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Dawn of a Golden Age

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“Thank you,” Arthur says, and then he fades.

Merlin’s heartbeat pounds, as if it can compensate for Arthur’s.

Merlin can feel Arthur being drawn out from beneath Merlin’s skin, from his blood, his magic, from everything that makes up who he is. The feeling spreads, leaves him cold, empty. Arthur can’t leave, Merlin won’t let him leave, because if he does, then there will be nothing. He doesn’t know how to live in a world without Arthur, doesn’t want to learn, but he doesn’t know how to fight this.

“Stay with me,” Merlin whispers, begs, and Arthur’s eyes flicker open. It’s enough to give Merlin hope, to let him believe that there’s some way to end this nightmare. It’s only for a moment, and then Arthur is gone. Merlin feels it like a sudden blindness, an absolute absence of something essential.

He presses his forehead to Arthur’s. Arthur is still warm, and Merlin can feel him linger, just beyond reach. Arthur can’t leave, he can’t. Merlin can’t let him. He grips Arthur tightly, needs to get as close to him as possible, close enough to pull him back to Merlin, to hold him in place, in his place, in this world at Merlin’s side. He presses his lips to Arthur’s, and it feels like something final. A final attempt to call Arthur back, a final way to show Arthur how he feels, a final way to be close to him. A final goodbye.

Merlin feels his magic stir, yet it is something secondary to the feeling of Arthur, of Arthur’s chapped lips pressed against his own, the weight of Arthur’s body in his arms. The only thing that exists for Merlin in this moment is Arthur, and the importance of holding onto him.

Then his magic blazes.

He blinks his eyes open and it’s like a different world. Everything is covered in a golden glow that emanates from Arthur. Merlin pulls back slightly and the glow gets brighter. It covers Merlin as well. He can see it on his skin but he can also feel it pulsate through him, as if his magic has come alive and is trying to take form. It’s like nothing he’s ever felt before. It feels like beginnings and endings, like a summer storm, like waking up, and yet nothing like that at all. It flows out of him, into him, around him, swirling and throbbing and dancing until it becomes almost painful, but then it starts to fade. As it fades from him, Arthur glows all the brighter, lighting up from within like a sun god until Merlin can’t look directly at him. He doesn’t need to see; he can feel that as well, the magic in Arthur, his own magic flowing through Arthur’s body.

The light blinks out and for a moment the world is plunged into darkness, but then Merlin notices the faint glow still coming from Arthur’s skin. He pulls Arthur toward himself, pushes the hair back from Arthur’s face.

“Arthur?” he whispers, afraid, so afraid.

Arthur’s eyes open, no longer clouded over with pain. Merlin sucks in a sharp breath.

“Merlin?” Arthur says.

“How do you feel?” Merlin asks warily. He wants to hope, too afraid to consider the alternative.

Arthur glances around, tries moving his limbs. Merlin moves back to give him some space and Arthur sits up. Slowly, a grin spreads across Arthur’s face.

“You saved me!” Arthur says, voice filled with wonder.

Merlin smiles. He tries to speak but it comes out as an ungainly sob. His hands fly up to cover his mouth as all the tension he’s pent up since he first saw the vision of Arthur’s death comes spilling out. It doesn’t feel true; it’s impossible. Arthur was dying, he was dead, as he was fated to die all along, but somehow Merlin has fixed it.

“Don’t cry, you idiot,” says Arthur. “Come here.” Arthur pulls him into a rough hug, and Merlin can feel Arthur’s warmth, his pulse beat under his skin. He wraps his arms around Arthur, and it’s a mess really, the two of them sprawled against each other, his tears soaking the side of Arthur’s face, but he holds Arthur there, never ever wants to let him go.

“Ow,” says Arthur, pulling back slightly but letting his hand linger on Merlin’s neck. “Ow, I think I’m not completely healed yet.”

Merlin eases Arthur back down onto the grass.

“You should rest,” he tells Arthur, as he reaches down to pull up Arthur’s armour and check on the wound. The wound is still open, but mostly healed and a healthy colour. Merlin notices the shard of Mordred’s sword lying on the grass nearby, somehow expelled from Arthur’s body. He lets his hand linger on Arthur’s skin, warm and still faintly glowing.

“How is it?” Arthur asks.

“You’ve had worse,” Merlin says as he replaces the dressing, then balls up his jacket to put under Arthur’s head.

“Stop fussing,” Arthur says, catching Merlin’s hand. He seems to be having trouble keeping his eyes open.

“Rest now,” Merlin tells him. “We’ll stay here a while until you’re feeling better.”

“I feel better already,” Arthur says, squeezing Merlin’s hand. “Thanks to you.”

Arthur falls asleep with a smile on his face and Merlin sits and watches him until long after night falls.

*

When Arthur is deeply asleep and Merlin feels able to stop counting his breaths, sure that he’ll take another, he stands up and walks a little way off, close enough to still see the rise and fall of Arthur’s chest. He calls the Great Dragon.

The dragon comes more quickly than Merlin expected.

“Merlin,” the dragon says, after he lands. “What have you done?”

Merlin shrugs. “That’s kind of what I was calling you to ask.”

“It has ever been Arthur’s destiny to die on this day. The powers you have harnessed to change this are not to be taken lightly. The gift you have given him was not for you to share.”

Merlin screws up his forehead in thought, sifting through the dragon’s words. “Does that mean somebody else has to die in Arthur’s place?” Merlin asks, his thoughts flying to his friends, his mother, but even through his alarm, he knows he wouldn’t change what he did. He can’t lose Arthur, no matter what the cost.

The dragon shakes his massive head. “No, young warlock. Life given such as from the cup of life is that of a mortal man. You have shared with Arthur your own life’s essence, and you are a creature of magic. No death will come of this.”

Merlin laughs. “So, we got away with it? Arthur’s alive and nobody else will die?”

“You’ve gotten away with nothing,” the dragon roars, its golden eyes glinting.

Merlin wants to step backwards, away from the dragon’s anger, but he stands his ground. Destiny means nothing to him at the moment, with the memory of Arthur’s cold body fresh in his mind, and the dragon has lied to him before.

“Arthur will never die,” the dragon says. “Just as you will never die. Your life was to be spent in service of Arthur, waiting for his return in order to serve him once more. In this perversion of destiny that you’ve caused, your lives are tied together for an eternity.”

It takes Merlin a moment to fathom what the dragon has said. “Sorry, what?” he asks. “You’re saying that Arthur is immortal? Both of us?”

“What I’m saying, young warlock, is that you’ve unwritten the future. You’ve shaken the very balance of nature and even I cannot comprehend what the outcome of this will be.”

Merlin suspects the dragon is being overly melodramatic. He folds his arms across his chest. “Well, I don’t regret it,” he says. “And I won’t undo it. Whatever happens, Arthur and I will face it together.”

The dragon sighs. “I suspect, Merlin, that not even you could fix such as this. I only hope it’s not to your own peril. Farewell, Merlin, I’ll not see you again. The future is in your hands now, do with it what you will.”

The dragon flies off before Merlin can speak again, leaving Merlin, as ever, to try to decipher its words.

*

Merlin makes his way back to where Arthur sleeps in the grass, gathers up some dry wood and starts a fire. He thinks about what the dragon said, how he’s unwritten the future, and he decides that doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Arthur is a good king, a great king, and there’s still so much he can do. There’s still so many plans that the two of them have made, dreams that Merlin has pushed aside knowing that this day was coming and not daring to hope there would be a future beyond it.

Arthur stirs in his sleep and Merlin pulls the cloak closer around him. The night has turned cold and Merlin doesn’t want him taking sick. His face is peaceful as he sleeps and his colour has returned. Merlin shivers as he thinks of the dragon’s words, of how right now he should be alone, cold and waiting. It’s an unbearable thought. He knows he should be thinking more on the dragon’s other words, on his warnings, but Merlin is tired. He has not slept since the night of the battle and the fatigue has caught up with his body. He wants to stay awake, to watch over Arthur, but he knows he’ll be useless if he’s this exhausted. He casts a spell to shield them from unfriendly eyes, then lies down near the fire, his head close to Arthur’s. He falls asleep with Arthur’s hand in his own.

He dreams of Arthur’s death, of Arthur’s body laid out in a boat, and the tears on his face as he sends the boat off.

*

Merlin wakes to somebody calling his name. He thinks it’s Arthur and bolts upright, but Arthur is still asleep. He’s breathing deeply, naturally, though he has moved closer to Merlin, closer to the fire. He gets up to shift Arthur back when he hears his name again.

“Merlin.”

Merlin turns to see Percival crouched nearby, under a clump of trees, obviously not wanting to come any closer and alarm them while they slept. Merlin checks on Arthur once more, then makes his way over to Percival.

“How is the king?” Percival asks.

“He was injured but he’ll live,” says Merlin, unable to stop from smiling at the truth of the words.

Percival nods but then hangs his head.

“Percival?” Merlin asks.

