I'm sure I'll manage to write friendship-only Merlin/Arthur one day. In the meantime, here you go.
I know it's been a long time, but I'm really struggling with my studies and personal issues at the moment and haven't written anything in months. Writing this was a release. I've missed it, and you.
Summary: In the aftermath of the confrontation with Kilgharrah, Merlin returns to Ealdor to tell his mother Balinor is dead. Arthur tails him.
Outside the Border
No one never gave him any credit for it, but Merlin always showed up for work, bright and early every day. He never took a day off – or, at least, never officially, unless you were Arthur and you counted the times when he would disappear for hours on end and then reappear just as suddenly without an explanation. Arthur was generous enough to let him off easy each time, dropping a few words about the tavern with more amusement than true irritation.
The thing was, if Merlin had ever asked for permission, he would probably have obtained it – if not without a couple inquiries and mocking remarks. Arthur was fairly sure he could survive without his manservant for a day or two. But of course the first time Merlin ever asked for something for himself was the worst possible thing at the worst possible time, and of course Arthur refused.
Scarcely twelve hours after the dragon had been killed, when the corpses of Camelot's finest knights were still awaiting a decent funeral, Arthur couldn't afford to spare a single man, especially not the only one who had ridden to face the beast with him and come out unscathed. Leon was still drifting in and out of consciousness, half-delirious when he wasn't fast asleep, and Gaius had warned Arthur that he might not make it. Of all the other knights Arthur had ridden out with, not one had come back alive.
Arthur cursed the dragon even as he thanked his own luck – because it could only be luck that had saved him, when so many fine men had been felled. In his life he had never seen such a disaster befall the kingdom: the city partially destroyed, dozens of his people slaughtered, the ranks of the knights depleted. Camelot was vulnerable to whatever king first decided it suited his fancy to cross the border with even a tenth of his army. Arthur refused to think what would happen then. They needed to face each problem as it came, one by one. The priority now was to look after the injured, honour the dead, and rebuild what had been destroyed. In Arthur's mind, it was clear that every man, every woman and child would join together over this common goal. So when Merlin, who had shadowed him for the first twelve hours since they had faced the dragon together in a show of determination and devotion remarkable even for him, not pausing once either to sleep or eat, said he needed to leave, Arthur had no trouble acquiescing.
"Of course," he said absent-mindedly, not even looking up from the report he was reading with careful attention. Fires... destroyed... deceased... "Don't think I don't realise you could be more helpful with Gaius than here with me, Merlin. He's going to have his hands full for several days." He set the report down at the phrase funds needed for repairs and graced Merlin with a tired, grateful smile. "I know when Leon comes back to himself, he will be glad to know himself in your hands."
Merlin pressed his lips together tightly, as though holding back from saying what they were both thinking: If Leon comes back to himself. Then he gave a little shake of his head.
"I'm not going to help Gaius."
Arthur nodded slowly, revising his assumption even as he forced himself to look down at the report again. "Do you need a couple hours to go into the lower town and check up on friends? Guinevere's house – is it all right?"
"It will be," Merlin said, and still he didn't smile or say Thank you. "But that's not it. Arthur, I need a fortnight off."
Arthur's eyes snapped to Merlin's. "You need a fortnight off," he repeated flatly.
"There are things I must do." Merlin's spine was straight and stiff. For the first time Arthur noted a strange, haunted look in his eyes. "I need to leave Camelot."
"You can't," Arthur said firmly, without considering the idea for even a moment. "Not now."
To him, the subject was closed and that was it. He didn't even allow himself a second's irritation before standing, folding the report up so he could bring it to an advisor. His mind was already swimming with ideas, searching for solutions, and when he headed for the door, he didn't even look over his shoulder or bother to raise his voice as he said:
"You should still go to Gaius. I need an update on Leon. Have something to eat while you're there or you'll collapse. I'd rather not have to worry about your health as well."
"I'm not asking for permission," Merlin said, with an edge in his voice that made Arthur turn around. "This is me telling you I'm leaving."
"Oh, for the love of – I don't have time for this right now, Merlin. Throw a temper tantrum later, when Camelot isn't recovering from a disaster and facing bigger problems than you can get your tiny head around. You can take your little holiday next month. At the moment we need every single man we have. We can't spare anyone, not even you."
"Look around you, Arthur!" Merlin said. "Your people need physicians. Your kingdom needs an army. I'm neither. There's nothing more I can do for them – there's nothing you can do for them right now, and you know it."
Arthur ground his teeth together. God, Merlin knew him too well. It was true, of course; it was the very reason Arthur hadn't slept since facing the dragon – even though God knew he would have severely reprimanded any knight foolish enough to do the same. He pushed himself harder than was reasonable precisely because of his powerlessness, his inability to be of any real, direct aid to his people. The things he was supposed to do – train new knights, count how many crops had been destroyed, imagine ways to make up for their losses – were all abstract ideas that could have no immediate incidence on anything. Merlin was right, but that didn't mean Arthur had to like it.
"So, what? You're going to go off and have fun for a few weeks, because you don't think you can be useful to your people?"
"You know I wouldn't. My people –" Merlin began hotly, then checked himself. His shoulders slumped in defeat. "No, of course not, Arthur. You're right. I must just be tired. I didn't mean it."
"Of course you are," Arthur said generously, too relieved by this sudden turn-around to doubt its sincerity. "We're all a little on edge. You really should go to Gaius' quarters and rest for a while."
"I think I'll do that," Merlin said, rubbing at his eyes. He really did look tired and strained – but then, they all were. "I'll tell Gaius to send an update on Leon, too."
Arthur nodded gratefully, even though they both knew that if there had been anything to communicate, they would have been the first informed. Leon. As Merlin slipped out of the room, Arthur had to suppress a wince at the memory of waking up after the dragon had died – that brief moment of euphoric laughter before he looked around at the bodies around him. He had knelt by each of them in turn, desperately seeking for a pulse, trying to hide from Merlin the tears that slid down his cheeks – until he had reached Leon and felt the faint pulse at his throat, seen the labourious rise and fall of his chest. Leon was the only other one who had made it out alive, but there was no saying how long he would survive. His right arm and part of his torso had been badly burnt, but the worst of his injuries appeared to be internal – and for those, there was very little Gaius could do, very little anyone could do.
Arthur hated being helpless. He wasn't used to it and he never wanted to be. If he had his way, he would be out there with the common people, working on rebuilding, or just moving debris away from the main streets, or comforting those who had suffered losses. He wanted to be useful to those around him – but instead, he had to stay in the castle and listen to reports of what other people had seen and done.
Merlin was too tired to get into a fight with Arthur. Staying angry with him just took too much effort, and it would lead nowhere. So he had pretended to accept Arthur's decision and had headed for Gaius' room. The door was ajar, an invitation for people to come in, but the room was empty. Gaius was probably in town, where he could be of help to a greater number of people. Vials of different potions lay scattered on the table, some with the lids still off. The carelessness was unlike Gaius, but there were extenuating circumstances. Merlin slid into the room silently, making his way across the chamber to the door which led to the place where he slept. It, too, was slightly open; he pushed it the rest of the way and leant against the doorway for a moment, looking down at his bed.
Leon lay on his back with his eyes closed, his arms by his side, unmoving. At first glance, it was easy to mistake him for dead, but a closer look revealed that he wasn't. There was a light sheen of sweat covering his face. His hands were balled into fists and his lips were pressed together tightly, as though he were fighting against something, desperately holding onto life. Leon was strong of body and mind. If anyone could make it through, he could. But could anyone?
Merlin stepped into his room and shut the door behind him. He moved closer to the bed, kneeling on the floor beside it, and stayed staring at the pale, still form before him for several minutes. It was his fault Leon was injured. His fault so many people were dead. The guilt didn't hurt, not yet. There was no feeling of betrayal when he thought of Kilgharrah; he only felt drained, empty, and so very tired. But now, looking at Leon, there came a dull ache in his chest that he could only attribute to grief and regret.
There were bandages wrapped around Leon's arm and torso. Gaius had applied a salve to help the healing of the worst of the burns, but there was nothing more he could do to help Leon. Nothing could heal serious internal injuries. He had said as much to Merlin with a meaningful look, the significance of which had not escaped Merlin, though he hadn't been able to do anything with Arthur standing in the same room at the time.
Merlin took a shaky breath and placed a hand over Leon's forehead, keeping his eyes on his friend's face. Leon's skin was cold and clammy.
