Hanahaki: an illness of magical origin wherein a person suffering from one-sided love that is pure and true begins to expel flowers from their mouth.
The magic creates a flowering plant within the one experiencing one-sided love, with roots wrapping around the lungs and heart, causing pain and shortness of breath. Other symptoms may include muscle weakness and difficulty focusing. The infected will continue to cough up petals at an increasing rate the longer they suffer from the disease, until there are so many blooms that they cannot breathe around them and suffocate.
Though hanahaki has a magical origin, sorcerers and druids are not the only people who can contract the disease. Anyone with feelings strong enough, and pure enough, can develop hanahaki. Those with magic have a higher chance of developing hanahaki than those without, however.
The only cure to hanahaki is for the afflicted's love to be returned in kind, otherwise death claims them within a month.
There was a chill wind in the air, and the assembled castle staff shivered on the courtyard steps. All except King Uther Pendragon, Prince Arthur Pendragon, and Arthur's manservant Merlin.
Merlin would have been shivering like the others except he was wearing a fur-lined coat that covered from his neck down to his ankles. So although they had been standing on the steps for over half an hour – since the first sign of the arriving nobles had been spotted from the walls – he had the hint of a smile on his face, rather than the scowl most everyone else wore.
Arthur stood three steps below him, with his father, ready to greet their visitors. The sun was shining brightly for the first time in weeks and it made Arthur's hair look golden, matching the Crown Prince circlet around his head. The last time his hair had been that golden had been almost three weeks ago.
It had been raining for days. The fields were flooded. Reports were arriving of full grown trees ripped from the earth. The storm had come upon them fast and then stuck with them. Some were beginning to whisper of sorcery at work.
The castle servants were constantly damp, running to and fro doing work to keep the castle working as usual despite the weather. The laundry would not dry except with a fire, which had to be carefully monitored because any opening to release the smoke inevitably led to water getting inside and the fire going out. Knights dragged mud everywhere as they came and went through the castle, reporting to the king or the prince, and someone had to clean that. The council members needed medicine delivered or meals brought up or baths drawn, because the dismal weather made their health bad and their energy poor.
And so Merlin had been trying to light Arthur's fire, his hair and clothes rain flattened, his fingers trembling. If Arthur had not been in the room, he could have used magic, but that was out of the question with the prince so close behind him. Then, just as a spark finally caught on the logs and a flame began to grow in the hearth…the world went dark.
It was a jacket, dropped over his head like the curtains on Arthur's bed. It looked new, or at least never worn. Dark brown leather so smooth and supple that it must have been made from a sheep, with fur so soft and warm that Merlin wanted to lie down and take a nap with it.
"You can't possibly want me to wash this too," Merlin had complained. "I just got the rest of your things dry. If you want this done too, you'll have to do it yourself. I'm done."
Arthur, standing over him, crossed his arms. "It's not for cleaning, Mer-lin. It's for wearing."
"…Okay?" Merlin asked when Arthur offered no other explanation. Then what did Arthur want him to do with it?
That earned a scoff, and Arthur's gaze slipped to the window and the rain pelting heavily against it, like a thief trying to get inside. The firelight made his hair flicker with gold, and though the room was dark, Arthur's cheeks were clearly dusted with pink.
"So wear it. Obviously."
Merlin blinked up at him, uncomprehending. "You're lending me a coat?"
"No. I'm gifting it to you. Don't be obtuse."
Normally Merlin would have spluttered or laughed at Arthur gifting him such a luxurious coat. It must have cost a month of Merlin's pay, at least. But the rain had been so bad, and Merlin had been so cold for so long by then…He immediately pulled the coat on.
"Don't go changing your mind. It's mine now." He snuggled into the fur and hummed in delight. He smiled up at Arthur. Anytime Arthur gave him a gift, he felt special. Sure, he knew Arthur cared about him more than a lord typically cared for a servant, and that Arthur sometimes would even admit they were friends. But gifts were rare and Merlin always cherished them. "Thank you."
Arthur scoffed again. "I'm only making sure I'm not out a servant during these bloody awful storms." He rolled his eyes as he faced Merlin again. He seemed to lose his train of thought though, and stared at Merlin blankly for several seconds. Clearing his throat, he said, "If you get sick, it hurts me." He coughed. "I mean, it's inconvenient."
And so Merlin had a new, wonderful fur coat to wear when it was cold. It had been cold and wet and miserable for weeks. Now it was just cold. Now he stood on the courtyard steps awaiting a countess who said she could explain the storms that had plagued them.
A soldier standing on the courtyard wall turned and shouted that the carriage was finally at the gates. Both King and Prince straightened their spines and checked there were no wrinkles in their tunics or capes. Then a blue-grey carriage with gold accents rolled into the courtyard, drawn by dappled grey horses. Two guards road on horseback behind the carriage and dismounted once the whole party had slowed to a stop before their hosts.
One of the guards opened the carriage door and offered his hand. The woman that stepped down was easily the most beautiful woman Merlin had ever seen. Lady Laudine, the Countess of the Fountain of Landuc and daughter of Duke Landunet, was blessed with long wavy hair that glittered like spun gold and which contrasted her pale skin in a way that made her look ethereal. Her burnt orange gown only seemed to accentuate her natural features.
After the Lady came another. Her skin was darker than Laudine's, but not much, and her shoulder length hair was copper to Laudine's gold. Her gown was less glamorous than Laudine's, but made of the same rich fabric. Merlin inhaled sharply.
That must be Luned, the Lady Laudine's handmaiden. He had heard their story whispered among the castle staff a dozen times over since the letter announcing their intended visit had arrived. A titled Lady had married her maid. It was one for the storybooks.
Uther took Laudine's hand and inclined his head. "A pleasure to see you again, Lady Laudine. You were only a child when last you visited Camelot."
Arthur gave Luned's hand a welcoming kiss. The younger woman gave a smile and a curtsy in return.
Laudine curtsied, her hand still held by the king. "Indeed. Your country has only grown more beautiful in my absence."
That made Uther smile. He motioned up the stairs. "Come. Let us get you settled in. Then we can discuss the business that has brought you here."
As staff members made their way down the stairs to collect the ladies' things, Arthur, his father, and their guests made their way up. Arthur clapped Merlin on the shoulder as he passed, clear indication that yes, Merlin was expected to follow him, not help with the bags. As if Merlin would ever do otherwise.
There was no grand feast to welcome Laudine, but that did not mean dinner itself was lacking. When Arthur ate dinner in his room, there were two courses. At dinner with Laudine there were five.
Their conversation over soup was frivolous. Arthur and Luned mostly sat back and listened. Though one was born royalty and the other used to be a servant, it was clear that neither of them cared for small talk.
"How is your father?"
"He is very well, Your Majesty."
"Her as well. Where is Lady Morgana?"
"Visiting a cousin in the south. She was feeling poorly."
"I do hope she recovers quickly. She was very high spirited when we met as girls."
With the meat course, they started in on the contents of the Countess's letter.
"You wrote that you knew the cause of the storms," Uther began. "Does that mean it was sorcery?"
Laudine frowned down at her food. "Not sorcery, per se." She took her time to eat a bit of pheasant. "You know that I am the Countess of the Fountain of Landuc, yes?"
Both Uther and Arthur nodded, though Arthur broke off halfway to acknowledge Merlin when his manservant moved forward to refill his goblet.
"The Fountain of Landuc needs a keeper because it is magic. Most of the time it remains dry and barren. It is a perfectly useless fountain. This is because if water is poured into the fountain it causes great and terrible storms. That is the power of the fountain."
Though Laudine and Luned continued eating as if this were a normal thing to speak of, Uther, Arthur, and Merlin tensed. So the fountain had caused the storm that had destroyed much of Camelot's fields. Laudine was the Countess and keeper of that fountain. Had she started that storm on purpose to weaken Camelot? Was this an act of war?
"Are you saying it was an act of aggression against Camelot?" Uther asked, his voice as dark and cold as the dungeons in winter. The lit sconces on the wall seemed to flicker in a nonexistent breeze.
Laudine's eyes widened and she set down her cutlery. "Oh my, no." A shake of her head. "Some errant knight from somewhere snuck in and poured a full jug of water into the fountain. He had no idea how to control it, though. That's why it got so far away as Camelot, and why it was so terrible."
Her explanation gave the men little comfort. Arthur was as tense as a statue. If they were alone in his rooms, or even out on the training field with the knights or in the forest, Merlin might reach out and touch him, to offer even a minor comfort. In front of strangers – and worse, Uther – Merlin didn't dare. Instead, he stepped up next to Arthur once more, so that Arthur could see him and know Merlin was on his side.
"I assure you," Laudine continued. "My father has already handled the knight in question. But since caring for the fountain is my duty, and I failed to protect it, I have come to Camelot to take stock of the damage I caused…and to pay reparations."
At the mention of money, Uther's entire demeanor changed. The tension left his shoulders. The ice left his eyes. He was back to his previous, cordial self. Despite the news that Laudine was in charge of a magical fountain or that said magic had indeed been the cause of his kingdom's strife, all was well if someone was offering him money.
Without looking, Merlin knew Arthur was rolling his eyes. He rolled his own, almost mockingly, along with him. Across the table, Luned let out a single chuckle.
"Of course," Uther accepted. "We appreciate your attentions in this matter. Arthur has been keeping a list of all that has been reported damaged by the storm."
When the attention swiveled to Arthur, he nodded. "I can show you around the castle grounds, the city, and the surrounding area so you can see for yourself how things stand."
Laudine gave a relieved smile. "I would appreciate that greatly. Thank you."
"I assure you, milady, the pleasure is all mine."
The tour began at first light, after Merlin had given Arthur his breakfast – and stolen fruit from his plate as he ate.
The main castle itself had not been damaged in the storm, the strong stone holding up with minimal leakage, but the training fields and the lower town had suffered. Arthur walked the group to the field first.
"As you can see, it's underwater."
There were several inches of water hiding the field, and yet chunks of mud and grass were poking through the surface here and there. Even though the rain had stopped, the field had not recovered enough to be usable yet.
"We are currently building a new drainage point in the outer wall to drain off the excess water," Arthur said, motioning to the activity happening on the far side of the field, with workers moving to and fro like busy bees. "But until then the knights' training has been moved to the courtyard or outside the city walls."
Laudine nodded her head. "Luned, can you write this down for me?" Luned was already scribbling. "Please let us know how much building the new drainage point costs you, Your Highness."
Arthur nodded. "Of course." He began walking them away from the fields. "The lower town suffered more than anything inside the castle walls. Merlin."
Stepping up next to Arthur as they walked, Merlin pulled a list from inside his jacket and began reading. "Two residences had their roofs cave in from too much water pressure. Eight others suffered severe damage from wind, rain, or flying debris. Four people have reported injuries pertaining to the storm, and five others have reported to the city physician in bad health due to the cold and damp and being in close proximity to animals. A stable collapsed and one of the support beams broke through the wall of the tavern. The animals have been recovered but the tavern has had to close up shop until the wall can be repaired."
"A shame for you, eh, Merlin?" Arthur teased, nudging an elbow into Merlin's chest.
