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Smile and Pretend

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There were many things Arthur had never intended to do regarding Merlin. He had never intended to have him as a servant, for one. He had never intended to be friends with him, let alone anything more. And he had certainly never intended to eavesdrop on a conversation Merlin was having with one of his knights, but like everything else, it just happened. And like everything else, it left Arthur torn between wishing it had never happened, and understanding that, really, it had been inevitable.

This was how it happened: he was looking for Merlin, because the idiot was only ever conveniently nearby if Arthur was in mortal danger. Elyan redirected him to the armoury, saying that he'd spotted him going that way, and Arthur was about to push the door open and yell a little when Gwaine's voice rose from behind the door. His tone was so utterly serious that it gave Arthur pause. (Gwaine was rarely completely serious.)

"You know I wouldn't judge you."

"I know," came Merlin's soft reply. "But you have to promise not to tell anyone."

"You mean no one knows? Not even Arthur?"

Arthur froze at the mention of his name, his hand dropping to his side.

"Not even Arthur," Merlin confirmed. "He'd kill me if he knew."

Arthur knew that Merlin was only half-serious, and that no one in entire citadel believed that Arthur could ever harm Merlin. But still it hurt that Merlin was able to joke about something like this, and that hurt was the reason that Arthur didn't simply leave, or make his presence known. Instead he stayed and listened. A part of him kept whispering that it was wrong, but another, bigger part of him told him that this was the opportunity to understand what shadowed Merlin's eyes sometimes when he looked at Arthur, what he'd been hiding even when he'd given over every other part of himself to Arthur.

"Come on, then," Gwaine said. "I told you my secret ages ago, it's only fair."

Merlin gave a soft, quiet laugh. "That's true."

He lowered his voice and said something else, quickly, in a low whisper. Arthur heard a gasp, and the sound of metal crashing against metal as Gwaine seemed to back up suddenly into a suit of armour.

"Damn it," Gwaine said in a harsh whisper. "Merlin, are you insane? Arthur would –"

"I know," Merlin said, and he sounded – strangled, maybe. Desperate. "Don't you think I know? But this isn't about Arthur. It's about you."

"About me?" Gwaine repeated. "You have to know it doesn't matter to me."

"I knew you wouldn't betray me," Merlin said. "I was sure of that, at least. I just didn't know how you would really feel about it."

"How I'd feel? Merlin, this is great." There was genuine admiration in Gwaine's tone, softened by mirth. "How long have you been hiding this? Did you have it even when we first met?"

"Yes," Merlin said. "And long before that."

Arthur felt something twist in his gut, because it was obvious that Merlin had revealed a great secret, and though Arthur rationally couldn't know what it was, a part of him already guessed. He felt sick and slightly dizzy, and he told himself that it was the betrayal that did it – the fact that Merlin had entrusted this to Gwaine, but not to the man he slept with at night.

"This is amazing," Gwaine said. "What else can you do with it?"

Merlin laughed again; the sound of it, so light and free, sent a dagger into Arthur's heart. "I'm not showing you now. It would take ages."

"Can you control the weather?" Gwaine asked. "Or conjure animals, or –"

"Shh!" Merlin said, his voice turned sharp with worry. "Someone could hear you."

"Is there a spell that can stop people from overhearing a conversation?" Gwaine asked immediately, with childish curiosity, and again Merlin laughed.

"I'll have to look it up," he said, and that, there, was the betrayal Arthur had been anticipating.

It stung worse than he had imagined. The casual avowal of magic, and to Gwaine of all people, Gwaine who couldn't keep his mouth shut to save his life – it slammed into Arthur and left him reeling, the breath knocked out of his lungs. Why would Merlin tell Gwaine, who had only ever been a friend to him, and not Arthur? Was the trust between them that fragile?

Gwaine seemed to be thinking along the same lines; again he sounded uncharacteristically serious when he asked, "What about Arthur?"

Merlin said something unintelligible. Arthur pressed himself firmly against the door to catch Gwaine's next words, spoken softly.

"You mean he really doesn't know?"

"He can't ever know," Merlin said, louder this time, and there was a firm assurance in his tone that brooked no argument. "Where magic is concerned, he is his father's son. I can never tell him."

Something in Arthur's heart cracked, because there was his answer. Yes, the trust between them was exactly that fragile, that nonexistent. He had held Merlin in his arms, had had him in his bed, had shared every concern he'd ever had with him, but evidently that wasn't enough. He is his father's son. Was that all he ever had been in Merlin's eyes, all he ever would be?

