Fire and Rain by StardustToRememberYouBy
Summary: Something that hung around this girl – be it trait or mannerism – made him glad he'd decided to take a great personal risk in saving her. She was worth saving.
Categories: FPF Het Characters: Arthur, Gaius, Gwen, Merlin, Morgana, The Dragon, Uther
Genre: Angst, Drama, Romance
Pairing: Arthur/Gwen, Merlin/OFC
Warnings: main character death
Challenges:
Series: None
Chapters: 14 Completed: Yes Word count: 36070 Read: 49502 Published: Jul 01, 2014 Updated: Jul 01, 2014
Story Notes:
Merlin/OC, mild Arthur/Gwen.

1. A Dark Day by StardustToRememberYouBy

2. The Cave by StardustToRememberYouBy

3. Truth Be Told by StardustToRememberYouBy

4. Ardant Work by StardustToRememberYouBy

5. Plans & Escalations by StardustToRememberYouBy

6. Fire & Rain by StardustToRememberYouBy

7. Admit & Commit by StardustToRememberYouBy

8. Talks of Fate by StardustToRememberYouBy

9. Closer by StardustToRememberYouBy

10. Regal by StardustToRememberYouBy

11. Fond Farewells & New Beginnings by StardustToRememberYouBy

12. Affirmations of Love & Friendship by StardustToRememberYouBy

13. The Crash of Aria's Magic by StardustToRememberYouBy

14. After All This Time by StardustToRememberYouBy

A Dark Day by StardustToRememberYouBy
The dawn that arose that particular day was as breathtaking as it was blinding. Aria chuckled, climbing down off the roof before her father awoke and scolded her for being so careless as to sit on the roof at daybreak. Unfortunately, her father was unaware that Aria's daily ritual started off with watching the sun come up over the horizon each and every morning before she would wake her family, dress them all and send them off while she stayed there, tending to her ailing father and the home itself.

Aria was the one in charge of keeping the house in an acceptable state at all times, though mostly she did out of the goodness in her heart. Heading back inside, her dress tore a bit at a seam on the side just on her hip. She had mended that particular section of the seam countless times, always seeming to find yet another way to rip out the stitches not two weeks later.

"Oh, no," she whispered to herself, fumbling at the seam trying to make it appear less noticeable-she owned only two other dresses, three total. One skirt was her recreation skirt (which she wore while playing with her siblings), one was a formal dress she wore only on the most special of occasions, and one was an everyday dress, which just so happened to be the one she wore on this day.

She quickly found some thread and a needle, mending the patch once more before anyone noticed. Aria had been meaning for several weeks to make herself a set of new dresses, but hadn't yet found the time to do it between taking care of her ill father and and two younger sisters still in her care.

"Ari?" young Marie, who was but ten years old, said drowsily, coming into the kitchen area. Aria turned around, greeting her sister with a slight hug before slinging on her apron and starting to fix breakfast.

"You have not yet finished breakfast?" Jayanne, Aria's fourteen-year-old sister said with a snitty tone to her voice, as per usual. "How late you are, Ari."

"Hush, you," Aria said briskly, whipping together a measly but healthy breakfast for the young ones. "Now, Jayanne, take Marie into the lower towns. Perhaps you could assist me by picking produce today? I need to gather firewood from the forest-we're nearly out, and we cannot afford for father to become more ill from the cold."

Reluctantly, Jayanne grabbed Aria's empty produce basket from beside the door, grabbing Marie's hand and heading out the door without another glance at her older sister. Aria sighed a sigh of relief, slumming down onto the bench at the table, grunting loudly once and pounding her fist against the dark wood. At that moment, the fire in the fireplace extinguished. Aria nearly screamed at the sight of what just happened, her blue-green eyes flying open as she barely blinked, pounding her fist against the bench once more, igniting the fire once more. Blinking quickly, she threw on her mother's shawl and stepped outside, shutting the door quickly as she headed off to the forest.

That particular occurrence was not the first of its kind that Aria had experienced. Sometimes she would be so exhausted from a hard day's work that she couldn't prepare supper for her family that night, yet somehow she would come home and with a quick blackout, she would come to and realize that dinner had, apparently made itself. The experience with the fire happened quite often as she could find no other way to silently express her frustration than to beat her fist against the furniture in the house. She was, however, careful about that since the furniture was all they had to go by. Heading into the outlying woods, Aria started piling her arms full of the heftiest sticks and twigs she could find-anything she could find that would do as firewood she would put into the pile. Her thoughts raced to her older brother Nolan, who had been forced to leave home early and find work as a farmhand for one of the most prestigious farmers in all of Camelot. His pay was meager, but enough to take care of his family.

Once a week, he and Aria would prepare a nice dinner for themselves alone where they would discuss the current state of things. This memory brought a smile to her face as she paid attention to the rise of the hill in front of her, bending over to grab yet another stick. Hours could have passed on that hill and Aria would not have known the difference, but she trotted on, gathering wood till her arms were maxed out and still she went forward, her ill father in mind.

And that's when the unthinkable happened. A group of men approached her from the north end of the forest, stopping in front of her. They seemed menacing, but Aria just assumed it was some sort of joke, so she attempted to get past them. One of the burlier men pushed her back. Aria looked at them-really studying them. Her intuition told her these men were out for whatever she carried in the pockets of her apron-these men sought to harm her. She said nothing to them, remaining complacent as her heart raced, pounding in her ears as one of the men moved closer to her, his arms outstretched. Aria did the only thing she could: she flung the pile of sticks in her arms at the man and jetted away in the other direction as quickly as her tired feet could carry her. Tripping and falling over a tree root, she looked behind her and saw the men rushing after her. Jumping to her feet, she ran faster than before.

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Merlin awoke that morning feeling as though this day would be no different than all the others. He would ready himself for the day and exit his room to find Gaius already up and with breakfast prepared and set out for him. Upon finishing his breakfast, if Merlin had not immediately left for Arthur's chambers, a knight would most likely locate him and tell him that Arthur required his presence-this was a daily ritual and if Merlin was a mere two minutes behind schedule, Arthur would send a knight to fetch him. Typical, Merlin thought to himself with a shake of his head as he slung on his coat and departed for Arthur's chambers.

That's how it always was with the two of them: it was 'give' and 'give' on Merlin's side of the relationship and was nothing but 'take' and 'take' time and time again on Arthur's side. Merlin rolled his eyes at that sentiment. Such a prat. Making it to his daily, mandatory destination, Merlin rapped lightly on the doors to Arthur's chambers.

"Enter," Arthur said in almost frustrated tone of voice.

"You requested my presence, sire?" Merlin said politely upon entering the chambers and shutting the double doors behind him. He folded his hands behind his back.

"Ah, Merlin, you're just in time to be relieved of your usual duties today."

Merlin did a quick glance around the room, making sure that this was Arthur's chamber and that this was Arthur he was talking to. Arthur had never once in nearly three years of indebted service to the prince-ling had Merlin been relieved of his duties. "Is this a joke?" Arthur shook his head at him. "You're serious? That means no polishing your armor? No shoeing and cleaning of your horse? No shining of your brass buttons and no bristling your leather boots for that particular sheen you require? No fetching your meals and mending your clothing?"

Arthur shook his head adamantly, crossing the room and patting Merlin between his shoulders roughly. "You're off the hook today. Seems like I've got another person to punish the way I usually punish you for...well, being you, really."

Merlin wasn't quite sure how to respond to that: should he be worried about it or should he thank Arthur. "...thanks, I think."

"Don't be silly, Merlin. It's not because I'm doing you a favor or anything. It's mainly because a stupid oaf of a manservant spilled spiced wine on my favorite trousers. So I gave him your chores for the day in ten-fold to make him wish he'd never been an idiot."

"So I'm just left with nothing to do today?" Merlin blurted and before he gave Arthur the chance to say anything, he continued with, "All right, well, see you around then." He turned to walk out the door when Arthur stuck his arm straight out in front of Merlin's path, turning him back around.

"Not so fast, Merlin, I've still got a chore for you to do." Arthur's facial expression told Merlin that this task would not be amusing. "My stockpile of firewood needs replenishing, so that's what you'll be doing today." With a flash of his usual triumphant grin, Arthur slapped Merlin once more. "Better get to it. Word is there's a storm coming. Oh, and don't pick those dinky twigs you usually pick up."

Merlin frankly didn't hear anything about a storm heading in Camelot's direction, but knew that arguing with Arthur was definitely not on his agenda for the day. Grabbing a satchel in which he could carry a hefty amount of firewood, Merlin headed out to the forest just beyond the castle. He knew of a place well into the forest where he could find decently-sized logs so he headed there straightaway.

Upon arrival, it appeared as though others in the lower towns were growing familiar with this place as it was a great place for firewood gathering. Merlin was able to fill the satchel quickly and to the brim before he began piling his arms full of dry sticks. He then, for whatever reason, felt he should head a bit deeper into the forest, and today, he felt, was a day on which to contradict his usual instincts and just follow what he felt he should do.

Nearby, he saw two knights pacing in their patrol line. Lately, Arthur had taken extra precautions in keeping magical beings out of Camelot and anywhere far away from Uther. Uther these days was not himself, probably out of remorse for what had recently transpired with Morgana. He blamed himself for what had happened, and in doing so, had destroyed his emotional immune system. Arthur was now surrogately in charge of the entire realm, which had, of course, placed loads of pressure upon Arthur. All eyes were on him, including Merlin's. That was, mainly, because Merlin would assist Arthur in becoming king, and that looked as though it'd be sooner rather than later.

Heavy footfalls on the forest floor stopped Merlin dead in his tracks. He peered straight ahead and saw what appeared to be a girl. She was running in his general direction, but the frantically exasperated expression on her face told him that she was running from someone and not to someone. In a flash, she rushed past Merlin and he could practically feel the heat of the chase that banded right on her heels. A group of burly men came next, yelling in anger as they chased the girl, anger infesting their already ugly faces.

Merlin, for whatever reason, dropped the load of sticks in his arms and took off after them, ready and willing to help this girl in any way she'd need it.

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Aria's head told her to keep running until she reached the lower towns where someone would surely help her out, but her heart told her to stop and to fight them off. With what? She honestly didn't know what she would do to fight them. Aria was a near-pacifist, never carrying weapons with her knowing she wouldn't understand how to utilise it if she did have one. She screamed "Help!" as loudly as she possibly could, knowing that King Uther kept knights in the forest on patrol at all times. Hopefully someone would hear her cry for help and come to her aid, but who?

At that moment, Aria passed a man a fair bit taller than her with dark hair. She knew her loose braid had become quite mussed, letting loose a few shorter waves of her hair from the braid. Why was she suddenly feeling self-conscious in front of this man? She did not have time to stop and ask for help-the bandits were close on her heels now. Aria tripped into a clearing ahead, landing on her back but quickly sitting up as the men reached her, all of them breathing heavily. Aria was a quick runner-she and Nolan had run everywhere as children, so she was quite fit in that sense. She nearly began to cry as the men closed in around her, circling her and darkening out the light of the sky. At that moment, she honestly hadn't known what was happening, but she looked up at them, raised her arms to the sky, and bellowed a cry so desperate, so justifiable, that it sent all of the men flying back through the air, knocking them all against the trees. Aria stood breathlessly, now in the clearing alone, her eyes wide in terror, not quite understanding what had just transpired. Her eyes searched for answers, but instead she watched as three or four knights surrounded her, wrapping her arms around her back.

"What are you doing with me?" she asked them, her voice cracking a bit from the terrible fright.

"You're under arrest for the use of magic," one of the knights answered, beginning to escort her to Camelot.

"No, please!" she told them. "Please, I have a family! You can't do this!"

Merlin had watched in awe as this girl had clearly used magic to propel the men-all of them strong, thick-bodied middle-aged men-to the trees that lined the clearing. His eyes wide, he became scared for the girl, knowing that she'd just used magic in front of official knights, a crime punishable by death. He followed the group back to Camelot, wanting to see where this girl would end up, wherever she'd end up. Of course, before he even reached where they were heading, and he knew this would not bode well for the girl: Uther.

Though Uther was weak-bodied and weak-willed, he still sometimes found the time to assist Arthur in the sentencing of users of magic. He sat in the throne room, his face pale and clammy with sickness and depression, and that's when the knights brought Aria to Uther, standing her before him and forcing her to her knees while her wrists and ankles had been clad tightly in shackles and chains, just in case she tried anything revealing or dangerous in the presence of the king.

"Tell me what happened," Uther requested of the servant who had fetched the knights.

"We were all out gathering firewood, and I saw these men chasing this girl in the forest," the servant answered. "The men surrounded her, and then she blew them all back against the trees."

"Using magic?"

"Yes, Majesty."

Uther turned to Aria. "State your name."

"Aria, sire," Aria answered respectfully, sniffling back her tears, "Aria Glinn. My father is Nicholas Glinn, the candlemaker."

"Aria Glinn, you're to be sentenced for your use of magic."

Aria raised her head, her eyes meeting his with the most tender of urgencies. "But, sire, I'm innocent - please believe me! I have not the slightest understanding of what happened in the forest - you must believe me! I did not use magic - "

"That's enough, girl." Uther gestured to take her away. "Take her away until I've locked in a sentence."

"Sire, please, I beg of you - do not lock me away! My family, my sisters need me to take care of them! My father is gravely ill and my mother is gone and buried - please! I'm all they have."

"Enough." With that, the knights escorted the sobbing Aria down to the dungeons, locking her away in one of the smallest cells there. Aria peered around, noticing hay strewn randomly all over the ground in the cell. Her eyes, weary from crying so much had become dried out of tears, so she could not decipher what she should do in response to what had just happened to her. The shackles on her wrists seemed to tighten, causing her to wince as she sat down in the corner, gathering her knees to her chest and leaning her head back on the cold stone behind her, raising her pleading eyes to God.

"Please, God," she whispered, "help me."

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Merlin couldn't believe his ears. After the knights had taken the girl away to the dungeons, Uther immediately stated she was to be burned at the stake the next morning. A young girl with a family under her belt, no money and no prospects, was to be executed for the usage of magic when, clearly, she was innocent as to what had exactly happened-innocent to what happened, guilty to the use of magic.

"Merlin, don't try anything stupid this time - really," Gaius exhaustedly warning Merlin after he had been told everything that happened. "Uther is king-his word is final."

"Gaius," Merlin said urgently, "you didn't see this girl. She was so scared - I've never seen anyone use magic like that and still be that afraid in front of the king. I could tell she meant every word she said to Uther, regardless of whether or not she used magic."

"And did she, in fact, use magic?"

Merlin nodded. "Yes. I know magic when I see it."

"Then we cannot disband Uther's words, Merlin. The girl is guilty and will be executed tomorrow. End of story." Merlin had been about to say something else when Gaius put his hands up. "That's enough, Merlin. I'll not let you get yourself tangled up in another escape plan. One of these days, you'll get yourself caught, or worse. Leave it be."

But Merlin was not like Gaius at all. Gaius, while the center of all that is moral he may have been, was still biased into believing that Uther had the final say. Merlin knew better than that, and one thing he was definitely sure of was that this girl did not deserve to be executed, not after he'd seen the tears of frightened shame streak her cheeks. No way. Not this time. Not again, he thought adamantly, readying himself to assist the girl in the most dangerous of ways.

After Gaius had left to head to another part of the castle, Merlin prepared a powerful sleeping draught that would last up to two days. He doused bits of cheese, bread, tomatoes, and sausage with the draught and placed all of it on a tin plate, carrying it down to the dungeon. Two guards were on sentry duty and were heavily into a game of chance when Merlin entered the area, showing them the plate of food.

"I've come to bring the prisoner some food," he told them aloud as they reached out and took the food from him-all according to plan.

"Fat lot o' good that will do," one of the guards said with a maniacal chuckle. "I hear she'll burn tomorrow. Serves her right, the wretched thing."

With that, the guards ate the food off the plate, devouring every last crumb as though they hadn't eaten in weeks. Not two minutes later, both guards were out cold, so Merlin snatched their keys away, heading towards the girl's small cell.

"Please, God," he heard her say quietly, "help me." He tapped the keys against the metal bars on the door, giving Aria a fright so bad she felt as though she may literally jump out of her skin. She peered over to the door, seeing a man - the man, the one from the forest - opening the door to her cell.

"Sorry I scared you," Merlin said politely, entering the cell and seeing her huddled in the corner. "I'm not one for grand entrances, really, but this did nicely."

Aria rose from her place in the corner, her hands tightly wound in front of her. She didn't know how to respond to this man-was he friend or foe? Was he both? She honestly couldn't say, but something in this man's voice, at the very least, made her trust him. Aria gave him a small smile before he continued on.

"I'm not God, but I'm here to help." He outstretched his hand to her. "I just need you to trust me, but you'd better trust me quickly - someone will surely be down here soon and see you've gone - that is, if you trust me enough to get you out of here."
The Cave by StardustToRememberYouBy
Author's Notes:
I do not own BBC's Merlin, but Aria is mine as is every other character associated with her therein. As I don't believe I stated before, this entire story takes place just after Series 3 of Merlin, so if you haven't yet seen it, don't say I spoiled anything – I'm giving you fair warning right now. So, read along and enjoy, and, of course, no flames. :)
How could this man be so patient and calm through all this? Aria pondered this as she rose to her feet, suddenly feeling safe through his refined and soft-toned voice. She could not recall the last time she felt safe…was it when Liam was still home, or was it with Nolan around? All she knew was, for the first time in who knew how long, she felt safe. Her brow furrowed a bit at his words, a million questions arising in her open mind. She wished to lay all her questions on him at that moment and demand straight answers out of him, but she held herself back. All in good time, she thought to herself, staring at his outstretched hand.

Aria glanced his broad, lanky-fingered hand over, feeling a direct urge to grab it and hold on for dear life, but, again, she restrained herself under much restraint. Why was she feeling all of these strong impulsions for this man? All in good time.

Aria nodded firmly, slipping her delicate fingers onto his palm and over the side of his hand, gripping tightly. "I trust you," she said aloud at last, an adventurous smile crossing her lips.

Merlin grinned. "Excellent," he said, "then we're off." With that, he turned and ran out of the cell, tugging her along with him. He made sure to keep her as close to his side as possible, mostly since he'd be leading her around tight corners and into smaller spaces. Luckily, Merlin was well-equipped for this movement – he knew every byway and passage that Camelot's castle held within its white stone walls, including the secret stairwells leading to empty towers and simple storage areas. But where to hide her…

Truly, the place he'd keep her would have to be a safe-haven of sorts and be secluded enough that no soul would discover her by accident – or on purpose, for that matter. But where was such a place?

Stopping at a corner near one of the stairwells, Merlin listened intently, hearing at least three guards searching diligently, the clanking of their heavy suits of armor resounding in the stairwell as they descended. Merlin was quick on his feet, instantly turning around and heading in the opposite direction. Clearly, an abandoned secret passage was the first place they'd look for her. Perhaps his own chamber would suffice, but then again, he knew, Gaius would surely discover her sleeping or even Arthur when he found out that Merlin was hiding a sentenced convict. Merlin swallowed with difficulty – he would have loved nothing more than for Gaius or Arthur to find an attractive female in Merlin's chambers – he sniggered to himself at that one – but, alas, it would be too obvious. Perhaps under different circumstances it would have been permitted, but surely not these ones.

He passed another room with several guards, quickly evading their gaze and pulling Aria in a flash past the doorway leading into that room. He had been aiming their travels towards the back passages that led to his and Gaius' chambers, but now decided on heading in a different way. Merlin sighed, stopping for a moment behind a pillar – Aria at his hip – as he knew exactly where to take her: the cave. The place where Uther had imprisoned Kilgharrah, the great dragon. That was truly the only safe place to house this girl until he could safely get her out of the castle. His gaze met hers, locking it for a moment before leading her another way, back to the dungeons.

A few sharp turns, a ballroom, a few wide passages followed by a narrow one they had to shimmy through, and then finally descending down two larger sets of steps finally got them back down to the dungeons. Once there, Aria's eyes grew wide and she released her grip from Merlin's, withdrawing her hand as she stared at him.

"Tell me this isn't happening," she said to him in all seriousness. "You tricked me? You lied to me?"

Merlin shook his head. "No, no, it's not like that," he reassured her. "I remembered the only safe place I can keep you for a bit – it's not much, but it'll have to do." He approached her once more and she winced, stepping back a few steps. "You said you trusted me – you can trust me still. One more flight of stairs and then we're there, I promise." He took her hand, staring into her eyes. "You still trust me, right?"