Merlin whacked his arm with the list and scowled. "I'm not a drunkard. Thought we covered that already."
Arthur shrugged with a good-natured smile, which promptly dropped when he faced Lady Laudine and saw the surprise on her face. "What?"
Her face cleared. "He reads very well for a manservant. I didn't expect it, that's all." She shared a smile with Luned. "Did you teach him or did he know how to read when he arrived?"
"He already knew. He's very smart."
Merlin tripped over his own feet and flailed to catch his balance, nearly losing the list. A blush stole across Arthur's cheeks.
"Well, smart enough. For a manservant."
The ladies giggled but made no further comments. The compliment had shocked Merlin into quiet as well. Arthur never complimented Merlin in front of strangers – even in front of friends, his method of complimenting someone was odd. Usually, his 'compliments' were veiled complaints or barbs that only people who knew Arthur could pinpoint as being a compliment.
Clearing his throat, Arthur attempted to change the subject. "You're, ehm, wife can read too, correct? Even though she too was a servant once."
Now Luned's cheeks were darkening. Laudine touched her shoulder with a loving expression. "She does. We had many an enjoyable evening together as she learned, isn't that right?"
The smile that spread over Luned's face was beatific. "Yes we did. And I'm very grateful for each and every one."
The way the two women looked at each other was so tender that Merlin's heart twinged with jealousy. Except it didn't need to, did it? Arthur reserved a special smile just for Merlin. They teased each other in a way that Merlin had never seen Arthur tease anyone else, ever. Not even the knights. Arthur shared his meals with Merlin. They had risked their lives for each other on several occasions. But they weren't a couple, so of course Arthur never gazed at Merlin like that. His heart needed to knock it off.
They entered the lower town and Merlin began leading them around to show them which houses and other buildings had been damaged or destroyed. As they went, the townspeople greeted Arthur and Merlin with smiles, bowing their head for Arthur and shaking Merlin's hand. Merlin introduced them to the owners of the buildings that needed repairs, and pointed out exactly what architectural pieces were needed in those repairs. Every time he did, the ladies looked increasingly impressed and Arthur increasingly proud, which made Merlin puff up his chest and grin.
The sun was just beginning to set by the time their group made its way back to the castle. As they were entering the courtyard, Arthur asked, "How long have you been together?"
Laudine looked to Luned, who answered. "We jumped the fire at Beltane two years ago, Your Highness, but we've been a couple for almost ten."
At Arthur's shocked expression, Laudine gave a single laugh. "We knew we were important to each other since the day we met. Being a legally recognized couple simply means we have no need to hide it anymore, and I am glad of it. I love letting people know how important Luned is to me. She's my world."
Again, Merlin's chest lurched. He and Arthur had known each other for almost four years now, but they had never been a couple – legally recognized or not. Things just weren't like that between them. They had a destiny. Fate said they would be together, but it didn't say romantically. And Merlin was okay with that. He didn't need Arthur to love him. They cared about each other, and Arthur wouldn't throw him away for someone else. That was enough.
The next day saw Arthur and Laudine leaving on horseback to take stock of the countryside around Camelot. Though Arthur took the list of damages Merlin had carried the day before, he left his manservant behind. Similarly, Laudine went without Luned.
Instead of following Arthur around, Merlin worked on tasks around the castle. Arthur had left a list. He checked on the progress of the training field drainage and passed along Arthur's messages for the workers. He checked in with the smiths about how the replacements for weather damaged weaponry were coming. He talked with the servants assigned to serve Laudine and Luned during their stay, to make sure the guests had no complaints or needs that weren't being fulfilled.
It was during this last task that Merlin ran into Luned herself. Merlin had just finished talking with the maid and sent her on her way when Luned stepped out of the guest room and spotted him.
"Oh, Merlin, hello."
He bowed. "Good afternoon. Did you need anything?"
She shook her head. "I was hoping to find you though." Merlin lifted his eyebrows at that and she laughed. She motioned down the hall and they began walking as she spoke. "I wanted to ask if you had confessed to Prince Arthur yet."
Merlin jerked his head to look at her so fast that it left a crick in his neck. "If I what?" He waved his hands around wildly, as if that would shoo away what she had said. "What do you mean? I don't have anything to confess to him."
Except his magic. Except his—
"I'll take that as a No then." Luned sent him a doting smile, like a mother to her child, and Merlin felt suddenly very small. "It's nothing to be ashamed of, Merlin. Loving someone isn't shameful."
Merlin slowly lowered his hands, his face feeling hot. "Is it that obvious?" he asked the stones beneath his feet.
"A bit." Luned clasped her hands behind her back. She glanced out every window they passed, like she was looking for the return of her love. "You mirror his actions. You don't hesitate to tease him the same way he teases you. You can't take your eyes off him, and your expression is always one of pride and love and devotion."
As they descended a staircase, Merlin sighed. "Do you think everyone knows, then?"
Luned nodded. "Some people, I think. The townsfolk treated you two like a pair. I heard some of them welcome Prince Arthur, but most of them said 'Look! It's Prince Arthur and Merlin!'" She gave a tinkling laugh. "Even my maid refers to you that way. Like you're each one half of a whole."
Castle gossip. It spread like a plague to which there was no cure. What would happen if Arthur ever heard it?
"I think you should confess to Arthur. He won't do it first."
Luned stopped in the light of a window, the rays brightening her face and her hair. "Laudine and I were only able to be a couple, and to get married, because I took that first step. If it were up to her, we would have pined away for each other all our lives…because she is of noble birth, and she was my employer."
Merlin nodded. "She was worried about the gossip."
"No." Luned's voice was strong and firm like the broadside of a sword. "Because if she had said it first, she would never have trusted that I was with her because I felt the same. She would always wonder if I only agreed to the relationship because she had power over me. And Laudine is only a countess. Arthur is a prince. If you love him, and if you want to pursue a real relationship with him…You have to say it first."
If Merlin wanted a relationship with Arthur, he had to confess first.
The idea stuck with Merlin for the rest of the day. Through cleaning Arthur's room, doing his laundry, and assisting Gaius, he pondered it. Luned would not urge Merlin to confess if she did not see the same feelings in Arthur as she saw in Merlin, right? And the castle gossip had to stem from something.
Arthur was quiet during dinner that evening. He swirled his wine goblet slowly, and ate small bites, his attention clearly elsewhere. Was it possible that he was thinking the same thoughts as Merlin? Was he considering what it would be like if he and Merlin were like Laudine and Luned?
When Merlin was done cleaning up Arthur's dinner, Arthur said, "I'm cold. Start a fire."
Was he thinking about holding Merlin's hand as they sat down to share a meal together – really sharing it, not Merlin playfully stealing pieces from his plate as he watched?
When the fire was lightly crackling in the hearth, Arthur said, "The window has spots on it. Wipe it down."
Was he wondering what it would be like to be awoken with a kiss, rather than light from opened curtains?
When the window was clean, Merlin began preparing Arthur's bed while Arthur slowly stripped himself of the day's clothes and dropped them on the floor. "Pick those up, would you?"
Did he think about Merlin in his bed at night?
After Arthur was dressed in his night clothes and the floor was clear, Arthur slid into bed. He watched as Merlin put out the candles one by one. "I need you here bright and early tomorrow. There is still a lot to do before Lady Laudine leaves."
Did he want Merlin to stay with him as much as Merlin wanted to stay?
But Merlin did not stay, and Arthur did not ask him to.
Lady Laudine and Luned did not stay either. A week later, their carriage was packed and their guards were mounted. A chest of gold was being left behind to pay for the damages caused by the Fountain's storm, with the promise of laborers to arrive soon to help as well.
"It is a shame you cannot stay for Beltane," Uther said as a goodbye.
Laudine inclined her head. "The Fountain needs looking after. I have already been away too long."
Further up the steps, Luned pulled Merlin into a hug. "Good luck with your prince."
Merlin nodded and hugged her back. "Thanks. I'll write to you if anything happens."
Luned gave him a wink. "You had better. I can't be the only one to get a fairytale ending, after all. Let me hear gossip about someone else for once."
Then they were gone. As soon as the carriage was out of sight, Uther headed back inside. Arthur grabbed Merlin around the neck and gave him a noogie.
"Hey!" Merlin protested.
"You deserve it for flirting with a married woman, you lout," Arthur admonished, but his tone was laughing, and when he released Merlin there was a grin on his face.
Merlin couldn't help the answering smile that pulled at his lips. "I wasn't flirting."
Arthur opened his mouth to retort, but Uther called his name from the doors. All merriment fled his face. "Coming, father." He grabbed Merlin's shoulder to turn and push him up the stairs, then ascended them himself.
Within a few days, the preparations for Beltane began. The Maypole was being carved and decorated. The bonfire wood was being collected. Visitors began filling the inns.
Arthur was fidgety.
That was the only word Merlin could use to describe it. Arthur was fidgety. He couldn't sit still for the length of a meal. He was constantly pacing in his rooms. He couldn't focus on his speech for the Beltane feast. He assigned Merlin tasks and then changed his mind before Merlin could even say 'yes, sir' or 'no way.' He went hunting but returned with nothing because he had no patience for it.
And he kept glancing at Merlin. No matter how often Merlin checked, Arthur was staring at him. He looked away whenever he realized he had been caught, but still he continued to do it.
Then Uther made a comment one day about how Geoffrey was displeased by Beltane because of how many couples would jump the fire instead of have a 'proper' wedding, and Arthur had to excuse himself from the room, Merlin giving chase moments later.
"Arthur, what's wrong?"
Arthur shook his head. "Nothing."
It certainly didn't seem like nothing. Arthur was speed walking down the hallway as if he were being tailed. "Is it about Beltane?" Arthur's shoulders tensed. "Is it…about weddings?"
"I said it's nothing, now leave it, Merlin."
It was about weddings. Or jumping the fire during Beltane. Did Arthur want to jump the fire during Beltane?
Arthur hesitantly glanced over his shoulder, but saw Merlin staring back and quickly looked forward again, his steps more purposeful than ever.
Was it about Merlin? Merlin's heart leapt into his throat. Did Arthur want to jump the fire with Merlin?
Luned had said that Arthur wouldn't make the first move, but it seemed like he was preparing to. All the next day, Arthur looked to be psyching himself up for something. He took deep breaths. He muttered to himself. More than once, Merlin heard him say something like, "Get it over with already. You're a prince, dammit."
It sounded like what Merlin had been saying to himself ever since Luned left. He was the most powerful wizard to ever live – according to several magical sources, at least. If he could bend life and death to his will, telling Arthur he had feelings for him should be easy. And yet, it hadn't been. It was as hard to make himself tell Arthur 'I love you' as it was to say 'I have magic.'
Luckily, Arthur might just do him a favor this once and confess first.
Anticipation buzzed through Merlin's skin like magic ran through his veins. Every time he and Arthur spoke, Merlin expected Arthur to say the words. Every time someone called his name, he jumped, thinking it was Arthur come to confess.
It was never Arthur come to confess, and by the time Arthur sent Merlin away to bed, Merlin was exhausted both physically and emotionally.
