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A blearing ball of light flashed in the calm forest, sending birds and hare scurrying. It vanished as quickly as it appeared and dropped two forms to the grassy floor as it left. They both groaned, slow to pick themselves up as their spinning visions steadied. The darker haired man reached out to the blond but the hand was swatted away before it could touch him.

 

“Get off me,” he shoved the lengthy man away. “Don’t touch me. Stay far away you damn traitor.”

 

The blond readily assessed their surroundings, his flickering eyes spotting his sword. Like a warrior his instincts had him diving for the weapon in an instant. A pulse of agony flared from his side and he was crying out, hands retreating to grasp the torn, bleeding flesh beneath shredded fabric and a chunk of missing chainmail.

 

“Arthur!” The other ripped the red scarf from his neck and pressed it to the wound before Arthur could protest. Though, that didn’t stop him from trying.

 

“I told you to go away, Merlin. That’s an order,” he wheezed, glare fading with his fatigue.

 

“Yes, I heard you but right now you’re injured and that makes me in charge,” Merlin bit. Composing himself, he blew out a steadying breath and closed his eyes. Gold light peeked beneath his lashes as small words fell like a prayer from his lips. When the light faded, he wearily lifted the crumpled scarf. The bleeding had stopped and with a sigh of relief, Merlin gauged the wound wouldn’t be permanently debilitating.  “Ok, that helped a bit, good. Uhh.” Scanning the area, he grabbed Arthur’s hand and replaced it where his own was pushing against the scarf. “Keep it covered.” Hands free, Merlin stripped himself of his jacket and tucked it under Arthur’s head. “I’ll be right back, don’t move.”

 

“ ‘Can’t tell me what to do,” Arthur slurred. “I’m King .”

 

“Yes, Sire,” Merlin said distractedly, head turning left and right in his search. He sighed, ruffling the wavy black locks on his head. “Ok, you’re not in critical condition anymore so you should be fine if I leave for a bit. Get some rest. I might be awhile.”

 

“Wh’t ’re you planning... sorcer’r...?”  Arthur panted, fighting the heavy weight of his eyelids. He managed to catch the flinch Merlin gave at the word.

 

“Right now? A poultice. Then dinner. As it is, I have ingredients for neither so, like I said, I’ll be awhile.”

 

Merlin strode out of sight and in a fleeting moment of weakness, Arthur’s heart clenched at the thought of him not coming back. He cursed himself knowing the worry he felt was not for himself. That thing that attacked them was still out there. They couldn’t stop now, not with it so close. And Merlin just wandered away alone. No backup, no protection. The thought had Arthur jerking forward, but the shot of pain in his side dropped him back against the brown cloth of the jacket. A cold fog washed over his brain as sweat broke over his forehead. He couldn’t stop it, he blacked out.  

 

---

 

The mid-morning sun had moved on to the other side of the sky by the time Arthur felt his eyes begin to flutter. He twisted his head and dug his face into his pillow for a few more minutes of rest when his nose breathed in the overwhelming scent of Merlin. The smell was warm and welcoming, mixed with earth and herbs and firewood. He felt happily drunk on the aromas. When Arthur moved to press himself deeper into the pillow, a jolt of discomfort rang from his torso.

 

Peeling his eyes open, he gingerly lifted his head to peer down at his stomach. Deep gashes tearing across his side were generously slathered with some mash of plants, easing the ache he knew he should be feeling. To his left roared a fire, strips of rabbit sat roasting near the flames. Listening to the crackle of burning wood, Arthur pushed himself up on his elbows, frustrated with how winded he already felt.

 

“Careful,” a voice cautioned. Solid hands maneuvered him upright, the new position aggravating the injuries he couldn’t see. His lungs felt bruised and when his fingers moved to prod at the sting of his head, they found Merlin’s hand already there, spreading poultice where he imagined quite a laceration was found. “It’s not as bad as it looks,” Merlin assured.

 

Arthur groaned, shrugging away from him. “I told you not to touch me,” he muttered, dull and forlorn. Merlin froze, hand pulling away slowly.

 

“Yes, Sire. I was just reapplying poultice where some wiped off while you slept.” Arthur glanced down to the pillow - no, jacket - below him, seeing the green paste smeared into it. He refused to feel remorse. Instead he shut his eyes and sat there, listening as Merlin walked among their camp wordlessly. Thoughts swarmed his mind, his throat closing off as he tried to shove the emotions away. “Um,” Arthur flicked his eyes open to see Merlin hesitantly offering a stick of roasted rabbit. “You should eat.”

 

Merlin chose to sit and gaze into the fire instead of joining in the meal. Arthur was supposed to be angry, dammit, and he was. But something about Merlin’s forsaken expression had Arthur’s blood boiling with guilt.

