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KING PENDRAGON

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Merlin had a bad feeling about this. 

Admittedly, he got a bad feeling essentially every time Arthur went gallivanting in the forest. Usually, it was for some stupid errand or quest, but this time the king hadn't even bothered to provide his reasoning. 

Also, there must be a less dangerous route away from Camelot! Bandits, sorcerers, monsters, and assassins - and that angry old lady once - always found Arthur like bees to a hive. At this point, it was rare that they didn't get chased, maimed, or attacked in one way or another! But did that deter 'His Royal Pratness'? No. No, it did not. 

“Arthur,” Merlin whined as he shifted in his saddle and slouched forward, “I don’t approve of this! My arse hurts. I'm tired. I'm thirsty. I'm hungry... We’ve been riding for hours, and you haven’t even told me where we are going!” 

“I understand your limited mental capacity makes it challenging, Merlin, but try to remember that I am the king. You can’t speak to me like that. And if you stopped sitting like a sulking child then maybe your scrawny little arse wouldn’t hurt!” Arthur replied boredly, running his gloved hand through his hair. It stuck up sporadically, wet from dewy fog surrounding them, “So do me a favour... and shut up, Merlin.” 

“Oh, commenting on my capacity is brave, sire, seeing as your head is the size of a farmer's prize pumpkin! And yet, I swear I can hear the wind whistling through one ear and out the other!” Merlin smiled smugly at himself, “I bet you don't even know where we’re going. You’re just pretending to because you can’t admit we’re lost in the middle of nowhere! But, you know what, that's fine! Just fine! After all, this might be my one chance to get rid of you... dispose of your body somewhere under a log... where nobody would find you...'Here lies a ridiculous infuriating prat with no sense of direction.'” 

"Now that's high treason, Merlin! Such a shame, I was just starting to like you." 

Arthur chuckled brightly and made a show of stretching with a roll of his neck. He seemed happier today, but Merlin wasn't sure why. It was business as usual back in the castle. However, it was hard to miss the blond's wide smiles and easy banter. He hadn't even brought the knights with them, something unheard of since his crowning. Unfortunately, instead of enjoying the alone time as he usually did, it only worried Merlin further. 

“We are not lost, you idiot. I know exactly where we are going... not that I’ll be telling you, Merlin. And prat, honestly? That’s the best you’ve got?” Arthur quirked his brow and grinned secretively. 

Merlin still saw it, of course. It wasn’t hard to look over and catch Arthur’s reactions as they now rode side by side. Not that Merlin was watching him. He simply had to make sure Arthur didn't smack into any low-hanging branches. It was impressive his majesty hadn’t developed any permanent damage from the concussions he’d sustained already. No need for any more. 

“Oh, do you need a definition for that, sire?” 

“No, no I don’t -” Arthur protested. 

“Prat. A noun. A prat is someone full of themselves and, almost invariably, stupid as well. With a hint of delusion. Also known as His Majesty, King Arthur Pendragon of Camelot. The Biggest Clotpole in the Land and Royal Pain in My Ass.” 

Arthur mockingly mouthed “invariably” and looked over at Merlin, tilting his head as if about to say something mischievous then decided against it. Instead, he faltered for a second and froze. Merlin called to him jokingly but received no reply.

"Arthur...?" Merlin repeated, hushed with concern. 

Suddenly, Arthur kicked his horse’s sides hard. Uncharacteristic of him, as he valued his mare Llamrei above almost everything. She bolted forward into a gallop and Merlin’s horse sped off after her, not wanting to be left behind. Merlin barely managed not to topple backward in his surprise. 

“ARTHUR?!” 

Arthur didn’t even look back at him. He sat up on the saddle and maneuvered his horse around trees in a sporadic pattern. Merlin looked around, confused, and tried not to slip off in the process. 

“What are you doing?! Couldn’t you have given me some warning for a race?” 

Then an arrow whistled its way right past Merlin’s head, and he thought it best to actually shut up now. Of course. Bandits. In the heavy fog, it was impossible to see them. How on Earth Arthur had noticed them was a mystery. Merlin just held on for dear life and tried not to get shot. He couldn't risk using his magic to fight back without being able to see his enemy and while so close to Arthur. 

Speaking of Arthur, he'd dropped the reins and somehow pulled a riding bow and quiver from his saddle pack. It had been suspiciously heavy, Merlin recalled distantly, and he'd most certainly not packed that himself. Wondering when Arthur developed the ability to shoot on horseback was probably not that important at the moment. Nevertheless, Merlin barely dodged another enemy missile as he pondered how Arthur snuck that past him. Or why he brought it at all. Or how he looked that handsome, twisted around shooting arrow after arrow into the shrubbery. Or how one could say, “Stop looking so damn attractive, I’m trying not to die!” without completely embarrassing themselves. 

“MERLIN!” Arthur suddenly yelled, interrupting the servant's train of thought. Did he say that out loud? “Merlin, I’ll distract them. See that boulder up ahead? Go around it then turn back and ride to Camelot. I’ll keep going ahead.” 

“I’M NOT LEAVING YOU, YOU IDIOT!” 

“Well, you don't have a weapon, so what else do you propose? Asking them nicely? Go! I'll handle this the best that I can and then come find you.” 

Was Arthur honestly that deluded? As if Merlin would ever abandon him. Ridiculous moron. “SHUT UP, ARTHUR!” 

Arthur growled frustratedly and reached up for another arrow to find only one left. “Fine. GO LEFT!” 

Then Arthur turned right. Of course, he did. And so did Merlin. Right towards a dead end. Arthur yelled out at his servant frustratedly, but notched his last arrow and charged straight towards the cave opening. His head touched Llmarei’s rump as he bent back and pointed the shot to the roof of the cave. The exact second Merlin had made it in, Arthur released the arrow. It hit its mark and the unstable rocks piled above them. The walls shook and then collapsed as a huge stone barely missed them and blocked the entrance completely. The horses skidded to a sharp stop to avoid colliding with a cave wall, their metal horseshoes screeching against the solid stone ground. It took minutes until the loud clamour finally dissipated.

Merlin stared at the huge wall of rock, panting and shaking as the adrenaline finally caught up to him. “What were you thinking, Arthur? This is a cave! There’s no exit! That could have killed us...” 

When met with silence, Merlin slid off his mount to the cold stone floor. His body ached where a few stray pebbles had pelted him painfully. They could have been smashed to bits. Merlin hadn’t even had time to think about magic, let alone use it. That was way too close. It was completely reckless.

“You weren’t supposed to follow me…” Arthur said finally. His annoyingly steady voice was barely discernible over the ringing in Merlin’s ears. 

“That’s not the point, Arthur!” Merlin huffed incredulously. 

He whipped around to look at the king. Maybe he’d expected a smirk or some other smug expression. Maybe even ‘Don’t be such a girl, Merlin. We’re alive aren’t we?’ But instead, Arthur's face was tight with pain and his eyes were glassy and blank. Arthur shook his head stiffly and dismounted. When his feet hit the ground, Merlin was able to see an arrow piercing his calf. It had gone through entirely, the arrowhead red with blood and completely visible. Seeming detached, Arthur walked forward without a limp and prodded at the rock wall he’d created. Merlin inhaled sharply and rushed forward. 

“Oh, Gods, your leg… you have to stop moving, you have an arrow in your leg! Arthur, stop!” 

Arthur nodded, wordlessly, and reached down to the offending bolt. Not even looking down, he snapped the head off in his fist and pulled it straight out of his leg. 

“WHAT?! Why would you do that?!” Merlin snatched the arrow from Arthur’s hands and stared at it, “You don’t pull out arrows!” 

Merlin yanked on Arthur’s shoulder and pulled him around to face him. Arthur didn’t even blink. What was happening? Was it blood loss? Shock? Did he get hit too hard on the head again? 

“We need to sit down, Arthur. Come on, talk to me? What’s wrong with you?” 

Merlin lifted a hand to hold his jaw with his palm. As quickly as it had come, the glazed defensive look in Arthur’s eyes was replaced with warmth and then… pain. 

“Sorry, Merlin…” 

“It’s fine, Arthur. But you have to sit down, ok? I need to see your leg.” There must have still been light coming from somewhere because Merlin could see the blood slowly pooling around Arthur’s foot. 

Suddenly, though not surprisingly, the King’s knees buckled and he collapsed unconscious.



Arthur woke to ringing in his ears and a blur of black and white clouding his vision. After blinking away the dizzying spots, he recognized Merlin’s face directly above his. The servant was unusually close, and as worried blue eyes blinked down at him, Arthur couldn’t help but mockingly mumble, “Let’s have you, Lazy Daisy…” 

“What?” Merlin’s voice was too sharp and loud. Arthur’s leg was on fire. The blond bit back a groan and tried to stay as still as possible. He knew his servant was still watching him intently so Arthur smiled tightly to reassure him. 

“Nothing, Merlin. Now, why are you looking at me like I just ate your berry tart?" 

“Because you just collapsed on me after yanking an arrow out of your leg, you git!” Merlin tried to look angry, his face red and his hands clenched. It was the furrow in his brow and the waver in his voice that gave him away. 

“Still can’t talk to me like that, by the way." 

“And honestly," Merlin interrupted, "that’s not even comparable to being robbed of a berry tart. Which are my favourite, by the way!” 

“Yes, I’m aware they're your favourite. Why else do you think I always get two? I'm not that fat!” Catching his admission too late, Arthur flushed and grumbled a silent curse to whatever had inspired him to say that. 

“You get one for me?” Merlin grinned devilishly and playfully pawed at his chest. “So you do care for me then, sire?” 

“I do not!" Arthur hadn't been aware his voice could even reach that pitch anymore.

“Oh yes, you do!” 

“No, no, I most definitely do not!” 

“Yes, you do!” Merlin cackled annoyingly, “You even apologized to me!” 

“I recall no such thing." 

“Well, I do! You were dramatic about it as well. You said something like, ‘Oh, I’m so sorry, dear Merlin. Oh so very fantastic and talented, Merlin. My dearest companion and dashing savior, Merlin." The servant reenacted the moment exuberantly, lifting his wrist to his forehead and swooning to lie by Arthur. He laughed hysterically at his own joke while Arthur tried his hardest to act offended. “You’d better have a new appreciation for my 'excessive' packing skills, too! I brought enough of Gaius’s supplies to patch up your leg. Call me useless all you want but without me, you’d be short a leg and arm by now! At the minimum!" 

“I would be just fine! I survived 20 years before you, Merlin, believe it or not!” Arthur scoffed halfheartedly, tired and lacking any heat to his words.

“And how you managed to accomplish that is a mystery to us all. Were you some sort of homebody till I showed up? Then you decided that charging into danger at any available moment was entertaining? Do you enjoy giving me grey hairs?!” 

Arthur twisted his head to look at Merlin, eyes wandering over his scalp to find evidence of such offensive strands. He found none. “Oh, stop whining, Merlin. Your hair is fine." 

“I thought it was ridiculous.” 

“It is ridiculous! You look like you tried to cut it yourself. But it's all one colour! Black. Now shut up!” 

“Well, actually, I think it reflects brown in the sunlight.” 

“And how would you know what you look like? Whoever told you that lied. Just shut up, Merlin-” It did, in fact, reflect bits of brown in the sunlight. Not that Arthur had noticed. This entire conversation was rather exhausting, and he realised that Merlin only talked this much when he was incredibly happy or incredibly nervous. And Arthur doubted it was the former. “Where are we?” 

“Stuck in a cave. All thanks to you, you stupid clotpole!" 

"In a cave… right… and the horses? Where is the light coming from? It’s not fire.” 

“Horses are tied over there at the end. I don’t know about the light. I was too worried a fire would fill the cave with smoke.” 

“Right, well unless it was a bonfire, I’m sure we would have been fine, Merlin. It’s cold if you haven't noticed.” 

It wasn't cold, Arthur just needed something to complain about. He didn't actually care, he'd been bundled up in blankets while unconscious. He tried to swallow back a blush when he noticed Merlin had tucked him in like a small tot. 

“Nothing ever pleases you, does it? Do you even know how to be grateful? Are you physically capable of being anything other than a complete wanker- Arthur? Are you even listening to me?!" 

Arthur was, in fact, not listening at all. Per usual. The warlock groaned and pinched his nose.

“I’ve been here before…” Arthur mumbled, staring intently at the wall past his servant’s head.

“What?” Merlin looked up confusedly. 

Arthur had been here before. There was a beam of light shining through the darkness of the cavern, and it illuminated a small drawing on the walls. Merlin twisted to follow Arthur's gaze. Two little figures painted to hold hands, the first sporting some odd squiggly lines, hair supposedly, and the other a little crown. Arthur slipped out of his bedding carefully and limped towards it, mumbling to himself. 

"Morgana drew this..." 

"Are you sure it's safe, sire?" 

"What? No, I mean - not recently. When we were little. I've been here before with her, and I remember her drawing this. It's been years though. I can't believe it's still here."

Merlin rose too and hung back awkwardly, not quite sure what to do with himself. "Did you two often escape into the woods to paint self-portraits on cave walls? Seems like an odd hobby for a couple of royals." 

Arthur didn't respond, but he jerked as if tugged on a line and spun wildly. He seemed to be searching for something, and he pushed his feet around oddly in the dirt. When his toe caught on something, he let out a laugh and started digging. 

"Have you been possessed? I'm far too tired to deal with some sort of demon right now." 

"Shut up, Merlin. Look! It's still here." 

Merlin crept hesitantly forward and knelt by Arthur's slumped form. He tucked his head out of the way to let the light beam through. It danced through the King's fingers down to the ground. Arthur was digging away at the outline of a box before gripping it at its lip and yanking it up. A puff of dust shot up, causing them to cough, and Merlin sneezed violently. He blinked the dirt out of his eyes and barely caught the carved label on the box before Arthur swung it open. 

"What is that?!" 

ARTHUR'S TREASURE CHEST 

"When we were little, Morgana and I ran away. She packed all sorts of useful things: food, water, weapons. She kept teasing me because all I brought was this..." Arthur poured out the box and laughed to himself with a childish glee Merlin didn't see often. "Gods, what kind of luck is it that we found the same cave again? I can't believe it!"

He sorted through the objects before landing on one to hold up into the light. 

"This was my toy! I got it from a nobleman's son when I was tiny, perhaps four summers old? It was his least favorite, but I loved it, so I stole it. I went to bed that night terrified the King's guard was going to drag me to the dungeons. It was the first time I ever stole anything!" Arthur pushed the little figurine towards Merlin. 

It was a black sculpture in the shape of a jousting knight and horse. It was simple and a little messily made, and the servant wondered why Arthur had liked this toy so much. A prince had surely owned better. And so he asked. 

"I wasn't allowed many toys. Father wasn't much into useless games and silliness. I got some as presents occasionally, from the staff or another child. Eventually, Father found all of those and destroyed them. It was usually a punishment, I was a naughty child - surprise, surprise! I can't believe this little thing is here, I thought it was lost forever!" 

Merlin's eyes widened at the odd revelation Arthur had unintentionally provided him. Not allowed toys? Arthur said he was four when he stole the little knight. Why would Uther be so against his young son having toys that he'd take away any that he found? Did Arthur not realise this was unusual?

Hunith couldn't afford any of the traveling merchants' crafted toys for Merlin, but she'd made a collection of hand-woven little husk dolls and stitched tiny clothes for her son to play with. She'd always bring home 'especially good sticks' for the young warlock so that he could use them for games or pretend magic wands. Hunith even carved little ducks and rabbits out of wood, a skill she'd learned from Balinor, and it was something that showed effort. That showed caring. 

Realistically, Uther was not particularly affectionate, and in no way comparable to Hunith's adoration. Arthur might not know any different. Before Merlin could voice his questions, Arthur gasped loudly. He fumbled with the ties on a small canvas wrap and rolled it out with impatience. 

"So this is where this went?! I looked for this for weeks!" 

"What is it? It just looks like charcoal sticks." 

"Well, it is charcoal sticks, Merlin. Sybil gifted them to me after she caught me watching Thomas sketch out weapons designs..." Arthur trailed off after remembering the implications of his story. 

Sybil and Thomas were dead now. Sybil must have been Gwen and Elyan's mother. Merlin had heard she worked for Leon's family household. It was news to him that Arthur knew her as well. And knew her well enough to be smuggled art supplies. Merlin wondered why Arthur hadn't mentioned it before. 

Catching the blond's depleting mood, Merlin snorted a laugh and poked the king with his elbow. "Didn't peg you for an artistic soul, sire! Now you're telling me you can draw? Hopefully better than whatever Morgana doodled on the walls." 

Arthur shot Merlin an unamused eye-roll but pushed a bound notebook to him all the same. Merlin pursed his lips and carefully opened it. The bindings were brittle, and some pages slid out, Merlin fumbling to catch them. When he did, he whistled quietly and looked up at Arthur and back at the page in rapid succession. Arthur could draw... incredibly well. He flipped through the pages and gazed at them with wonder. Some of the drawings he instantly recognized. A detailed sketch of a horse's head. A simple outline of a hut on a hill. But as Merlin got further into the book, the drawings became grander and grander. 

One depicted Morgana, with her features sharp even as a child, gazing out of her window to the courtyard. Another of Gwen's face, her eye's closed and smiling gently. An old man with a long beard with a cloak pulled over his head. A woman kissing a child's forehead. He flipped through the pages enthralled by their contents. When he got to the end, he found a paper ripped out and folded in half. He looked up at Arthur questioningly, who had averted his eyes to avoid Merlin's reaction to his work. Getting no response, he pulled the page out and opened it. 

This drawing was different from the others. With the rest of his art, Arthur had painstakingly created tiny details and gentle shading. This one... the face of a young boy, was haphazard and roughly made from jagged lines and harsh shadows. Merlin ran his fingers over it and then raised it to the king. 

"Who is this?" 

Arthur slowly lifted his eyes from his fidgeting fingers, and his lips dropped apart when he saw the paper. He broke out of his shock quickly and pulled it gently out of Merlin's grasp. 

"I wasn't very good. Anyhow, now that you've had your merry way with the book, you have plenty of blackmail on me. You can run off and tell all of my knights how I scribble and scrawl roses and daisies in my spare time or something." 

"Who is it?" Merlin asked again. He looked back down at the book as if it would somehow provide the answers. 

"It was supposed to be me. Wasn't very good obviously, it's not like you could tell just by looking at it." 

"All of your other drawings were so clear. I saw Gwen, Morgana, Geoffrey, horses, knights, servants. But that one doesn't look at all like you. How come? You spend enough time preening in the mirror, you ought to know your own face." It shouldn't bother him as much as it did, but something nagged in Merlin's chest. 

Instead, Arthur just nudged Merlin with his foot and tried for a snotty quip, "Yes well, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Perhaps I just perceive myself differently than you do." 

Arthur's gaze suddenly blazed defensively as if daring him to continue his interrogation. So rather than step into treacherous waters, Merlin reached for the piece of leather twisted in Arthur's fingers. "Alright, fine, you big baby! What's this then? It looks like a piece of an old boot..."

"It's a collar. It used to be for my dog when I was a boy. A hunting dog got bred with a stray, accidentally. They drowned the other puppies, but I snuck off with one. I was young and naive, and I didn't understand why they would hurt something tiny and innocent. I thought it was barbaric!" 

"It is barbaric!" Merlin exclaimed hotly, "It's a waste of perfectly good lives. All because of some ridiculous need for pure bloodlines. As if the castle couldn't afford to feed a few more mouths. And they would have been just as good for hunting anyways!" 

Arthur shrugged but smiled at Merlin's passion. The servant always cared for animals in a way that used to annoy him, but now he found it rather endearing. He'd never met anyone who viewed other creatures as any more than food, weapons, or tools. But Merlin saw every living thing, even the spiders in the halls, as little beings. Life to be cherished. And Arthur wished he could be as good and pure as Merlin. 

"It's just the way it is, Merlin. They wanted to drown Veela, too. Tried to pry her from my hands when they found her under my bed. But my nursemaid shooed them away and told me she needed milk or she was going to die. We kept the mother dog in my antechamber. Poor thing had been crying horribly for her pups. I felt I'd done something right when I showed her I'd saved Veela." 

"Oh..." Merlin imagined the poor mother's whimpers as she watched her babies drown. This cave seemed to have a spell of some sort on it, for Arthur had never been this candid before. Merlin couldn't think of a single childhood story Arthur had told before now. He felt trusted and hungry for more."Veela? That's what you named her? Like the magical women? That seems a bit -" 

"Yes, I realise," Arthur cut in looking uncomfortable, "my nursemaid used to tell stories about them. I thought the puppy looked like one because I'd never seen a white dog before." 

Merlin hadn't either, and he tended for Arthur's hunting dogs often. It was one of the chores he pretended to hate so Arthur would give it to him more often. There wasn't a white dog. But before Merlin could ask Arthur sighed, "It was a long time ago." 

He started to pack the trinkets back into the box gingerly and smiled tiredly at Merlin. In the silence, Merlin realised a rather important piece of the story was missing. Why were these things, these precious belongings of Arthur's, buried in a cave in the middle of the woods? 

"Why did you and Morgana run away?" 

Arthur stilled and tried to seem aloof, "I don't know. I was young. I don't remember, honestly." 

"So you remember everything you just told me, but not why the Prince and Ward of Camelot ran away from home? What happened? Were you being hidden for safety? Did you just get sick of three square meals a day and decided to live it rough for a vacation? How long were you gone? How old were you?" 

Overwhelmed by Merlin's questions and the stabbing pain from his leg, Arthur slammed the chest shut and snapped, "We were children, Merlin. We were stupid and ungrateful and unrealistic. You know how Morgana could be when she set her mind to something. After some fight with Father, she said that she was running away and never coming back. We stayed in the woods for a few weeks, months, maybe. We hid in this cave for a little while, but then they found us and brought us home. They rescued us from..." 

"You ran away for months?! Morgana, I could understand, but you're so hellbent on duty, and... why would you go with her? Rescued you from what?"

"Merlin... there's a monster in the cave." 

The room suddenly felt ice cold. The light beam had faded, and the room had become dark as they'd talked. 

"And... it comes at night." 

Merlin shot up to his feet and whirled around. His hip caught on Arthur's propped up shield, and it crashed to the ground. A loud clanging echoed through the cavern. 

Followed by a terrifying, shrieking roar.

Chapter Text

"You couldn't possibly have just remembered that earlier, could you?!" Merlin yelled, shooting a dumbfounded look over his shoulder at the stumbling blond. 

"You're the one who knocked over the bloody shield!" Arthur huffed, pulling his sword off of his horse's saddle. 

Merlin muttered something that sounded suspiciously like, "Fine! See if I ever patch your leg up again, you ape-" and scanned the cave for a possible exit. The light beam had to have come from somewhere. He found a small opening in the wall, a likely culprit, but there was no way they could possibly fit through it. Earlier, Merlin had thought about using his magic to move the fallen rocks while Arthur was unconscious. But then he'd heard the bandits yelling on the other side and had gotten distracted tending to Arthur's wounds. Then there was the slightly concerning childhood story-time. Either way, he felt like an idiot. His only chance to use magic discreetly was gone, and now there was a monster with them in the cave. 

"There's no way out, Arthur." Merlin huffed in defeat, "What kind of monster was it? An actual magical creature? Maybe it was a bear or something? You were young... your imagination could've exaggerated it!" 

"It was not a bear!" 

Arthur would rather it be a bear. Bears could be beaten. But he remembered the beast now and how the knights had stabbed it and shot it with crossbows to no effect. Like the griffin, all weapons had bounced off its form uselessly. 

"Are you certain? Maybe a big mean badger? A pack of wolves? Wildren?" 

"It was a creature of magic, Merlin! The knights could not harm it. We barely escaped with our lives. If it was a sort of angry mammal, they would have killed it then, and it wouldn't be our problem now!" 

Merlin nodded and stared into the dark tunnel of the cave. They could hear the quiet growls getting louder as the creature got closer. They hadn't been quiet, and there was no doubt it would soon find them. Arthur spun Excalibur smoothly in his hand, shifting into a defensive position. With his leg injured, Arthur was left unbalanced, and the blood loss still kept him pale. He couldn't fight like this... it was too dangerous. "Alright, give me the sword. You're in no condition to fight, sire!" 

"I can still fight fine, Merlin. It's just my leg." 

"I'll be the one to decide if it's 'just your leg'. I have medical training! The only thing you've trained in is how to stab at things and to be an ass!" 

"Well, you can hardly tell apart the handle from the blade! What's your plan, Merlin? Sing it a lullaby and hope it leads us to the backdoor?" 

"My plan is to stop you from getting yourself killed!" 

Merlin had gotten too loud in his exasperation, and his voice ricocheted off the stone walls. The creature let out a shrill cry and crawled towards them. It was too dark to see it, but Merlin could feel the ground shake under his feet. Finally, it emerged from the shadows. The horses snorted and shrieked in fear. They tugged at their tied reins and stomped anxiously. Merlin tried to hush them, but it was useless. 

