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Arthur is five years old when he learns about his person.

The five kingdoms have just seen the worst harvest they've had in decades. Come winter, Camelot is full of hungry citizens coming to ask their king for help, but there's hardly anything in the grain stores to give them. The neighbouring realms aren't doing any better. What Arthur remembers most about it are the things Father tells him to forget - the thin faces of the children staring up at the castle as they're turned away, and the ache in his full stomach every night.

When he first complains of the pain, Father looks concerned and has Gaius look him over immediately.

“There's nothing wrong with him, sire,” Gaius says, significantly, after examining Arthur.

Arthur’s not sure why Gaius is emphasizing it that way, or why Gaius is saying there’s nothing wrong when it hurts so much Arthur just wants to curl up and cry.

Father’s frown deepens into an expression of disapproval. Arthur’s not sure what he’s done wrong. Does his father think he’s lying?

“I’m not lying!” he says. “It does hurt!”

“Yes, Arthur, we believe you,” Gaius says. “I meant that it isn’t from a physical affliction - at least, not on you.”

Arthur frowns. “What does that mean?”

Gaius opens his mouth, but Father speaks first.

“Everyone is assigned to suffer the pain of another person, as well as their own,” Father explains. “Commoners think this connection has some meaning - they often marry the person they share pain with. You will marry for the good of Camelot - which means you will not marry whatever peasant is going hungry right now and causing you pain. Is that clear?”

Arthur nods, largely unbothered. Why would he want to marry whoever’s hurting him?

“Good,” Father says. “It will serve you best to ignore the pain when it occurs. Do what you can for him,” he orders Gaius, and leaves.

*

The pain continues through the entire winter. As unpleasant as it is, Arthur almost panics when he stops feeling it. Did they die?

Then he realizes it is spring, and there is more food to be had. They’ve simply stopped going hungry. He smiles, rubs his belly, and moves on with his life.

*

Arthur breaks his right arm in training when he’s eight. Gaius pronounces it a clean break that will heal completely, and Father smiles and says it’ll be an opportunity for Arthur to practice his weapons with his left arm.

Once Father has left and Gaius is mixing something up for the pain, Arthur asks, “Can my person feel this, too?”

He hasn’t felt much pain from his person, not since the famine. Arthur’s always bruised and aching from training, so a little extra pain would be barely noticeable, anyways. When it happens, he’s mildly curious about what they’re doing, but he doesn’t spend much time thinking about it.

“Yes,” Gaius says. “Sometimes little aches don’t transfer, but I imagine that arm hurts more than enough to pass it on, hm?”

Arthur says bravely, “It’s not that bad.”

Gaius pours the mixture he’s just made into a small cup for Arthur. “Well, let’s help you both out.”

It tastes disgusting. Arthur drinks the whole thing anyways; he doesn’t want his person to suffer on his behalf.

*

Years go by without Arthur feeling anything significant from his person - at least, anything he could distinguish from his own bruises. He stops worrying so much about inflicting his hurts on them - he’s the prince, after all. He doesn’t need to care about some peasant.

*

And then Arthur beats a peasant with a broomstick and it hurts. Each expertly-placed blow sends a shock of pain through Arthur in the exact same spot on his own body.

He’s found his person.

Arthur’s intrigued by him - Merlin. He’s brave and disrespectful and foolish. Knowing this, Arthur can’t help but concoct stories for the pain he remembers getting over the years - probably being hit while trying (uselessly) to defend someone smaller than himself, or else for disrespecting the wrong person. He wants to ask Merlin if he’s right, but Father’s words all those years ago stop him. He’s supposed to forget Merlin.

He decides he won’t ever speak to the peasant again.

And then Father makes Merlin his manservant.

*

Arthur’s not foolish enough to tell his father that he’s found the person he shares pain with. And Gaius is loyal to Father. He goes to someone else.

“Morgana, what do you think Father would say if I knew who I share pain with?”

“If you found your soulmate?” Morgana clarifies.

“My what?” Arthur says. He scoffs. “Oh, is that the peasants’ term for it?”

