Prey

Sep. 13th, 2009 08:53 pm
starsandatoms: ([merlin] mira que soy cazador)
[personal profile] starsandatoms
Title: Prey Fandom: Merlin Spoilers: Through series 1 Summary: Arthur hears the baying of wolves as he awakens. Arthur hears the baying of wolves as he awakens, though the sound seems to fade as he approaches consciousness; it lingers in his ears as he opens his eyes. Gaius's smiling face appears above him, and the rich burgundy of the hangings above his bed. "Welcome back, Your Highness," he says, although the way the corners of his eyes are crinkling tells Arthur he's still worried. "How do you feel?" Arthur tries to sit up, but gives up pretty much immediately with a groan. "Like I've been trampled on by a pack of horses. What in the hell happened?" "You've been ill," says Gaius, turning away to mess with some tincture or potion or whatever it is he does. "What's the last you remember?" Arthur frowns, rubbing his forehead. "Lady Katerin and her father arrived, and Father had a banquet in their honor..." "That was a week ago, sire," says Gaius. "The fever reached your brain – it would explain why you can't remember, and also some of your more...recent behavior." Arthur does sit up this time, although his head spins and pretty much all of him aches, to glare at Gaius. "My more recent behavior? Such as?" "I'm certain nobody will hold it against you," says Gaius dismissively, turning back towards him with a vial of some vile-smelling liquid in one hand. "This should help clear your head." Arthur braces himself and gulps it as quickly as possible. It tastes like nothing, which is even more disconcerting than something horrible would have been. He hands the vial back to Gaius and looks around – his quarters are strewn with clothes, papers, and generally appear to have been savaged by a wounded animal. "What happened here?" he demands. "Where's Merlin?" "Unfortunately, in his zeal to care for you while you were ill, Merlin himself has been afflicted by the same fever," says Gaius, blank-faced. "He's staying in his rooms until he recovers – if this is contagious, we do wish to keep it contained." "Is he all right?" asks Arthur. "He'll be fine," says Gaius, still suspiciously expressionless. "I'm afraid it affected him a bit more than you – being from the countryside, his natural immunities aren't quite - " "But he'll be all right?" repeats Arthur. The corner of Gaius's mouth twitches, before he gives in to a tender smile. "With time, yes. He'll be fine." "Oh," says Arthur, allowing himself to fall back onto the bed. "Good. It's still his job to clean all this up." The next visit that he's actually awake for is Morgana, who's sitting by his bed when he wakes up, watching him warily, like she would a wild dog. "You've been taking your time getting out of bed," she says without preamble. "Gaius said you woke up last night." "I've been ill," says Arthur defensively, trying to wake himself up more – it's always a bad idea to be less than completely coherent when trying to deal with Morgana. "Perhaps you heard. I don't even remember anything that happened since Lady Katerin and her father arrived." Morgana raises an eyebrow, but with more skepticism than doubt. "Well, if you'd like, I can make you a list of people to apologize to. Since you apparently can't make it yourself." "Did I embarrass myself that badly?" asks Arthur. "You certainly set new records," says Morgana tartly. "Let me assure you, Merlin will be at the top of that list, underlined and circled several times. Frankly, you're lucky he hasn't fled the entirety of Albion to escape you, being your servant as long as he has - " "I'll have you know, he thinks I'll be a great king," Arthur protests. "He told me so." " - putting up with all you throw at him," finishes Morgana. "And now he's ill for his troubles besides." "Are you waiting for me to begin singing his praises?" asks Arthur tiredly. Morgana crosses her arms. "Well, it certainly wouldn't hurt." Arthur sighs. "I couldn't ask for a better servant," he says dully. Morgana raises another skeptical eyebrow at him, and he amends, this time with some actual, albeit resigned, sincerity, "I couldn't ask for a better friend." That seems to be what she's waiting to her, because she uncrosses her arms, although her eyes lose none of their intensity. "No," she says meaningfully. "You couldn't." Before Arthur even has a chance to be confused, the door to his chambers opens again, and this time his father enters, his cloak sweeping behind him. The