First rule of being a public figure: don't reveal your words. Especially not if they're bloody stupid and you're a prince.
First rule of being a sorcerer: don't reveal your magic. That's the only rule really. Merlin wishes there was one for his situation.
Arthur's life had to be a fucking joke.
There's no way this should have happened, cosmically, least of all to him, the bloody crown prince. What's he supposed do with this?
Well, he knows what he's supposed to do (and he does it very willingly because above all else he wants to avoid marrying a nutjob and endangering the throne) - he hides it.
Unfortunately, you can't hide it from everyone, especially not when training knights fairly frequently involves partial nudity, for reasons Arthur has given up trying to fathom.
Everyone's reactions ever can be summed up in Gwaine's, who just laughs in Arthur's fucking face; if he wasn't such a good swordsman and a close friend, Arthur would've had him exiled. Instead, he shoves him in some mud, where he continues laughing for a considerable length of time.
"That's so," he wheezes from the ground, "that's so stupid!" and collapses again.
The other men start flocking around them like excitable geese, trying to find the source of Gwaine's hysteria, which Arthur hastily covers up by pulling his sleeves down again.
"You'll have to swear secrecy," Arthur hisses.
Gwaine's can't speak yet, so replies with a thumbs-up.
"What's going on?" Leon asks Arthur quietly, subtly shielding the conversation from prying eyes with the angle of his body.
Arthur makes a face. "He... saw."
Leon already knew, because you have to trust someone and who’s better than the most trustworthy person in Albion? The number of people who know is limited by necessity to only those who absolutely have to, and even that is too many for Arthur's liking.
Leon rallies the other knights and herds them away to do some weights, and Arthur makes a note to give him a village or something. Then he squats beside Gwaine, who's now leaning on an elbow and only slightly out of breath.
"You can't tell anyone, alright? I'm serious."
"Nothing about this can be serious, surely," Gwaine grins.
"I'm afraid it is. Do you know how difficult it would make everything if the world found out about this?"
"What, difficult for people keep a straight face in meetings?"
Arthur glares at him. "Look, I'm not… trained yet. I'm getting there, but this can't get out now: I'd never be able to recognise her. People would do anything for bread, let alone royalty - there'd be hundreds of people claiming rights to my hand in marriage. I'd never find her."
Gwaine thinks about this as he stands up and brushes himself off. Arthur rises too and waits for his oath.
"I understand; you're a public figure, rule number one is to not flaunt your words," he nods, and holds out a hand. Arthur shakes it once to seal the promise, but before he can let go Gwaine blurts out, "But I'm sorry, this is hilarious. Are you cursed?"
"Cursing is no laughing matter.”
Arthur shoves him again, but Gwaine's ready for him this time and merely stumbles, grinning.
"No, as far as anyone knows, I was not cursed."
"So what you're saying is, your life's just a huge joke?"
"That's verging on treason, Sir."
"In my defence, I’m still reeling from a life-changing experience, Sire."
The thing about Gwaine is that he's the first person to know who isn't a) related to Arthur, b) a high-ranking member of the crown court or c) a nice, respectful person.
So obviously he brings it up constantly.
The other thing about Gwaine, though, is that despite his careless attitude and disregard for any authority that doesn't involve him, he is actually loyal to the bone and has never in his life broken an oath.
Which is why when the world finally finds out, Arthur knows it wasn't his doing.
A year later, almost everything about Arthur's life has changed.
He has turned to relative isolation, with only the trusted allowed in the walls and grounds of the castle. He trains for four hours every day in his chambers, but it had been years now and he didn’t seem to have made much progress at all. He's miserable, and to make matters worse he's the laughing stock of the kingdom.
Sometimes he feels cursed.
One day he's in the courtyard with Leon and some of the second tier soldiers, doing moving target practise to let off steam. The sun's high in the sky, lunch is being prepared, and all, for the moment, seems well in the tiny bubble that Arthur's world has become.
The servant holding the target stumbles and drops the shield; it rolls to the foot of a young man in common clothes, someone Arthur doesn’t recognise, who boldly places his boot over the painted royal crest.
Arthur's smile falls off his face. Something about this didn't feel right.
"Who is he?" he asks Leon over his shoulder as he starts to approach the boy.
Leon opens his mouth but can't produce a name.
Arthur stalks over. The boy is smug and not at all scared of him.
"Do I know you?" Arthur demands.
And then the young man widens his eyes and grins, and Arthur can tell it's coming, he’s walked right into it, fucking-
"I'm your soulmate," he replies, delighted.