Morgana snorts. “That’s everyone’s term for it, Arthur. And I don’t imagine Uther would be pleased. If anyone else found out who your soulmate is, they could capture them and torture you through them. They could control you that way.”

Arthur winces. He should’ve realized that for himself, he supposes. It just didn't occur to him because for so long he's been thinking of his person as someone distant and not entirely real.

Morgana isn’t finished. “I imagine Uther wouldn’t take that risk,” she continues. “He’d probably have them killed, even though it’s supposed to be unbelievably painful to have your soulmate die violently.”

Arthur can’t help the shudder that passes through him. Merlin, dead? His hand unconsciously goes to his shoulder, where he still bears an ache that isn’t his, and he thinks of Merlin’s grin and his dancing eyes. All of that being gone forever is… unthinkable.

Morgana nods like she knows what he’s thinking, and puts her hand on his arm. “If you do know, or even suspect,” she says. “Don’t tell anyone.”

*

Arthur takes Morgana’s advice to heart. He also goes a step further with it: he does his best to make sure Merlin’s not witness to any of his injuries. He piles on tasks that mean Merlin will be far away from Arthur while he’s training. When he is injured, he deals with his injuries himself.

He knows that keeping Merlin in the dark can’t last for long, but it buys him a little time. It’s helpful that Merlin can be a bit of a wimp.

For example: “Sire, could I have the afternoon off?” Merlin says, after Arthur takes a particularly nasty blow in training. “My soulmate’s injured his knee, and I can barely walk.”

Arthur’s just limped up the stairs to his rooms himself, and knows Merlin’s not exaggerating. Walking was almost unbearable, and it’s now taking all of his strength to stand up straight so that Merlin doesn’t realize they’re experiencing the exact same pain.

“Fine,” he says. “But you’re to be on time tomorrow morning.”

Merlin makes a face like Arthur is being unreasonable, but he's not. Arthur knows his body, and while he’ll be sore tomorrow, he - and therefore Merlin - should be fine to walk.

“Yes, sire,” Merlin says, once he's done making faces. He limps to the door, then pauses. “You know, you should really reconsider this warrior thing, sire. It’s very mean to your soulmate.”

“Maybe your soulmate should just learn to fight better,” Arthur says, insulting Merlin automatically before he realizes he’s actually insulting himself.

Merlin huffs and limps away.

Arthur collapses into a chair the instant the door closes behind Merlin, gratefully taking his weight off the bad leg.

*

(Not very much later, Arthur can’t believe Merlin complained about him causing them pain. Who does he think he is, drinking poison? And then expecting Arthur to save his life while in almost unbearable agony? What an idiot.)

*

Arthur, actually, manages to keep it hidden for a surprisingly long time. In that time, Arthur develops a fierce loyalty towards Merlin, a strong friendship with him, and more than a little attraction to him. Waking to Merlin's smile is wonderful. Making him smile is the highlight of Arthur's day. Making fun of him on hunts and being mocked back is novel and hilarious. Coming back to his rooms after a long day wouldn't feel right anymore without Merlin's constant prattling in the background.

Oh, Arthur thinks, so this is falling in love.

*

Eventually, though, Arthur bumps into Merlin just after getting a sword cut to the arm during training. Merlin’s supposed to be in the stables, so Arthur goes to Gaius’ to have the arm bandaged. He finds his servant lazing about outside the physician’s chambers.

Well, probably he had been lazing. Now Merlin’s holding his own arm and swearing. When Arthur comes in, his eyes zero in on the blood stain on Arthur’s arm, presumably exactly matching the line of pain along Merlin’s arm.

He stares at Arthur. “You’re-”

“Shut up,” Arthur says.

“Excuse me?” Merlin says indignantly. “You can’t tell me to shut up! I’m your -”

“You are nothing,” Arthur hisses.

Merlin steps back, a deeply wounded look crossing his face. It’s not something Arthur’s used to seeing on his usually cheerful manservant, and he doesn’t like it.

