"You should tell him."
Merlin's heart jumped to his throat, choking off any possible reply. He stared at Gwen and followed her gaze through the window to the same scene - the same man - he'd been staring at. He hadn't even noticed her joining him, though he was uncertain whether that was a testament to her skill as a chambermaid or his own rapt fascination.
"W-what?" He sputtered, his voice low and rough but working, at least for the moment.
Gwen smiled up at him. "Arthur. You should tell him."
She knew. Oh, gods, she knew. Guilt twisted in his stomach. His mouth moved on its own, a subconscious bid for self preservation. "Tell him what, exactly? Nothing to tell." He sounded far calmer than he really felt. Years of practice, he guessed. He'd been lying to his friends for far too long.
The sounds of sparing knights carried in through the open window. Arthur was down there, fighting with Gwaine. For once, someone was giving him a challenge. Merlin liked to watch, hidden away in the higher reaches of the castle where he could see but not be seen and was unlikely to be disturbed. Except for today. It was no surprise that Gwen was on the lookout for a similar vantage. They'd probably had a dozen near misses at this very spot. Too bad that pattern hadn't held.
Gwen's smile slipped away, to be replaced by her 'I'm worried for you but won't say it' frown. "Merlin." She clasped one of his hands in both of her own. He stared at them, at the contrast of his skin against hers. Would she touch him like that if she knew what his hands had done? "It's okay. I know. I understand."
His mouth hung open but the words that he wanted to blurt out stayed stuck in his throat. It couldn't be that simple. Nothing was ever that simple. She didn't really know. She couldn't. He'd been so careful. Maybe not careful enough if she knew enough to say anything.
Her eyes turned back towards the courtyard, towards Arthur. "He's rather handsome, isn't he?"
The sudden change in topic loosened his tongue. "Yes." He blushed as soon as he said it and fidgeted, wishing he could pull his hand away without seeming rude. "I mean, no. Yes. Maybe. For a guy." Merlin winced. Gods, he was such an idiot.
Gwen's smile made a hesitant return. "He likes you too, you know."
"I'm sure he... wait, what?" Merlin's eyes went wide as he mentally replayed their conversation. Oh gods. Oh gods, oh gods, oh gods. She'd meant... And he... His stomach plummeted through the floor. He'd thought she'd found out about his magic but this was far, far worse. Merlin pulled his hand away and took a step backwards. "Gwen, I didn't mean... I mean, I don't..."
"Shh." Her fingers pressed against his lips, stilling his blathering. Her skin was soft and strange. "It's okay. I don't mind, nor does Arthur. You should tell him how you feel. He feels the same."
"But he loves you." His words were muffled by her fingertips but he had a feeling she understood him all the same.
Her hand fell away. "And I love him. I also love Lancelot. And Arthur loves you."
He shook his head. It didn't make sense. He felt like someone had just offered him everything he'd ever wanted but it felt like a trap, too good to be true.
Gwen's eyes focused on his, holding him riveted in place. "Love is a wonderful thing, especially when you love someone and that love is returned. Sometimes, the heart holds more love than one person can share. Don't waste that love."
"But he doesn't-"
"But he won't-"
She surged forward, grabbing his hands in hers and squeezing lightly. "Tell him. Trust me. Trust him. You won't regret it."
He doubted that but he knew he wouldn't win any argument against her, at least not this one. Instead, he nodded, accepting defeat. "Alright. I will."
Her eyes were so earnest, so sincere, there was only one thing he could say. "I promise."
"Gwen tells me that there's something you want to say to me," Arthur announced as he drained his goblet.
Merlin dropped the tray he'd been using to clear up dinner, then spent several frantic minutes gathering the dishes back up. "What? No, not really. It's nothing."
Arthur raised an eyebrow. Merlin'd spent most of the evening giving Arthur as wide a berth as possible and Arthur had noticed. He could be damn perceptive when he wanted to be, though Merlin supposed he was being a bit obvious. "Gwen said you'd try and back out. She also said it was important, some big secret." Arthur scoffed. "As if you could keep secrets from me."
Merlin's fingers tightened around Arthur's empty goblet and for a brief moment he imagined how satisfying it would feel to hit him with it. Then he remembered how unsatisfying it felt spending the evening in the stocks. He set the goblet on the tray and turned away. "It's nothing."
Arthur caught his sleeve. "Merlin."
He stared at Arthur's hand. Arthur wasn't even holding tightly. It was just a light touch but that was all it took to bring Merlin to a standstill. Just a touch and yet he could feel his entire body pulling towards Arthur, desperate for something more. He sighed and set down the tray. If he was doing this, really doing this, then he needed to go all the way. No more secrets. He couldn't be with Arthur - not that he actually though he'd ever be with Arthur - if the secret of his magic hung over them. Arthur needed to know and, more importantly, Merlin needed him to know.
He turned to face Arthur and tried to feel less like he was facing the gallows. "It's two things actually."
For once, Arthur was uncharacteristically silent. He settled back in his chair, letting his hand fall away from Merlin's sleeve, and gave Merlin his utmost, serious attention.