The monster was white and skeletal, with bones protruding from its spine and joints. It crawled like an insect across the ceiling, two talons sharp and glinting from each foot. As though looking for them, it huffed and sniffed, and Merlin prayed that it was blind and would leave if they stood still without a breath. It flexed and shifted, its skin wrinkled with each movement, shining with dew. Merlin's lungs screamed at him for air, and when he could hold it in no longer, he sucked in a breath. The creature's head snapped towards him, beady black eyes blinking hungrily at him. It snapped its jaws with rows upon rows of teeth glinting in the moonlight, and dropped to the floor and lunged. 

"MERLIN!" Arthur yelled, grabbing Merlin's sleeve and yanking him away from it. 

Merlin scrambled backward and dodged as the creature slammed past him and into the ground. The walls shook from the commotion and an idea popped into the warlock's head. He saw Arthur slowly approach the beast from behind as it shook its head frustratedly. Merlin had to keep Arthur safe. Running forward and pushing Arthur out of the way, he screamed, "ARTHUR, GET BACK! THE CAVE IS COLLAPSING!" 

When the monster lunged again, guided by his shout, Merlin rolled and shot out a hushed spell towards the cave ceiling. It shook and fell, building a blockade that split them apart. He heard Arthur yell for him, but all that registered in Merlin's thoughts was that the King was unharmed. Now Merlin faced the beast alone. 

It was a Lymocton. 'The starving man'. He'd seen it in his book before. He couldn't remember much, only that they had an aversion to light and heat. So he spun around, fists blazing hot with fire, and called to it, "Alright, you've got me now. Give it your best shot!" 

The monster shrieked giddily and snapped its mouth, dripping with saliva. Merlin shot a blast of flame against its jaw and slowed time to step out of the way. It cried in pain and angrily roared at the warlock. Now, it swiped at him with a claw, catching the warlock's thigh as he tripped back. Merlin grunted but kept moving. He needed to find a way to pin it down. The lymocton slithered towards him viciously and bit at him again. Merlin sent another ball of fire into its side and slid back into a crouch. Looking up, he caught sight of a sharp hanging stalactite. He extended a hand towards it, and his eyes shined with blazing molten gold. With a twist of his wrist, the rock broke off, and he caught it. In a hurried panic, he yelled out the enchantment he used to aid Lancelot, "BREGDAN ANWEALD GAFELUEC!" 

The stalactite glowed blue and hummed powerfully. The lymocton charged once again, and Merlin shot the enchanted weapon into its chest. It slammed into the monster only a moment before its teeth closed around his extended arm. The stalactite impaled its chest and heart, and the force of it pinned the creature to the wall. It slumped limply. Dead. 

Merlin cackled breathlessly at his success. He brushed the dust off of his breeches, only to hiss as the scrapes on his hands rubbed against the scratchy fabric and the gash on his leg. Merlin had defeated the creature relatively easily, but what excuse was he going to give Arthur this time? He couldn't use the good old, "You somehow did it while unconscious, sire." 

He turned away from his fallen foe and back to the rock wall that he'd trapped the blond behind. Too late, Merlin realized Arthur had found the way out on his own. The King stood in the shadows, his form illuminated by the remains of Merlin's fiery blasts. He'd seen Merlin use magic. He'd seen...

Everything. 

Arthur looked like a ghost at the end of the dark tunnel. Momentarily, panic flared in Merlin's chest. His breath felt choked, and his instincts screamed at him to run. He was terrifyingly aware of the hand resting on the king's sword hilt. Arthur swayed quietly, and Merlin waited for his reaction, but then he saw Arthur's face and time froze. 

Arthur didn't look angry. He didn't even look surprised. Just exhausted. Hurt. Betrayed. 

They stood in silence for a moment, their uneven breathing painfully loud like a blade against a rock. Arthur removed his hand from his sword and let it hang limply at his side. Still not a word said. This was not at all how Merlin imagined Arthur discovering his magic. He'd expected screaming, denial, anger, banishment. In the past, fleetingly even execution. But Arthur did nothing. Merlin stepped forward, his arms outstretched in a peaceful gesture. Arthur looked at his hands but didn't blink or step back. 

"Arthur…" Merlin's voice felt rough and dry. Like an axe cutting through the thick tension. "Arthur, I'm so sorry…" 

Arthur looked down at Merlin's feet. The servant stepped closer with all the hesitation of a guilty child. 

"I only use it for you… to protect you…. I would never hurt you…" 

Usually, Arthur would reply with a prattish, 'I'd like to see you try, Merlin.' But he didn't. He just nodded quietly. 

"I-I… Magic can be good, Arthur, I swear it." Merlin had finally got close enough to touch the King. He wrapped a hand around one of Arthur's wrists gently. "My magic is for you… It's my destiny to watch over you." 

It wasn't visible, but Merlin could feel the small shiver that ran through Arthur's body. Merlin lifted his chin with his fingertips to bring their eyes together. Complete and utter guilt consumed Merlin when he saw that Arthur was crying. The King didn't notice it - his expression carefully void of emotion - but tear tracks marred Arthur's cheeks. Arthur didn't cry. It was a rule the King had always obeyed, his motto. ‘No man is worth your tears.’ 

"I'm so sorry, Arthur -" 

"We should head back to Camelot. It was irresponsible for me to have left the kingdom without proper preparations." 

"I-I… what?" 

"Unless you would prefer not to come with me?" There was no trace of humor or threat. As though asking if a guest would like more wine. 

Merlin blinked in disbelief and tried to backtrack. Arthur was completely closed off and unrelentingly cold towards him. It felt like a sort of odd dream. The man looked like the Arthur he knew but acted like someone else entirely. 

"What about the mission?" He tried, squeezing Arthur's wrist gently in his hand and brushing a loose blond hair out of his face. Arthur let him.

"There was no mission, Merlin. You were right, I didn’t know where we're going, I didn’t have a plan. I... just wanted to spend time with you, I suppose." 

"Oh..." It was a confession, in a way. Something that would have made Merlin's heart warm and flutter. Merlin wanted to playfully suggest Arthur take him on a date. To watch the blond flush and mumble some excuse or insult. But it was wrong. This was all so wrong. 

"I brought the bow and arrows" Arthur continued, his voice monotone and hollow, "I figured I could teach you how to shoot from a distance. Since you’re always hidden away in the trees when we get ambushed anyways." 

"I'd like that..." 

"However, that now appears to be unnecessary." 

Merlin struggled to find the words that muddled on his tongue. 'I want you to teach me anyway. I want to spend time with you, too. It's not unnecessary, I know you were trying to do something good. You just wanted me to be helpful. You just wanted me to be safe. I'm sorry. I still want to be your friend. I still want you to want me. I still love you.'

But instead, he only said, "Do you - will you….to Camelot? I want to go with you, Arthur…" 

"Then come." 

Arthur turned away from Merlin and walked to the cave entrance. He didn't even spare a glance back in the servant's direction. He just gestured for Merlin to move the rocks blocking their way out and started packing their supplies onto the horses. 

Merlin wasn't sure what to do. Was Arthur angry? Was he going to be burned or beheaded after all? Had Arthur been offering him a chance to escape? After a moment of hesitation, Merlin nodded and raised his hands. He whispered a spell under his breath and pushed the rocks carefully away. It was still night, and the stars in the sky seemed impossibly bright and dense in the sky. A part of Merlin wondered if this was a nightmare. Or was it the calm before the storm?

Still, he followed his king.

 

Arthur couldn’t get enough air into his lungs for the life of him. With every step his horse took, another doubt rattled in his skull. Camelot was eons away, and Merlin’s nervous form suddenly felt foreign. It seemed like a great earthquake had slammed through his world, leaving it smashed and shifted, turned upside down. But also, everything now made sense... 

'Of course.' Arthur's mind screamed at him, 'Of course!' 

He spiraled helplessly, the years and years of suppressed knowledge and suspicion all bubbling to the surface. 

'I let it happen. I should have known. How could I be so blind? Of course, Merlin betrayed me! He lied to me. It was all a lie -everything- and I - I knew Merlin was lying to me all this time - and I didn't even care. I ignored all of the signs because I just wanted so bad for it not to be true. Merlin's a sorcerer.' 

Not a sorcerer; a warlock. That's what Merlin called himself. 

'He's had magic this entire time. He acted as though he were an idiot but made me out to be a fool. He pretended that he was weak. Then he killed that creature with his mind. His hands blazed with fire, yet he felt no pain. I am weak. I should have known better. All this time... And that wasn’t Merlin’s only lie, was it?' 

'Uther. For years I sought nothing but his approval. Even after everything that he did to me - No, don't think about that! I didn't understand what I was doing wrong. Why was he so angry with me? Why did he expect so much from me? But I did as he said anyway…. A part of me felt it was what I owed him for taking Ygraine away.' But then Arthur remembered Morgause and his mother's apparition. The tight web of lies began to unravel the more Arthur pulled at them. 'Uther truly did kill my mother, didn't he? Merlin lied about that, too. He looked me in the face and told me Morgause lied. But she hadn’t ... because now it all fits!’ 

If it were possible, that lie cut deeper than Merlin’s magic. 

‘I was right... Uther was a hypocrite and a liar! Blinded by his guilt and hatred, my father murdered hundreds. He blamed everyone but himself. Blamed magic. Blamed me. Magic wasn't evil. Uther had been selfish. He'd wanted an heir, and when he couldn't get one from Ygraine, he'd resorted to magic and infidelity. Be damned the consequences. And now, am I everything he had hoped for? No. I never was. I'd thought Uther was right when day after day, year after year, the only magic I saw was in the hands of my attackers. It was always a threat to me. Everyone with magic wanted me dead. And can I blame them? Was I worth all of the bloodshed and loss and violence my birth started? Uther hunted them like animals. He was a hypocrite and a liar. It was genocide. It was all for nothing. And it's my fault.' 

'Then Morgana. Father had always loved her so much more than me, and I never understood why. She rebelled against him constantly. In the end, she was his flesh and blood, too. Why, when he had her, did he make me? She could have been a great queen. She was daring, passionate, and kind. And then she changed. It wasn't her fault, she had to hide, and she had to suffer alone. She suffocated in the tyrannical grasp of our father till she snapped. She was right about everything! And I can't even blame her for not trusting me. It was my fault. I was so stupid. So ignorant. And if I had been in her place, I wouldn't have trusted me either. But I loved her. I just want my sister back. I just want to apologise. But I can't. And even then, I don't deserve her forgiveness. She would have been incredible if she had just been given the chance. She could have been good. And it's my fault.’ 

Arthur remembered a time when he'd lied beside Merlin, watching the clouds blow across the sky through the canopy of trees in the forest. Merlin had sat beside him, looking over at him silently. 

"Morgana was always so kind," Arthur had admitted solemnly, feeling more defeated than he ever had in any great battle or quest, " and just what happened to make her so twisted?"

Merlin hadn't replied, turning away from him. 

"I could have saved her." Arthur had muttered into the quiet. 

Morgana had always been able to push Arthur to do better. She could get him to break rules, cross lines that as a prince he'd been terrified of crossing, with just a few words and a disapproving look. Before Merlin - and perhaps even then - Morgana had been the one with the most power over Arthur. She'd stood beside him for years watching the burning pyres, hearing the people's cries, looking to him with resentment and sometimes disgust when he insisted there was nothing he could do. But in the days that Morgana had smiled to him, teased him, laughed with him, Arthur had thought she was his friend. But he only hurt her, and this was her revenge. Should he still be angry at her for that, if it's deserved? Arthur just wished she'd leave Camelot's people out of it. Morgana had sent plagues, tortured Gwen and the knights, killed civilians, and destroyed lands. Perhaps it would have been better if she'd killed him in his sleep. No enchanted jewelry or convoluted dramatic plans, just a dagger drawn across his throat. Might that have been better if done sooner rather than later? Arthur would have been dead years ago if it wasn't for Morgana, and now she was the very person that most wanted to kill him.

‘And then Gaius. He knew Morgana had magic, surely that is why her nightmares had plagued her. He'd given her potions nearly every night for years and said nothing. Of course, he knew Merlin had magic. Gaius himself had been the Court Sorcerer before the Purge. I never actually believed him when he said Merlin had gone to the tavern. The man had stitched my wounds, mended my broken bones, and calmed my fevers my entire life. He'd even given me the 'illegitimate children talk'. That was a tad unnecessary. And incredibly embarrassing. But he never complained about being woken to help me in the night. He cared for me when Uther had gotten violent after too much to drink - don't think about that. After barely defeated assassins had tried to kill me in my sleep. Or even when I'd had too much wine as a boy and needed someone to watch me, so I didn't do something stupid. And he'd never said a word about it to anyone. I should have known my secrets were not the only ones he kept. But Gaius knows me better than almost anyone. If he thought I was untrustworthy, then he must be right. It's my fault.’ 

Arthur wasn't quite sure how to feel, really. He shouldn't have been trusted, and he wouldn't have trusted himself had he been them. A large part of him knew he wasn't deserving of their honestly, but Arthur couldn't fight the yearning desire for it anyways. The young King had had his doubts of his father's teachings for as long as he could remember, but how was anyone else to know that? Gaius had known Arthur since birth, had watched him struggle and work and fight for Uther's approval and affection. How could he risk Merlin's life in hopes that Arthur would cast Uther aside? It wasn't possible, not when Gaius saw nothing but minimal outward efforts from Arthur to rebel. 

‘Guinevere... I thought she could love me. She had looked at me so kindly and touched me so gently. She was strong and brave and cunning. What she ever saw in me, I can't imagine. I used to be so sure.' Princesses and ladies threw themselves at Arthur like wolves at prey. He didn't always see it that way, of course. As a youth, he'd seen it as fawning and flirting. But since his early teens, he began to see the hungry glint in their eyes and their dreams of being queen. And he understood it had nothing to do with him and everything to do with 'Prince Arthur'. It was a scheme and an act, and a time came when he couldn't pretend not to notice it anymore. 'I thought Guinevere was different. She'd always been respectful to me, as was expected of her station, but never showered me with false flattery and lingering hands. I thought she could see me. But I wasn't what she wanted. Lancelot was everything I was and more, and I had always known that she loved him. She was unfaithful to me. She betrayed me for him. I tried to ignore it. She cannot help who she loves. I should have known better. And in the end, I could not love her in that manner either. My heart belongs to someone else, too. Someone I can not have. It's my fault.’ 

A lingering tightness around Arthur's heart made for weight in his chest that the King could not ignore. Once you realise you have been the problem the entire time - the villain - what do you do then? 

Lancelot had betrayed me once before. He posed as a nobleman to become a knight, but I easily forgave him for that. Without him, I would never have felt considered abolishing the First Rule. And then his affair with Guinevere. It had hurt, but it was unavoidable. He only wanted to be with the one he loves. How can I fault him for that? Others have betrayed me before. Deceived me. Boys I thought were my friends before overhearing them gossip and insult me. Council and nobles that tried to sway me for their political gain. Guards meant to protect me surrounding me or locking me in the dungeons. Servants sneaking into the kitchen to poison my food.’

What do you do when you were what was toxic, what was killing everything around you? Do you pull yourself away, keep your friends and family safe from you? Do you change yourself, try to cut out all the rotten pieces of a "bad apple"? Do you repent, try to fix everything you've done wrong, even when the sheer amount of mistakes is so great you feel you might drown in it? Do you let yourself drown? Do you let yourself feel sad, pitying, angry? Do you deserve to suffer, when it's everyone else who has been really hurt? Could Arthur have really been bad from the beginning? Could he have been really born killing, as his father had told him? How could he change himself to be better? What was he supposed to do now?

Arthur fought against the voice in his head telling him to give up. He heard it often - when fighting a stronger, larger opponent... when before his father... when the pounding screaming in his head became too loud. But he'd never allowed himself to listen to it because there were people who relied on him. There was always someone looking to him, like knights waiting for someone to charge first so they may follow him into battle. But it was harder than ever to ignore now.

‘Merlin's betrayal hurt the most. I was so fucking stupid. I was a joke. And I don't even have the energy to feel condescended to. Because it's not even Merlin's fault. I am the son of his greatest enemy. What choice did he have? Trust me? When have I ever proved myself worthy of Merlin's trust? When I called him an idiot? Useless? Lazy, fool, buffoon, weakling, coward? The irony. Or how about when I slaughtered the druids? When I murdered innocent children, women, and men? When I watched hundreds burn to death in the courtyard and did nothing to stop it? When I confessed to him my fear and hatred of magic? And the entire time, he had me completely unaware. He told me I felled the monsters and escaped the captors and killed the sorcerers. That I must have 'bumped my head' or 'fainted'. That he was looking for woodworm, at the tavern, herb picking for Gaius, stealing dresses and sausages, freeing prisoners, just happening to find a divine sword trapped in stone. And I believed him, and I played dumb because I prayed every day that Merlin was different, and this time it would be different, and he wouldn't...but he did.' 

'The bruises, the limps, the wincing, the ridiculous excuses. I had thought he was being bullied or abused. I'd suspected perhaps a noble or a guard or a knight. I tried asking him, and when met with lies or jokes, I had gone looking for possible culprits. I had found some men raping the servant girls, stewards withholding pay, and other nefarious nobles abusing the staff. I'd been overwhelmed, something triggering a mad sort of rage in me, and I ruthlessly dealt with every one of them. Stripping them of their titles and lands, jailing them, and for one particularly violent case, who'd been guilty of murder, had them executed.' 

'I'd even discovered that one of the cooks, Llyla, was abused by her husband. I quickly arranged for him to transfer to the household of a visiting lord. And for her to stay in Camelot. It was the most I could do discreetly. Somehow, it seemed like she knew I'd done it, though. Something about the way she smiled at me. But despite all of my investigations, I hadn’t found anything really involving Merlin. And I hadn’t told a soul about any of it either. I worried Merlin would only try to hide it more if he knew I was looking.' 

“I was dying!” 

“You don’t know half the things I do for you, Arthur.” 

“I’ve saved your arse more times than I could count!” 

"I thought we were friends?" 

'What a friend I am...' 

'I could blame them. I could get angry and hurt them back. But that would just prove them all right. And after all, they were all good people once. They still are, except my father, who had gone mad long before Morgana left. I am the problem. There's no other explanation. It's my fault. Enough of this. I have to control myself. If it wasn’t good enough as just Arthur, then I won't be. Now I have to be the King.' 

King Pendragon.

Chapter Text

They rode back to Camelot in deafening silence. 

Sometimes Merlin would try to talk... to explain... Arthur would just nod his head and say, "I know," and nothing else. 

He didn't chastise Merlin when the servant got his foot stuck in a stirrup. He didn't shoot any annoyed looks when Merlin said they should rest for the third time. And after Merlin got them water and food, Arthur let him check the wound without complaint. It was awkward and confusing. Arthur felt miles away from Merlin. He even let the warlock openly use healing spells to ward off infection in his leg. Eventually, he gave into Arthur's sudden muteness, and Merlin rode behind him until they reached the gates of Camelot. 

The knights crowded around them, excited by their return. Leon grasped Arthur's forearm in greeting, and Gwaine laughed jovially about how hilariously anxious the castle had been when they didn't come back last night. 

"We were about to send a search party for you, sire!" 

"There was no need, Sir Leon. We are quite alright. Now, you'll have to excuse me. I'm afraid many matters need attending to since my absence." 

"Won't you at least come out for a drink, Princess?" Gwaine slung an arm around the King's shoulder and winked at him, "The old coots and paperwork will still be there in the morning!" 

"Not tonight," Arthur said with finality and broke apart from the group. He nodded his dismissal and walked towards the castle but gave no orders or duties to Merlin. The knights and servant stood dumbly with the horses, their eyes trained on the back of the King's retreating form. Gwaine turned to Merlin questioningly. 

"What the hell was that about?" He asked, his voice laced with amusement, "You two have a little lovers quarrel out in the woods?" 

Leon shot the knight a look and rephrased the question, "Are you alright, Merlin? You look like you've seen a ghost." 

Merlin suddenly felt surrounded, the fear from his magic's discovery still fresh, and he froze. Noticing his behavior, Gwaine reached out a hand to comfort him. Merlin flinched at the contact. 

"I think I'm just gonna put the horses away and go to Gaius," he said apologetically, before hurrying off towards the stables. 

He heard someone call after him, but he couldn't bring himself to acknowledge it. The stable boys quickly took the horses off his hands, muttering about the thick layer of dust coating both of them. Taking Merlin's anxiousness as hurry, they shooed him off to finish his other duties. Instead, Merlin ran as fast as he could to the court physician's chambers. 

Slamming the door shut behind himself, and startling poor Gaius, he slid to the floor and rubbed at his face with his hands. Gaius, who had dropped a vial when Merlin barged in, clucked his tongue and looked over to Merlin disapprovingly. "I'm sure Arthur couldn't have been that bad." 

Merlin giggled a little bit at the unintentional irony of the comment and thumped his head back against the door. Gaius stepped away from his potions and walked towards Merlin curiously, "Are you quite alright, my boy?" 

Merlin took in a deep breath and gestured wordlessly with his hands. Arthur. Knows. I. Have. Magic.

Gaius sighed impatiently and kneeled next to his ward. He pulled over a chair to sit in and raised an eyebrow at the boy's antics. "You'll have to use your words, Merlin. I'm not quite sure what all that flailing means." 

Finally, the warlock lifted his head and tears dripped unforgivingly down his face. Gaius's eyes widened at the sudden bout of emotions, and he pulled one of Merlin's shaking hands into his own. He soothed his ward with hushed whispers and waited for him to talk. Eventually, as if forcefully pulled from his lips, Merlin spoke, "Arthur knows I have magic, Gaius." 

The physician stilled and looked fearfully towards the door as though guards were sure to march through it at any moment. He stood and pulled Merlin up with him, pacing in the small space between benches, "Are you certain, Merlin?" 

Merlin nodded jerkily and ran a trembling hand through his hair. "He saw me, Gaius. We got trapped. There was a monster. I tried to keep Arthur away, where I didn't think he could see me. I killed it. With magic. But he saw everything." 

Gaius looked up sharply and let out a huff of air. He muttered to himself and sat down, only to stand right back up again. Trying to stay calm, Gaius used his best 'caring doctor' voice. "And then what, Merlin? What did he say? What did he do? How much time do we have?" 

"He started crying..." 

"Merlin..." 

"He didn't yell at me. He didn't get angry or threaten me. He... he didn't say anything. He just asked me if I was coming back to Camelot with him or not. I don't know what he's going to do. H-he won't listen to me. He didn't ask for any explanation. I made him cry, Gaius. I know I should be scared, but I never imagined he'd react like that..." Merlin broke down, his body heaving with sobs. 

He choked on his words and hugged his arms against his chest. He felt so guilty and so anxious that he thought he might vomit. 

"I-I convinced myself that it was because of Uther that I lied to him. Then Uther was gone, and I kept lying! I had excuses. I said Arthur wasn't ready... o-o-or that he was too against magic. Or because of the dragon. Or you. Or my mum. But... he didn't say anything about the magic. He let me use it to get us free and to heal his leg. He just - I... I don't know. Gods, he looked so hurt. I can't even - I don't know what to do - I... I don't know what to do! Sometimes he's such a rude stuck up arrogant prick, and other times he's so caring and brave and kind. He didn't say he if was going to hurt me but didn't say he wasn't either. I-I don't know how much time we have!" 

Merlin bit at his fingernails and hiccuped weak cries into his hands. Gaius stood in shock at the messy confession that had poured out of his dear boy. He slowly opened his arms and softly pulled Merlin to his chest. Hugging the boy through his sobs, he gently ran his hands up and down his ward's back. They stood together in a lulling quiet and comforted each other. 

After perhaps a few moments or a few hours, the old and wise physician pulled back and whispered, "Perhaps you should go stay with Hunith. Just until things calm down. Arthur may still be processing. I must keep you safe, Merlin. You are the dearest thing in this world to me." 

"I-I can't leave. I can't leave Arthur. I don't know what he's going to do, but I won't run from it... I can't hide anymore, Gaius." 

Holding back his protests and worried thoughts, Gaius nodded and pulled Merlin back into his arms. "I will always be by your side, my boy." 

"Thank you." 

That night they both slept restlessly. Merlin waited for a week, with no word from the King. No one came to call him to his duties.

 

On the eighth day, when he could take it no longer, Merlin dressed in his usual attire and prepared to go collect Arthur's dinner. Right before he could reach for his door, Gaius barged into his room, almost hitting him in the process. 

"Merlin!" Gaius cried, his eyes wide and wrinkled hands shaking. He steadied himself against Merlin's shoulders, and with a watery smile he said: 

"Arthur has lifted the ban on magic. You are free." 

Moments later, his head ringing with disbelief and joy, Merlin sprinted as fast as he could to the King's chambers. 

Arthur has lifted the ban on magic. You are free. 

Arthur has lifted the ban on magic. You are free. 

Arthur has lifted the ban on magic. You are free. 

Arthur has lifted the ban on magic. You are free. 

