Summary: Arthur wants Merlin, and Merlin wants Arthur. There's just one little problem that's keeping the two of them apart, and Arthur is determined to find out what it is.
Word Count: 3200 words.
Author's Notes: Apologies for my tardiness; confusing time zones are confusing, and I still had a couple of scenes left to edit. Many thanks to AP for looking this over for me. Happy holidays, delicirony! I hope you enjoy it :)
Disclaimer: Merlin is owned by the BBC and Shine. No copyright infringement is intended and no profit is being made. Don't send us to the dungeons.
Merlin stops talking to Arthur afterwards.
Which is—fine, it’s totally fine. Arthur has spent a long time trying to shut Merlin up, and if he’d known it would be as simple as kissing him on the mouth he would have done it often, and a lot sooner. It’s not like kissing Merlin is a hardship. His lips are soft and full, parted slightly in surprise, his hands fluttering once before coming to rest against Arthur’s shoulders. He kisses Arthur back for a long moment, Arthur is sure he does, before wrenching himself away and taking a step back.
“I’m sorry, Arthur,” he says, eyes wide, sleeve half raised as though to cover his mouth. “I can’t.”
It’s the last thing Merlin says to him for several days.
Arthur’s moment of revelation goes something like this:
“Merlin, what are you doing?”
Merlin, on his hands and knees beneath Arthur’s bed, backs up hastily and—of course—hits his head on the base of Arthur’s mattress. He yelps, rubbing the sore spot gingerly, then glares at Arthur as though his innate clumsiness were somehow the prince’s fault.
“I dropped something, if you must know,” he says tartly, “and I was trying to find it. What are you doing, trying to give me an attack of apoplexy?”
“Is it working?”
“Very funny.” Merlin’s kneeling on the floor, covered in dust, his nose wrinkling in what is about to become a sudden and very explosive sneeze, and something inside Arthur’s chest just goes, oh. Right.
It’s so far from the aggravation that he’s expecting—which, let’s face it, is still the most common emotion he experiences in relation to Merlin—that it takes a few moments to sink in; long enough for Merlin’s sneeze to erupt, for Arthur to reflexively pull out his pocket handkerchief in response, and for some part of his brain to decide that this would be the perfect time to snog his manservant for no better reason than because suddenly he really, really wants to.
At least he has the decency to help Merlin stand up first.
Merlin doesn’t feel the same way about him—that much is immediately, painfully obvious. Backing away from Arthur with startled eyes, he looks as though he’s being threatened at sword-point, or at least with some other sharp and potentially fatal object. Perhaps a fireplace poker. He stammers an abrupt denial then turns and flees the room like a man possessed, and Arthur is fine with it—fine with it, honestly, because he’s not the sort of cad who thinks people should fall at his feet simply because he’s the prince or anything, especially not someone like Merlin, who has never shown him an ounce of deference in his life.
And it’s not as though Arthur’s heart is breaking, either, because that sort of nonsense is best left to bards and heroic tales, but as he sits there, alone, on his four-poster bed—which incidentally now seems rather too large for a single man—he imagines he can hear it crack, just a little, in the centre of his chest.
Merlin doesn’t speak to him for three full days; not in any meaningful sense. He says “yes, sire” and “no, sire” and “if you say so, sire,” to the point where Arthur is starting to flinch instinctively at the sound of his own title. If he’d wanted such a deferential servant he would have promoted George of the terrible brass jokes, and if he’d wanted a servant who was afraid of him then he would have stuck with Morris to begin with. And what exactly is Merlin afraid of, anyway—that Arthur will importune him in some dark corridor and kiss him again, when he’s already made his feelings on the subject abundantly clear?
The thought worries at him for days, like a grain of sand irritating an oyster, and in the end the pearl he comes out with is: “Look, Merlin, I’m sorry if I embarrassed you.”
Merlin, who is in the process of serving dinner, drops his tray.
“You didn’t embarrass me,” he says, kneeling on the ground to pick up the scattered cutlery. “You just—took me by surprise, that’s all.”
