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Take a Stand

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Arthur toyed with his quill, distracted from the notes he was supposed to be making for the council. He watched Merlin, who was kneeling by the fire, Arthur’s sword held carefully in his hands as he tended to it. His back was to Arthur, head down and silent. Arthur had tried to engage him in some of their old banter, but his servant had just grimaced at him and gone back to his work. It had been a very long time since Merlin had last made any cracks or even smiled at him.

Several weeks earlier, Arthur had seen Merlin hold out a hand as a group of bandits on horseback bore down on the two of them in the Valley of the Fallen Kings. The lot of them had toppled off their mounts, and several had been dragged when a foot caught in a stirrup or an arm became tangled in the reins. Arthur had caught a flash of amber in Merlin’s eyes as he turned away from the scene, and thought his servant looked far too calm.

In the days that had followed the thwarted bandit attack, Arthur had quietly observed Merlin, who, deep in the melancholy stupor he had displayed of late, had taken no notice. He had caught a murmur and a flash of the eyes as Merlin knelt by the hearth in his room, with a flame blooming far too quickly. Later, a cup of tea that had spilled as he laid out Arthur’s breakfast had somehow never hit the table.

Had he witnessed these things even a few years earlier, Arthur would have reeled at the possibility that his servant was hiding magic, but now the idea had just settled in his mind for pondering, like any other issue brought before him to consider as king. He had had so many bad experiences with magic throughout his life, and been taught from a young age that it was evil and needed to be snuffed out at all costs. But as he had grown in his role as regent and then king, he had come to consider more of the grey areas - magic used for good purposes, magic used benignly.

He had found as he considered these things more, without the hard-fisted rule of his father to drive him, that he did not believe many of these uses of magic warranted Uther’s harsh punishment. He had heard someone - possibly Merlin himself - compare magic to a tool such as a shovel: without the will of the user, the shovel would do nothing. If the user wanted to dig a hole, it could maneuver dirt; if the user wanted to hurt someone, it could serve as a blunt object for clubbing them over the head.

Only a few months earlier, he and Merlin had been out on a hunt when they had heard screaming. Following the cries, they had come upon a band of villagers preparing to burn a woman on a hastily built pyre. Arthur had ordered them to cut her down and release her, for the villagers had no proof that she had practiced magic maliciously. She had later died of the wounds she had suffered before they had rescued her, but not before giving Arthur a magical horn that would allow the user to speak to the dead; Arthur had used it himself to summon the spirit of his father.

This recent incident was only one example of how his attitude to magic had slowly changed, almost without him realizing it. It still unnerved him, and the idea of legalizing it was not something he was ready to consider yet. But he would no longer punish someone simply for having magic.

The recent suspicions about his servant had been what made Arthur aware of his subtle change of mindset. He had been shocked at his own lack of revulsion over what he had witnessed. Instead, he had watched the realization come into his mind almost as a casual observer, and gone away to ponder it with a curiosity utterly uncharacteristic of him - or so he may have thought. As he turned it over in his mind, things began to occur to him that had not made sense before, such as why tree branches seemed to always drop at just the right moment or skillfully aimed crossbow arrows had gone wide, like in a young child’s first attempt at shooting. Or why he may have found Merlin in odd situations such as knocking on his bed frame at the crack of dawn, claiming to be investigating “woodworms.”

Arthur’s thoughts turned to Merlin himself as he watched his servant across the room, carefully running a cloth along the blade of the sword. Gradually, over the past year or so, once Camelot had been retaken from Morgana and Agravaine and Guinevere had settled into her new role as queen, Merlin had slowly turned inward, closing himself off to his friends. He had gone from the smiling, bumbling young man Arthur had grown to love, to a shadow going about his duties in silence. He seemed to only speak or react when it was necessary, and even then, only the bare minimum.

Arthur missed the clumsy fool his servant had been and the banter that they had so often shared. If Arthur tried to goad him now, he would get a hollow quip or a snapped retort, and then more silence.

Merlin’s historical good mood seemed to have stopped, slowly descending and then nosediving after the recent events with the Disir, the three prophetesses who had delivered the message that Arthur had angered the Triple Goddess, and that his only chance to save the mortally wounded Mordred was to embrace the Old Religion and restore magic to Camelot. He recalled clearly the moment when he had taken Merlin’s advice to refuse the Disir’s offer, to assert that there could be no place for magic and Camelot.

The two had sat opposite each other across their campfire in a dip in the forest floor, each leaning against a tree root. The air had been positively colorful, full of rich greens and blues and browns under the chalk grey of the moonlit sky. Merlin had given the most impassioned speech Arthur had ever heard from him, about the very earth being alive and more than what it was. Then, when Arthur had asked Merlin what he should do, Merlin had become silent for a long time.

Arthur had frowned as he watched him, his eyes growing red-rimmed around tears that he was clearly fighting not to shed, his mouth tensing and untensing as he chewed on the corners of it, his body fidgeting and trembling. Then he had frozen and delivered the advice as if damning someone to hell.

Arthur had leaned back against the tree behind him, not convinced at all.

But he had taken the advice, however bitter it had seemed to Merlin to say. It had confused Arthur to his core, suspecting what he had about Merlin at this point, but his friend must have had his reasons. Maybe he had been afraid, or maybe he had known something that Arthur hadn’t. Arthur had mused about how a sudden change of policy toward magic might go down in a kingdom that had been conditioned for nearly three decades to fear and despise it. So he and Merlin had returned to the Disir’s dark, musty cave and refused their offer. Arthur had not missed the look of anguish on Merlin’s face as they had turned to leave after their exchange with the three prophetesses, but he had pretended not to notice, hoping that Merlin knew what he was doing.

That very night, Mordred had been healed.

Arthur frowned to himself as he watched Merlin’s tense neck and back before the hearth. His servant had indeed known something he hadn’t, and by the looks of it he had sacrificed everything for the sake of Mordred’s life.

Arthur cared very much for Mordred. The boy was brave, honorable and loyal, especially for someone so young. He had shown that through his kindness in Ismere and subsequent saving of Arthur’s life, and his integrity had earned him the privilege of becoming a knight of Camelot. Arthur trusted Mordred, just as he trusted Merlin, and that was what confused him about Merlin’s coldness towards the young man.

“Merlin,” Arthur spoke up, breaking the silence. His servant jolted, loosening his grip on the sword. “Careful,” he added, grinning at Merlin’s reaction, “You don’t want to cut your own throat or something.”

Merlin turned, responding to the playful smile with a poorly concealed scowl. He slowly got to his feet, picking up the sword’s sheath and sliding the gleaming blade inside. He stood straight, twisting his mouth as he regarded Arthur, but he still said nothing.

“Why don’t you go home now?” Arthur asked, standing himself and coming around to the front of his desk to face Merlin. “You’ve done enough for tonight, and I can’t exactly sleep with you pottering about in here, bumping into the walls and knocking things over.”

This second attempt at restarting their banter also fell flat. Merlin looked at the floor, taking the sword to Arthur’s bedside table, where he placed it carefully so that Arthur could reach it from the bed. Turning back, his eyes swept over Arthur again. “If that will be all, sire.”