Percival shakes his head, not looking up. “Gwaine…”

The world tilts and Merlin stumbles. Not Gwaine, who always stood by him no matter what, Gwaine who was so full of life. Gwaine, who always tried to hide his soft heart with loud words.

Percival catches Merlin’s arm.

“No,” Merlin whispers. “How?”

Percival can’t look him in the eye. “We went after Morgana,” he says, but then stops as if he can’t bear to think about it, and Merlin doesn’t want to make him.

“It’s over now,” Merlin says. “She’s dead.”

Percival’s hand is shaking on Merlin’s arm and he knows that Morgana’s death is no comfort, that it couldn’t be.

“Come over to the fire,” Merlin says. “You must be exhausted.”

Percival nods and lets Merlin lead him to the fire. He arranges himself opposite Arthur and Merlin sits and watches over them, feeding the fire when it gets low. Percival tosses and turns but soon falls asleep. The night is almost over.

Merlin thinks about Gwaine, who he’d loved like a brother, and Morgana, who he could’ve loved if she’d let him. All his regrets and all his mistakes, he has the time now to mourn them.

Arthur stirs, mumbles something in his sleep, and Merlin wipes the tears off his face. Arthur is alive, that’s what’s important now. He thinks back on the dragon’s words. Now that he’s rested they come back to him with an awful clarity, and one phrase repeats in his head. “Your lives are tied together for eternity.” Merlin looks at it from every angle he can think of, but always comes back to one point. Arthur is not going to like it.

*

The morning dawns bright and cold, and Percival wakes with it. He doesn’t mention Gwaine again, or Morgana or the battle, but there is something different about him, heavier, older. Merlin thinks he understands.

They have very little food, it was gone with the horses, but they make do with what is in Percival’s pack, some bread and dried meat. Merlin wakes Arthur to eat, and he is as alert as he ever is first thing of a morning. The wound is almost completely healed and Arthur has no trace of fever. Merlin goes to fill up their water skins while Percival tells Arthur the news from Camelot, and Merlin knows he’s told Arthur about Gwaine from their silence as they pack up the campsite.

Percival gives up his horse to Arthur, and he and Merlin travel on foot, so it’s slow going. It gives Merlin too much time to think. He knows he has to tell Arthur about the immortality. Now that Arthur knows about his magic, Merlin can’t bear to lie to him about anything else. But to live forever, for a warrior like Arthur, to face an endless life with no hope of rest, he can’t see Arthur liking the idea. Especially to spend that life tied to Merlin. Merlin knows that things were said the day before, but Arthur was dying then and Merlin isn’t convinced that Arthur will be as magnanimous now.

Merlin sighs. He needs to find out more about this. There may be some way of undoing it, of giving Arthur back his natural lifespan. He doesn’t want Arthur to die, not ever, but none of this has ever been about him, and part of him feels as if he needs to atone for bringing Arthur back when he was ready to go. It was selfish of him, the most selfish thing he’s ever done, and even if it was unintentional, that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a complete and utter violation of Arthur’s person. He thinks about telling Arthur now, but the time doesn’t seem right. Not in front of Percival, not before he knows more. Arthur will be angry, furious, and Merlin can’t tell him without having the answers. He knows nothing about this sort of magic, the limits of it, whether they will stay as they are now or age until they’re unthinkably old, like the Fisher King. He needs details.

“Are you going to sigh the entire way back to Camelot, Merlin?” Arthur says, looking down from the horse at him. “Can’t you just magic us home?”

Merlin’s eyes flicker to Percival but Percival gives no sign that he’s either heard or cares.

“It’s not that easy,” says Merlin.

Arthur rolls his eyes. “As useless a sorcerer as you are a manservant, I see. How long until we’re back?”

“Two days,” says Merlin. “Maybe three, depending on how you travel.”

“We’ll make it in two,” says Arthur. He bends down to catch Merlin by the shoulder. Their eyes meet and Arthur’s are narrowed, shrewd. “And we can use the time productively. You spoke, before, of destiny. Tell me something of that.”

Merlin smiles wryly up at him. “I’m not sure that’s still relevant, milord.”

“Well then, tell me of yourself. Of all the things I don’t yet know.”

Arthur smiles at him, trusting and open, as if there is nothing Merlin could say that would really matter, it’s all just details in a landscape he has already visited.

Merlin hesitates.

“Are you sure, Arthur? Some of it… some of it, I’m not sure you’ll like.”

Arthur nods. “I want to know.”

So Merlin begins. He tells Arthur of all those things, the things that used to seem so important for Arthur to know. From the day he came to Camelot and why. He tries to leave nothing out but it was so long ago that some parts are dim in his memory, others as vivid as the day they happened. Some parts Arthur knows, has figured out for himself, and Arthur tells him to skip those parts, others he asks for extra clarification on, is shocked that he didn’t already realise.

He talks until the sun sets and they stop to make camp. Arthur wants to push on, to travel through the night, but he looks exhausted and it doesn’t take much to convince him to stop.

Merlin and Percival enter the forest together, Merlin to gather firewood and Percival to hunt their supper.

“It’s good that he knows now,” says Percival.

Merlin looks up, startled. He watches Percival’s profile as he walks beside him.

“About your magic,” Percival adds.

“You knew?” Merlin asks.

Percival nods. “I saw you one time, we were fighting against some bandits. I wasn’t sure at first but then once I paid attention it seemed obvious.” He looks down at his feet. “Gwaine knew too. We used to talk about it sometimes, whether or not Arthur knew and just kept quiet. Gwaine thought the two of you had an understanding.”

Merlin feels a fresh wave of grief at this, that familiar grief mixed with guilt, that he never shared his secret with Gwaine, who had always accepted everything about him without question.

Arthur is asleep when Merlin gets back to camp, and he tries to check Arthur’s wound without waking him.

“Stop fussing, Merlin,” Arthur says, sitting up. “I’m absolutely fine.”

“You almost died,” Merlin tells him. He can’t quite meet Arthur’s eyes, so busies himself redressing the wound, even though it’s all but healed and doesn’t really need it.

“I did die, didn’t I? For a moment,” Arthur says softly. “Before you brought me back.”

Merlin does look at Arthur then. Arthur stares back at him in that way he has, sometimes, when he’s reacting as something other than a king, as if Merlin is his equal, more than his equal, more than his anything, really. It’s not something Merlin feels his deserves at the moment, with the shadow of yet another secret falling between them.

“You were ready to go,” Merlin mumbles, patting down the dressing on the wound.

Arthur’s fingers curl around Merlin’s wrist and tighten, tugging on Merlin’s arm until he’s forced to stop toying with the bandage and look at Arthur.

“That doesn’t mean I wanted to,” Arthur says. He shuffles and sits up properly, leaning in close to Merlin. “And anyway, you’d be completely useless if I died and I doubt anyone else would hire you, and how could I die with that on my conscience?”

Merlin forces a smile that’s almost genuine, and then Percival arrives back with a brace of rabbits for their dinner.

They pass the night quietly and set out again at dawn. It’s harder for Merlin to relate his story now, to talk about Gwaine and Lancelot and Elyan, his failures and all the things he wished he hadn’t had to do. Arthur asks fewer questions, stays mostly silent. They travel through the night, eager to get back to Camelot now that they are close. Merlin’s magic helps them avoid bandits and enemy soldiers fleeing after the battle, and Merlin’s story ends before they leave the Darkling Wood.

“I don’t know what to say, Merlin,” Arthur says when he finishes.

“You don’t need to say anything,” Merlin tells him.

Arthur calls the horse to a halt. “No, I do.” He stares down at Merlin and then barks out a laugh. “I can’t believe you were that old witch! Can you still do the voice?”

“Shut up, Arthur,” Merlin says and keeps walking, but he can’t help but smile at Arthur’s return to his normal, prattish self.

Arthur follows behind. “Go on, do it. Say something.”

At the top of a small rise they see Camelot, the first light of day beginning to break behind the castle. Merlin had thought to never see it again and the sight fills him with happiness.

But still the dragon’s words echo in his head. The future is now unwritten. Your lives are tied together for an eternity.

*

The closer they get to the city, the more Merlin’s apprehension grows. He hesitates outside the city walls. Arthur stops and looks back at him, eyebrows raised in question.

“Are you sure, Arthur?” he asks. “Magic is still banned…”

His voice trails off when Arthur rolls his eyes and turns away.

It is still early when they arrive and the city is quiet, but word has spread by the time they make it through the lower town, and they’re met in the courtyard by Gwen and Gaius.

“You are a wonder, my boy,” Gaius says, pulling him into a hug. “I thought this was beyond even you.”

“I think I broke destiny,” Merlin says into Gaius’ hair.

Gaius pulls away, patting Merlin on the shoulder but looking curious. As soon as he is free of Gaius, he’s set upon by Gwen, soft and smelling of flowers.

“You did it,” she whispers. “You brought him home.”

Merlin sees Arthur over her shoulder, he’s smiling at them, but there’s something sad in his smile.

Gwen pulls away, holding him at arms length. “You look exhausted. You all do,” she says, looking back over her shoulder at Arthur and Percival.