furrow between his brows tells Arthur he's worried, or has been, but at the same time the thinness of his lips makes his displeasure perfectly clear. There's also, worryingly, a rather large and purpling bruise on his cheekbone. "I see you're awake," he says coolly, although he comes to stand beside Morgana. "How are you feeling?" "Exhausted," says Arthur. "And confused." "Yes, Gaius said your memory had been effected," says Uther. Arthur can't make himself stop staring at the bruise. "I brought you these, to work on while you recover." He places a stack of papers at Arthur's elbow. "The reports from the southern and eastern fronts. You will report to me about them when you're well again." He looks pointedly at his son. "And make amends to Lady Katerin, I hope." Arthur hesitates, but nods. "I – yes. I will. For whatever it was." "Good." Uther leans down and puts a hand on Arthur's arm, just for a moment, then leaves him and Morgana alone again. There's silence for a moment, until Arthur breaks it. "Please tell me that bruise wasn't me," says Arthur. "I've never lied to you to make you feel better, and I'm certainly not going to begin now," says Morgana. "Just how long, exactly, is that list of people to apologize to?" "Well, Merlin, first and foremost, for getting him ill along with you." Morgana holds up a finger, and adds one for each name. "Uther, for obvious reasons. Lady Katerin, although I'm tempted to leave her off the list since I know you're incapable of the level of groveling that will take – although you should still try, of course. The castle porter, who got put in the stocks when you got around him three nights ago - " "Why did I have to get around the castle porter? I can come and go as I please," says Arthur. "Not when Uther expressly forbid you to leave after you neglected your duties all day to go hunting," says Morgana. As soon as she says it, she sits back a bit, and her lips purse just a little as if she's kicking herself for saying something she shouldn't have – it's a look Arthur doesn't often see on her, since she rarely says something if she doesn't entirely mean to say it, but he remembers it from the few times he has. She stands abruptly. "You should rest," she tells him. "It looks like you've got some paperwork to catch up on." "Morgana - " says Arthur, and she turns back around from the door. "Gaius said Merlin was ill. Have you seen him?" Morgana tosses her hair over one shoulder – she always used to do that as a girl, whenever she was about to lie. "He's fine," she says. "Resting. Just like you should be." She leaves. The green of the forest, blurring past him, and the heavy tumbling of hooves on hard-packed dirt, sweat stinging against the blistering calluses on his palms, his fingers, the smooth wood of his bow and the rhythmic pressure of the horn on his back smacking against him as he rides, the glimpses of color that he follows, bright red around the neck like blood soon to come - Arthur is alone when he wakes up this time, although he half-expects to feel a saddle beneath him; he's even got his arms out in front of him, as if he'd been trying to hold some non-existent reins. He lets them flops back down on the bed and just lies there for a moment, trying to recapture what, exactly, he was dreaming about, but it's no use. He sits up, and finds his head hardly aches at all. There are some rumpled clothes hung over the back of one of his chairs, too, so he chooses to take it as a sign. He's halfway to Gaius's chamber, having made it thus far without getting dizzy, fainting, or swooning, which he considers to be a relief, when he quite literally runs into Gwen. "Oh – sorry, sorry - " "No, that was me - I should've watched where I was going." Gwen gives him a look even as she kneels to pick up the sheets she'd been holding and the papers Arthur had had. "Should you even be out of bed, sire? Gaius spoke as though it'd be a few days before you were up and about." Arthur makes a face, but leans down to help and tries to ignore the way the world tilts sideways a bit. "Clearly my father should re-evaluate Gaius's position as chief physician, then, because I feel fine." "You look a bit pale," says Gwen. "I said I feel fine." Arthur helps stack the folded sheets into Gwen's arms, and stands, trying to find a way to lean discreetly against the wall for support. "Besides, I was going down to see him anyway." "I think he's a bit busy right now," says Gwen quickly. "Merlin's still ill - " "So I've been hearing," says