Still A Secret

Merlin and Arthur (AND Reida)

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So many times, Merlin had watched him die.

It didn't matter if it was poison, or battle wound, or enchantment or vision. Without fail Merlin was at his prince and now his king's side, usually helpless and fretting as he watched the life drain yet again from his friend's body.

Sometimes Merlin felt he was battling against fate, against destiny, to keep Arthur alive.

And yet some miracle always fell through. The antidote, the token spell, the change of fortune that made Arthur's eyes blink open and lips curve into the smallest of smirks, alive, possible. Arthur would joke how Merlin must have been so worried—because he wouldn't have a job any longer, of course—and Merlin would roll his eyes and conceal his relieved sigh. Then brace himself for the next attempt on Arthur's life.

That was how it happened.

Why then, at his dying king's side once again, was it happening like this?

"Arthur," Merlin said once again, though even he could hear how weak the address sounded. The chance that the king would wake—after Merlin had tried every spell in the book, called out in his mind to Mordred for help, shouted vocally for it till he was hoarse—now, after minutes of silence only broken by his own heavy breathing and the fading breath of the king's, seemed smaller than ever. Less likely even then the wound inflicted on him in the battle of Camlann, which had taken Mordred and Merlin together to heal.

The king groaned—a weak, half-hearted sound only heard in such silence—and Merlin buried his head in his hands, finally burnt out of spells and hopes and miracles. He could only grasp firmly onto Arthur's limp hand when the pathetic groans continued, hoping to be some kind of comfort as his king, his friend, his brothersuccumbed to the grip of this relentless enchantment.

The enchantment. Merlin could feel it wrapped snugly around Arthur, cocooning him like a thick, second skin. Sinking deep into him, nearly impossible to root out. Merlin had tried, the Gods' knew he had. Now he laid his free hand on Arthur's kingly brow in defeat, merely trying to understand the strange power over his friend—and gasped as the power latched onto him again as well.

Merlin was flung back into the forest of Arthur's dreams, collapsing to his knees as the shelves around him gave way to vegetation and the floorboards melted into damp, leafy ground.

"Merlin, what's the matter?" he heard Arthur say, and Merlin looked up to see Arthur standing, looking down at him half with amusement and half with worry. All that gave way to shock when Merlin stood to fling his arms around the man, too overjoyed to care that Arthur didn't return the embrace. "Now I'm really getting worried," Arthur said as he slowly retracted Merlin from him, eyebrows raised.

Merlin huffed a laugh, unable to keep the grin off his face. "You're alive!" he said, about to collapse to his knees again in sheer relief.

"And why wouldn't I be?"

Merlin's mouth opened a few times before he realized he didn't have an answer. "I . . . don't know," he admitted, relief twisting into slight panic. There'd been a good reason to worry, he was sure of it. "What are we doing here?" he asked, changing subject, and Arthur looked around them for a moment before pointing off to Merlin's left.

"There!" he shouted, racing off in that direction, and Merlin hurried to follow. It was then that he saw what Arthur was after-a blue butterfly, flittering in a lazy, looping trail away from them. The sight of it knocked Merlin's senses a bit; surely he'd seen this same insect before? Surely he'd followed after Arthur, keeping after its path, through this very forest in another time?

"Arthur, wait," he said to the man ahead of him, suddenly wary of where they would be led.

"No, we're going to lose it!" Arthur kept up the chase, stopping only when Merlin dragged him to one by grabbing his wrist. "Merlin!" Arthur protested, though he begrudgingly didn't move again as the butterfly flitted behind a tree, out of view.

"Let's think this through," Merlin suggested, breathing hard, and Arthur huffed a disbelieving breath.

"You and your untimely delays," he growled, crossing his arms. "What now?"

Merlin bit his lip, wondering exactly that. "Well, why are we following that thing in the first place?" he started with. Nothing was making sense, but that least of all.

"Because we must," Arthur replied simply, shrugging. "I . . . I'm not sure."

"Exactly," he sighed, thankful he wasn't the only one. "Something here's not right."