"He cares about you," Gwaine said.

Arthur winced. Gods, he knew they were being obvious, but he had thought most of his knights would accept it for the sort of casual dalliance that young nobles were sometimes known to have, not – not He cares about you spoken like He loves you.

"I don't think just caring is enough to override everything he's ever believed about magic," Merlin said. "We would never even have become friends if he knew."

That, then, was how Merlin summarised their relationship. Friends, and not enough. Not enough to be worth the truth, not enough to earn Merlin's trust. Arthur wanted to burst through the door and punch Merlin, or maybe Gwaine, except Merlin was so slender and useless and Gwaine so reactive and strong that neither of those options sounded like a good idea. He wanted to ask Merlin if he thought that all they were was 'friends,' and how could it not be 'enough' when he had given Merlin more than he had ever given anyone else?

"I won't say anything," Gwaine promised, still with that strange note of seriousness in his tone. "Not a word to anyone, Merlin, I swear."

"I know," Merlin said quietly. "Thank you."

Arthur tried not to recognise the warmth and affection in Gwaine's voice when his knight replied, "No, Merlin. Thank you."

He pretended not to hear the shuffle on the other side of the door as (he knew, he just knew) Merlin walked into Gwaine's embrace.

And when he next saw Merlin, serving him his noon meal, he pretended that nothing had changed between them.

Of course it was pointless. A lot had changed, so suddenly and completely that Arthur couldn't completely conceal it. He was able to pick out the change in Merlin as well, though it was a different kind of change. His step was lighter, his smile easier. There was something freed in his expression, and a new sort of fondness when he looked at Gwaine that Arthur was intensely jealous of. His knight and his manservant could often be found staying behind after training, exchanging a few quiet words and laughing. They were closer now, their bond strengthened by the sharing of secrets. Arthur tried not to resent Gwaine for it, but he couldn't help but resent Merlin, who thought he could have this bond with his friend but not his king, not his lover.

"We would never even have become friends if he knew." Merlin had sounded painfully honest, and Arthur knew he truly believed what he had said was true.

What made it ten times worse was that he wasn't wrong.

If Arthur had known it would hurt so much to give his heart to someone, he would never have let Merlin become anything more than a servant. He could barely remember how it had happened, now. There had never been a precise moment when Merlin became his friend, when his irreverent mocking and goofy grin became things Arthur looked forward to every day. It had been a slow progression, from hating each other to tolerating each other to being willing to risk their lives for each other to – to trusting each other, Arthur had thought. Maybe it had happened around Ealdor. Riding to defend a village that had nothing to do with Camelot was something Arthur wouldn't have done for a stranger, or for just any servant. Or maybe it had happened earlier, and Arthur hadn't seen it at the time. Maybe it had just been waking up every morning to Merlin's smile.

On the other hand, he remembered very clearly the moment he and Merlin had become more than friends. It had started out as friendly teasing, the way it often did, but as always there was an undercurrent of something else in Merlin's words. It had been the day following the end of Elyan's possession by the druid boy, and for some reason the teasing got to Arthur in a way it usually didn't. Maybe because the words rang true, and Arthur hated to be reminded of things like emotions and, worse, tears. Somehow it had ended with Merlin provocatively suggesting a hug, and Arthur had tackled him to the ground and held him there, pinning him to the floor with his body weight. Merlin had laughed, all the mocking gone out of his expression, and wriggled helplessly beneath him.

"This wasn't quite what I had in mind," Merlin had managed to say, and Arthur had laughed delightedly and pressed him further into the ground.

And then – Arthur wasn't quite sure how it had happened, but he had looked down, and Merlin had looked up, and a warm flush had crept up Arthur's neck and somehow it had been the most natural thing in the world to lean in and touch his lips to Merlin's.

There had been something about Merlin's expression, a soft open warmth and hope, that Arthur now realised was due at least in part to what he had promised the previous night: From this day forth, the Druid people will be treated with the respect they deserve. At the time, he had interpreted it differently.

That night, Merlin had been soft and pliant underneath him, yielding in all the right ways but still putting up enough of a good-natured fight that Arthur knew – it couldn't be like this with anyone but Merlin. Only Merlin could so beautifully combine devotion and insolence.

