The first night Merlin is servant to the King, he finds it very hard to think of anything to say.
There's a silence now, where once there had been none. Just a few days ago—Arthur's birthday—Merlin had been able to laugh at his prince, to help him stumble to bed, to remind him to pull up his trousers. Now Arthur is king, and it's different.
Anyone who didn't know them might mistake Merlin's silence for reverence, deference, respect. Even Merlin might be fooled if he allows himself to think back just a few hours, to the jubilant shout that finally bubbled up from his throat—”Long live the King!”
But all of that's gone now, faded in the waning light of day. The thought remains, the hope remains, but it's dry, constant—something Merlin has known and accepted for so long he can't begin to remember.
His fingers move down over Arthur's shoulders and draw away the heavy red fabric of the cape, tangling themselves inside it as he struggles to keep his hands steady. Beneath the ceremonial garment is much more familiar armour, and as carefully as he's set the fabric aside, his fingers roughly and with practised diligence begin to remove it. He's facing Arthur now, but he doesn't look up—he can't.
“Merlin,” Arthur says, breaking the silence.
“Yes, s—my lord?”
Arthur resists rolling his eyes, and Merlin can hear the expectation in his voice as he repeats: “ Merlin.”
Meeting Arthur's gaze, Merlin finds that it stings to watch the wry, bemused smile fall from Arthur's lips, replaced with a grim slant that carries up into his eyes, taking the light there and turning it to something that very much looks like pity.
Merlin doesn't think he can bear it, the weightedness of what isn't being said. He nearly looks down again but is cut short of it as he catches Arthur's hand moving up to his shoulder. Instead, he swallows hard and bravely meets Arthur's eyes directly, searching them as he can hear his voice echoing in his head:
”...It is pure evil...”
And what isn't said...
What Merlin thinks he can hear, perhaps hopes he can hear in Arthur's voice...
...see in his eyes, even now...
”...but you're not.”
“I never thought—when I met you, I never thought you'd be here with me on this day,” Arthur begins to say, his voice stronger as his grip tightens against Merlin's shoulder. Merlin can feel the heat from Arthur's palm, the faintest rhythm of his pulse thrumming beneath his skin, and he's reminded again that Uther had become mortally injured that Arthur might live. Now that Uther is at last and finally gone, the thought brings a twisting sense of guilt and bitter bile into his throat, but it's only imagined and he once more swallows down what it is—everything that is tearing at him from the inside.
“...I doubt my father even knew what he was doing that day, such a long time ago, when he gave you to me,” Arthur continues, and his eyes never leave Merlin's. Merlin finds that he can't look away, his mouth falling slightly agape. When he draws his lips together again, he finds that a smile is tugging at the corners of them as he tries not to bristle at the thought or laugh—a force far greater than Uther Pendragon had drawn him here, had bound them together, kept him here still, but Arthur couldn't see it. Sometimes Merlin thought he was beginning to see some reflection of it in Arthur's eyes—those rare moments when he called Merlin 'wise' or 'brave', but those moments were gone forever, snatched away with Uther's fading breath.
“...and yet here you are,” Arthur carries on, and though Merlin hears every word his eyes narrow as he's not sure he understands. “...I... I'm glad you're here, Merlin.”
Merlin briefly wonders if Arthur notices that he hasn't said a word, but suddenly he finds the warmth of Arthur's hand moving up from his shoulder to his scarf, fingers wriggling beneath the dull blue fabric to find his skin, to meet his racing heartbeat.
He feels himself pulled to Arthur not by any force of his prince's—his king's—hand but by something as immaterial and light as air. Their lips come together, and Merlin can't find where it begins or ends, can't find any seam or separation between them as his hands draw up from his sides and his fingers find Arthur's half-removed armour.
As Merlin's lips part, he can taste traces of salt—salt that reminds him of tears, bitter tears he's seen refuse to fall from Arthur's eyes during these last days. Arthur's fingers scramble further to the back of his neck, this time clearly drawing him closer as he uses his other hand to pull the scarf away.
Breathing in sharply through his nose, feeling cooler air against his throat, Merlin wonders if the veil between worlds has truly been mended at all, or if Lancelot's sacrifice had been in vain. Here sharing this heat with Arthur, his lips pouring forth longing words could not express—finally, at last, finally, it's you—he can still feel the chill of mortality, of death.
