The first day is the hardest.
The scent of ashes and burnt flesh seems to linger in the air, nauseating. It has to be only Arthur's imagination, but the smell follows him everywhere, heavy with memories and regrets. It tears at his throat, choking his lungs and stinging his eyes. Everywhere he goes, he feels alone and bared, as though something fundamental has left him. His shadow no longer walks behind him, and Arthur feels its absence sorely. He wants to be angry, wants to feel satisfied; but in the past couple days he has lost two of the people he cared about the most, and he's not sure which loss is the most painful. Is it his father, who raised him and loved him and who was sinking into insanity, or is it his – his – well, there never really was a word to describe what Merlin was to Arthur.
Arthur feels like a traitor to himself for even daring to think this, to miss the person who has done him so much wrong. It's weak of him to want him back, when he was only a liar, a traitor, and a sorcerer. It's weak of him to want to change what happened just because he can't face the aftermath. His father wouldn't change his mind. His father would say that it had to be done, and he would be right.
And still, avenging his father's death has brought none of the satisfaction that Arthur hoped it would.
Merlin looked up at Arthur, his eyes wide with fear, but he said nothing to defend himself, and it was all Arthur could do not to run him through there and then.
The eyes. It had always been the eyes, hadn't it? Something about the colour, the shape seemed familiar, even sunken as they were in that old, wrinkled, ill-tempered face. Familiar. Arthur almost wanted to laugh at how blind, how stupid he had been. All along, it had been Merlin, ungracefully aged into an older version of himself. Merlin with the enchanted poultice, Merlin who, disguised as Dragoon, had insulted Arthur and let him know what he really thought of him. Merlin whom Arthur had gone to see for help for his father. Merlin who had magic, and Arthur had never seen, had never guessed.
"I don't believe it." Arthur backed away from Merlin until his back was pressed to the wall. "You? But I –"
"I trusted you!" Arthur shouted, his grief feeding his anger, and it wasn't fear that made him recoil from Merlin, it was disgust. "I trusted you and for years, you lied to me, and now this? Why, Merlin? Did you think I would be a better king for your kind? Did you hope I would destroy everything my father fought for?"
"Magic isn't what you think it is –"
"Oh, no," Arthur said. "You're right, it isn't. It's a thousand times more cruel than I ever thought it was. I will never forget this, Merlin. You can die knowing that you destroyed all hope there might have been for your people."
Merlin jerked back as if struck. His mouth fell open, but no words came out, and he looked like such an idiot, a broken-hearted idiot, that Arthur had to look away to remind himself that – Father.
"I'm going to call the guards," he said quietly, feeling drained all of a sudden – drained of his anger, drained of his energy, drained of everything except the all-encompassing pain. "They're going to lock you up in the dungeons. You know that sorcery is a crime, and treason an even greater one. You murdered a man."
"Arthur, it wasn't –"
"If you know what's good for you," Arthur said, "you won't speak to me again."
A sorcerer. Merlin was a sorcerer, and he had used magic hundreds of times, maybe even right in front of Arthur. It was pointless, now, to go through his memories and find the hints, the glaring clues that should have alarmed him. Arthur could only stare down at his father's body, and swear revenge on the man who had killed him in his weakened state. Dragoon.
The first day is the day Lancelot disappears, and the day that Arthur realises how much more there is to this than just him and Merlin.
His friend's ashes have hardly been swept up that Lancelot is already gone without so much as a farewell to anyone, not even his new king. Arthur says nothing when he wakes up (from a nightmare that is only as harsh as his reality) to the news that Sir Lancelot's chambers are empty and his horse is gone. Evidently, he left in the middle of the night, leaving behind only his sword, his armour, and his red cloak, carefully folded and placed on his bed. The message could not be clearer, and Arthur wonders bitterly how he never saw it, never realised that Lancelot's allegiance was neither to him nor to Camelot, but to Merlin. It's a betrayal and it stings, but not quite so much as the niggling thought that, well, Uther never really gave Lancelot and the other commoner-knights a reason to respect him. It was never Uther Lancelot served. For a while Arthur thought it might have been him, but evidently he was misguided.
Merlin is entwined with so much more than Arthur thought.
Arthur's gaze travelled over his knights, hard and searching. He trusted these men with his lives, but then, he had trusted Merlin with his life as well. He steeled himself and asked:
"Did any of you know?"
Most of them shook their heads immediately, bristling at the accusation; they were not the ones he suspected. Only a handful of knights had been close to Merlin: the same ones Arthur held in what was perhaps too much esteem. And these knights squared their shoulders and lifted their chins, feeling and resenting the suspicion that rested on their shoulders. Leon, his faithful Leon, did not move, and Arthur knew his honesty would have forced him to admit his guilt if there had been anything to confess. It was a relief, because Arthur didn't think he could have born the betrayal of his oldest, truest knight.
And that left – Elyan. Percival. Gwaine. Arthur looked at them each in turn, and knew his gaze rested longest on Gwaine, who had never hidden his affection for Merlin and who challenged Arthur most often. The knight neither denied nor admitted anything; he only set his jaw, and his eyes seemed to say, And if I did? What are you going to do about it? Arthur stepped forward, about to repeat his question, when –
Lancelot spoke clearly, unashamedly. Arthur tore his gaze away from Gwaine and stared at him, his most honourable knight, a noble in his heart and soul if not by birth.
"You did what?" he asked, because this was Lancelot, and Lancelot didn't lie, didn't betray.
"I knew Merlin had magic," Lancelot said, stepping forward from the line of knights facing Arthur. His voice carried clearly across the courtyard, and every knight heard his words. "I've known since before your father banished me."
Arthur started. "But that was years ago."
Lancelot inclined his head in acknowledgement.
"And you never told me."
Arthur was having a hard time believing it. Lancelot, the embodiment of all that was right, another traitor? Was he that despicable a king, that all those closest to him were liars?
"It was not my secret to share, sire."
"If you cared at all for Camelot, you would have said something. For the sake of our people."
Lancelot's eyes hardened; the look was one Arthur had often seen when Lancelot was on the battlefield, but it had never been directed at him before. "Merlin would never harm the people of Camelot. You know that as well as I do."
"Not her people, only her king, then," Arthur said, feeling anger rise up in him at the mention of Merlin's name. "You concealed something from me which you should not have. Protecting a sorcerer is a criminal offense."
Lancelot raised his head proudly. "If I am to hang for defending a friend, you shall not find any regret in me."
"Lancelot," Leon said sharply. "Hold your tongue."
Lancelot gave him a small, grateful smile, but he shook his head. "Would you stop me from speaking the truth?"
It's difficult to ignore Lancelot's absence. Arthur has training with his knights first thing that day, just before the council where he will act as king. It was intended to take his mind off it, as there is very little he enjoys more than fighting. Not the wars, not the death and destruction and hatred, but the fierce joy when he crosses blades with one of his own knights, tests their skill and sees how well he taught them; that is unparalleled. Arthur's step is already lighter when he reaches the training grounds, but the chatter that was rising among his men comes to a full stop when they notice him. An uncharacteristic silence fills the air, and Arthur realises – it won't be that easy.
He looks out at them. Most of them look tired, because they attended the execution only a few hours ago at the crack of dawn. Most of them won't even meet Arthur's gaze. Leon does, but there is something shadowed and distant about his eyes. And Gwaine, of course Gwaine looks right at him, and the steel in his eyes is harder than that of his sword. But what throws Arthur is the wet sheen that glistens over his eyes and that he isn't even trying to hide.
Arthur is the one who looks away.
"Arthur, stop and think about what you're doing," Gwaine said, hurriedly walking beside him. "This is Merlin we're talking about!"
Yes, it was Merlin. That was why it hurt so much.
"He's your servant, our friend. You have to know he would never harm you. How long have you known him for?"
"Six years," Arthur said.
More than six goddamn years, and Merlin had lied to him every single day.
Gwaine caught Arthur's elbow, stopping him. "He's yours! How can you be so blind? He's not evil, he's just Merlin!"
"He's a sorcerer," Arthur said bitingly. "Sorcery has always merited the capital punishment. He's a traitor –"
"Don't be stupid –"
"Watch your tongue, Sir Gwaine," Arthur snapped, shaking Gwaine off. "I'll remind you I'm king now."
Gwaine's eyes flashed. "You're making the worst mistake of your life, sire," he spat. "Don't expect me to just stand by and watch."
Gwaine almost spent that night in the dungeons, too.
At council Arthur's advisers mention something about officially stripping Lancelot of his knighthood and sending men after him – He has betrayed you, my lord – but through the taste of bile on his tongue Arthur finds the strength to protest. The betrayal isn't entirely one-sided, after all. Lancelot is a knight, through and through, even if he was never Arthur's.
Lancelot's departure is a harsh blow for him, but harsher still is the reason for his abandonment. Blame rests heavily on his shoulders whenever he crosses the gaze of one of his knights, and he takes to flinching away from their meaningful looks. Percival is silent, ever silent, but somehow his eyes manage to convey the words he won't say, and Arthur begins to avoid him outside of practices. Besides Gwaine, Percival is the worst. Gwaine is aggressive and blunt, but Percival is quiet, and because he never says anything, Arthur can only guess what he's thinking.
It makes him angry. He knows he's just drawing on his anger as a defense mechanism, but he can't be bothered to try to check himself, because – why is everyone blaming him? They all know what Merlin did. Arthur saw him do it, and the condemnation wasn't unfair. It was all Merlin could have expected, being what he was. It was justice.
So Arthur is angry, and his knights take to avoiding him just as he avoids them as much as possible. It's a sad start to a new king's reign when his soldiers can't stand to be in the same room as him for any longer than absolutely necessary, but Arthur doesn't even care. He never wanted to be king this early.
When Arthur is alone, he dreams. Even his daydreams are haunting nightmares and at night, the memories of that day and its consequences return. They don't keep him from sleeping, but instead pull him into a fitful sleep, punctuated by dreams that leave him pale and breathless, his heart racing.
Sitting in a chair in his room, looking out his window. Gwen, her hands sliding over his shoulders reassuringly, her touch firm and comforting. "Oh, Arthur. I'm so sorry."
Arthur blinked fiercely, holding back the tears he couldn't allow to spill over. Why did he want to cry? Was it for the father he had lost, or for the friendship that had never been?
"How could he?" he asked brokenly, and there he had his answer. "He was defenseless, and he just killed him!"
Gwen tensed behind him, her hands going still. "You don't know that for sure."
"I was there, Gwen. I saw it. He used magic, and my father died."
"Maybe something went wrong." Gwen sounded unsure, as though she were trying to convince herself of the fact. "Maybe he didn't mean to –"
"Of course he meant to do it – a sorcerer has every reason to despise my father."
"But it's Merlin we're talking about."
"And he's a sorcerer."
Arthur set his jaw. If Morgana's betrayal had hurt him, Merlin's was destroying him.
"He lied to us all, Gwen. And for that, he's going to pay."
He heard Gwen's sharp intake of breath and turned his head to look at her. She looked stricken, her lips slightly parted in shock. She was beautiful.
"You can't mean... You've already imprisoned him!"
Arthur rose from his chair, shaking her hands off his shoulders. "He killed a king, and he is a sorcerer. He has to die."
"No!" Gwen's eyes were wide and desperate. "He can't – Arthur, please, you can't."
"But I can." Alarm coursed through him as he watched Gwen take a step back. "Why shouldn't I? He's a traitor and a murderer. I can't let him go, and I will never forgive what he did to me."
"No," Gwen said again, her voice shaking. "No, there – there has to be an explanation. I know Merlin would never do that, and you do, too. Arthur, listen to yourself, you have to know this is crazy –"
"I saw him, Gwen. And I'll never be able to unsee it." Arthur let his gaze stray from Gwen's face to the bed, remembering how his father had lain, defenseless, dying, on his own bed. "He has to die."
"He's your friend!"
"And he betrayed me."
Gwen, his love, the woman he planned to one day take as queen. (And that day could be soon now that Arthur is king, but at the same time it's further away than it has ever been.)
The first day, Gwen doesn't even show up at the castle. Arthur notices. It isn't a childish tantrum, it's grief, and it's better to have her keep to herself than to see her openly defy him in front of the court, or cry open tears for a traitor to the kingdom. That's what Arthur tries to tell himself, at least.
The day after Lancelot's departure, she returns, carrying out her normal duties. Arthur catches sight of her several times, but can never seem to approach her. Her eyes are rimmed with red, but she stands rigidly and proudly, and her expression is so studiously blank it is difficult to remember that she was not born a noble, that she is only a strong and passionate serving girl whom Arthur fell in love with.
She is also the woman Lancelot loved first, and a part of her can never be Arthur's. She says nothing about it, but Arthur knows that Lancelot's departure hits her as hard as it does him. He has faith in the woman he loves, but he isn't blind to the feelings his knight still holds for her, and he knows that Gwen holds Lancelot in high regard. Her silence unsettles him, because in it he can read the reproach she won't voice aloud. You murdered one friend and drove the other away. For a week Arthur bears her silence, and for a week Gwen is as regal as any queen – strong in the face of adversity, reserved in her judgment and clever in her dealings with Arthur.