 

“So, did you kill the monster?” Arthur tried for indifferent but missed by a mile, voice dripping with bitterness. Merlin frowned, eyes not moving from the orange flames.

 

“I tried but my magic didn’t have any effect on it..”

 

“It’s still alive!?”

 

“Yes, but I teleported us clear across the forest! We should be safe. It’s nearly impossible for it to track us at this distance.”

 

“But it is possible for it to track us?” Arthur spit, anger flaring higher. “Great. A useless servant and a worthless sorcerer. Really, I shouldn’t have expected more from someone as stupid as you, Merlin.” He heard a small voice in his head begging him to stop but he stomped it out to stew in his betrayal.

 

Merlin ducked his head, teeth piercing his lower lip. “My apologies, Sire, but this forest is immense to travel. I don’t think-”

 

“No, you don’t think do you?” Arthur couldn’t stay seated. He picked himself up - embarrassingly slow - and began to pace.

 

“Arthur, please-” Merlin followed.

 

He swung his head around, the servant digging his heels to a halt. “Don’t you ever call me that. You will address me like a decent subject from now on. Properly . Never utter my name in such a familiar fashion again.”

 

“Fine, then. Sire . Please let me explain,” Merlin pleaded, facing Arthur with round, despairing eyes.

 

“Why? So you can lie some more? Straight to my face without blinking an eye?”

 

“It’s not like that!”

 

“You were my best friend, Merlin!” Arthur fumed, hurt seeping from the spike of his tone. “I trusted you! I thought you trusted me! What the hell am I supposed to think seeing you suddenly using magic?”

 

“You’re supposed to trust that I can explain-”

 

“You shouldn’t have to be explaining anything in the first place! Not like this. You could have come to me with this any time during the last ten years we’ve known each other.”

 

Merlin felt something in him snap, his own rage emerging. “What, come out that I have magic? Because you welcome all sorcerers with wide arms, don’t you? It’s not as if some hypocritical psychopath of a father engraved his twisted logic into your head.”

 

How dare you speak about my father like th-

 

“It’s not like you haven’t slain your own fair share of sorcerers in your reign! It’s not like having magic hasn’t been explicitly punishable by death in your kingdom for the last thirty years! It’s not like you haven’t condemned sorcery or any kind of magic to me specifically in all that time! No, I should just believe that I’m special enough to have His Majesty overcome a lifetime of false teachings to finally see magic isn’t some form OF MENTAL AFFLICTION!

 

Well clearly it is if you’re anything to judge by!

 

UGH! ” Merlin growled, tugging his hair through clenched fists. “Gods, you are such a prat! If I have any mental affliction it’s because of all the stress I’ve endured saving your ungrateful arse all these years!”

 

Saving me? So what? Like I haven’t saved your life a dozen times more; you don’t see me holding it over your head! And without magic, mind you, but you’re so damn inapt with a sword I suppose you would revert to some cheap tricks and rubbish spells to get by.”

 

He huffed, harsh and irritated. “Not all of us can galavant around like barbaric manics swinging big knives in every direction! And they are not rubbish . I’ve saved a lot of people thanks to my magic. I could have saved more if I didn’t constantly have to keep it hidden to save my own neck. And yours seeing as you can’t make it a week without me having to break a curse, undo love potions, or stop the latest assassin hell bent on ending the Pendragon lineage!”

 

“Two of the three problems you just named are magic!”

 

Merlin backtracked, gritting his teeth. “You know what I meant! Magic is about the user. Not all of us are bad, it’s just you’ve only seen the ones who use it to do bad things.”

 

“No. You can’t trust anyone with that kind of power, all it does is corrupt. My father knew this.”

 

“Your father was wrong!”

 

No ,” he stormed forward, towering over Merlin with a dark glare, "he wasn’t .”

 

Watching a stricken expression twist over the sorcerer’s face, Arthur let his rage simmer down, feeling victorious in this argument. Merlin’s shoulders lowered, his head dropping as he tried to hide the way his lips wobbled.

 

“...Then am I just another corrupt sorcerer needing to be slain?” Merlin whispered, raising his head to reveal worn, gleaming eyes. And with those few words Arthur felt a pang in his chest, ripples of emotion crashing like waves in his mind, his anger leaving him, his soul feeling ice cold. “What will it be then, huh? How shall you execute the evil sorcerer? The pyre...? Cut off my head..? Run me through with Excalibur...?” He stood there patiently for Arthur to say something - anything - but the king couldn’t find his voice. Blinking back his tears, Merlin scoffed, turning away with a nod. “You’re a good man, Your Majesty,” he said in all sincerity. “Look, I’ll save you the trouble.”

