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Breaking Steel

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Camelot never saw a quiet moment, even in the dead of night or the golden hours of the morning. 

Merlin was most familiar with this, Arthur knew. He always seemed to find himself in the worst situation at the worst time, and Arthur had to repeatedly get him out alive. It became so commonplace that by the time Arthur heard the alarm bells ring he could already picture Merlin front and center at the scene of action. That servant was a magnet for danger— it was truly uncanny. So much to the point that it, despite every cell in Arthur's body, sparked suspicion. 

Merlin was clumsy, foolish, and downright idiotic at times, but he seemed to always find a stroke of luck, even in the midst of war. Far too many times had he remained untouched after tremendous slaughter. When magical entities involved themselves, it was like Merlin’s clumsy swordwork landed just the right blow each time. Arthur was beginning to see a pattern in his good fortune. 

“Sir Leon,” Arthur called one day to the approaching knight, “are the horses ready for our departure?”

Leon nodded, “Yes, my lord.”

“Good,” he paused before inquiring again, “do you… do you ever notice anything strange about Merlin?”

The knight in question looked up, an amused smile on his face. 

“There’s little that isn’t strange about Merlin, sire.” 

Arthur nodded vacantly. 

“Yes, but I mean… Don’t you find it odd that he—” 

He couldn’t truly say. Putting his finger on the issue was proving more and more difficult as the observation neared his lips. How does he continuously survive the impossible?

Leon licked his lips, waiting for Arthur to finish. 

“Sire?”

After a beat, Arthur shook his head, dismissing the incomplete thought with his hand. 

“Never mind, I’ll… You get the men ready. We set out at midday.”

The knight gave him a sideways glance that said everything on his mind, even as he bowed with respect. He left Arthur in the empty chamber to deal with his wordless conspiracies. 

It felt ridiculous to even speculate. What Arthur’s unrelenting brain suggested made little sense. This was Merlin . This was the fool that could never remember how many knots to lace through Arthur’s nightshirt. He was always late and inefficient, rambling on and on. He disrespected royalty like it was a second language and never had enough wits about him to deal with the consequences. In the context of their lives, Merlin was the least of anyone’s worries. 

But Arthur knew there was more. He could feel it. It dawned on him one afternoon that Merlin, though an aggravatingly open book at times, revealed startlingly little about himself.  

 

How much did he really know about Merlin? 

 

He started asking the knights what they knew about his past. All they could gather came from the visit to Merlin’s village some years ago. 

“His mother is kind; sent him here for an education.” Gwaine weighed in, not taking his eyes off of the saddle he was adjusting. “Not that he has much time for learning with you shoving him around all day.”

Percival had thought about it for a moment before answering.

“He had that friend called Will. That poor bloke. Never spoke about any other friends though.” 

“His father died,” Elyan said confidently, “I know that much. But now that you ask, I don’t know as much as I thought. It doesn’t seem like there’s very much past for him to talk about. Must be the boring village life— not all of us come from royalty.” 

Arthur then asked his past love, Gwen, as she tended to a pile of swords in the corner of her inherited forge. Her sand colored tunic was held tight by a brown chord, and she wiped her hands on it mindlessly. 

“Merlin? Well, I doubt anyone knows much about him. I certainly don’t.”

“Why not?” Arthur had asked, accidentally allowing his voice to take on a rough desperate edge. Gwen simply looked up at him with a small smile of pity.

“Because he’s Merlin. Everything we need to know is what he wears on his skin.” She shrugged. “Arthur, do you really think there’s anything secret that he’d reveal on purpose? It’s why we trust him with our own. I’ve met steel that’s easier to break than Merlin.”

That did nothing to dull the suspicions in the back of Arthur’s throat. 

He was provoked to think back on their time together. When Arthur told Merlin a secret, there was little doubt in his mind that it would be kept, even in death. In the past, it had been comforting, but now it was just proof of his fears. 