Arthur has lifted the ban on magic. You are free. 

Arthur has lifted the ban on magic. You are free. 

Arthur has lifted the ban on magic. You are free. 

"ARTHUR!"

 

It had been a week since Arthur had discovered Merlin's magic. On the eighth day, after endless feuding with the council and his advisors, Arthur lifted the ban on magic. 

That morning, Arthur walked purposefully towards the dungeons. His boots clicked against the floors, and the keys on his hip jangled gently. Servants and knights alike stepped aside as he passed, sensing a new and strange type of power rolling off the King in waves. They whispered as he walked by, "Have you heard the news?!" "What news?" "The King revoked the ban on magic!" 

Arthur didn't stay to hear what they said next. Some people would rejoice at their freedom, and some would curse him for defying his father's laws. It wasn't going to be easy. He kept walking. 

The prison guards stood for him respectfully when he entered. 

"Your Majesty!" they said, bowing stiffly and shifting on their feet. 

"You two have some sudden time off. Enjoy yourselves, men. Don't get too drunk at the tavern," Arthur replied in lieu of a greeting. 

They looked at each other nervously but left without protest when he dismissed them. Arthur approached a cell and held out the key so tightly his knuckles went white. The torch in his hand flickered around the room before catching the figure sitting in the corner. The witch... She looked up at him slowly. In the light of the fire, the woman's gray hair shined gold, and her wrinkles seemed darker and bolder. She stood and stepped towards the bars. 

"A visit from the King himself. What an honor." Her gentle voice was laced with mirth. Arthur felt wrongfooted at her apparent lack of contempt for him. 

"I am sorry for any harsh treatment you have received. That was not my intent." He'd noticed the bruises circling her frail wrists, likely from the iron cuffs used to chain her. She followed his gaze and rubbed at the marks sorely, "Was it not? You are your father's son. What would he think, seeing you getting so friendly with an 'evil sorceress' now?" 

"I do not find you evil in the slightest. I heard you used magic to rid your granddaughter of a fever. That doesn't sound like the work of a villain. You had the power to save a child from suffering - despite the risk for yourself - and you saved her. I think you are a very brave woman." 

She looked up at him with piercing eyes and pursed lips. The king, once a prince she had seen grow up from a distance, held her stare and spoke gently. 

"I don't believe magic is evil like Uther did. My father hunted sorcerers mercilessly, then used their every retaliation as evidence for his crusade. He was wrong. I was wrong as well." Just as the flames had illuminated her old age, they now displayed Arthur's sorrow. His face was gaunt and pale, his shoulders tightly held back, and his head bowed forward to press against the prison bars. When the witch stayed silent, he insisted, "I've also heard you were once a great sorceress of Camelot. That you have the ability to always know deceit from truth. Or is that simply a rumor?" 

"You surprise me, child. I see your honesty as clearly as I see your sadness. Your worry. What troubles you?" 

She seemed to be concerned for him. The paradox he found himself in, the King questioned by a prisoner, was so absurd Arthur felt close to laughter. The witch - Edith, he recalled - hummed in response to his muteness. He huffed out a breathy chuckle and smiled apologetically. 

"This morning, I repealed the ban on magic. You are free to leave. This madness has gone on for far too long. I was too cowardly to see that before. I'm truly sorry." 

Edith sucked in a sharp breath and backed away from the bars. She looked at Arthur with wide brown eyes, his honesty chiming in her chest, and brought a hand to her mouth. Arthur pressed the key into the lock and clicked it open. The witch stepped towards him cautiously and grinned gladly when the cell door swung open. Arthur moved aside for her, removing her cuffs and watching as she closed the door behind herself.

Edith turned to him and tutted at the expression on his face, "So you've come to free me. I've always had faith that you would fulfill your destiny... even though some called me mad for believing in the Once and Future King. I can tell you do this out of remorse, my lord. But there is something else you desire, isn't there?" 

The familiarity of her words struck Arthur... 'the Once and Future King.' Curiosity of her meaning clawed at his conscience. Instead, Arthur raised his head and admitted his request. "I want to know when I am being betrayed, as you do. I want to know the truth behind all the lies. Is that possible?" 

There it was. Edith smiled understandingly. The pursuit of truth was an admirable quest, but was there more to it? She weighed the risks, with freedom so close, but if she refused would he lock her away again? She wanted to believe him, to accept that the persecution of her peers was finally over... But if she misjudged him, if her magic failed her, then her family would be at risk. He may be honest now, but this did not make her fearless.

"Anything is possible with magic, sire. You are a child of magic... your gifts hide just below the surface even after all these years. It would not be difficult. But I worry, am I simply a means to an end? Do you wish to use magic for yourself, only to condemn it if it doesn't act in your favour? As your father did?" 

"No! I only wish to protect my people... I have been lied to and manipulated my entire life. It has only led to bloodshed. I can't risk it happening again. Camelot can not withstand any more games or tyranny." 

"And if I refuse? Then you will keep me here? Never release me? Kill me?" 

Arthur slumped defeatedly, too tired to summon the anger and pride that fueled him for so many years. He shook his head and backed away from Edith, gesturing towards the stairwell back to the castle. "No. I will still let you go. I won't force you. I simply ask. It is your choice." 

The King and the old witch stood in a stalemate. Edith considered his request, gazing with such intensity that Arthur felt he might burst into flames. He swayed impatiently as she thought. She had nothing to gain from aiding him, and she was right about his family's reputation...about how Uther had repaid Nimueh's generosity. Perhaps it was a selfish desire, petulant like a child scorned. But Arthur was right... he was easily misguided. If another were to come and use Arthur's trust to harm Camelot, Edith would be right back where she started. Finally, as the King's torch began to flicker and die, the old woman relented, "Be aware, your majesty, that truth often brings pain as well. Are you certain this is what you want?" 

"Yes," Arthur said. Edith’s magic ebbed and found the King was honest.

 Edith nodded and raised a glowing hand, "Very well. When you have questions, come find me." 

And within seconds, thousands of whispers and memories flooded Arthur's mind. Every lie ever spoken to him smashed apart, and the truth revealed itself. Even as the voices of dozens roared at him - Uther, Morgana, Gwen, Lancelot, Gaius, Gwaine, Leon, George, servants, noblemen, ladies, kings - Merlin's voice rang loudly above the rest. 

"I know I'm just a servant, and my word doesn't count for anything. But I wouldn't lie to you." 

 

Minutes later, Merlin finally heard the news. Magic was free and surely Arthur had forgiven him! He panted as he slid to a full stop outside Arthur's chambers. Merlin never knocked before so he didn't bother knocking now, and he threw open the doors. Immediately, his overwhelming joy was replaced with horror. 

It looked as though a bull had been let loose in Arthur's quarters. The room was in tatters... torn to pieces. Papers, ink, books, and clothing were strewn across the floors. The doors of the cabinets and dressers either swung open crookedly or lay broken into splinters. The changing screen had holes punched into it. Dark wine spilled across the table and dripped quietly onto the floor, and the goblets had dents from being thrown into the stone walls. The chairs were now miscellaneous chunks of wood. The pillows were ripped and spilling. Merlin's jaw dropped, and he stared at the chaos.

 It took him a moment to see the king was also in the room. Arthur was quietly bent over a document, scribbling quietly. He looked wildly out of place... so calm amid the chaos. One might think he'd simply stumbled into the room if it weren't for the wine stains and debris that clung to his clothes. His still focus was in sharp contrast with the evidence of earlier violence. He didn't seem to notice the stunned manservant. 

Breathless, Merlin whispered, "...Sire?" 

The King did not respond. He dipped his pen into a puddle of spilled ink on the desk and kept writing. The hand curled around the quill was bloody and bruised. 

"Arthur… What happened?!" 

Finally acknowledging his guest, the blond looked up and surveyed the room. He shrugged, "I let off some... steam. Sorry for the mess." 

"W-what?!"

Chapter Text

Months ago, when he was first crowned King, Arthur had decided to promote Merlin. Honestly, Arthur had meant to do it a long time ago. He had written out the decrees of nobility and wondered what Merlin would like most. Land? Money? Titles? 

'Maybe if I worked with Merlin and taught him to use a sword, or perhaps a bow, I could make him a knight? The servant charged headfirst into danger as it was. He could at least wear some armour and swing a sword while doing it.' Arthur had reflected with amusement. He had tried to ask Merlin a few times, too. 

“Now, tell me, Merlin... if you could have anything your little heart desires, what would you want?"

“Oh, so now you care about what I want, huh?” Merlin teased, lifting an eyebrow in a fashion increasingly similar to the old physician’s. He milled around Arthur’s room, clearing the dinner plates and munching on the leftovers. Ever since the sausage incident, Arthur had always left a few pieces of each portion, sometimes even half of the plate untouched. If Merlin noticed, he hadn’t said anything about it. He just popped a piece of roast chicken into his mouth and barely avoided knocking over the wine. Again. “I’ll alert Gaius! You might be coming down with something. I’ve heard of this before... I believe it’s called feelings, sire.” 

“I did not say that! I’m just wondering if you have any ambitions besides cleaning my boots?” 

“Ambitions?” Merlin paused and glanced up at Arthur, who was leaning against his bedpost in faux carelessness. 

“I don’t know, Merlin! Most men want riches, or land, or power. Fame and fortune. Love, victory, health. Immortality.” 

“Well, I’m not most men.” 

'Of course, you’re not, Merlin,' Arthur thought, 'that’s why it’s so bloody hard to think of something to give you.' 

“I know that, Merlin,” Arthur replied dryly, "I’m just wondering. I’m bored, that’s all. I need some entertainment, or my brain is going to melt out of my ears.” 

“What brain?” Merlin jested, clearly taken aback by the personal nature of the conversation. When Arthur refused to take the bait, he sighed and resumed stacking the plates. "I want peace. I want those I care about safe and healthy. I want…” 

“Yes?” 

“Well, a day off now and then wouldn’t hurt!” And with a wink and a dramatic sigh, the sliver of honest openness Arthur had drawn from Merlin slipped away. 

“You would live as a servant the rest of your life? Seems awfully boring. What else?” At this point, Merlin could say he wished to be the King, and Arthur would step down for him. ‘Well, maybe not that,’ Arthur corrected, ‘Just something to make this guilt go away.’

“Oh, you never let me get bored, do you? I have to save your arse weekly!” 

“You would serve me for the rest of your life?” This time Arthur couldn’t join in on the game.

“Well, who else would hire me? Apparently, I’m the worst manservant in all the Five Kingdoms.”

“Merlin-” 

“What about you, Arthur? What do you want?” 

Arthur hadn’t known what to say. There were lots of things he wanted but nothing he could confess. So he called Merlin a 'girl’s petticoat', threw a pillow at him, and told him to 'go help Gaius or something if you're so eager to be of service.' Merlin had laughed but hesitated at the door. 

“I’m happy to be your servant till the day I die, Arthur. You are my destiny.” 

And then he’d closed the door softly, and Arthur held his breath as the sound of Merlin’s footsteps faded. It was times like this that the King felt like he was suffocating. A nagging thought pressed against the back of his mind. Frustrated, Arthur poured himself a glass of wine and drained it, trying to relieve the pressure. 

So he and Merlin had stayed the same. Arthur kept up the persona of the rude royal, and Merlin played along as the bumbling servant. It was comfortable, and it was safe. And it was unchanging, unlike everything else in Arthur’s life. He knew it was less than Merlin deserved, and he hated it, but he didn’t do anything about it. He was too scared of change. 

 

 

Now, Merlin stood frozen in the doorway of Arthur's chambers. The warlock looked like a startled newborn fawn, his eyes round like saucers and his arms gesturing shakily to the mess. Arthur tried to feel guilty for the poor servant who'd have to clean it up later. Part of him hoped that they wouldn't. That they'd leave his room like this, so he had tangible evidence of his power and strength. But it still didn't feel like enough.

All of the anger that boiled in him as he learned more and more secrets was overwhelming. Ygraine, The Great Dragon, Morgana, Will, Balinor, Excalibur, Uther, Freya, the Sidhe, the Griffin... Everything that happened around him... Things he'd been unaware of for years, his entire life even. But when he raised his head to look at Merlin, who kept more secrets than anyone, he couldn't convince himself to admit it. He wouldn't tell Merlin about Edith. Now, Arthur had a secret to keep. He had a power over everyone else, and they didn't even know it. 

"I no longer require your services, Merlin." 

"You what?" Merlin looked terrified.

'Perhaps he still thinks I am going to kill him...'  Arthur's mind supplied anxiously.

"You are dismissed. Gauis will now be your sole employer. I would like you to study your magic with him as much as possible. I'll meet with Geoffrey soon to discuss more magic books for you. And I'm proposing a new position to the council tonight. You will be able to utilize your skills more there than you could as my servant." Hopefully, that would ease Merlin's worries. 

"But… I've always been your servant…" Merlin shook out of his stupor and tried to follow Arthur's thinking. Was this a promotion? If Arthur was saying what Merlin thought he was.... then he wanted Merlin to be his Court Sorcerer. To train under Gaius, who once held the position himself.

It should fill Merlin with joy. He was finally being recognized. But somehow, it felt like a punishment. 

"I no longer require a manservant. If you need anything for your apprenticeship please feel free to let me know at a later time. I have a meeting to attend. Excuse me." 

"Oh no, you're not going anywhere! It's been a week without a single word from you. Then I hear - from Gaius, not you, I might add! -that you've lifted the ban on magic? And when I come to thank you, I find your room looking like a bloody tornado went through it. We have to talk about this! You… this room is… it's destroyed! You don't think this is any cause for concern? You don't think it's a little important?" 

Arthur hummed stiffly. As Merlin got closer he saw more of the physical damage done to the king. His hands were swelling, and surely he'd broken knuckles. Merlin reached out gently, and Arthur's grip loosened from the quill. His palms were bloody from crescent-shaped cuts, his fingers swollen and red. How Arthur was even moving them was a mystery and likely causing even more damage. 

"Arthur, your hands! Damn you and your impossible emotional management skills - we have to get you to Gaius! I could fix your leg, but I can't set broken bones. They'll heal wrong-" 

"That's precisely why you should commit to your studies. I will visit Gaius after this meeting. You should leave, Merlin." Arthur shook his head and snatched his hand away. "I'm fine." 

"No, you're not! Arthur, what are you doing?! What is going on? You're not acting like yourself. Is this because of my magic? Do you no longer trust me? I only use my magic for you, I swear it." A little voice, the gift from kind Edith, whispered to Arthur,'True.' Merlin wasn't lying. 

"Yes, well, I believe we can both agree that your talents would be better suited to healing the weak and injured. Not scrubbing floors and polishing armour. For you to continue as merely a servant would be a waste." 

"Merely a servant?!" Merlin was positively fuming now. He ran a hand through his hair and grimaced frustratedly. This was all wrong. He'd been so relieved when he heard the news: The ban on magic was lifted. But a thick shell of coldness and distrust still encased Arthur. Or was that even what this was?

"If you would prefer another position or a recommendation for transfer, that is also an offer..." Arthur tried weakly. He didn't understand what Merlin was so upset about. He was trying to be respectful... to right his wrongs. But it felt like every word he said only infuriated the warlock more. 

"Stop talking to me like that! I don't want another position! I don't want to be sent away! I'm sorry I lied to you, alright? I thought you forgave me. That you believed magic is good!" 

"I also believe that your magic was meant for more than the chores of a manservant. Whatever you want, you may have it. Perhaps a job does not suit you... you have wasted many years looking after me already. Would you prefer an estate? To go home to Ealdor?" 

"Stop talking to me like that!" 

"Like what, Merlin?!" Arthur shouted exasperatedly.

"LIKE YOU DON'T EVEN KNOW ME ANYMORE!" 

Arthur halted midstep and turned away from Merlin. He looked out his window to the knights' courtyard. It was true, he supposed. He didn't really know Merlin. He knew the clumsy servant boy, the character Merlin had presented for him. But now, knowing everything Merlin had done, both good and bad... It was hard to imagine that Emrys, the powerful man Merlin was supposed to be, was the same person as his faithful servant and trusted confidant. Merlin had done so much for him, suffered for him, killed for him. He should be grateful -and he was - but Merlin had also used him. He'd lied to him every day for years. Merlin told Arthur what Morgause said of Uther and Ygraine was untrue. He'd taken away Arthur's free will. Merlin had betrayed him. 

Merlin ranted angrily, pressing a shaking finger into Arthur's shoulder blade with every harsh sentence. The feeling cut into the King's skin like a brand. "...Like you've forgotten our years together. Like you've forgotten everything we've been through. Like you don't even remember who I am, how to bicker with me, or how to be honest with me! Why won't you just talk to me, you fucking prat?!" 

"I appreciate everything you've done for me, Merlin. Truly, I do. I'm certain there are still many things I am oblivious to. I apologize for being unable to grasp the lengths to which you have gone for me. You are not to blame. However, I can not in good conscience allow you to waste your gifts as my servant. So, when you have come to a decision, be sure to inform me." Arthur spun on his heel and marched past Merlin to the doors. He sighed, and his hand that reached for the handle floated uselessly in the air. "I believe you, Merlin. I've had my doubts about magic for many years now. I thought you knew that. And yet you lied to me..." 

"YES, I LIED. I'M A LIAR. So, do you hate me? Is that it? Do you want me to apologise?"

"No! I-" 

"Well, I'm sorry! I'M SO FUCKING SORRY, ARTHUR! I didn't want to lie to you. I wanted to tell you. I swear I did. I was just scared... and I was selfish. I told myself I lied because I didn't want to make you choose between me and your father. That I would tell you when you became King. But then it had just been so long, and I was afraid to lose you. And everyone told me to lie to you because destiny was too important and you couldn't know yet. I know it was cruel... I feel so guilty, and you just won't look at me. You won't talk to me. I just want everything to go back to the way it was! I shouldn't have lied to you! I'm sorry." Merlin's voice cracked, and a tear slipped from his eye before he could stop it. 

The two men stood, like ancient stone statues, unable to face one another. Arthur steeled himself and twisted to look at the warlock tiredly. Merlin bit at his bottom lip and searched Arthur's eyes for a spark of something recognizable, but suddenly Arthur's face hardened. He stalked back to his desk and reached into the bottom drawer. Merlin heard a faint click. A secret drawer... Arthur let out a wounded laugh, a choked hysterical giggle - causing Merlin to jerk back and stare worriedly - and pulled out a thick and messy stack of papers. He threw them towards Merlin and up into the air, letting them float around the room. 

"Is this what you wanted, Merlin?"

The warlock snatched a paper out of the air and flipped it around to read the messy scrawling. He froze, and his breath caught at the title. 'To Dissolve the Ban on Magic. Draft No. 62. '

Merlin struggled to read the rest of the page, but it was covered in some sort of spilled ink. The date made the deep pit in Merlin's stomach feel even heavier. It was from three years ago. Arthur had wanted to dissolve the ban this entire time? Merlin stared at the frankly overwhelming number of parchment pages that covered the room. 

"I came so close to repealing the ban, Merlin. It was at the forefront of my mind almost every day." 

"I- really?"

"I didn't say anything because I didn't want to upset you. Not after you relatedly told me of your opinion on magic. That it was evil. Remember?'' Arthur's eyes bored into Merlin's, and despite himself, Merlin became defensive. 

"I was just doing what I thought was best…" 

"For who, Merlin? Certainly not for yourself. Or were you just that determined to make yourself the most unlikely suspect for sorcery? Your commitment is extraordinary." 

"No, for you Arthur. I didn't think you were ready…" Did Arthur not understand how much Merlin had suffered? Everything he'd lost? Did Arthur think so lowly of him? 

"I wasn't ready? So what was your plan, Merlin? Never tell me anything? Feed into all of my doubts and all of Uther's teachings? Then sit back and just wait for me to figure it out on my own?" 

"The dragon-'' Merlin cut himself off, catching his mistake. 

"The dragon you released on my city? That killed dozens of my people? Innocent people? That dragon? Kilgharrah?" 

"How did you -" Merlin stiffened, and he felt his heart pound painfully against his ribs. How could Arthur know that? Merlin had only told Gaius, and the old physician would never tell a soul. 

"I turned to you for guidance because you were the one person I thought I could trust." 

"You can trust me!" "You just wanted to use me, didn't you? To accomplish your destiny? To become more powerful. What do you want from me, Merlin? I don't understand you! Was I just a pawn in your game?-" 

"No, I was protecting you, you ungrateful idiot!" 

That seemed to trigger something in Arthur's mind. Suddenly, his angry and hurt expression was replaced by a calm and blank face. Merlin reeled and stuttered under the sudden distance and coldness. 

"You're right, I apologise. It wasn't your fault, Merlin. You were doing what you thought was right. You couldn't trust me, and I'm sorry for that. I'll find some way to make it up to you." 

"What? No, wait! I didn't mean that. What is this? 'It's not you, it's me?' That's not like you, Arthur!" Merlin's voice was hoarse and thick, quieter now, "Call me a traitor or yell at me or throw something or threaten me with the stocks! Just give me something! Are you firing me or breaking up with me, you big girl?" 

'Just a little smile…' Merlin prayed. 'A retort. Embarrassment. An insult.' But still nothing.

"I'm still here, Arthur. I didn't leave you. I don't want to leave you. I don't understand." 

Arthur's entire body shuddered uncontrollably at Merlin's quiet words. His face, still drained of color and filled an unidentifiable emotion, twisted into a trembling smile - more of a grimace, really. His eyes were weighed down, the outer corners downturned like they always were when he was upset. A long moment of silence stretched out, but as Merlin opened his drying lips with a quiet pop about to speak Arthur shifted. His voice was deeper than Merlin had ever heard it, hoarse as if he'd aged years in the moments between them.

"Do you know what the oddest thing is?... My first instinct tells me to be angry. That's how I've always been, it's easier to be angry than it is to be... sad. I can handle being angry - so very angry that I could tear this world apart because, really, what could I have to lose now? But I know in my mind that I have no right to be angry with you. You have sacrificed everything for me. You have stayed beside me, no matter what your reasoning for it was. I know that you would go to the ends of this earth for me, and I liked to imagine that I'd do the same for you, but I fell incredibly short." Arthur admitted, biting his bottom lip and ducking to the side, ashamed.

However, catching his reaction and trying to negate anything that made him seem self-pitying, Arthur cleared his throat subtly. He sighed, releasing the tension in his shoulders and straightening his spine, lifting his head and eyes to face Merlin. "I am not the victim in a comparison between a man with magic persecuted for his nature, unable to be himself, unable to be truly free and happy... and a self-righteous egotistical prince who murdered people to please his father. That is how I am seen and that is what I am. I know that. I am not looking for anyone to 'validate', as Gaius would say, my... hurt. It is unimportant and frankly, unwarranted. I apologise for any undesirable reactions to your magic that I have given. I was trying to reward you, but I must misunderstand what you want. I will do whatever it is you would like from me, to repay you for everything you've done. I will defend you and support you and create the kingdom you have been waiting so long for. I will do my best, Merlin, to be the person you pretended I was for so long. The person you believed in. I'll make him real for you, I swear it. I can be the Once and Future King. That is what you've always wanted and I am sorry to have denied you in the past."   

Merlin stared at this odd version of Arthur. The King looked away uncomfortably and pulled open the door. "Please excuse the state myself and of my room. I'm sure there will be more to discuss in the future. However, I really must go. There is still a dispute in court surrounding the repeal of the ban on magic. I am required. Goodbye, Merlin." 

He wasn't even saying Merlin's name right. Not in the drawing tone, not with the first syllable exaggerated annoyingly. Merlin couldn't find any more words to say as he watched his best friend and king walk away.

 

Merlin stood alone in Arthur’s chambers. Time ticked by, and Merlin groaned disappointedly. That had gone horribly. That had gone so horribly Merlin thought they ought to win a medal for it. 

Merlin sighed and began picking up the pieces of debris that littered Arthur's chambers. There was no use in going after the king. What more could he say? 

Nervously remembering that he could use magic openly now, the warlock waved a hand, and the broken furniture mended itself. The wine stains drained from the pillows and papers. It still seemed like a sort of alternate reality, similar to his own, but just different enough to be alarming. Still, in disbelief, Merlin figured out a way to fix the privacy screen after some meddling, too. Not that Arthur used it much, too accustomed to waltzing around his room bare as the day he was born. Merlin shook his head fondly, faintly remembering Arthur berating him for letting Gwen in the room while he was changing. Merlin remembered no such thing, but it seemed to greatly embarrass the king, so the warlock had teased him about it for days. 

When he finished repairing the room, he looked around for something else to do. Perhaps boots to shine or sheets to wash. It was rather jarring to be unable to find anything. His magic had gotten away from him, and now the floors were still slightly damp from scrubbing, all of Arthur’s clothes neatly put away and folded, the fireplace swept, and even the pillows were fluffed. If he'd been able to use magic freely before, he would have been a better servant than even George. But still, there was nothing left for Merlin to do. And he wasn't a servant anymore. He wasn't sure what he was exactly, but he wasn’t needed here, and he couldn't do anything to prove otherwise. 

