Merlin was used to Arthur calling him names. It seemed to be the way he expresses his fondness, for some reason.
“Don’t be an idiot, Merlin.”
“You’re such a coward, Merlin.”
“Don’t be such a child, Merlin.”
Merlin would smile and shake his head at those insults. But there’s one expression that stung. That made him wince and look away. An expression that hit a little too close to home. “Merlin, you’re such a girl.”
He’d heard those words too many times before. Even after two years, they brought back memories he’d much rather leave buried. Still, he didn't say anything to Arthur. How could he, when the truth lay so close to the secret he was trying to keep? And even if he could tell Arthur what those words meant to him, how could he be sure that Arthur would understand? So few people would.
So for the moment Merlin did what he always does: he kept his head down and accepted the rebuke silently.
Things came to a head when Merlin was helping Arthur train. On this particular day, that meant holding up a heavy wooden shield for Arthur to hack at. After a particularly vicious flurry of blows, Arthur landed one final hit that chipped the shield and threw his unlucky manservant completely off-balance. Merlin yelped as he fell backwards, dropping the shield.
Arthur laughed at Merlin’s look of shock. “Don’t be such a girl Merlin, I didn’t even hit you.” He stepped back a few paces and stuck his sword in the ground in front of him.
Merlin quickly scrambled to his feet. He was embarrassed, hot, and tired, and for once he gave up on minding his tongue. “That’s not even an insult, cabbagehead.” He said angrily. “Morgana’s a girl, and she can fight as well as any of your knights.”
“And yet for some reason, you still seem insulted.” Arthur grinned, leaning on his sword.
Merlin clenched his jaw. He wished he could tell Arthur how those comments dragged up memories of when the other boys refused to play with him. How it reminded him of the disapproving stares when he’d hitch up his skirts into makeshift pants. How many times people had thought to compliment him by calling him a lovely young lady. That he’d left his home and his family to never have to be called that again.
The words were on the tip of his tongue.
But then he remembered how long it had taken for William to speak to him again when he’d told him he wasn’t going to grow up to be a woman. How even his best friend, who had taken his magic in his stride, had refused to believe his best friend wasn’t the girl he’d thought him to be. He recalled the wide-eyed fear on his mother’s face when he explained his magic wasn’t the only thing that was different about him. How she’d insisted he was just confused.
Both of them had understood, in the end, but their initial reactions had stuck with Merlin and he’d never confided in anyone else. Even Gaius, who knew his greatest secret, didn’t know this part of past. His mother had made him promise not to tell, pressing the letter asserting him as her son into his hand. She’d given him a chance, with those words, to start anew. He couldn’t waste that chance by dwelling on past hurts.
Merlin dispensed the breath he was holding and tried to regain his calm. “It’s just that… It’s just… you’re wrong.” He mumbled clumsily.
Arthur’s grin faded as he looked at his friend with a mixture of curiosity and concern. “This really bothers you, doesn’t it?” He asked. “Why? I’ve called you far worse.”
Merlin avoided Arthur’s gaze by bending over to pick up the practice shield, looking for a distraction. Arthur’s last swing had actually chipped the wood. But the more concerning thing was the crack that ran all the way down to the middle. Merlin sighed. The shield was unusable now. That meant he’d have to go out to buy a replacement for their next sparring session.
“Come on Merlin, out with it.” Arthur said impatiently, his tone of voice indicating that he wouldn’t allow Merlin to sweep this under the rug.
Merlin cursed silently at himself. He’d let his fool mouth get away from him again, and it wouldn’t be easy to get Arthur to stop prying now. He gently set down the shield, balancing it on its side. “Sire, have you considered that this might be something personal.” Merlin said, rocking the shield from side to side and still not looking at Arthur.
“You know you can’t keep secrets from me, Merlin. As your prince, I command you to tell me what’s on your mind.” Arthur said with mock severity. Then he added, more gently, “and as your friend, I’d like to know what’s wrong. It might be something I can help with.”
Merlin bit his lip nervously. He knew that Arthur was too stubborn to back off until he knew what was wrong, and somehow that last comment had given him a little hope. He thought of William.
