First, it's because of the rebuilding efforts after the attack, because Morgana's takeover and Agravaine's betrayal have left the whole of Camelot feeling like an animal licking its wounds and he doesn't want to add another.
Then it's because everyone, castle staff and nobility alike, is suddenly swept up in the preparations for yet another tournament, almost in reaction to the tragedy, a way to flaunt Camelot's wealth far and wide and yell to the skies that the best men in the kingdom are still alive and proud and going strong; clearly he can't take Arthur aside and say a thing like that, it would throw him off his game, because of course he's taking part, he's still young and not the sort of idle king who watches the proceedings from the stands, clapping politely.
Then it's a fever in the lower town that keeps both him and Gaius run off their feet for days.
But when he starts putting off the moment because there's too much armor to polish, or because that herb-picking trip absolutely can't wait another minute, or because Arthur couldn't have his favorite for breakfast and he's obviously in too foul a mood to handle it, he realizes the sad truth.
He's so used to secrecy by now that when there are no immediate reasons to keep it, he makes them up.
A part of him has longed to come clean since… he can't even recall when, exactly, because it feels like forever. The trust that Arthur puts in him twists in his gut like a living thing with claws and teeth, biting at his insides with the knowledge that it's completely undeserved. For all that he tries to be loyal to him above all else, for all that he's been mentally referring to Arthur as his king since before he was actually crowned, he burns with shame just thinking of the obvious disparity in their relationship—and he's not talking about their social standing, for once. Merlin knows Arthur so much better than the king knows him. He's tired, tired to the very marrow of his bones, of letting the other man believe they both know each other's quirks by heart, that spending most of their time together has left no secrets between them.
But then he thinks of Gaius, pinning him in place with his disapproving looks and his constant refrains of be careful and what were you thinking?; he thinks of his mother, of a childhood filled with no and you shouldn't and it's for your own good and please be safe, and he just… can't do it.
He's pictured the thousand ways the conversation might go, rehearsed it in his head until he was well and truly sick of it, and he found that the words lodged in his throat even in his imagination.
He's been watching from the sidelines, feeling a white-hot jolt of hope every time Arthur gave even a hint of stepping out of his father's lingering shadow and growing into his own man.
He was there when common men knelt before him and rose from the dusty stone floor as knights, propriety forgotten in the face of peril, the dawn of a new social order.
He was one of the voices shouting “Long live the Queen!” when a simple serving girl, secretly terrified but gazing up at him with undisguised adoration, knelt prettily to receive the crown and stepped up to her rightful throne, resplendent with silk and smiles.
Most of all, he witnessed Arthur himself dropping to his knees at a shrine in the woods, talking to a memory, pleading for belated forgiveness for an order given long ago, for not stopping the slaughter of innocents who couldn't help what they were.
But he still can't.
Many times, so many times, he's wondered what would happen if he knew, but he can't bring himself to find out, and if that makes him a coward, well, that makes little difference, it's what Arthur thinks anyway, teasing him relentlessly for hiding behind trees.
When it comes to the subject of magic, Arthur's progress feels like a frustrating sort of dance—one step forward, two steps back. Their respective parents' teachings are too deeply ingrained in them both: Uther's booming voice reminding Arthur even from beyond the grave of how much magic has taken from him, and the memory of Hunith sitting by the fire and watching Merlin make fanciful shapes out of sparks with an indulgent smile that did nothing to hide her frightened starts at every twig snapping outside their modest home.
But still, a stupid, reckless part of him wants to do it.
In his mind, he is the one on his knees, laying out the truth for the king to see and waiting for his sentence. When he is feeling optimistic, pretend-Arthur bridges the gap between them, pulls him up to his feet, calls him an idiot in that affectionate way of his, and things go on more or less as they've always been. When he is not, which is most of the time, his face hardens in a mask of hurt and steel and the doors burst open at his call to admit a pair of towering, faceless guards to drag him to his death as pretend-Arthur reminds him that the law bends for no one, not even friends, if they'd ever been friends at all.
He's even considered asking Kilgharrah for all of a minute, only to decide that another unhelpful spiel about destiny with a lot of pretty words and no straight answers at all is the last thing he needs. All that talk about two sides of the same coin, and he might as well flip one to come to a decision, for all the good it ever does. Heads, he tells him; tails, he keeps his mouth shut.
He catches himself actually doing it; not that he would ever truly put something so important in the hands of random chance, but at least it keeps him busy. Besides, if he has this great destiny all planned out for him, surely Fate or whoever it is will interfere, again, and nudge it in the right direction.
It lands on tails, and he squirms in his seat with something akin to disappointment, as though he wished the stupid thing to land the other way and convince him to get off his cowardly arse and do it. Surely it can't hurt anyone if he tries again.
It's heads, and he has to look away in a blind panic, because the heads side of Camelot's coins is Arthur's likeness, has been since the coronation, and the round of merciless teasing that had warranted, complete with holding one up, squinting dramatically and concluding that they hadn't gotten his nose quite right, feels ages away, and now the little face looking up at him seems as cold and hard as the metal it's made of.
Well, that was helpful.
Heads. Heads. Tails. Heads. Tails. Heads. Tails. Tails. Tails. Heads.
He's not really keeping track, just giving himself something to do in one of his rare moments of idleness, not that it's helping keep the thoughts away. Heads again. Tails. This is monumentally stupid and he knows it, but he keeps going anyway, just in case divine inspiration comes in the form of an unnatural streak that tells him destiny is messing even with a silly game. He wouldn't be surprised.
Tails. Heads. Gods, he's even more of an idiot than Arthur says, he can practically feel disapproval rolling off of the tiny portrait in his hand. All right, this is the final one, then he'll put it out of his mind. He flips.
“What on earth are you doing, boy?”
He yelps, misses, shoots a look at Gaius's figure filling the doorway, somehow looking forbidding even as he hunches with age and weariness, and by the time his mind is back on his ridiculous little pastime, the coin has rolled away under the crowded shelves, unseen and inconclusive.
Not that it would have been conclusive. Of course not. He's not that desperate for a solution. He isn't.
“Nothing,” is what comes out of his mouth; contemplating doing the one thing you've been telling me not to do since I first stepped into this room is the far more accurate thought that goes through his head.
“Good, then you can hang these up to dry.”
An indeterminate number of bunches of herbs later, he sighs. It's simple, mindless work, and it doesn't help a single whit.
“How's Audrey?” he asks idly, just to break the oppressive silence. The head cook's sudden illness had been his latest excuse: without her iron fist running the kitchens, the food wasn't quite up to scratch, and he really didn't fancy spilling life-changing secrets to an already aggravated king.
“She'll be back on her feet before we know it.” Gaius smiles, his wrinkles multiplying in his merriment, and Merlin is forcefully reminded that maybe it isn't the old man who is a pillar of towering disapproval today, maybe it's he who sees censure and reproach even in his shadow. “I didn't know you cared, Merlin. Didn't she chase you with a wooden spoon last time?”
“I don’t. I mean, I do, of course I do, just… sorry, I've got a lot on my mind.”
“Is it the kind you can talk about, or the kind I'm better off not knowing?”
“Er…” It's not as though he's hiding yet another suicide mission that ends with Arthur being saved by the skin of his teeth and someone else taking the credit, after all. “Good question.”
“I can see you're upset about something, Merlin, I'm not that blind yet. Don't make me drag it out of you. What did Arthur do this time?”
“Why do you assume it's Arthur?”
“Because with you, it's always him.”
“All right, maybe it is. But it's not so much what he did, it's… what he might do.”
