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Darkest Before the Dawn

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It had been a good day, which was a blessing. A fond smile tugged at one corner of Merlin’s mouth as he folded down the coverlet of Arthur’s bed, preparing it for when he returned from visiting his father. Despite his grumpy complaining earlier that day, Arthur had indeed enjoyed the anniversary of his birth. It was good to see. Arthur didn’t smile nearly enough these days.

Ever since Morgana’s betrayal several months before, King Uther had not been himself…so much so, in fact, that Arthur had taken over his duties and been serving as regent for his father. Arthur had shouldered this additional mantle of responsibility without complaint and handled it with aplomb, earning the respect of nobles and peasants alike.

Distracted, Merlin’s hands smoothed over a crease in the sheet again and again as his thoughts went round in circles.

Merlin knew more than anyone the toll it took on Arthur, as it seemed Arthur was only comfortable admitting to Merlin how inept and unprepared for rule he often felt. Not even Gwen was privy to those particular thoughts. For while she often inspired Arthur to be a better man, he also ended up hiding parts of himself so as to not disappoint her. But with Merlin, Arthur was able to relax his guard and be himself, warts and farts and all. It filled Merlin with a simmering warmth knowing that he was the only one that Arthur trusted enough to confide in like that.

Sometimes it amazed him, the connection they’d fostered during their acquaintance. For two people who were such polar opposites, they were now so in tune with each other that he and Arthur could have an entire conversation with just a look. Merlin supposed that Arthur being his destiny had a lot to do with that.

Merlin blinked away his reverie and stilled the restless motion of his hands over the exposed sheets. He set about laying a fire in the hearth to take the chill off the room. He was so accustomed to this routine that his body went about accomplishing it automatically, leaving his mind to roam free. Merlin grinned as he replayed the evening’s events in his head.

Arthur had been so happy when his father had shown such a keen interest in his anniversary. It had been the most alert and aware he’d seen Uther since Arthur had rescued him from Camelot’s dungeon. For one evening, Arthur had been able to relax and just enjoy the celebration.

Of course, the highlight of the evening for most people had been the knife throwing spectacle. It had been a great display of Arthur’s legendary courage. For the rest of the night, it was all the assembled guests could talk about as Merlin circulated around the room, catching snippets of conversation here and there.

Merlin did not share their enthusiasm. In fact, it had been the most tense he’d been all evening, on high alert in an effort to keep Arthur safe. Granted, everything had turned out fine; the Gleeman had indeed been a master at his craft. Merlin hadn’t had to tweak the dagger’s trajectory at all. Still, it had taken a while for his heart rate to lower to normal again; the thought of having to expose his magic in the middle of Arthur’s anniversary banquet with Uther and all the knights looking on had done nothing to help that cause. Despite Arthur’s frequent jokes to the contrary, Merlin truly didn’t have a death wish.

Peeking quickly around the room to make sure he was still alone, Merlin gave a quick glance into the hearth and lit the fire with his magic. The normal way took too long and he wanted the room to be comfortably warm when Arthur returned.

A chuckle burbled from Merlin’s lips as he thought of Arthur, full of drink, walking headlong into the pillar that separated the sleeping chamber from the main room. That chuckle became a snort as the picture of Arthur—blissfully unaware that he was about to walk out into the hallway with his trousers around his ankles—came to mind.

Merlin shook his head good-naturedly. Gods, he hadn’t seen Arthur that pissed in a very long time. Regardless of how much Merlin thought he might deserve the reprieve, now that Arthur was serving as Prince Regent, Merlin had standing orders to surreptitiously water down his wine after the second glass.

That thought had Merlin pausing mid-step. Closing his eyes, he played back the evening in his head, keeping track of how many times he’d filled Arthur’s glass.

Merlin’s breath caught as his eyes widened in realisation.

Five. Five times that evening had Merlin filled Arthur’s cup. And Arthur had imbibed his two full-strength glasses during the meal, which meant that he’d been drinking the watered-down wine for the rest of the evening. Yet, Arthur was acting as if he’d drunk twice that much…and at full strength.

There was no logical explanation for Arthur to have been as impaired as he was.

Something was wrong.

He could feel it in his bones. Merlin had experienced this particular brand of shiver down his spine too many times to discount its veracity.

Quickly, Merlin mentally switched gears into protection mode, trying to fathom out the crucial piece of intel he was missing. Merlin knew that Arthur’s food hadn’t been tampered with, for he’d checked every plate set before Arthur and his magic had found nothing. He also knew that no one else would have dared to refill Arthur’s glass when Merlin was around. The other servants had long since learned that, while Merlin might grouse and complain mightily about being Arthur’s manservant, Merlin actually took his service to the Prince quite seriously.

“When?” Merlin muttered aloud, pacing back and forth across the antechamber agitatedly. “What did I miss?”

It was glaringly obvious once he’d realised it. The apple. The apple the Gleeman had stuffed into Arthur’s mouth as a target. That had to be it. It was the only thing that had touched Arthur’s lips that Merlin hadn’t checked.

Merlin was already moving hurriedly toward the door as he asked himself urgently, Poison? No… Arthur didn’t show any of the classic signs. Drugged, however? Almost certainly. It’s the only thing that makes sense. If the apple had been drugged, then Arthur was most definitely in danger. Terrified by the thought, Merlin broke into a flat out sprint toward the king’s chamber.

Merlin skidded to a halt as he rounded the corner that led to Uther’s suite. The guards posted at the entrance were sprawled upon the floor, their bodies lying unnaturally still. Merlin knew before he even checked that they were dead, for he could not feel the life sparks within them.

Panicked that he might already be too late, Merlin called out desperately, “Arthur!” as he scurried around the corner into Uther’s chambers.

The sight that greeted him shocked him to his core.

Tears dripped from Arthur’s cheeks and nose onto his father’s hair as he held him close. One hand supported the King’s head while the other pressed tightly over the gash in his father’s chest, wounded by a blade meant for Arthur. Arthur tried very hard not to think about the warm, slick lifeblood slipping between his fingers.

More than anything, he felt helpless, and that was not a feeling that Arthur was accustomed to. He’d stopped calling for help once his sluggish brain realised that the guards stationed outside his father’s chambers must be either dead or incapacitated. Sheer horror and adrenaline were the only things keeping Arthur from succumbing to the sedative that he realised must have been on the apple that the assassin had shoved in his mouth earlier.

Cradling his father’s now unconscious body to him, Arthur allowed the sobs he’d been holding back to escape, his breath coming in great gasps, shivering as he started to succumb to shock.

His fault. This was all his fault. The assassination attempt had been meant for him. It should have been his lifeblood spilling onto the stone floor, not his father’s.

Another sob burst from Arthur’s lips. Gods, he was not ready...not ready to be king. He couldn’t do it; not now, not yet!

As if from far away, Arthur heard his name. He wanted to lift his head, wanted to acknowledge the sound, but he couldn’t. It was as if his body had separated itself from his mind.

“Arthur!” he heard again, but he still was unable to react to it. And then familiar fingers were upon his jaw, turning his head and a pair of terrified blue eyes met his own.

Merlin. Thank the gods…

It wasn’t until he registered that Merlin was shaking his arm that he tuned in to what was being said to him.

“…Arthur, just breathe. Come on, look at me. You’re all right…Come on, Arthur!”

It was the urgent tone in Merlin’s voice that brought Arthur back to himself. Shaking his head slightly as if to clear it, he sucked in a shuddering breath and raised his bloody hand to clasp it over Merlin’s, holding it fast on his forearm.

“Merlin…” Arthur croaked, his throat so hoarse that it felt as if he hadn’t spoken in days.

Merlin breathed a sigh of relief. “Arthur...I’m going to go and get some help.” He reached over and dragged the assassin’s fallen sword toward them. Placing it within Arthur’s reach he said, “Will you be all right?”

Arthur’s eyes strayed down to his father’s face. It was so, so pale and his chest hardly moved at all…

“Arthur?”

Arthur nodded. “Yes,” he rasped.

“I’ll be back as soon as I can. Stay safe, Arthur.”

Retreating footsteps heralded Merlin’s departure. With Merlin gone, time seemed to stop. Arthur felt so out of touch that he couldn’t even be sure he was breathing. If another assassin had arrived, Arthur doubted he could have even lifted his head, let alone a sword. It was beyond frustrating and more than a little terrifying to be so exposed, so vulnerable. But he had to trust that Merlin would not have left him if he’d felt Arthur were in any real danger.

Arthur blinked rapidly several times, trying to focus…trying to stay awake. He watched the tiny labored movements of his father’s chest in anguish and registered the trickle of wet warmth seeping through his fingers and dripping onto his leg. And then, after what was probably minutes but felt like hours, Merlin returned.

“Arthur…” Merlin said, an urgent tone to his voice, “can you tell me what happened?”

