Arthur never thought it would come to this.
He looks at Merlin, bleeding and broken on the dungeon floor, and he should feel angry. He knows this, God knows his father has told him he should be angry, but somehow, all he can think of is his friends pain - not the fact that he's been lying to him for over five years.
All right, maybe that hurts a bit.
But right now all he can think is: how can something like this happen to Merlin?
Merlin was an innocent, magic or no, and the fact was that this should not be happening to him.
And he does feel angry. Only it's not with Merlin.
The law is wrong. And if his father makes the law, then his father is wrong. And if his father is wrong then… he is no longer deserving of his loyalty.
That's what he tells himself anyway.
The guards have gone, as demanded. It's almost too easy, he thinks to himself, to get people out of the dungeons of Camelot. He wonders if maybe he should look into that.
"You need to leave, Merlin," Arthur says, somewhat harshly, as he eases open the cell door.
Merlin looks up at him, smiles somewhat wryly, "I can't leave, Arthur. Haven't you been listening?"
And how did he miss this? That wry, condescending tone, the way he talks, those eyes that look like they've lived a thousand lifetimes more than - and seen more in those lifetimes than - Arthur ever could.
"Yes, idiot," Arthur says, in some vain hope of normalcy. "I heard your ridiculous notions of destiny; we're all quite well-versed in the fact that you think you're doing something very important, but I've got news for you: you're no good to anyone if you're dead."
Merlin pulls himself up from the floor and Arthur tries not to wince at the sight of his beaten and bruised face. He tilts his head to one side as though waiting for Arthur to go on.
"So I am ordering you to leave. Get out of Camelot and never return."
Merlin looks about to make some crack about orders and the fact that he's never listened to Arthur so why should he start now, when Arthur keeps going, his voice breaking slightly as he says:
"Please, Merlin. Promise me. Promise me you'll leave and never return."
Merlin gives a ghost of a smile, and it's so heart-breakingly familiar and at the same time completely different that Arthur feels himself grieve a little for a simpler time when Merlin was his friend - though he'd never admit to it - and he was his idiot servant who tripped over things and always had a ready smile.
He supposes that's all gone now.
Merlin may have been saving his life for years, but he hasn't been who he appeared to be and Arthur could weep for the loss of it.
"I don't think I can promise that," Merlin manages to get to his feet, swaying slightly. "I'm no good if I'm not in Camelot, either."
"You know what Merlin? Go save someone else."
Merlin is unfazed by Arthur's attempt to irritate him into leaving, "No. Apparently destiny decided to stick me with this useless prat of a Prince. Guess he needed me most."
"How awful for you," Arthur bites out.
"Yes, quite. Still, we survive."
Arthur's annoyed with himself for falling back into the old pattern of banter and he says, through gritted teeth, "Merlin, you are leaving. Now. Even if I have to drag you. And we both know I could do it."
Merlin looks almost amused by this, "Do we Arthur?" he says simply, and Arthur shivers slightly at the sentiment, when he's reminded that this is the man who blasted an entire army back from Camelot without attaining so much as a scratch… and then let himself be taken away by the guards and beaten senseless.
All he now knows about Merlin and he still makes so little sense.
"You're right of course," Merlin continues. "And we both know how it pains me to admit that. I am no good to anyone dead, but I can't promise I'll never return."
"Fine, just go Merlin."
Arthur can hear noises from the floor above.
"There's a passage down this way, follow it straight until you get to the gate at the castle walls."
"Oh, Arthur," Merlin looks at him almost pityingly. "You think I don't know how to escape from here?" He ducks down the passageway, but hesitates on the threshold - he looks a lot better now, Arthur thinks, and he wonders if he's somehow used magic to heal himself, and if so, why didn't he do it before? - he turns to Arthur. "I'll be back."
And with that he is gone.
Things go back to normal after that - yes, Uther is annoyed that Merlin managed to escape, but he only continues sending search parties half-heartedly (somehow, Arthur feels that letting Gwaine lead them is a mistake, but he doesn't mention this to his father). At least, things go back to normal…ish. Except Merlin isn't there and Arthur had become… attached to his presence. He can tell that it bothers Gwen as well (he's never explicitly told her that he had a hand in Merlin escaping but some things don't need to be said) and whenever he sees Gaius in the corridors he looks more tired and older than Arthur's ever seen him (of course, there are times when Gaius has a spring in his step which is hard to explain - if he had to guess he supposes that Merlin wouldn't abandon his guardian completely, but knowing this would result in Gaius' arrest, so he doesn't guess).
So yes, things are completely as they should in Camelot, apart from the absence of an idiotic servant and the lack of laughter in the hallways.