“Yeah, that’s all.” Arthur crossed his arms and narrowed his eyebrows at his servant. He watched Merlin slip past him and cross his rooms, quietly shutting the door behind him.

When he was gone Arthur dropped onto the bed, resting his elbows on his knees and pressing his fingertips to his brow. Merlin had never been such a hard, diligent worker as he was now, which showed the change in him more sharply than anything. Arthur knew he would not relax until he got to the bottom of what was troubling his friend.

After several moments of debating silently, he lifted his head and went to his wardrobe, where he drew out the blue travelling cloak his servant had gifted him years ago. Slinging it over his shoulders and pulling the hood over his head, he exited his chambers as silently as Merlin had.

He caught up with Merlin in a corridor near the front of the citadel. He was not sure why he was doing this - Merlin was probably just going to go home and go to bed. Perhaps he was hoping to catch a few scraps of conversation with Gaius through the door of the physician’s chambers - his servant had always been more open with his mentor than anyone else. But it was late enough that Gaius was probably asleep.

Merlin stopped at the stairwell that led up to his and Gaius’s rooms and Arthur ducked behind a pillar. He could only make out Merlin’s shape in the dark thanks to the moonlight slanting through the windows - the young man’s skin seemed washed out in it, looking even paler than it normally did. Merlin looked up the spiral staircase, pausing as if he was debating whether to actually ascend it. Then he turned and walked further down the corridor instead, his steps more brisk than they had been before.

Arthur’s heart leaped, now glad he had listened to that little inkling in his head that Merlin might do something unexpected tonight. He slipped out from behind the pillar, trying to walk quietly while keeping Merlin in sight. He tailed his friend out to the front of the castle, where Merlin slipped out into the courtyard. Arthur gave him a moment to move away from the doors, and then slid the heavy wooden door open himself, peering out to locate Merlin.

He spotted him on the other side of the courtyard, about to disappear under the archway into the city. Arthur cursed. The clumsy man could move awfully fast when he wanted to. Closing the door quietly behind him, he took off across the cobblestones as quickly as he dared.

He followed Merlin through the lower town and out the city gates, and then into the Darkling Woods, where it was so dark he feared he would lose Merlin, and possibly even himself, among the trees. He had to strain his ears to keep track of his footfall against the fallen leaves and bracken on the ground. Eventually he saw moonlight glistening between a break in the trees, and Merlin’s form, dark as a shadow, became visible as he broke free of the forest. Arthur followed him to the tree line and hid behind a wide trunk, peering out after him.

Merlin had stopped in the center of a large clearing bathed in moonlight, which Arthur quickly recognized as the place where they had fought the dragon several years earlier. He would never forget that night - he had been knocked unconscious by the dragon’s tail, but not before striking a fatal blow to the beast with a spear. Once he had come around and Merlin had told him what had happened, he and his servant had been euphoric, despite the bodies of the slain knights scattered around them. That had been one of the best times of their friendship, sharing in the triumph of victory over the monster that had ravaged their city, and how proud Merlin had been of Arthur as they walked together back to the citadel.

Arthur pulled himself out of his memories to focus on a starkly different sight in the same location - Merlin standing alone, his face lifted to the sky. He was silent for so long Arthur began to fidget and mutter, “Just get on with it.” Whatever “it” was. Then a rumble started and Arthur gripped the tree trunk, thinking that the earth was going to start shaking. But the ground was still, and the noise was coming from the clearing… from Merlin.

He was shouting something into the sky, his voice so guttural it sounded like thunder. Arthur could not understand the words, whether it was because Merlin was speaking some language he did not know or the cries were just incomprehensible. Arthur stared, wondering whether he should go to him and try to bring him back to himself. He then heard something even louder than Merlin’s shouting. The grass bent sideways with a great gust of wind that nearly knocked Arthur off his feet. He grabbed the tree to hold himself steady, and leaned around it to squint against the rushing air.

Then, as quickly as it had come, the noise stopped and the air stilled. A moment later, a dark shape the size of the citadel crashed to the ground in front of Merlin. In the moonlight Arthur recognized the Great Dragon. His jaw dropped and all the air left his lungs. Where had the beast come from? Merlin had told him it was dead. He reached for his sword. Whatever the hell Merlin had just done, he had attracted the beast straight to himself. He was lucky Arthur had followed him.

But just as Arthur was about to charge out to save his idiot servant’s life, another rumbling voice echoed from the clearing. “Young warlock, it has certainly taken you long enough.” Then the dragon lowered its head in what could only be described as a bow before Merlin.

Arthur stared. The beast was talking, something his father had never mentioned that it could do, and it was showing subservience to Merlin.

“Kilgharrah, I have not been ignoring you, even when I wanted to,” Merlin said. “I’ve only been able to get out of the city now.”

“I understand that,” the dragon replied, “but you seem to have been shutting me out for several days.”

“I was busy. I didn’t have time to talk.”

“You did what you believed to be right, Merlin,” the dragon sighed, something akin to pride in his voice. “You heeded my warnings about Mordred and did what needed to be done.”

“What I believed was right?” Merlin gave a dark laugh. “I told Arthur that magic cannot have a place in Camelot! I’ve doomed all magic users in the hope of saving Arthur from his fate, but Mordred still lives. The Disir lied!”

“No, they did not lie, young warlock.” The dragon frowned at Merlin - if what appeared on the great lizard-like face could be called a frown. “They said to avoid a painful fate for himself and Camelot, Arthur must embrace the Old Religion. Arthur declined their demand, and as a result, the one who is destined to bring about his end was saved.”

“We were deceived!” Merlin raged. “They made Arth-... me… think that to save Mordred, he would have to embrace the Old Religion. I told Arthur to renounce magic because you said I had to stop them from sparing Mordred and Arthur would then be safe! Now, because of me, Arthur will never bring about the kingdom you say he is destined to, and he will still die. I’ve done so many terrible things for the sake of Arthur… But none of it matters now. I’ve failed.”

“Merlin!” The dragon snapped. “You could not have known that the Disir would punish Arthur for his choice by letting the Druid boy live. Take heart and look toward the future. This is not over yet. You still have time to alter the course that Arthur has put himself on. You must ensure that the boy dies.”

Merlin gave an exaggerated shrug, throwing out his arms. “How?”

“Continue to take heed of my warnings and follow my advice,” replied the dragon. “You have ignored them for far too long, and because of that, the witch has lived to betray Arthur and the Druid boy works his way into Arthur’s favor. You must kill the boy before he has a chance to turn to the witch.”

Merlin’s form sagged. He said nothing to the great beast, but turned away from it and stalked off into the forest, passing Arthur, who slid around the tree so that he would not see him. “Is that really the only way?” he mumbled on his way through.

Arthur stared between the dragon and Merlin’s retreating form. His servant stopped for a moment, his hands now dropped to his sides and his shoulders slumped. He brought a hand up and shoved it across his eyes, then dropped it again. Arthur was tempted to go and confront him, but stopped himself. He watched Merlin’s back for several moments, before his servant disappeared deeper into the forest.

