Title: The Distance Between
Characters: Arthur/Merlin, pre-slash
Warnings: Spoilers for episode 10, but that's about it.
Notes: Strangely, when I started this I didn't have a magic-reveal in mind at all. And yet...
Merlin grew up hearing about sorcerers being executed. The news mostly came to them through whispers and hearsay, since Ealdor was beyond Uther's reach - but it was a steady stream, with dark words painting pictures of bloody relentlessness; of the king's unforgiving nature.
It wasn't until Merlin was eight years old that he realised the connection between himself - still just a scrawny, messy-haired boy with knobbly elbows and scraped knees - and those deaths the gossip spoke of. He ran away to the river that day, sitting down amongst the tall grass that crowded the banks, and made the fronds wave and dance in the still air as his arms clutched his knees tightly.
He struggled to reconcile his little tricks - of dancing leaves and playful water, of starting the cooking fire for his mother when she was having difficulty, or gathering together perfectly dry kindling with a flick of his wrist - with the concept of sorcery. He thought of all the times his mother had asked him to be careful, and of all the times he hadn't really listened to her.
With the fading summer sunlight warm upon his face, Merlin watched the dark water flowing past, and wondered if King Uther would come for him.
Merlin was careful, of course, but with a boyish dedication that wavered whenever he got distracted. Regardless of all that he heard, the danger was still abstract and somehow distant - and besides, he reasoned, everyone's attention was always caught up in the day-to-day concerns of the village. He might be able to do a few strange things, but he wasn't so different from the other children. He wasn't.
Time passed in a blur of harvests, clear starry nights and rainy days, and Merlin’s power grew.
Arthur grew up seeing sorcerers being executed. He couldn’t even recall how young he was the first time – probably still clinging to his wet nurse if he knew his father at all. He’d been eight years old when he looked away – from a boy not quite in his teens, crying and barely choking back pleas as they dragged him to the execution block. Arthur hadn’t understood – and never would – the crowds who watched so avidly, and he’d flinched as the boy’s father came forward; people had shrunk back from him as though mere association could poison them. But the father did no magic and just pleaded with Uther, heartfelt and sick with grief.
Arthur had clutched onto the cold stone wall with his knuckles turning white, and stared down into the courtyard. The sky had been grey that day, thick with clouds the sun couldn’t break through, and his father’s denouncement had washed over him unheard like the chill winds that shrieked silently down the castle’s empty corridors. He never found out what the boy’s crime was; hearing but not listening, watching the prayers tumble from the boy’s lips.
Afterwards, his father had gripped his shoulder and told him never to look away again. “It has to be done,” he’d said, mouth hard and eyes earnest, “they’re a danger to the kingdom, Arthur, remember that. Watch what happens; remember them. We do not kill for no reason.”
He’d nodded – after all, everyone knew the danger of sorcerers. “Of course, Father.”
It was for Camelot.
Time passed in a blur of lavish banquets and plentiful food, executions with loners who sometimes cowered, sometimes stood tall, and sweaty hours filled with sword practices in the dust and dirt.
“Go on then,” Will whispered, breath misting in the morning air, “show us something else.”
Merlin hesitated, taking in the silence of the woods around them, taking a moment longer to reassure himself that they were alone. He grinned almost shyly, feeling oddly free despite the trepidation that lingered inside him. He nodded, and concentrated for a moment until he heard Will’s sharp intake of breath.
“That,” his friend sounded awed, “is brilliant.”
He let the dry orange leaves shower down over Will, the gentle rustling only interrupted by birdsong. “So,” Merlin began, voice suddenly unsteady, “you won’t tell anyone—“ He didn’t dare form it as a question, even if Will had already said…
“Of course not,” his friend seemed indignant, and very serious – Merlin’s throat tightened as he noticed that, as well as being impressed, Will also seemed a little scared. “But… I think you should watch out, Merlin. It’s not just stories we’ve been hearing.”
Merlin bit his lip and glanced to the muddy ground and now-crushed leaves, the brief, intense camaraderie fading. “Yes, but I—“
“As your friend, Merlin,” Will interrupted, reaching forward to grip his shoulder, “I’m telling you that it’s not normal, and it’s dangerous. It’s pretty cool—“ Merlin smiled weakly this time, “but it’s not safe for anyone like you right now.”
It shouldn’t have hurt as much as it did, that casual ‘like you’, and Merlin tried to take it as intended – as advice from a friend who cared.
“It’s our secret, yeah?” Will finished with an earnest almost-smile.
Merlin was fourteen when he showed Will his magic under the dappled sunlight of those trees, and simultaneously gained a confidant, but with one more person lost the luxury of being perceived as normal. He decided it was worth the trade.
