Disclaimer: Merlin is not mine.
As time passed and Arthur grew into his role as king of Camelot, he found himself disagreeing more and more with the state in which Uther had left the kingdom. There were laws that required modification, he felt. Roads that needed repair. Monies to be collected. Collected monies not to be wasted on unnecessary frivolities. Necessary frivolities that needed celebrating. He loved his father and he respected the way in which Uther had established a functioning rule, but there were a great deal of changes that Arthur had to make.
Some of the changes pained him, both in the knowledge that what is needed is not always going to be popular and in the fact that with every alteration, he was diluting what was left of his father in his everyday life. Other changes, however, were just fun and, as he firmly believed, for the benefit of all persons involved.
One such change was in the installation of the round table.
There had been some mutterings of dissent when he'd gotten rid of the long wooden table that had run the length of the council chamber for as long as anyone could remember. Even Arthur had to admit that the room did not feel as though it had been built with a single large circular table in mind. It was more of an experiment than anything of absolute permanence, and he only hoped that they would all adjust to the change in atmosphere. He liked the round table too much to easily revert to the rectangular table. They could always just change rooms for council meetings…
The good thing about the round table being round, he'd found, was that he was not always the focal point. There were more things for the others to look at that just up at him. Many of the members of his council—particularly those that he'd inherited from Uther's time as king—seemed to be under the impression that, if Arthur was seated at the head of a long table, he would begin ordering the executions of any man who did not pay him absolute attention. With a round table, everyone had a clear view of any speaker, and due attention could be paid. Plus, with all of the rest of them shifting their gazes rather than training them at him at all times, he had a great deal more freedom to make himself comfortable. He hadn't realized how much more tolerable council meetings could be if he had the chance to lean his elbows on the table every once in a while, or to slouch in his chair, or to tap his fingers, or to stare at the ceiling and try to count the stones. Especially on days such as this, when he was stuck in a council meeting with the old men who advised him on matters bureaucratic and architectural and...floral. None of his knights were needed for this meeting, and all of them were smart enough to stay away.
Someone was speaking. Without looking, Arthur wasn't sure who it was. He wasn't sure that it really mattered.
"…and a portion of the budget must be allotted to modifying the roads in the lower town. I have been told that some of the cobblestones have grown loose in recent years. I therefore propose that we immediately…"
Plus, the table promoted equality and respect for fellow man. There was also that.
He'd been nervous when he'd made the decision. It hadn't taken him very long as king to discover that his council members were far more open to changes that were more…modifications than they were introductions. Or removals. The switch of the traditional table to one round was sure to ruffle a few of the more custom-dedicated feathers. His wife had given her whole-hearted support, and even Merlin had been excited when Arthur had shared with them his plan. Granted, Guinevere's enthusiasm had waned somewhat when she'd found that she'd be the only woman on the council of traditional old men—which Arthur felt should not have been particularly surprising to her—and Merlin had affected quite the offended silent treatment when he learned that he'd be standing behind the table with a pitcher in hand rather than sitting before it with any say.
Arthur had almost felt guilty about that. Merlin had been there when he'd first gathered subjects at a round table, and of those original supporters, only he and Lancelot were excluded from Arthur's new full council. He supposed that Merlin might have felt differently and been less distinctly offended if the reason why Lancelot had been excluded was for some other reason than being rather too deceased for participation.
"…it seems that you think that this is a matter to be treated lightly like you did with the fencing fiasco of five years past—do not think, sir, that we have forgotten—you must remember that proper measurements must be taken to ensure that all new cobblestones completely match the preexisting cobblestones in size and texture before they…"
But Merlin was a servant, and Arthur could only go so far in including him in matters of state. Yes, Guinevere had been a servant, and she was a woman, but she was the queen. Of course Arthur was going to have her on his council. He couldn't have married a woman if he did not value her opinion. Besides, she would rule in his stead if he were ever absent or indisposed, and she had to know the way that things worked. Plus, he was still very bad at denying her things that she asked of him. Love had proved rather inconvenient in that respect.
"…and you, sir, forget that the coloration of the new cobblestones should take precedence over the texture of the old cobblestones. The citizens of Camelot do not walk barefoot on the streets, but they do have eyes, and if they see that their cobblestones are not consistently colored, I fear that we will face unrest in the…"
Otherwise, it was pretty fantastic.
