Title: Found Out
Author : Tak/souzoukyuuketsu
Fandom: Merlin (BBC)
Genre: Would-be-drabble-that-turned-into-something-much-MUCH-longer, somewhat angsty and cheesy, especially at the end
Disclaimer: The characters aren't mine
Summary: Prompt by 4466584 here: . : 'How about some Arthur finds out about Merlin's magic fic? I never get tired of that. :)'
Spoilers: Season 1
Note : Sorry it took so long, 4466584
Thanks to the wonderful Joey for betaing this ^^
The forest was silent, save from the hushed crush of boots on dried leaves and the snorts of the doe they were hunting. The animal looked up, flicked its ears, its big brown eyes rolling in their sockets as if it could sense something was going to happen. It straightened its neck a fraction, its nostrils flaring, and it stood there for a moment, the tension in its muscles betraying its readiness to flee at the slightest sound.
And suddenly, as if it picked up their scent, or heard the sound of a rope slowly stretching, the doe set of. The bolt that had been aimed at its head embedded itself into a tree.
The Prince swore and gestured for his servant to come on horseback. The doe would navigate faster between the numerous trees, but there was a narrow track they could ride on and the beast would tire more rapidly. Merlin, who had been waiting with the animal further away, out of the wind and out of earshot, had anticipated his signal and was galloping towards him, pulling the horse to a halt and dismounting as quickly as possible to let his master mount in his place.
And like that, he was gone. Merlin took off, running as fast as he dared, trying to avoid the roots, hoping against hope the horse wouldn't fall on such an uneven ground. The rest of the party was following. Some men overtook him. And suddenly, he heard someone swear and felt a hand on his waist, another on his wrist. The knight barely stopped the horse to make him mount it, in front of him, and Merlin heard himself squeak in fright.
His face turned red. The knight growled.
'You're slowing us,' he said over the wind rushing by their ears. 'I don't understand why the Prince insists that you should share his horse on the way here and afterwards. You'd be better off with a horse of your own.'
Merlin too thought that impractical but he had long decided not to dwell on it. He was far too content with the solution. The feel of his Prince's powerful chest pressing against his back felt just right. And if he could only get it on horseback, then so be it.
It felt oddly wrong, mounting with another knight. And he didn't feel as lightheaded as he did when he rode with Arthur. He kept holding on the mane of the animal for dear life, wondering why he could feel the knight's hauberk when it didn't bother him much when his face pressed into Arthur's and tried to evade the sensation by leaning dangerously forward.
So he kept silent.
They didn't have to go very far. Arthur was back on his feet in the next clearing, next to his horse, and the doe was laying on the ground, its legs straightened out to the side, a small pool of blood spreading underneath. But it was not the doe Arthur was staring at.
Merlin dismounted quickly and came to Arthur's side.
'Shhhh…' he interrupted, raising a hand.
The knights stilled, and listened in, just like Arthur. Then, they heard it too. That noise. A strange rambling sound, half a growl, half a hiss, followed by the rhythmic snapping of teeth, somehow enhanced, but seemingly in the distance. It came from the mouth of a cave hollowing out in the chalky slope stretching at one end of the clearing.
Arthur made a hand gesture and a knight lit a torch, bringing it to him. Merlin frowned.
'You're not going down there, are you?'
The Prince rolled his eyes.
'What does it look like, Merlin? Of course I am. Someone has to go and see what that sound is… If whatever makes it is dangerous, then it may endanger my people. I have to put it down.'
Merlin was still frowning but he knew Arthur would pay heed to any he gave, so he followed. If he couldn't protect Arthur against his foolish need to endanger himself, he would protect him from harm.
The path was narrow and the walls damp and irregular, droplets of water dripping here and there. The noise had quieted, but a growing sense of foreboding tightened the warlock's chest the further they went.
'Hey, I was thinking, you know, maybe it was just the wind…'
Arthur gave his manservant an amused smile.
'You afraid, Merlin? You could have waited with the horses, you know.'
'No, no of course I'm not afraid. It's just that it's cold and damp and since we haven't seen any sign of anything threatening I was thinking…'
Arthur half turned to give him a wistful smile and was preparing a smart-arse remark when something caught his sight at the corner of his eye. His expression dimmed instantly and Merlin had barely the time to ask 'What?' when he raised a fist and the company stopped – though Merlin very nearly bumped into his back.
'Arthur, what's wrong?'
Arthur pointed at something a few feet away. It looked like a skeleton. And it looked human.
'It seems someone saw something threatening', he commented grimly.
'Well then we should come back with more men and…'
'We need to investigate, Merlin.'
'Please. You can't fight in here if you have to. The corridor's too narrow.'
'If it eases your mind, Merlin, the gallery seems to widen a bit further. Good enough for you?'
Merlin shot him a look and when Arthur began walking again, he followed. More closely. That sense of foreboding he had begun to feel as early as that morning upset him.