Arthur looked around them again, and suddenly Merlin noticed the forest didn't look so much like the one out-skirting Camelot, not anymore. It was buzzing around them, filled with an overwhelming amount of life, every tree, every leaf, every insect . . .

As if the whole world were vibrating.

By Arthur's face he didn't recognize the place anymore either, though with every passing moment Merlin feared he knew exactly where they were. "The Disir," he said aloud, wishing he were wrong.

"What?" Arthur asked sharply, obviously recognizing the name.

"The Disir. This forest reminds me of theirs; the grove of Breneved where we traveled to meet with them. Can't you feel it?"

"No. Apparently I remain immune to holy ground."

"Well it's the same, so . . ." Merlin bit his lip, wondering if he should say the next part out loud.

"What is it?" Arthur said, too skilled at reading at him.

"I don't know. Maybe . . . what if, if it's them, the Disir, enchanting you?" The second Merlin said it he felt a nervous panic at the rightness of it. "You never died like they predicted, Camelot was never destroyed. And your dreams, Arthur. They're what started you ending the ban on magic—just like the Triple Goddess wanted!" The more Merlin spoke the more it made sense. He was foolish enough to believe that he'd defied fate when Mordred and he had defeated Morgana on the plains of Camlann, saving Arthur and Camelot in the process. But what if this was their revenge? Enchanting Arthur to legalize magic like he once swore he wouldn't, then slowly suck the life from him anyway. Merlin felt sick with the realization.

"No."

He was snapped back to reality, or whatever reality they were now in, and Arthur's jaw was as clenched as the single syllable that had been pushed through it. Merlin stared at him in confusion, unused to this stubborn, blinded side of Arthur.

"Arthur, can't you see—"

"I'm tired of other people explaining away what I see." Arthur grabbed onto Merlin's arm firmly, squeezing it a little as he added, "It was right to end the ban, Merlin. I told you once I'd never regret that. I don't."

Merlin couldn't help it. He wrenched out of the king's grip, stumbling back a few steps as the words that had stopped him from confessing himself time and time again were spoken again. Yet this time, a reckless part of him wanted the opposite—to laugh in Arthur's face, defiantly state that he would regret it, once he knew all that Merlin had done. All the black sins he'd committed, even in the name of Camelot, every decision he'd made that could never be carved from his soul. Arthur would hear them—and then oh, how he would regret.

It was clear Merlin's horror manifested in his gaze, Arthur watching him with alarm as he tried to compose himself. The man didn't ask what was wrong, however, and for that Merlin was grateful; he cleared his throat, schooling his features, and managed, "What we see now isn't real Arthur. Regardless of how you feel."

Merlin was in Arthur's dream. He'd forgotten, perhaps the enchantment trying to ensnare him as well, but Merlin remembered now. They weren't really here; Arthur's life was still in mortal danger. And Arthur had no idea.

"I know, Merlin," he said, contradicting Merlin's thoughts. Merlin stared at him, stunned. "You're just part of this dream. I know."

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Reida ran at Mordred's call, dropping the laundry in the midst of the corridor and ignoring the protests of those around her as she hurried back down the stairs.

Reida was used to ignoring. With how little she spoke, people often assumed her deaf as well as dumb, so there was little repercussion in pretending the assumption true, once in a while. She made it to the courtyard doors quickly, rushing past the guard that asked her business with the physician, and climbed up the steps to his chambers in threes.

By the time she burst through the door everyone in the room startled toward her, Mordred's eyes lighting just a little as they met hers. It seemed the crowd was a mournful sort, however, teary and worried and fretting though their faces were currently shocked, the Queen most especially.

"Reida?" The lady asked in disbelief, eyes wide and glistening.

"I sent for her, your majesty," Mordred explained as he met Reida the rest of the way, guiding her past the sea of councilors and knights to whatever lay behind.

The king and his servant lay behind. They looked to be in similar states of unconsciousness, unrestful, magical slumbers that Reida felt the influence of immediately. The physician was there, checking the king's pulse, his face gaunt.

