It starts slowly, but it starts.
Rumours of the Druids returning float around Camelot for weeks, until one day a nobleman reports seeing a Druid camp not far from the castle during a hunt.
The court buzzes with expectation, because this is the first time Arthur has to deal with magic during his daily court obligations.
As per the king's orders, the camp is to be left alone.
The court predictably erupts into chaos, but Merlin doesn't care. He beams at Arthur, grinning from ear to ear and not caring that he looks like the fool Arthur always accuses him of being. He is dizzy with pride for his king, happy and relieved.
It's not that he doubted Arthur's word, didn't believe in the promise he made to the spirit of the Druid boy all those weeks ago. But there is a difference between giving his word that someday, things would change, and actually changing things.
Arthur hasn't repealed the ban on magic, but he has taken the first step.
The city thrummed with excitement after Arthur's decision to leave the Druids be. Whispers of magic returning to the kingdom seeped into the castle, and Merlin was startled to discover how many people seemed to anticipate such a day with longing.
"Uther may have driven magic out of the kingdom," Gaius said sagely when Merlin brought it up one evening, "but he hasn't driven it out of the people's hearts. Too many remember a time when magic was part of our lives."
Even Arthur seemed to notice the people's excitement.
"What do you think of magic?" he asked as Merlin helped him dress for the night.
Merlin's fingers fumbled with Arthur's night night trousers. "What do you mean?"
Arthur gestured vaguely. "You know. What do you make of it? After everything that has happened during the last few years? You have seen magic. Granted, you probably spent more time hiding behind convenient trees than actually observing. I'm not sure why I'm even asking you," he concluded with a long-suffering sigh, blithely ignoring Merlin's annoyed glare.
"Excuse me? If it weren't for me saving your sorry arse every time we run into trouble you'd be dead a dozen times over," he said indignantly, but without much heat.
Arthur only snorted and patted Merlin's cheek, once, before getting into bed. With his back to Merlin he said, "I wouldn't go that far, personally."
"So you admit that you would be lost without me?"
"Shut up, Merlin."
With a huff of laughter Merlin made about straightening the covers around Arthur. "You're a prat, you know that, right?" He went to the table to right the chairs, trying to prolong his stay for a bit longer.
Behind him he heard Arthur rustling about in bed, punching one of his pillows into submission. "Actually, I think I'm more of a just and kind King, now that you ask."
Merlin pretended to consider it. "Yeah... No. Really Arthur, what have we told you about attempting to think? Nothing good ever come out of it." A pillow hit him square in the back in reply.
He puttered around in silence for a bit longer, until Arthur spoke again.
"You haven't answered my question," he said, voice muffled. Merlin glanced at the bed to see him face down in his pillows.
"Why do you want to know?" Merlin asked quietly. The topic made him uncomfortable, more so than usual. After Arthur's decision regarding the Druid camp Merlin had thought about telling Arthur about his own magic, but.
He wasn't ready. Not yet.
Arthur made another vague hand gesture. "You know. With everything...." he trailed off, but Merlin thought he knew what Arthur meant anyway.
Merlin bit his lip, and for once considered his words carefully. "I think," he started as he moved to extinguish the candles on Arthur's bedside, hoping the dark would make the words come easier. "I think things aren't as black and white as people often make them out to be." He didn't mention Uther, but thought that Arthur understood what he was trying to say anyway.
He stood by the bed for a while, but Arthur didn't answer. He sketched a curt bow in the dark and made to leave. He hesitated at the door for a moment.
"Good night, sire."
Merlin stared at the woman that bowed elegantly to Arthur.
Her features were soft and pleasant to look at, her eyes as rich a brown as her hair, and her green cloak was simple. Merlin couldn't quite put his finger on what it was about her, but Merlin would wear that feathered abomination of a hat for a fortnight if she didn't turn out to be a Druid.
"Your Majesty," she said, "my name is Searen. I have come to offer my gratitude on behalf of my kin."
"Your kin?" Arthur asked warily, and Merlin realised that he felt it too. The aura of magic that surrounded the woman.
"The Druids that live west of the castle, Your Majesty."
Merlin's heart sped up at the woman's -- Searen's -- easy proclamation. He looked at Arthur from the corner of his eye. Only the king's tight grip on the throne's armrest belied that he too recognized the importance of this meeting.
Merlin unobtrusively glanced at the rest of the court to see their reactions.
The knights all seemed tense, wary of the woman standing in their midst and in direct line to the throne, but made no move to draw their swords. Instead, they waited for their king to give them direction.
None of the nobles of the court seemed outright hostile, most seeming happy to wait to see how Arthur would handle the encounter. Some frowned at the Druid woman, but most focused their attention on their king.
Merlin exchanged a glance with Gaius, and swallowed thickly. The tension in the room was palpable, and Merlin wondered how Searen could stand this easily before a court that would have killed her not a few months ago.
"The Druids wish to thank you for your kindness in allowing us to return to the kingdom, Your Majesty," Searen continued.
Arthur's jaw clenched, once, but when he nodded in acknowledgement his eyes shone with defiance, challenging anyone to defy him. "I am honoured that the Druids consider Camelot worthy to return to."
Searen inclined her head. "Camelot is our home," she said, not a hint of waver in her voice. "And it has long been our wish to return so that we may serve Lord Emrys as he serves you."
Merlin's eyes shot back to Searen at the words. His neck prickled where he could feel Gaius' stare bore into him, but Merlin was too busy staring at the Druid woman. Serve him? He thought wildly, too confused to think properly.
"Emrys?" Agravaine of all people asked sharply, and Merlin studiously refused to look in the direction of the throne.
"What my uncle means to ask," Arthur intervened, with a note of censure in his voice, "is if you could explain what you mean? I'm afraid I know of no lord by the name of Emrys."
Searen hesitated, and she said carefully, "Lord Emrys has stood by you for years, Your Majesty. I do not understand--" She started turning around, to where Merlin stood, and he only had time to think No! in despair before she halted.
Merlin's heart felt as though it was trying to beat its way out of his chest, and he felt sick with the sudden rush of adrenalin.
I do not understand, she repeated, but Merlin recognized the soft quality of a voice speaking directly into his mind.
