Merlin can admit, at least to himself, that, in hindsight, he probably should have figured it out on his own.
The first meal that Merlin eats in Camelot is the cheapest thing available at one of the first taverns he stumbles across, which is named Mary’s Last Chance, and he mostly picks it because the name seems sort of poetic, because he’s pretty sure his mum’s friend in this city is the last chance he’s going to get.
His meal is called Prince’s Kill, and Merlin doesn’t know what he’s expecting, but what he gets is a thick, rich stew and hard bread, and it’s warm and filling and definitely worth way more than he paid for it. He wonders what the catch is, if it’s made from a diseased animal or something worse, but when he casts a quick spell – his first in King Uther’s land – to see if it’s rotten, it comes back clean, so he just shrugs and keep eating.
He has more important things to worry about than his unusually cheap meal. Like where he’s sleeping tonight.
He knows he shouldn’t say anything, he’s barely been in Arthur’s service for any time at all and he’s still not sure that he won’t be killed for breathing wrong. All he can think of is the screams of another accused sorcerer burning in the city square, but he should still know better than to say anything. Even if he has to know, he could ask someone else, anyone else – but he doesn’t think of that, because he doesn’t realize he’s said anything until it’s already out of his mouth. “What happens to their bones?”
Arthur pauses in overlooking the training schedule he’d just finished for the next week. There’s also a pile of scrolls that need his attention, reports from all over the kingdom and his knights, and being a prince seems to involve a lot more reading that Merlin would have thought. “What?”
“The, uh,” he falters, and Arthur raises an eyebrow. “Nothing. Er, sire.”
Arthur looks back to his schedule, then says, “The ashes and whatever’s left gets taken to a mass grave.”
“Oh,” he says, “not – not returned to, uh,” he forces his mouth shut because no matter how badly he wants to ask, this is a dangerous line of questioning, and he needs to stop.
Arthur doesn’t look up from his scroll. “No. Nothing gets returned to the families.”
“Ah,” he says weakly, “right.”
So his mother would have nothing to bury, then.
Merlin’s first impression of Arthur is of an entitled, arrogant, bully. While there are some things that expand that view a little – notably, all the reading, and the way none of the castle servants seem to cower or fear him like they do the king – it’s still an accurate description, and he can’t figure out what he’s missing, because he knows he’s missing something.
People love him, and he can’t figure out why.
Not just other nobles, even, but people in the city too. After news spreads of him saving Arthur’s life, the city seems a touch warmer and friendlier than it did before, and he’d chalk it up to his imagination if an old lady in the market hadn’t shoved his hands full of dried dates and told him he’d done a fine thing.
He gets it a little more when people start getting sick, when their skin turns white and their veins blue and their bodies are laid out in the street.
Arthur orders Merlin to stay in the castle, where the sickness hasn’t spread, and goes out into the city with his knights, as if the illness is something he can fight with steel. He’s gone all day, and when he returns he’s pale and exhausted and there’s an edge of fear to him that Merlin’s never seen before. He peels off Arthur’s clothes with his handkerchief around his mouth. “You don’t need to do that,” Arthur says tiredly.
“I’d rather not get sick if I can help it,” he says, but it comes out muffled.
“It’s magic,” he answers, and Merlin freezes, “however it’s spreading, it’s not airborne. Magic illnesses can’t travel that way, I already asked Gaius.”
“How,” he has to wet his mouth before he can continue, “how do you know?”
Arthur rubs a hand over his face and doesn’t answer. He’s gone every day from dawn until dusk, and misery seems to sit heavier on his shoulders with ever body that’s laid out in the street.
He ends up being right, and then Gwen’s father falls ill, and Merlin can’t just stand by and do nothing, can’t just wait and for his friend’s father to die. Of course it all goes wrong, and then he can’t let Gwen die for him, so he tells the truth, he has to, even if it means his mother won’t have anything to bury.
But that doesn’t happen, because Arthur grips the back of his neck too tightly and talks them out of it, slaps him upside the head later and tells him not to be an idiot.
He thinks he maybe gets it now, a little, how someone could love Arthur Pendragon.
It takes Merlin a long time to figure out that being forced into servitude actually is a form of reward, and not some great cosmic punishment for all the times he lied to his mother about eating sweets from the pantry.
“I think Stefen hates me,” he says, bursting into Gaius’s room with soup soaking the front of his tunic. That’s the third time that Stefan had spilled something on him this week, and he’d just assume he’s clumsy if it weren’t for the poorly hidden laughter of everyone around him every time it happened. He’d had to run here from the kitchens, and he’s going to have to run back, and then run to Arthur’s room, and then get yelled at for taking forever to grab dinner.
Gaius only raises an eyebrow. “I imagine so. He’d managed to get two days a week on Arthur’s rotation before you usurped his position. I’d keep an eye out for Greta too, I quite think she’d like to drown you in her bathwater.”
“What,” Merlin demands, but doesn’t have the time to finagle Gaius into giving him an explanation.
He enters Arthur’s rooms already apologizing, but when he looks up, Arthur doesn’t look mad, just contemplative. It’s not an expression he’s used to seeing on his face. “Have some trouble in the kitchen?”
He blinks. “What - how’d you-” Arthur points, and it still takes Merlin several seconds to notice the faint splatter on the thigh of his pants. He has no idea how Arthur even saw that. “Oh.”
Arthur sighs, then walks over to his wardrobe. He starts pulling things out of it onto the floor, and Merlin has to swallow the urge to tell him to knock it off, since he knows exactly who’ll be putting all that away. “What are you doing?”
“Trying to make it so I can get dinner on time without making a spectacle of it,” he says, and his voice sounds muffled from inside the wardrobe. “I can’t be seen concerning myself with the affairs of servants, Merlin, I am a prince.”
“How could I forget,” he mutters, but not quietly enough, because a piece of clothing hits him in the face, quickly followed by two others. “Hey!”
“Take those to the tailor and see if they can do anything about the length, maybe by taking it from some of my older things that definitely won’t fit you,” he says, digging back into the wardrobe.
Merlin looks down. It’s two shirts and a pair of pants, and they’re older and worn, but a prince’s castoffs is still a hundred times higher quality than anything he’s ever owned in his life. “I don’t understand.”
“You’ve seen Gwen, haven’t you? Most of her things are repurposed from Morgana’s old clothes. You’re a high servant, Merlin, it’s one of the privileges of your rank. I thought it might make things harder for you, but it seems people are already making things hard for you, so there’s no reason not to put them in their place.”
“Er, right,” he says, wide eyed. He doesn’t understand how wearing Arthur’s old clothes and having to endure chilly ankles will put anyone in their place, but decides to save all his questions for Gaius.
