A/N: I had no intention of writing this, but a conversation with wryter501 about the difficulties of Merlin wanting to reveal his magic led to the idea, and it largely wrote itself. It's a bit OOC, especially for Arthur, but I quite like the idea of him being a little more mature in his appreciation of his friendship with Merlin than he's generally given credit for.
The door crashed open.
'Merlin!' the king yelled as he burst into Gaius' chambers. There was no one there. 'If you're still in bed...' Arthur stamped up the stairs to Merlin's bedroom and flung the door wide. 'You were meant to be with me an hour ago, Merlin!'
He looked around the room. Merlin's clothes were strewn about the floor - no surprises there. A book lay on the small table next to the window, and a piece of armour which had been 'missing' for a month lay over in the corner of the room. The place was apparently empty, but after ten years, Arthur didn't put it past his manservant to hide from him. He inspected the wardrobe, which was devoid of both servant and clothes, then dropped to his knees and peered under the bed. As he was about to straighten up, a thin ray of sunshine burst through an opening in the clouds outside. It fell through the window and on to the overhang of a scrap of parchment that appeared to be stuck to the underside of Merlin's bed. Arthur eyed it curiously and carefully eased a finger between the parchment and the bedstead.
Looking at the parchment, he could see that it had been stuck to the bed with some kind of gum. It was tightly folded and wrapped with a ribbon across the centre, sealed with wax. Feeling slightly guilty, he plucked at the ribbon and pulled it off. Part of him knew that this wasn't right, but this was Merlin's own fault. He should have been with Arthur, not off doing - whatever it was that Merlin was doing. Probably nothing. Yes, that was right. He was probably doing nothing, and he was probably doing it in the tavern. Arthur promptly felt better about himself.
Unfolding the parchment, he could see that it was a letter written in Merlin's spidery handwriting. The unease returned, but before he could persuade himself that he should put it back, he caught sight of the first two words.
If you're reading this, then something's gone quite badly wrong, and I'm dead or banished - perhaps by your father, perhaps by you. In either case, I may not have been able to explain myself to you, and I feel that I owe you that after - well, after everything.
I was born with magic. I was moving things around just by thinking about it before I could speak. I never chose it, and there were plenty of times when I wished I didn't have it. The villagers at home were generally kind enough, but some of them couldn't accept me and made sure that I knew about it. I never really fitted in properly
In the end, Mum sent me to Camelot in the hope that I would learn to control my magic and perhaps find some kind of purpose for it. I was surprised to find that its purpose was to serve you. Believe me, I didn't expect that at all. I couldn't believe it when your father made me your manservant because, in all honesty, I couldn't stand you.
Anyway, that's all in the past. I realized that you were destined to become a great king, and that I was destined to support you in getting there. I've used magic all along to do that. I'm sorry that I couldn't tell you; I've wanted to every day.
All I really want to say is that whatever you think of me now, I did it for you. It didn't take long for me to believe in you. If I'm still alive, then I still do. I'm honoured to have served you, and to have been your friend. I couldn't have wished for more.
With all my heart,
Arthur stood rooted to the ground, staring at the words in front of him, unable to take them in, unable to get past the first two lines of the letter. He read and re-read them, his throat suddenly strangely dry. Dead or banished.
The one possibility that Arthur had always refused to countenance in all that had happened to the two of them over the years, to keep ruinous despair from leading to treacherous inaction. Merlin was dead. The world around became hazy and slipped away from him, and all that existed were the words in front of him and the black pit that was opening up beneath him. Dead - or... banished? By - him? Slowly, he came to. What? No, this didn't make any sense; he had misunderstood something.
But as he read on, the relief that had begun to wash over him wavered. Surely this was some kind of bad joke. What was Merlin playing at? But this wasn't Merlin's kind of joke. Merlin didn't joke about friendship or his belief in Arthur. Not like this. Arthur could feel his stomach starting to knot up. As quickly as it had come, incredulity now gave way to anger, and Arthur turned slowly, and walked, each step taken very carefully, very deliberately, as if directed by controlled rage, out of the room and across Gaius' chambers.
'I want my useless manservant brought to me in my chambers the second anyone sees him,' he said venomously to the nearest guardsman. 'I don't care what he's doing, or what excuse he produces. He is to be brought straight to me, do you understand?'
