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After all this time?

Chapter Text

The words blurred in front of Arthur’s eyes and a glance at the clock next to him declared the time in blocky letters: 2:32 AM. He saved his page, and leaned over to turn off the lamp, careful not to jostle the sleeping Merlin tucked into his side.

It wasn’t that he wasn’t tired, because he was. He just couldn’t sleep. Every night he stayed up late reading while Merlin fell asleep next to him, comforted in the knowledge that his king was alive and well. Arthur attempted to sleep for exactly thirty minutes (like clockwork), breathing in Merlin’s scent and listening to his deep, even breaths before he got too restless and had to get up. There was an itch underneath his skin that couldn’t be scratched, at least in the middle of the night.

Not that he hadn’t tried. It felt like he’d tried everything in the past few months, including but not limited to:

  • Reminding himself of the names of objects around him (microwave, telly, shower, kettle, electrical cord, laptop, movie, toaster, refrigerator, cell phone)
  • Teaching himself how to use said objects (this did not go overly well, since it tended to wake Merlin and end in a lecture on metal in microwaves or the courtesies of keeping the noise down during the middle of the night)
  • Keeping in shape (apparently a note telling Merlin he was going out for a run wasn’t acceptable at that hour, nor was running itself)
  • Reading (he did enough of that during the day, thanks to Merlin’s attempt at educating him)
  • Taking ridiculously long showers (“why is the water bill so high what have you done”)
  • Most recently he’d begun the practice of making a cup of tea and staring at various things in Merlin’s (their) home. The art Merlin had hung up deserved at least two hours of attention and sometimes internet searches on the artist or history.

    Arthur opened his eyes and glared at the bedside table. 3:02 AM. Time to get up.

    He lit a few strangely scented candles (really Merlin? ‘clean cotton’? ‘fresh apple’?) in the kitchen and made a cuppa, thinking about his self-assigned task for the night. The study was Arthur's current room of choice, as lately Merlin had taken to appearing there when Arthur could've sworn he last saw him enter the bathroom. Whenever Arthur commented on this, Merlin would make a vaguely guilty face that turned into a yawn and a claim that it was clearly bedtime for the both of them. The sorcerer was up to something, and Arthur was going to find out. Eventually. As of right now, he was about a quarter of the way through the wall-to-wall bookcases in the study. He had already decided that after he had looked at every book he was going to rearrange them in some semblance of order. Clearly Merlin just found his books using magic, but Arthur would never be able to find anything in this mess.

    He had left off with The Count of Monte Cristo the previous night, so he started there. He pulled out the book, read the summary, and mentally added it to his reading list. He pulled at the next book on the shelf, but it was stuck. He tried the next, and the next, but they were stuck as well. He picked up the candle he'd brought from the kitchen ('sea salt,' honestly Merlin) and brought it close to the shelf to read the spines. The Return of the King and The Sword and the Stone sounded interesting, but he could leave the garish black and yellow Sword Polishing for Dummies to Merlin. It was really too bad they didn't have such books in Camelot, Arthur would have enjoyed gifting one to Merlin just to see his reaction. The Once and Future King, if he wasn't mistaken, was him, and he definitely needed to read that, so he pulled at it as well.

    It did move, but instead of sliding out as the other books had done, The Once and Future King tilted towards him like the shifty-thing in Merlin's car. And- Arthur backed up and surveyed the shelves in front of him. Yes, he'd also pulled that section of the bookcase forward. Interesting. He put the candle down on the coffee table behind him and in the dimmer light noticed a strange light coming from behind the crack between sections. This had to be where Merlin disappeared to just before bed.

    The door swung open silently to reveal a dark room lit with a bluish-white light. As Arthur stepped into the room and his eyes adjusted, he saw that the light was emanating from a large stone basin in front of him, and reflecting off hundreds of tiny bottles on either side of him. He carefully, curiously walked closer to the basin, trying to determine what was causing the light. He only spent a moment worrying that Merlin had a dangerous object in his home that ate unsuspecting visitors before dismissing it as ridiculous. It was too enticing to be harmful, and Merlin would never do that. He was a good sorcerer, not an evil one.

    Arthur blamed the lack of lighting that he didn’t see the pedestal the basin was perched on until too late. He tripped forwards and braced his hands on the cold stone edges. It didn’t stop his momentum (oh look, he used a new word!) fast enough, though, and his face splashed into the light. He tightened his hold on the sides of the basin but his hands gripped at nothing and he started to flail blindly as he fell into the light.

