Actions

Work Header

Destiny Ordered You to Die, But I Willed You to Live

Work Text:

I.

Arthur’s body throbs and he feels the gravity of sleep drag him to the depths. Struggling, he fights it, but his blood hardens to lead and he sinks. Vaguely, he feels the thudding of footsteps before a body collapses next to him. A hand reaches out to his chest plate and he knows, he knows, with the chaos and the danger and the taste of death all around them, that there is only one person who would throw away everything just to save him.

He would know Merlin in death.

He wants to assure him, tell the idiot he’s alright and that only fools would sprint across a battlefield without any protection at all. But only a groan comes out. He tries to say more, but a voice so infuriating interrupts his attempts.

“Who would believe it, you, a sorcerer.” Cornelius Sigan is every bit as loathsome as he imagined.

And Arthur’s confused, because as far as he remembers, it’s just him there. Him and now Merlin. So who could Sigan possibly be talking about. Denial is a wall he stands behind firmly. It’s not like he was a sorcerer, and Merlin. Well. Arthur scoffs. That’s just ridiculous. (He ignores the thumping of his heart that questions him).

Siegran pauses. “And a powerful one.”

The response is immediate.

“I won’t let you hurt him.” Merlin’s voice doesn’t shake, it is confident with power, with the promise of a fight he wouldn’t lose.

Arthur’s heart quivers. It couldn’t be it couldn’t.

“And you’re going to stop me?”

Arthur hears Merlin shift and knows he’s stood up, as tall and as proud as someone so lithe and weaponless could be. He wants to scream at him to stop. To pretend this never happened. To not reveal something that could change everything. (don’t die don’t die I couldn’t bear it. don’t). But Merlin never listened. Not once. Not ever. “I’ll stop you.” He repeats, and his voice is colder than any blade.

Arthur wants to move, begs every muscle in his body to cooperate but his own limbs betray him.

“He does not deserve your loyalty. He treats you like a slave.” Sigan spits and everything in Arthur is on fire and it burns it burns, the truth of his words burn but Sigan doesn’t understand, he doesn’t. Of how frightening it is to place all your trust in just one man. How terrifying it is to know that there exists a person you’re not ashamed of showing everything you are to. Of how much it hurts to be awake and useless and about to be betrayed in the worst of ways.

“That’s not true!” Merlin is painfully adamant. It pains Arthur more than he could say. Because lately, Merlin’s faith in him is been the one constant in Arthur’s life that he values during his lowest of times and to see it tested is both ridiculous and incredibly frightening in its precarious nature.

“He cast you aside without a moment’s thought.” Sigan’s words are poison.

Poison.

“That doesn’t matter.” Arthur can picture the sharp jut of his chin, the determination in the set of his brow.

“But it must hurt so much…To be so put upon. So overlooked, when all the while you have such power.”

And Arthur wonders, how powerful can someone like Merlin really be. Merlin who has trouble lifting up a sword for longer than three blocks. Merlin who’s skinnier than most handmaids. Merlin who needs Arthur.

…Doesn’t he?

“That’s the way it has to be.” And Merlin’s voice is sad, sadder than he has ever heard it.

“Does it?” Sigan’s voice is harsh as it echoes in the emptiness of destruction. “Look inside yourself, you’ve yet to discover your true power. I can help you.” He urges, voice like a snake’s, “Think Merlin. To have the world appreciate your greatness. To have Arthur know you for what you are.”

There’s only the slightest of pauses. “That can never be.”

“It can.” He coaxes like the devil, “If you join me.” And this is it Arthur thinks, this is the exact moment he will be betrayed, the exact moment Merlin proves that all magic does is corrupt, even the incorruptible.

“Together we can rule this land. Arthur will tremble at your voice, he will kneel at your feet.”

The world holds its breath.

“I don’t want that.” And Arthur thinks his grief has altered reality.

“You’d rather be a servant?!”

“Better to serve a good man than to rule with an evil one!” Surety clashes swords behind Merlin’s words and the air stills from a truth so heavy.

Arthur, with his eyes shut and lungs just barely pushing, suddenly can’t breathe at all. He’s overstimulated, the world a cacophony he can’t block out. His ribs are aching, a pulsing pain that spreads across his body in waves. The floor is cold against his head and his palm feels naked without the comforting feeling of a hilt within in it. But bigger than that, louder than that, always the centre of his attention and always blinding; Merlin.

Merlin who leapt into a battle in his ratty jacket and ridiculous ears with only his heart, so full of courage that it roared like the lion on his crest. Merlin who used magic. Against another sorcerer. Merlin who broke the law, Merlin who colluded with evil and darkness, worse, Merlin who lied to him. Every day. Since the second they’d met.

Arthur’s heart pangs. As a child, his father had always warned him, that there was no position more important or more lonely, than that of a king. That the man at the top of the mountain could only overlook over the happiness he was sworn to protect. Caution was the mark of a great leader, to shield against betrayals from all sides to protect the crown and the kingdom. Never though, had his father told him it would hurt this much. Traitors were slimy infiltrators who skulked through castle walls before being heroically discovered by Arthur himself, wielding his sword like divine retribution, his crown reflecting the heavens. And there’d be Merlin, next to him as always.

So then what happened when the traitor was his right hand?

What happened when the traitor was Merlin.

The only true friend Arthur had. The only one Arthur thought would always be there. When a fixture in your life comes undone what are you supposed to do? Merlin lied. He lied, he lied, he lied, he lied. And yet, Arthur stays still. He blames it on the ache in his bones and ignores the one in his heart; a weight so heavy it floors him.

Grief plummets all.

“So be it, if you will not join me, I will become you and your power will be harnessed to my will.”

And despite everything, Arthur’s first instinct is a roaring surge of protectiveness, a desire to push Merlin out of the way, to shield him from harm, to slice the sorcerer into ribbons. He feels the crackle of energy swell in the air as Sigan’s breaths go erratic. A body tumbles to the floor and fear makes love with his helplessness as he hopes and hopes it isn’t Merlin and curses that he wishes it. He can just make out Merlin’s laboured breathing as another body falls and he needs to know, needs to know what’s happening and if Merlin is alright and why won’t anybody say anything why, why-

Footsteps.

“Merlin?” Oh God Gaius-does he know?-will he discover Merlin’s magic and tell Uther (vaguely, Arthur is appalled his immediate reaction isn’t to tell Uther but he can’t because this is Merlin, the Merlin who’s just saved his life).

“Well done my boy.” And there’s a smile in the old man’s voice and Arthur just knows that Gaius is no stranger to Merlin’s magic and he’s feeling too many things that he can’t quite pinpoint how he reacts to that news.

Arthur hears Merlin’s laugh of relief and feels an even bigger pang within him. He can imagine Merlin’s face. The crinkle of his eyes, the widening grin and the head thrown back as his shoulders jump. And it hurts that he can recall his expression with such ease and it hurts that Merlin being happy makes him feel the same way.

Immediately, Merlin is at his side, taking a moment to just look at Arthur’s face, he knows because he can feel the burden of his stare and everything, everything, everything aches. Because Merlin is a sorcerer (and sorcery is banned and evil) but Merlin is Merlin (Arthur’s truest friend, more loyal than any knight or any man he’s ever known) and he has just saved his life (he wonders how many other times Merlin had wielded magic on his behalf).

Gently, Merlin pulls Arthur up into a sitting position and with Gaius’ help, tugs him into a standing position so they can drag him back inside. At this point, Arthur thinks he could open his eyes and maybe carry a bit of his weight but he doesn’t know how to look at Merlin and doesn’t even want to think about what he would say, so he pretends to be unconscious and wonders how many other things occurred while he was conveniently asleep.

It pains him to think of all the secrets between them when his soul has been so bare. But somehow, it’s worse that he never knew all that Merlin shouldered. For if what the sorcerer said was true, Merlin hid a far greater potential that he struggled with the weight of it. And Arthur was ignorant to it all.

He called Merlin his truest friend, but what did he even know of the man at all?

“Better to serve a good man…”

What had Arthur ever done for Merlin to choose him over the world? To be rich, to be powerful, to have status, to have everything at the edge of your fingertips, Sigan offered every man’s desires on a platter and Merlin…Merlin picked servitude. For Arthur. For the prince he was, the King he would become, and for the man he is. Heart heavy, Arthur knows that he, in all his glory and burdened with his flaws, could not nearly compare to all of that. For all that he thinks highly of himself, Merlin thinks him higher.

Confused and hurt, he lets himself fall into a real sleep on the bed he is tucked into, a familiar hand wiping the blood off his forehead and humming him a melody to guide him to his dreams.

II.

Arthur awakes the next morning, dazed at the beams of sun that flicked through his curtains and at the bandages around his chest. For a moment, he has no recollection of the night before until it swoops into his thoughts like waves that batter the shore. Closing his eyes again, he presses himself into his bed.

The Pendragons are not a passive clan. They roar with fervor, their swords gleam with their ideals, problems are met not with tears, but action. Never had Arthur run away from anything. But never had he suffered such a blow either. Nothing in his head fit neatly into the black and white paradigm Uther instilled in him since he was a boy. Everything is complex. It usually always is with Merlin. Merlin is a sorcerer, which by definition, is treason and punishable by death. Of being tied to a pole and burnt alive, watching your own flesh peel back to reveal bone as your screams are answered by the jeers of the people who watch.

Arthur panics.

He doesn’t want Merlin to die. And he doesn’t want him imprisoned either.

Does he want him gone?

Arthur thinks about it. And finds that his head hurts.

Merlin is a sorcerer. But he saved Arthur’s life.

The door opens and panicked and not ready for this, Arthur shoots up like prey, pulling at his wounds. Howling, he clutches at his side only to see his father, not Merlin, standing before him with a harsh concern. “Arthur!” his father says sharply, “Do not try and over exert yourself now. You must save your strength and heal.”

Unable to form words, Arthur simply stares up at his father and hopes all his secrets will not reveal themselves on his face. Softening, Uther clamps a leathered hand atop his shoulder and squeezes. “You did well Arthur. You fought bravely and thanks to you, Camelot is safe from sorcery’s evil once more.”

Arthur fumbles with his thoughts and tries to smile. All his life, ever since he was a child, all he wants is to make his father proud. His father, the King who brings peace, however fragile, to the land, and who rules with a steady hand, if not sometimes an iron fist. His father who assesses his every move with a critical eye, whose shadow stretches so long and so far, Arthur fears he will never be out of it. Doing his father proud means everything to him and yet, this victory rings hollow.

