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“Merlin!”

 

The boy in question winced as he heard Arthur’s voice thunder down the hallway. He sighed, pushing his hair away from his face as he forced himself to get out of bed. Merlin hadn’t really found the energy to do much other than lay in his cot and passively complete the tasks Arthur set for him. He was glad, at first, for the work. It was a good distraction from what had happened earlier with….

 

With Balinor. 

 

“Merlin, you lazy oaf!” 

 

Merlin scrambled out of bed, pushing into the main chamber of Gaius’s apothecary. The elderly man raised an eyebrow and Merlin just gave him a small shrug before racing out to the door. 

 

Gaius had given Merlin quite a break after the events of the Great Dragon, claiming he needed Merlin out of the way while he tended to the remains of everyone’s injuries. It was in this break that Arthur saw it fit to dump increasingly more chores on Merlin: after all, there was a lot to do. Houses to repair, streets to clean, inventory to be taken. No one could afford to rest. Especially not Merlin. 

 

“There you are you dimwit ,” Arthur called as Merlin turned a hallway and saw the prince angrily striding towards him. “You are late.”

 

“Sorry, Sire, I was just-” Merlin cut himself off as he realized he really didn’t have a good excuse. He had been lazing around in bed, unable to find the energy to do anything else. 

 

His heart sank. His father would be disappointed. 

 

“Well, seeing as you don’t have an excuse, you can spend the rest of the day helping rebuild the palace walls.” Arthur clapped his hand on Merlin’s shoulder, a satisfied grin on his face. Merlin tried to grin back, and the prince likely saw the facade as his expression slipped away. 

 

“Merlin, you’re not seriously still upset over the Dragonlord, are you?” 

 

Merlin swallowed the lump in his throat. “Of course not.” He couldn’t tell Arthur. He had to pretend. 

 

“Good. Because, after all, we managed to defeat the dragon anyways didn’t we?” Arthur looked Merlin in the eye and for a second Merlin was taken aback by the intensity of the stare. 

 

“Uh, yeah, you did.” He stepped away hastily, not trusting his voice not to break. “If you’ll excuse me sire. Palace walls.” 

 

Merlin rushed away, away from the piercing gaze of Arthur and the feeling that Arthur knew something. And in his case, whatever the secret, that wouldn’t turn out good. 

 

 

Merlin stared at the bowl in front of him, feeling strangely hollow and unable to eat. 

 

“Merlin, my boy, is everything alright?” Gaius asked from across the table, worry lacing his words. “You’ve hardly touched your food.”

 

“I’m fine.” Merlin quickly took a bite, ignoring how the food tasted more unappealing than it ever had. “Just tired from working on the palace all day. Arthur never lets up.” He smiled, before pushing his bowl away from him. “In fact, I think I’m going to turn in. Night.”

 

He felt the weight of Gaius’s stare as he made his way back to his bed, where he stayed awake, staring at his ceiling. 

 

Merlin had never felt quite like this before, whatever this was. It was as if a particularly dense storm cloud was following him, and he just couldn’t shake it off. He was exhausted. Every muscle in his body ached. He was faintly aware that he should be hungry, that he hadn’t eaten enough in days. But mostly he felt numb. Numb and afraid. 

 

Tears pricked his eyes as he squeezed them shut. He was supposed to be the greatest sorcerer to walk the earth or something, according to the Druids: but here he was, life shrouded in secrets and lies and the inability to save others. His father had died trying to save him. His blood was on Merlin’s hands. 

 

It was then that Merlin was overcome with a strong urge of missing home. He wanted to see his mother, to tell her everything from Morgana’s poisoning to Balinor and to have her press her hand against his cheek and tell her everything would be alright. 

 

He shouldn’t be so selfish. Everyone was needed, trying to rebuild the palace in light of the dragon attacks. Which were also his fault. Merlin felt something squeeze his heart so tight he felt as though he couldn’t breathe and he knew. He had to see his mother. 

 

Merlin sighed rolling over until his gaze rested on the cracked stone walls that lined his chamber. He would have to ask Arthur tomorrow for some time off. He needed to step back, to regain his bearings; he was no use to anyone in the state he was in. And if he couldn’t at least help others, then what did he have left?

 

Merlin closed his eyes, trying to rest as a weight heavier than he had felt in a while settled itself on his shoulders. 

 

 

“Arthur?” Merlin slowly opened the door to the prince’s room, peeking his head in. 

 

Mer lin, how many times do I have to tell you to knock?” Arthur responded, looking at Merlin with an exasperated look from where he had been bent over documents. He looked tired, Merlin noticed. They were all so tired. 

 

“Well, when have you known me to listen?” Merlin tried for a smile, and was pleased to see some of the tiredness ease itself off of Arthur’s face as the familiar banter between them filled the room. It was only a moment, and then the frown lines appeared between his eyes as he turned back to the documents. A quick look told Merlin they were castle plans, official requests, stock counts. 

 

“What did you want?” Arthur asked, scratching a quill against a paper. 

 

Here it was. “I was hoping for some time off, actually,” Merlin ventured, wincing as Arthur rolled his eyes at him. 

 

“We all want time off, Merlin,” the prince narrowed his eyes. “But what’s the occasion?”

 

“I-“ the words about his mother stuck in his throat. How would Arthur understand the need to go home without bringing up all sorts of other questions Merlin just couldn’t answer? “I think I’m falling ill,” he finished. “I felt feverish last night and I don’t want you to catch whatever illness I may have.”

 

Arthur decidedly did not look impressed, and Merlin was so sure that he would say no or call him out on his lies. But then he waved his hand, turning back to the papers. “You can take the rest of the week. Now get out before you spread your germs.”

 

Merlin smiled in spite of himself. “Thanks, Arthur.” He turned to leave, not wanting to push his luck. He had just opened the door when Arthur spoke up. 

 

“And Merlin?” 

 

Merlin turned back to see Arthur watching him with a strange expression on his face. 

 

“Yes?”

 

“You know you can come to me with anything, right?” Arthur’s face flushed at the words after he spoke, and cleared his throat. “I mean, obviously, we cannot be friends. At all.”

 

“Of course,” Merlin acknowledged, still smiling as he knew Arthur really was trying to show compassion. He had never been the best at expressing emotion. 

 

“Right. Well. Just, I’m here, I suppose.” Arthur frowned as a grin spread across Merlin’s face as the prince stumbled across his words. “Oh, get out, Merlin.”

 

“Of course, sire.” Merlin left with an exaggerated bow, feeling lighter than he had in days. 

 

 

Merlin shoved an extra shirt into his pack before tightening the straps and slinging it on his back. He meant to get out quickly, leaving before anyone could ask too many questions. But, of course, fate was not on his side as he opened the door to his bedroom to find Gaius standing down in the main chamber, eyes crossed with his signature eyebrow raise etched onto his face. 

 

“Uh, I was just,” Merlin stumbled over his words, trying to figure out how to explain the pack on his shoulders and the fact that he was so obviously leaving. 

 

“Leaving,” Gaius finished, his eyebrow still raised. “Without telling anyone. Honestly, Merlin, sometimes I really wonder if there is any sense in you.”

 

Merlin deflated, sinking onto the workbench. “I told Arthur I was taking some time off?” He offered. 

 

“And he let you?” Gaius sat down next to Merlin. “He cares a whole lot for you, my boy.”

 

Merlin suddenly found it hard to swallow. Of course, of course he would love to go to Arthur, to tell him affections were reciprocated. That nobody had managed to shape Merlin’s life the way Arthur had, and destiny or not Merlin would be right there by his side. But there were too many secrets, too many regulations and decorum in his way. “I don’t deserve it,” he whispered hoarsely, startling as Gaius whacked the side of his head.

 

“Ow!”

 

“That’s what you get for entertaining such thoughts.” Gaius placed a hand on Merlin’s arm. “Now, my boy, where were you headed? You’ve not been right since weeks ago, with the invasion by Morgause.”