Merlin shifted on his feet and stared at the bedpost. "I like you."
Arthur stared at him. "Oh."
He wasn't sure what kind of reaction he'd expected but that wasn't it. Merlin took a step back. "I'm sorry. That was presumptuous of me. Gwen said-"
"I can imagine what Gwen said." Arthur's tone was unreadable. Merlin took it as a sign of rejection.
He started to pick up the tray again. "I'm sorry. I can just-" He wasn't sure what he was going to do. Jump off a tower, maybe.
He did. The tray settled back on the table. Merlin's eyes were fixated on it. He didn't want to look anywhere else, not with the chance of seeing Arthur's face. What emotion would be there? Condescension? Disappointment? Disgust? He was better off not knowing.
Arthur stood. His hand brushed down Merlin's back, sending an uncontrollable shiver down his spine. "I like you too, Merlin." Arthur's voice was low, soft. It reminded Merlin of the way Arthur spoke to Gwen, when he thought no one was listening.
"No you don't." Merlin was nothing if not stubborn and he knew better than to think Arthur could ever return his affection.
"You don-" Calloused fingers turned his chin towards waiting lips. Arthur's mouth swallowed the last of Merlin's protests. Merlin's hands relaxed around the tray, finally letting go as he melted into the kiss. It was better than he'd imagined, better than any kiss he'd had before. Arthur's lips were firm, gentle yet commanding. He could feel Arthur's strength behind the kiss. It made Merlin feel warm and protected.
He reluctantly pulled away. "Arthur..."
"Shh. No more arguing." Arthur's lips pursued his. It was a weak chase. Merlin wasn't overly inclined to struggle. He could feel his resolve melting away beneath Arthur's lips. Then Arthur's arms wound around his waist and he knew he was done for.
Merlin placed his hand on Arthur's chest and pulled away. Shame filled him and he stared down at the floor. "Arthur, I have to tell you something."
Arthur sighed. "This would be the second thing, then? I was hoping we could drop that for a bit."
Merlin looked at Arthur then, his eyes sad. Tears threatened and he fought to keep any sign of them from his face. "Arthur, I'm sorry. I never meant to lie to you. But you have to know, everything I've done has been to protect you."
A frown darkened Arthur's face and Merlin could see doubt creeping into his eyes. "What in the world are you on about?"
He slowly pulled his hand away, breaking the last of the contact between them. "I have magic, Arthur. I am magic. I'm a wizard and I've used magic here in this court."
The doubt fell away as Arthur sighed. "No, Merlin, that's a lie."
Merlin's mouth fell open and he flapped like a suffocating fish for a moment. "What? But... yes. I am."
Arthur took a step closer. His hand curled gently under Merlin's chin. "Shut up."
Merlin's mouth snapped shut.
"Listen very carefully. You have never used magic, not here, not anywhere. Never."
Merlin frowned. Had Arthur suddenly gone mad? Merlin had just confessed to a crime worthy of death and all Arthur could say was that he was lying. "But-"
"Merlin." He closed his mouth again. Arthur's eyes pinned him with their stare. "Listen to me. There are no magicians in Camelot. The practice of magic is an offense punishable by death and therefore anyone who admits to such a crime would be legally sentenced to death. As heir to the throne, I am honor-bound to report such offenses. Is that understood?"
Merlin nodded dumbly.
"Thus," Arthur said each word carefully and clearly, "you do not have magic. You have never done such in my presence. You have never secretly aided me against magical foe and you have never, ever used it to save my life, my father's life, or the lives of Camelot's citizens."
It was all there in Arthur's eyes. He knew. He really knew and he'd said nothing because acknowledging it meant having to face his father's laws. Merlin felt his eyes moisten. He blinked away the tears. Arthur's hand moved, lifting to brush away the moisture from Merlin's eyes. The hand moved back to tangle in Merlin's hair and pull his head forward. Arthur's forehead pressed against Merlin's.
"Do you understand me?"
Arthur's lips stretched into a smile. "I could get used to you being all pliant and submissive."
Merlin levitated a pillow and hit him with it. Arthur stared at the pillow, then at Merlin. For a moment, Merlin thought he'd done the wrong thing. Arthur had just denied all knowledge of Merlin's magic and he'd gone off and hit him with it. Literally. Arthur stared at him. Merlin expected him to yell, to get angry, but instead he reached out to brush his hand over Merlin's cheek.
"Do that again," Arthur asked softly.
It felt weird doing magic with Arthur watching him. He concentrated, whispered a soft word, and lightly tapped the pillow against Arthur's back. Arthur was oblivious to the pillow. His eyes were fixated on Merlin's face. Belatedly, Merlin realized what Arthur was staring at. He blushed and turned away quickly. The pillow fell to the floor.
"Don't." Arthur gently turned Merlin's face back but the gold was gone from his eyes. "It's beautiful. Your eyes. They're beautiful."
His face burned but he couldn't look away.
"No more secrets?"
"No more secrets," he promised.
Arthur nodded once and then leaned in. They sealed the promise with a kiss.