5 Times Words Failed Arthur Pendragon, and the One Time They Royally Didn't
The air outside the castle is chilly and fresh, the smell of rain still hovering over Camelot's streets. The sky is a strange bluish gray, the clouds hiding the stars and promising a cold night. The fire is crackling happily behind Arthur's back and he is acutely aware of the maid standing next to it, waiting for his instructions. She's cleared her throat suggestively twice already and has apparently, wisely, concluded that the third time would be too much. Arthur waves a hand at her dismissively, not looking away from the stairs that lead up to the castle's large main entrance. He hears her walk away after a brief pause, probably expecting him to say something and then realizing he won't. The door closes quietly behind her, but the relief at being alone that Arthur expects never comes. If anything, he feels even more uncomfortable, even more like he can't move because the air around him is thick with... something, something that smells oddly like loneliness.
He presses his forehead to the cold stone wall in front of him, closing his eyes and taking a deep breath. He feels slightly feverish, his chest is too tight and there has to be something wrong with his lungs, because no matter how much he gasps for air, he still feels like he's suffocating. With his eyes closed he can clearly see Merlin in front of him again, his wrists tied together, looking up at him from the dirty floor of the dungeon with wide, disappointed eyes, hurt clear on his face. And it's not his decision that troubles him, Arthur knows he has no other choice if he wants to keep Merlin alive, it's the way Merlin looked to the side as Arthur grasped for words to explain, almost as if he were sick, repulsed by what he saw. It's ironic, really, when Arthur thinks about it, that it was Merlin who was disgusted by Arthur's actions, while Arthur, who had spent his entire life up to that moment being taught to hate magic, only wanted to hug this warlock in front of him.
He swallows around the lump in his throat, feeling his eyes burning with something that just might be tears. But he can't cry, he won't. He's not sure he'd ever stop if he started now. And it is at that precise moment when he opens his eyes that Merlin walks down the stairs, carrying a small bag on his shoulder, presumably with all of his valuable things, and followed by two knights. Arthur's breath hitches, his body tensing, as he almost reaches out to open the window, to shout for everyone to just stop, that it was a mistake, and of course Merlin's not a warlock, and even if he is, he's still welcome in Camelot. But he doesn't. Because it's better like this. It's better if Merlin leaves, better for him certainly, and better for Arthur because, as much as Arthur hates to admit it, he's grown embarrassingly fond of his clumsy servant, his best friend, his magical protector. And there is no way that can ever turn out in any way that's not tragic.
And Arthur knows this is the right decision, he knows this is what he should do. He doesn't want his father's laws to guide the way he rules, he doesn't ever want to see a pyre built in front of his home, and he plans to change all this, to make Camelot a place open for all, where everyone can live happily, peacefully. But these things take time, and Uther's opinions, his philosophy is still strong in the veins of most of Camelot's nobility and, Arthur suspects, not a few of his subjects. Changing the way people see the world takes time, takes years and simply negating all of Uther's reign would make Arthur look like a vindictive brat, would ruin his political credibility. He needs his people to know he's as strong in political matters as he is on the battlefield long before he tries to enforce his morals onto them. And really, it's not Arthur's fault Merlin's little public confession comes at the worst possible time, and he knows this, rationally. But it doesn't help the sinking feeling that washes over him as Merlin looks up. He can't see Arthur, they both know it, but somehow it makes the moment even more intimate, that Merlin knows Arthur so well he knows not only that Arthur is watching, but where from, makes Arthur's heart beat faster, makes his hands shake, makes him feel like this is the biggest mistake he's made in his life.
And yet, it's the right choice, and Merlin must realize this as well, because he doesn't look mad or defiant, just hurt and broken. It makes Arthur feel sick to his stomach that this is the effect he has on someone he cares for so deeply and he's just about to look away because he can't possibly take any more of this torture, when the glass in front of him blurs with fog and there's Goodbye, prat written in Merlin's tiny, cramped handwriting right in front of his nose. Arthur reaches out to touch the words, but they disappear before his shaking fingers reach them. It's so teasing, so childish, so meaningful, so Merlin, that Arthur just wants to break the window and jump out of it and run to Merlin, and maybe he would've done just that, except when he looks down again, Merlin is gone and it's just Gwaine and Lancelot standing there, their capes flapping around in the wind, and of course it would be the two of them to see Merlin off.