Arthur, frowning. "He'll be fine," adds Gwen. "Just – well, obviously you know how it saps the energy from you. And he's been acting odd besides, so we're trying to make sure he doesn't do anything – unwise." She looks away from Arthur. "Especially while we have visitors." "Yes, I'd heard about Lady Katerin," says Arthur. "I don't suppose you know what I did to offend her?" Gwen's eyes widen. "Oh," she says. "Yes, oh," says Arthur. "I take it it's bad, then?" "Well," says Gwen carefully. Arthur nods at her in encouragement. "You sort of. Kissed her." Arthur lets out a breath. "Oh, I kissed her? That's all? I've kissed lots of girls, and none of them have minded - " "In front of the entire court?" Arthur pauses, then grimaces. "The - entire court?" Gwen nods. "My father?" She nods again. "Her father?" Another nod. Arthur groans. "And I suppose everyone's heard by now." "Pretty much," Gwen agrees. "Although - I didn't so much hear about it as I was...there. And she really didn't look too displeased, even though she slapped you - I think that was more for show." Arthur groans again, louder this time. "Fantastic. I hope that was at least the worst of it." There's an awkward pause as Gwen rather pointedly doesn't say anything. "So, not the worst of it, then," says Arthur. "I'm not saying any of us blame you, sire," adds Gwen hastily. "We understand that it was the ague - " "I thought it was fever," says Arthur sharply. Gwen looks at him for a moment with her eyes wide, before saying easily, "I honestly couldn't tell you the difference – Gaius is the physician, not me." She holds up her stack of towels. "I'd best be going, sire." "Right," says Arthur slowly, and Gwen hurries down the hallway. Arthur looks after her, just for a moment, before continuing on his own way. Gaius opens the door to his quarters almost immediately when Arthur knocks. "Sire," he says, looking surprised. "You shouldn't be out of bed." "And yet, here I am," says Arthur. "And clearly, I'm capable of walking from one side of the castle to the other, which ought to be enough for you to take me off of bedrest." "Yes, yes, I suppose," says Gaius, clearly distracted. "Just make sure you don't overexert yourself." "Right, will do," says Arthur. "Is Merlin around here somewhere?" Gaius's face closes up again. "He's still ill," he says. "I'm not comfortable with him having visitors until we know whether or not - " "Whether or not he could get others sick, right," says Arthur. "But how come you can see him, then?" "This particular illness can't be caught twice, and I had it when I was a boy," says Gaius. "Then I'm fine," says Arthur. "I'd like to see him." "Sire - " begins Gaius, but Arthur cuts him off. "I'd really like to see him," he says in his best I-am-the-Crown-Prince-so-listen-to-me voice. It works, for once, and Gaius stands back to let him in. "He's been resting, mostly," says Gaius, leading him to Merlin's quarters. "The early stages of the fever make it particularly difficult to sleep – which is why you've been sleeping so much now that you are able." He pushes open the door to Merlin's room, and holds it for Arthur; Arthur goes in first, but stops halfway into the room when he sees Merlin. "Sire?" says Gaius. Arthur moves forward, to allow him in, but can't stop staring. Merlin looks – battered. He's not wearing a shirt, and the blanket doesn't cover up to his shoulders, so Arthur can see the fading green-yellow of a truly nasty bruise spreading across his left shoulder, wrapping around to the back. His face is covered with scratches, as are both of his hands and his forearms, and there's a gash across his right upper arm. There are bandages entirely covering his feet, which the blanket's been pulled up to expose, and above them Arthur can see more scratches. Merlin himself is entirely dead to the world, drooling slightly on his pillow. Merlin was at the top of his list of people to apologize to, Morgana had said. Underlined and circled several times. "I did this," Arthur says quietly, certainly. Gaius looks at him sharply. "It wasn't you," he says. "If you're going to say it was the fever and not me, then - " "It wasn't you," Gaius repeats firmly. "I don't know where you got that idea, but you didn't do this, and neither did the fever." "Oh," says Arthur, numbly. "Well – good." "Not your fever, anyway," adds Gaius, frowning. "While your more irrational moments tended to be more public, shall we say, Merlin certainly had his fair share." He sighs. "Including thinking he could fly." Arthur