When he was gone, Arthur deflated against the tree trunk, resting his head back against the rough bark, ignoring the discomfort on his scalp and shoulder blades. He replayed the scene in his mind, trying to process what he had seen. After having gotten over the shock of seeing the dragon after thinking it dead for so many years, Arthur now had to grapple with the fact that Merlin appeared to be on civil terms with it - or maybe even in league with it.

He felt his muscles tense up and his jaw clench. He tried to take some calming breaths before moving on with his thoughts. Then he remembered the desperation that Merlin had spoken with as he had conversed with the dragon, and worst of all, what they had talked about.

What had they meant about Mordred being destined to kill Arthur?

Arthur nearly slumped to the ground from the weight of it all. His muscles were still tense and his breathing heavy, despite his attempts to calm himself. He was working on getting his feet steady under himself when the rumbling voice called out again. Arthur felt adrenaline rush back into his system as he pushed away from the tree to peer back into the clearing.

“Young Pendragon!” It called once more.

Arthur jumped, realizing the dragon was saying his name. Instinctively he drew his sword again, and crept a pace or two beyond the tree trunk, holding the blade out in front of him. It was no use hiding if the beast knew he was here, and he was never one to run from a threat.

“Come out to where I can see you, young king,” the dragon beckoned again, his voice more level now.

His sword poised in front of him, Arthur stole out into the clearing. As he came past the treeline, he could see the monster again, this time sitting on its haunches, its tail lying flat on the ground and its head cocked quizzically toward him, like a giant cat. If it were not such an absurd situation, Arthur may have even found it comical.

“Come closer. I do not bite.” The dragon gave a sneer as Arthur stepped hesitantly across the grass.

Arthur stopped and scowled at the beast. “You don’t bite. Of course you don’t. You just set cities in flames and vanquish innocent lives!”

The dragon fixed him with what could only be a grin, though it looked menacing on the monster’s face. Then the dragon threw its head back and the clearing was filled with rumbling laughter.

“What do you find funny about what you did to Camelot, dragon?” Arthur demanded. His face was burning, his limbs shaking. He wanted to take the sword to the beast’s scaly hide for its insolence, but he knew from the last time he had fought it that one man with a sword would not do it much damage.

“A penance paid for the injustice done to me by your father,” The dragon replied.

Arthur thrust his sword up toward the beast. “A penance? You’re joking. Dozens of my people are dead because of your rampage! What had they done?”

“It is not what they had done,” the dragon said simply. “It was what your father, and by extension, Camelot, had done. I administered justice. I would not have had to cause so much unnecessary damage had Uther come to face me. Instead, he hid inside the safety of his castle walls. He knew who my target was, but chose to sacrifice the lives of his people, and by extension his son, while he hid away like the coward he was.”

Arthur swallowed his rage, knowing it would do no good. “What do you want of me, dragon?”

The beast chuckled again. “What do I want from the great Arthur Pendragon? I want nothing of you, young king, save to understand why you were eavesdropping on a conversation clearly not meant for your ears. And to ensure your word that you will not punish Merlin after what you have heard tonight.”

At that, Arthur nearly laughed in spite of his anger. He was leagues ahead of what the beast seemed to have realized about his understanding of Merlin. “Of course I won’t punish Merlin,” he said, a bit too forcefully. “Or I would not have before I realized he was in league with you.”

The dragon raised what passed for his eyebrows. “In league with me?” it repeated. “I am Merlin’s kin, Arthur Pendragon. I have been close to him since the moment he arrived in Camelot.”

Arthur stared at the great scaly face. “What?”

“I could feel his presence as soon as he stepped into the city, so I reached out to him, mind to mind,” the dragon explained. “He came down to find me in the cave where your father had imprisoned me. He does indeed have magic, a secret he has had to keep from you all the years you have known him for fear of execution. He is a warlock, born with magic, not having acquired it from study, and also a dragonlord. He cannot help what he is. And you, Arthur Pendragon, will become the greatest king who will ever live. You and Merlin are two sides of the same coin. He was born to protect you.”

“Two sides of the same - what?” Arthur curled his lip. “Why have I never heard any of this?”

“Because you, young Pendragon, do not understand the importance and depth of magic and prophecies.” The dragon eyed him, almost smirking. “Had you been ready to hear the words concerning you and the young warlock, you would have heard them.”

“What do you mean, ‘had I been ready’?”

The beast broke into low, rumbling laughter that made Arthur want to slice its leg with his sword, but again he reigned himself in. “You have been taught to scorn magic all of your life,” came the answer after a moment. “How would you have responded if Merlin had come to you with this information before now?”

It was Arthur’s turn to laugh. “I would have listened,” he said. “At least now. You seem to think me stupid, dragon. But I’ve already figured out Merlin’s secret for myself. I’ve only yet to approach him about it.”

The beast snorted, a little puff of smoke emitting from its nose. “You’ve figured it out for yourself, yet you have not the courage to speak to him.”

“I needed to be sure,” Arthur said, scowling. “Accusing someone of having magic is--”

“Accusing someone of having magic!” The dragon roared. “As if creatures of magic have committed a crime just for being what they are.”

“It’s a delicate matter in Camelot, as you well know!” Arthur shook his head, cursing himself for arguing with the monster. “It has taken me a long time to come to accept magic, and it will take the kingdom far longer, considering that they have been conditioned to think it’s evil for almost thirty years.”

“You must understand, young Pendragon, that I and many of Merlin’s kind are angry.” The dragon’s voice was level now, its eyes searching Arthur. He squirmed. “I was imprisoned for twenty years in a cave below Camelot by your father. All of my kind were slaughtered by his order. I took revenge as soon as I was freed, as your father should have expected.”

Arthur narrowed his eyebrows. “You were freed,” he repeated. “By whom?”

The dragon barked with laughter. “Would you think differently of him if you knew?”

Arthur frowned, feeling himself tense up - he had a very bad feeling he knew the answer. “What do you mean?”

“The only one who could set me free is the one who holds the powerful magic required to do so.” The beast seemed to bare its teeth at Arthur as it said this. “The most powerful warlock to ever live.”

Arthur felt his breathing and heartbeat begin to race. “You mean Merlin set you free?”

“He did,” the dragon replied. “He proved himself a man of honor that day. For years I offered my advice and guidance in exchange for my freedom. However, after a certain incident he told me I would never be free, and I did not see him again for a long time. He returned one day needing my help, but this time I refused. I no longer trusted his word.”

Arthur’s eyes widened, his anger now dulled into confusion. “Why would you do anything for the good of Camelot, when you ultimately tried to raze it to the ground?”

“Because you and the young warlock have a great destiny,” the dragon said again. “One day Camelot will be great under your rule. Magic will return to the land. The Camelot under your father’s rule was nothing in comparison to what you will do.”

Arthur bit back another angry shout on behalf of his people and his city to which the beast had so callously laid waste. He was getting fed up with it banging on about destiny. He was not sure if he even believed in destiny.

“But in the meantime,” the dragon continued, “Merlin needed help with short-term challenges. This one involved the knights of Medhir and the sleeping spell put on the castle. Merlin came to me and asked for help in breaking the spell, as he too had begun to feel its effects. I told him I would only do so if he agreed to free me. He had broken his promise to me multiple times before, so I had him swear to me on his mother’s life that he would, and then I gave him the information he sought. The night after Camelot was saved, he released me from your father’s chains.”