That night, Arthur doesn't sleep. He tosses and turns in his huge bed, feeling as if there's something missing, like some crucial part of the castle, of Camelot, of himself has been ripped out and taken away. He thinks about all the things he could've, should have said. The words, right at the tip of his tongue, things like thank you and I know it was you, I know I wouldn't be here without you and I'm sorry and why didn't you trust me with this sooner and I'll miss you and please, forgive me, things that never left his mouth and things he may never have the opportunity to say again, at least not to the one person who needs to hear them. He imagines how different the whole day would've been had Merlin just waited until Arthur was alone to expose the traitor to him, with or without magic. He wonders if it would have been easier on Merlin if he had said all the things he felt like saying. He thinks that maybe, if he'd been a better friend, Merlin would still be here, and perhaps magic would already be legal; or perhaps he would've been declared insane, or killed in a conspiracy and at this point, he's not sure if his current situation is better than either of those.
He doesn't sleep the next night either, or the one after that. It's the sixth night after Merlin's left that he finally collapses from exhaustion and Gaius needs to wake him up every 2 hours to give him some potion for strength and he drinks it, even as he's internally screaming at himself that he doesn't deserve it. He doesn't say anything, other than the occasional I'm fine to his knights, or maybe a furious order barked at someone, or a don't even start to Morgana a few times, for much longer than that, not confident enough in his mouth not spilling every regret and every desire he holds about everything that's happened. Every evening, before he goes to bed, he wonders where Merlin is, if he's safe, if he's warm, if he's lighting the fire in front of him with magic right that instant. He falls asleep with thoughts of Merlin, wakes up with them, breathes them, eats them and lives solely for and because of them, always feeling like there's a dragon sitting on his chest, a dragon that may or may not have been born of guilt and regret.
Even when he sleeps, Merlin never leaves his mind. He has recurring nightmares of that fateful evening, of all the cold, distant things he said, of all the ways in which Merlin probably interpreted them. You must understand, he said, this is a delicate matter and my rule is still not stable enough for this huge of a change. My father's policy is still strong, he has supporters everywhere. There's nothing I can do. He remembers his own level voice, disconnected tone echoing in the dungeons, remembers how uncaring he sounded even as his heart was breaking at Merlin's hidden tears and every tendon in his being was taut with how wrong, how unnatural it felt to say all that. I need you, he meant to say. You will never understand how much I care about you, he thought. Don't cringe away from my touch, I could never do you harm, he felt right there, in his mouth, waiting to roll out, to reassure, to help. But what left his mouth was You won't die for this, Merlin, but for as long as my father's laws are implemented, you are banished from Camelot. You'll leave tonight.
“I miss him too, you know. We all do.”
Arthur stares at the fire for a very long time. The twig he's playing with is flexible and thin, but oddly strong and unbreakable. The bark is cold and damp under his fingers and in a rare moment of eloquence, Arthur thinks it feels like the skin of a dead man. He knows, because when his father died, he held his hand for hours before letting anyone pry him away. Before letting Merlin pry him away, with a warm hand on his shoulder and soothing words he doesn't even remember anymore, but knows helped him then.
It doesn't even come as a surprise to Arthur anymore that even the smallest things remind him of Merlin still. It's been almost a year now, with autumn once again creeping up on him in crisp morning air and yellowing leaves and perpetual fog. Nights are becoming increasingly cold when they're out on a hunt and they bring extra blankets already, even though winter is still more than a month away. Arthur has yet to open his bag and find that there's blankets missing, seeing how his annoyingly perfect faceless and nameless servant never forgets anything for the trip. And while Arthur complained endlessly over Merlin's utter incompetence to do anything properly without supervision, he now finds that he misses the little imperfections, the sheets that are a few days overdue for washing, the dessert missing from his dinner tray, the forceful waking in the morning, all the little things that had become part of his daily routine with Merlin, so reliable and safe, that for a while Arthur had no idea how to deal with the immaculate service he suddenly had. He's developed a system since then, giving his servant so many duties he never has to see him, not taking him anywhere and not asking for any help with things more personal than armor-polishing. It doesn't really ease the constant feeling of something eating at him from the inside, but at least he doesn't have to deal with whatever poor replacement for Merlin somebody's sent for him.
He's still woken by nightmares, although not as often now. It's a relief to be able to get a few uninterrupted hours of sleep, but feels somehow wrong, like he's forgetting, letting go, when that's the last thing he wants. So now, before he goes to sleep every evening, he lies awake in his bed and remembers how blue Merlin's eyes were when he'd been pushed into the dungeon by Arthur's own treacherous hands, thinks of his dark hair when it's curled up at the ends from humidity on a warm summer day, imagines what it feels like to touch his pale skin. It's equal parts pleasant and painful, helping him deal with his day-to-day life, but also reminding him what he's lost.