“Yes, well as soon as you unhand Merlin, we can all go and get some rest,” says Arthur.

Gwen laughs and drops Merlin’s arms to take up Arthur’s and the two of them walk toward the castle. Arthur stops and turns back to Merlin. Merlin half-expects a list of orders, draw my bath, see to the horses, that kind of thing.

“You’re not coming?” Arthur asks, his brow creased.

Merlin shrugs and hooks a thumb in the general direction of his room. “Thought I might get some sleep.”

“Very well,” Arthur says. He looks for a moment as if he’s going to say something else, but Merlin cuts him off.

“Get some rest, Arthur. The kingdom will still be here when you wake.”

*

Merlin sleeps for the entire next day and well into the night. He uses magic to light his room and heat up the water in his washbasin, then decides to go and find some food.

Gaius’ workroom is dimly lit and Gaius is hunched and mumbling over some concoction. He turns down the heat on the bubbling liquid and smiles at Merlin.

“I was certain I’d never see you or Arthur again,” he says. “Arthur has filled me in on most of it, but even he was at a loss to explain whatever it was that you did.”

Merlin slumps down at the table, pulling a plate of bread and cheese closer to himself. “You knew the sidhe wouldn’t help?”

Gaius sits at the table opposite Merlin. “I thought it unlikely.”

“Arthur died,” Merlin says. “I’m fairly certain he actually died. But then…” He doesn’t want to tell Gaius about the kiss. He’s not embarrassed and it doesn’t seem wrong in any way, but it’s something that belongs only to him, to him and Arthur. “There was this light, a golden light. It covered Arthur, and me as well, I think. I’m not entirely sure, everything was confused and Arthur was dead…”

Gaius grimaces. “Go on,” he says.

Merlin explains how Arthur woke up completely healed, and later what the dragon said. Gaius’ eyebrow arches higher and higher.

“And now I’m not sure how to tell Arthur or what’s even happened,” he finishes.

Gaius sighs.

“What do I do, Gaius?”

“Well, you must tell Arthur, of course,” Gaius says. “But beyond that, I simply don’t know. There are tales of immortality in folklore, but I’m afraid this is something I have no experience of.”

Merlin waves a piece of bread at him. “Are you sure?” he asks. “You’re pretty old.”

Gaius cuffs him around the side of the head and Merlin laughs to himself as he chews on the bread.

“Have you checked Arthur over?” Merlin asks.

Gaius gets up and shuffles over to his workbench, bringing back a bowl. He places the bowl in front of Merlin and Merlin realises it’s his favourite stew. “The wound has closed over, it’s healing normally as far as I can tell.”

Merlin heats the stew through with magic and picks up a spoon. “It’s strange, Gaius. I’ve always had a destiny and now that it’s gone, I don’t know what will happen.”

Merlin is surprised to hear Gaius chuckle.

“That’s how most of us live our lives, my boy. Best you get used to it.” Gaius ducks his head to Merlin’s eye level, as Merlin is shoveling stew into his mouth. “You’re worried about how Arthur will react.”

Merlin uses the rest of the bread to sop up the last of the stew and chews on it thoughtfully. Before he can answer, Gaius cuts him off.

“I think you underestimate how much Arthur cares for you.”

“It seems like I just got him back,” Merlin says. “Everything’s different now.” But he doesn’t say the thing that worries him most. Arthur doesn’t need him anymore.

*

Merlin spends the rest of the night going through Gaius’ books, books of folklore and magic and anything else he can think of that might explain what’s happened. He barely notices when Gaius goes to sleep, or when he wakes and goes on his rounds. Most tales of folklore are of wicked queens wanting eternal beauty, or men like the Fisher King. Most of them involve dark magic and get quite gruesome, and none of them are relevant. There are a few passing references to the cup of life, but the dragon said this was different, so he pays them little mind. By the time Gaius returns, it’s well into the afternoon and Merlin is getting frustrated.

“Arthur’s been asking for you,” Gaius says.

“I’ll go in a while,” Merlin says, flicking through his magic book to see if he can find a spell to correlate to a legend he’s just read.

“You are still his manservant.”

Merlin sighs and flips the book shut. “And if I go, what do I tell him, Gaius? That I’ve tied him to me for eternity with a spell I don’t understand and have no way of undoing?”

“You’ll tell him the truth, as best you can, and then wait for his judgment. He may not be as opposed to the idea as you think.”

Merlin stops pulling at his hair to stare at Gaius. “In what world would Arthur want to be bound to me?”

“Well, surely he deserves a say in it.”

“That’s just the thing, Gaius. He had no say in it. I did the spell and sure, I had no idea what I was doing, but what right did I have? I took away his choice, his freedom. I violated him, Gaius, betrayed his trust. I don’t expect he’ll be happy about it.”

Gaius sighs. “You still have to tell him.”

“I know,” Merlin says, miserably.

“Look on the bright side,” Gaius says. “Even if he executes you, it won’t do any good.”

Merlin fakes a smile, but he remembers the cold feeling of Arthur’s skin, of Arthur slipping away from him, and he knows there are worse things than dying.

*

Merlin goes into his room and changes into clean clothes. There are a few things lying around so he tidies up, then he thinks maybe he should move his bed over by the window, why has he never thought of that before? It seems like the perfect time to spring clean, now that winter is coming. He’s interrupted by a soft knock on the door.

“Just give me a minute,” Merlin snaps, slightly out of breath from lifting the bed.

The door cracks open and Gwen’s face appears. “It’s only me,” she says. “Can I come in?”

“Oh, sorry milady, come in.” Merlin puts the bed down and turns to face her.

“Arthur’s asking after you,” she says, coming into the room. “He’s quite insistent about it, I think he thinks you’ve run off with the cook or something.”

Merlin snorts. “Not likely.” He fidgets with his neckerchief and then ties it around his neck. “I was just going, you didn’t need to come all this way yourself.”

Gwen smiles and shakes her head. “It was no bother. And truthfully speaking, I wanted to talk to you alone, if I could.”

“Of course,” he says, moving to close the door. When he turns back, Gwen is seated on the end of his bed, fiddling with her sleeve, and just for a moment he’s reminded of the servant girl she used to be. It feels silly to be proud of her, when he has no right to be, but he is, always has been. She’s such a wonderful queen.

“I know,” she says. “About everything.”

Merlin waits for her to continue. He’s not sure which everything she means.

“I suspected about the magic, and Gaius confirmed it for me.” She looks up at him and smiles. “You’ve always protected Arthur, always been by his side, and I just wanted you to know that I approve. Not just about the magic.” She reaches her arm out in an all-encompassing gesture that Merlin doesn’t quite understand. “All of it, I don’t mind.”

Merlin nods, not entirely sure she means what he thinks she means.

She stands up and places a hand on Merlin’s arm. “When I married him, I knew he would never just be mine. He needs you now, Merlin. You should go to him.” She pats his arm and then leaves.

Merlin is fairly sure he just has a sleep-deprivation induced hallucination.

*

Arthur is sitting at the table when Merlin comes in, picking at a tray of fruit.

“Finally,” he says when Merlin closes the door. He gestures for Merlin to sit down. “I’ve been thinking what to do, now that you’re a sorcerer, and I don’t think it would be fair to keep you on as my manservant.”

“You’re sacking me?” Merlin knows he should’ve expected it, he’s technically an outlaw, but he can’t help the cold shock of betrayal that twists his stomach.

“What? No, you idiot.” Arthur pauses with a grape halfway to his mouth and looks over at Merlin in surprise. He recovers himself and throws the grape at Merlin’s head. It bounces off and they both watch it roll across the table. “I was going to say that I’m appointing you magical counselor, or magical advisor, I haven’t quite thought up the title yet. However, if you have so little faith in me…” He raises his eyebrows in a way that Merlin knows is supposed to be playful, but Merlin can sense there is real hurt behind it.

“Don’t be a clotpole,” Merlin says. “Who else would be able to magically advise you without turning you into a toad on the first day?”

The shadow in Arthur’s eyes falls and he breaks into a grin, and Merlin can’t bear to bring that look back, that shadow of self-doubt and betrayal that has always haunted Arthur, not when he’s smiling like this. It’s better this way, Merlin thinks. Arthur has been through a lot, he’s had a lot to take in, so it’s best to let him get used to it before Merlin dumps anything else on him. And he’s just got Arthur back, he should be able to keep him, just for a little while.

“The first thing is to repeal the ban on magic, naturally,” Arthur says, and it takes a moment for the words to sink in. It’s something that Merlin has dreamed of, wished for, so often. It was what he’d thought his purpose was, until it was overshadowed by Arthur and the need to protect him. He almost thinks he’s misheard.

“Sorry, what?”

“Do keep up, Merlin. Obviously if you’re going to be working for me openly as a sorcerer, magic will need to be legal.” Arthur stands up and begins to pace the room. “Now that we’ve established that magic itself isn’t an evil, it is merely the way in which it’s used, the injustice of the current laws on magic has become apparent to me. New laws will need to be put into place, of course, and I imagine now that the main magical threat to the kingdom is gone, that will likely be the bulk of your role, initially.”