“Either way.” Arthur hovers for a moment before crouching down to help him. Merlin’s ears are a violent red, and he makes a point of keeping his hands to himself. “I want you to know that I’m not going to press you. I shouldn’t have just kissed you out of the blue like that, and I would never have—I mean. I’m sorry. It won’t happen again.”
“It’s all right, sire.” If possible, Merlin’s face has turned even redder, the back of his neck scarlet down to his wretched neckerchief. “You didn’t—you didn’t do anything I didn’t want.”
“Didn’t I?” Arthur rights the upturned gravy boat in the middle of the tray, wipes his fingers on the legs of his trousers and sits back. His heart is rattling away against his ribs, and he wonders if it’s possible for it to beat too hard, for a person to feel too much emotion at once. “Then why did you run away?”
“I didn’t. I just—I can’t, okay?” Merlin repeats, turning towards him with anguished eyes. “I don’t want to talk about it.”
“Right.” The cracks in Arthur’s heart are spreading like spiderwebs, splintering with every beat in his chest. “Then I won’t bring it up again.”
Arthur considers, and then discards, a number of increasingly implausible scenarios in which Merlin might want to kiss him and yet be required to refrain.
“Is Merlin under some kind of curse?” he asks Gaius, when the latter is stitching up a wound in Arthur’s arm after a fight. A bandit had got in a lucky shot when Arthur, realising he couldn’t see Merlin anymore, had hesitated at a crucial moment. “A fairy geas, perhaps? Is he bewitched?”
“Sometimes I wonder,” Gaius grumbles, pulling the last stitch taut. He snips the thread, sponging the blood from Arthur’s forearm, and in the other room something clatters as Merlin tries and fails to remain discreetly out of the way. “I wouldn’t rule it out.”
“Maybe he has a sweetheart,” Arthur suggests to Gwen, addressing her while her back is turned so that he won’t have to look her in the eye. He picks up an armful of laundry and starts to hang it haphazardly on the line, stopping only when she takes it from his hands and shakes her head.
“Who, Merlin?” For some reason, Guinevere almost looks amused. “Not that I know of, sire. He doesn’t have the time.”
“I could give you a day off,” Arthur offers, the next time he comes across Merlin on his knees and cleaning the royal chambers. “A week, even. Or I could fire you altogether—God knows you give me more than enough cause.”
If anything, however, Merlin looks even more alarmed by the prospect than he had been to begin with, and Arthur is forced to rescind the offer and give him extra chores to make up for it.
“I will figure this out eventually, you know,” he says, when Merlin has blown out the last of his candles and is getting ready to leave for the night. “You’ll see if I don’t.”
Merlin looks back at him miserably, his face creased and angular in the shadows. “I wish you wouldn’t,” he says.
In spite of his efforts, Arthur might have continued on in blissful ignorance if it hadn’t been for Hunith—or rather, the letter that Hunith sent asking for Merlin’s help over the harvest season, because the people of Ealdor were short-handed and in desperate need of the extra grain. She doesn’t come right out and say so, but Arthur can’t help feeling that he bears some of the responsibility for Ealdor’s predicament. After all, if he hadn’t led them all into battle the year before, perhaps more of the township’s citizens would still be alive.
“I still feel like I should be coming with you,” Arthur says, watching Merlin pack his things into his knapsack with a critical eye. “There are bandits in the forest, and goodness knows what kind of trouble you’ll meet with on the road. Besides, Ealdor needs all the help it can get.”
“I don’t think your father would be very happy if you disobeyed him a second time,” Merlin says distractedly, and Arthur scowls at his oblivious back. “And Gaius says it will be a couple of weeks before you can start swinging your sword around again. You’re better off staying here.”
“A change of scenery might do me good,” Arthur persists, unwilling to let it go. “It’ll be like a holiday.”
“Oh, yes, a very relaxing holiday,” Merlin deadpans. “We’ll be up before dawn most days, and work ’til sundown. It’s exhausting even at the best of times, and with your injury—”
“This is nothing,” Arthur interrupts, indignant, but Merlin only looks at his bandaged arm with a sceptical expression. “It’s barely a scratch! It’s not like we’re going to be fighting off an army.”