He's taken a few steps towards legalizing magic. People now openly practice it in their homes, because they know he'll turn a blind eye, and Uther's law that made magic punishable by death has been abolished. Camelot's changed for the better, Arthur can see that every day when he opens his window and looks at his kingdom. But for him, Camelot is so much less now than it used to be. He can't enjoy the little victories he gains each day in politics, in battles to spread his borders, when the pain of such a great loss is still fresh.
He's been avoiding having any kind of conversation about Merlin for as long as Merlin's been gone. Morgana tried speaking to him about how unhealthy that is, but he ignored her, and when Gwen attempted to get him to open up, he yelled at her and kicked her out of his room. His knights, as he'd expected, never bring it up, because they know him and they know he'd rather hang himself than have a heart to heart with anyone, especially about something so important. And he knows, even now, Gwaine won't push the discussion. He's just suggesting, telling Arthur that if he needs it, or wants it, he can have that conversation here and now, in the dead of night, with no one to hear them. Or he can continue to play with his twig and ignore Gwaine's silent and calm presence for the rest of the night.
“I know,” he says finally, after so long he wonders for a second if Gwaine even knows what he started talking about. But of course he does, and he stands up, throws another log into the fire and settles on the ground next to Arthur, their legs touching knee to hip, their arms clashing in an uncomfortable position. Arthur doesn't move away.
“He went north,” Gwaine says, like it only happened yesterday.
“He was probably headed home,” Arthur replies, and to his horror, finds that his voice is unusually deep and that he sounds wrecked. He feels like it, but Gwaine doesn't need to know that, doesn't need to see just how much this has affected Arthur. So Arthur ponders moving away, trading cold ground and Gwaine's body warmth for his perfectly cleaned and packed blankets in his perfectly mended tent. But before he can decide, Gwaine puts a warm hand on his knee and looks at him, his face carefully sympathetic.
“He wasn't there,” he whispers and Arthur knows. He doesn't know how, but even before he took over Ealdor, before Merlin's hometown became part of Arthur's kingdom, Arthur knew Merlin wouldn't be there. He still didn't have the courage to check for himself though, couldn't face Merlin's mother or see the little house where he'd been, perhaps for the first time, equal with Merlin. “Arthur, you're not alone in this. We all feel the same way,” Gwaine mutters, squeezing his knee and giving him the look Arthur's seen directed at the runt of the litter just before it's thrown into a river to drown and this, right here, is why he didn't want this conversation in the first place, this pity that he knows everyone feels for him, the look that says I know you know you were wrong and you're suffering for it, but I can't help you, this whole air of something that is not quite judging and not quite sympathy, but is definitely a bit of both.
“Yeah? Did you all send your closest friend away never to return? Do you all wake up thinking that if anything happens to him, if he dies, it's all your fault? That if he dies and you don't get to—“ He stops talking as abruptly as he'd started. This was precisely what he was avoiding by evading any subject even remotely related to Merlin. Obviously that was a better strategy than this unintentional flood of words that's probably already told Gwaine all he needs to know.
Arthur takes a deep, steadying breath that fills his lungs with cold. It feels like a thousand needles lodged themselves into his ribs, but it's better than the feeling of a thousand chains winding themselves around his chest as he talks about Merlin. When he looks up from the fire, he thinks that maybe breathing deeply in the freezing forest at night is not a good idea, or maybe talking about Merlin is not a good idea, because now his vision is blurry and his hands are balled up into fists and he feels like he has so much energy he could carry all of their horses back to Camelot, right after he strangles Gwaine in a sudden fit of rage and powerlessness. The look Gwaine gives him is enough to deflate him completely, the unguarded expression of worry and kinship and loyalty and sympathy all in one, so Arthur just relaxes his muscles and looks back at the fire.
He wants to say thank you, he wants to let Gwaine know – you are a good friend, wants to apologize with an honest I'm sorry, I know he's your friend too, I know you miss him as well. But all he says is “Go to sleep.” And he knows it's not the right thing to say even before Gwaine obediently retreats, even before he says it, but it's all he manages at the moment, because apparently he wasn't made for words and he can never say what he really wants, and he'll just have to learn to live with that since it just keeps happening.
Gwen's hands are small and warm when he takes them. She's looking up at him through her thick dark lashes, a blissful smile lighting up her face. He squeezes her fingers and tries to smile, but all he feels is that her skin is too dark, hair too long, eyes the wrong color.
