Approximately two and a half weeks have passed since he abandoned Martigan in Rookridge.
Even though he knows it could be more dangerous, Merlin stays at inns whenever possible. His pregnant self just cannot take the rough ground every night anymore. Especially not after he had that delicious taste of a real bed.
Roughing it in the wild has been even more tiresome for him since he’s been increasingly ill as of late. His mother had told him that her morning sickness had stopped at the fifth month. He guesses he just has to be damn lucky in everything.
He leaves the inn in Brightwood slightly before full dawn when the world is still cast in that hazy blue shadow. As he is getting his gear together, he realizes he doesn’t feel sick at all for once. In fact, he practically feels like singing and dancing. His baby is in an incredibly good mood.
Merlin should really be wary of this.
But, he cannot bring himself to feel anything negative right now.
Not when his baby is all but humming contentedly in his belly, he seems to have finally rid himself of that pesky merc, and he is already halfway through his thirty-fourth week with only about two and a half left to keep up this arduous journey.
And then it’s back into Arthur’s (probably furious, but welcoming) arms with the added bonus of their new bundle of joy.
Merlin spends that night in a shallow cave cut into the cliffs bordering Brightwood’s beaches. The gentle lap of the surf and the smell of warm, salty waters lulls Merlin into a deep, easy sleep.
Immediately, he dreams. The same dreams he has every night.
He dreams of that look and tone of voice that Arthur only uses when they’re alone.
He dreams of that feeling only Arthur and magic can give him, of liquid gold coursing through his veins.
He dreams of Arthur sinking to his knees before Merlin to press his ear against the sorcerer’s bellybutton, listening for the baby to share its secrets with him.
He dreams of that sinful and sweet mouth against his temple and those strong hands cupping his face.
“I’m here, Merlin.”
Of course, he dreams of Arthur saying those words.
“Merlin, my Merlin. I’ve missed you and… Oh, I couldn’t stand it… I can’t even…”
Well, now that’s new.
Dream-Arthur can usually complete his sentences.
Sluggishly crawling through the disorienting web of slumber, Merlin distantly wonders if the sea rose up while he slept and flooded the cave. It would sort of explain the dampness on his face and that heavy feeling of being completely surrounded.
His magic, as if an entity unto itself that does not need his conscious effort, streams light across the rock shelter, imitating the stars.
Merlin is still slow to realize someone is sprawled on top on him, kissing every centimeter of skin that is exposed.
When the sorcerer’s eyes adjust to the light, he is staring at the twinkling ceiling of the cave. The mystery person has his face buried against Merlin's neck, muttering fragmented sentences in between hard presses of his mouth. Merlin can just make out disheveled blond hair in his peripheral vision.
When Arthur’s face suddenly hovers over his briefly before moving in towards his lips, Merlin turns away and wills his heart not to respond to the sight of his true love.
He has already learned he cannot always blindly trust what he sees.
He won’t let that hopeful elation soar through him again, only to be brought back colliding down to Earth at the reality of his foolish mistake and Martigan’s merciless illusion. If he crashes that hard a second time, he may never be put back together again.
This isn’t Arthur. It can’t be. Arthur is days away, tucked behind Camelot’s walls.
Using Arthur’s voice to convey uncharacteristic uncertainty and fear is more torture than Merlin can bear.
A bright ball of pain splinters in his chest and he pushes at the deceitful decoy whose very existence mocks his anguish.
“You cruel...” Merlin sobs, “… vile monster.”
The blond sits back slightly away from Merlin, stung.
“Merlin?” he tries again, reaching out hesitantly. Unsure of himself, his hand stops before it can move towards Merlin’s face and instead lays gently over the warlock’s belly.
The warmth of his palm seeps straight into Merlin’s core and it feels as if the baby’s own palm is pressed against his on the other side.
Merlin looks again. There are tears in the other man’s eyes.
Merlin feels the kind of disbelief the prince must have felt when he first understood that Merlin’s swollen belly wasn’t just the result of extra helpings of sweet bread and pottage.
Arthur melts over him when he sees the recognition in Merlin’s face.
“I’ve found you,” he whispers before his lips seal over the sorcerer’s in a kiss that has been waiting for two and a half months.
This time, Merlin accepts him fully inside, twisting his fingers in Arthur’s hair as if he is never going to let go.
Their kisses are wet and desperate, bordering on painful. Merlin wouldn’t be surprised if they manage to break something.
To hell with it. Bones are easy to heal.
Between the pressing of lips and the gliding of tongues, breathless whispers fill the small cave.
“You don’t know what this did to me…”
“I dreamed about you…”
“I couldn’t think, I couldn’t eat…”
“I could feel your touch every night…”
“I was going mad…”
“And every morning, you were gone again…”
“Swear to me…”
“The baby cried for you all time…”
“I could never endure this again…”
“I could feel its longing for you across a thousand kilometers...”
“I love you. I love you both so much…”
“Swear to me.”
“I will never leave you again. We will never leave you.”