Aria thought long and hard for a moment. The truth was that she really didn't know if she could trust this man, but there was just something about him, something she couldn't shake off – the feeling of total safety still held true, even as she stood there questioning his very honor. A sigh escaped her unwillingly and she nodded, looking down at their hands as she squeezed them, inaudibly telling him that she was still on his side, reluctant though she was.

He led her, step by step, down the steep, dark staircase into the blackest darkness Aria had experienced yet. Merlin snatched a torch off the side wall to give her light once they'd reached the final destination. Standing at the bottom now off the stairs, Merlin helped her down since the last step was a bit high even for him. By the hand he led her around a small corner and through an arch-shaped entryway that expanded into the cave itself. He stared into the cave itself, finding it nothing more than familiar. Aria, on the other hand, was experiencing something completely different.

As she crossed underneath the entryway, she noticed metal doors rusted off their hinges where they'd once been locked a time far into this place's past. Her eyes widened – though big they already were in nature – at the sight of what lay before her. This place was massive, much larger than the small coves where she and Nolan would play as children. She had seen many a cave in her life, but none that held even an ounce of the grandeur that this one held. Not even an ounce.

"I'm sorry your accommodations aren't better," Merlin confessed, rubbing his hand on the back of his neck as he watched her amazement with the utmost respect – this place was wonderful, but Merlin held terrible memories of the dragon and, thus, could not fully understand what she was feeling about this place.

Aria turned to him. "Don't apologize," she said, "this place is gorgeous." She took another look around, dipping a toe of her worn-out boot into a small puddle of water nearby.

Merlin's brow furrowed – her honesty and bluntness left him slightly shocked. "Really? I suppose I'm just used to it, is all." He sighed. "I'm going to have to go away for a bit – I need to fetch you some supplies. I don't suppose you'd like it here alone – I know I wouldn't…"

Aria shook her head, once more meeting his gaze. "Do whatever you need to do. I'll be fine here. If there's one thing I'm good at, it's being alone."

That last statement she'd posed, for whatever reason, left Merlin slightly stunned at her words. This girl was so simple and so sad, but definitely worth his trouble as he now knew. Something that hung around this girl – be it trait or mannerism – made him glad he'd decided to take a great personal risk in saving her. She was worth saving.

"Okay, well, I shouldn't be too long," he said, "unless I run into a bit of trouble. I shouldn't run into much, but you never know. I could be gone awhile."

"Hey," she said to stop him, "don't worry about me – I'll be fine, I promise you. Have no fear – just do what you must."

Merlin nodded, understanding that this girl could – and would – take care of herself at any and all costs. He then realized something terrible out of character, even for him, as he took a good look at her. "I'm sorry I've been rude in not introducing myself. I'm Merlin."

Aria beamed at him, curtsying slightly. "I'm Aria," she said, "it's wonderful to meet you, Merlin."

Wonderful. Never before in meeting someone did they say it was 'wonderful' to meet him. But then again, this girl, however simple, was the farthest from ordinary that he'd yet seen in a person. Everyone he'd ever assisted with anything usually ended up getting themselves banished or killed in the end. He hoped the outcome of this girl would transcend them all – he usually had 'feelings' about people where he could sort of predict how they would end up. So far, his 'feelings' about Aria were positive…in every aspect imaginable.

"I'll be back," he said, and with a quick turn and a sprint up the stairs, he was out of sight once more, leaving Aria to look around the cave and become familiar with her surroundings. This would be her temporary home.

This isn't so terrible, she thought to herself, crossing the small area she'd been in. The area on which she stood was a small area in the shape of an ellipse. From the entrance they'd come in through to the edge of this area where it dropped off like a cliff, there was about thirteen feet of empty, flat space. She peered over the edge of the drop-off, noticing what appeared to be an endless blackness. I can stay here no problem. The only issue she had to face was what happened next.

Aria stopped as a chill ran through the very cores of her bones themselves, sending waves of uneasiness all through her. Her hands found her upper arms, rubbing them for friction-based warmth, but nothing could calm the chills she felt. What was happening?

She spread out her arms in front of her, the center of the chills being in her arms. Aria's fingers felt it the worst however, so she looked them over – everything was as it should be: normal. And yet it wasn't, for she could practically feel the blood inside her as it traveled up and down, in and out of veins and arteries, the liquid life.

Something began pulsing through her veins, pumping at such a rate that Aria's heart rate skyrocketed, her skin flushing from the power of what surged through her. "Oh, God," she said aloud as suddenly, all broke loose – and that was used literally. Her arms threw themselves outward, locked straight with her palms facing upward, as her head tilted back, eyes wide towards the ceiling. A burst of yellow and orange energy poured out of every upper-half orifice with such a blaze that when it finished not five seconds later, it knocked the wind out of her lungs straightaway, leaving her gasping for breath. She felt her knees give way as she toppled to the rocks, palms deep in the murk of water that dipped into the crevices and concaves of the rock. After a few moments she was able to catch her breath and slow her heart rate back to normal as she rocked back onto her bottom, shaky hands finding her face as she hyperventilated from the fright she felt at that moment. Quickly, she scurried backwards towards the rock, finally hitting it with her back as she shakily grabbed hold of her knees and drew them to her chest.

Merlin, where are you?!
Truth Be Told by StardustToRememberYouBy
Author's Notes:
I do not own BBC's Merlin, but Aria is MINE. :) As usual, enjoy.
"Just where have you been, Merlin?" Arthur's booming voice said, halting Merlin in his tracks and forcing him to turn and look straight at the prince and lie, a fact that was all-too common these days.

"I've been around, helping with the laundry and stable duty mostly," Merlin lied easily, his face remaining completely serious. "Have you found the escaped prisoner yet?"

"I didn't say anything about a prisoner." Arthur had caught him.

Merlin continued on as though his lies were second-nature. They were, of course. "Well, I heard the alarm bells a bit ago, which either means that a prisoner has escaped or something is attacking, and I didn't hear people screaming, so I figured it was the first one."

Arthur knew Merlin was right, but remained suspicious of him nonetheless - that was what had become all-too common for Arthur: he was constantly suspicious of his manservant, and for good reason most of the time. "All right then. But I've got my eye on you, Merlin. If I catch even a whiff that you've helped this girl, so help me, I'll – I'll…" He paused. "I don't know what I'll do, but you can bet that it will be unpleasant."

"Look at me. I'm shaking." Merlin was, of course, being sarcastic, but Arthur threw up his hands in defeat and went on his way, leaving Merlin to rush with even less time than he had before. Once in his chamber, he grabbed an old satchel of his in which he placed a folded, woolen blanket of his own. He then ventured out to his own stores, grabbing hold of some bits of fresh cheese, a couple of tomatoes, a few apples, and a baguette of fresh bread, shoving them all into the satchel, making sure that it looked like an ordinary satchel with ordinary contents.

"Where is she, Merlin?"

Merlin's eyes closed, turning around and seeing Lancelot standing just inside the room, his broad arms folded across his chest as his gaze was fixed on Merlin. "I'm not sure what you're talking about."

Lancelot grinned madly, crossing the room and placing a firm hand on Merlin's shoulder, a slight chuckle escaping his lips. "Relax, friend. I'm not going to run and tell Arthur what you're doing. I just want to know if there's anything I can do to help."

Merlin hated how Lancelot was always laying his neck on the line for him, always the one to be the good friend even if it meant treason, as this certainly did. There really wouldn't be much that Lancelot could assist him with – Merlin had gotten himself into this thing, and he would be the one to get himself out of it again, with or without anyone to assist him. Still, he was glad for the help.

"I just couldn't let her die, Lance," Merlin admitted lightly. "I know she's not entirely innocent, but I know I can help her – I just need a chance to."

"That's why I want to help, so that you can have that chance. Let me tell you what I'll do: I'll keep Arthur's mind off this girl – with Uther's failing health, it's likely that Arthur will give up the chase and focus on the bigger issues at hand. He's far too stressed to put efforts into finding this girl. That way you can get her out of here and send her back home."

It became clear to Merlin that Lancelot had known it was the warlock's doing all along and that he'd spent all the time between then and now contemplating exactly how to help his friend. Merlin gave his friend a sympathetic smile. "That'll be perfect. Then I can keep an eye on Aria and help her in any way that I can, all Arthur-free."

Lancelot cocked an eyebrow. "'Aria'? So you're on a first-name basis now, are you?" He shoved Merlin's arm playfully but still forcefully.

Merlin's cheeks stained a deep shade of pink as his ears reddened in embarrassment. "It's not like that and you know it. I just want to help her."

"And now you can."

Merlin grinned, exiting the room and heading down the quickest path of descent to the dungeon area, grabbing the torch he'd left behind and quick-stepping his way down the steep stairs he'd been down thousands of times before. Once down there, he had expected to see Aria waiting for him impatiently, but could see her nowhere in direct sight. His heart pounded – had Arthur found her? Had she tried to leave on her own? He moved the torch around a bit, lighting up a few dimmed areas, and that's when he saw her. She was backed against the rock wall. Merlin came to her, dropping to his knees and then sitting down fully and crossing his legs as he placed the candles he'd snatched along the way into the crevices before him. He emptied the contents of his satchel in front her. "I know these aren't much, but they'll get you through until I can evade everyone long enough to get you out of here." On his face was a bright grin, proud of what he'd accomplished for her. "Hope this is good enough."

"It's brilliant, Merlin," Aria said, her gaze still fixed at point-blank and her expression also straight. "I'd still be up above this cave in a small cell, clad in shackles if it weren't for your benevolence. I cannot express my gratitude enough."

Merlin could feel his face and ears turning red from flattery. He could not recall a time where he had received more personal praise than she was giving him. It made him feel almost awkward since he'd never dealt with this situation before and, therefore, did not know how to respond. "Well," he began, "it was nothing. I love to help others, so…" His voice trailed off as she finally caught his eye. He was finally at a place close enough to her to finally see her in close-up even through the dimness of the cave. Her hands were clasped so tightly around her knees that her knuckles were a bright shade of white. He said nothing, looking her over to make sure she wasn't having some sort of nervous breakdown. "Are you all right?" he asked. "Are you hurt?" She said nothing to him, staring blankly ahead. "Aria, please, I'm here to help. Tell me what's wrong, please?"

Aria sensed the urgency in his voice, calming down a bit - or, at least enough that she could speak to him in as normal a tone as she could currently muster. "I'm fine," she said, a feeble smile crossing her weary lips as her eyes met his. She could not lie to him – it just didn't seem right somehow. "No, Merlin, I'm actually not all right. I think I'm messed up beyond repair."

Merlin's gaze became one of the strongest sympathy, shaking his head. "Don't say that – it can't be that terrible. Tell me. Perhaps I could help. I'm quite the listener." He grinned.

Aria noticed his grin, chuckling a bit before nodding in such a way that let him know that she would tell him. "I know what I'm about to say is total and complete rubbish, and you'll probably not be able to help me, but I just need you to know…once." Merlin settled into where he sat, giving her his undivided attention. Aria shifted into Indian style, folding her hands into her lap. "From the time I was a young girl, I could manipulate things with a mere thought. I could shift a bowl of potatoes from one end of the table to the other without so much as a blink. I could start and extinguish fires with the clenching or relaxing of my fist. My brother Nolan has it too, so we bonded over this a bit, but after he left to work in the fields, I grew to be alone." She laughed a kind of sickly, disheartened laugh. "I'm twenty years old now, Merlin, and my magic – if that's even what it is – has grown ever so much stronger."

Merlin had not known that she was his age. He had thought her to be maybe sixteen or seventeen, judging by her small frame and stature, but now that he had heard her age confirmed straight from the source, he gave her a once-over, finally detecting the maturity within the lines of her face and on her hands, rubbed raw from years of hard work – the hands of a servant. He thought them beautiful. His thoughts then turned to her magic…it had grown stronger? He could definitely understand what the flow of magic felt like – at that very instant, he could feel his own magic pulsing in his veins, flowing here and there, pounding in his ears at times.

Aria's wide blue-green eyes caught his gaze, locking it in before she spoke once more. "While you were gone, this burst of light and energy escaped me out of the feelings this place brought me, so I must ask: what lived here in this cave?"

Merlin was not sure that he should tell her what had held residence there in that cave, but what could he exactly lose from telling her? After all, the dragon lived far away from this place where she wouldn't try anything – but he knew she wasn't the type to actually seek out the dragon and do him harm. She needed answers.

"The great dragon lived here," he answered her quickly, knowing that it was a far-fetched statement – maybe she wouldn't believe it. Clearly, though, she did as she took a glance around the cave, so he continued. "It was escorted here long ago…" He trailed off as he thought of the person who had brought the dragon to Camelot twenty-odd years ago: his own father. The dragon-lord. Merlin's heart ached at the memory of his since-dead father, but, for the moment, pushed his pain aside and thought only of what Aria wanted to hear. "The dragon was of old magic, so it stands to reason that you'd feel some kind of energy around here."

Aria closed her eyes, a single tear trickling down her cheek and leaving a clean streak where it had fallen. Merlin saw this and his heart nearly broke in half at the sight of her.

"What's wrong with me, Merlin?" she asked, a sad desperation coating her voice. "I probably deserved a death sentence for what happened - I'm a freak and an embarrassment, huh?" He said nothing as he thought of what to do next. Suddenly Merlin could hear Gaius' voice in his head, almost like an echo, telling him that if he told this girl that he hardly knew about his magic, it could mean the death of him if she turned out to be a traitor like the many they had encountered previously. Aria saw his fixed expression, hoping for the best but expecting the worst. "You probably think I'm mad, don't you? I don't blame you if you do. Even I'm questioning my sanity these days." She picked up a pebble near her left knee and chucked it into the darkness out of impulse.

I'm sorry, Gaius, Merlin thought to himself. She needs help.

Merlin's thoughts turned to Freya – his lovely Freya – and of the day he'd shown her his magic. The flames had danced mid-air and she'd loved it, calling it beautiful. He figured he ought to show her something special, something just for Aria. He glanced around, trying to find something he could morph into something else, so he found a small pile of sparkle-doused sand near him, picking up a small bit of it and holding it in his palm. His brilliant blue eyes found her weary blue-green ones, holding onto her gaze. "I don't think you're mad at all," he said softly, opening his palm as the sand revealed itself to be in the shape of a small bird. Aria watched in sheer awe as the bird flapped its wings, hovering above his hand in an almost true to life way. Her brow slanted as a smile crossed her lips, watching as the bird then flapped its wings and flew off.

"Beautiful," Aria said in such a way that it sounded exactly the way Freya had said that over a year ago now, sending chills down his spine and giving him goosebumps.

"I'm like you," he said at last, inhaling with relief at finally saying that to someone like him. Someone he trusted. Someone he was determined to remain with. "I was born like this. I, like you, could move things around with just a thought, and I grew up thinking I was such a freak, the way you feel right now. But these past three years have been the best of my life." A smile came to his lips, one that was so genuine that Aria smiled as well from the contagiousness of his own. "I've learned to control my magic in such a way that I've made it beautiful, and I've discovered that I'm not a freak. Once I embraced my gift, I've never felt better in my life. That's what you've got to do – embrace who you are, and who you are is not a freak. You're a blessing."

Tears came to Aria's eyes. Never before had someone been so kind, so earnest with her. Her heart lurched from the joy that she'd finally found a companion with which she could be herself – her magical, non-freaky self. "I cannot recount to you how long I've waited to hear someone say those words, even if you didn't have to." She leaned forward, placing her hand gingerly on his wrist and squeezing once more reassurance – Merlin could feel his skin twitch from a spark he felt the second her flesh came in contact with his, but he said nothing. "I've held mine a secret as well, but I'm sure it's been so hard for you, what with you living in the castle – a sort of lion's den, huh?" She smiled tenderly at him before realizing her hand lay on his arm. Her smile quickly faded into one of embarrassment as her ears reddened-a family trait. Aria immediately recoiled her hand, straightening her back and folding her hands into her lap. "I'm sorry about that – I shouldn't have touched you." Her face flushed a bit as she nervously tucked a wave behind her ear. "Forgive that...I'm usually not one for physical contact, even of the smallest kind." She chuckled a bit. "How silly I sound. It's a wonder you're not laughing – most would."

Merlin cleared his throat, shaking his head once. "No, you're not silly, and there's nothing to forgive," he told her honestly. "I'm just…I'm not used to females touching me is all – that's probably why I twinged a bit when you touched me. Nothing big."

Aria nodded in affirmation. "Nothing big – yes, yes, of course." Of course, they were both lying to each other. Merlin was usually a decent liar, especially around people he had only known a few hours, but around her he just couldn't lie convincingly – the same could be said of Aria. Her lie came out as a sputter of words in such a way that she'd fumbled.

Neither knew why they were acting like this around each other, and, frankly, the thought was quickly pushed out of their minds.
Ardant Work by StardustToRememberYouBy
Author's Notes:
(I do not own BBC's Merlin as I'm required to say, but Aria is my own, personal figment. Thanks!)
This was all starting to jumble in Merlin's head. He had never before met a human – much less a female – with magical properties similar to his own. He really wasn't sure how to respond to her magic, but wanted to help her as much he possibly could nonetheless.

"Anyway," he began to change the subject, "I've brought you all that you need for awhile." He rose to his feet, swiping the dust off his trousers as he did so. "I should get going."

"You're leaving?" Aria said, also standing to meet him. Of course, her height was somewhat less than his – a good five inches or so was between them – but she didn't mind. She did not want to feel lower than anyone, hence her reasoning behind standing. "It's been nice to have the company…"

"I know, but we have to be careful. I don't want either of us to get caught, and I'll be expected for dinner and bed soon, so – "

"No, no, don't misunderstand me." A slight chuckle had invaded her voice. It sounded more nervous than steadfast to Merlin. "I think you should go, I was just stating how kind it was of you to stay as long as you have, to talk to me like you did. I can't express my gratitude enough."

Merlin smiled at her. "I believe you have expressed it, almost too much for me to have a legitimate response, but, alas…" Here, Aria laughed with him, the first of many laughs they would share together. "I like talking to you as well – it's been…well, educational to say the least."

Aria nodded simply. "It has indeed. You really should get going."

Merlin agreed, grabbing hold of his now empty satchel and putting the strap over the shoulder – it was, this time, considerably lighter than the last time. "G'night, Aria."

"Good night."

"I'll be back tomorrow when I can get away." With one final reassuring smile, Merlin turned on his heels and walked straight out the archway, the flaming torch in hand. Aria glanced down at the candles he'd left behind, noticing that he had considerately ignited them for her convenience.

At least I don't have to light them myself, she thought inwardly as she sat down once more on the rock, pondering the cave and wondering what she should do next. Really, since it was a cave made of rock that was dark, dank and smelled of stagnant water and residual dragon-scent, and the fact that she had not prepared for living out of a massive cavern for the next couple of days, she was to be bored.

What to do, what to do… She glanced around. Not a single soul besides hers was anywhere in sight, so she had no one to talk to but herself – she had already been condemned as a witch, so talking with herself would not necessarily bode well on her part, so she skipped that bit and knew that the only thing she could do to wile the time was to sleep it away. After eating a bit of bread, an apple, and a small hunk of cheese, she felt fuller than she'd been in the longest time, even after a measly meal such as that. Why Merlin had been so kind to her she couldn't tell. Merlin…what a soul.

Her thoughts turned to him with a physical smile. He was so simple and yet elegantly handsome in all the right ways. His eyes – oh, those eyes – were brilliant and seemed to bore right through her own and into her very heart. How mere eyes could penetrate her so, she didn't know. All she knew was that there was definitely a place for Merlin with her. It seemed as though there had always been this place inside her willing to be filled with the knowledge of his very existence, but how could it be so? She had only known him for a few short hours, and yet, that seemed to be all that it took to lock themselves into each other's lives.

Aria spread out the blanket Merlin had brought her. She could tell it had been hand-woven and it was made of the finest, softest wool she'd ever felt against her skin. She reclined backwards onto it, staring at the ceiling from her back as she placed an arm under her head. A smile crossed her lips as she saw twinkles of brightness amidst the black at the apex of the cave. It made her think of home, the place she'd see again. Soon.

::::

::::

"Merlin, your supper's cold," Gaius' questioning voice asked once Merlin had made it to their small tower area. "Where've you been that's kept you so long?"

Merlin shrugged simply – he'd worked up a lie on his way back to the tower, knowing that Gaius would question him the moment he returned. "I spent the day working in the stables, cleaning the horses and helping the servants clear out the muck. It was tiring, and I've worked up quite the appetite." He sat down, nearly downing his bowl of porridge and dumplings in a few large bites.

"It took you all day at the stables, really? Usually you get that work done quickly."

