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.