“We have a problem,” Morgana announces, slamming her way into his rooms without a care in the world for whether or not he’s even decent or busy.
“We do not have anything,” he mutters, rubbing a hand over his face and reminding himself that he can’t throw goblets at her like he does with Merlin. “You have a problem which you can go bother someone else with.”
“Oh yes, I’ll just go tell someone else that Merlin’s a sorcerer then, shall I?”
He doesn’t remember standing but there’s a familiar cold fear clenching tight around his heart and the clatter of his chair echoing in his ears. “Shut. Up,” he snarls. “Shut the fuck up. Are you trying to get him killed?”
“I thought this wasn’t your problem?” She snaps back, face pale, at what is clearly unexpected anger, but her chin is tilted up, eyes daring him to do anything.
He has to close his eyes against the urge to threaten her until she promises to keep her mouth shut about whatever it is she thinks she knows. He hasn’t gone through the trouble of keeping Merlin alive for this long just to have Morgana ruin everything just because she thinks she’s figured something out.
He doesn’t open his eyes again until his palms start aching where he’s gripping the edge of the table hard enough that he can feel the bones in his hands creaking. Until he thinks he can open his eyes without giving in to the urge to actually throw something at her. When he does open his eyes she’s staring at him with something close to surprise painted across her face.
“You already knew,” she whispers and later he’ll be offended by how surprised she is. Right now he just wants her to shut up.
“Of course I already knew. He’s my manservant, he never had a hope of hiding it from me.” He bites the words out, panic still trying to cling to him. He can’t afford to panic. Merlin does that plenty enough for the both of them.
“Does he know that you know?”
He purses his lips and promises himself he’s going to start locking his door from now on. But then, if she hadn’t been able to get in where would she have gone. Who would she have gone to? “No. Not yet. How did you find out?”
She grimaces, glances towards the door and sighs. “I overheard him talking with Gaius.”
He stares, narrowly resisting the urge to gape at her. He knew Merlin was an idiot but he had thought that Gaius at least had the sense to not let them be overheard. “Oh my god,” he mutters faintly, he can already feel a headache coming on.
She winces in sympathy. “I’d say look on the bright side, but honestly I’m not sure there is one. How hasn’t he gotten caught yet?”
He snorts, takes a long swallow of wine. “Some awful combination of luck and other people covering for him. Although, the idiot doesn’t even realize that anyone other than Gaius is helping cover for him.” He considers for a second. “Actually, I’m not sure but I think he’s aware that Lancelot knows. Lancelot seems like the type to be upfront about it.”
“Oh my god. Arthur, we have to tell him. He’s going to get caught if we keep letting him think he’s being subtle.”
He does not want to have that conversation today. Although, strictly speaking, he doesn’t think he’s ever going to want to have that conversation. He had really just been holding out, hoping that Merlin would take the initiative and tell him. Would trust him enough to tell him. Sadly it does seem that he’s run out of time. At this rate the entire castle will know if he doesn’t do something and that’s—
—well that’s not acceptable. Merlin is his even if he was an absolute idiot.
He sighs, waves Morgana into a seat and turns to pick up his own. “He’ll be back eventually. We can confront him then.”
She nods, flopping into the seat in a way that would have had his father snapping at her in outrage but he says nothing, just pushes the wine pitcher towards her. He knows when to pick his battles and he certainly isn’t going to pick one that he doesn’t even care about.
By the time Merlin does bother showing up they’re both pleasantly buzzed and have gone over every instance of Merlin using magic to save them that they can remember or piece together. Which is a lot. Far more than they should be, considering he was supposed to be keeping it a secret. Morgana is beginning to understand why he yells at Merlin so much. Although, he’s not sure he likes the way she smirks whenever he mentions Merlin’s eyes. They glow gold, it’s just a very simple observation.
And if it’s not, well that’s really none of her business.
Merlin barges in — and really why does no one ever knock when entering his room — and stops short in the doorway when he spots Morgana, looking between them with a baffled expression that Arthur doesn’t understand.
“Merlin! Just the person we’ve been waiting for. Feel free to stop lingering in the doorway any day now.”
Merlin’s eyes narrow and he glances between the two of them suspiciously but he still does as Arthur’s says. Closes the door behind him and leans against it, palms pressed flat and shoulders tense.