He presents him with the mountain of clothing, and Gaius actually smiles. “Well, that’s one way to prevent getting soup spilled on you. By other people, at least.”
Merlin elects to ignore that last bit. “I don’t understand.”
“In spite of your insistence at not acting the part, you are Arthur’s personal servant. Dressing like it will at least make them second guess themselves, since it’s a sign of Arthur’s favor,” he says, as if that explains anything at all. His confusion must show at his face, because Gaius’s frown deepens. “Merlin. If you’re not going to throw your position around – not that I think you should, mind – then this is as good a way as any.”
“My position,” he repeats, “as a servant?”
“As the personal servant of the Crown Prince of Camelot,” Gaius says. After a moment of confused silence he rubs at his temples. “Merlin. You do know that you’re the highest ranked servant in the castle, don’t you?”
“Servants have rank?” he asks weakly, because no, he didn’t know that. “What about the steward?”
Gaius gives him a look. It’s a very specific look. “Yes, him too. He’ll manage you, because that’s his job, but you don’t answer to him. You don’t answer to anyone but Arthur. Uther doesn’t keep a personal servant, and neither did Arthur, before you. Guinevere and you are in a different category of servant.”
Merlin takes that information and promptly goes to Gwen, holding out Arthur’s old clothes with pleading eyes. He also takes a closer look at her clothes for the first time, and she does dress better than any of the maids, he just hadn’t thought that it meant anything before.
She tucks a smile away, but not quick enough to hide the fact that she’s laughing at him. “Come along. Follow my lead.”
“Okay,” he says helplessly.
She takes him down to the tailor, who’s in the middle of some sort of fancy dress that’s for someone far more important than he is. She dumps Arthur’s old clothes on top of it, which is the rudest thing he’s ever seen her do. “The prince wants Merlin outfitted accordingly,” she says, then tilts her head to the side, eyes not quite narrowed, and for a moment he can see Morgana in her profile, “Immediately.”
The tailor isn’t a servant, exactly, and Merlin’s pretty sure he doesn’t fall into the category of people they supposedly outrank. But he says, “Of course,” and pushes the dress to the side.
Gwen winks at him before leaving him to the tailor’s tender mercies.
In the end, the clothes end up looking pretty much the same as the stuff he already wears, because that’s what he likes, it’s just a lot nicer. Noticeably nicer.
People do stop spilling things on him, and the glares recede, and Merlin still doesn’t know anything about this high servant business, but that’s nice, at least. “Were they mean to you too?” he asks Gwen.
She presses her lips together, but says. “No. Morgana wouldn’t let them. But Arthur can’t get away with making a big deal out of things like she can, so he does what he can instead.” She plucks at his sleeve made of a rich, high quality velvet, a material he shouldn’t have access too even from Arthur’s secondhand offerings. It feels a little like Arthur’s staking his claim, in a way, giving him clothes too good for a servant and using that to make it clear that Merlin’s not someone they should be inconsiderate of, that Merlin has his favor which apparently means something in this city. But Merlin’s pretty sure he’s just projecting, so he doesn’t say any of that.
“He’s still a clotpole,” he says, and then Gwen is laughing and Merlin feels like he can breathe again.
When Morgana falls ill, it seems as if Arthur never leaves her side. When Edwin saves her life, Merlin expects Arthur to be grateful, but instead he only seems suspicious.
He’s passing a hallway when he hears Arthur’s voice, low and tight in a way that he rarely hears, and slows, peering into the alcove so he can listen and not be seen.
“-know what you are,” Arthur finishes, and Merlin’s heart is in his throat, and he has to force himself to relax. This is a good thing. If Arthur knows that Edwin is a sorcerer, then Gaius won’t have to try and convince Uther. “I know what you did.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Edwin answers, bland.
It’s silent for a long moment, and Merlin wishes he could see Arthur’s face. “I know what happened to your parents, Edwin.”
“You don’t know anything,” he spits, all of that false neutrality wiped away in his rage, “Enough of this, kill me and be done with it! I’ll burn you and this castle and this whole damn city for what you did,” Edwin hisses, and there’s the sound of a sword leaving its sheath and then a sharp cry, and Merlin hurries away before he can get caught.
Arthur presents the beetles to Uther and reveals Edwin’s treachery to the court, and says he killed him when he discovered the truth. Which isn’t a lie, technically, and Uther reinstates Gaius and everything is fine, exactly as it was before.
Except, of course, that Merlin can’t help but think that the picture of Arthur he had in his head is missing some pieces. He killed a sorcerer, of course, but from the sounds of it - it almost seemed like -
Like maybe Arthur had killed him for what he did, rather than for what he was.
When Camelot entertains visitors from foreign nations or unruly lords of their own, Arthur sits in his mother’s throne.
Most of the time it sits empty, and Arthur stands at his father’s elbow, during meetings, when hearing the grievances of the peasants, or when they gain friendly visitors. But now, it’s Mercia in their castle and Arthur on his mother’s throne. Merlin must really show all his emotions on his face because it’s Morgana who steps near him, slightly in front of him so as not to be confused as to be standing next to him. “It’s to show they’re a united front without actually having to do something as uncouth as coming out and saying it,” she whispers to him out of the corner of her mouth. “People always think they can drive a wedge between Arthur and Uther, and use that wedge to gain control in this kingdom. Arthur sitting in the queen’s throne is a way to show that that’s never going to happen – that he both trusts and is trusted implicitly. We’ve avoided more than once war just because they knew that taking on both of them would be ridiculous, and pointless, with no foothold to the throne at their disposal.”
Oh. He supposes it’s a good thing, then, how devoted Arthur is to his father, how much he loves him and obeys him even in the face of all the terrible things he does.
It’s the first time he’s thought that, and going by the sour twisting feeling in the pit of his stomach, it’s going to be the last.
Something that took Merlin awhile to notice was the unapparelled amount of sneaking out Arthur seemed to do. A couple nights a week Arthur and one or two of his knights will go out into the city and return before dawn. He’s pretty sure there’s some sort of drinking going on because Arthur always seems to have a terrible hangover after. He tries asking some of the other servants about it, but they just give him a flat, disapproving look and tell him that they have no idea what he’s talking about, and also to shut up before someone hears him.
Which kind of sounds like all the servants know about it, and Uther doesn’t.
He tries approaching Gwen about it, who curls her hair around her finger and says, “Oh, you know, just boys blowing off steam. He works so hard, you know, and the king would be furious if he knew, and it’s such a little thing, isn’t it? Why ruin it for him?”
