They’re on their way to the forest for what Arthur calls ‘hunting’ and Merlin calls ‘one of those nice strolls we take these days’, as they don’t really manage to ever kill anything anymore. Apparently that’s what happens when you’re happily married. It’s just the two of them and Leon this time, because when they’re on one of the nice strolls that they take these days there only needs to be one knight. Leon is less trouble than any of the others (and more responsible than both of them combined).
They’re on the edge of the forest when they see a Druid woman walking along the other side of the path. Merlin feels Arthur and Leon tense, and it’s obvious why. The woman’s bag is floating along behind her. In the year or so since Arthur made a promise to the ghosts of the Druids, he’s kept it, though he and the knights still tend to get intensely nervous when they see obvious examples of magic such as this one.
The woman smiles harmlessly at them, nodding her head demurely to Arthur. Merlin hears a faint Good morning Emrys in his mind, and flinches automatically. How do they always know who he is? How detailed was that prophecy? Did it include the ears? Or did it just mention that he’d be perpetually within a hairsbreadth of Arthur? Either way he carefully answers her with a Good morning. She smiles wider at them, before breaking off to an invisible path through the woods, her bag following easily.
They stare after her for a long moment. After a the moment Arthur says, meditatively, “From a purely tactical standpoint, it’s stupid of us to ignore an entire discipline.”
Merlin is startled, and just barely stops himself from whipping his head around to stare at Arthur. Leon’s calm, measured voice responds after a moment, “How so, sire?”
“Well, it’s like we outlawed swords, and then expected that any attacking armies wouldn’t bother to bear swords against us. How many times has a single sorcerer come close to almost overrunning Camelot? If Cendred hired three or four of them...” Arthur trails off, and Merlin’s heart is pounding in his throat. He has no idea what he’s supposed to say to any of this, but he hopes that maybe Arthur is changing his mind, is thinking about changing the law. Arthur makes a soft sound that cuts off any possibility of a response, and kicks his horse into a trot. Leon and Merlin trade a look before following after him.
It’s two days later, when Merlin is stealing all of the best bits of Arthur’s breakfast while Arthur is distracted by some boring thing from the council, that Arthur brings it up again.
“I’m going to repeal my father’s ban on magic.” Arthur announces, all in one breath, and Merlin chokes around the piece of biscuit he just stole. Arthur frowns at him, putting away his report. “Stop stealing my food.”
Merlin is too busy coughing up a lung to respond, and Arthur watches him with his favourite look of amused disinterest that’s supposed to hide the soft vulnerable look behind his eyes. Merlin finally gets his breath back, and the first thing out of his mouth is, “I’m a sorcerer.”
Arthur stares at him, and Merlin feels himself flush, but there’s no going back now. It’s been five years and he wants this to be over with. He hates lying to Arthur.
He considers for a moment, and conjures up a bright ball of golden light. Arthur turns his head to stare to it for what feels like forever. He keeps staring until Merlin gets a little self-conscious and snuffs it out. He clears his throat nervously, waiting for Arthur to say something.
Arthur is still staring at the place where the light was, looking like Merlin’s hit him. Merlin waits. And keeps waiting.
Finally it gets to be too much and the babble starts building up in his throat, finally exploding out of him, “Are you done with your breakfast? I’ll take it back down to the kitchens. Don’t forget your council meeting. Leon’s taking the knights on patrol around midday, if you want to join them.”
Arthur keeps staring at him as Merlin gathers up the leftovers from breakfast. He’s almost at the door when Arthur finally unfreezes, “Merlin!”
Merlin stops, inches away from the door. He groans faintly, and steels himself. He turns back to face Arthur, who’s stepping out from behind the table now. Merlin stands there, taking his turn to be frozen as Arthur walks towards him. He stops just out of arm’s reach, and his voice is low and serious, “Show me again.”
Merlin swallows carefully, and breathes out slow, creating the light with a thought. Arthur stares at it for a moment, reaching out to touch. He hesitates just before his fingers brush it, “Can I?”
Merlin is staring at the distance between Arthur’s fingers and the light, feeling like he’s standing at the edge of a cliff, “I - yeah. It won’t hurt.”
Arthur takes his word for it, which makes Merlin’s heart twist hopefully, and sinks his fingers into the brightness of it. They both stare at the joining, and Merlin feels his throat go abruptly dry, and he forces himself to breathe. He feels like Arthur’s too close suddenly, that he needs to take a step away, and he absently realizes that his hands are shaking.
The look on Arthur’s face isn’t helping him get under control. He looks wondering, almost awestruck, and he finally speaks, “It tingles.”
Merlin can’t take it anymore and extinguishes the light, feeling exposed and embarrassed. He sets Arthur’s dishes on the nearest flat surface, unable to keep holding them, “I’m sorry I hid it from you. You understand that I had to, right?” Arthur’s looking at him steadily, but completely inscrutably, and Merlin nervously continues talking, “I was born this way. I - I - please say something.” Merlin begs, desperate to know what’s going to happen now.
