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The saddest and most unfortunate thing about the whole situation, Merlin thought, was the fact that nothing had really led up to it. There was no angry sorcerer shouting unpleasantries at the king, they weren't in the woods to be attacked by bandits or magical creatures. The day was sunny and warm, if slightly humid from the summer heat, and the day's proceedings had gone rather exemplary.

And then the night had fallen, Merlin changing Arthur into his bedclothes as usual after the man had dinner. He hadn't requested a bath so Merlin's back was actually feeling quite well, and he'd been off to his own chambers and reviewing the old grimoires he'd happened across during his years in Camelot.

And then the screaming had started, growing closer to their chambers.

Gaius was up with a slight snort from coming back to consciousness so abruptly. For an old man he was quick as a fox, off his bedroll just in time for a few servants to come stumbling in on unsteady feet.

Merlin's grimoires were back under the floorboards in the time it took the door to swing open, walking through his own as they descended the steps. He was over to help them before they made it to the final one, spotting the blood flowing from a man's arm.

"We don't know what happened, I was asleep and it just started-" he gasped and cut himself off, and Merlin watched as the skin of his arm tore itself. It didn't look quite like a cut, but rather the way fabrics looked when ripped into. Or the edges of bread when one used a particularly dull blade or if the bread that day was simply unforgiving.

"Sit down," Gaius ushered, helping him and the other two servants that had rushed him there. "Merlin," he didn't need to finish, Merlin already rifling through the potions and salves for what Gaius needed. Nothing that would end his suffering or solve it, unfortunately, just as a cloth or bandage didn't truly help an arrow in the arm.

It would help, but not enough.

Merlin listened attentively as the man spoke, as the man bled. He'd stop sometimes, another rip of his flesh taking precedent. It looked like the beginnings of a letter. A 'G.' Another group of servants entered, this time three of them were bleeding.

He knew all of them, had seen them around. Harris who worked in the kitchens, Grelda who helped with washing linens and clothes, Joseph who was a stablehand. And Oswald who'd come first, who often worked at the armory overseeing their spare armor and weapons and helping with training.

"Gaius, I don't understand what they have in common." Merlin kept his voice quiet, unheard amongst the groans and shouts of pain and the chattering of Grelda's teeth as she gripped her friend's hand so hard it might shatter bones.

"Neither do I. Go check on Arthur, he may fall victim to this," Gaius paused, not even wanting to voice magic or curse. Merlin nodded, almost running into another group of people, all bleeding. They weren't all bleeding in the same places, either. Oswald's wound had been to the arm, but people's shirts and pants, fronts and backs, were staining red.

Merlin made it to Arthur's chambers and felt his lungs seize, a shout coming from inside. He forced a breath out and in and out again and he entered, seeing Arthur gripping his chest.

"You need to take your shirt off, come on." Merlin said, keeping his voice as he could- which, it turned out, was quite level and almost soothing and he was grateful for it. Arthur didn't question why he was there or how he knew, tugged his shirt off so Merlin could put a rag to it.

He'd barely been in a state of mind to think about what to bring, but held two small tins of salve, one to help the wound close and one for infection, and a potion for pain. Merlin knew the wound would stop in a moment before continuing, so he waited and let Arthur grip his forearm and knew it would bruise.

"What's happening," he breathed when the pain finally did stop.

"We don't know yet. People started coming in to see Gaius, bleeding like this. It's probably a madhouse by now." He made no statement to say he would leave to help Gaius, and if Arthur didn't either then Merlin knew to stay for just this little while longer.

"Why haven't you started then?" There wasn't accusation in the tone, just exhaustion and pain that Arthur normally would've hidden under haughtiness- didn't seem to have the energy for it yet.

"I don't know. Not everyone came in at once. The first one was at least a quarter hour before the next. Just waiting, now. Drink this while you can, it'll start again soon." Merlin handed him the potion, Arthur downing the thing in one go.

"It's sorcery, has to be." Merlin nodded, not trusting his voice with that statement. It was true, obviously, there was no non-magical reason for everyone to start bleeding in the middle of the night. They jumped as a servant dropped something down the hall, the clatter of metal on stone barely audible under her screech.

"I'll be back," Merlin assured Arthur, standing. He checked on her and told her to go to Gaius, warned her there would be others there. He apologized, not sure why, but she nodded at it and was on her way, grasping her shoulder.

Merlin was barely in the door before the inside of his wrist twinged. He had enough time to look up at Arthur and swallow before it started. He didn't register his knees hitting the ground, or the taste of copper in his mouth as he bit the inside of his cheek to avoid shouting.

It really did feel like being torn apart.

Like his skin was a cotton sheet for the seamstress, and she was ripping apart the fabric to make drapes or a vest. And it burned, gods above it fucking burned. Like someone took the drapes and lit something under them, slowly heating the fabric until the flame rose a little too high and licked it, igniting.

"It'll be alright," Merlin heard himself say, pushing himself to his feet. Even now, it seemed, as he swallowed a groan in his throat, he was bound and determined to reassure Arthur of this fact.

He sat in one of Arthur's chairs, fingers clamped around his wrist as blood seeped from the cracks. It was useless, trying to hold the skin together, useless to try for a pain-reduction spell or just stop it altogether.

His skin tore apart, and all Merlin could think was Gods, this fucking burns. Eventually he heard Arthur suck in a breath, no doubt the next letter tearing through. He clutched at his chest and, for a single, awful moment, it looked like his heart had been run through and, gods, gods this was really it wasn't it, so much for destiny and prophecy.

Merlin rose on shaky legs forcing his hand away from his skin. He used his neck scarf to soak up the blood, tied it around his wrist tight as he could with shaky fingers and clenched teeth.

"Merlin what are you," he stopped abruptly as Merlin grabbed one of the tins. Holding anything with his bloodied hand was hard but just impossible with the other. He did manage it, though briefly, just to open this stupid fucking tin of salve that would help clot the wounds that had already opened.

There was nothing left to do but wait, really.

"Help with the bleeding," he said by way of answer. He pried one of Arthur's hands from his chest, wiped the blood away as gently as he could with the rag. It was impossible yet to see what the letters were, covered crimson as they were, but it didn't look like a 'G' to Merlin.

Merlin applied salve with shaky hands, rubbed the one for infections on the rag Arthur held to the wound.

"You too." Merlin didn't quite understand the words, mind muddled and working a pace and a half late. "Apply some of- some of this salve you've brought." Merlin blinked, then nodded. He went to, but found the tin plucked from his hands.

"I can-"

"Merlin." Arthur's hands weren't exactly gentle with Merlin, but were efficient as only a warrior and knight's movements could be. He let the infection salve sit on Merlin's scarf the same as it did with the rag, tying it around him once more.

