Trust: an assured reliance on the character, ability, strength or truth of someone or something
-Meriam Webster Dictionary
Merlin stayed where he had fallen, sore and aching in body and spirit. He had tried so hard to keep it secret, to keep what was both his greatest strength and his greatest weakness from the prince he served, but there had just been no way to do that this time.
No conveniently timed knock to the head.
No handy cover to hide behind.
It was his destiny to protect Arthur. It was his destiny to protect the prat and make sure he became the great king the prophecies spoke of. There had never been any question. When it came down to Arthur's life or his secret, Arthur's life would always win.
It was just…
Merlin chanced a glance towards the furiously pacing Arthur and for once didn't have to think twice about keeping his mouth shut.
He hadn't thought he'd last two minutes past the revelation of his magic, but here he was at least fifteen minutes past the end of the attack and he still wasn't dead. Just sore from the blows he hadn't managed to dodge before the enemy sorcerer had made all his attempts at subtlety useless.
Arthur spun away from him, stomping to the other end of the clearing, fury fueling his every step. Merlin clenched his teeth and looked away.
"You…" Arthur spat, spinning back towards the clearing's center and Merlin's tried not to flinch at the betrayal showing through the anger on Arthur's face. Maybe he wasn't dead yet because Arthur was still processing that Merlin had magic. "You can't…you aren't allowed-" Words failed him and he snarled wordlessly, hands gesturing stiffly. His right hand periodically landed on his sword hilt, clenched around it, and then let go.
Yup. Still processing the whole magic thing. Maybe there was some hope? Arthur hadn't immediately killed him, so maybe he would listen.
"I'm…not allowed…?" Merlin ventured quietly. When he wasn't immediately told to shut up, he gathered his courage and plowed on. This might be his only chance. "I swear, Arthur, I have never betrayed you. I've had magic since I was born. It's a part of me, and I've never used it for anything but protecting-"
"Shut up before I kill you."
Merlin clamped his mouth shut and nodded meekly, gaze dropping to the grass beneath him. He'd never heard quite that note in the prince's voice when he'd threatened Merlin with death before. It was an odd mix of pain, anger and confusion.
Merlin glanced back up - almost morbidly curious to know if the prince was preparing to kill him yet - and studied Arthur more closely. The prince had stopped pacing, half-way between Merlin and the clearing's edge. His hands were still twitching, occasionally going for the hilt of his sword, but it was a reflex more than conscious thought, a reassurance that his weapon was ready to hand in case of another attack. He kept shaking his head, as if he were trying to dislodge the troubling knowledge of what Merlin was…of what he could do. It certainly didn't look as if he were about to leap across the few dozen feet between them and lop Merlin's head off. It really looked more like he was about to shake himself apart with all the tension he was trying to hold in.
Merlin had never imagined Arthur would be so conflicted about killing a confirmed sorcerer. It was unsettling and unnerving.
"You…how…" Arthur ran his hands through his hair, for a single moment simply confused and hurt, and then the moment was gone. The prince snapped his head up to glare right at Merlin's startled face. "How long have you…had magic?" He spat the hated word as if it was a curse in and of itself, and Merlin mentally set aside the small hope that had ignited in his chest: that maybe Arthur wouldn't kill him after all. That he would accept his manservant for who he was despite the magic.
Swallowing hard, Merlin shifted until he was kneeling facing his prince, ignoring his protesting muscles. If he was going to be condemned, might as well do it right.
"Mother's always been fond of reminding me I had a habit of throwing her cooking pot across the hut before I'd figured out how to crawl."
Arthur's look quelled the small smile Merlin had dredged up along with his mother's teasing voice in his memory.
Right. Sorcery bad. No funny stories of mishaps as a toddler and infant. They weren't possible as far as Arthur was concerned. Bitterness welled in Merlin's throat. So much for destiny. Arthur was going to interrogate him and then kill him right here, rather than spare the effort of dragging him back to Camelot for the public spectacle of a burning. Small mercies, he supposed. Burning at the stake was not a pleasant way to die.
Arthur's face twisted oddly, before anger resettled as the dominant expression on his face. Merlin closed his eyes and breathed deeply. It was coming any moment now.
"Why did you stay in Camelot, when you knew sorcery was forbidden?"