Sometimes, Arthur finds himself thinking that it's a little bit of a coincidence that he seems to defeat all magical threats so easily. He thinks it's even more of a coincidence that he can never remember doing so.
The Knights assure him - with Gwaine and Lancelot front and centre - that he does these things and that, yes, of course they're shocked that he doesn't remember a thing.
(The smile playing around Gwaine's lips does little to dissuade him from his suspicions.)
Waking up after being knocked unconscious by a dragon and seeing only Merlin.
"…You dealt it a mortal blow…"
But when memories like this creep up on him he generally focuses very hard on something else.
His father had made an almost full recovery to sanity following Morgana's reign and resumed his position on the throne - from where Arthur had been ruling as regent. Arthur had graciously stepped aside, and had pretended not to notice the disappointment that was sometimes voiced by the citizens of Camelot. This had led to the meetings of the Round Table being disbanded for the moment, as Uther said they were a waste of time. His father did allow him to keep the table though - although removed it from the throne room - and he would still occasionally call meetings when the time arose for him to have an input in policy.
These meetings stop when Merlin leaves as well.
Arthur can't bring himself to fill his place and he doesn't think he can stand to have an empty spot on his right-hand side. What he does occasionally do is go and look at the inscriptions on the table. He looks into the old language and finds out that the inscription in his spot reads High King. Gwen's reads Love. And the spot where Merlin used to sit reads Magic.
(He is not at all surprised.)
Sometimes he wonders how he never noticed. His servant had magic. And he didn't notice.
Maybe he really is a prat.
The first time he sees Merlin - properly sees him - again, is much as you would expect.
The Knights and he are on a hunt and then, out of nowhere, comes a creature, the likes of which he's never seen before. It is like a massive scorpion, as large as a bear, and it makes its way towards them as if it has all the time in the world.
It's got them cornered; it does have all the time in the world.
Arthur orders the men to get behind him and they comply (and really, that should set off his suspicions right there) he watches the creature as it comes closer; he doesn't want to notice the poisonous black liquid it appears to be eking from its pincers but he does.
He lunges forward and catches the creature on its underbelly; it falls back, more winded than anything else and Arthur looks down to see a streak of black on his arm. It takes him a while to realise that he's been struck by the pincer. The world swims before him as he collapses to the floor and he feels hand holding him up. He must look ultimately as though he is dying.
Perhaps he is.
Through this haze, he is still aware of what is happening.
He can see a black haired figure in front of him. Clad in ordinary clothes, he's not a Knight, but he's shockingly familiar.
Still with the neckerchief, eh, Merlin, a slightly dazed Arthur thinks.
He watches as the Knights stand back; Merlin raises a hand and mutters strange, foreign words; the creature's main pincer seems to curl in on itself. He mutters a few more words and the creature flies back into a tree. He then utters a longer phrase and the creature turns and moves off.
"You're letting it go?" Gwaine sounds incredulous - but completely unsurprised that Merlin is here.
"It was enchanted," Merlin says, distracted. "I've removed the enchantment and disabled its poison. They're actually quite peaceful creatures naturally. The poison's generally used to dissuade predators, but it's big enough not to run into any trouble without it."
"Who enchanted it?" Lancelot breaks in.
"I'll give you three guesses," Merlin mutters, kneeling at Arthur's side; he feels hands move over his shoulder.
"Guess that spell thing really does work," Gwaine says.
"It lets me know when Arthur's in trouble; it was lucky I was near though."
"Do you always know what's happening to him?"
"I get a sense."
"Can you read his thoughts?"
"No, I cannot read his thoughts, Gwaine."
"Oh," says Gwaine, sounding somewhat disappointed, although Arthur thinks that sounds like a very good thing. The Gwaine brightens, "Can I get a tracking spell put on me?"
"Are you asking for help Gwaine?" Merlin sounds amused. "And no, it's hard to explain, but… I've got a sort of connection Arthur due to the whole destiny thing."
"Oh. That two sides of the same coin thing?"
"Sort of. Now shut up so I can concentrate."
The silence lasts around five seconds before: "What are you doing anyway?"
Merlin sighs, "I don't know the exact properties of the poison - he looks completely out of it but…"
"His eyes are open."
"I don't think he can see anything."
So Merlin doesn't know everything; this thought makes Arthur feel slightly better.
"I'm seeing where the poison goes; it's not a very deep cut but it's gone into his bloodstream; I think it's meant to stop his heart."
That doesn't sound very nice, thinks Arthur vaguely.
"But you can stop that right?"
"Yes," Merlin says hesitantly, "I just have to…" He rests a hand on Arthur's shoulder and mutters a stream of foreign words; Arthur feels instantly lighter but he closes his eyes to rest for a moment - he doesn't want them to know he knows Merlin's there.
