Sometimes, Merlin really wanted to go back in time and give his younger self a real lecture or two.
Not that he ever would, because no matter what Gaius said, Merlin was not reckless enough to start messing around with timelines. And okay, yes, he’d been a bit reckless with his magic before, for Arthur’s sake, but going back in time was something that even Merlin knew was a bit too much of a risk.
Still, every once in a while, he wished that he could go back and sit his younger self down and tell him, listen, I know that you think that you can change things. I know that you think that if you work hard enough, and if you’re positive enough, you can get people to change—you can even get the world to change. But some things… some things just aren’t ever going to change.
It was just that he’d been so certain, waltzing into Camelot, young and carefree, that if he played his cards right and was careful that he could change people’s minds about magic. And then he’d met Arthur and he’d seen, underneath all that bravado and spoiled tendencies, a good man who didn’t wish harm against anyone simply for who they were born to be. And he’d let himself have hope.
Merlin finished shoving the last of his things into his bag. It wasn’t much. Not that he needed much. Between all those times hunting with Arthur and his own magic, he could survive pretty well out in the wilderness until he found the druids. It was more that he’d been in Camelot for years and when it came time to leave, all that he had to show for it was one small bag.
There were little things in there that he just couldn’t bear to get rid of: a tiny pewter dragon figure that Elyan had made in the smithy, a book that the knights had all chipped in to get him for the winter celebrations, a necklace of twine that Lancelot had made for him once while they were out on a hunting trip and discussing magic… there was even a small, teardrop shaped green stone. It had come off of one of Morgana’s necklaces, and she had given it to Merlin, telling him that someday, he might want to put it on a necklace and give it to a girl. Merlin had thought he’d get Elyan to put it on a necklace for his mother but after all that had happened with Morgana… he just couldn’t bear to get rid of it. It reminded him that there had been kindness once inside of her. It reminded him to mourn that.
Gaius was watching with a disapproving eye. “You are still needed here, Merlin.”
“I messed up.” Merlin double-checked that he’d put all his neckerchiefs in the bag. “I’ve messed it up, somehow, and now Arthur’s—”
“Arthur is not his father,” Gaius reminded Merlin, his voice going sharp. “He is not one given to hate.”
“But he’s given to loyalty!” Merlin replied. “And to conviction. He saw a sorcerer kill his father tonight, Gaius. You can’t blame him for thinking magic is evil—”
“I’m sure he doesn’t think—”
“He said that,” Merlin said, gritting his teeth. “He said, there is no place for magic in Camelot.”
“And yet you told me that he once said that perhaps Uther was wrong and the old ways were not so evil as he had thought.”
“People change, Gaius,” Merlin said, slinging the bag over his shoulder. “Morgana was a kind person once, too.” He sighed. It felt like a weight had settled over his shoulders, inside of his very bones, making his body heavier and dragging him inexorably down into the earth. “This is my fault, Gaius. I wanted to change things. I wanted to bring—I don’t know what I wanted.”
He sat down on the chair at the table, where he had sat so many times before to eat with Gaius after a long day of working with Arthur. Working ‘with’. Ha. He had thought of it that way, thought of them as… partners, equals, in their own way. But if he stayed he’d be working for Arthur. He couldn’t do that. He couldn’t hide his truth any longer, and he wouldn’t stand idly by while people were persecuted for who they were. It was one thing when it was Uther. Merlin had known that when Arthur became king, it would all change, it would be better.
Now thanks to him and his own foolishness, it never would be.
“He hates magic,” Merlin said quietly. “And it’s my fault. I need to go away, where I can be myself and not cause any more damage.”
Gaius reached across the table, taking Merlin’s hand in his. Gaius’s hands were always so large. They had always joked that Merlin had his ears, and Gaius had his hands. How much longer could those weathered hands work, healing and helping?
Merlin knew, although Gaius had never said it, that Gaius hoped Merlin would succeed him as court physician one day. Now Merlin was taking that away—breaking another person’s heart.
Yeah, well, he was breaking his own heart, and had broken Arthur’s in killing his father, and the gods knew he’d caused pain for half a dozen other people at least in the course of his time in Camelot. What was one more, at this point?
“My dear boy,” Gaius said, gently squeezing Merlin’s hand. “You cannot shoulder the world. Arthur’s choices, Uther’s choices, all of our choices are our own. And without you… I fear Arthur will become too like his father.”
“I wanted to tell him,” Merlin admitted. “I wanted to tell him that I—what I am. I thought, just as soon as he becomes king. And then… this happens.”
He wiped savagely at his eyes, rubbing away the tears before they could fall. “I keep trying, Gaius, and I just keep failing. Freya, Lancelot, Morgana, how many people am I supposed to just…” He shook his head. “I can’t do this anymore.”
Gaius released his hand and sighed. “Merlin, you are one of the most understanding men I have ever met. When are you going to learn to forgive yourself, as well?”
Merlin stood up and hefted his pack back over his shoulder. “When I’ve earned it.”
