“Did you know?” Arthur asked as Merlin handed him his nightshirt. The last few days had left Arthur sore in body and in heart, and sleep seemed both tantalizing in its nearness and impossible to fathom. With all the thoughts swirling around in his head, it would be a long and restless night, despite the heaviness in his limbs.
Merlin didn’t dive into his usual lecture when Arthur threw his sweaty underthings over the changing screen onto the floor, but he did sigh. “Did I know what?”
“That Lancelot and Guinevere had feelings for each other.” Arthur had already pulled his shirt over his head, but he didn’t want to face Merlin as they spoke, so he stayed behind the screen. He’d spilled enough emotions over the past few days while they journeyed to rescue Gwen from Hengist’s castle, and now he just felt empty. He couldn’t resist asking the question, but the thought of Merlin seeing how much his uncertainty troubled him was almost too much to bear.
Merlin didn’t get the hint--or, more likely, he ignored it. He popped his head behind the screen, and when he saw that Arthur was dressed, he stepped forward to do up the laces on his trousers. “I knew they had a...connection when Lancelot was in Camelot, but I didn’t know they still felt that way. I talk to Gwen all the time, and she never mentions him.”
Arthur nodded once, trying not to look as interested as he was, even as he wanted to ask, Does she talk about me?
“And regardless,” Merlin continued, brushing off Arthur’s clothes even though he was just going to sleep. Arthur would have teased him for being such a mother hen if he wasn’t relying on the physical contact to keep himself intact. Although he would never admit it, he appreciated that Merlin anticipated his needs without having to ask. Arthur couldn’t stomach the thought of requesting comfort or touch from his manservant, but sometimes it was...nice when it was given. “Lancelot saw the way you and Gwen cared for each other, and he made his choice. He told me he wouldn’t come between you two. That’s why he left.”
Arthur could hardly believe someone would be so selfless. When faced with a competition for Gwen’s affections, Arthur had self-sabotaged by implying that he felt nothing for her. Lancelot, meanwhile, had made the noble, honorable choice. He had proven himself to be the better man, and Arthur felt like a child in comparison. How could he ever expect Gwen to love him when Lancelot would always be out there somewhere, beyond the borders of Camelot, making her wonder ‘what if?’ Lancelot may have voluntarily given up his chance for Gwen’s hand, but he hadn’t made it easy for Arthur to follow his act.
“So now I’ll always be forced to wonder if I’m second best,” Arthur sighed. “Even if Guinevere does have feelings for me, I’ll never know if she’s settling.”
Merlin lifted his brow. “Settling for a prince?”
“I thought I was just an arrogant prat,” Arthur said, already regretting their regression into another feelings conversation and hoping their usual banter would change the tone.
“To me, yes. But not to Gwen.” Merlin tilted his head to the side. “Although if we’re being honest, she’d be settling either way.”
Arthur frowned. “What do you mean?”
Merlin smiled cheekily. “Well, she liked me before she liked either of you.”
Arthur scoffed. “Don’t be ridiculous, Merlin.”
“She did! She kissed me when I recovered from that poison I drank for you.”
It was silly how jealous Merlin’s words made Arthur, but he willfully brushed the feeling aside. “You were dying,” Arthur argued. “That doesn’t mean anything.”
“Whatever you say, sire,” Merlin said with a grin.
As he moved away to ready Arthur’s bed, Arthur couldn’t help but wonder what was bothering him about this new information. Why did it seem important...?
“Hang on. You were in love with Gwen!” Arthur blurted before he could stop himself.
Merlin turned to look at him like he had grown an extra head. “I was not.”
Merlin laughed--actually laughed at him. “Arthur, I know you’re a prince, so you’ve had a sheltered upbringing--”
“I was not sheltered!”
“--but some of us actually prefer the company of other men,” Merlin finished with a pointed look.
Arthur’s jaw snapped shut in surprise. “I...you...”
“Take your time, sire,” Merlin said as he finished fluffing the pillows. “We wouldn’t want you to hurt yourself.”
“But you confessed to sorcery for Gwen!” Arthur said, wondering why he was arguing this matter when clearly Merlin was the most qualified to speak on the subject of who he liked to bed.
“And you drank poison for me,” Merlin said. “Are you trying to tell me something, my lord?”
Arthur refused to splutter at that, no matter how much he wanted to. “So you’re telling me,” he said carefully, “that you almost got yourself executed in Gwen’s place...because she’s your friend?”
“Yes?” Merlin said, looking a bit concerned at how much this was bothering Arthur. “Why is that so hard to believe?”