"Merlin, what are you doing?" Lancelot's voice sounds panicky, and Arthur fights against the overwhelming urge to sink into oblivion.
"Short version is I've taken the poison into my own body; I need to expel it."
"And you can do that?" Gwaine sounds panic-stricken as well.
"Only with magic. I've got to tie the poison to my magic and then direct it outwards. Stand back." There's a pause as he feels the Knights shuffle away, one drags him with them and Arthur works hard to stay completely limp. "Way back," Merlin prompts, sounding tense, as though he's in pain.
There's loud blast followed by a feeling of warmth and Arthur's eyes flicker open to see what happened. Merlin is standing in the midst of a clearing - Arthur is sure it wasn't a clearing before.
"You just demolished half a forest, Merlin!"
"Be glad it wasn't any of you," Merlin says, sounding bone-weary. He bends over and takes a few deep breaths.
"Are you OK?" Gwaine says, moving past Arthur and towards Merlin somewhat warily. He rests a hand on Merlin's shoulder and Merlin straightens.
"Yeah, yeah I'm fine. How's Arthur?"
Arthur remembers to close his eyes.
"He's breathing but unconscious."
"He probably won't remember anything."
"We'll think of a story," Gwaine looks around at the demolished trees all around them. "Possibly involving some kind of earthquake that only affected half the forest."
"Ha ha," says Merlin. "I'd better go."
"Anything to tell Gaius?"
"No, you can tell him you saw me and I'm fine."
"You look thin."
"You sound like my mother."
"Well, you do!"
"Right. I'm fine, anyway, I'll probably see you soon." Merlin's lips quirk upwards into a smile. "God knows you people can't keep out of life-threatening situations without me."
"We just miss you too much."
"Yeah, right," Merlin looks around at the Knights. "Goodbye."
"Thank you," says Lancelot. "For saving our lives. Again."
Merlin smiles. "Anytime."
And with that he disappears. Literally vanishes into thin air.
"I'll never get used to him doing that," Leon says, shaking his head.
"You will," says Lancelot wearily, and bends down over Arthur.
Arthur comes to slowly - or at least appears to - and looks around confused. "What happened?" he asks as he sits up.
"What do you remember?"
Arthur hesitates, "That huge scorpion coming at us. I struck it."
"You killed it," says Lancelot immediately. "Only it turns out that, er, when they die, they kind of explode and, well…" he gestures at the forest - or lack thereof.
Gwaine is looking at Lancelot almost admiringly, and smiles, "Yep. You haven't been out for long, but we'd better be heading back."
Arthur shakes his head to himself, but doesn't say anything as they help him up. He even pretends he doesn't hear Gwaine saying to Lancelot:
"You know, you're really getting a lot better at this lying thing."
"I feel so honoured."
Arthur rolls his eyes. Do they honestly think he's that stupid?
He realises he doesn't particularly want to answer that question.
So he'll go along with their far-fetched plans, he'll nod as they tell him of his acts of heroism - heroism that should be attributed to Merlin - he'll do all this, and he'll never say a word.
A few days after that, he asks Gwaine a question that almost strikes him speechless (and everyone thought that was impossible):
"What do you think Merlin's doing?"
Gwaine stops in his tracks - Merlin isn't precisely a taboo subject, but he's generally not brought up, and certainly not by Arthur.
"I don't know," Gwaine eventually says, after gaping at Arthur for a few moments. "I suppose he's on the run."
"Yes," says Arthur slowly. "I suppose he is."
"He's probably fine," Gwaine says quietly, as though trying to reassure Arthur without actually telling him anything. "I mean, he's got magic. He can survive anything."
"Did you know he had magic?"
Gwaine's head shoots up. "Admitting to that would be treason… sire. But, I suppose things like that are quite hard to miss if you look closely enough, so I may have at least suspected. He was a truly, terrible liar, Merlin."
Gwaine moves off with a smile, muttering something about a fire and wolves.
Arthur's sort of surprised at Gwaine's statement, he had always thought that Merlin must be a fantastic liar, given everything he kept from him, but… was it just that Arthur hadn't been looking closely enough? He had always sensed something… different about Merlin, but he had never paid it much mind; had he just not wanted to look too closely for fear of what he might find?
A few days later he sees Lancelot and Guinevere in deep conversation; he is instantly alert and moves forward. Neither have seen him. He's about to interrupt them when he catches part of their conversation.
"…And how did he seem?"
"He said he was fine… Gwaine said he looked thin."
"And what did Merlin say?"
"Merlin said that Gwaine sounded like his mother."