"I'm sorry," he whispered, and he didn't know whether he was apologising for what he had done, or what he was about to do. Closing his eyes for a brief moment, he addressed a quick prayer to the skies before looking down at Leon's face again and intoning: "Ic þe þurhhæle þin licsare."
He expected to feel his magic flow effortlessly from his fingertips like water from a stream, but nothing happened. A shiver of apprehension ran up his spine and he struggled to suppress the fear that rose in him. You're tired, he told himself. You're just tired. He wasn't good at healing spells. Don't think about that now. He wasn't sure he could do this. You have to.
" Ic þe þurhhæle þin licsare," he repeated, fighting to keep his voice steady and his mind clear. "Ic þe þurhhæle þin licsare."
It was almost a relief when he felt the infinitesimal shift inside of him, like a crack opening in a wall, allowing a few sparks of magic to squeeze out. He felt the transfer of magic from himself to Leon – but Leon's face remained as white as ever, his breathing as labourious, his expression as strained. Merlin heard his own voice grow panicked as he repeated the spell, forcing more of his magic into it each time, until he felt he couldn't possibly give any more.
" Ic þe þurhhæle þin licsare. Ic þe þurhhæle þin licsare. Ic þe þurhhæle þin licsare!"
At this last, Leon drew in a sharp breath, deeper and clearer than the others, and his eyes flew open, so suddenly and completely that Merlin drew back sharply. He couldn't have missed the way Merlin had been leaning over him, and he was wide awake now, which meant – had he heard?
Leon's eyes, wide and searching, found Merlin's and latched there, confused, lost, and fearful. Merlin could see a thousand questions swimming in those eyes – What happened? Is the dragon gone? Am I going to be all right? Is Camelot safe? Was that magic? – but already a veil of dullness was washing over them, and Leon was slipping away from him again. He was there for only a moment more. He said something, though, before he sank into sleep once more.
Leon's eyes rolled back, his eyelids closed again, and Merlin let out a breath he hadn't realised he'd been holding. He laughed softly, shakily, letting his head fall onto Leon's chest, which was rising and falling steadily. Even if Leon had seen or heard something, it could easily be passed off as delirium later. The colour had returned to his cheeks, and his skin already felt warmer. Merlin felt drained again, but in a different way. His arms and legs were heavy, and spots of darkness danced across his vision. But Leon would be all right.
Exhausted, Merlin closed his eyes.
He slept deeply and uninterruptedly, his arms crossed on the edge of the bed, his head on Leon's chest, and his legs folded up underneath him. It wasn't a comfortable position by anyone's standards, but he hadn't slept in ages and using his magic to heal Leon had taken what was left of his strength out of him.
He woke up slowly, what felt like hours later, to a painful crick in his neck and an ache across his shoulders, but that was still better than the heavy, bone-deep weariness he had been carrying about. And what made it better still was that when his eyes blinked open, it was to see Leon looking down at him. Leon broke into a smile.
Merlin sat back. "Leon! How are you feeling?"
"Fine," Leon said, then paused. "Actually, I feel... perfectly fine."
"Good," Merlin said, unable to stop a proud grin from spreading across his face. He stretched his arms out above his head. "How long have you been awake?"
"Not long," Leon lied; then, when Merlin gave him a look, he said, "I didn't want to wake you. You looked like you needed the rest."
Merlin ducked his head, flushing. "I... yes. Yes, I did."
"Merlin, I appreciate it," Leon said. He gestured vaguely, looking as uncomfortable as Merlin felt. "I realise you must have been taking care of me. I'm grateful for that."
"I didn't do anything," Merlin said. "I'm just glad you're awake."
"How did it turn out?" Leon asked. "I hate to ask this of you, but –"
"It's fine, I understand. Arthur is well. The others..." Merlin winced. "Well, you saw, I imagine. Then there's you. You're going to be all right, apparently."
"Surprisingly enough." A frightening comprehension dawned in Leon's eyes. "So am I the only one –"
Leon bowed his head, his expression darkening with sorrow as he realised his brothers-in-arms had been slain. Merlin felt the pain in his chest return with newfound sharpness. He cleared his throat.
"I should... go find Gaius."
Leon looked up, giving him a strange, speculative look. "Yes," he said slowly, and Merlin didn't like the almost-suspicion in his eyes. "You probably should."
Merlin stood up awkwardly, realising as he did so that his legs also ached. He took two small steps away from the bed, wincing as he did so.
"Merlin, wait," Leon said, just as Merlin was about to leave.
Merlin turned reluctantly, like a man facing his executioner.
Leon raised warm eyes to him. "Thank you."
Merlin nodded tightly, not wanting to think about what Leon might be thanking him for, and left the room.
Merlin didn't find Gaius, but he did send another servant to give Arthur the good news about Leon before he left. Of course he was still leaving. He had to go, and nothing Arthur said would hold him back. Arthur could survive without him for a fortnight. Hopefully.
Oh, gods. He couldn't, could he?
Merlin stubbornly pushed that thought to the back of his mind. He had to go. He had given Arthur everything for months, for months he had been there for Arthur – he deserved this. His mother deserved it. His father – well. He resolutely pushed that thought away, too. His father had never enjoyed what he deserved – a future with the woman he loved and the son he had never known. People didn't always get what they deserved, but this at least Merlin could do the right way.
He stole a horse from the stables shamelessly, knowing that Arthur could afford to spare a horse for a fortnight, especially now that he hardly had enough knights for all the beasts. Merlin was doing him a favour, really. At least that was how he justified choosing the strongly-built warhorse he did, rather than one of the more sedate geldings he usually rode. Technically, the trip he intended to make didn't require a warhorse and neither did his riding skills, but the horse looked up for it.
It charged at the door and nearly bit Merlin when he passed in front of its stall, so Merlin figured it was in need of a run. He slid the bit into the horse's mouth easily, lead it out of the stables, and swung into the saddle. No one in the courtyard gave him a second look – not the women holding their crying children, or the men hurrying from one place to an other, carrying pieces of charred and splintered wood that had once been part of a building, or the few nobles who were trying to make themselves useful. Thankfully, Arthur was nowhere to be seen. Merlin kept glancing over his shoulder, expecting to be stopped at any moment – but he wasn't.
He relaxed when he was well outside the city, trotting through a calm, undamaged meadow. He had only travelled it a handful of times, but he knew the road to Ealdor – home – by heart. It was long but pleasant, and if Merlin had been able to leave behind all his worries in Camelot, he would have enjoyed the trip more. But his mind was full of Camelot and Kilgharrah, guilt gnawing at his gut like a dog with a bone as he thought of all the bloodshed he had caused. There was Leon, too, whose life he had saved but who maybe now knew and what if he told? Leon was loyal to a fault. He was the last person one could expect to protect a sorcerer.
So what if he did tell? That, there, was the worst thought of all: that it didn't matter whether he told or not, because there was a big chance that Merlin wouldn't come back to Camelot, regardless. He wasn't sure he wanted to. What good was it, if he kept messing up? He always seemed to end up doing more harm than good. He had been lucky until now, always able to fix his mistakes before things got out of hand, but this time... This time... Whenever Merlin closed his eyes, the sight of Kilgharrah turning against Camelot flared up bright and accusing at the forefront of his mind. He wasn't angry. He couldn't blame Kilgharrah. He only blamed himself. How could he go back to Camelot, knowing it was all his fault? How could he go back and continue to lie and not show that every second was breaking his heart a little more?
Of course, at the back of his mind there was, still, the image of Arthur. Arthur, who would notice his absence and be furious because he didn't, couldn't understand. Arthur, who would think him a lazy, spineless coward for running away and would probably refuse to have him back when – if – Merlin returned. And if Arthur wouldn't have him, then there was no point in his returning.
The thought of going home wasn't enough to lift Merlin's spirits. He had hardly had the time to miss Ealdor since the last time he'd been – and that had been with Morgana, Gwen, and Arthur. His thoughts ran dark enough that the horse he had stolen – borrowed – sensed his mood and seemed to pick up on it, becoming temperamental and irritable whenever Merlin's hand was too rough on the reins, or his calves too insistent. When he first threw Merlin, half a day after they had left Camelot, Merlin spent the better part of an hour chasing after him to catch him, and even then he received a nasty bite on the arm for his trouble. It stung, but probably not as much as Leon's burns had.
Certainly not as much as Arthur's anger would.