Unfortunately, it was not so fantastic that he could get himself through a council meeting without giving into boredom halfway through. He made most of his decisions without asking for total consensus among his advisors. The counsel that he valued most came from the people who cared about him most and who cared about him enough to tell him the truth as bluntly as was possible for a king to handle.
"…and I apologize for interrupted, but I must ask that you gentlemen calm yourselves, or need I remind of why Uther banned his councilmen from wearing swords during sessions after the events of the controversial clay debate when…"
It didn't help that he could all but feel Merlin's glare in the back of his head. At first, he'd felt so bad about how bad Merlin felt about the whole situation that he'd spent about a third of the meeting trying to think of what type of chair he ought to have someone bring for Merlin during these sessions. Then, he just got annoyed. Merlin technically had no right to be irritated with him. He already got away with far too much. Some of the things that he said to the king…if Merlin wanted to sulk about being excluded from the council, he could sulk. And Arthur would be damned if he would go out of his way to get a chair for his manservant. Merlin would stand and be happy about it.
"…so we must agree that all facets of cobblestone integrity be considered before installation, including shading and…"
Although he did somewhat wish that Merlin would just sneak one in on his own. Their interactions had been rather strangely strained as of late, and Arthur wouldn't dignify any request with assent, but he wouldn't exactly have objected if Merlin had one. Those meetings were long.
"…the new cobblestones must be stained so that they match the current cobblestones…."
Arthur shifted in his seat, wishing that he hadn't started thinking about Merlin's lack of chair. He always grew uncomfortable in his own comfort whenever he remembered that his manservant was standing fifteen feet behind him, motionless and holding onto a pewter pitcher of water that no one ever called for.
"…the past scuffings of horseshoes may present a problem with the surfaces of said cobblestones matching those of their counterparts…"
He hoped that Guinevere hadn't noticed. She tended to grow irritated whenever she saw Arthur getting antsy during these meetings. She took them so seriously and was so earnest in her interest that she could never really understand why Arthur was so unenthusiastic. He'd tried to explain that he'd been attending council sessions since he was old enough to sit upright in a chair on his own, but he didn't have it in him to dampen her spirits. She was trying so hard to become a queen, and Arthur knew that it wasn't easy. Blacksmiths' daughters could be wonderful in every single way, but they generally lacked the twenty years of training that most queens would have under their belts by the time of their coronations.
Although he would have dearly loved to ask any of the queens of neighboring kingdoms if they could make a key on their own. In times of crisis, he'd found, the knowledge of how to do a flawless curtsy tended to not be the most crucial of skills.
"…so as long as we all agree that we must first sufficiently damage the new cobblestones to match the old cobblestones and keep the lower town aesthetically pleasing, we can move on to the next topic. It is rumored that the Lady Morgana had been sighted in the forests near our northern borders."
Arthur's head shot up. Lady Morgana. He'd heard someone mention Morgana. This was something that he should be paying attention to. Whatever trouble his half-sister was getting up to certainly deserved consideration. More consideration than the logistics of cobblestone replacement, at least.
As he usually did whenever his interest in a subject was piqued, he began to listen. He generally chose not to speak until he heard what his councilmen had to say. As much as the decisions were ultimately his, he liked to be informed. At the very least, hearing how the others spoke of certain subjects helped him to gauge how his decisions would be received by the people. Leaning back in his chair, he settled in and listened.
"The question," began one of the more enthusiastic advisors. "Is whether or not we should strike at Lady Morgana while we have the chance."
Arthur didn't bother to interrupt. Hopefully, they would work out amongst themselves that that was a ridiculous notion. For one thing, none of them even knew for sure that Morgana was out there. For all that they knew, someone had seen a pale woman with a scowl on her face and made all of the wrong assumptions. And what would they propose to do? Dispatching with Morgana was not exactly the sort of mission for which a man assembles an army. Any attempts to assassinate his half-sister would have to be sneakier, he imagined. Less…noisy. Besides, if this woman was Morgana and she was on their borders, they'd have to be very careful as to how they'd mount any offensives. Going on a murder quest on another king's lands tended to be a bad idea.