Arthur felt his stomach turn over. “You helped him save Camelot… and then tried to destroy it. He… he set you loose on the city. He is as much to blame for the death of my people as you…”

“He is a man of honour,” the dragon repeated, angered by the accusation. “He kept his word after swearing to me he would do as I asked.”

Arthur’s cheeks burned and his heart pounded. “He’ll have felt like he had no choice!” he cried, his voice rising. “You manipulated him! Why would you force him to make a promise like that? Did you even care how he might feel watching the city he was trying to protect burn for his choice?”

“If you had been chained in a cave for as long as I had, would you not have been desperate to be free?” The dragon’s voice was low now, almost sounding as if it was trying to appeal to Arthur.

Arthur pressed his hand to his forehead, where a headache was beginning to form. All of the introspection he had done over the past several months was beginning to flash through his mind. This dragon was about as far from his sympathies as it could get, but he found himself searching for a thread of understanding.

“So he lied to me about stopping your rampage on Camelot too, then,” he told the dragon flatly. “What really happened?”

“Merlin sent me away,” the dragon replied. “I was at the height of vengeance, and he commanded me to stop. Imagine my shock at suddenly becoming aware that he was a dragonlord. His words stopped me short, for I had no choice but to obey. His words grounded me, and made me see that I deserved death for my actions. But he granted me clemency. He told me to leave, although many times I have returned to meet with him and advise him.”

Arthur was staring again. “Merlin is a dragonlord? Since when?”

“Yet another thing the young warlock has had to hide from you for fear of death, Arthur Pendragon,” came the reply. The dragon had raised its head and was looking down at him, as if trying to show Arthur he was less than he thought he was. Arthur ignored the display. “The gifts of a dragonlord are passed down from father to son upon the father’s death. When Balinor died, his powers were passed to Merlin.”

“No...” Arthur breathed, remembering what he himself had told Merlin when the dragonlord had died. “That can’t be true.” He felt as if he was throwing this claim up to the dragon in a last bid to hold onto what he had thought to be the truth, but he felt his heart thudding and his stomach swooping even before the response came.

The dragon’s slow, rumbling laughter had begun again, and the beast was eyeing Arthur from above, as if it was relishing the fact that the king of Camelot had to look up to acknowledge it.

Arthur felt his cheeks flame. Indignance rose in him, the product of his upbringing, and part of him wondered who the dragon thought it was to try and make a king feel so small. But again he remembered what he had learned from Merlin of late, how his mindset had slowly changed, and he forced himself to consider things from a magic user’s point of view, trying to separate the “magic user” title from the very non-human form in front of him and the knowledge of what it had done to his kingdom.

His mind found its way back to the desperate quest he and Merlin had taken into Cenred’s lands to locate the dragonlord they had known existed only by Gaius’s word. Merlin had been quiet and moody, quite the opposite of his usual demeanor at the time - Arthur realized that conduct more resembled how he was all the time now. As they had lain down to sleep in their rickety twin beds at the inn, Arthur had tried to get his servant to open up with the scathing banter that had always defined their relationship, much like he had that very evening, and it had not worked then either.

He remembered how Merlin had reacted when Arthur had hit him with a pillow, startled back from the deep recesses of his mind by Arthur’s brotherly show of affections. Arthur now realized the dark mood must have been due to the prospect of finding his father - Gaius would have told him of the connection before leaving, and of course, Merlin could not have told Arthur the truth. After Balinor had died, Arthur had found Merlin cradling the man he had thought to be a stranger to them both, sobbing as the life drained from his body.

Later, Arthur had told Merlin, “No man is worth your tears.” He had been trying to comfort his servant in a rare display of calm and seriousness, and at the same time prepare Merlin for what he had been quite sure would be his own demise at the hand of the dragon. Now, considering the circumstances, he cringed at the realization of how it must have felt to Merlin.

“Did you know the dragonlord was his father?” he finally asked.

“I did. I could tell from the moment I saw the young warlock in person.” The dragon eyed him suspiciously.

“Did you not ever try to tell him, then? Did he only find out who his father was when you were destroying our city and we were forced to go and look for him?” That now made all too much sense as he remembered Merlin’s behaviour that day.

“No,” the dragon said. “It was never necessary for him to know.”

Arthur felt his temper flare again. “And why not? Because if he found out he was a dragonlord, he may have inconveniently been able to command you before you were able to take your revenge on my father?”

The dragon regarded him coolly, but said nothing.

“That was it, wasn’t it?” Arthur demanded. “You kept it a secret because it suited you, even though it would have made a world of difference to him.”

The dragon scowled. “The young warlock and I did not always see eye to eye, Pendragon. I did not owe him any such information, especially when he was withholding my freedom from me. Besides, even if he knew, he would not have come across the power to command anything of me, as that skill is passed down to the son after the death of his father.”

“You’re a manipulative bastard, you know that?” Arthur bit out, angry on Merlin’s behalf. “I don’t think you have ever cared about destiny or having justice for your kind. I think you just wanted your own freedom. You saw he was young and impressionable and you used him.”

The dragon stood to all fours, its tail lashing and its wings unfolding. “Do not claim to know me, son of Uther. Your father and his kingdom betrayed my kind -- I owed nothing to either of you.” Its voice was booming now, and Arthur quaked. He was perilously close to the beast; all it had to do was lash out with a claw or belch flames and he would be dead.

Finally Arthur found his voice and yelled, “You’ve never cared about Merlin or your precious destiny. You’ve been using Merlin from the beginning just to get your freedom!”

The dragon roared at the comment. “You dare accuse me of not caring for Merlin? He spared me when he could have easily killed me. I owe my life and freedom to him. I help guide him to his destiny out of respect for our bond.”

“Then why turn him against someone who has done no wrong?” Arthur shot back. Then he shook his head, realizing Merlin had been led to believe for years that there was only one path. “Even now, you are using him, despite claiming to owe him a debt, to be helping him. But you don’t really want us to succeed – you want Camelot to fall. That’s why you told Merlin to refuse the Disir, isn’t it? You made him believe he failed his destiny, made him think it was all his fault and that the only way his people could be free was by betraying a loyal knight who has shown nothing but loyalty towards me.”

“Do not dare to speak of things you cannot even begin to comprehend,” the creature threatened. “You are lucky Merlin has forbidden me from harming you or Camelot.”

“I think I understand plenty. You plan to sabotage the prophecy, to make sure Merlin and I fail. And all because of what our fathers have done.” Arthur thrust his finger toward the dragon, ignoring the bared teeth. “I refuse to let you use Merlin for your own end any longer. From here forth you are banished from Camelot, only to return when Merlin calls, and only when I am with him, to make certain you do not have any more sway than necessary.” With that, Arthur turned and left, ignoring the roars and glowing red behind him.

Arthur deliberated for several days as he tried to process the encounter with the dragon and all that he had learned that night. It had taken him the longest to get over the fact that the beast was still alive and it had been Merlin, not him, who had saved Camelot from its vengeance. And then all the other details of Merlin’s life that his servant had been hiding from him fell into place in his mind, and he tried to analyze them and figure out what he really thought. Anger came over him a few times, and he had to consciously remind himself to look at the situation through the lens of compassion for Merlin as a magic user and what may have driven him to make the choices he had.