“I…I killed him? The sorcerer?” The last word grates over his tongue like sandpaper, the word now foreign and not familiar in its otherness anymore.

Uther looks surprised. “Your servant hasn’t been by yet? That boy watched you slay the sorcerer right where he stood. Said he barely got a word in let alone the chance to retaliate. You did well.” The praise stabs and leaves him throbbing.

Arthur swallows, knowing that was a lie, that it was all, all a lie, and smiles though it comes out a grimace. “I was simply doing my duty to Camelot. I’m glad that all is well.”

Uther pulls back his hand. “Yes, well. Get some rest. There is much to do when you are healed.” With one last glance, Uther steps out his chambers leaving Arthur to his thoughts and the pounding heartbeat in his head.

Merlin lied, Merlin lied. Well that’s what he does, a traitorous part of his mind whispers. But this wasn’t a lie of treason or evil, it was giving Arthur the credit of saving Camelot from yet another magical disaster. Heart thumping, Arthur purses his lips. How many other “miraculous” close calls had been Merlin’s doing? Immediately, he flashes to the Questing Beast incident, one that had always bothered him, it was aggravating, to not remember killing such a fearsome beast, but now he wonders if he had killed it at all. What about Valiant? And the snakes bursting from the shield at such an opportune moment? He had always thought it was overly convenient but shrugged it off as the weakness of magic.

Arthur’s head begins to spin. He squeezes his eyes shut. Merlin would come soon.

He doesn’t want to see Merlin.

Cannot.

Forcing himself upward, he hobbles to the door of his chambers, pokes his head out, and calls a passing chambermaid. “Charlene, please inform Merlin that George will be taking over his duties for the next couple days.”

“Of course sire.” She curtsies, tucking her basket in the crook of her elbow.

Arthur pauses, “And please inform George of this…development.”

Charlene nods again before dashing away. Sighing at his doorway, Arthur collapses back into his bed and wonders if sleep would send him into a future where everything would be as it was.

Arthur never ran away from anything. But he never said he wouldn’t hide.

When George comes to serve him an hour later, he is brutally polite and so distant Arthur feels there is a chasm separating the two of them. He conducts the morning's chores with disturbing efficiency and leaves no room for error. Even Arthur can find no fault in his methods and the flawlessness leaves him in a rage. He doesn’t enjoy this. George doesn’t make snarky comments he pretends are under his breath but that he fully intends Arthur to hear. George doesn’t do that annoying humming Arthur actually appreciates sometimes to fill the silence that can overwhelm him. Things aren’t the same and he likes the same and he needs it and he’s never liked change. Arthur is a man of routine because when the world goes to chaos and it’s just a series of battle after battle, coming back home, home to crooked bed sheets and a dancing fire, a soppy grin greeting him- Arthur stops, cannot bare to think more.

Home was comforting. So how dare Merlin go and ruin it.

How dare he lie. To him! Of all people! Deep down, he knows, he knows why Merlin would go to his grave never exposing his secret because the first day he had come, he had seen Uther send a sorcerer to the pyre and Arthur…Well…they hadn’t exactly gotten on the first time they’d met but-

But nothing he guesses.

And he’s angry that he’s been so honest and non-withholding all the while Merlin has been so much more than the bumbling servant boy he simultaneously is and is not. The wisdom Merlin sometimes displays, during Arthur’s darkest hours at his most need, does it come from making choices in the shadows that have Arthur’s life hanging in the balance?

Arthur scowls.

He never asked for his help, never asked for his protection. Never asked to have a friend just for him to be ripped away by his own idiocy.

Arthur goes to bed angry and the anger doesn’t leave him in the morning when the bruises are all that remain from his wounds that weren’t even that dire in the first place if he was being honest and he rushes into to training. He beats the knights into submission that day. Going harder than he usually would, pushing their bodies to the limits with his blows that are savage with the rawness of his heart.

He keeps George on standby and hates how much he wishes he was someone else. He hates himself so he throws his weight behind his punches as he abandons weapons altogether and focuses on hand to hand combat. He wants to feel the crack of his knuckles against someone’s chest, rip someone’s arm behind their backs and feel himself get kicked into the ground. He burns through his rage until he is a shell and only then, does he disperse his army and allow George to take off his armor and bring him back to his bed for dinner and rest.

He doesn’t see Merlin at all that day.

He spends four more days the exact same way, firmly avoiding Merlin by never being anywhere but his rooms or the training grounds and works himself until he doesn’t h ave to think anymore because all he can feel are the callouses of his palms. He thinks this could be okay. That he could live like this a little longer, forever maybe. That he doesn’t have to do anything and it will work out somehow but then his door is flying open, slamming against the wall and Merlin, with his smoldering stare and accusing snarl throw him aback and the fury roars up again.

“Why are you avoiding me.” Merlin demands, as if he has the right to demand anything.

“Excuse me?” Arthur glowers, feeling more energetic than he has in days, his limbs perking up with the fire that flows through his veins. “Who do you think you are exactly.” His tone venomous.

Merlin has the audacity to give him that look where he thinks Arthur’s being daft and that he should know it, “Oh I don’t know, your friend??”

And Arthur laughs. He can’t help it. It spills out of him like he’s possessed. And Merlin looks confused and just a little concerned and that tips him back into anger as the laughter ceases. How dare he be worried. “You have no right to speak to me that way.” He snaps.

Merlin’s brows furrow, “What’s gotten into you.” Accusatory. Pained. Reaching out-

Arthur snaps. “Get out.” And it comes out more of a snarl than he intended and the hurt that flashes across Merlin’s face almost makes him feel guilty, but he stifles it like he does every other feeling.

“Arthur-”

“I said, get out!” Arthur repeats, louder and meaner, just wanting Merlin gone, out of his sight, away away away.

Merlin looks like he wants to say something, but thinking better of it, storms out, slamming the door behind him in one last show of insolence.

Furious, Arthur beats the bedpost with his fist.

Merlin saved his life, so he will not steal Merlin’s. But he also lied, and Arthur cannot forgive him for it. How do you mend a friendship built on absolutely nothing at all?

A few more days pass. The anger within him builds and builds until it overwhelms him and implodes in on itself. Rage burns through itself with enough time, leaving nothing but ash. Sadness drags him. It deadens his step and hardens his heart. He passes Merlin in the hall on the way to an assembly. His heart thuds in his chest and an infinite of words swirls behind his throat. But nothing comes out, and Merlin, his stare expecting and hopeful, is crushed. He walks away, his steps too quick to be okay, and Arthur stays still. A crushing feeling of ineptitude keeping him in place.

Two weeks pass and still they do not speak.

Arthur’s sadness hardens into a dull grief for his loss and the gap of Merlin’s presence only widens. If he were braver, he would say he missed his friend. But he isn’t, so he doesn’t, and so falls further away from him. He wishes he knew the true story of their time together, what truly happened where magic saved his life where he thought fortune had simply kissed his brow.

But then he sees Merlin running across the courtyard, looking just a little sad and a little more lost and can’t.

Magic can’t be evil. For if it was, then it would have jumped at the opportunity to coerce Merlin into betrayal. There were no witnesses to their battle, nobody to impress or manipulate. In the silence of isolation, Merlin had chosen Arthur. That had to count for something.

Arthur thinks of Merlin, and feels a loss so confusing with all the other thoughts in his head that he begs to stop thinking at all. So he’s extremely grateful when his father calls him into the throne room that day to announce a quest that he needs Arthur to lead. Everything he could want in a distraction is laid before him and Arthur doesn’t even have to fake the smile that blooms across his face.

“Arthur, a nine-headed beast was discovered rampaging through the lower towns. Its attacks have destroyed the crops in the outlying areas and the people will starve if this continues.”

Gaius, at his father’s right hand steps out to offer his counsel. “My lord, if I may.” He entreats.

Uther smiles at him with a gracious wave of his hand. “The beast you are referring to sounds like it could be a hydra.”

“A hydra?” His father repeats.

“It is a creature of magic, whose powers allow it to regenerate its heads after decapitation twice over.” Gaius’ gaze is stony, “For every head you cut off, two more will grow in its place.”

Arthur stares at him confused, “So it’s immortal then?”

“Everything dies sire. For the hydra, the only way to defeat it is to cut off each of its heads and cauterize the wound so that nothing can grow in its place. When you slice off the immortal head, the source of its power, you must bury it so that it may never regrow.”

“Thank you Gaius.” Hand clasped over his chest, Arthur's eyes burn ferocious. “I will see to it that the beast is killed and that no more harm will come to the people.”

Uther does not smile, but he nods his approval. “The people of Camelot depend on you.”

Arthur all but runs out the door, calling on a ragtag group of knights he happens to see to join him on the quest. He knows he should put a bit more thought into his choices but his desire to leave looms tall over everything else. He turns his head to tell Merlin to ready the horses and pack their bags before remembering he isn’t there. He ought to tell George.

He finds he doesn’t want to.

Arthur packs his own bag and supplies, walks down to the stables to saddle his own mare and marches her to the courtyard ready to lead his men out into bloody battle only to see Merlin, standing next to his own horse, eyes narrowed and jaw set.

Arthur isn’t even surprised.

“I’m coming with you.” Merlin says, firm and unwavering.

Merlin's still upset. Arthur can tell by the way his shoulders hunch inwards and the pull of his lip. But Arthur also knows that Merlin's sense of duty surpasses anyone's. That no matter what, he would never let Arthur ride out alone. Truly, he knows he should turn Merlin away but he’s never actually been to a battle or a quest or even a hunting trip without him, a comfort in his own strange way, and so can’t find the heart. (he won’t say he misses him).

“It’s dangerous.” He says instead.

“That’s why I’m coming.” Before, Arthur would’ve laughed at the comment, always slightly amused at Merlin’s inflated sense of importance, at how he could possibly think he had ever protected Arthur, the best knight in the realm.

But now he hears the subtext and the nuances in his tone. That’s why I’m coming…to protect you. Arthur turns away. “Do what you will.”

Arthur’s still heated, but it’s dampened, more hurt than ferocious. He thinks that if anything, he will at least get to see Merlin’s magic up close. See what he does when he thinks no one’s looking. But Arthur will look, and he will see.

Merlin doesn’t grin necessarily, but he seems to perk up just a little and hops onto his horse with a gusto. The knights banter in the background, but he and Merlin trot on in silence, both too caught up in their own thoughts to worry about something as trivial as an awkward silence. The knights who try to engage with Merlin are met with puffs of laughter that signal the end rather than a beginning and no one bothers with Arthur at all.