Merlin nodded. "I had help this time, Gaius, and they're not used to working quickly, so they spent all day doing what I could do in a few hours. I mean, I didn't want to appear hasty or anything."

Gaius sighed. "Did you hear about the prisoner escape today?" He was trying to weed something out of the young warlock, something that would call his bluff and reveal his assistance with Aria's escape. Under the circumstances, Merlin had already prepared a script for such an interrogation.

"Yeah, Lancelot stopped by and told me to keep an eye out for her. Young girl, right? Witchcraft and all?"

"Just earlier today you were practically begging me to allow you to help her, and now you're siding with her condemnation?"

"I figured, why bother? I mean, everyone else I've ever helped ends up getting thrown out of Camelot or killed – sometimes worse. Why help her? It would only hurt her."

Gaius nodded. "I'm glad you're finally seeing things the correct way, Merlin. I'm proud of that." Merlin was no fool – he knew that Gaius still suspected him – he could feel his father figure's eyes burning in the back of his neck – as he left for his personal room to catch some much-deserved shut-eye.

Merlin was restless most of the night, and for one reason: he couldn't' wait to see Aria again. He had no real clues as to what would exactly happen between them in strict details, but the anxiety he felt over seeing her again was almost too immense to bear.

::::

::::

"Merlin? Merlin, get up! Merlin, Arthur needs you. Are you awake yet?"

Gaius' loud voice in the morning was something that Merlin did not relish about his mornings in Camelot. As he rose groggily from his bed to prepare for the day, his thoughts did not turn to Aria – he focused solely on getting his work for Arthur done as quickly as possible, whatever tasks he would be presented with. Merlin downed his breakfast as swiftly as possible, thrusting his arms through the sleeves of his brown hide jacket and tying a blue scarf around his neck over his old, faded red shirt.

Arthur inhaled a deep breath before saying all in a single breath, "Shoe my horse, clean up his muck, bathe him, groom him, and then I'll need you back here to scrub the floor in my room and to put clean sheets on my bed after polishing my boots. Is that clear?"

Arthur's tone was demanding and self-aware, causing Merlin to sigh. He knew it would take him awhile to finish his chores, but only if he took his time to complete them. Luckily, he had his sights set on helping someone out that day, which would force him to not only use his time wisely but to get his work done in a reasonably-timed fashion. This would not be easy, but indeed, his thoughts were other places.

The first task he started with was shoeing and grooming Arthur's stallion since that would be the lengthiest task to complete. Merlin had always been good with the grooming bit, and he would oftentimes recruit Gwen to assist him with the shoeing, being that she was the daughter of a blacksmith and attuned to the world of blacksmithing where Merlin himself was not. Luckily, she was down near the stables that day, taking care of shoeing all of the horses stocked there.

"Remind me why I need to shoe Arthur's horse?" Gwen asked petulantly, a crooked smirk crossing her full lips.

"I need help today, Gwen," Merlin said, a kind of quiet desperation coating his tone in a light way that Gwen sensed. "I've got somewhere really important to be, and I can't be weighed down by every task Arthur gave me for the day."

"If you're enlisting my help, this 'other place to be' must be extremely important to you."

Merlin shot her a boyish grin. "It might turn out to be more important, yeah."

Gwen's interest in the situation was locked now. "Oh, really? You've intrigued me. Who is she?"

Merlin's eyes flew wide open, staring at her in a 'how'd you guess' kind of way. "What makes you think the 'place' is actually a 'she'?"

Gwen sighed, rolling her eyes gleefully as she grew impatient with the thought of not knowing who this girl that Merlin wanted to see actually was. "Men like you don't just openly commit to seeing a girl unless he's really interested in her. Take Arthur, for instance. He will tell everyone he's seeing someone, but won't actually tell them all it's me – that's how I know."

A happy sigh escaped Merlin's grin as her relaxed and looked at Gwen, a peppy pinkish color flushing into his cheeks as he thought of Aria. "She's stunning, Gwen. You'd really like her. Unfortunately, I can't tell you more than that, given the circumstances."

"What circumstances? I want to know who she is, Merlin."

"No, no," Merlin said with a definite shake of his head, "all in good time, Gwen. I've said too much already. You'll find out soon enough."

"I'd better, or I'll be on you so fast it'll make your head spin." At this, both she and Merlin shot awkward glances at each other before chuckling. "That was definitely not what I meant to say, but you know what I mean."

After awhile, Merlin thanked Gwen for her assistance and left the shoeing as the last thing to complete the grooming process. He then left the stables, walking briskly back to Arthur's chamber to finish the tasks meant for him there. Using a quick bit of magic, he was able to put clean sheets on Arthur's bed while he physically scrubbed one half of the floor. A second brush controlled mentally through magic scrubbed the other half of the floor, so he was able to finish the most tedious parts of the cleaning process in double time.

The part that couldn't use magic for was the polishing of Arthur's boots. If it wasn't done by hand, not only would Arthur be able to tell, but so would Merlin and the rest of the court. He had to do it by hand. So that's exactly what he did.

"Ah, Merlin," Arthur said upon reentering his chambers. "I knew I'd find you working hard as I expected."

"I'm finished now, actually," Merlin said, placing the last pair of boots in the neat row of them at the bottom of Arthur's wardrobe.

Arthur's brow furrowed in confusion, taking a gander around at the room and finding everything to his liking. "However did you manage it, Merlin? Usually you spend all day doing your chores."

Merlin shrugged. "I worked hard and focused, sire. No reason to be distracted today. Is there anything else I can for you today?"

Arthur thought for a moment, but nothing came to mind. "No, actually, the ones I gave you were it. I guess you get the rest of the day off to do what you want."

Merlin smiled. "Really, Arthur?"

Arthur nodded, his brow remaining furrowed as he was still confused. "Yes, I'm sure. Go off and have fun today."

Merlin bowed quickly before bolting from the room and running straight down to the dungeons. He lit a torch with a wave of his hand and an utterance of a Gaelic spell and then was off down the broad stairs to the empty cavern.

"Aria?" he said after entering through the arched doorway, peering around for her. He found her still asleep on the blanket he'd brought for her. He decided to remain quiet as he placed the torch in a rung he found on the wall just above where she lay, sitting down and crossing his legs before glancing her over. He noticed that the corners of her mouth were slightly upturned, making her entire presence look peaceful and contented, two things he wished for her. He waited a few moments, watching her chest as she inhaled and exhaled deeply, just glad that she was alive. Then he really wished to hear her voice so he placed a hand lightly on her shoulder. "Aria, wake up."

Aria awoke with a fright, jolting upright as her heart nearly leapt out of her chest with his touch. Her muscles relaxed quickly upon seeing him sitting there, and she chuckled to herself. "Merlin, you startled me," she said, her voice not sounding the least bit like she'd just woken up from a deep sleep interrupted. She sounded fully rejuvenated. "I wasn't expecting you so soon."

"Soon? I've been gone all day. It's mid-afternoon." She gave him a look of bewilderment. "I'd apologize for not waking you up first thing this morning, but it looks as though you needed the sleep."

Aria nodded. "I feel fantastic today, yeah. So what were you required to do today?" He spoke for the next few moments, telling her all about his day. When he had finished, she nodded. "That sounds like a fairly full day." Her thoughts shifted to her family. "I wonder how my family's doing. I hope they're all right. I'm kind of hoping that once I return, they'll tell me I can go off to find a home of my own because they've grown up enough to take care of everything I usually do. Can you understand that?"

Merlin was in full agreement. "I can understand. I never felt freer than when I left Ealdor to come here and learn how to control my magic."

"Is all magic meant to be controlled? I've wondered that since I met you."

Merlin thought for a moment. "I was able to control mine since my magic was destined to be controlled."

"My magic is sporadic, and has been since I can remember. Can mine be controlled as yours is?"

He looked her over for a moment prior to speaking again. "I've thought about that, and honestly? I'm not sure yours is meant to be controlled. If it's always been unpredictable, perhaps that's what it's meant to be. Unpredictable."

"So basically our magic is the opposite of what we are to ourselves?" Merlin's face silently told her that he didn't understand what she meant, so she continued. "Your magic is controlled, but your life is unpredictable. My magic is unpredictable while my life is stationary. Maybe our magic is meant to reflect what we wish we were."

"You wish you were more spontaneous?" Merlin asked her, raising an eyebrow. "You couldn't be any closer to spontaneous, even if you tried."

"Is that a compliment?"

Merlin nodded. "It is."

Aria blushed a bit. "I'm not sure what you see in me, Merlin, though I wish I could be everything you saw."

Merlin's eyes darted to her lips – he had never really noticed how nicely shaped they were until that moment, and he realized just how much he wanted to place his own lips onto hers and never release them, but he just couldn't. Not here. Not now.

Aria noticed his eyes studying her lips, a sign that he wanted to kiss her. Oh, how she wanted him to, but just couldn't voice it to him personally. She'd wait patiently for the perfect moment, and that moment was not in this cavern.

"So," she said to change the subject and get themselves back on track, "any word yet on when you can arrange for my escape?"

Merlin's eyes traveled back up north, meeting her eyes. "I can get you out of here as soon as tomorrow, unless something else comes up. I heard some of the knights discussing extensive training, which they usually do on the outskirts of the kingdom, and they mentioned tomorrow being a brutal training session, so I'm certain that Arthur and the rest of the knights will be out of Camelot as early as tomorrow. Is that too late for you?"

Aria picked up an apple, shaking her head. "That sounds perfect to me." She took a large bite out of it, handing the apple to him so he could have a taste. A small portion of the juice savored in that bite dripped out of the corner of her mouth, so she reached up and wiped it away with the back of her hand. "I'm kind of a messy eater when it comes to fruit." Merlin laughed a bit before taking a bite. They took turns eating the apple until it was nothing more than a bare core. Aria took it into her hand and threw it into the darkness as she sipped the water he'd brought for her. She chuckled a bit, making him a bit nervous.

"What's so funny?" he asked.

She reached out and grabbed his shirt at the sleeve. He jumped when their skin almost touched, but he let her do what she needed to do. "What is this material?" she asked of him. "It's old and worn – you're lucky it doesn't fall off you at will, you know." She shook her head. "Tsk, tsk, tsk." Sitting up, she said. "I promise you that when I get out of here, I'm going to make you some new clothes."

"You're going to make me new clothes?"

She nodded, biting her lip a bit. "That's permitted among friends, right? Making clothes for them?"

Merlin shrugged. "I suppose so – I've never had someone offer to make me clothes before, besides my mother."

"I can't compare to your mother, Merlin."

"I know that – I do. I'm just sayin' that she's not around to mend my clothing, so some new pieces couldn't hurt."

Aria smiled at him. "So, you're planning on remaining my friend once I'm out of this cave?"

"Why wouldn't I want to be your friend?" This was not a question he particularly wanted to answer at length since he already knew the answer to it. What he was uncertain of was whether or not she knew what he would say.

"Yes, but why would you?" There were several answers she wanted him to give for her question, but didn't press the matter beyond what his answer would be. Only time could tell her what she wanted to know, but she tried desperately to expedite the process by any means necessary.

"Touché." At this, the two of them laughed aloud together, glad to have each other's company, a fact that would not abandon either of them anytime soon.
Plans & Escalations by StardustToRememberYouBy
Author's Notes:
Remember I do NOT own BBC or its subsidiaries and shows, Merlin being one among the many.
As Merlin arose the next morning after having shared a few gentle moments with Aria the night before – nothing romantic to speak of, much to the dismay of both – he had a dreadful feeling like he hadn't gotten a bit of sleep. And as he stared at his reflection in a metal tray by his bedside that served as mirror of sorts, he noticed the darkness outlining his usually bright eyes and realized that 'no sleep' was exactly what he'd received. Bugger, he thought to himself.

He readied himself for the day, taking extra care in dressing himself appropriately for what lay in his agenda – which meant, basically, that he dressed exactly the way he dressed every other day. This day, however, his clothes felt different, freer almost.

"You're in a chipper mood today," Gaius quickly observed as he watched Merlin snarfing down his breakfast of cold oatmeal and a chalice of water. "Off to do something spectacular on your day off?"

Gaius knew quite well that Merlin never had a set "day off" and probably never would. Arthur's idea of giving Merlin a "day off" was basically because the prince had chosen a specific day of the week on which he would throw all of Merlin's duties on an unsuspecting youngling, usually a servant who hadn't been performing well at work. Thus, Arthur punished said servant by giving him/her all of Merlin's daily duties. This was essentially Merlin's "day off". And Gaius knew Merlin would probably spend it conjuring some sort of mischief that would end in the warlock's arrest and a few hours in the stocks.

That's what you expect, Gaius, but not today. Not this day.

Merlin shrugged. "I'd thought about paying Gwen a visit today or perhaps heading out to the tavern to spend time with Gwaine."

"If Arthur caught you visiting Gwaine, there's a chance that Uther could find out, and—"

"You and your slippery slopes need to stop and catch a breath once in a while, Gaius," Merlin said, patting his guardian on the shoulder lightly before starting to head out the door. "Honestly, I shouldn't be too long. You have absolutely no reason to worry." Merlin headed out, not even bothering to look back as he shut the door behind him, pausing a moment and sighing. He knew he was putting himself into a terribly dangerous scenario. It could end in complete disaster. If not, though, it would ultimately send Aria back home where she belonged, and that fact in and of itself was his entire reasoning behind helping her. Well, that and that he couldn't live with himself if she were killed and he was to be forced to watch it happen. If only I could make you see, Gaius, make you understand I have to help her. I just have to.

Merlin rounded into a small entryway with a stone stairwell leading up to the next floor. Here there was a viewing window large enough that he could see down into the courtyard. He did just that, watching as Arthur mounted his horse beside the rest of the knights of Camelot, all saddled and ready to depart for the extensive training ground half a day's ride from the castle. Merlin saw Lancelot all ready to leave, knowing that if anything were to go wrong, at least he could count on that knight in particular to stall Arthur long enough for Merlin to assist her in escaping the castle grounds and get her safely home.

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"It all feels strange," Aria said, glancing around the cavern as she stood on the edge of the drop-off, her eyes soaking in the sight of the cavern for the last time.

"How so?" Merlin asked, stepping towards her as he felt for a moment as though she'd topple over the edge of the steep drop. He nearly outstretched an arm to pull her back to safety when she whirled around to face him, startling him enough to make him withdraw his arm.

"This place has been a makeshift home for me. Parting with it feels…almost wrong in a way." She studied his face. "Oh, dear." A slight chuckle echoed in her throat. "I sound completely bonkers, don't I?"

Merlin smiled gently, shaking his head. "You have every right to feel some sort of attachment to this place. It's not wrong, it's…almost expected. You're of magic, so anyplace with magic like yours is bound to share some sort of bond with you."

Aria nodded, looking around once more. "You're quite right," she said, stepping forward into the safe zone. "Well, I'm ready to leave when you are."

Merlin's lips spread into a wide grin. "I've been ready since I got you here in the first place." With that he led her out of the cavern, removing the torch from the wall as he did so, making careful note to replace it in the empty slot on the wall inside the dungeon once they reached it. He paused, listening intently for guards.

Silence.

The silence was noted, so Merlin headed straight up the stairwell with Aria directly in tow. She stayed by his side, never more than four inches from the surface of his clothing so as to maintain minimal distance – she did not want to be far from his side, so far from his side she was not. At times while he led her through the corridors and passageways laced throughout the castle, they would stop and clasp hands out of sheer panic, though neither knew their hands were clasped. It felt so completely inborn, so second-nature, that it seemed like what should fill the space between them. After this occurred three times, it happened a fourth time as they paused around the corner from Morgana's former chambers where there were always a handful of guards. This fourth time was the last as their hands remained entwined for the remainder of the escape route.

After about thirty agonizingly suspenseful minutes of dodging in and out of cupboards, wardrobes, and back hallways, they were outside of the castle. Outside they faced less resistance as there were little to no guards outside the castle. Apparently, most of them were inside the castle itself probably near Uther's chambers. Merlin had purposefully steered the two of them clear of that entire section of the castle under the knowledge that it would be swarming with guards. Once away from the castle's courtyard, it was smooth-sailing to the lower towns to her cottage. They stopped and took a breath at last as she opened the door to the home with her free hand and stepped inside.

Aria's emotions were jumbled together. She wasn't quite sure which emotion to feel first. She felt relief to be safe at home once more, but regret that she couldn't be alone any longer as her homespun duties would reactivate. There were so many pros and cons to each side of these feelings, but both made so much sense to her that all she could do was let her eyes well with tears – though none fell from them – and smile widely at the realization that she was home.

"I'm here," she said aloud, "I've come home." Merlin smiled sympathetically at the back of her neck before she turned to face him, her blue-green eyes wide with gratitude. She stepped towards him, leaving no more than a foot of space between her body and his. "I wouldn't be standing here – alive, no less – without you and your unending kindness towards me, Merlin."

Merlin nodded. "You needed a savior, and I was in the right place at the right time." She nodded in agreement as they stared into each other's eyes, each of them coming to the sudden realization that their hands were clasped together. Aria's already wide eyes widened some more before shrinking back to normal size as a sniffle left her. "How long have we been holding hands?"

She shook her head. "I'm not sure. Feels like awhile though…" Upon hearing those very words rebounding off the walls of her mind, she released her grip on his hand, wiping her hands on her soiled apron. "My apologies."

Don't apologize…give me your hand again…don't let go, Merlin thought to himself, nodding promptly as he cleared his throat – a nervous habit.

Aria quickly changed the topic of conversation back to what they'd been discussing before, a trait she held in high regards as the remedy to clumsy speech. "I cannot thank you enough for your kindness," she said, closing the space between them as she wrapped her arms around his waist, her cheek coinciding with his chest.

Merlin sighed as his heart rate jumped higher than it had been in a long time. He was sure that she could hear it as it practically leapt out of his chest and onto her cheek. Instead of letting this get to him and relinquish all value and respect he held for this lovely being, he put his own arms around her. "I wish I could do more for you."

Aria heard the quickened beat of his heart, but thought nothing of it at the present moment. She dropped her arms to her side and stepped back, her wondering eyes peering up into his. "How can you say that? You've done me a lifetime of goodness. It's my turn to show you the same."

Merlin's head turned to face the door, fearing that at any moment a guard could enter and seize them both – her for treason and trickery, and Merlin for obstruction of justice. "I shouldn't stay too long or Gaius will be suspicious, even more than he already is of me." He saw the look on her face change from one of gratitude to one of longing so he spoke quickly. "It's not like I'm going away forever. You promised to make me clothes, remember?"

Aria nodded with a grin. "When can I take your measurements?"

"How about two days hence? I will come back and spend the afternoon with you here."

Aria thought for a moment before she nodded curtly one time. "That should work splendidly. That's the day my father chooses to visit my brother Nolan at the farm he works at, and my sisters spend that day with the neighbors. I usually get the day to myself, but I would love the company."

Merlin grinned widely. "Great, then I'll be back then?" He began to leave after receiving confirmation of his question, but as he stood in the doorway, he said to her "I hope your father realizes that you are more than capable of running your own household."

Aria's brow slanted as his statement made her heart sink. She so longed to leap into his arms and let him carry her away, but that was not for this very moment in time. "I can only hope so, Merlin. Trust and hope."

Merlin smiled at her. "Trust and hope," he repeated, giving her a tight-lipped grin before stepping out the door to head back to the physician's tower.

Aria's entire body shook with sobs as he left – not from his departure but from the overwhelming factor that she was alive, healthy, and home, this time as a free woman. She slumped down onto the bench beside the familiar wood of the dinner table as her hands found her forehead, remaining there as the once stoic tears loosened to sensitivity and fell from her eyes, leaving clean streaks amidst the dirt she hadn't noticed till that moment. Aria wasn't sure how long she sat there weeping – moments, seconds, minutes – but however long it was, it ended with a shocked gasp as the door to the home swung open, revealing a weary father and two young girls.

"Ari?" the girls said in perfect unison as Aria smiled through her splotchy cheeks, throwing her arms wide as her sisters ran to her. Laughter reached the rafters and reverberated into the home, recreating the sounds that had long ago abandoned their quaint household.

"How I've missed you all!" Aria said to them brightly.

"You were supposed to have been executed," was all her weary-eyed father could muster. "We thought you were…we were told you were…"

Aria crossed the room, throwing her arms tightly around her father as he nearly collapsed from the sobs. "I'm here now," she told him quietly, "and I've quite a story to tell you."

The next two hours were spent retelling every single thing that had happened to her starting with the very moment she left home. The only sound one could hear within their home during those two hours was the sound of Aria's spirited storytelling gift, a trait she'd inherited from her mother. She talked and they listened. When she'd finished, her father sent the girls to bed and he told her gently that he had something to discuss with her.