And there it was - the phrase that had haunted Arthur his entire life, but positively ruined it this last year. He'd had it chanted at him in the street before he started staying inside; he'd had hordes of eager women pounce on him, run their fingers over his skin and proclaim they felt a spark; he'd overheard countless hushed conversations mocking him within his own damn walls.
It'd been so long since he'd had an incident, and there's an unpleasant familiarity to the whole thing.
Arthur grabs the man's collar and jerks him forward. "How did you get in?"
"What?" the man squeaks, alarmed and without full use of his windpipe.
"This is an offence now, you know," Arthur continues in his low, menacing voice, the one that even Gwaine listens to.
Arthur takes the man's wrist and uses it to twist his body around and onto his knees facing the ground.
"I'm being serious!" the man splutters. "I really am your soulmate-"
Leon materialises and after taking in the situation for half a second, just sighs and ties the man's wrists behind his back.
"How in the hell did he get in here?" a soldier asks his neighbour.
It's a good question, and Arthur makes it his priority to find out.
So, not a great first day, all things considered.
Merlin consoles himself with the fact that he's found his soulmate at long last, but it's not much of a consolation seeing as the guy is clearly crazy. He had been at least kind of prepared for that one thanks to his words, which had been the cause of much distress over the years. Will they be an ass? The answer is yes. Good to have that cleared up.
Gaius comes to fetch him after a few hours, tutting away. Merlin's glad to see a friendly face and hugs him impulsively, forgetting for a minute that they’d only met once, for about ten minutes, that morning. Gaius chuckles and pats his back.
"You're very cheerful for someone who's been sentenced to the stocks for a week," he muses as they walk to the outhouse.
"I, uh," Merlin starts, and wonders briefly if it was thought rude here to talk about your bond. He could never figure out why some people thought it was weird and others didn’t, and had ended in many a smacked head as a child. He also wondered if talking about it might be too risky in itself, seeing as it was his magic that meant he could feel it so definitively. In Ealdor he had learned to be quiet in order to avoid awkward questioning about how he was confident in his ability without having trained a jot. At least here, he supposes, there was no one around to dispute his lies about his childhood. "I found my soulmate."
"Heavens! I only left you for half an hour."
"Trouble is he's a complete git."
Gaius tuts some more. "That's sometimes the way. Unfortunately I think you'll get used to it, and it'll be the rest of us who aren't in love with him who have to endure."
Merlin nods at this reasoning. "You know, I was rather hoping it’d be someone important. I could do with some new shoes and things."
"Who is it? Did you get a name?"
Merlin grins despite his depression about the life he was supposedly destined to lead. "Here’s the fun bit: it's the man who arrested me."
Gaius stops walking and stares at him.
"I know! True love, right? First comes love, then comes immediate imprisonment."
"That can’t... who arrested you?"
"One of the knights, I think. Blond, arrogant. Actually, that's probably doesn’t narrow it down–"
"Merlin," Gaius lays a hand on his arm. "The man who arrested you was Prince Arthur."
"The guards told me when I came to collect you. You really didn't know it was him?"
"Well... no! He doesn't act much like a prince."
"You don't act much like a servant."
"I'm not one yet," he point out, then whistles as he digests this information. "Maybe I’ll get some new shoes after all then."
Gaius dismisses this with a wave of his hand. "So let me get this straight: you didn’t know he was the prince and were just going around telling every man you met that you were his soulmate?”
“Yeah, like they’d believe that,” he scoffs – and then startles, because that had… actually been his first words to the guy. Wow, what an idiotic thing to say. "Wait, how do you know that’s what I said to him?"
“You must’ve known that was never going to work, my boy. You seem like a smart young man but I’m starting to doubt my judgement.”
“What are you talking about? What wasn’t going to work?”
“Saying the Prince’s words to him.”
“And how would I have done that?”
Gaius pauses at the genuine sincerity of his question. “Everyone knows the Prince’s words, Merlin,” he replies, looking at him strangely.
"Well, I didn't," Merlin says. "I've only been here five hours."
Gaius stares at him incredulously for a minute, and then starts up walking again, muttering fiercely about tea and destiny.
Merlin follows, and wonders what he's missing.
So now there's a new issue to add to the rather monumental existing issue of Merlin's soulmate being a git. Apparently, the git was not going to believe for a second that Merlin was his.
According to Gaius, and later confirmed by the lovely maid Gwen who stopped by to pick up a remedy and ended up staying for dinner, everyone in the land apart from Merlin and his mum was aware of the scandal surrounding the Prince of Camelot's words.
"His uncle betrayed him," Gwen tells him, eyes gleaming with the sheer joy of gossip. "Overnight the whole of the city knew, and within a week the country."
"The nature of the words didn't help douse the fire," Gaius continues. "People came from all over to try their hand at... well, gaining his hand."