“Um.” He really, really doesn't want an earful from the champion of secrecy. “How would he take it if… if he knew? About me? About everything?”
“Merlin!” The scandalized tone is enough to make him shrink in on himself. “Look me in the eye and tell me this is hypothetical.”
“All right, all right, fine, I was just saying!”
“Saying it is quite enough for my poor old heart, my boy.”
“But what if he's changed? What more is he supposed to do to prove he's not his father? He's already different in every way that matters, what if this is different too?”
“And what if it isn't?”
“What if, what if. One of these days, I swear, I might tell him just to end the suspense. Worst case scenario, I would die with no more stupid ‘what if’s,” he blurts out. The funny thing is he probably means it. Maybe. Deep down, under a layer or three of paralyzing fear.
“The law is still in place, Merlin. When Uther was alive, you kept your silence so he wouldn't have to choose between the two of you; don't make him choose between preserving your friendship and upholding justice.”
“But is it really justice when the law is wrong? We both know it is, Gaius, don't pretend.”
The old man sighs. “It may be wrong, but it is the law; by asking him to make an exception for you, you'd essentially be asking him to be the last thing he wants to be—a corrupt king who makes and unmakes the rules as he likes.”
“It doesn't have to be an exception! You know me, I ask for nothing better than to be like everyone else, and what if he changes the law for everyone and that just happens to include me? There would be no corruption then, no loopholes, nothing. Arthur would still have his peace of mind, and everyone with magic would be free.”
“That's… an ambitious plan.”
“I know it's just a dream, Gaius. But it's a nice dream to have, isn't it? He's already done things that would have had you checking me for mental afflictions if I’d said them under Uther. He's got knights without a seal of nobility who can run circles around the sons of his lords, he's got people bowing to a queen who used to scrub floors and empty Morgana's chamberpot, is it that hard to believe he could look at a sorcerer and not want to run him through where he stands?”
“It's nice to see you so hopeful, my boy, but that hope may be your undoing.”
“I'm not about to stroll into his chambers and start doing magic in front of him. I've been doing exactly what you've always wanted me to do, thinking, and it's given me nothing but a headache. It was never the right time to tell him, there was always one reason or another why I couldn't, but now… now there's nothing but the law, and that law has to go. And yet, every time I tell myself that this is it, that it's finally the right time, that I should do it now instead of waiting for the next crisis, there's a little voice in my head that tells me not to.” And that voice sounds like you, is what he doesn't add out loud.
“Sounds like a very wise voice, then,” says the physician, and Merlin has to bite back a bitter laugh at the fact that he's essentially complimenting himself.
“But then, every time I decide not to do it, there's another little voice that doesn't want me to live with the regret of not knowing how it would have gone.”
“I didn't know your head was that crowded. You might as well start asking the little voices to pay rent.”
“Ha. I'd be rich in no time. Quit my job, stop cleaning up after the royal prat, kick my feet up and live in peace,” he says humorlessly.
“You'd go mad with boredom within a week.”
“Yeah, I suppose I would. Even when it's this quiet, I can't let myself relax. When it's not an evil sorcerer, a spell gone awry, or a bloody great dragon, then the trouble comes from inside my head.”
“There are times, Merlin, when I wish I could just whip you up a potion and make it all go away, or serve you the answer on a silver platter, but I think we're long past the time when you could come to me for advice and I'd have just the right book in here somewhere. There's not a tome in the entire royal library that can solve this.”
For a moment, Merlin is about to sigh and think the appropriate response is just to commiserate together some more and not come up with an answer at all, and then it hits him.
“Wait. I thought your universal solution when it comes to magic was ‘keep your mouth shut if you want to keep your head on your shoulders’.”
“I'm an old man, Merlin, and if there's one thing you should know about old men, it's that we like things the way they are. We grow stiff in more than just our joints. Change frightens us. Change… is for young people like you. My part in it is to sit by, complaining of rheumatism that acts up when it rains, and reminisce about times long past. My first instinct is to tell you to keep going as usual, yes, but… I wonder if I'm just being a selfish old codger who can't accept that the world is changing. I wonder if I'm staying the hand of destiny by letting my fears rub off on you. I wonder… if the only reason I want to dissuade you is that I don't want to lose you.”
They fall together then, neither of them certain of who initiated the hug. Gaius's papery skin smells of herbs and smoke and comfort, and he wonders if that's rubbed off on him too, working with him. That would be nice. Sons are supposed to inherit something from their fathers, and he's really the next best thing.
“If that's your very roundabout way of giving me your blessing…”
“Maybe it's time to make that dream come true after all. Just… be careful. You know I had to say that one more time.”
He's going to lose the contents of his stomach. Of that, he has little doubt. His fantasies about telling him have never included vomiting, but the truth of the matter is that he is quite literally sick with dread. When even Gaius – Gaius, of all people! – admitted it might be time to come clean, he could almost physically feel the last of the resistance crumbling. He’d had a single, blinding moment of blissful optimism, a vision of a perfect future that he dearly wished could actually be prophetic and not a fabrication of his mind: vague, disjointed images of letting out his magic in front of the entire assembled Round Table and receiving nothing but smiles in return, each a different kind of smile. Gwen might be excited, for example, clamping down forcefully on her childlike delight to look more queenly; Arthur's smile would be teasing, of course, in an ‘is that all you've got?’ sort of way, needling him, challenging him, keeping him on his toes; Gwaine would just laugh outright, banging his fist with no more respect for the Round Table than for a rickety piece of furniture in a tavern, and beg him only half in jest to use it to cheat at dice…
But it had only lasted a second, and now his fears are back in full force.
He's waited for exactly the right time, for a perfect day when Arthur's busy schedule didn't include meeting anyone particularly irritating. He's even waited for Audrey to be back and stuff him full of crusted capons, just the way he likes them. Training went well, judging by the lack of grumbling about useless, pampered boys who have never been in a real fight in their sorry lives, and the man is working his way swiftly to the bottom of today's pile of paperwork, not even the tediousness of the most hated part of his duties stopping him from earning the night's rest with the sweat of his brow, both real and figurative.
Gwen hasn't returned to the royal chambers yet: she must be having one of those days when she just has to disappear for a while, take a short break from being queen for the sake of her sanity, so they're alone, undisturbed, just like they were during Arthur's many evenings as prince. It truly feels like destiny is nudging him forward, because he couldn't have made the circumstances fall together more perfectly if he tried.
So why is he still standing there, another shadow among the many flickering ones made by the candlelight, waiting to be dismissed for the day, and hasn't said it?
There's a shuffle as Arthur pushes away the last of his work, a painfully loud scraping sound in the deafening silence as he stands, and his heart wants to jump into his mouth, but he can't wait for the king to demand to undress him for bed, he can't possibly say it while doing something so intimate, not if it results in Arthur recoiling from him, regretting the fact that he's ever let a disgusting sorcerer touch him.
“There's…” His voice cracks pathetically. He clears his throat, once, twice, until Arthur looks at him in what might be a smidge of concern that he's quick to disguise as irritation.
“Shouldn't Gaius do something about that?”
“Oh, no, I'm… I'm fine, sire, just… there's something I should tell you.”
No turning back now. He has the distinct feeling that a door has just closed behind him, never to open again.
“If you're about to ask for a day off, Merlin, you may choose one of these: no, not a chance, wouldn't dream of it.”
“No, this is something else.” He almost says it, almost, but what comes out instead is: “Something I should have told you a long time ago,” and he's stalling again, buying seconds instead of days, putting off the words that might destroy everything.