On the seventh day, Gwen leaves with as little fanfare as Lancelot did, and it's easy enough for Arthur to guess she has gone after him. He doesn't order anyone after them, and doesn't bother to try to silence the gossip that ensues.
A quiet summer day, warm and lazy, night taking its sweet time falling. Gwen by his side on the balcony, watching the sun lower itself over the horizon, the sunshine making her face glow. There was a small, peaceful smile on her lips, as though this sufficed to make her happy: watching the sun set on Camelot.
"You're going to rule a beautiful kingdom, Arthur. And when you do, I'll be proud to be a servant in your castle."
Arthur frowned, not missing the distance she was putting between them. "You don't have to be a servant," he said, his voice low. He stepped closer to her, reaching out to lightly touch her hand. "You could be queen."
Gwen tried to laugh it off, but there was a sadness in her eyes. "Don't, Arthur. Please."
"I mean it."
Gwen looked away, back at the city displayed beneath them. Her hair fell forward, shielding her eyes from him.
"I'm no princess, Arthur."
She sounded regretful, but Arthur didn't miss the underlying note of hope in her tone, and it gave him the courage to go on.
"I don't care about that," he said, bringing her hand to his mouth and brushing his lips against her knuckles. "You are much more than what you were born, Guinevere."
Gwen turned to face him again, a sad smile curving her lips. "You know it can't be."
"But it can," Arthur insisted. "When the time is right, you'll see."
The reddened sun faded beneath the horizon; up in the darkening sky, Arthur caught sight of a star, bright and hopeful.
"One day, we will rule together."
Arthur's coronation takes place fifteen days after his father's funeral. It's a quiet affair, considering. Normal protocol would have the coronation delayed for at least a couple months after the funeral, and envoys sent to allied kingdoms to announce it, but times are troubled and Morgana is still a very real threat to the kingdom's stability. So the coronation takes place as soon as possible, and Arthur feels the weight of a king's crown upon his head sooner than he would have wished.
Arthur has always known he would one day be king, but he never imagined it would be this painful, this lonely to rule. He has lost everything and everyone he cared about, and he stands alone, with only his own strength to draw upon where before he has always had his father's guidance, Morgana's friendship, Gwen's faith, his knights' loyalty, Merlin's – Merlin's nothing, apparently. Arthur is without a queen by his side, without a friend to count on, and even, if he's honest with himself, without his knights' honesty to rely on.
In a way, the guilt-tripping is working, and he is starting to think that all of this – his knights' looks, Lancelot's betrayal, Gwen's abandonment – is a just punishment for having sent a friend to the pyre. As though Merlin didn't deserve it.
As though seeing Merlin burn wasn't punishment enough, as though any of them will ever be able to forget the sight or the stench.
Merlin was executed at dawn.
It was more impressive that way. Executions by fire were almost always carried out at dawn or dusk, when it was dark enough for the fire to attract all the attention, but light enough to see if the prisoner attempted something. And Arthur had known almost immediately that he would see Merlin die by fire. A slow burn, drawn-out and painful, just as his years of lies had been.
Merlin was led to the pyre with his hands bound in front of him, flanked by guards. His head was held high, not out of pride but because his eyes were scanning the crowd, looking for someone. He looked tired and his clothes were dirty; he'd spent the night in the dungeons.
He looked like Merlin.
His eyes landed on Gwen, who was standing by the knights, and a small, reassuring smile pulled the corners of his lips upwards as he looked at her. Gwen was teary-eyed, but quiet; her hand was closed tightly around Lancelot's sleeve. Not too far off stood Gaius, who was also solemn and quiet, his eyes fixed on Merlin as though waiting for something.
The guards bound Merlin to the stake, and he seemed hardly perturbed, not even putting up the semblance of a struggle. Arthur's eyes were open for any attempt at magic, but Merlin said nothing and did nothing. It was only when the executioner stepped forward with the torch that his eyes flared gold, and the fire was extinguished with a small whoosh. Arthur felt his fingers tighten around the railing of the balcony from where he was presiding over the execution. Merlin looked up; their eyes met.
"Again," Arthur ordered.
The executioner, clearly spooked, took some time to light his torch again. As he lowered it to the pyre, the fire sputtered weakly and died out again. The executioner looked up at Merlin, fear evident in his expression, and still Merlin made no move to free himself. He only stared at Arthur, an unspoken challenge in his eyes.
Arthur slowly, wordlessly turned away and disappeared from the balcony. He headed down the stairs, through the corridor, and back outside. He pushed past the executioner and picked up his discarded torch, raising it so it was level with his eyes.
"Light it," he told Merlin.
The fire flared to life, and without a second's hesitation, Arthur tossed the torch into the pyre, watching with satisfaction as the fire caught and spread.
Gwaine becomes even worse after the coronation. He hasn't cried in front of Arthur since the first day, but he drinks even more than he used to, he only shows up at half the practices, and he never misses an occasion to defy Arthur. Arthur bears it, because he knows Gwaine is one of his best knights, and maybe because he has accepted he deserves the harsh treatment. And if Gwaine seems particularly aggressive when sparring with Arthur, and if his sword slices a little too deep into Arthur's thigh, Arthur doesn't call him on it. He only winces and cedes the fight to Gwaine before having the wound bandaged, and pretends he doesn't see the savage look on Gwaine's face. Savage but not satisfied, never satisfied, because it's not revenge Gwaine is after. He can never be satisfied so long as Merlin is dead, and no matter how much he hurts Arthur, nothing will bring him back.
Gwaine is the only one who ever speaks to Arthur about Merlin, and maybe that's another reason Arthur keeps him. He finds himself seeking the knight out often in the evenings. Despite himself, he needs to hear what Gwaine has to say, because with him Gwaine is honest and blunt the way none of the others are. And in the evening, Gwaine can always be found in a tavern.
This evening, six days after Arthur's coronation, is no exception. Gwaine is getting progressively drunk, which is a difficult feat considering how well he can hold his alcohol. His tongue is loosened and he lies half-slumped in a chair, one arm propped up on the table, his hand absent-mindedly tugging at the chain around his neck. Next to the gold ring and the crescent moon that he never goes without, there is now a new pendant: a small bird, roughly carved in dark wood, its wings outstretched as if in flight. The only trace of embellishment are its eyes, which shine bright gold.
Arthur doesn't need to ask what, or whom, it represents.
Gwaine catches him looking and tucks the necklace inside his shirt again as though to protect it. "Merlin was your servant," he says, his words slurring together. "He'd've done anything for you, handed you the world on a silver platter if you asked for it. And for that you had him killed."
"He had magic," Arthur says. He killed my father.
"And it was yours from the day he met you! Is it possible that you've been so blind you don't see all that he did for you –"
"I never asked him for anything!"
"Without him you'd already be dead! You'll probably never realise how much you owe him, because he'll never get the chance to tell you, will he? But he saved your life, Arthur, even if you can't see it."
"Well why didn't you save him, if he meant that much?"
"Don't you think we tried?" Gwaine says, another betrayal on top of countless others, and Arthur wonders how many more he can bear. "We went to the cells that night."
Arthur doesn't need to ask which night he means. He doesn't need to tell Gwaine, That's treason, you weren't allowed. But he wants to ask, How many? How many of you were willing to risk that much for Merlin?
"Merlin told us not to worry, that it would be fine. He didn't think you would go through with it," Gwaine says, pronouncing each word clearly now, as though his anger and grief have sobered him up. "None of us did. I thought he had a plan – we all did. He could have escaped the fire, I know he could have. But he didn't, because you had ordered it. Because you lit the fire. And we didn't help him, because he told us not to."
Arthur flinches. We again. How many of his knights disapproved of his decision, how many wanted to defy him?
"He lied to me," he says defensively, "and he used magic. He knew what he was getting into. He knew the risks."
"And he trusted you!" Gwaine shouts. "He trusted your friendship, he believed you would give him a chance if you ever found out! But you didn't. You didn't even let him explain, and now he's gone and it's your fault."
There it is, plain and unforgiving. The accusation that Arthur has been waiting to hear for weeks, but that never came. It's finally here, and it hurts more than he could have imagined.
Merlin had never expected Arthur to go through with it. It was obvious in the way his eyes widened and all the colour seemed to drain from his face. For a second that seemed frozen in time, he could only look down at the fire he had lit, dancing threateningly below him, the orange flame reflected in the depths of his eyes; then he raised his head and looked Arthur right in the eye. He did not, for a second, look away, not even when the flames leapt forward and began to lick at the stake, at his clothes. Not when the heat and the pain had to have become unbearable, not when he should have screamed and cried for mercy. He only stared at Arthur, his eyes golden, whether with magic or because of the fire Arthur couldn't know.
Arthur forced himself to watch, never letting his eyes stray from Merlin's face. Their gazes were locked, holding each other in place, each daring the other to look away first. A challenge Arthur was determined to win, no matter how painful it was. He allowed his hatred, his fear, his anger to consume him, trying to gain some vindication, some satisfaction from seeing Merlin burn, but –
Merlin twisted on the stake, throwing his head back, his teeth gritted; at the same moment, the flames leapt up and fully hid him from view, so that Arthur could only distinguish a dark silhouette, writhing against the bounds that held him. Somewhere, someone screamed in anguish; it wasn't Merlin.
After that, it was over very quickly.
"It's your fault," Gwaine repeats mercilessly. "Someone has to say it, and Merlin can't. He wouldn't even if he could. You're his fucking Arthur, he would have done anything for you. He let you kill him, Arthur. Don't ever kid yourself that it was anything else; he only died because he allowed you to kill him. Because it was you. It was always you. Do you know what he told us, when he was in the cells waiting for dawn? 'It'll be all right. I have faith in him.' And he meant you, Arthur. He meant you."
Arthur swallows. "You can't just –"
"Do you know he called your name when he was burning?" Gwaine asks, disgust clear in his voice. "Did you hear it, or were you too busy making sure he didn't try to escape? We all saw how you watched, but did you hear him cry out? Even as he was dying, it was Arthur, it was only ever about you. He's never done anything that wasn't for you."
Arthur's throat tightens, and again he swallows with difficulty past the knot. "I know – I know."
"Do you really?" Gwaine asks, and looks at Arthur intently.
Arthur looks away.
"I don't think you understand. You sent him to be burnt at the stake, and when that wasn't enough you had to light the pyre yourself. That's why he didn't stop it, you know; why he didn't escape. He'd already lost everything when you decided you wanted to see him die."
"Stop it," Arthur says, his voice cracking. "That's an order, Gwaine; stop."
"Why should I?" Gwaine asks. "I don't have to listen to you anymore. You're not my king."
Arthur jerks back so sharply he almost knocks his chair over. What?
"Merlin was the first friend I ever made," Gwaine says quietly, sounding a lot more sober than he is as he looks down into his goblet. "I never thought I'd see the day where I had to choose between you two, but I know whom I've chosen."
He tips his goblet back and downs the remainders of his drink in one go, then lets the goblet clunk down on the table and looks Arthur in the eye.
"You chose this, Arthur. Not me, not Merlin, not anyone else. It was you."
He stands and walks out of the tavern, and Arthur watches him leave, knowing it's the last time he sees Gwaine. Gwaine who was Merlin's friend before he was Arthur's knight.
His world is falling apart, piece by piece. How did he never realise how much of his life was entwined with Merlin's? First Lancelot, then Gwen – Gwen his heart, his life, his soul. Of course Gwen. And now Gwaine as well, and how many more will follow? Arthur only has to look at how Gaius has stopped looking him in the eye and never speaks to him unless absolutely necessary to guess whom the next one to leave will be. And after that... After that it is anyone's guess.
Arthur is king of Camelot, but without Merlin the kingdom is falling apart from the inside. And maybe Arthur is, too.
Until the end, everything felt surreal, as though it hadn't really happened. Everyone had seen Merlin's eyes flash gold in those final moments, and Arthur knew the only reason no one had interfered was that they all believed Merlin would save himself. Even Arthur believed it. Things only became real when the fire died out, a long time later, and revealed what Arthur had wrought: a pile of ashes and the skeletal remains of what had once been Merlin. There was a moment of stunned disbelief, and then –
A scuffle, a shout as Gwaine wrestled out of the firm grip Percival had on his shoulder. He was on his knees by the pyre in seconds, reaching out to drag trembling fingers across the ashes, denial clearly written across his face.
"No, no – you idiot, you were supposed to escape –"
He threw his head back, looking at the sky, as though believing that Merlin would appear out of nowhere with a grin and a joke. Arthur looked up as well, but nothing came, nothing happened. It was over.
A scream tore from Gwaine's throat. A terrible, unearthly silence hung over the rest of the gathered crowd, and Arthur could meet no one's eyes. He saw Gwen crying, her face hidden in Lancelot's cloak. His knights were still and quiet, their shoulders stiff. Gaius' mouth had dropped open, and his old face was drained of all colour, as though Arthur had stabbed him in the heart and killed him as surely as he had killed Merlin.
