Merlin knew he was doomed, from the moment that Lord Aldwyhn had attempted to force himself onto Merlin, his drunkenness bringing out his clear viciousness. The drawn-out, smoldering stares and the suggestive sneers he’d received from the nobleman during the banquet earlier in the evening had morphed into dragging Merlin to his chambers and violently pinning Merlin against the wall in his meaty fists, overpowering the smaller man easily.
It was in that moment that Merlin threw all caution to the wind, and in a fit of panic, had lost control of his magic for the first time since he was a child.
His magic whipped around him like a tornado; objects around the room were levitating and slamming into walls, the nobleman was cursing-- having been forcibly slammed into a bedpost by Merlin’s wayward magic-- and Merlin, all at once was trying to take a calming breath and figure out how to fix this.
That is, until he turned toward the door and saw Arthur in the doorway, sword drawn, expression mutinous. They met eyes, Merlin staggering back slightly in blank, unhinged shock.
“Arthur,” he whispered, stunned. There was no way that he hadn’t seen it-- the hurt in his eyes was palpable, the betrayal clear in his sword stance. There was a lump in Merlin’s throat as he recognized Arthur’s expression. He looked as though he was going into battle.
“Guards!” Arthur ordered loudly, hand still firm on the hilt of his sword. The nobleman looked gleeful, crossing his arms and sending a venomous smirk toward Merlin who remained hunched over, clutching his arms together, a hand over his mouth.
“Arthur, please,” Merlin whispered, shaking, but couldn’t find the strength or the will to continue. He closed his eyes, telling himself he wouldn’t fight Arthur’s decision, even as images of the pyre were coming to life in his mind. He wouldn’t plead and he wouldn’t run.
Two guards forced heir way into the room, swords at ready. There was a tense silence in which Arthur said nothing-- just stood, straight as a line, with a grim look on his face, staring at Merlin unwaveringly.
This is it, Merlin thought anxiously, this is where he sentences me. This is where you burn, a small, dark voice whispered treacherously at the back of his mind but he pushed it down.
“Take Lord Aldwyhn to the dungeons, and do not inform my father,” Arthur ordered finally, “I shall deal with him later myself.”
“My lord,” Lord Aldwyhn spluttered, obviously not expecting this turn of events, “I really must protest, it was the boy--”
“Silence, Lord Aldwyhn,” Arthur cut in sharply, fists clenching and eyes fiery, “I said later.”
The guards nodded, taking Lord Aldwyhn by the arms and steering him from the room, but taking his lilting protests with them. They could hear his enraged shouts down the hallway, calling Merlin every name in the book for a conniving sorcerer known to man. Merlin flinched, biting the inside of his cheek and remaining completely silent, and almost completely still.
“Merlin,” Arthur said quietly.
Arthur’s voice never had sounded as toneless as it did at that moment. Merlin let out a shuddering breath, fixing his eyes on the ground, trying to stand up straighter but trembling too much to do so.
“I--” he started but his voice stuck in his throat. I’m sorry I lied. I’m sorry I let you down. I’m sorry I failed you. He looked away again horrified to find that his eyes were welling up with tears.
“What the hell was that?” Arthur asked, in the same, quiet, deadly tone that he had used before. He didn’t shout. Merlin almost missed the shouting. He had been shouted at by Arthur before for little things, but the kinds of things that they would both laugh off. Merlin swallowed hard.
“This-- I-- I didn’t mean to do that,” Merlin started haltingly, “I’m-- I have magic, Arthur, and I--”
“You’ve been sorcerer,” Arthur ground out stonily, “for all these years.”
Merlin was painfully aware of the fact that Arthur’s sword was still drawn, his hand still clenched on the hilt despite Lord Aldwyn’s departure.
“I- I only use it for you, Arthur,” Merlin whispered, tears streaming down his face. He wiped them off numbly, “it-- only ever was to save you, I swear it-- just let me-- please let me explain.”
“It’s clearly not just for me, Merlin,” Arthur said tersely, voice rising and sparked with righteous anger.
“I--” Merlin took a faltering step back, heart rising to his throat, “Lord Aldwyn-- he tried to-- I couldn’t control it, Arthur I h-had to use it -- he was going to--”
He could feel his breath quickening, trembling far out of his control. Arthur looked confused, taking another step forward and Merlin cringed back instinctively.