Arthur drops his hand, rubbing his fingers together, and after a moment he moves away, back to the table. He takes his seat, staring at Merlin intently, “Start at the beginning.”
Merlin does. It takes hours. They miss Leon’s patrol with the knights and Arthur’s council meeting. Arthur has to call in a maid to bring in the midday meal sometime around when Uther married a troll. Merlin continues talking throughout the meal, stealing Arthur’s water when his throat gets too dry to continue talking. They’re halfway through the meal when Merlin has to admit, that as far as he knows, Morgause did actually call forth the ghost of Arthur’s mother, that everything she told Arthur, from what Gaius and the dragon have hinted, is the truth. He gives Arthur the most privacy he can as he says it by looking down at the food, concentrating on anything that’s not the look on Arthur’s face.
It’s just after the sun sets that Merlin gets to the request to heal Uther. He can’t look at Arthur while he talks. He stares at the table, tracing the grain of the wood as he tells him exactly what happened, what Gaius found much later spelled into the necklace, how it relates to Morgana. Arthur stands at this point, going to the window, looking out at nothing and Merlin lets him have the moment. He waits until Arthur comes back to the table to continue. He continues along chronologically until he gets to Excalibur. He hesitates a second, but he must have glanced at the sword, or Arthur must know him better than he thinks because he guesses what Merlin is going to say next.
“You made that up.”
“I had to, Arthur! You were so … I had to. You were always supposed to have her, she was always yours, I just had to give her to you without you suspecting anything. And if I could do that and make you believe in yourself at the same time …” Merlin trails off at the look on Arthur’s face, which is more amused than anything. He smiles tentatively.
Arthur stares at him for a heavy moment, looking like he’s realized something. Merlin really hopes that it isn’t a bad realization as he picks up the story again. The rest of it goes quickly until Arthur’s completely up to date and Merlin stops, taking a long drink of water. He finishes with the admission that he’d used a quick heating spell on Arthur’s food this morning, because he’d gotten a little distracted in his walk upstairs. They sit at the table for a little while as Merlin adapts to the feeling of having an extreme weight lifted off his shoulders.
He glances at Arthur for a second, trying to figure out what he’s thinking, but he can’t tell. Lately, there’s no reading Arthur when he doesn’t want to be read. Merlin shivers as a gust of air shakes the windows, and he considers for a moment before glancing at the fireplace. He speaks the spell slowly and clearly, giving Arthur an audible warning before a fire bursts in the grate.
When he turns back to Arthur he’s just a little hesitant, but nothing has changed on Arthur’s face. Merlin bites his lower lower lip, and foreboding begins to build in his gut again. The silence is so heavy that he finally can’t deal with it any longer, and hesitantly opens his mouth, “Arthur?”
Arthur pulls his eyes away from the fire after a moment, meeting Merlin’s eyes for the first time since the end of his confession, “Here’s what’s going to happen.” Merlin feels his stomach twist at Arthur’s no nonsense tone, “We’ll tell everyone that your mother is sick.” Merlin feels his mouth open automatically, ready to argue, wanting to shout, because he doesn’t want to be sent away. He can’t handle it. He won’t leave. Arthur keeps going, ignoring him, “Set up whatever you have to while you’re there, make sure she’s protected. People will come after her. When you get back, I’ll announce the repeal of the magic ban and name you Court Sorcerer.”
Merlin stares at Arthur, completely bowled over, closes his mouth after what is probably far too long. He blinks, completely at a loss for what to say.
Arthur hands him the dirty plates, “Go on. Go pack.”
Merlin stands hesitantly. He should be relieved, because he’s not being killed. But - but there’s a wall between them now, he can feel it. Arthur doesn’t look at him again, moving to the window. Merlin swallows down the bitterness building in his throat, tells himself that this is more than he could have hoped for.
He makes his way downstairs, tells Gaius what’s happened and packs his bags. By the time he gets back to Arthur’s room Arthur is already talking to the steward about getting a new manservant. It makes him abruptly dizzy, too much happening at once. He hesitantly interrupts the meeting to say goodbye, and tries not to flinch when Arthur just waves him off without a word.
He walks down to the stables, keeping his head down, trying to tell himself it will be okay. Arthur still trusts him, clearly, and he’s alive, and magic will be legal again. If he loses his relationship with Arthur … it’s probably for the best, he tells himself firmly. Of all the possible losses, it’s the best for Camelot. It is.
Even if it feels like his heart is being ripped out.
The week he spends with his mother is good. Healing. He spills his blood around the edges of the town carefully. He casts some spells for everyone in the town, and then more right on his mother’s door, and still more on her when she’s sleeping. It’s not until he can barely touch her himself that he finally stops, figuring it has to be enough.
