"I just didn't fit in anymore. I wanted to find somewhere that I did."
"Had any luck?"
It's a simple enough question, but Merlin hesitates and Arthur's heart sinks. He's not sure why he even asked – why he even cares – but he did, and he does. There's no reason to be asking all these questions, except that maybe some part of him has just realised how little he knows of the man who serves him and would die for him.
Then again, there's no reason to even be here in Ealdor, defending a village outside the Camelot border. No reason except Merlin, and that's no reason at all.
(It's every reason.)
"Not sure yet," Merlin says finally.
And Arthur doesn't ask what that means, because he's asked enough questions for one night, and because he's thinking of something else now.
When did Merlin became important enough to be worth risking his life?
It was a simple enough question, but for the following weeks the answer rolls around in Arthur's head. "Not sure yet." If Merlin had said no, he probably would have taken it better. Arthur wonders what's missing for Merlin to be able to give a definite yes or no answer, because there must be something.
But he doesn't ask, because he shouldn't care. He shouldn't care about something as stupid as Merlin being able to give a yes or no answer.
(He shouldn't want that answer to be yes.)
And then poison comes into the equation, and Arthur is scared for what seems like the first time in his life. Merlin, stupid Merlin has followed him into the labyrinth of Gedref and he's not going anywhere.
He wants to drink poison for Arthur.
When Arthur says, "I had no idea you were so keen to die for me," it's a lie. Because he knew, and he knows. Merlin is that kind of person.
And when Merlin says, "Trust me, I can hardly believe it myself," that's also a lie and they both know it. Merlin drank poison in his place once, and Arthur will be damned if he lets that happen again. But –
"I'm glad you're here, Merlin."
That one isn't a lie.
And that's why, Arthur realises, that's why he so desperately wants Merlin to feel like he fits in. Because to Arthur, Merlin is a piece of a puzzle, an important piece of something that can't be whole without him. Arthur wants Merlin to feel that. He can't stand that he doesn't.
When Arthur wakes up after drinking the poison-that-was-not-poison, Merlin is there, eyes watchful and serious. Relieved. A smile spreads across his face, but it's strained and only half-there.
"I'm not dead." Arthur pauses. "Why am I not dead?"
"I was right," Merlin says. "You can't die. Maybe next time you'll listen to me."
Arthur smiles back. "What really happened?"
"It was your test. If you were willing to die, then... you wouldn't die."
"What a stupid test."
Merlin looks away. "Tell me about it."
Merlin shrugs, like it's nothing – but it isn't.
"Tell me," Arthur says in his I'm-a-prince voice, and Merlin looks up and smiles half-heartedly when he hears it. Which, usually, is the only reaction Arthur's orders get from him.
(He doesn't know why he allows it, but Arthur can't imagine it any other way.)
"I thought you were going to die," Merlin says.
"So did I."
"You really shouldn't go around offering to sacrifice yourself for others. Your life is too important."
Arthur looks at him, really looks at him. There's something in his tone, a strange weight that goes beyond the fear of losing a – a prince, a master, a friend. Arthur gets the feeling there's more to the sentence than he can grasp at the moment.
"And yours isn't?"
"Not as much as yours," Merlin says, and Arthur can tell he truly believes it.
(And really, there's no reason he shouldn't, except that Arthur disagrees.)
Arthur asks, "Had any luck?"
Merlin blinks. "What?"
Arthur looks at him.
"Oh," Merlin says, and this time Arthur is looking at him and can see the way his gaze shifts away when he says, "Not yet."
"What –" Arthur begins, but stops because... Because.
Because of princes and servants and a friendship that can't be even though it already is.
(And always will be.)
The question becomes a regular thing, and the answer never varies.
What would it take for you to feel like you fit in?
That question is never asked.
Life goes on. Years pass. Things happen.
Things like Arthur temporarily taking on a new servant, that complete sleaze Cedric (but what a competent, well-mannered sleaze), and said new servant turning out to be a conniving bastard, and Merlin – Merlin hardly saying a word when Arthur unceremoniously gives him his job back without so much as an apology or an admission that he was wrong.
(He was wrong.)
Later that same day, Arthur finds Merlin while he is still polishing his armour. Standing in the doorway, he watches Merlin in silence for several minutes (far longer than necessary) before asking, quietly:
"Had any luck yet?"
Merlin doesn't even jump, which makes Arthur wonder how long he's been aware of him standing there.
(Probably since he arrived.)
Merlin glances up and smiles, and the smile holds no resentment. "Not yet," he says.
For the first time, Arthur can't blame him.
Things like Uther calling in the witchfinder, Aredian – and Merlin being accused of sorcery.
Gaius protects Merlin, and Aredian is gleeful. Merlin calls him a liar, and – and Arthur half-carries him out of the Great Hall and down to the dungeons to see Gaius.
He breaks the law for a manservant, and he can't bring himself to care.
(And he's glad, so stupidly glad, when Aredian is found to be a liar.)
Things like a dragon being released and Merlin going out to battle beside him.
That, that right there has got to be the most terrible, stupid, beautiful thing Arthur has ever witnessed. Merlin, who despite the knights' best efforts is still only just about passable with any weapon, Merlin who hates fighting, blood, and death, Merlin whom Arthur always calls a coward chooses to accompany him on a suicide mission. Chooses to die by Arthur's side.
And maybe it's because Merlin is not bound by honour, but only by choice, that this seems to mean so much more to Arthur than the knights who decided to face the dragon with him.
Merlin survives, somehow, as does Arthur.