“People won’t trust it, they’ll think you’re trying to draw them out,” Merlin says. “There will be attacks.”

Arthur waves an arm in the air. “You’ve managed to hold them off for this long, I’m sure you’ll be fine.”

Merlin rolls his eyes. “Well, at least I won’t be doing it while mending your boots and collecting herbs for Gaius.”

Arthur stops pacing. “And you’ll have the full support of the knights, of course.” He walks over to his desk and sits down, takes out a fresh scroll and begins scribbling on it. “There are other things to take into account as well. Reeducating the public, strengthening ties with the druids, finding ways that magic may benefit the kingdom. Do you think eventually we could train magic users as we train the knights?”

He looks up at Merlin and Merlin shrugs.

“It will take time to decide on the new laws, of course. Do you think we should have a feast? Or does that seem disrespectful?”

“Arthur!” Merlin says. “Slow down.”

Arthur grins at Merlin and Merlin can’t help but grin in response. It’s more than he’s ever dreamed of, to be able to work at Arthur’s side, using his magic.

“You should move into more fitting accommodations, if you’re to be a councilor,” Arthur says. “The rooms next door are free, I’ll have your things brought down. And you’ll need new clothes.” He gestures at Merlin with his quill. “Completely new clothes.”

“I’m not wearing a stupid hat,” Merlin says, and kicks himself at the way Arthur’s eyes light up.

“Oh, yes! A big pointy one, with stars on it,” he says.

“I can still turn you into a toad,” Merlin tells him.

*

There is a memorial for Gwaine, for all the fallen knights. Arthur wants to push ahead with the new laws in that headlong way he has whenever he’s facing action, but Merlin thinks they should wait, they need time to mourn, and it doesn’t take a lot for Arthur to agree. He stands beside Arthur and never looks away from the fire where Gwaine’s cape burns. They’ve lost so many good men and Merlin thinks sometimes that he can hear the echo of Gwaine’s laughter in the silent halls. Gwen steps forward and throws a ribbon onto the pyre. Merlin recognizes it from one of Morgana’s old dresses, and when she turns back, she smiles at him with the tears still on her cheeks. In that moment, he forgives Morgana, can see her as much of a victim as any of them, in her own way. Ash catches in the breeze and falls over them like dirty snow. Arthur moves close enough for his shoulder to brush against Merlin’s, and Merlin’s grief fades, just a little.

*

They drink that night, seated around the table in Merlin’s new rooms. Merlin and Arthur and Gwen and Gaius and Leon and Percival. They speak of the dead, of Lancelot’s chivalry and Gwaine’s courage, of Morgana’s beauty and goodness. There is more laughter than tears, and although it is bittersweet, when they leave they leave with smiles on their faces.

Finally, Merlin and Arthur are alone. Arthur sprawls in the chair by the fire and Merlin gets up to fetch another bottle of wine.

“This is a long way from Ealdor,” Arthur says, gesturing around the room.

The room is much bigger than his old one, and much more ornately furnished. When he’d been no more than a farm boy in Ealdor, Merlin could hardly have even imagined such luxury. There is a small window that overlooks the courtyard, and the bed seems bigger than his mother’s whole cottage.

“I’m not wearing that stupid hat,” Merlin says, refilling Arthur’s goblet.

“You’re a councilor now,” Arthur says. “You should at least look the part.”

Merlin settles into the chair opposite Arthur’s and makes a face at him. The new clothes aren’t actually that horrible, similar to his old clothes but made of finer material, in rich blues and reds and greens, but he wants to annoy Arthur, to lighten the mood.

“At least wear the cloak on formal occasions,” Arthur says.

“It’s a knight’s cloak,” says Merlin, and it is, though fur-lined and more elaborate than even Arthur’s cloak. He had been sure it was a mistake when he’d seen it. “I’m not a knight.”

Arthur shrugs. “You’re more or less a knight,” he says. “Probably more.”

The words fill up something in Merlin’s heart that he’d never realised was wanting and he can’t speak for a moment. Arthur watches Merlin, and there’s something in Arthur’s eyes, something unfamiliar and slightly awkward, and it surprises Merlin that after all this time there could be something about Arthur that he can’t read.

Arthur sighs and places his goblet on the side table. “He loved you, you know,” he says. “Gwaine.”

Merlin smiles sadly. “He was a good man. A good friend.”

The firelight flickers in Arthur’s eyes. “I don’t want anymore lies between us, Merlin,” he says. “Not now.”

Merlin forces himself to hold Arthur’s gaze. “There won’t be,” he promises.

Arthur smiles, wide and slow and full of trust, and Merlin tells himself that soon, soon he’ll tell Arthur everything. Once the new laws are in place, once the kingdom is settled and it’s not so vital for them to have a good working relationship.

He feels like a coward. Sleep is a long time coming that night, and when it does, he dreams that he’s an old man, waiting by a lake for an eternity.

*

The feast is the most lavish that Merlin’s seen in years and it feels strange to be seated there, between Arthur and Sir Leon, rather than serving. He remembers how when Gwen first became queen she couldn’t stop herself from collecting up the plates and refilling the wine. It had always made him smile. People cast him surprised looks, and he knows that Arthur has kept the secret well, only telling his most trusted knights. Merlin’s not sure that was the wisest course, it won’t be the most welcome news for everyone, but nobody knows how to handle matters of the court like Arthur and so Merlin hasn’t said anything.

His new clothes are a bit warm and he can’t help but tug at the neck of his new cloak.

“Stop fidgeting,” Arthur tells him over his roast venison. “Have you decided on a title?”

Merlin shrugs and sips his wine. “I thought perhaps ‘Magical Advisor’? That seems to cover my duties while sounding fairly harmless.”

Arthur furrows his brow. “You don’t want something more…” He waves his fork around vaguely. “Grand-sounding?”

“I don’t want to falsely advertise myself,” Merlin says, trying to sound light.

Arthur’s lip quirks. “In that case, we could just call you my royal idiot.”

Merlin intends to make a snappy comeback, but he’s arrested by that look on Arthur’s face again, that unfamiliar, awkward look that’s somehow also full of confidence. Merlin searches the look, trying to decipher the meaning. His heart pounds in his chest and he holds Arthur’s eyes until George cuts between them to refill their wine. Leon makes a comment about Lady Padmore’s inappropriate fondling of one of the serving boys. Merlin laughs, and when his attention returns to Arthur, Arthur is chatting to a visiting nobleman about the grain supply.

When the main courses are cleared, Arthur addresses the court. He stands and the chattering quiets. It has always amazed Merlin the way that Arthur can command a room, the way his presence seems to fill every corner and shadow.

“We are gathered tonight to celebrate the end of the greatest threat our kingdom has faced,” Arthur says. A few people cheer and clang their goblets. “We also remember all that we have lost, the loved ones who have sacrificed everything to keep Camelot safe and to protect the values that we hold sacred. At the basis of these values, values such as loyalty and honour, has always been one fundamental principle, and that is respect. I believe, as I hope you all do, that to function as a kingdom and as human beings, we must respect those around us; their rights, their beliefs and their station. We must create a society where all people are treated equally.”

Arthur pauses, Merlin isn’t sure if it is for effect or to gauge the reaction of the room. Everyone is silent, waiting for Arthur to continue.

“It has become apparent that some of the laws of Camelot directly oppose this equality, and as such, they need to be changed. As of today, the ban on magic use is repealed.”

His words ring through the hall and settle before the muttering breaks out. Merlin can’t tell if it’s the good kind or the bad kind. Arthur puts up his hand for silence.

“Obviously, magic use, like everything else, will need to be regulated and new laws will be instituted for the fairness of all. I am therefore appointing Merlin as Magical Advisor and we will be working together to create laws that benefit Camelot and its citizens, both magical and not.”

The muttering is louder this time and Merlin feels the weight of the stares directed at him. He wants to cringe away from them. His entire life he has hidden his magic and this goes against every instinct he has. He forces himself to sit up straight and look out over the crowd.

“He’s a sorcerer?” someone calls out from one of the back tables.

“But he’s just a servant,” says someone else.

Arthur claps a hand on Merlin’s shoulder and looks down at him. Merlin briefly nods.

“Lord Merlin is the most powerful sorcerer in the five kingdoms and has constantly risked his life to protect Camelot since the day he came here. He is living proof that magic itself is not an evil, that it is wholly dependent on how it is used.”

Merlin is filled with warmth at Arthur’s words and the rest of the world fades away as Arthur meets his eyes. He barely feels Leon clapping him on the back, only vaguely registers Gwen grinning at him. There is only Arthur. Merlin feels the eternity that they share twining around them and pulling them closer.

Arthur turns back to the people. “I will make an announcement to the general population once the basic laws are agreed on. The council will begin to meet as of tomorrow morning to discuss the best course of action, however the ultimate decisions will be agreed upon by myself and Merlin. I hope you will all join me in trying to right this injustice that has continued for so long.”

