The great hall of the palace of Camelot echoes with sounds of festivity as drinks are poured and metal spoons scrape against metal plates. The tables are littered with knights and maidens exchanging sweet words and coy glances, and servants run around filling one cup to another.
The night has already gone on for a while, and Merlin can see it on the red blooming high on the cheeks of those around him. Agravaine and Gaius had already retired for sleep, and others had retired in pairs for a different kind of celebration.
Merlin takes note of all of these absentmindedly as he keeps his attention mainly on his king, concern gnawing at his insides at the frequency which Arthur’s eyes, in between conversations, would flick towards a couple before looking sullenly in his cup.
Shuffling closer, Merlin leans forward to ask quietly, “Are you alright?”
Arthur does not answer, but Merlin already knows. It had only been a few months since Gwen and Lancelot’s banishment, and a few days since Princess Mithian’s visit. While Merlin has definitely seen an improvement in Arthur’s mood the past few months, he knows that the ache is still there.
“It’s Gwen, isn’t it?”
Arthur does not even try to deny it. “I look for her in the room, and she’s not there. And then I remember why.”
Merlin presses his lips to keep his I’m sorry from being said. He had already said his fair share of it, and he knows it will not bring Gwen back or help ease Arthur’s pain. He steps forward to refill Arthur’s cup instead.
And then the alarm bells sound.
The knights, trained as they are, are up and out of the hall in a heartbeat. Some escort the civilians to safety and others march out with their swords to seek the enemy. Arthur follows the latter, rushing forward until he is at the head of the small army, Merlin close behind.
Leon rushes beside him. “Sire, the enemy has infiltrated the palace. We estimate three hundred soldiers, and more are seen coming from the forest. Some may have come from the entrance to the tunnels.”
Immediately, Merlin’s mind rushes to Agravaine, but he knows Arthur will not appreciate being called on it now, especially without proof. They’ve certainly had that argument countless times before.
Arthur continues on. “And what of our troops?”
“Ready to be mobilized, sire.”
“Move out. Drive them back on all entrances to the castle. Leon, take care of the tunnel. Elyan and Percival, the forest. I will lead the forefront and assist as soon as I can.”
A chorus of “Aye, sire!” and men separate from the group to turn the corner towards the dungeons.
“Gwaine,” Arthur says next, but is cut off by the man himself.
“Right behind you, princess!” Gwaine’s voice is a little slurred but his grin and eyes remain sharp, and they all knew from experience that Gwaine actually fought better when slightly inebriated.
“Merlin,” Arthur says, and Merlin cuts him off as well.
“Yes, yes, stay out of the way, don’t trip over anything, try not to make trouble for other knights, got it, my lord.” It isn’t the right time for a joke, but Merlin can feel the adrenaline and panic within him making him feel just a little bit on a high, and it got Arthur to smile, even if just a little bit.
“And don’t die. My sword and armor will need to be polished after this.”
“Doesn’t it always?” Merlin mutters.
Gwaine guffaws, and some of the other knights are grinning as well. Merlin takes a moment to appreciate and be in awe of the sheer strength of the presence of the Knights of Camelot, before they reach the courtyard and all hell breaks loose.
They are winning, Merlin can feel it. He can see it in the uncertainty in the enemies’ eyes, which had appeared after Arthur and his men had seized the courtyard and the villages back. They had left Gwaine to guard the front before rounding back towards the forest to help Elyan and Percival. Merlin had helped out the wounded, dragging injured soldiers into alcoves and making numerous emergency tourniquets. From time to time, he sent rocks flying towards enemy heads, just enough to distract them mid-swing.
Now, nearing the edge of the forest, Merlin can feel the rising morale of Camelot’s knights and the sudden indecision haunting the movements of their enemies. Arthur is running beside him, muscles moving with memory and hard-won experience, and with a rush of pride for his king, he knows that this will once again be Camelot’s victory.
But then, a figure emerges from the forest.
It is Elyan who sees it first, and Merlin sees the horror draw on his face before he hears Elyan’s shout:
“Your Majesty, stop!”
The world explodes in a ball of light and lightning.
Merlin’s ears ring long and loud and painful. The first thing that he thinks is magic. Morgana. And the next, always the most important, is:
“Arthur,” he gasps out from the ground, wheezing at the smoke threatening to fill his lungs. All around him, he sees bodies of men, but he’s not sure if they’re friend or foe or if they’re alive or dead, but he’s sure they’re not Arthur, and where is Arthur —
Merlin knows that Arthur is in pain before the smoke even clears. He knows it in Arthur’s voice, knows that Arthur is probably injured, but the pain of that is nothing compared to seeing his uncle, the only family he thought he had left, standing at the right hand of Morgana. He had wanted Arthur to know the truth, but not like this. Not at the expense of having his already fragile heart broken once again into pieces.
The forest is dark, but the moon is high above and illuminates the three figures on horseback, standing at the front of the remnants of their army.
And a hard-muscled man, a warrior with dark skin and intricate tattoos on his face and his bare arms.
Leon and his men are rushing from the side, and Leon is shouting over the noise of men still fighting each other, “Sire, Agravaine has betrayed us!”
From Agravaine’s ruffled and dirty appearance, Merlin can guess that he had led the enemy in the tunnels, only to have been pushed back by Leon and his men, before escaping on his own to report back to Morgana.
“Terribly sorry it had to be like this, Arthur,” Agravaine says, slightly out of breath, but a smirk is fixed firmly on his face.
And Arthur snaps out of his stupor, and while his face is still contorted in hurt and betrayal, he lets it fuel him into anger. He shouts, rushes off the ground, and charges towards his uncle, sword aiming for his chest.
Around him, Merlin can hear the fight beginning anew as soldiers from both sides pick up their own swords, but all Merlin can see is Arthur.
Arthur rushing forward and Agravaine jumping down from his horse and unsheathing his sword, and Morgana, Morgana with a wicked smile and raising her hand towards Arthur and —
All at once, Merlin is hit with the knowledge of several things: Morgana is thrown back. Arthur is safe. Arthur is alive.
And Arthur saw him doing magic.
The stunned expressions on everyone’s faces are terrifying, and for a moment, the night is heavy with silence. And then, one by one, the enemies’ soldiers run back, screaming “Sorcerer!” in fear, morale effectively trampled upon by the sudden knowledge that the kingdom they were fighting against also had a sorcerer on their side.
And Morgana — Morgana is laughing, loud and victorious and a little bit manic, as she urges her horse back into the forest, with the tattooed man riding beside her.
Agravaine is on the ground, alive, but with a sword in his side.
And the battle is won, but when Arthur’s betrayed expression falls on him, Merlin feels like he had just lost everything.
I was right, Merlin thinks. Arthur is injured.
Merlin thinks this in the haze of panic, Arthur knows about my magic, and despair, I’ll be banished from Camelot. He makes a mental list of all the scratches he can see on Arthur’s person, takes note of how Arthur favors his right leg, and observes the way Arthur cradles his left arm close to his body. He resolutely, desperately, tries to ignore looking into Arthur’s face, but it’s impossible to get away from such a blatant and heart-wrenching expression of pain.
Around them, the knights are quiet, wary. Some have their swords halfway up, unsure if Merlin is an enemy. Something in Merlin hurts at that, to be at the end of the sword point of the knights of Camelot, but it was bound to end up this way, wasn’t it? It just happened sooner than Merlin expected.
At least, Merlin thinks, the swords of Leon, Elyan, and Percival are down.
So is Arthur’s, but that may only be because it is currently lodged in Agravaine’s gut.
Suddenly, Arthur’s knees fail him and he crumples to the ground, and despite himself, despite all the swords pointing to him, Merlin rushes forward to help him.
Nobody charges at him, but Arthur recoils.
And that hurt more than any wound a sword could make.
Arthur jerks back away from him, hissing as the movement jostles his already broken arm, but he keeps himself out of Merlin’s reach. His eyes are a little wild, a little afraid, and so betrayed.
“No,” he whispers, agonized. “Don’t touch me, you… you sorcerer.”
And he says it like an insult. Like a curse.
Eyes turning hot and damp, Merlin barely registers Gaius — when did Gaius get here — gently pulling him aside by the shoulder. He watches as Arthur lets himself relax under Gaius’ touch, but not Merlin’s, and he probably never will again.
From the ground, just a few feet away, Agravaine groans, pained and gurgly, and it’s as if the knights have snapped out of their stupor. Some rush to the king to check on him, others haul Agravaine up, and others roam around to check on the dead and the injured.
Gwaine grabs his wrist and slowly leads him away, and the knights are confused enough that they just let them be. Soon, Gwaine’s pace increases, and he pushes Merlin forward with a hand on his back, and Merlin is torn between knee-buckling relief that at least Gwaine is not disgusted by him, not disgusted by his touch, and fear that Gwaine is now duty-bound to lead him to the dungeons.
And Merlin knows he will never use magic to escape, even when it will be so easy, because he will never leave Arthur, especially when Merlin hasn’t even had the chance to talk to him yet, explain himself properly, apologize, beg for forgiveness —
And Merlin realizes, in his hysteria, that this isn’t the way to the dungeons at all.
In fact, it isn’t even the way to the castle.
They’re in the forest.
“Gwaine… Gwaine, where are…”
“To safety,” Gwaine says, but it’s not Gwaine’s voice, and the hand on his back feels oddly smaller now, the fingers longer, and Merlin’s eyes widen, and he whips around just as Morgana whispers in his ear:
And then everything disappears into black.
“Where’s Merlin?” Arthur’s voice is rough, commanding, and furious.
Gaius looks up from his position by the king’s knees, his raised eyebrow wary.
Arthur ignores it, squashes down the thought that of course, Gaius would have known, and of course, Gaius would have hidden it.
A young knight with a bruised cheek rushes forward. “Sire, I saw him being led out by Sir Gwaine.”
Arthur’s head snaps up off the ground at that. “To the castle?”
The young knight shuffles nervously. “Err, no, sire, to the… To the forest.”
And despite all the pain, all the hurt, all the betrayal in this one night, Arthur feels dread. They had left Gwaine in the courtyard, in charge of protecting the front of the castle and the villages. Arthur knew that without his orders, Gwaine would never leave that courtyard even if it killed him.
He hits the ground angrily, letting all his frustration go into it. “Gwaine is in the courtyard,” he breathes out, and he meets Gaius’ eyes, which widen with alarm as the implication sinks in.
“Search the forest,” Arthur grunts. “Pass the message to Leon. Gather all able-bodied men and search the whole forest. Find Merlin and bring him to me.”
The knight is off his feet at once. “Aye, sire.”
Merlin wakes up in a dungeon after all.
It is dark and damp, like he’s buried deep in the earth, and there is no draft. The ground is cold underneath him, as cold as the iron cuffs keeping his wrists and ankles together.
Merlin wakes up, unsure of how long he’s been asleep or if the night had already broken into day.
All he knows is that he’s shackled and that there’s something wrong with his magic.
He bolts up, a sudden rush of adrenaline cutting through the haze of sleep, and feels something heavy around his neck. He knows at once that it’s cold iron. When he touches it, he can feel carvings of symbols on it — runes.
His stomach drops like lead.
He tries anyway. “Færblæd wawe,” he whispers, calling on his magic to blow the blazing torch on the wall outside his cell, and watches in dismay as nothing happens. He couldn’t even feel his magic responding. He knew it was there, simmering under his skin and in his blood, but it felt restless, like it didn’t know what to do.
The dungeons echo as a metal door scrapes open, and Merlin forces himself to swallow the despair he currently feels. He refuses to let Morgana see his fear.
Morgana is smiling, wide and pleased, when she nears the bars of his cell. Behind her, the tattooed man who had been with her in Camelot is eyeing him with a similar grin.
“Well, well, Merlin, who would have known?” Morgana murmurs sweetly. “A sorcerer in Camelot, right under Arthur’s nose. His faithful, bumbling servant.” She spits out the last word, and Merlin feels regret at how easily Morgana’s beautiful face can contort into rage.
“You had magic all this time, Merlin, and you never told me. All those times that I was suffering, and you—! You even had the gall to poison me. You betray your own kind,” she hisses out through gritted teeth, looking down at him from outside his cell.
“Morgause linked the Knights of Medhir to you.” Merlin grits out, even as the guilt threatens to consume him even after all these years. “She gave me no choice.”
In an instant, Merlin is hauled up and off the ground by an invisible force holding him by the neck. His legs dangle just inches from the ground.
“Leave my sister out of this,” Morgana says, eyes gold, voice quiet and dangerous. “It was you who offered me poison.”
Despite the pressure on his neck, the burning ache in his chest, Merlin glares at her and wheezes out: “For Camelot.”
He is thrown against the wall for his insolence.
“You would protect the very kingdom that would have your head and stick it on a spear as a trophy.”
Merlin coughs, clutching at his neck, throat hurting with every inhale that his lungs demanded. Despite his position crumpled on the floor, he levels his glare back at Morgana. “I protect King Arthur and the kingdom that he is destined to make.”
Morgana’s laugh is sharp and mocking. “Do you really believe Arthur will accept you if you come running back to him?” she says, and her gleeful smile returns at Merlin’s silence.
For once, Merlin keeps quiet, because no, he thinks, his heart twisting. From Arthur’s reaction, Merlin doesn’t believe it.
“Magic is still banned in Camelot and punishable by death,” Morgana continues, because she knows it will hurt. “Arthur will have you burned at the stake. He is Uther’s son.”
