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The Swan Prince

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Once upon a time there was a King and Queen named Balinor and Hunith who ruled the small but mighty kingdom of Repisoul.

It was a place of magic and peace. But, not everything was well. Because as the years had gone on, there had yet to be a child to one day take the throne.

The monarchs begged magic itself to give them a baby. In return, they left fine gifts of gold and herbs and oils and prayed every night for a year.

Finally, on the 366th day of prayers to the gods and goddesses of nature and magic, Hunith knew herself to be with child. It was an easy pregnancy and then there was he was. A prince. And he was given the name of Emrys.

Kings, Queens and nobles alike came from all across the continent to offer their gifts to the new born heir. Among them was the widower King Uther and his young son, Prince Arthur.

Queen Igraine had died in childbirth not even four years past. It was no secret that they, like Hunith and Balinor, had also asked magic to give them a child. But, rather than ask through devotion and patience, the queen and king of Camelot had tried to get everything, without giving anything. Perhaps it was this that led to Igraine’s death. Or maybe it was merely the way that nature sometimes worked; without mercy.

Before her death, Igraine had made Uther swear that he would not take revenge on the ones who had magic. She knew her husband could be quick to anger and slow to forgive, prone to vengeful thoughts. And it was only her dying wish that kept from him shutting down entirely. Instead, he focused all his despair on the herculean task of raising his son. Even now Uther had an uneasy relationship with magic and the ones who used it, but he knew enough that magic, like nature, could not be contained or truly controlled. It did not stop him from unwittingly passing quick and harsh judgments when faced with someone who used magic in crimes or who used it carelessly. Magic itself felt like an unfortunate truth; a relative that you did not like or had anything in common with, but whom you must suffer and tolerate. It didn’t stop him from bad mouthing magic users and unwittingly passing along a kind of second-hand bigotry to his son who saw his father’s scorn, his temper and internalized it, idolizing his father like most sons did for a while. Wanting his approval.

But, perhaps it was enough that he’d remained allies with the monarchs of Repisoul, not swaying from their long friendship. To do so not only would be catastrophic for his kingdom but, for his soul as well. So, upon hearing the news of the birth of the new prince, he’d felt bittersweet joy for his long time allies.

Camelot came to see the child, on white steeds with gifts in tow, Prince Arthur squirming atop the horse in front of his father and into the great gleaming castle walls. The Court Physician and trusted advisor, Gaius watched with muted amusement as Arthur was lowered to the ground and immediately began to run around until he could be wrangled back in by his nursemaid.

It was only a short wait before they could see the new babe, swaddled in an intricately carved bassinet and draped with fine fabrics. Uther gently pushed his son towards it.

The golden child of Camelot stared down into the bassinet, eyes wide with awe. He had never seen a human so tiny before. The baby was perfect, with round, soft cheeks and a mess of curly black hair. Big blue eyes stared back up into his own. Arthur grinned and the baby laughed in reply, reaching out with chubby fingers. Arthur carefully took them in his own, like they might be made of glass. Emrys’ eyes flashed gold, and soon flowers were growing up the prince’s arm.

The parents (and Gaius) all stiffened, unsure how the young prince would react as magic was much rarer in Camelot. Arthur’s eyes grew even wider and he let out a loud shout of surprise. It startled Emrys who began to cry. The prince gasped and began to pet the baby’s head like he would a pup, making shushing noises and apologizing. Sure enough, it worked, with Emrys staring once again at the prince with wide watery eyes.

Uther made eye contact with Balinor and Hunith and knew that they all had the same idea. Their kingdoms were great allies. There had always been a strong friendship between them, wonderful trading and intermingling of their people. But, perhaps they could one day make it binding beyond paper. A true joining of their lands.

Later, over a fine feast it was decided that Arthur and Emrys would be brought together each summer in hopes that they would fall in love and join their kingdoms forever.

Unknown to all, another plan was being put into place.

That of King Cenred of Essetir, who had just come into his monarchy after the convenient death of his father. He was a cruel king who never seemed to be happy with what he had, always reaching for more. Taking and taking from his own people until many lived in poverty. He had rooms full of gold and rich feasts, servants who waited on him hand and foot and yet it was not enough.

For the young, arrogant king also desired magic. But, Cenred had no natural power of his own. And he did not have the patience to spend years attempting to learn. Instead he tortured an elderly sorcerer into creating several collars. Enchanted metal that would seal up a person’s magic. And inscribed with Cenred’s name in druidic runes that made the wearer do his bidding. It was far too easy then to capture the mighty high priestess, Morgause. From then on, as much as she might despise her master, she was at his mercy and under his command.

Still not satisfied, King Cenred wanted the place where magic was rumored to be born. Where a rich and prosperous kingdom flourished. The Kingdom of Repisoul. With an army and a great sorceress under his command, Cenred was confident he could take the kingdom with ease. The power such a place would grant him, both magical and strategic, he could take over ANY kingdom. He could become High King of all of Albion.

And indeed he sliced through the kingdom of Repisoul with dark magic, stormed their gates, slayed knights and peasants alike. It was King Balinor that drove Cenred back, bought enough time for the armies of their allies to arrive and defend their kingdom. To defend his queen and child. It was also King Balinor who succumbed to a mortal wound, not long after Cenred was captured.

People from both kingdoms, his own and Repisoul, called for Cenred’s death. But, it was Queen Hunith who saw that Cenred would rather die, die than live a disgraced fallen monarch who had nothing. So, she banished him, unaware of the sorceress who remained hidden in wait for the hated call of her master. She sent him away from civilization and claimed his kingdom for her own.

Before he disappeared into the forest, he cried out, “I am not done. One day I will be back. And when I return, everything you own, everything you love will be mine.”

And though people feared their queen to be too kind, they also rejoiced under her rule, even as she hid away to weep over the loss of her husband. Hunith held her son to her chest and vowed to protect him or die trying. The people mourned for King Balinor, all the way to Camelot.

