Merlin was many things. Shy was not one of them.
It was hard to think of someone as shy when they wore torn clothes to battle instead of armor.
Even harder when said person decided he was above status and royalty and could just insult them as he pleased.
A man who happened to be the physicians apprentice and therefore could not afford to be shy.
Never someone this brave, this trusting and naive.
And yet, in a way he was.
“Come one, Merlin!”, this was frustrating. I mean, sure, Merlin was always annoying and frustrating but not to this level.
“I said no.”, Merlin said decisively and dodged Arthur´s attempt to grab for his scarf.
“Will you just get changed already, Merlin! We´re getting guests and I am not having them think my personal servant has to run around in those … lumps.” After another attempt to grab him, Arthur sighed. Merlin was a lot more agile than he´d liked to admit. “Don´t be such a girl about it!”
“I´m not being a girl about anything. I just don´t see why I have to get changed in front of you. YOU at least have your screen so you don´t feel watched. Why is it any different for me?”
Arthur halted at that explanation. “Because I´m the king! And that screen is mine!”, but his mind lulled out at the end, because what the hell?
First of all, they were both guys and Merlin had certainly seen Arthur naked before. So why was it any different if it was the other way around? Certainly Merlin didn´t think -
“Merlin, look. I´m not interested in you like that – you know that right? Come on -”
“What?”, Merlin looked at him confused.
So that was not what he had meant then. Great. Arthur made a fool out of himself for absolutely no reason. Merlin frowned at him comically, turning away from Arthur.
Arthur sighed. And now Merlin thought he had been lying or hinting at something or -
“God, Merlin. Come on. I know you´re not a knight. I´m not judging you for being – I dunno -”
“Not thick?”, Merlin continued, an amused smile now breaking through his irritated frown from earlier.
Arthur hesitated for a second, thinking of jabbing at Merlin for calling him fat. He nodded instead, with a grim expression.
“I´m still not going to change in front of you.”, Merlin pointed out.
“Fine, then use my screen! I wasn´t gonna look anyway!”, Arthur threw his arms out in exasperation.
“Really, cause it kinda sounded like you did.”, Merlin teased, before Arthur could attack him for being disobedient.
“Now get changed already!”, Arthur growled as he finally threw the dark red robe at Merlin. The material was not as carefully stitched as Arthur´s was, but it was worth at least a year of Merlin´s usual income. Merlin should be honored! But no, of course he would look at it as if Arthur was insulting him.
At least Merlin was finally moving behind Arthur´s screen, hurrying to get the formal robes on.
Arthur sighed, as he relaxed a little.
Still – somehow this didn´t sit well with him. What was Merlin so ashamed of? On hunts they had bathed together, hadn´t they? Arthur blinked. Huh? This was weird.
In fact – his mind was searching for images, for fun memories of him, the knights and Merlin playing in a river.... But each picture had Merlin sitting at the shore, or being thrown in the water with his clothes still on.
Had Merlin never – Arthur shook his head. This was private. He may be the prince of Camelot, but there were things that he wasn´t supposed to know about his staff.
For a second Arthur wondered if Merlin maybe couldn´t swim – but he was certain that Merlin could.
Also, his current behavior wasn´t exactly screaming for a fear of drowning.
Arthur shook his head, trying to convince himself that this was none of his business. Which – to be fair – it really wasn´t. Still, Arthur couldn´t help but be curious.
Only when Merlin came forth, complaining about his new robe did Arthur manage to put the questions to the back of his mind.
So apparently, Merlin was not as shy as he seemed. Merlin was – well it couldn´t be called flirting, as he was just dancing with a royal woman who had asked him to dance.
Maybe she had mistaken his clothes for a sign of royalty, Arthur wasn´t sure about her intentions.
But Merlin smiled at her politely, accepting her offer, as he lead her into the middle of the ballroom and started spinning her around.
Arthur, who had delicate matters to discuss with one of the more noble men regarding their taxes, stopped his drink as he saw just – how they danced.
Merlin was no noble. He didn´t follow the rehearsed dances Arthur was taught from the day he managed to walk.
He didn´t follow courtesy, but his partner didn´t seem to mind, as Merlin explained a couple simple steps for her to follow.
Teaching her! In the middle of a ball room! The man had no shame. Arthur barely managed to conceal the mix of amusement and annoyance that dwelled up in him.
Even worse, he wasn´t showing her respect that way. And yet, the lady with the long brown hair didn´t seem to mind. Maybe she was just glad someone had decided to dance with her.
