Word Count: 8,000+
Notes: Merlin/Arthur set in an alternative version of post-S1 Camelot. Not strictly canon-compliant but not radical AU either. Title from the song 'Truth' by George.
Summary: In the two years and five months Merlin has known him, Arthur has been enchanted to love people he ordinarily wouldn’t nine times. Merlin simply never expects Arthur to be enchanted to love him.
It was bound to happen sooner or later. In the two years and five months Merlin has known him, Arthur has been enchanted to love people he ordinarily wouldn’t nine times. Evil-doing sorcerers, war-loving kings, a faerie or two; they’ve all attempted the same tactic. Strike the heart to damage the soul. Merlin’s taken to guarding Arthur’s room each night a guest stays within Camelot, which means, roughly, that he’s contemplated the walls of the antechamber for far longer than those of his own bedroom. He’s tasted all of Arthur’s food and drunk his drink, much to Arthur’s vociferous complaints. He’s set up many temporary fields of impenetrability. At least, once he mastered the spell.
The main problem with all of this, Merlin thinks, is that he finds himself constantly wanting to touch Arthur. No, actually, the main problem is that a great deal of his duty involves touching Arthur, and while one side of him looks forward to every occasion with an impatient, needy reverence, another flashes warning signals in his mind that sing out with nine thousand different ways of saying ‘BAD!’ He's a little worried he’ll wake up one morning with his mind and his magic having worked together to secure he could never touch Arthur the way he wants to again; that he’ll discover his fingers have gone wandering in the night, and he's now just a pair of stumps, and how will he ever fit Arthur’s armour again? And, truly, when it comes down to it, the main problem with all of this is that he's a serving boy and Arthur's destined to be king, and he doesn't care what Kilgarrah says, he is fairly sure this was not decided by fate.
Arthur wraps one of his hands around Merlin’s neck and gives him that fond, soft-lipped smile he has come to know too well --- though it’s never before been cast in his direction. Arthur’s fingers are firebrands against his skin, his gaze uncomfortably close and appealing. He’s craning up and pushing Merlin down at the same time, nearing for a kiss. Merlin takes a step back, stumbling slightly, telling himself the twinge in his chest is frustration at having to determine which of the hundreds of love spells or potions this may be, nothing more. He wants to know who hopped, skipped and bounded over his defence mechanisms and he wants to know why.
Arthur raises an eyebrow, his lips still curved. “Is there a reason you’re being so skittish?”
Merlin recovers his grace. “No, Sire. How are you feeling this morning?”
“I feel fine. I would feel better if you joined me in this bed.”
Merlin watches as Arthur extends his hand out, an expressive gesture that begins with his sheets and ends with his crotch. Arthur smiles again, beguilingly, tousled hair glinting in the early morning light and focus steady as he peers up at Merlin with partially narrowed eyes.
Right, Merlin thinks. This is going to be even harder than I previously anticipated. Great.
He prepares Arthur’s clothes, taking great care not to keep staring at Arthur’s posing.
“I’m sure you would, for the moment, but I think I’ll help you get dressed instead.”
Arthur leaps out of bed. He takes Merlin’s hands away from his garments, fingers caressing the backs of his knuckles. It makes the fine hairs on the back of Merlin’s neck prickle with anticipation.
“I can dress myself. Why don’t you go and get breakfast?”
Merlin escapes Arthur’s clutches with haste, knowing that before he comes within a foot of fruits and cheeses he’ll have to talk to Gaius. He wants his opinion and several ingredients. He assumes it’s a ‘love-at-first-sight’ enchantment, but he knows of at least twenty-six of those, and all require entirely different antidotes. Still, he supposes it’s just as well that he was the first creature Arthur saw, otherwise the fair prince of Camelot could, at this very instant, be making kissy-faces at a rat.
When he gets to Gaius’ chambers, Merlin doesn’t bother with preamble. “Arthur’s in love again.”
Gaius swivels on the spot. “Goodness gracious, who’s the lucky lady this time?”
