Arthur kissed her, once.
It wasn't a proper kiss - more mouth to chin than anything else - but Merlin remembers the intention in his eyes, too focused for someone who had consumed so much wine. His mouth brushed the line of her jaw and his breath the thin skin of her throat, blistering heat that washed through her entire body for the second it took for her to regain sense.
She couldn't find the strength to push him away, but he read the tension in her body anyway; lifted his eyes to look at her, mouth hooked into a smile that said he could see right through her, and Merlin's heart thumped, startled, in her chest. She didn't make a sound, paralyzed by fear and a sudden furious rush of want, and his face went blank slowly, as if giving her time to reach out and draw him back.
When she didn't, he pulled away, and they hadn't touched anywhere but for the barely-there press of his lips against her face but it felt like every inch of her body yearned for contact, like there was a thread that stretched taut and unhappy between them, trembling from tension with each step he took.
By the time it snapped, every ripple of emotion had been banished from Arthur's face, and something in Merlin faltered, paused, realized that this moment in time was to become an opportunity, lost.
"Goodnight," is what he said, one hand on the door, but Merlin heard what he meant, the undercurrent of supplication that said: last chance.
Merlin remembers the way her hands trembled, remembers hating herself when she replied,
Merlin wakes up and finds herself face to face with Arthur.
It takes her longer than usual to make sense of the situation; her head is fuzzy and eyes crusted from sleep, a thin film clinging to her iris and turning the world into a blur. It's near midday from the looks of it, obvious that she's overslept, and Merlin wonders whether Arthur has taken it upon himself to fetch her now, instead of sending the usual harried maid or stable-boy. She's about to struggle out from under the blankets, wary of Arthur's flat stare, when she remembers.
For a second it's like she's in the lake again, a hand gripping her ankle and Arthur's shouts rising above the rush of water in her ears as she's submerged, drowning. She can't breathe, and murky lake water coats her tongue, sour and stringent, not unlike the taste of overwhelming fear. Merlin hears herself make a choked noise, lifts a hand to her neck, and then the memory recedes like it never was, like it was just the residue from a nightmare.
But Merlin's never been that lucky.
"What happened?" she manages to ask, wincing at the sound of her voice. Her throat feels like it's been shredded from the inside and the look on Arthur's face makes the tiny hairs on her arms rise to attention; there's something wrong here, and it's not the fact that she nearly died again.
"I found you," Arthur says, long after she's given up on expecting a reply. You saved me, Merlin silently corrects, takes a moment to do a mental tally and is relieved to find she's still ahead. Her lips curl in a helpless smile at the thought -- ludicrous that she sits here now, counting all the times she's saved the crown prince's life -- but Arthur doesn't share her amusement, and the stiff lines of his face make something heavy settle in Merlin's stomach.
He doesn't move, doesn't even blink, but she can sense the coil of tension just under his skin, in the set of his shoulders and thin line of his mouth. He's angry, but it's more than that, and when Merlin can't stand to look at his eyes anymore, she fixes her gaze on the curl of his fist, the dried blood on his fingers.
"Your hands," she says, her own aching in sympathy as she takes in the torn nails and knuckles rubbed raw. She recalls seeing Arthur struggling furiously against the ropes binding him, shouting curses and a hoarse, broken version of her name; remembers being dragged under and refusing to give up on the hope that he might get free.
Merlin swallows, and slides her own hands under the blankets to hide their tremble.
"You should let Gaius look at that," she continues, unwilling to back down in the face of Arthur's stony silence. "Might need to bandage them before--"
Arthur flinches at that, and Merlin falls abruptly silent, a shiver of unease coasting down her spine. She takes in a fortifying breath and it comes too easy, no familiar pressure on her chest or rough bite of cloth on her skin -- nothing but a thin blanket shielding her from Arthur's cold, furious gaze and -- oh, she thinks, oh no.
"Did you really believe I would never find out?" Arthur bites out, all pretense of calm thrown suddenly aside. There is something violent lining his face, and Merlin's pulse thrashes at the sight, blood roaring in her ears. "Did you really think me that stupid?"
Merlin stays silent, struck mute. She doesn't know what to say, what will appease him; everything that comes to mind is a lie Arthur will see through instantly. I meant to tell you. Lie. I didn't mean to deceive you. Lie. I'll never betray you again.
"I wouldn't blame you," Arthur says, and she's never seen him like this before, this infuriated and hurt and unable to keep it hidden. "I've been a blind fool. Months--months of you--the worst manservant I've ever had and God, no wonder--"
"No," Merlin says, nearly shouts to be heard over him. "That's not--that has nothing to do with it. You had nothing to do with this. It was just. Something I had to do, Arthur, but I'm still me, I haven't changed--"
Arthur's stare is flinty and unforgiving. "Who I believed you to be and who you are--"
"--aren't so different," Merlin interrupts, desperation clawing her up inside. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry that I lied, but I'm still Merlin, I'm--clumsy and I talk too much, that wasn't an act, that was just me--"
"I don't believe you," Arthur says, quiet and cold, and Merlin's insides shrink at the sound of it, the finality of those words. She knew it would happen one day, knew she would lose Arthur's trust and wouldn't be able to regain it, but she always thought that moment would arrive on a battlefield somewhere, some day that destiny conceived. She thought Arthur would falter in the face of her magic, not this, never this -- but it seems foolish now to have never considered the possibility that this would be the secret that broke them.
