The Feast of Sticks | by Merry
Merlin and Arthur, pre-slash. Merlin was born. Later he met Arthur. And then some things happened, and then there were cakes!
Slight spoilers for 101 and 110.
The Feast of Sticks
"Um." Merlin stared at the stick, black as night, long as he was tall and thick as his wrist. It lay in a box, a rather gaudy and ornate box of gleaming red wood that significantly outshone its contents. Possibly it was a joke, though Arthur hadn't shown much evidence of a sense of humor...ever. If anything, he took almost everything rather too seriously.
Best to play it on the safe side. "Thank you, Arthur," he said, looking everywhere but into Arthur's eyes. "It's a very nice... stick. I can't wait to write to my mother about it."
Arthur let out a huff of breath and stared at the ceiling, a pained and suffering look on his face.
"I mean it! It's the finest stick I've ever owned!" Merlin cast about desperately for something appropriately grateful and servile to say; finding nothing, he slouched out of attention and grinned. "For such a lowly servant as myself, to be graced with any gift from the Crown Prince of Camelot is truly an honor. Henceforth I will celebrate the anniversary of Stick Day rather than my birthing day."
"I honestly don't understand why lightning doesn't strike you dead where you stand when you prattle on like that."
"It's been said I live a charmed existence."
"And I'll be wanting that box back, too."
Merlin laughed. "Of course, Sire."
"Aren't you even going to try it out?"
"Really, Arthur, what am I supposed to do with it? I suppose I could try to beat you to death with it, but assuming you didn't kill me yourself I'd be executed for treason."
Arthur closed his eyes and muttered under his breath. Merlin didn't catch the words, but the tone made him back off a step, clutching the box to his chest like a shield.
Advancing on him, Arthur grabbed the box away. He pulled the stick out of the bed of satin cloth it had nestled in, and slapped it into Merlin's right hand. "It's not a stick," Arthur said, in the kind of low, calm voice he typically used on enemy soldiers he was preparing to eviscerate. "It's a staff."
"So it is for beatings." Merlin's eyebrows shot up. "This isn't like the time you made me sharpen your practice swords before having at me with them, is it? Because I'm not going to polish this thing on a daily basis just to have you smack me about with it. Enough is enough."
"Merlin." The word seemed to be ground out from deep in Arthur's chest. "It's for you. It's for you to use. It's not for beating people. It's for--" and here he made an odd and squiggly gesture with his fingers "-- you know."
A deep and yawning pit began to deepen and yawn low down in Merlin's stomach. He felt the blood begin to drain from his traitorous face; he was a terrible liar, everyone knew it. He existed by making sure no one ever asked the right questions. Because if they did -- if Arthur did --
"Oh, don't look like that. I'm hardly going to give you a magical present only to have you executed for using it, am I? Seriously, I don't know how I've managed to last out the year with you as my mystical protector. I should be dead ten times over if not for my own considerable skill and cunning."
"It's traditional. At least, that's what the books I'm not supposed to read in the library I'm not supposed to know about say. A wizard is supposed to have one. Sorcerer, whatever you call yourself. You can use it as a walking stick, no one will ever know the difference."
Arthur blinked. "What?"
Merlin steadied himself. His heartbeat was loud and almost painful in his chest. "How long have you known?"
"About as long as you've been an idiot, which puts it around the time you got here. I don't trip over things, Merlin." Arthur rolled his eyes. "Anyway, you should've known I'd guess. I'm very observant. It doesn't show the proper trust a servant should have for his master, that's all I'm saying."
Merlin's eyes widened. "My God. You really are the most arrogant bastard in the kingdom, aren't you?" Incredibly, unaccountably, he felt himself beginning to smile.
"I'll thank you to show a bit more respect for my departed mother, but on the charge of arrogance -- it does sort of come with the territory."
Merlin laughed. The strength drained out of him with the stress of mortal terror, and he slumped against his brand new wizard's staff, truly grateful for its presence for the first time since it came out of its box. "I've wanted to tell you," he said. "So many times."