“Arthur. Lady Morgana. What can I help you with?”
Right, that would be why he’s been putting this off for so long. That awful, cagey, trapped look that Merlin gets in his eyes every time he thinks that someone has figured something out. He much prefers the way Merlin sags in relief when Arthur believes whatever dumb excuse he’s come up with.
But he also prefers Merlin alive and serving him, so he’ll just have to push on.
“Sit down, Merlin.”
Merlin’s eyes somehow narrow even farther. “I’d rather not, thanks,” he says flatly.
“Merlin,” Morgana starts, pauses, head tilted in bafflement as she takes him in. “Merlin, you know we’re your friends right?”
He doesn’t mean to sputter in protest but honestly, she can’t just say things like that. Merlin raises a single, unimpressed eyebrow and of course, that would be what he picks up from Gaius. Not something actually useful, just the eyebrow of judgement.
“Yes, I can see that the prat definitely considers me a friend,” Merlin says dryly, some of the tension in his shoulders just barely melting away.
He glares and then turns to Morgana who glares right back at him. No, this wasn’t going to work. “Morgana, can you leave, please?”
“Excuse me?” She demands incredulously. She draws in a breath, probably to tell him exactly where he can stick his request but he really doesn’t have time for that, or the patience. Not now.
“Morgana. We can all speak tomorrow but I need to do this alone.” He makes his voice as calm as possible, tries to give her nothing to argue with. He thinks for a moment that she’s going to argue regardless and then she sighs.
“Fine, whatever. You’ll both be more fun to mess with tomorrow anyways,” she mutters, taking the goblet of wine with her when she rises. She stops in front of Merlin, and says something too soft for him to hear, before handing Merlin the goblet and breezing out the door.
The door clicking shut sounds painfully loud in the silence that follows and then there’s nothing but the crackling of the fire and Merlin staring at him with wide eyes. He would never be prepared for this.
“So, what’s all this about then?” Merlin asks slowly, moving closer to the table, eyes dragging over Arthur as if he can find the problem just by looking.
Arthur sighs, opens his mouth and then sighs again. Really, why couldn’t Merlin have just been decent at hiding his magic so Arthur could have had the luxury of patiently waiting for Merlin to tell him.
“You should drink that,” he says finally, after Merlin’s eyebrows have risen so high it’s a miracle they haven’t disappeared.
Merlin frowns, glances between him and the goblet but after a long moment, where he continues to stare at Arthur, he takes a long drink. Arthur for his part, does his best to not stare. But then Merlin is licking his lips and honestly, it should be illegal for someone’s lips to turn that red after one drink. Should be illegal for Merlin to look him straight in the face as he licks his lips and tilts his head, something bright and curious lighting up his eyes.
“You—” he stops, clears his throat. Glances around the room and then back at Merlin who’s still staring at him. “You should sit down,” he mutters, waving a hand at Morgana’s vacated seat.
Merlin hums quietly, head still tilted in a strange imitation of the animal he’s named after but after another too long minute of staring, he does finally sit down.
The silence drags, settling over his skin and when did the air get so heavy? It almost feels like the air is trying to choke him or shove itself down in his throat in a way that isn’t very conducive to breathing. Feels like there’s something dragging over—
—feels like something is dragging its way over his skin and Merlin is watching him, eyes dark and smirk just barely there, caught on the corner of his mouth and fingers tapping out a slow, steady rhythm against the table.
He takes another gulp of wine and Arthur watches, feeling frozen and uncertain. Watches his throat convulse around the liquid and Merlin’s eyes slip close, eyelashes dark against his skin. He blinks his eyes open, tilts his head, licks his lips again, and just barely leans forward. Arthur isn’t even sure if he’s breathing anymore, his lungs feeling heavy with the ache of wanting to reach.
“This is your fault isn’t it?” He asks, voice hoarse and choked even to his own ears.
Merlin smiles, a slow thing that spreads his mouth wide and leaves too many teeth, not enough pleasure. “Is what my fault, sire?”
He laughs. Watches Merlin’s eyes crinkle ever so slightly and laughs again, choking on the sound of it, on the feel of something slipping down his throat. “Merlin, for the love of, stop that!”