He grabs Merlin’s arm and yanks him into Gaius’ rooms, away from prying eyes or listening ears. “If anyone finds out who I share pain with, they could control me by kidnapping and torturing y- him. Which means that if my father finds out, he’d have my soulmate killed before that could happen. So you are absolutely nothing to me. Do you understand?”

“Oh,” Merlin says, very softly. “Yes. I understand.”

“Good,” Arthur says. “Now stop holding your arm, because there’s nothing wrong with it. And get me some bandages.”

*

Arthur refuses to discuss the soulmate thing with Merlin for the next few days. He glares whenever Merlin appears to be trying to bring it up. If Merlin ignores the implicit threat and actually says something, Arthur immediately speaks loudly over him and orders him to do the most unpleasant chore he can think of at the moment.

“Seriously, Arthur, about -”

“Go draw me a bath,” Arthur orders, because Merlin’s already mucked out the stables twice and polished every single piece of Arthur’s armour. Arthur doesn’t particularly want a bath, but he’ll suffer through it.

Merlin huffs at him and stalks away.

Although, something’s eating at Arthur about the whole thing.

“About the other day,” Arthur starts, when Merlin comes back into his rooms.

Merlin drops the buckets of water he’d lugged up from the kitchens. One wobbles, but lands upright; the other splashes out all over Arthur’s floor. Merlin doesn’t seem particularly concerned.

“So now we’re talking about it?” he demands.

Arthur sighs. “First of all, you really shouldn’t address me with that tone. Second, no, I’m talking, and you’re listening. Look, no matter how careful we are, chances are that someone's going to catch on eventually. And one way or another, that's not going to end well for you. You should leave.”

“You're an impressively bad soulmate,” Merlin says. He parrots, “‘You're nothing, Merlin. You should leave, Merlin.’”

“Don't say that word aloud,” Arthur hisses. “I'm not trying to be romantic, I'm trying to keep you alive and in one piece. I'll give you coin for a horse, and enough for food and lodging while you look for a new job, all right?”

“I'm not going anywhere.” Merlin crosses his arms. “I’ll keep my mouth shut, and I’ll try to stop wincing at things, but I won't leave. I care about you. Even before I knew the - the thing we aren't talking about, I wouldn't have left! You matter. A lot.”

Arthur huffs. “Eventually someone’s going to figure this out. When that happens, one way or another, you’ll be killed.”

“I’ll be fine.”

“No, you won't!” Arthur says. He’s had nightmares ever since the first day he talked to Morgana about this, nightmares about being locked up by his father and fighting his way free only to find Merlin already dead - beheaded, or poisoned, or burned, or something worse. They’ve only gotten worse in the past few days since Merlin found out.

“You should leave,” he insists. “Go somewhere far away, where no one will be suspicious if I’m injured in battle and you fall down screaming at the same time.”

“Are you done?” Merlin asks.

He looks angry. Arthur doesn’t want that, even if it would probably be for the best.

“I’m not saying I want you to leave,” Arthur says, softly. “After all, I’d hate to replace you now I’ve finally gotten used to your uselessness. But you shouldn’t give your life for me.”

Merlin smiles. “Arthur. It’s far too late for you to tell me that.”

“You’re fired,” Arthur says.

If Merlin were any other servant, that would be the end of it. Merlin would skulk away and get a job he was actually qualified for - mucking the stables, perhaps? - and he'd promptly be replaced by someone eager to suck up to Arthur.

Merlin turns and checks that they’re alone. Then he says, “I love you too.”

Arthur doesn’t care that he’ll share the bruise - he throws a shoe at him.

*

Merlin seems to think he’s won their argument.

But despite the fact that Merlin has started saying “I love you” to Arthur, and has taken for granted that Arthur loves him too, Arthur is absolutely not going to court him. Not while, if it got out that Merlin is his soulmate, there’d be a race between Uther’s men and Camelot’s enemies to see who could get their hands on Merlin first.

He won’t touch Merlin even if no one’s looking; he won’t say anything even vaguely kind to Merlin in public; and “If you wink at me like that ever again, Merlin, I’ll drag you to the dungeons myself.”

