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Fathom Me Out

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“Rise and shine!” Merlin yelled, far too close to Arthur’s ear for this early in the morning.

Fortunately for Arthur, Merlin had been using this technique for years and it didn’t scare him out of bed as it used to. Now he slithered further into the blankets, mashing his face into the pillows. He felt contentedly warm, the blankets making him drowsy.

Merlin clapped his hands and pulled at Arthur’s blankets. “Come on Arthur.”

“No.” Arthur groaned.

Arthur.” Merlin warned.

Briefly, Arthur thought about the pros and cons of getting out of bed. If he got out of bed, he would have to be awake. If he stayed where he was, he could stay warm and content. He had decided on the latter choice, except it was too late to realize that Merlin wasn’t a normal servant. Before Arthur could protest, said terrible manservant began physically dragging him out of bed.

“Come on-”

“No-”

“Arth-”

“Stop-”

“You must-”

Merlin!

Arthur was now on the floor, the blankets a mess around him and no longer keeping him warm. It was cold on the floor as he looked up at Merlin, whose hands were on his hips and a satisfied smile on his lips. “Not so bad” he said, probably referring to the times Arthur went back to sleep while on the floor.

As Arthur looked up, the sun cast its light about Merlin making him glow with the morning light. Apparently Merlin was on time today, which was probably the reason Arthur was so reluctant to get out of bed. When Merlin was late, the sun no longer shone into his chambers and Arthur would have to wake up and dress himself.

“You have a council meeting in an hour, lunch with Lord Beaumont afterwards, and then there are reports for tomorrow’s round table meeting.” Merlin said as gathered the sheets and piling them back on the bed. “Up you get.” He grabbed Arthur’s arms and pulled him up unceremoniously. Rubbing his eyes, he let Merlin guide him in the right direction.

As they always did, it was time to start the day.

***

Later that week, when Arthur entered Gaius’ chambers, there was a young girl sitting on the bench and Merlin was kneeling before her. He was wrapping a bandage around her arm, which looked slightly bruised on the elbow.

“Where’s Gaius?” Arthur asked, looking around for the elderly physician.

“He’s picking up supplies in the lower town.” Merlin said, not looking up from his task. He looked up at the girl and tapped her arm. “Not too tight?” The girl nodded, looking at the bandage around her arm and then up at the King.  

She was too young to recognize Arthur, especially in only his common clothes. She looked back to Merlin. “How long do I have to wear it?” she asked solemnly.

Merlin patted her hand and smiled at her. “Not too long. Before you know it, you can go back to jumping off carts and getting into trouble.”

She giggled and Merlin helped her onto her feet. “Try not to move it too much. Can you make it back to your mother alright?”

“Yes, sir” She said. Arthur was positive that he had never heard anyone call Merlin ‘sir’ in these past ten years of knowing him, but of course she was young and she only saw Merlin as someone older than herself.

“Alright, off you go.” Merlin patted her back gently and guided her to the door.

“Thank you, Merlin!” She said and only nodded at Arthur as she walked past.

“What are you doing?” Arthur asked after watching her leave, her arm bandaged carefully.

"You are aware that I am a physician, right?” Merlin’s eyes were alight. His tone was civil enough but his lips were twitching with a smile he could hardly suppress. He washed his hands in a nearby bowl and dried them as he raised a brow at Arthur, waiting for an answer.

In the back of his mind Arthur had known that Merlin had been working as an apprentice under Gaius but Arthur had not thought of all the time which had passed since Merlin first began. It had been well over the average seven years of apprenticeship. Merlin would have been skilled enough to heal without Gaius’ aid for a couple years now.

Before Arthur could answer, Merlin asked, “Is there something I can do for you?”

“Nothing besides your usual duties.” Arthur said, “Gaius said he would give me more of the potion for my muscles. For after training.”

“I was just about to make it.” Merlin gestured for Arthur to sit down and he turned to the cluttered shelves full of ingredients and potions.

“You make it?” Arthur asked as Merlin began to collect leaves from a bottle, throwing them into a mortar and grinding them in with the pestle.

“How did you think potions were made?” Merlin asked, his tone playful.

“Obviously I thought Gaius made it.” Arthur sat at the table, knowing he should go back to the reports which needed to be written, but was too bored to discipline himself. Merlin will probably reprimand him for not doing it later that night. He needed Merlin’s help writing them anyways.

“Gaius can’t make all the potions in Camelot.” Merlin said as he mixed in an orange powder, looking like he had done this regularly.

Arthur rested his head on his arms and watched as Merlin steadily worked on the potion. He watched Merlin’s hands meticulously measure and mix the water and powders. Merlin didn’t speak much, only to himself as he tried to find an ingredient which was hiding from him on a shelf. His sleeves were rolled up to his elbows and Arthur’s eyes caught the lighter skin where thin lacerations wrapped around one arm. Arthur looked away quickly, watching Merlin’s calloused hands mix the potion instead.

Merlin didn’t ask what task Arthur was avoiding, though they were both aware that Arthur always had something that needed to be done. It was one of the many things Arthur appreciated about Merlin. He knew when to pester Arthur about things, but he was one of the few people who remembered that besides being a king, Arthur was also a man. So Merlin would let the King rest his head on his arms, lazily watching Merlin tidy his chambers or make a potion.

Merlin set the mixture over a fire and went about putting the bottles and utensils he had used back in their places. The room was a mess, as it always had been even when Arthur was a child and Gaius was the one who bandaged his injured arm. Now Merlin set everything in its place, may that be on a shelf, in a stack, or placed by the window.

Merlin took the potion off the fire, pouring the warmed mixture into a small bottle. “There you go.” He said as he set down the bottle next to Arthur.

Arthur looked up at him, not lifting his head and hoping he looked sad enough that Merlin would take pity on him. Unfortunately, Merlin only smiled at him knowingly “Off you go” He tapped Arthur’s head and gestured for him to get up. “Don’t pretend you don’t have that grain and wheat report to prepare.”

Arthur groaned, grabbing the potion, and rose from the table. “You have no sympathy for your king.” He had truly hoped Merlin would let him laze about for a while longer.

“You’re welcome!” Merlin called out as Arthur left him to his potion making.

***

Merlin was gone the next day.

Arthur woke up late, dressed himself, and asked a passing servant to grab him some lunch.

He went down to Gaius’ chambers and asked the basic “Where is my useless manservant?” question which he seemed to be asking more and more often. The fact that he did not know, even when pressed to think about it, was starting to wear on his nerves.

Gaius looked up from the book he was reading. “I’m sorry, my lord. He’s gathering a rare flower for me. I’m afraid he won’t be back until late.”

Arthur sighed, trying not to yell at a kindly old man who had always been so kind to him. “Gaius.” he said. “Can you at least tell me a better excuse?”

“Sire?” Gaius asked innocently.

“Wherever he is,” Arthur pushed aside the thought that he didn’t know where that was, “it better not be the tavern. I expect him to be here for dinner tonight.”

“Yes, sire.”

***

Merlin was late to dinner and he didn’t look any different. He was still in his normal clothes; a blue shirt, red neckerchief, and a brown jacket. As far as Arthur could tell, he wasn’t drunk and he wasn’t injured. But there was definitely something different about him.

“You smell like you’ve been in a bog for days.” Arthur coughed and tried to swallow but that only seemed to make the smell worse.

“Sorry.” Merlin mumbled.

“Where were the herbs Gaius wanted you to gather?”

“In the bogs.” Merlin replied, not even looking at Arthur as he went about his task of standing there and doing nothing. He tapped his fingers on the pitcher in his hand and looked eager to be dismissed.

Arthur didn’t mention that Gaius had said Merlin was gathering a flower, not herbs. He had already known the pair was hiding something. Arthur just didn’t know what it was or why Merlin ran off without any warning beforehand. It made Arthur itch to ask, but deep down he feared that Merlin wouldn’t answer him. The fact that Merlin would deliberately hide something from Arthur gnawed at him like nothing else.

So he pushed it aside.

***

This time, Merlin was in the lower town treating a family with the flu. Arthur knew for certain that was where he was because he had seen the ill mother ask for Gaius’ help.  Gaius had sent Merlin, an equal match for Gaius’ capabilities.

Unfortunately, if Merlin was gone for most of the day, that meant that Arthur had to deal with George.

“Here you go, your majesty.” George handed him another thing. Arthur had no idea a king needed to be handed so many things. Or that there was so much bowing involved. Was this how other king’s manservants acted? It was horrid. Arthur couldn’t walk a pace without being hovered over. At least with Merlin’s nagging it was justified and if Arthur yelled at him he would yell back. George would just apologize. It was exhausting.

Arthur sent George off on a wild goose chase for some imagined sweets, and hoped that would deter him for at least half an hour.

He was in his chambers, when a maid servant entered to clean.

“Sire” her voice rose in surprise. “I didn’t expect you to be here.”

“I’m hiding from George.” he admitted with a smile. That made her laugh, and she didn’t look quite so tense.

“He is a dedicated servant, my lord.” She said lightly.

Indeed.” Arthur said exasperatedly.

“Um.” She looked about the room, which was slightly messier than it usually was. Usually Merlin was there to pick up at least half the things that needed to be put away. “Merlin asked me to tidy the room for the day. Would you like me to come back later, my lord?”

“No, of course not. Don’t mind me.” He gestured for her to do as she needed, and went back to his reports.

“Thank you, sire.” She bowed slightly and went about tiding the room.

A while later Arthur noticed she seemed to be having trouble finding where anything went.

“Does Merlin always…” She trailed off, her embarrassment for having to ask seemed to be overridden by her confusion, “…put your armor in this chest?”

“Yes.” Arthur looked at the chest, knowing perfectly well that that was not where armor was supposed to go. But Arthur had gotten of tired of telling Merlin where things were supposed to go ten years ago. At this point, that chest was where his armor went.

She stared at the chest and back at the armor. “Yes.” she repeated, as if it was a foreign word.

“Are you not aware that Merlin is the worst manservant in all the five kingdoms?” he asked, a smile breaking through his straight face.

“Merlin?” she asked, her eyes widening. “But I thought he was the best servant in Camelot!”

The laugh burst out of Arthur, making the poor girl jump with surprise. He covered his mouth and shook his head. “My apologies.” He said between laughing. “Merlin may tend to my armor well enough, and most of the time he keeps me on schedule, but he cannot clean a room for the life of him and he seems to run off without notice more often than I wish.”

“Then why is he the King’s personal servant?” she asked, almost sounding horrified. Fortunately she didn’t seem like a George-like person. She seemed confused why the King would keep an incompetent servant when he could obviously ask for another at any moment. He told her the truth.

“He’s my friend.” Arthur said with a smile, “And the gods know, sometimes a King needs a friend far more than he needs a servant.”

Her expression softened and she smiled. She looked back at the armor, holding it up and then placing it in the chest. She raised a brow, as if to ask if that was right, and Arthur nodded. “Thank you. Now, Merlin will be able to find it.”

She curtseyed, “Enjoy the rest of your day, my lord.”

***

When Merlin came back from treating the ill, it only took a day to discover that he had also caught the flu. Arthur reprimanded Merlin harshly about getting himself killed from a stupid cold, and then what would Arthur do? No one else knew how to organize Arthur’s room incorrectly.  Unfortunately, as Merlin recovered, Arthur had to hide from George for another three days.  Fortunately, the maid servant from before was there once a day to treat him like a normal person.

“Is Merlin feeling any better?” she asked on the second day.

“He’s still ill, but doing better. Hopefully he’ll be back to work in a day or two so you can go back to your normal duties.”

“I don’t mind,” She said as she straightened the bedding. “Anything to help Merlin.”

Arthur raised a brow and he watched as she bit her lips and avoided looking at him for the next couple minutes.

“Is Merlin popular with the household servants?” Arthur asked. He saw Merlin with the knights and anyone they passed on their daily tasks, but he never saw Merlin when he was amongst other servants. Arthur often forgot Merlin was a servant at all.

“There aren’t many who dislike Merlin. He’s far too charming for that.” She seemed distracted and Arthur knew the smitten look well enough.

“Gathers the attention of the girls, does he?” He said as he looked at her with a knowing eye.

“A bit.” she said, not looking ashamed at having admitted it. There was a light blush on her cheeks and Arthur was amazed to think that Merlin was the reason for it.

“Hm.” Arthur went back to his papers but he couldn’t help but muse over the fact that the maid servants seemed to think Merlin was a charming handsome man. She curtseyed and left him to his thoughts.

When Arthur had first met Merlin, the words which Arthur would have used to describe him (besides idiot, stupidly brave, and clumsy) were nothing other than perhaps fair and maybe adorable. He had been like a mouse with big ears.

Now Merlin was desired by the maid girls, obviously a topic of many gossiping circles. But what would they have to say about Merlin of all people? Arthur had not failed to notice that Merlin had bulked up in the last couple years. Of course, after seeing Merlin without his shirt while fighting off bandits, Arthur was very aware of Merlin’s broad shoulders and muscles frame. He was still tall and lanky, that had not changed, but he had filled out well.

