They were only setting up camp, or better, he was. Alone. Because apparently knights of Camelot were too above crouching down to set a handful of bedrolls on the uneven, humid, cold ground.
Honestly, Merlin wasn't sure why he even bothered anymore. Maybe old habits die hard. The King sure didn't seem excited about it. Not that anything Merlin did recently got him excited anymore.
"Merlin, tone it down." Arthur said, exasperation clear in his voice.
"Tone what down, sire?"
"Your…" Arthur gesticulated aggressively with his hands, "magic."
There you go.
"I was just setting up camp," he protested, knowing full well his King wouldn't accept his motives.
"Do it the normal way, like you've always done." Arthur couldn't even look him in the eyes anymore.
"But this way is easi—"
"I don't care." He hissed and Merlin froze. The rest of the knights, their friends, were openly staring now, and Merlin's shame was eating him up inside. "Just—don't use that."
He couldn't even say it properly.
"Aye, your majesty." Merlin nodded, and he saw Arthur's eyebrows twitch at the way Merlin addressed him. "As you wish."
Jaw set, he went for his bag to grab the fire kindler, cursing the universe mentally. What use had it been, revealing his magic to save Arthur, have him learn that not all magic is evil but it can be used for good, have him then take down Uther's banishment, only to not be able to use it freely and as he wished? He was the court sorcerer now, for God's sake.
What problem did Arthur have with Merlin? Because it had to be personal. Arthur was delighted by magic, accepted it easier than Merlin could have ever dreamed, but when it came to Merlin…
If the bonfire had suddenly caught on fire before Merlin could bring the kindling rocks anywhere near it, it wasn't his fault.
Arthur refrained from looking his way for the rest of the night, and Merlin barely got any sleep, his heart heavy from being chastised without knowing why. Which was what actually bothered him. If he knew what had gotten Arthur in this state, if he could understand what was troubling his King, then maybe he wouldn’t feel like his hands were tied.
But he was spiraling down in complete darkness, without the faintest idea why.
As morning came around, Merlin stubbornly avoided everyone's eyes. He didn't want to talk about it, didn't want to deal with any of it, didn’t want their pity. He knew the knights would try coaxing Merlin's feelings out of him, especially Gwaine, and he also knew he was bad at keeping his troubles in.
Merlin was going to spill, he knew that. It was just a matter of time.
He just wanted to get back to Camelot as quickly as possible so he could hole up in his chambers for at least a couple of hours before he was off to try and save Arthur's ungrateful arse.
By midday, Merlin’s predictions came true, and he was approached by Gwaine. His friend had an apologetic smile on his face as he moved his horse to the back of their group to join Merlin.
"What a beautiful day, isn't it?"
Merlin looked up, and from the few cracks above the treetops that were giving them shelter, he could see the sky heavy with dark clouds. Merlin scoffed, fitted perfectly with his mood.
Gwaine sagged, "Eh, worth a try."
The knight tried to draw Merlin into three more conversations about the weather, two about the creature Merlin killed not 48 hours ago, and another one about magic. Slowly but surely, as the—mostly one sided—conversation flowed, Merlin found himself less tense.
This was why Gwaine was his favorite.
They stumbled upon a lake just as the sun began to set, shifting the skies into a pink gradient. It was beautiful, the way the water reflected those hues, swinging slightly from one side to the other due to the faint breeze in the air. Arthur, at the front of their party, decided to make camp right at its shore, in a small clearing between the lake and the denser part of the forest.
They all set out to do their own thing, then, and for a while, there was light chatter as the knights stretched from the ride, muffled and comfortable to Merlin’s ears. He managed to find a surviving apple deep inside a saddle pack, and his stomach growled at the sight.
Taking a bite, Merlin watched as Elyan, Leon and Arthur swiftly took off their clothes for a dive in the freezing water. Spring was only now beginning to settle in, so even though birds were already chirping and waking up after a long, dark winter, the temperature hadn’t climbed enough to stop the chills at night. He couldn’t imagine how cold the water would feel.
Merlin knew which warming spell he could use to make the lake water more bearable for his friends, but then—Arthur had made it clear he didn't want Merlin using magic around him… [too bad for his King.]