For a while Arthur is genuinely worried about Gaius' health. He doesn't dare inquire after him, though; not when it's obviously all Gaius can do to even stand in the same room as him. They only speak when it's unavoidable, and Arthur watches with alarm as his physician seems to fade away before his eyes, becoming more wrinkled, more stooped, less reactive. He realises the extent of what he has done to Gaius – taken away the one he considered his son, his reason to live. And he thinks he can't bear to be the cause of Gaius' death, too. So he does speak to Gaius, eventually, to tell him that he should retire.
"You've worked as court physician for many years," Arthur says as delicately as he can, feeling awkward and guilty. "I think it may be time to consider something else, for the sake of your health. A retreat to the countryside, perhaps."
Gaius straightens up, his nostrils flaring. "Are you sacking me, sire?"
"No!" Arthur says. "No, of course not. I just thought, your health –"
"Out of the two of us, I believe I am best equipped to judge the state of my health," Gaius says sharply. "It is not my health that is broken, sire. It is something else entirely, for which there is no remedy. A trip outside of Camelot would not help. Besides," he adds after a pause, his tone softened, "I could not leave. He would want me to stay here, with you."
Arthur flinches, and Gaius doesn't miss it. He turns away and picks up a bottle of green, viscous liquid.
"Unless you intend to sack me, I will continue to heal the people of Camelot," he says, swirling the potion around. "And if you do sack me, I shall only retreat as far as the castle walls."
"Gaius –" Arthur begins, wanting to say Thank you, except it would be wrong, because it isn't him Gaius is doing this for.
He leaves without saying anything more, a strange regret settling deep inside his chest instead of the relief he should feel at the news that Gaius would not leave him. Of course Gaius knew about Merlin's magic, but Arthur has not the heart to call the old man on it. Still, there is no trace of the deep, long-lasting fondnesss in Gaius' eyes now, and like Leon, it seems that nothing more than honour and loyalty keep him at the citadel – no love, certainly, for his king; it has been washed away as surely as Merlin's ashes and bones were swept away once the fire stopped burning. Arthur knows Gaius was loyal to his father, but in this, he has sided with Merlin.
Does it make it any less unforgivable that Arthur is starting to feel the same way?
One evening, less than two months after Arthur's coronation, two knights are conspicuously absent at the table. Arthur notices it immediately, but does not comment. He sees his men throwing surreptitious glances at the two empty seats and struggles to pretend nothing is out of ordinary. Afterwards, though, he draws Leon aside. His lead knight meets his gaze calmly and waits.
"Percival?" Arthur asks, bracing himself.
Leon gives him a long, appraising look; Arthur feels his spirits sink.
Leon says nothing, which is answer enough. Arthur turns on his heel.
"You won't be able to change their minds, you know." Leon speaks softly, but his tone is heavy with weariness.
Arthur's spine stiffens. "I have to try."
The memory is faded, uncertain, unimportant until today. A sunny day, too hot to expect his knights to train without expecting some irritation. None of them were wearing armour. Gwaine and Elyan had already sparred and were now sitting in the grass, drinking water and exchanging good-natured but teasing comments. Arthur was angry; does it matter why anymore? Something about his father. Merlin was in full armour, and Arthur was hitting away at him. Merlin kept stepping back, faltering beneath the blows, and Arthur knew this wasn't the sort of training that was right. He needed someone who would fight back, give him a challenge; but this, right now, was what he needed to vent his anger.
Maybe he struck a little harder, maybe he struck a little higher. Merlin fell, and Arthur froze.
Then the memory is clearer, sharper, because it matters.
"Damn." Percival's voice.
He dropped his sword, knelt by Merlin's side and removed the helmet. Merlin looked dazed. Percival touched his face gently.
"Are you all right?"
"Just – just a little dizzy," Merlin said, not moving from where he lay flat on his back. "My head's spinning."
"Does it hurt?"
Merlin propped himself up on his elbows unsteadily. "It'll go away."
Percival held out a hand. "Can you stand?"
"I think so."
"Oh, come on, Merlin," Arthur said, irritated. He had been wearing armour, for God's sake. "Don't be such a girl."
Percival didn't appear to have heard him, but the glare Merlin shot his way was poisonous. He accepted Percival's hand and stood up. Percival led him to the edge of the training ground. Arthur followed them with his eyes, not missing the way Merlin leaned on Percival easily, naturally.
Arthur finds them in Elyan's rooms. A small bundle lies in a corner, obviously full of Percival's personal belongings. Percival seems to be helping Elyan pack. They both freeze when Arthur enters, like thieves caught red-handed.
"Were you even going to tell me?" Arthur's sharp voice cuts through the air like a knife. "Or were you going to slink away like criminals instead of knights, like cowards instead of honest men?"
The insult to their honour makes them both bristle, but while they straighten up and look Arthur right in the eye, neither says anything to deny the accusation.
"I see." Arthur closes his eyes briefly, trying to quell his anger and hurt. "And you thought I would just let you?"
"You let Gwaine."
Percival sounds resentful, and Arthur remembers how close he was to the other knight. Always playing jokes on each other, pairing up to pull pranks on others. Gwaine could get Percival to open up and relax in a way that even Lancelot, who has known him longest, couldn't.
"You're going after him?" Arthur asks.
Percival shakes his head. "If he doesn't want to be found, he won't be."
"You only have to go through every tavern in the kingdom," Arthur says.
Percival smiles, but it's faint and barely there at all. Arthur only sees it because he was hoping for it.
"He's left the kingdom."
"You're in contact with him?" Arthur says sharply.
Percival shakes his head. "I just know. He's used to travelling. He's been banished before."
"I didn't banish him."
"It's as good as," Percival says, "even if it is self-imposed."
"And where will you go?" Arthur asks. "If not with him..."
Percival shrugs. "Where fate leads me, I suppose. Where I find a place I can live in."
"You can live here," Arthur says, looking at each of them in turn. "Even if you don't want to be knights, you can still stay. Camelot is your home."
"I can't," Elyan says, looking pained. "You know why. I lost a lot of time with Gwen when I was – away – and I don't want to go through that again. That's why I'm going. To look for her."
Arthur nods, because this he can understand. "I would do the same in your position."
He turns to Percival, who doesn't look like he wants to talk about it.
"I still think you'll be a good king, Arthur," he says after a beat, and it's small comfort, when Arthur is realising he isn't good enough to earn his people's love and loyalty. "And if ever Camelot has need of us, we'll come back."
"Camelot," Arthur repeats. "What about me? What if I have need of you –"
"You have other knights."
Knights who weren't that close to Merlin. Knights who believe magic is evil. The knights who were loyal to Uther, and not Arthur. Arthur thinks of those knights, wondering whether he will be able to build with any of them the friendship that united the Knights of the Round Table.
Percival holds out a red bundle in front of him; it takes Arthur a moment to recognise it as his cloak, folded into a neat square, the golden dragon arranged so that it rests on top, glaring accusingly at Arthur. Arthur recoils from it.
Percival shakes his head slowly. "I am grateful that you gave me the opportunity to become a knight." He presses the cloak into Arthur's hands. "But I no longer have the right to wear this. I can't follow you the way a knight should."
"You've been a fine knight," Arthur says. "You've more than earned the right. Keep it, in memory of –"
Percival closes Arthur's fingers around the cloak. "I won't," he said.
Not I can't.
Arthur accepts the cloak, fingers tracing the smooth red fabric, trying to remember the last time a knight relinquished his knighthood so blatantly. Even Lancelot was quiet about it, but this... In the days when his father was king, Arthur doesn't think a knight had ever just quit. Percival, a commoner whom Arthur himself knighted and valued above many others, and now...
Just how deep do his errors in judgment run? How many more betrayals will he have to face?
"When do you leave?" he asks, pressing the cloak to his chest, trying to find warmth in it to fight the cold that is seeping into his bones, his blood, his heart.
"As soon as we're ready," Elyan replies. "Arthur..."
Arthur raises a hand, not wanting to hear the explanation or apology that his knight has to offer. "If ever you want to come back... There will always be a place for you in Camelot. Both of you."
Elyan nods seriously. "Thank you, sire."
Percival says nothing, and Arthur knows he won't come back.
It is never said in so many words, but Arthur can tell he has failed them all. His kingdom, his people, his knights, his friends – they will never look at him in the same way. Every gaze is now shadowed with blame, and pain, and regrets. Every word, every touch, every glance is heavy with the weight of reproach, as though everyone agrees that he did the wrong thing by upholding the law and executing a sorcerer.
He has lost his best knights. Of the handful that he valued above all others, only Leon remained, because nothing could tear Leon away from his king. Leon who stands by him faithfully, and who is Arthur's only comfort in the evenings when everyone else has retired to their chambers. Arthur asks Leon to stay, and Leon does, sitting straight and tall as Arthur slumps in a chair across him, weary and lost. They are in the dining hall, alone, and a heavy silence lies between them. It takes several minutes for Arthur to break it with a soft sigh. Leon looks at him, his expression concerned.
"I never thought it'd be like this." Arthur allows his head to sink in his hands. "I never thought they'd all leave when I needed them the most."
Leon is silent.
"You think I deserve it," Arthur says accusingly, raising his head again.
Leon looks into Arthur's eyes the way scarcely anyone will nowadays. "You know I'll never leave."
"But you can't fault the others for wanting to, can you?"
In the last few moments before the flames hid him from view, Merlin's lips moved and he spoke. It wasn't the cry Gwaine would remind Arthur of later; the last, tortured call of "Arthur! Arthur!" That came later, when Merlin was no longer visible. But as Arthur watched, Merlin said something, something Arthur couldn't possibly hear because he spoke softly, his words snatched away by the crackle of the fire and the wind.
He could have sworn he saw Merlin's lips forming the words, I forgive you.
Arthur needs someone by his side, and shortly after his coronation his uncle Agravaine returns to court, offering his counsel and support. Arthur accepts it gratefully, for though Agravaine isn't a friend, he is a family member, and Arthur has precious few of those left. He has known Agravaine since he was a child, and trusts him. So when they catch Caerleon, who is threatening Camelot with his army, Arthur listens to Agravaine's advice and kills him. And later, when Caerleon's widow declares war against Camelot, Arthur doesn't blame Agravaine. But that doesn't make the situation they face any less dire, and Arthur's heart is heavy as he gathers his men and leads them forward to battle. None of them have the heart to fight in a war which their king has precipitated at a time when Camelot seems to be falling apart. And that's why Arthur proposes the deal he does to Queen Annis: a one on one fight, two champions to defend the rights of their respective kingdoms. Arthur himself, fighting the war he has brought upon Camelot.
Arthur keeps Leon close during the last few hours of the evening before the battle. The two armies are within an hour's distance of each other, but they have both set up camp to wait for daylight. Arthur lets his men occupy themselves, but Leon he needs by his side.
"It wasn't necessary, sire," Leon says from where he is sitting on the bedroll he has brought to Arthur's tent. "We would have won the battle."
"Maybe," Arthur says. "But how many would have died? It's better this way. Our men did not seek this fight out. I did."
"And if you lose?" Leon asks. "Will that make anything better? We cannot give up half of Camelot to Queen Annis."
"Then we must hope that I will win."
"At least let me take your place, sire. You can't risk everything for the sake of your pride. You can't die."
Arthur looks at the red that drapes the inside of his tent. Red as the blood that he has spilt, red as the cloak Percival handed back to him.
"I am not doing this for my pride."
"Maybe not," Leon says quietly. "But by punishing yourself, you risk punishing the whole of Camelot. Remember that, Arthur. Camelot needs you."
"Camelot needs a king who doesn't put her people at risk." Arthur looks Leon in the eye. "It is done, Leon. Tomorrow I fight. Would you be the one to help me with my armour?"
Leon hesitates, obviously desiring to continue the argument. He seems to struggle with himself for a minute, but at last he lowers his gaze.
"You know it would be an honour, sire."
Leon's sure hands deftly strap Arthur into his armour with an assurance and an ease that remind Arthur of Merlin, except that Leon's fingers fly over Arthur without leaving the firm, reassuring touch that Merlin always pressed into his shoulder before a battle.
"Be careful," Leon says, checking one of the straps around Arthur's arm. "You've never seen this man fight. Go slow at first, to get a feel for his style, before –"
Leon lets his hands fall to his sides and takes a step back. "Right."
"This isn't my first fight," Arthur reminds him.
"Take care that it isn't your last."
Arthur looks at him, at the man who has fought beside him in every one of his battles. He takes in Leon's serious eyes and the way his brow furrows in concern.
Arthur has never been one to equate size with power. He has defeated many opponents both taller and broader than he, because he had the skill and the speed to beat them. Percival's strength always impressed him, but without his swordsmanship it would not always have been enough against a real threat.