And Merlin is not proud at how it was so easy, to hit back where it also hurts. He flashes a weak grin at Morgana. “No more than you are his daughter.”
And he is slammed again on the opposite wall, and ah, something definitely broke, and there’s something hot and wet sliding down the side of his face and he’s not sure if it’s blood or the grime of the cell.
“My lady,” the tattooed man cuts in, gently. He steps into the light, and Merlin, through the black spots in his hazy vision, can see once again the swirling patterns of black ink on the bare skin of his head. His voice is deep, calm, and seductive. “Any more and he will expire of his use to us.”
“I don’t need his limbs to use his magic,” Morgana spits out, but it is obvious after that she makes an effort to calm down. Her breathing is still heavy, but her shoulders roll down and her back is less stiff than before. “No matter, Helios. When he outlives his use to me, when Arthur is dead, you may have him.”
A smile slides its way into Helios’ face. He glances at Merlin, studies his crumpled form from head to toe, and holds Merlin’s gaze. His smile widens. “I appreciate your generosity, my lady.”
A different kind of dread settles upon Merlin then, and he knows that this man is also dangerous.
“I will never use my magic for you,” Merlin grits out, and every word sends a jolt of pain through his body. A broken rib. Maybe two. And that is definitely blood running down his forehead. It’s starting to obscure his vision.
Morgana chuckles at his attempts. “Oh, you won’t even have to lift a finger, Merlin.”
She lifts a hand towards him and murmurs, “Færblæd wawe.”
And Merlin feels his magic waking, but it’s wrong, and before it felt like the magic flowed in his veins, but now it feels like there’s something slithering, crawling, and it’s disgusting. Merlin’s body jerks, and the magic rushes out of him into a breeze that blows all the torches off in the dungeons.
“Bæl on bryne,” Morgana says again, but the magic isn’t coming from her, the magic is coming from Merlin.
The torches all burn back into life, illuminating Morgana’s look of triumph and Helios’ face set with awe, greed, and unmistakable lust.
Merlin stares at the floor in shock, unseeing.
Disbelieving of the horror of the truth that Morgana has control of his magic.
Merlin is nowhere to be found.
Gwaine swears that he had been in the courtyard the whole time until Arthur had summoned him, which is unnecessary as there are a hundred other knights who can vouch as witnesses that Gwaine had indeed only been at the front of the castle. It is also unnecessary as Arthur knows, even before Leon had arrived that morning to relay that the search yielded no results, that Merlin has been taken.
A small part of him, the part that’s angry and betrayed and played like a fool, entertains the notion that Merlin escaped on his own, but Arthur is surprised himself at how quickly he squashes that thought down.
It’s impossible, unbelievable to think that Merlin would run off like a coward.
As unbelievable as it was that Merlin has magic?, that small part whispers tauntingly to him.
He squashes that down as well, though this time it requires a bit more conscious effort.
He snaps orders at everyone he meets: search the forest, search the castle, secure the villages, treat the injured, report on the damages, and part of it is a lack of sleep, but a bigger part of it is the result of a whirlwind of emotions from all the events that transpired last night.
Agravaine, his uncle. His only family left that he thought he could trust. Agravaine who Arthur kept close as his adviser for so long, and all this time, he had been working for Morgana, whispering secrets of the castle and of Camelot.
And Arthur, in his rage and grief, had driven the sword to his gut.
Agravaine is still alive, fighting for his life in the dungeons, and Arthur is torn between wanting him to suffer and wanting his mother’s brother to live.
And then Merlin.
Stupid, idiotic Merlin, performing magic in front of everyone to save his life, hiding his magic for the past how many years they’ve known each other, and did Merlin betray him, too?
He thought he knew Merlin, thought that there were no secrets between them, regarded him as the one he trusted the most with in his life, and thought that the feeling was reciprocated, but… He grits his teeth at how much it hurt knowing that it apparently wasn’t.
Had Arthur really known him at all? How much of it was a lie? All of it? Did Merlin think him a fool?
And now Morgana knows about Merlin’s magic as well, or had she known all this time? No, she would have done something about it earlier had she known, maybe lure Merlin to her side or expose him to Arthur in the hopes of breaking their friendship.
Arthur is sure that Morgana is the one that kidnapped Merlin. And that is another problem, the worry and concern eating at him, fighting with the feelings of anger he has for Merlin’s lies.
He pours his frustration on the dungeon door as he yanks it open, not caring if the noise echoed loudly all throughout. He nears Agravaine’s cell just as Gaius exits it and a guard locks the door behind him.
Gaius looks older than ever, as if he had aged years in just a few hours. Arthur is suddenly guilty for the burden Gaius has had to carry since last night. The old man had stayed up all night with them, the only one to tend to the injured despite his own worries about Merlin’s whereabouts. Naturally, it was also he that had tended to Agravaine.
Gaius sees him coming and waits just outside the cell. The look in his eyes and the grim set of his lips tell Arthur that Agravaine will probably not live through the day.
He doesn’t know whether to mourn or rejoice that.
“Come to bid your dearest old uncle farewell?” Agravaine laughs, wet and scratchy and wheezing. He is lying down, shirtless, and bandages are wrapped around his torso, but it helps little if the amount of blood that have seeped through it is anything to go by.
“I have no more uncle,” Arthur replies, suddenly numb of all past familial feelings he may have felt for his mother’s brother. “Why did you do it?” he asks instead, quietly.
Agravaine’s grin disappears slowly, and he relaxes on the wood panel serving as his bed. He stares at the ceiling, and he is the perfect image of a dying man, dying alone with nothing but the weight of the burdens of the decisions he had made in life. “Why did Uther do it? Trade your life for my sister’s?”
His eyes flicker to Arthur. “Why did Ygraine have to give birth to you?”
And Arthur keeps his jaw locked and his mouth shut, because he had also asked himself those very same questions.
Agravaine’s body convulses with forceful coughs, before he relaxes once again. When his grin returns, it is red. “My only regret is that Uther never knew that it was I who put the necklace that killed him around his neck.”
Agravaine wants a reaction out of him, but Arthur had already poured all his fury into driving the sword in his gut. He feels detached, and he cannot muster the emotions he is sure he needs to feel at that new piece of information: It was not the sorcerer Dragoon the Great that murdered his father. It was Agravaine and Morgana all along.
He knows this will come to haunt him, predictably as soon as there is no more work to be done and he is alone with his thoughts in his chambers, but right now, he has been through so many revelations in just the past few hours that he can only meet his uncle’s gaze with a straight face.
And suddenly, Arthur is tired. He has nothing he wants to talk about with his uncle anymore. He knows that whatever words they exchange now about what Uther did, what Agravaine did will change nothing.
He just needs to know one last thing.
He doesn’t believe, not even for a minute, that Merlin has been working with them, but he needs to hear it. He needs the words spoken out loud.
“And Merlin?” he asks, all too aware of Gaius’ piercing gaze on him.
Agravaine coughs yet again. More blood spills from his lips, and he is getting paler by the minute, but his grin remains.
“Merlin is a miscalculation,” he murmurs. “But if Morgana has taken him, he will soon be our asset.”
“I expect he only has a few more hours to live,” Gaius informs him softly, when they are alone in the throne room.
Arthur nods, sharp and stiff. There is nothing he can do for Agravaine now. And there is nothing that he wants to. He sighs, and lets some the facade that goes with being king slip away.
“Thank you, Gaius, for all your efforts. He has betrayed Camelot, and for that I will never forgive him, but… for my mother, I thank you.”
Gaius regards him silently, and Arthur knows that he has never been able to hide anything from the old man. A few seconds pass, before Gaius bows, slow and sure. “Ygraine would have been so proud of the man you’ve become, Arthur.”
Arthur looks at him, pain etched across his face. “I am a weak king, Gaius. Foolish enough to be betrayed at every turn.”
“You are not to be blamed for the actions of those around you and the consequences they have reaped.”
An amused smile appears on Arthur’s lips. “I always knew Merlin would have gotten his rare bouts of wisdom from somewhere.”
Gaius returns it easily. “You flatter me, sire.” And then his expression returns into something somber and serious. He looks at Arthur in the eyes when he says, “Merlin has never betrayed you, and believe me when I say that no matter what Morgana may do, he never will.”
Arthur is not surprised by the sudden direction of their talk. This was, after all, the main reason why he had called Gaius alone like this. “Did you know?”
“From the day I first met him.”
“And you protected him all these years?”
“And I will continue to do so until my dying breath.”
And Arthur looks at this wizened old man with drooped eyes and drooped shoulders, tired and fatigued from the long hours of work, but still fighting to stand strong and tall to convey the conviction behind his words.
Arthur’s heart twists just a bit, because it is also how Merlin stands and looks at him sometimes when he is trying to remind Arthur that he will one day be the greatest king Albion has ever known. “Merlin is lucky to have you.”
Gaius bows yet again, a small smile on his face. “No, it is I who is lucky to have him.”
And maybe it’s because Arthur is tired and cracked open from all that has happened, or maybe it’s because Gaius has been there with him since he was a young boy, but he lets himself be vulnerable when he allows the next words to pass his lips: “I as well.”
Gaius is silent, and Arthur can see the surprise in his face.
Arthur turns back to walk towards the end of the room, where the throne stood. He gazes at it, and can imagine a visage of his father sitting on it, regal and commanding.
“I am not blind, Gaius. I am not like my father who stubbornly refused to see the good that magic offers even when it was right in front of his very eyes. I know what Merlin did, and I know that I am alive now because of him.”
“All he ever did was to keep you out of harm’s way, sire.”
Arthur turns to look at Gaius from over his shoulder. “So it was not the first time then?”
Gaius slowly shakes his head. “No, it was not.”
“Since when has this been going on?”
“Since the day Merlin first stepped foot in Camelot, he has done all he can with the gift that he has to serve you.”
And suddenly all those lucky coincidences started to make sense in his head, now that he knew that they probably weren’t coincidences at all, all those battles that he had no recollection of but had apparently won. It made him sick how he had been so stupid to have never noticed it before, and how Merlin had never...
His voice is just a little bit bitter when he asks, “Why did he never tell me?”
Gaius is silent again, but there is sympathy now in his eyes and something like an apology. “I believe it is better for you to ask him that, sire.”
Arthur turns back to the throne, back to Gaius, and closes his eyes shut. It is with great effort that he reins his emotions back in, all the hurt and pain that threatened to spill over. When he is done, he is king again, and as king, he proclaims firmly:
“We will find him, Gaius. I will not leave him in the hands of Morgana.”
And Gaius’ shoulders relax, and he bows again, but lower this time and longer. There is relief in his voice when he says, “Thank you, Your Majesty.”
Merlin has no way to tell how many hours he spent just staring at the dungeon floor, thinking furiously at how to remove the damned collar from his neck. He had tried scratching at the runes with a rock, but no matter how much he scratched, he still couldn’t call his magic forth. When he had run himself dry of how to rid himself of the collar, he turned his attention on how to escape his shackles and the cell without magic instead, but that had somehow been even more depressing.
As the day wore on, his hunger came and passed him by, his only way to estimate how much time had passed.
Morgana is bound to release him from the cell at one point, and there will be a moment, an opportunity to escape. He holds tightly to that hope, because it is all he has left.
He doubts that Arthur will be able to find him wherever this place is. He is not even sure if Arthur will try. He swallows down the pain he feels at that, because it is dangerous to succumb to such thoughts, especially now in this situation.
The door to the dungeons open noisily, and then Merlin can hear footsteps.
Helios appears in front of his cell, flanked by two guards.
“The Lady Morgana requests your presence,” Helios says, still smiling that smile that sends shivers down Merlin’s spine.
“Didn’t think Morgana remembered how to request. Order and threaten, more like,” Merlin mutters, watching warily as one guard opens the cell door and the other steps inside to bodily haul him up.
Helios laughs, a deep, throaty sound of amusement. He turns and starts to walk towards the door, glancing behind him to meet Merlin’s glare head-on.
He says, like a promise, “You intrigue me more and more, Merlin. I look forward to the time when I will finally have you to myself.”
“Was he the first to flee?” Morgana asks, and she is sitting on a throne, leaning forward like an excited child.
In front of her in the middle of the chamber kneels a soldier, trembling and wide-eyed with fear. From his armor, Merlin knows that he is one of Helios’, but, like Merlin, his wrists and ankles are shackled.
“Yes, my Lady,” Helios replies from behind Merlin. They are on the dais, both standing beside Morgana’s throne. Skirting the edges of the hall stood more soldiers, watching in trepidation and curiosity.
Despite not wanting to show any weakness, Merlin cannot help but hunch forward, the ache in his broken ribs unbearable. Nobody pays him any mind.
Helios steps forward, and his voice echoes loudly as he speaks. “Let this be a warning to all. This is war. We fight for our future, for our brothers’ futures. Cowards, men who are easy to bend and break, are not welcome here.”
And the man in the center of the room understands, and he shrieks, tries in vain to stand up and run away, but his shackles only let him fall to the floor in a heap, so he crawls instead, eyes darting back to look at Merlin and Morgana with terror.
“Please forgive me, my Lady, my Lord, please, spare my life, I shan’t do it again, my Lord Helios —!”
And Merlin watches, with the same kind of horror, as he feels his magic coming to life again, but not at his command, not at his words, and Morgana is smiling big and wide, as she says, “Forbærne yfel.”
A ring of fire traps the soldier.