That didn't stop Merlin from using his magic on their new temporary camp like he always did when Arthur wasn't looking. Percival had volunteered to go get some wood for the fire, which left only Gwaine by his side as he chanted the ancient words.
Gwaine, as the good friend he was—something that couldn't be said about certain people—didn't even bat his eyes at Merlin's trick, and watched, enchanted, as every bedroll undid itself in a circle around the firepit. He let out a happy sound and sat down on the closest mat.
"Listen, about yesterday," Gwaine started and dragged Merlin by his forearm to sit down by his side. Merlin sighed, shifting on the mat. He would like very much to feign ignorance about the topic, but one look at Gwaine's worried face made him bite back his snarky comeback. Instead, he nodded. "You just gotta give him time."
His eyebrows twitched. "I have been giving him time for nine years, Gwaine." He dared a look at his friends on the lake and watched bitterly as Elyan and Arthur ganged up against Leon, both splashing copious amounts of water at him. It was unfair, how relaxed Arthur looked near the other knights. There were no hard lines on his shoulders, he was the most carefree Merlin had seen him since… he couldn’t remember.
Merlin’s chest constricted when Arthur let out a barking laugh, and suddenly he wished he could have that power over Arthur again. To make Arthur smile for him once more.
"Exactly my point." Gwaine nodded, bringing Merlin back to their conversation. "It's only been a couple of months since he learned about your magic."
"But he's fine with every kind of magic, except mine."
Gwaine patted Merlin on the back. "There's a reason for that, I gather. But our King is the only one who can tell you why."
When did Gwaine become so wise?
"Arthur doesn't even look me in the eye, how do you expect us to have a chat?"
Gwaine shrugged. “Maybe ask him that.” And he laid back on the bedroll, hands behind his head, and Merlin knew that the conversation was now over.
Merlin made a frustrated noise and groaned, leaning his forehead onto his knees. That would do no good, he knew that. Arthur was the king (how ironic, Merlin snorted) of running away from difficult conversations. To get him to speak his mind about something that was bothering him wasn't hard, no, but it took a while to get it out of him.
If Merlin tried to confront him, Arthur would bolt, Merlin knew Arthur enough to know he would prefer getting Merlin as far away as possible. He'd thrown Merlin in the stables to wash the horses, wash all of Arthur's bedsheets, polish his armor, anything to get Merlin away, to keep him from digging the truth.
It hurt, though, and Merlin hated that getting Arthur on friendlier terms mattered so much to him.
Merlin’s mind was swirling, it seemed, because he didn’t notice Arthur walking past them until he was right beside him. The expression on his face felt like daggers to Merlin’s soul. Cold, closed and distant. A far cry from how he looked back in the lake.
It looked just like the one he wore two weeks ago, right before this quest began.
A court sorcerer's job was mostly the same as every other counselor in court. Of course, as a sorcerer you dealt with magical problems on your day to day, but when you broke it down to its basics, it was the same.
Except nothing could be that easy in Camelot. At least not when it came to magic.
Merlin could feel the beginning of a headache forming behind his temples and he bit down a sigh. Arthur kept on talking, and didn't give Merlin time enough to gather himself to speak.
He’d been trying to get a word edgewise for what felt like hours, but still his King wouldn’t stop coming with theories on his own. The two of them were alone in Arthur's chambers, a feat that hadn’t happened in a long time, but with the events of the past few days, it seemed wise they spoke alone.
“It’s so strange,” Arthur was muttering, “Doesn’t make any sense. George was always such a good servant.” He stopped and looked directly at Merlin. “Do you think he got tired of his job?”
“No, Sire, I’m sure he loves serving you. But—”
“Right.” Arthur nodded, cutting Merlin, “Because it’s a good job, Merlin, you’re the only servant I’ve had that loathed it.” He bit his lip, deep in thought. “So it makes no sense why he’s suddenly attacking me.”
“Sire, if you could just—”
“Just give me a second, Merlin, I’m in the middle of something.” Arthur proceeded to ignore him, pacing the distance from his dining table to the fireplace, and then back again. He was murmuring now. “Could he be enchanted? But he doesn’t seem enchanted. Well—it’s not like I know much about enchantments—that’s why I have you, Mer lin.” He gave Merlin a stink eye and Merlin wasn’t sure how Arthur managed to turn that phrase into an insult, but he did and Merlin had enough.