"I think not," opined one man. "This woman—if indeed she is Lady Morgana—has taken no offensive against us yet this time. It is possible that she has given up on her designs for King Arthur's throne, and if we should fail in our attempts to rid ourselves of her evil…we do not need to provoke her any further."
Arthur almost rolled his eyes. He would have bet his crown that not a single of these men would say the word "kill" in all of their discussions of how best to "rid themselves" of her. The euphemisms of the squeamish were always half-amusing and half-infuriating. Many of these men had never fought in any battle beyond a tourney, choosing education over war. They were sensible enough to see when an enemy needed to be killed but oftentimes lacked the stomach to say it outright. Especially when that enemy was a woman. These were the same men who still insisted on using her proper title when speaking of her.
"I agree," interjected another man. "There is really no reason that we should not suspect that the Lady Morgana has not seen the futility of her plot to destroy the king and Camelot and just given up."
"She has been defeated every time that she has tried to take the throne."
"Eventually," said Guinevere. "As I recall, she successfully took the throne twice. It was just taken back from her."
There was a momentary pause, as there always was whenever Guinevere spoke in council meetings. "Twice is enough," said an older man, so gently and so patronizingly that Arthur was furious on his wife's behalf. Guinevere, however, maintained her poise as the man continued. "Lady Morgana will not dare to try a third. She will have seen the uselessness and, hopefully, that she has no real reason to want to destroy King Arthur."
He heard a snort come from behind him. He didn't bother to turn around. Apparently, Merlin didn't agree with their conclusions.
"On a related subject," said a cheerful councilman, the youngest of them all and son of recently deceased member of the council, so recently instated that he was still full of enthusiasm for his post. "There has been a petition to reconsider the ban against magic."
The patronizing old man spoke once more, his tone far more brusque and businesslike than as it had been as he had addressed the queen. "I should think that discussion of Morgana should be enough to reconsider reconsidering the ban. The evils of magic overtook her, and the kingdom suffered for it."
There was another snort. Arthur considered turning around and asking Merlin if he required a handkerchief before he thought better of it.
Chatter began to break out, and Arthur could practically feel the headache coming already. The one negative aspect of the round table was that the men who always seemed to want to argue with one another always sat themselves on opposite sides, so there were always half a dozen arguments flying across the circular surface at once whenever etiquette thusly broke down. He sighed, irritated. He only hoped that none of them would interrupt him. His nerves were fraying as it was.
"We shall not make it easier for sorcerers like Morgana to attack our kingdom," said Arthur, speaking for the first time since he had welcomed the men to his round table. "She may not be easily discouraged, but outlawing magic may at least keep her and others like her at bay. Tell the petitioner—whoever he is, someone must have owed him a favor to get this petition on the docket—that his query was considered but that we feel that the evils of magic outweigh the—outweigh whatever positives he think would come of allowing magic. Remind him of recent regicides if you must. And mention Morgana's name a few times. Keeping a healthy fear of her unjustified vengeance is a good idea for all of us."
"You've got to be kidding me," a voice muttered from behind his chair, and Arthur found that he had had enough. What did Merlin think that he was going to accomplish other than annoying Arthur? Two and a half hours into a council meeting…Merlin ought to have known better than to annoy Arthur, especially considering how short they'd been with each other over the past few weeks. It wouldn't have taken much to get to Arthur that day.
And it didn't.
"Do you have something important to add?" asked Arthur, turning in his seat to look at his manservant. Everyone else ceased speaking immediately, no doubt noting his tone. Guinevere put a warning hand on his forearm. "Have you thought of something that none of us have said? Do you think the members of this council so unintelligent that whatever you've come up with hasn't already been considered and dismissed as ridiculous?"
He saw Merlin set his jaw. Guinevere's fingers clenched around his wrist. Arthur continued recklessly, venting. "The last that I checked, you were not a member of this council," he said nastily. "We have a tactician. We have a historian. We have a strategist. We have learned men. We have the people most familiar with Morgana's character. Why should anything that you have to say make any difference?"
Merlin's eyes were growing dark, and he was fairly certain that Guinevere's fingernails would have been drawing blood if he were not wearing long sleeves. Already beginning to hate himself for the things he was saying—the things that he was saying aloud and in front of these men of his council—Arthur just kept ranting in what he knew was his most condescending voice. Merlin was going to want to kill him...