It's been almost three years since Merlin left. Arthur only has nightmares about him once or twice a month. He does his duties as king efficiently, quickly and silently. His knights admire him, his servants obey him, his people love him. But it's not enough. The void that Merlin left behind hasn't been filled yet, and not for lack of trying because Arthur tried, and he still tries once in a while, with an endless string of princesses and occasionally princes, with maids and soldiers and on that one ridiculously drunk occasion even with Gwaine. It never works. All he manages to do is get rid of some of the frustration, pent up rage and bottled up energy seeping out of him, but when he wakes up it's all the same – the way the air feels like it's a physical weight on every square inch of his body, the way his lungs feel like they've shrunk significantly, the way his skin prickles with every touch that is not warm enough of every hand without long enough fingers. The guilt and regret faded into anger at some point, and he spent a few weeks just yelling at everyone, throwing things and breaking priceless jewelery boxes. And then, as he watched a dragon-shaped glass vase break into a million pieces, he suddenly felt helpless, hopeless, powerless, and the strength of it took his breath away and he just crumbled onto the floor and sat there for hours, just staring ahead of himself, not knowing what to do, not sure he remembered how to breathe, half-hoping he'd forgotten so that he would finally, finally close his eyes once and for all and never have to deal with this again.
He fell asleep on the floor of the guest bedroom that night and woke up sore and cold, his cheek smeared with dirt, his hand bloody from glass shards he hadn't even noticed before. And he felt empty. Completely drained. Void of any feeling, any thought, any passion or will to do anything. He got up, cleaned himself in his chambers, and went on with his duties like he had every day before that. But ever since that day, he's felt cold and alone, numb all over, all the time. He gets up not sure why he still does it, eats even though food tastes like ash in his mouth, drinks even though his thirst can't be quenched with liquid; it's all automatic, every breath he takes, every move he makes, every smile he gives, he doesn't feel them, doesn't think about them. It's almost as if he's just watching somebody else live out his life, someone who looks remarkably like him, but isn't him in all the ways that matter. The worst part of his day is when he's lying alone in his huge bed with silk sheets and heavy blankets, and staring at the canopy above him. He's stopped going over every mistake he'd made that day he sent Merlin away, stopped righting them in his mind, stopped trying to remember all he can about Merlin in fear of forgetting him and losing him forever, because he knows now that Merlin's etched into every fiber of his being, Merlin's face is a picture drawn on the inside of his eyelids, Merlin's touches are carved into his skin, memories of Merlin are carefully cataloged in his brain, kept under lock and key, where no one can take them away.
So nowadays, he just lies in bed with nothing to do. Sometimes he thinks about where Merlin is right now; but that only serves to remind him that although he's certain Merlin went north when he left, he's not there anymore, and Arthur knows this because with every city to the north that joins his kingdom, Gwaine gives him that look of defeat and it always tells Arthur that he wasn't there, and Arthur has only one explanation – Merlin doesn't want to come back to Camelot, he doesn't want to come back to Arthur. Sometimes he wonders if Merlin offered his vast talents to some other king, but he dismisses that, not because he hasn't heard of it or because he thinks it would be wrong, in fact he knows that for Merlin this would be the best option, but somehow he can just feel that Merlin hasn't betrayed him, that he never could. He never thinks about what he would do if he found Merlin, he doesn't let himself imagine all the things he would like to say, or how Merlin would react to them because he doesn't hope it will happen anymore. If Merlin wants to stay hidden, then he will stay hidden and there's nothing Arthur can do about it. Fooling himself that there is, hoping against hope that one day he will take Merlin's, not Gwen's, hands in his own and tell him that he loves him, that he's missed him, to please come back, it would only serve to propel him high into the sky of dreams and make his inevitable crash even more painful.
The only nights when he doesn't let himself stay awake over endless, and in the end still useless, musings is when he has someone there with him. So when his Council suggests, not so subtly, that it's way past the time when he was supposed to be married, he agrees, because marriage would mean always having someone there next to him and maybe then he'd get a few minutes of actual breathing, a few nights of dreamless sleep that won't leave him feeling even more tired in the morning. This is why, the first chance he gets, he drags Gwen into his room, kisses her and takes her hands in his.
He's supposed to say I love you and You've always been the one for me and I want to spend the rest of my life with you and would you do me the honor of being my queen, he knows all that, he's already planned it all out. But the words get stuck in his throat because they're not true, and Gwen deserves better than lies and if she's smart, she'll say no and then maybe Arthur won't ruin another life. So what he says is, “I don't love you, I can't lie to you. But I would be grateful if you married me.” For once he says what he really feels, and it's somehow still the wrong thing to do. And he still hasn't gotten used to the iron ball that suddenly appears in his stomach every time he hurts somebody he loves, even though he's done it more times than he cares to count.