Still, when Arthur lays eyes on Queen Annis' champion, he has to suppress a shiver of apprehension. Tall and broad are both euphemisms. He wears only leather, which could even give him the advantage of speed over Arthur, who is weighted down by his armour. And he looks like he could snap Arthur's neck with his bare hands.
Arthur slowly breaks ranks with his men, stepping forward into the gap between the two armies and watching as Derian walks up to him. Arthur lets his gaze travel all the way up to Derian's face, where a threatening grin that bares too many teeth greets him. He unsheathes his sword, testing the balance of it, his eyes dropping to Darian's hands. Your sword is an extension of your arm.
Derian's first swing is swift and strong, not slow and testing the way Arthur usually begins a fight. Arthur blocks it, bracing himself for the strain on his arms as their swords clash together. He dances back almost immediately to give himself time to think, but Derian is in front of him again in seconds, forcing him to fight.
Arthur is in the passive position, only defending himself from Derian's attacks, unable to find the time to launch an offensive of his own. He moves as quickly as he can, but Derian's strength wears him down. One particularly strong blow sends Arthur to his knees, his legs giving way. He hears a collective gasp from his army behind him but doesn't allow himself to look back; instead he rolls away from Derian's blade slicing down towards him and reaches up to nick the side of Derian's face. The other man's arm rises to his cheek immediately, feeling for blood; rage darkens his expression as Arthur takes advantage of his distraction to stand again and steady himself, a triumphant grin spreading across his expression. He can do this. He only has to be reactive enough.
Arthur raises his sword, ready to parry whatever Derian will throw at him; but suddenly the sword is heavy in his hands, and it slips from his fingers to the ground with a dull thud that is far from natural. Alarm runs through Arthur as he bends down, fingers closing around the hilt, but he can't lift it. It's as though its weight has been multiplied by ten, but Arthur can detect no visible change in the weapon. His arms aren't that weary.
He ducks away from Derian's next swing, but doesn't back up, unwilling to leave his sword. He tries to throw a punch, and his knuckles crash into Derian's jaw, but Derian's sword catches him on the arm and he cries out, pulling back. Again he tries to reach his sword, but it's still unliftable. He looks up, eyes wide, as Derian moves to strike again –
An opening. For some reason, Derian freezes, as though hesitating; Arthur can't afford to hesitate, so he throws himself forward and rams his shoulder into Derian with enough strength to make them both fall to the ground. They roll around for several confused, panicked moments, both scrabbling and kicking and trying to get a good grip on Derian's sword; then Derian, who is bigger and stronger, manages to stand, delivering a good kick in Arthur's ribs to make sure he stays down. He raises his sword. Arthur watches the sunlight catch on the silvery metal of the blade. He knows he is about to die, and thinks, Merlin.
He doesn't close his eyes, so he sees what happened next.
The sword falls from Derian's hand, arching away from him in a way that is surely not natural before finally dropping to the ground. Derian looks as stunned as Arthur feels, but Arthur recovers first, lunging for the sword. Once he's on his feet, he strikes Derian across the back, making him fall to the ground. Arthur raises his sword, and the situation is reversed.
His sword catches and reflects a flash of gold, and Arthur twists around to see where it came from, hope flaring in his chest; but there is no one, nothing there that he didn't expect to see, and Derian is still at his feet, incapacitated, waiting for the death blow. But hasn't Arthur already spilt enough blood?
He drives his sword into the dirt by Derian's head.
He didn't imagine it. There was a flash of gold, when the sword was in his hand. Gold as the swirl that washed over Merlin's blue eyes when he used magic. And maybe it was a dream, maybe it's an impossible, foolish hope, but Arthur knows. Deep inside, somehow, he feels it. He isn't alone; maybe he never truly was. He is still there, protecting him from the shadows.
On the ride back to Camelot, Arthur thinks. Didn't he notice Gaius looked more alive these last few days? Wasn't he surprised when the man actually smiled at him the day he asked for a potion to soothe his sore throat? Didn't he think it strange when that man, Julius Borden, was found tied, gagged, and disoriented just outside the vaults? It all means something, it all adds up to –
Arthur at his desk, facing a blank scroll. The sun shining through the window, making him want to go outside and do something, anything. Just not this.
The door opened.
"Not now, Merlin," Arthur said without even looking up.
"Do you recognise my footsteps or something?"
Arthur scowled. "Anyone else would knock."
"Ah, right. I'll have to work on that." A small pause. "Well, don't you want to know why I'm here?"
"I suppose I'll just leave, then... and not show you this."
The sound of paper unfolding. Arthur's head snapped up, and Merlin met his gaze with a grin.
"The speech you're working on? Already written."
"Merlin," Arthur said, standing. "Have I ever told you you're a lifesaver?"
"Don't think so, no."
"Yeah, I didn't think so, either."
Merlin threw the paper up into the air, and Arthur caught it. He scanned its contents quickly, then tossed it onto his desk.
"So, you going to help me into my armour?"
"That's what I came here for," Merlin answered.
"Merlin, sometimes I wonder what I'd do without you."
"Die, probably," Merlin said with a small grin that warmed Arthur's heart.
When Arthur reaches Merlin's old room, his heart is in his throat. Hardly daring to hope, he pushes the door open and stops in his tracks even as his heart leaps with a fierce, untameable joy, because –
Merlin is sitting on the edge of his old bed, shirtless, leaning his elbows on his knees and resting his chin in his hands as though deep in thought. And it is him, cheekbones and all. A blue neckerchief lies, discarded, on the floor at his feet, and Arthur knows him the moment he lays eyes on him. Merlin, back in Camelot. Merlin, alive. Disbelief and fear war with joy and relief, and for several moments Arthur can find nothing to say. Neither, it seems, can Merlin, for his shoulders tense and his spine goes rigid, a stiff, firm line slashing across the lean muscles of his back. He slowly rises and turns to face him, eyes downcast, as though he can't bring himself to look at Arthur. And Arthur stares, because here is Merlin, slender and pale but alive and real, and Arthur feels he will never tire of the sight.
"Merlin," he says, and can say nothing more.
He moves forward, wanting nothing more than to hug, to touch Merlin to check that this isn't a dream, but Merlin recoils and Arthur lets his outstretched hand fall to his side again. Merlin bends down at the waist into a low bow, keeping his eyes on the floor, but already an ironic smile is tugging at the corners of his mouth.
"Sire," he replies when he straightens up, without inflection – no resentment, no mocking, nothing. There is an ugly, bitter twist to his mouth and a coolness in his eyes when he finally looks at Arthur, but his attitude is that of complete deference. "Is there anything I can do for you? Or have you come to arrest me again? I won't let you, you know."
Arthur feels it like a slap in the face, pain twisting inside his gut. "That's not – I wouldn't," he says, wanting it to be true, but he would. He did.
Arthur looks away from Merlin's accusing, knowing eyes.
"Then how may I help you, my lord?"
"I just," Arthur says. "I just wanted to see –"
A cloud outside shifts, allowing a bright ray of sunlight to filter through the small, dirty window. Merlin's eyes seem to catch and reflect the light; for the smallest of moments they shine gold, and Arthur doesn't just have a hurt and betrayed friend before him, he has a vengeful and sneering sorcerer, a sorcerer whom he killed, and who killed –
A fresh wave of guilt crashes over Arthur even as he backs away so quickly he almost trips over his own feet. He wrenches the door open and runs without a backwards glance, feeling the weight of Merlin's accusing, unforgiving stare on the back of his neck. As he rushes through the corridors, fearful and hating himself for his cowardice, he hears a servant worriedly inquire after him but he ignores him. Arthur reaches his room and slams the door behind him before sinking to his knees, his shoulders shaking, tasting salt on his lips from the tears running unchecked down his cheeks. He doesn't know why he's crying now, when he didn't over Merlin's death, and he doesn't know when he started, but his face is wet and his eyes sting. The acrid taste of ash burns the back of his throat, and he thinks he can almost smell the smoke.
Merlin is alive, but Arthur still killed him, and Uther is still dead, and nothing is all right.
Merlin is alive.
The day Arthur met Merlin, he thought he was the biggest idiot ever. But a part of him also knew that he'd just laid eyes on the bravest men he would ever know. The stupidity came hand in hand with Merlin's recklessness. But something about Merlin arrested Arthur's attention, and that was why he went after him, after already having had his revenge by putting Merlin in the stocks. Something about him. Maybe he just wanted to see whether, knowing who he was, Merlin would still dare to defy him.
"I could take you apart with one blow," Arthur said, and all right, maybe it was a boast, encouraged by the knights watching him, but at the time he believed it.
"I could take you apart with less than that."
Looking back, later, Arthur would see the truth in that sentence. A word, a wave of his hand and Merlin could. But he hadn't, and he wouldn't.
At the time, Arthur had wanted to laugh, because Merlin was just a skinny kid who had no idea what he was getting into. He had taunted Merlin, and to his surprise and delight, Merlin had taunted right back.
"H ow long have you been training to be a prat?"
Arthur snorted, disbelieving. "You can't address me like that."
"I'm sorry." Merlin's tone rang with insincerity, and Arthur didn't, not for one second, believe him. "How long have you been training to be a prat... my lord?"
Years later, a Merlin come back from the dead would bow in the exact same way and speak with that exact same inflection, but this time, it would hurt a hundred times more.
Gwaine is the first to come back.
Arthur doesn't understand how he could have known. As far as he knows, only three people are aware of Merlin's return: Gaius, Arthur himself, and of course, Merlin. It isn't widespread knowledge, as sorcery is still feared in the kingdom, and a warlock come back from the dead is not someone who could easily be trusted. Gaius wouldn't have sent for Gwaine without Merlin's consent, and Merlin isn't selfish enough to ask the knight to come back for his sake. Yet when the news of Sir Gwaine's return reaches Arthur's ears, he knows at once that it is no coincidence. Gwaine doesn't change his mind. He wouldn't have already forgiven Arthur, or forgotten his anger and his own guilt. The only reason he's coming back was Merlin.
Arthur waits on the steps of the castle and watches his knight gallop up to him, his horse obviously weary and winded from hard riding, its breathing harsh and laboured. Arthur motions for one of the stable boys to take it and give it the good rub-down it deserves. Gwaine is not usually one to mistreat his horse, but Arthur can understand his haste.
"Arthur." Gwaine looks a little surprised by his presence, and less than pleased.
He tenses up a little when Arthur moves forward to grip his forearm in greeting. There is a change in him that goes beyond the lack of armour and the absence of the red cloak Arthur gave him. His plain clothing is reminiscent of the Gwaine Arthur met as a peasant, the tavern brawler who took a knife for him, but the sword at his side, the new, guarded look in his eyes, the utter absence of laughter in his expression, and the small bird that still hangs around his neck all make Arthur feel as though he is facing a stranger.
"I hope you've been well," Arthur says. And, because he feels he needs to prove something to Gwaine, he adds: "He's in his old room."
Gwaine's eyes widen, as though surprised that Arthur knows – or, most likely, surprised that he hasn't done anything about it.
"Are you –" he begins, then checks himself. "Thank you, Arthur."
"He'll be glad to see you."
Arthur can't help the pang of jealousy that pulls at his gut, knowing the words to be true: Merlin must miss his friends, and Gwaine has never let him down, nor would he ever wish to.
"And I him," Gwaine says, his eyes travelling over Arthur's shoulder to the doors that lead into the castle, impatience clearly written across his face.
Arthur steps aside and watches as Gwaine, his step eager and hurried, immediately starts up the steps and towards the doors. When he is about to disappear inside, Arthur calls out his name.
Gwaine stops and turns, one hand gently fingering his necklace, a small smile already forming on his lips at the thought of seeing Merlin again.
"Sire?" he asks, and there is that hint of playfulness in his tone that encourages Arthur to say:
"Since you're back, after this, would you..." He hesitates, but the expectant look in Gwaine's eyes urges him on. "You know you're one of my best knights."
"I wasn't aware I was still a knight," Gwaine says slowly, his smile fading. His eyes take on a strange, faraway look. "After I –"
"You can be, if you wish to," Arthur says. "I – I would be honoured to have you by my side once more."
Gwaine doesn't answer immediately. "I heard you killed Caerleon," he says after a moment.
Arthur winces. "I did. What has that got to do with it?"
Gwaine looks at him strangely. "Everything. And nothing." He pauses. "My father was a knight in Caerleon's army."
Arthur feels something in his gut tighten. "You told me you weren't a noble."
"I'm not. Nobility is something more than what you're born. I never wanted to live that kind of life."
"I might have known," Arthur says, thinking this was yet another lie he never saw. "What's bred in the bone will come out in the flesh. You might not like it, but you are a noble." He spreads his hands questioningly. "Are you my knight?"
Gwaine hesitates, and for a moment Arthur thinks his plea will be rejected. Then Gwaine lays a hand on his sword and says, very seriously:
"To the death, Arthur."
Arthur feels himself smile, and Gwaine's answering grin warms his heart.
"And besides," Gwaine calls over his shoulder as he hurries away, "we never did get to finish that fight!"