Arthur doesn't know about my magic, Merlin thought back desperately. Please don't reveal me!
Another beat passed, during which Arthur waited expectantly for her answer.
"Forgive me, Your Majesty," Searen said eventually, and to Merlin it felt as though she wasn't addressing Arthur alone. "I was unaware that Lord Emrys has not revealed himself to you."
"I don't understand," Arthur said, frowning. "Who is this Lord Emrys?"
Searen bowed deeply, and this time Merlin knew for sure that the bow was not meant for Arthur. "Lord Emrys is the sun and the stars and the moon. He is the restlessness of fire, the serenity of water, the folly of the wind and the wisdom of the earth. He is the master those of magic must serve."
Silence reigned in the court after her speech. At first awed and slightly fearful, but turning awkward as people searched for words, shifting and glancing at each other as if to say, You, you must break this silence.
No one paid any attention to Merlin, who could feel his face burn with embarrassment. He didn't even understand the meaning of Searen's words, but blushed a bright red nonetheless.
Arthur cleared his throat, and the room's attention abruptly shifted to him. "Right," he said, slightly at a loss. His gaze swept over the room. When their eyes met Merlin attempted to look as clueless and wide-eyed as possible. Arthur moved on. "I see."
Searen inclined her head again, serene once more.
"Well, it is already late. Too late for a lady to make her way through the forest alone. You are welcome to stay at the castle for the night. As my guest, of course."
Searen only hesitated for a moment, but to Merlin it seemed as though she sought his approval. Merlin wasn't sure what to do, so he simply opted to think Stay, and hoped she heard.
Whether or not it worked, Searen bowed deeply. "I would be honoured to be your guest."
Now that he was back on familiar ground Arthur nodded decisively. His glance flickered to Merlin for just a moment. Understanding the request, Merlin stepped forward.
"My manservant will see that you are settled. As my guest you are privy to all the comforts Camelot has to offer. Please do not hesitate to ask the servants should you wish for anything."
Searen murmured her assent, and with another elegant bow followed Merlin from the hall.
Merlin allowed himself a moment to think How is this my life?. If he sounded a bit hysterical in his mind, well, no one would ever know. And it wasn't as though he didn't deserve a moment of hysteria after the past half hour.
Then he focused on the bowed back of Searen's head, and said a bit helplessly, "Please, don't. You-- you don't have to kneel or anything."
The woman rose, but still bowed her head demurely. Merlin stared at her, lost.
"I don't understand. I have met Druids before. None of them ever treated me as though...." He trailed off, unsure how to describe her behaviour. He couldn't think of himself as some kind of master or lord or whatever it was Searen thought he was.
"You had not yet embraced your destiny when you first met my brothers and sisters," she answered, in a way that told Merlin nothing.
She must have sensed his confusion, as she continued, "You have brought magic back to the land."
"I-- No, that was Arthur," he protested. "I didn't-- He made that decision himself..."
"The king would not have seen the errors of his father's way had it not been for your guidance, My Lord."
"I really don't think..." Merlin trailed off as he realised that he had no idea what he even wanted to say. His thoughts were a confused jumble ever since she first brought up his Druid name. "Why did you say that you wanted to serve me?" he asked finally, mind flashing back to Alator, who had also knelt before him and sworn to serve him.
"All those of magic must serve you, Emrys. It is our destiny."
Merlin shook his slowly shook his head. "No," he said, thinking of Morgana, and Morgause and Nimueh. "No, you're wrong."
Searen met his eyes for the first time, and he could see that she was serious. That she truly believed what she said. "Not everyone recognises the natural order of things. But the Druids have long foreseen your coming. You are Emrys. You are Magic."
Merlin stared back at her uncertainly, feeling something heavy settle in his stomach, squeeze around his heart. Something he felt once years ago, when he first spoke with the Great Dragon. Something that felt like destiny.
"I'm a sorcerer," he said.
"You are Magic," she answered.
Merlin sought refuge in Arthur's chambers, intending to go through his chores to forget the last hour had ever happened. Instead he found Arthur, Leon, Elyan and Gaius sitting at the the long table. Gwaine stood by the window, gazing at the courtyard below while Percival stoked the fire.
"Uh," Merlin said, standing in the open door. Arthur waved him in curtly. Merlin closed the door carefully.
"Did the Druid woman say anything else?" Arthur asked immediately.
"Uh," Merlin said again, not sure how to answer the question. Arthur glared at him.
"Did she say anything else about this 'Lord Emrys'?" Leon asked, sounding more patient and calmer than Arthur.
Merlin exchanged a quick glance with Gaius, but his mentor looked as unsure as how to proceed as Merlin. He only raised an eyebrow, which Merlin understood to be a plea for caution.
"Just what she said in the throne room," Merlin said. He swallowed thickly. "That, uh, the Druids s-served him." He stumbled over the words, and unbidden he heard her voice.
You are Magic.
He shook his head to get rid of it.
Gaius looked at him in concern, but Merlin could hardly tell him what she said while everyone else was around. He tried to smile at Gaius reassuringly, but given his mentor's -- and Arthur's -- sudden frown thought that he must have missed his mark by a mile.
"Did she do any---"
Arthur was interrupted by a knock on the door, and he called "Enter!" with annoyance written all over his features.
A young servant boy entered, looking nervous as he bowed. "Forgive me, Your Highness, but I was unable to locate Lord Agravaine. Apparently he left for a ride shortly before you requested his presence."
"A ride?" Gwaine asked incredulously. Arthur frowned at the boy. "At this hour?"
Merlin and Gaius looked at each other grimly. There was only one reason why Agravaine would leave the castle this suddenly.
"The stable boys said he seemed agitated," the boy offered, as though that would appease Arthur.
It didn't. It only made Arthur frown harder, and Merlin cheered inwardly at the sight.
"Never mind, thank you for looking. You are dismissed." The servant bowed once more and went out.
"Now what?" Elyan asked after they were alone again.
Instead of answering Arthur merely sighed, and rubbed his eyes. Merlin went to the table in the corner of the room and poured water into a cup, grateful that he filled the jug with fresh water as part of his morning chores today.