"It will stop, I think."

"You hope you mean," Arthur scoffed, rolling his eyes. Merlin didn't bother correcting him, though he really did think that this would end, and not with death of blood-loss.

"I need to help Gaius," he said finally, as Arthur clenched his jaw and his knuckles went white around the rag. "Apply more of this one soon," he pointed to the salve to help with healing, "and I'll be back as soon as I can with more potion."

Arthur nodded, and Merlin was almost out the door before Arthur stopped him with a simple, "Thank you, Merlin."

"Of course."

-:-

It did stop, in fact.

As soon as a full word was formed, the bleeding stopped and people were left with only the ache and future scar. Merlin got a look at Gaius' wound, on his lower back, as he cleaned it.

FLAMES

Gaius was thoughtful when Merlin told him, eyeing the words on Merlin's arm. Merlin's had taken the longest, or at least he had been one of the last to stop that he knew of. He'd helped Gaius tend to the hoard that had gathered, enchanting potions and salves to be nearly twice as efficient whenever he could.

There were many  words written now permanently on people's skin. GALLOWS on poor Oswald and DROWNING on Grelda and Joseph, HUNGER on Harris and several others. Gwen had told him that Morgana had started shortly before Merlin had and had taken nearly as long- she hadn't said what it was, and Merlin knew better than to ask. He prepared something special for her, enchanted to lessen her pain and help her sleep peacefully through the nights.

All of Camelot had suffered, not just those in the castle.

Merlin and Gaius had figured out what the words were early into the night, or rather Gaius had and it had taken Merlin quite a bit longer.

In his defense, though, it wasn't black-and-white.

Yes, there was GALLOWS and DROWNING but there was also HEIGHTS and DARK and, on one child, BIRDS. There was SNAKES and DRUNKS and MEN and KNIGHTS and HEARTBREAK and WOLVES.

At first Merlin had thought they were 'Ways I Don't Want to Die' because of gallows and drowning and hunger, but somewhere between dark and men he had had the epiphany. Fears.

Gaius had left at some point to check on the King, and then hadn't returned until past dawn. Merlin assumed he'd known he'd be gone throughout all of Uther's bleeding and had stalled as long as he'd dared, and was thankful for it.

Merlin was near ready to drop by time he was able to make it to the kitchen for Arthur's morning meal, much of which he'd had to gather in the kitchen himself since most of the staff was absent. He didn't begrudge them for it, the night had been awful, hellish.

Arthur was asleep, thankfully. The rag sat on the floor beside the bed, sheets stripped away and bloodied. Merlin had brought an extra rag and a bucket of water with breakfast, knowing this would probably happen.

He wasn't about to use a dirty floor rag for this wound. He set the breakfast on the table and bucket by the bed. Arthur was a horribly deep sleeper, but Merlin was still slow as he sat on the edge of the bed, leaning to dampen a rag in the bucket.

Merlin didn't read the word, just set the rag over top and left it there. He collected the sheets at the foot of the bed and the stained shirt on the floor and put them in a pile- he wouldn't take them to the laundresses until he could collect all the sheets and pillowcases. Merlin set aside an outfit for the day, laying it across a chair.

"Breakfast, Arthur," Merlin tried, receiving little response. He sighed and opened the heavy curtains over the windows. Arthur sighed through his nose, squinting at the light.

"Truly the worst manservant ever," he mumbled. He stood and let Merlin dress him, hand holding the rag in place. He didn't say it, but Merlin assumed he was grateful for it.

"I'll be back after you eat, bring you some bandages." Merlin told him, finishing the laces on his breeches. Arthur's face told him he wasn't expressly pleased about the entire ordeal, but then nobody was.

There was no one left in his and Gaius' chambers, everyone having left around the time Merlin did for their duties. A castle never rests.

"I'll be doing what I can for those in the town," Gaius told him, already packing what supplies he could spare.

"Of course, I can collect more herbs later today." He didn't know if he could, since Arthur was his job first and foremost, but he would probably request to be left alone for the day.

Merlin grabbed a couple potions and another salve for healing and wrappings. He noticed his own were loose and asked Gaius to fix them.

Merlin knew the rooms were empty but still cast a glance to reassure himself as he extended the arm. It had only started at his wrist, thankfully two fingers width above the bend so he'd be able to keep it wrapped or otherwise covered.

"Do you know of any way to, you know, hide this?" Merlin tried to keep the hope from his voice, but didn't think he'd done a great job considering the look Gaius gave him.

"I don't know. Regular scars, yes, but this was magic." Gaius warned, and Merlin nodded. Bandages tightened and secure, he slipped his brown jacket on and was off. He knocked before entering, a rare occurrence but called for just this once. Arthur was in his shirt, properly laced and everything, and his empty plate sat at the table.

He unpacked the bag slowly, instinctively keeping his wounded arm faced away from Arthur. He explained when to apply the salve and how often, told Arthur to only take the potions when he needed them as to not cause extreme drowsiness.

"Will that be all for you until dinner?" Merlin asked, hoping to the gods the answer was a yes.

"Yes, Merlin." Merlin nodded, taking his leave. He paused at the door, turning back to see Arthur staring at him, waiting.

"I didn't look at it. Just wanted you to know." He didn't need to, he figured, but it was still something he wanted to explicitly tell him. Arthur seemed to struggle for something to say, maybe thank you but Merlin knew he was miserable with those and so chose to turn again, door shutting behind him before Arthur could force the words out.

It would have been nice, sure. A bit of gratitude. But Merlin felt like shit, his whole arm was sore, and he didn't want to wait around for the man to have to force a simple thanks.

He didn't bother with a horse, didn't want to lift the heavy saddle and secure the stirrups himself and didn't want to wait around for the stablehands to finish. His bag would be enough for now anyhow.

The paths were oddly quiet, the whole of Camelot seeming to recollect themselves after the cursed night. Kids still played, of course, and the merchants were out and the tavern was open. The world didn't wait, after all.

It was just more subdued, for now.

Not for the first time, Merlin wished he had Kilgharrah to turn to. The dragon may have omitted truths and manipulated him, but at least it had always been helpful when Camelot truly needed help. And a curse laid upon the kingdom, scarring their bodies with their worst fears, well.

It was a time he'd have liked a bit of guidance.

Merlin walked the paths to the woods, knowing roughly where everything he'd need would be growing. He used magic to find the harder ingredients, the magic flowing through every living thing connecting with him, guiding him to their location.

It didn't take long to fill his satchel, and honestly that was because he needed so many different herbs and mushrooms and bits of tree bark and leaves and flowers. He returned not even two hours later, Gaius letting several different potions heat over flames.

