The light was fading as Merlin squinted at the latest reports from the Mercian border, hunched over the narrow wooden table. It would have been no difficulty to conjure up a little light for ease of reading, but old habits died hard and he still didn't feel quite comfortable using magic openly in the castle. The sidelong looks he got from some of the castle's other inhabitants told him quite clearly that they weren't comfortable with it either.
Merlin sighed and rubbed his neck. He remembered sitting in these very chambers years before, young and naive and optimistic, sure that once Arthur was king magic would be welcomed, he would be appreciated. It hadn't quite turned out like that. It hadn't quite turned out like any of them had hoped.
Merlin's head jerked up at the sound of a cough. He hadn't even noticed George come in.
"The king has requested your presence in his chambers immediately."
Merlin's heart stuttered in his chest and he had to pause before he could even acknowledge the message.
"Thank you, George," he managed, a dry croak, and the king's manservant left with a nod. Merlin gathered up the papers before him into some semblance of order. He stopped to take a deep breath and wipe a hand across his brow before setting off in the direction of Arthur's chambers, once a familiar path but one he had not had cause to tread in some time.
Six weeks had passed since Merlin's exile had been rescinded. They acknowledged one another's presence, in the hall, at council meetings. Arthur had even gone so far as to ask his opinion on a matter pertaining to Druids. Although that had been Leon's suggestion, and Arthur hadn't looked Merlin in the eye, staring somewhere just left of his head, jaw clenched. All this despite the fact that Arthur, as king, was skilled enough in diplomacy to be able to face down an enemy, to smile with a neighbour whose loyalty was uncertain.
The knights, at least, had forgiven him. Leon and Elyan still looked at him with a strange, wary sort of awe. The sort of look you might give a man who was capable of turning you into a toad, Merlin supposed. Gwaine had never looked even in the slightest bit phased by the discovery of Merlin's magic. Had offered to go with him when he was exiled, would probably have challenged Arthur to a duel, if Merlin had shown even the slightest indication of wishing it. But Merlin had shaken his head, throat tight with grief and guilt, and made him promise to stay in Camelot, because someone needed to stop Arthur from getting too big for his britches.
Just last week Gwaine had joked that Merlin ought to be made official court sorceror of Camelot, a suggestion which had been treated with surprising seriousness by the other knights. Perhaps, Merlin considered, that was what Arthur wished to discuss now. But if an offer of an official position was what this summons was for, surely Arthur would have said the council chambers or the throne room, even. Not his personal chambers. Merlin wondered for an second if George had been mistaken in the message, but that hardly seemed likely. George had been running Arthur's affairs with remarkable efficiency ever since Merlin's departure.
Merlin's footsteps slowed as he approached the end of the passage and he paused, hand poised to knock on Arthur's door. He'd never needed to knock, before. But things were different now. Everything was different. He felt as though their lives had been torn apart and stitched sloppily back together, both of them pretending not to acknowledge the gaping holes at the seams. Because he hadn't only been Arthur's manservant, and he hadn't only been concealing his powers from his king. He'd lied to and manipulated his dearest friend, the man he loved, for years.
The worst of it was that Arthur had been lied to and betrayed by so many people that Merlin was afraid that he would never be able to love or trust anyone again. The thought that he had been the one to wound Arthur so deeply that he could never let anyone else in was more painful than the idea of Arthur finding solace in another's comfort.
He shored up his courage and knocked, a sharp rap of knuckles on the polished wood.
"Enter." Arthur's voice was hard. Merlin remembered how quickly the facade of kingly strength and dignity would melt into something more open and vulnerable when the two of them were alone. Even before they had become lovers, Arthur had trusted Merlin enough to show his more human side. And not just because Merlin had been his servant, beneath his notice. He knew that now, treasured the memory of it.
As far as destiny was concerned, everything had turned out for the best. Merlin's powers were openly acknowledged and respected. Arthur had puclicly thanked him for his service to Camelot (after he'd exiled him for half a year, but still). Arthur was on the road to becoming the greatest king Albion had ever known and Merlin had a place at his round table.