Arthur glanced toward the spot where the assassin’s body still lay. “He…tried to…and I…I fought him, but I couldn’t…so tired…but then Father, he…he…” Arthur stuttered, his memories coming to him in quick flashes. “He killed him, Merlin. But he…a knife…and…”

Merlin nodded grimly. “I understand.”

Merlin’s calm, no-nonsense voice pierced through the haze that had thickly settled over Arthur’s senses. “Gwaine, Leon? Help me get His Majesty onto the bed. We need to prepare him for Gaius.”

Then, Merlin asked, “Are you sure”—grunt—“we can”—another grunt—“trust them?” Dimly, Arthur realised that the rustling and grunting he heard must have been Merlin stripping the sheet and blankets from the bed.

“Quite sure, Merlin,” Sir Leon responded confidently. “I’ve known Sir Owain and Sir Eldridge since we were all squires. They can be trusted to be discreet.”

“Good.” Merlin’s voice was filled with grim satisfaction. “And you’ve sent a patrol after the rest of the troupe?”

“Yes,” came Gwaine’s reply. “It should overtake their caravan by morning.”

“Perhaps then we will have some answers,” Sir Leon responded. “I’d like to have something to tell the Council.”

“Don’t,” Merlin said, his voice sharp and authoritative in a way Arthur had rarely heard. “Don’t tell them anything yet. In fact, I think we should keep as many details of the attack as we can quiet.”

“Why?” Leon asked, confused.

“Because we don’t yet know who was behind it,” Merlin reasoned. “And after Morgana’s treachery, I don’t think we can afford to overlook the possibility that it could be someone from inside Camelot…even someone inside the royal family.”

“You can’t be suggesting…” Leon scoffed. “He’s Arthur’s uncle!”

“And Morgana was his sister,” Merlin replied stubbornly, “but it didn’t stop her.”

“So because of that you think that this plot was formulated by Lord Agravaine? That borders on treason, Merlin.”

“I’m not suggesting anyone,” Merlin responded testily. “I’m simply saying that it might be prudent to not assume anything until we have more facts.”

“Come on, you two…there’s nothing to argue about,” said Gwaine, playing the voice of reason. “You’re both on the same side, remember?”

After a moment of tense silence, Leon said penitently, “Yes, of course. I’m sorry, Merlin; I know you are speaking out of concern for Arthur.”

“Thank you,” Merlin said solemnly. “I really am.” There was a pause, and then… “Can you two manage the king?”

“Of course,” Gwaine responded. “Leon? Why don’t you grab the king’s head, and I’ll carry his legs.”

Arthur felt hands trying to grasp under his father’s arms and feebly tried to push them away. “No…” he gasped, “leave him alone…”

The tugging stopped.

“What’s wrong with him, then?” Gwaine’s voice asked with concern.

“I’m pretty sure he was drugged,” Merlin explained, his voice coming closer to Arthur. “It’s a miracle he’s alive, really. Thank the gods for Uther being here.”

“And for being well enough to protect him,” Sir Leon agreed.

Arthur felt the heat emanating off Merlin’s body as he crouched down next to him. Then there was a light touch at his shoulder, a hand coming to rest on his upper arm.

“Arthur?”

Forcing his heavy head upward on a neck that felt limp and rubbery, Arthur met Merlin’s cerulean gaze blearily.

“It’s all right,” Merlin’s voice said as his fingers rubbed a soothing pattern onto his bicep. “You can let go of your father now. They’re just going to move him…make him more comfortable.”

The next time Arthur felt the pulling sensation, he allowed his father to slip from his grasp. Raggedly, Arthur sucked in a shuddering breath and ran a hand through his hair just as Merlin protested sharply, “No, don’t!”

Arthur pulled his still-moist hand away from his head as if he’d been burned. “Huh? Wha?” he mumbled, barely coherent.

Merlin released a long, mournful sigh. “Never mind,” he said. “It’s fine.” Arthur let his eyes drift closed and he rested his forehead against Merlin’s shoulder. He drifted toward sleep in the milliseconds before Merlin shook him back awake. “Wake up, Arthur.”

There was a muted pop and then Arthur felt a glass bottle being pressed into his hand. “Drink this,” Merlin said urgently. “It will help counteract the sedative.”

Woodenly, Arthur raised the bottle to his lips and drank. A shudder of revulsion ran through him from the absolutely disgusting taste. “Ugh!”

Merlin’s wuffle stirred the hair along Arthur’s temple. “Tastes bad but it works,” he agreed with a hint of wry amusement. “You’ll be feeling better in no time.”

“Merlin?” Gaius’ concerned voice echoed in the antechamber of the king’s chambers before...

“Merlin!” the elderly man breathed, and then Arthur felt another set of hands on him, prodding at him. “Arthur! Are you all right?”

Arthur tried to figure out how to make his lips move so he could form a reply. Thankfully, Merlin answered for him.

“He’s fine, Gaius.” Merlin’s voice sounded harried. “Or he will be. It’s Uther you need to worry about right now.”

Gaius groaned as he pushed to a stand and then gasped, “Uther! By the Gods…what happened, Merlin?”

“He was protecting Arthur,” was Merlin’s grim reply.

“But all the…?”

“Not Arthur’s,” Merlin replied, cutting off whatever the physician meant to say. “Gaius?”

“Hmmm?” Gaius voice sounded gravelly and distracted.

“Did you bring my cloak?”

“Oh…yes.” There was a rustling sound and Arthur felt a brush of rough material graze his face as it was passed from Gaius to Merlin. “What did you want it for?”

“The less people that see this the better,” Merlin replied cryptically.

After a moment, Gaius’ spoke from further away, his voice tight but all business. “All right, gentlemen…make room so that I may attend to His Majesty...”

“Arthur?” Again, Merlin’s voice prodded at his fuzzy-headedness. Arthur rolled his forehead against the bony protrusion of Merlin’s collarbone, hoping the movement would help clear his mind. He felt Merlin’s other hand grasp him at the armpit. “Do you think you can stand?”

“Dunno…” Arthur slurred, frankly impressed that he got the word out at all.

“Come on, Princess,” he heard in his other ear as another set of hands grabbed Arthur’s other arm and slung it over a broad shoulder. “Up you get.”

And then suddenly, Arthur’s body became more vertical than horizontal…and if he could ever figure out how to lock his knees, he might just stay that way.

“Here…Gwaine…” Merlin said and an arm reached across Arthur’s back for a moment. There was a shuffling noise, then, “Yeah, just open… yeah,” and then Arthur felt something being draped around his shoulders.

“You got ‘im?” Gwaine asked softly, and Merlin ducked his head underneath Arthur’s arm and made sure it was securely across his shoulders. He grabbed Arthur tightly by the wrist with one hand and grasped around Arthur’s waist with the other.

“Yeah, I’ve got him,” Merlin replied with a grunt. “Can you tie the…?”

“On it,” Gwaine interrupted and Arthur felt what was probably Merlin’s cloak being secured around his neck with a soft tug and the cowl being pulled up to practically cover his face. Arthur felt himself sway dangerously and then a set of hands pressed against his chest, steadying him.

“You sure you don’t want help, Merlin?”

Arthur predicted the answer before he heard it, knowing his manservant was stubborn to the last. “I’m stronger than I look, Gwaine!” he hissed and hiked Arthur’s dead weight more fully onto his shoulders.

“If you say so…” Gwaine drawled dubiously.

“C’mon Arthur…let’s get you back to your room,” Merlin coaxed, yanking on Arthur’s shoulder until one of his feet moved of its own volition to keep from toppling over.

Finally, finally Arthur felt the fog inside his brain starting to lift…just enough to realise…

“Wait, no…my father…” he rasped, trying to glance over his shoulder at an awkward angle so that he could look back at the bed.

“Later,” Merlin said, firmly enough to make Arthur turn and meet his eyes. “Gaius has to examine him now and we’ll only be in his way. We can get you changed in the meantime.”

Arthur grudgingly nodded his head as they shuffled forward another step.

Admittedly it was a bit of a struggle, but Merlin was able to manhandle Arthur from the king’s chambers to his own without detection. Of course, that was only because he’d used the servant’s entrances and had covered Arthur with his cloak. The last thing Merlin wanted was for anyone to see Arthur in the condition he was in.

The amount of blood on Arthur’s tunic and breeches alone was disturbing, but when one added in the rust-coloured smudges on his hands, face, and streaked through his hair, he was truly a macabre sight. Merlin just wanted to get Arthur out of those clothes and cleaned up before he’d recovered from the shock enough to realise what that much blood being on him meant for the survival chances of his father.

“Here,” Merlin said, as he directed Arthur toward the wooden chair behind his desk near the window. Wood, I can clean…

Arthur tried lurching in the opposite direction. “Mmph…bed…” he mumbled, raising a hand out toward his preferred destination.

Merlin grabbed Arthur’s hand and pulled it back down to his side, using it to pivot the prince around the side of the table. “No, Arthur. I want to get you bathed and changed before you sit anywhere else.”

