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<3<3<3


Merlin shook the glass tube again with vigor. It did not turn a different shade of brown, nor did it miraculously turn into the pale pink color it was supposed to represent. It continued to be a stubborn shade of brown that did not bode well for those who might have an inflammation of the liver.

"I should make Gwaine drink it anyway," Merlin muttered angrily, waving his hand with as much contempt as he could muster, banishing the botched concoction away. He wasn't a completely rubbish potion master! He wasn't, all right? He could mix poisons and antidotes without even paying attention. He just couldn't manage to fix something not damaged by magic and it was startlingly inconvenient.

It didn't help that not many people in the castle were brave enough to test his healing powers, still convinced that he might turn them all into animals. (In his defense, when he turned Percival into a bear, it was an accident! And honestly, look at him; he's a mountain of a man.) The result being that the castle was now a cesspool of infection and disease, with the only cure coming when they're so close to death because, of course, that's when his magic leapt to attention to cure the patients nearly on the brink of death. Needless to say, they were having a bit of a problem since Gaius retired to the country.

Merlin scowled at the scry.

No matter how powerful he'd become, no matter how many lands he and Arthur had conquered or lives they saved, speaking to Gaius through a pool of water always brought Merlin back in time to the boy he used to be, all knobby knees and pent-up boyhood frustration. (To be fair, his knees were still quiet wobbly and he was only three-and-twenty now, although it felt like it had been much longer.) Merlin hated feeling young, almost as much as he hated the entire castle thinking he was a temperamental warlock not to be trifled with and yet, one arch of Gaius' eyebrow had him spiraling so fast into adolescence, it felt like he had never left.

"Meddling old man," Merlin cursed with an involuntary smile. He called Gaius once a week since the physician had travelled out to the country with a deaf squire and a pack-mule so overloaded, Merlin was sure they would all end up in a ditch between here and the cottage they were bound for.

He would be mortified to, once again, admit that his preventative healing skills were woefully inadequate unless mortal peril was involved. Gaius always sounded impossibly disapproving over scry and something about the watery image made his lectures more painful than when he was physically here, raised eyebrows and down turned mouth staring Merlin in the face without a kind pat on the back that usually followed extensive berating.

Merlin was in the middle of making a flannel shimmy down his work table to clean up the splotches from his potion making, when there was a tentative knock on his door.

He cringed. "Yes?"

The expected awkward and fearful pause came, as if they thought him to be sacrificing baby animals and plotting treason without even barring the door. The minds of nobles and castle-born servants had ceased to be something Merlin strove to fathom. He put them all in the same category as Arthur's desire to slay wild animals for sport—it was beyond his capability to understand.

"Myy-Lor—"

Merlin strode to the door and opened it with only a thought, hands placed on his hips to prevent him from doing something drastic in his frustration.

"I am not anyone's Lord," Merlin thundered, as much as he could. The long day mixing healing draughts had made his voice reedy from the smoke. "I have suffered many names from this castle's inhabitants but I will not be called a lord," he spat with distain," because that is a category for privileged fools."

Before him, Bartholomew trembled a bit. Merlin tried to steel his resolve but it always crumbled in the face of anyone actually being afraid of him. Bartholomew, almost twice Merlin's age, looked close to tears.

"Bugger," Merlin mumbled, trying to draw himself down, somehow make himself less formidable but it only served to make Bartholomew shake more. Merlin gave up. "What do you need?"

"The king sent—"

"Arthur is a prat," Merlin interrupted. "Don't let him bully you into coming up here. If you don't want to play messenger between him and I, you don't have to, do you understand me?"

Bartholomew looked like he was going to be sick. "Y-yes, My Lord."

"Merlin, my name is Merlin."

Bartholomew blinked, slowly, like panic was welling up and paralyzing him. Merlin sighed and felt like he hated the world, wanting desperately, if only for a few minutes, to go back to the days when he was just little Merlin from Ealdor and the only people afraid of him were the chickens in his mother's coop.

"What do you need, Bartholomew?"

The man just squeaked a little, stepped to the side and fled down the hall without another sound from him, except for the rapid tapping of his feet as he barreled down the tower stairs. Merlin was about to shout after him, tell him to stop running on his stairs because his tower, his bloody sentient tower, would get offended and Merlin would be stuck levitating himself up them for a week's time (Arthur yelling and threatening beheading the entire time). However, Merlin was distracted from hollering after him by something very odd. Where Bartholomew had stood just moments before was a very small, very dirty peasant girl.

"Well, hello," he said, accidentally—the words just tumbling out at the sight of the girl. She didn't respond to them, her large brown eyes staring unblinking at him. Her face was grimy but Merlin could spot what looked to be freckles spanning from one cheek to another. Her nose was button cute, her cheeks round and her hair fell to her thin shoulders, tangled and curling in a way that reminded him of Morgana's when she woke from a nightmare. The girl before him couldn't be a day older than thirteen.

"Um," Merlin started when the girl didn't respond. "Would you like to come in?"

He moved a little to the side of the door and gestured for her to come further into his chambers. Again, she didn't make a single sound but shuffled into the room. Her feet, tiny and dirt streaked were bare. Merlin felt something tighten in his chest at the memories of Ealdor this peasant girl provoked. He pushed them aside as he closed the door. When he turned around to face her, she was politely inspecting the rest of the room with wide eyes but she hadn't moved from her place near the door. Merlin cleared his throat.

"I'm Merlin, I'm the Court Sorcerer—not a Lord, yes, erm, sorry about all that," he said, wincing at his babbling. The girl stopped looking around, turning her giant brown eyes onto him. She didn't, however, say a word. "Sorry if I scared you. I'm harmless, really. Bartholomew is just a milksop."