“Be that as it may,” Merlin says, returning to packing up his things. “Right now, it means you need to rest.” He softens infinitesimally when he catches sight of Arthur’s face. “I just don’t want you to get hurt again, Arthur,” he explains, more gently. “You’re needed here in Camelot, not gallivanting around the countryside, and it's not like you can do much good with a wounded arm. Don’t worry about me—I’ll be back before the season’s out.”
Arthur huffs, still angry, but he knows a lost cause when he hears one. “Fine,” he says, chucking a pair of balled-up socks at Merlin’s head. “See that you are.”
But Merlin is not back by season’s end, nor has he returned from Ealdor by the time the first snow settles over the castle ramparts, and as the weeks drag on without any sign of him, Arthur begins to get restless.
“I’m sure he’s fine, sire,” Gaius says, when Arthur visits him in the infirmary one evening to complain about Merlin’s absence. “When he wrote to me a few weeks ago, he mentioned that he might stay a little longer to make sure Hunith has everything she needs for the winter. Remember, he hasn’t been home for quite some time—no doubt he has a lot to do.”
“I suppose he must,” Arthur agrees, his stomach sinking. He hadn’t received any such letter, and he can’t help wondering if Merlin might find so much to do in Ealdor that he won’t bother coming back. “Although he can barely take care of himself at the best of times, so I’m not sure how helpful he could be.”
He doesn’t mean for it to sound so bitter, but perhaps Gaius knows him better than he thought, as the old man looks at him shrewdly for a moment and then sighs.
“You know, sire,” he says, turning away from the prince to tinker with something on his workbench. “I’m sure Merlin isn’t the only one Hunith would appreciate a visit from. I seem to recall you mentioning that she seemed quite fond of the Lady Morgana the last time you were there.”
Arthur stares at the back of his head, momentarily thrown by the sudden shift in topic. “I suppose she did,” he says slowly. “But I don’t see what that has to do with—”
“And of course,” Gaius adds, raising his voice a little louder. “She’d need a proper escort—a lady can hardly be expected to travel that distance alone. The two of you could spend Yuletide in Ealdor, and then bring Merlin back with you when you come home.” He pauses for a moment to allow this to sink in. “Purely for safety reasons, of course.”
“Of course,” Arthur echoes, and for the first time since Merlin left he feels like smiling. “Of course, Gaius. What an excellent idea.”
It takes two days for Arthur to convince his father, and another full day after that to load up a wagon with all the gifts Morgana insists on bringing with them, by which point Arthur's patience is beginning to wear thin.
“Relax, Arthur,” Morgana says, rolling her eyes as she adds another bag of grain to their supplies. “It’s not like Merlin is going anywhere.”
“Neither are we, by the look of it,” Arthur snaps back, folding his arms. Camelot’s harvest has been particularly good this year, he knows, and it’s not as though he minds bringing Ealdor the extra food, but having made the decision to leave he is anxious to be off. “Can’t you hurry it up a bit? At this rate, as soon as we get on the road we’ll run into Merlin coming back.”
At length, however, everything is ready, and they set off at a steady pace through the snowy drifts, Morgana and Arthur riding ahead while Gwen takes control of the cart at the rear. The wagon is an awkward and cumbersome vehicle, prone to getting stuck where the drifts are deepest, and Arthur seriously contemplates leaving it in a ditch several times before they reach their destination. What is typically an easy two-day journey has turned into a four-day slog, and the prince spends the entire time alternating between fretting and fuming, until at last they spot the spires of smoke on the horizon which indicate they are nearly there.
“I’ll ride ahead to let them know we’re coming,” Arthur says with considerable relief, nudging his mare into a brisk trot ahead of the others. Morgana shouts something after him, no doubt unimpressed at being summarily left behind, but Arthur ignores her, too intent on finding Merlin again to worry about what she wants.
