"You have to know I'd never use it against you or Camelot," Merlin says quietly.
Arthur doesn't answer.
Merlin reaches out to touch his shoulder lightly, but Arthur is faster than he is and in the blink of an eye he is behind Merlin, twisting his arm so painfully that Merlin cannot hold back a whimper.
"You lied to me," Arthur says, and Merlin can't decide whether he sounds more angry or hurt. "All this time, you've been lying to me."
"I – I tried to tell you," Merlin says through clenched teeth, ignoring the throbbing pain even as he tries to loosen Arthur's grip on him. "A dozen times over, Arthur, I tried –"
"Don't call me that."
"It's your name –"
"Do you know how many times I could have had you arrested for the way you speak to me? And I didn't, and now – now I have an even better reason to have you arrested."
Merlin stops with a pained hiss when he feels Arthur's hand tighten around his arm. His back arches in an attempt to lessen the pain.
"My lord," he corrects himself, hating himself for it, "just let me explain –"
"Is that an order, Merlin? Because it sounds like a lot like one, but it can't be, can it?"
His voice cracks, and he thinks that's what makes Arthur finally, finally let him go, giving him a hard shove in the back that sends him sprawling forward across the floor. Merlin lays on the cold floor, breathing harshly, not daring to look up at Arthur.
This is it, then. Arthur's reaction. He has imagined it hundreds of times, but nothing could have prepared him for this.
"You once told me you would never lie to me."
There is steel in Arthur's voice, but this time, Merlin recognises it for what it really is. Betrayal and hurt are what animate Arthur, not hatred, and that is why Merlin does not lift himself off the ground.
He speaks to the floor. "I did."
He remembers that incident vividly, as he remembers all the times he has tasted the bitterness of deceit to Arthur, all the times he passed himself off for a fool to keep his secret.
"I'm the one you've been playing for a fool," Arthur says, and Merlin realises he has said that last bit aloud. "All this time. A sorcerer in Camelot, the prince's own manservant! Right under my nose, and I never even suspected it. All of Prince Arthur's exploits – were any of them real? From the moment we met – how many times have you saved my life, got me out of an impossible situation and then let me claim the credit for it?"
"I've lost count."
There's a small silence during which Merlin can practically see the look that crosses Arthur's face as the words register, can almost sense what his prince is thinking – That many? A sharp pain in his lower back makes Merlin arch up, but he doesn't roll away or stand. Arthur has just slammed the hilt of his sword into his back. Well. It could have been the other end.
"You complete and utter – is that supposed to be funny, Merlin?"
"It's the truth."
"And you expect me to believe you?"
"You always have before."
The sword hilt is jammed into his back again and Merlin bites his lower lip, hard.
"You should have told me. Merlin, you should have told me the truth."
Merlin can't help it; a short, bitter laugh escapes him. If this is the reaction he was always going to get, he's glad he never got around to telling Arthur.
"Are you going to kill me?"
"You would deserve it."
That's not an answer and they both know it.
"Get up," Arthur says harshly.
Merlin hesitates before drawing himself to his feet. He stands with his back to Arthur and can feel the weight of his prince's stare like needles jabbed into the back of his neck.
Slowly, Merlin does, and he does not get the time to meet Arthur's gaze before Arthur lunges for him, throwing him up against the wall hard enough to knock the breath out of him. And then the first punch is thrown, catching Merlin in the jaw and forcing his head to snap back. It smarts, but it's not the worst Merlin has ever had; what makes it so painful is that this is Arthur.
"I think I could kill you right now," Arthur says, "for being such an idiot. Do you have a death wish, Merlin?"
He throws another punch, and Merlin tells himself it could be much worse. Arthur's blows are only half-hearted, intended for Merlin the sorcerer but unwilling to hurt Merlin the manservant. Merlin the friend.
And then there comes that blow, the one that lands on Merlin's temple and is strong enough to knock him to the floor. His vision blurs, and he feels that if this weren't such an important moment, he might lose consciousness (and wouldn't Arthur love that, as more proof that Merlin is really a girl?). Arthur, his face unrecognisable unless Merlin squints, looms above him, and his sword catches the light when he raises it.
He wouldn't have done it.
Merlin knows with every fiber of his being that he wouldn't – that despite his anger Arthur is incapable of killing him, the same way he is incapable of putting all his strength behind his punches. But at that moment, with his blurred vision and the pain shooting up his spine whenever he moves and the glint of the sword above him, Merlin lets himself believe that maybe, maybe, maybe Arthur would. And he does not think, does not hesitate before uttering the words that will end this madness.
He feels the magic flow out of him, watches as the sword is wrenched from Arthur's hands and thrown to the other end of the room, and sees Arthur stagger back. Stunned amazement gives way to triumph in his expression, a fierce pride that raises the corners of his mouth.
"So you can use magic to defend yourself," he says with satisfaction, as though this was all he wanted to prove. "You can use it against me."
Merlin's vision clears. He pushes himself up onto his knees, then to his feet.
"You owe me your life, many times over," he says brokenly.
There are tears pooling in his eyes, and he knows Arthur can tell.
"Merlin," Arthur says, and then: "Merlin, do you even –"
He cuts himself off and closes his eyes, and it is then that Merlin recognises the expression on his face. It has taken him this long to understand it, because he has so rarely seen it on Arthur.
Arthur is afraid.
"Get out," Arthur says softly.
And just like that, Merlin is sacked.
When Gaius asks what happened when he shows up with his a bruise flowering on his jaw and a stiffness to his every movement, Merlin only says, "I won't be working for Arthur anymore." And Gaius doesn't ask any more questions.