Merlin feels desperation bubbling in his chest, because he knows what’s going to happen next, he can predict it in the manic glint in Morgana’s eyes, and it hurts, it hurts for his magic to be used in such a depraving manner, it hurts in his heart and under his skin, as if his magic doesn’t want to be used, as if it’s resisting, but the collar flares and burns Merlin’s skin, and his magic pours forth from him without a fight.
“Ic þé wiþdrífe.”
And with each spell, the soldier flies from one end of the room to the other, thrown around by an unseen force. He screams and sobs and begs for his life, and Merlin shouts with him.
He tries to keep his magic down, to control it, to not let Morgana do as she wishes with it, but the collar burns, and it’s suffocating, and there’s this unbearable, squeezing pain in his chest every time he tries to push his magic back down. His knees buckle underneath him with the pain and the effort, but he tries, still.
He refuses to let Morgana use his magic to murder an innocent man.
He will never forgive her for it.
He doesn’t know if he will ever forgive himself for it.
When Gaius leaves the throne room to finally take his much needed rest, it is Leon who takes his place.
“Sire, the villagers have all been settled back into their homes and the men have finished their work to fortify the gate to the tunnels. Our search parties report that there are no signs of Merlin or Morgana anywhere in the eastern and western forests.” Leon kneels dutifully on the floor as he gives his report. “What are your next orders, Your Majesty?”
Arthur waves his hand to gesture for Leon to stand. “Call the men back. Rest and regroup. We will resume the search in two hours. I personally will lead the party in the northern forest.”
Leon looks up at that, and he hesitates for just a moment. “Sir Gwaine is currently searching the northern forest. I… very much doubt he will agree to regroup. I fear that he feels guilt over what happened to Merlin.”
“Alone?” Arthur asks, incredulously, but he already knows the answer. Gwaine has always been fiercely loyal to Merlin, even after he was knighted. He often teased Merlin during their patrols, but Arthur knew without a doubt that the man would go through hell and back for his manservant. More than once, Arthur had silently questioned the nature of that loyalty.
Arthur shakes his head to stop Leon from answering. “Forget I asked. Let him be. I shall join him shortly.”
Again, Leon hesitates, before he seems to harden his resolve. “Forgive my impudence, sire, but…” Here, his voice softens. “You also need to rest.”
Arthur’s reply is swift, sharp, and gone before he can help himself. “I cannot rest and lie on my bed, knowing that Merlin is with Morgana, going through who knows what.”
Leon does not back down. “It is also for Merlin that I do this, sire, when I say that I don’t believe he will be very happy when he learns that you have injured yourself in battle because you have not slept.”
Despite himself, Arthur can feel the edges of his lips quirk up at the thought of Merlin berating him and fussing over him yet again. “...The last time I checked, I was king and not him.”
“Aye, sire,” Leon says, a small grin on his lips as well.
Arthur feels a slight relief at the easy way they are still talking about Merlin. “You accept him?”
At this, Leon sobers. He takes a breath, straightens his shoulders, and schools his features into the face expected of the commander of the Knights of Camelot. Arthur is proud.
“It is clear to us and every knight in the forest that night that Merlin stopped Morgana to save you. In doing so, we realize that he has saved all of us who are still alive as well and a lot of us feel indebted. There is no greater… loyalty than risking your life to save your king’s, and that is what Merlin did when he used his magic in front of all of us.”
“Do you believe that I would do anything that would risk Merlin’s life?”
“No, sire,” Leon says immediately, knowing what Arthur meant. He looks at him straight in the eye. “I believe that you will do what you must for the kingdom and nothing less.”
And those are the words that Arthur didn’t know he needed to hear until he feels his knees becoming weak under him from all the repressed emotions and fatigue gained throughout the day. He walks to the chair and lets himself sink down on it and rest. He knows Leon can see it all on his face now. “Thank you, Leon,” he murmurs gratefully.
Leon bows his head in acknowledgment. “Sire, may I speak once more?”
Arthur looks at him and nods.
Leon smiles knowingly. “Merlin wouldn’t know how to betray you even if he tried.”
Arthur snorts at that. For the first time that day, he finds himself able to crack a smile. “He doesn’t even know which boot goes on which feet.”
“All those times that Merlin has traveled with us, but no harm has ever come to any of us by his hand. In fact, I can even remember a handful of times that… an enemy would conveniently trip or a branch would conveniently fall at the most opportune of moments. I…” With this, he paused, and Arthur knows that this is not Leon the Knight speaking anymore. This is Leon, the man, his oldest friend.
“I would like to see him again and convey my gratitude.”
Arthur nods and feels like something in him heals, even if just a little bit. He inhales deeply.
“Me too, Leon.”
Arthur does not rest. He cannot while knowing that Merlin is still out there, and he says this to Leon who understands. He rides for the northern part of the forest, stopping only when he sees Gwaine emerge from a cave.
“He’s not here, princess,” Gwaine tells him in greeting, with a tired chuckle.
Arthur ties his horse to the same tree where Gwaine has tied his. He watches as the knight drops down heavily on the roots of another tree, sighing.
Gwaine is dirty, his face smudged with soil, and his leg braces covered in earth and who knows what else. Arthur can guess that this is not the first cave Gwaine has searched.
“Leon told me what happened,” Gwaine says gruffly, leaning back against the trunk. “He also told me about the tattooed man Morgana was with. It took me a while, but I finally remembered the name. If I’m right, that’s probably Helios. He’s a Southron warlord, and his fort is half a day’s ride from here. He’s a renowned swordsman in the Southern Isles, Arthur.”
A dark look passes over his face. “He’s also known to take men and women against their will as… slaves.” He says it with such disgust in his voice that Arthur knows immediately what he means. And what he implies that means for Merlin.
An already familiar spike of anger and worry for Merlin courses through Arthur. He holds himself rigid until he feels the intense emotions ebb away and his head is clear again. “And you believe that they may have taken Merlin there?”
Gwaine turns to look at him, and he looks lost, frustrated, and angry. “It’s been a long time since my travels there. I am not sure of anything, but…” He runs a hand through his hair. “But I’ll be damned if I don’t try.”
“It wasn’t your fault, Gwaine.”
“I know. But to have Morgana use me… Merlin trusted that. He trusted me. If only he didn’t, then he wouldn’t have…” He makes another sound of frustration, lightly punching the ground. He sighs loudly, tipping his head to rest it on the trunk. He watches the bright clouds through the foliage of the trees, before flicking his eyes back over to Arthur.
“Am I right in believing that you’re not looking for him just to deliver him to the pyre?”
Despite it being a very valid question, Arthur cannot help his glare.
Gwaine laughs at his reaction. “Good.” His voice turns pensive. “Because I might actually fight you for it. I would really rather not to, since I like serving you.”
Hearing that is not a surprise. Arthur sighs, thinking with amusement that what Gwaine had just said probably dances along the line of treason but caring nothing for it. He walks forward and drops down beside him.
They both could use the rest, even if just for a few minutes.
“Did you know?” he asks, because he’s still not yet done hurting over the fact that he didn’t. That Merlin didn’t tell him. That Merlin didn’t trust him to tell him.
And Gwaine looks at him, and Arthur knows that Gwaine knows as well why he’s asking.
“Don’t worry your pretty little head over it, princess. I didn’t know a damn thing,” Gwaine says, grinning. “But I always knew there was something about him, you know? Especially when we went on that crazy quest of yours. I came back to Camelot for him.”
Gwaine glances at him sideways, watching his reaction carefully at that admission, but it is nothing that Arthur hadn’t already thought about.
Arthur meets his stare head-on.
Gwaine seems pleased by that and continues. “I stayed for you, when I realized that you weren’t like those other arrogant royalty I’ve had the misfortune to meet, but… He was the one who showed me that.”
And then Arthur wants to ask another question, something that he had also thought about before and feels strangely discomfited by, but he doesn’t know how. He clears his throat, looking uncomfortable. “Did you and he…”
It seems Gwaine had been expecting that, and he cackles at Arthur’s discomfort. “No, it did not come to that. Anybody with eyes could see that he is completely devoted to you. I could have courted him and promised him the earth and sky, but he would always choose you.”
And Arthur does not say anything after that, just feels his face get warmer, because he does not know how to react at what Gwaine is implying about Merlin’s feelings for him.
And also because despite Merlin’s betrayal, Merlin’s lies, Merlin’s… magic… Arthur knows what Gwaine said about Merlin’s loyalty is true.
And it surprises him, shocks him even further into silence to know that the knowledge of Merlin having magic and Merlin being absolutely loyal to him does not contradict each other in his head, not even in the slightest.
Protecting Arthur last night at the cost of his exposure and the risk of his execution is just one proof of that.
And his face, the hurt across his face when Arthur had rejected him is another.
Arthur does not like to remember that.
“Nightfall,” he says firmly instead. “Better to ride with the cover of the night. We’ll take just a few men.”
“Are you sure that’s wise? Against Helios’ army?”
“We’re not out to defeat an army. Not yet. We just need to get Merlin back.”
“A stealthy, rescue mission,” Gwaine affirms, grinning excitedly. The fire is back in his eyes. “The king of Camelot infiltrating enemy territory with only a handful of men to rescue his manservant. Merlin will be furious with you. Count me in!”
Arthur rolls his eyes and lets out a huff of amusement. “Why is everybody concerned about whether Merlin will be pleased with my decisions? I’m the king, not him.”
“Since we’ve found out that he’s been saving your hide all this time. Also, you have to understand that the quality of our supper in patrols depend on his mood towards you, you see.”
Arthur opens his mouth to protest indignantly, before thinking better of it and wisely closing it again.
He cannot argue with that.
The soldier lives.
Morgana and Helios arrive at his cell with the news that the soldier is alive, and Merlin, crumpled on the cell floor fighting to stay awake through the haze of pain, whimpers at the relief that his magic did not murder him.
“You are weak and soft, Merlin,” Morgana murmurs, amusement lacing her voice.
“He was only meant to serve as an example. It would not seem well if I kill my soldiers left and right at my fancy,” Helios says.
The door to the cell opens, but Merlin is too weak to even try to stand up and run. Dark spots blur the edges of his vision, and he does not fight when Helios kneels in front of him and grabs his shoulder to haul him up into a sitting position. He winces when he is pressed back against the wall.
“We will attack Camelot at dusk,” Morgana tells him from the other side of the bars. “It would not do to let them regroup. I advise you to ready yourself.”
“Camelot will never fall,” Merlin says through gritted teeth, glaring at Morgana. He thinks of Arthur, and fervently wishes that he and Camelot are ready for another attack. “Especially against your reduced forces.”
Morgana simply smirks. “We have two sorcerers on our side. All they have are broken men and a broken king still at a loss what to do with the betrayal of his uncle and his manservant. Oh, when Arthur sees you standing against him, Merlin.”
“I am not on your side.”
“Your magic is.”
Morgana’s laughter echoes throughout the dungeon and in Merlin’s ears. Merlin bites his tongue in anger, because he knows that Morgana is right.
“I hope you intend to fulfill your end of the bargain once this is done?” Helios says, looking at Morgana with a smile on his lips but there is a warning in his eyes.
Morgana meets his stare levelly. “You may have what will be left of him. His magic is nothing compared to mine.”
Merlin keeps his mouth shut, trying with effort to keep the words in: You have no idea, Morgana. Morgana may know that he has magic, but he is grateful that she doesn’t yet know that he is Emrys. Instead, he turns his glare to Helios. “I am not a prize.”
Morgana chuckles. “You hold yourself in high regard, Merlin. You are but a spoil of war.”
“Now, now, my Lady. I myself hold him in high regard.” Helios smirks, letting his gaze travel slowly from Merlin’s eyes down his body. “When the Lady Morgana is done with you, I intend to claim all of you.”
Merlin is no innocent maiden not to understand what Helios means and bile rises up his throat, but he refuses to let his disgust show on his face. He refuses to let them see that he is affected, but Helios has seen enough in his expression to grin and laugh, loud and victorious.
“Don’t look so petrified, Merlin. You’ll find that I take good care of what is mine.”
“I am not yours.”
“You will be,” Helios promises, and Merlin cannot, does not expect the next thing that happens:
His neckerchief pushed up.
The collar of his thin shirt pulled aside.
And hot, filthy teeth sinking in his flesh, just under the iron collar where his neck and shoulder meet.
Merlin cannot help it then, the guttural sound of pain bursting from his lips. It is a different kind of burn from the collar’s, it hurts more, and he isn’t sure how much of it is from the pain making his arm and fingers numb or the revulsion he felt at Helios marking him. Like property.
He jerks violently away when he feels Helios’ tongue lick at the bite, making the wound ache sharply.
Even Morgana has turned away from the scene, her lips curled in disgust.
Helios pulls back, licking the blood off his lips which are poised in a smug smile. His eyes flicker to the bite on Merlin’s neck, and then to Merlin’s own eyes, which are burning with hate.
“It’s a promise.”
It is half an hour before nightfall when Arthur and his knights are in the courtyard getting ready to ride that the alarm bells sound all over the kingdom and a fire erupts from the forest.
And from there it is like a repeat of last night, of knights suddenly being thrust into battle and confusion.
Arthur growls in frustration as he orders his horse into a gallop towards the back of the castle, expecting the rest to follow. “Percival, guard the front! Send troops to protect the villages!”
He had expected Morgana to attack again, but not so soon. He could only hope that she brought Merlin with him.
Merlin fights with every ounce of his being, even as he is suspended in the air by Morgana’s magic. His wrists and ankles are still shackled, and they obviously are not taking the chance to give him any sort of mobility.
