He didn't know how it happened. It had been so horrible, so abhorrent, that he hoped desperately that it had been a dream. He wished he could erase it from his mind, this sickening nightmare-memory, but he feared it would haunt him until the day he died.
He had been in his chambers having dinner. Merlin was being his bumbling self, as usual, always obnoxiously cheerful and forever stealing bits of food off Arthur's plate—not that he minded, no. Merlin was skinny enough as it is. And if Arthur purposely left a bit more food on his plate than usual, Merlin never said anything. He simply ate the rest as he continued his chores. Waste not, want not; there were people starving, after all!
But something had gone wrong. Merlin had been finishing over half of Arthur's dinner—the king having been feeling a bit off since his lunch with his uncle, thus leaving more for his manservant—when Merlin had frozen, the last slice of apple dangling from his mouth as he stopped reorganizing Arthur's desk. Arthur looked up from the hunting knife he'd been sharpening when the sound of shuffling parchment ceased and saw Merlin had pulled the apple from his mouth and was staring oddly at it.
"What's wrong, Merlin?" Arthur had called playfully. "Finally had your fi—" And then his friend had collapsed. "Merlin!" He'd rushed to him, carefully picking him up and placing him on his bed. "Merlin? Merlin!" he'd called desperately, trying to rouse the servant, hoping rather selfishly that he hadn't been able to sleep well the night before rather than Arthur having run him ragged or that Merlin had been sick and Arthur hadn't realized. After a terse minute—all that Arthur had been willing to risk—he'd flung open his door to demand that a passing servant—any servant—bring Gaius to his room immediately.
Except, he hadn't seen a servant. He'd seen his uncle, smiling oddly at him as he stood in the doorway. Better, Arthur had thought. Arthur was faster than any servant and he could trust Agravaine to watch Merlin as he got help. "Come in," he'd ushered, turning his back to his uncle without a thought. "Something's happened to Merlin. I need you to—"
There was a sharp pain to the back of his head, and all had gone black.
When he had woken, he found himself bound to the wall of a hovel. He could feel crusted blood on the back of his neck and saw Merlin—still unconscious—chained beside him. A door opened and he closed his eyes against the light.
"Hello, dear brother." The cruel, cheerful tone of such a familiar voice snapped his eyes open again. Morgana. She was wearing a tight black dress that looked as if it had been cobbled together out of scraps from a seamstress's floor—not nearly so fanciful as the outfits she'd adorned in court—and her hair curled wickedly about her face. Her dry lips tilted slightly in a malicious smirk and her pale skin seemed, if possible, paler than when last he'd seen her. "And how are you this morning?"
Things got blurry for a bit around then, blending together in one long horror show designed solely to break him. Agravaine, his very own uncle, had been plotting against him from the start. "Could not betray his sister"; ha! And he had believed him; believed that someone who could justifiably blame his father for the death of both Agravaine's siblings would perhaps not hold it against Arthur, because he too was part of Ygraine. Why did he always trust those who invoked his mother's name? First with Morgause, now with his own blood….
The next person to invoke his mother was being executed and that's all there was to it.
All those near-misses, all those ambushes en route, had been Agravaine feeding Morgana's obsessive drive for the throne, but they were apparently tired of waiting for one of their plans to flourish. They were getting impatient, and this was just as well. No one would suspect until Morgana arrived and forced his court from his castle, Agravaine—who had told everyone that Arthur had taken his servant for a hunt and would be back the next day—by her side.
He would betray his sister's flesh, but he would aide his enemy's bastard. That made sense.
Why was Merlin there, he had wondered briefly, before deciding that the loyal clot pole would be the first to raise the alarm and Agravaine knew that. But he was wrong. Certainly, that was a deciding factor, but also…
Merlin had killed Morgause. Not completely, it would seem, but he had injured her so severely that there was no saving her, no future for her but a long and painful death. And when had Merlin killed Morgause? Why, unseating Morgana from Uther's throne by spilling the Cup of Life, of course! And it seemed he had continued to thwart Morgana, each of her assassination attempts somehow being prevented by King Arthur's clumsy, devoted manservant.