Though it isn't him Gwaine has come back for, Arthur still feels as though a piece of his heart has been returned to him.
Arthur's quest, what felt like an eternity ago. The Perilous Lands, the Fisher King's trident. And Gwaine.
Gwaine and Merlin, who were absolutely not supposed to be there, but who had no doubt saved him. Arthur wasn't sure how he felt about it; certainly he couldn't thank them for it. He was silent during most of the ride back to the border, and behind him, Gwaine and Merlin talked, exchanging teasing comments. Merlin took it all in good humour, being used to the same sort of remarks from Arthur, but he gave as good as he got, and Arthur tried to pretend he wasn't listening.
Gwaine and Merlin were both peasants, and there was an easy, natural companionship between them that wasn't hindered by their ranks. And of that, Arthur couldn't help but be jealous. Because though Merlin would follow Arthur on a dangerous quest just to make sure he was alive, it was Gwaine he had gone to for help. Gwaine who could and would help him, when he needed it; Gwaine with whom the relationship was equal on both sides.
Gwaine gave a sharp, appreciative bark of laughter. "Oh, good one, Merlin."
Merlin laughed as well. "You deserved it."
There was a moment of silence where Arthur could practically feel the way they smiled at each other behind him.
"I've missed having a friend around." Gwaine's tone was wistful and unashamedly honest.
After Gwaine left them at the border, Merlin was remarkably quiet for a long while.
Gwaine, true to his word, does stay, and he once again wears the Pendragon colours.
"You kept it?" Arthur says the first day he shows up with his red cloak fastened around his shoulders.
"As a reminder," Gwaine replies. "It was the right colour."
The colour of blood. Arthur bites his tongue to keep from commenting.
Gwaine trains as hard as he did before, and argues with Arthur over everything, and if he is ever overly aggressive during training, if Arthur leaves their bouts of sparring with the sort of bruises he's never had before, well, it's never mentioned between them. Gwaine is back for good, and in him Arthur knows he has a man who can be trusted, even if he doesn't trust Arthur back.
Every day, Arthur knows every time Gwaine can't be found, he's in Merlin's room, talking and touching and disbelieving and needing it, needing the reassurance of Merlin's presence the way Arthur needs it, craves it. To Arthur the presence can only ever be a mere shadow, a hint that Merlin's life still follows his. Merlin is like a ghost, haunting Arthur, and yet disappearing whenever he tries to look too closely. He sometimes catches a flash of blue, and thinks he recognises it as one of Merlin's neckerchiefs, but he can never be sure of it.
Gwaine, on the other hand, speaks to Merlin regularly.
"You should know I don't agree with him," he tells Arthur frankly, "but he still sees the good in you, and that you have to be protected. And since you're always getting yourself into trouble, you really do need me. That's why I'm staying."
And Arthur can't find it in himself to thank him. The words ring in his head: He still sees the good in you. The good in you. What good can Merlin possibly see, when Arthur has executed his best friend, killed the king of another nation, and driven all his knights away? But of course Merlin would. He's still Merlin.
And what good can Arthur possibly see in Merlin, now?
The guilt is still ever-present, gnawing at Arthur from the inside, but beyond that is a steady inner peace that comes from the knowledge that Merlin lives still, that something still binds him to Camelot, and that he continues to protect Arthur.
"I think you two need to talk," Gwaine says.
There had been a time, short as it had been, before Gwen, when Arthur thought there might be something hidden in the moments, the glances, the touches. It was all in the details; the furtive looks that spoke more than a thousand words ever could, the concern that Arthur felt for the servant who insisted on riding into battle at his side, the easy comforting laughter. And even after Arthur had started noticing how beautiful Gwen was, Merlin had never stopped just being there, different, constant, loyal. He had risked his life, over and over again. He had endured the jokes and the objects thrown at him. He had – and the memory was now twisted and bitter – spent the night after Uther's death waiting outside Arthur's room, just to be there in case comfort was needed.
Arthur remembered another night, vividly, a night spent in each other's arms, comforting and indestructible, a moment that could never be acknowledged.
He hasn't returned to Merlin's room since that first time, because he sorely wants Merlin to come to him, and because he's afraid of the accusation in Merlin's eyes. But he does go, eventually, because Arthur wants to interpret Gwaine's "You two need to talk" as "He wants to see you as much as you want to see him." It's been too much, knowing that Merlin is in the castle and not being able to see him, that one day as he passes before Gaius' room he hesitates and pushes the door open. The physician is thankfully absent, and Arthur doesn't allow himself to think before he walks straight into Merlin's room.
Merlin looks up at him from where he is lying on the bed, and though he sits up and his eyes widen in surprise, he neither stands nor bows, for which Arthur is thankful. Maybe time doesn't heal all wounds completely, maybe there will always be scars, but – this is a start.
"Do you spend your days just doing nothing?" Arthur asks, the words escaping him before he can fully think them through.
Merlin doesn't smile, but it's a near thing. "It's not that much of a change from before."
"Well, yes," Arthur says. He catches himself before he tries to engage in their usual banter. "Surely you've been doing something."
"I have, actually," Merlin says.
He flexes the fingers of his right hand. Arthur's eyes zero in on the motion and he thinks Magic but also Merlin.
"I wish you could do it openly."
After a few startled beats, Merlin says, "So do I."
"Couldn't you disguise yourself, or something? If I legalised –"
Merlin shakes his head. "I'd rather not live a lie again."
For a few moments, they just look at each other. Arthur is dying to reach out and touch him, but he keeps his hands at his sides, remembering the way Merlin shrank back from him the last time he'd tried. Merlin, who looks neither afraid nor bitter right now, only as lost as Arthur.
"Why are you here?" Merlin asks, not aggressively.
"Because... we need to talk."
"We needed to talk four months ago, when you found me out."
Arthur flinches at the memory. He might have missed Merlin, he might have realised just how important his stupid manservant was, but in the end, Merlin still killed his father, and Arthur can never understand that.
"I wasn't ready to listen."
"And now you are?" Merlin crosses his arms defensively. "There's nothing I can say that will change what happened. I won't defend my actions, and I can't justify yours."
Arthur swallows. "Then maybe I'm the one who needs to explain."
"There's nothing to explain. I know why you did what you did. That doesn't make it right."
To be faced not with Merlin's resentment, but such a calm resignation, is worse than Arthur thought it could be. Merlin isn't insulting him, but he finds the words that cut a path straight to Arthur's heart and it hurts. Arthur, looking into Merlin's eyes, can see no trace of the warmth that has always been there.
"I – I also wanted to thank you," Arthur says. "For what you've been doing. I realise that without you, Camelot would –"
"I haven't done anything for Camelot's sake," Merlin interrupts him, eyes flashing. "How blind are you, Arthur? Why would I want to protect your kingdom?"
Your, not our, and why does that hurt so much? In three sentences, Merlin has shattered all of Arthur's hopes and certainty, has swept aside the reasons Arthur even wanted to talk to him for. He meets Arthur's gaze evenly, lips curving into the smallest of smiles as the silence stretches out between them, heavy and unforgiving.
Arthur steps back and, quickly, thinks of something else; something that is safer territory. "Lancelot has sent word that he's coming back. I wanted to be the one to tell you."
Arthur sees the way Merlin's eyes light up, and struggles not to be jealous.
"Gwen and Elyan are with him," he adds.
Merlin starts, as if surprised; but really, he must have known. Everyone knows.
We are coming, Lancelot wrote, and Arthur's relief is stronger than it has any right to be – but then from the start he was unable to blame Gwen for leaving, and he finds himself wishing that she is not only safe, but happy.
"I did wonder, when I knew that Gwen had left..." Merlin smiles fondly as he says Gwen's name. "Did you know?"
Arthur nods, not trusting himself to speak. He can't blame Gwen, but he loved her with all his heart, and her absence – as well as the reasons for it – have been hard to bear.
"Lancelot is a good man." Arthur fights to keep his voice steady. "He'll do well by her."
"But Gwen chose you."
"Well," Arthur says, "Lancelot wasn't around back then, was he? I don't mean to cheapen what we had, but – he can obviously give her more than I can."
"More than a kingdom?"
"Yes," Arthur says. "More than that."
"So you're not angry?"
"No." Are you?
Arthur doesn't say it, though, and Merlin is also silent, so that for several long moments they only stare at each other. Merlin swings his legs over the side of the bed, and looks up at Arthur with an indecipherable expression on his face.
"I missed you," Arthur says, because it has to be said. "When you were gone, I missed you."
A shadow crosses Merlin's expression, and a wall slams up between them again. "You might have thought of that before you condemned me."
Arthur saw Merlin once, between the revelation and the execution. Merlin was dragged from the dungeons and brought before the king. The guards didn't even have to force him down: he dropped to his knees without being prompted, his face upturned, eyes searching. He looked pale and shaken; there were tear tracks on his cheeks. Arthur looked stonily down at him, ignoring the pang in his chest at the sight of his closest friend in chains.
"Merlin," he said, drawing the name out, trying to allow neither rage nor pity into his tone – justice was impartial. "You have been found guilty by the king's court of the crimes of sorcery, high treason, and assassination. For these crimes, you are hereby sentenced to death."
Merlin started. His face lost what little colour it had still held.
"Arthur –" he started, but Arthur had anticipated it, and he interrupted Merlin with a steady voice.
"You will be executed tomorrow. May God have mercy on your soul."
Gwen and Lancelot ride up to the castle stables side by side, Elyan half a pace behind them. Arthur watches them coming from afar, and is struck by how easily Gwen sits, and how proudly she carries herself. When she slides off her horse she immediately launches herself into Arthur's arms, burying her face in his shoulder. Arthur catches her reflexively and holds her tight, delighting in the feel of her warm body pressed up against his, remembering the bliss and small joys they shared. They need no words to say, I missed you. Gwen, the only woman he has ever truly loved, is by his side once more.
Lancelot dismounts and, smiling, Gwen pulls back and goes to stand by him. It's like a bucketful of cold water for Arthur, who remembers suddenly the weeks, months Gwen and Lancelot have spent together. During their embrace he felt a sword strapped to her hip, and he looks at it now to remind himself that Gwen is no longer his.
"Arthur," Lancelot says, voice low and cautious.
Arthur hesitates for only a moment before he steps forward and grips Lancelot's forearm, clapping him on the back with the other hand. He greets Elyan in the same way, smiling at his knight.
"Good to see you again," he says, and means it.
He has always been fond of Lancelot, has admired and looked up to him; and Elyan is Gwen's brother, a man he trusts and a skilled fighter. He means for there to be as little resentment between them as possible.
"Is it true?" Gwen asks, and there was a light in her eyes that Arthur has missed. "Is he really –?"
"It's true," Merlin says, emerging from one of the stalls, a small, uncertain grin on his lips.
Arthur starts, his eyes flitting to Merlin's immediately; they haven't spoken since the last time he went to Merlin's room, and it's a shock to see Merlin out in the open like this. Gwen lets out an astonished little cry, but in the next instant she is in Merlin's arms, having leapt at him with enough eagerness to almost make him topple over. Though her face is hidden in the cloth of Merlin's blue neckerchief, the way her shoulders shake make it evident that she's crying. Merlin laughs delightedly, a sound Arthur hasn't heard in so long, and his arms wrap themselves around Gwen, bringing her closer to him. Gwen's fists clench around handfuls of his shirt, and she leans into him like she's afraid he might disappear at any moment. Arthur feels something tighten in his ribcage.
"How?" Lancelot asks, and it's wonder, not fear that Arthur can detect in his tone. "We saw you – you died."
"I couldn't leave," Merlin says, glancing at Arthur, the joy fading from his expression. "Even when I wasn't wanted."
Lancelot looks like he had a thousand questions, but he holds his tongue, and instead moves forward to sling an arm around Merlin's shoulders. Gwen is still clinging to Merlin, but her head is tilted back now, and she's looking up at his face as though she will never tire of tracing his features with her eyes. Her smile is more brilliant than Arthur has ever seen it.
This is something else he has lost.
It's days, weeks before Arthur and Merlin have anything vaguely resembling a real conversation. He sees Merlin lighten up day after day. Lancelot, Gwaine, Elyan and Gwen are having that effect on him, bringing friends back into his life. Friends whom he can trust, friends from whom he doesn't have to hide.
It's this thought which prompts Arthur to say, one day: "I'd like for the court to know you're back."
Arthur doesn't miss the brief but intense flash of longing that crosses Merlin's expression. Being confined to his room unless in disguise has to be wearing him down. He can't talk to the knights in public, even disguised, without drawing attention.
"You know that isn't possible," he says, his flat tone belying his expression. "I was executed. You can't just announce to everyone that I'm back from the dead and that you've pardoned me."
Pardoned. Has he, really?
No. Not just yet.
But maybe someday.
"You can't spend your whole life hiding –"
"Who said I was planning on staying here that long?"
Arthur falters, thinking Don't, you can't leave me. "I just thought – look, you can't keep hiding like this. I'm the king; if anyone doesn't like it then what can they do about it?"
