Merlin’s eyes stayed focused on Arthur.
The room was quiet, warm, dark except for the glow of the fire illuminating the right side of Arthur’s face. It colored him in oranges and reds and he looked like something very far away and unattainable.
But he was Arthur. Known. Loved. And sad beyond belief, mired down in the bog of yet another betrayal and Merlin knew the days of his silent lies were now over. He couldn’t bear the thought of Arthur suffering through one more lie, one more reason not to trust those that surrounded him.
Those that loved him.
Passionately, uncontrollably, lost in the belief of his goodness and the world he would attain for them.
Merlin pulled his feet up onto the chair and wrapped his arms around his knees. He remembered other times, better times, that he’d sat next to Arthur just as he was while they bickered or teased or planned what the next day would bring. As master and servant, yes, but much more as friends, as voices clear and thoughtful and faithful to one another.
It was the faith that made Merlin ache and made him search out the courage he’d need to overcome the fear of the moment.
They were waiting on Agravaine’s execution. Death by fire on the morrow for yet one more breach of Arthur’s faith, his trust. Merlin kept his eyes on Arthur and his far away look; blank to those that didn’t know him, to those that weren’t Merlin.
To his knights, to his kingdom, he was decisive and strong. He was their sovereign, their King. In their eyes he could set fire to the sky, could flood the world and wash away what was bitter, and bring to them the peace for which they yearned.
To Merlin he was Arthur. Fallible and young, staggering under the weight of the world, and so painfully desperate to be loved, and to be worthy of that love. Arthur wanted to be everything to everyone and he was slowly drowning. Merlin wanted nothing more than to leap in after him and drag him back to the surface.
To tell him he was worthy, and to see that he was believed.
Merlin jumped a bit when Arthur looked at him and spoke, breaking the heavy silence and heartbreak of the moment.
“I am the only one, Merlin.”
Arthur’s voice was quiet and contained a confused sense of wonder, as if he couldn’t quite yet believe what he spoke.
“The only what?” Merlin asked.
Arthur’s eyes searched his out. “The only one of my family. They are all gone from me now. Dead or -,” Arthur paused and Merlin knew Morgana’s face was the only one he saw in that moment. “Gone.”
Every word he spoke was truth, all of his family were lost to him now and though Merlin had long since known of Agravaine’s betrayal to Arthur it was fresh, sharp and keen, like a wound just suffered.
Though Arthur didn’t cry there was a sheen to his eyes that glittered in the firelight and made Merlin want to weep the tears himself.
“That’s not true, Arthur,” Merlin said as he let go of his knees and uncurled himself from his chair.
Arthur shook his head. “I’m alone.”
Merlin reached out and grasped Arthur’s hand where it rested on the arm of his chair. He held it tightly, squeezed it to the point of pain.
“I am your family.”
Merlin knew he sounded desperate, maybe crazy, but Arthur was not alone.
“I am your family, Arthur,” he repeated.
“Presumptuous idiot,” Arthur whispered though his voice cracked, broke on the words, and his fingers clung to Merlin’s hand.
“Yes, I know.” Merlin’s voice was quiet, soothing, and he laid his other hand against Arthur’s forehead and stroked his thumb across his brow. “Never know my proper place.”
Arthur nodded in agreement though the exhausted, trembling sigh that escaped his lips belied his belief in the meaning of Merlin’s words. He placed his other hand on top of Merlin’s, his finger softly traced across Merlin’s wrist bone.
When Arthur stopped stroking Merlin’s wrist he held his hand firmly between both of his own.
“I trust you, Merlin. I think more than anyone.”
Merlin swallowed at the words.
“I would never betray you.” Now it was Merlin’s turn to break, for his voice to crack.
Arthur looked at him then, really looked at him, his eyes clear and wide. There was so much in that look that it was likely to break Merlin’s heart. He needed to be worthy of the trust he saw so clearly displayed in Arthur’s eyes. They both needed it, for everything to be free and clear between them so that every breath they took would ease the pain in both their lives.
“Arthur, listen to me,” Merlin said as he knelt at Arthur’s side. “I need you to hear what I’m going to say to you.”
“I’m right here, Merlin. I’d hardly miss hearing you.”
Merlin shook his head. “No, not that. I need you to hear what I’m saying; the truth, the meaning behind the words. I need you to understand more than I can say because if you don’t I’ll break apart. Promise me you’ll listen.”
Arthur looked wary of what Merlin was about to say. He was so raw, so vulnerable already that it pained Merlin to dig further at the wound. But despite the wariness of his eyes when he spoke his voice was firm, assured.
“Of course I promise.”
Of course. As if the thought never crossed his mind to think twice about listening to Merlin.
It gave Merlin hope.
Merlin laid his free hand on Arthur’s forearm. He felt the warmth of Arthur’s skin and beneath that, his strength, and Merlin wanted nothing more than to press his mouth to Arthur’s skin. A pledge of fealty to his King. But a pledge of love above all else.
“Everything I do, everything I’ve done, is for you. You are my King.”
“I know that, Merlin. I -.”
“No, Arthur, don’t. I need to say these things, make them clear.” Merlin gripped Arthur’s arm more tightly. “Everything I am is yours. Every part of me serves you.”
“Merlin,” Arthur whispered as he dropped his forehead against Merlin’s.
“You are not alone,” Merlin continued. “And you’ll never be alone as long as I draw breath. I swear to you. Please believe that.”
Arthur took his hand off the top of Merlin’s and touched Merlin’s bottom lip with his thumb, his fingers brushed against Merlin’s jaw.