Merlin called for me in his mind, Mordred explained to her in Druid speech, and I found them like this in the archive room. Apparently Gaius had sent for them about what he'd found there concerning the king's illness, and Arthur must have collapsed first.

What had he found, then? she asked, and he shook his head.

Gaius hasn't said yet. He's been too busy examining them in the little time that's passed.

Reida nodded, scrutinizing the sleeping mens' faces before moving opposite to Gaius, at Merlin's side. He is bound to King Arthur, not the spell itself, she realized as she peered past temporal vision and felt the invisible skin of the enchantment. I think, should he wish, Emrys could wake from it without any opposition.

Mordred's eyebrows raised. "Then we must try to wake him immediately!" he said to Reida, out loud, drawing the attention of all in the room.

"What is going on, Mordred," the queen inquired worriedly, glancing between them.

No, Mordred, Reida shook her head.Can you not sense the strings tied between them? Beyond prophecy and fellowship, even? Emrys is tethering his master to this world. If Emrys were to wake now, I fear the king would quickly perish. He must stay asleep.

But for how long?Mordred bit his lip, staring at his king.Are we just delaying the inevitable?

No. We will use this time to see what can be done for them. Ask the physician.

"Gaius," Mordred turned to the old man, speaking out loud again. "What is it you found in the Archives?"

"Something not intended for so many ears," Gaius intoned, giving the Queen a significant look.

She nodded and turned to the crowd immediately. "Thank you so much for your concern for your king and his wellbeing. We must now put our trust in our Court Physician and allow him to do his work." Her words were not explicit, but her meaning was clear. With little fuss the chamber slowly emptied, Queen Guinevere, Gaius, Mordred, and Reida herself left looking over the unconscious men.

"Now you must tell us, Gaius," her highness ordered, though not without kindness. The old man nodded, pursing his lips, and left the king's side to his working table, lifting one large book and one rather slim book from his bench to the table top.

"Here," he said, after opening the thick one and flipping through a few pages. His finger tapped at a passage, and Mordred and the queen quickly moved to either side of him, reading whatever the scrawl said. Reida, as it would be useless to look over the scrawl of something she could not read, waited for their interpretation.

It turned out to be rather vague. "But it says here itself that such a thing was merely legend," Queen Guinevere said the second she'd finished, not mentioning what 'such a thing' happened to be.

"Indeed. These old records from the archives do not go back to that time, my lady, and we are left with little more than speculation," the physician nodded, though there was a gleam in his eye as he spoke.

"Then why did you think it of importance?" Mordred asked, frowning down at the page.

"Because of this," Gaius said, opening up the smaller book and laying it on top. "One of the oldest books I own, mind you, written in druidic runes." He then read aloud a passage from it, much to Reida's relief, saying, "Prophets and seers alike hold little will toward their soothsayings. But greater powers have never allowed their words to be tarnished. And so the great ones must be corrected, and destiny righted."

"That is what Arthur suffers from? Revenge of the Gods?" The queen's usually warm-toned skin all at once flushed of color.

"Something akin to that, I believe," Gaius nodded, solemn.

"So nothing can be done about it," Mordred said, half in exasperation and half in defeat.

It? Mordred, what are you all speaking of?Reida inquired of him.

Mordred looked on her with sorrow. I'm sure you've heard of it, as I have growing up. The old legends, never written, but still passed down from our people. The King's Sleep, as our elders call it.

The King's Sleep. Reida recognized the term immediately—and wished she hadn't.

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"Arthur, it's really me! I'm really here!" the dream Merlin's voice was edging towards desperation.

Arthur was really getting tired of this argument. He sighed, not turning to look back at the conjured servant as he replied, "I'm sure you think so. And that's great for you. Doesn't mean you actually are."

"I followed you into the dream on accident. I've done it before, I'm just as real as you are!" the dream Merlin protested, catching up to his side with a huff.

Arthur walked faster. "Merlin, I understand you think you're really here. You've said it enough in the interminable amount of time that's passed. But that's the authenticity of it all—you can't exactly know you're part of a dream, or it wouldn't be as intimately realistic as it always is."