The guard's eyes widened and he nodded.
Arthur leaned into his chair, one elbow on the armrest, hand propping up his chin, while the fingers of the other hand drummed a tattoo on the desk, furious eyes fixed on some unidentifiable object behind the wall at the rear of his chambers, moving only when there was a knock and the door opened and his hapless manservant found himself being pushed inside.
'Merlin. How nice that you've found time in your busy schedule to drop by and see an old friend. I do hope my little request to see you hasn't upset your plans.'
'Not... at all,' said Merlin, looking behind him at the guards who had accompanied him to Arthur's chambers, shoved him inside and were now closing the door, eager to leave the king and the servant on their own lest they be caught up in whatever storm was brewing. 'Arthur, what exactly is going on?'
'I really think-'
'Sit. Down.' The words were almost hissed as Arthur's eyes narrowed.
Merlin drew up a chair across from Arthur a little nervously. While he had witnessed Arthur's anger in the past, and been the object of it often enough, there was something in the king's demeanour which he had not encountered before. He couldn't place it, and it unsettled him.
'Look familiar to you?' Arthur picked up a piece of parchment that lay in front of him and tossed it over to Merlin.
'Can't say that it... does...' Merlin's words slowed down as he unfolded the letter and recognized his own handwriting. His stomach dropped, a dark space opening up inside him as fear rose up to fill it. It gripped his heart, squeezed, and he was suddenly strangely aware of the sound of his own heartbeat in his ears. He swallowed as he became light-headed and a wave of nausea swept over him, while his mind desperately told him that none of this was real, that it wasn't happening, that it would stop any second now.
'What the hell, Merlin?' shouted Arthur. 'What. The. Hell?'
'Not a word! Not a single bloody word, do you understand?' Arthur yelled, standing up and leaning across the table, slamming one hand flat on it, the other pointing straight at Merlin. 'You've spent so long lying to me that I have no reason whatsoever to trust anything you say. Ten years, Merlin, ten bloody years you've been here serving me and I like to imagine that just possibly at some point in those ten years, I've proved to you that I might just care for you slightly more than for most servants - that I might actually trust you.' He stood up straight, gesticulating as he spoke. 'And now it turns out that while I've been trusting you, you've been diligently lying to me every single damn' day. What could possibly have made you think that that was remotely okay? It's not even like you became a sorcerer while in my service - no, you tell me you've had it all your life, born with it, that you were already steeped in magic the day you set foot in Camelot, and that you've been lying to me every single day since then. What could possibly have possessed you-'
'Don't "Arthur" me!' He brought his fist down on the table with a resounding crash. 'I don't want to hear it, Merlin! You must be even more out of your little mind than I imagined if you think that I'll want to hear anything you have to say. Happy to be my servant until the day you die, you say? What, just so long as serving me doesn't include telling the truth? You know what, I'm not even sure I would have minded if you were just like the other servants - deferential but with no real interest. But no, you came along with your banter and your concern and your pledges of unswerving loyalty - things I require of no servant, things you freely offered - and all along, you've already agreed with yourself that that's going to be a pack of lies because you're going to keep denying one of the most fundamental truths about yourself. Really, Merlin? Is that really how you think loyalty works? Because I have news for you: it doesn't. I expected more from you; much more, in fact. What have I held back from you? Nothing. You know me better than anyone because I chose to allow you to. I must have been a complete idiot to imagine that that was reciprocal. I trusted you, and look what it got me: a decade of lies. What in the name of wonder did you think you were doing?!'
Merlin sat through Arthur's tirade in astonishment as the king continued to yell at him. The fear had lessened. This wasn't at all how he had expected this conversation to go. Execution he had feared, yes. Banishment, yes. But Arthur wasn't talking about these things. Perhaps... - then he thrust his surprise aside, and his eyes narrowed.
'I don't need to take this from you of all people,' he shouted back, jumping up and pushing his chair back as he did so. 'You're talking about us as if we were the best of friends and yet it's taken this for you to come to that conclusion and actually say so. The one time,' he held up a single finger, 'the one time, Arthur, that you managed to actually tell me that you cared about me, in the tunnels under the White Mountains when Agravaine was pursuing us, you denied it seconds later! What kind of friend does that? Has it ever occurred to you that trust is earned, Arthur? Why the hell would I tell you about something that could get me killed if you knew when you can't even bring yourself to tell me outright that your concern for me is big enough to make it safe for me to tell you? Banter's all very well, but it's hardly enough to tell me that risking my life is a good idea. Don't come to me with this "bad friend" crap, because two can play that game!'