He sat down at the table across from his daughter, garnering her full attention before he spoke. "I realized that day you were arrested that I never gave you a chance to live your life the way it should have been lived. I expected far too much of you." She opened her mouth as though to speak, but he held up a hand to stop her. "I visited Nolan yesterday after we knew you were supposed to have been executed, and I learned that the owners of that farm built him his own home. It's not much, but it's a place to live until I can find somewhere nice to settle down with the girls."

Aria was awestruck by her father's words. On her first day at home, she hadn't expected this to occur. Not this soon. Perhaps in a couple of days when her normal routine had been restored they would have discussed her moving out, but he was talking about moving out as soon as he possibly could.

"When do you want this to happen?" she asked for clarification.

"I can move them out of here as early as tomorrow."

Aria's mouth dropped open, but not a sound escaped her as she came to her senses. "I didn't know you'd want to do this tomorrow…I'm not sure how to respond." She paused, glancing around their small home. "Do you really think I'm ready to run my own home?"

Her father reached across the table, taking both of her hands gingerly into his own. "Aria, you've been ready since your mother's passing." His gaze fell to the table. "I'm so terribly sorry about losing what we used to have—it seems everything was easier when we had the money to be who and what we wanted…I am so sorry for you, sorry that I couldn't pass on to you what I had hoped to."

Aria shook her head. "If the money ever comes back to us, I'm not sure I would want to take it. I've gotten so used to this life—this simpler life—that I don't think I could go back to our former life under what knowledge I've earned these past several years."

Nicholas nodded. "You have become quite the wonderful young woman. I'm certain you're capable of running your own home…so certain, in fact, that I'm not giving you an option."

And he didn't.

By the middle of the next day, the home was entirely Aria's. As she stood in the doorway, waving to her father and to her sisters, she couldn't help but feel overwhelmingly relieved to, at last, be on her own. At twenty years old, she was practically a hag by society's standards since most girls she'd known since childhood were married by fourteen years of age and had started their families within the next couple of years.

Aria closed the door, backing against the wall with a sigh of relief. She definitely could have used a good scream but didn't want to alert the neighbors into assuming there was something wrong with her, so instead she squealed a bit, forcing her hand tightly over her mouth as she closed her eyes, wondering where she should begin in making this home her own. What to do, what to do…

The first thing she did was move her small bed from its corner in the kitchen to a nook at the back of the house where she would ultimately receive more privacy from prying eyes entering her home. The next thing she did was head down the street to a flower vendor, purchasing all manner of flowers with which to adorn the walls and tables and cabinets of her home. The next thing was to head to another vendor nearby that sold fabrics of all colors and embellishments. She purchased several fabrics of varying shades of blue and grey, and some she purchased were Irish green, her favorite color.

She spent the remainder of her day hanging the fabrics in her home as a sort of divider, separating the front portion of her home—which was, in its entirety, the kitchen and fireplace—from the back portion where she would wash and dress and sleep at night. Hours she spent working on all of this, and when she had finished, she wiped the back of her hand across her sweat-covered brow and placed her hands firmly on her hips as she stood back and admired her new home. Her own place. A smile formed on her lips as she breathed a sigh of relief, promptly heading to bed.

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Knock knock.

"Come in," Aria called out to whoever wished to enter her home. A smiling Merlin entered the room, much to Aria's surprise. "Merlin…I hadn't expected it would be you."

Merlin's eyes narrowed. "We said two days ago I could come by so you could take my measurements." Aria nodded, suddenly remembering their agreement. He looked around the home as he entered, his brow rising in surprise. "I take it your father and sisters…"

Aria nodded, biting her lip. "They moved to another place. My father left the home to me."

Merlin grinned at her. "Aria, that's brilliant! I'm so happy for you."

Aria nodded, knowing that he truly meant what he had said. "Shall I take your measurements now then?"

Merlin smiled, setting his satchel down onto the table as he looked around the room. "You've made this place your own. It feels like you've lived here on your own for years instead of a couple of days."

Aria chuckled. "I'm really growing into it, Merlin," she said as she wrapped her measuring ribbon around her neck. Her mother had handmade it years ago, and Aria now used it in her mother's memory. "This place is growing on me, I should say. It's starting to feel like my own home."

"Well, that's a good thing, isn't it?" Aria was silent so Merlin continued. "If you felt entirely positive about this, you wouldn't be down-trodden. Why are you sad about this?"

"I'm not sad about this. I'm just…well, behind."

"How do you mean?"

Aria knelt down, measuring his inseam and marking the ribbon for future reference. "Most girls I've grown up with have their own home, and that includes a husband and children." Merlin's brow rose, which Aria noted. "I don't feel I should have a home unless the latter two are mine as well."

"A husband and children? Is that the life you want for yourself?"

Aria nodded simply, nudging him into a standing position so she could measure the breadth of his neck, arms, and wrists. "It's what I've always wanted." She smiled slightly and looked down.

"What is it?"

She looked up at him. "The next measurements are a bit more personal." Merlin shot her an inquisitive look to which she shook her head. "You'll need to remove your shirt."

Merlin relaxed a bit. Her usage of the term "personal" sent his mind reeling with astonishment and terribly bothered thoughts of what she could have possibly meant by that. He was quite relieved to learn that it was nothing more than removing his shirt. Little did he know, for he was unprepared for what would transpire after the removal of his shirt. He nodded curtly, promptly removing his jacket which Aria took as a cue for her to turn around to give him a bit of privacy. Once his jacket and scarf had been taken off and placed atop the table, he untied the leather closure at the front and then placed the shirt on the small pile of clothes he had placed there. He rubbed his arm nervously, hoping she would turn to face him without provocation…she didn't. "You can face me now," he said lightly, and she did just that.

Aria's gaze remained steadfast, ever locked on his brilliant orbs as she stepped towards him. Her gaze was ice as she stared at only what she absolutely had to in order to complete his measurements. She cleared her throat for luck. "There are only three left to take," she said to him, her voice wavering only slightly. She wrapped her arms around his torso, taking the measurement at the widest portion of his chest. Next she moved to the edge of his ribcage, her eyes traveling from his neck downward as they caught sight of a small patch of wispy black hairs centered on his broad torso…Focus, Aria! She snapped back to attention, sliding the ribbon down for the last measurement, her eyes glazing over his slender abdomen, muscles tight from the tension…Come on, just one more and you're free! Finishing, she left her fingers near his bellybutton, tenderly grazing the flesh around it with her fingertips as chills shot through his spine and caused the two of them to jump.

"I am so sorry," she said, her voice barely above a whisper as she quickly retreated to the far corner of the room, placing the ribbon back in her mending basket as she noticed him quickly replacing his clothes out of her sharp peripheral vision. "I shouldn't have…well, I shouldn't have…lingered. I'm sorry."

"I shouldn't have lingered either," Merlin said, though, in truth, he had nothing to be sorry for. His cheeks stained red from the embarrassment. It was almost too much to handle. "I'm sorry I let you." His gaze, at last, found hers and he locked into it. "I, uh, hope that, um, the clothes you make for me will turn out to your liking. But I should, uh, go now before, um, things get, uh…well, weirder." He stumbled over his entire statement as he flung the strap of his satchel over his shoulder and quickly left her home.

Aria slummed to the floor, trying desperately to catch her breath at the heat of what had just transpired. Her hand pressed between her bosom, she finally caught her breath and slowed her heart rate to a safer pace, but her eyes stared—wide—at the door where he'd gone. She knew full-well that neither of them had expected such a sensitive matter to be approached that evening, but he was to spend the rest of the day with her. Clearly, the previous tension had changed his mind. As sad as it sounded, Aria was glad he'd left. Merlin had just made her blush more than she had ever blushed in her entire life, and for good reason: the heat, the tension, and the intensity of their relationship was escalating.
Fire & Rain by StardustToRememberYouBy
Magic was what brought them together, and that was the irony of it all. The very thing Merlin strove to protect and keep hidden from the rest of the obviously oblivious world he lived in was the strongest thing he shared with the girl he could learn to love. Perhaps magic, in all its infinite wisdom, could bring them closer…but how?

That was the million gold-coin question for him right there: magic could bring them closer, but how? He knew that Aria struggled with her magic where his was controlled and kept that way. Perhaps he could teach her how to control it. Self-control was the one thing Aria lacked for all her better traits. He knew he could assist her in making herself right, the way she wished she was. He only knew of this wish because of a heartfelt talk between the two of them while she was still a prisoner. Now that she was a free woman, he could begin to teach her the old ways, the ways of keeping magic under self-restraint. So that's exactly what he did.

The next two weeks were the most arduous days of Merlin's life. During the daytime, he would complete each and every one of his typical day-to-day chores and his evenings were spent with Aria. He would assist her in her magic with performing simple tasks under its usage. If she mucked up a spell, he would revise it for her and show her how to properly perform it. While he was working during the day, Aria spent the majority of her time practicing for the evening's session. Each window and cranny in her home was plugged up with thick, black fabric in a blackout so that no one outside could see or hear a single occurrence of magical practices within her homestead. At night, Merlin was there to assist her with her magic, teaching her everything he knew about the Old Religion and about the properties of their fantastical trick. And after two weeks, Merlin was there for one final session, the last huzzah in his proctoring of her skill.

Aria outstretched her hand, muttering a spell in Gaelic, the language of the Old Religion, as her eyes gleamed gold and she raised a bit of cloth off of the table in front of her. She stood across the room and attempted to bring the cloth to her by no means of physical touch, and then things went awry. The cloth burst into the shape of a flaming dragon, flapping its reptilian wings and coming towards her. With one swipe of his fingers, Merlin extinguished the flame, dissipating the cloth in the process.

Aria's eyes widened as she slummed to the bench at her table, back hunched in defeat. "Two weeks, Merlin," she said, resting her forehead in her hands. "Two weeks and I still can't do anything better than it was before. Nothing has improved. Nothing."

"That's not entirely true," he said, coming to sit down beside her. "Your spells of…well, your practice of, um…" His voice trailed off as he attempted to think of a spell she'd perfected. Nothing came to mind. Merlin sighed. "So you can't practice magic because you endanger people—that's no big deal."

Aria looked up at him, mouth agape. "Seriously, you're the worst consoler I've ever met."

Merlin stood from his bench. "What do you want me to do? I've done all I can."

"And nothing's helped me, so what does that tell you?" She stood, her stature nowhere measuring up to his.

Merlin's eyes narrowed. "Are you blaming this on me? This isn't my fault—I was just trying help you!"

Their once dulcet tones were now rising in decibels as they grew angrier with each other.

"Not necessarily, but what am I supposed to think, Merlin? You're my only help and nothing's helping!"

"So if you're not saying I'm a bad teacher, than what are you saying, Aria?"

Aria threw her hands up in defeat. "I'm saying that I can't do this," she blurted, suddenly silencing the fight. "I can't do this. If practiced, my magic would only seek to harm people. I'm not you."

"What's that supposed to mean?"

Aria's brow slanted as feelings of empathy washed over her. "A week ago, you told me all about your destiny and why you had your magic. You told me of its power and its power over you." She paused. "I'm not like that. I knew from the start that my magic was clumsy and no good even at its best, but still you helped me in any way you could." A sense of peace was now between them as Merlin's features softened at her words. "I don't do anything to earn one ounce of the help you've given me, and yet you gave it anyway." She folded her arms across her chest, staring straight at him. "Your magic has a purpose, a drive, and a reason to exist. Mine was an accident, so let it be just that."

"You're saying you're not going to practice magic anymore?" His face scrunched into an expression of confusion. "Why did we just waste two weeks practicing it then?"

Aria shook her head. "It wasn't wasted. It helped me see that my magic is just that. You're a warlock, and your magic is a mere sliver of your great destiny. Mine was a complete accident, so I will forevermore treat it like that." She smiled. "After all, I wouldn't want to miss one second of the power you'll grow into. I want to watch your destiny unfold unhindered by my own tendencies." She sighed, taking a seat on the bench once more. "I think I've figured out what we are."

"Oh, really?" he said, sitting down beside her once more as he gave her his undivided attention. "And what would that be?"

Her gaze bore into his. "We're like fire and rain." Merlin was clearly confused, so she continued. "My magic is unpredictable, uncontrollable like fire. Your magic is clear, controlled like rain. Whenever my fires are lit at a danger to others, you rain down and push it back under control."

Merlin had never thought about it that way, but now that it had been brought to his attention, it was all he could think about. She truly meant every word she'd said, and he could almost feel the passion as it continued to grow between them.

Aria bit her lip, looking away. "I have something for you," she said, rising from her seat and disappearing for a moment behind the curtain dividers she had placed there. She returned after a moment, her arms bustling with clothes. "I finished the clothes I promised." She sat back down, placing the pile of them into his lap. "There are two new pairs of trousers—one is a black pair for special occasions—and several shirts in different colors than blue and red." Merlin grabbed hold of a nice white shirt that had been embroidered with gold embellishments along the neckline where there was a leather tie, a typical trait for a Merlin-esque shirt. "Try it on—go ahead."

Merlin promptly removed his current shirt, throwing on the white one. It was baggy at the sleeves and fitted at the shoulders, a very up-to-date shirt. Aria stood from the table, grabbing her mother's old mirror so he could see himself in it. "Oh, wow," he said as the brightest smile Aria had ever seen on him flashed across his face, "Aria, this is spectacular."

"You like it then?" she asked. She knew full-well that he did, in fact, like the shirt, but she wanted to hear it straight from the source anyway.

Merlin nodded emphatically. "It's really, really beautiful," he said, "I cannot thank you enough!" Impulsively, he threw his arms around her waist, lifting her from the floor for a moment before realizing what had just happened. Aria's eyes remained wide as he placed her back onto the floor and released her. Merlin was about to say something apologetic when Aria cut him off, entirely changing the subject.

"I wanted to add the leather tie because your other shirts have one, and it adds class to the shirt," she said, stepping forward and loosening the tie ever so slightly, revealing a bit of the wisps of black hair she'd caught sight of two weeks ago. "Oh my…" Her voice trailed off as her eyes remained locked on his chest.

"Is something wrong?" he asked her, feeling the hotness of her breath as it graced his chest and gave him goosebumps. They had never yet been this physically close before, so neither really knew the sane way of dealing with it.

Aria reached up, her fingertips tenderly touching the small, thin patch of hair. "You have hair on your chest…" Again she trailed off as her fingers stopped touching the hair—which really was a barrier between her fingertips and his skin—and placed her fingertips on his skin.

Merlin smiled faintly. "Never quite got that reaction before," he said softly, noticing that her fingertips hadn't left his skin. He then did something completely unlike him: he reacted romantically. His hand found her free hand, grasping it tightly and bringing it up to fill the space between them as he tipped her chin up, each meeting the other's gaze and keeping it steadfast as their foreheads met. Each of them closed their eyes to soak in this moment, this touch, this feeling. Merlin's free hand found her cheek, stroking it with his thumb.

Aria grinned a bit under the touch of his hand, saying softly, "I think this is where we—"

Merlin's memory flashed to Freya as his skin flushed and he backed away, eyes wide. "No!" he said with distinct determination. "No, I can't. Not now." He sighed. "I'm not ready." Aria nodded firmly, understanding that he couldn't pursue that before, to which her eyes fell to the floor. "I'm sorry, I shouldn't have." He took the pile of clothes, sending her a sympathetic smile before leaving her home without so much as a second glance. Aria didn't question his motives. She'd wait for him as long as it took, no matter how long that would be.

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Merlin's entire body shook with the shock of what had just happened in Aria's home. He had had his own personal reasons for leaving in a rush: she had touched him. Not only that, but that touch had made him feel something, something he hadn't felt since…well, since Freya. That fact alone scared him to pieces. He truly cared for Aria and she made him feel passionate about who she was and what she would become. He wanted nothing more than to be by her side, but, just for now, he needed time alone to think about what had just happened, analyze it to all oblivion, and digest it for the next time he would see her. Next time, he wouldn't freak out and leave. Next time, he would be prepared and know exactly the right thing to say. Next time.

On his way back into the castle, he nearly ran into someone head-on before muttering "Sorry" and continuing. The voice of the other person he'd nearly collided with spoke up, startling him.

"Merlin," Gwen's concerned voice said, turning around to meet him halfway. She was carrying a load of laundry, but was genuinely concerned that something might be terribly wrong. "What is it? You look as though you've just seen a ghost."

Merlin sighed with a simple shake of his head. "I haven't seen a ghost…" he began, his dark tone revealing his mood. "…though it might be better for me if I had."

"What's happened to frighten you so badly? I haven't seen you like this since…well, since…actually, I've never seen you like this." Once she met his gaze, her brown eyes conveyed the utmost sympathy. "Talk to me, Merlin."

Merlin folded his arms across his chest. "Something happened between me and…" He knew full-well that Gwen did not know about his involvement with Aria, so he glazed over her name. "…well, between me and that girl I told you about."

Gwen smiled. "That girl? The one you keep avoiding telling me about?"

Merlin nodded. "Something happened tonight, between me and her…" Here he paused as Gwen's facial expression turned to one of a sickly surprise. "No, nothing like that. What happened was sweet and tender."

"Then what's the problem?"

"I'm not sure I should feel that way. I've known her just a few weeks and yet I feel like…I'm afraid that I'm…"

Gwen's hands covered her mouth. "You're falling in love with her." Merlin's face remained stoic, so she continued. "I've seen that look a thousand times—mostly from myself—but it's the look of romance. Your relationship is building, but so is the tension. Is that what's scaring you?" Merlin said nothing, so Gwen sighed, placing her hand firmly on his forearm. "If you're feeling this way about this girl, there is absolutely nothing to be afraid of. Sure, discovering feelings of love for someone can be terrifying, but in the end it's what you've got to go on. Being afraid isn't going to get you anywhere, so you have to learn to embrace what you're feeling and define it." She sighed pleasantly. "Love is the greatest thing this world has to offer. Keep your thoughts about it optimistic and you'll pull through." With that, she walked away, basket in hand, leaving Merlin to his jammed thoughts.

Merlin paced his chamber that night, thoughts racing a mile per second as he struggled inwardly to embrace his feelings for Aria and define them in the simplest of terms and the most convenient definitions. Gwen's right. Let's be honest: Aria is amazing. She's brilliant, humble, simple, and yet so elegant and so refined that she's nearing the likeness of a princess. She's stunning. She's wise beyond her years. She's all I want. That part scared him terribly, but he smiled to himself. She's all I want.
Admit & Commit by StardustToRememberYouBy
Merlin was growing more and more anxious by the hour. It had only been three hours since he last saw Aria, but Merlin felt ashamed that he had run out on her in the manner he had. Surely he would be all right, surely he would discover the right way in which he could go back, confess his attraction to her and let the chips fall as they may from that point onward. But, just for now, he was nervously himself.

It was late that night before he completed washing and drying Arthur's rather enormous stack of laundry. For some reason, that particular pile was larger than it had ever been, much to the warlock's surprise. However, he completed the task and was on his way back into Arthur's chambers when he walked in on something he probably shouldn't have.

Arthur was in his chambers—as he always was by that time of night—but he wasn't alone, as Merlin abruptly discovered upon entering the prince's chambers sans knocking. Gwen was in there with him. They had been lying on Arthur's bed, fingers entwined as Arthur's fingers were lost amidst Gwen's dark pin-curls. Their lips were locked until Merlin's unexpected entrance when they quickly darted apart. Gwen withdrew from the bed, feverishly tucking her hair behind her ears as her hands shook and she continued muttering things under her breath—things that were probably apologies—as she stood back in the corner. Arthur, on the other hand, stood from the bed quickly and walked right up to Merlin, jaw set and locked in such a way that told Merlin he was in terrible trouble.

"How many times have I ordered you to knock before entering the room, idiot?" Arthur demanded through near-gritted teeth. "This is exactly what I was trying to prevent. Can I not be allowed any kind of privacy, even in my own chambers?"

Merlin's brow rose as he shook his head apologetically. "I'm so sorry, Arthur, I just assumed that—"

"I've told you not to assume anything, Merlin."

"So sorry," Merlin said, placing the basket of laundry onto the table as he watched Arthur's fingers massage his forehead. There were so many questions he wanted to ask his employer and friend at that moment, so many things to inquire about their relationship. Merlin had always envied their passion, and he wanted that for his relationship with Aria. "Can I ask you a question?" Arthur nodded, so Merlin continued. "How do you do it?"

"How do I do what?" Arthur asked, completely unaware of the situation his manservant faced.