"Your people need physicians. Your kingdom needs an army." Merlin's words echoed in Arthur's head for a long time after the manservant had left to check on Leon. They were plain and honest, and Arthur had never felt so intense a dislike for the truth. It wasn't just that they made him feel as useless as Merlin claimed to be – Arthur was as much an army as Merlin was. It was the way Merlin had said there was nothing he could do that was worth doing, that Camelot didn't need him. Arthur wanted Camelot to need Merlin, because then, maybe it would make it slightly less preposterous that Arthur needed Merlin – that he had started, ever so slowly and subtly, to depend on the most inefficient manservant the court had ever seen.
It had become clear to him in the hours following the face-down with the dragon: Merlin had clung to him like his shadow for twelve hours and Arthur had let him, even when a voice in the back of his mind told him that if it were anyone else, he would have told them to get some rest and stop worrying. But sometimes it was nice, having someone worry about him and follow him not because he had to out of honour, loyalty, or duty, but only because he wanted to. You couldn't talk about honour in servants, and Merlin's sense of duty was certainly up for discussion; he was loyal to the bone, yes, but he chose to be. And that was what Arthur had come to rely on: that warm openness in Merlin's expression which spoke of his deep conviction that he was serving the right man – not just the one who was conceived in the right bed, but a man he had chosen to believe in. And that choice, when there had been no obligation – no politics, no fealty sworn, no advantage to be gained – was what Arthur forced himself to think of whenever he began to doubt himself.
He was doubting now. He wanted go back to that brief moment when he'd regained consciousness after the battle and Merlin had said it was over and Arthur had believed him. He wanted to go back to before he noticed the bodies scattered around him, before they headed back to the castle and witnessed all the damage that had been done, before he had to worry not about defeating a dragon, but about looking after a kingdom. His father, whom he'd seen only twice in the last twelve hours, hadn't given him any explicit orders or advice, and Arthur had been trying to make himself useful while knowing, in his heart, that even at his most useful he was useless.
"There's nothing you can do for them right now, and you know it." Merlin may have been angry, but the words hadn't been fuelled by a desire to hurt. They were blunt and honest, and Arthur knew it as well as Merlin or Uther did. The people of Camelot needed funds, physicians, and the assurance that they could feed themselves even with the fields that had been destroyed. They didn't need the leader of a group of knights that had been massacred. They needed to know the kingdom was in the hands of a man who would face a crisis head on and come out of it the victor – but Arthur wasn't that man, and he hoped he wouldn't have to be for several years. In the meantime, Uther was not delegating tasks to his son. Too young? Too impulsive? Or maybe, out of pride, he wanted to see Camelot through this crisis alone. Arthur had been to his father after Merlin had left, to ask what he should do.
"Do what you can." Since he'd turned twelve, Arthur had never heard a sentence that made him feel more like a nuisance and a child than a crown prince. He'd swallowed his pride and left his father with his advisors, heading back to his own room to clear his mind. Merlin's words came back to him again, but he pushed them to the side with some irritation. He didn't need his poor excuse for a manservant to start annoying him even when he wasn't there.
When he sat down in a chair by the window, he realised just how exhausted he was – the heaviness in his muscles, the way his eyes stayed closed for a fraction too long when he blinked, the dull ache in his stomach to remind him of the hunger he'd ignored until now. He realised now how stupid he'd been, and thought of Merlin again. Had he eaten? Was he resting as Arthur had advised him to? He hadn't sent along any information about Leon. Did that mean there was nothing new, or was he keeping silent out of spite? If he was fair, Arthur had to admit that didn't sound like Merlin, but he wasn't feeling fair.
He blinked; it took him several seconds to force his eyes open again, jerking himself away from the temptation of sleep. He needed to rest, but not now. Now, surely, there were better things to do. He should probably see Leon, if Merlin wasn't going to give him any information. Or maybe... His eyelids closed again slowly, treacherously.
He was jolted awake by a knock on the door what must have been several hours later. His room was now bathed by the late afternoon sun and his face felt warm. He felt more deeply tired than when he'd fallen asleep – he cursed himself for falling asleep as he rose and the door opened a crack.
A servant peeked in.
"My lord," he said hesitantly. "I hope I'm not disturbing you."
"Not at all," Arthur said, not about to take out his irritation on a servant who wasn't Merlin even though he looked to be almost as incompetent. "Do you have something for me?"
The door opened the rest of the way, revealing a boy several years younger than Arthur and with a much slighter frame. He stepped in and gave a small, respectful bow, looking more sure of himself now that he hadn't been thrown out.
"I've been told to inform Prince Arthur that Sir Leon has regained consciousness. He was speaking clearly; there will be be no cognitive effects to worry about. The burns on his arm will heal. Now that he has woken up, there is no reason not to believe he will make a full recovery."
"Did Gaius tell you this?" Arthur asked.
"No, my lord."
Arthur let out a small sigh, his anger at himself and his irritation with Merlin sliding away at the realisation that his manservant had sent along this piece of welcome news. Leon would be all right. It was just one more person, one knight; but Arthur felt that if he had lost him as well, then the remaining threads of hope still tethering him to sanity would have begun to unravel. Leon was several years older than Arthur and had been both a mentor and an older brother to him, as well as someone Arthur trusted unconditionally.
"Thank you," he said. "You may leave now."
The boy bowed to take his leave, dipping lower this time than the first, and Arthur felt a small smile tugging at the corners of his lips as he realised the servant had appreciated being thanked. It was the kind of small thing he tended not to think about, but Merlin had, by his insolence, made him grow more aware of his own. He rested his hands on the back of the chair, leaning his weight on it briefly, feeling his weariness come back. The news about Leon had lifted a weight from his shoulders, but he was still emotionally and physically exhausted.
A motion outside his window caught his eye and his head snapped up to scan the courtyard. Commoners from the lower town had come to the castle to request assistance, so it was busier than usual. Arthur saw a woman press a crying child tightly to her chest, as though they were the only things that mattered to each other in the world. He looked on as men working together to clear the courtyard of rubble. But that wasn't what had caught his attention. As he watched, it happened again: a flash of unmistakeable dull blue. Merlin's neckerchief, wrapped snugly around Merlin's neck as he reappeared at the edge of the courtyard, leading a particularly expensive horse in full harness, loaded with enough saddlebags to resemble a pack mule. Arthur stared in disbelief as he watched Merlin swing up into the saddle easily, as though he were entitled to the horse. No one stopped him as he urged the horse out of the courtyard at a gentle trot.
Arthur wondered where he was going. For a moment, he imagined Gaius had sent him to gather some necessary herbs, and Merlin had thought it would be a nice joke to choose the horse he had. But then their argument from earlier came back to him, and a sick feeling pooled in the pit of his stomach. "I need to leave Camelot." Merlin wasn't just riding into the forest to find healing herbs. He was leaving. On a horse that was probably worth more than all of his belongings put together. Not that Arthur cared about the horse, but it felt like Merlin was flaunting his decision to leave even after he had explicitly forbidden it. Damn you, Merlin.
It only took Arthur ten seconds to decide what he was going to do. Why his sense of duty vanished the moment he saw Merlin leave, he wasn't quite certain. He wasn't even certain he wanted to know, so he tried not to dwell on it. His fatigue forgotten, he called on a servant to help him change clothes before he made his way to Gaius' room. It was empty, as he had expected; Gaius had spent the last few hours in town, helping those he could. But the door to Merlin's room was slightly ajar, and when Arthur knocked sharply, the Leon's voice immediately told him to come in. Arthur felt his heart stutter as he pushed the door open all the way.
"My lord." Leon looked pleased but surprised to see him, as though he hadn't expected Arthur to be concerned enough to stop by.
"Sir Leon," Arthur said in return, nodding at him. "I'm glad to see you are better."
He didn't think he was doing a good job of concealing his own pleasure at the sight of Leon, who looked a lot better than a man who had just come out of a coma had any right to be. His eyes were bright and alert, and he had the same serious, thoughtful expression as always when he was confronted with a problem, as though he were once again helping Uther and Arthur to shoulder part of the weight of a kingdom. Leon had always been uncommonly loyal, responsible, and determined to do his best, as well as a friend to Arthur. Arthur would have felt his loss as double that of any other knight.
"I'm sorry if I gave you cause to worry," Leon said, too formally, and Arthur grinned.
"I'm glad you've come back to the world of the living," he repeated, holding out his hand.
Leon clasped it and smiled back, though there was a shadow lurking behind his eyes.
"You would have been missed. How are you feeling?"
