"So what should we do?"
One chance. One choice. One decision that could change the course of Camelot's history, change everything, and Arthur was asking Merlin to make it. And Merlin couldn't. He knew what he had to say, but he also knew what he wanted to say, and they were two very different things. One way or the other, he would lose something that meant the world to him, forever.
"Accept magic, or let Mordred die?"
It felt monumental. It was monumental. Except, really, it wasn't. It wasn't even the first time. Over and over again, Merlin had chosen Arthur over magic, had chosen to follow his king rather than defend his own people. But it always ripped him apart, destroying a part of him that could never be returned, and though he never regretted his decision, there was always a moment, right when he chose, when he felt that he was wrong. And every time, Merlin wondered whether he could do it again, if given the chance.
This was the chance, and he still didn't know. He couldn't bring himself to decide. Kilgarrah's words rang in his head, speaking of Mordred's destiny to kill Arthur, advising him to let him die just as he had once told him to let Morgana die. Merlin hadn't listened then, and now Morgana was Arthur's greatest threat. How could he risk making the same mistake again? He knew what had to be done. He knew Mordred had to die, but at what cost? Why did it have to be this choice – between the one thing Merlin most wanted, and the one person he could never bear to lose? Oh, he knew, he already knew what he would say, because it was inevitable. But he hesitated, because he didn't want to. His hopes and dreams flashed before his eyes, taunting him, tempting him with their beauty. Arthur's acceptance of magic. His slow realisation that it couldn't all be evil. His discovery of Merlin's magic, his forgiveness. Honesty between them at last. Merlin could have all that if he said the right words now, and he wanted to. It was selfish, but he desperately wanted to. All he had ever dreamt of, dangled in front of him like bait, and he couldn't take it.
He blinked, feeling the sting behind his eyes and knowing that he couldn't let Arthur see him cry. Arthur would suspect, and that – that couldn't happen. Merlin had made his choice, because there had never really been a choice. It was Arthur, always Arthur. It could only ever be Arthur. But did it have to be so painful? Did it have to hurt so much, to give all you were to a single person?
Arthur's eyes were on him, already narrowed, not with suspicion but concern. Oh, Arthur. He wasn't an idiot, but sometimes Merlin resented him for being so blind. How did he not see what he was doing, how did it come to be that the one to hurt Merlin so deeply, to torture him so mercilessly, was the one person he would do anything for?
He wanted to say, I can't do this, please don't make me, anything but this.
He choked down tears and made his voice as flat, as determined as he could.
He said, "There can be no place for magic in Camelot."
Oh, yes, damned. He had damned them all with those words. Nine simple words turned into a death sentence for every single remaining magic user in Camelot. With nine words, he had destroyed all hope, tiny and faint as it may have been, all hope left for them by strengthening Arthur's resolve against magic. He was Emrys, destined to bring magic back to Camelot, to the whole of Albion, and instead he had damned them all. And for what? For the sake of a king who would never accept them. To prevent a future that might never have come to pass. To ensure the death of a knight who hadn't yet had the opportunity to be faithless. Merlin's decision, Merlin's betrayal; and now, a well-deserved punishment.
They started the ride back home in silence, their tongues weighted down with guilt. Merlin could tell Arthur was thinking of what he could say to his knights when they returned. I'm sorry, I couldn't save him would be a lie. I chose not to would get stuck in his throat because Arthur wouldn't be able to admit to what he had done. What they had done. Signed the death sentence of a knight who was scarcely more than a boy.
It would hit Arthur hard, when Mordred died. He liked Mordred, and knowing that he could have prevented his death – knowing that Mordred had taken a spear meant for him – would be torture to his pride, his honour, but also his heart. Riding back to Camelot was difficult enough; in the saddle, he sat with his spine rigid, his jaw clenched and his chin tilted up, as though trying to defy the crushing weight of guilt on his shoulders. Or maybe as though trying to fight back tears.
Merlin was fractured enough already, but he wanted nothing more than to offer to shoulder some of Arthur's pain, to say, Give it to me, I can take it, I'm used to it, because he had done this for Arthur's sake and it would kill him if Arthur resented him for it. But he said nothing, and the silence between them grew thick and suffocating, full of blame and regret. Arthur was already mourning Mordred, and as much as Merlin tried to focus on the vision Lochru had shown him, that vivid, terrifying vision of Mordred thrusting his sword into Arthur, of Arthur dying, another image kept leaping to the forefront of his mind: Mordred, taking the spear meant for Arthur. How could Mordred be a traitor?
When Merlin quickly dragged the back of his hand across his eyes and it came back down wet, Arthur noticed. He wasn't quite blind enough not to, or maybe Merlin wasn't quite a good enough liar to hide it; either way, Arthur saw.
"It's too late to be having second thoughts," he said bitingly, and in that sentence, that tone, Merlin felt all the scorn and blame Arthur held for the both of them, for the choice that they had made.
Merlin set his jaw and looked straight ahead. "It was the right decision."
It had to be. Because if it wasn't, if this had all been for nothing, then – Merlin closed his eyes, and the vision was back. Mordred, turning against Arthur. Mordred, Arthur's bane.
"We did the right thing, Arthur."
"Oh, no," Arthur said. "We didn't."
And they hadn't.
Merlin would never forget the moment when he saw Mordred waiting for them on the steps of the castle, cloak swirling, his eyes shining and happy, a slow grin tugging at the corners of his lips as they approached. He moved easily, as though the wound had never existed at all, and he practically glowed with health.
The shock was harsh and sudden enough to knock the breath out of Merlin. Arthur gasped beside him and stared, disbelief etched across his features. Dismay settled deep in Merlin's stomach, lancing through his heart even as Arthur began to smile, hope flaring in his eyes as he dismounted and practically ran up to Mordred, reaching out to touch his youngest knight with an eagerness that didn't suit a king. Merlin watched, unmoving, as Arthur exchanged a few quick words with Mordred, and then gathered the knight into a quick, one-armed hug, laughing from sheer joy. And Mordred returned the hug with a strength that an injured man had no right to have, the happiness in his own expression making him look like a child. A child who would be Arthur's downfall, because now Merlin understood. Horror crept up inside him, numbing his chest with a terrifying coldness.
It had never been a choice between magic and Arthur's life, because the two were entwined. Arthur was supposed to bring magic back to the land, and Merlin had stopped him from doing it. And as punishment, the Disir had let Mordred live, knowing what his destiny was. Mordred would live to kill Arthur, and it was Merlin's fault. He had chosen this, he had made this happen.
It was Arthur he had condemned.
Merlin didn't sleep that night. He lay in his bed, staring up at the ceiling, listening to the accusingly loud beating of his heart and the harsh whispers of the wind. If he closed his eyes, if he even dared to blink, then the flash of that horrible vision would come back to him, and a mind-numbing horror would grip at his heart and refuse to let go. If he allowed his mind to drift away, he was not pulled into a merciful sleep, but instead his thoughts would turn immediately to the sorcerers he had condemned with a few cold words, wrenched from him against his heart's judgement, and guilt would coil painfully around his gut. So it was Arthur he thought of. Arthur, for whom he had sacrificed everything. Everything, and it still wasn't enough.
What did destiny want from him? What more could he give?
He came to Arthur's rooms a good half-hour too early the next day, because listening to his own thoughts was driving him mad. He was shocked to find Arthur already awake and out of bed, sitting on a chair by the window, looking out into the courtyard. He wasn't dressed, which might have pulled a half-hearted smile from Merlin if he hadn't also looked like death. His eyes were rimmed with dark circles, his face pale, his eyebrows drawn together as though he were facing a difficult problem. He looked up when Merlin entered – looked straight at him, even, but without appearing to see him. There was no flicker of recognition across his expression, no smile to greet Merlin, nothing.
"You look awful," was the first thing Merlin said.
Arthur did smile then, but there was something off about it. "Thank you, Merlin."
"Didn't you sleep last night?"
"Not really," Arthur said. He looked like he was about to add something, but then he closed his eyes and slumped back into the chair. He waved his hand. "Light a fire, would you?"
"At this hour? Are you serious?" Merlin frowned. Arthur was a prat, but not usually this much of a prat. "But I'll have to go get wood down at the –"
"Merlin." Arthur's voice was thin, as though ready to break at any moment, and that, more than anything, alarmed Merlin. "Just do as I say for once, please."
"Are you cold? It's not even cold –"
Arthur's eyes snapped open, and they were so wide and empty that Merlin stepped back.
"Of course, sire," he said. "Fire, coming right up."
"Are you all right, sire?" Merlin asked when the fire was crackling joyfully in Arthur's fireplace. "If you're not feeling well, maybe Gaius –"
"I'm not ill." Arthur's voice was firm, his words final.
"Then what is it?"
Arthur gave Merlin a speculative look, and it seemed to Merlin like his king's gaze pierced right through his skin, baring all of his secrets with one sweeping look. Merlin suppressed a shiver, meeting Arthur's eyes as steadily as he could.
Then Arthur looked away, exhaling a small breath that could almost have been conceived as a sigh. "Dress me."
Merlin hesitated for a moment, but Arthur said nothing more, and reluctantly he headed for the wardrobe. He went through Arthur's clothes for a while before setting aside a red shirt that looked identical to three other red shirts in the wardrobe, and a random pair of trousers.
"This any good?"
"Yes, fine," Arthur said, without so much as glancing his way.
Merlin rolled his eyes and returned to Arthur's side, swiftly working Arthur's nightclothes off him. Arthur was uncharacteristically quiet and easily malleable beneath his touch, moving into position like woodwork when Merlin pressed against his arms. He made no disparaging comment about Merlin's slowness, or his lack of care in handling his clothes, or his fingernails unwittingly scratching across the royal skin. He said nothing at all, in fact, except a quiet "Thank you" when Merlin withdrew.
"Are you sure you're all right?" Merlin asked, now concerned.
Arthur raised his eyes to him, then quickly looked away. "No," he said. "If you must know, I'm not. I – there's something I –" He hesitated for a moment, then swore softly. "I can't even say it."
"Arthur," Merlin said, a strange feeling of foreboding settling in the pit of his stomach. "Are you sure you're not overrea –"
"Shut up, Merlin," Arthur said quietly. His eyes were dull and unfocused; he looked as if all the energy had been sucked out of him.
Merlin waited, though he desperately wanted to speak. Something was wrong. Very wrong. He watched Arthur with growing anxiety, wondering whether anything he could do would help. Arthur took in several deep breaths, steadying himself. When he spoke again his voice was steady and decisive.
"There's something I need to talk to you about."
Merlin's blood ran cold. The sudden lack of familiarity between them, the awkwardness, the anguished look in Arthur's eyes... Could he have – could he – No. Not after all this time. Not now. It couldn't be.
"I'm listening," Merlin said cautiously, trying to hide the slight shake in his voice.
Arthur moved away from him, walking slowly to the fire. He settled into a chair in front of the fireplace and looked down at the floor at his feet before speaking.
"You don't like Mordred much, do you?"
It was so far from what Merlin had been expecting that he almost laughed with relief. He checked himself in time, but for a moment he couldn't answer. He didn't know what Arthur wanted to hear. He didn't even know what he wanted to say, because the truth was, he did like Mordred. The kid was likeable – kind, selfless, almost innocent in a way. He had taken a spear for Arthur. He was a sorcerer in the heart of Camelot, someone Merlin desperately wanted to relate to. He wanted to trust Mordred, to share things with him he couldn't share with anyone else. But he couldn't. Kilgarrah's words haunted him, and he couldn't look at Mordred without seeing what the seer had shown him. And he couldn't allow that to happen.
"Merlin?" Arthur didn't sound irritated, only curious.
"I don't really... know him."
"But you don't trust him."
Merlin hesitated. He couldn't tell Arthur that he thought Mordred would be his death. But lying now (lying again) and reinforcing Arthur's trust in his youngest knight – what good would that do?
"No, I don't."
Arthur nodded, unsurprised. "I thought it was because of Morgana. That you were suspicious because of how close they used to be. But it's more than that, isn't it?"
Merlin didn't say anything, didn't even dare breathe. Arthur blew out the smallest of sighs and looked into the fire, the flames casting strange, beautiful shadows across his face.
"It's because... because he has magic, isn't it?"
Time stopped, so completely that Merlin could have believed his magic had reacted instinctively. His breath caught in his throat and he froze, staring at Arthur. How did Arthur know? Could he tell?
"Merlin." Arthur's voice was low, expectant.
Merlin started. "Sorry. I just..." He blinked. "What did you say?"
Arthur raised his eyes to Merlin's face, scanning his expression. Merlin tried not to flinch, but failed. What if Arthur could see? But Arthur's eyes were swimming with confusion, not accusation. Merlin wanted to reach out and comfort him, and he might have if it hadn't been for the bitter line of Arthur's mouth when he suddenly looked away.
"So you did know," Arthur said, his shoulders slumping, and that was what he had been looking for in Merlin's expression. "You knew. What you told me, the night before I talked to the Disir. 'There can be no place for magic in Camelot.' You meant Mordred, didn't you? You meant for me to let him die. Because you knew."
Merlin thought about denying it. Arthur hadn't seen through his lies until now, and one more might go unnoticed. But in the end he couldn't bring himself to do it. Not completely, at least.
"He's a druid." Merlin shrugged. "It wasn't much of a leap."
"I didn't realise..." Arthur looked away again. "He's just so young."
"He's not the child you saved."
"The child I saved? That was your idea, Merlin."
Oh, yes. It had been his idea. It seemed that Merlin was destined to create Arthur's worst enemies. Mordred was his fault, as was Morgana. He could have redeemed or killed either of them; instead he was the one who had embittered Morgana and turned her against Arthur. He would be damned before he let it happen again.
"He was only a child," Merlin said softly, thinking back to the silent boy with wide eyes and the most serious expression he had ever seen. "He deserved a chance." He still believed that, even now. "How did you find out?"
"I didn't." Arthur pressed his hands together, steepling his fingers. He bowed his head so that his features were hidden from Merlin. "I would never have suspected."
A second before Arthur said it, Merlin knew. He guessed. Even if it hadn't been written all across Arthur's expression, the sudden pain in Merlin's gut made it clear.
"He told me."
Merlin stopped breathing. He couldn't help the pain and jealousy that flared up in his chest, mixed with a sort of bitterness that he knew exactly how to explain.
"He told you," Merlin repeated, his voice an octave higher than it usually was, sounding perilously close to cracking, because this was all wrong. It should have been him. "Mordred told you. When? Why?"
"Last night," Arthur said. "He pulled me aside. Said that he had me to thank for being alive, and that he owed me the truth. Something about destiny, and then –" He shook his head tightly. "I don't know, Merlin. He just told me."
"Just like that."
Merlin's voice sounded hollow even to him, because he couldn't bring himself to force any sympathy into it. He only felt a strange sort of loss, as though the moment he had waited for for years had finally come to pass, and he'd missed it. And beyond that, all around it really, was a renewed fear that Arthur had guessed. Not about Mordred. About him.
"Why are you telling me?"
"Why do you think?" Arthur replied.
Merlin's eyes shot to Arthur, but his king wasn't even looking at him. His eyes were half-closed, and he seemed to be worlds away. So it wasn't that. Merlin felt himself relax, and at the same time disappointment settled in the pit of his stomach.
"What did you do to Mordred?"
Arthur was silent, and in that silence Merlin could practically taste his guilt and regret. His heart sped up, and his breath came in shallow bursts.
"What did you do?" he repeated.
"What do you think?"
Arthur wouldn't look at him. The fingers of his right hand curled inwards, forming a tight, white-knuckled fist.
"Arthur." Merlin fought to keep his voice steady. "What did you do?"
"Does it matter?" Arthur asked. "You would have had the Disir kill him. Why do you care now?"
That was the beautiful irony of it, pointed out so clearly by Arthur. Only hours previously Merlin would have given anything to know he had made the right choice, and that Mordred would never be a danger to Arthur. And now? Now he didn't know what he wanted to hear, but he knew he was afraid of what Arthur might say. He cared, and a part of him desperately wished that –
"I didn't do anything," Arthur said quietly, like he was ashamed, and maybe he was. "All right? I didn't do anything. He's still in the castle, probably in his room at this hour."
And was that good news, or bad news? Why did it hurt so much? Why did Merlin feel like someone had punched him, and then shoved him aside without a second thought?
"He confessed to sorcery." Merlin swallowed with difficulty. "He confessed, and you... you let him go."
"He hasn't really gone anywhere," Arthur said defensively.
Merlin stared at the back of Arthur's head. The silence between them was thick with tension, full of confusion and hurt, and Merlin wasn't sure how he should feel. Disappointed that Mordred would live (and live, and live), or relieved that Arthur hadn't turned on him for having magic? Merlin hadn't dared to hope in a long time, but now that old hope, that beautiful, terrible hope came back to him, sweet and tempting and dangerous.
"You let him go," he repeated, unable to keep the awe from his voice. "And... that's it?"
He watched the muscles in Arthur's shoulders tense and heard his breath hitch slightly. Then Arthur lowered his head in defeat and said, his voice barely audible:
"I don't know. Merlin, I... don't know what to do."
And still, that hope – but Merlin forced himself to ignore it.
"The law –"
"I know what the law says," Arthur snapped. "I think I know better than you do. I didn't tell you so you could quote the law to me. I want to know what you think."
Merlin felt his stomach drop. Here it was again, the same choice that he had messed up only hours, days before – magic, or Mordred's death? Magic, or Arthur's life? And he knew, he knew what it had to be. Arthur, every single time.
But what if he made a mistake? What if he guided Arthur towards the same choice as before, and it was still the wrong choice? Was this a second chance, an opportunity to right a wrong?
"What I think," Merlin repeated, stalling for time. "I'm not very good at thinking."
"Yes, I realise that."
Arthur was silent for a moment, as though waiting for him to say something, but Merlin's mind was racing, and he still came up blank.
"You knew he had magic, and you don't trust him, but you didn't think to tell me." There was no blame in Arthur's tone, but Merlin wished he could see his face so he could know what he was thinking. "Why? Why would you keep it from me? You know protecting a sorcerer is treason, Merlin. Treason to your king."
Merlin inhaled sharply, jerking back as though Arthur had hit him. His elbow connected painfully with the table behind him and he swore under his breath, but the pain was nothing compared to the panic that coursed through him, tinged with bitter irony, because – oh, how ironic it would be, if Merlin were condemned for treason for protecting Mordred!
Arthur rose from his seat, turning slowly to face Merlin, and it was Merlin who flinched away from his gaze.
"That's why I didn't do anything," Arthur said quietly. "I realised you knew, and you hadn't said anything. And I thought, He must have a good reason. Because you wouldn't just keep something like that from me. There has to be a reason."
Arthur's eyes were piercing, but Merlin's throat was too dry for any words to come out, if he had been able to find anything to say.
"Merlin. Tell me there's a reason."
Merlin swallowed. This was the closest Arthur had come in many months to expressing how much he trusted Merlin, and every time, it sliced through Merlin like a sword strike. He was asking Merlin to justify his trust, and Merlin... Merlin couldn't say, I didn't tell you about Mordred's magic because he would have told you about mine.
Doubt crept into Arthur's tone for the first time, turning Merlin's name into a question, almost a plea. Please tell me you're not a liar. Please tell me I can trust you. Please just say it...