"Arthur, shut up." Arthur clasped his mouth shut and stopped in his tracks. "Sire." Merlin added belatedly. He was glad they were alone in Arthur's chambers right now, or Arthur would never have let Merlin get away with it. “It’s called the Fomorroh.”
“The what?” Arthur didn’t sound convinced.
"Just listen to me for five seconds, alright?" Merlin continued, gentler this time. When Arthur pursed his lips to speak, Merlin continued. "I'm the expert on this, sire, I've dealt with a Fomorroh before. You've got to let me speak and you've got to listen."
Arthur’s shoulders went stiff as Merlin words hung around them, but Merlin held his ground, waiting.
"Right, of course," Arthur said, nodding shortly. "Please, go on."
Merlin eyed him for a moment, wondering what got him to act so oddly, but quickly filled the heavy silence with everything he knew. He told Arthur all about the creature, both Gaius’ point of view and his own, when he was under the creature's power, not leaving anything out. He had promised never to hide anything from Arthur after revealing his magic, and the least he could do was to keep his promises.
Arthur's face got paler as Merlin went on. His lips set on a thin line, his eyes rigid. It was unsettling, seeing Arthur so cold and distant, and, Merlin realized, it’s been the longest he had ever seen him silent.
Arthur snapped out of it and gave Merlin a strange look, one Merlin’ had never seen directed at him before. Like Arthur was seeing him for the first time. He blinked slowly before walking towards Merlin, cautious.
"When did this happen?" His voice was low, almost there, but so frigid that Merlin felt his chest seizing.
"Almost four years ago now, sire."
Arthur’s eyes widened in shock before he could school his features into another frown. This time, though, he was simmering in anger.
"And you didn't tell me?"
Merlin shook his head. "We didn’t want to involve you on the matter.”
Arthur scoffed. “You didn’t think it was important to tell me?” he spat.
Merlin shook his head, feeling confused by Arthur’s sudden rage but not liking any of it. “No, that wasn’t—”
Arthur raised a hand, cutting off what Merlin was saying instantly. He breathed in deeply, closing his eyes before exhaling slowly, something Arthur had told Merlin he learned months ago that helped him manage his anger. When he opened them again, Merlin could only see pained acceptance in those blue irises he so loved.
“We’ll be leaving at dawn.” Arthur commanded, his voice lacking emotion, which wrecked something inside Merlin. “We’ll meet by the first gate.”
“Good night, Merlin.”
Merlin woke up at some point in the night. It had been happening a lot recently, but he blamed Leon snoring on the bedroll next to him and on the solid ground, this time. He opened his eyes slowly and watched the dim fire illuminate the sleeping forms of his friends. It was peaceful, this late at night. No sound of conversation, no threat for them to face, only the silence of the forest, and the constant movement from the lake.
He turned on his side, facing away from the knights and into the vast expanse of the lake, because surely the small waves hitting the shore would hopefully be enough to get him to doze off once more. As he turned, his eyes caught on a silhouette standing near the waves, looking up at the sky.
Not just anyone.
He would know that back anywhere.
Merlin’s heartbeat got faster, but he knew what he had to do, and it wasn’t letting Arthur stargaze alone.
He got to his feet.
“They are beautiful tonight, sire.” He kept his voice low so as not to wake up their friends.
If Arthur was surprised by Merlin’s presence, he didn’t show. Instead he nodded without looking down.
“You’d think with those clouds this morning, we would have a very different night.”
Merlin agreed, “We can't predict every outcome.”
Arthur glanced at him from the corner of his eyes and nodded.
They stood in silence, sharing each other's warmth under the chilly midnight breeze. Merlin's magic begged to wrap itself around Arthur, to shield him from the cold, but Merlin held it back instead. He closed his eyes and pleaded to his magic to cease trying.
It wouldn't be welcomed by Arthur.
Arthur faced Merlin then, after what felt like hours, but couldn't have been more than a handful of minutes. Time spent around Arthur always felt stretched, longer, as though Merlin could make every second count in his presence.
And maybe he did.