He thought of the word on his lower back, FLAMES carved into him crudely. The stronger a fear was, the more harshly it was cut into the skin, and Gaius had taken a rather long time to stop bleeding even with the salve.

Merlin thought of The Purge.

He thought of the innocents- and perhaps some not-so-innocents, all of whom Merlin had ended up exposing in some roundabout way or another- that had burned at the pyre so far under Uther's rule.

"Ah, Merlin, do you have everything? Just lay it out on that table there," Gaius motioned to one of his tables, cluttered only with books and scrolls. Merlin did, categorizing them into piles as he did.

A guardsman entered, announcing that Merlin was needed elsewhere. He held back a sigh and rushed up to Arthur's chambers, catching him as he was leaving.

"My father is finally ready to gather the council," he said as a brief explanation. Merlin nodded and followed Arthur, a proper step behind instead of walking at his side as he usually did. Seeing Uther always made Merlin nervous, and he made sure to act extra-servant-like in his presence.

Uther and his council almost always agreed, mostly because Uther made his opinion known and his council often pandered to it. The council was, in truth, a formality. Today, it seemed, was little different.

"We most redouble our efforts. When we catch the sorcerer who did this, they will face public execution," Uther was nearly shouting, his face a rage-filled red. "They will soon learn that Camelot is not a kingdom to be targeted, not if they wish to live."

One brave councilman offered a bit of advice, which, clearly, was a mistake since it didn't align with Uther's opinion- Merlin thought of Gaius' confession, of how the mighty King Uther Pendragon had ANARCHY carved almost hazardously down his spine, not healing despite the potions and salves.

"Should we not seek out those who might understand this magic? Perhaps it can be cured and healed."

"You would have us consort with sorcerers," Uther's voice was quieter, and Merlin clenched his jaw for fear for the councilman. He had not been to many meetings, being quite new, and it seemed would not be attending any more. Uther called for him to spend a night in the dungeons for merely suggesting he ask for a sorcerer's help.

Even without his biased viewpoint of magic, Merlin would have agreed with him. Most curses he'd heard of could be reversed, and who better to ask than those who live by the Old Religion, druids?

Merlin followed Arthur down a few halls as they left, telling him he'd be by his chambers shortly. Merlin went to the head laundress, whose hands were cracked and dry from constantly washing bedsheets and clothes. She handed him a pair of clean linens for Arthur's bed and he was off with a word of thanks and the mental note to ask Gaius for a hand cream for her.

Arthur was at his desk when he entered, looking over books. Merlin chose not to say anything yet, instead focusing on his bare bed and dressing it. Merlin was just tightening the corners and adjusting the pillows when Arthur spoke.

"Merlin."

"Yes, Arthur?"

"Prepare two horses tomorrow. I will alert my father I am going on a hunt," Arthur said in a tone that implied they were not going on a hunt.

"And what will we be doing on this hunt?"

"Just do it, we leave at dawn." And, well, that was great really because Merlin had not slept for nearly two days now and would have to be up even earlier. Merlin nodded he understood and turned to leave. The air wasn't right for jokes or their light banter.

Arthur let him go silently, and Merlin had the distinct feeling that he was doing nothing productive at his desk.

-:-

They were, in fact, not going hunting. They didn't bring a bow or quiver, though Merlin did bring his emergency bag filled with several salves, a needle and thread for stitches should they need any, and a couple small vials of healing potion.

Merlin chattered endlessly about nothing and next to nothing, barely registering the words that came from his mouth. If Arthur ever asked him to clarify something, which he wouldn't, then Merlin couldn't have.

"Where exactly are we headed to?" And to his credit, he'd made it nearly an hour before he asked.

"The druids' camp. I have heard a possible location of where they might be." Merlin's first thought was And you haven't informed your father? while his second was And you are going there? 

"And if they aren't," was his third.

"Well we'll just have to hope they are, Merlin, now if you could shut up." Merlin smiled at that, Arthur finally back to being his prattish self.

"Of course, shutting up then."

Over time, Arthur began to loosen up, body moving more fluidly with his horse instead of sitting rigidly. He laughed with and at Merlin, not tense when Merlin caught up to ride beside him. He shot and skinned a couple large rabbits when they needed to make camp for dinner, their usual banter lively as Merlin fixed their stew.

Merlin was always grateful that Arthur never made him skin or pluck their dinner, let him contribute by gathering nearby herbs and spices to add instead. Merlin ate game because it was a necessity, though he gladly never would again if he didn't have to.

Begin a warlock, being magic itself, left him with an affinity for nature and all it provided, be it plant or animal or man or beast. To kill and consume a part of that was uncomfortable, left him with gooseflesh and a heavy stone at the base of his throat.

They settled on their bedrolls for the night, fire dying. Merlin looked at what glimpses of the stars he could through the leaves of trees, hot air making his shirt and jacket cling uncomfortably to him. He couldn't take it off, though, not with a fear the length of his forearm carved into him.

Being so fresh, he could still feel pain shoot up the limb to his neck every time he moved his fingers, but then he remembered Gaius standing despite his back, the laundresses scrubbing and soaking despite their necks and arms and legs. And he would go on.

He'd have to.

He fell asleep wondering how deep the fear went compared to what others had felt. Some people who'd come in had had thin little cuts, shallow like they'd taken a sharp blade and run through the skin like butter. They'd said it stung, had hurt.

Others had had blood spilling from their body, running out of them like rivers. Those like that that he'd helped clean and tend to the wounds after it was finished had been jagged and harsh lines, as thought they'd taken an ax and shattered the blade, using the widest part to carve the words.

Merlin's looked more like the latter, like someone had cut his skin and then carved over it again, wider and wider, again and again, a gross ugly thing that told of fear so great it could strangle him.

And it could, sometimes, he thought.

-:-

Merlin woke first the next morning, and rifled through his bag to find a salve. He was using one to help the letters heal faster, enchanted, so that it should be a scar in a few days. As Gaius had said, nothing seemed to work in hiding it, or even changing it to read as something else- save for one that tingled, but ultimately failed.

He grabbed his salve and made off, not risking tending to it at their camp. He walked several minutes out before he finally settled down, shrugging the jacket off. Gaius had always helped him with the coverings, but Merlin figured he could manage fine enough.

He set the bandages on his coat to not dirty them more than they were, letting it air a moment as it stared back up at him. The salve was warm on his skin, melting into the cuts easily. He waited for it to soak in and dry a little, letting his mind wander a moment.

The nature around him truly felt wonderful, rejuvenating almost. Being surrounded by stone and iron at Camelot left him feeling separated from his magic, in a way, since it so naturally called for the world around it. He'd been surrounded by woods and streams living in Ealdor, so close and one with the world.

