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against the harshest of tides (and cruelest of winters)

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“Arthur? I—we—can I talk to you?”

Arthur looked up from his desk as Merlin set down his tray of dinner, his hands shaking softly. His heart was pounding hard in his chest, he swore the prince could hear it. He’d been planning and practicing this conversation for hours, days, weeks even. Surely Arthur had noticed the change in his demeanor recently. The changes that made him spill wine more often as he found himself lost in his thoughts, and the changes that made him take twice as long to dress and undress the prince with how bad his hands would shake as he reminded himself silently how this might be the last time he got to do it.

He was sure Arthur had noticed. He was quieter, his teasing more forced, hell, even the knights noticed. Gwaine had asked him just two nights ago if everything was okay with Arthur and him, no joking or anything. He was serious, and concerned. That was when Merlin knew he had to get this over with, and he stayed up all night the past two planning out what he would say. Now… Now, it was time, and he would make sure he said what he needed to and Arthur would listen.

Merlin must have been more lost in his head than he thought, just now, because suddenly Arthur was clapping his hands in front of his face with a frown.

“What? Oh, yes, sorry,” he shook his head, taking a deep breath as he pulled up a chair and sat down across the desk from Arthur. “We need to talk. Well, I need to talk.”

“Merlin, are you alright?” Arthur raised an eyebrow at his manservant, and Merlin swore he looked worried, “You’ve not been acting yourself. Now you’re saying you need to speak with me, while looking like a frightened newborn deer. One would think you’re quitting!” It was a joke, but Merlin didn’t laugh. He just averted his gaze, trying to reign in his restless nerves.

Arthur, of course, took this the wrong way. “Wait, hold on, don’t tell me you’re really trying to leave! Merlin, you can’t just quit being the Prince’s manservant.” He huffed, crossing his arms.

“I’m not quitting, Arthur, I just—” Merlin shook his head again, silently willing himself to pull it together, “I need you to listen, okay? I… I need to tell you something, and I need you to listen, and not interrupt me. I need you to just… Let me explain… Can you promise me you’ll just listen to what I have to say before jumping in? Because I’m not sure I can do this as is, let alone having you interrupt every two seconds before I get a chance to say what I need to say.”

The air was tense, and still. Merlin swallowed hard as he felt the harsh claws of regret already begin to scratch at his neck and face, leaving his throat dry and eyes burning with anxiety and fearful hesitance. The silence around them was suffocating, so suffocating, and Merlin hadn’t even started yet. He hadn’t even started yet, and still, he already felt as if every ounce of oxygen was rapidly being seeped from the room; as if the world was eager to see the young warlock gasping, sobbing for one sweet breath of bliss to save him from the disaster that was forming already around himself…

Just when he was beginning to debate fleeing without word, Arthur spoke. His voice was rigid, monotonous, and yet Merlin could hear the edge of worry slipping its way into his words. It sent chills down his spine in the worst way, as he realized for not for the first time this could be the last time the man ever spoke to him. “What are you talking about?” He asked, and Merlin still avoided his gaze—possibly more adamantly now than before, even. “What are you saying?”

Slowly, oh, ever-so-slowly, he finally met Arthur’s eyes. He just barely registered the wet feeling of tears dripping down his face as he blinked once, twice, three times, before looking away again when Arthur gasped near-silently. “I… Promise me, Arthur, sire, please. Promise me you’ll let me explain myself before you make judgement…” His own voice felt foreign, it was so quiet and distant.

Fuck, this wasn’t what he planned. He wasn’t supposed to fall apart like this, he was supposed to stay strong, to stand tall and demand Arthur listen to every word he says, not… Not plead like a man put upon trial, begging for his life. He takes a deep breath as he internally scolds himself, pulling back his composure and subtly wiping away the few tears that slipped free from confinement in his eyes. He would not cry anymore, no, he would hold himself together and he would do this with confidence. If his hands were still shaking, well, he would pretend they weren’t.

“Yes, alright, well, if it’s got you so worked up, it must be important…” Arthur murmured, frowning deeply as Merlin forced himself to make eye contact once again. “I promise to let you speak and explain whatever you need before adding my input. I promise I won’t say a word until you’ve confirmed you’re done speaking.”