His magic flows from him, seeping out of him with a singular thought given to it by Morgana: Fire.
And even as the forest around him go up in flames, Merlin fights. He pushes his magic down with all the effort he can muster, and he’s getting better at this, getting better at gaining control on his magic back despite the collar burning his neck, but all it takes is one distraction before the magic erupts freely again and he is back to square one.
He doesn’t know if it makes a difference, because Morgana conjures fire as well on her own, aiding to the forest fire now ravaging the edge of the castle. Helios orders his men forward to spread out, and it is clear by the knights of Camelot spilling clumsily and unsurely from the castle that they have been caught unaware once again.
But despite all this, Merlin continues and perseveres desperately, because Camelot cannot fall. Arthur cannot fall.
He sobs as the flames lick closer to the castle and tries again.
If Arthur can somehow forgive him for his magic, he doubts that Arthur can forgive him for burning Camelot to the ground.
Ahead, he can hear knights shouting orders and servants screaming for help. He wonders what they’ll think, to see him with Morgana, his gold eyes matching hers. What would Arthur think?
Merlin quickly stops that trail of thought. It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter what Arthur will think, so long as he can keep Arthur alive. He needs to control his magic.
For a few seconds, he finds he can tamp it down, before the pain in his neck becomes unbearable and he lets it out again with an agonized grunt.
And then, he hears it.
Someone calling his name.
But it’s not happiness or relief he feels.
It’s fear, as he watches Arthur and the rest of the knights ride towards them through the fire.
Not yet, Merlin thinks with a sob, desperately getting a hold of his magic once again.
In front of him, Morgana laughs in victory. “Dear brother, how nice of you to join us.”
“Morgana, stop this at once!” Arthur commands, as the knights ride into formation, slide off their horses, and unsheathe their swords. Arthur does the same, pointing his sword at Morgana in warning. His eyes flick to the side, to Merlin shackled and suspended in mid-air, looking at him in horror.
“Arthur, get back!” Merlin yells, but his voice is rough, scratchy with the pain in his neck, and if Arthur didn’t know Merlin and his stupid self-sacrificing nature, he would have barely understood it.
“It’s not just me, Arthur. I’ve had some help,” Morgana informs him sweetly.
All around them, sounds of battle erupt. Swords clank with swords, battle cries are shouted in the air, and bodies fall to the ground in dull thuds. Out of the corner of his eye, he sees Gwaine engaging the tattooed man, Helios, in battle.
And then Merlin’s body jerks violently, his eyes turn gold, and he gasps. The fire erupts higher.
And Arthur understands.
He understands Morgana’s triumphant expression, Merlin’s horror, and what Morgana meant by help.
He is rushing forward before he can even think about it, intent on driving his sword through Morgana’s chest. “Morgana —!”
“Forþ fleoge,” Morgana says, but it is Merlin’s eyes that turn gold, and then Arthur is knocked back and to the ground. His sword falls away from him.
“NO!” Merlin yells, a guttural sound of desperation.
Arthur coughs and wheezes, and fights to stand back up. “Let Merlin go,” he grits out.
Morgana smiles. “Oh, I will. When he’s done killing you.” And with a wave of her hand, she moves Merlin forward. She smiles wider at Arthur, and Arthur is struck at how different she looks from the Morgana he once knew.
That Morgana is long gone.
“Merlin, folge min bebod.”
Arthur shuts his eyes and braces himself.
“Merlin,” Morgana hisses in warning, turning to him. “Folge min bebod.”
Nothing happens again.
Arthur opens his eyes and looks at Merlin, whose face is pale white, eyes closed shut and body shaking with effort. Low grunts of pain spill from tightly shut lips, and for the first time, Arthur sees it.
There is something glowing underneath Merlin’s neckerchief.
“Folge min bebod!” Morgana tries again, nearly shouting this time, and Merlin opens his eyes.
His eyes are gold, but nothing happens still. Arthur is still standing, and he realizes that whatever hold that Morgana has over Merlin, Merlin is fighting it.
He will not let Merlin’s efforts go to waste. His eyes scan frantically throughout the ground, searching for his sword, even as he pays careful attention to where Morgana is and what she’s doing.
“Do not be a fool, Merlin,” she hisses, raising a hand up to levitate him higher. Some soldiers stop to look at the scene. “We could conquer all of the five kingdoms, and yet you choose to be subservient to a man that would kill you.”
Arthur hurts at that, to hear it said so openly, but now is not the time for petty emotions. Where is his sword?
Merlin’s eyes shoot open, and they glare at Morgana from above. His voice, when it comes out, is strained. Merlin gasps the words out more than he says it, but his resolve is there and it resounds through the night.
“My loyalty is to King Arthur of Camelot, and so it will be until my dying breath.”
And Arthur doesn’t know what he did to inspire such loyalty, to deserve it, but as he sees his sword, rushes to it, and picks it up on his way towards Morgana, he vows:
I will not let you die, Merlin.
Morgana’s eyes narrow. “Even when it is his hand that swings the axe to your head?”
And Merlin’s lips, pale and almost blue with the collar burning and constricting his neck, tilt up in a smile.
And the collar breaks in a burst of light, at the same time that Arthur drives the sword through Morgana’s chest.
Everything is suddenly quiet after that. Merlin crumples to the ground, wheezing, turning his head to watch them.
Gwaine, gasping with effort, shoves his sword into the ground, next to Helios’ unmoving body.
The enemy soldiers are shocked into stillness at seeing their two commanders fall.
Morgana’s knees buckle, and she grasps Arthur’s arms tightly in an effort to hold herself up. She laughs through a mouth full of blood. “Try again, Arthur,” she whispers, eyes wide. “No mortal blade can kill me. I will get my rightful place on the throne.”
Arthur tries to call forth all the love he feels for his sister. He can only feel sadness and pity. “Camelot will never accept a ruler with such a heart as black as yours.”
Morgana smiles derisively. “It accepted Uther.”
And then, in another burst of light, she is gone.
With the last of his consciousness, Merlin opens up his palm, feels his magic within him, calm, quiet, and at ease again at last. “Tídrénas."
He finally lets himself relax when he starts to feel rain fall on his face. Arthur’s panicked face is the last thing he sees before he succumbs into sleep.
I've been off from writing for so long, but after rewatching the series and binge reading Merthur fics for WEEKS, this one just pretty much took a hold of me and wrote itself. ;; Also, I hope you all know as early as now that I am Team Hurt Merlin A Lot but Also Have Arthur Comfort Him A Lot
The next chapter should be up in a few days, either Friday night or Saturday morning! Just have to make some more edits. :) Hope you all enjoyed this one as much as I enjoyed writing it!
The next time that Merlin wakes, it is because he hears footsteps.
And for a moment, he thinks he is back in his cell under Helios’ castle, shackled and collared, shivering and dreading the next moment he will be forced to use his magic against his will again.
In a rush, he is sitting up and scooting backwards, intent on putting as much distance as he can with his captor as he figures out a way to fight back without his magic, and… Merlin realizes that his neck feels light. Lighter than it has been for the past two days.
Merlin’s head snaps up at that voice. “Arthur?”
He finds that he is not in Helios’ castle anymore, but in Gaius’ chambers. In Camelot. It’s been a while since he’s last seen sun, and he has never been more grateful for it now, as he looks at Arthur in front of him, bathed and surrounded by the morning light.
“Arthur,” Merlin repeats, relief making his limbs go lax on top of his make-shift bed, before everything catches up to him and he remembers.
Arthur. Arthur who knows about his magic. Arthur who didn’t want to be touched by him. Arthur who was afraid of him.
“Merlin. Merlin! Merlin, relax. It’s fine.” Arthur is in front of him in a heartbeat, sitting on the chair next to his bed. His hands reach for Merlin’s shoulders to grip them firmly, calling Merlin back from whatever thoughts he is currently entertaining. “I’m not… I’m not going to hurt you,” he finishes, letting the words leave him in a rush.
He looks uncomfortable, as if he’s unsure with what he’s doing, and it’s such an honest expression on his face that Merlin finds himself calming down.
Are they okay then? Is Arthur okay? With him and his… magic?
“Is this…” Merlin starts, gesturing around them with a small, nervous shrug. “Is this a good time to tell you that I have magic?”
Arthur makes a confused noise. He had expected Merlin to say a lot of things, but he hadn’t expected something as straightforward as that. He lets go of Merlin to lean back on the chair, shaking his head and looking at him with incredulity. “A bit late, Merlin, but I suppose now’s a good time as any.”
Despite his nervousness and the fear still in his heart that Arthur would reject him again, Merlin feels relief at how Arthur says his name, like usual, and he manages to crack a sheepish smile.
“I’ve wanted to tell you for the longest time, but, uh, there never really was a… good time.” He recalls the other night, when Arthur found out. His heart hurts again, just remembering it. And then, all at once, all the words that he’d longed to say comes rushing out of him, unbidden.
“I’ve only ever used it for you, Arthur, I swear. Everything I’ve done, ever since I came here, I’ve done it for you. My magic is yours. I swear I would never use it against you or Camelot, I swear on my life,” he says, breathless, eyes boring into Arthur’s and begging him to believe him.
Arthur still looks like he doesn’t know what to do with it, with him, but at least Arthur isn’t recoiling away and looking at him in fear anymore.
“Ever since you arrived in Camelot?”
“Ever since then.”
Arthur makes a sound of frustration. “I don’t understand why you would… choose to study magic in Camelot, of all the places! My father would have had you killed, no matter how many times you may have saved me!”
“I was born with magic,” Merlin explains, looking down and fiddling with the blanket on his lap as he continues. “My mother sent me to Gaius in the hopes that I’ll be able to learn more how to control it. I just had to make sure that your father didn’t find out.”
“I suppose that was easy for you?” Arthur says, and even he is surprised at the bitterness that seeps out. All those years that Merlin had kept this from him, thinking him a fool… No, Arthur resolutely keeps that thought down. Merlin wouldn’t… didn’t think that.
Merlin winces at his tone. “Oh, you have no idea how hard it was to stop evil sorcerers from killing him and stop him from killing me at the same time.”
Arthur is even more confused. “But… why would you, of all people, protect…” My father, who has murdered thousands of your kind. He doesn’t say it, but he knows it lingers in the air between them.
Merlin smiles sadly. “He’s your father, Arthur. I told you. All I’ve done with my magic, I’ve done it for you.”
They sit together in silence for a moment, with the sunlight passing through the slabs of wood making up the window. It is quiet, peaceful.
Arthur’s voice is soft when he speaks again, and he looks at Merlin straight in the eyes. “Why would you go so far for me?”
And Merlin is ready with his answer, has been ready for how many years now. “You are the Once and Future King, Arthur. It is my destiny to see you become that and unite all of Albion.”
The edges of Arthur’s lips quirk up in a small smile. “You’ve told me that before. I thought that you were just spewing some nonsense, trying to seem wise.”
“I am wise,” Merlin says, scoffing indignantly.
“A sorcerer travels to Camelot, where magic is banned and punishable by death, and takes it upon himself to protect the King’s son, with magic.”
Merlin looks at Arthur in disbelief. “I didn’t exactly travel to Camelot with the purpose to become Your Holy Pratness’ manservant! That was an accident!”
And Arthur remembers then, Lady Helen and her song. Feeling unbearably sleepy, and then waking up only to have a knife thrown to his chest. He had thought that Merlin just had really fast reflexes to have pulled him aside just in time. Or that he was just really lucky. “Did you… use magic then?”
Merlin vaguely remembers stopping time, though he hadn’t had much control over his magic then. He nods warily.
Arthur glares at him, scowling.
Merlin flinches back, thinking that Arthur’s anger is directed at his use of magic so early in their relationship, so it comes as a surprise when Arthur says:
“Even I —! Once upon a time, Merlin, I… If I had known earlier, I… I don’t know what I would have done.”
And then Merlin understands, what Arthur is really angry at. “I know,” he says, comfortingly. “I know, Arthur. That’s why I didn’t want to put you in that position.”
Arthur’s lips are pressed thin together and his glare does not lessen in intensity, but Merlin knows him enough to realize that Arthur is not angry at him. Arthur is angry at himself.
“You are not Uther, Arthur,” he says firmly. He looks at Arthur in the eyes. “You’re different. That’s why I stayed in Camelot, and why I chose to serve and follow you.”
It takes a few seconds, of Arthur searching his eyes and his face for the truth, before he is satisfied with what he sees and he relaxes. He looks away then, suddenly uncomfortable with the sudden honesty.
“So… all this time… All those coincidences…”
“You’re going to have to be specific. I’ve, uh, lost track of everything so far.”
Arthur’s eyebrows raise. “Are you bragging?”
“I’m not! I’m just —!” Merlin colors, before realizing that Arthur is just playing with him. He settles for a glare.
Arthur smirks, before sobering, becoming serious again. “We’ll get to that, Merlin. I want to… know everything. No more secrets.”
And Merlin thinks about all that he has done, all the sins he’s committed, and all that he’s hidden. And how much, in all these years, he’s wanted to share all of that with Arthur. Lay down everything. Expose everything, even the darkest parts of himself. Only time will tell if Arthur will accept it.
He swallows down the fear that is starting to gnaw at him again, and nods. “No more. I promise.”
Arthur regards him for a few more moments in silence, before nodding back. “Good.”
When the silence has lengthened, Merlin finds the courage to ask the question that’s been nagging at his mind. “You’re not… going to…” He gestures lamely towards himself, but Arthur is understandably confused. Sighing, he makes a subtle cutting gesture towards his neck.
