Pairing/s: Arthur & Merlin
Summary: When Agravaine is revealed as a traitor, Arthur learns more than he'd ever imagined.
Word Count: 3020
Author's Notes: Many thanks to my ever-patient beta, camelittle. You rock!
This story takes place at the end of Series 4 but with a liberal dose of AU. Some of the dialogue was from The Sword in the Stone part 2 by Julian Jones. My recipient wanted canon-verse with a magical reveal (from series 4 or 5 although they said they'd take any series). No unhappy ending - which for me was extremely difficult (I'm pretty much an angsty writer so it was harder than it looked).
Disclaimer: Merlin is owned by the BBC and Shine. No copyright infringement is intended and no profit is being made. Don't send us to the dungeons.
Also on LJ and AO3
Merlin was an idiot, a brave one but definitely an idiot. Scrawny enough that a slight wind could blow him over, one would think he'd at least keep a sword with him for protection. He might be impossibly inept at sword-fighting; he'd trip over water if given half the chance but at the very least he could threaten someone with the blade before he ran away.
But the idiot had left the sword behind. It lay there in the dirt, a silent example of Merlin's bumbling eagerness to plough ahead without any thought of the consequences. Did Merlin really think he could go up against Agravaine's men with his bare hands and win? The very idea was absurd.
Arthur wasn't worried, though. He'd rather go through hell itself than admit that the idea of losing Merlin frightened him. After all, a Pendragon never admitted to weaknesses of any kind but especially one to do with feelings. No matter that his heart might say otherwise, Merlin was not his friend, certainly not his best friend, and he was sticking to that.
As the moments ticked by, though, Arthur grew more and more concerned. He knew he should be thinking about the battle, about his uncle's betrayal and how deeply it had hurt, about Morgana, once a beloved sister and now a vengeful witch out to destroy his kingdom, obliterate his people and, as she had oft said, bathe in Arthur's blood. But instead of plotting to take back his realm and defeat his enemies, he found himself haunted by Merlin's continued absence. He should have come back by now.
It was a distraction that was turning quickly into dread.
Finally, while he could feel the pressure from the others to get moving, to leave Merlin behind and just get on with it, he couldn't. He knew Merlin would have moved heaven and earth to be by Arthur's side. It was taking too long; something must have prevented his return. Thrusting the torch into Gwen's hand, he told them that he was going after Merlin and before they could try and change his mind, he hurried away. The echoes of their disbelief followed him into the darkness.
It didn't matter. He was going to find Merlin and beat some sense into him if it was the last thing he ever did.
First he had to track him down, no easy task. The caves were riddled with side tunnels. But after a wrong turn or two, there was a faint glow of torchlight ahead and voices raised in loud argument, suddenly cut off. Cries of pain and several thuds resonated down the tunnel; it sounded like bodies being thrown back and a final hard landing. There must be a battle raging ahead and if Arthur knew anything, it was that Merlin would be right in the middle of it - as usual.
Arthur couldn't rush in, though. He needed to see how many men were there and if Merlin was captured. It would make it more difficult if he were a prisoner and unable to escape into the tunnels once Arthur made his move.
And then, his uncle, his once-trusted uncle took a step back, his face and chest framed by the tunnel's rough opening, standing directly in Arthur's line of sight. Thankfully, Agravaine didn't turn, didn't even look in Arthur's direction, just kept staring down the tunnel toward something or someone that Arthur couldn't see. He didn't dare lean forward to try and find out what held Agravaine's interest. He needed information first.
There was a fleeting moment of surprise on his uncle's face but then a smile, cool and calculating, grew there. A snake's delight, charming its hapless victim just before it struck. "You have magic."
Magic? There was a sorcerer in the cave? With Agravaine? He could barely keep his sister at bay. Another sorcerer allied with Morgana would be Camelot's undoing.
His heart plummeting, hope leaching out of him, he almost didn't hear the reply.
"I was born with it."
For a moment, Arthur couldn't breathe. It… it sounded like Merlin. That, of course, was impossible. Merlin could barely put one foot in front of another on a good day. Magic? Merlin? With his aptitude for trouble, he'd have the kingdom covered in giant daisies, the stables littered with unicorns and flying kittens, the moat full of fish singing off-key; he certainly wouldn't be able to keep it a secret, not Merlin.
And yet it was Merlin's voice he'd heard.
"So it's you. You're Emrys."
His heart started beating again. Not Merlin, then.
"That is what the druids call me."
Arthur froze, his mind gibbering denial even as he accepted the truth. It was Merlin. It couldn't be and yet he'd know that voice anywhere. What was left of his heart shattered into dust. Treachery, over and over again and from those he loved most dearly - Morgana, Agravaine, Guinever and now… even now, he couldn't comprehend it. Not Merlin, not that bumbling, lovable, excruciatingly idiotic man who demanded the best of him, who seemed to love Arthur as man and not as king. Friend, advisor, royal pain in the arse and now a traitor.
Was it something in Arthur that he could not hold loyalty, that he wasn't worthy of love? That all he ever received was betrayal?
