Merlin opens the door as carefully as he can manage, balancing the laden tray on one hand as he uses the other to turn the handle. He pauses as he sees Arthur, sat at the table strewn with official paperwork, staring listlessly down at something shiny and metallic in his hands. Merlin sets the tray down on the long table and crosses over to the king.
"Arthur?" He lets one hand drop briefly onto his shoulder. Arthur looks up at him, then, his jaw set tight, still, but letting his eyes show the pain he keeps hidden from the rest of the world. Merlin swallows, pulling his hand back, aching with the effort of keeping himself from pulling Arthur into his arms. He wants, more than anything, to be able to just hold him and take away his pain. But he can't, of course. "I brought you dinner," he says instead. Arthur nods but says, as Merlin knew he would,
"I'm not hungry."
"There's cheese," Merlin says, trying to tempt him, because he feels he ought to at least try.
"Maybe later." Arthur's attention returns to the object in his hands.
"What's that?" Merlin asks, and can hear the roughness in his voice where he's trying and failing to be casual. It's a bracelet, he sees now, leaning closer. There's something familiar about it, although he can't place it.
"The guards found it in Guine-" Arthur stops, clears his throat. "In Guinevere's cell."
Arthur slides the bracelet over his hand and onto his wrist. Merlin suddenly feels like this is something he shouldn't be watching and walks over to where the food is laid out on the table, rearranging it needlessly. He can feel Arthur's eyes on him, he thinks, as he polishes an apple with his sleeve.
Merlin doesn't jump, when he straightens up and finds Arthur behind him, but it's a close call. He hadn't even heard him get up, but he's there, close behind him and looking at him, in a way sets his heart racing.
"Merlin?" Arthur says. His voice quavers a little in confusion but his eyes are brimming with longing as he takes a step closer. And Merlin can't pretend he hasn't always wanted Arthur at look at him like that, hasn't stored up every kind glance and affectionate gaze he's ever had from him; but something about this, the suddenness of it, just isn't right.
Merlin turns away, hoping to cool the sudden flush in his cheeks. Arthur's suffering, he reminds himself. He's just had to send away the woman he loves after she betrayed him the night before their wedding. He's not thinking straight. Merlin's not thinking all that straight himself, if truth be told, still in mourning for a true friend. He hopes, perhaps vainly, that Freya will look after Lancelot somehow. And gods, why does everyone he loves have to die?
Except Arthur. Merlin has made it his purpose to keep Arthur alive, to keep him here with him, even if it is at the expense of everything else in his life. He's hidden his magic, he's hidden his true feelings for him, wanting nothing more than for Arthur to be safe and happy and loved. But he isn't. Merlin remembers the strange pang of half-happiness half-despair as he witnessed Gwen's acceptance of Arthur's proposal. And now, he doesn't know what to feel. Anger, betrayal, on Arthur's behalf. Sorrow, mostly, at seeing the one he loves so unhappy. But he can't help the tiny spark of relief in his soul, however guilty he feels for it.
Arthur catches him by the sleeve and Merlin looks up to see a fire in his eyes that steals his breath.
"Merlin," he repeats, sounding more certain this time.
Unsure, Merlin backs up until he feels the cool stone of the wall against his shoulderblades. Arthur doesn't let up, though, crowding into his space until they are pressed almost nose to nose.
"Arthur," Merlin protests, breathing shallow, "Arthur what are you doing?"
"I don't know," Arthur returns, his chest heaving and his eyes focussed on Merlin's lips, "I don't know at all but gods help me Merlin I want you."
"Arthur," Merlin tries to say but it comes out as more of a whimper. There's barely time to breathe before Arthur's lips descend on his and they're kissing, as sweet and as desperate as he could ever have imagined. He feels his knees nearly buckle at this sudden bliss, grateful for Arthur's hands pinning him to the wall. He doesn't know why Arthur's doing this, why now, if it's only some kind of rebound reflex, some way to forget about his broken heart for a while and if it's that, then he'll let him, let Arthur have anything he wants of him, as he's always known he would if only Arthur would just ask. But then Arthur eases back, kissing his jawline, his nose, his eyelids, anything he can reach; murmuring things with each hastily snatched breath, waited so long, can't keep away from you anymore, tangling his hands in Merlin's hair. And for one euphoric second Merlin allows himself to hope, that this is all true, that Arthur has loved him the way he's loved Arthur for so long.
Then he feels the cool touch of the bracelet against his skin like a dash of cold water and everything becomes suddenly, horribly clear. Merlin closes his eyes and swallows a sob as he lifts a shaky hand to slip the bangle from Arthur's wrist while he is distracted, mouthing at Merlin's neck, warm and wet. With a wrench Merlin tears himself from Arthur's arms and flees his chambers, not risking so much as a glance back at his king.
Gaius looks up from his books with a raised eyebrow as Merlin bursts in. He's aware that he must look a state, wild-haired and damp-eyed and kiss-bitten. He throws the bracelet down on top of the page open in front of his mentor.
"This," he says, "Was found in Gwen's cell. I think it's some kind of love charm. To make someone fall in love with the first person they see. To make them unable to help themselves." He blinks away the memories of Arthur's lips on his.