“Oh? Do go on, you've actually got me interested. This might go down in history.”
Yeah, it will. Let's just hope the books don't record it as a disaster.
“Arthur…” gods, he hates the way he sounds pleading already, as if he had to apologize. He shouldn't have to be sorry for the way he was born.
“Spit it out, I'd like to go to sleep sometime this century.”
“You don't know how long I've wanted to say this, but the time never seemed right…”
“If this is some kind of grand declaration, let me give you a friendly reminder that first, I'm happily married, and second, I don't look at other men that way, despite Gwaine's insistence on calling me ‘princess’.”
“What? No!” he squawks, his face giving off nearly as much heat as the dying fireplace.
All the teasing and banter is part and parcel of Merlin's life by now, but tonight, it feels like every joke is chipping steadily away at his determination, like every time Arthur cuts off his attempts, he's one step closer to just giving up and keeping on as usual, destiny be damned. Can't he see how hard it is?
“Will you just listen? Arthur, please, this is important, it's really not the time to fool around.”
“All right, consider me intrigued.” His arms cross on his chest in polite challenge, as if saying surprise me.
“I should have told you years ago, you have every right to be angry, but at least I'm saying it now. I couldn't do it as long as your father was alive, I didn't want to put you in that position, but I'd rather you find out like this than just walk in on me one day and see it.”
He’s babbling again. Enough of that. No more stalling, no more excuses. Breathe in, breathe out, and pray to all the gods that the next four words don't leave his life in tatters, or end it altogether.
“Arthur… I have magic.”
His entire posture slackens, hands falling back to his sides, he lets out a strangled little sound that isn't kingly in the slightest, and it takes Merlin a moment to realize it's the beginning of a laugh.
“That's a good one. No, really, you had me worried there, looking all serious and everything, but if I ever need a court jester, I'll let you know.”
All the waiting, all the planning, all the fear curling in his gut in anticipation of the moment, only to discover that he's played the part of the bumbling fool so well he doesn't believe him?
Vaguely, as though his body were someone else's, he feels his fingernails cutting into his palms as his clenched fists tremble with rage.
The room blurs in a haze of golden magic and frustrated tears, and the candles sputter and die out as a breeze picks up from nowhere.
“Damn it, Arthur, would it kill you to take me seriously for once in your life?”
He's staring right at him, eyes ablaze with power, long past the point where he ducked his head or turned away to conceal the telltale glow, his soul bared for his king to do what he pleases with it, and the wind upsets the evening's hard work, scattering parchment.
“Oh, God.” Bile rises in Merlin's throat at the way his eyes widen in fear and disbelief, the way his hand twitches unbidden, reaching for the sword belt he's already discarded—has he suppressed the instinct to strike for his sake, or simply aborted the gesture when he remembered he's unarmed?
“Not so funny now, I bet. Can't have a good laugh at the expense of your idiot servant this time.”
There's a part of him that doesn't mean to inject so much venom in what he's saying, a sensible voice that tells him their friendship is on thin ice already without his going out of his way to destroy it even further and that he should really shut up now, but it's like a dam has broken and water is spilling everywhere, gushing, raging, obliterating everything that stands in its way.
“All those times you had a go at me for hiding behind a tree? Yeah, that was me helping, if you can conceive of such a thing,” he says bitterly. The curtains and drapes are billowing and snapping in the wind as he spews magic along with his words, their red color making them resemble a parody of flags on a battlefield.
“And the tavern! Gods, Arthur, you had to be blind not to see through that one, I can practically get drunk just smelling any kind of liquor, that's the last place I would go. And you know why that is? Why I never built a shred of tolerance? Because if anyone else gets drunk, the worst that can happen is that they embarrass themselves, but not me, I had to worry that I might do something that would get me killed!”
By now, the windows are rattling in their frames under the onslaught of his magic, and he doesn't care that he ought to go to the stocks for shouting at the king.
“Stop! Please, just… stop.”
He doesn't know what it is that breaks him, if it's the please, because kings simply do not say that, or the fear in the voice of the man who has elevated the appearance of fearlessness to an art.
The next thing he knows, Merlin is dropping hard to his knees like a puppet whose strings have been cut, just like in his feverish imaginings, heedless of the bruising impact with the floor, the searing heat of his anger gone and replaced with cold dread filling his insides with ice, utterly certain that the next words out of Arthur's mouth will be a death sentence, and worse, that he'll send him to his doom without remorse, their friendship in pieces, and it's all his fault.
Whatever happened to discussing it rationally, to answering sensible questions with perfectly calm and long overdue explanations? How has it come to this, where did this explosion of rage come from when he hadn't even been aware he had it?
But it's too late now, too late to do anything but wait on his hands and knees, surrounded by the debris of the chaos he has caused, for the metaphorical axe to fall. It'll probably hurt more than the real one.
The order is toneless, cold and strained and not at all like in his rosy fantasies, but it makes stupid hope flare hotly in his chest. What does it matter if he receives his sentence from down here, begging for scraps of mercy like a dog, or standing like a man, when the result is the same? Does this mean he's being spared?
He scrambles to his feet and waits, his head bowed, a mockery of the perfect servant he's never been.
He flinches as though the word had slapped him across the face, but he can't bring himself to comply, his feet feel glued to the floor. Arthur is studiously avoiding looking at him. He really is an idiot. How could he possibly be so delusional as to believe he had changed, when he can't even stand the sight of him?
“I said go!”
He stumbles backwards this time, as if pushed bodily by the force of the king's revulsion, and starts making his exit that way, slowly, only remembering now, for once in his life, that silly bit of protocol that says you should never turn your back on the king as you take your leave. As if that made any difference.
“And send for George on your way out.”
He freezes, surprised by the wave of possessive jealousy that comes over him. He doesn't even like having a list of chores that goes on for miles, why does he care that they'll be entrusted to that mindless toady?
“You're sacking me?” He regrets saying it the moment it comes out of his mouth, because of course he is, what did he expect, did he honestly think the bloody King of Camelot could keep a sorcerer in his employ? At least there's still Gaius. The man isn't getting any younger, he'll appreciate an extra pair of hands. If they don't come beating down his door to drag him to the pyre, that is, because Arthur hasn't actually said they won't. Yet.
“I just… I need to think, all right?”
Drip. Drip. Drip.
The days without Arthur are like a steady trickle of water wearing away at his sanity. He hadn't quite realized how much time he spent with him or doing things for him until he suddenly didn't. It feels like his everyday life has a large Arthur-shaped hole in it that he doesn't quite know how to fill.
Drip. Drip. Drip.
Wake up, scramble out of bed in a half-sleeping panic thinking he's late for bringing the king his breakfast, remember that it's up to George now, trudge down the steps and wonder what to do with himself all day.
Drip. Drip. Drip.
Wake up, untangle himself from the sheets shaking away the remnants of a nightmare of flames licking at his skin and Arthur staring unseeingly from the balcony overhead, do the rounds with Gaius, rinse and repeat.
Drip. Drip. Drip.
Jump a foot in the air every time someone knocks, sick with the certainty that it's the guards this time, scrambling for the right words to say goodbye to his father in all but blood, only for dizzying relief to wash over him when it's only another patient.
Drip. Drip. Drip.
Swing uselessly from anatomy to herbal lore and back, the information flowing out of his head instead of in. Not even Gaius has the heart to reprimand him for being distracted.
Drip. Drip. Drip.
He might still have a proper job waiting for him. Arthur's answer was neither a yes nor a no, after all. He's not giving up hope.
Drip. Drip. Drip.
He's still alive. For now.
