Arthur wakes up.
Ordinarily, this would not be such a big deal, except that he quite clearly remembered dying: asking Merlin to hold him, to keep him close, as the wound in his side finally stopped hurting and then he stopped feeling anything at all. He remembered everything going quiet, hearing Merlin call his name as if from a great distance, and Arthur had wanted to stay, he truly had, but he'd been so tired. The promise of rest had been too comforting, too compelling, to ignore.
He'd forgiven Merlin for hiding his sorcery from him; had realized just how brave, how loyal, how true his friend had always been. A great man had hidden by Arthur's side, disguised in servant's clothing. Arthur had wanted more time, time to know this man who had only just revealed his true self to his king and stayed by his side as he lay dying. Had done everything in his power, Arthur knew, to try and save his life.
But now, Arthur is awake, and nothing hurts. He opens his eyes and finds himself in his chambers as if he had never left, as if he weren't at war with the Saxons. With Morgana.
Hurriedly, Arthur flings the covers back and lifts his nightshirt. There is no wound. There isn't even a scar.
He looks around the room, and sees that the shutters are still closed, but the glimmer of predawn light is seeing through the cracks. There is no sign of Merlin, but this early in the day, there generally isn't.
Had Camelot won the war while Arthur slept? Had he been healed? How did he get back here? Why is no one sitting at his bedside?
Arthur gets up, stretching, and notices something else. The lingering ache in his shoulder, which he'd had ever since he'd battled the Questing Beast, is gone. He rubs at it absently, running his thumb over the place where he carries the scar, only nothing is there. His skin is completely smooth.
"Merlin," he says under his breath, "what have you done?"
He steps over to the window and pulls back the shutter, looking out over the courtyard. It is early enough that few people are moving, but Arthur's heart lurches at the sight of the workers putting the finishing touches on the headsman's platform in the center.
Whom are they executing? On whose orders? Perhaps Guinevere discovered a traitor…
Where is Guinevere, come to that?
Arthur looks around his chambers and sees no sign of her presence. She hasn't sat by his bedside while he recovered, nor has she slept in his bed. Even her wardrobe is missing, and he frowns.
Perhaps Gaius will know what is going on. Arthur needs to speak to him about Merlin, anyway, and that's a conversation best kept private.
All thoughts of what he will say to Gaius flee right out of Arthur's head, when he sees his father down one corridor, speaking to one of the members of his high council. The two men seem perfectly casual, but Arthur can barely breathe. He ducks out of sight as they turn his way.
The councilor Arthur remembers had hair that had all turned white, but this man is still salt-and-pepper. Uther looks to be the picture of health, but the fact that he is even alive in the first place is enough for Arthur to deal with right now.
What in hell is going on?
Arthur moves through the castle as silently as possible, which is beginning to come to life as the sun rises. He can't help but recognize the faces of people he hasn't seen in years—knights who were killed, councilors who retired or died of old age, at least one servant that he thinks was banished. Everyone looks younger than he remembers.
He sees Guinevere, dressed in servant's clothing, carrying a basket of linens down toward the laundry. He doesn't greet her.
Gaius's door is shut, so Arthur knocks, half-dreading and half-hoping that Merlin will answer it. He doesn't, and Gaius, just like all the older people Arthur has seen so far, looks years younger than he ought to.
"Good morning, sire," the physician says, looking him up and down with a practiced eye. "How may I help you?"
"I'm not sure yet," replies Arthur, stepping into the room and closing the door firmly behind him. Gaius's room looks the same as always, but that doesn't tell Arthur what he needs to know. He ignores the physician's spluttering while he checks out the space that is supposed to be Merlin's quarters.
It's empty of any sign of his friend; no clothes, none of Merlin's few belongings fill the cupboards. The bed is nothing more than one of Gaius's patient cots, without so much as a pillow to soften it, and the blanket folded neatly at its foot. The shelf is covered in dusty bottles, where Arthur remembers seeing keepsakes that Merlin had collected over the years. The cupboard contains equally dusty books in a neat row.
"Sire, is there something you needed from my store of supplies? I can get it for you if you tell me what it is."
Gaius sounds insistent, and well he should. Arthur has barged into his space in the earliest hours of the morning; looking behind him, he realizes the older man is still in his nightshirt, with a robe hastily pulled on over it.
"I'm… not sure," Arthur says finally, watching as Gaius's eyebrow rises skeptically. Arthur fishes for an excuse and comes up with, "I had a strange dream. Very lifelike. I wanted to check that what I had seen was not true."
