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The Promise Within

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Disclaimer: Merlin is owned by Shine Limited, the BBC, and assorted others. I think the general Authurian Legends fall under public domain laws at this point, but I could be wrong. Certainly I’ve never heard of anyone being sued for using one in a novel/television program/movie etc etc etc, but I suppose there’s a first time for everything. Either way, I’m not making any money from writing this. I do it out of love.

~*~*~

Mornie utulie (darkness has come),
Believe and you will find your way.
Mornie alantie (darkness has fallen),
A promise lives within you now...
- Lisa Kelly, May it Be

~*~*~

“Arthur…”

“Yes, I know, Merlin. Please hold still.”

“But… Gaius… Arthur…”

“Drink this.”

Uther watched from a polite distance as the court physician pressed some strange, bubbling concoction down the servant boy’s throat.

He’d argued the first night after they’d left the castle behind, wanting to encourage the compulsion pushing Merlin forward. Eventually he'd conceded to Gaius’ logic. There were too many unanswered questions to keep pushing forward blindly without rest for all of them.

Which didn’t make it easier for the king to simply sit back and watch.

Almost a week had passed since Beltane, when he’d woken to the news that Arthur was gone. It might have been dismissed as another of Arthur’s attempts to assert some measure of self-control over his own life, but none of his clothing or armor had been missing and his horse had been patiently waiting in its stall when servants had been sent to check.

Then there was Merlin.

He’d woken Gaius up that morning, so far gone out of his head that he couldn’t even manage to get out of the door, simply trying to push forward towards the pull that had him deep in its clutches.

Faced with fever bright eyes and the shine of burning gold magic, Uther had wanted to put the boy down then and there. He'd ordered it, even, but again, Gaius’ logic had won the day.

The boy was under an obvious compulsion. The only thought burning its way through his mind was Arthur, the need to follow that pull to his master overwhelming everything else.

He was their compass, the one that would lead them to the prince.

Uther could see the moment that Gaius’ potion began to take effect. The bright gold in Merlin’s eyes dimmed away to nearly a sliver and he slumped bonelessly against the older man. “Gaius?”

“It’s all right, Merlin. Just sleep. Yes, that’s a good lad.”

The servant mumbled something else, but it was incoherent and lost as the potion finally allowed his mind and body to rest. Without it, Merlin would simply continue forward, mindless and exhausted until his body collapsed on its own. Gaius waved towards the knights and one separated from the rest of the group, obediently fetching Merlin and getting him settled into his bedroll.

Gaius followed quietly, tucking the blankets around the boy and brushing dark, damp hair back. Affection and worry were predominate on his face.

With little else to occupy his thoughts on this journey besides worry for his son and plans of vengeance once he finally found the culprit, Uther had found himself watching the interactions of his companions more closely. He’d known to some degree that Gaius was fond of Merlin, but he’d never quite realized how deeply his friend cared for the boy. Gaius did not treat Merlin like an apprentice or even a close friend. He treated Merlin like someone whose well-being meant more to him than his own.

He treated Merlin like a beloved son.

Uther knew without a doubt that if his initial order to execute Merlin had been carried out, he would have lost the man. Gaius would not have stood aside and watched in stoic disapproval as he had whenever he disagreed with some of Uther’s other decisions over the years. He would have fought for Merlin, possibly even with magic, and he would have died with the son of his heart.

The king wasn’t sure how he felt about that, about the knowledge that this was the line that would make an enemy of a friend, but he could see the sense in it. He could understand a father looking out for his son as best he could, protecting him from the dangers of the world, from kings and sorcerers alike.

He supposed that’s what he got when he allowed a fatherless child to seek shelter under the roof of his castle with a sonless old man.

More surprising than Gaius were the knights.

Uther had chosen to bring a handful of Arthur’s knights on this quest rather than his own. They’d proven their willingness to lay their lives down for their prince more than once and Uther knew they’d fight harder, past logic and reason, to save Arthur. They’d also seemed less wary of the compulsion, more willing to follow the servant than simply kill him as Uther’s older knights had urged. As Uther still itched to do at every flash of golden eyes, compass or no.

Arthur’s knights treated Merlin like he was one of their own, theirs to protect, theirs to tend. He was more than just a nameless servant to them.

When Uther had wanted to prod the boy forward that first night after they'd set out, uncaring that the magic of the compulsion was obviously the only thing keeping him on his feet, they’d been silent. That silence had spoken louder than any words they could have said and their relief had been palpable when Gaius had swayed the king away from pushing on.

Uther wasn’t entirely sure they wouldn’t have simply dug their heels in and refused to be moved if he’d decided otherwise.

It was a sobering thought, one that made him wonder if they still considered him their king or if they were simply waiting patiently for Arthur to take the crown. He’d never ask, but he suspected he knew the answer to that question already.

Finally, Gaius left Merlin’s side and trudged wearily over to sit near the king. “The compulsion is worsening. We must be growing close. Each night, a larger, stronger dose must be administered to be effective.”

Uther nodded, silent as he considered that. It frustrated him that he was forced to follow along behind this boy and the magic that held him in its grip. He was a man of action and though years of the crown had taught him the value of patience and strategy, the entire situation was designed to tear through that hard won wisdom.

Camelot had lost its prince, the knights their leader, the boy his master, but all of that was meaningless to Uther.

Arthur was his son. He’d already come far closer to losing Arthur than he liked to remember.

“We’re in Mercian territory, but…” he said, pushing at the logs of their campfire with a stick. “This doesn’t strike me as the sort of tactic King Bayard would employ.”

“No. Mercia has no more love of magic than does Camelot.”

“Another attempt to set us at war with each other?”

Gaius shrugged. “It is possible. The peace between our nations has always been tenuous at best.”

“Nimueh?” He hated that name, hated even more the memories and images it called forth. It was easy to believe that the traitorous witch was behind this newest ploy to drive him mad.

“No, sire. It is not Nimueh.” There was such confidence in Gaius’ voice that it made Uther wonder what the physician knew that he didn’t. He chose not to question it, though. There were only so many worries he could deal with at any given time and worry over Arthur was taking up most of that allotment.

Uther and Gaius were left to contemplate the fire on their own as the knights began tucking into their bedrolls for the night, quiet and subdued.

The king had chosen to take the first watch each night since they’d set out and the knights had ceased protesting the wrongness of it once they'd realized they wouldn't sway him otherwise.

“Nothing about this makes sense,” Uther muttered, stabbing more viciously at the fire. “Why kidnap Arthur at all? And why lead us to him? Surely there are easier ways to set up an ambush. Especially for a sorcerer with the ability to simply magik someone away without any other trace.”

Another shrug and a sigh.

He wasn’t really expecting anything different. They’d wasted the entire first day in counsel, trying to sift through the situation for what they were missing. No one could do more than guess at either the identity of the abductors or the reasoning behind it.

The minds of sorcerers were dark places that other men could not hope to understand, but that knowledge was little comfort to Uther as he stayed up late into the night, contemplating the fate of his son.

Across the fire, Merlin twitched in his bedroll, muttering Arthur’s name.

~*~*~

The fire gave a half-hearted crack and pop as the dying embers shifted in the night, orange-gold sparks catching on the breeze and lifting in a moonlit dance across the camp.

Beside Gaius, near the fire, a dark head eased up.

Eyes burning bright gold swept across the camp, each knight sinking deeper into slumber as they were touched by that gaze.

Sitting against a tree a few feet away, on guard, Ewaine’s head began to dip and he yawned widely. He shook his head, trying to clear away the exhaustion that was suddenly tugging at him.

It was too strong to be denied, though, and his body began to slump more fully against the tree, his head tilting sideways and a snuffle of sound escaping as he gave one last attempt to fight it.

Then he settled into the doze more completely, lulled into deep sleep with the rest of the camp.

No one stirred as compulsion drove Merlin out of his bedroll and into the forest.

~*~*~

Time passed in a blurry haze for Arthur Pendragon.

One moment he was warm and content, happily poking at Merlin to see if he could get a rise out of a manservant who had been far too quiet and serious since Arthur’s brush with death, the next he’d been cold and uncomfortable, a murmur of voices just outside of his perception, and no clear idea of how he’d gone from one set of circumstances to the other.

There’d been a building of pressure inside his head and body, then the sudden rush of release that had left him dizzy and disoriented.

Then… nothing.

Drifting in and out of sleep, part of him despaired. It felt too much like when he’d been bound inside his own head, near-fatally wounded by the questing beast, and really… what were the odds he could come back from that twice?

His shoulder throbbed at the mere thought of the wound, a reminder that he hadn’t healed fully, no matter how much he tried to insist that he had.

Another part of him railed against that, insisted that he could beat this, that he would survive because anything else was unacceptable.

He huffed with amusement as his mind drifted again and he had the sudden mental image of two little Arthur’s fighting each other over the matter.

“Arthur…”

He ignored the voice at first. If he was already imagining two of himself in a little mock tournament, surely imagining Merlin’s voice was nothing exceptional. He rather liked Merlin’s voice when it wasn’t being disrespectful or disappointed. There was a soothing timbre to it that always made Arthur want to relax into it.

“Come on, Arthur, no one’s here now, but that doesn’t mean they won’t come back.” Hands tugged at his arms and something rough and scratchy rubbed against his skin. “Please Arthur. You’re not dead. You’re not allowed to be. Come on.”

Arthur frowned slightly because while imagining Merlin’s voice wasn’t odd at all, imagining it full of worry and fear was. He didn’t like worry and fear any more than he did disrespectful or disappointed. Why was he imagining it like that?

Those hands moved to his feet for a moment and then a weight he hadn’t even realized was pressing against his chest was lifted.

“Bloody…” Merlin’s voice growled in aggravation and pain, making Arthur’s frown grow. Because really. If he had to imagine Merlins’ voice, why couldn’t it be warm and content, soft with affection and admiration?

Then a gurgle of sound escaped his own throat as a sharp sting blossomed across his cheek.

“Wake up, Arthur!”

“How dare you strike me,” was what Arthur meant to say because no product of his own mind had ever actually hit him before and he was certain that even hallucinations weren’t allowed to do so. What came out was less coherent vocabulary and more disgruntled groaning with a few snuffling grunts mixed in.

“Oh thank goodness, you’re alive.” Merlin - and it had to be the real one, because only the real Merlin would have the audacity to actually strike royalty - pulled him up to a sitting position and Arthur wasn’t able to bite back the whimper as the world tried to spin away from him. “It’s all right, Arthur. I’ve got you.”

He was only vaguely aware of Merlin clambering up and behind him, trying to help him to sit upright.

“Stop,” he rasped when the movement made his stomach lurch and his head swim.

“Okay. Here, lean back against me, Sire.”

Blinking his eyes open seemed to more difficult than even the most rigorous tournament and he had to wince and shut them again at the assault of color and light that overwhelmed his vision.

Gentle hands urged him back and it was more effort than he could muster to resist.

“There are… colors…” Arthur waved a careless hand as he slumped back against Merlin, grateful for the solid strength that helped him keep the worst of the dizzy spinning at bay. His head was throbbing slightly, but everything was slightly distant, almost as if he’d had too much to drink. Had he?

He couldn’t remember.

Fretful hands brushed his hair back from his face and he leaned into the touch, a soft sigh of contentment as the touch cooled the throbbing heat pulsing behind his eyes.

“It’s all right, Arthur. I’ll get you to Gaius soon. He’ll sort your head back out. And your vision.”

Gaius… The name brought to mind smelly, foul concoctions and gentle admonishments that if you would stay in bed until you are well, sire, and then you wouldn’t collapse in front of your knights.

He flopped a hand around, trying to get Merlin’s attention. It was important dammit. “Merlin… merlin… don’t let him give me that… anything … you can’t… foul.”

His hand was captured and held tight against his chest. There was relief and amusement in his servant’s voice. Which was better than the fear and distress, at least, though Arthur was sure it wasn’t exactly proper. “All right, sire. I won’t let him give you anything too horrible.”

He managed to blink his eyes open again, hoping to get a glimpse of his manservant so that he could properly judge Merlin’s sincerity. Merlin was a horrible liar if one could actually look into his face. It wasn’t quite as difficult as it had been, which was a relief, but the other man was angled too far behind him. He’d have to turn to get a better look and Arthur wasn’t feeling quite that braced just yet.

Merlin was usually fairly trustworthy in these things, though, and he disliked Gaius’s concoctions almost as much as Arthur did. Anyone with sense or taste did.

“Right. Good lad.” Arthur started to nod, but stopped abruptly as that sent the world spinning away in a myriad of swirling colors. He gagged as his stomach protested vehemently.

“Woah, okay. Be still, Arthur.”

“Merlin.” He tugged, trying to get his hands away from the ones that held them pinned to his chest. When had Merlin gotten stronger than he? Was he sick? “Merlin. Listen to me.”

“Yes, sire?”

He paused, trying to grasp at his thoughts through the hazy fog of color. “It’s… Merlin…”

His hands were released and Merlin shifted them around so that Arthur was held gently against his chest, like some sort of maiden Merlin needed to rescue. It was disconcerting and Arthur intended to protest such high handed treatment just as soon as he could figure out how to form the right words.

The thought was lost entirely as the chaotic rainbow of colors was overwhelmed by warm, burnished gold.

It swelled and seeped into everything, bathing Arthur’s world in the soft golden color.

Arthur couldn’t help but reach out a hand, enchanted, to let the pool of gold waft around his fingers gently. It felt like life and love and everything good in the world.

It felt like Merlin.

~*~*~

“There’s no trail at all, Sire. It’s like he was taken away by magic. Just like Prince Arthur.” Ewaine sounded absolutely wretched, but Uther’s mouth simply twisted at the news.

He’d known the sleep was unnatural. He’d never been the sort to sleep deeply when he was on the trail and Arthur’s knights were a diligent lot. If one felt they simply couldn’t push past their exhaustion to stay on guard, they’d have woken up another to take their place.

The king glanced over to where Gaius was staring into the fire again as if it held the answers to all the questions of the world. The physician seemed to have aged years since he’d awoken to find the boy gone from his bedroll and everyone around the campfire deep in an enchanted sleep.

Uther sighed and nodded to Ewaine. “Keep looking. Sweep further out, but be sure that everyone maintains line of sight with another. We don’t want anyone else disappearing.”

Once the knight had left to pass on his orders, Uther returned to the fire to stand beside Gaius.

“I’ve thought on it, Sire…” Gaius shook his head, looking bleak. “The siren call Merlin’s been following… There are many spells in the Old Religion that call for a sacrifice and one willingly given is truly the most potent. Actual teleportation requires a great deal of energy and concentration. Perhaps the sorcerer’s power wasn’t great enough to take them both at once and he was forced to compel Merlin to follow on his own. Then, given a week to recharge, snatching him up as well would be child’s play, especially if the distance were less.”

Although it pained him to add weight to the man’s concern, Uther had to nod. It did make sense. Arthur’s manservant had proven more than once that he was willing to sacrifice his own life for his prince. It was what the king liked best about the bumbling simpleton, the only reason Uther bothered to remember his name. “Perhaps it is Mercia, after all. They are well aware of the boy’s willingness to die to save Arthur.”

Gaius looked as if he’d swallowed one of his own less palatable potions. “Indeed.”

He wished there were reassurances that he could give Gaius, that he could somehow deny the dire explanation, but even if he could find such empty words to offer his friend, the man knew him far too well to believe them. Of all the scenarios and possibilities they’d considered, this made the most sense. It still didn’t explain what the villains intended to do with Arthur, but everything else lined up.

It was an ugly picture, but reality, he’d found, was seldom pretty.

“Sire! Sire, over here!”

Uther and Gaius shared a look, then the king whirled away, hurtling through the woods towards the sound of Leon’s voice, the physician only seconds behind him.

That had been excitement.

The knights were closer to the camp than he’d expected, Leon and Ewaine crouched over the two still forms of the prince and his manservant. He was sure they’d searched the area thoroughly. He was absolutely certain of it or he wouldn’t have allowed the men to begin widening their search net.

The thought had barely crossed his mind before the remainder of the knights closed in on their position, each drawn back in by Leon’s shout, and they were once again at the full strength of their small rescue party, plus their prince.

Uther's stomach tightened and his eyes scanned the trees, alert for the sorcerer that must have done all of this. His hand gripped the pommel of his sword tightly. Was this all a mad chase just to get them here, in a poorly defensible place?

If so, the moment to attack would have been as the king and his physician had rushed in, concern making them momentarily careless while the knights had been out of any kind of defensive position. That moment had passed and Uther did not intend to drop his guard again.

There was no attack, though, no sounds other than their own and that of the forest going about its business.

Bloody sorcerers and their bloody complicated and confusing ways.

“Are they-” He couldn’t bring himself to finish the question, but it proved to be unnecessary.

Leon shook his head, relief and joy filling his expression. “No, Sire. They’re alive, merely unconscious. They look a bit ragged around the edges and the prince is going to be demanding a bath as soon as he wakes, but they’re both breathing easily.”

“They just appeared out of nowhere,” Ewaine added, his voice hushed as he continued to check the boy over for injuries. “I walked right over this spot not a minute before. I only turned back at all because I thought I heard something.”

Tapping his shoulder lightly, Gaius took his place. His mask of professionalism wasn't able to hide the tremble in his hands as he gave both a quick field examination or the naked relief in his eyes as he found them to be physically sound. “They suffer no wounds that I can find. Obviously we can’t be sure about their minds or if they suffer from another ailment until they awaken… or don’t awaken, whichever the case may be.”

Uther motioned for the knights to stand guard and dropped to his knees beside his son, allowing a rare moment of tender care to show as he brushed Arthur’s hair back from his forehead. As long as he breathed, there was hope, whatever else the sorcerers may have done. He glanced over at the other boy. Merlin looked far more relaxed than he had for the entire trip, proving that even unconscious, the compulsion had been trying to force him onward. Pushing on non-stop, the manservant would have made the area in half the time.

“Perhaps the delay caused by your potions ruined their spells?”

The physician nodded, clearly following the logical procession of his thoughts. “There are many spells that must be performed quickly after preparations are made or at a certain shade of the moon, otherwise their potency is lost.” He sighed. “It makes as much sense as anything else I can think of. Perhaps Arthur will have more to tell us when he awakens. Or Merlin.”

Hesitating, Uther stared at the boy, duel feelings of gratitude and disgust warring with each other. “Is he still touched by magic?”

Gaius’ hands grew still and he looked at Uther with a grave expression. “The compulsion seems to have either been lifted or dissipated naturally, Sire. Obviously, I won’t know anything for certain until he awakens.”

Uther nodded and drew Arthur’s arm over his shoulder, trying not to think of the last time he’d carried his son this way. This was different, he reminded himself.

There was no bloody, dirty under-tunic exposing a life-threatening wound. No reason to believe that pale blue eyes would never open again and he’d be alone, left with nothing but the knowledge that he’d been unable to save the only two people who’d ever truly mattered to him.

“Sire?”

The quiet voice of one of the few trusted friends he had left cut through the dark thoughts and he looked up at the man. There were still so many unanswered questions. Who had kidnapped Arthur and why? What had they done to him in the week they’d held him captive? Why had Merlin been compelled and if it was their best working theory, why allow the compulsion to continue after the time had expired? Did a lingering taint of magic linger in the boy?

What was the point of it all?

And his council…. They were going to have an apoplexy. No one had exactly approved of Uther’s planned rescue, not any single part of it, but especially not the parts about the king going out with little protection and a boy obviously under the influence of magic.

There would be questions about Uther’s willingness to ignore the laws when it suited him. He despised the politics of it all occasionally. There were times when he missed the days when the law was easily changeable on his whim, when he gave little thought beyond who to conquer next.

How was he going to placate the ones that he actually needed?

Gaius arched a brow, a different question on his face than the dozens that were rushing through Uther’s mind and he nodded sharply again, understanding that question intimately, father to father.

The compulsion was gone and Arthur was safe once more. He could be merciful. He could give Gaius this and be damned anyone who dared to question him over it. “Let’s take them home, Gaius.”

~*~*~

When Merlin awoke, his head felt like it was stuffed with muslin. Everything ached, not unlike the morning after a day of being beaten up in one of Arthur’s supposed ‘training’ sessions.

A gentle hand, as familiar as his mother’s, settled on his forehead for a moment and Merlin relaxed. When Gaius spoke, his voice was soft and warm. “How do you feel, Merlin?”

Merlin swallowed, wincing at the dry, raw feeling of his throat. His own voice was cracked and rough. “Like I spent an entire day playing training dummy for Arthur and the knights.”

A second chuckle joined the physician’s and Merlin cracked an eye open to see a truly frightening sight at the end of the cot he was resting on - Gaius’s cot, if he wasn’t mistaken. Uther Pendragon stood there, leaning back against a table with his arms crossed, looking for all the world like he had nothing better to do than contemplate his son’s mentally afflicted manservant.

Each of his eyes were pried open gently by Gaius as the old man peered at him with gentle concern. Merlin knew enough about the healing arts now to know that the effects of head injuries and drugs could sometimes be read in the eyes, so he didn’t protest the treatment even though his eyes felt as dry and scratchy as his throat and it hurt a bit.

The physician made a light humming noise and nodded in satisfaction before turning back to the king. “The compulsion is gone, Sire.”

“The wha-” Merlin blinked at them in confusion as Uther nodded in satisfaction.

“Good. I will inform my council and remind them that we are all potential prey to the evil whims of sorcery. And that they would not want their own fates dictated by someone else’s actions.”

“Gaius?” He hated the plaintive sound of his voice of his voice. “What’s going on?”

Gaius checked his pulse. “What do you remember?”

“Umm…” He thought back. It was disconcerting to realize how fuzzy his recent memory seemed to be. “There was a feast. Beltane? And I helped Ar… err.. The prince to bed. Then…” His eyes widened and he glanced between them again. The only thing that kept him from springing from the bed and running to check on his friend was the fact that he knew he’d only end up flat on his face if he even tried to sit up. “Arthur. I… we were in the forest. There was stone dais… Is he all right, Gaius?”

He had to be. Surely he’d know if Arthur was gone from the world. He’d feel it, wouldn’t he?

Merlin forced himself to take a deep breath. He couldn’t imagine that Uther would be sitting calmly in the physician’s chamber if his son lay near death elsewhere.

“He’s still unconscious, but has suffered no injury that I can find. Merlin,” Gaius hesitated for a moment before sighing. “Do you remember how you came to be in the forrest? How you found Arthur? Was there anyone there that you noticed? How did you come to be back in the forest where we found you?”

Merlin’s head swam and his eyes closed again, clenching them shut against the vision of the two older men staring at him intently as if the answers to all of their questions were written out on his forehead. “I don’t know, Gaius. I was here, then I was there, and then I was here again. What happened?”

With only another faint hesitation, Gaius sighed and brushed the hair back from his forehead. “The Beltane feast was nine days ago, Merlin.”

“What?!” Eyes flying open, Merlin started to sit up only to fall back against the cot when the movement disturbed the horses racing about in his skull. “Over a week?” he asked weakly.

“Yes, Merlin. The morning after the feast Arthur was found to be missing and you were…” This hesitation was a great deal longer, long enough that Merlin forced his eyes open again to try to read the cause of it on the physician's face. Another sigh and Gaius shook his head. With his back more or less to the king, he gave Merlin a significant look, though his voice remained normal. “You were enchanted with a compulsion. Your eyes were glowing gold and you were trying to walk through the wall.”

“I was-” Merlin swallowed hard, hand coming up instinctively to flutter at his neck as his eyes darted to the king. “I… don’t remember that.”

If his eyes were gold, his own magic must have been in play. He’d never known anyone else’s magic to do such a thing.

Even if it wasn’t, to be under the influence of magic was still a death sentence. A mere suspicion of consorting with a magic user could get one thrown into the dungeons. How did he still have his head? His gut clenched with fear and he felt even more faint than he already had.

Uther gave a satisfied nod. He’d obviously noticed Merlin’s reaction and was pleased by it. “Gaius believed you wouldn’t. He’ll have to keep an eye on you, of course. Make sure there isn’t any residual magic left within you, but for now, your life remains your own.”

“Thank you, Sire,” Merlin managed faintly, almost dizzy with genuine gratitude. In Camelot, there was no mercy for even the suspicion of magic. For Uther to ignore it… As far as Merlin knew, he’d only ever done that for Gaius.

The king nodded again and stood. “I’ll take my leave, Gaius. I’ll have you informed as soon as Arthur regains consciousness.”

“Thank you, Sire.” Gaius waited until Uther was gone before he seemed to deflate a little, the pretense and lies that forced him to remain stoic and professional leaving with the king. When he turned back to Merlin, he sighed and shook his hand before taking a seat next to the cot. “Merlin, you are going to be the death of me yet.”

He looked older to Merlin than he ever had before and the sorcerer felt bad that he was taking so many years off of the man’s life.

“I’m sorry, Gaius.”

But Gaius just waved the apology away and smiled. “It’s hardly your fault that you and Arthur attract so much trouble. Usually.” His entire expression softened with fondness. “I’m just glad that you are all right. I was truly afraid that the compulsion would burn you out before we could find Arthur.”

“I still don’t understand what happened, Gaius.” Nothing that either man had said made much sense to Merlin, though he thought that some of that might be because his head was still swimming. “I mean… When I managed to get Arthur up and moving, we were fine. There was no one there, so I can’t imagine why we’d end up unconscious.. Well… I mean, Arthur was pretty out of it, but why me?”

“Wait…” Gaius sat a hand on his shoulder. “Are you saying Arthur was awake?”

“Well, not at first. Not when I got there.” Merlin had to push away the memory of how still Arthur had been up on the dais, still as death without even the faintest rise and fall of his chest to show that he was breathing. For a long moment, he’d actually believed his prince, his friend had been lost to him. “But yes. He woke up.” He opted not to tell Gaius that he’d slapped the prince. He wasn’t up for a lecture on how one should or should not handle a semi-conscious prince. “He dry heaved a little and he was complaining about.. Colors, or something.”

Gaius got the faraway look that said he was thinking, trying to reason out the details as much through what Merlin didn’t say as what he did. “You’d been running on nothing but magic for a week. It’d be easy enough for a sorcerer of any power to knock you out.”

“Gaius, seriously. There was no one else there, magically inclined or otherwise. Just me and Arthur.” He let his eyes drift closed again. He was so tired. “Perhaps my own magic brought us back to you.”

He didn’t remember it happening, though, and that bothered him. He’d gotten Arthur free and had been trying to coax him off of the dais. Then… nothing. As he’d said. He’d been there, then he’d been here. No sharp pain to speak of a blow to the head, no voices that could have been spells being cast, not even the dizzying rush of unconsciousness. His memory simply stopped with Arthur curled into him, muttering about colors and softness.

“Now, Merlin. Just because you didn’t see anyone-”

“Ever since the Isle of the Blessed,” he couldn’t quite say ever since I killed Nimueh “I’ve been able to sense magic more, Gaius. Even the small bits in otherwise non-magical people. Sorcerers and druids practically hum with it. Believe me. If anyone else had been there, I would have known.” He bit his lip and peeked up at the physician again. “Gaius… Arthur was humming with it. I don’t know what they did to him, but magic was all over him.”

Arthur’s particular spark of internal magic had always been a bit stronger than many of those Merlin came into contact with, but this had been very, very different. There’d been more magic coming off of Arthur than there usually was on Gaius or Morgana.

As he gave a small sigh and began to sink back into rest, Merlin wished Gaius didn’t look as disturbed as he felt. That made his own uneasiness more difficult to dismiss.

~*~*~

Uther couldn’t justify sitting by Arthur’s bedside every moment of every day no matter how much he wanted to. Between his decision to lead the rescue party himself, leaving his own knights to guard Camelot while he took the ones that had trained under his son’s hands, and letting the servant live despite being obviously touched by magic for over a week, the nobles were uneasy and restless. They were wondering if he had stopped being their king and started just being Arthur’s father.

He’d been forced to spend most of his day listening to them try to dissect who had attacked the prince and why, once more. They’d been circling around it for days, no closer now than when Arthur had initially disappeared. No evil sorcerer had arrived to cackle on about their power over the royal family and though Gaius had said that Arthur had moved from unconsciousness to natural sleep, there’d been no other change in his condition.

His mouth tightened at the thought of the impertinence of some of his nobles - especially the younger lot, the ones whose fathers had served him so faithfully but were now gone, leaving their younglings to be dealt with. None would dare challenge him outright, but he could still see it in their faces and hear it in their voices.

