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The Baring Of One's Heart

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The first thing Arthur registers when he wakes is the pain pounding behind his eyelids, threatening to split his skull open. He doesn't know what it says about his character that this isn't the first time: more than once he's suffered the dull ache of uncontrolled wine consumption. As much as he'd like to state the contrary, Arthur knows he indulges in alcohol too often, when there's a feast and Merlin's too close for comfort.

During those times, when the guests are merry and his skin feels too hot, too tight, when there's a yearning in his heart he can't quite ignore, Arthur dismisses every one of his servant's attempts at keeping him sober. He orders more wine or cider to be brought, and drinks himself into oblivion.

He usually wakes up the next morning, in his bed with no recollection of having walked there, wearing his nightclothes instead of the heavy garments from the night before, the blanket tucked around him as if he's a child in need of reassurance from preying nightmares. His chambers are blissfully empty, yet no matter the time of day, there's always a hearty breakfast on the bedside table, as well as a flask of foul smelling liquid Arthur knows to be one of Gaius' attempts at a remedy for hangovers.

His headache is manageable, then. He feels warm, cared for and safe - though he would never admit it to anyone, and much less to Merlin himself.

As he carefully blinks his eyes open, Arthur understands that something is different this time. The pain in his head, for one, isn't a dull echo but sharp and persistent, awakening in his heart an urgency he's seldom known before. His vision is blurry, as if he's trying to see through water, his surroundings deformed until the shapes are unrecognizable. His mouth is parched, as if he hasn't tasted water in days. His whole body is throbbing, as if he's been dragged on the ground for miles, with no concern as to what tree roots or rocks he might bump into.

But the most pressing matter is the fact that he's not in his bed - and that is enough to fully bring him back to consciousness. He's standing upright, though his knees are too weak to support his weight. The strain in his arms and shoulders, as well as the cold metal forcing bruises on his wrists, inform him as to his condition: he's chained to a wall or maybe a ceiling, arms spread wide, feet barely touching the ground.

The room lurches around him as he tries to move his head, and there's something wet dripping from his forehead, over one eye and down one cheek. Despite the cold shivers wracking his body, contradicting the very thought, Arthur hopes it's only sweat.

He knows he's only fooling himself, though. His vision is swimming, his stomach is rolling unpleasantly, he's disoriented, his head is pounding like mad, and he doubts all of this is the result of dehydration and hunger. What he doesn't know is how long he's been there, unconscious, but if there's indeed a gash on his head, oozing blood, then it's not difficult to figure out what happened: he received a blow to the head, hard enough to knock him out for at least a few hours, and has been dragged through the forest to this place - dungeon? cave? - to be interrogated, or tortured, or killed, whichever caught the fancy of his attackers.

The thought isn't really as frightening as it could be, but that might be blamed on Arthur's obvious concussion. Or on the fact that he's so used to life-threatening situations that they barely faze him anymore.

Or maybe it's because the sudden fear that seizes his heart, all encompassing, leaves little place for something as inconsequential as his own well-being. He knows he wasn't alone during the attack. Merlin was with him, carrying his hunting gear and complaining about having to watch his king kill innocent and defenseless animals - never mind that Merlin's ruckus more often than not clears the woods of prey.

Merlin was with him, which means he was injured as well. Maybe even...

Arthur swallows hard, forbidding himself from finishing that thought. The mere idea of his manservant bleeding out in the forest is enough to send his mind reeling, and he can't afford to lose himself, not right now.

Breathing labored, he tries to look around, to get an idea of where he is. His vision has cleared faintly, and there's a dim light allowing Arthur to see by. He blinks his eyes, raises his chin the smallest amount, and lets his gaze wander. There, on the wall facing him, is another set of chains, fastened around another pair of wrists. The black, curly hair, the brown leather jacket and the sturdy, well worn boots are all damning in their own way.

But it's the red neckerchief that makes all mistake impossible: the man facing him can only be Merlin, skin so pale it looks bloodless, raven locks matted together by sweat or grime. There's no visible blood, and that's the only thing that stops Arthur from yelling his servant's name across the cave.

His heartbeat betrays his panic, though: the blood suddenly pulsing in his ears nearly makes his eyes roll back from the pain.

He manages to stop himself from throwing up, just barely, but that's probably due to the fact that his stomach is empty. They were attacked sometimes during the evening, while Merlin was cooking some stew, and they hadn't eaten much during the day. Arthur is thankful for that, but he knows that he will need to eat soon, or drink, at least. Already, his mouth is dry and his stomach is growling.

Focusing his attention away from Merlin, attempting not to stare anxiously at his limp form, Arthur tries to make sense of his surroundings.

They're in a cave, that much is certain. The walls aren't made of polished stones but of uneven rocks, their shapes too rough to be man-made. The chains holding them upright are nearly as thick as Arthur's wrists, and the manacles, though sturdy, are covered in rust. Two hooks are embedded into the walls, impossible to dislodge, which leads Arthur to the conclusion that the cave probably serves as a dungeon of sort, maybe even as a torture room. The thought is dark, but Arthur checks anyway, and what he finds makes him sag in relief despite the dire situation: the only bloodstains visible on the floor are his own.

That, at least, is a small mercy. For all that Arthur's been trained to fight in harsh conditions and has even been tortured already, he doesn't think he'd be able to hear Merlin scream and remain sane.

A sudden sound startles Arthur out of his thoughts, and he fears at first it's coming from the entrance of the cave. But it's only the rattling of the chains on the wall opposite him, followed by a confused moan, Merlin finally waking up. It takes him a minute or two to regain his bearings, but his servant finally raises his head and blinks his eyes open a few times before focusing on Arthur. The sight loosens something in Arthur's chest, and it's with a sigh of relief that he calls:

"Merlin? Are you alright?"

The tone of his voice, low yet urgent, makes Merlin frown, but it doesn't take him long to figure out the reason behind it.

"Arthur?" he replies, a little shakily. "Where are we? What...what happened?"

Arthur swallows hard, fighting the bile rising in his throat at Merlin's obvious distress.

"I'm not sure. We're in a cave somewhere. I think we've been attacked, but I can't tell you why or by whom. Are you alright?"

Merlin casts a wary look around. He rattles his chains a bit, and seems to go paler by the minute. Arthur wishes he could know what's going through his servant's mind, curious at the pinched lips and curling fingers, but Merlin finally answers his question and the moment is lost:

"I think so, yeah. Some cuts and bruises, but I think I'm fine. You?"

His voice is rough from misuse, much like Arthur's own, but he doesn't seem to have been treated worse than Arthur.

"My head's not feeling right," he admits. "I probably have a mild concussion, along with several gashes and bruises as well. Nothing life-threatening."

At least, he hopes so. His vision is only marginally blurry, his words aren't slurred, and he's able to think clearly. But Gaius berated him enough when he was younger for him to know that despite his self-assessment, he's not necessarily in good shape. He doesn't mention that to Merlin, though, as it would only worry him further.

There's a sudden sound, and a waft of cold air followed by footsteps. Arthur turns to what seems to be the entrance of the cave, squinting against the weird reflections on the walls, and braces himself for meeting with his captors.

Nothing, though, could have prepared him for the sight of his sister, strolling inside the cave as if she owns it, all dressed up in a flowing black dress, her hair wild around her pale face. She smirks as he widens his eyes, and hers are cold, green like emeralds, fury and madness courting each other in her gaze.

"Well, well, brother dear," she croons, and her too loud voice makes Arthur flinch. "How lovely it is to see you."

"Sorry I can't say the same," Arthur replies through gritted teeth, fighting the ringing in his ears as Morgana laughs.

The shrill sound echoes on the walls around them, and the rocks of the cave seem to shimmer in answer.

"No need to play the smart one, Arthur," Morgana says, and it's a warning, "we both know you're trapped in here. You and your lovely manservant."