"I..." Merlin's mind was racing. "I should have told you."
"But you didn't."
There it was, finally; a hint of accusation in Arthur's voice. Why? Why would you lie?
"No, I didn't. I... I couldn't."
Arthur watched him carefully, and Merlin forced himself to meet his gaze. His pulse had reached an unbelievable speed, his heart thudding in his ribcage so loudly he felt certain Arthur could hear it from where he was standing. Arthur wouldn't ask again, but if Merlin didn't answer, he would think... He would think Merlin was a traitor. But what could Merlin say, what lie could he come up with that would reassure Arthur? He was trapped. If he confessed – well, that had never been an option. But if he lied, then Mordred still had power over him. Mordred could reveal his secret at any moment now. And then it would all have been for nothing, and Arthur would never trust him again. Merlin bit down on his lower lip worriedly. Any decision he made would be wrong. He took a breath to steady himself, thinking, Oh gods, why does it always have to be so hard?
Something flickered in Arthur's expression. "Are you – are you scared? Of me?" He sounded amazed.
"Well," Merlin said, relieved by this brief change of subject, "I did just confess to a crime."
"But I'm not – I wouldn't –" Arthur seemed to struggle with himself. "You can tell me, Merlin. I won't arrest you. You know that, don't you?"
As though that were reassuring. As though Merlin cared about Arthur's cells, which were easier to break out of than to get into. As though the law were the only thing Merlin feared. He wanted to say, Gods, you are such an idiot.
He said, "You can't bend the law so it suits your purposes."
"But I can decide to whom I give my pardon. And if I think your reasons were justified –"
"There was no reason," Merlin said forcefully, swallowing the truth that he desperately wanted to shout out. The lie tasted sour on his tongue, but he had to say it. "I just... didn't want to tell you."
Arthur's gaze bore into Merlin's, hard and unyielding. "You expect me to believe that."
"It's the truth."
"No, it isn't." Arthur turned around again, leaning his forehead against the fireplace. "Not your best lie, Merlin."
Merlin felt it like a dagger sliding smoothly into his gut, the pain radiating as though from an open wound. He had lost it, lost what he'd fought for for so many years. Arthur's trust.
It had been years, but it never got any easier to lie. Still, what was one more? He forced it out through clenched teeth.
"I'm not lying."
Arthur spun around, so quickly that Merlin stepped back in surprise, the edge of the table jamming painfully into his lower back. Arthur's mouth was a thin straight line, tense at the corners, and the look in his eyes was so wild that Merlin thought, for a second, that he might actually hit him. But Arthur only stared at him for a moment, eyes wide and searching – and then his shoulders slumped, he blew out the smallest of sighs, and all the energy seemed to go out of him again.
"Forget it," Arthur said, sounding disappointed. "Let's say I believe you. Let's say I'm stupid enough to trust you."
"Arthur," Merlin began, because it hurt, it hurt so much to hear Arthur speak like this, "Arthur, don't –"
"Let's just say, Merlin. Just imagine. If I did, if I believed you, I would ask you: What would you do with Mordred?"
Merlin's breath caught. Oh, Arthur, why? Because this, oh, this was something Merlin couldn't ever return. There was nothing Merlin wouldn't have done for Arthur, a hundred times over, without even thinking of it, but this? Asking Arthur's help in making a decision required, no, it implied trust and honesty, and Merlin had neither. Merlin had nothing.
"Arthur, I don't think –"
"You can lie," Arthur said firmly, looking right at him. "You can lie to me if you want to, if it makes you feel better. I just don't want you to think I'm stupid enough to believe you. Don't say you're not the right person to ask, because you're the only person I can ask. You're the only person, right now, whose opinion I want to hear. So you can either tell me the truth or lie about it, but don't you dare tell me I shouldn't be asking you because I know, and I'm asking anyway. What do you think I should do?"
Merlin looked at Arthur, and Arthur looked at Merlin. Arthur, I have no idea.
This was Mordred, destined to be Arthur's death. Mordred whom Merlin had hoped to see die. But how could he encourage Arthur to execute someone for the crime of sorcery, when he couldn't stop drawing parallels between Mordred and himself? Arthur trusted Mordred, to some degree; beyond that, he liked the kid. One day, Arthur might find out about Merlin's magic, and then he would remember this day and – and if Merlin told him to execute Mordred now, then Arthur would remember that.
If I told you to execute him, would you do it? Merlin wondered, losing himself in the blue of Arthur's eyes. Can I save you like this, even if it damns me?
Arthur's voice was only a murmur, but it snapped Merlin out of his thoughts as surely as a shout. He shivered, reluctantly pulling his gaze away from Arthur's. He hated this, hated every second of it – the shattered trust, the impossible conflict, the pain in Arthur's voice.
"Is he a traitor?" Arthur asked. "Is he a danger to me?"
Merlin fought not to look at Arthur, because he would see the lie in his eyes. "I don't know."
Arthur was silent for a moment, and then his voice cut through the air, deadly quiet. "You're lying again. Why are you lying? What are you hiding? What is it, Merlin? Why can't you just tell me?"
Merlin had to force the words out, and his voice came out rougher than it usually was. "There's nothing to tell. I didn't tell you because you wouldn't have believed me. A servant's word against a knight's – when has that ever been worth anything?"
"You're not serious." There was anger now in Arthur's voice, because anger was his defence against hurt. "You can't be serious. You know I'd have believed you!"
"Like you're believing me now, you mean?" Merlin challenged.
Oh, gods. This hurt, so damn much. Even though it was Arthur he was hurting, he felt the backlash of it a thousand times over.
"That's not fair," Arthur said, but he sounded somewhat subdued. "It's only because you're lying. You never used to lie to me."
Merlin laughed, the sound ripped from him by the irony of this whole conversation as well as that last, impossibly naive sentence, and out of the corner of his eye he saw Arthur recoil, hurt flashing across his features. I've lied more times than you can imagine, and one day, you'll know. And you'll hate me for it.
"Okay," Arthur said, sounding stunned. "Okay. I see."
Merlin immediately felt bad – worse, even, than before. "Arthur, I –"
"What can it be? Why can't you tell me? It's only me."
Merlin gave a harsh, bitter laugh, finally raising his eyes to Arthur's. "Yes, and you're only the king of Camelot."
Pain again, flashing across Arthur's expression so quickly Merlin only just barely caught it.
"God," Arthur said, backing away until his back hit the side of the fireplace, "is that it? All these years, and that's it? I'm only the king."
"That's not how I meant it –"
"Then how did you mean it, Merlin? Because that's how it came out. You don't trust me, you don't even – don't even –" Arthur swallowed. "Only the king," he repeated, giving a bitter laugh. "You must be the only person in Camelot able to make that sound so insulting."
"Arthur, you're taking this the wrong way. When have I ever cared about your title? I only meant, there are some things I can't tell you because –" Merlin searched frantically for an explanation – "because you're the king and I'm a servant. It's got nothing to do with you, or us. It's just the way things are."
"But that's it," Arthur said. "That's exactly it. You're not just a servant. With you, I'm not a king. I'm... well..." He hesitated. "I'm..."
"A prat?" Merlin suggested, and maybe it was the wrong time to joke, but it felt good to, just for a second, slip back into their habits.
Arthur flashed the briefest of smiles; it was gone in a fraction of a second. "Just tell me, Merlin."
"I... I wish I could," Merlin said. "Believe me, Arthur, I want to."
"So you're asking me to trust you, even though you don't trust me."
"It's not like that."
"It is, though."
They stared at each other, saying nothing.
"Look," Merlin said eventually. "Mordred has done nothing to harm you, at least not yet. I'm sure of that. I don't know anything else. And I'm not going to decide for you what you're going to do, because that's not my place and we both know it."
"I'm not asking for an order, Merlin. Just an opinion. Your advice. It would still be my decision, in the end."
Merlin bit his lip.
"Is it the magic?" Arthur asked. "Are you not sure about magic? Is that why you didn't say anything about Mordred?"
"Arthur, just... please. Let it go."
"It is, isn't it?" Arthur sounded thoughtful. "I've never been able to tell, with you. Whenever magic is involved, you get this... this look in your eyes. I don't think I've ever seen you really afraid, but sometimes, when we speak of magic, I almost think..." He trailed off. "I've wondered. But there was Will. You never feared him, only feared for him."
"Will was my friend," Merlin said roughly, remembering laughter and fights and pranks and the first person he had ever willingly revealed his magic to. A person who had taken that secret to the grave. "He would never have hurt me."
"But he was a sorcerer."
There was, still, doubt and accusation in that single word. Sorcerer. It hit Merlin so strongly he almost reacted and said, Will never had magic, he wasn't what you think, and actually you would have liked him, except – Will had lied to Arthur for him, and he wouldn't act like that had been worth nothing.
And, really, he was fairly sure Will and Arthur would have hated each other even if they'd met in different circumstances.
"Yes," he said instead, thinking this was one of the hardest lies yet. "Will had magic."
"So you don't think all magic is evil."
Merlin closed his eyes and sent a quick prayer up to the heavens – gods, give me strength, let this be the right answer.
"I don't think it corrupts." He hesitated. Please... "I don't think it has to be evil, no."
"What about Morgana?"
Merlin breathed in sharply. They hardly ever spoke about her. For the both of them, the memories were still too sore, the wounds only half-healed, the pain still raw. There was just too much Arthur didn't know, and Merlin couldn't say. Didn't even want to say, because it would make his guilt real.
"It wasn't the magic that changed her," Merlin said carefully. "It was her fear and her anger." And your father's lies and stupid laws.
"So you're saying the law is wrong," Arthur said, as though hearing his thoughts. "You think sorcery shouldn't be a crime."
"I didn't say that."
"No, you didn't. In fact, you said the exact opposite, last time we spoke about it."
There can be no place for magic in Camelot. Even as he'd said the words, Merlin had felt the guilt settling on his shoulders. He had tried to tell himself it was his burden to bear, his sacrifice, but in truth, with a single sentence, he had condemned all the sorcerers still residing, still hiding within the kingdom. He had destroyed their last hope, extinguished their final chance, all for the sake of a king who would never know how much he mattered.
"You're a riddle, Merlin. Sometimes you're simple, and other times..." Arthur looked at him intently. "Other times, you just don't make sense. All these years, and this is one of the first times I've managed to get you to say a word about what you think about magic. And even now, you contradict yourself with every word. What is it? Having a hard time keeping track of your lies, are you?" The bitterness was creeping back into his tone, and Merlin hated it. "I just want the truth. Is that really too much to ask?"
You have no idea. Arthur, you just have no idea.
"I'm asking you because I don't know, Merlin. Magic is everything I've learnt to hate. It's taken everyone I love away from me, but sometimes, I can't help but think..." Arthur clamped his mouth shut, something strange flashing in his eyes; abruptly, he asked, "Did you know Gaius told me the sorcerer tried to save my father?"
Merlin started. "He what?"
"Dragoon. I thought he killed him, but Gaius said... Gaius said there were sorcerers who were on my side and wished me no harm. Has he told you about any of that?"
"He might have mentioned it once or twice."
The corners of Arthur's mouth curled downwards. "And you never said a word."
Merlin had to force himself to look away. This was too hard, he had never signed up for this, never wanted it, but if it was destiny, then what choice did he have? Oh, Arthur, forgive me.
"I didn't think it was worth saying."
"Right," Arthur said, something new in his tone now, sharp and decisive. "Right. Of course. Well – I don't want to be late."
Late for what? Merlin knew Arthur's schedule better than Arthur did, and there was nothing urgent that morning. He looked up, and saw Arthur moving towards the door, his back turned to Merlin, obviously intending to leave. And he didn't look like he wanted Merlin to follow, either.
Arthur's hand remained pressed against the door, ready to push it open, but he turned his head to look back at Merlin. His body was still and tense, his expression expectant, and his eyes watchful, guarded.
Merlin said, "I'm sorry."
Arthur smiled, but it didn't reach his eyes. "I know."
The door swung open, and Arthur was gone.
Merlin waited in Arthur's room for a full half-hour, staring so hard at the floor that he might have bored a hole into it with the power of his mind if he had been there any longer. Arthur clearly didn't want him around, and he hadn't even taken the time to dish out the list of orders he usually gave Merlin – change the linens, clear up the table, polish my boots, take this, fetch that, do this, do that and for God's sake don't forget this. So he sank down to his knees on the floor and sat there, hands resting in his lap, eyes determinedly unblinking because he was not crying.
Damned again, then. Oh, he was getting better at this.
He had had the words to sacrifice Mordred, only to find himself unable to voice them. He had tried to defend magic, only to have his lies thrown back to his face. He had tried to leave something of his relationship with Arthur intact, but that had always been the most stupid, unlikely desire of all, and of course he had only ended up hurting him instead. It felt like everything that could possibly have gone wrong had done exactly that. The worst was that this time, he hardly knew why he had lied.
Arthur had been hurt and confused, but he had wanted Merlin's opinion. He had been willing to give him a chance to explain, and if Merlin had said the truth, then maybe, just maybe... Well. Arthur had listened to him say that all magic wasn't evil, and the sky hadn't crashed down around them. Maybe he had been ready to hear the whole truth, maybe not. Either way, he would have listened if Merlin had told him, there and then, that Mordred was dangerous. But then Merlin would have had to explain how he knew, and that was the tricky bit. He couldn't say anything about Kilgarrah, or about a dying druid showing him a vision, because he would have to explain so much more and that, that was what would shatter Arthur's trust in him completely. So he had lied, selfishly – about Will, about Mordred, and about himself. But his selfishness hadn't even brought an instant of self-gratification.
Over the years the lies had never, and probably never would, come easily to him, but it frightened him how often they seemed to slip from him these days. Each lie was like a tiny crack in his friendship with Arthur, slowly eroding the trust between them, and he knew, he just knew that one day it would all come crumbling down, and he would be lucky if there was anything left to salvage because he had spent years ensuring that there wouldn't be. It was like taking apart the thing that mattered most to him, and trying to hold it together with nothing more than wishes.
Merlin sucked in a breath, harsh and shuddering. If he was honest with himself (if he even remembered what it meant to be honest), the one thing that hurt the most, right now, were the three words Arthur had spoken and which hadn't stopped running through Merlin's mind since, over and over again, endlessly repeating themselves. "He told me." Because Merlin – so many times over the past eight years Merlin had come so close to confessing, but the moment had been lost every time, because a part of him never wanted Arthur to know. It was a small, selfish part, a part that wanted desperately to never lose the way Arthur looked at him (except he had already lost it) – like he was an idiot, but also someone to be protected, and someone Arthur trusted – but it was a strong part. It had been months, now, since Merlin had last contemplated telling Arthur, had last allowed himself to fantasise about how it might go. And then Mordred had come along, and he had just told Arthur. And Arthur hadn't arrested him. Hadn't executed him. Hadn't even been angry with him, and gods, that hurt. His anger had been directed at Merlin, for lying, and not at Mordred, for telling the truth.
Merlin was done. There was nothing more he could do now. He had endangered everything and achieved nothing; it was in Arthur's hands now. Merlin could only watch what happened next.
He pulled himself to his feet.
What happened next was that Arthur didn't do anything.
He didn't speak to Merlin again, not about that. He didn't arrest Mordred, or change the way he treated him. He didn't revise the laws on magic, and he didn't tell another soul about Mordred. He did nothing at all. Every day Merlin woke up thinking, It's today, and every day nothing happened. Nothing. Things didn't change, and it was killing Merlin, because everything had changed.
He had, after so many years, a hint of what Arthur's reaction to his magic might have been, if he'd ever had the courage to tell him. Confusion, yes, and certainly a good deal of hurt and anger, but willingness to listen, to try to understand, to forgive; that was what Arthur seemed to be giving Mordred. And at the same time he also had a taste of what the opposite reaction could be – distrust, anger, and the silent treatment Arthur was giving him almost without intending to. It was discreet enough; of course Arthur had to speak to him several times a day. But he only did so when necessary, wasting no time for jokes or teasing, and Merlin felt the loss sorely. Most disturbing of all, though, were the thoughtful, appraising glances Arthur kept shooting at him when he thought Merlin wasn't looking (except Merlin was always, always looking). Merlin could practically read the question in his eyes: What are you hiding? And he was deathly afraid that Arthur would figure it out. That fear, as well as the sudden doubt in Arthur's mind about Merlin's loyalty, was enough to create a rift between them, a gap that grew wider with each passing day as Merlin continued to lie, and Arthur didn't pretend to believe him.
And Merlin envied Mordred, because Arthur knew and he still treated him exactly the same as before – with the same laughter, the fond smiles, the teasing. And Mordred took it all, the way he had before, and there was something even lighter about his laugh now. Because Mordred was a good actor, a good liar, but he wasn't that good – not good enough that Merlin didn't see the change in him. Maybe he was destined to be Arthur's end, but right here, right now, he genuinely cared what Arthur thought, and the king's acceptance – or as close to acceptance as it could get – seemed to lighten the burden on his shoulders. It was strange, because he couldn't use magic openly now, not any more than before. He couldn't talk about it. He couldn't even admit to having it, even now that Arthur knew. Nothing about his situation had changed, and yet nothing was the same. Because Arthur knew. Because he had told Arthur.
Something Merlin, in eight years of knowing Arthur, hadn't been able to do.
Mordred drew him aside three days after his revelation to Arthur. Merlin hadn't spoken to him once since the Disir had spared him, knowing that he couldn't bear to look into Mordred's eyes and know that Arthur forgave him. But he couldn't afford to risk Mordred's antagonism now, when there was nothing keeping the knight from telling Arthur his secret anymore. So when Mordred asked to speak with him after a meal, Merlin only hesitated for a moment before following him outside.
Mordred readjusted his cloak around his shoulders, shivering slightly in the cool evening air. He sat down on the steps outside the castle and motioned for Merlin to do the same. The look he gave Merlin was a little questioning, but otherwise unreadable.
"You know he knows, don't you? He must have told you, even if he told no one else."
"You're lucky to still be alive," Merlin said, tugging anxiously at his neckerchief. "Look, Arthur needs me in the –"
"Arthur will do just fine without you for a few minutes," Mordred cut in. "I think he'll almost be glad."
Merlin winced. It was true. Arthur had almost been avoiding him the past few days – at least, as much as it was possible to avoid one's own manservant.
The smile Mordred offered him was tender and full of understanding, not cruelty. "I think he may be more ready than you know."
"You don't know him," Merlin said forcefully.
"But I know you," Mordred said. "I know you better than any of the knights, better than your king. I know the one thing you've never dared to tell them."
Merlin clenched his hands into fists. "Is that a threat?"
Mordred's blue eyes always appeared cold and detached to Merlin, and Merlin never knew quite how to interpret his words. Part of it was his inherent distrust of the druid; part of it was the fear of discovery that had followed him since he first set foot in Camelot. Now, with Mordred holding this much power over him and Merlin having none, Merlin couldn't help but be on the defensive.
Mordred smiled again, almost wistfully. "I'm trying to tell you that you're not alone, even when you feel like you are. I know you don't trust me – I'm not a fool, Merlin – but you don't have to do it all alone. I could help you, if you wanted. And if you don't... you have Arthur."
