Despite what Merlin apparently thought, Arthur wasn't stupid. He was trained to notice things about people for battle, pick the strong from the weak, to note the secrets that his allies and his enemies tried to hide from him. Which was why he'd been so surprised when the boy had shown to have so much fight in him, his body was weak, untrained, gangly and misused but his mind… well… that was a different matter. The boy was cunning and he had sprit, but this aside Arthur knew that he shouldn't have won that first fight, not at all. At first he suspected that Merlin had friends helping him from the crowd, moving things into his way and so on, but then Arthur learned that it had been Merlin's first day in Camelot and he knew no one.
It had been him that had proposed the idea of Merlin becoming his servant, something so unusual deserved scrutiny. Merlin pushed at him at every opportunity, he questioned his royal habits, he was snarky and sarcastic, he was one of the first people to talk to Arthur as an equal and the only one who currently did. Morganna had once but she then decided that she was better than him, his father talked down to him and everyone else talked up to him. They say that it's lonely at the top but Arthur thinks it's lonelier in the middle, the people on the top talk down and the people below you talk up, no one ever talks just to you. But then there was Merlin, hostile, loyal and witty Merlin. Of course Arthur had to keep up appearances by still acting like a prince to him, that and it was endless fun to rile the boy by lording his status over him.
But there was more to Merlin than his challenging nature, Arthur had at first thought he was the most honest person he'd ever met but quickly was forced to drop that assumption, Merlin knew things when he had no reason to, his excuses for how he came to such knowledge were always flimsy at best. Arthur had learnt to trust Merlin's word to a degree but the more it happened the more intrigued and suspicious he became. Merlin had a secret, it was something big and something important. He knew it wasn't anything like treason, Merlin was loyal through and through but he followed his own moral compass which so differed from his father's one and that fact tore at him. He was always in the middle, his father all fire and brimstone about matters and Merlin the desperate voice of reason and compassion, Merlin never held back in tearing into Arthur when he was forced to go along with the King's decisions but equally Arthur had never seen anyone more… proud? Thankful? Gracious? When his decisions favoured Merlin's side.
It was the druid boy that first put the suspicion of more supernatural secrets in his mind, Merlin had unquestioningly and foolishly protected the druid boy. That in itself wasn't what made him suspicious, when he'd stood above Merlin bodily protecting the boy from Arthur's invasion he'd seen the look on Merlin's face. There was protectiveness, that fearsome wild look of defiance and… fear. It had been the fear that kept Arthur awake at night, it wasn't fear for the boy, although that was there too, it wasn't fear for his job (because clearly Merlin never thought about that) but just… fear. Primal fear for one's life. He'd only ever seen that look on the faces of his men in battle and knew well that it was etched into his own features.
What could Merlin possibly have to fear from him? He'd never hurt Merlin, sure he'd struck him when they'd practiced for weapons but that wasn't it. He had looked at Arthur as if he had expected him to strike him dead then and there. And so he'd let the druid boy go, released him to his own people himself, he did it because whatever it was that stirred that fear in Merlin the druid boy was connected to it. So he let him go so that in some small way he could try and show Merlin that he had nothing to fear from him, that he was merciful, that he listened to Merlin.
But now that he was looking for it he saw little flashes of that fear in Merlin's eyes now and then, usually whenever the subject of someone being suspected of magic or sorcery came to light. And then Arthur knew that whatever Merlin feared him for it was to do with magic, he already knew that Merlin sympathised with magic users, but equally he hated them more fiercely than he himself did. When there seemed to be a genuine overt threat like the magical poison, like the snake shield, like the knight coming back from the dead, all those moments Merlin showed a fury for such abuse of magic that Arthur rarely saw in anyone but his father. And his father hated magic, all magic, but he feared it too. But there was no fear of magic in Merlin.
And then Arthur went with Merlin to his hometown, and the night before the fight Merlin was filled with fear, but it wasn't talk of death that seemed to get a reaction out of him. Morganna would sharpen her sword and talk of death and Merlin wouldn't react but then when Arthur had talked to Merlin about his part in the battle Arthur had seen fear, real fear so tangible Arthur could practically taste it coming off of him. And then Merlin had tried to speak to him about it.
"Arthur, whatever happens tomorrow… I… I don't want you to think less of me for it." Merlin had said with a shake in his voice. Arthur had frowned then, surely Merlin couldn't mean that he was going to act a coward. Merlin was smart and knew his limits yes, but… he loved these people and he knew that Merlin would willingly die for them.
