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forgiveness tastes sweeter from your lips

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He spends years with his heart in his throat, wondering if the day he tells Arthur about his magic is the last day he will see Arthur smile. Years, wondering if the day he reveals himself won’t be his last day in Camelot.

In the end, his magic reveal is as simple as this.

Arthur and Gwen get married, the ceremony like something out of a dream he once had. Gwen glowing and breathless, Arthur radiant and so, so in love (but never with him).

The next morning, a hole in his stomach, drawn by a pull he’s helpless to ignore, he walks into their room (the bed is still made) and drops to his knees. There, sunlight spilling over him, eyes fixed on the ground, he confesses to his crimes, Gwen and Arthur’s eyes heavy on his head.

It feels like penance when Arthur storms from the room, his anger lingering in the air even after he’s gone. Gwen kneels on the floor in front of him, dress whisper quiet where it moves (she hasn’t changed from her wedding dress) and takes his hands in hers, presses a kiss to his cheek, says, “It’s okay. I forgive you, it’s okay.” And it isn’t Arthur, it’s the wrong voice saying the right words but it still causes something inside of him to shatter, breaking its way out of him, leaving him sobbing in Gwen’s arms as she whispers it’s okay, I forgive you, it’s okay, you’re okay, I love you, it’s okay.

Arthur doesn’t come back for a long time and when Merlin passes out, from exhaustion or fear or a mixture of both, he still hasn’t come back.

Merlin can’t help but wonder, if he won’t wake up to a pyre in the courtyard, Gwen’s whispers nothing but a distant memory.

He wakes in Arthur’s (and Gwen’s) bed. Sheets soft and carefully tucked in around his shoulders, neckerchief missing, jacket gone, boots off and he does not remember getting into the bed. He remembers kneeling on the stone floor, Arthur gone, anger burning in the air. Remembers Gwen whispering the same words over and over into his hair as if it would fix whatever was broken inside of him.

But he is in Arthur’s (and Gwen’s) bed, sun long gone, darkness casting shadows on the canopy and when he turns his head, he sees Arthur, sitting in a chair, backlit by fire, eyes steady on him.

He doesn’t know how long they stare at each other, only that it feels like an eternity, the blue of Arthur’s eyes burning their way through him until he feels less than human, his magic straining its way towards the king it was promised.

“You lied,” Arthur says, angry, the hurt hiding in the dip of his shoulders. “You lied to me.”

He doesn’t say anything, can’t say anything, doesn’t know what he could possibly say to an accusation that is nothing but truth. Instead he turns away, drags his eyes away from something he can never own, and presses the heels of his palms into his eyes until he can see nothing but the burst of colors on the back of his eyelids.

Arthur’s hands are gentle around his wrists when he pulls Merlin’s hands away. So, so very gentle. “Stop that,” he says, voice still hard, the gentleness hidden in the way his thumb brushes over Merlin’s pulse as if reminding himself that Merlin is still alive. “You’ll hurt yourself.”

He is still laying in Arthur’s (and Gwen’s) bed, sheets carefully tucked around him, pillowcase soft against his cheek. Still laying in the one place that has always intrinsically been Arthur’s and no one else’s. Perhaps this is why it seems so natural when Arthur, still gently holding his wrist, presses his lips the inside of Merlin’s wrist, lips to the frantic beating of his heart, magic racing under his skin, straining towards its king.

Perhaps this is why, he does nothing but stare, mind curiously blank, for a long moment before he remembers that this is wrong. He snatches his wrist back as if burnt, finally finding the presence of mind to scramble out from under the sheets, pressing himself up against the headboard, holding his wrist to his chest as if Arthur’s lips really had burned him.

“Gwen is my friend,” he chokes out, acid burning his throat. “I can’t— I won’t, not to her, not even for—”

“Merlin,” Arthur cuts him off, rolling his eyes as if he hasn’t just called the entirety of their relationship into question (Arthur could not love him back). “You are the daftest person alive if you truly believe I would do anything that Guinevere wasn’t already aware of.”

It takes him a long moment to parse that sentence into a thought that makes any type of sense.

“I don’t understand.” Presses himself farther back against the headboard, heart thundering in his ears. He can’t mean—

“Yes, obviously,” Arthur says, rolling his eyes again and then slowly, eyes dark and never leaving Merlin’s, he crawls onto the bed, knees to the sheets, hands curling their way around the fine bones of Merlin’s ankles.

