The trouble with being an idiot
All the times that Merlin had imagined telling Arthur about his magic, he had never come up with anything quite so unspectacular.
He had always imagined that the moment would be an heroic one, or at least – as he didn't consider himself such a dashing hero as Arthur did himself – one that mattered, that offered no other alternative, that justified his confession after months of silence.
He had never thought it would involve an ugly old man restraining his giant seven-legged dog (or was it a fish?) on a leash, telling it off for attacking "the greatest warlock of our time".
"The – what?" asked Arthur, stopping in his attempt to throw himself between the beast and his manservant.
Merlin, unfortunately, could think of absolutely nothing to say while the ugly old man bowed to him.
"You must pardon Krennogg, Emrys," he said. "He is a creature of little wit and almost no sense of smell. If he had known whom he was facing, he would never have done so much as bear his teeth." The old man, still bowing low, looked terribly frightened of him, and Merlin almost felt a surge of pity. Almost, because it was drowned out by Arthur's stare at him, and white-hot fear.
The old man, getting no response, looked up hesitatingly. "May we go now, Emrys?"
Merlin realized dimly that he would have to say something. "Of... of course," he managed. His own voice sounded strange to him.
"Krennogg will never hunt in these parts again," the old man promised, and tugging firmly on the leash, he bowed himself and the beast out of the clearing.
There was a long silence.
"The greatest warlock of our time," said Arthur, and there was something dangerous in his voice. Hesitatingly, Merlin turned.
Arthur looked back and forth several times between him and the place where man and beast had vanished. "He was... mad, right? Just blethering." He sounded hopeful, and Merlin felt his old cowardice surface. But then Arthur shook his head. "But it doesn't make sense. Why would he have restrained that creature?"
Why question a madman's actions? The evasive reply was already forming on his lips, when at the last moment, he changed his mind.
"I'm sorry, Arthur."
And Arthur stared at him as though seeing him for the first time.
He barely remembered how they had got back to Camelot by the time he was sitting over a hot mug of tea in Gaius' room. Gaius was a good physician: he saw at once when people were unwell, and he grasped the meaning of even the smallest allusion. It had only taken Merlin sighing "He knows" for Gaius to look very, very alarmed, put an arm around Merlin's shoulders and lead him to the nearest chair.
"What are you going to do now?" he asked, after a long moment during which Merlin stared into his mug.
Merlin shrugged. "I can't run away. Not without talking to him first."
"Be careful, Merlin," said Gaius, the ever-present litany, and Merlin almost laughed – he had been, so very, very careful. And now a chance encounter with a chatty old bastard had destroyed his every hope of breaking it to Arthur in his own time, in his own way.
Gaius said nothing more, only squeezed Merlin's shoulder once more, and Merlin gave him a thankful look before dragging himself out of the door.
He did not know what he would do. All he knew was that he had to talk to Arthur, and then he'd decide. Would he use magic to flee if he was imprisoned? (The thought of it was too much.) He did not know that. He gave his life completely into Arthur's hands, as so many times before, and he wasn't even scared, not of death, not really. It seemed to matter so much more what Arthur would think of him.
When he entered Arthur's chamber, he found him standing motionless at the window, looking out over the fields. It was just before dusk, and a mist was lying over the land. Not that that was anything unusual in these parts, but it depressed Merlin more than anything.
"Come here, Merlin." Quietly spoken, and with a new edge to his voice that Merlin couldn't quite work out.
He came up obediently and stood slightly behind Arthur, whose body almost completely blocked out the small window.
Arthur stepped back and motioned towards the window. "Take a look."
Merlin hesitated for a second to turn his back on Arthur, and Arthur raised his eyebrows. "I'm not going to cut your head off, Merlin." A hint of the old banter. It felt like warm milk soothing his dry throat.
He stepped forward and looked out at the landscape, once again feeling Arthur's stare in the back of his head.
"What do you see?" asked Arthur.