Their relationship was understated, made up of looks and glances that spoke volumes, full of touches that lingered for just a second too long, and concealed by gentle insults and teasing. Still, Arthur knew he had never experienced anything stronger or truer in his life, and it was a reflection of how much he cared that since the eavesdropping incident it had never once crossed his mind to fear Merlin, or to have him arrested. The betrayal was worse than treason and ran deeper than simply the law. It was the betrayal of trust, of love that seared painfully through Arthur.
Just because he had never spoken the words aloud, it didn't make his feelings any less true – and apparently Gwaine knew that, even if Merlin didn't.

He wanted Merlin to tell him.

He wasn't sure when he realised it, but he found himself continuously baiting Merlin, drawing him into the sort of conversation that lent itself to the sharing of secrets. He didn't know whether he was trying to guilt Merlin into telling the truth, or just prove to himself that Merlin did trust him, but either way, over the next few days he provided a half-dozen golden occasions for Merlin to just say it.

"I trust you more than I've ever trusted anyone," he said one lazy morning in bed, running his fingers through Merlin's hair.

It was easy to say the words, because they were true. He had never been one to be open about his feelings, but with Merlin things were never complicated. The words fell from his lips naturally, and Arthur watched Merlin, waiting.

"I know," Merlin said, each word like a twist of the knife. "I trust you, too."

After that, it became even more difficult. Whenever Arthur looked at Merlin, he saw the lies. He began to question every smile, every laugh, and wondered – was Merlin as good at faking his emotions as he was at lying? Doubt was born in his heart, and began to spread. He ran every sentence Merlin said in his head twice, turning it around to uncover the potential lie there.

It was hardest to keep up the charade when they were alone together, Merlin pretending that he wasn't hiding anything, and Arthur pretending that he believed it. Everything about their conversations felt fake, and forced, and fragile. So they rarely talked, and shared increased touches instead, kisses and caresses that allowed Arthur to forget, just for a few moments, that anything had changed. Because this was true, this was honest, this was maybe the only real thing between them. Merlin gave Arthur everything, surrendering every part of himself – everything save his trust.

"Sometimes it feels like there are so many things about you I don't know, but I trust you anyway," Arthur said once, breaking the silence.

He saw Merlin flinch, and knew that the guilt-tripping, at least, was working; but Merlin only said: "Well, that just means you're smarter than you look. Then again, I suppose you'd have to be."

And, yes, Arthur really was an idiot, if he'd never realised that this was what Merlin looked like when he was lying.

Merlin had been right to take him for a fool.

Sometimes Arthur wanted to scream that he knew, damn it, he knew that Merlin was a liar, and had lied to him for years, and would probably have gone on for much longer if Arthur hadn't found out. But he never did, even though something inside him broke just a little more each time Merlin lied. He listened to Merlin's lies and wondered how he had never seen it before. The way Merlin shifted his gaze to the side and smiled ruefully whenever he lied. The way the words seemed to spring easily to his lips, after years of practice.

The way threats seemed to disappear by themselves, and Merlin was always conveniently nowhere to be seen, and when Arthur later asked him where he'd been, he always came up with a half-arsed excuse. Before, Arthur would never have bothered to think about it in depth; now it became clear to him exactly what Merlin was doing when he was out of sight, and it wasn't drinking around in the tavern. In fact, Arthur was beginning to wonder whether Merlin had even been to the tavern more than once since his arrival at Camelot.

One day after a meal in his room, he asked, "How often do you go to the tavern, really?"

Merlin stretched out lazily in his chair before standing to gather up the plates. "I'm never at the tavern," he said easily.

Arthur's heart may have skipped a beat. It was maybe the first time Merlin answered one of his questions honestly.

"Then where are you, every time I have to look for you and you're not in the castle?"

"Hiding from you," Merlin replied, so fluidly that Arthur almost missed the lie.


"Right," he said after a beat, tasting something sour in the back of his mouth. "Of course."

It hurt, to think that their easy banter – which Arthur had always enjoyed – was also just a way for Merlin to hide the truth.

It took several, interminable days for Arthur to realise that it wasn't going to happen. Every time he gave Merlin an opportunity, Merlin deflected it without hesitation, backing away into a lie with practised ease. It was as though the lying had become a part of him, and it never occurred to him to one day tell the truth.

"You're never going to tell me, are you?"