“I’m not angry about the magic,” he says slowly, thumbs rubbing circles around the jut of Merlin’s ankle. “I’m angry about the lies.”

There’s a sob working its way up his throat, the skin of his body feeling too thin to hold him together, too little to hold back everything he wants to say. So, instead he says nothing at all, the words caught in his throat, somewhere behind a sob.

“You idiot,” Arthur says softly (still so painfully soft). “Gwen said that you sobbed hardest, when she told you that she loved you—” the sob bursts out of him, wretched and pleading. “—so, let me make this very clear,” he pauses, crawling forward, bracketing in Merlin’s legs, hands coming up to cradle Merlin’s face (and he’s so gentle, so gentle). “There is nothing you could ever do that would make me hate you. Not truly. No matter how angry I am with you, and I am very angry, I still love you.”

The words hang suspended between them, caught somewhere between Merlin’s panicked breaths and Arthur’s shoulders, tense with all the things he isn’t saying. They hang there and then sink their way under Merlin’s skin, catching on the cracks of his grief and etching themselves into his bones.

The noise that tears from his is less a sob and more a pained, keening noise that would be betters suited to an animal dying in the woods, not this boy, sat on a bed, clutching at his king’s wrist as if it will hold him together. As if it will save him from himself.

“Oh Merlin,” Arthur says, gentle and tired. “You stupid, stupid man. Come here.” He pulls Merlin forward, hand on the back of his neck, hand to his spine, pulls him forward until Merlin is in his lap, face pressed to his shoulder. Pulls him forward, limbs tangling until Merlin is no longer sure where he ends and Arthur begins. Is no longer sure except for all the ways that he is, Arthur’s skin burning through him, leaving him hollowed out and aching.

Arthur,” he chokes out, the word barely a word, more a breath shaped into the form of a name. A breath that unblocks his throat and leaves him sobbing, all the pain he’s kept bottled up for years tumbling out and pressed into one word. A promise, a prayer, a plea. “Arthur, Arthur, Arthur, Arthur…”

“Shhhh,” Arthur says into his hair, thumb tracing patterns onto the back of his neck. “It’s okay, it’s okay.” The right voice, the right words and Merlin is unraveling, undone by the gentleness that is being gifted to him despite the violence still hiding in Arthur’s shoulders. “It’s going to be okay. We’re going to be okay.”

He doesn’t know how long he sobs, the darkness settled over them and the fire barely more than embers in a grate. Arthur waits until he’s stopped shaking, until the sobs have died down and he’s cried all of his tears out.

Waits and then pulls back, hands once again coming up to frame Merlin’s face. Arthur’s eyes when he looks are him, are so terribly soft (he’s never looked at Gwen like that, never).

The first press of Arthur’s lips to his cheek steals the breath from him. The second press makes his hands shake where they’re clutching at the front of Arthur’s shirt. Arthur’s lips when he pulls back are wet with Merlin’s tears.

He tries to pull back, acid still burning at his throat, Gwen’s promises still fresh in his mind. “Gwen,” he says, shaking his head, trying to pull away. “I can’t…”

Arthur smiles, an exasperated thing that lights up his face and leaves his eyes crinkled in a way that Merlin has always associated with peace. “Your loyalty always has been the most admirable thing about you,” he says contemplatively. “Guinevere and I are not in love—” Merlin stiffens, not sure who’s side he’s meant to take in this. “We knew that going into the marriage and we’ve both been, perhaps overly honest with each other.” Arthur stares at him, expectant, waiting for a reaction that Merlin doesn’t have.

“I still don’t understand,” he says after a moment of grasping for understanding. The only thing he’s gathered is that he doesn’t have to defend Gwen or Arthur which is a comfort in itself.

“That Merlin, is because you are an idiot.” Arthur looks to the canopy as if praying for patience before looking back at Merlin. “Guinevere is spending the night with Lancelot,” he says, ignoring the stricken look that crosses Merlin’s face, “and I am spending the night with you. Does that make it clearer?”

It takes another moment, but the implications are blindingly clear this time. Merlin is painfully aware that there is no reason Gwen and Lance would be spending the night together unless they were having an affair. Although, he’s not entirely sure it counts as an affair if Arthur is not only aware of it but actively encouraging it.