But, as the years went by and the seasons changed from Winter to Spring...hopes turned towards the Summer, when Princes Emrys and Arthur would meet again. 


 

 

The horses pulled to a halt in front of the beautiful castle at the center of Camelot.

A knight came forward and helped Queen Hunith and young Emrys who had been riding in front of her, down to the ground. King Uther stepped forward with a welcoming smile, reaching out to hold her hand in his own.

“Queen Hunith, you are as lovely as ever.” The queen returned the friendly smile, inclining her head in the respectful nod between fellow monarchs.

She squeezed his hand gently. “And you as well, Uther. Camelot is as beautiful as I remember it.”

They spoke briefly of the ride, while their children shuffled and twitched impatiently behind their legs. Finally, after what seemed like a thousand years to the tiny princes, Hunith directed her attention to the other member of royalty waiting to greet them.

“And who might this strapping young man be?” Prince Arthur stood up straight and proud. “Why, it must be young Prince Arthur, no doubt.”

Uther smiled benevolently, “Welcome to our fair kingdom, dear Hunith. And to you as well, Prince Emrys. Go on, Arthur,” He gently pushed his son forward. “Go on.”

Looking none too pleased, Arthur shuffled towards their guests. “Your majesty.” He barely had to bend over to kiss Hunith’s hand. She smiled at him, quite pleased. “Thank you for coming.” And then he turned to the other prince. “Hello, prince Emrys. I am very pleased to meet you.” He held his hand out and the two of them clasped arms, while eyeing each other. “I am glad you have come.”

Emrys was thin, but face round with youth. Fair skin and a mess of curly black hair. The main thing Arthur noticed was his eyes that seemed to take up his whole face, wide and guileless. It made him seem rather dim and naive. And those ears! They were huge!

“Pleased to meet you as well, Prince Arthur.  I am happy to be here.” The words sounded rehearsed and stilted, like he was unsure if he truly meant them. Emrys couldn’t help but notice Arthur’s golden hair that shone brightly in the sun. But also the way his mouth twisted, obviously not actually pleased in any way, shape or form to meet him. Kind of like he was sucking on a lemon. 

Their parents on the other hand seemed incredibly pleased and smiled at each other before beginning to walk up the castle stairs, obviously expecting them to follow. The two leaders began to discuss the boring adult things that neither royal child much cared for yet. Instead, Arthur turned to his guest and tried to salvage as much as he could from what might be a very long summer. The other prince was looking everywhere, big eyes taking in the castle’s structure, comparing it to his own when he was interrupted by the other prince’s loud voice.

“Do you like to hunt?”

Emrys’ face twisted into a grimace. “No way. I don’t need to hunt. I have enough to eat.”

Arthur’s eyes widened. “But what about when it’s for fun?”

Those big blue eyes narrowed. “What is fun about killing animals?” For Emrys could hear the voices of the wild creatures of the forests and rivers if he listened hard and long enough.

Arthur scowled, crossing his arms. “It just is.” He looked away from his guest, feeling his stomach sink but he tried yet again. “What about sparring?”

Emrys’ eyebrows furrowed. “Sparring?”

Arthur straightened, voice lifting with enthusiasm. “You know, fighting? Wrestling? Boxing? Dueling?”

The other boy’s face twisted up into another exaggerated expression of distaste. “What is the fun in that?”

Arthur threw his hands up. “I don’t know. It just is!” He was already losing patience with this whole thing.

I can’t believe I’m stuck with him all summer, he thought to himself.

Emrys eyed the other prince, wondering what kind of boy would enjoy such violent activities.

He looks so conceited and spoiled, he thought to himself.

They simultaneously thought, If I’m lucky, I’ll get chicken pox.

That set the tone for the rest of the summer. And many of the summers afterwards.

Every day they found something else to dislike about the other. Arthur shoved Emrys once and then it was like a dam had been broken. They pushed and pulled. Bickered and screamed. It seemed as though they had nothing in common, nothing but how much they disliked each other and dreaded each morning when they would be forcibly put together for much of the day.

Arthur learned how to torture his fellow prince with the killing of insects, showing off the carcasses of his hunted prey, shoving them into his guest’s face. He would yank on Emrys’ ears, and run away laughing before the other could reciprocate. But, of course, Emrys had something Arthur didn’t; magic. And though he’d been told not to on many occasions, he used it to trip the prince up, to turn his hair bright colors, to make him move like he was walking through thick mud. Arthur would then curse magic and magic users, which only made Emrys more wary and angry with him.

Thinking it to be nothing but childhood mischief, the monarchs shared meals and talked about how pleased they were. “The children seem to get along quite nicely.” Uther declared, taking a sip of wine. “And I’m sure it will only get better with time.” He said nothing of his faint reservations about Emrys’ magical ways. The benefits far outweighed the problems such an ability caused. Plus, Emrys was of a noble breed and therefore would be trained heavily in how to control his powers unlike the common riff raff.

Hunith hummed in agreement. “Our kingdoms will become one in no time at all.”

“So, we are in agreement?” Uther asked, wishing to make it official.

“Of course!” She smiled. “They will make a lovely couple one day. They test each other, challenge one another. But, I know they’ll find things in common as well. And the kingdom their union will create will flourish with them as its rulers.” The two monarchs clinked their goblets together. “To our children and the future of our kingdom.”

The next few summers were full of the same bickering between the children, the same naive hope between rulers.

Arthur ran quickly through the grassy field, followed closely behind by his friend, Kay.

And even further behind by Emrys who shouted incomprehensible words at them. It sounded a lot like ‘wait up!’

Arthur laughed breathlessly and Kay laughed in reply. The two of them reached their destination, a ramshackle treehouse, built by a combination of their own imagination and the knight’s magnanimousness (Also Uther’s command). They quickly climbed the rope ladder before, hurriedly pulling it up into the safety of their base just as Emrys reached the bottom of the tree. They peeked out of their window, grinning down at the prince’s put out expression.

“Take a hint, Ear-mrys!” Arthur shouted. “We don’t want you around!”