He wanted to say goodbye to people—it would hurt, not to say a proper farewell to Percy, Leon, Gwaine and the others. The cook, the other servants… but it was too dangerous. Not that his life was in danger, exactly. But if he said goodbye, it would just give them reasons to ask why, and he wouldn’t be able to tell them the truth, and it would just become this huge affair.
Instead, he just slipped down to the stables. He could just walk out of Camelot, as he had walked in on that first day, but Arthur had gifted him a horse a couple of years ago.
Merlin could still remember the awkwardness with which Arthur had presented the gift. Arthur tended to get brusque when he was embarrassed, and he had clearly been embarrassed about this. A horse was no small gift, after all.
“Is it my birthday?” Merlin had teased, knowing full well that Arthur had no clue when his birthday was (and Merlin was happy to forget about said birthday).
Arthur had flushed red and shoved the horse’s reins at him. It was a fine horse, a beautiful mare with a soft brown coat and big, warm eyes. “Since you’re always out riding with me, I thought it was only fair I give you a proper horse of your own,” Arthur had snapped defensively.
Merlin had just laughed and taken the reins, petting the horse’s big soft nose. “What’s her name?”
“I thought you might want to do that,” Arthur had replied. He’d been looking at Merlin in the way that he sometimes did, soft and fond, the way that made hope flutter in Merlin’s chest no matter how many times he tried to stamp it down.
“Gaudium,” Merlin had said.
“Latin?” Arthur had snorted. “Really, Merlin?”
“What? It means ‘joy’.”
“You are such a bookworm.” But Arthur had reached out and ruffled his hair—something Merlin wondered if Arthur knew only he could get away with—and the gesture, and the smile on his face, had revealed the affection in those words.
Now, Merlin used his magic to saddle Gaudium up. She stamped in restlessness and curiosity, obviously wondering where they were going so late at night and why they weren’t taking any of her other horse friends with them.
“I’m sorry, girl,” Merlin told her. “It’ll be a long time before you get such nice stables again.”
It didn’t feel like stealing, not when she was rightfully his, a gift. He’d taken with him all his other little gifts, so why not this one? Gaudium would help him to travel faster anyway, get away before Arthur could send out a search party.
Hopefully Gaius would be able to persuade Arthur that Merlin had left of his own accord and hadn’t been kidnapped. After all, it wouldn’t be the first time Merlin had disappeared. Just the first time he’d done it of his own free will.
There was the sound of the stable door creaking open. That was—nobody should be out here this late at night, why—
All of his supplies, which had been floating in the air, went crashing to the floor.
“Ow.” Merlin hopped back, rubbing his foot where the horse brush had fallen on it.
“You idiot, Merlin,” Arthur said, stepping forward and picking up the brush.
“You shouldn’t just step out of the shadows like that and startle people,” Merlin snapped back. His heart was pounding in his chest. Maybe Arthur hadn’t seen the magic. Maybe this was just a coincidence. Maybe…
Arthur set the brush down on the shelf and bowed his head a little. For a moment, there was utter silence. Then,
“Were you ever going to tell me?”
Merlin swallowed. “That I was leaving?”
The line of Arthur’s back was tight and stiff. “That you had magic.”
Anger bubbled up in Merlin’s veins, hot and violent. “You’ve made it pretty clear what would await me if I did.”
Arthur spun around. His eyes were rimmed red. “You didn’t think maybe before, before when—I’ve said, I thought—I used to think—”
“You said that magic has no place in Camelot,” Merlin said, his voice cold even to his own ears. “That means I have no place here either.
“I waited. I waited, and waited, for years, keeping quiet while your father killed innocent people and drove otherwise good people into committing acts of violence to try and end the reign of terror, to try and get a hand up on their oppressors. You can’t breed peace with hatred and fear, you used to say so yourself. I thought that once your father was dead, and you were king—not that I wished—I didn’t want—as much as I sometimes hated him, for what he did and how he treated you, I never wanted him dead. But when he was and you were king, I thought that things could be different. So I waited.
“Now you’re turning out just like him. I can’t wait anymore, Arthur. And I won’t stay here and watch you turn into Uther. I won’t watch you become a lesser man than you are.”
Merlin turned to finish the damn saddle but was grabbed by the elbow and spun back around. Gaudium shuffled backward, out of the way, whinnying in surprise. Arthur’s hands were gripping his upper arms, hard, his gaze fiery. “Is that what you were waiting for?” He demanded. “All this time, you were—I would see you, watching me in this way and I—I knew you were waiting, and I knew it was for—for my father’s death but I thought…”
“You thought what?” Merlin demanded. “That I was just like everyone else, waiting because—”
“You idiot,” Arthur growled, and then he kissed him.
Merlin had dreamed of this far too many times to resist. Although the prideful part of him wished that his instinct was to step back and do something like punch Arthur, his reaction instead was to melt into him, his fingers digging into Arthur’s shoulders and getting fistfuls of his shirt. Arthur kissed him like he was starving for it, desperation tinging his frantic movements.
“That,” Arthur whispered, pulling back an inch. “I thought that was what we were waiting for.”
Merlin didn’t know whether to laugh or cry or bash Arthur over the head. “I hadn’t dared to hope for that,” he admitted instead.