Merlin blinked. He supposed this was not the time for obvious answers. "I see the kingdom that you will rule one day."
There was a pause. Then, almost awed: "Do you ever think of yourself, Merlin?"
Merlin turned and frowned. "Course I do."
Arthur looked doubtful. "Then what do you see for yourself?"
Merlin looked out again. "Home," he said, and for some reason heard Arthur exhale loudly behind him. "I see the kingdom that I will help you protect... if you'll let me."
There, it was out, a half-plea. He turned again to observe Arthur's reaction.
Arthur inclined his head and was silent for a long time. Then he said: "Well, it doesn't look like you can be kept from protecting me, judging by your record."
He looked up, and there was a hint of a twinkle in his eye. Merlin smiled.
"Does that mean I can stay?"
Arthur nodded. "If you want to."
Of course I want to, Merlin thought. "Will you keep my secret?"
Arthur swallowed, and Merlin felt bad, so bad for putting him into this dilemma. But Arthur only said: "I will protect you, if you'll let me."
It was Merlin's turn to exhale loudly.
Weeks passed before they went hunting alone again. They had not spoken one word about Merlin's magic since that evening, but they hadn't fallen back into their easy ways either. Arthur was a lot more guarded, kept favouring Merlin with thoughtful looks, and Merlin spent every day telling himself that it was normal, that true acceptance would come with time, that Arthur had a lot to deal with just keeping this secret from his father.
And yet, his heart ached for that effortless friendship. Hell, he wouldn't have minded being called an idiot if it had meant that Arthur felt comfortable around him again.
As it was, he thought as he and Arthur were riding towards the woods in the far West, nothing could have been more awkward. Arthur still gave him orders, but there was no touch of the old understanding.
Arthur sniffed as they tied their horses to a great oak tree. "I smell deer."
Merlin sniffed, too. "I can only smell poo."
A small smile. "That's what I mean. This way." He led the way into what seemed like nothing but undergrowth, and Merlin marvelled once more at Arthur's hunting skills.
"What about you?" asked Arthur. "Sense anything in particular?"
Merlin frowned. "What do you mean?"
They snuck along in silence for a while, until Arthur stopped very suddenly, and Merlin walked right into him.
"Merlin, you idiot," Arthur hissed, "there goes our –"
There went, in fact, their doe, but it was promptly eaten by something much, much larger. Something that looked alarmingly like a creature out of Gaius' books. It seemed to be a mixture of a giant weasel, a hawk and (judging by the bushy tail) a fox.
"What in the world is that?" Arthur whispered, and Merlin was astonished to find that the question was half directed at him.
"No idea," he replied honestly, "but it's definitely magical."
"How can you tell?"
"It's some ridiculous mix of several animals, they all are."
Arthur snorted. Unfortunately the weasel-hawk-fox seemed to have acute hearing, because it suddenly charged at them very quickly and very loudly.
"Arthur, get out of the way!" Merlin shouted, and without really knowing what he was doing he pushed Arthur aside and faced the beast, which did not seem to be inspired with any great respect for him.
"Merlin!" shouted Arthur. It was not a cry of warning, it was – he was almost sure of it – one of fear for his life.
Merlin, suddenly filled with warm energy, shouted the first spell that came to his mind, and – to his own astonishment – it hit the beast with great power and made it fly backwards against a tree, where it disintegrated. Meaning to say, it fell apart into a hawk, a fox and a considerably smaller weasel, all of whom hurriedly flew or ran off, and Merlin turned to see Arthur looking at him incredulously.
"You do have natural gifts, then," he said. Merlin couldn't help feeling a little smug.
If he had thought that Arthur being confronted with his magic – and in a positive, life-saving way at that – would be beneficial to their friendship, he had been wrong; Arthur continued being reserved and thoughtful. At times, Merlin thought Arthur regretted having told him to stay – then he thought Arthur was just worried about him – then he thought Arthur had second doubts about his motives – then he thought Arthur was just afraid of the day his father would find out. Merlin just couldn't make it out. And for all his frankness, he couldn't bring himself to addressing the subject. He tried to convince himself it was because Arthur should make the first step, but if he was honest with himself – and he usually was – he was just very, very scared.
