It all began with a question.
On a morning like any other morning, Merlin was helping Arthur into his armor, he fastened the cloak over his shoulders and stepped back to admire his handiwork. He’d gotten quite skilled at it, if he did say so himself, and even Arthur never had much to complain about. Not that Arthur didn’t think of things to complain about, but that was another matter entirely that had everything to do with Arthur being an insufferable prat, and nothing whatsoever to do with Merlin’s capability.
Although, on that particular morning, Arthur had been rather quiet. Not that Merlin listened to castle gossip, but while passing through the kitchens earlier, he couldn't help but hear some whispers regarding an argument between Uther and his son the night before. Since he didn’t want to spread the gossip, he decided it was best not to ask about it; besides, Arthur didn’t appear to be in much of a mood to talk. So saying nothing, Merlin allowed himself a smile at a job well done as his gaze swept over the prince.
He didn’t know if it was simply due to the solemn expression on Arthur’s face, or the way the sunlight streamed in just perfectly behind him, casting a white halo of light around his hair, but Merlin’s smile slowly faded.
Suddenly, months of being at Arthur’s side – serving him, bantering with him, fighting beside him, living and dying for him – coalesced into a single moment. Merlin’s breath caught in his throat as he felt the intensity of the emotion well up within him.
He’d always felt it, he supposed, from the moment they’d first met.
Just because a dragon told him something was his destiny, didn't mean he had to take it seriously unless he realized he wanted it to be. And Merlin realized he did want it, want him. Not the spoiled prince that made Merlin consider more than once how he would look as a very green and spotted toad, but Arthur; Arthur, the one whose very presence made Merlin’s body hum with excitement and life every time he stood near. The Arthur he’d come to know and admire and care for. Care enough to die for. Merlin realized he was beginning to think of him as his Arthur.
And so he stood there that morning as the light shone in from behind and around his prince, blue eyes solemn and dark and filled with thoughts Merlin couldn’t begin to guess at, and the words were spilling from his lips before he realized he was speaking.
At first, he believed he’d only thought the words, but when Merlin realized he’d somehow actually voiced the thought, he moved quickly to fix it. “I mean, I did a perfect job of getting you ready… that’s what I meant. Perfect, you know… your,” he waved helplessly. “Armor.”
Apparently, Arthur hadn’t even heard him. He looked up after a moment, blinked as if he hadn’t even realized Merlin was there, and then flashed him a smile Merlin would describe as tight. Pained, even.
“Do you trust me, Merlin?”
Merlin blinked back at Arthur, staring at him. He couldn’t decide if he was annoyed that Arthur had been ignoring him, or relieved. “Of course, sire,” he answered without thought.
Picking up his helmet, Arthur moved past him, pausing only a moment to lay a hand against Merlin’s shoulder, and then he was out the door.
Arthur had a penchant for finding trouble wherever it hid. Or lurked. Or waited just around the corner to jump out at him. If there was some great, brilliant way of describing trouble, well Merlin figured it would start as a statue of Arthur, with giant letters carved into the base of the statue that simply said “trouble”. Only, lately it seemed as if Arthur was finding more trouble than should have even existed.
Merlin was beginning to run out of ways to hide his magic when he was forced to use it. And he’d been forced to use it a lot lately. It was as if Arthur was purposely trying to make Merlin’s life difficult, not that it wasn’t apparently Arthur’s destiny in life to make his life difficult. And it had been so, ever since the Questing Beast… No, before that even - perhaps since Ealdor.
Merlin tried not to think on it too much. After all, he was certain Arthur believed it was Will who had used magic to stop Kanan and his men, and not him. Well, he was almost positively certain of that. Certain enough that he could sleep at night. Though not certain enough that he slept well at night. It wasn’t as if he had prophetic dreams like Morgana; in truth, he’d prefer none of his dreams became prophesy. They had too much to do with fire and chopping blocks and he was already nervous whenever he was in Uther’s presence. So much so, that just the other night during a banquet, he’d accidentally spilled wine on the king’s sleeve. Arthur had quickly covered for him by saying his servant had spent too much time in his cups, and Merlin got the pleasure of seeing his beloved stocks again the next morning for his trouble.
Trouble. That was what he saw when he glanced up to find Arthur striding across the courtyard with guards in tow, looking solemn and determined and oh, Merlin had come to know that look far too well.