In Camelot, not only could he not feel the magic around him, but he couldn't even safely release his own when it began to build up. It was annoying when it did that, all this power stuffed up inside him left him feeling stilted and quick-tempered, slowly leaking out of him by summoning breezes in hallways and building roaring fires with little kindling.

In the forest, it could simply flow out of him into the trees and plants and water. It was tranquil.

"Merlin?" Arthur called, and Merlin's gaze snapped up at the voice behind him.

"I was just tending to, you know." Merlin apologized, grabbing his bandage and making quick but efficient work with it before Arthur got close.

"I see," was all he said. Merlin worried, bones stiff and blood hot, that Arthur had seenHe hadn't, he told himself, he couldn't have.

"There are extra wrappings in my bag, and salves to help along the healing." Merlin offered plainly, acting as if even the thought of Arthur having seen it hadn't made his hair stand. "I'll just collect something for our breakfast then. Berries all right with you?" He had seen a few bushes before they set up camp, not a far walk.

Arthur nodded and Merlin was off.

He did not run from Arthur, he just-

He was trying to be efficient and a good servant was all.

They still ended up eating with stilted conversation, stiff and meaningless. It continued like that until they found a large campsite, tents and clotheslines set up and people bustling about. It was a good place, a small clearing within walking distance of a lake.

A man approached them, clearly distrusting the two.

"Who are you?" He asked, and Merlin hopped off his horse before Arthur, a show of trust towards these people.

"I am Arthur Pendragon, I do not come to bring you any harm." Merlin could feel Arthur's eyes on him, could practically hear him saying get back on your horse, you idiot, what are you doing.

"Merlin," he said simply, and the man's eyes met his. Merlin didn't know if druids could tell he was Emrys like Mordred had, though he did see something shift in the man's eyes and could only pray Arthur hadn't.

"You may come as long as you cause no trouble. I will show you where you can leave your steeds." They followed him, Arthur still on horseback and Merlin using the horse's lead. "My name is Aglain, I am one of our leaders."

"We've come to ask about a curse placed on Camelot. We want to know how to reverse it." Aglain was thoughtful at Arthur's words, watching him dismount.

"I would first need to know what the curse is," he said simply, motioning for the two to follow him through their camp. Merlin could feel eyes on him, nearly every pair that was present trained on them as they walked with Aglain.

"I can give you the details," Merlin offered, knowing which pieces of information would help most in identifying exactly which curse this was. He was familiar enough with basic curses and spells to know that there were certain key differences to even the most similar ones.

"It sounds as if the spell Foretold is what plagues you, so I am sorry to say that there is nothing that can be done. The scars will eventually fade as all do, though those that run deep will take far longer. The only way for the scar to fade completely is if the fear no longer exists in your hearts." Merlin tensed at Aglain's words, felt Arthur go stiff beside him.

"So there's truly nothing to be done? Who could have cast something this powerful?"

"Only one with more power than anyone here, I'm afraid. High Priests and Priestesses would certainly strong enough, though all known to us are gone now."

"What about Emrys?" Merlin asked, unable to, for once in his life, keep his damned mouth shut. Aglain was calm in his answer, so much that Merlin wondered if earlier was a fluke and nothing else.

"He would certainly be powerful enough to cast Foretold, however not even Emrys is able to stop it. Once cast, it is up to each person to fully fade their scars."

"So this- this Emrys could have done this then?" Arthur asked, and Merlin wanted to clobber himself over the head. Sure, Merlin, just go ahead and tell Arthur about your prophetic druid-given-name, give him the idea that you did this to Camelot, just great Merlin really.

"He has the ability, however not the will. Emrys is loyal to serving the Once and Future King of Camelot that will unite Albion. He would not condemn her people to Foretold." Merlin could hug Aglain, really, kiss him even. 

"Serving the what? That doesn't make any sense, who is this king?" Merlin could clobber Arthur over the head, now. The dolt.

"I'm sorry, young prince, I cannot answer that question," and, again, Merlin could just about kiss the man he was so grateful. If Arthur knew he was the Once and Future yada-yada he would look for Emrys who was Merlin and then Uther would have him on the pyre.

Really, a just truly awful situation for all involved, though especially Merlin.

"This was a wasted trip, then. Perfect," Arthur grumbled, getting up. "Merlin, get ready to leave, we need to head back to the castle." Merlin nodded, watching the prince storm out of the tent.

"Thank you for your help," he told Aglain sincerely, standing.

"No, thank you for all you do," ah, so he had known the entire time, then. Just great, perfect really. "He does not see it yet, but you will help him achieve amazing things in the future, Emrys." Aglain stood, deferring to Merlin.

"Ah, no, that really isn't necessary." Merlin assured him, awkward as a woman of the night in confessions. "If this ever happens again, can I count on you for help once more?" It was, perhaps, an unfair request seeing as his master and his master's father persecuted magic and those who wield it.

"Of course," Aglain swore it without a moment's hesitation. "And, just so you know, the boy is safe. You helped him escape, he has spoken highly of you."

"Mordred? He's here?" Aglain shook his head.

"He and a few others will be gone for another fortnight," was all he said on the matter, and really what did Merlin know about druids?

"I see. I hope he's doing well" Merlin offered a small grin, following after Arthur.

"Took you long enough. What were you doing that took so long anyway?" Arthur scoffed, already on his horse. Merlin mounted his quickly, bringing her to a trot beside Arthur's.

"Asking more about the spell, didn't learn anything useful." Arthur rolled his eyes but had a slight grin on his face.

"Well of course not, you're Merlin. Wouldn't be you if you did something useful." Arthur laughed, bringing a small smile to Merlin's own face. He was glad they were back to their banter, the last couple days barren of it.

They were well away from the encampment when Merlin finally asked something he'd been wondering since he was told the destination of their hunt.

"Why did you come to ask the druids in the first place? Your father has banned all magic, yet you go to those who live as one with it." Arthur was quiet, enough time going by that Merlin wasn't sure he was going to acknowledge the question at all.

"We needed to know more about magic, and the druids have always established themselves as a peaceful people. That's the only reason my father hasn't acted against them. If anyone who was familiar with magic may have answered us, it was them." It was Merlin's turn for a thoughtful silence.

It was a start, he supposed, in getting Arthur to realize that magic could be used for more than evil. A good first splash into the metaphorical lake.

"So you believe that people can practice magic and be good? It isn't all bad?" He was careful with his tone, thoughtful but not hopeful, curious but not too much.

"I don't know." It was a quitter's answer and Merlin knew it. He figured one more push was alright.

"But you went to see them?"

"Well what do you think Merlin?" It sounded like a taunt, like a rhetorical question, like Merlin could laugh out a glib response and they would drop it.

