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."
"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.
Author's Chapter Notes:
(I do not own BBC's Merlin as I'm required to say, but Aria is my own, personal figment. Thanks!)