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Faithful Are the Wounds of a Friend

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Faithful Are the Wounds of a Friend

Faithful are the wounds of a friend;
but the kisses of an enemy are deceitful.
(Proverbs 27:6 KJV)

Arthur couldn’t unsee it.

It was etched into his mind the way a bright flash of lightning lingers in the eye—a phantom outline floating before him, obscuring every other thought and intensifying when he blinked.

He wondered, afterward, if maybe his mind had been playing tricks on him. After all, he’d just been concussed—again—so that was certainly possible. Merlin had been facing away from Arthur and leaning over the bank of the stream, so he hadn’t known that Arthur had been awake. Merlin had evidently pulled off his tunic—which he never did—to wash Arthur’s blood out of it. Arthur hadn’t been awake long; the effects of the concussion had pulled him back under a moment later. He’d wondered for the next two days if he’d only imagined it.

But then he’d blink, and the image would flash through his mind’s eye, and he would remember the horrible scar on Merlin’s lower back.

No, that’s...that’s impossible, he insisted to himself over and over. Still, the jagged silver lines radiating outward from that scar like bolts of lightning had burned themselves into Arthur’s memory. He needed to know; he needed to understand.

Arthur should have gone straight to Merlin about it. Or straight to Gaius, at least. Yet he couldn’t bring himself to be so direct when all he had to go on was one freshly-concussed memory and an outlandish conclusion to match.

Arthur went to Gwaine instead.

“Fancy a pint?” Arthur asked with a casual shrug after their sparring session the next day as they ambled off the training field together.

Gwaine raised an eyebrow and twirled the sword he carried. “Didn’t take you for a day-drinker, Princess.”

“I’m not—uh, not usually, that is. Figured I should give it a try.”

Gwaine shrugged, unconvinced. “All right, then. Meet you at the tavern in—?”

“No,” Arthur interjected quickly, because Merlin might be in the tavern. “I thought we might drink in your chambers instead?”

Gwaine’s eyebrows climbed higher, but he just tossed his hair out of his face and said, “Sure, why not?”

Arthur barely made it through a pint in Gwaine’s chambers—Since when did he keep a barrel of ale in here?—before he blurted out his question.

“Have you seen Merlin’s scar?”

Gwaine glanced down at his goblet. “From the fire? Yeah, I have,” he murmured, “or at least the upper edge of it. Must’ve hurt for ages; no wonder he doesn’t want to talk about it.”

Arthur scoffed. “There’s no way a fire caused that scar. It was a serket sting, I’m sure of it!”

Gwaine jerked his head up to stare at him. “Are you drunk already? Merlin can’t have been stung by a serket. No one survives a serket sting long enough to get a scar!”

“But I saw it! The gouge itself must be a good two fingers wide, three fingers tall!” Arthur’s rant picked up speed. “And the blackened edges and radiating veins? I’ve seen that pattern on enough men—dead men—to know a serket sting when I see one! What else could—?”

“Whoa,” Gwaine said, holding up his hands as he cut Arthur off. “We are definitely not talking about the same thing here.”

Arthur furrowed his brow. “What were you talking about?”

“The burn scar on his chest.”

“The what?!”

Gwaine drained his goblet in one long gulp before flashing a rueful smile at Arthur. “Seems like our Merlin’s not such an open book after all, is he?”

“Have you seen Merlin’s scars?” Arthur asked Gwen without preamble a few hours later as she dropped by his chambers to pick up his lunch dishes because Merlin had disappeared. Probably to the tavern. Again.

“The scar on his neck?” Gwen asked, glancing up from clearing the table.

“His neck?” he echoed, confused.

She nodded. “Um, well, Gaius didn’t want you to worry at first,” she said, busying her hands and avoiding eye contact, “but I didn’t realize you still didn’t know. I just assumed Merlin would’ve told you when you noticed.”

“He didn’t tell me,” Arthur said because it hurt less than admitting ‘I never noticed.’ “Care to enlighten me?”

“It looks really bad, doesn’t it? It was from the fomorroh.” Gwen’s eyes met his and darted away again. “He says it doesn’t hurt, but I can understand why he’d prefer to keep it hidden under his scarf like he does.”

Arthur’s mind had gotten stuck on scar and neck and worry. “What’s a fomorroh?”

“It’s, uh, a snake. Or a snake-like thing. It, um, controls people’s minds.”

“When,” Arthur said, carefully and calmly and with remarkable self-restraint, “did Merlin have a mind-controlling snake in his neck?”