"Don't worry Merlin, everyone gets scared before a battle." He's said reassuringly. Merlin's brow wrinkled in a worried fearful expression and the boy didn't seem to know what to do with his hands, they were shaking slightly.
"No… I don't mean that… It's something else." Merlin said shaking his head.
"Well come on then, now's the time." Arthur sighed impatient for Merlin to tell him whatever secret that it was that kept him so full of fear. But they'd been interrupted before Merlin could say anything, when Arthur had looked back to him whatever truth had been so close to the tip of his tongue had retreated back deep within him and his face contained only the glossed over embarrassed grin as Merlin said it was okay for Arthur to go and they'd talk some other time. Arthur had been irritated all night, he wanted to know and as he watched Merlin sleep he so desperately wanted to pull that secret from Merlin's brain. Merlin was the only person who really knew him, was the only person who treated him as an equal, he was the only person who was really on Arthur's lonely level but until he knew Merlin's secret he'd never fully be there. And he needed Merlin to be there with him, more than he'd ever needed anything in his life.
When the fight had begun he saw Merlin every so often, he did his best to keep an eye on him whilst making sure that he didn't get killed himself. It was then that the unnatural wind sprung up and through it he saw Merlin and Will holding their hands up at it, Will seemed to be pointing at it and Merlin almost looked as if he wasn't there, as if he was the centre of some storm. The battle ended quickly and violently and Arthur turned to face Will and Merlin.
"Who did that?! That was no natural wind, they don't just appear out of nowhere, this is sorcery!" He shouted looking at the pair, and there it was, the sudden flash of fatal fear in Merlin's face where on Wills there was only annoyance and surprise. Arthur realised what he had done and what had been going on before the crossbow bolt through Will's chest interrupted them. As he helped the panicked Merlin drag his friend inside Arthur realised the truth. It was Merlin that had summoned that wind and saved them, it was magic that Merlin possessed, magic that filled him with that knowledge and intuition that no normal person should have. And now he looked devastated and so he should, his friend was clearly about to die, he clenched his fists. Merlin was afraid of HIM, Merlin was afraid that if he knew he would have him executed and all Arthur wanted to do was to grab him and shake him and say it wasn't true. Say that he knew that Merlin was good, that he would never harm with his magic, that his gifts would be treasured and valued by him, that he would protect him from his father; the last thing Merlin needed to be worrying about right now was about his exposure of his magic.
"Merlin, about the wind-" Arthur began looking at Merlin, he watched the boy visibly flinch and look at him with his wild eyes filled with fear, his expression seemed to say 'this is the end, I'm dead'. Then Will's hand grabbed at his arm.
"It was me, I'm the sorcerer." Will rasped at him.
"Will, don't!" Merlin gasped eyes widening.
"What?" Arthur finally managed to blurt out. He saw the quick evaluation Merlin did of him that second and he desperately hoped that his face hadn't shown anything like anger or hate or else Merlin would never admit his powers to Arthur.
"Yeah, it was me. What are you gonna do about it prince? Have me executed?" Will spat accusingly, Arthur watched Merlin's fists clench involuntarily.
"No, of course not." Arthur said softly. Will choked out a bloody breath and Merlin yelped in fear and clutched at his friend's chest, Arthur bit his lip, this was neither the time nor the place to discuss this and Merlin hadn't exactly admitted in any way that it was him to created that wind.
"Do what you can for him Merlin." Arthur said backing out of the room, giving Merlin the privacy to do anything he needed to do, whether it was to use some sort of healing magic or just simply to cry and say goodbye to a dear friend in privacy. He leant against the shut door and cursed himself for every thoughtless comment about magic and sorcerers, every comment about how his father's law must be upheld. It was because of these things that Merlin looked at him in that way, that he looked at him with fear of his life, he'd never wanted that, never wanted to make the only friend he'd ever really connected with to feel like he could never be completely himself around Arthur for fear of death. What kind of friend did that make him? He shook his head, he needed to fix this, he needed to pretend he didn't know; hounding Merlin on the issue would doubtlessly frighten him away. No, he needed to pretend he hadn't realised, and he needed to show mercy to show Merlin that he trusted him, that he could and would defy his father's law on this matter. Then maybe Merlin would eventually tentatively trust him with his secret. Someday.