He tried to contemplate why Merlin seemed to be so wrapped up in destiny, still recoiling at the truth that Merlin had rejected magic in favor of letting Mordred die so that he, Arthur, might live. He could not imagine the eager, hard-training young knight ever having the desire to do him harm. The boy showed nothing but admiration for Arthur, and Arthur felt the same toward him. Each time he considered the scenario, he came back to one thought – that damned dragon was feeding Merlin lies, or, at best, half-truths. Merlin had also been a young, naive farm boy when he had arrived in Camelot. He likely had never experienced such levels of manipulation; the dragon could have easily made Merlin believe anything it wanted him to. And, it seemed, the beast had.

Arthur did not know what the dragon had against Mordred, but its advice seemed to have been the very subtle catalyst that had pushed Morgana away from them - it had convinced Merlin that Morgana was destined to fall to evil.

The beast had cost him his sister. Arthur’s throat constricted and his hands tightened into fists. It would not cost him his young knight or his dearest friend. He stood from his desk and marched out into the corridor, where it was dark save for flickering candles illuminating the walkway. It was late evening; he had dismissed Merlin for the night, but he was sure his friend would still be awake, and few servants and castle residents would be about to question where he was going.

It took him some time to cross the castle and climb the stairs to the physician’s quarters, and when he arrived, he was glad to see that there was an orange light glowing in the crack below the door, showing that the hearth was still flaming: someone was awake. But as he drew closer he paused. Raised voices were coming from inside, the words clear as day through the thin slats of wood that made up the door. He knew he should not eavesdrop, but what difference did it make when he had already overheard Merlin’s entire conversation with the dragon?

“Gaius, I don’t know what to do,” came Merlin’s voice. It sounded broken and desperate, which caused Arthur’s chest to tighten. “Everything was for nothing. I tried to talk to Kilgharrah about it, but he just told me to push on, that Mordred still must die. I am tired of worrying about what Mordred could do to Arthur. I don’t want to kill him. I feel terrible for what I’ve done to Morgana. Maybe if I had just told her about my magic when she came to me about hers... Maybe she would still be with us.”

“You must be careful, my boy,” Arthur heard Gaius respond. “Remember what happened when you saw what you thought was the future in the crystals. You did everything in your power to prevent what you saw, and in the end you made it happen.”

“I know, Gaius.” Merlin’s voice was mournful. “But I’ve also ignored Kilgarrah’s warnings plenty of times, and look what happened. Kilgarrah said Morgana would turn to evil back when she was our friend, and look at what she has become.”

“Is it not good that you listened to me, then, about not telling her about your magic?”

“I don’t know, Gaius!” Merlin cried, and Arthur heard a scrape of a chair and footsteps, as if Merlin had pushed himself back and stood to pace the room. “I don’t know anything anymore. I try to do what is right, but so many times that has caused things to go wrong. Maybe if I had told her about my magic she would have confided in me before Morgause arrived in Camelot. She went to Morgause because no one else would listen to her and she was afraid and lonely. I told you the years before I came to Camelot were the loneliest of my life. I was lucky enough to find support in you, but Morgana–”

“Merlin.” The footsteps and rambling stopped at Gaius’s voice. “You have said so yourself, look at what Morgana has become. It was not all Morgause who made her fall to evil. She had every reason to be angry at Uther, but remember how quickly she turned on Arthur, who was always a brother to her, even before she found out she really was his sister. Nothing happened to Morgana to change her, or else she was never the Morgana we thought we knew. Imagine if she had gone down this path with knowledge of your magic. She would have a terrible advantage over you now.”

There was another noise of something knocking against the floor, likely the chair as Merlin dropped back into it, as Arthur did not hear him begin to pace again. Merlin heaved a ragged sigh. “Maybe,” he murmured, but then fell silent.

The new information about Morgana made Arthur’s heart speed up. She had gone to Merlin about her magic… Arthur felt hurt that she hadn’t gone to him – he would have protected her, like he would have Merlin. A pang stabbed him in the stomach as he remembered first Morgana’s betrayal, and then Agravaine’s. It seemed the ones he cared about did not trust him enough, and he trusted them too much. He prayed that was not the case for Merlin. He needed to change things before it was too late…

“I–” Merlin’s voice started again, and then broke. “I wish the time felt right to tell Arthur who I really am. I have been hiding my magic for so long, I almost don’t feel like I know myself anymore.”

“I don’t know if now is the right time, my boy,” Gaius said. “What would he say if you went to him with your secret so soon after renouncing magic? I fear it is not safe considering what has happened.”

Merlin made an odd sound, somewhere between a groan and a sob. “I probably could have told him the night we met with the Disir. He looked ready to give magic a chance…” his voice caught again, and was deep and wavery when he continued. “But I couldn’t and now it’s too late. He’ll never see me for who I really am.”

Arthur froze at the final statement. It had been spoken like a promise. If Arthur had not already known about Merlin’s magic, he truly would never have found out from Merlin himself. As much as Arthur wanted to place the blame on Gaius, the dragon, or even Merlin himself... it was him. He had never given Merlin any reason to believe he could be trusted with that knowledge. Every time he had shown some sign of thinking differently about magic, he had let others dictate his thoughts and beliefs so easily.

And then there was Mordred. The repeated thought of the young knight out to kill him sent a chill through Arthur’s bones. The idea of destiny and prophecy unnerved him. He knew that things he relied on could turn in an instant, but he hated the thought that something was going to happen no matter what path he took or choices he made. It was extremely unjust to judge someone based on something they had not yet done, much less sentence them to death. Arthur refused to do so with Mordred, but it seemed Merlin already had. Did Arthur need to fear for Mordred’s life at the hand of Merlin?

No. Arthur shook his head hard. Merlin was a good and just man. He would speak to him about this; he would make him see sense. It was the dragon – and apparently Gaius – that had put those ideas in Merlin’s head, and by the sounds of it, Morgana had been the first victim. Arthur refused to lose Merlin to the same corruption.

“Merlin, what has happened with Mordred and Morgana is not your fault,” Gaius said. Arthur was nodding even as he pressed his eyes closed. “You must not fear a future that is not yet shaped as an absolute. I have told you, the future is defined by the choices you make.”

“Yes,” Merlin said loudly. “The choice I made outside the cave of the Disir has sealed Arthur’s fate! The choices I made got Lancelot killed, and turned Morgana against Camelot and Arthur! Every choice I make ends up in someone’s death or betrayal!” Arthur fought the urge to burst into the room and shake Merlin, to tell him he was wrong.

“Merlin!” Gaius’s voice was sharp, louder than Merlin’s had been. “You must not think like that. It will destroy you.” There was a pause, and he spoke again, more softly this time. “Where is that happy, hopeful boy who arrived in Camelot all those years ago?”

“I know I told you before that he grew up,” Merlin started, his voice low and angry, “But the truth is he’s dead. He was killed a long time ago.”