Well, except for that one where Morgana had enchanted Merlin to be the assassin; no, that one was ruined by an old sorcerer—the same one who had killed Uther Pendragon—who was apparently named "Emrys", not "Dragoon the Great". Except he hadn't killed Uther. No, he'd tried to help Uther. The king had died from an amulet reversing all healing magic, enchanted by Morgana and planted by Agravaine.
Had he his strength about him, Arthur would have sliced that smug look clean off his uncle's face, and then perhaps gagged Morgana. Her love of her own voice hadn't changed, it seemed.
And now, now they were going to kill both him and his best friend. A spell was placed so they would be forced to watch each other, and an emotion enhancer was placed on Merlin, ("So that you may feel perhaps a fraction of what I felt when you killed my sister," Morgana had explained vindictively), as he—now fully conscious as the sleeping draught from Arthur's food had run out—was slowly turned for a better view of his king's murder. Morgana's final plot come to fruition; Merlin's final disappointment of his master; Arthur's final failure to protect his friend.
Except that wasn't what happened.
Morgana had raised her dagger high, Agravaine watching with eager eyes behind her, when she had suddenly been slammed against the wall Merlin had been previously bound to by the skinny dollop head himself. Merlin's usually laughing blue eyes burned gold with what Arthur knew was magic and spoke of pure, unbridled rage.
Perhaps the emotion enhancer hadn't been Morgana's brightest idea.
Morgana had been unable to move and Agravaine had been unable to help as Merlin's forearm pressed slowly and deliberately into her neck. Morgana choked, desperate for air, powerless to even claw at the force that held her immobile.
"You tried to kill my king," Merlin had said, his voice low and dangerous like Arthur had never heard before from any except his father when someone dared to mention the lost queen. "You tried to make me kill my king." His voice had raised, harsh and infuriated, at the thought of being his master's downfall and his arm had pressed tighter and Arthur heard something pop. "You may regret that." The words seemed foreign, as if they weren't truly his own, and from the twitch of Morgana's eye, he was quoting something from one of their many encounters.
Merlin removed his arm to silently cast a spell on himself, and as his hand glowed gold, Morgana took the opportunity to speak; "Do whatever you think you can," she'd said, her voice muted and spiteful and harsh, her tone self-assured despite Merlin's chokehold. "I am not destined to die by your hand."
Merlin laughed malevolently, just a single short sound so unlike the man Arthur knew. "Ha! 'Not destined to die by my hand'? Morgana, darling Morgana," he continued in a loud, condescending voice, a false smile on false lips as his hand trailed tenderly down her cheek, "I am your destiny, and I am your doom."
Morgana's eyes widened and for once they showed fear. "Emrys—!" was all she managed to gasp out before Merlin's glowing hand plunged into her chest and she screamed with all she had. Arthur was unable to look away as Morgana's body twisted frantically around the appendage in her ribcage, blood oozing from around Merlin's arm and dripping slowly—oh, so slowly—down her dress and Merlin's wrist and falling ever so softly to the floor.
"You're not going to die just yet," Merlin whispered harshly into her ear. "I won't make it that easy." More stolen words from stolen moments he had never known about. Morgana began to sob awful, wretched, screaming tears, her back arched in pain and her entire body tense as Merlin's free hand gripped her by her hair and forced her to look at the wound he was inflicting. She gasped hysterically, her eyes wide and mad as Merlin's hand twisted within her. She made a choking sound and blood dripped down her chin as Merlin painstakingly removed his hand. She coughed on her blood as Merlin's hand was freed, and Arthur wanted to vomit, for laying innocently in his friend's palm was Morgana Pendragon's heart.
