The ground around us was smooth and flat, covered by course grass and leaves. Gratefully plopping down my pack and rolling my aching shoulders, I drop to the ground next to it. Arthur grins and hits the ground next to me, groaning.
It had been a long hunt, and an even longer walk. Arthur seemed hell-bent on capturing and killing some sort of animal, and refused to go back to Camelot without one. I didn't understand what the big deal was (it was a living animal and didn't need to be killed, after all), but Arthur assured me that it was honorable.
Personally, I think leaving some deer or boar to live is more honorable then slaughtering it, but that's just me.
We had traversed a good part of the Darkling Woods and still are not any closer to any sort of prize. The tracks Arthur had found seemed a good five days old, and whatever was here was long gone. It seemed even he was ready to admit defeat.
I moaned in exhaustion and flopped dramatically back onto the ground. Arthur kicked out from his position a bit beside me, and caught a glancing blow at my ribs. I stuck my tongue out a bit at him and continued laying there.
"Come on, Merlin. Get up. We have to keep moving."
I groaned and threw my hand over my eyes.
"We've only been here five minutes, Arthur. Give your poor, unfortunate manservant a rest. At least you don't have to carry your pack around. What do you have in there, a dead boar?"
"If I had a dead boar, Merlin, we wouldn't be in this godforsaken forest any more than we needed to be. Now get up."
I staggered to my feet, laughing, and met Arthur's eyes. The blue irises were concerned, and were gazing at me in a way that was slightly uncomfortable.
"What?" I asked, meeting his eyes. "Do I have something on my face?"
He shook his head quickly.
"Uh, no. No. The sun…it was shining on your face…uh… your shoulder!" he stammered, face turning red as he turned away.
"What about my shoulder?" I asked, twisting it. It hurt, but they always hurt when I had to carry Arthur's packs. I didn't see the big deal.
"It's bleeding!" he yelped, crossing the space between us in a few seconds. Despite my protests, he deftly untied my neckerchief and yanked down my shirt, leaving my shoulder bare.
"You're doing this why?" I muttered, as Arthur dug through the pack for some bandages.
"I don't want you hurt, Merlin. That wasn't the reason why I had you carry the packs. If they were too heavy and cutting into your bony shoulders, you should have told me!" He smeared some herb stuff that's supposed to prevent infections on my shoulder and I shivered at the touch before he slapped some bandages on over it.
Part of me couldn't help thinking how right his hand felt in the curve of my collarbone, like it was made to fit there. I smothered the though harshly…what was I thinking?
"There." He stated, "Now let me take some of that." Arthur swept up the pack, throwing some things out until he created himself a second pack out of one of the bedrolls. My bedroll, if I wasn't mistaken. I'd be sleeping on bugs and leaves for the rest of the night.
I appreciated the gesture, however.
"Thanks," I grinned, easily swinging the lightened pack over my shoulder. It didn't hurt half as much anymore, the cream numbing and preventing infection.
"Not a problem. Next time just ask, Merlin. You're the manservant, but you're not supposed to get injured on the job."
His hand slapped my uninjured shoulder affectionately and we started off down the game trail. I couldn't help realizing that the entire time we were out in the forest there wasn't any signs of bandits. That was odd, as we always seemed to be ambushed by them whenever we entered a dark and foreboding place.
I shoved the thought into the back of my mind. I was being paranoid, surely. Who else knew we were going on a hunting trip besides Gaius, Gwen, and the Knights? Agravaine was put in charge and there wasn't anything to worry about.
Something nagged at the back of my mind and I glanced around, trying to see into the distance without casting any magic spells. I had a feeling something (or someone) was watching us, and it was driving me up the wall.
"Merlin?" Arthur's voice came from somewhere up in front of me. I jumped and turned to look at him.
"You've been oddly quiet…normally I'm constantly trying to shut you up. What's on your mind?"
I glanced around once more and once more the sight of an empty forest was all that met my eyes.
Arthur laughed. "Figures."
I whipped around to face him. "Prat."
I laughed a bit to myself at our common banter that I had missed when life had been full of constant activity. I hadn't the time to just hang out with Arthur for a while, and it was nice. I hadn't realized how much his presence calmed me down and made me feel…safe.
Standing closer to Arthur, I realized that the threat of bandits was stupid. Just because we were in the woods did not mean we were going to be attacked. Even the thought was paranoid.
I turned to talk to Arthur, and missed Morgana hissing a spell from behind a tree, targeting the both of us, and the sly smirk that appeared on her face when she was done.
"Arthur is strangely fond of the boy," she whispered, "Now let's see how fond he truly is."
The sun was well behind the mountains when Arthur finally called to stop. My legs shook and gratefully I dropped the pack on the ground, sitting next to it. My hand probed my shoulder gently and although the walking and rubbing of the pack made the wound impossible to close, it wasn't by any means life threatening.
"How's the shoulder?" Arthur asked with a weary sigh. I smiled half-heartedly.
"It's as good as you'd expect for carrying the pack all day."
Arthur sighed again. "All this time, and nothing. Not even a trace of game."
"Tomorrow, maybe." I murmured, unrolling my and Arthur's bedroll and smoothing them out while he got a fire going.
After a quick meal of Hunter's Stew (which was a nice name for whatever I could find shoved in a pot and boiled) we both stayed near the fire, gazing into the flames. The silence wasn't awkward, because we never really needed say anything. We were close enough that we could just sit without the need for words to get between us.
"You know, even though we didn't find anything, I had fun today, Arthur." I whispered, poking the fire with a stick, avoiding looking into his eyes. I knew if I turned to look at him my breath would be taken away and I'd be left staring, as the firelight reflects in his eyes and turns his hair a brilliant gold.