 

“And Morgana,” Merlin finished, throat dry. 

 

“Yes.” Gaius seemed to age ten years at the mention of Morgana, who was betraying them right under everyone’s eyes. “You did what you had to. You mustn’t blame yourself.”

 

“Maybe,” Merlin fidgeted with the pack on his shoulders. “But, Gaius, I don’t feel like myself. There are too many things, and I can’t tell anyone anything except for you, and don’t get me wrong, you mean the world to me and I’m so grateful, but I need to talk to someone else.” He gazed at Gaius’s face as realization sparked in his eyes. 

 

“Ealdor?”

 

Merlin nodded. “It’s just.” his voice cracked and he paused, taking a breath before ensuring he could talk properly again “it’s too much for me right now, Gaius. I feel like I’m suffocating in this palace and I need some time to clear my head. I’m no good to anyone like this.”

 

“Forget how good you are to others.” Gaius gripped Merlin’s arm tighter. “I want you to make sure you are alright.”

 

Merlin nodded, not trusting himself to speak anymore. He opened his mouth to suggest he leave now, when he was pulled into a fierce, tight hug from Gaius. The older man rested his hand on the back of Merlin’s head and Merlin squeezed his eyes shut as Gaius whispered into his ear. “How unfair it is for you to shoulder this great destiny.” 

 

Merlin nodded jerkily as Gaius pulled away. “I best be leaving,” he spoke, standing up. “Just, thank you, Gaius. For everything.”

 

“Of course.” 

 

Merlin turned to leave, heading to the door. “Oh, and, Merlin?”

 

He turned around to see Gaius holding another satchel, a smile on his face. “Some food for the journey.”

 

Merlin smiled, taking the bag and murmuring his thanks. His hand rested on the door handle of the apothecary. Merlin took in a breath, and opened the door. He was going home. 

 

 

Merlin felt the horse trot underneath him, taking the time to breathe in the fresh air from the forests around him, a sense of nature he hadn’t gotten exposed to in a while. He could feel his magic running under his skin, not hot and uncomfortable like it sometimes was in times of danger, but calm and content as it reached out towards the dew adorned leaves and mossy rocks, painted golden in the evening sun. 

 

There was magic in nature. Merlin reached out a hand to a branch as he passed by it, smiling as he saw leaves and flowers unfurl on the wood. It was the purest magic of all. 

 

Merlin was reveling in the sheer wonder of the magic floating freely around him when he heard something that sounded suspiciously like a footstep. He froze, stopping his horse and jumping down. He whirled around, looking at his surroundings to see nothing. 

 

“Who’s there?” he called clenching his fists as his magic pooled in his fingertips, waiting to be used. No one came forward. Hesitantly, he backed towards his horse, gripping the reins in the instance he needed to make a quick escape. He really, really hoped he wasn’t about to be ambushed. He still had a full day of travel left, and would have liked to spend it in one piece. 

 

When no further sounds were produced, Merlin decided he had better leave. “Come on,” he murmured to his horse, hoisting himself up. He lightly patted her neck as she started moving again. “Let’s find a place to camp for the night.”

 

Soon enough, they came across a clearing that seemed suitable for a fire. Merlin set up camp, whispering a small incantation to light a fire for warmth. He let the horse wander around, knowing she would come back to him. He had always had a way with animals. 

 

Merlin rested his head against a log, branches and rocks poking at him from under the blanket he had spread on the ground. But he didn’t mind. The quietness of the forest surrounded him, making him feel alone and on edge now that the light of the day had faded. 

 

He hated to admit it, but he missed Arthur. He had been dragged on so many quests and hunting trips alongside the prince, and he had gotten used to him being around, spouting pratly nonsense as they set up camp, or fed the horses, or stopped for sustenance. The quiet felt weird. 

 

His heart felt heavy. He knew nothing could ever come of Arthur and him. There was too much between them, things Arthur didn’t even know were posing as a barrier. There were too many lies, too many things that rested heavy on Merlin’s shoulders and Arthur’s too. 

 

Merlin sighed, and with a glance at the fire, felt his magic surge through him, eager to be used. Without a second thought, he concentrated and knew his eyes must have flashed gold as shapes formed from the fire, floating up until they dissolved into smoke. Dragons, knights, swords, flowers. 

 

Merlin smiled as the comfort of his magic surrounded him, and finally contentedly fell into a sleep. 

 

 

Merlin led his horse by hand to the river, bending down to fill up his water skin, excitement flowing through him. He knew this stream, and knew if he had come across it he was almost at Ealdor. It wouldn’t be long now. 

 

He crouched down at the river, dipping the container into the water, when he heard a sound. Again. Now, Arthur might have scoffed at his “funny feelings” but Merlin was proud to say his instincts were typically accurate. And he was certain someone was following him; probably had been for a while now if the footsteps from yesterday were any indication. 

 

“I know you’re there!” Merlin yelled, standing up. “Who are you?”

 

Merlin held his breath, scanning the forests parallel to the stream for any indication of a person. He was still looking when he felt something sharp poke softly against his back, and Merlin inhaled sharply. 

 

“What do you want?” he asked shakily, raising his hands. He could get out of this situation if he needed to, but he would rather not have to rely on magic, and certainly not kill anyone. 

 

“I would just like to know,” an awfully familiar voice sounded, “what my servant is doing gallivanting the woods when he told me he was coming down with a fever.”

 

“Arthur!” Merlin exclaimed, whirling around to see the prince himself smirking at Merlin, his sword held casually in his grip. Then Merlin frowned. “Wait, Arthur? What are you doing here?”

 

“You really are the worst liar, Merlin.” Arthur stuck his sword in the ground. “It was obvious you weren’t sick. So I decided to come and make sure you weren’t hiding in the tavern or something.”

 

“How long have you been following me? Does Uther know? How’d you get away?” the questions tumbled out of Merlin as fear rose up in him. Had Arthur seen the magic he had done, any of the little inexplicable acts he had performed along the journey? This was not how Arthur would find out, it couldn’t be.

 

“So many questions.” Merlin fixed him with a deadpan look, and Arthur continued. “I’ve been following you essentially the whole way. I told my father that I was out restocking on supplies and surveying the lands, and he let me go. And once I saw you wander out into the forest, there was really no question.” Arthur smiled, and if Merlin had known him any less he would have mistaken it for arrogance rather than the teasing it was. “At that point, it was a question of duty. It’s like letting a helpless puppy crawl around in the forest. Servants as incompetent as you are hard to come by.”


“Thanks,” Merlin responded dryly. “Luckily for you, you seem to have enough of clotpoleness to make up for it.”

 

“That is not a word.”

 

“Just because His Royal Highness doesn’t look in a dictionary once in a while-”

 

“Well at least I don’t lie to get away from duties just to turn tail and run away home,” Arthur fired back, and Merlin looked away. How on earth would he explain this.

 

“I was just-” he began, but Arthur interrupted him.

 

“Don’t worry, Merlin. I know.” he offered Merlin a smile that was probably supposed to be reassuring as he drew up his sword and sheathed it again.

 

“You do?” Merlin’s heart was pounding in his chest. What, exactly, did Arthur know?

 

Arthur deftly mounted his horse, leaving Merlin to stare up at him. “Of course, and I understand. You must have been worried about Ealdor and your mother.”

 

The warlock swallowed. His secret was still secret, then. “Uh, yes. I was really worried. So now I’m going home.”

 

“And I’m coming with you,” Arthur said, gesturing for Merlin to get on his horse. “I would like to see Hunith again.”

 

“Don’t you have duties to attend to,” Merlin prompted, trying to figure out how on earth he was supposed to talk to his mother in private when his royal highness was always sticking his nose in other people’s business. It wasn’t that Merlin wasn’t touched, or that the thought that Arthur wanted to see his mother didn’t do things to his heart, but he really needed to step away and talk without fear of judgement. 