They lie embracing for an immeasurable time, content to just feel the other close by and real.
Arthur wants to stay up the rest of the night, needing physical and visual confirmation that his pregnant sorcerer is really here in his arms.
The prince leans against a smoother surface of the cave wall, Merlin lounging safe and cozy between his legs. Together, they caress the sleeping baby who is lulled into a perfect peace by their combined touch.
At Arthur’s request, Merlin details his adventure, from his first attempt to leave Albion to staying at the inn in Brightwood the night before.
He leaves out the details of Martigan’s unhealthy interest, but he has to know why Arthur hired him instead of a sane bounty hunter.
“He was highly recommended and his boasts of greatness are obviously well-deserved,” Arthur explains, “It is because of his letters that I am here now. Later, I’ll have to travel to a trading camp near Witchwood. I owe him the rest of his compensation.”
Arthur presses his nose into the sorcerer’s hair and breathes in Merlin and the sea.
“Truly, I owe him more than I could ever pay in gold.”
Merlin silently disagrees, but presses back into Arthur’s chest.
“We’re going to have to discuss what happens next,” Merlin says after awhile, wishing he didn’t have to be the one to once again bring up the unpleasantries of their situation.
“I would think that was obvious,” Arthur says simply, that all-too-familiar stubborn tone infusing his words.
“I only have about two and a half weeks left,” Merlin says in what he hopes is a reasonable manner. He knows sometimes he has to tread lightly with the prince in order to get his way.
“I’m already disobeying the king by being here,” Arthur says, “I left a letter in my rooms for the servants to find saying I heard a rumor that someone was trying to revive an old raiding party from the north and I went to investigate.”
“Uther is going to question why you didn’t send someone else to do the scouting work while you stayed behind to prepare the knights in case the rumor proved to be true.”
“Hence the ‘disobeying’ part,” Arthur says, “I’m probably going to spend the first few days (or weeks) in the dungeons when we get back. We’re going to need a story to explain your disappearance or you’ll be joining me.”
“What have you been telling everyone?”
“That I just didn’t know where you were. Father was angry that you abandoned your post. He was the one who suggested putting a bounty on you. But, he meant for you head, not safe return.”
“Then I’m sure you can understand my lack of eagerness to return. Especially if he’s trying to make a statement about loyalty to the kingdom.”
“We’ll say you were kidnapped.”
“By who?” Merlin asks skeptically.
“For what purpose?”
Merlin elbows Arthur sharply.
“Hey, it’s pretty plausible if you think about it,” the prince smirks, “This way, you cannot be blamed. And, as I was searching for information about the rebels, I came across you who somehow managed to slip away from your captors.”
“Cute,” Merlin rolls his eyes, “But, what about the fact that I’ll obviously be close to popping open like a squeezed blueberry?”
“You can stay in your quarters for that period. I’ll say I’m giving you time off to recover from your ordeal.”
“The risk is just too high,” the warlock shakes his head, “I say we find me a little woodland shelter to stay in, two to three hours from Camelot and then, after I give birth, I can return triumphantly free from my ‘assailants.’”
“Another two and a half weeks without you? No. I couldn’t stand it. And anyway you had all but forgot who I was just a few hours ago. If we stay apart any longer, you’d probably never remember me again.”
The mild bitterness in the prince’s voice is only offset by the tightening of his arms around his Merlin.
“I could never forget who you are!” the sorcerer protests, offended.
“It was like you didn’t even recognize me when I first woke you up!”
Merlin’s face burns.
“I was half asleep…”
“You looked dead at me.”
“I just wasn’t sure…”
“Who else would it be?” Arthur exclaims, “Do I have some long-lost twin I don’t know about? When you turned away from me… it felt like I had been run through with a spear.”
Merlin sighs. They had promised no more hiding truths from one another.
“Martigan… tricked me.”
Arthur already doesn’t like the sound of this.
“He knows a spell that can… make you look like someone else.”
Arthur’s clever, so Merlin leaves him to figure out the parts unspoken.
He knows the second when it all comes together. He feels Arthur stiffen behind him and the air forced harshly from his nose stirs the hairs on the sorcerer’s neck.
He watches the fingers of Arthur’s right hand flex slightly as if they itch to reach for the sword hanging from the belt still attached around his waist.
Merlin recognizes the signs of a murderously angry Arthur.
“Looks like I’ll be visiting that trading camp for reasons beyond just paying my debts,” the prince says darkly.
“Arthur, don’t… I was angry at first, but he's really not a bad person. It's just that he’s been alone for a long time. He doesn’t have anyone to go home to. He probably doesn’t even really have a home. I bet he feels like he doesn’t belong anywhere. That can make a person desperate.”
“Still not happy,” Arthur grinds out, sullenly.
Merlin turns slightly in his arms so he can kiss that tense mouth until it is slick and pliable again.
“I bet I can make you happy.”
Merlin and Arthur wake to a shadow casting over their entwined bodies, blocking out the warming light that had been slanting into the cave.
