Rating: PG-13 (There’s kissing and some fumbling)
Word count: 4,500ish
Summary: The high battlements are a perfect place to hide and just think – especially when the night is dark and bitterly cold with the promise of snowfall. That’s where Merlin finds him, and Merlin always finds him.
There’s angst and name-calling and then boy!kissing, of course.
Betas: The awesome sgamadison and the fantastic dentedsky. Thank you both so much for your help.
Disclaimer: Not mine, they belong to the Beeb.
Arthur stood on the battlements, his arms wrapped around his chest in a way that did little to ward off the sharp chill of the night air. He stood as high as he could on Camelot’s outer walls and looked down at the burning lamps and billowing chimneys that he could make out in the town below. Around him the castle stood, sturdy and dusted with ice, but so alive with the dancing shadows of the fires that burned in the courtyard, lighting the way even though no single person deemed it a night worthy of leaving the warmth of their homes.
Arthur couldn’t blame them, the sky was thick with the promise of snow, the wind moaned bitterly with anticipation of the flakes it would carry and bring to settle deeply over every crook and crevice before morning. It made for a very black night, not a star to be seen, no trace of the moon that could, on a clear night, make Camelot look like she had been forged of the purest silver. Tonight, she stood so dark and dimly lit that Arthur had to strain his eyes to seek out the walls he knew as well as his own skin.
He shivered, by Heaven, it was bitter out here. His cloak was wrapped firmly around his shoulders and he pulled it tighter to burrow into its meagre warmth. He should go back, walk back along the battlements and down the staircase, under the walkways of the courtyard and back into the bosom of the castle. Merlin would probably be wondering where he was. Not that that mattered, of course, Arthur could stay out here all night if he chose to. At least when he was out here alone there was only the wind to knock him off balance. Inside there was Lord Kayton and his family. Kayton boasted a long-standing friendship with Arthur’s father and the memories they shared that went back so many years. All of which was well and good, until Kayton had mentioned Arthur’s mother and silence had descended, heavy and thick over the Great Hall and Arthur had felt himself choking on it. Kayton’s good Lady wife had covered the slip with grace but it left Arthur with visions of the mother he’d seen through Morgause’s magic. An image that would not fade and a return to the doubt and anger that had gnawed at him for weeks after the sorceress had lied to him so vividly.
He took a deep breath, the night air filled his lungs like sharp shards of ice but he refused to give in to the temptation to cough it away, it was a distraction, a pain he could control and it felt good. He did it again - and again, until he was dizzy with it, then stretched his hands out to grasp the stone in front of him and let his head hang on his chest until it had stopped spinning. He gripped the stone so tight that it grazed his fingers but the cold soon numbed them and he shuffled his feet, kicking out gently at nothing. A shiver wracked his body as the wind lifted his cloak, crept beneath his coat and banded around his chest, the cold soaking through him and settling into his skin with speed. He braced his weight on his arms, felt the stone digging into his hands with a careless disassociation that had as much to do with his disposition as it did the freezing weather, and took another deep breath.
The door at the end of the walkway swung open. Arthur didn’t need to look to know it was Merlin. Not only did he know his manservant’s step anywhere, he also knew Merlin was the only one that would have found him out here. He was the only one that would have bothered to look. Merlin, with his ridiculous face and his complete disregard for anything approaching protocol or proper service - and his unfailing loyalty and devotion. Merlin with the magic that he thought Arthur knew nothing about. Merlin with his friendship that Arthur knows he himself knew nothing about until Merlin came along and showed him what it really was to have someone who didn’t want to be around you for your crown.
Arthur waited, Merlin could never go a minute without saying something but for a long, long moment there was only silence.
Then Merlin’s teeth began chattering.
Arthur shook his head and turned to face his manservant, already rolling his eyes. But even he wasn’t prepared for Merlin’s level of stupidity this time.
“Merlin! For God’s sake, you’ll freeze!”
Merlin wasn’t even wearing a jacket, nothing more than a shirt and that damned scarf tied haphazard around his neck.
“Well, I only came out to tell you that the fire in your chambers has been lit for a while and it’s warm in there but you looked like you were… you know, and I didn’t want to disturb you, so…” He shrugged, moving closer to Arthur.
“So you decided to wait until your teeth disturbed my – whatever you think it is I was doing?”