It was still attached to veins or organs or whatever it was hearts were connected to that needed to stay within the body, and it beat weakly beneath Merlin's fingers. "I wonder, how is it you have a heart that can still beat when it has been hardened by bitterness and hatred?" Merlin mused absently as he gently turned the heart over in his hand, careful to keep it in tact and working as Morgana watched on, hopeless, and Arthur tried with all his considerable might to look away. "All the love you have ever held, trapped within this one organ. It's rather small—wouldn't you agree?—which is rather fitting, as the only thing you ever loved in the end was not the man who cared for you, or the prince who played with you, or the physician who healed you, or the servant who cried with you. No, it was the sister who ignored you and your suffering, who only laid claim to you at your most vulnerable, fearful of a power you possessed and she shared. After all, when she arrived in Camelot, you were not her primary concern. Duelling Arthur was. And then speaking… to Arthur. And then granting a wish… for Arthur. You were rather low on her list of priorities, weren't you? She was just so focused on Arthur. Like your father was. Like your best friend was. Like everyone was, because he is the Once and Future King, and you are just… the resentful bastard."
Merlin seemed to be doing everything he could to attack the very thing he held in his hand, going straight for the jugular with such viciousness in his methodically delivered words and continuing until it was Morgana who would break and not the prince like she'd hoped. Arthur felt the witch he had grown up with had no more tears left to cry, but they somehow made their way down her pale white face.
"She only really spoke to you once you were angry at your father," Merlin carried on, seeming to take great delight in reminding his prey that her father was a man she despised. For she was his prey, and Merlin the most dangerous predator. "And even then—even then—she did not tell you of your relation. She simply tied a spell to you to bring down her enemies and sent you on your merry, oblivious way. Surely, she didn't think no one would be suspicious of the one conscious person in the city? Surely, she knew someone would figure out that you had to be the source of the spell and that the only way to break it would be to kill you? For Morgause wasn't stupid, was she, Morgana? Though apparently, you are, to not know you were simply a weapon to be used now that you were useful. Hell, the only reason she saved you was because your father didn't know of your treachery and you would come in handy later, once she had torn you from your family and bound you to her through the sisterhoods of blood and magic. Then you could be sent back to Camelot and…. Well, you remember. You played such an important role, after all."
His face was so mockingly sympathetic as he systematically tore at the one bond that had survived Morgana's rage; that of her sister's. He found every miniscule hole and prodded it, widening it and stabbing at it until there was nothing left.
"Even her last act was to strike at her enemies, not to comfort you, you who were forced to kill the only person you loved anymore. She didn't care the turmoil this would bring you, the hurt this would cause, only that it would fuel your desires to dispose of all those she felt wronged her. You remember those who 'wronged' her, right?" Merlin crouched down to look in Morgana's eyes as she stared blindly at the floor, each word tearing at her as surely as the edge of a blade. "Those people who loved you? Remember? She turned you against those who wanted nothing but for you to be happy and well, and now, instead of laughing and feasting and living in Camelot with your brother and father and friends, you are going to die miserable and alone. Oh, but don't worry, darling Morgana, you won't be forced to face the one who put you on this path. Only the pure of heart get eternity in Avalon. You shall rot in the ground; you and your sister."
Morgana wasn't listening, having broken long ago, and as Merlin finally ended the torture and crushed her heart, as blood seeped through his fingers and down his arm, as the muscles of the organ made a sickening squelch and leaked through his hand, Arthur heard his sister—his only sister—whisper a single word;
Arthur would never know what she was pleading for—mercy, her sister, her life— because at that moment, her head rolled to her shoulder, and Morgana Pendragon died.
"Well," Merlin said cheerfully as he shook the remains of Morgana's heart onto the floor, "that's one traitor down." He straightened up, allowing the magic that held Morgana's body in place to fade and sparing it only a single distasteful glance as it fell to the ground. He turned around to face a terrified Agravaine. "Let's go for two."