One night, as he was clearing away Arthur's empty plates – Arthur hadn't eaten much again, he noticed, and seemed particularly pensive – he looked up to see Arthur staring at him.
"What?" he asked, the old defiance coming out.
"Why didn't you tell me?"
It was no accusation, just a question, asked in tones of interest, wonder and... that new guardedness that Merlin disliked and feared.
He swallowed and set the plates back down. "Well, it's not as though you ever thought magic was great," he blurted out. If only he could ever learn to hold his tongue.
Arthur didn't seem to mind, however. "No," he agreed. "But... I thought you trusted me."
"I do trust you," Merlin said fervently, and saw some response in Arthur's eyes that he didn't understand. "But I also know how important your father is to you. And believe me, Arthur, if I could spare you that conflict, I would."
Arthur nodded slowly and rested his gaze on the wall behind Merlin. "But you can't because you have to protect me."
"That's right," Merlin said simply. He felt foolish, always had when being told this was his destiny, because Arthur was such a great warrior, such a born leader; how inadequate he sometimes felt next to him!
Arthur's thoughts seemed to be following along those same lines, because he smiled slightly. But he didn't look at Merlin again.
This was becoming a habit now, Merlin thought: Arthur avoiding his gaze and being generally pensive and quiet around him. There were times when Merlin even felt that Arthur wanted him out of his sight; other times he seemed to purposely draw out their evening chit-chat about court matters. Arthur had taken to telling him everything (or at any rate, much more) about what went on every day at court, claims that were put to his father, citizens who came to ask Uther for support, neighbouring peasants who quarrelled about the size of their fields... perhaps it was this, Merlin mused, that made Arthur so thoughtful, the fact that he now regarded Merlin as more of an equal, as more worthy to share all the little details of what it meant to rule a kingdom.
Merlin turned these things over and over as he lay in bed at night. If only he could stop speculating and confront Arthur about it! He had never been the patient nor the diplomatic type, he preferred to have things out with people, and that – he liked to believe – was what Arthur valued in him. But he had to wait now, he knew it, Gaius told him so repeatedly, but the thought drove him mad.
One night, several weeks after the ugly old man, there was a festival in town. People from villages all over the country had come to celebrate the beginning of spring. There was music and dance and wine, and all the court people were down there too, dancing, drinking, almost creating the illusion of everyone being equal.
Merlin was enjoying a chat with the butcher when he realized from the man's increasingly deferential expression that one of the royals must be approaching. The butcher half-bowed and slunk off, and Merlin turned to find Arthur casually strolling towards him.
"Fine night," Arthur said as he leant – equally casually – against the wall next to Merlin.
Merlin nodded. "Yeah, great to see all these people here."
"You engaged for the next dance?"
Merlin blinked. "Sorry?"
Arthur smiled mischievously. "It's just that the fishmonger's wife has been making eyes at you for the last half hour."
Merlin laughed, relief flooding through him because Arthur had made a joke at his expense. How pathetic he was.
"Wait," he said, "does that mean that you've also been watching me for the past half hour?"
He had hoped for a comeback, but Arthur just shrugged, darkness again weighing on his manner. Merlin sighed, exasperated. He and wine were not a good combination. "Look, Arthur, I know it's difficult for you to accept who I am," he said quietly. "But you're giving me the feeling that being around me troubles you."
Arthur looked very surprised. "It's not what you think," he mumbled at last and would have hurried off if Merlin had not grabbed his wrist.
"Merlin, not in public," Arthur hissed, freeing himself. "You can be as disrespectful as you like when we're alone –" he realized what he had said and looked daggers at Merlin as Merlin grinned. "But you could pretend to be my manservant while we're watched by half the town."