Arthur raises a toast and everyone stands. Merlin feels a little shaky on his feet but manages to get through it. After the toast, when the dessert courses begin to be served, Merlin is inundated by people with well wishes and questions. He sees Arthur watching the people who don’t approach, those who band together in small groups, muttering and throwing him dirty looks, and he knows that Arthur will keep watching them long after this night.

After the food is taken away and the tables moved back, people start to mingle and the minstrels take out their instruments. Merlin’s wine is kept constantly topped up and he’s chatting to the daughter of some lord or other when Arthur pulls him aside. The girl hovers close by Merlin’s elbow and Arthur raises his eyebrows and stares at her until she excuses herself.

“That went well, I think,” Arthur says, stepping closer to Merlin and glancing around the room.

“Better than expected,” says Merlin.

“It will take time, of course. Some people won’t take kindly to the changes at first. We’ll need to change their views.”

“I know, Arthur.”

Arthur rolls his eyes. “Of course you do, what am I saying. You’d know better than anyone.” He nods and looks down into his goblet. It’s always caught Merlin off-guard, these softer moments of Arthur’s, when he’s thoughtful and sincere. “You’ll need to be careful.”

Merlin snorts. “I’m always careful, Arthur.” He nudges Arthur with his elbow. “Besides, I’m not sure there’s anyone left alive who could pose much of a threat to me anymore.”

Arthur lets out a startled laugh. “Oh really, Merlin? That’s quite a statement.” Arthur shoots him an amused look. “I bet I could still take you.”

Merlin smirks. “You’ve never taken me, not really.” The words come out more gravelly than Merlin intended and seem to imply something, and Merlin thinks it’s possibly time to slow down on the wine.

Arthur chokes a little but then recovers himself. “Let’s prove it then.”

“What?”

“We’ll fight, you and I. You’re the strongest sorcerer ever known, according to Gaius, and I’m the best warrior in the kingdom. We’ll see which is mightier, magic or sword.”

“Are you drunk?”

Arthur bangs his goblet on the table for silence and stands on a stool to address the crowd.

“Arthur, no,” says Merlin, tugging on his arm.

“Attention, everyone. I have decided that a display of talent is necessary from our new Magical Advisor.”

The crowd show their approval with drunken cheering, though Merlin can see Gaius’ raised eyebrow and Gwen’s concerned look.

“Arthur, this is an epically stupid idea.”

Arthur answers by throwing his gauntlet at Merlin’s feet.

“I am not picking that up,” Merlin says.

“Don’t worry, Merlin. I won’t beat you too badly.” Arthur’s smirk is infuriating.

Merlin runs his hands through his hair in frustration. “Do you really want the first view the people get of the Magical Advisor to be him trying to attack the king? Think about this.”

Arthur clasps Merlin’s shoulder and gets down from the stool. “It will be a good thing,” Arthur says. “It will show them that you’re not to be trifled with.”

Merlin shakes his head. “My magic is supposed to protect you. I won’t use it to harm you.” It’s still too close, that memory of Arthur’s colour fading, his life draining away.

Arthur squeezes his shoulder. “It will be fine, Merlin. It’s just for show.” Arthur releases Merlin and waves to the crowd, making his way to the doors. Merlin watches in stunned silence as the crowd fall in behind their king.

“You’d better get going,” says Gaius, appearing beside him. “You know what he’s like when he gets an idea in his head.”

“This is stupid,” Merlin says.

“He wants to show you off,” says Gaius. “Go on, you’d better not keep him waiting.” He gives Merlin a nudge toward the doors.

Merlin reluctantly follows the crowd out of the room and down to the practice field. The crowd has gathered around the edges, holding torches and Arthur stands alone in the middle.

“Come on, Merlin,” yells Arthur. “Surely you’re not afraid.”

Some of the crowd laugh.

It feels like one of those training sessions, those long afternoons of being a moving target, sweaty and bruised while Arthur pummels him, with no means of fighting back. Except that this time, he can.

Merlin grins and strides toward Arthur. Arthur grins in return and they clasp each other’s forearms.

“Don’t say I didn’t warn you,” says Merlin.

“Oh, I don’t think I’ll need to,” Arthur replies. “Now, wave to the crowd, Merlin.”

They drop each other’s arms and wave, then step back a few paces. Merlin does nothing at first, waits for Arthur to approach. Arthur circles him with that look of concentration he always has in battle. Merlin keeps in place, moving only to keep facing Arthur.

“Come on, Merlin,” yells one of the knights.

“Yes, do come on, Merlin,” Arthur says. “You’re not even trying.”

Merlin smiles. “I don’t really need to,” he says, and shoots some lightning toward Arthur’s feet.

Arthur jumps back in surprise and Merlin laughs. Arthur’s eyes narrow and he charges forward. Merlin has watched Arthur fight for years, knows the way that Arthur moves better than anyone. He flicks his hand and Arthur lunges to the side. The crowd titters.

Arthur raises his sword and begins to circle Merlin again.

“Really, Merlin,” Arthur says. “You’re supposed to be showing off your talents and this is all you’ve got.”

“Is that what this is about?” Merlin asks, moving in closer to Arthur. Something flickers across Arthur’s face, too quickly for Merlin to catch. Merlin raises his hand, mumbles a spell, without taking his eyes off Arthur’s face. He watches Arthur’s eyes widen in surprise as his sword heats up, too hot for Arthur to hold. When Arthur drops his sword, Merlin picks it up and it doesn’t burn him. He stands up straight, directly in front of Arthur, still staring into his eyes. He mumbles another spell and Arthur freezes.

“I don’t need to show off,” Merlin says. “Do you submit?”

Arthur grimaces but says nothing. Merlin takes a step closer. Their chests are touching and he can feel Arthur’s breath on his face, see the struggle to move behind his eyes, and again that something else.

“Merlin,” Arthur whispers.

The hard steel of Arthur’s armour presses through his new clothes, cold against his skin. Merlin tilts his head toward Arthur’s, close enough for his lips to brush Arthur’s cheek when he speaks.

“Say you submit,” he says.

Arthur closes his eyes, his chest heaving as though he’s struggling for breath.

“I submit,” he says finally, against the shell of Merlin’s ear.

“Louder,” Merlin says against Arthur’s skin. “So that everyone can hear.” He pulls back, just slightly.

“I submit,” Arthur says again, his voice carrying to the crowd.

Merlin steps back and drops the spell with a grin. Arthur doesn’t smile in return, and when Merlin raises the sword to the crowd’s applause, Arthur won’t meet his eye.

*

Merlin’s not sure what to wear for the first magical council meeting, and George is no help.

“The blue matches your eyes,” George says. “It was ordered especially to do so.”

“I don’t think the shade of my eyes is going to help me against old Lord Fulham.”

George raises his eyebrows. “You might be surprised, milord. However, if you could decide soon, I still need to attend to the king.”

It twists in his stomach in a way he didn’t expect, the thought of someone else serving Arthur. He dismisses George so that he doesn’t have to think about it.

He decides on the blue after all, and then picks at his breakfast. He’s sat in on council meetings before, so he doesn’t know why he’s so nervous, or whether it actually has more to do with the look that’s been hovering in Arthur’s eyes lately than with creating a new legal framework for the entire kingdom. He doesn’t have much appetite but he eats everything on his plate, then takes his time gathering up the papers and scrolls he’d been using for his notes. He stops off in the kitchen on the way to drop off his breakfast things and chats to the kitchen maids for a while.

“I had a cousin who was a sorcerer,” one of the maids, Anna, tells him. “She was nice, used to conjure up extra portions of bread for us in the winter but she had to go live in Mercia. Might come back now though, if it’s going to be safe.”

Cook casts him dirty looks, which is no different to usual, but he notices one of the scullery maids who used to always sneak him the best cakes now won’t meet his eyes.

“Things have been changing for a while now, I reckon,” says Anna’s friend, Josephine. “It’s not like in the old days when everyone was scared all the time.”

“It’s good you still come down the kitchen now you’re a lord.” Anna smiles at him.

“I’m not a lord,” Merlin says. “I’m just the same as I was before.”

The maids catch him up on the rest of the castle gossip, harmless stuff about a stable boy sending flowers to one of the kitchen maids, and Cook falling over in the mud at the marketplace, and how since the big battle, George keeps bringing back the king’s food trays near untouched. The last thing bothers Merlin and reminds him of where he’s supposed to be. He makes his goodbyes and heads to the council chambers.

All the seats at the round table are full but the one to Arthur’s right when he enters.

“Merlin, about time,” Arthur says, nodding to the seat. “Now we can finally start.”

Some of the older councilors seem to be involved in a previous discussion but Arthur cuts them off.

“As I’ve said, this is not something up for debate,” he tells them. “My decision is final and anyone who doesn’t like it is free to leave.” He pauses but nobody moves. “Now let’s move on to the new laws. We obviously need to define the acceptable uses of magic and have a clear distinction on what is prohibited. Thoughts, Merlin?”

