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“I’m a sorcerer. I have magic. And I use it for you, Arthur. Only for you.”

Arthur had laughed, but from the moment he saw the dragon dance in flames from Merlin’s fingertips, he found it difficult to draw breath. An overflow of emotions washed over him, some that he had felt before and others that were entirely new. His mind spun out of control with the possibilities – of the things Merlin could have done, could have been, all of the times he lied to Arthur –

He lied to him. Merlin, who Arthur didn’t think was capable of telling a lie. Who Arthur didn’t think was capable of killing, murdering, stealing, conniving, betraying – Arthur had been betrayed so many times, but he could have never, in wildest nightmares, imagined that Merlin would be the one whose betrayal stung the most.

His friend – could Arthur even call Merlin his friend, after this? – gazed down at him in uncertainty and a bit of fear. Merlin was never afraid. Arthur may have teased him for showing weakness or vulnerability, but the truth of the matter was that Arthur had never seen Merlin flinch when danger was upon them. He always thought it was an act of bravery, of a man without a sword or armor standing up to great enemies, but it wasn’t bravery. It was confidence. Merlin could have faced them – probably had faced them – many times before, and would again.

A shiver ran through Arthur’s body. Merlin was more powerful than he was, could have controlled Arthur completely at any point in time.

He has controlled you completely, a voice that sounded like his father’s rang in Arthur’s head. He infiltrated the heart of Camelot – and your heart. He’s influenced your decisions, changed you entirely, made you care about him, all so that you would forgive him in this moment and he could take control of Camelot once and for all.

Forgiveness.

Forgiveness.

Could Arthur ever truly –?

A shock went through his system when his mind hit the finality of the idea.

He had already forgiven Merlin.

He had forgiven Merlin the moment the words came out of his mouth. He had forgiven Merlin the moment he saw the dragon begotten from his fingertips. He had forgiven Merlin the first time Merlin used magic in his presence, even if he hadn’t known.

He had forgiven Merlin before he had even met the man.

It was all Arthur could do not to let tears spring to his eyes in shock. He forgave Merlin for everything – for lying to him, for not trusting him, for committing the worst treason possible. He forgave him utterly and completely and forever, because Merlin was –

Merlin was –

Arthur loved him.

The idea hit Arthur in the center of his chest, and blossomed from there, but unlike a flower, it was not in the beauty of a spring day. It was dark and painful and stung endlessly, accompanied by a deadly wound in his side.

It wasn’t the way he loved his knights, his brothers in arms. It wasn’t the way he had loved his father. It wasn’t the way he tried to love Morgana even through her betrayal and hatred of him. It was closest to the way he loved Guinevere, but the feelings didn’t line up exactly, because what he felt for Merlin was so much greater than all of his love for the world combined.

The poets said that love was blind, and maybe that’s why Arthur had never seen Merlin for what he truly was before today. But now that his eyes had been forced open, Arthur couldn’t stop himself from the onslaught of feeling.

He was in love with Merlin. He had been in love with Merlin for years. Maybe since they met. Maybe since before. Maybe since time itself began and the universe had strung their hearts together and told their souls that there was no other way, that they would love each other with their first breath and last breath, that no matter what happened, their fates would be entangled until the universe itself had disintegrated into nothingness.

How else could Arthur explain this forgiveness that was so automatic, so pure, so overwhelming? He forgave Merlin for everything. He loved Merlin with his entire being.

And it scared the hell out of him.

Arthur prided himself on never being frightened, never showing any weakness, but Merlin truly was the chink in his armor. No one else could have wormed their way into Arthur’s existence the way Merlin had, betrayed him in the worst way imaginable (for there was no man in the world that Arthur trusted as well as Merlin, and the other man had never, not once in ten years –)

Arthur forgave Merlin. The thought chilled him to his bones.

There were many people whom Arthur loved or cared deeply for, and a great number of them had hurt him in the past. Though he attempted to forgive, for he must be a benevolent king, he knew he still held bitterness in his heart. Though Lancelot was long dead, Arthur still felt the wounds of his casual treason, and though he knew Guinevere truly loved him, sometimes he looked at her and wondered if she still thought of him. He had tried to make peace with his father for his many sins, but most days Arthur valiantly wished that he had been someone else’s son. Morgana, of course, was brimming with hatred and vengeance and Arthur shouldn’t forgive her for all the ways she has purposefully harmed him, he still wanted to.

But with Merlin, he didn’t even have to try.

In his heart, Arthur knew that Merlin did not have evil intentions, but what if he had? What if this revealing scene had played out on a battlefield, both of them in full armor and Merlin with a snarl, the fire at his fingertips not a dancing campfire but a ball of molten lava? Would Arthur have still forgiven him?

Would Arthur rather have died by Merlin’s hand than dealt with the truth of his betrayal?

Is that the kind of man Camelot should have as her king? The man who put his heart in the hands of a powerful warlock who could destroy a city with a blink of his eye? The man who loved this warlock above all things on the earth, including himself?

How could Camelot trust such a man?

But Arthur had trusted Merlin. Merlin, who was kind and gentle, whose laugh was beaming and joyful. Merlin, who couldn’t take orders and couldn’t follow a rule to save his life. Merlin, who had always been beside Arthur through every last trial and tribulation.

Even if the only purpose for that was to gain control of Camelot, Arthur would never forget walking with Merlin through the halls of the citadel, through the streets of Camelot, through the forests and hills that surrounded them. He would never forget nights at the campfire spent talking quietly. He would never forget how Merlin always knew what to say in times of need. He would never forget that he had been a foolish child, a bully, barely fit for the title of prince, until Merlin came along and smacked some sense into him.

Even if Merlin was the most evil sorcerer who ever lived, Arthur would never be able to forget that.

The question was not if Arthur could trust Merlin. The question was if Arthur could trust himself. He was deeply and madly in love with a man who, on principle, was against all that Camelot and its king stood for.

Arthur had never wished more that he was not the king.

He had to let Merlin go. It was the only way he could ever rule Camelot faithfully again. He could not love a warlock more than his kingdom.

Arthur shook slightly, turning away so that Merlin’s bright, frightened gaze could no longer touch him. Whether Merlin was a good man or a bad one was no longer a point of issue. Arthur had to forget that he had ever loved him.

“Leave me.”