A short time after Camlann, when Arthur had mostly recovered from his battle wound and Merlin had mostly recovered from his heart wound: Arthur marched into Merlin’s room and said, “Look, Merlin. You can be my manservant or you can be my court sorcerer but you can’t be neither. This is an either, or sort of situation. So pick one.”
Merlin rolled over where he was lying on his bed. It was still narrow, but not quite as narrow as it had been, because there was nothing for Arthur to suspect anymore. If Arthur happened to notice that the bed was wider—all right, twice the size of what it was before—then he would put it down to either Merlin locating a new bed from the castle stores or magicking one or both, and it would be fine. Everything would be fine. No one would have to die.
Arthur was still glowering at Merlin while Merlin thought about this. Eventually Merlin blinked and nodded and said, “Got it. Will there be anything else, sire?”
Arthur ground his teeth. “Stop calling me that,” he said. “I hate when you call me that.”
Merlin nodded. “Anything else—?”
Arthur spun on his heel and left.
Merlin wasn’t trying to be difficult. It was just that for all the times he’d thought about telling Arthur about his magic—the many times, countless times—Arthur had never almost died and just barely clung to life at the edge of a lake and said, “If you try to leave me I’ll kill you. We’ll talk about this later. Now get me back to the castle, you idiot.”
A month later, Merlin was still trying to respond to that.
Still he supposed he couldn’t lie in bed forever. A little while again after Arthur left in a whirlwind, doors slamming shut all the way from Gaius’s chambers to Arthur’s own, Merlin rolled the other way out of bed and down the stairs towards Gaius, thinking about all the possibilities for his future.
To be perfectly honest Merlin wasn’t picturing anything good. He was thinking of something along the lines of a good strong disembowelling or banishment to another kingdom. Perhaps quietly. Perhaps not. It would of course have been bad form for Arthur to do it when Merlin had just saved his life. But good form and bad form tended to become less important the further it got from the life-saving and the more time was added to the years Merlin had lied to Arthur about his identity.
Merlin sloped down onto the bench across from Gaius, thinking about this.
Gaius smiled at Merlin over the workbench. “It’s good to see you. What are you going to do today?”
“Good morning,” said Merlin absently, still considering his next move. He toyed with the glass in front of him. “Arthur didn’t seem to be in a very good mood, did he?”
Gaius’s smile vanished. He didn’t look displeased, more … resigned. “No.”
“What do you think he will do?”
Gaius let out a long breath that didn’t convey any of the sympathy Merlin felt he deserved. Instead he raised his eyebrows at his workbench as if he was staring at a particularly disgusting leech, or potion, or a carrot or something. He stared for a long time.
“I think—” said Gaius to the workbench, then took another deep breath in, as if he had to think first about his answer and didn’t especially want to. “I think he’s going to do what all besotted young men do.”
Merlin waited for Gaius to expand on this unhelpful answer. When no further comment was forthcoming, he prompted, “Which is?”
“Something foolish,” said Gaius.
Merlin thought about this. “Foolish in what sort of way?” He replayed Gaius's words in his head. “And besotted with who?”
Gaius looked harder at the workbench. “You’d have to ask Arthur that,” he said. Then he looked at Merlin with the same expression. “You know Guinevere has left to travel abroad with a number of knights. For some time, in all likelihood. Which means you must talk to Arthur.” He paused. “You could talk to him now, in fact. Alone.”
Merlin thought about this. Then he nodded. “Got it,” he said again. It was an answer which had worked with Arthur, after all.
He peeled himself away from the workbench and out of the room. He spared a smile on his way out of the room for Gaius, who wasn’t watching anyway.
Merlin found Arthur in his chambers, lying on his bed, propped up on his pillows with his hands folded across his stomach. He turned when Merlin let himself inside and didn’t look away, even when Merlin stopped right where he was beside the door, hands behind his back.
Actually the longer Merlin stared, the easier Arthur looked. His shoulders lost their weight into the pillow, his fingers loosened, fading from white at the knuckle to pink to their normal suntanned brown.
A breeze from the open window tripped around the room and out again.
“Hello Arthur,” said Merlin eventually, perhaps too quiet to be heard, except that Arthur caught his eye as he did.
“Merlin,” said Arthur, with that edge that said he wasn’t anything like as calm as he was pretending to be—and Merlin didn’t know why he was even pretending, Arthur knew that Merlin could always tell, a decade of devoted service did that to a person—“Merlin.”
Merlin looked up. Arthur was watching him with this awful, anguished sort of intensity that hurt to look at.
