“Are you going to the masquerade next week, Merlin?” Gwen asks one summer morning.
“The—the what?” Gwen repeats. “You… surely, you know. About the masquerade.” At Merlin’s puzzled expression, she raises her eyebrows. “Oh. You don’t know. Right. You haven’t always been in Camelot.”
“What’s this masquerade?”
“Every year, the city holds a celebration where people dance and play. Except everyone wears a mask.” She seems thrilled by that aspect.
“A mask?” Merlin blinks. “So, nobody knows who’s who. Then what’s the point?”
“But that’s the entire point, Merlin. It’s exciting.”
“A real adventure. It’d be very exciting to find a troll beneath the mask.”
“I hope not!” Gwen shakes her head, smile turning into something more hopeful. “No. You’re not supposed to take off the masks. Everyone is of equal standing, if just for one night. It doesn’t matter whether you’re servant or…” she trails off, blushing a little. Merlin wonders who she’s hoping to find. “In any case, you should go. It’s fun. And… you’ve been tense lately.”
Yes, that’s true. Merlin gives her a reassuring smile. “Just busy,” he says. Busy staying sane, what with his typical day routine being foiling sinister ploys, fighting off mystical monsters, saving Arthur’s life again, and then also having to polish Arthur’s armor.
Oh, and that’s not to mention the having to hide his magic part. Everything he does has the possible side effect of death, which is very inconvenient for someone who doesn’t want to die.
“I hope to see you there,” Gwen says. “Though I suppose we won’t recognize each other.”
“Just look for someone who attracts the attention of fresh produce and manure,” Merlin says dryly. “I need to go humor Arthur now. See you around.”
As he returns to Arthur’s chambers, he wonders if Arthur’s planning on going to the masquerade. It sounds like something he’d partake in, though Merlin can’t imagine Uther condoning Arthur mingling with peasants.
Merlin frowns at the idea of Arthur mingling with other peasants. It’s not pleasant thought, though he knows Arthur would treat them well. And it would be peasants, because Arthur always gets irritable when he has to deal with nobility.
Well. Either that, or Arthur gets enchanted and the world is (almost, thanks to Merlin) thrown out of balance. He’d laugh at how hopelessly Arthur falls for love spells if Merlin weren’t equally hopeless when it comes to Arthur, head over heels. Definitely not what Arthur means when he accuses Merlin of being clumsy.
But it’s not as if he can confess. Not to anything, not even if Arthur might feel even remotely the same. Especially because if Arthur feels even remotely the same, it means that he’s keeping Merlin at a proper distance for a reason.
Lately, the prince has been acting more like a prince. Merlin finds that he doesn’t like that, but shouldn’t he? It means he gets less of Arthur, the prat. But also less of Arthur, the person, the friend. The… the friend.
For a few times, Merlin caught Arthur staring back at him with something intense in his gaze that made Merlin’s heart beat fast. But Arthur always looked away.
Merlin should be glad. If Arthur ever looks at him a moment longer, he thinks he might even speak the truth for once. He might even dare to ask for forgiveness. He should be glad, but he isn’t. Sometimes, he selfishly dares to meet Arthur’s gaze, to hold it, since he can’t hold Arthur.
Arthur always looks away.
So Merlin never acknowledges any of that verbally. It seems only fair, to let Arthur to give his unspoken rejections, heavier than any spoken ones.
Thinking about Arthur is often followed by the fact that Merlin’s a sorcerer. His secrets are all so damning, damn it. That’s often the thought that follows him around. It’s not something he can forget. It chases Merlin as he avoids being caught, but he feels so caught up in his lies that this almost feels worse.
Merlin sighs. He doesn’t have a choice. He doesn’t want to force Arthur to make the choice. Besides, he doesn’t want to hear the verdict.
So Merlin forgets about the masquerade until Arthur brings it up seven days later.
“Yes, Gwen mentioned it to me,” Merlin says. “I think there’s someone she wants to meet.”
“Hm, really.” Arthur raises an eyebrow. “It must be someone of high status,” he says dismissively. “That’s what most people look for. The masks people choose to wear are very telling, even though they hide behind them.”
“Oh?” Merlin smirks mischievously. “You’ve been to a masquerade before, then.”