 

“They can wait. Now, come on Merlin. I didn’t follow you all this way only for you to waste time admiring nature.”

 

Merlin huffed out a breath, knowing that once Arthur had put his mind to something it was doubtful even Merlin could persuade him from the path. 

 

“Yeah,” he muttered, heaving himself up on his horse. “Let’s go.”

 

 

They arrived in Ealdor scarcely an hour later. Merlin felt a smile grow on his face as he urged his horse to ride faster through the outlying farmlands, ignoring Arthur’s protests from behind him. 

 

He reached the dirt worn trai and rows of houses and immediately hopped off his horse. The villagers who were out stared in amazement. But not at him. 

 

“It’s the prince!” someone announced and hushed whispers coursed through the people.

 

“Welcome, your highness,” one lady-- Maria, Merlin remembered, a seamstress-- announced, bowing as Arthur probably got off his horse too. Merlin wasn’t looking, he was scanning the crowd for the familiar face he had left Camelot for, for-

 

“Mother,” he whispered when he saw Hunith leave her house to see the commotion. The confusion left her face when she saw Merlin and then he was running to her and she pulled him tightly in her arms. 

 

“Oh, Merlin,” she whispered in his ear and all of a sudden there were tears in his eyes and he couldn’t bring himself to pull away. He had waited so long for this hug, so long to be with mother, so long to tell her everything. “What are you doing here?”

 

She drew back then, and placed a calloused hand on the side of his face, her eyes filled with such concern Merlin felt like he didn’t deserve it. “Is everything okay?” she asked. “Are you hurt? Is Gaius? Is Camelot in trouble?”

 

Merlin tried to say that everything was fine but the words stuck in his throat. Hunith must have noticed as she gently rubbed her thumb under his eye, catching the tears that had appeared. “I just wanted to see you,” Merlin finally spoke, as that was the truth. 

 

Hunith smiled, and then glanced off to the side when her eyes widened in surprise. “Your Highness!” she gasped, hastily dropping into a bow. 

 

That would be Arthur, Merlin sighed, turning to see the prince himself standing a little ways behind Merlin looking slightly out of his depth. 

 

Merlin couldn’t help but smile at Arthur’s uncomfortable expression as all the people of Ealdor bowed to him or stared at him in reverence. And if he let out a little laugh, well, that was honestly on Arthur. 

 

Of course the prince heard it and fixed Merlin with a look. Merlin simply shrugged because after all, Arthur brought this on himself. Arthur frowned harder, and then seemed to remember there were other people around. 

 

“Hello, Hunith,” he said, the petulant expression he had directed towards Merlin melting into something more structured and princely. “I hope I’m not intruding.”

 

“You didn’t ask me if you were intruding,” Merlin called out, only for Arthur to give him that look again, and then put on a forced smile. 

 

“Well, Merlin, that’s because you likely would have impaled yourself on a tree branch had I not graciously offered my help.” Arthur then tossed his bag at Merlin, who caught it with a grunt. “You should be thanking me.”

 

“Yes, thank you for being such a prat,” Merlin muttered, shouldering the bag nonetheless. He was, honestly, grateful Arthur had decided to accompany him-- although the reasons were still unknown to him--but honestly. 

 

“Merlin!” his mother exclaimed, scandalized. He looked at Hunith and shrugged, smiling a bit. 

 

“Don’t worry mum. Arthur’s used to it.”

 

“Well, what are you doing here Sire?” Hunith asked after lightly whacking her son’s arm in reprimand. “Is everything alright?

 

“Of course.” Arthur said, back to his gracious prince facade. Merlin rolled his eyes. “Merlin just wished for some time off from rebuilding the palace, and I decided that it would be best if I come too. I rather wanted to visit Ealdor and you again, if I’m not imposing.”

 

He looked at Merlin on the last bit, eyebrow raised, as if daring him to say otherwise. But Merlin was a bit struck with the fact that Arthur maybe really did want to see Merlin’s mother again. That shouldn’t have played havoc with Merlin’s heart as much as it did, but then again he never really did have the best hold on his emotions. 

 

“You could never impose,” Hunith responded, taking Arthur’s arm and leading him to her little house, leaving Merlin to follow behind with the bags. “But, why are you rebuilding the castle?”

 

“Of course, you haven’t heard the news. Camelot was under attack from a dragon, and it caused much destruction. We have been working on fixing all the damage.” Arthur finished as they entered Hunith’s home, his shoulders noticeably tenser. 

 

Merlin could imagine he looked the same. After all, the dragon attacks were a decent part as to why he was there. Hunith covered her mouth with her fingertips, shock written on her features. 

 

“Dragon attacks,” she voiced, turning to look at Merlin who looked back, knowing she could draw some connections. “Why, I’m glad you’re here then. Both of you boys must need a break.”

 

She made her way to the platform used for a kitchen, as Merlin put Arthur’s bag down. Hard. On Arthur’s foot. 

 

“Merlin!” Arthur hissed, whacking his leg. 

 

“Sorry, Sire. My mistake,” Merlin smiled as Arthur rolled his eyes and looked away. 

 

“Play nice, boys,” Hunith reprimanded. “I’m making us some tea and snacks, you both must be hungry.”

 

“Thanks, mum.” Merlin crossed the room to lightly kiss the top of her head. 

 

“Yeah, yeah,” she laughed, turning to push a basket into his hands. “Now, I need some mint and rosemary. Make yourself useful and go get some for me, dear.”

 

“Yes, mum,” Merlin responded, making a face which Hunith, of course, just laughed at. 

 

“Is there anything I can do to help, Hunith,” Arthur asked from across the room. 

 

“Oh, no, Sire. Although, you can go with Merlin if you’d like.” And Merlin had never felt more mortification in his life then when his mom turned to him after this statement and winked

 

“Mum,” he whispered under his breath. 

 

Hunith just smiled and patted his elbow. “Off you go.” Then, quieter, for only Merlin to hear, “We can talk later, Merlin. I feel you have much to say.” 

 

And Merlin already felt some of the knots that had formed in his stomach loosening as he looked into his mother’s eyes and saw nothing but reassurance and compassion. It was a good idea to come, he decided. 

 

Then he turned to Arthur. “Let’s go,” he said. “Time to see if you know anything about herbs.”

 

 

Unsurprisingly, Arthur knew nothing about herbs. 

 

“That’s thyme, not rosemary,” Merlin said for approximately the twentieth time after Arthur picked the wrong herb from the community garden. “Honestly, Arthur. It’s probably a good thing you’re a prince. You wouldn’t survive a day if you had to live like the rest of us.”

 

“I could,” Arthur argued, tossing the ill-fated plant at Merlin’s hair. They were sitting down in between two rows of greenery, Merlin looking for the right plants and Arthur not being helpful. “I could hunt.”

 

Merlin picked the thyme from where it had landed on his head and tossed it right back at Arthur. “Sure, and then die of a disease because all you eat is meat.”

 

“I’d figure something out,” Arthur claimed, now throwing the same herb back at Merlin. 

 

“I’m sure you would.” Merlin knew Arthur heard the doubt in his voice because not a second later Arthur gently shoved him, rocking his body to the side. 

 

Merlin smiled, as he absentmindedly brushed the thyme out of his hair. They were quiet while Merlin began his search for mint, although he could feel Arthur’s eyes on him.

 

“Merlin,” Arthur began, breaking the moment of silence. “Are you really upset that I came to Ealdor too?”

 

Merlin stopped his perusal and looked up at Arthur who was fixing him with a strangely serious gaze. He thought, and realized, no. He wasn’t really upset Arthur was here. Arthur had managed to put a smile on his face almost consistently on the trip, and how could he be upset at that?

 

“No,” he answered honestly. “I don’t mind you’re here. I just,” he inhaled, looking away from Arthur’s blue eyes. “I needed some time away from Camelot.”