blinks. "He thought what?" "Perhaps that will make you feel better," says Gaius. "You only kissed a pretty girl." "And apparently punched my father," adds Arthur. "Yes, well, there is that," says Gaius. Arthur makes a face, but sits himself in the chair by Merlin's bed. "I'm going to stay here for a while, if that's all right," he says, holding up the reports. "Get some work done without interruptions." "Very well, sire," says Gaius, before adding, "Ah - I should tell you that Merlin is still in the grips of the fever. When he's not incoherent, he's speaking nonsense." "So no different from usual, then," says Arthur. Gaius actually cracks a smile at that, before he leaves. Arthur settles himself in, and glances over at Merlin. "So," he says, "you thought you could fly..." He shakes his head. "Somehow I have a hard time believing that even of you." He's halfway through the third report on the borders with Mercia before he drifts off into sleep. " - doesn't belong with you, he belongs here - " " - Hunt called to him - " " - such bravery, to stand your ground when others would run - " - the smell of horses and sweat, steel glinting in the dappled moonlight - Merlin, smeared with dirt, standing firm in a clearing – there's fear in his eyes, but determination, too, and his voice is clear when he shouts - "My name is Merlin Emrys, and I propose a bargain." And a woman, a gorgeous woman cloaked in starlight and hair shining like dewed strands of cobweb. "You are not unknown to us, Emrys. Speak your bargain." He can smell the fear now, the stench of it rolling off Merlin in waves, and something in him says prey, prey, prey - "I'll run. I'll run for you. If you catch me, you'll have us both – Arthur to, to lead the Hunt, and me to - " He pales, breaks off – continues. "If you don't catch me by sunrise, then he stays, and you never touch him again." A hand, cool on his cheek – it's hers, the starlight woman's. "We have him now, our destined leader. Why should we risk losing him?" Merlin's jaw sets and some back part of his mind thinks, well, there's no arguing with him now. "Because I won't run otherwise. You can tear me to pieces, but that's not the fun of it, is it? But if you catch me – and let's face it, you probably will – then you'll have gotten me honestly." The starlight woman considers. "The Hunt knows magic, Emrys. You may not attack us, under any conditions, though should you use magic to speed yourself or hide yourself...we know that magic, too." Her eyes glint. "We like the challenge. Your bargain is acceptable. You will run. We will hunt. When we catch you, the princeling is ours forever." "Then it's a bargain." Merlin stands his ground for a moment longer, then says, "Oh. You mean – now?" The starlight woman tilts back her head and laughs, and Merlin runs. Arthur hunts. " - going to break your neck sleeping like that, and then I'm going to laugh." Arthur opens his eyes to see Merlin watching him and, as per usual, babbling like an idiot. "I am not going to break my neck, though I thank you for your concern," says Arthur, sitting up straighter with careful motions, to hide the crick in his neck. "I see you're feeling better." "Mmm," says Merlin. "Not so much. Still tired." Now that Arthur's a bit more awake himself, he can see that Merlin's eyes are only half-opened, and can hear the distinct mumbling in his speech. "Understandably," says Arthur. "I hear you had an adventure." Merlin's eyes change, just a little – he seems more awake, more sensible. Wary, somehow. "Can't say I remember much," he says carefully. "Except that I'm sore all over. You had an adventure yourself, didn't you." Arthur frowns. "What?" Merlin just keeps looking at him, before finally turning away. "Go away," he says. "I'm trying to sleep." "You're the one who started talking," says Arthur. "Besides, I'm just trying to get some work done." "What, while snoring?" asks Merlin over his shoulder. "Fat lot of work that's going to get done." "More work than I'd be getting done in my quarters. I happen to be an old hand at recuperation, you know, and it involves lots of visits and lots of interruptions. So while I do have to deal with your unfortunate tendency to blabber on about absolutely nothing, you're at least unconscious half the time and vaguely entertaining in your idiocy the other half." Merlin snorts, but doesn't turn back around. "Besides, despite what you may think, you're my responsibility, and you look horrible," continues Arthur. "What did you do, jump off a