Merlin scoffed at that. "You know that isn't true."
"You could have him, if you told him. When I told him –"
"It's not the same," Merlin said sharply. "It's nowhere near the same. You and Arthur –"
He clenched his jaw, shutting his mouth tightly, because there was no way to finish that sentence without revealing too much, either about himself or his vision of Mordred. You and Arthur will never compare to what I have with him. And yet didn't they already, if Mordred had trusted Arthur with the truth and Arthur, in exchange, trusted him not to use magic against Camelot?
Mordred looked at him intently, his cold blue eyes boring into Merlin's. "I know. But you could have him, if you risked it. If you were willing to risk it all."
Merlin shook his head wordlessly. He had thought of it; dreamt of it, even. He had imagined a thousand different ways it could go, if he did risk it. But in the end there was only one thing Merlin would risk everything for, and it wasn't magic.
"That's never going to happen." Merlin stood and turned away, intending to put an end to the conversation. He would follow Arthur, whether the prat wanted him to or not. "And I don't see why you should care."
Mordred's hand on his shoulder stopped him, shocking him into silence even as he turned back to face the knight. He couldn't recall the last time they had touched, and somehow it reminded him of things he tried not to think about – how human Mordred was, how young, how good at heart. Merlin looked into Mordred's eyes, and for the first time, he found that the blankness there could also be seen as purity. Innocence. Guilelessness.
"You and Arthur, you saved my life when you went back to the Disir," Mordred said quietly, his voice infused with warmth. "I've thanked him, but I haven't had the chance to thank you yet."
Merlin looked down at the steps, feeling sick, because – gods, he had intended to kill Mordred, not save him. He wanted none of Mordred's gratefulness, or his affection.
"You don't have to."
"I knew you would say that." A pause, and then Mordred spoke again. But not aloud. You can try to deny it all you want, Emrys, but at heart we are the same.
Merlin's eyes snapped back to Mordred's face. "Don't call me that."
How long had it been since Mordred had last used Merlin's druid name to his face? And now that Merlin thought about it, there had been no mental communication of any sort since he had been knighted, as though Mordred had realised how much both these things unsettled Merlin. It felt like letting someone in on all his secrets, and though Mordred already knew, he hated to be reminded of that fact. Having someone he didn't trust hold this much power over him scared him to death if he thought about it too much. The damage Mordred could do with a few well-chosen words to Arthur...
Fear me, and you fear yourself. Fear yourself, and how can you expect Arthur to trust you?
Merlin shoved Mordred away from him, forcing the hand off his shoulder. Don't talk to me!
Mordred allowed himself to be pushed back, raising his open hands in a gesture of peace and surrender even as his eyes flashed with anger and something wilder, something desperate, passionate, and unbridled.
"But don't you see, Merlin," he said, and those eyes, oh, they weren't cold anymore, they were so far from cold Merlin could barely look into them, "don't you see that this could be it? He spared a sorcerer. He hasn't done anything to me, and he's even letting me stay among the knights. Maybe this is how it all starts, Merlin. This is the beginning of your destiny. The return of magic to Camelot, what we both want –"
"No," Merlin said forcefully. "No, you're wrong. It can't be. This isn't how it's meant to happen."
It wasn't Mordred. It couldn't be Mordred. Mordred couldn't be the one to make Arthur change, because that was Merlin's job. It didn't matter how much of a mess he'd made of it so far – it was his destiny.
"You're wrong," he said again. "This is nothing. This means nothing –"
"Why are you fighting this?" Mordred asked, and still there was that look in his eyes, so great and lost and wanting, and it terrified Merlin. "Why would you fight it, Merlin? This is who you are, who you were always meant to be, what you were destined to bring about! You can't deny that you want it, you want Arthur to know you and accept you as much as I want it –"
"We are nothing alike!" Merlin shouted, and a burst of power escaped him as he lost his temper, his control over his magic wavering for a split second, just enough to slam Mordred backwards, making him lose his balance and fall harshly back on the step he had been standing on. "Don't compare me to yourself! I'm not like you, I'm not –" And he was crying now, tears blurring his vision and making his lips salty, sobs tearing painfully through his throat. "Just stop it, Mordred! Stop getting involved in everything! If you really cared, you'd go back where you came from and never return! You're not the beginning, you will be the end of it!"
Through the veil of tears he saw Mordred clearly, lying on his back on the step, propped up on his elbows, his eyes wide, shock clearly written across his features. There was a trickle of blood running down the side of his head, from his temple to a corner of his jaw, and his palms were scratched and bleeding lightly from where he had tried to catch himself. He looked completely, utterly betrayed, as though Merlin had shattered every dream he'd ever had. Looking into his eyes Merlin saw, for the first time in months, the child he had saved, so many years ago. The one he would save again, if given the choice, because he was innocent.
"So this," Mordred said, his voice low and fragile, "this is Emrys, then." He raised a trembling hand to his face; it came back down reddened with fresh blood. "Do you know, the stories they tell about you? They say you will save us all, you will free us and bring magic back to Camelot, give the land back to our people. I've dreamt of it, Merlin, and you have no idea how many people are resting their hopes, their entire lives on you. And you don't even care! In the end, you'll do anything for Arthur, but the rest of the world can just look after itself, so long as he lives."
"You know how important he is," Merlin said, trying not to look at the blood now smeared across Mordred's cheek. "You know I have to protect him."
"From me?" Mordred rose to his feet, pinning Merlin to the spot with a wild, hurt look on his face that made him seem so young. "From someone who only wants the same thing you strive for? From one of your kin, Merlin?"
"I've seen things –"
"Oh, yes," Mordred said, stepping closer until he was right in Merlin's face, "I can guess what you've seen. That's why you don't trust me, isn't it? Not because of anything I've done, but because of something you're scared I will do."
"I saw –"
"And it was shown to you for a reason! So that you could change it, save him and – and stop me, not lose me, because I'm not, Merlin, I'm not whatever you saw. I took that spear for Arthur, you were there and you saw it, so you have to know – I'm not!" There was despair in Mordred's eyes now, and his voice hitched as he spoke. "If you just trust me now, you can stop me later. But punish me for something I have not yet done, and you damn us all. And if you don't care about the rest of us, at least do it for him."
Another choice, another split between two paths, one leading to destruction and the other to salvation. But which was which? Could destiny really be changed? Merlin had made mistakes trying to save Morgana and had eventually precipitated her betrayal. He couldn't do it again with Mordred, couldn't give someone else his trust and then have them turn against Arthur.
"I would die before I harmed Arthur," Mordred said quietly, looking right into Merlin's eyes. His hand rose to cover the exact space where the spear had hit him, pressing into the skin gently, reminding Merlin that he almost had died for Arthur. "You have to believe that."
Morgana had loved Arthur, once. They had been like brother and sister, settled in an easy trust and a comfortable rivalry. Arthur would have died before he doubted her loyalty.
Merlin closed his eyes, not wanting to see that desperate, betrayed look in Mordred's expression anymore. "I can't. Gods, I want to. But I can't."
As much as Arthur didn't trust Merlin not to lie anymore, he still trusted him – trusted him to have his back, to be by his side always, to not betray him. The kind of deep, relentless trust that ran in his blood and was bred in his bones. So when news came of a strange creature attacking a village on the outskirts of the kingdom, killing livestock at night and even, once, a farmer, Arthur brought Merlin with him along with the knights he had selected. And he didn't bring Mordred.
"Why are you even going?" Merlin asked the first night they camped outside on the road to the village. "You could just have sent your knights."
"We don't know what that thing is, Merlin," Arthur replied after a moment's pause that said, Are you actually questioning me? "No one has seen it, and it doesn't leave tracks. It could be a magical threat."
"You think it's Morgana."
"I don't know, Merlin. I don't know anything anymore."
That felt like a reproach. Merlin winced.
"Arthur, you know I –"
"Go to sleep, Merlin."
As it turned out, it wasn't Morgana, but it was magic. A wyvern, which explained why it left no tracks – it had never even landed. It was old, which was why it had mostly been sticking to animal prey, but it wasn't slow enough to not pose trouble to the knights. When attacked, instead of fleeing, wyverns had a fight instinct, and this one put up a hell of a fight; claws tearing, teeth ripping, and tail knocking the knights on their arses. Every last one of them. It was a magical creature and it didn't look like it wanted to be beaten by a handful of men with shiny pieces of metal. There was something beautiful in the way its body moved, gleaming in the sunlight, writhing around to defend itself from spears and swords.
At any moment, Merlin could have sent it away with a few words in the dragon's tongue, but in order for it to hear him, he would have had to speak loudly enough for the knights to hear as well, and he couldn't. Instead he watched, cushioning the knights' falls as best he could, making sure that none of them were grievously injured, until Arthur was the last one standing. And then he watched as the wyvern sent Arthur down, too.
As soon as the wyvern had left,with strict orders not to bother Camelot again, Merlin knelt by Arthur's side. The king lay flat on his face, unmoving. Merlin turned him around hurriedly, his heart skipping a beat when he saw that Arthur's eyes were closed. He looked at peace, as though deeply asleep or – but no, of course not. Merlin breathed out a sigh when he noticed the rhythmic rise and fall of Arthur's chest. He pressed two fingers against the inside of Arthur's wrist, noting the steady pulse with relief. Only unconscious, then.
"Gods, you idiot," Merlin breathed, lightly punching Arthur's shoulder.
Arthur's eyelashes fluttered; he blinked once, twice, and then opened his eyes fully. With a start he sat up, then winced when the movement roused the pain in his back. Merlin pushed him back down gently.
"It's all right. Don't try to move right now."
"What... happened?" Arthur asked, going down without protest. His eyes weren't fully focused, and they kept flitting from Merlin to a spot behind him.
Merlin bent his head over Arthur, checking for wounds which might have escaped him. "You killed it."
"I did?" Arthur sounded confused.
Arthur frowned; his eyes cleared a little. "I killed it. While I was unconscious," he said flatly.
"You are a man of many talents."
"Don't lie to me, Merlin."
Merlin gave Arthur a sidelong glance and couldn't find the strength to say, I'm not lying.
"Obviously you incapacitated it right before you lost consciousness," he said, careful not to look directly into Arthur's eyes. "Who else could it have been?"
"Who else, indeed," Arthur said, looking around at his knights, most of whom were rubbing the back their heads, looking dazed as they picked themselves off the ground. "And I suppose the body just disappeared."
Merlin didn't miss a beat. "Well, it was a magical creature."
Arthur scowled. "You know, this is sounding strangely familiar."
"You tend to do this kind of heroic lark a lot," Merlin said with a half-hearted grin. "Not your first time."
"Nor yours, apparently."
Merlin chanced a quick glance at Arthur. His heart sank when he met Arthur's eyes, because the betrayal was clear there, darkening Arthur's expression like a cloud passing in front of the sun. Arthur didn't believe him. He looked away quickly, afraid that Arthur would read the truth in his eyes.
"Again, not your best lie," Arthur said, and again it was like a dagger sliding right into Merlin's heart.
This was tearing them apart, and the only thing that could mend the rift was honesty. But the truth was far too ugly, far too terrible to ever fix anything, let alone something as beautiful, fragile, and subtle as this friendship.
Subtle was one way to describe it. Non-existent was another.
Ever since Arthur had first called him out on his lies, things had been strained between them. For a while, of course, there had been the cold shoulder period – when Arthur had stopped joking with him, and had hardly even looked at him even when speaking to him. And when they had, tentatively, inevitably, slipped back into their old habits – well, even then, it hadn't quite been the same. But now it was like a second fall, lower and faster and harder than the first, because Arthur suspected. Not the magic, no. But he suspected that Merlin was hiding something, something far bigger than either of them. Something he should never have hidden from Arthur, something that made him lie. And in that suspicion, Arthur felt the first hints of betrayal and doubt, and Merlin could say nothing to reassure him.
Arthur never lied.
The realisation had been unpleasant, but the day it came to Merlin, he couldn't deny its truth. In their dealings with each other, at least, Arthur was never anything less than completely honest. Sometimes he joked, sometimes he outright told Merlin he didn't want to touch on this particular subject, but he never looked Merlin in the eye and lied. If he had, Merlin would have understood and forgiven in the blink of an eye, but he didn't. Maybe he sensed it would give Merlin a sense of satisfaction and justification that he didn't deserve.
It was a lonely time for them both; at least, Merlin thought it was as lonely for Arthur as it was for him, though Arthur never let on. They never spoke of it, because no words could mend what had been broken: Merlin wouldn't tell, and Arthur couldn't guess. Arthur's pride, his honour, his loyalty as a friend were all too deep and too strong for him to guess. Despite his suspicions, the magic and all the secrets went far beyond what he could imagine. It would have meant believing the worst of Merlin, which he was clearly incapable of, and so the idea never seemed to even cross his mind. He never asked, and Merlin couldn't even say for sure that he wondered, because it was never once mentioned between them. But he had to wonder, had to miss what they'd lost as much as Merlin missed it. Even the tentative, fragile conversation between them after the revelation of Mordred's magic would have been welcome now, so complete was their estrangement. If Arthur's loyalty had been a little less constant, or if there had been even a drop of cruelty in his blood, he would have dismissed Merlin from his position of manservant and been rid of him. As it was, Merlin's continued service was painful for them both and, naturally, as they drifted apart they each found someone else to grow closer to.
For Merlin it might have been Gwen. In all logic it should have been Gwen, his first friend in Camelot and such a faithful, genuine and tender-hearted friend that Merlin had, several times, almost found himself wanting to tell her everything. But because of the intimacy she shared with Arthur, because she was the Queen, he couldn't. It would be unfair to expect her to shoulder his bitterness. It was Gwaine, instead, Arthur's least disciplined knight, who proved himself a steadfast and concerned friend – and if Merlin had tried he couldn't have found someone who reminded him less of Gwen.
As for Arthur... Arthur, Merlin had realised, had few friends. He had his knights, whom he trusted with his life, but to whom he rarely disclosed any personal trouble. He had Gwen, but again, she wasn't the one whom Arthur spoke to when he needed support. That had always been Merlin.
Now that Merlin was gone, it was – strangely, ironically – Mordred.
The first time Merlin caught them, he wasn't expecting it. While Arthur hadn't sought to put any distance between Mordred and him, Merlin had assumed that things had to be at least a little tense between them when they found themselves alone. He had seen the ease between them in public, when Arthur was with a group of knights, but he hadn't imagined that it might be anything more than a front, at least on Arthur's part. So when, after a particularly uneventful training session, Arthur remained in the armoury long after the other knights had departed, Merlin went to find him without any concern but the one that Arthur would be late for the council meeting he had scheduled that afternoon.
He opened the door without taking care to be discreet about it, and had already started voicing his question to Arthur when the words stuck in his throat as he took in the scene before him.
At the other end of the armoury, between several helms and swords, Arthur and Mordred were sitting on a bench, their backs against the wall, their sides pressed together from knee to hip. They were dressed similarly in simple, open-collared shirts, having evidently helped each other out of their armour, and they were leaning slightly towards each other, speaking in hushed voices. As Merlin watched, Mordred held his hand out in front of him and whispered a few words that Merlin instantly recognised, from the power that seemed to roll off them in spades. A warm, golden light emanated from his hand, casting the most beautiful shadows across the floor, and worse than Mordred's smile and his trust was the expression of wonder on Arthur's face – not approval, exactly, but so far from fear and hatred that it hurt.
The light slowly faded away into nothingness, but Arthur's expression didn't change. He said something, asked a question probably, which Mordred readily answered. And neither drew back, nor seemed to fear the other. Something that Mordred said made Arthur smile, and then even chuckle, and still he sat so close to Mordred that their sides were touching. Something tightened painfully in Merlin's chest, and he rapped his knuckles smartly against the wooden door.
They didn't jump apart like culprits, as Merlin had almost expected them to do. Mordred didn't so much as look up – he had probably sensed Merlin's arrival and wasn't surprised by it. But Arthur turned his head to the side slowly, disinterestedly; at least until his gaze met Merlin's. He started slightly, his face going pale.
"For God's sake, Merlin, you're supposed to knock before opening the door," Arthur snapped, his voice full of an annoyance that Merlin was certain hadn't been there when he had been whispering with Mordred. "How much did you overhear?"
The question stung even more than the tone in which it was asked, because under normal circumstances Arthur wouldn't have cared whether Merlin had overheard a conversation with a knight, and if it had been anything of importance he would have repeated it himself to Merlin.
"Nothing, sire," Merlin said, unable to keep the resentment from his tone. "I just thought – the council – you wouldn't want to be late."
Arthur looked at him intently for a moment more, and Merlin realised that he was trying to tell whether or not he was lying. Merlin struggled to swallow the bile that rose up in his throat and met Arthur's gaze unflinchingly.
"I'm sorry. I'll knock next time," he said stiffly. "I apologise, sire."
Irrationally, he hoped that somehow, a part of Arthur recognised that the apology wasn't really for the knocking, but for everything that was broken between them.
"I apologise, sire."
It wasn't the apology that startled Arthur, so much as the way it was spoken – the added courtesy of his title, the uncharacteristic formality in the phrasing when he could have just muttered "Sorry." The hurt but sincere tone, as though Merlin really were sorry, as though he meant every word when he had only ever laughed at common courtesy. He glanced sideways at Mordred, questioningly; out of the corner of his eye he saw Merlin's expression shut down, becoming stony and closed off.
"I'll see you later," Merlin said, avoiding Arthur's gaze in a way that Arthur had never known him to do.
And before Arthur could say anything – like What? or Look at me, for God's sake or even Can we talk? –, Merlin was gone.
Arthur turned back to Mordred, spreading his hands. "What was all that about?"
Mordred looked at him intently. "I don't know," he said finally, his tone cautious. "What was it about? You practically assaulted him."
"He was eavesdropping –"
"I sensed him coming," Mordred said. "I wouldn't have let him witness anything I didn't want him to."
There were several things Arthur wanted to say to that. How come Mordred was defending Merlin, why was he so outspoken now when he had never been anything but respectful to Arthur, why the hell would he have let Merlin eavesdrop on anything? But what came out of his mouth was:
"What do you mean, you sensed him?"
The change in Mordred's expression was minute, barely-there, but Arthur caught it, because Mordred was a sorcerer and Arthur was watching. Mordred's cheeks flushed lightly, and a shadow dulled his eyes, like a cloud passing in front of the sun.
"It's... something my magic allows me to do," Mordred said. "I'm sorry, sire. I shouldn't have – for a moment, I forgot –"
"No," Arthur said, cutting him off with a small wave, ignoring the way Mordred's apology rang in his ears, an unpleasant reminder of Merlin. "I've told you I don't want you to keep secrets anymore."
He was tempted to ask Mordred how it worked, but the mere mention of the word magic had sent a queasiness rolling in his stomach. Moments before, he had watched Mordred produce light with only a few words (words in a strange language unlike any he'd ever heard), and the feeling that had filled him hadn't been fear or anything like it, but a sort of sick fascination, of the kind that made it difficult to look away from a burning house or an agonising animal – except that Arthur would soon have put an agonising animal out of its misery, but something about the magic had left him rooted to the spot, unable to speak a word to end it, and maybe not even wanting to. Because, yes, it had been beautiful.
It was still magic.