Magic aside, Merlin was an absolutely terrible servant. He’d improved over the years but only in the way that you improve from repetition. Not because he'd actually meant to. Most times, he was too busy trying to keep Arthur alive and not die himself. Now he could put on and remove Arthur’s armor blindfolded, but he still wasn’t quite sure where to put the ceremonial kingly attire. He’d stuffed it in an unused chest and forgotten about it. Arthur had chuckled and shaken his head. Called Merlin an idiot, too. But that was it. Honestly, the worst of it was the stocks, and that hadn’t happened in years since Arthur had caught him promising the children a couple of shillings if they shoved a rotting tomato down the Prince's shirt the next time he was in the square. Arthur's punishments changed from that of a master to that of a friend, to pulling away and staying quiet instead of throwing things and locking him in the dungeons for a few hours.

Any other master would've, at the very least, fired Merlin within a week. For some reason, Arthur hadn’t. Despite the fact his baths and food were more often cold rather than hot, his room covered in a thin layer of dust, the fireplace layered with ashes, and his clothes put in random places… Arthur didn’t do anything about it. Well, he’d complain, of course: 

“Merlin, how has my food managed to become cold as ice during the simple journey from the kitchens to my chambers? And you decided to snag some for yourself as well I see. I should have known letting you off with the damned sausages would create a monster.” 

'Ice was an exaggeration. I may or may not have taken a little detour to the dungeons. And maybe gave away some chicken. And ham. And potatoes. And I hadn’t even tried to hide it.' Merlin had thought to himself. 

“Would you like me to fetch you another plate, sire?” 

“....No. It’s fine. You came an hour late so Llyla should be headed home by now anyways…” Merlin had nodded and poured some wine. He didn’t ask how Arthur knew which cook was working tonight. Or comment that Llyla was still in the kitchens, probably working on dough for tomorrow's bread - which Arthur likely knew, too. And Merlin definitely said nothing about the reserved chicken and mash Arthur left on the plate for him, even though some had been missing when he brought it up in the first place. 

Or 

“Merlin, this water is freezing, you idiot!” Arthur had screeched. In a manly manner, of course. 

“Would you like me to fetch another bath, sire?” Merlin sighed, looking tiredly at the basin. He could see Arthur watching him calculatingly behind his displeased expression. 

“No, Merlin…. I’m exhausted. I’m not waiting another two hours, or however long it will take, for you to just get more undoubtedly cold water. It’s fine it’ll help relax muscles or whatever Gaius says.” 

“It helps with injury inflammation, prat. And fine, but don’t complain to me when you get chilly.”

“I will complain as much as I see fit! It’s your own damn fault you can’t just fetch hot water the first time.” Arthur groaned through clenched teeth as he dipped a toe into the water. He made a face reminiscent of a guilty man in court, all dread and trepidation. 

“Oh, so to the stocks I go then, huh?” Merlin teased, turning to fold some clothing while Arthur dropped his towel and climbed into the tub. 

“Don’t push your luck. Now for the love of all things holy... shut up, Merlin.” 

Merlin laughed and threw a bar of soap behind himself, smiling when he heard it whack against Arthur’s skin and the royal’s returning chuckle. Arthur's teeth chattered for a solid fifteen minutes, and he glared daggers at Merlin. Next time, Merlin made sure to heat the water while the king was distracted. Arthur made a happy little groan and emerged himself completely, the water splashing out of the tub and onto the floor. Merlin complained and Arthur laughed at him. It was peaceful. 

Or 

“I would be able to dress just fine if my shirts had been hung and my pants folded instead of the other way around. I can’t find a bloody thing, it's so disorganized!” 

Merlin had doubled over and wheezed behind a closed fist upon the glorious sight he was met with that morning. It was as if the King had known of Merlin's sad mood, the recent weight of Morgana's most recent attack weighing him down with guilt. Now, Merlin couldn't stop his laughing, feeling lighter than he had in days. Arthur had his breeches on backward, his shirt far too small, and his shoes on the wrong feet. At this point, the only explanation Merlin could accept was that Arthur did this for comedic purposes. The king had dressed himself just fine on several occasions in the past. This whole joke had started when Merlin commented that perhaps Arthur didn’t need his help dressing anymore, now that he figured it out. Arthur had agreed and then the next morning Merlin found him with his arms trapped in his shirt and a hole in his breeches. 

“Well, it looks like you found everything just fine. You just weren’t sure what to do after that…”

“That’s absolute nonsense!” 

“Right. Of course, sire. Now let’s see if I can fix this…” After some wrestling and rummaging in the wardrobe, Arthur had looked less like a court jester and more like a royal again. Once Arthur had checked his reflection in the mirror and when it met his standards, he’d sat down and started on breakfast. Then he’d thrown an apple at Merlin's head. Clotpole. 

It was moments like those Merlin hadn't realised he would miss. The friendship, the banter, the easy push and pull between the two of them. Yes, Arthur had made mistakes. He'd humiliated Merlin on occasion. Ridiculed him. He killed Freya, unknowingly of course, but her death still shot a pain through Merlin's heart when he passed her lake. Arthur had failed horribly to comfort Merlin when he lost Will and Balinor, not understanding their meaning to Merlin. But it was never out of cruel intentions. He'd tried his best. He noticed Merlin's sadness when no one else did. Made him smile even on the worst days. Neither one of them was perfect, but they always tried to be good. 

Determined to continue the conversation when Arthur got back, Merlin pulled out a chair and waited stubbornly for his king's return. 

 

Chapter Text

Merlin stretched lazily and turned to his side. Blinking awake slowly, he suddenly realised he was no longer sitting at Arthur's table. He was in Arthur's bed! Merlin sat up quickly and took in his surroundings. Sun rays were peaking through Arthur's curtains, and the blanket that had been draped over him was soft and warm. Arthur must have found him last night - after his meeting went on for nearly seven hours and... instead of waking him... tucked Merlin into his bed? Merlin blushed at the thought of it and quickly slid off the mattress. Trying not to get too caught up in his thoughts, he swiftly put on his boots - which had been pulled off and left near the bed - and ran off to the hall. Surely, Arthur would be there and spending even more ridiculously long hours obsessing over his duties. 

Merlin arrived just as the council meeting ended. He tried to get Arthur's attention, but he was pushed to the side with the servants as they hurried out to the halls. Before Merlin could reach Arthur, a knight hurried into the throne room and handed him a scroll. Stepping closer, he heard the knight mutter something about a visitor. Arthur nodded and Merlin saw a tall thin man in an odd outfit approach and bow to the king. 

“King Arthur Pendragon of Camelot. It is an honor to meet you.” 

“The honor is all mine, Ambassador Haldorwin of Bennet. Please, call me Pendragon. There is no need for such formalities with a friend.” 

Pendragon? Arthur had never introduced himself by his last name in all the time Merlin had known him. And this strange man was most definitely not Arthur's friend. Merlin sent questioning glances to the people around him, catching Gwaine, Leon, and Percival in the crowd. They shrugged at him. It seemed odd to them as well. 

“You are infamous in these lands, I must say. The tales the bards tell of you tend to be a little hard to believe!” 

“Is that so? You must introduce me to these men so I may set the stories straight.” Arthur joked. His body seemed relaxed, and he carried himself with cold and mature confidence. It reminded Merlin eerily of Uther, and he banished the thought quickly. 

“They speak of the Great King and his Knights of the Round Table. Knights that come from every corner of the world and serve Camelot, whether of noble blood... or not.” 

The knights prickled at Haldorwin's patronizing tone. Arthur raised a brow at them but paid no mind to the ambassador's attitude. “Every corner of the world is an exaggeration. But yes, I knight those I find worthy in their hearts and minds, not just their blood.” 

“There are even rumors of females?” Haldorwin laughed, clearly expecting them to be other 'largely exaggerated' tales.

“Yes, some of my knights are women. Admittedly, it took me longer to open up to that idea. But I have personally met and fought with many courageous ladies. To deny them knighthood based on their sex would be to deny my kingdom of half its greatest warriors.” 

“I see.” Haldorwin clearly did not 'see' or agree with Arthur in the slightest. He lifted his nose scornfully and raised an eyebrow as though to say, 'how barbaric!' 

“I could introduce you to some knights later this evening. Sir Percival and Sir Gabriella often train together. ” 

“Perhaps, however, I believe you are aware of the true reason for this meeting. Aside from your irregular choice in military, sire.” 

Arthur chuckled and clasped his hands behind his back. It seemed this man had no shortage of condescension for the way Arthur chose to rule. “Yes, you would like to address your queen's concerns surrounding Camelot’s new laws.” 

“More so the lack of them, Pendragon.” 

“What of it distresses you? That I have dissolved the ban on magic? I believe that it was prejudiced and violent. It resulted in the deaths of hundreds. I have no need for it in my kingdom.” 

“So you will let criminals run loose amongst your people... simply because you are afraid of getting your hands dirty?” 

Arthur stilled and stared at Haldorwin. The blatant rudeness was a clear sign of disrespect. Such behavior wouldn't have been tolerated in Uther's court, and Arthur recognized it as a challenge to his authority. An assessment for Haldorwin to report back to his queen. They were testing him for weakness as a young king, in hopes of exploiting them. 

“I protect innocents from unjust punishment. People who use their magic for harm, murder, and manipulation are another story. They will be judged for those crimes as person without magic would be. Do not forget yourself. Those with magic in my lands are still my people. They are not my enemies, they are my subjects, and I must serve them as such.” 

“Your father would never have allowed such leniency," the ambassador snapped. "It is reckless and immoral. You are but a child meddling with things you do not yet understand. Magic is corrupt. It causes plagues, drought, famine, and disaster!" 

“Magic does not corrupt people. Fear does. Power does. Perhaps you are right to fear those with such immense power to cause what you have described. However, that is not the majority. Many can at most light a candle, mend a broken bone, or calm a fever. Magic has existed far longer than man has. If they all wanted us dead - if they had that power - then we simply would be. Hundreds were slaughtered by my father. Do you truly believe they would have allowed that to happen if they had the choice?” 

Merlin gasped and the declaration echoed through the stunned throne room. Arthur twisted towards Haldorwin, his body tense like a hunting predator. The man stuttered under the scrutiny. Knights and servants began to whisper amongst themselves, and Merlin strained to see past their bobbing heads. 

“You were not there before the ban." Haldorwin argued, " You do not have the wisdom nor the experience to know what you are doing. You will only bring suffering to your people. Camelot will collapse, and you will just be a foolish boy with no kingdom to rule and no allies. Have you no sense?!” 

“You fear what you do not understand... what you can not control. It is human nature, and I can empathize with such. But I don’t think that is the entirety of it. Are you simply afraid that without fear of consequence your people will defy you? Do you desire respect, power, and money simply from the oppression of others?” 

“You watch your mouth, boy!” 

The knights reached for their swords and stepped forward. "This is ridiculous," Gwaine growled, "He was invited to Arthur's home in return acts like a stuck-up bloody cad -"

Arthur raised his hand to halt his knights. They resheathed their weapons and stepped back confusedly. Arthur smiled stiffly at Haldorwin, “I think it would be wise for you to do the same. We wouldn’t want to start a silly feud over unkind words would we?” 

“A Camelot with magic is no ally to us. Perhaps we already wish to dissolve our treaties.” It was a lie. Arthur felt the magic in his veins flex and pulse powerfully. Lie. Lie. Lie. Lie. Lie. 

“You see, I don’t think you do,” Arthur replied coolly. He was in his element now. He could hear the whispers of Haldorwin's secrets, all the thoughts he wished to keep hidden from the king. 

“And why is that, young Pendragon?” Haldorwin scoffed, a perfect opening for Arthur's mortal blow. 

“Because you need me much more than I need you. It would be inconvenient for Camelot to lose your trade and support, but for Bennet, it would be detrimental. I hope you are aware of your kingdom’s debt to mine. At a minimum, my farmers supply your kingdom with grains and my artisans with your merchant’s trinkets…. for which you still owe quite a hefty reimbursement. And my ‘irregular military’, as you put it, is currently the strongest fighting force in all of Albion. I assure you, the bards did not exaggerate that. My support is the only thing preventing the kingdom to your south from declaring war on you. Now, to suddenly be at war with both your neighboring kingdoms would be rather unfortunate. Your lands are infertile, and your queen is poor. We would conquer you in less than a year. The only reason we have not declared war before is from goodwill. You do not benefit Camelot, but there is also no point in wasting resources to conquer you. That is unless you give me a reason to. Do you think only magic causes famine, bloodshed, and disaster? I regret to inform you that I hold the same power within a scribble from my quill and a swing of my sword. Choose wisely, Haldorwin.” 

Every single jaw in that throne room dropped. Arthur now sat poised on his throne, his blue eyes cold and piercing. He tilted his head almost tauntingly at the ambassador's sickly white pallor and shaking form. Merlin and the knights stared at their king with awe and shock. Arthur was always cunning in battle, a strategist in times of crisis. But he'd never gone so far as to unleash it in common discussion. It became clear very quickly that he was a dangerous man. A battle-hardened warrior. A fearsome king. 

“Your Majesty, I meant no disrespect-” 

“You did mean disrespect." Arthur interrupted. His light and mocking voice seemed detached from his intimidating stature, "I’m glad to see you now reminded of my title. Calling me ‘boy’, ‘fool’, ‘child’, and ‘coward’ was a remarkable misstep on your part. I offered you the name Pendragon. I could easily change that to 'My King.'” 

“Y-y-yes, your majesty. My deepest apologies.” 

“You were correct to spot the differences between me and my predecessor. Yes, I am a young king, and I don’t know what kind of king I will be. But I do have a sense of the kind of Camelot I wish to live in. One of equality and justice." The familiar words rang back to Merlin. Arthur shifted and laced his hands under his jaw. "However, I am still the son of the Mad King of Camelot. If you think I have learned nothing from him, you would be mistaken. Uther was not known for his patience, and neither am I. And I am not afraid of getting my hands dirty, but I avoid doing it needlessly. Be grateful you face me and not Uther, for he had no such conscience. Your queen was imprudent to send you... to test me. I expect her apologies for your insolence. Remember, I am necessary. You are just a messenger bird with an inflated ego. So, be smarter than to threaten me. I assure you that I do bite. However, I seek peace rather than victory. Now, I hope this has cleared up what you were concerned about.” 

“Yes, my king!”

“Good. Do feel free to stay for dinner, and be sure to send my good wishes to your lovely queen. I can't seem to remember her name. What was it again? I must go observe my new knights if you would like to accompany me.” 

“It's Queen Cecily... I mean-t-that would be an honor, my king!” 

“Alright, calm yourself. There’s still much of Camelot for you to see. I hope this won't cast a shadow on the rest of our evening. Come along.” 

Merlin's pride for his king was rivaled only by his anxiety. Deciding he couldn't watch any longer, Merlin ducked and ran desperately through the halls. Gaius would have some insight. He'd know what to do. He'd know how to fix Arthur. How to make things go back to the way they were.

"Gaius! You have to help!" Merlin yelled, tripping into the physician's chambers. 

"What is it, Merlin? Is there an emergency? What's wrong?" Gaius burst out from behind a tower of precariously stacked books. He shuffled over, quickly scanning the boy for injuries. Finding none, he stared at Merlin expectantly. 

"It's Arthur!" Merlin gasped, gesturing out towards the hall. Gaius turned to grab his medical bag.

"What happened? Is he hurt?" Gaius asked. 

"He's not acting right! I think he might be possessed! Well, not possessed... but he... he...- I don't know, Gaius! He just snapped at this ambassador! I've never seen him act like that! What do you think it could be?" 

"... You're worried because .... Arthur yelled at a nobleman?" Gaius stepped back, tiredly rubbing a hand across his forehead. He dropped his bag unceremoniously and leaned back against a desk. When Merlin had barged through the door yelling, Gaius had feared the worst. 

"No, he didn't even yell at him! He just threatened him. He - the ambassador was incredibly rude - and so Arthur... he... well, he scared the absolute hell out of him!" 

"I don't understand...," Gaius sighed, "Arthur reprimanded a disrespectful ambassador... and therefore you believe he is possessed?" 

"Yes? No. I don't know. It's just unlike Arthur. He was - I don't know, Gaius." Gaius chuckled. It seemed that Merlin was still in shock from the legalisation of magic. The physician knew he too was struggling to truly process it. Poor Merlin likely feared it was too good to be true, and now searched for an evil explanation. "Merlin, perhaps Arthur was just doing his job. He is king now, and he has to maintain authority over his subjects. Especially when severely disrespected, as I gather he was by the ambassador. I don't think it's unusual, Merlin. It may just be a side of Arthur you haven't seen yet. I know you are afraid right now, waiting for the other shoe to drop, but -" 

"I know Arthur better than anyone! He's never been this cold and aggressive. I went to see him this morning, and he could barely look at me! He doesn't trust me!" 

While his wording sounded like a concerned 'friend', Gaius heard the underlying message, 'Arthur isn't behaving the way I want him to. He suddenly knows my biggest secret. He is on an equal playing field with me. I'm scared he's changing. I'm scared he's angry with me.' Merlin had slowly been getting more obsessive and possessive over Arthur. It was unhealthy and now unnecessary. With magic legal, Merlin and Arthur could work together. Merlin didn't need to do it all by himself. 

"...What was the cause of Arthur's... behavior?" Gaius inquired carefully, searching for the root of Merlin's worries. 

"Haldorwin was spouting anti-magic propaganda! He called Arthur a coward and threatened to dissolve the treaty with Bennet!" 

"And what did Arthur say exactly?"

Merlin quieted, his lips pursing then pulling into a gentle, proud smile. "Well, that people with magic in his kingdom were still his subjects. And that he refused to hunt them any longer. And that Haldorwin should know better than to threaten him since Bennet relied so heavily on Camelot for protection and trade..." 

"I wish I could have been there to see it!" Gaius beamed brightly, "Arthur will make a great king. I don't find anything particularly disturbing about that, Merlin." 

"What are you talking about? We have to find a way to fix him!" With surprising strength, rage swelled in Gaius's chest. He'd heard those words often before, many years ago.

Gaius glared disapprovingly, and a protective snarl forced its way from his lips, "Arthur does not need fixing." 

"How can you say that?! He's acting like a completely different person! There's something wrong with him!" 

"ENOUGH, MERLIN!" 

Merlin gaped at Gaius. He stumbled back, having never experienced such anger from his mentor. He choked back his brewing protests and swallowed thickly. 

"The Merlin I know and love would be proud of Arthur right now. You complain that he doesn't believe you anymore, but he has every right to be distrustful. And have you ever stopped to consider that Arthur was putting up as much of a facade as you were?" 

"...What?" 

"I've known Arthur since the day he was born. He is no fool. You mistake his stubborn faith in you for stupidity. The way we wish to see the world creates the world we see. And Arthur is especially good at ignoring what he doesn't want to know." Gaius shook his head in frustration. His voice was laced with guilt and wavered regretfully. Gaius had never defended Arthur before... 

"But he never noticed I had magic." Merlin chuckled darkly, "I declared myself a sorcerer to Uther's court, and he still didn't suspect me! And he believed me when I told him that he killed all those enemies while knocked out! That doesn't even make sense." 

"Maybe Arthur didn't want to see it, Merlin. And even if he had asked you, would you have been truthful? Why is it that you find fault in Arthur's ignorance but not your dishonesty?" 

"YOU'RE THE ONE WHO TOLD ME TO LIE." 

"Yes, I did, Merlin. I admit that I was wrong. I was scared to lose you, as I lost so many friends to Uther's wrath. Are you going to pretend not to understand that?" 

"It's different! Now that Arthur knows he's just going to get in the way!" Merlin's chest heaved, and he pulled at his hair. His magic hummed angrily under his skin, the vials and instruments on Gaius's benches beginning to shake and clatter. He turned away, trying to control the crushing anger and fear pulsing his veins. 

"Sometimes I wonder, do you care only for the mythical 'The Once and Future King'? What about Arthur as a person, Merlin? What of Arthur Pendragon, whose trusting heart was betrayed continuously? Do you care about how he feels? And I mean right now at this very moment, not in some obscure future destiny. If the druids came and told you the Once and Future King was someone else, would you leave Arthur and go to him? Have you reduced yourself to just Emrys? What of you, Merlin, and what do you believe, prophecies aside?"

"Of course, not! I care about Arthur! It's more complicated than that." The warlock roared, books flying and glass shattering as he turned to face the physician. 

"Is it, Merlin? You blame everyone but yourself! You blame Arthur for trusting you, you blame me for misguiding you, you blame destiny, you blame Morgana, you blame Uther!" 

"It wasn't my fault! I did what I thought had to be done!" The clay vases on the bookshelves exploded into tiny shards and sticky liquids. 

"Well, you were wrong! We both were. And if you don't admit to that, Arthur will never accept your empty apologies!" 

Merlin screamed brokenly, and a huge crack spidered across the stone floors. He wiped his watering eyes, blinking rapidly, and stared at the wreck. Sucking in a shaky breath, he whispered. 

"I need to go clear my head." 

"Merlin -" Gaius called after him. 

But the warlock was already gone. 

Chapter Text

Merlin walked through the castle, the halls empty and nostalgic like a bird's nest in winter. It was getting late now, the sky was a deepening orange, and the air was getting colder. Distantly, he could hear the clanging of swords and the yells of knights training down in the courtyard. Merlin leaned against the walls and slumped down to sit on the floor. 

Gaius was right. About everything. 

Arthur didn't need fixing. It was Merlin who needed to change. He'd lied to Arthur and then expected no consequences to their relationship. He'd been more concerned with his magic and Arthur's safety than the repercussions of his lies. They hadn't even been simple fibs. They were unforgivable deceptions. 

Like lying about Ygraine. Merlin had stolen Arthur's autonomy. He could have found another way. Interfering had only led to more suffering. He didn't understand how personal it was to Arthur, but it was one of the first damning mistakes Merlin made. 

Then with Kilgharrah and the attacks on Camelot. He'd watched Arthur struggle and suffer, desperate to save his people. Merlin freed Kilgharrah, and innocent people died as the dragon sought revenge. In the end, Merlin lost his father and told Arthur he'd killed the beast. Merlin's meddling had just hurt himself and everyone he cared for. His heart clenched at the memory of watching Arthur grieve for his lost comrades and subjects… watching the King blame himself for not being a better protector. But what was Arthur supposed to do? Everyone looks to him for guidance and leadership, but aside from the rare occasion he opened up to Merlin, Arthur had no one. 

Merlin scrubbed harshly at his eyes, willing the guilty angry tears away. But his mind was already racing, and the list of his misdeeds piled up quickly. Uther's death, while an accident, was Merlin's fault. Morgana's betrayal certainly was, too. Merlin had poisoned her. He'd turned her against them, made her angry, abandoned her when she was afraid and lonely. And Excalibur... how much of Arthur's confidence as king came from that sword? And for what? Merlin growled frustratedly and thumped his head back harshly on the wall. 

Arthur had confessed his doubts about Uther's laws. He rebelled against his father, and he went searching for the Mortaeus flower. Then Arthur helped Merlin and Morgana smuggle out the little druid boy, Mordred. And finally, he'd turned to 'Dragoon the Great' for help when his father lay dying. And still, Merlin kept lying. Lie. Lie. Lie. Lie. Lie. Every word had suffocated his spirit, and the warlock scratched uselessly at the strangled feeling in his chest. 

Merlin had gotten swept away by the pressures of a great destiny. He had lost himself and forgotten the bright-eyed hopeful boy he used to be. The only time Merlin felt like himself was with Arthur. He relied on him more than he'd recognised. He became addicted to the protection of 'Once and Future King', but neglected Arthur in the process. 

Arthur had trusted him with his innermost thoughts, doubts, and responsibilities... and Merlin had taken it for granted. Arthur portrayed himself as some sort of oblivious comic relief character and Merlin bought it. But when the truth came crumbling down, Arthur had done the right thing. He could have hated Merlin, but instead, he freed him. Arthur was fulfilling his destiny. 

After all, what did the king do when he discovered Merlin's betrayal? Arthur offered him the position of Court Sorcerer and legalised magic. He proved all of Merlin's fears wrong. So why was Merlin still so scared? Did the mere idea of Arthur being 'competent' upset him? It revealed some truths about Merlin. He underestimated Arthur. 

Arthur was incredible. No matter what happened, he pushed forward and did what was best for his people. Arthur stood toe to toe with monsters and men alike without hesitation. Without magic. He was just a man, but he was fearless. He always did what was right, no matter the cost. 

Merlin had been dependent on Arthur for so long, dedicated his life to him. The warlock had created this false narrative where Arthur was helpless without him. But how could Merlin claim to care about Arthur if he blew up the first time the king was true to himself? Arthur had lifted the ban on magic. He'd done it. And when his decision was questioned, Arthur had stood behind it fiercely. His words echoed in Merlin's head. 