Lancelot is still yelling at him, a constant background noise that Arthur's tuned out after approximately the sixteenth bitter insult thrown his way. If it were anyone else, if they were anyone else, Lancelot would be in the stocks by now, at the very least. But he's not angry at Lancelot, he's actually proud of him for being so brave to stand up to the king, admires him for what he's ready to do for someone he loves. Because Lancelot loves Gwen, that much has always been clear to Arthur, and even though Gwen's been married to Arthur for almost a year now, Lancelot still looks at her with stars in his eyes and surreptitiously lets his hand linger on her shoulder for a few seconds too long. Arthur always notices, but he never reacts, because he knows Gwen deserves Lancelot, wants Lancelot and needs Lancelot almost as much as Lancelot needs her. So he lets them have their secret meetings, when Gwen sneaks out of their bed in the middle of the night to walk quietly down to the knights' chambers to spend a few precious hours with the one she really loves. Arthur doesn't blame her, doesn't get angry, pretends he has no clue when all three of them know that he does. When he has a fight with Gwen, which is usually really just him yelling at her for no good reason, he knows she goes to Lancelot for comfort, knows that it's Lancelot who kisses away her tears when it should be him, knows Lancelot gets angry, rightfully, curses him and probably already hates him, just a little bit, in spite of his admirable loyalty and nobleness. For days after his biggest arguments with Gwen Lancelot stares daggers at him every time their eyes meet, Lancelot insists on practicing with him in training, and somehow always defeats him, landing him on his ass in front of everyone. Arthur doesn't complain, lets Lancelot do whatever he wants, never raises his voice because he knows he deserves it all.
And even now, he doesn't have to listen to Lancelot. He doesn't have to discern all the words or hear the acid behind them or see Lancelot's face twisted with anger and disgust, because there's nothing, nothing Lancelot can say that Arthur hasn't already told himself a hundred times, a thousand, a million. He's not a good king, he's not a good husband, he's not a good lover, he's cruel and selfish and reckless and he hurts everyone he tries to help and despite his best efforts to change, he somehow always ends up erring again. He doesn't need Lancelot to tell him that, he already knows.
Arthur turns around to face Lancelot who shuts up immediately, his arms freezing mid-air before they drop to his sides, his face smoothing out, his grimace of anger replaced by sadness and understanding. Arthur realizes that someone who's as close to him as Lancelot is must see everything on his face plainly, easily – all the hurt and knowledge and regret and guilt and rage and incompetence he lives with every day. He opens his mouth to say I'm sorry for everything, to tell Lancelot that yes, Gwen deserves you, she deserves so much more than I can give her, so much better, to make Lancelot understand that I wish I could love her the way you do, if only I could love her the way I already love someone else. But it doesn't come as a surprise that what he hears is just a controlled and distant “Get out of here, you've crossed all lines of propriety.”
It takes Arthur just short of six years and just short of all of his energy to make magic of all kinds completely legal in Camelot again. He gradually introduces the idea by lifting the worst bans on magic first, then working his way through all other laws his father created. He starts inviting foreign kings' wizards with them to visits and even convinces a group of Druids to live within the city walls for a while, to show everyone that magic is not to be feared, but accepted and admired. In all six years of his rule up to date, not a single pyre was built, not a single person killed for their crimes; the worst punishment he gives out is to be banished from Camelot, and it makes him cringe every time he passes that judgment, because every time it feels like he's sending Merlin away all over again.
Of course, it's not all fine and peachy, what with his father's supporters still influential and strong, and there are riots in front of his castle and the lower town takes the damage of angry mobs with torches more than once, but he finally does it. Magic is finally legal, even encouraged, there's a court position, albeit still empty, for a court wizard or witch, there's a school for magic users withing his very own walls, with Gaius as head teacher.
For the first time in years, Arthur feels like he's actually done something worthwhile. His kingdom now stretches over more than half of Albion, and to know that, starting today, everyone everywhere in Camelot gets to live the way they want, not hiding who they are, it makes him feel lighter than he's felt for a very long time, makes him breathe just a little bit more easily, makes him notice the sun caressing his skin for the first time in what feels like forever. And when he steps out onto the balcony to look at his people, all of them happy and grateful, his smile is more genuine than maybe ever before.