In the firelight, it was as if I could see the King he was to become. And as much as it pained me, a King like that couldn't consort with a servant like me.
Even as a friend…let alone something more.
"I enjoyed today, too, Merlin. Seems…seems we don't have enough time to just go out and hunt anymore. Not with my thousand and one new responsibilities."
We met eyes, and I wasn't disappointed. His azure eyes were pools of flame.
"I'm just glad you realized you don't have to go through them alone, sire."
"I know. You taught me that. You taught me that just because I'm Prince Regent, I shouldn't throw away my friends. I'm sure you're the only one I can truly trust, Merlin, and I'm grateful for that."
"It's not a problem, Arthur." I blushed softly and smiled at him, loving the gaze he was throwing on me. My legs felt weak and tingly, however, and I stomped them against the ground.
Arthur cleared his throat awkwardly, as if he realized the strange turn our conversation was heading.
"More firewood?" he asked, and realizing the veiled order I got up, stamping my feet against the ground. I took a few unsteady steps, wavering.
"Merlin? Are you alright?" Arthur asked, the worry in his tone shining through.
"I…I don't feel so good," I whispered. "Unsteady…shaky."
"Come back then. I'll go get the firewood. I'm your friend, Merlin, for god's sake. Don't hurt yourself."
I didn't hear the end of the statement, for the moment Arthur said friend-friend!- a swell of overpowering, forbidden love swept through me. A second later my knees turned to jelly and I crumpled on the ground.
"Merlin!" Arthur yelled, getting up and racing over to me, "Merlin, are you OK?" Before I could respond his hands were on me, pulling me back up to my feet. The feel of his hands were like flames on my cold body and his touch threw shivers down my spine.
He placed me tenderly back on my feet, but the moment he let go I crumpled again, even harder than before, slamming my body onto the ground. I groaned in pain.
"Merlin!" Arthur cried, bending down. "What's wrong?"
"I fell," I muttered, glancing at him.
"Well, I see that! I mean, what happened? Why did you fall?"
The agony and confusion in his voice made me shine, as it showed how concerned he was for me…his manservant.
I couldn't deny it anymore.
"I think…I think I just fell in love with you there, Arthur." I whispered.
He stared at me and then recoiled in shock.
"What?" he hissed. "What are you doing, Merlin? We…we had a good thing going! I was just starting to consider you a friend…I'm defying protocol and traditions and conventions for you, Merlin! I'm not supposed to even be friends with a servant, let alone…let alone whatever you're asking! You did a number on a good thing! I…I don't know…I don't know what you're doing, but stop it, OK? Get up. Get up right now and maybe we can forget this ever happened."
My heart broke and I stared up at him. I didn't expect him to be in love with me… he's the Prince and I'm a manservant. And that would be OK. But… to reject me like this? To be so…so cruel?
He dragged me up by the arm, roughly, pulling on my wounded shoulder. I let out a whimper of pain.
"Oh, shut up, Merlin. You did this to yourself."
The second he let go I crumpled again, unable to prevent it.
"Merlin!" Arthur cried, anger and pain radiating in his voice.
"I'm sorry, Arthur!" I cried, "I can't help it! I can't stop falling!"
Arthur stared at me for a moment, beautiful eyes glowing before he turned away from me, breaking eye contact.
"I'm sorry too, Merlin." he whispered, and steeled himself, grabbing the pack and walking away into the forest.
"Arthur!" I screamed, "I'm sorry, Arthur! I won't mention it again! Please! Come...come back!"
Arthur hesitated and turned back to me, grief mirrored in his eyes.
"Please, Arthur." I mumbled, one tear trickling down my face. I couldn't lose his friendship-couldn't damn our destiny because of one stupid statement.
Lying there on the dirt floor, I watched the wall around his heart crumble into pieces. He took one shaky step forward towards me and then pitched onto the ground, his torso slamming onto the dirt.
My heart leapt into my throat. I couldn't dare to believe that maybe, just maybe, he fell for me too.
"Ar-Arthur?" I asked quietly, staring at him.
"Ow." He muttered. I stifled a laugh.
He looked up at me and smiled sheepishly, an apology unspoken. My face broke into a brilliant smile, and I dragged myself up onto my forearms and started inching my way over to him. If I could dare to believe he may love me too…
Arthur dragged himself up as well and held open his arms. Unable to rise, I dragged myself into his embrace, cuddling next to him. He smiled softly and his hands folded around my body softly, gently, hesitatingly. A small groan of pleasure escaped my body…how many nights had I dreamed I would be lying like this with Arthur?
I didn't know what happened that made us fall whenever we felt love, but for brief moment I blessed him or her. If the sorcerer thought he or she was going to break Arthur and me apart, he or she was sadly mistaken. We were closer than ever and nothing was going to break us apart.
"I'm sorry, Merlin. You…you startled me. I didn't know-," Arthur started.
"Shhh," I whispered, "Close your eyes and follow your heart."
Looking at me strangely, he complied with my odd request. Gathering my nerve, I leaned over and pressed my lips on his. Adrenaline flooded through me and it seemed like the crazy world was finally at peace for a few blissful moments.
For a moment, Arthur struggled against the kiss, shocked at my directness, but not long after he melted into the kiss, taking the lead and kissing fiercely.
A few minutes later we broke apart, breathing hard and blushing furiously.
"I never…never realized…," Arthur breathed. I smiled.
"It doesn't matter now. What matters is that we're here, together, and nothing will ever stop us."
We met eyes and smiled.
It was the beginning of a new era for all of us.