He had known this moment would come sooner or later. When it did finally come, he had not hesitated. The choice had been easier than he had expected. No, there had been no choice. No possibility of not doing it.
And now he was standing in the middle of everything, the bandits scattered in a ragged circle amongst the trees, most of them unconscious, or worse.
He felt the glow of magic fade from his eyes and waited for the terrible silence to end.
Leon took a step towards him, his sword raised and pointed at Merlin’s chest.
Merlin barely even looked at him. His gaze was fixed on Arthur. Arthur, who was staring at him with eyes that were filled with shock and fear and... anger.
He had known this would happen, and yet he still wasn’t prepared to see Arthur looking at him like that.
“You... you...” Arthur finally managed to speak, but then his words failed. He stepped towards Merlin, and Leon immediately grabbed his shoulder and pulled him back, interposing himself between Merlin and the prince.
“Don’t get close, Sire. He’s dangerous.”
“Dangerous?” Gwaine sounded incredulous. “Are you completely insane? He’s not dangerous. He’s Merlin.”
“He’s a sorcerer.”
“He’s our friend.”
“Shut up,” Arthur said, his voice abnormally quiet. The other two silenced immediately.
Arthur stepped forward again, and this time Leon didn’t stop him.
“You are a sorcerer.”
It wasn’t a question. After what he had just done, it didn’t have to be.
Merlin looked him in the eye.
“How? Why? How? How long?”
“Always. My whole life.”
“How have you kept it hidden all this time?” He shook his head. “Why now? Why do this now, after all this time?”
“I had to. We were overwhelmed. It was the only way to save your lives.”
Merlin kept looking Arthur right in the eye, wanting, needing him to see the truth and sincerity in his words. Right now he knew Arthur had questions, and he knew the only thing he could do was to answer them as honestly as possible. He had to show Arthur that he wasn’t a threat, that he wasn’t any different from the man Arthur had believed him to be ten minutes ago. If he could just do that, then maybe there was a chance he would be able to say everything that he really wanted to say.
But first he had to survive that long without one of the knights killing him.
Arthur opened his mouth, and then closed it again.
“Don’t!” Arthur snapped. “Don’t speak to me, Merlin. You don’t have that right any more.”
Merlin closed his eyes and tried to breathe, but suddenly his chest felt constricted. He had imagined many times how this conversation might go, but nothing could have prepared him for seeing such hate, such fear, in Arthur’s eyes when he looked at him.
He heard a low murmuring of voices, mostly Arthur and Leon. When Merlin opened his eyes he saw the two men deep in whispered conversation. Gwaine was listening to them, but he kept glancing at Merlin, his expression unreadable. Percival and Elyan both still seemed rooted to the spot where they had been standing when their opponents had suddenly been picked up and thrown through the air.
“Deal with the bandits,” Arthur ordered, his voice clearly audible once more. He turned to Merlin. “You, stay there. Percival, watch him.”
The knights obeyed, but each of them kept casting furtive glances his way as they went about the business of checking the bodies. Percival came over, his sword still in his hand, but he stopped a little way from Merlin, as if afraid to come any closer.
Merlin sighed. He suddenly felt utterly drained.
“Is it all right if I sit down?”
“Uh...” Percival glanced at Arthur, and then back to Merlin.
“Look, if you’re worried what I might do, surely I’m even less of a threat when I’m sitting down?”
“I’ve just seen you throw twenty men into the air with nothing more than a wave of your hand. Honestly, I don’t think sitting down is going to make a difference if you decided to escape.”
“So... is that a yes?” Merlin tried a hopeful smile. Despite his words, Percival still seemed friendly towards him. Friendly, but very much armed and on guard.
“Yes, go on then.”
Merlin smiled properly, and went to sit down where he could lean against a tree trunk.
“If anyone complains, you can tell them I threatened to turn you into a frog or something.”
Percival winced. “You probably shouldn’t say things like that where Arthur can hear you.”
“I wasn’t planning to.” Merlin closed his eyes again, and let the sounds of the forest, and the knights moving around wash over him. “Percival, I have no intention of hurting any one of you, you know that, right?”
“Why aren’t you trying to escape?”
Merlin opened his eyes and glanced up at him. Percival was still standing over him, and from down here he loomed even more impressively than usual.
“I don’t want to escape. I want to talk to Arthur.”