He wants to share with them that all this is for one person. He wants to tell them Remember Merlin? That clumsy, stupid, incompetent, wonderful man who used to be my servant, my friend, my support and comfort when I thought I'd get none? Well, this is all for him. Because it is, and he'd be lying if he said otherwise, if he said that he did it because he didn't want others to suffer, because the pain and suffering of anyone in his kingdom is his own, because he wanted children to grow up in Camelot carefree and unafraid. There's that, of course, but it's not the main reason why he argued his way through court, bent and broke laws his father gave him to keep, fought off countless traditionalists' attempts to take his throne. He did it, all of it, for Merlin.
But of course, Merlin is not in the crowd in front of him. Arthur hadn't expected him, not really, but he hoped that when he leaned against the stone railing, he'd find familiar piercingly blue eyes staring up at him. And he'd say Merlin, thank you. Thank you for making me a better person, for helping me become a king that people can be proud of, thank you for opening my eyes, and for teaching me things I never knew I wanted to learn. But Merlin is not there, and Arthur won't get to thank him and the words There was once a young man who lived in this very castle, who risked his life for me, protected me and helped me even when I didn't deserve it, and especially then, and this is all for him. He's the single kindest, bravest person I've ever met, my best friend, the only one I've ever loved, and the one who pushes me forward and challenges me even when he's not here, die on his tongue, melting into a bitter taste of something long overdue, something he should have done when he had the chance.
Morgana is a warm and smiling form behind him, her hand slightly sweaty in his, her eyes bright, her expression as happy as Arthur's ever seen her be, as he says “Magic is now finally legal. It's yours to use and nurture as it always should have been, and it always will be for as long as I live.”
Arthur stares at Merlin, out of breath and sweaty and utterly confused. When he looked out of his window that evening, and saw someone standing at the outskirts of the forest that surrounds his castle, he didn't let himself think that it was Merlin. In fact, he steered his thoughts as far away from that as possible, telling himself that this tall person and their undeniably familiar silhouette are just a trick being played on him by his mind, so focused on Merlin, it recognized him everywhere. But then he saw the flashes of gold in the dark and his legs were moving long before his head caught up with them, he was running as fast as he could, down the stairs, out of the gates and to the forest, and he didn't remember deciding to do that, but he was doing it nonetheless. By the time he reached the forest, the figure was gone, but he somehow knew where to go and it didn't take long to catch up with Merlin, not far into the woods, in a clearing near a stream where he usually makes camp when hunting with his knights. He grabbed Merlin's wrist and forced him to turn around, and now he can't look away.
Merlin's face is still so familiar, even with a few new lines on it, a thin, almost invisible scar on his left cheek, the dark stubble surrounding his lips, his blue eyes cold and guarded. It's a look Arthur's never seen on Merlin's face before and he still has enough sense in him to understand that he caused it, and it makes his stomach churn uncomfortably. His fingers squeeze Merlin's wrist tighter, almost as if he unconsciously wants to make sure that this is real, this is Merlin in front of him, with his thin arms and long fingers and warm skin and blue, blue eyes.
“Let go of me,” Merlin says in a flat tone, not breaking eye contact, and the lack of familiarity in his voice, the absence of warmth in his eyes, the missing smile, all make Arthur let go instantly.
“Merlin,” he whispers, not quite believing he's saying the name out loud again, not quite certain he's not imagining this.
“Oh, good, you remember the name,” Merlin replies, folding his arms, and it sounds like snakes are hissing at Arthur, and Arthur still can't quite grasp that this is happening, Merlin is here, and whatever brought him back, Arthur's never letting him go again.
“What— What are you doing here?” Arthur asks, voice quiet and unsteady, but the question still sounds like an accusation and Arthur bites his tongue, because he doesn't blame Merlin, and he's not angry, he is just, apparently, terribly stupid.
Merlin bites his lip, a second's worth of insecurity that tells Arthur everything he needs to know. Merlin says, “I thought it was a free country now,” but Arthur hears everything from What took you so long and I'm back and I've missed you to Thank you and I've always believed in you and Have you forgotten me, and he can't help it, he reaches out and hugs Merlin, squeezes him tightly and breathes in his familiar scent and feels like he's never breathed before. But Merlin goes stiff in his arms, doesn't respond and eventually pushes him away gently, the look on his face once again closed off and unreadable, and Arthur realizes that it's too soon, and Merlin hasn't forgiven him yet, and maybe he never will, and he's probably just made another mistake in a long, long line of mistakes, but he can't quite bring himself to regret the brief contact, not when it's been so long and not when he doesn't know when he'll have the chance to do it again.
“Merlin,” he repeats, stronger this time, louder, more certain, because he knows he didn't imagine Merlin's hesitance and he knows there's something beneath this cold, marble facade that Merlin's putting up for him. “Stay,” he pleads, his voice deep and quivering and he hopes Merlin hears everything he wants to convey, every sorry and forgive me and come back and please he can't quite bring himself to say.