He stood as Arthur swept past him without a word, or as much as a glance.
Arthur turned on his heel. Of course he knew Merlin was there. He always seemed to know. “Stay there, Merlin.” He kept walking.
As if Merlin ever actually listened to what Arthur told him to do. Ever. If he had… well, Merlin didn’t even want to think of the consequences.
He stayed well behind as he followed Arthur and the guards through Camelot toward the lower town. They were moving quickly and purposefully and Merlin had to jog to keep up. It was obvious Arthur knew he was following because every so often he’d give a side glance over his shoulder, as if he fully expected Merlin to cause some mischief or something. Oh, ye of little faith.
More than once Merlin had been tempted to tell him just how lucky it was that Merlin hung around all the time, but he knew better. He never would and never could, and it wasn’t so much about recognition and glory as it was about Arthur. Just once, Merlin wanted Arthur to look at him and understand.
They slowed as they neared a row of dwellings and Merlin would have ran right into Arthur’s ramrod straight back had he not been paying attention, and usually he wasn’t paying that much attention so he knew exactly how it felt to run into Arthur in such a manner.
“I thought I told you to stay where you were.”
“Yeah, well, you know how often that works… sire.”
Arthur turned to give him one of those piercing looks, and Merlin tried very hard not to blink. “This doesn’t concern you, Merlin.” He pressed a hand to Merlin’s chest, pushing him back just slightly. Not hard, but it was a warning.
Arthur turned and rejoined the guards, and Merlin stood there, watching as he rubbed at his chest, which alternately burned and ached where Arthur’s hand had been.
Arthur kicked in the door of one of the dwellings. “By order of the King – “
Merlin’s hand dropped to his side.
The pyre was built quickly. Merlin tried to ignore it, but with every window he passed, every doorway he stepped through, his gaze wandered toward the center of the courtyard, and his stomach curdled.
Gaius was silent and worried, watching him ever more vigilantly than ever. The girl, who couldn’t have been more than fifteen, had been accused by a neighbor of witchcraft. Ever since Arthur had almost died from the Questing Beast’s bite, every threat against the kingdom was a threat against Arthur, and Uther’s fear of magic seemed to grow ever stronger.
When Merlin had asked what proof they had, Gaius only said, “What proof do they need?”
Merlin went about his work but it was difficult not to flash disappointed glances in Arthur’s direction. It wasn’t his fault, per se, but he had arrested her. He had dragged her before the king. His hands in this were no cleaner than his father’s, and that made Merlin ache.
When it came time for the execution, all the citizens had gathered in the courtyard to see the girl being dragged outside. Merlin began to leave Arthur’s chambers. He was going back to his room where he could close the door and pretend, if only for a moment that things were different.
“Where are you going?” Arthur hadn’t turned from his spot beside the window.
“I don’t want to watch this.”
“You don’t have a choice.”
Merlin was already shaking his head as Arthur finally looked at him. “That’s where you’re wrong. I do have a choice.”
“I order you to watch.”
He was certain he was hearing things. He shook his head, a little aghast at what Arthur was demanding of him. He took a breath. “No.”
“Merlin.” The inarguable tone was one that Arthur must have learned when he was very young. “That’s an order.”
He shook his head. Arthur could sack him, again, for all he cared.
Arthur uncurled from his stance beside the window, and Merlin wondered for a moment how he could move that fast, how he could suddenly be at his side, vise-like grip on his arm. He’d never touched Merlin like that before; the anger in Arthur’s fingertips actually flowing straight through him, causing Merlin to draw in a sharp breath as he was dragged, literally dragged, through the antechamber and out onto the balcony over-looking the courtyard.
“Sire – “
He lost his breath as Arthur shoved him against the balustrade, moving up behind him, pinning him there with his body before Merlin could move away. Merlin had never really been angry with Arthur before, not truly, but he was angry in that moment. Angry enough that for a second – just the briefest of seconds – he felt the power of that anger move through him. It would be too easy for him to shove Arthur aside. Too easy to make certain Arthur never touched him like that again.
Merlin closed his eyes, and breathed, curling his fingers on the railing beneath them, and the feeling passed.
He felt Arthur’s hands settle over his shoulders, his chest pressed against his back. It reminded him of a dream he’d had the other night, only it wasn’t quite like this.