"I…" Merlin swallowed. Why had he stayed? Those first couple days he had been ignorant of the destiny he and Arthur shared. He could have just reported to Gaius, explained he couldn't stay, and continued on his way. Maybe he could have gone to a kingdom where magic was accepted. Where he wouldn't have to hide. He could have gone back to Ealdor. But… "I didn't think." He admitted softly, eyes still closed. "I had seen an execution on the first day I came, right after I got to the city, but…I guess it never really registered that it could be me up on that platform, you know? And to be condemned for something I'd been born with? I couldn't see it. And then, at Lady Helen's banquet…" Merlin opened his eyes and shrugged, meeting Arthur's gaze. "It wouldn't have been very smart to refuse a reward from your father, not when I'd have had to explain why I didn't want to be your manservant. And then…I just didn't want to leave." He swallowed and looked away, unable to meet the anger in his friend's face any longer. "You'll be a great king, someday, Arthur, and I want to see that. Wanted to, I mean. I wanted…I wanted to show you that not everyone with magic is evil. Not every magical being wants you dead. Even if I couldn't tell you…and – I guess that's all I can say. I'm sorry."
"You've saved my life. With magic."
"Like you did today. And if there hadn't been another sorcerer after me, you never would have revealed yourself. Just continued lying to me and practicing magic in the heart of Camelot."
Merlin winced despite himself. "Yes." Arthur wasn't going to hear him even if he did explain he only ever used magic to protect him. Well, that and finish the insanely long list of chores he was so fond of foisting off on Merlin.
There was silence in the clearing. Merlin dared another look up at his prince and was surprised to see that Arthur was no longer looking at him, but staring at the trees to his left. His gaze was unfocused. He wasn't seeing the trees, but his own thoughts. The anger hadn't faded much at all, though. Merlin felt frustration and fear rise in his throat and it made his voice harsher than he'd intended when he spoke.
"Look, if you don't mind, could you just get on with it? Not that I don't appreciate not being dragged back to Camelot to burn, but this waiting around is a bit hard on the nerves, you know?"
Arthur started, shocked out of his silent contemplations. He seemed genuinely confused when he looked at Merlin again.
"Get on with what?"
Merlin rolled his eyes. "I know the law just as well as you do, Arthur. I have magic. Therefore I must be evil. So I have to die. Even if all I've ever done is protect you with it." The sarcasm was a reflex for him – as much a comfort to him as Arthur's check that his sword remained faithfully at his side, ready for use – and he really had had enough of hiding by now. "Would you just kill me already?"
Arthur's face went through a series of contortions as emotions flashed through his blue eyes – shock, incredulity, anger, disbelief – and then he was striding forward, sword ringing as he drew it. Merlin raised his head proudly, baring his neck for a clean stroke. He would not flinch or back away.
Arthur brought the sword's tip to rest against Merlin's cloth-covered chest instead of swinging for the obvious target, expression resolved. Merlin set his jaw and kept himself stiffly upright, waiting. He closed his eyes. He might be resigned to his death, but that didn't mean he had to watch as his best friend actually performed the act.
How did this fit with the dragon's claim that he and Arthur were two sides of the same coin, destined to unite all of Albion and bring magic back to the land? Maybe Arthur would be overcome with guilt at Merlin's death and repeal his father's laws as a tribute to the friend he had murdered?
Merlin really didn't think he liked that ending, but then destiny had never paid attention to what he wanted before this, why would it now?
"You really think I'll just kill you, don't you?"
Merlin blinked, drawn away from his fatalistic musings and stared up at Arthur's pained expression. The sword was drawn away and re-sheathed.
Arthur shook his head, left hand clenching into a fist, glaring. "I'm furious. I feel like you betrayed me – you did betray my trust – but I can't just kill you in cold blood."
Merlin glared right back. "So dragging me back to Camelot to burn in a slow and agonizing death is the better choice? Well, I'm so glad your conscience will be clear, Sire, but a fiery death isn't exactly one of the things I ever wanted to experience!"
"But you'd let me, wouldn't you? You'd let me take you back to your death." Arthur's expression was a baffling mix of anger and confusion. "You've been saying I'd drag you back to Camelot, to face my father, but you've never said anything about trying to escape. You haven't even moved since you knelt there."
Merlin was indeed still kneeling at Arthur's feet. His voice was strained as he spoke. "I wouldn't try to escape. I'd be playing into every single prejudice and myth Uther has told you about magic and the people that use it." He glanced away, swallowing hard. "It was my destiny to protect you. I am happy to serve you, till the day I die. That won't ever change."
Arthur reeled back a moment, as something in Merlin's words struck a chord, but the warlock didn't see it. Arthur stared hard at the younger man at his feet and then suddenly let out a disbelieving laugh.
"You, Merlin, are an idiot."
Merlin's head snapped up to stare at Arthur. The prince had not spoken his name once since he had witnessed his manservant's magic. Arthur suddenly crouched to get on a level with Merlin and pointed a finger at his nose. Merlin's eyes crossed trying to follow it.
"You're not dying today."