They break halfway there and Arthur doesn’t even have to ask before Merlin hands him a waterskin, a bag of Arthur’s favourite nuts hanging from his pocket. His fingers rest atop Merlin’s hand longer than he needs to and his thanks spring a shy smile. “These just came in the other day.” Merlin says, handing him the bag, “I figured you hadn’t had any yet. George isn’t the most personal of men.” A small huff of laughter.

Arthur’s own smile is small and unconfident, like he’s not exactly sure where to go on. Back to routine or forge a new one? “Well he’s certainly better at keeping tidy than you are.” He goads.

Merlin has the audacity to look affronted. “You don’t even like things tidy! You like your rooms to have personality! Flair!”

Arthur snorts without thinking and looks at him endearingly before catching himself and turning away. His back sends a clear message. Crestfallen, Merlin stumbles over his words before gesturing to the horses lamely, “Well I better…tend to the horses I suppose.” He waits a few seconds, hoping Arthur would go back to smiling the way he used to.

But forlorn and disappointed, he turns away.

The nuts taste like charcoal on Arthur’s tongue and he throws them in his pack and orders the group to ride out again. They ride until dark and they happen across a small town that hosts an inn and decide a bed, no matter how small and cramped, is better than the forest floor. They settle in the bar, waiting for warm stew and some meat to fill their hungry bellies and don’t notice the fuss boiling in the corner. A roar of indignation silences the room as a fist flies into the aggressor’s face. A full out brawl explodes amongst a group of men with plates flying and daggers drawing blood. Drawing on his authority, Arthur straightens and storms in to end the fight before a man turns around snarling, ready to lunge at him in a surprise attack. Arthur's sword gets caught in his scabbard and he tugs at it in a panic, the other man's dagger flying closer before a chair soars at him knocking him down. Bewildered, Arthur swivels around to see Merlin staring intently at the man and blinks.

The sound of fists and blood splatters as Arthur’s mouth forms an oh. Well damn. Suddenly, every lucky coincidence seems to make infinitely more sense and Arthur feels oddly invincible as a crazy kind of laughter bubbles inside him. Merlin has magic. And he uses it to fight like an idiot. Shaking his head, Arthur draws his sword out in a striking crescent and his voice commands obedience. “Stop this nonsense at once.” The blunt side of his blade strikes a man in his chest sending him tumbling and the rest stop to look at him.

“You will apologize to the owners and clean up your mess.” The lion on his crest beams with an ethereal light and in the corner of his eye, he catches the pride reflected in Merlin’s.

Something warm blossoms within him.

The men grumble to themselves, righting the chairs they shoved out the way and apologizing in muttered breaths to the madam of the pub. Sheathing his sword, Arthur walks over to Merlin and thinks about how any other time, he would make a jibe about his manservant’s uselessness or cowardice. Now he sees reality as it is. Arthur the moon, brilliant and outshining all the stars surrounding it, Merlin the light he reflected.

Arthur, with all the glory.

Arthur, who had never been alone.

Something like dissatisfaction or frustration wells inside of him and quickly, Arthur returns back to his seat and eats and drinks until the feelings disappear. Merlin has scampered off to the room to prepare the bed and set out his clothing and Arthur worries about the arrangement. Would Merlin sleep in his room as usual? Or would he sleep by the fire in the common area as servants sometimes did.

Arthur frets and decides he wouldn’t decide. He would go up and see where the night led. He finds Merlin fast asleep, propped up against the wall, looking like he had fought to wait but lost. His neck tilts at an awkward angle and his soft breaths are both achingly familiar and something he has to fight to remember. Unable to help himself, Arthur rolls his eyes. “Honestly.” He gripes, “The most useless manservant to ever live.” And yet he can't help his fondness.

Arthur pulls Merlin’s bedroll closer before carefully sliding Merlin down the wall onto his pillow. The sleeping boy mumbles, something that sounds like his name, whispered with an ache Arthur can't pretend not to understand. “Shh Merlin.” He says instead, “Go to sleep.” He lifts the covers over his shoulders and stares some more at his manservant turned truest friend turned… something else.

As Arthur closes his eyes lying in his own bed, he feels overwhelmingly, that he's glad Merlin is there. That there is nowhere else he's allowed to be than by Arthur’s side.

III.

“Rise and shine then!” Merlin’s chipper voice is, as usual, obnoxious as it scrapes away the remnants of Arthur’s dreams.

Groaning, the crown prince of Camelot turns on his side, clutching the pillow against his ears. “G’way Merlin.” He slurs, already annoyed at deciding to reignite their friendship.

“Sorry sire.” Merlin chirps, not sounding sorry at all, “But we have a hydra to kill.”

At the sound of the beast’s name, Arthur ceases his complaining, forcing his body out of the cocoon his blankets created and steels the world for his grandeur. “And do you expect me to defeat a beast on an empty stomach?” He flashes a displeased stare in Merlin’s direction.

“You’re more than welcome to go down to the kitchens and get breakfast like the rest of your knights.” Merlin shoots back, fiddling with the strap of Arthur’s shoulder plate.

Instinctively, Arthur’s hand wraps around the nearest object- a cup- and flings it towards Merlin’s face. His glower intensifies when Merlin merely ducks, dodging his makeshift projectile with the ease only practice could create.

With a dramatic huff, Merlin drops his armor, “No need to be so fussy, I’ll go fetch you something to eat Your Highness.” Only Merlin could make a royal title sound so crass.

He leaves with a flourish and Arthur huffs and puffs, aggravated at his life and his idiotic servant before realizing with a start that he isn't angry anymore. The familiar anvil he carried around his neck has disappeared without him having done anything at all. He and Merlin have fallen back into their routine effortlessly, like the way the spring thawed out the winter’s violence on the world; ice melting with the loving tenderness of the sun and the sweetness of the robin.

He has missed him. Missed Merlin with a desperation that both scares him and doesn't surprise him. Being the prince is lonely. Being with Merlin is not. Being with Merlin is electric and too much. Too much of everything. His feelings amplified tenfold. His anger becomes rage and his disappointment becomes crushing. But his amusement turns into uncontrollable laughter and his happiness into glee. Danger is an adventure where courage comes easy at the sight of the determination so hard won in Merlin’s eyes. Born and raised a prince, Arthur was taught, over and over, that with royalty came great solitude.

But Merlin doesn't believe in shouldering burdens by oneself, though Arthur can see the hypocrisy of it all now. Merlin, who never wanted Arthur to face his battles alone, rode with him to laugh at death and conquer worlds. Merlin who never wanted Arthur to feel that there was no one who would not do anything for him. Merlin, who bore burdens so heavy, so that Arthur would never see them.

What was the point of one day becoming the greatest King Albion had ever known if he can't support the one person who he wanted to.

What was the point of power if he can't use it to protect the one who matters most.

Merlin strides through the door, looking cheery and energized, a tray of food in his hands. “Hope you like oats, because that’s really all I have to offer.”

Arthur looks at him and swallows. He wants to tell him. But can't possibly think of words big enough to encompass all that he has to say. Can't think of how to express oceans when all he can summon is a drizzle. So he keeps quiet save for a quick insult about Merlin’s timeliness and eats quickly, not tasting anything but bitterness at his own ineptitudes.

Merlin notes his quick change in mood- of course he does- but is wise enough not to comment on it. He helps Arthur into his chainmail with steady precision, his fingers gentler than usual, taking more care with the clasps and the straps, a devoted ritual buried in layers of faith and belief Arthur can't even begin to unravel. Merlin’s face is so close to Arthur’s own as he completes his duty, his head bent so Arthur can only see the unruly tufts of his hair. The air stills around them. “There.” Merlin whispers softly, “You’re ready to go charging in recklessly now.”

Neither of them move, something like gravity keeping them in each other’s orbits. “You mean heroically.” Arthur’s voice is low, like the way the forest feels in the nighttime, but even to him, it sounds hesitant.

Merlin looks up suddenly, his eyes like the height of summer, bold and true and utterly unforgettable. “You’ve saved Camelot from dozens of horrors. You’re a hero in the eyes of every boy and girl. The courage of Camelot’s prince is known across the five kingdoms.” And Arthur can see it, the Merlin who saved Camelot while everyone’s backs were turned, who’s choices shaped his wisdom into something sharp and true.

“I’ve done nothing on my own. The glory does not all belong to me.” And Arthur knows his statement is a challenge if a little unfair, but he wants to see the expression in Merlin’s eyes, what would he say?

He’s desperate to know.

Merlin stares at him in surprise before his eyes turn into something fond, like Arthur has just proved something right and he doesn't even know it. His hand slides from Arthur’s chest plate to rest above his heart and when Merlin speaks Arthur can feel that same heartbeat reverberate between his ears. “You will be a better king than your father, and all those before, Arthur. And you will always have me at your side.” Arthur knows he is forgiven for the disaster of the past two weeks and knows he doesn’t deserve it.

They stare at each other, locked in a flurry of emotions locked safely underneath a sea of secrets. Their gaze holds until Merlin quirks a smile, so adept at breaking tension and defying orbits, “You’d probably die without me, what with not being able to cook for yourself and all.” He teases, and Arthur’s face curls in indignation on its own accord.

“Shut up Merlin.” He says instinctively, “And finish packing my bags will you. We don’t have all day because you feel the need to make ridiculous speeches.”

“Prat.” Merlin mutters and Arthur smiles wider and truer than he has in days.

They head outside the inn, thanking the owners for their hospitality, and see the four knights accompanying them prepping the horses and strapping on their supplies. Arthur leaves Merlin to tend to their own mares while he relays the day’s itinerary to his men. The village of Runia was half a day’s ride from where they were. The hydra was said to be lurking in the caves just west from the village where it would come out to ransack the farms and devour all that had the misfortune of being in its path. They would seek out the beast on its own turf to not risk anymore civilian harm. That leaves them at a bit of a disadvantage but Arthur refuses to do it any other way. The destruction of farmland and roads is just as bad as being burnt or mauled. Death by starvation is death just the same.

Arthur swings atop his horse, his chin held proudly as he snaps the reigns, his horse spurting into action. Merlin comes up beside him, a look of quiet determination on his face. The unease Arthur might have felt disappears as he takes comfort in the familiar galloping of hooves and the wind running through his hair. They will slay the hydra. And he will see Merlin’s magic.

There is no other option.

They ride hard with only two breaks to ease their horses’ burdens and provide them with feed and water. They ride not quite in silence, but in no jubilee either. When the faint outline of the village comes into view, their energy renews and Arthur pushes his horse harder. The closer they get to Runia however, the lower their hearts drop. Claw marks had torn into the ground uprooting crops and life. Scorch marks scarred the earth and the remnants of homes collapse into ashes. Entering the core of the village, a fearful figure, hunched over with darting eyes, peeks out from behind his door.

