"It's not so bad," Merlin says. "We've been in this situation before, haven't we? Locked in a dungeon by people who want us dead. This is nothing new."
And of course, that's when the first drop of water falls from the pipe above them, landing right on the back of Arthur's neck and making him yelp and slap a hand to his neck. They both look up, and Arthur steps back. Another drop falls, this time splattering to the floor. It is followed by a third drop. And a fourth.
More water falls, until there is a small puddle on the floor.
The faint trickle of water increases to a steady flow.
"Well," Merlin says, shuffling backwards away from the pipe. "Maybe this part is new."
Arthur sizes up the cell. It's been designed to hold one man, not two. The ceiling is low enough that Percival wouldn't be able to stand up straight in it. It isn't going to take much water – much time – to fill the room. There's an opening, right beside the pipe, a trapdoor of metal bars that can be swung open – that's where they were tossed in from and if they could open it, they could use it to get out. But it's locked, and no man has the strength to break that kind of door. It's the only exit the cell has, though. The room was dug into the ground from above, and around them there is only solid rock.
Arthur sinks down to the floor, ignoring the thin sheet of water that is already spreading across the cell. He sits back on his heels and closes his eyes, trying to think.
"Arthur." Merlin's voice is quiet but unafraid. "It'll be all right."
Arthur half-smiles at that. "I know. We're locked in a cell and promised to death by drowning. What could possibly go wrong?"
"We've been locked in cells before."
"Wasn't quite so wet then, though."
"We'll think of something."
"There's no way we're getting out of this one."
There's a silence, and Arthur cracks an eye open to look at Merlin because really, is he going to give up that easily? Merlin is usually more optimistic than that.
"There might be," Merlin says finally. "If you trust me."
"What does –"
"Trust me," Merlin says again.
Arthur shakes his head, and Merlin falls silent. Arthur can practically feel it in the tension in the air between them that he's thinking hard, and he almost says something sarcastic about Merlin not hurting his head, but really, what's the point?
"Don't bother," he says instead.
The water is swimming around his ankles and feels cold against his hip, but he doesn't stand. He draws up his knees more closely.
"No, really, Merlin. Don't bother." Arthur splashes a little water at him, almost playfully, except this is not a time for play. "I don't think anything short of magic could get us out of here. There's nothing you can do, even if you were at least mildly competent."
Merlin doesn't say anything, doesn't even react to the jibe. Arthur can't blame him.
Why is the water so cold?
Merlin is still standing, and Arthur watches in silence as the water rises steadily, lapping at his calves. The movement of the water forces Arthur to his feet. If he had his armour and chain mail, he could have sat there until the water rose above his head; as it is, he has to follow the water until it fills the cell. His clothes are drenched but his teeth aren't chattering; he looks up at the light coming through the bars above their heads and can't help but think that this is a horrible way to die.
When the water has reached their knees, Merlin speaks. "Whatever happens, Arthur, you have to promise me you won't think any differently of me."
The words are familiar, an eerie echo of something Merlin once said to him in Ealdor. Arthur is silent.
Something in the back of Arthur's mind recognises this as an order and whispers that princes do not take orders from their servants. But this is not just an order; it is a plea. A desperate one. Merlin sounds serious, and his eyes are wide with fear, and it's strange because at this moment, Arthur really cannot think of a single thing that could change the way he thinks of Merlin.
"I promise," Arthur says, and almost laughs because even if he does think differently of Merlin, what does it matter when they're going to die today anyway?
Merlin nods tightly. "Thank you."
His voice sounds strange, like he's about to cry, which is unexpected – because for all that Merlin is a complete girl and cries over things like unicorns and maybe orphaned children, Arthur has never seen him cry over something as stupid and common as impending death for the two of them and he's not sure what he'll do if Merlin starts crying right now.
