the carpet on my cheek feels like a forest

and I run through the tall trees with your hand chasing me


"ARTHUR!"

He winced. Never, ever was it a good thing to hear his father sound like that. Arthur stepped forward timidly through the door way, feeling much smaller than he did normally, his surroundings seeming just a little taller, looming and daunting around him.

The view wasn't any better than the voice. Uther's lined, tense face glared down at him, albeit considerably younger than Arthur saw it last. The expression was just the same, still that bitter disappointment, still that...anger, just a little higher, a different angle than Arthur remembered.

Uther launched forward, seizing Arthur's skinny wrist in his firm grip and spitting out words through barred teeth...but Arthur could no longer hear it. Pounding against his temples, Uther's voice rang round Arthur's head, yet he couldn't latch onto any words, couldn't string a sentence together from all that noise...his vision was becoming blurry at the edges - he forced himself to look up into his father's face. Arthur gulped, feeling that familiar mixture of fear and shame whenever he let his father down - it pressed hard on his chest, too hard, harder than before, crushing him - and his wrist ached, the grip was too tight, his blood rushed to the surface where those thick fingers were clamped around it, tingling...and his father was still shouting, it echoed round Arthur's ears, all the incoherent words blending into a repeated cry of Arthur, Arthur, Arthur, Arthur-

Arthur's hand was numb, save from the way it was persistently throbbing every second and he ached to stretch it out. He must have slept on it, Arthur thought, opening his eyes a fraction to ease them into the piercing light. He tried moving his fingers, but found that they were inter-weaved around a set of smaller ones - Merlin's fingers, he realised, remembering their conversation a few hours before. Arthur blinked a few times, cracking his eyes wide open and peered down at the boy on his chest. They were on the bed, Merlin curled up and tucked into Arthur's side, their arms trapped between them where they had fallen asleep still with hands entwined. Explained the numbness, Arthur thought. He shuffled a little on the bed, stretching his shoulders as much as he could without disturbing Merlin, and smiled as the boy murmured in his sleep and nuzzled his face into fabric of Arthur's tunic. It wasn't so dark now; the earliest, bravest rays of morning light had started to seep in through the window, beginning to bathe the contours of Merlin's face, his skin, his torn, bloodied wrists in the shy, yellow light. Arthur brought his other hand up, the one that wasn't holding onto Merlin's, and brushed his fingertips over the cuts on Merlin's wrist, where it rested on Arthur's chest, looking down at the angry marks with regret. Where the flaking rust must have made the metal stick out at jagged angles, tearing against the soft skin as Merlin's struggled against the chains. These physical wounds would heal, were healing - but the hurt inflicted emotionally on the boy...it was too much this time. Merlin wouldn't heal, he couldn't- couldn't possibly come back from this. Not completely.

Arthur sighed, a flutter of breath ghosting over the back of his hand, and the exposed skin where the neckline of his tunic stopped. He lifted Merlin's hand gently, bringing it up towards his mouth as he tilted his head forward...and pressed a small kiss onto Merlin's wrist, feeling under his lips where the skin was soft, unblemished, and where it broke. The boy shifted in his sleep, pale eyelids flickering and little fingers twitching in Arthur's palm. He squeezed them tighter, then let go of one to let it lay back on his chest, and brought his hand up to touch at Merlin's hair instead. It was impossibly soft, light and silken under Arthur's rough fingertips and he found, with only a little surprise, he was content, for now, to simply lie there with the small boy, forgetting everything for a while.

The small moment of serenity didn't last for long though, just as Arthur knew it wouldn't but didn't quite want to believe yet. Merlin stirred beside him just as the yellow rays spilled over the ledge of the window, casting them both into shades of shadow and the new morning light. Arthur dipped his head down to look at the boy, who had started squirming in Arthur's arms now the final dregs of sleep had released him, and smiled softly, still stroking Merlin's hair. The boy blinked, then once again, then a blinding grin broke out as his bleary eyes took in Arthur, who was watching him fondly. But then, it changed; that little glimmer of light seemed to dim in Merlin's gaze and the smile slowly slid off his face...and Arthur's heart sank. He knew Merlin was remembering. Arthur squeezed tighter on their entwined hands and traced a path round Merlin's ears from his curling raven hair to the bottom of his chin, and tilted Merlin's face up so he could make sure his words sunk in.