“Why would I?” Merlin says, and his voice is still level and controlled, but his eyes are shining and there's hope there, there's warmth, even if it's just a spark, when it used to be a forest fire. Arthur decides that it's still a step in the right direction.
He wants to say Because, you daft idiot, I missed you so much I'm not sure how I survived, and Because I love you and I need you and Because I can't go on without you and all the things he's always felt, all the things he now knows he should have said long ago, but the words just don't come to him, they feel too petty and small for how he feels, inadequate and not enough in so many ways. So he turns to logic, to reason, this at least he knows well.
“Because we need a court warlock and a magic teacher. And the Druids tell me there's no one better than you.”
And even if the hope in Merlin's eyes disappears suddenly, and his posture becomes more resigned than angry and cold, and the spark of warmth dies right before Arthur's eyes, he can't take the words back, can't make himself say the right thing. As Merlin agrees quietly and starts walking towards the castle, looking for all the world like he's going to an execution, Arthur vows to find a way to bring back the part of Merlin he seems to keep killing every time he speaks, but even before he's formed the oath in his head, he knows it's a lost cause. He knows he'll never have the right words.
Merlin proves true to himself, his icy exterior melting slowly, gradually, his smile growing wider every day, his eyes getting brighter, and even after eight years, he's still just as clumsy and awkward as Arthur remembers him being. As days, and then weeks and even months go by, Merlin's footsteps become lighter, his gait more confident, and he starts wearing his new robes proudly, looking less and less uncomfortable in them. He teaches about half a dozen young warlocks, always smiling, always patient and helpful. Arthur watches him, memorizing every spell that falls from Merlin's lips even before his students, notes every change in Merlin's mood and the way he treats others, sometimes jealous of the way his friend smiles at others, sometimes with self-loathing when he hears an uncharacteristically scathing remark leave Merlin's mouth.
Predictably, Merlin laughs the loudest when he's with Gwaine, is the kindest after speaking with Gwen, the wittiest after his fake magical duels with Morgana, the wisest after his long discussions with Lancelot. He frowns upon Arthur's sham of a marriage, especially when Gwen starts spending fewer and fewer nights in Arthur's chambers and more and more in Lancelot's bed, but he doesn't say anything, even defends Arthur's reasons in drunken arguments with the knights that Arthur hears about from the serving wenches. Arthur thanks whatever gods are listening and praises Merlin's friendly and loyal nature for Merlin being just as incapable of staying mad at Arthur as Arthur is incapable of staying away from Merlin; because over the year following Merlin's return their communication goes from illegally awkward, to moderately unpleasant, to teasingly amusing, to familiarly friendly. Sure, Merlin's jokes are still too harsh sometimes, and every once in a while they sound more like insults than teasing; sometimes they stumble in a conversation, and Arthur feels a pang of guilt every time Merlin mentions the hardships he's been through, and he chokes on his breath every time Merlin mentions someone he's met and speaks of them fondly, but it's getting better. The first genuine smile Merlin directs at him has Arthur weak at the knees, has his heart speeding, his mouth spreading into a dopey grin, and he throws a feast under some ridiculous excuse, just to celebrate this milestone. He thinks that maybe Merlin knows the real reason for the celebration, because he smiles some more and touches Arthur once or twice more than strictly necessary, his fingers squeezing a little, his hand warm, heavy and comfortable where it rests on Arthur's forearm.
In spite of all the complications and problems, Arthur feels better now than he has in the seven years he's spent without Merlin combined. Although their relationship is not what it used to be yet, although Arthur has to watch as Merlin replaces him with new and probably better friends, although not a day passes that Merlin doesn't, accidentally or on purpose, remind him of his sins, he would never go back, would never give Merlin up again. And it's not that bad, really, it's better than it was in the first days upon Merlin's return and certainly better than Merlin not being there at all. In any case, they're going in the right direction, Arthur knows, they're becoming friends again, they're healing. Merlin's smiling more and more each day, and Arthur breathes more easily every time he catches it, sleeps more and with less nightmares than ever, he's happier, lighter, the perpetual oppressiveness of the air itself now all but gone.