No answer.

"Can you tell me your name?"

There was a long pause, where Merlin fiddled with the hem of his robes and cursed Bartholomew in his head. What in the world was that man thinking, bringing a little girl like this into Merlin's rooms? He didn't know what to do with children. Sure, he had loved to interact with the local kids when he went down to the lower town and many of them were so brazenly honest that it was refreshing, asking him to do innocent tricks instead of cowering inside their houses like many of their parents. The rumors were terribly exaggerated concerning his plot to enslave the children of Camelot as his magical army of witches and wizards.

When the young girl didn't answer, Merlin stepped closer to her, watching as shadows passed in her eyes and tension flowed through her body. She was scared, maybe a little wary, but only since Merlin was advancing on her and not before. He stopped a little ways from her and slowly lowed himself into a crouch.

"I'm not going to hurt you," he said. "Although, I imagine everyone says that, even if they don't mean it."

The girl blinked at him, her hands lying limply by her sides. Merlin sighed and tried a little bit of a smile before saying, "Can I show you something?"

She didn't run in the other direction, nor did she come any closer or speak a word. He took that for as much as permission as he was going to get from this mute-thing and held out both his hands toward her. Slowly, speaking a soft spell he conjured a tulip flower, holding it out between them like a peace offering.

The flower was meant for her, a little too small in his hands—too delicate—and as he put it between them, he snapped the green stem in half.

"Sorry," he said, clumsily. "It's for—" his words skidded to a stop as she stepped closer and touched her finger tip to the broken stem, still looking at him and not the flower.

Magic flooded the space between them with a soft blue light, hemming the stem together and leaving a very bright and beautiful smile on her face.

"Oh!" Merlin said happily, unfurling his palm to see the stem whole. "You've got magic, haven’t you?"

The girl continued to smile, taking the flower from his hand. The tension in her shoulders had left but she still wasn't speaking. Merlin watched her as she inspected the flower, like she was checking his craftsmanship, before she slipped it behind her ear. This time, her smile was shy and Merlin felt the strings of his heart tighten.

"You look lovely," he said softly.

Underneath all the dirt, he could see her blush.

<3<3<3


Merlin introduced her to Gwen after an hour of talking to her without response. It was clear that she didn't want to leave and Merlin didn't know if it was because the tower buzzed with the hum of powerful magic that she might find comforting. or if she was just attached to him.

"Go on," he whispered to her, crouched again to her level. "Gwen will help you get clean and find you some proper clothes."

The girl frowned and took a step toward him. Merlin felt his heart soar a little and smiled, kind and truthful, when her eyes turned away from panic and to curiosity. He conjured another tulip, forgoing the spell, this one was pale pink (the color his potion was supposed to be) and Merlin held it up between them.

"Let's make a deal," he said. "If you go with Gwen, just for a few hours, we can have dinner together, here in my tower and if we're lucky, a friend of mine will stop by. How do you feel about that, little witch?"

There was a moment, when it seemed as if she would stay and not permit Merlin to find out more about her. But she finally took the tulip, a ghost of a smile settling on her lips as Gwen took her hand and led her down the stairs.

Merlin was not far behind them.

Council was coming to a close, the remaining people of the court hovering around King Arthur. Merlin didn't stop or wait to be beckoned forward, he nodded at Leon who was trying to usher the people out of the hall so that Arthur could move onto a Round Table meeting with his knights. The people around them didn't seem inclined to leave quickly.

"A word, Sire," Merlin boomed, sweeping into the room with a dramatic flair that he usually saved for Arthur's most frustrated moments. Merlin noticed the way Arthur's face lit up for just a second while the court turned at Merlin's entrance. Merlin fought his own smile in return for this success.

When Arthur's days were bogged down with the heavy responsibility of the Crown, Merlin was making a complete and utter arse out of himself as a sacrifice for just one Arthurian smile. It was pathetic and not at all subtle, but Merlin was quickly becoming tired of subtle.

They had been waiting a long time.

First, it was because of Merlin's magic—the secret between them that kept them from warming each other's beds. The war came second and there was no time for declarations then, just a flurry of trust that ran so deep Merlin felt he might break from it. And now, Merlin wasn't sure what held the third obstacle between them. Maybe they were waiting for the dust to settle, peace had been only blanketing the land for the past winter and Arthur's coronation had only been at Yule.

Or maybe Arthur had tired of him, their friendship enough to keep him happy. It was perfectly understandable, if unwanted, and Merlin was not blind—the idea that a queen would convince Camelot of Arthur's stability, of his fatherly love for the land and its people, was not an unpopular idea.

Merlin loathed it.

"A word," Merlin repeated. This time, the whole hall startled and many of the council members fled without a backward glance. Leon looked apologetic but wary.

"Do you really need to speak to him? Because we're already late and I'm sure Percival has convinced Gwaine that gambling at a Round Table meeting is exactly what the king wants," Leon said, stepping between Merlin and the throne.

Merlin waved a hand and rolled his eyes. Percival loved to gamble away his knight pension in the lower taverns any way he could. More than once, Merlin had been summoned from his bed to save Percival from having to use his brute force in order to keep himself alive. Arthur's knights were not quiet, nor were they particularly aware that they were no longer boys, but men bound under a fairly strict code of law.

"I promise to only be a minute," Merlin said. "Bartholomew—"

"Have you been scaring the help again, Lord Merlin?"

Merlin tilted his head and looked around Leon's broad shoulder. "Been torturing your people with the wretched sound of your voice, Your Highness?"

Arthur laughed. Leon shook his head.

"Just send him along when you can," Leon finished, striding out of the room with a resigned sort of air about him.