Arthur looks like he’s been punched. “No, Merlin! Do you really believe that I would put you to the chopping block after everything —” And he sounds really, honestly frustrated and insulted that Merlin would even insinuate that, that Merlin rushes to cut him off.
“No, no, I didn’t mean that, Arthur! I don’t believe that! I mean… Magic is banned, and a lot of people saw me, and… you might have… to do something.”
“I don’t have to do anything,” Arthur glares, and Merlin shuts up.
Arthur sighs, fingers coming up to his temple to rub at an incoming headache. He hadn’t had any proper sleep for the past two days. “We’ll talk later. For now, get some rest. I need to get some sleep, too.”
Merlin’s expression becomes laced with worry. “You haven’t slept yet? Then why are you… Where’s Gaius?”
“He said he needed to pick some herbs to make more salve for your neck.” Arthur’s pointed look tells him that they are going to talk about that, too, later.
Merlin is suddenly too conscious about the fact that he’s in his sleepwear, which means that his neckerchief is nowhere to be found. “But why… I mean, you could have asked a guard…”
“I only trust myself and Gaius with this.”
And Merlin stiffens at that, hurt and all too aware once more that he is now regarded as something dangerous.
“I don’t mean it that way, Merlin,” Arthur says softly, his expression regretful at Merlin’s reaction. “I have already lost you once. I will not do so again.”
Merlin remembers it was Gwaine — or Morgana pretending to be — that had led him out of Camelot. He wonders if this is why Arthur is being careful now. For all the bravado that Arthur likes to hide behind, Merlin knows that he genuinely cares for his people. Even his servants.
He smiles. “I’ll be fine, Arthur. Get some rest.”
Arthur hesitates, but nods in the end. He looks uncomfortable again, and Merlin waits patiently, because he knows that this is usually when Arthur is trying to be honest. “That night, Merlin, I… I believe I owe you an apology. You saved my life, yet I…”
And Merlin’s eyes widen, because never in a million years did he imagine that Arthur would be apologizing to him for rejecting him for his magic. Never even entertained such an unrealistically positive thought, that he starts to feel his eyes becoming warm.
“Arthur, it’s fine. I understand. I’m sorry you had to find out that way.”
“I’m sorry you felt that you had to keep it from me.”
Merlin laughs, and tries to pretend that it didn’t come out wet. “Are we going to play this game? If we are, I have a lot of things to apologize for. For starters, I’ve stopped cleaning the stables ever since I learned that you have servants hired especially for that.”
Arthur snorts. “I already know about that, Merlin. It was entertaining every time to see you shift about in guilt.”
“I — Well, I see you have a lot of things to apologize for, too, hmm?”
“Later. Or tomorrow. Whenever Gaius deems you fit to return to your duties.”
“I don’t know, I may need a whole day off…”
And Merlin smiles, and wipes his eyes with his sleeve. “Yes, sire.”
His neck is stained with burn marks from the collar and the bite had actually started to fester. His chest still hurt because of his broken rib, but he ignores that and resolves to visit Arthur’s chambers that night. He tells this to an obviously unhappy Gaius, who only relents when Merlin admits that he will not be able to sleep without having talked to Arthur about him, his magic, and… them.
So he stands in front of the doors to Arthur’s chambers, feeling strangely out of place, because Arthur already knows about his magic but hasn’t banished him yet. Arthur did mention about returning to his duties, right? That means he isn’t fired. Hopefully that remains so by the end of the night, after Merlin admits to all that he has done.
“Merlin, I can hear you breathing out there.”
The door to his rooms open, and Merlin comes in, cheeks and neck red with embarrassment at having been caught hovering.
“I was… I was tying my boots,” he mutters.
Arthur pointedly looks at his boots, which do not have laces.
He turns from his position behind his desk, by the window, to face Merlin who stops just in front of the bed. The deliberate move to keep a respectful distance between them does not go unnoticed by Arthur. Merlin looks uncomfortable, unsure, but at least he’s looking better since the last time Arthur saw him in the early morning.
He’s obviously gotten the rest, sleep, and bath that he needed.
“What did Gaius say?”
“That he’s going to drown me in herbal tinctures in the morning,” Merlin sighs. He glances at Arthur nervously. “He only agreed to let me go because I said I wouldn’t be able to get some sleep anyway, not until…” He trails off, shrugging.
Arthur understands. He himself had doubts on his own sleep tonight had Merlin not come.
“First,” Arthur says, all too aware at the flinch that Merlin makes and then tries to hide. A part of him aches that Merlin looks so… scared. “What did Morgana do to you?”
Merlin’s hand raises to his neck, which is obscured by the neckerchief, before he realizes what he’s doing and he drops it back down. He settles for twisting his fingers instead. “I don’t know how, but Morgana managed to put a collar on me that let her control my magic. I woke up unable to use it anymore. She planned to use me to take Camelot, hoping that after… Agravaine…” Merlin flicks a glance at him, to gauge his reaction. Arthur keeps his face passive. “You’d be too shocked to do anything.”
“Agravaine is dead,” Arthur replies simply. “He passed away this morning.”
Anguish paints Merlin’s face. “Arthur, I’m…”
“You were right,” Arthur says, cutting off whatever apology Merlin had. Merlin does not need to apologize, not for that. He takes a deep breath, and waves all thoughts of his uncle away. He’d done enough thinking about him while preparing for his funeral earlier in the day. “Is the collar why you have burns on your neck?”
Merlin nods, respecting that Arthur doesn’t want to talk about Agravaine yet. “The collar reacted when I tried to fight it.”
“You mean what you did at the end?”
“I’ve been trying even before that. She…” And here, Merlin lowers his head, closing his eyes as a shudder rushes through him. He remembers the soldier, being thrown around like a ragged doll, by his magic. Him. He speaks again, unable to keep the pain from his voice. “She had me use it on someone else. I couldn’t let her use it on you.”
Arthur is quiet, speechless at how much this seems to affect Merlin. He can’t fathom how it must have felt. Is it the same as someone controlling his mind but still being aware and seeing his own arm, his own sword slice at someone’s chest?
He recalls what Merlin’s neck looked like in the morning. A ring wound around his neck, some parts brown, some parts red, some parts pink. A mixture of burnt, peeled, and raw skin. And then, on the side, a very conspicuous bite mark, blooming black and purple.
“You’re lucky it didn’t kill you,” Arthur whispers.
Merlin shakes his head. “I couldn’t let her use it on you,” he repeats firmly.
And Arthur feels his breath being knocked out of him, taken aback yet again at how loyal Merlin is to him. Gwaine’s words echo in his head, as it has ever since Gwaine uttered them:
“Anybody with eyes could see that he is completely devoted to you. I could have courted him and promised him the earth and sky, but he would always choose you.”
He wonders just how deep Merlin’s devotion ran. It stirred strange feelings within him, feelings that he had long since learned to bury, but was getting harder to ignore after having almost lost him.
“And the bite?”
Here, Merlin’s eyebrows furrow. Even before Merlin has said anything, Arthur already knows that Merlin is about to lie.
More than being angry that Merlin is lying to him again, Arthur is kind of irritated at the fact that Merlin is so easy to read and so easy to catch when he’s lying, if only Arthur had looked.
“You promised no more secrets,” Arthur rushes out, a bit hurt, a bit accusing, but he’s trying to protect both of them. More lies would help no one now.
As expected, Merlin looks shocked at having been caught, and then ashamed. His eyes dart to the side, thinking, until — having apparently come to a conclusion — he looks up straight into Arthur’s eyes. A wistful smile is on his face. “I’m sorry, it’s a harder habit to break than I thought. You’re right. I’m sorry.”
He takes a deep breath. “I was to be the, uhm, prize for Helios, for helping her take Camelot. The bite was…” He trails off, cheeks coloring, but Arthur already knows what exactly the bite is.
He can hear the sounds of the world dimming as the blood rushes in his ears. “The… prize,” he repeats flatly.
Merlin nods. “I think Morgana meant to transfer control of the collar to him.”
Arthur thinks that Merlin also knows exactly what that meant. Transfer control of his magic to a warlord, and one that is infamous for taking men and women against their wills. Transfer control means to be used as a weapon of war and a whore.
He cannot help the burst of anger that goes through him as he slams his hand on his desk, making Merlin jump.
The bite mark makes sense now. He scowls. “I should have ended Helios myself.”
“It’s okay, Arthur,” Merlin murmurs, trying to console Arthur as always when he should be the one being consoled. “I’m okay. He didn’t do anything else.”
“What he did was enough,” Arthur says, glaring at the table. With another scowl, he turned his back on Merlin, taking deep breaths to calm down his anger. To have someone mark Merlin like property… It left a vile taste in his mouth.
“And?” He says shakily instead, to change the subject. “What did Morgana say at the end? That she cannot be killed by a mortal blade?”
He can feel Merlin’s stare boring at his back, and he knows that Merlin is trying to understand his reaction. “No… She’s too powerful for that now. The only thing that can kill her is a sword forged in a dragon’s breath.”
Arthur runs a hand through his face. “Where do I find one of those?”
“Well… I happen to have one…”
Arthur whips back around. He stares at Merlin incredulously. “You… just happen to have a sword forged in a dragon’s breath?”
Merlin puts a hand up in front of him defensively, yammering, “I mean, it’s not here, I kind of hid it somewhere else. I’ll have to ride out tomorrow to get it.”
There are so many things that Arthur needs to process and respond to in that sentence, so he settles for the easiest: “You’re not riding anywhere,” he declares with narrowed eyes.
Merlin smiles at him. “Do you want to come with me?”
Arthur pushes down the unwelcome wave of affection at that smile. “...Not tomorrow. You’re not fit enough to ride.”
“The day after then.”
“No, don’t be cheeky about this, Merlin. A week. I drove a sword through Morgana’s chest. Powerful sorcerer or not, that should keep anyone preoccupied enough to give us at least a week.”
Merlin closes his mouth and shuts up at that.
“How do you even have a sword like that anyway?”
Again, Merlin shifts nervously. He looks to the side. “I, uh… had it made.”
Unsurprisingly, Arthur can feel another headache coming on. “...Merlin.”
Merlin glares at him, indignant. “I’m not kidding! I had it made for you!”
“For me? And I suppose you just have a dragon lying around to forge your swords for you?”
Merlin flinches. “Well… he’s not really lying around…”
That does it.
Arthur walks around his desk to head towards his dining table and sharply points to the chair beside his. “Merlin. Merlin, sit down. We are going to talk, and for goodness’ sake, get that stupid look off your face like I’m going to stab you.”
Merlin tells him about Morgana and how the fear of Uther and herself had driven her into a path of madness. How Morgause had easily lured her away from the heart of Camelot and how Merlin had driven the final stake with his one act of betrayal. Merlin also tells him of the dragon, the one that he freed. The very same dragon that almost burned Camelot to the ground.
Those are his gravest sins, the ones that still keep him awake at night, shivering in fear of the rejection that would surely come should Arthur find out.
He also tells Arthur of failing to save his father, admits that he is Dragoon the Great, but even though Agravaine had already admitted to having planted the necklace on Uther, the pale color on Arthur’s face tells him that he is not yet forgiven.
When the night is done, Arthur is a little stricken at how much Merlin had done in the years they have known each other. And how much he had hidden. He thinks back to all those times when he had been living his life, so carefree with a single goal: To become king. And all this while, so many things have been brewing all over his kingdom, and he didn’t have a damn fucking clue.
He feels stupid, he feels played.
But now, with a clearer head, he realizes that he doesn’t feel like he’s been played a fool by Merlin. He feels like he’s been played by himself, and he hates that, that feeling of being so incompetent and ignorant that he hadn’t noticed or suspected anything. Morgana’s nightmares. Uther’s madness. Agravaine’s betrayal. Merlin’s magic.
But still, even then, it’s hard to separate his crushing disappointment at himself and the hurt he feels for Merlin having hid all these from him, despite knowing just why Merlin had to do it.
So he dismisses Merlin with a stiff wave towards the door, ignores the brief look of panic that passes through Merlin’s face, but tries to make it better with, “I’m not mad, Merlin. I just need… just… give me some time.”
Predictably, Merlin still does not get some sleep that night.
The next day, there is a knock on the door in Gaius’ chambers and Merlin stops arranging jars to open it, but it swings open on its own anyway.
Gwaine saunters inside, his face lighting up the room at the sight of Merlin. “Merlin!” he yells in delight, rushing forward to get Merlin in a headlock.
The action hurts his neck a little, but Merlin can ignore that for the rush of relief that washes over him that Gwaine has no problems with him even after finding about his magic. “Gwaine, it’s nice to see you, too.”
“I never thought I’d hear you say that again after Morgana took you away with my face,” Gwaine sighs, sounding relieved as well. He pushes Merlin back, holds him at arms length, and surveys him from head to toe. His tone is grim. “What did Morgana do to you? Helios?”
Merlin made a vow never to lie to Arthur again, but not to anybody else. He gives a small smile of reassurance, immensely grateful for the concern, and says, “I’m fine, Gwaine.”
“Let him hover,” Leon says, as he enters into the room as well. “He’s been worried sick and almost ran himself dry searching the whole forest for you.”