Maybe the servants whispered about his dark hair and bright blue eyes. Maybe they talked of his lips (which smiled when one needed them too and never stopped moving when one wanted them to). Maybe they gossiped about his hands (which may not be good at catching things, but never failed to be steady when attending to armor). He did not lack muscle, to say the least, he was very fit for a young man, but there were knights roaming about the castle every day, and Arthur would think that they would catch the servants’ eyes before Merlin.

Or maybe it was his personality that enticed them? There was hardly a single person in the citadel that wouldn’t fall to Merlin’s wide smile and sweet demeanor. Merlin may have a wicked humor at times, but his heart was pure and his courage unwavering.

Arthur briefly wondered if there were several girls who would do Merlin a favor if it meant catching his eye.

George entered his chambers a moment later, inexplicably with the sweets Arthur had invented only an hour before. As George set down the platter, rattling on about the next meeting, Arthur hoped Merlin would be well soon.

***

Merlin recovered the next day and Arthur was grateful for it. Every day that passed there seemed like there was more and more to do. With the war against Morgana, Arthur had to deal with council meetings, Knights’ training, and strategic planning every day. It seemed like Merlin was gone at least once every couple weeks, and though Arthur knew Gaius needed fresh herbs, Arthur wished Merlin was by his side during these times. His insight was invaluable.

Merlin and Arthur made their way to a council meeting, walking in step down the corridors of the citadel. Morgana had started attacking Camelot’s northern borders and rumor had it that she was building an army. The council had to start-

“Good morning, Merlin.”

Startled out of his thoughts, Arthur looked over to see a girl greeting Merlin as they walked the corridor. Arthur would have recognized her but she must have been a maid of a visiting noble because he had never seen her before. His mind drifted from the council meeting and wandered to Merlin, remembering what the maid servant had said about him. The maid didn’t seem to see Arthur, eyes only for Merlin. Her friends face was blushing slightly and Arthur couldn’t figure out why.

“Morning, Bri.” Merlin said with a smile, still walking forward. Arthur looked over his shoulder to see the maid and her friend talking to each other, making gestures toward Merlin behind their hands.

“Do you know her?” Arthur asked as they rounded the corner.

“Hm?” Merlin hummed. Arthur knew he was pretending not to listen, so Arthur snapped his fingers near Merlin’s face. Merlin jerked back and turned to Arthur. “What?”

“She seemed friendly.” Arthur said pointedly.

“Er…” Merlin looked back over his shoulder where they couldn’t see the maids anymore. “Yes?”

Merlin seemed to be avoiding the topic so Arthur took pity on him and didn’t further the subject. He wondered if Merlin knew about the maid servant’s attentions or if he was ignorant. Arthur had never imagined Merlin with a girl. Had that happened? Arthur stared at Merlin, his brows pinching together and feeling utterly confused.

Later that evening, as Arthur lay in bed and recounted his day, he let his mind wander back to this question. Merlin would always be a question Arthur could never understand. There were days he would completely understand his manservant, and others where Merlin was a whole new mystery to unravel.

Arthur thought, in the past ten years of knowing Merlin, there had to have been at least one girl. Right? Merlin would have told him, wouldn’t he? Arthur searched for a memory, but he couldn’t find even a vague memory of Merlin mentioning a girl.

In the early days, when Arthur was a young prince and Merlin was barely out of boyhood, they had talked about visiting ladies and other maids. Merlin didn’t hold back his opinions, he never really did on any subject, but he had never mentioned any girls he wished to pursue. Merlin knew about the girls Arthur had pursued, but only because there had been times when Merlin covered for him while he spent time with her.

Now that Arthur thought about it, they didn’t talk much about that kind of thing anymore. He supposed things had changed since those simpler times. Gwen and he had reconciled; she was once again living in Camelot and Arthur had made it clear that she and Lancelot were free to do as they wished. He had been heartbroken, but even hearts heal over time. He was content to stay as he was. He wanted no ladies to flirt with and he did not desire a wife. He supposed talking about visiting ladies had lost all its appeal.

Things had changed, but Merlin had not. Well, of course Merlin had changed, but just like before he had never spoken of any girls. Perhaps Merlin didn’t like anyone at all and preferred to keep to himself. There was nothing wrong with that. But it didn’t seem like Merlin; he enjoyed company and he had never denied attraction to women when they had talked about it.

Perhaps Merlin’s eyes strayed to men? Arthur wasn’t ignorant of the way some of his knights tumbled together, especially on campaigns when they were gone for weeks. He also wasn’t ignorant of the way some of the tumbling didn’t stop, even when they were in Camelot, perfectly happy in the company of men. Arthur’s mind had strayed to this thought before, and he found that he didn’t mind the thought; especially if it was with someone he truly admired and esteemed. But he had never acted on any of these thoughts. He had been the prince, and his relationships with women were narrow and strict, let alone with men.

If Arthur was pressed to think about it, Merlin seemed like he wouldn’t mind the company of a man or a woman. He had wondered if there had been women in Merlin’s life, but what if there had been men too?  If there had been either man or woman in Merlin’s bed, he had never trusted Arthur with that information. The secrecy hurt Arthur more than he wanted to acknowledge.

Arthur wondered who Merlin would find for company, besides perhaps a servant or someone in the lower town. The knights were obviously attractive young men and honorable enough to be discreet. Merlin had always been social with Arthur’s knights and some of them had even been Merlin’s friends before they were Arthur’s. Should Arthur be truly surprised if Merlin had been in bed with one of them before?

Then it hit Arthur. Gwaine.

He didn’t want to think about it any longer. He closed his eyes and denied everything he had just thought, ignoring any questions he had about Merlin. He pushed it aside.

***

To Arthur, feasts now seemed like a rare occasion. With Morgana attacking Camelot and Arthur’s knights on alert at all times, there were hardly any reason for feasts. But every once and a while, there were reasons to celebrate: a victory, entertaining visiting nobles, or just enough food in the kitchens to warrant festivity for nothing other than their good health.

Sometimes the only reason for a feast would because Arthur believed the citadel needed it. Ruling a kingdom included knights and council meetings and reports on nothing interesting, but it also included caring for his people. Morgana’s army had receded back north and a hunting party had come back with plenty of meat. Arthur thought that was reason enough for the citadel to celebrate. He sent out special sweets to the lower town and held a feast for everyone in the royal household.

Merlin dressed him for the feast, looking particularly cheerful about the promise of food and wine. The servants, of course, did not receive wine during the feast, but Arthur always shared his wine with Merlin. Most of the time, Merlin would go back to Arthur’s chambers to drink by the fire, but sometimes he preferred to stay with the servants after the King had retired. Since no one was allowed to leave the feast until the King had retired, Arthur understood if Merlin wanted to stay later since he always the first to leave. Though, he always hoped Merlin would accompany him back.

Tonight Merlin was wearing the purple shirt Arthur had given him a couple years ago. It was the closest Arthur was ever going to get Merlin into official clothing. Merlin refused to wear anything other than what suited him, which usually meant a shirt and trousers. The red neckerchief he wore tonight was the one he had made from one of Arthur’s old shirts, and Arthur didn’t know why he would mix a fine purple shirt with an old rag. For barely a moment, Arthur’s mind went to the scar on Merlin’s neck which was perfectly hidden by the piece of cloth, before he pushed it aside and wondered why Merlin would not wear a new red neckerchief.

At the feast, everyone seemed to be in a good mood. The food was good and the wine was plentiful. No one was thinking about the war that they would have to return to in the morning. For now, they could have this evening.

Arthur watched his knights loosen their shoulders and throw back their heads with laughter. Tonight their chainmail looked more like adornments rather than a precaution in case of attack. Leon was leaning back in his seat, quietly talking with a noble on his left and looking more relaxed than Arthur had seen in a while. In another corner, some of the younger knights, led by Eylan, were playing a game with the young ladies of the court.

Then there was Lancelot. He couldn’t keep his eyes off Gwen, even though he looked like he was trying to look anywhere but. Technically Gwen now lived in the lower town, running the blacksmith that had once been her father’s, and therefore wasn’t part of the royal household. But Arthur had personally invited her and despite the awkwardness of the conversation, he had made it clear that she was welcome. It also helped that he had said Lancelot would be attending the feast. She had taken the hint. Arthur and Gwen had been friends far before they had been anything else, and she knew him well enough to know that he held no ill will toward her or Lancelot.

“Give a message to Lancelot, will you?” Arthur whispered into Merlin’s ear as he poured more wine into Arthur’s goblet. He hadn’t had that much to drink, but Merlin knew the King had appearances to keep.

Merlin raised a brow, waiting for the message.

“Tell him that Guinevere only came tonight because I told her that he would be here.”

Merlin looked at him oddly.

When Merlin didn’t move to relay the message Arthur sighed, “I hardly want to be the reason for my friends’ unhappiness, Merlin.” Arthur picked up his wine and took a sip. Merlin’s expression shifted for a second before he pulled away and walked over to the knight.

They spoke for a moment, greetings were said and, if Merlin’s smile was anything to go by, gossip and jokes were exchanged. Arthur tried not to watch their conversation too closely, but out of the corner of his eye, he saw Lancelot turn to look at him. Arthur turned his head slowly until his eyes casually landed on Lancelot. He nodded his head in the smallest of bows. Lancelot’s expression changed from confusion to a small smile. Arthur knew they would talk later, but for now, Lancelot was standing up and making his way to Gwen and that was all that mattered.

“That was kind of you.” Merlin said as he came back to Arthur’s side.

“Guinevere and I are no longer…” Arthur paused, no sure what to call them anymore. “We are friends but nothing more.”

Arthur looked over his shoulder for a brief moment, seeing Merlin’s proud smile. Arthur was pleased to have earned such a smile from Merlin, and it only confirmed that Arthur had done the right thing.

“Roam as you wish.” Arthur waved his hand, dismissing Merlin from his side. He knew Merlin wanted to socialize with the knights and others, and he couldn’t do that if he was cooped up next to Arthur. “Just don’t drink too much wine.”

“I would never.” Merlin’s scoffed, before a grin spread across his face.

Arthur rolled his eyes, “If you get drunk while on duty, I’ll put you in the stocks.” Merlin thought he was clever, stealing sips of wine when he thought no one was looking, but he couldn’t fool Arthur.

“Yes, sire.” Merlin grinned and wandered off. The threat had obviously fallen short since Arthur hadn’t put Merlin in the stocks for at least seven years.

Merlin wandered over to Gwaine and Percival, both of whom greeted him with bear hugs. Obviously the wine was strong tonight.

Arthur’s eyes wandered across the feast, watching his guests enjoy themselves. Some of the visiting nobles spoke to him, and half of them didn’t bore him out of his skull. A few young lords caught Arthur on the subject of tournaments, and he found himself enjoying the evening as much as his knights.

His eyes strayed to Merlin every once and a while, where Gwaine and Pericval kept him company. Three maid servants stood next to them, flirting their way through a conversation. Percival looked more intimidated by the short maid than he did by an enemy in the middle of battle. Gwaine seemed to be flipping his hair more than he needed to as he bit into an apple. On the other hand, Merlin seemed comfortable talking with the girls. Despite the fact that Arthur was across the hall, even he could see that the girls were fawning over him. Arthur turned away, speaking with a visiting lord about the farmlands in his kingdom.

Sometimes Arthur’s eyes unintentionally ventured back to Merlin and he could not help it when his mind wandered. Sometimes Gwaine would sling his arm over Merlin’s shoulder and speak in his ear. There was an easy familiarity between them that Arthur envied.

It wasn’t uncommon for someone to say that they had had the pleasure of sleeping with Gwaine. Except, it was mostly maidservants or random stable boys who boasted that honor. Arthur still wasn’t sure if his thoughts about Merlin and Gwaine were true, but if they were, than Merlin had kept that part of his and Gwaine’s friendship secret.

As the night drew on, the guests grew restless. It was already late and Arthur could see everyone was a little surprised he had not left yet. Arthur dismissed himself, and headed toward Merlin. Usually it was Merlin’s choice to stay or not, but Arthur wanted his company.

“Arthur!” Merlin grinned like he was surprised to see the King at his own feast.

“Did you get my manservant drunk?” Arthur asked Gwaine.

Gwaine held up his hand in honor, “I did no such thing.” He grinned widely. Arthur knew it wasn’t Gwaine’s fault. Merlin did whatever he pleased.

Arthur clapped Gwaine on the back and turned to Merlin. “Are you staying or do you want to do your job and assist me this evening?”

Merlin slung an arm around Arthur’s shoulder, which surprised him. He stiffened but did not move away. Merlin stumbled and tried to straighten himself. “I can assist.” Merlin said, stringing out the words so that they hissed between his teeth.

“You might need to help him.” Percival said in between snorts of laughter.

Arthur pretended to be put-upon, but he knew his smile was showing. “Come on, idiot.” Arthur grabbed Merlin around the hips, happy to share this moment of close companionship with his friend. Gwaine watched them leave and Arthur wasn’t sure if that meant anything.

***

Arthur sat at his desk, pretending to look over reports as Merlin poured him water.

"Did you sleep with Gwaine?"

Merlin tripped over his own legs, running into the desk and spilling half the jug of water onto the floor. The maneuver was quite impressive.