Every eye at the table is trained on him. Some of the older councilors look disapproving but they are a minority. They are all people he has known for years, that he has fought alongside. They are, for the most part, his friends, and he repeats this to himself to calm his nerves.

“I think that at a basic level we just need to ban the use of any magic that can be harmful to others,” he says. “I have a list, but it isn’t comprehensive.” He holds up his list and waves it around a bit.

Arthur snatches the list out of his hand and reads from it. “Any spell, potion, magical artifact or other magic that can be used with willful intent to do the following: kill, maim, mind control, create false emotion, otherwise inhibit the free will of others, alter memory or other mental faculties, alchemy and other false creation of money, thievery, break any other non-magical law not listed.” Arthur raises his eyebrows at Merlin. “Perhaps we should create a clause where the use of these to protect the kingdom is acceptable, Merlin?”

Merlin shrugs. He’s well aware that he’s broken nearly all of these to protect Arthur but he won’t apologise for it. “I’ve made a list of potentially acceptable magic as well,” Merlin says, shuffling his papers. “Any spell, potion, magical artifact or other magic used for healing, protection of persons, property or livelihood, artistic or entertainment purposes, any magic that has no effect on persons or property of anyone other than the magic user.” He looks around the table. “I couldn’t really think of anything else.”

Arthur takes the list from Merlin and looks it over. “There are some possible conflicts here.”

Merlin nods. “There are. These lists barely scratch the surface.”

Leon furrows his brow. “What do you mean by conflicts? Aren’t you either using magic for good or bad?”

Merlin thinks about it for a moment. “The same spell could be used in different ways, I suppose.” He glances around. “Take that book there for example.” Merlin extends his hand and the book raises in the air. A few people gasp but he ignores them. “I could use magic because the book is on the other side of the room and I don’t want to get up to fetch it, or I could use it to whack Arthur in the head.” He sends the book zooming towards himself, stopping inches away from Arthur’s face. He reaches out and grabs the book. “I could also use this same spell to block an arrow heading for Arthur,” he says.

Leon nods in understanding. “So, we’re looking more at the effect of the magic rather than what magic is actually used.”

“There’s not just that,” says Arthur. “What if someone used magic to enhance something they were selling at market for example, that would give them an unfair advantage over the other market stall holders. Or healing someone has an adverse affect on someone else.”

Merlin nods. “That’s possible, magic always has a cost, we’ll need to consider that.”

“We will also need to discuss the use of magic in warfare,” Arthur says.

They spend the morning discussing the new laws and by late afternoon they have decided on nothing more than a list of things that need to be considered in more detail.

“We’ll adjourn for today,” Arthur says finally, just as Merlin feels as if every muscle in his body has seized up from sitting in one place the whole day. “We’ll reconvene in the afternoon tomorrow.”

Merlin is busy making notes on his scrolls, and barely notices everyone saying goodbye as they shuffle out, though he does register that old Lord Fulham squeezes his shoulder on the way past, which raises all sorts of questions about George that he never wanted to think about. Merlin has a ton of research to do and he reads back over everything one last time to make sure there’s nothing he’s missed. When he looks up, there are a few knights milling around chatting, and Arthur is still seated beside him, resting one elbow on the table and watching him.

When he notices Merlin’s attention on him, Arthur smiles. “You seem born to this, Merlin.”

Merlin shrugs. “I’ve had a long time to think about it.”

Arthur sits up in his seat. “How did you…” He cuts himself off with a shake of the head. “It suddenly seems strange that you were my servant for so long.”

“I’m still your servant, Arthur. That will never change,” says Merlin. “Though this is far preferable to mucking out your horses.”

Arthur’s mouth twitches. “About that…”

“No,” says Merlin. “No, no, no, no. I’m sure George is doing a fine job.”

Arthur doesn’t say anything for a moment, and Merlin wonders if he misses it, having Merlin underfoot constantly, always in his space.

Arthur stands up and stretches. “It will take time to adjust for us all, I suppose.”

Merlin nods and starts to gather up his papers. “I should go and make a start on this,” he says, getting to his feet.

Arthur hesitates, and then nods. “There is more to this than I’d thought. I suspect soon you’ll be begging to muck out my horses just to get a break.”

Merlin laughs and pushes Arthur in the shoulder. “Don’t hold your breath.”

It seems strange, wrong, to leave Arthur standing there instead of following after him, but Merlin knows that this is the best way he can serve Arthur now. It’s not as though he and Arthur are estranged, in some ways they’re on better terms than ever, but seeing Arthur’s lone form standing at the table as he leaves, Merlin hopes it’s not a sign of things to come.

*

Gaius is waiting in his room when Merlin gets back, with a pile of books and a disapproving frown. Merlin takes his seat and opens the top book on the pile, spreads out his notes in order to cross-reference the information he needs for the next day’s council. He doesn’t look at Gaius, but he can feel the old man’s eyebrow creeping higher and higher up his forehead.

“What is it, Gaius?”

Gaius sighs. “You know what it is, Merlin.”

Merlin reads a paragraph about the various uses of sleeping potions without taking any of it in. He reads it over another three times before closing the book and looking up at Gaius.

“I can’t tell him right now, Gaius. You know that.” It’s not as if the guilt isn’t a constant presence hanging between he and Arthur, as solid as a wall that Merlin can’t breach.

“Do you still intend to tell him at all?” Gaius asks.

“Of course I do. But there’s so much to do right now. What would happen if I told him, the kingdom can’t afford for us to have a falling out while we’re in the middle of this. Once the new laws are passed and everything settles down, it won’t matter if Arthur isn’t speaking to me, or exiles me, or whatever he decides to do.”

Gaius nods, but Merlin doesn’t think he looks entirely convinced. Merlin isn’t sure he’s even convinced himself. He’s a coward, he knows that. He can’t bear the thought of losing Arthur and it’s all just excuses to prolong the inevitable.

He reopens the book and continues reading.

*

Merlin wakes early the next morning. He sneaks down to the kitchen while it’s still dark and arranges Arthur’s favourite foods on a tray. He takes them up to Arthur’s room and the guards let him in with only a smile and a nod. Arthur is snoring, tangled in the covers and it reminds Merlin of all those cold mornings he’d resented being awake while Arthur was warm and sleeping. It makes him smile as he lays out Arthur’s clothes. He chooses older clothes, soft and worn-in for the long day of discussions. He piles up the fire and looks around. George is good at his job, there’s no doubt of that. The room is spotless and there’s nothing else for Merlin to do. Still, something seems lacking, somehow.

Merlin sits at the edge of Arthur’s bed, the warmth from Arthur’s body radiating out. He pulls the covers down over where Arthur’s foot pokes out the bottom, then just watches for a moment, Arthur’s golden hair splayed out on the pillow, the crease between his eyebrows. There’s something unearthly about him; Merlin has always thought so. He’s beautiful, as if his goodness shines through for everyone to see. It’s as if Arthur is too big for this world, too great for it, and Merlin loves that part of Arthur, he does, but he loves that other part of Arthur more, the selfish, prattish part that can also be uncomfortably soft and feels as if it’s only for Merlin. He listens to Arthur breathe and it still seems like such a miracle to him.

He stays as long as he dares, until Arthur mumbles and shifts in his sleep, curling toward Merlin. Merlin stands to leave, but doesn’t want to break the moment just yet. Eventually, the sun starts to filter through the curtains and he knows George will be there soon, and he can’t delay any longer.

*

Things settle into a routine. Early mornings secretly caring for Arthur, days spent in council meetings and long nights of research. It takes weeks to discuss everything, let alone reach a consensus. Merlin knows he faces violent opposition, but somehow only a whisper of it ever reaches him, it’s always shut down before it becomes an issue. He doesn’t know how Arthur’s doing it but he has so much else to think about that he doesn’t have time to dwell on it or to acknowledge it with much more than a grateful smile.

He’s tired constantly, and when he does sleep his dreams are still plagued by the same images, Arthur laid out in a barge, the lonely old man by the lake. The feeling from the dreams carries over into the day, somehow, the isolation and despair of the future he’d averted. He tries to ignore it, tells himself that will never come to pass, not now that he’s changed destiny. No matter what happens, he will never have to live in an Arthurless world.

He and Arthur spend hours together, locked in Arthur’s chambers debating the complications of particular laws, and most of the time things seem the same between them as they always were, and when they’re not, Merlin can still pretend. It’s enough for him.

The day finally comes when the laws are implemented. The people gather in the courtyard and Arthur announces it from the balcony, with Merlin standing beside him. Word has gotten around, of course. Nobody in Camelot ever could keep a secret. The news is received with cheering, until Arthur begins to outline the laws in detail and the people get bored and restless. Merlin doesn’t blame them, he knows it’s important but he’s nodded off more than once during Arthur’s speeches.

It doesn’t happen until near the end, an arrow released from the back of the crowd, heading for Arthur. Merlin stops it in midair before the guards even notice anything is wrong. He isolates the culprit through the panic, and when the man tries to flee, Merlin brings the gates crashing down on him and the man is impaled.

After that, they face little opposition.