"Fine," Leon replied. "My arm doesn't hurt, my head doesn't even ache. I feel as though I've just woken up from a good night's sleep. It's almost as if..." He trailed off, the thoughtful look returning to his eyes. "Have you seen Merlin, my lord?"
Arthur scowled involuntarily. "Not since you last saw him. Did you two speak?"
"Briefly." Leon lowered his eyes. "Nothing important was said."
Leon wouldn't lie. He was infallibly loyal, respectful of the code of chivalry, and honest to a fault. He was the last person you would expect to betray his king or his prince – he would die first.
So why did Arthur get the feeling that he was hiding something?
It took him several hours to catch up with Merlin.
He wasn't difficult to track down. There weren't that many people riding around on one of Camelot's finest horses, especially today, and when it came to hunting something or someone down, Arthur was an expert. But Merlin had had a decent head start, and Arthur wasn't one to ruin a horse with hard riding just for the sake of finding his servant a little more quickly.
He caught up with Merlin many leagues outside of the city as Merlin was forced to slow down at the entrance of a heavily-shaded forest. The horse he had stolen was sure-footed and confident, but unused to this sort of terrain. Arthur followed far enough behind and to the side to ensure he wasn't noticed. Merlin's spine stiffened on occasion and he kept throwing looks over his shoulder, but Arthur didn't think he'd seen him.
At least not until Merlin said, voice carrying easily over the silence between them, "I know you're there, Arthur."
Arthur nearly fell off his horse in surprise, though he would never have admitted it. Merlin couldn't have seen him. So how had he known? The game was up, somehow. There had been no doubt or bluff in Merlin's voice, just absolute certainty. There was no point denying it. Arthur, feeling faintly annoyed, urged his horse forward to catch up with Merlin's, who was far enough ahead that they were hidden from each other by several thick trees and thorn-bushes. Merlin had stopped, and when Arthur emerged from the trees, he didn't look surprised. He didn't ask, What are you doing here? because he already knew the answer. Instead he crossed his arms over his chest defensively, bringing his chin up.
"I thought you couldn't spare anyone," he said, throwing Arthur's own words back to his face. "If Camelot can't even spare the prince's manservant, then surely it can't spare the prince himself."
There was an edge of bitterness to his voice that unsettled Arthur. They hadn't parted on the best of terms – their last conversation hadn't so much been a conversation as Merlin talking to a brick wall –, but Merlin had never been one to hold a grudge. His flashes of temper were always sudden, short, and easily forgotten.
"I was in my room when you left," Arthur said. "I saw you from the window."
Merlin flinched. "About the horse –"
"This isn't about the horse."
Merlin glanced away. "I told you. I had to leave."
"You're my servant, Merlin. You can't just up and go wherever you please, whenever you please. I told you you couldn't go."
"Then I'm not your servant anymore, am I?"
"By all rights you shouldn't be!"
Merlin's eyes widened, and Arthur took a step back when he realised what he'd said. It wasn't the first time he'd voiced his desire to sack Merlin, but every time, he knew it cut a little deeper. The words hung dangerously in the air between them. Merlin had been taunting him, expecting the words, wanting to hear them, but now that they were said – it felt like something tenuous and fragile, but infinitely precious, had finally shattered between them. The chasm grew, strong and overwhelming, feeding off Arthur's anger and Merlin's resentment.
"Then tell me, Arthur –" and Merlin's pupils flared wide with something dangerously close to anger, "why the hell did you follow me all the way from Camelot? If you thought I should be punished for disobeying a direct order, then you could have had me arrested. If you wanted to sack me, you didn't have to tail me all the way here – I would have understood the hint if we'd simply never seen each other again."
Arthur flinched. You said you needed a fortnight off, not a lifetime. Had Merlin ever planned on coming back, once he'd left?
"That's a valuable horse you're sitting on," he said, averting his gaze to look at the animal. "I'd like to have it back."
"I wasn't going to keep it," Merlin said. "That's not why you came."
"Why do you think I came, then?"
"Because you're a fool," Merlin replied, his voice still hard. "You didn't even ask what I needed to do, or why I thought it was important. You didn't care, Arthur. It's like you said – we're not friends. I'm just a servant." He smiled faintly, bitterly. "Not even that anymore."
Arthur looked at Merlin, really looked at him. He took in the dark circles of fatigue under his eyes, the strained expression, the redness of his eyeballs... And he realised which way Merlin had been travelling, and why it was so important to him.
"You're going to Ealdor," he said, half-amazed that he hadn't understood earlier.
Merlin dropped his gaze, which was confirmation enough for Arthur.
"Why now?" Arthur asked. "Why go home now of all times –"
"Oh, so now you remember it's my home," Merlin said. "Now you remember they're my people – my friends – my family."
Stung by the words, Arthur drew back so sharply that his horse side-stepped uneasily under the shift of weight. "You said you didn't fit in anymore, in Ealdor."
"I didn't. But it's still my home. I grew up there. My mother –" Merlin cut himself short.
A shadow crossed Merlin's face. "Nothing. I'm going. Short of arresting me, nothing you say or do will stop me." He raised his eyes to Arthur's, meeting his gaze defiantly, spelling out the challenge.
"I'm not going to arrest you."
"Then you might as well go home."
"I'm not going home, either," Arthur said. "I'm coming with you."
"If Cenred hears of your presence, he won't be very happy about it," Merlin said warningly.
"There's no reason he should be made aware of it."
Merlin clenched his jaw. He didn't look particularly surprised, but certainly irritated – like this was the last thing he wanted to happen, but he'd seen it coming anyway.
Which was strange, because Arthur himself hadn't expected it.
They had travelled together many times already: it was part of Merlin's job, and he had never questioned it. He was a fairly annoying travel companion most of the time – always complaining, always nattering on about something inane, and always the first to be saddle-sore –, but this time he was resolutely silent for what felt like hours on end, staring straight ahead without even glancing at Arthur to check he was still there. Arthur knew he was being given the cold shoulder, but it was such a new thing coming from Merlin that he hardly knew how to react. His few, half-hearted attempts to start a conversation fell flat, earning him nothing more than a quick, disinterested glance, and after that he stopped trying, realising that it was usually Merlin who fuelled their conversations with his chatter.
It wasn't that Merlin looked particularly angry. There was clearly something dark about his mood, but it was deeper and more thoughtful than anger. Arthur couldn't put his finger on it, because Merlin was never like this; or at the very least, Arthur had never noticed, because Merlin always kept his personal emotions in check skillfully. It was the one area in which he never failed in his duties as a servant. Though he might talk back to his superiors and defend what he thought was right, Arthur had never seen him cry or lose his temper over something personal. His private life was kept carefully separate from his duties, carefully hidden from Arthur. And Arthur had thought it was normal.
Now, though, he wondered that he still wasn't able to read the expressions of the man who spent most of his days by his side – a man who had saved his life, who had drunk poison for him, and whose village he had ridden out to defend despite his father's disapproval. Arthur realised, with an unpleasant, sinking feeling his his gut, that he didn't really know Merlin at all. He knew nothing beyond what directly concerned him.
He knew Merlin could be a fool sometimes, but was loyal to the bone. He knew, both instinctively and from having witnessed the proof of it several times, that Merlin would die for him, though he still wasn't quite sure why. He knew (and sometimes forgot) Merlin wasn't even from Camelot, but from Cenred's kingdom. And then there were smaller, more significant things he knew, like the sound of Merlin's voice in the morning or the difference between the smiles he gave when he was indulging Arthur and the real ones. But there had to be more to Merlin, things that had shaped the man he was, and Arthur realised he had never bothered to ask – about Merlin's past, or his personal life, or anything else. And it was normal, because Merlin was a servant, but somehow it didn't feel right.
When they stopped for the night, Merlin finally spoke. He said Arthur's name sharply, in a tone that lacked any deference or fondness. Arthur didn't bother to reply to it, and Merlin didn't seem to care for a reaction. He paused a few moments, as though making sure he had Arthur's attention, and then said, in that same tone:
"Ealdor is not held by the laws of Camelot. You have no real power there."
"I know that," Arthur replied, because this clearly required some sort answer. "What does that have to do with anything?"
"I just need you to remember that."
"Merlin, what –"
"Just remember it."
There was a strangeness in Merlin's voice that stopped Arthur from questioning him further. He looked at his servant, who was staring into the fire he had just lit, the flames throwing ominous shadows across his face, the ground, and the surrounding trees. The laws of Camelot... What was that supposed to mean?