Merlin’s ears lit up bright red and he gaped. Arthur felt his stomach drop, even as he laughed at Merlin’s gaping-fish expression. So Arthur had figured out the truth. “Well that answered my question.”

Merlin spluttered some unintelligible phrase. “Wait a second!” Merlin’s cheeks were now bright pink to match his red ears.

“No, you don’t get to protest, Merlin.” Arthur said accusingly. "You slept with one of my knights."

Merlin damned himself, as he exclaimed, "They weren't knights yet!"

Suddenly the room was very still. Arthur stared at Merlin and Merlin stared back, his eyes almost owlish in size.  Merlin’s mouth tightened and Arthur could see his hands tighten on the jug. Arthur went through all of his knights, one by one, until he came up with the answer.

"You slept with Lancelot too, didn't you?" Arthur’s mouth felt dry, thinking that Merlin had not only trusted himself with two other people, but both had been close friends. Apparently Merlin had no problem with the company of men.

“You-!” Merlin spluttered, “Y-you egg! You just decide to ask about my personal life after years of being a self-absorbed prick?”

He held his blushing face high, turning on his heel, and stomping off. Arthur heard him muttering under his breath “-happened years ago –just a one night thing- Stupid toad of a king. I can sleep with who I please thank you very-” The door swung shut behind him, despite the fact that Arthur had not dismissed him and there was still a considerable puddle on the floor.

“Did you just call me an egg?” Arthur asked the empty room, wondering which part of the conversation he should be worrying about.

***

After dinner one evening in the following week, Arthur lay in the furs in front of the fire. Merlin was sprawled next to him. They had had some wine, but hardly enough for even Merlin to be drunk. Arthur felt loose with it, as the warmth of the fire relaxed him. They watched the flames flicker and they hardly spoke at all. Though he dared not admit it, he liked when Merlin rambled on and on, but he also liked it when they needed nothing but silence and companionship.

“About the other day...” Arthur started. He knew Merlin would know what he was talking about.

Arthur.” Merlin sounded pained. His head lolled back as he whined.

Arthur rolled his eyes and lightly nudged Merlin’s leg to make him look at Arthur. “I wasn’t teasing you and I wasn’t accusing you of anything.” He tried to sound as earnest as possible. He wanted Merlin to know that he cared. Arthur had never planned on teasing Merlin about sleeping with Gwaine or even judge him for it.

“Then what were you doing?” Merlin asked dubiously, sounding a little grumpy.

“You’re the one who never told me.” Arthur pointed out. “Never mind Gwaine, you’ve never said a word about anyone.” Arthur huffed, “I know I’m the King, but we are still friends.”

Merlin looked away, maybe looking a little abashed. “Yeah”

Arthur thought that was all he was going to get out of Merlin before he said: “It was just a onetime thing, yeah?” Merlin kept his eyes on the fire. “I didn’t know Gwaine or Lancelot would become my friends or that they would become knights.”

Just a onetime thing, Arthur thought. A tumble just like the way Arthur’s knights found company on campaigns. Except, Merlin hadn’t been lacking in female partners in the middle of the citadel, he had chosen to sleep with Gwaine. So he must not have a preference over men or women. Arthur’s mind wandered for a moment to the maid who had blushingly greeted Merlin one morning, and wondered if Merlin and she had spent the previous night together.

“Arthur?”

Arthur looked up to see Merlin waiting for him to respond. He looked a little frightened and Arthur couldn’t imagine why. Did Merlin think Arthur disapproved of the event with Gwaine? The feeling in his stomach told him he did not want anyone to have Merlin. None of them deserved his companionship. But Merlin was free to do as he wished, despite the odd feelings in his stomach which Arthur blamed on the wine.

“You hardly need my permission. You can find company with anyone you wish, Merlin. I was only wondering since you’ve never mentioned anyone before.” Arthur didn’t say that he had felt hurt that Merlin would purposefully keep something from him. Despite their close friendship, Merlin had felt the need to hide his personal life from him, and yet, Arthur didn’t bear him any ill will.

Merlin gave him a small smile, his eyes sparkling with relief.

They fell back into silence again, the fire crackling and popping every once and a while.

“He looks at you sometimes.” Arthur said softly.

Merlin sighed.

“I know.”

Merlin seemed regretful. Arthur hated how much it soothed his mind to know that Merlin didn’t look at Gwaine the same way Gwaine looked at Merlin. For a moment, Arthur let himself pity Gwaine, but Arthur knew far too well that even the heart healed with time.

“I’m just not looking for love.” Merlin said, sounding like he was holding back emotion. He circled his arms around his legs and rested his chin on his knees. He looked young once again, no longer the scarred young man, but the innocent young boy.

It was odd. Merlin was love incarnate. He adored everything, from the flowers on the ground to the passing people he barely knew. Why wouldn’t Merlin want to find someone to love? The thought twisted something in Arthur’s gut. He almost hated the idea of someone trying to love Merlin, as if their heart could possibly encompass all of Merlin, his quirks and his faults.

“There was a girl once.” Merlin said quietly.

“Only once?” Arthur asked, gathering a little bit of a smile despite the feeling in his stomach.

Merlin laughed a little. “Hardly” He rolled his eyes. Arthur gave him a dubious expression, wondering if maybe Merlin hadn’t been as ignorant of those maid servants after all.

Merlin clarified. “Only one girl I loved.”

Arthur closed his eyes for a moment, pushing back the unknown emotion in his chest, before he asked “When?”

“Not long after I came to Camelot.” Merlin shrugged. “Only knew her for three days.”

Merlin had been so young. He had been gawky and he had been adorable. He had been big ears and a wide smile. Arthur looked over to Merlin and saw a mix of Merlin’s old innocence and his solid pureness that never wavered with age. It had taken that young Merlin three days to fall in love and now Merlin wasn’t looking for love at all.

Arthur didn’t like the tears which were pooling in Merlin’s eyes. “I miss her sometimes. I know I was barely old enough to know myself but she had been so sweet. She just needed someone to love her.”

Oh Merlin. Arthur didn’t need Merlin to tell him what happened. She was gone and ten years later, Merlin still missed a girl he had barely known. Arthur had wanted to hate this foolish young girl who had stolen Merlin’s heart, but whoever she had been, she had not deserved to die so young. If she had been as innocent and sweet as Merlin was pure, she had been worthy of his love.

Arthur lay down, rested his head on the furs and closed his eyes, swallowing back the tears for Merlin and his young love. The wine was making him emotional. Close to Arthur, Merlin followed and lay down with his arms by his sides. They watched the fire make shadows across the ceiling.

Arthur laid down his arm, wrapping his hand around Merlin’s fingers. He didn’t look over, but he heard the slight shift in the furs that indicated Merlin was watching him.

“I’m sorry, Merlin.” For not noticing, Arthur added in his mind. He had been blind.

“Yeah.” Merlin’s fingers wrapped around Arthur’s. “I’m sorry too.” For not telling you, Arthur heard him say. It was in the way he spoke, in the way he silently laid in the furs, and in the way he held Arthur’s hand.

***

One morning, just before the sun was about to rise, the warning bells began to ring. Arthur bolted out of bed and Merlin was by his side in an amazing amount of time, helping him into his armor. Only a few minutes later, the knights arrived.

Leon gave the report, “There’s been an intruder in the vaults. Five guards are dead and one is wounded.  The remaining guard says the intruder was a sorcerer.”

Arthur hadn’t known his chest had been tight with the possibility of seeing Morgana in Camelot until Leon’s words had soothed him. Arthur’s chest loosened a fraction, and he ordered his knights. “Find him. If he’s already left the citadel, start a patrol around the city.”

“Yes, sire.” Leon divided the knights and each of them went on their way. When they couldn’t find the intruder in the citadel, Arthur decided to ride out with his knights. Merlin adamantly told him that the King didn’t need to risk himself.

“Let the knights go.” Merlin demanded, his lips tight with indignation.

“Sometimes you worry as much as a fishwife, Merlin.” Arthur told him before he mounted his horse. Merlin’s brows were pulled together and Arthur was terrified that Merlin would follow him to search for this dangerous sorcerer. “Look after anyone who has been injured.” Merlin opened his mouth to protest. “That’s an order.” Then softer, he added, “I’ll be back before the sun has even risen.”

He rode off, his knights following behind him, and he hoped that for once in his life, Merlin, would stay where he was safe.

***

Merlin and Gaius were huddled together in the middle of the vaults. Merlin’s brow was furrowed, and if Merlin was worried, there was a problem. Gaius turned to him and ushered him over.

“Gaius.” Arthur said, “What was stolen?”

“I can’t say for certain, your majesty.” Gaius said, but he gestured to an empty spot on one of the shelves. There was a mount which had nothing on it.

“What was here?” Arthur asked.

“I believe it was the Staff of Bremen, sire.” Gaius explained that the Staff was a powerful weapon of war used by sorcerers who had been employed by early warlords. The staff was of ebony with a green crystal at its center. It was mainly used for channeling magic, but it was also rumored to hypnotize its victims.

“Who would be seeking such an object?”

“There was a man I once spoke to who knew of the Staff.” Gaius looked over to Merlin, who was listening as intently as Arthur. “He had been staying with the druids, but he was cast away when he turned violent. He had been eager for power. Unfortunately, his magic as far as I could tell, was powerful enough to control such a weapon.”

“This man,” Arthur said, “What is his name?”

“I only know him as Ruadan, sire.” Gaius said.

“Morgana” Merlin muttered, “Is he working for Morgana?”

Arthur nodded his head. If a sorcerer wished for power through magic and rank, then Morgana would be the one he would go to.

“If he is,” Gaius sighed, “Let us hope she does not get the Staff of Bremen. It’s a powerful weapon which she would use ruthlessly.”

Arthur nodded his head, “Then we better find him before she does.”

***

Arthur practically fell into his chair when he returned to his chambers. Night had fallen, and Arthur was sure he was supposed to have been served dinner by now, but Merlin was nowhere in sight. It wasn’t his fault, Arthur had been with the council during the usual time for dinner, and he hadn’t seen Merlin since morning. Arthur’s schedule had been hectic ever since Ruadan stole the Staff of Bremen from the vaults. Arthur was surprised if he had time to see his manservant at all.

Merlin entered half an hour later, his hair awry and his boots covered in mud. He skidded to a stop at the door and balanced the tray with both hands, looking distracted as he closed the door and walked toward Arthur.

“Nice of you to join me.” Arthur said, the insult falling flat as his weariness entered his voice. Merlin looked just as exhausted and he supposed everyone in Camelot was on high alert.

“Got caught up” Merlin mumbled.

As he set down the platter, his leg hit the table and knocked some of the food off the plate.

“Sorry” he hissed and moved away. It wasn’t uncommon for Merlin to bump into things, but Arthur noticed the way Merlin paled slightly as he hit the table and the way Merlin favored his right leg over his left just barely. It was such a subtle change that Arthur wondered if anyone but Arthur would have caught the change. Arthur was surprised he noticed it at all.

Arthur’s mind went to the scars across Merlin’s chest before he pushed the thought away. Arthur hadn’t seen Merlin all day. Had Merlin pulled a muscle or taken a fall? Had Arthur been so caught up that he had not noticed?

“What’s wrong with your leg?” Arthur ventured to ask.

Merlin looked surprised as he set down the wine pitcher. “I spilled boiling water on it.” Merlin said, visibly shifting onto his right leg for support.

“Has Gaius seen to it?” Arthur asked, watching the color in Merlin’s face and wondering if he had always been that pale.

Merlin nodded, making a gesture with his hand that told Arthur not to fuss over it. “It’s just sore.”

“Well, in that case” Arthur gestured to the seat next to him, “Rest your leg. I can’t have a lame manservant.”

“Er. Thanks.” Merlin poured the wine and when Arthur indicated to pour for himself, he poured a second goblet.

They ate dinner quietly, Merlin taking food from the platter and munching on it. He looked tired.

“Ruadan’s been evading us for a week.” Arthur sighed. “I was hoping to catch him by now.”

“You’re close. It won’t be too long.” Merlin said.

“I’m worried that as we look for Ruadan, Morgana is planning something.” Arthur confessed.

“She won’t attack yet.” Merlin hummed at he picked through the meat on the platter.

“You seem sure of that.” Arthur said as he watched Merlin eat most of his food. At least he would get some food in him; he looked like he hadn’t eaten all day.

“Ruadan is probably working for Morgana.” Merlin said. “She won’t attack until she knows Ruadan has failed. Which he will.” There was nothing which made Arthur feel more confident than Merlin’s easy assurance of their success.

***

Hot breath on his neck. Cold fingers on his shoulder. Merlin beneath him: a solid weight. Eyes unfocused. Harsh groans. Skin ripped and torn: a wound at Merlin’s ribs. Hot blood on Arthur’s hands.  Merlin’s easy smile. Arthur’s panic as his heart raced and mind reeled. Merlin’s voice, soft and sure, “Come on, Arthur.” His eyes crinkled in a laugh, seemingly unbothered by the lifeblood draining from him. “You know this isn’t the first time it’s happened.”

Arthur could no longer breathe. The air was nothing and he was choking. Merlin’s body was covered in scars. Scars turned to dried blood, to dripping wounds, and then open flesh. Merlin’s chest was red, turning darker and darker until the blood seeped from under his skin and dripped down his chest. Slices from daggers, blades and whips patterned his arms like a tapestry. The scar on Merlin’s neck slowly bled until his throat was sliced open.