Agravaine's death was relatively quicker, though much bloodier. As his hands began to glow, Merlin needed only to say one thing to break the traitorous lord; "Ygraine would hate you." Then he reached both hands into Agravaine's chest and grabbed hold of his ribcage before tearing it open and desecrating all he found inside.
Agravaine screamed for as long as it took for Merlin to remove his lungs, and then he didn't even have that mercy. Blood splattered onto Merlin's perfectly white skin but he paid no mind to the stains to his clothes and his face, ignored the blood dripping past his eye as he tried to inflict as much damage as he could to the person before him. Even when Agravaine was so obviously dead, Merlin continued to remove each organ until the man's chest was simply an empty cavern. Arthur forced down his bile at the sight.
The hollow corpse fell to the ground as the bloodied sorcerer turned to him.
Arthur had finally passed out when Merlin had faced him and had woken up to view the forest canopy. To his left was a campfire, a pot filled with what smelled like fish stew bubbling away above it; to his right was a quiet stream where he saw Merlin, bare from the waist up, washing blood from his shirt.
"That wasn't a dream." It wasn't a question—not really—but still, Merlin answered;
"No." He finished washing his shirt and hung it up by his jacket and neckerchief. He stared at Arthur, not making a move. He remembered well what the young king had seen him do, and he wasn't sure how he would react once the shock had worn off.
"What have you done?" This was a real question deserving of a real answer, but this, Merlin did not respond to. It was too long a story with too long a back story with too important a prophecy with too unstable an audience. Sure, Arthur deserved to know just how fully intertwined they were, but not here, not now, not after watching his previously-thought harmless manservant kill his sister and uncle. What could he say that wouldn't endanger his king or their destiny? What could he say that would reassure Arthur that yes, he had killed, but it was to protect his friend and master, as Arthur had killed to protect his people? "What have you done?"Arthur repeated, a bit more desperately, a bit more pleadingly, a bit more demandingly as his noble upbringing made itself known again.
What could he say? "I have protected my friend." What more was there to say, than that? Merlin had protected his friend—not his lord, not his king, not his master, though surely those were better words to use to a noble—but his friend.
"With magic." Arthur meant it as a statement, an accusation, but his voice sounded more questioning and so pathetically weak. Merlin nodded only once, his face expressionless to any who knew him less. Arthur saw the emotions swirling beneath the façade, but still, he needed to know. "How long?"
How long had he protected him, or how long had he had magic? Merlin didn't know which was being asked of him, but they held the same answer. "Always."
Things are quiet after that. Arthur is afraid to turn his back on the sorcerer and Merlin is desperate to show Arthur that he has nothing to fear. He even offers to leave while the young king gathers his thoughts, but Arthur knows he wouldn't actually go anywhere and he'd rather be able to see the sorcerer than have him hiding in the underbrush.
Arthur finishes his serving of what was, in fact, fish stew and sets the bowl aside before staring intently into the fire. "Has the emotions enhancer worn off?" Arthur asks eventually, unsure he'd like the answer to any other questions he'd thought of during their time of silence.
"I think so," Merlin responds, clinging to the contact Arthur instigated like a lifeline and setting aside his own half-eaten bowl of stew. "I don't feel the urge to cry anymore, so that has to be something."
"You're such a girl, Merlin," Arthur scoffs, and for a second they both smile at the much-used line, but then Arthur seems to catch himself and they go silent once more.
Merlin is desperate for talking or violence or any kind of reaction—any kind of connection—he could get. He can think of only one thing to do and surely Arthur is calm by now? Surely he can know?