Gwen chewed her lip. “...Two months ago?”

“Two months?!”

“Did you know about Merlin’s scars?” Arthur asked Leon after the council meeting later that afternoon.

“No, but from the stories I heard,” Leon said, “I confess I’d be surprised if he didn’t have some.”

“What stories? He shouldn’t even have survived long enough to scar.”

Leon stared at him, utterly taken aback. “I didn’t realize you’d meant to kill him.”

“That I what?” Arthur squawked.

Leon took a step back. “Forgive me, my lord. Based on what I’d heard from the other knights at the time, I presumed you’d merely meant to teach him a lesson or something—”

“Leon,” Arthur interrupted. “What on earth are you talking about?”

Leon shifted his weight. “ mace fight in the market?”

“I didn’t—!” Arthur floundered. “I hit him with a broom. I didn’t even hit him with the mace, and I certainly never aimed to kill!”

Leon blinked at him. “A broom, sire?”

“A broom,” Arthur repeated, leaving no room for ambiguity on the point. “He would’ve had some ugly welts at most. Certainly no scars.”

“Then forgive me, my lord, but why are you asking about scars?”

“Because, apparently, Merlin has scars from a serket sting, a serious fire”—he counted them off on his fingers as he spoke—“and also the time someone shoved a mind-controlling snake in his neck.”

“A what?

Arthur cornered Elyan and Percival in the armory before supper that evening. “Did you know about Merlin’s scars?”

Percival glanced at Elyan and nodded, eyes sad. “They must’ve been painful. I think I’d want to wear sleeves, too, after something like that, or at least until they’d healed properly.”

“Sleeves?” Arthur said, then thought, Let’s skip the tail-chasing. “I’m talking about the burn on his chest, the fomorroh scar on his neck, and the serket sting on his lower back.”

“A serket?!” Elyan exclaimed, and Percival dropped the knife he’d been sharpening.

“Yes.” Arthur sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose. “Now, which scars were you talking about?”

Elyan shook his head as though to clear it before answering Arthur’s questions. “I didn’t know about any of those,” he said thickly.

Percival nodded, eyes sadder than before and voice subdued. “We meant the ones on his upper arms,” he said, gesturing vaguely at his triceps. “His shirtsleeves got torn during a bandit attack last month. Saw the...saw the lines through the gaps.”

Last month? How did I miss that?

Elyan nodded, jaw tight. “I offered to help him stitch up the fresh gash above them, but he rebuffed my offer.”

What do you mean ‘fresh gash’? A new knot of guilt twisted in Arthur’s stomach to match the one wrapped tightly around his heart ever since he’d seen that first scar. How did I not know about any of these?

Oblivious to Arthur’s mounting distress, Percival picked up the knife he’d dropped and resumed his pensive sharpening as he continued, “He claimed it was just a scratch and he’d tend to it himself, then ran off to treat Sir Bertrand’s leg before we could ask him about it.”

Elyan nodded. “We didn’t get a good look, so I’m not even sure how bad they were. He clearly didn’t want to tell us, and we didn’t want to push him.”

“We tried to talk to him about it later,” Percival said, “but he got twitchy and started making strange excuses, so we let it drop.”

“If they’d been recent, we wouldn’t have given up so easily,” Elyan added quickly. “But if we’d known about the rest…”

“What kind of scars?” Arthur interrupted, compartmentalizing the guilt in his stomach away from the guilt in his chest as he refocused on the primary issue.

“It was hard to tell, exactly,” Elyan admitted. “There was a lot of fresh blood, but it was still pretty clear that they weren’t ordinary battle scars, if that’s what you’re asking.”

A lot of fresh blood? Arthur thought before he compartmentalized that worry, too.

Percival nodded and cleared his throat. “If I had to guess, I’d say chains.”

“Chains,” Arthur deadpanned because he hadn’t realized the situation could get more surreal...until it did.

“Or maybe ropes,” Percival added seriously, anger creeping into his voice. “Whatever it was, it couldn’t have been accidental. Someone did that to him on purpose a long time ago.”

“Right,” Arthur agreed because he honestly didn’t know what else to say. Chains, seriously?

The knot in Arthur’s stomach grew.

Arthur paced in his chambers that night, taking advantage of the solitude because Merlin was apparently still in the tavern.

Did I really miss all of those injuries? he wondered for the hundredth time. He knew he could be oblivious at times—Merlin mocked him for it often enough—but how could he have missed kidnapping and torture? Because there’s no other scenario where chains could leave scars like that.