Magical law-breakers begin to appear almost immediately, though it’s mostly people who don’t understand the new laws and anything more serious is quickly quelled in the face of Merlin’s wrath. Arthur announces a feast at the end of the month to celebrate the success of the new laws.

Merlin knows it’s time.

He helps decorate for the feast, glowing lights and flower vines all in Pendragon colours, the hall looks magnificent, magical. He sits through the feast determined to enjoy himself, through the speeches of praise and course after course of roasted meats. He’s surrounded by smiling faces but there’s only one that matters to him on this night. Arthur is resplendent, shining brighter than usual. He stays close by Merlin’s side at all times, even after the food, his arm slung around Merlin’s shoulders, as if he somehow knows that this is the last chance they have to be like this. Merlin engraves every moment on his memory, the warmth of Arthur pressed against his side, the sound of Arthur’s laughter. Arthur is golden, the night is golden and Merlin never wants it to end.

After the feast, they end up in Arthur’s rooms. It’s become a habit for them, a glass of wine before bed to discuss the day, the plans for tomorrow. Merlin knows this is it. He tells himself it’s fine, Arthur no longer needs his protection, so even if the worst happens, Arthur will be safe. He sips his wine and watches Arthur in the firelight. He’s about to speak when Arthur abruptly sets his wine aside and gets to his feet.

“Help me with my armour, will you, Merlin.”

Merlin raises his eyebrows but stands to help Arthur. “I don’t know why you’ve taken to wearing armour to feasts lately.” He takes Arthur’s arm, fingers moving over the familiar buckles as he undoes the vambrace.

“It makes an impression,” Arthur says. “We look quite formidable, I think, me in my armour and you in your finery. The knight and the magician.”

Merlin snorts, placing pieces of armour carefully on the table as he removes them. “Well, I’m not complaining but it can’t be comfortable sitting there and stuffing yourself in all this metal.” He moves behind Arthur to work on the buckles there, and gathers his courage now that he doesn’t have to meet Arthur’s gaze. “Arthur, I need to tell you something.” He lifts off Arthur’s breastplate and turns away.

“No, Merlin, wait.” Arthur shrugs out of his chainmail and casts it aside. He catches Merlin by the elbow and turns Merlin to face him. The light glows behind him, illuminating his edges, the gold of his hair, the folds of his undershirt. “I need to tell you something first.” Merlin is arrested by him, by the urgency in his voice. “I’ve been trying to tell you for weeks, ever since you told me of your magic, since I died. But it seems you’re such an idiot that you won’t take a hint, so I’ll need to do it this way.” He releases Merlin’s arm and grasps Merlin’s neck, his thumb tracing lines along Merlin’s jaw. His other hand tangles in Merlin’s shirt, pulling him closer. “Merlin,” he mumbles. “Such an idiot.”

His mouth brushes Merlin’s, he runs his tongue along Merlin’s bottom lip, and then when Merlin doesn’t pull away, Arthur descends on him, invading him, pulling him closer. Arthur’s mouth is hot, frantic, and Merlin can feel all the years of silent wanting begin to unravel around them. Arthur is everything, everywhere. His skin, his breath, his taste and scent, these are the only things that Merlin knows.

It happens so quickly that his mind can’t adjust. Arthur goes still, stumbles backwards. Merlin catches him by the shoulders, confused. Arthur’s eyes widen and he gasps, and then Merlin sees it, the sword point through Arthur’s chest, the blood spreading across the white fabric of his undershirt. There’s a flash of movement from the corner of Merlin’s eye and Merlin extends his hand, doesn’t even speak as his magic throws the attacker against the stone wall. The attacker slumps in a heap and doesn’t move, but Merlin barely notices.

Arthur crumples and Merlin takes his weight, lowering them both onto the floor. It’s so familiar, but this can’t be happening, not again, not now. There is so much blood, though Merlin covers the wound over Arthur’s heart with his hand and tries to stop the flow.

“Arthur,” Merlin whispers.

Arthur says nothing. He smiles and shakes his head, and then his eyes fall closed. It is so much faster than last time, too fast, and Merlin is still trying to stop the blood, to wake Arthur, when Arthur’s eyes open.

“Merlin?” Arthur asks.

Merlin blinks the tears out of his eyes and looks down at Arthur. Arthur’s face is flushed and his eyes are bright, and when Merlin moves his hand, the wound is gone.

Arthur sits up, wipes the blood off his hands onto his shirt. “Again?” he asks, raising his eyebrows.

“Not exactly,” Merlin says.

Arthur stands and gives Merlin a hand up, then calls the guards. The attacker is a young boy. His neck is broken but Arthur is still covered in blood and Merlin feels no regret. The guards look shocked at Arthur’s appearance but he waves them off and tells them to remove the boy. When they are alone, Arthur pulls off the soiled shirt and Merlin heats the water in the washbasin.

“What exactly is going on, Merlin?” Arthur asks, squeezing a cloth into the water of the washbasin and wiping the blood in smears from his chest.

Merlin sighs and sits in the chair by the fire. He picks up his goblet and swirls around the wine in the bottom. He takes a sip but it’s warm.

“You were supposed to die,” he begins. “It was your destiny, to die by Mordred’s blade.” His eyes flicker up to Arthur, but Arthur is still washing and doesn’t look at him. Merlin laces his fingers together, directs him words to them. “I couldn’t lose you, I couldn’t bear it. You died, and I…” He sighs. He can’t think about it, not really. It’s bad enough reliving it every night in his dreams. “I'm immortal, Arthur. I can’t die, or at least I die but it doesn’t last long. You died, and I kissed you and brought you back. I don’t know what I did, exactly, but I think that when I saved you, I bound our lives together and now you can’t die either.”

Arthur says nothing. He rinses out the cloth and continues cleaning off the blood.

“Arthur…”

“When did you know this?” Arthur asks. His voice is cold, distant.

“I suspected just after it happened, but I wasn’t sure until now.”

Arthur gives a short nod. “I think you should leave.”

Merlin stands up, takes a step toward Arthur. “Arthur, I’m sorry.”

Merlin waits, but Arthur gives no sign of acknowledgement. It’s what Merlin expected and it’s what he deserves but that doesn’t make it hurt any less. He leaves without another word, feeling that despite everything, the total sum of his life has been a failure.

*

There is no council meeting the next day and he doesn’t see Arthur. He gets word that the boy who tried to kill Arthur was the son of a couple who had been slain by Morgana, but it’s impersonal, just a message from a page.

Days pass and Merlin works and sleeps, and when he sees Arthur, Arthur treats him professionally and never meets his eye.

“I don’t know what you expected,” Gaius says.

Merlin has taken refuge in Gaius’ rooms, soothed by the bubbling concoctions and the smell of herbs.

“This is what I expected, more or less,” Merlin says, flicking through a book on harvesting and making notes on how magic can be applied to increase production.

“You just need to give him some time,” Gaius says.

Merlin laughs, but there’s no humour in it. “Well, that is one thing that we’re not short of.”

It makes Merlin think though. They have time, they have all the time in the world. Maybe what they really need is space. There are things he can do, things he’s thought about, but he’s never wanted to leave Arthur’s side. Arthur is safe now, he doesn’t need Merlin. Instead of sitting around feeling sorry for himself, Merlin thinks perhaps he should use the time to his advantage.

It takes him a few days to make arrangements. He tells no one of his plans, but he leaves a note for Gaius and a message for Arthur. He rides out late at night during the change of guard. He travels quickly, not stopping for rest and eating as he goes. He thinks of seeking the druids, Arthur had spoken of rebuilding relations with them, but he wants to be alone. He heads for the crystal cave.

He misses Arthur constantly. He knows he shouldn’t and he doesn’t feel as if he has any right to, but there’s a space beside him that should be filled and the emptiness reverberates until it’s like a constant humming inside his head. The further from Camelot he gets, the stronger the feeling grows. He does random spells to distract himself, meaningless magic that swirls around him, making patterns in the leaves and light in the shadows.

He gets to the Valley of the Fallen Kings just after dawn on the second day. The air in the cave is cold and still, threaded with the faint tingle of magic. He makes his way deeper into the caves and stops when he sees the glow of the crystals. He’s in a dry, low cavern, deep enough in the caves to have warning of bandits. He lays out his bedroll and sits on it while he chews some stale bread. It’s not exactly homey but it’s as good a place as any to stay while he figures things out. He finishes his bread, stands and brushes himself off, then heads into the crystal cave.

The magic crackles under his skin as he enters, humming in the air like a living thing. He feels it throughout his body, as if the magic of the cave is connecting to his own magic, electrifying every cell and awakening it in new and unimagined ways. He runs his fingers over the crystals, letting the magic tangle with his own. He peers into a crystal, hoping for a glimpse of this new future he’s created, but all he sees at Arthur. Arthur is asleep, stirring to wakefulness. His brow is furrowed and there are shadows under his eyes. It’s not Arthur in the future, it’s Arthur in this moment, Merlin knows this without knowing how. It takes him a moment to realise what this means, but then he remembers the dragon’s words: the future is unwritten. His destiny is gone and nothing is predetermined any longer. The thought should terrify him, but instead he sees the path ahead open up with limitless possibilities.