Merlin yanks his gaze away from Leon to look back at Gwaine, and tries to let the gratitude show on his face. He thinks it’s showing pretty well, considering that he can feel his eyes becoming hot. To know about his magic, but still do that for him…
“Don’t look so surprised, Merlin,” Gwaine laughs, ruffling his hear. “I mean, I know I pick on you a lot during patrols, but…” Here, he smiles, and his voice is sincere. “I owe a lot to you, and you’re my friend. My brother.”
“The sentiment goes the same for me, Merlin,” Leon says, stopping in front of them. He bows his head. “I want to thank you for saving us and the king the other night.”
The edge of his lips turn up, and he asks curiously, “I don’t believe it’s the first time, is it?”
Merlin is speechless, and embarrassed beyond belief. He opens his mouth to tell Leon not to bow to him, but Elyan and Percival enter the room and join them.
“Me as well,” Elyan says, stepping past Leon to clap Merlin on the shoulder. “When I was possessed by the Druid boy…”
He trails off, obviously still uncomfortable talking about it, which gives Merlin the chance to stammer out, “That was Arthur really. He was the one who went to the shrine.”
Elyan smirks at him, obviously looking through his attempts to deflect the attention away from him. “Yes, and I have already given him my thanks. I should have also given it to you. I know you had a hand at convincing Arthur, and… It makes more sense now, why you were so affected after the first time we visited the shrine. I’m sorry I did not know then to have been more of a comfort.”
Merlin’s eyes are definitely wet now. His vision is actually starting to become blurry, and he’s not sure if he should wipe them before they get more obvious, but Gwaine laughs and takes the decision for him, pulling him in another headlock and wiping his face with his neckerchief.
“I will admit I had my suspicions,” Percival says, grinning. “Too many branches had been falling at the right times.”
And Merlin can’t help it then, the burst of relieved laughter through his tears.
After so many years of hiding, to finally be accepted… He hadn’t thought it would happen. Not to him.
“So, how did the talk with the princess go?” Gwaine asks, finally releasing him.
“Well,” Merlin smiles ruefully. “He says he needs more time.”
Gwaine nods sympathetically. Leon smiles at him reassuringly. “Arthur will come through soon enough.”
“I can’t really blame him. He’s going to need a lot more time after what happened with Agravaine,” Elyan sighs. “With Gwen as well.”
Percival claps a hand on his shoulder in sympathy.
“On a positive note,” Gwaine says, grinning. “He was really angry at me when I asked if he was going to put you to the pyre. That’s a good thing.”
All heads turned to look at him, incredulous at his gall. Gwaine shrugs. “He’ll come through. I’m betting three days.”
“Don’t let Arthur know you’re betting on him. You won’t like the stocks,” Merlin says with a chuckle, and his eyes are still wet and he is still surrounded by good friends. “I know he will. And… Thank you.”
Four wide smiles are his answer.
Arthur calls him back to his duties the next day. It is not quite like before. There is tension in the room, but Merlin knows that Arthur is trying. He knows Arthur well enough to understand that when Arthur tells him to sweep the floor, launder his clothes, and polish his armor, it’s his little way of trying to convey that he still trusts him.
Or, Merlin muses as he scrubs at Arthur’s tunic, that could just be his own wishful thinking.
Nevertheless, Merlin is glad, because he truly enjoys tending to Arthur. He had long since accepted that his feelings for Arthur had already passed that point that was expected of him as a servant. He had also long since accepted that it would end with just that — just the mere realization that his feelings are there, for Arthur, regardless of their stations, regardless of their destinies. Arthur would marry Guinevere, he would unite the five kingdoms, and he would be known throughout history as the Once and Future King.
And Merlin would help him with all of that. Gladly.
From time to time, they talk more about Merlin’s secrets.
Will. Guinevere and Elyan’s father, Tom the Smith. Cornelius Sigan. Princess Elena.
In other times, they talk about business in the castle.
It is not quite like before, but it is more comfortable than Merlin had ever imagined.
And then, the night before they are set to depart to retrieve Excalibur, Arthur says, without looking up from his papers, “Prepare a hot bath.”
Merlin looks pointedly at the tub in the middle of the room, the one that he had laboriously filled with six trips up and down the castle an hour ago and the one that Arthur had obviously let cool.
Merlin waits a beat, and when Arthur still does not look up from his papers, he sighs exasperatedly. “You mean, prepare another hot bath, sire?”
“I mean,” Arthur says, looking up now and raising an eyebrow in Merlin’s direction. “Prepare the same one. Just warm it up.”
And Merlin is dumbfounded at what Arthur is requesting. It takes a while for him to realize that his jaw is hanging open and he closes it immediately when he does, but does not stop his wide-eyed stare.
Arthur turns back to his papers. “You made it rain, for heaven’s sake, Merlin. Surely you can prepare a hot bath?”
“I… Yes.” Merlin is sure that he’s about to start crying again. “Right away.”
Arthur tucks his head to hide the smile forming on his lips.
“So, Merlin,” Gwaine starts conversationally. “Tell me again how you managed to come across a sword forged in a dragon’s breath. I mean, I don’t know, but I hear those things are really hard to come by.”
“Er,” Merlin says articulately. “Well, it’s a long story.”
“We’ve got a long journey ahead of us,” Arthur replies coolly from in front of him. “Do tell. I’m also interested.”
“I already told you!” Merlin gapes, glaring at his back accusingly.
“You told me how you got it. You even told me that you had it made especially for me.”
Arthur looks over his shoulder to raise an eyebrow at him. “So how come I’ve never used it yet?”
Merlin shuts up, because that is a good question. He settles for muttering under his breath instead. “Probably because you’re a pillock and I decided I didn’t wanna give it to you anymore.”
“I can hear you, Merlin.”
“You did say that it was going to be a two to three days ride,” Percival says. “Let us hear it.”
Of course Merlin had wanted, once upon a time, for others to know of all the things that he had done for the sake of Arthur and Camelot. Once upon a time. Not anymore. Because now, actually getting ready to tell it, it’s embarrassing.
“Come on, Merlin,” Leon says. He smiles reassuringly at Merlin. “You don’t have to hide anymore. Not from us.”
“Stop that, you’ll make him cry again,” Gwaine warns.
Leon laughs. “That wasn’t me the first time. That was you.”
And Merlin laughs as well. Despite the fact that he is about to share more of his secrets, and not just to Arthur, he finds that he is surprisingly and honestly happy.
Merlin had already told him about having asked the Great Dragon to forge it to help him slay the wraith of Tristan de Bois, but he hadn’t known about how Merlin had used it to slash the Cup of Life to defeat Morgause’s immortal army.
As they set up camp for the night, Arthur thinks about yet again about all the secrets Merlin had kept, why he had needed to keep them… and the burdens he carried because of them.
Merlin emerges from the trees with firewood under his arm and Arthur watches as he stumbles through roots to get to the middle of the clearing and prepare for a fire.
He cannot fathom how it must have felt to keep Morgana’s secrets and hatred. Uther’s secrets. The dragon. To try to do something about it, but have to hide it for fear of execution.
No, that doesn’t sound right.
Arthur had thought long and hard the past few days, and he had realized that it wasn’t the fear of execution that had kept Merlin from telling him… At least, not anymore.
It was loyalty, Arthur realizes as Merlin rubs two rocks together in an effort to make a spark. It is still loyalty.
Keeping it from him to make sure that he grows into the king he is supposed to be. Staying despite the ban of magic, persisting to protect him with it despite all of those times that Arthur had claimed that magic is evil. Carrying all those burdens so that Arthur didn’t have to.
It also wasn’t a lack of trust. That one took Arthur a longer time to understand.
Merlin trusts him to be the Once and Future King of Albion.
And to do that, he had needed to accept magic on his own.
Arthur looks around the clearing, and sees his knights stealing glances at Merlin, still unable to make a fire. He catches their eyes, and knows that everyone is thinking the same thing. He is suddenly awash with gratitude for these knights, who show the same loyalty not just for him… but also for Merlin.
And Arthur is surprised at how important that is to him.
“Merlin,” he calls out from his position beside his cot.
“Hm?” Merlin answers distractedly, oblivious to the silent conversation happening between the others.
“We’re the only ones here.”
Confused, Merlin halts his actions and looks up at Arthur. “Uhm, yes?”
Arthur rolls his eyes. He cannot help the upward turn of the edges of his lips and the fond exasperation in his voice. “As Leon said, you don’t have to hide anymore. Not from us.”
“Oh,” Merlin says, blinking. Then, he says it again, breathless and filled with wonder. “Oh.”
Really. If Merlin is going to use more of his magic now, he’s going to have to stop getting teary-eyed every time he does.
“Arthur’s going to make him cry, not us,” Elyan comments.
Light laughter fills the air and Arthur sees Merlin smiling softly as well.
“Well, I mean, I had it under control.” Merlin glances at his pile of tinder, unignited.
“Sure you did,” Percival agrees.
With a sheepish smile, Merlin turns back to the pile, waves a hand, and whispers, “Bæl on bryne.”
And for the first time, as Merlin’s eyes turn gold and a small, orange fire lights up the clearing, Arthur thinks that magic is beautiful.
When the men finish their supper, they sit around the fire to share stories and wait for the call of sleep. After Gwaine recounts his latest tryst with the baker’s daughter, Arthur excuses himself in search of Merlin, who had left half an hour ago with the dirty plates.
He finds Merlin by the river, rummaging through his satchel. The plates are washed clean and spread out to dry on a blanket beside him.
Arthur wonders if Merlin used magic to wash them, but there are dark spots on Merlin’s shirt and trousers, which Arthur guesses to be wet with water. Or maybe Merlin is just a messy eater. It’s too dark to tell.
“You should have brought a torch, Merlin. The wolves would feast on you gladly,” Arthur grumbles, squinting through the dark.
Merlin looks up abruptly in surprise, but quickly relaxes when he realizes that it is just Arthur.
“Sorcerer with magic, remember?” he jokes lightly, but Arthur knows that he is treading on this new part of their relationship carefully.
Arthur is as well.
“Not much your magic can do when a wolf’s bitten off your head,” he says, raising an eyebrow.
“Haven’t really been in danger of a wolf before. A wyvern, usually.”
They have been taking these conversations about the things that Merlin had done with magic as they come, not forcing anything, and so Arthur finds it the right time to ask, “A griffin from time to time?”
Merlin finally finds what he has been looking for and takes it out of his satchel. He then flashes Arthur a sheepish grin. “No, that was only once.”
Arthur is not even surprised, because of course, Merlin was involved with the griffin. He shakes his head in mild disbelief. “Magical creature unable to be defeated or harmed by any non-magical weapon. How could I ever believe that it was Lancelot?”
“Oh, it was Lancelot that drove the spear,” Merlin says slowly. He is still not sure how Arthur feels talking about Lancelot. “I just infused it with magic.”
Arthur keeps his face carefully neutral. Part of him has already healed over what Guinevere and Lancelot had done, the part that has accepted that they truly loved each other more than Arthur and Guinevere had ever had. But the hurt remains, even if it is just a little bit, but Arthur thinks that it is more of his ego than his heart now.
Stronger than that is the jealousy he feels at the implication that Lancelot knew about Merlin’s magic.
“I kept getting the spell wrong, and by then, you had already been wounded,” Merlin says softly, not once looking away from Arthur.
Arthur realizes this to be one of those moments that Merlin is trying to open up to him, to willingly and openly bare all his secrets, and so he listens.
“I finally got the spell right just in time for Lancelot to thrust his spear, and well, he, uh, found out.” Merlin smiles wistfully as he recalls the conversation. “Adamantly refused to accept that it was him that slayed the griffin.”
“He always was a man of honor,” Arthur muses.
Merlin nods. “He is a good man.”
Arthur nods as well. “That, he is.”
“Arthur…” Merlin starts, wanting to ask about his feelings about Guinevere and Lancelot, but not sure if he is welcome.
Arthur waves it off with a hand as he walks closer. “He is a good knight. The bravest I have ever known and one that Camelot misses dearly. In time, I wish to invite them back, if they would still want to return.”
Merlin’s eyes widen, and Arthur has to turn away from how proud Merlin looks.
He resolutely ignores his warm face.
“What is that?” he asks instead, peering at the item in Merlin’s hand.
Merlin grins at him, which tells him that his ploy was seen right through, but presents the small jar anyway. “Burn salve.”
When Arthur takes the jar to inspect it, Merlin unties the knot of his neckerchief and removes his jacket.
Arthur’s eyes flick over to the dark patches of skin around Merlin’s neck. There is little light for him to properly see what the wound looks like now. He still remembers what it looked like the first time he saw it. “Does it still hurt?”
“More itchy now than painful,” Merlin says, taking the jar back and unscrewing the lid. “And they’re just shallow burns. Looks worse than it really is.”
He scrapes a small amount of the white salve using two of his fingers, before gently spreading it on the front of his neck, navigating the wound just by touch.
Arthur is sitting on the ground before he can stop himself. “Give me that,” he mutters, snatching the jar from Merlin and smearing his own fingers. “And give me a light.”
“Wait, what are you doing?” Merlin rushes out, just a little bit panicked.
“A light, Merlin,” Arthur repeats patiently, two fingers up.
Merlin clamps his mouth shut to keep himself from commenting that Arthur looks ridiculous with two of his salve-coated fingers up like that. He briefly considers a small fire on his palm, decides that he’ll probably burn both of them, and instead conjures a blue ball of light.
Arthur’s eyes widen in shock and he looks at Merlin in bewilderment. “That was you?”
It takes Merlin a while to realize what Arthur is talking about. “Apparently. Gaius told me that I conjured it while I was asleep.”