"Gwen." The prince cleared his throat as Gwen's face flushed in embarrassment. Merlin was temporarily confused, but then reworded his question. "What I mean is how you do it—be heir to the throne and keep a girlfriend as great as Gwen?"

Arthur smirked. "Merlin, look at me."

Merlin clicked his tongue sarcastically. "I have and I have to say that I do not see what Gwen sees in you."

"I should hope not or I'd have a fair bit more to worry about besides your obvious idiocy."

Gwen stepped forward, placing a gentle hand on her lover's arm. "Arthur, play nicely," she said softly to him, nodding her head in Merlin's direction. "Merlin's asking because he's in love."

Arthur's facial expression turned from one of smarminess to one of complete shock, completed by his mouth dropping open a couple of inches as he stared, wide-eyed, at his servant. "That's not true, is it?" he asked, to which Merlin shrugged simply. "When did this happen and why didn't I hear about it until just now?"

"It's my business," Merlin defended, "and in my own defense, even I didn't know about it until last night. Gwen was there—tell him how frightened I am." It was then that he realized he should not have suggested that particular combination of words."

Gwen looked up at Arthur, nodding emphatically as a grin crossed her lips. "He was so terrified, Arthur, I wish you could've seen him pale like that—well, paler than he usually is."

"Really, Gwen?" Merlin said with a shake of his disappointed head. "Really?" Gwen turned her face away as she chuckled, linking her free arm through Arthur's while her other hand remained locked on his arm.

"And you've got this whole 'love' business under control, have you?" Arthur taunted in Merlin's direction, secretly hoping his friend would ask for advice—if there was one aspect of life besides combat where Arthur was superior to the warlock, it was love. "Because, you know, if you ever needed advice or anything, I'm here for that. I'd love to help you catch this girl."

Merlin's brow scrunched as he was consistently suspicious of the prince-ling. "Why suddenly so interested?" he asked. "Under other circumstances, had I told you there was a girl in my life in whom I'm interested, you would torment me into giving you her name so you could torture me further by telling her embarrassing stories of mine and then proceeding to somehow manage to ruin my relationship just by interfering."

Arthur was in shock at how quickly his servant's mind had come to that conclusion specifically. "Merlin, that's one slippery slope I'd dare not get myself tangled up in." He chuckled and then looked Merlin in the eye, his face conveying all seriousness. "If I can help you, I will." And for once, Merlin knew that Arthur meant every word…not that he would actually take advantage of Arthur's seeming hospitality.

::::

::::


Merlin knew exactly what he was going to do that day: he was going to march himself down to Aria's home and tell her exactly what the hell he'd done wrong, confess his attraction to her, and hope to God that she accepted him back into her life. Yeah. That's what I'm going to do.

Without hesitation, he strutted down to the lower towns, stopping only to purchase a group of gathered sunflowers tied together with an Irish green ribbon. Somehow he pictured sunflowers being her favorite flowers—intuition? Perhaps. But, for now, he knew the sunflowers would definitely be more than she was expecting.

He knocked on her door once. No answer. He knocked again. Finally, he heard a bit of scuffling around on the other side of the door. Merlin was growing anxious—no more time to wait.

"Aria? It's Merlin," he said with his face against the door.

"Just a moment," he heard her faintly reply. After about ten more seconds, Aria answered the door, looking a tad flustered. "Sorry about that."

"Are you all right? You seem out of breath."

"Do I? Well, I was just tidying up around here—not a problem." She opened the door wide, allowing him entrance before shutting the door behind him. She adjusted her shawl from where it was draped around her shoulders and then folded her arms across her chest. "I wasn't expecting any company today." She smiled. "To what do I owe this pleasure?"

Merlin grinned, readying himself for what he had to say. "Actually, I've got a few things I need to say," he said, handing her the bundled sunflowers. "I bought these for you."

Aria's brow slanted out of the feeling of sheer affection he must have to purchase her flowers…or sheer stupidity. "Merlin, how could you buy these? They're beautiful…you had to have paid a decent amount for them."

He shrugged. "They weren't exactly cheap—spent most of my savings on them—but they were worth it."

"Why?"

"To see you smile."

Aria smiled at him, placing the flowers on top of a cupboard in the corner where she could not at all forget about them. "I'm guessing there's more to this visit than flowers?"

Merlin nodded, stepping closer. "Aria, I think you're lovely. You are in every sense of the word. There is so much I've been able to learn about you in the past several weeks that I've known you, and I know there's so much more you've yet to teach me about yourself, so many doors yet to unlock." He paused, stepping closer. "I'm in love with you." He paused again, his features growing solemn as his tone changed to one of the most ardent honesty. "I'm sorry if that's hard for you to hear, but I don't think my feelings are one-sided." Aria nodded at him gently, her own silent way of confirming that statement. "I felt something the other night—that's why I ran. I'm scared of all of this, scared of how you make me feel."

Aria stepped closer, ever closer to completely pressing her body to his and letting herself go. "What you feel shouldn't scare you, Merlin."

"It's not the feelings that scare me…it's the intensity of them." He closed the gap, his palm finding her cheek as the other hand took hers into his own. "There isn't a lot about my life that I'm sure about. You're one area where I know what I want, and what I want is you."

Aria sighed. "I want you as well," she admitted breathlessly. "I'm so nervous right now, Merlin. What are we saying here?"

"I want to court you."

"Sounds like a dangerous feat." She cocked an eyebrow.

He nodded in confirmation. "I've yet to find out for myself."

Aria hummed to herself in confusion, stepping back from him and crossing the room, tucking a stray, wavy lock behind her ear. "You want me and I want you—is that what we're saying here? That's no simple bit of feelings. If they're as intense as you're letting on, perhaps we have a reason to feel scared. I mean, all that a relationship can do for us is throw ourselves into trouble." She chuckled darkly. "The last thing you need to hinder your life right now is trouble."

"Maybe I want the trouble," he said with a slight shrug, taking a couple of steps toward her. His thoughts turned to Freya and his attempted relationship with her—that was the last time he'd sought trouble. "I haven't wanted trouble in a long time with relationships, but with you the trouble seems less…well, troubling." He gave her a slight smile. "I know that with my magic and yours, we'll pull through." He outstretched his hand for her to take.

Aria looked at his hand for a moment, more reluctant than ever to come in physical contact with him. After what happened last time, there was no telling how this slight touch would end up. "My father said never to take a person's hand unless you mean it." His hand remained out and ready for her to take whenever she was ready—he knew that she would be eventually, but she just needed a moment to sort things out.

The thoughts clouding her mind tried to find a drive, a purpose to take his hand and, thus, accept his offer of courtship. She had yet to learn all of Merlin's secrets, the doors left unopened somewhere within. She wanted more than anything for him to open up to her, confide in her, trust in her. She wanted to take his hand and become his almost lover, to feel the burning passion that they both knew was between them. She wanted to claim him all for herself and take his hand to strike the deal. So what did she do? It should be fairly obvious what she did next: she took his hand.

Aria reached out, placing her slender fingers through the gaps in his own, stepping forward a bit as a grin crossed her lips. "It's meant to be," she said simply as she tightened her grip on his fingers.

Merlin smiled a wide, toothy smile that was self-explanatory in its own right. "I'm so ready for this," he said, suddenly realizing he needed to be at work. "Unfortunately, I needed to get to Arthur's chores five minutes ago, so I have to go." He released her hand and started to leave. "I will come by tomorrow and spend time with you here, if that's all right. I've so much to learn from you."

"Likewise," she replied, biting the side of her lip a bit. "Get going—I wouldn't want Arthur to place you in the stocks for not being on time."

Merlin nodded. "Believe me—the stocks are a place where no one should be sent ever." They shared a chuckle before he crossed the room to the door, reaching out for it before something within him stopped all movements. There was something he'd wanted to do since his arrival, something pounding on the edge of his skin, nearly causing him pain as it detonated pain throughout his system the longer he ignored the sensation. He turned to face her, a determined stare locking on her person. "You know what? Arthur can wait a few more minutes." Impulsively, he strode across to where she was staring at him with wide eyes and before either could argue as to why this should not be happening, it was happening. Merlin pushed his body against hers as his hands cupped her face, bringing it to meet his as their lips crushed together in a tender kiss. At first, the kiss was unmoving and still, but then as Aria's bodily tension softened from the contact, the two of them silently—mutually—deepened the kiss ever so slightly. Her arms wrapped around his waist, using him as an anchor to keep herself from completely passing out. Merlin's hands held her neck and jawline for a steadfast anchor as he slowed the pace of the kiss and then stopped, pulling away. Each stared into the other's eyes, loving smiles exchanged between them, and then Merlin cleared his throat.

"I definitely want to see more of that when I get here tomorrow," he challenged as he backed away.

Aria nodded with startling celerity. "Definitely," she answered, struggling to catch her breath.

Merlin bowed quickly before exiting her home, leaving her standing in a dead-stare where the image of their kiss burned in their minds. Little did either of them know, but at that exact moment—with an almost magical sense of simultaneity, each touched their lips, still feeling the other's smooth lips where they had collided just moments ago.
Talks of Fate by StardustToRememberYouBy
"And what did he do?"

"He kissed me."

"Seriously?"

Aria spent the next day with Nolan. He had come into the lower towns on his weekly visit, and it could not have happened at a better time. It took nearly three hours—including dramatic pauses and speechlessness—for her to properly translate what had transpired in her life in the past several weeks. Her growing romance with Merlin was saved for last since that's the bit she knew he would take a particular interest in. Just as predicted, Nolan was all ears for the entire duration of the story.

"That's quite a story, sister," Nolan said with a light shake of his head as he downed a swig of spiced cider. Aria always kept a jug of spiced cider for special occasions only, such as Nolan's few-and-far-between visits. "So how does it end?"

Aria chuckled, gathering the plates from the table and placing them into the empty tub—she'd wash them later. Right now was family time, something she took with all seriousness. "I don't know," she admitted, rather breathy. "I guess you'll just have to wait and find out…same as everyone else around here." She sighed, tucking a bit of her hair behind her ear as she sat down beside her brother and faced the fire. "Nolan, I have a question."

"Sure, go ahead."

Aria sighed, looking him straight in the face. "Do you think there's any way to tell when someone is the someone for you, or is it just supposed to be left up to fate?"

Nolan thought his answer entirely through before he answered. "I think it's very possible, Aria. I think that when you get to know someone, something along your relationship should grow heated and passionate, eventually coming to your attention. If it's meant to be, fate will make it quite obvious. Even the most oblivious man in the world cannot shut out the twists of his destiny."

Aria shoved him in the shoulder. "No, seriously. Answer my question. I was being serious with you."

Nolan laughed a bit. "So was I. Look, Aria, I know I'm not one to be taken seriously one hundred percent of the time, but trust me on this. I'm currently experiencing something similar." Aria's brow rose in shock, which he silenced with a shrug. "No worries—I can handle it. I told you the truth. What I said can be applied to my situation, so I'm asking for your trust on this."

"And what if it happens that you're lying to me?" She cocked an eyebrow quizzically.

"Disown me," Nolan admitted, throwing his hands up in defeat, to which they both shared a laugh. "From the lengthiness you told me earlier, it sounds like you should definitely keep this guy around. He sounds like your type."

"Looks aren't everything, brother."

"No, but they do help, sister."

Aria smiled, folding her arms across her chest. "I just wish my love would be like Mum and Dad's, you know? They were so into what they felt that whenever they were in each other's presence, nothing else in the world existed but the two of them. Every day it was like that. It never waned and was quite beautiful." She sighed helplessly. "My own romance turned out to be quite different."

"But still beautiful in your eyes, I hope…?"

Aria nodded. "Aye, it's still beautiful. Still, it could do with a boost."

"Is 'boost' some kind of girl code for 'snog'? Because I could do with a hot, solid 'boost' myself." Aria nearly slapped him, choking down a bit of her cider as she mustered a cough-infested cackle.

"Cheeky, you are," she said to him.

"And I think it's time I took my cheekiness home," he said, rising from the table and slipping on his boots. "The farm is near the late Cenred's kingdom border and his men have been harassing us servants at the farm. It's gotten to the point where we're all carrying swords and daggers on a daily basis now on a 'just in case' basis."

Aria's eyes widened as she fetched his overcoat from her bed and helped him slip his arms into the sleeves. "What about father and the girls? Are they still at the farm?"

Nolan shook his head. "Thankfully, no," he said, readjusting his coat as he retrieved his satchel from the cupboard near the wall. "They were moved to a local village sporting a tavern, about half a day's ride from Camelot. I thank the stars every day that they're not within the reaches of these men."

Aria sighed with relief, instantly reminded of something she'd prepared earlier that day, prior to Nolan's arrival. "Here," she said, grabbing a small cloth filled with cooked meat and fruits, "it's not much, but it will see you home healthily." She smiled, placing the cloth into his bag before he could even mutter an answer.

"Aria," he said, wrapping his arms around her and pulling her close, "take care of this Merlin bloke. If I ever get the chance to meet him, I would take that chance only in your favor. I know how much it would mean to you if I were kind to your lover-boy."

"Hey!" she exclaimed, pushing him back away from her as she narrowed her eyes in sight of his cocky grin. "You haven't hugged me in years. Why start now?"

He shrugged lightly. "It's been a long time, and with Cenred's former lemmings—what's left of his supporters anyway—I don't know when I'll be back."

Aria smiled, kissing his cheek lightly. "Be sure to tell your girl I send greetings," she said with a wink.

Nolan nodded, squeezing her hand before stepping out the door to begin his hike back to the farm.

"Oh, God," Aria began to pray, "watch over my brother on his journey and keep him safe from Cenred's supporters. You especially know what they're capable of." She sighed, bowing her head and closing her eyes. "Amen."

Now was the time when magic would be of no use in protecting Nolan.
Closer by StardustToRememberYouBy
There was nothing in the world that could possibly have brought Merlin's high spirits to a halt. Nothing. Not even Arthur's tantalizing demands could lessen his happiness. Since his first kiss with Aria nearly a week prior, Merlin had quite literally felt like leaping off a structure just to prove he could—you name it, he'd have probably jumped off it. Unfortunately, while high as a cloud he was, Merlin also recognized his mortality, which would come to a quick and decisive end should he, in fact, leap off a building. Instead, he resulted to marching around Camelot, performing his chores and humming random, never-before-established tunes as he did so. In later days, had he seen the looks he received that particular day from passersby and fellow servants, he would have vomited from the embarrassment. But not on this day. This day was perfectly sublime.

"Someone's in a chipper mood today," Gwen observed as she passed Merlin on her way back home. "Must be the work of love."

"Gwen, nothing in the entire world compares to this," Merlin mused with the crack of a grin as he nearly skipped away, up towards the castle to report he had finished his chores.

"That's in record time, Merlin," Arthur said amidst a quizzical brow. "You sure you don't have help?"

Merlin shrugged. "Nope, it's all me," he answered truthfully. "Now if you'll excuse me, I've a visit to see to."

"Is it a romantic visit? If so, I'd love to tag along and meet this girl you've been raving about."

"No!" Merlin shouted as his instant reaction. He was certain that Arthur hadn't gotten a decent glance at Aria's face, but, nonetheless, he wasn't prepared to take even a minor risk in exposing her to the king incumbent. Not yet. "I just think maybe it should be awhile before you meet her."

"Why? Got something to hide?"

Merlin had become quite the believable liar over the last several years and deployed that talent. "What if this thing with me and her turns out to be just a phase, and I introduce her to you like she's the 'one' for me? She'd come after me when we end it and I'd be worked over by a vengeful, over-emotional female on the premise that I introduced her to the next king as though she would be my wife." He sighed, shaking his head for dramatic emphasis. "Do you really want to put that on me, Arthur?"

Arthur approached his manservant, placing a firm grip on his shoulder. With a definite nod of his head, he said, "Yes, I'd love that. Unfortunately for me, I'm going to honor your wishes as a friend."

Merlin cocked a brow. "What's the catch? You're not just going to let me off the hook. What's your price for my leaving for the day?"

Arthur shrugged. "Must there always be a catch?" When Merlin said nothing, Arthur continued. "Today's a good day…so go enjoy it with that girl."

Merlin grinned. "I will."

"But, Merlin," Arthur said to him, catching his attention, "I will meet her."

The warlock nodded. He didn't question Arthur's being people-savvy. He could find anyone, no matter whom or where they were, in little to no time at all, which worried Merlin a bit, but with a slight nod, he turned and walked out.

Strutting down to the lower towns, a closed-mouth grin never once waning as it remained glued to his expression, he was thoroughly certain that nothing could possibly lessen his good mood that day—that nothing could break through the impenetrable wall that was his seemingly unbreakable spirit. Nothing, that was, until he reached Aria's home.

He started to knock on the door when he noticed something odd. The door was slightly cracked. Merlin's imagination went into a frenzy, immediately assuming that her home had been broken into and that she had been taken hostage somewhere far away. At least, that's the slippery slope he'd concocted.

"Aria?" he said, worry cracking his usually solid tone of voice. "Aria, are you—" His voice stopped short when the door creaked open, revealing Aria. She was seated at the table, her back to the door. His heart softened at the sight of her, fully relieved she hadn't been taken hostage as his imagination had suggested. "There you are. I thought for a moment you weren't home…the door was cracked."

Aria didn't flinch at the sound of his voice, her back facing him still. "Come on in," she said, stifling through a rough sniffle.

Merlin's brow scrunched. "Something's wrong," he said instantly. "I can tell because you're not looking at me." He rounded where she was seated, seeing a worn piece of paper sitting on her lap. Merlin sat down across from her, noticing her tear-stained cheeks and puffy eyes. "What is it, Ari?" He swiped away the hot tears pooled just below her eyes with his thumbs, pushing her hair away from her face.

Aria shook her head, her eyes distant and icy, unmoving. "I can't explain."

Merlin shook his head. "Not true. Try, Aria, please try."

She sniffled back her tears, folding the paper and placing it into her apron pocket. "My father came by yesterday," she began, summoning all of her courage just to speak plainly.

"After I left?" It was no secret that they'd spent almost every day for the past week together laughing and talking and just enjoying the time they had together. Merlin had seen her at her most frightened. Now he was seeing her at her most down-trodden, and he wasn't sure how to handle it properly.

She nodded. "He said that he left the girls with a neighbor in that little village to look for Liam." Merlin's eyes narrowed in confusion. "A group of soldiers that were pals of Liam's and fought with him found my father told him of Liam's death." Merlin's features softened upon hearing that as he watched Aria's chin quiver a bit. "They said he died admirably, fighting for Camelot and the king he had always known…if only he'd known the real Uther Pendragon."

Merlin shook his head, his hands stroking her face in a comforting gesture. "There is no way he could've known all that we know now," he said lightly. "Your brother died valiantly. Leave it at that."

"If only I could." Merlin was a bit confused, so she continued. "A neighbor of my father's brought me this note today stating that he'd already buried Liam, so there was no need for a traditional burial." Here she grew a bit more vindictive. "Can you believe that? My own brother died, and my father buried him alone. He should've known that I wanted to be there!"

"He did know that. May I see the letter?" Aria removed it from her pocket and handed it to him. He read it in silence. When he had finished, he began to refold it. "He said that your brother has been dead for several months now at the very least. He probably didn't want you to have to see your brother in such a base way."

Aria scoffed. "An act of resentment, no doubt."

Merlin shook his head. "An act from a father who loves you—he was trying to preserve your perfect memories of you with your brother. Seeing him like that…you would never have recovered." Aria relinquished her fight, peering up at the window and noticing that the sun was setting quicker than she'd anticipated, but for the time being, she ignored it.

"We both know you're right, Merlin," she said as he took her hands into his own, gripping them tightly along with the letter. "My father's going to fetch Nolan to make certain that he doesn't get himself into any trouble." She shook her head impossibly. "Nolan can always get himself into trouble. It's getting out of it that he had trouble with it. That's where Nolan and I came in." She smiled at the memory. "He and I were constantly covering his back, spilling white lies to our parents as though they were actually real. Oh, the lies we told to save him…it was worth it in the end though."

He grinned at her smile, seeing color wash back into her face. "You're smiling and talking. That's definitely a good sign." She looked at him, her blue-green gaze a bit glassy from her excessive crying.

"I'm glad we're here…together." She released her hands from his grip, replacing the letter into her apron as she stood, closing the door as the wind had just blown it open. As she stepped into the doorway, Merlin's heart leapt from the beauty he saw. He wasn't sure if it was the yellow-orange light aglow around her figure or if it was simply her, but whatever the reason, she was simply stunning in that doorway as she closed the door.

"If I tell you something, don't take it the wrong way." She nodded as if to say 'of course' as she came back to the bench, sniffling a bit as she took her loose and rather bushy hair into her hands and began to braid it. "You're beautiful."