(Merlin would bet a good deal of coins that when Arthur finally did arrive at the Round Table, Leon would be a week's pension behind.)

"Bartholomew is a bloody nuisance," Merlin stated firmly.

"So are you."

"He almost cried today! And he delivered me a child! Without a single explanation, Arthur." Merlin tried to sound stern but failed, mostly because Arthur's face shifted from amused to concerned at the mention of the girl.

He still looked beautiful, leaning against his throne in full armor and his favorite cape draped across his shoulders. There was something regal about him, naturally, but also kind and approachable in his features. Although Arthur was raised an arm's length away from true affection, he didn't rule his kingdom that way. Merlin was constantly surprised, heart always lurching to fill up with more love for this man when Arthur proved how far he'd come since the prattish man who assaulted peasants without thought.

"He didn't tell you?"

"No," Merlin sighed, stepping closer automatically. "He left a mute peasant girl in my care and didn't say a damn thing. Where did you find her?"

Arthur shook his head, brow furrowed. "She was found in the lower town two days ago, naked and silent."

"No one recognized her?"

Arthur looked away, eyes falling on his ring—which could only mean one thing as it was the only thing the castle still held of Morgana. The ring had been a gift from Morgana after Arthur had completed his first quest in the summer of his sixteenth year.

"Arthur—"

"Gwaine thinks she's from the Druid people," Arthur forced out. His voice was tight and wounded, like he was doing everything not to rage because he felt so much more than just anger. "There have been rumors."

Merlin reached out to twine his hand into Arthur's cloak without thought. He tugged a little until Arthur looked at him.

"What rumors?"

"That Morgana has turned against the Druids and reigns without mercy on the last of them," he said softly. "There have been reports of Druids on our borders, seeking shelter in small towns and trying to find one another."

Merlin immediately thought of Mordred, eyes just as wide as the young girl's. With sadness, he knew Mordred's would no longer be as innocent but mostly ringed with the power of Morgana's madness. Guilt, always present, wrapped tighter around his chest and he fisted Arthur's cloak with more need.

"You will send aid?" It was a question but Merlin made his opinion clear with his eyes. Arthur looked affronted.

"It's the discussion at the Round Table," Arthur said and then added, "not if but who, Merlin. I will not leave a peaceful people defenseless."

Relieve swept through him, he tugged at the red fabric. "Mostly peaceful, your highness," he said.

Arthur snorted. "Yes, well, plots against my life aside. Bartholomew brought the girl to my attention this morning and I thought—"

"That she would be more comfortable around me," Merlin finished for him. "King Arthur, what an oddly sensitive thought."

He put a mocking tone to it but they both know that Merlin's backhanded compliments were not just laced with humor. It hung in the air between them before he had to physically force himself to unhand Arthur's cloak and look away from the steady pulse in the tantalizing display of Arthur's neck.

"Do we have any other knowledge about her?"

Arthur's voice was just as rough as Merlin's, "Not at all."

"If it is Morgana, there will be few survivors," Merlin murmured. "She might be a threat."

Arthur shook his head.

"We've been wrong before."

No, it was not a 'we'. Mordred's destiny was Merlin's fault, not Arthur's and Merlin felt the regretful smiled twist over his features.

"You'll care for her?"

Arthur's face, gods, Merlin wanted to trace it with his hand and memorize it just the way it was, filled with so much hope, so much trust and desire. Merlin longed to know exactly which parts of him put that look on Arthur's face—which parts Arthur wanted to keep only for himself.

"I can hardly care for myself," Merlin said instead, smile rueful. "But the evidence of my care of others lies in your breathing body."

"You're awfully cheeky," Arthur replied. His eyes were amused and twinkling in the dying sunlight that filtered through the Great Hall's endless windows. Merlin couldn't stop himself from staring and basking in the small moments here, where he was the sole focus of Arthur's attention.

"Well, you know what they say," he says, turning away from Arthur and forcing himself to walk away. He needed to focus, with Morgana purging the Druids and all that it implied; he would need to have his wits about him. Not to mention the lost little girl who he had left with a promise of a meal with him.

"Merlin!"

He turned at the door. Arthur was a few steps from the throne, like he had tried to follow Merlin and then stopped himself. Merlin closed his eyes before meeting Arthur's, still blazing blue, across the room.

"What do they say?"

"Oh," Merlin said softly, "just, if we don't laugh at the circumstances of our lives, then we'll weep."

Arthur's laughter followed him out of the room.

<3<3<3


With the sun falling beneath the horizon, the stone of the castle was cooling. Merlin walked up the stairs of the tower lost in thought, thinking of all the things to be done about the Druids, and by the time he crested the top of the stairs, he was rather cold.

The tower was a very large room, circular and the ceiling stretched tall above him. It was sparsely decorated, since he'd only been in it for a few weeks and before that, he was used to having only a bedroll and the comfort of Arthur's safety in the form of his steady breath only steps away. He had indulged, stealing a mattress fit for a king and three times the size of the one he used to sleep in. There weren't any furs, because Merlin had felt too weird to take any, but he had grabbed more than his fair share of warm blankets and soft linens. The mountain of pillows was particularly useful when he was hiding from the world or lying to himself, denying that he had plans to share this too-big bed with someone in particular. The room was largely dominated by the bed but his work table and a bureau for his clothes were both large items. He had plans for bookshelves as well, soon.

Eventually.

Merlin shook his head and nodded twice, watching as the room whirled to life. Rags leapt to wash the floors of dirt, a broom crawled out from under his bed to tend to the cobwebs and soon the fresh smell of cedar filled the room.