Drip. Drip. Drip.
When there's another knock and it's not a patient, it feels like an age has gone by, and Merlin is shocked to realize it's only been a week.
It's not a pair of burly guards with handcuffs at the ready, either. It's just a boy, one of those vaguely familiar faces he can't put a name to, probably someone he's bumped into in the servants' corridors a few times.
“The king requests your presence in his chambers immediately,” he says, the picture of youthful earnestness, bursting with pride at having been selected for the task and sounding very much like he's learnt the words by heart, probably repeating them to himself the whole way there.
There isn't much time to feel for him, though, because his stomach is suddenly in tangled knots of dread and confusion and vague, stubborn hope.
He puzzles over it with every step, but his thoughts are getting nowhere. Why has he been summoned? If it's to receive the death sentence the law says he deserves for his magic, why the delay? What's the point of letting him agonize for a week? Arthur is many things, but he is not the kind of king who takes a perverse enjoyment in letting his subjects suffer. So what expects him beyond that all-too-familiar door? He doesn't think he's ever opened it to find so many unknowns on the other side.
He knocks, another stark difference from before. He rarely bothered, when they were still friends, but he doesn't know what they are now, and it's better to err on the side of caution.
“Enter,” comes the muffled permission. He pushes in, and it's… underwhelming. The room is exactly the same as always, probably cleaner, considering it's been in George's tender care, and he doesn't know exactly for what stupid reason he expected it to look different, but the fact that it doesn't is surreal, like stepping into a past that can never return.
The only noticeable difference is a single high-backed chair placed carefully across from Arthur's, his desk between them, cleared of any distractions, like a barrier to create some distance. He doesn't stand to greet him, of course, because that would mean they're equals, and Arthur isn't likely to forget anytime soon that he's the king and he doesn't owe that sort of courtesy to anyone. Unlike last time, he's fully dressed and probably armed up to the roots of his hair: he never goes without a few more concealed weapons besides the very conspicuous sword at his side, just in case. The desk suddenly feels more like a shield than a studiously planned way to make him feel like a chastened schoolboy, a deterrent, something to keep him from vaulting over it and ending it right here and now.
“Sit.” He's still speaking in clipped, monosyllabic commands. That doesn't bode well, but every second that passes without an order for his immediate execution is a second gained.
Merlin doesn't speak, because even a simple ‘good morning, sire’ feels like it would fall short, a pathetic attempt at normality that might be the proverbial last straw. He just dips into a bow, because his habit of forgetting such things might very well be what kills him this time, and then sits, swallows past the lump in his throat, and waits.
“Why didn't you tell me?”
It's the most he's said since they parted, and the answers fall all over one another in an unhelpful jumble in his head. He means to say that he wanted to, that there are times when he tried and couldn't, that he should at least consider that he decided to come forward now and it's better late than never, that he did tell him before, even, shouting it out for the court to hear, and he didn't believe him, just like a week ago.
“We weren't ready,” he says instead, and he only sees how much truth there is in it once it's out. At first, it was Arthur who wasn't ready, too much of a product of his father's dogma to react with anything other than unthinking rejection; but Merlin suspects he's been ready for longer than he ever gave him credit for, and that it was only his own deep-seated fear that delayed the revelation until now.
“It had to wait until you were king at the very least,” he explains, trying desperately to be as articulate as the moment deserves and not fall into tongue-tied stuttering or mindless nervous prattle. “You would have reported me to your father, and even if you hadn't, I refused to have you commit treason on my behalf. But it couldn't be immediately after the coronation, either. I wanted to let you grieve. And then… then I made excuses. I'm as much of a coward as you always say. I feared for my life; for all the things you did that are the opposite of your father's ideals, I was afraid you'd be the same. I'm praying to whatever god may be willing to listen that I was wrong.”
“Merlin.” It strikes him that this is the first time he's said his name since then, and it sparks feeble hope, though he doesn't understand why. Maybe it's because his name means he's still a person, and the way Uther used to go on about the evils of sorcery, he'd always given him the sick feeling that he thought those with magic weren't quite human.
“I… I need to understand.”
This is as hesitant as he's ever heard him. In his mind, Arthur never speaks anything less than forcefully, no false starts, no awkward pauses, and most certainly no tentative quiver in his voice as if testing unfamiliar, foreign sounds. He realizes with a start that he's deferring to him, that he's the expert here, that the king is as good as admitting that Merlin knows better, and his head spins furiously with it. He slumps against the hard wooden back of his seat, staggered.
“Anything, sire. I… I don't know where to start, but I'll answer anything. No more excuses.” He swallows again, because he's wanted to say the next three words for so long, and now they won't come out louder than a whisper. “No more secrets.”
Arthur steeples his fingers. Oh, he knows that pose. It's the one he reserves for doing some very hard thinking, the one he used to rib him about with undisguised glee, telling him to take care not to hurt his royal head. The joke is already halfway to his lips, but it fizzles out and dies.
“Why?” is what finally comes out, and it could mean a thousand things and more, and Merlin hates himself for being unable to answer, for breaking his promise already.
“E-excuse me, sire?”
“Why did you choose to take up sorcery? What was in it for you? Wealth? Power? You never seemed the type. You got closer to me than anyone in every way—except physically, that record belongs to Guinevere now, just so we're clear. What I mean to say is… all the times you dressed me, got me in and out of my armor, drew my bath. I could have been enchanted or dead a thousand times over, the entire kingdom yours for the taking, and… and here we are. Why?”
He blinks, trying to digest it all. This is a marked improvement on monosyllables, all right.
“There was nothing to choose,” he says, because starting from the beginning is always a good idea, and maybe it'll buy him some time to get his scrambled thoughts in order. “I was born with it. The things I wanted would come to me before I could even name them, the fire in the hearth was as much my toy as any pretty bauble my mother would give me. I didn't choose to practice magic, and I couldn't choose not to, though not for lack of trying. That particular experiment failed badly. I was six. I lasted all of a week.”
“That's… no one ever told me it was possible. I was led to believe sorcery was something you studied, not for infants and toddlers to wield before they can put two words together.”
“It can be. Just… not for all of us.”
“Are you implying there are others?”
“Yes.” He considers not saying it, unwilling to drag his estranged sister into a conversation that is going so much better than he ever let himself hope, but that's too much like keeping secrets, and he deserves to know. “Morgana was the same. She came into her powers later, but it was not by choice.”
“She told you this?”
“After the fire in her chambers. Not that it was hard to figure out if you knew what to look for. I… I blame myself for what's become of her, Arthur. For valuing secrecy over our friendship and not telling her, for not supporting her, for leaving her to her own devices when I knew so well what it was like to have a power you didn't understand.”
He only realizes a beat too late that he's slipped and used his given name instead of his title and braces himself for the reprimand, but there is none. What comes instead is worse.
“Father used to say that magic corrupts from within. That it eats away at your very soul. He would have had me believe you were both born corrupted.”
“Please, sire,” he can't resist protesting, “don't make that comparison. Anything we might have had in common was lost years ago.”
“It certainly looks like it,” says Arthur, so low he almost misses it, leaving him to wonder if he was meant to hear it at all. Then, louder, in that demanding tone that is achingly familiar: “You still haven't answered the rest of it. You claim you didn't choose it, and let's say I believe you. That doesn't explain why you're still a servant, why you're content with mucking out the stables when you could have so much more.”
He can't help the smile that splits his face nearly in two, then, because he might as well have told him he's still hired. Technically, he hasn't been a servant for the past week.