"I think it's a tool, like a sword or shield or ax. You can kill someone with anything, hurt with anything. It depends on the person's intent, it isn't a good or bad thing." Merlin hoped that was enough, for now. Arthur shook his head, the corners of his mouth turned upwards.

"You know Merlin, sometimes I really can't tell if you're an idiot or wise." Merlin tried to ignore how fond he sounded.

"Glad to see you're finally coming to your senses then, sire," he laughed, and that was that. They threw quips at one another, grinning as they went. All the jokes in the world, however, couldn't distract Merlin from how horrifically hot it was, the sun beating down on them, sweat trickling down his face and back and neck and legs.

He was miserable by the time they led the horses to a stream to rest a bit. Arthur voiced this.

"You look awful."

"Well thank you, Arthur, I do feel fine thanks for asking." Merlin rolled his eyes as he gathered water from the stream, splashing it onto his face and head. He felt water running down his arms and swore.

"Foul language from you today, you should be ashamed Merlin," Arthur grinned, his own head wet with cool water. Merlin shifted his gaze and kept his face free of tension, pointedly not watching drops slide down his throat and collar.

"Oh I am, believe me. In fact, I think I'll just head out for some good solitude, that really ought to show me." Merlin laughed, walking downstream and behind some particularly thick brush. Arthur would see the out for what it was and not bother him, he knew. He'd whinge about it, sure, but nothing serious.

Merlin let the coat fall from his shoulders, his bandages loose and now wet. He sighed, taking it all off. He didn't have a spare for himself, so he'd just survive until they got back with only his jacket. It'd be stiflingly hot, but he'd be no worse for wear.

Stuffing the bandage in his bag, he made his way back to Arthur.

"We can make it back by nightfall if we're quick," he said as Merlin returned, and that was that.

-:-

Morgana's dreams got worse.

Eventually, she saw one of the knights fall during training and break his wrist terribly. Gwen told Merlin about it, and he only remembered it when Sir Leon came in, clutching the limb and saying he'd landed wrong on it during a sparring match.

Gaius asked him to bring Morgana a sleeping draught, and while he brought it to her chambers he didn't try convincing her to take it.

"What are they about? Please, Morgana, you can trust me with this." She looked at him, eyes frantic and enhanced by the dark bags that hung below them. She was well and truly terrified, and he wanted to help her more than anything.

"I, I think I see the future, magic, and-" she stopped, and Merlin walked her over to a chair and knelt in front of her.

"Tell me," he uttered, voice soothing as he could manage it. And she did.

"And, the curse that was cast, that has nothing to do with me, I was afflicted with everyone else."

"I know. Gwen said it took ages for you. It took me just as long, actually. It was," he took a breath. "It's one of the deep ones." Merlin confessed it before he could talk himself down, glad he did when he saw her shoulders sag as if they didn't hold a weight beyond her means anymore.

"Mine, it. It's Uther." It came out in a rush, and he needed a moment to make sense of the syllables. For the first time since Gaius had treated it, Merlin rolled up his sleeve, his wrappings gone for the night.

"Oh, Merlin," she breathed, clutching at his hand tightly. "I can't imagine-"

"You don't want to, really."

-:-

As Merlin's life went on, many others did not.

Uther had grown even more enraged since Foretold was cast, utterly devoted to beheading and burning every last sorcerer at the pyre. He called in a witchfinder. Aredian.

In every land in Albion, Aredian was revered as a master witchfinder, exposing sorcery wherever he was hired.

Merlin stayed clear of him for nearly three full days, keeping busy with polishing armor and gathering herbs for Gaius and resolutely not attending the first and so-far-only burning of a 'sorcerer' in the town square.

Their first interaction was simple.

He was following Arthur, as he was bound to do as the prince's manservant, when Aredian chanced upon them in the halls. He greeted Arthur and prompted a short conversation and Merlin did his best to act the perfect servant, hands behind his back and spine straight and never once initiating eye contact or interjecting.

"Would I be able to borrow him for a moment of questioning?" Merlin didn't clench his fist or jaw or give any indication this bothered him.

"Of course, though I doubt he'll be able to help you any. My manservant is too much of a klutz and an oaf to keep any sort of secret, isn't that right Merlin?" Arthur grinned, grip tight where he patted Merlin's shoulder.

"Of course, sire, as you said." Merlin smiled tightly, and Arthur ushered them away with a courteous goodbye. As soon as they were back in his chambers, door shut, he eyed Merlin.

"You acted strange, with Aredian. Is everything alright?" Merlin smiled again, fake as could be.

"Of course. I'm certain I'll be back in time with your dinner, if that's all then." Merlin excused himself, just disrespectful enough of their positions to be like his normal self.

He forced his legs to walk the path to where Aredian had been given a room for his interrogations. It was near the dungeons, funnily enough. Aredian was waiting, sitting at a desk with a quill and parchment.

"Please, I don't expect this to take long. Sit down." His tone was too polite and put-on and Merlin didn't want to be here a second longer than he had to be, so he sat. "So, you are a part of those afflicted by this terrible curse, caused by the evils of sorcery?"

"Yes sir." Merlin felt impossibly cold and tried to remember, desperately, the few spells he'd looked at to conceal what his arm declared. There'd been one that tickled him, he remembered, but Gaius had read it the same as always and he wasn't about to show someone just to test it had worked.

He faked a sneeze, eyes shut as they flashed gold and a warm tingle buzzed up his arm.

"Pardon me, sir, I think it's the dust." Aredian just stared at him, face no different than it had been when he entered or met in the halls. He prayed to the Triple Goddess and every other deity of the Old Religion he could think of.

"I understand it's a terribly personal thing, however it is necessary for me to view what word has plagued you. To better catch the sorcerer, you understand." Aredian grinned, a cold and cruel thing, and Merlin nodded with a small, "of course, sir."

He pushed his sleeve up and the crude letters stared up at him, same as ever. Aredian hummed, scratching something down on his parchment.

"Any particular reason you're so awfully afraid of snakes?" Merlin could cry, honestly.

"When I was a young boy I saw one bite a farmer in the fields. He was dead within the next day," Merlin lied easily, remembering that, yes, there had been a man in Ealdor who'd died of snakebite as a boy. He'd found it horrible, sure, but was eternally thankful for Mad Terrius now, who'd been in the field because he'd sworn the Olde Goddesses were finally descending to their land and were ready to take a sacrifice, naming himself as the first before he grabbed a venomous snake and pressed it to himself.

"Must have been a terrible bite, truly." Aredian commented, and Merlin swallowed.

"Oh, it was." Alright, shut up now Merlin. "He grew pale and feverish, broke out in a cold sweat." That's enough now, Merlin. "Kept babbling on about his wife and children, how thankful he was to leave behind such wonderful people when he'd died unmarried, completely created a new life for himself in his final moments." Shut. Up. Merlin.