“Citizens of Camelot!” King Uther called out. “The girl before you stands accused of being a witch. She has practiced the art of magic, which cannot be tolerated if we are to continue to live in peace.”
Merlin heard soft weeping somewhere in the crowd. Probably the girl’s mother. He pressed his hands to the railing, pushing back against the body behind him. “I don’t see why – “
“Her neighbor accused her of magic, Merlin.” Arthur’s voice was very close, very soft, a whisper that brushed against his ear. “No proof. Just an accusation. An accusation by a scared or angry neighbor.”
“Then do something.”
“You don’t think I tried?”
Merlin’s eyes opened at the words. Of course Arthur had tried. “I’m sorry. I just… “ He swallowed as the torches were set to the pyre. “Sire, why are you doing this?”
“I want you to watch,” Arthur bit out against his ear. “I want – “ His fingers tightened painfully over Merlin’s shoulders.
The girl’s screams began to grow as the flames neared her.
Merlin gasped and closed his eyes again. “You know she’s not a witch, Arthur. If she was she would save herself!” he pleaded.
“Maybe she’s just not powerful enough,” Arthur whispered, and there was something in his voice. Resignation. Regret. Everything.
“She’s not a witch,” Merlin insisted, and he turned his head, opening his eyes to try to meet Arthur’s gaze. “You know she isn’t. There wasn’t even proof.”
“There was proof enough.”
The fingers on his shoulders pressed harder into his skin, and Merlin winced even as the hold on him shifted and he was spun around to face his prince.
“Do you hear me, Merlin?” Arthur asked, looking angry and terrified, and Merlin couldn’t figure for the life of him what Arthur had to be terrified of. He wasn’t the sorcerer, after all.
“Do you hear me?” He shook Merlin once.
“Yes – No – I – “
The screams behind them turned from terror to very real pain. Merlin reached up to cover his ears, fingers curling into his hair, tugging at it.
“Please, sire – please don’t make me watch this!”
The hold on him loosened, if only slightly. “Do you trust me, Merlin?” The question was a whisper against the backdrop of the shrieks.
Merlin’s gaze flashed to his. “I – yes, Arthur.”
Arthur let him go.
“I think Arthur suspects.”
Gaius looked at him from across the table, brow furrowing. “You mustn’t say anything, Merlin.”
“But he would never – “
“No,” Gaius agreed quietly. “He wouldn’t. But Arthur isn’t King.”
That night, Merlin dreamed that he was standing in a circle formed on the ground by tiny pebbles. A few feet away, Arthur stood in a similar circle, the crown of a king on his head. Somehow, Merlin understood that if either of them were to step outside the circle, they would both perish. But, there was a little girl standing beyond the protection of the circles, screaming for one of them to save her.
“Merlin,” Arthur asked quietly from inside his circle of stones. “Do you trust me?”
“Yes. Yes, of course.”
Arthur stepped from the circle to save the girl.
Death burned like fire.
Merlin knew that things had changed, and that both he and Arthur had changed as well.
The dragon had insisted that their fates were tied together, but Merlin couldn't let himself believe in the dragon when it had tricked him. Truth and lies sounded much alike, and Merlin didn't know how to tell them apart anymore.
They both had a destiny. But how could he any longer believe in the dragon that had tricked him? And if there was one lie, how many others followed? He had been manipulated, and he wasn’t about to allow such a thing to happen again, but was the lie buried within the truth? Or the truth buried within the lie?
He believed that Arthur suspected him of being a sorcerer, practicing magic. He could tell Arthur the truth and force him to lie to his father, or keep on lying to Arthur while the king told his son that magic was evil and that those who practiced it were not to be trusted.
Neither choice was one that Merlin accepted.
“There’s not going to be much of that lavender left to take back to Gaius.”
Merlin glanced up at the sound of Gwen’s voice. She had agreed to accompany him as he collected supplies for Gaius outside the gates. He followed her gaze to his hands, which were closed tightly around the petals of the plant.
“Something wrong?” She curled her legs beneath her as she settled on the ground beside him.
“Arthur,” Merlin admitted. “And the execution. I just…” he sat back, pulling his knees up to his chest. “He should have done more to stop it.”
Gwen nodded slightly in agreement. “Morgana said the same. To him. They had… a nasty fight over it.”
Merlin frowned. “When? I didn’t hear about it.”