“Because not everyone is meant to rule, sire. Because some people are born to be kings, and others… others are born to make sure they stay alive to do so.”
“Why do I feel like there's a story behind that?”
That's enough to open the floodgates, because there isn't just a story, there are dozens, there are hundreds, and finally, finally he can explain his side of them, and it's a good thing Arthur has apparently cancelled all his appointments, because Merlin belatedly realizes he's been talking and talking until his throat is parched, and that the sun isn't quite in the same position in the sky as before.
At first, Arthur barely comments, if not to interject the occasional ‘Why?’ or ‘How?’, but then there's a shift, slow but sure, in the quality of his questions: he grows inquisitive, he even stumps him sometimes, asking him about concepts he's never had to put into words before, because explaining magic to someone whose blood doesn't sing with power is very much like explaining sight to a man who is blind from birth, and it's a good job he's always had a knack for making up words on the spot, because he's making him feel like his vocabulary is pitifully limited, the absolute dollophead. Not that he says that last one out loud.
Only twice does his lengthy, rambling account grind to a screeching halt.
The first time, it's about the Great Dragon, because he's somehow managed to talk himself into a corner and he can't plausibly make it sound like Kilgharrah just so happened to break his chains after two decades of imprisonment, because they've moved far past the point where he can blame it on rust or some other ridiculous, far-fetched excuse, and the truth tumbles out of its own accord, a trembling, apologetic tale of how he struck a deal with the creature and was expected to hold up his end of the bargain, of how a fatherless boy turned out not to be fatherless after all, and of a mortal blow that was never dealt.
Arthur stares at him, half in horror that his choices led to so much death and destruction, half in wounded pride at having one of his greatest deeds taken away from him, at learning that the act of heroism that was making him the stuff of legend while he still lived was nothing more than the fabrication of his servant.
“I never questioned that there was no body to be found,” he says as if only now coming to a realization. “You, a Dragonlord. That'll take some getting used to.”
He lets him process it in silence for one breath, five, ten, he's lost count, and then, finally: “But that was years ago, and I hardly think you've been idle since then,” and the tale stutters, stumbles, and starts again at full speed.
The second time, it's about the first appearance of Dragoon the Great, because Arthur has already jumped ahead to the inevitable conclusion, and for a heart-stopping moment, Merlin is certain it's over.
“That was you?”
It takes a smashed inkwell splattering black all over the floor and several minutes of silent, restless pacing before Arthur is willing to listen to the whole story of Agravaine's treachery and of how the spell was meant to heal, not harm, but Morgana managed to twist it and magnify it, making it into a killing blow he'd never intended.
“Please, sire, what did I have to gain? Even in disguise, I meant every word I said; it gave me such hope that you were willing to turn to magic to save your father, and that you lost him to it… I was afraid it had set you back by years.”
There's more silence, and he can only listen to his own heart pounding, thump-thump, thump-thump, as Arthur turns away from the window he'd been staring out of, faces him and opens his mouth, surely to tell him he must have him apprehended for regicide if not for sorcery. But the man manages to defy his expectations once again.
“You still want it, then? Freedom for your kind? The ban lifted, and sorcerers free to do whatever they please?”
“Not whatever, sire. I don't think magic puts me or anyone above the law. Just… if a person kills another, why should it matter if they used a spell or a sword? A life has been lost either way, and that deserves punishment, I'm not saying it doesn't. But if that same punishment goes for anyone who uses magic to heal, then you ought to be burning physicians and midwives for doing their jobs as well.”
His forehead creases as though he were working out a complicated puzzle, and that's enough for now. It doesn't matter if he doesn't agree right away; Merlin entered this room thinking he wouldn't leave it of his own volition, dragged to the dungeons to await his death, and the fact that he's not dismissing him out of hand is already so much more than he believed possible.
“Tell me the rest of it,” he says, and Merlin thinks stupidly that it's getting to be a habit, this maddening tendency to give answers that aren't yes or no, but he's only too happy to comply in another mad rush of words that only slows to a weary stop with his account of the last time the citadel was lost and regained.
It is quite possibly the worst note to end it on he could think of.
“Funny,” says Arthur in a cutting tone that tells him he doesn't find it funny at all. “I was under the impression that you had mostly avoided using magic on my person, though that certainly explains why I remember meeting Tristan and Isolde and I have no idea how we got there in the first place.”
He does an odd little motion then, like hugging himself to make sure he's still in one piece, or discretely getting rid of a persistent, diffused itch he can't quite scratch, like the magic is still there and he wants to scrub it off, and it takes all he has to conceal just how much it hurts to see.
“It was that or letting you die!” he half-shouts, rank be damned. “And if you must know, I didn't like it any more than you do. It was wrong, but it was war, and don't come telling me you haven't done things you're not proud of on the battlefield.”
Arthur lets out a long, slow exhale, and if he needs it so he can pretend to rid himself of the remnants of a long-gone enchantment, or even just to clear his head after all he's learnt today, Merlin is not going to begrudge him that.
“You've given me a lot to think about.”
There's no answer he can give to that; he feels like he's given quite enough, and he's all out of answers for at least a month or two, so he just waits.
He stands, he bows, and it's all picture-perfect, but he's only taken exactly one step backwards when he dares turn on his heel as always. He's thirsty from his endless stream of words, he's as good as cut his chest open for the king to look at his beating heart, and he's damn well earned a breach of protocol.
“Oh, and Merlin?”
He freezes mid-step, and turning to face him takes forever.
“We have an early morning tomorrow. Don't be late.”
The first thing he notices is that the banter is gone.
He doesn't dare call him a clotpole and a royal prat to his face, not yet, but neither does Arthur call him an idiot and throw things at him, missing (probably) on purpose. Honestly, the difference is so staggering that he's surprised it's taken him almost an entire day to see it.
What's left without it is that they act more or less like they should have in the first place, the perfect humble servant to the perfect haughty king, and it feels empty, like reading from a script. Once or twice, he catches Arthur almost falling back into old habits, a teasing remark on his lips for tripping over his feet or being late with his lunch, but he swallows them quickly. The result looks remarkably like a gaping fish, but that's another one of those things he might have dared say before.
The second thing that stands out to him as the days go by is that he seems to be going out of his way to spend with him only what little time he absolutely has to, assigning long lists of tasks that can be done without his supervision and dismissing him early to disappear for hours on end on unspecified duties he's not meant to know about, and he gets the unmistakable feeling that the newfound secrecy is the king's idea of giving Merlin a taste of his own medicine. The only secret he can keep in return now is just how well it's working.
The question of what Arthur intends to do with him is still very much open: he's putting in a valiant effort to go on as normal, but at no point in their lengthy discussion has he issued an actual pardon, and so it seems Gaius's prediction has come true—he’s not quite changing the law for one man, but he's certainly putting it on hold for the time being, and Merlin can only imagine what it's doing to his unwavering sense of justice.
The old physician, however, just seems content to see he's coming back to his room night after night in one piece and that he doesn't have to come visit him in the dungeons for now, and he's in no mood to say ‘I told you so’, which is a blessing in itself.
He's labelling some of the man's countless jars while he's away who knows where, peeling off name tags and ominous pictures of poison and doom where they've gone old and faded with use and preparing new ones, when a knock startles him out of his monotonous task.
He crosses the room and finds himself face to face with the same young messenger who had come to fetch him last time, and instantly decides the job can wait. He's never had a reason in the world to make up silly superstitions, but right now, he wants to believe the boy is his lucky charm, an omen of good news come to seek him out to bring him peace of mind. It's unquestionably stupid, but it calms his frantic heart a bit.
