Morgana plays her part beautifully, as Merlin has always known she would. It all unfolds fluidly, right up until that moment Arthur sits talking to Morgana while the boy is in the dungeon. She is watching his mind open when Merlin opens the door. She says, “I trust him,” before Arthur can open his mouth to send Merlin to the stables.
Arthur hesitates, just as he had the first time, and then speaks the truth. “We are going to break the boy out of the dungeons.”
“Have you decided,” Merlin says, quietly, “that your father is wrong?”
“It cannot be justice to murder a child,” Arthur answers. “I cannot betray my father, but I cannot allow this to happen.”
“Even if the child has magic?” Merlin asks.
“He has harmed no one with it,” Arthur says. “My father says magic must be evil, but that feels like a lie.”
“It is,” Merlin says, and lets his voice deepen, lets the years creep in, still young, but with a voice of authority.
“Merlin…” Arthur starts.
Merlin kneels in front of him, head bowed. “It took me a thousand years to figure out how to right the wrong I did you, not telling you before you were dying.” He looks up, tears in his eyes. “It was worth every moment I spent coming back here, to this moment, to right that wrong.”
Arthur pushes the chair over, scrambling to his feet. “What… What are you… Stop that.”
“It is a tool,” Merlin says, looking up at him. “Like a sword, like an axe, like a knife, like fire… it can be used for great ills, and small, but it can also be used for greater good and small conveniences.” His eyes fixed on Arthur, Merlin stands, saying, “You need never fear me or my magic.”
Arthur lets out an involuntary snort. “As if I’d fear you.” But there is fear in his eyes.
“If I meant you harm,” Merlin says, stepping back, “You’d be dead. Even now, so early in our time, you already know that I have saved your life, and there have been more times than you know. By the time I couldn’t stop it, I’d saved your life scores of times.” He paces back to the wall opposite them.
“You can’t have magic.” Arthur’s moment of bravado is gone. “You’re Merlin. You’re…” and here he gesticulates wordlessly, “ you.”
Merlin leans against the wall and gives Arthur a wry half-grin, one eyebrow raised, arms folded across his chest. He wiggles his fingers a tiny bit until a shimmering, familiar sphere hovers there at his elbow. He makes a tiny gesture with his chin, sending the blue light to hover in front of Arthur, at chest level.
Arthur stares at it for a long moment, processing, and starts to open his mouth several times, but nothing comes out. Finally he manages to speak.”Why? Why me? You claim that you can make time go backwards and yet you cleaned my chamber pot this morning. Badly, I might add. Why would you demean yourself if you have that much power? I’m not even crown prince yet.”
“Because you are willing to defy the most important person in your life and break his most important law to save a child. Because I watched you rule against impossible odds, and make the kingdom better,” Merlin says. “Because for all your bluster, you are, at your heart, good. You are my King and the last king I will ever serve.”
“My father…” Arthur says, a helpless look crossing his face. “I cannot stop him from these atrocities.”
“No, but I can. You won’t like it, but I promise I will not injure him, and I will not use anything against him but the truth. He harms Camelot daily.” Merlin’s face is resolute, and Arthur is not sure he’s ever seen anything so certain.
“You think the truth will make him see reason?” Morgana asks, almost laughing, but there is no humour in her voice, only exasperated disbelief.
“The first time through,” Merlin says, “His hatred of magic hurt and twisted you until you betrayed him. And it broke him. The net effect of his years of abuse, both personal and political, ultimately killed him. Then it tore Camelot with war, killed you, and mortally wounded Arthur.”
They both take a step back, eyes wide.
Merlin looks down at his hands, and gives a self-deprecating laugh. “I was told, after, that Arthur would rise when Camelot’s need was greatest. I waited for nearly a thousand years and watched the world end before I realised that the need was greatest now.” He tries to suppress a small sob of hysteria at the thought of it, and thinks he’s done it until he sees the looks on their faces. ”I really am that thick,” Merlin says, dashing at his cheeks with the backs of his hands.