While the room sorted itself out (it got angry when Merlin tried to help and he always wondered when his magic became something to be courted like a fickle infant), Merlin went to the window. He inhaled hard and when he opened his mouth, the trickle of bird calls came out. It lasted hardly a few minutes before a great owl showed up, perched on his sill.

"I need to know about Morgana," he whispered. The owl scowled, or at least what Merlin thought was a scowl and hooted softly before lifting a wing for Merlin to stroke.

"Will you go to the Druids as well? They know you're a bird of peace and a sign of my kinship," Merlin cooed. He was oddly attached to this ridiculous owl and had hoped, in vain, to endear the owl to him and keep her in the rafters above the room. But, like all things Merlin had affinity for, the owl was rather temperamental. "Please? They need you."

The owl looked skeptical.

Merlin scratched underneath the owl's wing until she nudged harder into his hand. He smiled and prodded the bird with his magic, letting it hover around them and expand. The owl seemed to enjoy this, as she gave a sharp cry and took off into the quickly darkening sky.

"God, Morgana," Merlin said into the golden air. "What have you become?"

There was no answer on the winds.

<3<3<3


Thankfully, the terror of Merlin's magic didn't reach to the squires. To them, they saw someone who would help them with their endless chores at the war-camp. They were all young but most of them had lived through the war and hardened with it. Merlin often found himself wishing he knew them all before they saw the bodies crumbling at the hands of magic and singing steel swords—he wished he could bask in their innocence once more. Nevertheless, he left his rooms still buzzing with magical housekeeping and hurried out to the armory, where most of the squires gathered while Arthur met with his knights in the bowels of the castle.

"Tristan, if you sharpen that blade anymore, it'll cut through the stone," Merlin chastised as a hello. The boys laughed but it was hollow. Merlin pushed aside the sheets of armor and hopped up to sit on the table. "Any news?"

"They're still in," Kay's squire, Tomas added. "But me ma has been hearing word about the Druids for days now."

Merlin nodded. "My guess would be that Lancelot goes," he said, catching Alain's eye. "He knows the people the best, maybe Elyan because he has a hand at healing and they both have enough rugged charm to sweet-talk gold from the mouth of babes."

The tension in the room eased as the boys all smiled knowingly. Merlin arched an eyebrow. Tristan shrugged, looking down at his hands. "Druids are all right, yeah? But if they're runnin' scared, don't want to be going toward what's killin' em, do we?"

Merlin felt something in himself settle. They were only afraid of Morgana, not the Druids, and that made Merlin feel loads better. Having to deal with refugees, magical ones, on top of commoner resistance wasn't something he was looking forward to. He gave them all a reassuring smile.

"Travel safe, lads," Merlin said, thinking of how he will wake early in the morning and sneak down to charm the knights' blades and lace their armor with enchantments, not forgetting to place the same on the squires' cloaks. It was the least he could do for these young men, so full of promise as the rules of knighthood changed and shifted, opening up opportunities that put fire in their hearts.

They all had expansive dreams.

"Now, there's a few coins in it for anyone who wants to serve me and a guest dinner tonight..."

<3<3<3


His room was admittedly the cleanest it had ever been. It smelled like fresh cedar, a smell he distinctly associated with home because of the dense cedar forest that bordered Ealdor to the north. When he was younger, his mother would send him out to peel the bark back and shave off slivers of wood and she’d boil them in water, filling the house with the soft fragrance. He hoped the smell would be as comforting for the young girl, a potential Druid refugee, as it was for him.

“Knock, knock,” Gwen’s voice said through the door and Merlin scrambled to open it, before realizing he needed only open it with his mind. It was difficult to get used to performing magic in the castle again, out in the open and unashamed. When they had been at war, the traveling camps were easy with magic and Arthur was constantly encouraging him to perform magic in the open as to ease the minds of the people and the soldiers. Being back in the castle was an entirely different matter.

“Hi,” Merlin said awkwardly when the door opened to reveal Gwen and the girl. Gwen was wearing a kind smile and the young girl was dressed in breeches and a tunic, a surprising choice for a girl her age. Merlin approached them both with a smile of his own. “Did you pick your clothes out?”

The girl didn’t answer, although Merlin noticed that she still had the tulip gripped in her hand—it was a little soggy but the sight made joy bloom in his chest.

“She didn’t fancy the look of the dresses,” Gwen said kindly, “so I snuck in and nabbed something a bit more to her taste, didn’t I?”

There was a brief pause before Merlin said, “Listen, someone will bring us supper soon. Would you like to draw? I’ve stolen some of the Prince’s paints. They’re over there on the table.”

It took a minute but the girl finally looked away from Merlin’s face and ran over to the table, spreading out the precious paper (which Arthur never used unless he was illustrating a war effort) and lined up the ink wells. There wasn’t a smile on her face but she looked intent. Merlin turned back to Gwen.

“Any trouble?”

Gwen’s smile waned a bit, touched with sadness. “She didn’t like to be touched, which is understandable if she’s a survivor.”

“You’ve heard?”

“Just rumors,” she said softly, her mouth set stern. “My father always said that before the purge, working for the Druids was the best business experience he’d ever had. They were always kind.”

Merlin nodded. “It’s hard to imagine a solid reason why she would go after them,” he replied, although his mind drifted to Mordred. “Maybe she’s truly lost her mind now.”

“Being defeated by you and King Arthur didn’t help,” Gwen said, pride in her voice but empathy as well.

“Even six months ago, I wondered if it was really her or if Mordred...” Merlin whispered.

“You think?”

Merlin shook his head. “Most likely, it seems like the only logical explanation. Mordred hated his Druid roots, blamed them for siding with me when I came into my power and a whole host of other things his mind had warped into false truths.”