Hope blooms like flowers as he scurries out to meet the prince and his cavalry. “M-my Lord!” he greets, bowing shakily, “We thank you for coming in the aid of our modest village. My name is Edward and I run a farm to the south.” He gestures to the rest of the town, eyes downcast in mourning, “As Your Highness can see, the beast…Runia cannot survive another attack. Please sire!”

Arthur raises a hand, steeling his gaze into something strong enough to believe in. “Worry not Edward, we shall slay the hydra and put an end to your suffering. You have my word.”

Edwards’ hands clasp together, his head bent in the deepest of respects. “Thank you my Lord, thank you.”

“Where is the direction of its caves?”

Brows narrowing, Edward takes a fearful glance to his left, pointing at a small trail that led into the forest. “Following that trail will lead you straight to it. But please sire, take caution. The beast has more heads than I can count, each more fearsome than the next. Some can breathe fire, others have teeth sharper than even the blades of lore. It is taller than the trees and has a mighty tail.” Edward seems to shrink from the might of it.

Arthur, with his hair reflecting the sun and armor gleaming, looks more regal than Merlin had ever seen him. His cocky grin does nothing to curb the admiration in his chest. “Sounds rather dull don’t you think? We’ll be back at sunset. Prepare us rooms for when we return.”

Arthur is dazzling and Merlin mesmerized.

Jaw dropping, Edward scurries to bow, “Y-y-yes my Lord! Of course.”

The prince of Camelot takes one last look at the village of his kingdom before pulling the reigns to his left and starting off in a trot towards the forest. Merlin flashes a thankful smile at the innkeeper before following after, never one to stay behind while Arthur went forward.

The terrain quickly transforms from an amicable forest to an unforgiving rock. They tie their horses to some sparsely planted trees and carry out the rest of the way on foot. The knights have unsheathed their swords, treading carefully, blades vying for a battle. They hear it before they see it. The eerie rumble of the earth as it takes a step, the screeching of one of its heads as It curls around another. Arthur brings a finger to his lips, pointing in either direction for two knights to go on either side of him to circle the beast. Merlin stays right behind him, just as Arthur knows he would. Together, they creep forward, masking their presence behind a boulder.

Peeking around, Merlin feels his heartbeat quicken as he takes in the sight of one of the most fearsome and unnatural creatures he has ever seen. Edward had not exaggerated. The hydra is as big as Kilgarrah if not bigger, its heads scaly and unearthly in their sickly green colour. The air reeks of magic older than even the Druids.

Arthur’s plan is simple, the five of them would attack one head at a time with Merlin racing in with a torch to ensure the beasts’ immortality was thwarted. While one would decapitate the beast, the rest would defend them from the other heads. Beside him, Merlin lights up his torch quickly, a bead of sweat dripping down his brow. “Going to faint from fear Merlin?” Arthur teases, voice light though his shoulders are coiled with tension.

“I could never do that, who would drag your unconscious body away when you trip over a rock?” He shoots back.

Arthur snorts. “That’s never once happened.”

“Well of course you wouldn’t remember. You knocked yourself out.” Merlin says as though he’s incredibly idiotic for commenting.

Arthur shoves him with his shoulder before abruptly getting up, signalling to his knights to charge. They rush into the cave clearing roaring and the hydra catches sight of them, spitting raging flames into the sky. One head dashes out to attack Julien who raises his sword valiantly against a monster Arthur could never have imagined. The others lend their support but the necks of the beasts are too thick for a simple slice to work and it takes Arthur and Owain both on opposite ends to cut off its head. Merlin rushes in, pressing his torch against the bleeding neck and cauterizes it clean.

The beast shrieks and the third head howls in pain as it blasts them with vengeful flames. They leap out the way but the fourth head is expecting that and attacks Frederick with unforgiving fangs that ensnare his arm and send him flying into a stone face. Arthur’s roar is as furious as he is unrelentingly sad as he prays for his friend’s survival. The four of them disperse and try to get a good shot at another head.

They see the sixth bending down at an approachable level and Owain takes the charge swiping this way and that to goad it into attacking him directly. Gavin defends him from the fifth and Arthur and Julien charge in for the assist. The sixth head knocks them all off their feet but Owain holds steady and stabs his sword into the fleshy part of its neck. Blood spurts out and Julien is quick to saw off the flailing head. “MERLIN!” He hollers as the boy rushes over, his flames quickly making work of the wound even as Arthur watches in disgust as something bubbles inside it, ready to start new life.

Exhaustion from just two heads creeps into his bones and Arthur wonders if they can possibly take down all nine with just them four when even two had proved so taxing. But he thinks back to the village and of the people he swore to protect and grits his teeth charging forward. Julien is running to aid him before flames no one had seen rush at them. Merlin, fear and desperation fueling his movements, shoves Arthur out of the way, shielding him with his body. Julien tumbles onto his knees, only having just escaped. His body falls to the floor and Arthur cannot allow himself a moment to look because now there are just three soldiers and seven heads.

Merlin scrambles off of him, his eyes raking over Arthur’s body to ensure there is no harm. Arthur wants to say something to him but doesn’t know what. Doesn’t think thank you covers the extent of it and so merely nods at him and pushes into battle because that’s all he can do.

There are three soldiers against seven heads until there is just him and Merlin against six. Arthur looks around and sees his comrades scattered across the ground and sees Merlin, standing tall and masking the hopelessness Arthur is sure he feels. But for Arthur, Merlin would summon courage from nothing. Breathing heavily, Arthur can’t think with the pounding in his ears and so he grabs his friend and pulls him behind the boulder they first hid behind and tries to ignore the screeching of the heads and the smell of failure.

They cannot win the way they are. They cannot win with the same plan. Arthur needs Merlin. He needs his magic. There’s no other way there just isn’t. They can’t give up. But they can’t carry forward either. Failure is a weight Arthur refuses to bear and he knows it’s treason, knows its disobedience to the man he holds highest, but he also knows that Merlin will be with him always and that there is no other option Arthur can conceive.

His sword clatters to the floor and he closes his eyes, breathing in courage before locking eyes with Merlin and shattering his world. “Merlin, you need to use your magic.” He says clearly, like this doesn’t change everything they’ve ever known.

Merlin’s eyes widen, his brows drawn together in fearful confusion. His lips part but no words come out. His hands shake and Arthur rushes to hold them steady. “Merlin.” He repeats, softer this time, but with more command, “I know about your magic. And I know your heart. You must use your powers.”

There is a sheen of tears coating Merlin’s eyes so anxious before clarity dawns. “Is that why you’ve been avoiding me?”

Arthur shakes his head. “There’s no time for that. We must defeat the hydra or Camelot will suffer. Will you fight by my side?”

Merlin swallows back his questions and his fear and trepidation. “Always.” He whispers instead.

Arthur cracks a smile and drops his hands reaching for his sword. “Then show me what you can do Merlin. Show me your magic.”

And his friend’s face is icy with focus, his hands tremble and then still as determination guides his every move. Arthur realizes then, how much pressure is on Merlin’s shoulders right then and feels just a little regretful. But now is not the time for the softness of feelings and they harden themselves into warriors and rush into death’s reach again. The beast roars again and triple waves of fire rage at them but Merlin stands in front of Arthur and his eyes turn golden with power and the flames die out at a transparent shield Merlin creates. Arthur doesn’t blink, but rushes in at the opening and slices off a head with one blow.

Merlin throws his hands out, “Forbærne!” and fires of his own rush to close up the wound.

Arthur parries a blow and fights another head as a boulder rises in the air to crush the skull into the ground leaving its neck wide open and Merlin sets it alight again. The pair rush against the beast again taking it down with an ease Arthur could never have thought possible. His sword fights seamlessly with Merlin’s magic, like the two were lovers long lost and reunited. He feels invincible, like there is nothing his sword could not counter nor Merlin’s magic defy.

One head remains and Merlin sends a force of energy at it, throwing it to the right where Arthur lay in wait. He feels magic rush into his sword, giving it a burst of strength that sends it slicing cleanly through the neck. It falls to the ground ungraciously and yet its eyes remain open and it snarls with hatred. The hydra’s body stumbles as it collapses against the caves, its scales scraping off the side before falling into a permanent rest.

Merlin rushes over to his prince and points at the head he just decapitated. “That must be it, the immortal head.”

“We have to bury it.” Arthur urges, looking at Merlin like he has never seen him before.

All this potential and he had never seen it. How could he have been so blind?

“Looking at this now, I don’t even know how we would have been able to defeat this without magic.” He admits, and it’s difficult, to start to unravel years of anti-magic sentiment and law ingrained in him since birth.

Merlin looks at him like he is the cosmos itself. “I can do it.” He says breathlessly, and already, his hands weave through the air as his eyes shine, the earth parting at his bidding.

The head shrieks more as Arthur pushes it into the hole Merlin creates, grunting as he does. The head falls in unceremoniously and Merlin collapses the caves atop of it, burying the monster for eternity. They stand together, on the plains of victory and Arthur can’t help the short laugh that escapes him. “We did it.” He exclaims and he turns around to see Merlin’s blinding grin and feels his own burst onto his face.

He reaches out and grabs Merlin into him, locked in a one arm embrace. He feels Merlin’s fingers grip into his shirt, clinging to him like he might wake up and find it all a dream. Arthur holds him tighter and wishes him ease in a heart he knows must be chaotic with disbelief and anxiety. “Arthur I-”

His prince shakes his head. “We have much to discuss. But not now.” His gaze wanders around where his men lay scattered and Merlin nods his head.

A frown still mars his face so Arthur curls a hand around his shoulder, "Rest easy Merlin. You have nothing to fear from me. I thank you for all you've done."

And Merlin's eyes go wide with too many emotions Arthur can't begin to contemplate that he quickly turns away and delegates orders. Together, they carry the knights back to the horses and they return to Runia in a silence not heavy, but thoughtful. As they exit the forest, they are met by a crowd of cheering faces, whose joy and faith in their prince and his knights stoke something warm and wonderful inside him. “Long live the prince!” They cry as they relieve him of his horses and rush to tend to his knights.

“Come my Lord, we have prepared for you our best rooms and the finest of feasts.” Edward says, bowing low and hands shaking from gratitude.

Arthur shakes his head, a regretful smile on his face, “I cannot rest and take pleasure in your company before I see to my men.”

Edward nods, something like surprise in his eyes. “Of course, my lord. Truly, you are a noble leader, the pride of Camelot.”