Arthur hadn´t exactly watched her to see how many rejections she might have gotten. Then again, rejections weren´t exactly etiquette either, so maybe she just didn´t have standards.
Poor woman, Arthur thought.
But then – she actually got the hang of what Merlin was trying to show her. And when her head beamed at the servant, he nodded at her and the next song began.
Suddenly, Merlin was no longer the clumsy servant Arthur knew him to be.
No. In this very moment, Merlin was a gentleman, who knew how to lead. A man who knew how to dance and dance in an interesting way. A way that made her swoon and twirl and fall but never really fall as Merlin never failed to catch her.
It didn´t take long for the other guests to realize there was a man among them who didn´t follow the rules.
Someone who was swiftly avoiding them and their dancing partners and managed to make a royal lady laugh of joy rather than flirtatious giggling.
The woman was gleeful under Merlin´s watchful glance. Arthur couldn´t help but stare at them. How did Merlin learn how to dance? When?
As the song ended, the woman was heaving for air, laughing at Merlin. But he send her to sit somewhere as she looked ready to faint.
Arthur roused an eyebrow. This was slightly confusing, actually. How were women in the lower town able to carry buckets of water all that way into the castle without heaving even half as much as this woman just did?
Now that he thought about it – the royal ladies tended to faint a lot. Be it hot weather, too much exercise, he didn´t really know.
“Do you know how hart it is to breath in a corset?”, he could hear Morgana in his mind. Ah yes, that would explain it.
What it did NOT explain, however, was why one of the knights was approaching Merlin now. Ok, it was Gwaine, so maybe it did.
However, Gwaine was not talking to the woman but Merlin now. Asking him something, before Merlin grinned at his friend and holding out his hand.
Arthur noticed with a grin how Gwaine flinched back a little, causing Merlin to laugh a little, saying something in return.
And then -
Then it was Gwaine and Merlin on the dance floor. Arthur sputtered out a cough as he realized what they were doing. Merlin was instructing Gwaine the dance. Merlin was in the leaded position now, leaving the dominant position to Gwaine who flushed furiously.
Honestly, it looked hilarious.
Until eventually, Gwaine as well got the hang of it. And soon it wasn´t Merlin instructing him anymore, but Merlin being twirled around.
Arthur could hear the whispering an the gossip welling up once more.
At one point one of the royals leaned over the the king of Camelot, asking: “you allow a lowley servant to do that? To – to dance with royalty? To dance with – men?! He´s messing up the entire feast.”
Arthur growled at that, as he shot the man a grin. “I don´t know what you´re looking at, Sire … but I feel like he´s improving the feast, if anything. I don´t think I´ve ever seen Sir Gwaine dance before and Lady Valery never laughs at banquets. My servant is many things, but he is neither a fool nor is he shy. He´s more relaxed than you are, surely and you had enough to drink not to care about these things.”
Arthur felt in his heart that what he just said was true. And yet … something still struck him as odd.
It was only when Gwaine tried to encourage Merlin to lift their shirts to “entertain the ladies”, that Merlin refused and turned to leave.
He left Gwaine in the midst of the now group of drunk dancing royals.
And Arthur wondering, what on earth had the servant so stubborn to refuse to be seen. Arthur regretted not peeking earlier that day.
Barely two months later, Arthur was reminded of the whole ordeal once more. Up until now, Arthur had ignored his curiosity, thinking maybe Merlin had had a rash he didn´t want to get infected that very night. It was a theory, but it was convincing enough.
He was at training with his knights – as usual. His knights were fighting each other, drilling the younger knights, while their king supervised them.
Arthur was proud of them, as he witnessed their growth.
It was a hot day. Brutal indeed, as the sun burned through their chainmail, heating the metal of their armor.
On days like these, Arthur liked his men to exercise in the river. Mostly, because some of his men couldn´t swim. Another reason was that some of his knights needed to be reminded of the fact that armor was friggin heavy and it was not a good idea to try and swim with it.
He had taken Merlin with him. Or rather, he hadn´t asked. Merlin was just there. He always was.
But he sat at the shore, as usual, watching them from afar.
He still wore long sleeved clothes, which struck Arthur for some reason.
He himself was training himself and his knights to survive in the heat with their armor on. (Not right now, obviously, as they were all taking a swim in the river)
But Merlin? Merlin traveled with them, did most of the work to set up camps and stuff, but he didn´t wear armor.
He rarely had to actively fight as he hid in the shadows of trees and bushed.
So why on earth was he not even rolling up his sleeves? Why was he still wearing that god damn scarf?