cliff?" Merlin does turn around at that, his eyes wide and disbelieving. He looks at Arthur's face for a long moment, and then says, clearly lying, "No?" "My God, Merlin, you actually jumped off a cliff," says Arthur, staring at him. "How much of an idiot - " "I just said I didn't - " "There aren't even any cliffs anywhere near here, you're so completely ridiculous - " " - not like I just woke up one morning and got a craving for jumping off cliffs," continues Merlin. "Honestly, if I'd had a choice, I would've chosen not to!" "There's always a choice, Merlin," says Arthur sternly. Merlin rallies bravely. "Well, at least I didn't snog Lady Katerin in front of your father." Arthur winces. "Yes, well." Merlin waits for him to continue, and when he doesn't, says, "Does this mean I can go back to sleep now, or are you going to keep bothering me?" Arthur brandishes his papers. "Please feel free to be a lazy layabout – I'm going to actually be productive now." Merlin snorts again, and turns so his back is once more facing Arthur. Arthur goes back to his papers, and in a few minutes it seems like Merlin's nearly asleep again. "Merlin," says Arthur, watching the slow rise and fall of Merlin's ribcage. "Mmmmph," says Merlin. "Merlin." "What?" Merlin's voice is muffled by the pillow, but clearly audible. Arthur just waits, and is rewarded a moment later when Merlin sighs. "What, sire?" "How did you know your friend Will was a sorcerer?" Arthur can literally see the moment where Merlin stops breathing – his chest stills, and he stiffens, before clearly forcing himself to relax the next moment. "What do you mean?" Merlin asks carefully. "I mean," says Arthur, "how did you find out? Did he tell you, or did you just notice?" Merlin hesitates before answering. "He never told me," he says eventually. "Not really. He - I just worked it out." "Little things," says Arthur thoughtfully. "Lots of little things that didn't add up." "I – yes." Merlin does turn over now, although he doesn't meet Arthur's eyes. "He was always worried about it – he said some nights he couldn't sleep for worrying what would happen, if someone knew. Ealdor wasn't – isn't – like Camelot, in a lot of ways, but..." "But it was dangerous," murmurs Arthur. "Very," says Merlin. "Not just for him, but for anyone else who knew. Everybody he told, he put in danger, and – there were some people he cared about so much that he never did tell them. Just kept it a secret, so they'd be safe." He does meet Arthur's eyes, now. "So he could keep them safe." "That's not the point," says Arthur. "It's a matter of trust." "No, it's not," says Merlin, sitting up. "It's not about trust, it's about an impossible position. Anyone who knows is a target too, and has to lie, all the time, about the smallest little things just in case they lead down the wrong path. And your father'd have anyone who knew killed, too, don't deny it." Arthur maintains eye contact for just a moment longer, then looks away, standing. "I suppose you're right," he says easily. "I – what?" says Merlin. "I don't want to keep you from your rest," continues Arthur. "I was just wondering, that's all." He gathers his papers and gives Merlin the cheekiest smile he can manage. "Sleep well, recover soon – my room's a mess and it's yours to clean up." Merlin is still sputtering as he leaves the room. "Is everything well, sire?" asks Gaius as Arthur walks through his quarters. "Oh, absolutely," says Arthur, sweeping past him. He has dinner sent up to his quarters, partly to avoid the possibility of having to dine with Lady Katerin in front of the whole court, and partly to think about all the pieces of the past week and a half that just don't quite fit together. He paces, for a while, glancing over at the bed every now and then, until finally he undresses and lays down, waiting for sleep to come. Moonlight glinting off water, far below. The rush of rapids, echoing through the valley, across the cliffsides. And his quarry, already fallen. The hounds and hunt are near behind – not long, now. His prey looks back up at him from the ground, smeared with blood and dust, bleeding already from countless small wounds, the result of running through thickets of thorns. Both of his shoes are gone, lost somewhere in the woods. "You can't run any more," he says, reining in his horse. Now it's just a matter of waiting. "No," says Merlin. "You're right." He turns himself on to his back carefully, wincing. "I'm all out, of – of energy, of magic, of everything." He closes