"I wouldn't harm the people of Ealdor," he said with some hesitancy, unsure whether that was what Merlin needed to hear.
Merlin set his jaw and turned his head away, ending the conversation.
The sun was setting over Ealdor when they reached it, painting a breathtaking landscape as it sent streaks of pink and orange shooting across the sky. They melded together in a glorious red that reminded Arthur too much of a blood-filled sky for him to fully appreciate the sight.
"Hello, George," Merlin said, forcing a tired smile. "Is my mother at home?"
"She's been working all day," the man replied, looking none too pleased to see Merlin. He spared the time to gratify Arthur with a slight bow of recognition before adding, "I expect she'll be finishing up now; it will be nightfall soon. The field is no place for her in this weather, but she won't hear reason. You know your mother."
There was no veiled insult in his tone, but affection and grudging pride. Arthur had to hide a smile; it did sound very much like Hunith. His impression of her had been that of a formidably stubborn woman, accustomed to getting her own way and perfectly able of taking care of herself.
"Thank you," Merlin said with a brief smile, setting foot to the ground and tying the horse's reins tightly to a low-hanging branch.
Arthur imitated him after a few beats. He was unaccustomed to following – even during his first visit to Ealdor, he had had the feeling of leading a tiny, ragtag army more than that of accompanying Merlin home. Merlin guiding him on foot around the village to a field beyond it, where the last few workers were leading horses and carts back to the village. Among them was a woman, barefooted and with her hair tied back practically, striding easily alongside the men.
Hunith's face lit up when she saw Merlin – the strong jaw and tired lines of her face softened into a warm, delighted smile, and she dropped the pitchfork she was carrying immediately, running over to them. Arthur tried to ignore the small pang of jealousy as he watched her pull her son into a solid, motherly hug.
"Merlin! But you didn't even send word – I didn't expect to see you for months!"
"I've missed you too, mother," Merlin said, laughing genuinely, and it was a relief to see his entire expression lighten, in a way it hadn't since the dragon had attacked Camelot. "How is everyone here? You shouldn't have to work so hard."
"Did you really think I would be happy sitting in a chair in our house all day long?" Hunith said tartly. "We haven't had any trouble from bandits or lords, thankfully. We haven't forgotten, my lord," she added, making Arthur jump as she addressed him for the first time, "what you did for us that time. We can never thank you enough." The smile she gifted him was almost as fond as the one she had given Merlin, which warmed his heart.
"Please," he began, but the words Anyone would have done the same died in his throat as he realised how much of a lie they were. He looked away, embarrassed.
"To what do we owe the pleasure of your presence, Prince Arthur? Have the Lady Morgana and Gwen come as well?"
The question was phrased politely, but wariness had settled in Hunith's expression. Quite understandably, as there was no valid reason for Arthur to be here. He tried to catch Merlin's eye, but Merlin was pointedly avoiding his gaze, so in the end Arthur settled for a half-truth as an explanation.
"Merlin expressed a desire to come home, and I needed to get away from Camelot for a while so I... accompanied him."
Merlin's snort was as unsubtle as it was incredulous, and Arthur shot him a look that could kill, except he probably didn't even see it. Hunith's eyes narrowed further.
"I hope I'm not imposing," Arthur said awkwardly. God, how had he done this last time? He racked his memory. "I won't be staying long, and I know what it is to sleep on the floor –"
"Nonsense," Hunith said, cutting him off without any respect for decorum, which forced a grin out of Arthur. "You're always welcome here, Arthur, and for as long as you want. You know that. I was just worried; I thought you might have come to warn us of trouble."
Arthur glanced at Merlin, and this time, Merlin looked right back at him, everything in his expression begging Arthur not to say a word about Camelot and the dragon.
Arthur smiled at Hunith. "No, no trouble. None at all."
That night, Arthur lay on his back in the small room he and Merlin had shared the first time he had come here. The floor was hard, but he hardly minded. It brought back memories which weren't completely unpleasant – of laughter, and spreading hope among people who didn't have anything, and the beginning of a strengthened closeness with Merlin. He hadn't realised how much he cherished his memories of Ealdor, despite how it had ended and how silent, sullen, and resentful Merlin had been for days after Will's death and how it had thrown up something of a barrier between them, knowing that Merlin had been friends with a sorcerer. Friends. Arthur remembered being vaguely jealous of Will when they'd first met, and wondered how much of their mutual dislike had been fuelled by that jealousy – over Merlin of all people.
Guinevere was amazing. He loved the way she wasn't afraid to stand up to him, the way she wasn't blind to his flaws, the way she sometimes bordered on disrespect. Most of all, he loved the faith she had in him, loved that she saw something in him that was worth loving. But Merlin did all of that, too. And in the end, where Guinevere had looked at him sadly and said with the voice of reason, "One day you will be King and I cannot be your Queen," Merlin had looked up and challenged him: "Why not?"
On the other side of the door, he could hear Merlin and his mother speaking in hushed, but animated voices. Integrity ought to have held him back from eavesdropping, but he told himself he couldn't help but overhear the few words he did – like I'm sorry, I wanted to protect you, I didn't know from Hunith or I couldn't do anything, You should have told me, I wish... from Merlin. At one point there was such a long silence that Arthur felt certain Hunith was crying, and the thought made him feel ill. Were they talking about him? About the dragon? Something didn't quite fit, like there was a piece of the puzzle missing, one just beyond his grasp.
And what was he doing here anyway? Leaving Camelot was feeling more and more like a rash decision. Ealdor wasn't his home. It wasn't where he belonged. Whenever he closed his eyes, the soft murmurs of Hunith and Merlin merged with the cries of his people as the dragon descended on their homes, and he knew he couldn't stay long. Camelot called him to her with every breath he took.
The door separating the two rooms opened, signaling the end of the conversation. Arthur turned onto his side and closed his eyes, feigning sleep.
"Merlin," Hunith whispered. "Why did Arthur come?"
Arthur tensed despite himself, hearing the telltale hitch in his breath that would reveal he was awake. It went unnoticed by Merlin and his mother, though.
"I don't know," Merlin replied. "Good night, mother."
When Merlin slid back into the room silently, he lay down beside Arthur, but oriented in the opposite direction so that his face was by Arthur's feet.
"Arthur?" he said softly. "Are you still awake?"
Arthur didn't answer. Merlin waited for a few more beats, then sighed.
"Good night, Arthur."
Merlin woke up the next morning feeling strangely refreshed. His heart was still heavy with guilt and grief, but talking about it to his mother had helped. He had told her everything – about Kilgharrah, Balinor, and Arthur. At one point she had clenched her jaw so tightly he had thought her teeth might break, but she hadn't cried – not in front of him at least. She had hugged him close, thanked him, and told him how much she loved him and how proud she was of him. She had told him yes, she would speak about Balinor if he wanted to.
And when he had asked, "What do I do about Arthur?" she had answered, "Trust your heart," which was hardly an answer – except it was.
Arthur was the first thing he saw when he woke up. He was sitting with his back against the wall, his expression guarded, his eyes trained on Merlin. The sight of him was so achingly familiar that Merlin found himself thinking, I'll miss this. Gods, but he would miss Arthur.
Because he wasn't going back.
"Hey," Arthur said softly, that guarded look never leaving his eyes. "Sleep well?"
"Yeah," Merlin replied, pushing himself up on his elbows. He narrowed his eyes. It was still dark in the room; the sun hadn't risen yet. "How long have you been awake?"
It wasn't like Arthur to wake up easily. It certainly wasn't like Arthur to let him sleep.
"Not long," Arthur said. "I was just... thinking."
Merlin sat up straighter. "About Camelot?"
"Part of it was that, yes," Arthur said. He met Merlin's gaze squarely. "I was thinking about you, too."
Merlin's heart leapt in his throat. "About that. I'm sorry for..." He waved a hand. "Leaving when you told me I couldn't. And for the way I treated you these past few days. You didn't have to come with me. I appreciate it."
Arthur nodded, though the wariness in his expression didn't fade and he didn't smile. Merlin felt a painful tug in his chest at the thought of what he was losing – what he had already lost.
"Arthur –" he tried, thinking he needed to explain, to apologise, because they couldn't part like this –
"I want you to come back with me," Arthur said, quickly, quietly, and Merlin knew that this was something he wouldn't say twice. His pride could only unbend so much. "Ever since you came to Camelot, things have changed in ways I can't explain. I've changed, I think. I was an arse to you right from the start, but you were always there. What you did, with the dragon... Twelve knights died that night, Merlin, twelve good men. They knew what they were doing and what they risked. But you... you rode out with me and you came out of it alive." Arthur's eyes softened. "And you do that every time. Don't think I haven't noticed."