If politics didn’t demand that he needed them… He thumbed the hilt of his sword, wondering if he could arrange a demonstration of why he was still someone that they would be wise to fear and respect. Surely if he culled just one from the herd…

Probably best not to, sadly.

He could almost hear Goloris snorting, ribbing him about letting a bunch of frightened old men and insolent little whelps try to dictate to him. But then, Goloris would have also been the first one to counsel patience and giving warnings about losing his temper and lobbing off any heads.

There were days when he missed his old friend as acutely as a limb.

Gaius was a good friend, better than he probably deserved, and he’d made good use of the man’s counsel over the years, but it wasn’t the same. Gaius had never quite been his equal, had always erred on the side of deferential. He wouldn’t dream of slapping Uther in the back of the head and calling him an idiot.

Uther’s lips curled into a slight smile at the thought. He rather suspected that Gaius did dream of it, actually, but would simply never allow himself the pleasure of doing so in reality. The physician had always been the proper sort, after all.

His smile grew even further when he entered his son’s room to find Arthur sitting hunched in the center of the bed looking miserable and woebegone, but awake and better yet, alive. “Arthur. I was beginning to think you intended to laze away in bed for an entire month.”

Despite the words, his voice was warm with relief and affection. He wondered what it said about him that his son was only sure of his love in these moments after one of them had brushed too closely to death’s door. He wasn’t sure he wanted to examine that too closely.

Arthur had his head propped on one palm and blinked bleary eyes at him for a moment before his face abruptly lost all color. Almost immediately, the pale skin filled with a vague green tinge, but Uther had recognized that particular expression and had the bucket Gaius had left by the bedside up and in position before Arthur heaved the thin bile of whatever potion he’d been force fed most recently.

“Shhh…” He rubbed a gentle hand up and down the younger man’s back as Arthur clung weakly to the bucket. “It’s all right, Arthur.”

The prince made a noise of mingled disgust and pained disgruntlement, but allowed his father to help him.

“Gaius will be along in a moment, possibly with Merlin in tow.” He hadn’t seen the boy in the few days since he’d woken up and they’d been reassured that the magic hadn’t permanently tainted him, but he knew that Morgana had visited him. She’d mentioned that he was improving now that Gaius could actually get him to eat again and he knew the comfort that could be had in the simple knowledge that one’s most trusted servant was close by. He wasn’t entirely sure he approved of just how close Arthur had allowed their relationship to become - sometimes he despaired of his son ever learning to maintain a proper kingly distance between himself and those around him - but if it eased even a small portion of Arthur’s suffering, then he was willing to overlook it.

“Merrr?” Some of Arthur’s trembling stopped and his eyes had slipped closed as he slumped against his father’s side. Uther gave himself this moment, this one moment in time to revel in his son’s life and trust, to set aside the weight of his crown and simply be Uther, Arthur’s father, instead of Uther, King of Camelot. He let his cheek rest against Arthur’s soft, golden hair and breathed deeply, sending up an unspoken prayer of thanks to whoever might be listening.

“Yes, Arthur. And if he doesn’t bring Merlin, we’ll have him fetched.”

He wondered if these moments might not have been so rare if Ygraine had lived. Would father and son be closer if there’d been mother there to guide them along through the more troubling aspects of any relationship between two such stubborn males?

He pushed away the might have beens to concentrate on the here and now.

~*~*~

Gaius told Uther than he was sure that Arthur was fine, that he just needed time. It hadn’t been that long since the questing beast had poisoned him and the kidnapping and subsequent captivity had knocked his system out of it’s proper working order. There was also the issue of dehydration and Arthur obviously hadn’t gotten properly fed while he’d been unconscious.

Gaius told Uther all of that and Uther believed him without question.

Merlin wasn’t so certain.

He’d stood back, trying to be invisible in a far corner of the room, while Gaius examined Arthur. He’d watched all three of them, but mostly, he’d watched Arthur.

He’d watched an Arthur who was unusually subdued, none of his usual complaints or insistence that there was nothing wrong with him.

As long as his eyes were closed, the prince had only looked the perfectly expected amount of miserable.

As soon as his eyes had opened, he grew pale and his face took on a more pinched look.

If Uther happened to put himself right into Arthur’s line of vision… Then the prince turned a truly fascinating shade of green and his stomach tried to revolt again even though he didn’t have anything in his system any longer.

He was slightly better if it was Gaius, but he still looked more pained and nauseous than if he was looking at no one at all.

And through it all, the magic that Merlin had noticed in the forest hummed underneath, strong enough that he was a little surprised that no one else seemed to be able to feel it.

Eventually, Gaius pulled Uther from the room, assuring him that rest would be the best thing for Arthur and giving Merlin a significant look that said he’d noticed many of the same things that the younger sorcerer had and that they’d have to speak of it later. Without a hostile audience.

Merlin hovered in the shadows of the room for a moment, watching as Arthur slowly relaxed once the others were out of the room entirely.

“I know you’re there,” the prince called, his voice rough with sickness and disuse. He was still propped up on the pillows, his head tilted back against the wall and his eyes closed. “So you may as well stop hiding.”

The words were still slurred and it was easy to see that speaking was painful. Not that Merlin was particularly surprised. Arthur’s throat had to be as raw as beaten meat. Still, what little he’d been able to push out with Gaius and Uther in the room had been pathetic and mostly insensible. The sorcerer arched a brow as he stepped closer to the bed. “You weren’t this coherent before.”

Arthur threw a baleful look in his general direction. “You try being coherent when-”

Cutting off abruptly, the prince looked away and Merlin ventured even closer, daring to settle on the edge of the bed and raising a hand to Arthur’s brow. As he had in the forest, Arthur simply sighed and leaned against his hand. “When what Arthur?”

But Arthur just shook his head and raised a trembling hand to his eyes. “Nothing.”

It wasn’t ‘nothing’, though, Merlin could tell. He thought back to those moments in the forest, when Arthur had slumped against him. No, more than that… when he’d curled into Merlin like the sorcerer was the only thing safe and stable left in the world.

Even now, Arthur was curling towards him instinctively, relaxing under his touch, and his color was improving. The magic humming under his skin had settled down, calm now instead of chaotic.

Merlin knew that they were closer than a servant and prince should be. He’d heard enough whispering as he passed other servants to know that. He’d seen the disapproval in Uther’s eyes, knew the king was continuously displeased by the lengths Arthur was willing to go to in order to protect or save Merlin.

Sometimes he even thought, hoped, that they were more. That they’d passed the boundary of simple friendship to the kind of closeness he’d only ever dreamed could exist between two people. He didn’t think he was imagining that Arthur felt the same.

He knew all of that, but it didn’t really account for the sheer depth of comfort that Arthur seemed to be taking in his presence now. This was a purely physical comfort in sharp contrast to the pain and illness caused by Uther and Gaius.

His mentor was forever trying to get him to think in more scientific ways, to look over the evidence and theorize before going with his gut feeling. He’d never been particularly good at it.

Luckily, both his gut and the evidence were leaning him in the same direction this time.

“Does it have anything to do with the colors?” He asked softly, brushing the damp blond hair back off of Arthur’s forehead.

Pale blue eyes flew open and for the first time, Arthur looked directly at him. He was tense and wary, but there was none of the pain or sickness that he'd exhibited earlier. “How did you-”

“You mentioned it before, when I found you.”

Arthur swallowed and seemed to hesitate for another moment before nodding slowly. He didn’t seem particularly keen on continuing, though, so Merlin prodded him gently.

“What’s going on, Arthur? We can’t help you if you aren’t honest about it.”

“There’s-” Arthur bit off his words for a moment, judging, weighing what he was trying to say. “Everything is saturated with it. Everyone. And it’s almost.. Alive. It feels.” His eyes slid towards the door, then back to Merlin. “Some of it’s so bright it hurts my eyes, like they’re being stabbed. And some of it’s so dark, it twists my stomach up in knots and makes me ill.”

“Your father and Gaius,” Merlin guessed.

The prince nodded and pushed down into his bed, settling further into his blankets He burrowed into his pillow, looking so much like a lost little boy that Merlin wanted to tuck him in and do anything in his power to protect him from this. “Father was.. Both. Like some kind of twisted, vortex of violent colors. Gaius was less so but still not very pleasant.”

Merlin gave in to the urge to tuck the blankets up around Arthur’s chin. “And me?”

That brought the pale gaze back to his face and Arthur stared at him for a long moment. “Golden. You radiate this warm, golden glow that just kind of… chases away all the rest.”

“Oh.” Merlin blinked, completely unprepared for that answer. He didn’t quite know what to do with it.

One of Arthur’s hands came up to clasp Merlin’s wrist and he looked vulnerable in a way that Arthur Pendragon should never look. His voice was unsure and Merlin suspected that Arthur would rather face down an army of angry dragons than actually speak what was on his mind. He’d never been particularly good at admitting need or asking for help - real help, not the kind of help that was always getting Merlin thrown into the stocks. Merlin wasn’t sure if it said more about the depth of trust Arthur had for him to show him this vulnerability or about how bad he actually felt that he couldn’t hide it. “Stay? Just until I fall asleep?”

Merlin thought it might be a bit of both.

He smiled and brushed a hand back through Arthur’s hair. “Of course, Arthur. As long as you need.”

As if there’d ever been a question that Arthur’s side was where he was meant to be.

~*~*~

“You know what’s wrong with him, don’t you?” Merlin’s voice was barely a whisper, soft with trepidation. Whatever had been done to Arthur, it was slowly driving them both mad. Even now, nearly a week after waking, Arthur could barely stand to have his eyes open and his head ached with near crippling pain regularly.

More than once, Merlin had come into the prince’s bedroom to find the normally indomitable warrior curled up in his covers with a pillow over his head, shaking and sweating with pain and exhaustion.

And no amount of coaxing, bribing, or threatening could get Arthur out of his room. He’d gone as far as ordering that no other servant but Merlin come near his door and he’d asked Gaius to tell everyone he was too weak for visitors. It wasn’t that far from the truth with each visit draining his reserves a little more each time.

Morgana and Gwen were the only two people aside from Merlin that didn’t make the prince physically ill simply by being there, but even they left him shaking and weak.

After the first night, Merlin had taken to sleeping on a bedroll in Arthur’s room, his presence the only thing that seemed to allow the prince anything resembling a decent night’s rest.

He’d even fallen asleep sitting up against the prince’s headboard once, gently rubbing Arthur’s temples and trying to coax a particularly bad headache away. He wasn’t sure if he’d succeeded before he’d finally given into sleep, but he’d woken to Arthur curled against his lap looking more peaceful than he had since the entire nightmare had begun. It had stirred something in Merlin’s heart and he’d stayed there as long as he’d dared, wanting to hold on to the moment. Merlin was certain that Arthur had woken when he’d finally given in and slipped out of the bed, but neither had spoken of it again.

Gaius sighed heavily. “I’m hoping that I’m wrong.”

“You always say that and you almost never are.”

“I’m an optimist.”

“Mmhmm… What do you think is wrong with him?”

There was silence for a long moment, then Gaius sighed again and set the book he’d been clutching on the table. He opened it carefully and moved to the side so that Merlin could see more easily. “Here. Look at this.”

“Auramancy?”

“The ability to see and manipulate life auras. From what you’ve said about the magic and his own descriptions of what he’s seeing and feeling… this is the only explanation I can come up with. This book belonged to Ygraine, left to her by her father for future generations. The trait is much like clairvoyance, it cannot be learned, it either runs in the blood or it does not.”

“But he wasn’t born with this, Gaius. Even Uther Pendragon would not have been able to find a way to suppress a born magic. It demands to be used.” He knew that from unpleasant experience.

He’d tried to stop using magic in his earliest days in Camelot. The results had never been particularly nice. The magic was as much a part of him as his lungs. He could no more stop using it than he could stop breathing.

“No, and neither was Ygraine. But one of her father’s brothers was. It doesn’t manifest in every individual born in the line, but the potential will be there indefinitely, I suspect.”

Gaius grabbed a chair and began pulling it towards one of the shelves, only to sigh when the book he’d been after floated down easily into his hands.

He turned and arched a brow at the wizard.

Merlin chuckled and shrugged, trying to look innocent though he suspected it wasn’t his best effort. “What? There was no point in you climbing up there when I could get it just as easily.”

“How many times do I have to tell you-”

“I know, I know. Be careful. It’s an open room. Anyone could walk in. I know.”

If he had a nut for every time he’d heard that…

“And yet, you continue to ignore my advice.” Gaius sighed and shook his head, a familiar expression of co-mingled exasperation and fondness on his face. “I’m continually amazed at your lack of survival instincts.”

“Gaius.”

“Although, if I’m right, secrecy will hardly be an issue any longer. At least not in Arthur’s case.”

“What do you mean?”

“First things first. Here it is.” The book made a heavy thumping sound as it was sat down and the dust that stirred made Merlin’s nose tickle with the need to sneeze. “The bindings you mentioned made me think of it. Those particular runes are used primarily for this ceremony. It pulls such magical potential to the surface.”

The spidery handwriting was difficult to decipher in places, but Merlin had gotten used to such things in the year he’d been studying the various texts that Gaius kept. He could make a fairly good estimate of what the more illegible bits said.

Merlin swallowed hard as he read over the words of warning detailed under the ceremony instructions a second time, just to ascertain that he was reading it correctly. “Gaius… this says… it could have killed him. If there was no potential.”

“Yes.”

“Right.” Merlin cleared his throat and made an effort to get himself together. It did no good to dwell on the ‘could have’s. Arthur was alive and Merlin intended to see to it that he remained so for a good long time. “So. Auramancy and life auras.”

Nodding, Gaius set the second book down and returned to the first. “Every living thing has a life aura. Some call it the soul, others the essence. As I’m given to understand it, it’s a living energy, an extension of life that hovers around you like a bubble of color and light, though most people cannot see it. Auramancers can read these auras as easily as you or I can read a book. More skilled auramancers can manipulate them for good or ill.”

“Like turning one’s life energies against one’s self.”

“Indeed. Or healing. Once, auramancy was commonly sought as a healing art. But Merlin… The most dangerous thing here, for you, is not how it can be used to manipulate.”

“I don’t understand, Gaius.”

“You cannot hide the truth from an auramancer, Merlin. They can read it in your aura. Feelings, secrets… All is laid bare for them to see.”

“Oh.”

For a wizard hiding openly in Camelot, that could be problematic.

“Yes, ‘oh’.” Gaius sighed and ran his finger over the pages. “On the other hand, Arthur has not been trained for this. He has no idea what he’s seeing, never mind any way to interpret it.”

“He says I glow golden…” Merlin’s voice trailed off as he considered that.

“I have noticed that when you perform magic, your eyes glow gold with the power of it.” He browsed through book until he found what he was looking for. “Here, see? This is a breakdown of what the colors mean.”

Small smudges of paint were lined in a column on one side of the page, the spidery writing detailing out what truth could be found in each. Though several pointed out magical talents - he noted the indigo that Arthur had mentioned seeing around Morgana, unsurprised that it spoke of seers and soothesayers - there was one glaring absence.

“There is no golden.”

Unless Arthur had meant yellow instead… It was an easy enough mistake to make, he supposed, though Arthur tended towards being almost anally precise with colors when it came to his clothing. He was worse than Morgana and Guinevere combined, sometimes.

His finger trailed over the yellow color and the words written out beside it. Yellow is the color of awakening, of inspiration, of intelligence and of action shared. A creature of yellow is creative and playful. Endlessly optimistic and easy-going. Cultivate those of yellow for they shall make thee a fine ally.

Merlin made a soft noise of approval as he read. He could live with being yellow.

“Well, Merlin,” Gaius smiled. “I have always said that you are unique. But that’s not quite correct. I spoke to Ygraine’s uncle once. He told me that raw magic sparks an aura with golden undertones. Raw magic is the innate magical power one is born with rather than anything cultivated later in life through study and practice. The more magic, the stronger the golden color. I don’t believe that’s listed here, but…” Gaius paged through the book again before finally settling on a new page. “Here we are… Few humans are born with enough raw magic for any golden color to be noticeable. It’s more often found in magical creatures such as unicorns and griffins. Dragons.”

Merlin bit his lip and felt for the familiar warmth of magical power that lay quiet beneath the surface, ready to be called forth with a moment’s notice. He’d never tried to feel along to its edges, never tried to understand how much there was to it.

Like so many other things, it just was, and he’d always accepted it without question.

He considered what Gaius was telling him and swallowed hard. “What does that make me, exactly? Am I even human?”

Gaius’ expression softened. “It makes you an exceptionally gifted human being, Merlin. I know you’ve heard that the druids call you Emrys.”

“Yes. I’ve always wondered what the name means.”

“Well, there is no exact translation, really. It’s a title more than a name.” He smiled. “Essentially they believe that you are magic born into human form and that when you stand beside Arthur, as sorcerer and king, you will return magic to its proper place in the world.”

Swallowing, Merlin glanced back down at the book. “That sounds like an awfully big responsibility for someone like me.”

“Actually, Merlin,” Gaius’ hand rested on his shoulder, squeezing gently. “I think that it sounds like the kind of responsibility that is exactly perfect for someone like you.”

Merlin was warmed by his mentor’s confidence, but he wasn’t sure he shared it.

He sighed and tilted his head back, mind going back to the problem at hand. As sickly fascinating as his own problems were, they weren’t immediate. “Can we undo what’s been done to him, Gaius? Is there some reversal ceremony to put this magic back to sleep?”

“I don’t believe so. I’ve searched both my personal library and that of the castle.” Gaius looked down at the book with the expression of a doctor delivering a fatal prognosis. If Arthur was stuck with this magic, Merlin supposed it very well could be. “If ever there were such a ceremony, it’s been lost to the ages.”

Burned with everything else magical that Uther could get his hands on, Merlin translated in his mind, mouth curling down as he thought about how many solutions and spells had been lost in the king’s fanatical purges.

Which was neither here nor there. “Do you suppose there are any other of these… auramancers… in the world? Anyone who might know how to get rid of it?”

Gaius shrugged and sighed. “I have heard tale of one or two who survived the purges, but I can’t imagine any of them would be keen on helping the son of Uther Pendragon, even if there were such a remedy. I think many would see it as fitting justice. The only son of a magic hating king, suddenly turned magic.”

Merlin could understand that philosophy, actually, and would probably have agreed had it been anyone but Arthur suffering for it.

“Is there some potion that could suppress it?”

“I have found a few that might... Lessen the effects. Nothing that will eliminate them entirely. I’m afraid there’s nothing to be done but help him try to live with it.”

He rubbed his eyes with a tired hand, feeling the headache creeping up on him. So much had been lost because of Uther’s fanaticism. “What about…” It felt like broken glass sliding down his throat when he swallowed and forced himself to continue. “What about the dragon? Would he know a way?”

Only for Arthur would he even consider venturing back down to that loathsome creature’s cave.

The look on Gaius’ face said he understood what Merlin didn’t say as much as what he did. He sighed again. “I simply don’t know, Merlin. If anyone had an idea, it would be him. But his help too often comes at a price which none of us can pay.”

“Oh, I think the humiliation of my having to ask for his help will go a long way as credit.” Assuming, of course, that the dragon didn’t decide to simply burn him to a crisp the second he showed his face. “Considering, you know, that I swore he’d rot down there forever and I’d never be back.”

“An understandable sentiment,” Gaius assured him with a wry look. “If a bit hasty.”

~*~*~

The dragon was every bit as smug as Merlin had expected him to be.

“My, my, my young warlock. Forever is getting shorter every day, isn’t it?”

This is for Arthur, he reminded himself sternly, pushing away the urge to just turn around and go back the way he’d come. “You know why I’ve come to you?”

“Because, as usual, you have found a problem that you cannot solve on your own.” The dragon tsk’d and shook its massive head, peering down at him with the condescending look that always made Merlin want to throw things.

“Then how do we cure Arthur?” At least the dragon’s all knowing act meant that Merlin didn’t need to waste time explaining things. The less time spent in the creature’s presence, the better. He still had nightmares of his mother’s face as she lay struggling to breath and so terribly close to death.

“There is no cure. The ritual used is ancient, older, even than the old religion.” The dragon chuckled to itself, finding amusement in his own turns of phrase. “The gods themselves could not undo what has been done to the young Pendragon.”

Merlin’s fists clenched and he shook his head fiercely. “No. There has to be a way. You’re just being an arse.”

Because Arthur Pendragon could not be stuck with something so debilitating. It made a moot point of their great destiny if the prince couldn’t even crawl out of bed, to say nothing of the possible death or exile he could face.

“I am many things, young warlock, but I have never outright lied to you.”

“You’re lying right now! You always-”

“I obfuscate. Manipulate. Offer partial truths. I do not lie. It is hardly my fault that you simply accept anything you are told in it’s most literal sense and do not search for further meaning other than the one you want.”

Merlin wanted to scoff, but he supposed the dragon had him dead to rights, there. “What can we do, then? He cannot go on like this. It’s killing him.”

“Hardly. Like any other being gifted with natural magic, he simply needs to learn to control it, rather than allow it to control him.” The dragon tapped the rock under its claws and shook its head as if to mourn the stupidity it was surrounded with. “The answer is not a difficult one, Merlin. Simply seek out another to teach him, as you yourself once sought a sorcerer.”

He’d hoped for more, for a different answer, for a cure, but Merlin couldn’t find it in himself to be surprised. It was no more than he and Gaius had expected. He’d known the dragon would be a long shot, but it had been a long shot he’d had to take.

He cast a suspicious look at the dragon. “You’re not having me on, right? You didn’t cause this?”

The dragon snorted. “This is not as destiny intended, young warlock. You are meant to be the magical side of this coin, not the young Pendragon. I can no longer clearly see what paths destiny will follow. Whether or not I had the power to effect the lot of you so, I assure you that I would not have left myself this blind to the future.”

Nodding, Merlin scratched the back of his head, at a loss. “Umm… I don’t suppose you know the best way of finding a friendly auromancer?”

“I am quite certain that your mentor is more than capable of managing that on his own.”

“Yeah, I expect so.” He cleared his throat and made to turn around, aware of the ancient eyes boring holes into his back all the way to the door, and that was just a bit odd because Merlin was used to the dragon rattling off confusing riddles and flying off before he could even figure out whether it was helpful or useless.

It was almost as if it was waiting for something.

“Was that really all that you had to ask, warlock?” The dragon called out, a smug lilt to his voice as Merlin hesitated on the threshold. “There was… nothing else? Nothing at all?”

Merlin paused and looked back. He should just keep going. Gaius was forever cautioning him against asking questions he didn’t really want to know the answers to.

And the question burning on his tongue, the question he’d told himself there was no way he was going to ask… The answer was definitely one he wasn’t sure he wanted.

Merlin had never been particularly good with caution.

“Why? Why is my aura golden, like a.. Like a magical creatures?”

“I did say that we were kin, Merlin.”

The dragon had said that, once upon a time, but Merlin had dismissed it as an odd metaphor, one of the many twisted riddles the creature spewed at him and expected him to understand. He hadn’t really taken the dragon seriously. “How is that even possible?”

“Your mother has never mentioned your father?”

Merlin’s eyes widened and he was back to the edge of the abyss in the space between one heartbeat and another. “What do you know of that? Did you know who he was? Is he alive?”

“Balinor, kin of the dragon clans, lives, yes. Though Uther’s fanaticism forced him into hiding before you were even born.”

“He was.. You… “

The twist of the dragon’s lips was not the toothy smirk Merlin was used to. It was something resigned and regretful. “Ask your mentor to tell you about the Dragonlords, warlock. It is not a tale I feel like sharing today. No… Today there is another that you must hear.”

Still overwhelmed by the idea that his father lived, that his father might not even know that he existed, that he was apparently genuinely related to this aggravating dragon in some strange fashion, it took a moment for Merlin to really process that. “What other tale?”

“We are kin in another way, you and I. The same way you are related to all magical creatures. The true reason behind the deep well of your magic, which is why you are golden to Arthur’s new eyes.”

“How?”

Merlin wanted to cross his arms or cover his ears, both perhaps, but something told him that he did need to know this, that it was important in ways he couldn’t comprehend.

“Have you never wondered about Uther’s great purge?”

“Well, yes. I mean..” Merlin gestured absently at nothing in particular, just a wave of his hand as he tried to sort through his thoughts. “I know magic wasn’t always banned in Camelot and .. I always kind of wondered why he suddenly decided it was evil, what happened and-”

The dragon peered at him with almost grudging approval. “All important questions, young warlock, but they have little to do with your birth. Tell me, Merlin. How many sorcerers and witches would have killed the Pendragons had you not been there to prevent it?”

“Well, I don’t…” He considered for a long moment. “Do Sidhe count?”

“Yes.”

“Then I suppose… Six or seven? I mean, Nimueh only counts once even though she was in and out more often than that, right?” His stomach clenched a little despite his cavalier tone. He wasn’t regretful that he’d killed her and he knew he’d do it again if the need arose, but that didn’t mean he liked the way it had felt to take her life.

“And without you there, do you honestly believe any others could have stopped them?”

“Well… Gaius-”

“Was not that powerful twenty years ago.” The dragon chuckled. “False modesty is such a human trait. And not one of its most becoming. No, Merlin. Without you, Arthur and Uther would be dead a dozen times over. They would have stood no chance against these sorcerers and witches, to say nothing of such creatures as the gryphon and the questing beast.”

“Right. Okay. If you say so.” Merlin still didn’t see the point.

Sighing, the dragon leaned closer. “These were not exactly powerful magic users, Merlin. The decline of magic over the years has taken its toll.”

“And that means…”

“That Albion must rely on you to keep it from being destroyed before it is even created is occasionally a truly frightening thought.”

Merlin glared. “Oy, if you think I’m so stupid, then stop beating around the bush and just tell me.”

“Do you truly believe that Uther could have slain a single wary sorcerer or witch so easily as the stories make it seem, Merlin? That they could not have defended themselves? Protected themselves? That the druids could not have withdrawn sooner?” The dragon drew himself up to his full height. “That Uther Pendragon could have decimated almost the entire race of dragons and lived to tale the tale?”

“But… he did….”

“Yes. But have you ever asked yourself… how?”

Magical creatures could only be killed with magic, Merlin knew. He’d seen more evidence of that than he’d ever wanted to between the gryphon and the questing beast. “He used magic?”

“You are very good at missing the point, aren’t you? We are not all as simple as you, Merlin. It would not have taken every last one of our kind for us to learn our lesson.”

Which made sense, except that it left Merlin with no other answer. He could only stare at the great beast in lost confusion.

“Destiny has been laid out before us for a very long time, Merlin. It was always known that the Once and Future King would return to unite Albion. And it was always known that he would need a powerful warlock at his side to bring magic and balance back to the lands. More powerful than any mere human could be.”

Merlin didn’t like the sound of that.

“It was always known that a great sacrifice would be required to give a warlock that much power and still maintain balance.” Its massive head leaned in close enough for Merlin to smell the brimstone of its breath. “Through your veins, runs the magic of a thousand dragons and sorcerers, magic willingly sacrificed so that you could take your place beside the young Pendragon. So that you could protect him, guide him. You would do well to remember that, young warlock, the next time that you find yourself unhappy with the life that destiny has given you.”

Then the creature gathered itself and launched into the air, disappearing into the darkness.

And Merlin…

Merlin really wished he’d learn to keep his mouth shut.

~*~*~

Gaius took one look at his face and deflated. He sighed, shaking his head. “Well, I suppose it was too much to hope that he could or would be able to help.”

“Gaius,” Merlin barely recognized his own voice and he wondered what showed on his face, because his mentor actually flinched back. “Gaius, tell me about Balinor.”

The old man paled slightly, but mostly he just looked resigned as he nodded. “I’m surprised he’s waited this long to tell you about that.”

“All this time, you’ve known who my father was… and you didn’t tell me?”

“What was I supposed to say, Merlin?” Gaius sighed and sat down, gnarled hands folded in his lap. He looked very old to Merlin, like the weight of the secrets that he’d been keeping were pressing him down and sapping his strength.

It was enough to make Merlin’s voice soft, to bleed away the accusations that had been burning on his tongue since he’d left the dragon. “I thought… I thought either he was dead or that he didn’t want me, Gaius. Mum never talks about him, she just… she just looks sad.”

The old physician nodded. “I don’t think either of them were expecting to fall in love, Merlin. Or to be torn apart so soon. And… She wanted to protect you.”

“What happened?”

“Dragonlords held a close bond to their Dragonkin. Each had the power to talk to dragons. To tame them. To kill them. It was a power that… Uther considered to be too close to magic. He had them all slaughtered.”