Merlin tried to offer a comforting smile but he knew it fell flat when Gwen took his hand, rubbing her fingers over his knuckles. They were both in an odd place now, no longer servants of any kind and yet unaware of the future. Taking a title seemed awful, some sort of betrayal of their parents. So they did what they wanted and helped where they could because there was nothing else to do but wait.

Waiting felt like a curse.

He turned to look at the girl, her hair still in wild curls shadowing her face as she furiously scribbled with the ink and charcoals Merlin had found.

“She hasn’t spoken a word,” Gwen murmured. “But I’m fairly certain she understands us when we talk.”

Merlin nodded. “Yes, I think so too. I’m going to try and get some information out of her through the drawings. I’ll let you know if anything changes,” he replied, releasing her hand with a squeeze. “Thank you for helping.”

“Anytime.”

With that, she was gone down the stairs and Merlin was left alone with a furiously drawing child. Merlin gathered his robes around him, careful not to trip over them, and made his way over to her. She was hardly frightening and if she was a trained assassin then they had been hoodwinked by someone who knew them well. Her hair was partially obscuring her face from view but what Merlin could see was her tongue poking out in concentration.

“Can I see what you’re drawing?”

She stilled and pushed the delicate paper across the table. Merlin climbed over the bench just as his fingers were grasping the paper. There were two figures drawn, one was clearly the girl dressed in the clothes she showed up at Merlin’s door with, and a large black ‘x’ was drawn over her mouth. The other figure looked suspiciously like Merlin, although the shade of his robes wasn't that vibrant of a purple and surely his hair wasn’t that unruly. Above both of the stick figures were runes.

“You’re learned,” Merlin said softly, looking up to see the little girl smile. “I’m not familiar with it but I have lots of books,” he continued and nodded to the stacks of books on the floor. “Are you a Druid?”

For a moment, it seemed as if the girl wouldn’t answer but slowly she nodded her head and then promptly burst into tears.

“Oh no!” He said, panicky. “Um, don’t cry? Please? Because I’m rubbish with anything that isn’t magic, dammit,” he continued as tracks of big, silent tears made their way down the girl's cheeks. “Do you...”

Merlin scooted forward and held out his arms awkwardly. “Do you want a hug? Gwen said--” Before he could finish, the young girl had crawled up and over the table to land in Merlin’s lap, burying her wet face into his robes.

“Wow, okay, you’re um... safe, yeah?”

He was absolutely awful at this.

He dropped his arms to cradle her small frame as she seemed to burrow more intently into the barrel of his chest and the heavy draping of his robes. He still felt awkward, not knowing exactly how much she wanted to be touched but after a few moments, Merlin risked running a hand down her curls and cooing at her like he did with his favorite owl. She didn’t pull away or bite him, so he counted it as a win.

This business of comforting was difficult.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I didn’t mean to upset you.”

There were only snuffles in response.

With a whispered spell, he levitated his Druid teachings book toward him and thumbed to the pages on Druid languages. Although many of the Druid people spoke the same language, their dialects were vastly different from one another based on region. Thankfully, their written language was consistent. His next stop was the alphabet.

He stared at the pages and compared them to the girl’s sloppy writing.

“I know this is a strange question, but are you sure this is right?”

The little girl didn’t answer. Merlin moved onto the lettering above the figure that looked like him. There, the letters spelled out E-M-R-Y-S in very distinct writing. If the writing didn’t give her away, then her knowledge of who he was did—only the Druids knew him by that name. Other magical folk understood who Emrys was and who Merlin was, but they hadn’t put the two together. The Druids had always know who he was and what he was meant to do.

He tapped the girl on the shoulder.

"You're name is Wart?"

She nodded her head fiercely, almost defiant, before more runes appeared.

“Is it a nickname, then? Is your given name Arthur?”

The crying child lifted her head. Her eyes were ringed-red and a bit of snot was running out of her nose but the frown on her face was distinct. She was giving him a look that indicated that she thought very little of his intelligence.

“Or, em, sorry, I mean, you didn’t write Arthur, so I guess you must not like to be called that,” Merlin babbled. “You like to be called Wart?”

The smile that bloomed on her face was genuine.

“Well, I’m going to admit that it’s a bit strange that you’re, you know, a girl and you have the same name as my male best friend,” Merlin said. “But if that’s what you want to be called, if that’s what makes you smile like this, then Wart it is.”

Wart, smile still plastered on her face, waved at him. Merlin laughed and pushed her hair out of her face. “You don’t have to call me Emrys,” he said absently, “I’m not even sure what that means, really. All that prophecy stuff might be nothing. I just don’t want to get your hopes up, yeah? Arthur and I--”

Wart frowned and Merlin stopped talk, shaking his head.

“Not you, Wart. I have this friend, his name is Arthur. He’s actually kind of important. He’s the King of Camelot,” Merlin said brightly. Wart, bless her heart, didn’t look moved by this information. “You’ll meet him soon, by my guess. Although, to warn you, he’s a bit of a prat.”

Wart wrinkled her nose.

“Yes, well,” Merlin laughed out. “I could see how you would think that, but he’s my best friend and according to your people’s prophecies, him and I are supposed to do some pretty amazing stuff.”

Wart blinked at him.

Merlin sighed. “I’m just saying that if you call me Emrys and I don’t unite Albion or become the most powerful wizard in all the land, don’t be mad, okay?”

This time, Wart smiled wildly and tugged on his clothes. She was incredibly endearing and Merlin felt his heart grow four sizes just under her gaze. She still had snot running down her lip and if this, if this adorable little girl was a spy, Merlin would wear formal robes for the rest of his life.

“Supper will be here soon,” Merlin said absently. “Why don’t you go back to drawing and I’ll try and figure out a way for us to communicate that doesn’t involve you speaking, sounds good?”