Of course Arthur wouldn't do Merlin a favor. Merlin would have to do the confessing himself.
"Tomorrow," he said to himself as he slid into bed. "I'll tell him tomorrow."
Merlin carried Arthur's breakfast to his room that morning with purpose. He would confess to Arthur over breakfast – just get it over and done with. He would walk in, throw the curtains wide, and welcome the new day with the confession of one of his two most closely guarded secrets.
Arthur was already awake when he arrived. "You're up."
"Observant, aren't you?" was Arthur's response as he finished pulling a jacket on over his tunic.
Arthur lifted an eyebrow. It was earned. Merlin didn't usually point out the obvious so much. Flummoxed, Merlin floundered for something else to say until he remembered he was carrying the breakfast tray.
"I brought breakfast."
Another obvious statement. Could he start the day over? All of his plans were collapsing and he hadn't yet begun.
Arthur opened his eyes wide and spoke slowly, as if to a particularly stupid child. "Yes. I see that. How about you set it down so I can eat it?"
The dishes clattered when Merlin set it down too hard but neither of them commented on it. Merlin fiddled with his jacket sleeves as Arthur sat down to eat. He had said he would confess this morning, but all of his confidence had fled him with the change in routine. Of course Arthur would be contrary the one day Merlin needed him not to be.
"You need to take the dogs for a run today," Arthur said as he ate. "Let them nab a squirrel or a bird or something before you bring them back."
Merlin nodded. "Sure."
The easy acceptance earned him a puzzled look from Arthur, who knew Merlin hated watching the dogs hunt small animals, but Merlin was so lost in his own head that he didn't notice.
It took four hours for Arthur's hunting dogs to stop chasing things through the bushes and bounding around the trees. When they finally came to heel next to Merlin – a present of a dead carcass in each of their mouths – he led them back toward the city. The dogs were actually very well trained and well behaved. If they were just out for a leisure run, Merlin wouldn't mind. It was the rabbits and fowl they killed every time Merlin took them out that bothered him.
As they walked back to the castle, anxiety reared its ugly head again. Confessing over breakfast hadn't worked, so he would do it over dinner. That was probably better anyway. If Arthur responded well, they could fall into bed and sleep together, or, well, sleep-sleep together. If Arthur responded poorly, then Merlin could escape and not have to deal with it until the morning, when Arthur would have had time to cool off and not fire him.
With a plan in mind, Merlin returned the dogs to their normal trainer and headed to find Arthur to get his next task.
He found the prince standing at the courtyard fountain, which was highly unusual. Arthur had no reason to fetch his own water, after all. He was standing there with Gwen, chatting. They were too far away to hear their conversation, but there was a light, flirty smile on Arthur's lips. He leaned against the wall beside the fountain, his arms loosely crossed over his chest, while Gwen stood a few steps away, her arms mimicking his.
Something he said made Gwen laugh, a hand coming up to cover her mouth. Arthur reached up and pulled it away, saying something soft that made Gwen look away, her cheeks flushed.
Merlin's chest gave a painful throb and he pivoted to walk the other way.
Why? Why did seeing that hurt so much? Arthur and Gwen had talked before. Arthur had even made Gwen laugh before. What he had just seen didn't have to mean anything, just like those times before hadn't. Right?
Except when Arthur returned to his rooms while Merlin was sweeping, instead of saying hello or asking about the dogs, he opened with, "When you're done cleaning, you have the rest of the evening off."
"Wh-what?" He never got the evening off. "What about dinner? Turning down the bed and the lights?"
Arthur waved him off, picking up an apple from the basket on his table and tossing it up and down like a ball. "I'll handle it myself. And Guinevere will be here, so you don't need to be."
Merlin dropped the broom.
There was a flower petal on his pillow the following morning. Delicate. Pale blue. Dainty.
Sitting up, Merlin cleared his throat of a morning itch and glanced around for other petals. Surely if one had come in through the window, there would be more. There were none. Only the one petal graced his pillow, like the world giving him a tiny present to try and make him feel better. A new day had dawned and the first buds of spring were here.
Beltane was coming soon, and maybe Arthur wanted to jump the fire with someone, but—
"It isn't me."
Two days later, Arthur and Uther ventured out as King and Prince to visit the farms surrounding Camelot. Their first order of business was checking on the repairs since the storm. The second was checking on all the baby cows for the Beltane season.
Upon arrival at the smallest of the farms, Uther went to check on the cows while Arthur checked the repairs, since having the king around was believed to be good luck for the coming calves. Merlin followed Arthur with quill and paper, keeping track of what had already been done to repair irrigation lines, tools, and buildings and what still needed doing, how the planting was going and how much harvest was expected, and anything else Arthur told him to jot down.
This was the last of the farms, and the furthest from the city, which they would check. That was good because Merlin was almost out of paper and ink. The last thing he needed was Arthur chastising him for not bringing enough supplies.
"Alright, out with it."
Merlin blinked, looking up from his notes, and found Arthur standing next to a fence, his arms crossed and frown pulling at his lips. The farmhands he had been speaking to were gone. "Out with what?"
Arthur waved at him. "With whatever is bothering you. You've been quiet and pouty for days."
Arthur had had Gwen up to his rooms for dinner. That was a time Merlin and he had typically spent together. When Merlin asked how the dinner was that next morning, Arthur had said 'Not that it concerns you, but it went well.' Merlin's throat had been burning ever since, the way it did whenever he was about to cry, when his emotions were just about to overwhelm him – but his eyes were dry.
It wasn't as if Arthur had ever said anything that suggested he liked Merlin as more than a friend. They had never been promised to each other. They never slept together, not even after a feast when they had both imbibed too much alcohol.
Arthur let out a bitter sound, glancing away for a moment before again meeting Merlin's eyes. "I don't believe that for half a second."
Merlin opened his mouth to insist that no, really, he was fine, but two women hurried out of the barn nearby and rushed down the path toward a bigger, more impressive barn – the one where Uther was, their eyes wide and worried. He and Arthur shared a glance, and then Merlin rolled up his list and put his supplies away as they entered the barn the ladies had exited.
Inside was set up for birthing. The stalls were large, there were pallets of clean hay and large pails of water, and wide windows provided plenty of sunlight. A cow was lowing from somewhere within one of the pens, and the men headed that way. A young stablehand was already inside, sitting in the hay with a cow lying on her left side, halfway through a delivery. The tips of the calf's feet were poking out of the mother, but nothing else.
"What's the matter?" Arthur asked.
The boy looked up, surprised, then recognized Arthur and nodded. "She went into labor an hour ago, started pushing the calf out, but there's been no progress since. We need to help her give birth or both mother and child could die, but the cowherd isn't here today." He shook his head. "It's a bad omen to lose the first calf of the season."
Arthur turned toward the door of the barn, as if that would call the women back with help. The heifer huffed and squirmed, but the calf came no further out than it already was. Arthur looked back at the cow and the boy, then to Merlin, then to the door.
Sighing, Merlin shucked his jacket and shoved it, and the writing tools, into Arthur's hands. "What on—Merlin—"
"Just hold them." He began rolling up his sleeves to the elbow. "Do you have gloves and rope?"
The boy stared at him uncomprehendingly for a moment, but then he motioned to the other side of the barn. When Merlin returned wearing gloves and carrying rope, Arthur caught on as well.
"You know how to birth a cow?" he asked incredulously, holding Merlin's things close to his chest.
Merlin knelt down beside the heifer and rubbed her swollen stomach. "I saw it done enough growing up in Ealdor, and I helped with a few. I'm not an expert, but the mother's done enough that I think I can handle it."
Gods help him if he screwed up, though.
He tied the rope around each of the calf's feet, then held on by the center and…waited. And waited.
The heifer pushed and Merlin pulled on the rope. The calf's front legs slid out of the mother in one motion. The anxiety in Merlin's chest loosened. Good, that was good. The next time the mother pushed, Merlin got the head and body of the calf out and could pull the hind legs out behind it without much difficulty. The calf started breathing immediately and Merlin let out a sigh of relief. He had never learned how the cowherders in Ealdor had gotten unresponsive calves to breathe back home.
The mother cow stood up within moments. As soon as the rope was untied from the calf's hooves, the stable hand ushered Merlin out of the stall so the mother could begin cleaning her baby. He beamed at Merlin for a moment before his eyes widened and he bowed. Merlin turned to find Uther and several older farmhands standing around them.
"Er—," he started.
An older gentleman with a fierce beard stepped forward and clapped him on the shoulder. "That was well done, my boy. You would make a find cowherd. Would you like a job, at least for the season?"
"No. I wouldn't. I just—I mean—Thank you, but—"
"He already has a job, but thank you."
Merlin gave Arthur a grateful look. Helping birth a calf was one thing, but he was no cowherd. He had no idea what to feed them or how much or what illnesses they had or how to treat them. He would be a terrible choice.
The older gentleman – probably the owner of the farm – accepted the response with an easy shrug. Then he led Uther closer to the stall to observe the newborn. Merlin scurried away to clean up before anyone else offered him a job.
The two ladies who had run for help gave Merlin a bouquet of cornflower blossoms when he emerged from the birthing barn later. He blushed as he accepted them and they giggled and thanked him for his help with the cow.
After they were gone, he held the flowers up to his nose and breathed deep. The deep blue flowers had a light, herbal scent to them that made Merlin smile and think of Gaius' tower.
"Exactly how long am I supposed to carry all this?" Arthur asked, approaching with Merlin's things still clutched to his chest. "I am a prince. Other people are meant to carry my things, not the other way around."
Without waiting for an answer, he shoved Merlin jacket and writing supplies into Merlin's arms, skillfully snatching the bouquet out of the way in the same movement. He sniffed them like Merlin had, but his face scrunched up in confusion.
"They smell more like medicine than flowers," he commented.
Merlin nodded, adjusting his hold on the writing supplies so he could pull his jacket on. "That's because it is. You can use cornflower tonics to treat fevers and congestion, or eye irritation, or even menstrual problems."
Arthur waved a hand between them as if to wipe the conversation away. "That's enough of that. I don't need to know about menstrual problems."
Merlin rolled his eyes. "If you ever marry, you will probably need to know something about them, Arthur."
The ready retort made Merlin want to grin at the same time that his throat tightened with the thought of Arthur married.
Arthur sniffed the flowers again, though his face still didn't look overly pleased by the scent, and headed for the horses. He put the flowers in Merlin's saddlebag, though he kept one bloom for himself. Merlin put away the writing supplies in the saddlebag beside the flowers, and then busied himself with checking that the horses were still ready for riding to hide the way he kept stealing glances at Arthur. Arthur was still contemplating the flower when Uther announced they were heading back to Camelot.
"I never picked you for a flower type of guy," Merlin commented as they mounted their horses.
Arthur jolted, as if he had not noticed he was still holding the flower, and quickly tossed it over his shoulder. "Of course I'm not, Merlin. I was—" He took a deep breath and Merlin grinned at his discomfiture. "What kind of flowers does Guinevere prefer?"
Merlin doubled over coughing in his saddle. He hacked and coughed and hit his chest, trying to dislodge whatever was making it feel tight and causing the attack. He panted when it ended, still leaning over and holding the saddle horn for support.