“Except one.”

Gaius dipped his head in acknowledgement of the point. “Except one. I helped him escape. Sent him to your mother, who took him in. When Uther discovered his whereabouts, he sent many knights to Ealdor to hunt him down, forcing him to flee.”

Nodding, Merlin sighed. He found it all too easy to piece together what must have happened between what he knew of Uther and his mother. He took a deep shuddering breath and closed his eyes. “I had a right to know.”

“I did want to tell you, Merlin. I swear. But... your mother feared it would be too dangerous and I couldn’t disagree.”

“I had a right to know,” he repeated, taking another deep breath and opening his eyes. He managed a nebulous smile at this man who’d been more of a father to him than he’d ever dared hope to have. It was hard to stay angry at people who’d just wanted to protect him in their own ways. “Do you know where he is now?”

“I’ve heard… rumors. Nothing more. Many years ago, I’d heard he was in a small village on the outskirts of Cendred’s kingdom. I can’t imagine he’d still be there any longer, though. I believe that he’s still alive, but as to where…” Gaius shrugged regretfully. “I am sorry, Merlin.”

Merlin nodded and wiped his face, hoping that the other would continue to pretend not to notice how near to tears he’d been since he’d returned. He was glad that Arthur wasn’t around to see him. The prince wouldn’t have let him get away with it. “Right. Well. A quest for another day, I suppose. The dragon says that there’s no way to undo the ceremony. His advice, such as it was, is to find an auramancer to teach him control.”

“Which is no more than we expected, really. I’ll send out word. Perhaps having the son in their debt will make them overlook the father.”

“Hopefully. But Gaius… We’ll have to tell him. All of it. Arthur hasn’t said anything, but I’m pretty sure that he believes he’s dying. Or going mad. And once he knows what this is… He’s going to …” Merlin sighed and bit his lip before shaking his head. “Well, I suppose we were always going to have to come clean some day.”

Arthur wasn’t Morgana and this wasn’t something they could pass off as simple, vivid nightmares. As thick as the prince could occasionally be, he wasn’t truly an idiot. He’d figure it out and Merlin wasn’t sure he’d forgive the double lie. Merlin wasn’t even sure he’d forgive the original lie.

“Merlin… I’m not entirely sure that anyone will be willing to help, even if offered a handsome reward. Which we couldn’t do without the king’s knowledge anyway.”

“We’ll cross that bridge when we have to. There’s no point in borrowing trouble, is there?” Merlin’s grin quirked a shade more steadily. “Besides, if that happens, I’m sure you’ll be able to work something out. You’re quite good at that.”

Gaius arched a brow at him, a relieved smile creeping out. “I suppose meditation might help. And perhaps a calming drought.”

“There, see? A plan.” Merlin laughed slightly then sighed and rolled his shoulders. “I guess we should tell him now. No time like the present.”

Because if they were really doing this, if Merlin was really going to tell Arthur about the magic they now had in common… Well, best to get it over with as quickly as possible.

~*~*~

When Merlin came slinking into the room like a dog expecting to be kicked with Gaius trailing along after him, Arthur’s first inclination was to send them both away.

They were carrying a pair of large books and the golden pool that radiated from Merlin, though still warm and full of the soft feeling that he was slowly becoming dependent on, was flaring unevenly. The change made it far less soothing than usual.

Every line of their faces and bodies screamed unease and concern.

He knew, without asking, that they’d finally diagnosed him. He also knew that he wasn’t going to like whatever they’d come to tell him.

The prince pushed himself up into a sitting position. Whatever the news, he didn’t want to take it laying down like an invalid. He’d rather be on his feet, but given the way he had to pause once he was sitting up to let the wave of disorientation dissipate, he suspected that was beyond his reach.

Merlin glanced back at Gaius, who gave an encouraging nod.

When he looked back at Arthur, when their eyes finally met, Arthur had to swallow hard. There was real fear in Merlin’s eyes. Whatever it was, it was bad.

But hadn’t he already suspected as much?

He’d known that he was living on borrowed time since he’d woken from the questing beast’s attack, but somehow he hadn’t thought it’d be up quite so soon.

Taking a deep breath, Arthur forced himself to be casual, to pretend like his stomach hadn’t just dropped somewhere near his ankles. “You’ve solved it, then. You know what’s wrong.”

It wasn’t a question, but Gaius inclined his head in answer. “Yes, Sire. I believe so.”

“Right.” Arthur nodded and didn’t miss the way Merlin had edged all the way up to the bed and was dusting away invisible lint. There was a nervous tremor in his hands that was impossible to miss, even with Arthur’s sight effected by the strange colors that had settled into his vision. He couldn’t help but reach out and still Merlin’s hands with his own, trying to convey some kind of wordless comfort. Whatever it was, however bad it was… He would face it like the prince he was and hope that those closest to him wouldn’t be too devastated in the end. “Let’s have it then. How long?”

Both men looked up at him oddly before glancing at each other again. Merlin spoke first, the mingled confidence and fear in his voice confusing Arthur as much as anything else ever had. “You’re not dying, Arthur.”

“Okay,” Arthur drew out, arching a brow before sighing and shaking his head. Only to still again when the move made him dizzy. He had to wait a moment for it to pass and when he opened his eyes again, Merlin had edged even closer, practically radiating waves of concern. “Then why do you look like I am?”

“Oh…” Merlin eased back, looking sheepish. “It’s… Well… There’s no easy way to tell you this, so I suppose just straight out is the best, isn’t it?”

“Merlin.”

The warning tone in Gaius’ voice stopped Merlin’s rambling before it could actually start. “Right. Sorry.”

The physician flipped through one of the books and settled it in Arthur’s lap. “From the description Merlin was able to give me of the altar and the rune-bindings and what little you were able to recall on your own, I believe this is the ceremony they performed on you.”

Arthur glanced down at the book before rolling his eyes and looking back up. “Gaius, it’s all I can do to focus on the two of you. I can barely see that there are words on the pages, nevermind understand what they say.”

Mentor and student shared another look, then Gaius dipped his head in acknowledgement and took the book back. “Forgive me, sire. It was thoughtless of us not to consider such a thing. This is a ritual that was once used by magical clans. Occasionally, one of their children would be born without the talent and this ceremony would pull forth any potential that they had within them.”

“Why on earth would they do that? What kind of monsters would want to corrupt children?”

“Magic wasn’t always held an evil art, Arthur.” Gaius gave him a disapproving look. “Especially not the born talents. Clairvoyance and the healing arts were very respectful, sought after skills.” He hesitated, looking at Merlin before taking a deep breath and meeting Arthur’s eyes once more. “Before the king banned its use, I was known to use sorcery to supplement my own skills as a physician.”

Going very still, Arthur’s mind grappled with that. Gaius, the closest thing his father had to a real friend, the man who’d been caring for them all of his life, a sorcerer.

“Magic can be used for good, Arthur. It’s supposed to be. It was never meant to be used for ill.” There was something in Merlin’s voice, something soft and pleading, desperate for his prince to agree. “It can be used to save a life just as easily as taking one. And some people don’t even go out and learn it. They don’t seek it out, they’re just born with it. You can’t tell me that you honestly think that an infant is evil.”

Something far too personal to really be about Gaius.

A thousand inconsistencies, tiny little things that had happened since the day Merlin had stumbled into his life, slid into place with a moment of perfect clarity. “You’re a sorcerer.”

It wasn’t a question.

Merlin flinched back slightly at his flat tone, but did not deny the charge. He dipped his head and glanced away before taking a deep breath and meeting Arthur’s eyes again. “Yes.”

There was still fear in his eyes, immediate and real, but it was coupled with determination. It was a look that said that Merlin was done hiding what he was and he was going to be honest, no matter what the consequences.

Arthur could respect that.

“Right. Of course you are.” The prince sighed and settled back against his pillows. It was reassuring, at least, that he wouldn’t be dying today. “That explains a lot, actually. So. What else? Is Guinevere a fairy? Morgana a druid? Oh, I know. Is my father a troll?”

Merlin relaxed slightly and his mouth quirked as a smile tried to escape. The golden sheen around him had settled down, back into the soothing pool that Arthur had grown used to.

That was his fear disturbing things, Arthur thought to himself, unsure how he knew, but knowing it just the same.

“To the best of my knowledge, there is nothing particularly magical about your father or Gwen.” Then he hesitated and glanced at Gauis who just sighed and shrugged, looking unhappy but unwilling to protest. “Umm... Morgana, though… She um… Her nightmares aren’t really just… nightmares.”

“Of course they aren’t.” Arthur rubbed a hand over his eyes and tried not to think about Morgana’s terrified face as he’d left to chase down the questing beast against her warnings.

It was easy to see how blind he’d been to both Merlin and Morgana, though he consoled himself that there really hadn’t been any way to know about Gaius. Nothing short of this confession could have made him suspect.

Memory of a past confession of Merlin’s own magic - in front of Uther and the council, no less - swam up. That had been in the early days of their companionship. He wondered if, perhaps, some small part of him had known and simply not wanted to deal with the truth. It was only the very first day they’d met, after all, that he’d truly wished harm on Merlin.

He remembered wanting to make Merlin eat his confident words about being able to hold his own.

Thinking of it now brought to mind that second confrontation and the strange things that had happened, things he’d chalked up to bad luck or happenstance.

He snorted and would have shook his head if he wasn’t certain it would make the room spin away from him. “You know, you have the survival instincts of a particularly slow fowl.”

Merlin was a horrible liar, outright confessions aside, and Arthur felt embarrassed for his knights and his father for not seeing it.

“I tell him that every day, Sire.”

Arthur blinked at Gaius. He’d almost forgotten the physician was there, Merlin’s golden colors soothing the usual riot caused by someone else in the room unless he was looking directly at them. Which brought his mind back to where it should have been. “Right. So. A magical ritual. What did it do to me, exactly?”

They glanced at each other, but Gaius was the one who spoke. “Ygraine’s family carried the gift of auramancy in their blood. Over the generations, it faded until only rarely was a child born with enough power for it to be measurable. The last was her father’s brother. He died in battle a few short months before Uther and Ygraine were wed.”

“Impossible.” There was a knot growing in the pit of Arthur’s stomach. Accepting that Merlin was magic was easy. Morgana, even, made sense. This? This was too much. “My father would not have wed a woman related to magic, no matter how he loved her.”

Gaius’ look was sad and pained. “Uther Pendragon was not always an enemy of magic, Sire. Once he embraced it as the powerful ally it can be.”

Arthur wanted to cite treason, but what did he really know about his father’s life before the Purge? About Camelot? About his mother?

He knew nothing. Only that she was beautiful and that his father had loved her to the depths of his soul. Few people dared speak the name Ygraine Pendragon aloud in Camelot for fear of bringing the King’s wrath upon their heads. Even Arthur had only dared to ask about her once.

He closed his eyes and twisted slightly in his bedcovers, curling on his side.

The image of his mother that he’d created in his mind danced behind his eyelids and he wondered anew how different his life might have been had she lived.

“Gaius,” Merlin’s voice was just a soft whisper of sound. “Can you give us a moment?”

“Of course, Merlin. I need to return to my chambers. I have letters to be sending out, after all.”

There was a quiet shuffling sound and then the bed dipped near his shoulder.

A gentle hand, rough with calluses brushed his hair back and Arthur sighed softly, letting the touch sooth him as it always did. He shouldn’t. His father would be furious if he knew that the crown prince of Camelot was allowing a servant such liberties, to say nothing of his horror that a sorcerer was in such close quarters to his son.

He found he didn’t much have it in him to care, just then. Apparently his father was keeping all sorts of secrets from him. He would not turn away the one comfort he’d found, sorcerer or not, for his father’s prejudices. Especially when there was no one else there to see it.

Without opening his eyes, Arthur forced himself to continue with the conversation. He ran what they’d said through his mind, looking for the clues. “So the ritual pulls forth magical potential and my mother’s blood gave me this… auramancy?”

“Yes, Arthur. The aura is the living life force within each person. An auramancer can read these energies, which reveal themselves as colors.”

Arthur cracked open an eye and stared at Merlin who was staring back from his perch at Arthur’s side. He wasn’t particularly surprised to realize that he’d curled towards the younger man, instinctively. “That’s why you told me. That’s what I’m seeing. Your magic.”

“I’ve wanted to tell you, Arthur. I really, really have.” There was a tremor in the hand that had settled in Arthur’s hair. “I almost did, once. Practically did, for all intents and purposes.” The smile he gave was bittersweet. “Then it was a moot point. And I never found the courage again, after that.”

“When-” Arthur’s mind was not working at its best, but it didn’t take much real thought to know exactly what Merlin was referring to. “Ealdor.”

Merlin dipped his head in agreement. “Ealdor. After… after your little speech before we left… I knew I could never tell you. At least, not any time soon.”

The gentle admonishment in Merlin’s words made Arthur close his eyes again. Perhaps a lecture while Merlin had been so obviously grief stricken hadn’t been his finest moment.

Someone who’d been true enough to the bonds of friendship to sacrifice himself for someone he disliked simply because it would have hurt Merlin deserved more respect than that.

“But yes. You must control this rather than let it control you. And for you to control it, you must learn about it.” Merlin sighed and his hand stroked through Arthur’s hair. “It really is the only way.”

“There must be a cure.”

“There isn’t. Believe me, we’ve been looking.”

Arthur opened his eyes with a sigh of his own, but didn’t look up past the rough material that covered Merlin’s thigh. He knew Merlin's only two pair of pants were dark - blue he thought - but everything was overlaid with golden. “I don’t want to be magic.”

Merlin sighed, his hand still gentle against Arthur’s scalp. “What we want and what we are, is seldom the same thing.”

~*~*~

Arthur’s self-imposed seclusion grew worse after he knew the truth.

He began turning everyone away, refusing to see even Gaius or his father.

Only Merlin was allowed inside at all and the prince didn’t often respond even to him. There were moments when Merlin turned around to find those eyes watching him with quiet contemplation and something else that he was wary of identifying.

Those moments were about the only time the prince seemed to focus on the world around him at all and even they began to happen less and less.

Each day, Arthur sank deeper into his depression. He watched Merlin flit about his room with dull eyes. More than once, the sorcerer deliberately did magic in front of him, hoping to stir some kind of reaction. Other than a vague curiosity, though, there was nothing.

It would have been sad if it wasn’t so irritating.

Merlin wasn’t sure what it said about him that he missed the snide remarks and general prattish behavior.

He only managed to deal with it for another week before he decided that things couldn’t go on as they were. Gaius had a good lead on an auramancer who might be both able and willing to help Arthur, but it would be a moot point if the prince insisted on wasting away to nothing before the man even arrived in Camelot.

When Merlin entered the room to find it as gloomy and stuffy as it had been for a week, he sighed and moved to open the curtains and windows.

The lump in the bed shifted, but didn’t come out of the coverlets.

“Go ‘way.”

Merlin’s mouth tightened as he watched Arthur huddle miserably under his blankets. He understood. He really and truly did. But enough was enough. It was time for Arthur to stop acting like a child and start acting like the man Merlin knew he could be.

Crossing the room, the sorcerer yanked the blankets away from the prince. “All right, Arthur. You’ve wallowed and moped long enough. Time to man up and actually deal with this. ”

If Arthur’s new magic had been more like Merlin’s, the prince would have been short a manservant. And probably a room, for that matter. Merlin didn’t mind the glare, though.

At least there was finally some fire in Arthur again.

“Leave me alone. I’m allowed to wallow and mope all I want. My life is ruined.”

“It is not ruined. It’s just a bit different, that’s all.”

“Merlin, do you have any idea what my father will do if he finds out? At best, he declares me an unfit heir and names a new successor. Perhaps he’ll even exile me.” Arthur’s mouth twisted bitterly.

“Well at least he probably won’t execute you.”

The attempt at a humorous reassurance fell flat as Arthur paled. He could tell that the prince hadn’t even considered it until it was mentioned aloud and he cursed his own stupidity. As if he didn’t already have enough trouble getting through Arthur’s upset without adding to it. “Do you think he would? He put Morgana in the stocks for speaking up for someone with magic. He adores Morgana.”

Merlin softened and couldn’t help but reach forward to brush Arthur’s hair back. The prince had been allowing more and more familiar touch over the weeks, muttering something about Merlin’s gold being soothing against the riotous rainbow of everything else when pressed about it. Merlin suspected there was more to it, but he wasn’t willing to push. Not yet. “Arthur, your father loves you. I honestly do not believe that he’d have you executed. Exiled, possibly, but he’d never see you dead if he could prevent it.”

“You don’t know that,” Arthur whispered, leaning into Merlin’s touch as he sighed. Something in Merlin’s heart unfurled a little at the trust and affection inherent in the simple gesture. “I don’t know that. How can you possibly know that?”

“Oh, Arthur… You didn’t see him before.. When the questing beast-” Merlin broke off and had to swallow hard against the bitterly painful memories of Arthur lying so close to death. It was still too close, too fresh in his mind. He could remember how broken Arthur had looked, hanging limp as death in his father’s arms. He remembered Uther’s face and the light of the candles as Camelot had prepared itself to bid goodbye to their cherished prince.

He remembered the taste of rage and static and heartbreak.

Shaking his head, Merlin forced himself to relax again. “Trust me. He’s not going to like it and I doubt he’s going to be throwing any pro-magic banquets or hosting sorcerer tournaments, but he will not allow you to be put to death.”

Pale eyes stared at him, searching his face for any hint of falsehood, judging his sincerity. Then Arthur nodded, just slightly. The expression of trust and companionship held for long moment then Arthur pushed himself back against his headboard and wrapped both arms around his legs, looking miserable once more. “I’ll still lose my kingdom.” He paused for another moment, rubbing his face against his knees, looking like a child covering his upset with sulkiness. “And this bloody color magic is aggravating. I always have a headache. There’s too much and it’s everywhere. It’s like being caught in the ugliest painting ever, where the artist just threw colors all over the canvas and hoped it made a mess. I can’t even see things properly any longer. Everything is so distorted, half the time just opening my eyes makes me nauseous. And did I mention the headaches?”

Merlin’s mouth pinched to a thin line as he grabbed at Arthur’s arm and tried to tug him out of bed. “It’s magic, Arthur. You have to practice with it and learn how to use it. Lying about in bed is not going to make this any easier, trust me.”

“Oh, that’s easy for you to say Merlin. You’ve got it easy. Your magic isn’t turning your head inside out.”

For the first time since they’d finally found Arthur, safe and sound if not quite exactly how he’d been when they’d lost him, Merlin lost his temper.

“Do not lay there and whine about how I can not possibly understand how hard and awful this is for you. You’ve been magic for three weeks, Arthur. I’ve been magic my entire life. I grew up as hidden away as my mother could make me. Being told over and over and over again that discovery meant death. I stand against my own kind to protect you and this kingdom and even your bloody father knowing that I save the very people that would have me executed for the magic that saves them. And this magic of mine? This easy magic? You’re right. It is easy. So easy and so familiar to me that I nearly get myself caught on a daily basis because it bloody well hurts not to use it. It’s like trying to hold your breath every minute of every single day. So boo hoo hoo, Arthur Pendragon sees colors that give him a headache because he refuses to learn how to control it. Try living my life for a day.”

The blond shifted uncomfortably and looked away before sighing and looking back. There was a plaintive expression on his face. “All my life I’ve seen and heard the evil of magic. I’ve fought it. I’ve trained my knights to fight it. I’ve handed over men and women, some of them barely more than children, for mere suspicion of it and watched them die for it. How am I supposed to just accept that now I am it, that this magic is going to creep around and twist me up inside and make me everything I’ve ever fought against?”

“Evil is not confined to or defined by sorcery and magic, Arthur.” Merlin sighed and rubbed his hands over his eyes. Sometimes Arthur could be so very obtuse. Personally, he blamed Uther. “For every Valiant there is a Lancelot. For every Nimueh, there is a Gaius. For every Uther, there is an Arthur. You cannot just say ‘well, he is magic, so he must be evil.’ Or ‘well, he’s not magic, so he must be good.’ Life doesn’t work that way.”

“My father isn’t evil,” Arthur muttered without heat.

Merlin conceded the point, willing to give Arthur that much. “No, he isn't. Just very blinded by bitterness and hate. Which is not the point. The point is that you’re not evil, either. And suddenly having magic isn’t going to change that. You’re a good man, Arthur Pendragon. You’ll be a great king. I truly believe that.”

Silence lingered between them, but Merlin didn’t want to push further. He’d said everything he could. The rest was down to Arthur.

“I don’t know what to do.” It was a hushed admission, but there was a resigned acceptance in it.

Nodding with mock solemnity, Merlin leaned forward. “May I suggest, Sire, that you start with a bath. Because frankly, you reek.”

The reluctant laugh that accompanied Arthur’s attempt to swat at him for his cheek was the most beautiful sound Merlin had heard in ages.

~*~*~

“Gaius, you have news?” Uther’s heart lightened at the smile on his old friend’s face.

“He’s improving, Sire.”

It was the most welcome thing the king had heard since they’d returned to Camelot. Watching his son sicken and withdraw had been a painful weight on his chest and he’d hated not knowing how to help.

There was little worse for a father. The helplessness had been unbearable.

He returned the smile Gaius offered and breathed in a sigh of relief. “Thank you, Gaius.”

“He’s not completely out of the woods, Sire. And I expect it will be a few more weeks until he’s recovered to his former health, but…” The old physician patted his arm. “I am confident that he will make a full recovery.”

“That is very good news, indeed.”

Gaius began to leave, then paused a moment and glanced back, looking a little hesitant. “Sire, if it’s quite all right with you, I’d like to invite a colleague of mine. Someone who specializes in … shall we say… unexplained illnesses and injuries?” One snow white brow arched significantly and Uther dipped his head in acknowledgement. They’d gone to great lengths to make sure no one knew that Arthur’s illness was related to a failed magical ceremony and Uther appreciated that even now, when they were supposedly alone, Gaius maintained the pretense. There was no such thing as too much caution. “Just to make sure I haven’t missed anything and to help the prince’s recovery along?”

“Of course, Gaius. I trust your judgement. Call in anyone you need.” Uther didn’t see any need if Arthur was truly recovering, but he appreciated caution when it came to his son’s health.

The smile returned and Gaius bowed. “Thank you, Sire. I shall keep you informed.”

Uther watched him go and stared at the door for a long minute after. Then he took another deep breath and settled back in his chair. His eyes slipped closed and he ran a hand through his hair, thankful for the short time he had to regain his equilibrium before he had to go down and face his counsel.

He wasn’t sure how many more of these close calls he could reasonably take before his heart just gave out on him.

~*~*~

“It’s good to see you up and about again, Arthur.”

Both men paused to look up. Morgana stood, framed by the doorway, Gwen just behind her. They both looked tired and worn to Arthur’s admittedly faulty eyesight.

If they looked so even to him, he wondered how bad it really was.

Morgana entered the room without waiting for his invitation, looking around curiously before nodding to Merlin. “Merlin. Would you mind helping Gwen fetch dinner? I think I should like to eat in here tonight.”

When Merlin glanced at him before obeying, Arthur dipped his own head in acceptance. Honestly, he was surprised she’d been put off as long as she had. Morgana was not known for her patience.

He waited until both servants had left the room before holding out a chair. Then he moved around to seat himself across from her. Without Merlin’s presence, the other colors of the room and those surrounding his companion threatened to overwhelm him, but he resolutely pushed the faint tick of illness away. He’d been learning how to hide such things since birth. He would not let this completely destroy all of his training any longer. “Morgana. A pleasure to see you as always.”

Determination was all well and good, but he still had to slouch back in his seat slightly, using the stability of the chair to stop the worst of it.

She was watching him carefully, waiting for any sign of weakness or a hint of what had kept him in hiding for so long. “Are you well, Arthur? Truly?”

The image of her distraught figure being led away when he’d gone off in search of the questing beast welled up in his mind and he offered her a genuine smile. For all that they bickered, he knew that she cared. They were as near to siblings as either had ever had and though the hormones of their teenaged years had threatened that relationship, he was happy to know that it was firmly returned to them. “I’m getting there, Morgana. Truly.”

He still wasn’t sure how he felt about all this magic business, but he had to believe that Merlin was right when he said that it would get better. The only other options were madness or death and Arthur wasn’t quite far enough gone to accept either just yet.

Another long searching look and finally her smile blossomed. “I’m glad, Arthur. I’ve been terribly worried. Everyone has. Well… almost everyone.” She rolled her eyes, suddenly looking much more like the Morgana he was used to. “Some of the nobles have been annoyingly persistent in trying to discredit you. Mostly the same ones who want Merlin executed.”

“Executed?” Arthur sat up abruptly, regretting it when the rainbow splashed world seemed to swirl and spin. He had to grip the table tightly until the room stabilized around him again.

Her concern was back a hundred fold, but she didn’t question him. She simply waited for him to regain his bearings before continuing more cautiously. “When you disappeared, Merlin was the one that led Uther to you. He was quite obviously under the thrall of magic. There are those in the court who are very displeased that Uther has allowed him to live in spite of it.”

Arthur rubbed his eyes and sighed. Morgana’s deep indigo was flaring with all sorts of random colors and they were mixing with the others in the room. At least she wasn’t as difficult to deal with as his father. Without Merlin at his side, visits from his father tended to be followed with long minutes spent heaving in a bucket. He appreciated the show of care, though, and would have endured much worse for the solid evidence that Uther cared as much as Merlin believed. “You don’t think Father will listen to them, do you?”

“Oh, no. Honestly, I expect Uther would rather have them beheaded. They’re becoming quite an irritating thorn in his side. He’s made it quite clear that there are plenty of knights who would be thrilled to have a barony of their own and that no one is irreplaceable.” She smirked. “He hasn’t come right out and said ‘annoy me further and I’ll have you killed’, but he might as well have. They’re far less vocal now.”

He made a face. “Instead they’re using more subtle methods?”

“Of course.” Her laugh was as fetching as it ever was when it was directed at him and he forced the worry away. If Morgana wasn’t concerned about it, then he shouldn’t be, either. She had a good head for politics despite her sex. “They’ve all exposed their hands, though. He’s watching them now. In fact, I suspect Merlin will be well protected from future accusations of wrong doing simply because Uther will assume automatically that it’s yet another attempt by the court to get rid of him. Even accusations of wizardry would be dismissed out of hand and you know how unreasonable Uther can be about those sorts of things.”

That, Arthur decided, was very good news. Mere suspicion was often enough to send someone to a grisly end and whatever mercy Uther might show his own son, there was no doubt that the same mercy wouldn’t be extended to a servant. Not even one so close to Arthur. Perhaps, especially one so close to Arthur.

There was a familiar knock on the door before Merlin pushed it open and deposited a tray onto the table. Coming in behind him, Gwen filled a pair of goblets with wine.

The deep, warm pool of gold spilled back into the room, seeping into every corner, subsuming all the other colors that had been pounding at his vision, and Arthur relaxed. This time when he leaned back, it was just to be more comfortable, not because he feared he’d tumble head first over the armrest.

He was fairly certain that Morgana noticed, but again, she held her own counsel. No doubt he’d hear about it at some point, though. Morgana never let anything go indefinitely. She had the tenacity and ferocity of a wild boar when she wanted to and she never forgot anything.

“So… tell me about this campaign to discredit me. Anything I should be concerned about?”

Morgana snorted, somehow managing to retain her natural elegance despite the rather inelegant gesture, her expression pleased. “Hardly. Uther is so much like an over-protective mother bear with a wounded cub right now that they’d be better off trying their hand with a real bear. They’d be less likely to lose any limbs. The smarter ones are waiting to see how your recovery goes.”

“Well,” Arthur met Merlin’s eyes. “Then I suppose I shall just have to make a full recovery and put an end to all their nonsense.”

Merlin fairly beamed at him.

Dinner was a pleasant affair after that and Arthur could admit to himself that he’d missed the somewhat competitive companionship he’d long shared with Morgana.

It was only later, as Merlin helped him prepare for bed, that he wondered over Merlin’s quiet admittance of Morgana’s own magic. He wondered over the years of Morgana’s nightmares and how badly she took each one. It was obvious to him that she had no idea what she was.

“Why haven’t you told Morgana?”

Merlin looked up, a curious expression on his face. “Sire? Arms up.”

Arthur sighed and raised his arms so that Merlin could tug off the tunic. “You said that Morgana’s nightmares are more than simple nightmares.”

“Yes. She is a Seer.”

“And?”