His inner dialogue sounded suspiciously like Arthur.

"Awful, truly. That'll be all." He said it with the emotional display of a rock. Merlin paced and counted the time between each step in order not to run, the words "for now," following him like a hound follows fox.

He'd thought he was fine.

And then Aredian brought in three witnesses, all claiming to see feats of magic that simply couldn't have been because Merlin was sure he was the only one capable of those things in Camelot- and wasn't that a thought- and he certainly hadn't performed any of it.

And yet, Aredian claimed Merlin to be the sorcerer.

"Merlin? You can't be serious," Arthur said, not even disbelief in his tone but something akin to it. Aredian, however, twisted his words in a way that guaranteed the king grant his 'request' to search Merlin's chambers, he nor Gaius allowed entry. Merlin prayed.

And an amulet that did not belong to him and did not belong to Gaius was found. The gods, it seemed, held no more concern for his prayers.

Arthur came to visit him, briefly.

"They found an amulet of enchantment hidden in a powder jar. Have you anything to say for yourself?" Merlin kept his stare resolutely on the stone wall in front of him, trying to emulate its strength with little success.

"Merlin," Arthur's tone was unlike Merlin had ever heard it before, hurt and raw and filled with things that Merlin did not wish to dissect while sitting in this damp dungeon cell. Arthur stood there a few moments longer, far longer than Merlin had expected him to. He left, fists clenched.

They left him there with no food for the rest of the night. He only woke because Aredian dumped a bucket of water over his head. Merlin sputtered, licking water from his lips and savoring it- it may very well be the last taste he ever receives, after all.

The guards dragged him up, brought him to one of the rooms Aredian was using for his interrogations. It was, funnily enough, just another dungeon cell. Go figure.

Aredian sat him down and questioned him. About the amulet, why he had it, what it did, why he kept it, was he aware to keep it was an act punishable by pain or death. Asked about his magic, when and where and from whom he studied it, if there were co-conspirators in Camelot.

He screamed at him. That he was an enemy of his kingdom, his king, an enemy to his prince. That he was evil, a dark, evil spot in an otherwise place of goodness- Merlin had wanted to laugh at that one, really, but had refrained on account of being terrified.

He lasted two full days of this, woken each morning via bucket of water and offered moulded bread and rotted fruits- he refrained the first day, on account of disgust, but realized the second that he needed to, for Arthur if no other reason, actually survive.

The second day was also, coincidentally, when the beatings began.

Merlin hadn't given him one satisfactory answer or confession- he never wanted to hear that damned word again- and clearly Aredian was impatient and wanted results. It started with slapping, punching. He hung Merlin with shackles, raised them until his toes just barely touched the ground.

Aredian let him hang for an hour, came back with a metal rod. He struck Merlin after displeasing answers, the same spot a few times before he moved on, circling back to bruising flesh and cycling through them.

Your only master is sorcery, Aredian told him. No, he'd argue, I serve Prince Arthur.

You've lied to him. Betrayed him. Broken his laws and his trust.

No, I've protected him, served him and this kingdom. 

Again, and again, and again, and again, and again.

He didn't stop at the stick. There were daggers, dull and tearing through his flesh with harsh lines. He was stripped at some point, and only Merlin could see his true scars, barely faded and harsh, angry lines on his arm.

He wondered what it looked like to Aredian and the guards. If SNAKES was as jagged and ugly, marring his flesh. If it was as raised, or if the scars looked years old now, faded little lines of things. Like a nick children got that never truly faded, that followed them into adulthood despite being an insignificant little scrape.

Merlin wasn't sure how much time passed, after they  strung him up.

Aredian didn't have him taken down to sleep, so he began getting short things that couldn't even be called naps or rest between interrogations.

At one point, Aredian tried burning.

You're a sorcerer and will burn like a sorcerer, he shouted, waving the torch in front of Merlin's skin.

He made a guard lift his bare legs and held the torch under it, let the flames dance under him. His leg heated quickly, and the familiar feeling settled in that he'd felt so long ago at the beginning of it all. Fire under his skin, growing hotter until it licked his flesh and he screamed, the first big one in the last few rounds.

Aredian burned his calf first, then his thigh, under his kneecap, switched to continue on the next leg, letting this one heat the sides of his knee, his inner thigh dangerously close to his sex, singeing his last-remaining clothes, his braies.

He doesn't know how long he was left alone, after, and couldn't fully trust himself with knowing the difference between what was nightmare or reality.

Aredian used a flogger at some point, laying lacerations along his shoulder blades all while telling him, sometimes screaming and sometimes calm and firm, to confess.

You've practiced sorcery, you've broken this land's laws, you are unnatural, disgusting, worthless.

To kill you here would be too much a kindness, you will confess and burn before the King.

Merlin thinks a guard gives him bread and water, but that may have been a dream too.

Arthur comes in and demands he be let down, when he next opens his eyes. He almost thinks it's a hallucination- wouldn't be the first- until his arms scream protest and Arthur holds them up, slowly bringing them down to not rip the muscle.

Arthur says words to him, but he doesn't comprehend them. A plate of stew ends up in front of him and he doesn't reach for it. It's taken away again and Merlin can't help but feel like he's passed some test.

He's handed clothes and puts them on mechanically, movements jerky but practiced.

Arthur leads him to his own chambers, and Merlin can almost feel tears behind his eyes at the familiar sight.

"Merlin?" Right, Arthur.

" 'M here," his mumbled response was slurry even to his own ears. "What'm I doin' here?" Arthur sighs as he sits Merlin in a chair, food dropping onto the table in front of him.

"Eat for now, Merlin." Merlin ate.

It hurt to swallow and it hurt to inhale through mouth or nose- he thinks the latter may be broken, he cant' tell- but Merlin put food down in much the same manner he'd dressed; roughly, sloppily, practiced but clumsy. The spoon hit his teeth more than a few times.

Arthur and two guards followed him down to the chambers he shared with Gaius, many things broken and horrifically out of place, but Gaius was there and that was all that mattered right then.

Gaius told him what had happened, how he and Morgana deduced Aredian was a fraud, how they framed him- exposed, rather- and how he inexplicably fell from a window. Gaius tended to his wounds, and Merlin wasn't sure if his spell still held and he couldn't ask Gaius since it didn't work on him and he had no way of knowing-

Except he did, didn't he? Surely he would still be tried for sorcery if Merlin's greatest fear were discovered? And yet here he was, being absolutely slathered in salve and wrapped up by Gaius, being given potions for healing and rest.

Safe, all things considered.