"Are you catching something?" Arthur asked. He was leaned toward Merlin, concerned, but when Merlin looked up at him he moved his horse a few steps away. "Don't cough on me. I don't have time to catch whatever disease you have."
Merlin frowned at his horse's mane. His chest still felt tight, and he couldn't breathe deeply without wanting to cough again. What had he inhaled recently that would make him feel like this? It wasn't anything from the cow.
"Don't worry your royal head," Merlin said, his voice still thin from the fit. "I'm fine."
He kicked his horse into a walk to follow Uther and his entourage as they left the farm, leaving Arthur to catch up.
When the party had returned to Camelot, Merlin offered to help the stable boys brush down the horses. Arthur agreed, but with the stipulation that Merlin not forget to do his actual duties because he was communing with the nature, or whatever was going on with him and farm animals today.
The real reason Merlin chose to help was to get away from Arthur, and any other prying eyes. As he washed and brushed his mare, Glydia, he focused on his breathing. In. Out. Deeper In – it felt like his chest was being squeezed. Out. Deeper In – he coughed, his body trying to dislodge something in his lungs. In. Out. In. Out.
Was it a cold? But where would he have caught a cold, or any illness? He had been fine during the storms, and during the visit with Laudine and Luned afterward, so what had changed?
Thinking about Luned and Laudine made him remember how Luned had said he should confess to Arthur. How Arthur would not take the first step in a relationship because of the power imbalance between them. How she could see how much they cared for each other. And he remembered seeing Arthur flirting with Gwen by the courtyard fountain, and inviting her to a private dinner in his rooms, and asking about what flowers she liked.
His breath caught in his throat and then he was coughing again, violently. He closed his eyes and leaned into Glydia's neck for support and she let out a worried whinny. Something came up his throat and out his mouth, but it didn't feel like liquid, like bile or barf. It was soft and tasted…floral?
When the coughing finally died down, a stable boy called out, "You alright there, Mister Merlin?"
Merlin couldn't see the boy – Glydia was between them – but he lifted a hand to wave at him over her back. "I'm fine. Thank you."
Then he opened his eyes and saw them. Flowers. There were flowers on the floor of the stable, right where Merlin had been puking. Delicate. Pale blue. Dainty. A bright yellow center. Just like the petal he'd found in his room the other day.
With a shaking hand, Merlin knelt to pick one up. He had just coughed up flowers. There were few reasons for a person to do such a thing, and all of them were magic. One of them was a death sentence.
Gaius had many books on plants. Medicinal plants. Poisonous plants. Medicinal plants that could be used as poisons. Exotic plants and common native plants. Trees, flowering bushes, scrub, moss. He had them all. Merlin scoured the shelves, running one hand over the spine of each book while he held the blue flower carefully in the other.
He found an entry with a matching image in the third book he pulled.
A small, star-shaped flower of the borage family. The petals may be blue, white, violet, or pink, with bright yellow centers. The seeds disperse by clinging to fur and clothing. Found in wetlands and along riverbanks.
Forget-Me-Nots do well in full to partial shade and prefer a moist environment. Forget-me-nots bloom in the springtime.
Healing : May be used to treat lung problems and nosebleeds. Steep the petals in hot water to make a subtle tea and drink once a week.
Hurting : Can be used in large doses as a poison to cause stomach pain, itchy skin, bloody stool, swelling of the body, yellow skin, and fatigue, and eventually death.
Spell-casting : Forget-Me-Not blooms can be worn or carried in pockets to keep a loved one close even at large distances. Use this flower in spells where concentration on a loved one is important. Create a lock of flowers and hold them close to your heart.
It was a regular flower entry. Myosotis was not a plant that infected you with a magical illness upon touching it. Mouse ear was not used in any spells to cause floral vomiting or illness. The Forget-Me-Not was a quaint, simple flower.
But if the flower was not the source of a spell or contagious disease, then the only reason Merlin would be puking flowers is…
"Hanahaki," he gasped, dropping the flower onto the book.
No. He couldn't have hanahaki. Hanahaki was a really rare disease. Hanahaki was a disease of…of unrequited love and heartache and…
Merlin shut the book on plants, crushing the flower within its pages, and retrieved a book on magical maladies instead. It was a simple process to find the entry on hanahaki and read it, because he couldn't have hanahaki. He just—He couldn't!
The roots around his lungs and heart would explain why breathing deeply hurt and why it felt like his chest was being squeezed. And he had definitely coughed up flower petals. If Merlin really had hanahaki, he would soon suffer from muscle weakness, difficulty focusing, and suffocation. That was a terrible way to die – like drowning but drawn out over weeks.
A month. That's what the book said. If he couldn't get the cure, he would be dead by Beltane. And the cure for hanahaki was for one's love to be returned, which meant…
Unless Arthur fell in love with him, Merlin was going to die.
He was going to die.
Merlin slammed the book shut. He was not going to die. Just because he had coughed up a few flowers did not mean he was going to die. And even if he had hanahaki, Arthur obviously cared for him. Merlin could slip in some suggestions to Arthur about being more, couldn't he?
Who was Merlin kidding? He couldn't confess to Arthur when he thought they shared the same feelings. There was no way he could suggest they be a couple or make Arthur fall in love with him now that he knew Arthur's interest laid elsewhere.
So, if he couldn't magic his way out of hanahaki – and no one ever had before – then he would be dead within the month. But there was a bigger problem. In Uther's Camelot, developing hanahaki was as good as outing oneself as a sorcerer. So if Merlin coughed up petals in front of the wrong person, he would choke on smoke long before he choked on petals. He wasn't sure which was worse. The smoke would smell and taste worse, but it was also faster than suffocation via hanahaki.
Oh great. He was debating which way to die.
He was going to die.
It was weird to go to work the next morning. Everyone in the castle acted exactly the same as they normally would. Eliza the maid wished him a cheery good morning as he crossed from Gaius' tower to the main castle. Groundskeepers waved on their way to work. There were servants in windows, cleaning the glass to a streak-less shine. Others swept the stone walkways outside, and the wood and stone inside.
No one knew. The world continued to turn.
The kitchens bustled with activity. This person chopped vegetables. That one prepared meat. Several were baking breads. Uther's manservant hurried out of the room as Merlin made his way inside. They nodded to each other but didn't speak, because Uther's manservant was almost as quietly judgmental as Uther himself.
"Good morning," Merlin greeted the head cook.
"Morning to you too," she responded, and then waved at two plates of food on a tray. "That one's yours this morning."
Merlin frowned at the tray in confusion. Two plates? "Not to doubt you or anything, but he's only one person."
The cook whacked him on the head with her cloth. It didn't really hurt, but it made him flinch. "I know that. He sent the request down last night just before lights out here. Two breakfast trays. Either he's feeling exceptionally famished," her eyes glittered, "or he's got someone special to share 'em with."
The urge to cough rose in Merlin's throat and he clamped his lips shut, nodding until the cook turned away. Then he let it out, a handful of petals bursting into the air. Merlin caught them before they could get far and stuffed them into his jacket pocket just as the cook faced him again.
"Well?" she prompted, looking him over. "Get this food up to his highness!"
Nodding once more, Merlin grabbed the tray and made his way out of the kitchen, up the stairs, and to Arthur's bedroom.
First flirting, then dinner together, then asking about flowers, and now breakfast. Arthur was well and truly courting Gwen. As much as Merlin had enjoyed Luned and Laudine's visit, he now wished they had never come. But perhaps Arthur would have begun courting Gwen even without them as an example to follow. Perhaps it just would have taken longer for him to start.
In Arthur's room, he set the plates on the table, taking care that it was all arranged perfectly, and then moved to open the curtains. At Arthur's groan, he said, "Time to get up." If Arthur noticed Merlin wasn't as peppy or annoying as usual, he made no comment.
"I'm not sure if you're later than usual or if the sun is simply brighter to spite me," Arthur grumbled. Merlin was already pulling Arthur's clothes for the day when Arthur sat up and saw the table. His irritated bravado fled and he spoke much softer when he said, "Ah. Breakfast. Good."
A nod. "The cook said you asked for two servings today. Are you sure you can eat that much?" Merlin teased, focusing on getting wrinkles from Arthur's shirt.
Arthur scoffed, slipping from the bed and moving to the wash basin. "Of course not." He poured water from the pitcher into the bowl and scrubbed his face clean before continuing. "I'll be sharing it with someone."
"Oh?" Merlin's chest felt squeezed tight, but he didn't cough.
Nodding, Arthur came to stand beside Merlin. Merlin pulled Arthur's night shirt off and helped him into a clean red tunic. "Yes," Arthur said. His eyes trailed down as Merlin settled the cloth on him. "Are those flowers in your pocket?"
Merlin winced. "Er, yeah. They're, er, I picked some earlier." Arthur lifted an eyebrow. "For Gaius. Medicinal, you know? Like the cornflowers." He gave a halfhearted laugh. "Must've forgotten some in that pocket."
Arthur did not seem wholly convinced, but he shrugged and let it go, motioning for Merlin to get his jacket next. At least he wasn't suggesting Merlin was courting one of the maids again.
As Merlin pulled the leather over his arms, Arthur cleared his throat. "With the recent visit of the Countess Laudine and her wife, I realized that perhaps it was time that I do something about my own…er…romantic life."
The blush on his face was endearing. As fierce as Arthur was in battle, and as inspiring as he was in his speeches, and as confident as he was when helping his people, Arthur was abysmal when it came to anything involving feelings. Even the idea of them made him flush. Not that Merlin was much better. When Arthur had been enchanted to love Vivian, he had asked Merlin for help showing her how he felt and Merlin had completed blanked. How did one normally show affection, anyways?
Merlin showed affection for Arthur by bringing his favorite foods from the kitchens, even sneaking them into boring meetings or feasts to lift Arthur's mood. He used his magic to keep Arthur's bath water always the perfect temperature, or to ease the knots in Arthur's back when he grew too tense to function and needed a massage. He teased Arthur, and Arthur teased him back. Merlin had even, on more than one occasion, brought Arthur flowers in the morning to decorate his breakfast table.
Arthur gave noogies and punched shoulders. Arthur made quiet promises, shared his food, and even occasionally gave compliments. He gifted Merlin with clothing that he claimed was from when he was younger or something they found in an old chest, but which was clearly new and measured to Merlin's frame.
And, apparently, he had intimate meals, openly flirted, and got flowers for people he liked. Even without the hanahaki, the thought of Arthur's affections lying elsewhere made his heart ache.
"Did you now." Merlin finished putting Arthur's jacket on and stepped back, holding Arthur's trousers out to him.
"Yes. I did." Arthur shucked his night pants and stepped into the ones Merlin was holding. His hand landed on Merlin's shoulder for support, but only until he was dressed. Then he moved away toward the table and ran his finger over the water jug. "I know marriage is out of the question until my father passes," he faltered, hurting at the thought of losing his father.
Merlin took the opportunity to escape. He made his way to the door and opened it just in time to see Gwen round the corner on her way over. The hanahaki wrenched at his heart painfully and Merlin grabbed at his chest.
