"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.
Author's Chapter Notes:
I do not own BBC's Merlin, but Aria is MINE. :) As usual, enjoy.