Arthur’s bleary, red-rimmed eyes focused on Merlin’s face with difficulty, but it was obvious by the expression on the prince’s face that he was barely holding back tears of anguish.

A significant look passed between them. “All right,” Arthur finally agreed, his voice emotionless and almost too quiet. His weight dropped heavily into the armchair and he slumped down in misery.

Merlin was desperate to give the prince whatever respite he could. “I had a bath drawn for you, Arthur,” he fibbed as he crossed the room to where the empty tub sat. “Let me just check the temperature and then we’ll get you into it…”

With his back to Arthur and half hidden by the privacy screen, Merlin raised his hand over the empty tub. He whispered, “Cuman wæter,” and then it was there, sloshing slightly against the sides of the container. Merlin trailed two fingers through it and thought, “Hæte,” again and again until the temperature was perfect.

Merlin crossed the room and efficiently began untying the strings on Arthur’s tunic while his neck rested against the backrest limply. “Let’s get this off you, then,” Merlin said as he tugged gently. Arthur dutifully shifted forward in the seat and lifted both arms as if he were a small child, allowing the shirt to slip off over his head. The soiled tunic was dropped to the floor out of Arthur’s line of sight before Merlin knelt to pull off the leather boots and socks.

“But…my father…”

“…is in the hands of the best physician in Camelot. Gaius will take good care of him, Arthur.”

Arthur nodded slowly, a tiny hitching breath escaping his clenched jaw as he blinked furiously.

Once Arthur was barefoot, Merlin helped him to stand, which to his relief, Arthur seemed mostly able to do on his own. The unlaced breeches and smalls under them were still tacky with blood and had to literally be peeled away from Arthur’s skin before gravity finished the job and the prince was able to step out of the ruined material.

Merlin blanched at the angry reddish smear across Arthur’s torso and hip and prayed that Arthur wouldn’t notice.

Thankfully, he didn’t. He was too busy trying to keep himself upright as Merlin guided him across the room.

Arthur hissed in satisfaction as he slid down into the oh-so-warm-but-not-quite-too-hot water. It was evident to Merlin from the stiffness of the prince’s shoulders that the numbing shock was starting to yield to survivor’s guilt and grief.

Stifling a sigh, Merlin pushed his sleeves up over his elbows and knelt on the floor behind Arthur. Normally, Merlin would chatter on during Arthur’s baths, content to cajole or annoy his friend out of his more sullen moods. But that wasn’t what Arthur needed tonight: tonight he needed Merlin’s comfort and support, and that’s what Merlin would give him.

So Merlin stayed solemn and silent as he dipped the washing cloth into the steaming water, and began kneading at Arthur’s shoulders with it, trying to release the tension wound tightly through the muscles. Once Merlin had felt the tight muscles release, he used the cloth to rub down Arthur’s right arm, taking care to remove all traces of Uther’s blood from the prince’s hand.

As much as Merlin wanted to press the issue, to get Arthur talking, he waited. He knew that the prince would confide in him sooner or later. When it came to the tough, life-altering stuff he always did. Merlin was halfway down Arthur’s left arm when Arthur slid down in the tub and rested his head against the side to stare unseeingly at the ceiling. “Why?” he asked finally, not looking at Merlin.

“Why what, Arthur?” he prodded softly, continuing with his gentle ministrations. His hand slid up the now-clean left arm to begin scrubbing soft circles over the prince’s heart…as if the motion itself could ease Arthur’s pain.

“Why me?” Arthur lolled his head in Merlin’s direction, his eyes filled with pain. “What have I done to make people want to kill me, Merlin?”

Merlin concentrated his eyes on the washing cloth as it slid a path down Arthur’s torso, erasing a wide reddish streak as it went. “Honestly?” he asked at last.

Arthur nodded wearily, looking as if he both dreaded the answer and needed it to breathe.

“Nothing more or less than being born as the sole heir of a very prosperous kingdom. Camelot is the jewel of Albion; the best of the best. And, because of that, it sometimes means that your father’s enemies wish to harm him through you,” Merlin answered, putting the cloth aside in favor of threading his wet fingers through Arthur’s hair.

Very gently, he massaged soap into the prince’s scalp, lingering on the task when Arthur sighed and closed his eyes. “It’s not you personally, Arthur. Never think that. You are a good man; a brave and honourable one.”

Arthur sucked in a shuddering breath as a lone tear escaped the prison of his lashes to slide down his cheek. Merlin pretended not to notice, but couldn’t stop his fingers from sliding forward along Arthur’s jawline, sweeping the salty track away under the guise of removing another streak of blood from his face.

Merlin had so many things he wished he could tell Arthur in that moment: how sorry he was about what had happened, how very much he understood the feeling of his heart being flayed open by the pain, how he could truly empathise with the empty, echoing pangs of grief. However, even in his currently vulnerable state, Merlin knew Arthur could not bear to hear such tender emotions…and Merlin didn’t even know if he could have found the right words to express them if he tried.

Instead, Merlin let his touch brand all those feelings into the prince’s skin. He softly massaged at Arthur’s temples and forehead, let the backs of his fingertips brush over his cheekbones and down the long expanse of his neck, rubbed a soothing pattern near Arthur’s ear with his thumb, slow and mesmerizing.

Merlin’s hands silently gave Arthur what he most needed: reassurance, acceptance, and yes, love. That he loved Arthur did not come as a surprise to Merlin. The noble prince had earned Merlin’s steadfast devotion from the moment Arthur had taken his word to be true about Valiant’s enchanted shield. Over the years that emotion had grown and solidified into something much more all-encompassing than that. Merlin felt it with every heartbeat, and it grew with every breath. Even if Kilgharrah had not told him, by now he would have known: they truly were two halves of a whole, better together than apart.

He belonged with Arthur, just as Arthur belonged with him in a way that not even Gwen could compete with. And for now at least, knowing that was enough.

Arthur allowed Merlin’s soft ministrations as the gracefully slender fingers grazed his skin over and over, feeling almost powerless against the heady frisson his caresses invoked. His soul drank in the attention like parched earth, basked in its purity and light. More tears slipped from Arthur’s eyes unawares, as if his grief was being exorcised from him, pulled from him drop by drop as if by magic. Merlin soothed each salty streak away with a gentle swipe of his thumb.

After several minutes, Arthur opened his eyes to find Merlin’s face hovering just inches above his own. Their gazes connected and held, countless conversations being held in that one glance. At that moment, Arthur had never felt so grateful for his friend’s presence in his life. “Thank you,” he whispered at last, his voice full of emotions he dare not name.

Merlin, as he always did, seemed to know just what Arthur needed. He smiled slightly, squeezed Arthur’s shoulder briefly and then pushed from his knees to stand. He pulled the privacy screen open and stepped around it to give Arthur some time to gather his thoughts as Arthur had known he would.

“I’m just going to lay out some new clothes for you,” his disembodied voice said, and the rustle of clothing being unfolded and shaken out was just loud enough to be heard over the crackling of the fire in the hearth.

“All right.” Arthur was pleased to find his words were no longer slurred, and that his head felt clearer at last. “Don’t take too long, then. I want to get back to my father as soon as possible.”

Merlin’s head peeked back around the side of the screen. Arthur noticed that while the cheeky smile he knew so well had slid back into place, it did not quite reach his eyes. “Ready when you are, Sire.”

Dawn was nearly breaking by the time Merlin and Arthur rejoined Gaius in Uther’s chambers. Arthur crossed the room in quick strides, placing a hand on the physician’s shoulder to pull him from his distracted vigil. “What news on my father?” Arthur breathed, casting an anxious glance toward the bed where Uther lay, still as death and nearly as ashen.

The utter grief and desolation he saw on Gaius’ face as it tilted up toward him felt like a physical blow. Gaius placed a hand over Arthur’s own is if to lend him strength as he answered. “Not good, I’m afraid. The wound is too deep. There is nothing I can do.”

“No!” Arthur gasped, yanking his hand away is if it had been burned. “No…there must be…there must be something…”

Gaius stood slowly, as if every one of his body parts ached. He raised his face and met Arthur’s anguished stare. “The blade has touched his heart. I cannot cure him. I’m sorry, Arthur…but I am afraid that it is only a matter of time now.”

Arthur staggered backward as if he’d been slapped and Merlin clapped a hand to his forearm to keep him upright before pushing him into the chair that Gaius had vacated.

“I’ll…give you some time alone,” Gaius said with a respectful bow in Arthur’s direction, his voice full of sympathy and regret. Gaius gave Merlin a meaningful look and then nodded surreptitiously toward the door. Merlin took the hint and started to follow his mentor out of the room…only to be stopped by the gentle grip of Arthur’s hand on his wrist.

“Stay…” Arthur said, the word was almost a command before he added, “…please.” Merlin got the distinct impression that Arthur felt as lost as he sounded in that moment. “I mean, I know you’ve just been up all night with me, but…”

“Yeah, okay,” Merlin said, cutting off what he was sure would have been a long and awkward request. He directed a nod at Gaius, who accepted it with a soft smile and let himself out of the King’s chambers.

