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By My Side, Always

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"I've been thinking," Arthur said, which, really was a mistake. The opportunity was too blatant for Merlin not to take advantage.

"You know that's not good for you, sire. You might hurt yourself."

"Oh for the love of – Merlin," Arthur said, exasperated, and there was none of the usual fondness in his voice. "Is there nothing you take seriously?"

"All right, all right." Merlin held his hands up placatingly, not wanting the goblet Arthur was currently holding to end up thrown at him. "What is it?"

"I've been thinking," Arthur said, glaring at him as though daring him to retort (Merlin bit his tongue), "about magic."

Merlin's grin faded, and he felt himself tense up. If Arthur had been looking for the one subject about which Merlin was unwilling to joke, he had found it.

"You have?"

Arthur looked at him strangely, as though still half-expecting a teasing remark. "Yes," he said. "I've just realised I've never really asked you how you felt about magic."

"How I – felt?" Merlin repeated, the words tasting strange and unfamiliar on his tongue. "About magic?"

"Yes, Merlin," Arthur said, as though he thought Merlin was particularly dimwitted. "Your thoughts, your opinion, your – I don't know, your advice. Go on. Illuminate me with one of your rare flashes of completely uncharacteristic wisdom."

"My advice," Merlin repeated dumbly. "You want my advice. About magic."

Arthur probably thought he was being extremely slow on the uptake, but in truth the words were running in circles around Merlin's head. His heart was thudding madly in his chest, the beat of it suddenly far too quick and far too loud. It felt as if he had been waiting for this moment for years, except really he hadn't. He had long since abandoned the dream that one day Arthur might accept magic.

And here was Arthur, dangling his dashed hopes in front of him again, and Merlin thought he couldn't bear it if he messed this up.

"Yes," Arthur said again. "I never asked, and you never – I don't think I've ever heard you say anything bad about magic. And you're not from Camelot."

"Why are you asking me this?" Merlin asked. "Why does it matter? Your laws –"

"Laws can be changed," Arthur said simply.

Merlin stopped breathing for several moments. His heart swelled in his chest with pride and hope, and he thought – Yes. This is it. That Arthur was even considering – but he breathed in again, and his hope fell within the same moment. Because this was wrong. It wasn't meant to be like this. Arthur had to make the decision on his own; Merlin didn't have the right to sway him one way or the other when he had been lying to him about magic for years.

"Why would you change everything your father built?" Merlin asked. "Why allow magic back into Camelot? I don't understand."

Arthur glanced down at the goblet in his hand. It was empty, but his hold around it was tight and sure. He was sitting at his desk, with several unwrapped rolls of parchment in front of him.

"I've been thinking," he said a third time, and Merlin really had to struggle not to comment, because Arthur looked genuinely contemplative. "It's nothing official yet. I just thought I might like a second opinion. I realise our biggest threat at the moment is magic, what with Morgana, –" his jaw clenched at the name – "but for some reason I keep thinking of the druids. I honestly believe they're a peaceful people. I think I've had the occasion to witness it with my own eyes several times. I promised the druid boy who possessed Elyan last week that I would end the persecution against his people, and yet I know most of them have magic, or some sort of soothsaying ability. So I wonder – do you think all magic is evil, Merlin?"

Merlin breathed in, then out. His throat felt constricted, and there was already a stinging behind his eyes when he decided what to say. It was the only right thing to say. The only fair thing.

"I think... I think this is one thing with which I can't help you."

"What? Why?" Arthur asked, frowning. "Surely you have an opinion –"

"It's not for me to say," Merlin said, "what should be legal or not in Camelot."

"I want your opinion, Merlin."

"Well I'm not giving it," Merlin snapped, because it was hard enough already without Arthur insisting like this.

Arthur looked stunned, and maybe a little betrayed. "At least tell me what you think," he said, and it was almost a plea. "It's a simple enough question, Merlin. Yes or no. Is all magic –"

"It's not my place to say," Merlin cut in immediately, thinking he couldn't bear to hear the question again. "I'm just a servant."

"When has that ever stopped you?" Arthur shook his head exasperatedly. "If you're a servant, then as your king, I order you to answer me."

"Since when has advising you been a part of my duties? I'm not required to give you any advice. In fact, I'm sure most of your nobles would agree that I shouldn't."

Arthur looked at him as though he were a complete stranger, and Merlin felt a thousand times the liar he knew he was.