"Tell you what?" Merlin asked, looking genuinely puzzled, and that was enough of an answer for Arthur.
It was as though the idea of telling Arthur had never even crossed Merlin's mind.

He began to resent the magic, of course. Why did Merlin keep using it, when he knew what Arthur thought of it? Had it corrupted him, developed an addiction that Merlin couldn't sate? Arthur wasn't sure what exactly he believed, but the one thing he was certain of was that magic was slowly tearing them apart, and so he despised it.

And then Arthur caught Merlin doing magic.

It was something extremely minor, and if Arthur hadn't known, he might even have missed it. It happened during a day's trip to the forest, which Merlin had suggested to take Arthur's mind off things, not knowing that the "thing" which had Arthur so distant and preoccupied was Merlin himself. Arthur had been lying in the grass, more than half-asleep, enjoying the warmth of the sun on his face and the soft caress of Merlin's fingers in his hair, when the touch vanished and Merlin quietly, gently moved away, obviously thinking Arthur had fallen asleep. Arthur opened his eyes and almost asked where he was going, but Merlin only took a few steps and looked into the stream. When Merlin turned back, Arthur closed his eyes again, not really knowing why.

He opened them cautiously to find that Merlin was again looking at the rushing water, a strange expression on his face. Arthur was silent as Merlin held his hand out, palm up, and murmured something.

Before he even noticed the tiny, wavering blue flame that appeared in Merlin's palm, he saw the way Merlin's eyes softened, the wondering, carefree smile on his face, and his expression of childlike amazement, and couldn't find it in himself to feel hatred.

Merlin was being stupid, taking almost no precautions at all, doing magic right in front of Arthur, and – and maybe Merlin did want him to know, after all, but just didn't know how to tell him.

Afterwards, when Merlin returned to his side and lightly touched his cheek, Arthur pretended to wake up and pulled Merlin into a slow, lazy kiss, and it seemed to him that he could almost feel the magic dancing beneath Merlin's skin.

It was only a matter of time before Merlin realised that something had changed, and to his credit he figured it out fairly quickly. Then again, there weren't many things capable of damaging their relationship to this extent. It probably wasn't that much of a stretch.

"You know, don't you?" Merlin asked one day.

"I have no idea what you're talking about."

Arthur watched Merlin closely, and Merlin grimaced.

"About the – the –"

He looked at Arthur helplessly, as though expecting him to finish the sentence, but Arthur just stood there expectantly.

"You do know," Merlin insisted. "I can tell."

"If you mean I know you've been having one of the stable boys groom my horse instead of doing it yourself, then yes, I know," Arthur said. "He told me the very first time. You didn't really think you could keep something like that from the king of Camelot, did you?"

It was petty. Vindictive, even. But Arthur felt satisfied at the flash of disappointment across Merlin's expression, even if the satisfaction only lasted a moment.
There. You see. That's what it feels like, to be lied to by the one you love.

Arthur wasn't sure whether Merlin believed him when he said he didn't know. It took several days for Merlin to bring the subject up again, and he was considerably more nervous this time around.

"Arthur," he said, standing with his back to the door and with a strange expression on his face, like a scared animal. "We need to talk."

Arthur laughed; it came out brittle and harsh. "You do know we're not married, Merlin, don't you?"

"Thank the gods for that," Merlin replied swiftly. "Are you going to listen?"

"It depends. What are you going to say?"

Merlin was silent for a moment. They stared at each other challengingly across the room. Arthur could see the doubt and anxiety in Merlin's expression, and the silent question: Do you know?

"Just – don't be angry, all right?" Merlin said. He looked over his shoulder as though to check whether the door was closed. When he turned his head again, he kept his eyes firmly on the floor. "There's something I have to tell you."

Arthur waited, wondering whether Merlin would actually go through with it.

"I –" Merlin swallowed; his Adam's apple bobbed. "I..." His shoulders slumped. "I have magic, Arthur."

The world seemed to spin, all colours blending into a muddled blur, but when it stabilised again, Arthur was still staring at the same old Merlin, with the same blue eyes and stupid cheekbones and neckerchief, and nothing at all had changed.

Arthur blinked.

Merlin's eyes widened. "You knew!" he accused. "You bastard – you did! And you said you had no idea – you were lying –"

Arthur gave him a look, and Merlin flushed red and looked at the floor again.

"Right," he mumbled. He ran a hand through his hair.