“Come on, Merlin. Join us!”, Gwaine shouted over to Merlin, right before diving under water towards his oldest friend.
“Or did princess over there forbid it?”, Gwaine teased, but Merlin only smiled and shook his head, as he continued sharpening Arthur´s sword and cleaning his armor.
At least he wasn´t just sitting around....
Then again, didn´t that make it worse? Hotter.
And yet, Merlin didn´t seem to be breaking a sweat. That reminded Arthur, Merlin never really – sweated. He never had a heat stroke, he never got sick (unless he was poisoned, but seriously that didn´t count.)- he never seemed bothered by heat or cold.
He barely even slept, if the fact that Merlin tended to take most of the night patrols during hunts counted for anything.
Merlin truly was a wonder. No wonder he looked so exhausted all the time.
“Oh, come on! Merlin!”, Gwaine splashed some water on his friend who just hissed at him with a laugh. Okay, now it was time to tease him.
“Leave him, Gwaine. He´s ashamed that he´s not as – thick as you guys are.”, Arthur jabbed at Merlin, slowly swimming over. Weird how the sun didn´t seem to burn him much, when he could feel the cool water on his skin.
“Says the king who is as red in the face as the color of his kingdom. Seriously, Arthur, how long have you been in the water? You´ll get a sunburn and you haven´t drunken anything in at least two hours. Just because you´re in the water doesn´t make you invincible to dehydration.”, Merlin jabbed back, throwing a flask at Arthur.
Arthur scowled in surprise, as the cold liquid did cool his upcoming headache as he drunk from the flask.
“You´ll get blisters, if you´re not careful!”, Merlin reminded his king, who just shook his head. It didn´t feel that hot on his skin and Merlin was not his mother. So he rolled his eyes, just like a child would.
“Is it true, Merlin? Are you ashamed of -”, Gwaine pointed vaguely at Merlin´s body. Merlin laughed at that, shaking his head.
“You do know you´re pointing at all of me, right? I´m not. Just not in the mood for a swim right now.”
And you know, when Arthur stared at him in wonder, it was not of wonder what was under those sheets of clothes that made Merlin hide himself – but it was of surprise how well Merlin was lying right now.
If Arthur didn´t know him as well as he did – if he wasn´t familiar with his lying techniques and the way Merlin usually behaved when he was supposed to lift his shirt – if it wasn´t for his suspicion, he would have believed him in an instant. Without batting an eye, to be honest.
“Still, mate. Isn´t that a bit hot in there?”, Gwaine asked with another smile, without a doubt tired of his training.
“Not really. They may not look it, but these clothes aren´t very warm.”, Merlin shrugged, which made Arthur frown. “So – you mean you´re usually freezing in winter then?”, he asked carefully, receiving nothing but a glance from dark blue eyes.
“I don´t freeze easily, my lord.”, he teased.
That made even less sense, but Arthur decided to nod along, granting Merlin the benefit of the doubt.
The next time, Arthur noticed Merlin´s odd behavior was when Merlin himself had been hurt. It wasn´t much, really. His first battle wound, so it seemed.
Arthur frowned, had Merlin really never been injured in all these years he went with them?
It didn´t matter. Arthur wanted to believe it was, so that was that.
“Come here, Merlin. Show me that. It´s your first battle wound after all. We need to make sure it doesn´t get infected.”
Merlin held back his arm. “It´s fine, I can take care of it myself.”
“Don´t be ridiculous, Merlin!”, Arthur scoffed. “You wouldn´t be able to wrap a band aid around that wound all by yourself, let me help you.”
“I said no, it´s fine.”
“Come on, I´m trying to help you out here,”
“Yes, and that scares me. Since when do YOU know how to treat a wound properly.”
Well alright that might have hurt a bit. “Merlin, I´ve had mortal wounds that I´ve survived. Gaius isn´t always with us, so I learned a little to take care of my knights. It´s just a small scratch. I´ll be gentle.”
Of course, that was the wrong thing for him to say.
“Absolutely, it´s not that bad, I can handle it myself.”
And that was that. Merlin disappeared into the woods, with Arthur huffing behind, as he shook his head and tended to other things. Most likely other injured knights.
“Has Merlin been acting weird again?”, Leon asked, as soon as Arthur returned to the burning fire.
“Is it that obvious?”, Arthur asked defeated. Defeated.... Huh, that wasn´t a word Arthur usually associated with himself...
“I´m sure it´s fine.”, Leon shrugged, trying to reassure Arthur.