Arthur nodded his thanks when Merlin handed the cup to him and took a long swallow. "Now I have a Druid woman in the castle and, apparently, a sorcerer hiding in Camelot who has the wisdom of the stars, or something."
"Wisdom of the earth, sire," Gaius corrected gently, glancing at Merlin with marvel in his eyes. "'The restlessness of fire, the serenity of water, the folly of the wind and the wisdom of the earth," he recited.
"'Serenity of water', 'folly of the wind',"Gwaine snorted, making his way to the rest of them and sprawling in a chair next to Leon. Percival sat down next to him. "How pretentious can you get? Does he introduce himself like that? 'I'm Emrys, I'm as serene as water.'"
The tension in the room broke. Elyan and Gwaine started to try and outdo each other with ridiculous claims based on Searen's little speech.
Merlin, meanwhile, stood by the bed blushing hotly and wishing furiously that the ground would open and swallow him whole. Humiliation churned nauseatingly in his stomach, and he could feel the back of his eyes burn slightly.
It wasn't fair. It wasn't as though Merlin ever claimed to be any of these things.
Gaius gave him a sympathetic and slightly sad smile, which Merlin returned weakly.
"Enough," Arthur ordered, but a smile was tugging at his lips. Merlin thought bitterly that at least he was good for something.
His skin prickled and itched, and generally felt as though too small for him. He really, really wanted to get out of the room and away from this conversation.
"The question is," Arthur continued once everyone's attention returned to him, "what do we do with this knowledge?"
"What, that Emrys is as thick as an ash tree?" Gwaine grinned, entirely unrepentant when Arthur glared at him.
"That there is, apparently, a powerful sorcerer in Camelot."
The atmosphere in the room became serious again all of a sudden, and Merlin hated that even moe.
Because they were talking about him, right there, and there was no reason to be serious. Merlin would never, never do anything to hurt either Arthur or the kingdom.
And yes, it had hurt when Gwaine and Elyan had made fun of him, because it wasn't the usual friendly and harmless teasing Merlin had gotten used to, but mean-spirited and somewhat cruel. But he still preferred that to them discussing Merlin as though he were a threat.
Because that hurt even more.
Gaius must have known what it did to Merlin. "I do not believe that Emrys poses any kind of threat to the kingdom, sire," he said, a note of reproach in his voice that everyone in the room reacted to, sitting straight and looking as though they had been chastised but not knowing what they had done wrong.
For the first time since Searen stepped before the court, Merlin really smiled.
"How do you know that?" Elyan asked, maybe a bit defensive, but mostly confused. Arthur and the rest of the knights looked at Gaius expectantly, and the old man sighed in exasperation.
The look with which Gaius favoured the lot of them was one Merlin knew intimately, and Merlin couldn't help but grin. Gaius always looked at him like that when he thought Merlin was being especially thick, a look that was equal parts I hope you are not nearly as stupid as you appear to be and I fear you truly are this thick. The only difference was that when Gaius looked at Merlin like that, there was always a hint of But you will always be the closest thing I have to a son, you fool. And I love you no matter how foolish you act, which was noticeably absent now.
"Searen spoke of a truly powerful sorcerer. If he were a threat to Camelot, don't you think he would have acted against the Crown already? Searen said that he served you, Sire, and has done so for years already. Why should he suddenly turn now that you know of his existence?"
They mulled over his thoughts for a moment, and Merlin held his breath in anticipation. It was Leon who broke the silence.
"I don't know, Gaius. Don't you place a lot of faith in the words of a Druid?" He didn't sound malicious, merely contemplative. Merlin's heart sank. These men were all brought up with Uther's prejudice and hatred of magic, after all. Of course they wouldn't trust a Druid, he thought bitterly.
But Arthur surprised him. "Druids are people like you and me, Leon," he said clearly, and Leon looked surprised at the implied accusation, as though he wasn't aware of what his own words had implied. "I have as much faith in the words of a Druid as I would have in the words of any of my other subjects."
"Of course, Sire."
Arthur turned back to Gaius. "So you don't think this sorcerer is a threat to Camelot?"
"I do not," Gaius confirmed.
"But how can you be so sure?" Percival asked, frowning. "How can you be certain without having met this Emrys?"
Gaius hesitated, and Arthur's eyes narrowed. "Gaius?"
Merlin tried to catch Gaius' eyes, unsure if he should step in but his mentor avoided his gaze. "As you are aware, Sire," he said carefully, "I used to dabble in sorcery myself, before the ban."
"What?" Gwaine blurted, and Percival echoed the question in disbelieve. The four knights stared at Gaius in shock, and with a start Merlin realised that they hadn't actually known.
But Arthur only nodded, and Gaius continued.
"Though the name Emrys hasn't been known to me, there have always been prophecies proclaiming a sorcerer of considerably might, standing besides a great king and destined to return magic to the land after a time when magic was lost. A sorcerer whose magic shines as brightly as the sun, if the legends are to be believed." He gave them a moment to process his words, before he continued gently, "But the most important thing is that the legends say that he will do so side-by-side with his king, who will bring greatness to the land in his own right."
Arthur was still pensive when the others had already left his chambers, and Merlin once more helped the king prepare for bed.
The air was tense between them, but Merlin didn't dare fill the silence with his usual chatter. He concentrated on attending Arthur instead.
If Arthur noticed the special attention, he didn't let on. Merlin doubted it though, as the king seemed lost in his own thoughts.
Merlin's own thoughts began to wander, and he giddily wondered if maybe now was the time to reveal himself.
But then he saw a flash of Arthur, turning from him with a look of betrayal and fury on his face.
No, Merlin thought, heart beating wildly in his chest. Not yet.
Things changed after Searen's appearance before the court.
Druids started to come into the city, buying or exchanging goods in the markets. With time the citizens stopped regarding them suspiciously, stopped checking surreptitiously for guards before doing business with them.
Three months after Searen left Camelot the sight of a Druid mingling and talking with the people of Camelot stopped being a novelty.
The Druids would incline their heads respectfully, or greet him in his mind whenever he would run into one of them, but they didn't call him Emrys openly and more importantly, they didn't bow or kneel or do anything else that would reveal Merlin to the rest of the world.
