Pairings: Merlin/Arthur pre-slash (actually, pre-slash would be pushing it)
Warnings: An unnecessarily angsty ending, a general lack of purpose, and an alarming absence of gay porn
Disclaimer: Everything belongs to BBC and anyone else who can stake a legitimate claim on Merlin (except Arthur).
Summary: The truth about Merlin comes out, and Arthur has a hard time accepting it.
Word Count: ~2,200
It’s easy to forget about the magic.
Merlin goes about his business as usual. He still misses smudges on Arthur’s armour, still stumbles in his hurry to keep up on hunting trips. He still can’t secure the saddle tightly enough on Arthur’s stallion, and the bridle is still completely out of the question.
Sometimes Arthur wonders if Merlin can do magic at all. Perhaps he imagined the brief demonstration Merlin gave him – it was, after all, exceedingly hot that day. Besides, Merlin is an inadequate clod; if he can’t pour water into Arthur’s cup without sloshing it everywhere, how can he possibly conjure it out of thin air?
If only it were that simple.
Arthur should have known. He should have known the moment Merlin’s grin melted into a grave expression, like he had something important to say. Merlin never has something important to say.
“What’s wrong with you?” Arthur demands, offering Merlin a hand. He’s breathless from their practice duel – it seems Merlin has been practising behind the scenes, because he actually managed to last more than ten seconds, at one point even posing a bit of a challenge.
Merlin takes Arthur’s hand, his sweaty palm sliding through Arthur’s fingers before he manages to secure a grip strong enough to haul himself to his feet. He straightens up, dusts off his backside, and stands before Arthur, worrying his lower lip.
“I need to tell you something.”
“It will have to wait until we’re inside. It’s sweltering out here. You need to get this armour off me before I melt.”
“No, sire, I need to tell you right now.”
The firmness of Merlin’s tone makes Arthur sigh. “Out with it, then.”
For a brief moment, Merlin’s features crumple in despair before hardening, settling into a look of determination.
“I… maybe it’d be better if I showed you.”
“Tell me, show me, I don’t care,” Arthur snaps, annoyed because it feels like an oven inside his armour.
Merlin raises a hand, palm to Arthur, fingers splayed. He hisses something under his breath and his eyes flash gold. Before Arthur even has time to process what he just saw, his armour lifts off him and rearranges itself in a neat line on the ground.
Arthur stares at Merlin, suddenly icy all over. Merlin looks pale as death, but there’s utmost sincerity in the set of his mouth.
So Arthur does the only thing he can.
Surprisingly, Morgana is the first to interrogate Arthur.
“What have you done?” she screeches the next morning as she storms into his room without warning, waking him from a troubled sleep. “Why is Merlin in the dungeons?”
Arthur rolls over. The seeds of a headache are already blooming in his temples, and there’s still an hour until breakfast. “It’s none of your business, Morgana.”
She grabs his arm as he reaches for the curtains around his bed, forcing him to look at her. Her eyes burn with indignation and anger. “What did he do to you?”
“What is it to you if Merlin is imprisoned?” Arthur snaps.
“He’s my friend,” Morgana spits. “I swear, Arthur, if I find this was over another one of your petty arguments…”
“Enough,” Arthur says through clenched teeth. “Leave my chambers this instant.”
Morgana glares at him, looking as though she would very much like to spit in Arthur’s face, and then spins around without a word and storms out of the room.
Arthur’s father is the next to notice Merlin’s absence.
“What happened to that manservant of yours?” he asks carelessly that evening at the feast they’re holding for a visiting nearby king. “The two of you are usually attached at the hip.”
Arthur forces his face to remain impassive. “He wronged me, so I sent him to be punished.”
Uther nods, looking pleased. “Good to hear you’re finally developing a stomach for these things. Servant boys ought to know their place. I always thought you were too soft on that particular one.” He stands up, claps Arthur on the shoulder. “Now go greet King Giffard’s daughter. She’s been eying you all night.”
Next comes Gaius, who knocks on Arthur’s door later that night while Arthur is trying to figure out how to untie the laces of his boots.
“Who is it?”
“Gaius, my lord.”