Merlin looks at him sharply. "That's exactly the kind of king I hoped you would never be," he says, and Arthur flinches. "The crown is a responsibility, you idiot, not an excuse to do whatever you want at other people's expense. You've always wanted to be a fair king."
"But this isn't fair to you. I don't want you to live like this."
"Lift the ban on magic first," Merlin says, still unsmilingly, "and then maybe we'll talk about it."
Arthur steps back, feeling like he'd been punched.
He's thought about it, of course he has. Even before Merlin's return. He's been contemplating it ever since Gwaine opened his eyes to what Merlin really did with his magic: serve and save Arthur, again and again. But he always faced the same problem: he needs someone by his side who understands magic well enough to advise him. Someone he trusts and someone who has magic of his own, to some degree of power, in case things go wrong.
Arthur didn't miss the irony. Merlin was no doubt the only person in the kingdom who fit that description.
But Merlin has never so much as hinted that he wanted anything to be done about the ban on magic, not in the years spent as Arthur's manservant and not in the months since. And how was Arthur to have known, when the one person who used his magic for him lied about it? But there is blame now in Merlin's tone, as though lifting the ban should have been done years ago.
"I will," Arthur says. "But I'll need your help."
Merlin doesn't hesitate. "You have it."
A still-fresh, still-painful memory. Morgana's betrayal, one of the worst kind. The Cup of Life and her immortal army. Arthur, leading a small group of half-proven knights in a desperate battle he didn't even believe in. The adrenaline, the necessity of regaining his kingdom and freeing his people kept him fighting, but when it was over and the depth of Morgana's betrayal hit him, he broke down.
"She's lost to us," he said, sinking down to his knees. "She's lost, and my father is – my father –" He choked on the words he couldn't say. "I have a kingdom, but what's left of it? Tell me, Merlin, what's left?"
Merlin's hand on his shoulder, firm and unhesitant, like it belonged there. "You have your knights. You have your people. And you still have me. You'll always have me."
Something moves under the bed. There's a snort, powerful enough to disrupt Merlin's sheets, and Merlin shakes his head, looking amused.
"Ah, forget it," he says, like he's speaking to himself.
He crouches down by the side of the bed and reaches underneath, speaking in a soothing, coaxing tone.
"Come on, now, baby. You can come out, forget that I told you to hide, it's obviously not working."
There's tiny, squalling noise from underneath the bed. Arthur stares, incredulous, as Merlin seems to carry out a conversation with whatever he has hidden under his bed (a dog? An underfed cat? A unicorn?). And when Merlin finally emerges with the animal cradled in his arms, awkwardly folded into as small a shape as possible, Arthur rears back in sudden fear.
"Merlin." His voice is a more high-pitched than usual, though he would never admit it. "Tell me that isn't what I think it is."
"It isn't what you think it is," Merlin lies smoothly, because he knows how to lie. He's smiling down at the – the deformed, hairless, white, scaly thing with wings and teeth and claws.
A real-life goddamned dragon. In Merlin's room. In Arthur's castle.
All right, it's obviously a baby dragon. But still.
"Where in the world did you get a dragon, Merlin?"
"It's a long story."
"I thought," Arthur says slowly, "that I killed the last dragon."
Merlin gives him an unimpressed look. "What? Haven't you figured that one out yet?"
"I didn't kill the last dragon?"
"Obviously not." Merlin smooths his hand gently, reassuringly across the side of the dragon's neck, holding it in place as it struggles to get closer to Arthur, its wide eyes curious. "Arthur, meet Aithusa. Aithusa, this is Arthur. He's a bit of a prat, but I won't let him harm you."
Arthur feels like laughing, and he probably would if there wasn't a dragon staring at him. "Aithusa," he repeats faintly. "So you're a dragonlord as well as a sorcerer."
"Which one is worse?" Merlin sounds like he genuinely wanted to know.
"Right now I don't know," Arthur says. "Was it you who released the Great Dragon on Camelot?"
A shadow passes over Merlin's expression. "I didn't know what he was going to do."
Again that sharp pain of betrayal, the choking guilt that rises up in him at having been so blind, the regrets and the doubts. Was Merlin ever really his, or has he only done what was right for magic, for magical creatures? Arthur desperately wants to just ask.
Merlin, readying Arthur for a fight. Despair heavy on Arthur's shoulders, knowing that to ride out against the dragon was suicide. Merlin was silent, his eyes downcast as he checked the straps, his mouth a firm, straight line. Arthur tried to lighten the atmosphere with a joke.
"Well, look on the bright side, Merlin. Chances are you're not going to have to clean this again."
Merlin didn't even raise his head; he continued fighting the buckles around Arthur's forearm. "You must be careful today. Do not force the battle."
"Yes, Sire," Arthur said sarcastically, wondering whether this was Merlin's way of saying good-bye.
Merlin moved around behind him, his hands firm across his back. "I'm serious."
"I can hear that."
Merlin was quiet. For a moment, the only sound to be heard was his breathing behind Arthur.
"Let matters take their course."
Arthur rolled his eyes and smiled despite himself. "Merlin, if I die, please..." Don't order the next noble you serve around.
"What?" Merlin said, and he didn't say You're not going to die, so I don't want to hear this.
Arthur felt his smile fade; he was glad Merlin was behind him so he didn't have to look him in the eyes. He collected himself before turning around to face Merlin.
"The dragonlord today."
Merlin lowered his gaze, sorrow shadowing his expression again; Arthur remembered how freely he had wept when Balinor had died.
"I saw you."
Merlin raised his eyes to Arthur's, and his eyes were dark with grief. For a moment they just looked at each other; then Arthur reached out and laid his hand on Merlin's shoulder.
"One thing I tell all my young knights: no man is worth your tears."
He didn't want Merlin to cry for him. He didn't even want Merlin to miss him. It didn't matter that Merlin wasn't a knight; he was as good as. Arthur saw Merlin register the phrasing, then the meaning behind him; he watched as Merlin gave a tight nod, then a fragile grin, and said,
"Yeah. You're certainly not."
Arthur's relief was short-lived; Merlin immediately ducked out of his hold on him and moved away to pick up a sword.
"What are you doing?"
Merlin looked at him. Do you really have to ask?
"I'm coming with you."
Arthur blinked. "Merlin, chances are I'm going to die."
Merlin smiled and nodded, like he knew, like it didn't change anything. "Yeah. Yeah you probably would if I wasn't there."
"Do you know how many times I've had to save your royal backside?"
Arthur smiled at the joke, thinking This is what I want to remember. "Well at least you got your sense of humour back."
He hoped Merlin would always hold on to that sense of humour. He clashed his sword against Merlin's, moving him out of the way, then started towards the door, because this – this was a good memory to end things on. But Merlin fell in step with him almost immediately. Arthur stopped, and Merlin stopped by his side, looking at him. What?
"Are you really going to face this dragon with me?"
"I'm not going to sit here and watch."
Arthur knew he was frowning. I can't let you do that. Merlin would be going to his death, and it wasn't his role to defend Camelot. It wasn't even his role to protect Arthur. He was only a manservant. Why would he –
"I know it's hard for you to understand how I feel, but... Well, I care a hell of a lot about that armour. I'm not going to let you mess it up."
They laughed, and Arthur thought, All right then.
Because if Merlin wanted to, then there was no one Arthur would rather have by his side to face a dragon.
Aithusa wriggles in Merlin's arms. Merlin looks down at him.
"Do you mind if I let him down?"
Arthur minds a hell of a lot.
"No," he says.
Merlin smiles gratefully, and allows Aithusa to scurry away from him and settle into a corner of the room, still staring intently at Arthur. Arthur shifts uncomfortably.
The dragon is rather endearing, actually.
"He won't hurt you," Merlin says. "I wouldn't let him."
Arthur grins. "Isn't that what you said to him?"
Merlin shrugs. "I was worried you might kill each other." He glances fondly at Aithusa. "I wish he could talk. He probably likes you. But he won't be able to for a little while."
"Talk," Arthur repeats.
"Yeah," Merlin says. "Kilgarrah says he'll learn just by being around me."
Arthur almost asks, Who's Kilgarrah? but he thinks he probably doesn't want to know.
"I don't have a manservant anymore," Arthur says instead. "I haven't since you –"
Merlin shakes his head at him, pityingly, and Arthur's spirits sink. "Arthur," he says gently. "You know I can't."
Can't, or won't? Arthur nods and looks away, swallowing with difficulty.
Arthur, with his arm still bound after the Questing Beast injury. Merlin in his room, as irreverent as usual.
The words, "I'm happy to be your servant, 'til the day I die."
Some days, when he's alone in his room because he always sends the servants away as soon as the food has been brought, Arthur wonders whether he's doing the right thing. If he shouldn't try to drive Merlin away. But Merlin already has every reason to want to avoid Camelot, and yet here he is, still. Always. He isn't hurting anyone, and yet –
The sound of someone knocking jerks Arthur out of his thoughts so suddenly half the contents of his goblet spill to the floor. He swears out loud, and thinks that whoever is behind the door had better have a cloth to soak that up.
"Come in!" he calls.
The handle turns, the door slides open, and in steps Merlin. It's unlikely he has a cloth, but suddenly that doesn't matter anymore. Arthur jumps to his feet, the goblet forgotten, ignoring the crash as his chair is knocked to the ground behind him.
"Merlin!" he exclaims, and would probably have kicked himself if he'd heard the hope in his own voice. "I didn't realise it was you. Since when do you knock?"
"Are you really going to complain about it?"
"No," Arthur says. And because he can't understand why Merlin was here, he asks: "Was there – is something the matter? Has something happened? Morgana –"
Merlin raises a hand. "No, nothing like that. Camelot is safe."
"Oh," Arthur says, because Merlin sought him out and apparently there isn't an immediate catastrophe to explain his presence so why?
"I just..." Merlin fingers the cloth around his neck nervously, and Arthur realises with a jolt that his neckerchief is red – red, not blue, and he's probably reading a lot more into this than he should, but the sight warms his heart and he thinks that one day, he'd like to dress Merlin from head to toe in his colours again. "I was just thinking about what you said last time."
Arthur's heart rate speeds up. "I said a lot of things last time."
"True." Merlin's eyes dart around the room, as though making sure they're alone. "So. Does the offer still stand?"
Arthur doesn't pretend not to know what he's talking about. "I suppose it depends on whether or not you're interested."
Merlin smiles faintly, and there's none of the arrogance that Arthur has grown used to seeing there. "I'm interested," he says, almost shyly, as though testing the waters, as though Arthur wouldn't give him whatever he wanted, accede to his every request, if only Merlin would condescend to give him the time of day again.
"What exactly are you asking for?" Arthur asks, hoping he isn't pushing his luck. "The job, or -" He doesn't dare say anything further, and knows Merlin will understand.
Are we friends again?
"The wages are definitely not interesting enough for me to want the job back that badly," Merlin says. "Unless you gave me a raise."
It's a joke, Arthur can tell, but it's all he can do not to reply, Yes, of course, how much? Just ask and it's yours.
"Merlin," Arthur says, wishing he could joke, and hating the guilt that eats away at him, "you know we –"
We can't be what we want to be. The court can't know you're back.
"I want to try," Merlin says. "I want things to be all right again."
Arthur nods. "I want that, too."
I want that so much. You have no idea. I want us to be able to laugh together. I want to be able to look at you without seeing fire and smoke. I want to trust you again. I want to hold you in my arms and keep you safe. I want you to look at me the way you used to, and not like you're afraid I might break at any moment. He wants Merlin back, whole and happy, but he knows he's lost the right to expect that from him.
But if Merlin wants it, too – and Arthur remembers the precise way Merlin used to look at him, with devotion and something stronger than friendship, something that when he thinks of it now triples the constant guilt.
"Do you," Arthur says slowly, thinking of that look, "do you hate me now?"
"If you think me capable of hating you as much as you hate me," Merlin says, harsh and punishing as a whip, "if you really think I would, you obviously don't know me at all."
"Sometimes I think I know you, Merlin. Other times..."
"Well... I know you."
Not Camelot. Him.
"I know it's hard for you to understand how I feel..."
Somewhere along the line, Merlin has forgiven him – if he ever really blamed him in the first place. And it's not, it has never been Camelot he protects. It's Arthur and the people Arthur cares about, because... because?
Because he's Merlin.
"I used to think I knew you," Arthur says.
"That's because you used to know me."
"And you've changed?"
Merlin shakes his head. "You're the one who's changing."
He doesn't sound sad as he said it; there's a glint of pride in his cold blue eyes, and Arthur tries to take comfort in it.
Can they learn to know each other again, to trust as they used to? He remembers the defiance in Merlin's eyes when he set fire to the pyre, the unspoken challenge – Go on. I dare you. And Merlin didn't, not for a second, believe that Arthur could do it. His trust was that unconditional, and Arthur didn't live up to it.