“Stop what? I’m just sitting here.” He tilts his chair back, raises his glass towards Arthur, a mockery of a toast and Arthur is—
—is no longer sure that this situation is safe. Had thought that Merlin was unaware that Arthur knew anything about his magic but here he is, acting as if he’s known all along. He really wishes he knew how to read this strange, glittering version of Merlin but he’s never seen it. Never seen him smile so wide it looks as if the smile is going to literally slip right off of his face. Is never around for the part where Merlin stops pretending to be harmless. For the part where he stops pretending.
“Get your magic out of my throat, Merlin.” He tries to make his voice hard, anything to shock Merlin out of whatever weird mood he’s fallen into, but the words come out sounding choked and pleading. Merlin hums, still smiling oddly but he pulls his magic away and fuck, he can breathe properly again for the first time since Merlin sat down.
“Nice of you to finally acknowledge it,” Merlin says quietly, taking another sip of wine.
Arthur wishes he could blame Merlin’s magic for the way he still finds himself tracking the slow slide of Merlin’s tongue across his lips. Wishes he could blame the magic for many things.
“I didn’t know you were smart enough to pick up on the fact that I knew,” he mutters and watches Merlin’s shoulders go tight.
“It’s fascinating that you still think I’m an idiot even though you know about my magic,” Merlin snaps, the strange smile gone. He looks pissed but Arthur honestly can’t fathom why.
“What’s fascinating is how bloody careless you are with your magic,” he says, watching Merlin warily. He’s beginning to think that maybe he should have taken the wine away.
“I’m not careless,” Merlin shoots to his feet, slamming the goblet on the table, “if anyone is careless it’s you! Always running around trying to get yourself killed.”
“And yet here I am, not dead yet,” he drawls. The look of rage on Merlin’s face is honestly hilarious. “Yes, yes I know, it’s thanks to you.” He waves a hand in the air, hearing the click of Merlin’s teeth as he snaps his mouth shut.
“You’re an ass.” Merlin grits out and Arthur’s pretty sure that if he stands any stiffer he’s going to fall over.
He hums, stands up and smiles at Merlin when he tips his head back to glare. Being the taller one was such a lovely way to piss Merlin off. “Normally, I would tell you how wrong you are but in this case, just this once mind you, I think I have to agree with you.” Merlin blinks, the anger slipping away, and it’s once again just Merlin, with his wide eyes and confusion. “Merlin, you know, I’ve never thanked you for saving my life.”
Merlin opens his mouth, maybe to protest, but Arthur curls a hand around his wrist and instead all that comes out is a shocked breath.
“Merlin,” he takes a step closer, can feel the way Merlin’s shaking under his hand, “thank you.”
There’s a single drawn out second, where Merlin blinks up at him, eyes wide, mouth parted, lips still stained red and Arthur thinks—
—thinks this is it. This is what I’ve been waiting for, this is it. Thinks please, please, please.
It’s only a second.
And then he’s slamming backwards into his chair, his hand feeling cold and empty, all the air in his lungs gone and Merlin staring at him, eyes narrowed and burning gold.
“That was a nice try, sire. I’m not going to forgive you quite that easily though.”
“Oh for the love of…” he huffs, trying to remember how to breathe. “Merlin, what the fuck.”
“It was a nice start though for sure,” he continues, as if Arthur never said anything, “but you’ll have to try much harder than that.”
Merlin keeps rambling on but Arthur stops listening, just sits there and watches Merlin talk. He hasn’t looked at Arthur even once since he started pacing and ranting, and that more than anything else tells him how affected Merlin was by—
—well, how affected he was by what should have been a kiss. He’s not too sure what face he’s making when Merlin does deign to look over but it must be disgustingly besotted because Merlin freezes, going pink and coughing.
“So, just to be clear,” he starts, when it’s clear Merlin isn’t going to do anything other than stand and stare at him, “what exactly am I apologizing for?”
This was clearly the wrong question to ask. Merlin sputters, looking thoroughly put out and— “For not telling me you knew about my magic! Obviously!” He cries, hands curled into fists at his side and Arthur shifts slightly, pleased to see that he’s at least no longer stuck to the chair. So, maybe, the question wasn’t that bad.