Arthur nodded seriously. "I've seen that."
"I can't believe you've known all this time."
"Suspected, really." Arthur shrugged. "I didn't know for sure until Ealdor. Your friend Will would've turned me into a toad ten times over if he'd had a drop of magic in him."
Merlin laughed again. "Yes, he would have."
"You don't have to look so happy about the idea," Arthur said, and shook Merlin by the shoulder. But then he laughed too, and he left his hand there, and Merlin felt the warmth and weight of it. More now, he thought, than he would have before Arthur knew, because the knowing was a responsibility, and Arthur had accepted it on his behalf. And that was Merlin's responsibility; his magic was now a secret he kept for them both.
"What do we do now? I haven't the faintest idea what to do with this," he said, shaking the staff a bit. "Honestly, I'm not that great a sorceror."
Arthur snorted and said nothing; his agreement was abundantly clear.
"And we're both technically traitors to the Crown now; you do understand that, don't you? Birthday presents definitely count as harboring at least, if not giving aid. God, Arthur, it was bad enough when it was just me and Gaius. If your father were to find out that you knew, and never told him--"
"Merlin, calm down." Arthur gave the shoulder under his hand another, gentler shake. "We'll both be very, very careful."
"What if we're not careful enough? I can run, but you. You--" Merlin felt a little faint. "You would stay, wouldn't you. I know you would."
"It's all right, Merlin."
"How." Merlin swallowed, and shook his head. "How can you know that?"
"Because part of what it means to be a Knight of Camelot is knowing when something is worth fighting for."
At that, all of Merlin's words stopped in his throat. He stared at Arthur, at this ridiculous, irritating prat of a prince -- not even his prince legally speaking, Ealdor wasn't even in Uther's kingdom -- this friend who suddenly knew him, and stood there anyway. Just stood there, as if he was like to stand there forever. Merlin couldn't look away. Just then, he was willing to rout armies for Arthur, raze castles to the ground for him, fling down fire on his enemies from the battlements of Camelot.
"Right then," Arthur said. His voice wasn't entirely steady. He gave Merlin's shoulder a last squeeze and backed up a little; not too far. "That's the presents sorted." He clapped his hands together once, looking about the room as if he expected it to do something wonderful. "On to the main event."
Merlin goggled a bit. "No," he said, shaking his head rapidly, eyeing Arthur with no small amount of trepidation. "No more surprises, no more revelations. Not today. My heart can't handle the stress, Arthur, really--"
"I'm talking about the feast, Merlin."
"--oh." Merlin stopped shaking his head and nodded, just as fast. "Right, of course. The feast."
"Granted, it will just be the two of us, as I can't be seen coddling such an inept and surly manservant. But since it is the anniversary of the day your misguided and overburdened mother brought you forth into this world, I took the liberty of requesting something special in recognition of her years of sacrifice and forbearance."
"Right." Merlin nodded some more, like his head was on a spring. "Special." When Arthur stared at him so expectantly that it was clear something more specific was in order, Merlin added, "Thank you."
Arthur laughed. "It's not going to fetch itself, Merlin."
"Oh! Right. Of course."
"I don't...I don't suppose there will be cakes. To honor my mother's tragic plight, I mean. Will there?" Merlin was fond of the cakes of Camelot; the almond ones, especially, were always worth the fetching, and on the topic of desserts, he and Arthur had always been very like-minded.
"There very well may." Arthur's haughty expression faded, replaced with something softer, less sure. "It is a celebration, after all. Isn't it?"
Merlin grinned; just a little, just enough to call one up from Arthur, too. "Oh, yeah," he said, "yes, absolutely. It is."
Notes: ZOMG I wrote Merlin fic. Meep! Also, many thanks to astolat, kaneko and giglet for the, uh. I imagine they'll be calling it "encouragement". And for beta reading!
Feedback is always welcome. :)