 

Arthur made a noise of assent, and Merlin looked to find Arthur gazing over at the center of the town, where children were laughing and chasing each other around and around. “Sometimes, I have this desire to run off, away from Camelot, and go find a piece of farmland somewhere and live there and work and just be happy and free of all the responsibility of being a prince.”

 

Merlin snorted. “Right. Like you could work on a farmland.”

 

Arthur rolled his eyes. “Well, that’s why I always imagined you would be there too.”

 

Merlin felt his ears warm, but continued meeting Arthur’s eyes. Arthur imagined Merlin there? In this dream fantasy where he was happy? Oh dear. Merlin wasn’t sure he could handle this. “Of course,” he finally managed. “Since you can’t do anything for yourself.”

 

Arthur reached out and kicked Merlin’s foot. “Where would I be without the most incompetent servant I’ve ever known?”

 

Merlin laughed, and then they were quiet again. He had given up his attempt at trying to find herbs, instead trying to calm his racing heart. Damn Arthur for coming here, giving him more things to be confused about when he was trying to figure everything out. Damn Arthur and his stupid, princely, kindness and blue eyes and soft side that he only seemed to show around those he was comfortable around--which somehow includes Merlin--and his ability to make Merlin smile so easily

 

“It’s a selfish dream, I know,” Arthur continued. “But sometimes I feel like there’s this burden of expectation on my shoulders that’s so heavy I can’t breathe. I’m not sure you would understand.” 

 

Merlin laughed humorlessly. If only Arthur knew. “Oh, Arthur, I understand better than you would think.”

 

“Sure,” Arthur assented. And, for some crazy reason, he didn’t sound nearly as disbelieving as Merlin would have thought. 

 

The prince stood up, and brushed off his trousers. “We had better get back. I don’t want to keep Hunith waiting.”

 

Merlin made his way up too, and grinned at Arthur, trying to ease the odd tension that had appeared between the two. “Last one there has to feed the pigs.” And he took off, laughing as he heard Arthur’s curses behind him.

 

 

Merlin sat on the front step of his childhood home, Hunith perched next to him as they looked out into the square. The setting sun painted the entire scene golden as Arthur animatedly told some story to some of the children who were gathered eagerly around him. Seeing Arthur so happy, so energetic, warmed Merlin’s heart in a way he hadn’t felt in a long time. Being back home, with his mother had been a blessing. He didn’t know Arthur could make the feeling even better.

 

“We can talk after he’s gone to sleep,” his mother spoke from beside him, combing her fingers through Merlin’s hair. “In case you don’t want him to overhear.”

 

Merlin nodded, the contentedness giving away to a tightening in his chest. “He can’t know, mum,” he said hoarsely, tearing his eyes from the scene in front of him to look at his mother. “I can’t tell him.”

 

“I think he’ll be more understanding than you give him credit for,” was all Hunith said, although she didn’t argue. “He cares a great deal for you.”

 

Merlin raised his shoulders a little in a noncommittal gesture. “He just cares for his people is all.”

 

Hunith smiled and shook her head. “Maybe. But it’s different with you.”

 

This was probably true. He and Arthur had a bond of trust that Arthur didn’t have with a lot of people. One in which Arthur felt as though he could show his emotions, let down the guard he kept up normally. In which Merlin could speak without fear about almost ( almost ) anything, and know that even if Arthur acted like he wasn’t listening, he usually was. 

 

“There’s just a lot that has happened recently.” Merlin slowly dragged a stick against the dirt, tracing random patterns. “And I need to figure some things out before I begin to unpack that particular problem.”

 

Hunith grabbed Merlin’s hand gently, rubbing her thumb across the top of his hand. “You seem so sad, my heart. Something terrible must have happened. And I wish I could take this burden from you, I wish that more than anything.”

 

“Mother,” Merlin whispered, and then Hunith was drawing him into a hug and he was fairly certain both of them were crying. “I’m just so lost. I feel so lost.”

 

“My heart.” Hunith rested her hand on the back of Merlin’s head as he pressed his face into her shoulder. “You can always come back home.”

 

A shout from the square caused them both to draw away to see Arthur laying on the ground with several children clambering on top of him, Arthur’s laugh easily audible from the front step. Merlin felt himself smile, and looked at his mother who was fixing him with a knowing look.

 

“I know,” he murmured. “I know.” 

 

Just then, several parents emerged from their homes looking quite shocked to see their children playing with the Prince in such a manner. Merlin could just make out plenty of rushed apologies and scoldings as parents grabbed their sons and daughters by the hand. 

He couldn’t hold back the laugh that bubbled up inside him as Arthur made his way to the pair looking for all the world like a dejected puppy who just wanted to play.

 

Arthur heard, and a grin spread on his face. 

 

“I don’t think there are this many children in Camelot,” he voiced, arriving at the step. “They were very eager to hear about the story of how Merlin came to be my manservant.” 

 

“Hm, I’m sure they were very pleased to hear whichever twisted version of the story you told,” Merlin informed him, and then raised an eyebrow as he saw how covered in dust Arthur was. “You need a bath.”

 

“Right, well. I don’t suppose you would-”

 

Merlin cut him off. There was no way he was fixing him a bath. “There’s a stream a little ways behind the village.” 

 

“Merlin, don’t be rude. Go show Arthur where it is, and you had better take a bath too.” Hunith pushed Merlin up off the step. “ Boys .”

 

“Only for you, mum.” Merlin stood up and stretched. “Come on, Arthur.”

 

“You can’t talk to me that way, you know,” Arthur responded as they made their way to the edge of the forest bordering Ealdor where Merlin knew lay a stream just a minute inwards. 

 

“You would get bored if I stopped.” 

 

“I suppose that’s true.”

 

They made their way to the forest, bickering slightly the whole way. Once they entered the vegetation, golden sunlight streaming through the canopy of leaves, Arthur grabbed Merlin’s arm.

 

Merlin turned to look at Arthur in confusion, and was taken aback by how the light seemed to make Arthur glow as it reflected off his hair and painted his face in golden streaks. He swallowed, and then suddenly realized he had better think of something else. He just couldn’t think this way of Arthur. All it would do was lead him to heartbreak. Even if by some weird coincidence Arthur found some part of Merlin appealing, the weight of Merlin’s secrets would create a barrier that could only hurt them.

 

“Is there a problem?” he asked once he managed to get back some sense. 

 

“Merlin, I just want you to know that I wasn’t lying that day.” Arthur’s eyes were so serious. “You really can come to me with anything.”

 

“Right.” Merlin felt as though he was missing something. “And I appreciate it.”

 

“I mean it,” Arthur insisted. “ Anything .”

 

Right ,” Merlin frowned. Unless Arthur had somehow managed to figure out that Merlin was actually a sorcerer, which Merlin really doubted because then why was he here instead of in a dungeon awaiting his funeral, he was really missing something. “Are you alright?”

 

Arthur exhaled and let go of Merlin’s arm. “Fine,” he responded, his words surprisingly short.

 

Yes. Merlin was, in fact, missing something. But the moment of Arthur’s seeming sullenness was gone as soon it came. 

 

“We should wash up before it gets dark,” Arthur continued his walk to the bank of the stream. “You have a propensity of attracting danger.”

 

“No, I think that’s you,” Merlin shot back lightly, watching happily as the water flowed gently below their feet, the sunlight filtered through the trees creating patterns that danced along the course. There was something about running water that made his magic feel more full and bright, which by association made him feel lighter.

 

“Whatever you say.” Arthur began taking off his clothes and Merlin looked away. There was honestly no reason for him to look away. He had, after all, been Arthur’s manservant enough to prepare enough baths and dress his Royal Highness enough times to have seen more of Arthur than he originally would have liked. That didn’t change the fact, however, that things were different in Ealdor. They felt more like equals than they did in Camelot, and Merlin couldn’t help but feel like this amount of proximity would not end well for Merlin’s heart.

 

He nevertheless slowly pulled his shirt off and equally reluctantly took off his trousers as well. He glanced at the water, and was about to step in when a push caused him to become acquainted with the cool water sooner than he would have liked.

