Merlin did Arthur's laundry. He washed his floor. He brought him food.
That was in his job description.
He mucked out his stables. He went on hunts. He ducked goblets.
That was . . . not in his job description, but not terribly unreasonable.
He wrote speeches. He gave valuable advice. He fought in battles. He encouraged him. He helped him pursue Guinevere.
Definitely not in his job description, but Merlin, if asked, would probably say it was his role as a friend.
He tasted Arthur's food for poison. He fought assassins. He followed spies. He formed alliances and created loyalties to the king.
That was above and beyond the call of any duty he might reasonably have. Especially since he kept his activities in those areas secret.
And, apparently, he used magic to ward the city. He saved Arthur's life on a regular basis. He fought his kin, magically speaking, in order to protect a Pendragon.
Merlin claimed that was in his job description, as per destiny's orders. Had Merlin been well, Arthur would have thrown something at him. As it was . . .
As it was, the thought made him feel sick. Thinking of Merlin's condition at all made his stomach twist and his eyes burn, though he'd already wept himself dry in private.
No man is worth your tears.
And if the man wasn't dead? If, instead, he'd been humiliated and tortured and mocked for his loyalty and still refused to raise a hand against his tormentor? If, even after that, without one word of apology, he'd agreed to fight in Camelot's defense?
It wasn't your fault.
That was what they'd all told him. It wasn't his fault Agravaine had betrayed him. It wasn't his fault that Morgana had enchanted him. What had happened to Merlin had not been his fault.
Merlin hadn't known that. For weeks, only those involved in the conspiracy had. Agravaine, following his lady's orders. Morgana, once so compassionate, laughing cruelly in his mind as his imprisoned consciousness had struggled against her intrusion. As he'd begged her to stop this. Not to make him - not to force him to -
He hadn't known that Merlin was a sorcerer - warlock, he corrected himself. He had been angry. Had he been in control of himself, he would have demanded explanations. The circumstances hadn't been favorable - Merlin had been meeting with someone who'd called him "my lord" and talked about a plan - but, at most, he would have hit the man in a fit of rage and then exiled him. More likely, Merlin would have explained, he would have remained angry for a while, and then he would have grudgingly given in and gotten over it.
Morgana . . . hadn't wanted that. She hadn't wanted Emrys dead, was apparently forbidden to kill him by the fates themselves, and so had wanted him broken as the next best thing.
Pain from her would have hurt him, obviously. That was what pain meant.
But that wasn't what she wanted. She wanted him broken.
So she had used Arthur, an unwitting, silently screaming puppet, and Merlin hadn't known.
Merlin hadn't known he'd been enchanted. Merlin had thought the man he was loyal to had been in full control of himself. The most powerful warlock in the world had thought -
Arthur punched the wall outside of Gaius's chambers. Hard. His knuckles bled.
That was the only injury on him.
Merlin could have killed him. Easily. Without muttering a spell, without blinking.
There was loyalty and then there was Merlin.
He gathered up his courage and opened the door.
Merlin had eventually figured it out. He'd cast out Morgana before promptly collapsing. That had been a week ago.
Arthur hadn't seen him since.
It had been on Gaius's insistence. Arthur hadn't argued. He wasn't sure if Merlin's health truly required it, as Gaius claimed, or if Merlin simply didn't want to see him. He could respect either. From the looks Gaius had been sending him ever since Merlin had been arrested four weeks ago, he was lucky he hadn't been poisoned yet. He'd thought to give him time.
Then Gwaine had shown up in his study, bit into an apple, and calmly informed him that Merlin had been asking for him for a whole week now. Just as calmly, he'd said that if Arthur didn't get over himself and visit today, he'd drag him there by his ear.
The threat hadn't really been necessary.
"Merlin?" he asked hesitantly.
Merlin looked up from where he sat on the bed. He looked nervous. "Sire," he said quietly.
Arthur's stomach dropped. He walked into the room and shut the door quietly. "Feeling better?"
Merlin shrugged. "Gaius is going to let me out of bed soon."
"Good." The word hung quietly on the air.
". . . Do you need me for something?" There was a strange note in his voice he didn't recognize.
A month ago, he would have said, yes, my armor needs cleaning, so hurry up and get better. It would have been a joke, but he would have said it.
"No," he said forcefully, sickened once more at the very idea of it. Merlin had done enough.
"Oh." That note, whatever it had been, was gone. "What now, then?"
Arthur sat on a stool carefully. "Word's gotten out about some of your exploits."
Merlin's head shot up. "People know about the magic?"
"Among other things."
"Envoys from all five kingdoms have sent letters offering you positions."
Merlin choked. "What?"
A halfhearted smile tugged at his lips. "The offers are generous, and all open to negotiation. You could have your pick, Merlin. Advisor, spymaster, court warlock . . . Actually, there's more than one marriage proposal in there, so you could probably be king somewhere if you fancied it."
"I don't understand."
Of course he didn't. And a part of Arthur, a very selfish part that screamed at the very idea of losing his first and best friend, wanted to tell him it had all been a joke. A prank, meant to break the ice.
But he had already lost him, hadn't he? And Merlin deserved far, far better than he had given him.
"You're Emrys," he reminded him. "King of the Druids. Ally of the Catha. Most powerful warlock to ever live. You have a dragon under your command, and that's only the magic side of it. You're also an excellent speechwriter, a superb councilor, and, apparently, a very good spy. People are finally realizing that, and given your current - complicated - relationship with Camelot, they're willing to risk offending me for a once in a lifetime opportunity of snapping you up."