Merlin is grinning like a fool, pride glowing from every inch of him. He’s such an idiot, Arthur thinks, but his heart is light as he stares.

They follow the village healer into her work station and see his four knights on separate tables. He had felt all of their pulses when he strapped them onto the horses but he knows nothing of injuries and healing. Merlin stands at his right, offering a silent comfort. Helena bustles around a bit, wrapping bandages and pressing poultices before turning towards Arthur and smiling. “They will heal my Lord. Though they must stay here until then for traveling will only exacerbate their wounds.” She bows her apologies.

“That is fine. As long as you can heal them, it doesn’t matter.”

A light knock on the door gives them pause. “Excuse me my Lord, but dinner is ready at your leave.” A young boy bows, looking overly excited, like he had met his hero for the first time.

Arthur smiles, pulling Merlin by the wrist and giving it a squeeze. “Come on then Merlin, there is much to celebrate.”

A hesitant smile stretches into a real one as Merlin follows after him.

IV.

The village is settled for the night, children tucked into bed and the adults who had engaged in the festivities stumbling their way back into their homes. The world quiets as the moon glows above them. “Let’s go for a walk.” Arthur says, noting how Merlin’s eyes turn guarded and his smile fractures.

The two walk out the inn in silence, heading back into the forest they had fought in until they find a fallen tree, the perfect makeshift bench. Arthur sticks the torch he had carried into the ground firmly and sits against the trunk. He doesn’t know where to begin yet he has so much he wants to say. So he just plunges in head first.

“You have magic. And you lied. Lied to me, all this time.” And his heart pounds.

Merlin glances at him with so many shadows on his face that Arthur wants to brush away but cannot. “I was born with it.” He says. “Before I could even walk I was moving things with just a thought.”

The quiet seems too much for Merlin to bear becomes the words gush out of his mouth like a flood. “I’m sorry Arthur, I’m sorry. I wanted to tell you, you don’t know how much, but I couldn’t. Your father-” he swallows, “I disagree with your father on many things, but the one grace he has is your love. I couldn’t do that to you. Make you lie to your father.” He grimaces, a ghost of a self-deprecating smile, “I, more than anyone, know how much it hurts to lie to those you love.”

He huffs out a dry laugh, “Plus, you know, execution and all.”

“I wouldn’t have let you burn.” Arthur says softly, and his eyes do nothing to hide the hurt that is naked in his soul.

“I didn’t want to leave either.” Merlin replies, “My place is here, in Camelot, with you.”

“A prince shouldn’t trust anyone.” Arthur says, and every word is a barb on his tongue, “But I did. I trusted you. And you lied. Constantly.” He sees the pain bare on Merlin’s face and something inside of him clenches, “And yet, I can’t hate you for it. I couldn’t even stay angry.”

“The half cannot truly hate that which makes it whole.” Merlin whispers and at Arthur’s befuddled stare, he smiles, “That’s what the dragon said.”

“Dragon.” Arthur repeats bluntly and fights the urge to laugh manically because of course there are dragons.

“I want to tell you everything Arthur.” Merlin grabs at his wrists and pulls him closer, earnest and sincere. “I know I’ve kept so many things hidden but I want you know Arthur, I need you to understand, that everything I’ve done, everything I do, it’s always been for you. All that I am, all my magic is, is for you and you alone. My magic exists for you. And I know I lied, but I’ve never faltered in my loyalty. I’ve always been yours Arthur. Always.”

Arthur stares at him, face open and lost. He cannot touch the subject of Merlin’s heart right then. “Tell me about your magic.” He calls and Merlin obeys.

“When I first arrived to Camelot, the great dragon called to me. He told me that it was my destiny to help you unite all of Albion and rule as the greatest king the land has ever known. That you were to be the Once and Future King. I thought you were a pompous and arrogant prat of course, but well…” he smiles trailing off, “I’ve seen you for who you are, a noble prince with a kind heart. Protecting you became less about destiny and everything to do with you, as just Arthur, the dolluphead who became my friend.”

Merlin reveals how he saved Arthur from the witch by snapping the chandelier hangings, how he stayed up all night learning how to bring inanimate objects to life and how Arthur putting his faith in him revealed to him the nobility in his heart. Recounts how he had aided Arthur in slaying the Aafanc with a spell to counter its elemental nature when sickness had plagued Camelot.

Arthur blinks and annoyance creeps up at him. “So you were actually telling the truth?! When you barged into the throne room spouting nonsense about being a sorcerer??” He turns an incredulous gaze at a sheepish Merlin.

“Well I couldn’t very well let Gwen die could I?”

“An idiot.” Arthur breathes incredulously, “An absolute idiot. Do you have any sense of self-preservation at all?”

Merlin scowls, “It all turned out alright in the end didn’t it?”

Arthur scoffs, “Barely.” But quiets down so Merlin can finish his story.

Merlin talks about drinking the poison and how afraid he was that Arthur would somehow link the ball of light that helped him back to him. “That was you?” Arthur asks in shock, though in hindsight, he really should’ve guessed.

“It was unconscious magic. Gaius told me my hand was glowing so brightly he had to send Gwen away.”

“You saved my life.” Arthur murmured.

“Well, one for one then.” They hold each other’s stare too long before Merlin breaks away with a cough and continues. “Then there was the whole griffon incident.”

Arthur rolls his eyes, “Let me guess, Lancelot didn’t actually kill the griffon.”

Merlin starts, “No, he did. I just enchanted his lance with magic. A griffon could only be killed by an enchanted weapon.” Merlin pauses, “Lancelot knows about my magic. He heard me chanting the spell.”

“What!” and Arthur’s both offended and worried because Merlin honestly has no preservation instincts at all.

“He’s not going to say anything!” Merlin defends, “Lancelot’s the most noble man I know.”

Arthur hunches his shoulders inward. “I can’t believe you told Lancelot.” The 'and not me' was implied.

“I didn’t tell him…he just found out.” Merlin says lamely.

“And me?” Arthur pushes, anger licking the tail end of his words, “If I hadn’t found out?”

Merlin says nothing and they both know the answer. “I’m sorry.” Merlin says quietly and his voice is rough with tears he cannot shed.

Arthur says nothing because he doesn’t know what to say so Merlin just continues and hopes his stories will mend the chasm between them. “Then there was Edwin, I figured out he was using magic beetles to make Morgana ill.” Arthur’s nose wrinkles in disgust before Merlin’s face widens into a demented grin, “And let’s not forget about Sophia.” Arthur’s eyes widen and he points an accusing finger in Merlin’s chest.

“We said we would never speak of that again!”

Merlin shrugs comically, “Well if you don’t want to know the truth…”

Arthur glowers and shoves him. “I’ll be throwing you in the stocks when we get home.” He mutters and Merlin just grins.

“Well Sophia and her father were Sidhe exiled from the kingdom.”

-He ignores Arthur’s shock, “Yes Sidhe, I know what I’m talking about Arthur” Arthur looks skeptical anyway-

“Desperate to return, they were told if they could sacrifice the life of a prince, then Sophia could return. So her father devised the plot to get her to enchant you to do her bidding and drown you in the lake.” Arthur’s eyes bug out comically, “By the time I knew they had taken you, it was almost too late. She had you in the river and you had started to sink. So I…I…I didn’t know what else to do so I grabbed her father’s staff and used it on them. Then well…you know the rest. I dove in to rescue you and that was that.”

“You killed them.” Arthur states.

“And I don’t regret it.” Merlin’s fierceness is in stark contrast to his normal gentleness.

Arthur’s heart aches at the sacrifices Merlin had made on his own for the sake of someone who would never know. “I’m sorry.” He says finally, Merlin looks surprised and glances at him from beneath his lashes. “I’m sorry you had to bear through all this alone.”

Merlin’s eyes widen and he turns away quickly lest Arthur see the swell of emotion on his face. “There’s something else Arthur…I swore to tell you everything but this is…”

Arthur squeezes his shoulder. “It’s Morgana.” Merlin starts, “She’s a Seer, a powerful one.”

“A Seer?” His hand falls.

“She has magic, not like me, but still strong. Gaius refuses to tell her because he fears for her and what she might do…what Uther might do…she’s the one who foresaw Sophia trying to drown you and warned Gaius so that he might do something.”

“You mean her nightmares…?” Arthur feels his head whirl, so much of his reality changing before him.

Merlin nods. “Her nightmares are not dreams, they’re prophecy.”

Arthur is silent for a moment. “Does she know? About…about you?” Merlin shakes his head, “I wanted to but…” he breaks a little, “I don’t know what’s right anymore.”

The chaos in Arthur’s head stills and the leader within him straightens, he is a prince and he will behave as one. “You are not alone anymore Merlin. Whatever we do, we do together.”

“There’s more.” Merlin struggles with the words, “Remember the druid boy we helped escape?” Arthur nods, dreading what was to come, “The dragon told me that he was to be your doom. That one day, he would cause your death.” Arthur’s world grinds to a halt and he refuses to accept the words that come out of Merlin’s mouth. “The dragon told me not to help the boy escape and I-”

“Is that why you were late?” Arthur’s tone is as accusing as the coolness of his blade.

Merlin squeezes his eyes. “I couldn’t let you die. I can’t let anything happen to you, not to you. But I can’t believe in this destiny either. There can’t just be one path. So I helped him escape and the dragon reprimanded me for my foolishness. But Mordred is just a boy. I couldn’t let him die.”

Arthur is silent with the weight of the choices Merlin was forced to bear. “You did the right thing.” He says at last. “We make our own destinies. That’s what it means to live.” Arthur declares and his surety burns like the flames across from them.

Merlin soaks in his faith and carries on. “I suppose it’s obvious now, that the sorcerer in Ealdor was me and not Will.”

“I figured as much.”

“I worried about Morgana and her latent powers until I saw her have the opportunity to kill Uther and not take it.”

“What!” Arthur feels the beast of betrayal roar up again, “How could you keep this from me!”

“I was going to stop her if she went through with it and shield everyone from the traitor she would have become.” Merlin recounts the story of Morgana allying with traitors because of her hatred for Uther’s stance on magic that led to Gwen’s father’s death and using her father’s grave as bait to get Uther alone.

“You followed a group of murderers on your own just to hide it from everyone?” Arthur asks incredulously.

“Well it’s not like I could just go around and accuse Morgana of treason. I still believed she could be good. And I was right to think so. She stabbed the man about to kill your father and rediscovered her love for Uther again. For her, the love Uther gave her paled in comparison to his hatred of magic, a hatred of one part of her she can never get rid of.”

