, he manages to expand and thicken one of their blankets into something representing a tarp, and uses blades of grass to create stakes and a pole to create a zenith.
Arthur turns around from where he's started a fire. He looks at it appreciatively and pats the log next to him, indicating Merlin to sit there.
"So how do you learn spells?"
"Gaius," Merlin says quietly. "He gave me a book of spells after he found out, to help me control my magic."
"So your friend, Will -"
"Wasn't a warlock," Merlin says, picking at a thread on his sleeve.
"I'm sorry," Arthur says gently. "He must have loved you greatly to lie for you."
"He was like a brother," Merlin says, and looks rather sad.
Arthur looks at him for a moment and then tosses the leftover apple into Merlin's lap. "Here," he says.
"Is this yours?" Merlin asks. "The one you didn't eat the other day?"
"Not anymore. Go ahead."
Merlin eats the apple as Arthur continues to feed the fire.
"The storm today spread into the south and east for miles," Arthur says. "Hopefully that means our friends in Corngesælig and Lyfthelm got the rain they need." He rubs his arm where Merlin's neckerchief is tied and removes the cloth to find the wound nearly completely healed.
"I suppose you don't want this back? At least not until it's washed properly."
Merlin wrinkles his nose. "I'll save your life, but I draw the line at wearing your blood on my neck," he says, and twists around to get a better view of the wound.
"It's healing nicely. I suppose that spell I did earlier wasn't just to stop the blood; it seems to be helping the skin to heal as well. Does it hurt?"
Arthur hisses when Merlin presses his fingers against the skin around the wound.
"Hmm," Merlin says, running his fingertips ghost-like across the actual wound and whispering indistinguishable words. It immediately seems to close up just a hair more, and further, it feels better, and doesn't hurt as much when Merlin presses it again.
"Alright?" he asks, and Arthur nods. Merlin looks up at him and Arthur notices the firelight glowing in Merlin's eyes, and the glow is intensified when Merlin utters a spell that Arthur can't actually bother listening to. Merlin pulls away slightly and holds out his dinner-bowl, now full of water. He uses a clean, dry area of his neckerchief to dab at Arthur's wound, washing off the encrusted blood. His fingers are so soft on his skin and so nimble-quick that Arthur wants, needs to do something to them, but is prevented when, quicker than he had begun, Merlin pulls away and stands up.
"All clean," he says softly, and Arthur feels the loss of warmth at his side, though his skin still tingles where Merlin had touched it, and beyond.
They ride all of the next day and don't come across storms at all. By evening they can see Ealdor, and Merlin smiles broadly.
"Finally," he says, and breathes a sigh of relief.
When they knock on Hunith's door, they are greeted with a yelp as Merlin is pulled into a hug. Once she lets go of her son, Hunith begins berating him.
"Why didn't you tell me you would be coming? I'm hardly prepared for company," she says, ushering them in.
"Mum, I'm sorry; I would have written but I didn't have much notice…"
Hunith looks at them, Arthur wounded and Merlin flustered and red-faced and both of them travel-weary. "Well, anyway," she says, "I hope you're alright. But why have you come?"
"It's my birthday," Arthur says, even as Merlin opens his mouth to speak. "In a few days, at any rate. Birthdays at the castle are horrid."
"Well," Hunith says modestly, "if you were hoping for a better celebration, you're certainly in the wrong place."
"How are you, Merlin?" Hunith asks seriously, when he's helping her gather firewood later that night.
"Well," Merlin says, evasively. "I knew Arthur didn't want to stay at the castle for a feast, and anyway we had to check up on the crops of Camelot's villages - they've been suffering drought, see -"
Merlin is bending to pick up a rather large hunk of wood and so doesn't notice Hunith staring at him. "You believe that's the only reason he came here?"
Merlin straightens, examining the wood quickly and looking at her. "Suppose so, why?"