“That morning.” She chewed on her lower lip a moment, fingers curling in her apron. “She told him it was his duty to protect his people. He said that he was and she didn’t know what she was talking about. She called him a coward. He said something…” Gwen trailed off, color heightening. “Well, rather indelicate toward her in return. Then he told her he never expected her to understand, and walked out.”
“That doesn’t sound like him.” Merlin glanced toward the town, wondering where his prince was and what he was doing. “He usually listens to Morgana…”
They went hunting together.
Or rather, Merlin was trailing along after Arthur as he hunted. Fortunately, the prince’s hunting habits altered slightly after the unicorn incident. Even Merlin was occasionally surprised by the amount of faith he put in his friend, and while he had never doubted Arthur would do the right thing, it was also gratifying that he learned from his mistakes. It was that which Merlin continued to fight for. The dragon may have used him as a means to his own end, but Merlin knew Arthur would be a great king. And he had every intention of making certain Arthur had the chance to prove it.
Even if Arthur’s attitude sometimes made Merlin question his own judgment lately. Even if the more oddly Arthur behaved, the more convinced Merlin became that his secret was in jeopardy, and that could mean an end to everything.
By the time night fell, they were too far from the town to make it back in any reasonable amount of time, so Arthur decided they would make camp and return in the morning. He instructed Merlin to build a fire, and then tossed him a knife to skin and cook one of the rabbits he’d killed. Taking the knife, Merlin quietly muttered to himself about doing all of the work while Arthur just sat there on his princely ass.
“I know you’re still upset about the girl.”
The comment had come out of nowhere. Merlin paused; knife poised at the rabbit’s neck but he didn’t look up.
“Sorry?” He slid the knife in, cutting a flap. Fresh blood spilled over his fingers.
“You know…” Said as if Merlin had any clear idea of what he was talking about. “I just… you haven’t said much since then.”
“What am I supposed to say?” He tore at the hide. “That you should have done something more? That Camelot’s citizens look to you for protection as much as your father and you owed her at least that much?”
“Well.” There was a hint of something in Arthur’s voice. “The truth comes out… for whatever it’s worth.”
“The truth?” Merlin actually looked at him this time. “The truth is, sire, that you know as well as I do she wasn’t a witch, and you stood there, and you let her burn, and that makes you as guilty as King Uther.”
Arthur stood, and he seemed very tall in that moment, very powerful, towering over Merlin as he was. “Watch your tongue, Merlin,” he said too quietly. “You wouldn’t know the truth if it was staring you right in the face.”
And yet, he did, because it was. Merlin stood as Arthur moved past him, the knife falling from his fingers to the ground in between them. Arthur was actually going there, and Merlin’s heart was racing because he didn’t know what he was supposed to do or say. It had all been a cleverly laid trap; get him out here away from Camelot, where he might feel safe enough for that. For the truth.
“What do you want me to say, Arthur?” he demanded. “Tell me and I will say it.”
Arthur turned toward him, and Merlin held his breath.
“Do you trust me, Merlin?”
He frowned, not understanding. “Yes.”
But this time, Arthur shook his head. And Merlin realized he was losing this battle, and while he wanted to explain himself, his voice remained entirely incapable of speech. He stood there, feeling like an idiot, and Arthur looked at him expectantly, waiting for him to do something, so Merlin did the first thing that came into his head.
He kissed him.
He launched himself forward and pressed his lips to Arthur’s. Their noses bumped, and Arthur gave a grunt of surprise. It was probably the worst kiss in the history of kisses. That didn't make Merlin very happy, because he would have liked the kiss to be something memorable. But, he was too nervous, and he knew that he was kissing Arthur for the wrong reasons, and Arthur wasn't going along with it.
In fact, as he felt Arthur’s hands grip his shoulder, and firmly press him back, effectively ending the otherwise horrible kiss, Arthur’s expression wasn’t all that encouraging. He looked downright disappointed.
“Merlin,” he began softly. “What was that?”
“Umm…” Merlin licked his lips and dropped his gaze to the ground between them. “It was supposed to be a kiss.”
When Merlin looked back up at the silence, Arthur was giving him one of those looks again. “I got that much.”
“You’re my servant, Merlin, not my echo.”
He was trying to be cute, which usually got him a smile, but Arthur wasn't smiling. His eyes darkened and his grip on Merlin’s shoulders tightened just for a moment, then he walked past Merlin.