They both fell silent for a while. The surviving bandits were rounded up and tied together to a tree at the edge of the clearing. Questions seemed to be asked, voices were occasionally raised, and the area was searched by Gwaine and Elyan. Throughout it all, Arthur did not look at Merlin once.
When the immediate pressing business had been taken care off, Leon pulled Arthur away from everyone and they had another hushed conversation.
Somehow, Merlin had expected it all to be over much quicker than this. The waiting was almost worse than shouting or anger or blazing fights. His stomach was tied into knots and until Arthur decided he was ready to face him there wasn’t a damn thing Merlin could do. He was probably the most powerful individual for miles around, and right at that moment he felt utterly helpless.
“We make camp here,” Arthur suddenly announced.
“But Sire, we have prisoners. We have to get back to Camelot,” Leon protested.
“We make camp here.” There was no arguing with Arthur when he used that tone. Leon backed down without a word.
The knights prepared the camp, laid the fire, sorted out the horses. All the things that were normally Merlin’s jobs. There was an abnormal quiet in the group, and when they spoke, it seemed to be in low voices, with worried expressions, and furtive glances at Merlin or Arthur.
But still Arthur refused to look at Merlin.
All Merlin could do was wait.
The sun was just setting when Arthur stood up and walked across to where Leon was standing guard over Merlin.
“Sire, I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
“It’s not an idea, it’s an order.”
Leon opened his mouth to speak but Gwaine got there first.
“Oh, for pity’s sake, Leon, what do you think Merlin’s going to do? Kill him?”
The expression on Leon’s face suggested that was exactly what he thought.
Gwaine threw his hands in the air in frustration. “How long has Merlin been Arthur’s servant? How many hours have they spent alone together? Don’t you think that if he wanted Arthur dead, he’s had more than enough opportunity to do it before now?”
“That’s enough!” Arthur glared at them both. “I said, leave us. All of you.”
This time, even Leon didn’t dare to argue.
When they had all retreated to the other side of the campsite, Arthur finally, finally looked at Merlin.
Merlin had expected anger, fear, disappointment. He had not expected his stomach to twist so terribly when he saw all of those, and more, in Arthur’s eyes. Oh, he had seen all of those things many times before, but the difference was that Merlin had not been the one who put them there.
It was one of the few things he regretted about finally revealing himself.
Arthur hesitated a moment longer and then sat down opposite Merlin.
“What do you want me to say?”
“The truth, for once.”
Merlin supposed he deserved that, but it didn’t make it hurt any less.
“I don’t want to kill you. I don’t want to kill anyone. Whatever Leon has said to you, all I have ever wanted is to help and protect you and the people that I care about. That’s all I’ve ever used my magic for.”
“Arthur, I am still the same man that I was this morning when we rode out from Camelot. I am still the same man who polished your armour and laughed at you when you spilled wine down your shirt at dinner last night. Nothing had changed apart from the fact that now you know what I can do.”
“But I don’t. I don’t know what you can do, none of us do, and that is the part that is scaring the shit out of Leon. This afternoon we saw you throw an entire band of armed men into the air in the middle of a pitched battle without even breaking a sweat. If you can do that, what else can you do? Set things on fire? Blow things up? Kill a man with a thought?”
“Yes, possibly and no, in that order.”
“Don’t joke, Merlin!”
“I’m not. I’m really not.” He paused to gather his thoughts. “Magic can be used for many things. Fire is one of the easiest. Moving objects with my mind is another, and that’s the kind of thing that I have been doing in fights for a long time. It doesn’t take much. A falling branch here, a suddenly appearing obstacle to trip over there. But like I said, I’ve only ever done it to protect myself and to protect my friends.”
“How has no one ever seen you?”
“It’s easy in the middle of a battle. There’s usually so much chaos no one notices.”
“So you’ve been laughing at me all this time? A sorcerer right under my nose and I couldn’t even see it?”
“No!” Merlin thought for a second. “Maybe a little, but never when it mattered. Arthur, I wasn’t keeping it a secret to taunt or embarrass you. I was keeping it a secret because your father would have killed me if anyone ever found out.”
“See, that’s what I really don’t understand! Why come to Camelot? Why set yourself up as my servant if you are this insanely powerful sorcerer? It’s suicide.”
“I never intended to be your servant. That was your father’s idea, remember?”
“But why stay?”