Gwen laughs. "He sounds like he's fine." Then, quieter: "And he saved Arthur's life?"
"Again, yes. It was truly amazing. He destroyed half a forest, but…"
"I worry about him."
"We all do," Lancelot pauses. "Even Arthur."
Gwen shakes her head, "Especially Arthur," she says.
Lancelot smiles. "Does he ever say anything? About suspicions or anything?"
"No," Gwen smiles. "But some things don't need to be said." She sighs. "I don't think he'll say anything to Uther. After all," she grins. "We never did find out how Merlin escaped, did we?"
"Using magic, of course?"
"I'm sure it helped. But we both know Merlin wouldn't leave Camelot unless forced."
"I suppose that's true."
A pause, then: "You could have told me, you know, Lancelot. I wouldn't have said anything. Not about Merlin," she hesitates. "He could have told me."
"It wasn't my secret," Lancelot says. "And he never told anyone."
Arthur moves away then. Gwen knew as well then, she had known Merlin was coming back and she knew all that time that Arthur was being lied to. That was what she and Lancelot were talking about.
He doesn't know whether to be angry or relieved.
Lancelot had clearly known about Merlin's magic for some time then. He files that away for later, in a part of his brain he likes to think of as: lies people have told me. He doesn't want to acknowledge that there's an ever increasing amount, and he understands each and every one.
It doesn't mean he has to like it.
He tries to talk to Gaius as well.
He can see the physician's surprise when he opens his door to see the Prince, and when Arthur sweeps in his expression changes to worry. But Arthur's sick of everyone hiding things from him, he's also sick of people thinking it's working. Even if that's what has to happen.
"I know you've been in touch with Merlin," he states simply. When Gaius attempt to speak he waves a hand, "I don't need you to admit to it, I know it's true. And I don't want you to deny it, I just…" Arthur trails off, because what does he want, really? He had come here just to… to let someone know that he wasn't the enemy of Merlin that he had apparently been classified as. And now he had, he couldn't think of anything else to say.
"Sire," Gaius says, halting him. "Are you all right?"
"What? Of course I am, only…" He doesn't want to lie; there's been too much of that. He sighs, frustrated. "I just… I wanted you to know… I don't hate him, I just…"
"He knows that, sire," Gaius says.
"Why couldn't he tell me, Gaius?" Arthur says abruptly. "Why didn't he trust me enough for that?"
Gaius looks surprised at this question. "I asked him that once," Gaius pauses. "He said… he said he wasn't sure how you'd react," Arthur shakes his head, but Gaius continues, "He also said… that he didn't want you to have to choose, between himself and your own father. He didn't want you to have to lie, because he knew how much… how much that hurt. Having to lie to those you loved."
Arthur stares as Gaius, shocked and ashamed. He has never considered this. That he may have been lied to, but Merlin had been living that lie. He had been swallowing his pride and telling Arthur that he had been saving Camelot when in actual fact it had been Merlin. He had been working desperately hard to seem normal when he should have been being hailed as a hero. He had been lying, but he had also been hiding.
"And I think, sire, that it was almost a reflex to him. He had had to keep it secret for so long, he didn't even think about it anymore."
That may have been one of the saddest things Arthur has ever heard.
He doesn't ask whether Gaius knew about Merlin's magic before he discovered it - it's fairly obvious he did, anyway - he just thanks him, apologises for intruding and walks out.
He pretends he doesn't see the piece of parchment, which says:
All is fine. Kilgharrah says hi. OK, not really. How's the prat? How are you?
It's not like he recognises it as Merlin's handwriting anyway.
The second time he sees Merlin, Merlin sees him as well.
It's been months, months since Merlin left, and life has gone on. As it is, the castle is currently under attack. He has been instructed to hold the battlements firm and wait.
He has never been good at waiting.
He shouldn't be the one to go and get supplies for the troops, and they tell him as much, but he won't take no for an answer, he leaves Lancelot in charge and runs down to underground part of the castle where the supplies are kept.
He pounds his way through the passageways, heart beating fast. He comes to an abrupt halt when he hears a familiar voice uttering unfamiliar words and turns a corner to see Merlin kneeling at the edge of a passageway, running his hands over the wall. His eyes are glowing and for a moment he is reminded of that fateful day when he discovered Merlin's magic. When everyone discovered Merlin's magic.
He doesn't know what to do, what to say, he's frozen. Merlin spins round to find him there and they stand staring at one another before Merlin cracks a grin.
"Hello Arthur. Your underground defences are awful, did you know?"
It's not precisely how he expected Merlin to greet him.
"Well, they're also our best kept secret. Useful for escapes mainly." Arthur says defensively.