"I have dissolved the ban on magic. It's prejudiced and violent, and it resulted in the deaths of hundreds. I have no need for it in my kingdom." 

“Those with magic in my lands are still my people. They are not my enemies, they are my subjects, and I must serve them as such.” 

“Magic does not corrupt people. Fear does. And power." 

“Yes, I am a young king, and I don't know what kind of king I will become, but I do have a sense of the kind of Camelot I wish to live in. One of equality and justice." 

Merlin wondered if he'd ever really been fighting as much for Magic as he had been for Arthur.

They could share the burden. Share the responsibility. Arthur wasn't being sabotaged anymore. Their destinies were intertwined. Arthur’s part in the prophecy was equal to Merlin’s. They were two sides of the same coin. For a while, that coin had laid on its side. Merlin’s revealed to the light, and Arthur’s pressed into the darkness. They had to find a way to balance. Merlin had to trust Arthur. He would learn from his failures, and he would apologise. Maybe, someday, he could earn back Arthur's trust. 

Also, he would have to find a way to fix Gaius's floor.... and go herb picking for a solid month to restock Gaius's cabinets. 

Merlin sighed and stood stiffly and hobbled back to the physician's chambers. But then, as he rounded the corner, Merlin saw Arthur duck into Gaius's room. 

 

 

 

“WHAT THE HELL HAPPENED?!" Arthur motioned incredulously to the obliterated room. 

‘Was there an earthquake?’ Arthur wondered anxiously, ‘How?! I felt nothing… but how else does a rift as wide as a lance pole suddenly appear in a stone floor?' 

"Oh, it was just Merlin, sire." Looking up at his visitor, Gaius chuckled at Arthur's shocked face. The king had always been capable of making the most amusing expressions. The physician calmly puttered around, carefully reorganising his surviving supplies and equipment. 

"Just Merlin?  There's a giant hole in your floor!" 

There was indeed a sizable gap in the floor. Gaius stepped over it cautiously to set a stack of books back on the shelves. "His magic tends to get away from him in emotional moments." 

"Do I want to know?" Arthur looked up and lifted an eyebrow nervously. 

"You might, but I think it's best that you and Merlin sort it out without my meddling." 

Arthur nodded abashedly and shifted back on his feet. For a moment, Gaius was reminded of the tiny prince who would run to him with injured animals, asking if the physician could heal them. Much of that childish innocence had been snuffed out and replaced with mature determination. Gaius looked at the king with a wary wistfulness. 

"I do hope you can forgive him, sire." 

"I-..." Arthur looked away awkwardly, his lips in a tight line and eyes to the floor. 

Gaius, noticing the king step back as though turning to leave, cleared his throat and gestured ruefully at the mess of broken pots and spilled potions, "Is there something I can do for you?" 

Arthur laughed weakly and shuffled forward to lean against one of the mostly intact benches. Gaius squinted questioningly, and Arthur raised his messily bandaged hands. The physician tutted disapprovingly and raised his pince-nez glasses to his face. "I thought your days of getting into fistfights were over, sire. Please tell me you didn't hit the ambassador. I heard you gave him quite a fright as it is!" 

"No! No, I didn't - I - It wasn't exactly a fight. More of a one-sided assault to my bedroom wall..." The young king snorted with self-depreciation, halting at Gaius's understanding sigh. 

"I see... Alright, take off the wraps. I'll get some salve." 

Gingerly, Arthur unwound his makeshift bandages. His hands were every color but the pale tan they were supposed to be. The middle knuckles were the worst, so grotesquely bruised that they were almost black and swollen to twice their size. He flexed his fingers stiffly, holding in a pained gasp with a tight bite on his lip. 

"Arthur!" Gaius chastised, pulling the injured fists up for examination. He clucked his tongue and pulled a flickering candle over for better lighting. 

"I know..." 

"Your knuckles look smashed, sire. And based on the swelling-...how long did you wait to find me, my lord?" 

"Two days...?" Arthur murmured guiltily, "They don't hurt that bad...I thought maybe if I left them be-" 

"You know better!" 

"There's plenty of proof to the contrary.” 

"You must value your hands, sire. They allow you to fight, to write, to touch. If you'd left them any longer it could have caused irreparable damage." 

Arthur nodded and quietly let the physician bend his fingers and press gently at the swelling. In the past, Arthur would put up a fit at being fussed over, trying to talk down the scale of his injuries with false bravado. But he was tired, and there was no point in pretending anymore. Instead, he tried to spark conversation with the aged healer. 

"Merlin said he didn't know how to heal broken bones. Do you? Could you teach him?" 

"I once used my gifts for such things, yes. It's tricky and requires precision, or the bones can heal oddly. Merlin was never much interested in healing magic. He found combat magic more entertaining. That and spells to do his chores so he could laze about." Gaius snickered. 

Arthur shook his head. Of course, when Merlin said he used his magic solely for the king, his daily chores fit that jurisdiction. 

"I offered Merlin the position of Court Sorcerer. Sort of... it got a bit..." 

Gaius grinned broadly, "He must be very proud, sire." 

"I don't know... I would like you to teach him everything you know if he agrees." 

"I'm sure he will, sire. Just give him time. Merlin sometimes struggles with change, but he'll find his way."

Arthur agreed silently and observed Gaius applying different tinctures to his hands. "...Why don't you use your magic, Gaius?" 

Gaius paused and looked up at his patient with a pleased smile. "My mind is not what it used to be, sire. I have gone many years without practicing, and magic is a fickle thing. It can be dangerous if done incorrectly. I still have much wisdom in the theoretical magic but not the physical." 

Arthur pondered this. 

“You knew me better than almost anyone, Gaius.” 

“Yes, sire.” 

“Why did you tell Merlin to lie to me?” 

A heavy silence filled the air, Gaius dropped Arthur's hand and twisted away to mix herbs and oils in his pestle and mortar. A soft crackle and rhythmic tapping echoed in the quiet chambers. Haggardly, the man started to explain. 

“In the beginning, I was afraid. Merlin was so young and kindhearted. Then suddenly, he was thrown amid the most dangerous family to his kind. As time went on, I worried telling you would force you to choose between protecting Merlin and obeying your father. You are a loyal son, and I know it would have pained you. I -I felt I couldn’t risk Merlin’s safety. I’ve lost too much, too many friends and peers to Uther. I love Merlin as though he were my son.” 

“...I understand,” Arthur admitted sorrowfully. 

“I've judged you wrongly, sire.” 

“No... I do not know what I would've done if I had discovered this when Merlin and I first met. There are things that I wish could've been different, but I can't change the past. Thank you... for keeping Merlin safe.” Arthur whispered, ashamed. Gaius placed a hand gently on the king's cheek. Arthur jerked, unfamiliar with the touch, but relaxed and let Gaius cradle his face. 

"You have become very wise, Arthur. Care to let me in on your sudden enlightenment?" 

"I..." Arthur paused, "I know now, Gaius. I know everything. What I once believed is no longer true. Surely that changes a man." 

"Merlin told you...?" 

"No. I found the answers on my own." 

Gaius scrutinized the young king with intelligent blue eyes. Arthur was hiding something. Arthur pointedly held the eye contact, setting his jaw stubbornly, a defensive challenge. Gaius relented, bowing somberly and opening a cupboard to fetch some gauze. When he returned to his patient, the physician caught a glimpse of the vulnerable and distrustful emotions churning behind the King’s authoritative expression. Hesitantly, Gaius cupped Arthur's hands in his own and spoke again. 

“There's something I haven't said to you before that I want to say now." Gaius mulled over his next words. His thoughts had eaten at him since Merlin and Arthur returned from the forest, changed. He had to confess his guilt. "I protect Merlin as my own. I am sorry I didn't protect you too. I- I've never forgiven myself for allowing - for what happened to you."

Arthur went rigid, trying to pull his hands out of Gaius's grasp, but the physician held fast. Scoffing with forced amusement, Arthur tried to quickly dismiss the topic. "I don't know what you're talking about." 

Ignoring the boy's denial, Gaius pushed on. "You didn’t deserve what was done to you. I was foolish to hope that as you aged, it would resolve itself. I ignored you. I couldn’t help you. I stitched your wounds, soothed your bruises, and mended your bones, and then I sent you right back into the hands of your..." 

“What’s done is done." Arthur sharply cut in, yanking his bandaged hands back with a wince and stoically sliding off the bench. "I needed disciplining. I don’t want to talk about it any longer.” 

“Arthur, we need to address this…" 

“I don’t know what you mean.” 

"It wasn't your fault, sire." 

Arthur faltered and quieted, looking at the healer with apprehension. 

"Uther was... I am sorry I didn't help you. I was afraid, and I let it overrule my morals." Gaius's breath shuddered, and he looked down sorrowfully. 

Arthur pitied the clearly guilt-ridden man and struggled to comfort him. "Magic had just been banned, Gaius. You were spared out of my father's 'fondness' for you... Because you aided him... If you'd defied him, it would have meant your life. No matter how little the offense." 

Gaius stared, realising Arthur was not understanding him, "I worry for you, Arthur. I doubt you've even told me everything that's happened. I know you harbor secrets too. And I fear they will fester inside you and cause more harm. Just as Merlin’s did." 

"I- Gaius." 

"You are a good man, Arthur. A good king. A good friend. A good brother. A good son." Gaius smiles. "None of this was your fault, Arthur. You..." 

"I what, Gaius?" Arthur muttered testily.

"You remind me so much of Ygraine… Sometimes I wonder..." Gaius dismissed the thought suddenly."Your mother would be very proud of you. As I am. As Merlin is." 

Snapping out of his daze, Gaius patted Arthur's shoulder gently and handed him a little bottle. "Here is a tonic. It will reduce the inflammation and allow you to sleep well tonight. Don't fight and try not to use your hands too much. Come back to me in two days, when the swelling calms. If your hands need further support, I will have to put them in casting." 

"Right." Arthur coughed, trying to diffuse the tension. "That would be a challenge." 

"Then I suggest you avoid punching walls in the future, sire." 

Arthur laughed dryly, "Good night, Gaius." 

Arthur stood and left the kind physician's chambers, closing the door carefully behind himself. He sighed and shook his head, nearly tripping right over Merlin. The warlock jerked awake, startled, and unfolded from the tucked position he'd fallen asleep in against the wall. Merlin stared up at Arthur in surprise, waving a hand awkwardly. 

"Hey..." 

"What are you doing out here?! The floor must be freezing..." Arthur asked worriedly, holding out a hand for Merlin to take and pulling him up. 

"I saw you go in, and I didn't want to interrupt." 

"Oh..." Arthur stared at the warlock shyly, "Thank you." 

"Arthur..." 

"Yeah..?" 

"No matter what... I never want you to feel alone..." 

The strong force of deja vu that hit Arthur left him breathless. The same exhausted and apologetic look rested on Merlin's face, a hand coming up to rub his tired eyes. Arthur stared at Merlin intensely. Sometimes Arthur did that, just peered into Merlin's eyes with such focus that the warlock swore Arthur could see his very soul. Merlin wrung his hands and wondered what Arthur was thinking. 

"Arthur? Are you... ok?" 

Arthur's eyebrows furrowed and he stepped forward. Absurdly, Merlin wondered briefly if the king was going to hit him. But then with a tenderness Merlin didn't know Arthur possessed, he was pulled to the blond's chest and held tightly. Merlin stilled for a second before absolutely melting into the hug. 

"Oh..." Merlin gasped. To his memory, Arthur had never actually hugged him before. It wasn't how he'd imagined it, somehow.

Arthur's face tucked into Merlin's neck and his hand cautiously laced in his hair. His pulse was strong and Merlin could feel it beating through their clothes. Merlin looped his arms around Arthur's back and ran his hands lightly up and down it. He was so much warmer than Merlin thought possible, the heat bleeding into Merlin and making his shivers abate. Arthur's hold tightened, his body molded around Merlin's. He took a deep breath, the exhale tickling Merlin's neck. With one last squeeze, Arthur stepped back and walked away. 

Merlin stood stunned, his arms slowly lowering from the now empty air. Arthur turned the corner and walked out of sight. 

Chapter Text

Merlin hadn't realised Arthur's skill for being everywhere and nowhere all at the same time. It was like Arthur was always there where Merlin could see him, but far enough he couldn’t reach him. Just this morning, the warlock had almost caught up with him after a meeting, was almost close enough to touch Arthur’s shoulder, then suddenly the man disappeared. It was infuriating. 

Arthur was exhausted. He tried to hide it with perfect posture and practiced words, but he couldn’t fool Merlin. The king’s skin was a few shades too light, his eyes dark and heavy, and he hadn’t even really smiled in days. Weeks? He moved with such stiffness that Merlin could imagine a puppeteer pulling his strings and keeping him upright.

'Maybe he could do with another hug… but the prat would never ask for one.' Merlin thought bitterly. He didn’t know how much good it would do anyway. 

Overworking himself had always been a problem for Arthur, as much as Merlin teased him for laziness. There were days where the knights could barely keep up with him, days Arthur trained the moment the sun rose until the moment the sun set. Times that Arthur spent hours on paperwork, pushing himself so far past tired that he'd fall asleep in his stew. The worst Merlin could remember was after Arthur had come back from being particularly ridiculed by Uther, and work himself so hard for so long that he'd started falling asleep everywhere for minutes at a time, still standing up.

Sometimes, he still seemed awake, eyes open but completely blank, and not responding to anything Merlin did. Other times His eyes would just glaze over, his head tipping down to his chest, and Merlin would panic that he was under a spell - like the first time he'd saved him. When Merlin went to Gaius, the physician had diagnosed it as 'micro-naps', caused by extreme exhaustion. They later discovered that Arthur would get out of bed after Merlin had left him, and return to his desk or back outside to train in the middle of the night. Gaius and Merlin hadn't found a way to make him stop, save waiting until the storm passed. And Arthur never brought it up, claiming that he hadn't wanted Merlin's nagging when the servant finally did.

Arthur hadn't taken a moment's rest since he lifted the ban. He met with a different ambassador, messenger, or noble daily. He trained the knights, met with the public, visited the council, settled disputes. And then, after all of that, Arthur went back to his chambers and labored over paperwork until the wee hours of the morning. At least, as far as Merlin could tell from the flicking candlelight in his window. Was he sleeping? Was he eating? 

It had been weeks, and Arthur hadn't so much as stepped outside Camelot's walls. Instead, he sent knights to hunt for Camelot's meat. The people murmured at how dedicated their king was, but Merlin knew that he was equally self-destructive. But since the gentle hug in the hallway, Arthur hadn't acknowledged Merlin - aside from asking his decision on being the Court Sorcerer. When Merlin asked if that's all Arthur wanted him to be, the king had responded with, "I can think of no one better for the job..." which wasn't an answer.

And Merlin was worried. He tried not to be, to give Arthur his space, to respect his boundaries. But Merlin could sense something strange around the king. Something like magic, powerful magic, but not so… obvious? He couldn’t explain it, but it scared him. Was Arthur enchanted? Was he cursed? It was one thing to respect a friend’s privacy, and another to ignore the signs of a dangerous sorcerer. Wasn’t it? 

Gaius seemed to think so and told Merlin to keep an eye on Arthur. Leon had approached him as well, asking about the sudden changes in the king’s behavior. The knights and servants had looked to Merlin for answers, too. Arthur was paranoid, cold, angry but also controlled, peaceful, and bold. Nobody was sure what to make of it, but it was concerning. 

So, now, at some random hour of the night, drowning in guilt, Merlin followed Arthur as he checked with the knights on watch. When nothing unusual or dangerous was reported, Arthur turned to leave. Until he noticed a man missing. Specifically... 

"Where is Gwaine?" 

"He was... Something came up, your majesty. Sir Gwaine was needed elsewhere." A young voice stuttered out. A new knight. 

Arthur straightened his shoulders. He stared down the knight, Sir Haew, with an indiscernible expression. "Is that so? Any ideas where he might be?" 

Sir Haew chuckled awkwardly, fidgeting under the king's scrutiny. "He may have said something... about the armory..?" 

Lie. Arthur cleared his throat, "And by that, I assume you mean the tavern?"

"Most likely, my lord." 

The king nodded and dismissed the knights, forcing a smile to Sir Haew, and hurriedly stepped back. Arthur grabbed a discarded cloak from the benches and slung it on before marching off to the town. Specifically, the Rising Sun Tavern. Merlin ran a hand down his face and sighed. This wasn’t going to be good. Still, he ran after the blond, careful to stay in the shadows.

Arthur found Gwaine exactly where he thought he would. The handsome knight stumbled in through the backdoor, already drunk, and he giggled upon seeing the angry king at the entrance. 

"Ooooh," Gwaine giggled, elbowing an equally drunk knight, "Looks like someone's in trouble." 

The knight snickered and wished him luck. He was going to need it. Arthur jerked his head, signaling they take this outside, and Gwaine followed him lazily to the alley. 

"What exactly are you doing, Sir Gwaine?" Arthur said sharply, pushing the drunk knight against the wall.

Gwaine smiled and waggled his eyebrows. "Ah, you know raising spirits with the boys. What good is a bunch of mighty warriors if they can't hold their drink? Wouldn't want them to embarrass you at a fancy feast, now would you, Princess?" 

Arthur's grip tightened as the magic whispered to him. Lie. "They are off duty. You are not. And we both know that's a lie. Try again." 

"What do you mean, 'that's a lie'? You get bonked on the head again, sweetheart?" Gwaine rolled his eyes and mimed a fist against his skull. Arthur tensed as though about to strike, then stepped back harshly. 

"You are lying to me. What's so important that you couldn't wait until you were released? What exactly were you doing?!" 

Gwaine's eyes narrowed, and he crossed his arms. What was Arthur so upset about? He hides for weeks without a single word to his knights - his friends - about the sudden change of heart, and then he wants to force himself into Gwaine's business? All while acting like he's some sort of saint who would never pass up a shift for a bit of fun? Supposedly, now that he was such a damn slave to the throne, Arthur would never stoop so low. 

"Fine, I went out for a drink a little before my shift ended. I was feeling parched, what can I say? You know me…" 

Arthur's scowl tightened. Lie. Lie. Lie. It was a lie, but only barely. More like the omittance of a truth. Arthur couldn’t see the real reason, but he could feel the betrayal. And it drove him mad. The spell hummed against his skull, but another feeling began to creep up beside it. A static-like rushing buzzing that pulsed in Arthur's veins. "That's a lie. Try again." 

"What do you want, Arthur? So what if I left a little early? Nothing happened. And if I did I would have had your back like I always do. Besides, there were other knights, they would have been fine!" 

"Stop lying to me!" Arthur roared, slamming his fist into the wall by Gwaine's head. The rushing feeling in his veins surged, and Arthur struggled to compose himself. His words reverberated in the knight's head. Arthur could hear the lie, and he pushed on it harder. Gwaine choked and the truth came out as if against his will. Perhaps it was the ale or the adrenaline, but Arthur almost seemed to glow in the darkness, his sharp eyes reflecting the gold of a torch in the darkness. Gwaine's face shuttered between angry and afraid, his mouth snapping open and words pouring out. 

"Fine! I was getting fucked up the arse by Percival behind the Rising Sun. It was a jolly good time, and you should try it. Maybe it could loosen you up for once. Next time, we'll invite you! Is that what you wanted to know? You fucking pervert." 

Arthur stared at Gwaine with a blank expression for what might have been a solid minute before coughing harshly. His coughing fit turned into laughter, and Gwaine watched him with a mixture of embarrassment and worry. Had Arthur honestly snapped? He was laughing…? 

Suddenly, the king’s cackles halted to a stop, and he shuddered out a frustrated growl. "You two couldn't keep it in your pants for another few hours? You have a duty...." 

"Nothing was happening! You repealed the ban on magic. There are no sorcerers to fight!"

"There are still dangers. You have a duty to me and the people of Camelot." 

"I do that duty! Camelot is safe!" Gwaine rushed forward, close enough to touch foreheads with Arthur, who stared down the knight as he lunged at him unblinking. Merlin almost rushed forward out of his hiding spot but held himself still. 

"You lied to me."

"It was private!" 

"It doesn't get to be private when it's on my time. When I have to go looking for one of my once most trusted knights, slacking from his duties, and lying to his king." Arthur pushed Gwaine back forcefully with one hand. The knight, disadvantaged by his alcohol consumption, stumbled back and sagged against the wall. Arthur’s anger faded to disappointment, and then worst of all, shame. "You had a duty to me, and the people of Camelot. They pay the taxes I request because I promise them it goes to their welfare and protection. It goes to you, Gwaine, as payment for your service. " 

Gwaine sputtered and bit his tongue when he saw Percival, who had crept forward at the commotion, standing red-faced with a pint of ale in his hand. Arthur followed his gaze and nodded to the bashful knight. "Percival, please take Gwaine to his room. I’m afraid he’s too drunk to be of any use to the watch now anyway. I trust the two of you will be at training tomorrow after a visit to Gaius?" 

"Of course, Princess. When have I ever been late?" Gwaine huffed, allowing himself to be pulled up by Percival. His comrade -and lover- tried to shush him and stop a reprise in the fight. 

But Arthur didn’t blow up, he just sighed and dropped his head. "The better question is when have you ever been on time, and the answer to that is never in your life, Sir Gwaine." 

"Sir Gwaine now, is it?" 

"It is what you prefer to be called, is it not?" 

"Since when have you cared? What happened to your creativity, Oh Mighty Liege?" 

Percival tried to steer Gwaine away from the king but was batted away angrily. The knight knew he was stronger than Gwaine, but he didn’t want to hurt him. He fought all of Percival’s attempts to subdue him. 

"I spend it now on more important matters," Arthur said coldly, backing away from the intoxicated brunet. 

"Like what?! Scaring the absolute shit out of anyone who dares cross you? We both know you're really just a big softie at heart, aren't ya? Just a dainty princess pretending to be a big bad king!"

"I think it's best if Percival assists you to your quarters." 

"Oh for fucks sake, would you just take the bait already?!" Gwaine yelled, thumping a fist down onto Percival’s constricting arms. 

"I don't know what you're implying." 

"I think you do know what I'm 'implying', sire. You've already proved you're not the fool you pretend to be." 

"It's touching to hear you thought so highly of me." 

"What is that supposed to mean?!" Gwaine exclaimed, halting his struggling to stare at Arthur exasperatedly.  "Are you just having a fuss because Merlin lied to you? Is that what this is? Are you going to hold this grudge forever?"

The rumor had spread that Arthur’s manservant, Merlin, had been a sorcerer all this time. The laundresses and stable boys had gossiped in hushed whispers, and the knights quickly caught on, too. Gwaine had believed it the second he heard it, and Arthur’s reaction only confirmed it. 

"No... no, of course not, I hold no ill will for Merlin. I don't hold any grudge. I have a job to do.” A nagging reminder in the back of his head was telling Arthur to stop arguing with the knight while he was drunk and out in public, but he plowed on. His resentment at being lied to again, not just now, but an immeasurable amount of times before, won out. “I am the king. If my methods do not please you then leave. I will be on the training field at daybreak. Will you be, my lord ?"

Gwaine noticeably froze at the noble title. And from his hiding spot, Merlin did too. Merlin knew that Gwaine had not revealed his nobility, and neither had he. And yet Arthur now knew.

"Are you questioning my loyalty?"

"No, I know exactly who your loyalty lies with. And I understand it."

Gwaine was there for Merlin. Not Arthur. At least, it had started that way, but as the lines began to blur Gwaine became close with the King as well. But did Arthur see it that way?

"Then what's the fucking problem, Arthur?"

"There isn't one. And look here, your knight in shining armor is still here at your service. Percival, please escort Gwaine to Gaius. I believe he's in dire need of a hangover remedy. As usual. Goodnight, men. And Merlin... stop sulking in the shadows like some sort of deviant."

Merlin balked and tripped out into the street. The warlock’s eyes were wide, and his mouth gaped like a fish out of water. Arthur looked at Merlin and Gwaine with a manufactured blank expression. He turned and walked away, nodding to the knights as he went. It could have been the lighting, but Arthur's eyes had almost seemed to glow a brighter blue... Gwaine frowned and tried to focus his eyes again. "Arthur... is...not ok."

“No, he’s not.” Merlin agreed. “And I’ve messed up… again.”

Very, very badly. It was two steps forward and a hundred steps back. Why was it so hard to stop making mistakes?

 

Something is wrong with me.

Arthur's skin was boiling, his heart frantic against his ribs, his blood pounding in his ears. He walked as calmly as he could until he was sure he was out of sight, then bolted. He tried to smother the panic brewing in his chest, but there was a strange feeling wrapping its way around his lungs like a constricting snake around its prey.

Arthur wasn’t sure where he was going, and he prayed to all the gods that he didn’t bump into anyone on his mad dash. Fate was against him though, and as he rounded a corner into the halls of the palace, he heard the chatter and giggles of the servant girls approaching. Ducking into some random alcove - or was it a closet?- Arthur slammed the door shut and pushed his body against it. He held his breath as their voices and footsteps passed and faded, then sucked in a heaving gasp. He had never felt like this before... like he was shaking but still as a rock… what was happening to him?