Merlin lay in Arthur’s arms, nothing more than a scarred and bloodied piece of flesh. Despite the blood, Merlin had not left this world. He smiled but it did not reach his eyes and the joy that had always been in them was gone. Merlin’s smile was lost and Arthur was afraid that it had never been there at all; only Arthur’s ignorance of Merlin’s pain made him believe that the smile was genuine.

Arthur woke up, the blankets suffocating him. He tore them off, sending them flying to the floor. He jumped out of bed, reflexively grabbing his sword, only to stumble. The sword clanged to the floor and Arthur fell to his knees. He bent low to the ground, coughing as air entered his lungs, as if he had been choking. The stone floor cooled his fevered skin, taking him farther and farther away from his nightmare. He rubbed his face and tried to compose himself, despite the shaking in his limbs.

He reached for his sword, but when he looked down at it, the blade reminded him of the blood on Merlin’s broken skin. He tossed it away, making it loudly skitter across his chambers. Unknowingly, a choked noise escaped his chest.

Arthur reminded himself that Merlin was not dead. Merlin had left Arthur’s chambers that night and had gone to his room. Merlin was safe.

Except how was Arthur to know for certain? Would he sneak off in the night? Was that why on some mornings he looked tired and drawn out? Was Merlin in some hellish place, only to return to Camelot in the early hours? Like his hidden scars, would Merlin conceal his wounds?

Arthur tried to reassure himself that Merlin was safe.

Except, there had been days when Merlin was gone for hours and Arthur hadn’t a clue where he was or what he was doing. There had been entire days when the only thing Arthur knew for certain was that Merlin was nowhere near the citadel. But if not here, where would he be?

The questions which he could find no answer for only made his heavy head reel with confusion. His chest ached, as if compressed with an invisible weight. He lifted himself onto his bed once more, and tried to push away thoughts of Merlin. This time, he could not push them aside.

Where had those scars come from? The burn across his chest was huge and perfectly focused in the center of his chest. It was a deliberate mark, not an accident. The scars on his sides were all from blades, but Arthur did not remember those injuries from the bandits or foreign soldiers that they had encountered in their adventures. Then there was the scar on Merlin’s neck, where his neckerchief conveniently hid it from sight. The scar could only be from a blade which had meant to kill Merlin.

The only thing Arthur could conclude for certain was that Merlin had been injured several times over and Arthur had never noticed it. Merlin had hidden his wounds from Arthur, which meant that however he received those scars, he didn’t intend to tell Arthur about it.

But what activity would make a man riddled with scars, and why would he do it repeatedly? It made no sense. Merlin wasn’t a knight, he did not deal with the wounds Arthur and his men dealt with. At least he shouldn’t. The only explanation was that Merlin was fighting (though Arthur did not know who or why). Except, fighting wasn’t in Merlin’s nature. It made no sense. Why would Merlin deliberately leave the citadel to fight? Merlin could barely handle a hunt, killing animals for food, let alone a fight, killing men for unknown reasons.

The image of Merlin killing the bandit flashed into Arthur’s mind.

Except, Merlin hated violence, especially undeserved death.

The image of Merlin crying over Balinor, a man he had just met, flashed into Arthur’s mind.

Merlin hated violence. Yet Arthur knew Merlin had killed men when in self-defense. Were all his wounds in self-defense? Then what situation would put Merlin in the need to defend himself? Where did he go that was so dangerous? Was there a place or person he visited? Was the journey fraught with bandits?

Arthur was desperate to know how Merlin had been injured and why he would not tell Arthur. The only way Arthur could protect him was if he knew what it was. Was Merlin trying to be noble by hiding his problems, not willing to ask for Arthur’s help? Whatever it was, Merlin would eventually get hurt and Arthur could not bear to lose him over something Arthur could have prevented.

Every mark on Merlin’s skin was a time Arthur had not noticed Merlin’s need for help. Every drop of blood was Arthur’s fault and Merlin had not batted an eyelash. He had not flinched in pain for even a moment after the lashes dripped blood down his back. Pain had been brushed off and his smile had been easy.

There was only one way Arthur would understand and set Arthur’s mind at ease. He had to know what Merlin was doing. If he asked directly, Arthur knew he would only receive a lie in answer, Arthur was sure of that. Excuses of collecting herbs were growing old. So the next time Merlin disappeared without warning, Arthur would track him. It was the only way to protect Merlin from whatever it was. Arthur had never hoped more in his life that Merlin would wander into a tavern.

***

The sun was streaming into Arthur’s window. The blankets were warm, and Arthur felt himself wake up slowly. He stretched, feeling his muscles contract and then loosen. His head feel back onto the pillows. His stomach growled, reminding him that it was time to get up and start the day. He wondered where Merlin was.

Arthur got out of bed and looked out the window to see that the sun was already in the sky.

Merlin was gone.

Arthur got dressed quickly, deciding against his chainmail and knight’s cloak. He donned a red shirt and brown jacket, hoping that wherever he was headed today that it would be suitable. He grabbed his sword and he went down to Gaius’ chambers, only to get the same excuse of some herbs in some forest.

Luckily Arthur hadn’t slept in too late and the day had not yet begun. He still had time to catch up. Back in his chambers, Arthur left a note to Leon saying that he was going on a ride, and he had taken Merlin with him. Arthur didn’t have time for anything else, besides swiping some food from the kitchens.

When he went to the stables he asked one of the boys there if they had seen Merlin. One of them said that they saw him leave at dawn towards the woods, heading west. Arthur gave him some coins, asking him to keep it silent until Arthur returned. The stable boy looked at the coins and nodded furiously.

Arthur mounted his horse and rode off at a fast pace. Years of hunting and tracking people through these woods gave Arthur the advantage over Merlin’s early start. He didn’t know where he was heading, and with only his sword at his side and no chainmail, he was hoping it was only a far off village somewhere.

As he headed west, the more uneasy he became. Arthur was sure he was on the right path, but he wished he wasn’t. He was headed toward the Valley of the Fallen Kings. No wonder Merlin had so many scars; the Valley was infested with bandits. Why would Merlin go there?

Several times Arthur heard horses approaching and had to hide form the bandits that rode past. Usually he would have faced them head-on, but he wasn’t usually running after his manservant without chainmail.

When Arthur finally arrived at the mouth of the Fallen Kings, his heart was in his throat. This wasn’t a tavern, it wasn’t a village, and it wasn’t an innocent trip to visit someone. This was the Valley of the Fallen Kings where men died and even Merlin himself had been injured and captured by Morgana.

Arthur slowed, keeping his eyes and ears open for anything. He made his way up onto a high part of the forest and searched for Merlin’s path, though it seemed to have disappeared. Arthur went forward, not knowing what else to do.

Arthur dismounted from his horse. He looked across the trench where riders would be attacked by bandits, seeing and hearing nothing.  He turned back, leaning against a tree and closing his eyes. He focused on the air filling his lungs and tried to ignore thoughts of his manservant.

Arthur had felt fear before. Tournaments. Quests. Battles. Fear was something he had come to accept in his life and one that he had thought he had mastered. The few times fear had made itself incontrollable was when the people Arthur loved were in danger. When Camelot was under siege. When Gwen had been kidnapped. When Arthur’s knights battled. When Merlin had been injured in this god-forsaken valley.

Now Merlin was here again, of his own free will, and he had not even brought someone along to protect him. Arthur didn’t care if it was Gwaine, but as long as Merlin brought someone. Why would he come here alone?

Arthur heard horse hooves. His eyes snapped open and he looked down to the trench. No one was there but someone was across the way, obviously avoiding the trench’s bandit trap. Arthur looked through the trees and saw a man with a brown jacket and a mop of black hair. Arthur mounted his horse and followed at a safe distance.

Across the way the rider made his way down the slope and passed the worst part of the Valley. Arthur caught a glimpse of a grey neckerchief. From where Arthur was situated on top of the slope Arthur could see a cave a couple paces in front of where he last saw Merlin’s horse. Arthur dismounted and tied his horse to a nearby tree.

He made his way silently through the trees until he was at the edge of the slope but still concealed by the foliage. He saw Merlin’s horse stop in front of the cave, and he circled for a moment. Merlin looked around and Arthur was afraid he had been found out so easily, before Merlin looked back at the cave.

Merlin’s horse went out of view again, but Arthur was positive Merlin’s destination was this cave, whatever it was, so he waited.

Then a man in a black cloak appeared. He was on foot, no horse in sight. The man lowered his cloak and looked around. He was an older man, gray streaks ran through his brown hair, and in one hand he had a staff, which had some sort of green jewel. Arthur could see its light even from where he was on the slope. Arthur recognized the weapon immediately as the Staff of Bremen.

Ruadan. Before Arthur could act, the man entered the cave.

Frustration filled Arthur’s entire being. He had Ruadan at his fingertips, the man who had been evading Camelot for almost a fortnight, and Arthur didn’t even have his chainmail on.

Merlin appeared and Arthur was reminded why he was here. Arthur’s heart picked up pace until it felt like it was in his throat. Merlin entered the cave, without even a sword.

“You idiot” Arthur whispered to himself. He clutched the sword at his side and stood up. He started making his way down the side of the slope, keeping his eyes trained on the cave.

There was a loud shout from the cave, and Arthur didn’t know whose voice it was or if it was a yell of pain or triumph. A huge flash of golden light as bright as the sun emitted from the cave and blinded Arthur. In surprise, he stumbled and fell a few feet. The entire forest was dead silent. There were no more sounds from the cave.

It could have been only a moment or an entire hour before someone was coming out of the cave. Arthur scrambled to the nearest tree to hide himself. He peaked around the trunk of the tree to see Merlin exit the cave. In one hand he had the Staff of Bremen and in the other hand he held a dagger which was dripping with blood.

Arthur’s lungs burned and his muscles ached, but he stayed still.

Merlin’s horse appeared, trotting up to the entrance of the cave. Pulling a piece of cloth from the pack on his saddle, Merlin wiped the dagger of blood and stuck it in his boot. He took his canteen and washed the blood off his hands.

With the staff in hand he mounted his horse, turned, and rode off in the direction of Camelot.

***

Be careful what you wish for, Gaius had once told Arthur.

If only Arthur could forget everything he had seen. If only he could repress every thought and question he had ever had. It would have been so much easier if he had stayed deaf, dumb, and blind.

Arthur made his way down the slope, more falling than walking. When he entered the cave it was as dark as night. Somehow, he managed to make a crude torch. He wasn’t sure how he did it, but he guessed that after years of hunts and quests, his hands had worked by memory.

On the ground was a man who could only be Ruadan. The center of his chest was still oozing blood. His eyes were open, still bright with the freshness of death. On his wrist he bore the symbol of the druids and his cloak bore Morgana’s mark.

There was no denying it. Merlin had killed this man.

Arthur hadn’t wanted to throw up after seeing a dead body since he was a young knight. Now he felt sick to his stomach and his meager breakfast felt overpowering. He swallowed it down, and dropped the torch, allowing it to burn the body as he exited the cave.

He needed to make it back to Camelot before Merlin if his cover story was going to work. Luckily Arthur was a good horseman and he was numb enough to focus on nothing but the path ahead of him.

When Arthur returned to Camelot, Merlin was entering the lower town.

“Arthur?” Merlin asked his voice rising in surprise as their horses walked in step.

“Went for a ride.” Arthur said, “Not all of us can spend the day in the tavern.”

The lie was too easy and Arthur could see with clarity how simple it must have been for Merlin to lie to Arthur. Merlin smiled and Arthur couldn’t bear to look at him.

***

Merlin had scars. Merlin went to the Valley of the Fallen Kings. Merlin killed a man working for Morgana. Merlin lied to Arthur about killing the sorcerer.

Merlin had been wounded because he went to damned places like the Valley where Morgana could have captured him all over again. Merlin left the citadel with the intention of killing a man.

It didn’t add up. Merlin was only a servant! He hated death and he hated violence. Why would he go to kill this man himself when he could have told Arthur where Ruadan was? Arthur and the knights had been looking for Ruadan for over a fortnight, if Merlin knew where he was, why hadn’t he said so? Why would he feel that he had to find and kill Ruadan himself?

And how did Merlin even kill Ruadan, anyways? The dagger and the chest wound made the logistics of it easy enough to figure out, but Ruadan was a known sorcerer. How did Merlin manage to combat a man who could have killed Merlin was a wave of his hand? There had been a bright light of magic from the cave. If Ruadan used magic, how did Merlin survive?

***

Merlin used magic.

***

“I trusted him. I trusted him. I trusted him. I trusted him. I trusted him. I trusted him.

I trusted him. I trusted him. I trusted him. I trusted him. I trusted him. I trusted him.

I trusted him. I trusted him. I trusted him. I trusted him. I trusted him. I trusted him.”

***

Merlin put himself in danger for Camelot.

Merlin lied to Arthur for ten years.

Merlin killed a sorcerer.

Merlin was a sorcerer.