“Right,” he agrees, but he still feels uneasy. Arthur has no need to sneak off to a tavern or a whorehouse in the middle of the night, it’s not like the knights don’t do that in the middle of the day and no one stops them. But Arthur has very particular ideas about being a prince, so it’s a very sort of Arthur thing to do, very believable, and for all that he still can’t shake the feeling that Gwen is lying to him.
He doesn’t ask Arthur about it, because he gets the feeling that if he did, Arthur would lie to him too.
He even tries following them one night, but he’s not exactly the best tracker without magic, and even with it he’s not sure what he’s supposed to be seeing. They sneak out into the city for a couple hours, then come back.
Arthur’s always extra cranky the morning after, but considering he’s only running on a couple of hours of sleep Merlin would expect nothing less.
Then, of course, there’s the hunting trip.
It’s a small one, just three knights accompanying Arthur into the woods. Merlin’s the only servant who goes with them, but it’s not too bad. The only thing they make him do is tend the horses and gather firewood, and the latter always seems to happen after a few of them trade what he thinks are supposed to be subtle significant looks between them. He doesn’t even mind that too much, because Arthur always goes out to find him after a while, claiming that it’s because he didn’t want Merlin’s skinny arms to snap in two in their attempt to carry more than a twig.
He thinks he likes Arthur best on these trips, which is also maybe why he doesn’t complain too much about having to go on them. He’s looser, he smiles more easily and laughs more when he’s away from the castle, and it’s not like anyone can blame him. Even though Uther loves his son, he’s still - well, still Uther, after all.
It always reminds him of his first day in Camelot, of his first meal in Camelot.
The best of what Arthur and his party kills is taken to the kitchens and it will be served at the high table, to Uther and the other nobles.
Everything else gets sent to the butchers in the city, and distributed from there, free of charge.
Plenty of places in the city serve Prince’s Kill. It’s whatever meat they get from Arthur’s latest hunt, prepared however the cook chooses. The only rule is they can’t charge for it, so most meals only run the cost of bread and some vegetables.
Apparently, on Arthur’s first hunt at a mere eight years old, which was just him setting traps for rabbits, he’d wanted to give the rabbit he’d caught to a homeless woman who was always drinking the water from the well in front of the palace. Uther had liked the image of it, if nothing else, and allowed it, which Merlin imagines he probably regrets now that it’s a tradition, now that his son brings homes hundreds and sometimes thousands of pounds of meat if the hunt is some combination of large and successful, and Arthur still follows the precedent he established as a child – giving away his food to his people.
Okay, so, bully or no bully, it’s no wonder so many of the townspeople love Arthur.
Everything seems fine, they’re sitting around the fire, rabbit roasting over it, and he’s sitting by Arthur’s side, trying to keep from laughing while Kay tells a genuinely hilarious story about embarrassing himself in front of his schoolboy crush, and even with the snow on the ground and chill in the air he barely feels cold at all.
So of course that’s when everything goes to hell.
Cedric is the first to react, tensing up and reaching for his sword, and Merlin barely has the chance to be confused before Arthur is shoving him to the ground and getting to his feet, and then they’re surrounded.
They’re outnumbered two to one, but bandits aren’t a match for knights of Camelot trained by Arthur Pendragon, for Arthur himself, and as far as an ambush goes the most impressive thing is that they managed to sneak up on them at all.
Merlin isn’t useless with a sword anymore, not since Arthur got it into his head to beat some skill into him, but he’s nothing close to a knights, so he mostly just does his best to stay out of the way.
He fails. One of the bandits sneaks up behind him and stabs him in the stomach before he can even panic. All the magic and all the swordsmanship in the world doesn’t do him any good if he can’t manage to pay attention to what’s around him. He thinks possibly that this was some of the lesson Gaius was trying to teach him. It’s too bad he’s only learned it when it’s too late to do him any good.
“MERLIN!” Arthur roars, and then he’s standing next to him. There’s a dead bandit to the side, so it’s possibly he missed a bit in the middle there. He doesn’t hurt.
He’d kind of always assumed dying would hurt.
“You’re not dying,” he snaps, and Merlin’s tipped against his chest and then gently lowered to the ground. Arthur’s hands are pressing into his stomach, but it’s no use, gut wounds are messy, it’s right in the center, there’s no way that it didn’t hit something important. “Merlin! Did you hear me?”
“Sorry,” he says, head lolling to the side, searching out Arthur’s bright blue eyes, because that’s not a bad sight for the last thing he’ll ever see, but he can’t even have that, because Arthur’s hunched over him, more concerned with the stab wound than with letting Merlin look at him, which seems rather unfair. He tries to reach for him, but only manages to tangle his fingers in the edge of Arthur’s tunic. “Hey. I – I said. Sorry.”
He’s either speaking too softly or Arthur’s ignoring him, which seems rather rude, ignoring him on his death bed. Well, ground. His death ground.
Kay is there, gripping Arthur’s shoulder. “Stop – sire – you can’t!”
The knights are crowding in, and they’re all yelling, some of them tugging on Arthur even though he just shrugs them off.
The last thing he sees is Arthur lifting his head to glare at them all, and his forceful, “Enough!” is the last thing he hears before it all goes black.
Because life is full of little surprises, he wakes up.
He’s in his tent, covered in a thick blanket, and some sort of searing heat all along his right side.
His thoughts still feel slow, but he was stabbed. He very much remembers being stabbed, in a place that certainly should have killed him, but he’s alive, and nothing even hurts. He cautiously lifts a hand to his stomach, feeling for tenderness, for the place where steel sliced through skin and muscle.
He presses harder, then yanks his shirt up, nearly frantic with it, but his skin is whole and unbroken. Maybe it wasn’t his stomach? But he pats himself down, from his shoulders to his thighs and there’s no stab wound, there isn’t anything there to show he was ever hurt at all.
“You’re not going to find anything.” Merlin freezes, then the voice registers and he twists around to look behind him. The first thing he notices is Arthur, sound asleep and pressed up against his side, that must be where all the heat up against him, but it seems like that heat is from a fever, because Arthur’s cheeks are flushed and he’s sweating, even though they’re in the midst of winter.
It was Bedivere who spoke. He’s in their tent, sitting cross legged on the ground next to Arthur, as if he’s guarding him. Which wouldn’t be that strange, a knight watching over his sick prince while they’re far from home, but the way Bedivere’s eyes are narrowed and he’s clutching his sword – it’s almost like Bedivere’s suspicious of him, of all people, like he’s the one they need to protect Arthur from.
“I don’t care if he’ll hate me or kill him for it,” Bedivere says, and he’s always been friendly to Merlin before, but he’s not friendly now, he looks like an entirely different man, “if you threaten him, I’ll kill you myself.”