 

Merlin spluttered as he surfaced, glaring at Arthur. “Excuse me?” he shook the water out of his eyes so he could glare at Arthur harder.

 

“You were being too quiet,” was all Arthur said, before entering the water himself. “It was odd.”

 

“Oh, I’m the odd one in this situation,” Merlin grumped. He turned away from Arthur, cupping some water in his hands to wash his face. 

 

As he splashed the cool water on his face, he heard a quiet sharp intake of breath from behind him.

 

“Merlin,” Arthur asked, and the warlock turned around to see Arthur looking at him with a confused look on his face. “How did you get all those scars?”

 

Merlin just had to look down to see what Arthur was talking about. Faint scares decorated his torso, and he knew for certain that there was at least one burn on his back amidst probably other remains of contusions. From fighting magical beings. Which he couldn’t very well tell Arthur without opening himself up to an onslaught of questions he was not prepared to answer.

 

“Well, you always did say I was clumsy,” Merlin offered, trying for a smile as he splashed water across his body. He hoped his tone was light enough.

 

“This doesn’t look like clumsiness,” Arthur responded, obviously not believing Merlin for a second. “It looks like battle wounds.”

 

Merlin swallowed. “Well, picking up after you isn’t exactly a painless job.” he tried again for a smile, only for Arthur to continue to look at him seriously. He sighed. “Arthur, how on earth was I going to get battle wounds. These could be from random chores or from some time we got attacked by bandits. You said it yourself, I’m a coward in a fight. How am I supposed to get battle wounds?”

 

“You’re not,” Arthur said, his voice slightly strangled. 

 

“Not what?” Merlin once again felt as though he had lost the train of conversation.

 

Arthur cleared his throat. “Not a coward.” 

 

Merlin felt his ears grow warm. He coughed, and then turned back to the water. “Well. They’re not really a big deal anyways, so don’t worry yourself too much.”

 

Surprisingly, Arthur didn’t make any comment scoffing about how he didn’t worry about Merlin. He just kept looking at him with a strangely scrutinizing look on his face. 

 

“Right,” Arthur said finally, beginning to wash himself. “Of course.”

 

Merlin chafed under the tension that had spread between them, opting to splash Arthur with water to shake him out of whatever mood had befallen him. This, of course, left Arthur no choice but to retaliate and when the two boys finally emerged to head back to Hunith’s home, it was with smiles on their faces. 

 

 

Merlin lay next to Arthur on the floor, waiting to make sure the prince was actually asleep. They had forsaken lying head to foot as it was dumb and Merlin didn’t want Arthur’s feet in his face. Arthur looked so calm when he was asleep, all the tension wiped off his face in favor of peaceful sleep. Merlin watched as Arthur’s chest rose and fell softly, before picking himself up off the makeshift bed on the floor to make his way out the back door to where Hunith was sitting on a bench.

 

“Come,” she said, patting the spot next to her. “Sit.”

 

Merlin sat, and the two were quiet, watching the torchlight leaving patterns against the dirt ground. For some reason, Merlin felt the strongest urge to use the magic that ran so easily through his body, and he couldn’t squash it down. So he looked at the closest torch, and directed his magic into a shape forming in the fire, a shape of a dragon. 

 

Hunith gasped softly. “Merlin, you must be careful ,” she insisted, lightly whacking his arm. “What if someone were to see?”

 

Merlin sighed. “I’m tired of living in fear that someone might see.” And then it felt like a dam broke and he felt the words tumbling out of him. “Magic is who I am. It’s the most natural thing in the world to me, and I wish I didn’t have to live in fear of using it. Live in fear that the most basic part of who I am might condemn me to death.”

 

With another look at the torch, the dragon disappeared.

 

“That’s why I do all this,” he continued, turning to look at his mother. “All this sneaking around in Camelot. It’s for Arthur. Because I believe in the kingdom he will build one day as a fair and just king in which all people can live without shame as to who they are.” He laughed. “I never would have thought like this when I first entered Camelot. I thought he was a massive arse, ouch! Sorry, mum.” Merlin rubbed his arm lightly where Hunith whacked it, probably as a reprimand for calling the crown prince an arse.

 

“But, then I met this Dragon, which is I guess where this all started. He lived in caverns under the castle, put there by Uther. And he told me all this absolutely mad nonsense about prophecies and destinies and he said-”

 

“That you and Arthur are destined to build this new kingdom together,” Hunith finished. Merlin looked at her in surprise. She smiled at him. “Gaius has written me.”

 

“Oh.” Merlin swallowed, a new sense of guilt in him. “I’m sorry I haven’t told you a lot of what has happened, and a lot of what I’m about to say. I just didn’t want to worry you.”

 

“Oh, Merlin.” Hunith stroked Merlin’s hair out of his face. “You are the kindest, and best son I could ask for. But I would rather hear your troubles and worry than worry without knowing what is happening to you.”

 

Merlin nodded, his throat tight. “I really needed to come see you,” he said. “So many things have happened in the course of the last few weeks and I felt like I was drowning under the weight of it all. “And.” he swallowed. “And there is something you must know.”

 

Hunith frowned slightly. “What is it?”

 

“C-can I tell you the beginning of the story first,” Merlin spoke, stuttering on the first syllable.

 

“You can tell me anything.”

 

And so Merlin began the story of his so called destiny, and its intertwinement with Arthur’s. He told her everything that had passed since he had seen her last, about rogue sorcerers and trolls and the Witchfinder--at which Hunith had asked Merlin to stop so she could hold him for a minute and Merlin was not about to complain--and Freya and Morgause and everything until he got to Morgana’s betrayal.

 

“She was holding the curse on the castle,” Merlin began, his heart racing. “Morgause had given it to her for carrying, and everyone in the castle was succumbing to sleep and we couldn’t kill the soldiers except for with Excalibur and Arthur was risking his life. I couldn’t let him die Mum, I couldn’t. So I-” he choked, and pressed his hand to his mouth as the gravity of what he had done set in. 

 

“Shh, it’s okay,” Hunith whispered, stroking his hair. He shook his head fiercely.

 

“No, it’s not .” He drew in a shaky breath. “I poisoned her. She was my friend and I poisoned her.” His shoulders shook as tears flowed freely. “She looked at me and she knew, mum. She was so betrayed because I turned my back on her. I could have talked to her, convinced her to step back from Morgause but instead I poisoned her. And now she distrusts me and everyone and she’s gone with Morgause and I don’t know what will happen next.” Merlin was shaking. He was terrible. He was no better than any other evil sorcerer who had made an attempt on a life.

 

“No,” Hunith said firmly, taking Merlin’s face in her hands. “Merlin, you mustn't blame yourself.”

 

“I poisoned her,” he whispered, unable to meet his mother’s eyes. 

 

“To save an entire castle of people,” she responded. “You felt you had no choice, my heart. You did what you felt was right, and you made a hard decision that few would have been able to make. And you saved everyone in the process.”

 

“I’m a coward .” Merlin couldn’t stop crying. “I betrayed a friend, Mother. Maybe if I had been able to talk to her, introduce her to magic, she wouldn’t have listened to Morgause. Maybe she would have stayed. I should have helped her better.”

 

“No, Merlin.” Hunith wiped away his tears. “You gave her help from the Druids. You did what you thought was right, and you saved a castle full of people in the process.”

 

Merlin shook his head vehemently, squeezing his eyes shut. He couldn’t accept this. “No one but you and Gaius knows,” he whispered. “And I’m a coward because I can’t tell anyone else because they’ll think I’m evil and terrible and I can’t tell them I betrayed Morgana like that.”