“I was waiting for you to tell me,” he says calmly. Merlin gapes, for some, probably idiotic reason, finding this unbelievable. “I was waiting for you to trust me.”
“Prat,” and this time he sounds the slightest bit fond, “why would I do that?” Or maybe not.
“Well because,” he falters, was trusting him really that awful of an idea?
“Oh, Arthur. It’s not that I don’t trust you. I do but you’re the prince,” he says this as if this should mean something. Says it in that irritatingly soft way he has when he’s trying to break bad news that he knows Arthur won’t want to hear.
“Yes, congratulations on stating the obvious, Merlin.” He huffs, crosses his arm. “That’s certainly never bothered you before.”
“I knew that you knew and you never said anything about it. Never even suggested that you knew, you just stayed quiet. I thought,” he hesitates, grimacing slightly. “I thought that you were trying to pretend that you didn’t know. So that you wouldn’t have to pick between me or your father.”
He blinks, not sure if he’s touched or put out. “Merlin, how long exactly do you think I’ve known?”
“Er, well since we were in Ealdor right?”
He sighs. He should have known that’s what Merlin would say. It had been too much to hope that he’d noticed before then. “No, Merlin. I’ve known since the afanc,” he says gently and Merlin loses whatever color he’d had in his face. “Since you burst into the council room yelling that you had magic.”
“I didn’t think you believed me,” Merlin mutters, looking sheepish.
“Hmmm, I might not have but I already had my suspicions. You aren’t exactly the most subtle person in the world.”
“Oh my god,” Merlin mutters, sounding faint. “Gaius is going to kill me.”
“Ah yes, about Gaius. I need to have a talk with him about making sure the doors are closed when he lectures you about being careless.”
If anything this causes Merlin to look even more horrified. “I’m going to die.” He moans, burying his face in hands. “He’s going to murder me.”
“Merlin,” he doesn’t bother hiding the amusement in his voice, “Gaius isn’t going to kill you. Stop being such a girl.”
“You wouldn’t understand,” Merlin mutters, glaring out from between his fingers, looking absolutely ridiculous. “In fact, there’s only one thing that can fix this and make me feel better about my impending death.”
He knows he’s being baited but— “Only one thing huh? And what would that one thing be?” He asks, raising an eyebrow and watching in amusement as Merlin’s glare immediately slips away.
“Well obviously, the only thing that could possibly make me feel any better is a hug!” Merlin beams, clearly pleased with himself for what he seems to think is a great trick.
“And you’re sure that’s the only thing?” He asks slowly, standing up and stretching. Merlin swallows, eyes wide. “Merlin?” He asks, bites back the laugh that bubbles up when Merlin’s eyes snap back up to his.
“Yes, uh-huh. That’s the only thing. For sure.” Merlin nods furiously, cheeks red.
He smiles and starts forward, not taking his eyes off of Merlin’s. He’s sure that if he looks away even for a second Merlin will find a way to magically disappear. It’s happened before. It’s a valid fear. But Merlin doesn’t move, just stands there, eyes wide.
“You look like a startled deer,” he murmurs, settling his hands on Merlin’s hips.
“And you look like an ass but you don’t hear me going around calling you names.” Merlin snaps back, his hands slipping over Arthur’s shoulders and around his neck.
“Well, if I’m such an ass,” he murmurs, leaning in and smirking when Merlin’s eyes go unfocused, “then perhaps I should let you leave.”
“Don’t you fucking dare.” Merlin snarls, the flash of gold just barely visible from under his eyelashes and then he’s—
—he’s kissing Arthur like he has something to prove. Like this is a battle and he’s determined to come out the winner. Arthur should have kissed him months ago.
Later, laying on the bed, warm and happy, Merlin splayed across his chest he wonders why he hadn’t brought it up earlier.
“Will you show me something?” He asks quietly, poking Merlin’s side.
Merlin squirms, nipping at Arthur’s collarbone in annoyance and for a second he nearly forgets what he’d asked. But he’s too tired to do anything other than lay here in a boneless heap.
“Merlin, show me something.”
“Stop whining,” Merlin mutters, glancing up at him blearily, “what are you even talking about?”
“Your magic, show me something.”
Merlin blinks at him for a long moment, looking confused. “Show you what?” He finally asks, sounding baffled.
“I don’t know, Merlin. Something impressive!”