The gallery was widening indeed, but there still was barely the place for two men to stand side by side, let alone fight. So Merlin could only walk on his Prince's heels, a step back, and pray that whatever had licked the bones clean would not try to attack Arthur.
Five minutes later, they stood in a sort of chamber within the cave. They had stumbled upon it totally by chance, and it was only when they had all entered it that something caught Arthur's eye.
He instinctively threw one arm to the side to stop Merlin, while his knights went on a few paces before they noticed their Prince had stopped. Only then did they look at what Arthur was staring at. Only then did they notice the creature that was staring right back at him, a few yards away.
Far too big to be a lizard, it was green and scaly, had nasty yellow eyes with vertical slits. It didn't move but they saw blood dripping from its mouth onto the ground – or rather, onto the corpse on the ground.
The monster snorted, its nostril flaring, and they all took a reflexive step backwards, though Arthur placed himself more clearly in front of Merlin. Why his Prince would be so intent on protecting him, a mere servant, believed to be the worst manservant ever, an idiot, mentally challenged, etc… was beyond him. He couldn't help but feel a surge of something warm at the thought, though, and very nearly smiled.
Despite the creature grinning at them.
It growled, the exact same noise they had heard in the forest. But now they were close to its source, it was deafening.
'Yeah. This was it…' said Arthur, wondering whether his sword could pierce the scales.
'It's a little… small… for a dragon…'
Arthur turned towards him just long enough to give him a 'look'. Merlin tried to correct himself, say something else, just to let Arthur know he was kidding. There was no way Merlin had seen an actual dragon, in theory, was there? But then the thing hissed, and they took yet another step backwards.
'Well… What I think would look like a dragon…'
Arthur rolled his eyes and grimaced, the kind of grimaces he made every time Merlin said something incredibly stupid.
'How the hell would you know?'
'Well… Hmm… I read… books… Sometimes there are drawings in them… You know?'
Since Arthur still appeared unimpressed, he looked again at the creature.
'Mmh. Sharp nasty teeth', he winced. 'Not very friendly.'
'You think, Merlin? Is it the human arm dangling from its maw that makes you say that?'
The creature snorted again and Arthur pushed Merlin away gently.
'You should go…'
Merlin sensed something very wrong was bound to happen, so of course, he exclaimed a sonorous 'no!' before his Prince swore, pushed him more firmly towards the narrow corridor.
'Go. That's an order.'
Merlin had opened his mouth to protest, but he was clearly distracting Arthur, and the big lizard had moved. And it was closing in, clacking its jaw, springing towards them, so very fast, so fast and…
'ARTHUR WATCH OUT!'
The creature had leapt, baring monstrous claws that looked like they could effortlessly eviscerate an ox.
Merlin didn't think. He acted. If he hadn't, Arthur would have died. His eyes flashed eerily in the dark cave, only lit by a few of their torches, and the creature froze in middle-air. Though some of the knights gasped in surprise, the Prince lost no time and tested the metal of his weapon against the hide of the beast. Which lost. Blue eyes flashes gold again, and the beast crumbled to the floor in an agonizing growl.
Covered in blood, Arthur slowly faced Merlin, letting go of his sword. He kept silent for a while. And Merlin did too.
After all, he really had nothing to say.
'… What have you done?' Arthur asked in a whisper.
The expression on Arthur's face tore at Merlin's heart. Incredulity. Something else. Fear. Unadulterated fear. Why?
'I… Arthur I can explain…'
They had all recovered their wits. Arthur's shoulders jolted visibly. A knight was running towards them. And instead of asking his Prince whether or not he was unharmed, years spent at tracking sorcerers for Uther had him point a sword at Merlin's throat instead. The warlock took a step back while Arthur promptly stood up, but the knight was still advancing.
'Sire… His eyes… Have you seen his eyes? He's a sorcerer… According to the law of your father, he must be executed.'
Arthur swore under his breath and placed himself strategically between Merlin and the knight. Of course he had to. They'd bring him to his father, and his father would execute him right away. With no further trial. He half-turned towards his servant.
'But my liege… We have to arrest him…'
'You will do nothing of the sort.'
'Arthur, listen to me…'
'What are you still doing here?' Arthur was ignoring the knight. 'Are you deaf? Go, Merlin.'
'But I can't…'
'GO! For God's sake, go, Merlin, flee, take my horse, live!'
Arthur turned back and unsheathed his sword, standing between a desperate-looking Merlin and his approaching knights.
'I have to protect you… Arthur, I…'
'I know. But you can't protect me if you're dead…'
'Sire, what is the meaning of this?' said one of the knights, frowning suspiciously. Arthur shouldn't be aiming his sword at them. He should have taken the sorcerer down. Somehow. Offered him a quick death, if he cared so much.
But the problem was Arthur had always cared too much, where Merlin was concerned.
'Do you question your Prince?' the young Pendragon asked sharply, and even he didn't know whom exactly he was addressing.