"So he thinks I'm a groupie, essentially?"
"I fear so, dear boy."
"Isn't there any way I can convince him?"
"Only a felt bond can convince someone fully," Gwen quotes the proverbial schoolmaster who drilled that into all the young heads in Albion.
"And he can't feel bonds," Merlin finishes flatly.
"I’ve been serving as his physician all his life and he’s never displayed any ability. I’m sorry."
"Brilliant." Merlin says.
Arthur refuses to see him. He barely allowed him to stay in Camelot, which he agreed to probably out of respect and slight fear of Gaius. Merlin spends his first weeks there moping and doing errands and wondering why he got stuck with such a cursed life.
He comes around to the idea as winter approaches that the only way he could prove to Arthur he isn't lying is lumivisere, the old spell sorcerers can cast to make the bond visible for a short time.
The only problem with this is that Arthur would execute him if he found out he had magic.
So like, shit.
Arthur allows Merlin to take the position of his manservant (Gaius’ idea – Arthur sort of resents that he owes his life to Gaius sometimes) on the condition that they never talk about soulmarks, or bonds, or anything like that, ever again. Merlin goes red when Gaius conveys this to him, and gets a strange expression on his face, but agrees to it.
Arthur soon discovers that the man is simultaneously more and less of an idiot than he’d thought before. They get on alright, though – well, no they don’t, but Arthur finds he’s more amused by the constant bickering than annoyed by it, which is more than can be said for his last two manservants.
He’s a little less miserable now he has someone he can yell at who won’t do anything more than roll their eyes at him and maybe yell back; but he’s still pretty damn miserable.
There’s talk in the court of “other options”, ways to keep an unbonded king while still creating a bloodline of heirs. This hasn’t happened before. Arthur doesn't like to think about how the reason it hasn't is that all the unbonded heir apparents in recent history were killed before they could take the throne alone.
Morgana is pleased by all this, in her own crude way. It means she might get to be queen after all.
“Just think,” she sighs wistfully, resting her chin on Arthur’s shoulder as they look out over the courtyard below. “We could rule together, us against the world like when we were younger.”
Arthur shakes her off and she laughs at his grumpy face. “First of all, rulers aren’t meant to be against their people—“ (Morgana waves him off like, Pfft, semantics) “—and second of all, you’d just undermine everything I said.”
“That’s teamwork, brother.”
He punches her in the arm, and she replies in kind, and for a moment Arthur can see it wouldn’t be so bad, ruling with her and whoever her soulmate turned out to be. It could be nice.
(He’s long since given up on hoping for spectacular.)
He would never admit it to anyone, but for all the shit sorcerers have injected into his life, Arthur is kind of… well, jealous about the tie magic has with soulbonding. When it comes down to it, bonds are themselves a form of magic, but one that is a part of the human body, and incorruptible, which differentiates it from the sort of sorcery Uther banned from the kingdom long ago. It’s fascinating, really. Legends say there is a way to make a sorcerer’s bond tangible, something you can actually see, and my god, what he wouldn’t give to be able to see his bond, know where it actually fucking lead.
He doesn’t tell anyone, because it’s weird, and also vaguely illegal, but he thinks about it sometimes.
Everything goes to hell, predictably, because of Merlin.
He’s on his way to steal some food from the kitchen (is it stealing if you technically own everything? Probably still yes) when he happens upon a nook in the wall of the corridor, and in that nook is Merlin with his tongue down the throat of one of Gaius’ errand runners.
“Christ!” he yells in shock, startling the two and causing Merlin to bash his head on the stone slabs behind him. He looks disoriented, but happily so, and it doesn’t seem to occur to him that he should be embarrassed by Arthur catching him.
“Oh, hello, sire,” he says cheerfully, voice rough. He clears his throat and rubs the back of his skull. The other man is avoiding Arthur’s eyes.
“Aren’t you meant to be working?” Arthur says pointedly to both of them. It’s the most neutral thing he can come up with in that moment, the other thoughts just swirling around his head incomprehensibly.
“It’s my lunch hour,” Merlin replies easily.
Arthur decides this counts as cheek and hits him, and shoos them both off down opposite ends of the corridor.
Then he returns to his room, not hungry anymore, and re-evaluates his life.
He can’t stop bloody replaying the scene over and over in his head. Why’s that?
It’s not the fact it was a guy. Lots of people bonded with people their own gender. Anyone could. Arthur could, if bonding was still on the cards for him. So not that.
Maybe it’s the fact that he hadn’t known Merlin was bonded – he’s never even met this guy before. As per the agreement they didn’t talk about soulmates, but Arthur still selfishly thinks he had a right to know. He hates being out of the loop.