Merlin's heart was beating faster than he would have thought possible, all his senses heightened by the fear and anticipation that coursed through his blood. Trust your heart.
"I'd never let anything happen to you," he said in a breath.
Instead of laughing as he might have done a few days ago, Arthur just nodded. "I know. You've risked your life for me. The truth is, Merlin, I've never known someone as loyal or brave as you are, even my knights. And I know you're just a servant, but at the same time, you're not. There are times when I think I... I think, maybe you... maybe you're worth more than that." Arthur's gaze dropped to the floor. "Maybe a lot more. To me."
Merlin's breath caught in his throat.
Arthur's hand pressed hard into the floor. "Merlin, don't you want to to know why I came after you?"
I know. "I've asked," Merlin said.
"What I said about the horse wasn't true."
"Obviously," Merlin said, "but you didn't want to give me a straight answer. There was no reason to press you to say something you didn't want to."
"I want to now."
Merlin's heart was in his throat when he answered, "Then do it."
"I was curious. I wanted to know where you were going, and why. I couldn't imagine why you were choosing now of all times to leave me, when you never had before. You've always been here for me when I asked you to – even when I didn't ask you to – and I couldn't understand why suddenly, you had left me. I thought you might be angry, even though I didn't know why. I couldn't not come after you, not without knowing whether you'd come back. I didn't know what I would do without you. I don't know what I would have done if any harm had come to you," Arthur finally admitted, his voice soft.
Oh, gods, Merlin thought, closing his eyes briefly. Each word was like an arrow sinking deep into his chest, the arrowhead digging painfully into his heart. Because he knew, as well as Arthur knew, that nothing could come from this – that whatever Arthur was trying to say, as plainly as he could, just couldn't happen. It wasn't like Merlin had never thought about it (imagined it, dreamt of it, wanted it). He knew it would be suicide for the both of them. But still, hearing Arthur's voice echoing his own feelings – "I don't know what I would have done if any harm had come to you" – was gloriously satisfying after months of forcing himself to accept that it was impossible, that Arthur, in any case, would never reciprocate, and that he could never know the truth.
Merlin forced out a short laugh. "You're the one who keeps getting hurt, Arthur."
He'd been aiming for mocking and light-hearted but missed his mark by miles, his tone sounding more sad than anything else. Arthur ignored the attempt at deflection.
"Merlin," he said quietly. "Why did you have to come to Ealdor?"
Merlin pretended not to see the disappointment in Arthur's eyes when he answered with a lie. "I needed some air. There's just no place like home."
"I thought you didn't feel like you belonged here."
"Yes, well... It's still home. Nothing can change that."
That was an outright lie. The only thing that still felt like home in Ealdor was Hunith's presence. The rest – the fields, the villagers, even his house – felt strange and alien to Merlin. He had no strong ties to Ealdor, no affection that kept him bound to his hometown. Home was wherever Arthur chose to be, and that place would always be Camelot. As long as Merlin's faith was in Arthur, his heart would be in Camelot.
"I want you to come back with me."
"I... should go help my mother," Merlin said, avoiding Arthur's gaze as he left the room.
Arthur found him in the woods beyond Ealdor, and tactfully said nothing about helping Hunith in the fields – or not helping. He only raised a meaningful eyebrow at Merlin, somehow managing to convey accusation in a single look.
"Am I interrupting anything? You seem to be hard at work."
Merlin had been sitting on a tree stump, throwing rocks into a small pond, watching them sink to the bottom. Arthur sounded more hurt than truly accusing, which made Merlin feel guilty. He opened his palm, letting the handful of pebbles he'd been holding fall to the ground. Arthur's expression softened, and he knelt by the tree stump so his eyes were level with Merlin's.
"I'm not a complete idiot, Merlin. Clearly, there's something wrong. So what is it?"
"It's not nothing, for God's sake. Don't lie to me. Just say you don't want to tell me." A little of the hurt in his expression had crept into his tone. He paused, and when he spoke again, his voice was completely flat. "What were you doing with these stupid rocks, anyway? Where's the fun in throwing them into the water? The real sport is skipping stones."
"Skipping stones," Merlin repeated dumbly.
"Yes. Here, watch."
Arthur selected a flat, round-edged stone at his feet and stood up, looking out across the water. With an expert flick of his wrist, he sent the stone flying. It skipped twice before sinking into the depths of the pond.
"Your turn," Arthur said with a smug grin.
Merlin couldn't help but laugh. Obediently, he picked out a stone and tried to mimic Arthur's gesture. He and Will had skipped stones in this very spot, but it had been years ago. His first stone plummeted to the depths of the pond in much the same manner as the pebbles he'd been throwing moments before. Merlin smiled good-naturedly at his own failure as Arthur outright guffawed.
"Is there anything you're good at, Merlin?"
"I have some hidden talents," Merlin replied. "I'm pretty sure I can juggle." Probably. With a little bit of magic to ease things along.
"Not with any of my belongings, that's for sure," Arthur said warningly. "You would probably break something. Or someone."
Merlin stood up from the stump and mock-bowed. "You honour me, Sire," he said sarcastically. "Here, let me try again."
As he chose his stone this time – a smooth, perfect one –, he allowed a little of his magic to seep into it, enjoying the ease with which his power flowed from him. He flicked his wrist, and though the motion was flawed, a whispered word caused the stone to skip four times before skipping right outside of the pond and back into the grass on the other side. Merlin turned, smirking, to face Arthur.
"Self-satisfied idiot," Arthur said, though there was no bite to the words. "Beginner's luck."
"Of course, Sire," Merlin said. "No doubt you can do better. I'd love to see it."
Arthur grinned at him, but it lasted only a moment. His expression darkened.
"You're not planning on returning to Camelot, are you?"
Heart sinking, Merlin shook his head.
Arthur's expression was as hard as stone again, completely closed-off so that Merlin could detect neither hurt nor anger. "You once told me you would serve me until the day you died."
"People change, Arthur," Merlin said, eyes downcast.
"I don't suppose there's anything I can say to make you change your mind again."
Merlin hesitated, and Arthur picked up on it. His spine straightened.
"I do want to serve you," Merlin interrupted him. "With all my heart. But I can't, not now. Maybe not ever."
"Why not?" Arthur asked. "What's changed? I have a right to know, Merlin. If you're going to stay here in Ealdor, then you owe it to me to tell me. You owe me the truth."
He was right, of course. So painfully right. He had no idea how right he was, and that was what made Merlin straighten his back and force the words out.
Arthur waited and watched as Merlin drew in a breath. He seemed to struggle with himself for a moment before finally biting the words out.
"I can't go back because you don't know why I left. But I'll tell you, because – you're right. I do owe it to you. I owe you so much, Arthur, you have no idea."
Arthur wanted to ask what he meant, but chose not to.
"I knew I had to tell you the moment I realised you were following me. You would never have let it rest, and... you had a right to know. You've always had a right. I just didn't want to admit it. Arthur, I had to come home to tell my mother I'd met him and that he was dead." Merlin met Arthur's gaze. "Balinor, I mean."
"What does he have –"
"Just listen to me," Merlin interrupted. "Because..." Merlin took a deep breath; he released it in shallow bursts. His voice was shaky when he spoke. "Arthur, Balinor was my father."
It took a while for the information to register. The words were so unexpected that they seemed to make no sense at all – until Arthur recalled certain glances, a few hushed conversations, the way Balinor had suddenly agreed to help. He remembered with shame how Balinor had died, in Merlin's arms; how Merlin hadn't even bothered to conceal his tears, and how he himself had been so cruelly, so callously disappointed – not that the man was dead, but that their chance of saving Camelot was gone. He remembered Merlin's silence on the road to Ealdor, and there might have been an apology on the tip of his tongue when with sudden, brutal clarity, he remembered something else.
He remembered waking up to Merlin telling him the dragon was dead.
"You killed it," he said, because a horrible feeling was settling in the pit of his stomach, and he didn't even want to consider the alternative.
Merlin shook his head slowly. "Arthur –"
"You killed the dragon, not me. You said he was gone – but I was unconscious. It was you."
"Arthur," Merlin said, quietly. "It was me who released Kilgharrah."
It didn't have to mean anything. Arthur had never even heard the name Kilgharrah before. But he knew, with a sudden, sick certainty, what Merlin was talking about. He knew what Merlin had released. He knew the dragon wasn't dead.