"Merlin." Arthur's voice was quiet, tender, and only just a little croaky from sleep. He stared at the boy, his gaze flicking from one gleaming blue eye to another. He was such a beautiful child, Arthur thought. He wished he could just wrap him up in his arms and lie in the long grass to watch the sun circle them in an arch in the sky and then curl up inside by the fire at night, talking and laughing and sharing stories and thinking of all the things they were going to go out and do the next day and how incredible it would be. Uther didn't matter. Camelot didn't matter, not really. They could start their own kingdom, smaller scale. Just him and Merlin.

"It's a new day."

Merlin just stared at him, worrying his lower lip with those tiny pearls of teeth, then nodded, smiling weakly, one which Arthur returned. He leaned forward and placed a firm kiss to Merlin's forehead, ruffling the black hair as he drew back, then shuffled his torso so that he was sitting up on the bed, leaning back on one hand. Arthur chuckled when Merlin let out a groan as he was forced to move, feeling the loss of the small body beside him immediately and the empty feeling in Arthur's palm - Merlin had finally let go.

Arthur was going to try today. They were going to go out, do all those things he'd just day dreamed about idly in the small hours of the past few days...he was going to help Merlin put the past behind him, help ease the pain of all the memories of this place and go out and create some new ones. Arthur was determined.

That morning, he tried to slip into some sort of routine, pulling Merlin up from the bed with a grumble and they ate and drank some of their leftover food, Arthur only realising then just how hungry he'd been. They hadn't seen Matthew since the afternoon previously, and Arthur was really hoping they wouldn't run into him again, but he'd have to at some point. Either for more food or for weapons or simply just an awkward acknowledgement when they passed in the village square. But what they really needed was a few more friendly faces, and Arthur knew that wouldn't be too difficult in a remote village like this with little, adorable Merlin in tow - it was just a question of being brave and going out and making new acquaintances all the while knowing that their only one so far no longer wanted Arthur there.

Bravery. A Pendragon trait, of course. His father had taught him to be brave, to face his enemies, to go into battle without fear. But now- after breaking Merlin out, running from his father, telling Merlin about Will - Arthur doubted he'd ever known the meaning of brave before now.

Merlin had hardly spoken since they'd awoken, and the silence itched at Arthur's nerves. So he'd wrapped up the rest of their food, which was mostly Matthew's supplies now Leon's had been used up hours ago, and taken the boy's hand and they walked out into the village. The morning light glowed through the clouds at the horizon, now the sun had fully risen proud and unwavering from below the horizon, and it was like the entire village had lit up - each colour shone, so different from the grey-scale of the night before. It was just early enough so that he could still hear a few birds chattering in the lower branches, but late enough into the morning that more and more people were beginning to appear dotted around the ramble shack houses. Arthur managed a small smile at each that glanced his way.

"Oh, Arthur - look!"

Merlin's voice brought Arthur's attention back to ground level, where the boy was knelt down in front of a small chicken, of all things...where had it come from? - chestnut feathers gleaming as a beady black eye watched Merlin cautiously, wrinkled neck bobbing. Arthur chuckled, and Merlin's laugh tinkled in the morning air, the bird pecking lightly at Merlin's outstretched palms.

"Mother used to let me feed them." Merlin remembered, and Arthur's chest lifted a little when he heard no trace of sadness in the boy's voice. He hoped the happy memories of this place would outweigh the bad ones, despite how much had now been added to the pile during the small hours of last night. Then- a voice interrupted Arthur's thoughts, making him wrench his gaze off Merlin and stare wide eyed out in front of him.

"You're Hunith's boy, aren't you?"

An old woman was standing out by a battered fence, more brown chickens at her feet, and was smiling at Merlin fondly - but as Arthur stared at her she looked back up to him instead. She had a tattered dark green shawl draped round her shoulders, and one gnarled hand gripped the post of the fence tightly.