“Thinking, you looked like you were thinking and I didn’t want to disturb that.” He grinned but then ruined it by adding a sotto, “It takes you long enough to get going, after all.”
“I should have you flogged,” Arthur said carelessly.
“Yes, sire,” Merlin said, in that tone that Arthur chose to interpret as ‘Sire, your wisdom and superior judgement is surpassed only by your tolerance and magnificence’ but was probably more accurately interpreted as ‘whatever, you prat’.
Silence fell between them again and Arthur rolled his eyes and picked apart the clasp of his cloak. Sweeping it from his shoulders he closed the distance between himself and Merlin.
“What are you doing?” Merlin asked, honest to god panic filling his eyes.
“What do you think I’m doing, you idiot, you’re going to freeze.” Arthur hooked the cloak around Merlin’s neck, settling it and fastening it tight around him.
“Now you’re going to freeze, Arthur, and your father will have me beheaded for allowing the Crown Prince to become an icicle.”
“I have a coat on, see? I’m not going to freeze. I wasn’t stupid enough to come out onto the battlements just before the first fall of snow wearing nothing but my shirt. Only one of us can claim that dubious honour.”
Merlin shook his head, like Arthur was the hopeless one. “Thank you,” he murmured quietly a second later.
Arthur was going to say something flippant about not wanting to have to pick up after himself for days when Merlin undoubtedly got ill but Merlin’s quiet words stopped him. The turbulence in his head and his heart had clearly affected him far more than he’d realised. He turned back to look down at the pinpricks of light that could be seen in the town, before letting his eyes wander to the solid mass of darkness that was the surrounding forests beyond.
It was Merlin that shattered the tentative quiet that settled once again between them.
“You can’t trust what she showed you, Arthur, you know that.”
“I’m just saying - ”
“I know what you’re saying – you’re saying she lied to me, yes?” Arthur could feel the anger burning within him again but this time it wasn’t aimed at his father or Morgause, or even himself. He twisted to face Merlin. “You’re telling me that she used her magic to manipulate me and lie to me – like all sorcerers would – and frequently do. That’s what you’re saying, isn’t it?”
“I just meant that she was clearly trying to turn you against Uther, she wanted nothing but his downfall, she could easily have lied to get what she wanted from you. She used that vulnerability to - ”
“My mother is not a vulnerability, Merlin, in case you hadn’t noticed she’s not even a part of my life, let alone a weakness to be exploited,” Arthur shouted, furious.
“Okay, vulnerable may have been the wrong word but she is a part of your life, she’s a very real part of it and Morgause used that against you.”
It wasn’t his words that made Arthur finally snap, it was the look in Merlin’s eyes – Arthur could tell that he didn’t even believe what he was saying himself. It was all just words for Arthur’s benefit.
“Yes, well,” he said, rounding on Merlin with a cold sneer. “If anyone is qualified to judge sorcerers and liars it would be you.”
Merlin looked like someone had just thrust a blade into his gut. His mouth worked silently and Arthur realised that he wasn’t searching for words so much as how to breathe. Arthur waited, willing his own breath to even out and his heart to stop pounding so rapidly. He felt the cold seeping into his bones, the fire within him had gone out and as he watched Merlin’s face stricken with shock and pain, he felt a solid, freezing lump settle into his chest. More than anything he regretted his words, but it was too late now.
“Arthur,” Merlin finally managed to say, but it seemed to be going nowhere else. “Arthur – I - ”
Arthur turned away and looked out over the wall, everything seemed so small below him, so far down. He folded his arms and shoved his hands tight against himself but he was so cold that it would make no difference now. Tiny needles of ice dotted his face, wet and sharp and he looked up to see the first flakes of the snowfall tumbling onto the battlements. “It’s snowing,” he said, but it didn’t feel like his voice.
“I should have told you,” Merlin said desperately, his voice dancing frantically with emotion and the cold. “I’m sorry Arthur, I should have told you a long time ago – can I, is there, how – is there a way I can fix this?”
“Fix what? It is what it is – what it has always been. A lie.”
“No, Arthur. Please, look, yes, I have magic, I use magic but - ”
“But what?” Arthur asked. “Have you always had magic, always used it, had it since before you came to Camelot?”
“Since the day I was born,” Merlin agreed miserably.
“So what part of the last two years has not been a lie, Merlin?” Arthur shouted.