Emrys stomped his foot, crossing his arms over his chest to try and hide his heaving breath. “It’s not like I’m a big fan of your stupid face either!”

“Then go away!” Kay called down.

Arthur nudged his friend, “Yeah! No girls allowed! Especially, not ones with magic!”

Emrys scowled at that. “That’s so dumb. You’re dumb. This isn’t nice or fair.”

The two boys in the tree exchanged a look of satisfaction. Arthur shrugged dramatically. “So what? Are you going to cry about it, Em?”

Emrys’ glare could literally light fires. But, instead he kicked the tree’s trunk, shaking with rage. The magic within him jumped to his defense, shaking the entire tree, pulling nails from planks and breaking branches until the entire treehouse fell apart. All three kids yelled as they were buried in the debris.

That fateful third summer ended with several broken bones, bruises and splinters that Gaius patched up, scolding them harshly all the while. Everyone was grounded and no one was happy. Many apologies were said under duress. 


 

With each turning of the seasons, the young princes grew and changed.

Arthur began to truly study everything he would need to be king one day, reading books about history, geography, strategy, diplomacy...he even found time to read books of poetry between training to be a knight and found he quite liked it, even as he kept that fact hidden. Emrys spent more and more time practicing his magic, outside in nature. He had tutors from all around the world come to give him lessons. He also found he quite enjoyed falconry, speaking and training with the birds more than the actual hunting itself.

It was Arthur who upon visiting Repisoul for their fourth summer together began to call him Merlin.

Arthur stepped into the avian house, hearing the Emrys' voice as he spoke softly to the hunting birds around him.

“Just tilt your head that way, please.” Pause. “Thank you. That looks wonderful.”

Arthur noted the way the black feathered falcon seemed to preen at the warlock’s compliment. Emrys’ head was bent, shoulders hunched over a sketchbook, hand flying across the parchment as he drew. “I’ve been looking for you for hours, Em,” Arthur complained. Emrys’ head shot up, and his expression changed from wide eyed surprise to annoyed once he registered who it was. “Of course I find you here, talking to birds.”

“So sorry to inconvenience you, your royal pratliness.” Arthur merely rolled his eyes and leaned over obnoxiously into the other’s space to get a look at what he’d been drawing. It was quite good. Not that he’d ever say such a thing. “What is that? A self portrait?”

Emrys scoffed. “No. It’s the bird.” He gestured at the merlin. Arthur squinted at it, looking back and forth between the parchment and its real life counterpart. Then back up at Emrys. They had the same dark black ‘feathers’ that seemed to always be sticking out everywhere. The same eyes that were always watching, observing and judging. The bird took that moment to cry out, loud and obnoxious so close to his ear and Arthur jerked away. Emrys hardly even blinked. But, he was also rather loud and obnoxious, wasn’t he?

Arthur rubbed his chin, thoughtfully. “I don't know. I’d have to say it looks a lot like you,” he grinned. “Merlin.”

Emrys raised an eyebrow. “It is a merlin.”

Arthur stood and put a hand out to help the other prince to his feet. “Whatever. We’re off to do whatever boring thing my father wishes us to do.” Emrys glowered up at him. Arthur wiggled his fingers. “Come on, Merlin.” With a sigh, he slipped his hand into Arthur’s and let himself be pulled upwards.

Perhaps it was meant to be mean at first as so many of his other ‘nicknames’ but, unlike so many of the other names Emrys never tried to stop it. And so it was that those closest to the young prince called him Merlin.

His mother of course was one who did for she was the one he went to when he was afraid or lonely. She laughed easily despite the burden of the crown alone on her head, caressing his cheek and kissing his forehead. “My darling, my Merlin.”

But, also his best friend Guinevere, who he had also grown up with, running around with her and reading books together during every season that wasn’t summer. She'd taught him to sew, how to climb trees, took him to the best places to swim. She would laugh and hold his hand and spin him around, put flowers in his hair. Encourage him when he was unsure. “Come on, Merlin. You know you can do it. You’ve done it before.” She would say and she was always right.

The noble lady Morgana, Arthur’s cousin, became a confidant who he wrote letters back and forth over the years. And when he visited Camelot, the two of them would do magic together. Exchanging secrets and tips, “No, no. Like THIS, Merlin.” Morgana called, twisting her hands over his.

He found he also loved to speak with the Princesses Mithian and Elena, who were clever and unconventional.

“Dear Merlin, how fares your kingdom? I did so love it when I visited.”

“Is it true that the horses in Repisoul are faster than Camelot’s? Will you let me ride one, Merlin, please?”

He was close with several of his knights like Gwaine, Lancelot and Gwen’s brother, Elyan. Enough to call them friends. And enough for them to call him by his nickname. Gaius, Camelot’s court physician, had taught him much about healing and always offered someplace safe from Arthur’s tormenting. He often considered Gaius to be something of an uncle and they exchanged long letters the rest of the year they were apart. The old man usually only used ‘Emrys’ when he’d done something wrong to be lectured about. Even Will, the stable master’s son had become a close confidant in his life.

And Arthur, of course. 

But, for the most part he found joy and comfort among women (not in a romantic or sexual way). He loved how they talked, their jokes and laughter, their creativity and solutions to ideas that would have stumped the men he knew. They helped him be truer to himself. Let him try their clothes, makeup and jewelry until he found the things he liked.

It was perhaps for this reason that when he visited Camelot the year he turned seventeen, Arthur gawped at him like he had grown a second head.

Merlin looked very different from the summer before. Where he’d been stuffed into uncomfortable doublets, self conscious and hunched over, all long limbs and clumsiness.

Now, he sat upon his horse with a posture of pride. With dangling earrings in the lobes of his large ears, he wore flowing robes and a circlet of silver that had once been his mother’s. Merlin's lips had been darkened with rouge and faint shadow painted over his eyelids. He dismounted with help from Arthur who continued to stare at him with some unnameable emotion.