"Yeah," Arthur answered, remembering to smile a little. He stepped forward. "Yes, he is- how..?"

"I may be old, boy, but I still remember things." She quirked her eyebrows, and Arthur closed his mouth, rearranging what he was about to say - but the woman had started speaking again before he had the chance. "I knew his father, long time ago." Arthur's chest tightened at her words. He knew practically nothing about Merlin's father, only that he wasn't around, hadn't been for many years, whether this was because he was dead, or not...Arthur didn't know. In the entire time Arthur had known the boy, he hadn't mentioned him once. Arthur had never been brave enough to approach the subject.

"And his mother, for a while. I often saw him running about the place - he always liked the animals." The woman's gaze slid back to where Merlin was crouching down next to the chicken, and Arthur did the same, watching the boy pick little grains of corn off the ground and letting the bird pluck them out of his palm.

Arthur chuckled softly. "Yes- yes, he does.." He stepped forward, clearing his throat. "My name's Arthur." he said, tentatively, not sure if the woman would know who he really was.

She looked up then, nodded, and pierced him with a strange look. Arthur shifted uncomfortably on the balls of his feet, feeling like the woman was picking out his entire history from the contours on his face, and he suddenly felt guilty for a million different things - like he was been weighed up in her eyes and Arthur desperately needed to pass her test.

"Look after him." she said finally, smiling, gesturing with her head to Merlin. Arthur heard the real question in her voice, and he hoped he would prove her right. He straightened his shoulders.

"I will."

He hoped he'd prove them both right.

It stayed like that for just a moment longer than necessary, Arthur holding the woman's gaze as he felt an acknowledgement pass between them, a silent promise and a responsibility he had to prove he could shoulder. Then - it broke, and Arthur turned away from her, ready to make his way back down through the village, speaking quietly to Merlin to make him get up and follow him.

It was a fair few minutes later, walking down the path, that Arthur realised the old woman hadn't said her name.


The morning was growing old now.

They'd made their way, meandering round rugged houses and fences until they reached the edge where the village met the woods, in the opposite direction that they'd arrived. Arthur twisted round where he stood and tugged gently on Merlin's hand, looking back over his shoulder at the boy. He was met with those blue eyes once again as Merlin turned his head, wide and focused completely on Arthur.

"Come on."

They ran. It wasn't like before, in the depth of the woods at night, trying not to trip up on tree roots and scrambling for their lives...it was different. Not quite the same as chasing the butterflies, but then, that that seemed so long ago now it pained Arthur when he realised that they might never get back to that point. If they could ever really out run this; Merlin's fate, Arthur's responsibilities...all of it, waiting for them still...Arthur would make sure they ran in the wind every day. It was going to catch up with them, there was no question - but Arthur was still willing to hold onto that little bit of hope, or denial...that they could escape it. He kept that thought in his head as they ran; feet pounding against the dusty track to the edge of the village, out and further out until it was just trees, all around them, scattered among the tiny purple flowers. Escape. If they could feel just a little bit of that freedom, just for today, then it would be enough. Arthur figured they needed that.

They dashed around the tree roots, not exactly sure where they were going but simply enjoying the feeling of it - the breeze against Arthur's face, stinging his eyes a little as they cut through the air. Arthur held tight to Merlin's hand, glancing to his side at the boy, watching a grin spread across his face as the blurred green and yellow smudged around the messy black hair. Arthur laughed back at him, hearing the sound get swallowed up by the wind, echoing round his ears then soon being left behind as they ran on. Merlin looked so wild, tousled hair sticking up as the breeze lifted it up off his forehead, out of his eyes that practically sparkled in delight, brighter than Arthur had seen them for a while. He knew he must look no different, but it didn't even occur to him that he should care at all. Not when Merlin was laughing too, a glorious sound that rang through the air around them, tugging at Arthur's heart and the corners of his mouth. Not when Merlin's eyes were crinkling at the edges, not with tears this time but happiness as his smile took over his face. Not when Merlin's hand was there in his, firm and gentle and solid and soft all at the same time.