Gaius peers closely at the markings on the bracelet.
"It doesn't seem so powerful a charm as all that," he says, wrinkling his nose. "There are spells and potions, as you know, which can cause the symptoms of love, but such spells require a focus, a lock of hair of the one to be beloved, perhaps." Gaius turns to another book on the table in front of him and thumbs through it. "Aha, as I thought. A token such as this may be imbued with power to encourage the wearer to give in to feelings of love, but it cannot create such feelings where none exist. It merely lowers the wearer's inhibitions, blinding them to anything but their true love."
"True love?" Merlin stands stock still, staring at Gaius.
"Yes. In the old days charms such as this were commonly given as wedding gifts, to er, enhance the wedding night. It rather depends on the person's true love being the one they marry, of course." Gaius's eyebrow climbs higher. "Which in Gwen's case it seems it was not."
"It's... they shouldn't, it's wrong, to take away someone's choice like that." Merlin frowns in distaste, still trying to wrap his thoughts around the information he's being presented with.
"Very true, Merlin. But it's only when people are dishonest that it causes problems."
"But... there's all sorts of reasons why someone might not marry their true love! They might be dead. They might not return the feeling." It's easier, far easier, to focus on his own unrequited love than entertain the possibility that Arthur might have felt the same and been denying himself. Denying them both.
"True love, Merlin, is always returned. We're not talking about infatuation, here, but a true bond between two souls."
Merlin sees, then, why it had to be Lancelot. Gwen couldn't have been enchanted to love just anyone; this charm was just a helping hand, making it impossible for the two of them to deny the feelings they still had for one another. The thought that Lancelot could love her, still, even after death, even when he had forgotten all else, is enough to make tears prick at Merlin's eyes.
"Poor Gwen," He says at last, shaking his head.
"Indeed. I fear she has been greatly wronged."
Merlin thinks of Arthur, of how he left him, panting and dishevelled in his chambers. He thinks of all the wrongs they have all done to each other, and snatches up the bracelet from where it lies between the folds of the book on Gaius's table.
"I need to tell Arthur."
"Merlin, are you sure that's wise? If Arthur blames magic for Guinevere's betrayal..."
"He needs to know, Gaius! Don't you think there have been enough secrets? Enough lies?" Merlin's voice cracks. He thinks of the amulet which killed Uther, and how they concealed Morgana's meddling from the new king. No, he won't make that mistake again, whatever the truth costs him.
"Enough for a lifetime," Gaius agrees and at last Merlin sees the strain of all this secret-keeping in his old eyes.
Arthur is standing, staring out of the window when Merlin creeps tentatively back into his chambers. He turns on hearing Merlin's footfalls and his cheeks flush with embarrassment and regret in a way that makes Merlin's heart sink.
"I must apologise for my actions," Arthur says firmly, "I don't know what came over me, I..."
"Don't," Merlin interrupts him. "Please." He doesn't know how to say that he can't bear hearing Arthur saying he's sorry for something he could never, ever wish undone. "This bracelet – Gaius's books -" He walks towards Arthur with the bracelet in his outstretched hand. "It.. it's enchanted."
Arthur inhales sharply, eyes narrowing. Merlin looks down as he continues.
"It makes someone want their true love. To want only their true love, and forget everything else." Merlin finds he can't look Arthur in the eye. He can't bring himself to see how Arthur's reacting to this. There's a long pause before Arthur responds.
"I owe Guinevere an apology. If it wasn't for this bangle then she might- she would have chosen me."
"She would," Merlin agrees.
"But I wasn't the one she truly loved." Arthur says. "So even if she had, would we have been happy? Would she have gone to him, eventually?" He sighs. "Gods know it's not easy, even if you love someone, when there's someone else. Someone else who's everything to you."
Merlin risks a glance at him then, and loses his breath a little to see that look of longing back in Arthur's eyes and directed at him.
"Arthur," he croaks. And then, because the wanting in Arthur's eyes is tempered by doubt, he adds, "It's returned, you know. It has to be, it's..." He can't finish, but it doesn't matter, because Arthur is right there, cupping his cheek, pulling him against his chest.
"Merlin, Merlin," he sighs as he threads his hands through Merlin's hair. "I've tried so hard, for so long, but – it's hard, keeping a secret like this, you don't know..."
"I think I've got some idea," Merlin says. He chuckles, but it's bittersweet because he can't help but think of all the secrets there still are to keep. Arthur presses a kiss to his temple, murmuring,
"You know I can't just... I'll have to marry. One day. It's my duty to Camelot."
"I know." And he does, Merlin realises. He couldn't ask Arthur to choose between him and Camelot any more than he himself could choose between Arthur and magic. "I know."
Their lips meet, frantic, seeking solace from past pain and future betrayals in each other as the evening sun bathes the room in a soft orange glow. It seems to Merlin that perhaps there has been too high a price paid; dead friends and broken hearts and fractured trust. But it's hard, as Arthur's hands slide up beneath his shirt, as he buries his face against Merlin's neck and moans softly, not to think that he would have given anything for this.