With a sigh, Merlin shrugged and continued undressing the prince. “And Gaius feels it’s too dangerous for her. I think originally he hoped the power would just shut itself away if she didn’t believe in it herself.”

“It hasn’t though.” Arthur thought of all the warnings Morgana had given him over the years, though he’d heeded few of them.

Merlin paused and shook his head unhappily. “No. It hasn’t. I think it’s getting worse, honestly.”

“You told me that I had to learn to control this, that it was the only way. Doesn’t the same apply to her?” He’d thought he was dying and he’d been slowly fading away from that certainty. Morgana obviously thought she was going mad, was afraid of the nightmarish images that haunted her sleep and threatened her with visions of losing the people she loved. He wondered how long it would be before she snapped entirely. He wanted better than that for her. She deserved better than that. “She deserves to know, Merlin. It’s one thing to lie to my father about it, but if she truly goes mad over this, could you live with yourself?”

The sorcerer had no answer for that.

~*~*~

Merlin wasn’t entirely sure what he expected from a fully trained auramancer, but Gilius wasn’t it.

The quiet, unassuming man actually flinched when Merlin approached, looking as if the sorcerer were an attacking dragon.

“H-hello, Emrys,” Gilius dipped his head, deferent and respectful to Merlin in a way that most people saved for the king. “Um.. L-lord Emrys?”

The sorcerer arched a questioning brow at Gaius who simply shrugged, not quite understanding it either. “Right. Hello, then. I didn’t know that you were a druid.”

“Oh, I’m not. I just… It s-seems appropriate.” Gilius looked between them for a moment, shifting uneasily before glancing at the door and edging a bit further towards the center of the room. “You’re umm… certain that the king won’t…”

Merlin offered him a smile, both amused and unnerved by the way the man kept looking at him, seemingly torn between running from the room and kneeling. “You’re safe enough.”

That left them standing there, each looking at the others, unsure what to do until Gaius sighed and shook his head. “You were the only auramancer who answered my call, Gilius. No one else was willing to come into Uther’s kingdom and help Uther’s son.” He paused, one brow going high in question. “Why?”

“Oh... Umm...” The man bit his lip, shrugging a little and shuffling a bit closer to Gaius, though he was still giving Merlin a wide berth. Focusing on the physician, he seemed a little less nervous, a little more coherent. “It’s… He’s the one, yes? He who shall unite all of Albion and restore magic to its rightful place? The Once and Future King?”

Merlin wondered if it was just him, or if everyone really did say it with full capital lettering and deep emphasis.

“I suspect so, although it is often difficult to know who actually fulfills prophecy and who is merely a false promise.”

“Then…” He glanced over at Merlin again and blanched slightly at seeing the sorcerer’s attention fully focused on him. “T-that’s good enough f-for me.”

They shared a look over his head and Merlin had to cover up a smile at the long-suffering expression on the physician’s face. At least he hadn’t caused it for once.

“Very well. Thank you for your kind offer of help. Even if you can’t work miracles, if you can at least get him to a point where he’s able to leave his rooms again, you’ll be duly rewarded for the service.”

“O-okay. Is the prince… Umm.. I mean… C-can I see the prince?”

For all that he seemed like a stuttery, nervous little mouse, Merlin could sense the power humming under the man’s skin. It was similar to what he’d been feeling from Arthur and he relaxed, more confident that Gilius would be able to help the prince. “Sure. Just follow me and try to look inconspicuous.”

He ignored the snort from Gaius.

~*~*~

Arthur was nervous.

He didn’t like being nervous.

Merlin had been summoned down to Gaius. The look he’d given Arthur before he’d slipped out of the room had told the prince all he needed to know about why.

The auramancer was here.

A few days of failed meditation attempts and some truly foul potions and Arthur was more than ready to try just about anything else, but he still wasn’t sure how he felt about trying this.

It went against the grain to deliberately invite any sort of magic wielder into Camelot, even one who was supposedly coming to help him.

Trusting Gaius was one thing. He’d grown up safe and secure in the knowledge that Gaius was one of the few people with whom Uther Pendragon was willing to entrust his child and his ward. That long instilled trust hadn’t really been shaken by the revelation that Gaius had once performed magic. The knowledge had done more to shake his view of his father than anything else. He still found himself questioning what other lies he’d been told over his lifetime and he burned to know why Uther had turned his back on all things magical to the point of murdering even children on the vaguest of suspicions.

Merlin had always been the exception to every rule he’d ever had. Arthur would have liked to blame the magic for it, for the comfort and sanctuary Merlin offered him from everything, but he knew that he couldn’t. This thing between them had been there almost from the first moment they’d met and Merlin’s prattle about dragons and destinies and coins aside, Arthur knew that it would have been so whatever the circumstances. They were so ridiculously tangled up in one another that it was impossible not to trust Merlin, no matter how many lies and deflected questions lay between them.

And, he suspected, even his father in full possession of certain facts of wizardry would have found it hard to believe that Merlin could ever intentionally harm Arthur.

Trusting a stranger, however, was almost more than Arthur could stomach.

If he hadn’t promised Merlin that he’d try, that’d he’d get control of this thing, he would have had the door barred and refused the meeting.

It didn’t help that he knew this man, this sorcerer, would know that he was nervous.

Merlin had decided that knowledge was the first step and he’d been reading the book of auramancy to Arthur, hoping that simply understanding what was going on would help.

In some ways, Arthur supposed it had.

All the horrible colors had actual meaning and he’d always been a quick study, his mind sharp and his memory clear.

He knew that the pretty indigo around Morgana meant that she was a seer and that the dark muddy blues edged with something almost black meant that she was afraid - of herself, of what the future held for them all, of Uther and what he could do.

He knew that the green, earthy colors around Guinevere meant that she was the most grounded of them all, balanced and in tune with the world and that the eroding pastels surrounding the edges meant that her ever-optimistic world view was fading away, being replaced by cynicism and doubt.

He knew that the bright emerald green, laced with silver around Gaius was the sign of a healer who held science and thought close to his heart and that the clumps of grey were fear and guilt.

He knew that the painful vortex of color around Uther was too complicated to sift through, that his father was both good and evil, a protector and a champion whose guilt and pain and fear was so intertwined with every other part of him that he’d likely never escape it all.

He knew that Merlin was powerful enough that the gold of his aura could sweep away everything else. Arthur suspected there was a lot more that he should be seeing from Merlin and he simply couldn’t because he couldn’t see through all of that golden power.

Knowing didn’t block the pain or allow Arthur to see properly again. The book implied that a trained auramancer could go through life mostly normal, it just didn’t say how. The author seemed to take it for granted that anyone with the power would have been instructed from birth, that everyone would just know.

It was vexing.

Arthur hated starting out from the weaker position and he knew he would be in this. There was just no help for it. This Gilius would know that Arthur was nervous, would know that Arthur was vexed. He’d probably be able to read Arthur’s entire life story in every embarrassing detail and the best Arthur would be able to manage would be generalities.

Vexing didn’t even cover it.

The knock on the door made Arthur straighten up. He tugged at his sleeves and examined himself in the mirror. Merlin had been careful to make sure that Arthur was up and dressed - and bathed - each morning since his outburst, even if the prince never did anything more than brood in a chair over each miserable session of meditation with Gaius or entertain Morgana for a meal.

Arthur knew that it had gone a long way to ease minds about his well-being when Uther had entered his room for the first time to find him sitting at his table with proper clothes on again. He’d seen it then, the flares of lighter colors and the tension fading from Uther’s shoulders, and he hoped it meant that Merlin was right about his father.

“Enter,” Arthur called out, shaking his head, only to grimace at the way it made the world shudder unevenly and sent sparks of pain down his neck. It wasn’t the manner he’d have liked to greet this newcomer who would hold so much power over him.

“Arthur, the ... Specialist is here.”

He knew the story that Gaius had given his father and wondered how many such half-truths Uther had accepted over the years.

A small man edged into the door and around the other, approaching the prince. If he emanated any color, it was overwhelmed by Merlin. He dipped a slow, uncertain bow. “Gilius, Sire. I’m… umm… That is…. I…”

Arthur arched a brow at the fearful glance Gilius sent towards Merlin. He waited another moment for the man to actually get out a coherent sentence before he lost patience and finished the introduction himself. It wasn’t as if there was anyone in the room who didn’t know exactly who Gilius was supposed to be and what he was supposed to do. “You’re the auramancer.”

“Yes. I…” Gilius shifted slightly before seeming to steel himself to turn and face Merlin. “I apologize, but... this would be far easier if you weren’t present, Lord Emrys. I can’t… I c-can’t concentrate. You… th-here’s just…” He faltered at the end, all of his courage seeming to fade away although all Merlin had done was tip his head in question.

Merlin looked at Arthur, deferring to his prince as he only did when he felt it was important that Arthur make the decision. Arthur would never admit it aloud, but he’d pretty much given up trying to get that deference in any other situation and had even come to cherish Merlin’s insolence in the companionable manner it was given.

“Well, you’re the one that seems to think he can help,” Arthur replied, sighing with a shrug. “Might as well give him the chance to do it properly, shouldn’t you?”

Grinning, Merlin tipped his head in acceptance.

“Very well, Sire.” The look he gave Gilius was edged with warning. “I will return shortly. If he’s in anything less than pristine condition, Uther will not be the one that you will have to fear.”

Gilius swallowed hard and nodded violently. “Of course. I understand.”

Merlin smiled pleasantly and left the room. Arthur shook his head at the silly theatrics. As if he needed Merlin’s protection. Perhaps he wasn’t in top form, but he could still hold a sword.

As soon as Merlin left, Gilius relaxed, shaking his head and no longer seeming quite so small. Only a sliver of color surrounded him once they were alone, hardly even noticeable and Arthur relaxed as well, thankful that he wouldn’t have to deal with anything more. “How can you stand it? He’s so…” He gestured widely with wild hands and wide eyes. “It’s intimidating. I’ve never seen anything like it before in my life.”

“Merlin?” Arthur blinked and glanced back at the door. “What are you on about? He’s just… Merlin.”

Merlin was many things, but intimidating had never been one of them.

The look on Gilius’ face was incredulous. “All that power? All that raw gold? It doesn’t burn you or… I don’t know… feel oppressive?”

“Well, no.” Arthur sat down at his table, gesturing for the auramancer to join him. Curiosity had ever been one of his defining flaws according to Morgana. “Is it supposed to?”

“I don’t know,” Gilius admitted. “I don’t know which of our reactions is the anomaly. As I said, I’ve never met a human with a golden aura. And even the rare dragon isn’t so… much.”

“There’s only one dragon left and you can’t be old enough to have met it before it was captured.”

The man just shook his head. “Only one of the ancient dragons from the clans. Not the only dragon left at all. And I think you’d be surprised about my age. One of the advantages of auramancy is being able to prolong life.” Pursing his lips, he considered Arthur for a long moment. “How does Merlin’s aura feel to you?”

It was on his tongue to cut the man down to size for daring to question him about something so intimate and private, or perhaps just to lie, but he restrained both urges. He could still hear Uther’s voice, drilling it into him that lying to his tutors simply wasn’t done. How could he learn if they didn’t have a good grasp on what he already knew?

And what good would it do, really, when Gilius could read the truth with or without his words.

“It’s… soothing. It feels… soft.” He glanced away and his voice dropped. “Like caring.”

Like love.

Mouth parting in surprise, Gilius leaned away for a moment, like he was trying to get a better read on what he was seeing.

Then he smiled. “Well, all right then." He dismissed the issue entirely and clapped his hands together. "So. Gaius tells me that you’re biggest problem at the moment is controlling the influx. There are some very basic techniques that I can teach you for that. Once you’ve mastered them, it should help with the headaches and the vision. You’ll be able to See or not as you choose. Then, after that, we’ll get into the fun stuff.”

~*~*~

After his first meeting with Arthur, Gilius seemed to relax a little around Merlin. Not a lot, but enough that he wasn’t stuttering over every other word that came out of his mouth.

Merlin was burning with curiosity to know what they’d discussed, what they’d done, but both men had been closed mouthed and he’d had to be content with the fact that Arthur seemed okay.

It took another day or so before he made real improvement, but Merlin could tell that Gilius was impressed.

Apparently Arthur was a good student once he actually allowed himself to be taught. It wasn’t anything that Merlin hadn’t already known.

There were always things for a servant to do in a castle the size of Camelot, but without Arthur making unreasonable demands on his time, Merlin had spent weeks stocking and cleaning the physician’s chambers until they’d both been glad when Arthur had needed him again.

Now, banished from the prince’s chambers for a good portion of the day again and with nothing else to do for Gaius, Merlin found himself at loose ends.

He helped out here and there, but too many of the other servants wanted gossip about the prince and Merlin wouldn’t have given it to them even if he could have. They’d tried bullying it out of him, but Merlin was no shy daisy who would fall under their pressure and he’d rounded on them, uncaring about how many there were, vicious and protective and angered that they’d dare.

The same magic that had been simmering in his blood all his life had only gotten stronger since his defeat of Nimueh and it had hovered there on the tip of his tongue, ready to lash out at his command. It was almost as if it had tasted blood once and now it wanted blood again.

He suspected that Uther’s timely arrival was probably the only thing that kept him from revealing himself in disastrous and homicidal fashion.

The king had dispersed the group with sharp warnings that if he heard any further gossip about his son, the best the culprits could hope for was being turned out without anything more than the clothes on their back. When they were gone, Uther had given him an approving nod and then kindly suggested that perhaps he should take a day off if neither the prince nor Gaius needed him.

Merlin had fled, magic still trying to bubble to the surface.

Arthur was more right than he knew. The magic was too easy, too close to his fingertips.

In a fit of confused desperation, he’d fled to the one creature besides Arthur that he could identify with anymore.

The dragon hadn’t looked particularly surprised to see him and Merlin wondered at that. At how the dragon seemed to know so much about random things and nothing about others.

That first time, there’d been no words between them. Merlin had paced on the ledge, grappling with his control, trying to force calm and the dragon had simply watched from his own perch.

As the days passed there were things Merlin wanted to ask, things that lingered on his mind.

He wanted to know about his father, wanted to know if the dragon had known that Nimueh would sacrifice his mother. He wanted to know why so many would sacrifice themselves for the hope that he would fulfill their promised destiny.

He couldn’t bring himself to ask, though. He hadn’t liked the last answers he’d gotten and sometimes even Merlin could learn from his mistakes.

Instead, they settled into an uneasy truce and quiet companionship.

He was primly informed that the dragon’s name was Kilgarrah one morning when he’d been telling a story about Will. Apparently, it was annoying being called nothing more than ‘Dragon’, especially by kin. The sorcerer suspected that Kilgarrah missed the connections and family he’d once had and hearing his true name on the tongue of another was as close as he could actually get.

Merlin didn’t dare bring his book of magic out of his room, but occasionally he memorized the words of a spell and practiced in the cavern. Sometimes, the dragon watched on in private glee as Merlin failed or his spell did something completely opposite of what it was supposed to do. Sometimes, he was actually helpful, correcting Merlin’s form or pronunciation.

As the days passed, he even began offering a few other magical tips, spells, and other knowledge that Merlin suspected weren’t found in any of the few remaining books.

Merlin wasn’t quite willing to say that they were friends or even that they ever could be, but his fiery rage had faded away and Kilgarrah’s amusement had stopped feeling malicious and hateful.

When he started doubting the sanity of what he was doing, spending his days with a creature he’d only recently wished a fate worse than death upon, Merlin shook it off.

Perhaps it wasn’t sane, but it felt important. It felt like it was something he needed in order to get his path heading back in the right direction again.

That was good enough for Merlin.

~*~*~

“Close your eyes, Sire,” Gilius said softly from where he was settled beside Arthur. “Find your center and hold, all right?”

Obediently, Arthur let his eyes slip shut and concentrated on simply breathing.

He was getting better at centering himself. Honestly, it wasn’t that much different than a warrior’s state of concentration and once he’d noticed the parallel, he’d found it a great deal easier to slip into the meditative state.

From there, Gilius had walked him through the basic steps of shutting the extraneous colors away from his life and then letting them back out.

In less than a week, he could do it on his own without much thought except right after waking or if he was particularly exhausted. He suspected alcohol would also effect his control.

For the moment, he’d decided to adopt a policy of temperance.

“All right.”

“Good. Now, keep your eyes closed and reach out for the feel of the auras around you. Don’t do anything with them, just… Feel them.”

Another deep breath and Arthur nodded slowly. Every color and shade of aura had a specific feel. Sometimes, it felt like a texture brushing against the new senses he’d developed. Sometimes, it felt more like a temperature, blazing heat or icy cold and everything in between. Even within those sensations, though, there was another layer, something unique to the living being the aura was attached to.

He doubted he could have explained it to Merlin or Gaius if they’d asked.

He wasn’t good at telling the sensations apart yet, but he was getting better. The more familiar he was with a person the easier it was. Arthur was certain that he’d be able to walk blindly through the courtyard full of people and instantly know Merlin, his father, Gaius, and Morgana. He was a little less certain about Guinevere and his knights, though he thought it wouldn’t take much practice to change that.

Today there was only Gilius and Gaius. Arthur wasn’t sure where Merlin had gotten off to, but Gilius had decided it’d probably be best to practice this without Merlin around to drown everything else out.

They were in the physician’s shop and that was practice enough. Everything that had an aura was a sensation brushing against his senses and everything had an aura, it seemed.

The prickly, slightly acidic feeling belonged to the potions that littered the room.

The musky feeling that brought to mind running a hand over a freshly harvested field of grain was the herbs and flowers that Merlin had so diligently harvested. Arthur could still feel a faint hint of Merlin’s magic on them.

The stones felt rough against his mind, but far softer than they felt against his fingers.

The cot that had held so many patients over the years was layered with feeling, the icy cold of grief and the warm tickle of happy relief.

Ancient knowledge pressed out heavily from the books that lay scattered around, some more so than others. More than one felt dark and dangerous. He could feel something heavier and slightly off coming from Merlin’s room. Merlin’s spell book, he thought. It had the most unique feel of any of the others and was permeated with the soft warm feeling he was accustomed to feeling from Merlin’s magic.

Gaius felt like warm earth overlaid with the mingled sensations of his potions and herbs.

Gilius was always hard to pin down. He held his own aura in tight control and he only leaked it a bit during these sessions. Otherwise, he was practically non-existant except to Arthur’s most basic, non-magical sight. He’d even hinted more than once that he could wrap his aura in such a way as to fool even that sense. Arthur wasn’t sure if he believed that or not.

“All right, Arthur. Today we’re going to take this a bit further, okay?” Gilius shifted slightly and the feel of Gaius moved closer. “Most fortunately, Gaius managed to knick himself earlier this morning. Healing is the most common active use of auramancy and, happily, one of the easiest.”

A hand wrapped around Arthur’s wrist lightly and Gilius urged him to hold his hand forward, palm down. Then his other hand was moved slightly under it, palm up.

He could sense the moment Gaius’ hand moved between his own.

“Right, then. First thing is to find the damage. Wounds will always make an aura feel slightly... Off, I suppose is the best way to explain it. The bigger the hurt, the worse that is. This is just a small thing, so you might have a hard time pinpointing it without opening your eyes, but try. Sometimes your physical sight can fool your other sight into dismissing a deeper wound as nothing significant. That does improve eventually, once you learn to start trusting your senses and using them more instinctively.”

For several minutes, Arthur couldn’t feel anything different than usual. He was about to give up when he finally noticed the wound. If he hadn’t been looking for it so diligently, he’d have missed it entirely, like a briar bush in the middle of a field of wheat.

“I have it,” he murmured.

“Very good. All right, now I want you to imagine that Gaius’ hand really is made of earth and sort of… brush the good earth over the damaged bit.”

Arthur almost opened his eyes and he knew his hands faltered slightly. “How exactly am I supposed to do that?”

“I know, I know, it sounds odd.” Gilius laughed while Gaius snorted. “Once you’re an old hat at this, you won’t need to imagine anything. You’ll be able to do this sort of thing easily, with barely a thought at all. Right now, though, this is the easiest way to learn it.”

“Right, okay.” It sounded more than just odd, it sounded absolutely mental. But Arthur had learned to trust that Gilius knew what he was talking about. He concentrated a little harder and tried to do as he’d been told. Imagining the dirt was easy. It was the rest that he couldn’t quite manage.

Finally Gilius sighed. “My lord, if you don’t believe it will work, then it won’t. A great deal of your ability will always come from your belief that you can do it. When you doubt, you fail.”

Arthur took a deep breath, searching for his center again.

How many times had his faith in his sword skills been the only thing that had saved his life?

How often had his father warned him that the people would not follow a king who did not have conviction of self?

Another deep breath and Arthur pushed. Even in the privacy of his imagination, he suspected he hadn’t quite managed it as the soft brush of earth became a landslide.

“Whoa, whoa, okay. Stop!”

His eyes flew open as another sensation, something like sweet melons and cool metal rushed over his hands. He only caught the tail end of Gilius’ hasty reparation of his own mistake, the old physician’s hand seeming to morph from something young and fresh back into it’s usual aged state.

Gaius bore it with nothing more than an arched brow, but Arthur couldn’t help but flush slightly, feeling like he’d just been scolded.

“It’s all right, Sire,” Gilius reassured him. “The first time never goes quite right. That’s why I chose such a small injury.” He grinned. “You did heal the cut. You just also healed the old age and the arthritis and the spots and everything else.”

With a snort, Gaius moved away, back to his own potions brewing now that he was cut free from the exercise.

“What did I do, exactly? I mean… what is the image of brushing earth over it meant to represent?”

Gilius shrugged. “It will be different for each wound that you heal while you’re still learning because the image has to relate to the individual. That isn’t the important bit. Basically, what you’re doing is manipulating a person’s aura, filling in the hole, or brushing away the blemish. You’re encouraging the aura to heal the damage. In the same way, you can damage the aura yourself, but that should only ever be done if your life is in danger.” He bit his lip for a moment before continuing. “Most auramancers believe that healing is the easiest because it’s what we’re meant to be doing. Harming another’s aura is painful, my lord. And every time you do it, it gets a little easier, but you will damage your own, just a little bit. And then a little more. On and on, until what’s left is just a rotting, diseased mess. It’s not very pretty when that happens.”

The corruption his father was so insistent lay at the heart of all magic, Arthur thought, turning it over in his mind. He could see it, he supposed, how one might fall into such a downward spiral.

He had no intention of falling into that trap himself, but he could see it.

“What if a wound is so grievous, the damaged bit of aura so great, that there isn’t enough left to fill it?”

There was a moment of hesitation, then Gilius dipped his head slightly. “It is possible to use the aura of one person to heal another, but I don’t recommend it. It’s difficult to keep track of both the one you are healing and the one that you’re borrowing from. It’s very easy to accidentally murder one person to save the other. In a pinch, you can use your own to start the healing process and then move to the patient’s once enough of his aura has recovered to make it feasible. It can be just as dangerous, and potentially suicidal if you get distracted, but it’s much harder to lose track of your own aura than one outside of yourself.”

Arthur didn’t need to be able to sense Gilius’ aura to hear the agony of experience in his words.

He took the advice to heart and prayed that he’d never have to go through it himself.

~*~*~

Arthur was lying in bed, resting, when Merlin slipped in.

“You look better, Sire.” His voice was pitched soft enough that Arthur only barely heard it.

He cracked open an eye and peered at the dark haired man moving about the room, tidying things idly. Merlin looked restless and unsettled and quite unsure what to do with himself.

With training, Arthur had learned to shut away most of the aura stimuli that had been flooding his eyes and mind, but the golden pool that surrounded Merlin remained. It was fainter, less overwhelming to his senses, but always present. Gilius was confident that with more practice, he’d be able to block even that out, but truthfully, Arthur didn’t mind.

Now that he wasn’t rendered effectively blind and incapacitated by the onslaught, it was much easier to be accepting of his condition and he still found Merlin’s aura to be a soothing counter-balance to the other stressors in his life. He’d asked Gilius what that meant, but his current tutor would only smile enigmatically and tell him that it was something he’d have to figure out on his own.

Gilius really was much more confident and self-contained when Merlin wasn’t around spooking him.

“What have you been doing, Merlin?” he asked as he let his eyes slip shut again. “Lazing away the days? It won’t last forever, you know. I imagine the stables are in a sad state these days, lacking your tender care. And my armor will see use again soon enough. Even Gaius feels I’ll be able to return to my duties in no time at all.”

“I’m sure the stables are fine since, you know, there are actual stable boys to clean it.” Merlin snorted. “And you know I never give your armor anything less than perfect care, even when you give me a list of insane tasks that aren’t even in my job description. I did look it up once, you know.” He shrugged as he made another circuit of the room. “You have your training, I have mine.”

That caught Arthur’s attention and he pushed himself up to sit, a sliver of worry settling in his mind. “If you get caught-”

“I won’t get caught, Sire,” Merlin replied with a smile. “Someone would have to venture down near Kilgarrah to catch me and I can’t imagine Uther or the guards doing that.”

Arthur arched a brow. “Kilgarrah? Some new tutor Gaius has summoned for you?”

“The dragon. Although, don’t spread that around, all right? I don’t think he’d like it if everyone in Camelot knew his name. It’s taken me a year to get it out of him. Not that I’d really asked before, I suppose. I was fine just calling him ‘Dragon’, but apparently he grew weary of answering to that.”

“The dragon.”

“Mmhmm.” Merlin’s smile grew wider, as if announcing that he was spending his days with a massive fire breathing reptile was nothing more than a great joke. “We don’t talk much, but the cave is a good place to practice some things and I think it humors him to critique my techniques.”

He remembered vaguely that the dragon was one of the sources of Merlin’s knowledge of prophecy, that the sorcerer occasionally went down into the caverns for advice. Somehow he hadn’t quite equated that with spending actual time with it. Arthur scratched his head for a moment, considering, then shrugged it off. “I can understand that. I certainly find a great deal of humor in critiquing your technique with a sword.”

“Ha ha ha,” Melrin said, rolling his eyes and tucking away a stray tunic that he’d found. “Well, as with yours, most of his critique is simply aimed at amusing himself at my expense. Some of it is actually useful, though.”

“I’m hurt, Merlin. Truly.” Arthur quirked a grin at the other man. “I put a lot of time and effort into whipping you into shape, you know. It’s not easy on my side of things either.”

“Right. Because beating me up is soooo hard for you. I can tell.” Merlin rolled his eyes and finally settled on the edge of Arthur’s bed near Arthur’s hip. He seemed to hesitate for a moment, concern welling up in his eyes as he picked at the coverlet. “You’re really better now, right, Arthur? The training is helping?”

Arthur smiled faintly, his heart warming as he considered how much he mattered to Merlin. It was more than the concern of a servant for a master, a subject for a king. Merlin had always shown him more care and loyalty than such simple things could account for. At the same time, he was unafraid to tell Arthur when he was being stupid in great detail, usually with as many unflattering words as possible. Arthur knew without a doubt that he could tell Merlin anything and the sorcerer would keep his confidences. He also knew that regardless of how Merlin felt about it privately, he’d show nothing but support in the face of others.

He didn’t need his father to tell him how rare that was for a royal.

Whether he was right about anything else that was between them, whether they ever took that step or not, Arthur would cherish what Merlin already gave him.

“I’m fine, Merlin. Honestly.” He nudged the other man with his knee. “Thank you.”

“For what, Sire?”

“For being you.”

~*~*~

Arthur flipped through his mother’s book and sighed.

“What is it?” Merlin asked, looking up from a tunic he was mending on the foot of the prince’s bed. Dark hair fell over his forehead and one elegant hand left his task to push it back. He’d need a haircut soon, Arthur thought.

Mending had been in the original list of tasks he’d set for the other back when they’d first been thrust together. After the first horrible results, he’d relented and told Merlin that the castle did have girls trained to do it. Eventually, Arthur had stopped suggesting that he send the tunics out, though his servant wasn’t a particularly skilled seamstress. He’d come to realize at some point that Merlin seemed to find some sort of peace in the work and the prince could never begrudge him that. Not even when it did mean that his day to day clothes weren’t as pristinely mended as they could have been.

His formal robes and jackets were a completely different matter, of course.

“Arthur?”

“Hmm?” For a moment, he forgot that he’d been asked a question and he had to shake his head and think about it. “Oh, nothing.”

With a soft laugh, Merlin set aside the tunic and stood, stretching a little before padding over to join Arthur where he was sitting at the table. He leaned against Arthur’s side, head settling on Arthur’s shoulder and peered down at the book. “Something wrong with the book?”