Gwen smiled at him with a friendly wave at the same time as Arthur's curious call from inside. Shaking his head, Merlin grabbed Gwen by the arm and switched their places – her in the doorway and him in the hall.
"En-Enjoy your breakfast."
Then he scurried off. He made it around the corner, down a flight of stairs, and half a hall away before he collapsed against the wall. It hurt. The plant's roots were squeezing so tightly he couldn't breathe. Merlin gasped in shallow breaths against the stone wall, clutching at individual bricks to ground himself. Pained tears leaked from his eyes. On and on it went, for some amount of time Merlin couldn't fathom.
Finally, finally, the roots loosened once more. But instead of offering relief, the added air flow simply made Merlin cough, and with every cough came petals. He stuffed them into his jacket pockets until there was no more space. The final heave left him carrying a few petals in his fists as he pushed himself to his feet again.
"There has got," he said in a weak voice, "to be a way to stop this."
"There is no way to stop this."
Kilgharrah frowned, his hulking mass squeezed down into the clearing. Because Beltane was near, more people were spending time in the forests around Camelot, and Merlin had called him to a much smaller clearing than usual, further from the castle.
Merlin shook his head. "But there has to be," he argued. "You said it's my destiny to help him become king. He's not king yet. This can't be how it ends!"
The dragon let out a low rumble that felt almost remorseful. "The legends and prophecies all say you help him become the Once and Future King, this is true. However," Merlin hated that word, "you have already saved him from countless dangers. You have kept him alive, and through your interactions, he has become a wiser prince – one that makes decisions for the good of all his people, regardless of their birth."
Those were some of the things Merlin was most proud of in his life. The idea that he was helpful to Arthur – not just by saving him with his magic, but with his counsel and heart – filled him with warmth. He always felt his love most keenly when Arthur showed kindness to people, even druids and magic users.
"Perhaps this is the legacy you will leave behind – the sorcerer who taught a spoiled boy to be the King of Albion."
Merlin shook his head. "I can't believe that." He motioned to the trees. "The druids say I'm the most powerful sorcerer to ever live. I've bent life and death to my will before. There has got to be something I can do."
Kilgharrah shifted on his feet and regarded Merlin with a curious tilt to his head. At length, he said, "There is one way."
Then he stopped. Merlin threw his hands out. "What?! What way?!"
The dragon sighed, as if Merlin were a petulant child. "There is a spell that can remove the hanahaki plant from an infected."
"Then tell it to me," Merlin demanded. "Tell me so I can get rid of it and not die."
Kilgharrah let out a huff of hot breath that ran over Merlin like water, ruffling his hair and warming every inch of him. With it, the knowledge of how to remove the hanahaki flowed into him, and it was terrible.
When the hot air vanished, Merlin gasped. "But I can't."
"I know, Young Warlock," Kilgharrah said. Merlin had never heard him sound so regretful before. "That is why you must make the most of the time you have left."
Merlin tried everything he could think of. Anytime he wasn't needed by Arthur, he was in Gaius' tower researching, brewing potions, trying spells. He could not use the spell Kilgharrah had given him, but he wasn't about to give up.
The potions didn't make him sick, but neither did they cure his hanahaki. He glowed faintly blue for an hour. He temporarily changed what flower he was puking up from blue forget-me-nots to deep yellow jonquils. A lot of them had no measureable effect on him at all.
Using his magic proved to be an awful idea. Every time he tried a spell – to get rid of the hanahaki or simply to float an ingredient toward him – the roots around his lungs and heart contracted painfully and he puked more heavily than ever.
It was during one of those magic-induced puking fits that Gaius found him, huddled on the floor behind the work table with his face in a bucket on his lap. "Merlin?" he asked. "What's wrong?"
Merlin tried to wave him off. "I'm—fine," he choked out around another heave. "Really. I just—"
Before he could finish, Gaius had a hand on his shoulder and was pulling him up to get a good look at him. He frowned at the bucket's contents, confused, but just as he opened his mouth to ask, Merlin's body heaved and he threw his face back into the bucket to release more petals.
Gaius rubbed his back until he was done. "My dear boy…" He inhaled deeply. "Is it—?"
Merlin nodded his head, slowly sitting upright. "Hanahaki."
Never before had Merlin seen Gaius go so pale so fast. "Merlin. Hanahaki is—"
"Fatal. I know."
Gaius shook his head. "How on earth did you—When did you contract hanahaki?"
Merlin waved his hand in the air. "Two weeks ago? Give or take."
It was clear that Gaius had no idea how to proceed. His mouth opened and shut soundlessly. He glanced around the room, to Merlin, to the bucket of flowers, to Merlin, to the room, to Merlin. Finally, he settled for asking the question he hadn't asked before. "How did this happen?"
"I got my hopes up," Merlin said with a shrug. At Gaius' lifted eyebrow he explained. "When I saw Lady Laudine and Luned, I thought…maybe I had a chance."
That was enough for Gaius to figure out who Merlin loved, and his face fell in commiseration. Merlin focused on the forget-me-nots in the bucket.
"All the women Arthur has ever loved were because of magic. A spell, a potion, an enchantment. He never actually loved any of them. So I thought…I thought Arthur joked with me, touched me, and smiled at me….because he liked me too. But I never considered becoming anything more than we are until I saw how Laudine and Luned had married, and how much they loved each other. I thought Arthur might…But he's courting Gwen."
"And I've tried everything. None of the potions work, and using my magic just makes it worse." He roughly scratched at his hair, leaving it sticking up in every direction. "I don't know what to do."
If he had been hoping his mentor would have some miracle up his sleeve, he was sorely disappointed. Gaius's eyes grew wet with unshed tears. "Neither do I. I'm so sorry, Merlin."
Merlin was sorry too. He didn't want to cause Gaius any grief, and he knew his death would hurt Gaius almost as much as it would hurt his own mother. Gods, his mother. Should he write to her about his illness? No. There was nothing she could do. All him sending a letter would do would cause her more heartache. Let her live a little while longer believing her son was fulfilling a great destiny and living a good life.
Some of the stalls being set up in town were for games. A lot of the games had only a passing attachment to Beltane, but they were fun for kids. Arthur was helping build the stand for a tossing game while Merlin kept the family's two kids entertained.
Usually he would have used his magic to make things appear and disappear, or fall over without wind, or to juggle or pretend to throw his voice like a ventriloquist. Without his magic, Merlin had instead begun to tell a story.
He told them of a giant snake beast with three heads, and how it killed all who faced it in battle. It could only be defeated by a pure hearted warrior, who tricked the beast into a magic shield. There, the snake beast would be contained forever. One of the beast's heads tried to escape its confinement and was chopped off – later to be displayed as a trophy in the house of the warrior as evidence of his feat.
He told them of an evil king who, to take command of another kingdom, tried to poison that kingdom's heir. But the heir's loyal servant – and friend – drank the poison for him. To save the servant's life, the heir went on a perilous journey to find the cure. The evil king was arrested, but the sorceress who had created the poison for him escaped, never to be seen again.
He told them of an egotistical knight who killed the purest of all creatures, a unicorn, in order to present its horn to his king as a trophy for honor. Then those around the knight grow ill. Everything he touched died. The knight was now the opposite of a unicorn – killing instead of healing, impure instead of pure. To save the life of a simple commoner, the knight sacrificed his own life. This selfless act reversed the curse upon him, healed his friends and the land, revived the unicorn, and saved the knight himself.
On and on, he told stories. Other children came to sit before him and watch as he acted out, in a grand dramatic fashion, the altered stories of his and Arthur's adventures. Soon he had over a dozen children, aged fifteen and under, crowded around to watch.
Arthur stood and listened to a story after the construction was completed, but then stepped up and clapped a hand on Merlin's shoulder, giving it a slight squeeze. "Much as it grieves me, I have to drag your bard away."
The younger children cried out in dismay – unconcerned with who Arthur was.
"I'm sure you could drag more nonsense out of him, but there is still much to be done in preparation for Beltane. And I'm certain your parents could use your help, hm?"
The older children ushered the younger ones away toward their houses, except for the original two Merlin had been meant to entertain. Those two latched on to Merlin's legs and asked questions about earlier stories Merlin had told, details he had left out, causing Merlin to laugh. Their father nodded with a pleasantly surprised expression. "He's very good with the children."
Arthur put his hands on his hips and watched Merlin try, unsuccessfully, to walk anywhere with his new leg attachments. "He is full of surprises, I admit." A rather fond smile lit his face and Merlin had to look away to hide how the expression made his own cheeks heat. "It's not even just children though. Only a short while ago, he proved he's excellent with farm animals too, and my hunting dogs are like playful puppies when he's around. He's even tamed raging horses."
Was Merlin meant to be answering the kids' questions? He couldn't even hear them over the loud beating of his heart. Even the feeling of the hanahaki roots in his chest couldn't compete with the warmth spreading through Merlin right then. Compliments! To a stranger! About Merlin!
After a few moments of silence from the townsman, Arthur glanced over at him. The man's eyebrows were raised, as if Arthur's comments had rendered him speechless with shock.
Clearing his throat, Arthur crossed his arms over his chest. "Then again, those are all beasts. And the stories just mean he would make a good court jester. I keep trying to make him change professions, but he insists on cleaning up after me." And Arthur gave a mocking laugh.
"Perhaps a bard?" the father suggested. "His memory seems very good."
"But then he would have to travel, and he really is quite the coward, you know. Always runs at the first sign of danger."
All the warm feelings in Merlin dimmed, and the roots squeezed tighter in his chest. Merlin choked, stumbled, and fell over backward, but no one reacted except the kids, who used the opportunity to release his legs and jump on his chest instead. Luckily, the cough he let out at their weight was petal-less.
"And he's so uncoordinated." Arthur sighed. "Merlin, I'm amazed you haven't killed yourself cleaning my sword yet."
"Must be your incredible luck, sire," Merlin grumbled. "Imagine having to get my blood and innards off your blade."
The townsman shook his head, amused, before clapping his hands together. "Alright, come now, Valerie, Samuel. Prince Arthur has a lot to do today yet and he needs his manservant to help him."
The family bowed to Arthur before heading off. Merlin, still sitting on the ground, began to dust himself off. Arthur extended a hand to him, and Merlin accepted it. One strong pull and Merlin was on his feet. For a moment, a heart pounding moment, Arthur didn't let go. He looked at Merlin, and Merlin looked right back, and it was like they were completely in tandem with each other – even their breaths matching – like prophecy and fate intended.
Then Arthur let go and walked off down the road, leaving Merlin to follow behind him full of self-pity. It was those sorts of moments that had Merlin thinking Arthur wanted more from him than friendship. But it was clear from the past few weeks that all those moments were was Merlin's stupid, romantic heart telling stories – as exaggerated and fanciful as the ones he had told to the children.
In the following days, the hanahaki got worse. Typically Merlin would love to follow Arthur around as he helped with the preparations for Beltane, but this year he was glad to be told to stay behind. He was also glad that Arthur seemed to think he had some sort of cold and therefore kept him away from knight's training. He was not glad to see Arthur walking about the castle with Gwen from time to time, because it made the hanahaki act up and reminded him that Arthur had never been, could never be, his.