 

“You are not a coward,” Hunith said, her tone leaving no room for argument, strangely mirroring the words Arthur had said earlier that day, Arthur who would rescind those words if he knew what Merlin had done. “Merlin, you are the bravest boy I have ever known. You are so young, and hold such a big destiny on his shoulders, and you have done all this without a word of thanks, without a word of help. Oh, my heart.” Her eyes glistened with tears that reflected Merlin’s own. “You have had to make decisions that no one your age should even be thinking, and you have saved so many people. You have saved Arthur and Camelot more times than he will ever know, and you risk your life everyday in Camelot in order to protect this future you believe in so much. My heart,” Hunith pressed her lips to Merlin’s forehead as he closed his eyes and let the warmth from his mother envelop him like a hug. “You have the brightest, kindest soul. Don’t ever doubt yourself.” 

 

Merlin rested his forehead against his mother’s shoulder, and took in a deep, shaky, breath to try and calm himself. “I love you mother,” he murmured. “I’m glad I came here.”

 

“As am I,” Hunith didn’t pull away, and neither did Merlin. “I’m so proud of you.” 

 

Merlin let the words settle in him, the contentedness of a parents approval, of how much he had missed his mother’s embrace. Of how long he had kept all this inside, unable to confide in anyone, and with one conversation his mother had eased some of his worries.

 

“There’s more,” Merlin began, pulling away. “After Morgana disappeared, I had made a promise to the Great Dragon. I had to set him free.” 

 

Hunith’s eyes widened a fraction. “The dragon attacks,” she trailed off, as Merlin nodded. 

 

“I promised, and I couldn’t go back on my promise,” he spoke, not wanting to tell her that he had sworn on her life. “I hadn’t expected him to wreak such havoc. I suppose I understand. He wanted to confront Uther, wanted to exact revenge. And if he had to burn through all of Camelot to get to him, he would. Uther never confronted him, of course. So he continued.”

 

Merlin searched his mother’s eyes for any disappointment, and was thankfully met with none. “But no one could defeat it. Even my magic couldn’t do anything. So Arthur and I set out, on Gaius’s instructions, to find someone who could.” He kept his eyes trained on Hunith’s face, waiting for the reaction. “The last Dragonlord.”

 

Hunith’s eyes widened even more, before her mouth thinned out, the emotion in her eyes urging Merlin to continue. 

 

“Before we left, Gaius told me something. Something important about the Dragonlord. That his name was  Balinor and he,” Merlin took Hunith’s hands in his own. “He’s my father.”

 

Hunith squeezed Merlin’s hand as her eyes shined even more. “Balinor,” she whispered, as if trying to speak his name into existence. “Oh, heart, I’m so sorry, I should have told you but he ran away one day without so much of a word and I didn’t know what to think. I didn’t know where he was, and it wasn’t until that day, only a few months after your birth, when you began to levitate objects that I knew his gifts had passed onto you.” Tears swelled in her eyes, and Merlin’s heart ached to see his mother look so upset. “I hated him for leaving.”

 

“I did too.” Merlin reminisced to his childhood filled with indignance that any father figure could just up and leave him and his mother. “But, he told me why. Uther had been rounding up the Dragonlords during the Great Purge, and he didn’t want to lead all of Camelot’s army to your door. So he left.” 

 

Hunith nodded, fingers pressed to her mouth. “Of course he did, the idiot ,” she murmured, a faraway look in her eyes.

 

Merlin recounted the struggles of trying to get Balinor to come with him and Arthur back to Camelot, Hunith smiling and offering comments about he always was rather stubborn. When he narrated how he told Balinor he was his son, Hunith grasped his hand tightly, looking at him intently. 

 

“He agreed to come with us, finally,” he spoke. “And we decided that after this was all over, after we had sent the dragon away, he and I would come to Ealdor so we could see you again.” 

 

Hunith smiled, before frowning. “But then…” she trailed off, and Merlin knew exactly what she was thinking. 

 

“We were attacked,” Merlin inhaled slowly. “And he, he sacrificed his life for me.” Hunith’s hands flew to her mouth as tears shone bright in them. “I know I should’ve done something, I should have saved him or protected him, and he didn’t deserve to die. But his life was slipping out of my hands and I felt like I couldn’t do anything.” His heart ached at seeing his mother with tears flowing down her face, shock decorating her features. “I’m sorry, mother, I know it’s all my fault-”

 

“No, Merlin,” Hunith shook her head. “This isn’t your fault. You must stop blaming yourself my boy. Your father knew all the promise of a great world you held in your destiny, and he knew that you were his son . Any father would do the same.” Hunith shook her head again. “No, Merlin. It’s not your fault.”

 

Merlin nodded, his eyes stinging with tears again. “I just miss him, mum.” His voice cracked. “I just got my father back, and then I lost him. I miss him.” 

 

The two sat in quiet then, grasping hands in companionship, mourning the loss of a one they both had loved so dearly. 

 

Hunith slowly took in a breath after their moment of silence, brushing Merlin’s hair out of his eyes. “Finish your story, heart.”

 

Merlin nodded, and began the tale of how they travelled back to Camelot without a Dragonlord, and how Arthur (“That idiot ,” Merlin exclaimed, and Hunith smiled at him knowingly) decided to face the Dragon knowing very well he would lose. He recounted how all the knights had been knocked out or injured one by one until only Merlin was left.

 

“And then I knew,” he began. “I could feel it. The lineage of the Dragonlord is passed down from father to son and looking at the Great Dragon I could almost hear Balinor telling me that it was me. That I was the next one. And so I sent the Dragon away with the promise for him never to return to Camelot. Of course, Arthur woke up soon after and I let him take the credit. And, well, that’s about it.” He chuckled nervously. Just talking all these things through with his mother had already lightened the weight off his shoulders. He felt more at peace than he had before, lighter than he had before, and he knew Hunith could tell by the way she smiled. 

 

“My boy, you’re so brave,” she spoke through her bright smile. “I-”

 

But Merlin never really did figure out what she was going to say next because a clatter from the entryway behind them drew his attention rapidly to Arthur standing guiltily with a broom laying next to his feet from where it had obviously fallen. Arthur .

 

Merlin just stared at Arthur, who was looking right back at him with an expression Merlin couldn’t decipher. But Merlin didn’t need to decipher it. Arthur had probably heard enough to condemn him to death on a pyre, enough to know he was a sorcerer, enough to know he had been keeping secrets since he stepped foot into Camelot. 

 

Hunith rested a hand on Merlin’s shoulder, grounding him to the moment even as his anxieties began to spiral and his heart began to pound in his chest, his blood rushing in his ears. Arthur still hadn’t said a word. 

 

“Merlin, I’m going to head to bed.” Hunith offered, her voice firm and steady enough for Merlin to pick up on it. “It’s late.”

 

She moved to enter the house, fixing Arthur with a look as she passed. Merlin didn’t move. 

 

Hunith disappeared into the darkness of the cottage, and Arthur and Merlin still remained, silence stretched between them. 

 

“Arthur,” Merlin began finally, swallowing the dryness in his throat. Maybe Arthur hadn’t heard everything. Maybe Merlin could get away from this close situation once again. “How much did you hear?”

 

“All of it,” Arthur responded, and Merlin only dimly heard Arthur’s claim that he hadn’t been sleeping because all he was aware of was his heart pounding. Oh god, this was it then? He had forced Arthur into a choice he never wanted him to make, not that it would be a choice really. Of course Arthur would choose his father’s way, march him right back to Camelot to put him in a dungeon and let him burn. He had to get away, he couldn’t fulfill his destiny if he was dead. Oh god.

 

“Merlin! Merlin!” Arthur shook him, and Merlin flinched back as Arthur’s voice broke through his thoughts. He looked at Arthur, who was gently grasping Merlin’s arms, his eyes filled with concern Merlin was not expecting to see. “Please calm down.”

 

“Calm down?” Merlin shook his head and laughed humorlessly. “Aren’t you going to have me executed? I’m a sorcerer in Camelot. I basically signed my death warrant by arriving in the city. And Arthur I’ve lied to you for so long, you don’t know how sorry I am, but I suppose that doesn’t matter considering that I’m a sorcerer and you probably don’t trust anything I say-”

 

“Merlin!” Arthur exclaimed loudly again, drawing Merlin’s attention once again to his bright blue eyes, and the surprising slightly smile on his face. “Stop rambling. I knew about the magic.”