Arthur paused to stare into the fire as he rifled through his memories and came up blank. The only kidnapping he could think of was the one Gwen had just told him about, but she hadn’t mentioned any other scars besides the one from the fomorroh, and Merlin hadn’t reacted in pain when Arthur had squeezed him in a tight hug after finding him in that bog.

But what other explanation could there be? Arthur wondered. What if I didn’t miss it? What if all of it happened before Merlin came to Camelot? Percival and Elyan said the scars looked old...

Arthur started pacing again. 

It’s possible, he mused. That theory might explain why his servant—friend—seemed utterly unafraid to fling himself into danger at Arthur’s side, despite his lack of armor and less-than-knightly swordsmanship. He’s already survived far worse.

But that theory didn’t ease Arthur’s mind. Instead, it raised a new question.

How, for the love of Camelot, did a scrawny farm boy from the fringes of Essetir end up with enough scars to horrify battle-hardened knights of Camelot?

And, worst of all, Arthur still couldn’t explain the serket sting; the black-ringed pockmark and silvery lightning-shaped tendrils haunted his vision every time he blinked.

The following night, Arthur stood staring out of his window as Merlin bustled about, tidying Arthur’s chambers after being inexplicably absent for a day and a half. As Merlin folded and put away a basket of clean laundry, Arthur watched Merlin’s reflection in the leaded glass panes. There was no sign of any lingering injuries: no limping, no range of motion limitations as he performed his duties, and no out-of-the-ordinary scars on his hands, forearms, or head. If Arthur hadn’t seen the serket scar for himself, if he didn’t trust Guinevere and his inner circle of knights, then he’d never have believed that Merlin could be hiding anything so grim—so unspeakable—beneath his tunics and ubiquitous scarves.

Arthur made up his mind.

Still looking out the window, still secretly watching Merlin’s reaction, Arthur said, “You know, Merlin, I’m beginning to think you’re immortal.”

Merlin visibly stiffened, still holding a half-folded tunic, but his reply wasn’t what Arthur expected. “Did you eat a random mushroom on patrol this morning, sire?” his servant asked with an exasperated huff. “Gaius always says never to eat a mushroom you can’t identify.”

“What?” Arthur asked, thrown by the change of topic, even as he continued to watch Merlin and marvel at the contrast between Merlin’s easy reply and his wary stance. “I didn’t eat any mushrooms.”

“Well, how else do you explain the nonsense you’re spouting?”

Arthur turned from the window and fixed Merlin with a pointed glare. “How else do you explain having a scar from a serket’s sting?”

Merlin froze. “What?” he asked, going pale in the firelight.

The fear in Merlin’s eyes caught Arthur by surprise. He’s the bravest man I know; is talking about it really worse than living through it?

“The scar on your back,” Arthur said, shifting into the tone he reserved for flighty horses and frightened children. “I saw it earlier this week when you were washing my blood out of your shirt. Bit ironic, really.”

Merlin didn’t laugh.

Arthur continued his soothing tone as he crossed the room one slow step at a time. “So I’ve spent the past week thinking”—Arthur took a breath to leave space for the obvious jokes, but none came—“about how it couldn’t be possible. Guinevere and the knights can’t figure it out, either.”

“Gwen and the knights?” Merlin whispered, looking like he might bolt or pass out at any moment.

Honestly, Arthur thought, this isn’t going how I expected...but it’s Merlin, so I guess that’s not surprising. Aloud he said, “For the love of Camelot, Merlin, sit down before you faint like a damsel in a corset.”

Merlin sat, placing the half-folded tunic off to the side with trembling hands, and Arthur sat across from him.

“Was it a serket?”


Arthur cursed colorfully in his head, but he held it together for Merlin’s sake. “When...uh, when did it happen?” Arthur asked. Please say before Camelot. Please say before—

“Last year,” Merlin said, eyes fixed on the table.

“Last year?” Arthur blurted, then chided himself for losing control. He took a deep breath. “When, last year, exactly?” And how did I not know?

“I...uh, you know when I was gone, a couple of days? Shortly after Morgana came back, I mean?”

Arthur racked his brain. Morgana came back, my father was enchanted and temporarily lost his mind, and then Camelot was attacked. “I...had a lot on my plate at the time. You’ll have to be a bit more specific.”

Merlin rolled his eyes. “Morgana came back; I went missing; your chambers were a disaster when I came back. You asked where I’d been ‘without your permission.’”

It all clicked. “You’d said…” Arthur swallowed. “You’d said you were dying.”