His men were clearly divided. Some of them kept trying to get past Arthur, to Merlin, some tried to pull them back with shouts of 'Heed the Prince', and some looked hesitant, confused and did nothing at all. He didn't have it in him to blame any of them.
So he ignored the knights and deliberately turned his back on them, only keeping his arms wide in the narrow path they had reached to keep them from harming the younger man. He stared at Merlin with a look the warlock couldn't decipher, his brows furrowed in what couldn't possibly be an expression that couldn't possibly mean what Merlin thought it meant. Despair. Pleading. Something else. Something which should have made Merlin stay. Something which he knew he shouldn't wish for. Because the fear he had had earlier wasn't the fear of him, a warlock he had protected without knowing – or so Merlin liked to think. But of the consequences. Of what they were about to lose.
He opened his mouth but Arthur shook his head.
'Please', the future king whispered. There was so much pain and pleading in those blue eyes. As if his demand actually hurt him.
So with a last look into his Prince's eyes, Merlin turned away.
Arthur looked up before immediately lowering his gaze. His father. Joy. All he needed.
Of course, he had been thrown in the dungeons upon his return when one of his men had babbled in front of the King. Well. In front of the whole Court, really.
So much for pretending Merlin had fallen valiantly, protecting his Prince, in an unfortunate accident.
He knew far too well his father had to put him into jail. To reinstate his authority. The three men who had clearly agreed with the Prince on the Merlin dilemma had been thrown into jail as well.
They would stay there for a week. Maybe two. It depended on what he told his father now.
'You defied me. Over your servant. Again.'
Arthur said nothing. That was exactly what he had done.
'You know all magic is evil, Arthur', his father said, his voice sleek, sweet.
The Prince looked up proudly. He was to be a king, one day. And if undermining his Father's authority would achieve nothing in public, in 'private', standing up against him, from time to time, could only prove his ability to lead with a strong hand.
'Well maybe I don't share that opinion anymore.'
Uther looked surprised. The younger Pendragon set his jaw. He knew what was coming.
'You feel strongly about this, Arthur. Too strongly. They say he saved you. And granted, it was not the only time. I know about some other times he… might have helped you. I surely know that sword he had made for you was no sword Tom could have forged. Well, he could, but not with those properties. Nor those markings. So for your sake, maybe I would have been lenient. Made an exception. Demonstrated my… magnanimity. This once.'
Arthur gave a bitter laugh. They both knew the only exception Uther had made and would ever make was Gaius.
'We both know what your verdict could only have been, Father. You know you'd never grant any rewards to sorcerers. At least those who aren't publically known.'
'Well, we won't know that for sure, now, will we?'
'Bullshit', Arthur mumbled.
'Watch your tongue, Arthur. I could make your stay here far more uncomfortable.'
'Well do, because I don't really know why we're having this conversation at all. I admit it was wrong of me to divide the knights over this. But I couldn't bring him back to Camelot to await judgement, because I couldn't watch him die at your hand when all he ever did was serve and save me faithfully.'
'You know, I'm beginning to regret not to have clasped you in iron when you went and fetched that flower. Then he wouldn't have been miraculously cured. And we wouldn't be having this conversation.'
'And I'd be dead.'
A muscle twitched on Uther's jaw.
'You can't know that for sure.'
Arthur let out a bitter laugh.
'Oh I know that alright. I've had plenty of time to think, Father, on the way home. Why do you think Merlin was the only one who didn't get covered in spider webs when Lady Helen or whoever was underneath her guise came to take her revenge? What do you think really happened with Sofia? Those staffs, huh? They just served the purpose to make their bearers look good? Don't think so. And how do you think I'm still alive, when the Questing Beast wounded me? And you? You killed the dead, Father. With a sword that you said yourself Merlin provided you with. And, how very strange, that sword was meant for me.'
'But there's more. I'm sure he helped us out countless other times and I didn't want to see it for what it was. 'Cause then I'd have to tell you and you know what you do with sorcerers. What you did to Gwen's father.'
'But when that Edwin came – my fault, I'm sorry – and nearly had you killed. Who was it in the room with Gaius?'
His father was staring holes into his skull, gritting his teeth.
'Father, obviously magic is like a dog. If you train it to kill people they'll kill people. But they can defend them as well. Why couldn't we use magic to defend against magic?'
Uther kept silent for a while.
'You're speaking dangerous theories, Arthur', he said at last. 'You know if we want to maintain order, we cannot say now that maybe I have been wrong.'
'I know. But I can't bear to watch him die. When he protected me.'
Uther looked suspicious. Arthur really didn't care. But maybe he should have.
'When I listen to you, Arthur, I'd think that he's bewitched you…'
'Yes, well, maybe he has. Bewitched me', Arthur said snidely. 'But maybe not exactly the way you mean it.'