Merlin wasn’t a fool— well, not always. There was a weighty chance that Merlin had a secret he would keep to his grave. A secret that surmounted even their bond . Maybe that was the source of the gnawing sensation in his mind. The possibility was eating Arthur alive. 

 

~ ~ ~

 

“Just a little further!” Merlin yelled over his shoulder, shooting a grin the way he always did on the way back from a hunt with Camelot in sight. “Oh, I’d kill for a hot bath.” 

Gwaine, riding in Arthur’s peripherals, rolled his eyes in good humor. 

“You’re gonna have to deal with sir gloomy here before you do any soaking. His lordship couldn’t possibly remove his trousers on his own.”

Arthur didn’t even have time to scold him for that jab, because Gwaine had already picked up the pace and passed a groaning Merlin. Their paces slowed to an equal rhythm, putting Arthur side by side with his servant. Merlin cast him a sideways look. 

“You are particularly gloomy today.”

Arthur only glared in response, making Merlin shrug in defense. 

“Just an observation.”

“I’m not gloomy, just tired," Arthur grumbled. "Surrounding myself with you lot for hours on end does little to improve my energy.” 

Merlin nodded like he didn’t believe that in the least. 

“Right, well, when you decide to tell me what’s wrong, I’ll be waiting. You can put your head in my lap and I can sing you to sleep.”

Arthur snorted, a small smile glancing off of his lips for the first time that day. 

“Your singing would rival the castle’s warning bells, not soothe a troubled mind.”

“So you admit your mind is troubled?” 

Arthur stayed silent as Merlin preened in this checkmate moment. The next words to leave Arthur’s mouth halted Merlin’s victory in its tracks. 

“Why don’t I know more about you?” 

A pregnant pause drew way for Merlin’s light-toned response.

“You know plenty about me. In your own words, I never shut up —”

“You always say you’re an open book, but the pages are blank.”

He saw the slight shifts in Merlin’s face as he struggled to regain his composure. It was a few milliseconds of change, but it was enough to confirm that he possessed a mask at all. 

Arthur was right. Merlin was hiding volumes from him, and it made his stomach turn. 

“Well, I’ll be sure to let you know when something notable happens, if you’re so interested ,” Merlin chirped, turning his eye back towards the castle. “ I , for one, am most interested in the bath awaiting me.”

“You do know Gwaine was right and you have to tend to me.”

“You’ll have to catch me first!” 

And with that, Merlin kicked his horse into a gallop and sped towards Camelot. 

With an aggravated huff, Arthur took off after him, never able to refuse a boyish challenge. 

 

~ ~ ~

 

Seeing Merlin daily made it extremely difficult to evaluate his own emotions. He knew he felt hurt, but it was a targeted pain. It existed at the base of his spine, shocking bursts of anger through his limbs.

 He had a realization, deep into the night, that there was unequal exchange. Arthur had let Merlin in, though it didn’t always seem so. There was never a person who Arthur confided in like that or sought advice from. Merlin’s friendship was special, airy, light, and freeing in the way that others weren’t. To find out that this was one sided was like finding a fistfull of river stones in a pot of gold. Merlin was an absolute imbecile, but he was one of the people Arthur knew deep down was irreplaceable.

 It felt childish to think that of a servant. A lot of Arthur’s emotions felt childish. It was much easier to listen to Uther’s commands and use swordfighting to combat all feelings that breached his armor. But now, Arthur was a king. He had responsibilities and his outbursts had real repercussions. His ability to confide in Merlin, and take out his initial anger on the only person who would gladly return the fire, was the only thing keeping him sane. 

Despite that, Merlin was a stone wall— always there to bounce off of, but doorless. Merlin’s isolation must have been immense. It was no wonder why his humor deflected all troubles.

Well, all but one. 

