"So, I guess we should talk," Arthur said.
He sat with Merlin on the steps of the palace, watching as the city settled back into the normal rhythm of life. The atmosphere was peaceful. Not quite happy, not yet – the land and the people were still recovering. Prisoners had been released and those who had fled the city were gradually filtering back in, but nothing could be done to restore the lives lost. Many were grieving for loved ones, and some still harboured resentment towards Uther for what had happened. For the most part, though, people considered the device to have been an attack from unknown enemies and were willing to accept the King's attempts at reparations.
The issue of magic remained unresolved. The laws had not changed, but the attitudes of the people had. No one was talking about it, of course, not wishing to arose the King's ire after everything that had happened. But Arthur knew that there were those in the city who now knew that they had the potential for magic. They were engulfed by their families, hidden and protected in an illusion of normalcy. They probably wouldn't act upon their abilities, not while Uther reigned. But there were murmurs in the streets about the importance of magic in their world, and whispers about changing times.
Arthur wasn't ready to think about the future. When he became King, he knew that there would be decisions to be made.
For now, he was more concerned about Merlin.
"I guess we should," Merlin agreed. He was fiddling with the frayed hem of his neckerchief, not making eye contact with Arthur.
"You have magic," Arthur said. He kept his voice pitched low, but it was hardly a well-kept secret. The civilians who had attacked them that fateful night had experienced Merlin's magic firsthand. Since all the prisoners had been released, Arthur had no doubt that word would have spread throughout the lower town. The people did not seem inclined to betray him, though. They had seen him intervene on Arthur's behalf, and in doing so he had saved Camelot from tearing itself apart. He had earned their respect, and their gratitude.
"Yes," Merlin said finally. "I do."
Arthur waited, but no other information was forthcoming. "Care to elaborate?"
Merlin shrugged a little. "What do you want me to say?"
Good question. "I don't know. Why don't you start from the beginning?"
Merlin glanced sideways at him. "It's a long story."
"We have time."
"You're going to hear a lot of things you won't like. And a lot more things that could get me executed several hundred times over."
Arthur grimaced. He hated the idea that Merlin had been living under constant threat of being beheaded or burned at the stake. "You have nothing to fear from me."
Despite his reassurance, Merlin still seemed reluctant to speak.
"Did I ever thank you for saving my life?"
Merlin scuffed his shoe against the stone steps. "I was just doing my duty."
"No, Merlin. You went above and beyond. I would be dead if it wasn't for you. And I suspect this was not an isolated incident."
A small smile twitched at the corners of Merlin's mouth. "Well, you do have a knack for getting into trouble, sire."
"And here I was thinking that it was just good fortune that I always seemed to make it out alive. But it was you, wasn't it? Every time. You pulled me out of the way of that dagger, and you haven't stopped saving me since."
"Someone has to," Merlin mumbled. The tips of his ears were red.
"I'm grateful," Arthur said. "And I'd like to hear the stories, if you're willing to tell me. But if you're not ready, I can wait."
Merlin blinked up at him. "Really?"
"I know you have magic, and that you use it to help people. That's good enough for me." In truth, Arthur was bursting with curiosity. He wanted to know everything. He wanted to see Merlin in action. He wanted to find out exactly what Merlin could do, and he wanted to hear about every heroic act that Merlin had committed since arriving in Camelot. There were so many strange and unexplained things that had happened – from felled griffins and floating balls of mystical blue light to windstorms and miraculous recoveries from fatal wounds. He suspected that Merlin knew far more about them than he had ever let on, and he wanted to be told every last detail.
But Merlin had lived in fear and secrecy for a long time. Arthur understood his reticence.
"Thank you," Merlin said. "Not just for- I mean, I always hoped, but I could never be sure how you would react when you found out. Sometimes I worried that you would hate me, or send me away or – or kill me on the spot."
Honestly, Arthur didn't know how he would have reacted if Merlin had told him the truth a year ago, or a month ago, or even a week ago. Hatred and mistrust of magic had been drilled into him from a young age, and the habits of a lifetime were hard to break.