“The king sent me to summon you to the throne room,” he says, just about to go into transports of delight over the fact that the king talked to him.
He falters. What can Arthur possibly want with him there? Today is not a day set aside for audiences, when the king and queen put on their most regal display and sit patiently listening to an unending procession of pleas and grievances and his job is little more than to stand by with a pitcher and do his level best to be invisible unless they grow thirsty.
He drags his feet to the hallowed hall with a growing weight inside as though his gut is being filled with lead. An official summons to the throne room sounds a lot less private than one to the royal chambers, and there’s only one thing he can think of that requires any witnesses. But then, why the pretense? Had their conversation only been an excuse to get a comprehensive list of his crimes? And why hire him back at all if he intended to have him executed? It's not as though he needs time to find an adequate replacement, when so many are at his beck and call. It's all supremely confusing: he thought he had Arthur all figured out, but the man seems to enjoy throwing him for a loop lately, with his non-answers and a summons that makes no sense and all those questions, good ones, like he's actually curious and doesn't secretly want to clap his hands over his ears to stop listening at the mere mention of magic.
He doesn't bother hiding his gulp as he passes the two guards at the entrance, half expecting them to grab him roughly by the arms and drag him away, but they make no move to block his passage, standing stock still like twin statues and admitting him to the throne room without so much as a twitch.
His stomach sinks. It seems he's the last to arrive, and what's waiting for him is a resplendent array of what amounts to the entire inner circle at their finest, all in vivid Camelot red, with Gaius as the only discordant note in his faded blue, looking apologetic for not giving him advance warning. Even Gwen matches, looking radiant in her customary seat next to Arthur, and he gets the strong impression that she did it on purpose. There are wide gaps at the Round Table where the king's most trusted few sit stiffly in their usual places instead of crowding together informally in the absence of the greater council, and Gwaine's cheerful little wave of greeting stands out awkwardly and gets aborted halfway.
He's had gleaming daydreams of this, but they never involved wanting to turn tail and run.
Merlin bows and keeps his silence, looking a question at Arthur. He's not certain what they're all doing here, but the quicker they get it over with, the better. He probably looks like an idiot, standing there awkwardly because no one's told him to sit, but he just waits, hovering near one of the imposing high-backed chairs without daring to claim it, because he's not exactly in a position to get ideas above his station at the moment.
“I have called this meeting,” Arthur begins, startlingly loud in the respectful silence, “to discuss a piece of news that I'm not quite ready to divulge in public.”
Only the way the king pins him to the spot with a look as he says the word ‘news’ alerts him to his true intentions, making his stomach plummet even further; a few eyes miss his grave tone entirely and come to rest none too subtly on Guinevere's abdomen, believing the news to be much more joyful.
“But it is not my news to share.” Sir Elyan's misplaced grin freezes in place and withers, and Merlin briefly entertains himself watching his silent interplay with his sister, a sort of mute conversation he can very nearly hear without the aid of magic, and that goes more or less like this:
Not going to be an uncle, then?
So what is this about?
“Merlin, a reminder of what you told me? Preferably without the shouting and… the rest of it?”
His mouth goes dry. If he'd ever entertained the foolish notion that it would be easier the second time around, it's well and truly dead now. He looks at Gaius for support, but he finds that he can't read him nearly as easily as Gwen and Elyan. He's not smiling encouragingly, but neither is he balking at the prospect of his spilling the secret for the room to hear, and he supposes that's as good as cheering him on, coming from him. Maybe.
When his voice finally comes out, it's so small that he's afraid he's going to have to repeat himself (please, no, don't make him say it again, please), but in the utter stillness, he might as well have yelled.
“I… I have magic.”
He can feel the shift in the ensuing silence as everyone's faces go from varying degrees of impossible and I don't believe it and is this a joke? to the realization that the king does not, in fact, call a meeting of the Round Table as a joke, and therefore it must be true.
It's interesting, how Arthur's presence changes everything. When it was just him going up to the king and confessing his secret, he was met with laughter and disbelief until he proved the truthfulness of his claim in the worst way possible, but now… now he's certainly not about to be asked for a demonstration, because the king's word is enough.
For an eternity and a half, or a few seconds, he's not sure which, no one says anything, and then Guinevere is the first to break.
She muffles her reaction behind her hand, and she's looking at him, but her mind is miles away, not seeing him at all, chasing memories. Finally, she stands, looking every inch the queen she's still learning to be… and breaks into a half run, picking up careless handfuls of her gown in her not-so-queenly haste, and it's only well after she's barreled into his chest that he can process that she's hugging him, tiptoeing so her hair tickles his ear as she comes up to breathe something into it.
“Thank you,” she murmurs, only for him to hear, as though sensing his keen need for privacy, his discomfort at being paraded around like an attraction in a travelling circus.
It's almost too good to be true, too close to his dream, there has to be a catch, but Gwen makes no move to leave his side as she turns to the assembled knights and looks at them in open challenge, daring them to comment on her less than proper display.
Arthur is a sight to see, his face frozen in astonishment that his wife would hug a sorcerer of her own free will, having momentarily forgotten that they were friends long before she knew and that – dare he finish that thought? – not all friendships must necessarily suffer from the discovery; but he recovers quickly, years of practice playing the courtly game restoring his stony mask as if it had never slipped.
“Gentlemen,” he begins, effectively curtailing any other comment (though Gwaine, in particular, looks like he's bursting and might do something ten times as inappropriate if he doesn't let him speak). “My lady.” He nods to Guinevere and she marches back to her seat in her most queenly manner yet, pointedly ignoring her rumpled skirt.
“You know I have come to value your input even on the most delicate matters. According to my father's law, a law that is still part of Camelot's code to this day, a self-confessed sorcerer merits nothing but a swift execution.”
Dread grips him so suddenly he doesn't trust his legs to support him, but he only vaguely registers Gwen looking murderous before an imperiously raised hand stills the rant on the tip of her tongue.
“And yet, according to the same law, a man who offers his services to the king above and beyond the call of duty should be rewarded appropriately.”
Merlin hasn't fainted yet. That's progress, considering what it sounds like he's getting at, but that can't possibly be it.
“Clearly, my father had never dreamt of the day these two sacred tenets of law would come into conflict.”
Gwen smiles a pointed sort of smile, white teeth flashing between her golden-brown lips and saying that's much better.
“Now that that day has come,” oh, gods, he's serious, he can only hope he doesn't topple over too hard, “I must confess I find myself at a loss as to the appropriate response. I have spent several days in reflection, consulting the library for precedents.” That's where he's been disappearing to? The greatest proponent of whacking a training dummy with a blunted sword as the solution to all problems, reading? “And now I turn to you. There's a reason why I selected each of you to hear this first, and it is not only that I consider you my most trusted people. Some of you have spent significant amounts of time outside the borders of Camelot, have visited lands where sorcery alone is not grounds for a death sentence, and I fully expect that to have shaped your opinion of it, regardless of your unfailing respect of a law you were not accustomed to. The floor is yours. Any experience you might have had that is relevant to the current problem will be welcomed—yes, Sir Gwaine, I can see you've been sitting on pins and needles for some time, you may speak now.”
“Finally!” he blurts out, managing to throw propriety out the window with one word as usual. But instead of unleashing the torrent that he seemed to be holding in, he's uncharacteristically silent. Slowly, ever so slowly, he turns to Merlin with narrowed, predatory eyes that threaten to send him down the slippery slope to panic.
“I knew no one could be that much of a lucky bastard.”