She turns to Merlin, smiling sweetly, but her eyes only burn with pure hatred. Merlin hangs his head, paling even further, and Arthur wonders why it's guilt, rather than fear, that he can see reflected on his features. He doesn't have time to think it through, however, as someone else enters the cave, steps slow and sure, though they falter once they draw near.

The man seems old, and walks with a staff clutched in his hand. He's dressed in a white tunic and brown breeches, his clothes inconspicuous where Morgana's are richly decorated, mere servant to Morgana's queenship. There's something in his gaze, though, something that speaks of a lifetime of hardships and wisdom. Arthur doesn't quite know what to make of him, but he sees, from the corner of his eye, Merlin's face morph from guilt to shock and back to indecipherable in the span of a second.

"You promised, my lady," the old man says in the softest voice. "No blood must spill on the crystals of the cave."

Morgana frowns briefly, her jaw clenching, and waves a dismissive hand at Arthur. Her eyes turn from green to a burnished silver and the bloodstains on the floor disappear. Still, the old man doesn't move, and Morgana rolls her eyes in a surprisingly familiar gesture before turning to Arthur, who involuntarily flinches away. Morgana doesn't seem to care, and suddenly the edges of Arthur's vision still, allowing him to see more clearly, and his headache lessens.

He's pretty sure the gash on his head stops bleeding too, but that might be wishful thinking on his part.

"There. Do you want me to clean them up as well?" Morgana asks, irony biting in her tone.

The old man sighs, gaze flickering from Arthur to Merlin, and the muted apology Arthur sees etched on his features has him frowning.

"This will be enough," the old man mutters.

He raises his staff, the pure white wood sculpted with care and adorned with a pear-shaped crystal the size of Arthur's fist. He slams the staff on the ground, clear yet incomprehensible words pouring from his throat, and Arthur barely has time to see Merlin's eyes widen in recognition, of all things, before an explosion of lights temporarily robs him of his eyesight. When he's able to see again, the walls of the cave seem to spring to life, crystals that Arthur has mistaken for rocks flaring with colors.

Arthur can almost taste the magic swirling around them - and he really doesn't like where this is going.

"In accordance to the laws of the druids, I, Iseldir, keeper of Gwirionedd, call upon the powers of the Old Religion," the old man says, his solemn voice echoing eerily on the crystals of the cave. "May we proceed to the trial."

The lights in the crystals recede to a low shimmer, moonlight shining through jewels centuries old. The old man - Iseldir - seems to gather his strength, and when he speaks again, his voice sounds even deeper than before:

"Move forward, Morgana Pendragon, daughter of Uther and Vivienne, High Priestess of the Old Religion. Yours will be the questioning voice."

Morgana steps forward, black dress swirling around her legs, madness seeping in the smug curl of her lips. The crystals flare up.

Iseldir then turns to Merlin, whose lips are pressed into a thin line, a curious mixture of anger and fear gathered beneath the blue of his gaze.

"Move forward, Merlin of Ealdor, son of Hunith," he says, voice suddenly soft, an apology laced into every word. "Yours will be the witnessing eyes."

The lights of the crystals seem to dance as Merlin raises his chin, throwing shadows and hues of gold over his face. Merlin's jaw is clenched, and his gaze hard, unwavering, unforgiving and trailed on Iseldir. The chains holding him up click ominously, and the naked worry on the old man's face seems to give Merlin pause.

The silent exchange does nothing to quell Arthur's anxiety as Iseldir turns to him, looking almost pleading - which is ridiculous, giving the circumstances.

"Move forward, Arthur Pendragon, son of Uther and Ygraine, King of Camelot," he says with something akin to pity in his eyes. "May yours be the answering heart."

That's when Arthur feels it. When before it was only a distant murmur, the echo of forgotten days where magic imbued every living thing, and even the earth itself; where before it was only the remnants of a power long gone, now the magic is swirling around him, curling around his limbs, prompting him to raise his head and accept his calling.

Arthur refuses to obey, but the magic - its strength inherited from thousands of warlocks and witches, sorcerers and druids, priests and priestesses of the Old Religion who imbued the crystals with their power - is stronger than a mere man's will, and even he has to succumb.

This time, the crystals flare up and stay lit, the colors shifting like the ones on a dragonfly's body.

"My work here is done," Iseldir says, and he casts a last glance at Morgana. "May your judgement be wise, my lady," he whispers.

Morgana doesn't deign to answer, but her gaze flickers toward Iseldir as he bows and leaves the cave, his staff rhythmically hitting the ground until he disappears. She then turns to Arthur, glee overcoming her gaze, a triumph that makes Arthur's heartbeat hurried and his breathing shallow.

"Now, dear brother, before we start, I believe you deserve an explanation," Morgana says, lips curling in a sweet smile. "You see, the Cave of Gwirionedd has only one purpose among the druids: it serves as their court of trial. For centuries, men and women have been brought here to answer their crimes, questioned by a servant of the Old Religion, and prompted to answer with nothing but the truth. And here you are, in turn, waiting to be judged."

Her voice remains soft throughout, her words all the more ominous to Arthur's ears.

"So this is what will happen," Morgana continues, and the dark magic that shrouds her seems to dance around her limbs. "I will ask you questions. For each and every one of them, the magic of the crystals will compel you to answer. And in this cave, only one thing can ever be uttered: the truth."

Merlin inhales sharply, fingers spasming into tight fists, and fear widens Arthur's eyes as comprehension dawns. Bound as he is, there is nothing he can do to stop Morgana, and if she's sincere, then she can ask him anything, anything at all, and he will have to answer.

"I see you understand the implications of this," Morgana crows, looking utterly pleased at Arthur's impending misery. "All of your secrets, laid bare in front of me...It will be delightful. But not for you."

There's cruelty in her gaze as she cocks her head to the side.

"Now, where shall we start?"

"Tell me, Arthur," Morgana purrs, and Arthur knows to brace himself for a question that will be anything but gentle. "Do you know why your mother died on the day you were born?"

Morgana's eyes flash with a swirl of triumph as Arthur visibly flinches, the words cutting through him like a knife. He should have known Morgana would go straight for the throat, uncaring of the ghosts she's tearing out of their restful place. He means to protest, but his mouth snaps open, magic nudges his tongue, and the answer tumbles through his lips.

"Yes, I do."

His voice is dry, the admission painful, but Morgana raises her eyebrows, unable to mask her surprise, and Arthur counts that as a small victory.

"Oh?" Morgana taunts, surprise morphing into mockery. "How is that? I can't believe dear Uther would ever reveal his greatest failure to you."

Arthur takes a breath, the taste of magic foreign on his tongue, its power forcing the answer past his lips.

"Morgause told me," he replies.

He doesn't need to look in Merlin's direction to know the stunned expression no doubt gracing his manservant's features. Merlin told him, after all, that Morgause had lied, promised that she was seeking to manipulate him into killing his own father, swore that her poisoned mouth spilled nothing but words of deceit. It's only later, with Morgause gone and Uther safely out of his reach, that he started to wonder.

If Morgause truly was lying, why did Merlin look so crestfallen when she summoned what he claimed was merely an illusion of Ygraine?

"So she did," Morgana says after a pause, gaze softening at her sister's name. "It hurt, didn't it? That your own father would gamble your mother's life for yours, that she essentially died so you could be born."

The question, this time, doesn't call for an answer, and Arthur looks back at Merlin instead, finding solace in his stricken expression, the way he meets his gaze head on, every apology he can't offer written on his features as plain as if they've been cut in with a knife. Morgana sighs, falsely sympathetic, and adds:

"How hard it must have been, to learn that you were the one who killed your mother."

"That's not true!"

Merlin's voice bursts out of him, ready to defend Arthur - the fool - but Morgana raises a whip-like hand and his mouth promptly clicks shut.

"Merlin," she spits out, the very name like venom on her lips. "You are only a witness here. Don't make me gag you."

She dismisses him easily after that, but the quick exchange is enough for Arthur to regain his composure, and it's with steel around his tongue that he says, quietly:

"That shame isn't mine, Morgana. I am not to bear the weight of my father's mistakes."