Arthur couldn't hear himself laugh anymore - the rush of the wind and Merlin's own tinkling sound smothered it before it reached his ears, but he could feel the sound instead; the way it gasped up his throat with his rugged breathing as he ran, the push against his lungs.

And they kept running.

He didn't know exactly where he was taking them, but it didn't matter much. They could have easily run forever, to the bracing soundtrack of the wind rushing past their ears, their laughs getting mixed up with their breathing and just making sure they kept placing one foot in front of the other.

After a while, Arthur stumbled and dug his heels in, pulling them to a stop. They'd seemed to break free of the looming trees, into some sort of clearing with a circle of water stretched beneath the bank, the still surface shining silver like a huge coin someone had dropped in the grass. He glanced to Merlin beside him, both their chests heaving and the sound of them catching their breath the only noise in the quiet of their surroundings. Merlin started to grin at him, his wild eyes glinting cheekily from the water then back to Arthur, his smile transforming his face. Arthur raised his eyebrows.

"Race you." The boy laughed, his taunting words sing-song like.

Arthur chuckled and let go of Merlin's hand to yank his tunic over his head, then to help untangle Merlin from his own, which was just a little too big for him. As soon as he was free, Merlin scrambled forwards, running to the edge of the bank and then he sprang into the air, clutching his knees to his chest and landing with a splash in the water. Arthur laughed, throwing his head back as he watched the boy resurface, thrashing around causing white spray to form in arches around him - then he fell forward into a run and launched himself off the edge after Merlin, splashing in next to him. It was exhilarating; he'd needed that release for a while, and Arthur could already feel relaxation pouring off his skin and down his shoulders as he bathed himself with the cool water, scraping his dripping hair back off his face. Merlin bobbed around next to him, grinning wildly with his own hair plastered to one side of his cheek, and the other side sticking up at a weird angle. Arthur smirked at him. He looked even tinier now, his skinny shoulders shivering where the breeze brushed against his wet skin, his legs kicking madly under the water as he tried to keep himself afloat.

"Again?" Arthur dared, feeling out of breath. Merlin nodded, and then Arthur waded forward in the water to scoop him up, ignoring the shriek Merlin gave out as Arthur wrenched him out of the water into his arms, the glimmering droplets cascading off them both.

"Arthur! Arthur, let me go- aah!" Merlin wriggled in his grasp, giggling and protesting in equal amounts, and another laugh burst out of Arthur. He clambered up the side of the bank and turned round, then broke into another run up to the edge and let go of Merlin at the last second - they soared, just for a few seconds, in mid air, and time seemed to slow as Arthur watched them drift apart with the momentum but then Merlin reached out and clutched Arthur's fore arms right before they plunged into the water. They sunk down beneath the surface, and then everything was pale blue; Arthur tried his best to keep his eyes open, watching Merlin's eyes screw up and his breath bubbling out the corners of his mouth as he beamed in delight...it was eerily quiet under the surface, and Arthur just had time to hear Merlin's muffled laugh resonate around his water-logged ears- and then, suddenly - they both resurfaced - and time swooped back to normal speed in a rush of noise.

Merlin's laugh tinkled through the air, Arthur panting heavily but then his own laugh joined the cacophony of wondrous sounds that had erupted, sudden and such a contrast from the seconds of serenity underneath the surface. Water streamed down his face, droplets spinning off in all directions as Arthur flicked his hair back- and he just caught a glimpse of Merlin with another laugh etched on his face when a huge wave of water hit him, making him flinch back automatically and throw an arm over his eyes.

"Merlin!" Arthur yelped, twisting back round and shoving his own wall of water in the small boy's direction - which he watched, with satisfaction, as it soaked Merlin, plastering that raven hair to his forehead and making his ears seem even more prominent. Arthur burst out laughing, but didn't have long to bathe in his victory as Merlin recovered, and starting splashing even more water his way, sometimes flicking strings of crystal droplets in long arcs, sometimes shoving entire waves as he dug his palms in and pushed. Arthur wasn't going to give up that easily, and he started splashing Merlin back, laughing and recoiling when a load of water flew his way, both of them gasping, still a little out of breath from the jump.