While the Druids didn't speak to him, though, they apparently still spoke about him. The rumours that a powerful sorcerer resided within Camelot's walls spread like a wildfire. It wasn't uncommon to hear people jokingly accuse their friends or loved ones of being 'Lord Emrys, the Druid King' - though people where still careful to make sure no guards where within hearing range.
How the title 'Druid King' came to be, and how he of all people got cursed with it when no one in Camelot had even met 'Emrys' Merlin didn't know. But whenever he heard it he would keep his head down and hurry past.
While the boy's eyes shone with determination, the father's gaze held little but fear, and his hand gripped his son's shoulders tight enough for the knuckles to appear white.
Arthur believed that the only king worthy of his crown was a king who loved his people, and was loved by his people in return. He hated to see his subjects fear him, and so he softened his features and gentled his voice as he addressed the man.
"What brings you before your king, good man?"
Father and son had travelled to the castle from a village near the Mercian border. No man would make this journey on a whim, and whenever a villager from one of the outlying villages would ask for an audience it was usually to report either bandits terrorizing the area or crop failures. Both of which could cost many lives if action wasn't taken as fast as possible.
This time, though, it was neither.
"Your Highness," the boy said, voice not yet settled into the deep tones of a man. "I have magic--"
Rapid murmurs met the frank admission, and the father made a distressed sound. Either the knowledge of King Arthur's attitude to magic hadn't yet crossed to the outlying villages, or the father didn't believe the rumours.
Arthur showed his surprise at the frank words, but nodded to the boy to continue.
"My magic is strong, but I fear that I cannot fully control it on my own." Merlin winced in sympathy. "I ask for permission to be trained by Emrys."
Merlin's sympathy wavered and died. His first thought was Not again, and he shifted a bit until he was half hidden behind Gaius.
"Emrys," Arthur repeated flatly, and Merlin couldn't agree more.
It wasn't that he didn't want to help the boy. But he couldn't be revealed like that. Arthur deserved to be told by Merlin himself. Besides, Merlin didn't fully comprehend his own magic. How could he help another with his?
"Yes," the boy said, sounding a bit unsure. "I dreamt that he was here, by your side?"
Arthur leaned forward a bit, eyes narrowed. "You dreamt that this Emrys was here?"
Whatever bravado the boy had when he first stepped before his king was gone now. His eyes were as wide and fearful as his father's, and Merlin saw Arthur visibly controlling himself.
"I sometimes dream of things happening far away, or things that are yet about to happen, Sire," the boy admitted.
"And you dreamt that Emrys was here?"
"He is always here, Your Highness."
Arthur's jaw clenched. "By my side?"
"Always by your side, Sire."
"I see," Arthur said, settling back on the throne. "I'm afraid I cannot offer you the guidance of... 'Lord Emrys', but, if you and your father are willing I am sure that the Druids residing just west of the castle would be able to help you. I would be happy to have a knight escort you safely to the Druid camp."
Once the matter was settled and everything arranged to the king's satisfaction, Arthur dismissed the court. With a quick glance he bade Leon, Gaius and Merlin to stay.
"I'm becoming rather tired of this," he started without preamble. Merlin privately agreed, but for rather different reasons.
"Sire?" Gaius asked politely, as though it wasn't clear what Arthur was referring to.
"Emrys," Arthur clarified, and he looked so frustrated that Merlin felt guilt gnawing at his conscience.
Merlin and Gaius had talked about this, at length. They discussed whether or not it was time for Merlin to reveal himself, but hadn't found a satisfactory answer. In the end, Gaius merely said that Merlin had to do what he thought best.
But the problem was, Merlin didn't know what was best. He wanted to tell Arthur, to get this lie between them out of the way after all these years, but at the same time he feared Arthur's reaction.
What if, after all these years, the right time had already passed? What if Arthur rejected him once he knew the truth?
Merlin kept quiet, because he couldn't lose Arthur.
"We need to find him," Arthur said, determined.
Merlin felt the world drop from underneath his feet. "Maybe we should wait for the others," he said, and even Merlin could hear the desperation in his own voice.
Arthur and Leon looked at him oddly.
"Don't be an idiot, Merlin. Elyan and Percival won't be back for days, and we hardly need Gwaine to look for a sorcerer. Unless of course the man is to be found in a tavern, though I have no doubt that if that were the case Gwaine would have found him long ago."
Merlin briefly thought about protesting on Gwaine's behalf, but dismissed the thought immediately. He had bigger things to worry about. Though he did find it interesting that Arthur didn't mention Agravaine, and that the man had been dismissed together with the rest of the court. He hoped it meant that Arthur finally saw through his uncle.
"You might be acting a bit rashly, Sire," Gaius said, sounding much more composed than Merlin had. "Is there really any need to seek out Emrys when the man does not wish you to know his identity, Your Majesty?"
Arthur raked a hand through his hair. "I don't know, Gaius. But I hear the talk in the lower town. 'King of the Druids' they call him. And maybe they're right. From what the Druid woman said--"
"Searen," Leon supplied helpfully, and Arthur nodded.
"--from what Searen said, he might as well be. And if I... If I plan to repeal the ban on magic--"
Merlin stared at Arthur, and saw Gaius do the same from the corner of his eye. While Arthur tolerated Druids and many hinted that the ban on magic might not be needed any more (because no one dared to say that Uther had been wrong to ban magic outright), this was the first time anyone approached the topic this directly. And Arthur, of all people!
"--I might need... No, I think that if I am to repeal the ban on magic I must first speak with this Emrys."
Arthur met their gazes, head high and back straight, and Merlin realised that he meant it.
Arthur planned to make magic legal in Camelot again.
Merlin bit the inside of his cheek to keep himself from making any kind of noise, while his mind reeled and his legs felt wobbly. He felt... There were no words for what Merlin felt at that moment, everything he ever wanted close enough to grasp.
Magic would return to the land, and Merlin would be free to tell Arthur, to finally let Arthur see the power that Merlin kept hidden, the power that was Merlin's to wield and Arthur's to command. They might not be equals, because Merlin would always serve Arthur, but Arthur would finally see Merlin for who he was. Arthur would look at him and see everything Merlin had done for him, and everything Merlin could do, and---
And Arthur wanted to meet Emrys, first.
Wanted to met him.