“Of course not! Don’t be ridiculous, Merlin.” Arthur scoffs, entirely unconvincing. “The prince can’t go to such plebeian festivities.”
“Then why do you ask?” After the question leaves his mouth, Merlin wants to take it back.
Arthur’s demeanor shifts into something more sober, more guarded. He’s contemplating whether to say the truth. Which he always does, so it’s more a matter of how to say the truth. Sometimes it’s in the silences he permits. There are truths he, as the prince, can never tell; but he never lies to Merlin, who can do only that, being the sorcerer he is.
Merlin almost wishes Arthur would. Words are the source of misunderstandings, but silence is what weighs heavy on the mind.
“It would be difficult, if you go,” Merlin continues quickly, lightly. “How do they not recognize you, being the royal prat you are?”
Arthur glares, but there’s no real heat behind it. “You’re an idiot. There are masks at a masquerade. And if I went, the masks would make it so I can...” he trails off for a moment. Myself? Someone else? Anyone else? Merlin wonders, hears, but Arthur says, “So I can share my generous company with others.”
Merlin suspects it’s the other way around. Arthur can’t seek an audience without it being… well, an audience. People look at him and see the future king. They look at him as if he’s not quite a real person. None of them really sees Arthur, none of them except Merlin.
“You’d have to pay me to be in your company,” Merlin says. He grins. “Oh wait! You do.”
“Merlin…” Arthur growls.
“Don’t worry. The pay’s not half bad.” And Merlin wouldn’t trade being here for the world, for the world is right here. “Are you really not going?”
Arthur rolls his eyes. “The prince doesn’t go to masquerades. You have your duties, though I doubt their existence sometimes,” he says, heading outside, “as do I.”
“Then where are you headed now?”
There’s a pause. “Nowhere a servant goes either, Merlin,” Arthur says with a quirk of the lips, the words sounding like an invitation to follow. He glances back at Merlin for a moment before he looks away and leaves.
Merlin shuts his eyes for a moment, a fierce pang sudden in his chest. He noticed, a long time ago, that Arthur often looked over his shoulder. He used to think it was because Arthur was cautious, checking to see if anybody with ill will was following the prince.
Merlin thinks differently now. He thinks Arthur’s checking to see if he has any followers following him. Any friends who will have his back. To see if Merlin is there. Merlin wishes Arthur didn’t have to look over his shoulder to check.
He follows Arthur, of course—if Arthur so permitted, Merlin would follow him to the end of the world. Merlin always follows him. Arthur should know that by now.
The sun is sinking beneath the horizon, day dipping into a beautiful night, stars blinking in the skies. There's a sort of ambient magic. Not the kind Merlin practices, but he can still feel it buzzing in the air, dancing around playfully as people with rose masks gather in the decorated streets.
It's nothing glamorous like the royal balls, but it's got an authentic charm. It's the magic of humanity, of freedom, of not having to worry for one midsummer night. To it is an almost dreamlike quality, softening the air.
Merlin smiles slightly, watching people stumble around the crackling bonfire, ale swishing in their cups. They've probably consumed enough booze that they wouldn't recognize anyone even without the masks.
Merlin sighs. He’s contemplating his mask.
It’s a fox mask, framed in a bright gold. The red of the fox is perhaps a little too red, too vibrant, too Pendragon for it to pass by unnoticed, but it’s what his magic wanted. He chose a fox because he'd spotted one during his journey to Camelot from Ealdor, calm, free, unscared.
Wearing this mask, he’ll have the hope of having something more than he could otherwise. He’ll have the hope of having Arthur.
Still, Merlin hesitates to wear it.
He should leave. Nothing that happens here will matter. Who’s he kidding? Does he really imagine that Arthur might be here, might find him? Might want to find him?
A couple scurries past him, past the bonfire. The two girls giggle into the night, hands clasped together. Their whispers are full of nervous excitement. They don’t notice him because they don’t have to. They can do whatever and whomever they want, because whatever happens at the masquerade stays at the masquerade.
Nothing matters. Not royalty, not sorcery, not destiny.
Merlin stares at the mask. The gold glitters, reflecting the pure moonlight.
He puts it on because he doesn’t want to lie anymore.