It was beautiful, Arthur would remember later.

But in the moment, he could only concentrate on dodging Merlin's splashes, then soaking the boy in revenge, his own deep laugh accompanying Merlin's musical one, catching glimpses of those blue eyes sparkling in delight and flashes of raven hair amid the white spray of the water that encircled them both.

It was like how they'd been before.

But after a while, they both grew tired, the splashing reduced to a few casual flicks with the tips of their fingers, and then to nothing. In some sort of silent agreement, they waded over to the edge of the bank, heaved themselves up out of the water and flopped down onto the patchwork of grass and moss. Arthur chuckled, his chest rising and falling heavily as he laid on his back, listening to Merlin's breathing next to him. Arthur shuffled over so they could lie in that spot where the sun was beating down on the soft grass, pulling Merlin along with him and let out a long sigh, stretching out his limbs. The grass tickled against his exposed skin underneath him, and his water-logged breeches hung off his thighs uncomfortably but he still let himself relax, allowed his eyes to fall shut, seeing nothing but a pink glow behind his lids and feeling the heat of the midday sun like a blanket on top of him. The little droplets of water cooled him, some evaporating off his tanned skin, some running in little streams down his jaw, down the back of his neck, soaking through his strands of hair by his temples. Arthur didn't think he'd ever felt more at peace. He didn't need to stretch his mind any further than just continuing to breathe.

Arthur lost track of time laying on the grass. When he finally opened his eyes he couldn't tell if he'd had them closed only for a few minutes or if they'd been lying there for hours - but, judging by his damp skin and soaked hair, Arthur assumed it hadn't been much longer than five minutes in reality. It had truly reached midday now, and the glare of the morning rays made Arthur's lids flutter and protest after having them shut, but he soon adjusted and after blinking violently for a couple of seconds he managed to focus enough to take in his surroundings.

If Arthur looked straight upwards, it was just light blue, framed around the edges with reaching leaves and branches and smudged with the occasional cloud. Looking closer to earth, Arthur took in the endless trees that surrounded them, a darker shade of green each metre into the thick of the woods and specks of lilac at the roots. The sun made the green glow around them, and it was something Arthur had never stopped to appreciate before. The way it cast dappled shadows over the ground, over their faces, little specs of dust glinting in the air above them. The leaves; the way they grew lighter, brighter towards the edges where the sun hit them from behind, just like Merlin's blood under his skin last night. Phosphorescent, flushed with that rich colour, vibrant under the sun's steady gaze. Arthur turned his head.

Merlin's mouth was slightly open, like in awe, his small yet deep breaths visible as his chest rose and sunk again. His skin looked white in the light, brilliant and blinding, and for one sudden moment Arthur was convinced the boy was actually glowing - along his thin torso and down his even skinnier arms that were stretching out, tiny fingers latching and weaving between the blades of grass. Merlin's eyes were skyward, and he was smiling, Arthur could tell, even from this angle. Arthur chuckled again, watching the boy's dark eyelashes flick back and forth as he too took in the quiet beauty of their secluded spot. Then, Merlin turned his head towards Arthur, as if he was aware he was being watched, and those cerulean eyes latched onto his own - the suddenness and the intensity of the gaze made Arthur's breath catch in his throat. Merlin's hair was still dripping at the tips, much like Arthur could feel his own doing, clumping together to form a zig-zag pattern across the pale forehead and the promise of curls by his ears where the hair had begun to dry. Merlin blinked at Arthur, flicking little droplets off his long eyelashes to land silently on his cheek.

"You okay?"

Arthur barely raised his voice, not wanting to break the deafening quiet that had enveloped them, and he already knew the answer without having to ask, but he felt as if he should say something never the less. Merlin nodded.

They simply laid like that for a while longer, seconds or minutes...again, Arthur couldn't seem to tell. Then Merlin broke their gaze, his eyes drifting off unfocused and distracted, and he turned his head back so his was staring upwards. Arthur could tell there was something he wanted to say. He spoke after a few more moments of anticipation.