Over the years, Arthur saw a lot of people come and go within Camelot – traders, entertainers, darker characters who slipped in and out with as little notice as possible, and of course the nobles and knights who were made welcome within the castle. He enjoyed watching them; measuring them; seeing how they reacted to his father and the kinds of flatteries and obsequiousness they’d employ to try and garner his approval. For the most part, they took little notice of Arthur, young as he still was.
One sweltering summer, an entourage of Roman nobles came to court. It caused a great stir within Camelot, for rarely did such a large group travel from so far. Arthur stood by his father’s side as they swept down the hall, an impressive combination of rich clothes and regal bearing, and an exotic air magnified by each word they spoke.
There was a daughter, sixteen years old with dark hair and eyes and cherry-red lips who stared out at Arthur from behind her mother. He stood up a little taller and tried not to meet her gaze. Their language was strange to his ears, and even their interpreter’s accent was thick and foreign.
Uther was soon charmed despite initial wariness, and the feast held to welcome them was extravagant beyond Arthur’s expectations. It was, he supposed, a demonstration of Camelot’s prosperity and wealth, but in some respects a little unnecessary. The year’s harvests had not been so bountiful.
Everything about them was slightly unusual, unfamiliar. They were not all that different, for the most part – but the fashions and fabrics they wore were brighter and more embellished than those in Camelot (more gaudy, Morgana said, and looked unimpressed), and their gestures; the way they held themselves. Almost like viewing a distorted mirror image – something fundamentally different and far-removed from themselves, but at the same time so close.
Arthur was fourteen when the daughter of a Roman nobleman cornered him in a dark corridor and whispered words he couldn’t understand, shadows falling across her face. She’d kissed him without hesitation or reserve, warm and soft as she pressed up against him. He hadn’t really known what to do with his hands, and stood awkwardly as she slipped her tongue between his lips.
He’d still smelt of her perfume later, a cloying, sweet scent that made him feel faintly ill, remembering how she’d been right there and yet in some ways it had felt like they weren’t even touching, that he was hardly present.
It was probably, he’d thought, just that he really didn’t understand her at all.
Arthur had known about Merlin’s magic for almost four months now. He couldn’t really pinpoint the precise moment it had hit him – probably because there wasn’t any one single event that stood out. It was just… everything. And looking back, he wondered how he could have missed it.
At first, he had (understandably, he felt) been furious – which had resulted in three weeks of him trying to have as little contact with Merlin as possible, while occupying his time with extra hunts. Not very practical, but it had helped him calm down. Interestingly it seemed to have the opposite effect on Merlin, who had grown more and more annoyed as the days went on, demanding to know what he’d done wrong (or, when that failed, demanding what was wrong with Arthur.) He hadn’t dignified that with an answer, because frankly, it didn’t deserve one.
It wasn’t until his anger finally dissipated that it occurred to him that this was something his father would expect to have been told immediately. Instead, Arthur realised belatedly, he’d been completely caught up in being personally offended by Merlin’s lies, more so than the actual magic itself. He sat that evening in front of the fire, lost in thought as Merlin obliviously served him wine and tried to bother him with conversation occasionally.
In the end, Arthur justified it to himself like this: if, for a second, he actually believed Merlin to be a dangerous and capable sorcerer, he’d have reported it to his father. But to be honest, while he might still doubt the ‘capable’ part, he didn’t think anything on earth could persuade him Merlin was a danger to anyone except himself. Well, and perhaps Arthur’s enemies, but that was certainly no problem.
It felt strange and actually a little freeing, that admission of just how implicitly he trusted Merlin. But his servant had never hesitated to risk his life for Arthur, regardless of how he had been treated – which was perhaps a sign of his idiocy, but certainly not one of wavering loyalty.
And that, as far as Arthur was concerned, was that.
He spent the next three months observing Merlin more carefully – the time it took him to do certain tasks; his reactions to mentions of magic; his feelings towards Camelot, and Arthur himself. He didn’t really learn very much except that Merlin was obviously a huge cheat, either closed up completely or got very flustered, and that he was endearingly loyal (barring all the insults, anyway.)
Mostly, he wondered if Merlin was ever planning on telling him. However, shortly after, they were then all forced to watch the execution of yet another sorcerer who hadn’t hurt anyone, and Arthur found that most of his remaining annoyance disappeared that day along with Merlin’s smile.
By the time the fourth month was over, he’d decided it was time to take the decision out of Merlin’s hands.