“The part where I would lay down my life for you, you idiot – the part where I have done and would do it again,” Merlin shouted back. “The part where I hid it from you because I knew you would struggle to live with this secret because it would mean lying to your father or trying to send me away and - ”
“And, what? You thought I wouldn’t do that? That I couldn’t possibly live without you?”
“No, I couldn’t risk that you would, that you could. According to the Old Religion we have a future, a destiny that cannot be denied but according to my own head and my own stupid heart we have a friendship that I didn’t ever want to lose.” Merlin took a breath, his voice quiet and unsteady when he was able to continue. “Call it stupidity or cowardice that cost me my place next to you, that cost me my home, but don’t say that it was a lie – that in itself is untrue, Arthur. You can send me away or turn me over to your father, do whatever you see fit but you must do it knowing that I am not sorry for trying to protect you and I would do it again.”
“By all that is holy, Merlin,” Arthur said slowly, “I swear you are the biggest idiot that ever lived.”
“I – what?”
“Seriously, how are you even still alive?” Arthur shook his head. “You’re standing on the battlements shouting about how you’ve used magic for your whole life. And – you honestly think I didn’t know? That I haven’t known for a long time what you’re capable of? I have kept this secret from my father for over a year now, isn’t it time you started trusting me to be something other than the stupid, spoiled prince that you clearly think I am?”
“I don’t think that,” Merlin balked immediately but not terribly convincingly.
Arthur raised his eyebrow. “No?”
“Well, I mean obviously I think you’re a prince because you are one – and I do think you’re a bit spoiled, but that’s not really your fault, it’s more a part of the prince thing. But I don’t think you’re stupid. At least not all the time – not in the way you mean. Wow, this is a harder hole to dig myself out of than I’d anticipated. You must admit that you can be stupid sometimes, charging in without looking and thinking you can take on the world – that sort of thing, that’s pretty stupid. But I don’t think you’re stupid.”
There was a pause.
“That could have gone better,” Merlin admitted.
Arthur rolled his eyes. “We should go back inside, it’s freezing out here.”
“What gave it away?” Merlin asked, “the fact that it’s snowing?”
“That and your teeth clacking together. Come on,” Arthur moved, heading towards the door, intent on getting back to his rooms before they both froze to death out here.
“Arthur, wait, we - ”
“We can finish this inside,” Arthur said. “I can’t think out here, the cold is addling my brain. Heaven only knows how you are even still functioning.”
“I just.” Merlin caught Arthur’s arm and held him firm. Arthur glanced down at Merlin’s hand curled so simply and possessively just above his elbow and raised his eyebrow. No one but Merlin would have the audacity to touch the Crown Prince in such a way. Arthur sighed; no one else would get away with it the way Merlin did. The way Arthur always let him.
“I just need to say this – I really don’t think you’re stupid, recklessly brave and destined to be a great king, yes, but not ever stupid. As for me, it was wrong not to tell you about my magic - in an ideal world I would have been able to, and, god knows, I have wanted to share it with you for so long now but I didn’t say anything because it would not have been safe for you. I won’t apologise for wanting to protect you, Arthur, I won’t do it.”
The snow was falling proper now, great flakes that clung to their hair and clothes and whited out the world around them and Arthur was grateful for it. It was as though the heavens themselves were creating a veil between Arthur and Merlin and the rest of the Court, the rest of Camelot, giving them a private moment wrapped in the silence of snowfall. The flakes danced and swirled, changing the way the castle looked, the way the world looked all around them.
Arthur’s eyes stayed fixed on Merlin’s fingers gripping his arm as his brain helpfully supplied images of all the times that something had happened that seemed like dumb luck but was now obviously the touch of magic. Branches falling during an ambush, a burst of flame, a careless mistake by a foe – and in the middle of it all Merlin’s face when Gwen was accused of witchcraft, when Gaius was arrested for sorcery, when he told Arthur that he would gladly serve him until the day he died. Something stirred within him at that last image, something hot and desperate and fearful.
Arthur’s hand reached out of its own volition and slid into Merlin’s hair, cradling his skull and still not taking his eyes off Merlin’s grasp he pulled and tilted until their foreheads touched lightly. His fingers twitched in Merlin’s hair, and then he took a breath, closed his eyes, and held on for dear life.