Arthur’s stomach felt like a rock. He knew it had been a long time since Merlin had smiled, and his mood had been bleak for some time, but the words and the tone he had heard his friend use now terrified him anew. The revelations that had been thrown at him over the past few days were enough to make anyone dizzy – processing them was difficult enough for Arthur. He could not imagine how Merlin had been living like this for so long. How could he have missed this? How could he have allowed Merlin to suffer alone while he had been blissfully unaware?

Something needed to be done, and Arthur felt the need to speak to Merlin all the more urgently, before it was too late to help him. But now it occurred to him that it would not be a good idea to do so with Gaius present. It sounded like Gaius had had his own fair share of things to say to Merlin, in much the same way as the dragon had, and he wanted his friend’s account uninfluenced. He crept away from the door, a plan forming in his head for the next morning.

Merlin arrived at Arthur’s chambers early the following morning, as usual. He pulled the curtains open, spilling sunlight onto Arthur’s bed, so that Arthur blinked awake and shouted, but Merlin did not even react. Arthur had not expected him to. He rolled out of bed and walked past his servant, who barely acknowledged him, and helped himself to his wardrobe.

Only now did Merlin jump to attention. “Sire,” he said quickly, “You’re wanting to dress now?”

“Not wanting to dress, Merlin. I am dressing. I don’t require assistance today.” Ignoring the hurt look on Merlin’s face, he pulled out the first tunic and breeches that came to hand and disappeared behind the dressing screen. “I am capable of dressing myself, you know,” he chided lightly. Merlin still said nothing. Arthur finished putting himself together and crossed to his desk to pick up a few rolls of parchment.

“I’m going out this morning,” he told his servant, who continued to stare at him. “You’re to stay here and clean my rooms. You can sweep and polish the floor, then polish the table while you’re at it, and clean the hearth as well. My linens also need changing and my clothes need washing.” He made for the door, ignoring Merlin’s lack of response. “I’ll be back at noon – we’ll see how far you’ve got.”

He closed the door behind him and stopped, breathing out hard and dropping the breezy demeanor. The orders would keep Merlin going for hours, and judging by the way he was at the moment, he would carry on monotonously, not questioning a thing. Arthur started down the corridor, heading back toward Gaius’s chambers. It was too early for the physician to have left on his morning rounds, so he should have no problem catching him.

The door to the physician’s chambers was shut when he arrived, and he rapped sharply before pushing his way in. The old man was seated at his work bench, grinding something with his mortar and pestle; he had barely had time to look up and turn toward the door when Arthur barged in. His one working eyebrow was up and his mouth open as if ready to speak, but his words had been preempted by Arthur’s abrupt entry. “Sire,” he said after a moment. “Are you looking for Merlin? He isn’t here.”

“No, Gaius,” Arthur said, slowing down. “I’ve come to speak to you. Please forgive the intrusion.”

“Of course, sire. Please sit down.” Gaius’s eyes were still wide, but Arthur knew the old physician never had cause to fear him. He probably was preparing to cover for Merlin. Again.

Arthur seated himself on the bench opposite to Gaius so that they were at the same level. He knew that would help put the physician at ease – not too much ease, though, he hoped. He wanted Gaius to feel he could trust him enough to be truthful, but not so unafraid that it would be easy to lie again. “I know about Merlin’s magic,” he said, as gently as he could.

Gaius’s eyes rounded and his mouth opened again, but no sound came out. His jaw worked, and Arthur could almost see his mind racing, scrambling for an answer. “Sire…” he said again, but he could not seem to come up with anything else. His whole figure deflated, a sigh emanating from his lips and his eyes cast down to the tabletop.

“It’s okay, Gaius,” Arthur said quickly, placing a hand on the old man’s arm. “I figured it out myself. No one has reported to me behind Merlin’s back. I have been thinking about it for a long time. I am not going to punish him for anything he has done.”

“I’m sorry, sire,” Gaius finally said. “I can assure you, Merlin never wanted to lie to you. He really had no choice.”

“I know, Gaius,” Arthur replied measuredly. “I worked that one out for myself as well. My father would have had him executed, and I am sure up until recently, I would not have done much better. At best I might have banished him for his own protection...”

Gaius was watching him, his eyebrow still arched and his shoulders not quite relaxed, as if he were not sure he could believe Arthur. Arthur felt like he was being scrutinized like when he was ten years old, having got himself thrown off a horse and covered in brambles or caught in a lie. He squirmed a little, feeling his kingly demeanor drop entirely.

At the change in his posture, Gaius’s expression relaxed, and he sighed. “Do you remember, sire, when I told you that there were many who believed in the world you are trying to create, and one day you would learn how much they had done for you?”

Arthur felt a laugh escape him. “‘They’ meant Merlin, didn’t it.”

Gaius’s nod was barely perceptible. “Yes.”

“All those times I thought I had defeated magical monsters and armies, a dragon – it was really him, wasn’t it.”

The physician’s eyebrow went up again. “In many cases, yes. But do not downplay the victories you have won. Merlin simply aided you when, the truth is, the odds were terribly stacked against you. How much do you know, sire?”

Arthur nodded, and then hesitated. “I know he has magic,” he said after a moment. “I know he is a…” he swallowed at the memory of his altercation with the dragon the night before. “...a dragonlord.” Gaius’s lips pressed together, his eyebrow slowly rising again. “I followed him. I was worried because he’s seemed off lately. He went into the clearing in the forest where we battled the dragon after it escaped years ago, and it… it came to him. He talked to it. It looked like they were having an argument. Then Merlin left and the dragon called out to me. I talked to it too. It told me things I am not sure I would have liked to know.”

“Like the fact that Merlin can command him and Balinor was his father.” Gaius was nodding, but his grim expression had not changed.

“And that he set the beast free.” Arthur did not miss the wince that came across Gaius’s face when he said “beast,” but the expression gave way quickly to a hard frown when Gaius clocked what Arthur had told him. “You didn’t know he had set it loose to ravage Camelot, then,” Arthur said, frowning himself.

“No, I did not.” Gaius’s expression did not change. “There are many secrets Merlin holds, and it seems he has not told me all of them. But I do know that the great dragon had been questioning Merlin about his freedom for some time.”

“The dragon said it was because he had made a promise on his mother’s life to set it free if it told him how to save Camelot,” Arthur told him. “Although it would not tell me what particular advice that was.” Another wince passed over Gaius’s face. The look raised countless more questions, but Arthur would ask him about that later. Right now the focus was Merlin. “Gaius, I need you to tell me what is happening with Merlin. I know there have been a lot of secrets, but I’m not interested in details just now. I think that the dragon has been manipulating Merlin, and I am worried about him. I’m worried about what all these lies and secrets are doing to him. I fear he’s fading… pulling away from us.”

Gaius eyed him, his mouth a flat line again, as if he were trying to choose his words carefully. “Merlin and the Great Dragon are kin,” he said finally. “There is no one Merlin knows whom he has more in common with, as they are both creatures of magic. Merlin confides in the dragon as a friend, as a reflection of himself.”

“I know,” Arthur sighed. “But the dragon has not been treating him with the same respect that he should.” His own words caused a painful twinge in his gut – he himself had not experienced great treatment from his own kin. That was one more thing that he and Merlin had in common. “It – he – withheld important information from Merlin, used him for his own gain. Merlin’s spirit is gone, and I have reason to think the dragon is the biggest cause of it. I know you have seen Merlin recently – He’s just not the same. He looks sad and tired all the time, and I can’t remember the last time I saw him smile.”