Chapter Text

Arthur definitely didn’t scream as he fell. He did, however, shut his eyes tightly to avoid whatever doom he was plunging towards. He landed crumpled on a stone floor, fully intact and uninjured despite the length of time he had been falling for.

He opened his eyes and blinked rapidly, trying to process what he was looking at. It was – but it couldn’t be – it was himself and Gwen, sleeping in his bedchamber back in Camelot.

“Did – but – how?” The couple in bed did not wake, but then they hadn’t woken even when he dropped in from the sk—ceiling. Arthur cursed his mind for the voice that came unbidden, angry and bold: “What kind of sorcery is this?” It sounded suspiciously like his father’s.

Because of course it was sorcery. It was in Merlin’s home, after all. He just didn’t understand what was happening, or why. He approached himself and Gwen tangled in the sheets, entranced by the look of peace and contentment on both of their faces, but he didn’t dare touch them for fear of waking them and breaking the spell he found himself in.

“Rise and shine!” came Merlin’s voice from behind him, making him jump.

Merlin!” he yelled, glaring at his friend. “A little war—” he trailed off, uncertain, because Merlin wasn’t responding to him either. Worse, Gwen and the other Arthur had woken, and Arthur was glaring through Arthur, and gods this was confusing, but he was glaring right through him. As if he weren't there at all.

“Merlin, what’s happening?” he asked, at the same time the other Arthur said, “Merlin!”

“Oh, relax,” Merlin responded. Arthur relaxed slightly until Merlin continued, picking up the breakfast tray: “I remember you’re both free this morning so I’m serving you breakfast in bed. You can relax and enjoy yourselves for the next two candlemarks,” and walked straight through him.

Admittedly, he spent the next few minutes panicking in a completely manly way and determining what he could touch (inanimate objects only) or move (absolutely nothing).

When he started paying attention again, Other Arthur was asking Gwen how she'd slept as they picked over the breakfast tray.

“Well, thank you. And you?”

“Yes, until Merlin woke us.” This was said with a glare towards the fireplace, where Merlin was tending to the fire. “I thought I’d get to have a lie in for once.”

Gwen leaned over and kissed him. “Maybe another day, Arthur. Merlin, did you sleep well?”

It took Merlin a little longer than necessary to respond, still crouching in front of the fireplace. “Yes, my lady, thank you.”

Arthur thought Merlin sounded a bit formal and odd and from the look Gwen and Other Arthur gave each other, they thought so as well, although they didn't push it. Arthur took advantage of his invisibility to walk over to Merlin and get a better look at his face.

He was shocked to see that Merlin had been crying. Not big gulping girly tears as Arthur had often accused him, but tiny ones escaping the corners of his eyes.

“Merlin,” he said gently, reaching out to touch him before remembering that he couldn't. “What’s wrong?” Merlin ignored him (he couldn’t figure out if that was part of this ghostlike existence or just Merlin ignoring him as usual) and wiped his tears with his neckerchief. Then he took a deep breath and his eyes turned golden, flames catching onto the new wood in the fireplace.

"Is there anything else you need?" Merlin asked, looking in the general direction of the bed.

"No, that will be all, Merlin," Other Arthur said, still picking at his food. "Why don't you take the morning off and rest a bit? You're looking a bit peaky."

"Thank you, sire," Merlin said absently, and left. Arthur turned to look at his and Gwen's expressions, but he only caught a glimpse of worry on Other Arthur and Gwen's faces before they dissolved into mist.

"No!! Bring them back! Merlin!" He turned and saw not the door to his chambers but more mist. "Merlin?" He took an uncertain step forward before trees started springing up around him.

-

===

-

It was dark in the forest, but there was light flickering on the trees closest to him. Arthur took a moment to study the forest, and determined that they were in Camelot, perhaps on a hunting trip. He turned around and caught his breath.

Merlin was crouched in front of a fire again, and he looked beautiful. The firelight flickered, accentuating his sharp cheekbones and the furrow between his eyebrows as he quietly argued with Other Arthur. Leon was on first watch, pretending not to listen and studying the forest. His eyes skimmed over Arthur as if he weren't there, confirming yet again that he was invisible. But, he thought, with his best knight on watch he could test his voice as well.