“I’m sorry,” Arthur offered as Merlin dragged a chair from behind the King’s desk and settled it next to Arthur’s at the King’s bedside.

“Don’t be,” Merlin reassured him even as he stifled a yawn against the back of his hand. Arthur gave him a guilty, anguished look. Correctly interpreting the expression, Merlin reassured him. “I’m fine, Arthur. Really I am.” He plopped himself into the chair that he’d inadvertently settled too close to Arthur’s and felt a fleeting flash of heat when his whole left arm slid against the prince’s. “Besides, I don’t want you to feel that you are alone.”

Arthur glanced up, surprised by the earnest tone in his friend’s voice. “Thank you, Merlin…” he said, just as solemnly. After a long, wordless moment of their eyes connecting and communicating, Arthur slumped forward to put his head in his hands, fingers tugging at his golden hair in frustration and denial. “This can’t be happening…He can’t die like this… not because of me…”

“It’s not because of you. He’s like this because of the assassin and whoever hired him. You are not to blame for what’s happened,” Merlin insisted.

Arthur scooted his chair forward so that he could sandwich his father’s hand between his own. “I’m so sorry, Father,” he rasped, his voice choked and hoarse. “I’m sorry that I failed you.”

Merlin put a reassuring hand on Arthur’s forearm, but said nothing.

While they sat, still and silent side by side, time inched forward. The sun was well over the horizon now and streaming in through the window behind them, warming their backs.

“Do you really think there is nothing Gaius can do?” Arthur eventually asked, his voice contemplative as he continued to stare at his father’s increasingly pale face.

Merlin stared at Arthur, startled by the question. What exactly was he implying? “Gaius is Uther’s friend, Arthur. Surely if there was anything he felt he could do to save him, he would have done it,” he replied defensively.

The words hung in the air between them for several moments, and then: “Even magic?”

“What?” Merlin breathed, gobsmacked. His breath caught and heart pounded furiously in his chest. “Gaius…Gaius would never…” he stuttered fearfully.

Arthur turned toward Merlin and quirked up one corner of his mouth ruefully. “It’s all right, Merlin; he’s in no danger from me. I know that before the Great Purge, Gaius practiced sorcery and gave it up willingly when magic was outlawed. My father told me as much when the Witchfinder was here.”

Merlin shivered at the thought of that evil, slimy man.

“What I want to know is, if Gaius were allowed to practice his magic…do you think he could heal my father?”

“I..um…well…” Merlin began, trying desperately to determine what he could and couldn’t tell Arthur without giving himself away. “Well, it’s a very serious wound, isn’t it?” he said at last. “It would take a sorcerer of considerable power to heal such a wound, I would think. I don’t believe that Gaius ever held that kind of power, Arthur.”

“Then perhaps he knows someone who does?” Arthur’s eyes held Merlin’s beseechingly.

Merlin felt himself caving under the onslaught of Arthur looking so vulnerable. “But…magic is illegal, Arthur,” he hedged, “and you hate magic!”

“Hate is such a strong word, Merlin. My father might hate magic, but I don’t, no matter how much he tried to instill that in me. Distrust it, certainly…but hate it in the way he does? No.”

“If you distrust it, then why would you want to risk it?” Merlin persisted.

Arthur shrugged uncomfortably. “What have I to lose if he’s to die anyway?” He paused, his eyes skittering away to glance at his father before meeting Merlin’s intent gaze again. “And if…if someone can heal him…” He squared his shoulders as if he were about to go into battle. “Then that would prove that my father is wrong about magic…or at least about some of it. Because any power that could heal such a grievous wound could not be as inherently evil as he believes it to be.”

Merlin opened his mouth to speak, but before he could, Arthur cut him off, his voice suddenly small and miserable, “Oh, who am I trying to fool? If Gaius cannot help him, then my father is surely doomed; for what sorcerer in their right mind would be willing to heal the person that would see them hanged or burnt at the stake?”

You’d be surprised… Merlin thought wryly. “It can’t hurt to ask,” he encouraged gently.

Shaking his head in denial, Arthur began, “Merlin…” but Merlin cut him off this time.

“In fact, I’ll go and speak to Gaius right now and then fetch us some breakfast.” He got up and hustled toward the door before Arthur could disagree.

Not that he didn’t try. “Merlin…” he said, raising his voice just loud enough to be heard across the room.

Merlin didn’t even break his stride as he yanked open the chamber door. “Be back soon, Arthur…” and he ducked through it and into the hallway.

“Merlin!” Arthur hissed at him as loud as he dared, but he knew it was futile. Merlin would not come back until he’d done what he set off to do. Ruefully, Arthur sighed, “Idiot…”

After a long and stressful evening, Sir Leon stifled a yawn against his hand as he climbed the main steps into the Citadel. He’d just received word that the patrol that was sent to intercept the circus troupe had been successful, and he was going to the dungeons to meet Gwaine for the interrogations.

He was just rounding the corner heading toward the armoury when he heard his name being called. Leon turned to find Arthur’s uncle Lord Agravaine scurrying up the corridor toward him. Once he’d caught up to Leon, the man heaved for a moment as if he were a bit out of breath.

“Sir Leon, do you know where I might find Arthur?” Agravaine asked, his voice tinged with worry. “I cannot seem to locate him or his manservant this morning…”

“I…” Leon began, intent on filling him in on all that had occurred, but suddenly Merlin’s warning from the night before echoed in his head and he reluctantly changed his sentence midstream, “believe the prince may be visiting with the king, Lord Agravaine. He took ill late last evening after the feast.”

Agravaine raised his eyebrows in obvious interest. “Oh? The king is unwell? Perhaps I should pay him a visit, then…”

If Leon hadn’t been studying Lord Agravaine so closely, he would have missed how his lips twisted from a polite smile to something infinitesimally more sinister for just a second before settling back into again.

Something about Lord Agravaine’s minute reaction to the news bothered Leon, although he could not put his finger on just what it was. It did not appear that the King’s brother-in-law was any the wiser about what had actually occurred last evening, yet his words of condolence did not completely ring true, either; not with the way he had smiled.

While Sir Leon did not enjoy keeping secrets from and lying to members of the Royal Court, he could see now that Merlin’s caution made sense. Were the truth to come to light later on, surely Lord Agravaine would understand Leon’s reasoning; it was his job to protect the king, after all, and that’s what he was doing now.

“I do not believe that would be wise, My Lord. Gaius has proclaimed the malady to be of a highly infectious nature. He has closed off the room to all but just the Prince, his manservant, and himself…all of whom have already been exposed,” Leon explained.

Agravaine wrinkled his nose in distaste and nodded. “Perhaps you are right, Sir Leon. I shall speak with Arthur another time, then.”

Leon nodded and was about to walk away when Agravaine continued, “And what has you up so early in the morning after such a festive celebration last eve?”

Again, there was no real reason for the tendril of suspicion that Leon felt creeping up his spine, but he’d been a knight for too many years to ignore what his instincts told him.

“With Arthur effectively quarantined, I am taking over training of the recruits this morning,” he dissembled. He pointed to the armoury door and explained, “I was just about to get myself some gear.”

Agravaine nodded distantly, as if his mind were already elsewhere. “Ah, yes…makes perfect sense. Carry on, then.”

Leon waited several moments for Agravaine to walk away and he could no longer hear his footfalls before he turned and headed in the opposite direction toward the dungeons. He didn’t quite know what to make of Lord Agravaine, but he intended to watch him more closely from now on.

“Gaius?” Merlin called softly as he opened the door to their chambers. His mentor was seated at the table with his back to the door, head held wearily between two hands. Gaius’ grief was obvious in the slump of his shoulders. Merlin was quick to remember that Uther was not just a king to Gaius, but also a friend of sorts…or at least as much of a friend as Uther could be to anybody.

The physician startled and then turned his head to look at Merlin just as he shut the door behind himself. “Merlin,” he breathed, surreptitiously rubbing at his damp eyes with the heel of one hand, “what are you doing here? How is Arthur? I thought he wanted you to stay?”

“He did,” Merlin nodded, crossing the room to sit in his usual spot across the table from Gaius. “But he asked me if I could speak to you about a rather…personal matter.”

“What matter is that?”

“Arthur asked me to ask you if you knew anyone who could heal his father,” Merlin offered, not looking Gaius. Instead, he watched his own index finger as it drew lazy circles on the rough-hewn wood.

Gaius let out a long, mournful sigh. “Merlin…do you not think that if there was anything that could be done that I would have…”

Merlin cut off Gaius’ diatribe. “…with magic,” he finished, raising his eyes to meet his mentor’s.