His face splits into his usual roguish grin, and Merlin's head spins with relief. Another one on his side. He didn't even know he'd been counting, but he is, he's making frantic calculations in his head, trying to anticipate everyone's responses as if this were a vote to decide his fate, as if the final decree weren't in Arthur's hands alone.
“Honestly, you're liable to walk straight into an ambush without a scrap of metal on your body and survive without a scratch while the rest of us are all armed and nursing injuries, there had to be something. Oh, we're going to have so much fun from now on.”
“Fun?” he croaks, the sheer strangeness of the concept shaking him out of his prolonged silence.
“You, me, The Rising Sun, some of your particular brand of luck, you get rivers of ale on my tab, I get the sheer fun of robbing them all blind, and we split the winnings. Sound like a fair business proposal, mate?”
Merlin chokes out a laugh that may be slightly hysterical at that, eyes stinging with repressed tears just because Gwaine is being so Gwaine, and he knows him so well that he's acting exactly like in his dream.
“Seriously, though – yes, Princess, I'm capable of being serious, thank you very much –, you've got the right of it, sire. Camelot is more of a home than Caerleon ever was, but I didn't grow up here, and that makes all the difference. I'm only afraid of magic in the way I'm afraid of a man holding me at swordpoint when I'm unarmed: I'm at a disadvantage and I'd be a fool not to. But I'm afraid of the man, not the weapon. And honestly… this man has trouble skinning a rabbit for dinner, so the day I'm afraid of him, you have my permission to hit me over the head, hard. Especially you, Percy, I trust you the most when there's hitting to do.”
And just like that, everyone's attention turns to the largest man in the room, who looks mightily uncomfortable at being put on the spot, more accustomed to making his point in actions than in words. He gives a shrug that somehow looks too small for his massive shoulders.
“You know me, a man like me can't possibly be happy to know there’s a power in this world against which strength means nothing. But if it were up to me to choose, I couldn't pick a better man to have it.”
If this goes on much longer, he might start sobbing like a baby in front of everyone. He knew he'd carved his own little place in the band of brothers in arms, but with the difference in rank and all the laughing at his expense, he hadn't realized their opinion of him could be anything close to Percival's assessment. Leave it to the quiet one to rock his world in a few scant sentences. Whenever they ride out together, his role shifts from Arthur's personal servant to whatever they need him to be—he is their squire, their cook, their pack mule, occasionally their jester, if being the butt of their jokes keeps their spirits high. But none of it included… this, and he has no idea how it happened. He can do nothing more than nod in thanks and hope the giant of a man got the message, because the words are stuck in his throat.
Elyan wins the brief staring contest with Sir Leon for the next turn, though it's readily apparent that the older man let him, and looks more at his sister than at Merlin as he begins to speak.
“Anyone who's earned a hug like that from Gwen can't be all that bad,” he says, ditching the stuffy protocol that would have him call his sister by anything but her childhood nickname and earning a smile from her, “but let it be put on record that she owes me the full story behind it sometime. I'm sure it involves something I wasn't here to see for myself. I should have been, but I was probably up to my neck in trouble at the time; that's always a safe bet. My point being that I've seen my fair share of magic on my travels, not all of it as wicked as the late king would have had us believe, rest his soul, and I never shared his opinion that a man should lose his life for saving another's just because he happened to save it the wrong way. It would have been treason to say so back then, but now…”
The sentence remains hanging, a small window for change that it's up to Arthur to throw wide open, and all eyes rest on Sir Leon. Merlin's insides turn to ice. For all that he's made Leon's dinner and cared for his horse on more patrols than he cares to count, the seasoned fighter was Uther's man before he was ever Arthur's, and as First Knight and the oldest and most experienced of them all, he might sway the opinion of the Round Table for the worst. Merlin can only hope that the shared misfortune of sleeping on uncomfortable bedrolls in the middle of nowhere counts for something.
“Your Majesties, gentlemen, you know my history as well as I do. I had an active role in the late king's persecution of sorcery, and yet without magic, I wouldn't be sitting in this room with you. It was… disconcerting doesn't even begin to cover it. I tried my hardest to see the evil in what the Druids had done to me. I even reasoned that it was my time to die and they had no right to interfere, but underneath it all… I was grateful, because what evil sorcerer would restore the life of a man who would see him burn? Was it to instill the notion that I owed them? Because as far as I'm aware, no Druid has come knocking on my door to collect his due.”
He turns to Arthur as his speech winds down, shedding a little of his deference to his rank and using his more advanced age as leverage, and concludes: “If I am to understand that something similar happened here… I wouldn't want my king to repay life with death, when the deaths I have caused were repaid with life. If I may presume to say so, of course.”
Then he looks straight at Merlin, and he knows that look—it’s the look of a trained knight forcefully tamping down on his fear in the face of a threat, affecting a calm he doesn't truly feel, and he finds he can't hold his gaze very long. He never wanted to cause it.
“It's still quite an adjustment, I hope you understand. I'll need to… reevaluate things, about you and myself both, and I expect it will take some time. I don't intend it as a personal slight, just… it'll take some getting used to.”
“O-of course,” he says, because what else can he say to a man who has just as good as uprooted everything he was ever taught?
They let Arthur weigh everything that has been said, falling into silence by mutual agreement until he appears to reach a conclusion, but what he says doesn't sound much like a conclusion at all.
“Gaius, you're the only one who hasn't spoken. Not to mention the only one who didn't look surprised, if any of you failed to notice.” There's a round of fleeting smiles at that as they all put two and two together, but no one dares disturb the king’s speech. “You know full well why you're here: you're a living record of the time before the Purge, you must have some idea how to treat a case such as this.”
“There are… precedents, sire, as you mentioned. But it is not my place to say: my personal bias in this case is plain as day, and I'm afraid I won't be much use in an objective ruling. If I may make a suggestion, why don't you share your findings first? If I know Geoffrey, I'm sure the material in the library must be of interest to us all.”
It only lasts a fleeting moment, but before Arthur manages to conceal his feelings once more, Merlin gets the impression that his next words are going to cost him dearly, and that Gaius is thoroughly enjoying his discomfort. As the old man gives him another of his crinkled smiles, he realizes that whatever it is that he and Arthur both know and aren't saying, making the king spell it out first is the physician's way to make him pay for making Merlin's heart nearly give out with his bright idea of a public confession. He owes him an extra thorough cleaning of the leech tank for that.
“My first approach,” says Arthur, “was to look at records of trials for sorcery from my father's time in the archives, to see if any previous case looked even remotely like this. What I found was… enlightening, and at the same time unhelpful. For over two decades of relentless persecution, there were surprisingly few records to be found, which seems to suggest that either Geoffrey is a shoddy record-keeper, or… or my father rarely bothered with a proper trial.”
It's clear he doesn't want to admit it: Merlin can't begin to imagine what it must mean to him to be faced with the harsh truth that the man who taught him how to be a king wasn't as fair and just as he'd appeared.
“Even the ones I did find were less than illuminating. In all matters of sorcery, my father only considered the defendant's nature, not their deeds. They were sorcerers, and therefore they deserved to die. Now, when the act of magic described in the record was unquestionably criminal, I found myself inclined to agree. But… but I also found evidence of punishment given where there was no damage done, and sorcery is the only instance in which our code of law admits such a thing.”
“I beg your pardon, sire, but are you implying that you may be… reconsidering?” Gaius prods him, and Merlin has to grasp blindly at the back of the nearest empty seat for support, because his knees won't hold on much longer.