Arthur is still looking at him, awe-struck. “You saved my life.”
“All in a day’s work,” Merlin chuckles. Then, he says, more seriously, “You saved mine as well.”
“If we are going to play this game, I find that I’m quickly losing,” Arthur says, blinking.
“Please, Arthur, you’ve lost a long time ago.” Merlin rolls his eyes. He looks at the ball of light on his palm, and presents it to Arthur, almost reverently. “I’ve already told you,” he whispers. “My magic is yours. I only use it for you.”
“So I’m realizing,” Arthur responds, voice just as soft and quiet. He’s feeling strangely emotional, as if just now finding out the extent of what Merlin has done and is willing to do for him. He swallows thickly. “Tilt your head up.”
Merlin does so obediently.
And it’s so foreign, the act of doing something like this to somebody else… to a servant. But it’s been a long time since Arthur had last regarded Merlin as just a mere servant.
In fact, Arthur is vaguely aware of the very moment that he had started to see Merlin as something more, and also of the moment that he had resolutely decided to pretend that he didn’t. It had been going quite well, actually, until recent events beckoned him to entertain those thoughts once more.
Merlin’s Adam’s apple bobs as soon as Arthur’s fingers touch his skin, and Arthur is reminded once again of the obvious fact that Merlin probably does not see him as just his king as well, but the thought is not uncomfortable or suffocating. In fact, it’s welcoming and Arthur lets it warm his chest.
They remain in silence while Arthur gently slides his fingers on Merlin’s neck. It is rough and Arthur takes extra care not to peel any dried skin. He is aware of the distance between them, the lack of it, and of Merlin’s soft breaths and Merlin carefully watching his every move.
“Turn around,” he murmurs, and Merlin does so, so that Arthur can continue on the back of his neck.
Merlin’s skin is warm under his fingertips.
“I believe I haven’t thanked you yet for saving my life once again from Morgana,” Arthur muses thoughtfully.
Merlin chuckles. “I believe so, too.”
Arthur cannot stop the smile forming on his lips even if he wanted to.
Despite being sheathed halfway down into stone, Excalibur is still beautiful.
Arthur’s breath is knocked away from him at the sight of that golden hilt and the glimpse of the shining blade.
It is early morning and the sunlight filters through the leaves to illuminate the sword in an almost heavenly glow, but it could be raining a thunderstorm and Arthur knows that Excalibur would still be beautiful.
The knights walk slowly and quietly into the clearing until they are in front of Arthur, at the other side of the rock. They look with awe at the sword and then at Arthur with reverence.
In this moment, Arthur knows… He is not their brothers-in-arms, their fellow warrior.
In this moment, he is their King.
Behind him, Merlin, smiling widely, starts to recount a tale.
“Many years ago, before the birth of the five kingdoms, this land was in an endless cycle of bloodshed and war. But one man was determined to end all that. He gathered together the elders of each tribe and drew up plans so the lands could be divided. Each would respect the other’s boundaries and rule over the land as they saw fit. That man was Camelot’s first king.”
“Bruta,” Arthur says, looking over his shoulder to look at him with amusement. “Every child in Camelot knows the story.”
“Ah,” Merlin says wisely. “But there’s another part of the story that you haven’t heard.”
Arthur’s expression says he doesn’t believe him, and he had better make this fast.
Merlin grins. “When Bruta was on his deathbed, he asked to be taken deep into the forest. There, with the last of his strength, he thrust his sword into a rock. Should his lineage be ever questioned, this would form a test. Only a True King of Camelot could pull the weapon free.”
“Did you just make this up on the way here?” Arthur says, deadpan.
“Of course not,” Merlin replies, obviously lying.
“Alright then,” Arthur sighs exasperatedly. A fond smile is on his face. “Do your thing.”
“What thing?” Merlin asks innocently.
Arthur rolls his eyes and turns back to the sword instead. Up close, it’s even more breath-taking. It definitely is Tom the Smith’s finest work.
He glances at Elyan, whose eyes are wide and whose face is overcome with emotion. He tilts his head in gratitude for his father’s sword, and Elyan, slowly, bows his head back.
He grips the hilt with his fist, reveling in the feel of it on his palm. He can almost feel it thrumming with its power, calm and steady and strong.
A sword forged in a dragon’s breath.
With one hand, he pulls Excalibur free from the stone, and is not ready for the feelings that wash over him as he does so. The reminder that he is now king. The heavy but welcome weight of responsibility and obligation. The fierce rush of protectiveness for Camelot and her people.
In front of him, his knights start to kneel one by one. Behind him, he hears Merlin do the same.
And then, it’s Leon who starts, almost choking over the words with the emotions that it brings.
“Long live the King!”
Camelot changes then.
Rumors spread among the people — knight to knight, servant to servant, villager to villager — about King Arthur’s manservant, a sorcerer who had saved the King’s life at the risk of his own.
Most of the townspeople are already familiar with Merlin, the tall, cheeky boy who always helped them with their chores whenever the king (or the Crown Prince, as he was before) sent him to town, and though the news of his magic surprised them, most quickly went past their apprehension. Soon, older ladies can be heard gossiping and gushing over the times Merlin had helped them carry a basket or fix a pipe or two and what a good lad he is.
Soon, there are more talks of magic, of children asking what magic is and if they can do it as well. And while their parents still whispered their answers due to a learned fear from Uther’s reign, gone are the days when children’s lips would be smacked for saying the forbidden word.
The story of what happened in the castle became alive, evolving into many different tales.
Some had Merlin being tortured under Morgana’s hands for weeks, but all of them told of how Merlin refused to bend to her whims, his loyalty to King Arthur and Camelot unbreakable. Some had Merlin under Morgana’s mind control, and he burned all the forests from the Southern Isles to Camelot, but it took only one glimpse of King Arthur and he had recalled who he really was to break free from the spell. Some had King Arthur and Merlin the Sorcerer fighting together, sword and magic side by side, to push Helios’ army back.
Some had King Arthur galloping through the forests and slaying enemy warriors one after another in his majestic, white steed, all just to rescue a mere servant. All of them told of how King Arthur would go the distance for his people, no matter their station, and all of them had King Arthur saving the day, thrusting the sword through Morgana’s chest to save not just Merlin but the whole of Camelot.
And then there are other tales, of how Merlin had led King Arthur to the Sword in the Stone, the legendary sword that could only be pulled out by the True King of Camelot. How all the knights had tried it and failed, but it took King Arthur just one attempt and the sword was pulled free from the rock like it was nothing.
Gwaine likes to tell that one, shushing all the other knights with him in the tavern whenever that tale would be asked for.
Of course, not everyone is as welcoming, and in more than one occasion, Leon had had to pull some of his knights away from a drunken fight with drunken men in the tavern.
But the stories are still out there, still circling through the kingdom, and slowly but surely, the people of Camelot are learning to talk freely about magic once again.
Arthur changes then, as well.
Merlin rarely catches him brooding now, as he did ever since Guinevere left. Before, he often gazed out the window with a miserable look on his face when he thinks no one is looking, but now, he is more high-spirited, more focused, and it shows in his training with his knights, in the council meetings, and in his visits to town.
The servants and councilmen are also quickly catching their king’s good spirits, and days in the castle soon pass by in lively bustles of work.
As for Merlin, he often catches servants stare at him as he passes by, but nobody asks or speaks a word to him about his magic, and so he goes about his work normally. The only thing out of ordinary that had happened was when Cook Audrey had seen him swipe a pie and put it in his mouth and said nothing about it.
He is also finding himself spending his days in Arthur’s chambers more frequently. Arthur had taken to giving him chores that kept him in the room, and he can’t remember the last time he was ordered to run an errand in town. Arthur asks George for that mostly now. With more time together, they are back to their comfortable companionship, sometimes talking about castle business, other times talking more about Merlin’s magic.
Warming up Arthur’s baths at night with magic is also becoming a normal thing.
Little by little, Merlin is becoming more comfortable in front of Arthur, so much that one cold night, when Merlin is busy polishing his armor, Arthur looks up from his reports and says, “Merlin, it’s freezing in here. Stoke the fire, would you?”
And Merlin hums distractedly and waves a hand towards the hearth without once looking up from his work. The fire flares and the cracking and burning of the wood sounds loudly in the room.
Arthur waits a beat and, as expected, Merlin’s head shoots up and he glances at the hearth with a panicked expression.
Before Merlin can give himself a seizure with more panic, Arthur turns back to his work and says, “Good to see that you’re not as useless as I thought.”
And then he resolutely ignores Merlin’s dumbfounded stare and tries to hide his amused smirk.
From time to time, Arthur gets a glimpse of the lightening marks on Merlin’s neck. The bruises on his wrists made by the shackles have long disappeared, and Arthur is relieved whenever Merlin’s cuffs rise up and only clear, pale skin is there. However, the ones on his neck are understandably taking a longer time to heal, and Arthur bristles every time the neckerchief slides down and he is reminded of it.
Seeing the burns on his neck reminds Arthur of the bite mark that Helios made, and he wonders if it’s healing as well. He hopes it will not scar.
It is mid-day and his chambers is bright with sunlight. There are no pressing appointments to attend to for the day, just reports to read and approve. Arthur is distracted, as he is more frequently finding himself to be especially when Merlin is in the room.
Feeling his stare, Merlin glances up from the clothes that he is folding on the dinner table. He tilts his head in question. “Arthur?”
The look of honest worry on his face has Arthur accepting that he is not going to be able to do any more work today, so he pushes his chair back and stands up.
Merlin stands up as well, ready to assist, but Arthur puts a hand up to still him. He reaches over with two hands, ignores Merlin’s startle, and unties the red neckerchief on his own.
Merlin’s neck is covered with healing patches of skin, pink and white. To the side, half hidden by the collar of his blue shirt, is also the healing wound of the bite.
Arthur pushes down the flash of irritation that emerges from seeing it. He touches it lightly with his fingers, hyper-aware of the small shiver that runs through Merlin as he does so. “Can you heal this with magic?”
Merlin blinks at him in confusion. “I… Yes. I’m not that good with healing spells, but I think I can do that.” He adds thoughtfully, “I just thought it might not be well-received by others if my injuries, err, disappeared overnight.”
Arthur laughs. “Merlin, if you traverse the town today, you will find that you are nothing but well-received by the people of Camelot. Gwaine says you’ve gained quite a bit of a following.”
Merlin looks at him in disbelief. “A… what?”
“You yourself know that there are no secrets that can be kept in the castle,” he smirks.
Merlin is still staring at him dumbly. “I… But… Well-received, you said?”
“Yes,” Arthur nods, and he pulls his hand back, bracing himself for another burst of honesty. “Including me. Again, I’m sorry for how I reacted then, I…”
As always, Merlin is quick to reassure him. “No, Arthur, it’s alright. We’ve talked about this. You didn’t know, and that’s my fault.” And again, as always when they are talking about this, Merlin looks anguished, the pain and guilt resting so honestly and openly on his face.
But now… Arthur is surprised to realize that the feeling of betrayal that has become so familiar to him now is finally gone.
Arthur recalls Morgana’s words and needs to ask again. “You know I would never… I would never put you in that pyre.”
Merlin’s smile is easy. “I know, Arthur. I never believed that for a second.”
Something in Arthur eases at that knowledge, that Merlin did not believe Arthur would ever harm him.
“Before, when your father was alive, I didn’t want you to feel that you had to choose between turning me in or lying to him. I would never ask that of you.” Merlin looks down at his hands, frowning. “But after, I just… It’s been too long, too long to be forgivable and I’ve done too much. The pyre would have been an easier choice had you found out and decided you couldn’t forgive or trust me again.”
“Don’t… don’t talk so lightly about it, Merlin. Your life is not worth that little.” Arthur’s voice is rough with emotion, and alarm that Merlin would value Arthur’s forgiveness over his life, but Merlin just shakes his head.
“My life is yours, Arthur. My magic is nothing if not for you.”
It is not a new oath. Arthur has heard it before, but he is reminded of the weight of the truth of it still every time he hears it again. He is overwhelmed and humbled and thankful all over again.
“I know. That is why I do not treat lightly the gift you have given me.”
And Merlin feels a rush of affection once again for this man.
”You are no man’s property,” Arthur continues with a small smile, and suddenly he is reminded of the mark on Merlin’s neck once more. His eyes flicker to it and he touches it once again. “Can you heal this?”
That is the second time he’s asked that, and Merlin is both stupefied and confused at his persistence. It takes him a while to realize that Arthur really is disturbed by it, by Helios’ mark, though heaven knows why he should be.
With a few whispered words and a small surge of magic, Merlin feels his skin stitching itself together anew. The mark is gone. He feels, more than see, the rigid tension on Arthur’s shoulders relax.
He catches Arthur’s hand on his shoulder and grips it gently. “I would never serve Helios, Arthur. I serve only you.”
Arthur does not pull his hand back. He looks at Merlin in the eyes, smiling ruefully. “You misunderstand me. I did not ask for you to heal that as your king. I asked for it as a man who is furious that another man dared to touch you.”
And all the breath seems to suddenly leave Merlin then, as his brain works to comprehend those words and dissect its meaning and read between the lines, because surely Arthur doesn’t mean…? That would be too good to be true, too unbelievable.
Arthur watches in amazement as the emotions dance on Merlin’s face. Merlin had always been so open with his feelings like that, he now realizes, and it was only him that did not care to notice. He could almost pinpoint the exact moments Merlin traversed from shock to disbelief to realization and then… and then such heartrending hope.