That was perhaps the wrong thing to say, given the way Gaius goes a little pale. "A dream, you say?" Of course; Arthur is an idiot. Morgana had suffered from poor sleep for years before she turned to sorcery and betrayed them all.
It occurs to Arthur to wonder: if Uther is still alive, then what of Morgana?
"It's nothing, I'm sure," says Arthur quickly, and tries a smile. "Probably something I ate last night."
"If I may say so, sire, you do look a little peaky. Are you sure you aren't running a fever or the like?"
"No no, quite sure. I might be feeling a little disoriented from my… from my dream." He rubs at his head, and then tries a different tack. "You wouldn't happen to know today's date, by any chance? I'm afraid it's slipped my mind."
Gaius does not look convinced, but he answers anyway. "It is the fourteenth of April, sire—or at least, I think it's the fourteenth. The twenty-fourth year of Uther's reign, of course."
"…Of course. Thank you, Gaius."
Only a lifetime at court allows Arthur to keep his composure as he says his farewells and returns to his chambers.
The date Gaius has given him is a little over ten years in Arthur's past.
Arthur scrambles to find the mirror behind his changing screen, and stares at his reflection until a servant comes in with his breakfast. There were little wrinkles forming at the corners of his eyes that are gone, and his face is just a touch rounder than he remembers. It may be conceit talking, but Arthur thinks he looks overall less… weary. Less burdened.
But then, if he's still only the prince, that would make sense.
Has Morgana left them? He'll have to wait, and see if he crosses paths with her anywhere around the palace. There is no way for Arthur to ask after her that won't make him seem like a madman.
There is no way for Arthur to figure out any of what has happened to him, without seeming like a madman. And there is only one person in all the world that Arthur could feel safe talking to about any of this, but he isn't here.
Did Arthur dream Merlin's existence, dream the past (future) ten years of his life? Or did he die truly, and the gods have given him a gift, allowing him to come back and rectify the mistakes he's made?
Will it prove to be truly a gift, or more of a curse?
Arthur's door opens, and he startles behind the screen. The servant who bears his breakfast isn't Merlin, although Arthur thinks he at least looks vaguely familiar. Before Merlin had come along, Arthur hadn't kept a regular manservant. Partly he'd felt that a prince of Camelot shouldn't need someone to wait on his every whim, but mostly, as Guinevere had pointed out to him (except that she hasn't yet, might never), it was because he was, possibly, a bit of a bully to them and none of them wanted to stay in his service for more than a few days.
"Sire. You're… already awake."
"My sleep was disturbed," says Arthur, which is true enough. "Tell me what is planned for the day." It's a risk to reveal that he doesn't already know, but it shouldn't be too unreasonable for him to ask.
"Er… well. I think His Majesty wanted you to join him at council this morning, sire, but I'm not sure…"
"There's the execution at noon, of course. And yesterday, sire, you did have me polish your armor, so that you could train this afternoon."
"Of course," said Arthur. He had always made a habit of finding something to distract him from dark thoughts, whenever his father brought someone to the block, gallows, or pyre. He couldn't escape watching the executions, most of the time, but afterward, if he couldn't flee the castle completely, he'd go to the training fields and stay there until he had exhausted himself. It was the only way that he knew he would be able to fall asleep without seeing the last expression on the face of the poor condemned.
Arthur hadn't executed someone for sorcery more than a handful of times in all his reign, and each time the evidence against them had been clear, not only that they used magic, but that they used it maliciously against others. But now, here, his father still ruled, and the Great Purge was still underway with a vehemence and enthusiasm that turned Arthur's stomach to look back on. Uther never cared about the reasons behind someone's use of magic, never cared if they had tried to help or heal.
Arthur tries to think of Merlin being led to his death and has to swallow bile. "Bring me a drink," he says, then stalks over to the table and pours it for himself, ignoring the way the servant flinches back.
The council session is both boring and informative, at the same time; Arthur spends the time observing the other councilors and how they interact with his father, and ignores most of what is actually said. Instead, he does his best to get used to the fact that Uther is here at all, alive and well, and that Arthur has apparently been flung backward in time.
Was this part of Merlin's attempt to save Arthur's life, perhaps? Arthur wasn't conscious at the end; maybe Merlin did something insane, or tried something that didn't work the way it was supposed to. Arthur has no idea how magic works, and whom can he go to, to ask? Anything could have happened, and Arthur would have no way to tell what had gone wrong or how to fix it. As usual, no, he would be the one left dealing with the effects.