“Only when I have more information. You understand that if I were to rescind the law tomorrow, it would create an unacceptable gap in our justice system. No law at all is little better than an unjust one, and even lifting the ban wouldn't solve the entire problem. I confess that I have grown so used to a life that had no place for sorcerers that I don't know what that place might be.”
“If I may ask, have you started looking at precedents for that too?”
“‘Started’ is about right. They say history is life's teacher, so I looked at older records to see what the laws regulating sorcery looked like before it was banned altogether, and… and I found that once again my father's actions impeded my search. Much of the evidence has been either moved somewhere I couldn't access it or, I suspect, destroyed. There are traces of sorcerers having an active role in the king's court, but I found little more than names that escaped my father's scrutiny, and not much at all on what that role used to be. Which is part of why I called you here. There are kingdoms other than Camelot where magic is not outlawed, and clearly they haven't fallen into chaos at the hands of sorcerers, but – very simply put – what is it that they do when they're not trying to sow destruction?”
The same things you do, except being a prat, answers the part of him that yearns for things to go back to the way they were. But Arthur is looking at the assembled knights with such expectation, like a diligent schoolboy listening to his tutors, that he doesn't dare give it voice and ruin the moment.
It's Elyan who speaks up first: “I'm sure you can see that the main problem here is that most of us didn't have much to do with kings and courts before we joined yours, sire, but you know how the rumor mill works. You can hear some pretty wild things just sitting in a tavern, as I'm sure Gwaine can testify.” The man in question just flashes him a grin, not insulted in the slightest. “For every minor lord who was said to have hired a sorcerer to dispatch his enemies, there was another who paid handsomely for a good harvest, or turned to magic to heal his only heir. Well, there was also that one who was rumored to have used a love potion to marry off his daughter who was as ugly as sin and about as pleasant, but you get my point. A sorcerer's place in court, or in life, really, is what we make it.”
“Thank you for your input, Sir Elyan.”
Arthur pinches the bridge of his nose, and Merlin suspects he'll be nursing a fierce headache sooner rather than later.
“Let me give you a less… colorful example, sire,” says Gaius. “Let's say that a man comes to you in tomorrow's audience claiming he's been cursed and he wants the sorcerer responsible secured to justice. Without the aid of another, how can you verify that there's any truth to it and he isn't simply trying to frame his neighbor for a crime he didn't commit? And even if the curse is real, without the aid of magic, your only hope is a widespread search that would waste considerable time and resources and may be inconclusive. And if you find the culprit at all, which is a big assumption in itself, the caster's death doesn't always end the spell, and then justice alone would be a very poor repayment if it cannot be removed.”
“Judging crimes of magic with magic itself,” he says as if it were an unprecedented novelty (which, admittedly, it is, at least in Camelot). “I don't know if that would have occurred to the ancient kings whose records have survived. It's all mighty warlords who can fell entire armies with one spell and other such tall tales, and little to no remaining evidence of petty disputes. This only confirms my impression that what little I found was from a different time, and will have to be redefined significantly.”
Merlin lets out what can only be termed a disbelieving squeak, clutching the chair for dear life, because it sounds for all the world like Arthur is talking about giving him a position not in spite of his magic, but on account of it, and he really has to check Gaius's books to see if your own heart can break your ribs if it beats hard enough, because that sounds plausible right now.
“Oh, for the love of… Your Majesty, might I suggest to begin your redefining by letting the poor man have a seat before he needs my services?”
He must really look a fright, because Arthur only nods and lets him plonk down, disregarding whose seat it usually is. He's still far from the others, separated even from the closest by a number of empty seats, but it strikes him how right this feels, how he sat at the smaller Round Table of the ancient kings in a crisis, but never before presumed to sit at the greater one on an ordinary day (but today has stopped being ordinary long ago), and truly, he has no idea why, because it's not as though he's ever been the model servant who knows his place anyway.
Gaius is visibly looking him up and down the way he does a patient, but he forces a smile to show he's all right, because he can cure himself just fine. Diagnosis: too many shocks in one day. Proposed treatment: crash into bed and sleep like a log.
“We've danced around the issue long enough,” says Arthur once he's reasonably certain he'll be alive to hear it for the foreseeable future. “Merlin.” He jumps when he addresses him directly, chiding himself for being so transparent. “You've kept secrets from me for so long that when you finally came forward, I had to wonder if I'd ever known you at all.” Merlin hangs his head. He deserves that and worse. “It seems that, contrary to popular belief, you do have a sense of self-preservation.”
His heart misses a beat, because that sounded so much like the old Arthur, the one who was practically begging for him to tease back. It's a testament to his inner turmoil that he comes up empty, unable to respond with a sassy remark of his own.
“I would have thought it was implied in the conspicuous lack of guards and the fact that you haven't lost your job, but I suppose I have yet to do it properly.”
He pauses and—oh, gods. That's his official business face. What's he making that face for?
“I, Arthur Pendragon, King of Camelot, hereby grant Merlin of Ealdor a full pardon for the crime of sorcery.”
There are uncomfortable looks bouncing back and forth as no one wants to be the first to speak, and Merlin is actively reminding himself to breathe, because he's forgotten how to do it somewhere along the way.
Then, finally, Gwaine whoops, and that seems to unleash the round of applause that no one dared start. Arthur is the only one who doesn't join in, but he makes no move to stop it either, though he looks distinctly like he's pouting at the unforeseen interruption.
When he's satisfied with the silence, his serious expression slips back on, but there’s a long, tense pause before he speaks again, as if he were bracing himself.
“After all,” he says, “we can't have a Court Sorcerer with a criminal record.”
Merlin's world shatters, and his resolve with it. Call him a girl from here until the day he dies, but he's crying and he's not coherent enough to be embarrassed. Through his tear-blurred vision, he feels more than sees Gaius coaxing his creaky old joints to stand up and embrace him, in celebration and comfort both, and Arthur fumbling helplessly for the appropriate response to his outburst, not quite knowing what to do with a crying man.
On any other day, he would have reacted with derision or outright anger, but today isn't any other day. He doesn't know how long the king lets him cry, but it's as long as he needs. He knows now that the teasing will come, when the other man finally feels up to it: it's just delayed to a later date, and when it arrives, he'll be ready to give as good as he gets.
“I'm so proud of you, my boy.” Gaius has gone back to resting his weary bones in his seat, but he looks very much like he's up to a second round of hugging.
“Save the pride for later, Gaius. There's a lot of work to do before this is even possible. Not all of the council will like it, and I can't stress enough that none of this leaves this room until I say so. Oh, and Merlin—you’re not quite sacked yet. You're already dividing your attention between your apprenticeship and your job, and once we make your new position a reality, one of them has to go, but we must at least be seen to carry on as normal until then. It's less than ideal, but change doesn't happen overnight.”
“Arthur…” His voice doesn't seem to be working quite right, but this needs to be said. “Thank you.”
The shock has finally worn off, and Merlin is terrified out of his wits. Gods, Arthur delights in telling him every chance he gets that he never learnt to do his old job properly, why should the new one be any better?
“You'll put a hole in the floor with your pacing if you keep that up. You can use all that energy to help me clean the place up before my back gets stuck this way.”
He's barely taken two steps to comply when Gaius makes a puzzled sound and bends stiffly to the floor to pick something up. “How did that get there?”
“I found this under the shelf.”
A coin peeks from his fingers, and Merlin can't resist.
“Which side was it on?”
Gaius is probably contemplating checking him for a fever.
“You've asked a lot of strange questions, but this must be a record.”
“Humor me, all right? Which side did it land on? Heads or tails?”
“I'm not sure, I hardly took notice. It was heads, I think.”