Merlin laughs softly and Arthur realises the irony of this statement. Merlin's face becomes serious again, "You're forgetting that Morgana grew up here, of course."
"Morgana's attacking us?" Arthur is surprised, it doesn't seem Morgana's style, a direct siege.
Merlin shakes his head. "No, but she's certainly been helping anyone who wants to attack Camelot. You might want to rethink your defence strategy. She's somewhat of an advisor."
"You've spoken to her then?" Arthur says, and he's not suspicious exactly.
"We, er," Merlin seems amused. "Ran into each other."
Arthur lets that one go. He's not going to understand Morgana. And he doesn't think he's ever going to understand Merlin. It makes perfect sense that he wouldn't understand their relationship either.
Arthur remembers that he's not supposed to know that Merlin still returns to Camelot. "I told you never to return here."
"I told you I couldn't promise that."
Arthur looks around. "What are you doing, anyway?"
"Strengthening your underground defences. The army's going to try to split its numbers, send some to distract you outside and then the rest come up through the passages, from the inside."
Arthur stares at Merlin; he never thought he'd hear Merlin talk about battle strategy with such confidence. He never thought a lot of things.
As it happens, he's been wrong about most of them.
"And you know this because…?"
Merlin smiles, it's the smile that says he's not going to tell Arthur everything. "I have my ways."
"Cryptic much," Arthur mutters, and Merlin smiles.
Arthur shakes his head. He can see Merlin's changed; he doesn't know what he's been doing or who he's been with, but he's still Merlin and full of contradictions as he has always been, Merlin can apparently pull off completely different and exactly the same as he's always been with stunning ease.
"Should I send the army down here?" Arthur asks before he can think about it. He's asked for Merlin's advice on a few occasions and he's taken Merlin's advice on more occasions than he likes to think, but he generally brushes it off as more casual than he just has done.
Merlin looks slightly surprised but not shocked. "They shouldn't be able to come through but it would be a good idea, just in case. You should move to meet them. It will wrong foot them, and stop them from getting into the castle."
"The castle's our best defence."
"Which is why you should remain here."
"Are you staying?" It's not until Arthur asks this that he wishes that Merlin would stay.
Merlin smiles faintly. "You can handle this. I've delayed them at the defences. You can definitely get rid of them."
Arthur almost smiles at that, it's a kind of compliment from Merlin, he realises. He's saying he trusts Arthur enough to leave this in his hands. He never thought that a compliment from his servant could make him feel so gratified.
But then, he stopped thinking of Merlin as just his servant years ago.
Merlin's turned to go but stops when Arthur says: "Merlin," Merlin turns to look at him. "I-" He wants to tell him so many things. He wants him to know that he's not angry at him. He wants to thank him for everything he's done, and everything he's sacrificed. He wants to tell him that he's his friend. He doesn't know how to say any of it, so he says what he's always done to voice the last one:
"You're an idiot, Merlin."
Merlin grins, because Merlin's always understood him, even when he didn't understand himself. "Thank you, sire." He pauses, and then directs him with a grin, "Don't be a prat."
And with that Merlin's gone.
They win the battle, and people praise Arthur's knowledge of the enemy and he could laugh, because they are all as blind as him.
None of them see Merlin.
He hasn't really spoken to Gwen about what he heard her say to Lancelot. They don't get much time together anyway. He sometimes wonders if things will ever change. For a while he thought they were going to; Gwen and he had had a few precious months of being fairly open about their relationship, only then… his father had come back to the throne. He hadn't questioned Arthur's choice of Knights, but Gwen and Arthur had come to a silent agreement to go back to keeping their relationship secret.
So it is in one of those stolen moments in which he has managed to sneak away to go to her house, that he finally mentions Merlin.
They're lying down; he's kicked off his shoes and Gwen is cradling his head in the crook of her neck. He's so close to her and he doesn't want to wreck the moment, but he can't hold it in any longer.
"Gwen," he says. He doesn't know how to say it. "I'm sick of everyone lying to me," he settles on.
Gwen continues stroking his hair. "About what?" she asks soothingly.
"Merlin," Arthur answers immediately, and Gwen freezes before resuming her motion. "I saw him Gwen."
"You saw Merlin," Gwen says slowly. "When?"
"When the castle was under attack," Arthur says shortly. "All that great knowledge of the enemy - that was all him." Arthur gives a half laugh. "He probably saved all our lives. Again."
"You spoke to him?"
"How did he seem?"
"Different. The same. You know, like Merlin."
"Have you been in contact with him?" Arthur asks suddenly.
Gwen hesitates, "Not really," she says.
"Not really," Arthur repeats flatly.
"I sometimes pass on things to be sent to him."