"Help!" he called loudly. "Somebody help!" It was rather fun for a moment, pretending to be a damsel in distress. But Leon did not appear to hear, his eyes still calmly combing the trees for bandits and Saxons, and Arthur's heart sank. He was a mere spectator, nay, worse than a spectator, as spectators could show their support or their disapproval. There was nothing he could do to encourage or discourage the players in this strange play from their actions.

"What if I don't want to sleep with you?" Merlin's voice rose over the crackling of the fire, and Leon turned his head before remembering that he wasn't listening in. It was the final log on the pyre for Arthur. He stomped over to where Merlin and Other Arthur were.

"Merlin I swear to you I better not be a ghost for long," he growled, attempting to poke his former manservant in the chest. "I'll learn how to haunt you and I'll come back to present day and annoy you until you bring me back."

"Last time it was for warmth, Arthur!" Merlin said, as if he hadn't heard the threat. Which he hadn't, Arthur reminded himself. "There's no reason to this time! You sleep, I'm going to keep watch with Leon."

"You will not," Other Arthur said, gripping Merlin's arm to keep him in place. "I told you, I don't sleep as well without Gwen anymore, and I need you to be her."

"And I told you, you would've already been asleep if you hadn't started this."

"It's one night, I think you can stand sleeping in my arms for a few hours," Other Arthur scoffed as if Merlin were being ridiculous.

"And you could stand sleeping by yourself for a few hours, sire," Merlin replied petulantly, but he laid down on his bedroll anyway.

"There," Other Arthur sighed, wrapping his arms around Merlin, who relaxed into the embrace slightly. "That wasn't so hard, was it?"

"It was," Merlin grumbled, reaching a hand down and- was he palming himself? Arthur's jaw dropped. Merlin was probably trying to get some alone time that night, and Arthur had forced him to sleep with him. Merlin was right; he was a clotpole.

"You're a good friend, Merlin," Other Arthur murmured, oblivious and already half asleep.

-

===

-

Everything dissolved into dark mist, and only the sound of footsteps let him know that the scene had reformed around him. He squinted into the darkness and walked forward cautiously. He was in some sort of cave, and the path was small and winding. A dim light shone around the corner, and Arthur could see Merlin's back. Of course the idiot was walking through potentially dangerous caves without a torch. Arthur wished yet again that he could move things, give some protection to Merlin, greatest sorcerer or no.

And then Merlin rounded the corner and Arthur heard his own voice shout "Merlin!" Other Arthur was back, yelling at Merlin again. Apparently he did quite a lot of that. "Where have you been?"

"Were you worried about me?" Merlin asked, and Arthur gulped. He remembered this. It was...it was not long before he pulled Excalibur from the stone, and they were in the tunnels with Tristan and Isolde.

"No," Other Arthur said, his voice a bit high in his denial. "I was making sure we weren't being followed."

"You came back to look for me," Merlin insisted, damn him.

"Alright it's true," Other Arthur said. "I came back 'cause you're the only friend I have and I couldn't bear to lose you."

Merlin looked behind Other Arthur as if he expected that it wasn't Arthur's idea to come looking for him. "Really?" he asked with a crooked smile.

"Don't be stupid," Other Arthur said, turning around and taking the torch with him. Arthur took advantage of the fading light to see Merlin's response. There was a ghost of a smile on his face before he started after Other Arthur and everything was lost to the mist once again.

-

===

-

Arthur barely had time to think about what these scenes meant before familiar Camelot-red walls and sturdy oak furniture materialized in front of him. He was in Merlin's bedroom, the one where Merlin was sleeping right now. Except the lights were on and-

"This is where I sleep," Merlin walked in explaining, Other Arthur trailing behind. Arthur recognized the pajamas he was wearing: a pair of Merlin's boxer shorts and an XXL charity t-shirt from a few years back. Merlin had explained several times that it was the only size left, but Arthur thought it was hilarious that Merlin hadn't even shrunk it with his magic. Arthur hadn't worn it again after the first night back, since it was too large even for him.

"Alright," Other Arthur said, getting in the bed.

Merlin choked behind him. "I'll just—uhh. I'll be on the couch. The-the long comfortable chair. Y'know what, just call out for me if you need something and I'll come to you."

"No," Other Arthur insisted. "Remind me, Merlin, how long have I been gone? And how long have I been back? I'm sleeping here and so are you so you—so I don't have to be woken up by you screaming that I'm gone again."