"Perhaps you're right," his sister replies, half amused and half thoughtful. "The sins of the father shouldn't reflect on the son; and his feats shall be his own. So tell me, dear brother, what is your greatest shame?"

Morgana's voice is soft like silk, perforating Arthur's defenses like a poisoned blade ripping through paper, and despite the surety in her smile, she can't know what Arthur's answer will be, the truth choking him as it did for nights upon nights, preying on his nightmares even years after the fact. He clamps his mouth shut, vainly trying to fight off the spell, yet still the truth pours from his throat.

"When I was fifteen," he starts, and pales as he realizes the compelling spell would accept nothing but the whole truth, "Father put me in charge of a raid. I was proud that he'd allow me the honor, that he'd think me responsible enough to..."

There, he falters, swallows dryly, and starts again.

"We found the druid camp at nightfall. There were peaceful men there, women and children, but the knights didn't even hesitate. I ordered them to stop, begged them, but they didn't care. I tried to help, fighting through the melee, allowing one child to escape, to take my horse and just go."

Tears slide down his cheeks, to Morgana's greatest delight, and he adds:

"Caradoc used my crossbow to kill him. There were no survivors."

"How touching," Morgana murmurs, tone emotionless. "Tell me, Arthur, were you always this pathetically weak? Why did you bow to your father's rule, if his law disgusted you so? Why did you allow the murder of hundreds of innocents just so that he could relieve his own guilt?"

Arthur can feel the anger there, simmering just beneath her skin, can see it in the swirls of black around her shoulders and arms and the color of her irises, swirling with magic. He can feel his own temper rising in reply, twisting inside of him like tendrils of fire.

"Because I was afraid!" he yells. "My own father whipped me for trying to save that boy. What would he have done, if he'd learned I had defied his orders once more? He never looked at me as if I was his son! How was I supposed to know he wouldn't kill me if I displeased him one too many times?"

His lungs heave for breath, his fingers curl into fists as his nails break the skin of his palms. The rattle of his chains rings in his ears as if coming from far away, weak against the roaring of the blood in his veins.

"That's what you're most afraid of?" Morgana sneers, unimpressed. "Disappointing daddy dearest?"

"It's not," Arthur spits out, unable to fight the magic just like he'd been unable to save the druid boy that day.

Helpless.

"Oh?" Morgana hums, cold ruthlessness replaced by curiosity.

Arthur knows what her next question will be, knows it as surely as he knows the inevitable course of the sun and the stars. It seems that Morgana will accept nothing but his total submission, answers drawn from him until he's no longer able to whistand the weight of the magic. From the corner of his eyes, he sees Merlin coming to the same conclusion, anger and uncertainty warring on his features until determination replaces it all.

"Merlin, don't..."

"That's enough, Morgana," Merlin says softly, headless of Arthur's warning. "You know Arthur doesn't deserve this."

His words echo eerily around them as Morgana whips around to face him, and Arthur is left wondering what Merlin could possibly have done to merit both Morgana's fury and her contempt.

"Doesn't he?" Morgana wonders, anger and disdain plain in the twist of her mouth. "How many innocents did he watch Uther burn, do you reckon? Did he ever try to save them? How many did he kill himself? Arthur's blade has bathed in the blood of my kin. And you dare pretend he doesn't deserve to pay for it?"

Merlin recoils at the words, features shuttering, yet he still tries to reason her.

"If that's the case," he says urgently, "then I am as much guilty as he is, if not more. You can let him go, take me in his place. Isn't it what you wished for? Take your revenge against the one that betrayed you?"

Arthur wants to yell at him to stop, knowing nothing will deter Morgana from her path, but Morgana beats him to it, raising her hand and violently clutching her fingers into a fist. A sickening sound reverberates against the wall of the cave, sound that Arthur dimly recognizes as bones breaking, and horror fills him as Merlin's face whitens in pain.

"No blood must spill on the crystals of the cave," Morgana recited, "such are the laws of the Old Religion. But you would do well to remember, Merlin, that I do not need to shed blood to inflict pain."

Merlin is biting his lip, a yell strangled in his throat, and he sags back against the wall as Morgana waves her hand. The bones knit back together with the same nauseating sound, and Morgana smiles sweetly.

"Next time you speak out of turn, Merlin, it will be your king's bones that I will crush. Is that understood?"

Merlin's breathing is harsh as he raises his head to meet Morgana's gaze, shock mingling with anger on his features, but it takes Arthur's minute shake of the head for him to drop his chin in defeat. He doesn't attempt to stop Morgana as she turns, facing Arthur once more. Magic wraps around her, shrouding her in darkness, oily tendrils of it twisting and turning, lashing out into thin air.

"What is it, then?" she asks, softening her voice in a way that could have seemed gentle, if not for the hungry look in her eyes. "What are you most afraid of?"

Arthur swallows thickly. His head bows, hopelessness weighing him down. Morgana's smile is eerily reminiscent of the one his father bore at the first scream of a sorcerer on the pyre, and the hatred dripping from each of her words makes Arthur shiver.

"Being left alone," he murmurs. "Abandoned. Betrayed."

The darkness seems to freeze around her, emotion stealing her from the tendrils, her contempt tempered by understanding, like an echo of something forgotten, something Arthur doubts his sister is even aware of - something human.

"Why?"

"What else could it be?" Arthur asks, a bitter chuckle stumbling from his lips. "My mother died. You betrayed me. My uncle betrayed me. My father died. Even Guinevere..."

"Ah, yes," Morgana interrupts him, a soft, almost fond smile curling at her lips. "Sweet, loyal Guinevere. Tell me," she adds, tone painfully light, "how did it feel to have her choose Lancelot over you? And the night before your wedding, no less?"

Her smile widens as Arthur flinches, his heart throbbing at the unexpected blow. He should have known this would be coming. He bites his lips, breathing fast, pleading that he wouldn't have to answer, that he could keep that secret, at least...but the compelling force of the spell presses under his skin, sensing his reluctance, and once more the words tumble from his mouth:

"Hurt," he admits first. "Betrayed."

The ache of that particular betrayal has yet to completely fade away. He trusted Gwen, more than he trusted many of his loyal advisers, and most of his Knights. He used to admire her kindness and loyalty, used to rely on her for counsel and support, and she turned her back on him. This is what hurt the most, Arthur thinks, and hurts still long after he's forgiven her: that she took his trust and trampled on it as if it meant nothing. Yet, despite the lingering sting of betrayal, he can't begrudge her the inclination of her heart.

Not when his own belongs to another.

Arthur presses his lips closed, but no matter how much he tries, the magic imbued in the crystals is too strong to withstand. His flimsy defenses crumple under the weight of the spell, and he has no choice but to give in.

"And relieved."

Morgana's eyebrow shoot up, surprise breaking her carefully detached composure for the span of a heartbeat.

"Relieved?" she repeats, faintly bewildered. "Why would you be relieved that your fiancée chose another? Wasn't she the greatest love of your life?"

Her gaze grows hard, as if she's offended on Gwen's behalf, which is ridiculous: she didn't hesitate to toy with her maidservant's affections, after all, not as long as Arthur was hurt in the process.

"No, she wasn't," Arthur breathes out, sweat beading on his brow at his efforts to fight the compulsion.

Merlin's lips parts on a gasp, the soft sound echoing around them, and his eyes are wide when Arthur chances a look at him. His expression is so ridiculous that Arthur wants to laugh. And he would have, if not for Morgana's thoughtful hum and the magic dancing under his skin, prompting his confession.

"I love Guinevere," he says plainly. "I love her and I think she would made a formidable queen. But I am not in love with her."

"Poor Arthur," Morgana coos, hiding her shock under the mocking words. "I bet you wouldn't know love if it stared you in the face though, would you? Tell me, brother dearest, have you ever been in love?"

The words are thrown in jest, Arthur knows, a smoke screen to allow Morgana to recover her wits at the unexpected confession, and she can't know, she can't possibly know that the question she just asked will be Arthur's undoing.

