A/N: So I said I wasn't going to do a sequel to this. It would just be, Arthur bringing magic back and giving Merlin a permanent position at court. I said.
But, I got multiple requests/inquiries concerning Kilgarrah and the never-explained Balinor connection. And, the episode where Uther dies, is just before "Aithusa". Coincidence? Maybe. So here's something I also thought I'd never do, a making-magic-legal story. Full chapter 1 under separate story heading…
(Recall that the last chapter chronologically of "Refined by Fire" was Ch.19 Ten Months Later, the rewrite of "The Wicked Day"…)
Prologue: The King is Dead…
Stay… you belong here.
For several moments - there in Arthur's bedchamber, just the two of them again as it had been so often in the past and he hadn't realized how much he missed that – Merlin allowed himself to believe the words. Halfway through their shared breakfast, he believed Arthur's words.
But as food and drink began to revive his body, exhausted from the night spent in vigil with Arthur, his mind began to rove further than the four walls of the prince's bedchamber.
No, not the prince. The king. In all but name, maybe.
Merlin belonged at Arthur's side, that much was certain. But he wasn't just a manservant, anymore – nor were they on a dangerous quest, far from Camelot. His witnessed use of magic, trial and execution, had complicated things for him here. And it wasn't just, as a known sorcerer when magic was still punishable by death.
It wasn't even, everyone save a select few, believed him dead. It had been amusing to think of ghosting the corridors and shocking the handful of servants or guards who might see him, when he was living in hiding and didn't want anyone to believe him alive. If he was going to come back, like Arthur was thinking, that misconception would have to be corrected, at the very least…
Arthur, who hadn't said a word since they sat down, himself at the head of his table and Merlin at his right hand, hadn't taken a bite for some moments. Abruptly he ceased toying with his food to lay his fork down; Merlin said nothing as he shoved his chair back, and strode to the window to lean on the casement in an attitude Merlin knew well. Bothered by something he hadn't figured out yet.
A year ago, Merlin could have teased and insulted the matter out of him, and they could have had a discussion disguised as a verbal joust. He could have done it if Arthur had lost an argument with Morgana or a tournament match or even one of his own men on patrol.
But his father…
Merlin turned his own fork over in his fingers, remembering his own experience. Had Arthur felt that, utterly helpless as his father's lifeblood stained his hands and life ebbed palpably in his arms?
"What are you thinking?" Arthur said.
Merlin glanced up to see that he hadn't turned from his window, and the view of the training field – which would probably be deserted, today. Out of respect. "Why?"
"You are never this quiet."
Faintly goading. Which was familiar.
"I was thinking the dishes need doing," Merlin said lightly.
And Arthur would have to be dressed in more formal attire – he tried to remember if Arthur had much black in his wardrobe, and realized he hadn't any idea, any longer. Orryn would know. But then, Arthur would require attending at a council meeting, almost surely – he'd have to speak to Gaius about the practical arrangements, and Geoffrey about the correspondence that would go out to Camelot's allies.
If Arthur snorted, it was too quiet for Merlin to hear. "Help yourself."
But Merlin probably couldn't set foot outside the room without causing panic, and raising issues that would complicate this day unbearably for his friend and king.
"Arthur," he said. The young king didn't move, arms crossed and chin tucked down on one fist. "I think I should go, after all."
"Well, surely you remember where the kitchens are."
Was it Merlin's imagination that his teasing sounded desperate? "Arthur…"
A moment passed, before Arthur shifted to study him expressionlessly – and for once Merlin couldn't tell what he was thinking. "You would keep hiding?"
"Yes," Merlin answered. "I mean, no, not… just, I can keep waiting, I don't mind..." He wanted to make it a joke, and say, it won't always be like this, hot and noisy, like he'd teased Arthur once in the back room of Elyan's forge. But today was not a day for light-heartedness.
Into the silence came a quick light knock – Arthur recognized it as Merlin did, and raised his voice. "Come."
Merlin stood and turned as the door creaked open and Gwen in her favorite lavender dress, embroidered with flowers, slipped inside. Her glance took in Merlin at the table and the picked-over breakfast tray, before she wordlessly closed the door behind her, and crossed to Arthur. Rising on the toes of her slippers, she put her arms around his shoulders, cupping his neck in one hand. He deflated into her, holding her tightly with his face turned into her neck.
Merlin studied the toes of his boots and thought about the third reason he shouldn't stay.
They might've whispered, they might have kissed each other, but when Arthur cleared his throat, Merlin looked up to see that they'd drawn back a bit, though each still had an arm around the other – Gwen's at Arthur's waist, his over her shoulder. And Merlin was certain it hadn't even occurred to her, that Arthur's choice of wife was now subject to no one else but him.
"So, Guinevere," Arthur said – and there he was again, trying for a normal tone. "Help me convince Merlin that he should stay."
"I just think," Merlin said, attempting to explain, "not today. People don't know I'm even alive, it would cause panic –"
"Orryn knows, doesn't he?" Arthur interrupted.
Merlin met Gwen's eyes for confirmation, and nodded. Orryn was pragmatic and level-headed and unimaginative; he'd been surprised but not hysterical to see Merlin evidently alive and well. He accepted the truth of his own five senses without fearing more.
"Have him go with you, and he can explain how you're not a ghost, to everyone you see." Arthur seemed perfectly satisfied with that suggestion, though Gwen's jaw was set in her characteristically-gentle skepticism.