'Oh, so you lying is my fault, is it?' Arthur threw up his hands in mockery. 'That's splendid, that is. I came back for you in those tunnels, didn't I? What about that business with the mortaeus flower? Or when I took your place to fight Gwaine when Jarl caught us? Or when I kept Queen Annis from having you killed? Or when I carried you from the mercenaries in the Valley of the Fallen Kings? Haven't I saved your life often enough to prove that I'm your friend? What more did you need to know?'
'That was when you didn't know that I had magic! For all I knew, you'd treat me exactly like your father would have. You banished Gwen when you saw Lancelot kiss her! If that was how you felt about being betrayed by someone close to you without magic, how much worse would you have treated me? Your father taught you to hate everything about people like me. You can't seriously have imagined that I would tell you unless I was certain that it was safe! For all I knew you'd just run me through on the spot!'
'So you admit that what you've done is a betrayal-'
'Betrayal?!' shouted Merlin. 'In what universe have I betrayed you, Arthur? Morgana betrayed you. Agravaine betrayed you. They actually worked against you. They tried to kill you, and everyone loyal to you. They tried to bring the kingdom to its knees. They hated you, while claiming to support you. That's betrayal. I've given damn' near every day I've been here for you!'
'I'm not playing bloody word games with you, Merlin. You lied to me. You made me think I could trust you, and you lied. You lied outrightly. You told me that there was no place for magic in Camelot - and all the while, you were magic, right there at the heart of Camelot, right next to me. If you want to say that you aren't like Morgana, fine - but don't imagine that you haven't betrayed my trust, because you have. This isn't about Morgana and Agravaine - this is about you. You. Lied. The fact that you didn't know whether it was safe to tell me or not doesn't change that fact. And anyway, when I told you that you were the only friend I had and that I couldn't bear to lose you, I meant it, and you know that.'
Arthur stood with his hands on his hips, shaking with anger, while Merlin stood stiff and straight, hands curled up into tight fists, his knuckles whitening. The two men glowered at each other, both of them feeling acutely the sting of being wronged, maligned. Then, quite unexpectedly, Merlin deflated. He dropped his eyes and sighed.
'You know what, Arthur? You're right. I did know that you meant it, and I lied to you. But there were other reasons besides the fact that I wasn't sure whether it was safe - and whatever you say, and whether you accept it or not, I couldn't be sure. We didn't talk much about whether those with magic deserved to be killed or not. Every time I thought there might be an opportunity, something happened to make you hate people like me more. And the one time I thought I could perhaps tell you, I had to say whatever it took to prevent Mordred from killing you.'
'What on earth has Mordred got to do-'
'It doesn't matter.' Merlin sat down. 'The point is that there were other things that stopped me from telling you. You're the king-'
'Oh, so you're aware of that, are you? I had wondered.'
'-and if I'd told you, I would have put you in an impossible dilemma. So long as your father was alive, you'd have had to choose between him and me - and whatever I thought the likely outcome of that might be, I just don't see how it would have been right to force that choice upon you. So long as you didn't know, you didn't have to choose.'
Arthur sat down slowly, staring at Merlin all the while, his face inscrutable.
'Even if you'd chosen me, I would have been asking you to break the law for me by keeping silent. How could I do that? And once you became king, it seemed even more impossible. You became the first defender and upholder of the law that I'd been breaking ever since I came to Camelot. How could I ask you to compromise on that over me? I know I have a pretty big destiny, but it just wouldn't be right for me to invite you into a crisis of conscience over me. And on top of that - yes, alright, I've known one way or another that you care for me at least to some extent for a long time. How could I make you choose what to do with me - whether or not to execute your friend?'
'And you know what made it even harder? The fact that I knew that if I told you, I'd be another person close to you who'd betrayed you. I knew that I was the one person left whom you thought it safe to trust. Don't imagine that it didn't hurt me to lie to you, Arthur, because it did. Every single time I did it I felt it. It never became easy. It never became okay. But the idea of hurting you and leaving you on your own hurt more. The idea of what you could become if I did that was devastating.'