Her only answer was to pat his head again and then move off of his lap, resuming her furious coloring on the other side of the table. Merlin tried not to smile too widely and went searching in the stack of books he had on Druids and communication spells.

<3<3<3


Merlin stared at the mass of unruly hair peeking out from underneath his covers. Wart had spent the whole night drawing pictures of Merlin and her, doing magic together and all sorts of other things (one of which looked like a mutant horse—some kind of unicorn-dragon combination—but Merlin was putting that down to emotional trauma) and finally, after practically licking the plate she was given, she had devoured half of Merlin’s meal and crawled into his bed when he wasn’t looking.

She was fast asleep.

After learning of her unfortunate name, Merlin had found himself marveled at how much she shared in common with his Arthur. She ate her weight in food, frowned at Merlin whenever he babbled too much, looked at him with those lovely eyes that spoke volumes and—well, she was huddled up in his bed, hogging all the covers and if that wasn’t a royal trait, he didn’t know what was.

(More than once, Merlin had found Arthur taking a nap in Merlin's tower. He had been shocked at first, seeing Arthur's sleeping form so at home in Merlin's bed, but Arthur had awoken shortly afterward with a mumbled explanation and sleep flushed cheeks. Apparently, he couldn't get a decent nap without one or more people interrupting him and Merlin's magical tower was the only place he could be undisturbed. Merlin ignored the flimsy excuses that made his blood boil and took what he could get—the sight of Arthur curled up in his bed.)

She looked like Morgana and Arthur had merged together and created Wart, orphan Druid, who still had a bad habit of sucking on her thumb.

Merlin tried not to smile look a loon, but it was hard.

“Merlin?”

He whirled around to see the small basin by the window rippling with Gaius’ image. He walked over with a smile, waving his hand to put up a sound barrier to keep from disturbing Wart’s rest. (Although, to be fair, if she was anything like Arthur then she would sleep through a siege on Camelot.)

“Hello, Gaius.”

Gaius squinted at him. “You look tired, my boy.”

“Ha! You don’t know the half of it.”

“Oh dear,” Gaius said wearily, “you'd best tell me then.”

Merlin started with the potion, ranting and raving about how no matter what kind of preventative healing he tired, he failed more miserably than the last attempt. Gaius, evil old man that he was, just looked at him disapprovingly.

“You’re not patient enough,” Gaius rumbled. “You rely too much on your elemental magic to guide you and until someone shows you how it feels to heal people, you best not touch them. You might kill them instead.”

“Thanks for your vote of confidence,” Merlin mumbled, scowling across the basin. “But healing castle-folk is the least of my problems.”

“What did King Arthur do now?”

“The king? Thankfully, he’s being rather tame. Although, who knows how long that will last—I swear to you, the longer that crown sits on his head, the more he desires nothing more than to do terrifyingly dangerous things clad only in his breeches. However, I’m talking about another Arthur, one that goes by Wart.”

And then he explained, as much as he could, to Gaius. Thankfully, Gaius was quite used to hearing insane and improbable stories from Merlin. Gaius looked shocked at first, drinking heavily from his mead, but by the end of the story he was chuckling at Merlin’s misfortunes with the small Druid child.

“Isn’t it daft?” Merlin said at last. “Her name is Arthur. How could that possibly be a coincidence?”

“Most likely not, although it's not entirely insane.”

“Explain please.”

Gaius snorted. “No need to get snippy. Druids are known for taking herbs to induce hallucinations or visions right before birth. Many use these prophecies to name their children properly—to prepare them for the world they will grow up in.”

“Wait,” Merlin interrupted. “Like, giving their kid a warrior name if there’s conflict in their future?”

“Yes, or naming them Arthur, despite their gender, if the vision foretells a child’s journey into Camelot or maybe, a meeting with the most prophesied wizard in the land,” Gaius added.

Merlin blinked. Druids were fascinating but sometimes, their customs astounded Merlin. Who took hallucinogenic drugs while with child? Or named their little girl after a king, just to make sure Merlin took notice of her in the changeable future? Bloody insane was what it was.

“So you think it was seen that she would be here?”

Gaius shrugged. “It’s possible that her fate lies with you and your name hasn’t been mentioned in Druid lore without Arthur’s for quite a long time, lad.”

“Can I just say something?”

“Don’t be silly boy, no one cares what you say,” Gaius chuckled into his cup. “Now, tell me more about these rumors about the Druid refugees...”

And so, Merlin did.

<3<3<3


The candles were almost half burnt, signaling that it was nearly the middle of the night and Merlin hadn’t managed to find out anything new from his bird-messengers, nor had Arthur traveled up the tower to see him.

Merlin usually gave in to his curiosity and went to find him but he didn’t want to leave Wart by herself, just in case she woke and was scared. (The entire time he watched her sleep, an ache had started in his chest and he had to physically restrain himself from trying to scry his own mother.)

There were a few spells that helped lift speech curses but Merlin was convinced that she was choosing not to talk. Trauma could manifest in myriad ways and Merlin didn’t want to mess with the healing process. If Wart was a survivor of Morgana’s attack, no doubt subject to horrifying displays of violence, death and torture, then she needed to heal—that was much more important than getting information for Merlin.

The other spells required her to wake and so Merlin would wait until she did. He spent the rest of the evening trying to learn the Druid alphabet because the safest spell allowed her to write words in the air, visible for a few seconds—just long enough to read—and that would be very convenient for them to communicate. He would have to see if she could cast it in the morning.