The magic of the cave refreshes him, makes him feel awake and alive in a way that he hasn’t dared to in so long. He reaches out with his magic, lets it drift away from the confines of his body and twist and twirl and dance throughout the cave. In this moment, Merlin feels as if he sees all things, knows all things, is all things. It is different to being shown through the crystals, he is a part of everything and everything is part of him, in a fundamental, intrinsic way. The laws that govern man and nature become something solid, not an entity but a living presence that makes up every thing and every person, and he knows that when people speak of gods, that this is what they mean. This clarity brings him an understanding of what he did to Arthur, how he did it. Of how through all the years he’s poured all his love and hope and belief into Arthur, all of himself, of what makes him who he is, because Arthur has been everything to him for so long. And Merlin is magic, and that kiss awoke the magic inside Arthur, as if signing a contract that had been written long ago. It is this magic that makes them both immortal, and there is no way of undoing it. What Merlin has given Arthur is so tangled up with who Arthur is that it has become Arthur himself, just as Arthur is part of Merlin. It makes a horrible sort of sense to Merlin, and again he hears the dragon’s words, this time words from long ago, that he and Arthur are two sides to the same coin. It’s an obvious thing, but it has always escaped Merlin’s notice until now, that there was only ever one coin.

He makes his way back to the outer cave and slumps on his bedroll. He doesn’t know how long he’s spent in the caves, it could be days or just minutes, but he is exhausted. He falls into a restless sleep and dreams of Gwen sitting alone on the throne, unable to smile.

When he wakes, it is morning. He hunts for food, catches a rabbit and cooks it outside. He collects berries and herbs that he can make into something useful and hangs them up to dry in the cave where he slept. In the afternoon, he enters the crystal cave again, letting his magic free and studying it. He’s always learned magic by practicing spells, it’s never occurred to him that he can learn more about his own particular magic just by experiencing it, studying it in this way. He’s not sure that he can put into words what he learns, exactly, and he supposes he doesn’t need to, it’s enough for him to understand what he is and how he exists in relation to the rest of the world. It brings him a sort of peace, and it’s hard for him to reign his magic back in when he starts to feel tired.

He spends the next few days like this, eating when he’s hungry, sleeping when he’s tired, but mostly in the cave with his magic. He wakes one morning still in the cave, bent backwards over a crystal and staring up into Arthur’s face. It takes him a moment to realise Arthur’s face is not in a crystal, but actually there, glaring down at him.

“I came to ask you why you’d left, but now I understand it’s because you’ve actually gone mad,” Arthur says. The coldness has gone from his voice but he doesn’t help Merlin up.

Merlin struggles to his feet and stretches until his back pops. “How did you find me?” he asks.

Arthur shrugs. “I just… knew, somehow,” he says.

Merlin nods. “That makes sense.”

Arthur snorts. “Maybe to you.”

“It’s the spell, I think I’m starting to understand it.” Merlin gestures around the cave in explanation. His magic feels untamed now that Arthur is here, as if it’s gotten used to the freedom he’s given it and it’s gained its own sentience. It reaches toward Arthur, wanting to wrap around him, sink into his skin.

Arthur shivers. “What is this place?” He looks around the cave in awe. He’s beautiful like this, Merlin thinks, the blue glow catching in Arthur’s eyes just like the words catch in Merlin’s throat.

Instead of speaking, Merlin reaches out and twines his fingers with Arthur’s. He lets his magic unfurl, first in tiny tendrils and then in a massive burst that fills the cave and encompasses them both. He hears Arthur draw in a sharp breath and Arthur’s fingers tighten around his own. Merlin tries to direct his magic, to fill it with the things he’s learned, the things he’s sure of. The crystals glow more brightly than ever, blinding, and the air is full of tiny white sparks, like a shower of stars that orbit them.

Merlin remembers, he remembers Arthur dying in his arms and the absolute despair he felt, he remembers pressing his lips to Arthur’s and being surrounded by light, and the moment of pure joy when Arthur opened his eyes. He remembers other things too, things he’s kept locked in a secret box in his heart, the strength of his feelings for Arthur, stolen moments between the two of them, the sun shining down on Arthur as if acknowledging him as the chosen one, moments when Arthur is so beautiful that Merlin can’t believe he’s real, quiet moments too, late at night with just the two of them, all the moments he’s hoarded like treasures across the years. He shows Arthur everything through his magic and in that moment there are no barriers between them, no secrets. They are as one.

Gradually, he reigns his magic back in. The shining lights drift to the cave floor, some settle on their skin, catch in Arthur’s hair until the light dims. Arthur’s eyes are ablaze and at first Merlin thinks he’s angry, but then he realizes it’s something else, something just as fierce but at the same time softer, something that is purely Arthur.

“Do you understand?” Merlin asks.

Arthur smiles. “No,” he says. “But I’m beginning to.”

“I’m sorry I didn’t tell you,” Merlin says.

Arthur drops Merlin’s hand.

“Come home, Merlin,” he says.

*

They take their time travelling home. It’s not something they discuss, it’s just a feeling, as if they need to settle things before they reach the castle. They’ve only travelled half the distance they could and it’s not even dark when they stop to make camp for the night.

“I can’t believe you came all this way without a guard,” Merlin says.

Arthur rolls his eyes. “I’m immortal, Merlin, what use would a guard be?”

“Prat,” Merlin mutters, then lights the fire with a word.

“How is that being a prat?” Arthur asks, genuinely surprised. “I don’t need a guard, it would be a waste of manpower when they could be better employed elsewhere.”

“You don't need me either, and yet you came all this way to fetch me.” Merlin says the words before he can think them through.

Arthur laughs, opens his mouth to say something and then slams it shut. He stares at Merlin for a moment. “You’re serious!”

Merlin stands and moves off to collect some firewood. “It’s nothing,” he mumbles. “Forget it.”

Arthur is at his side before Merlin can blink. He grabs Merlin by the shoulders and turns Merlin to face him. Merlin tries to shrug him off but Arthur holds him fast.

“After everything, Merlin, how can you possibly think that?”

Merlin glances away.

Arthur shakes him. “Merlin?” Arthur sounds lost and that is what makes Merlin finally answer.

“After everything, how can I possibly think otherwise?” he asks. “After the things I’ve done…”

“To keep me safe, to keep the kingdom safe.”

“I’ve tied you to me for eternity, Arthur. You can’t tell me that’s something you wanted.”

Arthur sighs and his grip on Merlin’s shoulder relaxes. “Look at me, Merlin.”

Merlin looks at Arthur, and Arthur is smiling.

“You really are an idiot, Merlin,” he says. “Who else would I want to spend eternity with?” His fingers brush Merlin’s cheekbone and Merlin shivers. “I thought you understood… the things I told you when I was dying…”

Merlin shakes his head. “You were dying.”

“Such an idiot,” Arthur whispers and presses his lips to Merlin’s.

That night, Merlin sleeps at Arthur’s side and he dreams of the future.

*

Everything falls into place. They were always meant to work as a team, as a single unit, and it becomes obvious that the closer they are, the better they function. The kingdom goes from strength to strength. It’s not always happy, and it’s not always perfect, but somehow it’s always right. The Saxons invade and kingdoms fall, and Arthur becomes High King of all Albion. Merlin finds Aithusa and cares for her and rehabilitates her. She flies circles above the castle, a symbol of the great white hope Kilgarrah had promised she’d be. Young magicians gather at Camelot, eager to learn from the famous Emrys, and Merlin trains them side by side with Arthur and the knights. Magic settles into the land around them like the fall of a soft rain and Merlin knows that despite what the dragon said, despite what Merlin has done, this is how things are supposed to be. This is the destiny they were meant to have.

It takes years to realise, but somehow all their friends get older but they don’t age from the day Arthur died.

“Things can’t stay like this forever,” Arthur says one day, standing on the parapets looking out over the world he’s created. “There are younger men who can rule just as well as I can, once Gwen is gone. We have your magic users and the councilors to oversee things. I'm no longer needed here, I’m just a symbol, a figurehead. I can be that from anywhere.”

Merlin nods. “One day, Camelot will fall. Can you stand by and let that happen?”

Arthur raises an eyebrow. “What was it that you said when we fought the Saxons at Mt Badon? ‘You’ll win this battle so decisively that any army will fear to breach the borders of Camelot for hundreds of years, and even then they’ll whisper your name in the shadows’.”

Merlin shrugs. “The odds were against us, you looked like you needed cheering up.”

Arthur elbows him in the side. “I can’t rule forever,” he says, suddenly serious. “I don't want to. We can go anywhere, be anyone.” He takes Merlin’s hand, tangles their fingers together.

Merlin squeezes his hand. “The whole world is ours.”

“But not just yet,” Arthur says. “Let’s stay here a while longer.”

Merlin agrees, because he knows that it doesn’t matter where he is, where he goes or what he does. Arthur is beside him and he always will be.

*