It wasn’t, not really. Arthur knew how selfless his manservant could be, even if he told him so exclusively in insults and projectiles. And he had nearly died for Arthur enough times to suggest a pattern of behavior—a noble but deeply concerning one in Arthur’s opinion. No, it wasn’t hard to believe that Merlin would die for a friend. What bothered Arthur was that he was only just realizing how quickly he had dismissed Merlin’s confession. After all, a person who would die for his friend wouldn’t necessarily discount sorcery as a method to save her father. And they had never found who really made that poultice.
“I can’t believe,” Merlin continued, oblivious to Arthur’s dawning realization and consequent panic, “that you flirted with Gwen even though you thought I was in love with her. I’m hurt, Arthur. Truly.”
“You were telling the truth,” Arthur said. It felt like his world was crashing down around him. How had he let a sorcerer get so close to him? He had told Merlin his deepest secrets. He had even admitted his love for Gwen--or, he had come as close to a confession as he could. Had Merlin been plotting against him this whole time? The idea seemed laughable, but sorcerers were known to be cunning at deception.
“About not being in love with Gwen?” Merlin asked as he folded back the blankets. “I’m glad you’re finally seeing sense, sire.”
“Not about Gwen,” Arthur said, too distracted by his plethora of questions to say what he needed to--to accuse, to condemn. How long had Merlin been a sorcerer? Did... Gaius teach him? Arthur knew the physician had practiced sorcery before the Purge, but his father assured him that Gaius had realized the evil in magic and given it up. Had Gaius lied to the king? Or worse...did someone else teach Merlin? Had his manservant been a sorcerer for as long as Arthur had known him? Since before he came to Camelot? Or did he just dabble that once to make the poultice?
“About...what, then? Being interested in men?” Merlin spun around once again, placing his hands on his hips in exasperation. “Why would I lie about that, Arthur?” But when he took in Arthur’s expression, his energy melted away in realization. Merlin swallowed, paler than he was only moments before. “Oh.”
“Yes, oh,” Arthur said, trying to make it sound snappish. It came out wearier, less certain than he had hoped.
“Arthur...” Merlin started, lifting his hands like he was approaching a threatened animal. Which made Merlin the threat. The thought was ridiculous, but Arthur couldn’t deny it anymore. Not if his suspicions were correct--and based on Merlin’s reaction, they probably were.
“You’re a sorcerer,” Arthur said. The word tasted foul in his mouth, and his tongue felt clumsy as he spit it out.
Merlin flinched and stopped walking toward him, but he didn’t say anything.
“You are, aren’t you?” Arthur said, and this time he was the one stepping closer. He knew he should have his sword, a knife, anything, but even with the truth unveiled, it was hard to view Merlin as anything but his clumsy, loyal manservant. Arthur stopped only a foot away, and with Merlin bowed over slightly--out of guilt, resignation, or fear, he couldn’t tell--Arthur had a few inches on him.
“Warlock, technically,” Merlin said when the silence became too much. He didn’t sound afraid, but he didn’t sound like his usual insolent self either.
“What’s the difference?” Arthur asked, his voice appropriately angry now that Merlin had confirmed his suspicions.
Merlin looked up. There was a shred of determination in his eyes, and in that instant, Arthur could believe that Merlin had magic. He could almost see the power thrashing inside him, if such a thing were possible, and he wondered how he had never seen it before.
“I was born with magic,” Merlin said. “I didn’t learn it.”
Arthur clenched his jaw against the earth-shattering revelation. Merlin had magic. He was born with it, something Arthur’s father had claimed was impossible. And despite his magic, he was good--
Arthur cut off that thought before it could develop much further, but he couldn’t shake it completely, even though he knew magic users were evil. Even though he had just discovered he knew nothing but lies about Merlin. “That’s not how it works,” Arthur said tightly.
“Oh, and you’re the expert?” Merlin retorted, his characteristic sass making Arthur want to laugh hysterically, or maybe cry--something he hadn’t done since he was seven years old.
“How can you be born with magic?” Arthur asked, trying to make the prospect sound as idiotic to Merlin as it did to Arthur.
Merlin smiled weakly. “Your guess is as good as mine as to how, but if you want the details on what it’s like, you can write to my mother. Apparently, I was quite the trouble maker. She would wake up in the middle of the night to pots and pans dancing above my crib and flowers growing up the walls.”
Arthur didn’t know what to say to that. If Merlin was telling the truth--and it sounded like he was--then Arthur’s father was wrong about magic. How could a baby be evil? How could someone be condemned to the pyre for being born? How was that just? And of course Mer lin would use that magic to grow flowers of all things.
“I wanted to tell you,” Merlin said softly when Arthur didn’t say anything for too long.