“So you hate him too then? My father?” Resignation plain in the pull of his brow.

Merlin quiets. “Your father carries many sins on his back, but he raised you and cares for Camelot and rules the best he knows how.” It isn’t an answer, but it is enough.

“Well what about the Questing Beast?” Arthur pushes. “It was a beast of magic.”

Merlin looks deep in thought, carefully picking his words. “You fell unconscious so I enchanted your sword and killed the beast. And we took you home and you survived. That’s what matters.”

“You’re hiding something.” And now that Arthur knows there are secrets to find he realizes how blind he had been to all the signs.

Merlin shakes his head, “It doesn’t matter.”

“Merlin.” And his voice is a command.

Merlin stills. “The Questing Beast had bitten you and you were going to die.” He says in a voice so quiet Arthur has to strain to hear. “I couldn’t let that happen so I asked the great dragon for advice and he told me to go to the Isle of the Blessed where I could bargain for your life.”

Something cold freezes over Arthur’s heart. “What kind of bargain.”

Merlin’s stare is resolute, “I went to give my life in exchange for yours. The Old Religion follows the law of equal exchange, a life for a life, it does not care whose.”

Arthur’s blood pounds in his veins.

“But things didn’t go as planned. I bargained with the priestess Nimueh but she and the dragon tricked me, I had bargained myself for water from the cup of life, and instead of taking my life, she went after my mother. After healing you, I went to the dragon in a rage. He said it was my destiny to be at your side to bring back magic to Camelot and free him. He had used me for his own ends and I swore he would never taste freedom again.”

“I went back to the Isle to do things right after saying goodbye one last time.”

I’m happy to be your servant, until the day I die. Arthur pinches his eyes shut. Who had given Merlin the right to throw his life for Arthur’s. Why hadn’t he said anything. Why hadn’t he told him. Deep down, Arthur knows Merlin could never have said anything lest they repeat the tragedy of the maze again. Arthur would give up his life for Merlin in a heartbeat. He supposes he has no right to argue when Merlin did the same.

“But as it happened, Nimueh and I fought and it was her life, not mine, that the Old Religion took in the trade for my mother’s.”

“You should not have sacrificed your life for me.” Arthur’s hands curl into fists, “I could not have lived knowing it was at the cost of your life.”

“I won’t apologize.” Merlin argues, quieter, “It has no meaning without you.” His soul bare in his voice.

Arthur shakes his head more adamantly willing Merlin to understand, “I am not worth your life.” He repeats harder.

“Oh Arthur,” he breathes, “You are everything.” And Merlin leans forward, breath hesitating against Arthur’s lips before he is kissing him, all of him pressed within his touch.

Arthur is frozen before his hand moves on its own accord to curl through Merlin’s hair and hold him tighter against him. For all his talk about making your own destiny, the second Merlin’s lips touch his, he feels as though fate itself has worked its way through tragedy and victory to mold this moment. Something deep and ancient aches within him, like the very earth has waited for them. Arthur kisses him slowly, memorizing the curve of his lips against his own and the hand that shakes as it curls around his shoulder. He kisses him with intent, a possessiveness revealed for all the world to see.

A betrayal only hurts as deeply as the love that runs beneath.

Arthur pulls away and rests his forehead against Merlin’s own. “I discovered you had magic when you were fighting against Cornelius Sigan and I heard you say you’d rather serve a good man than rule with an evil one. You declared your loyalty and turned away from power in front of no one, and yet I woke up from the battle angry and betrayed and devastated that you had lied. But you lied saving my life and defending the wellbeing of the kingdom we both love. I’m sorry for the past two weeks.”

Merlin shakes his head but Arthur continues, “Magic is treason under the law, but I cannot believe it to be an evil, if you wield it.”

“It’s not Arthur, it’s not.” Earnest and pleading, “Magic can be wonderful. It can heal and protect. For you, I can do anything.”

Arthur’s hands are warm around Merlin’s own. “You have borne so many burdens alone Merlin but no more.”

“It’s always for you Arthur, everything for you.”

Arthur leans in again and kisses him with purpose. “We will protect this kingdom together for everything would be bitter were you not there to see it.” And it’s true Arthur realizes.

True that what mattered to him and his priorities had altered dramatically since Merlin had come bounding over that hill on the day destiny had made its move. He didn’t care what prophecies stood in his way or what fate said would lay in store. He would fight the gods themselves for the future he and Merlin would create together, side by side.

A question inside him gives him pause, “Why did the prophecies pick you?”

Merlin grins cheekily, “The druids call me Emrys, they say I’m the most powerful sorcerer to have ever lived.”

Arthur gapes and then throws his head back and laughs. Because of course. “You never cease to amaze me Merlin.” And the smile his words draws out is worth every tear he had shed to reach today.

V.

They ride out at dawn back to the castle with the knowledge that the knights would return when they are healed and well. The air seems lighter as they ride, the two of them free from their secrets and feelings that drowned them. They’re halfway home before Arthur slows his horse down to a nice trot. “Merlin, what do you think about being honest with Morgana?”

“What?” he asks dumbly.

Arthur rolls his eyes, “Keep up Merlin. If Morgana wanted to plot against my father because of magic, then what do we have to lose by telling her you have magic and that we know she has magic and that we’re still here. With her.”

“You’re taking an awfully easy stance on the whole thing aren’t you?” Merlin tests.

“If you’ve forgotten, I’ve had weeks to contemplate it. Like I said, magic can’t be bad if you have it.” He declares firmly, like saying the sky was blue or the grass green.

Warmth spreads across Merlin’s whole body. “And Morgana is practically my sister. We grew up together. I refuse to believe she doesn’t feel the same way.”

“She loves you Arthur.” Merlin insists, “But fear…fear and vengeance can corrupt even the most loving of hearts.”

“Then we’ll just have to stop her hatred once and for all.” And Arthur says we so naturally that everything seems so much better than before.

“Yes.” Merlin agrees. “We will.” And likes the way it sounds on his tongue.

They arrive in the throne room with fanfare, Uther’s face alight in a smile that suggests he expected nothing less. “What news do you bring Arthur?”

“We have defeated the beast with no causalities, though my knights have been wounded and will be returning to Camelot later.”

“I see." The king looks pensive for only a second, "As long as they are well, this is still a cause for celebration. You have done well Arthur.” He turns to the crowd of nobles and knights and servants surrounding them, “A feast! For my son’s heroic victory.”

Arthur longs to bring Merlin into the ray of glory he stands beneath, but knows it can never be. But Merlin looks happy enough, his cheery gaze locked with Gaius and then Gwen, who looks nearly faint with relief. Uther disbands the assembly and Gwen, Gaius, and Morgana rush over. Gwen throws her arms around Merlin tightly. “Oh thank goodness you two are alright. We were worried sick.” She steps back and though she cannot, Arthur can feel the warmth of the hug she would have given.

“It was a tough battle,” Arthur concedes, “But the hydra was no match for the knights of Camelot.” His grin turns a little teasing, “And Merlin of course, in all his bumbling glory.”

Merlin tuts at him, sneaking a lighthearted glower before he is embraced by Gaius who then pats Arthur on the shoulder. Morgana sniffs at them, “Well you wouldn’t be able to tell you two were heroes by the way you look.” She wrinkled her nose at the grime and dirt that covered them.

“Be careful Morgana,” Arthur warned, “Lest I embrace you extra hard.”

Morgana’s glare is lethal, “You wouldn’t dare.”

“Wouldn’t I?” Mischief rife in his tone.

She glares as Gwen sighs in exasperation, Merlin sporting a foolish grin across his face. Arthur looks around wants to keep this moment, a treasure in his mind. No matter what happens, he won't let the future Merlin feared pass. They would bring Camelot to a happier fate.

The following feast is a loud affair. The jesters flit about the room, juggling and singing and entertaining beyond reason. Merlin stands behind Arthur, refilling his goblet and occasionally offering snarky commentary that makes Arthur choke on his drink and invite stares from his father and knights. It is a night of festivities and winding down and by the end of it, Arthur feels high in the clouds and invincible, like he could topple the moon and stars with his own two hands.

Merlin laughs at his appearance, fond and amused. He grabs Arthur by the waist and wraps one of his arms around his own shoulder, guiding him back to his chambers. “Merlin.” He says, and he’s not drunk, just a little happier! “Merlin.” He repeats, trying to stabilize himself, “I’m grateful for you and I want you to always be with me. So be safe. Be careful.” And he’s sober enough to know to stop talking.

Merlin pushes him into bed, pulling off his shoes and tucking him under the covers. He smooths down the tufts of Arthur’s hair gently. “I’ve been careful so far Arthur, you have nothing to fear.”

Arthur grabs at Merlin’s hand and presses it against his lips, holding him for a long time. “So troublesome.” Merlin laughs.

“But you love me anyway.” Arthur mumbles.

A smile, gentle like the moonlight. “I do.”

“I love you.” Arthur’s eyes flutter in sleep.

“I know.”

VI.

Arthur’s sword clashes against his Kay’s own, the steel glinting in the sunlight. Twisting his foot, Arthur parries the blow with a fancy and completely useless trick in the real world that served only to look gallant. Merlin catches Arthur’s quick glance in his general direction and quickly hides his smile. With Kay incapacitated and Arthur standing above him victoriously, Merlin lets himself look just a little proud, enough to taunt Arthur into sauntering over, cocky smile in place. “See something you like?”

Merlin scoffs, a sly grin growing, “Sir Kay’s finesse with a sword did not go unnoticed. I’m in deep admiration of him.”

Arthur frowns. “Sir Kay has the worst footwork I’ve ever seen and he can barely find his sword half the time, let alone use it well.”

Merlin laughs enjoying the delightfully petulant look on his lover’s face. “I should’ve guessed you were the jealous type.”

“I am not the jealous type!” Arthur denies, huffing all the way back to his chambers.

Merlin keeps laughing, “Who’s the girl now?” He teases, “There, there Arthur, you’re pretty too.” He pats Arthur on the head, thoroughly enjoying himself.

Arthur growls, “I’ll show you pretty.” Before tackling him to the bed, tussling around before having Merlin thoroughly pinned, face pressed into the pillows.

“I yield! I yield!” Merlin barely gets out through his pants and laughter.

Arthur grunts before letting off some of the pressure. He flops next to him and watches him with sullen eyes. “I’m incredibly happy, do you know?” Merlin announces. “I’ve always wanted to lie on your bed.” And his grin is so brazen Arthur can’t help but wonder if the innuendo was just in his head, “But I always imagined far less clothing.”