"Why should you be of any use when I have these men at my disposal?" demanded Arthur heedlessly. "If I need a tankard of water, you'll be the first one I call. Right now, I don't believe that you have anything else to contribute."
The silence rang in the hall, and Arthur thought for a moment that Merlin was going to hit him. He wouldn't have blamed him. Yelled at him, probably, and maybe thrown him in the stocks for the show of it, but Arthur wouldn't have blamed him.
Then, Merlin spoke.
"I wouldn't say that," he said evenly, his voice carefully controlled. He was taking measured breaths, and his face was so still that Arthur had to suspect that Merlin truly had something that he thought that the council ought to understand.
Guinevere clearly saw it as well, and released Arthur's hand. She looked at Merlin warily, tense and interested.
"And why is that, Merlin?" asked Arthur snidely, figuring that he may as well finish the thing properly. "Why should you be of any use in this discussion?"
"Because I can see her point," hissed Merlin.
He hadn't yelled. His voice was hardly any louder than a whisper. But in the council chambers, filled only with the round table and twenty chairs and a gaggle of silently gaping men, the sentence carried through the room as though he'd bellowed. Arthur took a second to appreciate the bizarre acoustics before he saw Merlin turn on his heel and storm toward the doorway, dropping his pitcher with an eerie clang on the way. He was out the door and stomping down the hallway before anyone had a chance to say anything.
For a moment, Arthur was dumbstruck. This wasn't the first time that he had gone off on an ill-advised rant at Merlin whenever he'd had some steam that required blowing off during one of these sessions. Now that he thought about it, it wasn't a particularly kind habit, but Merlin hadn't exactly thrown any temper tantrums before. Arthur had more or less figured that Merlin had taken to tuning him out in such instances. But now, he had retaliated at the king and bolted.
The room was silent. He half expected Guinevere to smack him or pinch him or kick him, but she hadn't moved. Glancing at her, he saw that she looked as thrown as he felt.
Arthur shook his head. He could worry about this later. He couldn't let this be a distraction. It would only encourage Merlin in the future. He only assembled this council on a weekly basis—and even then, monthly if he could get away with it—whereas he spent a hefty percentage of his waking hours in Merlin's presence. He'd have the truth out of Merlin later in a conversation that he figured would end with at least one of them apologizing. He could deal with Merlin later. Now, there were taxes and levies and probably more cobblestones to discuss, and he was the king. He could prioritize.
"Council is dismissed," Arthur said abruptly, already pushing his chair backward. "We'll reconvene at a later date."
He had hoped that he would take them all so by surprise that none of them would manage to question him before he made it out of the door, and he was so very nearly successful that he was already congratulating himself on this preliminary victory when he felt a hand on his elbow, stopping him.
"You're going after him?" asked Guinevere quietly. "Now?"
"Yep," he answered, shrugging into his coat and struggling with the sleeves. There was usually a person standing behind him doing all of the hard work. Jackets were much more complicated to put on un-aided than one might think, he mused.
Guinevere straightened him out. "I hardly think that this is the appropriate time, Arthur," she said, smoothing his collar.
"Guinevere," he said firmly, encouraged that her actions as she helped him prepare to leave were contradicting her obligatory words of discouragement. "By the time that this council session concludes, Merlin will have recovered enough to have come up with some story to excuse what he just did. He's not as sneaky as he thinks, and if I get to him when he's still upset, I might actually get the truth out of him."
"What are these men going to think?" she asked pointedly. "It's going to be obvious that you're abandoning your council meeting to chase after your servant."
"And just let Merlin tear off? Did you see the look on his face?"
"Oh, Arthur," she sighed. "Couldn't you just have gotten him a chair?" When he didn't answer, she just shook her head and continued. "Listen, I'll go after him. You finish up here."
For a second, Arthur was tempted. He saw the wisdom in her words. It wouldn't be particularly kingly of him to go chasing after his surly servant. After all, to these men, it was bad enough that he'd married a servant. Demonstrating that a friendship of any real depth existed between himself and Merlin as widely rumored in front of them wouldn't instill in them a great deal of faith in Arthur. These were noble men, bred and educated and experienced in the matters concerning the running of a kingdom.
"Council is dismissed," Arthur repeated.