“Threaten him?” he repeats, outraged, and then it fades, because what if this is about his magic, and they found out – but he’s still alive, isn’t bound or gagged, they’re letting him sleep next to Arthur even if they aren’t happy about it –
Arthur groans, turning on his side so he can prop himself up on his elbow, partially upright even before he’s opened his eyes, and Merlin comes to the uncomfortable realization that Arthur is putting himself in between Merlin and his knight. “Knock it off,” he mumbles, rubbing a hand over his face. “No one’s killing Merlin. That’s an order.”
“Fine,” Bedivere snaps, and Merlin’s never heard him talk to Arthur in that tone of voice before.
If Arthur’s surprised by it, he doesn’t show it, instead flopping back down on his bedroll. “I feel terrible.”
“That’s because saving Merlin nearly killed you, you idiot,” Bedivere hisses. “Kay’s hand wringing is intolerable.”
Arthur snorts, but he seems more awake now, more alert, and his flush is already receding. But that doesn’t make any sense. There’s no sickness that fades away within minutes.
He’s so focused on that impossibility that it takes several seconds for what Bedivere said to catch up to him. “Wait – you saved my life,” he says, pressing his hand to the place he was certain he was stabbed, “You – how?”
Arthur’s rolls to his feet instead of answering him. “Anything to eat? I’m starving.”
“Good,” his knight retorts, then grudgingly jerks his head towards the tent flap. “Like I said. Kay’s handwringing something awful.”
Arthur twists himself from side to side, cracking his back in the process, and he doesn’t look back to normal, but he looks better. Bedivere must agree, because some of the tension leaks out of his shoulders. “Wait! How did you save my life? What are you talking about? What happened?”
No one says anything for a long moment, then Arthur says, “I can’t do this on an empty stomach,” and stalks out of the tent.
Merlin scrambles after him, even as his whole body tenses when he steps into the cold. “Do what? What happened?”
Arthur doesn’t answer, instead walking towards the fire. Kay and Cedric look up at his approach, and Kay breaks out into a smile but Cedric just crosses his arms and scowls. “Arthur!” Kay greets, getting to his feet.
Arthur weakly returns the grin and slaps him on the back. “Food?” he asks, and Cedric rolls his eyes, but takes out some bread and cheese to go with some of the venison that Kay’s working on roasting.
Merlin’s stumbles as something heavy covers his shoulders, and it takes him a moment to realize that Bedivere has thrown a thick blanket over him. He pulls it around him, shooting him a questioning glance, but Bedivere only says, “Don’t waste all the effort Arthur went to by dying of frostbite,” and then sweeps past to him to sit with the others around the fire.
He can’t stand this anymore. “What’s going on?” he demands, stomping over to where everyone else is sitting, “Did you – did you use a potion?”
The idea of Arthur carrying around a magical substance is mind boggling, but he truly can’t think of how else he could be alive, how his fatal wound has disappeared like it never even existed.
Arthur ducks his head, not looking at him, while the knights trade knowing looks, and then all turn to stare at him. Merlin has to resist the urge to take a step away from those stern, penetrating stares. Kay’s the first to break it, “I think we can trust him. He’s proven himself to be loyal to Arthur, hasn’t he?”
“Loyalty doesn’t guarantee anything,” Bedivere scoffs. “I say we send him back to whatever backwater village he came from. Cutting out his tongue beforehand wouldn’t be a bad idea.” Arthur kicks him in the shin, but Bedivere doesn’t look the least bit sorry.
Merlin’s pretty sure that Bedivere isn’t serious, but he doesn’t sound not serious either.
Cedric finally looks away from him. “Kay’s right. Merlin’s trustworthy.” He stands up and then, without missing a beat, sticks his hands in the center of the flames.
Merlin makes an aborted gesture to do something, but by the time he’s take half a step forward, Kay has yanked him back and everyone’s yelling at him, Arthur on his feet and furious. “What were you thinking? What if I can’t do it? You know it’s harder after!”
“It’s just a burn,” he says, and even though he has to be in incredible pain he doesn’t act like it, the only way Merlin knows he’s feeling anything at all is by the flush on his cheeks and the way he’s rocking ever so slightly on the balls of his feet. His hand is horrifying to look at, and Merlin is already frantically trying to remember everything Gaius has ever taught him about burn treatment. “Arthur. Stop avoiding it. Are you going to trust him? Or shall I just never hold a sword properly again?”
Arthur makes a breathy sound that’s a cross between a sigh and a laugh. “You’re so dramatic.”
He’s not actually being that dramatic. If the burn doesn’t heal properly then he won’t be able to hold a sword again.
But he doesn’t say that, and Arthur takes Cedric’s hand in between his own. Merlin stops being able to form a coherent thought. He wants to rub his eyes to make sure he’s not seeing things, but he can’t bring himself to look away even for a second.
What he thinks is happening can’t actually be happening.
Merlin sees the strain ease from Cedric’s face by degrees, sees bits of dead skin flake and fall away, and then when Arthur lets go and steps back, Cedric’s hands –
His hands are –
“Healed,” Cedric says softly, and Merlin presses against his stomach where the man had stabbed him.
Arthur healed him. With magic.
“You,” he croaks, then clears his throat, “you’re a sorcerer.”
Kay snorts. “He’s a hedgewitch at best,” then tilts his head to the side and adds, “a useful one, though.” Cedric elbows him in the side, but Kay just elbows him right back.
“Don’t look at me like that,” Arthur snaps, and Merlin sees the same flush and glassy eyes he’d seen in the tent, sees signs of fever once more, and he’s clearly not the only one who notices by the way Cedric tries to tug him into the sitting down, but Arthur ignores him. Right then, he only has eyes for Merlin. “I didn’t – it’s not like I asked for this, or anything, okay? I just, it’s just this thing that I can do.”
“The king can never know,” Bedivere says, and his hand is on his sword again.
Kay sobers. “You understand, don’t you Merlin? This has to stay a secret.”
“Who else knows?” he asks, and he feels numb, almost removed from the situation, like he’s watching all of this unfold as an observer rather than a participant.
“Who doesn’t know?” Bedivere mutters, and it’s Kay’s turn to sending him a warning look.
“My knights,” Arthur says, and he doesn’t need to clarify any more than that. The knights that Arthur trained and trained with were his, and there were even a few of the older crowd that seemed to adore him. “Uh. Some – some of the towns people. Not – no more than fifty or so, I think. A couple maids. And that boy who cleans the horses. Oh, and Janette, the cook? She knows. Um. A few of the nobles, but they’re at their castles and not in Camelot, so, not sure if that really counts.”