The corners of Gaius’ lips twitch and he gets a blank look on his face that has to be entirely intentional. He breathes neither in nor out.
“Get it over with, Gaius,” Merlin says, trying not to let his irritation show and failing miserably.
Gaius bursts out laughing, his chest heaving and his eyes watering.
“People have been known to die of laughter, you know,” Merlin reminds him, staring sulkily at the table and contemplating hitting his head into it until he can’t remember what Arthur’s fingers felt like on his skin.
“Do you think he’ll propose like he did with that hideous French courtesan? Or is he more in the mood for ravishing?”
Ravish, Merlin thinks. Arthur was all set to ravish.
"I don't think that's important."
"It is important. We can safely rule out any number of enchantments and potions have we an understanding of its limits."
"We can't rule out anything," Merlin says. "Whoever did this did so despite the fact I am ever vigilant. The only thing we can determine is that it's love at first sight."
Gaius pats him on the back. "You poor boy."
Merlin stares at the wall, takes a deep, long breath. "I don't think you're taking this entirely seriously, Gaius. Think about the consequences were the king to find out. Would you be so amused with me hanging from a noose? What about my ashes in one of your jars? Would it be this funny then?"
Gaius looks affronted for a moment, before his expression slides into shame. "I can see that this event greatly concerns you."
Merlin has a biting response fully formed at the back of his throat, just itching to roll along his tongue, but he clamps his jaw shut and nods.
"We had better set to work."
"I need to fetch Arthur's breakfast. Would you be able to set aside some wormwood, feverfew, and parsley?"
"Yes, of course. I'll start straight away."
"Thank you. I'll be back as soon as I can. I've got some, uh, cheese I need to be dealing with."
The kitchens are hectic and Merlin can hardly squeeze his way through in order to collect food fit for a prince. He is always the last to know about visiting parties, but apparently there is a travelling band of players passing through the kingdom --- which explains the enchantment. He'll have to keep a look out as to which of the party seems most invested in Arthur's attentions. One time, Merlin got it very, very wrong and left Arthur alone in the care of Sir Bleoberis, as he kept watch over Lady Katherine in a bid to determine which spell she had used. It had eventuated that Bleoberis was the love-struck sorcerer, and Arthur thankfully hadn't identified his stubble-burn for its true nature.
Obviously, one of the players had anticipated being in Arthur's chambers early in the morning, and obviously their plan has gone slightly awry, and obviously he now has to deal with the consequences.
He returns to Arthur in haste, near tripping headlong into Arthur as the door to his chambers opens unexpectedly.
"That took a lot longer than it should have, Merlin," Arthur says, and Merlin almost leaps for joy at how Arthur he sounds. "But then, I know you have many responsibilities and you can't be expected to do twelve things at once. I should probably be less demanding."
Merlin never thought he could feel depressed at Arthur being gracious for a change, but he is, he absolutely is. Arthur sits at the table, so Merlin hides his disappointment by setting his place and pouring a cup of water.
"It was busy in the kitchens, Sire," he says.
Ordinarily he'd tell Arthur about the players, and predict what entertainment they would provide, but he is pre-occupied by the way Arthur's eyes rake over him, assessing, seductive.
"Clearly." Arthur looks from Merlin, to his plate, back to Merlin. "Are you not going to have a slice of my cheese? A wedge of my ham? Doesn't one of these tomatoes look inviting? You usually taste everything before I have a chance to."
"There's no point today," Merlin says, not quite able to excise sorrow from his tone, no matter how hard he tries.
"You should," Arthur says, dividing a cheese slice in half and offering it. "You're skinny as a staff. Sometimes I fancy you'll snap in two. I worry about you."
"You needn't. I eat my fair share."
"You often eat my fair share." Arthur waves the cheese and Merlin has no choice but to take and nibble at it. "There are meetings today," Arthur says. "They are so boring. There was one meeting, during the heatwave we had --- I promise you I spent the entire time having a pretend race in my mind between the beads of sweat rolling down Father's forehead. I made bets and everything. Really, Merlin, you have no idea how lucky you are that I don't insist you come to every one. With your concentration span, you'd die."