Merlin was halfway across the training field by the time that Arthur found him. It had taken him a few minutes to find someone who knew what direction Merlin had taken. It was lucky that Arthur had found a witness; if he'd had to guess where Merlin stormed off to whenever he was in a mood, he would have never considered the training field. Although, from the speed of his pace, he looked as though he was just crossing the field and heading inexplicably for the woods.
He also looked agitated.
"Merlin," called Arthur as he approached.
Merlin didn't answer, and Arthur thought that he seemed as though he was beginning to go faster. Arthur sped his own pace, annoyed despite his determination to remain calm. He hadn't exactly been very nice when they'd last spoken. But still. If Merlin was actually going to make Arthur chase him when he was dressed for a council session, Merlin was going to get himself tackled.
Merlin didn't answer. He just walked faster.
Arthur swore under his breath and sped to a trot, overtaking Merlin quickly. Finally within reach, he grabbed Merlin by the shoulder and spun him around. Merlin shoved him away immediately, and Arthur stood back, hands raised in a gesture of peace. He figured that he ought to give Merlin a bit of space if he wanted to get anything out of him, and Merlin was far angrier than Arthur had expected. Disproportionately angry, he thought. He was the one who ought to be angry, Arthur thought petulantly. But he supposed that he could afford Merlin a little bit of leeway.
A very little bit. Sympathizing with Morgana in front of the old men of the council and then storming out was not among Merlin's best ideas, and Merlin had had a lot of bad ideas over the years. Merlin was not the only man on the training field. Arthur had a feeling that this was going to be a rather…strained…conversation.
"What was that?" he demanded, slightly out of breath.
"What was what?" asked Merlin, his expression guarded. His voice almost sounded curious, and Arthur felt a grim sort of satisfaction. He'd been right. Merlin was going to try to gloss the whole thing over. He was trying to get Arthur to put it out of his mind, like he always did…
Arthur didn't know how he'd never noticed. It was only recently, as Merlin seemed to grow mouthier and more frustrated on a daily basis, that Arthur had picked up on it. Whenever he'd done something particularly out of line, he'd be quiet or absent for a bit until he came back, bearing news or food or polished armor or a mood of such utter neutrality that Arthur would just dismiss the earlier tension. As it happened more often, Arthur had begun to put it together. He just needed to catch Merlin at a time like this, when he was too volatile to have planned anything out, to get something genuine out of him.
"'What was what?'" Arthur repeated. "What was that when you just shouted out in my council room—"
"I hardly shouted—"
"—when you shouted that Morgana had the right of it whenever she attacked Camelot."
Merlin looked legitimately distressed at Arthur's summing up of his interruption. "That's not what I said, and that's certainly not what I meant."
"Then what did you mean?"
"I meant that I could see why she's so angry and why she's so bent on taking Camelot and getting rid of you."
"So you agree with her."
"For heaven's sake, Arthur!" exclaimed Merlin, almost yelling. "I'm not agreeing with her, but I can see how she got there. She realized that she had magic and found herself surrounded by people who would want her dead. Who she thought was her guardian, her surrogate brother, her friends, her guards…"
"I wouldn't have—" Arthur protested, wounded, but Merlin cut him off.
"How would she know that? You'd been hunting sorcerers since you were first given a real sword, and Uther was obsessed…who was she supposed to talk to? There was no one who would help her…" Merlin trailed off before clearing his throat. "So she clung to the one person who would. That person just so happened to be an enemy of Camelot."
"Morgause," Arthur muttered, scowling.
"Morgause. And her attitude makes sense," said Merlin, sounding frustrated. "She has magic and Camelot is a kingdom that considers magic evil. Why would she not despise Camelot as it is now? Why should she not despise the people who perpetuate the laws that make her a criminal? It makes sense for her to hate you. She shouldn't be on your side. She'd be a traitor to her own kind."
Arthur bit his lip. Merlin sounded awfully bitter. "You've put a lot of thought into this."
Merlin ignored him. He seemed to want to get everything out before he lost the nerve to keep speaking on the matter. "So, yeah, Arthur, I can see her point. Her actions have been…you'll never hear me condone the things she's done. But I can understand why she wanted to do them."