***

Arthur thought of every possible situation that involved Merlin leaving that cave alive and not using magic in some way. But Ruadan was a powerful sorcerer who was working under Morgana’s orders. Ruadan could have killed Merlin as soon as he entered the cave, but somehow Merlin had killed him instead.

Let alone killing Ruadan, Arthur couldn’t even begin to understand how Merlin had found him.

Magic was the missing piece. Magic was the reason Merlin lied. The reason Merlin would run off without reason. The reason he hid his wounds. All of them had to do with magic in some way.

Merlin acted like a fool and Arthur had been fooled. Every smile was a mask and every kindness was a lie.

Arthur would not be tricked again.

***

That evening, Arthur felt numb as Merlin arrived with dinner.

“You may go.” Arthur said.

Merlin paused. He might have looked at Arthur, but Arthur’s eyes were focused on the widow. Merlin must have shrugged and said, “I’ll just turn down the-“

“I said you are dismissed.” Arthur said sternly. He turned to the food but he did not look to Merlin who must have been watching him.

“Arthur?” Merlin asked cautiously.

Arthur could not bear to look at Merlin. He didn’t know which emotion filled his stomach more, anger or disgust. He poured himself wine and made his own plate. He ignored Merlin.

Arthur heard footsteps and then the door closed lightly.

He didn’t eat much and he wished wine would make him forget, but the damage was already done.  He had been pushing these feelings and questions about Merlin aside for so long, and now that he had answers, he wished he could have his ignorance again.

The next day they would go about their day as they always had. Merlin would wake him in the morning, they would go to meetings, Arthur would train, and Merlin would attend to his chores, as they had done for years. Bile rose in his throat and he pushed the food away, feeling sickened. He didn’t want Merlin anywhere in his sight.

The confusion had faded and now Arthur was positive he had discovered the truth. Merlin was a sorcerer and he had been lying to Arthur. He didn’t know how long Merlin had been practicing magic, but it had to have been for a considerable amount of time for Merlin to have defeated Ruadan.

When Morgana betrayed him, Arthur had been confused and angry. But his confusion had, and always would, overpower his anger. Morgana had been a caring child and he would never understand why she turned to dark magic.

When Agravaine betrayed him, Arthur had felt foolish and angry. He had hated himself for trusting someone when all the signs had been telling him not to.

But with Merlin’s betrayal, there was only anger. There had been no doubt in Arthur’s mind that Merlin had been loyal. Merlin had been pureness and everything good in the world. Merlin had been his closest friend, the only constant good in Arthur’s life, and it had all been a lie. It was the lie that enraged Arthur more than anything else.

And yet with all his anger, Arthur could not bring himself to wish execution on Merlin. He pictured Merlin at his feet with Arthur’s sword at his throat. Arthur was angry, but he could not imagine slicing Merlin’s throat or watching him burn at the stake. Those images only made Arthur remember ten years ago when Merlin had been big eyes and a wide smile. It only made Arthur think of Hunith, and how she would look at him and know Arthur had killed her son. No, he could not kill Merlin.

The anger was worse without an outlet, and he ended up knocking the platter of food to the floor.  The clang of metal plates and the shattering of pottery released some of his anger, but it was only a moment’s satisfaction. The next second took up his sword and went to the training grounds where he could work off his anger.

***

The next week Arthur woke early. Such a task wasn’t hard since he barely slept after the day Merlin had killed Ruadan. He dressed himself and dismissed Merlin of his morning duties. Arthur excused Merlin before all official meetings. Merlin brought him dinner, but Arthur always dismissed him before Arthur even had a drink of wine. Arthur could barely speak or look at Merlin without some emotion overcoming him. Anger threatened to make itself known in Arthur’s demeanor with Merlin’s smile and heartbreak seeped through Arthur with every one of Merlin’s worried looks.

Arthur knew Merlin could see that something was amiss, but he couldn’t bring himself to care. Some of the knights noticed Arthur’s distance but they did not ask, probably thinking he was in a bad mood after calling off the search for Ruadan. No one noticed just how little he and Merlin spoke. Arthur was certain no one would figure out that Arthur was ignoring Merlin, because now he knew Merlin was good at keeping secrets.

One evening, before Arthur could dismiss him, Merlin asked, “Is everything alright, my lord?”

“Fine.” Arthur said, adding, “I’m tired.”

It was the truth. His sleep had been restless if he managed to sleep at all. He had told himself that he would make a decision about Merlin soon, but every evening his mind rejected all thoughts of Merlin. After years of ignoring his emotions when it was convenient, he had gotten too good at repressing himself.

“Would you like me to have Gaius make you a sleeping draught, sire?” He sounded so tentative, he almost sounded like George. For some reason, that only made Arthur angrier. Apparently Merlin could act any way he wanted as long as he got what he needed.

“No, I’m fine.” Arthur waved his hand, “You are dismissed.”

“Arthur-”

“Do not-”

“Just tell me what’s wrong-!” Merlin shouted.

Arthur slammed his hand on the table, “I said, leave me.”

Merlin looked murderous, his hands balled into fists, his shoulder bunched up, and his eyes boring into Arthur’s. For a bare second Arthur was terrified of him.

Merlin turned on his heel and stomped out of Arthur’s chambers.

Arthur didn’t know he had been holding his breath until air rushed back into his lungs. He ran a hand through his hair and pinched the bridge of his nose. He had to make a decision. He could not live with Merlin like this for a moment longer.

***

Arthur pulled the cowl around his face and made his way into the woods on foot. He covered his trail and watched his back, making sure no one followed him.

It didn’t take long to find the Druid camp. They always seemed to know when people were looking for them, and a man greeted him in the woods.

“Arthur Pendragon” the man said with an eerily blank face.

“I mean no harm.” Arthur pulled back his cloak to reveal that he had no sword. “I wish to speak with your leader.”

The druid nodded and led Arthur into the encampment, a grouping of tents with several fires burning at the center. It was the dead of night and only a few people were awake.

Arthur waited at one of the fires while the man entered one of the tents.

A moment later, Arthur heard a woman say, “I can honestly say that I am surprised to see you here, Arthur Pendragon.” He turned to see an older woman, streaks of gray lining her brown hair. She held a staff, but unlike The Staff of Bremen it did not look magical.

“I would not have disturbed you if it was not important.” Arthur said with a small nod of his head, “I understand your people are a peaceful one and I do not mean you harm.”

“I understand” she nodded. “I am Seren. This is my encampment. Why have you come here?”

“I have come to ask a favor.”

“I hardly think you are in a position to ask us a favor, Arthur Pendragon.” The woman’s lips were thin as her eyes ran over him. “Your father would have killed us all by now.”

“I am not my father.” Arthur snapped.

This must have been the correct thing to say because her expression lightened. “So you are not.” She turned, and motioned for Arthur to follow her.

They stepped into a large tent. With a wave of her hand and a whispered word, small lights like stars scatter around the ceiling of the tent. Arthur stiffened at the use of magic, but he had entered the Druid camp with the full knowledge of who they were and what they practiced.

She sat down on some of the pillows and gestured for Arthur to sit across from her. Adjusting his cloak, he settled on the pillows.

“What favor could a King possibly ask?” Seren said, watching Arthur with intensity.

“There is a servant in my household. He practices magic and by the laws of my kingdom he would burn at the stake.”

“If you know of their crime, why are they still alive?”

“I will not kill Merlin.” Arthur snapped, his voice rising unintentionally.

The woman watched him but she did not speak.

Arthur swallowed. “I have come to ask you- beg you- that when I banish him, you will take him in and protect him.”

Arthur didn’t like how closely she was watching him. After a moment’s pause she said, “We will take anyone who seeks our help, you need not ask.”

“I need your word.” Arthur gritted out.

She tilted her head, “This man’s life matters to you, and yet you will banish him.”

“I have no choice.” Arthur demanded.

She shrugged. “If it is easier for you to think so.”

“I did not come here for a lesson on morals.” Arthur barked. “Do I have your word that you will protect him?”

“I hardly think Merlin needs protecting.”

Arthur was taken aback, “You know him?”

 “Merlin hardly needs protection. I think you know that. Why have you truly come here?”

Arthur leaned forward, trying to sound authoritative to cover how unsteady he felt. “If you know Merlin, tell me what you know of him.”

“I do not know Merlin.” She said simply.

“But-”

She cut him off. “Have you heard of the prophecy of the Once and Future King?” Arthur did not answer since he had never heard of such a prophecy. He hardly heard any prophecies since they were all too closely linked to magic.

“There is a prophecy of a great King who will unite the five kingdoms of Albion and bring peace to the land. A King of a Golden Age.”

“What does this have to do-”

Again she cut him off, “You are the Once and Future King who will unite Albion.”

Arthur felt his own eyes widen. “I-” he shook his head, “I don’t understand.”

“Peace is nigh, Arthur Pendragon.”

Clearing his head, he demanded, “What does this have to do with Merlin?”

She smiled, “Merlin knows of the prophecy and he knows you are the great King.”

Arthur’s mind flooded with memories. He remembered all the times before battle when Merlin reassured Arthur of his victory. ‘You're destined to be Albion's greatest king.’

Arthur’s head was reeling. Had Merlin truly believed in Arthur, or had he only believed in a prophecy? Had everything Merlin said been nothing but a way to make Arthur unite Albion?

Seren stopped his thoughts quickly. “Destiny is not inevitable, though many of us wish to see it that way. It is your destiny to bring peace to Albion, but you cannot do that unless you choose it.”

“I want peace more than anything.” Arthur said firmly.

“Then you will need Merlin.” She said simply.

“Merlin?” Arthur asked, his brows pinching together in confusion.

“That is what his mother named him, yes. His true name is Emrys.” The name rolled off her tongue the way one might say the name of an ancient god. “He is the most powerful sorcerer of this Earth. It is his sole destiny is to protect you, Arthur Pendragon.”

Arthur’s ears were ringing. If what she said was true, Merlin was more powerful than anyone, even Morgana herself. When Arthur came here he had thought he had Merlin all figured out and yet he had more questions than answers.

“Banish him, if you must, but he will not leave.” She said resolutely, “Merlin knew his destiny and he chose to protect you.”

His throat burned and his chest ached. He had come here thinking he had settled his mind. In a day’s time he had planned on banishing Merlin, to never see him again. Now his resolve crumbled and he felt more broken than whole.

“Why?” Arthur’s voice broke.

“He chose you because he believes in you.”

Arthur realized that his anger had only been an underlying emotion, because nothing compared to this heartbreak. Before he even realized his eyes were watering, tears fell from his eyes. He wiped them away, refusing to cry in front of someone he barely knew. She moved forward and knelt in front of him. His fists were balled on his knees and he turned away from her.

She rested a hand on his fist, and whispered, “You cannot be whole without him by your side.”

“Is that part of the prophecy?” he asked, a scoffing noise coming from his throat despite the tears on his face.

“No.” she said. “It is what is truly in your heart.”

Arthur turned to her and saw pity in her eyes, but also sincerity. Her hand squeezed his for a moment. “You may stay here until you are ready to return to your kingdom.”

She stood and walked to the tent opening. Just before she left, she paused, looking over her shoulder. “I cannot tell you more, but if you seek more answers about your warlock there is a man who can help you.”

Arthur looked up at her, “I came here thinking I knew what I should do… now I feel I have even more questions than before.” he said.

She nodded in understanding. “His name is Taliesin. Find him in the Valley of the Fallen Kings, and he will tell you what you wish to know.”

Arthur nodded, “Thank you.”

“You are always welcome here, Arthur Pendragon,” Seren said, “As is Emrys.” The tent closed behind her, leaving Arthur to himself.

***

Arthur stayed in the Druid tent, his head pounding and his hands trembling. He had always hated crying, the way his eyes felt raw, the way his body shook and how it always felt like he was drowning. His anger seeped away and all that was left was heartbreak.

Arthur realized that he had been angry with Merlin, more than even Morgana, because he loved Merlin more than anyone else. Merlin was his closest friend, and the only person Arthur had trusted wholeheartedly and without doubt. He loved Merlin in every way possible. Discovering Merlin’s lies felt like a part of Arthur had been torn out of him.

But could Arthur blame Merlin for lying to him? If Merlin had any magic in his body, he would have hidden it as soon as he entered Camelot. Uther would have killed anyone even if they were only suspected of sorcery. Then why would Merlin practice magic? If he wished to practice some innocent sorcery, he could have stayed in Ealdor, in Cenred's kingdom, where magic was free to practice. ‘I just didn't fit in anymore. I wanted to find somewhere that I did.’ Because Camelot was his destiny, Arthur thought.

But why wouldn’t Merlin tell Arthur about their shared destiny? Arthur wanted it to be black and white. Merlin didn’t tell him, which meant Merlin didn’t trust him. But it wasn’t that simple. If Merlin had revealed himself to Arthur, what would he have done? There was no doubt: Arthur would have banished him. He almost did it too. No, Arthur could not blame Merlin for keeping his magic a secret.

In the early hours of the morning Arthur walked back to Camelot, his heart aching with sorrow instead of pounding with anger. With this new knowledge, he had to rethink his plans. Arthur could not go back to the way things were before, but he could keep quiet until he made a decision. He would have to work out his emotions first.