Arthur backed up into the wall, horror coursing through his veins. "You're Balinor's son," he repeated. "You're a dragonlord."
Merlin shook his head desperately, but not in denial. His voice was thick with tears when he said, "Arthur, I'm a sorcerer."
Arthur reeled back in shock. "You released the dragon on Camelot. You knew what it would do and you –"
"I didn't!" Merlin cried. "Arthur, I didn't! I needed his help, and he made me promise to help him in return – but I didn't know what he would do!"
"You're everything Camelot despises – of course you knew. You're a sorcerer."
He wanted Merlin to deny it. He wanted to hear him say I would never harm Camelot, I would never betray you that way, I wouldn't lie to you, you know I wouldn't. If Merlin would just say that, then Arthur would believe him because he wanted to. He wanted to believe Merlin wasn't a sorcerer.
But Merlin's shoulders only slumped in defeat, and he offered no denial. There were two spots of heightened colour on his cheeks, but whether it was a flush of guilt or anger Arthur couldn't tell. He only knew that it was all true. Merlin had lied. Merlin had almost destroyed Camelot.
Merlin had magic.
Arthur's hand reflexively went to his hip, where the comforting weight of his sword was missing because he had never thought to need it here, with Merlin. He saw Merlin's eyes tracking the movement, not missing its significance, but still his manservant didn't say anything. He was silent and still as death, waiting. Waiting for Arthur's reaction, just as Arthur was waiting for an apology, an explanation, anything.
"I should arrest you," Arthur said, his voice sounding hollow now, not angry. "I should execute you here and now, in the name of Camelot."
Merlin's eyes shone with tears he refused to let fall, but Arthur tried not to notice.
"This is why you wanted to make sure I knew Ealdor wasn't bound by the laws of Camelot," he said, feeling the red-hot fury rise again. "But in any kingdom, what you did is punishable by death. You caused the deaths of so many people, Merlin. That dragon killed dozens."
"I know," Merlin said in a choked voice. "I know."
"My knights, Merlin. Leon almost didn't make it, and that would have been your fault, too. You almost killed me."
Merlin sucked in a harsh breath, and Arthur could tell these last words – for some reason – had hit home. Merlin's expression was hurt and shocked, as though Arthur had struck him physically – as though he were the one who had been betrayed.
"I would never –" he began, echoing what Arthur had hoped to hear, except now it was too late. The damage had been done.
"You would," Arthur said sharply. "You did, Merlin. Every single one of the knights who came with me died, except Leon. If I'm still alive, it's only because – only because –" He stopped.
Merlin looked at him, pale and shaking, as Arthur understood. He had been about to say he had been lucky, but looking at Merlin now, he knew that couldn't be true. And, in a rush, it all came back to him, clear as water: Lady Helen. The snakes on Valiant's shield. Merlin, drinking poison for him, always following him around, going into battle with him. Facing a dragon with him.
He was alive because Merlin had saved him – again.
Because magic had saved him.
He turned away from Merlin, unable to look at him for a second longer. By God, what had he done to deserve this? What crime had he committed, that this was his punishment? To be betrayed in this manner by one he relied on so completely stung worse than any battle wound he had ever received. Merlin had magic, Merlin had lied, Merlin had defended him from every threat he had faced in the last few months.
It wasn't just the crime. Magic may be illegal, and Arthur may inherently distrust it, but he was not always as quick to condemn its practitioners as his father. It was the treason that lay behind Merlin's actions that disgusted Arthur. All those victories Arthur had won, the plots he had thwarted, the glory he had won – he knew now it hadn't been him. None of it had been him. In a few sentences, Merlin had robbed him of all his merit and pride. What kind of warrior was he, that until now he hadn't even noticed he deserved none of it? What kind of prince, of king could he ever be if he was so easy to fool, to deceive, to dupe?
It shouldn't have been Merlin. Of all people, it shouldn't have been him. If there was one person who had never given Arthur special treatment because of his rank, it was Merlin. Merlin who had never deferred to him, hardly ever given him his proper title, and rarely shown any sort of respect. But in the end, he was worse than all of the others combined – all the arse-kissers and sycophants and boot-lickers – because even if he had never bowed to Arthur except in jest, he had done much more damage by giving Arthur confidence, pride, and a sense of worthiness. And now he had taken it all away.
Arthur knew he had become the man Merlin had shaped him to be, and he hated it. Hated how he'd let himself be ruled so completely by another, when there was no one in the world he ought to bow down to except his father.
"Tell me, Merlin," he said, and was surprised to hear his voice was strong, steady, and cold. "How many men have you killed?"
The silence that followed his words was so absolute he might have believed Merlin to be gone, if he hadn't known better.
"Give me one reason why I shouldn't execute you right now."
"Because you don't have a sword?" Merlin offered, his voice cracking on the last word.
Arthur refused to allow himself a smile, even if Merlin wouldn't have seen it anyway. "And later?"
Another pause, shorter this time. "That's for you to judge."
"Is it?" There was an edge to Arthur's words. "Is anything still up to me these days, or do you pull the strings from the shadows and control my every decision? Do you have any idea, Merlin, what you've done?"
"I'm your prince." Arthur's voice cut through the air like a knife: cold, unforgiving, and as hard as steel.
"My lord –"
"You should never have kept it from me," Arthur said. "You should never have let me think – let me believe –" He ground his teeth together. "All this time, have you wielded more power than I do? Have you saved lives, defeated enemies, and won glory for me? Did you ever think I would truly want that? You're one of the few who know that 'Sir William of Daira' –" He stopped, remembering the fake name he had fought under to prove his worthiness to himself in a tournament. His last opponent had been thrown from his horse when a strap on his saddle broke... "Of course. You cheated for me then, too." He closed his eyes. "Have I done anything by myself since you came to Camelot, Merlin?"
The silence was deafening. Arthur felt, in that moment, like a child again – a spoilt child whom everyone admired and respected, without him having ever deserved one shred of their adoration. The truth was, Arthur had always had a fair bit of pride – but as he had grown into adolescence and adulthood and proven himself as a knight, his pride had become a part of him that no one begrudged. And Merlin had taken that pride and trampled it, exposing Arthur for what he really was.
"You killed so many," Arthur said. "The dragon you released on Camelot threatened to destroy everything I've ever loved, and the only thing I can think about is how you deceived me. Tell me, Merlin, why is that? What is it about you that makes me –"
He cut himself off, knowing his words would betray him if they hadn't already. Merlin's presence had made him want to strive to be a better man, a better prince for his people. He had thought he was becoming a better person, these last few months, but that had all been Merlin, hadn't it? Now that he finally cared about doing what was right, he found that all he had been was a lie. He should be furious with Merlin about the dragon, for lying about the magic, for committing a crime. But the manipulation seemed to outweigh all of that, leaving him feeling hollow, like an important part of him had vanished. It was all hurt and betrayal, not resentment. Self-loathing and guilt filled him, as it did whenever he faced a defeat – the kind of self-loathing that only Merlin and Guinevere could drag him out of. And just like that, Arthur knew.
He couldn't let Merlin slip away from him, not now. Not like this.
"You can return to Camelot, you know," he said quietly, his back still resolutely stiff, turned away from Merlin.
"Arthur," Merlin breathed, all the world's hope and distress in his voice. "Arthur, look at me."
Slowly, he turned around, meeting Merlin's gaze once more. Merlin looked so young, so fragile, so normal, like nothing had changed. Except everything had.
"I'm loyal to you," Merlin said softly, the words a promise. "I swear, Arthur."
He knew it in his bones, and yet how was he supposed to believe it, when Merlin constantly lied?
"Did you ever even trust me?"
"I have faith in you," Merlin replied.
Arthur gave a bitter laugh. Well, that was answer enough, wasn't it? Faith but not trust. Faith in what he could shape Arthur into, but not trust in the man himself.
"What else have you lied about?" he asked. "Tell me, Merlin."
It was an order and Arthur had not intended it any other way. He saw it register on Merlin's face, watched as his manservant hesitated, then seemed to think about it. The silence stretched on.
"So many lies, you can't even remember all of them."
It was meant as a taunt but came out sounding more hurt than anything. Merlin flinched at the words anyway, but didn't deny them.
"I think, with the magic, you've figured most of it out," he said dully. "And if you have, you know I've only ever used it to protect you."