He wanted to leap forward, to cut them both down for what they'd done but he knew he needed more information. Any knowledge of what they planned next could be turned to Camelot's advantage.
He'd deal with Merlin's treachery in his own way when the time came. A battle's clean death wasn't good enough for him; he deserved the traitor's axe.
"And you've been at court all this time, eh? At Arthur's side. How you've managed to deceive him. I am impressed, Merlin. Perhaps we're more alike than you think." Agraivaine gave a little snicker, looking immensely pleased with himself, preening, posturing as only he could do.
"We are nothing alike." Merlin's voice was cold as ice.
Frowning discomfort, Agraivaine looked as if he hadn't expected that reply. "Of course we are. You lie to him every day, remarkably well, I might add. Perhaps you could give me some pointers."
"Did you think I'd betray him like you have? Do you think I want that kind of power? Arthur deserves better than the lies you feed him."
It sounded almost as if Merlin were angry, not playing Agravaine for advantage but genuinely furious about the accusation. Could it be that Arthur had got it all wrong? That Merlin, liar though he was, could also be genuine, that he loved Arthur after all?
Agravaine stumbled back, gravel crunching under his boots. For just a fleeting moment, a look of worry paled his face before the snake's smile returned. "Come, come, Merlin. You deceive him as much as we. Do you think he'd thank you for it?"
"I don't want thanks."
If Merlin had been cold before, now Arthur thought the very air might freeze. He shivered, too, just from the sound of winter's rage in Merlin's voice.
"Then you are a fool. He'll never accept you."
Sweat staining his face, Agravaine began to send sidelong glances toward the tunnel entrance, obviously looking for a way to escape. He must have thought Merlin a weakling, a mere servant and now was finding a man of power, one he couldn't manipulate so easily.
Still hidden in the shadows, Arthur strained to hear Merlin's reply. He'd hoped that he was wrong, that Merlin was everything he'd appeared to be, a loyal, loving man who thought well enough of Arthur to put up with his faults - of which Arthur had many if truth be told. And if he was not, was instead a master manipulator, then Arthur would deal with the loss in time.
But at least he finally would know the truth, one way or another.
For a moment, there was silence.
Waiting there, Agravaine grew more agitated, wiping his hands against his chest and down his side, looking as if he were trying and failing to regain control of the situation. There was no place for him to go except into the very tunnel where Arthur was hiding and if he did, no matter what else happened, his uncle would not survive it. Arthur would make sure of that.
Merlin must have moved closer. From his vantage point, he could see Merlin's long fingers gesturing toward his uncle. After all, from what Arthur had seen in his fight against magic, power could be thrown as easily as a knife and Agravaine must have known that. He flinched back.
"Yes, I lie about my magic but I’d do it all over again for Arthur. If it meant he'd live another day."
Could it be that Merlin was true after all? That for all his lies about magic, he really did love Arthur?
Agravaine started to mutter something, mocking and shrill, but Merlin would have none of it.
"You have no idea who you are dealing with. I've killed for him, betrayed friends and kin for him, abandoned the magic users who have pinned all their hopes on me for him. All to keep Arthur safe. I've lost loved ones and sometimes I feel so damn alone that I can't breathe for the pain."
At that moment, Arthur hurt for him, too. He had no idea of what Merlin had gone through. He'd lied indeed about more than just magic; he'd lied about the pain that Arthur could have eased had he known. Yet he hadn't trusted Arthur enough with any of it.
Merlin's white face, scowling and set, came into view. There was power there in his fierce gaze, daring and righteous and unwavering. From the way he looked, Arthur thought that Merlin could conquer all of Albion if he wanted.
"Foolish boy. He's just a petty king with delusions of grandeur. Your sacrifices have been for nothing."
"It doesn't matter what sacrifices I've made." Standing tall, looking as determined as a knight about to do battle, Merlin said, "He's worth more to me than you will ever know. He's my friend. He's my world and I'll die first before I'd let you destroy him."
As the last words echoed down the tunnel, Agravaine struck, throwing the knife he'd hid in his fumbling hands at Merlin. Arthur let out a gasp, a warning but Merlin was faster.
Glowing yellow, Merlin’s eyes were a bright corruption in the gloom. His hands moved up to block the knife but Arthur knew it was a foolish gesture; the blade would cut into Merlin's skin as easily as butter. But instead of blood and pain, the knife hovered in mid-air, and then as it fell to the ground, there was a sharp clink of metal against stone.
As soon as he threw the knife, Agravaine twisted, running away as fast as he could, but he wasn't fast enough.
With a single thrust of magic, Agravaine was shoved upward, soaring, soaring, straight into the ceiling's jagged rocks. There was a snap of bone shattering the air, his screams cut off, the silence final and fatal. By the time his body hit the ground, he was already dead.
Merlin slumped forward, leaning against the wall, looking as if he wanted to vomit. But he didn't flinch as he gazed down at Agravaine's corpse. Instead he seemed to take blame onto himself, gathering grief and duty, staring down at his hands before giving a long, dreadful sigh and straightening up.
And then he saw Arthur.
There was a flash of guilt in his eyes, and bone-deep fear and Arthur, blind as he had been until now, could see how Merlin was already gathering the threads of some fantastical story to spin into a web of deceit. To lie to Arthur again.