He walked with a limp the next morning and his bones ached as they marched up the stairs with Arthur's breakfast. He was dressed, seated at his desk, and staring down at a parchment seeming to not see anything in front of him.

"Arthur?" He looked up at his name and barely contained a wince. Merlin didn't think he looked that bad, all things considered. Surely Arthur hadn't reacted like that when Merlin had been roughed up in the past?

"I thought you'd take the day off. You've certainly done it for less," it was a bad mimicry of their usual banter and they both seemed to know it.

"I'd just like to continue as usual, actually." Arthur stared at him for a long moment, a furrow between his brows that usually bode nothing well for Merlin.

"You should take some time off." Merlin walked over to the desk, ignoring every shooting pain in his body, and set the plate down. He took a sausage off it and popped it in his mouth, chewing loudly.

"How else would I get a bite of such splendid breakfast, sire?" Merlin was really much better at this whole playing off the grievous injuries thing than Arthur, apparently.

"Merlin," and, oh.

"Arthur."

"Merlin," nope, not happening.

"I don't want time off."

"You should still take it, you'll never get another chance like this!"

"I don't. Want it." Merlin clenched his jaw so hard his head ached, nails biting into his palms and knuckles white.

"Merlin!"

"What, don't want me around anymore now that I've been accused of sorcery?" It wasn't fair and he knew it, to use Uther's hate against him like this. This wasn't just about time off, though- granted, he didn't know what it was about but still.

"That isn't it, you know that." Arthur didn't sound as cold anymore, which Merlin considered a small victory.

"Do I?"

Arthur stared at him for a long moment, expression inscrutable. Merlin stared right back.

"Don't let me see you again until dinner, the rest of your time is yours." It was the best he'd get, probably.

"Of course. And Arthur?" Merlin walked halfway to the door before he stopped and turned, Arthur meeting his gaze. "Don't be such a prat later," he grinned, exiting hastily despite the fatigue in his body.

Merlin spent most of his time relaxing, studying his still-hidden grimoires. He used magic to put salve on a rag and gently rub down his cuts and bruises and burns, enchanting it for pain relief as well as healing. He used magic for most things, contained to his room of course. He was careful even in his and Gaius' main chambers since anyone could walk in, probably the most careful he'd been about his magic since arriving in Camelot.

Morgana came to see him, once.

"I didn't know what to do, but then Gaius came to me and-"

"I know, Morgana. Thank you, thank you so much." Merlin knew he'd never be able to fully convey how grateful he was. She still wasn't aware of his magic- though he was certain she had suspicions, would see it eventually- but she knew he accepted hers and that was enough for now. She had him, and she had Gwen, the only two who knew of her greatest secret and her greatest fear.

One day, Merlin told himself, one day they'd all be free.

For now, though, he had to run to the kitchen and trudge up the stairs, not knocking as usual when he brought the prince his evening meal a half an hour late. He grit his teeth when Arthur didn't complain once.

"Stop being so proper, Arthur, you're normally much more of a prat." Merlin commented, and Arthur glared something fierce.

"Get out, Merlin." Merlin didn't need to be told twice.

-:-

This attitude persisted for more than a fortnight, and when all of Merlin's bruises were faded into blobby yellowish things that didn't hurt to prod and when he could climb the stairs without winding himself and carry and lift things he normally could with somewhat-ease. Then Arthur said they were to go on a hunt.

It was just the two of them, the midsummer sun beating down on them in the woods.

Merlin rode behind the moody prince and chattered on and on about absolutely nothing of importance. His backside hurt, the burns on his legs almost completely healed from enchanted salves but still felt raw as he bounced along on his mare.

A few hours into their journey, Arthur led them to a stream and decided the horses needed a break. It was fair enough, Merlin supposed, considering the heat of the day. He crouched beside it, cooling his hands and wetting his face and hair and neck.

Arthur kicked him into the water, foot firm on his back.

Merlin jumped to his feet sputtering all the way, about to berate the prince but paused, not seeing a hint of humor on his face. Which was weird, because this was really the kind of stupid thing he'd do for a laugh.

"That isn't funny," Merlin stated.

"No," Arthur agreed. Not even a 'Well it was a little funny, Merlin.' "Dry off."

"And how, Arthur, do you suggest I do that? We don't have a fire to sit in front of, or shall I gather the wood for that too?" Merlin snapped crossly, taking his boots and socks off.

"Guess you'll have to take your coat off, huh." Oh. 

"Arthur," Merlin started, not sure how he'd finish. Arthur moved for him, pushing the wet coat from his shoulders until he plopped wetly on the ground behind him, with his luck landing in mud.

"I'd wondered what was so bad that you'd wear that in this heat. Ironic, huh." Merlin's throat squeezed, only one response bouncing around his empty head.

"It isn't what you think, it doesn't. It doesn't mean what you think it does." It was a testament to something that Arthur didn't even look angry about the statement.

"Then I really don't understand, Merlin. I know I joke about you being a coward, an idiot, but I've never meant it, I thought you knew that."

"I do."

 

Arthur finally looked down at it, for the first time since seeing it in that dungeon bringing himself to look at the appendage at all. He'd thought maybe it was a trick of the light, at first, from the darkness and the smell of copper and Merlin being hung up by the wrists.

At first it had just been THER PENDRAGON, and he'd thought, fuck. Because fuck, his father was certainly a harsh leader in some's eyes but he'd no idea the king terrified Merlin this much. But he'd decided to talk about it with him, try to understand.

And then he'd unlocked the manacles and saw a damning AR instead of a U and his first thought had been Gods above, Merlin and he couldn't even coherently finish the thought because his mind was so jumbled. A trick of the light, clearly.

He gave himself any excuse that meant that this was not real.

He'd given Merlin the clothes and kept his arm out of view of the guards because either way this was damning to the servant.

He'd wondered about it, obsessed over it. What had he done to incite this fear, he knew they'd always been antagonistic but he'd never assumed it was anything other than jovial and only sometimes sharp or bitter. He'd thought they were close, he'd put his life in Merlin's hands before, had trusted him to bring him back to life with antidote and to accompany him to see the druids.

Perhaps he'd always thought wrong. Must have.

Because there, forever scarred into his manservant and best friend was his own name, and in the light of day it was just as dizzying as it had been then.

 

Merlin stared at Arthur staring at his name.

"I know you've never meant anything you've said, you clotpole, can you just, can you sit down? You look fit to pass out," Merlin pushed at Arthur's shoulders, moving them to a felled tree to sit against. He could explain this, Merlin thought. He could explain this and never have to truly explain his magic, it would be fine.

"I don't know how to explain this," he said, and wanted to throttle himself. Arthur looked ready to join, gods, but he still looked crestfallen and sullen and Merlin was fixing this.