But Merlin doesn't cry. His eyes are completely dry and there's an ugly hardness in his face that Arthur dislikes. It's the look he gets when he watches an execution or when someone insults Arthur. Merlin rarely cries at executions, but his face gets all stony like it is now and Arthur can see it is ripping him apart. He doesn't understand, for the life of him, why Merlin sometimes insists on watching an execution when he can hardly watch a hunt, but on those days he watches as Merlin clenches his fists and his lips go white and hatred burns in his eyes and he doesn't cry.
That is how Merlin looks right now, his face blank and cold but his eyes swirling with emotion.
"Arthur..." His voice is low and tight. "I'm sorry."
What for? Arthur wants to ask, but he knows, somehow, that he won't get an answer. Merlin has nothing to be sorry for that he can imagine. Merlin has been by his side always, never betraying him, rushing headlong into suicidal situations just for the love of Arthur – and Arthur knows it. If anything it should be Arthur apologising, apologising for having led them here, for not having protected Merlin.
"You know I'd die for you, yeah?"
"It certainly looks like we're headed that way," Arthur says dryly.
Amusement flickers in Merlin's expression, but in the next instant it is already gone. "I mean it. I... I'm your servant, Arthur. Always."
Arthur wants to say something – something like You're much more than that to me or maybe Looks like 'always' is going to end a little sooner than expected – but the look on Merlin's face stops him. Somehow he can tell he's not meant to challenge this. There have been moments when Arthur felt he and Merlin were worlds apart and could never understand each other, and this is one of them, one of those times where Merlin says one thing and means another thing entirely, but Arthur can't begin to grasp what that thing might be.
"I know," he says instead.
"Don't forget it," Merlin says. "Whatever happens, never forget that."
There is fear in Merlin's eyes, a hot swirling panic that startles Arthur. He knows that Merlin is not afraid of death, and that the thought of death is not what has got Merlin acting so strangely. Because Merlin once drank poison for him and Merlin would follow him into the mouth of hell and Merlin once swore to protect him or die fighting. This is Merlin, who is probably afraid of things like spiders and monsters under the bed, but definitely not of dying at Arthur's side. Arthur thinks Merlin's biggest fear is Arthur doing something stupid and getting himself killed, and since that nearly happens every other day Merlin has become pretty brave over the years.
So what is Merlin afraid of now?
"I'm going to get us out of here," Merlin says as the water sloshes uncomfortably high, brushing at their thighs.
Arthur shakes his head slowly. "You can't –"
"I can. And if you want to kill me, if you want to hate me – remember you promised me."
"Merlin, what are you –"
"Shut up, Arthur," Merlin says, closing his eyes. "Just... shut up."
And Arthur does, because there is something completely wrong with this picture, with Merlin talking of hatred and escape in the same breath. As though Arthur could ever hate him, as though –
It happens like a punch in the gut or a dagger sliding into his stomach. It's that sudden, that unexpected and that painful when Merlin says something in a language Arthur doesn't know and his eyes flash gold and his shackles fall open and sink beneath the rising water.
And then there is silence.
Merlin is looking anywhere but at Arthur, and Arthur cannot see anything but Merlin.
Everything makes sense.
It comes to Arthur in a blur of memories and realisation, scenes flashing before his eyes that take on an entirely different meaning. Merlin has magic, and how could Arthur not have seen it? There is a new meaning to everything Merlin has ever said to him, and Arthur finds himself going through their conversations since the first day, searching for signs, clues that Merlin was hiding this from him. Lying to him. Magic.
Maybe if he weren't chained to the wall he would back away now, get as far away from Merlin as possible. But he is and he can't, and time is suspended for a long moment as they look at each other and say nothing, do nothing.
Then Arthur holds his bound hands out wordlessly. Merlin lets out the breath he has been holding in. He raises his hand, palm out, and repeats the words. Arthur knows he flinches when he sees gold wash over blue again, but then the shackles are at his feet and he is rubbing his wrists, rolling his shoulders to ease off the discomfort, and Merlin doesn't mention it.
"Can you stop the water?"
Merlin's eyes flick to the pipe and flash gold again, and the stream of water stops. Arthur tries not to think that it shouldn't be like this, nothing should ever be this easy, and has Merlin always had this power at his fingertips?