Merlin's reaction cut Arthur to the quick. Was he so afraid of what Arthur might do that he wouldn't trust him with the truth? After all they'd been to each other?
The idea made him both furious and unbearably sad. "Don't. Don’t do that, to me or to yourself."
"Arthur, I…" Shame was solid as rock in the way Merlin huddled inward under Arthur's frown. He seemed to be waiting for condemnation. It made Arthur ache to see it.
"I heard everything."
Merlin refused to look at him, just wrapped his arms around himself as if cold or afraid and said, "I'm so sorry. I wanted to… but…."
"Merlin, I heard everything."
At that, Merlin looked up. Pale, resigned, he gave Arthur a little smile that had nothing to do with joy then turned sombre. "Will you… will you do me one favour and tell my mother that I died in battle? I wouldn't want her to know that I was executed. She'd blame herself for it. You know, sending me to Camelot and all. I don't want her to blame you, either, and it would be easier if you just lied about it."
At first, Arthur had no idea what he was talking about. But then a heartbeat later, he realised that his sword was still raised, ready for battle. One swift stroke and Merlin's life would have ended right there.
It sickened Arthur to know that he'd put that kind of dread in Merlin's eyes. But worse was the realisation that he would have let Arthur kill him without a fight. Just for having magic. When had he earned that kind of sacrifice?
Shoving his sword back into his belt, he said, "Merlin, I'm not going to execute you."
"Exile then or is it the dungeons?" Blinking rapidly, looking confused, Merlin just stood there, watching Arthur come toward him.
"You are an idiot. I've always known it but this just confirms it." Arthur put one gloved hand on Merlin's shoulder and shook him a little. Oddly, it seemed to calm Merlin. "I'm not going to punish you, well not until we get back to Camelot and then you are going to tell me about every single damnable lie you've ever told me, even the little ones, and I'll decide then." He tightened his grip, anger in his touch, and then let his hand fall away. But he couldn't keep the hurt out of his voice. "Did you think you couldn't trust me? I thought we were friends."
"I do trust you, I do. I just couldn't bear that you'd hate me for it." When moments ago, Merlin seemed the most powerful man in Albion, now he was more like a wounded dog, waiting for his master to punish him. There was grief and worry swimming in his eyes even as his mouth quirked up into a fleeting smile. "And I did want to keep my head."
Arthur reached out, hand curled into a fist. Merlin stood there, resigned, waiting for the blow, but instead, Arthur gently knocked once on Merlin's forehead. He tilted his head a moment, pretending to listen, then said, "Don't see why. It's full of air, apparently." Then he stepped back, his voice turning serious. "Merlin, I am very angry and I'm sure there will be several items thrown at you at some point. When my father was alive, it was understandable that you'd hide it but am I that bad a friend? That you couldn't trust me with it?"
"Every time I tried, something got in the way and with Morgana always trying to hurt you, I didn't want to make things worse." Shoulders still slumped, still waiting for the consequences of his actions, Merlin said, "Can you forgive me?"
He wasn't going to lie about it. While he understood, at least a little, of Merlin's need to deceive him about his magic, in his heart, there was still a world of hurt at the betrayal. It would take more than just a few words to make things right between them.
"No. Not yet." Merlin flinched at that and then nodded, his face falling as Arthur said, "We've a battle to win and a kingdom to restore, and despite appearances, I am livid about it."
"Do you think you'll ever forgive me?"
"I don't know." That was truth enough. He'd have to see when the battles were done and he had time to think. "Will you forgive me if I don't?"
Merlin didn't hesitate. "Yes."
Such faith in him, even now. In a way, it was humbling.
"Don't lie to me again." There could not be any misunderstanding, not about this. He shook his head, pointing his finger at Merlin for emphasis. "I won't be so understanding, next time."
Something must have got through that thick skull of his. Solemn as a vow, Merlin said, "Sire, I promise. Never again."
It would be enough for now.
As they turned away, back toward where the others waited, Arthur bent down, picking up Agravaine's sword and shoving it into Merlin's hand. "Keep it with you this time. Use it. Only an idiot runs off without some kind of protection. How you survived this long is beyond me." Neither of them mentioned the magic.
As Merlin accepted the blade, he seemed to understand that it was a gesture of reconciliation, of possibilities of a future where they could be honest with each other, at long last.
"So your name is Emrys?"
"I have no idea why. Sometimes, I guess. Just like sometimes yours is clotpole."
Merlin’s voice was tentative, and despite the shy smile on his face, he looked worried. But as Arthur jostled him, bumping him with one shoulder as they walked, Merlin’s face lit up, his smile turning into a blinding grin.
With that, Arthur knew it would be alright after all. Once they took back Camelot, there would be tears and shouting and he wasn't lying about throwing things at his idiot. Even now the itch to throttle him was strong. It would seem that magic wasn't the only thing Merlin was hiding, the guilt still lurking in his eyes was proof of that.
But sometimes friends could forgive almost anything if their hearts were true. And Merlin's, liar though he was, was the truest of them all.