Which can only mean, that… “You can’t like me,” he whispers, fighting back another wave of tears. “Not like that. You can’t.”

Arthur raises an a single brow, imperious and incredulous, all at once. “And why not?”

Merlin can only stare, heart in his throat and something dangerously close to hope crawling through his chest. Can only stare eyes wide, hands still clenched in the fabric of Arthur’s shirt.

“You…” he starts, trails off, no argument coming to him. He’s never formed an argument because there was never any need. Arthur had never looked at him like that (except for all the times that he had). “How long?” He whispers, licking his lips and wondering if Arthur can hear the frantic beating of his heart.

“It’s been coming on so gradually I can scarcely pinpoint the exact moment I realized it,” Arthur says, scoffing lightly at the surely incredulous look on his face. “But if I had to pick a single moment out of all the rest, a moment where I acknowledged it, if only to myself, then I think it would be the night you stared me down as I held a sword to my father’s throat.”

There’s a rushing noise, wind to the waves, and he’s blinking white spots out of his vision, nothing in him prepared for an answer such as that. “You said—” he swallows, lips numb. “You said you didn’t know about my magic.”

Arthur’s answering smile is sharp and humorless. “I didn’t, god help me but I didn’t. I’m not a complete fool though, Merlin. Your dislike of my father was so poorly concealed I would have had to be completely blind to not catch it.”

“I don’t, I don’t understand,” he says again, he doesn’t understand, there is so much he doesn’t seem to understand and he feels nearly dizzy with it all, with the implications of it all.

“She didn’t lie, Morgause—” his mouths twists, lips curling in disgust. “—for all that she did do, she did not lie about that one thing and you,” he laughs, loud and hollow. “And you Merlin, stood there and lied to my face because you didn’t want me to do something that I regretted. It didn’t take me too very long to piece together the type of loyalty it takes to do such a thing or the reason I couldn’t find it in myself to be mad at you.”

“How can you possibly know that?”

“You and Gaius are not nearly as quiet as you seem to believe—” Arthur’s fingers are near painful digging into his hips, Merlin can only find it in himself to wish he would hold him tighter. “—I’ve heard many things over the years that didn’t make a lick of sense but I trusted you Merlin, and so I didn’t ask.”

He stares, shame prickling up his spine, all the reasons he had for lying, all the reasons he had shriveling up and floating away, laid to dust. He had known this, in an abstract, round about way, he had known this. Had known that Arthur trusted him more than he seemed to allow himself to trust anyone else. Had known this and had still, had still said no, I can’t tell him, I can’t trust him back, I can’t tell him.

“I know why you did it,” Arthur says finally when Merlin does nothing but stare, words lodged in the back of his throat, and he sounds so tired, eyes slipping closed as he runs his hands up and down the ridges of Merlin’s spine. Dips his fingers into the hollows of his bones as if there’s a language not yet spoken hidden away beneath his skin.

“I understand why you did it and I just wish…” he trails off, head falling to Merlin’s shoulder, a strange defeated slump to his shoulders that is so out of place all Merlin can do is stare in confusion at the blond hair taking up his vision. Let’s his hands slip down, fingers trailing down until they reach the hem of the shirt and then over, over hip bones that he wants to slot his own against and around, hands pressed to Arthur’s back, fingers splayed wide. Each breath that he feels beneath his fingertips a blessing that he can never can hope to repay.

“I did it because I was scared,” he whispers, breath hitching at the shiver that he feels race itself through Arthur’s body. “Because I was terrified of losing you and couldn’t bear the thought of it.”

Arthur breathes out, shoulders shaking beneath his fingers, breath warm against his neck, one hand sliding up his back and tangling itself in his hair. Fingers curling ever so slowly, the pads of his fingers pressed to the base of his skull and there is a curl of anticipation curling its way through his body, arcing its way down his spine.

Arthur,” he whispers, voice hoarse, a plea just barely edging into his voice, right as Arthur pulls his head back, slow and careful, teeth pressed to the skin of his neck, to the rabbit fast beating of his pulse.

“No more secrets,” Arthur murmurs against his neck, lips just barely grazing skin as he speaks.