“Oh, come on,” Merlin complains, flopping onto Arthur’s bed - where Arthur has repeatedly made clear Merlin is not allowed. The sight of him spread out there is too tempting for Arthur to deal with.

Arthur swallows. It has occurred to him that Merlin might have realized why he made that rule, and that’s why he flouts it with such regularity.

“I get it; nobody can know we’re soulmates,” Merlin says, too loud for Arthur’s liking. He ignores Arthur’s hushing. “But people who aren’t soulmates have relationships all the time, Arthur! And they have sex even more.”

“Yes, but if people knew I was courting you, it would make them far more suspicious if we seemed to be injured at the same time,” Arthur says.

Why is it so hard for Merlin to try to stay alive?

“All right, but even if I agreed with that - and I’m not saying I do - how is anyone going to know what goes on in your room, with the door locked?” Merlin winks at Arthur in exactly the way Arthur had just told him not to. “What exactly is stopping you from getting in this bed with me?”

“People talk!” Arthur says. “The servants, the nobles - everyone gossips. And they’re experts at figuring out secrets by now. No matter how careful we were, they’d find out.”

Merlin huffs.

“And then Father would kill you,” Arthur reminds him.

Merlin grumpily rolls off Arthur’s bed, which Arthur takes as a graceless capitulation, until Merlin walks right up to him.

“One kiss,” Merlin says. “And I’ll stop asking.”

This is suspicious. The stubborn tilt of Merlin’s chin says this isn’t a capitulation, but a tactic: he's trying to show Arthur what he’s missing by insisting they be cautious. But Arthur does need him to stop asking - because it’s very hard to say no, and Arthur doesn’t have endless reserves of willpower.

Arthur puts a hand on Merlin’s waist and leans in. He puts all of his longing into the kiss, all the love that he cannot, cannot express until he’s king. Merlin’s safety is paramount, absolutely, but he also wants Merlin to never doubt how loved he is. Merlin gasps against his mouth as Arthur cups the back of his neck and pulls him closer, and Arthur hopes he’s managed to communicate at least some of that.

Arthur pulls back, and Merlin just stares after him for a long moment. Unconsciously, it seems, his hand goes to his lips. “Oh,” he says, softly, as if Arthur’s just changed his entire world with the one kiss.

Well, good.

“See?” Arthur says. “If you were this starstruck all the time, people would notice.”

Merlin’s adorably smitten expression disappears, and he punches Arthur’s shoulder. “I want to speak to whoever’s in charge of this soulmate thing,” he says. “I have several complaints to make.”

Whether because of Arthur's hilarious joke or their deal, Merlin doesn’t try anything with Arthur for an entire week, so overall it was a success.

Except for the way Arthur now can’t stop thinking about Merlin’s lips.

*

Time goes on; six very uneventful months pass. (That is, they’re uneventful with regards to the soulmate thing, not in general; Arthur's nearly murdered like ten times.) Arthur is just considering that maybe dating Merlin in secret wouldn't actually be a death sentence for him when Morgana, passing by him in a corridor, happens to tease him, “I heard a rumour Merlin spurned your advances.”

It's a good thing they're the only ones in the corridor, because Arthur feels himself go white as a sheet as he snaps, “What?”

Morgana laughs. “I hadn't actually thought it was true!” she crows gleefully. When Arthur keeps staring at her in horror, she pats his arm and adds, “Oh, Arthur, there are plenty of other fish in the sea.”

“Where did you hear that?” Arthur demands, struggling to keep his voice calm.

“It’s not that big a deal,” Morgana says, but then she freezes and studies Arthur's face. “Unless it is a big deal? Arthur, Merlin's not -” She pauses, just for a moment, and then says with certainty, “He is.”

Arthur deflates, puffing out a breath and sagging against the wall. “Yes.”

Morgana wraps her hand around Arthur's wrist and pulls him into an empty room off of the corridor. She shuts the door behind them.

“Uther's going to kill him,” she hisses.