“I’m so s-sorry,” Merlin repeated, “I-I’ll take whatever punishment you deem fit. I- I didn’t mean to at-attack him like that.”
“No, Merlin,” Arthur cajoled, some of the coldness leaving his expression, but still looking a bit hurt and confused.
He took Merlin by the shoulder, motioning him to sit down on the bed. Merlin did so shakily, eyes fixed on his knees.
“Look at me, Merlin,” Arthur ordered sharply. Merlin looked up, meeting Arthur’s stony gaze.
“You misunderstood me,” Arthur said softly, mask cracking for the first time since he entered the room, “I knew that Aldwyhn had his eye on you, Merlin, and I do not condone that- that criminal’s actions.”
Nor mine, Merlin couldn’t help but think, but he nodded all the same, hands clenching the sheets.
“What I meant was that,” Arthur snapped, letting go of his shoulder, anger returning to his expression in a flash, “You must have studied… it.... for a reason, and do not say that reason was me-- sorcerers use magic for their own gain, do they not?”
Merlin shook his head vigorously.
“I didn’t-- I didn’t study it,” he said vehemently, “I only use it for you--”
“Do you think me a fool, Merlin?” Arthur snarled, “sorcerers do not study magic for a Pendragon!”
“You’re not just any Pendragon, Arthur,” Merlin shouted before he could think it through.
Arthur’s eyebrows furrowed, and he started to say something but Merlin beat him to it, all of the tension and fear culminating in his need for Arthur to understand.
“I was born with it,” Merlin confessed, trembling with emotion, “I was born with it, Arthur. I couldn’t-- it’s a part of me, whether I wanted it or not.”
“That’s-- that’s not how it--” Arthur started, clearly taken aback.
“I was moving objects with m-magic before I could walk or talk,” Merlin explains before Arthur could deny it, words rushing together while Arthur processed this new information, “I- can’t not do magic, Arthur. It’s-- it’s a part of me-- l-like another arm- or another sense I have.”
Arthur gaped at him, completely shocked.
“You--” he started loudly, “you-- you idiot, then why the hell did you come to Camelot then?”
Arthur resheathed his sword in an instant, running a hand through his hair and pacing agitatedly. Merlin took it as a good sign that he was no longer glaring daggers at him but didn’t make any further remark.
“You-- you are a manservant to the crown prince of Camelot,” Arthur said, almost to himself, “how-- why--”
“You-- were you planning to kill me?” he said flatly, words torn out of his mouth unwillingly. Merlin jumped up in surprise.
“Never,” he said clearly, “Arthur, you are-- you were my friend,” he continued passionately, “I would give my life for yours in a heartbeat. I have protected you before, and I wouldn’t hesitate to do it again.”
The words ‘and I love you’ followed, unsaid, and Merlin could feel himself tearing up again. Arthur swallowed, looking vulnerable and uncertain.
“I--I didn’t ask for this position, your father gave it to me,” Merlin said softly, trying to keep the shake in his voice, “I didn’t choose a life of risk, but I don’t regret it.”
Arthur shook his head looking almost like he was holding back tears.
“You could have left, Merlin,” Arthur said voice packed with more emotion than Merlin had ever heard in it before, “you could have refused. You could have run, gone to some other city, and lived a long life, you- you could have been free.”
“I couldn’t have,” Merlin chided softly, stepping closer to Arthur instinctively, “Because I-- I believe in you, Arthur, for the King you will be. And I-- I-- loved you for the person you are.”
He looked down, worried that he might have overstepped his boundaries. He stepped back self-consciously, shifting from foot to foot uncomfortably.
“I know it sounds ridiculous, sire,” Merlin said seriously, using Arthur’s title for the first time and levelly meeting Arthur’s eyes, “but you-- you are my destiny. I’ve saved you before, and I will not hesitate to save you again-- if-- if you let me.”
He looked down again, staring determinedly at his toes, heart beating a mile a minute. There was a silence, and Merlin could hear Arthur’s ragged breathing.
“I am sorry I broke your trust,” Merlin whispered, “and I-I understand what you have to do.”
“What?” Arthur whispered.
“I won’t run away,” Merlin said softly, “Camelot is my home, and-- and as silly as it sounds, I-- I am happiest here. At your side.”