"I could kill you," Arthur says, feeling hot fury rise up in him. "I thought we were going to die!"
"Well," Merlin says, "I needed time to decide whether I'd rather die by fire or by water."
His words wrap around Arthur's heart painfully and an image leaps to the forefront of his mind – Merlin, tied to a pyre, a fire lit beneath his feet. The joke, if it was one, falls flat between them, and Arthur finds himself staring at Merlin again. Magic.
"I wouldn't have let you die," Merlin says quietly, seriously. "And this was the only way. I'm sorry, Arthur, but – we'll talk later, all right? If you want to."
There it is again, that fear in Merlin's eyes, but it's seeping into his voice as well now. And no, it's not fear of death and it never was. Merlin is afraid because Arthur knows the truth.
"We can get out," Merlin says. "I can open the trapdoor, and we can climb out. It's not very high. And then... well, that part we've already done before. We can fight our way out of here."
Arthur nods tightly, because this makes sense. This he can understand, even while he is still shell-shocked by the revelation of Merlin's magic. He can fight, he can escape from a simple cell.
Merlin turns away from Arthur and murmurs something. The trapdoor is unhinged and sent flying back. It isn't high, but Merlin is still going to need help. Arthur kneels, and the water sloshes into his eyes and nose and mouth. He ignores it and cups his hands together. Merlin presses his heel into Arthur's hands, and Arthur pushes him upward. He feels the weight in his arms disappear as Merlin swings himself up and out of the cell, and hears the quiet whisper of thanks as he emerges from the water, hair plastered to his forehead. But he refuses Merlin's outstretched hand and climbs out himself, not missing the flash of hurt that crosses Merlin's expression and telling himself he doesn't care.
Of course he cares, in fact he cares tremendously, and only a few minutes ago the thought that Merlin was going to die because of him hurt much more than the one that Arthur himself was also going to die. But he can hardly be relieved that they will both live now, because deeper and sharper than that is the pain of years of lies, and of this, this ultimate betrayal – the truth, not because Merlin trusts him with his secret, but because he had no choice. And Arthur knows, he knows that the lies would have gone on for many more years if they hadn't found themselves in this situation.
"You couldn't keep a secret if your life depended on it," Arthur remembers saying once, and he can practically taste the irony in the words now. He remembers the pained look in his servant's eyes that day and knows Merlin has suffered from his secret. A sorcerer in Camelot, a sorcerer the Prince's own manservant – how could he not suffer? And there are other things Arthur has said, things that must have cut Merlin to the quick. "All magic is evil."
Arthur realises, now, that all the executions Merlin attended were those of sorcerers. He tastes something bitter in the back of his throat and forces the thoughts and the memories away, because – now is not the time.
The guards posted in the corridor fall within seconds, and Arthur nicks a sword off one of them. The balance of it is slightly off, but the blade is strong and Arthur instantly feels better, his mind clearer now that he is gripping the hilt of a sword. He swings it around experimentally, and does not miss the fear that shadows Merlin's eyes for a moment, or the way his manservant goes completely still. Gods. Does Merlin really think that after all these years, Arthur could?
They fall into their usual, now ridiculous pattern, with Arthur leading and Merlin following. Arthur is grateful when Merlin's eyes remain blue and not a word passes his lips throughout. Like this, they can pretend that nothing has changed. It is Arthur who knocks down their opponents while Merlin hovers and shadows him, Arthur who leads the offensive, Arthur who is the first to step outside in the fresh air. Arthur who does not even look up at the clear blue sky before surging forward, heading for the stables. Arthur who does not look back, either, to see whether Merlin is following.
Merlin always follows.
He hears Merlin fumbling with the saddle girth before he mounts, and the slight groan of leather as Merlin heaves himself up into the saddle. He can't bring himself to look. He knows Merlin is there, and he doesn't want to risk seeing that helplessness, that fear in his expression again.
"You know I'd die for you, yeah?"