Noon comes, and so does Uther, whom Arthur had managed to avoid talking to all morning. Arthur had mourned his father, had let him go, had made his peace with never living up to the man's expectations and with daring to rule differently than he had, and now, here he is again, alive and in the flesh. And while there is a part of Arthur that is relieved and overwhelmed and grateful to have his father back, there is still a small voice inside that wishes it were otherwise.
What kind of man is he, that any part of him can wish his own father were still dead?
"Will you be attending the execution with me?" Uther asks, after they have exchanged greetings.
"Ah. No, Father. I am afraid I have training to prepare for."
"Of course. But don't forget the celebration begins tonight."
"The Lady Helen of Mora is expected to arrive tomorrow. Such a voice."
"I look forward to hearing her."
Uther does not seem to notice anything amiss in his conversation with Arthur, although that may not mean much. Arthur has had time over the years both to come to terms with his father's blind spots, and to strive to avoid them himself.
It would seem he's failed where Merlin was concerned.
On his way back to his chambers, Arthur barely steps out of the way in time for Morgana to sweep past him in a high temper, followed closely by Guinevere. She spares him a glare, but does not speak. She's always hated the executions, has railed against Uther to no avail whatsoever.
Arthur is too busy processing the fact that his half-sister is also among the living to say anything. Alive, and apparently not mad, nor a sorceress.
Can Arthur prevent her from becoming one? When did she first take up magic? Is it something that a person can choose to set aside, like he's always thought?
Arthur spends enough time pondering these questions that he ends up witnessing the execution from his room anyway. Even through the closed window he can hear his father's voice, condemning the man to death, and in the very next breath announcing the celebration: twenty years of this madness, twenty years of slaughter born of grief and guilt, beginning only a few weeks after Arthur himself was born. Arthur looks out the window and sees what his younger self would have missed: these people fear their king.
And then he sees something else, and his breath catches; Merlin is standing in the village square among the crowd, a knapsack and bedroll on his back. He's only just arrived in Camelot, it seems, and like the others, he seems horrified by what he's just witnessed.
An old woman wails over the loss of her son to the headsman's axe, curses Uther, and vanishes in a sorcerous gale. Arthur barely even notices, still staring at his best friend. Merlin looks so very young, so carefree. Arthur had thought he looked less burdened in the mirror, but it had never occurred to him to consider that his friend would have suffered as much loss, been burdened with as much responsibility, as Arthur himself has. This Merlin looks to be no more than a boy compared to the man Arthur bade farewell to, only a few hours ago from his perspective.
That boy makes his way across the courtyard, and Arthur takes a moment to study him objectively. He's dressed as a peasant, of course, likely carrying all his worldly possessions on his back. The prince Arthur once was wouldn't have known this, but the king has learned from endless trade reports that blue and red dyes are expensive; Merlin's ridiculous neckerchief was almost certainly a gift, and one that he likely prizes. So while he's dressed as a peasant, he is a peasant wearing his finest clothes, likely in an effort to impress those he meets.
Of course he knows that Merlin ended up living with Gaius, but it's never occurred to him to wonder how or even if they knew each other beforehand. Had he come looking for work? That would explain the clothing; it wouldn't explain why he'd brought his magic to Camelot, of all places.
Arthur wants to find Merlin, grab him by the shoulders and make him explain what the hell is going on, but he's already running late for training and he does not want to give his father cause to ask any questions that Arthur can't answer.
Training does not go as well as it should; Arthur is distracted, and fighting in a body that is not the one he died in. There are scars and limitations to his motion that Arthur had gotten used to, which he simply doesn't have in this body. He's younger, faster though not by much, and he keeps overbalancing or striking harder than he intended. It doesn't help that he is distracted, too.
None of this feels real. Arthur has still not had time to really accept that he's somehow ten years in his own past, but the changing muscle memory of his body is doing a good job of forcing the awareness to sink in.
Arthur goes the entire day without seeing Merlin even once. He wants to go to Gaius's chambers, but afternoon and then evening come, and then there is the first night of feasting to celebrate Uther's persecution of magic users. It's not something Arthur can talk his way out of, and he ends up sitting through a feast that seems never to end.
He's seated next to Morgana, who is pale and angry and refuses to eat more than a few bites of anything.
"Are you all right?" he tries, and she glares.