"How long have you felt this way?" asked Arthur, feeling strange, as though there was something that he was very close to seeing but couldn't quite make out. Or perhaps that he didn't want to make out.
Merlin snorted. "Since I came to Camelot."
Arthur's heart grew cold as the pieces—eight years of pieces, pieces that he hadn't known were pieces, pieces that he hadn't known were part of any sort of puzzle—began to fall into place. Merlin had been ranting about relating to Morgana's actions, but Morgana hadn't done anything when Merlin had first come to Camelot. He'd been Arthur's manservant for years before Morgana had turned on them. He'd felt this way before...
And Merlin was angry…there were no falsehoods in his expression. He wasn't calm enough to lie.
"Why haven't you said anything about this before?" asked Arthur, his voice slightly unsteady.
Merlin rolled his eyes. "Because I get shouted at every time that I exhale too loudly during a council meeting?"
"You've had plenty of chances that weren't during a council meeting," Arthur pointed out, poking holes where he wished he wouldn't.
"I've had my reasons," said Merlin, sounding very calm all of the sudden. Sounding like his old self.
That wouldn't do at all. He had to keep going. They both did.
Arthur furrowed his brow, thinking. When Merlin had first come to Camelot…
"Since you came to Camelot?"
Merlin's expression grew guarded again, as though he knew that he'd said something that he shouldn't have. "Give or take."
"When you declared that you'd be able to beat me in a fight without any trouble?"
"I was bluffing," he said immediately.
"You threw the first punch."
"It didn't curb your tongue any."
"I was young."
"You weren't that young."
"I was an idiot."
"I won't argue that."
"Of course not."
His retorts were coming so quickly. Had Merlin kept everything so close to his chest for so long that he was able to lie easily that he could tell the truth? If anything, these lighting-fast responses were making it worse.
"How did you save my life?" asked Arthur, keeping up with his questions.
"I helped you not get stabbed in my face."
"No one saw you. No one was awake to see you. Why didn't you fall asleep?"
"The blustery Ealdor breezes. They're good for the constitution."
"How did you not fall asleep and save my life?"
"I was an idiot," Merlin said again.
"What, for saving my life?"
Merlin shrugged. "Who knows what would have happened? Without a son, maybe Uther would have acknowledged Morgana. He wouldn't have had any other heir."
"Don't even say that," Arthur muttered. "Morgana with a legitimate claim to the throne?"
"It was before she'd turned evil. Who knows? Maybe it all would have been better."
"What?" Arthur was lost.
"If I'd just let you die," answered Merlin conversationally. Arthur was furious for a moment, debating whether he ought to punch Merlin in the face or just drag him to the dungeon for an indefinite stay when he caught the wary look in Merlin's eyes and understood. Merlin was trying to provoke him. He was trying to provoke him to distract him.
"Merlin, how are you still alive?"
"All those times that I dragged you into battles without armor or helmet or even a weapon…"
"Wait, you knew that you were dragging me into battle without armor or helmet or weapon? I always assumed that it hadn't occurred to you that I'd probably benefit from a bit of protection. And you always wondered why I hid behind trees!"
"Well, it's occurred to me now. That's not the point. You should have at least been wounded."
"I was wounded. Mace to the chest, remember? I almost died."
"But you didn't. You should have. You got left behind in a forest of mercenaries alone for nearly two days with a gaping chest wound, then you show up without a scratch on you?"
"I'm a fast healer. Ealdor men are a hearty folk. It's those blustery breezes of ours."
"You knew where my sword was," said Arthur, remembered the day that he'd withdrawn Excalibur from the rock.
"I always know where your sword is," said Merlin. "It's my job."
"You knew where it was when it was still in the stone," Arthur clarified.
"I find things," he answered. "It's a gift."
"You told me about it. About the sword. How would you know?"
"Do not call us Camelotians. I hate it when you do that. It just sounds stupid."
"That's what it is, though. Legend. All the children—peasant children, which is why you'd never heard it—of Camelot know that story."
"You're not even from Camelot!"
"People tell me things. I'm a good listener."
Now it was Arthur's turn to snort. "You're a good talker, and I'm starting to think that you're very good at telling stories."
"Well, you're being very imaginative today," Merlin shot back. "Imaginative and inquisitive."
"It means that you're asking a lot of questions."
"I know what it…would you stop doing that?"