However, nobody managed to reassure Arthur the way Merlin usually did. And even he had failed this time.
“Yes, that´s not what worries me. I think he´s being unnaturally …. shy.”
Leon laughed at that, pulling some of the other knights into their conversation. Leon hardly laughed. (Except when a certain someone threatened the king, you know who.)
“Merlin and shy, yeah I´ve heard better jokes.”
Arthur sighed and shook his head. “I mean he´s being – prude?”
That wasn´t really the right word to say, as Leon flushed in surprise as he raised his eyebrows at his king.
“Prude...?”, he asked, hinting at something Arthur very much did not mean.
“What I mean is -”, Arthur says, hurrying to clear up the misunderstanding.
“I noticed he´s refusing to take of – his scarf.”, he ended lamely, because there was no way to end that sentence in a pure way.
“His scarf -”, Leon grinned, clearly amused. God why was Leon picking up at the innuendos Arthur tried to avoid. Leon of all people! The guy didn´t even realize someone was flirting with him when they told him they were!
“Anything really. He won´t swim in the river with us, he won´t get changed in front of other people, he doesn´t even change his clothes according to the weather for god´s sake.
He wouldn´t even take of his jacket, so I could check on his wound – it´s odd.”, Arthur added lamely.
Leon finally considered his attempt in seriousness.
“So you want him to take off his -”, never mind, Arthur would punish him for that later.
“I mean I´m worried!”, Arthur finally said. And flinched at the same time. He had not planned to admit as much.
Leon´s eyes however widened at that, before his teasing expression softened to a gentle smile.
“I´m sure he´s fine, Sire. He might just not want to compare himself to us. Doesn´t want to get judged. He´s small and lanky, as you well know. He doesn´t train.
Doesn´t want to appear weak in front of us.”
And Arthur wanted to believe him, he really did. And for the moment he felt assured enough.
It was only a couple of month´s later, when even the knights realized something was off.
And with off, Arthur meant – really off.
Merlin was carrying himself – oddly. Somehow odd had become the new adjective to describe Arthur´s humble and clumsy manservant.
It was after the knights and Arthur and Merlin had been captured by some random group of bandits.
They had held each person in a different cell, doing whatever they wanted with each person.
Only they never got to the fun part, as one of the torturing bandits had asked their leader to come and see something odd.
He had looked amused, shaking his head in disgust at Arthur. As though whatever he had seen had been his doing. And an honorless thing at that.
For some odd reason, these idiots had thought it was a good idea to let Merlin go. Maybe they had thought a servant was no threat to them. For once they were wrong. For once – Merlin got them out of the cells, white as a sheet, as though he was ready to puke.
In the chaos of breaking out, Arthur had already noticed that Merlin had been limping, but had paid it no mind, as Merlin walked naturally otherwise. And didn´t flinch more than usual, when he clapped him on the shoulder for a job well done.
The only thing that struck him as odd was the fact that he was wearing his jacket wrongly. The inside was out, as if put on in a hurry.
But since this was Merlin, maybe he had already worn it like that since the very morning and Arthur had just been to oblivious to notice.
Two days passed, until Arthur gave Merlin an afternoon off. The relieve that fell from his servants shoulders looked unnatural.
The way his tired expression softened worrying, the sweat on his forehead a reason for concern.
Arthur dismissed him, but he never let him out of sight.
That was when he noticed Gwaine sneaking up behind Merlin.
“I take it you´re going to follow him as well?”, Arthur asked him, as he caught up to him.
“Sire! I mean, your majesty, I -”
“I get it, Gwaine. Let´s not fight over this, we can both follow him wherever he´s going.”
So they did.
Merlin had taken himself a horse, so did Arthur and Gwaine, pretending they were gonna spar later, when Merlin glanced at them cautiously.
Then he took off towards the forest. Arthur and Gwaine shared a glance. Merlin may be a grown man. But first of all, he was injured, (his limp that Merlin refused to let anyone see to). Second of all, these woods were full of wolves and bandits. No doubt Merlin was unarmed.
As quietly as they could, they followed Merlin. Merlin was slow, as he tried not to jostle his limp too much. In a horrifying moment Arthur wondered, if the dark brown stains on the legs of his trousers were actually from the dirt in the cells they´d been in – of if that was actually blood.
Or worse, both.
Arthur´s eyes swam with worry now.
“You know, Sire. Not many royals dare to care so much about a simple servant.”, Gwaine smiled warmly at Arthur, as if to thank him for being a decent human being.