Maybe he had. Those feelings he had refused to acknowledge till he was forced to ask Merlin to run. Feelings he regretted now never to have acted upon. Feelings that made him glad this unfortunate event happened far from Camelot, in the forest, rather than between their walls where he would have had no other choice than to arrest him and put him into jail.
At least Merlin had a chance to escape.
Uther narrowed his eyes.
'Then I hope my guards catch up with him so they can break the enchantment and you can see reason.'
Then he left Arthur to hope against hope that Merlin had developed some sense of self preservation.
Because after the conversation they had just had, if they found him, his father would force the Prince to watch his servant die.
After three weeks spent in jail, Arthur thought maybe his faithful knights didn't deserve to rot with him because of his own decision, and he apologized convincingly enough to his father. He fed him some crap about how he had been wrong, how he should have listened to him, trusted him. After all, given the number of times Arthur had been saved by the warlock, maybe Uther would only have banished him from his kingdom. It would have been as bad, but Arthur wouldn't take any chances. Not with Merlin's life.
So he let his father believe what he wanted, though they both knew it was a complete lie – that Merlin had indeed enchanted him, and now he had been away long enough, Arthur was capable again to think for himself, since the sorcerer was not there to cloud his judgement.
Those who had betrayed him to the King were waiting for him outside his cell. They looked down, shame clearly written on all over their faces.
'Don't. You obeyed your King. You did nothing wrong. I hope you'll be as loyal to me when I am King.'
Afterwards, talks of Merlin enchanting Arthur to let him flee spread throughout the castle. Some thought it was a lie Arthur had fed his father to protect his own neck. Many ignored the three weeks he had spent in jail.
But that theory was plausible, after all. Even if the knights who had accompanied them that day, though they hadn't agreed on what to do when Merlin had been found out, all agreed Arthur had been very much himself when he let his servant go. And even though most of those knights who would have seen Merlin burn on a pyre still somewhat resented their Prince because he seemed to trust and favour a criminal more than he did them, they could sympathize with him, they could understand there had been some deep reason that justified their Prince's defiance, they could see how much Merlin's absence had changed Arthur, made him graver and more sombre, stripping him of his fire. And though those still resented him somehow, at least for a while, they respected him for it.
Because his last act of defiance towards his father was to dismiss any manservant the King tried to assign him, the rumours soon started to change. Some, mostly the other servants who had known the young warlock, whispered that the Prince genuinely missed Merlin. But as that explanation didn't fit the official one, other still countered by saying he was wary of menservants who would ultimately be false and undeserving of his trust.
The real reason behind his refusal, however, could only be guessed at by most people. Even his family and closest friends didn't know for sure. Morgana did try to drill him, to tear the truth out of him, 'for his own good', but Arthur would only smile that patient, somewhat pain-filled smile he displayed those days and dodged any question remotely related to Merlin. People learned not to speak his name in front of the Prince, and soon, just like the person, the warlock's name became a ghost.
Or a legend.
And the reason for the reverence with which it was said steadily winning over the disdain was that they didn't want to think their beautiful champion had a mind feeble enough to be controlled by an evil magician. And since most of the people had liked the gangly dark-haired man, they hadn't wanted to believe he too was evil.
With this one tiny gesture, Arthur had completely overthrown the balance of power in his Father's kingdom. If his people looked undecided for a while, the belief that all form of magic was evil too deeply ingrained in their minds to simply vanish at the first thought it could be otherwise, they learned progressively not to freak out when 'strange' events took place on the fringes of Camelot, when monstrous beasts were found slain, when some people performed small inoffensive acts of magic to help someone. In a way, it was treason, and though the elders who could remember the beautiful Igraine still missed her sorely and resented the use of magic, the 'normal' people on the whole didn't seek the magical people out to exterminate them as they had before, were much more willing to pretend not to have seen a wounded cow get better or a devastated crop become eatable again.
At the same time, inexplicably, while the persecuted magical people could have seized the occasion to rise and precipitate Arthur's reign, they had become quiet, as if bidding their time. Hope gave them patience, and instead of getting rid of Uther, they let him live out his life, hoping that when the time was right, and Arthur would be King, those laws condemning magic would be progressively revoked – and that this action would be supported by the people.
They say when Uther died four years later, you could see that for some time, a light of… what some described as hope had lit Arthur's grief-stricken face. They say they saw him smile real, genuine smiles, smiles that he had not spared even for Gwen or Morgana in a while. They say they even heard him laugh, a graver laugh, befitting of a King, but a laugh it had been nonetheless. As soon as the matters of his kingdom didn't require his attention, they say you could find him in his room, staring down out of his window at the courtyard below, his sighs breaking the silence.
But days passed by, then weeks, and then a month, and brought nothing, and with nothing, the light in his eyes dimmed again until it was totally smothered into blue eyes.