“Sire, there are many things you do not yet know,” Gaius said. The muscles in his face were no longer tense, but they had not really relaxed; it was more like all the life had been drained out of the old man. “It was the dragon who first told Merlin about the destiny he shares with you – to make you the greatest king Albion has ever known, and he takes that responsibility very seriously – even more so since the two of you have grown closer. The dragon has been advising him, as have I where I can, although the dragon knows far more.”

Arthur leaned his elbows on the table, resting his forehead in his hands. “Gaius,” he said, “I think that whatever has been put into Merlin’s head over the years is undoing him.”

“I can assure you, sire, I have tried to advise him to the best of my ability…”

“But Gaius!” Arthur’s hands dropped to the table, and he raised his head to stare at the physician. “Why were you telling him it was his fault that events happened, why tell him to hide himself from Morgana when it sounds like he could have helped her? I realize there is a lot I don’t know yet – but what I do know is the only friend I have is coming undone and does not trust me enough to share these things with me.”

Gaius’s deflated features softened as he regarded the face of his king, whom he was likely seeing as the little boy he had once known. “Arthur,” he said quietly. “I know how much you care for Merlin. You and he have a bond and a long history. But you must understand why I have advised him to hide. It was far too dangerous.”

“You lied to him about his father.”

The physician’s eyes dropped. “Yes. It was at the request of his mother, who, as I have said, believed it would be far too dangerous for him to know the truth.”

“But look at how he found out! I was lied to about my mother. Morgana was lied to, and look what happened to her.” Arthur felt his eyes welling up at the thought of his sister, once so dear to him but corrupted by magic… no, not magic, lies. Lies and fear and hatred had destroyed her, and they were threatening to destroy Merlin. “You and the dragon,” he continued to Gaius, “you just told him lies.”

“I have only tried to protect him, Arthur,” Gaius said quietly. “I remember the Purge vividly. I would not see anyone close to me sent to the pyre again if I can help it, especially Merlin, considering he had no choice in being born with magic.”

“I know that, Gaius,” Arthur said, his tone softening. “But Merlin doesn’t have the same experiences as you. He won’t have seen it the same way. He is like me – he only knows what he has been told, and he hasn’t been allowed to figure things out for himself. It has been hard for me to find myself as king when all of the knowledge I had belonged to my father. I have been told Camelot has become better under my rule, and that has only been since I began to choose my own path. And Merlin is a very big reason for the change in me. He has helped me see past my upbringing and the thought that I had to do everything to please a man who was never happy unless I was following his views. I fear Merlin doesn’t feel he has that same freedom, if he even knows that he has any to begin with.” Arthur did not mention how hard it had been for him to go against what he knew to be his father’s wishes, particularly after he had heard this confirmed by the ghost of Uther himself.

Gaius’s eyes were still averted down. “I am sorry, sire,” he said softly. “I love Merlin as my own son. I have never desired to hurt him.”

“Of course you haven’t, Gaius,” Arthur responded. “Just as you would never desire to hurt me, and I would never desire to hurt you, or Merlin, or Guinevere. But I think in trying to protect him, you may have done much more harm than you realize.”

Gaius’s hard frown had gone limp. “I suppose, sire, that I must apologize for not having the sense to do the right thing for Merlin.”

Arthur sighed. “Not to me – to Merlin. But for now… I think it’s time I let Merlin know he isn’t alone.” With that he stood up and left, leaving the old man with a lot to think about.

Arthur’s thoughts turned over and over as he considered the exchange with Gaius. He had found the physician a lot easier to speak to than the dragon. But at the same time, both the great beast and the dear friend he had known all his life seemed to have done the same thing to Merlin.

Gaius, he could believe, had just wanted to protect Merlin, while the dragon had very clearly used him as a pawn for his own ends. Unfortunately, Gaius seemed to have been more worried for Merlin’s physical well-being than the mental repercussions his advice would cause.

Arthur paused outside the door to his room, collecting himself. He needed to catch Merlin off guard, then he would have a chance to get some honest answers out of him before he closed himself off.

Arthur entered and closed the door behind him, locking it so they would not be disturbed. Merlin was nowhere in sight at first, and Arthur cursed under his breath. Then he caught a movement on the other side of his bed, the crown of Merlin’s head appearing briefly above the mattress. Arthur walked to the end of the bed and looked down at Merlin, crossing his arms.

His servant was on his knees, scrubbing the flagstones with a brush, a bucket of soapy water next to him. The length of the floor from the window to Merlin was wet and gleaming, but he had a long way to go before he would be finished. His back was to Arthur, his shoulders flexing under his brown jacket as he worked the brush. Arthur noticed the sleeves of his jacket were rolled up, and on his arms where the fabric usually covered were lines of old scars. He found himself wondering just how many of them Merlin had gained throughout his time in Camelot.

Merlin did not seem to notice Arthur until he cleared his throat. Then he jolted and flailed water from the brush all over himself and the bed, quickly pulling his sleeves back down.

Arthur laughed before he could stop himself, and Merlin turned to scowl at him. He got to his feet with as much dignity as he seemed to be able to muster, dropping the brush into the bucket. “You’re back early, my lord.”

Arthur remembered he had told Merlin he would return at noon, and now it was barely an hour since he had left. He had not needed nearly as much time as he had thought he would to talk to Gaius. Glancing around, Arthur could see Merlin had barely made a dent in his chores. “Merlin,” he said, “Forget the jobs I gave you. Come and sit with me.”

Merlin obeyed, his movements wooden. He settled in a chair at the table and looked up at Arthur, his expression vacant. Arthur huffed out a breath, once again struck by the gaping hole that had been his friend's witty, fun demeanor. “Merlin,” he said, realizing his voice was trembling. He went to Merlin’s side and sat in the chair next to him. Merlin’s gaze dropped to his hands in his lap.

“Please,” Arthur continued. “Look at me.” His friend’s head slowly came up, dulled eyes meeting his own. Arthur swallowed, his pulse quickening. Impulsively he grasped Merlin’s wrist as it rested on the table. Merlin started, looking at him closely, focusing in a way that he hadn’t in a long time.

“I know about your magic,” Arthur blurted. Merlin’s eyes widened and his arm stiffened in Arthur’s grasp. He tried to pull away, but Arthur tightened his grip. “No! Hey, hey! It’s okay,” Arthur assured quickly. “I mean it. You don’t need to worry about being judged because of it. I've known for a while. I want to help you.”

The words hung between them and Merlin continued to stare at him. His hand clenched the edge of Arthur’s tunic sleeve as Arthur gripped his wrist. Arthur held his breath. Finally, Merlin looked away and said nothing. He took a deep, shuddering breath, closed his eyes and pressed his hand against his face, the other still clutching Arthur's sleeve. Arthur gripped his wrist more tightly. Tears were appearing in the corners of his tight eyelids, and Arthur felt his own eyes burn as he watched his friend. It had been such a long time since Merlin had shown any emotion at all, and seeing him cry now tore at Arthur.

When Merlin finally spoke, his voice was choked. “Was it Gaius?”