“Because I believe in the king that you will be one day. I believe that Camelot will be a better place when you are king, and I want to help make that happen. Arthur, I believe in you. You have a great destiny, and I want to be there to see you achieve it.”
“What do you mean, helping me? Using magic? What have you been doing that I don’t know about?”
Merlin shrugged. “All sorts of things.”
“Well, like I said, helping you out in fights, finding magic cures for all sorts of injuries and illnesses and curses. Oh, all those magical creatures that Gaius insisted couldn’t be killed apart from with magic or magic weapons? Which then suddenly and mysteriously you managed to kill with a perfectly normal sword? That might have been me as well.”
Merlin couldn’t help a slightly smug grin at some of the memories.
Arthur didn’t look amused, though. He scrubbed a hand over his face and gave a weary sigh.
When he looked up at Merlin again his eyes were full of resignation and pain.
“Was any of it me?”
“All these great victories? All these battles that I’ve won? All these creatures and threats that I have supposedly vanquished? Was any of it really me, or were you just manipulating everything to make me look good?”
The accusation hit Merlin like a punch to the guts.
“No! Arthur, no. It was you. A lot of it was you. Most of it was you. Arthur, please believe me, you are a great warrior and a fair leader and a good man. You have done great things. I just... helped a little.”
Arthur watched him carefully for a moment.
“I want to believe you, Merlin. I want to believe you so much, but right now I have no idea if anything you say is the truth, or whether it’s all just more lies.”
“I’m not lying to you now.”
“How do I know that? How can I trust a single word that you say, Merlin? Tell me? What can you swear on that will make me believe you?”
“On my mother’s life.”
Whatever Arthur was about to say died on his lips and he stared at Merlin, his mouth open in a shocked little ‘oh’.
Merlin could feel himself trembling as he paused and took a breath.
“I swear on my mother’s life that everything I have said to you since the moment when you realised I have magic is the truth.”
The moment dragged out, and Arthur just watched him without speaking. Eventually he nodded.
“I believe you.”
Merlin didn’t realise he had been holding his breath until he heard those words, and suddenly began to breathe again.
Arthur closed his eyes and sighed, and Merlin saw the moment when the tension seemed to drain out of his body. When Arthur looked up again the anger had gone, and for a second Merlin could almost believe this was just another campfire conversation between them on some crazy expedition.
“What am I supposed to do now, Merlin?”
“What do you mean?”
“Magic is illegal. By rights I should have killed you already. If we go back to Camelot you will die.”
“You could keep it a secret?” Merlin suggested.
“Merlin, shut up,” Arthur said, and for a second it really was like old times.
“Just a thought.”
“Magic is evil.”
“That’s your father talking.”
Arthur shot him a pointed look.
“If it’s not evil, then why do sorcerers keep trying to kill me and my father, and destroy Camelot?”
“Oh, here’s an idea: Perhaps because you keep trying to kill them.”
“Magic is evil. That’s what I have been told all my life.”
Merlin leaned forward towards him. “Do you really believe that? Really? Knowing what you know now about me? Arthur, I know that you have questioned it before, wondered whether your father’s way really is the right way to deal with magic.”
“I don’t know what I believe any more.”
For a moment he looked so vulnerable that Merlin couldn’t stop himself reaching out to Arthur. Arthur flinched backwards, and Merlin stopped dead, his hand still in the air.
“Don’t. If only because I don’t think I’ll be fast enough to stop Leon putting a sword through your chest if you do touch me.”
Merlin sat back and tried to gather his thoughts.
“Arthur, let me ask you something. Is a sword evil?”
“Don’t be ridiculous, how can an inanimate object be evil?”
“But a sword can kill people. A sword can allow the strong to threaten the weak and vulnerable. A sword can kill a king or a peasant alike.”
“Only in the wrong hands,” Arthur protested.
“So a sword in the hands of, say, a knight of Camelot, is a good thing? It defends the weak and protects the good against all the bad things that are out there.”
“I don’t see what this has to do-”
“Magic is a sword, Arthur. Magic is a tool. Magic is no more good or evil than a sword, or a club, or a cloak, or a suit of armour. Good or evil actions come from the intent of the person wielding it, not from magic itself.”
“Your father knew this, but he has allowed his fear and hate to blind him to it. I don’t know exactly what happened all those years ago, but he has spent the last twenty years persecuting everyone with even the faintest whiff of magic because of the actions of one sorcerer.”