"Yes," Arthur hisses through gritted teeth, the magic harsh under his tongue. "Yes, I have."

The curve of Morgana's lips turns smug, as if Arthur just offered her the most priceless of gifts.

"Who is it, then?" she asks, eyes twinkling maliciously. "Who is it that owns your heart?"

Arthur's lungs tighten against the inevitable. He clenches his jaw and his fists, fights against the magic spreading like poison under his skin, the compulsion almost painful in its intensity, the words he kept so long locked inside him splitting him apart. He knows Merlin wants to intervene just then, can read it in the twist of his body against the chains and the rage in his eyes, but Morgana's warning is no doubt still fresh in his mind, and it's with a clenched jaw and tensed shoulders that he keeps himself in check.

"Morgana, please."

The prayer falls from Arthur's lips, unbidden, and there's no shame in it, the plea torn from the deepest layers of him, but Morgana has never been merciful, even at the height of her kindness.

"Who is it, Arthur?" she thunders.

The magic batters him ruthlessly, leaving him raw and exposed, and he can't stop the spell, can't protect his own heart. He can only hold out, a few seconds more, the time to hope...and then he presses his eyelids closed.

And surrenders.

"Merlin," he says softly, the name echoing around them like a reverence. "It's Merlin."

The silence following his confession is eerie, unfurling between held breaths and pounding hearts. Arthur, proud even at his most vulnerable, opens his eyes and raises his head, meeting Merlin's stunned gaze with an unwavering one of his own, and lets himself be seen.

Morgana's chortle slices through the air.

"Your own manservant," she crows. "How lovely."

Her gaze flickers toward Merlin, the naked emotion on his face making her snort.

"I didn't think you'd have it in you," she says, voice measured as if she's contemplating her next move. "Do you desire him, then? Do you want to have him, to bed him? Tell me, Arthur, if you could do to Merlin whatever you wanted, without consequences, what would you do?"

This question, Arthur answers of his own free will, meeting Merlin's eyes head-on.

"Nothing."

Morgana startles, momentarily wrong-footed, but she is quick to hide her stupor behind a well-practiced smile.

"You clever boy. Let me rephrase that: if you could do to Merlin whatever you wanted, without consequences, and that Merlin was willing, what would you do?"

Arthur inhales a lungful of air, the magic pushing at his skin, eager for a renewed spilling of deep-seated secrets, holding his heart hostage against his own desires that he suppressed over and over again for fear of taking advantage.

"I would touch him," he says softly, giving voice and thus substance to his most private fantasies. "Trail my fingers along his skin, down his temples and over his cheekbones, his lips, the soft skin at the crook of his neck. I would learn his body like I know mine, slowly, carefully, as to not miss the dip of a muscle, the smoothness of a scar. I would kiss him then, cup his face between my hands, softly, just so that he could set the pace."

Merlin is looking at him as if he's laying down the very sun at his feet and not betraying every boundary they've ever set between them, and it makes Arthur wonder. He can't dwell on it now, though, can't ask with Morgana's gaze intent on his face and a leer on her lips, predator playing with its prey.

"That's all very sweet," she says, dismissive, "but I reckon we're all adults here. Would you like to fuck him, as well? Take him roughly in your bed or against the wall? Would you let him fuck you, too?"

"Yes," Arthur hisses, red climbing on his cheeks at the inevitable discomfort. "Yes, I would! You damn witch, don't you have enough? What more do you want?"

"What do you like in bed, Arthur?"

Arthur grits his teeth as his sister laughs, undeterred.

"Being held," he replies, voice clipped. "Morgana!"

Something of the old Morgana shines through then, a twinkle of mischief, the faintest upturn of the corners of her mouth, a snort she's quick to smother. It's only then that Arthur thinks to wonder what Morgana's true purpose in all this is. Is she only seeking to humiliate him? He assumed, at first, that she would force him to reveal the strengths and weaknesses of his kingdom, so that she could conquer it for herself. Yet, so far, none of her questions hinted at such a goal. Is she only playing with him, and all along scheming to overthrow him ? But if that's the case, why would the druids help her, when they assured Arthur's envoy they would support his rule, if it was a peaceful one?

"Tell me, Arthur," Morgana murmurs, and the sudden seriousness she displays makes Arthur shiver, "how much do you really love Merlin?"

"I can't answer that," he replies, throat tightening. "Morgana. I can't, I don't..."

"Would you die for him?" Morgana then asks, voice velvet like, as if she understands his plea, words he's not even aware of begging to be let free. "Would you kill for him? Would you abandon your throne, let another take your place, if it meant saving his life?"

Despite the magic swirling inside him, this time Arthur can't answer, the affirmation held back by the sheer emotion suffocating him, threatening to drown him. He looks at Merlin, attempting a smile, a reassurance of sorts, that he's not asking for anything, that he will never demand his affections to be returned, and nods, the answer unmistakable.

"Would you forgive him anything? If he were the one who took your father's life, would you forgive him that?"

Her voice has softened, and Arthur knows at once she's not referring to Merlin anymore. But the laws of the cave, Arthur has come to understand, do not care for intent. So he answers truthfully, as he's been asked.

"If he was justified, I think I would, given time. He was my father, but he was ruthless man, and hurt many. I can understand that."

Morgana's skin turns pale at his answer, and the dark magic swishes furiously around her, like a wild animal trapped in a cage, raging yet helpless.

"And if he were a sorcerer," she asks, looking anywhere but at Arthur, or Merlin, voice cracking, "would you grace him from the pyre, from exile? Would you dare to keep him at your side, even knowing that he lied to you all these years? What would you think, then? Tell me, Arthur, if Merlin were a sorcerer, what would you feel?"

The last word is thrown at Arthur like a gauntlet, laced with hope and defiance both, an impossible challenge Arthur has no choice but to rise up to. What would he feel, if his closest friend, the man he admitted to cherish more than his own life, were a practitioner of magic, something he's been taught to hate and fear since his youngest years?

"Disbelief. Anger. Betrayal. Hurt. Shame."

The words tumble from his lips in rapid succession, ricocheting on the crystals of the cave, raw with unprompted honesty. Morgana raises an eyebrow at the last one, incomprehension flickering across her features like the wings of a butterfly, delicate and hopeful.

"Shame?" she repeats. "Why?"

Arthur exhales a long held breath. If Merlin truly were a sorcerer, wouldn't Arthur know by now? After years of shared adventures, of trust and loyalty, friendship and love, no matter its form, wouldn't he know?

"Because he couldn't trust me with it."

His head snaps up at the sound Merlin makes then, a startled whimper, and shock overcomes him as he takes in his manservant, looking as if Arthur just tore his heart out, stricken, with tears sliding down his cheeks and unfathomable pain in his eyes. And it doesn't make sense, it cannot make sense, unless...

"Merlin, you..."

Merlin bows his head, in deference or confession, Arthur doesn't know, but he ceases to breathe all the same. Ice spreads inside his chest, freezes his lungs, and he wonders how he must look, with the world swept out from under his feet, the foundations of him shattered like fragile glass. Morgana whips around, sensing the change, and the laughs that bleeds out of her borders on hysterical.

"Oh, Merlin," she sighs mockingly. "And here I thought you were remarkably brave, for a servant."

The absolute contempt in her tone makes Merlin flinch, but he doesn't try to defend himself, and Morgana shakes her head in disgust, tendrils of dark magic curling around her.

"Well, Arthur," she purrs, turning back to him with something akin to madness dancing in the depths of her eyes, "now you know the truth. How does it feel?"

"It hurts."

"Arthur -"

Merlin is trembling on the wall opposing him, and his voice cracks under the weight of Arthur's name, as if it has forgotten it is allowed to pronounce it, sorrow and fear and a hundred other miseries underlining the fracture.

"What do you want me to say, Merlin?" he bites out, because Merlin has no right to look like this, not when he's deceived Arthur with his every breath, not when he's spent years pretending to be someone he's not. "That I forgive you for everything? That it doesn't matter if all I know about you is a lie?"