The words echo in Arthur's head, desperate and fearful and painfully honest, as they ride out, heading for the thick forest ahead as quickly as they can. This should be the easy part, Arthur knows; he is good enough at tracking that he can choose the paths which will make them most difficult to follow. But it's also the hardest part since Merlin showed him his magic, because there is no fighting involved, nothing to divert Arthur's attention from the heavy thud of hooves behind him that make him all too aware of Merlin's presence close at his heels.
Merlin doesn't say anything, offer any excuse or try to defend himself. We'll talk later, he said. If you want to.
It's not until they've gone far into the forest and have slowed the horses down, that Arthur thinks he does want to, and can.
"Why are you still here?"
"Still – where?" Merlin asks, like he genuinely doesn't understand what Arthur means.
"Here," Arthur says again, still not looking back at Merlin. "With me."
"Where else would I be?"
"Anywhere," Arthur says. "Anywhere but Camelot, and with anyone but its prince."
Merlin is silent for exactly three of Arthur's heartbeats. "I couldn't. I don't want to serve anyone else."
"Serve –" Arthur chokes off a laugh. "Merlin, in some kingdoms you wouldn't even have to be a servant."
"Some kingdoms aren't yours," Merlin says, as though that's all the explanation in the world.
"Why me?" Arthur asks.
There's another pause.
"I don't know where to start." There's a familiar lilt in Merlin's voice and Arthur can picture the fond, shy smile on his lips even without turning around. "Lots of reasons. You're – everything this land needs. It's my destiny to help you become more than anyone else has ever been."
There's a quiet, unassuming certainty in his tone that stuns Arthur. He can tell there's a tale behind this, behind this destiny that Merlin speaks of, but he's not sure he wants to ask.
"Why did you never tell me?" is the question that comes out instead. His voice sounds broken, and not accusing the way he intended it to.
"You would have had me burnt."
"You don't really believe that," Arthur says, because Merlin knows him.
"No," Merlin says quietly. "I don't."
Arthur wouldn't execute Merlin for having magic and using it, time and time again, to protect him. Arthur can't even bring himself to care about the magic. He knows Merlin would never use it against him. The lies, the astonishing number of lies that Merlin has told him over the years are what overwhelm him. The fact that Merlin didn't trust him with this.
Merlin knows Arthur. He's seen him in his most unguarded moments. He's seen him be weak, he's seen him hesitate, he's seen him lonely. Merlin is the one person with whom Arthur has never pretended to be anything else than what he is. But Arthur, quite obviously, doesn't know Merlin and never did. It's not just the magic; it's everything he's done with it. Saving Arthur, saving Camelot – because now Arthur can see what's been right in front of his eyes for years. All those trials and triumphs, everything Merlin sacrificed for him – and Arthur never knew. Merlin has endured his teasing, his criticism, his mocking, all the while knowing that he was the one saving Arthur's life again and again. How much of their friendship has been built on lies? How much more to Merlin is there that Arthur never knew?
It hurts that Merlin never bothered to tell him. Never thought he should say the truth, never thought that maybe it would be easier for them both. That maybe it would be fair, that maybe Arthur should have had a say in what he was doing for Camelot, that maybe he shouldn't have been alone. That maybe Arthur should have been there for Merlin, the way Merlin has always been there for him.
Most of all, it hurts that Merlin never thought these were things Arthur would have wanted to do.
"At first," Merlin says, "when it was still – easy, I wanted to tell you. I thought I was just waiting for the right moment. But there was never really a right moment, was there? And, later, I... I couldn't do it. I couldn't face you, knowing I'd lied to you. I couldn't risk losing you. It's not just the magic – it was never just the magic – but there are things, Arthur, that I thought I'd never be able to explain away."
"And you thought I would – what? Send you away?"
"No. No, of course not. You couldn't keep me away from Camelot – from you – if you tried. I was never just your servant. I was your friend, and I couldn't bear the thought of seeing you every day and knowing that we'd lost something, that you'd never trust me again."
"The way you never trusted me, you mean."