He almost didn’t notice the growing clamor around him. Shelves were lining the walls, dusty and cobwebbed and supporting a rather alarming number of miscellaneous objects. Brooms leaned against the walls, falling to the ground with a sharp clap. Glass jars and cups filled with various liquids began to slosh and wobble. The wooden door behind him creaked achingly and shuddered behind his back. Arthur backed up into the door as far as he could, his hand grasping his sword even though there was no enemy to fight.

He looked wildly around himself, freezing when he caught a glimpse of blue in his peripheral. His gaze snapped towards it, sword raised in front of him and pointed at the light. He stepped forward carefully, squinting in the dark. It was a window… Suddenly the buzzing feeling swelled and snapped. A giant water jug burst, sending water flying to the floor and flowing past Arthur’s feet.

“I broke a pot…” He whispered, blinking dumbly at the shards of pottery at his feet.

He raised his head again, staring into the blurry glow of his reflection in the window. Blue shone back at him, cold and clean like still vast waters and familiar to him. In the sense that a ghost is familiar to its host. Cold and dark and unnatural, but ever so slightly curious. Arthur tilted his head and waved his hand in front of his face, shuddering when the pale light shuttered behind the shadow. Almost like a sorcerer... like magic. 

He - He had to find Edith.

Arthur scrambled back desperately and ran off towards the town. When you have questions, come find me….

 

Edith hummed gently to herself, pulling her threads across the loom with quick and careful precision. She positioned her foot on the pedal, stilling when an odd thumping noise sounded outside her door. ‘Took him long enough’ She mused knowingly.

Sure enough, with an almost clumsy speed, the King of Camelot burst through her front door. He paused in his invasion with an apologetic look to the creaking wooden door, closing it gently and turning back to Edith panting.

“I found you!”

Edith chuckled lightly, nodding and gesturing loftily around her humble home, “Yes, sire. Not that it should be hard for the king to find a weaver in the confines of Camelot.”

Arthur’s face flushed slightly, his breathing slowing as he rubbed a hand to the back of his neck “Yes, of course! Well…”

Edith said nothing, waiting for the king to continue. The silence awkwardly swayed between them. Arthur’s fingers tapped the sides of his legs and he rocked his heels; Edith adjusted in her seat and stuttered out a quiet cough. Finally, Edith chuckled and stood, extending an open hand out to the king, “Can I help you with something, dear? I’m certain you wouldn’t abuse my door if it wasn’t a dire emergency.”

Arthur’s eyes darted between Edith’s humorous brown eyes and her aged hand offered to him. He wasn’t quite sure what he was supposed to give to her, holding both of his hands up to show their emptiness. Edith smiled, reaching out and clasping his hands between her own and pulling him forward to sit in her empty chair. She carefully unclasped his cloak and hung it by her door. Arthur watched her with troubled but curious eyes.

“Well, while you think of something to say, would you like some tea, my King?” Edith asked lightly.

“Tea?”

Edith wandered towards a quiet fire, hanging a black kettle on the beam above it. She held up a packet of wrapped leaves happily to the king’s eyes. “A warm drink, child. I got it from the most lovely gentleman I met in town. The lad didn’t speak a lick of Brittonic, but -”

Arthur unfroze from his stupor, the words suddenly not coming fast enough as the realisation of the night’s events caught up with him. "There's something wrong with your spell, Edith."

“My spell?” Edith asked curiously, dropping the leaves into the kettle.

Arthur nodded violently, still slightly bruised hands rubbing at his eyes. He tipped his head over the back of the chair, his gaze following Edith’s movements behind him. “Yes! Strange things are happening - things are moving on their own - I can hear people lying even if it's just a tiny fib. There’s this strange feeling in my chest and my eyes were blue! I mean bluer than usual. Like a sorcerer’s, Edith!”

Edith nodded, still unconcerned, "That wasn't my spell, sire. I merely tapped into your abilities. It seems you are having trouble controlling them."

Arthur’s eyes narrowed, and from Edith’s view of his upside-down and flushed face, he looked like a frustrated child. “What do you mean by ‘my abilities’?”

“Your magic, my king.”

Arthur sat up stifling, standing, and whirling around. “That’s preposterous! I don’t have magic!"

“Is that so?” Edith said softly, “Why not, sire?”

Arthur choked on his words, panic rushing through his veins like liquid lead, “I don’t have magic! I never have!”

Edith turned to face the king, observing him. Her magic had stayed silent… Arthur wasn’t lying, but could he truly not know?

The kettle started whistling sharply behind her and she broke their eye contact to grab a handful of her apron and pull the kettle off the fire. Edith sucked in a shaky breath and pulled two chipped hand-formed cups from a shelf. She poured the hot tea quietly as she thought, stirring in a small amount of honey with a misshapen wooden spoon, and placing the cups gently on a small tray.

“I see... Well, surely anyone can say a few magic words and cast a spell, right?” Edith proposed.

Arthur backed away, eyes wide and disbelieving. It was impossible. Arthur Pendragon, son of Uther, having magic? Impossible! Edith chuckled as the young king spoke his thoughts accidentally.

“Morgana Pendragon, daughter of Uther, has magic, does she not?” She returned.

Arthur continued arguing, denying the old witch’s words. “Some can cast great powerful spells, and some can cast none at all. I have no magic!”

“And how do you know?” At Edith’s question, Arthur froze. Immediately, Edith recognized the twisted pain hiding in the cracks of the king’s mask. “Have you ever tried?”

Arthur stayed silent.

Edith’s brows raised, sighing understandingly, “You have, haven’t you?”

“He was dying! I -” The king’s shoulders dropped, defeated. He averted his gaze, staring guiltily at the small debris by his right foot. “I couldn’t do anything.”

The sorceress’s heart ached for the young man before her. All of this pain and suffering inflicted on someone so young - a boy still, in the old woman’s mind - and for what? She shook her head sadly and lifted the tea tray, offering a slightly cooled cup to the King. He took one respectfully but did not drink it, too busy staring into the liquid as if it held the solution to all his problems. Edith lifted his head with a finger under his chin, “I disagree… I simply think you were trying the wrong way…”

“Oh gods,” Arthur gawked, “What does that mean? Can’t you give me a straight answer?!”

“I believe the spells don’t work for you because yours is not a magic of spells.”

“...Not a magic... of spells?” Arthur looked on the verge of exploding.

Edith took a loud sip of her tea and nodded, swallowing. “Magic has many forms. It is the earth, the air, all of mankind,” Edith paused, weighing him up, “and you.”

“Merlin is Magic. He’s Emrys!”

“Yes, he is one, but there are many Magics in this world. The Old Religion is very wise. Do you think they would send ‘The Great and Powerful Emrys’ to watch and protect one simple human king in one kingdom? What would be the purpose of that? If it was to save sorcerers why would magic not simply dethrone you? Kill you? Why would you serve any purpose at all…?”

Edith took another sip of her tea, while Arthur fumbled for a response, “I don’t know… because it is my destiny to unite the five kingdoms, right? To be king of Albion.”

“You are one king, Arthur. There have been hundreds and there will be thousands more. Chiefs, emperors, kings, queens, sheiks... Why would one king in one kingdom be of any importance? Think Arthur…”

How could she say something like that so casually? How could she say something like that… and be so right? It didn’t make any sense. Why would Magic, whoever and whatever that was, send Emrys to him. What was his significance? What was Camelot’s significance? Arthur had studied history extensively as a child, studied battle tactics and ancient armies. There were hundreds of kings greater than him. He was barely a king at all, even now.

“I-I don’t know! As a symbol? The union between Magic and Man?” Arthur tried frustratedly.

“Perhaps, but why you?” Edith challenged.

“Because I’m Uther Pendragon’s son. He persecuted magic-”

“Times will come and go when magic is persecuted and when it is free. But why you, Arthur Pendragon? Why now?”

Why send Emrys? Why even make Emrys at all? Why did the Fates not have Arthur struck down by a sorcerer as a child, Uther defeated? Why was Arthur the supposed ‘Once and Future King’? It was hard for Arthur to imagine ever being worthy of that title. But then how could any human man be worthy of that title? Be worthy of Emrys? Be worthy of magic?

“I don’t know, Edith!” Arthur huffed sharply.

“Are you Magic or Man?” Edith continued stubbornly.

“I'm a man. I don't have magic. I'm not Magic!”

“Did you ever stop to think that perhaps you are one and the same?!”

Arthur went silent. He stared at Edith almost accusatively. Why was she doing this to him? How could she even know any of this? How could magic be the same as a man? And how could he, perhaps a powerful man in his tiny fraction of the world but small in the grand scheme of things, be both?

“Two Sides of the Same Coin… a phrase that’s getting a bit old now I’m sure,” Edith said softly, pushing gently on Arthur’s arm to get him to drink. The tea would calm him, stop the thundering racing of his heart that Edith could almost hear echoing off the walls. He hesitated, confused by her priorities, but drank nonetheless. “ I think there is more to that than you realise.”

“Am I like Merlin? A warlock? That’s ridiculous, Merlin has been able to use magic from a time before he could talk. I have never...”

“You’re not a warlock,” Edith agreed. “You are an unusual case, Arthur. Warlocks are natural beings, they once used to be the bridge between the magical folks and man, before those lines blurred. They are magical people, a species that has lived alongside men since time begun, gifted with great responsibilities to keep balance in the world...”

Arthur nodded hurriedly, taking a giant gulp of tea when Edith motioned for him to do so. His eyes pleaded to know more, and so Edith told him as much as she knew.

“Dragon Lords protected both dragons and men from each other’s chaos. Storm Bringers controlled the weather, and created prosperity or absolute disasters. Forest Nymphs kept our lands lush and green and filled with mighty animals. But Man wanted to cross those lines, as they always do. They wanted the dragons either tamed and theirs to possess or defeated forever. For the plentiful waters and gleaming suns to come whenever they wanted them. To cut down the trees and slaughter the animals for sport and game. And so they killed the warlocks or at least all that they could. But the remaining warlocks trusted and taught willing men and women how to use the magic of their own in hopes that they would keep the balance. And this is how the Druids came to be…and also the beginning of all sorcerers and sorceresses. And we waited for Emrys… a prophesied warlock who would come when magic needed them most. When the world was almost beyond repair.”

Arthur’s mind whirled. Emrys… Merlin… had such a huge responsibility. How could he hope to do all of that? To save all magic? To repair a broken world? Part of Arthur wondered why Magic would throw their savior back into the hands of their greatest enemy. Mankind had proved time and time again to be selfish, greedy, and traitorous. They destroyed the world. And Arthur still didn’t understand why he mattered in all this. Where did he fit?

Catching Edith’s eye, Arthur quickly took a sip before she could even tell him to. She smiled fondly, eyes weighed down with sadness and pain lighting up with pride for the man before her. He was so purely human. The image before her, a king almost choking on his tea in the tiny hut of an old witch in his eagerness to learn more and more made her chuckle and gave her hope.

“But you,” Edith said softly, pressing her pointer finger to Arthur’s chest and smiling kindly, “You are gifted all the same. You've repressed your magic for years now. You kept one hand tied behind your back. I'm not certain if this was a subconscious choice of your own or the workings of some other...."

“Then what am I?!” Arthur begged to know, “ I... who would do that? What would be the point?!”

“You were made of magic, Arthur. Nimueh’s magic. The High Priestess.”

“Yes, I know... Uther traded my mother’s life so I could live.”

Edith nodded, taking the king’s now empty cup from his tightly clasped fist. She swirled the cup gently, watching a single drop dance across the bottom. “Nimueh made an entire being from her magic. She took Ygraine’s lifeforce and gave it to you.”

“Lifeforce? No, she traded Ygraine’s life for mine so that the balance would stay…”

Edith lifted the cups before her. She poured the lone drop in Arthur’s cup into her own half-full mug and then poured all of her tea into Arthur’s again. Edith glanced pointedly between the cups then back up to Arthur.

“Now, this balance that you speak of, does it just keep souls stashed away for whenever someone feels like trading with them?”

Arthur groaned, gesturing tiredly between the two cups and the liquid between them that supposedly held some significance. “I don’t know what that means!”

“You have Ygraine’s life force, Arthur. You were made by Nimueh, like a shell, a shade in a way. As you grew you took more and more of Ygraine’s lifeforce. And when you took your first breath, you took the last of hers. A body made by a powerful sorceress and the soul of a gentle queen. Now surely that has some unexpected side effects yes?”

“I...you can’t possibly…”

“Emrys, or Merlin as you call him, is magic made of man. You are a man made of magic.”

Arthur stared dumbly at Edith, brows pinch together, and mouth turned down in a pouting frown, “That doesn't make sense. That's just the same thing said twice. I still can’t do spells.”

“You don’t need them! Neither does Emrys, really. Spells are a way to communicate with Magic. To ask for what you seek, like a peasant sending a messenger to a king. But if you are the king yourself, well..."

“Why did it not come to me as it did with Merlin?”

“Emrys’s mother, while fearful for his safety, never punished her child for his gifts. She encouraged him and protected him. And while he distantly knew of the hatred of magic in Camelot, he didn’t understand until he saw a man executed in the square because of it. This was not the world you grew up in, Arthur. I believe that your magic, perhaps the spirit of Ygraine herself, was protecting you by staying dormant. My spell woke it. I wonder if Nimueh locked away your magic herself. Perhaps that was why she wanted you dead so badly, to rob Uther of what he desired most. You don’t need spells. You are pure of heart. You simply need to look within yourself and ask.”

“But… What about my mother? What about Nimueh and Uther? What did you mean by that?” Every answer he got, every bit of information, just created a thousand more questions.

“I have told you what I know. If you wish to learn to reach your magic, come to me. I will teach you to harness it. I believe your power may rival that of Emrys. Uther had plans of destruction before the Purge. He didn’t simply want a son and heir. He wanted a weapon.”

A weapon…

 

It took Arthur three days to go back to Edith. She smiled at him gently and lifted a hand. A small controlled flame flickered in her palm.

“We’ll start with this.”

Chapter Text

Merlin apologised to Gaius. It had taken weeks of pouring over texts to find a way to fix the crack in the ground without causing an actual earthquake. It was a reminder, in a way, of all the harm Merlin could cause unthinkingly and how difficult it could be to take back. And yet, Gaius smiled at his repaired floor, a few stray cracks the only remnants of the damage.

“Good job, my boy! It looks good as new.” He beamed, patting Merlin on the back proudly.

“It was my fault it got messed up in the first place, Gaius,” Merlin muttered disappointedly.

He ran his hands up his face, fingers lacing themselves in a tight, frustrated grip on his hair. Gaius tutted and pulled Merlin’s hands down, smoothing down his ruffled locks. This sadness and guilt had infected Merlin. The boy could no longer see any of his successes and talents, only his mistakes and faults. While Gaius understood, he hated to see Merlin like this.

“It was a mistake, Merlin. Everyone makes them.”

“Most people’s mistakes don’t destroy buildings.” Merlin chuckled self-deprecatingly.

“Don’t be dramatic, you didn’t destroy anything but my poor floor. And only temporarily. I had no doubt you’d find a way to fix it,” Gaius chided. He rubbed his withered hands over Merlin’s pale knuckles. “And you learned something new. It’s alright, I am not angry at you, Merlin.”

Merlin clenched his eyes tightly, tipping his head down. Gaius sighed, dropping Merlin’s hands and pulling him gently into a hug. Merlin tried to stay stiff, but within moments he melted in Gaius’s embrace. His tall frame wrapped around Gaius, holding him tightly.

“I’m starting to have suspicions this is about more than the floor,” Gaius whispered teasingly. Merlin nodded into Gaius’s shoulder, squeezing the old man impossibly tighter.

“He hates me.”

“Arthur? He doesn’t hate you, Merlin. Not at all!”

“Yes, he does!” Merlin cried, “You were right. I was a terrible friend to him. I lied to him about everything! I- I can’t ever get him back now. I lost him and I deserve it.”

Merlin pulled away from Gaius, turning his back to the physician and steadying himself against a table. He curled in on himself, wishing he could shrink away and disappear. Wishing he could take it all back. Wishing he could start all over again. And Merlin hated himself for pitying himself, too! For feeling this guilt and wanting Arthur back and getting Gaius’s love and kind words when he knew he didn’t deserve it. He deserved Arthur never even looking at him again. He deserved this overwhelming suffocating feeling of guilt and self-hatred and loss. But Merlin couldn’t stop himself from crying anyways. He cringed away from Gaius’s hand as it softly pressed against his back.

“Merlin, I never said that.”

“It was implied!”

“My boy,” Gaius sighed tiredly, “You made mistakes. We both did. Unforgivable mistakes, perhaps. But you never did anything out of an intention to harm. You are not a bad person, even if you did bad things.”

Merlin pulled away even more. Gaius searched for the right words to say, clearly he was stepping in all the wrong places.

“He hates me. I don’t know what to do, Gaius. He doesn’t lo- need me anymore. He wants me gone.”

“Has he said that to you?”

“He- yes… No… it was implied, Gaius!”

Gaius chuckled softly, rubbing Merlin’s back comfortingly. “The way I see it, you have two options.”

“What?”

“You can either pull away like you think Arthur wants you to. Never talk to him. Never approach him. Perhaps even leave Camelot and never see Arthur ever again. Slowly melt away into a sad little puddle in some hut in the woods-”

Merlin turned around, rubbing his red eyes and staring at Gaius curiously, “This isn’t helping.”

“I’m not done, don’t interrupt me. You can do all that or…”

“Or?”

“Or you can put in the work to win Arthur back. You can show him what he means to you through effort, Merlin. Apologise to him. Talk to him. Remind him that even though so much has changed for him, you don’t want your friendship to fade. I wouldn’t find it hard to believe that Arthur has convinced himself you were never really his friend. That you were simply pretending to fulfill a duty.”

“But that’s not true!” Merlin choked out, eyes filling with fear.

“And neither is this belief you hold that Arthur hates you,” Gaius argued, stepping away from the brunet to gesture an arm towards the door. “But you have to prove that to him. He’s pulling away because he’s scared to get burned again.”

“He found me when I followed him to the tavern. I already messed up again!”

“Yes. You did. And did you apologise to him for it?”

“No…” the warlock admitted ashamedly.

“You have a choice, Merlin. If you and Arthur were ever to part ways, would this be the way you want to do it?”

“No! I want to be with him always. Forever.”

Gaius nodded, folding his hands together and standing before the boy he’d grown to love like his own. “And that’s why you did all of this, isn’t it? Because you’re scared to lose Arthur?”

“Yes!” Merlin bit out fiercely. Gaius’s steady hands adjusted Merlin’s scarf and wiped the messy tears from his face.

“Then don’t lose him, Merlin.”

 

From then on, Merlin did everything he could think of to win Arthur back. He tried following his routine when everything was normal between him and Arthur. He helped Arthur and the knights with training, only to get pulled pranking the new recruits with Gwaine and Percival. And even when Merlin was just sitting and chatting with Leon, Arthur never called for him.

But, after all, what was more normal than Merlin getting into trouble with Gwaine? The knights missed Arthur, too. They didn’t understand his coldness towards them. Arthur was one of their best friends, and a hole was left behind without him. But Arthur kept everyone at a distance, even his once trusted comrades.

When he found no success at knight's training, Merlin decided to go back to Arthur's chambers and do his chores. Arthur said he wasn't a manservant anymore, but Arthur also hadn't hired anyone else and Merlin bet his chambers had to be in chaos by now. However, they weren't as messy as Merlin feared. The desk was covered in papers and empty wine goblets, and the changing wall had shirts thrown haphazardly on top of it, but it was fine… Well, except for the boots, which were left outside of the wardrobe instead of tucked in the 'stocking' drawer. Merlin rearranged the closet, grabbed the shirts off the changing wall and folded them away on the shelves, hung Arthur's pants, and stowed away with the empty goblets. He returned every few days, careful not to be caught. He wanted Arthur to be taken care of but didn't want to be replaced by another manservant if he brought up the issue. Not yet. Not ever.

 

Once, a passing maid, Esra, asked what Merlin was doing back at Arthur's chambers. He’d fumbled for a moment, so used to lying, before confessing that he was still trying to apologise.

“Apologise? What for?” The maid whispered conspiratorially.

She made a joking ‘uh-oh’ face when Merlin rubbed a hand over his neck and gestured vaguely, “That’s a very long list and complicated story.”

Esra nodded thoughtfully, then smiled coyly as a thought lit up her eyes, “My husband always leaves me flowers whenever he gets on my bad side.”

 

Seeing as he didn't have any better ideas, Merlin began leaving a vase of flowers after every visit. Besides, in the quiet, he remembered Arthur's voice nagging at him, "Where are my flowers?"

Occasionally, while passing Arthur's open door, he caught the King holding up a bouquet with a confused expression, smelling them curiously, and setting them back on his desk.

Merlin tried to think of other ways to creep back into Arthur's good graces, but his doubt made it hard to do anything outright for the King. So in the end, it just manifested in extra treats for Arthur's horse when the King was watching and convincing the cook to make extra cheese pastries for Arthur's breakfast. Not incredibly fruitful attempts.

One night, Merlin found Arthur on the terrace, looking up to the stars and the glowing city of Camelot. Merlin summoned his courage and approached him. For some reason, the backlit form of the blond King made Merlin more nervous than facing a vengeful sorcerer. Without turning to face him, Arthur called out, causing Merlin to falter in his steps.

"What are you doing, Merlin?"

Arthur didn't have to explain. Merlin forcefully unfroze and walked gently to stand beside the king. "I'm trying to make it up to you..."

"Why? I'm not angry. We're fine."

"Because," Merlin whispered longingly, "I don't want to settle for just 'fine.' I want to be like we used to be before..."

"I don't know if that's ever going to happen, Merlin. Too much is different now." Arthur's voice was calm but rough with exhaustion. Merlin tugged at his scarf guiltily. He knew it was more than just the magic bothering Arthur. It seemed like the King knew more than Merlin had ever told him.

"I lied to you-"

"It's okay. I did something worse." Arthur admitted wearily.

"What?" Merlin asked cautiously. What could Arthur have possibly done worse than-

"I trusted you." Arthur said, smiling sadly. Merlin's breath snagged painfully in his throat. He searched for the words to say, but Arthur just slowly walked away. "And I also failed you. Perhaps it is better that we find our own paths now. I promise to accomplish my destiny, I know what needs to be done, so you may do as you please. Surely, after all these years there are plenty of things you want to experience. You should try actually going to the tavern once in a while."

“Arthur wait!” Merlin cried after him. Arthur stilled, keeping his back turned but head turned, listening. “I’m not ready to let you go yet. I know you’re right to push away. I was a horrible person, and you shouldn’t give me another chance. But if you do, I promise I will change. I know I hurt you. I completely gaslit you and tricked you and lied to you. But from the bottom of my soul, I am sorry, Arthur. I was scared to lose you. But I won’t ever lie to you again.”

Arthur hesitated. He could feel the truth in Merlin’s words, but maybe that was what stung the most. “You couldn’t if you tried.”

Merlin let Arthur walk away, trying to decipher his words.

 

 

 

 

 

“I still can’t do magic,” Arthur groaned, dropping his head into his hands. He pressed the heels of his palms into his eyes a little harder than was necessary, trying to rub the sleep from them. 

With his daily schedule already full to the brim, Arthur had no choice but to continue his lessons with Edith in the dead of night, and it was beginning to take its toll. Even so, he was grateful for her help, and in the weeks he’d spent as her pupil, they had grown close. In the day, Arthur still felt alienated, but Edith’s lessons in the evenings eased the loneliness that weighed on him. 

“Yes, you can,” Edith insisted patiently, “Your block is a mental one, not physical. You need to believe in yourself.”

“Easy for you to say,” Arthur muttered petulantly.  Edith sighed softly, then coaxed the small blue flame that swayed in her palms into a skittering dance across her fingertips. Arthur watched the flames for a moment, then shook his head forcefully to try and clear it of the thoughts and doubt slowly crushing his skull. 

With a deep breath, Arthur raised his hand again, palm out, and closed his eyes. He searched deep inside himself for that warm vibration that Edith had told him was his magic. He waited for a sign, a tingling, a spark, anything at all, barely realizing that he was holding his breath… but there was nothing. Finally, he let his breath out in a frustrated huff.

“I look like an idiot!” Arthur snapped angrily, before taking a deep breath and releasing it in a controlled manner. He continued in a softer tone, “Maybe you’re wrong, and I have no magic after all.” 

Arthur slouched down into his chair miserably, grumbling to himself about the smoke that came off of Edith’s flame and seemed to head directly for his eyes. He wasn’t sure if it was because of the draft that blew through the room or if Edith was deliberately directing it towards him. 

Edith rolled her eyes, her flame flaring higher and shifting into the shape of a crying baby. Arthur glowered at her as she said, “Oh, hush it. Keep trying, Arthur!”