But even then, even during those brief moments before the fire spread and the flames leapt towards him, Merlin didn't struggle. He could have freed himself; everyone knew that. But he didn't. He looked down at the fire at his feet, stunned; and then he raised his eyes to Arthur's and stared at him, the expression on his face neither afraid nor hateful. It was the expression of a man who had lost all that was worth living for. Who had lost Arthur.
He held Arthur's gaze for much longer than should have been possible.
"Where did you go, after you – woke up?" Arthur asks.
Merlin gives him an amused look at the euphemism. "Ealdor, to my mother."
Hunith. Arthur wonders what Merlin told her, what she must have thought.
"It's your birthday next week."
Merlin looked up. "So?"
"So I thought you might like to return home."
Merlin looked quizzical. "Home?"
"I meant Ealdor."
Merlin went completely still, conflicting emotions crossing his expression. He hadn't been to Ealdor, Arthur knew, in many months – almost a year. He hadn't seen his mother in that long. And yet...
"Are you trying to get rid of me?"
"No," Arthur said. "Think of it as a – a favour."
Merlin tilted his chin up. "I'm not leaving you."
"I'm sure I'll manage just fine for a week or two without you, Merlin."
"I'm not leaving for two weeks!" Merlin sounded scandalised. "You wouldn't survive two days without me!"
Arthur rolled his eyes. "Please, Merlin. I'm sure I can manage not to die just because someone isn't there to throw things at."
"You think?" Merlin said. "How are you going to get dressed and undressed? How are you going to make any speeches, or talk to Gwen without making a complete idiot of yourself? Who are you going to use as a training dummy? Forget all that – how are you even going to get out of bed?"
Arthur winced. "I'll just have to ask George."
Merlin wrinkled his nose. "George? That's it, then. You'd die of boredom. I can't go."
"Arthur," Merlin mimicked.
"You can't just say no to a birthday gift."
Merlin marked a pause. "Is that what this is?"
Arthur met his gaze. "Yes. That's what this is."
"How is Hunith?"
Merlin smiles, a faraway look settling in his eyes. "Fine. She's... fine."
And Arthur doesn't ask, Does she know? Does she know what you did? Does she know what I did to you?
"How long did you stay?"
"Just a few days," Merlin says. "Long enough to realise that I couldn't stay away from you."
And – Merlin can't just say things like that and expect Arthur not to react. Arthur steps closer until their shirts almost brush against each other, until he can practically feel the warmth of Merlin's skin even though they aren't touching. His heart is racing, because Merlin isn't backing away, and this is the closest they've been since – since –
Arthur's hand rises to Merlin's throat, tracing the pale skin there, exposed by Merlin's nervous tugging on his neckerchief. There's a thin leather cord around Merlin's neck that Arthur is fairly certain is recent; it disappears beneath Merlin's tunic, pulled low by the weight of a pendant. Arthur, feeling sick, already knowing what he is going to find to find, gently tugs at the cord, his fingers brushing against the skin over Merlin's collarbones, his neck, the hollow of his throat. On the necklace hangs the small, wooden bird with the golden eyes that Gwaine wore in the months after Merlin's death.
"He gave you this?" he asks, tasting something bitter in the back of his mouth.
Merlin lifts a hand to cover Arthur's; the touch is warm and gentle. "As a reminder."
A reminder of what? That Arthur can't be trusted? Or that Gwaine is Merlin's, through and through, and not Arthur's?
Merlin must have seen the look in his face, because he says, "Arthur, don't."
And Arthur isn't sure what it is he isn't supposed to do, but he nods anyway. He would promise the world if he thought it would keep Merlin like this – Merlin's body close to his, his mouth curled into a smile, their hands pressed together.
It was a habit by now, a part of their morning routine. Neither Merlin nor Arthur put much thought into it. Arthur just expected it, and Merlin obeyed. It had taken him some time to learn how to do it, but he was now as skilled as any manservant in this regard at least. Though outside of these moments he sometimes joked about Arthur being unable to dress himself, he was always silent when he dressed Arthur. Not so today.
"This is a fancy one," Merlin said, picking up the shirt and holding it up to the light. He didn't look pleased. "Special occasion?"
"You know Bayard is coming for an official visit this afternoon."
"Oh, right." Merlin wrinkled his nose. "You're supposed to impress them by wearing a shirt that makes you look good? Wouldn't your armour do the job better?"
"We're not at war with Mercia, Merlin. Nor do we wish to be. We'll be greeting royal guests with as much respect and hospitality as possible."
"Right," Merlin said again. "You know, the lacings on this thing are really complicated."
Arthur snorted. He knew Merlin hated anything fancier than the shirts that Arthur himself preferred – simple, comfortable, and quick to put on. Merlin was that lazy.
"Be quick, because actually, there's also a cloak to put on."
"You can put it on yourself," Merlin mumbled. "Honestly, a cloak is not that hard –"
Arthur rapped his knuckles against the back of Merlin's head, and Merlin dropped the shirt.
"Ow!" He raised a hand to the back of his head. "What was that for?"
Arthur looked at him pointedly. Merlin rolled his eyes, but there was a smile on his lips when he picked the shirt up again. He stepped forward and slid the shirt over Arthur's raised arms and his head. With a sure hand, he turned Arthur around and set to work on the lacings at his back. For all his complaining, his fingers moved quickly, starting between his shoulder blades and swiftly moving down to the base of his spine. Arthur stood still, eyes half-closed, appreciating the quick succession of light touches.
Merlin turned him around again with a gentle pressure applied on his shoulder, and looked up into Arthur's eyes with a small grin. His hands slid down Arthur's torso, smoothing the fabric down, patting off whatever dust there may have been. His touch was firm and sure, as though he was entitled to this, and Arthur watched as his hands slid downwards to rest for just a second too long on Arthur's hipbones, the warmth of his skin seeping through the fabric. The look in Merlin's eyes was indecipherable, and then it was gone and Merlin was backing away, eyes wide, looking like he'd been burnt.
"So." Arthur cleared his throat. "Does it... 'make me look good?'"
He tried to make his tone teasing, wanting to bring that warm, open look back in Merlin's eyes, but Merlin looked away from him and said, dismissively, "You'll do, I suppose."
Arthur snorted despite himself. "Thank you."
"I wish I could have been there at your coronation," Merlin says softly. "I wanted to see you become king."
Arthur swallows, thinking You could have seen it if you'd just waited. He doesn't want to think about his coronation, or the events that had led to it. He doesn't want to think about any of it.
He changes the subject. "Did you know you would survive?"
Merlin gives him a strange, thoughtful look. "I didn't survive, Arthur," he says slowly. "I died, and then I came back."
"But did you know you would?"
"I had... an inkling. I thought I might, because of things that have happened in the past. But..." His free hand rises to touch the bird at his throat. "I didn't really know. That's not why I did it."
He doesn't explain further.
Arthur swallows and, wondering whether he really wants to know the answer, he asks, "Why did you let me do it?"
Merlin is silent for a long moment. Arthur meets his gaze unflinchingly, looking into his blue eyes, wondering how he could ever have thought that Merlin was a threat to him.
"I always thought that when you found out you'd understand," Merlin says finally in a soft voice. "I thought you'd realise that all I did, I did it for you, that I –" He shakes his head, smiling ruefully. "It just seemed like there was no point fighting it. If I can't use it for you, then what good is my magic?"
Arthur wonders how it feels, to be so completely devoted to someone. To have that one person be your reason for living, for fighting. Somehow, he has always known that when Merlin rode out to face the dragon, or insisted on coming along on the most dangerous missions, or held his own against bandits by Arthur's side, it meant something. Something.
He hadn't imagined this.
"I'm sorry." Arthur isn't sure what exactly he's apologising for, but he needs to say it. For everything.
Merlin's smile turns bitter. "Oh, I know you are."
He doesn't say, So am I. He doesn't say So what? but Arthur hears it anyway. The sourness in Merlin's tone prompts him to ask:
"Why did you come back to me?"
"Destiny," Merlin says, and Arthur isn't sure what he wanted to hear, but it wasn't that. "I've learnt that it's no use fighting it. You can try to get rid of me all you want, Arthur. I'll always come back, because there's nowhere else for me to go."
"Even after you – I –"
There's nothing in Merlin's eyes, no fever, no devotion, no hint of the old affection. Nothing but a hard blankness, a sort of detached honesty. Arthur hates it.
"But do you want to leave?"
"As much as you want me to leave," Merlin says.
Arthur looks at Merlin. He was so stupidly happy when Merlin came back, so amazed to find him alive, so glad and hopeful when Merlin agreed to serve him again. But there still is and there will always be that resentment between them, the heavy weight of their past.
Looking into Merlin's eyes, Arthur realises how little that matters, how much his heart outweighs his reason in this case. This person.
"I don't ever want you to leave," he says, and he means every word.
Merlin smiles. His eyes soften at the edges, and his tone is different now, almost gentle. "I know."
When Merlin dresses him for the first time since he came back, his fingers dance across Arthur's back and shoulders and his touch is light and fleeting, almost uncertain. Arthur doesn't comment. He senses the difference, but the fact that Merlin is here at all, after all this time, helping him wit his clothes and armour, is enough for him. And just before Merlin backs away, telling him he's ready, he puts his hand on Arthur's shoulder and presses down firmly, a friendly encouragement, and that – that is more than enough.
Merlin isn't Arthur's manservant again. He can't be; he can't openly follow Arthur around the castle or come when he's called or serve him his food. But he is, more often than not, there; concealed in shadows, maybe, but Arthur doesn't care. He just needs the knowledge and comfort of Merlin's presence. And in the evening, when Arthur is tired, Merlin is the one who prepares his bath and is there when he goes to bed. In the morning it's Merlin who drags Arthur out of bed, and even though Arthur has never been a morning person, every time he hears Merlin's voice and his stupid Rise and shine, every time he feels the sunlight against his tightly-shut eyes and knows that Merlin has drawn the curtains open, he can't help but smile.
What is it about Merlin? He betrayed Arthur in the worst possible way, and Arthur can't even bring himself to think about it, because the memories are forever entwined with his own unforgivable actions. Arthur desperately wants to return to what they had: the easy friendship, the natural trust.
For a while it works. Arthur pretends there is nothing wrong between them, Merlin doesn't call him on it, and things go as smoothly as they could be expected to. Arthur doesn't throw anything at Merlin, Merlin doesn't call Arthur a dollophead, and all in all their relationship is a lot like what it should be: professional and unassuming. Sometimes Merlin will smile when Arthur is particularly arrogant, and Arthur will struggle not to laugh when Merlin is being stupid. But their banter, the easy, affectionate sharing of insults is gone, and Arthur isn't sure what he can do to get it back. He has to bite his tongue every time a witty retort comes to him, because he feels Merlin might not take it in stride the way he used to. For all that he wants to pretend otherwise, things are different and they both know it.
One day, Merlin throws Arthur a cautious look and says, quietly, "I know we don't talk about this, but you should know I never meant to kill him."
Arthur tenses, a chill running up his spine. It's true, they have never talked about it, and if Arthur has his way they never will. Because – he understands. In a way, he understands why Merlin did it. It doesn't make the betrayal any less harsh, it doesn't make what Merlin did right, but he can understand. His father killed so many of Merlin's kind, that it was more like punishment than revenge. And he passed quietly, peacefully. He wasn't hanged, or beheaded, or – or burnt alive in front of my eyes. He was already dying when Merlin got to him. Maybe, in the end, it's better this way. That doesn't mean Arthur is ready to say it out loud just yet.
"It's all right, Merlin."
The words are forced, but Arthur thinks that one day soon, he will be able to say them and believe them to be true. Will be able to forgive Merlin, the way Merlin is trying to forgive him.
"No, it's not," Merlin says. "Arthur, I have to explain –"
"I don't want to talk about it."
"Then don't! Just... just listen."
And Arthur wants to say, No, go away, leave me alone, but he knows now what it's like to be alone, and he knows it's a thousand times worse than anything Merlin can say. So he is silent, and he looks out the window, not wanting to see the hatred in Merlin's eyes as he speaks of Arthur's father.
"I never wanted to kill your father," Merlin says, every word like a new lie sinking right into Arthur's chest. "Over the years, don't you think I had the opportunity? I never took it. I've saved his life more than once, because I knew it would destroy you to lose him."
An unrestrained, explosive anger such as Arthur had never felt before. He was fighting to kill, which was nothing new. But he was also fighting to hurt, to avenge, and that – that was different.
Morgause, so understanding. His mother's words rolling around his head, the only thing he could think about. The truth about his conception. The truth about her death. The truth about his father's hatred of magic. The truth to counter all the lies he had been told.
He had his father knocked down. A simple forward stab of his sword, and it would be over. It would be revenge. It would be justice.
Merlin, bursting into the room, calling his name. The sound of his voice stayed Arthur's hand, made him look up, made him think.
"Arthur! Don't! I know you don't want to do this!"
Oh, but he did. He wanted to, with a passion that should have scared him. He had never wanted anything more, had never been so blinded by anger, so utterly convinced that this was what had to be done. He wanted to.