“Merlin,” Arthur says, and then stops, his usual bravado overwhelmed by the weight of what Merlin is saying, by his emotion, by the wave of responsibility he sees thundering down on him, inescapable and implacable. “I don’t… what do we do now?” He looks impossibly young.
Merlin pulls himself together, responding to Arthur’s confusion. “Now?” Merlin says. “Now we talk to Uther.”
“The boy…” Morgana starts.
“Will be returned to his people, if he wants,” Merlin says. “By Arthur. That, at least, we did not fail the first time around. Though we may use less drama to accomplish that. Uther, on the other hand, will require quite a bit of drama.”
At this, he stands and straightens his body to its full height, allowing a few of his years to pad his shoulders and mature his face. Not beyond recognition, but enough. With a tiny flick of his wrist his clothing alters, twists, and brightens. Not the old man disguise he once favoured, his face is bare, his hair still black, as the Pendragon crest glimmers large and golden on his chest, rich robes flowing down from his hands.
“You look like a sorcerer,” Arthur’s voice is matter of fact, to his own surprise.
“Warlock… ish,” Merlin responds, opening his hand to receive the staff that appears there, pulled from a future that will never happen. A rowan staff with a gold dragon curling at the top of it, around a blood red stone. He gives Arthur a smile. “Your warlock.”
Arthur looks completely daunted at the very notion.
Merlin turns his attention to Morgana, and asks, “Are you ready to speak your truth?”
“I… only dream,” she says, shaking her head, her voice full of denial.
Arthur looks at her, some of Merlin’s words finally connecting. “Morgana?”
“Right now she dreams truth, or possible truth.” Arthur has never heard Merlin’s voice so deep, so sure. Merlin continues, “Soon her magic will awaken. I failed her, once, and she despaired, twisted, then betrayed us all, as we had betrayed her. She was… will be one of the most powerful sorceresses in the land. You need her on your side, Arthur. She has a destiny of her own. I would not see her so damaged again.”
Seeing doubt remaining on both their faces, Merlin places the staff on the table and says “Ásæge.” A cloud forms there, and both Arthur and Morgana see her, a white dragon circling her head as, arms raised, as she appears to call something to the sky, power flashing around her. The apparition is silent, but the result is clear as the dragon turns and follows her gesture.
“I saw this with my own eyes,” he says, pulling his hand up and allowing the image to dissipate. “At the time, the only person in all of Albion with more magic was… me.”
“My hair was terrible,” Morgana murmurs, and Arthur looks at her as if she has suddenly grown horns.
“You see yourself ordering a dragon about, and all you can think is that your hair was bad?”
“Hardly all,” she snaps. “I don’t have words for the rest of it.”
“You didn’t take Gwen with you when you left us,” Merlin says. “Your only concern by that point was revenge. I hope that you will have less need of it this time.” And with that he gives her a wry smile. “If only for the sake of your hair.”
He sobers. “There will be more truths revealed today, Morgana. Be prepared.” His gaze shifts to Arthur. “You as well. There may come a moment when I need to restrain you from taking your own revenge for wrongs already past. I will not hurt you, but I also won't allow you to kill him.”
“He’s my father,” Arthur says, horrified. “I could never…”
Merlin’s hand comes down flat on the table and Arthur sees himself in the Council room with a sword point pressed to his father’s chest, silently yelling.
“I didn’t…” Arthur says, horrified, as the image disintegrates. “I couldn’t…”
“I stopped you,” Merlin is quieter, filled with complex sorrow. “I stopped you with a lie because I could not bear to see you break under the weight of patricide.”
He reaches out to them and then says, “Try to move.”
They both find themselves locked into place, for a moment only. A look of anger flashes across Arthur’s face, while curiosity rises on Morgana’s.
Merlin drops his hands, releasing them and says, “I do not boast when I say that I can stop you with a thought. Uther cannot harm me. He will not harm you. And I will not allow you to break yourselves with your anger when it simply won’t be needed.”