Arthur’s stomach clenches in anticipation. He considers sending the old man away, then decides it’s better to face the inevitable now than later. “You may enter.”
Gaius looks very grave when he shuffles into the room. He shuts the door quietly, gazes solemnly upon Arthur.
“I trust you know my reason for visiting already.”
“I have my suspicions.” Arthur’s evading the confrontation. He knows it. Gaius knows it. He takes a deep breath. “Did you know?”
Although he hoped Gaius would look confused, he is not surprised by the understanding that floods Gaius’ face. “He told you.”
“How long have you two kept this a secret from me?” Arthur grinds out, twisting the laces around his fingers until they cut off his circulation. “Who else knows?”
“Only you, sire. I had hoped to keep Merlin’s abilities hidden, given the current… circumstances.”
“I am his master. I deserved to know. He could have been performing sorcery while I slept! He had access to the entire castle; you know how dangerous –”
“Do you believe that?”
Arthur thinks of how Merlin’s face always contorts briefly in dismay every time Arthur shoots a bird or deer. He has never met a man with Merlin’s blind compassion for all living things.
Gwen is the last to approach Arthur. He is prepared for her when she brings in his breakfast the next morning.
“Guinevere,” he says, bringing her to a halt as she retreats with the empty breakfast tray. “Spit it out.”
She flushes. “My lord, I –”
“I will not release Merlin,” Arthur says bluntly.
“I do not wish to question your actions, my lord. I only hoped – that is, I think Merlin ought to be given a second chance.” She clears her throat. “Of course, it is not my place to speak on the matter. Forgive me.”
“No, it is not.” Arthur studies Gwen, taking in the downturned corners of her usually smiling lips and the worry crease between her eyebrows. He has never seen her so miserable. “Do you know anything of Merlin’s crime, Guinevere?”
“No, my lord.”
“Then why do you speak on his behalf?”
She lifts her eyes from the floor, and Arthur spies a glint of determination beneath the docility in her gaze. “Because he is a good man.”
For Gwen and Gwen alone, Arthur goes down to the dungeons to visit Merlin.
It’s as though Merlin can foresee his visit, because he is already pressed against the bars of his cell when Arthur steps into view.
“Sire,” he breathes, his face alight with hope.
Arthur looks away. “Merlin,” he says surprised by how hard and cold his voice is.
Merlin’s hopeful expression wavers. “I’m sorry. I had to.”
“Don’t,” Arthur says, and he pretends the word isn’t thicker than usual. “I didn’t come down here for your apologies.”
Merlin drops to the floor. “Please, sire, don’t execute me.”
Arthur looks down. Disgust and pity swirl in his gut. He thinks of all the awful things he could do to Merlin in this position, and knows Merlin would gladly bear everything in exchange for forgiveness. His throat tightens until he can scarcely breathe, and all he can manage is a scathing, “Get up, you look pathetic.”
Obediently, Merlin scrambles to his feet.
“You lied to me.”
“I had no choice,” Merlin says miserably. His fingers uncurl from the bars and stretch through the gaps, as if reaching out for Arthur, but then seem to remember their place, tightening once again around the iron.
“I trusted you.” Arthur’s voice is beginning to shake. This is not good.
“And for good reason! I risked my life for you, Arthur, and I would gladly do it again. Nothing has changed!”
Arthur takes a step back. “Everything has changed.”
He turns and walks back up the stairs without looking back. Reconciling with a sorcerer – and a traitorous one at that – is out of the question.
Arthur visits Merlin again one week later, this time in the dead of the night.
When Arthur arrives, Merlin is curled up on the straw-littered dirt floor in a thin pool of moonlight, snoring lightly. Arthur steps closer to the bars, eyes fixed on Merlin’s sleeping form.
He looks so… peaceful.
Something wells up inside Arthur, tightening in his chest. How can it be? How can an idiot as harmless as Merlin possess such dangerous and evil powers? As much as Arthur hates to admit it, Merlin is right – he’s never harmed a hair on Arthur’s head. Why should the knowledge of Merlin’s true self make a difference?
Because he lied to me.
It is then that Arthur realises his face is pressed against the bars, cold iron digging into his forehead. He backs away. The echoes of his footfalls ring in the dungeons, and Merlin stirs.