In all honesty, Merlin was surprised Arthur had actually agreed. He was fully expecting this to go sideways already. Now, though, he had Arthur’s full attention and promise he wouldn’t say a thing until the end, and, well… He couldn’t prolong the inevitable any second more.

“I have magic.”

The words felt like the sweetest of poison. He wasn’t ashamed, he was quite proud of his magic, in fact, but he knew this admission would forever change the bond he’d grown to have with the prince. Carelessly dismantle and demolish the careful, tentative bond they’d formed over the years. He wasn’t ready to lose what he’d built with Arthur—rather, he wasn’t ready to lose Arthur… But that’s partly why he was confessing it now, was it not? After all… To lie so blatantly to the man you’ve come to love—the man you’ve fallen in love with… It was more bitter than the most potent Hemlock, and more painful than the burn of hot flames licking at one’s body. To outright betray someone you care so deeply for, it stung worse than the harshest nest of Nettle biting at one’s skin.

Merlin knew he was unworthy of loving Arthur, knew he had no right to fall so irrevocably in love with the Prince of Camelot, but he had as much choice in that as a mother had choice in her child’s eye colour. Unworthy because he could lie and deceive him so willingly, so easily. The only way he felt he could ever be worthy of feeling the way he felt was to be terrifyingly honest with him, even if it surely meant losing everything he’d worked so hard to build.

When Arthur kept his word and didn’t say a thing, Merlin was surprised. He had been expecting the man to immediately jump from his chair and shout at his servant for his crime. He held to his promise, though, and it prompted Merlin to keep going. To explain.

“I… I do. I have magic, and I have all my life.” He took a breath to keep his voice steady. “Since I was born, really. It’s true, I swear it. The druids, they know me by the name Emrys… They call me magic itself, claim I’m the strongest of all Sorcerer’s to live, many regard me as a leader of sorts, born to protect and serve the Once and Future King—that’s you, it’s a lot to take in…” Once he began, it found it hard to stop, the words just tumbling from his lips like an avalanche of confessions.

“I desperately want you to understand I’ve only ever used my magic for good, never once would I dream of harming you. It’s not like that. Magic, it isn’t evil, men are evil, magic is a tool. I need you to understand that, Arthur, please, but more I need you to know how sorry I am for keeping this from you, for…For lying and betraying and deceiving you… I didn’t know how to tell you, I was scared, I’ll admit it. I was afraid. There were times I’d wake at night, yanked awake from a dream of flames encasing me. I know you’d not have me executed, or I’d like to think you wouldn’t, but under your fathers rule I—it’s difficult.”

He shook his head slightly, pausing. “The point, the point… I have magic, I’m a sorcerer. I use my magic for you, though, to protect you, to keep you safe and alive. So many assassination attempts I’ve thwarted for you… I would never dream of hurting you, gods, Arthur, I could never hurt you even if I wanted to, I—I love you too much to do that. I would rather lay down my own life for yours. I would rather light the pyre myself than put you in harm’s way. My destiny is to be by your side, protecting you, watching you rise and grow to become the greatest King all of Albion will ever see, and I plan on doing just that, not just because some dragon told me to but because I couldn’t think of a place I’d rather be more. So yes, there is that. I have magic… I know you’ll probably never look at me the same again, hell, you will probably hate me, but I swear to you Arthur, nothing could take me from your side… I will not let Uther kill me, I will not let you banish me, I will always be here, beside you, keeping you from harm and using my magic, for you.”

“…That’s all I wish to say…” Merlin concludes softly, looking down at his hands in his lap, waiting for the verbal lashing he was sure to get. Waiting to be ordered out of Arthur’s sight indefinitely. He meant what he said, though, he would always be there whether in the light or in the shadows. The confession of his love wasn’t planned, no, that just slipped out, and he gave himself another silent scolding for it when he realized. He had only meant to tell Arthur of his magic, not of his feelings. Now, he’d completely laid his heart out for crushing, and all he could do was wait for the damn man to say something already.

Minutes that felt like years passed, and Merlin was stuck being suffocated by the silence once more, until Arthur finally spoke words that had him choking rather than gasping for air.