"I used magic to knock you out of the way of the dagger." Arthur looks up, startled that Merlin has initiated conversation rather than waiting for Arthur as he'd been doing. "And I summoned the snakes from Valiant's shield during your duel. I healed Gwen's father and cast a spell to destroy the afanc. Gaius says I conjured a light to help you in the caves when you went to get the Mortaeus flower. I enchanted Lancelot's lance to kill the griffin. I killed Edwin and got his bug out of your father's ear. I killed Sophia and her father and pulled you out of a lake they tried to drown you in. I had a sword forged for you in a dragon's breath so you could kill the wraith, though I had to hide it after your father used it instead. I conjured the wind in Ealdor, not Will. I disposed of most of the bandits who tried to kill your father at Gorlois's grave and when the Questing Beat bit you, I went to the Isle of the Blessed to find a cure and killed Nimhue."
Arthur stared. It's all he could do. All of that… Merlin had done all of that with his magic. He hadn't cursed the crops or destroyed the castle or killed his father. Hell, he'd saved his father. More than once. But, magic had killed his father. And his mother. And many of his people. And many of his knights.
"Is that all?" Arthur asked incredulously, not really expecting a response.
"Not in the least."
Merlin tells him everything. He tells him of the people he'd saved and the people he'd killed, the beasts he'd slain and the moments he'd only given a slight nudge in Arthur's favour to help the other man succeed. Everything—good, bad, ugly, beautiful, insignificant, and larger than all the kingdoms combined—is divulged to the young king, listening quietly as the sorcerer continued his tale. Merlin had done so much, all in the name of protecting Arthur.
It was after telling Arthur of Morgana's enchantment to turn Merlin against his king that Merlin admitted to being Dragoon the Great, or rather, Emrys, as he was known by the druids. He had explained his destiny—their destiny—to combine the kingdoms and bring magic back to the land, Arthur as High King and Merlin as the most powerful warlock to have ever lived.
Once he'd finished his story, Merlin fell silent, letting Arthur absorb what he had been told. There was a lot he'd wanted to omit; no one had known about some of the things he'd done other than Kilgharrah and Morgana, and Morgana was dead. As for Kilgharrah, Merlin could demand he never tell if he'd so wanted to. He hadn't wanted to keep anything from Arthur, though. The time for secrets was over; it had died with the last of Arthur's blood kin.
Arthur had raged, of course, when he'd been told who'd allowed Morgana to be taken and indoctrinated, who'd freed the dragon, who'd let the goblin out (accidentally!), and who'd discovered Merlin's magic before he had. Arthur is angry and upset and confused—of course, he has every right to be—but also, Arthur is moved. He knows how Merlin hates to hurt people, regardless of the horrific way he'd killed Morgana and Agravaine, and to know that he had pushed that disgust aside to protect Arthur from assassins and magicians and himself…. There are no words.
Just as there are no words to describe Merlin's loyalty to him, and it is that that Arthur has the most trouble accepting. He had always known Merlin was loyal, known it since the moment the servant had drunk poison for him, but this level of commitment, of blinding, naked trust…. You would think he would be used to it. He was the King of Camelot—he had armies under his command, ready to die should he wave his hand; he had his knights from the Round Table, who would gladly lay down their lives for him as he would for them; he had his people who, despite not knowing him as well as his knights and his armies and his servant, were faithful to their very last breath.
Distantly, he heard his father in the back of his head telling him that he was listening to a sorcerer—dining with a sorcerer—with absolutely no plans to kill him. Distantly, he was sure he should be more shocked, more concerned, that Merlin had magic and was, despite all evidences to the contrary, quite adept at lying about it, but if he was honest with himself, he'd always known something was different about Merlin. Notmagical, of course, because that sounded like it came from a fairy tale from before the Purge and he was a man—a masculine man, damn it—and he did not talk like a fairy tale, but still…. There was a part of him, he was sure, who'd always known that the clumsy, devoted manservant with the goofy ears and the goofier grin wasn't like anyone he'd ever known, and not just because he treated people as they deserved rather than as their title dictated they should be treated.
There had always been something about Merlin… but he would dwell on that later, much later, while he was lying in bed and contemplating all the other things he couldn't bring himself to talk about; Morgana's betrayal, Uther's lies, Agravaine's deceit, Merlin's magic….