He doesn't ask who she gives them to; he's got a pretty good idea, anyway.
"Food. Clothes. I worry about him."
Arthur snorts. "Care packages Gwen, really?"
Gwen swats his head lightly. Then asks, seriously, "Are you angry?"
"At you?" he leans up to kiss her. "No. It's just another reason I love you."
"At him then?"
Arthur sighs, "No. I'm not even angry at him."
"What do you think-" Gwen hesitates and he feels her throat move as she swallows. She's nervous. "What do you think about magic?"
Arthur sighs and thinks almost wistfully of the days when he could give a simple answer to that question. "I don't know. I know Merlin isn't evil. I mean, even though he's left he keeps risking his neck to come back here and save us. But Morgana and everyone I've ever known with magic…"
"I don't think Merlin's like Morgana," Gwen says quietly.
"I know he's not," says Arthur. "But-"
"I know," Gwen says. "I love you, Arthur. You'll make the right decision when the time comes."
He doesn't tell her he thinks he's already made it.
He's just walking when he comes across her.
He's not hunting or searching, he's just walking. It's something he's been doing increasingly since Merlin left; it helps to clear his head. He doesn't expect to see… her.
It's not the first time he's seen her since she left; it doesn't hurt any less.
"What are you doing here?" Morgana asks.
"I think I have more of a right to ask you that."
"I'm just waiting."
"Waiting for what?"
He tells himself that if he had any weaponry with him he'd run her through. He doesn't even convince himself.
"For Camelot to fall. For magic to be restored to the land."
"Planning on being here a while then?"
"It won't happen today. But soon."
"I doubt it."
"Very confident in our pet sorcerer aren't we?"
"Have you see Merlin?" Arthur says, immediately alert.
"No. If I had," a slow smile spreads across her face. "I would have killed him."
She's lying. He knows she's seen him.
"He said he'd seen you."
"Oh, did he?" Morgana shakes her head. "Talking to exiles now, are we Arthur? Daddy wouldn't approve."
"So you have seen him then?"
"We've," she pauses and Arthur is reminded of Merlin when asked the same question. "Crossed paths."
"Do you know where he is?"
"No," Morgana says immediately. She's lying, Arthur knows it instinctively. He shakes his head in disbelief, even Morgana is protecting Merlin from him. He knows she's lying; he's learnt to recognise the expression that had him fooled for a year, at the very least she's not telling the whole truth.
There are so many things he could ask: what had Merlin told her? Why hasn't she killed him? Why hasn't he killed her? But he thinks he might be better off not knowing.
Instead he says: "Going to try and kill me?"
"No," Morgana says simply. "There's not really any point. He'll only come and save you."
Arthur smiles; she must have some idea of the tracking spell then. It makes him feel safe, this, that he has some sort of intangible link to Merlin. He should be annoyed that Merlin put it on him at all of course; it was somewhat of an imposition, but he supposes he's grateful - he wouldn't be alive without it so it's not like he can resent it.
Much like Merlin, really.
"Like it or not Arthur," Morgana says seriously. "Magic is returning to Camelot."
He notices that she doesn't say that she will be taking over Camelot or that she will be the one to bring magic back.
"You're probably right," he surprises both of them by saying. "But I've got a rather specific idea of who'll be leading the charge."
To Arthur surprise, Morgana smiles, and she almost looks like his sister again, "I wish it weren't so, but you might be right."
She turns and disappears into thin air, and Arthur is the furthest from hating her he's been in years.
The third time he sees Merlin, so does everyone else.
It's not ideal, but that's the way it plays out. They are all captured, in their own home. In Camelot. A man called Rexham has infiltrated his way through the castle, working his way up until he became a trusted courtier; he has now turned on them all, avenging his family - who had apparently been killed in the purge - he has first used his position to enchant the King so that he stopped all food orders coming into Camelot, he has then taken down the defences and has clearly recruited many others to surround the city and they are threatening to burn it to the ground.
So they are trapped. Utterly and completely.
His father sits on the opposite side of the room to him, his hands clasped and his head bowed. They are all prisoner in this room now, and Rexham stands tall, surveying them. He has been oddly polite throughout the whole ordeal, telling them to please step this way and could they possibly just sit tight until they are all burnt alive, please and thank you.
Arthur sees his Knights in deep conversation on the opposite wall and looks to the door. Running out of time, Merlin.
He looks to see Gwen; her eyes are fixed on him but, when he looks over, they flick to the door.
Arthur could laugh, he really could, when did they all start relying on Merlin to save them all?
And then he thinks that maybe, just maybe, this time Merlin won't come at all.
He bows his head even as he hears the doors to the throne room being flung open; he looks up to see Merlin, his face is smudged with what looks like soot and his appearance is dishevelled, his clothes singed and scratches all over his body.