"I don't think he really wants to spend his birthday here - I don't believe he's too fond of my cooking."
"I - may have let it slip a few times. That I missed home, I mean."
Hunith smiles at him. "He's here because of you, Merlin."
Merlin examines the wood again, hissing at the splinters that catch at his fingers as he runs them along the edges. "More like to get away from his father, I think."
"Merlin," Hunith says, walking over to him to grab his hand, drawing his gaze to her own eyes. "He seems to have sacrificed a lot for you. I know you're just his manservant, but he treats you like something much more important."
"Because he knows he'd die without me."
Hunith smiles gently and shakes her head a bit. "I don't think that's the whole of it." She releases Merlin's hand.
"He knows about my magic. On the way here, that is, we were attacked by bandits. I couldn't stop it, it was the only weapon I had."
"And he's accepted you."
"Then you know it's not just about saving each other's life. He realizes the sacrifices you've made for his own safety."
Merlin again nods. "I suppose."
Hunith puts one hand on the side of Merlin's face. "I never sent you to Camelot with such intentions."
"I know, mum."
She smiles at him, and nearly whispers, "I'm sorry." Just before she turns to leave, Merlin can see her eyes are full of tears.
"It's worth it," he calls after her.
Hunith turns her head slightly and smiles at him. "I can see. The both of you are going to be brilliant someday, together, Merlin."
She walks away, leaving Merlin wondering if he had just admitted to something.
The next day Merlin is awoken by a foot in his face. He shoves it off roughly.
"Merlin," he hears Arthur say somewhere near his own feet.
"Arthur," he responds, "you're disgusting."
Arthur sits up, looking groggy, hair tousled. "You're sacked," he says, "just for that."
"You can't sack me in my own home," Merlin argues.
"I just did."
Merlin's next comment is cut off by Hunith's laughter.
"Breakfast?" Merlin ventures, and when Hunith confirms it Merlin jumps up, grabbing the blanket and turning to reach for his jacket, but Arthur grabs the end of the blanket and pulls, causing Merlin to fall down. Merlin, in retaliation, throws Arthur's blanket over the prince, exposing his bare feet. Arthur hisses, curling his feet up against the cool air.
"You look ridiculous," Merlin says, laughing, and scurries to where Hunith is holding a bowl of meal before Arthur can get him.
They are playing a game of kick-the-ball with some of the younger lads - or, to be more precise, Merlin is playing with them, as they are his old acquaintances, while Arthur stands on the sidelines and laughs at even the smallest mistake his manservant makes.
"Wrong post, Merlin," he yells, laughing as Merlin kicks the ball enthusiastically past his own team's goal post. Merlin's teammates groan and he shrugs, smiling all the while.
Hunith comes out of the house, wiping her hands on her apron. "The boys have played this for as long as I can remember," she says, "I remember wanting to play as a girl and no one would let me. I might say with good reason, if I would have played as well as Merlin."
She laughs and Arthur smiles at her. "You should play," she adds. "At any rate the boys would love to play with one so esteemed."
"Oh," Arthur corrects her, "I'm only watching this round to get a grip on how to play. Next game's mine."
"Of course. So what do you expect from us Ealdorians for your birthday, sire? I know you said you didn't want a celebration, but I feel compelled -"
"Please, Hunith, I just wanted to spend my birthday somewhere quiet," he says, watching Merlin intently.
"Are you sure that's all of it?"
"Merlin - he -"
"Yes," she says, "forgive me for being so brash, sire, but you care for my son greatly."
Arthur shrugs. "He's saved my life more than anyone, save, perhaps, my father. I can't do much else."
"Certainly. Is that how you saw it fit to accept his abilities?" Arthur looks at her seriously, and she adds, "He told me you found out."
Arthur looks away when he responds. "I wouldn't say that it was a matter of needing him around to save my life. And I'm certainly not keeping him around as a manservant because he can hardly do that -"
Hunith takes the lull in conversation, the loss of words that Arthur is suffering, to inquire further. "Then why not rid of him?"