But Merlin couldn't help the feeling that he'd gladly give it all up just to have Arthur trust him again, to look at him as he used to do.
"Merlin." Arthur greeted him with a frown, which was about the best he could hope for.
"You wished to see me, sire?" He knew not to push. There were times, true, when Arthur needed someone to push him, but Merlin didn't have that right, not anymore. He bowed to Arthur's wish to keep his distance. To pretend there wasn't a burning emptiness where there had once been friendship and passion between them.
Merlin had often wondered whether if he had revealed his magic before they'd become intimate -- before Arthur had pushed him up against the wall and kissed him that first time, before he'd taken him to bed -- whether the fallout wouldn't have hurt quite so much. But he knew that as far as he was concerned, all that was only the physical manifestation of a love that had been burning quietly inside of him for years, and selfish a thought as it might be, he could only be fiercely glad they'd had those few short months together.
It hurt to remember, now, Arthur happy, laughing with breathless joy as they tumbled together on the royal bed, hair mussed and skin slick with sweat as he slid into him; hot affectionate kisses and the strangled exhalation of Merlin's name on his lips; sitting comfortably together, legs tangled as they pored over the latest reports in this very chamber. Merlin closed his eyes and swallowed, awaiting Arthur's command.
Arthur cleared his throat. Merlin wondered whether he, too, was remembering the last time Merlin had been here. Whether he was embarrassed, or regretful, or whether there was no room in his heart for anything besides anger.
"If there's one thing I've learned, as king," Arthur said at last, "it's that things fall apart." He pinched the bridge of his nose. "You can't ever just put them back together the way they were. A siege-battered castle takes time to rebuild. War-ravaged crops take time to regrow. People, too. Like -- like Gwen and I."
Merlin blinked. He well knew how that had turned out. Knew, too, that it wasn't Gwen that Arthur had called him in to talk about. It wouldn't be the first time Arthur had spoken about Gwen when he really meant to talk about Merlin, invoking her as a kind of living metaphor. Perhaps if he hadn't, they all might have figured a few things out a little sooner.
"It's not... it's never easy, Merlin. However much we might wish for it to be so. You can't just... you can't just magic things better."
They both winced at that. A low blow, but not undeserved, Merlin supposed.
"Sire, you know I would never," Merlin began, but Arthur waved a hand to silence him. He rose from his chair and crossed to within touching distance of Merlin.
"These things take time. You can't just come back and expect... trust has to be built again. On both sides."
That was the closest Merlin was likely to get to an apology for being banished, he knew. A formal pardon in front of the court had been welcome, but not the same, and it warmed Merlin's heart to see that Arthur was able to at least acknowledge that he'd hurt him, too.
"We have to learn," Arthur continued, "If we're even the same people we were. If we ever really knew each other at all. If we can ever occupy the same places in each other's... lives."
"Arthur, I --"
Arthur held up a hand, clearly not finished, and Merlin bit his lip to keep from blurting out promises and assurances Arthur hadn't asked for.
"The thing is, Merlin, these things take time. It's a long important process and --" Arthur lifted his head, looking Merlin in the eyes for almost the first time since his return. There was that set to his jaw he got when he was about to demand the impossible simply because he was king and he willed it so. "I don't want to do any of that. I just want you. I just want you to be kissing me right now."
Merlin froze, sure his ears were playing tricks on him, but there was something in Arthur's eyes very much like hope, sparking a similar feeling within his own breast. He took a step forward, two, and pulled Arthur into his arms, reveling in the solid feeling of Arthur's body against his, being able to breathe in his scent again after so long. Merlin's hand slid up to cup Arthur's jaw, his breathing unsteady as he followed his king's command and kissed him, hot and sweet and lingering.
Like an invisible thread pulled taut, Merlin felt the wounds between them begin to heal a little more with every press of lips, every desperate hitch of breath. Things between them might not be fixed, not yet, but as Arthur's hands slid beneath his shirt, skin meeting skin, he knew without a shadow of a doubt that they would be.