"I have magic," Merlin said.
Arthur blinked at Merlin, startled. Merlin's expression was apprehensive and slightly fearful, like he was already regretting what he had said. He fidgeted nervously, but didn't look away from Arthur.
Arthur gave a wide yawn and sat up in bed, letting the sheets slide down his torso to pool around his waist. God, but he hated mornings. He'd never understood morning people like Merlin.
"Where are my clothes?" he asked, looking around, allowing his eyes to adjust to the bright light flooding in through the window.
"My clothes," Arthur drawled. "You know, Merlin, you're not usually this thick. Morning? Clothes? Breakfast?"
Merlin looked at him like he was the stupid one, and he still didn't hand Arthur his clothes. "I have magic," he repeated.
This time, Arthur didn't blink. "Yes, Merlin, I heard you the first time. And you thought this was a good time to tell me, why?"
"Because you don't have a sword at the moment?"
"I don't have a –" Arthur shook his head, grinning. "Merlin, do you really think I would need a sword?"
"If you wanted to kill me," Merlin said flatly, "you'd need a lot more than just a sword."
The idea was laughable. Arthur furrowed his brow as he tried to imagine attacking Merlin, but Merlin's slight frame and lack of stomach for any sort of violence made it impossible despite his efforts.
"Oh, please, Merlin – you couldn't hold your own in a pillow fight if your life depended on it. Some days I'm surprised your arms can even hold up a sword."
Merlin scowled. "Gods, Arthur, what part of 'I have magic' do you not understand?"
His eyes flashed like he was genuinely irritated, except Merlin never got angry. Arthur laughed as he swung his legs over the edge of the bed, stood up, and stretched his shoulders. This was actually a more pleasant morning than most. Trading insults with Merlin never got dull.
"You don't have magic. I would know. Besides, it makes no sense that a sorcerer would be so useless. Now, where are my clothes?"
"Thank you, Arthur," Merlin said, completely missing the point. There was still an offended edge to his voice. "That means a lot to me."
He extended his hand, palm out, as though to clap Arthur on the shoulder. In the next breath, he whispered something in a harsh language Arthur didn't know, a language he shouldn't know. The blue of his eyes shifted to a golden flame.
And the sheets of Arthur's bed straightened out with a great clapping sound that did not make Arthur jump.
Arthur's eyes went from the bed to Merlin, the back to the bed. And back to Merlin again.
He burst out laughing.
He couldn't help it; it was a nervous reaction, triggered by shock and fear and disbelief, emotions he wasn't used to dealing with. No no no warred with Why why why? in his head and there were no words to express what he was feeling, so he laughed a loud, shaking laugh that held no joy, no amusement. Merlin, who had never so much as bowed to Arthur except in jest, fell to one knee in a swift, fluid movement and looked down at the floor, and somehow this was at least as surprising as the revelation that –
"You have magic?"
"I just said so!"
"Merlin, you complete idiot," Arthur said, bringing his hand down on the bedside table so sharply that Merlin started and looked up, bemused. "You're supposed to say 'No, of course not, why would you say something like that, that was just a trick of the light,' not just admit to a capital offence."
"You'd want me to lie?"
"It never used to bother you, did it?" Arthur snapped.
Pain shadowed Merlin's face, but Arthur couldn't bring himself to care. Anger warred with confusion inside him, and he couldn't say which was strongest. If he hadn't had proof, he would never have believed Merlin – harmless, faithful Merlin – had magic. But it was impossible to deny the truth now. Merlin was a sorcerer, the incarnation of everything Arthur despised – and maybe the only thing he feared.
"I wanted to tell you. I really did."
"Then why didn't you?"
"I know it's difficult to conceive, but – I don't actually have a death wish, Arthur," Merlin said, and it was almost a joke and almost like nothing was wrong at all until he hesitated and added, "I mean, Sire," and he was completely serious about it.
Arthur looked down at him. "What are you doing on the floor, anyway? Sweeping dust off the floorboards?"
"Trying to look non-threatening."
"Oh." Arthur did a double-take, then spent a couple moments trying to wrap his mind around the idea of a threatening Merlin. Merlin, who had been with him for every waking hour for the past couple years. "Well, that's certainly working, then. I assure you, you look very non-intimidating."
At this, Merlin almost smiled. Arthur could see it in the way his eyes danced, but his mouth remained in a firm straight line. "You're taking this rather better than I expected."
"How did you think I would react?"
"You know." Merlin waved a hand. "Like a royal prat. Mostly angry with a chance of execution."
"Oh, for God's sake. Get up, will you?"
Merlin, for once, obeyed, a silly little grin on his face. "Have you lost your taste for deference, my lord?"
"It looks ridiculous on you." Arthur eyed him. "You know, even standing up, you're still quite non-threatening."
"Careful. I could take you apart with a single word."
It didn't occur to Arthur to be afraid, though Merlin's casual mention of his magic made him uneasy. He frowned as the words woke a vague memory in him; a moment later his expression cleared and he said, "That's what you meant! So you actually have magic – you're really a sorcerer – and you're using it to do your chores? No. No. Wait a moment. When we met, with the maces – that was you, wasn't it?"