“Never mind,” he muttered.
By the time Arthur returned from wherever it was he had disappeared to, Merlin had washed the blood from his hands and the rabbit was just meat.
“I don’t think you trust me.”
Merlin looked up from the floor where he sat, cleaning Arthur’s boots. “Arthur, I… of course I do. Why wouldn’t I?”
“I guess that’s the question, isn’t it?”
Arthur was staring at him, like he was trying to see right down into him. Merlin’s fingers tightened on the brush he held as the tension between them grew. A part of him wished that Arthur would just ask, even if Merlin wasn’t certain what his answer would be.
“Surely you don’t believe that all magic is used for evil, Father?”
Merlin shouldn’t have been eavesdropping, but he found his feet were rooted to the floor.
“I have never been given reason to believe otherwise.”
There was silence. Merlin could picture the expression of exasperation on Arthur’s face. But what came next surprised even him.
“And what if you discovered that I used magic, sire?”
“This conversation is pointless, Arthur.”
“I don’t think it is.”
“Why? What are you hiding from me?”
“Nothing. It’s just…” the prince trailed off.
“Magic corrupts, my son.” Uther’s voice had softened. “In my time, I have seen even the most trusted of friends turned against one another by magic.”
Merlin didn’t stay to hear the rest.
“Maybe you should just burn all of the citizens of Camelot, and then you wouldn’t have anything to worry about anymore.”
That hadn’t really been his voice, had it?
By the red color that suffused Uther’s face as he whirled to stare down at Merlin, he was fairly certain it had, in fact, been his voice.
“Merlin!” he heard Gaius’ voice call out from somewhere behind him.
“Why you insolent, treasonous little–”
“He’s been at my wine again, Father.” Arthur slid neatly between them, effectively blocking the king from Merlin. Arthur grabbed Merlin’s arm and turned him, pushing him as he started walking backwards. “He has developed quite a taste for it – I just hadn’t realized how bad it had gotten. I’ll, uh, see to it that he’s severely punished for his behavior.”
“See to it,” Uther said, sheathing his sword as he glared past his son toward Merlin. “Or next time, the punishment won’t be something as simple as the stocks.”
Arthur nodded and turned just as Merlin opened his mouth to speak, but the press of Arthur’s fingers hard on his wrist silenced him. Merlin wasn’t a complete idiot, no matter what some might say. It wasn’t as if he’d gone into the banquet with the plan to insult the king. But the courtiers had begun speaking about magic, and Arthur had started in about the young ‘witch’ and Merlin couldn’t forget the conversation with Arthur in the forest and –
He’d just opened his mouth.
By the time they reached Arthur’s chambers, Merlin could tell his friend was fuming by the set of his shoulders and the vise-like grip on Merlin’s wrist. He released him once the door was shut and Arthur was pacing, his eyes darker than usual, flashing toward Merlin on occasion with a look that said the best thing for Merlin to do at that moment was to continue to remain silent. Not that Merlin had any intention of apologizing, but he did feel bad about putting Arthur in such a mood.
“Have you heard of Lord and Lady Sheffield?”
Merlin shook his head, chancing a glance at Arthur who had stopped a few feet from him. “No.”
“Lady Sheffield had a handmaiden. A devoted and loyal servant. Until one day that handmaiden was found stealing food from the stores to take to her family. Lady Sheffield didn’t wish to punish her unjustly because she’d always been so loyal, but something needed to be done, so that she wasn’t seen as favored among the others. So, she was placed into the stocks for two weeks. Unfortunately, during that time, one of her family members became ill and died.”
Arthur paused, staring at Merlin for a long moment. “The morning after the handmaiden returned to her duties, Lady Sheffield was found in her bed – burnt to a cinder, the bed sheets around her untouched. It was discovered that the servant they punished was a witch, and she took her revenge out on the person she had served so loyally.”
Merlin’s hands felt clammy. He couldn’t look at Arthur anymore, dropping his gaze as he wondered what the prince expected him to say. As the silence dragged on, he swallowed and murmured, “That’s… that’s horrible.”
“Is it, Merlin?” Arthur’s voice was so low that Merlin had to look back up to assure himself he’d actually spoken at all.
“What if I had you flogged?”
He couldn’t stop the smile. “You know I would never do anything to deserve such a punishment.”