“Mmph,” he says, spitting out a piece of straw stuck to his lip. He raises his head and looks around blearily. His eyes widen when he spots Arthur. “Sire?”
Arthur is already halfway back up the stairs. “Go back to sleep, Merlin.”
“Wait, Arthur, don’t go. I’m awake now.”
“I can see that,” Arthur sneers, but he pauses on the steps. After some consideration, he turns around and walks back to Merlin’s cell.
“Is something wrong?” Merlin says earnestly.
“No, nothing.” Arthur struggles to get the words out. How can he admit that he came because he missed Merlin?
Relief floods Merlin’s expression, twisting the tightening sensation in Arthur’s chest further. “Good.”
“I cannot release you,” Arthur blurts out. He can’t help but note that he always seems to say that every time he feels his resolve wavering.
A pause, and then a quiet sigh. “I… I know. Your mind is set. I accept my fate. If your father finds out you excused me, he’ll have you punished, and I can’t let that happen. I’m supposed to protect you.”
“You’re supposed to… what?”
“Never mind,” Merlin says, waving a hand. “When is the execution, then?”
Arthur shifts uncomfortably. “It hasn’t been set. My father does not know yet.”
“He hasn’t questioned you?”
“Of course he has, not everyone is blind as a bat like you. I haven’t told him yet, you moron.”
They fall into an uncomfortable silence. A chink of light from the small window in the cell hits the wall behind Arthur and crawls towards him as the sun begins to rise. Still, Arthur can’t bring himself to move. He feels safe, comfortable in Merlin’s presence, and he hates that he does, because Merlin is a sorcerer. No, worse – he’s a traitor.
The touch of Merlin’s fingertips to Arthur’s jerks him out of his reverie.
“Be careful,” Merlin says softly. “There are people who seek to destroy you. Don’t be too proud to ask for help when you need it.”
“I don’t need to hear this,” Arthur snaps, and then he hurries upstairs before anyone notices he’s missing.
Apparently Arthur was wrong to assume it wasn’t possible to be more inadequate than Merlin, because his new manservant – a young boy from the village with ears that make Merlin’s look normal-sized in comparison – is utterly useless.
After a week of cold meals and unmade beds, Arthur decides he’s had enough. Magic or not, he needs Merlin back.
Merlin resumes his duties immediately. No one seems to mind. Morgana shoots Arthur suspicious looks but says nothing, Uther merely raises an eyebrow, and Gwen bursts into tears and throws herself on Merlin when they bump into each other in front of Arthur’s chambers the next day. Arthur is not around to see Gaius’ reaction, but he assumes it’s a positive one.
One evening, when they have a moment alone, Arthur locks the door to his chambers and slams Merlin against it. “Never say a word of what happened to anyone.”
Merlin makes a small, startled sound, eyes going cross-eyed as he looks down at the fist Arthur has clenched in the front of his shirt. “Yes, sire,” he squeaks.
Arthur releases Merlin and takes a step closer, until all the air between them seems to disappear. “If I ever catch you performing magic tricks again, I will not be so forgiving.”
“I understand,” Merlin whispers, his agreement a warm exhale of breath across Arthur’s lips.
For a moment, neither of them so much as breathes. Then Arthur nods and turns around. “Undress me,” he says roughly.
Nothing has changed, after all.
Yet even though they resume their normal relationship without too much of a fuss, Arthur feels an unfamiliar ache somewhere below his diaphragm. It’s a slow-burning, gut-wrenching one. It simmers all day, an incessant distraction during his duties, until it escalates to a stabbing throb when he lies in bed at night, the sheets cool and the air chilly despite the obediently lit fire crackling in the hearth.
It’s an ache Arthur feels somewhere unreachable inside him when he’s alone – when he can feel Merlin’s loyalty in every neatly pressed shirt, in every carefully plumped pillow, but not Merlin himself – not the Merlin for whom Arthur would have given his life without second thought, at least.
The rift between them is a daunting physical presence. There’s no denying the truth: Even if they manage to reconcile, there will always be a jagged scar separating them.
Because Arthur will never forget about the betrayal.