Hunith is smart, smarter than him, and she knows him well. Merlin figures only about half his magic came from Balinor, obviously his mother is hiding some. She knows immediately that something is wrong with him. He can’t explain it, doesn’t try, but she strokes his hair and tells him it will all be okay. He tries to believe her.
After two weeks he makes the trip back, riding a little slower than he has to, not wanting to get back to see Arthur with his new manservant. It’s irrational in the extreme, obviously. If Arthur is putting him on the council then he won’t be able to serve as his manservant. It shouldn’t feel like he’s being fired (again) but it does. It feels like Arthur doesn’t like him anymore. It feels terrible. And the worst part is that he knows he deserves it.
When he finally does arrive back at the city the streets are awash in colour and laughter. He wonders if he’s missed the announcement of a parade or something, until he sees a Druid child running around happily with some children from the town. He realizes with a jolt that Arthur actually did it, actually lifted the ban.
It slams into him as he’s pulling the saddlebags off his horse. This is all real. He really admitted everything to Arthur, Arthur really lifted the ban, and he really did lose his best friend.
He collapses in the corner of the stall, and sobs like his heart is breaking as it all comes crashing down on him. It hurts, it feels like his heart is being ripped out, but he’s also relieved, scared, proud, and so, so in love with his King.
He’s not quite sure how long it takes him to get himself under control again, but he feels better when he finally stops, like it released some pressure from his shoulders. He makes his way into the castle, and, after a second of confusion, decides to go see Gaius first. When he gets there Gaius is pleased to see him, hugging him close.
“He really did it.” Merlin says, and even though he has told Arthur everything, even though he was in the room when Arthur decided to do it, even though he saw it in the town, he still doesn’t completely believe that it’s real. Like it’s a dream.
Gaius nods, looking the way Merlin feels, “He did. He announced it last week. It was -" Gaius breaks off, links his fingers together. Merlin's never seen this look on his face, but he likes it, "It was quite something to see.”
Merlin smiles, rolling the strap of his bag in his fingers, “I’m sorry I missed it.”
Gaius studies him, and Merlin fights not to squirm too much. Gaius abruptly reaches out, putting a hand on his shoulder, “It will be alright.”
There’s a knock at the door then, and a young pageboy pokes his head in. “Merlin, sir?” He asks hesitantly, and Merlin tries not to jump at being called ‘sir’. “The King sent me to show you to your new rooms.”
“My new rooms?” Merlin blurts out, shocked.
Gaius laughs at him, squeezes his shoulder briefly before dropping his hand. “You are moving up in the world.” He points out kindly, “What did you expect?”
The boy leads Merlin to the side of the castle closer to where Arthur and Gwen’s rooms are. He takes an abrupt turn to a door Merlin’s never been through before. It leads them up a spiraling staircase to a heavy wooden door. The boy leaves Merlin there, making his way back down and Merlin takes a moment to stare at the door to his new rooms before pushing it open.
It’s a large, round room, with multiple windows and a large bed. There’s a table and a fireplace and a wardrobe and it’s all his.
But he doesn’t see any of that, because Arthur is there.
Merlin tries not to gape at the picture Arthur makes, leaning back against the window. The sun is setting behind him, highlighting all of the parts of him that don’t even need highlighting and Merlin’s heart twists painfully. After a moment he gets control of himself again, and sets his bag down, “Sire.”
Arthur turns to him then, looking like Merlin’s interrupted him thinking, “Merlin.”
It’s not right, the way Arthur says his name right there, without annoyance or amusement or anything at all, like he’s a random servant Arthur just bumped into in the hall. But a little bit better than that, he tries to comfort himself, as Arthur actually knows his name.
“We’ll announce your new position at the council tomorrow. Wear something a little more appropriate.”
Merlin looks down at himself, dusty from the walk, and has a moment of frustrated petulance. His eyes flash gold and he’s abruptly dressed in robes finer than anything even Arthur owns. He looks up, raising his chin slightly, “Better?”
Arthur is staring at him, with an amused tilt to the corner of his mouth, meets his eyes, “You lied to me for five years, Merlin,” and that’s how Arthur should say his name, that’s the only way it sounds right, “I’m allowed to be annoyed with you.”
“I had to.” Merlin says, because he did.
“Did you really think I would hurt you?!” Arthur finally explodes, and Merlin flinches away from his tone, “Did you really think I could ever - Merlin!”
“It wasn’t about hurting me.”
“Than what was it about?” Arthur demands, striding towards him, hand on the hilt of the sword.
“It was about you!” Merlin shouts back, anger rising to match Arthur’s, “I couldn’t tell you because your father - you loved him Arthur. You would have had to make a choice and no matter what choice you made it would have hurt you and I -” Merlin trails off, throat abruptly dry, “I can’t stand hurting you.”