“No,” Arthur told him. “I figured it out for myself, weeks ago.”

Merlin studied Arthur carefully. He released Arthur’s sleeve and held his wrist instead, mirroring Arthur’s grip on his, like when the knights clasped each other’s wrists in kinship. There was something different about Merlin’s expression, as though he was scanning Arthur, trying to figure out what he was thinking. Then, the tears in his eyes spilled down his cheeks, the shaking in his body turning convulsive. “I’m sorry,” he pleaded in a choked voice. “I use it for you, Arthur. I swear! Only for you!”

“Merlin,” Arthur whispered, leaning forward to put his free hand on Merlin's shoulder. He pulled Merlin closer to him and held him like a child. His chest ached and his own tears began to fall.

Merlin sobbed in his arms, continuing to shake and grip Arthur, as though he thought someone might take him away. “Please don't send me to the pyre,” his ragged voice finally whispered. “I am destined to protect you. I need to be by your side.”

“I won't, Merlin,” Arthur replied shakily, running a soothing hand over his hair. He wiped away Merlin’s tears on his shirtfront. “Not you. Not now, not ever. You are safe here.” Merlin lifted his head and looked at Arthur, his eyes red-rimmed. Arthur squeezed his wrist gently. “I swear on my life, no harm will come to you.”

Merlin closed his eyes and shook his head, then rubbed a hand across his cheeks. He opened his mouth like he wanted to speak, but instead he nodded and curled in toward Arthur's side.

Arthur sighed deeply and closed his eyes for a moment, squeezing Merlin’s wrist again. Merlin wiped away more tears. “I followed you the other night,” he said, a bit sheepishly. “I heard you talking to the dragon. Then you left, and... and the dragon knew I was there. It called me into the clearing. It told me everything. Well, almost. I’m sure there’s still a lot I don’t know yet.”

Merlin straightened in his chair, shoving the heels of his hands across his eyes to dry them. He was staring again, but stayed silent. After a moment his eyes fell to his lap. “His name is Kilgharrah,” he said quietly.

Arthur raised his eyebrows. “The dragon?”

Merlin nodded, still not looking at him.

“And you are a dragonlord.”

“Yes.”

Arthur was already shaking his head. “As hard as that was for me to stomach, I accept it. I understand that you are powerful. The dragon – Kilgharrah – said we have a shared destiny. He called us two sides of the same coin.”

Merlin nodded again, still not looking at him. “You are the once and future king, destined to unite all of Albion. And my purpose is to help you, to protect you so that you can fulfill your destiny.”

Arthur frowned. “The night we met the Disir, you told me that magic had no place in Camelot.”

Merlin was silent for a long time, and Arthur saw tears gathering in his eyes again.

Arthur sighed. “Because you think Mordred is going to kill me.”

Merlin sniffled. “I…” He paused, and Arthur could feel him trembling again. His face crumpled as another sob escaped, and he buried his face in his hands. “I'm so sorry... I should have... done better…” he trailed off, shaking his head as fresh tears began to fall on his sleeves.

Arthur shifted on his chair, wrapping his arm around Merlin again, pulling him closer. “Don't cry, please. I'm here, I'm safe. And I really just want to see you smile again.”

Merlin didn't respond at first, so Arthur hugged him to his side. When his sobs quieted, Arthur loosened his hold, taking both of Merlin's wrists in his hands. Merlin finally scrubbed the heel of his hand over his nose. He looked up with watery, bloodshot eyes. “I'm sorry,” he said again, his voice thick.

Arthur shook his head. “It's alright. I'm sorry too.”

Merlin blinked, his brow furrowing. “Why are you sorry?”

“For all of the years that you had to hide. For calling you evil by calling magic evil–”

“But you didn't know–”

“Shh. Merlin. Let me talk.” Arthur swallowed. “The dragon and I do not exactly see eye to eye, but he has helped me understand the plight of magic users, of everything that you have done for me and Camelot.”

Merlin made no sound as he processed the statement, his lips pursing slightly. Then he smiled. It was a small smile, soft and vulnerable, that made Arthur want to smile too. But he restrained himself, instead holding Merlin's wrist a little tighter.

Merlin cleared his throat and lowered his eyes. His face grew sober. “What happened when the dragon told you?”

Arthur looked down, flushing. “I got angry at him for what he had done to Camelot. I was angry at you for lying to me about what had become of him. But I didn't get angry or try to attack him –”

Merlin snorted, a wider smile pressing into his cheeks this time. “You wouldn't have stood a chance if you had.”

It was the first genuine smile Arthur had seen on Merlin's face in weeks, and it buoyed him. He grinned back. “Yeah, I imagine not.” Then he grew serious and gripped Merlin's hand between his. “I want to know everything that's happened that I've not known about. I swear that you will not be judged. I will not be angry. I want to hear it from your point of view, not just Gaius's or the dragon's.”

“I know how much you hate being lied to.” Merlin stared at their hands for a few seconds before turning back to Arthur, meeting his gaze again. “I promise, I have not used my magic for anything that may have caused harm to you or Camelot, not intentionally.”

“Thank you,” Arthur said. “And thank you for trusting me.”

Merlin began speaking with his eyes still on the table, glancing at Arthur at odd intervals. Arthur kept his own eyes on his friend, trying to encourage Merlin to look at him. As he worked through his story, Arthur tried not to be taken aback or troubled by anything, as the dragon and Gaius had already told him most of it. Instead he found himself aching for Merlin, for the happy, idealistic boy who had been forced to hide and sink into depression for his own safety and in the name of a destiny he only believed in because a magical beast had told him to.

Arthur remembered starkly the story of young Mordred and his own involvement in smuggling the child out of Camelot before Uther could execute him for having magic. That appeared to be the first time Merlin had struggled with his own morality – when it had conflicted with what he had been told was destiny. Arthur was proud of the younger Merlin for disregarding the dragon’s advice and helping him to save Mordred’s life. If only he could bring the spirit of that young man back to give present-day Mordred a chance.

By the time he finished, Merlin was crying again. He had bent over, shaking, holding his face in his hands, as if hiding himself from Arthur. Arthur had poked fun at him for being emotional in the past, but he had not seen his friend this broken before, not even during their conversation after visiting the Disir. It felt as if he was giving in to the emotions Arthur had seen festering in him that night, just before he had renounced magic thinking it would save Arthur’s life. Arthur leaned over, taking Merlin into his arms again. Merlin pressed his face into his shoulder, now well past awkwardness or shame. His arm and back muscles were tense in Arthur’s embrace, but within a few moments, Arthur felt him relaxing.

After a long time, Arthur took Merlin by his shoulders and lifted him to arm’s length. Merlin was looking down again, eyes red rimmed and the corners of his mouth working anxiously. Arthur lifted his chin and met his gaze. “I swear to you,” he said, “I will make this better for you. But you must trust me, and you must try to stop believing I will die at Mordred’s hand. We will work this out together.”

Merlin’s eyes closed and he nodded, shoving the heels of his hands across his eyes. He did not even try to protest Arthur’s rejection of the destiny he had taken so seriously for such a long time. If Merlin had indeed hit rock bottom, Arthur was pleased that he had been able to break his fall.