“You mean besides the fact that it just assumes I already know what I’m doing? No, nothing at all.” He blew at the hair that was tickling his nose. He was definitely going to suggest a hair cut in the near future. “It has a basic color chart, but says nothing about the colors having any actual depth or feeling. None of the meditation or basic healing is mentioned here. It just jumps straight into more complicated uses. Who knows what else I’ll learn that isn’t in this blasted book. It’s just… there aren’t many auramancers left to teach any children born into this, right?”

Merlin nodded. “Yeah. Gaius only knew a handful in all of Albion.”

“Gilius is close-mouthed about it, but I get the same feeling from him. It just doesn’t seem right. I mean… if a child shows natural aptitude in medicine, there is always someone he can learn from. Knights always teach their skills to squires.”

He reached up and brushed a hand through Merlin’s hair, enjoying the soft richness. Maybe he didn’t need a haircut after all.

“There aren’t a lot of sorcerers running around at all, Arthur.”

“I know.” That was the point, though. He knew that Merlin had struggled, trying to learn on his own until he’d come to Camelot and found Gaius and the single spell book. “I just… if the book is going to exist at all, they should damned well have included an introduction of the basics.”

Merlin pulled away enough that he could look at Arthur’s face, then he smiled and resumed the close position. “It offends the teacher in you, doesn’t it, Arthur?”

He wouldn’t have put it quite that way, but he supposed that was true. “I guess.”

Merlin reached out a hand, hovering it over the pages of the book. He spoke a few soft words of unfamiliar language and the book glowed golden for a moment. When the glow faded, it looked thicker. “There you go. Write it yourself. Don’t ask me for a quill, though. I haven’t learned a spell for that yet.”

Leaning forward, careful not to disrupt Merlin’s head, Arthur flipped through the book. At the very end, there was an entire sheaf of new, blank pages.

With a grin, he bumped his head against Merlin’s. “I guess that magic has to be useful for something other than slaying monsters, eh?”

“Oh, you’d be amazed at what all I do with it,” Merlin quipped with a cheeky grin.

~*~*~

“It’s beautiful, don’t you think?” Arthur asked, his voice soft and reverent as they settled on the rocks by the water’s edge. The small waterfall splashed down into a tranquil pool. Around them, the forest was peaceful, quiet but for the sounds of nature going about it’s business. “Morgana and I used to sneak away when we were children and come here on warm days for picnicking. She was a horrible hoyden, of course. Little wretch always insisted on swimming around and pretending she was a mermaid. Called me a prude for scolding her about it.”

In truth, he’d been horribly embarrassed, as much by her daring as by his own reactions to it. Morgana had always been beautiful, even as a girl, and his body had appreciated it long before he had.

Merlin nodded and glanced at him curiously. “Do you see it differently now?”

He knew what Merlin meant. He quirked a grin and gave Merlin a wry look. “Honestly, Merlin, if I were to try looking with that, all I’d see is you.”

The smile on Merlin’s face grew bashful and the sorcerer turned away to hide his pleased look. It was too late, though. Arthur had already seen it.

“Merlin…” It was on the tip of his tongue to push, to put it all out in the open at last, but when Merlin looked up again, eyes bright and mouth curved with pleasure, Arthur felt the words slip away. This thing between them worked best when they didn’t speak of it. “Do you swim?”

Blinking in confusion, Merlin was silent for a moment before shrugging, a wry look on his face. “If by ‘swim’ you mean, ‘won’t drown if you fall in’, yes. If you mean ‘swim’ as in ‘properly float and move limbs in something approaching gracefulness’, then no. We splashed about as children, of course, but there wasn’t really any need to do more than that. I can sort of…” He paused to hold his hands up and flap them a bit. “Paddle around to stay above the surface if I have to. Even then, if I’m in the sort of dire straights that requires it, my magic would probably kick in and help get me out of it quick enough.”

“Would you care to learn?” Arthur asked, already stripping out of his outer layers. “The water is always refreshingly cool during the summer, but it’s very deep.”

Merlin tilted his head to the side, giving the water an uneasy look. “Sire… For the sake of being honest, I suppose I should admit that I’m uneasy near such bodies of water.” He paused and shrugged again. “Well… Actually, I guess the absolute truth is that I’m uneasy with you around such bodies of water.”

“I assure you, Merlin, I’m well able to keep myself afloat. I’ve been able to swim since I was a small child.” There was something in the way that Merlin bit his lip and averted his eyes that tugged at Arthur, though. He’d have liked to think it was because Merlin was overwhelmed by his nearly nude body - he could work with that, make a joke of it or take it more seriously, perhaps reach across the expanse and push - he didn’t need auramancy to tell him it wasn’t. He sighed as he stripped out of his under layers. Usually it was difficult to get Merlin to stop speaking. It was only when it was actually important that he grew reticent and secretive. “What is it, Merlin?”

“Do you remember Sophia?”

Arthur shuddered at the close call he’d had there. “Unfortunately. I can’t believe I fancied myself in love with her. She wasn’t that beautiful.”

“Right… About that…” Merlin hesitated and sighed. “You were enchanted. Sophia and her father were Sidhe.”

The expression on Merlin’s face was enough to still any instinctive protest Arthur might have made. And as he thought about it, that certainly explained a few things. He wondered how many of the odd things that had happened to him since Merlin had arrived at Camelot had magical explanations. Somehow, he expected the answer to that was ‘most’. “Well, that’s a relief. The only other explanation I’d been able to come up with was a bout of temporary insanity.”

“Don’t joke about it, Arthur. The only remotely humorous thing about the entire situation was your reaction the morning after.”

Arthur snorted. “I really must be a fool to have believed that preposterous story the two of you cooked up. Even if you could have knocked me over the head with a stick, you wouldn’t have. Not even to save me from my own stupidity.” Merlin would have come up with something else, something that didn’t involve sticks and concussions, he was sure. “You’re a horrible liar, Merlin. If everyone wasn’t convinced your brains are addled, there’s no way you’d have survived so long.”

“It was the best I could come up with. We weren’t expecting you to forget. Would that we could all forget it so easily.” Merlin sighed and tipped his head back, staring at the sky for a long moment. Arthur was tempted to take a peek at his aura, but he knew it wouldn’t do much good. Though he’d come far under Gilius’ tutelage, and far more quickly than the older auramancer had expected, he still hadn’t managed to see through that all encompassing sea of gold that surrounded his friend. He took comfort in the fact that Gilius hadn’t managed it any better and that it didn’t feel oppressive to him as it did his tutor.

Even if he could have seen through the gold to the colors that would have told him more, he still wasn’t as good as he’d have liked with reading the more minute details. Hopefully he’d get better.

“What happened, Merlin?”

Another moment of hesitation, then Merlin capitulated. “They were exiles. They needed a princely sacrifice so that they could return to their home in Avalon.”

“Me.”

It wasn’t a question, but Merlin nodded regardless. “Yes. Sophia ensorcelled you and they led you to the lake that serves as a gateway to the other realm.”

“You killed them.” Even knowing the power Merlin wielded, it was difficult to imagine. Arthur thought of the wary hesitance that Gilius had shown around Merlin.

The sorcerer offered a twisted little smile and Arthur didn’t doubt the honesty of his words. “It wasn’t the first time I killed for you, Arthur, nor the last. There are times when I am as much your weapon and your shield as I am your servant and friend.”

“That doesn’t explain your aversion to water.”

“It took me longer to find you under the surface than it did to defeat the Sidhe. I thought I was too late, that you’d drowned.” Merlin shuddered slightly and looked away. “It was a very near thing.”

“Merlin…”

Merlin turned back to him, eyes far too dark and serious for such a beautiful, sunny day. “What if I’d been too late, Arthur? You have no idea how many close calls you’ve had. What if I’m late next time? What am I supposed to do then? What am I supposed to do with- … without you?”

Mindful of his nudity, Arthur hesitated a moment before reaching out and tugging Merlin close. “You weren’t too late, Merlin. You’re never too late.”

Merlin’s head fell forward and settled on Arthur’s shoulder. He took a shuddering breath, the puff of warm air making the prince shiver faintly despite the heat of the day. “Kilgarrah says that we’ve gone and turned destiny up on it’s ear. He hasn’t any idea what path lies before us now or how we’ll fair on it.”

Unsure about the nonsequitor, Arthur shrugged. He hadn’t met the mysterious dragon held captive under the castle yet, but he knew that Merlin had forged some kind of friendship with it. “I have faith that between the two of us, we’ll muddle along somehow. Now, are you going to strip and let me teach you that water is nothing to fear, or are you going to make me stand here in the buff all on my own while you soak my shoulder?”

That startled a laugh out of Merlin. “‘M not crying.”

“Of course not, Merlin,” Arthur replied as with as much condescension as he could manage.

“Prat.”

Funny how Merlin could always make that sound more like an endearment than an insult.

~*~*~

They were laughing when they tumbled into the room.

Uther’s hands tightened as he observed the look of joy and freedom on his son’s face. He had a father’s heart underneath his king’s facade and that heart ached at the sight. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen Arthur look so young and happy.

For a moment, he wanted to slip away. He wanted to leave this moment to his son and his servant, to let them have this one moment of peace and happiness.

He wanted to un-know what he’d learned. Surely as long as he didn’t know, he couldn’t be expected to do anything about it?

The corners of the book crinkled under the pressure of his hands, the sound somehow seeming far louder than it should have, and the moment was lost.

Both young men halted abruptly.

Uther’s mouth tightened as Merlin edged in front of Arthur, protective and fierce in a way that shouldn’t have suited the boy and yet… somehow seemed perfectly natural. But then, he’d already known that, hadn’t he? Merlin would never have come to his attention at all if the boy wasn’t always throwing himself between Arthur and danger.

It was the one thing about Merlin that he approved of without reservation.

Neither said a word, though Merlin’s own fists were clenching rhythmically as if he were trying to remain as calm as the royals were. It reminded Uther of an incident several days past when he’d stumbled onto the servant preparing to take on the entire kitchen staff just to protect Arthur’s reputation.

Somehow, he excepted that anyone attempting to harm Arthur Pendragon was going to find themselves with quite a fight on their hands there. In spite of everything, the thought that his son had such a man at his side, someone who would willingly do battle with a peasant or a king for him, pleased Uther.

His son had never been the sort to hide behind anyone else, though. Arthur moved Merlin with gentle hands, showing a depth of care that he didn’t even try to hide from Uther’s sharp eyes.

The pair shared a look and Uther didn’t have to understand it to know an entire conversation was passing between them. It had been a lifetime, but he remembered sharing that with someone, that ease of communication, that knowing someone so well that the words were nothing more than useless clutter. It had been too much to hope that his last lesson on letting a servant so close would have stuck.

Facing the level of fierce devotion Merlin showed him, Uther supposed he could understand why it was impossible for Arthur to avoid returning a measure of it, no matter how anyone else felt about it.

A wise king recognized a losing battle when he saw one and quit the field to fight another day.

His son’s unseemly friendship with his servant could be overlooked. Other things could not.

“Hello, Arthur. I came looking for you. Now that you’re on your feet again, Morgana thinks we should hold a banquet to celebrate your safe return and improved health. I agreed. Imagine my surprise to find you gone.”

“Merlin and I went for a hunt, Father,” Arthur replied, his eyes shuttered and his face covered with the mask of regal disdain he’d copied from Uther himself.

“Yes, well. I thought I’d wait here for you.” Uther pushed the book forward, keeping his face carefully neutral. “I did find some interesting things to read while I waited.”

His son paled slightly, but otherwise didn’t react.

Uther gave him points for keeping his calm, but wondered how his son intended to bluff his way out of the situation. “Would you care to explain this?”

“Honestly, Father, would anything I had to say make any difference at this point?”

Both boys startled when Uther’s hand slammed against the table. “Do not mock me, child.”

Flipping the pages to find the ones in the back, he tapped the familiar handwriting. “Is this, or is this not your writing?”

“You know that it is.” Arthur’s voice was soft.

“Well?” Uther stood then, hands gripping the table edge as he leaned forward and glared at the pair. “What do you have to say for yourself?”

“You’ve already read it, Father.”

Arthur’s face gave nothing away. Merlin’s was not nearly as blank, but all Uther could really tell was that the boy was concerned, possibly fearful that violence would break out between father and son.

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

That was what galled Uther the most, that his son would share this devastating news with servants, with strangers, but would not tell his own father.

“What could I have said, Father? ‘Oh, and by the way, my kidnappers decided to leave me a little parting gift to make sure I remembered them.’ And what could you have done?” Arthur was losing his calm finally, his words sharp and snappish. “It’s done. It can’t be undone.”

“Bollocks. There must be something. Something besides inviting a bloody sorcerer into our kingdom and learning magic.”

“Do you think Gaius didn’t try everything? Do you think he’d leave any stone unturned? Any colleague unasked? Any book unread? It was killing me, Father.”

“Well, actually-”

“Shut up, Merlin. You weren’t the one with your head being turned inside out.” The servant quieted back down as Arthur snapped at him, offering Uther an awkward smile. The prince crossed his arms and glowered. “Another week of it and I’d have starved to death if not just jumped out the bloody window.”

The pointed reminder of his son’s brush with death diffused Uther’s temper and he rubbed a hand over tired eyes. “Arthur. I will send for the best physicians in the land. Someone, somewhere will be able to remove this curse from you.”

“Perhaps it is a curse, but it is a curse I can learn to live with, Father.” Arthur’s own voice dropped back down to a whisper. “It’s not without its uses.”

“Nonsense. Magic does nothing but corrupt and destroy, Arthur. If I’ve taught you nothing else over the years, I’d have thought I taught you that much.” In his mind’s eye, he could see the treacherous witch smiling her pretty smile, offering to fulfill his dearest wish and the tragedy that had befallen them all because he’d allowed himself to be tempted by such false promises.

“Father-”

Uther tucked the book under his arm and drew himself up to his full height. “No more nonsense. I must go see what Gaius has to say for his part in this mess, then I will send for other doctors. You will not use this magic again.”

“Father-”

“Never again, Arthur. You will obey me. I have told you before. We are none of us above the law and you would do well to remember that.”

“But Father-”

There was nothing else to say as far as Uther was concerned. He shut the door soundly behind him and strode off.

There was a physician who had better have a damned good excuse for his actions.

~*~*~

“We knew we couldn’t hide it forever,” Arthur said quietly from where he sat watching Merlin pace the room.

“We could have. You’d be amazed at how people are willing to believe what they want to believe if you don’t leave books laying around for them to find.”

Merlin sighed and rubbed a hand over his face. Maybe it had been unrealistic to think that Uther would never find out. There was a vast difference between the amount of attention paid a prince and a servant. And he’d known how keenly Uther had been watching Arthur of late.

The king had almost lost his son twice - three times if one included the sickened withdrawal of the weeks after their return. It was understandable that his attention would not be as easily shifted aside.

Still, he’d hoped.

“It could have been worse, Merlin.” Arthur was calm again, trying to be reasonable.

It made Merlin scowl.

“That is annoying, you know.”

Arthur simply arched a brow and looked politely confused. “I haven’t the faintest idea what you mean.”

That. You’re so bloody calm. Three months ago, you’d be the one pacing and I’d be the one trying to calm you down. Or maybe we’d both be pacing and there wouldn’t be anyone to calm either of us.”

“Three months ago, I wasn’t being forced to meditate every day.” Arthur rolled his eyes and sighed. “What would you have me do, Merlin? Rail at my fate and hide under my blankets again? As I recall, the last time I did that, you were quite displeased. You’re the one that said I needed to stop crying and accept my fate.”

That had Merlin’s lips twitching and he couldn’t suppress the grin that broke out on his face. It was enough to make him stop pacing and come over to stand in front of Arthur. “That’s not quite what I said.”

“Whatever.” Arthur hesitated a moment before reaching out to tug Merlin closer. Their heads tilted together until Merlin’s forehead rested against Arthur’s. His voice was soft when he continued. “The point is, getting upset isn’t going to fix anything. And it could have been worse. He hasn’t spoken of execution at all. And at least I hadn’t written anything about you as of yet. Well… nothing incriminating, at any rate. Just that you were trying to help me. Maybe a bit about how each aura affects me.” He frowned slightly, obviously trying to remember if he’d as recklessly risked Merlin’s discovery as he had his own. Merlin knew very well most of what Arthur had written having been right there for a lot of it, but he didn’t say anything. He knew it was more about Arthur reassuring himself than about reassuring Merlin.

Finally Arthur shrugged again, one hand absently rubbing up and down the sorcerer’s side. “If there’d been anything more, he’d have said.”

Merlin sighed. It was difficult to be aggravated at Arthur when he was like this. “What do we do now?”

Arthur smiled a little, no doubt pleased that Merlin was giving in to his logic. “Now we wait. There’s nothing to be done and my father will realize that soon enough. Then we see if he’ll have me executed after all.”

“He’s more likely to execute Gaius and me for not telling him,” Merlin muttered. He knew exactly where Uther would lay the blame for all of this and it wouldn’t be with Arthur.

There was a moment of hesitation before Arthur brushed a gentle hand over his cheek. “You know I’d never allow that.”

The sorcerer allowed himself a moment to enjoy the simple, unabashed touch, then he sighed again. “You may not have a choice in the matter, Arthur.”

“If it comes to that, you will escape.”

“Arthur-”

“No, Merlin.” Arthur’s words were fierce and the hand on Merlin’s side tightened. “Promise me. I am well aware of the size and depth of your power, likely better than even you are. If ever there comes a time when my father tries to execute you - or Gaius - do not sit idly by and let it happen. I shall never forgive you if you do.”

“I’ll promise if you promise.”

A surprised snort of laughter escaped the prince. “Fine. We’ll neither of us go willingly to our deaths.” Content with the promise, Arthur sighed and looked at the table where the book had sat until now, his expression mingled annoyance and sadness. “I just wish he hadn’t taken Mother’s book. Writing everything down has been vastly helpful.”

“We’ll get it back,” Merlin vowed even though he had no idea how to mange it.

~*~*~

Gaius looked up and sighed when Uther stormed into the room. There was no surprise on his face. No fear, no guilt. There was only resignation.

“You should have told me. He is my son. I had a right to know.”

The physician gestured towards the lone stool but Uther waved it off. He had no desire to sit.

“When he first awoke, I wasn’t sure what ailed him, Sire. When I began to suspect, I searched every bit of knowledge at my disposal. Books, other physicians, even the one or two hedgewitches that are still willing to talk to me outside of Camelot. I even consulted the dragon. I had hoped that I would be able to cure him of the magic without anyone ever knowing.” Gaius sighed and shook his head sadly. “But everyone was in agreement. There is no way to undo the effects of the ceremony. Once Arthur was aware of his affliction, he did not want you to know. We agreed that the only solution left to him was to find some way for him to control it.”

Uther’s fists clenched tightly and he whirled around to pace the short length of the physician’s room. “Impossible. There must be something. Everyone has lied to you. This is- They want Arthur to suffer this curse. You can’t trust a word that bloody dragon says.”

He should have had the damned thing put to death.

“Sire, I do not believe that the dragon would lie about this. He would much rather see Arthur ascend to the throne than have you remain on it indefinitely. He does not want to see Arthur put to death over magic.”

For the first time since he’d stormed from Arthur’s chambers, Uther paused, his mind blanking at the very idea. “You think I would have Arthur put to death?”

“Sire…” The expression on Gaius’ face spoke more clearly than words ever could have.

“You do.” Uther had to swallow back the bile that threatened to rise in the back of his throat at the realization that Gaius, the closest thing he had to a friend, the man who’d stood beside him for over twenty years, thought him capable of such a thing. “You think I’d kill my own son.”

Did that mean Arthur believed it as well?

Suddenly his son’s reticence in the matter made a certain amount of sick sense.

“I have seen you do horrible things in your hatred for magic. Having Arthur executed would not be the worst.” Gaius’ tone wasn’t accusing, but when had it ever been? He simply stated the truth as he saw it and let Uther draw his own conclusions about how Gaius actually felt about it.

“I see… perhaps that was the point to all of this, then. If you believe me capable of it, it’s likely his attackers do as well.”

“It would be an all around ideal situation in the view of some,” Gaius conceded with a thoughtful nod. “Either you execute the most beloved member of the monarchy, something that would surely cause the people to rise against you, or they successfully put magic back into the castle.”

Neither option was acceptable. “You will fix him. You will find a way to rid him of this cursed magic.”

Gaius gave him a bland look. “I have no more books to consult, Sire. I can continue making inquiries, spread my net further, so to speak, but I’ve exhausted my more discreet contacts. Anything else will cause word to get out. Then you will have to make a choice.”

Uther understood. If the people knew that Arthur was capable of magic, Uther would be forced to enforce his own laws or blatantly ignore them to save his son. He’d have to choose between being a king or being a father.

Pressing his fingers against his eyelids, Uther struggled under the weight of his crown and the impossible dilemma that he was faced with. He could not allow magic to flourish in his own household and he could not, would not be forced to watch his only son, his last connection to his beloved Ygraine, die.

If Arthur’s curse could not be lifted…

“He could be exiled…” The very idea caused a twisting pain in Uther’s gut. The idea that he could be forced to send Arthur away, never to see him again until they reached whatever afterlife awaited the kings of the land was horrific. It was almost more than could be bourne, but it was better than allowing Arthur to die.

“I fear that would be only slightly better than executing him in the eyes of your people, sire. If you exile him, there will be talk. Everyone will know. He did not seek this magic out. It was drawn from his blood, from Ygraine’s bloodline. They will see that he suffers for it, and then they will see that you would punish him for it and add to that suffering.” With an arched brow, Gaius shrugged. “Some will look at it as a good thing. A sign that you do not put your own son above them.” He paused and shook his head. “But most will not. Most will look at Arthur and see the young prince that they’ve watched grow to a man, who has nearly died to protect them a dozen times over. They will look at Arthur and see their own sons and daughters and they will think, ‘if the king’s own son is not safe, then who is?’. They will look at you and they will wonder what kind of man could do such a thing to his own son.”

In a fit of frustrated temper, Uther knocked his fist into the pestle and mortar that sat upon the table. When that was not enough to calm him, he swiped at a stack of books.

Gaius merely arched a disapproving brow. “Do you feel better, Sire?”

Glowering, Uther restrained the urge to knock over the beakers that lined another table. He knew well enough that some of Gaius’ experiments could be harmful when mixed. It was tempting, though. “What do you suggest we do, then?”

“I suggest that we allow Arthur to learn control. After he has mastered that, he can choose not to use it. No one will ever know.”

Uther sat abruptly on the stool he’d spurned previously. He rubbed grit from his eyes and drew in a deep breath. “He’s young. He doesn’t understand that magic has dangerous consequences. Of course he’ll use it.”

“I think that you don’t give your son enough credit. He’s grown quite a lot over the last year. He won’t take frivolous chances. He knows that people depend upon him.”

“Perhaps not frivolous chances,” Uther conceded. But he knew his son better than most would have assumed. He might not always have been the best father, distant and colder than he should have been, than he’d wanted to be, but he’d always been observant. “But if he thought it would help him protect the people, do not doubt for one moment he’d use it without a second thought for what it might cost him.”

“A wise leader uses the weapons available to him, Sire.”

“You’ve never agreed with my feelings on magic.”

There was a moment of hesitation before Gaius shrugged. “Magic is neither good nor evil, Sire. It simply is. It is the wielder who makes the choice to use it for one or the other. I’ve told you before that it isn’t the magic itself that corrupts. It is the feeling of power and invulnerability, the knowledge that one can place oneself above other men that rots ones soul. It is the same as any other kind of power. I do not believe that Arthur would succumb to such things.”

Uther wondered if that was Gaius’ veiled way of saying that he believed that Uther had succumbed to such things.

“Make your inquiries, Gaius. Discreetly.” Uther stood abruptly, weary of the conversation, weary of magic in general. He dearly wished that the cowardly magical threats of the world would stop hurting his son to get to him. The entire business just made him feel old and tired. “Send the auramancer away. If he is still in the castle by morning, I will have him arrested on suspicion of magic. Arthur will have to make do with whatever he’s managed to learn.”

Gaius dipped his head in acknowledgement. “Yes, Sire.”

At the door, Uther paused. “And Gaius. Do not keep such things from me again. Next time, I may arrest you.”

~*~*~

The night was still and dark as they walked Gilius to the gates of Camelot. Neither of them trusted that Uther would not try to stop the auramancer, regardless of his words to Gaius.

Arthur offered a half-smile as he handed his tutor the reigns to one of Camelot’s finest steeds. “I’m sorry that it ends like this, Sir Gilius. I would have liked to have learned more. If it were up to me, you’d not be leaving.”

“It has been an honor, my lord.” Gilius bowed low with deference. “You will make a fine king and I consider it a privilege to have been allowed to teach you anything at all.” When he straightened once more, he returned Arthur’s smile. “You have all the basic tools to make an equally fine auramancer. The flourishes can be learned through trial and error, though remember what I said about moderation.”

Beside them, Merlin gently rubbed the horse’s nose and tried not to intrude more than he had to. He knew that he still made Gilius more nervous than not.

“Lord Emrys,” the auramancer turned to him and offered another bow. “I’m pleased to have met you.” His smile when he was looking at Merlin again was sheepish. “Please forgive my less than graceful self in your presence.”

With a laugh, Merlin held out a hand. He was pleased that Gilius didn’t hesitate to return the clasp. He hadn’t gotten to know the man very well, but he’d forever be grateful for the difference he’d made for Arthur. “It’s all right. I’ve never quite affected anyone like that. It was a… novel experience.”

He gave Gilius a leg up into the saddle and Arthur handed up his bag. “Be safe, and remember. Try not to stop until you are well across the border. I fear my father may have men on your heels at first light.” He sighed and offered the other an apologetic look. “When I am king, you will be welcome here once more.”

Gilius smiled at them. “I expect to hear great tales of the two of you. King Arthur and his great Sorcerer Merlin. You’re both everything that prophecy promised and more.”

“Farewell, Gilius.”

“Farewell, my lords.”

They stood back, side by side, and watched the auramancer set off at a quick pace. They stayed there in silence until he was well out of sight.

“You were right, you know,” Arthur said softly, nudging Merlin’s arm with an elbow.

Merlin glanced at him curiously, but Arthur was still staring into the dark forest. He wondered what the prince was seeing, what the living forest looked like to an auramancer’s eyes. Reading the books to Arthur, he’d learned that all things pulsed with life energy, even things he wouldn’t have originally considered ‘alive’. It wasn’t magic per se, but Merlin had begun to wonder if Arthur was seeing the manifestation of what he could sense. He’d meant to ask Gilius once the auramancer was more comfortable around him. The books never really clarified the differences or similarities.

As Arthur had complained, the books were woefully short sighted on what a student might actually need to know.

He would have bet a month’s worth of pay that whatever Arthur was seeing was beautiful.

“Right about what, Sire?” His own voice was just as soft as his companion’s, unwilling to break the quiet more than necessary.

Arthur finally looked at him, warmth in his smile. “Training. It was a good idea.”

“Well-”

“Of course, statistically speaking, even you have to be right on occasion.”

“Oy!” Merlin laughed and pushed his prince lightly. “Prat.”

Arthur’s laughter was softer and he pulled Merlin into a quick hug before pushing him away with a serious look. “When I am king, I will lift the ban on magic. Sorcerers and other magic users will be subject to the same basic laws as everyone else and anyone who causes harm to Camelot will be handled without mercy, but… simply possessing the power should not be a death sentence. Men like Gilius… Men like you should not live in such fear.”

“I have always said that you will be a great king,” Merlin whispered, clasping Arthur’s forearm and refusing to be pushed away entirely. “It is not just words, you know. I truly believe it, Arthur.”

The smile he got in return was small but pleased. “Thank you, Merlin.”

~*~*~

“Was the king horribly furious with you?” Merlin asked over breakfast.

Gaius arched a brow at him, then sighed. “Uther is frightened. He does not react well to things that frighten him. I am well versed on handling him in such a condition.” His mouth turned down in a severe frown. “However did he find out? I thought you’d both know to be careful.”

“He found the book.” He shrugged. “Arthur left it on his table and Uther came looking for him while we were out.”

If Merlin had thought about it, he’d have warned Arthur not to leave such a thing sitting out where anyone could find it, but honestly, he’d have thought Arthur was smart enough to realize that all on his own. He should have considered the prince’s arrogance and innate sense of self-entitlement.

“Foolish, but I suppose it was inevitable.” Gaius shook his head. “I notice that you’ve not been thrown onto a pyre.”