Arthur’s chest constricts, but for an entirely different reason this time, and it is hard to stop the rush of affection for this man in front of him. He supposes he had always known, suspected, that Merlin’s feelings for him ran deeper than what a servant would feel for his master, but had ignored it, avoided it, in an effort to turn away from his own feelings.
Arthur can admit to himself now, with not a little bit of shame, that even when there had been Gwen, there had always been Merlin at the back of his mind, in the corner of his heart.
For Gwen, he supposes, that had been Lancelot.
And in that moment as well, Arthur is surprised to realize that it doesn’t hurt anymore, thinking about Gwen and Lancelot.
Suddenly, he is embarrassed, uncomfortable as if he had just realized what he had just admitted, and he coughs. “It is unfair for me to put this on you after you’ve been through such an ordeal. I—”
“Since when have you ever concerned yourself with my comfort, sire?” Merlin snorts, but he can’t help it, the smile threatening to take over his face and the quickened beats of his heart. His voice is soft when he says his next words. “If not now, then when?”
The cheek and confidence of it has Arthur laughing with relief. Merlin had always, always been braver than he was. “After you polish my armor.”
“You do know now that I can do that in just a few seconds, right?”
Arthur’s grin widens. “As I said, after you polish my armor.”
And then Arthur takes the next step, leaps across the chasm of fear, and raises his other hand to touch Merlin’s face and run his thumb gently across that damned cheekbone. “I plan to court you properly, Merlin.”
The color is high on Merlin’s cheeks and Arthur is pleased to see it.
“I am not a damsel you need to woo, Arthur,” he says, if only just to be difficult.
“I know, and you will not find me putting flowers in your hair any time soon,” Arthur replies, rolling his eyes, but he steps forward, relishes the hitch in Merlin’s breath, and cannot help but glance down at Merlin’s lips. He had not planned to do this now, so early, but it’s hard with Merlin looking at him like that.
“But I will give you nothing less than you deserve,” he promises, and then he is capturing Merlin’s lips with his own, and it is more than he has ever imagined, and yes, he has imagined it before, but his fantasies cannot even compare.
The warmth and feel of Merlin’s lips kissing him back, the hard and welcome pressure of Merlin’s body pressed against his, the feel of Merlin’s arms wrapping around his neck to pull him closer, and the way his own arms move down to wrap around Merlin’s back.
It is not quite like kissing a woman. Merlin is more bold, and Arthur is pleased when Merlin’s mouth opens up beneath his and their tongues meet halfway. A small sound of pleasure comes from Merlin’s throat, and Arthur growls, pulling him closer and kissing him harder.
When Merlin gently sucks at his lower lip, Arthur has to pull away, groaning, clutching Merlin tighter to him and panting heavily. Restraining himself from now on is going to be a very hard endeavor, he thinks with a breathless chuckle.
“Hmm,” Merlin hums in satisfaction against Arthur’s neck. He laughs, and Arthur relishes the touch of his lips moving against his skin. “I must have done something right if I deserved that.”
“Well, you have been scrubbing the floor properly lately.”
“So what do I get for polishing your armor?”
And Arthur laughs, loud and free, at Merlin’s boldness. Restraining himself is going to be very hard, indeed.
His shoulders are still shaking with laughter when he pulls back, just slight enough to be able to press another soft kiss on Merlin’s lips and, because he already can, on the juncture where his neck meets his shoulder, where the bite mark used to be.
Another shiver runs down Merlin’s body. “Arthur…” he warns.
Arthur leans back and smirks unapologetically. He does not let go, lets himself enjoy the rightness of finally having Merlin in his arms, and thinks it the right time to confess something else.
“I plan on lifting the ban on magic,” he says, and is happy with the astonishment that dawns on Merlin’s face.
Watching the emotions play out on Merlin’s face is a delight, Arthur is quickly realizing. He is slightly regretful that he hadn’t allowed himself to do so much earlier.
“Well, you’re full of surprises today, aren’t you?” Merlin mutters, letting his head fall on Arthur’s shoulder to hide wet eyes.
“I want no more secrets between us, Merlin,” Arthur murmurs, and the feeling of happiness in his chest is overwhelming. “I want to tell you everything, and… I want you to share all of your burdens with me from now on as well. Not just as your king…”
“You will always be my king,” Merlin swears fervently.
Arthur smiles softly against Merlin’s hair. “I’m hoping I could also be your lover, if you will have me?”
This time, Merlin pulls back, cheeks flaming and eyes wide in disbelief. “Are you even… Why are you even asking… I mean… I just kissed you!”
Arthur grins happily. “It’s better that we’re both clear about this. I hope you don’t think that I’m going into this half-heartedly.” He looks into Merlin’s eyes, and says softly, “I don’t plan on keeping you a secret.”
Merlin is still looking at him in disbelief, and he shakes his head, laughing nervously. “Are you sure about this, Arthur? People are going to think you’re enchanted.”
Arthur nods firmly. “I’m sure, Merlin. Let’s take this one at a time. First, starting with the ban on magic.” He cups Merlin’s cheek and asks sincerely, “Will you help me?”
“Yes,” Merlin says, breathless and teary. “Of course. Always.”
Arthur smiles gratefully. “And the other one?”
“What other one?” Merlin asks, confused.
Arthur feels the nervousness coming back to creep up on him, but he bravely goes on. “I don’t want you to feel pressured by this, Merlin, just because I’m the king. You’re under no obligation to… enter into this with me, and —”
And then Merlin realizes what Arthur is talking about, and he pulls Arthur by his shirt, and brings their lips together once again. It’s addicting, the feeling of Arthur’s lips, soft and responsive, under his.
When they pull apart, Merlin is unbelieving of the happiness that he feels.
“Yes, Arthur. Yes, if you will also have me.”
The story is pretty much finished with this chapter. The next chapter is just a little extra. <3
Just a little extra as my gift to you in this holiday season. Thank you so much for reading this far. Happy holidays!
Merlin is not a stranger to nightmares.
His sins haunt him even in his sleep, and so do his enemies. Over the years in Camelot, his dreams are usually plagued with fear of Mordred and Morgana, of Arthur scorning him, of cradling his lifeless body, and of living in a world without him.
Recently, Merlin has been dreaming of his time in Helios’ dungeons.
He’s had nightmares before, and some had certainly been worse than these. He knows enough that it will get better with time, if he just lets it run its course. Usually, they last a week or two, before Merlin gets distracted enough to forget them.
And so he grits his teeth at night and asks for draughts in the morning, and Gaius also knows enough to have already brewed them for him. He goes about his chores, fighting headaches and dizziness, as he had in all the times before this.
So it comes as a surprise one morning, as he arrives in Arthur’s chambers holding a breakfast of cheese and bread and fruits, to see Arthur already dressed, working behind his desk, and telling him, “You have the day off, Merlin.”
“I…” Merlin stares at him, dumbfounded, and at the tray of food in his hand. “Did I do something wrong?”
Arthur looks up at him, fond exasperation on his face. “I’m giving you a day off, and you think it’s because you did something wrong?”
“Well,” Merlin starts defensively. “You don’t usually give me a day off on a whim. I mean, I’m reasonably suspicious here.”
He closes the door behind him and walks across the room to lay the tray on the dinner table.
“It is not on a whim,” Arthur replies, rolling his eyes. He stands up, pulls out a chair, and pushes Merlin down with a light shove on his shoulders.
Squawking and limbs flailing in surprise, Merlin lands harshly on his butt. Arthur takes the chair beside him, at the head of the table.
“What are you doing?” Merlin asks, panic evident in his voice. He narrows his eyes at Arthur, searching his face. “Are you enchanted?”
Arthur releases a long-suffering sigh. “ No, Merlin, I am not enchanted, and we are eating breakfast.”
“Yes, you brought enough to feed a family.” Arthur picks up a grape and shoves it inside Merlin’s mouth, making sure that the pad of his finger swipes gently at Merlin’s lips.
The blush that blooms on Merlin’s cheek tells him that the move did not go unnoticed. He smirks.
“You eat as much as one family. That’s why I have to go around adding holes to your belts,” Merlin mutters, before begrudgingly chewing and swallowing.
“Are you saying I’m fat?”
When Arthur pops another grape into his mouth, Merlin makes sure to lick at Arthur’s finger. His face is warm, but his smile is cheeky at Arthur’s startle.
“No, sire, I’m saying you’ve got a healthy appetite.”
And then, he takes the tray from Arthur and feeds him grapes instead, because while they may be lovers, Arthur is king, and he definitely shouldn’t be going around hand-feeding servants.
“And you’ve gotten thinner,” Arthur comments. “Don’t think I haven’t noticed.”
Merlin smiles, something warm forming in his belly at Arthur’s worry. “Is that why we’re eating together now?”
“Mm-hmm,” Arthur says, taking a piece of bread. “And after this, we’re going to bed.”
Merlin squawks again, and drops the grape he was holding. It bounces off the table and onto the floor.
Having gotten the desired reaction, Arthur smirks again and leans back. “We’re just going to sleep, Merlin. Or you will, and I’ll try to finish reading those reports while in bed with you, because I just woke up.”
“Say that first!” Merlin glares, sighing exasperatedly. He leaves his chair to pick up the grape. “Had my hopes up for nothing, you stupid prat.”
And that has Arthur laughing, warm pleasure flooding him at Merlin’s response. They’ve been playing this game for a while, trying to see who can ruffle the other up more with their innuendos, and Arthur is enjoyably losing. But not yet. Soon , Arthur thinks as he grabs Merlin’s wrist. Soon, I will make love to you, he promises as he tugs Merlin down to straddle his lap and pulls him into a soft kiss.
But now Merlin needs to sleep.
“You look like you haven’t gotten a proper sleep in weeks,” Arthur says when they pull away, staring at the dark bags underneath Merlin’s eyes.
At this, Merlin sobers up and tries to muffle the rush of affection at what Arthur is trying to do. He sighs against Arthur’s lips and kisses him again. “I’m fine,” he says, trying to shrug it off with a grin as always.
Arthur’s stare is heavy with meaning. “I thought you’ve decided to finally share all your burdens with me?”
And then, as easy as that, Merlin is awash with guilt again, and he ducks his head in embarrassment. It is definitely a hard tendency to break, to pretend that nothing is wrong, to keep Arthur from worrying or thinking about things that might distract him from his duties as the king of Camelot. He chuckles ruefully. “I apologize, sire.”
He leans his forehead against Arthur, and finally admits, “I’ve been having nightmares lately.”
“Nightmares?” Arthur looks up concernedly, alert, and Merlin immediately knows what he’s thinking of.
“No, no, not like Morgana’s visions. Just… nightmares. Of what happened with her and Helios.”
Arthur’s hand around his wrist tighten.
“They’ll disappear after a while, it’s just… it’s been three nights, and I guess it’s starting to tire me out,” Merlin sighs, letting Arthur finally see the fatigue wearing him down.
“You should have told me,” Arthur murmurs, just slightly chastising. “I would have held you.”
Merlin smiles, cheeks coloring at the thought. “It’s not proper for a servant to lie on the king’s bed,” he says in amusement, only half-joking.
“Since when have you cared about proper palace decorum?”
“Someone has to be the sensible one here.” This time, it is Merlin that rolls his eyes. He gets off from Arthur’s lap and sits back in his chair. “Now eat. ”
Arthur chases his hand and holds it. “Eat with me.”
Merlin knows, having watched Arthur with his trysts with all those princesses and Gwen, that Arthur is very sweet as a lover, but it still surprises and amazes him when that sweetness and charm is directed at him.
Later, when they are done eating and Merlin has removed his boots, socks, jacket, and neckerchief, he is surprised to see Arthur climbing into bed and under the covers.
“I thought you were going to finish reading?” he asks, but slips under the covers as well and into Arthur’s arms.
Arthur pulls him close immediately, and Merlin hums in contentment at the warmth and hard flush of his body and the solid comfort of his arms around him.
“I am, but I’ve finally got you in my bed,” Arthur says, chuckling. “Who am I to pass on such a chance?”
“Ah,” Merlin says, smirking. “Finally decided to have your wicked way with me?”
“When I finally decide to have my wicked way with you, I would prefer you to be fully awake and fully rested.”
“Oh, we’re going for a full night the first time then?”
“Yes, yes, going to sleep now,” Merlin laughs, and he admits that he does feel comfortable and warm enough that despite having woken up just two hours ago, he is feeling his eyes droop down on their own.
He moves closer to Arthur, buries his face in his chest, and inhales his scent. “Feels nice,” he murmurs, wrapping his arms around Arthur as well.
Arthur hums in agreement and lets all the feelings of love he has for this man wash over him yet again and settle in his chest. He kisses the top of Merlin’s head. “Sleep.”
Despite what he said, Arthur dozes off as well, lulled to sleep by Merlin’s soft breathing.
He is woken by a knock to the door and knows immediately who it is. He deliberately pulls Merlin closer and says, “Enter.”
George enters, and while he pauses at the sight of them in bed together, his posture does not waver. He blinks, owlishly, for a few heartbeats, before saying as if nothing was out of the ordinary, “Should I bring your lunch now, sire?”
Arthur makes a mental note to give this man a raise. “Yes, please.”
George glances at Merlin, sleeping peacefully against Arthur’s chest.
He bows his head. “I shall bring two sets, then.”
When the door closes, Arthur lets out the breath he didn’t know he had been holding, and smiles against Merlin’s hair.
George is definitely getting a raise.