Later, because now he had to focus on Merlin's dedication, and whatever had happened to cause it.
It couldn't be Fate. Merlin was not one to be pushed around, even by something as binding and unbreakable as Prophecy. Should Merlin so choose it, Arthur had no doubt the clot pole would stand up straight and march right out of Camelot—destiny and Albion and prattish kings be damned—and wander off to find a village to settle down in and have several equally clumsy, disobedient children, where he would grow old and grey and pass peacefully on in his sleep rather than dieing young in the blaze of battle as was looking much more likely and sounding so very ridiculous. So no, it couldn't be Fate.
It certainly wasn't the dragon—Kilgharrah, did Merlin call it? Kilgharrah had been bound for years before Merlin had arrived and had remained bound for years after. And Merlin is a Dragonlord, the lastDragonlord, though he wasn't then and wouldn't have known even if he had been. A dragon couldn't command Merlin, no way about it. Kilgharrah commanding Merlin would be a bit like Gaius commanding Arthur; he'd be ordered to do something that sounds wise and perfectly reasonable and probably should be followed but, for all intents and purposes, could be ignored just as easily as if he'd never heard it. So no, not the dragon either.
Which left only Arthur himself. Arthur. Arthur Pendragon, son of Uther Pendragon, magic's greatest opponent. What could Arthur possibly have done in the short years he and Merlin had known each other to warrant such unwavering commitment? It made no sense. Arthur was constantly insulting Merlin, calling him all sorts of things—idiot, buffoon, moron, fool, clot pole—anything he could think of. He was always abusing Merlin, forcing him to join in knights' training for the soul purpose of having a target to swing at. He never gave up a chance to drag Merlin hunting, though he knew the servant hated it and made a point to be as loud as possible so as to scare away any game Arthur was able to spot, preferring instead to fish for his dinner, something he was obnoxiously good at. Arthur never even listened to Merlin, especially not when he had something important to say, and even when events played out and joined the increasingly long list of Things Merlin Warned Him About That He Refused to Pay Attention to So Then Everyone Suffered, Arthur never bothered to learn from it and decide that maybe, just maybe, he should believe Merlin next time he claimed something ludicrous was threatening the kingdom.
If Arthur was what kept Merlin on the path Fate had set before him, then it was only a matter of time—wasn't it?—until Merlin decided that, yeah, it was fun and he'd learned a lot but the king was kind of an arse and he'd just be on his way, then. Thanks for the employment and the constant abuse. Buh-bye, happy life, good luck running the kingdom without a servant brazen enough to drag the king out of bed, read him his schedule, and write all his speeches.
Distantly, Arthur was sure he should be worried that his thought process was focused on, not the power Merlin possessed or the lives he had ended, but the reasons he had done so and whether or not they were good enough to keep him in the city. Distantly, Arthur was sure he shouldn't be so worried that his servant—his servant—would just up and leave one day and never come back. At the moment, though, he couldn't bring himself to care.
"Why?" Arthur asks when all is said and done, when nothing more lies between them, when night has fallen and owls take flight and the only sounds for miles is the songs of the forest and the beating of their hearts. "Why do you do this? Why do you sacrifice so much… for nothing?"
He has to know. The answer—the answer to this one, stupid question—will change everything. The word reverberates through his mind. Why? Why? Why? Why…
And Merlin gives his foolish grin. "It's not for nothing; it's for you." He gazed into the heart of the campfire that had long since died. "Everything is for you."
"But why?" Arthur repeats desperately, not entirely sure he wants to know.
Merlin looks at him, confounded that Arthur even has to ask. "It it written," he begins, before Arthur abruptly cuts him off.