“He is my friend. He would do the same. For you and for me and anyone really. And you´d do the same for him.”, Arthur pointed out, not eager to be complimented on his moral.
Gwaine only grinned as a response, being quiet otherwise.
It got darker, as the sun finally set. And yet Merlin continued his travel. Without taking a break.
“Isn´t he getting tired?”, Arthur yawned, as at some point he felt his horse tiring underneath him.
“One would think for someone who´s at the tavern so much, his hangovers would wear him out more.”
Gwaine shot him a look at that.
“What?”, Arthur asked, annoyed.
“Nothing – just that I don´t think I´ve ever seen Merlin at the tavern when you weren´t there too.”, he said, shrugging.
Right. He was talking to Gwaine.... “What do you mean, you´ve never seen him? Surely you would go together here and then?”
Gwaine shook his head in confusion. “I bet he would, if he liked taverns at all. But honestly, the guy is a light weight. From all I´ve seen, I could handle more than him when I was barely fourteen.”
“You drank when you were fourteen?”
“Thirteen, actually. What?!”
“And you´re sure, you´ve never been to the tavern in the lower town with him?”, Arthur asked, irritated now.
“No. And I´ll let you know. I love that one! Knights can drink as much as they want there. Merlin wakes me up in the morning sometimes, when I fell asleep on the street, but he never drinks with me. I asked him once and he outright refused! Who told you that Merlin drinks anyway? That person must be out of their mind.”
“Gaius.”, Arthur said and Gwaine´s expression shifted to match Arthur´s own confusion.
They looked ahead again, as finally, they reached a clearing. Merlin had abandoned his horse somewhere, heading towards something that looked like a lake.
“Let´s stay here and watch.”, Arthur said, too curious now what Merlin was up to so late at night.
He was still limping when he reached the shore.
And then -
Then for the first time since Arthur knew his servant – Merlin took of his shirt.
His scarf first, then his jacket, then his shirt. But it wasn´t the clothes Arthur was staring at. They were hiding maybe ten feet apart from Merlin, but he could see them clear as day.
Gwaine hissed a breath in as he noticed them too.
On Merlin´s back were wounds. As if someone had whipped his entire body. And when Merlin finally took of his boots and his trousers and only stood there in only his underwear, Arthur could see his legs too.
The one leg he limped on was bruised up to his knees.
It was blue and black and twisted that Arthur was almost certain it was broken. How on earth had Merlin walked on that for three days? One of them while carrying his armor around, so Arthur wouldn´t hurt the bruise on his shoulder.
Gwaine shot him a look of shock. Arthur went pale. He hadn´t – known that.
Merlin hadn´t even complained! He never said anything!
And that´s when Arthur realized that the wounds on Merlin´s back were still bleeding a little. The red liquid covered most of his back, so he couldn´t really see anything.
That was when the light appeared.
Arthur´s first instinct was to shout at Merlin. Because this kind of light almost always revealed a sorcerer who was trying to attack them.
But Gwaine had covered his mouth with his sweaty hand, trying to stiffle any noise Arthur could make.
Curious, fearful, Gwaine stared ahead, watching how calm Merlin stood in the water now.
Arthur turned to him again as well.
The light changed into a form. A form Arthur actually recognized, as he realized way too late.
It was the Bastet. A creature born from a curse, as Gaius had told him.
It looked like a giant black cat with wings. Arthur remembered killing it. He remembered it´s giant yellow eyes fixed on him.
And now it was staring down at Merlin with a growl.
But Merlin wasn´t running and panic welled up in Arthur´s heart, as Gwaine still refused to release his grip on him.
He would never make it in time.
And then, the form became smaller. Incredibly smaller. The shape formed itself to something ghost-like. Soon a beautiful girl stood on the lake.
“You came back.”, she said sadly. Merlin nodded at her, smiling gently, as though he knew her.
He knew her. It rang in Arthur´s head.
Merlin knew a monster that survived Arthur´s killing blow and he hadn´t warned Arthur. Hadn´t even taken a weapon to defend himself against her.
“You come sooner every time.”, she shook her head, as Merlin kneeled into the water.
“I have no choice.”, Merlin said lowly, almost impossible to hear from afar, but Arthur heard him. Heard every word. And he knew Gwaine did too.
“Everyone has a choice.”, the woman said, walking around him to wash his back.
And that made Arthur freeze. Merlin – let her touch him. On his bare back, without so much as flinching from her touch.
“And I made mine a long time ago.”, Merlin said with a tired voice.