Once upon a time, in a secret that can’t be told, there’s a lion sitting alone on the edge of the world, watching a pyre burn like nobody else is. The smoke drifts and the fumes must be suffocating, yet the lion still watches the flames like they might come alive, like he’s waiting for precisely that.
The flames flash golden for a moment.
The lion is startled and stands up, blue eyes wide, looking around. They stop upon a fox, who walks over slowly with trepidation, but never turns around.
The lion stares and thinks the fox very foolish for approaching a lion like that, so he says as much. “You’re a fool, to come to me like this. You could be killed for less,” the lion roars, anger easier than fear, because who does the fox think he is, daring to break past the lion’s castle walls to make friends with the would-be king of the world? He can’t permit it. He shouldn’t.
The fox smiles at that, a soft laugh escaping his lips. Some might call it beguiling, enchanting, magical. Some might call it something else, much less certain. But no one is here except them, so it doesn’t matter. “Yes, I am a fool,” he agrees, because only a fool—someone in love—would want to sit down beside the lion anyway.
The fox swallows. He knows fear, but he thinks he fears the wrong thing.
He fears the truth for the wrong reason.
“But you don’t know who I am,” Merlin points out lightly, the truth, because they’re wearing masks, yet the words still taste bitter like lies. “And I don’t know you.”
Arthur’s blue eyes are piercing, burning. The warm glow of the bonfire makes them look almost wet, and Merlin has to blink a few times, remind himself to smile. In another world, Merlin thinks he would’ve been just as drawn to Arthur. In every world.
“Hm.” Arthur reaches out to hold Merlin’s arm, his entire frame tense. He doesn’t look away. “You… There’s something about you. Why?” he demands, voice brittle, grip hard, like he’s afraid Merlin might want to leave forever.
“The magic?” Merlin says, the word whirling out his lips more easily than he’d have ever imagined.
“No,” Arthur decides. “That doesn’t matter. It matters, but it doesn’t.” He makes a frustrated noise. “Tell me.”
They’re both afraid of the same thing for the wrong reasons, Merlin supposes, shuddering. “I don’t know,” he confesses, shaking his head. “What do you want to hear? That I…”
Arthur doesn’t let him continue, in case he tells the truth. “Shut up, just shut up,” he snaps, pulling Merlin into a kiss that sets Merlin’s whole body aflame.
“Yes,” Merlin moans in agreement. He hates lying, he hates it, and right now, he doesn’t need to hide. He couldn’t, not against Arthur’s brilliance, so perhaps this is better for them both.
He’s never felt such an intoxicating desire, he wants, it’s overwhelming. He drags Arthur with him, somewhere, anywhere other than here, where they can be together. Nowhere, he thinks numbly, hysterically, desperately, but they’ve found some stone wall and that needs to be enough.
Merlin kisses Arthur hungrily—he’s wanted him for so long, he didn’t even know how starved he’s been—and Arthur kisses back like he’s suffocating and can only breathe when Merlin’s here.
Merlin reaches down for Arthur, and the touch makes Arthur groan, look at him with wide, blown eyes, lips wet. This is what Merlin’s wanted all this time. He needs Arthur to look at him, to see him for who he is, not for what he pretends to be.
Even if it’s just for one night, because that’s what Arthur needs and Merlin needs Arthur.
Merlin shuts his eyes for a moment, unable to stand looking at the sun. Some days—more often than not, now, and how did that happen?—Arthur already is the king he knows he will be, like the lion who will unite Albion and bring back peace and prosperity and magic.
No, Arthur’s not king yet. But like a lion, he has his pride. There are things he needs to do, and things he needs to… not do.
Until the masquerade, Merlin was definitely on that To-Not-Do list. Now everything’s irrevocably changed. But if they don’t vocally confront anything, it doesn’t have to. Right?
Arthur can't take off his mask, just as Merlin can't take off his.
It doesn't matter. If this is what Arthur wants, it's what Merlin will give him.
Besides, it doesn't matter what (who) Merlin wants.
Come morning, the night and everything that happens between them will be obliterated by the sun. Merlin almost laughs at how much this must feel like burning at the pyre.
Arthur is the flame. Merlin wonders if he's the cinder that Arthur might leave behind one day.