To distract himself, Merlin focused on his work. He still researched ways to cure the hanahaki. He made sure Arthur's clothing was being washed properly, that his foods were prepared correctly, that a tub and water were brought up for Arthur to bathe with and then removed when he was done. He checked up on Arthur's dogs and Arthur's horses. As the Prince's manservant, he even delegated some tasks for other castle staff.
Every few hours, Merlin's chest gave a twinge as the hanahaki plant shifted and grew, and delicate blue flowers made their way up his throat. Each time, he grabbed the nearest container to barf them in, so that they were easier to dispose of later. However, without the use of his magic, chores for Arthur took longer than usual and so the prince himself often walked in before Merlin could get rid of the evidence of his illness.
There were forget-me-nots in at least one place more often than not when Arthur returned. The first time Arthur saw them, he asked, "Who brought the flowers?"
"I did," Merlin admitted. "For, uh, Beltane. Decorations for Beltane. The rest of the castle is getting festive but your room looks like it's still stuck in mid-winter."
Arthur nodded and put the vase back on his table. "Fair enough. But don't go overboard. A little hawthorn on the mantel, a few of your blue flowers. I don't want to walk in to find the festivities have migrated to my bedchamber."
Merlin nodded and agreed, thinking the designation of 'his' blue flowers was more fitting than Arthur would ever know.
The next time, the flowers were in a cup. Arthur opened his mouth to ask, but Merlin beat him to it, saying, "I couldn't find the vase." And then quickly used magic to hide the vase under Arthur's bed – despite the pain it caused him – before Arthur could turn around and spot it.
Then it was the bowl. "Beltane?" Arthur asked upon seeing it, as if he were starting to doubt Merlin's sanity.
But Merlin ran out of places to puke and Arthur had to draw the line somewhere.
"Okay, okay, I understand. It's Beltane and you want to celebrate it. You want to decorate my rooms because you spend so much time here. I know." Arthur ran his left hand over his face, his right hand holding a copper pot. "But this is too much. I have to use this chamber pot, Merlin. You can't use it as a vase."
Merlin grabbed it from him with burning cheeks. "Sorry. I'll, erm, I'll empty it out, shall I?"
He was lucky that Arthur didn't question why Merlin only used one variety of flower, or why they never had stems, why some of the bunches were just petals and not full blooms. If Arthur really took his time, if he really looked at the flowers, it would only be a matter of time before he found out about Merlin's magic. And despite the fact that he was now in almost constant pain, Merlin had decided that dying from hanahaki was preferable to the pyre.
At least with hanahaki he could still see Arthur smile at him until the end.
With three days until Beltane, Camelot was alive with activity. Arthur had decided to make a last trek through the town to see all the goods for sale before the actual day. Now was when bakers and cooks began prepping in earnest, when their goods wouldn't be stale before being eaten. Now was when people either made or bought flower crafts, so they wouldn't die before the festival. There were flower crowns and cone baskets, prayer ribbons and bouquets. Some people were even selling tonics that claimed to enhance passion when everyone went a-maying the night before Beltane. Others were selling lambs, kids, and calves, or ducklings and goslings.
There were crowds of people everywhere, and everyone wanted to greet Arthur Pendragon – especially those who had come to town just for Beltane and did not see him regularly. Progress from shop to shop and stall to stall was slow, though, and Merlin was grateful.
He took the opportunity of Arthur being surrounded once more to lean against a stall selling flower crowns and breathe as deeply as he dared. Even this casual walk through town was leaving him winded. Merlin grimaced.
The root of the plant had made its way into his throat now. He could feel it every time he swallowed. It made eating difficult, so he had been reduced to soups and porridges. And if the root was that high, and he was coughing up petals as often as he was, that meant the end was near.
The sun was shining down on Arthur like it was made for him. He was smiling at the collected peasants around him, talking to them like what they were saying really mattered to him, and they looked upon him with awe and thankfulness in turn. This was Merlin's prince. This was who he loved.
And Merlin hadn't found a cure. He would lose everything soon. Never again would he see Arthur in all his splendor. Never again would they ride off on adventures, save each other's lives.
The closer his death came, the more hopeless Merlin felt – as if the plant was sucking his will to live out of him as food for its roots.
A flower crown was shoved in front of his face, dragging Merlin from his morose thoughts. The flowers were white and yellow, held together in a messy weave. The hand holding it out belonged to a boy standing behind the stall, just barely tall enough to reach over it.
Accepting the crown, Merlin asked, "Did you make this?"
The boy smiled and nodded. "My first one! You looked sad, so you can have it."
"Well thank you. I'm honored." Merlin slid the flower crown in place on his head. "How's it look?"
Again the boy beamed at him, but it was not him who answered.
"You look ridiculous." Arthur reached over and picked up another flower crown from the table, one with red and blue blossoms weaved together expertly. "I'll take this one."
He paid the boy too much for it, then snatched the one from Merlin's head and walked off. Merlin hurried after him as best he could.
"A-Arthur," Merlin began with a pant. "That was rude. He worked hard on that."
"I didn't say the crown was bad, though it was clearly made by someone inexperienced. I said you, in particular, looked silly wearing it," Arthur clarified.
He examined both of the crowns in his hand. The red and blue one had a calculating look stealing over his face, while the other made him smile fondly.
"Who did you buy the crown for?" Merlin asked.
Arthur stopped walking and Merlin nearly plowed into him from behind. "This one is for Morgana," Arthur informed him, indicating the red and blue crown. "She's returning right after Beltane, as you know, and I thought, well, she's a girl. Maybe she'll like it."
Since Morgana had returned to Camelot, she had been more detached. Merlin knew this was because she had allied herself with enemies of Camelot, but to Arthur it must have seemed that she had not fully recovered from her time in captivity with an evil sorceress. Why could Morgana not see how much Arthur – and Uther, and Gwen – cared for her?
Merlin hoped she didn't do anything bad to Arthur after he was dead, when he couldn't protect him, but he knew it was likely a fool's hope.
"And the other one? The one you stole from me?"
Arthur looked at the second flower crown briefly, that fond smile returning, before clearing his throat and standing up straighter. "That's none of your business, Merlin." Then he was off down the road again, toward the next stall – this one selling prayer ribbons in various colors.
Merlin neckerchief was full of petals before they made it back to the castle that afternoon.
Two days to Beltane. Merlin had never felt so tired. Arthur's room was only half cleaned, but he couldn't keep going. He all but collapsed into the window seat, hand over his heart as he fought to breathe.
He couldn't do this. He couldn't keep pretending he was fine. No one believed him anyway. The knights gave him a wide berth, thinking his cough and fatigue was contagious. The other servants offered to help him with his work until he felt better.
Where was Arthur? He had told Merlin where he was going, but he couldn't remember. Had it been Beltane related? Or prince related? Gwen related? His head felt foggy from lack of oxygen.
The door to Arthur's chambers opened and Merlin jumped up from the seat, his heart beating too fast. It was only Gaius though, so Merlin dropped back onto the seat and closed his eyes.
"Merlin, thank heavens." Gaius shut the door behind him and Merlin thought he heard the lock latch. "I've found a cure for hanahaki. You don't have to die."
Merlin peeked an eye open. "A cure?"
A nod. "Yes. It was only referenced once, in a very old text I found in the library." Then he grew restless, shifting from one foot to the other, unable to meet Merlin's eyes. "It's not ideal, but it's our only option, I'm afraid."
Merlin knew what Gaius had found. It was the same cure Kilgharrah had given him. "I won't do it."
Gaius looked at him in astonishment. "Why ever not?"
Merlin turned his attention to the window, to the courtyard beyond it. The May Pole had been erected there. Tomorrow there would be a giant bonfire at night, before many couples enjoyed a night in the woods together. The next morning, they would dance around the May Pole, celebrating spring and the fertility of the land.
Would Arthur spend Beltane with Gwen? Jumping the broom, then a night in the forest, and the morning festival?
"Because it erases my memories of Arthur."
Gaius sucked in a breath. "You already knew."
"Kilgharrah told me," Merlin revealed.
Shaking his head, Gaius moved closer to Merlin. "Merlin, reconsider. If you do not do this, you will die. Your memories and feelings for Arthur will be gone, but at least you would still be here to fulfill your destiny at his side."
"Everything I know about magic, I learned so that I could serve Arthur. I would forget all of those spells too. I have spent every day in Camelot at his side, so I would forget everything I knew of this city. If you take away my memories and feelings for Arthur, I'm no good to him," Merlin argued, taking long pauses between sentences to catch his breath and maintain his focus. "In fact, I'd be dangerous to him. I'm stronger now than I've ever been. Without the knowledge to control that? I wouldn't trust myself around him."
Gaius huffed. "So you would rather die."
Merlin met Gaius's eyes. "Everything about me is tied up in Arthur. You can't take Arthur without losing me too." He shook his head again. "I won't do it, Gaius."
Later that same day, Merlin carted Arthur's clean laundry back up to his bedroom. It wasn't a typical laundry day, but since the Beltane festival began the following evening, the staff made sure that everything was clean beforehand. No one wanted to be stuck inside doing the washing during Beltane after all. It was taking everything out of Merlin to heft the basket however, and he had been forced to stop twice on the way to brush petals off the clothes.
When he pushed into Arthur's room with the basket, he found Arthur already inside. With Gwen. Her right hand was on his shoulder. They jumped apart when Merlin arrived, but he had seen enough.
"Well, I'll just be, uh, leaving then?" Gwen said, though it came out more like a question, before hurrying to the door and out of sight.
Merlin dropped the laundry basket on the foot of Arthur's bed. He covered his face with his kerchief and coughed into the fabric, felt the petals slip across the root in his throat, slide through his mouth, and out past his lips.
"I know you keep insisting you're alright," Arthur noted, leaning against the bed post across from Merlin, open concern on his face that took Merlin's breath away, "but you sound wretched. You've been coughing for weeks now, and I've never seen you so pale." The concern melted into something haughtier. "I don't want to catch some fatal disease from you hours before a party."
Scoffing, Merlin repeated, "I'm fine. You won't catch anything from me, you prat."
Arthur grinned at the rib, but it quickly fell into a frown. "But seriously. After you bring my dinner, go get some rest, and let Gaius have a look at you. I'll get someone else to turn out the lights and help me into bed."
"Wow," Merlin let out, his eyes wide. "I must look really awful. You're giving me a night off."
Arthur shrugged. "It happens."
The prince took a seat at his desk and got to work on some document or other that Uther had put in his charge. It probably had to do with Landuc this time, since he and the Countess had gotten on so well. Uther had Arthur working with more and more foreign dignitaries as time went on, so that they would know him and have connections with him when he finally became king.
Merlin put away the laundry.
Not even five minutes later, "What was Gwen doing here?"
Merlin cursed himself. It was none of his business what Gwen and Arthur got up to behind closed doors. It didn't matter. It was actually good that Arthur had Gwen, because it meant he wouldn't be alone once Merlin was gone. Still, he hadn't been able to keep the question inside.