“I´ve told you to be careful, Merlin! But no, of course you wouldn´t listen to me! Is Arthur really worth so much?”
Arthur inhaled through his nose in surprise. Gwaine shot him a confused look.
“Is he worth you life? Your pain? All your grief? How many people have you lost because of him? How many people did you kill to save his life?
How many times have you offered your own life for the same cause?”, she shook her head, but there was no malice in her words.
The water that was put on Merlin´s back glowed a yellowish light, as the wounds seemed to close in on themselves.
Merlin snorted, as though they had had this conversation many times before.
But what on earth were they talking about? Arthur knew Merlin was brave. Braver then some of his knights. He knew Merlin had lost some people in his life, surely he had tried to save people and all that – but surely he hadn´t just done all of that for Arthur´s sake?
“Right, what did you answer last time?”, the woman sighed as Merlin scoffed at her.
“You lost count, right?”
Arthur´s eyes widened. How often did Merlin come here? If she knew his answers, if she knew what he did, if they had this conversation before, was this where Merlin was when Arthur believed him to be in the tavern?
“You know why.”, Merlin said.
“Don´t be ridiculous. Nobody risks this much for anyone just because they are a friend!” But she smiled, as though she wasn´t actually asking him. But reminding him of what he did, and why he did it. She was gentle, reassuring him in an odd way that Arthur couldn´t quite grasp.
“I do.”, Merlin answered instead, chuckling a little.
“Yes, you do.”, she smiled now, turning to face him now. “Arthur has no idea what he has in you.”, she says, before planting a kiss on his forehead.
Somehow that startled Arthur more than the fact that the healed wounds weren´t just mere wounds anymore. They were scars. Joining many more of the same and of different kind.
There was a giant one that looked suspiciously like a serket sting, but that was impossible. Nobody survived those.
There was a burn as well.
Something that looked like wounds inflicted of a string around Merlin´s neck. Was that why he always wore his scarf? Had he gotten hurt in his old home before?
“What do I have in him?”, Arthur asked himself and Gwaine as he finally let his hands from Arthur´s mouth. Finally sure that Arthur wouldn´t run and attack that beautiful little lady of the lake.
“A friend?”, Gwaine asked, but it was as though that was the obvious answer. And the question was how Arthur didn´t know that already.
“Well, i´d love to tell him one day.”, Merlin sighed and Arthur´s focus was directed at him again.
“Why not now.”, she asked, but the words were rehearsed, Arthur could tell from the way she didn´t form it a sentence.
“He hates magic.”, Merlin said instead. “It´s getting worse by the day, Freya. Everything I do – it doesn´t even matter because at some point there is another sorcerer who just – shows him the evil it can do. He never sees the good in it.”, Merlin´s shoulders sacked in sadness and Arthur stared at his servant.
His friend. Merlin wasn´t – opposed to magic? He felt Gwaine stiffle next to him. Gwaine was rarely this quiet. But even Gwaine seemed to realize how serious this was.
Merlin wanted Arthur to see good in magic?
“Merlin. He sees you! He knows you. And he knows you to be a good person. If he knew you were magic – his world would change.”
Merlin looked at her tiredly, receiving a pitying glance, as Arthur´s jaw loosened without his consent.
Merlin was – magic. No. That was ridiculous. She made that up.
“Well – how do you think I should tell him then? Last time I did, I did it to save Gwen from being accused a sorceress and he didn´t even believe me.
I USE magic right in front of him all the time and he can´t see it.
How do you suggest I prove it to him? Let him kill me – because apparently being magic comes with the very fortunate curse that I can´t die?
I don´t want him to suffer like that, Freya.”, Merlin said, meeting her eyes with a pleading look and Arthur felt sick.
Sick of listening to this nonsense. Merlin was good. He couldn´t be magic. Magic corrupts.
If he was -
Arthur shook his head, trying to understand this information.
Then Merlin shook his head himself.
“We always talk about the same things, Freya. How about you tell me how it is in Avalon? I can imagine it tires you to listen to my old stories.”, Merlin smiled at her sadly.
“Merlin. There will be much time to tell you about my life down here, when Arthur has died of old age due to your protection.
Right now, you need someone to listen to you. To help you. You bear a burden heavier then your king can imagine. The destiny of Albion rests on your shoulders, just as heavy as on him.
Only that it has for far longer. And you have to suffer more than he does.
You come here wounded at least twice a weak. Both physically and mentally. You are suffering even more, because you decided to bare all of this by yourself.