Merlin stood there, at the edge of the bed, his mouth working like a fish underwater. Other Arthur sighed and got out of bed. He grabbed Merlin by the arm, folded down the bed, and pushed Merlin into it. "Honestly, I don't know how you lived without me for so long," he joked, and oh, Arthur could see in retrospect how terrible that comment was.

"Me neither," Merlin said, his voice wobbling dangerously as he curled up on the bed.

"Hey, hey, none of that," Other Arthur said, getting back in bed and pulling Merlin towards him, an arm around his chest. "You survived for so long Merlin. You're amazing and I'm proud of you." Arthur saw the surprise on both man's faces at the admission, and smiled. He had been proud of himself for actually talking to Merlin and not deflecting from his troublesome feelings.

"So, er, do you normally sleep in a room this bright?" Other Arthur asked, still holding tight to Merlin, who was fighting sleep.

"Nnn."

"Can you blow them out or something?" Other Arthur let go of Merlin for a second to gesture at the lamps.

"'M teaching you 'lectricity t'morr'w," Merlin mumbled.

"I'll just pretend you're making sense," Other Arthur replied. "Can't you use your magic?"

"Not on th'lectric," Merlin said as he pushed Other Arthur away and stumbled over to the doorway. "Too touchy." He flipped the light switch and climbed back into bed, this time curled up facing Other Arthur.

Arthur squinted in the dark as Merlin and Other Arthur stared at each other across the bed.

"Arthur?" Merlin whispered eventually.

"Yes, Merlin?" Other Arthur replied.

"N-nothing, I just-I was just making sure."

Arthur watched as Other Arthur blinked in surprise and opened his mouth before closing it and stretching an arm out to Merlin. "I'm here, Merlin."

Merlin nodded, and Arthur knew that he was gripping Arthur's hand with all his might. Arthur rolled onto his back and pulled Merlin towards him. "Hey. Hey, I'm here. Come here. It's alright."

And that formed what was still their current sleeping arrangement: Merlin on his side, tucked into Arthur's left arm and his head on Arthur's shoulder as Arthur lay on his back. They were still for a bit, and then Other Arthur turned his head and buried his nose in Merlin's hair, taking a deep breath before murmuring, "I missed you too. I'm sorry." Oh gods Merlin knew about that?

Not a moment after that thought, he was pulled upwards from the darkness and flung from the stone basin, back in Merlin's home. He laid there for a while, trying to parse through the scenes he'd seen and what they could have meant. Merlin had most likely been there that evening, and had looked at those particular events.

"Oh gods!" Arthur sat up suddenly, realizing he had no idea what time it was. Merlin could be waking up at this very moment and worrying over his newest nightly activities. He closed the bookcase again, ensuring that no light seeped through to give the secret door's location away. The candle he'd left burning was significantly lower than when he'd left it, but then he had no idea how long these types of candles lasted. There were no candlemarks and besides, the candles were short and fat, and the marks would be much closer together. Arthur returned to the kitchen and sighed in relief when the clock read 5:49 AM. He had time to clean up and climb back into bed before Merlin woke.

Chapter Text

Arthur could barely focus on his book the next night as Merlin lay next to him and curled up against his side. He was practically vibrating with need to visit the stone basin again. He wanted to know what Merlin had looked at tonight, and how he felt about it, but there was no way for him to ask without giving away his secret.

Arthur had been thinking about what he had seen the night before and couldn’t come up with a satisfying explanation for it. It wasn’t real in the sense that the characters he’d seen had been intangible, but he had remembered most of those events, and they had happened. Even setting that part aside, why those particular events? What was Merlin thinking about that he could not simply ask Arthur? The question was gnawing away at him, and, as he had read in one of Merlin’s textbooks, he would need more evidence before coming to a conclusion.

A few hours later, Arthur searched for The Once and Future King, silently thanking Merlin for choosing a book he would remember as the key to the secret door. He walked toward the basin in the center of the room, careful not to trip this time. Except now, there was a problem: he didn’t know how exactly he’d made the magic happen. Was it necessary to fall into it? He distinctly remembered falling and then rising out of it at the end.

After a few moments’ deliberation he decided he was more dignified than Merlin and he would try to simply lower his face into the light while holding onto the edges of the basin just in case. As he bent over it, he noticed that there was an image swirling in the light, of himself, dirty and shaking, saying something that Arthur couldn’t hear and making him even more curious about the basin’s contents.