Merlin’s answering whimper is less an agreement to the statement itself and more a pledge to do anything that Arthur asks so long as he keeps his hands near Merlin’s skin, near the whole of Merlin himself. It’s all the answer that Arthur needs before he kisses Merlin, years of longing compressing themselves into a kiss that leaves him drunk with want, hands clenched in the back of Arthur’s shirt so tight that he can’t even find it in himself to be surprised when the fabric rips.

He doesn’t spare a thought to regret it, too busy trying to shove his way down Arthur’s throat. Too busy wishing that he could spend the rest of his life in this bed, Arthur’s hands on his skin, groans on caught on the back of teeth, lips sliding over lips, tongues twisting and slick. His magic takes this as permission to curl its way out and around, twisting itself so far into Arthur that Merlin doubts he’ll ever fully manage to pull it out.

Arthur’s mouth slips away, trailing down to his neck as he desperately gasps for air, shoving his hands under the shirt and onto bare skin. He doesn’t realize he’s murmuring to himself until Arthur pulls back to stare at him in concern.

Doesn’t realize he’s whispering Arthur’s name like a prayer under his breath until Arthur presses a thumb to his lips halting the endless stream. Doesn’t realize he’s crying again until Arthur smiles (still so, so soft) and kisses the tears away.

“Such a girl,” Arthur murmurs, the quiet fondness in his voice causing Merlin’s chest to tighten strangely, heart seemingly trying to rip its way out of his chest. “Here, come here.”

Arthur pushes him off his lap, kissing Merlin as he does and lays down, pulling at him until he’s arranged to his king’s liking. His head under Arthur’s chin, legs tangled, hands clasped together over the solid, steady beat of Arthur’s heart.

“What are we doing, Arthur?” He asks quietly after a moment of silence. “What is this?”

Arthur’s silent for a minute, breathing slow and steady as he rubs circles into Merlin’s skin. “It’s whatever we want it to be,” he says finally, hesitation tinging his words blue. “Whatever you want it to be.”

“And if I want to tell everyone in Camelot that I’m bedding the king?”

Arthur laughs, ducking his head and kissing him hard, hand moving up to cradle his head. “Whatever you want Merlin,” he says, sincerity coating his words.

“Oh…” he breathes, blinking into the darkness, chest cut open and raw, the answer everything but what he expected.

“We would not have started this if we meant to keep you and Lancelot locked away like dirty secrets,” Arthur says seriously, laying back down, fingers tight where there hands are still clasped together. “This is whatever we wish it to be and if that is telling all of Camelot that I have taken a consort as well as a wife then that is what it will be.”

There’s silence for a while, only their breathing and Merlin’s racing thoughts. Their breathing and Merlin’s aching doubts.

“It was all for you,” he says for lack of knowing what else to say. “Everything I’ve done has been for you.”

“I know,” Arthur murmurs, gentle and forgiving. “And I will want to hear all about it in great detail in the morning but for now Merlin, sleep.”

“You’ll be here in the morning?” He asks, unable to bear the thought of waking up alone, unsure if this entire strange night was real or nothing but a desperation fueled dream.

“Yes Merlin,” he says pressing a kiss to the back of Merlin’s hand. “I promise, you won’t be getting away from me that easy.”

He laughs, pressing closer and wishing he could press his way right under Arthur’s skin. The hope in his chest is bright and buoyant, Arthur’s hand on his back a warm and heavy weight, and for the first time in years, it feels as if he can let the hope in his chest grow instead of killing it desperately before it can do anything at all.

His heart has been nothing but a garden of weeds for so many years now, his destiny weighing him down with all the expectations he never asked for, all the expectations he had wanted so badly to turn his back on before he realized that Arthur’s heart was made of burnished gold. Expectations he had so, so badly wanted to forsake until he woke up one day realizing that his heart had at some point, lodged it’s way into Arthur’s cupboard without permission and did not seem to have any intention of ever returning to him.

His heart has been nothing but a bed of weeds too stubborn to die and now there are sunflowers blooming in the corners, bright and flaming. He falls asleep, Arthur’s breaths steady beneath his hand, and for the first time in years, he finally believes that it is going to be okay. That they are all going to be so, so blissfully happy. That Albion’s golden age is not going to pass him over, untouched by the light, but instead has been guiding him to the light all along. Guiding him to Camelot, to Arthur, to this moment, the future unfolding before him bright and golden. Arthur’s smiles always the brightest sight in the room.

He falls asleep, and he dreams of sunlight and Arthur (always Arthur).