His voice splinters on the last words, the revelation crashing upon his shoulders, a vulnerability he's never known cracking his heart open and laying him bare. Merlin pales at the sound, a half plea on his lips, vain promises that Arthur doesn't want to hear, not with Morgana so close, a crow feasting on his despair.

"Tell me, Merlin, did I ever truly know you?"

The sob tearing out of Merlin's throat is fraught with pent up rage and terror both, and Arthur's protective instincts rear up, urging him to soothe even as he is the source of Merlin's suffering. Morgana, though, won't let him, and Arthur resolves to quiet his own turmoil and face his sister once more.

"What will you do now, Arthur?" she asks, cruelly taunting, as if she already knows how Arthur will answer and despises him for it, as if she's catching him in a lie even though the cave doesn't allow for it. "Your servant revealed his treachery. Will you burn him? Will you burn the man you claimed to love? Or will you banish him, instead? What will be his sentence for using magic in your kingdom, I wonder?"

He finds Merlin's gaze, the blue swamped by tears and outlined with gold, as if the lights of the crystals are reflecting in his eyes, beautiful without measure. Merlin's features are utterly open, his emotions bared to Arthur's scrutiny, and Arthur tries to picture him contorted in pain, the shadows of the pyre dancing over his cheekbones, tries to imagine his screams and pleas for forgiveness, and a violent shudder overcomes him.

He tries to picture a life without Merlin, and his heart gives an overly large beat in protest, the thought unfathomable.

His decision is an easy one to make, and he can feel the magic withdraw its hold on his tongue, as if sensing he wants to tell the truth of his own accord. He straightens his shoulders, squares his jaw, and it's with all the bearing of the king he hoped to become that he answers:

"There will be no sentence, Morgana. As soon as Leon comes back with the last of the documents drafted by the druids; as soon at the council approves the laws, the ban on magic will be repealed. Practicing it will no longer be punished, not by death, nor by exile. That, I promise. Merlin will be free, just like every magic user in Camelot." He pauses, lets the seconds slide, and adds: "Just like you could be, too."

Morgana reels back as if slapped, and a sneer tears her mouth open.

"Free?" she snorts, but Arthur can see her magic wavering, can see the way hope carves itself across her face. "Free from what? The rule of a tyrant? I didn't need your help for that."

Arthur briefly closes his eyes at the surge of pain, and Morgana's eyes shine in triumph.

"You can't forgive that, can you?" she gloats, looking wild, almost crazed. "That I am the one responsible for the downfall of Camelot's revered king, for his madness and waning mind, for his pain and his death. You can't forgive me that. You hate me for it, brother dearest, I know you do."

There's something in her words - an odd vulnerability, a heartbreaking plea - that gives Arthur pause. It reminds him of the Morgana that came to the castle after her father died, grieving and alone, who would pretend her eyes weren't red whenever Arthur caught her crying, and would rebuke him with curt words if he tried to console her. Until one night, he sneaked into her rooms and demanded she stopped treating him like a stranger, when all he wanted was someone to call a friend.

She has that same light in her eyes as she did then, pupils narrowed into slits, daring him to draw near, to expose himself to the bite of the snake, just to see if he would - if he thought she was worth it.

"You killed him," Arthur replies quietly. "He was our father and you killed him. I resent you for that."

Morgana's smile widens in victory, and Arthur sags in his restraints, defeated.

"But I don't hate you," he murmurs. "I could never hate you. You're my sister."

Morgana flinches as the words embed themselves in her heart, the arrows sliding home with frightening accuracy as she can no longer deny their honesty. She raises her chin in a vain attempt at recovering the cruelty and contempt that held her for so long, the tendrils of dark magic tightening around her ankles and wrists as if to keep her prisoner, but her lips are trembling, her breathing shuddering and sparse, and suddenly the silence breaks.

"Merlin?" she calls, and there's nothing of the crazed witch in her voice. "Did you ever regret it?"

Merlin tilts his head to the side, pondering the question, perhaps, silent for a handful of seconds as the magic doesn't compel him to answer.

"There are many things I regret, Morgana," he finally replies, his words voluntarily vague despite the flicker of understanding that crosses his features.

Arthur idly wonders what Merlin could possibly have done that hurts him so, hunching his shoulders under a weight too heavy to bear alone. Arthur is no stranger to difficult decisions, both in court and on the battlefield, but he's never had to deal with the aftermath on his own. For the first time, Arthur hopes someone else knew of Merlin's magic back then, and shared his burden. Someone he could trust with the pain of old scars and freshly opened wounds, even if that someone wasn't Arthur.

Morgana's features remain impassible, but there's no anger in her voice as she adds:

"Tricking me into drinking poison. Betraying my trust. Holding me as I died. Did you ever regret it?"

The words are laced with remnants of hatred, fragile like the fog embracing the trees at the first lights of mornings, waiting to be dispelled by a ray of sunshine or the softest caress of the breeze. Arthur watches with apprehension as Merlin finds Morgana's gaze, blue against green, a clash of will that smolders before it ignites. Something passes between them, an oath of sorts, an understanding overtly demanded and freely given.

"Every day," Merlin replies, soft and sure.

Morgana smiles wryly and nods, as if she expected the answer. Her gaze flickers toward Arthur, almost fond at the total incomprehension in his gaze, as if he's a wayward child seeking to play with adults, making him bristle.

"Finding yourself in the same situation, would you do it again?" she asks then, and Merlin smiles sadly.

"Yes," he says. "Of course I would."

"Of course," Morgana echoes. "You surprises me, Emrys."

As Merlin's eyes widen in shock, Morgana draws herself up, and her voice resonates brightly as she calls:

"Iseldir!"

The name reverberates on the crystals as if it belongs there, woven in the magic itself, and soon the old man appears, apprehensive but unafraid as he inclines his head at Morgana.

"The magic does not lie," she tells him, suddenly subdued in a way Arthur's never seen her, almost reverent. "It seems that you were right."

She turns toward Arthur, eyes clear of hatred, cruelty shed like an ill-fitting skin. There's still mistrust in her gaze, and wounds that will take a long time to heal, but there's hope, also, a tentative flame that would be so easy to extinguish. It stings, of course, that Morgana would trust the magic of the cave over his own words, as if his honor meant nothing. But then Morgana's eyes flicker toward him, and Arthur's heart lodges itself in his throat when he recognize the sister he's lost to magic and despaired to ever find again, remembering the girl that arrived at the castle all those years ago, having lost everything and desperate to find her place in the world.

Morgana is no longer a child, but her heart hasn't changed, and it hurts Arthur as much as it warms him, to realize that there's a chance, however slim, to get her back.

"Arthur Pendragon," she claims, her voice clear as it reverberates on the crystals, "son of Uther and Ygraine, by the powers conferred to me under the laws of the Old Religion, for the crimes perpetrated against the users of magic, you are hereby sentenced to revoke the ban, and welcome magic back to Camelot, as it should be. Go. Keep your promise."

She lets the words sink in, solemn, before adding:

"Let this be my judgement."

She waves her hand as the crystals explode with color, the lights dancing around them as an acknowledgement of something ancient and powerful before shattering into nothingness. Arthur feels the withdrawal of the magic as the same time the shackles holding him prisoner open and he falls on his knees, teeth clicking at the shock, his entire body trembling in sudden relief.

It takes him a few seconds to regain his bearing, but when he looks back to the entrance of the cave, the crystals are dormant once more.

And Morgana is gone.

"It is my honor to meet you, Once and Future King," Iseldir proclaims, bowing at the waist. "As it is you, Emrys."

Arthur wobbles a little on his feet as he straightens, his muscles painfully weak, and a grimace briefly stretches his lips as blood floods back into his hands, the marks of the shackles a stark contrast against his skin.

"I can't say the pleasure is mine," Arthur replies coolly once he regained his composure, fighting not to look in Merlin's direction. "Tell me, did the druids forget the clauses of the laws they've themselves written, or did they choose to disregard them in order to help a traitor hell bent on revenge?"