"Arthur, please," Merlin said, his voice strained. "Put the sword down."
"You heard what my mother said. After everything he has done, do you believe he deserves to live? He executes those who use magic, and yet he has used it himself!" Arthur tightened his grip on his sword and spoke to his father. "You have caused so much suffering and pain. I will put an end to that."
"Morgause is lying!" Merlin said, sounding desperate."She's an enchantress. She tricked you. That was not your mother you saw. That was an illusion."
A moment of clarity amidst the blinding rage. Arthur hesitated.
"Everything... everything your mother said to you... Those were Morgause's words."
If Merlin's voice hadn't been so faltering, so uncertain, Arthur would have dropped the sword right then.
"You don't know that."
Arthur, falling to his knees, the sword clattering to the ground beside him.
"My son, you mean more to me than... than anything."
Arthur, bowing his head, his mind suddenly clear, his body weary from the fight, his throat tight with tears. How could he have...?
"I'm sorry. I'm sorry," he said, wondering whether words would ever be enough, whether anything could make his father forgive him for this – treason of the worst kind, from a son to his father.
Uther's voice, gentle, tired. "You are not to blame."
"I am indebted to you, Merlin. I had become...confused. It is once again clear to me that those who practise magic are evil and dangerous. And that is thanks to you."
"My mother," Arthur says, suddenly needing to speak, and not just listen. "That was another lie, wasn't it? You lied."
"I had to," Merlin says firmly, unapologetically. "I couldn't let you kill him. You would never have forgiven yourself. Listen, Arthur. When you came to me for help – to Dragoon, I mean... I honestly tried. I tried to save him. The spell I cast, it was a healing spell, I swear."
"And it didn't work?"
Arthur wants to believe it, but it doesn't make sense. Uther died immediately after the spell. It wasn't just inefficient. The spell caused his death.
"Morgana managed to plant a necklace in his rooms. It contained an enchantment that reversed the healing spell and drained his life."
It still doesn't make sense.
"How could Morgana get inside the castle?"
Merlin hesitates. "Agravaine," he says finally. "He's in league with her. I think he has been from the beginning."
Arthur closes his eyes briefly and feels his throat tighten. Not again.
Morgana, Merlin, and Gwen. His knights. His father, even, lied to him about both Morgana and his mother. And now Agravaine.
"I know –" Merlin pauses; he swallows audibly. "I know there's no reason for you to believe me. But I swear it's the truth."
"Oh, I believe you," Arthur says bitterly. "Why shouldn't I? Of course he's a traitor. I don't even know why I'm surprised anymore."
Merlin doesn't move. "I never meant to hurt you."
"It's a bit late for that, isn't it?"
Merlin steps forward, hands outstretched, reaching for Arthur, and – Arthur slaps his hand away.
The look on Merlin's face is like Arthur has just struck him across the face.
"Leave me," Arthur commands, and for once, Merlin obeys.
Merlin, sitting with his back against a tree trunk, grinning stupidly at Arthur like he's trying to be brave. There's a cut high on his left arm, because the idiot forgot to properly protect himself. Probably busy staring off into the distance. He's not losing much blood, but Arthur can't help but worry about infection.
"You know you don't actually have to follow me everywhere, Merlin, don't you?" Arthur carefully wiped most of the blood away from the wound, ignoring Merlin's wince. "Because I'm starting to think you misread the job contract and somehow got the impression that you're supposed to get into all these fights with me."
"It's not my fault you attract trouble," Merlin shot back. "You must really be a huge prat if people keep trying to kill you so often. You're lucky I'm here to have your back."
Arthur scoffed. "Have my back? You?"
"You're such a prat," Merlin said.
"I think I'm lucky you're not all I have to rely on during a fight." Arthur dipped his fingers into the jar of salve that he always took from Gaius. It was thick, oily, and had a strange smell, but in his experience nothing else worked quite so well. "God, Merlin, did no one ever teach you that you're not supposed to let the sword cut you?"
"I'm not a knight."
Arthur looked up. "Of course not."
"No," Merlin said. "I mean, I'm not a knight. Compared to you, I'm useless with a sword. The only weapons training I have is what little I've managed to grasp in between being battered by your knights."
"They hardly batter you –"
Arthur looked back down at Merlin's arm, a little stricken by Merlin's resentful tone. He was gentle as he applied the salve, trying to make his touch into an apology, because – if Merlin could, he would have his back at all times, and he was right. He wasn't a knight. Nor had Arthur ever expected of him half as much as what he did. He would have been content with a half-decent servant, which Merlin was most definitely not. He had never expected to find a friend so loyal he would walk right into death traps with him.
"Why do you do it?" he asked quietly. "Why do you always insist on following me?"
"Because I want to."
There was a moment of silence. Arthur, careful not to look up at Merlin's face, ripped a small piece of cloth from the bottom of Merlin's shirt and tied it around the wound, hiding it from view.
"Thank you," Merlin said dryly.
"You hated that shirt anyway," Arthur said.
He sat back down on his heels, raising his eyes to Merlin's face. Merlin's cheeks were flushed, and he was looking down at his arm, tracing the cloth absent-mindedly with his fingers.
"Right, that's it," Arthur said. "I'm sending you back to the citadel."
Merlin's eyes snapped to his. "Not going to happen. No."
"That was an order, not a suggestion."
"Right, because I usually obey you without question." Merlin tilted his chin defiantly. "I am not leaving you."
Gwen knew. Lancelot knew. Gwaine knew. Hell, every single one of his knights probably guessed, because they have faith in Merlin. They know him well enough to trust him with their lives, and Arthur's as well. The looks, the blame, all of it – this is the reason. Arthur was blinded by anger and grief, and his trust in Merlin was fragile enough to have been shattered with one blow. But the others, they all knew.
The truth hurts, far more than anything else ever did. Because now, confronted with his own actions, Arthur has no excuse, no apology. "I know why you did what you did. That doesn't make it right," Merlin said, and he was right. Arthur thought he was getting revenge, but Merlin had only done what he told him to do. He thought he was punishing a criminal, but Merlin is innocent. He thought Merlin was a murderer, when he did all he could to save Uther.
And for that, Arthur killed him.
Arthur would rather have lived on thinking that Merlin really was a traitor, than this. He knows he was starting to forgive Merlin, because it's impossible not to forgive him. Facing his own betrayal, on the other hand, seems impossible. The guilt was beginning to fade as Merlin seemed to forgive him; it has now returned with a vengeance, and Arthur can think of nothing but fire and the way Merlin died. Painfully. It's a new wall between them, a new distance that Arthur can't reach across, and though he still sees Merlin every day, he can no longer do it without flinching.
There's also the magic. Arthur isn't sure why – is it meant to be threatening, or just a painful reminder? – but Merlin is always using it around him. If Arthur comes to Merlin's room, he can be sure to find Aithusa there. The rapidly-growing dragon soon won't fit anymore, but as long as he does Merlin keeps him close, and Arthur has several times witnessed Merlin talking in the dragon's tongue. And if it's Merlin in Arthur's room, it's even worse. Merlin seems to need to use magic for every single thing, from straightening out the covers on Arthur's bed to closing the goddamned door. Most of the time he doesn't even say a spell, so that Arthur doesn't have to hear the guttural language ripped from his throat; in a way, though, it's more unsettling to see Merlin just make things happen without saying a word. He looks at an object, his eyes flash gold for an instant, and then... It's done.
It still sends a shiver up Arthur's spine every time, and he has a feeling Merlin knows it.
He's watching Merlin direct a broom across his room with a small motion of his fingers when Merlin stops abruptly, letting the broom clatter to the floor. He turns to Arthur, and his eyes are blue.
"It was supposed to be yours, you know."
Arthur starts; Merlin rarely instigates a conversation, even now. "What?"
"My magic," Merlin says, stepping closer to Arthur.
Arthur doesn't step away.
"It was always meant to be yours. I was destined for you. Arthur Pendragon, the Once and Future King." He sounds wistful, his words carrying a meaning Arthur can't understand. "You have no idea what you could have been; what you should have been."
"With you, you mean."
Merlin inclines his head. "We were two sides of the same coin, meant to be united. Useless if we were separated, but together... Together," he repeats, a dreamy, far-off look on his face, "we would have been unstoppable. It was meant to be us, Arthur. Camelot, Albion, magic – it was supposed to be ours. Our destiny."
Does it have to be too late? Arthur wants that, he wants the vision Merlin has put into his mind, something he has never even considered and yet something that, at its core, is close to Arthur's most cherished hopes – Merlin, by his side, serving and advising him, his constant friend and shoulder to rest on, and if he has to use magic to do that, well. Then he'll use magic. The magic is not a threat.
It was never a threat.
"Maybe we could still –" Arthur begins.
Merlin lays a hand on his shoulder, the touch so intimate and familiar that Arthur can't help but lean into it. The warmth of Merlin's hand seems to seep through the fabric of his shirt.
"You know I'm still yours."
Arthur hears the unspoken, But you were never mine. He wants to deny it, but in his heart he knows he could never be Merlin's the way Merlin is so completely, unwaveringly his. Merlin who has sworn himself to Arthur many times over with both actions and words, Merlin who would die at his command even if he apparently can't stay dead, Merlin who has always been willing to die for him, whether Arthur wants it or not. Arthur won't lie to himself: he isn't capable of that sort of devotion. He can't look Merlin in the eye and say I'm yours, always, when he's seen what true devotion to one man means. So he looks away.
Merlin makes a small, hurt sound in the back of his throat, and Arthur looks up again sharply, realising he was expecting an answer.
"Merlin, I –"
Merlin shakes his head. "I know," he says. "I always knew. I just... We were meant to be more than this."
"Two sides of the same coin?" Arthur says, turning the words into a question, wondering what they mean. It sounds right, and at the same time it's frightening, like they can't live without each other. Like without Merlin, he's nothing.
Merlin smiles, calm and warm, and the hand does not move from Arthur's shoulder. "I've been told a half cannot truly hate that which makes it whole."
The words are infused with a strange solemnity, and they warm Arthur's heart for he reads into them what he should – that Merlin does not, could never hate him, that maybe he doesn't even resent him. Just as Arthur knows that what he feels for Merlin is so far from hate it's not even funny. Arthur raises a hand to cover Merlin's on his shoulder, and is glad when Merlin does not move away, but instead turns his hand so their palms are pressed together, their fingers entwined.
"If I never hated you, then how could I –"
"We both made a mistake," Merlin says, closing his fingers around Arthur's. "I should have told you."
"I should have listened."
"Are we really talking about this?" Merlin asks, and he's whispering but they're so close that Arthur can hear every word, can practically feel Merlin's breath across his cheek.
"Don't you think we have to?"
Merlin looks right into his eyes, and they're too close. Arthur knows his guilt is laid out plainly for Merlin to see.
"No. I don't. I think you need to talk about it to clear your conscience."
"Is that so wrong?"
"Not really," Merlin says. "But why bother?"
He draws back, letting his hand slip from beneath Arthur's and drop to his side again. Arthur follows it with his gaze, wanting to reach out and take it back.
"Nothing you say will change what happened. And I've told you, I know why you did it."
"But it was wrong," Arthur insists.
"And I'm glad you realise that, now."
Merlin looks away, shielding his eyes from Arthur's sight, and Arthur wants to say Look at me, Merlin, just look at me.
"They're not exactly my best memories," Merlin says quietly. "And I'd really rather not talk about it."
"I understand that. Really, I do. But –"
"I've forgiven you. I swear, Arthur, I have. And I know you've forgiven me for lying. Can't we just leave it at that?"
"Forgiven you?" Arthur is stunned. "Merlin, I don't even care –"
"Then can't you trust that it's the same for me?"
Arthur stares at him, and wants to ask how a secret that Merlin had every reason to keep is supposed to compare to an execution, how Merlin can just forgive him and move on, but at that moment Merlin looks at him again. His eyes are blue and warm, and – Arthur's breath catches in his throat, because it's the look he used to give Arthur. The one that Arthur always read too much into, the one that doesn't stop at just friendship and loyalty.
This is how.
"We can try again," Merlin says gently, like a promise. "We have all of eternity to try again."
"If it isn't too late."
"It's never too late," Merlin says. "Not for us."
He doesn't flinch or move away when Arthur raises a hand to rest lightly against his cheek; instead, he leans into the touch, letting Arthur draw his fingertips across his jaw. Arthur doesn't know what he has done, what deity he has pleased to deserve this. He just knows, deep in his bones, that this, somehow, is what he's always wanted, what he's been waiting for without even knowing it. If this is destiny, then he'll follow the path laid out for him without hesitating. He wants to be worthy of it, he wants to say I'll never hurt you again, I'm so sorry, I'll do anything, but the words are stuck in his throat. It doesn't really matter, because he has a feeling Merlin already knows.
Merlin's next words are spoken in a whisper, like a secret shared just between the two of them. "You and I, Arthur – we'll be the stuff of legends."