Merlin could just imagine. Over and over again, the curly-haired servant having to call after someone and convince them. Over and over the reactions of people he was once acquainted with. Maybe some relief – there had been many more sympathetic than gloating faces, at his execution – but probably, far more suspicion. He wasn't just a boy who'd learned a spell to defend his prince, and used it clumsily but effectively, anymore. He'd be seen as a sorcerer capable of strong magic. And deception.
The servants were a superstitious lot, anyway, as were most of the common people of Camelot. He couldn't imagine the reactions of the knights, nor the nobles…
"But Arthur," he tried to reason with his friend without hurting him even more, today, "there's still the problem of magic being illegal, you know the guards or the knights will expect to arrest me, and right now… I mean, after – um, last night… and before you're actually…"
"I think he's right," Gwen said.
Arthur twisted away from her incredulously. "What?"
"Listen, you want him here, so do I. So does Gaius – and you know Merlin wants to stay." Arthur glanced at him, and Merlin wasn't sure what the king saw on his face. "But think. If he's seen here today, folks may think about and talk about a ghost or a sorcerer – but someone will say murderer. And that's a rumor that will follow you both."
Arthur took another step back from her, before turning to stare at Merlin. "I see," he said. "And you already thought of that, didn't you."
"The timing isn't good," Merlin said, pleading with him to understand. "Last night was too late for many people to be aware of what was going on, and this morning – if someone that everyone thought your father executed for sorcery is just here, and to stay…" And under the new king's protection and favor.
Arthur dropped his head. Moments passed, and Merlin sent Gwen a wordless plea. She stepped to take Arthur's hand again. "Just not today, Arthur," she emphasized softly.
"Today should be for you. And your father," Merlin said.
The king gave a single nod, without lifting his eyes. And Merlin knew, as if he'd already seen it, already lived it, that Arthur would hold a second night's vigil in the grand receiving hall, alone with the dying candles til the morning dawned a new day. And everyone else would arrive for the procession, down to the vaults where Uther's body would be laid to rest in the crypts with his ancestors. Then – barring complications of the sort Merlin himself would present, involuntarily – Arthur's coronation would be held tomorrow afternoon.
"I will send Leon," Arthur added, "out to the ruins. With him escorting you, there should be no… difficulties."
"Thank you, sire," Merlin said sincerely.
Arthur's face twisted just slightly; to cover it, he looked away toward the window so swiftly Merlin doubted what he'd seen. And to pretend he hadn't, he tucked his cloak over the crook of his arm; it was far too late in the morning for sneaking out, he'd have to use magic.
"I should… be going, then. The others will be wondering…" Arthur gave another nod of understanding, and Merlin crossed to him, reaching to grip his king's arm. "I believe in you," he said. "I can't imagine you feel ready for this – that you can see yourself as ever being ready for this, right now –" He remembered this feeling, himself; he still felt this feeling. "But you are capable, Arthur. All anyone can ask is your best – and you already do that."
He expected a smile, at least. Maybe half-incredulous, half-mocking, but a smile. A sarcastic inquiry as to where Merlin had picked up his bits of wisdom. But Arthur simply breathed, in and out, and acknowledged the words with another slight inclination of his head.
"Thank you for your willingness to help," he said. Neutrally. Almost… officially. A wrinkle appeared between Gwen's dark brows as she looked at him.
Merlin didn't let go. "I am sorry I wasn't here when you needed me."
"I am too," Arthur said softly.
He stepped back, called the words to mind – then hesitated. Somehow it was different, breaking the law with magic, now that it was Arthur's law. "With your permission, my lord?"
Arthur looked startled as well, as if he felt it, too. Looking the other way while he was a prince who disagreed with his father the king, might feel different to his sense of honor than condoning what the rest of the kingdom still considered evil. Finally he said, with another attempt at a more characteristic tone, "Go on, Merlin."
Gwen gave Merlin an encouraging nod, then looked up at their well-beloved friend. He felt better, knowing that she would be there for Arthur, and spoke the spell. "Bedyrne me – Astyre me thanonweard!"
Wind plucked at his clothing, and he closed his eyes against Arthur's expression – moments later feeling the dim and damp and draft of the ruins.
"Merlin!" Gwaine exclaimed, and he opened his eyes.
His two outlaw friends were crouched together at the hearth; Lancelot stood as a noise near the door behind Merlin drew his attention to Percival, just entering, with a slight pause to recognize that Merlin was back.
"So what happened?" Gwaine continued.
Merlin stepped to the round stone table that filled half their crumbling hall, draping his cloak over the back of one of the chair, as Percival joined them. "Uther was killed last night. Assassinated."
Gwaine stood. "He's dead?"
Merlin nodded; for a moment they were all silent, trying to adjust to a startling truth, the momentous change.
"How's Arthur?" Lancelot ventured.
"He's handling it." Merlin looked down at his cloak, adjusting the fold and fall of the rough material. "About as well as can be expected."
"What is it, then?" Percival said quietly to him. "We don't have to worry about execution anymore, if we're caught, right?"
Without answering the question, which was rather rhetorical anyway, Merlin said, "He's going to change."
Lancelot began to protest, but Gwaine's humor was gone, as he mouthed a silent but eloquent, Ah. And Merlin, who alone knew the truth of why Gwaine particularly might understand, held his gaze.
"You really think King Arthur will be different from Prince Arthur?" Percival asked seriously.
"He'll have to be," Gwaine said on a sigh. "He'll be the one giving orders, instead of choosing whether or not to obey. Giving instead of receiving reprimands…"
How much would Arthur change, though, was the question that concerned Merlin. And how much would Merlin himself have to change, in the days and weeks and months – years? – to come…