Merlin glanced up at him before his eyes flicked away. “I wasn’t lying about that.”

Arthur knew about the serket now, but he still didn’t understand. “How? How are you not dead?”

Merlin picked at a scuff on the table. “I, uh, I don’t know.”

He’s lying, Arthur realized with a start. He wouldn’t have thought Merlin capable of such casual deception if he hadn’t just seen the disconnect reflected in the window panes. He wouldn’t have believed it if Merlin hadn’t just said he hadn’t been lying ‘about that,’ as though he had plenty of other things to lie about.

“Anyway,” Merlin continued, looking up and flashing Arthur a goofy smile, “I survived and I cleaned up the mess you’d made of your chambers in the meantime, so I don’t suppose it really matters at this point, does it? Actually, how did you make such a mess in—?”

Arthur wasn’t going to take the bait, and he wasn't going to let this slide.


Merlin’s brows rose. “What?”

“No. You do not get to change the subject. Not about this.”

“What are you—?”

Merlin!” Arthur pushed back from the table and stood. “You nearly died—by all rights, you should have died—and I. Didn’t. Even. Know!” He wasn’t sure when he’d started pacing during his outburst, but he turned back in time to see a shattered expression on Merlin’s face.

That’s what you’re upset about?”

Arthur glared at him. “You nearly died, and you didn’t think I’d want to know that?”

“I did tell you!” Merlin argued.

“But you made it a joke!” Arthur retorted. “That’s not the same as saying, ‘Oh, I got stung by a serket and miraculously survived. Want to see my scar?’”

Merlin slouched in his seat. “Would you have believed me if I’d said that?” he asked tiredly.

Oh. Arthur hated that he knew the answer, and he hated that he knew Merlin knew the answer, too. “Is that why you never told me about the others?”

“The others? What others?” Merlin frowned. “I’ve only been stung by a serket once—and once was enough for a lifetime, thank you very much.”

Arthur crossed his arms. This is ridiculous. “The other scars, Merlin.”

Merlin’s eyes widened, and Arthur watched in fascinated horror as his servant—his friend—lied through his teeth as easy as breathing. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Gwaine would say otherwise.”

Merlin rolled his eyes. “Was he day-drinking again?”

“No! Yes! That’s beside the point,” Arthur retorted. “He told me about the burn.”

Merlin stilled.

Arthur kept going. “And Guinevere told me about the fomorroh, and Elyan and Percival told me about the chains, or ropes, or whatever the people who tortured you used.”

“That’s ridiculous,” Merlin scoffed.

Arthur narrowed his eyes. “Are you calling Guinevere and the knights liars?”

Merlin backpedaled. “Not liars! Of course not! Maybe they’re just mistaken? Misguided? Misunderstood?” He smiled, lopsided, but this time Arthur could see it didn’t reach his eyes.

“Why, for the love of Camelot, didn’t you tell someone?” Arthur threaded his fingers in his hair and turned away. He hated the way his voice cracked as he said, “We’re your friends, and you didn’t tell us about any of it.” He dropped his hands and turned back to Merlin. “Why?”

Merlin wouldn’t meet his eyes. “Because there’s nothing to tell.”

“Besides the serket, you mean.”

“Besides the serket,” Merlin amended.

“You’re lying.”

“I’m not.” Merlin’s voice took on a hard, brittle edge.

“Then prove it.”

Merlin jerked his head up. “What?”

“Prove it,” Arthur repeated, enunciating slowly. “Take off your tunic and show me that they were mistaken.”


“If you’re telling me the truth, then you’ve nothing else to hide. I’ve already seen the serket scar.”

“No,” Merlin sputtered. “You can’t order me to take off my clothes! That’s got to be some heinous breach of the knight’s code and—”

Arthur took a deep breath as an idea occurred to him. It was a terrible idea—a bluff that might ruin everything—but he needed to know the truth. He needed to be able to look at Merlin and trust him again.

Arthur interrupted Merlin’s ongoing-and-probably-valid rant about professionalism and interpersonal boundaries. “I’m not ordering you to do anything. I’m giving you a choice: either take off your tunic and settle the issue, or leave my service.”

“What?” Devastation pooled in Merlin’s eyes and threatened to spill over. He blinked quickly, then cleared his throat. “If I…if I do that…”

Please don’t call my bluff, Arthur silently pleaded, even as he elaborated, “If you choose the latter, I’ll give you a good recommendation so you can find other employment.”