Aria smirked and chuckled. "Why would I take that the wrong way?"

Merlin shrugged, his fingertips tracing the grooves in the wood of the table, his gaze failing to meet her. "I don't know…I just thought you'd think it was the wrong time for me to say something like that."

She shot him a sympathetic smile. "Merlin, you just said you think I'm beautiful. The only way I could take that is that is shows me you care for me."

"More than you know."

Her expression grew solemn, far more serious. "I wish you'd show me."

"Give me the chance to—I will."

Aria finished braiding her hair and her hands dropped to her lap. She couldn't think of a decent way in which she could legitimately goad him into showing her how much he cared, but as her eyes saw the darkness that had descended on the town, she was at a total loss for words. "I don't know what to say to that, Merlin. Besides, it's already dark."

Merlin's nostrils flared as he stood, straightening his jacket. "Fine," he said gruffly, "I'll be going then. Good night." He had begun to storm away when Aria—biting her lip—stood quickly from the table, grabbing his hand and standing her ground so he couldn't leave her.

"Please don't go," she pleaded as he didn't face her. "Stay here with me tonight." Merlin turned to face her, eyes wide, at her request. "After everything that's happened today and with Nolan being in trouble, I'm afraid to be alone."

"You want me here tonight? How exactly will that work?" She gestured to her bed, her hand never leaving his grip. "It's a bit narrow."

"Not necessarily," she said, her gaze begging his to stay with her. "Sleep here tonight. I don't want you to leave."

A sigh escaped the warlock's lips. He cared too much for her to leave her alone in her home that night. If something were to happen to her or if she were to break into hysterics again, he couldn't bear the thought of just not being there for her. It was quite a risk, given their mutual amount of passion, for him to sleep in her home with her alone, but he couldn't see another option that wouldn't leave him guilty, so he nodded. "I'll stay," he said softly, a gentle smile crossing his lips.

Aria smiled at him, beginning to ready the home for nightfall. "Do you have a change of clothes?"

"I wasn't exactly planning on staying the night, so…"

She laughed. "I have an old shirt of Liam's you can wear." She crossed the room to the cupboard, fetching a carefully folded white bed-shirt from it. "He would have understood—that shirt is in good hands." She placed it in Merlin's ready hands and stepped behind the curtains she'd made so as to change in complete privacy. "I'll be out in a moment."

"No problem." Merlin removed his jacket and shirt, slipping the bed-shirt over his hand and straightening it out before removing his boots. Barefoot, he stood in her kitchen, wringing his hands from the anxiety of the situation. Sure, he was just sleeping in her home, but they would be sharing a bed, a fact that made the usually stoic warlock a bit faint. "Everything all right back there?" He suddenly grew aware of his surroundings, folding his short and jacket neatly and placing them on the floor beside his boots—the last thing he wanted was for her to have to clean up his mess.

"Of course," she said honestly, emerging from the curtains in a flow of white and a heavenly shade of dark blue. Merlin noticed that she was wearing a long, white gown with a dark blue dressing gown wrapped over the top of it. It looked as though it was from a prosperous time. Of course, she'd told him about how her family used to be of money until her mother's death, so he figured that this robe was just a shadow from that time. "I'll put your clothes in the cupboard so they'll stay warm through the night." She picked up his clothes and boots from the floor, placing them neatly in an empty space in the cupboard before facing his staring eyes. "Everything okay?"

He nodded fervently. "That gown…it's stunning on you."

Nervously, she tucked a strand of her hair behind her ear as she felt heat rush into her cheeks. "It belonged to my mother. I save it for special occasions."

"My staying the night is a special occasion?"

"Merlin, you're always a special occasion to me." She smirked, gesturing to her bed. With a quick cross of the room, Merlin sat down on the bed, shifting into a reclining position before putting his back to the wall as he lay on his side. Aria stepped up to the bed, clutching the robe closed in her fist as she lay down, rolling over to that she was pressed against him. "Sorry. The bed's a fair bit narrow, but if we lay like this, it won't be so bad."

Merlin studied her face since it was far closer to him now than it had been since they had kissed nearly a week ago. "This is perfect, Aria," he said gently, taking her face into his hands as his eyes soaked themselves in her view. He leaned forward, touching his lips lightly to her forehead, but he didn't move away.

"Hold me," she asked lightly, placing her arms around his torso as he did the same for her, drawing her in so there was no gap between them any longer. "Don't let go."

"You don't think I actually would, do you?"

She shook her head, her eyes darting around his features as she took in the sight of his face, half lit from the fire's glow as it danced across his smooth flesh. "It's a formality. I have to ask that." He exhaled—an almost laugh—as he shifted a bit, moving his lips from her forehead to her mouth, kissing her tenderly as he had before. This kiss was, somehow, sweeter than the last one, more real. Aria softened the kiss, deepening it ever so slightly as her fingertips lightly grazed his jaw-line, coming to rest there as the kiss ended slowly. Pulling back, Merlin smiled at her and she smiled back, neither of them exchanging verbal sentiments. The kiss had said it all. Eager for one last good-night kiss, Aria leaned up and pressed her lips to his for all of four seconds before pulling away and nuzzling her head at the base of his neck. Merlin smiled in contentment as he wrapped his arms tighter around her, resting his chin on the top of her head as he quickly, silently, drifted off into sleep.
Regal by StardustToRememberYouBy
So many times in life, one looks at a particular situation and says that they will never forget this dawn, this hunt, this passion, and then almost as fleeting as the memory, it is whisked away and never thought of again.

But as Merlin awoke the next morning with his arms engorging his love, sleeping peacefully in his arms, he knew he could never forget any of this. He knew that Freya—oh, imperfect, jaded Freya—was his first love, and she had been hard enough to forget. Things were different with Aria, they were much more real.

He felt her shift and heard a soft sigh rumble in the back of her throat. Merlin grinned, knowing that her happiness was due, heavily, to his affection and tender care he had given her in their short, whirlwind romance. Moving to get up, he knew he would be expected at the castle, and he was careful not to wake her as he slipped his arms away from her and covered her with the wool blanket she'd laid at the foot of the bed. Her hair beneath his fingertips was just as soft as ever, and, after stroking it for a moment, he planted a light kiss on her temple before slipping out the door.

The villagers around him could tell his swagger on this day was different than it had ever been. His level of self-confidence had skyrocketed and as he entered the castle, all eyes were on his bright, goofy grin.

"Merlin," Arthur said, approaching him with a quizzical brow, "what has gotten into you?"

Merlin quickly clapped his arms around his friend and prince, holding his shoulders at arms' length. "Nothing can beat this feeling, Arthur," he said with heavy breath. "Nothing."

Arthur nodded, slightly creeped out by his manservant's uncharacteristic perkiness. "You're scaring me, Merlin. Truly." With that, Arthur marched away to find Gwen. He found her in Morgana's old room, changing the old sheets to fresh ones. "You know you don't have to do that anymore, right?"

Gwen nodded and slightly shrugged. "It gives me hope that this chamber will, one day, be used again," she admitted, flashing him a sweet smile before returning to her work.

"Gwen," Arthur began, folding his arms across his chest as he crossed the room to her, "what do you know about Merlin's girl?"

Gwen thought for a moment. "Not much. Merlin didn't really explain her in too much detail—why?"

"Because she's made him glow, and I have to meet the girl who has made him the happiest, most annoying person I know."

Gwen let loose a faint giggle. "He told me what she looked like…that's about all." He gave her a look that said he wanted to know more, so she paused, recalling the memory of the day Merlin had told her about this girl's appearance. "He said her hair was a chestnut kind of reddish-brown, she has wide blue-green eyes, and fair skin. He said that her hair is kind of bushy and she tends to braid it as it's quite long."

"Did he mention any characteristics of hers—mannerisms that may help me to pick her out of a crowd?"

Gwen tried to remember exactly what Merlin had told her about this mysterious girl. Anything, any indication whatsoever might just help Arthur find her…and then she remembered.

"She doesn't carry herself like someone who is destitute," Gwen half-blurted. "He said her family used to be wealthy, so her voice and attitudes reflect that of a young lady, not of a young woman born into poverty."

"She's a lot like you, then?" Arthur asked with a grin, causing Gwen to blush madly. "Thank you. I'm off to find this girl." He took her face quickly and kissed her lips roughly before pulling away and yelping triumphantly, pounding his fist in the air. Gwen was left to giggle wildly to herself while she finished changing the sheets.

Arthur wrapped a dark blue robe around himself and headed down to the lower towns, which he knew and understood was the place where the 'destitute', as Gwen had stated, prominently lived. His oceanic eyes scanned the villagers as they rushed to and fro in the marketplace, each purchasing the fresh goods they would need for the next few days. Since he didn't know how this girl usually dressed, he was left to guess. His mind tried to make connections between those he saw and the one he sought. And, finally, he saw her.

Bushy, chestnut-colored hair plaited into a braid that hung over her shoulder. Wide, blue-green eyes that seemed to dance when she talked, and spoke for her through the silence. She was definitely lady-like and had the manners of a woman of the courts—Arthur wondered why this beautiful creature was left to wander, helpless and alone, when she could be appraised by the courts and assimilate into their midst as though she had always been one of them?

He studied her for a moment while she gathered fruits and vegetables—probably for her daily meals—and materials to make her own homemade bread. It was then that the prince realized why it was Merlin felt the way he did about this woman. She was a woman, not an adolescent with the manners of a child and the dressing habits of a homeless wanderer. She was almost…regal.

Carefully and stealthily he crossed the market, ever so much closer to her with each step. He had to meet her, speak to her, and find out why she chose to live this life. And as he came closer, he recognized her face somehow, but he just couldn't place exactly why.

Aria was about five feet away when she tripped over a bit of firewood strewn across her path. She's as clumsy as Merlin, Arthur thought to himself with a shake of his head. They're definitely matched well. He approached her, noticing that she'd dropped a few apples and tomatoes.

"Oh, my," she said with a helpless sigh as she scrambled to avert the eyes of suspicious onlookers.

"Let me," Arthur said, stooping to grab the loose items and handing them back to her one by one.

"Thank you," she said kindly, and Arthur noticed that even her accent was more refined than her appearance. "I'm so clumsy sometimes—it's really quite embarrassing."

"I can imagine." He handed her the last one and then reached out to take her hand and help her to her feet. Aria took his hand. "You remind me of my manservant."

Aria's brow furrowed as she stood up, brushing the dirt from her apron and the seat of her dress. "'Manservant'?" she repeated. "You sound like…" And with that, Arthur revealed his face to her. Aria's eyes flew wide as she curtsied several times quickly. Her eyes turned downward while she silently prayed he wouldn't recognize her. "Majesty…forgive me. I did not realize it was you."

Arthur quickly shushed her. "Is there some place we can go that's quiet? I have some questions for you."

Aria took his arm, ushering her to her home a couple of houses away. She let him inside before she entered and shut the door behind her.

Arthur removed his robe, peering around her small home. It seemed like she had the mind of courtier trapped inside the lifestyle of a pauper. And for Arthur, that just wouldn't suffice.

"You live alone?" he asked, taking a seat at her table.

Aria nodded. "I do, sir, but it wasn't always that way." She paused. "Would you like me to fix you something?" The prince shook his head, so she continued. "My family left a long while ago, so it's just been me."

"I see. Any visitors lately?" He caught her wide stare for a moment before she turned away to wash the produce she had acquired.

"A few, but no one really visits me much anymore." Arthur noted that sadness coated her voice whether or not she was aware of it.

"So, Merlin must be one of those few?" She didn't respond. "I know all about you and my servant, oh yes. That's why I'm here."

Aria turned to face him. "I don't understand."

"You don't see how happy you make him, do you?" Aria could feel heat rising in her cheeks and into the crests of her ears. "You make him glow. He's the happiest, most obnoxious person around you, so I had to meet you to find out why."

"Do I live up to your expectations, your Majesty?"

"You do. But one thing puzzles me."

"What's that, sir?"

"—your face. I recognized you the moment I saw you in the market." Aria swallowed hard, her hands beginning to shake with worry. "You're the girl my father wanted to have executed some weeks ago. Not many young women have hair your color, you know. And I can tell, even though you aren't looking at me, you're just as frightened right now as you were that day." Aria turned to face him, wringing her hands so tightly they turned white. Arthur stood from the table, coming to the other side and leaning back against it. "I'm not going to have you executed. Who am I to play fate? Besides…" He paused while his expression turned to one of complete solemnity. "I can't have you executed now, not after I've seen how happy you've made Merlin."

Aria nodded. "He makes me happy too, your Majesty."

Arthur nodded. "I know. You weren't the same frightened young woman I saw several weeks ago when I saw you this morning. You were happier, brighter, and you have a purpose." He grabbed his robe, slinging it over his arm. "That's why I came. If I were to sacrifice you to prove a point…" He trailed off, not finished his statement, though Aria gleaned that it was probably because he thought of his own forbidden love with Gwen.

"Majesty," Aria said, a smile returning to her face, "I am forever in your debt."

"No, it is I, Aria Glinn, who am indebted to you." With a quick bow, Arthur was lost behind his cape as he slipped out the door. Aria heaved a sigh and was finally able to catch her breath, her hand gripping her throat as she collapsed to the floor.

Her prayer had been answered after all.

::::

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Merlin strolled down to the lower towns that night, a bundle of wild daisies tied together in his hand as he rapped on her front door.

The door swung open and Aria threw her arms around Merlin's neck, pulling him closer in a tight embrace. As he wrapped his arms around her in complete surprise, he could feel her lightly trembling in his grasp. This worried him.

Pulling away, he studied her quickly, his heart rate skyrocketing as he wondered what had happened.

"What happened? Why are you trembling?" he asked, stroking her face.

Aria laughed, gripping her fingers with his where they lay on her face. "I'm happy, Merlin!" she blurted, yanking him inside while he shut the door and faced her once more.

"Why so happy?"

"Arthur came by today."

If Merlin hadn't been worried before, he sure as hell was now. "What did he say? Is he sending you back to the dungeons? Does he know about us? What did he say to you?" His questions came out all in one frantic breath, and she giggled while he struggled to contain himself. "Sorry—I'm sorry. One question at a time."

"He knows about us, yes. He also recognized me the second he saw me—he came inside here and we talked. He told me how happy I make you and I told him how happy you make me." Her smile was the brightest, widest he had ever seen on her, and it made him bubble inwardly with joy for her. "He said my life is spared because of our happiness together."

Merlin grinned, taking her hands into his own. "That's all we needed." He leaned forward, capturing her lips with his own for a moment. "We don't have to hide anymore."

Aria shook her head. "There will never be a need to." She went in for a kiss again and this time they both laughed through it, eventually turning it into a sweet embrace.

They were free.
Fond Farewells & New Beginnings by StardustToRememberYouBy
Now that Merlin's relationship with Aria was known to Arthur, both halves of the couple were far better off, and both were as ecstatic as humanly possible.

Arthur congratulated them ten times over—he truly couldn't have been happier for them. Merlin had visited Aria every day since they no longer had to worry about being caught or being found out. He had been asking her for days to come to the castle with him and meet Gaius, but she was wary about the whole thing.

"Why won't you…again?" he asked when she had denied him once more.

Aria half-smiled, wringing her hands dry after washing her potatoes. "You and I both know that Gaius doesn't know about us as a unit—he was still angry with you, last you told me," she said gently, handing him a few potatoes so he could peel them, "and I'm the cause of it."

Merlin adamantly shook his head. "No, he'll love you once he is made to see what you mean to me." He used a rather nonchalant form of magic to assist her with peeling the potatoes, mostly so he could focus on his conversation with Aria. "He's the closest I have to a father, so your meeting him means a lot to me." He paused, taking her hands, the ones busy potato-peeling, into his own and holding them gently as she turned to look at him. "Please, Aria? At least give it some thought."

Staring into his eyes, it became difficult for her to deny him any longer. She rolled her eyes and sighed. "Alright, Merlin, I'll meet him as long as you promise not to pester me about it anymore."

Merlin smiled brightly. "You mean it?" She nodded and he took hold of her face, bringing her forehead to his lips. "You won't regret this."

"Merlin," she grunted, laughing, "I need to finish dinner."

"Right—sorry". He released her face and sighed contently, lovingly watching as she finished their meal in silence.

::::

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"He's dead."

"Slow down, Merlin. Who is dead?"

"Lancelot…"

Ushering him inside, Aria listened intently as he told her what had happened to his old friend that had ultimately led to his demise. Since it had been eight months to the day that the two had first become a couple, Aria had grown accustomed to hearing Merlin speak of and praise the late knight often. It saddened her to hear of his friend's passing, so she listened when he spoke, held him as he sobbed, and dried his tears when he accidentally let one or two slip between his tightly shut eyelids.

Once he had, at last, calmed down, he gave her a faint smile.

"What is it?" she asked, the left-hand corner of her mouth upturning as she watched a healthier, happier glow overtake his face.

"You are the best thing that has ever happened to me," he said softly, running his thumb across her bottom lip.

She leaned toward him, pressing a long, loving kiss to his lips. "I think the same about you."

His eyes searched her face as his hands found hers and held them. "Arthur wanted me to ask you something." She watched him in silence so he continued. "As you probably know already, Morgana's chambers have lain dormant since her first departure, but he has made sure to keep it in good conditions should we ever find another woman to live there." Apparently, his hints were for naught so he continued. "Arthur wanted me to ask—well, I wanted to ask you—if perhaps you would consider moving in to Morgana's old chamber?"

Aria's eyebrows rose in shock as her spine straightened. She had never been asked such a question and now that she was faced with it, she didn't know how to respond. "That's quite the offer…"

"You could sell this house to make a bit of money and then all your possessions would move to the castle with you." He paused, watching her expression. Merlin filled with pity as he saw her eyes glisten with nostalgia, glancing around the room. "You don't want to leave this place, do you?"

After a moment, her sad eyes found his gaze once more. "I'm…I'm not sure." She sighed. "This home holds nothing but sadness for me and yet the thought of leaving it…" She shook her head and peered around the room.

Merlin watched her intently. "What would your reasons be for staying here? Your mother and one of your brothers is gone, your father has taken your sisters away, and your other brother is off who-knows-where doing who-cares-what. They all have lives without you now." His fingers caressed her chin, turning her face back to look at him. "I think it's time you moved on—and by 'on' I mean 'out'."

Aria sighed, smiling faintly as she tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. "You're right, Merlin." She could sense that her voice sounded a bit quaky. "I know you're right. They're not in the picture of my life anymore. But you—us?" She squeezed his hands tightly, placing her fingers through his lightly. "We are my future, and I'm hindering us by locking onto my past. I can't change what has happened to me, but I know you're right." With a bright smile, Aria nodded, biting her bottom lip. "I'll move into the castle."

Merlin let loose a sigh of relief, letting go of her fingers to cradle her face. "That's…that's wonderful news." He chuckled lightly, leaning forward and capturing her lips in his own tenderly. She kissed him back, her hands shifting to the sides of his neck to hold herself in place.

After a moment, she pulled away, hearing a groan of reluctance from Merlin. "Wait…we'll both be living in the castle. Isn't that a bit…too close too soon?"

Merlin licked his lips. "Do you think it is?"

She shrugged, lightly shaking her head. "I don't know what to think, actually."

"If it makes you feel better, the physician's tower is on opposite sides of the castle from where you'll be staying."

Aria smiled. "That does provide some comfort."

He nodded. "Good, I'm glad." His fingers lightly stroked her face. "I'll tell Arthur your answer first thing in the morning." He kissed her again, met by a light-hearted laugh from her which meant the world to him—it meant she was feeling happy again.

::::

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"Just a moment, Merlin. I want to say my goodbyes."

"Take your time, sweetheart."

Aria turned into the doorway, her hand lightly touching the door-frame as she fondly took her last looks into the home she had come to call her own. Her eyes, as though cheated by some spell, could have sworn she heard the faint laughter of her siblings followed by her own as the three were cooking dinner for their father—how much younger, cleaner, crisper she looked back then, all those years ago. Now, she was a young woman, venturing out on her own and quite literally, too.

Merlin could tell that she was thigh-deep in nostalgia now, judging by the pained and bittersweet glances of her eyes and the light twitches upturning the corners of her mouth as though she could either burst into tears or laughter, depending on the memory her brain was currently revisiting. He wanted to ask her what she was seeing, but refrained, exhaling through his nostrils as he stepped beside her, looking around her now-empty home with a completely different set of eyes than hers.

He then heard a sound that pierced right through his eardrums—she hummed somewhere deep with her throat, a kind of sad, wallowing sound as though mourning a life once lived. Merlin's heart ached for her and he took her hand as if to silently remind her that the future was still yet to come and that he alone would prevent her from ever feeling this pained again.