 

He what?

 

“You what,” Merlin spoke, and then frowned. “Could you repeat that? I think I heard you wrong.”

 

“You heard me just fine, idiot,” Arthur seated himself on the bench besides Merlin. “I already knew you were a sorcerer.”

 

Merlin’s throat felt dry. “Since when?”

 

“Since the dragon attack,” Arthur confessed. “I was only knocked out for a little bit. I came to and there was quite a bit of ringing in my ears and I was decidedly out of it, but I also knew that you were talking to the dragon. I caught someone mention a Dragonlord, and then I saw you levitate the weapon. And then you let the dragon go. That’s when I knew. And,” Arthur’s features frowned in confusion, “you never once sought a word of thanks. You just let me believe I had killed it when I knew that wasn’t true.”

 

Merlin stared off into the forest bordering Ealdor. “Then why am I still alive?” he asked hoarsely, unable to look at Arthur who still kept a soft grip on his arm, as if preventing him from running away. “Don’t you think I’m evil?”

 

Arthur laughed at that, and Merlin looked at him incredulously. How on earth was Arthur finding humor in this situation? “Merlin, you cry over unicorns. You hate going on hunts because you think that killing animals is dumb. You talk to my horses when you groom them. You would do anything for Gaius or Gwen or even me. I know you, Merlin. You could never hurt someone in cold blood.” 

 

Merlin just stared at the prince in amazement. In all the scenarios he had imagined revealing his magic to Arthur, they typically ended with burning. Or drowning. Or some other undesirable scenario. None of the possibilities had encompassed Arthur looking at him with eyes full of wonder rather than hate, softness rather than cruelty. 

 

Then he frowned. “Wait. Why didn’t you tell me you knew?”

 

Arthur shrugged. “I wanted you to come to me. I wanted you to trust me. And, at first, I was kind of hurt. Kind of reeling from the realization that you were a sorcerer and more importantly, you had never told me.”

 

“I couldn’t-” Merlin began, but Arthur waved him off.


“I understand why you didn’t. But I had to take a couple of days to come to that understanding myself. And then, I wanted you to feel as though you could trust me completely before you told me.” Arthur scoffed. “I guess I kind of botched that up.”

 

“Are you admitting you messed up?” Merlin asked, smiling a little as the gravity of the situation began to fade.

 

Arthur shoved him gently, smiling too. “Of course not. But I will admit, all this bit about destiny and you being the most powerful sorcerer to walk this land was news to me.” 

 

Merlin shrugged slightly, grinning sheepishly. “I hid it pretty well.”

 

Arthur scoffed. “Please. You may be some figurehead for magicians or whatever, but you’re still Merlin . You trip over your feet three times a day. Not exactly very awe-inspiring.”

 

“If you knew how many times I saved your royal arse you wouldn’t be so condescending,” Merlin pointed out, and Arthur surprisingly grew serious at that. 

 

“And I wish I had known.” He rested his hand on Merlin’s shoulder. “You’ve done so much for me. All without expecting anything, without a word of praise, and yet you’ve still stood by my side and done it. Merlin, I really, really owe you a thank you. So, thank you, Merlin. For everything.”

 

Merlin swallowed, unexpectedly feeling a tightness in his throat. Oh dear. He was going to cry again. The gratitude in Arthur’s voice, the warmth, the way he wasn’t being marched to a pyre, was more than he could ever have expected. 

 

“Yeah, well, you’re welcome,” his voice broke as he tried to maintain a steady tone of sarcasm. “Wasn’t easy work, you know.”

 

“Oh come here,” Arthur sighed, pulling Merlin into a tight hug.  Merlin froze, unable to comprehend the fact that Arthur Pendragon was embracing him, before relaxing and grasping the back of Arthur’s shirt. “And I’m sorry about Balinor,” Arthur whispered into his ear. “I didn’t know.”

 

Merlin smiled into Arthur’s shoulder. “Well, I didn’t tell you.”

 

“I wish you did. And I’m sorry about Morgana too. I didn’t know she had betrayed us, that you had to carry that decision and knowledge.” 

 

Merlin exhaled, resting his head against Arthur’s shirt. Arthur was warm, he was always warm, and Merlin was grateful for the comforting feeling, grateful that Arthur hadn’t pulled away yet. “I wish I could have told you. And I’m sorry too. Morgana was close to us all. She was like a sister to you.”

 

“Yes.” Arthur sounded sad, understandably. “I don’t want to believe it. I-” his voice choked up. “She’s Morgana . How did this happen?”

 

They were quiet before Merlin spoke again. “I get nightmares, usually. About that day.” He wasn’t sure why he told Arthur, but it felt right. And Arthur simply held him tighter as Merlin’s heart beat wildly in his chest. 

 

“I wish I knew,” he whispered, his breath tickling Merlin’s ear. “I wish you didn’t think you had to bear this burden by yourself.”

 

Arthur finally pulled back, his hand still loosely resting on the small of Merlin’s back. “I trust you,” he said, sounding as though he was choosing his words carefully. “For some reason, ever since you were made my servant, I’ve not been able to help but to trust you. And I still do, but I wish there to be no more secrets between us.” He cleared his throat, his face flushing suspiciously red with what Merlin suspected was more than the glow of the torches. “I, er, well I suppose I care about you.”

 

“You suppose?” Merlin teased, unable to help himself even as he felt his ears warm. 

 

“Well. I guess I do care about you.”

 

“You guess?”

 

“Merlin I know it’s unusual for you but could you please keep your mouth shut for one minute so I can say something?” Arthur drawled, and Merlin grinned though he was really, very nervous. 

 

“Sorry, Sire.”

 

“Right. Well.” Arthur cleared his throat. “I care about you. Definitely more than one should care for a servant, and also more,” Arthur paused, taking Merlin’s hand in his, “more than one would care for a friend.”

 

Oh. Merlin could hear his heart in his ears again, but for a very different reason. 

 

“Is this really happening,” he wondered aloud, thinking for a second that maybe this was all some dream. Arthur pinched his arm and Merlin realized that this was in fact not a dream, as that hurt far too much. 

 

Arthur gave Merlin a look before he continued. “I cared for you before I knew about your magic and I cared for you the same once I learned of it. Maybe even more so, as I feel as though I know you better than I ever had before. And, I can’t lose that.

 

“I’ve grown to depend on your presence, on your support and your advice. I’ve grown to miss your insubordination when you’re not around, and sometimes all I can think about is you to the point where it drives me crazy.” Arthur took Merlin’s other hand. “I was scared you would go to Ealdor and you wouldn’t come back. And I don’t know what I would have done if you hadn't come back.”

 

Merlin swallowed. “Probably struggle to perform basic tasks,” he suggested lightly. 

 

“Probably,” Arthur conceded, and Merlin supposed that must have been a testament to how serious Arthur was about this that he didn’t argue. 

 

“I care a lot about you too,” Merlin managed. “For a while. At first it was kind of an obligation, something about destiny. And then I realized that this is so much more than some prophecy by some old magicians. You’re my world, Arthur. I don’t save you just for the good of Camelot, I save you because I don’t want to live in a world without you in it.” 

 

He sighed as the reality of the situation brought him down from his high. “But you’re to be king. You can hardly be known to be consorting with a man, let alone a servant, let alone a sorcerer. We can’t do this.”

 

Arthur was staring at Merlin and Merlin stared back. “Merlin, you idiot,” Arthur drawled as he leaned in, his breath fanning against Merlin’s lips. “If I’m to be king, then I can do whatever I would like.” And then he closed the gap, and pressed his lips to Merlin’s. 

 

Merlin just about died. He could feel his heart all throughout his body, he could feel Arthur pressed up against him, he could feel…

 

Happiness. 