They did the normal pleasantries, the welcomes and how-do-you-dos, all while Arthur thought, ignoring the elephant in the room of Merlin looking like THAT. He’d grown taller, broader, with a distinct lack of pimples or other common teenage problems.

It was just...unfair, was what it was.

Arthur had also grown taller and broader. He’d gained calluses from swords and crossbows. Had learned patience from the long hours of sitting in on council meetings and the despair of seeing his people in pain as they came forward to beg for his father’s assistance.

But despite all these changes, it still turned out to be a rather similar summer to the ones that had come before it. With plenty of arguing and annoyance to go around. Of course now, rather than running around through the fields, throwing mud and playing pranks, they spent their time on other pursuits. When not discussing their kingdoms or the relationships between the two, they were often reading, doing school work. Arthur still training to be a knight. Merlin still learning magic. Arthur made fun of Merlin for such efforts, calling him degrading names, with a barely hidden condescension for his gifts. He was blissfully unaware of how his words affected Merlin, assuming it to be just another form of their rivalry. Emrys fought back by claiming knightly callings to be for the thick and dimwitted.

When not doing things that were seen as vital to learning to rule a kingdom one day, they were still not so conspicuously shoved together. Always a step away from being literally locked into rooms with one another. With a lackof anything better to do, Arthur challenged Merlin to every kind of game he had; chess, checkers, cards.

Merlin laid his hand across the wooden table. “I think I’ve won again.”

Arthur only had to glance at the cards to see that yes, yes he had. For the 36th time.

Arthur grabbed the card deck and tossed it across the room. He then proceeded to feel very much like an idiot as they merely fluttered to the ground in a mess he knew he’d have to pick up himself.

Merlin sat across the table from him, looking very unimpressed. “Well done, clotpole.”

Kay snickered from the corner of the room. Arthur just put his head in his hands.

Another thing that was different was,

“He keeps flirting with them!” Arthur hissed, as he hid behind the stone corner, glowering at the sight before him. Merlin, dressed in resplendent purple, jewels in his ears and silver at his throat, kohl lined eyes lowered as he laughed at something the guard was saying. Arthur didn’t even remember the name of the guy. He was fairly new and not that good looking.

Kay yawned pointedly. “We’ve been standing here for nearly 30 minutes, Arthur. He's just talking to the guy. Calm down.”

Arthur tore his eyes away from Merlin’s long fingers as they touched the guard’s chest, to glare at his friend. “Are you kidding me? He is obviously flirting.”

Kay shrugged. “So what if he is? I thought you didn’t even like him.”

Arthur’s shoulders hunched up around his ears. “I don't!” He swallowed. “But… we’ve always… they’ve always said that we’re going to get married one day. If he’s supposed to be my husband why is he doing...doing that?”

Kay raised an auburn eyebrow. “And you've always said that it would never happen. That you’d rather die than marry Merlin.”

Arthur’s face turned a rather nasty shade of red and purple. “I was a kid. What if...what if we do get married? My father really wants it to happen. It would be very beneficial to our kingdoms...I just,” He sighed. “I don’t know. I don’t know anything.” He turned back to look at what was absolutely flirting only to find Merlin right there. The older prince yelled and nearly fell backwards, reaching for a sword that wasn’t there.

Merlin merely tilted his head to the side. Like one of those bloody birds of his. “Spying on me again, your highness?”

Arthur stood up straight and cleared his throat. “Of course not. Merely passing through.”

Merlin’s expression made it known that he did not believe that for one second. “Uh huh.” He swept past the two, dark purple robes swirling around his legs with the movements of his hips. “I was led to believe that subterfuge meant you needed to be quiet. Perhaps, give that a shot next time, turnip head.” And then he was gone before Arthur could gather his thoughts enough to create a decent comeback.


 

It was only three days before Prince Emrys’ 17th birthday that Arthur got the chance to speak with him again.

The festivities were taking up everyone’s time, servants running to and fro, placing decorations. People were coming to Camelot from far and wide to celebrate the prince's life.

Arthur still had no idea what to even get the moron. One would think after knowing someone for years it would be easier to pick out a present, but he still was full of a quiet kind of anxiety.

Camelot's prince caught Merlin as he was walking through the garden pathways, fingers trailing along flower petals and leaves. He was bending forward, as though to smell them. But, Arthur saw his lips move and knew he was talking to them. It had always been something he’d done. Speak to the nature around them like it could understand and talk back. The birds, bees, flowers, fish, trees...you name it and Arthur could bet that Merlin had had a lovely conversation about the weather with it. It was just another thing that made Merlin stand out, made him so bizarre and...well, fascinating.

Not that Arthur would ever admit that.

From here he could see the rings on Merlin’s long, pale fingers. The silver chain around his neck. The stones in his ears. None of the jewelry was gaudy. Far from it. It was subtle and complimented his outfit. Except they drew Arthur’s eyes towards them as if they had been ostentatious. Every time they were together, his eyes fell upon to silver as it draped across sharp collarbones, rings around long, elegant hands. It drove Arthur quietly mad with wanting to know, to understand. What had changed? What was different?

It wasn’t like men never wear jewelry. His father had his crests and royal gems for special occasions and ceremonies. Arthur had his Mother's ring. It was just that the jewelry Merlin wore was not the same. They were decorative, sure, and Arthur doubted that they lacked significance. There was just something different about the way Merlin wore them, the way he acted, and moved and spoke. Merlin no longer seemed small and uncomfortable the way he once had been. He didn’t seem to hide behind big naive eyes or clumsy movements. He’d blossomed, and that had surprised Arthur. Shook him to his core.

He stepped forward, crunching over gravel. Merlin looked up at him, then back down at the flowers under his fingertips.

“Hello, your highness,” The prince called. As always, the way Merlin said it made it sound like an insult. Arthur had long since stopped being insulted and instead found it rather amusing.

“Merlin,” Arthur said in return. They stood quietly for a while, before simultaneously turning to keep walking down the path. The falling sun caught on the ring on Merlin’s finger as he touched a passing lily. “You wear a lot of jewelry.”