"I don't see chopping someone's head off as much of a reason to celebrate," she snaps. But Arthur notices that she keeps her voice down, and spares a smile for Uther, which he returns seemingly unaware of how patently false it is.
"As it happens, I agree with you," says Arthur, and Morgana blinks at him in surprise. "But you know it does no good to argue with Father."
"A lovely excuse not to argue with him at all, even when he is wrong," she says, and now the false smile is aimed at him.
"You know that's not what I mean."
Arthur sighs, and reaches for his wine. Morgana always did make him want to tear his hair out, even when they were friends.
The next day is much like the first. Arthur goes to sleep and dreams of battle, and death, and Merlin's tears, and wakes in warmth and comfort in a body that has never known life-threatening injury. His servant reminds him that he has places to be and things to do, and he goes about his day, completely unable to find Merlin no matter where he looks. It is as if the gods themselves are conspiring to keep Arthur from Gaius's chambers.
Eventually, in frustration, he heads to the training grounds in half-armor, stopping by the armory to check out as many throwing knives as he can get his hands on. He dismisses the knights, and the servant—Thomas? Morris? Something like that—lugs the heavy knife target out of its niche along the wall. As he sets it up, Arthur tests the balance of the knives, tossing them absently from hand to hand and making them twirl; a few noblemen's sons notice, and come over to watch.
Arthur remembers these boys; they'd been the closest in age to Arthur himself back when he was prince, and the closest thing he'd had to friends, but he'd known even then that they were mostly just currying favor. They weren't skilled enough to become knights, though Arthur thinks one of them ended up in the palace guard. Too old to be squires, too young to manage their fathers' estates or council positions or whatnot, they came to training for something to do, but were otherwise wealthy and bored, and Arthur was good entertainment for them.
"You need to move the target," says Arthur to his servant. He's beyond irritated at this point, and it's unfortunately starting to show. "It's in the sun."
"It's not that bright," protests the servant.
"Bit like you, then," mutters Arthur, unable to keep his temper completely in check.
Someone behind him chuckles and says something about teaching the peasant a lesson. They can't know that Arthur would never actually allow a servant to come to harm in his service, and they certainly don't know the man that Arthur has become in the past ten years. But if Arthur dismisses them now, or even tries to reprimand them, it will be too out of character for the prince he used to be. Arthur can't risk being found out before he even knows what's going on.
He throws the first of his knives while the servant is still moving the target into position, and his sycophants laugh. Thomas, or Morris, or whatever his name is, startles and stares at him with wide eyes. Arthur throws another blade, dead into the center of the target, and it's the closest to normal he's felt since he woke up yesterday morning.
"Go on," he says; "keep moving." He flings another blade and the servant squeaks, to the delight of Arthur's hangers-on. Arthur himself smiles grimly and keeps throwing his blades, one after another, until Morris or Thomas drops the target and ducks behind it as it rolls.
It comes to rest at Merlin's feet.
Of course, thinks Arthur, as his heart leaps in his chest; this is the day we met.
"Come on, that's enough," says Merlin. "You've had your fun, my friend."
Arthur's heart sinks. He'd been hoping that Merlin would find him eventually and explain what they were doing here, but this Merlin…
This Merlin doesn't recognize him.
Arthur has to be sure, though. "Do I know you?" he asks. He keeps his tone light for the benefit of his sycophants, but internally he's praying, Please, please say yes.
"Uh, hi, I'm Merlin," says Merlin, holding out his hand.
"So I don't know you," says Arthur, disappointed. How he keeps it from showing, he doesn't know. Maybe Merlin is a bit oblivious, too.
"Yet… you called me friend."
"That was my mistake," Merlin replies cheerfully.
"Yes, I think so," says Arthur, the words coming to him as if he'd rehearsed his part. Did he really remember their first meeting this clearly?
"Yeah," agrees Merlin. He leans in, ever so slightly. "I'd never have a friend who could be such an ass."
He turns to walk away, and Arthur can't bear it. He can't leave, not yet, not when Arthur has been trying to find him for the past two days. "Nor I one who could be so stupid," he tries, teasing; Merlin stops in his tracks, and Arthur remembers what happened next. "Tell me, Merlin, do you know how to walk on your knees?"
"Would you like me to help you?"
"I wouldn't if I were you."
Arthur chuckles. He doesn't remember Merlin being quite this cocky. Or no, he does, Merlin was always a cheeky git toward Arthur, but in this moment, he's serious. He really thinks he can take Arthur on in a fight.