his eyes, and just breathes for a moment – and Arthur hesitates. Merlin is prone, vulnerable, and Arthur knows he should strike now, take advantage of this opportunity, but - "Get up," Arthur says. "No," says Merlin. "Get up," Arthur repeats. "I did my best," says Merlin. "I suppose it wasn't much, but I tried." Arthur dismounts, crosses the distance between them, and grabs Merlin's arm, hauling him up. "I said, get up." He pushes Merlin forward, parallel to the cliff's edge, but Merlin just stumbles to his knees, hissing in pain. He stays like that, breathing heavily, for a long moment before he looks back over his shoulder at Arthur. The look in his eyes is – unreadable, somewhere between fear and pain and disbelief. "Honestly," says Merlin slowly, bitterly, "I can't tell if you want me to escape, or just to run to make it more fun." Arthur doesn't say that he can't tell either. He just stands here, stupidly, watching Merlin bleed and breathe. The sounds of the Hunt draw closer. "I can't run anymore," says Merlin, his voice low, but tight with pain. "I can barely keep myself upright." Arthur can't look at him anymore. He turns his head to the East, where the sky is beginning to lighten. "Almost dawn," he says. Merlin exhales sharply, a poor, exhausted imitation of a laugh. "Rub it in, why don't you," he says, before looking eastward himself. "Wait," he says. "It's almost dawn." "You just never listen, do you?" Arthur finds himself saying, because apparently there are forces more powerful than the ancient and unstoppable Wild Hunt, and Merlin's idiocy is one of them. Merlin does laugh, this time. "You're still in there, then." Arthur doesn't answer – his head is swimming, his hands twitching absently. "That's a relief," Merlin continues, before slowly, oh so slowly, pulling himself to his feet with a groan. He takes a second to stabilize himself, hands on his knees, as he looks thoughtfully at the rapidly-pinking sky, and then at the cliff's edge. "Although," he says, "it was never a matter of running, was it. Just time. And time...I can buy time." The Hunt is almost at the edge of the forest, now – Arthur can feel them, a weight against his back, heavier as they draw nearer. With each hoofbeat he hears he feels less like himself, and his fingers itch for the curved wood of his bow, the taut sting of the bowstring. "Well," says Merlin, with a resigned grin. "I always knew you'd be the death of me. Just...don't change. Not for your father, not for the Hunt, not for anyone." He hesitates, and then adds, fondly, "Prat." And before Arthur can stop him, he's running again – hobbling, more like, only with surprising vehemence – towards the cliff, and even as Arthur reaches out he's over the edge. The Hunt arrives behind him, but the last thing he sees is Merlin, falling towards the river. Arthur goes to Morgana first, making sure to wait for her permission to enter after knocking, for once – he knows better than to j the beehive before asking for honey. "Arthur," says Morgana, looking ever-so-slightly startled as he enters. "I hadn't realized you were off bedrest." "Gaius told me I was a free man last night," he says. "Oh," says Morgana. "Well, congratulations." "I have a question for you." "Actually, I was just about to - " "What do you know about the Wild Hunt?" Morgana doesn't answer right away, but sighs and looks down. "Gaius said you probably wouldn't remember." "Oh, of course Gaius was in on it," says Arthur, rolling his eyes. "Why not?" "Don't blame him, he said it was magic in general – people don't want to believe magic is real, so when it happens to them they just – erase it from their minds," Morgana says. "And Merlin knew, too," says Arthur. "What about my father?" Morgana shakes her head. "As far as Uther knows, you really did come down with a fever of the brain." "Right," snorts Arthur, "because lying to my father about magic is always a fantastic idea!" "It's not like telling him his son was inches away from riding off with an ancient, mystical Hunt would be much better," says Morgana sharply. "The Hunt affected your judgment once – do you really think Uther would trust that it wouldn't again?" Arthur hesitates, but then considers the Questing Beast, the Black Knight. "I'm not sure what my father would do for me," he admits. "But I still don't see what that's got to do with everybody lying to me!" "For one thing, we didn't think you'd believe it," says Morgana, shrugging. "Gaius was so certain you'd forget - " "And now we can all see