Arthur stood up, thinking several things all at once. Magic had still taken Morgana away from him. It had taken his father – maybe even both his parents – away from him. It had destroyed his entire family, and had come close to killing him more times than he could count. He had wavered several times over the years, uncertain whether his father's policy was truly the right thing for Camelot, but always some event had brought him back to his conviction that magic could do no good. But then the Disir had come along, and Arthur had been willing to accept magic in exchange for Mordred's life. He had seriously considered it, had wanted to do it even, and it was only Merlin's assurance that he couldn't sacrifice Camelot for the sake of one man that had stopped him. And now... now he knew that Mordred had magic. Mordred, who had stabbed Morgana to save him, and then taken a spear meant for him. Mordred who was looking up at him silently, his blue eyes piercing, as though he could see everything Arthur was thinking.
"I have to go," Arthur told him, turning to leave.
"Sire, if I may –?"
Arthur looked back, silently granting permission. There was that shadow across Mordred's eyes again, like a veil drawn over the sky, darkening his entire expression. Arthur couldn't read into it – was that hurt, or concern? – but the look sent a chill up his spine.
"Don't believe everything Merlin tells you," Mordred said.
Arthur sucked in a breath, willing the flare of pain in his chest to go away. He wasn't sure what exactly Mordred meant by the warning, but he thought he had an idea.
Arthur turned away again. "You don't have to worry about that. I don't."
Maybe it was better that Arthur was starting to withdraw from Merlin. Maybe the pain of the revelation would have been much worse, if he had still been as close to Merlin as they used to be. Or maybe not. Because even though the trust wasn't really there anymore, Arthur was still as emotionally tangled up in Merlin as before – maybe even more. The hurt was worse than any of the fond amusement he had once felt when he looked at Merlin, and stronger – tugging at his heart whenever Merlin shot him a particular look, the one where it seemed like he was about to drown in sadness. And it wasn't that Arthur enjoyed seeing that look, or that he wanted Merlin to feel that way. But he could never bring himself to say the words that would make things all right, because they wouldn't be true.
It didn't matter why. In the end, Merlin had still tried to manipulate him into killing one of his own knights, without telling him the facts that would have allowed him to make a real decision. It had been such a display of faithlessness – not trusting that Arthur's choice would be correct, not trusting him with the truth – that Arthur couldn't forgive him for it, because it was so completely unexpected, coming from Merlin. Merlin, for God's sake.
Arthur trusted many people. He trusted his knights with his life; he trusted Gwen with his heart. But there was only one person whom he trusted with everything, completely and without reserve – and evidently, that trust was not returned. Because Merlin was still lying, and even denying that he was lying. About what? The ignorance, the selfish desire to know was killing Arthur, but he couldn't ask. He had already asked, and Merlin had never offered an answer. Arthur's pride wouldn't unbend enough for him to ask again, when he knew that he would be disappointed.
In the end, he didn't even have to ask.
When it happened, it was over the most common, stupid thing imaginable. There was no angry showdown, no shouting match, no fighting, because it would have been impossible for either of them. The revelation left Arthur speechless, and Merlin... Merlin didn't even realise he'd been found out. It was less of a confrontation than a one-sided shock; Merlin never knew the exact moment when everything shattered.
It happened when he lit a fire in the rain, and it was Arthur's fault. Arthur was the one who had insisted on going out that day, when the dark clouds and the heaviness in the air made it obvious to anyone with any sense at all that it was going to rain. He was the one who had made Merlin ride deep into the forest, looking for game when there was none to be had. And he was the one who refused to stop and find better shelter than the thin canopy of leaves above them when it started to rain.
"Oh for the love of –" Merlin muttered, rolling his eyes. "Are you really going to make me ride home in the rain?"
"You can stay if you'd like," Arthur said bitingly, glaring up at the sky.
Because yes, it was his fault, but on the other hand, he would never have been angry and blinded enough to want to get away from the castle on a day like this if it wasn't for Merlin. These days, it wasn't that Merlin got on his nerves anymore. Arthur just felt a lack, as though something were missing in their relationship now that the trust was gone, and he hated it.
"Oh, come on," Merlin said, stopping his horse. "Let's just wait here. You know I hate riding in the rain."
Arthur did know. The knowledge was the only thing that had prevented him from stopping to find shelter.
"Is this your idea of revenge?" Merlin asked when Arthur didn't say anything, or attempt to stop his horse. "Because if it is, it's pretty stupid. You'll get wet, too."
It wasn't what Merlin said so much as the tone with which he said it: gentle, almost pleading. Arthur tugged on his reins, stopping his horse, and with a sigh, he dismounted. He grimaced as he stretched his legs, feeling the way the already dampened fabric of his trousers clung to his thighs and calves uncomfortably.
"All right," he said. "What's your brilliant idea, then?"
"Find shelter," Merlin said.
"And leave the path? We'd be further away from home than we are right now. That's stupid."
"Not if there's a storm," Merlin muttered, but he shrugged defeatedly and plopped down on a tree stump. "Fine. We'll stay here, see how you like it." Under his breath, he added, "I hope there is a storm, you prat."
"I heard that."
"You were meant to."
Arthur smiled faintly, because there was just enough insolence in there to remind him of what had been. He sat down across from Merlin, in the dirt that was slowly turning to mud.
"When we get drenched, remember this was your idea," he said. "I wanted to continue riding."
Merlin shot him an incredulous look. "You're serious. You're actually serious."
The smile widened, and Arthur threw his head back, closing his eyes. A drop of rain leaked through the canopy above and splashed on his cheek.
"I'm always serious."
Merlin didn't answer, and several minutes passed before either of them said anything. Arthur heard the rustling of leaves before he cracked open an eye.
"What are you doing?"
"Gathering wood," Merlin said.
Arthur opened both eyes and frowned. "That's stupid."
"Yes, well, so am I."
"No, I mean it. It's stupid."
Merlin shot him an exasperated look. "Why don't you go back to sleep?"
"I wasn't sleeping," Arthur muttered, but he closed his eyes again, not interested in watching Merlin collect wood for no purpose.
Five minutes later, there was the sharp sound of two stones being struck together, and then a joyous, friendly crackling noise that Arthur recognised, except it couldn't be. He opened his eyes and stared into the fire, willing it to go away. It had to be only his imagination. It had to.
It hit Arthur like a falling stone, heavy and painful and unexpected. He should have seen, should have known. But he hadn't. He had never imagined, in his worst nightmares, that Merlin could be hiding something of this magnitude. Hiding this.
"Did you just –"
"Light a fire? Yeah. You're welcome."
Merlin had to think he was some kind of idiot. There was just no way anyone could light a fire with wood that was that damp, and certainly not this kind of fire – all leaping flames with hardly any smoke at all. But Merlin had gathered the wood and struck two random stones together and a spark had caught immediately and did he really think Arthur didn't know how fire-making worked?
"Come on," he said. "Help me cover the fire or the rain'll get to it."
And that, right there, was the ultimate proof that Merlin was the biggest idiot that had ever lived. Didn't he realise, when he said that, that it was obvious his fire had no reason to exist in the first place? Arthur didn't move as Merlin heaved a sigh and arranged a couple of leafy branches to shelter the fire. He stared into the flames, wondering whether they even needed the protection. Did magical fires burn even in the rain? He felt the irrational urge to reach out and thrust his fingers into the fire, just to make sure it was real, but he could feel its heat from where he was crouching in the mud and knew it was a ridiculous idea.
"It'll keep us warm," Merlin said. "Until the rain clears."
"Hopefully we won't have drowned by then," Arthur said absently.
The trees above really did provide little shelter, but Arthur wasn't going to suggest they look for a dryer place. He wanted to avoid a detour – and he wanted to annoy Merlin. Besides, Arthur's cloak offered him some protection, and Merlin... Well, Merlin was a sorcerer, apparently. Surely he would think of something. Arthur glanced at him, taking in the thin fabric of his clothing and the way he had drawn his neckerchief more tightly around his neck. He was leaning toward the fire, his hands held out; it occurred to Arthur that Merlin might have asked to stop and find a shelter because he was cold. He might have taken the risk of lighting a fire with magic because he was cold.
"It'll be over soon," Merlin said optimistically.
Was it optimism, or was there a sort of magic that allowed him to predict the weather?
God. Would he never be able to listen to Merlin without immediately thinking, Magic? The magic he hated, the magic he feared, the magic that had taken everything from him. Yet looking at Merlin now, neither fear nor hatred rose in him; only a sick, betrayed feeling that spoke more of hurt than resentment. Arthur felt, ludicrously, alone, even as he knew that his single most loyal servant, his friend of over eight years (had he been keeping count?) sat by his side. His discovery had set up a new barrier between them, or maybe it had only opened his eyes to an old, long-standing one; a barrier strengthened by years of secrets and lies. All these years, Merlin was the one person who had never disappointed him, never failed him, never betrayed him. He had always been there, the best friend Arthur could hope for, expecting nothing in exchange.
Arthur tasted bile in the back of his throat as he realised that Merlin had lied to him repeatedly for years, that the trust Arthur had given him whole-heartedly – a trust that was never spoken but always implied, always meant, as much trust as a king could place in any single person – had never been fully returned, because here... Here was something Merlin didn't trust him with, even after years of his friendship. Something that Merlin thought would break them.
Would it? Could it? Could anything break them? Arthur felt the strain in the link between them. He didn't think anything was strong enough to destroy years of friendship – because it was friendship, that couldn't be a lie as well; if it was, then that was certainly what would destroy Arthur, and he refused to think of it –, but this came closer than anything else Arthur had imagined, mainly because Arthur had never once even considered the idea that Merlin was anything less than completely loyal.
There had always been something about him, an air of indefinable mystery, but Arthur had added it to the list of things about Merlin that were just different. His stupidity, his ears, his bravery, the way he talked back, his awful clumsiness, and his ridiculous tendency to want to die for Arthur even though he was a servant not a knight – well. From the moment they'd met Arthur had known there was something about Merlin, but he had never imagined this. Merlin, lying to him for years, and he had never seen it.
Was he such an inattentive friend that he had never suspected anything? Arthur sifted through recent memories, trying to find anything that could be construed as a hint, a clue. Merlin was not a good liar. Except he was, apparently; that or Arthur was blind.
It was probably both, Arthur thought sourly. And where did that leave them? One of them had lied and the other had cared so little he had never seen that something was wrong. He had been blinded, blinded by trust (had he learnt nothing from Morgana?) and would never have known if he hadn't actually witnessed it.
"Arthur?" Merlin asked, concern seeping into his tone. "Is something wrong?"
Arthur felt himself tense, and curbed his anger before it shone through in his own voice. If Merlin spoke again, he thought he might snap.
"I'm fine," he said, trying not to look at Merlin.
"You don't look fine."
Arthur ground his teeth together. "Well, I am," he said shortly.
He could feel Merlin's questioning stare, but thankfully his manservant didn't say anything more on the subject. Several months ago, before all this mess, Merlin might have pushed a little more, been a little more insistent, but now he didn't.
Mordred knew. The heavy irony of it didn't escape Arthur; that Merlin had known about Mordred's magic, and Mordred about Merlin's, and yet Arthur had trusted both of them and never guessed their duplicity.
When the rain stopped, they returned to the castle, and Arthur didn't say a word. Instead, he drove Merlin harder than ever. A part of him realised he was being unfair, but the bitterness that filled him was blinding. It helped, to have an outlet for his anger. He snapped, threw things, and thrust so many chores upon his servant that it was a wonder Merlin didn't collapse from over-exertion. Except, of course, that he could do his job with magic if he chose to. So Merlin didn't appear that worn-out or tired, but he did pick up on the fact that he had displeased Arthur somehow.
He didn't complain about it.
Under any other circumstances, Merlin would have given as good as he got, fighting Arthur every step of the way. That was just the was he was. He had never been afraid of standing up to Arthur, or complaining to Gaius or even Arthur's own knights. But ever since the complete mess they'd made of the Disir and Mordred thing, Merlin had stopped talking back. He took everything with a wince, but never so much as scowled. And when Arthur watched him talk to Gwaine, he always had a faint smile to offer and never, never a single word of complaint.
It bothered Arthur. It was like some sort of sick self-flagellation, as though the punishment Arthur was giving him wasn't enough. Even Arthur knew, deep inside, that it was too much, that he should just confront Merlin and say it instead of drawing the pain out like this. But just like Merlin had never been able to tell him, now Arthur found he couldn't say it, either.
He tried. Once. In a very roundabout, not very clever way, but he did try. Merlin shoved his attempt right back in his face, so clearly that it left Arthur speechless.
They were in Arthur's room, because he couldn't think of anywhere else they would have the necessary privacy. And for once, Merlin had practically nothing to do. He was standing, tense, with his back to the door, his spine straight, his expression expectant, as though waiting for Arthur's next order. There were dark circles under his eyes, but he looked so determined to serve that Arthur felt himself soften a little and thought, We can get past this. It was Merlin, after all.
He said, slowly, uncertainly, "I've been thinking about... about the time you saved my life."
Merlin started slightly, surprised. It had been a while since Arthur had voluntarily started a conversation with him. But then Merlin relaxed, and the grin that crossed his expression warmed Arthur's heart with its familiarity.
"You're going to have to be a bit more precise than that if you expect me to know what you're talking about."
Arthur smiled back, because that, at least, was true. "I meant the first time, with Lady Helen."
"That was ages ago."
"Yeah. Before you even became my manservant."
"Oh, the good old days." Merlin heaved an exaggerated sigh. "I've almost forgotten what it feels like to be free."
It was meant as a joke. For God's sake, it was a joke. But a sick feeling pooled in the pit of Arthur's stomach, and he couldn't help but wonder how much truth hid behind Merlin's humour, and how many lies were usually concealed by his jokes. Free. Free to use magic.
"It's not like I ever asked you to be my manservant."
Merlin didn't even look up. "Good, 'cause I'd have said no."
Arthur choked back a laugh. "You can't just say no to the prince of Camelot."
And Arthur did. He watched as Merlin, apparently unused to not having any chores to do, smoothed down the covers of his bed and cleared the bedside table. Watched as he picked two shirts off the ground and irreverently balled them up to carry to the laundry girls later. Watched as he kicked the wardrobe door closed and turned around, raising his eyes to Arthur's, his expression irritated.
"I didn't mean literally."
"You do realise you've completely changed the subject, don't you?"
"What subject? You haven't said a word in ten minutes!"
Arthur looked at him. Before, it wouldn't even have occurred to him that Merlin might redirect a conversation in the direction he wanted it to go, but now it was obvious. Merlin's expression was studiously annoyed, but his eyes flickered from left to right like a cornered animal's. Out of fear. Out of nervousness.
Because of his lies.
"Lady Helen," Arthur said pointedly.
"You mean you want to dwell on the good old memories?" Merlin said, offering Arthur a grin that could only be described as half-hearted at best. "Back when I didn't have to bear your constant moaning."
Arthur bit down the retort that came naturally to him, refusing to be baited again. "I've been wondering how you did it."
When Merlin tensed, it was almost imperceptible. Arthur only caught it because he was deliberately looking for it.
"Really?" Merlin said, his tone light. "And here I was wondering why I did it."
"You were at the other end of the room. No one could have made it to the table that fast."
Merlin's eyes darted away, then back to Arthur's face again. "I wasn't that far."
"Yes, you were."
Merlin looked Arthur straight in the eye. "You must be getting old. Your memory is failing you. I was only a few steps away, the whole time."
Arthur felt his stomach roll, and had to fight not to lose his breakfast. He took in a couple quick, shallow breaths, and stood up abruptly, ignoring the way the world spun.
If this was what Merlin looked like when he lied, then in all the years Arthur had known him, he wasn't sure whether Merlin had ever once been completely honest with him.
He had to know if anyone else knew. Mordred had known, and that made a lot of sense, actually. Gaius, of course. But had Merlin told anyone else? Not Gwen – Arthur didn't even want to imagine that she would hide such a thing from him. But maybe one of his knights. The suspicion wouldn't leave him alone, and though he hated himself for doubting his men, he did end up asking Gwaine. Because if Merlin told only one knight, it would be Gwaine. Arthur didn't want to think about what it meant that Gwaine was so important. His friendly rivalry with the knight had never been only about swordplay.
It was in the tavern that Arthur asked him. It was the most strategical time and place to catch Gwaine with his guard down: when he had a few drinks in his system. Gwaine could hold his alcohol astonishingly well, but even he couldn't hold up forever and alcohol always ended up loosening his tongue and inhibitions. When he nearly fell down – twice – walking across the room to his seat, Arthur figured now was as good a time as any.
"Gwaine," he said, not bothering to be subtle when Gwaine was in this state – would he even remember their conversation in the morning? –, "Have you ever noticed anything strange about Merlin?"
"Oh, definitely," Gwaine said easily.
Arthur sat up.
"Merlin is very strange," Gwaine went on, slurring his words a little. "He's something special, isn't he? One would have to be blind not to see it. The way he puts up with you is beyond strange. Very impressive."
Arthur let his head fall forward into his hands. Of course a drunk Gwaine would be even more insulting than the usual one.
"That's not what I meant."
Gwaine sounded casual – too casual. Deliberately casual. Arthur groaned into his hands before looking looked up. Shit.
"Don't tell me," he said. "You're not as drunk as I thought you were."
Gwaine took a moment before reacting, as though he were debating whether or not to drop the act. Then the unfocused look in his eyes sharpened, and he offered Arthur a small smile.
"You really need to stop underestimating me."
Arthur shook his head in disbelief. "Do you realise how much you've drunk? It's amazing you're still conscious, let alone sober enough for coherent sentences."
"Do you realise how little you've drunk?" Gwaine countered, the slurring completely gone from his voice. "I'm not stupid. I knew what you were trying to do." He didn't sound happy about it. "You wanted me drunk. I can think of only two reasons you could possibly want that, and one of them would greatly offend your sensibilities, not to mention your wife."
Arthur felt himself flush. "You're not insinuating –"
"And the other," Gwaine said, "is really quite insulting. So between you and me, I'm not sure which option I prefer."
Arthur ducked his head. Gwaine wasn't an idiot. He'd understood that Arthur had been trying to get him drunk to question him, and he had played along only to find out what it was Arthur wanted to know.
"I'm sorry," Arthur said, looking down at the wood of the table between them.
"Yeah?" Gwaine didn't sound convinced. "Does that mean you're going to tell me why you don't think you can trust me?"
"It's not that," Arthur said, wincing at the thought. "Not really."
"Not really," Gwaine echoed. "Then why were you trying to weasel information out of me? Do you think I've lied to you?"
"Not exactly." Arthur chanced a look up at Gwaine. "Maybe just... held back some information."
Gwaine tensed. "What gave you that idea?" he asked sharply.
His reaction strengthened Arthur's suspicions. So there was something.
"Is there something you haven't told me... about Merlin?"
A crease formed between Gwaine's eyebrows as he frowned. "About Merlin? This is about Merlin? What's he done?"
Arthur eyed him. "That's what I want to know."
"Okay," Gwaine said, sitting up straight in his chair. Arthur didn't think anyone could fake confusion that convincingly, but with Gwaine, you never knew. "Okay. What? You dragged me a tavern and got me drunk for me to spill the beans on Merlin? Really?"