 

Arthur watched in suspended horror as Merlin picked his dirty jacket up and shrugged it on, fixing his stained scarf over the collar. Stains of Arthur's blood he could tell wouldn’t wash out at the river where Merlin must have rinsed it off. After Merlin saved his life. Again .

 

Reality stabbed Arthur like a thousand daggers to his stomach and he brutally realized Merlin was walking away from him without another word.

 

“W- Wait. Where do you think you’re going?” he stammered, heart beating wild against his chest.

 

Merlin half turned back, still walking, and pointed in the opposite direction. “Camelot is that way. You should be able to make it back without running into any bandits, even with your injuries slowing you.”

 

Arthur choked back the bile rising in his throat. “ I asked you a question ,” he insisted, thunderous tone dropped to a murmur. That made Merlin stop.

 

Back to his king and head hung low, Merlin spoke hollowly.

 

“You know it’s funny how sons grow up to be just like their fathers.” Arthur felt a spear thrust through his heart. “ Me , abandoning the person I was destined to be with because of Uther’s laws. Cursed to dwell in caves alone for the rest of my life. Forever hiding.... You ,” he paused, the silence deafening. “... You .” He chuckled, wet and lifeless. “I really thought we were gonna be different from them.”

 

Neither of them said anything after that. They were drowning in the noiselessness of the forest and Arthur didn’t know how to fix it.

 

“Merlin…I-” Merlin’s shoulders suddenly tensed.

 

“Shh,” he hushed, eyes darting around in quick, frantic motions.

 

Arthur edged toward his sword, listening to the shing of it unsheathing in the stillness. “What do you hear?”

 

Merlin waved his hand out, putting his finger over his lips. With baited breath, they lingered in the dead silence of the woodland. Merlin knew what this silence meant. "... It found us ."

 

A piercing roar erupted from the brush, shaking the very floor beneath them. Stiff muscles betraying him, Arthur couldn’t move fast enough before the beast launched itself into him, the impact hurtling the knight across camp and into a tree with a bone-chilling crack.

 

"ARTHUR!" Merlin shot his hand out, molten gold eyes blazing. The monster - teeth baring inches from Arthur’s neck - froze, ripped from the ground and sent flying backwards behind the treeline.

 

Heaving in a breath, Merlin crashed to one knee, fist clenching his chest. His legs shook and his ankles twisted with every move as he dragged himself forward, seeing the blond splayed out on the forest floor struggle to lift his head.

 

Merlin ..” Arthur reached out, blood trickling from his mouth.

 

“I’m here. I’ve got you,” he soothed, hooking Arthur’s arm around his neck. “We have to go, come-” Arthur shrieked, shrill and heartrending. Merlin released him immediately, nearly dropping the man as he laid him back against the tree.

 

“I- Something’s wrong. I can’t- I can’t.” Arthur grit out between his teeth.

 

Before Merlin could respond another roar blasted out, this time right behind him. From the corner of his eye Merlin could see it coming, the beast that was going to kill them.

 

NO !” Merlin threw himself over Arthur and-

 

A burst of power surged out of him, eyes consumed with white.

 

The earth, the trees, the air, all jolted at his cry, their energy rushing through him like a burst dam. A wall of light intercepted the charging creature, stretching wide to form a dome over them.

 

A shield.

 

Merlin quickly turned to Arthur and pressed his glowing hand to the man’s chest. He felt the air rush into collapsing lungs, his spine realigning to its proper curve, his ribs connecting back into place. Everything was almost healed when a sudden crash boomed around them.

 

Merlin faltered, blue irises snapping back into place. Glow fading, Merlin made out the large shadow cast over them, turning his head slowly.

 

Hide thicker than a wild boar's, claws sharper than scythes, face fiercer than the most vicious of wolves, eyes redder than a Pendragon cloak. It's fur - that tussled, pitch black fur - brought the night itself with every hair. This was a creature of nightmares.

 

The wolf dragged itself up onto its hind legs, momentum building as its nails pierced and shredded into the thin shield of light surrounding them. Magic buzzing as the paws sunk deeper, another pulse threw the monster back and the shield stitched itself together. That only seemed to make it angrier. Raging forward again and again, it snarled and roared, tearing at the fabric of magic and getting tossed back in an endless cycle, hellbent on it's prey.

 

Merlin couldn't tear his eyes away, fear-stricken as he anticipated the moment the shield would stop mending itself; when it would shatter and let those long, snarling fangs seep into them both.

 

"Merlin!" Arthur snapped, screams muffled by the vicious snarls of the hound. "Don't just sit there, do something! Can't you magic us away again?"

 

Merlin felt the fading sensation of magic in his chest, it's overflowing warmth dying into something void and cold.