"What have you been doing?" asks Gwaine, even as Uther stares at Merlin incredulously; Arthur remembers to look shocked.
"Oh," Merlin looks down at himself. "You know, putting out fires. How about you?"
"I've been being held hostage."
"Tsk," Merlin says shaking his head. "Lazy."
Gwaine grins and Rexham stares at Merlin.
"If you don't mind me asking, who are you?"
"Merlin," he says, then looks at Rexham. "And you are?"
"That's an odd name."
"You're named after a bird."
"Shut up Gwaine."
"I'm holding these people hostage. How exactly did you get in?" All of this is said in a rather mild mannered tone, which Arthur still finds disturbing.
Merlin is clearly surprised. "Oh it's a… long story. Anyway, what?"
"I'm holding these people hostage until I burn them alive."
Merlin glances round, obviously bemused, "Right. Why?"
"My brother, father, sister and mother all died in the flames of the purge and now Uther Pendragon and all the citizens of Camelot are going to die in flames as well."
"Right, I may kind of have screwed up your plans a bit. Sorry about that."
"I don't particularly like insincerity."
"I don't particularly like people who burn other people alive."
"Then why are you defending them?"
"Oh, you know what, I am really sick of having to justify this. Look: You're not burning down Camelot, not today or, come to that, any other day. I won't let you. I am a hundred times stronger than and a thousand times more determined. You're not killing anyone. So can we cut this short and just leave?"
"No," says Rexham. And with a simple movement of his hand, he has enclosed Merlin in a ring of fire. There are cries from around the room and Arthur can hear Gwen and Gwaine among them; he can only watch, his heart in his mouth as his eyes desperately search for his friend.
But the fire soon dissipates, fizzles out into nothing and Merlin stands there looking vaguely… annoyed?
"OK," he says. "You have tried to destroy Camelot. You attempted to kill innocent citizens and you just tried to burn me alive. That," Merlin says in a low, dangerous voice. "Is what I call stepping over the line."
Merlin shoots a hand out, speaks in the foreign, magical tongue that Arthur is almost accustomed to hearing from him by now, and a stream of light shoots from it and straight to Rexham's chest, who promptly explodes into what looks like confetti.
Arthur looks back to Merlin who has turned to the room at large and seems about to walk out when Uther calls out:
"Wait! Arrest that man!"
The guards hesitate before starting forward and then abruptly stopping.
"What are you doing?" Uther practically screams. "Move!"
"They can't," says Merlin calmly. "In fact, neither can you."
Uther's face takes on a look of deep concentration as he attempts to move before looking at Merlin murderously.
"I have cast a spell so that you cannot move. This enchantment will be lifted as soon as I'm safely away from Camelot." Merlin hesitates, turns to Uther and smiles beatifically. "If I remember that is."
Arthur thinks that he has never seen his father look so furiously at someone. And Uther glares at people a lot.
"I can move," pipes up Gwaine.
"Yes," Merlin says. "The spell takes quite a lot of effort to do and so the people I trust can move," he rolls his eyes. "Of course, I had hoped they would also have the presence of mind not to say anything about it, but there you go."
Arthur twitches his finders experimentally and then smiles. Merlin looks at him and grins. Arthur notices Gaius reaching up to scratch his nose and Gwen brushing a stray hair from her face.
Merlin turns round and walks calmly out the door.
"Well," says Uther, blustering. "You," his eyes find Gwaine. "After him!"
"Right," says Gwaine seriously. "I'll get right on that. Come on Lancelot."
Lancelot frowns at Gwaine but gets up too.
"Now," says Gwaine. "Which way did he go?"
Lancelot smiles as he catches on. "Well," he says slowly. "I think it was this way."
"Really? I think he went the other."
"Of course, he could have gone straight on."
"Well I can see we'll have to discuss this thoroughly. What's the probability that…"
Later, when they have all been freed from the enchantment, Arthur swears to his father that his Knights weren't being deliberately disloyal, just incompetent.
Of course, he has to swear this while Uther is seated on the floor, because mysteriously enough, he is not released from the spell until the next day.
It must have slipped Merlin's mind.
When his father dies, it is one of the saddest days of his life.
Uther may not always have been a good king, he might not always have been just or fair, he might not always have been good man. But he was Arthur's father, always. And he loved him just the same.
But his father's death brings with it new responsibilities, and so Camelot enters into the odd phase of mourning an old King and celebrating the rise of a new one, as Arthur is coronated and engaged on the same day.