“Arthur,” Merlin said as he slid his fingers up Arthur’s arm to his wrist to pull his fingers away. He placed Arthur’s hand back on top of his own and then held his hand out between them, palm up.
Arthur pulled back a bit and looked down at Merlin’s palm then back up at his eyes, the confusion clear in his own. Merlin looked back at him, willing him to understand, before he nodded and glanced at his palm to indicate to Arthur that he should look at it again. Once Arthur turned his eyes back to Merlin’s palm he said the words he’d said all those long years ago when he’d unconsciously willed Arthur back home to him. A blue orb appeared in his palm and Arthur pulled back at the sight but Merlin kept a firm hold with his other hand, trying to bound him to his chair.
“Merlin. What -.” Arthur gasped, unable to get out more words as his face flushed red.
“No, Arthur,” Merlin demanded, proud at it steadiness. “Look at it. Is it familiar to you?”
Arthur nodded though Merlin could see the anger rushing to the surface.
“Where? Where did you see it?”
“In the caves. When you were poisoned -.” Arthur stumbled over his words.
“And it guided you to safety.”
“It was you.”
Merlin kept the orb spinning in his palm as he looked at Arthur.
“It was always me. And it always will be me. My magic,” Merlin had to stop at those two words, had to swallow down the joy and fear they swelled him. “My magic is yours. It serves you, it saves you.”
Arthur’s face was so confused that Merlin had to close his eyes against it. He could never stand seeing Arthur unsure, so painfully young and lost.
“But you lied,” Arthur said, his voice seething with hurt. “You lied to me.”
“Yes, I did.” Merlin opened his eyes and looked into Arthur’s. He seemed shocked by Merlin’s succinct reply, but he had lied and there was nothing he could do to change that, no words that could make it otherwise.
“You lied.” Arthur repeated, little more than a whisper.
“And I cannot bear that I did. Not when there are others who have done the same, that have hurt you, but I hope you can come to understand, in time, that I never lied to hurt you, to bring you any kind of sorrow.”
“All those years you kept this from me. Magic.” Arthur’s voice turned hard on that last word.
“No,” Merlin begged. “Don’t fall back onto that. Don’t let that word mean darkness and hate and fear. Remember all those times you’ve thought that maybe magic could be more than that, that it could be other things; both good and bad and that it’s the person the wields it that makes it what it is. Remember those thoughts.”
Arthur looked away from him. Merlin whispered an incantation and the orb disappeared. He slowly closed his palm and looked up at Arthur.
“Please, Arthur,” Merlin begged. “You promised to listen, to try to understand.”
Arthur suddenly struggled against Merlin and pulled his hand from Merlin’s grip.
“I can’t bear it,” he gasped, his breathing harsh. “Why must everyone lie to me?”
It was in that moment that Merlin knew that his magic was only secondary, that the real wound to Arthur was his lies. He’d always known it would be like this, he knew the man Arthur was and he knew that man wasn’t illogical or rash, that in time he could handle what it meant for Merlin to be magic. But the lies. It always came back to the lies.
Merlin reached out and grasped Arthur by his shirtfront, his fingers clenched in the linen.
“I know,” he said. “I know, Arthur, and I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. Please.”
Arthur slumped against Merlin in exhaustion, his eyes closed against the sight of him.
“It hurts, Merlin.”
“I know,” Merlin repeated. His throat clogged with the tears he wanted to shed..
Arthur blindly reached out for Merlin, tangled his fingers in Merlin’s shirt just as Merlin’s fingers were tangled in his own. Merlin silently begged him to never let him go.
The silence between them stretched on. Merlin’s knees ached from kneeling on the cold stone floor at Arthur’s side, but it was of little consequence. He’d kneel there forever if Arthur demanded it of him.
Arthur’s breathing began to even out, sounding more normal and less like he was gasping for air, drowning and without hope.
“I understand why,” Arthur said quietly.
And it was then that Merlin finally broke, a strangled sob bursting from his lips as he clung to Arthur. Arthur gently shushed him as if he were too exhausted to do anything more.
“But I need time.”
Merlin nodded, not trusting his voice to say anything just then.
“And you will tell me everything. Everything, Merlin.”
Merlin nodded again. Arthur would know every little piece of him, there would be nothing of him that was unknown to Arthur. Merlin would tell him so much that in the end he’d probably wish he’d never asked it of him. The thought made Merlin want to burst out in tearful laughter at the absurdity of it all.
“I’ll never lie to you again,” Merlin finally managed to speak.
Arthur must have seen the truth written across Merlin’s face because his own relaxed and Merlin let go of his shirt so he could touch Arthur’s face just to make sure it wasn’t a dream. Arthur’s skin felt familiar beneath his fingertips and Merlin felt the moment Arthur leaned into the touch. It made him feel brave again, bold.
“Unless it’s about how clever you are because then you’d know I’d be lying.”
Arthur looked at him for a moment and Merlin’s stomach dropped, he’d gone too far, it wasn’t the time for joking and teasing, but then a gruff, short burst of a laugh escaped Arthur’s mouth and Merlin’s heart started beating again.
“Merlin -.” Arthur warned, but his voice was low and fond.
“My King,” Merlin said as he pressed his palm to Arthur’s cheek.
Arthur reached up and pulled Merlin’s hand from his cheek but kept it clasped in his own.
“And that’s another thing,” he said. “You’ll never lie to me again and will always speak the truth not because I’m your king but because I’m Arthur. And you’re Merlin.”
Merlin had never wanted anything else.
He looked at Arthur, nodded and smiled.
“Because we’re Arthur and Merlin.”