Arthur held his breath, closed his eyes, and plunged his face into the light. Now that he was preparing himself, he expected the light to be either hot or cold to the touch, but he felt nothing as his hands suddenly gripped air and he began falling into the scene below.

It was dark when he opened his eyes, and when his eyesight adjusted, he could see Merlin and Other Arthur huddled up in the corner of an abandoned castle. It was cold: he could see both of their breaths, and Other Arthur was shivering.

“All the things I’ve faced, I’ve never worried about dying,” Other Arthur said, and Arthur looked around, trying to figure out which mythical being they were facing this time.

“I don’t think you should now,” Merlin said with a strange confidence that could only come from having enormous magical power at his fingers.

“Sometimes you puzzle me.”

“You’ve never fathomed me out?”

“No.”

“I always thought that if things had been different, we’d have been good friends.”

“Yeah,” Other Arthur responded. Arthur knew they were both thinking about his insistence that they could not be friends, that there was too much difference between a prince and a servant.

“That’s if you hadn’t been such an arrogant pompous dollophead,” Merlin added, shaking his head at the ceiling and trying not to smile.

Other Arthur was still chuckling incredulously when Merlin turned to him, suddenly serious again. “We will defeat the Dorocha.” Arthur’s heart pounded and he looked around himself desperately, trying to find evidence that this wasn’t the exact room in which the Dorocha had attacked Merlin. He couldn’t find any. Dimly, he heard Merlin continue. “We will, Arthur. Together.”

Other Arthur was looking at Merlin without hope, and Arthur knew how he felt. They couldn’t hear him and he couldn’t push Merlin out of the way without being able to touch him. He watched helplessly as Other Arthur addressed Merlin, speaking the truths he only spoke when they were about to die. “Well, I appreciate that. You know, you’re a brave man, Merlin.” He paused while Merlin nodded. “Between battles.”

Merlin laughed. “You don’t know how many times I’ve saved your life.”

“If I ever become king I’ll have you made court jester,” Other Arthur replied. It seemed terrible now, in retrospect. Merlin had saved his life countless times, and there he was acting as if it were a joke.

The Dorocha screeched outside, and Arthur knew this was it. “Merlin,” he started, standing invisible and voiceless in front of his manservant. “I need you to use your magic, Merlin. Please. My anger is nothing compared to your life. Use your magic. Trust me.”

“They say the darkest hour’s just before the dawn,” Other Arthur commented.

“It’s pretty dark right now,” responded Merlin.

“It can’t be long then.”

The screeching came closer, and a cloud of smoke that Arthur recognized as a Dorocha flew into the room. “Now, Merlin! Please!”

Merlin was pushing Arthur back and springing forward, directly into the path of the Dorocha.
Suddenly, the screeching stopped, and Arthur could hear himself chanting please please please please please as the room turned to mist.

-

===

-

The mist cleared, but it was still dark. There was a fire, and the knights were sleeping: Gwaine, Elyan, Percival, Leon, Lancelot, all laid out haphazardly on one side. Merlin and Other Arthur were awake on the other side of the fire, both looking worn down and beaten.

"It's going to be fine, everything will be alright," Merlin said, staring at Other Arthur with the fire to his back.

Other Arthur looked up from the flames and popped a bit of dried meat into his mouth, shaking his head slightly. "I'm just tired."

"You don't have to sacrifice yourself!"

"I have to save my people."

Merlin studied Other Arthur, his jaw working as he swallowed. Arthur knew what he would say next, and willed him not to say it. "I will take your place."

"Merlin-" Other Arthur shook his head, disbelieving that Merlin of all his companions would be the one to fix this.

"What is the life of a servant compared to the life of a prince?"

"Well, a good servant's hard to come by," Other Arthur said, and Arthur knew he had been reaching, trying to come up with some reason that Merlin shouldn't be the one to sacrifice himself. He was a better king than his father, he had reasoned at the time. He wouldn't send servants in to complete dangerous tasks.

Merlin leaned in as if sharing a secret: "I'm not that good."

"True." They were quiet for a moment, and Arthur took the opportunity to look at his sleeping knights. He never understood the expression a sight for sore eyes; the sight of his long-dead knights didn't alleviate pain in his eyes, but rather intensified it. They stung and smarted as he looked at the peaceful figures in front of him. Other Arthur was speaking again. "One thing. Look after Guinevere, I want her to be happy in her life, she deserves that."