“Wouldn’t you?” Arthur stepped closer to him, clouding his vision with broad shoulders and golden hair and dark eyes that seemed to want something more than Merlin could give. “You disobey me constantly. You insult the king. You’re a terrible servant, truth be told, and yet… and yet you’re still here. Untouched. Hell, protected even. Why is that, I wonder? A spell, perhaps…”
Merlin forced another smile in place of the frown that threatened. “Arthur, don’t be ridiculous – ”
There was no warning. One moment, Merlin was trying to understand what sequence of events seemed to bring Arthur to this conclusion, and the next, Arthur’s hand lashed out, wrapping hard around his neck and slamming him backwards. He saw stars as the back of his head hit the wall behind him, actual stars, and then Arthur’s fingers were tightening over his throat and all he could think was Is this really happening? He wrapped his hands around the wrist of the hand that held him by the throat and tugged, and when he opened his eyes, the stars finally dissipating, Arthur was right there, so close he could see the flecks of silver in his eyes.
“Sire – ” he gasped, giving another futile tug. “Why – why – “
“Make me stop, Merlin,” Arthur told him even as his fingers tightened again.
Merlin’s eyes widened. He pushed at Arthur’s arm. “What – Arthur – ”
The grip squeezed further and Merlin tried to swallow but couldn’t, and panic began to set in. He pulled back but couldn’t go anywhere but against the wall and Arthur was pressing in with him, breathing as shallowly it seemed as he was, and his fingers continued to tighten and press and squeeze.
“Stop me, Merlin.” His voice seemed to plead. “Stop me… or I will kill you.”
At Arthur’s words, temptation flared. Merlin felt it move through him swiftly, like little pinpricks against his skin; a warm rush of bath water through his veins. He didn’t have to say it. He could think it. He could smash Arthur like a petal beneath his boot. He could cut off his breath without ever even touching him. He could burn him from the inside out. Merlin could destroy Arthur with just a blink. He could call down fire from the heavens and kill him where he stood. He knew this, deep inside, as well as he knew he was beginning to lose consciousness, and soon he would die, if Arthur didn’t stop.
“Merlin,” Arthur demanded, his face so close, lips hovering just over his own. “Stop me, Merlin. Please. Before I kill you.”
Somewhere, Merlin’s fingers had curled softly around Arthur’s wrist, no longer tugging. No longer fighting. Arthur was killing him. Merlin closed his eyes. This was what it had come to -- Merlin’s silence, his fear of saying what needed to be said. In the end, maybe it was Arthur who had never trusted him. And yet, Merlin had no intention of fighting back. Not like this.
Gaius had said Merlin had the power over life and death. In this moment, Merlin chose life.
“You willingly die by my hand, then?”
But, who will protect you when I’m gone? Merlin thought before it became harder to think, and then the hand was gone from his throat and Merlin was gasping, drawing in great huge gulps of air that hurt with every breath. Arthur was still there and Merlin was clinging to him as he tried to remember what it was like to breathe. Somewhere in the back of his mind, he knew that Arthur was holding him, hands pressed hard to Merlin’s waist, as black dots danced before his eyes and his head pounded and his lungs burned with fire and air.
Arthur whispered, “I’m sorry, but I had to know. Had to because you won’t just say it. You won’t tell me and… What if it comes to this?”
Had to know. A test. But not a test of magic. There was no longer a question of magic. Only a question of whether or not Merlin would ever use his magic against his prince.
And for the first time ever, Merlin hated him. Even if it was only for the briefest of moments.
The question wasn’t a surprise. “Do you trust me, Merlin?”
But this time, the answer was. “No.”
He wore his scarf close to his neck for days, and while Gaius wondered over his hoarse voice, plying him with the most disgusting concoctions to soothe it, Merlin vowed never to let his mentor know what had happened with Arthur. It was one of those things best kept between those involved.
In his heart, Merlin understood why Arthur had done it. He didn’t appreciate it, didn’t like that Arthur had gone so far to prove something that he already knew, and if he didn’t know then he was thicker in the head than even Merlin took him for, and if it ever happened again… Well, Merlin wasn’t entirely certain he would truly be able to stop himself from responding. He wanted to believe he could. He hated to think that maybe, just maybe, he was capable of using his magic against Arthur, rather than for him. The fact of the matter was that Arthur would have to trust Merlin, wholly and completely, before he could ever learn how powerful Merlin truly was.