"Trying to make me mad so that I'll let you go."
Merlin half-smiled. "Oh, I have ways of making you mad that would make you forget that I'd ever insulted your vocabulary."
"Then why don't you?"
Just say it, Arthur thought to himself, silently beseeching his friend. Just say it, and this can all be over.
"I'm not desperately self-destructive just yet," Merlin evaded.
"Merlin?" said Arthur.
"Do you have something that you want to tell me?" he asked, very quickly before he talked himself out of it.
Merlin laughed, looking suddenly reckless. "Well, that is a good question. Something that I want to tell you? Maybe. Maybe a lot. I don't even know anymore. But something that I ought to tell you? Absolutely not."
Merlin looked at him carefully, gauging. A shudder ran through his body, and Arthur knew that he had it right. Merlin thought that Arthur knew. Maybe he knew that Arthur knew. Now, he would just see if Merlin had it in him to try to deny it.
Merlin exhaled deeply and began to rub his face. "Think about it, Arthur," he began, his voice muffled behind his hands. "Think of how things are in Camelot. Think of the way that you rule. Think of the way that things have been in Camelot since you were born."
"Since I was born," Arthur repeated, very quietly, realizing.
Merlin nodded, looking at him once more. His face was very red from how he'd rubbed it, and his eyes were bright. He looked feverish. "And yes, I know that you're older than I am and I wasn't around when you were born. Doesn't mean that I wasn't affected by your birth. A lot of people were affected by your birth. They still are. Think about it, Arthur. Think of the way that things are right now and tell me…if there was this something that I wanted to tell you, why on earth would I?"
"What if I already know?" asked Arthur abruptly.
Merlin didn't answer for a very long time. He just looked at Arthur so strangely that Arthur began to grow uncomfortable until he figured it out. Merlin was looking at him. There were no scales in his eyes. They were plain and open and very sad. His face looked…soft, despite the jutting cheekbones that Guinevere found so adorable. Merlin was looking at him, and there was nothing that separated them anymore. The mask had fallen. Arthur shivered.
"Then I suppose…I suppose that whatever happens next is up to you," said Merlin finally, his voice suddenly exhausted and strangely relieved, as though he'd been fighting and fighting and fighting to break free of something and finally had, only to find himself unsure of what would happen now that he had nothing left to try to fight.
Arthur stared at him, fighting the bizarre urge to laugh. "So, what? It's all in my hands? This is you, Merlin. All your fault. Your life. It's not fair for it to all be on me right now."
"No, it's not fair. Not fun, either," said Merlin, giving a smile that seemed almost nostalgic in its subdued sadness.
"Thanks. Very helpful."
Merlin shrugged. "What goes around, comes around."
He began to walk away, heading at a leisurely pace back toward the castle. Very optimistic of him, Arthur thought wryly. If Arthur decided to go on and execute him as the law dictated, at least he wouldn't have to go very far to track Merlin down. The only real indication that something was wrong with Merlin was how his hands leapt to his mouth and stayed there. Whether he was trying to hide tears or avoid shouting at the top of his lungs or avoid vomiting, at that moment, Arthur could definitely relate.
Then, after a few moments, Merlin spoke.
"Arthur?" he called, and Arthur looked as the sorcerer turned around to look at the king. The sun was setting, and he could barely make out Merlin's features. He wondered if that had been deliberate.
"I'm sorry," said Merlin. He didn't bother to elaborate. Arthur didn't care. If Merlin wasn't sorry for the things that Arthur felt that he ought to be sorry for, this was not the time for them to debate the matter. Besides, if Merlin said anything else in way of an apology, Arthur wasn't sure if he would be able to handle it. His hands were already on the verge of covering up his own mouth.
"Me too," he found himself saying.
"Why?" asked Merlin, surprised.
Arthur gave a little laugh.
"I don't know," he said honestly.
He didn't. He hadn't broken any laws. He hadn't betrayed any friends. He hadn't spent the last decade lying to everyone around him. He wasn't a criminal. He hadn't done anything wrong, had he? It didn't make any sense for Arthur to be so genuinely reciprocating apology.
And yet, it felt like the thing to do.
Thank you for reading! This may turn into a series of reveal scenarios in preparation for what will hopefully be happening in Series 5.
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