"No, just your natural clumsiness."
Merlin was watching Arthur, his expression guarded. He looked wary, and his eyes danced with fear, but there was something of expectation and anticipation in his entire attitude that begged for Arthur's next question. Arthur swallowed, his amusement fading.
"All right. What else do you use it for?"
Merlin took a deep, shuddering breath; Arthur realised with horror that he looked like he was about to cry.
"Merlin, what –?"
"You really don't have any idea, do you?" Merlin asked, sounding not at all like he was on the verge of tears and very much like he wanted to punch Arthur. "How many times I've saved your skin. You really don't know. I thought – I thought for sure you must. The first time I saved your life, I was standing too far away to be of any use without magic. Valiant, the Dragon, Nimueh, Morgana, and – and I don't even remember, dozens of other times! It's obvious to anyone who's been watching that someone with magic is protecting Camelot. Protecting you. Even in battle, when trees or walls keep conveniently falling on your enemies – can you really say you never suspected it? Suspected me? I even admitted to it once, when Gwen's father was accused. You had me arrested for sorcery when the Witchfinder was called in! No one is that oblivious. You had to know."
"It's not being oblivious," Arthur said, all too aware of the fragility of his own voice. "It's called trust. I trusted you, Merlin. I didn't ask questions, didn't press for answers, because I trusted you."
The words rang raw and true in the air between them. Merlin ducked his head, throwing up the barrier of rank between them. Prince and servant.
For the lies?
For the truth?
For the magic?
"I didn't trust you," Merlin enunciated clearly, and each word was like a twist of the knife. "I wanted you to know, but at the same time I didn't. I was afraid of how you would react. I didn't trust you not to... well."
The words hurt, more than they had any right to. Merlin refused to look up to meet Arthur's eyes.
"Then why tell me now?" Arthur asked quietly.
"I had to," Merlin said, and that – that was what Arthur had not wanted to hear.
"Well," Arthur said, swallowing down hurt and settling for anger instead, "well, then –"
"I just – I couldn't stand it anymore," Merlin said quickly. "Couldn't stand the lies, the falseness. At first I thought, Well, it doesn't matter, he's an ass anyway –"
Arthur made a small, choked sound that could almost have been an aborted laugh; Merlin didn't seem to hear.
"– but then I got to know you. You're many things, Arthur – and you are an ass, sometimes – but you're not easy to lie to. You just expect honesty and I wanted, you have to believe me, I wanted to give it." He looked up finally, his eyes wide and desperate, but not for forgiveness. "I thought I never could, but it's too much now. I can't lie anymore, and I can't leave, so –" He gestured helplessly. "Here we are."
"Why can't you?" Arthur asked. "Leave, I mean. Why can't you leave Camelot?"
"I'd never leave you. I just can't. It's my destiny to be by your side. To be your servant."
"– not true. It can't be."
Merlin had the look of someone who had been expecting a slap, but not one quite as hard as this. His eyes widened, and he went pale; but in a moment he had regained his composure.
"I understand," he said, his spine straight and his voice hollow. "Any decision you make, I will gladly obey."
Arthur wanted to hit his head against the wall. "This isn't you," he said. "You can't be – you're not – why are you being like this?"
Merlin gave him a genuinely puzzled look. "Why am I being like what?"
"You're not really subservient," Arthur said. "You don't care about my orders, and you don't just do what I say without thinking about it first. What if I make a decision that you believe is wrong?"
"I believe you will be a fair and just king," Merlin said, and there was a pride in his voice and a glimmer in his eye that hadn't been there before. "I believe you will always stand by what you think is right. I've seen you grow into so much more than the arrogant prince you were when I met you, and I know that Camelot will flourish under your rule. If you don't want me as your servant anymore – if you want me dead – then that is your decision to make. In this, your opinion is the only one that counts."
"Dead," Arthur repeated, the word tasting sour in his mouth.
Merlin, a sorcerer.
The thought of execution had not crossed his mind, but evidently it had been in Merlin's for a while.
"You would just let me?" Arthur asked. "You have magic – surely you could escape if I had you arrested."
Something flickered in Merlin's eyes, and his lips curled upward as though in amusement, though what he found funny about the situation Arthur couldn't imagine.
"Escape where?" Merlin asked, and his eyes were utterly serious despite the small, ironic smile on his lips. "Where would I go, when my destiny is to be here, by your side? I am nothing without you, Arthur. Nothing."
The words were said simply, but they struck Arthur to the core. He almost staggered before the weight of Merlin's conviction.
"You can't be destined to be my servant," Arthur said. "No one is that bad at something they're born to do. Whoever told you that had the wrong Merlin."
"I don't think the name is that common."
Merlin smiled again, but it still didn't reach his eyes. Arthur felt his own grin fade, and he sat back down on the edge of the bed, the enormity of his manservant's confession finally settling in. Magic. He was in his bedroom with a sorcerer, and he still wasn't wearing anything.
"Merlin. Clothes. Now."