Not every decision you make shapes the future of this land. And I´d like you to be at full health when you guide your king to a land of peace and freedom. “
Arthur gulped in the distance.
He saw Merlin smile at her. He looked so old for a man who was so young. Arthur had never seen him this vulnerable. Never had Gwaine.
Gwaine had left the safety of the bushes, heading directly at Merlin and Freya who didn´t suspect a thing. Arthur wanted to shoo him back, but ended up following him himself.
And as incredible as it sounded, the closer they got, the more awkward Arthur felt. The scars – small dots from the distance – grew with every step. They were big. They were crossed, they were young and old and intertwined and Arthur had to bite his lip not to scream.
That WAS a serket sting.
There was a Wyvern claw mark as well. There were burns, scars from chains around his wrists. Cuts deep into his flesh. At least his leg wasn´t black and blue and green anymore.
He coughed. Deliberately.
Merlin startled at the sound, turning around only to fall into the water.
Freya´s eyes widened at them, as she hid behind Merlin now.
And Arthur wished he never made a noise. Because Merlin´s chest was just as scarred as his back had been. Someone had brandished a word into Merlin´s chest. “Sorcerer” it said.
So obvious, Arthur wondered if the gods thought him to be stupid.
What was even worse – was the fear in Merlin´s expression, as he stilled at Arthur´s shocked expression.
He wasn´t even trying to cover himself anymore. Maybe he knew deep down that it was useless anyway.
They had already seen it.
Arthur thought he should feel mad. He should be angry with Merlin. Merlin hadn´t even used magic right now, only consorted with it. Or a ghost – Or whatever she was.
But somehow, he couldn´t. The knowledge lay heavily within him. But the understanding wore even harder.
Gwaine next to him was still rendered speechless as well.
They both knew what this meant. “How much have you heard?”, Merlin asked instead, staring from one man to another. But not in fear, Arthur realized with astonishment.
Merlin looked at them with a mix of regret and shame.
“Every word.”, Arthur said honestly, but he didn´t say much else. Too distracted by his manservants scars and apparent burdens.
“Then I don´t have to explain, I suppose.”, Merlin paled. Lowering his head as he kneeled before Arthur.
Arthur stared at him in wonder. How could he still be so calm? Was it because he couldn´t die, to his own believe?
“How long?”, Arthur asked instead. His questioned asked much and little at the same time. How long have you practiced sorcery. How long have you hidden your magic right under my nose? How long have you suffered like this?
“I was born with it.”, Merlin said, lowering his head even more.
Arthur´s breathing became irratic at that answer.
He wanted to yell at Merlin, for not trusting him enough to tell him something like this. Arthur had always doubted his fathers believes about magic. He had always wavered. All he needed was one good example to decide whether or not a sorcerer could be good and now -
There was one sorcerer who had been born with it? BORN! Was he lying?
No – if Merlin had magic, maybe Merlin wasn´t as good as he thought? He had lied about his magic, he could be lying now.
Merlin had betrayed him! He wanted to shout at him for that. But when he saw Merlin look at him with a plea in his eyes, with his desire for Arthur to trust him -
Arthur had trusted him! With his life, with his decisions, his feelings, his heart, his everything.
And Merlin had gone and betrayed him. Betrayed them all! Just like Agravaine once did.
But had Merlin really? Because Merlin was supposed to be good. But Merlin was magic. Was he not good after all? Or was magic good in the end? But then why would Merlin lie?
Arthur felt the tears dwell up in his eyes as his mind and heart fought over what they believed to be true.
What do you think Merlin did?, his heart asked him, trying to argue with him to forgive his best friend.
His mind told him: everything.
His heart argued: nothing you actually know of.
His mind shot back: exactly!
Then his heart broke. You truly think he betrayed us. Because he didn´t trust us? Or because he used magic? Said his heart and bled the tears that ran down Arthur´s face.
And then Arthur´s mind stilled and his breathing returned.
Arthur was mad at the betrayal. That Merlin didn´t trust him. Not the magic he still knew nothing of. Truth is, Arthur knew nothing of magic in general. It was Merlin who had always guided him through it. Not asking him to accept magic but warned him of evil sorcerers, telling him about good ones that hid in forests.
Arthur was not mad about the magic. He was mad that Merlin hadn´t trusted him.
“Sire?”, Gwaine asked carefully, as Arthur didn´t say anything more, as he approached Merlin once more.
Because when Arthur looked at Merlin, at the way he must have suffered, he thought that maybe – he understood why. If Merlin was willing to be hurt to this extend, then he must have his reasons.