Merlin’s free hand slid up to wrap around Arthur’s forearm and held it in place as he turned his face in against Arthur’s wrist. He felt the air hitch in his chest as Merlin’s warm breath crept beneath the sleeve of his coat, soaking over the thin skin where his heartbeat was visible.
A whisper that he was so tempted to ignore, wished he could but knew he never would. “You fool, you bloody, stupid, fool. I should hate you,” he hissed instead.
“Clearly you don’t,” Merlin replied and Arthur could feel his grin where it stretched against his arm.
“Clearly. I did give you my cloak to wear, after all.”
“Yes, you did. When it’s snowing, no less. Look at it, you won’t be able to see the castle soon.” Merlin’s grin slid into a smile.
Arthur snorted. “Come on, we need to go in before we’re both even more insensible with the cold.” For a second he pressed his head tightly against Merlin’s and then wrenched away, pushing Merlin ahead of him, towards the door.
They jogged down the winding staircase and out into the walkways around the courtyard. They stayed undercover as much as they could, the snow now falling thick and fast around them, swirling in eddies through the stone arches and nestling over every available surface.
“Quicker if we go straight across,” Merlin said, nodding at the far side of the courtyard where the great stone steps were rapidly vanishing, already laden with snow.
“Let’s go,” Arthur clapped him on the arm and took off across the yard, his feet sliding underneath him on the icy stone.
They made it, climbing up the steps, breathless with laughter and the cold that was invading their lungs, and hauled each other through the doors at the top.
Inside the hallways were still lit with burning lamps and it felt infinitely warmer and brighter than the black night and icy winds that had seized the battlements.
Arthur took off up the stairs, ever aware of Merlin following him, just a couple of steps behind. As he stalked towards his chambers his mind was full of nothing but the feel of Merlin’s brittle-cold hair sliding between his fingertips, the warmth of his head where it had cradled against his arm, the flood of Merlin’s breath against his skin. He felt his chest tighten as he imagined himself leaning in and tasting the warmth of that breath on Merlin’s lips, of catching it with his tongue.
Arthur stopped suddenly and Merlin ran bodily into him. Merlin’s arms caught him around the waist as Arthur staggered to stop them both from toppling over.
“Arthur, what the hell?” Merlin mumbled against his back before trying to untangle himself from the mess of their limbs.
“Wait, don’t move,” Arthur said and was gratified to feel Merlin hold still around him. Arthur put his hand carefully over Merlin’s where it rested, wrapped tightly around him, and felt his heart speed up at that simple touch.
“Oh hell,” he moaned.
Merlin pushed against his back, pulling Arthur against him and attempting to cradle him like he was suddenly going to fall down or something ridiculous. But it felt really good. Really, really good.
“Arthur?” Merlin asked, sounding worried, “What’s the matter?”
“I just had a thought,” Arthur said, pushing back into Merlin, ever so slightly.
“Well, no wonder we had to stop so that you could swoon. All right, you’d better sit down before you hurt yourself.”
“I’ll hurt you in a minute,” Arthur said, noting the way that Merlin hadn’t let him go and was in fact holding on tighter, to the point where it could be described as embracing. And, his right hand was definitely petting Arthur’s chest, smoothing over it in rhythmic and repetitive motions and what was that, if not petting? He felt himself shudder at Merlin’s touch and cursed under his breath.
“What?” Arthur asked, unfairly confounded by the petting.
“What ‘what’?” Merlin asked, clearly exasperated.
“Eh? What ‘what’?” Arthur asked, clearly lost.
“What ‘what’?! What do you mean ‘what what’? What was the thought? That ‘what’, you prat.”
“Oh,” Arthur said, stupidly. “That ‘what’, I’ll tell you in a minute, let’s keep moving,” he said lightly as he tore himself away from Merlin’s grip and headed for his chambers.
They practically fell into the room, all shivering limbs and uncoordinated thoughts, as they tumbled through the door. Arthur righted himself long enough to close it and bolt it behind them.
“So what was this great thought that stopped you in your tracks – and please don’t just say ‘what’ again, I know you’re – amph-umoph-mmm,” Merlin trailed off insensibly as Arthur kissed him.
There was a second when he thought that perhaps he’d made a terrible mistake, two seconds, three – then Merlin’s hands landed in his hair and Arthur found himself being pushed back against the door and kissed with absolute abandon.
“Arthur, oh god,” Merlin gasped then kissed him again.