Magic!?” he breathed. Predictably, Gaius’ eyes widened in utter astonishment…and then narrowed with suspicion. “Merlin…please tell me you are not thinking what I think you’re thinking…”

Merlin shoved out of his chair and started to pace. “You weren’t there, Gaius. You didn’t hear him! He blames himself for what happened to Uther. If he dies, Arthur will always believe himself responsible.”

“But Arthur is not to blame,” Gaius replied reasonably.

“I told him that, too, but he won’t listen,” Merlin answered as he continued to pace anxiously. “I’ve never heard Arthur talk about magic like this before. He said that he didn’t hate it; just that he’s never been given a reason to trust it. This is it, Gaius. This is my chance!”

“Your chance for what? To earn yourself a death sentence?” Gaius demanded, his voice harsh with emotion, his eyes terrified for his ward.

Merlin shook his head impatiently. “No. This is my chance to finally be honest, to tell Arthur the truth about me. I can help Uther, Gaius; I know I can.”

“No, Merlin…it’s too dangerous!” he insisted urgently.

“I…thought you’d be happy. I thought you liked Uther? You don’t really want him to die, do you?”

“Yes, I would consider Uther a friend of a kind…but you are like a son to me, Merlin. I couldn’t bear it if something happened to you.”

“But you don’t understand,” Merlin said with fierce, determined eyes, grasping one of Gaius’ hands across the table. “I have to do this! You don’t know how awful it has been to have to keep lying to Arthur day after day, year after year, letting him think he knows all there is to know about me when what he thinks he knows is really a lie. The lies have gone on long enough. Arthur deserves the truth and I want to give it to him and damn the consequences!”

The fire went out of Merlin’s voice then, and he shrank visibly in on himself. “If we are to truly be friends, then he needs to know all of me. I just want Arthur to accept me for who I really am, Gaius.”

Gaius gave Merlin’s hand a squeeze. “I know you do, Merlin. But it’s too dangerous. Magic is still outlawed. Telling him could get you killed.”

“Well, that’s a chance that I’m willing to take,” Merlin declared petulantly. “Besides, I refuse to believe that of Arthur. Arthur might be livid with me, he might feel betrayed, he might hate me, but he won’t have me killed, Gaius. He’s too good a man for that. Banished, perhaps, but not executed.”

“Are you really willing to stake your life on that?”

Merlin notched his chin up higher. He knew Arthur better than anyone else, save the prince himself. “Yes.”

“But Merlin…even if Arthur does accept you, you must know that healing Uther with magic is suicide.”

“Not necessarily. He doesn’t have to know.”

Gaius gave Merlin a deadpan look. “And how exactly do you mean to convince the king that his mortal wound wasn’t exactly so mortal after all?”

“Well, he believed us when you told him that the water from the Cup of Life that healed Arthur was actually Lobelia Tincture,” Merlin countered. “I’m sure that between us, we can come up with something he will believe.”

“But…”

One of Merlin’s hands slashed through the air to cut off Gaius’ argument. “Arthur is my best friend, Gaius! What kind of friend would I be if I didn’t at least try to help save his father? And besides, if I could heal Uther, then it would prove to Arthur once and for all that magic isn’t evil. It could change everything…for all of us with magic.”

Gaius pursed his lips as if he’d just eaten a lemon. "You could also end up on the chopping block.”

While Merlin shrugged as if unaffected, but the wild-eyed look on his face betrayed his fear. “I am Arthur’s to command. Always have been. If he asks it of me, I will do it.”

Gaius shook his head sadly. “You’re playing a dangerous game, Merlin,” he warned.

Merlin shrugged his shoulders and gave his mentor a wry smile. “I’ve been playing a dangerous game since the day I stepped foot in Camelot.”

“Nothing I say is going to change your mind, is it?” Gaius asked, his voice rueful and resigned.

“Afraid not,” Merlin agreed gently, squeezing the physician’s hand.

Gaius pushed himself to a tremulous stand. “Well, if you’re determined to do this, then I’d better find you the right healing spell, hadn’t I?”

Merlin jumped up and flung his arms around his mentor. “Oh, thank you, Gaius!”

The old man waved him off self-consciously. “If you’re serious about this, then you’d better get moving. There isn’t much time left.”

Merlin’s eyes widened. “How much time?”

“A day, perhaps two, if he lingers.”

Merlin frowned.

Agravaine entered the royal stables, smiling politely as he noticed the groom leading out his already-saddled horse. He’d only been in Camelot for a few months, but he already had his dedicated staff well-trained.

It was well known that when Sir Agravaine was not on patrol or meeting with the Council, he took a constitutional ride each morning at precisely half-eight. He would leave through the western gate, be gone approximately two hours and return before the midday meal. As he was just as habitual and punctual in his other habits, no one thought twice about his choice in exercise.

Of course, his otherwise unremarkable and predictable behaviour also provided him with the perfect front for when he wanted to travel to a certain hovel located in the depths of the Darkling Woods. Like today, for example.

About a half hour later, Agravaine arrived at a nondescript part of the wood, dismounted and led his mount to a nearby stream, tying his reins to a sapling. This allowed his steed access to both the cool water and the tender shoots of grass that grew near the water’s edge. Giving his horse and affectionate pat, he turned and trudged over a small rise, watching his step on the rocky terrain as he followed the small path that led to the abode.

Rapping twice with his knuckles against the aged wood of the door, Agravaine waited until he heard the sharp, clipped response, “Enter.”

“Good morning, my Lady,” Agravaine greeted Morgana, bowing low over her outstretched hand.

Morgana snatched her hand back from him and began to pace agitatedly. “Have you news?”

Agravaine nodded. “As you know, last eve was Arthur’s anniversary celebration.”

“And how fares my dear brother?” Morgana hissed.

“There was a celebration held in his honour. Even the king attended.”

Did he?” Morgana knew well through Agravaine’s reports that Uther’s mental affliction kept him to his rooms on most days and that Arthur had taken over as Regent. It was the main reason Agravaine had been called into service, after all.

“Yes, my Lady. He seemed to enjoy himself well. Especially the spectacle of the knife throwing demonstration. Prince Arthur was used as the target, you see.”

Morgana sneered as she turned away to stir something in the cooking pot over the hearth. “Pity that the man was well-skilled. Mayhap you should have bribed him to miss.”

“I hardly think anyone could be bribed handsomely enough to commit regicide in the middle of the Great Hall in front of the king and all of the knights!” Agravaine blustered, stung by the implication that he wasn’t doing enough to ensure their victory over Uther. “It would be like signing a death warrant.”

“More’s the pity. Tell me again why this is news?” Morgana snapped at Agravaine waspishly.

“Because the king has taken ill.”

“Oh?”

“Yes, sometime in the night after the feast.”

“And is it serious?”

“Sir Leon did not go into much detail, although he did say that the king had been quarantined. Not even his own manservant may attend him. Only Gaius, Arthur and Arthur’s manservant are allowed to enter the sickroom, as they were exposed last eve.”

“Let us hope the illness is virulent, then. I wouldn’t mind being rid of the lot of them.”

Morgana snorted and nodded her chin at the door in a not-subtle hint. “Be sure to keep me informed. We may yet be able to use it to our advantage.”

Not wanting to overstay his welcome with his moody mistress, Agravaine took the hint. “Of course, my Lady.”

Agravaine sketched a bow and left, heaving a sigh of relief. Morgana Pendragon was as dangerous as she was beautiful and he was simultaneously attracted to her and terrified of her. But if he could only make himself indispensable to her…perhaps in time he could become consort to the next Queen of Camelot.

Arthur had no idea how much time had passed before Merlin returned, laden down with what appeared to be enough food to feed ten knights. Eyes widened, he exclaimed, “Merlin, who are you planning to feed with all of that!?”

Merlin shrugged sheepishly as he carefully set the tray on Uther’s table. “Well, since we decided to keep what really happened last night to ourselves, the household has been told that the King took ill overnight. Cook thought that, since the King was feeling ‘under the weather’, she would send up some of his favourites…”

Arthur’s eyes drifted past Merlin to focus on the tray, his eyes growing over-bright with unshed tears. His gaze skittered back to Merlin’s face before he squared his shoulders as if about to go into battle. “I should probably go down and inform the Council…”

“You should do no such thing,” Merlin interrupted. “Your place is here, with your father.”

“But…the assassin…”

“Sir Leon and Sir Gwaine have the investigation well in hand. They will report directly to you when they have news.” Merlin walked around the table and pulled out a chair. “In the meantime, you need to eat.”

Arthur turned his face back toward the bed in despair. “I’m not hungry.”

Merlin shook his head before walking across the room and pulling Arthur up from the bedside chair bodily. “You are not helping your father by starving yourself, Arthur. Come and eat.”

Arthur sighed but allowed himself to be manhandled over to his father’s dining table and shoved down into one of the well-cushioned chairs.

Without being told, Merlin portioned out food from the platter onto both their plates and then seated himself across the table from Arthur. His heart was pounding, his palms felt clammy, and he felt dangerously close to vomiting…yet his determination to make things right between them kept him from wavering from his chosen course.