They stare at each other for a long moment, until Arthur whirls away. Arthur strides back to the window and Merlin sinks into a chair, fingers trembling.
“That’s all of it then?” Arthur asks, still staring out the window.
Merlin sighs, staring at the table, “Yes.”
“You have no more secrets from me?”
But there must be something in his tone. Or Arthur knows him far too well because Arthur’s right in front of him, gripping his wrists tightly, and Merlin startles, before standing, relaxing into the grip, “Tell me.” Arthur says, half demand and half plea.
Merlin swallows, feeling his eyes grow wide as his heart starts to pound, “There’s nothing else.”
Arthur’s grip tightens, and he grinds the words out, “Tell me.”
Merlin tries to tug away, but he has no chance, heart beating frantically now, like it’s about to burst from his chest. “There’s nothing. Arthur -”
Arthur just stares at him, and Merlin’s breath hitches into a sob. This isn’t fair. This was his secret. Arthur can’t have it. Except he can. Because Merlin will always give Arthur everything he asks for.
“I love you.” Merlin says, feeling like the words have been scraped out of his heart, like they hurt coming out. He is at once better and worse off for the loss of them.
The words hang heavy in the air. Arthur releases his grip on Merlin’s wrists, and Merlin stares at the red spots because he can’t look at Arthur. The sea of emotion is back now, and even worse than before, because now he’s empty. That was the last thing he had to give.
Arthur’s voice is soft and kind in a way that Merlin’s not familiar with, “Why didn’t you tell me?”
Merlin hiccups a laugh, still looking at his wrist, rubs at the marks with his other hand. There are a thousand answers to that question, a million. He starts at the end. “Gwen.”
Arthur steps away from him, which finally gives Merlin room to breathe, and he sits down again because his legs will not support him. “Only Gwen?” Arthur finally asks, and Merlin has to laugh.
“Gwen. Magic. King. Heirs. Laws. Lies. Pain. Laughter. Secrets-”
“Yes.” Arthur interrupts him, harshly, and Merlin still can’t look at him, “My list is similar.”
Merlin’s head snaps up, staring at Arthur, feeling like he’s been kicked. He opens his mouth, to protest probably, though he’s not sure. But it’s clearly written across Arthur’s face, and now that he’s seen it he can’t not. He has no idea what to say.
They stare at each other for a long time.
It makes it better, somehow, knowing that Arthur feels the same way. It’s like his emotions aren’t being wasted if Arthur feels like he does. Which is probably a little crazy, but it seems to work for them.
It works rather well actually.
Over the next thirty years Arthur leads his knights across the lands, with Merlin at his side. (They start with Ealdor, and spread from there). They fight and barter, until the entire island is under Arthur’s rule.
(That day, the day that Arthur is proclaimed High King of the Britons, when Merlin kneels before him and Arthur just pulls him back up to his feet, is the only time they ever kiss. It’s the only time they can ever allow themselves to.)
Things change, as they tend to do. Knights come and go, live and die. Lancelot comes back, and Gwen leaves.
But no matter what else, there is always the two of them, side by side, never quite touching.
Merlin feels it when Arthur dies.
He’s leagues away, fighting the war on the second front when it happens. Even so, he feels the sword shove through flesh and bone, exiting the other side. He feels it when it’s ripped out again, feels the mortality in the wound.
Arthur is so far away. So very far. And getting even further. Merlin, completely distracted from the battle raging around him, reaches desperately, trying to drag him back. He can’t. It’s impossible. Magic demands a price, a balance. There was only ever one thing to balance Arthur, only ever one other side of the coin. And Arthur made him promise, made him swear on his magic to never make that trade. He would break that promise in this moment, would rip out his own heart if Arthur would be alive again, but he’s bound by the very magic he needs.
He transports himself to the Isle, is just in time to see them usher Arthur behind the veil, and he falls to his knees, broken. The Powers watch him, emotionless and cold, and describe what is going to happen.
Arthur will be trapped, unaware, until he’s needed again, and Merlin will wait.
The idea of being without Arthur for that long is unbearable, unthinkable. He will go insane.
They are trying to take Arthur, he realizes, just like a thousand others have tried. Merlin’s temper flashes burning hot, desperate, and not a little suicidal. He reaches down and down, further than ever before, to the very centre of the earth, and focuses his power, lashes out at The Powers Themselves. He wraps his power around their throats, gripping tight, choking, furious and alone.
He feels no sympathy for the one that can’t bear the touch of his power and dissolves right in front of him.
The two that are left trade glances. After what feels like an age, One raises a finger, reaching out, brushes his forehead.
Fifteen years later Merlin is laughing as he plants potatoes in his father’s yard. He’s happy and free and laughing.
And then he remembers.