"Maybe now is the time to tell Arthur the truth," Gaius said that evening as they settled down for dinner.
Merlin whimpered into his plate. "Gaius, I can't. I just-- I can't. Not before he lifts the ban." He played morosely with his food.
"I don't understand. And don't do that," Gaius admonished, lightly slapping Merlin's hand. "What difference does it make whether you reveal your secret before he lifts the ban, or after it?"
"I don't know!" Merlin cried, frustrated. "It just does! I feel-- It's like, it's like everything is going to be all right if I tell him afterwards, whereas he'll hate me and send me away if I tell him now."
"Merlin! That is ridiculous!"
"I know!" he cried. And more softly, "I know that, Gaius, I really do. But I can't tell him. What if he sends me away? What if he banishes me for lying to him all these years? I can't be banished. He'll be dead within the week without me looking out for his royal backside."
Gaius sighted deeply. Merlin reluctantly looked up.
"Merlin, I have always been quick to caution you against revealing yourself in the past," he said, and Merlin nodded, but kept quiet. "But I truly feel as though now is the right time. The decision is yours, of course, and no one can make it for you, but I cannot imagine better circumstances."
Merlin lowered his gaze again, idly picking at his food.
"You really think I should tell him?" he asked in a small voice.
Gaius gave him a small, sad smile. "The choice is yours."
"So you really want to do this?" Merlin asked as casually as possible as he served Arthur breakfast.
"That's what I said yesterday. I'm glad you finally deign to listen to me."
"It's just," Merlin started, fiddling with the fruit bowl. "Where would you even start looking?"
Arthur rolled his eyes. "As opposed to some people, I'm quite capable of making plans--"
Merlin huffed a laugh. "Oh," he said, mockingly earnest at Arthur's glare. "You're serious. Sorry didn't realise that given you and your usual plans..."
"And what is that supposed to mean, Merlin?"
Merlin shrugged. "Well, you know. Your plans generally end in disaster and me having to safe you..."
Arthur snorted into his cup. "You? Save me?" He laughed derisively. "You know, Merlin, it's good to know that no matter what I can always count on you to provide amusement. Maybe I should make you Court Jester. You do look good in ridiculous hats."
Merlin glared at Arthur half-heartedly, heart beating wildly in his chest as he thought about telling him now. He could do it now, insist that he did save Arthur an awful lot, and when Arthur asked him how Merlin could tell him everything, show him if need be.
He fought with himself, wavering between wanting it all to be over and terrified of Arthur's reaction. And then the moment was over, and Arthur returned to his breakfast.
Merlin bit his lip, and turned away.
His gaze fell on a piece of parchment on the other side of the table, and Merlin raised his eyebrows. "What's that?"
Arthur followed his gaze, and swallowed his bite of bread. "It's a list of potential Emryses."
"'Emryses'?" Merlin repeated, but Arthur only gave him a look. Rolling his eyes Merlin reached for the parchment.
"These are all knights!" he said, frowning indignantly.
"Well of course," Arthur said, sounding baffled. "Didn't you hear what the boy yesterday said? It has to be someone close to me, someone who spends a lot of time with me--"
"I was there too, thanks," Merlin interrupted shortly. "But those are all knights!" He glared at Arthur when he stared at Merlin as though he had grown another head. "You don't think that maybe there are other people close to you, that spend a lot of time with you besides your knights?" Like me, he didn't say, because it should be obvious. Who else spent as much time with the prat as him, after all?
Arthur frowned thoughtfully at him. "Agravaine hadn't really been around before, well--" Morgana "--so it can't be him. You don't suppose it's Gaius, do you? Wait, are you saying Gaius is Emrys?"
"Gaius isn't Emrys!" Merlin snapped. He slammed the stupid list back on the table and seethed.
"Then what are you saying?" Arthur snapped back.
"Nothing!" Merlin picked up the plates of food, uncaring whether Arthur was finished or not. The prat was getting fat, anyway. "I'm not saying anything!"
He didn't slam the door on his way out, because that would have been childish. It just fell shut.
Merlin avoided Arthur for the rest of the morning after that, until he literally ran into him on his way from the armoury to the kitchens.
"There you are!" Arthur said, grabbing Merlin by the lapels and dragging him with him in the direction Merlin had come from. "Where have you been all morning?"
"Working," Merlin replied crossly, "You should try it some time."
Arthur released him with a little shove to keep him moving. "Don't be an idiot, Merlin. And don't tell me you're still in a snit."
"I'm not in a snit," Merlin snapped back, falling into step besides Arthur.
Arthur merely rolled his eyes. "Whatever. We're going to start our search for Emrys."
Merlin snorted bitterly. "And how are you going to do that? Work down your little list and ask your knights if they are powerful sorcerers?"
"What is it with you today?" Arthur asked in exasperation.
"Well, good! Then stop acting like a girl already!"
"I'm not acting--" Merlin started, but Arthur interrupted him.
"We're going to the market and see if we can find some Druids to talk to. Have them tell us more about Emrys."
"That's a stupid plan. They're not going to tell you anything."
"Really? And how do you know that, Merlin?", Arthur drawled, eyes narrowed.
Because I'll make sure they don't, Merlin thought smugly, but refrained from answering verbally. He just shrugged instead.
Obviously, Merlin ended up being right.
They did come across a couple of Druids in the market, but whenever Arthur would very politely and courteously explain the situation and ask if the Druids couldn't give him more information about 'Lord Emrys' Merlin would stand behind him and imperceptibly shake his head.
The Druids would lower their eyes demurely and tell Arthur just as politely that they could not, and asked the king to honour their lord's wishes.
Arthur would get increasingly frustrated as the day wore on, and Merlin increasingly smug.
Merlin did feel bad about abusing the power he had over the Druids in this way, but his pride still stung from being disregarded as a potential Emrys.
"I don't get it!" Arthur ranted as they returned to his chambers. "Why won't they tell me anything?"
Merlin didn't say anything, and Arthur went on, pacing the length of his chamber. His gloating came to an abrupt end with Arthur's words.