“I don’t know what to do,” Arthur confessed. His voice sounded small, so different from the commanding presence he usually exuded. “This was… you were the only thing I was certain of. I don’t have any idea what I’m doing or what I’m supposed to do, and when I couldn’t find you—and Gaius said—”
Merlin’s heart broke just a little more at you were the only thing I was certain of. “I couldn’t hide myself any longer, or stand idly by while more innocent people were hurt. There’s already too much I can’t forgive myself for.”
Arthur looked away but didn’t let go of Merlin, his hands gripping him tight like he feared that Merlin would disappear if he relaxed his grip at all. “So many things make sense now,” he said. “Your disappearances. That… that glowing ball, that one time in the cave, and… so many things.”
He looked back at Merlin. “You’ve been saving my life for years now, haven’t you?”
Merlin shrugged and looked down at their feet. He didn’t really want to talk about it. He’d never wanted credit.
“Did you think I would hurt you?” Arthur’s voice sounded hollow.
Merlin shook his head, still staring at the ground. “No.” It was his own inaction and his own lying that he could no longer stand. He had never once thought that Arthur would betray him, secure in their friendship even though he hadn’t let himself hope for romance.
“They killed my father,” Arthur pleaded. “Merlin. What am I supposed to do?”
“Do you really want advice, or do you want me to say what you want to hear?” Merlin replied, unable to keep the anger out of his voice as he raised his head to meet Arthur’s gaze head-on.
Arthur’s gaze trailed over Merlin’s face, like he was trying to memorize him. “I thought there was nothing of you that I didn’t know,” he said, almost like he was talking to himself. He dragged his gaze back to Merlin’s. “I want your honesty, always.”
“Lift the ban,” Merlin told him. “Lift the ban, and for every magic user that attempts your life, for every attack from Morgana, you’ll have another ten magic users at your back defending you. It’s easy for people to hate, and it’s hard for them to forgive, but if you start now you’ll avoid the all-out war you know is coming. There is more magic in the world than you like to pretend and it’s only a matter of time until they officially rise up, unless you denounce what your father did and welcome them back.”
“Everything Morgause said about him was true, wasn’t it,” Arthur said. “About what he did, using magic, and my mother.”
Merlin nodded. “The way you attacked him—I thought lying was the best course of action.” He shrugged. “It’s one of many things I regret.”
“Do you regret me?” Arthur asked.
Merlin shook his head, laughing bitterly. “Gods, no. It would be easier if I did.”
Arthur drew him in, this time softly, wrapping his arms around Merlin until Merlin could rest his head against Arthur’s shoulder and all but bury his face in Arthur’s neck.
“You belong in Camelot,” Arthur whispered. “That means that magic belongs in Camelot as well.”
Merlin held onto Arthur for all he was worth, feeling one burden lift and another settle in. Arthur still had doubts about magic, Merlin could tell—but he was lifting it for Merlin’s sake, and probably for Merlin’s sake alone.
He would have to work hard to change Arthur’s mind about magic in general. He only hoped he was worthy of the responsibility.
Still, since they were being so honest and everything…
“I don’t belong in Camelot,” Merlin told him. “I belong with you.”
Arthur pulled back just enough so that he could kiss him again—and Merlin, as always, knew that he could never resist following where Arthur led.
“You weren’t even going to say goodbye,” Arthur muttered accusingly, resting their foreheads together.
“I knew if I tried I wouldn’t be able to leave,” Merlin admitted.
“Idiot,” Arthur told him, with so much fondness that it might as well have been another word entirely. “You’ll always be safe, with me, always.” He interjected every other word with a bruising kiss to Merlin’s mouth, and Merlin let him, opening his lips to him, letting Arthur take and take and take as he always had, because Arthur took and often without asking but he gave back as well, sometimes twofold.
Merlin knew that Arthur was a man never given to little whims. When he dedicated himself to someone, he dedicated himself utterly. He had maintained his loyalty to his father despite his own misgivings, and now Merlin knew all of that single-minded intensity and loyalty was settled on him. But it was all right, because Merlin would have been a hypocrite if he had denied that his own dedication to Arthur superseded any morality and any other bond he might have. He had killed for Arthur, lied for Arthur, sacrificed for Arthur, and he would do it all again.
Perhaps, at least, in being matched in their bias for one another, they would balance each other out. And perhaps, somewhere along the way, Merlin could atone.
Merlin pulled away, a question tugging at the back of his mind despite the wonderful distraction of figuring out long Arthur could hold his breath with someone else’s tongue in his mouth. “Wait. How did you know to find me? How did you even know I was missing?”
“I went looking for you,” Arthur said. “After I’d dealt with the funeral matters, I—I had thought, you know, that we—so we’d have to announce it to the kingdom.”
Arthur had the grace to look embarrassed. “Our engagement?”
“You are absolutely the worst romantic in the history of the world,” Merlin informed him, but he pushed the words into Arthur’s mouth as he kissed him again so he had a feeling the comment was ignored.
If Gaudium objected to them spending the entire night in the stables, well, she was kind enough not to kick them for it in the morning.