"If that's all, sire," he said, looking away, "I'll leave now."

"I won't keep you," Arthur said tightly.

Neither of them brought up the subject again for weeks, but Merlin felt that something had changed in the dynamics of their relationship. Arthur rarely asked for his presence in the evenings, and he started looking strained. The thoughtful expression became a near-constant on his face. Occasionally Merlin would catch Arthur looking at him speculatively, and it always sent an apprehensive shiver up his spine. Arthur wasn't stupid; he knew something was up.
It wasn't until three weeks after their conversation that Arthur said, right in the middle of his breakfast:

"I've decided to lift the ban on magic."

Merlin sat down heavily in the chair across from Arthur. "That's... interesting."

Arthur narrowed his eyes. "Do you think it's a bad idea?"

"What I think doesn't matter," Merlin said.

"For God's sake, Merlin, why do you have to choose now of all times to develop a sense of discretion? It matters to me. I want to know what you think."

And Merlin wanted so much to tell him, he really did. He was itching to say the words that would reassure Arthur, but he couldn't. Because it would all be lies unless he also said, I have magic, that's how I know it can be used for good, and he couldn't say that, for the same reasons that he had never been able to. The problem had never been that Arthur hated magic. It was that Merlin had lied, and Arthur despised liars. Liars had no honour, no pride, no courage.

"I think," Merlin said, "that it's going to be very difficult to convince the council."

Arthur brought his fist down upon the table, and Merlin didn't even flinch. He'd been expecting it; he knew Arthur too well.

"Will you just give me a straight answer?"

"Just do what your heart tells you is right," Merlin said, and it wasn't a straight answer, but it was the best he could do.

He was right, of course. The council was very difficult to convince. And after that was done, there were all the practical aspects to consider and discuss. How exactly would magic be regulated, who would do it, what would be the sanctions for unlawful use? It took four months before magic was officially lawful in Camelot once more, and each day was a beautiful one for Merlin, who saw it all slowly unfold before his own eyes as he attended Arthur during council. He itched to contribute something when he saw Arthur's lords faced with a particularly prickly problem, but he couldn't. Instead he kept his eyes lowered and tried not to grin madly when Arthur overruled their objections. In the end, Arthur lifted the ban on magic almost single-handedly, with a determination that stunned the entire kingdom.

A celebration was held. Hundreds of people gathered in the castle courtyard, with Arthur presiding over them all from the balcony. He looked glorious in his shining armour (freshly polished by Merlin), his red cloak, and the crown upon his head. His speech (carefully prepared not by Merlin, as Arthur seemed to think he wanted nothing to do with the whole magic business) was clear, and amazing, and heart-wrenching for Merlin. The people seemed not to know how to react at first, but a lone woman started the cheer and was soon tentatively joined by most of the others, and Arthur seemed to think it was enough.

"It will be a big change for them," he had said the previous night to Merlin. "But I think some still remember the time when magic was legal. Many of them knew Gaius before the ban, and that he used magic to heal."

When an official unrolled the parchment where the new law had been written down and began to read aloud, the tears that had been pricking at Merlin's eyes ever since Arthur began to speak flowed over and ran down his cheeks. He wiped at them hurriedly, feeling stupid and conspicuous; but Arthur noticed, of course he did. Merlin caught him staring worriedly and saw the question in his eyes: Have I made the wrong decision? Would you have done otherwise? He tried to give him a reassuring smile, but that Arthur cared so much about Merlin's opinion just made it worse, and the smile came out more like a shaky grimace.

It was over. Merlin would have to tell Arthur soon, or he would never do it.

Merlin's was the first magic the court of Camelot witnessed after the repeal of the ban.

He had thought for days how he would go about telling Arthur, had decided precisely which words he would use, but whenever Arthur looked at him with that look and asked him if he was all right, the words would stick in his throat and he would offer a lie that would fail to convince Arthur, and things would shatter between them just that little bit more. It became clear that the right words weren't the right words at all, and that Merlin couldn't say it. He wasn't sure what held him back, but his throat closed up every time he even thought about it.
So in the end, he didn't say it. He did it.

He would probably never know what decided him, but doing it was easier than he'd imagined. His magic was a part of him, and not using it was what was hard most of the time. As a child, he'd always done magic instinctively. Now that his mind knew that he wouldn't be risking his life by using it it was tempting to just go around catching falling objects with his magic. One thought kept him back, though. Arthur.