"Don't worry. I'll make sure." Arthur looked up in time to see the tension in Other Arthur's shoulders drop a bit, still held up by the armor, but relieved that someone would look after his...wife? He frowned as he realized he couldn't remember if they'd been married at the time, and the mist surrounded him again.

-

===

-

The scene seemed to form slower this time, and Arthur worried that something had happened to the magic. He was in Gaius’ chambers, the sight a comfort after so long. Gaius himself was there, embracing a crying Gwen and kissing her on the head.

“That’s disgusting. You should be ashamed of yourself. You’re old enough to be her grandfather!” Merlin’s voice made Arthur turn and gasp. Merlin looked like he was on the brink of death, and from the reaction Gwen and Gaius had, he had been.

“Merlin!” Gaius said, “you’re alive.”

“No,” Merlin sassed, “I’m a ghost come back to haunt you.”

He’d barely finished speaking when Gwen bent down and kissed him square on the mouth. When had this happened? Where was he and why was his wife kissing his manservant?

“I’m sorry,” Gwen said, pulling back and pressing her hands to her mouth. Arthur noticed then that she was wearing one of her old dresses, from when she was a servant. “I just—I thought you were dead.”

“It’s fine,” Merlin responded, staring up at her. “It’s more than fine.” He looked a bit out of it, and Arthur noticed that some of the details of the room went out of focus for a moment. “Ehm, what happened? The last thing I remember is drinking the wine.”

“Gwen can tell you in a minute,” Gaius responded, pulling a few potions from his table and bringing them over. “Drink these, and some water. Meanwhile, I need to speak to the king.”

“Right,” Gwen said, sitting down and handing Merlin a cup of water. “After you drank the wine, everyone pulled out their swords, and Arthur and Gaius and I brought you and the goblet back here. You had a terrible fever, you were speaking nonsense words for a while.” She reached out to touch his forehead again, almost compulsively, and Arthur knew she had been looking after him for a long time.

“There was a poisonous flower petal stuck on the goblet and Gaius said nothing would cure you except a leaf from the same plant. It was in some dangerous caves in the forest of Baloch. Arthur went to get the antidote even though Gaius and the king protested. He’s in the dungeons now, actually; Uther’s furious with him. I had to sneak the flower past the guards, and I thought I was too late.” Gwen pressed a hand to her lips and looked as if she were about to cry again.

“It’s alright, you weren’t. I’m still here, see?” Merlin attempted to sit up but was too weak. “Did something else happen? Why does Gaius need to speak to the king?”

“The flower’s poison was supposed to be slow, Arthur should have had four days before it was too late, but Gaius said that sorcery had been done on the flower to make it more potent. The serving girl you went into the hall with, before you drank the wine, she was a sorceress. It wasn’t Bayard that tried to poison Arthur, it was her.”

“But then he was in more danger going to the Caves of Wherever! She could have killed him!” Merlin was sitting up now, outraged.

“You saved his life, Merlin. I’m sure he would do that for anyone in your situation, it's his duty as prince. Now lay back down, you’re still recovering.”

-

===

-

When the mist cleared this time, Arthur found himself somewhere he was sure he'd never been. It looked like the inside of a ransacked barn. There was a chicken on the table for gods' sakes, and someone was tidying up as best as he could.

"He knows what he's doing," Merlin's voice came from behind him. "You've got to trust him."

The man glanced at Merlin and shoo'd the chicken off the table. He looked vaguely familiar to Arthur, but he couldn't place him or the barn.

"Look, when I first met Arthur I was exactly like you. I hated him. I thought he was pompous and arrogant."

"Well, nothing's changed there, then." The man started straightening a bit of chainmail that showed Cenred's coat of arms.

"But, in time, I came to respect him for what he stands for, what he does."

"Yeah, I know what he stands for. Princes, kings, all men like him."

"Will," Merlin spoke lowly, cautiously. "Don't bring what happened to your father into this."

"I'm not." Will turned around, and oh, Arthur remembered now. They were in Ealdor, and William had been against him and what he stood for.

"Why are you defending him so much? You're just his servant!"

"He's also my friend," Merlin pleaded.

"Friends don't lord it over one another."

"He isn't like that."

"Really? Well let's wait until the fighting begins and see who he sends in to die first. I guarantee you it won't be him."

“I trust Arthur with my life!”