He pondered Wart’s magical skills extensively. Most Druids had some elemental magic but even the simple spell of knitting the tulip’s stem back together was more complicated than anything he’d ever seen from a Druid, especially one so young. (Mordred didn’t count. He was unnatural.) Even then, Wart had done magic wordlessly, a skill that was usually learned. Merlin was wondering if her skills were specific in flowers, possibly just living things or magical things, when Arthur entered the room.

“You should probably knock,” Merlin said, casting a sound barrier spell over them to avoid waking Wart. She was sleeping fitfully, tossing and turning in his bed. The only sounds she made were nonsensical and even though Merlin could soothe her sleep, natural sleep—even troubled—was better than a magically induced one.

“You never do,” was Arthur’s response when Merlin looked away from Wart. Arthur looked tired but the set of his shoulders wasn’t tense, which meant the meeting with the knights went well. They were probably over the moon with something to do—they hadn’t been back long but many of them weren’t used to the lazy way of castle life. (The other day, Merlin had almost conjured up a magical beast for them to fight just to give them something to do that didn't involve bedding chamber maids, setting up a gambling ring or, in Gwaine's case, convincing Merlin that being educated on all things magical was utter nonsense and that wouldn't their time be better spent getting pissed on the local honey wine and making horrid decisions?)

“Is that her?” Arthur asked, voice lower now and Merlin blushed at his wandering mind.

“Oh yes, she fell asleep when my back was turned and has claimed the bed for herself,” Merlin replied with amusement. “She seems to act first and beg forgiveness later. Given her name, I shouldn't be surprised.”

“She told you her name?” Arthur said with eyes wide and ridiculous looking in his surprise but Merlin marveled at those expressions that were rare, so open and truthful now that Arthur was king and every emotion was guarded or faked for an audience.

“No, she hasn’t spoken since she got here. She wrote it down.”

Arthur’s mouth gaped prettily. “She’s learned?”

Merlin laughed. “Don’t sound so shocked, Sire. The Druids are generally very good with their education.”

Arthur ignored that. He never once questioned the fact that Merlin was learned before he came to Camelot, but Arthur generally assumed that everyone was simple unless they were brought up inside Camelot's high walls like him.

“What’s her name?” The look in his eye said he was ignoring Merlin’s lecture on underestimating the peasants for today. Merlin smirked.

“Her name is Arthur,” Merlin drawled for effect, watching as Arthur stilled in shock. “Although, she prefers Wart to her given name.”

“You’re pulling my leg.”

Merlin smirked. “Oh no, she lives up to her name too. She ate her entire weight in food from the kitchens and snuck into my bed to steal all the covers. I’m afraid to touch her to see if she is as grumpy as you are when you are awoken.”

“Kings are not grumpy.”

“You’re a bloody terrible liar,” Merlin commented. "And I've the memory of several unsavory bruises as a result of mornings where you'd rather have been left undisturbed." Arthur glared and went to pace the room in thought.

“How are the knights?”

Arthur threw his hands up, as if to say, unruly as usual and then added, “I’ve sent Lancelot to the north with riders and Elyan to the south. They’re supposed to send word three days hence, if not sooner, with what they've found.”

Merlin watched as Arthur continued to wear the length of the floor with his boots. His jaw was tight and Merlin felt a twinge of sympathy—Arthur hated to stay behind. If one of them were to run into trouble, he would never forgive himself. Merlin trampled down the urge to go to him.

“Thank you,” Merlin said instead, “for offering aid. They haven’t always been kind to you.”

“Don't be ridiculous, Merlin.”

Merlin shook his head. “Just because it’s the right thing to do, doesn’t mean it’s easy, Arthur.”

There was silence from his end, head bowed as a blush worked up Arthur's cheeks. Arthur could gloat and be an arrogant pillock most of the time, but when it mattered, the praise made him sheepish and uncomfortable. There were times when Merlin wanted to praise him with other words and see just how far the flush of his noble heart went.

“They have judged you for your father’s mistakes more than once,” Merlin said, “you owe them nothing and yet you often extend peace to them. Why continue to offer them your kindness?” He was curious. It was not long ago that Arthur blamed the rot inside Morgana’s heart on the Druid people and the thought of a boy like Mordred bringing any King of Camelot to his death was not news heard lightly by Arthur.

“I don’t—" Arthur stopped and frowned, looking away to the window. His voice was vulnerable, soft around the edges and pool deep. Merlin’s chest ached violently. “I don’t want to lose you.”

“Arthur?”

The line of Arthur’s back was straight and Merlin stared, willing him to turn around and speak face to face about these things. He longed to see Arthur’s eyes during these rare confessions. So often the moments they had together were veiled with something else and they rarely revealed true honesty on all fronts.

“I failed Morgana that way, keeping her in fear—never reaching out to her,” Arthur continued stoically. “I could see it in her eyes, after a night of visions, how she longed to stop lying and I ignored her, pushed her away for selfish reasons. Even my father's wrath shouldn't have stood between our siblingship." Merlin felt his heart quake, ever so softly, at Arthur's self-reflection. He still hadn't turned but Merlin watched the line of his neck as he continued talking.

"Madness took her while she was waiting for me, Merlin. What happens when you tire of waiting? What will happen when I can’t do enough for you and I lose you, as well?”

This time, Merlin didn’t hesitate. He was up and out of his seat to be there, a hair’s breadth of space between his front and Arthur’s broad back. Arthur smelled like the cold stone of the castle, armor, sweat from climbing the stairs and something else that was softer, masculine and bone deep, but subtle in the way that it smelt, undeniably, like home. It made Merlin’s cheeks heat with arousal, yes, but also the uncomfortable feeling that they were missing something, that they were always one step behind what they wanted.

“I will never leave you,” Merlin whispered. The power of his breath fluttered the hairs at the base of Arthur’s neck.