 

~ ~ ~

 

Arthur had Merlin’s thin arm around his shoulder as he hoisted him through the corridor. He was incredibly drunk, not even that far into his second goblet. The grand idea of letting Merlin join them in the tavern (Gwaine’s idea) turned out to be a significant burden. If anyone rounded the corridor, they’d be met with the sight of a hiccuping servant being escorted by the king. Arthur gave it a single thought before ignoring it. Stranger things have happened in Camelot.

“Arthur, Arthur, Arthur,” Merlin sighed, sounding both astounded and discouraged, “You’re the king! But you have so much to learn.”

“So I’m told,” Arthur replied, monotone. 

Merlin groaned, leaning into Arthur’s shoulder more and slowing them down. 

“You gotta… You gotta learn soon. I can’t keep saving your royal arse every time there’s trouble.”

Arthur rolled his eyes. 

“Yes, the lifesaving work of my manservant.”

“Oh, you’d be surprised.” 

That vague response piqued Arthur’s interest. His hand stalled in its reach for Gaius’s chamber doors. Just as he was about to ask for more information, Merlin shook his head sadly. 

“Arthur Pendragon. So much I can’t say. So much you... You can’t know. It’s sad sometimes. ‘S lonely.” He patted Arthur’s chest in an easing fashion. “‘S’okay though. Gotta keep you safe. That’s what’s most important.” 

Arthur let himself fall silent at that. 

Merlin had seemed finished, but then added more.

“Glad I wasn’t alone tonight. Today’s the day my father died. Drinks… Uh… Drunk, it just… It makes it easier. Crazy how it happened though. I knew him for a couple days. Taught me some things, then he died. Didn’t get to mourn for long. Did you know that?” He instantly shook his head, laughing, “How could you know that? You weren’t supposed to.” 

Arthur felt the ice in his veins spread faster. The information he craved was bleeding through, but even in his compromised state, Merlin knew exactly what details to keep from him. 

He helped Merlin into Gaius’s room. Gaius thanked him for getting the stupid boy back in one piece. Arthur felt the opposite, clinging onto the fragments Merlin had just handed him. 

 

~ ~ ~

 

Arthur lay awake in his chambers, night-trained eyes tracing the groves of his wooden canopy bed frame. 

Keeping information from Arthur was a conscious choice— that much was clear. He hadn’t expected Merlin to speak of protection. It never crossed his mind that Merlin’s secrets were locked away for good reason. He was still met with more loose ends than answers, and nothing clicked until one of Merlin’s rambles fell into sync with something nipping at the back of Arthur’s mind. 

Merlin’s father had died that same day, years ago. 

According to Arthur’s memory of the previous years’ events, so had the Dragonlord. 

Suddenly his blankets were uncomfortably warm. He kicked them to the base of his bed. He palmed his eyes, pressing his confusion deeper and deeper towards his brain. That could just be a coincidence, but how many times had Arthur let Merlin shroud himself in coincidences? 

Like all other impossibilities, Arthur forced it to the back of his mind and went to sleep. 

 

If Merlin remembered the previous night’s confessions, he didn’t act like it. The manservant groaned and grunted the way he always did when nursing a hangover. His bickering was as constant as ever, but Arthur’s responses were half-hearted. His energy was elsewhere, pushing his new theory to the front of his mind every time he met Merlin’s too-blue eyes. 

“You’re looking at me oddly,” Merlin noted with a hint of reproach, lacing up Arthur’s billowing white tunic. 

“You’re odd-looking,” Arthur retorted, following the script of their friendship with ease. 

Merlin’s eyes reflected suspicion. Luckily, he didn’t question further. 

Arthur felt Merlin’s hands skate over the seams with practiced professionalism and pretended that he was allowed to enjoy Merlin’s close company despite the realizations that ate him from the inside. He pretended not to notice when Merlin’s hands lingered a second too long. They were very used to pretending things of the sort. Besides, he was far too preoccupied. 