 

"I can't,” he shook his head with miserable resign. “I mean- Teleporting us the first time took almost everything I had.” And Arthur saw, for the first time since that morning, just how exhausted Merlin was. Pale faced, ragged breathing, dark bags beneath his eyes. He wondered if Merlin had been this tired the whole time he was caring to his injuries. He hadn’t even asked if Merlin was hurt. “The only way I’m managing to keep this shield up is because the forest is helping me. But even that’s beginning to fade.”

 

“Then teleport us as far as you can and we’ll figure it out from there.”

 

“You can’t move, I’d probably black out, we’d be stranded.”

 

“Then get us home and we can gather my knights!”

 

“No way, this thing found us from the other side of the forest! If we go, it will definitely follow us back to Camelot. The monster will rampage the lower towns all the way up to the castle; people will die, the knights won’t be able to stop it. Besides I don't have enough magic to teleport us bo-" Arthur's stomach dropped as he watched realization flash across those beautiful blue eyes.

 

" No . Merlin, no, don't you dare."

 

His servant cupped his cheek in those long, slender fingers, capturing his gaze in a futile last glance.

 

"If I’m not able to defeat it,” Merlin spoke fast, ignoring Arthur’s pleading words of protest and aching grip on his upper arms. “Lock the gates. Double the guard. Tell Gaius about the beast, there has to be a spell somewhere to stop it. Tell him to check the book beneath the floorboard next to my bed if he must, just find something. Sire, I know you don’t trust magic and I know you don’t want to hear this, but if I die-”

 

“Stop talking this instant, Merlin! That’s an order and you will listen to your-”

 

If I die, Gaius is the only other person I trust to protect you and your kingdom. Magic is the only thing that can stop this thing and Camelot doesn’t exactly have many sorcerers on her side!” he barked, frown twitching and expression grave. “Look, just- There’s a chance it will give up on you after it’s done with me but promise me you’ll trust in Gaius if it doesn’t.”

 

Done with- I’m NOT leaving you here to die!”

 

“Dammit, Arthur, think of your people!”

 

“I am thinking of them, I’m thinking of you! You’re apart of Camelot, too!”

 

Merlin’s face fell at that, eyes hooded and bleak. He glanced back to the wolf for just a second, something flickering over his eyes as he decided something. He spoke: “Magic, my very existence, has been persecuted and villainized throughout this land for decades. The only reason I wasn’t arrested the moment I walked through those gates is because I kept who I really was a secret. Knowing that if I ever revealed myself, the people I love would have to suffer my sentencing or-” His downcast eyes flickered to Arthur for a moment, not daring to meet his eyes. “Or come to hate and resent me for being what I am and I couldn’t- I can’t bare either option... I may have lived in Camelot, but I was never truly accepted as one of her people.”

 

Arthur’s heart shattered. “That’s not-” The wolf let out another deafening roar, Arthur and Merlin scrambling to cover their ears.

 

“Time’s up...” he whispered and Arthur latched his hands around Merlin’s arms once more.

 

“Come with me,” the blond breathed. “We can fight it together, like we always do. You won’t have to live in a cave, you can stay in Camelot. I’ll protect you. Just come with me, Merlin, please, please, just-”

 

Merlin kissed his forehead, lips trembling as he pulled away and then bowed to kiss the edge of his mouth. “I love you, Arthur..."

 

“I- Merlin, DON'T! " Merlin's irises burned gold and a flash of light consumed the scene before him, swallowing the last fleeting image of his love with it.

 

Arthur peeled his eyes open, distantly aware he was still on the floor but the softer patches of grass and dirt were replaced with something firmer, flatter, and the sky above turned into a high ceiling atop gray walls.

 

"Your Majesty!" a voice called and a hazy outline of Leon slowly focused itself above him. Then, Arthur remembered.

 

"MERLIN!" he shot up. A cry of pain bellowed out of him as he crashed back to the ground, insides burning and the feel of prickling needles digging into his skin everywhere.

 

"Call Gaius!" Leon ordered, several lumpy forms disappearing from Arthur’s sight as his vision swam. Everything was wrong. Where was Merlin? Merlin? Merlin! "We don't know, Sire, you just appeared here in the throne room alone." It took far too long for Arthur to register he had been speaking aloud.

 

"Leon... Leon, please!" his hand fumbled for his cloak, voice small and broken in his daze. "The forest- Merlin, he... There's a monster. Tell Gaius: it’s wolf-like, black fur, red eyes, we couldn’t stop it. We- I couldn’t. Please, lock the gates, d-double the guard. Merlin's... still out there- Gods, no, he- Send patrols east and arm yourselves. Don’t- Don’t let it find you but- bring Merlin back. Bring him home. Please, please bring him back to me.." His words died to less than a whisper, the conversation only heard by those closest to him, then only Leon.