'You still lied.'
'I know I did. I'm just saying that I'm not sure that telling you the truth would have been better. Yes, I lied. Betrayed you, even - you're right. But I wasn't lying when I said that I believed in you, and that you'd become the best king this land has ever known, ruling the greatest kingdom the world has ever known. I still believe that. And to tell you the truth at the wrong time would have been a betrayal of that - of you as the king I know you're destined to become. You might-'
'Not if you hadn't chosen to stay with me. You could have quit and left Camelot, instead of lying.'
Merlin stopped as if he'd been slapped in the face and stared at Arthur. It was as if he had forgotten all the words he had ever learnt, and he felt the fear return with a stranglehold.
'Would you rather I'd done that?' he eventually forced out quietly, suddenly finding it difficult to breathe.
Arthur searched Merlin's face. The bright blue eyes stared back at him, unflinching, and it suddenly struck him that they never did that when Merlin had something to hide. His manservant believed everything he was saying.
The years rolled by in Arthur's mind. Merlin saving Arthur from the witch's knife. Arthur saving Merlin from poisoning. Merlin in the stocks. His annoying way of waking up his king in the morning. The stupid grin that seemed to reach all the way between his stupid ears. The fat jokes. Merlin accompanying Arthur to fight the dragon. Merlin accompanying Arthur whatever the odds. Merlin believing in Arthur and Gwen when Arthur didn't. And despite everything he'd said, Arthur knew that Merlin had been as loyal as he knew how - whatever lies he had told, he was not Morgana.
'No,' he said finally. 'No.'
Merlin swallowed and tried to smile. 'I feel the same way. Even if you told me right now that you were obliged to burn me at the stake,' he said, his voice cracking as he struggled to hold back the tears, 'I'd feel that I'd done what was right by staying here, and that I'd rather have shared the time with you, and served you, than have done anything else.'
Arthur looked past Merlin at the unidentifiable object behind the wall. His own throat was starting to feel thick. Wretched man with his wretched emotions. This kind of thing had never happened before Merlin came along. He swallowed and tried to change the subject.
'Of course, none of this solves the problem of what I do with you now,' he said gruffly. 'You've given me exactly the dilemma you were trying to avoid.'
'Well, if you hadn't gone sneaking around my room-'
'Merlin, it's my castle. I can do what I want. Besides, you were meant to be with me this morning, helping me sort out the wretched paperwork Lord Camden sent me. Where were you, anyway?'
'I, uh - I, well...'
'Given that I've just found out that you've been lying to me for a decade, I think this would be a good time to stop doing that, don't you? So the truth, please.'
'I was trying to find Mordred.'
'I think that when he broke out of the dungeons, he joined Morgana.'
'Why would you think that?'
Merlin shifted uncomfortably and his eyes fixed on the wall behind Arthur's chair.
'Merlin. The truth.'
Noon had passed into early evening. Arthur sat back in his chair, staring at the man in front of him who had just told him a most improbable tale about dragons, betrayal, power, endless self-sacrifice, loyalty, and a shared destiny. Had anyone but Merlin told him this story, he would not have believed it - but it made too much sense of the last ten years and it sounded too much like the Merlin he knew for him to do anything else.
'Did you find him?'
'Mordred. Did you find him?'
'No. No, I didn't. But I think we should plan for the worst, because he knows who I am - and if he really has joined Morgana, then she knows who I am, too, and she knows that if she can get rid of me then you'll have no magical protection.'
'You assume that I'm keeping you.'
Merlin looked at Arthur. 'If you want me to go, I'll go, though you won't be able to stop me from trying to protect you, even from a distance. But I know that sooner or later you'll have to decide what to do with me, and that I've given you a problem with no easy solution. I'm sorry. I didn't want to do this to you.'
'What do you want me to do?'
'I don't know. I need some time to think about it.'
Merlin stood up. 'Then by your leave, my lord, I will give you that time.'
Arthur waved his hand, and Merlin made his way across the room. Looking over his shoulder, he tripped on thin air and caught himself on the door. Arthur snorted and tried hard not to smirk.