A part of him, a great part at that, still half-expects that it's all a dream, that he's finally lost it, and that any moment now, he'll wake up to a gloomy and cold world where he is still alone and miserable, and Merlin is still missing. Which is why every morning finds him sneaking down the hallway as soon as he's awake and halfway decent, to check if Merlin's still there and to watch him sleep just for a while, to make sure he's not going anywhere. Merlin is always there, flushed from dreaming and always tangled in his sheets; and Arthur always closes the door, because it feels somehow private and besides, not everyone needs to know about his strange affection for his sleeping friend. Merlin wakes up a few times to find him standing there and, while Arthur expects disapproval, Merlin just smiles, his expression completely serene and relaxed, his eyes still glazed over from sleep. It's usually at that time that one of them realizes where they are and what they're doing, because they both blush and look away, like they're 13 again, and Arthur leaves feeling flustered and oddly light-headed, almost like he's tipsy, and they never speak about it, not to each other at least, going about their days like nothing happened. Arthur imagines Merlin talks to someone about it, either Gwaine or Lancelot, because his knights look at him differently now, like they know something, like they're being let in on some big secret, and they're more friendly and relaxed, they joke around more and laugh louder and Arthur joins them almost every time.
Then again, it may just be Arthur's way of looking at the world that's changed, because it's not just the knights – it's the wild animals they hunt down who look bigger and taste better, it's the rustle of the leaves that sounds softer, it's the sky that seems brighter than usual, it's the castle that's never felt more complete, that's never been more of a home, and most of all, it's the kingdom, peaceful and calm and perfect. It's like Merlin leaving has severed some important artery of Camelot, but his return is the tourniquet that stops the bleeding and saves the kingdom.
One particularly cold winter morning, Arthur goes to Merlin's room and lights a fire to warm it up before Merlin's awake, but when he looks to the bed, Merlin's already propped up on his elbows and watching him with that blessedly content expression he gets after a really good dream. Arthur's hands itch with the need to reach out and touch him, hug him, hold him and just share a few moments of perfect intimacy with him, one which won't be interrupted by their hurtful history. However, if there's one thing that he's learned from being king, it's self-control, so he doesn't budge from where he is, because his advances are not welcome, and Arthur understands and accepts that, even though it hurts more than all the battle wounds he's ever had the ill fortune of experiencing. He smiles tentatively back because he's never been particularly good at not responding to Merlin.
“Why do you do this? Come to my room every morning, I mean,” Merlin asks, closing his eyes and lying back down. He doesn't sound reproachful or angry, just curious, amused. Arthur doesn't know what to say, can't even explain his actions to himself. He thinks that maybe he should apologize for invading Merlin's privacy and perhaps offer not to do it again, but he doesn't. He doesn't say anything, just watches Merlin turn to his side, walks up to his bed and kneels in front of him. Merlin's eyes are closed, but he's still smiling and he reaches out and lays his hand on Arthur's shoulder as he says, “What do you want from me, Arthur?”
Yet again, Arthur doesn't have an answer – on one hand, he knows what he wants, on the other, he only wants it if Merlin wants it too. He waits for his brain to make a relatively understandable sentence explaining this adequately, but it's being unusually slow this morning, and comes up blank, so he just turns his head and brushes his lips over the back of Merlin's hand. From the corner of his eye, he sees Merlin's opened his eyes, but he doesn't dare look at him. His palms are sweating and he bows his head, expecting rejection, preparing for it, but it never comes. Merlin's fingers dance over his neck to his jaw and lift his head, make him meet Merlin's eyes. They're warm and bright, his cheeks are still flushed and his mouth still curved into a smile, one that is equal parts pain and forgiveness and Arthur takes a deep breath, because maybe, just maybe, all is not lost yet.
“You hurt me,” Merlin murmurs, but gently nudges the back of Arthur's neck, pulls him closer and brings their foreheads together. Arthur has to close his eyes because he can't stand being this close, not sure he won't drown in the relief and not ready to analyze how he suddenly breathes freely, how his whole body is thrumming and he feels like he's just woken up from a long and unpleasant slumber. He wants to say how sorry he is, wants to promise not to do it again, wants to explain how it hurt him too, but he doesn't know how and besides, Merlin's fingers caressing the side of his face, from his temple to his chin, Merlin's breath ghosting over his lips, the warmth of Merlin's body so close to him, it's all too distracting to think coherently. He opts, instead, for melting into Merlin's gentle touches, for replacing thinking and logic and reason with feeling and senses, at least for a while.
As Merlin's thumb brushes Arthur's lower lip, a whisper of Merlin escapes him, unintended, and for a split second he panics, thinking how he ruined everything with words again, but it feels different this time, feels right and honest, and when Merlin kisses him, chaste, their mouths closed, just lips pressed together, he knows that in that one word was every apology and every desire and every plea and every grace he's never had the courage or skill to voice. And for once, he knows he said the right thing.