One of his first acts as a King had been to revise his father's bans on magic. Only dark magic, magic that harmed living beings in any way was to be banished, and the culprit punished by death only if only malicious intent had been behind this use of magic. He was a fair king, just, compassionate, his heart set on his people only, which seemingly made him deaf to any suggestion by his entourage that he should take a wife. He could spend hours on end listening to his people's plights. How could he spare time for a wife? Nobody had thought that the former Prince had had that much patience in him. But he was a good King, a great one, and as both Merlin and Gwen had predicted, he was loved.
His people was content. Yet Morgana and some of his closest friends could see that he was not happy, and that the passing of his father had little to do with it.
But if Arthur had thought the revision of his father's laws had been a beacon to call his sorcerer back home, it appeared he had been gravely mistaken. The dimness in his eyes was sometimes replaced by doubt and anxiety as he thought that, perhaps, Merlin had caught some illness he had never been able to treat or had met his fate on the highways. His anxiety seemed to grow with time, until one day, five months after his father's death, Arthur entrusted the care of his kingdom to an unsurprised Morgana and disappeared with a handful of knights, only to return three months later, Hunith on a horse behind him, and his eyes more dead than ever.
Morgana knew too well what ailment Arthur was suffering from. Had known for a while. Had known even before Merlin was forced to leave Camelot. But she didn't think even she had it in her to confront her Prince, then King about it. It wasn't a conversation she was keen on beginning and since Arthur seemed to have developed a sixth sense and evaded her every time she had managed to gather enough courage to broach the subject, she had decided to let it go.
It pained her greatly, for she was a formidable woman that wasn't cowed by many things, but the depth of the feelings she could only guess Arthur felt for his former manservant scared her. As she would have been scared for the kingdom if Arthur had let himself be totally distracted by the boy. But as tournaments and training proved, he still was the best fighter in Camelot, and during the few skirmishes that erupted over the years since Merlin's disappearance, he had proved to be an able warrior, not prone at all on letting any foe overthrow him in any way just because he longed for the presence of someone who he had driven away himself. Of course, Arthur was stronger than that. But he had never been as lonely – ever – and even she couldn't reach him anymore. He didn't rise at her baits. He looked at her with an air that clearly told her he was a grown-up now and if she wanted to talk to him like they were still both teenagers, she would have to look elsewhere for entertainment.
When Lancelot came back, the knight made the mistake to ask after Merlin. It didn't take long for him to understand he shouldn't talk about his friend – at all – in the presence of the King. The pain Morgana had seen in Arthur's eyes had been unbearable.
But still, she had thought the return of the knight would be good for her surrogate brother. In a way, it had been. Arthur genuinely smiled more often for a while, as if the return of a friend that could have been lost to him forever granted him the right to hope his other friend would one day return as well…
Lancelot stayed, this time, and Arthur granted him a title and a strip of land, then knighted him again. The knight asked Gwen's hand in marriage, and if Arthur had seemed genuinely happy for them on their wedding day, even the groom had seen the forlorn way the King had kept looking at their joined hands.
And three days later, he had come to the King's rooms to ask him whether or not he had been in love with Gwen.
When Arthur laughed, Lancelot didn't understand. He thought the King was laughing at him or his wife and was starting to feel affronted on her behalf when Arthur's laugh turned to something that sounded suspiciously like suppressed sobs and sat down on a chair, a hand in front of his face, so his friend wouldn't see it.
He sat there for a while, even after the strange laugh subsided, and Lancelot could see Arthur's Adam apple bobbing up and down his throat. After a long while, he heard him sigh, and even though he still couldn't see the King's face, he heard his voice, filled with self-contempt, whisper slowly:
'Rest assured I don't covet your wife, Lancelot. I never was in love with her. I like her. A great deal. Perhaps more than a mere servant. But I have never felt any… untoward desires for her. Don't worry. You didn't steal a conquest the King was intending for himself, nor will I try to "impose" myself on her in any way.'
'So it's not her I love, Lancelot. It's not her I long for. It could never be her…'
Lancelot kept silent for a while. Then he came closer to his king and laid a hand on his shoulder.
'You should find yourself a wife. Marry Morgana. I'm sure she'd be glad to.'
Arthur shook his head slowly with a bitter smile.
'I love Morgana as a sister. I wouldn't offend her so.'
'Well I'm sure many women would be glad to…'
Arthur lifted his gaze from the prison of his own hands and looked gravely into Lancelot's eyes.
'Lancelot, I'm really not interested in finding a wife. Nor a woman. When it's warmth I seek, and if that kind of warmth could suffice, I know there are plenty of thighs only awaiting a word to spread before me. But you know it's not what I long for. And you know I'm too much of an honourable man to shame a woman by taking her as my wife when my heart and thoughts and soul belong to someone else…'
It had been the closest Arthur ever admitted to desperately loving a man he was bound never to see again.
It was a few more years afterwards that Arthur found it in him to smile again. He had been travelling like he did sometimes to the 'neighbouring' villages. He had brought a squire and a couple of knights along as his escort, but no one else. Sometimes he brought Morgana or Lancelot, or some of the other knights who were close enough to him to 'understand', and if not, 'guess', but he had only wanted to steal away from his responsibilities for a day or two.