Aria sucked in her bottom lip, chin aquiver, as she took one final, fond look around her home. The left side of her mouth curled upwards as her shaky, free hand grasped the handle on the door, pulling it shut behind her as she turned around with Merlin's hand still tightly clutched in her own.

"I'll take care of the place, Ari—don't you worry," her kindly female acquaintance said. The woman had been an old friend to Aria's mother and Aria shook the woman's hand silently, her eyes indicating what her lips could not.

Starting her journey with Merlin and the guards Arthur had dispatched to carry her belongings to the castle, her gaze went south, staring at the dirt as she walked.

Merlin's heart went out to her, but for a few moments, all he could do was lovingly give her hand a squeeze or two as a reminder that he was still there.

"How are you feeling?" he asked softly, but all she did was shake her head, so Merlin dropped the subject entirely.

The remainder of the trek to the castle was held in complete silence. Upon reaching Morgana's old chambers, the guards placed her trunks onto the ground and promptly dismissed themselves after an expression of gratitude from Merlin. Aria swiftly began putting her things away in the nooks and crannies found about the room. Merlin watched her closely, hoping she would speak to him on her own, but she didn't. This led him to believe that she wasn't ready to discuss her departure from her home, or what she had seen to make her as quiet as she was.

"Aria, are you alright? You're quieter than I've seen you in months." His words were tender and soft-spoken as he wanted her to know how worried he was about her. He knew she had heard him, but she didn't acknowledge him with an answer, so he gave up with a sigh. "Fine. I get it. If you don't want to talk about what happened back there or what you're feeling, that's fine—I understand how attached you were to that place." His eyes narrowed. "I guess I'll just leave you to your thoughts then." Turning to walk out, his hand found the handle on the door to pull it behind him.

"Merlin," Aria's voice said sharply, catching his attention fully, "wait." She quickly crossed the room to where he was standing, her arms folding across her chest. "I'm…I'm so sorry. I would've spoken back there, but I'm sure I was seeing things before we left the house. I saw…" She sighed, shaking her head. "I suppose it isn't important. I should've told you anyway though…I suppose I'm still struggling with letting you in on every thought I have."

Merlin shook his head. "If it's that much of a struggle, I'm not pressuring you to tell me everything. But if you're depressed, please don't shut me out. I'm not much of a help, but I could share your burden—"

"Oh, Merlin," Aria interrupted softly, stepping towards him and placing her hand lightly on his chest, "I would never shut you out. One day, I'll tell you all about what I saw and why it affected me so deeply. But for right now, don't worry." She smiled gently, her eyes searching his face. "I love you…so, so much."

Merlin took her hand as it lay on his chest and smiled at her. "And I love you," he responded, leaning forward and kissing her forehead. His lips lingered there before the sound of someone clearing their throat made him retreat from her, his cheeks turning a deep shade of red as his arms—and hers—dropped to their sides. Turning to look at the person nearby, he saw that it was Arthur.

"Your Majesty," Aria said, curtsying, "my apologies."

Arthur smiled and laughed. "I swear, the pair of you couldn't be any more perfect for each other—it's nauseating." He stepped forward, peering into Aria's new chambers briefly.

"Sire, I cannot thank you enough for giving me the push I needed to get out of my house. It was tying me down, but not anymore."

Arthur waved his hands and shook his head. "No need to thank me. What's done is done. Now you can live in a place surrounded by all the new memories you've yet to have." He smiled at her. "If you ever need anything, anything at all, don't hesitate to ask." With a slap on Merlin's back and a quick wink, Arthur sauntered down the corridor.

Aria stood beside Merlin as both watched their king leave. "You were right," she commented, leaning against him as his arm wrapped around her. "He does strut about the castle."

"Told you," Merlin said with a slight laugh, followed by a giggle from her, as he looked down at her. Pressing his arm closer around her, he pulled her shoulder right underneath the crook of his arm.

Aria peered up at him. "Help me get settled in?"

Merlin nodded and swung the two of them around, heading back into her room and closing the door shut behind them.
Affirmations of Love & Friendship by StardustToRememberYouBy
There were so many good things in order for Aria now that she and Merlin were finally recognized as a couple. She had yet to meet Gaius and such a meeting bothered her-she didn't know how the wise, old man would take to her if he, you know, took to her at all. She was only willing to meet him because she had become such an imprtant part of Merlin's life, so she decided to plan a time to meet the man. Merlin would arrange such a meeting, of course, and was happy to do so.

Merlin entered the physician's tower stairwell, a merry smirk pasted across his lips as he took Aria by the hand and led her up the stairs carefully.

"Does my hair look alright? And my dress-it isn't too much, is it?" she asked, stumbling a bit over her own words.

Merlin rolled his eyes, turning to look at her as they stopped at the top of the stairs. "You didn't have to doll yourself up for Gaius, my love," he said, a light smirk upturning the corners of his lips. "Even if you do look absolutely stunning."

A light pink blush crept underneath Aria's freckles as she averted her gaze from his and down at her dress. It had been one of her mother's old dresses which she had tailored for her own body. It was a mossy shade of green and made of the finest velvet. The dress was simple and straight with a bit of a flare past her knees and fell to the ground, just grazing past her feet. The dress itself was in prime condition-she had taken great care of her mother's dresses after her passing and had even done some embellishing on the outline of the squared neck, adding bits of silver string and faded white ribbons along the edges, catching the light just right. The colors of such an outfit showed off the color of her hair, her freckles, and the glassy texture of her eyes.

"You really think so?" she asked, her gaze once more returning to his.

Merlin nodded, his eyes studying her face before he tucked a small wave of her hair behind her ears so he could see her beautiful earrings. "You're always beautiful. Did you dress up to meet Gaius or to impress me?"

Aria smiled at him, her brows upturning teasingly. "Would you prefer if I said both?"

He smirked before leaning in and giving her a sweet kiss before pulling away and tugging her along with him. Merlin rapped his knuckles lightly against the door. "Gaius?" he said, opening the door and sticking his head through the gap. "Good-you're here."

Gaius turned and looked at the young warlock. "I was beginning to wonder where you'd gotten off to again," his croaking, froggy voice said to the young man. "You know, Merlin, you've been spending less and less time around here and more time traipsing around doing...well, what have you been up to?"

"That's kind of a long story. Gaius, there's someone you need to meet." Merlin opened the door fully and stepped inside, tugging Aria into the doorway by her hand. "This is Aria Glinn, the girl that Uther sentenced to death...and the same girl I saved."

Gaius made his ever-present expression, the one where his one eyebrow was raised inquisitively and his eyes bugged. "You saved this girl? You saved her when I told you not to?"

Merlin shrugged. "The best decision I ever made was disobeying you that day." He squeezed Aria's hand lovingly, shifting his fingers to lock them through hers. "I fell in love with this girl and I would've lost her had I just let Uther's decision be the final one. I don't know how I'd be without her."

"Young lady, do you feel the same about Merlin?"

Aria smiled at the old man and nodded softly. "Yes, sir, I do," she answered, her voice a bit meek. "Merlin is...well, magical." Gaius shot Merlin an accusing look.

"She has magic, too...somewhat," Merlin explained. "Hers is far more dangerous so she doesn't use it."

"You can't just switch off magical abilities," Gaius said.

"But I can choose not to use it," Aria reaffirmed.

The old man sighed. "If you say so, then I believe you." He paused, probably gathering his thoughts. "So, how long have you two been...?"

"Since I saved her," the warlock said. "That's when I just...I couldn't leave her alone and now that she's safe, I still can't."

"Inseparable?"

"Yes."

"Do you live in the lower towns, Aria?"

Aria shook her head. "Not anymore," she answered. "The king gave me his sister's former chambers. I'm still adjusting to them."

Gaius gave Merlin a knowing look, one that stated that perhaps this wasn't best. "Morgana's old room?"

Merlin nodded, catching on to his mentor's expression. "Perhaps I'll search the castle until I can find a better chamber for you," he said, turning to give Aria a smile.

She smiled back, her eyes giving him a loving look as she placed her free hand onto the biceps of his arm-the one holding her hand. "I may help you with that," she offered.

"I'd enjoy the company."

Gaius smiled at the two. "Merlin, may I speak to you in private for a moment?" he requested, to which Merlin nodded, releasing Aria's hand and following the old man away from where Aria had been left standing alone. Gaius stepped close to Merlin, his voice hushing into whispers. "Are you mad to be with that girl?"

Merlin's brow scrunched. "I don't understand-why don't you approve?"

"I do approve. I'm just not sure if she's..."

"If she's what?"

"If she's the one for you."

Merlin sighed, his face relaxing into an expression of disappointment. "You think her magic is too dangerous."

"Possibly. What worries me most is the fact that she's staying in Morgana's chambers alone. If her magic is dangerous, those chambers are far more of a threat to her, especially if she's inexperienced."

"She chooses to be that way."

"That's all very well. Merlin, don't let her out of your sight tonight."

Merlin nodded, his eyes flashing over to his love. She was standing by Gaius' shelf, her gaze fixated on the labels of the jars that sat there.

"'Wing of Bat' extract?" she read aloud, her face grimacing at the sound. "Is this made of actual bat-wings?"

Gaius looked over at her, nodding. "Yes. It's quite the process to make them into an extract as well. It's very concentrated."

Aria nodded, her nose crinkling. "I can imagine." She folded her hands behind her back, a slight smile playing at the corners of her lips. Merlin studied her, loving every bit of her from the crown of her head to the arches of her feet.

He crossed the room to her, taking her hands into his own as he stood behind her, moving so that his arms locked around hers and moved around her front, his chin leaning on her shoulder. "You're perfection," he whispered into her ear.

Aria smiled and tilted her head back, leaning it against his. "And you're beautiful." She turned around in his arms, looking up at him.

Merlin shifted his hands to hold hers. "Come on-there's something I want you to see." He led her up the small set of stairs and into his bedroom.

"This is tidy," she commented with a smile.

"Thanks." He crossed the room and opened a small trunk, withdrawing a red silk scarf encasing something large and bulky. Merlin sat down on the edge of his bed and patted the place beside him. "Come and see." Aria sat down beside him and watched as he carefully unwrapped the silk scarf, revealing his book of spells. "Gaius gave this to me when I first came to Camelot. He said it had been his and he started teaching me spells straight out of it."

Aria's eyes widened and she took the book, making sure every touch was tender, every glance danced in the view of the magic she could feel surging throughout the pages of the old worn leather. "This is beautiful..." Her voice was barely above a whisper as she untied the straps and opened the book, flipping through the pages carefully as her eyes fluttered about the writings. "Such beautiful words-I've heard these like an echo in my head since the day I was born."

Merlin nodded, watching the light in her eyes and the smile playing across her beautiful, full lips. His fingers found hers, warmly caressing her flesh as he watched her continue to scan the pages. "Aria, I can see the look in your eyes and the expression on your face. You miss the magic, don't you?"

Aria tore her eyes from the book, her gaze meeting his. "How could I miss what could never leave me? Sometimes I feel such wonderful feelings of magic inside me-usually it's when I'm with you." A blush found her cheeks once more before she spoke.

Merlin smiled fondly at her words. "What I mean to say is that by the look on your face, you want to learn what these pages have to teach."

A dark expression crossed Aria's features. "Merlin, we both know how dangerous and unpredictable my magic can be. Last week, it nearly killed you with a fork." Her free hand gingerly caressed the place on his shirt just above his left breast and below his shoulder. "Another inch, and it would've had your heart."

Merlin pulled the neck of his shirt down and bared the flesh where the utensil had struck him. "Look-you can hardly see the mark anymore. My point is that maybe you could be taught to be better. If I told Gaius of your magic, he could help teach you how to harness the light, to use your skills for good. You wouldn't ever have to worry about my safety again."

Aria listened to him speak, her brow slanting sadly before her free hand caressed his cheek. Unbeknownst to either of them, Gaius stood just outside Merlin's door, peering through the crack. "Merlin, I love that you care so much for my magical abilities, but I don't think there's anything that could save it, not even Gaius' help. I couldn't...I couldn't bear the idea of possibly harming you or Gaius or anyone else. I just..." She leaned in, resting her forehead against his. "I'm so proud of your talents, Merlin. I'm more than happy watching you fulfill your destiny and being there by your side for every second of it. As long as you are happy with what you can do, so am I. I don't need to hone my talents for anything-they'll only ever bring harm. With your talents, love, you're my hero."

Merlin smiled as she spoke, his fingers locked through hers and giving them a light squeeze before he pressed his lips to hers. "I love you so much, Aria. You're my everything."

Aria smiled brightly and bit her bottom lip. "And I love you more than anything." Merlin rewrapped the book and led Aria from the room, looking ahead to see Arthur speaking in hushed tones with the physician.

"My lord," Aria said, curtsying in Arthur's presence.

Arthur shook his hands. "No need to do that for me, Aria," he said, smirking. "I've actually come to see if I may accompany you in searching for other chambers. Gaius has expressed concern that, given the room's past, perhaps it's best if you find somewhere safer to sleep. I agree with him."

Aria turned her eyes to Merlin, who nudged her. "Go on," he suggested. "How often would the king offer to do this for the girlfriend of his manservant?" She smiled up at her great love, squeezing his hand before crossing the room to the king and taking his offered arm.

"You know, I think it's great of you to actually move to the castle," Arthur complimented as he led her down the corridors towards the areas of empty chambers.

"You do? I took up on your offer. The lower towns can be lonely."

"Especially without a family." Arthur paused and Aria remained silent. "Merlin's mentioned what happened with your family-that your father and sisters are off somewhere and that your eldest brother had been murdered some many months ago. My apologies."

"It isn't your fault, your Majesty," Aria said, her eyes fluttering about the walls. "My father and my sisters-they're off safe somewhere far from Camelot. I'm grateful for that. Your apologies are appreciated."

"I mean them, too. If you need assistance finding your other brother or in keeping your family safe, let me know and I'll do what I can for them."

Aria glanced over at her king. "You're far too kind, my king. I seem to recall a time when you were-what was it that Gwen called you back then?-a bully."

Arthur let out a laugh. "A bully, you say? I suppose I was. Merlin once called me an arse...and a prat on many, many occasions." Aria giggled. "Find that funny, do you?"

Aria nodded. "Given the man you've become, it's hysterical."

Arthur smiled proudly. "I'm glad Merlin found you. I was beginning to wonder if he'd ever settle down with a woman. I was starting to think that his working for me was becoming an obsession of his. It was all he could do or think about and I just...I'm glad he found someone like you to keep his thick head supported on two shoulders."

"You find him thick-headed? On the contrary. Merlin is very open-minded about all things."

"I suppose you're right. He has saved my life on numerous occasions. He's a great man. I'm glad he's found an equally great woman."

Aria smiled, her eyes peering around at the doors against the sides of the corridor. "Are any of these chambers decent ones, do you think?"

Arthur stopped walking and took a look around, opening each of the doors along the corridor. "I don't want your chambers being too far from Merlin's."

Aria quirked an eyebrow upward. "How do you mean?"

Arthur looked over at her. "What if you were to...have a nightmare or something?"

"I don't suffer from nightmares, my lord."

"What have I said about calling me that?"

Aria's face flushed a bit. "What shall I call you then?"

"By my name, Aria."

"As you wish...Arthur."

Arthur smirked. "See? It isn't so difficult. You have my express permission to call me by my first name. And no more curtsying-understand?"

"Absolutely." She smiled at him.

"Good. Now, that chamber right there is about three away from mine. It's nice, cozy. Has its own fireplace and there are guards not too far from it. Gwen's chambers are on the far side of mine. You'll be safe in there." He turned to face her. "As for why I'm doing this, I don't want Merlin's best chance at happiness to be in danger of any kind. I want this to work out on all sides and if that means keeping you close, so be it."

Aria closed her once-open mouth and blinked a few times. "I...I don't know what to say."

"Do you accept this?"

Aria nodded fervently. "Merlin has no idea what an incredible friend you are to him." Arthur shrugged lightly. "Would you ever be this kind to his face?"

"I've thought about it."

Aria chuckled. "You should. I think he'd enjoy it."

The king scoffed and led her to the chamber he'd indicated. "Perhaps a bit too much."

"Perhaps."

"I'll get my men to move your things straightaway. Don't lift a finger. That's an order." He smiled.

Aria impulsively threw her arms around Arthur's neck for a moment before retreating. "You've done so much for me. I owe you."

"I'm indebted to you, actually," Arthur said, taking her hand and lifting her knuckles to his lips. "Mi'lady." He bowed respectively and turned on his heels, heading farther down the corridor, leaving a brightly smiling Aria in his wake. The life that was before her, the one she'd yet to face, was quickly becoming a wonderful and beauteous sight to behold. Aria ran back to the physician's tower, baring all of her teeth in a bright smile as she couldn't wait to tell Merlin of the friendship that was blooming between herself and the king.
The Crash of Aria's Magic by StardustToRememberYouBy
"Gaius, please. Say there is another way."

I will do my best to search for one, but the outcome looks bleak."

Merlin's entire body heaved a heavy sigh as he hung his head in his hands, ready to collapse with sobs. "I cannot lose her, Gaius," he confessed. "It will destroy me."

Gaius frowned and patted Merlin's back. "I know. Perhaps it's best to talk it over with her and see what she thinks."

The warlock nodded, standing from his place and leaving the tower, his eyes and heart yearning for Aria. His footfalls against the castle floors felt like the heavy footsteps of impending doom, one that he dreaded to face.

With her chambers being to close in proximity with Arthur's, Merlin hoped he would find her in that general vicinity. His love had been sharing so much time with the queen lately - old friends were being reborn every day and he was content to see her so happy. Unfortunately, as all great lovers come to learn eventually, such happiness is not eternal - someday, it will come to an end. Such was the case with Merlin's love. She meant everything to him and, now, all of that was being threatened.

Aria had been weak for sometime, a sign tha ther magic was faulty as she was always in good health otherwise. She had spent two solid days in bed complaining of a rotten headache and something else, something deeper. Every sensation - hot to cold, fever to hypothermia, skin rashes to bruises - had passed through her weakened state at some point or another, so Merlin had assisted Gaius in locating the illness affecting her. The result they found was what troubled Merlin so tenderly.

When he found her, she was in the courtyard taking a walk with Guinevere. He could see as he approached that Aria was smiling, the smile that was enough to penetrate his soul and make him feel lustily alive.

"Merlin! Oh, my love," Aria said, reaching out a shaky hand to firmly grasp his. He gave her a look of straight seriousness and watched as the sad smile disappeared from her grayish features. "What's happened?"

"Actually, it concerns you," he answered simply, his eyes locking gazes with the queen's. "If it's alright, may I steal her away?"

Guinevere nodded, relinquishing her grip on Aria's arm. "Of course," she answered. "I do hope things are alright."

Merlin led Aria in silence to the royal gardens, his hand never lessening the iron grip he had on hers. Sitting her down on a bench, he sat beside her.

"Your face is full of worry," Aria commented in light of her white knuckles, "and your hold on my hand possessive. What's bothering you like this?"

Merling directed his gaze toward her and took a deep breath before speaking. "Gaius discovered the reason you're ill." Aria gave him her undivided attention, so he continued. "He says that the reason you're so ill is because your magic is leaving you." He paused, noticing the confused expression she bore. "He said it's from an inactivity in its use and because it senses you no longer want it around."

"Magic can do that?"

Merlin nodded. "He says it will return if you want to use it legitimately now."

"Merlin, you know I - "

" - I know, but there's something else, something I haven't told you." Aria was once again all ears. "Your magic could see to it that you live forever. With it, you can change appearance and even how healthy you are on the inside."

"Why would I want that?"

"So you can spend all of eternity with me." Aria's brow slanted and her breath hitched in her throat. "Tell me how incredible that sounds." Aria looked down, so Merling felt his hopes begin to fade. "Do you not want to spend all of eternity with me?"

Aria's eyes snapped up to look at him once more. "No, no, Merlin - never think that!" Her free hand flew to his face and rested there. "I want nothing more than to stand at your side as you fulfill all that you were ever meant to be."

Then let Gaius and I teach you - with us to help you, you can hone your skills and we can learn happiness together."

Aria smiled fondly as she watched a new light enter her love's face, a look of serene hope and she wanted always to see him smile like that - she wanted him always - so she nodded slowly, swiping her thumb across the indentations of his sharp cheekbones.

"I trust you, Merlin," she said as a smile returned to her own features.

Merlin's eyes glowed anew at her words, his hands pulling her closer. "You...you will? You want to do it then?"