Morning comes and Merlin is (will never be) ready to mourn for what he can never have again, but Arthur ruins it all by looking at Merlin like that when Merlin the Servant walks into Arthur the Prince’s chamber with breakfast.
“It’s droll, don't you think?” Arthur muses. His hair is still tousled. Sunlight spills like silk into the room, washing over him.
Merlin looks away because he—he can’t. “What do you mean?” he asks, as he is expected to. Although, he's not entirely sure what he's expected to do anymore, even with destiny (possibly an execution, definitely damnation) hanging over his head and a dragon breathing fire over his shoulder.
“How some can only be truthful when they hide behind masks,” Arthur answers, voice equally soft, as if anything louder might shatter the illusion that's been so carefully, carelessly crafted in the night. His lips curve up. When the strained smile reaches his eyes, it dyes the blue darker, a tint of sadness glistening. He shuts his eyes for a moment, then opens them. “How some even wear them outside of the masquerade.”
Merlin tenses. Arthur’s caught his breath with such few words that say too much, and he’s scared Arthur’s going to catch him.
...No. Merlin exhales shakily, realizing that perhaps that isn’t what he’s been afraid of for so long. He’s afraid Arthur’s going to let him go. He’s been tamed, like a foolish fox in a story that can’t possibly be told, and he can’t bear the thought of being let free.
“Some people need it,” Merlin says shakily. How did Arthur ever think him brave? “I understand.”
“You… what?” The understanding in Arthur’s eyes morphs into confusion. “You understand,” he intones flatly.
“You have your duties, as I have mine,” Merlin says, managing a weak smile.
“What are you talking about?”
“I don’t blame you.” Merlin’s mouth is dry. “You’re the crown prince, and I’m… well. Not someone you can be with, for more than one reason.”
Arthur doesn’t say anything immediately, but then his eyes flash with anger. He closes the distance between them. He glares, seething, and says, “You’re what?”
Merlin shakes his head. “Don’t make me say it,” he whispers.
Arthur frowns. “Merlin?”
“I’m magic, alright? But it doesn’t matter, I’ve only ever used it to protect you because I—” He swallows, masks shattering. “I serve you, Arthur,” he swears. “Whatever you want of me, I’ll gladly do it.” If his prince, his king, wants him to do nothing, to fall… then that’s what he’ll do.
“I know,” Arthur says like the words pain him, voice crackling like flames. “I believe you. I know you. But why…” Comprehension dawns, followed by swift disbelief. “You, you utter idiot, you thought I’ve been the one pushing you away? You’re the one who keeps pretending that there’s nothing between us. You don’t even know what you do to me, Merlin, do you?”
“What?” Merlin asks incredulously, perplexed. “I’m not the one pretending, you clotpole! Everytime I think you might want me enough to change things between us, you look away!” he accuses.
“Yes! Because a crown prince,” Arthur enunciates, hissing, “can’t stare at his servant like he wants to devour him in front of everybody.”
Merlin gapes. “Well,” he says faintly. “It’s not like I can chase after you any more than I already do.”
Arthur’s anger falters, but it probably wasn’t anger in the first place. “I thought you didn’t want me,” he says. “The prince, perhaps. You… you didn’t come out of obligation, did you? Duty?” He looks worried, suddenly, expression grave. “Because that wasn’t what I’d meant. I’d never. Tell me—”
“If you thought I came out of obligation, Arthur, you need a new set of eyes,” Merlin interrupts. Taking a deep breath, he leans forward to press his lips softly on Arthur’s. “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you. About the magic. And about this,” he says seriously.
Arthur exhales, relaxing. “You make everything so complicated,” he mutters, but his eyes are fond, effusive, and his laughter is more golden and beautiful than anything Merlin’s ever heard. “I can’t believe you said you don’t blame me! If anything, I’m the one who doesn’t blame you.”
Merlin grins, shoving Arthur onto the bed and straddling him. “Convince me,” he says, even though he’s never believed in anyone so much before.
Arthur smiles back, dazzling, staring up at him like he might stay forever. Which he will, of course he will. Arthur permits, wants him to, so Merlin will follow him past the end of the world they build. He promises he'll prove it so Arthur knows.