Arthur didn’t speak, but he didn’t need to. Merlin could see the understanding dawning in his expression, and knew he was finally getting through.
“Arthur, I know you love and respect your father, and in all other ways I think he is a good man. But even you have to see that when it comes to magic, he is wrong. If it wasn’t for your father, I would have told you long ago about what I am, and what I can do. I would have been able to help you openly, instead of hiding and pretending.” He paused for breath. “Arthur, I believe that one day you will be a great king, and I hope with all my heart that you will bring magic back to Camelot, because you are not your father.”
Arthur closed his eyes and sighed.
“Maybe you’re right,” he said, his voice weary. “But that doesn’t help us right now. Whether he is right or wrong, my father is still king, and his word is still law, and magic is still punishable by death.”
He opened his eyes and gave Merlin a pointed look.
Merlin tried to smile. “Like I said, we could just... not tell him?”
“You don’t get it, do you?” Arthur said, his face a picture of frustration.
“So tell me. What is it that I’m not getting?”
“You’re talking about it like we can be this amazing team, me the great warrior and his personal sorcerer sidekick. You think that now I know it will all be good. But you don’t get it, Merlin. I wish I didn’t know. I wish you hadn’t shown me.” He ran a hand through his hair and stood up.
“You are asking me to choose, Merlin. You’re asking me to make a choice between betraying my father, and betraying my friend. And I don’t think I can live with either of those things.”
Arthur walked away, but even if he had stayed right where he was for the entire rest of the night, Merlin had absolutely no idea what he could possibly say in response to that.
The night was hard. Merlin thought he probably slept a bit, but it was sporadic, and his dreams were plagued with images of Leon plunging a sword into his chest, of Uther lighting a pyre beneath him, and, most terrifying of all, of Arthur standing by and watching.
He woke abruptly to the sensation of someone shaking his shoulder.
“Merlin, wake up.”
“Gwaine?” He tried to shove himself into a sitting position. It was barely dawn, and when he looked around he saw the knights were all already awake. Or perhaps they hadn’t slept at all, not with a sorcerer in their midst.
Gwaine offered him a tight smile.
“I don’t know what’s about to happen, Merlin. If you have to, use your magic to escape. I’ll do what I can.”
The words were whispered, barely audible, but they sent a chill through Merlin, and suddenly he was properly awake.
Gwaine was already getting up and moving to stand with the other knights. They were all looking at him.
Merlin ignored the others, and looked straight at Arthur.
“What’s going on?”
“I have made my decision.”
Merlin slowly stood up. If he was going to die, he was going to do it on his feet.
“I, Arthur Pendragon, prince of Camelot, am banishing you. You must leave our lands and never set foot inside the border again. If you are ever caught inside Camelot you will be killed. Do you understand?”
“Banished?” Merlin wondered for a second if he was still dreaming. He couldn’t believe what he was hearing.
“As has been pointed out, repeatedly, by the laws of the land you ought to be put to death.” Arthur glanced at Leon, and then directed his attention back to Merlin. “I am already bending the laws by opting for banishment.”
“But... Camelot is my home.”
Arthur stepped closer, ignoring Leon’s immediate tension.
“Merlin, I don’t want to do this, but I have no choice. This is the best I can do.” His voice had softened. “Please, just go.”
“What will you tell Gaius?”
“The same thing I intend to tell everyone else: That you are dead. That you died in combat with bandits, trying to protect your prince.” He paused and moved even closer, until there was barely a foot between them. “For what it’s worth, I won’t allow anyone to remember you badly. But you have to leave, and never come back. It’s the only thing I can do to save your life, Merlin.”
Merlin didn’t trust himself to speak, so he just nodded. Somehow, he had dared to hope, and now that hope came crashing down around him.
“Merlin, here’s your things.” Percival picked up Merlin’s bag and tossed it to him. Merlin was still so numb he didn’t even catch it, and it fell to the ground at his feet.
“I’m sorry, Merlin. But I’ve made my decision.”
Merlin took a deep breath, and then held his hand out.
Arthur heisted for a second, and then reached out and clasped his arm.
“Good bye, Merlin.”
Merlin glanced around at the other knights, and then, with one last look at Arthur, he let go and walked away, and prayed that he would be able to hold back the tears until he was far away from his friends.