Merlin wants to laugh or perhaps cry. All the effort and berating from Gaius not to accidentally reveal himself, and here Arthur was, with half of Camelot walking around with the knowledge that their prince is a magic user.
Their prince is a magic user. His prince is a magic user. Arthur is a magic user.
“If you can’t keep the magic to yourself, tell us now,” Bedivere says coldly, “we’ll give you enough money to be on your way and forget all of this.”
Arthur shoots Bedivere a warning look, and that’s it, that’s the last straw. Merlin snorts, then laughs, and he covers his mouth to try and muffle it, but that’s no use, and soon he’s doubled over with it, until the muscles of his stomach ache. Arthur looks bewildered, and Cedric throws his hands up in the air, “Great, we broke him.”
“Can I keep the magic a secret?” he repeats, and then holds out his hands. This goes against everything he’s been taught by his mother and Gaius, but it’s also something he’s wanted to do for a long time, has wanted to show Arthur all of him and tell him everything, and it can’t feel like anything but relief. His eyes flare gold and flames jump to life in his palms. “Yeah, I think I can.”
The knights are making sounds of surprise and Kay is cursing, but Merlin barely hears it, he can only focus on his prince. Arthur’s face goes slack with shock, then his eyes narrow and Merlin just knows that he’s thinking of every strange, inexplicable thing that suddenly makes so much sense, and then finally his face softens into a wondrous type of joy. Merlin feels lighter than he has since coming to Camelot as Arthur grins and Cedric slaps him on the back.
Merlin wishes selfishly that they were alone right then, just him and Arthur, but it’s probably for the best that they’re not, because he’s pretty sure that if he wasn’t surrounded by knights then he wouldn’t be able to stop himself from kissing Arthur, and getting beheaded for assaulting the crown prince would really ruin the nice moment they’re having.
They pack up and head to the castle not long after that, and Merlin has a million questions, but he doesn’t actually get a chance to ask any of them, because the knights and Arthur spend the whole way back interrogating him about his own magical abilities. How long he’s had them, how powerful he is, what spells he knows, what he’s used magic for in the past. Arthur doesn’t even have the decency to be embarrassed about the number of times Merlin’s saved his life. He just smugly raises his nose in the air and says, “Well what else were you to do? I am your prince.”
“Next time a faerie tries to drown you in a puddle, you’re on your own,” he threatens, but he doesn’t mean it, and they all must be able to tell because they’re laughing.
It’s not until that night, when Merlin lights the fire with a magic rather than his hands and Arthur is already laying in bed that Merlin finally brings himself to ask, “What about you- and your - how does it, you know, work? Did you have to study a lot?”
Arthur’s eyes snap to the door but it’s firmly closed shut. There’s a moment of tense silence, and Merlin considers taking it back, wonders if this is only something they can talk about outside of the walls of Camelot, and if that’s the case it’s not like Merlin can blame him. The moment stretches between them, and Merlin’s about to be the one to break it, to say something else that has nothing to do about magic, but Arthur pushes himself up, squares his shoulders, and says, “No. No I - it only does the one thing, and so it’s just - it helps if I know what area to focus on, if there’s a way to direct it, but otherwise. I can’t do anything else,” he says, and it’s this strange in between desperate and pleading that makes Merlin hurt to hear, “it’s just this, just healing, and sometimes I’m not strong enough or fast enough, but it doesn’t hurt people.” Quieter, almost more to himself than anyone else. “I don’t hurt people.”
“How old were you when you - the first time?” he asks, equally quiet.
Arthur won’t look at him. “It’s – it wasn’t a human. There was this cat that used to prowl around the castle, she was white, and she didn’t like anyone, but I used to get scraps off the cook to feed her, and she liked me. She’d let me pet her and wait outside my door after dinner, because she knew. She got in a fight or something, when I was six, and she was bleeding - everyone had seen her running through the castle, with her bloody face and yowling, but I found her under my bed and she let me pull her out, and I was holding her and,” he stops. “Well, anyway, I had a fever for a week, and then when I was better Gaius told me that my - that she’d been killed, because it looked like a sorcerer had been experimenting on her. She’d been injured and then was perfectly healthy, so it could only be magic. They didn’t have a choice.”
“Arthur,” he starts, then stops, hating how raw his voice sounds.
Merlin doesn’t know what his face looks like right now, but it can’t be good because Arthur forces a smile. “My father got a new white cat from someone in the city and left it in my room, but it wasn’t the same. I - he’d already told me how evil magic was, and I knew that’s what I’d done, and - I was so scared,” he says, and Merlin’s never heard him say those words before. “So I just - didn’t use it for a while. Then the cook burned her arm on a pot while I was getting sweets out of her, and she was crying and her skin was peeling, and - well, I couldn’t just stand there, could I? If I waited and someone else saw her, then it would be too late, and they’d kill her, so I had to do it then. Not that I really understood that at the time, I was a kid, I just knew I had to be quick about it. She was the first person who knew.”
He can’t imagine growing up like that, growing up having to hide it from his mother, and seeing all those pyres - but he’s the prince, can’t he do something - “All the people that get burned, or beheaded.”
“I can’t,” Arthur says, and he pulls his knees to his chest. He looks small just then, with just enough moonlight coming in from the window to light up his bright blue eyes. “I’ve never lied to my father, Merlin.”
“You must have!” he protests, “How could you not?”
“Because he’s never looked me in the eye and asked me if I’m a magic user,” he says, “I can’t lie to my king. I can’t disobey him. His word is law, and it doesn’t matter how I feel about it.”
Sympathy is washed out of him by a sudden wave of anger. “People are dying! People like you and me are dying, and you do nothing! You watch them burn!”
“Yes,” he says, and he doesn’t sound defensive, doesn’t sound sorry, “and when I am king, they won’t burn anymore, I’ll lift my father’s ban on magic, and all the people that grew up under these laws, all the people in Camelot who hate magic and fear it, they’ll need to obey me. Because I am their king, and my word is law. If I can’t do that - if I show that I care nothing for the authority of a king just because I think I’m right, then I’ll never be able to hold this kingdom when I sit on the throne. This isn’t like arguing with my father over too high taxes or presumptuous nobles, this is something my people will revolt over unless I can control it.”
That almost makes sense, but. “People are dying.”
Arthur sighs. “Do you think if I join them it will all end any faster? Becoming king is the only way I can - it’s how this all ends, the hiding and the burnings and the curses.”
“Uther wouldn’t,” he says. The only thing Uther loves is Arthur, he’s the one person on this earth who he’d die for, who he’d lose everything for. There’s no way he’d put his son up on a pyre and watch him burn.