Ealdor is a small village, barely large enough to dignify with a name, but even so it takes Arthur a few minutes to remember which hut belongs to Merlin's mother. He draws rein and dismounts in front of it, wondering whether he ought to wait for a moment so that Morgana and Gwen will have the chance to catch him up, but then he sees Merlin himself walking out of the forest towards him. He has a large pile of kindling in his arms, but he doesn't seem to be struggling any; in fact, when Arthur looks closer, he doesn't appear to be struggling at all, possibly because he isn't holding onto the wood.
It probably ought to be more dramatic. Arthur is used to sorcerers revealing themselves in flashes of light and screams of terror, but he doesn't even feel the need to draw his sword. Instead, he watches as Merlin crosses the road in front of Morgana's horse, oblivious to his audience, and with the same inexorable certainty he'd felt that day in his chambers, it occurs to him that this is it: this is the secret his manservant has been trying so desperately to keep.
Merlin has magic.
Merlin knows that he knows. Arthur can tell by the way the other man can’t stop looking at him, his eyes boring into the back of Arthur’s skull as he helps Morgana unload her infernal cart. He'd gone dead white when he saw Arthur waiting for him, promptly tripping over his feet and spilling logs all over the place, but there hadn't been time for Arthur to say anything before Hunith came out to greet them, so he hadn't tried. He’s not sure how much the others saw, or how much they've guessed from the way he's acting, but it’s enough that they are uneasy, their smiles a little too broad and their laughter a little too bright.
Merlin knows that he knows, and all Arthur can think about is how his father would react if he found out, whether his heart would shatter altogether if he were forced to watch Merlin burn.
“Are you mad at me?” Merlin asks him later, poking a stick into the fire and watching it spark. Arthur watches, too, following the tiny golden embers as they swirl into the air. “I mean, I wouldn’t blame you if you were. It’s not the way I would have chosen for you to find out.”
“I’m not mad,” Arthur says.
“It’s just,” Merlin continues, as if he hasn’t heard, “you’ve barely spoken to me since you got here. Morgana and Gwen have already promised they won’t tell your father, and I already know my mum will never turn me in.” He clears his throat, looking at Arthur sidelong. “So that leaves you. And you haven’t said anything.”
Across the room, Morgana stirs a little in her sleep, turning over so that her back is to them. Behind her, Arthur can make out Gwen and Hunith huddled under their blankets, the shadowy outline of the rest of the hut beyond. Oddly, the night is not as cold as it ought to be, in spite of the light dusting of snow that had fallen that afternoon, and Arthur has a feeling he knows exactly who is responsible for this unseasonable warmth.
“Is that what you think?” he asks finally, letting his gaze drift back to the fire and the dancing shapes there. “You didn't want to tell me because you think I’d let my father execute you?”
“No, of course not.” Merlin’s hand slips tentatively into his, tangling their fingers together, and Arthur looks up at him. “But I think, maybe...I think I was afraid to make you choose.”
They stay like that for a long moment, and Arthur can hear the crackling of the fire, the uneven sound of Merlin’s breathing beside him. He’s aware that Merlin is waiting, that he must be wondering which way the die will fall, and there's so much more than Merlin’s future resting on his decision. Finally, he sighs, letting out a gust of breath, and lifts their joined hands to brush Merlin’s knuckles with his lips.
“I think my choice was made a long time ago.”
They return to Camelot early in the new year, after a fresh fall of snow that blankets the entire countryside in white. Usually, Arthur enjoys the feeling of returning to the citadel, the sense he gets of rightness and of coming home, but this time he can’t help but notice the way Merlin looks up at the turrets almost uneasily; the way Merlin’s expression tightens by imperceptible degrees when they dismount.
“What’s the matter, Merlin,” he mutters, shoving Merlin’s shoulder lightly as he passes. “Aren’t you pleased to be back?”
“I could have used a longer holiday, to tell you the truth,” Merlin says, catching up. He bumps Arthur in response, jostling his arm as the two of them lead their horses into the stables. “Almost six whole weeks in the fields, then another couple of weeks at home...it was practically a vacation compared to working for you.”
“Idiot.” Arthur slows his steps, waiting until they’re safely inside the stables before crowding him up against a wall, and if Merlin stops talking to him for a second time after that, it’s only because his mouth is more agreeably occupied.