He was beginning to think that Lancelot was right. That he would have to look for a queen and produce an heir. But his heart was still so vividly inhabited by his manservant that he couldn't bring himself to even look for a woman. And although he knew that indeed, Morgana, if he showed some measure of love towards her, would take him as a husband, he knew that he would never love her the way he should and if there was one person he didn't want to hurt, it was that woman. Oh, she would make the most wonderful queen. But he couldn't do that to her.
And it pained him, because he knew he had no right to do that to any other woman, even though it was his duty and he had known very young that a Prince's heart had no place in politics. Better to live without one. His body and soul should belong to the crown. He had never been his own person. That didn't mean he wanted some unfortunate woman to live with him the life of breeding stock just to provide the throne with an heir, even though noble women were brought up in that purpose as well.
He had known (and acknowledged) for a while now that he wouldn't be interested in any woman. Or most men. It made for many a lonely night he had spent since Merlin's departure. Sometimes, a young man that looked enough like "him" would come to Camelot, and the King took him to his bed, and made love to him – only to wake up the following morning and realize the man looked nothing like Merlin. Was nothing like him. Never could be. And that the little warmth he could glean from those stolen moments didn't warm him up at all.
He was weary and wanted nothing better than to stop for the night and spend it in a cosy bed. He wasn't young enough anymore not to be disturbed by the bite of the cold during the night and the dew on his quilt in the morning when he could help it. And it served the purpose of meeting his people in other places than his castle, where they came mostly to expose their most serious grievances to him. Here, he could talk to them, ask them what minor changes could help them live more easily. A shared tankard of good ale and some broth usually did wonders to help loosen their tongues.
He left his horse in the care of the squire and, as the knights took their own horses to the stables to water and groom them, he pushed open the door of the small inn.
Inside, it was dark. There was a fire burning low in the fireplace. It warmed the room. His hand was still brushing the warm, smooth, worn wood of the door. He felt a flicker of something as he entered that had him shiver and look about the room. A few people, sitting here and there, talking quietly at their tables. They barely even looked up.
He could feel the sun at the back of his head, a lukewarm spot on his hair despite the cold outside.
There was something here, something he couldn't put his finger on, that had him think this would be different from any visit he had made to any previous village. At first, he wondered whether he had travelled through that village once before. But he hadn't. Not yet. Despite his sense of familiarity that was nagging at him in quite a disturbing way, this place was entirely new to him.
His eyes stopped on the innkeeper, a tall, lanky dark-haired man who was scrubbing away at a glass behind a kind of bar. The time was at ale, not yet as supper, but the smell of food was already emanating from the kitchens. The innkeeper paid him no more heed than his customers did, though they at least looked up lazily at him before returning to their drinks.
He looked nothing like the innkeepers he was used to see in those small villages. Instead of a round belly, fat arms and red, rosaceous cheeks, he was lean, his skin pasty-white, and from a distance, Arthur would say he had delicate features even though his bones looked like they had been carved out angrily by a hunting knife.
In fact he reminded him disturbingly of a phantom of his past.
He approached the bar without further ado, making his presence known with a simple 'Hello' and studied the man.
'What can I do for you, Sire?' the innkeeper asked casually.
Arthur sat down. That voice…
It couldn't… could it? Of course it could. It must. Yet he couldn't bring himself to believe it. To believe he had found him at last, now he had given up his search for him. He had felt 'that' thing, that kind of pull he had only felt whenever in the presence of his manservant, after, all, hadn't he?
'How do you know I'm the King?' he answered just as casually, quietly teasing.
The man finally looked up from the glass he was cleaning, and met his stare, wide-eyed, as if Arthur was an idiot. He set the glass down onto the table and lifted his eyebrow, before he gestured at the 'thing' adorning the King's head.
'The crown… You know… Kinds of gives it away…'
Arthur could feel his heart beat faster. Only one man had ever been able to make him feel like that. Those eyes… How he had missed them…
He had changed. He had filled out a bit though he remained somewhat skinny, but he was definitely a man now.
Which was a good thing. His haunted expression and his refusal to acknowledge their link, even though Arthur could see his hands tremble a bit, were definitely not.
Arthur smiled, a true, yet sad smile, cocking his head to the side.
'It's been a while…'
The movement of the Merlin's hand on the dishtowel stopped for a second, and he looked back up. And when Arthur looked into his eyes, he saw that his gaze too was haunted.
'I beg your pardon, Sire?' The man winced, and Arthur could see his breath had quickened as well.
They were apart from one another, a few feet apart, but it was as if his skin was on fire.
'I've missed you', Arthur added gently, undeterred by Merlin's weak attempts at acting as if they didn't know one another.