"Can I- will we..." the boy started, and Arthur's gaze snapped back to him, studying his profile carefully, watching his mouth form the words. The boy sighed and seemed to change track. "I didn't mean to do it, Arthur."

Arthur frowned. "I know, I- I know you didn't, Merlin."

"I was just...scared, the- the King, he was...shouting, it was too loud...I wanted to see, that's all - "

Oh, god.

"I could hear, everything, the girl...I could hear her screaming..."

"Merlin..." Arthur's fingers inched forward through the grass, itching to clasp hold of Merlin's twitching palm. He was shaking, still looking skyward.

"...I found the room, I went in- I saw...Arthur, how- how could he?"

That's when Merlin turned his head, gaze latching back onto Arthur's and it was that, and the way his voice had lowered to practically a whisper that shook Arthur, making goose bumps prickle up all over his exposed skin, his stomach turning to ice. He didn't say anything, only reached forward that little more and took hold of Merlin's hand.

"How could he?" The boy repeated. "He was going to- kill the girl, Arthur! I had to...I had to..." Merlin's eyes screwed shut, and Arthur's heart ached when he saw a few fresh tears leak out, dripping down the boy's cheek and joining the other droplets. Arthur took a deep, shuddering breath, squeezing their hands together, tight. God, he hated his father. He could just see it; Merlin bursting into the court room, searching for the owner of the pleading screams, only to find Uther sentencing another sorcerer to death...

...just the way Uther had sentenced Merlin less than an hour later.

"Merlin, I'm so..so sorry...it's not your fault, you did nothing wrong-"

"She was like me, Arthur."

He drew in a sharp breath. Merlin's eyes had flicked open again, and the way they pierced through Arthur made him shift uncomfortably, like he was searching for answers, an explanation, asking why, why was this happening, why hadn't you stopped it? Arthur couldn't bring himself to answer those silent questions in Merlin's gaze, and it took all of his effort just to keep the eye contact.

"I could feel it." Merlin murmured. "Feel...her. She was scared, I had...I had to do something, I.."

Arthur gulped, feeling his own tears trailing down his cheekbone, mingling with the droplets of water and dripping off the tip of his nose. He stroked his thumb over the back of Merlin's hand, just like he always did.

"Merlin - listen, no..listen to me, now." Arthur could hear his voice wavering, but he did his best to steady it. "You did, nothing, wrong, you hear me? Nothing. None of this is your fault, it's mine, I should have done more to- " Arthur cut himself off. Now wasn't the time for wallowing. "You're going to be fine, okay? We'll be just fine."

Merlin blinked, looking disbelievingly across at Arthur, and unhooked his hand from Arthur's grip for a second to wipe the remaining tears and water droplets off his face, then letting it drop back on the grass between them. Arthur followed it's path with his eyes, watching each finger twitch between the blades of grass and noting again how tiny they were compared to Arthur's own. A tiny glimmer of hope seemed to resurface in the oceans swirling in Merlin's eyes.

"I- I haven't ruined everything?" he asked, tentative, voice still barely more than a whisper.

Arthur's dark blond eyebrows knitted together in confusion, but Merlin soon elaborated.

"We can still...do all those things? All those things you told me about?" The boy's eyes widened, worrying his bottom lip once again, and Arthur realised with a tug on his heart what Merlin was talking about. "We can, can't we, Arthur? I can still be your-"

"Protector." Arthur let out a shaky breath. "Merlin...this- is this what you've been worrying about?" He shifted on the grass, pushing himself up to lean on his arms, looking across at the boy. Merlin glanced at him, blue eyes wide, and he nodded.

"You could have died, Merlin, I mean..." Arthur shook his head incredulously, then laughed shakily. After all that had happened...after Will...after everything...

"I just- lord, Merlin...I swear, I don't understand you sometimes."