“You-- you would die,” Arthur said, voice strained, “you would die if I wanted you to?”
Merlin nodded resolutely, though he could feel his stomach coiling in fear.
“I would,” he said, voice small, knowing that he sounded weak and pathetic, “if you wanted me to I would.”
“Merlin,” Arthur choked out, and before he could even look up, two strong arms were wrapped around his shoulders, and he could feel Arthur’s breath in the crook of his neck. Merlin stood stock still for a moment before tentatively wrapping his arms around Arthur.
They stood there for a moment before Arthur pulled back slightly, hands still on Merlin’s shoulders. Merlin was shocked to see that Arthur’s eyes were glassy with unshed tears. There was a determination that hadn’t been there before. He took Merlin’s hand’s in his own, interlacing their fingers.
“I could never burn you,” Arthur said, voice breaking slightly. Merlin let out a breath that he hadn’t realized that he had been holding.
“But-- Lord Aldwyhn--” Merlin started hesitantly, “he saw me--”
“I’ll deal with him,” Arthur cut him off softly. Merlin stood, opening his mouth and closing it again.
“And-- I lied to you, Arthur--” Merlin whispered awkwardly, “I betrayed your trust-- I’ve done many things that I regret--”
“Dammit Merlin, do you want to die?” Arthur said, a flicker of his old humor entering his tone. Merlin let out a shuddering, gasping sort of chuckle, not quite sure if he had meant it.
“I’m serious, Merlin,” Arthur said softly, expression serious once more, “I could never kill you.”
“I just-- I really did want to tell you,” Merlin explained sincerely, “I trust you, Arthur. I was-- I was just afraid.”
Arthur let go of Merlin’s hands, looking quiet and more vulnerable than Merlin had ever seen him. Merlin imagined that he probably looked about the same.
“Merlin, I--” Arthur started quietly, “I am hurt, that you didn’t tell me. I still don’t get it, all you’ve done,”
Merlin nodded, opening his mouth to reassure him, but he held up his hand.
“I- I can see that you are just as loyal as you were before,” Arthur said, expression fluctuating between this strange new vulnerability and that of a future King making a speech, “I just-- I just thought I knew you, you know?”
There was hurt in his eyes-- ‘and I put it there’ Merlin thought regretfully, but he drew himself up to his full height, unashamed of the tear tracks on his cheeks and the weakness in his voice.
“You know me, sire,” Merlin stated clearly with a trembling sort of smile, “you know me as-- as the idiot who can’t get any of his chores done. The man who ruins your hunting trips on a regular basis, on purpose might I add--”
Arthur let out a soft huff of amusement at this, dropping his ‘kingly’ look in an instant.
“-- the one who trips over his own feet most of the time,” Merlin ducked his head down with a soft, sad smile, “who I am isn’t a lie, Arthur. I’m just-- I’m just revealing more of the truth.”
“Well, now that I think about it, the tavern might have been a lie,” Arthur said sardonically, “I mean really, Merlin, with the amount of time you spend there, it better have been a lie at least half the time.” Merlin looked up, shocked to see a small, amused smirk playing on Arthur’s lips.
Merlin’s mouth twitched with amusement, even as he bit his lip anxiously.
“Merlin, there is still a lot we need to talk about, and it’ll take me some time,” Arthur said softly, and Merlin nodded in agreement and shock, “just-- you can trust me. With your secret.”
Merlin nodded again, hardly daring to believe that he was having this conversation with Arthur when just minutes earlier he was trying to come to terms with his own death.
Steeling himself, Arthur nodded firmly, sitting on the edge of the bed and motioning for Merlin to the same.
“Now,” Arthur said firmly, “tell me everything. And I mean everything.”
“Everything,” Merlin repeated meaningfully, meeting Arthur’s gaze, and feeling like an enormous weight was leaving his chest. He sighed, letting go of the years of pain and secrets, releasing himself from the guilt that had encircled his heart.
Arthur squeezed Merlin’s hand.
“Well, get on with it,” Arthur said, with a weak attempt at humor. Merlin smiled tentatively back, eyes glittering.
There was still hurt in Arthur’s eyes, there were still secrets to be told, lies to be resolved, and bans to be repealed. It would take a while before they could banter with one another, still cautious around each other-- a struggle between being a prince and a friend, between a protector and a lover. But they would face it as they always had-- together.