The other prince paused and looked at him. Then back at the flower under his touch. “I guess so.”

“And uh, make up?”

Merlin raised an eyebrow, mockingly. “That is what it is, yes. Look at you, using your words.”

It fell out of his mouth before he could stop and think; “That’s pretty girly, isn’t it?”

Merlin froze. Arthur stopped too, wanting to take the sword from its sheath and fall upon it.

Prince Emrys turned to him, eyes flashing, voice rumbling as thunder. “One, it is stones and metal. The same thing our crowns are made out of. The same thing your swords are. They come from the earth. Two, I’m not a girl. So obviously, it is not ‘girly’. Three, women are incredible. My mother, the queen is a woman. Your mother was. Half of the kingdom is made up of women and girls. They are all worthwhile and often more intelligent than most of the men I know. I find no insult in being called one. Four, they were given as gifts. I love them. And five, it sounds as though you have some personal problems to work through, Prince Arthur, if something as simple as jewelry or makeup can make you stare at me as if I’ve transformed into a stranger.”

With that he turned and stalked away, head held high. Arthur rather wanted to sink into the ground. He glanced down at the lily and pressed his own fingers to the petals, imagining he could feel the heat of the other's touch.

Merlin had always confused him, challenging him at every turn. And Arthur always made mistakes. Sighing, he began the walk back towards the castle.


 

Prince Emrys turned seventeen with much fanfare; food and dancing, gifts and laughter. He wore robes of deep sapphire that turned his eyes a deeper blue and made his hair seem to carry hints of the color as well. It was only later in the evening, after many guests have gone to sleep, that Arthur was able to approach Merlin.

“Would you please accompany me to the gardens, your highness?”

Unsure at first, Merlin took a second to look over Arthur’s face, searching for any hints of mischief. Finding none, he nodded. Arthur hesitantly offered his arm. Merlin raised an eyebrow, and rolled his eyes but eventually slipped his arm through Arthur’s.

From afar, Hunith and Uther exchanged pleased glances as they watched their children exit the ballroom.

The night sky was darkening like soaked blue cloth, heavy with building rain.

They strolled along the pathways as they had a few nights before, looking at the colorful blooms. Crickets chirped and sang, pausing only when the two got too close before piping up again. Arthur noticed how Merlin looked more relaxed among the vines and stems than the crowds of people.

Finally, he cleared his throat and reached into his pocket. From it he pulled a velvet box and held it out for the other to take. “Happy birthday, Merlin,” Arthur announced, waiting with anxious anticipation for the prince’s reaction.

Merlin pulled away to open the box’s lid and gasped softly. Inside was a necklace, gold rather than silver. It had a sturdy chain and was attached to a beautifully sculpted bird; a falcon. A merlin. He pressed the tips of his fingers to the charm, as he had the flower petals. “It’s… it’s beautiful.” He looked up at Arthur then, letting a big grin take over his face.

Arthur’s breath caught in his throat because he’d seen that expression before. But, it had hardly ever been directed at him. It was warm and joyful, sparkling eyes and smile lines. Arthur suddenly wanted to do all that he could to keep that look on Merlin’s face. He paused to gather his courage. “Also, I’m… I apologize for what I said before. I swear that despite how I used to be, I did not intend to offend you.”

Merlin watched him, smile growing and changing; soft to one full of humor. “I know, you clotpole. Apology accepted.”

In response, Arthur grinned, nudging the other prince until they began moving again. It was quiet for a few minutes before he spoke up. “Feel free to… to punch me, I guess, but can I ask you...?”

“Go on,” Merlin replied,magnanimously.

“Why did you… you’re right in that you are still the same person, Merlin. Still stubborn, magical, clever, annoying.” At this, Merlin elbowed him, Arthur grinning for a moment before it faded. “But, you’re also… you ARE different. You stand taller. You seem more… more.” Arthur shrugged, awful with words. “Does that have something to do with the…” His words faded away, unsure entirely if they would offend him again.

Merlin sighed. “You mean the jewelry and makeup.” Arthur nodded. “I like wearing them.” He paused to look at Arthur carefully, like he was searching him for something. Camelot’s prince kept his face open and tried to exude trustworthiness. It must have worked because Merlin’s full lips curled up at the corner before he looked down at the ground. “I’m not offended by being called a girl. But, I am not one.” Arthur opened his mouth to say that he knew this, of course he did, only to shut it when Merlin continued. “But, I might not be a boy either.”

Confusion reigned again. Arthur’s brow furrowed. “What do you mean?” He asked, slowly and unsure.

Merlin shrugged, but it was jerky like he was also uncomfortable. “It just...it just seems so small. Right? I could be a boy. Or a girl. Sometimes I guess I feel as though I could be one or the other. Or both, even. Or neither. And sometimes, a lot of the time, I feel like something else entirely. Something new and, and different.” Arthur noted how his voice wavered. “I just, I look at things like, I don’t know, war or peace, death and life, time, nature...or magic itself. And they’re so, so big.” Merlin looked up at Arthur, face full of something unnameable. “I...I feel closer to a tree. To the buzz of magic in my veins. Than, than to being a boy.” Merlin was shaking with emotion.

Arthur wanted nothing more than to understand. But, it was difficult. He didn’t know how Merlin felt. He had always been alright with being a man, had never questioned it. Arthur looked at the distant windows of his castle, the turrets and the people within it.

And he thought, ‘Perhaps...’

“I don’t know if it’s the same... It most definitely isn’t. But, sometimes I feel as though the crown on my head, the kingdom below my feet… is bigger than any part of me. This duty is more important than ANYTHING. It is more my identity than anything else. I am prince first, a leader and then a man.” He looked back at Merlin who was staring at him with dark, watery eyes.

Clearing his throat, Arthur reached for the box. “May I?”

Merlin’s lips curled into a soft smile. “Of course.”

With only slightly shaking fingers, the prince of Camelot unhooked the tiny clasp and lifted the chain, circling the other’s throat with the cool metal. It took a few seconds of embarrassed fumbling before it was secure. He stepped back out of Merlin’s body heat.