In the dim light, Arthur's blue eyes were deep, dark, only illuminated by the faint light of the fire and the shine from the countless stars. It was breathtaking, and Merlin got so lost in Arthur, he almost missed when he spoke.
"Thank you for killing the Fomorroh." He sounded more alive than Merlin had heard in weeks. Even if 'alive' meant it was tinged with melancholy. "You did good." He nodded in appreciation.
And although Arthur had turned his face straight ahead towards the other side of the lake, Merlin couldn't help smiling at his King, even if Arthur would never see. That blossomed something hopeful and tentative in the pit of his stomach.
Merlin knew it sounded bad, but he never expected a thanks after doing his job. After years doing it behind everyone's back, he forgot how good it felt to be seen for the good you did. And despite their situation, the rift between them, Arthur was grateful for something Merlin did. That was one of the greatest feelings.
Merlin shook his head and shrugged, still flying the high of being complimented, "It was nothing." He waved a hand.
Arthur clicked his tongue and turned back to Merlin, a frown in his face.
"It's not nothing, Merlin, it's—" Arthur set his jaw, his lips thinning. "Nevermind." He shook his head.
That was his cue. Now, in the middle of the night while their friends were asleep. A day away from Camelot, to their other duties that would keep them busy from this important conversation. It was now or never.
"Arthur, what's wrong?" When Arthur didn't answer him, he marched on in hushed tones. "You've been acting strange for a while now."
Arthur sighed and looked at Merlin with convoluted eyes, as if he was battling himself right there. His eyes flicked towards their camp before he shook his head. "It's nothing, don't worry."
"But you can talk to me, sire, you know you can."
Arthur shook his head and turned towards the lake again, cutting Merlin from his line of sight. His shoulders tensed once more, and Merlin itched to soothe it with his hands, make Arthur relax under his touch, and draw him into a comforting hug.
But he refrained from doing so and kept his hands to himself.
"Go back to bed, Merlin, we have a long day ahead of us if we want to arrive at Camelot before dusk."
Merlin nodded silently and walked back to camp, feeling strangely empty. A part of himself stuck by Arthur's side.
The sorcerer who had caused the recent attacks on Camelot wasn't very good at hiding their tracks, and the moment the knights locked into it, following hadn't been hard.
Merlin spent the entire trip trying to understand the sorcerer’s plans. What had been their goal? Slipping a Fomorroh’s head on one of Arthur’s servants, for what purpose?
Well, the purpose was clear. But why?
Many moons had passed since Arthur lifted the ban on magic, everyone must have heard of it by now. And those who still hadn’t, soon learned by either Merlin or Arthur himself, and immediately stopped the attacks.
It hadn’t been this sorcerer’s case, though, because they didn’t cease their attacks after Merlin tried to reason.
In the end, it didn’t matter, not for the time being at least. With or without a goal, a servant was still suffering under the spell of the Fomorroh, and Merlin couldn’t stand by that. They should focus on killing the creature.
The tracks took them directly into a cave with intricate paths that, if not careful, could easily trap a wanderer. It wasn’t so in their case, though, since the tracks they were following were still clear. It was dark, but with an easy spell conjured under his breath, Merlin created three magic orbs to illuminate their way.
As soon as he did that, he realized they walked into a trap.
“Take cover!” Arthur shouted, and the knights quickly followed suit.
They were surrounded by bandits. The sorcerer stood by the far corner, watching as their allies surged forward to attack the most prized of Camelot’s knights, and Merlin felt his anger rising. Dodging every attack that came his way, Merlin marched to their direction, hands curling into fists.
“Why are you doing this?” He asked, not trying to conceal his rage.
The sorcerer raised their eyebrows, clearly unimpressed. “Don’t you understand, Emrys?” When Merlin didn’t answer, they continued. “In order to have peace, there must be conflict. A shadow to your light.”
“Can’t we just have peace? Where everyone can thrive?” He glanced at his friends, at Arthur, fighting for their lives, day after day, hoping that their present battle was their last, that they’ll be able to rest and live a peaceful life until their dying days.
Merlin couldn’t stand watching that hope flicker away from them everytime a sword was lifted in their direction.
“You’re wrong, Emrys.” They shook their head. “There can only be growth from chaos.”