The veil torn, the veil turned backward, and death doesn't mean gone . Uther lay dead, but Merlin finds that he still must mourn, not for Arthur's father, not even because he'd loved his son, but for what had been lost with him. The chance—his chance—to finally be free.
What remains—what remains as Merlin's fingers deftly go about removing what remains of Arthur's armour—is an echo of the past that rings all around them, even in this new day, this new night falling between them.
Merlin can't quite lose himself to the heat, even as Arthur pulls him closer and he can feel them chest-to-chest, now sparse layers of fabric lying between. He can feel Arthur's straining breath, and his own lungs cry out for air—not from strain but because he's drowning, drowning in Arthur as he's always been, helplessly, but it's different now. He supposes it was never meant to be like this. Arthur might be—might have been—his destiny, but he can't have this, can't bear it. He can't bear Arthur's hands upon him, his lips moving against his, tongues tangling just inside his mouth, when he knows the truth...
”Magic will still be outlawed...
I've turned Arthur against it forever...
He'll never know who I really am.”
Arthur is king now, and things will be different. Everything, perhaps, except for this.
Merlin feels his lips drag across Arthur's lips and skin even as he tilts his head up to draw his mouth away, gasping for air before he even looks down into Arthur's eyes. His head tilted back, he feels Arthur's lips find their way to his throat, brushing the pale skin there and making him shiver impossibly with heat—heat that makes him grow colder inside because, 'He'll never know who I really am.'
And what if he does already? Then it's worse. He'll live forever as a shadow: Arthur's exception.
The lie that Arthur will keep, drawing ever closer to himself until it rends him in two.
Not quite Ygraine, not quite Gaius, but a lie and an exception just the same.
“What are you doing?” he manages to ask, his voice breaking and hoarse.
In an instant, the contact is gone and Arthur's drawn himself away to arms' length. Merlin dares look down to meet his eyes, his cheeks flushing despite the chill he feels—perhaps because of it.
“I... I thought you might want me to,” Arthur offers quickly, and as they study one another's eyes, they both know it's a shallow excuse.
A moment of silence passes and they don't question it.
“I... I'm sorry,” Merlin says, and he is. He settles his weight away from the post of the bed where he finds his back pressed when he fully comes to himself again, steadies himself on his feet. Taking one more deep breath, he studies Arthur again and knows his eyes are wet. “...I can't.”
He slides past Arthur, the friction of their shoulders pressing mocking heat through his body, down his spine and into his bones.
He's reached the door when he hears Arthur turn.
“Merlin,” Arthur calls, and it's demanding, plaintive, and it makes Merlin wince. He doesn't quite open the door, but his fingertips find themselves wrapped around its handle. He meets Arthur's eyes and lets his gaze fall to Arthur's hand, to the dull blue scarf he's kneading in it. His eyes sting further and he closes them, turning his face away and straight on to the door, forehead nearly pressing against it as he draws deep, steadying breaths.
“...I'm glad you're here, Merlin,” Arthur repeats absently, almost as if he could erase what had gone before by echoing himself once more.
Merlin doesn't say anything as he nods once, opens the door and slips through it into the darkened corridor. When he breathes, it's shuddering now, shallow, as he tries not to let his voice break. The tightness in his throat, the burning in his eyes—they fill him with something like rage, but it doesn't last, falling impotent as he moves away from the door and puts one foot in front of the other, walking away.
Arthur could have come after him, could have called him back. Merlin would have been powerless to stop him—servant, or not. Arthur could have insisted, and there would have been more heat and longing, the tangle of tongues giving way to a tangle of bodies—skin against skin beneath richer sheets than Merlin had ever known except with his hands. They would have lost themselves to the dark, and Merlin wouldn't have resisted his king's command, nor his touch, even as it hollowed him out even more completely.
Arthur could have, but he doesn't.
When Merlin reaches his chambers blearily, he pretends he's too tired to hear Gaius's questions as he sits on the edge of his bed. He reaches up and rubs at the back of his neck, then at the front of his throat, hardly feeling it when it nearly causes him to choke.
Arthur hadn't called after him, left instead with a crumbled blue scarf and an empty chamber on the night of his coronation. The day full of celebration, the night eerily quiet and empty—but that's the way of it, Merlin thinks. One king gone, another in his place—death and life hand-in-hand without any talk of a veil.
Merlin wonders if he's made a mistake.