 

"Of course, My Lord. Right away," Leon assured him and Arthur tipped his perspiring head back, eyes rolling as he finally dipped into unconsciousness.

 

-----

 

Arthur woke up in his own bed two days later, Merlin nowhere in sight. Gaius was there, though, giving him food and water and telling him the extent of his injuries - or so he said. When the old physician seemed to skirt around certain things, feigning just how terrible the wounds really were, Arthur realized it wasn’t just Merlin keeping secrets.

 

The injuries were months ahead of their healing, their damage obvious but the rapid recovery nearly unexplainable; Merlin and him had only been gone four days and the wolf hadn’t attacked them until the fourth. The physician refused to comment, and that’s when Arthur knew.

 

“Merlin healed the worst of it with his magic.”

 

Gaius stiffened, white hair falling over his eyes as he absently fiddled with some potions. “Yes, I can see that.”

 

“But you weren’t going to say it.” It wasn’t a question or an accusation; it was hardly a sound. He covered his watery eyes with the curve of his arm, asking, “How bad was it, really? Before he...”

 

“Sire-”

 

“I need to know.”

 

The old man sighed with a heaviness that surely matched that on both their hearts. “I have cared for you all your life, Sire, and I have seen your many injuries and the scars they left behind. These,” his hand motioned to the expanse of pink skin and it’s jagged-claw pattern that trails toward his hip, “were not here before. It’s difficult to say I have not seen many scars as vicious as these because most people don’t live long enough for the wounds to heal over.”

 

“I see,” Arthur swallowed. “And my back?”

 

“Arthur, give it time-”

 

“I heard my bones crack.” A tear fell from beneath his arm, running down his cheek. “I couldn’t move. And when Merlin tried to lift me… it felt like I was being burned alive. I- I couldn’t move, I couldn’t breath, I couldn’t-” His teeth grinded together, a cry slipping free.

 

Gaius turned his head,his eyes shining as he gazed blankly out the window. “Leon said you suddenly appeared in a ball of light right in the middle of the throne room. Teleporting spells can be particularly taxing on the caster, same as healing spells.”

 

“He wouldn’t come with me.”

 

“I don’t think he could, Sire.”

 

“But look what he’s done! Look at me,” Arthur shouted, flinging his arm away to glare with his red, furious eyes. “I would be dead three times over if it weren’t for him. And that’s just in one day; that’s just from what I’ve seen! How many times has he saved me in the last ten years I’ve known him?” Gaius dunked his head, silent. “Answer me!”

 

“I don’t know, Sire. By now I’m sure even Merlin’s lost count.”

 

Arthur growled and slammed his head back against the pillow, grimacing at the wave of dizziness that surged through him. After a few rough breaths, Arthur tossed the blanket aside, shoving his prickling legs out of bed.

 

“Arthur, please! If you strain yourself, you may never recover to your full abilities. Lie down.” Gaius knew he wasn’t getting through to the king mentally, but his failing physical strength left him at the mercy of the physicians careful hands. “We can’t let Merlin’s work go to waste. His magic pulled you this far into your recovery, now you must fight the rest of the way. Right now, that means rest.”

 

“What if they don’t find him, Gaius?”

 

Neither of them had an answer.

 

….

 

Gaius ordered Arthur to rest at least three more days before attempting anything even as strenuous as walking. He almost made it through one before he was pushing himself out of his bed and into the halls of his castle.

 

His muscles felt ablaze with fire, each step agonizing as he moved himself along the stone walls. By the time he reached the staircase, his heart was bruising itself against his ribs, face and hands clammy with sweat. He knew he made a mistake the second he lifted his foot, his whole body shifting forward as he felt gravity tugging him over the edge.

 

“ARTHUR!” A pair of hands yanked him backwards, his body crashing into the small form as they collapsed to the floor. Arthur hissed out a groan, lost in the unpleasant tingling sensation under his skin when the voice piped up. “Arthur, what were you thinking? You shouldn’t even be out of bed!”

 

“Guinevere...” Arthur mumbled, peeking one eye open to stare at the frightened maidservant. “I need to find-”

 

“Sire!” Leon shouted, racing towards them both.

 

“Leon, he nearly threw himself down the stairs. Help me get him to his chambers.”

 

“I’m fine,” Arthur protested but he could hardly fight them as Leon carried him back to bed. “Forget me, have you found Merlin?”

 

“We’re still looking, Sire. But…”

 

Arthur felt something cold creep around his heart. “But what?”

 

Long curls bounced as Leon turned his head, pulling a familiar red cloth from his pocket. “Arthur…”

 

“Don’t.” Arthur took a moment to remember how to breath before taking the scarf. It still felt the same, even with all the frayed edges where something sharp obviously tore through it. He couldn’t tell if any of the stains were new. “And the beast?”