There's a sharp intake of breath behind Arthur, like that hurts. But Merlin doesn't deny the truth of the statement.
"Was I wrong?" he asks instead. "Should I have told you years ago, before you even liked me?"
And he's right, of course. That wasn't an option, because he would have been executed back then. And if he had chosen to speak out after they'd become friends – it would have been the same betrayal as it is now.
"You waited years," Arthur says, because he still needs to find a reason to blame Merlin, because the alternative is so much worse. "You must have had countless opportunities – every time I told you I trusted you and valued your opinion, and –"
"That actually doesn't happen very often," Merlin cuts in.
Shit, that hurts.
What's worse is that it's true. Most of their relationship is based on things that go unsaid, compliments and marks of affection hidden beneath mockery and insults. Most of the time, it works for them, but it certainly isn't the best backdrop for this type of revelation.
Does that make it Arthur's fault?
"Arthur?" Merlin says, and the name is a question all on its own, wary and hopeful at the same time.
Arthur gestures vaguely with one hand, a movement that could be interpreted in a dozen different ways. Merlin immediately understands the correct interpretation, and within moments his horse catches up with Arthur's. Their knees knock together as they move forward, and it feels strangely comforting.
"I wish you could have told me," Arthur says, looking straight ahead.
"So do I."
Merlin sounds like he means it, and Arthur feels it again – that sharp twinge of pain in his chest that feels a lot like guilt, like he never really gave Merlin the opportunity to come out with the truth, or any reason to trust him.
"You've had it – since before you were my servant?"
"Since forever," Merlin says. "I was born with it."
"What does it feel like?" Arthur asks, and though he doesn't say what it is, they both know.
Merlin takes a moment to think, as though he realises what exactly Arthur is asking, and what it represents. Arthur turns his head to watch him.
"I've never not had it," Merlin says. "I can't imagine it just not being there, inside me." He curls his fingers. "Everywhere. I can just feel it, a sort of... humming." He looks up quickly, as though wondering whether Arthur will laugh.
"Even when I'm not using it," Merlin says. "Or, well – especially when I'm not using it. It wants to be free. Sometimes... Sometimes it's so hard not to use it. It's like fighting a reflex, like trying not to blink. Living in Camelot, it's like – like trying to breathe underwater."
"Like suicide," Arthur says, and Merlin inclines his head.
"Like that. Exactly like that. And when I do use it, it's – not worse, exactly, but it's stronger. It's just... more. Like getting a taste of freedom and seeing the sun, and then being locked up again."
"Do you – use it often?" Arthur asks, and he's not thinking about Morgana and his knights and protection, he's thinking about Merlin when he's alone and in his room and –
"Not to polish your armour, if that's what you're asking," Merlin says with a small smile that quickly fades. "Not nearly often enough, but – fairly often, yes. Even if just to light a candle. But –" He waves his hand in a senseless gesture. "Camelot. It's not safe. Even when I think I'm alone, I have to be careful because I might not be."
Arthur is quiet for a long moment. This is a decision for another day, a day when he's sitting on his throne and has discussed it in depth with the council. Still, the words, when he says them, feel final, like his entire life has been building up to this moment. Is this what destiny feels like?
"That can change," Arthur says quietly, and it sounds like a promise. "One day, you can be safe."
Merlin smiles, and it's a heartwarming sight. "Maybe one day."
It's not like Arthur's stance regarding magic has changed. It's more like his entire world has shifted, and everything is slotting into place in a different way. This world makes more sense, somehow. And, vaguely, Arthur thinks that it may, one day, prove to be a better world.
A few hours before they reach the citadel, Arthur turns to Merlin and says, "I could tell them you were killed by the bandits."
"You could," Merlin agrees, but his eyes say, Could you really?
"You should leave."
"Should I?" Merlin asks, and he means, Do you want me to?
There are a hundred things that need to be said, but Merlin already knows all of them, and Arthur knows exactly how he would reply, knows that nothing he can say will drive Merlin away from him. So that's the end of that conversation.
And somehow, it's also only the beginning.