how well he judged that one," says Arthur. Morgana shoots him an annoyed Look, one of the ones she's perfected through years of relentless practice, and Arthur rolls his eyes, but changes the subject. "So how did you lot figure it out, then?" "Merlin noticed first," says Morgana. "Well, he would – he's the one who's with you sixteen hours out of the day. He said you were acting savage and irrational, I asked him how he could tell the difference - " "Ha, ha," says Arthur dryly. " - and then it started getting worse. You were skipping your duties, being downright nasty to everyone who dared to come near you, spending every waking moment out hunting – and I don't think you slept a minute the whole week. Merlin told Gaius, who checked the books, and saw the Hunt was supposed to arrive soon – it didn't take too long to put together after that." Arthur looks at her steadily. "What kind of books did Merlin and Gaius check?" Morgana meets his gaze. "I didn't ask." Arthur narrows his eyes, and then widens them in surprise. "You know!" She tosses her hair over one shoulder – lying. Again. "I don't know what you're talking about." "You know that Merlin's a sorcerer!" She rolls her eyes now, in exasperation. "Now I owe Gwen ten silver pieces. I was so sure you wouldn't figure it out." "What, Gwen knows, too?" demands Arthur. "Am I the last bloody person in the palace to - " "No," says Morgana curtly, "and if you keep up the shouting, your father certainly won't be, either." Arthur snaps his mouth shut, still fuming. "All I know is that Gaius, Gwen, Merlin, and I followed you into the forest the night the Hunt came," she continues. "We split up, to try to find you, but apparently Merlin found you first – the rest of us didn't find you until dawn, at the edge of the bluff. Merlin we found downstream a bit – he was lucky to survive." She crosses her arms. "Any other questions?" Arthur narrows his eyes, but finds himself at a loss for words. Eventually, he manages, "Did he tell you?" "Merlin?" asks Morgana. "Of course not. But raising a giant whirlwind in the middle of a battle wasn't particularly subtle of him." "Neither was walking into my father's chamber and announcing it," agrees Arthur grimly. "Honestly, he doesn't have much in the way of self-preservation, does he?" "Have you known for that long?" asks Morgana, raising an eyebrow. "No," admits Arthur. "But I...suspected." "Suspected this long and never made up your mind?" "Suspicions kept to myself wouldn't get him executed by my father," says Arthur sharply. "I don't particularly like lying to him, you know." "But you will, now." Morgana doesn't even make it a question, just says it as a matter of fact. "Now, I will," Arthur agrees, and puts his head in his hands. "You should go talk to him," says Morgana. "Who, my father? No, thank you – I'm too impatient to start training a new servant all over again." "No, Merlin," says Morgana, in her best you're such an idiot voice. "At least tell him you know." "I figured I'd let him stew a bit," says Arthur nastily. "You know, drop hints and watch him squirm." "That's because you're an ass," says Morgana. "Go talk to him." Merlin's awake this time when Arthur goes to see him, sitting in Gaius's chambers and soaking his feet in a tub of water. Gaius himself is out, probably attending to another patient, but Arthur's glad for the privacy. Merlin half-turns as Arthur enters, and moves to stand up. "Sire - " "Sit down, before you manage to hurt yourself even worse," says Arthur, pulling over a chair to join him. Merlin sits, reluctantly and evidently at a loss for words, and Arthur clears his throat. "So," he says. "How long did you run?" When he meets Merlin's eyes he doesn't find what he'd expected – namely, panic – but rather resignation. "I found you about an hour after midnight," says Merlin, with an air of defeat. "From then until dawn – six, maybe seven hours." "That's a lot of running," says Arthur. Merlin shrugs, his gaze level. "I was...motivated." "Right," says Arthur, discomfited. "Did Gwen tell you what happened?" asks Merlin. "I should've guessed she would – she kept saying we should tell you - " "As a matter of fact, no," says Arthur. "I remembered myself. Albeit in bits and pieces – how did you manage to broker a bargain with the Hunt, anyway?" Merlin half-smiles wryly. "They were impressed with me – when I found you, they set the hounds on me, and I didn't run then." Arthur frowns, remembering the vicious howling from his dreams. "If I recall correctly, they