When William had stopped talking to him (not an easy feat in a village of less than a hundred people), Merlin had been sure he’d lost his best friend forever. Those were the loneliest weeks of his life, and in that time Merlin had decided he’d have to leave. The morning of his departure, he’d found William waiting at his door.
“Remember when I yelled at you for not being a girl?”
“It’s kinda hard to forget.”
“That was stupid, and I’m sorry.” William had said bluntly.
“I’m sorry too,” Merlin had shrugged as he hoisted his backpack on his back. He’d made his plans.
“I didn’t mean for you to leave.”
“It’s not safe for me here any more.”
They’d walked to the edge of the slumbering village together, talking about old times, and for a while things seemed normal between them again. When they’d reached the main road, they shook hands.
“So are you going to be a boy when you come back?” William had asked.
“Well, I’m not going to be a girl anymore.”
William nodded. “I’ll be here when you come back. No matter who you are.”
When Merlin had come back to Ealdor, William had treated him the same as he always had. That acceptance had meant more to Merlin than anything else in their long friendship. If his hot-headed childhood friend could understand, maybe Arthur would too. There was really only one way to find out.
“You’re not the first person to call me a girl. In fact, lots of people used to say that.” Merlin said quickly, as if rushing the words out would somehow make it easier to hear. He risked a glance at Arthur.
Arthur sheathed his sword, a confused frown on his face. It was clear that Merlin wasn't making any sense to him yet.
Merlin lowered his gaze, and thought about how best to put it. In for a penny, in for a pound. “Look, you call me a fool, or a coward, or an idiot. But you know I’m not really any of those things.”
“No no, you really are an idiot, Merlin,” Arthur said with a grin, and Merlin gave him a small smile. “I also know you’re not actually a girl,” Arthur added more seriously.
“Yeah, well they didn’t.” Merlin pointed out. He waited for the penny to drop. Any second now, his whole world could be turned upside down.
Arthur furrowed his brow. “I don’t understand.”
Merlin let out an exasperated groan. This wasn’t going at all how he’d hoped it would. “Why do you think so few people recognized me when we went to Ealdor? It’s a tiny village, everyone knows everyone, yet no-one came to catch up with the boy who left to go live in an actual castle?”
“William recognized you.”
“Because he was the only one who knew. He knew I left because I couldn’t safely be myself there. He’s the only person I ever told.” Merlin realized he’d been raising his voice, drawing stares from the other people on the practice field. “Look, this was a mistake, Arthur. Just forget I said anything.” Merlin said, lifting the shield onto his back and turning around.
“Wait.” Arthur said, putting his hand on Merlin’s shoulder. “Your midwife must have known. And why would your mother have called you her daughter?”
Merlin dropped the shield with a loud thump, inches from Arthur’s foot, and propped it up against his calf. He straightened up to look Arthur directly in the eyes and crossed his arms. Heart thumping, he held his gaze with a defiance he didn’t actually feel. There was no turning back now.
He knew the penny had dropped when Arthur recoiled. “You used magic?” The prince asked incredulously.
“There was a wizard who helped me.” Merlin said curtly. Not the whole truth, but a version of it.
“Imagine if all your life, you had known you were a prince, but no-one else could see it. And they’re all really polite, but they insist on calling you My Lady, no matter how many times you correct them. Your father buys you dresses. Your hand-maiden braids your hair.”
“You can’t just TURN INTO a man!” Arthur interrupted.
“No. But you can help the rest of the world to see it.”
Arthur fell silent, dumbstruck. Merlin waited, his heart hammering, to see what he would do next. Would he fire him? Banish him? But the silence lengthened as Arthur grappled with the foreign notion Merlin had introduced to him. He looked more confused than Merlin had ever seen him. But at least he wasn’t angry.
Merlin waited for Arthur to say something, anything, but the young prince seemed to be completely lost in thought. Finally, Merlin couldn’t stand it any longer.
“Sire? May I be dismissed? I should get you a new shield.” He said as politely as he could, gesturing at the cracked shield at his feet.
“Hmm?” Arthur looked up. “Yes, go ahead, go.” He gestured vaguely with one hand.