He did know. Oh, he knew. The very thought that he had needed protection from every single threat that had come his way left a bitter taste in the back of Arthur's throat. He was supposed to be a knight, a warrior, a leader: as proud and fierce as a lion. All he had been was weak, powerless, and blind like a newborn kitten.
"There is one thing," Merlin said, his eyes darting quickly up at Arthur's face and then away again. "Morgause."
Arthur felt it like a knife sliding into his belly, slicing through his guts. It was a hot, intense pain that shot up his spine, worse than the knowledge of Merlin's betrayal, worse than his own wounded pride.
"She was telling the truth," he breathed. "My father used magic to have a son. He killed my mother with magic." His hand clenched into a fist. "I should have killed him that day. You should have let me kill him!"
This was something else Merlin had taken from him: the right to know the truth about his own birth. The right to make his own informed decision. Merlin had manipulated him into sparing his father.
"You would never have forgiven yourself," Merlin said quietly. "I couldn't let you do it."
"But don't you see, Merlin?" Arthur spat. "It wasn't your decision to make. None of this was ever your decision! You had no right to choose for me, to force me to do what you wanted. I'm supposed to be King one day – I would be already if you hadn't stayed my hand. How can I rule if at every turn you're there to force your decisions upon me? Is that why you came to Camelot? Is that why you pretend to serve me, so that you can rule more easily?"
"No," Merlin said, sounding shocked that Arthur would even consider the idea. "That's not it – it's never been that at all. I wouldn't force you into anything, Arthur. You're my prince, you'll be my king – the only man I've ever wanted to serve."
Arthur nodded shortly, not in acceptance of Merlin's words as truth, but because he wanted Merlin to stop. He needed Merlin to stop.
"You can return to Camelot," he said again, forcing the words out. "You're never to use magic against me, or to deliberately conceal your actions from me again. But you're free, in Essetir and in Camelot, if you choose to return."
Merlin moved forward so suddenly Arthur thought he might hug him, but even as Arthur stepped back, unwilling to grant Merlin the show of affection, his servant dropped to his knees in front of him in a demonstration of servitude and respect that Arthur knew he had done nothing to deserve. Merlin's head had scarcely been bowed for a second before Arthur reached out and grabbed his elbow, pulling him to his feet so roughly it had to hurt.
"Don't," he said, anger creeping into his tone. "Don't pretend to be a servant now of all times."
Merlin looked as though he'd been slapped across the face. "I never pretended –"
Arthur's hand was still around his elbow, fingers already wrapped tight enough to be painful; they dug in now, harshly, forcing Merlin to let out a sharp cry of pain.
"Didn't you?" he hissed, drawing Merlin close so that they were face-to-face. "Look me in the eye, Merlin, and tell me you never lied to me, never pretended to be something you weren't."
"I had to!" Merlin said, his tone pleading, pain still clear across his features – but how much of it was physical pain, Arthur couldn't say. "I couldn't tell you about my magic, but I never lied about being loyal to you, Arthur. I am your servant. I've only ever wanted to serve you."
Arthur loosened the grip he had on Merlin, looking hard at him. Merlin didn't look afraid anymore – he had nothing left to hide. Honest indignation was written all across his expression. Arthur wondered, fleetingly, why Merlin had wanted to kneel – what he had been about to say, or offer, to Arthur. Would it have been an oath of fealty? Had Arthur refused him the right to serve his prince, as though he weren't worthy of it? That wasn't how he had meant it. He had meant the exact opposite.
Acting quickly so he wouldn't have time to think better of it, Arthur used the hold he still had on Merlin to pull the other man to him in a tight embrace. He forced himself to ignore the hitch in Merlin's breathing, the way Merlin immediately melted into him, warm and solid at the same time. The way his own hand automatically rose to the back of Merlin's head, keeping him in place.
"I always knew you were an idiot," Arthur said roughly, knowing that Merlin would hear forgiveness in his words, "but I didn't think you were quite this stupid."
They packed their bags that night – or rather, Merlin packed their bags that night. There was a certain febrility to Merlin's movements as he gathered what little clothing he had brought. He couldn't quite believe this was happening. Had happened. He had told Arthur the truth, and it had nearly killed him, but in the end, it hadn't. The chasm between Arthur and him had deepened, but nothing was irrevocably broken. Merlin had faith that they could get past it. It was already beautiful – so much more than he'd hoped for – that Arthur hadn't chopped his head off. Hadn't even promised to have him jailed. Instead, he had told Merlin he would be safe in Camelot – an offer stronger than the promise made to Lancelot that he would be welcome when Arthur was king. This was Arthur knowingly going against his father's laws – and if Arthur was willing to do that, then they could do anything together.
Arthur watched him carefully as he packed, eyes tracking his every movement, like a cat stalking its prey. Merlin found he didn't even mind. He felt watched, but not hunted. Arthur had promised him safety, and Merlin knew that now, he could finally trust Arthur with his life.
Arthur cleared his throat. "Merlin, stop," he said quietly. "There's something else we need to talk about, before we return to Camelot."
His tone was low and steady, but with an edge to it that said I'm going to speak, you're going to listen, but it won't be a conversation. Merlin, his heart sinking, turned to look searchingly into Arthur's eyes – but Arthur's gaze was pointedly turned away from him, fixed on the floor.
"I'm the Prince, Merlin. And I know you've always thought I was a privileged arrogant arse, but there are things a Prince just can't do. There are people he can't be too close to, even if he –" he hesitated, as though choosing his words – "even if he really wants to."
"Is this you reminding me that we're not friends?" Merlin asked, trying to ignore the pain rippling in his chest. He knew, already, what was coming. Wasn't it made obvious by the way Arthur wouldn't even look him in the eye?
"No, it's not that," Arthur said which wasn't reassuring in the least. "What I've done – even just coming here was a mistake. I should have stayed in Camelot with my people and my father. I'm sorry I came. And I –" He paused again, and it occurred to Merlin that maybe he wasn't choosing his words carefully; maybe he was making sure his voice was steady when he forced the words out. "I apologise for the way I acted towards you and the things I said."
Merlin felt his stomach twist at the words. Somehow, he knew Arthur wasn't talking about having tailed him halfway across Camelot, sacked him, and cornered him into revealing the truth about his magic. It killed him that Arthur thought he had to apologise for the precious moments they'd shared, the ones that Merlin had already decided he would remember forever.
"I wasn't thinking straight," Arthur said, his voice still low, steady, and decidedly unimpassioned. "Neither of us was. So far from Camelot, I thought – well, I didn't think."
Merlin swallowed. "Do you have to do this now?"
"Yes," Arthur said. "I have to. These past few days... None of it should have happened. It won't happen again. I'd like you, if possible, to try to forget this. I'd ask you not to mention it again. But, Merlin, if you still think we can, then I'd be honoured to have you by my side. As a friend."
It was wrong. All of this was wrong. Arthur's words sounded disgustingly flat and rehearsed, like a speech he'd give at an event he didn't particularly care about, to people he couldn't care less about. Merlin forced himself to nod, briefly, because he wasn't sure he could speak again past the tightness in his throat. Oh, gods. This was Arthur being selfish in a way he rarely was – purely, callously selfish. He was asking for something that he knew Merlin would give without hesitation – had already given, months and months ago –, but he was also telling Merlin, quite clearly, that he could never give anything in return.
In a way, Merlin had lost Arthur to his magic. It hadn't gone quite how he had expected. He had lost both more and less than he had thought he might. He might have managed to hold on to Arthur's friendship and protection, but something else had vanished, something he had only been able to savour for a few days before it disappeared. Something he had never dared hope to have in the first place. He'd never thought it could hurt so much.
Arthur was still waiting for an answer. He wouldn't look at Merlin expectantly, but he wasn't saying anything, clearly indicating that it was Merlin's turn to speak. Except Merlin wasn't sure he could speak past the tightness in his throat.
Merlin took three steps forward, until he was standing in front of where Arthur was leaning against the wall, forcing Arthur to look at him. Holding his prince's gaze, he sank down on one knee, bracing himself for the rejection that might come again – Arthur, forcing him back to his feet. But Arthur only watched, eyes wide, looking stunned, as Merlin took his hand and brought it to his lips. With that gesture he silently swore, as he had wanted to that afternoon in the woods, to serve Arthur until his dying breath. As a friend, as a manservant, as anything Arthur wanted him to be. For the love of Camelot.
Merlin didn't say what his heart was aching to say: I'll always be yours, I love you more than anything, this is my destiny, but he was fairly certain Arthur heard it anyway.