The dream Merlin groaned in frustration.

"Anyway," Arthur said cheerily, scanning the trees as he walked, "I have your company regardless. You may as well make it less intolerable."

"You are a complete cabbage head, your highness."

"And you're an idiot, in real life and in my dreams. Now let's move; I swear I just saw it a minute ago."

The butterfly was remaining elusive ever since the dream Merlin had pulled him back from the chase, though Arthur could still feel the call to follow it like a pulsing living thing in his chest. Find it, find it, follow, follow, you will see, it said to him with each beat, faster than the rhythm of his heart. He would not ignore it again. Arthur had never been more aware inside his dreams than now, but he'd also never been more conscious of the direction the dream wished to take. That he must follow.

"What do you think the real Merlin would know, that I wouldn't?" the dream Merlin asked as they rested for a moment at a strange, circular clearing, and Arthur raised his eyebrows.

"This again?" he asked, leaning against one of the old stone structures that circled around them, and when his conjured servant merely glared he sighed and tried to think. "I really don't know. There would be a difference, though."

"Like what! That you value your men more than your life? That you saved Guinevere with the words 'With all my heart'? That you're secretly self-conscious when I say something about your weight? That you always sleep on the left?" he threw his hands up when Arthur merely blinked, startled by all this personal knowledge being thrown at him in such rapid succession. "What do you want me to tell you?!"

But then Arthur remembered. "No, the real Merlin is distinctly separate. Not about what he does know—about what he doesn't know. That is the difference between him and you."

"What the bloody hell does that mean?"

"Simple!" he replied, figuring he might as well settle it once and for all. "You know something he doesn't. I've seen Merlin perform magic! I know he is a sorcerer—I know he's been using it since he came to Camelot. And the real Merlin thinks it'sstill a secret, after all this time!"

The dream Merlin swayed on his feet, mouth gaping open, pale face going whiter than bone. Arthur stared at him in confusion as his chest drew in fast, shallow breaths, eyes vacant and glassy, maybe even a bit wet. "Merlin?" Arthur asked, and that was when Merlin raised shaking hands to his face, burying it in them, and dawning realization twisted Arthur's gut into a knot. "Its . . . it's not really you, is it, Merlin?"

The clearing seemed hushed, as if it too was aware of the fragile reveal that Arthur had unknowingly given. For Dream Merlin had performed magic in front of him before, his eyes had glowed with the flame of sorcery without shame many a time. But this Merlin—he was standing there, just a few feet from Arthur, as if the words that had just passed between them were enough to crumble his very soul.

"How—When?" Real Merlin finally croaked from behind his hands, and Arthur's throat felt tight himself as he answered, "A few months after I'd passed the law. You lit the fire in my chambers."

Merlin pulled his hands from his face quickly, reddened eyes wide. "I—I remember. I think. You sent me off early, and I worried for a moment. But then you never said anything after, so I—"

"You never said anything after. You never said anything for more than a year, Merlin!" He found himself shouting, anger and betrayal brimming. He didn't know he still felt that, still felt anything behind hopelessness anymore.

His friend looked stricken, words silently playing on his lips until he managed, "I had no idea, no idea that you—"

"That I knew already, yes, of course you didn't. I made sure of it." Arthur gritted his teeth together, though he wasn't able to stop himself from his next words. "It was then I realized you would never trust me enough to tell me. Even after the law was passed, even after I'd spent months dealing out justice to all, regardless of their practices! Somehow, still—you couldn't just tell me the truth. You still don't trust me with it."

"No, Arthur." Merlin stepped forward, eyes searing into his with such intensity Arthur wondered that they didn't glow gold. "I always trusted you. I used to joke, how you would cut off my head, how the second my magic was made known to you I would get the pyre. But I knew you to be a just, merciful ruler. I don't know what decision you would have made before this dream changed you, but I never doubted you, Arthur. Not for a second."