Martigan stands at the entrance, his broad silhouette almost filling the entire space.
Disentangling himself swiftly from Merlin’s suddenly tense limbs, Arthur stands from the ground in one fluid motion and stalks boldly towards the merc.
Martigan backs onto the flat lands outside the grotto and Arthur pursues him bullishly.
The sorcerer watches this silent display of aggression with trepidation, still frozen on the spot. They move out of his view.
The sound of a sword being unsheathed quickly followed by the sound of another sword coming out to play finally uproots him.
Merlin struggles to his feet and waddles out after them.
Both men are getting into first stance when Merlin calls out.
“Please! Don’t do this.”
They ignore him, still sizing each other up.
“So, Blondie’s not Arthur, huh?” Martigan directs at Merlin, his eyes never once straying from the murderous intent on his ex-employer’s face.
“Arthur! Martigan!” Merlin chastises, “This is madness. Please stop…”
His voice trembles at the end of his sentence. The morning nausea he’s come to expect like the dawn ripples through him, but a thousand times more powerful. He leans heavily against the cave entrance, suddenly unable to support himself.
Neither man notices him.
“That is the… mother of my child you tried to disgrace,” Arthur speaks in a tone not unlike the growl of a balverine.
Martigan falters at this, taking a step back while his perplexed gaze flits to Merlin. His sword lowers a millimeter.
Arthur, trained to exploit an opponent’s weaknesses for his own advantage, keenly observes this slip, but doesn’t strike.
Because Martigan is still looking past him, presumably at Merlin, and the panic on his face replaces the prince’s blood with ice.
The warrior in Arthur won’t let him lose sight of his target nor stray from his defensive position.
That is until he hears a thump that resembles the sound of a bag of grains hitting wet sand followed by Merlin’s pitiful cry.
Arthur turns his back on Martigan and races over to where Merlin is crumpled like a rag doll at the mouth of the cavern.
Arthur falls to his knees beside the limp sorcerer, cradling his pale face in his hands.
“Merlin, look at me!”
He tries to, but his vision is dimming more and more with every second.
“I think… I think I’m having the baby,” Merlin shudders, his voice raw and faint.
“It’s too early!” Arthur flusters, pressing his hand against Merlin’s stomach as if he can keep the baby in.
“Spells. The book,” Merlin gasps, every syllable an enormous effort, “I need it…”
“Spells?” Arthur’s voice cracks, his mind splintering with dread and desolation.
For the first time in his life, the prince feels helpless.
Merlin and the baby are going to die and he can only sit by and watch, utterly powerless to stop it.
He is startled when Martigan suddenly drops to the sand beside him, the book in his hands.
“I can… try.”
Arthur looks at Martigan like he wants to kiss him and kill him at the same time.
For his part, the merc looks as terrified as he feels.
“The marked pages,” Merlin moans, determined to finish this in spite of his body’s surrender to the impending coma.
The sight and sounds of Arthur and Martigan leaning over him clears and fades with his heartbeat. One second he can see and hear their worry and the next, they are but shadows and whispers. A numbing sensation creeps through his limbs until his body doesn’t even feel like his own.
“There’s a knife in my bag.”
Arthur pulls out the dagger strapped to his ankle, thrusting it forcefully in Martigan’s hand.
Martigan holds the knife like he doesn’t know what it is.
“Cle-cleansing spell,” Merlin wheezes, “For the knife. Then… Cut me… open.”
Arthur’s eyes squeeze shut when the realization hits him like a battering ram to the gut.
“Anti-bleeding… Then use… wound-healing spell.”
“You make it sound so easy,” Martigan chokes, his finger trembling as it traces the words of the first spell.
It burns Arthur to know that the fate of his loved ones lies completely in the hands of this hired thug.
“If they die... You die.”
Martigan glances at that hard truth in Arthur’s eyes, swallowing around the tightening in his throat.
“Not helping,” he informs the deadly serious blond, sweat drops from his brow blotting the pages of the spell book. “I think I’m handling this pretty damn well considering the fact that… that…”
Martigan doesn’t know of any words that could sufficiently describe what’s going on here. He’s about to slice open the belly of a male sorcerer and pull out a (hopefully) living being. This is beyond his call of duty as a mercenary.
“Arthur?” Merlin begs, tears coming freely. “Don’t let anything happen to the baby.”
The prince takes Merlin’s hand and holds it against his cheek, bowing his head. He cannot speak.
Merlin forces his eyes to stay open a second longer. If it’s where he’s going, he wants to have one last perfect image of his love to take with him to Avalon.
Warning: the next part is a little on the angsty side. But, I promise: you can trust me.
Notes: I want to add that I got great ideas from the reviewers of Bearing Fruit for the baby (e.g. how Arthur should act, the possibility of twins, etc) and I was able to incorporate some of those suggestions. I hope I don't disappoint anyone with how things worked out.
Continue to Part VI
Go back to Part IV