The younger prince touched the bird at his throat. “It really is beautiful, Arthur. Thank you.”

Arthur swallowed. “You’re welcome.”

Merlin looked at Arthur and felt something stirring deep in his soul. Something like hope, like admiration.

Arthur held his arm out and Merlin took it. They walked through the garden some more, just to talk of unimportant things and enjoy each other’s company, perhaps in a way they never had before.

Chapter Text

Another year, another summer.

This one was particularly hot and humid. Arthur was finally close to completing his knightly training. As such, he spent every free minute he had sparring.

This usually meant that Merlin was also close by, chatting with the knights, or laughing at Arthur in turn. This day was no different. What was different was the way Arthur's blood began to boil.

Perhaps it was due to the pleased flush on Merlin face when one of the knights clapped a big hand over his shoulder. Or maybe the way Merlin’s laughter seemed especially loud and mocking today.

Whatever it was, Arthur wiped the sweat from his brow and called out, ”Merlin! Why don’t you go be useless somewhere else for a change?”

The younger prince glowered, turning his head to speak quickly to Lancelot. Then, as if it was the most natural thing in the world and not something he'd never done before in the entirety of the time he'd known Merlin, he stepped onto the training ground.

Bewildered, Arthur could only watch as Merlin marched right up to him. With an infuriating smirk, Merlin lifted his chin. “I’ll fight you next.”

Arthur laughed like it was the funniest thing he’d heard all day. And it kind of was. “You? I could take you apart with one blow.”

Merlin raised an eyebrow, cool and collected. “I could take you apart with less than that.”

Something in Arthur’s stomach dropped then turned in a hot swirl as he stared into Merlin’s eyes. “Are you sure about that?”

The knights surrounding them were restless, already making bets as they stepped out of the arena.

“Come on, then!” One yelled.

Another laughed and cheered, “Fight!”

Arthur gritted his teeth and readied his sword. “No magic.”

Lancelot handed Merlin his own sword from its sheath. The prince hefted the blade and tested its balance in his hand as though he actually knew what he was doing. “Afraid?”

Arthur scoffed. “Of you? I’ve been training to kill since birth.”

Merlin grinned, thrown off by the banter. “There’s an image. Baby Arthur, swinging your deadly rattle as you parade around a playpen, in chainmail nappies.” The knights all laughed, and Arthur’s face turned red. “If you’ve been training to kill since birth, how long have you been training to be a prat?”

Arthur stepped into a ready position. “You can’t talk to me that way, Merlin.”

Merlin relaxed into his own fighting stance, but took the time to bow mockingly to his fellow prince. “You’re right. I’m sorry. How long have you been training to be a prat,” He looked up at his opponent through his lashes. “My Lord?”

Another spear of heat went through Arthur. But he smiled, standing tall for the benefit of his men who surrounded them. “Come on then!” Camelot’s prince called and nearly jumped when Merlin obeyed, swiping his blade against Arthur’s in a loud clang. Arthur pressed back and they began. He was astonished with Merlin’s footwork, the way he swung his sword, the surety behind his actions.

Arthur was strong, had spent years training to become one of the greatest fighters in the kingdom. Merlin was fast, and adapted quickly to Arthur’s strategies. They danced around each other, neither quite gaining the upper hand.

“Where did you learn to fight?” Arthur called, ducking away from a swift jab.

Merlin grinned like a very beautiful fool. “Just because I don’t like to fight, doesn’t mean I can’t.”

The minutes passed with their men cheering for each of them. Sweat dripped down reddening faces. Merlin’s speed began to lag, Arthur’s strength fading. With one last burst of effort, Merlin knocked Arthur’s sword from his sweaty hand, then pressed his blade against the other’s chest.

“Do you give up?” Merlin cried. Arthur glared, panting. He couldn’t coax any embarrassment into himself, only a hot kind of admiration for the way Merlin looked with pink cheeks and a sword, sure in his hand.

“To you?” He scoffed and shook his head. “Not today.”

Arthur dropped low, beneath the blade before sprinting forward and taking the other prince out at the knees before he could react.

“Oof!” They tumbled backwards, Arthur prying the sword from Merlin’s loose fingers and jumping to his feet to press the blade back above Merlin’s heart. The knights went wild around them, a mix of cheers and boos.

Merlin’s stunned face grew into a huge grin. “Well done, your highness.” And yes, it sounded like an insult. But, a fond one.

Arthur grinned back and reached down to offer a hand up to his guest. Merlin’s fingers curled around Arthur’s, gripping tightly. Arthur pulled and soon they were on level ground again, smiling at each other. The rest of the rowdy knights faded away until felt like there was only the two of them. Merlin’s hair was always a mess and strands of it stuck to his sweaty forehead.

Arthur reached up and pushed the hair aside, curling them around an overlarge ear. Arthur’s smile turned softer.

“There’s something about you, Merlin. I can’t quite put my finger on it.”

Merlin tilted his head into the touch. “I have been told I’m an enigma wrapped in a riddle.”

“That you are, my friend. That you are.”

They got lectured by Gaius and their parents for their bruises and cuts, of course. But the looks they kept exchanging,the feeling of being like conspiring criminals, made up for it. 


 

On Arthur’s 20th birthday, Queen Hunith and Prince Emrys came to Camelot despite it not being Summer.

This birthday was a special occasion, as Arthur would be officially crowned and named Prince of Camelot. Merlin had never seen the castle in the spring before. The kingdom was bright green and blooming with life everywhere he looked.

They reached the castle and as they had every time before, the King and soon to be Crown Prince stepped forward to greet their guests. And like every time before, Uther kissed Hunith’s hand and shook Merlin’s. There were pleasantries and questions about the trip.