When his shirt and breeches were on, Arthur felt slightly better. He didn't think he'd flinched away from Merlin's touch as he dressed, either.
"You know," he said, "things make a lot more sense now."
Merlin had the look of someone who didn't quite dare to hope. "Yeah?"
"Yeah. This is how you've managed to stay alive for so long despite being blindingly stupid. I should have known. It couldn't just be luck. All those fights – those branches and walls conveniently falling down on people... How did I never figure it out?" He didn't miss the twitch in Merlin's jaw. "Forget I asked; don't answer that."
Merlin's eyes were still wary and uncertain. "Aren't you – aren't you even the least bit afraid?"
"Of you? Don't be ridiculous, Merlin."
"Of my magic."
Arthur flinched. "Would you stop that? Someone could hear. No, of course I'm not afraid. I might have to reevaluate your skills, though."
Merlin raised his eyebrows.
"You're obviously good at lying if nothing else." Arthur gave him an arch look. "I suppose you're as exceedingly inept at sorcery as you are at everything else."
"And even more of an idiot than I thought, if you've been practicing sorcery in Camelot this whole time."
"And," Arthur said, "you're still the worst servant in all of Albion."
They exchanged a tight smile. Arthur knew they couldn't laugh this matter away, but they could try. He glanced out the window. The sun was already too high in the sky; soon he would have to join his knights in the courtyard.
"I'm not going to forgive you for lying," he said. "It's not – it's not just the magic, you know."
"You won't trust me anymore?"
"I've known you for years," Arthur said. "I can't remember when it last occurred to me not to trust you. Maybe it never did." He watched Merlin's throat move as he swallowed. "Did you ever trust me?"
Merlin shook his head helplessly; the denial sent pain shooting through Arthur's gut.
"It's not about trust – it was never about trust. You have to understand, when I first came to Camelot – you couldn't know. You didn't even like me back then, and you'd have given me over to your father without a second thought. And then, later... It was easier to lie. This was the me you knew, the one you – liked. I cared about what we had too much to destroy it. It's like you said – I wasn't afraid of how you would react to the magic anymore, but –" Merlin waved his hand vaguely – "the lying..."
"So you were a coward."
Merlin winced, as though he knew there could be no greater insult. "I didn't want to lose what we had."
"What we had was built on lies," Arthur said, pain roiling in his gut as he forced the words out. "And that isn't my fault, Merlin, it's yours. You chose to lie to me. You're the one who's destroying this, not me."
"I know," Merlin said. "I know, all right? But the lies were necessary. It couldn't have been any other way. I wish I could have been honest, but even if I had – what then? Do you think we'd be here right now, with me by your side? You'd have cast me away. You know you would."
Arthur hated that he was right even more than he hated the lies. He clenched his jaw and looked away, holding on to his anger because the alternative was so much more painful.
"You really think so little of me, don't you?" he said, but it wasn't really a question.
"There's no one in this world who thinks more of you than I do," Merlin answered anyway. "Everything I've done, these last few years – I wouldn't change a thing, Arthur. If it could save your life, I'd do it all again in a heartbeat. There's nothing I wouldn't do for you."
"Except tell the truth."
There was a short silence.
"I'm sorry," Merlin offered eventually. "I really am, but – you have to know, Arthur, I never meant to betray you." He spread his hands helplessly. "I know. I know. Whatever punishment you choose for me, I'll accept it."
The punishment for treason is death, Arthur almost said. The punishment for sorcery is also death. No man could die twice, but maybe some god would make an exception for Merlin. He ground his teeth together. Merlin, did you have to put me in this position?
"If I were king," he said, then stopped. "But I'm not, Merlin. I can't – you're asking me to lie to my father. To hide you from him."
"I'm not asking anything."
Arthur laughed bitterly. "Then you would be fine if I went up to him and told him about you? Tell me, Merlin, how fond are you of fire?"
"Not very." Merlin sounded calm, almost amused, as though he knew Arthur could never stand by and watch him burn. That was infuriating, too.
Arthur groaned. "Oh, for the love of – just give me my cloak, all right? I'm going outside. I'm late. You'll stay right here, and you'd better be here when I get back. Don't you dare leave this room. I'll decide what to do with you later."
A shadow crossed Merlin's expression, but he fixed the cloak around Arthur's shoulders with unusual care, spending an extra few seconds straightening it out and making sure it fell correctly into place. It made Arthur's heart ache, and he heard himself say:
"You know, Merlin, this doesn't change anything."
Merlin's head shot up, his hands freezing in place on Arthur's chest. Hope flared in his eyes.
"You're still an idiot. And you're even more incompetent than I thought, if you've been using magic this whole time for your duties."
"I haven't," Merlin protested.
That was what Arthur had wanted to hear. He felt himself smile.
"Then maybe you should," he said, and the stunned look on Merlin's face was worth anything. "I'm pretty sure you've got it wrong. It isn't your destiny to be my servant. I wouldn't need a sorcerer for that."
It took two seconds, maybe three, for Merlin to understand. Then he smiled, and so did his eyes.