Merlin blinked and refocused on the prince's face. "I'm not?" Arthur sighed, and sat on the ground, shaking his head. Merlin watched him, confused and wary. "Why not? I'm-"
"-a sorcerer. Yes. I'd noticed." Arthur regarded his manservant with something that was nearly pity, but held too much lingering anger to quite get there. "I'm not blind, Merlin. I didn't forget what you did, and – and now I realize how many of the things that are just off about you make sense now. You've been saving me for…I don't even know how long!" He shook his head. "I'd think if you were like those other sorcerers, you'd have killed me long before now. You've had plenty of opportunities, after all." Arthur was staring off into the distance again, not really seeing anything but his thoughts. "You're powerful, aren't you? A lot more than the sorcerers that keep attacking Camelot."
Merlin eyed Arthur warily, unsure whether he should trust this oddly thoughtful prince and the apparent stay of execution he'd been granted. "…yes. Mostly. Some of them have been really hard to defeat or kill. I don't always know what I'm doing. I have to teach myself most spells. There's no one in Camelot who can teach me. And there wasn't anyone else in Ealdor who had magic like me."
"So Will was never a sorcerer. The whirlwind was you."
Merlin blinked and then winced. But what did it matter now? It wasn't like he could kill Merlin twice. "…yeah. Will took the blame so you wouldn't kill me. He never had magic. He knew about mine, though. Will was the only one besides my mother who knew in Ealdor."
Arthur still wasn't looking at him, staring at something only he could see, and it was starting to crack Merlin's carefully held calm.
"Look, would you just say something?" He finally snapped. Arthur simply turned his head to watch him, not speaking. "I'm not dying today. Okay, fine. It's still just a stay of execution and I've got to tell you, it's really NOT appreciated. Waiting around and wondering how you're going to die isn't really pleasant. If you want to know about all the times I've used magic to save your prat-ly behind, I'll tell you. But stop torturing me. It's not fair. It's not right and-"
"I haven't touched you." Arthur's voice was flat and all the more menacing for the fact that there was no malice in his tone. Merlin glared.
"You don't have to hit people to torture them! Making me wonder what you're going to do is just as bad. Worse. You're making me imagine all sorts of things and they're really not pleasant. I've seen what your father does to sorcerers he doesn't kill right away, you know. I'd rather not become another number in-"
Arthur reached forward and snagged the fabric of Merlin's tunic, dragging him forward until the warlock was as much supporting his own weight as he was leaning on Arthur's locked hands to keep from falling face-first into the prince.
"Listen to me, Merlin," the prince hissed, furious. "You might be a sorcerer, but you're still an idiot because you've apparently already forgotten what I told you, if you even heard me in the first place. You. Are. Not. Going. To. Die. Today." He punctuated every word with a slight shake, glaring at Merlin. Merlin rolled his eyes, trying to tug out of the prince's grip and getting exactly nowhere.
"So when will I? Tomorrow? The day after? Maybe a week from now? You could at least afford me the courtesy of knowing the date of my own execution, Sire."
Arthur growled and shoved Merlin back so forcefully he went sprawling. "Listen to me, you idiot. You are not dying today. Or any day in the near future. Not for…for magic. Or anything. Camelot does not execute loyal servants for standing with their masters in the face of seemingly impossible odds and threats to their own lives."
Merlin gaped, sprawled on the ground and Arthur smirked. "Get it yet, Merlin?"
"You…you're…okay with it? My magic?"
Arthur's smirk disappeared. "No." He answered shortly. "I'm not. But I admit that you're not evil and you are a true ally of Camelot. It's the only possible reason you wouldn't have fled once you realized how dangerous staying was to your own life."
Merlin's brow furrowed. He slowly pulled himself back upright and sat on the ground instead of kneeling. Arthur matched him. "So…you're not okay with it, but you're…accepting it?" When Arthur didn't protest the word choice, Merlin continued. "What are you going to do?"
Arthur paused, the unfocused look returning for a brief moment before he shook his head and met Merlin's eyes squarely. "I'm going to report another attempted attack on Camelot that was defeated, a magical threat disposed of. And the first chance we get, you are going to answer every question I have about what you've been doing exactly."
Merlin slowly nodded. This wasn't what he'd expected, but not dying sounded really good to him right now. Maybe destiny still had a chance. "You're not asking questions now?"
Arthur shook his head. "No. It'd be too much all at once. But…" Arthur rose to his feet, turning away as he spoke. He squared his shoulders and turned his back on Merlin as he spoke. "I will ask this. Did you ever trust me?"
Merlin took his time climbing to his own feet, guilt and regret for what never could have been choking him.
"Merlin?" Arthur asked, turning side-long to glance at Merlin out of the corner of his eye. He couldn't quite keep the pleading out of his voice.
Merlin closed his eyes briefly and then locked gazes with his prince, with his friend. "No, Arthur. You've always been my friend, but I did not trust you." He shook his head slowly. "I couldn't take the chance."
Arthur's jaw tightened, but he said nothing, stalking out of the clearing and Merlin followed silently in his wake.