"I don't hate you," he said.
Merlin chuckled. "Thanks. I don't hate you either."
Concerned that they were edging into dangerously sappy territory, Arthur punched him in the shoulder.
"Ow!" Merlin protested. "What was that for?"
Arthur shrugged. "Just a little rough-housing between friends."
Shining blue eyes stared at him. "Is that what we are?"
"There are no more lies between us," Arthur said. "So yeah. I think we could be. If you wanted."
Merlin's beam could have outshone the sun. "I'd like that."
Arthur nudged his ribs. "So that means you can tell me."
Merlin considered him for a moment. "I was born with magic," he said at last. "My mother said I was levitating objects with my mind before I could talk."
Arthur had to make a joke to cover his amazement. "And then you started talking and never stopped."
Merlin swatted him. "I can stop right now if you like."
"No, no! Go on."
Merlin glanced around them before he relaxed and settled more comfortably on the step. "My mother told me that I was special, and I wanted to believe her. But she also said I had to keep my magic a secret. When my friend Will found out about me, my mother sent me away and I thought – I thought that I was a freak. A monster. The magic was so much a part of me that I couldn't imagine being without it, but all it had ever done was get me into trouble. I thought I would never find a use for it. Worse, I thought that having magic meant that I would always be an outsider. And then I came here, and I met you."
"You said you weren't sure yet, if you had found a place where you fit in," Arthur remembered.
Merlin bumped a knobbly knee into his, and offered a shy smile. "I'm sure now."
Arthur was glad to hear it, but something didn't quite sit right with him. "You have a lot of power, don't you?"
Merlin gave an odd little half shrug, which Arthur interpreted as a yes.
"But you're content to be a servant to a Prince? And a prattish one at that?"
Merlin's lips quirked. "You're not so bad."
"You clean my socks and mop my floors and muck out my stables, when you could probably rule the kingdom if you wanted to."
"I don't want to," Merlin said. "It is your destiny to be the greatest King Camelot has ever known, not mine."
"I'm just a person. Ordinary. Nothing special. If anyone should have a destiny, it's you."
"You're more important than you know. You have tremendous potential, Arthur. It is my destiny to help you realise it."
"So you're just going to keep to the shadows, keep saving the day without getting any credit for it, keep serving as though you are somehow less than me?"
"I'm happy to be your servant, Arthur. Until the day I die."
Merlin had said those words before, and his sincerity rang through every syllable.
But while Merlin might be okay with waiting on Arthur from now until death parted them, Arthur was not okay with the idea of Merlin labouring as a simple manservant when he was so much more. "That's not going to happen," he said firmly.
Hurt flashed across Merlin's features. "You're firing me?"
"No, of course not, Merlin, don't be an idiot. But someday, when I'm King, you will be getting a promotion."
Merlin pursed his lips. "Does it come with a pay rise?"
"Probably." Arthur hadn't thought it all the way through yet, but he was envisioning some sort of new position in the court.
Merlin's trademark grin made a comeback. "I look forward to it."
"A lot of things are going to change."
Merlin nodded sagely, looking altogether too wise for the goofball who usually tripped and stumbled his way through basic chores. "But one thing never will," he promised.
"I'm going to be by your side, like I always am."
The declaration felt like a solemn oath, and the words lingered in the air, tingling with something that almost felt like magic. Arthur could have made a quip to lighten the moment, but instead he clasped Merlin's arm and said seriously, "Thank you, my friend. For everything."
"Thank you," Merlin returned.
"I haven't done anything."
"You accepted me for who I am. That's all I ever wanted."
Arthur coughed. Open displays of affection really were not his forte, but Merlin had been through the wringer recently, so he decided to allow it, just this once. "Who you are is amazing," he admitted. "I'm lucky to have you."
From the look of pure happiness that came over Merlin's face, Arthur rather suspected that he was never going to stop smiling. But that was okay. Arthur didn't want him to.