“You might end up making me leave either way,” Merlin murmured, “...or worse.”

Arthur had no idea what to make of that, but he didn’t have time to dwell on it. Merlin rose from his seat as though in a trance. Arthur couldn’t guess whether he was about to comply with Arthur’s demand or turn to leave instead—turn to leave and maybe never come back.

“Arthur,” Merlin began, and his words were so quiet and fragile that Arthur nearly missed them. “You’re going to have questions. Questions I can’t answer. Questions you wouldn’t like the answers to.”

The knots around Arthur’s heart and in his stomach tightened. “I already have unanswered questions, remember?”

Merlin nodded and turned away. Just when Arthur was sure he was going to run—that Merlin was going to run and leave Arthur, leave Camelot, leave his friends with horrible questions and no answers—Merlin reached for the knot on his scarf and untied it with trembling hands. Before Arthur could process the lateral scar on Merlin’s neck, Merlin untied his belt, then reached for the collar of his tunic and pulled it off over his head.

Arthur gaped.

It wasn’t just the serket’s scar, though that was just as awful as he remembered. It was the rest, separately and all together. He recognized the formorrah scar from Guinevere’s description. He recognized the scars that Elyan and Percival had seen, running in narrow bands around and around Merlin’s back and shoulders where chains had once bound him. He recognized a dozen other scars from knives and swords and blunt trauma of all sorts, too, because he’d seen ones just like them on battle-hardened knights.

“Arthur?” Merlin asked, uncertainty and fear warring in his voice.

“Turn around,” Arthur said gruffly past the lump in his throat.

Merlin turned. It was worse than Arthur had expected. The burn Gwaine had glimpsed covered most of Merlin’s sternum. He recognized the scar on Merlin’s left shoulder—fainter than he’d expected—from the mace wound two months prior. That’s the only one of these injuries I knew about when it happened, he thought bitterly as he surveyed the extensive damage on Merlin’s chest, feeling nauseous. And to think I was proud when he got his first battle wound.

In that moment, he would have given anything to take back that stupid remark all those years ago because it was painfully clear that Merlin’s wounds had escalated exponentially from there. He couldn’t even identify which of the many scars on Merlin’s arms had belonged to that first cut. He recognized the chain marks again, though, along with plenty of other scars scattered haphazardly, probably from glancing blows from swords or knives during the numerous bandit attacks and various assaults on the citadel since the idiot refused to wear any sort of armor.

In the midst of it all, Arthur’s attention settled on a recent cut, shallow but not fully healed, in the middle of the burn scar on Merlin’s chest.

“That one,” he managed at last, pointing. “It’s recent. What was it?”

Merlin glanced down as though he didn’t know which one Arthur meant, and Arthur’s stomach twisted again at the implication.

“That one?” Merlin asked, pointing at it.

Arthur nodded.

“It was…” Merlin closed his eyes. “Morgana,” he said after a moment. “Morgana did that.”

When had Merlin encountered Morgana in recent weeks? “When?” he asked through gritted teeth. “How?”

“Um, a knife,” Merlin said, as though that wasn’t obvious. “At the Ridge of Chemary when Gaius was abducted.”

“How are you alive?” Why didn’t she kill you if she had the chance?

Merlin huffed an incredulous laugh. “I keep asking myself the same thing.”

“I’m serious, Merlin.”

Merlin looked away. “Alator. The man who’d...who’d tortured Gaius for Morgana. He turned on Morgana and saved my life.”

That was...a lot to process. If Morgana abducted Gaius, then why didn’t he say so when I asked him afterwards? He settled on the second part of Merlin’s mind-boggling assertion. “Why? Why did he help you?”

Merlin looked away. “You don’t want me to answer that.”

“I really think I do.”

“No, you really don’t,” Merlin said, and there was steel running through his voice which Arthur had never heard from him before. “You don’t, because it will change everything.”

“You don’t know that,” Arthur said with courage he definitely didn’t feel. “Why did he turn on Morgana to save your life?”

Merlin looked at him searchingly. “Will you...will you promise me something?”

“I can’t promise without knowing what I’m agreeing to,” Arthur replied, the knot in his stomach shifting from guilt and worry to fear at the desperation—no, not desperation, it’s bordering on despair—in Merlin’s voice.

Merlin held his gaze. “Promise that you’ll make it quick and that you won’t let anyone tell my mother until after.” He sucked in a stuttering breath. “I don’t want her to have to watch me burn. Promise me.”