But, unlike every other time before, Arthur could not take his eyes off of Merlin. He’d noticed before how his friend had been growing up, changing and becoming more of himself. But, this…

Merlin had become something utterly ethereal. He carried himself with pride and confidence. The setting sun shone across high cheekbones and lashes cast long shadows when he blinked. The things he’d first noticed as children remained; big, blue eyes that he once thought to be naive and guileless, now seemed kind and watchful, and those ears! They remained seemingly large but now Arthur found them fey, something that if taken away, would make Merlin’s face feel less. Merlin remained tall, lanky, but had built up muscle. And his body was draped in white, around his neck swung the pendant Arthur had given him. His lips were painted Pendragon red, eyes lined with kohl.

And he was smiling. Amused at Arthur’s obvious gawking. Arthur cleared his throat and tried to stand up a bit straighter and not look like he’d just been mooning. He stepped forward to grip Merlin’s forearm the way he had in the past, only to hesitate and instead bend and bring the other’s hand to his mouth and carefully press his lips against the back. He looked up, warily into Merlin’s eyes, hoping he hadn’t offended.

Merlin’s expression was surprised but it soon faded. He curled his fingers under Arthur’s chin. “Hello, Prince Arthur.” He murmured, face soft with some unnameable emotion.

“Hello, Merlin.” Their eyes met and held for what was probably only a few seconds but felt like an eternity.

In that time, Merlin had seen into Arthur’s being. He’d known the prince since he was a baby. Had grown up with him during Summers as children running through fields and playing pretend. They’d teased and taunted, physically injured each other. He had felt intense dislike almost from the outset of their meeting. Nothing had ever come easy between them. But, recently things had become better. Or even, glorious, if he was being honest. They’d begun to speak softer to each other, to try and understand the other’s perspective.

Merlin had seen Arthur at his worst; arrogant, quick to anger, spoiled. And he’d seen him at his best; loyal, determined, hard working, and vulnerable. In him, Merlin could see a king. A great one. One who cared for his people above anything. It was in his actions, his words and above all, how the people around Arthur loved him. Merlin wondered when he’d become one of them. He didn’t think it possible to trace to an exact point.

They smiled at each other, soft and full of joy to be meeting again. 

It was only later at the ball, given to celebrate Arthur’s birth and his soon to be crowning, that Arthur walked up to his fated prince. He did not fail to notice how everyone was watching Merlin. Once they had found him gangly, awkward, cute at best. Now, he was utterly stunning. It seemed that Merlin knew it, for he shone with confidence, practically hummed with allure. That smile when he noticed Arthur approaching him was lethal.

With an offered hand and a big grin in return, Arthur took Merlin into his arms. They danced around the room, drawing every eye, steps syncing easily. Merlin had nearly always been clumsy and Arthur didn’t doubt he would remain that way. But, in this moment the other prince moved with ease, having grown into his long limbs. Arthur was usually distracted, thinking of anything besides the frivolity of dancing, but tonight he couldn’t look away from the person before him, unable to believe how he’d never truly noticed before how wonderful he was. The song ended with a final longing note and they bowed to each other, barely noticing the crowds’ applause. Merlin’s cheeks were pink with exertion, bashfulness and joy.

Arthur thought he had never seen anything more beautiful. He brushed his thumb across Merlin’s cheek, who turned his face into the touch.

“May I...” Arthur hesitated, Merlin merely smiled encouragingly.“May I kiss you?”

Merlin’s face split into a grin and he leaned forward, pressing his lips against Arthur’s. He placed a hand on Merlin’s cheek, and the other around his hip, drawing him closer, deepening the kiss. Merlin’s lips parted beneath his, his tongue flicking daringly at Arthur’s as he curled one arm around Arthur’s back and clenched the other in his tunic over a shoulder.

Time had led them to this; a soft kiss that turned more heated as it went on. Once childish enemies, and now they’d grown into people that found something wonderful in each other.

Merlin bit back a moan as he felt teeth nip his top lip. Arthur would’ve gladly repeated the experiment over and over again, only his bliss was interrupted by the sound of a lady-like giggle. He became immediately aware of their audience and with one last soft kiss to Merlin’s swollen mouth, pulled away. With a soft sigh, Merlin’s eyes opened, dark with feeling. They smiled at each other and knew their feelings to be mutual.

Arthur brushed a soft strand of hair from Merlin’s forehead and then curled their fingers together. He led his partner to their parents who are sitting at the head table, Gaius a few seats down.

“Father, your majesty.” He looked first at Merlin then at their parents. “I know you’ve been hoping for the two of us to decide to marry. And I’d like to agree. I would marry Prince Emrys.”

Their parents looked immediately overjoyed. Or rather Hunith looked overjoyed. Uther was reservedly pleased. Merlin’s face slipped into an expression of uncertainty. He interrupted their exultation.

“Wait,” He withdrew his hand from Arthur’s. All three royals turned to him.

Arthur searched Merlin’s face. “What is it? You’re all I’ve ever wanted.”

Merlin smiled softly. “Thank you, Arthur. But, I...” He stopped, unsure if he wanted to press at something he’d only just realized he kind of wanted with an overwhelming hunger. But, then knew he had to know. Or else it would haunt him when he could not sleep. “Why do you want to marry me?”

Arthur blinked, taken aback. “What do you mean?” A bubbling anxiety began in his stomach.

“I mean,” Merlin hesitated for only a second. “We used to hate each other. It’s only recently that we’ve begun to...to...” He fought down a blush and made an ungraceful gesture that tried to encompass the entirety of romantic expression. “I mean, you’ve said so many terrible things about magic and that is who I am down to my very bones. You’ve called me names and teased me endlessly.” Merlin’s face fell as he began to realize truly how far they’d come and yet how close it all was still. Then he shook himself and stood up straight and tall. “So, I ask you, your royal highness, why would you wish to marry me?”

Arthur’s entire soul wanted to leave his body. He often felt as though he should give up speaking for it never seemed to heed his true thoughts. And besides, how could he put into words...everything he’d ever felt for Merlin. How could he encompass the feelings of watching him grow, his laughter and wit, the way he never backed down, never treated Arthur as someone to praise for the sake of praise, an equal in every way. Merlin spoke his mind, had clawed his way into Arthur’s respect and had stayed there. Merlin was Good and Kind, intelligent and considerate. He was loved by his people and he loved them in return. He was everything Arthur figured he could ever want in a partner, someone to spend his mortal life with.