Though Arthur set the documents down, he took a long time to answer, watching Merlin move back and forth across the room putting clothes away. "Giving me some confidence, I suppose." He sighed and focused on the candle. "I'm nervous about tomorrow night."
The Beltane bonfire. Jumping the broom. Going a-maying in the forest. So many things that Arthur could be referring to. Merlin paused with his head in Arthur's armoire, trying to catch his breath. "Oh?" he managed.
Arthur made an assenting noise. His voice was tight as a bow string when he spoke. "I'm going to do something I've never done before. I'm going to be honest with my feelings. And I don't care who knows."
It sounded like he needed more confidence. Well, Merlin was no Gwen, but if this was one of the last things Merlin could do for Arthur, he would give it his best shot.
"Whatever it is, you'll do it well," Merlin said, finally pulling himself from the closet and closing the door. He slowly filled his lungs with as much air as the hanahaki would allow. "You've faced down over a dozen magical creatures and even more men bent on destroying Camelot. You have the strength and courage to do anything you set your mind to. Those are two reasons you'll make a great king someday."
It was hardly the most moving or wise speech Merlin had ever given, but Arthur still looked at him like he did when Merlin made such speeches. He looked at Merlin like he had never met someone so wise, like he was proud to know Merlin. Like he loved him.
Merlin put a hand over his mouth, feeling the root shift another centimeter up. "I'll-I'll go fetch your dinner then." It came out a bit strangled, but Merlin was rushing out the door before Arthur could say anything.
It felt like he was filling up with flowers, like he would explode to get them out if he didn't let himself cough soon. He passed an open window and threw himself toward it. There wasn't even time to check that there were no witnesses. The flowers were already bursting out. His body heaved, again, again. It felt like all his insides were coming out as flowers, like there would be nothing left in him when he was done. And it hurt to match.
Merlin was still coughing as he pulled himself back inside, but with only a petal or two coming up each time rather than the horrible retching he had been doing. When he finally felt solid again – shaky but solid – he wiped his hand across his mouth and sighed. There was no way he would last much longer.
Merlin flipped around to find Gwen standing behind him, her hand outstretched and her expression concerned. Her frown deepened when she saw his face.
"Are you alright?"
"I'm fine." Why couldn't he give any other answer but that? He was stuck repeating the same phrase over and over again, even when it was clearly a lie.
Gwen didn't look like she wanted to believe him, but something about his expression kept her from prodding. "Will you be okay to attend the fire dance tomorrow?"
"I don't think I'll go," Merlin admitted. When Gwen looked crestfallen, he hurried to add, "It's not like I have anyone to celebrate with, you know?"
Her eyes brightened and a slight smile lifted the edges of her lips. "Arthur is going."
Yes, Arthur was going to the bonfire. With Gwen. He would hardly appreciate Merlin butting in and tagging along like a puppy. Merlin felt sick again.
"Merlin? You look a bit green. Are you sure—?"
He caught her hand before she could touch his face. "Thank you. Gwen. I'll…I'll try to—to go. See you."
As he hurried off down the hall, Merlin pulled his neckerchief up again to cough into. It was already so full that petals slipped out to catch on his shirt, in his jacket, or float to the floor.
The wooden tray crashed to the floor with a terrible cracking sound, and the metal dishes clanged and clattered so loudly that every head in the kitchen turned to look. Merlin slowly looked from the food now lying in a mess at his feet to the head cook who had just tried to hand it to him. She didn't even look mad, like she normally would have. Her mouth was hanging open and her eyes were wide, too shell-shocked to get angry.
Merlin had dropped the tray as soon as she let go. He didn't have the strength to hold it.
His hands were visibly shaking. Merlin crossed his arms over his chest in an attempt to hide it. "S-sorry. I—That is—"
What on Earth was he saying? He needed to leave, but—Merlin's eyes drifted away from the head cook's face and landed on the food at his feet again. Oh. Arthur's dinner.
"Could you get someone else to take Arthur his dinner?" Merlin asked without lifting his eyes. "Thanks."
And he escaped the silent kitchen like a bird running from a cat. Even that momentary burst of energy left him breathless.
The castle was nearly deserted at this time of night. Any staff not directly related to the care of Arthur or Uther was home for the evening. They were making final preparations for the bonfire tomorrow, and the festivities the next day. They were joyfully looking forward to their night in the forest with their chosen partner. They were celebrating the brilliance of new life.
Merlin stopped by a lit sconce to catch his breath. The roots shifted around his lungs and heart. Merlin shut his eyes and held his breath until they stopped. When he opened his eyes, it was to see Uther Pendragon coming down the hall.
He jumped to bow. "Your—," a cough, "Majesty."
Uther waved his courtesy away, stopping far enough away that it was clear he thought Merlin was contagious. "Where is Arthur?"
"In…his room…Sire," Merlin said, and was horrified by the effort it took to speak around the root in his throat now. His voice sounded muffled, or like he was about to be sick at any moment. He probably was.
Uther nodded, glad of the response. "Good." He glanced toward the window on the far wall. "These Beltane festivities err too close to the ways of magic for my liking. It would be far too easy for a sorcerer to place a charm on Arthur, since he insists on celebrating with the people."
There were petals in Merlin's throat.
"It would be just like a sorcerer to enchant Arthur into doing something crazy, like jumping the fire with them so they can claim the throne."
That was why Arthur said marriage couldn't happen while Uther was still alive. He would never trust that Arthur had fallen in love with a servant on his own. It had to be due to magic.
"Arthur," Merlin began, drawing Uther's attention. He swallowed the petals, though it made him cringe and his stomach protest. "No one will do that. Arthur…He'll be…a great king. He'll…make you…proud." He shook his head to clear it – talking was taking a lot more out of him than he would like – but that just made him feel dizzier. "Thank you."
Uther looked as though Merlin had just confessed to being a cross dresser. "What?"
Merlin took a few deep breaths to clear the spots from his eyes. "For…For making me…Arthur's man…manservant." Another swallow, trying to move the root in his throat. "It's been an honor."
Uther stepped further away, then gave a dismissive wave. "Yes, yes. Go see Gaius. You seem feverish."
Merlin acquiesced with a bow and slowly began the trek toward Gaius' tower.
There were a million stairs between Merlin and his bed. Too many. It would be morning by the time Merlin reached the top, and then he would have to come right back down. No, Merlin would not be climbing to Gaius' chambers tonight.
Perhaps he could curl up somewhere in the courtyard, out of sight. On a normal day, this would sound like a terrible, stupid idea to Merlin. Sleeping on the ground in the courtyard. Preposterous. But tonight he couldn't focus. He couldn't breathe. And sleeping on the ground, anywhere, seemed like the best idea he had ever had.
A cough had petals dribbling down his chin like spittle, over and over, as he looked around for a good place to rest.
That flower cart in the corner. Perfect. All the flowers he was spitting up could be mistaken as coming from the bouquets on the cart. Merlin all but collapsed against its side, curling up in pain as his insides literally writhed with roots and blooms.
He wanted to see Arthur. But Arthur couldn't see him like this. If Arthur saw, he'd know it was hanahaki. He'd know Merlin was a sorcerer. He might even know Merlin was in love with him. Merlin didn't know which was worse.
Every breath was a flower. He wasn't even coughing anymore. He breathed them out like carbon dioxide. Like the air in his lungs was made of seeds that germinated on their way up his throat. Though the petals were soft, Merlin's throat felt cut raw from the constant heaving and coughing, from the root taking up space where it didn't belong. He couldn't focus, and his vision was getting worse by the minute.
This had to be it. Any moment now, he would suffocate. There would be no way to force air into his body. He was dying.
At least Arthur had the knights, and Gaius. And Gwen. Gwen would make an excellent queen for Arthur. She was such a good person. If it had been anyone else Arthur was in love with, Merlin would have felt conflicted about leaving Arthur to deal with them alone.
Alone. Because he was dying. Merlin didn't want to die. He didn't want to die.
His breathing grew shallow as panic set in. His chest screamed in agony as his heart pumped furiously, desperately, fighting to stay alive. But his heart wasn't the problem. It was his lungs that would kill him.
"Merlin? Oh gods. He's over here! Hurry!"
It was Gwen. Merlin lifted his head to see her as Arthur rushed up beside her. Gwen had her hands clapped over her mouth, her eyes wide with horror as another flower fell from Merlin's mouth, joining the hundreds of petals already gathered around him. Arthur's face went pale at the sight. Was he scared?
After only a moment – was it a moment? – of hesitation, Arthur dropped down beside Merlin. "Who is it?" Merlin barely managed a confused 'hnn?' which only aggravated Arthur. "The person you're in love with, idiot! Who is it?!"
Merlin shook his head, which only served to make him nauseated and caused him to puke up more flowers. He heard Gwen give a frightened squeak.
Arthur grabbed him by the shoulders as he tilted sideways. His voice was quick and nervous. "You have hanahaki. The cure is returned love, so tell us who it is and we'll bring them here and make them love you back."
He couldn't make Arthur love him back. "No. Arthur—"
He heaved a deluge of blooms into Arthur's chest. Inanely, he was grateful they were flower petals and not actual bile. Bile was so hard to get out of fabric. And it smelled horrid. He wheezed for air and felt no relief.
"I'm going to fetch Gaius." And Gwen took off up the tower stairs faster than Merlin had ever seen her move.
Arthur shook Merlin by the shoulders, regaining his drifting attention. When Merlin focused on him again, he saw that Arthur's expression was as torn as when one of the knights died, or when he imagined the day his father would die. He looked…grief stricken.
"I can't just let you die like this, Merlin. Tell me. Please. Who are you in love with?" His voice cracked mid-way through his question.
Part of Merlin wanted to tell him the truth. Clearly the hanahaki wasn't scaring him off. The fact that Merlin was most likely a sorcerer didn't have his face burning with hatred. He was showing nothing but honest care for Merlin. Maybe he would understand, even if he didn't return Merlin's feelings. Maybe he would understand why Merlin stayed in Camelot, even though magic was a death sentence, if he knew Merlin loved him. Maybe he would understand that Merlin had only ever wanted to help him, to protect him.
Before he could open his mouth, Gwen was back, Gaius coming up behind her. Tears were already in his eyes.
"Gaius, how can we stop this?" Arthur demanded. "There has to be a way to stop this."
A tear slid down Gaius' cheek as he knelt beside Merlin, who was now leaning more on Arthur than the flower cart. He touched Merlin's hair fondly, and it felt like a farewell. "There isn't," Gaius breathed out.
"There has to be a spell, at least," Arthur snapped. "It's a sorcerer's sickness, so there has to be a sorcerer's cure. He's dying, Gaius."
Merlin would have laughed if he were still capable, but he couldn't breathe at all. Arthur Pendragon, asking for a spell to save his sorcerer servant. No one would ever believe it.
"There is," Gaius admitted. "But I can't perform it and Merlin rejected the idea of doing it himself."
The world was going dim. Merlin gasped for air, for any air, any at all. Arthur was holding him to his chest. He didn't want to go. Not now. Not ever.
"Why would he do that?" Arthur looked down at Merlin. "Why would you do that?! I know I've always said you were an idiot, but I never really believed it until now."