“Oh but Arthur,” he murmurs, a filthy smirk lighting up his face, “I already showed you something very impressive.”
“Unless your cock can do magic then that’s not what I meant and you know it.” He says dryly. “No! That doesn’t count as magical!” He snaps, fighting back a smile at the way Merlin’s face is lit up with glee.
“Well fine then,” Merlin pouts, “You’re just no fun. I think that was much more impressive and magical than this.” And before Arthur can snark at him about how he hasn’t done anything, he flicks his wrist and the room is lit up by a soft blue glow.
It takes him a moment to notice, having gotten distracted watching the gold flare it’s way through Merlin’s eyes and flicker out, but when he does he shoots up, keeping Merlin in his lap as he gapes around the room in awe.
There are dozens of small, glowing blue balls of light floating around the room. All of them just big enough to fit in his palm and all of them looking exactly like the one that had led him out of the cave all those months ago.
“That was you,” he breathes, the awe making his voice heavy and he looks down to find Merlin smiling up at him, eyes soft. “I suspected but you were dying and I—”
Merlin kisses him, his hands coming up to cradle Arthur’s face, like Arthur is something precious, something to be protected and he, fuck, he—
—he melts into it. Melts into him. Let’s Merlin softly press kisses to his mouth and his cheeks until he has to bury his face in Merlin’s neck to stop himself from doing something stupid. Something stupid like crying or muttering the words he can feel clogging up his throat. Merlin presses a kiss to the top of his head and they sit there, wrapped together so tightly he’s only half sure where his limbs end and Merlin’s begin.
“I’d take the throne for you.” He whispers before he can stop himself, can feel the truth of the statement hiding under his skin. Thinks he may as well have just whispered the other truth lodged in his throat.
Merlin goes deathly still in his arms. Stops breathing long enough that Arthur pulls back to look at him, fighting back the worry that’s trying to latch onto him. Merlin stares back, face stricken and fingers digging into his sides.
“You can’t say things like that,” Merlin chokes out, “You can’t.”
“I can say what I like, Merlin,” he says softly, curling a hand around the back of his neck and bringing their foreheads together. “I’m the prince, remember.”
“You’re a prat is what you are.” Merlin mutters, some of the color coming back to his face, even though he still looks like he wants to argue the point.
“Hmm and you’re—”
There’s a crash and he cuts off, snapping up, Merlin twisting in alarm and—
Guinevere is standing in the doorway, hands over her mouth, a pitcher rolling across the floor. The lights are still floating lazily around the room. Clearly magical and clearly not supposed to be there.
“Shut the door!” He snaps and to her credit, she only blinks at him for a second before whirling and slamming the door shut.
“Gwen, Gwen I can explain!” Merlin is babbling, trying to slide out of the bed without letting the blanket that he’s covered himself with slide off. “I promise it’s not what it looks like. Or it is, but it’s not bad, please, just listen, I’m so sor—”
“Merlin you idiot, why didn’t you lock the door!” Gwen hisses, and it’s the first time that Arthur can recall ever seeing her angry.
Merlin freezes, “What?” And the word is definitely more of squeak than an actual noise, and Arthur will absolutely be making fun of him for that later.
“You can’t just leave the door unlocked when you’re carelessly doing magic in the Prince’s chambers!” She snaps, not even bothering to look at Arthur. “What if the King had walked in!”
There’s a horrified silence that hangs suspended in the chamber and Arthur reaches out a hand and touches Merlin’s shoulder, just to be sure, just to be safe. God, they were idiots.
“Get rid of it!” Gwen snarls, waving her hand around the room. “You didn’t even close the curtains for gods sake! Merlin I thought you were smarter than this.”
“You—” Merlin shudders under Arthur's hand, and the lights disappear, seeming to take some of Gwen’s anger with them. “You knew?”
Gwen stares. Stares at Arthur as if he’ll answer whatever question she has. Stares at Merlin again and he recognizes the look on her face, it’s the same look he’s seen on Morgana’s face right before she says something that he doesn’t want to hear.
“Merlin. Of course I knew. Did you think that I didn’t?”
“Oh my god,” Merlin mutters faintly, swaying slightly, “Gaius is really, really going to murder me.”
Arthur can’t help but agree.