It was impossible and preposterous. It also made more sense than anything Arthur had considered in months. The days following the Dragonlord’s death, when Arthur had caught Merlin crying, resonated all too deeply to be forgotten. He had tried to console Merlin, stating that no man was worth his tears, but what if there was a deeper wound? If this was true, Arthur couldn’t ignore it.

Merlin was the son of a Dragonlord. 

Merlin was a Dragonlord.

That opened doors for a million new questions. Did Merlin know? That was foolish, of course he knew . It was one of his many secrets; one that he was determined to keep away from Arthur. It felt like wearing boots that didn’t quite fit. Arthur couldn’t wrap his mind around it. Merlin could talk to Dragons. Had he? When had he? Was that how the dragon was freed? Curiosity choked him. 

He tried to talk to Gwen about it, but she interrupted him before he started.

“Arthur, please. He’s secretive in nature. Whatever it is that he may have said to intrigue you, no matter how impactful, was trusted to you alone. His secrets are his secrets. They belong to him and now you. Not me.”

“But I need to know—”

“Don’t be a fool. If you need something from Merlin, you have to ask him. There’s only one Merlin.” 

She was right in many respects, but her words were easy to say and impossible to execute in practice. He couldn’t just ask Merlin to be honest with him. He’d surely done that a million times before, and little would change if he asked now. He was trapped between the scraps of what he knew and the mountains of what he didn’t. 

 

~ ~ ~

 

Another restless night awaited him. Unlike all other nights, Arthur decided to take a walk into the lower towns. 

The path in front of his feet was a glowing trail and his brain was too foggy to rebel. The air around him smelled of fresh bread and honeysuckle. The darkness around him felt warm and inviting, faintly shimmering gold around the edges. It felt like a blessing and perhaps it was. Arthur didn’t find himself caring. It was like a dream— Like more than a dream. It was like the warm embrace of falling asleep. 

It wasn’t until a sorcerer’s hands were around his throat that he realized his grave mistake. 

The dream broke and reality crashed over him, stinging his skin. The golden clouds fell away. Cold air ripped through him and he couldn’t find enough coherency to fight back. His chest began to constrict. 

“Watching the life flow out of you is the greatest victory of all, your highness,” they hissed, a rough voice full of glee. He didn’t recognize them, but their eyes were glowing red with fierce magic. Arthur’s vision tunneled. “So many others wish they had the honor of killing you. Truth be told, our quarrel was with your damned father, but you’ll do just fine— ” 

All at once, Arthur heard the sorcerer’s sharp intake of breath and suddenly the hands around his throat released him. 

Arthur fell, hitting his head against the cobblestone. He groaned, forcing himself up to his knees, hands bracing the hard earth. A rush of frigid air filled his lungs as he gasped raggedly. It hurt, sharply reviving his clarity, and he knew it would ache for days later. 

Two hands reached out to steady him, and he already knew who they belonged to 

“Arthur, are you okay?” 

Of course Merlin would be there, always around when trouble neared. 

Arthur forced his head up, heaving and taking in the sight of his attacker lying unconscious on the cold ground before him. 

“How…” Arthur wheezed, “How did you…”

“I hit him over the head,” Merlin stated sheepishly, “With a shovel.” 

Arthur shook his head, instantly noting Merlin’s lie. Arthur could see, even in his dazed state, that there was no shovel in sight. That must have been a rushed excuse. Merlin hadn’t hit the sorcerer with anything visible. 

The answer occurred to him like a single wave washing over a sandy shore. Like tiny sparks that chewed up cloth until a fire set ablaze. Dragons were creatures of magic. Merlin was a Dragonlord. 

How does he continuously survive the impossible?

“Lets go, clotpole,”

“Merlin… I know... what you… really did.”

The wind that rustled Arthur’s hair was the only movement in that alleyway. Merlin seemed frozen, just looking down at him with a blank expression. The unmoving nature of it made Arthur’s blood spike. 