“And you think you’re doing the right thing? Making people suffer so there can be growth? Who told you this was your job?” Merlin circled the sorcerer, trying to get closer to them so he could use an immobilizing spell, or drive them to a corner.
“No one did. But you’ll thank me later, Emrys, when the time is right. You’ll see.”
“The only thing I’ll be doing is make you stop this.” He snapped.
“Great things will come from this. You’ll see.” Their smile was wide and knowing, and it annoyed Merlin fervently. He threw a fire ball towards the sorcerer, but as the flames dissipated, they were nowhere to be seen. He wanted to cry, shout, pull at his hair. He had them in his grasp but they escaped. Fuck.
Fuck it all.
He looked everywhere around the cave for the sorcerer, but they were probably long gone. In between swords clashing as the fight continued, Merlin had a hard time focusing. The sounds and shouts of men and armors colliding in such a small space would soon drive Merlin mad.
He stopped suddenly when he saw something moving on the ground, almost lost behind the disarray of feet, capes and dust.
Leon caught sight of it too, as it seemed, and he raised his sword to cut the creature’s heads off before Merlin could intervene. Merlin dashed as fast as he could and watched as Leon's face turned to horror when more heads grew on the spot he’d just cut.
He had raised his sword again, but Merlin stopped him before he could strike.
"Don't! The more you cut their heads off the more it grows!" Merlin shouted. Leon was startled by Merlin, but quickly regained his composure and nodded.
“How do we kill it?”
Merlin hoped he remembered the enchantment words right. “We need fire.”
Luckily for them, most of the bandits were dead or had fled the cave at this point, leaving only the knights alive and accounted for. Without having to worry for his friends, Merlin focused back on his task. He started a fire right on top of an old barrel, and didn't hesitate before throwing the Fomorroh in it.
The screams of the creature were deafening, and he saw most of the knights covering their ears in pain.
“Ontende þisne wyrm þæt he licgeþ unastyred 'a butan ende!”
Merlin watched expressionless as the fire disintegrated the vile creature. The sooner it was dead, the faster he could get back home, to the safety of the castle. He wanted to forget the sorcerer’s words, and what they meant, and the promise of something good out of this.
When he looked up, his eyes fell instantly on Arthur, who stood frozen in place, the fire reflecting a pale, almost ghostly quality to his face. He had his hand on his sword, and was looking at Merlin with a badly concealed wary expression.
Merlin quickly averted his eyes, feeling the telltale sting of tears forming once he realized it was the first time Arthur had ever seen him using his powers for destruction. That look hurt Merlin more than a thousand stabs ever could, and he hoped never to see Arthur look at him like that again.
He wished he could make Arthur forget, if only to save what little was left of Arthur’s respect towards him.
They finally reached Camelot’s great gates, just as the sun was getting ready to set. They all went their separate ways after Arthur ordered everyone to get a good night's sleep before an early meeting to report their mission to the counsel. Merlin couldn’t wait to get into a warm bath, maybe track down Gwen and cry a little on her shoulder, but it seemed he was still needed by his King.
Once Gwaine managed to convince Elyan and Percival to ransack the kitchen with him (Leon followed close behind to make sure that didn’t happen) Merlin was left alone with Arthur, and they walked close together towards the great entrance.
Inside the halls, Merlin slowly came to a halt and bowed to Arthur. “I’ll see you tomorrow, sire.”
Merlin found himself being held back by a hand around his wrist, clad in leather that Merlin knew all too well. He smothered a sigh, counted to ten and turned to face his king. There went his free evening inside the safety of his chambers where he could break down without intrusion.
“Merlin, wait.” Merlin forced himself to look at Arthur’s eyes, and was taken aback by the urgency he saw in them. “Before that, will—uh, will you have dinner with me?”
Merlin pursed his lips, every nerve of his body telling him to decline, but the raw emotion on Arthur’s face was too much. He nodded.
Dinner was a silent and awkward affair. They were both hungry so there wasn’t really any pause for small talk, and awkward because every now and then they reached for the same thing, fingers brushing slightly every time.
Merlin wanted to be swallowed by the ground so he could get out of this situation, but something was telling Merlin that this was it. This was the moment of truth, when Arthur would finally tell him why he couldn’t stand Merlin anymore.