"Hardly 'dragged,'" Arthur said, annoyed. "I didn't hear you complaining."
Gwaine waved a hand, in a wide, swooping gesture that was just uncontrolled enough to suggest that maybe he had had too much to drink. "I like taverns. You know that. Look, Arthur. Your Highness. Whatever it is I'm supposed to call you. I have absolutely no idea what you're talking about."
"I think you do," Arthur countered. "If anyone does, it's you."
"I'm honoured you think so highly of me, but really, you –"
"Not me," Arthur said disgustedly. "Merlin. He likes you."
"He likes everyone. Doesn't mean he tells me all his secrets – of which he hasn't got any, by the way. I don't know what you're on about or what you want to hear, but I can tell you this: you're not going to hear it from me."
Arthur stared at Gwaine. He couldn't shake the impression that Gwaine knew more than he was letting on, but would Gwaine really lie to his king for Merlin's sake?
"You are a knight of Camelot," Arthur said slowly. "You're bound to me."
"If there's something you should know about me, Arthur, it's this." Gwaine grinned. "I would rather lose my knighthood a million times over than betray a friend."
Oh, yes. He really would.
"So you do know something," Arthur said.
"Did I say that? I never said that."
There was a gleam in Gwaine's eye, both defiance and amusement, and Arthur knew he wouldn't get another word out of his least obedient knight.
Arthur was in a foul mood when he returned to the castle that night. He left Gwaine behind in the tavern, where he would probably proceed to get actually drunk until he passed out or something. Arthur didn't even want to think of the amount of alcohol needed to make someone like Gwaine pass out. Hell, he didn't want to think about Gwaine at all. His gut instinct told him his knight was hiding something, but he couldn't prove it and Gwaine wasn't about to let himself be tricked.
He stormed through the corridors, which were thankfully more or less empty at this hour. Gwen was most likely already asleep; he couldn't join her now. On the other hand, returning to his room and being alone with his thoughts didn't sound particularly tempting right now. Damn Gwaine. Damn Mordred. Damn Merlin. Damn everyone.
"What?" Arthur snapped, shoulders tensing as he stopped walking abruptly, but all irritation left him when he turned and looked into the shockingly cold blue of Mordred's eyes.
Mordred flinched at his tone, but didn't back away. Looking at him, Arthur suddenly felt old, so very old. How many years since he had met Merlin? Eight. Eight goddamn years and he still remembered every detail of that first encounter. Thinking back, it had really set the tone for most of their relationship – and at the same time, it hadn't. Merlin had turned out to be so much more than what Arthur had thought at first glance.
Arthur ran a hand through his hair. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have... reacted like that."
Mordred nodded, accepting the apology, his forehead creased with concern. "Arthur. I mean, sire. I know this can't be easy for you. Is there anything I can do to help?" He bit his lip, his eyes darting to a spot above Arthur's shoulder. "Maybe I could... I mean, if you think I should leave..."
Mordred's eyes snapped to his face, widening in surprise.
"No, of course I don't want you to leave," Arthur said, realising as he spoke them that the words were true. "You saved my life. You're a valuable knight. It's just... I have a lot on my mind at the moment."
Mordred's expression was like Arthur had offered to abdicate in his favour: there was that much shock and sheer joy in it. God, Mordred was such a child.
"All right," Mordred said, not bothering to hide his smile. "I completely understand."
They stood there, staring at each other, for several long moments before Mordred ducked his head, flushing. He murmured an apology and turned to leave.
Arthur caught him by the wrist, stopping him. "Wait."
Mordred turned back to face him, a questioning look in his eyes.
Arthur swallowed down the strange ball in his throat. "Can we talk?"
"By talk, you mean about magic, don't you?"
Arthur glanced around the corridor. It was empty, it was dark, but that didn't mean it was safe.
"Come to my room," he said abruptly. "No one will overhear us there."
It was easy, so easy, once they were in the privacy of his own room, to say the words. He hadn't spoken them aloud yet, not once since he'd found out about Merlin. He hadn't thought he could. But here, with Mordred, it was easy. Arthur sat down on the edge of his bed, motioning for Mordred to bring a chair up. He took a deep breath, and the words escaped him.
"Merlin has magic."
Just like that.
He waited, gauging Mordred's reaction, wanting to see if his knight would pretend not to have known. Mordred's eyes widened in surprise, and Arthur's heart sank. He's going to lie.
But Mordred said, "I didn't think he'd tell you."
Mordred froze, and his expression changed completely, going from surprised to compassionate in a single second. He didn't say anything, but his eyes were piercing, as though he knew exactly what was going on in Arthur's mind.
"That's two," Arthur said. "You and Merlin. That's two people I trusted who had magic all along."
Mordred dropped his gaze to the floor.
"Are there others?" Arthur asked. "No, don't answer that. I don't think you'd tell me if there were. What I mean is maybe I've missed something. Maybe magic isn't all evil, if... if he's had it for so long and I never noticed. I don't think he'd use it against me." He hesitated. "I don't think so."
"He wouldn't." Mordred's voice was firm and sure.
"And I don't think you would, either."
A shadow crossed Mordred's expression, changing it into something dark and unreadable. "I wouldn't," he said stiffly.
Arthur nodded, then looked away. Why had he even brought Mordred here? There was a barrier between them, making everything awkward. He had hoped that they could talk, that maybe Mordred could explain – explain about Merlin, and the lies, and everything –, but...
"How did you learn magic?" he asked abruptly.
Mordred didn't seem surprised by the question. "I grew up surrounded by it. I showed potential even as a child, so the druids taught me. Part of it is instinct, though. Magic is something you have, not just something you learn."
"Do all druids have magic?"
"No. Most of them have at least a little potential, but not everyone chooses to use it."
"So they have a choice."
Mordred shook his head. "If you're talking about Merlin –"
"I'm not," Arthur lied.
"– his gift is too strong to be ignored. It would have escaped from him at the worst of times. He had to learn to control and use it."
Arthur swallowed. Did it lessen the betrayal or only make it worse, that Merlin was so powerful he couldn't have renounced magic if he'd tried? Trying to get his mind around Merlin being a gifted sorcerer – one who could do more than just light a fire with his mind – was at least as painful as realising he'd been lying for so many years. Arthur didn't want to think about the wyvern, the dragon, the griffin and the insane amount of luck he had had ever since Merlin had arrived in Camelot. He changed the subject.
"What was it like, growing up with druids?"
The look in Mordred's eyes softened, and instantly Arthur knew he'd hit the right subject. Anything that brought that warm, open look into Mordred's eyes had to be worth listening to.
"I had an amazing childhood," Mordred said softly. "Imagine living in a society where the only rule is to be at peace with your neighbours. Where people use magic openly, not to harm, but to create life – to heal, to build, to entertain children." A smile tugged the corners of his lips up. "One of my earliest memories is watching my father use magic to call birds to him. It was the first real spell I learnt."
"Your father," Arthur said. "Was he the one –"
Mordred shook his head, the smile fading. "No. When you met me, I had come to Camelot with Cerdan. My guardian at the time, but not my father. My father had been executed a few years before that."
Arthur tasted bile and had to struggle not to show it. Magic had taken so much from him; but was it only in just revenge for what he and his father had taken from magic?
"Why do you serve me?" he asked, hearing the quaver in his voice. It was the question he so desperately wanted to ask Merlin. "If you love magic so much, why is it that you serve me?"
Mordred met Arthur's gaze squarely. "Because I believe in you."
Arthur looked into his eyes, trying to read into the unmoving depths of ice-cold blue. Did he believe Mordred? Could he?
The door opened with a bang.
"Oh good, you're back, Arthur, listen –"
Whatever Merlin had been about to say was never spoken, the words lost as he stopped talking abruptly, taking in the scene before him. Arthur leapt to his feet, his eyes snapping to Merlin's almost guiltily – though he had no idea why – and for a moment they only stared at each other. Merlin looked stricken, like he was the one who had been betrayed.
The door slammed shut again, and Merlin was still on the other side.
It was only a few days after that that Arthur first mentioned legalising magic to the council. It might have been the smile on Mordred's face as he spoke of the druids. It might have been the wyvern that Arthur knew he had not killed. It might have been every little thing that Merlin had ever done to save his life – but if Arthur was honest with himself, it wasn't really any of that that decided him. It had been the shocked and hurt look that Merlin had given him that day – the same look he still gave him whenever Arthur spoke to Mordred. Arthur never wanted to see that expression again, and once Merlin told him the truth, he knew he wouldn't have to.
Merlin attended council that day, standing quietly behind Arthur, a little to his left. Out of the corner of his eye, Arthur watched as his initially straight posture drooped with every passing concern that was brought up, until he was practically slouching. He looked to be half-asleep. And that was when Arthur pounced.
"I've been giving thought to the ban on the practice of magic," he said, speaking as steadily as he could. "I am no longer sure it is in the best interests of the kingdom."
Merlin stiffened, suddenly straightening up. But his expression was nothing like what Arthur had expected – had wanted – it to be. Not hopeful, not happy, not relieved. Instead there was a sudden tension there, and such deep hurt, that it took several moments for Arthur to be able to continue his speech.
And even when he did, Merlin never so much as smiled.
When they left the council, Merlin didn't say a word, and it was Arthur who broke the silence as they walked through the castle.
"So... Magic," he said, shooting Merlin a surreptitious glance.
"What about it?" Merlin asked, and Arthur wasn't sure whether he imagined the sudden tension in Merlin's shoulders. "Has someone tried to assassinate you again?"
"No," Arthur said. "At least I don't think so. Just – you heard I was thinking about the laws, right?"
"Yeah," Merlin said. "It'll take time for the council to come around to the idea, though. I think you might get them to agree to consider it by the end of the month. Or maybe next month."
Arthur gritted his teeth. "Are you happy about it?"
Merlin froze, like a deer just before it bolts. "Does it matter what I feel?" he asked, sounding defensive. "It's a law. You know I hate all that official stuff."
"Yeah," Arthur said, tasting something bitter in the back of his throat. "I hate it, too. But you have an opinion, right? You approve?"
"You don't need my approval, Arthur," Merlin said, and he looked skittish now, jumpy. "Look, if that's all –"
"It's not," Arthur said. "I want to know what you think."
Merlin didn't look at him when he said, "You're doing the right thing, Arthur. You always do."
"Why don't you think all magic is evil?" Arthur asked.
"If you're having second thoughts," Merlin said, "you know you can always go back on your decision. It's not like it's been made official yet. The council would probably be glad."
Like a stone plummeting to the bottom of a lake – it was that fast, that ugly and that dark when Merlin said, with apparent ease, something that ought to have ripped him apart as surely as it was ripping Arthur apart. It wasn't even a lie. It was a casual, complete refusal of the opening Arthur had offered.
"Is that what you want me to do?" Arthur asked, feeling sick.
"I just don't think you should change the law for one person," Merlin said, not meeting his eyes.
Arthur laughed bitterly, making Merlin cross his arms defensively, his spine stiffening. Oh, God. Merlin thought it was Mordred – that Arthur was doing it for Mordred's sake, because he wanted Mordred to be free and happy. And a part of him did want that, but that wasn't why he was doing it. That wasn't it at all.
"Well," Merlin said, his voice hollow, "I'm glad you can find something to laugh about, because I sure as hell can't."
And he shoved his way past Arthur with more strength than Arthur had ever expected to find in his slender frame and started walking away.
"Goddamnit, Merlin, what is wrong with you?" Arthur called after him.
"What's wrong with you?" Merlin shot back, spinning around on his heel. "You're being an ass. You want to throw chores at me like there's no tomorrow? You want to ignore me until it suits you to remember I'm right here? Well that's fine. You're the king, you can do whatever you want. But don't ask me for advice afterwards and don't pretend we're friends, Arthur. We're obviously not."
Arthur stared at him, stunned. How had it all gone so wrong, so quickly? More importantly, when had it all become his fault? It wasn't like Merlin was innocent. He'd lied for so long. He was still lying, even now. He had to know that a few words, a single confession would fix everything.
Arthur shook his head disgustedly. "You know what, Merlin? You can just go to hell."
Merlin smiled an ugly, bitter smile. "Then I guess I'll see you there, won't I?"
Over the next few weeks, the sick feeling of betrayal settled in the pit of Arthur's stomach and set up permanent residence there. The idea of not lifting the ban on magic crossed his mind more than once, but it would have been a petty decision and he knew he couldn't do it. He tried to bait Merlin into telling the truth exactly one other time, and even though he failed again he didn't miss the way Merlin's voice roughened slightly when he answered with a lie, and it helped to soften the blow.
He wasn't sure when he would have preferred to learn of Merlin's magic. Not when they first met, for sure. Maybe a couple years into their friendship, or maybe after he had been crowned. Sometimes it felt like any moment would have been all right, so long as it had been Merlin coming to him with the truth, and not a discovery on his own. He wished he'd never had to see the lies, the way Merlin's foolish grin was as often fake as it was genuine, the ridiculous stories he made up and Arthur believed because he trusted him. And maybe it was cruel, but he couldn't help himself from testing how deep and how far Merlin's own trust in him went.
It was easy, now, to confide in his servant when he told himself it was just a game. He told Merlin secrets without reserve, telling him how important it was that no one ever know, and Merlin listened and never repeated a word. Sometimes he gave advice, but more often than not Arthur didn't care to hear it. He was just waiting for the moment when Merlin would realise that trust was meant to go in both directions, and would confide his own secret to Arthur.
Again and again the moment failed to come. Again and again Arthur felt the ache of the desire to know, the anticipation which lasted the entire five seconds it took Merlin to hesitate and come up with a lie, and finally the retreat and the bitter disappointment. Because Merlin didn't want to tell him, and as days and weeks and months went by it became apparent that he never would. And Arthur couldn't for the life of him understand why.
It did occur to him that Merlin might be waiting for the ban on magic to be officially lifted. So when it happened, several months after he had first brought the idea up, months of baiting Merlin and arguing with him, Arthur went to find Merlin in his room – which he shouldn't have been in in the first place, considering his job was to shadow Arthur.
"Where were you earlier?" he asked, standing in the doorway to Merlin's room.
Normally he would have stepped in and grabbed Merlin by the shoulders, dragging him along whether he wanted it or not. But something held him back. Merlin was standing a few feet away, facing him, his arms crossed over his chest, and there was a hostility in his eyes that Arthur had never seen before – at least, not directed at him.
"I can see that," Arthur said. "But why? You should have been with me."
"You didn't say you needed me there."
Arthur stared at Merlin. Of course I needed you there. This was all because of Merlin, all for Merlin, and he hadn't even thought to show up. It didn't matter that no one knew, or ever would. Arthur knew. And somewhere, deep inside, Merlin had to know. The past months had nearly killed Arthur with the weight of the secrets and tension between them, and Merlin had noticed. Except it wasn't mistrust anymore. God, Arthur would never have kept Merlin by his side if he had really thought he couldn't trust him. He trusted Merlin to the ends of the earth, and surely Merlin knew it. He had to know.
Arthur looked more closely. The cold bitterness in Merlin's eyes, the hardness of his mouth had stopped him from fully entering the room, but now he noticed other details. The slight pinkness of his eyes, the shallow, shaky breaths – even his voice sounded different, though Arthur couldn't be sure because he wasn't talking. All the signs were there. Merlin had been crying. God.
Arthur couldn't know if they had been tears of joy or of bitterness, and he wasn't sure which he would prefer. He wasn't made for this. He didn't know how to comfort a man who was crying and in this case, he didn't even know whether he wanted to. A part of him felt that Merlin deserved to suffer as much as he was making Arthur suffer.
A bigger part of him just wanted to tell Merlin, right now, right here, that he knew.
He took in a breath. "Merlin –"
"I'm sorry," Merlin said, dropping his gaze to the floor. "You're right, I should have been there, it's my fault, won't happen again. I'm sorry."
Arthur looked at him in disbelief. There wasn't even a hint of an apology in Merlin's tone or posture. He looked and sounded sullen and irritated, like a sulking child, and no other attitude could have spelt his message out more clearly.
Leave me alone.
"All right," Arthur said. "Since you're obviously useless today, you can have the rest of the day off."
He left, slamming the door behind him exactly like a sulking child.
The next morning Merlin woke him up bright and early as usual. Arthur opened bleary eyes and was greeted by Merlin's grin and a singsonged "Rise and shine!" as he flung the curtains open. He shut his eyes again. He had long since accepted that he would never be a morning person. He had no idea how Merlin did it, especially after having spent the previous day being bitter and unpleasant.
"You'll be wanting to get up," Merlin observed, his voice obnoxiously loud in the early morning silence. "The first complaint about magic has already arrived."
Arthur rolled around until he was face-first on the mattress, effectively shutting out the light glaring through the window. "Wonderful," he said through a mouthful of pillow.
Merlin didn't reply (but then again, he probably hadn't understood what Arthur had said). There was a moment or two of blessed silence, and Arthur thought he could almost drift back to sleep again – but then he felt the first tug at his sheets and bed covers.
He groaned into the pillow and secured the sheets more tightly around him. This was one battle he always lost, but he still insisted on fighting it almost every morning. If it bought him just three more minutes – even if it meant he was late for whatever he had to do that day – it was worth it.
With that in mind, Arthur reached out blindly with one hand, scrabbling at the bedside table until his fingers closed around a smooth, curved object – the handle of the metal pitcher he had drunk from before falling asleep, and which no one had come to take away because he had given Merlin the day off. His eyes still shut, he tossed it backwards, in the general direction of the tugging, confident that he would miss. He wasn't that good.
Except, apparently, he was.
Arthur heard the exact moment when the pitcher connected with Merlin's body and he bolted upright in his bed, twisting around to look at Merlin, who swore colourfully – one of the very rare times Arthur had ever heard him utter profanity.
"Ow! Gods, Arthur, what the – why can't you ever just throw clothes or a pillow? You idiot – you prat – you –"
Merlin couldn't seem to find or make up a word insulting enough to translate his anger. He fell silent, still glaring at Arthur. One hand was rubbing the top of his head. He must have been leaning over the bed when the pitcher caught him by surprise.
"Damn it," Arthur whispered. "Oh, damn it."
He reached out to Merlin; Merlin shrank back from him.
"I'm not – I'm not going to hurt you, you fool," Arthur said roughly. "Let me see."
"I'm fine." Merlin pressed his hand closer to his head. "There's nothing there. I'm fine."
"Let me see," Arthur insisted, standing up, ignoring the tangle of sheets wrapped around his legs.
"Arthur, I'm fine."
"No, you're not," Arthur said, feeling sick. "Merlin, I'm sorry –"
"It's nothing," Merlin insisted. "I just didn't see it coming. I should have avoided it like I usually do."
Arthur winced. "Don't act like this is your fault –"
"Should I act like it's yours, then? Is that what you want?" Merlin let his hand fall to his side. "It's just a bump, Arthur. I'm not going to die."
"I still shouldn't have –"
"You should be getting dressed," Merlin cut in smoothly, interrupting him for the third time in a row.
Arthur ran off at the mouth. "If you're going to be like this, why did you bother to come back?"
Merlin stiffened, his face going pale. "I wasn't aware that I'd been sacked."
"Well maybe you should have been."
As soon as the words were out of his mouth, Arthur knew he shouldn't have said them. Merlin backed away, looking as though he'd been struck.