Merlin's reaction was not what he'd expected. Then again, this was Merlin. Others' expectations of him seemed to exist solely so he could defy them.
He'd curled in on himself a bit, shoulders hunched. "You never really got the chance to react properly to all this," he said.
"Not really, no." Where was he going with this?
"Do you want me gone?"
Arthur's mouth dropped open. Where in the world had he gotten that idea?
Merlin laughed bitterly. "Right. Sorry. Stupid question, isn't it? Of course you do. I don't blame you," he added hastily. "Of course I don't. You need someone you can trust, not someone who's been lying to you for the past five years and has magic to boot. And for all that, you were still trapped with her in your head for nearly a month." The last bit came out as something close to a sob. He looked up at Arthur with true agony in his eyes. "For whatever it's worth, and I know it can't be much, you have no idea how sorry I am about that. No wonder you call me an idiot. I was the biggest fool in five kingdoms not to even think of it." He swallowed hard and his eyes turned pleading. "Please, sire. Just give me one more chance. I swear I can be useful, I'll do whatever you want, I'll do better, just please - "
I'm sorry, I'm sorry, Arthur, please -
Arthur closed his eyes against the memory, choking it back, the rest of his mind struggling to comprehend what was going on.
He didn't understand. Unless - Oh.
Merlin had assumed he'd brought up the offers as a way of softening the blow of an impending order to leave, maybe even as a means of placating a potentially dangerous sorcerer.
As to why he would want to stay, Arthur had no idea.
He slid off his stool and knelt beside Merlin's bed, gripping his shaking arms. "You leaving is the last thing I want," he said hoarsely. "But after everything that's happened, I thought you might be happier if you did."
Merlin's expression brightened considerably. "You're not banishing me?"
"Why on earth would I want to do that?"
"Magic, treason, lying to my king - "
"Yes, you treasonously lied to me about having magic so you could continue saving my life in your free time," he said dryly. Then, more seriously, "I won't pretend I wasn't angry at first. But after what happened - "
"You've worked your anger issues out?"
Arthur flinched. Merlin smiled at him tentatively.
"It could have been worse."
"How, exactly, could that situation have been any worse?"
"She could have possessed me."
A sudden, horrifying image of Merlin Emrys attacking Camelot assaulted him. He swallowed, mouth suddenly dry. "You're right. That would have been worse."
Merlin smiled brightly. "See, sire? Look on the bright side."
"Right." He rolled his eyes. Then, almost not daring to ask. "Merlin? Why didn't you kill me?"
"Sire?" he asked with blank incomprehension.
"When you didn't know that I was enchanted. When you thought it was me hurting you. Why didn't you kill me?"
"You're my king, sire," he said blankly. "I'm Emrys. The whole reason I'm alive is to protect you."
Arthur stared at him.
"That reminds me. Who's been doing my job? George?"
A little startled, Arthur just nodded. Merlin made a face. "Right. Well, don't worry. Gaius said I can be back to work in a little less than a week, so - "
"He said what?" Arthur demanded, leaping to his feet.
Merlin blinked at him. "Well, I'll be able to walk anyway, and if you don't have any objection to magic, I can use it to do any heavy lifting like mucking out the stables - "
"You are not- I just told you about all of these - " he brandished the letters, "and you're planning on mucking out my stables?"
"Unless you've finally learned what stable hands are for, than yes. I'm not interested in any job that takes me out of Camelot. I can't protect you from fifty miles away - well, yes, I can, actually," he corrected himself, "but it's exhausting. And I can't check for poison from there."
Oh, for the love of Camelot. "So you were just planning on picking back up on your old duties?"
Merlin shrank back from the anger in his voice. He'd never done that.
"Are you firing me?" he ventured.
Arthur buried his head in his hands. "You know that I lifted the ban on magic."
"Yes . . . "
"Which means the druids are coming into the city now."
"Yes . . . "
"Did it not occur to you that it might be a little awkward if half of our new allies are bowing to you while you're on your way to do the laundry?"
"They won't bow," he reassured him. "Not if I ask them not to. They're good about that."
Arthur resisted the urge to bang his head against the wall. "You're a dragonlord. Technically you're a member of the nobility."
"My father's house was cast out for magic, and I was illegitimate in any case, sire. There's no real legal objection."
Sire. He hadn't called him Arthur after -
He shut the memory down quickly.
"Merlin," he said very, very, slowly, "my point is, you've earned a promotion about a thousand times over by now. So think it through for a night, a week, however long, and for once in your life, decide what you want to do, not what you think destiny wants or what you think is best for me, and I'll draft up a proclamation and make it legal."
Merlin muttered something.
"What was that?"
He blushed. "I don't care about the recognition. I never have. I'll go wherever you want me. It's just . . . Someday, not now obviously . . . Will you give me a chance to do it right this time?"
"Do what right?"
Merlin wouldn't look at him. "To be friends again. When I've earned your trust back."
Something very hot and thick was clogging Arthur's throat. "Merlin, you idiot," he growled.
Before Merlin had the chance to take that the wrong way, Arthur was giving him the second hug they'd shared in their rather complicated relationship.
He hadn't lost him. He was still here. He was still here.
To be friends again. When I've earned your trust back.
Didn't he realize that all along, Arthur had wanted to say that to him?