"So that's it? That's everything? The only reason you've remained in Camelot is that 'it is written'?" Arthur feels inexplicably broken, as if Merlin had turned him to glass and shattered him on the forest floor. He had trusted Merlin, confided in Merlin, formed a bond in friendship deeper than any with his knights, deeper than any he had experienced before, and Merlin only put up with him because "it is written".
"No," Merlin insists firmly, eyes alive with a fierceness Arthur had never seen in his mild-mannered friend. It was as ferocious and strong as the hatred that had burned in them for Morgana and Agravaine, but somehow warmer and protective and—dare he say it?—loving. Merlin continues; "You are my lord and my master, my mentor and my pupil, my king and my brother and my friend. You are my destiny and mine alone; mine to guide, mine to protect, mine to raise up when those who scoff at your youth would knock you down. And you may scoff, too, that your bumbling manservant might do what others cannot, what your knights cannot, what you yourself cannot, but you are everything, and all I have, all I am, is at your disposal." Arthur is stunned by his speech, both the words themselves and the unwavering intensity with which he said them. And now Merlin wants to know; "What am I to you?"
With all that has happened, with all he has learned, Arthur takes a moment to respond. He had known before, he had known exactly what the servant with the too-big smile and the too-large ears was to him regardless of propriety and social order and common sense, but what was he now, now that he was magic, now that he was powerful, now that he had killed? Who was this stranger he thought he'd known? Except, he wasn't a stranger, was he? He was still Merlin—just… Merlin. He still had a too-big smile and too-large ears; he was still clumsy and uncaring of ranks and blood. And Merlin had always been powerful, the only difference between then and now was that Arthur knew. Arthur finally knew, and he knew that this "stranger" was no stranger at all, simply a different side of a well-known friend.
"You are my subject and my servant," Arthur tells him finally. "My mentor and my pupil, my brother and my friend. You are my destiny and mine alone; mine to guide, mine to protect, mine to raise up when the demons you battle from the shadows would knock you down. And you may scoff that the one you are written to look after might watch over you, too, when you have seen too much, when you have done enough, when you have no one to share the burden of the path placed before you, but you are everything, and I will bring magic back to Camelot—and then to all of Albion—for you."
Gwen watched them from the battlements, her friend and her love, as they rode into Camelot the next morning. Things looked different between them—not bad, mind you, but… different. They seemed off-put, as if the ground was shifting violently and they were the only ones who took notice.
She wasn't sure what to make of this new dynamic. She was so used to the way things had been. Arthur would insult Merlin, Merlin would insult Arthur, Arthur would assign a heap of chores, and Merlin would use all those chores as an excuse to get Arthur his meals late. They had always been equals when they were alone in their bubble that kept the outside world at bay. No matter whether Merlin was serving wine or saying "sire" in as sarcastic a way as he was allowed, they had always—somehow—been equals, as long as they were alone. When there were others around, that gap of rank and blood and birth managed to make itself known in the little things; the way Merlin always walked just slightly behind Arthur, the way Arthur would bark off orders without a thought, the things that were barely noticeable except in court where everything was scrutinized and weighed.
Now, though, now Merlin rode side-by-side to his king—sometimes before, even!—and when they dismounted their horses, Merlin did not make to care for them, and Arthur did not order him so. Instead, Arthur punched Merlin playfully on the shoulder, and Merlin pushed Arthur to the side, and rather than complain, Arthur simply put Merlin in a headlock only to release him a second later.
Gwen watched on, confused, as the men seemed to remember themselves and Arthur waved his hand for Merlin to go do something-or-other as Arthur made for his chambers.
It seemed like Arthur had stopped caring for image and propriety and what was done and what was not, as he had with her. She wasn't sure why, she wasn't sure what had happened to bind them closer than they had been before, what could have happened to top all the things they had already been through together, but she smiled. They were best friends—no matter how Arthur tried to deny it—and everyone knew, though they were polite enough not to mention it. She was glad they were through with the charade of Master and Servant; now they could just be, finally, Arthur and Merlin.