"I'm not afraid of who you are right now, and I don't think I'll be in the future. It isn't about, well okay it is about you but it's," Merlin took a steadying breath. He absolutely would not blurt this out.

"You've been raised to hate things, certain, very specific things. But that doesn't mean you always will, in fact I have it on decent authority to believe that one day perhaps you won't hate it but until I see that it's something that, it's," Merlin inhaled deeply despite how his ribs still twinged, a couple of them still healing from breaks and bruises.

"Okay, listen, I know I'm not being very clear here but I am trying my best which I think deserves some credit. I mean it's really not  every day you tell someone you think of as, well, you are the prince I guess but more importantly I think we're friends, and, well, you know," Arthur looked like he was exasperated, which was silly because he should, in fact, be rather angry at this point from Merlin's rambling.

"After the Great Purge most records on magic were burned along with sorcerers, so there isn't really much information aside from a very reliable source I found on the subject. But, the thing is, and you should very good note of this, is that-"

"Merlin, please get on with it. Some time today."

"I have magic." Merlin was half tempted to dive into the river and try his chances as a fish and half to wait and see Arthur's reaction. Because this was it, wasn't it? What he'd spent the last couple years at Arthur's side afraid of, this discovery? He waited, waited for the distrust or disgust or anger or fury.

For Arthur to turn his back, tell him to leave Camelot because, no, nothing means more to Arthur than his duty to his people.

Arthur offered him a tired smile, which really was not the way this was supposed to go down. Where was the- the screaming and the anger and the accusations?

"I know, you idiot. What, you thought you were good at being a sneak?" Arthur teased, and Merlin was incomprehensibly leaning towards the route of becoming a fish.

"I, well yes?" Arthur laughed, a small, tired thing. "I mean, when did you find out?"

"After Aredian died I went through his reports. He listed your scarring as only ever saying snakes which was ridiculous because we've come across so many in our hunts and you've never once blinked at them. And then, well. Things started to make sense, I guess."

Merlin felt his arm start to itch and looked down.

Where there had been angry scars, there were now pinkish ones. Fading. They were fading.

He'd seen so many people's scars fade over the last few weeks.

A woman who had been close to her due date when the spell was cast had had MISCARRIAGE bleeding from her right bicep, though he'd spotted her with her newborn and was feeding him from her breast, the silvery letters just barely visible.

A man with LOVE on his neck was covered in dark bruises with swollen lips looking utterly besotted with the woman beside him, the letters not quite old-looking but not nearly as fresh, more pinkish like Merlin's own.

People were inspired by their fears to persevere, to conquer them, accept them. Just like Aglain had said, the scars were fading for some.

Arthur stood suddenly, and bent in a manner that was very much familiar to Merlin, arms extended. He hadn't done this since before the spell was cast, but still he stood. He untucked the shirt from breeches and pulled the fabric up, over Arthur's head first and then his arms.

BETRAYAL, thick, jagged, silvery letters that looked like they could have been carved into him ages ago.

"You don't, you-" Merlin didn't really know what he was trying to say.

"You won't betray me, Merlin, and yours is the only one that matters to me. You've proven, more than once, more than I think I could possibly know, that you won't." Merlin wondered, distantly, why Arthur seemed to so enjoy having Merlin write his speeches for him when the prince seemed perfectly capable.

"I can't do anything about the laws, not now. But I will protect you as well as I can until the day I am King, no matter how long that might take. If you'll wait with me, of course," Arthur went a little red on the ears at that, the cabbagehead.

"I'll be by your side every step of the way," he vowed, pressing light fingers to raised, silver skin. Merlin felt so much trembling inside him at this moment, begging to be let out. "I thought you'd be angrier than this."

"I was, for a while. It took a few days for me to really think about it." Arthur sounded resigned, almost, and Merlin's mouth moved before his thoughts.

"I trust you, Arthur. With my life, with my magic, it's yours. But I didn't want to, I couldn't put you in the position to lie to your father for me. I couldn't. And until the druids I wasn't sure you didn't hate magic just as much, but after that was Aredian and," he had to stop, voice trapped in his throat.

"I get it, I do. And a week ago I would have found this speech very unconvincing and all, but, really, I'm just glad you're here still. You could've left at any point, you know. Escaped the dungeons, fled Camelot. You stayed. For me."

Merlin couldn't deny it, but he wanted to simply from how much pain Arthur seemed to be in from the thought of having somehow caused this all.

"Yes."

"You stayed for me," and this time it was said with a sincerity and awe that was painful to hear.

"Yes."

"You should've escaped, Merlin, if you could have-"

"No." Merlin wasn't entirely sure how his hand had ended up in Arthur's, but the man wasn't pulling away so Merlin wasn't about to either. "It isn't about destiny or prophecy anymore, I'm not here because I have to protect you for Camelot, I'm here for you. I told you my life, my magic, it's yours."

If Merlin teared up while saying it, well Arthur surely didn't have room to talk, weepy as he was during the whole ordeal.

And it was a whole ordeal, a proper conversation.

Which, of course, led to Merlin being Emrys, led to the prophecy and the dragon he'd released and his father being the Dragonlord they'd gone to, and it led to talking, however briefly, about Will, and from there who knew about his magic.

Morgana's name came up, once, and all Merlin said on the matter was that not all of his secrets were his secrets to tell, and that they'd talk about it later- Merlin planned on sitting her down, at some point, and having this whole conversation again, barring some details probably.

At the end of it Arthur looked truly and completely exhausted, and Merlin couldn't begrudge him for this. It was a lot for Merlin to handle and it was his life for gods' sake.

"Can you do it for me now? Magic?" And Arthur had looked equal parts curious and nervous and hopeful that Merlin had just had to.

"Of course." Merlin looked to the sky and thought a moment. The sun was setting, so it was probably a good idea. "Close your eyes," Arthur did. Merlin's flashed gold as he whispered words in a tongue not entirely his own and he nudged Arthur, whose lips parted in wonder as he looked around.

Little lightning bugs danced around them, summoned and awakened by Merlin's magic. He'd discovered a spell that took them from distant, foreign lands and put them in a bottle, like an oil lamp of bugs.

This, he thought, was much better.

"You're amazing," he breathed. Not this is amazing or they're amazingYou, Merlin, are amazing.

"Glad you finally came to your senses on that one." Merlin smiled, and it was soft and hesitant like Arthur might take the words back.

And if Merlin's heart felt like it might give as there was a soft press of lips, barely ghosting his cheek and eyelashes ticking his temple, well. No one but the lightning bugs needed to know.

And if Arthur felt like his head might lift off his shoulders from how light it was as hands wrapped around the base of his neck, carded through his hair, and lips pressed against his then, well. Really no one but these glowing bugs needed to know.