The rain had been pouring down all day, hammering on the roof and battering the shutters so hard that at first, Hunith wasn’t sure if the sound she had heard was a knock on the door, or simply the storm. It was dark outside. Who would possibly be calling at this time of night, and in this weather? She hesitated for a moment until she heard it again, and this time she was sure.
Hunith crept over and checked that the large, hefty stick was still propped against the wall beside the door before she took the lock off and opened the door a fraction.
She threw the door open wider, expecting him to come barrelling in out of the rain, but he simply stood there, utterly drenched, water dripping from every part of him.
After a moment, she reached out and grabbed the front of his jacket and pulled him inside. Now that he was in the light she could see his face, she knew the wetness on his cheeks was nothing to do with the rain.
“Merlin? What has happened? Is it one of your friends? Is it Arthur?”
Merlin’s voice was hollow.
“He knows what I am. Arthur-”
His voice cracked.
In that moment Hunith’s heart broke for him. She pulled Merlin close and held him tight and let him break in the safety of his mother’s arms.
It had been two weeks, and somehow Arthur still expected Merlin to come barging into his chambers, late for work, dropping everything, and being as un-servant-like as it was possible for a royal manservant to be.
Every morning when he woke up, there was a second when he was still sleepy enough to not remember, and that only made it worse when the door opened it was not that messy-haired idiot with a silly grin, who made Arthur both exasperated and amused in equal measure.
The worst thing, though, was Gaius and Gwen. Every time he saw them his stomach squirmed, knowing he had lied to them, knowing that they were both grieving terribly for a man who was not dead. No matter how much Arthur tried to tell himself that it was for the best, that he had made the right decision, it wasn’t long before he found himself trying to avoid them both because talking to them, seeing the pain in their eyes, was too much to deal with.
It wasn’t just them, either. Gwaine had barely spoken to him since that day, and even Percival and Elyen had seemed quieter than usual. Only Leon kept telling him that he had done the right thing, but it was getting harder and harder to believe that when he was confronted on all sides by the misery that Merlin’s absence seemed to have brought to Camelot castle.
“You miss him, don’t you?”
Gwen’s voice dragged Arthur out of his thoughts, and he turned from the window and found her standing right behind him.
“It’s all right. We all do. It’s hard, so soon after Lancelot, as well.”
Arthur suddenly realised he was sick of Gwen trying to be supportive, telling him it would be okay, and all the time practically drowning in her own pain.
He was suddenly sick of pretending that the reason why he felt so bloody guilty was because he had failed to save Merlin, as everyone but the knights seemed to believe.
“It’s okay if you want to talk about him, you know.”
“What if I told you he wasn’t dead?”
The words were out before he could stop them.
Gwen stared at him in shock for several seconds.
“What do you mean?”
“What if I told you that he didn’t die? That the reason why Merlin isn’t here is because I had to banish him from Camelot?” He looked up and down the corridor and convinced himself it was empty before he spoke again. “What if I told you he was a sorcerer?”
Gwen was silent for a moment that seemed to last an eternity. Then her hand went to her mouth and she made a small noise of distress.
“Oh, Arthur. You’re not... You actually mean that.”
Arthur leaned his head back against the wall and stared at a torch on the opposite wall, because it was easier than looking at Gwen’s face.
“Merlin is a sorcerer. He has been using magic right under my nose all this time. He has been using magic to save my life, and save the lives of everyone he cares about, which I assume means you and Gaius and the knights and everybody else, and not a single of one of us knew about it.”
“Arthur, what really happened out there?”
Arthur braced himself.
“He used magic to save all our lives, he risked everything to protect us. And then I repaid him by taking the coward’s way out and banished him, because it was easier than facing my father every day with the knowledge that I was harbouring a sorcerer. All I was doing was taking the easy way out, so that I wouldn’t have to admit that my father was wrong about magic. So that I wouldn’t have to admit how afraid I was.”
He felt Gwen’s had on his arm, and forced himself to look down at her. He wasn’t sure what he had expected. Accusations, disgust, disappointment. He didn’t expect the sympathy that shone so clearly in her eyes.
“I thought I was doing the right thing, Gwen. I couldn’t face the thought of Merlin being killed because of what he is, so I thought that sending him away...” He stopped and shook his head. “I tried to convince myself that I was doing the right thing, but I knew it wasn’t.”