Arthur had thought Merlin would always be this constant mystery. He had simply thought Merlin was full of quirks that Arthur would never figure out. But despite all that, Arthur had thought that he knew Merlin. Arthur had thought Merlin was his idiot manservant. He had been loyal to a fault. He had been stupidly brave. He had been pure and good.

But, Arthur a felt disconnection from the Merlin who Arthur had thought he had known and the man Merlin truly was.

Now Arthur knew Merlin was a powerful sorcerer. Merlin had a destiny to protect Camelot. Merlin was a liar. Merlin had put himself in mortal danger for Arthur.

Arthur was going to have to take what he had known about Merlin and figure out what was true and what had been a lie. He was going to have to relearn Merlin.

***

Arthur woke only a few hours later, feeling better rested than he had in a long while despite the few hours he had slept. He felt something tap his leg and he blinked open his eyes.

“Sire?” Merlin was standing next to Arthur’s bed with one hand lightly pressed to Arthur’s leg. He looked like a scared fawn, hesitant and wide eyed.

“Why haven’t you awakened me like this, before? It’s much calmer than your usual yelling.”

Merlin’s eyes lit up and Arthur hadn’t known he had missed him until that moment. “I tried, but you always went back to sleep.”

“I think you liked having an excuse to yell at me.” Arthur said, letting his head fall back onto the pillows.

Merlin was silent and when Arthur looked up again, his manservant was looking at him, head cocked to the side. Arthur supposed he deserved that, after a week of silence.

Arthur sighed and hefted himself out of bed. “Well, come on Merlin, we’ve got things to do today.” He washed his face in the water basin and started to get dressed. Merlin didn’t move to help him, obviously waiting for Arthur to dismiss him.

Arthur tossed Merlin an old shirt, and to both their surprises, he caught it.

“Don’t just stand there. We’ve got a council meeting. Help me with my chainmail.”

“Sire?” Merlin’s eyebrows raised in question.

Merlin?” Arthur mocked back.

Then Merlin grinned and all was set to right. At least, for the moment.

***

Arthur set a fast pace for the Valley of the Fallen Kings. He wasn’t supposed to be leave without his knights but he didn’t dare ride in secret during the night, especially into the Valley. Instead he donned his chainmail and sword in the morning light and rode off with the hope that by the time he returned no one had panicked and raised the alarms.

It was still morning when he arrived at the mouth of the Valley. Seren had said he would find Taliesin, but Arthur wasn’t sure where he was supposed to be heading. Without much thought, Arthur made his way into the forest.

Only a moment later, hardly a breath, a man appeared in front of Arthur. His horse stumbled and neighed in surprise and Arthur had to back up as to not trample the man.

“Arthur Pendragon” The man smiled as if they were old friends.

Arthur’s heart was racing, but he did not draw his sword, as much as he wanted to. “Are you Taliesin?”

“I am.” The man said. “Follow me.”

The man took the reins of Arthur’s horse and led him through the forest. It didn’t take long before they were at the mouth of a cave. Arthur dismounted and tied his horse to a tree.

“A druid told me you could tell me more about Emrys.” The name felt foreign on Arthur’s tongue, but not unpleasant.

“I can.” Taliesin gestured to the cave. “But are you willing to use magic to understand your warlock?”

Arthur looked hesitantly at the cave and the man before him. “How?” he asked.

Taliesin revealed a mark on his wrist. It was the druid’s triskelion. “I am a Seer. If you wish to know more about your warlock, I can show you what you wish to see.”

Arthur set his jaw, pushing down his uneasiness. “Show me.”

They walked into the cave. It was black as pitch and yet the man did not light a torch or cast a spell for light. He walked through the series of tunnels without stumbling and Arthur had to keep his hand to the wall so he would not trip.

After a moment of silent walking, Arthur saw something shining at the end of the tunnel. A blue glow cast its light down the cave until Arthur could see his own feet underneath him. At the end of the tunnel was an enormous cave, filled with blue and white crystals.

“This, young King, is the Crystal Cave.” Taliesin stood next to a large crystal, as high as Arthur’s waist. “These crystals, when used properly, can show you moments in time: past present or future.”

Looking around at the thousands of crystals, Arthur felt overwhelmed. He had felt magic before, the blast of magic knocking him out or the crackle of magic when Camelot had been under attack. When Arthur looked at these crystals he felt something neither sinister nor good, but powerful.

“After years of looking over these crystals I have been able to channel the magic they hold to show others. Only my practice has allowed me to do this. I believe Emrys could have done it as a mere child.”

“He truly is powerful, then?” Arthur asked.

“Yes.” Taliesin said as if it were a simple fact. Arthur was still wrapping his mind around it.

If Arthur, a man without magic, could feel the power of the magic in the cave, then he wondered how overpowering it must have felt to a person of magic. He wondered how powerful Merlin could be, if he could easily control these crystals.

“The crystals can show me the past? Even in a place I was not?” Arthur asked.

“Yes. Even if you were not yet born or will be long gone.” Taliesin gestured Arthur forward, near a crystal. “But I think you do not have a specific place or time in mind.”

Arthur stepped closer to the crystal. “I can hardly imagine what I want to know.”

Taliesin considered this for a moment. “Why have you come here?” he prompted.

“I wish to understand Merlin.” Arthur responded in the simplest terms.

Taliesin nodded his head. “You wish to see how Emrys became the man he is today.”

Arthur wasn’t sure if that was what he wanted, but it was a start. If he could see how Merlin acted behind Arthur’s back, maybe he could understand him.

“Are you ready, young King?” Taliesin’s hand hovered over the crystal and he watched Arthur with an expectant expression.

Arthur took a deep breath. “Yes.”

Taliesin recited a spell and when Arthur looked into the crystal he felt like he was being penetrated with magic as he was being submerged into violently hot water. He was blind; white light was all he could see.

A rusty old voice: “How small you are for such a great destiny.”

A young innocent voice: “Why? What do you mean? What destiny?”

The sound of a dragon’s roar, feet running, metal clanging. Then silence again.

“You are but one side of a coin, Arthur is the other."

Arthur gasped and suddenly his sight was back. He was looking down a cave. The Great Dragon stood at its center and on a small edge of rock, stood Merlin. Arthur felt flashes of confusion and desperation and he realized he was feeling Merlin’s emotions of so many years ago.

“I need your help.” Merlin pled, “Please.”

As if in a memory, Arthur saw the stone gargoyles attack Camelot. Arthur remembered Sigan’s curse as he saw it through Merlin’s eyes. Then Arthur saw himself. He was injured, sitting on a table in the citadel’s hall with the other wounded knights. He was pale and bleeding. Arthur felt Merlin’s emotions, strong waves of desperation and fear.

The visions shifted back to the Dragon: “To defeat Sigan you will need a spell more powerful than any you know…You must give me something in return… A promise that one day you will free me.”

Merlin shook his head and his eyes were filled with tears. Hopelessness creeped over Merlin as the walls of the cave shook with Sigan’s attack.

“You must promise or Camelot will fall.” The Dragon warned.

Merlin capitulated “I promise!”

Merlin defeated Sigan, the most powerful sorcerer that Camelot had ever seen. Until Merlin, that is. Arthur felt the passage of time like he felt wind on his face. Months had passed.

He heard rather than saw Merlin say, “I know I promised to free you, and I will.”

The Dragon scoffed, “I no longer trust your promises.”

Desperation filled the vision once again. A flash of memory and Arthur saw that all of Camelot was fast asleep, except for Arthur, Merlin, and Morgana.

 “You have to help me.” Merlin begged.

Arthur didn’t want to believe it, even as he watched Merlin break the chains and watched the Dragon ascend into Camelot’s skies, and innocent people burned.

Visions passed before him, so fast he could barely understand them: searching for Balinor, a revelation of kinship, Merlin over his father’s body, the Dragon’s attack, and then Merlin’s bellow as he commanded Kilgharrah.

“Leave! If you ever attack Camelot again, I will kill you…I have shown you mercy, now you must do the same to others.”

Arthur stumbled as the vision receded and he was back in the Crystal Cave. Taliesin’s hand was on his shoulder, keeping him grounded and steadying his body.

“The first vision is always the hardest to handle, especially for those foreign to magic.”

Arthur gasped in breath and leaned against the crystal to steady himself, though he dared not look into it. His mind was spinning with thoughts of the Great Dragon, Balinor, and Merlin. It had been Merlin who had freed the Great Dragon, and caused hundreds of deaths.

“Why would you show me this?” Arthur demanded, his voice as rough as if he had been screaming.

Taliesin hung his head solemnly, “There are things Emrys has done because he wanted to do them…and then there are things he has done out of desperation and manipulation. But all of it had been for the sake of loved ones.”

Arthur had seen what had happened as if he had been standing in the cave with the Dragon himself and had felt the desperation as if it had been his own. Merlin had not wanted to free the Dragon, Arthur felt that as much as he had seen it. But the Dragon had manipulated Merlin when he was desperate, and Merlin had wanted nothing more than to save others. Even in the end, Merlin had spared the Dragon’s life.

Arthur rolled back his shoulders and took in another deep breath.

“Show me more.” Arthur demanded.

“What would you wish to know?” Taliesin asked.

There had been one question that Arthur had pushed aside every time it surfaced in his thoughts. He could not bear to think about it, more so than even Merlin’s lies. “Show me if Merlin is loyal to Morgana.”

Taliesin’s brows rose in surprise, but his hand hovered over the crystal once again, and recited the same spell.

This time, when Arthur looked into the crystal, the submersion of magic was not so overwhelming. The white light blinded him as he felt flashes of early emotions. Arthur felt Merlin’s affection for Morgana as the young woman she had once been. Then he felt the terror and disbelief.

The Dragon, still in its cave, spoke: “You must eradicate the source, Merlin…The witch, The Lady Morgana…She has turned her back on her own…”

Flashes of the past showed Morgana leaving to visit Morgause and her hate for Camelot. Arthur felt his own heartbreak as well as Merlin’s.

Then Arthur saw the entire citadel asleep, just before Morgause attacked. Merlin and Arthur were affected, but Morgana had not been. Merlin had said it was because Gaius had given her a potion, but Arthur could see that that had been a way to cover up Morgana’s magic.

The Dragon said firmly, “You must kill her. If you do not, then Camelot will fall and Arthur will die.”

Tears pooled in Merlin’s eyes as he looked up at the Dragon. Arthur saw a bottle of hemlock. He watched Merlin give the poisoned water to Morgana. He watched Merlin cry as Morgana started to choke and die. Morgana looked up at Merlin, and Arthur felt as much disbelief as she did in that moment. Merlin reached out for her, tears streaming down his cheeks, and held her as she gasped for air.

Arthur saw himself fighting off the Knights of Medhir. Then he saw Morgause, looking over Morgana’s half-dead body.

Despite Merlin’s pallor and tears, his voice was firm, “If you want to know what poison it is, then you will undo the magic that drives the knights.”

The knights fell and Morgause took Morgana.

The first thing Arthur felt, before he even felt Taliesin’s hand on his shoulder, was relief. Merlin had never been working for Morgana, even when everyone had believed her to be innocent. Now there was one more thing Arthur needed to know.

“Show me where Merlin’s loyalties lie.”

Arthur didn’t want to believe Merlin was working for his own gain, it would almost be worse than if he had been working for Morgana, but he had to know for certain. Taliesin nodded his head and repeated the spell.

Arthur saw golden light and felt the warm sun on his skin, but he could not see. He heard Merlin’s voice.

“I could never have a friend who could be such an ass.”

“…if you weren’t being such a clotpole!”

“Complete cabbagehead!”

Merlin’s smile and Arthur’s laugh. A hundred adventures pass over Arthur’s eyes as he watched the two of them fight off evil beasts and terrible curses. A fire crackled and they lay next to each other, in the woods, in a deserted castle, in Arthur’s chambers.

Merlin’s cocky laugh, even as bandits had him chained with cold iron. “My sole loyalty is to King Arthur.”

Then the vision settled on a single scene. Arthur saw his younger self sitting in front of the fire in his chambers, his shoulder bandaged after the Questing Beast had bitten him. Arthur had thought all had been well, but in the vision he felt Merlin’s despair

“You’re a prat. And a royal one…I’m happy to be your servant til the day I die.”

Arthur had always remembered this conversation as being odd, but in this new light, it felt like a goodbye.

“Sometimes I think know you…other times.” Remembering this moment, this statement hit far too close to home.

“Well I know you. And you’re a great warrior. One day you’ll be a great king.” Merlin said, his eyes filling. Arthur still couldn’t understand. Why did this feel like a goodbye?

Merlin stood in the Isle of the Blessed with the High Priestess.

Merlin’s stood tall, head held firm, and jaw set, “I willingly give my life for Arthur’s.”

“No!” Arthur screamed as the vision receded and he was left in the Crystal Caves. With deep breaths Arthur reassured himself that the vision had happened years ago, and Merlin was safe. He opened his eyes and focused on the crystal underneath his palms. Merlin’s sole loyalty was to Arthur. The heartbreak which had settled in his bones, lifted and he was left feeling complete relief and pride in his warlock.

Taliesin’s voice brought Arthur to the present, “Have all your questions been answered?”