“Don't you think I know that?” Arthur whispers back. At least, he starts out whispering. “It's not like I asked Father to make him my servant! But he is, and he keeps trying to - to kiss me, and he wants to court me, like he has some sort of death wish!”

“So you turned him down,” Morgana says.

“Of course I did!” Arthur says. “Father would kill him!”

Morgana nods, very seriously, and squeezes his arm. “You’re doing the right thing.”

Arthur gives her a small smile. He knew that, of course, but it’s good to hear, all the same. “I just hope it’s enough. Between my training, and how clumsy Merlin is, we both get hurt a lot - and it would just take one slip...”

Morgana’s sympathetic look suddenly turns crafty. “Let me help you with that,” she says.

“How?” Arthur asks.

She just smirks at him and breezes out of the room.

Arthur does not feel particularly relieved.

*

A week later, the ladies of the court are casting sidelong glances at Arthur and tittering in the way that means they’ve got particularly juicy gossip about him. Arthur would be worried, but Morgana’s in the thick of it looking very satisfied, so -

No, wait, Arthur should still definitely be very worried. What the hell has Morgana told everyone?

He has far too much dignity to ask anyone what the gossip is about, so he finds out in a roundabout way from Leon.

“Sire,” Leon says, with a small bow, “I want to assure you I did nothing intentionally to incite the rumours, and to offer my sincere apologies if I somehow caused them accidentally.”

“The rumours?” Arthur says, trying to sound like he hasn’t even noticed everyone pointing and whispering about him because he’s so far above that sort of thing.

“Ah,” Leon says awkwardly, “some people have been saying that we - that you and I -”

The bright shade of red on Leon’s face unmistakably explains what Leon is trying to say. Arthur can’t believe Morgana picked Leon, of all people, to be his - his fake boyfriend. He’s known Leon since he was a toddler; he’s basically Arthur’s brother.

Leon is still trying to politely explain that people think they’re having sex. Arthur takes pity on him and nods.

“I’m sure you didn’t do anything to, ah, bring this about,” he says. “The ladies of the court can be fickle.”

By which Arthur means, the Lady Morgana is evil.

Leon looks relieved. "I'm very glad to hear you say that, sire," he says, and Arthur nods at him graciously.

*

The next time Arthur sees Morgana, he hisses, "Leon? Really?"

"Well, you could do worse!" Morgana says. "Besides, I didn't want to cause any domestics."

Arthur frowns. "I have plenty of unmarried knights who aren't Leon."

"No, no," Morgana tuts, like Arthur's a child, "I meant with you and Merlin. He might've believed it if it had been someone else."

Okay, that's actually… a weirdly good point. Arthur looks at Morgana suspiciously. "You're being oddly helpful."

"I like Merlin. He's good for you." She smirks. "And the look on Leon's face was priceless."

*

Merlin tries to convince Arthur that Morgana's ruse means they can date in secret. Arthur insists it means the exact opposite: that someone has found them out, and any day, any moment, someone far worse could do the same. So they stay in their routine of only loving each other quietly and privately, in looks and soft smiles and tiny touches they only exchange fleetingly behind locked doors, and in ways that can be disguised into the actions of a loyal servant and a grateful prince, or of two brothers in arms.

Someday, Arthur thinks to himself, but he hardly dares to finish the sentence even within his own mind.

*

Arthur always feels a little guilty when he gets hurt these days. He wakes up on a hard cold floor, the ache in his entire body eclipsed by his pounding head, and his first thought, through the fog in his head, is of concern for Merlin.

His second is, oh, shit, where am I? It’s a dungeon, but not Camelot’s dungeon, for sure - he’s spent enough time dragging Merlin in and out of it that he’d recognize those cells.

Arthur remembers leaving the castle to hike. He remembers going into the woods. He remembers… a noise behind him, and something hitting him very hard over the head.

Great. A kidnapping. Arthur knows his father will ransom him - he doesn’t have a choice, after all; Arthur is his only heir - but Father won’t be happy about it. Arthur will be lectured for weeks about his responsibilities to the kingdom and his inability to defend himself.