The man cocked his head fractionally to the right, frowning overtly. His lips were half-opened, as if he was trying to come up with something, but never found the right thing to say.
'I'm sorry but…'
'Did you really think a bit more muscles, that excuse for a beard and a few gray hair would fool me?' he asked softly.
'Sire, I think you're mistaking me for someone I'm not…'
But Merlin's voice was quivering. And there was no mistaking it. It was Merlin's. The man didn't even bother to disguise it. Hadn't, from the start. It was as if all of the sudden, the surly air of the man had disappeared into thin air, leaving the shell of a frightened animal behind.
'I think you'd like me to be mistaken, and you'd like to be dreaming this. It would be much easier, wouldn't it, Merlin?'
The warlock gulped, staring at him.
'You have nothing to fear anymore…'
The man – Merlin, he was sure of it – answered nothing. But after a while, he looked at his customers who were watching the scene, and with a nod, begged them to go their way. They grumbled a bit but everyone obeyed. There would be plenty of ale later anyway.
Merlin waited till the last man closed the door behind him and sighed, hanging his head in defeat for a while, his shoulders slumped. Arthur studied him carefully, as if to commit the sight to his memory, in the case Merlin chose to evade him again.
Merlin said at last, pouring two tankards of ale and setting them down on the table nearest the fire before he went and locked up all doors and windows, as if buying time. Arthur sat down at the table, watching his every move.
Then, Merlin sat down in front of him. He was avoiding his gaze, glancing at everything but him. He didn't smile. Arthur wished he would. He had missed that smile of his the most.
'After all this time… What do you want with me?'
Merlin looked up, surprised. On the table, his hand was twitching, as if he longed to touch his former master.
'Well, I'd like you to come back', Arthur admitted. 'Your mother misses you just as much as I do, and I'm sure Gwen and Morgana miss you too. I'd buy you some clothes and make you lose your ridiculous beard, of course…'
'I can't… You told me to go away… Because I'm a warlock… The laws…'
'I've abolished them… Well… Mostly… Haven't you heard? Besides, I would never hurt you… You know that, don't you?' Arthur asked gently.
Merlin's eyes were flickering, never exactly resting on him anymore. The emotions Arthur was feeling were totally chaotic, and yet he kept his voice low, soothing, caressing. He would never have acknowledged what it was he was feeling for the younger man had he not sent him away, where he became untouchable. An ideal. An idea as well, perhaps.
He longed to touch him. To ascertain he was not dreaming again, one of those cruel dreams he kept having, full of promises that were never to be kept.
How was it possible he had not seen it before? The alchemy, the magic between them?
'Why have you not come back, Merlin?'
The young man's features hardened for a while and he looked down. He looked distressed. He had every reason to be. This wasn't the man he remembered.
But even though Merlin had taken it very hard apparently, Arthur wasn't sure he understood why the young man had not chosen to come home as soon as he learned about Uther's death.
'I've looked for you everywhere', he pressed on, barely able to restrain himself from leaning forward and take Merlin's hand into his own.
Still, Merlin said nothing, kept avoiding his eyes.
'You were the one who told me to go away', Merlin whispered at last, his voice bitter, barely audible, but so much like Merlin's it hurt to hear it.
'When my father died', Arthur said, 'I spent three whole months looking for you. When I should have looked after my kingdom. When Camelot needed me. And you. But I never found you. I've been to Ealdor, even before then. Several times. Your mother didn't know either… And she was… So I arranged for her to come to Camelot and be cared for. But… Merlin…'
'Why are you here, Arthur. If you wanted to kill me, you should have done so when you had the chance.'
'Was it so terrible?' Arthur looked mildly curious.
'Being apart from me?'
Merlin glanced up tentatively, staring straight away into his eyes, apparently trying to find a truth there that he wasn't sure he could decipher. Arthur himself wasn't sure what exactly that truth was. Or he did, but he didn't want to put a name on it. After all, he had never felt like that for anybody, apart from Merlin.
He was growing nervous, wondering whether Merlin would reject him, reject his offer to come back to Camelot. But then, though Merlin was still clearly unsure what to answer, what to think, he replied:
'Yeah… Worse than death… You really have no idea…'
Arthur made a strange sound, a kind of sputter, before he laughed out loud, his shoulders shaking – his hands shaking. Nervousness. And something else. Fondness. Yes. That was what it was.
When at last Arthur could regain some control over his nerves, the crease between Merlin's eyebrows told him he remembered how frustrated Merlin must have been the last time he had seen that look in his master's eyes. When Arthur had worn that particular smile. How cryptic it always was.
'You haven't changed that much, have you?' Arthur asked, his eyes warm, as if Merlin's mere presence a few feet away had flooded his whole being with heat.
'Of course I've changed. A lot… I mean…'
'Merlin. You're still so much of an idiot…'
'Well then you haven't changed either', replied Merlin, frowning, reminding him more and more of the man he had once been. So many long, long years of yearning… And now the banter was coming back. It was strangely comforting. 'Still a royal prat. But…'
Merlin's eyes flicked down, as if his next admission shamed him.