Arthur thought of the visions he had seen. Merlin had realized the Greast Dragon, and yet he had done it out of manipulation, not malice. Merlin had attempted to kill Morgana for the sake for Camelot, even if it broke his heart to do it. Merlin had willingly offered his life for Arthur’s, leaving with barely a goodbye.

“The important ones.” Arthur let a small smile spread across his lips.

***

Arthur had planned on relearning Merlin, but it turned out to be a lot harder than he had thought it would be. It wasn’t hard because Merlin was good at lying or because everything about him was different, it was hard because Merlin was exactly the same.

Merlin talked too much. He tripped over his own feet and dropped things more than he caught them. He was terrible at cleaning.

He would still yell at Arthur when he headed the patrol, when he should have let his knights go first. “You’re going to get yourself killed!” Merlin had shouted, red in the face. Before, Arthur would have called him a fishwife, but now he could see how Merlin’s entire life must be focused on Arthur’s safety.

He still stayed by Arthur’s side. Servants weren’t really needed on dangerous campaigns, yet Merlin had always packed his bags and followed Arthur and the knights. Now Arthur figured that Merlin had been doing more than just cooking and cleaning on those trips. In council meetings he stayed by Arthur, even though no one but the knights and lords should have been present. Merlin must have been listening closely to protect Camelot in any way he could.

Every normal thing that Merlin did, now held a different meaning. Merlin was messy, as shown by the dirty clothes scattered across Arthur’s chambers, but Merlin always placed armor on Arthur’s chest as if it were a reverent practice. Merlin was always by Arthur’s side, a constant presence, and now Arthur understood that he had to make sure Arthur was safe at all times.

The more he watched, the more he learned.

Merlin was quiet on some days and Arthur had the desperate need to make him happy again. He remembered the way Merlin watched Balinor die, and all he could think of were the deaths Merlin must have seen. His childhood friend, Will. The girl Merlin had loved. Then he thought of the deaths Merlin must have caused, and how the guilt must weigh on him. Trying to kill Morgana. The chaos after the Dragon’s attack.  Ruadan. Arthur could not begin imagine who else Merlin had had to kill for the love of Camelot.

Arthur watched and he found out that for all Merlin’s loudness, he was very quiet.

He would talk incessantly, but not about anything important. He complained about having to clean, but he never whined about following Arthur around during all hours of the day. He was clumsy, but he was still as a statue when he wanted to be. He said stupid things, but he was wise when Arthur needed him to be.

He acted like a fool, but Arthur had always known that that wasn’t really Merlin. He could be silly and he was proud of it in a way that made everyone love him, but he wasn’t stupid. Arthur had often played up Merlin as his idiot manservant because if he hadn’t Merlin would have been killed for insolence years ago. The number of times Merlin’s mouth had insulted visiting nobles or his actions enraged foreign royalty, it was lucky he had survived this long.

Now Arthur could see that Merlin’s silliness had a purpose. No one would suspect the idiot manservant of being the powerful Emrys. At least Merlin never really played stupid with Arthur. He would say some insolent things and do things that made Arthur laugh, but he always spoke his mind to Arthur.

At least Merlin had trusted Arthur with part of his true self.

***

“Tell the knights that I’ll meet them at The Rising Sun.”

It was a frivolous request, yet Arthur couldn’t help but want it. He had yearned for something of old times, and drinking ale with Merlin and the knights seemed like the closest thing he could have.

Arthur had figured out that Merlin probably had never been to the tavern all those times he had disappeared, but he still wanted to spend time with Merlin away from the citadel. No one could blame him if he didn’t want to be the King for one evening.

The Rising Sun greeted them with awkward silence, but most of Arthur’s knights were common men and they soon showed the people of the lower town that the King and his knights were only there to relax. It also helped that Arthur paid for everyone’s drinks.

Gwaine started a dice game with some of the local gamblers. Eylan started describing tales of his adventures to some young men. Percival had a line of men waiting to arm wrestle with him. Leon and Lancelot were playing a game of cards, and if Leon’s frown was anything to go by, Lancelot was winning.

“You should join them.”

Arthur had not even noticed that Merlin was next to him. He wondered if it was because Merlin was quiet when he wanted to be or if Arthur was used to him always being by his side.

“Join who?” Arthur asked, sipping his ale as he watched his knights spread around the tavern.

“Any of them” Merlin nudged his arm. “This was your idea, remember?”

“Why aren’t you with any of them?” Arthur countered.

“I’m with you” Merlin retorted.

Arthur looked over to him. He was wearing a worn red shirt that might have been Arthur’s at one point. He had ale in one hand, but it didn’t look like he had drunk any of it.

“I miss it sometimes.” Arthur said absentmindedly. “It seemed so much easier when we were all just men. Not a King and knights.”

“Nothing’s changed.” Merlin said, “You’re just a man and they’re just loyal friends.”

Arthur smiled at him, “You see the world in a strange way, you know that Merlin?”

“So I’ve been told.” Merlin shrugged and sipped his ale.

“Rank never mattered to you” Arthur grumbled.

“I’m still convinced it’s my insolence that has kept me employed this long. You enjoy it.” Merlin was half joking, but Arthur could see the seriousness in his eyes.

“How else would I know what people think of me if I didn’t have someone to tell it to my face?” Arthur deadpanned.

“Just doing my duty” Merlin said with a cocky grin. Then he elbowed Arthur’s ribs. “Come on, you’ll pout all night.”

Arthur’s protest was cut off as Merlin took Arthur’s hand and dragged him over to a table in the center of the room. They started a game and soon enough Eylan and Percival came over, and then the rest of the knights joined. Other tavern goers gathered around, looking less and less cautious of the King as Merlin talked more and more openly with him. Circled around the table in easy comradery, the King, the knights, and Merlin played a game of cards.

Merlin ended up winning. Leon looked surprised. Lancelot rolled his eyes. Eylan looked impressed. Gwaine looked proud. Percival didn’t look surprised in the least.

The knights had lost, but none of them looked truly miffed at Merlin for winning. Merlin smiled smugly and collected his winnings. They were all making good natured jokes at each other, about how Arthur hadn’t played cards since he was a young knight or how Gwaine should have won with all his practice in taverns.

Then someone, a common man in the tavern, made a rude remark about Merlin. It wasn’t in jest, and it was nasty enough that it caught all the knight’s attentions. Instinctively, Arthur reached for his sword and raised his arm to block Merlin. To Arthur’s surprise, he saw his knight’s reach for their swords and Gwaine drew a dagger and pointed it at the man.

“I suggest you apologize to my friend.” His tone was light, but his eyes were dark

The man must have been too drunk to realize that the King and his best knights were all ready to impale him at any moment because he only said, “That serving boy is a rotten cheater.”

Arthur stood up and the men next to him parted immediately.

“Arthur, don’t-” Merlin said quickly.

“That serving boy” Arthur growled, carefully resting his hand over his sword, “is my friend and a loyal servant to the King of Camelot. Make your apology.”

Arthur’s royalty must have shone enough to hint to the drunken man that Merlin was protected by some of the most dangerous men in the kingdom.

The man looked to Merlin quickly, and then looked back to Arthur with wide eyes. “My apologies” he stuttered.

Only after Arthur nodded his head and said “Good” did Gwaine lower his weapon and the rest of the knights relaxed their stance.

The other men of the tavern haltingly tried to talk about anything other than what had just happened, but Arthur could see the way they looked at Merlin. Arthur could see that they had viewed Merlin as merely a servant, but now they were looking at him with a certain level of astonishment and a bit of awe.

Merlin grumbled Arthur sat down again. “That was completely unnecessary.”

“Someone has to watch out for you, since you can’t do it for yourself.” Arthur said.

“I take care of myself!” Merlin protested.

Arthur snorted, “No, Merlin. You take care of me.” Merlin looked a little shocked at this statement but Arthur pushed forward without giving it too much thought. “You’d fall into a well and then what would I’d do? My armor would be in the proper place and I’d get my meals on time.”

“You’d be a pompous ass, that’s what you’d be.” Merlin folded his arms.

“That too, I suppose.” Arthur laughed, “I’d be a completely different person if you hadn’t come along and insulted me.”

Arthur had thought about Merlin almost constantly ever since he found out about his magic, but never had Arthur thought of what his life would have been like if Merlin had never been in his life. Even when he had been angry at Merlin, almost banishing him from Camelot, he had never wished they had not met.

“I suppose I would have been different too.” Merlin said.

Arthur figured Merlin would never have had his destiny and Arthur would never have become the King that Merlin believed in so wholly. They would never have been friends and Arthur’s heart ached at the thought.

 “I’m glad you decided to come along and insult me.” Arthur said quietly.

Merlin turned to look at him, an easy smile across his lips as he leaned against the table. It was a pleased kind of smile that Arthur loved to see on Merlin, where he was relaxed and happy enough to let all his emotions show on his face.

“I’m glad too” Merlin said, and Arthur believed him.

***

In the darkness of his room, underneath his blankets, he was warm and content. He shifted and he felt another warm body next to his own. He could hear the soft breath of someone fast asleep. When he reached out, his hand touched naked skin, feeling an arm and chest beneath his fingers. In in their sleep, someone moved closer and tucked their face into Arthur’s neck. He took one hand and moved the face until it was pressed close to his own.

He felt eyelashes flutter against his cheek as someone woke. He felt sleepy kisses on his jaw. He felt fingers ghost over his sides. He felt legs bump again his own.

Then the candles next to his bed began to glow, flickering just enough to see in the darkness.

But he did not open his eyes, knowing and denying who was in his bed. The dream was already slipping away, but Arthur pushed forward, kissing Merlin’s lips and loving the way Merlin instantly opened for him. Light fingertips touched Arthur’s cheek and lips pressed softly against his own. The push and the pull of the dream was fading, a kiss on the cheek, a fragile touch.

Arthur’s eyes opened and he was left alone in the darkness of his room.

Briefly he wondered if he should push this aside like he had everything else. But unlike before, Arthur did not mind thinking of this dream. He craved intimacy with Merlin, even if it was only an arm over the shoulder or sharing the same space. But he also wished for something more, where Merlin would open up to Arthur.

Arthur loved Merlin; there was no doubt in his mind. Even after finding out that Merlin had lied to him, Arthur had never stopped loving Merlin. But would Merlin want him? He had admitted to sharing a bed with Gwaine, and even Lancelot, but would Merlin see Arthur as more than a friend or a partner in destiny?

This was one thing Arthur would not demand to have. He accepted his love for Merlin, but he would not insist for love in return, because having Merlin by his side was more important than anything else. He pushed it aside, and this time he did not feel guilty for ignoring his emotions.

***

Arthur didn’t always eat dinner in the Great Hall, preferring to eat in his chambers alone, with only Merlin present. But many times he had to dine with visiting nobles or the lords and ladies of the land. He didn’t mind it, most of the time.

Arthur hadn’t even noticed the servant pouring him wine, even though Merlin was the only one who served him. He had taken the wine and drank from it, not noticing that it had not been filled by Merlin.

All he remembered was that the wine tasted different than it had before. Then he could only see the ceiling of the Great Hall, and then Merlin’s face was above his own, looking terrified and shouting words Arthur could barely hear.

***

It was hard to open his eyes, as if his eyelashes were stitched together. He moved the muscles in his face a little and then slowly blinked open his eyes. It seemed bright in his room but there was only a few candles lit by his bed. He couldn’t see much from where he was laying on the bed, but he knew it was dark outside.

“Arthur” Merlin was hovering over his face in a moment. His hands were freezing as they touched his forehead. “How are you feeling?”

Merlin’s eyes looked almost black in the darkness of the room. Somewhere in the back of his mind, Arthur knew he was the one who was sick but he couldn’t stop thinking about how ashen Merlin looked.

“Merlin” was all he managed to say, surprised at how rough his throat felt.

“Arthur” Merlin’s hands cupped his cheek and shook him. It felt like someone had smacked the side of his head with a club. “Stay awake, Arthur. Come on, just for a little while.”

Arthur grumbled but opened his eyes just enough to see Merlin’s face.

“Just tell me how you’re feeling.” Merlin’s voice sounded stretched thin, and Arthur’s mind could barely focus on it, as if it drifted far away.

“Sleepy” Arthur said and tried to focus on the task Merlin had given him. “You’re far away, Merlin.”

Merlin’s cold hands held his face, but Arthur’s eyelids were heavy and he couldn’t keep them open any longer. “Arthur!

Arthur hunched over, pressing his face into Merlin’s palm, and then he slept.

***

When Arthur woke up again, he felt like he was surfacing from a boiling hot lake. The air was cold around his body which felt afire. He opened his eyes and saw Merlin again, with Gaius next to him.

“Thank the gods.” Merlin choked out, his hands moving to cover his face.

Arthur watched drowsily as Gaius checked over his body.

“What happened?” Arthur asked, his mouth felt like it hadn’t been used for days and he hoped it hadn’t been that long.

“Poison, my lord” Gaius said gravely. “We’ve given you the antidote but now it is essential that you rest.”

Arthur gave a small nod, and hoped it was visible enough to the physician because Arthur could barely move.