Despite the pain in his head, Arthur struggles to his feet. Dizzy, he grabs the wall to steady himself, making a face when his hands touch something mushy - the walls of this dungeon cell have not been well-cleaned.

Unfortunately, that state of neglect doesn’t extend to the bars holding Arthur inside. He tries to rattle them loose, but only succeeds in rattling his brain very painfully around in his skull. He slumps back onto the ground: better to conserve his energy for when he has a chance at escaping.

A tiny window high in the cell wall lets Arthur judge the passing time. After a few hours, footsteps approach. Arthur scrambles to his feet, eager to try his luck if the guards are foolish enough to open his cell door.

Two men approach: one the largest man Arthur’s ever seen, in armour, and one an average-sized man in expensive clothes who looks tiny in the other’s shadow. Arthur has never seen them before, but clearly the larger is a guard and the smaller perhaps the mastermind here - or at least, in charge between the two of them.

“Camelot does not respond lightly to the crimes you have committed,” he tells the smaller man. “But if you let me go now, the king may still be reasonable.”

The man laughs. “Once we’re done with you, there’ll be no king.”

Arthur stiffens. “No matter what you do to me, I will never do anything to harm my father.”

“We don’t need you to do anything,” the man says. He gestures the guard towards Arthur. “Remember, no fatal damage. He’s useless dead.”

The guard nods and starts to unlock Arthur's cell. Arthur settles into a fighting stance, but with the injury to his head, it’s a struggle to even stand upright. He only lands a glancing hit to the guard’s huge jaw before he’s falling over almost entirely of his own accord.

The guard holds him up by one shoulder, and swiftly punches him in the gut three times. When he lets go, Arthur drops, moaning and holding his stomach. The guard turns and walks out of the cell, then re-locks the door. Arthur’s chance of escape is gone, and next time he’ll be in even worse shape to manage it.

“Better hope that your servant learns fast,” the small man tells Arthur, with a weird sort of sneer about the servant, “or we’ll be back for a lot more.”

They leave Arthur lying there useless, in so much pain it takes him a few minutes before he realizes what’s going on.

That sneer was because the man knows, somehow, that Merlin isn’t just Arthur’s servant, but his soulmate. Hurting Arthur was a message for Merlin, who must be around here too, somewhere. They’re trying to force Merlin to kill Father - although how they think Merlin would do that, Arthur has no idea.

Arthur shifts position, as if anything will help the pain in his stomach and his head. At least all the pain he can feel, he came by honestly - wherever Merlin is, he hasn't been physically harmed. It’s not much comfort, though, when he knows the terrible dilemma that Merlin must be facing.

Arthur’s breathing starts to get louder, and he forcibly quiets it. He hadn’t fully noticed it before, but he’s listening intently; waiting, with some anticipation. He realizes, slowly and with quite a lot of dread, that he is actually hoping for the men to return and torture him.

If they don’t, it means that Merlin’s going to try to kill his father. It means that soon, either Merlin or Father will be dead.

Arthur closes his eyes and wonders if the fact that no one’s come yet means Merlin’s already gone on a terrible fool’s errand.

The fog in his head is getting worse, and it’s almost welcoming to slide into.

*

There is an awful lot of banging. It makes Arthur’s headache much worse. He does not want to wake up.

But there is just so much banging. And then a lot of yelling. And then Arthur revises his opinion: that was only a little bit of yelling. This is a lot of yelling.

It must be a rescue. There must be a small army, by the sound of it.

Arthur struggles to sit up. If he’s being rescued, he wants to at least look mildly alert, not be caught napping in his cell. But his arms give out on him, and he slides back to the ground and hits his head again, and not even the screaming can keep him awake.

*

“Arthur. No, no, no. Arthur!”

Arthur tries to tell Merlin to shut up and let him sleep.

Merlin makes a sobbing noise. Baby. It wasn’t that mean.

“Yes, that’s right. Rise and shine, Arthur. Come on, open your eyes.”