Arthur moved forward, reaching out to hold Merlin back. "Wait. Merlin, I'm sorry –"
Merlin shook his head slowly in disbelief. "You know, Arthur, sometimes you're such a bastard."
"I know, I know," Arthur said. "And I'm –"
"Don't." Merlin's voice was clipped, his tone final. Arthur stopped.
Merlin's slender, pale hand pressed into his chest against the blue cloth of his shirt, as though he had a pain there, and as he shuddered Arthur's gaze jumped to the white skin of his throat, exposed by the dip of his neckerchief.
"You've made it pretty clear that you don't want me around anymore," Merlin said quietly, looking anywhere but at Arthur. "I'm not blind. I get it."
"You've been avoiding me for months. Always giving me some stupid task or another just so you don't have to see me. Throwing things at me –"
"I said I was sorry," Arthur protested.
"It's fine, Arthur. But next time... just say it, all right?"
"Merlin," Arthur said, feeling like a complete prat. "I haven't –"
"Yeah," Merlin said, looking straight at him. "You have."
"So, what? Are you leaving your job?"
"Just saving you the trouble of sacking me yourself, since it's obviously too much for you."
Merlin waited and Arthur knew that, if he could just find the right words, he had the power to make Merlin stay. The right words would fix everything. Hell, at this point, any word would probably do – Sorry, or I know, or Don't leave me. Arthur swallowed, thinking I should tell you, I should tell you right now.
And he couldn't. He just couldn't.
Merlin looked away, his eyes half-lidded. "Yeah," he said softly. "That's what I thought."
And Arthur watched him leave, unable to repel the feeling that he'd just lost something invaluable. He had no idea how it had all gone so wrong.
After that it was only a matter of time before it ended, one way or another. Either they would never speak to each other again, or they would fix this mess between them, and soon.
Merlin didn't leave Camelot. It left Arthur with a sliver of hope that maybe, just maybe, there was something left to fix. He didn't even move out of Gaius' chambers. But he did make himself scarce; either he spent his days in Gaius' room with patients, or he disappeared into the town. He was hardly ever in the castle corridors, and of course he no longer had any reason to be with Arthur during meals, or council, or anything else.
Arthur missed him. It was stupid; he and Merlin had hardly even been on speaking terms these last few months. But he had known and been friends with Merlin for years now, so he felt Merlin's absence. And he missed him. And he hated his replacement. It wasn't really Tom's fault. Arthur had just forgotten what it was like to have a real manservant – someone who'd been trained for the job. Someone who did everything exactly right without expecting anything. Someone who never spoke up for himself. Someone who put up with Arthur's moodiness without calling him out on it.
Well, to be fair, in the end, Merlin had been a lot like a real manservant. Stiff, boring, complacent.
Arthur did hate Merlin – parts of Merlin, at least. He hated the lies, the pain Merlin brought him, and the way they had lost everything. He hated the magic (especially the magic), the betrayal, and the fact that Merlin didn't trust him.
Somehow (and Arthur would never, ever admit this) it was Gwaine who ended up orchestrating the confrontation. Two weeks later, in a strange, almost comical reversal of their last conversation about Merlin, Gwaine dragged Arthur to the nearest tavern and got him as damn near to drunk as Arthur, as king, would let himself be in public.
Which wasn't very.
It was still quite enough to loosen his tongue – not to the point of bursting into song, but more than enough for Gwaine to get him to talk about Merlin. Arthur recognised his own strategy as soon as he downed the first amount of alcohol, but he didn't bother to stop Gwaine from ordering another drink. He didn't particularly want to get drunk, but maybe he did want to talk about Merlin to someone.
Gwaine was probably not the best choice, though.
On the other hand, he and Merlin had grown particularly close these last few months – from the moment Arthur and Merlin had started to drift apart. Arthur had noticed. He hadn't even thought to be jealous at first, not when the anger was still fresh. And now... well, now, it would be stupid to be jealous.
"Don't think I don't know what you're doing," Arthur said, swirling the liquid around in his – fourth? fifth? – goblet. "This is about Merlin."
Gwaine didn't bother to lie. "With you, it always is." His gaze drifted to a spot behind Arthur, slightly above his left shoulder. "What happened? Why'd you sack him?"
"I didn't," Arthur said shortly.
Gwaine frowned, like he hadn't been expecting that. "Well, something happened. He wouldn't just leave."
Gwaine gestured at his goblet. "Drink that up, would you? I don't think you've had enough yet."
Arthur scowled. "If your plan is to get me drunk in the middle of a tavern..."
"Don't worry, I'll carry you back to the castle," Gwaine promised.
"I look forward to it."
"Oh, I don't doubt it."
Once more, Gwaine's eyes drifted away from Arthur, and Arthur had a sudden, chilling revelation. He turned slowly in his seat, following Gwaine's gaze. Sure enough, there was Merlin, sitting at the other end of the tavern, with three of his knights. Percival, Elyan, and Owain. And Arthur had a sinking suspicion that this was a set-up, that Gwaine wasn't just making him drink so he would talk about Merlin.
He wanted Arthur to talk to Merlin.
And right now, that sounded like a fantastic idea. Maybe it was the alcohol, maybe it wasn't; either way, Arthur couldn't seem to wrench his eyes away from his ex-manservant. His ex-friend.
"Sometimes," he said softly, more to himself than to Gwaine, "sometimes I just hate him so much. And then, other times..."
Arthur traced the curve of Merlin's neck with his eyes. Took in the set of his jaw, the tired look in his eyes, the slump of his shoulders. Watched how Merlin threw his head back and laughed at something Percival had said, then ducked his head, as though unsure he still had the right to hang with the knights.
Other times, it's the exact opposite of hatred.
"He misses you, too, you know," Gwaine said, and suddenly he didn't sound mocking anymore.
Arthur set his goblet down with more force than was justified and dragged his gaze away from Merlin. "I'm not the one who left."
"He didn't leave. He's standing right there."
Arthur's eyes flitted back to Merlin. So close, and yet so far away. Completely untouchable.
"He will, though, won't he? He can't stay in Camelot forever."
"Not forever," Gwaine agreed. "Only as long as you're here."
Arthur's eyes snapped to Gwaine. "You know something," he accused.
Gwaine met his gaze calmly. "Only what's been right in front of your eyes all along."
"No." Arthur was sure of it. There was something knowing in Gwaine's tone. "No, that's not it. You know. How do you know? Did he tell you?"
Gwaine outright laughed, the bastard. Again, he looked at Merlin. "Do you really think he would tell me? When he can't even tell you?"
Arthur felt himself blanch. Through the dulling haze of the alcohol, there came a sharp stab of pain.
"How do you know that?" he asked tersely.
"Like I said. You shouldn't underestimate me."
The smile was wiped off Gwaine's face. He looked away from Merlin, focusing on Arthur.
"I knew," he said. "When you asked me – I knew. I've known for ages now. I can't remember when it was exactly, but Merlin – he's not exactly subtle about it, is he? And then, you started being all strange and you sacked him. It wasn't much of a leap."
"I didn't sack him –"
"Fine. He left. But he left for a reason, didn't he?" Gwaine looked at Arthur pointedly.
Arthur rubbed his eyes with the heel of his hand, sighing. "Just to be clear, we're talking about his magic here, aren't we?"
A small, stunned silence followed his words. Arthur looked up with the distinct expression that he'd said the wrong thing. Gwaine had gone white with shock, his mouth falling open into a small 'O' of surprise.
"Merlin has magic?"
"Damn it," Arthur said, standing up abruptly. "What the hell were you talking about, Gwaine?"
"Shit, of course he has magic!" Gwaine said, his eyes bright. "That's why – the law – it was for him, wasn't it?"
"The wyverns! Remember the wyverns? And, come to think of it, all the –"
"Yes, yes, I know," Arthur said and, shit, he hadn't had nearly enough alcohol for this conversation. "Gwaine, will you –"
"But then why would you sack him? If you legalised magic, why would you –"
"I didn't sack him –"
"But he left. Why would he do that? What did you mess up?"
"Why does it have to be my fault?" Arthur snapped.
Gwaine looked up at him blankly. "Well, it's not going to be Merlin's fault, is it?"
Arthur ran a hand through his hair. "Shows how much you know. What happened with Merlin – it's really none of your business, Gwaine. Especially if you didn't even know about his magic. Seriously, why did you think he left?"
A strange thing happened.
Gwaine ducked his head and blushed. Deeply. Out of embarrassment.
This from Gwaine, the man who had the filthiest repertoire of bawdy tales out of all of Arthur's knights. The man who spoke first and thought later and didn't even have a concept of what a censor was. Gwaine never blushed.
Arthur sat back down.
"It doesn't really matter now," Gwaine said, refusing to look at him, which only piqued his interest even further. "Obviously, I was wrong."
"Maybe not," Arthur said. "Maybe there are other things Merlin is keeping from me –"
"Tell me you don't seriously think you can't trust Merlin. That's the height of paranoia, Arthur. If you don't trust him, then what chance do the rest of us have?" Gwaine spread his arms wide. "Suddenly I'm not so offended you tried to fool me into revealing more than I wanted to."
"It's not that I don't trust him," Arthur said. "He lies –"
"There's a difference between lying to harm someone, and lying to..." Gwaine hesitated, his expression suddenly turning serious. "Well, lying for other reasons. Not because it's easier, but because... sometimes... it's the right thing to do." Another hesitation. "You can't know everything about everyone, Arthur. Every single one of us has secrets. That's just the way people are."
"That's it?" Arthur narrowed his eyes. "You're taking this remarkably well for someone who didn't know."
Gwaine waved a hand as if to say, So what? "Magic isn't as big a deal as you all seem to think around here. I wish he'd told me, but..." He shrugged. "Let's face it, that was never going to happen, eh? You had to be the first to know. God, Arthur. How did you react when he told you? Tell me he didn't leave because of something you said. Oh, you idiot –"
"Gwaine." Arthur was growing more annoyed by the minute. "I didn't do anything. How could I? He didn't tell me."
Gwaine's eyes widened. "So you know... but he doesn't know you know?"
"So while you're beating yourself up about trying to talk to him... he's beating himself up trying to talk to you."
Put like that, it did sound stupid. Arthur sighed.
"It's not that simple, Gwaine."
"Yes, it is."
Arthur chanced another glance in Merlin's direction, and immediately wished he hadn't. Merlin was looking right at him, the laughter erased from his expression. Their eyes met, and suddenly Arthur couldn't hear the noise of the tavern anymore – not Owain's raucous laughter, not the rolling die of the gamblers, not the loud chatter around every table. Everything was blocked out, his whole focus narrowing down to a single person: Merlin. Merlin, standing with his back to the wall, Owain and Percival on either side of him. Merlin, who looked rooted to the spot, just as unable to look away as Arthur was.
Arthur stood up.
"I knew you couldn't be that much of an idiot," Gwaine said with an approving grin.
Arthur didn't look back at him as he made his way toward Merlin. He couldn't have dragged his eyes away from Merlin if he'd tried, but he didn't try. Instead he focused on his old manservant, his once-closest friend, storming across the room until they were face-to-face. Merlin, eyes wide, went very pale.
"Sire," Owain said, his eyebrows drawing together. "Is there something –"
Arthur cut him off with a quick hand gesture, still staring at Merlin. "Come with me."
Merlin glanced around quickly, but Arthur already knew he would do it. Didn't he always? He complained about it, sure, but he always ended up obeying Arthur. Following Arthur. Serving Arthur.
God, Arthur missed it.
Merlin's step forward was aborted by Percival's hand on his arm, right above the elbow, stopping him.
"It's all right," Merlin said without so much as glancing at Percival.
Percival's hand dropped to his side, and Arthur had to fight not to let his surprise bleed through. That had been such a blatant show of concern and protection, as though Merlin needed to be shielded from Arthur. Percival was his knight. And Merlin was certainly not a damsel in need of rescuing.
Arthur bit his tongue, knowing that he would regret it later if he said anything. The knights had always been protective of Merlin, one way or another. (And, yes, it was ironic, because Merlin had been the one saving their arses day after day.) It just hadn't been Arthur they'd been protecting him from.
"Just – outside, all right?" Arthur said, jerking his thumb in the general direction of the door.
He was painfully aware of his status – kings didn't just engage servants in taverns, for God's sake, let alone their ex-manservant who wasn't even a servant anymore – and of the very public place they were in.
Merlin nodded. He ducked his head and stepped in front of Arthur, breaking eye-contact for the first time, and started for the door at a fast pace, like he wanted to get this over with. Or maybe like he wanted to get away from Arthur, but knew he couldn't.
The street was practically deserted. It was dark outside, and most people kept to their houses at night. Arthur usually stayed in his room at night, but he'd let Gwaine convince him to leave the castle just this once, to relax with his men. Arthur had always known the advantage of being close to the people he expected to have his back, so he had agreed.
Merlin turned to face him. Arthur's eyes slowly adjusted to the darkness, and he found something mysterious and secretive in the way Merlin's face was shadowed, his silhouette just an outline against a darker background. He watched Merlin closely for several moments, waiting.
After all this time, he still wanted Merlin to tell him, but now he knew... it wouldn't happen. And they couldn't keep going like this.
"I'm beginning to think you're an even bigger idiot than I thought," Arthur said finally. "You do know magic isn't illegal anymore, don't you?"
Merlin gave him a startled, wide-eyed look. "Er – yes?"
"Then why are you still lying?"
Merlin stiffened. "Lying about what?"
"Don't play the fool," Arthur snapped. "I've had enough. I know."
"You know what, exactly?" Merlin asked, trying to sound confused but unable to keep a hint of panic from creeping into his tone.
"I know," Arthur repeated, drilling his meaning into Merlin with his eyes.
Merlin's shoulders didn't slump in defeat, the way Arthur had expected. Instead he went rigid and backed into the wall of the tavern, eyes wide, and despite his obvious fear he continued his charade.
"I have no idea what you're talking about."
"Then let me spell it out for you," Arthur said, moving forward, and it hurt to see Merlin press himself further into the wall, as though he wanted to disappear into it. "Oh, for God's sake, what do you think I'm going to do to you? I know. I've known for months. Why else did you think I did it? Why else would I – God."
He ran a hand through his hair and took a deep breath to steady his voice. He had prepared this, hadn't he? He had imagined the conversation a hundred times in the last months.
"I changed the law for you, you idiot. And I don't think I'd have done it for anyone else. I know, Merlin. I know you have magic."
It wasn't relief that crossed Merlin's expression. It was sheer terror. He was pale and trembling, and Arthur thought – What, does he think I'm going to kill him?
"Sorcerers aren't executed in Camelot anymore," Arthur said. "Stop –"
"I don't care," Merlin said. "I've never cared. It's not the magic, Arthur. It's not the stupid law. What do I care about the law?"
Put like that, Arthur thought he rather had a point. Ever since Merlin had arrived in Camelot, he'd been breaking a law that would have him executed without trial. But if not the law –
"You don't know anything." Merlin sounded bitter and he was scowling, and – this wasn't really how Arthur had expected this conversation to go. "It's not just magic. There are things I've done, Arthur, you can't imagine –"
"So tell me," Arthur said, because now that it was out in the open, he felt all his anger fading away, and he only wanted one thing: to erase the fear and guilt from Merlin's expression, because it had no right to be there. "Tell me, and I'll know."
Merlin shook his head. "I can't. I can't, Arthur. You don't understand –"
"I will," Arthur promised.
He thought he had a good idea of what Merlin was going to admit to – the falling branches, the flying balls of light, the dead magical beasts. And while it was unsettling to think that Merlin had such instinctive, powerful magic, Arthur had had months to get used to the idea. In the end, it made him feel better to know that all along, Merlin hadn't been completely defenceless when he followed him into death traps.
"Just tell me," Arthur said, as gently as he could. "You can trust me."
Merlin didn't say anything. He only looked at Arthur with wide, terrified eyes, a look that cut a painful path straight to Arthur's heart, and he shook his head again. He shuffled a half-step to the right, turning away from Arthur, his intent obvious.
Arthur stepped forward, closing the last of the distance between them, and caught Merlin's wrist. Merlin didn't flinch away the way he might have at Arthur's touch; instead he slowly turned back and met Arthur's eyes again.
Arthur kissed him.
It was slow, achingly slow, but decisive, one hand rising to cup Merlin's face and hold him in place, the other loosening from around Merlin's wrist and instead going to his hip. He hadn't planned it. The idea had never even crossed his mind, but now, like this, it felt right, like the obvious point his obsession had been leading him to all along. Arthur wasn't sure what he was trying to say with the kiss, but his lips moved against Merlin's, shaping the words I'm sorry and Forgive me and Thank you. Merlin's hands rested lightly on Arthur's chest, pressed flat against him, and he was perfectly still, his lips slack against Arthur's. Arthur never wanted it to end, because when it did, how was he supposed to look Merlin in the eye again?
And then it did end, slowly but firmly, when Arthur registered an increase of pressure against his chest. Ice settled in the bottom of his stomach when he realised that Merlin was pushing him away. He blinked and stepped back, staring at Merlin who looked at him with eyes that were full of shadows Arthur couldn't begin to understand.
"I can't," Merlin said, his voice chillingly hollow. "Arthur, I... I just can't."
And Arthur didn't know whether he meant I can't trust you, or I can't do this. He knew he should say something, anything, maybe an apology or an excuse or anything, but his voice was still lost, lodged somewhere between the back of his throat and the lips against which Merlin's mouth, warm and soft, had been pressed. He tried to find the right words to apologise, to tell Merlin he only wanted their friendship back, but there were no right words. The rejection hadn't fully registered yet, because he had thought that once the truth was out, things would work themselves out. He had been so sure that Merlin felt – that Merlin felt –
Merlin shook his head. And then –
Arthur thought he could probably run faster than Merlin if he tried, but he was too stunned to do anything but watch him flee.
Now Arthur knew, and Merlin knew he knew, and things were still every bit as shitty as they had been. Maybe even worse, because Arthur kept thinking back to the last few moments of their confrontation, and it always flooded him with a fresh wave of humiliation. What had he been thinking?
He hadn't been thinking at all. For a brief instant, nothing had mattered except the warmth of Merlin's body pressed against his, the jut of his hipbone beneath Arthur's hand, the smooth curve of his jaw as Arthur held his face in one hand, the perfect of alignment lips against lips, and it had felt so right – Arthur had never felt anything like it before.
And then Merlin had pushed him away.
And then Merlin had run away.
Arthur had thought that telling Merlin would fix everything, that somehow they could forget about all that had happened in the last few months – all the anger, the bitterness, and the words that should never had been spoken. But it seemed like once more he'd been wrong, and there was still something he didn't understand. Something Merlin wouldn't tell him, not even when Arthur had told him – had shown him – everything. He'd risked it, stupidly, and – Merlin had pushed him away.
He couldn't get the moment out of his head, that moment of ice-cold clarity when he had registered the firm press of Merlin's hand against his chest.
He hated Merlin for making this so complicated when it could be so simple. Before this, it had always been easy between them, and Arthur thought he knew why. He only had to look at Merlin to know why. His stupid, stupid Merlin.
He hunted Merlin down exactly two days after the confrontation – just long enough to swallow down his embarrassment, but not long enough to have forgotten his anger.