“So what are you going to do about it?”
“I don’t know.”
“Do you miss him?”
“Do you trust him? Even knowing that he is a sorcerer, do you trust him?”
Arthur closed his eyes and saw Merlin’s face, heard his voice, and felt the rush of familiarity that he never liked to admit made him feel inexplicably safe.
He was surprised to discover it wasn’t a question that he even needed to think about.
“Then I think you know exactly what you need to do about it.”
He looked down at her again, and saw the stubborn set of her jaw. Arthur knew that look.
“It’s not that simple,” he tried.
“Then make it simple, instead of making excuses.”
Arthur felt a wry smile touch his lips.
“Why do I always end up with the bossiest, least respectful servants in the whole of Camelot?”
Gwen smiled. “Because you wouldn’t have it any other way. See how bored you’ve been with George these last few weeks. You don’t want a yes-man. You want people who make you think and question. You want Merlin.”
Was it really that simple? Was it?
She swatted his arm with a linen cloth she had been carrying.
“What are you doing still standing here talking to me? Go and bring him back.”
Arthur pushed himself away from the wall and looked back out of the window. He thought of pointing out that he had no idea where Merlin had gone, but that wasn’t true. He had a pretty good idea. There was only one place Merlin would go if he couldn’t come back to Camelot. And if Arthur set off now, he could be there in a couple of days.
He stopped short and examined that thought again. Yes, he really was contemplating it. No, not just contemplating. He wanted to go and bring Merlin back. And suddenly all those perfectly good reasons why Merlin could never return to Camelot seemed utterly unimportant.
Oh. Apparently it really was that simple.
Hunith had been expecting a visit from a neighbour with some fresh eggs, so it was something of a surprise when she opened the door and found the crown prince of Camelot standing on her doorstep.
Arthur tried to smile, but his expression reminded Hunith of nothing less than a small boy who knew he had done something wrong and was trying to avoid a scolding.
“Prince Arthur. What brings you to Ealdor?”
She knew, of course she knew. But this man had hurt her son, and, crown prince or not, she was not going to make anything easy for him.
“Can I talk to Merlin?”
“That depends on what you intend to say to him.”
“I suppose I deserved that,” Arthur admitted. He offered her a lopsided smile, and this time it was far more genuine than the one he had given her before.
Arthur all but squirmed.
“Look, I don’t want to arrest him or anything. I just want to talk to him.” He hesitated, and took a deep breath. “Please.”
“Is he here?” a voice called from further away.
Hunith looked out past Arthur and saw a small group of knights standing in the street, mostly looking a little sheepish under the curious gaze of several villagers.
Arthur ignored his knights, his attention focused entirely on Hunith.
“Please. I need to talk to him.”
He was all but begging. It would have been funny if it was under any other circumstances.
“Okay, I understand, you want to protect him.” Arthur sighed. “Just tell me one thing. Is he all right?”
That was all it took for Hunith’s anger to melt away.
“You see that bit of woodland?” She pointed out beyond the village. “That’s where he will be.”
She had never seen such contrite sincerity from a noble, and certainly not from a prince. She watched him go, saw him pause to speak to his knights, but he walked to the woodland alone. Hunith allowed herself to smile.
She had known for a long time that her son would do anything for this man. Now she knew for certain what she had suspected for some time; whether Arthur would admit it or not, the feeling was mutual.
Arthur found Merlin sitting in the woodland, leaning against a tree and staring off into space.
“Well, it’s nice to know you’re as lazy here as you are in Camelot.”
Merlin jumped and looked startled for second until he saw Arthur. Then he grinned, that annoyingly infectious, stupid, ridiculous grin that made Arthur feel like he was home again.
Then the grin dropped away.
Arthur was suddenly very aware of the fact that he never wanted to see Merlin looking at him with such suspicion ever again.
He sat down against a tree, mirroring Merlin’s position.
“So, how have you been?”
Merlin’s expression quickly cycled through surprised to incredulous. Then he shrugged.
“Bored. I’d forgotten how little there is to do here that’s even remotely interesting. You?”
“Bored. I’d forgotten how dull those council meetings could be. And George might be the world’s most efficient manservant, but he wouldn’t know how to hold an interesting conversation if his life depended on it.”
He tried a tentative smile, and was rewarded with Merlin’s lips twitching upwards, just a fraction.