And his smile is so salacious Arthur guffaws, rolling over so he trapped Merlin beneath his forearms, his face just inches below his own. “Apparently,” he starts, “I’m quite the hero. I’ve been said to make dreams come true.”

Merlin’s grin is slow and challenging, “Is that so?” He tilts his neck higher, exposing his collarbone, his voice dropping to an alluring murmur, “Dream me the world Arthur.” And Arthur swoops down and unravels reality.

VII.

The next morning, they look at each other and can’t help the stupid grins on their faces and the flush of want. But as they settle into the morning routine, responsibility reveals itself. “So Morgana.” Arthur opens, not exactly hesitant, but not over enthused either.

He sees Merlin slow his fidgeting with the shirt he’s mending to turn and stare at him. “You want to go now I suppose.” He says resignedly, sighing as he puts away the needle and thread.

Arthur grins, “You read my mind.”

Unable to not help himself to Arthur’s happiness, Merlin finds his own expression relax, “Well I am magic you know.”

Arthur pauses for a second, “You can’t actually read minds though can you?”

“Why?” Merlin taunts, “Afraid of what I might see?” he tsks, “Naughty.” His finger wags in the air.

Arthur has him pressed up against the wall roughly, his lips ensnaring Merlin’s thoughts until they fray away into nothing. “That’s enough out of you.” Arthur growls and Merlin is limp in his hands.

Eventually, they make it out the door, being in the public eye forcing some sort of self-control into the two as they march determinately to Morgana’s chambers. They pause outside her door, trepidation running through them both before Arthur knocks resolutely.

Gwen opens up, smiling in that gentle way of hers. “Arthur! Merlin! What a nice surprise.”

“May we come in? It’s urgent.” Arthur asks, already peering past his friend to see where Morgana was hidden.

“Let them in Gwen, they’ll be intolerable otherwise.” Comes her quick reply.

Gesturing with her hand, Gwen shuts the door behind them, following the pair into the seating area. “To what do I owe the pleasure?” Morgana drawls looking as lovely as ever.

Merlin glances at Gwen, unsure, but not willing to say anything aloud. “Merlin and I wish to speak to you about something of the utmost importance…” Arthur follows Merlin’s gaze, “And privacy.”

Morgana meets his stare coolly, “If it’s to do with me, then anything you have to say you can say in front of Gwen. She has my absolute trust, as she should yours.”

Merlin is quick to defend Arthur’s words, “Gwen is our closest friend, of course we trust her.” Her responding smile warms his heart however hesitant it is.

Arthur nods, “Very well. Morgana…this is…difficult for me to say but I find it to be-”

Morgana waves her hand, impatient, “Yes, yes, very important business. Just say it Arthur.” And she looks just a little afraid, but Arthur thinks that might just be a trick of the light.

Morgana has never been afraid of anything. Not ever.

Arthur hesitates, his words a jumble in his throat. So Merlin steps in. “You’re a Seer Morgana.” And he already feels the atmosphere of the room transform uncontrollably. “The dreams you have are not just dreams, they are prophecies of the future to come.” Morgana stares at him, eyes unblinking, dread written all over her face, “It’s nothing to fear.” Merlin continues softly, “Magic is not an evil in of itself.”

Gwen’s hands leap to her mouth as tears mark rivers down her cheeks. Anger whirls within her closest friend as she hurls herself upwards, wrath and accusation making her striking appearance all the sharper. “Nothing to fear?” she mocks, “What do you know Merlin,” she sneers, “Of having a power you never asked for that would get you killed?” Her eyes dare him to find the audacity to answer.

Merlin finds himself frozen, a long hardened habit of terror and secrecy freezing his actions. Arthur touches his arm and like a flame it melts his rigidity away. Love swallows fear and Merlin makes sure to look Morgana in the eye as he unfurls his hand to reveal a flame dancing within it. The fires twirl into a bird that darts around the room in merriment before disappearing leaving a trail of embers behind. Shocked, Morgan whirls around to face him, disbelief making her doubt her own eyes. “You have magic.” She murmurs. “You have magic.

“And I’m proud of it.” Merlin asserts, “With it, I’ve protected everything I wanted to protect.” His eyes are downcast. “Well…almost everything. Gwen, when the sickness overcame the village, I couldn’t bear to let your father die knowing the pain it would cause you. So I...”

Gwen blinks away her naiveté, “You…you’re the one who cured him.” Thinking of her father so soon after his death sends a fresh wave of tears coursing through her.

Merlin’s own eyes glisten, “I’m sorry Gwen, if I had known they would imprison you, I’d have found a different way.”

Gwen’s laugh is watery, “You tried though…to give yourself up for me. But no one would believe you.”

“Still, I’m sorry.”

Gwen rushes over, wraps her arms around him and pulls him in tightly, “Thank you for saving my father’s life.” Merlin’s arms around her shake.

Watching them with a smile, Arthur moves closer to Morgana, “I know this is frightening for you, but you’re not alone Morgana, you have all of us. And we won’t let anything happen to you. Merlin can even teach you, though I doubt he’d be any good.”

“Won't let anything bad happen to me?" she scoffs, "What are you talking about Arthur, you know as well as I that if Uther ever found out…” her face goes ashen, “If Uther ever found out-” she chokes, unable to finish the thought.

“He won’t find out." Arthur's word is stone, "Or we’ll change his mind. Or we’ll do something else entirely. It doesn’t matter right now.”

“Of course it matters! Of course it does! I never asked for this but he’d still see me burn anyway!” And the frustration and anger prove too much as it gushes out of her, her shoulders shaking.

“You will not burn.” Arthur’s words rise above her like a mountain range, impossible to defy, “Not you or Merlin. You will have to hide but you don’t need to feel ashamed. Merlin told me you foresaw Sophia trying to drown me.” Softer now, he continues, “Don’t you see Morgana? Your magic, it can be used for good. Just like my sword, yours is but a weapon we can’t see.”

Morgana's shoulders tremble, her face hidden behind a veil of hair. “You will be a better king than your father.” She repeats, echoes of her words from before.

“And you Morgana? Where will you be?”

She stills, wiping her eyes and straightening her dress as she steps away. Something like resolve in the way she carries herself. “Here of course. Someone needs to have a rational head on their shoulders around here.” Arthur catches Merlin’s eye and allows himself the smallest of smiles.

Maybe destiny could be changed after all.

“I’ll bring you some books.” Merlin promises, “Books on prophecy and the Sight.”

Morgana tilts her head downward, “I’m sorry I yelled at you before.”

Merlin’s gaze softens, “It’s alright. I’m still friends with Arthur aren’t I, and all he does is yell his head off all day.” He laughs at Arthur’s indignant expression and Gwen’s muffled giggle.

“I don’t know how you put up with him.” Morgana snorts.

Merlin catches her hand, “I can teach you, if you’d like.” He offers shyly, “How to control your magic.”

She squeezes his hand. “I’d like that.” He grins at her, waves goodbye to Gwen, and is followed by Arthur out the door.

They walk through the halls of the castle they both love so and feel a little bit better than before. “That went well I think.” Merlin says finally.

Glancing at him, Arthur smirks, “Yes well, I was quite eloquent.”

Merlin rolls his eyes. “Prat.” And smiles as Arthur grabs him by the neck and rubs his knuckles in his hair.

VIII.

Things carry on as though nothing has changed at all and yet, everything is different. Most afternoons, Morgana hunches next to Merlin in Gaius’ work room, poring over tomes older than they were, excitedly muttering and whispering amongst themselves. Gaius has always been a mentor to Merlin, the father-figure he never had, but experimenting with Morgana, giggling like children over spell mistakes and misshapen failures, leaves him with a thrill he has never experienced. Magic for Merlin, at least in Camelot, had been about life and death. Learning a spell was to counteract some terrible enchantment threatening the people, the kingdom, or worse, his prince. But here, now, teaching Morgana the basics of control and precision, it becomes so much more than that. He feels free.

Today, they are examining dreams and prophecy, looking for some way to tame the nightmares into something more manageable, something less crippling. Seeing, as it happened, was just like any other magic. Once one stopped fighting it, it came when beckoned, and ceased being an unwanted guest. Merlin points at the page, “We could try this.” He suggests, cocking his head to see her expression.

Morgana looks unconvinced, “Meditation? Really Merlin?”

“Well it makes sense doesn’t it?” he defends, “Clearing your mind might allow you to create a clear channel so that you can See whenever you want. If we combine that with that stone we saw earlier…” Merlin trails off, flipping through papers to find what he was looking for.

“You mean fluorite.” She supplies.

Merlin grins sheepishly, “At least let me feel like a teacher.”

His reluctant pupil rolls her eyes. “Alright, I suppose we don’t have anything to lose.”

Merlin lights up like the night sky after a cloudy day, “Perfect! I’ll fetch you the stones then and I’ll have Gwen hand them to you later.”

She appraises him for a moment, before lowering her eyes, fingers twisting around the loose fabric of her dress. “Thank you Merlin. For everything.” And she just hopes her voice is as sincere as she feels.

A gentle hand curls around her own. “You’re my friend Morgana, there is little I would not do for you.” And Merlin’s eyes are blue like clarity.

Tension Morgana doesn’t know she was holding drains from her shoulders. “You’re too good for Arthur.” She says, shaking her head with mirth.

Blushing, Merlin turns away, bending his head over the books pretending to read words he can’t actually make out. “I don’t know what you mean, I’ve been told I’m a terrible servant. The worst actually.”

Though his back is turned, he could practically see Morgana’s wicked grin, expression coy with mockery at his expense. “Oh, I think you know exactly what I mean.” Her laugh is like diamonds, sharp and brilliant, “You’re so terribly obvious about it.”

Merlin launches up, defensive and adamant, “We are not!

And then, realizing he has incriminated himself, throws his face back into the books and whines. Morgana’s laugh echoes in the room and somehow, Merlin can’t find it in himself to mope. Damn her and her intuition.

Morgana leaves as quickly as she comes, gone to eat supper with Uther and Arthur. Today, the other servants will be attending their table, so Merlin decides now is as good a time as any to prepare the picnic basket for later that day. Despite not having any sense of self preservation, neither he nor Morgana would ever dare practice obvious magic in the castle that never slept. For Merlin to truly teach Morgana how to light fires from thin air or levitate objects with just a thought, they needed to be out of the eye of the servants and nobility, somewhere where there was only trees and sky. And there was no greater cover than Arthur and Morgana desiring to have some bonding time, taking their two servants along to, well, serve.