'I've missed you too…'
There was a small, tentative smile on his lips now, and at long last, unable to resist any longer, Arthur gave in, reached out, and brushed the tips of his fingers on Merlin's hand. He smiled at hearing a faint gasp, laid his hand more firmly on the warlock's, just short of entwining his fingers with Merlin's.
'Remember when we stood in front of your friend's pyre? Told you magic was dangerous. I was right. It took you away from me so long… I thought I'd go mad.' he said gently.
Merlin's gaze was quizzical. His face was half-turned, as if he was unable to look Arthur directly into the eyes by doing so, even though he really was. He said nothing.
'Come back with me…' Arthur whispered again.
Merlin hesitated, and his gaze lowering to their hands. Arthur anticipated his movement and grasped Merlin's before the younger man could take it away from him. Merlin's haunted expression had returned full blown. As if the possibility of his return reminded him of the reason why he had departed in the first place. As if the face from before that Arthur had glimpsed had been a dream, an illusion.
'I… My life is here, now', Merlin answered wearily.
'This is bullshit… You belong in Camelot… You know it as well as I do…'
'Arthur I can't…'
'Come back to me, then…'
Merlin bit his lips, looking up as if to decipher the meaning behind Arthur's words. Damned if he himself knew what it was.
'I'd give you anything you want. Anything you need… Trust me…' begged the King.
'I… What I want… What I think we want… you can't give it to me…'
'And what is it? You don't know for sure as long as you don't tell me…'
'What we both need…'
'And why wouldn't I be able to give it to you?'
'Because… It's too complicated…'
Merlin looked desperate. Arthur smiled soothingly. Despite everything, despite the tearing in his heart he felt at seeing the younger man so tormented, being this close to him again made him feel better than he had felt in years.
He felt complete.
He understood, now. What it was he felt. What he had begun to feel way before the whole ordeal had started. When he was still a Prince and Merlin still his idiot manservant. And understanding this, he understood that whatever the cost, there was one thing he needed, one thing he suspected Merlin needed as well.
Arthur could not live without it. He hadn't really lived since the day he had sent Merlin away. He couldn't go on like it. Not now he knew exactly what he had been missing all this time.
That part of himself that had made him more than just a Prince. That made him a human being.
'Could you remind me of one thing between us that has not been complicated?' he teased.
Merlin's eyes were pleading, and even though there was a table between the two of them, Arthur felt the need to bring himself closer.
'But that's the point, Arthur', Merlin whispered, sounding frustrated, hurt. 'There is no 'us'. There never has been… When we were together we weren't… And if this… thing… you realize now we feel does exist, there still is nothing…'
'But there could be… If you wanted…'
The King let go of his servant's hand to rub his knuckles over Merlin's cheek. The other man seemed not to be able to believe him. Either that or he didn't want to give in to false hope.
Arthur could understand that… After all, had he not been the one who sent him away?
'Don't make me promises you won't be able to keep…' Merlin whispered and all the while, his eyes pleaded with Arthur's to tell him he was wrong…
'Merlin…' His thumb brushed across his cheekbones, over his full lips. He wondered why Merlin hadn't pulled out of his reach yet. And then, he hoped he knew why. He wondered whether his warlock had ever acknowledged the sexual tension that had always been lurking between them, just under the surface. Before. Whether he ever cried out his name at night. Whether he ever told anyone, or refused the closeness of another body because his thoughts, his heart, perhaps even his soul were elsewhere, already belonged to another. 'Do you trust me?'
'Yes', Merlin replied, earnestly.
'Then trust me when I say we'll deal with potential problems, should they arise, but could never let anything come between us ever again…'
Years and distance had done no good to any of them. They had barely reached twenty-seven, yet, but they had become lonely, bitter men pining for something they hadn't really known was there, something a day ago, they hadn't let themselves to fully understand. But this bond Arthur could feel pulsating in his veins had become almost palpable, as if trying to catch up with years and years of denial and deprivation.
Merlin's eyes searched his, and he let him do all the plundering he wanted, content with reaching forward and up to push his fingers through his sorcerer's hair and threading it lovingly.
'I heard you never took any other manservant?' Merlin said at last.
'I wouldn't ask you to resume your functions…'
They gazed at each other and after a moment, Arthur's hand stilled, then slid down one hairy but still hollow cheek to settle under Merlin's chin. The young warlock smiled almost shyly, looking down, at the table. He reached up, however, joining his fingers with Arthur's.
'Would you come back to me?' the King whispered after a while.
It didn't take long for Merlin to reach his final decision.
'Yes', he replied, sounding slightly out of breath.
Arthur offered him a smile, pushed himself up to bend slightly over the table, tilt his head slightly to the side and take what he had been longing for for so very long, without really knowing – Merlin's kiss.