"Why doesn't he want to be found? I let the Druids return to the kingdom, I gave reprieve to a sorcerer -- granted, I would never have a child executed without grave circumstances anyway, but still -- and I'm thinking about repealing the ban on magic. So why doesn't he show himself? If he is the King of the Druids or magic or whatever, shouldn't he come to me? Is he telling me I'm not worthy of knowing who he is? Is that it? What, do I have to prove myself first to meet the arrogant--"
"No! Arthur, that's not it!" Merlin stepped forward and laid a restraining hand on his arm. "Arthur please, believe me, it's not that you are unworthy, the opposite, you are worthy of everything and everyone."
Arthur stared at him, frustration written all over his fine features, and Merlin felt guilt settle in his stomach like falling rocks.
"You're a good King, Arthur. A great King. And it's not because of you that Emrys won't show himself."
"Then why won't he reveal himself?" Arthur asked plainly, and Merlin was forced to let him go, to break away.
"I don't know," Merlin said, the words sour in his mouth. "I don't know."
That night Merlin went to a clearing not too far from Camelot and waited.
"Young Warlock," Kilgharrah greeted him once he settled, inclining his head.
Merlin offered him a tight smile, but now that the dragon was here he found himself at a loss of words.
"The Druids have returned to the kingdom," the dragon prompted after a while.
"You have done well."
The dragon sighed loudly, and the exhale ruffled Merlin's clothes and hair. "Is there a reason you called for me tonight, Merlin?"
Merlin shuffled around a bit, toeing the grass. "It's just," he started abruptly, "Arthur is looking for me. I mean, not me, but Emrys-me. They call me the King of the Druids."
The dragon waited expectantly, but Merlin refused to ask if he deserved the title. He didn't want to know. He had enough on his plate already.
"Gaius thinks I should tell Arthur."
When he said nothing else, Kilgharrah nodded gently. "You have to tell him sometime, Merlin."
"I know that," Merlin said petulantly. "But-- You know the future, right? Can't you tell me when I tell him? And how he reacts?" he added hopefully.
Kilgharrah laughed softly. "I do not see the future, my friend. I see destiny. I cannot answer your questions. I do know, however, that the Once and Future King is aware of his Sorcerer. And that they stand side-by-side without secrets between them. If there is nothing else, young warlock, I will take my leave. This is a decision you must make on your own."
He took flight without even waiting for Merlin to shake his head, leaving Merlin standing alone in a clearing with no more answers than he had before.
Merlin entered Arthur's chambers quietly, heart thumping furiously in his chest.
Gwaine grinned at him in greeting, though it turned into a frown when he saw Merlin's expression. Gwaine, Leon and Gaius sat once more with Arthur, Percival and Elyan still being away on patrol. They weren't expected back until midday tomorrow.
“Merlin?” Gwaine asked, a touch concerned.
Merlin cleared his throat, and stared at the papers strewn around the table. “What are you guys doing?”
“Looking for Emrys,” Arthur answered, the What do you think? implied in his tone. “What's going on with you?”
Merlin worried the hem of his shirt with nervous fingers, glancing quickly to Gaius. The physician gazed intently at Merlin, as if sensing what he was about to do. Gaius nodded, grave but encouraging. Merlin cleared his throat again.
“Can I-- Can I talk to you for a second?” He looked at Arthur, maybe a bit too pleadingly because the king frowned. “Alone?” he added.
“Whatever you want to say, surely you can say it to all of us?” Arthur asked, sounding more puzzled than purposefully aggravating.
“Yeah-- I mean, I know, I'd just prefer....” He trailed off, and looked at Gwaine and Leon pleadingly.
Leon rose slowly. “Perhaps we should--”
“I know who Emrys is,” Merlin blurted, and closed his eyes in horror. He had not meant to say that.
“What?” Three voices shouted over each other, and Merlin prayed for the ability to take his last words back.
“What do you mean you know who Emrys is? And you didn't say anything?” Arthur said in outrage, advancing on Merlin.
Gwaine held him back with a hand on his chest. “How do you know who he is?”
Merlin swallowed thickly, and looked at Gaius in panic. Gaius' eyebrows had nearly disappeared into his hairline, as if to say What have you done now? and Merlin really, really couldn't answer that.
“Can't you just--” Merlin started, not even knowing what he wanted to say before he was interrupted by Arthur.
“No, I bloody well cannot! I can't believe you didn't say anything! Who is it? Spit it out already, Merlin!”
“Me,” Merlin said weakly, staring desperately at the ground as his intestines contorted themselves into shapes they were not meant to be. His heart hammered in his throat.
Gwaine snorted slightly, voice higher than usual with incredulity. “Could you repeat that? Because that just sounded a lot like--”
“You,” Arthur said flatly.
Merlin nodded, but didn't dare look up.
“Out,” Arthur growled, and Merlin's head shot up. The king ripped his gaze away from him and glared at the others. “OUT!”
“What?” Gwaine protested while Leon just looked between Arthur and Merlin, as though not sure what to make of the situation. Merlin swallowed a hysterical laugh. He knew the feeling.
Before Arthur could truly react Gaius started shepherding the other two towards the door. The sight of the brittle old man manhandling the knights might have been funny under other circumstances, but at the moment Merlin's throat merely seized with panic as he realised that he would be alone with Arthur.
Gaius, bless him, noticed his distress and moved to squeeze his shoulder once, the look in his eyes reassuring and proud. It calmed Merlin somewhat, but the moment was over too soon as Arthur growled, “Gaius” warningly, and the old man went outside with the knights.
The click as the door fell shut sounded disturbingly final.
They stared at each other in silence. Arthur furious and with his hands clenched tightly at his sides in anger, Merlin quietly miserable.
“So you're Emrys,” Arthur said finally, voice tight. He didn't wait for Merlin's answer. “And you didn't see fit to tell me? What were you doing all this time when you knew I was looking for Emrys—for you? Were you laughing yourself sick behind my back at my--”
“Arthur, no!” Merlin cried, starting to step forward but aborting the movement at Arthur's poisonous glare. “I wasn't... I didn't know how... And then--”
“Don't,” Arthur ordered, voice quiet and odd. “I don't want to hear it.” He turned away from Merlin, and Merlin felt the world shatter into pieces around him.
“Arthur,” he said, helpless and terrified.