The following morning Merlin woke up with the rising sun. The skies were clear, a brilliant blue, and the sun shone brightly and undaunted into his little room. Outside, the birds were singing happily, and Merlin smiled to himself. He quickly packed his few belongings before slipping out of his room, down the stairs, and across Gaius' chambers. The old man was still fast asleep. Merlin had told him the previous evening of all that had happened, and of his decision to leave Camelot in secret.
'But what about Arthur?'
'I don't have to be in Camelot to be able to work against Morgana. Besides, if she knows who I am then she'll be looking for me in Camelot, and not outside it. I'll be safer if I'm not here, and Arthur won't have to decide what to do about me if he can't find me.'
'I don't like this, Merlin. It's dangerous.'
'No more dangerous than staying here. It'd be better if Morgana can't find me, and if Arthur was focused on his task of protecting Camelot. He doesn't need to be distracted by trying to work out what to do about me. Morgana's bound to strike soon.'
'How long are you going away for?'
'Until Morgana's been dealt with, or something happens which means I have to be in Camelot. I'll come back once it's all over, at the latest. I owe it to Arthur. It's my fault that he's in this position, but I don't think he'll be any happier if I just disappear forever. Besides, I think it'd probably kill me.'
With that, Merlin had gone to bed. Gaius clearly wasn't at all happy about his ward's plan, but there was little he could do about it, as Merlin had eventually told him. The young warlock now walked through the corridors of the quiet castle and down to the stables. None of the stablehands had come to work yet, but Merlin knew his way around the horses very well, courtesy of Arthur's little list of chores, and he had soon saddled one of them before he realized that they would probably all be needed in any upcoming campaign, and decided that he would walk instead.
As he left the stables he glanced up at the white towers of the castle, the red and gold Pendragon banner flapping lazily in the gentle breeze. A smile crept across his face. However long he had to leave for, this would always be home, and -
Merlin wasn't watching where he was going, and suddenly found himself sprawling on the ground. He looked up and saw a figure outlined against the sky.
'And where do you think you're going?'
'Arthur! I'm just-'
'Save it, Merlin. Gaius told me last night.' He offered a hand, which Merlin grabbed, and his friend pulled him up.
'Then you understand why I can't stay.'
'No, I don't, and I'm not allowing you to leave.'
'Shut up, Merlin. I'd actually already made up my mind before Gaius came to me. Listen, I'm not going to pretend that discovering you'd lied to me didn't hurt, because it did, and it hurt because I thought you knew me better than that. I understand that you were afraid - that you couldn't have told me when you first came to Camelot. We both know what my father would have done to you. But I'm not my father. I took a positive decision not to be like him. You were right: I did mean what I said to the druid boy when Elyan was possessed, and when I stopped the villagers from burning the woman they said was a witch, I knew my father would have disapproved - but I also knew that I was doing the right thing. I am not my father, Merlin.'
'Then you should also know that I'm not willing to simply let you go. Even if I was convinced that my father was right, which I'm not, your friendship would mean too much for me to be able to do what he would have done. I can't make myself do it. Yes, you've broken the law and you'll keep on breaking it by your very existence so long as you're in Camelot, and yes, that creates problems for me, but I'd rather overcome those problems with you by my side, the way I've dealt with everything else over the last ten years.'
'But that means that you either have to break the law or-'
'I know that. But I also know why that law was made: it was made on the assumption that you didn't exist. No one has showed me the kind of loyalty you've shown me, Merlin. Day after day you've been central in my life, whether I knew it or not, and you've put yourself firmly in the background because you believed in me. The law doesn't know about people like you. The law is wrong. It's that simple.'
'But the Council would never accept-'
'Really, you need to leave the strategizing to me; your hare-brained idea about not being here when I'm in the greatest danger tells me that of the two of us, I handle it a lot better. I've been playing politics all my life. The point is this: we can deal with the challenges in due course. I want you here, by my side. I'm not willing to give you up.'
Arthur and Merlin stood silently, looking at each other.
'And I'm sorry that it took me ten years to say that.'
Merlin shook his head. 'Doesn't matter now. You've said it.' He grinned. 'How about a-'
'You don't even know what I was going to say!'
'I know exactly what you were going to say.'
The two young men walked back into the castle, bickering happily.