 

He tangled his fingers in Arthur’s hair, feeling energy and magic racing through his skin, responding to the spike in emotion. His magic hummed happily through his veins as he leaned into Arthur, reveling in the fact that something he thought was out of his reach was now his

 

Arthur pulled back, and Merlin fluttered his eyes open to see Arthur looking at him in awe. “You’re glowing,” he spoke softly, and Merlin was very out of it as he just smiled in a daze, and nodded, not really registering Arthur’s words. 

 

“No, Merlin, you’re literally glowing.” Arthur gestured to the warlock, and Merlin looked down at himself to see that he was in fact, surrounded by a golden aura. 

 

He cursed, quickly putting a damper on the magic that had grown too accustomed to acting freely. The glow faded, and he looked sheepishly at Arthur. “Sorry,” he offered. “I didn’t mean to freak you out.”

 

Arthur shook his head, still looking at Merlin with the awestruck look on his face. “No. It’s,” Arthur barked out a laugh, out of such sheer excitement that Merlin felt himself grinning again. “Wow.”

 

“Mm, there’s a reason I write all your speeches.”

 

“Oh, shut up.” And Arthur pulled Merlin into another kiss and Merlin melted against him. They pulled away again, and Merlin pretended to think hard.

 

“I’d say this is a moderately effective way to shut me up,” he commented, and Arthur flicked his forehead. 

 

“If it’s moderate I won’t do it anymore,” he threatened, and Merlin couldn’t very well have that. So this time he leaned in, letting his lips touch Arthur’s as all the walls he thought that stood between them fell away. 

 

This time when they broke away, Arthur held Merlin’s eyes. “I’m glad I know the real you,” he murmured. 

 

Merlin couldn’t help the smile that stretched across his face even as tears of happiness or relief or something pricked his eyes. “Me too.” 

 

From over Arthur’s shoulder, Merlin caught sight of his mother standing in the doorway, her hand over her heart and a smile on her face. 

 

Arthur turned, seeing Merlin’s line of vision, and seemed to become quite embarrassed to see Hunith standing there. “Oh, er, Hunith!” he stood up hastily. “I-”

 

“Oh, Arthur, it’s quite alright,” she responded, crossing the threshold over to the two boys, where she placed a hand on Arthur’s arm. “Thank you for being so good to my son.”

 

Mother .” Merlin wasn’t sure he had ever been so embarrassed.

 

“I think I should thank him for being so good to me,” was all Arthur said, before offering his arm to Hunith. “We should get in, it’s quite late and I know Merlin here is quite displeasing to be around if he doesn’t get enough sleep.”

 

Merlin made sure he was making a face when Arthur turned around to grin at him. But the face fell as he watched Arthur escort his mother into their house, instead a feeling of warmth spreading through him. It was definitely a good thing Arthur came with him to Ealdor, he decided, following them into the house.

 

Definitely a good thing , he thought as Arthur slung his arm over Merlin’s torso as they laid down to sleep.

 

A good thing , he finally settled on as he fell into sleep with the warmth of Arthur on his right and the warmth of contentment all throughout him.

 

 

Merlin slung his bags over his horse, patting its neck before turning back to the house. He was just in time to see Arthur talk to Hunith, before she pulled him into a tight hug. Merlin felt his chest tighten at the way this image felt and looked so right. 

 

Arthur waved another goodbye to Hunith as he began to walk to Merlin, but before he made it very far he was ambushed with cries of “Arthur!” and the assault of several young children who rapidly attached themselves to the prince’s legs.

 

Merlin laughed openly as Arthur fell over, only for Arthur to laugh in return as the kids crawled over him. In the distraction, Hunith came up to Merlin.

 

“Goodbye, dear,” she spoke, resting her hand against Merlin’s cheek. “Please be careful.”

 

“I’ll try,” he promised. “And I’ll write more.”

 

“Good.” Hunith patted his cheek. “And be nice to Arthur, alright dear?”

 

“Oh god.” Merlin groaned. “It’s only been a few days and he’s taken over as your favorite.” Hunith responded with a slight laugh, as they both turned to watch Arthur bowing goodbye to each of the Ealdor children.

 

“He’s pure of heart,” Hunith mused. “He’s good for you.”

 

“Yeah,” Merlin felt his ears redden as Arthur and him locked eyes. “He is.”

 

Arthur finally made it to the horses, and grabbed the reins. “We best be off then, Hunith,” he spoke, untying his horse from the post. “Merlin here has a lot of work to get caught up on.”

 

“Not if I don’t do it,” Merlin grumbled, allowing Arthur to press a gentle kiss to the top of his head nonetheless. Arthur moved off, directing his horse, and Merlin pulled his mother into a hug.

 

“I’ll miss you.” He really would. His mother had been the steadiest presence in his life for as long as he could remember. The moments he visited Ealdor were treasured, though he knew he couldn’t stay. 

 

“And I you.” Hunith smiled up at him. “But somehow I don’t think you shall feel quite so alone anymore,” she finished with a meaningful look at where Arthur had mounted his horse and was waiting for Merlin.

 

“Me neither.” With one last hug, Merlin swung his leg over his horse and trotted over to where Arthur was waiting expectantly. He turned around, and raised his hand in farewell, taking in the last glance of his mother.

 

“I suppose we should head back,” he sounded, finally directing his horse towards the forest, East towards Camelot. 

 

Arthur made an assenting noise. “After all, the castle isn’t going to rebuild itself.”

 

Merlin frowned. “Like you even help build it.”

 

“And the castle has my room,” Arthur suggested, his tone growing lower. “And a bed.”

 

“Arthur!” Merlin felt his face flush. “You can’t say things like that.”

 

“No?” Arthur smiled, and Merlin felt his face grow warmer. 

 

“No.”

 

Arthur sighed dejectedly, and Merlin magicked small pebble to fly over and hit his arm. The prince looked at him in betrayal. “Ouch.”

 

“You were asking for it,” Merlin responded with satisfaction. 

 

Arthur just laughed, amazement lacing his tone. “I can’t believe this is real.”

 

“Nor can I.” And it was the truth. This all still felt like a dream to Merlin, as though he was wavering on the brink of something that felt solid enough, but could fall away in a second. Well, he may as well enjoy it while it was here.

 

“I want to make you a promise, Merlin,” Arthur sounded out, his face falling serious. Merlin raised his eyebrows as Arthur glanced at him and then cleared his throat. “I want to promise you that one day, once I am king, I will change the laws. I will make it so that you or your people don’t have to hide in fear of execution over a simple matter of who you are. It’s not right. And I can’t be a good king if I allow these prejudiced laws to stand.” 

 

Merlin could scarcely believe his ears. “Arthur,” he whispered, looking at this boy who he loved so much, highlighted in gold by the light of the rising sun, a sense of determination in his features. “Thank you.” Those words weren’t enough, but Merlin wasn’t sure anything would be enough for this promise, this grand gesture. “This means more than I can say.”

 

“Well, you mean more to me that I can say,” Arthur said, his voice gruff. “Just, promise me one thing.”

 

“No, I won’t clean your chambers forever,” Merlin responded, pleased to see Arthur roll his eyes. 

 

“Not what I was going to ask.” Arthur glanced over at Merlin. “I want to know everything. All your stories about your magic, all you’ve done to help me or Camelot, everything.”

 

Merlin felt a small smile grow as he searched Arthur’s eyes and only found anticipation, and eagerness to learn. “Well, it’s going to be a long story.”

 

“It’s a long journey,” Arthur offered. “You can start now.”

 

Merlin bowed his head in assent, and without much hesitation launched into a tale about a country boy who arrived in Camelot, witnessed an execution, got on the wrong side of the prince multiple times, met a dragon, and saved the royal family all in the span of a week. As Merlin narrated, he found his eyes tracing Arthur’s face.

 

Yes , he thought. This is a good thing .

 

A good thing that felt a whole lot like home.