"You're the one who lied," Arthur said. "I trusted you with my life, with everything. You're the only one left I trust, and you –" He stopped, because somehow he'd slipped from past tense to present, and he didn't want to think about what that might mean. "I trusted you," he repeated. "How could you look me in the eye, how could you lie in my bed, how could you kiss me and lie to me in the same breath? How could you?"

Merlin winced. "How long have you known? How did you figure it out?"

"I overheard you when you told Gwaine," Arthur said, and waited for a reaction.

Merlin stiffened. "You... overheard," he repeated slowly. He glanced cautiously at Arthur. "How much?"

Arthur's mouth felt dry. "Enough."

Enough to know that you don't trust me.

Merlin looked pained. "You were never meant to –"

"Hear that? I know," Arthur said. "Just like I was never meant to know that you have magic. You never would have told me."

"What I said –"

"It's all right." Arthur smiled bitterly. "I've had weeks to get over it."

Merlin looked at him like he knew weeks hadn't been enough, could never be enough. He looked like he knew exactly how deeply Arthur had taken the betrayal.

"I do love you, you know," he said, so quietly Arthur almost missed it, but he didn't say I do trust you, always have and always will.

"I know," Arthur replied, and even though Merlin had never said it in so many words, he did know.
He saw. The weight of Merlin's devotion, the intensity of it sometimes scared him. He wasn't always sure he deserved it. But he knew, he had always known, that it was there. Strong. Unfailing. Unconditional.

Unlike his trust.

"What did you show Gwaine?" Arthur asked, because this was the second thought that had been haunting him for the past few weeks. "That shocked him so much he backed up into a suit of armour?"

"Oh," Merlin said, a small smile curving his lips at the memory. "Oh, it was nothing. He was just surprised at the magic in general, I think. I only made a –"

"Show me," Arthur cut in. "Don't tell me. Show me."

Merlin hesitated, and Arthur tried not to take it personally. Then he held his hand out and said something, his voice strangely harsh and guttural, and not at all a whisper the way it had been when he'd revealed it to Gwaine. He sounded strong and confident.

A small flower unfolded in his palm, red and delicate against the pale backdrop of his hand.

Arthur must have been staring, because Merlin flushed and gave a small, wry smile.

"I didn't want to do anything that might have been construed as aggressive," he explained. "This was the most harmless thing I could think of."

"I don't know," Arthur said, still staring at the flower and thinking that if Merlin had conjured a fire-breathing dragon instead of a flower, he still couldn't have had him arrested. "Roses have thorns, you know."

"Not this one," Merlin said.

He closed his fingers around the flower, and it disappeared. Arthur looked up.

"Did you really think I would have you executed?" he asked softly. "What you told Gwaine –"

"No," Merlin said quickly. "No, that was – I didn't really mean it. I've always wanted to tell you. It hurt so much, not being able to, that I sometimes I allowed myself to think you would. But I never really believed it."

"I wish you had," Arthur said. "Told me, I mean. I'd have protected you."

Merlin laughed at that. "You've got it the wrong way around."

"What do you mean?" Arthur asked, something in his chest going cold at the words.

"I'm the one who's been protecting you, you idiot," Merlin said fondly. "Or did you think the magic was only good for tricks like the one I just showed you? How do you think you've survived this long?"

Arthur said nothing, trying to get his mind around the idea that Merlin not only had magic, but had used it right under his nose for years, and he'd never seen it. Had used it to save his life, even.

"Arthur?" Merlin said, doubt creeping into his tone.

The name was a question all on its own, but Arthur didn't answer.

That first time, with the witch impersonating Lady Helen. Valiant. Ealdor... And how many other times? Arthur felt like the word's biggest fool, and he was supposed to be a king.

"I'm going to get a new manservant, you know," Arthur said after the silence had gone on for too long.

Merlin went completely still.

"One who won't complain about his job, and who will actually be honoured to serve his king."

Merlin started to protest (I don't, I am, I'll serve you until my dying breath) but Arthur cut him off with a look.

"Someone who won't call me anything but 'my lord' or 'sire,' whose serving skills will be infinitely more admirable than yours, and – someone who doesn't have magic."

"I understand," Merlin said, his fingernails digging into the wood of the door behind him (something else Arthur's new manservant wouldn't do). "I expected this, I think."

"Did you?"

"You need someone you can trust. That's fine."