Arthur just looks at him, bleak and pale. “I know my father, Merlin. Even if he didn’t kill me, he’d disinherit me, maybe banish me from Camelot if I was lucky. If my father knows I’m a healer, I’ll never be king, and his hatred of magic will march on uncontested. Tell me I’m wrong.”
Merlin can’t. Uther can choose his successor, and he disenherited Arthur once before under the influence of troll magic, and the nobles did nothing, because Uther was king. Merlin has no reason to believe they wouldn’t do the same thing again.
Which isn’t exactly true, actually, because Arthur had to soothe a lot of ruffled feathers behind the scenes with his nobles, with the knights especially, when that had happened, and Merlin think that they would follow Arthur into a civil war if they had to. But how many would that kill, to tear Camelot apart between Uther and Arthur? How many more wars would that invite, if people saw that Uther and Arthur weren’t a united front anymore?
“I don’t enjoy this, Merlin,” he says, and his voice is muffled because he’s pressing his face into his knees.
He comes to a decision then. “Show me.”
Arthur turns his head enough so one blue eye is staring at him. “What?”
“I was unconscious and dying the first time, it doesn’t count,” he says, and grabs a dagger of Arthur’s desk. He makes a cut on his forearm, not too deep and only a couple inches long, nothing he can’t just wrap up and wait to heal normally if Arthur refuses.
He doesn’t, of course. “Merlin!” He glares, getting up out of the bed to go over to him, reaching out and wrapping a hand over the wound, his blood oozing between Arthur’s fingers. It feels like a tingle, almost like a hundred ants crawling over his skin, and he has to force himself not to squirm away from the sensation. But the pain throbs even as it dulls, until it’s all he can focus on, becomes overly focused on every beat of his own heart.
Then it fades away and Arthur lets go of his arm to grab his dirty shirt from earlier, wiping his hands on it and then wiping the blood from Merlin’s arm.
Underneath, his skin is whole and unbroken. “I’ve been told it’s unpleasant,” Arthur says, and he almost sounds apologetic.
Merlin looks up, and his skin is pale, too pale. He presses the back of his hand against Arthur’s forehead, and it feels clammy. When Merlin had woken up he’d thought Arthur looked ill, and he’d mentioned getting a fever after healing the cat, and he calls himself ten kinds of idiot even as he asks, “It makes you sick?”
He pulls a face. “Not really. It doesn’t last.”
Even as he says that, color is returning to his skin, but Merlin had been out for hours, a whole night, and when he’d woken up Arthur had just managed to shake off the effects of saving Merlin’s life. “You said the first time you were sick for a week.”
“Well, yes, it was my first time, I didn’t know what I was doing,” he says, exasperated. “I’m not a child anymore, Merlin.”
“Right,” he says, uneasy, but doesn’t want to press anymore, in this quiet, in the dark, where he can barely see Arthur even though he’s standing right in front of him, his skin still feeling hot where Arthur had wrapped his hand around his forearm and knit his skin back together.
It can keep, for now.
When he goes back to his room, Gaius is still up, working on some sort of medicine that has to be stirred in the moonlight and Merlin lingers instead of going straight to his room like he normally would. “Something on your mind?” he asks, not looking over from stirring counterclockwise.
“Did Arthur have a cat?”
Gaius is surprised enough to stop stirring, and Merlin winces, because that means he’s going to have to start the whole cycle over from the beginning. “Who told you that?”
“Just something I heard,” he says.
Gaius sighs, and begins stirring again. “Uther was so protective of Arthur when he was younger. The whole thing may be among his lesser crimes, but Arthur was devastated. Honestly, I think Uther just wanted to get rid of it so Arthur would stop talking about it.”
“What?” he demands. “That’s – that’s ridiculous.”
Not that’d he’d ever say Uther was a rational or fair man, but killing his son’s pseudo pet just because he was sick of hearing his son talk about it is ridiculous, especially since Arthur said he tried to replace the damn cat after.
Gaius is facing away from him. “Arthur had named her Ygraine.”
His mother’s name.
“I think that might make it worse, actually,” he says faintly, although it does explain why Uther wouldn’t want to hear Arthur talking about her.
He thinks he preferred it when he thought that Arthur was a spoiled bully with no redeeming qualities, and wasn’t sort of in love with him.
The next morning Gwen smiles at him and then shoves him into an empty room, one that is technically part of Arthur’s wing of the castle but he never uses it. “Er,” he says, “not that you’re not very pretty, but um, I don’t think that, uh.”
“Oh, be quiet!” she says, a flush high on her cheeks. She crosses her arms. “My brother’s alive.”
It takes him several moments to contextualize that statement, to remember that he’d heard her elder brother had been killed in an accident in the forge a couple years ago. “But I thought-”
“He didn’t die right away. It would have taken him a day or two to succumb to the burns. But Arthur heard, and he came,” she says, eyes bright. “Everyone knew about the accident by then, and there was no way to explain his recovery, so we didn’t try. We snuck him out of Camelot that night, and we held a funeral, and told everyone he died. But he didn’t.” She quiets. “We haven’t heard from him of years, of course, so who knows what’s happened to him since. But he didn’t die then, because Arthur wouldn’t let him, because he said he couldn’t stand to see me cry if he could stop it.”
“Why are you telling me this?” he asks. “Does Morgana know?”
She fidgets. “No, she doesn’t. Her dreams – even Arthur can’t give her a restful night’s sleep, and until Gaius figures them out, she can’t know. I’m telling you this becasue we don’t have to worry about you. The knights seem to trust you, and they’re a good judge, and I know you, of course, but the others are nervous. Usually when someone finds out they get this big speech and threat about what will happen to them if they tell, but I don’t think you need that. I think you’ll be part of the something that will happen if anyone exposes him, actually. So I just want you to know that I know, and that – that there are lots of people like me, lots of stories like mine. If you were thinking of doing something rash. Not that I think you were.”
He thinks he should be insulted, but instead he pushes it aside to ask Gwen something he hadn’t been able to bring himself to press Arthur about. “But your father,” he starts, and her face goes distant. “I just mean, he, while Arthur just stood there and did nothing while he was arrested, even though he knew your father was innocent, even though he’s one of,” he almost says us and has to stop himself, “them.”
“How do you think Morgana got the key?” she asks. “Arthur does what he has to do. If he defies Uther, he’ll never be king. He won’t be in Camelot. If Arthur isn’t in Camelot, people he could help will sicken or worse.” She touches his elbow and looks up into his eyes, speaking with an intensity that he can’t remember seeing from her before. “Arthur must become king. That’s all the revenge I need for what Uther did to me.”