Ha. No.

“For me?” Merlin whispers. “Arthur, open your eyes, for me.”

That’s low. Arthur doesn’t want to get up ever again, wants to fade back into the blissful oblivion of sleep, but he can’t ignore Merlin asking like that. Slowly, hating every moment of it, Arthur opens his eyes.

Memories come back slowly as he squints around. He’s in a dungeon - oh, yes, the dungeon. And Merlin’s here. Merlin wasn’t here before - he was off dying. Now he’s kneeling next to Arthur, cradling Arthur’s head in his lap, and he’s especially gorgeous because he’s alive and Arthur wasn’t sure he’d get to see him again. Arthur grabs at his arm, and Merlin smiles tearfully down at him.

“You’re going to be fine,” he says.

Merlin’s covered in an awful lot of blood. Soaked in it, really, There are streaks of it across his face.

Merlin follows his gaze. “Oh,” he says, as if noticing this for the first time. “I’m fine too.”

It’s all coming back to Arthur - the threats to himself, to Merlin, to his father.

He’s terrified to ask, but he has to know. “Father?”

“He’s fine,” Merlin says. “I would never hurt your father, Arthur.”

Arthur snorts softly. Of course he wouldn’t. Couldn’t.

Merlin gives him a very strange, strained smile.

“Do you think you can get up?” Merlin asks gently, helping Arthur to sit. “We should really get out of here.”

Arthur’s about to summon up to the will to make a joke about that - how are they supposed to get past the bars and the guards, huh, Merlin? - when he sees that the door of his cell is not just open, but blasted away. The enormous guard who beat Arthur is lying on the ground outside; the angle of his neck suggests he won’t get up again.

Arthur recalls the noise from earlier. He looks at Merlin. “Did you bring an army?”

Merlin twists his hands and bites his lip and, slowly, shakes his head.

Arthur’s bewildered. “Well, what happened, then? Did you annoy them into killing themselves?”

Actually, this is Merlin. That seems plausible.

But Merlin shakes his head. “They hurt you,” he says, softly.

Arthur already knows that.

“I just had to get to you,” Merlin says, still weirdly soft. “Arthur - I’d never, ever hurt you, or any of our friends. Or anyone, really, unless I had to.”

Arthur wants to make a joke about how of course Merlin wouldn’t, because he’s too small to do anyone any damage. But there’s a dead guard outside Arthur’s open cell door, and no sign of any of Arthur’s other captors. And Merlin’s tone is odd and he’s bowing strangely into himself, trying to look unintimidating - like he needs to try, despite being covered in blood that isn’t his. Merlin clearly did cause a lot of damage. Somehow.

“How?” Arthur asks.

“Magic,” Merlin whispers. “Arthur, I have magic. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry I didn’t tell you.”

Arthur would shake his head, if he thought it wouldn’t be horrifically painful. “No.”

Merlin is not a sorcerer. He’s - he’s Merlin. Clumsy and adorable and utterly harmless.

If he were evil, Arthur would know.

Merlin laughs, a little, not very happily. “All right,” he says. “You don’t need to believe me right now. We need to get you back to Camelot so Gaius can take a look at you. Do you think you can get up?”

Merlin is still covered with blood that doesn’t seem to be his own, and Arthur would like to insist on knowing how, exactly, he managed it - but Merlin’s right, they should get out of here. Besides, whatever it is, it’s still Merlin. He can trust him.

Arthur takes Merlin’s offered hands, and manages to work his way to his feet. Merlin must be supporting the majority of his weight, because Arthur doesn’t feel very heavy.

There was a weird flash about Merlin’s eyes, too, but Arthur’s not thinking about that.

One painful step at a time - both of them wincing - they make their way out of the dungeon, through a run-down old castle, and into a courtyard. No one else is there - at least, no one alive.

Along the way, they pass at least a dozen more broken corpses that Arthur takes in with shock. The positions of the bodies - well, this wasn’t a normal fight, that’s for sure. Just inside the castle’s entrance is the truest proof of that: another six men, thrown on their backs or against the wall in a semicircle, all apparently dead on impact. As if some massive force had exploded from the point - or the person? - they were all converging on.