Arthur started. "If you think –"

"I said it's fine, Arthur," Merlin said, and he sounded like he meant it. His voice was low and steady, and it was only the way he kept blinking rapidly that clued Arthur in.

"You idiot," Arthur said. "For God's sake, Merlin." Was his manservant no longer able to take a joke? "I'm trying to give you a promotion here."

Merlin's head snapped up; Arthur pretended he didn't see the light sheen that glistened over his eyes. "You what?"

"Well, I don't know that many warlocks who'll want to fight for me, and Camelot is going to need help if the ban on magic is to be lifted," Arthur said, trying not to sound like he was enjoying this. "Who else would I pick?"

"You – you want –" Merlin seemed unable to align more than three words. "Lifted?" he said weakly. "But..."

"Are you really objecting, Merlin?"

"I don't understand. Why?"

"It's not like you've left me much of a choice," Arthur said. "My manservant is a sorcerer. What kind of hypocrite would I be if I allowed things to continue as they are? So," he went on, "I'm going to need a Court Sorcerer, of course, to handle all the problems that are most definitely going to arise. Since it's all your fault anyway, I can't think of a person more suited to the role than you."

Merlin had been smiling by then, but at those last words the hapless grin was wiped right off his face and he blanched. "No."

"Merlin –"

"No, no," Merlin said swiftly, throwing a half-desperate glance around the room, like he could think of nothing he wanted more than to spend his life tidying up after Arthur. "You can't – you are not giving me a title. Or a court position. Or – or another stupid hat."

"The thought hadn't even crossed my mind," Arthur lied, quirking a grin at the memory of Merlin in the hat. "Look, Merlin, this is meant to be an honour."

"Well, it's not." Merlin looked like he meant it, too.

Arthur tried very hard not to roll his eyes. "Merlin, has anyone ever told you how much of an idiot you are?"

"I know someone who may have mentioned it once or twice," Merlin said, "but I wouldn't put too much faith in him, since he's obviously a prat."

"Don't you see?" Arthur asked. "This – what I'm offering, it will change things. You won't have to be a servant anymore. You could – you could give your opinion, and people would listen. And you wouldn't have to do chores anymore, or – or have me order you about all the time. You..." He stopped, because they were both fully aware that he was an absolute crap person to have to serve and Merlin really didn't need to hear him admit that aloud. "You'd be important," he said finally, except that wasn't a very convincing argument because Merlin already was. "Come on, Merlin – Court Sorcerer! Think of all the things you could do."

"But I don't want to," Merlin said, eyes wide. "I don't need you to invent a position just for me. I – I'm fine being your servant."

"Merlin," Arthur said, and he was beginning to be frustrated. "That's just stupid. Why would you want to remain a servant?"

Merlin smiled a little self-deprecatingly, but his voice rang full of sincerity. "Because – because I'm not a servant. I'm your servant. This is how I can be closest to you. I like working for you, helping you as you build the kingdom I've always dreamt of. You're the king, and me – I'm just here to assist you. I'll serve you until my dying breath, Arthur, if you'll let me. It's all I want, all I've ever wanted."

The words took Arthur's breath away, because Merlin said I'll serve you but what he really meant was I love you. He had to step forward, and walk across the room until he was close enough to touch Merlin. And then he had to reach out and place his hand at the back of Merlin's neck, fingers curling tenderly in his hair, pulling his servant closer until Arthur's lips were right next to Merlin's ear.

"You idiot," he said when he could speak again, but he already knew there was very little he could say that would change Merlin's mind. "Just promise me this, then – that you'll never lie to me again."

"I promise," Merlin said without hesitating.

Arthur now knew what Merlin looked like when he was lying, and this wasn't it.

They stood there, Arthur's hand still light and gentle on the back of Merlin's neck. Merlin's breath was warm and irregular against Arthur's neck; his shoulders shook. Around them, the air hung still and heavy with the weight of truth.

Nothing had ever hurt quite this much. There was no way to go back to the time when things were light and easy between them. No matter how often Arthur replayed the events in his mind, he knew that this outcome had been inevitable from the start. The mistrust had always been there, lurking, and one day he would have been forced to open his eyes and see it. But he also knew they would survive this. He and Merlin had overcome every obstacle they'd ever faced together, and this was just one more.

Merlin's breath against his skin.
The warmth of his body pressed against Arthur's.

"This is how I can be closest to you."

In spite of everything – the lies, the bitterness, the betrayal – nothing had ever felt this right.