Arthur sighed. Pushing back his chair, the King stood, planting himself firmly before the little candle, his newfound nemesis. He stared into the flickering flame and tried to think. What did Merlin do when using his magic? 

His knowledge was woefully limited, as Arthur had only really seen Merlin use magic once - in the cave in the forest. He could remember fragments that had been revealed by Edith’s spell, but they were hazy and distant - like images from a dream. He knew what had happened, but he didn’t remember it.

He did remember that in the cave, Merlin had been terrifying. His hands and arms had been encased in fire, his eyes glowing brightly in the dark, like a predator’s. He had taunted the creature with a gracefulness Arthur hadn’t known the manservant possessed. Moving faster than any man or animal Arthur had ever seen, Merlin had thrown balls of flame larger than his entire body at the giant monster like it was a simple game. And when the creature had fallen, Merlin had smiled and laughed at his victory. He’d looked at the wounds on his hands as if they were mere nuisances. 

Oh, if Uther could see Arthur now… he’d be beyond furious. Arthur could almost smell the smoke from burning flesh on pyres that coated his lungs from the moment he was born. He still felt guilty. How could he not? Arthur was the Prince, and even as a child there had to have been something he could have done. If Uther saw his son now, would Arthur be just another sorcerer tossed to the flames? Would Arthur have been disposable to him? Or would he have been the exception? Wouldn’t the hypocrisy of that have been even worse?

“Arthur,” Edith’s voice briefly cut through the haze of Arthur’s mind, but not enough to pull him out of it.

Arthur had spent many nights as a child imagining himself in the place of people he saw burned on the pyre. Gaius had once told him that it was one of the most painful ways to die, and Arthur had never forgotten. Because of this, whenever Arthur had killed, he tried to be merciful and quick. Uther, on the other hand, had always let the sorcerers scream and beg and cry for hours, staring stoically into the flames with his hand resting heavily on Arthur’s shoulder. Smoke was invading his senses, suffocating him. 

“Arthur!” Edith’s yell and her hands on his shoulders snapped Arthur back to reality. 

His eyes flew open, only for him to be instantly blinded by a bright white light. Blinking frantically as his eyes tried to adjust, panic flooded through Arthur as he saw what he’d inadvertently created. The candle was gone now, melted away into a waxy puddle on the table. As he watched, a few drops slipped from the table onto the floor. A blazing sphere floated in front of Arthur’s extended hand, boiling and bubbling and spitting like a little sun. The sphere spanned from the floor to the ceiling - the small flares it was emitting scorching the wood on both surfaces. 

Horror stabbed through Arthur as he quickly drew back his hand. When that only caused the sphere to pulse more brightly and let off more flares, Arthur’s fear grew into full-blown terror. He could vaguely hear Edith trying to talk to him - to help him regain control - but he couldn’t hear her instructions, much less heed them. 

The sphere drifted closer, and instinctively Arthur raised an arm to shield his face from the fire. His breath caught in his throat as the heat of the fire hit his face and climbed his sleeve. Then there was a burning sensation along his back, which only increased Arthur’s panic.

 ' What have I done?' Arthur's mind screamed, pounding his temples,' I'm surrounded... Oh, gods, what do I do?! I’m going to die, the fire - if I burn down Edith's house, I'll kill her! And if the fire spreads, I'll kill everyone. I'm on fire. I'm on fire. How do I fight fire?'

Suddenly, there was a weight between his shoulder blades that he didn’t recognise. The weight shifted, and a gust of wind tore through the room, putting out the flames and knocking over the furniture. They were plunged into sudden, unnerving darkness, and Arthur jumped when something grasped at his hand. He relaxed a second later when he realized that it was only Edith, her hand ice cold after the fire that had danced on his skin moments before.

“My, my, Arthur…” Edith started, before letting out a light laugh, “I think we just figured out what you are! And how rare, I had thought there was none of your kind left!”

The King barely heard her, her voice still muffled by the blood rushing in his ears. Suddenly, Arthur felt her hand ghosting over his back before a completely foreign sensation hit him. He shivered wildly and flinched away, out of surprise rather than pain.

“What… what is that?” Arthur asked, his voice timider than he would have liked, “I-I can feel you poking me, but it’s all wrong … Stop it.”

 Edith’s hands left him, and Arthur was able to regain some of his breath. 

“Wings! You’ve got wings, child!” Edith replied, excitement clear in her voice. 

“I-What?” Arthur replied, unable to process what she was telling him.

“You have wings, Arthur,” Edith said again patiently.

“Wings? Y-you mean like… like a chicken?!” Arthur asked, still not processing what Edith was trying to tell him. Chicken, destiny, magic... it was all becoming too much for the King to process.

 "Biggest chicken I've ever seen!" Edith laughed lightly, then conjured a ball of blue light in the air in front of him, bringing part of the room back into view. “I’m going to remind you of that someday now!”

Arthur looked over his shoulder at where Edith was running her fingers gently over what did indeed seem to be a pair of massive silver and gold wings. They were curved around him, grazing the walls of the room, and Arthur was surprised to realize he could feel everywhere that the feathers brushed against the wood. 

“Edith… how did you manage this?” Arthur asked in amazement, “I had no idea magic could do such a thing.” 

Slowly, he reached out to touch the inside of his left wing. The brush of his fingers sent a strange sensation through him. He could feel the weight and pressure of them, but it was a duller feeling than if he had run a hand down his arm. 

“I didn’t do this, child,” Edith replied softly, “You did.” 

Arthur blinked, vaguely registering that the statement should have sparked a profound reaction from him, but at the moment he felt too stunned by everything to do much more than try to catch up. Usually, his knight training and instincts would have woken him up, had his mind spinning, and heart pumping. But this didn't seem real, Arthur felt like an outsider looking in.... like he was in a dream. 

Sometimes, in the worst battles, Arthur’s mind would go blank like this. He’d move like a puppet, his mind millions of miles away as he cut down enemy after enemy, taking hit after hit, fighting for entire days in the muddy slopes of a blood-soaked field. His armour would be so bent and crushed against him it had to be cut off by the end, his tunic beneath nearly dyed Camelot’s crimson colours. He’d barely remember those battles, though they are what have earned him some of his greatest legends. He’d wake up from his state, sluggish, exhausted and gasping for breath, covered in blood and injuries and in pain -

‘Focus, you coward,’ Arthur’s mind berated him, ‘Stop bumbling around. React! Fight! Move! Speak! Think! Do something! ANYTHING! You’re useless, you’d be dead right now if this was a battle! You were on fire, and you did nothing! You could have killed Edith! And now you have wings - you have wings, you have wings, you have wings -’

 Edith patted his wing firmly, and Arthur heard the familiar sound of metal on metal. 

“Just breathe, child, there's something very wrong in your face I can see it,” Edith said, before moving away from him. Arthur either responded eagerly to touch or flinched away violently, something she'd come to notice in her time with him. Sometimes, space was the best thing she could give him. “I need you to take a moment. You’re safe here, just let yourself calm down. You look like you’re about to collapse. I think you had a panic attac- Arthur, can you hear me?!”

Gingerly, Arthur reached over his shoulder and tapped a finger against the backside of one of his wings. It was as hard as metal. Slowly, trying to be careful of knocking anything in the room over, Arthur continued his examination, curling his left wing around in front of him until he could see it properly. The inside of the wing was composed of soft downy white feathers, much like a normal bird but ten times bigger. However, the outside appeared to be coated with silver and gold feathers, hard like the blades of daggers, sharp and glinting. He tapped the outside feathers again, realizing that they were truly made of metal.

“Arthur?” Edith said quietly, and Arthur’s head snapped up to look at her again. She was holding a candle now, and Arthur flinched away from it without thinking. His wings moved without his meaning to, and Arthur felt and heard the metal feathers scrape along the ceiling. 

“Edith… why do I have wings, again?” Arthur asked, the wonder in his voice contrasting with the panic rising again inside him. 

“Well, you have wings because you have always had wings, just as you have always had your magic,” Edith replied.

“And I’ve never seen them before because they were… hiding? Like my magic?” Arthur asked, “Because it wasn’t safe until now for them to appear? Where did they come from?”

“That seems to be the case, yes,” Edith replied, “Normally, a Battle Angel’s wings appear when they are quite young, as a defense against outside threats. I can't imagine any lack of that in a young prince and new king, so how have they stayed hidden? It's a mystery to me, my dear. A mystery indeed...”

"You mean you don't know?!" Arthur demanded disbelievingly.

"I can't know everything, sire. I'm just a random old lady." Edith muttered, shaking her head and tutting as she analyzed Arthur's new limbs. "I don't know why they haven't come out before, but... I know why you have them. Is that enough for you?"

Arthur nodded stiffly, his bottom lip caught between his teeth worriedly. Edith seemed to know everything and the idea that there was something she didn't weighed Arthur down with dread.

"Right, good," Edith hummed, stepping away with a hand on her chin thoughtfully, surveying the King's situation, "Well, you're rare, that's for certain. Battle Angel's haven't been seen since the Greek and Roman Empires were stretched across the land. Many of their stories depict your kind, though by another name. They were often known as messengers, guardians, and even heavenly beings. In Avalon, Battle Angels were known as people of magic. As I've said, warlocks and witches were creatures that kept the balance between the realms of Magic and Man, before they merged-" 

Edith paused, but Arthur urged her to continue.

"In essence, it was a lot of work to maintain this balance. Battle Angel's had this job, but also another. They maintained the balance between the warlocks. It was hard to keep everyone on the same page you know - Dragon Lords and Storm Bringer's roaming the cliffs and skies, Forest Nymphs in the woods, the elusive Sea Sirens in islands across the ocean. While perhaps not heavenly, the Angels were truly messengers and guardians. And, as their names suggest, they were the greatest warriors. They could fly faster than the eye could follow, enough so the metal on their wings would whistle from the air like the shriek of an eagle. They could use their wings as shields, nearly impenetrable, never faltering under attack. They were also sharp like blades, and at their fastest speed, they could slice through the great oak trees like a knife through soft butter. It's really depending on who tells the story if they are terrifying beasts or graceful saviors."

Arthur gaped at Edith, his cheeks growing pinker and eyes wider as she spoke. He turned curiously to look at his wings again, carefully trying to lift them up farther towards the light. They jerked up clumsily, too rigid for a movement that should have been natural to him. It was like breathing, when you focus too much on when the next breath should come then suddenly the timing is never right.

Arthur didn't feel particularly dangerous or mighty. He was used to being weighed down by armour, often nearly a third of his body weight. The wings weren't heavy in the same way, and if he guided them close to his back his center of gravity didn't feel so off-kilter. When Arthur caught glimpses of the room lit by Edith's pale blue orb, he could see the smashed and toppled furniture, all sent flying by one giant flap. But still... to be described as so powerful... perhaps the stories were exaggerated. Arthur wasn't sure he could even take a step forward, much less fly thousands of feet in the sky.

"How could Battle Angels be the best warriors? They're good conversationalists with feathers and some magic. I mean, the Dragon Lords surely -" Arthur objected, trying to pull some of the awe away from Edith's voice. She'd never revered him in such a way, always treating him incredibly normal, and Arthur was not about to let that slip away. Even as his heart begged for him to stay silent and learn more. 

"Dragon Lords were mighty but, by their nature, they sought only peace - a lucky quality in beings able to control fire breathing beasts." Edith explained, "Not to say Battle Angels were violent, sire. But they were protective and powerful and willing to go to any length for their people. That's why many believed they'd died out, as they were the first to fight back against Man when the First War began."

Arthur couldn't help but think of his own Dragon Lord, not so far away now. Was this why they were so important? Because they were the last of their kinds?

"How much do you know of Dragon Lords, Arthur?" Edith asked, her brown eyes shining in the dark. 

"Not much, " Arthur whispered, trying to sort through his thoughts as panic continued to plague him and questions clawed at his skull, "Only what Merlin's lies have shown me."

"So, you know the power of a Dragon Lord is passed down by the father?" Edith smiled gently at Arthur's eager nod. She continued with a hushed whisper, "Battle Angel's gifts came from the mother. They were nearly the only creatures with a maternal line. Mothers and daughters. Battle Angel women were once the world's mightiest fighters."

"But... I'm not a girl." Arthur coughed out awkwardly, "Last I checked, at least. But, last I checked, I also did not have wings. So honestly, whatever you want to say just-" 

"I'm not trying to tell you you're a woman, sire." Edith chortled, whacking him gently on the arm, "But you've inherited something from your mother already, haven't you? If you've got her life force, in a sense, you've borrowed her soul, is it too much of a stretch to see you've got her wings?"

"She had these?" Arthur ran his fingers across the ridges of his feathers, carefully not to nick himself on the edges. He tucked his wings up to his chest, surrounding him in a wide arch. Every detail spoke to him, whispering of Ygraine's gentle heart, her boldness, her power. The mother Arthur had never met but would do absolutely anything to. He had something of hers, something he could see and touch and feel. Something bigger and better than her Sigil of the Dove.

"She must have." Edith agreed, "After all, it makes sense now... that is why Uther chose her as queen. Uther had just conquered his kingdom, he did not come from a royal line. He craved power more than anything, and he could choose any queen he wanted - reap the largest benefits and the highest status. He'd never met Ygraine before, a Lady from a wealthy but unknown noble family, and yet she was the one he married. To assume it is not a coincidence that his wife was a Battle Angel, the last woman of her line, and Balinor his greatest friend, the last of the Dragon Lords... he was a clever man now, wasn't he?"

Arthur's wings drooped as his eyes widened with realisation. It was no coincidence. With Ygraine as a Battle Angel, Uther's daughter would have continued the line, making the Pendragons the most powerful monarchy in the realm. With Balinor as his close counsel, his son would likely have married into the line. A Battle Angel and a Dragon Lord's lineage in one royal family. Even what Uther could have accomplished with Ygraine and Balinor by his side, this would have continued for as long as Camelot stood. Uther had plans past his lifetime. But Uther was just a man, surrounded by the most powerful of allies. What made him so special? Nothing... except that Uther was a Man. The very epitome of one. At the purest form of what Man would be, what they could accomplish and destroy... that's what Uther was. And perhaps, once, he was a good enough Man to earn the loyalty of Magic. But to ever see Uther as good -

"Do you think he ever really loved her?" Arthur muttered bitterly. His wings cocooned around himself, tightening around his chest and draping him with glimmering silver and gold. 

"Yes, Arthur. Anyone could have seen the way King Uther adored the very ground Queen Ygraine walked on. It's not a coincidence Uther found himself in leagues with some of the most powerful beings on the earth. I truly believe that in the beginning, he'd had dreams of greatness and goodness. But a man hungry for all that power, feeling the loss of it must have been what changed him. After all, what better way to control his wife's death than to eradicate what he believed to be the cause of it? To be the most powerful because you are all that is left... was better to him than to be weak."

From the back of his mind, the Ambassador of Bennet’s words rang back to him, “Your father would never have allowed such leniency, it is reckless and immoral. You are but a child meddling with things you do not yet understand. Magic is corrupt. It causes plagues, drought, famine, and disaster!"

Arthur heard his response like an ache deep in his chest, “Magic does not corrupt people. Fear does. Power does. Perhaps you are right to fear those with such immense power to cause what you have described. However, that is not the majority. Many can at most light a candle, mend a broken bone, or calm a fever…”

Edith was watching Arthur and saw his face shift from pride and joy to guilt and fear. Reaching out a hand to his cheek, hesitating when Arthur flinched away for a moment, Edith turned the King back to face her.

“It’s not that simple to you, though… is it? Alright, what’s going on in that busy head of yours, son?”

Arthur blinked his eyes quickly, trying to force away the pressure pushing up against them. “So many didn’t survive the Purge. They aren’t here to learn this, to be praised and encouraged for their gifts. I was too late. I’m sorry,” Arthur admitted.

Edith’s eyes filled with tears, but she smiled kindly at the young king, “You’ve done a good thing now. We can’t change the past even though we might want to. All we have with us is the present and the future,” Edith began. “Some never expected for you to change; they thought you were like Uther. But you’re a different man, Arthur. And you will remember those lost as a lesson and reign fairly over your people. That is all I want. That is all I ask for.”

Arthur’s face was drawn and pale, and his gaze slid back to the flame he’d conjured. It reminded him of an orb many years ago that saved him in a cave while searching for a flower.

“Uther did all of this… he made me. At first, it was a trade between my mother and I, a life that didn’t need to be lost. And then for 25 years, he slaughtered a dozen people a week,” Arthur spat, “but I still worshipped him, Edith. Doesn’t that make me a horrible person? I feel like a pretender like I’m watching myself from far away. I murdered people in cold blood, and now I’m preaching about love, peace, and equality. I’m a hypocrite, just like my father. All I see when I look at myself is ‘Arthur Pendragon.’ It feels like someone else’s body, someone else’s name, someone else’s life!” 

“No, Arthur -” Edith objected.

“I wasn’t worth the price my kingdom paid for me. Once and Future King or not.” Arthur closed his hand around the flame, extinguishing it.

Edith pondered her next words quietly, then spoke, “Perhaps not, but the price was paid anyways. Uther set fire to the world and now it is your responsibility to do the best you can with the ashes. It’s unfair, but you can do it. I know you can. And it’s easier if you let somebody help you.”

“I can’t do that. I’ve already had so much done for me, I’ve cost so many so much. This is my responsibility, no one else’s. I’m trying my best to learn, Edith. I am. I’m sorry for my complaining, I’m making everything sound worse than it is. You know how I am.” Arthur halted as he caught Edith's disbelieving gaze. He couldn't lie to her.

“If not now, when will you reveal your magic, Arthur?” Edith asked him. "Your wings? Have you even told anyone how you've been feeling? I know you're struggling, sire. It's not wrong to -"

“I'm not-,” Arthur started, catching his words before he could try to lie again, hanging his head. It was a habit, to pretend he had everything to control, but one that could not serve him in the sorceress's presence.

“If you continue to keep secrets, you’ll be copying the behavior you so hated from everyone else.”

“I-I know. I just want to have the upper-hand for once. I want to know the secrets this time - not just run around oblivious. I know when I’m being lied to now. Everyone lies a lot, even if they don’t mean to. And I know things now that I’d rather not - like that Merlin has committed several felonies or that Gwaine and Percival frequently shag in an alleyway behind the tavern - but gods it's so much better than knowing nothing!” Arthur confessed, trying to push away the anger and disappointment that continued to challenge him.

“I understand, Arthur. I cast this spell on myself for a similar reason, after all. When the Purge began, there was no knowing who you could trust. Left and right, people revealed their friends and family with magic, all for the prize Uther offered in return. My friends were betrayed, my daughter, my husband… I needed to know who was dishonest so I could protect myself and my granddaughter. Much like you feel the need to protect yourself and your people, yes?-”

“Yes, but-” Arthur’s voice was hard and defensive, and Edith immediately halted him in his tracks.

“But if you continue to keep these secrets, how much longer will it be until you can’t ever reveal them?” Edith pleaded, her fists clenching at the fabric of her skirt. Her brown eyes twinkled in the candlelight, lined both with years of joy and sadness. Even though she’d always been tiny, barely tall enough to stand at Arthur’s elbow, she looked incredibly small now.

“...I know, Edith. If I say nothing, I’m a liar. I’ll hold onto my secrets for weeks, waiting for the right time. Then I won’t find it and I’ll wait for months. Then even years - like Merlin did -until it’s too late, to tell the truth gracefully....” Arthur muttered guiltily. “I’ll be deceiving my kingdom. If I reveal this too late, they’ll think I lifted the ban for myself. That I’ve had magic all this time, hiding under my father’s nose like a coward! But I didn’t even know, Edith. I raised the ban for you, for Merlin, for everyone who suffered because of it needlessly.”

“Arthur, I know this, my dear.-”

“I know you know, Edith,” Arthur exclaimed, a choked laugh catching in the king’s throat. “But nobody else does! And I know I can’t keep this secret for much longer, but so much of me wants to never tell because I hate all of them! And they deserve to be kept in the dark. To be deceived and mocked for once, after all that they did to me! I don’t trust them anymore!”

Arthur panted breathlessly, twisting away, ashamed of his outburst. Who was he to complain to her after the lifetime of horrors she faced. He could feel her eyes boring into the back of his neck, and he rubbed at it with a hand. “And what if they see me… see all of this… and think I’m a monster? What if they leave -”

“My king,” Edith’s voice echoed quietly from behind him, “I can’t tell you how you do or should feel. But… your courage, loyalty, and trusting heart have always been your best qualities… do not let them fail you now, sire.”

“I... but they already have failed me, Edith. Courage is supposed to be bravery and leadership despite odds and fear. For me, it was often continuing despite the feeling in my gut that it was wrong. I was loyal to the wrong people. I trusted too often, and was betrayed every time.” Arthur sighed, “Perhaps these are actually my faults.”

“Arthur, you need to stop with this line of thinking. Now. It is dangerous.” Edith interjected sharply. Arthur fell silent, turning back to look at her as she spoke, “You were not betrayed and mistreated because of your own goodness. It was because those people were not good enough. They made terrible choices and lost someone willing to go to the ends of the earth for them in the blink of an eye. You made countless mistakes, and so did they. Perhaps it is time to give them, and yourself, some forgiveness. Sire?”

Arthur stared, before nodding with a hesitant crooked smile. “Right. Forgiveness…”

Edith smiled at him encouragingly, stepping closer and the King dropped his winged shield down defeatedly. Picking up a loose feather from the ground and twisting it between her fingers, Edith held it out to Arthur as an offering. “It doesn’t have to be today. For now, let’s focus on one problem at a time. Like how to put these wings back away? You can’t walk around like this.”

Arthur coughed out a shy chuckle and nodded, “Okay.”

 

 

 

 

Days later, Merlin tiptoed carefully into Arthur's chambers. There was a box in his hands held tightly to his chest, but he dropped it with a gasp when Arthur stepped out from behind the door, surprising him. Merlin’s eyes glowed gold and he flung out a hand, freezing the box in the air before it could smash to bits on the ground. Arthur stared at him in awe then covered it with a scrutinizing glare, arms crossed over his chest.

"Alright, I've caught you. What in the world are you doing, Merlin?!"

"I- nothing... How did you know it was me?!" Merlin cried frustratedly.

"Of course I know it's you, Merlin! I keep finding my boots in the sock drawer. And who else was I to suspect of leaving some sort of honeysuckle all over my chambers? A little pixie with a crush on me?" Arthur gestured frustratedly to the several bunches of flowers left in variously odd places.

"No, but... they are your favourite!"

"How do you even know that? More stalking I suppose." Arthur said, pinching his nose exasperatedly.

"Because every time you see one you have to smell it! Every time! We were friends for years, Arthur. I-I notice things. I know you better than I know myself!" Merlin immediately bit his lip, realising his mistake.

Arthur’s eyes reflected a sorrowful longing for a moment before it was blinked away and replaced with suspicion, "And now I know you a bit, don’t I? But what I don’t know is why are you here? Why do you keep sneaking into my rooms? Why are you following me to knight's practice? Why are you leaving me flowers?! What kind of ridiculous plot is this?!"

"Because I'm sorry! And I’m horrible apologising and the maid told me to leave flowers but her husband does it when he messes up-"

"You've already apologised, Merlin."

"Well, it was a bad apology so I'm doing it again. And again and again and again until you realise I mean it.” Merlin ground out angrily, before pulling back his tone and taking a breath. "So... I'm sorry, Arthur. I-I thought I was protecting you, but I'd forgotten there's more than one way to be hurt."

Merlin caught Arthur’s eyes and held his gaze. He’d rarely seen Arthur look so conflicted. But glimmering behind the blue in his eyes, Merlin saw a bit of hope and longing that reflected his own.

"There is so much I did wrong, Arthur. So many selfish and horrible things. And you don't have to ever forgive me for them or be my friend again if that's what you really want, but the reason that happens isn't going to be because I gave up on you. I will never give up on you, not in a million years! I will keep trying and I will never stop trying. So, I'm going to keep apologising and I'm going to keep acting like an idiot and I'm going to keep trying to make it up to you. For forever if that's what it takes! And not because you're the Once and Future King. Because you are Arthur and you are my closest friend and I've never known anyone like you. And you can complain all you want and you can try to push me away, but I will always be here. I've never listened to you before, and I'm not going to now. I can't change the past, as much as I want to, and I don't even know how to start with fixing everything - it seems bloody impossible -but... but I'll be giving it my all. Got it?"

Merlin pushed the chest in his shaking hands out towards the king. “So, this is for you...you turniphead.”

“What is it?” Arthur whispered hesitantly.

“You’ll see, just open it.”

Arthur unlatched the lid and tipped it open. The box was filled to the brim with… paints. Paints, inks, quills, charcoal, and brushes. Even little pots of gold. Arthur stared at the gift, something a younger Arthur had dreamed for, and suddenly felt more seen than he ever had in his entire life. More understood and known and seen than he ever had been as the Prince of Camelot, watched by so many people.

“I’m sorry, Arthur.”