But no, it’s not that.
It’s the same thing it always is. He’s jealous. Jealous that someone else has bonded before him, jealous someone gets to have unconditional love, jealous of the security, jealous of—
Why? Why does he have such bad luck?
So, yet another rare and awful thing that Arthur had been assigned to by the universe.
It’s one of the worst fates imaginable, to fall in love with someone who wasn’t your bondmate.
…Not that he’s in love.
Arthur fucks everything up in the spring.
He gets kidnapped, of all things.
It would be such a stupid way to die that Merlin’s tempted to let it happen – it’s not even anyone important that’s kidnapped him, just some rival king with too much time on his hands – but then he remembers how much it’d hurt to have his bond snapped and decides it isn’t worth the satisfying irony.
Camelot is hysterical. It seems like the whole of the country planned to go rescue him, which while sweet, was in Merlin’s eyes a supremely bad idea strategically. His new standard became simply to avoid the country falling into civil war, so he felt okay about his ethically dubious choice to fiddle with the minds of the head courtiers and make them thinking waiting til morning was the best plan of action. That gave him about eighteen hours to fix Arthur’s goddamn mess.
The trouble is that when your only defence is magic, you have to do these things alone
You’d think by now Merlin would be better at this.
It gets to a point where both Arthur and Merlin have knives held up to their necks, and they’re at opposite ends of the room, and the villain of the day is finishing up his smug, vengeful speech, which means they have approximately ten seconds left to live.
Merlin realises what he has to do, and manages to squeeze in a quick eye-roll before inhaling deeply and bam, the knife at his neck is thrown to the side, the guy behind him stumbles backwards. He flings his arm out to add momentum to the spell he throws in Arthur’s direction, which hits the man holding him hostage so hard he flies back and hits the stone wall about five meters from the ground.
“What the f—“ Arthur starts, but Merlin yells, “No time!” and is suddenly very busy trying to not be killed by the twenty men who descend on him. Arthur grabs a sword off one and starts fighting too. They make a good team, Arthur dazing them and Merlin knocking them out.
Then it’s just them panting in the middle of the silent room.
“You’re a fucking sorcerer,” Arthur says.
“Did I forget to mention that?” Merlin says drily. “Look, don’t kill me, okay – I just saved your ass.”
“I’m… not gonna kill you,” Arthur says, quieter, and he puts his newly-acquired sword in his belt.
Merlin blinks at him. “Really?”
“Of course not, you idiot.”
Merlin continues staring at him. Then, “You… you imbecile. You fucking… Jesus Christ!”
“You’ve been okay with magic this entire time?”
“Well, I mean there are evil sorcerers just like there are evil people, but since my father died I’ve come around to the idea that—“
“That was two months ago!” Merlin interrupts him. “You never thought of mentioning that?”
“Why would I!” Arthur yells back just to match the volume. “I didn’t know you had magic!”
“Oh my God,” Merlin groans. He shoves up his left shirt-sleeve, spattered with blood now, and holds it out to Arthur palm-up.
“What’re you--?” Arthur starts, but then Merlin’s saying Lumivisere and the veins of his wrist start glowing. They curl up out of his skin like tendrils, a soft red, and snake their way across the space between them to Arthur’s own wrist.
Arthur stares. Shakily, he lifts his arm, and the red fixes itself in a perfectly straight line between them. He angles his wrist away a little; the line follows, tethering them together.
“Is that…” he asks, trailing off.
“Yep,” Merlin replies.
“Have you… have you known this whole time?”
Merlin nods and looks at Arthur, waits for him as he takes this in. He’d only just managed to convince him he wasn’t bonded to that rando he’d snogged in the corridor a while ago, so he’s willing to give the guy time to work out what exactly was going on with Merlin’s love life. (It shouldn’t be too hard to piece together, though, because he’d only been snogging him because he looked a bit like Arthur.)
“And you thought I’d…?”
“You would’ve had to.”
Arthur just stares at the bond, barely blinking, like he’s scared it might disappear.
“God,” he murmurs. He finally meets Merlin’s eyes, and he’s smiling slightly, if uncertainly. “It’s lucky I got a sorcerer then, I suppose. I’d never have known otherwise.”
“Damn right you’re lucky you got me,” Merlin grins back, and dodges Arthur’s hand as he goes to smack him around the head.
One of the men at their feet regains consciousness and starts moaning, so Merlin shoots him a quick spell with a glance.
“That’s kind of cool,” Arthur says, impressed. Another man starts moving below him, and Arthur casually kicks him so he rolls onto his stomach. Yeah, they make a good team.