“Merlin… You love me?” The playful tone to his voice stunned Merlin almost as much as the words themselves. His eyes snap to Arthur’s, wide in disbelief.

“That—that’s what you take from all that?!” His voice came out louder than intended, and a bit breathlessly, but Arthur just grinned and stood up before walking around and turning Merlin’s chair to the side so he could kneel in front of the warlock.

He took Merlin’s hands once he was down in front of him, maintaining eye contact as he said the words that shook Merlin to the core. “I don’t care that you have magic, Merlin, I’ve known for a while now, actually…” He spoke with such a gentleness that it startled Merlin, who had gone pale at his admission.

“How…?” His voice was but a whisper, and his heart surely stopped beating. He’d known… He had already known… “Why didn’t you say anything? Why aren’t you furious with me?”

Arthur clicked his tongue, shaking his head as he squeezed Merlin’s hands slightly. “I caught you a few months ago magic-ing my laundry into the wardrobe. Really, it was rather reckless of you to do such a thing in my chambers mid-day, when anyone could have walked in. I was angry at first, felt awful really. Felt like after all this, you still didn’t trust me and I trusted you with my life, I still do. The anger subsided, though, and eventually became guilt, because I didn’t make you feel safe enough to trust me with this, and, how could I? Being the prince… I would never turn you in, never punish you like that, though, you’re my closest friend and I trust you with every part of my being.”

Merlin felt dizzy at his confession, but Arthur wasn’t done. “I didn’t say anything because, well, I figured it wasn’t my place to. It wasn’t—isn’t—my secret to tell. I knew you’d tell me when you were ready. I knew you’d tell me when you felt you could trust me, even if it stung that you felt you couldn’t tell me at first, because I realized soon enough it has nothing to do with me, nothing to do with trust. It has to do with you and what you’re ready for, not with me and what I think you should do. It isn’t my secret to tell, and it isn’t up to me to decide when you’re ready for me to know.”

Arthur raised a hand slowly to Merlin’s cheek, and softly swiped his thumb across it. It took Merlin a second to realize he was wiping away tears that he hadn’t noticed fell. He was speechless. This… He never expected this. Gods, just when he thought he couldn’t fall more in love with that royal prat, he has to go and say something like that.

“Thank you… For telling me,” Arthur murmured, and Merlin wanted nothing more than to collapse into his arms at the words, “I know it must have been hard for you. You’ve not been yourself these past couple days, and I assume it’s because you’ve been trying to do this… It must have been so much… I’m glad you told me, though. I really am.”

Finally, Merlin managed to find his voice as he blinked away the remaining tears in his eyes, not acknowledging the way he leaned into the hand still cradling his cheek tenderly. “I couldn’t keep lying, Arthur, I couldn’t, I felt so guilty—” He paused, the words caught in his throat, “I couldn’t keep lying to you. I couldn’t let myself feel what I feel while lying to your face every day.”

Arthur nodded slowly. “And what is it you feel…?” He asked, and though Merlin knew he already knew, he still took a deep breath and let his eyes fall shut as he let the words fall past his lips, gripped with a new wave of anxiety.

“I am… undeniably in love with you…”

As soon as the words had left his mouth, there was another pair of lips pressed cautiously against his own, as if an answer to an unvoiced question. Merlin gasps softly, his eyes flying open for a mere moment before they shut again and he gently pressed his lips back against Arthur’s. It was a slow, tender kiss. A silent confession of emotions unexplainable through words. An unspoken promise between two, who forever would stand side by side, against the harshest of tides and cruelest of winters. A taste of a place neither knew they missed, of a home neither knew they had within the other.

Merlin was the first to pull back, slow and hesitant. Their eyes met once more, and Merlin felt his heart leap with his breath.

“So, you...You’re really okay with my magic?” He asked after a moment of silence. When Arthur just chuckled, he frowned. His response, though, when it finally came, had the young warlock surging forward and pulling his prince into another sweet and slow, albeit passionate, kiss that screamed silent yet deafening proclamations of devotion.

“Of course. It is a part you, Merlin, and I love all of you with my whole heart.”