It's not right that Arthur can be devastated at the loss of so many good knights and yet at the same time feel a serene gladness fill him when Merlin returns to Camelot safe and sound at his side.
(Where he always is.)
It isn't a surprise to either of them when Arthur asks – and he doesn't care that the repeated question makes his feelings obvious – "Had any luck?"
It's still painful when Merlin shakes his head and says, "Not yet," without even pausing to think.
Arthur knows there's something. Something that's keeping Merlin back, something that makes him unable to accept Camelot as his home – as the place where he belongs.
(Because he does belong.)
Merlin would give his life for Arthur. Merlin believes in Camelot and the values Arthur defends and everything Arthur stands for. Merlin serves and serves well, whatever Arthur may say, and he likes Arthur.
So what is it?
There's a lie somewhere, lurking beneath the surface.
Arthur is jealous of Gwaine.
Not of Gwaine, exactly. Just... of the way everything seems to be easy between him and Merlin. Easy banter, easy smiles, easy laughter, easy friendliness. He sees Gwaine clap Merlin on the shoulder, or pull him into a hug, and something twinges in his heart because – this is what they can never have.
Not while Arthur is a prince.
Not while Merlin is a liar.
If Arthur is at all glad when Gwaine has to leave Camelot, the feeling fades quickly when Merlin spends the next few days quiet and sullen, missing his new friend.
The friend Arthur can't be.
The question goes unasked this time, but the answer is plain in Merlin's eyes.
Arthur fears the day "Not yet" will turn to "No."
One day, Arthur does ask: "What would it take? For you to feel like you fit in here. Like you belonged."
Merlin looks up at him. "My place is by your side," he says, without a trace of irony.
Arthur's heart leaps in his throat, but – it's not really an answer. "I meant –"
"I know what you meant." Merlin looks down at his hands. "It's nothing you can give me, Arthur. Trust me."
And Arthur does. Implicitly. Unwaveringly. With his life.
Arthur isn't sure exactly when he figures it out, or why. Maybe it's the ungodly amount of chores Merlin manages to get through with inhuman speed that one time Arthur foists everything to be done before a tournament on him. Maybe it's the goddamn luck that Arthur seems to have, that over the past few years has made him wonder more than once whether he had a guardian angel. Or maybe it's something as simple as the look on Merlin's face whenever magic is mentioned, a look that's not quite fear but almost could be.
(There are few things Merlin is afraid of, and magic is not one of them.)
It's always been there, staring him in the face, but one day – one day everything slots into place and he gets it.
"I know," Arthur says one night as he's sitting on the edge of his bed, staring straight ahead at the wall.
Merlin is standing several feet away, ostentatiously looking out the window and not working. "You know what?" he asks uninterestedly, his breath fogging up the glass.
"That you – you have magic."
He hears Merlin's sharp intake of breath, sees the way his fingers clench reflexively into a fist. And yet Merlin's voice is only slightly strained when he says:
Merlin turns, his eyes blown wide with fear. "Of course it is. You – you can't be serious. Do you realise what you're saying? Your father –"
"That's why, isn't it?" Arthur asks. "That's why you never felt like you fit in in Camelot."
"Is that what this is about? You shouldn't speculate, Arthur. That – that was ages ago."
"Yes, it was," Arthur agrees. "And you never once thought to tell me the truth. Never once thought that I deserved to know."
"There was nothing to know –"
"Don't lie to me. I know, Merlin. I know. I know you have magic."
There's this look in Merlin's eyes, like his world is ending and he's powerless to keep it from happening. Arthur feels like he might be sick. He watches, and waits, but Merlin only stands there. The colour has drained from his face and his breath is coming in short bursts.
"Gods," Arthur says, and stands up abruptly, but when Merlin flinches he freezes instead of stepping forward. "Gods, Merlin, do you really think –"
Merlin is shaking like a leaf.
Yes, he really does.
"I'm not doing a very good job of this, am I?" Arthur asks.
Merlin's eyes are still wide and he looks for all the world like a cornered wild animal, not like the best friend Arthur has ever had.
"I trust you," Arthur says, and knows in his gut that it's true. "So just – trust me. I need you to trust me."
"I'm sorry," Merlin says finally. "I'm sorry, Arthur, I just –"
He stops, because his voice cracks on the last word and he can't seem to go on. He draws in a choked breath and blinks rapidly.
"Merlin," Arthur says. "It's all right. Really."
Merlin stares at him.
"I mean it. I – I've known for a while now. I was hoping you would tell me, but – you haven't, not in the years we've known each other, so I knew that was never going to happen." Arthur watches him closely. "I wish you'd trusted me."
"I'm sorry," Merlin says again, but this time the words seem to come out with less difficulty, and there's a light in his eyes that wasn't there before. "Are you saying –"
"I know," Arthur says, "and I think – I think I know what you've been doing, all these years." He hesitates. "Thank you."
Merlin looks stunned. He steps forward, a little warily, but at least it's not outright fear anymore. He smiles tentatively, and slides his hand into Arthur's.
"You don't have to thank me," Merlin says, his fingers entwining themselves around Arthur's. "This is what I was born for. This is where I belong."
It's a prompt, and Arthur gladly accepts it.
"Had any luck yet, Merlin?"
He pulls Merlin into his arms, gently, and they just fit, like they've been waiting a thousand years for this. Truth tastes sweet in the air between them. Merlin smiles up at him, a brilliant smile that could illuminate the entire city, and he doesn't answer.
He doesn't need to.