A flickering, hesitant hope stemmed in Arthur's heart. But he wouldn't be quick to accept it. "That doesn't make any sense. You trusted me, even when you wondered if I'd kill you? Why else would you have kept it from me so long, a whole year after I declared your people free of persecution?"

Merlin's face softened a little, eyes looking down self-consciously. "I just . . . I'm ashamed of it."

Arthur's mouth dropped open, aghast. "Ashamed of your magic? Merlin! You should never be ashamed of who you are. I'm sorry, if something I once said, if anything like that has made you believe—"

"No, no Arthur, I don't mean that," Merlin looked up at him, face twisted into a pained grimace. "I mean what I've done. Lied to you and everyone we know since the moment we met, killed countless men and women, destroyed and damaged so much in my quest for our destiny. I was consumed with it. And I never told a soul. Not once. People found out—of course they did, I was horrible at discretion—but after all this time, I never told anyone." Merlin's shoulders slumped, his eyes traveling down again as he whispered, "Not even you."

"Merlin," Arthur started, crossing to him and putting a hand on his shoulder, and Merlin grasped it with his own tightly.

"I'm so sorry, Arthur, I am. It's unforgivable, everything I've done—"

"Merlin," he repeated crossly, and for some reason that tone in particular could actually get his manservant to shut up for a moment. He slowly lifted his eyes to Arthur's, stricken. Arthur gave him a gentle smile. "After all this time . . . there's still time. Do you understand?"

Gradually, it seemed Merlin did. His eyes grew wide, softening that ridiculous smile of his as it grew across his face. Arthur dropped his hand off his shoulder, waiting patiently as Merlin took a deep breath. Then he looked his king in the eye and lowered to one knee, bowing his head as he said, "Sire, I pledge my life both to your protection and Camelot's. I believe in the kingdom you have and will continue to build. Arthur, I. I have—magic. I am a sorcerer, and I pledge my power to you and Camelot forever."

Arthur's eyes widened as he felt a familiar weight settle on his belt, tugging it that extra half-inch down his waist. He looked down in disbelief at Excalibur in its sheath, gleaming and ready for his use. The whole clearing seemed to echo with its arrival, the stone structures standing around them as if to witness what would happen.

And then Arthur understood.

He unsheathed it from its scabbard, the harsh sound startling Merlin into a flinch, his eyes surprised and fearful as they looked up at the sword in Arthur's raised hand. But then he shut them tight, lowering his head again, as if waiting for judgment to be passed. Death, or life. But the judgment Arthur intended to pass was much greater.

Arthur lifted Excalibur before resting it on Merlin's right shoulder, then his left. "Rise, Sir Merlin. Knight of Camelot, Court Sorcerer, First Advisor to the King."

When Merlin lifted his head his eyes were wide as saucers. "This is the part where you stand, Merlin," Arthur said after a moment, lifting an eyebrow at the frozen state of his manservant. Of his manservant no longer.

"I—I don't, uh, don't think I can," he said intelligently, glancing at his legs.

It was so ridiculous Arthur found himself fighting back a snort. "Oh for the Gods' sake," he muttered, pulling up Merlin's gangly limbs without finesse. Merlin still looked to be in a bit of a stupor where he stood, however, like he'd just had the brains knocked out of him. Not that that would make too much of a difference, in Arthur's opinion.

"Did we just do that?" Merlin asked slowly, looking around him at the standing stone like this was his dream, not Arthur's.

"Technically yes and no," he replied impatiently, though Arthur couldn't help but inwardly wonder the same. Had he really just knighted Merlin?

And yet, had it really taken this long?

Arthur shook his head. "But that doesn't matter. What matters—"

Suddenly he heard a flitting by his ear, distracting him. Arthur turned to look just as Merlin pointed, saying, "Its back!" before he saw for himself. The butterfly was making lazy loops in the air above them, though after getting their attention it quickly darted to the left, urging them away from this place.

"Do we go after it?" Merlin asked him, and for once there was nothing implied in it. It was an honest, sincere inquiry. This was Arthur's choice.

"Yes," he decided, and then flashed Merlin a shite-eating grin. "Time to follow the butterfly."


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