Arthur felt resentment bubble up inside him at the betrayal, the lies, the secrecy. But then he remembered how this realization had begun, and all he could say was, “You did.”
Merlin looked confused for a moment, and then he flushed and looked away. “Gaius told me it was foolish to use my magic to cure anyone, and it turned out he was right. If Gwen had gotten executed for my mistake...” Merlin trailed off, looking so guilty and forlorn that Arthur couldn’t imagine him being evil. If Merlin had magic, then magic couldn’t be all bad, because Merlin was most certainly good.
“It was foolish,” Arthur agreed. Merlin looked at him with resignation--not fear, not anger, but a kind of sad acceptance. Arthur’s throat filled with bile. Could Merlin truly stand to work for Arthur--to risk his life for him time and again--all while believing Arthur would have him banished or executed if he knew what he was? He swallowed down the guilt he felt and said firmly, “But it was also brave.”
Merlin’s lips parted in surprise. “Arthur?”
“Have you ever used magic to harm me, my father, or the people of Camelot?”
Merlin shook his head quickly. “No, never. I use my magic for you, Arthur. For you and for Camelot. Always.”
Arthur studied him for as long as he could stand it. When the intensity of the loyalty in his gaze became too much, he turned away, moving to his desk to shuffle papers that didn’t need shuffling and arrange items that didn’t need arranging. “I won’t tell my father,” he said without looking at Merlin, still trying to process the information he’d been told. “But I expect you to tell me the truth from now on. No secrets. Is that understood?”
Arthur looked up then, and his breath caught as he saw the unfettered adoration in Merlin’s eyes--the look that made all of Merlin’s casual disrespect acceptable. The look that made Arthur feel worthy of his position. It was more than he deserved, and if anyone else gave it to him, he would think they were starstruck and perhaps a bit touched in the head, but somehow, when Merlin looked at him like that, Arthur believed it.
“No more secrets,” Merlin agreed, and he sent Arthur a painfully earnest look. “I know I’ve given you a lot to think about already, but you can ask me about anything I’ve said tonight if that helps.”
Arthur tapped his fingers on his desk like he was deep in thought. “So...what qualities do you look for in a man?”
Merlin’s ears turned pink, but he laughed so merrily that Arthur couldn’t resist grinning back at him. “You really want to know?” Merlin asked. Arthur gestured for him to go on. Merlin tilted his head to the side, considering. “He needs to be honorable, and always willing to fight for what’s right. And accepting of magic, of course.”
“Hard to find in Camelot,” Arthur remarked.
“Tell me about it,” Merlin said. “He needs to be strong--handsome is a plus--compassionate, good with a sword--”
“Are you trying to tell me something?” Arthur asked, mimicking Merlin’s earlier words.
“-- nice to me,” Merlin added pointedly.
Arthur laughed. “Merlin, no man meets those standards.”
Merlin waggled his finger. “Not true. Lancelot does.”
Arthur gaped. “You too?!? Is everyone in love with this man?!?”
Merlin shrugged. “He’s perfect.”
“Too perfect,” Arthur said sulkily.
Merlin gave him a sad smile, understanding in his eyes. “Don’t give up on Gwen, Arthur. She might have feelings for Lancelot, but she loves you too. As long as that’s true, there’s still hope.”
Arthur felt warmed by Merlin’s words, but he wasn’t quite ready to shake his melancholy. “Even if she cares for me as I care for her, there’s nothing to be done about it. My father--”
“--is often wrong,” Merlin interrupted. Arthur didn’t object the way he usually did when people insulted his father, and Merlin looked at him with a glimmer of hope. “But he won’t always be king,” Merlin continued, “and some things are worth the wait.”
The double meaning in his words was all too clear, and Arthur felt momentarily overwhelmed by the pride and expectation in his gaze. Only an hour before, Arthur thought magic was evil, and now, he was being asked--albeit silently--to consider lifting the ban.
But it would be a long time before Arthur had to take an official stance on the matter, and he had Merlin to teach him about magic in the meantime. A good ruler needed to adapt after learning new information, and that’s what Arthur would do. He would learn, and he would grow, and he would become the king Merlin saw in him. The king Guinevere saw in him. The king Arthur wanted to be. With Merlin’s smile on him and so many secrets now shared between them instead of festering in isolation, Arthur didn’t feel quite so hopeless.
“Have I mentioned you can be almost... wise sometimes?” Seeing the disbelief and amusement on Merlin’s face, Arthur hastily added, “When you’re not being an idiot, of course--which is most of the time, mind you.”
Merlin lifted a brow. “Keeping me humble, I see.”
Arthur’s lips curved upward. “Just returning the favor.”