Of course, with his magic, he probably could. And now Arthur kind of wants to see that. "Why?" he taunts. "What are you gonna do to me?"
There's a spark of defiance in the back of Merlin's eyes that Arthur delights to see. "You have no idea," he says.
"Be my guest," says Arthur. "Come on. Come on! Come oonnnn…" He knows exactly how to needle Merlin to get a reaction, and this Merlin, this younger, unburdened Merlin, apparently has a chip on his shoulder and a willingness to prove himself the bigger dog in a tussle.
Also, he clearly has no idea who Arthur is, because Arthur's best friend would never have tried to strike him, not in earnest, and certainly not with an audience.
This Merlin, however…
Well, he's probably pretty good in a bar brawl, or whatever trouble peasants get into.
Actually, no, he's still abysmal. Arthur will have to train some of that out of him as soon as possible, just so Merlin doesn't go and get himself killed.
The sycophants behind him might be reluctantly impressed when Merlin takes a swing, but are likely just kissing up to Arthur when he immobilizes Merlin without any effort whatsoever.
"I'll have you thrown in jail for that," says Arthur. Partly he has to, it's the law. Partly he's hoping the, the dollophead will stay put long enough for Arthur to come and talk to him.
"What, who do you think you are? The king?"
There is far too much warmth and fondness in Arthur's voice when he says, "No. I'm his son. Arthur."
To cover for it, he drops Merlin's legs out from under him, and does make him walk on his knees, but only far enough to be picked up by the palace guard standing a few paces away, and hauled off to the dungeons.
It's later in the afternoon when Arthur looks out his chamber window and sees Merlin being led off to the stocks, Gaius following right behind him and looking entirely too pleased with himself.
Arthur sees him again in the marketplace, and if it weren't for the sycophants following him around he'd go up and introduce himself properly, but he's being watched and has a reputation to uphold.
It's not as if Merlin's cheek doesn't delight him anyway. "How long have you been training to be a prat, my lord," indeed. It's only been a couple of days, from Arthur's viewpoint, since he and Merlin were on their way to Avalon to try and heal Arthur of a fatal wound. He shouldn't miss Merlin quite as much as he does, but there it is.
He has his best friend's admission that he'd cheated during this fight in the marketplace, so Arthur watches for it, and is a little amazed at Merlin's subtlety: there are no grand gestures or chanted spells, but Arthur's flail gets tangled, obstacles suddenly appear to trip him up, and he generally makes a fool of himself as Merlin's grin gets wider. If he weren't having the time of his life and fighting the urge to laugh like a loon, Arthur is sure he'd still be just as furious now as he'd been the first time.
But of course this Merlin is cocky, and Arthur currently has ten years' experience on him in addition to the fighting skill, so it's not long before Arthur is able to knock him on his arse with a few blows from a broom. He'd done that last time, too, but this time he's more careful not to really hurt Merlin if he can help it. He'll probably still carry a few bruises, but Arthur's own instructors had always told him that pain was the best teacher, and Merlin does need to learn that it isn't safe to rely on only his magic in a fight.
Before, it was the city guard who hauled Merlin to his feet; this time, Arthur holds out a hand and waits for Merlin to take it. It's taking a bit of trust on Arthur's part; this Merlin doesn't have any reason not to use his magic against Arthur, whom he sees as a bully and a prat and probably all those other insults he's fond of using.
"You're an idiot, but you're brave, I'll give you that," says Arthur, while Merlin glares at him warily. He leans in and explains it, because he can't resist. "Most people are smart enough to run when they see me coming with a weapon in hand."
"Most people aren't me," says Merlin defiantly.
"You know that doesn't even make any sense," Arthur can't help laughing. He dusts off Merlin's shoulders, then roughly spins him around and takes care of his back. "You've got straw in your hair."
He glances up, and his face falls when he sees his followers staring at him, and he realizes he's let their tussle go to his head; forgotten that Arthur and Merlin aren't friends yet in this world Arthur has fallen into. Merlin himself is staring at him in affrontery and bewilderment, like a startled cat who can't decide how offended he should be just yet.
God, he's missed this. The burdens of kingship have done Arthur no favors, where carefree fun is concerned.
But he can't have it yet. Merlin doesn't know Arthur at all, yet. Isn't even part of the royal household yet, which means, now that Artur thinks about it, that Merlin hasn't saved his life for the first time yet.