Arthur continues staring fixedly at the game, not entirely sure of the answer himself and perhaps trying to find it in the way Merlin so ridiculously kicks the ball with enthusiasm to the other goal post and misses, or the surrounding sounds of the crickets and other night insects, or just in the way Ealdor feels so differently from Camelot, where he can't do these things.
"I would never," he says at last, voice hoarse from having been lost for such a long moment.
Hunith puts a hand on his arm. "I'm glad," she says. She smiles at him and goes back into the house. Arthur turns back to the game, now ended, and sees all the lads and Merlin passing around a skin of water. He takes a moment to compose himself and clears his throat before shouting, "Come on then," and running on to the field. "My turn!"
"It's not even fair," Merlin says, glaring at Arthur. "You're a prince, I'm pretty sure your team should have lost points just for having that advantage."
"You can't change the rules after the game, Merlin."
"That was for future reference," Merlin says, taking a swig of his ale.
"Of course. But for now, you're going to get drunk."
"It's your birthday tomorrow; I might as well start celebrating now. Gods know I won't be able to drink at all once we get back to Camelot."
"You never told me you wanted a drink. All you had to do was ask."
"I'm fairly certain you mentioned once that you couldn't be seen buying drinks for your manservant -"
"But I sacked you this morning, remember."
"Oh," Merlin says, taking another quick drink. "Of course."
"How's your hand?" Hunith asks, entering the room.
"I think those splinters had teeth," Merlin says. "Big, sharp teeth. Probably full of venom."
"You wish," Arthur says, "then you could brag about how you almost died. Pity you would have to tell everyone it was at the hands of wood."
As Hunith grabs Merlin's hand to examine the splinter-bites, Merlin says quite soberly, "This is very serious business, Arthur."
"Ah," Hunith says, "'twould be because I forgot a splinter. I'm sorry, dear. I'll get it."
"I'll get water," Arthur says, standing up before either mother or son can say anything. Merlin watches him curiously, and Hunith looks at Merlin.
"You love him," she whispers, so quietly, but still divulging so much of the truth that Merlin's eyes flit to her face and quickly to Arthur again to see if he's heard.
Hunith smiles and thanks Arthur kindly when he sets the bowl down on the table beside her. She digs the splinter out of the crook of Merlin's index finger and Merlin afterward soaks his hand in the warm water, letting the pain of being eaten alive by splinters dissipate.
Hunith stands. "I'm rather tired, boys. If you don't mind, I'll just be going to sleep. And don't worry about making too much noise, I'm a rather deep sleeper."
"Sleep well," Arthur says, and Hunith smiles at him, kissing the top of Merlin's head. Just before she goes, she turns away slightly and hisses near his ear, "Do something, Merlin. He feels the same." Merlin blushes furiously red and when Arthur just stares at him he takes a deep drink of his ale.
"Your burn is getting worse," Arthur says quietly. "You look more like a red rose now."
"Oh, shut up," Merlin says, but throughout the rest of the night their moments of conversation are moments to say the right or wrong thing, and moments of silence are moments to think about what his mother meant. Merlin, despite the warming effects of the ale, feels dreadfully confused, and when they finally settle down for sleep, his belly sloshing with liquid and his brain fuzzy, he can't help but wonder what it would be like to do something, to act on impulse and try to shut Arthur up with something other than words.
Unfortunately, Merlin's brain is so fuzzy that before he can think about it, before he can realize that it's true, even though his mother told him earlier that evening, just as he's about to drop off the edge of consciousness Merlin murmurs, "I love you, Arthur," but feels so warm and so full and so content that he falls asleep and doesn't notice Arthur sitting up and watching him for a long while, wondering at his words.