were pretty ferocious." "Oh, you do," Merlin assures him. "I'm not saying it was easy, but one of the sources Gaius and I found said that the fae – that's what the Hunt are, fae – could never resist a bargain, or a hunt." "So bargaining for a hunt would be the right choice," concludes Arthur, and Merlin inclines his head towards him in agreement. "Exactly." "And how did you manage to avoid capture for that long?" asks Arthur, wondering vaguely how many leading questions it would take to get Merlin to confess – although the resounding silence that follows suggests the answer is 'more than one,' and Arthur sighs. "Merlin - " He breaks off, and Merlin looks determinedly down at the floor, towards his own battered feet, and Arthur continues, "I am my father's son. I can't help it – it's who I am." Merlin looks up at him, now, his eyes flashing in alarm. "I am not, however," Arthur says pointedly, "just my father's son. I love my father dearly, I respect the man, and certainly I'd follow him to the ends of the Earth, but you can hardly call him open-minded about...certain subjects. What bothers me," he adds, glaring at Merlin, "is when the people I trust don't feel as though they can return the favor." Merlin glances away again. There's another silence, and then he begins speaking. "Ever since I was a kid. Sometimes it was just moving things without touching them – mostly it was just that – but sometimes...once a boy from the village teased me about – about my mum. He fell the next day, broke both his legs. I never knew whether it was me or not, but I damn well made sure I was more careful after that, because even though I hadn't told anyone, there were rumors. Whispers. How could there not be, in a village as small as Ealdor? "Mum tried to keep the worst of it from me, but this – this is who I am." He does meet Arthur's eyes now, fiercely defiant. "I can't change that – and I wouldn't if I could." Arthur looks him over, just once, and nods slowly. "I wouldn't ask you to," he says. They share a long look, before Arthur breaks it, reaching over to the table and bringing over an unlit candle. "Can you light this?" he asks. Merlin frowns at him. "What - a demonstration?" Arthur shrugs, a bit sheepishly. "Well...yes. It's not like I've had much of an opportunity to see magic before. Or at least, not without it actively being hidden from me or trying to kill me." Merlin smothers a grin, and looks at the candle's wick for a long moment, an intense look of concentration on his face – and it bursts into flame. Arthur raises his eyebrows, and whistles appreciatively, and Merlin shrugs, bashful - oh, it's nothing. "The trick was doing it so you wouldn't notice," he admits. "You're bloody horrible at that bit, then," says Arthur, "because I've all but known for a while now." Merlin blanches. "What – how long?" Arthur narrows his eyes. "Well, my first clue was when you burst into the middle of my father's council and said, 'I'm a sorcerer, it's me you want, nyah, nyah, nyah.'" Merlin flushes, but raises an eyebrow anyway. "Editorializing a bit, aren't we?" "Not by much," says Arthur pointedly. "So, my first order to you – stop being an idiot about it. If you think something might get you caught, don't do it." "It's easy for you to say," says Merlin, "you haven't been the one chasing you around for the past year, trying to keep you from getting yourself killed! You haven't got much in the way of self-preservation, have you?" "And yet, if we're comparing notes, let's look at how many cliffs I've jumped off in the past, let's say week, and then look at how many you have." "It was a rhetorical question." "Well, mine was a serious answer," Arthur shoots back. "You're my servant. That means you're my responsibility." "And you're my prince, which means you're mine," says Merlin immediately. He's got that stubborn set to his jaw that Arthur recognizes, not least from the cliffside. "Then I guess we'll have to agree to watch out for each other," says Arthur. "I guess so," says Merlin, before muttering, "But I don't need half as much looking after as you." Arthur stands up, crosses the room, and returns with a pillow, which he immediately proceeds to use to beat Merlin upside the head. It's a paltry stand-in for actual sense, but unless Arthur can think of a way to get Merlin to magic up a genuine way to beat sense into someone, it will have to do.

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October 2013

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