She sounds like the dragon.
“I understand,” he says, and places his hand on top of hers.
He’s woken out of sound sleep by Bedivere pounding on Gaius’s door. Merlin gets there moments before Gaius does, flinging the door open.
“Who’s hurt?” Gaius asks, robe wrapped around himself and eyes wide.
Bedivere at least has the decency to look sheepish. “No one, sorry to wake you up. We just need Merlin. For urgent knight business.”
“Urgent knight business,” Gauis repeats flatly, then turns on his heel and walks back toward his bedroom without waiting for a response.
Merlin both wants to die and to kill Kay with his bare hands. “Why?”
“You should put on pants,” he says. “We’re not going to wait for you.”
He could argue or demand some sort of explanation. He doesn’t do that, but he does go and put on pants. Bedivere, Leon, and Arthur are waiting for him, each of them wearing dark cloaks. “Put this on,” Leon orders, throwing a similar cloak at Merlin.
It’s then that he realizes he’s being brought along for the sneaking about they’re always doing, and he pulls the cloak on without complaint. “This is going to be a lot more boring that whatever you thought I was doing,” Arthur warns, drawing the hood up over his head.
Merlin rolls his eyes and does the same. They stick to the shadows, trying to not to be too obvious about it, but it’s not exactly like these little excursions are the best kept secret in the city.
They go deep into the city, away from the square, and past a certain point they’re barely even hiding themselves. Everything’s closed and everyone’s asleep, of course.
But there’s a building with a single candle burning in the window, and it’s clear they’re heading towards that speck of light. It’s a tavern, and it looks kind of familiar, but he can’t dwell on it because he’s being ushered in through a back door, but when he steps inside he stumbles and Leon has to steady him.
He has been here before, he thinks. He’s pretty sure this was the tavern he stopped at when he first came to Camelot. There’s not much time to dwell on it, because then Arthur is shoving him forward, down the stairs at the back, but then they stop in front of a door. Merlin tenses, because the door’s so heavily warded that he can feel the spells even from here. Bedivere knocks on the door. “Mary. It’s us.”
There’s a pause, and then a woman in her early fifties with pure white hair opens the door, then falls into a deep curtsey. “Your majesty.”
Merlin startles. That’s a form of address for a king or queen only. Arthur, when he’s being addressed formally, should be called his highness, not that Merlin ever does that except to mock him. He hadn’t known that before coming to Camelot, but he certainly knows it now. There’s no way anyone who’s lived in the main city would make that mistake.
They step inside and door swings shut behind them. They’re not alone, there’s around three dozen people huddled in the basement of the inn, all of them with their eyes on them. Everyone pulls off their hoods, so Merlin does the same. “That’s treason,” Arthur says, and there’s a ripple across the room, but Mary doesn’t even bat an eyelash. He glances around the room, then looks back to Mary. “How many?”
“It’s been a long week,” she answers, instead of giving him an exact number.
Arthur just sighs, unclasping his cloak and tossing it to Merlin. “Leon, just tie me to my horse for patrols tomorrow.” Leon doesn’t look happy about that, which makes Merlin think that it’s not a joke. “Who’s first?”
Mary turns and crooks her finger at someone. A hulking man carefully gets to his feet, something cradled to his chest, and makes his way over to them. It’s not until he gets closer that it becomes clear that the bundle in his arms is a baby. “Sire,” he greets, nervous and doing his best to make himself small even as he holds out the baby. “My nephew. His name is Thomas.”
“Thomas,” Arthur repeats, then takes the baby into his own arms. His skin is a sickly yellow color, which Merlin has seen in a lot babies in the village, but not like this. He must have some sort disease poisoning his blood.
Arthur places his hand against the baby’s chest, but Merlin remembers what Arthur said about it being easier if he knows where to concentrate, and he says, “Lower. Usually that type of sickness has something to do with the liver.” Arthur pauses then looks at him, eyebrow raised. “I pay attention to Gaius sometimes!”
He doesn’t say anything to that, but he does lower his hand to the baby’s stomach. He cries something awful all the way through it, but when Arthur hands him back to his uncle his skin is a healthy color and his eyes are open and alert.
The next one is an old woman whose hands are causing her too much pain to move them, and Merlin knows about this one too, telling Arthur to focus on the joints rather than the surrounding muscle. Then several broken bones, a few colds and a couple cases of the flu. Arthur heals a mild case of frostbite on someone’s abdomen, and he doesn’t even know how that one could have happened. By the time Arthur helps improve an old man’s sight, standing next to him is like standing next to a furnace. His face is red and his eyes are glassy once he’s done setting and healing a broken collarbone.
“Enough,” Bedivere says, voice cutting through the room. “That’s enough now.”
“One more,” Arthur says, and it’s barely noticeable, but he’s definitely slurring his words.
“Fine,” Bedivere says, scowling, and Arthur holds out his hands, waiting.
After a moment’s hesitation, a young man limps towards the prince’s hands. “M’name’s Grant. It’s my ankle,” he says, “I twisted it, and I know it’s a small thing, but it makes it hard to work, and I really need to work.”
Arthur nods, but it doesn’t look like he’s actually listening to Grant, and Merlin thinks maybe they should have stopped him already, because Arthur kneels in front of him and reaches for his leg, and everyone seems to breath in at the same moment. Arthur is kneeling to a peasant, more concerned with fixing the problem than with propriety, if he’s even aware of it anymore. “Sire – your highness, please, don’t, I’ll be fine.”
“Be quiet,” Arthur says absently, and Grant’s jaw snaps shut. He grabs for his ankle, and Grant’s hiss of pain quickly tapers off into relief, and Merlin hadn’t even noticed how swollen it was until he sees it deflated to his normal size.
Grant touches his ankle, something close to wonder in his face. “Thank you, sire.”
Arthur waves him off and pushes himself to his feet. Or tries to, because he sways, and half the room jumps forward as if to steady him, but Merlin gets there first, wrapping an arm around Arthur’s waist and holding him flush against his side, keeping him from tipping over.
“That’s quite enough, your majesty,” Mary says, “back to your castle with you.”
Leon comes forward to take his place, and Merlin can’t even complain because he’s still keeping his own magic a secret, so he can’t just say he’ll levitate Arthur to his horse or some other reason to keep him pressed against him. Arthur’s head lolls to the side towards her as Leon leads him to the door, a grin tugging on the corner of his mouth. “You’re bossy.”
“You should have let me starve if you didn’t want me telling you what to do,” she sniffs, and then Arthur laughs, warm and familiar.
Merlin stares, something sliding into place, but it can’t be, that would be absurd.
He has to ask.