"It would make him lose his memories and his feelings for the one he loves," Gaius explained. "He couldn't bear that."
Arthur growled and pulled Merlin tight against his chest. It made breathing even harder, but Merlin didn't mind. Arthur was warm. Merlin's fingers clutched the fabric of Arthur's shirt. "I can't bear to lose Merlin either!"
The root of the hanahaki pushed out, out, out of Merlin's mouth. Forget-Me-Nots bloomed all over it, with wide-winged, hairy green leaves throughout. Merlin tried to breathe around it. He couldn't. His body jerked, began to spasm, as his lungs tried to force air inside and found none.
Merlin's vision went fuzzy around the edges. Gwen was openly weeping somewhere. She sounded very far away. Arthur was tearing the flowers off the plant bursting from Merlin's mouth, but new ones just kept forming. The last thing Merlin saw was that tears were also streaming down Arthur's face.
"No. Merlin, no!"
Merlin's fingers dropped from Arthur's shirt.
The world went dark.
His body stilled.
His heart stopped beating.
"You can't die like this, Merlin. I love you!"
The petals – blue and dainty – slowly fell from the bush in Merlin's mouth. Slowly. Slowly. Joining the bed of petals they sat on.
"I was scared to tell you," Arthur whispered, voice thick. "I didn't know how. I wanted to spend Beltane together. Then you would know I—"
The roots shrank, pulling away from Merlin's organs, freeing his heart, his lungs.
"I love you."
The sun shone in through the high windows of Gaius' chambers. Two birds twittered to each other where they sat on the window ledge. Merlin squinted against the light and groaned.
"Oh. You're awake."
Gwen sat at his bedside. She had been weaving what appeared to be a flower crown, but stopped to focus on Merlin. A relieved smile graced her features.
"We've been so worried."
Merlin struggled to push himself into a sitting position so Gwen reached out to help him up. It felt like he had been doing knight training – all his muscles protesting. His voice rasped when he tried to speak, and Gwen was quick to produce a cup of water for him.
"What happened?" Merlin asked after drinking.
Gwen's face grew somber. "I found petals on the floor when you ran away. I went to talk to Arthur, to tell him to officially ask you to Beltane since it seemed you still didn't have a clue, and I mentioned them. I said…If I didn't know better, I'd think you had hanahaki, but that the thought was silly since hanahaki is a sorcerer's illness. But Arthur looked like he'd seen a ghost. He started talking to himself, saying of course that explained all the blue flowers you kept leaving everywhere, and how could he be so blind?"
She twiddled the flowers in her lap, not weaving them, just rolling and bending them between her fingers.
"We were going to ask you about it when you came back with his dinner, but then a different servant brought it. They said you were sick. But you weren't at Gaius's chambers, and we couldn't find you anywhere. We were both so frantic, I'm sure we startled a few of the guards, and then when we found you, you were…"
Gwen trailed off, her eyes filling with tears. Merlin reached out to cover her hands with his own and she jumped at his touch.
"I'm…I'm alright." Merlin frowned. "I'm not sure how, but I am. I am alright, right?"
Gwen nodded. "Yes. Gaius says your breathing and heartbeat are normal, and there's no sign of the plant anywhere. Not so much as a petal." She squeezed his hand. "He said you were sick because of me. That you thought Arthur loved me."
Merlin tried to pull his hand away, but she wouldn't let him. "Gwen—"
"That wasn't it, Merlin," Gwen insisted. "After the Countess had gone, Arthur wanted to take the next step with you, but he didn't know how. He asked me for my help because he knows me, because I'm a servant too, and because I'm your best friend. I mean, he did try to flirt with me a bit, in the beginning, but he couldn't keep it up. He cares for you too much to ever consider me, or anyone else for that matter. I promise you, Merlin, there's nothing between us."
She fixed him with a look so intense that Merlin wanted to shy away from it. "Okay, Gwen. I believe you."
The hanahaki would never have retracted if she was lying. It believed Arthur's confession, so it must've been true.
Oh gods. Arthur had confessed to him. Arthur…Arthur loved him.
Both Gwen and Merlin looked to the door, where Arthur stood dumbstruck, one hand on the doorframe. He wore a simple red tunic and brown trousers, not a trace of his princely regalia to be found except for the ring he wore at all times.
"Arthur," Merlin breathed out, his cheeks raging red.
Gwen stood. "I'll leave you two alone." She bowed to Arthur on her way out, closed the door behind her, and then they were, indeed, alone.
For several seconds, neither of them spoke. Then Arthur took a deep breath.
"You are a prize fool, did you know?" he berated. "You're not a knight yet you were going off to nobly die, alone, like an idiot." Then he collapsed into the chair at Merlin's bedside, his shoulders drooping with the relief of a great weight. "I'm glad you're alive."
"Me too. Arthur…," Merlin dropped off. He didn't know where to begin.
Arthur reached forward and took Merlin's hand in his own, running his fingers over the knuckles, as gently as his calluses would allow. "Gaius explained, and I understand how, from your point of view, it might have seemed that I was courting Guinevere. Still, I can't believe you would doubt my feelings so completely after how long you've known me."
"You never said anything," Merlin fired back. "How was I supposed to know?"
"Well I tried to tell you, but you kept running away."
Merlin narrowed his eyes. "You asked what kind of flower she liked."
Releasing Merlin's hand, Arthur sat up straight, like a lordling ought, and cleared his throat. "I might have panicked. But only for a moment."
"You had her to your room for meals."
"Only once," Arthur argued. "The breakfast was meant for you, but you didn't stick around for it. I mean, really. You were quite rude."
"You should have just said so, instead of hemming and hawing about marriage and doing something about your love life," Merlin rebuked, his lips quirking up at the edges.
"And you should have listened for once, like a good servant is meant to." Arthur too was beginning to smile. He let out a lighthearted sigh and clasped his hands together before him. "I suppose there are plenty of 'should haves' to go around with this one."
They smiled at each other in silence, and it was one of those moments where everything seemed right with the world. Fate, destiny, prophesies – All of it was unfolding as it should and they were right where they were meant to be.
"So…You love me?" Merlin asked.
Arthur didn't hesitate. "I do."
"You're in love with me?"
"Even though I'm a sorcerer?" Merlin asked in a rush, just in case he had misunderstood the night before.
Arthur stared at him with an unreadable expression for long enough that Merlin began to doubt. Then, "Yes."
Relief made Merlin weak. He leaned forward to rest his elbows on his knees and hid his face in his hands. He gave a weak chuckle through his fingers. "You already knew. How?"
Arthur rolled his eyes. "With how awful you are at keeping secrets, I'm surprised the entire city doesn't know by now. But thank God they don't, or it would get back to my father, and that would never end well. Oh." He leaned forward in his seat and Merlin peeked out from behind his hands curiously. "Speaking of: my father believes you may have finally lost your mind entirely. You thanked him for making you my manservant and gave him some speech about me making him proud."
"In my defense, I was dying."
That had Arthur throwing his head back with a hearty laugh, one that made Merlin feel warm all over. He had thought he would never hear this laugh again.
"I love you."
The laughter cut off abruptly, Arthur staring at him intently. After a few heartbeats, he lifted his eyebrow and said, "Yes, I gathered that. Magical illness and all."
Merlin blushed and sat up straight. "Just thought I should actually say it. I won't say it again, if you've already heard it enough, Your Highness."
His blush deepened when Arthur reached up to touch his cheek. "No," he said in a quiet voice. "You can say it."
Merlin's breath caught in his throat and he coughed. Instinctively, he brought his hand up to cover his mouth, dislodging Arthur, but there were no petals to catch. Both Arthur and Merlin stared at his empty hands.
"You know," Arthur said, a tease entering his voice. "Of all the flowers you could have been dying from, of course you would pick forget-me-nots."
Merlin's brows lowered in confusion. "Why?" Because they symbolized timeless love, or remembering loves who were far away?
Arthur tugged on Merlin's ear. "Clearly they were named after your big mouse ears," he laughed.
Scowling, Merlin knocked is hand away. "Prat. I take it back. I don't love you."
"Of course you do," Arthur said primly. "Though because of all this drama, and you sleeping for two whole days, we missed Beltane."
Merlin balked. "Two days?!"
Nodding, Arthur gave a heavy sigh. "I suppose this means we'll have to wait until next year to get married. Well," he sniffed, "sort-of. Until I'm king, at least."
And Merlin was blushing again. "M-married?"
Arthur frowned. "Did the hanahaki worsen your mental affliction? You don't usually come off as this slow. Yes, Merlin. Married. Jumping the fire. Like Lady Laudine and her wife did two years ago. We've talked about this."
Finally, everything clicked into place in Merlin's head. Arthur had wanted to jump the fire at Beltane, it was true. And he wanted to do it with Merlin. He had tried to have breakfast together with Merlin. He wanted to have meals with, flirt with, and court Merlin. Everything he had thought was going on between Arthur and Gwen had actually been Gwen trying to help Arthur with Merlin.
He loved Arthur, with all his heart. And Arthur loved him. That was the glorious part. Arthur loved him.
His heart warmed, like a flower blooming in his chest, but this wasn't hanahaki. It was hope, and it was joy, and it was love.
"I guess we'll just have to make the most of our time until then," Merlin quipped. "Where are my flowers?" It was Arthur's turn to look confused. Merlin sighed, as if Arthur were the greatest burden known to man. "If you're going to court me, do it right, my lord."
A fond smile lifted Arthur's lips. "Oh, I intend to, Merlin. I intend to."
The Right Honorable
The Countess Laudine of the Fountain of Landuc
Dear Lady Laudine, and her wife, Lady Luned,
I hope this letter finds you well, and that no other wandering knights have disturbed the fountain you diligently protect. It will please you to know that, with the help of your workers and funds, Camelot has fully recovered from the last stormy incident. I would go into more detail, but I am certain that His Royal Highness, Prince Arthur Pendragon, has already written to you of the specifics.
I write to you today at the request of Lady Luned, who wished to hear of any developments in the relationship between myself and the prince. It may surprise you to hear that, shortly after your visit, His Royal Pratness began to court one of the serving maids – and my best friend – Guinevere, and that I developed a rather serious case of hanahaki. Yes, that hanahaki. Considering your maintenance of a magical fountain, I hope the news won't negatively color your image of me.
The illness was so bad that I very nearly died. It turns out, however, that Arthur was not actually courting Guinevere. He tried, mind you, but she has reliably informed me that he broke down within the first five minutes of their meal together and confessed to being in love with me instead. The only problem was that he was so awful at expressing himself that it appeared he was still courting her when he was attempting to court me instead.
Clearly, he did manage to get it right eventually, or I would be dead and gone by now. The climax of the situation happened the night before Beltane, actually. The good news is that I am completely cured of the hanahaki and Arthur and I are very happy together. At last. The bad news is that my recovery made us miss Beltane entirely. Arthur hasn't let me forget it, though it has been over a month now.
His Highness wishes to visit Landuc soon, before the harvest begins in the autumn, so that he can boast on how well he courts me with someone, where word won't get back to his father. When would be a good time for you?
We await your quick reply. I expect lots of questions and excitement along with a date for the visit.