Arthur refused to accept this. He had long been ready to change his mind about magic. He couldn´t bear to change his mind about Merlin. If it meant turning evil himself.
Arthur collapsed onto Merlin who flinched back as he felt Arthur hug him.
“I´m sorry.”, Arthur said to his own surprise.
Merlin froze at the feeling of arms wrapped around him. Searching with his eyes what Arthur could mean by that.
“You have nothing to be sorry for.”, Merlin said.
Arthur met his eyes, ignoring the weird stares he got from his two witnesses.
“I have everything to be sorry for.”, Arthur said, biting his own lip as he scanned Merlin´s appearance once more.
He was sorry that Merlin didn´t feel able to trust him. He felt guilty that Merlin was scarred all over. He felt bad that he hadn´t gone easier on him. Not seeing all that Merlin must have done for him.
Hurt and ashamed that his best friend didn´t dare trust him.
It wasn´t Merlin who had failed Arthur. Merlin had always been loyal. Merlin had always reassured Arthur. That couldn´t be a lie.
Arthur had never regretted trusting Merlin before. Only ever to not trust him. He had always regretted not listening to Merlin.
Arthur had failed Merlin. And that hurt more than thinking Merlin had ever betrayed him.
His mind – a boundle of confusing thoughts before, turned clear now. Until all he could see was Merlin now. Merlin, wet with water from the lake. Scarred, burned, chained, hurt.
“I trust you, Merlin.”, Arthur finally said, receiving a startled yelp from Merlin, as he blinked rapidly as though to understand what was happening right now.
Just as shocked, Arthur turned to see Gwaine´s fist loosening at his side. Had Gwaine been angry just now? Angry at Merlin? Or at Arthur?
He couldn´t tell, so he turned back to Merlin.
“I´ve always trusted you before, Merlin. And I need you to explain all that is going on and went on before and how on earth you ended up this miserable.
But -”, Arthur inhaled. “I´ve told you before. You are the only friend I have and I couldn´t bear to loose you. I want you to trust me. But it seems I haven´t really given you any reason to. I want to do that now, before I turn all mad and angry and sentence you to death without giving you the chance to explain yourself.”
Gwaine gritted his teeth next to him.
“You forgive him?”, he exhaled, not sure whether to follow Arthur´s example or attack his friend.
But he seemed to have calmed down at Arthur´s reasoning.
“I´m not sure I´m in a position to forgive anything.”, Arthur said ominously.
“I don´t even know what Merlin did, yet.”
Freya smiled at him then, coming closer. “I think I might be able to help with that.”, she said, turning to Merlin for approval. Merlin nodded, too confused and relieved to actually do anything else.
Arthur watched as Freya approached him and Gwaine, holding out her glowing hands towards their foreheads.
Well --- Arthur thought, he this was how he was going to die, what could he do? Use his sword against a ghost? Gwaine seemed to think the same thing.
And then – he saw it. He saw everything, as Freya revealed the past to them.
Every decision, every mistake, every single word Merlin had ever breathed since he came to Camelot.
Merlin never hid his scars anymore. Arthur was working on revoking the ban on magic for him, until then Merlin was supposed to hide.
But he was allowed to talk to Arthur and Gwaine about everything now. The latter had almost cried to apologize after their little trip into the past.
There was much Arthur understood now. And there was much to be done to deserve all the attention and care Merlin had given him.
His first was to gather the knights trust that this sorcerer was still their friend. Even more now, then he ever was before.
When he trained the knights the next time to swim in the cold river water, Merlin asked to join them by himself.
And of course, the knights had laughed at him, joking if Merlin had finally gotten over his apparent lack of self esteem.
Arthur had send apologetic smiles to Merlin, as Gwaine crossed his arms in front of his bare chest with an angry pout on his lips.
Merlin had just sighed, taking off his tunic to reveal his many – many scars.
The laughing knights stopped laughing abruptly.
“Holy shit, Merlin.”, Leon clapped his hands over his mouth. “What happened to you?”
Merlin sighed, he had known this would happen. Of course he had. And he could never stand the attention he got for pity.
With a small wave he waved at the brandished mark that stated what he was.
“Sorcerer?”, Leon asked confused. Then he studied the scars more carefully.
There were burns, scars from hanging, from being cut and whipped and hurt. “Sorcerer.”, Leon said quietly. Knowing. So did the other knights.
But none of them asked, because Arthur was there too. And he looked for Merlin as though he was to kill everyone who would even try to touch him like that again.
And he would. Immediately and without hesitation.