Quirking a grin at him, Merlin shrugged again. “Arthur has been writing about auramancy and his experiences with it so far. And he’s not so foolish as to write down names and implicate anyone else.”

He knew that Arthur had been avoiding writing about the color of Merlin’s aura, other than to say it was soothing. Arthur had said he highly doubted that any future auramancers were going to find themselves drowning in Merlin.

Merlin had teased him for days for that particular turn of phrase and the possessive way it had been said, much to the prince’s disgust.

They were moving towards something, slowly, ever so slowly, but as inevitably as anything else in their lives.

“He wants to tell Morgana,” Merlin said, carefully keeping his eyes averted, knowing his mentor would not be pleased by the news.

There was a long moment of silence, then Gaius sat down his spoon. “What, exactly, does he wish Morgana to know?”

“Everything. Look, Gaius. I know you believe that hiding the truth is protecting her, but she has a right to know. It’s her life that’s being affected.” Merlin hadn’t allowed himself to really consider it very deeply, but he thought Arthur was right. There were times to lie and times to be truthful, he’d learned well enough since he’d come to Camelot, but some truths should never be covered up completely. Morgana had a right to know about the magic flowing through her veins. Merlin couldn’t imagine what his life might have been if his mother had tried to hide his own from him, had tried to convince him that the random bursts of unexplainable things that happened around him were nothing more than his imagination. Bad enough that she’d kept the knowledge of his father from him. Even though he knew why she’d done it, that still hurt badly.

It wasn’t quite the same thing, he knew, but he couldn’t help but sympathize with Morgana every time she looked at him with fearful eyes. It felt awful, knowing the truth that could soothe away that fear and having to hold it back.

“Merlin… If Uther finds out-”

“He won’t. It’s fine enough for him to continue thinking she suffers from night terrors. There’s no need for him to question it. And it’s not like she’s cocky enough to just leave incriminating books lying about for the king to find.”

Gaius sighed and shook his head. “This could go so horribly wrong, Merlin.”

“Perhaps, but I think maybe… it was starting to go wrong already.” He remembered the way she’d looked after the questing beast, after he’d made his deal with Nimueh, when she’d tried to warn him that the danger had not passed. “If I’d listened to her, if I’d dared to let her warn me properly, rather than kept up the pretense of disbelieving her, then maybe the mess with Nimueh could have been handled better.”

“I doubt any amount of warning could have helped with that particular mess,” Gaius said, sounding old and resigned. “You have a singular knack for attracting trouble, Merlin. You are as close to a son as I’ve ever had or wanted, but I swear, you’ll be the death of me yet.”

Though Merlin laughed, he sincerely hoped not.

~*~*~

Things became much more tense around his father after the discovery. Not wanting the news to get out any further than it already had, Uther had demanded that Gaius show him every response he’d received from his initial inquiries. Then, he’d sent out messengers far and wide, looking for books of magic and ancient rituals.

Most assumed that this was a sign of a fresh wave of purging and villagers and scholars alike grew more cautious and fearful.

If anyone had such a book or knowledge in their possession, no one was talking.

A predictable result, in Arthur’s opinion. Uther didn’t seem to grasp why no one wanted to admit to having such a tie to magic, even with a promise that the owners would not be put to trial for witchcraft. Promises tended to ring false when given by someone who was well known for believing that magic users deserved no such consideration.

It was hard to watch Uther become more and more agitated as his queries turned up nothing.

The king was always careful to make sure Arthur knew that he wasn’t responsible for what had happened, always careful to make sure that Arthur knew that he hadn’t given up.

As he stood on one of the castle’s guard stations, watching another rider return with nothing more than a disheartened aura wafting from him, Arthur felt his father approach.

“Arthur…” Uther hesitated a moment before putting a hand on his son’s shoulder, as always more demonstrative when he felt Arthur’s well-being was at risk than he was at any other time. “We’ll fix this. Have faith.”

Arthur watched the colors around the king darken and swirl. The man’s doubtful pain and bitter, hateful anger was overwhelming everything else, and Arthur wished that he could go back to his previous oblivion. He didn’t want to know that his father’s hatred of magic was in a constant battle with his familial affection for Arthur.

He wished Gilius hadn’t been sent away so soon.

The book had hinted that an aura could be cleansed of the negativity that was polluting it, but unsurprisingly, it seemed to be one of those things that it just assumed that he would already know.

He wanted so badly to heal his father, to take away all of that pain and rage and guilt. Knowing that he could have, if only he’d had the knowledge of how… that was one of the most painful things he’d ever had to accept.

~*~*~
The book sat, heavy but innocuous enough, in a pile of many other books.

Merlin probably would not have noticed it at all if he hadn’t felt his own magical signature when he’d entered the king’s rooms. As it was, he was very hard pressed not to give himself away by staring directly at it.

“And how can I help you today, Merlin?” Uther asked from where he sat at his own table, quill in hand. There were rolls of parchment at his elbow. Messages, Merlin assumed. At least some of them probably related to the actual running of the kingdom, but he knew that most were likely more inquiries into Arthur’s new magic.

Though some of his previous terror of the king had faded now that he had Arthur’s orders about possible executions, the truth was that Merlin still preferred not to put himself in the man’s direct line of sight if it could be avoided.

Even without potential magical discovery, Merlin knew that Uther would dearly love to remove the servant his son was so attached to and that threat held an even greater power over Merlin than any other would have.

“Umm… My apologies for disturbing you, Sire,” Merlin forced out, only going as far into the room as he absolutely had to in order to avoid offending the king. “Arthur is, well... Gaius has given the prince permission to rejoin training and he would like to relay an invitation to come down to the field if… if you’re not too busy. Sire.”

Uther leaned back in his chair, arching a brow. He stared at Merlin for far longer than was really necessary and it was all the sorcerer could do not to simply flee the room. He was about to lose that particular internal battle when the king finally chose to speak. “You knew of my son’s ailment, did you not?”

Merlin’s mind went into a gibbering tailspin, completely uncomprehending. no no nonononono please don’t send me away don’t kill me please please nonononono-

The older man arched a brow, but seemed to guess at Merlin’s sudden attack of muteness. “I do not ask in order to trap you into incriminating yourself, Merlin. You will not be punished. You have my word on it.”

For a moment, Merlin stayed silent, but finally he dipped his head in acknowledgement. “Yes, Sire. I knew.”

Uther looked unsurprised as he nodded. “And it doesn’t bother you? To know that magic has been forced on your master?”

“Sire…” Merlin bit his lip, considering how best to answer that. Finally, he sighed and looked at the king far more directly than was probably acceptable. “It bothers me that someone stole him away and did this. That…he was so sick from it. It bothers me that he suffers through something he was never meant to suffer through. And it really bothers me that I couldn’t protect him from it, that I couldn’t step in and ... ‘Drink the poison’, so to speak.”

He remembered how Arthur had looked up on that dais, still as death, and how miserable he’d been as he huddled in bed, afraid to even look at anyone else.

It was his job to protect Arthur from the magical things that would seek him out and do him harm and he’d failed, spectacularly. He tried not to think about it, especially around Arthur, but Merlin hated himself a little for being so useless in the face of this attack.

“Even if it would have meant your death?” Uther’s face gave nothing away, but Merlin held his ground, confident in his conviction when it came to Arthur.

“If it spared his? Yes, your highness.”

“No hesitation at all? Some might call you a fool.”

Merlin’s lips quirked in a grin and he looked down to hide it. “I’ve been called worse.”

“Yes, I suppose you have.” There was a long moment of silence before Uther sighed and continued. “You’ve also managed to side-step the actual question quite nicely, answering only the most literal part of it. Very… political of you, but I must insist on an answer. Does this magic of Arthur’s not bother you?”

“No, Sire.” Merlin’s voice was calm and steady. He refused to shy away from this, whether the king wanted him to or not. “Magic or no magic, I will serve Arthur Pendragon until the day that I die and do so happily.”

Uther’s gaze grew sharper, his eyes narrowing as he considered Merlin’s words. Merlin could tell that he was turning the declaration over in his mind, though he couldn’t tell towards what end. Did the king want his own distaste and fear echoed from everyone else?

Well, he wouldn’t get that from Merlin.

The king stood and stalked closer to loom over Merlin. The urge to flinch returned, but he held his ground. “Your devotion to my son is truly remarkable. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen the like in a servant before. Not even for me as king.”

Arthur Pendragon was the only king that Merlin would ever serve, but he didn’t see any need to point that out, not with Uther standing over him like some great predator, poised to strike if the mood moved him to do so.

He shrugged, trying not to look as nervous as he felt. He didn’t want Uther to somehow get the idea that he was just mouthing platitudes. “Some men run from their destiny. Some tolerate it. I choose to embrace mine whole-heartedly.”

The silence lingered for a long moment before Uther nodded slowly. Returning to the table, the king capped the inkpot he’d been using. “I see. Well, take these down to my porter. They need to be sent immediately. I will not risk the prince’s life on the hope that everyone will share your sentiments. I believe that I shall go see Arthur take to the training fields after all.”

“Of course, Sire.” Merlin bowed low and held the pose until Uther’s footsteps echoed down the hallway. Even then, he straightened cautiously.

No matter how innocent or pointed the topic was, talking to Uther always made him feel out of sorts and anxious. It was an endless test and failure meant death. Or separation from Arthur, which honestly, frightened him more.

With a sigh, he moved to scoop up the small bundle of missives.

It was only as Merlin was starting to leave, trying very hard not to drop or crumple any of the rolled parchments that he remembered the book. He paused in the doorway, hovering uncertainly before looking back at it.

It was Arthur’s book, after all, so it couldn’t really be considered stealing, right?

Merlin doubted that logic would save his neck if he got caught, but didn’t let the threat of future death and dismemberment stop him from snagging it quickly and spelling another to look like it.

With any luck, Uther would never notice that it had been returned to it’s proper owner.

 

~*~*~

The conversation with Morgana was something that Merlin was dreading, but by the time the confrontation finally arrived, he didn’t feel as bad about it as he could have.

It helped, he knew, that Arthur had a keen mind for strategy and knew their quarry well enough to guess her reactions to most things. It also helped that Gaius had a fair bit of experience in offering half-truths. Deflecting queries and assumptions in the right direction had become somewhat of a specialty for him.

Arthur invited Morgana - and by extension, Gwen, though Gaius had cautioned against letting the tale go further than absolutely necessary - to a quiet dinner in his room. Since he’d started gaining control of his new gifts, that in itself wasn’t unusual. Morgana had dined with him many times and she’d accepted the invitation without a second thought.

For his part, Merlin fetched up all of Morgana’s favorite dishes from the kitchens and had set Arthur’s table carefully, paying attention to the details as he very seldom did.

When the ladies arrived, Morgana actually stopped and blinked at the settings in confusion before turning to Arthur with an arched brow.

The table was set for four, though Merlin wasn’t sure how Arthur honestly expected him to be able to eat with his stomach turning in knots as it was.

The entire thing could go pear-shaped if Morgana asked the wrong question or if Arthur had miscalculated any of her probable reactions. Merlin was a far better liar than most people would have given him credit for, but truthfully, there were certain people and certain lies that he knew he’d never be able to force past his lips. Not now. Not once he’d given way to the idea of honesty between the four of them.

He’d wanted that for too long to be able to lie about it now.

He held out the chair for Gwen, who looked to her mistress with hesitation. Morgana was too engaged in her stare down with Arthur to actually notice, though. Merlin gave his friend a strained smile, silently begging her to go along with this no matter how strange it might seem to her.

It was Arthur who tipped the tableau between them, moving to the table and pulling out the chair beside Gwen. “Please, Morgana. I’ve important things to talk about and it concerns them as well.”

Her dark eyes narrowed further for a moment before she sighed and took her seat gracefully. “Really, Arthur. You could have said. It’s not as if Gwen and I don’t share supper in my room on occasion. What would you have done if I’d given her the night off?”

“Sent Merlin to fetch her, of course,” Arthur said with something of a pompous air. The attempt at prattishness lost some of it’s effectiveness when he winked at Merlin.

It did serve to relax the atmosphere as Gwen couldn’t quite suppress her huff of amusement while Merlin rolled his eyes.

His nerves were still jangling about horribly, though and his hands shook as he made to pour the wine.

Strong, tanned fingers settled over his own pale ones tightening briefly in reassurance. “It’s all right, Merlin. I’m sure we can all handle pouring for ourselves.”

Merlin swallowed hard and nodded tightly, settling down into the chair beside Arthur. The position brought to mind camaraderie over a camp fire and long nights under the stars with no castle etiquette to maintain, no distance between them, be it physical or social. The familiarity helped him relax slightly and he offered Morgana a more genuine smile where she was staring at their byplay through narrowed eyes.

“All right, Arthur. What is this all about?”

“I thought we could have a nice dinner first, Morgana.”

She sat both hands on the table, palm down, and the expression on her face was completely implacable.

Finally, Arthur sighed and dipped his head in acquiescence. “Very well.”

Merlin felt the prince’s eyes brush over him, but he refused to look up from the table. He was willing to share this information, was even glad to do so. That didn’t mean his stomach wasn’t roiling unpleasantly at the task itself. His mother had drilled it into his head from a very young age that the more people who knew of his gifts, the more danger he’d be in, the more danger they’d be in.

It was hard to break a life time of training, even for a good cause. Even when he wanted to do so.

The warmth of Arthur’s thigh pressed against his own, comfort and reassurance spreading between them as Arthur told the story as they’d planned it.

He explained the truth of his kidnapping and the ancient ritual that Gaius believed had been used. His voice wavered slightly as he told of the magic that had run in the veins of his mother’s family and how it had been forced to the surface.

Merlin leaned in even closer, his shoulder settling against Arthur’s, hoping that Arthur could take the same measure of comfort from him that he’d always taken from Arthur.

It seemed to be enough. Arthur’s voice steadied as he told of the debilitating magic and of Gilius answering the plea from Gaius to come and save the prince of Camelot. Merlin had to bite back the urge to remind Arthur that he hadn’t really been dying, no matter how much he’d thought he was.

It made the story sound better, made Arthur sound more like a hero suffering bravely and less like the sulky child he’d been emulating.

Certainly, it seemed to have the women wringing their hands in sympathy. Merlin could see the urge to mother Arthur welling up in the both of them, even though he was obviously fine again.

His mother’s book and Uther’s subsequent discovery made everyone tense, as if simply uttering his name could somehow summon the man himself to the chamber.

Both women remained mostly silent through the tale, Morgana only asking occasionally for clarification.

“So you’ve magic now,” Morgana finally said, drawing the words out as if she were tasting them on her tongue, testing the sound of them.

Arthur dipped his head slightly, his expression as serious as Merlin had ever seen it.

For her part, Gwen was quiet, eyes going between their masters. She did not seem any more nervous around Arthur than she ever had, thankfully.

Of course, Arthur hadn’t told them about Merlin yet.

Morgana pursed her lips slightly, her eyes challenging. “Prove it.”

This was the tricky part, of course. Arthur didn’t know a lot of provable spells yet other than very basic healing. Gilius hadn’t really been around long enough to teach him more than basic control techniques and small things involving his own aura. Another auramancer would be able to instantly see and understand, but even Merlin could often only tell that he was using the magic, not what he was actually doing with it.

But this was what Arthur had anticipated. It was the lead in he was looking for.

“You’re a Seer, Morgana. Your dreams and nightmares… They’re not just dreams and nightmares, they’re visions.” Arthur held her gaze steadily, and her own shaky scoff of dismissal died quickly in the face of his seriousness.

“You can’t know that.”

“I can. This auramancy stuff allows me to see the magic that surrounds you. You glow indigo, Mogana, the color of the Sight.” He paused for a moment and shrugged with a small smile. “It’s quite lovely, actually.”

Her mouth turned down, her expression showing the beginnings of hostile defensiveness. “You don’t-”

“I’m hardly going to turn you in, now am I? Besides, yours isn’t the only magic hiding in this castle, Morgana, and I’ll have no one else dying for it if I can help it.”

Merlin couldn’t help but flinch slightly, staring hard at the dark grain of the table. He didn’t want to see their expressions, didn’t want to know if they’d guessed or not. He thought he could feel their eyes on him, but that could have been simply a projection of his own anxiety. He certainly wasn’t going to look to find out for certain.

“You still haven’t proven anything, Arthur.” Her words were calm again, though. He thought the protest was more for show than for actual disbelief. Magic was no joking manner in Camelot and even Arthur wouldn’t make light of it, not when such jokes could get innocent people executed out of hand.

“Trying my hand at anything that you could visibly see could be dangerous, Morgana. I wouldn’t expect a novice swordsman to show off skills he hasn’t mastered yet.”

For a long moment, Morgana was silent, considering. “I don’t... Disbelieve you. But surely you can see that-”

Whatever she was going to say cut off abruptly as the ewer of wine calmly rose from the table and made a circuit of all their cups, filling each one carefully to the brim before moving on to the next.

This time Merlin knew everyone was staring at him.

Once they stopped staring at the ewer, at any rate.

“Merlin?”

Swallowing hard, the sorcerer forced himself to look up into Gwen’s wide eyes. He could see her quick mind working things out, coming to the conclusions he’d known he’d have to face, the truths he’d have to admit. “I’m sorry.”

Even more than the secrets he’d kept from Morgana, the secrets he’d kept from Gwen had eaten at him. He’d never forgive himself for how close she’d come to being burned for his crime any more than he’d forgive himself for not figuring out how to save her father the second time.

He should have been able to keep her safe, to protect her.

Arthur’s knee pressed against his, more tightly than before.

Merlin wasn’t sure if he deserved that comfort, but he took it gladly.

He took a deep breath and shrugged, wrapping both hands around his now-full cup. “I was born this way. Gaius is a friend of my mother’s. She sent me to him when she realized it couldn’t be hidden in Ealdor any longer. I didn’t want to lie to everyone. It’s just… safer, you know? Safer for everyone.”

“It was you… when my father was ill.” There was no censure in her words, but Merlin couldn’t help but flinch away from them nonetheless.

“Ye-” His voice cracked slightly and he had to clear his throat before he could nod and try again. “Yes.”

“Oh, Merlin…” Gentle hands, soft despite the calluses of their class, settled on his own, pulling them from the cup he’d been clutching at so desperately. “Thank you.”

Eyes flying upwards, Merlin stared at the sweet smile she was offering, as if she didn’t understand that it had been his fault. “But I- Gwen you were almost executed.”

“But Merlin-” she replied, mocking him teasingly. “You saved my father. I had months more with him that I’d have not had otherwise.” Her hands tightened around his and she raised them to her lips for a soft kiss. “And for that, I will be forever grateful.”

His throat worked, but he couldn’t seem to force out any sound and his eyes felt suspiciously damp.

Arthur chuckled and nudged him. “Are you crying, Merlin?”

“Oh shut up,” he huffed, nudging the other man back. “‘M not crying.”

“You are,” Arthur teased, wrapping an arm around his neck and pulling him close to rub knuckles through his hair. The prince’s touch was gentle despite the show of rough-handling, though. “Really, Merlin. Sometimes you’re such a girl.”

“Says the prat who literally sees the world in pretty pastels now,” Merlin growled in return, almost dizzy with relief to have his biggest secret out in the open with the people who mattered most to him.

If Gwen had turned away from him, it would have put a crack in his heart that would have never quite healed. He’d have understood, of course he would have. But understanding would not have eased the blow at all.

Morgana snorted at his words and he dared a glance at her when he managed to get his head away from Arthur’s grip. She looked much as she usually did, regal and proud. There was also a gleeful glint in her eyes as she smiled. “Pastels, Arthur? Really? How adorable.”

“It’s not all pastels.” The tone was aggrieved, but Merlin suspected Arthur was just as relieved as he was. “Just… some of it. Gwen is a fair bit pastel… for earthy tones, at any rate.”

Eyes dropping to her arms, Gwen considered her skin for a moment. “Is it because-”

“No. It’s not got anything to do with that. Gaius is earthy tones as well. Bit more on the green side. That’s because his mind turns towards knowledge and healing. It’s…” Arthur bit his lip, considering how best to explain it. “Like… Morgana carries the color of the Seer, Merlin is… well. It’s mostly his magic, I suppose. I can’t really see underneath it to anything else.” His hands gestured expansively, obviously trying to explain the sheer depth and size of Merlin’s magic. “There’s nothing pastel about it, though. Just… gold. Very, very gold.”

“Can you see your own?” Morgana asked, clearly fascinated now. “What color are you? Pink? Oh please tell me that you are pink.”

Merlin couldn’t help but snicker at the way Arthur gaped at her. Across from him, Gwen was managing it, but only just.

Leaning back, he watched Arthur sputter as Morgana teased and Gwen fought to cover her own amusement at them.

This, he thought, was home.

And for once, the threat of the executioner seemed very far away.

~*~*~

Arthur didn’t ask about the book when it appeared under his pillow one evening shortly after he began the slow process of reintegrating himself with his knights and their training. He was pretty sure he didn’t want to know how Merlin had managed to retrieve it from the king.

His father never showed up at his door demanding to know where it was, so he could only assume Merlin had managed to be somewhat clever about getting it back.

He was finding that his servant, his sorcerer, could actually be quite clever when he chose to be. He just seemed to find playing the idiot to be more useful.

Or easier. Arthur wasn’t entirely sure which, though he suspected it was a combination of the two.

Morgana seemed far more relaxed and happier now that she knew she wasn’t going insane. The plan to steer her keen mind away from whether or not Gaius or anyone else had known what she was before Arthur’s new magic had exposed it appeared to have worked. They were closer now, their relationship settling back down into the comfortable sibling-hood they’d shared before hormones had gotten in the way.

Sharing his tale and getting a positive response had relaxed Merlin as well. Arthur had never quite realized the tension his friend was carrying under the burden of keeping his secrets until that tension was suddenly gone.

More and more, the warlock disappeared into the caves below the castle to learn and practice with the great dragon whenever Arthur didn’t have need of him and Arthur stopped giving him tasks that should rightly fall to other servants. He understood the value of that practice more than ever as his own hesitant attempts to experiment with magic had mixed results.

The days began growing shorter as summer drew to a close.

Getting back into the swing of things was easier this time around than after his encounter with the questing beast. With control, the auramancy worked with him instead of against him, always simmering under the surface whether he chose to use it or not.

His stamina had returned with remarkable quickness given how long he’d been incapacitated and any soreness or ache caused from a long day of swords and maces and full battle armor was always gone by morning, whether Merlin rubbed the muscles down with salve or not.

Gaius speculated that he was instinctively manipulating and adjusting the magic to keep himself in top fighting form.

Necessary or not, Arthur never sent Merlin away when he turned up with the jar of salve. The pretense allowed them to share quiet intimacy without pushing at the boundaries of what lay between them.

Those boundaries were dissolving on their own and neither men felt a need to hurry it along.

It felt almost like courting and Arthur was enjoying it.

~*~*~

“How do you feel, Arthur?” Uther’s tone gave nothing away, but Arthur didn’t need magic to know what he was really being asked.

The great hall had never been his favorite place to dine even before his newly magical senses made it such a trial, but when a feast had been declared in his honor, he’d known better than to try to escape it. So, here he was, trying to placate his father while proving to the bunch of gossiping nobles that he was in no danger of expiring any time soon. He hadn’t really needed Morgana to inform him that there were those that would happily see his father suddenly become heirless.

At Uther Pendragon’s age, the likelihood of giving birth to another heir was small. No doubt they hoped for the chance to vie for Camelot themselves once Uther passed.

“I’m well, Father.” He sipped at his wine cup, careful to keep track of how much he actually imbibed. His first cup had been water. He’d been experimenting with his alcohol tolerance in the privacy of his chambers with no one there to see but Merlin, but he’d still rather not risk exposure in front of the court. “The men have expressed their desire for me to take another sick day and give them a bit of a rest.”

Morgana laughed on Uther’s other side. “Considering how soundly you thrashed most of them this afternoon, I’m not terribly surprised. Of course, I think that Gaius could beat some of them up, so that’s not saying very much.”

“Ha, ha, ha,” Arthur replied, rolling his eyes. It was hard to take offense, though. He had a solid handful of knights that he trusted with his life. Past that small force, the others were too old, too young, too green, too arrogant, too, too, too. He’d lost too many of his better knights over the years and Uther’s nobleman-only policy gave him a limited pool to draw replacements from.

It made him think of Lancelot and wonder if the low-born warrior would ever wander back their way and whether or not he might perhaps bring a few more of his ilk. He would dearly love a dozen or so Lancelot’s to flesh out his core unit.

He sighed. “Leon has done his best to keep the men in top fighting form while I was incapacitated, but unfortunately, Morgana is right. He didn’t have a lot to work with. I’ve lost too many good men this year. I wish Lancelot hadn’t left.”

His father’s mouth tightened, but he didn’t speak out against the peasant knight. How could he when Lancelot had accomplished what the entire fighting force of Camelot hadn’t?

Though Arthur did have to wonder how much of that accomplishment could be laid at Merlin’s feet and how much was Lancelot’s.

As with so many other things, Merlin’s magic explained so much of what had happened, both during the defeat of the gryphon and with what had happened afterward, when Lancelot found it so necessary to leave and prove himself truly worthy.

“Then I suggest you not give them a day of rest. If you can teach that servant of yours not to accidentally stab himself with the sword, I’m sure you can get even the greenest of knights into proper fighting form given enough time.”

The vote of confidence and the absolute truth behind it made Arthur’s heart swell with pride and a measure of joy, even as the disparaging comment about Merlin tugged at him.

It wasn’t anything that he hadn’t said himself, of course. It was different, somehow, hearing it come from someone else. It grated on the nerves more. “Merlin’s adept enough at defending himself.”

Uther simply nodded and gestured casually with his free hand as he raised his wine goblet up in a salute. “My point exactly. I remember your complaints that first time you took him to train with you. To hear you talk, he was a messy, unnecessary death waiting to happen and completely unteachable. Now, only a year and a season later, he’s made marked improvement. That’s a testament to your fine teaching abilities. You know very well I wouldn’t say it if it weren’t true. False modesty does not become you, Arthur.”

Arthur had nothing to say to that and dipped his head in acknowledgement.

He knew that Merlin wasn’t bothered to hear such things, that he’d said worse to Merlin’s face in those earlier days, but he still shifted uneasily. He wished they were elsewhere so that he could reassure his friend that he no longer held such opinions.

The warm gold that had lingered at the edge of his senses grew stronger as Merlin slipped in close to pretend to fill his cup. Arthur let out a soft sigh and relaxed as a hand brushed discreetly against his shoulder with a reassuring touch.

It was hard, sometimes, to remember that there had been a time before Merlin, a time when the sorcerer wasn’t so intricately wrapped up in his life. It seemed as if Merlin had always been there, a vital part of his existence.

~*~*~

The stone ledge in Kilgarrah’s cave wasn’t the most comfortable place Merlin had ever rested his back, but neither was it the least. He sighed and shifted slightly, ignoring the sound of pebbles skittering over the edge and bouncing their way down the endless drop. He was safe enough. Even if his own magic failed to save him, he trusted Kilgarrah to catch him before he met his death.

His eyes were closed, but he could feel the hot puff of the dragon’s breath as it peered down at him.

“You’ve been distracted all morning, young warlock.” There was more exasperation and curiosity than censure. “Perhaps talking it out will ease your mind enough to allow you to make actual progress.”

Merlin laughed softly but there was little amusement in the sound.

Today, none of his spells had gone right, not even the simple levitation he’d mastered before he could walk. Kilgarrah had the right of it. His mind had been pre-occupied by other things.

One other thing.

“I’m sorry, Kilgarrah. Uther finally found some bumbling fool promising to cure Arthur. He arrived this morning with bloodletting tools.”

The dragon snorted and Merlin peeked an eye open to see him shake his massive head. “Uther is a fool. Arthur could be drained dry and he would not be cured. He’d die as bound to magic as he is now.”

Nodding miserably, Merlin sighed. “I know. Arthur knows. Uther won’t listen, though. I almost wonder if he’d rather this kill Arthur than admit the truth.”

“It would not be the first time Uther’s blindness concerning magic as made him rash and reckless with the lives of others.” The dragon’s mouth was pulled down in an obvious frown. “Arthur is not as blind, even in his desire for his father’s approval. He will put a stop to it before it goes that far.”

Merlin wondered if it was his imagination or if Kilgarrah didn’t sound as certain as he’d like.