Arthur jerked his head once, an angry movement that fitted the tight set of his shoulders, the slight tremors that ran through his body as he fought for control.
Merlin could see all this, but it felt as though the crack between them that had been his secret had widened, the edges crumbling until a great canyon was left in its wake, and Merlin didn't know how to cross it.
Didn't know how to reach out and set things right between them again.
He remained silent while Arthur visibly warred with himself, afraid of the outcome. It might have been seconds, it might have been minutes – for Merlin it might as well have been an eternity until Arthur slumped, and said, “I can't have you here, now. Go back to your room. I will call for you when I have use for you,” sounding utterly defeated.
Merlin felt like crying, could feel the tears burn behind his eyes, but he nodded simply. “Yes, Sire,” he croaked, and left.
Arthur didn't turn around to watch him go.
To say that Merlin slept poorly was an understatement. What little sleep he got was plagued by nightmares, and he woke in fits and starts.
It didn't immediately register that something was different from the other countless times he had woken that night, not until something thudded against the frame of the bed, making the wood rock and creak in protest.
Merlin started, hands clutching the sheets protectively to his chest. His mind felt sluggish, and sleep-deprived as he was it took him a long moment to make sense of the sight of Arthur standing at the foot of his bed, fully clothed and staring at him with an undecipherable look on his face. Then the last few hours hit him like a punch in the gut, and he scrambled out of the bed, nearly tumbling to the floor when his feet tangled in the sheets.
They stared at each other like that, Merlin a little bit wildly and with his bedsheets twisted around his legs and Arthur unreadable, half-hidden by the shadows in the room.
Merlin swallowed thickly, licking his dry lips. His eyes felt itchy and puffed, and his throat felt coarse from the endless hours before he had fallen into an exhausted sleep. He knew that he must have looked like a mess. He would have preferred to not have Arthur see him like this, but he couldn't help feeling a tiny sliver of hope at seeing Arthur here.
Let Arthur see his weakness, let him mock Merlin for crying like a girl for the rest of their lives.
Just let Merlin be forgiven.
Arthur broke away first, whispering, "Get dressed", and left Merlin's room.
Merlin stood rooted to the spot for a moment, trying to process what was going on. Arthur coming down here, telling him to get dressed, it must have been a good sign. If he was going to arrest Merlin, or worse, banish him, he surely would have done so immediately.
Merlin hoped so. Desperately.
He dressed quickly, hesitating at first but then summoning a small flame to allow him to see where his clothes were. If Arthur could see the shine of the fire from main room, well.
He knew about Merlin, now. Whether or not he accepted his magic, Merlin was tired of hiding, pretending to be someone he was not. He wouldn't go back to pretending, not even if Arthur wanted him to, he told himself.
By the time he joined Arthur in the workshop, he almost believed himself.
He followed Arthur to one of the training fields where the archery targets stood.
Merlin watched quietly as Arthur ghosted a hand over the target, glaring down at it. He forced himself not to fidget, but his nerves were shot from adrenaline and lack of sleep, and he could feel his pulse pound in his throat, making it hard to breath.
He wasn't sure how much time passed while the two stood there, the silence between them strained and fragile.
"Why didn't you tell me?" asked Arthur finally, not looking at him.
Merlin dug his nails into his palms as he swallowed around the lump in his throat. This was his chance to explain himself. If he found the right words he could right everything that was wrong between them now, and they would be better afterwards, closer without the secret of Merlin's magic keeping them apart.
"I couldn't," he started stupidly, and he winced. "Not in the beginning, and at first I couldn't tell you because you would have been honour-bound to arrest me." Arthur frowned, and Merlin hurried on, "And then I knew that you wouldn't arrest me, I think, but I didn't want to come between you and your father, and well. And then Morgana turned, and I guess I was... I was too afraid to say anything. You have to understand, I have been told that I mustn't tell anyone, never let anyone find out, for all my life. First mum, and then Gaius..." He trailed off as he saw the angry line of Arthur's shoulders.
"And what?" Arthur growled, "You don't trust me? Is that what you're saying? You didn't trust me with who you are until you were forced to reveal yourself?"
"No!" Merlin protested, rushing to explain. "It's just. The laws against magic, technically they were never repealed, and--"
"It's not about the magic, Merlin!" Arthur snapped, whirling around to glare at him. "I've known about the magic for years!" Merlin stared at him. "Why didn't you tell me that you are Emrys? Why didn't you tell me that--that you are a, a king? All this years you've been my servant when in truth--!" He broke off, hitting the archery target with his fist and a choked off sound of frustration.
"You knew about the magic?" Merlin asked in a small voice, too bewildered to make sense of anything else.
Arthur snorted bitterly. "Of course I knew, you idiot. You're not exactly subtle, are you? For heaven's sake, Merlin, you blew the locks of the doors to the Great Hall apart when Elyan was possessed! Did you think I wouldn't notice that, you great imbecile?"
Merlin was at a loss of words. All these years he felt as though his magic had been this huge chasm between them, felt his lies and obfuscations like needles piercing under his skin, pricking his heart. And all this time, Arthur knew?
"Since when..?" asked Merlin, breathlessly. He felt light-headed, as though he couldn't fill his lungs with enough air.
Arthur shrugged jerkily, anger and tension plain in his stance. "Since before Ealdor, probably. I convinced myself that I must have been mistaken after your friend--" he glanced at Merlin, who felt a sharp pang of loss for Will pierce through the numbness, "--but I knew for sure after the Questing Beast."
Merlin shook his head in denial, refusing to accept what he just heard. Since the Questing Beast. Since Ealdor.
And irrationally, Merlin felt angry. "Why didn't you ever say anything?" He half shouted.
Arthur returned his glare, and replied just as angrily, "Why didn't you?"
And just as quickly as the spark of fury had come, it deflated. Merlin stared morosely at the slightly damp ground.
Whether Arthur had known or not, it didn't change the fact that Merlin had lied to him all these years.
Might even be worse, because he obviously hadn't done a good job at keeping his magic hidden. He wondered how Arthur must have felt, knowing the truth and listening to Merlin's lies.
"I'm sorry," said Merlin miserably.
Arthur slumped against the target, the tension bleeding out of his body. He shrugged, resigned. "I understand why you did it. I wish you hadn't felt the need to, but I get it," he mumbled.