Aria's shoulders shrugged lightly. "It has been three years since last you helped me try and learn how to use my gift. I think it is time I tried once more."

Grabbing both sides of her face, Merlin kissed her deeply, longingly, causing her to laugh softly amidst the passion of his kisses. "I love you," he said softly, breaking the kiss onlyto embrace her tightly.

"And I love you," she answered.

"Come. We must get you to Gaius. He's the only person who can help you." Taking her hand firmly, he darted from the bench and pulled her with him as he ran, the sound of her laughter ringing in his ears as they sped towards the tower.

Rushing up the stairs, Merlin tugged her in through the door. He was readying to open his mouth and speak to Gaius when Aria doubled over in pain, her free hand clutching her stomach and seething. He wheeled around, his arms encircling her.

"What is it, my love? What's wrong?" he asked frantically.

"Not sure," she managed between groans as Gaius crossed the room and stood over her. "It feels..." She looked into the warlock's steely eyes and he could see a genuine fear glaze over her eyes. "...it feels like it did that night in the cave. It's a...a tingling, burning sensation."

Merlin's face fell as he looked to Gaius, and that, of course, it when it happened again. The same burst of magical energy, like an orange glow,bursting out of her fingers and feet and her mouth. Gaius and Merlin watched in frightened submission, unsure of how to treat this situation as neither had been present the first time this had happened. In a matter of a few second, it was over and Aria trembled, clutching at Merlin's shirt as though she needed him close for her very survival.

"My, my," Gaius stated.

"Please tell me you've seen this before, Gaius." Merlin's voice was frantic, hoping for the best.

"I have not."

"Why did this happen once more to me, Gaius?" Aria pleaded, her hands and body still in trembles.

Merlin placed a hand across her forehead and inhaled sharply, removing his hand before trying once more. "No...no...it can't be..."

Aria's gaze tried to fin his as she watched all color, all contentment drain from his face. "What's wrong? What is it, Merlin?"

Merlin's wide blue eyes lost their luster as he shook his head. "I know why it happened again. Your magic...it's gone."

Aria shook her head. "It can't be gone! Gaius, tell us it can't be gone!"

Gaius, too, felt her forehead, a grim expression finding his elderly features. "Merlin's right - I sense no magic about you."

She could feel her heat sink within her chest. All of those wonderful promises for a future - an eternity - with Merlin shattered in a mere few seconds. Her entire body shuddered and heaved with sobs as she collapsed in her love's arms.

Magic, once gone, can never be reborn, never be summoned to reappear and Merlin found himself stunned into silence. Picking her up and cradling her in his arms, he carried her, sobs and all, to her own chambers, laying her down gently onto her bed and sitting beside her, stroking her hair.

After a while, her sobs receded and left nothing but stained streaks across her cheeks and redness around her eyes. It was now later in the evening. Feeling around her body as she found that her head was too boggled to move, her fingers - desperate for his warmth and comfort - found his and locked them together.

"I will reliquish my powers," Merlin said, and Aria willed herself to sit up and look him straight in the face. "I will renounce all ties with the Old ways - "

"No, you won't," Aria said with a pert shake of her head.

"I will if I can outlast my life's days with you - "

"I will not allow you to give up your destiny to keep me, Merlin. You mean too much to this world."

"All I want is with you. Please don't ask me to live while you are aging - I cannot watch you decay."

Her chin quivered at his words but she had cried out all of the tear stores she possessed. "Your destiny is vital - it is essential that you go on and do what your magic requires of you."

"And you? Where will you be?"

"At your side."

Merlin's vacant eyes shed a tear as he struggled to maintain composure. "What shall I do when you pass on?"

"Go on. You must."

Now he was the one reduced to sobs as this struck him to the bone. "Don't ask me to carry on without you - I cannot."

"There are ways to bring me back to life should I die."

"The dead, once gone, cannot be reawakened."

"I was referring to other ways."

Merlin was all ears. "Such as?"

"My mother spoke of reincarnation. I'm certain Gaius knows of it."

His eyes widened as he sniffled. "That is far too risky - you could come back as a demon for all we know."

"My mother said the manner of the reincarnation will depend on the manner of the death. You love me - ardently - and that will greatly impact the way I return."

"So much uncertainty..." Merlin commented, shaking his head lightly as his free hand stroked her face. "I can't be without you. If this doesn't work, what then? What shall we do for the rest of our lives?"

"Simple," she said with a smile as the darkness washed away from her face, "we live. We make lives for ourselves."

Merlin sniffled once more as a smile spread across his entire demeanor, a once-dormant warmth now rekindled. "Marry me, Aria. Be my wife." Aria's stature tensed and her smile froze, her eyes depicting the softest kind of sadness.

After a moment, she could breathe once more and did so before speaking. "I will."

Merlin smiled brightly, tears of joy welling up into his eyes. "You will?"

"A thousand times yes." Flinging her arms around his neck, she kissed him gloriously and he returned it with a fiery fervancy. Now that they were both painfully aware of how little time they truly had together, time was now, literally, of the essence.

The very next day, they were making plans for a wedding. Guinevere assisted in getting Aria a custom-made gown while Arthur had Merlin's measurements taken for a nice outfit to wear.

"Really, my lord," Merlin said to Arthur with a shake of his head. "This is unecessary - I don't need this kind of an outfit for my wedding."

"Like you do, Merlin," Arthur said, patting his friend on the back, "I, too, want this to be perfect for you."

"Why? What's wrong?" Merlin asked defensively, figuring that Arthur must be feeling ill to bid such a compliment.

Arthur laughed and sighed. "I've grown tired of seeing you so lonely and so...incomplete. If marrying your great love will bring the old, peppy, wiser-for-wear Merlin back, then I will do what I can to bring him back.

Not sure of what else to do, Merlin threw his arms around the king, at last embracing him in a true, friendly embrace. "You will never know how much that means to me."

Arthur hugged his old friend back and smiled gently. "I will know when I see the look on your face the second she walks down the aisle towards you. I think you have known for a long time."

Merlin nodded, smiling fondly as he pulled away and thanked the tailor. "Since I've known her. I don't think we can wed fast enough."

"Well, just so you know, she looks like a vision - or, at least, she will once Guinevere's seamstress is finished working on the embroidery."

"Please don't make mention to Arthur that I'm the one making your dress," the queen asked of Aria, who gave her a fond smile.

"Do not ever let anyone tell you what you can and cannot do, especially where hobbies are concerned," Aria encouraged her majesty and her companion.

"How very true!"

Aria adored spending time with Guinevere. Since they had spent time together as girls, the two had been busting at the seams for more time. As Aria had just learned, it seemed that one lifetime of true friendships was more than enough.
After All This Time by StardustToRememberYouBy
The day of the wedding dawned, and Aria could feel the overwhelming sensations bubbling up underneath her skin. Feelings of love, feelings of anxiety, and general nerves. On this day of days, she and Merlin would become as one - she would never again be a bride, and she would not have changed anything at all about this moment or about what she was feeling.

Guinevere was helping her dress and had even enlisted the assistance of her hand-maiden to style Aria's hair to perfection, something that would never again be done for her.

Aria's hands smoothed out against the lace of the dress, inhaling and exhaling deep breaths as she was silently preparing herself for what was going to happen in the matter of an hour.

"Nervous?" Guinevere asked as she tacked the hem of the dress and fixated it just so, checking the rest of it for a proper fit.

Aria nodded. "Should I not be?" she inquired, feeling her hands tremble softly.

Guinevere smiled fondly. "No, my friend. I would be shocked and slightly disappointed if you weren't nervous. The feeling is totally natural."

"Are we making the right decision in marrying so quickly, so young? I do not have my family to be here with me." A frown stretched across her face and Guinevere stood in front of the bride-to-be, clipping on the earrings she was lending for her friend.

"You mustn't think about them. I am sure their hearts go out to you, wherever they are."

Aria nodded. "Of course. Perspective."

"You must think of yourself and of Merlin, the man who will be your husband in a mere short time."

Aria smiled fondly upon thinking of her great love, her one true masterpiece, and the man who was about to become her husband. "My dear Merlin..." She struggled to hold back tears, knowing that those were to be saved for later. "I am ready to be his wife."

"I dare say you've been ready for a long time." Guinevere smiled and ushered Aria to the full-length mirror against the wall. "You must see how beautiful you look."

One glance in the mirror was enough to tell her that she would never again look like this, never again be this radiant, this magnificent. "I look..."

"...like a bride." Guinevere was kind enough to finish her sentence for her, smiling into the reflection. "The lace suits you well. You wear this gown like a queen."

Aria turned and embraced her queen, closing her eyes. "I cannot thank you enough, your majesty."

"Just marry Merlin - that is thanks in and of itself."

Two rooms away. Arthur slapped Merlin on the back a couple of times after showing him what he looked like.

"I look princely," Merlin commented with a fond smile. "I have never worn nice clothes like this - I'll be sure to return them when I'm finished."

"Nonsense, Merlin," Arthur said heartily, readying to change himself for the wedding. "Those were made for you - they're yours to keep."

"I'm beyond flattered by how much you've supported my relationship with Aria to this point."

"Merlin, that gorgeous girl is marrying you - someone actually wants to marry you. You, Merlin, are - "

"Yeah, I think I get it, thanks." Once again, Arthur was proving that he was still in shock about the whole situation. Theirs was to be a small wedding, but the happy couple were just that - they just wanted to be forever joined. "I wonder what she'll look like - "

"Don't think about it - allow yourself to be surprised."

"I know she's beautiful, Arthur - she's breathtaking. I just want to see the whole new level her beauty will take today. I'm not sure my heart can handle it."

Arthur knew that his manservant was being serious and nodded. "I know exactly what you mean. And trust me, Merlin, she'll look like more than you could've ever dreamed."

The great hall was decked out in garlands of greens with occasional wreaths of the reddest roses and pinkest tulips that Camelot had to offer. Merlin smiled at the sight.

"What do you think?" Arthur said, perhaps a bit louder than was necessary. "Will your bride be pleased?"

"Very much so - she adores flowers." Merlin could not have been happier or more nervous for this, not to mention a tad anxious to get all of this over with - not because he wanted to skip the ceremonies, just that he wanted to be joined with his love as soon as possible.

::::

Merlin awoke with a start, the cool breeze of the early morning drafts hitting his flesh like another icy blow. He could feel the stubble on his cheeks and realized he needed to shave if he was going to go through with what he had to finish that day - God-willing. There was no way in hell he was going to miss out on this day, miss the chance of being close to his love, the one he'd lost so long ago.

"I miss you," he breathed as he picked up his rucksack and shoved his hands into his jean pockets. All he had thought about every day for almost fifteen-hundred years was her. He missed her so ardently and promised himself the day he'd lost her that he would, one day, find her again. Today, time-permitting and by the grace of the stars, would be that day.

As he walked along the streets of London, he knew that soon everyone would be out - the city was waking up, and he would've given anything to share this moment with Aria.

Merlin, with this ring, I thee wed and solemnly swear to protect and affirm my love for you every single day and to show you every waking second that you're mine and that it is all I can do to keep you.

Like a blade to his heart stung the words of her wedding vow to him and he could feel the tears welling up into his eyes. Stifling them back hurt just as much - for fifteen-hundred years he had cried over the loss of his bride, the one who warmed and abducted his entire soul the second she walked down the aisle, the moment she grasped his wrists and uttered the words "I do".

Handing a lady in a hotel lobby a few quid just for the day, just to wash up inside their lobby's head, Merlin leaned over the sink and gathered his supplies from his sack, placing them on the counter and beginning the ritual of shaving his face.

Flashbacks filled his thoughts - one of their wedding night full of passion and new experiences and of being in love, one of the moment they realized they could not have children together, one of the moment she breathed her last - and Merlin could feel his heart lurching more and more, breaking and straining the more time he spent without her.

He had been incomplete since she had passed away of old age. She had gone to sleep peacefully at around fifty-five years of age, which seemed far too short a time, but enough to live out a life of happiness together.

"Merlin," she'd said the day she turned forty. "You still seem to be the same age as the day I married you."

"It's my curse, my love," he had responded sadly.

"I wish so many things - the greatest wish is that I hadn't quit my magic, that I hadn't stopped...if I hadn't, perhaps we would be ageless together."

"You can't think like that, Aria. You can't."

"I can't help it, Merlin. All I've wanted is you and I'm even losing that."

He took hold of her face in his hands. "I swore the day I married you that I would love you until the day you pass, and I will hold true to that. I will. You're mine until then and I won't let you go without a fight."

"Without my magic, there's nothing you can do to save me. When I die, I die and that's the end of it. I love you more than life itself. When I wake up in the next life, swear to me that you'll find me."

"I swear I will find you."


And find her he did. He knew of a woman somewhere close, a woman that held all of Aria's traits in the modern world. All he had to do was meet her and cast a small spell to reawaken his love's soul within her and the two could have their chance at immortality together. He could teach her the Old Ways at last, render her as a powerful woman, one to be marked for the ages. All he had ever wanted lay with the hope that this modern-day woman had his love within her.

Finishing up his readying for the day, Merlin quickly changed his clothes and trekked his way out of the hotel and down the streets. He was heading for the coffee shop, the one he knew this woman frequented. If he missed the window in meeting this woman, he could lose out on the chance to remeet Aria, the chance to rekindle the flame he had wanted back for almost fifteen-hundred years.

The coffee shop was on a quaint little corner, one that always reminded him of the place where he had taken Aria on their wedding night. That night rung in his mind - it was the beginning of so many different things and the end of a few unremarkable stages in his life. Since she had entered his life, she had penetrated his timeline so much that everything began and ended with Aria. Everything he had been, everything he had become, and everything he had ever hoped to be was because of her, so meeting her in this life wasn't an option - it had to be.

Ordering a black coffee, he took a seat, still a bit estranged from this modern world. He had trekked across all of time and had still never completely adjusted to this new world and all the technology it had surmassed over the ages.

"I'll take a vanilla latte, please," Merlin heard the woman's voice say from behind him, so he turned around to truly get a good look at her. She was exactly Aria's height - how could he forget how easily she could fit into his arms? - and even bore her hair color and texture, something that might have superficially appeared to be something to be overlooked and unimportant, but it was traits like that that made this woman so much closer to his love. This woman even braided her long, bushy hair into a side-braid, just like his bride.

"Excuse me," he greeted softly, melting instantaneously the second he looked back into the woman's eyes - they were Aria's eyes. "I was wondering if perhaps we've met before."

The woman eyed him suspiciously for a moment and nodded. "I can't seem to place your face, but you do look like someone I once knew." Her voice was exact and Merlin was on fire.

He nodded and smiled. "I don't mean to approach you out of the blue - I just can't shake the feeling that I know you from somewhere."

The woman smiled. "I know what you mean. I'm a firm believer in deja-vu."

"Isn't deja-vu considered to be some kind of magic?"

The woman pondered this for a moment before nodding slowly and smiling fondly. "Yes, I suppose it is."

"So you believe in magic, huh?"

The woman laughed and took her latte from the barista. "I guess you could say I do."

Merlin chuckled. "Would you maybe want to join me?"

"I would."

The two of them sat down together and Merlin smiled across the table, hoping to make eye contact with her and complete the spell he needed, the one he had been practicing since the day he'd lost her the first time. It was all he could hope for that this would work and he would be reunited with his long-lost love, the one he had literally waited ages for.

The way the woman looked when she sat down caused Merlin's eyes to flash back to a scene he remembered all too well when Aria had sat down in the same manner. He noticed her bag, littered with print of red roses and pink tulips.

"You like red roses and pink tulips?" he asked, gesturing to her bag.

She nodded, patting the bag fondly. "Yeah, I've loved them since I was girl. It's a generational thing. The women in my family have loved them as far back as the Middle Ages, or so my mother told me."

This was a good sign. She bore yet another trait passed down from Aria's lineage. "They're beautiful flowers for sure." He paused, taking a sip of his coffee. "I'm sorry I'm so rude - I've forgotten to ask you what your name is."

She smiled. "My name is Aurelia."

Even her name still bore A-r-i-a, even in some small way. "Lovely."

"And what's your name, stranger?"

Merlin shrugged. "What do you think it is?"

"Like a guessing game?" She smiled, taking a drink of her latte, and Merlin felt his heart leap into his throat - Aria used to give him the exact same sideways look whenever she took a sip of her drink.

He nodded. "You guess my name, and I know that all my questions - and yours - will be answered."

The woman nodded. "I enjoy a good challenge." She chuckled, setting her drink aside and leaning onto her elbows on the table, looking straight across the table and deeply into his eyes. An inquisitive smirk was pasted across her lips, tugging them upward in the same way that his love's mouth once did. "Hmm...I'm getting something like an 'M'. Does your name begin with an 'M'?"

Merlin smiled and nodded, leaning himself onto the table as well to get a bit closer to her and look deeper into her eyes. "You're very good."

"There's something behind your eyes, some door I can't open."

"Just be careful. A door once opened may be stepped through in either direction."

The woman took heed of his word, but continued to stare into his eyes in every attempt to unlock the secrets he was keeping from her and find out the truth behind the eyes of this mysteriously familiar M-named man. It was then that Merlin shifted his gaze a bit, the familiar shade of gold glazing over his hues as they once did, and the woman's gaze changed slightly. He hoped he hadn't blown his cover and that Aria would wake up within her. Given the look that she had just given him, it was probably for the worst.

"Are you alright?" he asked, hoping she would give him a better answer than a slap across the face and an arrest.

The woman moved back a bit, her eyes wide as they changed their color. When Merlin had approached her at the counter, her eyes had been a hunter shade of green - now, they were a bluish-green, the color of Aria's eyes. Merlin watched in shock and slight surprise as freckles popped up across the woman's flesh, on her face and arms. Her nose shape-shifted and her jawline restructured itself as he watched on in silence.

Her hair became slightly frizzier in texture and the length and consistency of her fingers was altered. All across this woman, her features were changing into features that Merlin hadn't seen since...

"Where..." her voice said, and Merlin could see familiar teeth peeking through her mouth, straight but slightly whiter than Aria's. "...how..." Touching her fingers to her face and her arms, she examined herself. "How in the blazes..."

"What's your name?" he asked, eyes wide and his heart nearly ceasing to beat.

"My name is..." She paused, her eyes cast downward as her mind was suddenly and instantly overwhelmed by a flood memories, everything stemming from a past she had once known. She remembered her father and her sisters and the sudden death of her mother. She recalled hearing of her brother's murder and she could call back the moment she was accused of being a sorceress. "...Aria. Aria Glinn." Turning her gaze upward, she looked into his eyes, eyes so familiar. They were swimming with memories of the two of them, of everything from their first meeting to the night they spent holding each other in her home to her moving into the castle. Her mind could recall their glorious wedding day, of the day of their third miscarriage, and of the day she departed from him. All of the memories she had of him - how his skin felt beneath hers, the warmth of his eyes. "M-Merlin? Is that you?"

Merlin smiled brightly, feeling the tears stream down his face. "It's me, my love. I'm here."

The woman - the one who had brought Aria back to life - looked straight into his eyes and her chin quivered. Merlin reached across the table and took her hands into his, kissing each of them repeatedly as he was reduced to nothing but sobs. "Oh, Merlin!" Standing from the table, she crossed over to his side of it and he stood, wrapping his arms around her and pulling her flush against his body in the tightest embrace he could absolutely muster. Her arms circled tightly around his neck as she buried her face into his sweater and, too, wept for joy. "I've been sleeping so long - I have missed you so."

"I've waited fifteen-hundred years for you." He could barely speak he was so ecstatic to have her in his arms again, to feel his fingers push through her hair. "I swore I would find you, and I have."

"I'm here now." She nodded, pulling back to look him directly in the face and stroke his cheekbones, ones she had longed to see once again.

"That's all I've wanted." He smiled at her, one of his hands sliding up her body to caress her jawline and her face.

"All I've ever wanted is you," she whispered, leaning up and connecting her lips with his tenderly. Even after all that time, the many hundreds of years he had searched for, Merlin's lips - forever parched from missing hers - were still hers, they were still carved from the same bit of marble and were still meant to be.

Merlin had finally found her and with all that he had learned since he lost her the first time, he knew he could never - would never - allow himself to lose her again. If he had to die with her or if they lived together forever, it would always be Merlin and Aria, Aria and Merlin. And he had been right that day down in Kilgarrah's cave - she was worth saving.

We're like fire and rain. My magic is unpredictable, uncontrollable like fire. Your magic is clear, controlled like rain. Whenever my fires are lit at a danger to others, you rain down and push it back under control.

THE END.
This story archived at http://merlinfic.dtwins.co.uk/viewstory.php?sid=605