“Is that so?” Will shot back. “So he knows your secret then? Look, face it, Merlin, you’re living a lie. Just like you were here. You’re Arthur’s servant, nothing more. Otherwise you’d tell him the truth.”

Arthur watched as Merlin's face became more and more dejected as Will talked. Merlin was starting to believe that he was only Arthur's servant, and Arthur himself had perpetuated that thought many times over. He gritted his teeth. He would have to prove the opposite now, he thought as the mist surrounded him yet again.

-

===

-

Arthur found himself in a small cottage that looked familiar. When Hunith and Merlin appeared, something clicked. He was still in Ealdor.

“He must care for you a great deal,” Hunith said, stirring a half-eaten bowl of porridge.

“Arthur would do the same for any village.” Merlin was putting on his jacket in preparation to go outside. “That’s just the way he is.”

“It’s more than that,” Hunith insisted. “He’s here for you.”

“I’m just his servant.”

“Give him more credit than that. He likes you.”

“That’s because he doesn’t know me. And if he did, I’d probably be dead by now.” Merlin smiled, and there was something blasé about his statement, like he’d already come to terms with Arthur’s hatred of magic and his own possible demise.

“You don’t really believe that, do you?” Hunith asked earnestly, but Merlin didn’t reply, just walked out the door.

Arthur waited for the mist to reappear but instead the magic pulled him outside, the details of the cottage and Hunith fading behind him.

Merlin was walking towards the woods, an axe in his hand when Arthur caught up to him. “You know,” he started conversationally even though he knew it was pointless, “if you had shown that to me even a month ago, I would be very angry with you. You told me, when I was dying, that I knew you. But I had no idea what you were hiding from me, how much of what we had together was faked. And just back there, you admitted that I didn’t know you. So,” he attempted to throw an arm around Merlin, momentarily forgetting the no-touch rule, and almost lost his balance. “It’s a good thing we’ve spent so much time together—”

“Merlin!” a voice called from behind them. “Where are you going with that thing?” It was Will, of course, probably come to yell about Arthur before taking an arrow for him. What was it with stupidly brave Ealdor boys wanting to die for him?

“What does it look like? We need wood.”

Very suddenly Arthur couldn't stand to look at Will any more. It was too painful to watch Merlin interacting with his best friend, knowing that at the time Merlin had only considered Arthur a duty. No, Arthur would not have fought Kanen for just anyone. Merlin was special, and he should know it.

The boys had entered the wood in front of him, arguing now. For a moment, Arthur considered that Merlin argued with all of his closest friends, but the usual glint in his eye was missing here. Merlin was upset, and Arthur didn't want to watch.

"Is there any way I could get out of this?" Arthur asked out loud. He was surprised when the scene disappeared into mist almost immediately. The mist had never obeyed him before; hell, he'd just yelled at Merlin for thirty seconds and nothing had changed.

-

===

-

He heard the sea before he saw it. He was on a rocky beach, staring at the waves crashing along the shore. There didn't seem to be anything special about the water, so he turned inland.

And there was Merlin again, sitting at a wooden table containing two goblets, and Anhora standing behind him, watching and waiting. It was strange, knowing that he was waiting for himself to round the corner at any moment. He took in Merlin's expression as he waited: hard and angry, or perhaps just squinting into the setting sun.

Sure enough, very little time had passed before Other Arthur exited the labyrinth and saw them. "Merlin."

Merlin met his eyes with that same hard expression. "I'm sorry."

"Let him go," Other Arthur ordered, turning to Anhora, whose face looked as expressionless as ever. "I'll take your test, but not til he's released."

"That is not possible. Merlin is part of the test. Please, sit."

Other Arthur remained where he was.

"If you refuse the test, you will have failed, and Camelot will be destroyed."

Other Arthur sat. "I thought I told you to stay at home," Other Arthur said, setting his sword down carefully. Merlin didn't respond, and Arthur realized that he must have been scared. "Let's get on with it."

"There are two goblets before you," Anhora explained. "One of the goblets contains a deadly poison, The other goblet, a harmless liquid. All the liquid from both goblets must be drunk, but each of you may only drink from a single goblet."

Other Arthur's lip curled. "What kind of ridiculous test is that? What does that prove?"

"What it proves is for you to decide," the cryptic old sorcerer said. "If you pass the test, the curse will be lifted."