Merlin looked around and saw many people staring and whispering. "All right, let's go somewhere more private," he said, even more quietly.
Arthur's eyes flashed. "No. I'm going to bed."
"Don't be ridiculous. The moon isn't even up yet."
Arthur rolled his eyes. "Some of us can sleep without the moon shining onto our pretty little beds."
"Arthur, let's have this out," said Merlin. He had been moving ever-so-subtly away from the great square until they were in a small alleyway. "I understand that you need time to get to know me again, and all. I just want you to know that I'm not... some beast or something. I'm not going to turn into an evil old man with a white beard or something."
Arthur almost smiled. "I know that."
"Then treat me like a normal human being. Like any other friend. Or manservant, if you must."
Arthur, as reluctant as he had been lately to look at him, now seemed to hold him transfixed with his eyes, and Merlin wondered how anyone would ever refuse him anything. "You're not just any friend, Merlin." He rubbed his forehead with a despairing look. "You don't understand. It's just... so difficult."
"Then make me understand," said Merlin, throwing his arms into the air. "How can we trust each other if you won't tell me how you feel?"
Something very strange passed across Arthur's face and was gone in an instant.
"How I feel, Merlin," he sighed, "is impossible."
And on that, he turned around and strode back towards the castle.
Merlin had spent two weeks' holiday with his mother, mostly helping her in the garden and taking long walks with her. He was happy to see her again, but he missed Camelot terribly, and so was not too sad to say goodbye when the time came. He was now not too worried about his mother being lonely, as he had noticed that Daniel, a newcomer to the village and a very nice man, was being very attentive towards her.
He rode altogether too quickly and was exhausted when he arrived two days later. He was about to go to bed when he saw a light in Arthur's window and couldn't resist going up to say hello. Somehow, he had never thought he would miss his friend so much.
"You know," said Arthur without preamble when Merlin walked in, "I have to say it was strange having a manservant for two weeks who actually knocked."
Merlin smiled. "I missed you, too."
Arthur got up from the desk – he had been reading up on court matters, no doubt, or writing letters to neighbouring kings –, took a few steps towards Merlin and stopped hesitantly. "I hope you had a pleasant journey," he said at last.
Merlin grinned, as it was so unlike Arthur to be polite. "Tolerable, thank you," he answered in the same vein. "The weather could have been better, though."
Arthur gave him that do-that-again-disrespectful-servant look, but then smiled.
"How were things in Camelot?"
"Oh, you know. Boring, mostly."
There seemed to be a lot of things unsaid between them, but Merlin couldn't for the life of him figure out what they were.
"You know," said Arthur again, very casually, while strolling towards the window, "I'd convinced myself you'd put a spell on me."
Merlin shook his head, rich with confusion. "A spell?"
"To make me feel this way." Still that light, conversational tone. "But you've been gone for two weeks and I feel no different. It was even stronger when you were gone, and I reckon a sorcerer needs to stick around for these things to keep their effect."
All the while, he hadn't turned around.
Merlin, as tired as he was of not getting things, could do nothing better but his best impression of... himself. "These things?"
Arthur sighed deeply. "Never mind."
No, Merlin thought. Enough was enough. He would not be never-minded again, not by someone who meant so much to him.
"Arthur, tell me what is going on," he insisted. And feeling Arthur's groan more than hearing it, he pressed on: "Okay, fine, I'm dumb, so tell me what's on your mind."
A long pause. Surely Arthur had never paused this much before.
"It's not what's on my mind that's the question," he said very quietly. "It's my heart I'm talking about."
He turned around very slowly and looked at Merlin, who still looked completely lost. Arthur smiled and shook his head, crossed the room with a few strides, whispered "You really are the biggest idiot I've ever met," and kissed him.
And Merlin felt all his power rushing to his heart, which swelled and swelled until it was full to the brim with ancient songs.
All the times that Merlin had imagined love, he had never come up with anything quite so spectacular.