“My lord?” Merlin murmured.
Arthur closed his eyes. He said, “I’m glad you’re here. At last. Do you really think that I would—haven’t you paid attention to anything since, since—since Camlann?”
Merlin’s heart jolted in his chest. “I’ve tried not to, my lord.”
“Stop that too. You’ve never called my anything but my name, why would you pick now to—you know, Merlin, Gaius said that you were struggling, but—”
“I’m not struggling,” said Merlin sharply. He looked at Arthur, whose lungs were working, heart beating, alive and awake and at no risk of death or disfigurement at Mordred’s hand, ever again. “I’m just … adjusting.”
He felt that that was fair, all things considered. Never before had he been the most powerful sorcerer that ever lived to not be in danger of execution by his lord and master and greatest friend, after all.
Arthur shut his eyes again for a moment. Then he opened them and said, “Merlin,” a third time. “Will you come here, please.”
It was obvious that someone else had been in Arthur’s chambers in the time that Merlin hadn’t. The mantelpiece and the windowsills were free of dust, Arthur’s boots were clean despite the week of rain, and there were quite obviously no apples rotting in any corners. In fact the only indication that Arthur had spent any time at all in the room was the sheets, rough and rumpled and frankly a little sour, if Merlin was any judge.
He walked over and sat down at the edge of the bed anyway to look at Arthur. Arthur who was alive, and awake, and here. “I’m here,” he said quietly. “How are you, Arthur?”
Arthur rolled over in his own bed to look at Merlin. Of course, he looked a little better rested than Merlin because even without Merlin to serve him, Arthur had had someone to deliver him breakfast and fill his bath and light the fire in the corner every morning. And somewhat unlike Merlin, Arthur had had a reason to get up every morning: he had a kingdom to run, knights to train, reports to read from the border realms. And apparently, if the many books and scrolls strategically placed around the room were anything to judge, Arthur had a new magical order to manage in what until very recently had been a very anti-magical kingdom.
“Better,” said Arthur. His voice was rough. “Now my manservant has seen fit to serve me.”
Merlin nodded to himself. Then he raised his eyebrows at Arthur. “So,” he said. “Manservant, then. You said one or the other, before.”
Arthur shrugged in reply. “You can choose sorcerer instead, if you want. But pick one. That’s your choice. If you try to leave then I'll follow you and drag you back. Or--stay with you. Although I'd prefer you to stay here. There's no getting away from me, Merlin, so you might as well just choose now.”
Merlin thought about this, and about what Gaius had said. He rubbed his hand over his face so he could run his eye over Arthur without being seen; Arthur looked just as healthy as he had in Merlin’s own bedroom, telling Merlin that he had one option.
Merlin couldn’t imagine being one and not the other. He couldn’t imagine his life changing in any way that meant he had to see less of Arthur.
So he raised his eyebrows to refuse. “I’ve actually been both for a long time, you know. I managed to do both quite well. Well—I managed one of them quite well, and saved my king and the kingdom while doing so. And the other I never got permanently fired from.”
Arthur’s expression changed. “Then both,” he said hoarsely. “If you don’t want to choose. You can be both. Good lord, Merlin. You think I care? You saved my life. You’re already a terrible manservant—” he got a look about him which made Merlin suspect he hadn’t fully intended to say that—“even though I never fired you really, but you’re my friend. My only friend. As I’ve told you many times. Or at least once anyway.”
Merlin blinked at him, thinking of the magic. Always thinking of the magic. “I don’t believe you still want to be my friend.”
Arthur rolled onto his back, very slowly. “Of course I want to be your friend.” He said it like he’d been practicing, to the canopy above him. Merlin heard him swallow. “Friends is enough,” he said steadily, and quietly, to himself. “And now Guinevere is gone. Friends.”
He wasn't making sense but Merlin understood anyway. He realised his heart was pounding. Camelot had been his home for so long; he’d spent more of his life standing awkwardly in Arthur’s bedchambers than on the floor he grew up on in his mother’s home. Plus the occasional night accidentally falling asleep next to Arthur after a long night talking, or to keep an eye on Arthur while he slept. Or so that Arthur could keep an eye on him.
Merlin thought about why Arthur might say all this to him now. Now that Gwen was gone on a long journey, in all likelihood for quite some time. For years, perhaps, where she would forge connections between the united land Albion was becoming, and the winter lands across the seas.
Friends wasn’t anything like enough.
Merlin closed his eyes. Then he opened them again, and lay down carefully beside Arthur on the bed.
His fingers closed around Arthur’s.