 

“It’s gone, Sire. No one’s seen it anywhere near Camelot.”

 

He rubbed his thumb over the fabric, quiet. “Keep looking.”

 

….

 

There was a small knock on the door.

 

It cracked open, Gwen leaning in. “Arthur?”

 

The king sat near his desk, chair turned towards the window as he looked down to the knights wandering into the square. Gwen peeked over his shoulder to see, the corner of her lips flinching.

 

“I called off the search.”

 

“I know. You had to, Arthur, it’s been six days. The knights need to go home to their families.”

 

“Right.”

 

Gwen’s mouth stretched into a thin line, gaze worried. She glanced to the desk, a tray of bread and cheese from the night before left untouched. “I’m going to get you more food. I’ll be back in a bit, alright?”

 

“Right.”

 

He didn’t watch her leave and didn’t speak when she returned.

 

….

 

“That’s enough!”

 

Arthur startled at the sudden tug, his chair swiveling around with an unheard of display of strength from the maidservant. His grip was still clinging to the either side of his seat as he dragged back his moment of panic, avoiding her eyes.

 

“...That was unnecessary,” he mumbled.

 

Gwen shoved a tray of food onto his lap with a huff. “Arthur, you need to eat.”

 

“I’m not hungry.” He pushed the platter away only for Gwen to shove it harder.

 

“It’s been ten days! Four of which I’ve had to carry away a majority of your meals because you refuse to eat them. Your body can’t heal like this, Arthur. Do you understand?”

 

“Yes,” he whispered but he still didn’t move.

 

“Arthur, please. I want to help you but you need to let me. You don’t have to tell me what happened,” she wrapped his hand in hers, “but you have to eat something. For me? Please, Arthur, I already lost one friend. I don’t want to lose another.”

 

It was in that moment when hesitant blue eyes met those piercing brown ones that he saw it. He saw all the sorrow and agony and fury he’d been feeling since he woke up reflected back at him. And it burned.

 

“I’m sorry,” he said and Gwen frowned. “You’ve been taking care of me and I’ve been so consumed with my own pain, I never considered you might be suffering too. I seem to be good at that…”

 

“Oh, Arthur…” Gwen set the tray on the ground and hugged him. “Come on, let’s eat at the dining table, yeah?”

 

Arthur nodded, sucking in a deep breath before slowly lifting himself from his chair. His arms and legs trembled with the effort, but Gwen linked their arms and they steadily inched away from his desk. “Ah, wait, my work.”

 

“I’ll get it for you,” she said as she eased him down and brought the food over to place in front of him. “You just sit right here and eat.” Arthur picked up a chunk of cheese with a small smirk, showing it off to her before munching on it. Gwen smiled. “These right here?” she asked, lifting up a stack of parchment. When Arthur hummed in approval, she made her way back to him, unable to stop herself from glancing at the fine lines of ink. She stopped, eyes glued to the documents. “Arthur, is this…?”

 

“The big secret? Yeah. I just finished them this morning. I’m going to hand deliver them to my council as soon as I’m done eating. I could use your help going down the stairs, if you don’t mind?”

 

Gwen stared at him, slack jawed. “I… I don’t understand. This is the work you wouldn’t let anyone see? I thought it would be about Merlin; some funeral arrangements or a knighting ceremony or… What does repealing the laws on magic have to do with Merlin?”

 

Arthur waited and watched as things clicked together behind her eyes, face falling in realization. She quickly stepped forward, kneeling before him and grabbing his hands, a question in her eyes. “Yes,” he answered.

 

“For how long? I mean- No, we would have seen something. We would have known.” Tears prick her eyes, head shaking. “He would have told us!”

 

“Has he ever spoken about magic to you? Discussed it in any way, maybe after a battl-”

 

“Oh, Gods…” she gasped, hand covering her mouth. “Oh, no, what did I do?” The heel of her palm digs into her eyes. “Merlin… Merlin always listens to me when I’m having an awful day. He’s so kind and quiet, I just rant. I didn’t mean to-” her voice cut out, teeth digging into her lower lip.

 

Arthur rubbed her shoulder, shushing her as little whines began to escape. “It’s ok, Gwen. You didn’t know.”

 

“You don’t get it, I said things to him! Terrible things about magic. I blamed it for everything, even things I knew I shouldn’t but I was just so angry . I couldn’t stop thinking about my father and Morgana and Lancelot and how it keeps taking everyone we love away. I snapped and screamed for hours, and Merlin just sat there. He just… sat there and listened to everything…” She deflated in on herself, voice dropped to a whisper. “No wonder he never told me. He thinks I’d hate him.”