The visible sky was the bright, pale blue of early spring, but there was a heaviness to the air that made him wary of the darker clouds scudding slowly overhead. The trees were fairly dense around them with no well-trodden paths to indicate the way, and Arthur wondered when Merlin was finally going to admit that he was lost.
He shook his head and coughed pointedly, coming to a stop beside a wide oak tree. Merlin turned and certainly looked suitably contrite, but the expression faltered after a moment and returned to looking mildly frustrated.
“You know,” he said, eyeing the sky dubiously and returning to where Arthur had stopped, “it probably wasn’t the best idea you’ve ever had to make me the navigator in woods I’m really unfamiliar with.”
He shrugged, “well, I didn’t think you’d manage to get us quite this lost in such a short amount of time.”
Which was certainly true – he’d only wanted a bit of distance from the castle. But there was no real irritation in his voice, and Merlin looked quite taken aback. A rather nice expression on him, really.
“Well – don’t you want to try and get back? Are you alright?”
“Of course I am,” he replied shortly, but only then realised he’d been almost smiling. Perhaps that was a bit odd, considering the circumstances. “Merlin,” he began again, leaning back against the tree and studying the other’s faintly bewildered expression, "I think we need to have a little chat.”
“Er,” Merlin ran a hand through his hair and gave him a small, perplexed smile, “okay.”
“Now, I don’t want you doubting my loyalty to my father; to Camelot. But—“he took a deep breath and charged onwards. “Have you not seen me go against my father?” Merlin nodded, a little hesitantly. “Have you not seen me keep secrets from my father, for the right reasons?” Merlin nodded again, a little more firmly. “Even, I hardly need to add, on behalf of a magical boy.”
Merlin still looked slightly confused, but there was something unreadable in his eyes, and his expression took on a shadow of seriousness.
“Yes, that is true.”
Arthur felt anger flare up again at the plainly noncommittal reply. “Well, then!” Merlin just stared at him, eyes dark and suddenly uncertain. “Do you want me to say it?” Arthur muttered, pushing off from the tree, momentarily glaring at the sky as fat drops of rain began to fall as though to spite him. Merlin seemed to back away involuntarily, but Arthur grabbed his arm, fingers tight around cloth and wiry muscle. “Do you want me to say it?”
He was close enough to see the moisture on Merlin’s eyelashes, and finally there was a flash of real emotion visible. “Yes,” and Merlin murmured it softly, earnestly, “I would like you to.”
The rain was a soft pitter-patter against the canopy of vivid green above, and cold water trickled down the back of Arthur’s neck. The tension abruptly faded, and Arthur released Merlin’s arm, shifting upwards to clasp his shoulder instead.
“I know about your magic.”
He heard Merlin’s sharp intake of breath, the sudden tension under his fingertips, and the flash of fear that chased its way across his features despite everything Arthur had already said—
Arthur stared down at the muddy ground for a moment, the puddles reflecting nothing.
“What did you think I’d do to you?” He turned his attention back to Merlin, who still looked a little wary, but also resigned. “I’m not a monster.”
“I – I’ve never thought that – I never thought you’d kill me, but – you could have sent me away, or fired me, and you don’t understand—“ Merlin was almost tripping over his own words now, struggling to get them out, “I have to be near you.”
Arthur stilled in surprise, unable to look away from mixed emotions that clouded Merlin’s face.
“Idiot,” he murmured, affection colouring his voice, “so it was for selfish reasons, after all. No noble, ‘it might have compromised your position, Arthur!’, or ‘I couldn’t make you suffer the burden of knowing, Arthur!’… I thought that was too much to expect.”
Merlin was flushing. “I didn’t mean it like that, exactly.”
“Obviously, who’d want to actually spend all their time with you, they’d go mad.” Merlin shot back immediately, although his voice sounded a little shaky.
Someday, Arthur thought darkly, all this fond exasperation Merlin made him feel would just turn into plain old exasperation. And possibly strangulation.
“Do you really trust me?” Suddenly Merlin was right in front of him, closer, closer, hair a windswept, rain-soaked mess and eyes strangely bright – and Arthur shifted his hand once more, fingers tracing over the back of Merlin’s neck to his hair.
He closed the last of the distance between them and rested his forehead against Merlin’s, his answer a smile. They stood there for a while, in the quiet damp of the forest with water dripping from branches, and an earthy, fresh smell in the air.
“So,” Arthur finally ventured, fingers still curled loosely in Merlin’s hair, “did you ever manage to find a place where you feel like you belong?”
“Well,” Merlin paused for a moment, looking rain-soaked and bedraggled yet utterly at ease, and gave Arthur a quiet, unguarded smile. “I think I just might.”