“What’s with the face?” Arthur asked, and Merlin realized he was staring intensely at his wine goblet.
There was no running from the truth anymore.
“I don’t know what about me is making you so uncomfortable and angry and hurt all the time, but I can’t stand it anymore.” Acceptance and defiance flowed through his veins in a surge of mixed feelings, his fists closed around his silver cutlery to shake some of that off. “Tell me what I did wrong, when I did wrong, because I can’t—” His voice faltered. “I can’t stand you getting angry or hurt by me anymore.”
Arthur was stunned into silence that stretched for a handful of seconds. Seconds that made Merlin’s nerves scream and his stomach to turn a couple of times in anticipation. The thoughts swirling around Merlin's head while he waited were born out of anxiety, that Arthur would deny the accusations, would say nothing was wrong. That he would call Merlin paranoid.
It would break Merlin for good. So he hoped, with every deep breath he took, that Arthur would take him seriously for once in his life.
“No, Merlin—Gods, no. St op.” Arthur’s voice cracked.
Merlin froze, fearing for the worst. But then Arthur pressed the base of his palms to his eyes, his fingers shook mildly, and Merlin felt that same convoluted ball of emotions rising to his chest. Arthur looked small, defenseless, and that was what decisively got Merlin to stop.
“It’s not that, you idiot. You got it all wrong,” Arthur whispered and got his hands away from his face, he looked wrecked with red marks around his eyes. But he bit his lips and didn't meet Merlin’s eyes.
“Then what is it, Arthur? Help me understand, please.”
Arthur’s shoulders fell as he slumped back into his chair, and the air around him changed. It felt resigned, guilty, nothing like the confidence Arthur walked around with every second of his life. It scared Merlin, he wanted to place a hand on Arthur’s shoulders and calm him, help him ease his worries.
But he couldn’t do that, not before Arthur told him the truth and closed this ridiculous rift between them.
He was glad then, when Arthur decided to answer Merlin head on, gaze directly on Merlin’s. He held back the urge to turn his eyes away, to give Arthur some privacy when he looked so ruined. “It's just—every time you use your magic I just… I feel so ashamed.”
Merlin frowned, a coldness spread through his chest to the tip of his fingers.
“Ashamed?” Merlin forced out his next question. “Of me?”
Arthur flinched, as if Merlin’s question burned him. “No, of course not!” He shook his head viciously, and Merlin's world spun. “Ashamed of myself. Ashamed of being a bad King, a bad friend. ”
Arthur stood and paced his room. He was almost completely silent, aside from his eventual deep breaths and clicking of his tongue. Eventually, Arthur continued, and Merlin could hear the poison in Arthur’s words. Poison towards none but himself.
“You couldn’t trust me with yourself, Merlin, and I can’t blame you. I can’t tell you you should have trusted me, because you couldn’t, and that scares me.” He halted on his tracks and added softly, as an afterthought, “I wouldn’t either, if I had been in your position.”
Arthur’s confession laid heavily between them, honest, naked, raw. Merlin had seen Arthur naked before, it was part of his job, but he had never seen him bare. These were Arthur’s deepest fears, his worst nightmares. A regurgitated, wicked version of the Arthur Merlin knew.
Arthur, the brave, the strong. His King, his friend, his… His Arthur.
Merlin stood as well, the feelings on his chest finally ceasing squabbling. Arthur was being unfair with himself, with everything he built, and Merlin couldn’t sit there and watch Arthur’s insecurities get a hold of him.
So he shook his head, getting right there in Arthur’s space. “But you did the right thing. You chose to accept magic instead of denying it. Those fears you hold close to yourself don't matter anymore.” Merlin defended him.
Arthur let out an exasperated groan, and now, this close, Merlin could see how glassy his eyes were, how deep these feelings were eating him. “It does to me, Merlin. I keep seeing how happy, how natural it is to you to be surrounded by magic. It’s a huge part of who you are, and I’ve been so blind, because you’re so obviously magic and I—” He choked out a sob. “I hate it. I hate seeing you use magic because all these years I kept this happiness from you. It’s a constant reminder of my mistakes.”