The next day is Arthur's birthday, and in the early afternoon Merlin and Arthur are sent off by a rather insistent Hunith to gather wood for a bonfire that evening. She motions them with her arms to go, and Arthur laughs at her antics.
"You know," he says once they're far from the village, inspecting a piece of wood and piling it atop the few others he's already gathered, "I could have sworn I heard the strangest thing last night." His voice is so nonchalant, but in its lack of gravitas seems to make the issue worse. Merlin stills, his stomach dropping. He'd only just remembered what he'd said when he'd woken up that morning and had hoped he could get away with ignoring that it had happened, but -
"Is it true?"
"What?" Merlin asks, playing oblivious.
"I know you were quite intoxicated, Merlin, but you told me before you fell asleep that you loved me. You're lucky I've already sacked you, or I might have to do it again; I'm quite certain relations between prince and manservant are against some sort of code."
"What do you mean?" Merlin asks, brow furrowed and blushing even as Arthur turns his gaze upon him.
"I mean, Merlin, that you're hideously red - hideously, remember that - and somehow I still want to -"
He drops the wood, walking up to Merlin and cornering him rather unfairly against a tree.
"I mean, you're bright red and you're clumsier than anyone I've ever met and you complain about splinters and I still want you."
Merlin's breath catches in his throat as Arthur takes a step forward, and he can feel Arthur's own breath ghosting his face. He tries at, "The splinters really did hurt, though - they still do -"
"Then let me," Arthur says, grabbing Merlin's shaky hand and bringing it to his lips, pausing to find the splinter-marks and kissing each one lightly. The wood in Merlin's other hand is the only thing separating them, and he rather wishes he could rid of it without disturbing the moment. Arthur does it instead, once he's done with Merlin's hand, grabbing the wood from him and tossing it on the ground before leaning in and kissing Merlin, not half as gently as he'd kissed his fingers, almost as if he's dying and only Merlin's lips can save him. He presses his crotch against Merlin's and Merlin exhales, breath thick and moist between them, and Merlin darts his tongue out against Arthur's own.
"I didn't get you a birthday present," he says suddenly, pulling away. "Unless you want ale."
"This," Arthur says, repeats it against Merlin's lips. "This."
Merlin pulls away again. "Mum's probably expecting us back sometime -"
"We can tell her we almost got eaten by splinters -"
Merlin lets out a chuckle. "I think I generally look upset when I almost get eaten by splinters, not elated."
"Do you want to, though?" Arthur asks him, voice suddenly gentle, eyes serious.
"Of course," Merlin says, fingering the rip in Arthur's sleeve where he'd been cut, and notices the prince doesn't flinch. "Tonight. For your birthday."
Arthur leans in again, kissing Merlin for one last lingering moment. "Tonight," he agrees.
It's only once they get back to the house that Merlin realizes he'd forgotten to check his hair for, say, the numerous bark-pieces that have made it their home, and the result is that when Hunith humorously asks him, "Have fun?" he turns a deep red and turns quickly away even as she smiles.
The bonfire that night is huge, warm and delicious against Merlin's skin. It is a welcome thing in the chill autumn air. It is an even better thing, he realizes, when Arthur comes up behind him and presses his side against Merlin's. Somehow, though, the scene is bittersweet; Merlin remembers the last fire he'd seen in Ealdor, a pyre, and feeling Arthur's form against him only reminds him of how close he and Will had been; and while Merlin never felt for Will what he feels for Arthur, it feels so specifically like it should be Will beside him, in their home, celebrating naught but life.
"You look like you're having difficulty, there," Arthur teases.
"I'm just thinking," Merlin says.
"That would explain it," Arthur responds, but when Merlin doesn't retort or even smile back, he asks him what's up.
"Will," Merlin says simply. "You know he hated you, for a while, at least," he says. "But I think in the end he thought that if you knew about what I could do - he just wanted to protect me. And I think, somehow, he knew how I felt about you."