 

Arthur laid his hand on top of Gwen’s head where she had it resting on his knee. “If it makes you feel any better, whatever you said couldn’t possibly be as bad as the things I told him in the forest.”

 

That made her look up. “Oh, no...”

 

He gave her a self-deprecating grin, unable to meet her red-rimmed eyes for more than a second before his were overflowing with tears. She rose to her feet, wrapping him in her arms as he muffled his cries into his hand.

 

“I messed up… I messed up and now I can’t fix it. He was going to leave me, Gwen, and I deserved it after everything I said. But the monster came and he used the rest of his magic to send me back to Camelot. I’ve been trying to think of how he could have survived, maybe he got away somehow, but-” The words choked off at the end and Gwen held him tighter. “I tried to make him come with me, I did, but he wouldn’t listen. He was still thinking about me and Camelot and- dammit he didn’t even believe this was his home anymore. Because I’m such an idiot.” His fingers dredged through his hair, nails clawing into his scalp.

 

“Arthur-”

 

“No, Gwen,” Arthur tugged away. “I called him a liar and a traitor and stupid and worthless… All he wanted to do was explain himself but I wouldn’t let him.” Arthur looked down at his hands, voice hollow, an echo.  “He told me he’d saved me before... I said So what?” He chuckled dryly, shoving his face into his hands. “I said So. What. Like it didn’t even matter. Like he didn’t matter.”

 

“You were angry, Arthur. You didn’t mean it.”

 

“I know I didn’t, but did he?” Arthur gazed into her eyes, mouth opening to say more when his breath hitched, face scrunching as more tears slipped down his cheek. His lashes flutter with little droplets, hands clenched together as he cleared his throat. “He asked me how I’d execute him.” There’s a pinch to his brow, like even he can’t believe the words coming out of his mouth. “How could I let it get so far that Merlin believed I’d actually execute him?”

 

“No. Merlin knows you would never hurt him.”

 

“He called me my father.” Gwen sucked in a breath. “Maybe he was right…” Arthur stares to the stack of parchment in her hands. “Tell me something; say there’s a place where who you are is punishable by death, and everyone hates the very thought of you - believes you’re inherently bad and no good could ever come of you. In order to live in this place, you keep who you really are a secret. Now you’re one of them: you make a home of a small room in the castle, make friends, work, serve and fight alongside the king himself to protect him and his people... But you’re not really one of them... You’re still you, just pretending not to be. And one day your secret is out and the person you fought so hard to protect all those years turn their back on you and you try to make them see reason, but it’s too late. They know what you are... Looking back on the place you made your home, here’s the question: were you ever truly one of its people?”

 

Arthur’s distant gaze snapped back to him with a blink, eyes trailing up to the maidservant. He flinched. Tears streamed down her face in torrents, lips pulled into a tight line as her fists ball up in the skirt of her dress. He made to reach for her, but she steeled herself with a fierce determination, a fire ablaze behind her irises.

 

“Of course he is. Merlin has and will always be apart of Camelot. It is his home.” She wiped her face furiously. “He has shed blood and tears protecting it, and even if he hadn’t, the people here love him more than he could ever know. And I can’t say what Uther would have done in this situation, but look at you, Arthur. Look at this,” she waved the papers in her hand. “I know it wouldn’t have been this. This is you , and this is good . You are not your father. Merlin would be so proud of you lifting the ban on magic for him.”

 

“You’re what?” a voice blurted. Arthur threw his head towards the sound, Merlin standing awestruck in the doorway with a victorious looking Gwaine behind him. His mind seemed to catch up with his outburst, cheeks coloring slightly. “Erm- Good morning.”

 

Merlin !” Gwen cried, running into his arms as she enveloped him in a hug. He stumbled a bit, a limp to his movements as he turned so she wouldn’t hit the makeshift sling around his arm, but he clung to her with a happy noise. “Oh, Merlin. I’m so sorry for everything I said. I don’t hate magic, I was just upset! Please, forgive me. Pl-” she froze, wide eyes glancing over to Gwaine. “I mean, not that you have anything to do with magic, no. Of course not. I was just- I, uh-”

 

“Gwen,” Merlin smiled, drawing her from her panic. “Gwaine knows, it’s alright. He’s not going to hurt me.”

 

“I would never hurt you either! You know that, don’t you? Even after everything I said that day...?”

 

His eyes softened. “Of course I know that. I’m just happy you guys still trust me after I lied to you for so long.”

 

“Eh, you had a pretty good reason, lad,” Gwaine smirked, patting the sorcerer’s shoulder. “I’m happy me and Perc finally found you. And in one piece! When the search was called off, I knew I had to keep looking but I didn’t expect to find you in walking condition... Or alive.”