"I'm sorry," she says, and her voice cracks around the word, reshapes the apology into a plea. Something shifts in Arthur's face and for a moment Merlin allows herself to hope, to think, maybe--
"I want you gone by tomorrow."
"Gone?" Merlin repeats dumbly after a thick silence, trying to make sense of the word. Arthur's knuckles are white but the press of his lips is whiter; something raw and hurt hides in his eyes and no, Merlin thinks, no, this isn't how it's supposed to go.
"Gone," Arthur says, and his lip curls and hooks into a sneer. "Back to wherever it is you come from. Ealdor, was it? Or was that a lie as well, another little fabrication to match the rest of you?"
"No," Merlin says, bites the inside of her cheek and irons the misery from her voice. "I haven't lied to you, not about that."
Don't you know? I only lie about the important things.
"It doesn't matter. I don't want to see--" Arthur cuts himself off with a jerky shake of the head and gives her a tight, ugly smile. "You've rested enough. Start packing your things."
"I can't leave," Merlin hears herself say, thin and thready as if from a distance away. "I can't just--you--Gaius, he needs me."
"Gaius needs an apprentice," Arthur says, and Merlin can see the stiff line of his shoulders tremble from tension, knows his patience is worn thin to the point of snapping, "not a woman parading about in men's clothing. He'll find someone else better fit for the job." His eyes drag over her in rude appraisal, and the look he levels at her makes something furious and reckless awaken in Merlin's chest. "I doubt he'll have to search far."
"That's bollocks," Merlin bites out, squashes the part of her that doesn't think arguing with Arthur right now is in her best interests, "and you know it. That has nothing to do with--Gaius knew when he took me on, he--"
"Then he is just as guilty of treason."
"Treason?" Merlin's gasp is nearly a startled, incredulous laugh. "Treason? So I'd rather wear breeches than skirts, that's not--that's not a bloody conspiracy--"
"It is a violation of my trust," Arthur says, hanging on to control by a strained, fragile thread, and Merlin finds herself shouting when she should be shutting up, almost physically incapable of letting Arthur have the last word.
"All right, I--I get it, you don't trust me," she says, stumbling over words in effort to get them all out, "so sack me, and I'll stay out of your way, I will, and you won't have to ever see me again, just. Arthur, you can't send me away."
"Do not," Arthur says, jaw clenched, "ever presume to tell me what I can and cannot do."
Merlin can see him fight to keep his anger in check, the echoes of struggle stark in the pinched lines of his face -- wonders, for a moment, if it would be any different if she'd been a boy, if they would have resolved this with a tussle, or a fist to the face, or several.
But then she realizes there would be no cause for anger if her ifs were anything more than fancy, that she wouldn't have ever had to see that look on Arthur's face if she wasn't a girl -- wasn't magic -- and all the whimsies inside her wither at the thought, crumple and fall still.
"I'm not leaving," she says, and it sounds too loud for the silence that's clamoured into the empty space between them, but Merlin wouldn't take it back, she won't.
She doesn't expect Arthur to stalk forward, and that's the only reason she cringes; surprise is what has her cowering against the wall. This close she can see the flare of Arthur's nostrils and the colour high in his cheeks and he doesn't touch her -- of course, he wouldn't, not now -- but the want for violence is stamped on every rigid line of his frame.
"Do not cross me," he hisses, and it takes effort to meet his eyes. "I can have you executed for no reason other than because I wish it."
"Do it, then," Merlin says, voice steady, because this is Arthur and there has never been an emptier threat. "You'll have to kill me or haul me out of Camelot yourself, because I'm not--leaving."
For a moment it looks as if Arthur is sorely tempted -- to pick her up and throw her out or wrap his hands around her neck and squeeze, Merlin doesn't know -- but it's only a moment of something electric trapped between them and then he's gone, the sharp scent of lakewater and slam of the door the only remnants of his presence.
Merlin curls her hands into fists to stop their trembling. She closes her eyes and sees the lanky fall of hair into Arthur's eyes, his still-sodden clothes and bloody hands and thinks, you never left my side.
Thinks, how can you expect me to leave yours?
"I don't believe that is wise."
Merlin stops with one hand on the door, drops her head and takes in a deep breath.
"I don't know what you mean," she says, but even with all the practice she's had at sounding oblivious, it comes out thin, and false. Her heart has been trying to beat its way out of her chest all morning and it doesn't calm at the sound of Gaius' weary voice -- just trips a bit, stumbles as it tries to right itself.
"Merlin," comes a sigh, and then the sound of a heavy tome hitting the tabletop. "Is it really so difficult to keep your distance?"
Well-nigh impossible, thinks Merlin, and refuses to ponder over the implications of that thought. "I'm just going to the library, for a bit," she says, and it isn't a lie, not really.