Eventually, Merlin sprung back into action, suddenly animated. 

“Alright, your royal dizziness. We need to get you to Gaius to make sure there’s no permanent damage. Can’t have a concussed King, can we?”

Arthur tried to object, but was too lightheaded to form a coherent argument. He coughed, his throat and lungs feeling the true brunt of the attack. It hurt like hell to breathe. He forced himself to focus on that for the time being. 

 

Gaius confirmed that he would have bruising on his windpipe for at least a few days, but his head was fine, that would be the extent of it. He drank some water and caught his breath, ignoring the fact that Merlin hadn’t stopped staring at him since they got there. 

He must have sensed that Arthur figured it out. He must have. 

Merlin escorted Arthur back to his room, both silent on the way. 

Arthur collected his million thoughts. He couldn’t tell if he was sad, angry, or a combination. It was strange to be so out of touch with the overwhelming amount of feelings that ensnared him. The man walking by his side was both a stranger and the one he cared about most. It was a dichotomy he had never known, and it was almost numbing. 

Almost. 

When the doors shut behind them, Merlin spoke first. 

“The sorcerer must have lured you out with a more advanced spell than Gaius had ever seen. With that kind of energy, they were probably not traveling alone. Gaius is telling the guards and tomorrow we’ll send out a search—”

“Merlin,” Arthur halted him, voice thin, “Stop.”

The room was quiet, illuminated by two torches that burned steadily. Outside, they could hear the guards spreading out and overturning barrels. There were distant commands from hallways deep within the castle. They listened to the echoes.  

In the dim light with him was Merlin, the one who was always there. 

“I know you have magic.”

He saw a light of protest in Merlin’s eyes, and waited for Merlin to try talking his way out of it, but then the light dimmed. His eyes were no longer windows into his emotions. Their only use for the moment was to look at Arthur. It had been a long time since Arthur felt seen. 

“How long have you known?”

There it was. No denial, no dancing around it, no swift play of words to deflect from the truth. It was just the two of them and the secret that had been eating away at both of them from the day they met. 

“Not very long.” Arthur said, lowering himself into his dining chair, “You’re a much better liar than I gave you credit for.”

Anxiety flared within Merlin’s features, clear even in the dark. 

“Arthur—”

“You lied to me,” Arthur stated, holding a long pause, “and I understand why.”

That was a turning point that neither of them expected. 

Arthur took a long hard look at himself, through the looking glass of his mind’s eye, and found that he truly did understand. In the grand scheme of things, he knew why Merlin would keep such a secret. In a kingdom where magic is banned, how could he not? The lie hurt because lies were painful by nature, but the lie itself was exactly what it needed to be: survival. As a warrior, Arthur could grasp that. 

“I wanted to tell you,” Merlin admitted quickly, seemingly startled with his sudden ability to voice those words, “so many times, I wanted to.”

Gotta keep you safe. That’s what’s most important.

“I know that,” Arthur replied, “But there’s still so much I don’t.” 

Merlin nodded, still standing.

“What would you like to know?”

“Everything,” Arthur said honestly, “But not tonight.” 

He could feel Merlin’s brain processing this and the unspoken: You aren’t banishing me? Instead Arthur stood up and reached out his hand. It was an oddly simple gesture for the least simple night of Arthur’s life. When Merlin took his hand, Arthur felt the weight of every life saving action, every game changing spell, every upper hand he’d given Arthur in battle, every gesture of protection and love. He felt it in the palm of Merlin’s hand. 

So he used the momentum to pull Merlin into a close embrace. 

This was unfamiliar, but the correct choice. Almost instantly he felt the relief flood Merlin’s shoulders. The truth was more freeing than any lie that survival demanded. Oddly, Arthur couldn’t remember the last time he’d felt that content, now finding solace in the arms of a sorcerer. On his shoulder, he felt Merlin’s hot tears and relieved smile.

It took Arthur an eternity to let go.