 

“That’s right! How did you escape the beast? Is it dead? Did you-” Gwen cut off, the warring grief on Merlin’s face overwhelming. But he wasn’t looking at her.

 

Arthur stood next to his chair, white-knuckle grip on the table as he tried to steady his wavering form. Gwen rushed to his side to help, but he stopped her with a gentle raise of his hand.

 

When he spoke, it was directly to Merlin, the rest of the world faded away. “What took you so long?”

 

A shine washed over Merlin’s eyes, his chest heaving in the breath he couldn’t take. “I-... The beast is dead but there were some injuries. I- I couldn’t... walk, so I had to just lie there until I could gather enough magic to heal myself a bit. When I could finally move, I had to take it slow. I went a few days like that before Percival and Gwaine found me.”

 

Gwaine nodded with a grimace. “Me and Perc found him about two days ago but the poor lad was so hungry we decided to cook him a decent meal and just let him rest before we headed back. Perc is getting Gaius right now.”

 

“Good. But for the most part... you’re alright?” Arthur asked, Merlin nodding with a sniff. The king let out a sigh, his shoulders slumping and the deep wrinkles on his forehead easing. His words came out soft, the softest anyone had ever heard them: “ You scared me, you idiot.”

 

Arthur quickly gestured him forward, Merlin letting out a hitched sob as he ran. He swooped into those waiting, open arms, burying himself in the blond’s chest.

 

“I wasn’t sure,” he shook his head, “I wasn’t sure I could really come back or if you just said those things because-”

 

“I didn't, I meant it. I forgive you. I forgive you and I’m so sorry, Merlin. I’m so, so sorry. I didn’t means the those other things I said, I swear”

 

“Me neither,” he breathed, meeting those dazzling blue eyes with his own. “When I couldn’t move, I just kept thinking about the things I said to you and I'm sorry. You’re not Uther, Arthur, you’re nothing like him. You’re better.” Arthur felt a smile cross his face. “I’m also sorry for the things I said about your father. I know how much you loved him.”

 

“But you weren’t wrong. That’s the tough part,” he huffed hollowly. “You spoke more truth than anyone has dared to voice in decades. And it hurt to hear, but I needed to hear it. The only one who’s lied here is me. The things you’ve done for me… Merlin, it will always matter that you’ve saved my life, no matter how many times I’ve saved yours back. I hope you’ll tell me about all the people you’ve saved with your magic, and the ones you couldn’t. I want you to show me the things you can do with magic and how you’ve undoubtedly used it in your chores. And, lastly, I’m sorry I accused magic of giving you a mental affliction… I know that’s just you.”

 

Merlin burst into laughter, shoving lightly against Arthur’s chest. Even that seemed to be too much. Arthur winced, unable to choke back the small groan of pain that pushed through his lips.

 

Merlin removed his hands immediately only to shoot them forward once again when the sudden tug away nearly toppled Arthur over.

 

“Woah! I’m- no. I’m sorry. I forgot- The monster and your back- just- Here, here, let me.”

 

Merlin swiftly settled Arthur to his chest, one hand splayed wide at the dip of his spine, the other curling around the back of the king’s head, fingers brushing the nape of his neck. Arthur felt his own heavy blush as Merlin pulled their foreheads together, too enveloped in his ritual to notice the sly smirks from Gwen and Gwaine in the doorway. Arthur made a face at them but then a bright light began to glow, something warm and indescribable flowing through his veins. It bloomed across his back, flowing into the crevices of his muscles and around his bones.

 

As the light faded, Arthur opened his eyes. Merlin’s face was lax of any expression with his eyes half hooded, lips parted slightly and a gold hue glowing beneath black lashes. Arthur thought it was the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen.

 

Blinking, Merlin’s irises were blue once again, and he took a step back expectantly, his hands moving to cup Arthur’s elbows. After a few experimental flexes, the king shifted his legs, lifting one and then the other. Merlin backed up a bit further, allowing him space to stretch his arms, his back, his neck, his back again. He motioned a few training techniques, body swiveling left and right like he was fighting, phantom sword in hand. He laughed aloud, smiling radiant and sure.

 

Looking back, he strode toward Merlin with an unreadable expression. “I was wrong. There’s one more thing.”

 

Arthur’s arm hooked around Merlin’s waist, the warlocks hand skimming along the king’s cheek as their lips met. They could hear hollers from what sounded like not only Gwaine and Gwen, but also Leon, Percival, and Elyan - when had they gotten there? Merlin chuckled against his mouth and Arthur decided it didn’t matter.

 

They parted, red under the gazes of all their friends and Gaius, who was giving Merlin a knowing grin. Arthur just tugged him closer, nose digging into those black locks, and whispered: “I love you, too. Welcome home.”