Arthur wanted to say all this. What sputtered out of his mouth instead was, “Well, you’re...you’re very beautiful.”

It was a precious thing that fell to the floor and shattered, bumped by his clumsy words. Merlin’s face twisted up in the way that Arthur didn’t even know he’d memorized, the expression that meant disappointment.

“Is that...is that all?” Merlin asked, voice stiff with his own hidden thoughts. Half of Arthur wanted to keep talking, to stumble through a speech that would fix this. The other half of him saw the disappointment on Merlin’s face and crawled away to die, leaving only a self preservation instinct, to save his pride, to defend his words.

“Well, what else is there?”

Merlin’s disappointment sunk beneath a familiar anger towards the clotpole in front of him. “What else? What about friendship? Admiration? Respect?” He stopped, ignoring how his whole body had suddenly began to shake and his voice fell softer. “Love?”

Arthur found his tongue heavy, mouth refused to move. He felt utterly helpless, unable to communicate, to proclaim everything he felt for his oldest and dearest friend. Instead, he went blank with panic as Merlin’s eyes sparkled with angry tears and glints of golden magic. He could only watch as his best friend, the one he loved, turned on his heel and stormed away. People jumped from his path, maybe sensing the roiling storm in beneath his skin.

Feeling incompetent, Arthur reached out a hand as if he could somehow reach Merlin that way. The other prince vanished through the open doors. His arm fell uselessly to his side.

Queen Hunith gave his shoulder a firm squeeze. “Just let him calm down, Arthur. I’m sure you can work this out.” He placed his hand over hers and nodded, unable to speak. She smiled softly, just like her son. “I’ll try and speak with him.” Then she was gone in a flurry of copper skirts, Repisoul’s royal guards trailing along behind. Arthur stared after them, an unnameable ache in his chest.

Next to him, his father let their arms brush together. “Perhaps, it is simply not meant to be.” Uther said. Arthur felt his words like a punch to the gut. He couldn’t believe it. He couldn’t accept the idea that he might have lost Merlin.

Gaius stepped up on his other side. “‘What else is there?’”

Arthur put his face in his hands. Gaius need not say more, the tone of his voice and The Eyebrow was enough to truly emphasize how big a mistake he’d just made. “I know! I’m such an idiot.”

Gaius patted his arm. “You do not truly admire just his beauty.”

“Of course not, Gaius!” His heart climbed into his throat. “He’s like....you know. And...just...And then! Right?” His pulse thrummed as he stumbled, trying to find the words. Gaius’ eyebrow judged him. “I don’t know how to say it!” He looked back at the doors where Merlin had vanished.

An idea occurred to him. “I’ll prove it to him. Somehow, I’ll prove my love!” He’d always believed in actions over words, and he knew if he could come up with something good enough, Merlin would have to see it! The way his love for him shone from his very soul. 


Merlin ran out into the darkening evening. Once the lights of the castle had turned into small dancing candle flames in the distance, he forced himself to stop and take deep breaths. Quietly, he could hear his mother and guards calling his name.

In just a second, he would speak out and grab their attention. For now, he sat in the dewy grass, pressed a hand to the nearest tree and gave his magic over to the world for a second.

The world rushed up to meet him, warm and understanding, the way it had always been. It rejuvenated him and calmed his mind so that when he came back to his body he could think clearly.

“Oh Arthur, you turnip head.” He murmured. For he knew the other prince. Knew his ticks and habits, his secrets, the things that made him good, and the flaws. Merlin sighed, knowing that Arthur did not only value his high cheekbones and the shape of his lips. It was just that he struggled to speak what was in his very heart. Knew that it was because he had never had to. That he was expected to stay silent on such personal and vulnerable matters.

“Merlin!” His mother’s hand curled over his shoulder. “Are you alright?” she panted, kneeling down next to him in her skirts.

He jumped to his feet, pulling her up by her hands. “Oh, mother! Your dress!” He began to try and brush the bits of dirt and dead plants from the expensive fabric. She laughed softly and caught his face between her palms.

Distantly, Merlin noted their guards as they caught up. One was holding a pair of heels. He looked down at Hunith’s feet. “Are you barefoot?”

“Maybe.” She winked at him. Merlin grinned back at her. “Are you alright, my dear?”

Merlin nodded. “Just....” He sighed explosively. “He’s such a moron.”

Hunith brushed the hair back from his forehead. “Men often are.” She examined his face for a second. “How do you feel for him?”

A faint blush stole over pale cheeks. “I think I love him, mama.”

Hunith grinned. “That is wonderful! We’ve been hoping this would happen.” She sensed there was more though. “What is it, my dear?”

Merlin shrugged, unsure how to fully articulate what he felt. “I know him, mama. I know he’s terrible at saying what he means sometimes. But,” He looked back at the distant castle, its beauty stunning him even from afar. “Some of what I said is still true. And I want to be sure. I want to be sure that he...” He licked his lips and looked back at her. “That he loves me for who I am.” Magic, gender, stubbornness and all.  

Hunith opened her mouth to reassure him, and she was torn from Merlin’s arms, thrown across the road by an invisible force.

“Mama!” Merlin cried, rushing to her side as the guards jumped into action. One ran with him to the queen. the other three pulled their swords from their sheathes. They circled the royals protectively, battle ready. Merlin pulled his mother in his lap, feeling frantically for a pulse. He found it, thready and weak. He touched her head and pulled back shocked, by the hot sticky blood. “No, no, mama, no.” She twitched, eyes unfocusing, staring up at her beautiful child.

From the shadowed trees, stepped two figures. One with eyes glowing a golden fire and hands held out.

Merlin clutched his mother closer to him, holding his own hand out, ready to protect her at any cost. The other figure merely laughed.

Today’s the day, Hunith. Everything you own, everything you love, will be mine.”