Merlin decided that was as best a reaction as he could have hoped for, though the lack of reaction was making him very nervous. He hoisted the shield onto one shoulder. Just as he was about to turn away, he turned back to the man standing pensively at the side of the road. “And Arthur?” He waited until the prince looked up at him. “Please don’t tell anyone about this.”
Arthur looked slightly dazed, but he nodded his assent. “Of course.”
The rest of the day, Merlin did his chores with a feeling of dread nestled in his stomach. He wished he hadn't said anything. It had been a stupid risk, for a stupid reason, and with each passing second Merlin felt more and more certain that telling Arthur this secret was the most foolish thing he'd done in his life.
He worried that at any moment, a guard might grab him and throw him in the dungeons for his admitted use of magic. Or a servant might come up to him with a message that Arthur had no more need of his services now that he knew about his past. But as the day wore on neither of those things happened, and as evening approached Merlin knew he could no longer put off going to see the prince.
He collected Arthur's supper at the kitchen's, and ascended to the prince's chambers with a heavy heart. Balancing the platter on one hand, he knocked.
"Enter." Arthur's familiar voice called curtly. Merlin's stomach dropped. Part of him had hoped to find the chambers empty.
Taking a deep breath, Merlin slipped inside, closing the door behind him. Arthur was standing by the window, his back towards him. Hoping to avoid a confrontation, Merlin quietly placed the platter on the table. He was just about to leave again when Arthur turned around.
"Merlin." He commanded.
Merlin froze, dreading what would happen next. He turned back to the room, though he kept his head bowed.
Arthur turned to face him, keeping his hands clasped behind his back. "You know I cannot condone what you did. The use of magic is dangerous and corrupt. It´s a miracle no bad side-effects have come of it." he said in the detached voice he reserved for princely matters. Merlin nodded meekly, fearing that he'd lost Arthur's trust for good this time. "But I know the kind of man you are, and that has not changed," Arthur continued, as he stepped forward.
Merlin felt a glimmer of hope, and finally dared to look at Arthur. There was no anger there, no distrust. A little confusion, maybe, but also a lot of understanding. "Sire?" He asked.
"I believe the past should remain in the past," Arthur continued in his oratory voice, "To judge a man's worth by his character, not by his birth. Am I making myself clear here?"
Merlin could hardly believe his ears. A smile crept onto his face. "Yes, sire. Crystal clear."
"Good." Arthur nodded, sitting down. "That'll be all." He poured himself a cup of wine, before looking up to see a dumbfounded Merlin still standing by the door. "Dismissed, Merlin," he said with a grin.
Merlin snapped out of his trance, gave Arthur a quick, sloppy bow, and staggered out the door.
To Merlin's surprise, very little changed over the following weeks. Arthur only addressed Merlin’s past once, three days later, in the training yard. Arthur was testing out the new shield Merlin had had made, and by their side Morgana was practicing her swordwork. Arthur lowered his sword to watch Morgana land a truly impressive flurry of blows on an unlucky page.
Arthur wiped his brow and walked over to Merlin. He gestured to Morgana, who circled her opponent with a gleeful smile on her face. “Merlin, you once said Morgana fights like a man. Do you think she would want to… If she could?” He asked carefully.
Merlin almost dropped the shield in shock. “What? Sire, Morgana would like to receive the same respect as the men. That doesn’t mean that she wants to be one.”
“Oh. Yes. Yes of course.” Arthur mumbled, looking embarrassed.
Merlin watched him with a concerned look on his face, worried that more questions would follow now that Arthur had had time to let the truth sink in. Things like how he’d known that he’d wanted to change gender, or what the change had been like, and if he’d never had regrets. Merlin wasn’t sure if he was ready for those kind of personal questions. He wasn’t even sure he knew the answers. But all that Arthur said was “Get your shield back up, we’re not done training yet.”
And that was that. Life at Camelot continued as normal. Merlin had told Arthur one of his biggest secrets, one that even Gaius didn't know about, but it didn't seem to matter. Knowing Merlin's history seemed to make no difference to Arthur. No difference save one. Merlin was still an idiot, a coward, or a child. But never again a girl.