It wasn't the king, the law, the executioner anymore. But still, it all came back to Arthur. Arthur who had to know, Arthur who had long since earnt the right to know. Arthur whom Merlin made sure was there the very first time he used magic in public.

It was at a small feast held by the king in honour of his newest batch of knights, which to Merlin's approval was composed of nearly as many commoners as nobles, that Merlin found his opportunity. Gwaine got stupendously drunk in that Gwaine way of his, which was to say he didn't sway or stagger but he grew louder and more boisterous, and at one point he very unashamedly declared that the whole thing was boring and that really, you'd think the king would have the means to provide more entertainment for his knights than this.

Merlin saw Arthur's jaw twitch, and the king leaned over to him and said quietly, "Do you think you could bring him back to his room? He's going to have to sleep off a very interesting hangover tomorrow."

"I have another idea," Merlin said. "I could probably entertain your knights."

Arthur arched an eyebrow at that, but as always the temptation of seeing Merlin make a complete fool of himself was stronger than anything else, and he gave a small nod.

"Go on, then," he said, grinning. He raised his voice. "Sir Gwaine, I heard your request and decided to grant it. This is what I offer you for entertainment. Behold... Merlin!"

Most of the knights grinned right back, and Gwaine outright guffawed. Merlin looked at them hesitantly, scanning each of their expressions, singling out the ones who mattered the most – Lancelot, Leon, Percival, Elyan, Gwaine. Lancelot's smile was small but encouraging; he had probably already guessed where this was going. The others had no idea. Merlin tried not to look at them as he moved back away from Arthur, stopping when he was at a comfortable distance from the table so that everyone could see.

In some part of his mind, he had already decided how this was going to go. He closed his eyes briefly, and when he opened them again, two dozen coloured spheres of light danced in front of him, suffusing the room with a soft, multi-coloured glow. One of them headed straight for Gwaine, who stared at it in amazement before reaching out to take it gently in hand. The complete absence of fear in his expression warmed Merlin's heart.

"It's real," his friend said wonderingly, turning the red ball over in his hand. "You can make these?"

And that was Gwaine. Merlin almost laughed with relief, because Gwaine was one of his closest friends among the knights. He supposed a part of him had always known that this was how Gwaine would react, really. Gwaine, the person who had his own secrets for his own reasons, secrets he had entrusted to Merlin while hardly knowing him. The person who had once told him, It's what's inside that counts and You're the best friend I've ever had and even You're the only friend I've got.

"I can also call a dragon," Merlin offered with a faint smile. "If you want more 'entertainment,' Gwaine."

It was a the wrong thing to say, though, because though Merlin had meant it as a joke, Gwaine immediately sat up with a sudden clarity in his eyes that suggested he was less drunk than he seemed. "A dragon?" he repeated. "I've always wanted to meet one of those."

Leon groaned from beside him, and muttered something that sounded very much like Lay off the drink, you idiot. Merlin looked at him and was both amused and relieved to see that his expression was one of disgust, and that he looked a lot more focused on Gwaine than on the revelation that Merlin had magic. Merlin quickly scanned the rest of the knights' faces, and saw no condemnation there, either.

His heart was in his throat when his eyes searched for Arthur, found him, and settled there.

The goblet Arthur had been drinking from fell to the floor, spilling red wine over the stone floor. His face was white with shock, his mouth slightly open. He stood up and locked gazes with Merlin, and Merlin could read nothing in his expression beyond the surprise. No anger, no condemnation. Just complete shock, as though Arthur had never imagined that there could be anything more to Merlin than what he seemed. As though he had never once thought Merlin was capable of lying to him about something this monumental. Merlin swallowed, and stepped forward, one hand outstretched and trembling.

Arthur raised a hand, stopping him in his tracks.

"Don't –" he began, then cast a swift glance around the room and stopped.

He walked out of the room without a word of explanation or apology to his knights, and Merlin watched him leave, feeling as though Arthur had just slapped him. Lancelot was out of his chair and at Merlin's side within moments.

"Do you want me to follow him? I can talk to him –"

"No. This is between Arthur and me," Merlin interrupted him. "I'll go after him."

Around them, a murmur was rising up among the knights.