Burn? The word exploded in Arthur’s shocked mind like a wall shattered by a catapult assault. “You think I’m going to kill you?” he choked out. “Merlin, look at me. There’s no way the answer to a simple question could make me execute you.”

“You’d be surprised,” Merlin muttered, then repeated, “Promise me. Please. If not for my sake, at least for hers. None of it is her fault.”

“I promise I’m not going to execute you.”

“That’s not what I asked,” Merlin said, steel undergirding his words again. “Promise me that if you kill me, you’ll make it quick and you won’t let her—or Gaius—watch.”

“I promise,” Arthur said, “but it’s not going to come to that. Just answer the question.”

Merlin bowed his head. “Alator intervened...because I have magic, too.”

Arthur blinked at him. “You what?”

“I have magic,” Merlin repeated, stronger this time, “and I’ve used it to protect you ever since I came to Camelot.”

When Arthur couldn’t find the words to form a suitable response—For the love of Camelot, I’ve no idea what would remotely resemble a suitable response!—Merlin launched into an explanation.

“That’s why I didn’t tell you—or Gwen, or the others—about anything they didn’t see for themselves. That’s why I hid! I couldn’t very well say, ‘Oh, I got hit by a fireball in a fight with a sorceress before killing her and resurrecting Gaius by mastering the power of life and death!’”

His diatribe picked up speed even as Arthur’s mind reeled.

“And I couldn’t very well say, ‘Oh, I thwarted Morgause’s attempt to take over Camelot by poisoning Morgana, so Morgause bound me in magical chains and left me for the serkets to finish off, but guess what? I’m not dead because a dragon healed me!’”

Arthur felt dizzy. He needed to sit down, and he needed Merlin to stop talking so he could think for just one moment. He was denied both as Merlin barreled on.

“I couldn’t exactly say ‘Morgana put a fomorroh in my neck, but it’s gone now because I stole the mother beast from her and destroyed it with magic!’ If I’d intended to tell you all about that right afterwards, I would’ve just skipped the stupid aging spell and the whirlwind fight with Morgana.” Merlin laughed, half-hysterical. “It would’ve been a much simpler solution just to tell you in advance and let you lop my head off. No more formorroh, no more warlock. Two birds, one stone, right?”

Arthur needed to sit down. He fumbled for a chair and collapsed into it under the deluge of paradigm-altering revelations, but Merlin hardly seemed to notice as he continued without waiting for an answer.

“And I couldn’t exactly tell you, ‘Morgana abducted Gaius because she wanted information about me, not Camelot, and then she didn’t kill me because I’m Emrys and Alator—and the rest of the Catha, apparently—wanted to pledge fealty to me.’”

Maybe I really did eat a mushroom this morning, Arthur thought faintly. How else could he explain the impossibilities pouring out of Merlin’s mouth?

Merlin wasn’t quite finished, and his next words turned biting and caustic. “Of course, I couldn’t tell you any of that, not when you didn’t even believe me when I told you about Agravaine.” Merlin ran a hand through his hair as he finally seemed to notice Arthur slumped at the table. Merlin dropped into the chair across from him and, with bland resignation, concluded his monologue with one last revelation. “Agravaine’s a traitor and in league with Morgana, by the way.”

Arthur just stared blankly at Merlin.

Merlin looked away. “Can I put my shirt back on now, sire?”

That finally snapped Arthur out of his mental spiral. “You have magic.”

Merlin huffed a bitter laugh as he tugged his tunic back over his head. “I thought I made that part pretty clear.”

“You have magic, and you’re not trying to bring down the kingdom.” You’re not trying to kill me, he didn’t add.

Merlin glared at him. “I’ve put far too much effort into preserving Camelot to betray her.” In Merlin’s glare, Arthur read what Merlin hadn’t said: ‘I would never betray you, you prat.

Arthur nodded, silently acknowledging the truth in that glared promise. That...that was something they could build on. Betrayals—like Morgana’s, and apparently Agravaine’s—were near-impossible to repair, but the damage from an ever-loyal friend’s lies could be healed...even if such lies might leave behind some scars.

He gestured to the scars he now knew lay beneath Merlin’s tunic, proof of his friend’s loyalty and bravery. “Tell me more about the fealty bit.”

Merlin groaned. “That’s the part you want to focus on? Really?”

Arthur couldn’t help the laugh that bubbled up at the utter dismay in Merlin’s voice. It was a balm on the open wounds between them because it was just so Merlin. In spite of everything, he was still Merlin.

Maybe, Arthur thought, these lies won’t scar after all.