“Right.” He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. He had to trust Arthur to remember that he couldn’t just given in to Uther’s fanatical need to purge magic from the world. There were more important things at stake than just Uther’s paternal affection. “No, I don’t think Arthur will let them kill him, I’m just… he shouldn’t have to suffer it at all.”

“His suffering is mild compared to what others have suffered.”

It was hard to argue the point with a creature who’d been chained in a cave with only his own company for twenty years before Merlin had shown up. The thought brought his mind around to other things and he sighed. Sometimes he thought he’d made a mistake in getting to know Kilgarrah as an individual. It had been easier to ignore the dragon's point of view when Kilgarrah had just been the Great Mysterious and Annoying Dispenser of Cryptic Riddles and Advice.

Now he found himself understanding and sympathizing. He’d even forgiven things that he’d been sure he’d never be able to forgive.

What might he have done if he’d been in the same position?

Betrayed, caged, abandoned, forgotten….

He might have been willing to sacrifice anyone to hold on to the hope that it would end.

He didn’t want to think about it, though, so he pushed the thoughts out of his mind and rolled around so that he was sitting again, facing the dragon. “Can I ask you something?”

Kilgarrah arched a massive brow and settled himself more comfortably on his rocky perch. “Would you hold your tongue if I said no?”

A half-smile flittered over his face before Merlin sighed again. “You told me once that I had to let Mordred die or some day he’d … be the death of Arthur. Is that… Do you still think that will happen?”

He’d always wondered about it a little, because it hadn't made any sense. Arthur had saved Mordred, at great personal risk to himself. It was hard to imagine that there’d come a time when Mordred would have cause or inclination to kill the man who’d saved his life.

The look that the great golden dragon gave him said that Merlin was a particularly slow breed of human child and that he was despairing once more that the destiny of anything at all rested in his hands. “I have also told you that I am now blind to the future. When the two of you turn destiny on its ear, you do not do a half-hearted job. I cannot even begin to predict what will happen any longer. You’ve altered far too many of the certainties that I had seen, including the ones that led to Mordred’s original path. It is possible that the destination will be the same in the end, but I cannot tell with any degree of certainty.”

Merlin nodded slowly as he considered that.

If Arthur had not woken up with magic, he wasn’t sure when his own would have finally been exposed. Possibly not for years and how much bitterness and resentment could he have built up in that time, always saving Arthur and Uther and never being recognized by anyone other than Gaius? How much would he have come to resent the need to hide his true self from the Pendragon hatred of magic? How long until he accidentally gave himself away and Arthur found out on his own, possibly in the worst possible scenario imagined?

Without Arthur’s urging, Morgana might have been left to struggle with her nightmares. She might have given in to what seemed like madness to her, might have been driven to rash and desperate choices to save herself.

Even Uther, struggling to reconcile his hatred of magic with the fact that his son was magic…

If nothing else, Merlin liked to think that it had given Uther something to consider.

Melrin could see a hundred small little things that would not have happened at all or would have happened very differently if someone had not taken it upon themselves to force magic on Arthur Pendragon, a dozen perceptions shifting in a direction they wouldn’t have gone.

“I think…” He bit his lips and considered his own relationship with Arthur. Would it have begun blooming as fully as it had been if destiny hadn’t been knocked around a little? He’d like to think it would have, but honesty compelled him to admit that it probably wouldn’t have.

Sighing, he leaned back, propping himself up on his hands as he stared past Kilgarrah. He wasn't really paying attention to the dragon anymore as he thought about what the future might have been and what it could be now. “I think it’s better this way.”

He was selfish enough to want a future where he might have Arthur rather than one that would forever pull them apart.

The dragon merely shrugged, neither agreeing or disagreeing. Merlin supposed that as long as he was freed in the end, the personal lives of humans made little difference to him.

~*~*~

“Breakfast~” Merlin fairly chirped as he pushed open the prince’s door without knocking.

Arthur arched a brow and watched the younger man settle a tray on the table with a flourish before turning back to beam at his prince. The golden aura that spilled into the room with him seemed to pulse with life and good cheer. “You’re awfully chipper this morning.”

The sunny smile was almost blinding and Arthur felt his own lips tug upwards, trying to emulate it against his will.

“Well it’s a beautiful day, isn’t it?”

It usually took more than a beautiful day to instill such honest joy in Merlin, but Arthur could guess what had caused it on this particular morning. “I take it you heard about yesterday, then.”

“I have to admit that there are times when I almost like Uther Pendragon. You can’t deny the man has a certain flair of style. I just wish I’d been there to see it myself.” The look on Merlin’s face said everything and Arthur couldn’t help but huff in amusement.

He supposed the scene between his father and the charlatan of a physician was probably the only thing that the servants - or nobles, for that matter - were talking about. He hoped that no one had quite realized who the physician had been in Camelot to see or why, though he didn’t fool himself into believing his name hadn’t come up in the speculation.

At least he was relatively certain he didn’t have to worry about the good doctor spreading any rumors of his own.

Uther’s sharp tongue and withering disregard had reduced the man to tears, after all, and he’d been escorted to the gates of Camelot and informed - loudly enough that every citizen in the market that afternoon could hear - that his services were useless to the point of being nearly criminal and that if he returned to the city or practiced his deceit among any of Uther’s allies, he’d find himself imprisoned at best and more likely hanged. He’d fled with his tail between his legs when Uther had looked like he was considering changing his mind and adding a fresh head and spike to the castle gates right then and there.

He hadn’t quite made it before Uther’s booted foot had connected with the ass of his robes, but Arthur was certain he’d made record time out of the kingdom.

It had been worth being poked and prodded with torture devices. Especially since he’d gotten the feeling that Uther was rethinking this entire cure business. Maybe he’d finally accept that there was no cure and that his quest to find one at the expense of good sense was not actually helping Arthur.

“It was quite a sight,” Arthur conceded as he settled down at the table and pulled the tray towards him.

Merlin settled to his left, propping an elbow on the table, his face on his fist, grinning like an absolute loon. “Did Uther really kick him out of the gates? Like… literally?”

Part of Arthur was well aware that it wasn’t quite done for them to be like this, but as with all of his other interactions with Merlin, he’d long since stopped caring about what was acceptable and what wasn’t. He returned the grin with a nod. “He did. The man’s robes had a dusty imprint of my father’s boot right there on the backside. I don’t think it occurred to him to wipe it off as he was running, either.”

There was an added little bit of vindictive humor to that, to know that where ever he stopped next, he’d have to explain exactly how he’d come to be physically booted out of another place.

“Arthur…” There was more concern than humor in Merlin’s voice and Arthur blinked at the sudden change.

Gentle hands brushed against his skin and Arthur startled a little, glancing down at the cloth wrapped tightly around his forearm. Ah. He'd almost forgotten about that. “It’s all right, Merlin. It doesn’t hurt.”

Indeed, this morning it didn’t even sting. He wondered if the cuts had healed in the night.

Merlin’s fingers worried at the edge of the bandage, but didn’t move to unwrap it. “I’m glad your father put a stop to it, but I wish it hadn’t happened in the first place.”

Smiling, Arthur reached down and closed his own hand over Merlin’s, trapping long, slender digits against his arm. “I think he’ll be more careful in the future.”

The gold that overlaid the deep, seemingly endless blue of Merlin's eyes made them seem green. The true color was embedded in Arthur’s mind, though, even if he never saw them properly again. They flicked up to meet his own gaze and Arthur felt his breath catch at the emotion there. The golden color around Merlin was spiked with a bright reddish pink.

He didn’t think he was getting any better at seeing under Merlin’s magic, it was just that there was so very much love and devotion there to be seen.

It was easy, suddenly, natural even, to lean in closer and brush his lips against Merlin’s.

This...

Merlin sighed softly against his mouth, eyes fluttering closed as he gave himself up to the moment. It was sweet and mostly chaste and absolutely perfect as far as Arthur was concerned.

The knock on the door startled them both, but Arthur felt no need to jerk away from Merlin, no need to deflect or pretend and he could see the same thought reflected in the way Merlin was slow to sit up and pull away.

The knock came again and Arthur couldn’t help but glare at the door, making Merlin laugh softly. “Don’t worry, Arthur. We can… talk later.”

Arthur made a face as Merlin took a deep breath and pushed himself up, donning the face of servitude once more before answering the door.

There was a quiet exchange of voices, too soft for Arthur to even know who Merlin was speaking to, then the door was shut again. Merlin’s expression was a bit odd. For all that the sorcerer usually wore most of his emotions right out for the world to see, it didn’t mean that Arthur could always tell what those emotions were.

“It’s not fair, you know.”

Merlin cocked an eyebrow and made a questioning noise.

Arthur couldn’t help but pout slightly. “You’re the only person I know that renders this stupid color magic absolutely useless. I can’t tell what you’re thinking at all. It’s not fair.”

That earned him a snort of amusement as Merlin shook his head. “Poor thing. I suppose you’ll just have to figure it out the old fashioned way.” He sobered with a sigh. “Your father is requesting your presence today.”

“I don’t suppose the messenger said why?”

“Not really. But while I was fetching your breakfast, I heard that several new lords arrived last night. Gwen said that John the baker heard from Maggie - she’s one of the maids who prepares guest chambers - that she overheard one of them talking about his son becoming a knight, so perhaps that’s what it’s about, yeah?”

“…” Arthur rubbed a hand over his eyes as he parsed through the chain of gossip. “It’s frightening how much official business the servants know about before I do.”

“I don’t usually listen to gossip,” Merlin replied with a shrug. “And I’d never tell anyone anything about you, but when Gwen brings me information, she tends to know what she’s talking about.”

“You never gossip about me?” He was genuinely curious. It hadn’t occurred to him to wonder about it one way or the other before, but now that he thought about it, he’d never heard any of his own business bandied about by anyone else - not the stuff only Merlin knew, at any rate.

“Well… Sometimes I vent at Gwen, but she only ever listens. She never spreads gossip around to anyone but me or Morgana.”

“You vent? What on earth do you have to vent about?”

Merlin’s look was singularly unimpressed as he moved to fetch one of Arthur’s more suitable tunics. “I work for the biggest prat in the castle, however I may feel about him. Of course I vent.”

A confession of feelings rather took the wind out of Arthur’s sails before he could really begin protesting that he was anything other than a fair and just employer. Of course, he knew Merlin loved him. Magic aside, this thing had been growing between them since the moment they’d met and they’d just kissed, after all. He hadn’t expected the other man to actually admit it out loud, though.

Not so soon.

“I um…” He felt his cheeks heat up and he steadily did not look at Merlin as the sorcerer helped him into his clothes for the day. “I do too, you know. Feel for you, I mean. You know.”

Merlin’s lips twitched and it was obvious he was trying not to laugh at Arthur’s discomfiture. “Yes, I’d rather guessed, but thank you for saying so.”

Thankfully, Merlin kept his touch as impersonal as possible or else it could have been embarrassing when he finally left to join his father.

A day spent attending his father in the council chambers was always boring and - new hopefuls to browse over or not - knowing that the end of the day would mean exploring what was between Merlin and himself didn’t help matters.

Of almost a dozen noble sons, only three looked like they’d ever make knighthood and of those three, only one looked like he was willing to put in the work for it. He didn’t like to acknowledge the faults in his father’s policies or think about how he’d change them, but he knew the edict that only those of noble blood could be knights was going to be the second thing to go.

Right after accusations of sorcery being a death sentence.

Arthur’s mind wandered as he explored the idea of changing his father’s policies. He couldn’t do it all at once, of course, and certain things would take years to turn around, but it had been brewing in the back of his mind. Possibly even for years. His father was a good king in many ways, but the ways in which he wasn’t were awful for everyone.

“Arthur?”

“Hm?” Arthur looked up, blinking in confusion at the sound of his name. Everyone was watching him, some trying not to look like they were, and his father looked vaguely aggravated. Arthur wondered how many times Uther had called him before it had finally broken through and caught his attention. “Forgive me, Father. I’m afraid my mind wandered. I was… considering the best path of integration for the new recruits.”

The look on Uther’s face said that he fully realized that was a blatant lie, but he was unwilling to call Arthur on it in front of witnesses. He just sighed and waved towards the nobleman standing before them. “It seems that Sir Padwyn is having problems with bandits. Perhaps you would like to strengthen our patrols in his area? Ride out with some men and see for yourself?”

Arthur looked over the nobleman in question and hesitated. There was something about Sir Padwyn that had never quite sat right with him. Servants whispered dire things about him though there’d never been any other proof of wrong doing and Uther Pendragon was never going to listen to mere servants.

There had always been something shifty about the man and today it seemed worse than usual. Though Arthur was hesitant to use his new magic at all around his father, he thought he could manage it without being detected if he was very careful.

The quick view he’d intended to take grew into something more in-depth as he saw the wrongness of the general colors.

On the surface, Sir Padwyn looked almost serene for someone dealing with dangerous bandits. Underneath that, the colors of his aura seethed and boiled, all dirty and muddy with dishonesty, anger, and fear.

“Tell me about these bandits, Sir Padwyn. Are they common folk or could they be knights marauding from Mercia.” Arthur kept his eye on the colors, saw the shift into nervousness as the nobleman hesitated.

Without the magic, it might have seemed like he was simply contemplating how best to answer his prince. His expression never wavered. “I don’t believe they are knights, my lord, but they do seem a bit higher class than simple common folk. They have good blades, after all, and they have horses. If they be from Mercia, they were careful not to wear their colors.”

Arthur nodded. “How many would you suppose we’re looking at? Would a small force work, do you think? Or should I perhaps amass all the knights at my disposal? Perhaps call upon the foot soldiers as well, Father, in case we are looking at an invasion?”

“Um, I don’t think that’s necessary, your highness. Surely only yourself and a small number of men would be able to dispatch these bandits quickly enough.”

There was another flash of fear and urgency. Whatever Padwyn’s need to lure Arthur and a handful of knights to his fief, he didn’t want a force big enough to take on an actual army.

Which made Arthur wonder if there was an army waiting for them. Not Mercian, unless he was reading the man wrong, but perhaps an army Padwyn had raised himself. Perhaps one of Cendred’s?

“I will consult with my First Knight. I think he’d be able to take a few knights and escort you home, oust this rabble from your land.”

“Well, Sire… No disrespect meant to your knight, but… I think my - your - people would feel better to see you. The entire land heard of your recent illness, your highness, and even hearing of your recovery hasn’t been enough to quell all their fears for you.”

There was some truth in that to match the earnest expression, but only some.

Arthur nodded slowly, considering the man for a long moment before looking across the gathered noblemen milling about the room. “I will think on it and give you an answer this evening.”

“Thank you, Sire.” The man bowed and removed himself back to the crowd.

After a moment, he leaned in to whisper to the king. “He’s lying, Father. He hasn’t said a truthful word since he opened his mouth to speak. At least, not since I started paying attention.”

Uther paused, giving his son a careful look. “Are you certain?”

The prince nodded, his eyes never leaving the nobleman as the man started chatting up some of the more obnoxious members of Uther’s nobility. “I don’t know why he’s lying, but… he definitely is.”

There were any number of reasons for a baron to lie to his king. None of them were particularly good reasons. Either he plotted treason outright or else he was planning something more subtle. Whatever it was, Arthur doubted that it could be good for Camelot.

Given his insistence that Arthur go to Camelot with only a few knights, it was most probable that his intentions involved murdering or ransoming the prince.

“Cur. I’ll not tolerate-” Uther’s eyes narrowed as if something had just occurred to him and he cast a suspicious look at Arthur. “How do you know that he’s lying?”

“Umm...” Arthur scrambled mentally, trying to come up with something his father would believe that would account for the knowledge without admitting that he’d been peeking at the man’s aura. “Well…”

He could see the veins in Uther’s temple twitch and throb as his father fought not to lose his temper in front of the nobles still loitering nearby and Arthur had to wonder just how tenuous his own position had gotten with the court that Uther was trying so hard not to undermine their show of a united front.

The king of Camelot was well known for his temper and Arthur had been called to task before large crowds before.

“Arthur.” His name was ground out, harsh and low, and Uther’s jaw was tight. “You swore to me you wouldn’t do that.”

“Actually, I didn’t.” Arthur felt the need to point out. “You insisted and then left before I could agree or disagree.”

Which was fairly typical of the king. Uther was used to being obeyed and he always assumed that everyone, especially Arthur, would fall into line and do as they were told. It never seemed to occur to him that anyone else might have a different opinion or that they might choose to act on those differing opinions. Arthur usually did what he was told, of course. He’d learned at a young age that he had to choose his battles if he ever wanted to have any sway at all.

Uther actually growled, his fists clenching. “Do not take that tone with me. You will obey me in this, Arthur, do you understand?”

“That man is probably going to try to lead me and whatever knights I take with me into an ambush, Father. I am not going to apologize for taking advantage of something that may save my life and those of my men. “

“Dammit, Arthur!” For the first time, Uther actually raised his voice, his face a mask of frustrated anger. The startled attention of the others in the room was enough to make him attempt to regain control of his temper, but Arthur knew it wouldn’t help enough. Uther’s voice was still too loud for comfort and there was no doubt that those closest to where they sat could still hear him without a much effort. “That is exactly what I mean! This is why I search for a cure. You fail to grasp the true consequences of the matter. You cannot be trusted not to use it.”

“There is no cure, Father. There’s never going to be. And if I must be stuck with it, then I damn well don’t see why it can’t at least be made useful!” His own temper was only slightly better than Uther’s and it was fraying at the edges, aggravation and weeks of pent up frustration escaping.

The mask of fury on Uther’s face would have frightened Arthur once, but he wasn’t a child any longer and the last year or so had gone a long way towards unveiling his father’s fallibility and human frailty.

“You all!” The king swung around, red-faced with his anger, to glower at the eavesdropping nobles. “OUT! Now!”

“Father-” As much as he’d prefer not having so many witnesses to their clash, he knew as well as anyone that furious demands for privacy would only make them more curious. He nodded towards the guards posted at the door, silently encouraging them to clear the room as quickly as possible. The guards weren’t his knights, but they were still his men, his soldiers, and he trusted them to make sure that the royal argument was given actual privacy.

“Silence! You will-” Uther’s voice went abruptly silent as he gasped for air.

Arthur turned back in time to see a haze of shock and blankness fall over his father’s expression. His control over his auramancy was still relaxed and he could see the wave of black and muddy grey of ill health sweeping over Uther’s colors like a mudslide. Instinctively, he threw the weight of his own aura in the path of the onslaught, but it worked about as well as his shield and armor might work against a real mudslide. Which was to say very, very little at all.

“Father!” He was moving before he was even aware of it, catching the older man as Uther began to tumble forward. Sharp pain sprang up in his knees as he hit the stone floor, his father cradled close.

He was only barely aware that the guards had suddenly doubled and that they were practically pushing the remaining nobles from the room or that someone was screaming for Gaius to be fetched.

All of his attention was focused on his father.

The king’s expression was frozen, but his body twitched and spasmed in Arthur’s arms. His father’s life force had never been pleasant to view, but now all the colors had gone dark with rot and his breakfast threatened to make a reappearance. Despite that, Arthur didn’t dare shut out the magic now.

For a moment, just one small second, Arthur hesitated. Uther would be furious.

Arthur’s mouth tightened with determination. Uther could be as furious as he liked as long as he was alive to be so.

Even as he forced his stomach to stop rebelling, Arthur opened himself fully to his father’s aura. He could see the familiar places that had been festering and rotting over the decades. He could see where the aura had weakened and things had slipped. It was time worn and though he couldn’t stifle all the guilt at knowing their argument and the stress of his situation had been the trigger for this, he could tell that it had been building for a long time.

He despaired for a moment that he hadn’t had more training.

Then he mentally berated himself for crying like a girl over something that couldn’t be changed. Confidence was the key. If he didn’t believe he could heal his father, he’d fail before he even tried.

He knew enough.

He had to.

He took a deep breath and focused on the task of saving his father. Very little of Uther’s aura was untouched by the rot, certainly not enough to repair the rest.

Arthur closed his eyes and tried to get the picture in his mind, like Gilius had taught him. Uther Pendragon was no field of dirt with a small rough patch to smooth over, though. Where he’d had a hard time finding the small cut on Gaius’ hand, this was death laying over his father in great, ragged chunks. He could picture nothing that would properly symbolize it and after a moment he quit trying to think in terms of fields and mountains.

Biting his lip, Arthur let the image of his father’s aura as it was fill his mind. He grasped the small bit of true-red that lingered under the darkness and wrapped his own around it, buffering it from the encroaching rot. Using his own life force as a shield over his father’s hadn’t done much, but that wasn’t what healing was about, anyway. It was about encouraging the good bits that were left to spread and heal the bad. He felt foolish that he’d forgotten that even for a moment.

Concentrating on that, he spooled his own aura out to meet his father’s. A deep reddish-orange settled against the true-red and the two twined together so closely that they almost seemed to meld into a single color.

Pain tore through Arthur’s head and chest immediately and for a moment, the world seemed to fade in and out, sound rushing through his ears like he was standing under a waterfall. He had to fight against his stomach again and his arms tightened around his father as he struggled to move past the man’s pain and return to the task at hand.

It was the hardest battle he’d ever fought and Arthur knew he was losing. Even with his own aura supporting his father’s there simply wasn’t enough. The damage was too massive. For every inch of ground they gained, they slid back two. Twenty years of pain and anger, guilt and fear, had built upon each other, eroding at the very foundation of Uther Pendragon and Arthur could feel every moment of it.

As they slipped backwards, he knew his father as he never had before. He was submerged deep enough into Uther’s life force that it was impossible to tell where his own began. He felt the fierce love and devotion for Ygraine, the terrible loss and grief of her death, the guilt, the horrible fury that had destroyed thousands, the pride and love for the son who so closely resembled his beloved. Arthur felt all of it as if he were Uther and the emotions were his own.

His own life force was starting to fail and he could feel himself growing light-headed as he kept pushing at it despite the futility. It was too little and far too late for both of them. He doubted he could even untangle himself before they both slipped away.

The arms that wrapped around both their bodies startled him. He couldn’t open his eyes, but he didn’t really need to as warmth creeped back into his limbs. Only one person could blanket an entire room like that.

Lips brushed against his temple. “Borrow from me, Arthur. You can’t do this alone.”

“Merlin.”

“It’s all right.”

It was easy to pull Merlin’s vivid gold into the skein of color. Dipping into Merlin’s aura had the same effect that Uther’s had in some ways.

Arthur found himself subsumed in Merlin. All the emotions that he hadn’t been able to see from the outside seemed to soak into his skin. From the inside, it wasn’t all warmth and love. Merlin was as subject to negative emotions as anyone else and when he hated, he hated fiercely, but at his heart, he was so innately good and kind. His love and devotion for those he cared about was all-encompassing. His love and devotion for Arthur was humbling.

Merlin’s magic was as deep as the oceans, as steady as the earth. It had no beginning and no end. It thrummed through Arthur and from Arthur to Uther, eager to lend itself to Arthur’s purpose.

So Arthur took hold as best as he could and just pushed.

He had a moment to hope that he hadn’t accidentally destroyed them all as the world seemed to fly into a kaleidoscope of colors and shadow images.

Then everything went black.

~*~*~

Uther wasn’t sure what awakened him. He lay still for long minutes, feeling the softness of his bed underneath him. Somewhere nearby, he could hear the familiar sound of Gaius muttering about reckless idiots and herbs.

There was a lightness to his limbs that belied the heaviness of his eyelids.

The world felt strange, though he couldn’t have specified why, exactly.

He forced his eyes open and stared at the canopy of his bed. The room was bright with sunlight and he wondered how ill he’d been to be brought all the way to his room in the middle of the day and not remember how or why.

“Sire?” Gaius’ face appeared above him and Uther blinked slightly at the cautious concern in his friend’s expression.

“Was it really that bad, old friend?” The words came out slurred, only barely coherent at all, and he frowned.

The physician didn’t seem to share his concern about it, though. Gaius relaxed and sighed, dipping his head. “It was very bad, your highness.”

Uther nodded only to pause when the world faded out for a moment. A cool hand pressed against his forehead and Gaius made a tsk’ing sound. “Best to stay still for a while longer, Sire.”

“Indeed,” Uther murmured when he was sure he wasn’t going to disgrace himself by fainting or vomiting. “What happened?”

“Between what Arthur described and what I’ve observed myself, I believe you had a rather severe apoplectic seizure, Sire. Triggered, no doubt, by all the recent stress and your anger.”

Frowning, Uther tried to piece together the fragmented pieces of his memory. “Arthur performed magic.”

Gaius hesitated, then dipped his head again in acknowledgement. The frown on his face was reproving. “He saved your life, Uther. And it almost cost him his own.”

There was something, niggling at the back of Uther’s mind and he worried at it for a moment. He remembered being furious with Arthur but it was all a bit hazy and soft around the edges. He couldn’t even summon up the smallest pretense of anger and it was difficult to remember where the rage had come from.

He thought he should be more worried about that than he was, but even that thought was hard to hold onto.

“What did he do?” His voice was still slurred and that bothered Uther more than anything else for the moment. He rolled and clicked his tongue in his mouth, wondering at why it felt so heavy and difficult to use.

“The damage was too severe for usual aura healing, at least what little he knows. He attempted to use his own life force to spur yours on, but as best as I can guess, instead he got them tangled together. You almost pulled him into death with you instead.”

Uther thought he remembered that, a moment when the pain had lessened, as if the burden had been shared and then staring into the abyss and knowing that he was at his end. The idea that he might have taken Arthur with him…

He shuddered. “Is he-”

“He’s fine, Uther,” Gaius replied with a smile, gesturing towards the other side of the room.

Carefully, frowning at the way his body didn’t want to cooperate, Uther edged himself up higher on his pillows so that he could see properly. The door that usually divided his bed chamber from the small, separate room that should have housed his own manservant stood open and he could see Arthur sitting in a chair beside the bed, his head pillowed on his arms as he slept. The boy Merlin lay in the small servant’s bed, paler than the sheets beneath his cheek.

“Dare I ask?” If he spoke slowly, carefully, the words weren’t as badly slurred.

Gaius shrugged. “When it was obvious what was happening, Merlin quite recklessly tossed his own life into the fray, giving Arthur access to his own energy to save you both.” He made a face and rubbed his eyes, looking every day of his long years. “For a moment, I was afraid all three of you were lost. As for why he is in your rooms, well… The prince and I were running ourselves quite ragged going between my tower and your chamber. Arthur decided that it was foolish when you had a perfectly serviceable servants alcove right here.” A faint smile settled on his lips as he gave the pair a rueful look. “Your manservant still seems torn between gratitude for your life and annoyance at being ousted from his bed.”

Trying to sit up on his own was an utter failure. Half his body refused to obey his commands at all and the other half was sluggish and slow to react. It was like swimming through quicksand. Luckily, Gaius seemed to notice his predicament and helped him up before carefully shifting around the pillows and urging him back against them.

“Why do I feel like this? When will I be able to resume my duties?” The end of the sentence got a bit mashed up, but he was reasonably confident that his friend understood the sentiment if not the exact words.

One eyebrow went up as Gaius gave him a severe expression. “Uther, you don’t seem to understand. Right now, you should be dead. That you aren’t is only a testament to how very stubborn those two young men can be. He gave it a valiant effort, but Arthur lacks adequate training and the damage was too severe even with Merlin’s aid. Your brain isn’t sending commands out right anymore. The most extensive rehabilitation isn’t going to change that. Lessen it, hopefully, but the damage is done. You will not be resuming any more duties. Even if you can get back to your previous mobility, the danger of another seizure, one that Arthur can’t heal at all is going to linger indefinitely.”

Part of Uther knew he should be devastated at that. Or at the very least very angry.

He found that he was neither. All he could seem to feel was a vague sense of disconnection and relief that Arthur was all right. Even the knowledge that Arthur had willfully used cursed magic on him couldn’t seem to stir anything stronger.

“How many people saw Arthur do magic?”

“Only his knights. The guards were very good about getting everyone else out of the room before you had even collapsed and someone had called for Leon.” Gaius’s lips twitched slightly. “I think they wanted someone who could reasonably restrain Arthur without losing their heads if the argument between the two of you turned violent. Which, frankly, is probably the only reason they’d allowed Merlin through in the first place. Though there’s been speculation, no one else is sure what happened after they were forced out.”

The niggling feeling returned and Uther turned it over in his mind, trying to sort it out. There’d been something else at play in his council room. A flash of something so bright as to almost be blinding. Magic, he thought, and not Arthur’s.