Arthur remembered the days when he couldn't even imagine being alone again. He couldn’t fathom ever not having Merlin as his friend. How much he'd wanted to be more than friends... How he couldn't imagine a future without Merlin in it. How he’d started to wonder if Merlin felt the same way before the choking feeling of unworthiness caught up to him. Wishing he could make a joke about Merlin was almost courting him like a lady unthinkingly, leaving flowers for him every day.

"Will you be my Court Sorcerer?" Arthur blurted, shuffling stiffly on his feet.

"I'm not a sorcerer." Merlin teased hesitantly. His eyes crinkled with joy when Arthur shook his head exasperatedly

"Always arguing with me, aren't you? Fine.” Arthur agreed, “Court Warlock? Warlock of Camelot? Or maybe we can just call you ‘the Warlock’ to add a bit of mystery. Is that a yes?"

"Yes."

Arthur nodded stiffly, noticing suddenly that they’d gotten quite close, standing toe to toe. “Thank you for the gift.”

Not quite to a place to tease Arthur for even saying the words ‘thank you' even though he wanted to, Merlin nodded. “You're welcome." 

Merlin turned to leave but couldn't. He wanted to add something more, to get his point across.

 "You know, it may have been some great destiny that brought us together, but regardless I will never leave you. I want to be with you forever." He closed the door softly behind him. Arthur looked down into his box of paints, the words 'I want to be with you forever' ringing loud in his head alongside 'true'.

Chapter Text

Merlin pulled at the cuffs of his sleeves. Arthur had sent the palace seamstress to fit him - an incredibly awkward encounter - and she’d delivered his new clothes with incredible speed. Magic perhaps? It was legal now. It had been for months now, but it still seemed too good to be true. Of course, it wasn’t without a cost. But on occasion, Merlin now saw a glimmer of the young Prince that he'd met all these years ago.

Once, during a particularly boring council meeting, Merlin looked over and saw Arthur going cross-eyed, staring at the stacks of scrolls towering before him. Merlin whispered over a small joke, “Sire, perhaps this is a good time to inform them you can’t read?” and a tiny smile had cracked across Arthur’s lips.

Once, Arthur overheard some young knights wondering how ‘clumsy Merlin’ could be a great and powerful warlock. The King suggested they challenge Merlin to a duel to find out. So Merlin, while resting against a training dummy in the field, winked and mimed magic fingers. The knights quickly argued that there was no need to duel as they had training drills to attend.

And once, Arthur had overhead Gaius chastise Merlin for forgetting to shave again. He’d just come back from a trip to Ealdor, on which he’d forgotten his razor, and was too afraid to cast a spell on himself lest he ended up bald. Arthur saw him, his hair longer and swept to the side out of his eyes and a beard shadowing his jaw, and faltered for a moment.

"Don't say a word; I know it's bad," Merlin had muttered.

"It's... it's not bad at all, Merlin," Arthur coughed out awkwardly, "You should leave it like that."

Merlin had stared back at Arthur, eyes bright and curious. Before he could respond, Arthur walked past him and around the corner.

 

It was still a battle to get past the walls Arthur had built around himself. Arthur never initiated any jokes or nights at the tavern with his knights. He worked day and night to manage the anti-magic groups that had caused trouble since the ban's repeal. Arthur was a kind and generous king, dedicated to his duty and people, but still isolated and untrusting. As Merlin took time to consider why, it was hard to blame him. Everyone betrayed Arthur. His friends, his father, his sister, his knights, his wife…

And Arthur had kept trusting, despite all of that, until Merlin’s lies were revealed.

Daily, Merlin caught himself wishing to go back to the way things were before. Deep down, he knew that was selfish. Arthur discovering his magic and repealing the ban had changed the lives of so many people. It had freed them of fear and prosecution. Merlin had wanted that too, prayed for it, and worked for it for years, but now he felt empty. He felt alone.

Merlin never realised how much he depended on Arthur, too. He’d been so focused on how exhausting it was to do this and that for Arthur that he never considered what it would be like to lose that. He thought maybe he’d be killed or banished, but to be accepted by the King yet pushed away by his best friend was not something he’d imagined. It was horrible.

‘I’m the Warlock of Camelot now’, Merlin thought, ‘but I feel like more of a fool now than I ever did.’

Warlock of Camelot. A title that Arthur had given him. Or King Pendragon, he seemed to be called now. Merlin wasn’t sure how to feel about the new name. It felt cold and aggressive, as though Arthur hoped never to be called by his own name again. Arthur used to constantly introduce himself on a first-name basis, even to strangers or commoners. It had been one of the things Merlin had loved about him. His desire to be seen as a man, not just a title. Now, Arthur tried to be just his title and had forgotten about the man. Merlin didn’t know what to do.

Merlin found himself as a title now too. He held a goblet of wine, poured for him by a servant, and gazed at the mingling crowd in the throne room. It was a meeting of some sort. The monarchs of all the surrounding kingdoms gathered to talk of treaties, trades, and alliances. It was a decennial event, attended solely by Uther in the past. This was Arthur’s introduction to the world as Camelot’s King, and it was the talk of all Avalon. While meant for peace and communication, each kingdom took the opportunity to flaunt its wealth and power. To prove both their ability to be a great ally or a terrible enemy.

Merlin had recently been made aware that Camelot was the richest of the kingdoms. They also had the best military, and the Knights of Camelot were named the best in the Five Kingdoms for a reason. Not just in exaggeration as Merlin had liked to joke.

Tensions were palpable in the air. Some kingdoms were not on good terms with Camelot, waiting to see if they could either join or overthrow Arthur. They'd be searching for weakness like hounds on a hunt. On the other hand, some kingdoms had new monarchs of their own. Arthur, in turn, would have to judge their trustworthiness and benefits.

The queens wore gowns of such extravagance and riches that Merlin could hardly believe they were real. The kings stood proudly in their cloaks and crowns, decorated with gold and gems and glittered like stars under the candlelight. They all seemed like vibrant spirits with petals of lace and furs and embroidery. Everyone waited with bated breath as King Pendragon finished his discussions with his council.

Merlin himself ended up roped into wearing fancy garb. He thought of the feathered red and green hat Arthur had bullied him into wearing at another gathering many years ago. He wasn’t sure exactly what he was wearing now. It was soft like fine linen and silk but thicker, a bold deep red of Camelot. Delicately embroidered with golden and silver threads, it even had beads forming small birds and leaves on his collar and cuffs. Arthur had let him keep a blue scarf tucked in, but it was made of something that felt like cool water on his skin. Merlin never felt so preposterously spoiled in all of his life.

Amid the beauty and tensions in the room, Merlin also noticed the gossip.

“Well, I heard he’s supposedly the most beautiful man in all Five Kingdoms!” one woman giggled.

“And the best fighter, too. As a prince, he won every tournament he ever competed in from the age of 12! Even against fully grown knights!” another whispered, wiggling her eyebrows.

Merlin had to bite his tongue to keep from correcting her to ‘the age of 10’. Arthur used to remind him when Merlin had a particularly snappy remark.

Another woman was less than impressed. “That’s what they say about every new king or prince. I heard he's cursed to look like a beast! That’s why he fights like one!”

“A beast?! Who on earth told you that, Marion? A bunch of nonsense, honestly.”

“Well, if not a beast then a sorcerer! He spent years hiding under Uther’s very nose, and that’s why he repealed the ban on magic!”

Merlin’s eyes widened curiously. This must be Marion, Merlin deduced while swirling the drink in his goblet. He knew the drink was something fancy, but it was too strong and bitter. Admittedly, he'd grown up on watered-down drink but still, Merlin wondered if the royals actually enjoyed the taste or pretended to because it was expensive.

“I don’t believe that! Perhaps Pendragon is rumored for his looks and skill but not for his mind. He could never have deceived Uther for so long.”

“Agatha, that’s treasonous!”

“Well, I agree with Marion. I’ve heard that Pendragon can see the future!”

“He can’t see the future, Hyrioa, he can read minds!”

“You two are a bunch of swooning girls!” And this was Agatha.

“I heard he’s even the reincarnation of Bruta, the First King!” Hyrioa then.

“I don’t think he’s what you make him out to be. He’s young and surely foolish. If his father is anything to go by, he’s likely a mad man, too!”

Merlin’s grip tightened around his goblet. This what Arthur had to constantly endure? All of these strangers swooning over him, comparing him, insulting him, and gossiping about him before they’d ever met. Merlin already hated the idea of knowing every new person he met had already formed an opinion about him.

“He’s nothing like Uther, Agatha. He has peasants for knights! Women even! I’ve heard he even walks the streets of his kingdom like a commoner. He’s an odd one, certainly, but Uther was cruel and strict. I feel hopeful for Pendragon,” Marion argued fervently. Merlin liked Marion, he decided.

“You just think he’s handsome,” Agatha snickered.

“He is handsome!” Marion and Drudwynn laughed together.

Merlin chuckled and muffled it behind a quick cough. On another hand, he remembered when he and Arthur would listen to the whispers in competition to find the craziest story. They would sit by the hearth in Arthur’s chambers drinking the leftover wine and mead and laugh at the absurd and creative tales.

Gods, why couldn’t Merlin stop thinking about Arthur for a single minute? But Merlin couldn’t help but wonder... Merlin knew Arthur hated the regalia. He’d worn his armour and chainmail to his coronation instead of the heavy and rich fabrics most kings did. It was shockingly clear the difference between Arthur and the monarchs filling the halls. Arthur wanted to be viewed as a knight, a warrior in defense of his lands, not a supreme totalitarian power. But today wasn’t a display to his people.

The large wooden doors were pushed open, and Merlin abruptly noticed the hushed silence that filled the hall. He rose from his leaned position against the pillars and followed the gaze of the attendees. Leon, Mordred, Gabrielle, and Percival flanked Arthur’s side, hiding him from view. It was a bold choice to bring noble, peasant, druid, and female knights as his guards. Merlin stepped closer, curious to see Arthur himself, and when he did, he found himself shocked.

He had never seen Arthur in this way before. Of course, he’d always been aware that Arthur was royal. It was hard to miss working for him day in and day out. Arthur had occasionally worn his circlet and crown from certain situations. However, for some reason, seeing Arthur now made Merlin truly understand who Arthur actually was. Arthur was the King, the Once and Future King, and he looked like it.

Arthur wore his crown above his brow, and it gleamed like he was dipped in gold. Every part of him seemed to exude wealth and power. His blood-red cloak trailed behind him and perched on his shoulders with white fox furs and golden chain fastening. He wore a breastplate with the bold Pendragon crest at its center, the dragon eye a gleaming ruby. His sword and scabbard hung at his side. His breeches were pitch black and rich with expensive dyes. Jewels sat in broaches on his cloak, and his armour engraved with old delicate runes. As he passed Merlin and stepped up to the throne, Merlin saw that the cloak was a tapestry woven with designs. All of the heavy material and thick layers should have made Arthur look swallowed, but instead, he looked larger than life. Like a figment from the portraits lining the halls come to life.

The spell broke as Arthur spoke.

“I, King Pendragon of Camelot, welcome you all to my lands. I hope to find great allies in all of you so that we may each benefit from our treaties. Come and sit. We have much to discuss.”




 

Arthur led the visiting nobles and royals to the Round Table. Now was as good a time as any to introduce a level playing field. He could feel the tension in the room, still hear the echoes of gossip silenced when he entered the room.

Suddenly, standing beside him was Merlin. The warlock stared at him with a strange expression, mouth opening and closing, before settling on, “You clean up nicely.”

Hesitating for a moment, still stumbling through how exactly to interact with his old friend, Arthur rolled his eyes, “And what exactly is that supposed to mean?”

“Well… you look a bit less ugly when you are bedazzled.”

Arthur had to cough sharply to hide a snort of laughter, shaking his head at Merlin’s beaming face. The warlock stood by his side, completely ignoring the empty chair on Arthur’s right. Arthur pulled out Merlin’s chair slightly, nodding towards it to cue him. Merlin sat beside Arthur at most council meetings now, but he still had to constantly remind him to sit rather than stand as he had as a servant.

Merlin’s eyes didn’t leave Arthur’s face, the smile on his face still wide and unashamed. He pushed the top of Arthur’s crown off his brow, pulling a piece of hair forward, and Arthur let him. It was something Merlin had done for years, claiming Arthur looked like an egg without it. Unaware of how this old habit had looked to their audience, the men sat in their designated seats in sync. Arthur signaled to the rest of the monarchs to take their seats as well.

One by one, servants stepped forward to introduce their royals. Queen Annis of Caerleon, now an ally, smiled at Arthur courteously. King Bayard, still undecided, nodded his recognition. King Varrac, Queen Elena, and Queen Mithian sat beside each other, seemingly having become friends. Queen Cecily sat with a straight posture and a sour expression on her face. Even King Lot was in attendance, an even darker look across his face.

“As you are aware, I am King Pendragon of Camelot. It is an honor to both meet and reintroduce myself to each of you.”

Everyone nodded in agreement, but before Arthur could speak again, King Varrac turned to Merlin.

“And who are you?” He said curiously, “I don’t believe you were introduced.”

“Oh, I’m just Merlin,” he said, smiling awkwardly under the scrutiny of the crowd.

“Just Merlin?” King Varrac chuckled, not unkindly. He waited for a moment, but upon getting no response other than a quick nod, he then asked, “Am I supposed to recognize the name, boy? Of what crest?”

Merlin shrugged, tilting his head towards Arthur, “I don’t have a crest. I’m the Warlock of Camelot now, though.”

King Varrac sat back in his seat, looking between the King and warlock confusedly.

Queen Cecily spoke next, her voice sharp and laced with a false lightness, “You made a peasant your Court Sorcerer now, Pendragon?”

Arthur, who was watching Merlin’s interactions with the royals, finally spoke up, smiling relaxedly at Cecily’s pinched face. Leaning forward to rest his elbows on the table, hands laced together, he surveyed his guests.

“Class does not matter to me. But in any case, Merlin is not a peasant.” Arthur responded calmly.

“What?” Merlin whispered, nudging Arthur in the side with his elbow. If this was some strange way to gift him a lordship, Merlin did not appreciate the timing.

Arthur paid him no mind, continuing his sentence, “He is Emrys, Son of Balinor.”

Disbelief rippled across the room. The visiting royals looked between each other, trying to read each other’s faces. To be the son of Balinor was no light claim.

Merlin was shocked more than anyone. There was no possible way for Arthur to know that, yet. How did he know hundreds of things, secrets of Merlin, that hadn’t been revealed to him yet? He hadn’t seemed to be listening when Merlin tried to explain on the ride back from the cave. So how did Arthur know everything Merlin had told him and more?

“...Balinor? You can’t possibly mean-” one of the older kings scoffed.

“Yes, Balinor the Dragonlord, belonging to the Wyllt crest,” Arthur interjected pointedly.

“What significance does some Wyllt, a wild man, have to do with anything?”

Merlin looked between Arthur and the King. He wanted to know, too. Was he some fancy kind of nobleman? Was the Wyllt crest important? How did Arthur know about the Wyllt crest? Why hadn’t Arthur said anything about it for the past several months?

“In the times before the Purge, Dragon Lords were given the same respect as kings were. After all, what good was owning lands and ruling people if it was all burned to ashes? We know this well from Daobeth, which was once the strongest of Albion’s kingdoms only to be destroyed by the dragons,” Arthur explained patiently.

“But all the dragons are gone now. Your father saw to it,” Queen Annis reminded him quietly.

“My father was many things. A liar is one of them. He did not kill all of the dragons. Camelot was attacked by the Great Dragon not long ago, and it was defeated by Emrys. My kingdom and I are in his debt.”

Hearing the name Emrys from Arthur’s lips felt like falling into ice-cold water. He said it so casually like it was the only name for Merlin he’d ever known.

“I see...” Queen Annis said worriedly, then turned to Merlin and examined his face. “He looks like his father.”

“Yes, he does,” King Bayard agreed, watching the warlock with aged eyes.

Arthur cleared his throat, pressing a finger to the surface of the Round Table. “Now, if you have a problem with how I run my kingdom, we can continue this discussion elsewhere.”

“There is no problem, King Pendragon.”

Arthur stared Bayard in the eyes, something going unspoken in his eyes.

“Good. Let us continue with the discussions.”

 

 

Arthur paced in front of the Round Table, hands gesturing to different scrolls and maps as he pleaded his case. Some of the other monarchs stood too, pouring over the documents with rapturous attention. Arthur traced his finger along a river trail, stopping at an eastern point marked with a Roman temple.

“We will meet the Saxons with our armies at the old Roman city of Batha. The Picts and Scots have already joined them, their numbers are growing larger with every passing day. We must act in haste or we will be quickly outnumbered. I have been to battle against them before. They retreated, surrendered, but then defied their promises and came back to attack us. We cannot let them live or they will always be a threat. We have to destroy them once and for all!”

King Varrac stroked his beard anxiously, his eyes heavy with concern. “You speak passionately, Pendragon, but such a head-on attack will surely fail. Perhaps it is the Roman legends getting to you, but such a strategy is reckless.”

“The Roman Empire was powerful and plentiful. Their territories expanded beyond the horizons. I have studied their tactics and military, as well as heard the stories of the great generals as you did. But I also know our people and our lands. Albion has many riches, our land is fertile and our resources are more prized than gold. Our enemies will not be cautious in their approach. They wish to wipe our people off this earth so they may take our home as their own,” Arthur argued determinedly, placing a broad hand on Varrac’s back.

“You are surely too young to have seen a real battle like this, Pendragon? How old are you now, 26 summers? And you believe you have the wisdom and skill to lead all of Albion to war? I ask you to understand my reservedness.”

“I am young, but not inexperienced. I fought my first battle at age 12, and many more battles after that. I know what I am doing, and if anything, my youth makes me more determined to succeed. I have not been king long, but my reign will not be short. I will not allow my kingdom to be threatened and robbed from me. There is no other option, we have held the Saxons off for as long as we could. We have played defense well, but it is time we strike back.”

The kings' and queens' faces were painted with varying levels of surprise. For the queens from kingdoms not yet welcoming of women in battle, they struggled to imagine a child in armor on a battlefield. Even the kings were off-put, having seen young boys on the battlefield, but not until they were of age if not older. And Arthur was Uther’s only son. For a prince and sole heir to be sent into battle at such a young age seemed incredibly reckless.

“I… the risks, Pendragon…” Bayard intervened, agreeing with the worried King Varrac.

“Give me your hand,” Arthur instructed.

With some hesitation, the king extended his open hand to Arthur. He placed two coins on his palm and closed it.

“If I fail, fall in battle, and Albion is taken then I want you to keep these coins. Do not put them on my eyes when my pyre is burned. I am willing to risk my own damnation - that is how confident I am in my plan. In my soldiers. In my destiny. Do you understand?”

Everyone held their breath and stared. To risk hell? Perhaps Arthur was a mad madman, like his own father. Merlin, who had watched the talks of a battle with fascination, now reached for Arthur in horror. But before he could reach Bayard and Arthur and rip the coins out from their hands, Bayard pulled away.

“I understand, Arthur Pendragon.”

The monarchs looked to each other, all inspired by Arthur’s fearlessness. Part of being a leader was to know when to follow, and now they had found their cause. Without this young king, and his determination and courage, their kingdoms could be taken from them forever. It was decided. There would be a war against the Saxons with all of Albion united.

“This is the plan -”

 

 

Later, Merlin pulled Arthur aside in the hall, pushing him into an alcove and against the wall. His eyes bright and cheeks pale from anxiety, Arthur didn't meet his gaze until Merlin jerked on his sleeve harshly.

"What was that?" Merlin huffed, eyes searching Arthur's for a lick of common sense.

"I think it was fairly self-explanatory, Merlin."

"Not to me!"

Arthur sighed, bringing a hand decorated with rings and gems to rub at the bridge of his nose. Merlin waited impatiently, his foot tapping on the tile and hands fumbling at his sides.

"I have to take risks. All of these kingdoms have much more to lose than Camelot if this goes wrong. We have enough food and soldiers to last in a worst-case scenario. Bennet does not. Mercia does not. I had to show them that this cause was personal to me, too. That I had something to lose," Arthur explained gently.

"And you couldn't have thought of something other than damnation?" Merlin scoffed disbelievingly.

"I don't really believe in heaven or hell, Merlin. And besides, with a great warlock like you, how could we lose?" Arthur tried.

Merlin shook his head frustratedly and was about to argue back when Arthur caught one of his hands with his own and pulled him forward. The King squeezed the warlock's hand so tightly Merlin could feel Arthur's pulse and the bite from metal rings on his fingers.

"You have to trust me, Merlin," Arthur whispered to him, his warm breath ghosting over Merlin's ear and neck.

"You know things I haven't gotten the chance to tell you yet. Things I don't even know about. How?"

"You've had your time of secrets, Merlin. Now let me have mine." Arthur pushed Merlin away gently and let go of his hand. He gave a small crooked smile and a little wink, "Oh yee of little faith. Come now, we have business to attend to. This world is littered with the ruins of empires that thought they'd last forever. Now, I don't think Camelot will last till the end of time, but it's going to last a little longer if I have any say. Will you trust me, Merlin?"

Merlin stared into Arthur's eyes, searching for something recognizable. He and Arthur had changed so much. In the depths of Arthur's eyes, however, Merlin found what he was looking for. The glimmering challenge that shined during their banter, during battle, and every time he and Arthur's gaze met... it was still there, beaming at him. 

"When did you become so wise, sire?" the warlock muttered.

"A few concussions ago," Arthur quipped, smiling crookedly despite himself. 

Falling silent, Merlin let Arthur lead him back to the throne room. It was life or death now, Avalon could not fall into the hands of the Saxons. Arthur was prepared to sacrifice everything for his kingdom, and Merlin was ready to sacrifice everything for his Arthur.

Chapter Text

Hiiiii,


****NEW****

Awesome, I decided to go with option 1!😊I'll be splitting up the KING PENDRAGON story into 3 parts. There will be KING PENDRAGON, then JUST CALL ME ARTHUR, and then THE ONCE & FUTURE KING.

KP is Merlin's magic reveal and the beginning of Arthur's real character being evolved and revealed. Merlin has to recognize his issues and bad decisions, and actively begin to change and see Arthur as his equal. It's also introducing Arthur's magic, the Saxon war, and Merthur relationship. I plan to write one more chapter that brings Morgana, Lancelot, and Gwen into the story. This will lead into JUST CALL ME ARTHUR.

JCMA is a detailed examination and reliving of Arthur's childhood and past. It will explain Arthur's relationship with Morgana and Uther, the abuse he endured, the way he behaves, and also the person he keeps hidden away from everyone. I am currently writing this section and aim to publish it asap.

TOAFK will be about the Arthur Pendragon legends are told of. It will be about uniting Avalon, fighting the Saxons, mastering his magic, and Merthur relationship. I don't want to spoil it so I won't go into further detail. Each story will be about 10-15 chapters long. Again feel free to comment any ideas or constructive criticism! I hope you like the story!

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At the moment I am deciding which way I'd like to take this story. Let me know your thoughts!

Option 1. I have Morgana and Arthur meet again and in a sort of accident, their magic repels each other and their pasts get shown to each other and those in attendance (Merlin, the knights, etc). This would be a detailed dive into Arthur's childhood and abuse.

It could start from the moment he's born until the present day and be a separate story (to the King Pendragon series) called 'Just Call Me Arthur, Please'. It would start with Ygraine's pregnancy and that spell and Uther's plan, Arthur as a little kid admiring his father despite his heavy abuse, Morgana and Arthur meeting and sibling relationship, Arthur's first gay experience, Morgana and Arthur running away, Arthur's first battle at 12 years old, Arthur's betrayal, Arthur's perspective of meeting Merlin (his crush, really), and finally Merlin's betrayal and Arthur's magic.

There would likely also be different points in time of Arthur's magic surfacing accidentally, as well as moments when Arthur looked the truth in the face and decided to turn away. This would probably be to long to incorporate into the story unless it was a separate work as I want to continue King Pendragon into Arthur becoming King of Avalon and Merlin/Arthur getting together.

Option 2. I could have the same Morgana and Arthur spell reaction but it could only be the day they ran away and just reflect back and allude to abuse etc. Much less interesting to me but also maybe option 1 is far too long and tedious and would just pull away from the story as a huge detour. If you have any other ideas I'd love to hear them too so please let me know. This story will be finished, it's not abandoned, it is just at a crossroads!

Option 3. If any other fic writers would like to collaborate with me and bring their own thoughts to the story I'd love to hear it! Leave a comment below with your idea or something and we'll go from there! Thank you!

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Also I apologise if the new formatting is confusing! I decided to combine the chapters I felt were really unnecessarily spilt up. I had a glitch and lost several chapters which is why the images on the second half are not added yet and I revised the chapters.

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I have lots of different ideas for how the rest of this fic could go. I have a few different outlines written out, but is there something you guys want to see in the story? Or a way you want this story to go?
Please feel free to leave your suggestions! I love giving readers some say in the story so just leave a comment! I'll tag you if I like your idea!

Love you all!
Xoxo
J