It pained Arthur to admit it, Merlin could see. It was on the way he couldn’t meet Merlin’s eyes, the pure misery that laced his words. His tears had started to fall now and Merlin instinctively wiped it out of his face. He was sure to be gentle, wiping each track with a simple caress so as not to break Arthur even further. The way Arthur leaned into his touch, searching for the warmth of his palm, mended something inside Merlin.
“That was my choice. You have to understand you are not to blame, Arthur,” Merlin said softly, urging Arthur to see it, truly see all the good that he’d done for the country, for his friends.
“But I am. I’m to blame for everything. For you, for those who died, for those who lived in fear. For Morgana—”
Merlin cut Arthur by bringing him to a tight hug, wrapping his arms around Arthur. He hesitated at first, not forcing away from Merlin’s hug, but also not returning it either. It didn’t matter to Merlin if Arthur accepted his hug or not, as long as he understood the meaning behind it.
But eventually Arthur caved in. His shaking started small but grew the more he let go on Merlin’s arms. Arthur held tight on the back of Merlin’s tunic as he gasped for air in between sobs, stifled and small, because there would always be a part inside Arthur that wouldn’t give in. Merlin felt tears forming on his own eyes, and he let them fall freely, letting the sorrow and pain leave with every drop.
Arthu’s hair was sticking to his cheeks now, itchy and everywhere, but that didn’t matter to Merlin.
“I’m sorry.” Arthur cried once he managed to control his tears. His voice was muffled by Merlin’s neckerchief, and it made him sound like a five years old who got their knees scraped for the first time.
Merlin slowly rested their foreheads together. “It’s alright.” He whispered.
Arthur shook his head as he moaned another sob. Merlin sighed at Arthur’s blindness and kissed his cheeks, feeling the salt of his tears paint his lips. By all that Arthur forgave his friends and his loved ones for their mistakes, it seemed he lacked the same courtesy towards himself.
“I’m so sorry I hurt you.”
The words Arthur muttered took Merlin off guard. He blinked away more tears of his own, feeling foolish and seen like he’d never before. With every strength he could muster, he said honestly.
“I forgive you.”
All that was left to do now, as they slowly sank to the floor—neither of them was able to hold it together for that long—was to collect their broken pieces. Built each other from the ground up, and Merlin was determined to do so, to show Arthur his strengths and his kindness and help him build the future they wanted.
Even if peace was never an option. They’d find a way to grow.
The next morning Merlin woke up in the King’s bed, with Arthur wrapped around him. Merlin’s face was glued to Arthur’s chest in a very comical way. His right cheek was furrowed on Arthur's left pectoral, and he couldn’t even start to guess what he looked like. At least he wasn’t drooling.
Yet he couldn’t let the significance of this pass. He was resting on Arthur’s chest, right over his heart. They were both shirtless and vulnerable and exposed to each other but none of that was a problem because they shared something important between them.
Maybe Merlin was inspired by that, because he suddenly had the courage to mutter the words that had been stuck in the back of his throat for ages.
Seeing that Arthur looked peaceful and relaxed and almost a hundred percent asleep, Merlin muttered. “I love you, Arthur Pendragon.” He smiled, happy to have finally said it, and left a chaste kiss on Arthur’s exposed collarbone.
The arms surrounding him squeezed closer to Arthur, and Merlin’s eyes widened.
“Did you just wake me up with a love confession?”
Not sleeping then.
“Maybe?” He hoped Arthur couldn’t hear how fast his heart was beating.
“Well.” Arthur yawned and stretched his sleeping limbs. He didn’t let go of Merlin, though. Instead, he brought Merlin even closer. “I see you finally took my request and decided to try waking me up with something new.”
Merlin scoffed, cheeks flushing happily. “How dare you. I thought you enjoyed ‘rise and shine’ well enough by now.”
“It’s always nice to have a change once in a while.”
Merlin was smiling like a fool.
“Alright, I’ll go back to that one, then. No more confessions from now on. How about that?”
“Mm, no, I think I like ‘I love you’ better than that.” Arthur pondered, drawing a thoughtful face before it broke into a radiant smile. He looked down at Merlin in his arms and kissed him. Kissed him until they were both breathless and probably late to the meeting. “I love you, too.”