"Let's think about this," Merlin said, ever his advisor. "What if I drink from my goblet first?

"If it's poisoned you'll die," Other Arthur replied.

"And if it's not, then you'll have to drink from yours and you'll die. There must be a way around it." Arthur thought it seemed easy in retrospect, but he'd-they'd both been so young back then.

"It's perfectly simple. One of us has to die. We have to find a way to determine which goblet has the poison." Merlin nodded along. "Then I'll drink it."

Merlin's head lifted up and he stared at Other Arthur. "I have to be the one to drink it."

"This was my doing. I'm drinking it."

"It's more important that you live. You're the future king. I'm just a servant."

"This is no time to be a hero, Merlin. It really doesn't suit you."

Merlin revisited the idea of him drinking first, but conveniently forgot the rules and insisted he would also drink the second portion if the first was clean. When Other Arthur pointed out the flaw in that plan, Merlin sighed and put his chin in his hands.

"I had no idea you were so keen to die for me," Other Arthur said, joking, but also completely serious.

"Trust me I can hardly believe it myself," Merlin responded, staring at the goblets.

Other Arthur chuckled. "I'm glad you're here, Merlin." Arthur remembered his similar sentiment when he was actually dying. Truthfully, there was no one he'd rather be with at the end.

"I've got it," Merlin said, hands flapping uselessly as always. "Right, we pour all the liquid into one goblet and then we can be sure it's poisoned. Then all the liquid can be drunk and it will be from a single goblet."

Other Arthur began smiling against his will. "You never cease to surprise me. You're a lot smarter than you look."

"Is that actually a compliment?" Merlin asked, smiling as well.

They were coming up to the end of Arthur's memory of this day. "Look out!" Other Arthur said, pointing behind Merlin. He poured the liquid into one goblet.

"No! I will drink it," Merlin insisted when he saw.

"As if I'd let you."

"You can't die. This isn't your destiny."

"It seems you're wrong again," Other Arthur was panting, trying to calm himself. Arthur wasn't good at facing death sitting down. He preferred to fight, to release the adrenaline he felt at the thought.

"Listen to me!" Merlin pleaded.

"You know me, Merlin. I never listen to you." Arthur couldn't watch; the smile on his face was a parody, a poor imitation of happiness he'd thought he would never feel again.

"Arthur, no!" he heard Merlin shout. "What have you done?"

Arthur opened his eyes in time to see Other Arthur fall slack and topple to the rock.

"Arthur! No!" Merlin was out of his chair in a flash. "Arthur. Arthur," he said, shaking Other Arthur's body. "Come on. Arthur, come on. Come on. Come on." Merlin's hand repeatedly patted Other Arthur's face, trying to wake him. "Arthur. No. Come on." Merlin's voice was shaking now. He looked up at Anhora, "Please. Please. Just- let me take his place."

"This was Arthur's test, not yours," Anhora spoke in a monotone, unflappable in the face of Merlin's concerned and wet eyes.

"You've killed him! I was meant to protect him!"

"He's not dead," Anhora sounded slightly exasperated. "He's merely consumed a sleeping draft. He will come around shortly."

Merlin looked like he was having trouble breathing. "W-what?"

"A unicorn is pure of heart. If you kill one, you must make amends by proving that you also are pure of heart. Arthur was willing to sacrifice his life to save yours. He has proven what is truly in his heart." Arthur's gaze flicked to Merlin. Gods, if only he had realized then that he loved Merlin... "The curse will be lifted," Anhora continued, and then vanished.

Merlin was crouched down over Other Arthur's prone form again. "Wake up you prat," he murmured, running his hands up and down Other Arthur's chain mail and gorget. "Onwaceþ."

Other Arthur took a deep breath and opened his eyes. "Wha-? Merlin?"

Merlin punched him in the shoulder. "You could have died! What were you thinking!?"

Other Arthur looked around from his position on the ground, taking in Anhora's absence and Merlin's angry expression. "I was thinking I wanted to save my people. Where's that sorcerer? I need-"

"You don't need to do anything, you passed the test. Camelot is safe now."

"Idiot," Other Arthur grinned and reached up to ruffle Merlin's hair. "Then there's nothing to worry about. I'm not dead, you're not dead, and the curse is gone. Let me get up and we can find our horses."

Merlin scrambled backwards on the rocks and Arthur thought he heard him mutter, "You still could've died though," as he was pulled upwards and out of the basin.