Iseldir inevitably pales at the steel in Arthur's tone, yet he stands his ground, gaze flickering to Merlin - for support, possibly. But Merlin knows better than to contradict Arthur there. Not when the revelation of his magic is still so fresh in both their minds, a bleeding wound that might never heal.

"I apologize," Iseldir murmurs, "on the behalf of all the druids and my own, for the trial you just went through."

His features soften in sympathy as Arthur flinches, and Merlin takes in a sharp breath as Arthur takes a step forward:

"Why?" he demands, squaring his shoulders, teeth gritted against the urge to just hit something, anything that would break under his hand. "Does my word mean nothing to you? Was the Knight I sent to you mistaken, when he gave his report and promised your trust and loyalty, as I have pledged mine?"

"Arthur..."

"You will stay silent!" Arthur hisses in Merlin's general direction.

He keeps his gaze fixated on Iseldir, ignoring the way Merlin recoils at the venom in his voice, too angry to care.

"Your Knight wasn't mistaken," Iseldir answers, voice vibrating with power, deep and pure like the one imbued in the cave. "We are faithful to the rule of the Once and Future King, and to Emrys, his revered protector."

"Morgana said that, as well. Emrys. Who is he? Why do you call me the Once and Future King? Why did you help Morgana, if you keep to the laws you bound yourself to?"

His anger has faded as quickly as it appeared, replaced by restless energy, a desire to know, to finally understand what has been hidden from him for so long. He lets out a breath as Iseldir quietly assesses him, calm etched on his features, deep as the wrinkles adorning his skin.

"Emrys," Iseldir replies with a glance in Merlin's direction, "is prophesied to be the most powerful sorcerer to ever walk the earth. Born from magic itself, he is destined to protect the Once and Future King, and guide him to restore magic back to the land. The Once and Future King is Emrys' other half, the other side of his coin. According to the prophecy, he will be the greatest king this land has ever known, and will one day lay his golden rule over all of Albion. So has it been foretold."

Uncontrolled shivers run down Arthur's spine as the absolute reverence in his tone, and he whips around, meeting Merlin's gaze, stunned at the faith he finds there. Merlin truly believes the druid, believes Arthur is the Once and Future King of prophecies and half-forgotten legends, and he acted in consequence, bestowing his power upon his king, protecting him from the shadows, never seeking any credit.

I'm happy to be your servant until the day I die.

"Oh, Merlin," he murmurs, and Merlin bows his head in assent.

Peace weaves its way into his heart at the impossible oath, legend and reality melding into each other until Arthur can no longer see to which of them he belongs. How does one king answer to a vow of fealty that encompasses the whole of magic, beings and powers old as the earth itself?

When he turns his gaze back on Iseldir, the old druid waits patiently for his reply.

"I am only one man," he says, hating the roughness of his voice, the fear that grips him for a second at the height of the power he's been given.

"And yet you are the Once and Future King. Such is your destiny."

"I don't understand, though," Arthur says, words carefully chosen. "If you are so certain of me, why would you help Morgana, and hold us here? Why would you allow her the freedom of seeking my secrets, of baring my very soul to her? She could have pried hidden knowledge from me, about Camelot's defenses, or the Knights, or myself, and used them to destroy us all. So why?"

Surprise briefly shadows Iseldir's eyes, quickly replaced by understanding, and it's with a grimace and a half a smile that he inclines his head.

"Of course, she didn't tell you," he mutters, shaking his head self-depreciatingly. "The Cave Of Gwirionedd is a place of trial, it's true," he adds, "but the Old Religion never calls for cruelty. The ritual doesn't require a witness without reason. As the questions asked might be of intimate nature, the magic in the crystals has been woven so that the one who asks the questions, upon bearing judgement, forgets everything that has taken place during the trial."

He meets Arthur's gaze without fear, and the very nature of the cave assures Arthur that he's telling the truth.

"You mean that..."

"The Lady Morgana has already forgotten everything, barring her own sentence. She now remembers nothing of the words you shared here. Only you will, as well as your witness, who is the only one who can appeal for another trial, if he feels the judgement hasn't been rendered fairly."

Relief almost makes Arthur sag in place, and the effort it takes him to stand on his own feet is enough to have his jaw clench and muscle tremble.

"Usually," Iseldir continues, "the choice of the witness is given to the answering heart, as per the nature of the trial. But considering the circumstances, we thought you wouldn't oppose having Emrys as your witness."

"Merlin," Arthur corrects suddenly, not quite knowing why but feeling the necessity of it itching under his skin. "His name is Merlin."

Iseldir inclines his head, and Merlin's resulting smile is bright enough to eclipse the stars.

"But if she knew she would forget everything, why even hold a trial?" Arthur asks.

"When we first heard the rumors," Iseldir admits, "we didn't want to believe them. That Arthur Pendragon, King of Camelot, was sending a Knight to parley with the druids, and have them draft laws for his own kingdom in order to legalize magic once more...It sounded too good to be true. But as the same Knight was sent to every camp, never raising his blade against us, when no attack came against those who had disclosed their locations, when the offer to meet the King himself on peaceful grounds was sent...We started to believe."

His tone turns grim as he adds:

"But the Lady Morgana didn't agree with us. She sought our help to provide sorcerers to strike Camelot and bring it to its knees, and nearly wiped us out when we refused. That's when we offered her to conduct a trial, to see if you really were as trustworthy as we believed you to be. We were aware that she would try to bring your harm, by any and all means possible, but we trusted that you were protected by your servant, and that he would intervene to free you should she come too close to enact her revenge."

Merlin nods once, and Arthur recalls the look he exchanged with Iseldir at the beginning of the trial, the plea of the druid and Merlin's subsequent demeanor, impossibly subdued. Merlin had the power to break the chains, Arthur realizes, had the choice to free them, yet preferred to let the events follow their uninterrupted course. Was it because he wanted to keep the magic secret, or because he saw something then, in Iseldir's gaze, that prompted him to allow the trial?

"We hoped, as well, that she would let go of her hatred for you, if given enough reason to. The cave isn't only a place of trial. It holds purifying powers, just like every sacred place of the Old Religion."

"The tendrils of darkness," Arthur says softly. "They disappeared toward the end."

Iseldir inclines his head, and Arthur raises his chin, every inch a king when he says:

"If what happened here helped free her of whatever demon was eating at her, then I thank you, Iseldir, keeper of Gwirionedd."

Merlin is looking at him as if he is everything he's ever hoped for, and Arthur feels magic against his skin, whispering prophecies of untold miracles and golden days.

"So," he says softly, "what happens now?"

Iseldir considers him for a while, searching for something in his eyes, the light of the years and acquired wisdom shining impossibly bright in his own.

"The trial is over," he finally replies, sure, certain. "The compulsion is dormant, but the truth spell still holds. You may remain here. No one will be allowed to enter, as per the rules of the cave. You are free to stay as long as you wish."

His gaze flickers toward Merlin, and as he turns on his heels and walks away, his last words reverberate inside the cave:

"May you both bare the truth that lays in your hearts."

It's only once Iseldir has left that Arthur allows himself the weakness of falling to his knees, relief and exhaustion crashing over him, leaving him utterly vulnerable. His limbs are shaking, fingers clawing uselessly at the stones, and his breathing is labored, lungs spasming in desperate inhales. But it's his heart that threatens to give out, pounding against his aching ribs, the blood roaring in his veins rendering him deaf to the world, until he can barely hear Merlin calling his name, increasingly frantic as he kneels in front of Arthur.

And then, through the haze of the panic that threatens to overwhelm him, Arthur feels rough hands cradle his jaw, warm and comforting, guiding him forward as he slumps against Merlin's chest, his manservant's support the only thing holding him upright.

"I'm sorry," Merlin says, over and over again until his voice is hoarse and Arthur finally remembers how to breathe. "I should have done something. I should have tried to stop them, to..."