"How I felt about you, back then," Merlin clarifies, "was that you were a huge prat but you were a prince, too; I couldn't just let you die. He sort of knew I had some sort of duty to you, I think."
"Hmm," Arthur says.
"I actually still wonder if it wouldn't have just been easier to run away when your father made me your manservant. It would've saved me a lot of near-death experiences, and anyway I hardly think it's the praise I deserve for saving your life."
"Let me make it up to you, then," Arthur says, and covers Merlin's hand with his own.
Once the fire's gone down a bit, Merlin and Arthur go back to Hunith's to drop off their mugs. Unfortunately, Merlin notices as soon as he enters that Hunith is still up and glad to see them both, a large mug in her hand. Arthur, following behind Merlin, stops when he sees the look on Hunith's face.
"Sit down, boys," she says, smiling at them.
"Merlin," she says, once they're all around the table. "I just wanted to tell you how proud I am of you."
"For following your heart." Merlin blushes and she continues, "You did a terrible job of concealing it, my dear."
Arthur snickers. Hunith brings her mug up to her face and doesn't notice.
"Do you know," she says, pointing her cup vaguely in Merlin's direction, "Gaius was telling me, once, he'd found that people had gotten bugs from sex."
"That's lovely," Merlin says, looking at Hunith skeptically. An aside to Arthur: "I'm not sure I want to know why they were discussing this -"
"So I was just wondering," Hunith continues, "Arthur, dear, if you might have…" She waves a hand in the air vaguely.
"Erm," Arthur says, and Merlin, "Mum!"
"Gaius said these things could be deadly, sometimes, I just wanted to be sure."
"There was that Sophia -" he looks at Merlin when he says it, and Merlin interrupts him.
"But you didn't do anything with her, Arthur, surely? She tried to kill you!"
"I - don't recall," he says, and Merlin looks at him unbelievably. "I mean, I'm certain I didn't. I think if we had her father would have been watching us the entire time, and I would have remembered that."
"Oh, that's more than I wanted to think about -"
"Right," Hunith says. "Now Merlin, I'd like to think I know everything about you -"
"I," Merlin says, and reaches for Hunith's cup; "I actually think that's enough for tonight, Mum."
As Merlin moves to empty the mugs outside, Arthur stands up. "Well, we'll be a while longer. I thought I should stay at the fire seeing as it is my birthday-fire and all -"
"I won't wait up," Hunith says, smiling, and Merlin practically drops the third cup onto the counter. Arthur hides a smug smile as he makes his way out the door.
Once Hunith has her back turned, Merlin peruses the cupboard for what he is looking for, and, blushing, plucks the small vial of oil.
"Here?" Arthur asks, tentatively, stopping at the far side of a hillock that faces a field.
"Yeah," Merlin says, softly. He isn't sure what to do, so he turns around to face the field before them, back to the hillock.
"Erm," Arthur says, "I think you should lie down."
"Right," Merlin says, "of course." He lies on the grass as casually as he can, legs sprawled out, knees slightly bent, supporting himself on his elbows.
"You know," Arthur says, as he crawls beside Merlin and settles his hand on Merlin's stomach, "it's fitting that I should do this here, at your home, and on my birthday."
"Why?" Merlin asks, trying to shove Arthur's jacket off with one hand.
"Because, somehow, it's as if I really belong here." Arthur leans in to kiss him and Merlin leans back onto the grass, bringing up both his hands to remove Arthur's jacket. He rests his hand against Arthur's chest and gathers the shirt in his hand, pulling Arthur down to him.
"I like that," Merlin says.
"What?" Arthur asks, and straddles his hips. He kisses Merlin again, more gently, and then rolls his hips against Merlin's.