Merlin sat up himself to sit cross-legged across from Arthur, biting his lip and his hands twitching in his lap. Still those wide, bright blue eyes burned through Arthur's own, and he couldn't think what to say. Their little dream had been the last thing on his mind for days, when preserving Merlin's life had been his priority - and now Arthur considered it, it was like a dead weight in his stomach. Was there anyway, now, that they could still do any of those things? What Arthur had done, such a huge action against his father's orders...he didn't know if Uther still wanted him to become King some day. But then, Uther wouldn't live forever. There was still hope for Arthur rising to the throne, abolishing the ban on magic and securing that future that Merlin was destined for - that he deserved.

Arthur leaned forward, twisting his legs under him so he was more comfortable and faced the boy opposite him, reaching for their discarded tunics a stretch away in a pile on the grass. He fed his arms into the sleeves and pulled his on over his head, then chucked Merlin's blue one into the boy's lap. Merlin smiled a little, scrunching up the fabric round his hands and running his fingers across it.

"So...will we- can we?"

Merlin's voice was small. He kept looking down at his hands, and Arthur watched his dark eyelashes peek out across his cheek from under his curling fringe. Arthur sucked in a long breath, trying to prolong his response by breathing out again as slowly as possible, and made a decision - there was no way he was breaking Merlin's heart again, today, tomorrow, or any other day as much as Arthur could help it.

"Of course we will." He felt surprised at how easily the words came. It wasn't a lie- not really, there was nothing Arthur wanted more than to believe it, for them to get there one day; he prayed that they would, every night, but they weren't quite out of the woods yet. Merlin's head had snapped up at his words, eyes wide, shining and hopefully, and Arthur's heart broke just a little more - but he smiled at the boy, and watched him return it, and thought that he could stay in denial for a little longer, stay dreaming for a bit more.

"Tell me, Arthur...about the- about all those things..."

"Okay, okay..." Arthur tried to steady his voice. "We're going to find somewhere you'll be safe."

Merlin's safety; this was the one thing he knew he couldn't guarantee, but he made the promise anyway. Despite all the odds, because that's what love is. Love is keeping the promise anyway.

"And- and everyone there will love you. You can- you can practice your magic too, learn how to control it and to do all these incredible things..." It was easy now he'd started, Arthur found. He just looked at Merlin's expression, full of wonder and hope at the picture Arthur was creating, and it was the simplest thing in the world to just keep the words flowing.

"...and how to defend yourself so- so no one can hurt you again. And then, someday, we'll go back home, to Camelot...but things will be okay, because I'll be King and I'll be in charge."

"And I'll - I'll have my job, won't I!" Merlin piped up, and Arthur chuckled at the look of glee seeping through his face, wide eyed and bouncing slightly with excitement. "The Royal Court...Court...oh, you say it Arthur, it's- it's not the same if I say it."

Arthur's laugh rang loudly round the clearing, and he could feel himself becoming lightheaded from the sudden changes of emotion, as he struggled to keep up with the little boy in front of him.

"Royal Court Sorcerer." he corrected, smirking. "And you'll have your own chambers, right next door to mine so we can sneak out in the night and go out into the woods, or some nights we'll lay out in the fields and we'll make pictures and stories by joining up the stars-"

"Oh! We can do ours, Arthur! We can do our story!" Merlin cried, his laugh tinkling in the air.

Arthur grinned, then suddenly lurched forwards, grabbing Merlin's pale skinny shoulders and wrestled him into a hug. "The greatest, most amazing story ever-" Arthur yelled, raising his voice over Merlin's infectious giggles as he tried to escape Arthur's strong arms. "- the story of King Arthur Pendragon, and his Sorcerer, Merlin Emrys!"

Merlin yelped out his own cheers from somewhere trapped under Arthur's arm, and then he raised his head from where it was buried in Arthur's chest to look at the prince.

"And they will be the most...best-est ever!" Merlin cried out, his eyes gleaming.

Roaring with laughter, Arthur reached up a hand to muss up the boy's tousled, still slightly damp hair and grinned wildly when Merlin grumbled.

"Yes, Merlin..." Arthur couldn't stop smiling. "They will be the most, bestest ever."


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