"Don't suppose you'll get lost and end up in Arthur's chambers, then."
"You can't really predict these things, Gaius," she says, and scuffs her feet against the floor. "It's a big castle, you know. Long corridors, winding staircases, the lot."
Gaius sighs again -- the man's made an art of it, really, and says,
"Arthur has been kind -- generous, even -- to not throw us both into the dungeons. And you've been relieved of duties you complained about on a daily basis. Rather loudly, if you recall. Why not just... let it be, Merlin."
Merlin thinks of deflecting, insisting on the library again or just -- walking out the door. Gaius wouldn't stop her, and she's grown used to the one disapproving eyebrow he would send her way when she returned, but--but the need to justify her actions has never been quite this strong before, and she's nearly vibrating with the urge to explain, to have someone understand what she's only just wrapping her head around: that dragons and destiny and all that aside, they -- them, just them, together, they're -- good.
So she says, "I don't know. I've gotten used to all the abuse, I guess," which is as far as she'll ever get to voicing the thought that's been plaguing her for days, the small, unhappy I miss him that won't leave her alone.
Gaius says nothing, and Merlin fumbles for more words, because sometimes he hears too much.
"And that new manservant of his," she says, "he's even more rubbish at it than I was, and it's--well, a disgrace, really, to have the prince go around looking like that--"
"Ah, yes," Gaius says, "of course. You're doing this for his own good."
"The good of the kingdom."
Gaius shuffles his papers in order to, Merlin suspects, hide his quiet laugh.
"Well, go on, then," he says, and Merlin doesn't give him the chance to change his mind, out the door with her heart in her throat while his voice still echoes in the room, fond.
"You kissed me, once."
It wasn't a proper kiss - just a soft, clumsy press of lips, but Merlin hasn't managed to rid herself of the memory, no matter how hard she's tried. She can't remember the day or the time, where they'd been or where they were going, but that one touch seared through her skin and carved its way into her bones - inescapable, now, ever-present and hovering at the edge of her mind.
That's likely why she's blurted it out the way she has, in response to Arthur's quiet why are you here, because it's certainly not what she came here to say; a thought, though persistent, that she's never wanted to voice. She almost regrets opening her mouth when Arthur's spine snaps taut, almost--almost, but--
"Do you remember?" she whispers, wishes she knew what to say to make Arthur face her. The line of his back is uncompromising, shoulders drawn tight, and Merlin needs to see his face, needs him to be able to see hers. "Maybe you don't. It was--you'd had a bit to drink, and--"
Merlin presses a hand to her stomach, but it does nothing to ease the trembling inside.
"That night," she begins, "that night, I pulled away, because--I couldn't let you know. About who--what I was. Not because--not because of--" Merlin stops to swallow around the lump in her throat, takes in a shallow breath before she says, "Not because I didn't want--because I did. I do."
Arthur doesn't move and Merlin blinks rapidly, bites her lip, hard.
"You're angry with me," she chokes out, "because I betrayed your trust. But is it also because you wanted me when I was--when you thought I was--"
"Don't be stupid," Arthur says, and Merlin's stomach bottoms out, leaves her with a queer, frightening emptiness inside as Arthur turns and fixes her with a cold stare. And then, he says,
"I wanted you despite, not because,"
and revelation lags a bit behind comprehension but it gets there in the end and Merlin isn't sure what Arthur sees in her face -- isn't sure she wants to know because it must be something mortifying, with the way he ducks his head down and away like he can't bear to look at her, except for the quick, nearly sullen glance he throws in her direction. Merlin's cheeks hurt and she recalls, dimly, that they tend to do that when she smiles too widely for too long and oh, then, she must look absolutely deranged, but Arthur just shakes his head and rubs a hand over his face.
"Damnit, Merlin," he says, "you're--you," shockingly inarticulate, Merlin thinks, for someone of his station. She intends to call him on it because it's not like she gets the chance that often, but the disconnect between her brain and mouth has seemingly gone from gap to chasm and what comes out is,
"I want my job back."
Arthur's eyes narrow and Merlin is reminded of all the things they've yet to say -- the things they might never say -- and she wonders if she pushed too far too fast, for a moment, until Arthur says,
"Are you truly that eager to muck out my stables?"
"Yes," Merlin answers honestly, because she's missed him and missed him and missed him, and every time she admits it to herself, it settles, curls up inside her and becomes easier to bear. Arthur's eyes on her are quiet and assessing but no longer quite as angry, and Merlin throws aside worries of the future and the cloud that destiny hangs over her head; says,
"Well, not, you know, not the stables in particular--"
and Arthur turns away but not entirely in time to hide the quirk of his lips and Merlin can't believe she ever came close to drowning she feels so light, like she needs a tether or she might just float away.
"Arthur," she says, questioning, because he still hasn't given her an answer. "Sire?"
"Yes," he says, and Merlin can't see his eyes but she knows how very blue they are, knows certain little pieces of him by heart. Hopes, now, to know every bit she doesn't.