He steps back from Merlin, then looks him up and down appraisingly. "Go on, then," he says, not unkindly. "I'm sure we both have better places to be."
"I still think you're a prat," Merlin says, all sullen and defiant.
"You're probably right," Arthur replies, to Merlin's obvious surprise, "but it won't do you much good to say so publicly unless you want another visit to the stocks."
Merlin is about to protest when Gaius comes up, all apologetic and carrying Merlin's jacket, obviously hoping to keep Arthur from losing his temper at the insolent peasant boy again. Arthur waves him off. "It's fine, Gaius. No harm done."
And now Gaius is looking at him strangely too, but there's nothing for it. Arthur doesn't want to be caught as an outsider in his own world, but he's not going to waste this gift he's been given, if in fact it is a gift, by behaving exactly like he used to, either.
"If you're certain, sire…"
"I am." He looks Merlin up and down, remembering what he'd said the first time. "There's something about you, Merlin…" He turns to Gaius then, and adds, "If he's your charge, I wish you luck keeping him out of trouble."
"Thank you, sire." Gaius elbows Merlin, neither discreetly nor gently; Merlin winces before sketching the little half-bow that is all Arthur has ever seen him give to anyone of high rank. Arthur isn't sure if he's ever bothered to learn proper court etiquette, or if he just thinks such trappings are foolish.
Arthur watches them go, while his hangers-on come up and jostle him, laughing about Arthur having "taught the fool his place".
They have no idea, none at all, just where Merlin's place truly is.
Arthur knows, he knows, that there will be an attempt on his life tonight, and that Merlin will stop it. Or at least, he hopes Merlin will; things are already changed, ever so slightly, from the last time they'd met. What if Merlin isn't present at the banquet?
But then Lady Helen begins to sing, and Arthur feels himself growing drowsy, and is unable to do anything to stop it.
He wakes up covered in disgusting cobwebs, and has a moment of horror wherein he wonders if he's slept the past ten years away and wasted what he was given, but then he sees the chandelier, crashed to the floor and cracking a couple of flagstones, and nearly crushing the body of an old woman wearing Lady Helen's gown. The rest of the court is just as stunned as he is, and no one lifts a finger when she shrieks and flings a dagger straight at Arthur's eye.
He sees it approaching, and the moment of his death elongates, everything moving as though swimming in honey, slow and sweet and burning in his throat. He feels his eyes widen, as if to accommodate the blade that is about to bury itself in one of them…
…and then he is on the floor with no idea how he got there, and Merlin's arms around him, and his heart speeds up along with everything else around them. The dagger quivers in the back of Arthur's chair at the high table, as the old woman collapses and doesn't move again.
Was that magic? Did Merlin move that quickly on his own, or did he do something to take Arthur out of the path of harm? Arthur turns to stare at him, and Merlin is staring back, seemingly just as shocked as Arthur feels (even though Arthur knew this was going to happen).
Arthur has the suspicion that he is going to be reevaluating a great many things that happen to him or around him, if Merlin is in any way present.
Uther is helping Arthur to his feet, and saying something about saving his son's life, and Arthur can't remember the last time he saw his father look so astonished and pleased about anything. Merlin is trying to be modest—or no, Arthur realizes, Merlin is trying to avoid calling attention to himself, trying very hard to get out from under Uther's scrutiny—but it's too late for that. The king has named Merlin part of the royal household, Arthur's manservant, and Merlin clearly has no idea what an honor that's supposed to be. He looks horrified, likely for multiple reasons; dealing with Arthur is probably only the surface of it, when Merlin has magic and has just been invited into the very belly of the beast. A single misstep could see him killed from here on out, Arthur realizes. No wonder he'd never told Arthur until the end.
He remembers that he himself had been appalled the first time he'd lived through this moment. Well, he's not appalled now. He leans in close, lowering his voice. "I know you think I'm an incredible ass," he says, not bothering to hide his glee, "but just think: you'll be able to tell me so on a daily basis for the rest of your life!"
Merlin no longer looks horrified. He looks ready to strangle Arthur, yes, but not horrified. Arthur's smile widens. Success. He doesn't like the idea of Merlin ever being afraid.
Arthur still has no idea why he's here, reliving his past; he's not sure whether or not there's something he's supposed to accomplish, nor what the something is supposed to be (although there are several things he wants very much to try and do differently this time). But he has Merlin at his side now, and together, he's sure the two of them can handle anything.