Arthur?” Merlin began tentatively.

Arthur swallowed his mouthful of sausage before he responded. “Yes?”

Merlin looked down at his plate and pushed the food around with one long finger. “I spoke to Gaius. About what we talked about earlier.”

“And?” The fragile hope that glimmered in Arthur’s eyes stabbed painfully at Merlin’s conscience.

“He…” Merlin had to pause to gather his nerve, “…it was as I’d feared. He does not possess power great enough to heal your father, even with magic.”

The light in Arthur’s eyes dimmed, and his whole body seemed to shrink in on itself.

Merlin could not keep the tremor out of his voice when he continued, “But there is someone he knows who does possess such power…”

Arthur sat up again and his eyes widened in shock. “What? Who? Does Gaius think they’d be willing to help us?”

Not trusting his voice in that moment, Merlin nodded.

“Oh, wait…It's not that dotty old man, is it? That Dragoon fellow? Because I can't imagine he’d help after almost being burnt at the stake…”

Tears stung Merlin’s eyes as he shook his head. “No,” he rasped. “It’s not him.”

“Then who? What other sorcerer would be daft enough to help a magic-hating king?”

Merlin took a deep, shuddering breath and half-whispered, “Me.”

The utensils Arthur had been eating with clattered onto his plate, fallen from the prince’s boneless fingers. Arthur stared at Merlin as if he’d just spoken a foreign language.

“What?” Arthur finally breathed.

Merlin had imagined what it might be like to confess his magic to Arthur countless times, but nothing could have prepared for him for the reality of actually doing it. He swallowed around the huge lump in his throat and forced himself to continue. “I will try to heal your father for you. I can't guarantee it will work, but I will try my best.”

Arthur stared at Merlin for another long moment before shaking his head as if waking from a reverie. The gobsmacked expression he wore morphed into a more wistful one. He looked at Merlin askance and said doubtfully, “While I appreciate that you’ve learnt a lot about the healing arts from Gaius, surely if he cannot save my father…”

Merlin’s breath hitched in his chest. “No, you misunderstand me,” he rasped, his voice gravelly from all the emotions that had been bottled up for so long. “I…I have magic.”

Arthur frowned. “Now is not the time for jokes, Merlin,” he reproached. “Not in the slightest.”

“I’m not joking!” Merlin insisted. “I really am a sorcerer!”

The exasperated look on Arthur's face made it clear that his patience was wearing thin with what he thought was more of Merlin's nonsense.

“Why are you doing this?” he demanded to know. “You are not a sorcerer, Merlin. I would know if you were.”

The tears that had been threatening to fall finally spilled over Merlin’s lashes and left wet trails on his cheeks. “I’m so sorry, Arthur,” he choked out. Merlin closed his eyes and reached his shaking hand toward the candelabra on the table, whispering, “Upastige Draca…

Arthur watched in astonishment as sparks from the candles drew together in the air to form the perfect shape of the dragon that adorned the Pendragon crest. It gleamed and sparkled for a moment before fading away as if it had never been.

Arthur shook his head as if to clear it. “No…” he whispered, stricken, “you can’t be. You…you…”

The words petered out into horrified silence.

Merlin opened his eyes and tentatively reached a hand across the table, wanting to provide reassurance and comfort, but he flinched and retreated when Arthur shrank back from his touch.

“I’m still the same person I was a minute ago, ” Merlin reasoned, trying to keep his voice calm and steady even though his heart was pounding madly. “Nothing else has changed. I’m still your friend.”

Arthur tensed but said nothing in reply.

“You know I would never do anything to hurt you.”

Yet, when Merlin looked up, he saw the additional pain etched on Arthur’s already grief-stricken face and realised that he already had. And then that pain and grief transformed, crystallised into a diamond-hardness in his eyes and razor sharpness to the set of his jaw.

“Do I, Merlin?” Icy fury filled every clipped word. “Do I really? Because it seems to me that I don’t know anything about you at all!”

With rising panic, Merlin watched Arthur’s hands slowly and deliberately grasp the edge of the table until his knuckles turned white. Merlin had the distinct feeling that Arthur would rather have his fingers around Merlin’s neck instead.

“Arthur, please….” Merlin began, but Arthur’s furious words cut him off.

“Shut up! Just shut the hell up,” he hissed, knocking over his chair as he exploded to his feet.

Terror seized Merlin as Arthur stalked purposely toward the door of Uther’s chambers. Oh, gods... He's calling the guards! he thought in a panic. He's going to have me arrested!

"Don't!" Merlin cried reflexively, his arm outstretched as if the motion alone could stop the prince.

Arthur threw a scathing glance at Merlin over his shoulder and then wrenched the door open.

"Yes, Sire?" Merlin heard one of the guards ask.

Without preamble, Arthur commanded, "Leave us, and do not return until I send for you."

Arthur slammed the door behind them and set the lock. Merlin’s sigh of relief was short-lived once Arthur turned back toward him. He looked positively murderous.

Merlin's eyes flickered toward the servant's entrance, mentally calculating whether he still had enough time to make an escape. No, I am not going to run, he thought as he squared his shoulders. I trust Arthur. He may stubborn and irrational when he’s angry, but he’s still a just and fair man. If I can survive this initial burst of anger, he'll see sense once he calms down.

The problem with that theory was that Merlin was usually the one who provided Arthur with the voice of reason when he got like this. Without Merlin’s guiding hand to steady him, what would Arthur do? Merlin honestly didn’t know.

“You lied to me,” Arthur accused harshly.

“I…Yes.” Arthur’s declaration caught Merlin wrong-footed. While it was true, he’d expected Arthur to be more upset about the magic than the subterfuge he’d used to conceal it.

“You’ve been lying to me all this time.” Arthur’s anger cracked like a whip between them as he stalked across the room. “For years!”

“I’m sorry,” Merlin said, penitent. “I didn’t want to…”

“Acting as if you liked me. Pretending that you were my friend...”

“I wasn’t pretending!” Merlin defended, pushing himself to a stand as Arthur approached him. “I am your friend!”

“You certainly have a funny way of showing it. I trusted you!” Arthur fumed, so close to Merlin now that his spittle landed on Merlin’s cheek. He gave the slighter man a shove to the chest that made him stumble back slightly. “A trust that was obviously misplaced,” Arthur said bitterly.

The words flayed Merlin’s conscience. There was nothing Merlin cherished more than Arthur's trust in him and the thought that he might have lost it forever was physically painful.

“So, you’ve been in hiding all these years: a sorcerer in Camelot and right under my father’s nose! In his own household! How you must have delighted in the irony when he made you my manservant!”

Arthur crowded into Merlin’s personal space, which forced the warlock to shuffle backward again to give himself room to breathe.

“No, I didn’t! I hated it. If you recall, you weren’t exactly my favorite person back then,” Merlin huffed.

“And yet, you still saved my life.” Arthur’s voice rose in volume as his hands clenched into fists. “I suppose you used magic to do it?”

Merlin nodded, his eyes trained on the floor because he couldn't meet Arthur's incensed glare. “Yes.”

“Why?” Arthur bellowed. “A sorcerer saving me from another sorcerer...that makes no sense! Why the hell would you do that!?”

“Because no matter how much of a spoilt prat you were, you didn’t deserve to die because of something your father did! The fault was Uther’s, not yours.”

Arthur looked as if a thundercloud had settled on his brow. “‘My father’s fault...’ Oh, I see how it is! Is that was this was all about?” Arthur waved his hand between them in emphasis. “Using me to get close to the king?” Arthur gave Merlin’s chest another vicious shove.

“No!”

“So,this wasn’t your doing, then? Not part of some plot where you were the inside man?” Arthur demanded, backing Merlin up another step as he pointed toward his father’s sickbed imperiously.

Merlin’s eyes widened in shock. “What?” he asked, aghast. “No! Arthur, I would never!”

“Why not? Isn’t that what all sorcerers do?” he spat out. “Try to kill the King of Camelot?”

Indignantly, Merlin stood his ground. “No, they don’t. Look, I might not like the king's stance on magic... I hate it, in fact. But I’d never try and kill him. He’s your father.”

Arthur took another furious step toward him, forcing Merlin to retreat until he was backed into the wall. “Oh really, Merlin? How nice of you to notice. And it’s oh-so-convenient that you happen to offer your help to me now as if there is no ulterior motive. Why don’t I believe you?”

"I don't know why, but you should!" Merlin’s chin inched upward defiantly. “Think about it! I've been by your side for years! I could have done something to you or your father at any time if I had wished it, but I didn't. So, why would I risk everything and reveal my secret to you now if not to help you?”

“I don’t know. Maybe you just want to lull me into a false sense of security so you can finish the job.”

“Arthur, please...be reasonable. You're my friend; I could never do that to you!”