Arthur felt a twinge of guilt.
“He’s... better now. Now that I’ve told him you aren’t actually dead.”
Merlin sat up straight.
Arthur braced himself.
“Because I finally realised I was being a complete idiot. Because I realised I had probably made the biggest mistake of my life.” He met Merlin’s gaze and held it. “Because I want you to come back to Camelot with me.”
Merlin gaped at him like a particularly bemused goldfish for several seconds.
Then he smirked.
“Did I just hear you admit that you were wrong?”
“Don’t get excited. It probably won’t happen again.”
They smiled at each other, but it only lasted a moment. Merlin dropped his gaze, and when he looked up again is eyes were filled with uncertainty.
“What’s changed, Arthur? I assume magic is still banned.”
“Yes. For now.”
Merlin seemed to be waiting for him to elaborate.
“My father is a sick man, Merlin. What happened with Morgana has broken him. Much as I don’t want to admit it, I don’t think he will ever be well enough to take the throne again. Many say he won’t survive until the end of the year.”
“Arthur, you don’t know that.”
Even after everything, apparently Merlin couldn’t stop himself from wanting to offer support. Arthur wondered how he could ever have believed, even for a second, that this man would want to hurt him.
“Merlin, I have spent most of the last few weeks thinking about what you said to me that day. About magic, and about the way Camelot deals with it. And I think you were right.” He allowed himself a tiny smile. “Don’t get excited about that, either. I probably won’t say it again for years.”
He was rewarded with a smile that was almost familiar, and for a moment Arthur began to believe that maybe it would be okay. That maybe he hadn’t screwed it up completely after all.
“Anyway, the fact is, sooner or later I will be king, and many believe it will be sooner rather than later. And when that happens, I want you by my side.”
Merlin gave him an entirely too mischievous grin.
“What? A big evil sorcerer, right at the heart of Camelot?”
Arthur groaned. “Don’t even joke about it within earshot of Leon. I think it’s going to take him a long time to get used to the idea.”
“And what about you, Arthur?” Suddenly Merlin was serious again. “How long will it take for you to get used to it? How long will it be before you trust me again?”
Arthur closed his eyes for a moment. He knew he probably deserved that, but it still hurt.
He opened his eyes and held Merlin’s gaze.
“I’m sorry. I said and did a lot of things that day that I’m not proud of. I can’t take them back, but I am trying to make them right.”
Merlin finally nodded, and Arthur wasn’t sure he had ever felt more relief in his entire life.
“But you’re right,” he said, before the moment could get awkward. “It will take a while to get used to the idea. For all of us. And it’s going to be dangerous for you, at least at first, until the laws change and people accept magic again. So nothing big and flashy, at least not where people can see.”
“I do know about this, you know. I have been living in Camelot right under the nose of a magic hating monarch for several years now.”
Arthur rolled his eyes. “Yes, and such a good job you were doing of it as well. Or have you forgotten al the times you’ve been accused of sorcery, and only got away with it because Gaius covered for you, or I talked my father out of the absurd idea that my idiot servant could possibly be capable of magic?”
Merlin grinned. “If only you had known.”
Arthur chuckled, and for a few moments it felt like it always had. Now felt like as good a time as any to ask.
“I meant what I said, Merlin. It will take me a while to get used to the idea. But I want to get used to it.” He gathered his courage. “Will you show me?”
Merlin sat forwards and held his hand out, palm upwards. His eyes flashed gold, and Arthur had to clamp down on a sudden spike of instinctive fear. A tiny flame flickered to life in Merlin’s hand. Arthur watched, fascinated, as the flame grew, and orange golden sparks swirled in the air above it and began to coalesce into an image of Camelot, with knights standing in front of the walls and people celebrating. He had no words to describe it but Arthur was suddenly overcome with a sense of peace. And then Arthur was looking at an image of himself wearing the crown and watching over the city.
“This is what I see, Arthur. This is what I believe you will do.”
Merlin’s voice was soft, but utterly serious.
Arthur’s throat worked, but it took him several seconds to get the words out.
“Will you help me?”
“You already know the answer.”
Arthur was almost overwhelmed by the trust and devotion that he was not entirely sure how he had earned.
He watched the image fade, and forced himself to look at Merlin with his golden eyes, and wondered how he could have not seen this for so long.
“Show me more.”
Merlin smiled, and showed him.