One of his first acts as King is to reinstate the Round Table. He calls the first meeting of it and tries very hard not to look at the empty spot next to him. He has no illusions about this; Merlin will dip in and out of their lives, no apologies, no recrimination, turning up to save the day at the last moment - he's fine with that, he accepts it.
He is therefore very surprised when Merlin waltzes into the throne room like he owns the place. (He's also surprised that no one stopped him; does the palace not have guards anymore?)
Merlin looks straight at Arthur, and says in a low, sincere voice: "I'm very sorry for your loss."
"You hated him," Arthur shoots back.
Merlin tilts his head to one side. "I pitied him more than anything. Besides, I know what losing a father is like and I thought I'd say something a little more constructive than: no man is worth your tears." He smiles slightly and Arthur cringes. The fact that Balinor had been Merlin's father had been one of the many facts to come out at Merlin's 'trial' but Arthur had not truly thought of that and, oh God he had said that.
Merlin isn't blaming him though, just looking at him with a strange mix of apprehension and empathy.
"So," Arthur says. "No one's dying or in danger, what exactly are you doing here?"
"Ah, I thought I'd come and see if I could have my old job back."
For a moment Arthur thinks he must have misheard him. "I'm sorry, what?"
Merlin is looking more unsure of himself by the second and says, "My old job?"
Arthur feels the need to clarify, "You want to clean out my stables again?"
"Well, I was hoping we might be able to re-negotiate that…"
He feels the entire table's eyes on him as he says it.
"Arthur-" Merlin starts but Arthur overrides him with:
"No, Merlin, you cannot have your old job back. But," He starts to smile, "How do you feel about being a magical advisor?"
Merlin grins, then quickly schools his expression.
"I don't know," he says hesitantly. "Will I get things thrown at me?"
"Complete and utter disregard for anything I do?"
"I'm sure I can manage it."
"I'll take it."
"Good," he gestures to the spot next to him. "I've saved your seat."
On his way to his seat, Merlin is accosted by Gwen who pulls him into a fierce hug and Gaius, who does the same. The Knights mainly pat him on the back, and Gwaine stands to give him a one-armed hug.
"Oh don't act like you haven't all been talking to him all this time." Arthur says, unable to keep the grin off his face as he looks round at them all.
"What?" Gwaine asks, raising his eyebrows.
"Please. I saw a letter from Merlin on your desk, Gaius. Gwen, you all but admitted you had seen him over the years. And I was conscious when that scorpion thing attacked me. And I'd quite like to talk about you demolishing half a forest." He turns to Merlin finally, who looks suitably stunned.
Arthur smiles; it's nice to be the one shocking people for once.
"Oh," he says. "And a rule please? No more lies."
Merlin looks slightly sheepish, as does everyone else and they all nod their assent. After that, the meeting is very enjoyable, although they don't actually get anything done. And as they all stand, still chattering, Arthur calls out to Merlin to wait a minute and then waits until everyone else had filed out. Arthur is sure that he hears Gwaine promise Merlin that they can all go and get good and drunk later in order to catch up properly; he pretends not to hear this.
Once they've all left, Merlin turns to him.
"I wanted to say-" I wanted to say everything I could never say. I want to say you're my friend. I want to say that I understand. I want to say that I'm sorry.
"Thank you, Merlin."
Merlin smiles, "What for?"
"For- for saving my life. For saving Camelot. I know- I know why you kept your magic a secret and I wanted to say that you don't have to live in fear any more."
"Thank you sire, that means a lot." Merlin hesitates. "Is that all?"
"No. I wanted to say, most of all, thank you for… for being…" Arthur coughs. "For being my friend."
Arthur thinks that if Merlin smiles anymore, his face is going to break. "Likewise, sire," he replies.
Arthur feels his face growing warm. "You understand I will deny this vehemently if asked," he hastens to assure Merlin.
"Oh," Merlin nods. "So will I."
"Then… we understand each other?"
"I think we do."
Oh my God, this is the longest oneshot I've ever written. But this plot bunny took hold and wouldn't let go; I wrote pretty much all of it in one day and it is 22 pages on my computer. 22. Pages. I am so ridiculously proud of myself right now - it's probably not even that long, lol. Anyway, I've always loved the idea of Merlin having to leave then just appearing randomly to save everyone - plus it's an excuse for BAMF Merlin XD. This fic is all from Arthur's point of view because I felt I needed to focus on his relationship with Merlin as he was the one having the most doubts, but as I was writing it I thought of scenes that Merlin might have with other characters... Mainly Morgana and Gwaine, although probably Gwen and Gaius and mabye a few other Knights as well, so I might write a companion fic with these scenes - let me know if anyone's interested in that. You may have noticed a little Morgana (kind of redemption - but not quite) side story I've snuck in hints for.