“As if I could ever trust the word of a sorcerer,” Arthur spat, and then in one fluid motion he drew the sword from his scabbard and held it to Merlin’s chest.

“You can! You can trust me,” Merlin vowed, raising his hands in acquiescence.

Yet, this sign of deference only made Arthur that much more irate. His sword poked a hole in Merlin’s tunic as the point pressed painfully against the skin over Merlin’s heart. “Liar! Give me one good reason why I shouldn’t just run you through where you stand!”

Merlin slowly lowered himself to his knees in front of Arthur. As he looked up at the man that was his soul's other half, his blue eyes shimmered with more unshed tears. Softly but vehemently, Merlin declared, “Because everything I’ve done has been for you, Arthur. For you and for Camelot. While it’s true that I’ve had to hide, had to deceive you to keep my secret, everything else you know about me is real.”

His voice filled with all the emotions he'd never been brave enough to say out loud. “I am still the same idiot who trips over his own feet and is too clumsy to wield a sword properly. I’m still the same servant that you have hurled goblets at and traded insults with and made muck out your stables. And I’m the same person who has stood by your side through everything, whether you wanted me to or not, because I believe in you.”

“I told you once that I was happy to be your servant until the day I died, and I meant that. Everything that I am—my heart, my soul, and my magic—has been, and always shall be, yours to command.”

And then Merlin bowed his head in submission, awaiting Arthur’s judgment.

Arthur stared down at his manservant with incredulity. “Are you really just going to kneel there and let me lop off your head? You’re a sorcerer!” Arthur grabbed a handful of neckerchief and tugged at it so forcefully that it made Merlin’s head snap back and his teeth rattle. “Fight back, dammit!” he growled menacingly, sliding the blade up to kiss the pulsepoint in Merlin’s neck.

But Merlin simply looked up at Arthur with eyes full of sorrow and regret. “No. It is my destiny to serve you, Arthur.” Shaking his head, he vowed, “I will never raise a hand against you, even if it means my own death.” He lowered his head still further, shaking as he bared the back of his neck to the blade.

Arthur dropped his grip on Merlin’s neckerchief as if it burned. “Have it your way, then,” he snarled.

Merlin felt the sharp, cool edge of the blade settle against his skin and his heart pounded in anticipation. His magic flared to life under his skin, valiantly trying to protect him from harm, but Merlin pushed it back down fiercely.

He didn't want to hide anymore. He cherished Arthur’s friendship, but until now, he had never seen the real Merlin. He knew that Arthur knowing the truth was the only way to get the prince to accept him and his magic. And Merlin wanted that desperately, for Arthur to see him as he really was and still want him in his life. So, as terrified as he was, Merlin was determined to see this course of action through to the end, even if the end meant his death.

A half cannot truly hate that which makes it whole, Kilgharrah had once told him. With his life literally in Arthur’s hands, Merlin could only pray that the dragon was right.

After a long, tense moment of uncertainty, the stinging pressure at his neck retreated and Merlin heard the metallic clang of the sword as Arthur cast it aside with a muttered curse.

“Oh for heaven’s sake, Merlin…get up! You look bloody ridiculous!” Arthur declared with more than a little exasperation. Then Merlin was unceremoniously hauled back to his feet by the armpits.

In shock from his close call, the sudden motion made Merlin stumble backward. He fought to keep his balance as his knees wobbled and his heart pounded in his ears. For the life of him, Merlin couldn't seem to figure out how to breathe again, let alone focus well enough to move his limbs the way Arthur obviously wanted him to.

Meanwhile, Arthur bent down to retrieve his sword and slid it back into its scabbard. Then he turned and stalked toward his manservant with a roll of his eyes.

“Come on,” Arthur hissed as he grasped Merlin roughly by the bicep and frog-marched him toward the servant’s entrance. “We are not doing this here.” Arthur shouldered the door open and then pushed Merlin in front of him down the dark corridor.

“But...where are we…?” Merlin stammered in confusion as he almost tripped over his own feet again.

“Just shut up and bloody move!” Arthur demanded, his hand around the back of Merlin’s neck this time as if to force compliance with his wishes.

Merlin gave up trying to second guess Arthur’s intent. Instead, he tuned out and simply allowed the prince to direct his body wherever he wished. Therefore, he was more than a little surprised when their excursion ended at the door to Arthur’s own quarters.

“How did you…?” Merlin’s tongue tripped over the words before Arthur cut him off again.

Merlin,” Arthur began, his voice positively dripping in sarcasm. He wrenched open the servant’s door and propelled Merlin inside his room. “You can’t honestly think that I never learned how to sneak out of my own chambers as a boy. I know every secret entrance and hidden passageway in this castle.”

“Oh. Right,” Merlin agreed stupidly, his brain still sluggish from the overload of adrenaline in his bloodstream.

"Sit down before you fall down, you idiot," Arthur grumbled, yanking a chair away from his dining table and shoving Merlin into it.

Merlin collapsed into the chair, still shaking like a leaf. He slumped forward and threaded his trembling fingers through his hair as he gulped in great lungfuls of air.

Arthur's lips compressed into a thin, disapproving line as he crossed his arms across his chest and raised one eyebrow in challenge. “Now,” he insisted as he seated himself in his usual chair, “you are going to sit there and tell me why your pea-sized brain ever thought that learning magic was a good idea,” Arthur demanded.

Merlin gaped like a fish out of water as he valiantly tried to re-engage his brain enough to answer.

“I’m waiting,” Arthur said impatiently.

Gods, where do I even start? “Er...um...well, you see…”

Now, Merlin.”

Merlin startled at Arthur’s abrupt tone and then, with not a little irritation of his own, sat up ramrod straight and leveled a glare at Arthur. “Well, pardon me if it takes me more than a moment to gather my thoughts after what just happened, Sire.” Merlin used the title like it was an insult.

Then, with a sharp voice full of fear-driven sarcasm, Merlin snarked, “I’m sorry that I happen to find almost being beheaded more than a little disconcerting. How silly of me!”

“Oh, for the love of…! Stop being so melodramatic, you great girl’s blouse! It’s not as if I would have actually done it!” Arthur blustered, looking affronted.

“Really? Well, you sure as hell could have fooled me!” Merlin huffed irritably.

Arthur’s droll look clearly broadcasted how dense he thought Merlin was. “That was the point, Merlin! I was testing you.”

“Testing me!? Whatever for?”

“To see if I could really trust you. I had to know that you truly are as loyal as you say you were, even though you’re a sorcerer.”

“So threatening to kill me was the answer to that? You could have just asked!”

“No, Merlin...I couldn’t.” Arthur’s frustrated stare bored into his skull, as if trying to make Merlin understand by sheer force of will.

And then suddenly, Arthur’s meaning made sense.

Merlin had just confessed to having magic, to being everything that Arthur had been taught to fear and despise. He had broken Arthur’s trust by revealing that he’d been keeping something huge from the prince for years and had been lying to cover it up. Of course Merlin would have to prove himself. Arthur could not afford to take his word at face value, not anymore, no matter how much he may have wanted to. There was too much at stake for him to be wrong.

“Oh,” Merlin replied meekly, staring at his hands twisting in his lap.

“Yes, Merlin,” Arthur agreed, giving Merlin a significant look. “Oh.”

“So you’re not angry, then?” Merlin asked hopefully.

“No, Merlin...I’m still angry,” Arthur assured him, and the steely flash in his eyes proved it. “Very angry. Livid, in fact. But, in deference to the loyalty you have always shown me in the past, I am also trying to give you a chance to explain yourself before deciding your fate.”

Merlin opened and closed his mouth several times, struggling to find the right words to say to make him understand.

As the silence grew deafening, Arthur quirked up one eyebrow and drawled in that entitled, prattish tone that always made Merlin want to punch Arthur’s stupid face, “So you might want to get on that, before I change my mind and throw you in the stocks. Permanently.”

And so, instead of appreciating the opportunity to explain that Arthur was giving him, what decided to come out of Merlin’s mouth in response was, “Sure you would. You haven’t thrown me in the stocks for years.”

But apparently Arthur had been expecting Merlin’s snarky retort, because he immediately drawled, “And clearly that was to your detriment. Unless one too many potatoes to the head is what made you this daft?”

“I think spending too much time with you is what made me this daft,” Merlin groused.

Arthur smirked triumphantly. “Well, at least we can agree that you’re daft.”

Merlin scowled. He hated when Arthur tricked him into saying silly or embarrassing things. He was about to tell Arthur how good he thought the prince might look with his donkey ears back, but luckily caught himself before it passed his lips.

It was, he thought ruefully, probably best to avoid drawing attention back to something that had very nearly got him killed only moments before. The fight had gone out of Arthur now, that much was clear, but the current truce between them was tenuous at best. Merlin didn’t want to say or do anything that might re-ignite the animosity.

At a loss to know what else to say, their small moment of shared levity slowly petered out into an awkward silence. It hovered in the space between them, stifling and painfully uncomfortable.