"All of it," Merlin answers, and moans as Arthur repeats the action. He pulls at the hem of Arthur's shirt even as Arthur fights to get Merlin's shirt off, and Merlin rises up so that Arthur can remove it fully and then pulls Arthur's over his arms and head. Arthur's necklace tickles at Merlin's neck when he leans down but he feels cold all of a sudden when Arthur's body leaves him utterly. When he opens his eyes, however, he notices Arthur's only trying - somewhat in vain - to unlace his breeches. "Let me, sire," he says, and the way it comes out of his throat makes Arthur whimper, even as Merlin pulls on a single string to loosen the threads. Arthur shoves them down his legs, but not all the way, and then hurriedly tries to loosen Merlin's breeches.
Merlin moans once Arthur finally pulls them off, at the grass underneath his all-of-a-sudden hypersensitive skin and Arthur's hand on his cock. Arthur kisses his chest down to his stomach, and when he finally gets there Merlin can feel the necklace brushing against his cock and it's too much, fuck -
Arthur, as if commanded to do so, takes Merlin's cock in his mouth and worships the sensitive skin there with his tongue, the hot breath of his mouth, slightly clumsy in his lack of experience but still, when Merlin opens his eyes, fucking beautiful and really fucking unbelievable.
"Please," he says, moaning and bucking up into Arthur's mouth. Arthur slips his lips off with a pop and slides back up Merlin's body. He quickly shoves his trousers off his ankles and kisses Merlin, rocking his hips against his newly-slickened cock and moaning into Merlin's mouth.
"If you want to take me -" he says, and Merlin pulls away.
"Are you sure?" he asks, fire in his eyes but taken aback.
"Yes, Merlin," Arthur says, "yes." He presses the cleft of his arse against Merlin's cock and slides back and forth, and Merlin moans.
"My jacket," Merlin says between breaths.
"You - what?" Arthur asks, pulling away. "I don't think that's how it works."
"No," Merlin says, and tries to reach for his jacket himself. Arthur retrieves it instead, holding it in front of him rather as if it's some sort of disgusting animal. Merlin reaches into the pocket and retrieves the oil. Arthur's face flashes with an unrecognizable gleam.
Arthur takes the liberty of applying the oil to Merlin himself, and then reaches behind him and for a moment Merlin doesn't know what he's doing until he looks down and sees Arthur's fingers inside him.
Merlin slides against Arthur as much as he can and kisses him one last time, silently urging Arthur on. Arthur slowly lowers himself onto Merlin's cock where they're holding it, together, and Arthur hisses and drops the vial of oil on the ground next to them. It seeps into the grass and Merlin's skin with a slickness that makes him want to slide against it; and he does. Arthur makes a whimpering sound.
"Are you alright?" Merlin asks.
"Yes," Arthur says, breathlessly. "Just like that."
When Arthur slides up and back down, Merlin raises his hips a bit to meet him, and Arthur throws his head back and gasps.
"God," Arthur whispers, and leans down to kiss him quickly. He begins rocking against Merlin again, sliding back and forth, and Merlin tries to shove up each time Arthur slides back, just like before, until Arthur is moaning and shaking above him, breathing too hard even to kiss him anymore. He can feel Arthur's cock sliding against his stomach, spreading Arthur's own precome and sending waves of arousal through him. The oil against his back is cooling now in the night air, but Arthur is still hot around him, and the contrast makes his nerves alight.
Finally, with a quick moan and a sigh of "Merlin" from Arthur's lips, he comes on both their stomachs. His hand on Merlin's arm clenches, Arthur's short yet sharp nails digging into the warlock's arm. Merlin comes inside Arthur and finally, finally feels complete.
A moment later, when they've caught their breath, Arthur slides off him and groans slightly. "God," he says, "Merlin." He collapses beside him on the grass and tangles his leg with Merlin's, resting his head on his elbow to look down at him.
"Happy birthday," Merlin says, smiling up at him, and Arthur leans down to kiss him again.