Merlin was easy to find. Something seemed to keep him tied to Camelot (and Arthur thought he had a good idea what that something was), so any hiding place would have easily been found. Arthur was only slightly annoyed when he found that the reason Merlin's few belongings were no longer in his room was that he had moved them to the other side of the castle. In Gwaine's room.
"Damn it, not already," Gwaine said when Arthur flung the door open. "I told him it was a bad idea."
Arthur ignored him, his eyes going straight to Merlin, who had been reading a book in a corner of the room. "Just how stupid can you be?"
Gwaine stood up from where he'd been sitting by his fireplace. "I'll leave you to to it, then. It's not like it's my room or anything."
Arthur hardly noticed when the door clicked shut behind him, but he did notice the way Merlin swiftly stood up from the desk, a panicked look in his eyes.
"Oh no you don't," Arthur said, crossing over to the other side of the room in three strides and gripping Merlin's wrist tightly. "You are not running away from me again. Talk to me. For God's sake, Merlin, just – talk!"
"I told you, I –"
"You what? You can't? Because you don't trust me? Believe me, Merlin – whatever you're hiding from me, whatever it is you don't want me to know, it can't be worse than this." He gestured between them. "The silence, the lies – I don't want any of it. I only want the truth."
"I'm not lying because I want to."
"Then why? Because you think I want you to? I found out about your magic, Merlin, and I didn't condemn you. I didn't send you away, I didn't have you killed. You lied to me for years about something you knew I hated, and it's all right. I changed the law and I only did it for you, because I trust you. So you could at least trust me enough to tell me the truth. I deserve that much."
Merlin pulled his wrist out of Arthur's grasp; Arthur let him.
"If I tell you," Merlin said, his voice very low, and Arthur knew, in that instant, that he would tell him, "you won't trust me anymore."
"I will," Arthur promised recklessly, because he knew he would. "Whatever it is, Merlin –"
"Don't say that when you have no idea what I've done."
Merlin looked around the room helplessly, as though looking for an escape route. His eyes flitted over to the door Gwaine had left by.
"It's not his fault, you know," he said. "After last time, I realised I would have to tell you, because you wouldn't let it go. I thought staying here would buy me a few days, at least. I didn't expect you to find me so soon."
"Give me some credit, Merlin."
Merlin granted him a smile, but it was gone as quickly as it had appeared. He was silent for a few moments, and Arthur knew better than to break the silence with a question. He could feel it coming, the moment he had been waiting for. Trust. Merlin would –
"I killed Agravaine."
Not the bated-breath, anticipatory silence that had preceded Merlin's words, but a shell-shocked, hollow moment of silence so complete that Arthur could feel his heart pounding in his ears.
"Oh," he said, racking his mind to call up memories, and yes, actually, that made sense, how had he not seen it? Merlin had been so quiet afterwards, so sober. "Oh, right. Well – he was a traitor."
Merlin nodded, looking like he was bracing himself for more. And Arthur wasn't sure why, because even though it was a shock that Merlin could kill with a word, Arthur had no fond recollection of Agravaine.
"His men, too," Merlin said, as though trying to explain why Arthur should hate him. "Because they came too close. Agravaine found out my secret, so I had to kill him."
Arthur shivered at the flat way Merlin delivered the words, but he tried not to attach too much importance to it.
"He was a traitor," he repeated firmly. "It's all right, Merlin."
Merlin smiled humourlessly. "It's all right," he repeated, but seemed to take no comfort in the words. "Do you want to hear more?"
Arthur swallowed, but nodded decisively. "Anything you want to tell me."
"Have to tell you," Merlin corrected. "Or it's not fair." He hesitated, then gave a dry laugh. "You're not going to like the next one. Do you remember the Great Dragon?"
"It'd be hard to forget," Arthur said, already feeling a coil of dread in his stomach.
He reached out to touch Merlin's shoulder, but Merlin flinched away.
"Don't tell me –"
"I released him," Merlin said. "All those deaths, when he attacked Camelot – they were my fault."
"No," Arthur breathed, rearing back, and a thought came to him, like a whisper in his father's voice: All magic is evil. "No, that's ridiculous. Why would you do that to us? Camelot is your home."
"I'm from Essetir originally," Merlin said, "even though you seem to forget it. I promised the dragon I would release him if he helped me with a problem, and I kept my word."
He was still speaking in a strange, flat monotone, sounding sickeningly detached. Arthur had to struggle not to shiver.
"And then," Merlin went on mercilessly, because after all, Arthur had said Anything, "you didn't kill him."
"You did?" Arthur asked, but somehow he already knew the answer before Merlin shook his head.
"No. I let him go. I sent him away, and I've seen him several times since then."
"He's still in Camelot," Arthur breathed. "He's still alive, and you – you let him live?"
"I'm a dragonlord," Merlin said. "Balinor was my father. I couldn't kill the last dragon. We are kin."
"You're not – you're not," Arthur said, refusing to believe it. "You wouldn't. That beast almost destroyed Camelot! Do you have any idea how many people died? Leon almost – my knights –"
"I know," Merlin said. He laughed again, still that terrible, humourless laugh. "Why did you think I never told you, Arthur? It wasn't the magic. I haven't been worried about the magic in years. But lies pile up, Arthur. And I knew that, when I did tell you, it would be like this." He hesitated. "For what it's worth, I'm sorry."
"I don't understand," Arthur said, still reeling from the revelations. "Why would you? How could you? We could have all died –"
"You would never have died," Merlin said. "That's what I'm for."
And he said it so plainly, so dully that it was like an ugly reproach, and not the glorious, selfless declaration it should have been.
"But the people –"
"Wait," Merlin said. "Just – wait. There's worse, and I'm not sure you'll ever want to talk to me again after you hear it, so... wait."
Arthur waited, thinking worse isn't possible and no and please stop. Merlin seemed to struggle to breathe for a moment, and when he spoke again, there was something strangled in his voice, something reassuringly fragile and human.
"I'm sorry, Arthur, I'm so sorry. But... Dragoon. It was me. I used an ageing spell, and –"
"I almost had you burnt," Arthur said, backing away so suddenly he almost bumped into the table behind him. "I almost killed you. That day at the pyre, I always wondered how he escaped –"
"I changed back," Merlin said. "Every time. Arthur, that's not it. It's not the execution. Arthur, I'm Dragoon. I killed your father."
Arthur breathed in sharply, because he hadn't forgotten, of course he hadn't. His mind had just been pushing the memory as far away as it could, because it had been one of the most difficult moments of his life. He had chosen to place his trust in a sorcerer, only to have it so cruelly betrayed and broken, and he had seen his father die before his eyes, die a mad and broken man. And to think that Merlin –
"You didn't," he said, more to convince himself than Merlin. "Gaius said Dragoon had tried to save my father, had done his best, but Morgana –" He looked beseechingly at Merlin, wanting it to be true.
Merlin nodded. "I did try. But he wouldn't have died just then if I hadn't cast the spell. I'm sure of that. Maybe if I hadn't –"
"No," Arthur said, cutting him off because he didn't want to hear this. Anything, but not this. "You didn't kill him. You didn't."
Merlin nodded again, and there were tears in his eyes. "You said –"
"It wasn't you," Arthur said fiercely. "I know you, Merlin."
There was another memory from that night. A memory of Merlin, waiting up all night for Arthur, just to be there for him. And that was the memory Arthur would choose to remember. He reached out again, wanting to touch Merlin, to reassure him – See, I'm still here, we'll be fine – but again Merlin drew back.
"I'm not finished yet."
Arthur's stomach dropped, but he drew back his hand and nodded stiffly, motioning for Merlin to continue.
"Morgana," Merlin said, and sounded so broken that Arthur thought he was going to cry. "It was my fault."
Arthur thought, No, please no, isn't this enough?
He said, "What do you mean?"
"When she discovered her magic, she was afraid," Merlin said. "Her magic didn't corrupt her. It was her fear that did. I brought her to the druids, and I don't think I've ever seen her so happy. She looked free, like she finally knew who she was and that there wasn't anything to be afraid of. And I could have given her that all along. Her dreams were never just dreams. I knew she had magic. She practically told me, and I said it had to be her imagination, she must be mistaken."
Arthur wanted to interrupt him, to ask how long he had known, but he didn't. If he cut in right now, especially with an accusation, he thought Merlin might break down. And he didn't resent Merlin, not really. He couldn't. Not anymore. Not since he had realised how much he cared.
"I let her believe it was something to be afraid of, something she shouldn't mention to anyone, not even her friends. And I could have helped her. I could have shown her that magic can be good. Morgana was good. Morgause corrupted her, but before that, her own fear had already begun to do its work. I could have stopped it all, and then none of this would ever have happened. She would still be here with us, and –" Merlin stopped and seemed to have trouble breathing. "I wish I had just said something," he said finally.
"You couldn't have known," Arthur said, even though he was thinking, You should have, you let her down, we all did. "No one can know the future."
"I did, though."
Arthur flinched. Of course. Prophecies. Seers. Visions. Merlin was a sorcerer, wasn't he?
"The dragon always told me she would turn out to be trouble. He knew, all along. And I could have prevented it." Merlin stopped again. "I poisoned her. The immortal army," he said quickly. "The first one. It was her fault. I poisoned her to make Morgause stop. And I think that's when we lost her, really lost her. Even when she came back, she said she forgave me, and I believed her – but she was lying. She'd changed."
"Poison?" Arthur repeated.
"I made her believe it was water," Merlin said, and it sounded as though the words were being ripped from his throat. "I asked her to drink it, and she said she wasn't thirsty, but she drank it when I insisted. She still trusted me, back then. After that – it was over. And it was my fault."
"She was already lost," Arthur said gently. "You know that."
Merlin shook his head. "If I hadn't –"
"I didn't see it, either," Arthur said. "She was my sister, and I never noticed until it was too late. I never realised Agravaine was a traitor. It's good you were there, Merlin. Without you it would have been worse. You –" You took the fall for me when you knew I couldn't bear it. "You shouldn't blame yourself for the things I failed to do."
"I know you're the king," Merlin said, "but sometimes you're so self-centred. It's not always about you. We simple peasants can actually do things, you know."
There was more amusement than bitterness in his voice, and Arthur knew his attempt to comfort had been welcome.
"Is there anything else?" he ventured to ask, sending a quick prayer to the skies that the answer would be no.
"There's a lot more you don't know," Merlin said.
And then he smiled, and it was beautiful.
"But those were the most important things."
Arthur reached out, his hand closing around Merlin's wrist, pulling him into a quick hug. He released him almost immediately, already missing the warmth of Merlin's body pressed against his.
"You really are an idiot," he said. "You should have told me all this ages ago. You shouldn't have had to do it all alone."
Merlin looked a little fazed by the hug, but he still managed to compose himself enough to grin. "Excuse me for not having servants to do my business for me."
It could have been a joke, but there was too much truth in it for it not to sting. Arthur had never done anything alone, not even his stupid quest. He had always had his knights. He had always had Merlin. They had been people he counted on, people he knew could lighten his burden.
"Don't joke," Arthur said. "Not about this."
"You can't just order me around."
"I'm the king."
"And I'm not your servant anymore, remember? And technically, I'm not even your subject. Essetir, remember?"
It was a shitty argument. Legally, it wouldn't stand five seconds in front of any judge – especially since Arthur himself would insist on judging the case. Arthur could have come up with a dozen retorts, but instead he swallowed nervously and turned his head away.
"About that... I thought, since we cleared everything up... Maybe you should come back."
"Maybe I should come back," Merlin repeated.
There was something strange about his voice, something like disbelief, and Arthur was suddenly reminded of – "Maybe you should have been sacked." He winced.
"I'm sorry," he said awkwardly. "For what happened back then. For everything that happened these past few months, really. We just... we made a mess of it, didn't we?"
"Yeah," Merlin said. "Arthur –"
"It's fine if you don't want to," Arthur said quickly, his heart heart sinking. "I understand. I just thought I'd... suggest it."
"Right. But, Arthur –"
"It's just, I always thought you were horribly incompetent, but Tom is so boring, he couldn't hold a candle up to you – and don't tell anyone I said this, but you were actually quicker at polishing my armour, even though I suspect magic had something to do with –"
"Arthur, shut up!"
Arthur closed his mouth, stunned into silence for a complete second. And then:
"Did you just tell me to shut up?" he asked incredulously.
"You can't just –"
"Will you let me speak?" Merlin scowled at him. "I haven't answered yet, have I?"
Hope flared in Arthur's chest. "So does that mean –"
"Are we friends?"
That shut Arthur up a little more effectively. He stopped mid-sentence and froze, staring at Merlin. Merlin, who looked serious and not at all like he was joking. It took five seconds for Arthur to regain the ability to speak.
"What kind of question is that?"
"I mean it," Merlin said. "Are we friends? Because we haven't been, lately, you know. You've been a prat, and by that I mean you've been even worse than usual."
"Aren't friends supposed to trust each other?" Arthur shot back.
"I've always had your back," Merlin said, looking pained. "I've lost count of how many times I've saved your life. But I had to lie to do all that, Arthur. You would never have let me close to you if you'd known."
"Maybe not at first. But later –"
"I would still have lied at first. Would it have been any better?"
Maybe not, but it would have hurt less. Arthur looked away.
"Do you want your job back or not?"
"Of course I want it back," Merlin replied, with such firm conviction in his voice that it made Arthur hope again. "I still want to be your servant until the day I die. But we can't keep going on like this, with all these secrets and lies."
"Well, whose fault was that?" Arthur asked, glaring at Merlin, piqued by the hint of an accusation. "I didn't lie to you."
"But you kept secrets."
Merlin gave him a long, appraising look that sent an apprehensive shiver running down Arthur's spine. Seconds before Merlin spoke, he already knew what he was going to say.
"You kissed me."
Arthur almost said, That's not a secret. You know about it, don't you? But he knew Merlin didn't literally mean the kiss. He meant all the thoughts and feelings that had led up to the kiss. And those, Arthur had definitely never shared. He wanted to say, That's not fair, it's not the same thing. But it was still a secret.
Arthur swallowed. "Yeah," he said hoarsely. "I did."
Merlin's expression was unreadable."Why?"
Arthur looked into Merlin's eyes. The question was direct, but Arthur couldn't answer as bluntly as Merlin had asked. It just wasn't in him. The words refused to come, and his pride would never unbend enough.
"Isn't it obvious?"
Merlin, mercifully, averted his gaze, a blush spreading from beneath his neckerchief to his face. "I never knew."
"You weren't meant to."
"You have Gwen, Arthur."
Pain and guilt sliced through Arthur's gut as he thought of her. Gwen, his queen, his wife.
"We can't." Merlin sounded final.
Arthur blew out a sigh. "I know. But, if we could, would you –"
"Don't be an idiot."
Merlin didn't sound bitter. He sounded a little disbelieving, but mostly very fond, and just like that, Arthur thought back to his conversation with Gwaine in the tavern. That stupid wreck of a conversation that had gone so wrong.
"He can't stay in Camelot forever."
"Not forever," Gwaine had agreed. "Only as long as you're here."
And then, when Arthur had asked what he had thought they were talking about, Gwaine had been embarrassed. At the time, Arthur hadn't understood.
Now, he thought he did.
Arthur nodded, because Merlin was right, but that didn't mean he couldn't wish things were different. "How long?"
"I don't know," Merlin said, running a hand through his hair, making it stand up on end. "A long time. Probably longer than you have. Don't let it get to your head."
Merlin jerked back slightly, then gave a short laugh. "I'm not sure why I'm even surprised. I've never been very subtle about it."
"That's what he said."
"Do you talk about me a lot with Gwaine?" Merlin crossed his arms over his chest. "I really need to have a word with him."
"It was just the once. You should thank him. It led to our conversation that night."
"I think I remember that one. Was it the one that went spectacularly wrong?"
Merlin looked at him pointedly, and Arthur felt himself flush. God, but he wanted to kiss Merlin again. He needed to.
"We're still friends, aren't we?" he asked.
Merlin smiled. "What kind of question is that?"
He had his best friend back. He had his manservant back. He had everything right where he'd wanted it, almost exactly like it had been before. And he still wanted more.
It wasn't Merlin's fault. It wasn't Gwen's fault (and the thought of Gwen made him cringe with guilt). It really wasn't anyone's fault that Arthur wasn't happy with what he had, because what he had was golden and he knew it. He had a wife who adored him and was strong and clever. He had a manservant who had made him into the king he was and would probably continue to shape his decisions until they died. And yes, that was a good thing, because Merlin had always brought out the best in Arthur.
Merlin wasn't just his manservant. He wasn't even just his friend, if there was such a thing as "just" a friend. And he wasn't just someone Arthur couldn't get out of his head. He was Arthur's destiny.
It creeped Arthur out a little the first time Mordred mentioned it. Mordred had come clean to the court and the other knights about his magic, and they had all reacted surprisingly well. He hardly took precautions anymore when talking to Arthur about magic – and, really, he didn't have any reason to. But that particular subject unsettled Arthur for some reason.
"You've been foretold for many years," Mordred told him, his posture utterly relaxed as he leaned against the barrier around the training ground and watched Gwaine pummel one of the younger knights. "You and Merlin both. Every prophecy that mentions you has him in there somewhere, like you can't be separated. I knew you two would eventually make up. You can't help it. It's your destiny."
A shiver ran up Arthur's spine. "What does that mean? Is magic controlling us?"
Mordred laughed. These past few months, he had grown increasingly comfortable around the other knights and around Arthur, dropping titles and ceremonial address. "Magic controls everything, Arthur. It's in the air you breathe and the water – or the wine – you drink. Yes, you could say your destiny was shaped by magic. But if it makes you feel better, Merlin is magic."
"I know that."
"No," Mordred said. "I mean, Merlin is magic. He was born of magic and for magic. He was born for the sake of every magic user there is, every magical creature in existence. He was meant to show you how powerful and how beautiful magic can be. And you were meant to allow magic back into the heart of your kingdom." His smile was so light and free that it warmed Arthur's heart. "You can feel it, can't you? How much things have changed since magic became legal again. It's everywhere."
Arthur did feel it. It had begun slowly, like a trickle of hope and joy, but now it was more like a wave crashing into him when he opened his eyes each morning. Everything was sharper, more lively somehow, more alive. Sometimes, he wondered how he had ever believed magic could only be used for evil. Merlin had proved him wrong. Mordred had proved him wrong.
Arthur asked, "Do you want to spar with me?"
Mordred looked at him, startled. In all the time he had been a knight, he had only crossed blades with Arthur once or twice. Arthur knew he was stupidly protective of his youngest knight, and also tended to underestimate him. He let the knights tease and prank him, and regarded him almost as a weakest link – not in that he was a worse fighter than any of them, but because he was so young.
A slow grin spread across Mordred's face when he realised it wasn't a joke. "Are you sure? You might lose."
Arthur let out a sharp bark of laughter. "You've grown cocky, Mordred."
"I have one advantage you don't."
"And what's that?"
"Magic," Mordred replied with a cocksure smile.
A chill went up Arthur's spine. "You would use your magic in a sword fight?"
"I'll be using it on the battlefield. It's an advantage like any other; I would be a fool not to use it."