Gaius left, and Merlin started to clean up something by Arthur’s bed. He wiped Arthur’s forehead with a cloth and Arthur watched him. He had dark circles under his reddened eyes. His lips were pursued in concentration, though he looked relieved as he continued to check Arthur.

When Merlin finished he said, “I’ll be in the other room if you need me.”

Arthur wrapped his hand around Merlin’s wrist, “Don’t leave.”

Any other time Merlin might have said that Arthur was being ridiculous, but Merlin nodded his head. When he went to move away, Arthur didn’t let him go. “I’m going to get a chair.” Merlin removed Arthur’s hand and placed it on the bed. He moved the chair by Arthur’s desk to the side of the bed.

Without having to ask, Merlin took Arthur’s hand between both of his. “Go to sleep. I’ll be here.”

Arthur closed his eyes and fell asleep without any effort at all.

***

When Arthur woke up again he felt better. He was able to move a little, sitting up against his pillows. He saw Merlin slumped over the side of the bed, his face pressed to the edge of Arthur’s pillow and one hand still in Arthur’s. Without much thought he ran his free hand through Merlin’s hair. He stirred, but he did not wake.

Briefly, Arthur wondered who had poisoned him and how long he had been incapacitated. He knew as soon as he was able to he would have to catch up on all the work he had missed, not to mention the repercussions of a failed assassination.

He wondered if Merlin had been the one to save him or if a simple herb antidote had truly been his cure. Merlin looked exhausted and Arthur again wondered how long he had been asleep and how long Merlin and Gaius had been working to find a cure.

Merlin woke a while later, sleepily blinking up at Arthur until his mind woke up too and he moved away. It took another day before Arthur was allowed to leave his bed, but he didn’t mind it too much. Merlin stayed in his chambers and Arthur drifted in and out of sleep.

When evening came again, Merlin settled Arthur into bed and checked his pulse again. Arthur let him do it, not commenting on it, even though he had been gaining back his strength all day.

“You don’t have to stay here.” Arthur said. “You can go back to your room if you wish.” Arthur knew he could not ask Merlin to stay by his bedside when he was no longer deathly ill, but he did not want to force Merlin to sleep in the antechamber either.

“I don’t think I’d sleep a wink.” Bashfully, he looked down to his feet and then gestured over his shoulder. “I’ll be in the other room. Shout if you need me.”

Arthur watched him go. He hadn’t brushed his hair all day, making it stick up on end even as he ran his fingers through it for the hundredth time. He slouched as he walked, looking exhausted and ready to sleep at any moment. Arthur didn’t hear the door close, but he heard Merlin lay down on the bed, and Arthur wondered if Merlin worried that the door would stop him from hearing Arthur if he needed him or if the door would take too long to open if someone else decided to attack Arthur.

Arthur realized that no matter what, Merlin would protect him. At that moment, Arthur made a decision. If Merlin had chosen to protect him, then Arthur was going to choose to protect Merlin.

***

A couple days later, Arthur was feeling as good as new. He was still told to rest, so after a short day of meetings, he spread out the furs near the fire and rested against the legs of a nearby chair. Merlin was leaning next to him, propped up on his elbows as he lazily watched the fire.

Merlin hummed a little and Arthur recognized it as something he would sing when he thought no one could hear him. Merlin had said it was a song sung in Ealdor that he had always liked. Arthur had never heard him sing it, only humming the tune. It relaxed Arthur as they warmed themselves by the fire.

"I thought I would never fathom you out" Arthur admitted mostly to himself.

Merlin looked up at Arthur, a brow raised in challenge, "Have you fathomed me out, then?"

"I have." Arthur said proudly.

"Really?" Merlin was grinning, though he looked dubious.

“Yes.” Arthur said. “You’re a terrible manservant, though you seem to take pride in my armor at least. You act stupid, but you’re actually quiet wise, but only on occasion. You’re loyal, sometimes to a fault.”

Merlin’s brows pulled together, his smile fading a little as he cocked his head to the side. "Arthur?"

Arthur looked down, not really making eye contact with Merlin, but watching him out of the corner of his eye. “You’ve saved me in more ways than I can say.”

Merlin’s brow stayed furrowed in confusion.

“But I want to save you for once.” Arthur said, this time looking into Merlin’s eyes.

Merlin rolled his eyes, “I told you, I don’t need to be taken care of-“

“The scars on your chest” Arthur interrupted. “Was that taking care of yourself?”

Merlin’s brows raised but he did not deny anything.

“Let me help you.” Arthur said.

Merlin tried laughing, but it sounded a little choked. “I fall into things, Arthur. You can’t-”

“Do not lie to me.” Arthur said too harshly, and he quickly stopped himself.

Arthur took a deep breath, “Merlin, just- Please. Let us do this together. Are we not two sides of the same coin?”

“Arthur” Merlin’s eyes widened and he sat up quickly so that he was facing Arthur directly. “What are you saying?”

Arthur smiled slightly, “I always knew there was something about you, Merlin.” Arthur said as he carefully watched Merlin, “I just didn’t know you had magic.”

Merlin’s eyes widened and he backed away in surprise. His mouth opened and he paled visibly. “How-?” His voice broke off, “Arthur, please- I had to-”

Arthur stopped him, “You protect me because it’s your destiny.”

“I-” Merlin stuttered to a stop. “I do it because you’re my friend” Merlin said adamantly.

“And so I will protect you because you are my friend.” Arthur promised.

Merlin’s eyes started to water and he wiped his eyes quickly.

Arthur held out his hand, and Merlin looked at it strangely. Hesitantly, he took it and Arthur pulled him so that he was flush to Arthur’s side. Merlin froze, his whole body rigid before he buried his face in Arthur’s chest and relaxed into the embrace. Arthur rested his face on the top of Merlin’s head. Merlin held on like he didn’t think he was ever going to see Arthur again. Arthur held him closer and ignored some of his own tears as they fell from his eyes.

Arthur slowly ran his hand up and down Merlin’s back, not sure if it was to comfort Merlin or himself. Eventually Merlin looked up at Arthur and said, “You have to know,” He swallowed, his eyes bright, “Arthur, I swear I only use my magic for you.”

Arthur closed his eyes and took a breath. He had thought that he had come to terms with everything, but hearing this vow from Merlin’s lips was more uplifting than he had ever imagined.

“I trust you, Merlin.” Arthur promised, tightening his hold.

“I would never betray that trust, Arthur.” Merlin said adamantly, “I swear to you, I only use my magic for you.”

“I know.” Arthur said, wiping the tears from Merlin’s cheek.

Merlin only looked more confused, “But I don’t understand. You hate magic. Why aren’t you angry with me?”

“I was angry with you, Merlin.” Arthur looked away, “You can't imagine how furious I was.”

Merlin grabbed Arthur’s hand, about to say something, but Arthur stopped him.

“My anger did not last long.” Arthur said as he looked into Merlin’s eyes. “My heart broke when I discovered you had lied to me. But I have come to accept that you had no choice when it came to a lot of things. And I want you to know that I understand. I trust you.”

There was a span of time where Merlin watched Arthur. He wondered what Merlin saw there and if it was what he wanted to see.

Slowly, Merlin leaned back and cupped his hands in front of himself. Arthur watched as he spoke a spell and his eyes flashed gold. For all the times Arthur had thought about Merlin doing magic, he had never seen it. His heart raced as he felt the flare of magic in the air, like a warm blanket around his shoulders. In Merlin’s palms, a blue light appeared exactly like the one which had guided Arthur in the Caves of Balor.

Merlin lifted the ball until it was hanging just above their heads. Arthur remembered how he had thought a guardian angel had been watching over him, and he supposed he had not been wrong. “It was you?” Arthur asked.

Merlin nodded. “I’ll always protect you, Arthur. I promise.”

Arthur pulled him close and they the fire until it dwindled into ash.

***

When Arthur woke up the next morning, there was a body next to his own, and this time he was not dreaming. Merlin was already awake, his eyes half lidded under messy black hair. They had not even bothered to change into nightclothes, but Merlin had at least taken off his boots and neckerchief. Without thought, Arthur touched the scar on Merlin’s throat.

“A man by the name of Maldwyn” Merlin said. “He was very good at throwing daggers.”

Arthur had not asked, but Merlin had given him the information without hesitation. Arthur wondered if the only thing holding Merlin back from telling him everything had been the secret of his magic.

“I’m glad he wasn’t too good.” Arthur removed his hand and tucked it under his head.

“More like I was just better at dodging” Merlin said with a shrug.

Arthur watched him for a moment. Merlin bit his lip and Arthur knew he was working up the courage to speak, so he waited.

"When I was born,” Merlin began slowly, “Magic was in my veins just as royal blood was in yours. I had as much choice to be magic as you did to be King."

“Before I could even walk, I could do magic which would take other people years of practice. One time I accidently fell a tree before I was even allowed to work in the fields. My mother was terrified I would get caught, even in a place like Cenred's kingdom.”

“Why would you come to Camelot?” Arthur asked, almost admonishing Merlin for it, though he was glad that Merlin had walked into his kingdom.

“Gaius was my mother’s friend and I needed a place to go.” Merlin smiled a little as if thinking of a joke only he would understand. “I guess destiny just played out after that.”

“Emrys” Arthur said.

Merlin’s head jerked up and his eyes widened in surprise. “How do you know my name?”

“I spoke to the druids.” Arthur admitted. “I was…” Arthur looked away from Merlin, feeling shame creep up his neck. “I was going to banish you. I wanted to make sure the druids would take you in when I did.” Arthur didn’t look up, not willing to look into Merlin’s eyes. “They told me about the prophecy.”

Merlin was silent and Arthur still couldn’t look at him. “Arthur” he said quietly, “How did you find out?”

“I knew you weren’t going to pick herbs all those times you disappeared without a word, Merlin.” Arthur looked up and Merlin had the decency to look bashful. “I followed you into the Valley of the Fallen Kings. Ruadan and you entered the cave…and you came out with a bloody dagger. When Ruadan had the Staff of Bremen in his hands, it didn’t take long to figure out that magic had been involved.”

Merlin ran his hand through his hair, “I can’t believe you know.”

“Would you have ever told me?” Arthur asked.

“Maybe.” Merlin looked down at the sheets, “I had wanted to…But then keeping you safe became more important than anything I wanted.”

Arthur caught Merlin’s eye and said, “Now that I know, I’ll protect you.”

Merlin shook his head, “I don’t know what you mean, Arthur.”

“I’ll bring peace to Albion.” Arthur said, “I’ll lift the ban on magic.”

Merlin sat up quickly, looking down at Arthur with owlish eyes. “You’ll what?”

Arthur sat up, "Have you not waited for this?"

"I do not want it as some reward, Arthur.” Merlin said seriously, “If you lift the ban, you must do it because you think it is right."

"I will lift it because you do not deserve to die for being born.” Arthur demanded, “I will lift it because Morgana never deserved to feel terror for visions she could not control. The hatred of magic in this kingdom only begets hatred. I will lift the ban because it is just."

Arthur wasn’t sure if he had spoken too strongly, but Merlin’s lips pulled into a proud smile.

He leaned forward and Arthur opened his arms for the embrace, but was surprised when Merlin’s lips pressed against his own. Fingers trailed on his jaw and Arthur’s eyes were still open, and barely a second passed before Merlin pulled away.

“You’re a good man, Arthur Pendragon.” He murmured, barely a breath between them.

Hoping his actions would speak for how he felt, Arthur moved forward and kissed Merlin.

***

Epilogue

***

In easy comradery, Arthur and his knights circled around the round table. The last couple months had been exhausting, with Morgana’s attacks coming more frequently and the constant work on the kingdom’s laws, but they were all relaxed in each other’s company.

Arthur stood and they quieted as he began the round table meeting.

“Welcome friends. I am happy to say that the last month since magic has returned to Camelot has gone well.” There was noise of agreement and some applause.

“But I’m afraid our work is not done.” The knights quieted and they looked up at Arthur with interest. “Morgana still attacks Camelot and our allies. I will not be satisfied until all five kingdoms are settled in peace.”

“I cannot do this alone.” Arthur raised his hand before any of his knights started to pledge their allegiance for the second time. “I trust in every one of you. There is not a man here who I do not trust with my life.”

“But with magic returning to Camelot, I will need a person of magic who I trust completely.” Arthur looked to his right hand side where there was an empty seat.

“I ask you,” Arthur said to his knights, “to support my choice of Court Sorcerer.”

Arthur lifted his hand and, from where he had always stood on the edge of the room, Merlin stepped forward. Arthur offered the seat to Merlin, who had refused to wear any official robes and had worn his purple tunic instead.

Merlin stood in front of the seat, but he did not sit down.

“All those in favor of instating Merlin of Ealdor as Court Sorcerer of Camelot, speak now.”

Firm and resolute affirmatives circled around the table.

“Aye,” Arthur spoke last, looking at Merlin with pride in his eyes. “Be seated, Lord Emrys of Camelot.”

Merlin settled into his chair, and Arthur saw the way his hands trembled slightly. Arthur seated himself, and under the table he took Merlin’s hand with a reassuring squeeze. Merlin looked at him for a brief moment, his eyes crinkled with a smile.

“May we bring peace” Arthur said like a prayer before both he and Merlin turned to the knights and continued to run the kingdom.