“Don’t make false promises.”

Merlin closed his eyes. Gods, there was something about Arthur’s voice that gnawed at him, laid him bare without his permission and urged him to fall to his knees. Before Camelot fell to Morgana, the lengths he was willing to go for Arthur scared him. Now they were just facts, unchangeable and solid in the place they held in Merlin's self-identification but there seemed to be this impossible void that he couldn't surmount, couldn't get Arthur to understand—not even death would part them for long.

“I don’t make promises,” Merlin pleaded, knowing that his words felt inadequate. “I’m a very powerful man, Arthur. I tell the future.”

Arthur scoffed. “You’re no seer.”

“I do not have to have the talent of the future to know this,” he said, angrily. “I have waited for you to be king, through the dark times of our past and the uncertainty of our present because I am certain of our future.”

Not truly a lie, but not complete truth either. Merlin was sure of the future he desired but unsure if they would ever achieve it. Love was never plain—nothing was plain between the two of them—but love felt hopeless and it wasn’t fair. Was this to be their destiny; always dancing around each other and trying to figure out if there was time to be selfish, time to figure out if this unnamable but invincible thing between them was worth exploring—because Merlin had neither the heart nor the courage to be alone forever.

Arthur looked back, his face tilted over his shoulder as if he was watching an enemy from behind. Except his face had lost its sharpness, his jaw was less tight and the tiny lines by his eyes were gone. He looked unabashedly open and vulnerable, like everything he knew was written in this moment.

"Arthur—"

Merlin's breath left him in a sharp exhale when he felt Arthur reach back and their fingers brushed. His fingertips tingled as Arthur explored them awkwardly, running a finger over the bones of Merlin's hand like he was reading them and memorizing the messages they contained. It reminded Merlin of the old blind woman who lived at the very edge of town in Ealdor; how she would run her hands over everyone's face or how she would trail her fingertips over everything around her as if she was translating the texture into memory and visualizing how things took shape. The memory was fond and Merlin's chest throbbed, his ribs feeling too tight around the rest of his organs.

A pull came at his robes.

When Merlin turned around, his fingers desperate to keep contact with Arthur's, Wart was there at his side tugging at his robes and looking adorably disheveled from sleep.

"Hey Wart."

Merlin tried to keep track of Arthur's fingers but they were already chased back to his side and Merlin tried not to let the disappointment show on his face.

"What are you doing out of bed, it's still late," Merlin said, bending down to her level. She smiled softly at him and then squinted up at Arthur with a frown. "Oh, that's my friend."

"Merlin, what have I said about introducing me like that?"

Merlin glared back over his shoulder. "That you love being introduced as my friend because most of the time it stops you from getting attacked by overzealous magic-doers."

Arthur pouted, looking haughty and very dignified, even though he was still blushing from their conversation. Merlin wanted to push him out the window or kiss the down turns of his mouth—he couldn't quite decide.

"This is Arthur," Merlin said, turning back to Wart's sleepy face. "He's the King of Camelot and a very good friend of mine."

Wart seemed to consider the imposing figure of Arthur, who puffed out his chest and generally was ridiculously uncomfortable around children, and then shrugged, shifting her attention back to Merlin. Her namesake, it seemed, was of little consequence to her. She reached out her hand, only to retract it at once, as if she was having second thoughts.

Merlin held out his hand. "It's alright," he said. "What do you need, Wart?"

She looked determined as she reached out again and grabbed his hand. Merlin decided that his smile probably looked goofy and a little delusional it was so wide but how was he supposed to remain sane-looking when adorable orphan children wanted to hold his hand?

Wart tugged a bit and Merlin nodded, grasping her hand tightly in his. He turned back to Arthur, remembering that only a few moments before, it was Arthur's hand in Merlin's.

"Where are we going?" Merlin said, turning back to Wart as she pulled on his hand.

Wart padded silently over the floor and dragged Merlin over to the bed where she crawled in and gave a little bit more of a tug until Merlin followed.

"We're sleeping now? You're awful pushy, you know," Merlin murmured as she launched herself at his chest and burrowed her head into his robes. "Just like another Arthur I know," he continued, staring at Arthur from where he was standing across the room.

Arthur sighed, his facial expression hard to read. "Please stop comparing me to children," he said but his heart wasn't in it and if Merlin wasn't hallucinating, there was a hint of smile on his face.

"Turn out the candles?"

Arthur arched an eyebrow and Merlin fought a blush.

"Please?"

Arthur didn't reply, but he moved about the room softly to extinguish the candles floating at eye level. It was domestic and heartbreaking, watching him move so easily around the room like it was his home. The tension in his shoulders was gone, leaving him looking tired but still regal and masculine in the dying candle light. Merlin openly watched him, not bothering to conceal his attention and when Arthur came to the candles over by the bed, Merlin met his gaze with, what he hoped, was a resolute and honest one of his own.

They wanted this, right? There was thickness between them that promised so much more if they just reached for it. Merlin looked Arthur, gorgeous and noble Arthur, in the eye and tried to convey with as much blatant honesty as he could, that he wanted this and that he wasn't going anywhere.

Arthur's face was soft, open and Merlin fought the urge to surge up and kiss him, if only for a moment, to taste what that look meant—to touch it with his tongue and memorize the flavor there.

"Goodnight, Merlin," Arthur rumbled, voice low.

He extinguished the candle and swept out of the room before Merlin could respond.

"Oh, Wart," Merlin mumbled into the girl's hair, pulling her closer to him and lying back into the pillows. It was a long time before he found sleep but it was the earliest he had managed to get to sleep in weeks.

<3<3<3


link to part two.
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December 2011

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