Every night after dark he steals into Arthur's room. Should Arthur wake, Merlin is prepared with a dozen explanations regarding his presence, but he never does.
He knows he must tell Arthur about his magic. He knows Arthur is not Uther. Arthur does not believe the things about magic that Uther did. The ban on magic remains, but Merlin does not fear for his life. He does not believe Arthur would sentence him to death, or even exile Merlin. If he did, Merlin also knows he could douse a fire or protect Arthur from afar. He has thought many times he would be forced to do just that.
No, the fear that crawls up Merlin's spine and lodges in his throat to choke him is due to a much simpler, and yet far worse, threat.
The trust for which he has toiled day after day and year after year to attain will be shattered in an instant.
Words, motives, promises will all be thrown into question. Innocent actions will be cast into shadow. Pure deeds will be suspect. The house of cards Merlin has constructed will come crashing down because he will be destroying its very foundation.
Merlin cares not for his position in the court, or even with the knights. He cares not for the rumours that will inevitably fly about his presence at Arthur's side or in Uther's court. He only cares for Arthur.
It's hypocritical and selfish and Merlin hates himself every moment of every day for it. Arthur has been betrayed by so many he trusted and Merlin cannot bear to be another name on that list. It does not diminish his betrayal in any way, but at least this way he still has Arthur. And whether Arthur would believe it or not, he will always have Merlin. Arthur may not trust Merlin once he knows, but Merlin will never betray Arthur in a way that truly matters.
In the end, though, when Arthur finds out – because it is an inevitability, no matter how long Merlin puts it off – Arthur will lose a manservant and confidant. But Merlin? Merlin will lose everything. He has known all along that Arthur is his destiny, but over the years he has become so much more.
It is for all of these reasons and a hundred more about which Merlin can scarcely think, that Merlin creeps into Arthur's chambers every night. He curls up in a chair by the dying fire, pulls his knees up to his chest, and wraps his arms around himself.
He can hardly contain his magic in Arthur's chambers with only the night air between them. He allows it to roam free and it always flows to Arthur. It brushes his hair out of his face, and pulls his blankets up tight. As his magic fusses over the sleeping king, Merlin talks. He whispers, with no desire to wake Arthur, but a private hope in the corner of his mind that Arthur can hear him. He wishes with every fibre of his being that it will make a difference. That when Merlin finally has the courage to speak to Arthur out loud and in the light of day, Arthur will understand.
So Merlin tells him of quests and conquests, fair maidens and dragons, beasts and their masters, and magic's role in the whole thing. Merlin's role.
He retires to his own quarters feeling a little lighter each night, filled with a little more hope. They've gotten through one more day together, and Merlin has gotten through one more confession.
But by the light of day, when he rouses Arthur each morning, the heaviness settles deep down into his bones once again. The weight of his betrayal is a physical burden. Merlin knows he must tell Arthur, and not whilst in the depths of slumber, or under some external threat, but of his own volition and choice.
For now, however, he allows himself this cowardice. Cloaked in quiet nights and firelights, he tells Arthur his secrets.