Arthur grips Merlin's forearms - a plea or a warning, he doesn't know - but Merlin seems to understand.

"I'm sorry," he says one last time, voice laced with regret.

Silence falls upon them, soft like a blanket, all encompassing save for the reverberated sound of their breathing. Arthur's heartbeat slowly returns to normal, yet he doesn't move, doesn't try to get away from Merlin, headless of the betrayal, the lies, the deceit.

He might be on his knees, but with Merlin's arms wrapped around him, he feels safe somehow. At peace.

"You know," Merlin murmurs, shifting a little as he cards a tender hand through Arthur's hair, "I can feel it. The spell, the one who took Morgana's memories. I can use it, if you want me to. I can make myself forget."

The words take a while to register, as Arthur is lulled to an almost sleep by Merlin's touch. When they do, though, warmth spreads through his chest. He leans back a little, eyes wide with wonder.

"You would do that?" He asks, meeting Merlin's gaze. "You would do that for me? Forget that I learned the truth about your magic and forgave you? Forget that I promised to free you kin and your kind, to free you? You would go back to that fear for me?"

There are tears in Merlin's eyes as Arthur speaks, gold melding with blue before spilling onto his cheeks. Gently, he cups Arthur's face between his hands and leans in to press his forehead against his King's.

"Yes," he answers plainly, his breath caressing Arthur's skin like silk. "Anything, Arthur. For you, I'd do anything."

His words are a vow, an oath of immeasurable magnitude, and Arthur marvels at the coiled power held in every sound.

"You would," he breathes out, lips parted in awe.

Merlin must misunderstand his intent, for a bone deep hurt shadows his features in the span of a heartbeat. He shifts back on his heels, blinking rapidly, and schools his features into a blank mask, though he can't hide the emotion swirling in his eyes.

"Right," he mumbles, angling his body away and meaning to stand, the loss of his touch making Arthur shiver. "As soon as we get out of the cave - I promise, I..."

Arthur shakes his head fondly.

"Merlin," he calls soft and stern at the same time. "I am not asking that of you. I won't ask that of you."

He reaches out and places his hand at Merlin's nape, soothing the tension gathered there. Merlin's eyes flutter shut, yet he remains resolutely still, as if he's afraid moving would dislodge Arthur's hand.

"The things I said," Arthur continues, "are ones you deserved to hear. Things I should have told you long ago. And maybe I would have, if..."

He trails off and sighs, looking away for a second, feigning not to notice the furrow of Merlin's brow as he plays with the hair curling at his nape.

"Growing up a prince means learning to guard your heart against any that would take advantage," he says then, voice rough. "The spell...it forced me to reveal things I had barely admitted to myself. To have them torn out of me like this...it made me feel naked. Vulnerable. And I hate that."

He knows then, as Merlin opens his mouth, that he wants to reiterate his offer, to allow Arthur the comfort of secrecy, the chance to reveal his truths on his own terms. Surging forward, Arthur silences him with a finger on his lips, letting a small smile play on his own at the widening of Merlin's eyes.

"Merlin," he admonishes, though his tone remains gentle. "I meant what I said. I won't take it back. I don't want you to forget."

Merlin's swallows dryly as Arthur removes his hand from his mouth, and his eyes are shining, untamable hope swirling, golden, in their depth. It makes Arthur wonder, how he never noticed it earlier, the magic so intrinsically woven into Merlin's soul that it shines into his irises, simmers under his skin, power coiled tight in human skin.

Has he really been oblivious, all these years, or was Merlin just that good of a liar?

White-hot anger washes over him, shadowed in pain, bright in his veins like slow-burning poison, and Merlin notices it - he can't not - in the clench of his jaw, the narrowing of his pupils, in the way his shoulders tense and the hand tightens at his nape. Arthur tries to reign it in, to no avail, and Merlin lets his gaze drop, lips curving in a sad smile, pained yet understanding, always understanding.

"I promised that I would forgive you, Merlin," Arthur says quietly, almost an apology. "I never said it would be easy."

Merlin shivers at the words, swallowing uneasily under the weight of Arthur's gaze, and his own is unfocused when he replies:

"I know."

He keeps his voice soft, almost reverent, a balm on Arthur's heart.

"It's just as you said," Merlin continues. "Did you ever truly know me? Has everything I've said to you been a lie? Did I play you, hidden in shadows, bidding my time before overthrowing you, or was I merely hiding in plain sight, waiting for you to acknowledge me? You don't know that. You can't possibly know that."

"Merlin..."

"It's okay, Arthur. I understand. But there's a reason I'm saying this."

He takes a deep breath, resolve plain on his features, in the way he squares his shoulders and raises his chin, almost defiant.

"Arthur, Iseldir told us no one would be allowed to enter the cave so long as we're here. We can stay. The truth spell still works."

He hangs his head.

"I want you to know me," he murmurs. "Inside and out. You just need to ask."

Arthur's eyes widens as he understands what Merlin is offering, the naked trust in his eyes more telling than a thousand words. But there's something about his wording that doesn't quite sound right, as if heavy with an underlying meaning he can't grasp. Until...

Inside and out.

Arthur freezes at the realization. His knees are aching from where the rocks dig into his skin, he's bruised and tired and hurt, and yet he's never cared less.

"Merlin?" he asks, eyes searching, heart pounding madly. "Do you mean...?"

Merlin breathes in, slowly, and he looks away, cheeks flushing.

"Yeah," he breathes out. "Yeah, I do."

Warmth suffuses Arthur's chest, spreading outward until his entire body tingles with it. He dreamed about it, of course, in the safety of his own mind. To touch Merlin, the planes and angles of his body; to learn all the places that would make him gasp and moan in pleasure; to map the scars he's only glimpsed under his tunics, reverent; to meld their body together until he could no longer tell where his ended and Merlin's began...

"As I said, Arthur," Merlin adds, captivating Arthur's attention once again, "you just need to ask."

Arthur is loath to accept the gift, yet he understands that he needs it, that they both need it, if they ever hope to mend the fracture in their relationship. He nods once, eyes searching Merlin's for any sign that he doesn't want this, that he's doing it only to appease Arthur, but he finds none. The certainty in Merlin's gaze is absolute.

"Alright," he says. "You tell me whenever you want to stop, okay?"

A sudden thought strikes him as Merlin nods his assent, and he asks:

"Will you be compelled to answer? Like I was with Morgana?"

Merlin looks thoughtful for a second, and a shiver runs down Arthur's spine as his eyes flash a bright, molten gold before fading back to blue.

"I don't think so," his servant replies, brow furrowed, as if he is resenting the fact. "You would need a witness for that, and I doubt you'd want one. It's as Iseldir said, the compulsion is dormant right now. But I can try to rewrite the spell. I mean, it won't be easy, since the cave has been imbued with it for as long as the druids existed, but..."

"I don't want you to, Merlin," Arthur says, abruptly cutting of Merlin's rambling.

Merlin stares at him, bewildered at his outburst, and Arthur shakes his head, suddenly uneasy.

"I want you to answer of your own free will," he adds, lowering his voice. "I never want you to be subjected to...that."

He shudders at the memory of the magic pressing under his skin, untying his tongue. The words tumbling from his lips against his will. His very soul laid bare, pinned to the walls of the crystal cave.

That Morgana forgot everything doesn't matter, nor does Merlin's vow to erase his own memory, if Arthur asked. It doesn't change the excruciating minutes he spent answering to Morgana's increasingly intimate questions, doesn't soften the reality of having been exposed - and violated - to the deepest layers of him.

He can't ask that of Merlin. He doesn't want to ask that of Merlin.

Arthur tilts his head to the side, considering. Merlin in kneeling between the V of his thighs, impossibly close, and his body is warm and solid against Arthur's own, a reassuring weight. The comfort of his presence clears the swirling of Arthur's thoughts a little. He clears his throat and asks the first question that comes to mind.

"Why did you first come to Camelot?"

Merlin blinks once, the question catching him off guard. He looks thoughtful for a second, a hesitant smile pulling at his lips.