Arthur looks sideways at Merlin. He did this? All of this destruction, this absolute devastation? This isn’t normal magic. Arthur has fought sorcerers before; they’re dangerous, but not this powerful. If Merlin did this - and Arthur’s starting to believe he did - then Merlin has greater powers than anything Arthur’s ever heard of.

Merlin doesn’t seem to notice Arthur watching him. He leads Arthur over to a tree and props him up against that, then stretches out his back. “Give me a minute," he says, and then mutters something else that Arthur doesn't quite catch.

His eyes maybe flash again.

“How far are we from Camelot?” Arthur asks.

“About a day’s ride,” Merlin says.

Arthur looks around. "We haven't got any horses."

"I said to give me a minute, didn't I?" Merlin asks, and then a couple mares trot out of the woods towards them.

"Did you just make horses?"

"No, I just summoned them."

"From where? Are you stealing some poor peasant's horse?"

"Of course not! They belonged to the men who kidnapped you - they ran away during the fighting. Are you going to get on, or not?"

*

About a quarter of the way back to Camelot, Arthur decides: Merlin isn't evil. He's clumsy and adorable and not entirely harmless and also very magical. Arthur can deal with that.

He's still Merlin.

*

About halfway back to Camelot, Arthur sits up straighter on his horse and says, "Hang on."

"Yes?" Merlin asks.

"You're a sorcerer."

"So you believe me now?"

"No," Arthur says. "I don't believe you at all. What were you thinking? Were you having fun not telling me? Merlin, if I'd known you could protect yourself, we could've been having so much sex."

"Oh my God," Merlin says faintly.

"Right?" Arthur says. "I thought if we got caught, Father would lock us both up and when he let me out, you'd be dead. But no, you could've just magicked yourself out! Poof! Are - why are you laughing?"

Merlin is probably laughing. Or maybe he's crying? Arthur's honestly not sure.

"Arthur, of all the reasons I expected you to be angry when you found out, this was nowhere on the list," Merlin says.

"Well, it should have been," Arthur says.

Arthur considers his head injury: it's no longer bleeding and Merlin's done his best to heal it, which Arthur happens to think is rather good. He still has a rather strong headache, but that's fine - he's always heard certain activities were rather good for getting rid of headaches, anyways.

"That looks like a comfortable patch of grass over there," he says, pointing.

"Arthur, you have a serious concussion!"

Arthur nudges his horse towards the patch of grass.

"Oh my God," Merlin repeats, and follows him.

*

When they get back to Camelot, Gaius insists on Arthur sitting around in bed for a week, and then not doing anything that could risk him getting hit in the head again for a very long time. This means Arthur isn’t permitted to escape when Morgana comes to make fun of him.

“You and Merlin looked awfully close when he brought you back,” Morgana teases. “Any developments?”

Arthur is going to deny everything, but then he thinks about it. Morgana has always kept his secrets, even when it means lying for him. And she’s never liked Father’s policies on magic. She absolutely refuses to attend the executions, and she’ll argue with Father for days on end on behalf of accused sorcerers. There’s no way she’d turn Merlin in.

Besides, he wants to tell someone.

“I’m courting him now,” Arthur says.

“No!” Morgana says. “You’ll get him killed.”

“No, that’s the thing,” Arthur says. He leans forward. “I won’t, because he can defend himself, because he’s a sorcerer, Morgana.”

“What.”

“I know,” Arthur says, revelling in getting to surprise someone else with this. “All this time, he’s just been - ”

“He’s a sorcerer?” Morgana interrupts, looking - oddly, indignant. She stands up.

“Yes! Wait, where are you going?”

“To punch Merlin, and then borrow his spell books.” She pauses at his door, and looks back at Arthur with some defiance. “Because I think I’m a witch.”

“Well,” Arthur says. “All right, then.”

Morgana graces him with a genuine smile. “I knew Merlin was good for you.”