"You mean Arthur didn't know?" Merlin heard Gwaine ask as he left the room, and flinched at the surprise in his tone, as though it were obvious that Merlin should have told Arthur years ago.

He found Arthur in his rooms, staring out the window at the clear night sky. The sword with which he had knighted the newcomers lay on the floor in the middle of the room. Merlin stopped in the doorway, unsure of how to break the thick silence that lay between them. This was the moment he had never been able to face – the betrayal, the hurt, the questioning. He had imagined it all a thousand times, but nothing could compare to the harsh reality of the moment.

"Tell me," Arthur said, cutting through the silence with a voice that was almost fragile, "that I've drunk too much. That I didn't see what I thought I saw. That it was someone else – anyone else. Tell me, Merlin."

Merlin looked at the back of Arthur's head and almost wished he could give his king what he wanted. But –

"I can't. It would be a lie."

"Yes," Arthur said slowly, "yes, well, you do seem to be rather skilled at telling lies. You said you were also a dragonlord, didn't you?"

Merlin winced. "Arthur –"

Arthur turned around, and whatever Merlin had been about to stay stuck in his throat. Arthur's expression was unlike any other Merlin had ever seen on him – he looked as though someone had destroyed all his hopes and joys in a single moment.

"There is one person," Arthur said, his eyes not hard and unforgiving like Merlin had thought they would be, but instead hurt and confused, "who has been by my side always. Someone who will never leave and would do anything for me – someone who is willing to die for me. Someone whom I trust with my life, with everything... and yet this person has lied to me for years, and for the life of me I can't understand why."

Merlin had to force out his next words past the tightness in his throat. "I never wanted to hurt you. Just –"

"How long?" Arthur asked. "How long have you been using sorcery?"

"Since birth, practically," Merlin said.

Arthur sucked in a breath. "You've been lying since the day we met."

"I'm sorry," Merlin said quietly, because there was nothing else he could say.

"Did I ever really know you?"

Merlin was silent. Arthur held his gaze a moment longer, then let out something that resembled a sigh and dipped his head, looking at the floor.

"Merlin, tell me this: why must I be betrayed by every person I love?" he asked softly. "What crime have I committed, what wrong have I done that I am condemned to this?"

"Arthur –" Merlin said, desperate to take the pained strain out of Arthur's voice, but his mind was reeling, and his thought process had completely stopped at the word love. He couldn't say anything intelligible.

"Damn you, Merlin," Arthur said, and he sounded perilously close to tears – except that Arthur never cried. "Damn you. After Morgana, you –"

"I'm not," Merlin said, desperately, because he couldn't let Arthur believe that. "I wouldn't, Arthur, you know I wouldn't –"

"I thought I did," Arthur said. "I thought I knew you."

"Arthur," Merlin said, and maybe the word love was what gave him the courage to move forward and close the distance between them. "The only thing you need to know about me is that I'll serve you until I die. That I would never betray you. That my magic is yours as much as it is mine, just as my life belongs to you. Every part of me is yours." My magic, my life, my heart.

Arthur looked up, seeming to hear Merlin's unspoken words. They stood staring at each other, close enough to touch – both wanting to reach out, but unwilling to risk it. Merlin could put a name on the thick tension in the air between them, now. Desire.

"The ban," Arthur said roughly. "Would you have –"

"It's everything I've ever wanted for Camelot," Merlin said. "That you made the decision on your own is beyond amazing."

Arthur's gaze was still intent, but there was a new softness in his eyes and the corners of his mouth lifted slightly in a half-smile. "That's why you wouldn't tell me what you wanted? You wanted to see whether I could do it by myself?"

"I knew you could," Merlin said. "That's not why I did it. I thought I didn't have the right to manipulate you like that. Not when you didn't know the facts."

"And now I do," Arthur said. "Why? Did you suddenly think I deserved to know?"

"You always deserved to know."

There was a small silence, but not as heavy as the previous one. It was full of something new, something furtive yet intense. Merlin thought the moment might slip away if he didn't seize it, so he boldly raised a hand and touched his fingers lightly to Arthur's cheek. Arthur's sharp intake of breath almost made him bring his hand back down again, but then Arthur's warm hand was covering his own and cradling it gently and the moment didn't slip away, it lingered and stretched out into eternity.

"What happens now?" Arthur asked softly, after what felt like a very long time.

"Whatever you want," Merlin said, and meant it.

Now, together, they could have the world.