Arthur wrapped his arms around Merlin’s waist, pulling him tightly against him. Merlin groaned into Arthur’s mouth and Arthur thought that that was perhaps one of the hottest things that had ever happened to him.
It was Merlin again that broke the kiss for the second time. “This was your thought?” he panted as he dropped quick kisses across Arthur’s lips and along his jaw line.
“Ye-ahh-yes,” Arthur gasped as he felt Merlin push against him, his hardness matching Arthur’s own and feeling deliciously promising as they rubbed together.
“It was a very good thought,” Merlin confirmed before arching against him and moaning wantonly.
“Of course it was,” Arthur said, his hand fumbling at Merlin’s face and pulling him in for another kiss.
This time when they broke apart Merlin’s eyes were softer, calmer and full of something that stole Arthur’s breath right out of his chest. His fingers reached up and traced Arthur’s cheekbone, fingertips skating around the line of his eyes, thumb dipping down to skim across his crooked lips.
“I only ever meant to keep you safe – even though I knew, I knew, it would hurt you. I didn’t know what else to do,” he said quietly, his eyes resting on Arthur’s mouth as he spoke.
“I know. Don’t mistake me here, I hate that you lied to me, but I can live with why you did it – I think. Just – is there anything else I should know? If there’s anything else, I need to know now, everything out in the open. I can’t – I won’t stand anything – no more secrets…please.”
Merlin nodded frantically. “There’s so much you have to know about the magic and how it works and what I can do but there are no other secrets.”
Arthur leaned in and gently teased Merlin’s mouth open, relieved beyond measure at the feeling that there was nothing else between them now; marvelling at how easy it was to trust Merlin’s word.
“You should know though,” Merlin said when they parted. He paused, a frown dipping deeply between his eyes and Arthur didn’t even try to resist the temptation to smooth it away, he just reached out and let his fingers trace Merlin’s brow.
“What should I know?”
“That – that the sorceress Nimueh is dead. That she – after the Questing Beast had – I bargained with her. It was only ever supposed to be my life but she tried to take my Mother and Gaius and I couldn’t let that happen. The Old Religion demands balance in all things and for one to live another must die and when I thought she’d killed Gaius, I - ” Merlin closed his eyes and took a breath and Arthur was briefly aware that his own breathing had stopped as he waited for what Merlin said next.
“I killed her. I took her life.”
“After the Questing Beast?” Arthur asked, pieces falling firmly into place in his mind. “You made a deal with her to save a life – to save my life?”
“Don’t judge me, Arthur – you were dying,” Merlin practically begged, his hand smoothing through Arthur’s hair again and again.
“You bargained your life for mine?”
“I thought I had, but she - ”
“That stops, as of right now. You don’t get to do that, Merlin.”
“I had to Arthur, it is your destiny to be the greatest King these lands have seen and I will see that happen.”
“Not if you’re dead,” Arthur snapped.
“But you’re - ”
“I will not stand on the bodies of my friends to reach my throne. That’s final,” Arthur whispered fiercely as he felt something embarrassingly like tenderness crawling from his chest, through to the extremes of his limbs as he splayed his hands on Merlin’s back and pulled him bodily against him to breathe in deeply at the crook of his neck.
Silence reigned for a long moment.
Merlin sighed. “You’re such a prat.”
Arthur choked out a laugh. “Promise me you won’t take this away from me,” he whispered and kissed Merlin softly.
“I promise I will do everything I can not to have to,” Merlin answered.
“That’s not the same thing,” Arthur argued.
“It’s as good as you’ll get.”
“You are completely intolerable,” Arthur moaned even as he ghosted his lips along Merlin’s jaw, pausing only to drop his head and nip lightly at the soft skin of his throat.
“I can tell how much you mean that,” Merlin grinned as Arthur began working his way down his neck in earnest, nosing through fabric to suck gently at the newly uncovered skin.
“You are,” Arthur all but whined, punctuating each word with a kiss, he pushed away from the door and started backing Merlin towards the bed. “Absolutely. Completely. Totally intolerable.”
“Mmmm, yes Sire,” Merlin said. And there was that tone again.
And then they were falling, tumbling onto soft furs and linen that could hide them from everyone and everything. The fire burned bright and strong in the grate, keeping them warm, as the snow fell deeply outside nestling Camelot and her people in peaceful stillness.