"My mother sent me there," he says softly, a faraway look in his eyes. "People were becoming wary of me, back in Ealdor, and she thought being in a town with so many people would allow me to blend in."

Arthur raises a dubious eyebrow, and Merlin snorts.

"Yeah, that's not exactly what happened," he admits, faintly sheepish. "I did try to lay low, but..."

"I wouldn't call antagonizing the Crown Prince in public laying low, you know."

"In my defense," Merlin replies, tone light though a frown pulls at his brow, "you needed someone to antagonize you. You were a right prat, at the beginning."

Arthur licks his lips as he looks away. The words sting, more so than he would have expected, given his and Merlin's history at trading barbs and insults as others would endearments. Is this truly how Merlin viewed him? As an arrogant, overbearing prince, good for nothing but waving a sword around? But wasn't it what he was, at the time? An entitled bully who would sooner treat everyone around him like dirt rather than acknowledge their worth? A man who would mercilessly pile unmanageable chores on his manservant so that he would finally stop challenging him at every turn, and leave?

"Why did you stay, then?" he demands, voice roughened by the sudden shame strangling him.

Merlin is worrying his lower lip, looking anywhere but at Arthur, and his bearing is unsteady as he replies:

"It was because of what the Great Dragon said. Kilgharrah. He told me once that it was my destiny to be by your side, to protect you. That we were two sides of the same coin, that you were prophesied to be the greatest king this land has ever known - and that I was born to serve you."

"That's, why you stayed, then?" Arthur asks, voice tinged with bitterness. "Because some dragon said it was your destiny?"

Merlin shakes his head slowly, gaze lost somewhere over Arthur's shoulder.

"I thought he was mistaken, and told him so. How could you, an idiot and a bully, be destined to unite all of Albion under your rule? But then the feast happened, and I saved your life, and I became your servant. I kept telling myself that I should leave, but people kept coming at you, kept trying to kill you, and no matter how good of a knight you are, your sword cannot hold ground against magic. I couldn't not stay, after that. Not when you needed me so. And then..."

He lifts a shoulder in an imperceptible shrug, dismissive, yet that single gesture is enough to still Arthur's breathing:

"And then?"

"And then," Merlin continues, meeting Arthur's eyes, "I got to know you. You have a gentle heart, Arthur, though you try your best to hide it. You are kind and courageous, honorable and merciful. You always strive to be a better king, to be a better man. Even then, I could see that Kilgharrah was right. You will bring about the golden age of Albion, of that I have no doubt."

The weight of Merlin's confession settles on Arthur's shoulders, heavy with meaning. It doesn't feel like a burden, though; akin to the crown he bears upon his head during council meetings and feasts, it feels right, an honor he'll strive every day to be worthy of.

There are many things Arthur could ask then. About the Great Dragon, and how Merlin knows his name, or knew where he was held prisoner, when only the previous king had access to that knowledge. About Morgana's last questions to him, and the visceral hatred she held in her heart. About Morgause and the ghost of his mother.

There are so many things he doesn't know, so many things he wishes to understand. For how long has Merlin been using magic? How did he learn? Who taught him? Or was he even taught at all? And what of Hunith, what of Gaius? Do they know, as well? Do the Knights? The servants?

How many times has Merlin saved Camelot from sorcerers and creatures of magic? How many times has he saved Arthur's life? Why didn't he seek any credit, or acknowledgment? Why is he content to remain a mere servant, when he could be so much more?

Why did he never try to sway Arthur's mind on magic, not even after the late king's death? Why didn't he reveal his own?

Why didn't he trust him?

The questions press at his tongue, impatient, and prickle the roof of his mouth like a stack of needles. He desperately wants to ask them, each in turn, to demand answers from Merlin, to soothe the ache in his own heart. But Merlin is watching him, features open and trusting, body so close Arthur can feel the heat emanating from him, and that's why the one Arthur asks is the one which hurts him the most.

"Why didn't you tell me?"

Merlin closes his eyes briefly, the outline of his mouth shadowed by an old pain, like that of a broken bone that never quite mended.

"I wanted to," he murmurs. "So many times. But I was afraid, at first, of what you would do. Have me burn at the stake? Have me beheaded? Or sent in exile? Would you have come after my mother, as well, for harboring a sorcerer?"

Arthur flinches, appalled that Merlin could even think he'd hurt Hunith, but Merlin doesn't let him protest, and forges on:

"I don't think you would have. Arthur, I don't. Even then...But I couldn't let you send me away, not even to protect me. I needed to stay by your side. And the laws of Camelot were crystal clear. You were the Crown Prince, Arthur, and noble to a fault. I didn't want you to have to choose between me and your honor. I didn't want you to have to lie to your father."

His gaze searches Arthur's, willing him to see, to understand, but Arthur closes his eyes. He hears the wounded sound Merlin's make at his rebuttal, and his voice is rough when he asks:

"And after my father died? Why didn't you tell me then?"

A tentative hands brushes his cheekbone before cupping the side of his jaw, slowly raising his chin. A soft sigh prompts him to open his eyes, to look at Merlin's face, the blue of his irises, bright and earnest, the illusion of a smile curling around his lips, the saddened tilt of his head.

"You had already been betrayed by so many people. People you trusted, people you loved, people you held close to your heart. I couldn't bear the thought of being the next. I couldn't bear the thought of hurting you so."

Arthur leans into Merlin's touch, the confession unfurling something coiled tight inside him.

"I'm so sorry I had to, Arthur," Merlin murmurs, his breath fanning over Arthur skin like silk. "When Morgana asked you, about me, about what you would do if..."

He trails off and looks away, mouth briefly tightening at the remnants of fear, and Arthur places a hand over Merlin's own on his cheek, softly, in reassurance.

"I would never hurt you, Merlin," he swears. "I couldn't, I don't..."

"Shh", Merlin says, pressing their foreheads together again. "I know. Arthur, I know."

"It's just," Arthur says, swallows, frustrated that he can't get the words right, "the lies, the...Everything, I don't know how to..."

"You can ask me. I won't lie to you ever again," Merlin vows, and a small smile quirks his lips as he adds: "Not about anything that matters."

A wave of tenderness overcomes Arthur then, stealing his breath and running away with it, until he feels like Merlin's touch has become his sole source of oxygen.

"Will you tell me, one day?" he asks. "All you had to hide. The secrets you held. The lied you told. When you are ready, will you tell me?"

He swallows dryly as Merlin's eyes widen, his expression of wonder one Arthur will cherish to his dying day. Merlin nods, unmistakably, and replies in the softest voice:

"Yes. I promise."

There is nothing left to be said after that. Everything is out in the open, magic breathing around them like something alive, carving their confessions into the walls of the cave. Silence blankets them, absolute, which is why Arthur can hear the stutter of Merlin's heartbeat as he fits his mouth against his.

Merlin's lips are soft, pliant under Arthur's, curving like a bow as they part to let Arthur's tongue in. The kiss, from chaste, turns heated, and Arthur barely hesitates before burying his hand into Merlin's hair and tilting his head to the side. He deepens the kiss as Merlin scrambles to hold him, gliding his own hands on Arthur's shoulders and down his back, to pull him impossibly closer, and relishes in the whimper that escapes Merlin's throat, elation and disbelief both, a treasured sound.

When Arthur opens his eyes, lightheaded from the lack of oxygen as they part for breath, Merlin bites his lower lip, red and shiny from kissing, his cheeks flushed in faint embarrassment. Arthur catches sight of his irises, glowing a bright, molten gold, right before Merlin buries his face in his neck, hiding his features from Arthur's scrutiny.

It's only when Arthur raises his head that he understands the reason behind Merlin's bashfulness: all round them, a hundred of tiny lights are glowing, flickering into and out of existence like fireflies, ricocheting against the walls of the cave and making them shimmer in response.

And as Arthur laughs in wonder, tightening his arms around Merlin's lean frame, the timeless crystals sparkle in answer, offering their blessing.