He bumps into Gwen near the kitchens, and instinctively smiles back when she meets him with one of her own. “Packing the basket?” she asks knowingly, her own hands wrapped around some biscuits she knows Morgana adores.

“Well you know how Arthur gets when he’s hungry.” He mimes a bear, or some other uncivilized beast and Gwen can’t help but laugh, stifling it as soon as it comes, out of some misguided sense of politeness and respect bless her.

“Merlin.” She reprimands, but her eyes are alight with humor so Merlin pays it no mind.

“I can’t believe this is all happening if I’m being honest.” Gwen confesses, looking shy and incredulous all at once.

“Me neither. I could have never imagined this day, no matter how much I wished for it.”

Concerned, Gwen touches his arm, and Merlin knows, no matter how many places he travels, he will never find a soul quite as kind as Gwen’s. God must’ve have given a portion of love to every being and given the rest to her because though she had suffered, suffered injustice and tragedy, she carried no hatred. Not even a drop. “You must have been so afraid Merlin. I’m sorry I couldn’t help you more.”

Merlin’s brows tighten, “You have nothing to be sorry for Gwen. I’m just glad that you’ve all taken it so well… That Arthur’s taken it so well.” And he looks a little dopey just talking about it.

Gwen’s concern melts away as she shakes her head, looking thoroughly exasperated and fond, as though Merlin was missing something painfully obvious. “You’ve changed him you know. Arthur, I mean. I’ve been Morgana’s handmaid for many years, and yet, never, in all that time, has he elected to question the rigidity of class boundaries, to see beyond appearances and his own views of himself. You have taught him what it means to be a prince, and some day, the king who will make Camelot great.”

Merlin can’t help but feel a little overwhelmed by all that. And Gwen to her credit, doesn’t push for anything from him, just flashes him another smile, more teasing this time, and waves him goodbye. Merlin stands there for a few more seconds before remembering that he has a basket to pack and nothing in his hands and Arthur would be out and about soon and that wouldn’t be good at all. He scurries into the kitchen and charms the cook into giving him everything he needs, packing it quickly into the baskets he brought and sprinting out the door.

He runs all the way until he gets to Arthur’s chambers, pausing only to catch his breath before bracing himself as he enters. He’s not disappointed.

“Merlin!” Arthur yells, “Where have you been!” Arthur looks rather ridiculous, what with his head caught in the tight neck of his shirt, and him doing the bouncy jig people do when their clothing experience doesn’t quite go their way.

Merlin snorts, not even bothering to hide his amusement, especially at Arthur’s indignant screeching. “You look like a headless chicken.”

Arthur growls, swivelling towards where he thinks Merlin ought to be, “I’ll make you into a headless chicken you late excuse for a servant! You’re a disgrace to servants everywhere.”

Merlin nods as he tucks his hands into the sleeves, tugging it off slowly. “Yes, yes, I’ll be sure to hand in my membership next week so they can terminate my servitude effective immediately.”

“I should throw you in the stocks for your insolence.”

“Yes but then who would help you when you embarrass yourself?” Merlin teases, pressing a quick kiss against Arthur’s lips when he pulls the shirt right off his head.

Surprised, Arthur thinks about arguing some more, but finds the heat of Merlin’s lips' just slightly better than a cathartic bout of yelling. Later, he thinks.

Merlin pulls away to pass him another shirt, one more fit for outdoor activities and reaches under the drawers to find him his riding boots. “Did you have a pleasant supper at least?” Merlin asks, hand digging around in the dark, blast his disorganization.

Arthur shrugs, fiddling with some writing tools on his desk as he jots down some notes for training exercises. “Father’s thinking of inviting the future Duke of Orches to come visit, his father is ill and he’s completely inexperienced.”

Merlin pokes his head up, looking only slightly skeptical, “And your father wants to…teach him?”

“Well don’t sound so insolent about it Merlin, if you can be a teacher, anyone can.” Merlin continues to stare at him.

Arthur scowls.

“Fine. I’m supposed to teach him. But I won’t be doing much! Just relaying his duties and other…duke things.”

“Duke things.” Merlin says drily.

Arthur waves his hand in the air as though that would explain everything. “You know…grain stores, humility… horse riding!”

Merlin snorts, “Sounds like someone needs to be taught a few things himself.”

“Oh shut up Merlin. I’d like to see you try and do what I do.”

Merlin shoots up victoriously, shoe in hand, before shaking his head comically, “Oh no, I could never do that. I don’t have the royal gene for snobbery.” He says gleefully.

Arthur throws a pen at him. Merlin stops it in midair and just laughs.

“Cheater! That’s cheating!” Arthur accuses, finger pointed like it was threatening.

Merlin leers provokingly, rocking on the balls of his feet. “All’s fair in love and war.” He shrugs. “And I’m quite fond of my face. However!” he declares magnanimously, “To repent for my sins, I offer myself to my prince.” He opens his arms out wide, grinning like a fool, loving how Arthur was so easy to fire up.

“You,” Arthur declares, “Are the most insufferable person that I know. Which is why it is utterly infuriating that I’m so mad for you I can’t even bring myself to care.”

That throws Merlin for a loop and before he knows it, he’s blushing like mad and unable to look Arthur in the eye. Now the prey, he looks to see Arthur smirk, stalking closer. “I would lead a thousand wars for you Merlin, if all is fair.” His hands are on Merlin’s shoulders, his lips pressed to his collarbone, his neck, the underside of his jaw. “All that I am, all that I can be,” his lips press against Merlin’s like fealty, an oath that can never break, “Belongs to you.”

Merlin may know how to rile Arthur up like no other, but Arthur plays just as dirty, knowing how to collapse Merlin into nothing just to rebuild him again in the palms of his hands. He is the most perfect thing Merlin has ever seen. And he was his. Merlin kisses Arthur fiercely, because the love that builds inside him is uncontainable. Needs to explode out into the world or it would destroy him. Destiny had unwittingly created a force to be reckoned with. Tragedy might be what fate had written, but by God, Merlin would rip that end into shreds. For Arthur, he would move the earth and the universe itself.

They untangle themselves from one another when it occurs to them they might be running just a little late. And no one wants to encounter an irate Morgana. So they hurry down stairs, Merlin stumbling about, vision half obscured by the supplies in his arms, until they reach the girls, already atop their horses. “Sorry! Sorry!” Merlin calls, strapping the baskets on the backs of his horse. “We got a little distracted on our way down. You know…baskets and all.” He finishes lamely.

Morgana shoots him with an unimpressed turn of her lip. “Don’t think I don’t know exactly what you two were doing.”

Arthur leers, “Jealous Morgana?” and he has to duck to avoid her childish swipe.

“Come on you two, we haven’t even left the courtyard yet.” Gwen pulls at her reigns, leading the way and nodding as the two stop their bickering in favor of following after her, laughing as Merlin complains at being left behind.

The four of them ride out of the city gates into Arthur’s favourite hunting grounds, where the land is flat and the air quiet save for the hum of nature. There’s a little clearing in the heart of the woods where the aspens formed a circle, their golden leaves glowing like a halo. Gwen pulls out the blanket as Merlin unwraps his book of spells from its hiding place beneath sweet meats and apples. He smiles as Arthur pulls out a pear, munching on it, carefree and satisfied. Gwen sits next to him, entertaining him with castle gossip and the latest shenanigans of the servants where they thought no one was looking.

The sun presses into Arthur’s face and he feels the calm of the day and the flow of Gwen’s chatter ease his soul. He may not have anything to do necessarily at these lesson picnics, but it's nice he thinks, to feel companionship that didn’t just occur in the midst of crisis and calamity. Plus, watching Merlin’s magic was something he could never tire of now that he knows of it. There is something elegant about the way Merlin interacts with it. Something beautiful about the gold in his eyes and his palm open with power. So much of Merlin that he hadn’t noticed now fully out in the open for him to witness.

Merlin waves his hand in the air, sounding out the words of the spell slowly so Morgana could follow. A rock floats next to him before falling back to the earth just as quickly. The excitement in Morgana’s eyes could not be any more noticeable and she repeats the words and follows his instruction like a child would.

Later, when they would tire of lessons, they would join the other two for food and drink, and let themselves enjoy the break, the bubble of content them four had created for themselves. Gwen would pick flowers, a bouquet of water violets and primroses. Combing through Morgana’s hair with her fingers, she’d braid the flowers in, chatting softly with her friend as Morgana closed her eyes.

Arthur would groan, stretching out the muscles in his back and throw himself onto Merlin’s lap, burrowing into him. Merlin would sigh as though it were a hassle, but would press his fingers against his temples, rubbing soothing circles. “Morgana’s improving quicker than I expected.” He comments, “She’s a natural.”

“She’s always been like that, ever since she was a child, fast learner and all.” Arthur responds lazily, enjoying the feeling of Merlin’s hands.

“Well we’ll see about that when we get to the hard stuff. Everybody struggles with something.”

“Speaking of struggling, I need you to shine my armor and wash my surcoat.”

Merlin pauses his ministrations.

“Merlinnn.” Arthur cajoles. “I don’t understand why you’re fussing, it’s for the tournament. I obviously have to compete.”

Merlin sighs. “You nobles and your tournaments, I’ll never understand.”

“You don’t have to understand it Merlin, you just have to support me. And by support me, I mean ensure I look like a knight and not a miscreant.”

Merlin gasps in mock offense, “I could never let my lord look like a commoner. The shame!”

Arthur’s lips curl into a smile, “That’s the spirit.”

They’re quiet for a moment until Arthur breaks the silence. “And wash that scarf of yours too.”

Merlin’s fingers reach up to touch his ever-present neckerchief. “My scarf? Why.”

The lightest bit of pink dots Arthur’s cheeks. “To wrap it around my arm of course.” As if he is an idiot just for asking.

Merlin must’ve stolen the sun and put it in his smile because Arthur is sure it’s blinding. “You want me to give you a favor?” looking plain giddy.

Arthur juts out his jaw, refusing to meet his gaze. “It’s a good luck charm!”

He scowls into Merlin’s shirt, tips of his ears reddening at Merlin’s good-natured laugh. “If you’ll take this ratty thing, I’d be honored to give it to you.” The grin still in his voice.

Arthur finds the courage to look him in the eye and feels a swell of endearment. Things had gone nowhere near to plan, but Arthur suspects they were headed towards a much brighter path. The thought of Merlin alone and afraid with his secret pains his heart to the core. Arthur vows, then and there, to become the king Merlin believed he would become and ensure Merlin never suffered again, “Then watch me win you the tournament.”

Merlin’s fingers are gentle across his cheek. “For you, anything.”