Hunith smiles down at them where they sleep. Breakfast can wait; right now she's too busy watching the boys in their oblivion. Normally, she'd noticed, they sleep head to foot, but now -
If she'd ever had any doubts they'd have been gone when she awoke that morning to find them lying so close together that it didn't seem they needed blankets anymore, drawing warmth from one another.
Arthur had mentioned they would probably be off today, and Hunith can't help but feel the loss all the more greatly for what she knows they have now. It's been wonderful having them both here - somehow, knowing Arthur's own mother is gone, she feels as if she should take up the role - and she's glad, so glad, that they've finally - well. She isn't quite sure what to call it, but finally, she thinks. It'll be so lonely in Ealdor now without two stupid boys to convince of their own love for one another, she realizes, and sighs.
While Merlin and Arthur are off - perhaps playing kick-the-ball with the boys, perhaps for time alone - she composes a letter. She knows this much: Merlin sleeps in Gaius's quarters, and Gaius is terribly old and may misunderstand, and Merlin, her dear thickheaded son, won't tell Gaius, won't want to.
I suppose you must know, Gaius, she writes, not sure what words will come from her pen next but writing anyway; Merlin and Arthur are two very special boys. I don't know if you've noticed, but it seemed to me that they quite loved each other, so upon their arrival here I took it upon myself to show them as much. It's been long enough, anyway. I thought Merlin would be too embarrassed to tell you as much, but they are together, it would seem, in a romantic manner. I'm not sure if either will mention it at the castle, but I thought I might tell you not to wait up for Merlin every night, and not to worry, for it would be in vain: he's safe, happy, and in love.
Oh, but Gaius dear, please don't embarrass them about it. I've already done it enough for us both. Thank you.
She gives the letter to Merlin - "For Gaius," she says, and he nods. She looks at him for a moment tearfully and pulls him into a hug. "I love you, Merlin."
"Yeah, mum. I love you too."
Merlin rolls his eyes at Arthur where he stands behind Hunith, but Arthur only smiles at him, lost in the sight.
They near Camelot in a matter of a few slow days that pass too quickly. Tomorrow they'll set off and hopefully reach Camelot by early afternoon, but for now Arthur only sighs his release and collapses at Merlin's side.
Once he gets his breath back, he says happily, "Your mother is wonderful."
Merlin raises himself up on his elbow and looks down at Arthur. "What?" He's still flushed, his skin glowing and his lip pouting and his brow furrowed and Arthur can't help but lean up to kiss him.
"She made me realize -"
He stops, at a loss for words, but mostly because he's afraid to sound like a girl.
"Yeah," Merlin says, letting his fingers dance around Arthur's healing wound. "You know, it's worse if you're her son."
Arthur laughs at him. "I happen to love her son," he says, and Merlin smiles at him, dropping down and turning to face Arthur.
"I wonder," Merlin says. "That night, you said it was fitting we - in my home. Does this mean we won't - when we get to the castle?"
"No," Arthur says, and a second time more firmly, "no. Not unless you asked it, of course."
"I would never ask it," Merlin says, honestly.
"Good," Arthur says, "that was the plan."
When Merlin gives Gaius the letter, he shifts from foot to foot and watches as Gaius reads it. Gaius's eyebrows slowly climb up by small degrees until finally Merlin thinks they will fly off completely. Gaius looks up at him, wide-eyed.
"Oh," he says, "well."
Merlin furrows his brow as Arthur munches on an apple, casually leaning against the table. "What is it?"
"Nothing," Gaius says, "I'm very glad you had a good time." He walks away to his cabinet. "Anyway, I've got work to do."
"Right," Merlin says. "Anything I can do?"
Gaius looks up at him and glances at Arthur quickly. "Oh no; if you have any duties for Arthur feel free to spend as long as you want doing them."
"What?" Merlin says, turning around to look at Arthur for an answer. Arthur only laughs at him.
"You know, Merlin, I actually do need help writing up a report about our journey…"
They go to Arthur's chambers to do just that, and if they take a little longer than they should, well -