They both remained quiet, unsure how to go on. The silence between them was uncomfortable; filled with unhappiness, anger, frustration and all the other things they couldn't express.
Merlin felt tired to the bone. His emotions had been in turmoil ever since he saw the list in Arthur's chambers this morning, and his head swam with everything that had happened within the last twenty-four hours. He frowned as something occurred to him, but the thought escaped his sleep-deprived mind before he could grasp more than a vague feeling that something didn't make sense.
He tried to recapture his previous train of thought. The whole day had been an emotional ordeal, ever since he picked up Arthur's stupid list that morning...
"Why--" Merlin stopped, straightening as he finally put his finger on what hadn't added up. Arthur glanced at him, looking to spent to muster up a glare.
"If you knew about my magic, why didn't you consider me as a candidate to be Emrys?" And now that he knew that Arthur had known about his magic for years, the easy dismissal stung even more.
He must have said the wrong thing, because as it turned out, Arthur did have enough energy left to glare at Merlin.
"Forgive me for thinking that my lying idiot of a manservant would at least spare me the indignity and not lie to me about something as important as this," he said stiffly.
Merlin stared at him, flabbergasted. "What?"
"Honestly, Merlin, I know you've never shown me any respect before, but letting me treat you like a servant when all along you have been a king,--"
"--letting me make a fool of myself for years. Yes, forgive me for thinking that you wouldn't insult my honour like that!"
Arthur's shout at the end echoed slightly in the still night. Once more, Merlin found himself at a loss for words.
"I'm not a king," said Merlin quietly, at last. "That's just something the town's folk came up with when they heard the Druids talking about me."
"So you deny what Searen said? Are you saying she lied when she said that sorcerers serve you?"
Merlin's mind flashed to Searen kneeling before him, to the reverend way the Druids in the city regarded him, to Kilgharrah bowing his head to him. He tried telling himself that those things weren't comparable. Kilgharrah only bowed to him because he was a Dragonlord, and the Druids had some kind of misguided expectations of him.
Something must have shown on his face, because Arthur huffed as though his point had been made.
"What does it even matter," Merlin muttered defensively, and was taken aback by Arthur's reaction.
"Of course it matters, you idiot!" he all but shouted, stepping close and gripping Merlin by the arm. "All these years I treated you like my servant, when you have been my equal all along!"
Merlin stared at Arthur with wide eyes. There was something in his words, something Merlin couldn't quite grasp. He could see it in the unhappy curl of Arthur's mouth, hear it in the longing hidden beneath his words, and taste it in the tension in the air.
"What are you talking about?"
Arthur froze, jaw clenching. He snatched his hand away from Merlin's arm as though burnt, but didn't step away.
"I cannot treat a fellow king like a servant. Even if you wear no crown you are still the sovereign of your people, and as such you must be treated with the respect you deserve," Arthur said formally.
Merlin snorted, and gave him a wry grin. "Respect I deserve? Are you telling me that you'll stop insulting me at every turn now that you know I'm Emrys? Why do I find that hard to believe?"
Arthur shot him a dark look, but stubbornly insisted, "An insult to your person is an insult to your people. I promised I would show the Druids my respect from now on. Treating their king like a servant is not showing them respect."
Merlin rolled his eyes. "Arthur, I am your servant," he said, puzzled as Arthur turned away sharply. "And this is not what you meant before."
He waited somewhat patiently, as something huge and important built between them. He wondered if Arthur could feel it too.
Arthur's posture was stiff again, and he glared fiercely at the castle walls. "There are things," he said, stilted, "that a honourable man does not ask of his servants."
He seemed content to leave it at that, but Merlin wasn't. The night danced around them, full of anticipation.
"I don't understand."
"Of course you don't," said Arthur, but it sounded as though he was mostly talking to himself. Merlin thought he saw Arthur's mouth curl into a parody of a smile, full of regret and self-deprecation which Merlin wasn't used to seeing in his king. "It may come as a surprise to you, Merlin, but a servant doesn't actually have the choice to deny his master anything. A request or favour is a prettily dressed order, nothing more. A servant doesn't have the freedom to say 'no' to anything his master wants."
Merlin licked his lips, tasting the charge in the air. "I still don't get it."
Arthur regarded him for a long moment. There was something heavy in his gaze, something that Merlin did and didn't recognise; that was familiar, but not. Whatever it was, it made his heart beat a wild staccato in his chest.
"I didn't expect you to," Arthur said finally. "But it doesn't change that you being my equal makes all the difference."
Merlin nodded, not because he understood what Arthur was talking about, but because he felt the truth in Arthur's words. The thing building in the air around sang, resounding within Merlin and making his magic hum beneath his skin. Merlin finally identified it, and he felt content as he named it.
Arthur must have felt it as well, this notion of rightness. He seemed at ease now, as though all their hardships were over.
They weren't of course, Merlin knew that logically. Morgana was still a threat, and Agravaine a traitor in their midst. But in that moment, it felt as though they didn't matter.
The night started to recede, replaced by the first rays of sunlight. The two of them watched a new day dawning, side by side. It felt huge.
Like the dawn of a new age.
They stood in silence, comfortable in each other's presence again, watching the sun rise.
It felt like hours until Merlin felt like speaking again. "What now?" he asked, voice hushed.
Arthur turned his head to gaze at him intently. "I don't know," he said honestly, looking as though he wanted to frown but didn't have the heart to do it. As though he didn't want to break the peace surrounding them like a warm blanket. "But king or not, you can't remain my manservant."
Merlin returned his gaze calmly. A few hours ago the announcement would have send him into a panic, fearing that he would be sent away.
But when he truly looked now Merlin could see the fine threads of fate binding them together glitter in the morning light, and knew that everything would work out.
"I suppose there will be a new position in court," Arthur said slowly, lost in thought. Merlin waited patiently, seeing the threads shimmer, golden and red, and every colour in between.
Then Arthur smiled, wicked and brilliantly, and Merlin's breath caught because it was brighter than the sun itself.
"You'll need a new hat, though. A ridiculous one, because you won't be able to wear the official feathered one of the royal servants any more. How do you feel about cones?"