His eyes went again to the pair in the other room. They’d been dying, he and Arthur, until Merlin had arrived. He remembered another day in the council room when the boy had burst in, proclaiming himself a sorcerer with a sort of desperation to be believed that Uther had dismissed it as soon as Arthur had given him reason for it.

A fragment of memory floated through his mind. A memory of terror, of staring up at the king - at himself - and knowing he’d find no mercy even though he’d done nothing wrong. But he couldn’t let his friend die, not for something he’d done. He expected to burn and the thought nearly made him sick to his stomach, but the thought of watching Gwen burn was far, far worse.

“Sire?”

He blinked the vision away, dismissing it as unimportant. Odd, but not something to worry over. He glanced over at Gaius and his cautious expression.

A man who had believed he might put his own son to death would have reason to be concerned.

It was hard to muster any righteous indignation with the muted feel of the world and he sighed before sinking back into the pillows and closing his eyes. He had seen the loyalty and devotion that Merlin held for his son and he knew that it would never wane.

Which was a relief, because he had a feeling Arthur was going to need a strong ally at his side in the coming years as enemies and allies alike tested his ability to stand on his own without his father. “What do retired kings do, exactly?”

He didn’t have to see it to know Gaius’ smile was relieved.

~*~*~

The darkness was suffocating. It held him tight in its embrace and refused to let him go.

At first, he couldn’t seem to form coherent thought. He was nothing and the nothingness stretched out both in front of and behind him.

Slowly, memory trickled back in and his past reshaped itself and he remembered.

I’m Merlin.

A painful emptiness throbbed through his body and he curled around it. Why? What was missing?

Feeling returned shortly after that, but still… The darkness did not abate.

On and on it seemed to go until a voice, amused and exasperated, crept into his mind. The darkness only holds you because you allow it to do so. Open your eyes, young warlock.

He knew that voice. It hadn’t always steered him correctly and for a time he’d hated it, but now… It was the voice of kin and he trusted it enough to try, at least.

Merlin opened his eyes to chaos and destruction.

A dragon’s roar filled Merlin’s ears, echoing through his mind. It shook with rage and pain and vengeance. People burned under the dragon’s fury. Camelot shuddered to her very foundations, the living heartbeat of the castle stuttering under the onslaught. He learned of his father and he led a gravely injured Arthur to a man who died before Merlin could truly know him.

The scene changed, the edges mercurial like the mirage sand could give off on a hot day.

A blonde woman, beautiful, but hard and lost to her own darkness challenged Arthur and defeated the prince far more easily than Merlin had ever seen it done before. He knew, though he could not have said how he knew, that this was Morgana’s sister and in the same instant, he also knew that Morgana was Arthur’s.

He saw Arthur challenge his father, horrible truths of his birth pushing them to this moment before Merlin stepped in and lied. He felt Arthur’s own hatred towards magic grow with those lies and he ached for it, but knew he could do nothing else.

The world seemed to shift again and Merlin wondered if he was dreaming.

The castle was silent this time, no dragon or running, screaming people. No swords, no battle, but Morgana looked up at him with betrayal and fury in her eyes. He’d had to do it, he knew he’d had to, though he wasn’t certain what exactly he’d had to do. In a choice between Arthur’s life and someone else’s, there was no choice at all. And Morgana had come back from her captivity wrong, broken in ways he couldn’t quite understand. It was the right choice. That didn’t stop the pain or the guilt. He’d had few true friends in his life and Morgana had been one of those that he’d loved the best.

Before he could make sense of anything, before he understand what he’d done and what it all meant, the scene changed again.

Arthur, kissing Gwen, holding her, swearing the sorts of things that hurt Merlin’s heart to even imagine. And in the background, Lancelot, dressed in the red cloak of Camelot’s finest knights, wistful and resigned.

He saw Morgana and an army of undead, defeated, and himself bitterly watching others receive the praise for what he’d done. Again.

After that, things got muddled, moving almost too rapidly for him to taken in.

Pain, betrayal, anger and bitterness.

So many lies.

As the lies grew, so did the walls between himself and the ones he cared for.

He watched as Arthur grew apart from him, moving further and further away from any closeness that they’d ever shared. He watched as Uther finally succumbed to a madness and illness that had held him for far too long. He saw the son take his father’s place. When Arthur accepted the crown, the bonds between them were so damaged and frayed that they barely existed at all. When Merlin stood before his King as the warlock he was, he did so knowing he was only a weapon to be wielded in defense of the kingdom, no different than Excaliber at the end of the day.

Bitterness and resentment festered and the King’s warlock could never find contentment or joy in the Golden Age that was forged.

Then came the day when he finally turned his back on Camelot. On Albion.

On Arthur.

He left his king and Albion to fend for themselves and there was Moragana again, darker than anyone Merlin had ever seen. She was consumed by hatred and sparking with an evil that seemed to suck the life and happiness out of everything. And with her was a man that he knew was Mordred despite little resemblance between the grown man and the druid boy he’d once known so briefly.

Merlin wanted to scream. He knew what came next. Arthur wasn’t helpless and never had been, but Merlin knew that Mordred would kill Arthur as Kilgarrah had once warned and he knew, knew, that it was his fault.

Horrible, hateful laughter rang out as Morgana urged Mordred on, her magic helping his as they faced off against an Arthur who stood alone.

‘It’s horrible.’

The voice was whispered next to Merlin’s ears. He turned, startled to see Morgana, his Morgana, the real one somehow caught inside his own nightmare vision, watching the same scenes play out. Disbelief and horror was etched into every line of her body and her fists were clenched at her sides.

She turned to him, her eyes begging him to do something, to change something.

He wanted to reassure her that everything was okay, that the horrible images were just a dream. But he knew as well as she did that they didn’t feel like dreams.

They were too real for mere dreams.

Before he could say anything at all, another voice joined them and he felt the hot breath of the dragon against his back.

‘This is no dream or vision, Merlin.’ Kilgarrah’s eyes were kind as they turned to meet his gaze. ‘This is what was to have passed.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘Destiny, if you will.’ Sighing the dragon gestured widely with one claw and wing, encompassing the still moving visions. ‘This is not what is or what was. This is nothing more or less than what would have been.’

Merlin’s gut tightened with the confirmation of his worst fear. ‘This is the great destiny you’ve been prattling on about all this time?’

The idea that he would leave Arthur to confront his enemies and face his death alone wrenched at his heart. Surely there was nothing that could make him do that. The love and devotion he felt for Arthur was as natural as breathing and just as instinctive. He couldn't imagine anything making him turn his back on that.

Kilgarrah dipped his head. ‘The future has never been wholly set in stone, young warlock. I have guided you as best I could to make what changes I could see. I did advise you to allow the druid boy to die, did I not?’

‘This can be changed?’ It was Morgana who asked, accepting the dragon’s presence as if it were nothing out of the ordinary. ‘It does not have to be this way?’

The vision had shifted again and Merlin could see himself drop to his knees, one hand over his heart and his eyes glowing brightly as the pain of Arthur’s death ricocheted through him. He could see himself scream and rage, magic lashing out at a world that was suddenly so empty and meaningless without that one bright soul inhabiting it. Death and devastation was unleashed in the wake of his furious grief. He’d left. He’d never intended to go back, but to know that he couldn’t, that amends could never be made, was more than could be borne. A thousand lifetimes, one for every life that had been sacrificed so that he could live, stretched out in front of him, dark and Arthur-less, and Merlin knew that all he wanted was to destroy the world and everything in it so that he wouldn’t have to face that empty future.

Peering down at Morgana, Kilgarrah snorted. ‘This has already been changed, witch. Too many lies and too much betrayal led to this. This new magic has rather nipped that in the bud, hasn’t it? The Pendragon penchant for obliviousness has been bypassed. I cannot see what will be any longer. Perhaps some parts of this. Perhaps something else entirely.’

Merlin shut his eyes tightly. He didn’t want to see any more. He was fiercely glad that this destiny had been broken. They would forge a new destiny, a new path, and he would never leave Arthur’s side again.

It was his vow.

‘Merlin.’

He pressed his hands against his ears and shook his head. A slow trickle of something warm and soft began to coil around him and settle into his bones. The emptiness faded away slowly, the pain lessening as it went.

It wasn’t until his magic was strong and full again, bringing with it the heady sense of Arthur, that he realized what it was and where it had gone.

A different aching need came with it and he wished for nothing more than to see Arthur with his own eyes.

With a chuckle, Kilgarrah’s mind seemed to nudge his own.

That’s easy enough, young warlock. Simply wake up.

~*~*~

Stepping up and filling his father’s shoes while deflecting nosy busybodies from the severity of the situation was enough to drive a man to drink. With the added worry of whether or not he’d accidentally managed to turn both his father and his manservant into vegetables and the need to fill in the gaps of Camelot’s forces before some industrious baron or king decided to try and take advantage of things, Arthur thought it was a miracle that he hadn’t denounced his name and run screaming for the hills.

Arthur rubbed a hand through his hair and sighed as he strode through the hallway, heading for his father’s chambers.

He’d been relieved when the old man had finally woken up; it was one less worry weighing on his mind.

Uther Pendragon was different now, though. His body was fighting him, his entire left side sluggish and unresponsive to his commands. He had to concentrate and speak carefully lest his words slur in an almost drunken fashion.

More than that, most of the time he was too calm, too apathetic to the world around him. Uther was always genuinely pleased to see Arthur whenever the prince could tear himself away from keeping the jackals from Camelot's door and a visit from Morgana made him smile as softly as someone holding a newborn babe, a matching softness seeping into the colors around him, but there was a distance in all of it.

Almost as if his father wasn’t quite inside his own mind any longer.

As disturbing as it could be, it was almost preferable to the other strangeness that had settled into the old king.

At times, a manic light would appear in Uther’s eyes and he’d go stark raving nutters. Not in the old Uther fashion, either, which was something to be thankful for at least. It was more that he’d tell bawdy jokes that made no real sense or talk to his wife as if she were sitting beside him.

Swallowing, Arthur bounded up the stairs, his mind full of things he’d never known before. It had been heartbreaking to see the sheer joy and pleasure on Uther’s face as he’d called Arthur over to introduce their son to a figment of his imagination.

Arthur had gone dutifully and listened to the slurred, one-sided conversation as his father relayed stories of days gone by when Camelot had been home to a beloved queen and a besotted king.

Those times were hard, but selfishly, Arthur couldn’t help but be a little bit glad for them. For the first time in his life, he could say that he felt like he knew his mother and the man his father should have been.

Gaius blamed the seizure for both the physical ailments and the apparent mental affliction, but Arthur suspected he was partly to blame as well. He’d only been trying to help, but his inexperience had broken something inside Uther's mind instead.

He’d saved his father’s life, but the cost had been high and he knew that Uther as he had been before would have found this state of being abhorrent. Arthur knew that, but knew just as well that even if he could turn back time and change his actions, he wouldn’t. Selfish or not, he knew he wasn’t ready to say goodbye to his father.

Turning the last corner, Arthur paused outside the room, hand settling on the dark wood of the door.

There was also the matter of Merlin.

His heart ached as he thought of how selflessly Merlin had given, how faithfully he’d trusted Arthur with his very soul. His memories were a little sketchy and his view of what had happened was slanted since he’d been delved deep in his own magic, but he could still remember how Merlin had settled against him, magic and aura holding them all back from the nothingness.

Arthur had woken up only a few hours after, magical energy, Merlin’s energy, buzzing around his system like an army of industrious bees. He’d gone non-stop after that, for days, rushing about to and fro.

But Merlin had lain silent, the golden pool that steadied and soothed Arthur grimly absent.

Though he had a few hundred things to do, Arthur found himself making the trek up to his father’s chambers a dozen times a day. He checked on his father, listened to stories or random gibberish or helped Uther work through the exercises Gaius insisted that he do. And no matter how long he was in the room, no matter what distraction his father provided, Arthur’s attention always wandered through the adjoining door and the silent figure that lay in the bed on the other side.

It was the hardest thing to accept, far worse than his father’s strangeness.

Bad enough that he’d broken his father, but Arthur was deathly afraid that he’d broken Merlin, as well. He was afraid that he’d stolen away that radiant golden light and that Merlin would never open his eyes again, that he’d simply fade away into the nothingness he’d saved them from.

Taking a deep breath, Arthur pushed the door open warily, unsure what would be waiting for him today.

“Bloody hell.”

“Father, what-” Arthur cut himself off and shook his head with a sigh. The urge to rush over and tuck a shoulder under Uther’s arm, to help him back to bed and insist he stay there, was strong but Arthur restrained it. Even altered, his father didn’t react well to such obvious blows to his pride. “Do you need help?”

Uther just made a face as he righted himself awkwardly from where he’d fallen against the wall across the room. “I am perfectly capable of taking a simple stroll around my room.”

For a moment, he sounded exactly like his old self. If his old self had had to measure his speech so carefully.

“Still, Gaius said to be careful.” Arthur couldn’t help but hover. The uncoordinated movements of the two sides of Uther’s body was painful to watch. Once, Uther had been a graceful warrior, but that was all gone now and guilt gnawed at Arthur.

“Yes, yes, yes.” Uther rolled his eyes, but reached out and beckoned Arthur closer. Mischief sparkled in his eyes and Arthur wondered if today was a madman day. “Gaius is a bit of a worry wart, isn’t he?”

Lips twitching, Arthur shrugged. “I suppose. But it’s just because he cares.”

He kept the rest to himself, that they had plenty of reason to be worried. Even Uther’s aura had been altered. The dark blockages of before were gone, but what remained was unsteady, pulsing oddly.

“True.” Uther’s grin was nostalgic and Arthur wondered what he was remembering.

“You’re not supposed to be up without someone around to make sure it doesn’t go badly.” Gaius hadn’t explained exactly what they were watching for, but Arthur could guess. He knew that Gaius was concerned about Uther having another seizure.

With a sigh, Uther nodded and let Arthur help him straighten up as much as was possible.

“I was bored,” he complained, his carefully modulated voice somewhat stilted. Arthur almost preferred the slur. At least then, he could pretend his father was simply drunk and not face the reality that he was broken. “And he was making noises. Thought he was talking to me for a bit so I thought I’d go check. It’s only polite, you know.”

Arthur arched a brow. He wondered what new shade his father had stumbled upon in his madness. “Who was talking to you?”

“Oh, he wasn’t, actually.” Uther waved towards the open door of the other room. “I think he was just dreaming. He did call out for you once, though.”

Swallowing, Arthur moved away to linger in the doorway, watching Merlin’s silent form. “Are you sure?”

His father seemed to think for a moment before shrugging with the shoulder that still obeyed his commands. “Well, I suppose he could have been saying ‘Uther’.”

Merlin had not made a sound since Arthur had used his magic and aura to save Uther. He hadn’t stirred at all as far as Arthur had been able to tell. He’d been silent and still, breath barely there, no other signs of life at all.

Even death had more color to Arthur’s eyes than Merlin had had for far too long.

Not so, any longer. The golden aura wasn’t overwhelming as it had once been, but it was back where it belonged and it pulsed with the life and love that he had come to know. For the first time, he could see beneath it and his father was all but forgotten as Arthur rushed forward to settle on the edge of the bed, Merlin’s hand clasped tightly in his own.

Merlin wasn’t dreaming, from the thrashing colors of pain and grief and fear that Arthur could see. He was having a nightmare.

“It’s all right, Merlin. I’m here.”

The response was almost instantaneous. The tension that had seeped into Merlin’s body relaxed and he took a deep breath. The negative colors faded away at Arthur’s touch and the sound of his voice.

Arthur wondered if Merlin had been caught in the sort of nightmare that had been plaguing his own too-infrequent sleep. He’d been thankful for the buzzing energy that had kept him from too many dreams of Merlin slipping away from him no matter how tightly he held on.

“Arthur?” Merlin’s voice was a mere rasp of sound, weak with disuse. “Wha’?”

The relief was almost enough to bring Arthur to tears. “Yes, Merlin. Who else were you expecting? Geoffrey?”

Merlin snorted a little and cracked one eye open to peer at him blearily. Then, slowly, both eyes were on him. They were a beautiful blue that Arthur could see properly finally, startling in the vividness he’d almost forgotten. “Wha’ happened?”

It sounded worse than before and his expression slipped into a grimace as he tried to clear his throat. Arthur couldn’t help but smile and brushed Merlin’s hair back. “Hold on. I’ll get you some water, all right?”

The younger man made a sound of gratitude.

Gwen had been faithfully keeping a pitcher of fresh water on the small table nearby along with a vase of bright blue flowers that she claimed were Merlin’s favorite. Arthur knew that both she and Morgana visited Merlin whenever they found the opportunity.

Sometimes, Arthur came in to find his father fast asleep and Gwen talking softly to an unresponsive Merlin. Some of her words reminded him of the things he’d heard her say when he’d been the one desperately ill, but others he knew were for Merlin alone.

She’d thanked him over and over again for the months he’d given her with her father. She told him about how she understood why he’d lied, why he’d felt like he had to hide what he was from everyone.

Though he usually left her alone, occasionally he’d slipped in and taken his own place on the other side of the bed. He’d claimed the spot as his own and no one ever took it, even if that meant standing or perching on the edge of the bed.

On those occasions, her smile and comfort were for Arthur as well and she’d told him stories of things that had happened, things Merlin had said or done that he hadn’t seen or noticed.

Morgana had come and gone, but she’d always been a quiet shadow of herself when she watched Merlin.

Arthur had wanted to take her and shake her and ask her if she’d seen the end somehow.

As he poured the small cup full of water and returned to Merlin’s side, he thought that maybe she’d only seen the absence the same as he had and that it had disturbed her far more than than any nightmare vision.

The younger man looked better after he’d taken his fill of water. Arthur adjusted the pillows and helped him sit up, smiling slightly when Merlin leaned into him unconsciously, soaking up the contact. The tension and worry that had been plaguing him from the moment his father had collapsed finally released and he could breath easy once more.

“What do you remember?” Arthur asked softly, one arm slipping around Merlin’s back.

Merlin’s head tipped down to rest against Arthur’s shoulder and he sighed softly. “There was shouting. Guards ordering people out of the council chambers and then… I could feel you slipping away. It’s all a bit hazy after that.”

“Gaius said my father had an apoplectic seizure. He was dying and I was trying to heal him. It didn’t work out quite like I intended.”

Peering up at him with slight incredulity, Merlin sighed again before shutting his eyes. “Balance. To give a life with magic, a life must be taken.”

“Well, I don’t know about that. We’d have both died if you hadn’t stepped in.”

Arthur was quite sure of that.

Merlin shrugged and opened his eyes again. “Apparently I have quite a few lives to spare.” At Arthur’s questioning look, he just made a dismissive noise and flopped his hand against Arthur’s chest. “Later.”

“It was only a few hours before I woke up, which is good, really, because rumors had spread almost immediately. If I’d lazed about unconscious as long as you, Camelot would have fallen down around our ears. Lazy sod.” He didn’t bother to keep his affection or relief out of his voice as his arm tightened around Merlin. He pressed his face against Merlin's hair and took a deep breath.

The only response was a huff of amusement and a softly muttered prat that was still more of an endearment than an insult.

“Things were a bit hectic after that. The people were restless, worried. Within two days an emissary arrived from both Bayard’s and Cendred’s kingdoms.” They’d claimed they were merely there on diplomatic missions, but Arthur knew spies when he saw them. They’d arrived too soon to have come on the rumors of Uther’s collapse, though, so he and Morgana both believed they’d been brought by earlier rumors about Uther’s search for a mysterious cure.

It was just unlucky circumstance that had allowed them to arrive while the king was still unconscious.

Arthur had acted quickly, knowing that he had to take control of the situation or find his kingdom at war.

“I took over by proxy, really. Sent out a call for all able bodied men, noble and common alike, to come to Camelot. Those who choose to stay and can make it through training will be rewarded with knighthood.”

It had all been a bit more complicated than that and he’d effectively overturned the first of Uther’s laws before he’d even been crowned king. It hadn’t been long afterward that Uther had awoken and Gaius had informed him that he may as well become accustomed to being the one in charge.

His father would be king in name for a bit longer, until everything could be sorted out, but it would be in name only. Even Uther had conceded that he wasn’t fit to rule in his condition.

Arthur had been amazed how many had come in answer to his call and even more amazed at just how good some of them were. No one had bested him yet, but several of his nobleborn knights had found themselves having to concede to the new commoners.

“Lancelot has returned, much to Guinevere’s delight. He brought this completely undisciplined reprobate with him who drinks too much and flirts with pretty much everything that moves.” He paused, thinking about the man who’d accompanied Lancelot through the gates several days ago. “In fact, I think I saw him flirting with Gaius a few times.”

Merlin snorted at that. “You’re lying.”

“I’m not, actually. His name is Gwaine. I think you’ll like him. He’s a good swordsmen. I expect he’ll make a fine knight.” Despite the giant chip that seemed to rest on Gwaine’s shoulders - and his very odd tastes in who was flirtable and who was not - he seemed like the good sort. “Gwen’s brother arrived only two days ago.”

“I didn’t know Gwen had a brother.”

Arthur chuckled. “Neither did I. Apparently he’s something of a black sheep instead of a blacksmith. Gwen was relieved to see him, though. I think she was afraid he’d gone and gotten himself killed somewhere.”

“Any others?”

“Dozens. Some are better, some are worse. They could all use a fair bit of training to smooth out their rough edges and get them coordinated with the rest of us, but they’re all a far cry above some of the men who’ve tried to call themselves a knight of Camelot. I’m pleased with them.”

The hand Merlin still had against Arthur’s chest shifted around and settled above Arthur’s heart. “High praise indeed coming from you.”

“Well…” Arthur laughed softly and shook his head. He had exacting standards for his knights and too many hopefuls had fallen woefully short. He’d spent more time over the last year complaining about the sad state of affairs than he had praising the ones that deserved it. Some of the noblemen who’d disgraced his training field had been bad enough that even Merlin could have beaten them with a sword. “They’ve earned it.”

He huffed a soft laugh. “Morgana is even pushing for me to let women try for the knights. My protests would be a bit more effective if she didn’t have Leon backing her up.” He shook his head with a faint smile as he thought of his first knight and the woman who was his sister for all intents and purposes. “She beat him up to prove her point and he’s been like a smitten puppy ever since. Which she encourages, the brazen hussy.”

It was a strange match, but Arthur thought that it worked, somehow.

“How long was I out?”

Arthur’s arm tightened around Merlin and he pressed his face against the shaggy black hair. “It’s been almost three weeks, Merlin. I was beginning to believe-” He cut himself off, forcing himself to take a deep breath and force a more casual tone. “Gaius was starting to think you’d never wake up.”

“Arthur…” Merlin pulled back and looked at him then. Long fingers brushed against his cheek and Arthur closed his eyes and leaned into the touch. “I’m sorry, Arthur.”

“Wasn’t your fault, Merlin.” Arthur sighed and opened his eyes again. He knew well enough where the blame lay. A wise man knew his limitations, but Arthur had never been very good at accepting that. “I’m just glad that you’re okay. Don’t really know what I’d have done otherwise.”

Before Merlin could answer, movement caught both their attentions and they looked up to see Uther still hovering just on the other side of the doorway. He had company now, though.

Gaius, Morgana, and Gwen were all watching them with varying degrees of affection and relief. He could see the need to come closer and reassure themselves that Merlin was all right, so he waved them in with exasperation.

He supposed he should be glad that they’d made the effort to let him have his moment, though he knew it was only a matter of time before Morgana began teasing him about it.

“Umm... Arthur,” Merlin whispered just before they were descended upon. “Did your father just… wiggle his fingers at me?”

Arthur couldn’t help it. He laughed.

~*~*~

Merlin watched the morning activity in the courtyard below. Servants rushed to and fro, occupied with their lives.

The people of Camelot had bigger concerns to occupy their minds than the turmoil that had filled the castle of late. The changes in Merlin’s life meant nothing to them. The strain in their royal family was only important if it trickled down onto them.

They’d pay attention soon, though.

When Uther abdicated and Arthur became their king, they’d pay attention. For a while, at least. Long enough to celebrate the changing of the guard, to honor both kings, new and old.

It wasn’t until Arthur’s changes swept through the land that they’d really take notice, though. When the pyres stayed unlit and the executioner’s axe went unused. When magic retook its place in the land.

When Merlin stood by Arthur’s side as an equal for all to see and enemies of the crown realized that this king was not as unprotected as the last.

“What are you doing out here, looking so serious?”

Merlin smiled as Arthur settled against the wall next to him. “Nothing, Arthur. Just admiring the view.”

Merlin.” The prince sounded aggrieved. “I believe you lie simply to see if I’ll allow you to get away with it.”

“Perhaps.” Merlin knew Arthur didn’t need auramancy to see the fondness on his face or hear the affection in his voice. “Will you, my lord?”

Arthur sighed heavily and rolled his eyes. “For now.”

“Thank you, Sire. Your leniency sets my heart aflutter.”

There was a moment of silence, then Arthur dared to lean in close despite the fact that anyone curious could look up and see them. His voice was low and teasing. “Merlin, everything sets your heart aflutter. You’re ridiculously easy that way.”

Merlin laughed and allowed himself a gentle touch to Arthur’s cheek. “Only for you, my king.”

~*~*~

 

epilogue

“This is intolerable.” The words were ground out, seething fury easily detected without the help of any magic.

Gilius ignored it, though. He was familiar enough with such fits and he could protect himself against random bouts of general temper. “I don’t know about that. I think it’s the best result we could have hoped for.”

Reaching out, he took his letter from the woman’s clenched fingers before she could mangle it into something unsalvageable. He’d likely need it if he ever intended to return to Camelot, regardless of whether Arthur had taken over the kingship or not. Guards who’d been ordered to keep you out of the kingdom would be cautious and Gilius didn’t fancy spending unnecessary time in dungeons if he could avoid it.

He smoothed out the parchment and carefully rerolled it before tucking it away.

Then he refocused on his companion.

She was beautiful to the naked eye, even with the perpetual expression of discontent. Perfect in feature with long blonde curls and almost unnaturally even teeth, she’d captured the eyes of peasants and kings alike.

Gilius pitied the man who couldn’t see beneath that to the stark darkness of hatred and anger that consumed her soul. “Come now, Morgause. We always knew this was a possible outcome.”

“Uther should be dead,” she hissed, tossing her hair back and glowering at him.

Gilius sighed. “He’s incapacitated, physically and mentally unable to maintain kingship. He’s been forced to abdicate. I’d think that’d be a more fitting form of vengeance than simple death.”

For his own part, the auramancer had very little use for vengeance. His kin had given their lives and their magic knowingly, willingly. Vengeance against Uther Pendragon would not bring them back and he wouldn’t dishonor their sacrifice in such a way.

No, he was content with how well things had come together in the end.

The last son of the de Bois line would be everything prophecy had promised and the warlock at his side even more so. With a little luck, their manipulations would strengthen that and the legend of the Once and Future king and his warlock would go further than any Seer could have imagined. Albion would be reunited, magic would be restored and, eventually, Arthur would bring peace and prosperity to the lands without murdering thousands of innocents to accomplish it.

Morgause’s mouth pulled up in a tight grimace before she took a deep breath and her expression smoothed out again. “I suppose you are correct. Either way, it will have to suffice. For now.”

She whirled around and left him to his own thoughts.

He watched her go, knowing that she would continue with her plotting.

With another sigh, he shook his head. Hopefully, she would content herself with simply trying to engineer Uther’s death and not turn her attention on Arthur’s.

She would stand no chance against Merlin, though she’d never seemed to grasp that. Gilius had seen the depth of Merlin’s magic, had felt the power of it. Unafraid to use what was instinctive to him, without the lies and fear festering within him, Merlin was a force of nature, unbendable to the whims of man or witch.

Morgause had more knowledge, more fine-tuned skill, but that would change when Arthur officially lifted the ban on magic and the warlock could learn openly from others. Any advantage Morgause had would be lost.

No, Gilius did not need a Seer’s gift to know the outcome of a fight between Morgause and Merlin.

He pulled the letter out again and unrolled it, reading over the formal words of the official invitation written in Arthur’s hand once more. Then he let his sight go beyond that, to the play of magic and life that clung to it like a scent of perfume left behind. The faint hint of gold was well and truly meshed with the familiar reddish orange of Arthur’s honor and courage.

They were bound together too thoroughly for any to ever tear asunder and Albion would be better for it.

Likely, they’d have gotten there on their own, but if he’d helped in any way, it was an honor.

Gilius smiled as he moved to a nearby window and looked out into the brilliant sunrise and rainbow hues of the world.

Life was about to get interesting.

~*~*~
fin