Arthur looked at Mordred, wondering at the surreal exchange. How could he have such assurance, such confidence, when only months previously he could have been executed for the same words? It took all Arthur had not to interpret the words as a threat, but only as the challenge they were meant to be.
"All right," he said, waving Merlin over with a gesture. "Let's see what that magic of yours can do."
The pleased way Mordred's eyes lit up made it worth it. Merlin walked up to them, holding out Arthur's sword.
"Who are you going to fight?"
"Mordred," Arthur replied, nodding in the general direction of his knight.
He didn't miss the way Merlin tensed, but put it down to the jealousy that Merlin had carried with him for months before Arthur told him he knew. He held up his sword, giving it a few test swings before making his way to the centre of the training ground, Mordred right behind him. They had warmed up earlier, so they didn't miss a moment before getting into position, facing each other, only a few steps apart. Mordred was still smiling, his muscles loose and relaxed. Arthur felt himself tense up involuntarily at the mere thought of magic.
He waited, inviting Mordred to make the first move, almost teasing him into it. To Mordred's credit, the fight started off in the most standard manner possible without any magic sparks. When their swords clashed for the first time, Arthur was half-expecting fire to ignite between them, but nothing happened. Bit by bit, Arthur felt himself relax as he fell into a familiar pattern, attacking and defending, easily dominating the fight. There was a thin veil of sweat over Mordred's brow, and his eyes were narrowed in concentration, focused on Arthur's sword arm. Suddenly, he looked up, his eyes meeting Arthur's, pupils blown wide, and – something changed.
Arthur barely deflected Mordred's next movement in time, and Mordred followed up with a series of lightning-fast blows that had Arthur backing away, unable to counter-attack. And Arthur wasn't slow. He had never been slow. It was more like Mordred had enhanced his own speed, until his sword was hardly more than a blur. Arthur couldn't anticipate his strikes, or even block them effectively; he was quickly accumulating hits that would turn to bruises later. He kept backing up, ducking away, defending himself as much as he could. No man could keep that speed up forever, could he?
As he tried to circle around Mordred, wondering how much longer he could last before Mordred simply lunged forward and disarmed him, Arthur caught sight of Merlin, standing straight and pale on the edge of the training ground, white-knuckled fingers clenched around the barrier, eyes fixed on the pair of them. Afraid.
The realisation hit Arthur like a rock. He stepped back, his mind racing nearly as fast as his pulse. It had been a long time since one of his knights posed this much of a challenge to him. It unsettled him, but that wasn't all it was. The knowledge that he was fighting magic scared him. Mordred could... he could...
Mordred stepped back suddenly, lowering his sword and holding his free hand up to signal the end of the fight. All the tension left Arthur as he took in a deep breath, forcing himself to relax. Mordred looked at him as he sheathed his sword. He was still flushed from the exertion and the adrenaline of victory, but his expression was uncertain, as though he feared he'd crossed a line.
"I yield," he said quietly, looking into Arthur's eyes. Then, loudly enough for the others to hear: "I yield."
Arthur felt himself flush with anger and humiliation. Did Mordred think he was doing him a favour?
"You were going to beat me," Arthur said loudly, swallowing his pride. "Why did you stop?"
Mordred glanced around, taking in the expressions of the other knights – some disapproving, others only confused. "It wasn't a fair fight."
"No fight is fair," Arthur said. "The better fighter always wins."
"I was using magic –"
"It's a weapon like any other. Don't make excuses for me."
Mordred bristled, anger flashing across his fingers. "Magic is not a weapon. That's why I stopped. I shouldn't have used it that way, not against you. And I won't do it again." He turned away from Arthur to look pleadingly in the direction of – of Merlin, Arthur realised with a jolt. "I'm sorry."
Merlin gave him a tense nod, but it could equally have meant I forgive you or I'll kill you for this. Arthur spared a moment to be amused by the fact that Mordred was apologising to Merlin – as though Merlin were his guardian – before he realised that actually, yes, Merlin was his guardian, and he'd been genuinely scared for Arthur's sake during the duel with Mordred.
"For pity's sake," Arthur said, finally sheathing his own sword. "I'm fine, Merlin, you complete and utter girl. And you –" He pointed at Mordred – "are not getting away with this. We'll fight again."
"And I look forward to it, sire," Mordred replied graciously, eyes still on Merlin.
Arthur snapped his fingers. "Look at me when I'm talking to you."
Mordred cut his eyes to Arthur, his expression expectant.
"What was that?" Arthur asked. "What did you do? It felt like I was slowed down."
"Not exactly. I played with your perceptions a little, making you feel sluggish. An outside observer – your knights, for instance – wouldn't have noticed anything except you strangely not countering anything."
Arthur nodded thoughtfully. "Clever spell. But why choose to focus on that? My speed isn't the most remarkable thing about my fighting style. You could have done something else."
"I could have," Mordred agreed. "I could have disarmed you and knocked you out with a spell. Not a very interesting fight."
"Interesting," Merlin said, full of disbelief and reproach. He'd walked up to them while Mordred was explaining. "You did it because it was interesting?"
"And because you wouldn't have let me knock him out," Mordred said, glancing at him. "I'd be dead before I even tried."
Arthur didn't miss the unpleasant tension in the air between the two sorcerers, or the fact that Mordred's words weren't meant as a joke.
Two hours later, Arthur found an excuse to delay the council meeting he had in favour of returning to his room and confronting Merlin.
"I want to know what it is."
Merlin looked up from the shirt he was trying to smooth down into an unwrinkled state by flattening it out on the table. Arthur's shirt, obviously. He didn't care much about his own clothes.
"You're hiding something from me. I want to know what it is," Arthur repeated.
Merlin smiled. "Haven't we already had this conversation?"
Arthur stood with his back against the door, arms crossed over his chest. "I thought we'd agreed you wouldn't lie anymore."
"We did. I mean, I'm not. I'm not lying, Arthur."
"There's something you haven't told me. You and Mordred both. I just realised – it doesn't make sense." Arthur made sure Merlin was giving him his full attention before continuing. "Why did you want him dead?"
Merlin immediately looked down at the shirt again. "What do you mean?"
He was playing stupid. Arthur gritted his teeth and walked up to him, snatched the shirt out of his hands, and tossed it to the floor, ignoring Merlin's protests ("Gods, Arthur, do you have any idea how disgusting your floor is?"). It was a goddamn shirt, not anything important. Not anything Merlin, a sorcerer, should be doing.
Why the hell had he agreed to be Arthur's manservant again?
"I haven't forgotten about the Disir, you idiot. You would have let Mordred die rather than let magic back into Camelot. I've thought about it a lot, but no matter how you look at it – it makes no sense. And," Arthur went on, watching as the blood drained from Merlin's face, "the Disir let him live. When I refused to do as they wanted, they let him live, which was what I wanted. Why did they do that?"
Merlin swallowed. Averted his gaze.
"I don't know."
Arthur felt his fingers curl into a fist. "What do I have to do to make you trust me, Merlin? I thought we were past this."
"We are," Merlin said, his words rushed. "I do trust you, I trust you with my life. I swear, Arthur, this isn't – it's not just about me. I can't tell you. I would if I could."
"It's about me," Arthur said. "I have a right to know. I made the decision to refuse the Disir – and now I've gone back on that. I want to know what it means. I need to know. Have I endangered Camelot? What aren't you telling me, Merlin? And don't tell me you don't know. You've told enough lies."
"Are you never going to forgive me for that?" Merlin asked, suddenly sounding resentful. "You keep going on about it, like you think I've forgotten, but look, it was as difficult for me as it was for you – maybe more so, even, because you didn't know, except close to the end – and I wish you'd stop bringing it up. I know, all right? I know it was wrong, but I had a choice and I chose the lesser of two evils."
"What would the worse evil have been?" Arthur found himself asking, hardly noticing that he was being led away from the topic of Mordred.
"Leaving Camelot," Merlin replied. He lowered his voice. "Leaving you."
It felt like Merlin had stabbed him. Arthur felt the sharp pain in his gut and winced, because as much as the words and the tone of Merlin's voice were both warm and loving, they hurt. "We can't."
"But you did leave me," Arthur said, trying to sound casual and not like he hated the very memory. "Why? I mean, really. Don't give me any 'You didn't want me around,' because we both know that's not true."
"I was afraid you'd find out," Merlin said after a beat. "You were getting suspicious, and I thought putting some distance between us would allow me to keep protecting you without risking being found out."
"It mattered that much to you," Arthur said wonderingly. "Your secret. You would have let it tear apart our friendship if it meant you could keep your magic secret."
Arthur was sorry, too. Merlin had given so much. Done so much. Sacrificed so much. And for what?
"Do you sometimes wish –" Arthur began, but stopped when he saw the look in Merlin's eyes.
It was a stupid, unfair question. Unfair to Gwen. Unfair to Merlin. Unfair to everyone, because Arthur did love Gwen and Merlin knew it. But it was different with Merlin, something completely separate from anything Arthur had ever known. He wished he could label it, but what good would that do?
Would it help if he knew the full extent what he could never have? If he knew exactly what Merlin was, what they were meant to be?
The words tumbled out of their own accord, against his better judgement. "Can I see your magic?"
Merlin gave him a startled look, like a hunted rabbit. "What?"
"I've never really seen you use magic. I realise you've used it around me dozens of times, but..."
Arthur shrugged helplessly. He couldn't put a word on what he wanted, exactly, but he remembered the first time he had witnessed Mordred's magic and how powerful a realisation it had been. Somehow, it had felt peaceful and beautiful. He wanted to have that with Merlin.
"Do you want to?" Merlin asked, his expression cautious. "Do you really? Because if this is just to reassure me –"
"Oh, yes," Arthur said. "I'm terribly concerned about what you think, to the point of suffering extreme discomfort just to reassure you. Please go on."
Merlin shot him a filthy look.
"I mean it, Merlin. I want to see it." A thought occurred to him. "I mean, if you want to show me."
"Don't be stupid." Merlin stared at him for a few more moments, still cautious. "I'm not sure what you're expecting."
"Show me anything."
Merlin turned his gaze away, his expression thoughtful as he stared off into emptiness. Arthur felt the hugeness of the moment. How long had he wanted this without even knowing it? He had thought that Merlin knowing he knew would be the end of it, but they still had so much more to share. Merlin had never once used magic in front of Arthur with the intention that he would see. Arthur had no idea what he could do.
Arthur reached out, closing his fingers around Merlin's wrist. Merlin glanced up at him, a question in his eyes he didn't need to voice.
"Do something to me."
He felt Merlin tense beneath his touch, but he didn't let go and Merlin didn't look away.
"I want..." Arthur hesitated. He wanted many things, but he finally settled for: "I want you to know I trust you."
"I already know," Merlin said, but he didn't say he wouldn't do it.
He took a few more moments to think about it, never looking away from Arthur's eyes. Finally, he gave a sharp, decisive nod and in the next instant, the words of the spell were rolling off his tongue – words Arthur had never heard before and couldn't understand, but somehow recognised all the same. Merlin's eyes glowed gold, and a strange feeling washed over Arthur like diluted warmth, resonating within him in ways he didn't understand. It was nothing like Mordred's little show of lights, or the way he had muddled Arthur's senses when they had fought. This was intimate, like a gift, soothing his apprehensions and sending him a message, a thought. I trust you.
"What was that?" Arthur asked when the feeling faded, leaving him feeling strangely bereft. His fingers were still wrapped around Merlin's wrist, and he didn't want to lose the touch. "It felt..." Beautiful.
Merlin looked as stunned as Arthur felt, his pupils blown wide with shock. Arthur wondered whether he had felt anything coming from him, and if that was why he was so pale.
"It was telepathy," Merlin said. "I don't know why I even tried. It's only supposed to work between magic users. Sometimes, it can work with a non-magical person who is particularly sensitive to it, but you're not. You're really not. I don't think you could be more closed to magic if you tried."
But the look he gave Arthur was nowhere near frustrated. It was so full of warmth and hope that it almost hurt to look at it.
"You do trust me," he said, open joy in his voice.
"Don't be stupid," Arthur said, feeling himself flush, because there was his answer – yes, Merlin had felt it. He had probably felt everything. God. "Why did it work? I could –" He hesitated, remembering the soft, warm embrace of the magic wrapping around him. "I could feel you."
Merlin gave a little nod, that strange look still in his eyes, a smile still pulling at his lips like he couldn't help it. "I've heard that... sometimes, the bond between two people is strong enough that the most basic emotions can be transmitted."
"We have a bond?"
"You sound surprised."
"Not really," Arthur said. "I suppose I never thought about it, but it makes sense. Mordred said something to that effect. Something about a prophecy?"
"Oh, yes," Merlin said, sitting down on the edge of the table, apparently tired of standing around. "We were foretold. You, a king, and me, a sorcerer." There was a little irony in his voice, but his smile was true. "You're going to do great things, Arthur. Just wait."
Arthur shook his head in disbelief. "How powerful are you?"
"I don't know. And don't look at me like that, it's true. It's not like magic is something you can quantify. I'm powerful enough to have survived this long."
"Are you more powerful than Mordred? He seems to respect you."
"He doesn't," Merlin said shortly.
Arthur waited – he'd stopped being surprised by the dislike and distrust Merlin had of his youngest knight –, and finally Merlin relented.
"I could be. I'm not sure. We've never really fought." He grimaced. "I hope we never do."
"Then maybe you should act like it."
"It's complicated," Merlin said. "I'm sorry. I don't mean to keep things from you –"
"Then don't," Arthur said, frustrated. "How hard can it be? I trust you."
"I know that," Merlin said softly. "I know that, now."
Arthur looked away again, feeling a flush of embarrassment creep up his neck. He didn't try to fool himself. Merlin probably knew a lot more than that Arthur trusted him. It should have felt like a violation of his privacy, but when Arthur remembered the soothing warmth of Merlin's magic touching him, he couldn't find it in himself to resent it.
Still. It was a little embarrassing.
Magic. Merlin's magic.
Feeling it, touching it, liking it had changed things between them in all the ways Arthur had hoped it would. He could now imagine a bond between them, and thought it had to be what made this so right – all the insults, the jokes, the life-or-death moments. Destiny.
The idea didn't bother him as much as it had the first time Mordred had mentioned it. Everything just seemed to fit, pieces slotting into place seamlessly between Arthur and Merlin. Things were different, but so much better, now that they finally knew where they stood with each other. "We can't," Merlin had said, and he had been right. It was wrong, it was unfair, it was too late.
Arthur had both his kingdom and his wedding vows to think of. He needed an heir, and the only one entitled to give him one was his wife. His gentle, loving Gwen whom he had once thought he would give up his birthright for. He had thought he could sacrifice anything to have her. He had thought that was what love was. But Merlin had sacrificed more than anyone ever could, and he had done it not to have Arthur, but for Arthur. Never expecting anything in return, never thinking of himself, never regretting what could have been. That was love. And now that Arthur had finally opened his eyes and finally seen, they couldn't.
But how could they not?
It wasn't Merlin's fault. The looks he sent Arthur's way were never suggestive, never even adoring, but they were full of such unabashed warmth and pride that Arthur had to look away. He didn't know how Merlin did it, how he could love so strongly and not have it destroy him. It was breaking Arthur apart to see Merlin and have to remind himself of what he couldn't have, but Merlin seemed to be able to bear it easily. Arthur wondered how many years he had had to grow used to it. He wanted to ask, but that was something else they couldn't do: talk about it. Arthur was sure if they started, they would never stop.
They touched a lot more than was strictly necessary, and probably more than was decent, but Arthur didn't care. He sometimes felt he would give anything for the light brush of Merlin's fingers to change into a firm caress, a sure, confident, unashamed touch, the firm pressure of lips against lips. But if they couldn't have that, then this was enough.
Arthur lay in the grass beneath the shaded trees, in the very spot he had first found out about Merlin's magic. He had brought Merlin here because it felt right, like closure, like coming full circle and coming out stronger than they'd started. It was a sunny day this time, bright and hopeful, with chirping birds in the summer sky. Arthur lay with his eyes closed and his head in Merlin's lap, Merlin's fingers threaded in his hair, gently smoothing his hair down and massaging his temples. They had an hour. One hour, a pocket of time just to themselves before Arthur had to return to Camelot. A perfect hour.
"So," Arthur mumbled. "Prophecies, huh?"
There was a smile in Merlin's voice when he replied. "So I've been told."
"Can I hear one?"
"What, does little Arthur need a bedtime story to fall asleep?" Merlin asked teasingly. "Yes, sure, I have one. It goes something like this: there's this king who's a real prat. And then there's this warlock who selflessly saves his life over and over again, except no one knows. And when the king does find out, he is eternally grateful to his warlock and vows never to throw things at him again. The End."
Arthur opened his eyes. "That was stupid."
Merlin tugged at his hair playfully. "It all came true, didn't it?"
"No, but really," Arthur said, looking up at Merlin, who looked rather weird from this angle. "What do they say about us?"
"That you're going to the greatest king," Merlin answered, "and that I'll be your advisor through it all." He gave a wry smile. "Go ahead, laugh. I know you want to."
Arthur didn't. Because actually, advisor sounded like it suited Merlin very well. There were other words Arthur would have used first, but if he was honest with himself, Merlin did advise him. And he usually advised him well. And he was definitely there through it all.
"I have a question, too," Merlin said, the smile fading from his expression. "Can I –?"
Arthur made a little humming sound to indicate he was listening.
"If... if you had known about Morgana," Merlin began slowly, uncertainly. "If someone had told you she would end up wanting you dead. Would you have..."
He didn't finish his sentence, but Arthur knew what he had been about to say.
"But if you knew –" Merlin insisted.
"No, Merlin. I wouldn't have. That's not the way justice works. You can't punish people for things they haven't done yet. Things they might never do."
Merlin's hand stilled in his hair, and he was silent for a long moment. Arthur wanted desperately to know what he was thinking, but he didn't ask.
"Do you really believe that?"
"With all my heart," Arthur said firmly. "I don't care how many visions you might have, or how many seers tell you something is going to happen – until it does, you can't know for sure. And it's wrong to punish crimes that haven't occurred yet."
"So if..." Merlin hesitated. "If, hypothetically, I knew something terrible was going to happen –"
"It would be wrong."
"Yeah," Merlin said softly. "It would be."
Arthur propped himself up on one elbow, craning his neck to look at Merlin's face. "This is hypothetical, right?"
"Yeah," Merlin said, sounding distant. "Hypothetical. Of course."
Arthur reached up awkwardly, one hand going to the back of Merlin's neck to pull him into a quick, impulsive kiss, just a light pressure of his lips to Merlin's. He pulled back almost immediately, gauging Merlin's reaction, remembering their last kiss, when Merlin had been still and unmoving against him, and the awkward conversation about it later, when Merlin had said nothing to encourage him.
"Are you –"
Merlin kissed back, his mouth clumsy and hesitant against Arthur's; kissed him like it was the first time, short and feather-light kisses pressed to the corner of Arthur's mouth, his jaw, the hollow of his neck; kissed him like there was no reason not to, and no reason to stop, ever. Kissed him like he wanted to, like he had thought of it in the past as often as Arthur had.
"My king," he murmured against Arthur's jaw, and:
"Your king," Arthur agreed, because this, at least, he could give Merlin.