“Was it you,” he says, “when – with the rabbit, when he was eight?”
She smiles, hands on her hips, and says, “That rabbit saved my life, I think. How could I die then, knowing the prince’s eyes were on me? It would be preposterous.”
“Right,” he says, wide eyed, then goes bolting after the others, because they will leave him behind and leave him to make his own way back. Arthur can barely keep his eyes open, and Bedivere is already holding his horse’s reigns for him.
“Merlin?” Leon questions.
“He’ll fall over like that, and then he’ll have to heal a bump on the head on top of his fever,” he says.
Bedivere and Leon share a considering look, then Leon says, “He can’t heal himself.”
Merlin blinks. “What?”
“Or anything to do with magic,” Bedivere says, “that’s how he knew the plague wasn’t natural, because he wasn’t able to heal anyone. It’s the same think with whatever’s going on with Morgana. Arthur can’t so much as heal a papercut on himself, or anything on anyone else if it’s been inflicted by means of magic. His ability has limits.”
That’s such a waste it’s actually infuriating, because of how often Arthur gets hurt, how reckless he is, and for a little bit he’d thought that recklessness made sense if he was able to heal himself, but he can’t, so it turns out his prince is actually insane and Merlin can’t even trust him to be able to fix any of his own broken bones.
“Oh,” he says, and instead of saying anything about that, instead of complaining how unfair it is, he forgoes his own horse and swings himself up to sit behind Arthur, sitting flush against his back wrapping his arms around his waist so he can hold him upright. He clearly has a fever, his whole body radiating an unnatural heat.
Arthur is so out of it he barely startles, leaning into him instead of shouting or causing a fuss. “Merlin, what’re you doing?” he asks, barely comprehensible.
“Go to sleep,” he says, prepared for an argument, but he doesn’t get one. Instead Arthur just sighs and turns his face into Merlin’s neck before his body goes heavy and slack in his arms.
Bedivere and Leon are trading significant looks again, but this time they don’t explain them, and just lead them all back into the city. Bedivere takes care of the horses while Leon helps him get Arthur to his room. Once Arthur is face down on his bed, Leon claps him on the shoulder and leaves.
Merlin rolls his eyes, but then goes to unlace Arthur’s boots. He can sleep in his clothes, he has to be up in a couple hours for patrols anyway, so he’s not even going to bother trying to change him out of those. He’s trying to manhandle him under the covers when he wakes up again, and he still has a fever, but his eyes look a little clearer, more awake and alert. “What are you doing here?”
“Trying to get you in bed,” he retorts, and flushes immediately when a lazy smirk comes across Arthur’s face. “Shut up.”
Arthur flips open the blanket and pushes himself to the other side of the bed. “Come on then.” Merlin glares at him, but Arthur only raises an eyebrow. “Come on, you’ll only wake up Gaius if you try and go back now. Get in.”
Well, he’s not wrong.
It’s not worth arguing about it, not when getting to sleep next to Arthur sounds kind of wonderful, even if it’s only for one night, so he pulls off his own shoes and rolls himself under the covers. He keeps a respectable space between them, but Arthur doesn’t, turning over on his side and scooting closer to him, and now all of this reminds him of a high stakes version of the sleepovers he used to have a kid. In the darkness all he can see his outline, even so close.
“What will it be like,” Merlin asks, because this seems like the only place he can ask this question, in the dark, huddled under the blankets together like kids, “when you’re king?”
Merlin can see the Arthur’s white teeth when he grins. “I’ll hold two different open sessions. One for the complaints and problems like we do now, but another will just be for the sick or hurt, and I won’t have to do it in Mary’s basement in the middle of the night anymore. That’ll help, I think, the people who are afraid of magic, because my – my magic doesn’t hurt anyone.”
“Except you,” he says, because even though the effects are waning by degrees, his eyelids are still dropping, his body still seems too warm. It’s easy enough to see what the knights and Mary try to prevent, what could happen to Arthur if he pushed himself too far. A whole night of healing people hasn’t drained him the same way that healing Merlin did, and he understands now why Bedivere was so mad, knowing what Arthur risked for him.
Bedivere’s mother is a sorceress. She’s had to renounce magic under Uther’s rule, but under Arthur’s – under Arthur’s she’ll be free. They all will be.
That’s what everyone’s waiting for. He wonders if Uther knows it, that so many of his people are just waiting for his son to succeed him, and decides that he doesn’t.
Arthur huffs. “It doesn’t last. Pain that doesn’t last doesn’t count.” Merlin is certain that’s something Uther told him during training. “You’ll be a problem, in the beginning. You’re so powerful that people can’t help but be afraid.”
“I could hide it, for a while,” he offers, because what’s a couple more months or years of keeping his magic to himself, without the threat of burning hanging over him and to help Arthur?
Arthur shakes his head, but just ends up pressing his face more into the pillow, and when he speaks next he already sounds half asleep. “No. No more hiding. My people will love me, and I’ll love you, and so they’ll love you too. It’ll work out.”
Merlin freezes, wondering if he’d misheard, if maybe Arthur’s still feverish. “What?”
Arthur doesn’t say anything for a long moment, and Merlin wonders if he’s fallen asleep, then he says, voice strained and sounding far more awake than he had a moment ago, “You don’t think I’d risk my life for just anyone, do you?”
“Yes,” he answers automatically, “it’s one of your more irritating qualities.” That’s probably not the right response to a love confession. “I love you too. So does everyone else, but I’m different, I love you the most.”
Wait, that wasn’t what he meant to say either.
Arthur laughs, and it’s obvious he’s relieved, so Merlin can’t regret sound like an idiot too much. Arthur holds open his hand in the space between them and Merlin takes it, because how can he not, because Arthur is his beautiful, brave prince, who will one day be his king, will be the one to usher magic back into Camelot.
Because he’s Arthur, and Merlin’s pretty sure he’d have still fallen for the clotpole without any of that.
“We’ll leave the diplomacy to Guinevere then,” Arthur says, laughing, and Merlin’s not sure what that means, and he doesn’t care, closing the space between them by grabbing onto Arthur’s hip and pulling him closer, close enough to cup his jaw and press their lips together. Arthur’s mouth soft and pliant under his, opening easily for him.
Arthur’s too ill for anything else, but he falls asleep with his head on Merlin’s chest while Merlin runs his fingers through his hair, and Merlin doesn’t even mind, because for the first time, he can breathe.
Uther’s reign will end, and Merlin will be there to see it happen. They have time, it feels like they actually have time together, and he can see it now – decades laid out in front of them, years and years of being by Arthur’s side without a secret between them.
He holds Arthur in his arms and waits for the sun to rise.