At last, Arthur sighed and said, "I don't understand you, Merlin.” He sounded bone-weary and sad, the ache of betrayal just as evident in his voice as it was seen on his face. “Why would you even want to learn magic after all it has done to me, to my family, and to Camelot? I mean, knowing you, I’m sure you thought you were helping in some strange, misguided way. But that still doesn't excuse breaking the law.”

Merlin pulled his legs up in front of himself on the chair and wrapped his arms around them miserably. “It's not what you're thinking at all, Arthur. I didn’t choose to learn magic. I never got the chance to choose it because the magic chose me first. I was born with it.”

Arthur looked as stunned as if Merlin had physically slapped him. “Born with magic? But I thought magic was something you learnt? Something people were taught?”

“For most sorcerers, that is true,” Merlin admitted. “But some people have magic whether they want it or not. Like me."

There was another long moment of silence while Arthur pondered what Merlin had told him.

“So you’ve always had magic?” Arthur asked, his eyes and voice a bit softer now.

Merlin nodded against his knees. “I’ve been like this for as long as I can remember. Mother said I could move objects with my mind before I could even talk.”

Arthur's eyebrows scrunched together in bewilderment. “Is that…unusual?”

“From what I’ve been told, it’s unheard of.”

Arthur shook his head. “Leave it to you to be the exception to every rule, Merlin.”

Merlin shrugged self-consciously and sighed.

“But that still doesn’t explain why you would come to Camelot, of all places. Didn’t you know how dangerous that was for someone like you? If you’d ever been caught…" Arthur shuddered at the thought. "I mean, I’ve always known you were an idiot, but I would have thought that even you had more self-preservation instincts than that!”

“As a matter of fact, I didn’t know how things were in Camelot, though I found out quickly enough. I arrived in town just as your father was having Thomas Collins beheaded.”

Arthur winced. “That couldn’t have been a pleasant discovery.”

“Not particularly,” Merlin admitted. “I was accustomed to magic users being treated with fear and distrust, used to hiding my gifts. But for magic to actually be punishable by death…it was shocking and more than a little bit terrifying.”

“I can imagine. I’m surprised you didn’t just turn around and head back to Ealdor after that.”

“I couldn’t. Mother feared for my safety there as well. She had recently discovered that Will knew of my magic, and the thought terrified her. Because of the circumstances surrounding my birth, I was already looked upon with suspicion."

Arthur nodded solemnly and motioned for Merlin to continue.

"We kept to ourselves a lot when I was young. It was...lonely. But once I learned how to hide my gifts, things were better for a while, and I made a few friends, like Will. But once I reached puberty, my magic became a bit…unpredictable. It would act up if I became angry or upset. Strange things started happening when I was around, coincidences that became harder and harder to explain. It was best I left before anyone else riddled me out.”

“Gaius was an old family friend. He was like an uncle to my mother when she was young. And, what was more, she knew that he used to practice magic. She had hoped that he would be able to teach me the discipline to better control mine.”

“I just didn’t fit in anymore,” Merlin had told him the night before Kanen’s raid, when they were laying top-to-toe on Hunith’s dirt floor. “I wanted to find a place that I did.” Until now, Arthur had never understood just how true that statement must have been.

“So Gaius knows,” Arthur said it as if it were a given, “has always known, that you have magic.”

Merlin nodded. “From the moment I walked into his rooms. He’d been in the loft searching for a book when my greeting startled him. He fell backward through the railing. I used my magic to move his bed to break his fall.”

Arthur appeared startled. “You saved his life with magic, too?”

“Yes,” Merlin replied. “Since moving to Camelot, I’ve been saving someone’s life with it on a startlingly regular basis. Especially yours.”

Putting out his hand and placing his feet back on the floor, Merlin incanted, “Fromum feohgiftum on fæder bearme.

Arthur stared at his face as if in wonder. Merlin saw the reflection of his eyes in Arthur’s as they suddenly glowed like molten metal. Arthur’s mouth dropped open in amazement as he watched the ball of ethereal blue light materialised in the palm of Merlin’s hand and floated slowly upward to hover over the table.

Finally, Arthur’s astounded gaze met Merlin’s. “It was you! In the Caves of Balor!”

“Yes.” With a wave of Merlin’s hand, his creation dissipated.

“But...how? You were in Camelot! You were dying! Gaius said that you weren’t even conscious.”

“I honestly don’t know how I did it, Arthur, but you can ask Gaius. He was there when I cast the spell. Somehow I must have sensed you were in trouble and helped you the only way I could.”

Arthur’s eyes took on a faraway look as if his mind were reaching for another memory. “In Ealdor…the whirlwind. Was that you, too?”

Merlin nodded.

Arthur looked at Merlin thoughtfully, his head tilted to the side. “You were trying to tell me that morning, weren’t you? When we were dressing for battle?”

Again, Merlin nodded. “Yes.”

“Perhaps it was best that you didn’t,” Arthur admitted, sounding sheepish. “I don’t think I would have taken the news well. Not then, anyway.”

Merlin thought back to that day in Ealdor: Arthur standing next to him stiffly while they watched Will’s pyre burn. You know how dangerous magic is. You shouldn’t have kept this from me, Merlin, he’d said, and his voice had been accusing and harsh.

“No,” Merlin agreed. “In retrospect, I don’t think that you would have taken it at all well.”

“And you said your friend Will knew?”

“Yes. He was a great friend. He took my secret to the grave and protected me with his dying breath.” The words came out a bit harsher than Merlin had meant them to be, but he couldn’t help it.

Arthur winced at the unspoken rebuke. “Does anyone else know about your magic?”

Merlin thought about his father, about Freya and the druids, about Kilgharrah and Gilli and Lancelot, and then sighed. “No one in Camelot.”

“Does Morgana know?”

“No,” Merlin asserted, repressing a shiver at the thought.

“Good. Let’s keep it that way,” Arthur said, releasing a breath he didn’t even realise he’d been holding.

“Agreed,” Merlin replied. “I have no intention of ever letting Morgana find out, if I can help it. It’s best if she thinks you’re unprotected. It makes my job easier.”

“Your…job?”

Merlin gave Arthur a very dry look. “You may be the greatest warrior in all of Albion, Arthur, but you’re still a dollophead if you honestly believe that you can protect both yourself and Camelot from magical threats without help in kind.”

Arthur glared at Merlin, but the twitch at the corner of his mouth gave away the fact that he wasn’t really upset. “Is that what you’ve been doing all this time, then? Protecting me against magical attacks?”

Merlin nodded. “Whenever I could, yes.”

Arthur quirked up one eyebrow. “Oh, really? Like when?”

“Are you sure you want to hear the answer right now? It’s a rather long list.”

Arthur sobered at that. “I suppose you’re right. Another time, then.” He looked down at the table and traced his finger along the grain of the wood. After a moment, he looked up again and asked earnestly, “Do you honestly think you can help my father, Merlin?”

“I don’t know Arthur, but I will try.”

“But I thought you said that it would take a ‘sorcerer of considerable power’ to heal him? Do you possess that kind of power?”

“Power has never been my problem,” Merlin reassured Arthur with a distracted frown. “I’ve got plenty of that.”

Arthur seemed startled by the offhanded way Merlin admitted his own strength.

“Then what?” Arthur asked.

“It’s the nature of spell that concerns me,” Merlin explained. “Healing spells are not exactly my forte. But I promise I will do my very best to save him.”

Arthur rose from his chair and walked around the table to stand beside Merlin. As Merlin looked up at him, Arthur placed a hand on his shoulder. “That’s all I could ask of you. Thank you, Merlin.”

Merlin flushed. “You don’t need to thank me, Arthur.”

“Yes. I do,” Arthur insisted. “I understand how difficult this decision must have been for you to make: having to reveal your magic like this, offering help to a man who would gladly have you killed if he knew your secret.”

Merlin pushed his chair back and stood, placing a mirroring hand on Arthur’s shoulder. “I have had to make many difficult decisions since I arrived in Camelot, but this wasn’t one of them. You’re my friend, Arthur, and Uther—no matter what his beliefs—is still your father and you love him. That’s reason enough for me.”

Arthur’s hand slipped to Merlin’s bicep and then he pulled him into a hug. Merlin startled for a moment, and then blissfully sank into the embrace. “Thank you,” Arthur whispered into Merlin’s ear, his voice alarmingly hoarse. “You’ll never know how much that means to me.”

Actually, Merlin did know. He knew exactly how excruciating it was to lose one’s father, to have him die in your arms after taking a lethal blow that was meant for you...but now was not the time or place to explain. Later, they would talk. Later, Merlin would tell him everything.

But for now?

Merlin closed his eyes and reveled in Arthur’s touch as he returned the gesture. Enclosed in the circle of Arthur’s arms, Merlin had never felt so warm, so safe and accepted. It was a feeling like nothing else he’d ever known, a sense of being complete...as if after all these years of searching, he’d finally found home.