Fire and Rain by StardustToRememberYouBy
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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.
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