While he avoided Arthur that following week, he didn’t exactly go out of his way to do so. He still completed the chores required of him, though he tended to wander in and out of Arthur’s chambers when he knew the prince wasn’t there. Oddly enough, Arthur seemed to be on the same opposite schedule. When they did see one another, they avoided eye contact, and words exchanged were short and terse. Merlin loathed the gulf that was beginning to exist between them. He could no longer tell if they were on the same path or not, or if perhaps they ever had been.
He dreamed less of fire and chopping blocks, and while he figured that somewhere there existed a reason for this, he doubted he would ever admit it aloud. Some things simply were. Like his recent need to tidy Arthur’s chambers more perfectly than before. To make certain his clothes were clean and pressed, his armor gleaming, his sword always sharp. Ever the loyal and devoted servant.
Intent on his duties one afternoon when the knights were practicing in the field, Merlin didn’t hear Arthur enter the room until his shadow fell over the table where he was attempting to mend a tear in one of Arthur’s jacket. He paused when the shadow over him didn’t move on, and Arthur’s hand came just into his vision, fingers straying against the table next to where the jacket lay, silver ring glinting in the light. Merlin felt his breathing shallow slightly; he knew, just like he had always known he was different from everything around him, that whatever happened in this moment was crucial to their shared destiny.
“I’m sorry.” Arthur’s hand reached up, fingers peeling the scarf away, knuckles brushing almost too gently against the yellow bruises that lingered.
Merlin nodded, moving again to clean the table. “I know.” He did know. He didn’t believe Arthur capable of intentional cruelty.
“Stop.” Arthur’s hand came to rest on his shoulder. “Merlin, look at me.”
He did, swiveling his head to meet a gaze filled with sorrow and regret. He didn’t like seeing Arthur like this; Arthur who was supposed to be so certain of himself and his place in this world, who put all his faith in his strength, and masked vulnerability with arrogance. Merlin knew this was his fault. Some would say it was a good thing, this change in Arthur. Merlin wasn’t so certain of that anymore.
“I hate this,” Arthur admitted, shifting to lean back against the table as he continued to stare at his servant. “This uncertainty, this…” he waved between them and left it at that as if Merlin was supposed to automatically know what he meant.
And he did.
“Do you trust me, Arthur?”
“Yes.” There was no hesitation in Arthur’s response.
“Then please, let that be enough. Don’t make me say what you already know. I never wish to become that thing that comes between you and your father. Between you and Camelot.”
Arthur frowned. “I would never let anyone harm you, Merlin. Not my father. Not anyone.”
“I know.” Merlin reached out for his hand. He squeezed it. “I know. But there are some things you can’t even protect yourself from. Some things… Arthur, just continue to trust me. I promise not to let that faith in me go unanswered.”
They stared at one another silently, and there seemed to be more spoken between them in those passing moments than ever said before. Merlin felt the world shift beneath his feet, a weight lifting from his shoulders, and even Arthur appeared to relax suddenly, eyes lighting up once more as his lips quirked with a slight smile, and they breathed together.
Arthur pulled his hand away, crossing his arms over his chest. “So, Merlin. That night in the forest… when you kissed me…”
Merlin felt his face warm and he didn’t even try and hide his smile. “Yeah, that… ” He glanced up in time to catch the flicker in Arthur’s gaze. Biting the inside of his cheek, he admitted, “It was the wrong time to do the right thing.”
“So you’re saying there’s a right time?” Arthur asked serious except for the quirk of his eyebrows.
“Yeah. Maybe.” Merlin shrugged and smiled and wondered if he’d ever stop feeling like this, and hoped he never would. “But, I guess, that’s up to you.”
Arthur threw his hands into the air. “You’re going to be the death of me.”
“That’s… not really what I was going for, actually.”
Arthur quirked that smile at him, the impossibly warm one that Merlin was almost positive – not quite, but almost positive – was meant for him alone, before dropping into the chair beside the table, and waving a hand toward the door.
“Go. Bring me food,” he demanded, attempting to be all princely and royal again, but the affect was broken with his next words. “And I’ll ponder on just when will be the right time for you to kiss me, Merlin.”
Returning the smile, Merlin turned and made his way out of the room, trusting in Arthur to know just when that right time would be.