Now he spends his days working with Gaius, instead of mucking out stables and polishing armour. When he crosses Arthur in the castle corridors, he looks away and can feel Arthur's hot stare on the back of his neck. Neither of them ever say a word. It almost hurts to admit that he misses the old times, but whenever he thinks that he only has to recall the bruise on his lower back and the fear in Arthur's eyes to know that all those times were just a lie. A lie that Merlin himself fabricated and kept alive, all this time.
He doesn't blame Arthur. How could he?
Arthur comes for him a week after the incident.
He shows up in Gaius' chambers when Gaius is absent. His expression is furious, as though it is still the very day he found out about Merlin's magic, as though he has been holding on to his anger since that day. It is not the same sort of anger, though; not stunned and uncontrollable, but quiet and held in. Threatening.
"I saw you on the steps yesterday," Arthur says tightly.
Oh. The steps.
"I wasn't thinking," Merlin says. "I tripped, and I couldn't let the potion smash to the ground – Gaius would have had my hide."
"Gaius would have –" Arthur repeats, stunned. "Merlin, you stupid little – do you even realise what they'll do to you if you're found out?"
"I've already been found out. I think I have a pretty good idea of what happens next," Merlin says, standing up from behind the table and closing the book he was taking notes from.
"Do you? Do you really?"
Arthur walks right up to Merlin, sword unsheathed, and spins him around so he is behind Merlin. Merlin half-expects him to push him down to his feet and behead him right there in Gaius' rooms, but of course Arthur doesn't do that.
"Move," he says instead, and Merlin can feel the tip of his sword digging into the flesh between his shoulder blades. "Go on – get out."
Merlin steps forward hesitantly, and the pressure on his back disappears. He starts walking down the corridor, hearing Arthur's steps right behind him; hearing, too, the sound his sword makes as it is sheathed. His relief is brief, though, because quickly enough Arthur is right behind him, close enough that his breath is hot on Merlin's neck when he speaks.
"Outside," Arthur says fiercely, and there is another pressure now, digging in between his ribs – a dagger.
Merlin knows – they both know – that he could evade this with his magic, but every fiber of his being refuses to let him do that. He remembers the stunned, fearful look in Arthur's eyes and knows he can't use magic against him again. So Merlin walks without hesitation through the corridors and down the stairs, and all the while Arthur is behind him, dagger in hand, the weapon shielded by his cloak. It's only when they walk down the steps leading to the courtyard that Merlin understands.
The crowd is already waiting, already gleeful. The executioner is running his hand along the edge of his blade, checking its sharpness. Uther stands above the crowd, his expression fierce. The courtyard has been readied for an execution.
Merlin freezes right on the steps, and it takes a painful jab of Arthur's dagger – one that is sure to draw blood, but does that even matter anymore? – for him to continue his descent. He tries to turn his head to look at Arthur, to meet his gaze, but suddenly Arthur's hand is on the back of his neck, his skin cold against Merlin's, and his voice is a fierce whisper when he says, shortly:
"Don't look away."
Away from what? Merlin wants to ask, but he is answered before the question has even been voiced. The crowd has shifted a little, and now he can see the person standing beside the executioner.
He is around Merlin's own age. His hair is long, flowing down past his shoulders. The state of his clothes makes it obvious that he has spent the night – at the very least – in the dungeons. There is a bruise on his cheek and tear tracks on his dirty cheeks, but he is not weeping now. He is looking up to the skies, his lips moving. Praying.
"He's been accused of sorcery," Arthur says, and Merlin feels sick to his stomach.
He has done this before, but only once: on the day of his arrival in Camelot. Since then, he has kept the memory with him, and every day it has fed his fear of telling Arthur. If Merlin is to die, he doesn't need to see this, as well: a fresh reminder of what awaits him. He's not sure what this is supposed to prove, whether Arthur just wants him to know how he's going to suffer or what, but it's working. His entrails are on fire and the only thing holding him upright is Arthur's dagger, angled so it is digging into his ribs from below. He can't watch this. Merlin can hardly even participate in a hunt without wincing – he certainly can't watch this person die for the very crime he himself is guilty of.
"Don't do this, Arthur."
Arthur is silent. The executioner lays a hand on the boys shoulder and pushes him down to his knees, but the boy exposes his neck without further incentive, pulling his hair over his shoulders and bowing his head. He closes his eyes, and Merlin wishes he could do the same.
"Arthur, please, don't, I can't –"
"Don't look away," Arthur says again.
The sword is raised.
The crowd is eerily silent.
The sword comes down. Merlin watches, unblinking, not even daring to wince, as it is raised again, reddened with blood but not enough blood, apparently, because the head is not severed. The crowd has gone wild. Merlin thinks he can smell the metallic scent of blood in the air, but worse than that is the blood lust of the people around him.
The sword is brought down twice more before the boy's head rolls to the ground, his neck a butchered mess. And all Merlin can see is red – red the blood that stains the ground, red the executioner's sweaty face, red the hot anger he can feel rising up in him. Red the warm blood that he can feel trickling down his side, because somewhere between the first and second chops Merlin jerked back hard enough for Arthur's dagger to slice through his shirt and skin. There is no pain.
The dagger is gone, slipped beneath Arthur's belt. In its place is a warm, solid hand; the same hand that forced Merlin to watch.
"Morgana tried to save him," Arthur says flatly. "She begged my father to have mercy. But Camelot does not have mercy on sorcerers. I tried to defend the boy and I failed. I did everything I could and it wasn't enough. I couldn't protect him, do you understand?"
Merlin turns, and this time, Arthur allows him to. Their eyes meet. The hand at Merlin's hip is gentle and warm. And Merlin understands.
Yes, Arthur is angry. Angry that he never knew the truth, angry that Merlin didn't trust him, and maybe even angry that Merlin even has magic at all. And yes, Arthur is scared, but not of Merlin.
"If you die for me," Arthur says, "I will never forgive you."