Merlin is confused. Arthur is usually reticent to say a word against his father, let alone say something that some could think of as overly familiar, if not mocking. And when he is enchanted, he tends to err more on the side of being effusive in his praise of those he thinks he loves. It's not that he wants Arthur to spring on him and pin him on the bed. Well, he does, but he doesn't, it's complex. But he can't help thinking that this is an enchantment he has never seen in action before.
"Have I done something to offend you?" Arthur asks, cutting into Merlin's thinking time. "I hate it when you go quiet. I can't read minds, unlike you often seem to. If I have made you upset, I'll do all that I can to make amends."
"You haven't offended me. However, I have many duties to perform, is it all right if do?"
Arthur looks heartbroken. Definitively, overwhelmingly heartbroken. His chin wobbles. "I am sorry to have detained you so long."
Merlin is torn between comforting Arthur and running from the room. He settles on running. It is safest. That this has happened twists his insides, until he's sure were his skin to be peeled back he'd look like a rose. Everything feels knotted and flipped upside-down. A dangerous, dark voice in his head keeps saying that Arthur rarely remembers a thing after he has been cured from love spells. That if he just submit---
But no. It would be taking advantage. It would only make life more painful in the long run. There are lines that should not be crossed.
Arthur should be safe during drills, but Merlin asks Sir Leon to keep watch in case any members of the visiting party go near him. Sir Leon says he shall, but with a laugh in his voice.
Merlin runs back to Gaius' chambers and readies himself for long, arduous hours of potion concoction and mockery.
They manage to create five potential antidotes before Merlin is expected to serve Arthur at the midday meal. Only one of them has an undesired side-effect that would turn Arthur's hair purple until two sunsets have passed, but Merlin knows he can counteract that with a temporary glamour spell.
"You stink," Arthur says when Merlin meets him outside the hall. "But you look beautiful with your lips parted like that, all glistening and pink."
"It's best for you not to say such things in public, Sire."
"You're right. You're always so wise, Merlin," Arthur says. "You're not still mad at me, are you?"
"I'm not mad, I promise."
"Good. Because you're a pain in the neck when you are."
During lunch, Arthur offers his opinions on subjects he never has before. He tells Morgana her make-up is too severe; ("The colour on your lips makes you look like you've been eating raspberries for days. Don't you ever think about toning it down a little?"); lets everyone know he finds the pork undercooked; suggests that King Uther is getting fat. Merlin has to bite his knuckles to prevent himself from laughing at Uther's expression at this proclamation.
"Don't you think you should be a little less rude?" Merlin asks as he bends to pour Arthur more water. Arthur's breath is hot against his neck.
Arthur shrugs one shoulder. "I don't mean to be rude."
Merlin slips all of the antidotes into Arthur's goblet and waits.
In Arthur's chambers, Merlin sweeps the floor and industriously ignores the way Arthur's looking at him; possessive, predatory. He is wondering why no one has come to see the fruits of their efforts, yet, why, in fact, there has been no contact whatsoever.
"I think we should go on a hunt, tomorrow, just the two of us. I'm sure it's a lack of fresh air that's making you so distant."
"I'm not being distant."
"You are. By now my ear would feel half chewed-off because of your incessant yapping. You would stare at me as if you wish to lick me head to toe. And we'd come this close to kissing, before common sense would prevail and one of us would remember that you're a servant, and I'm the heir to the throne, and that sort of thing isn't done."
"If you say so."
"You deny it?"
"I, uh... yes? Arthur, this is very flattering, but don't you think you should examine your, um, motivations? I mean --- are you really so sure you want to be doing what you're doing?"
"Are you really so sure you don't want to be doing what you're not doing?" Arthur counters.
He advances, flicking the broom to the corner of the chamber, tipping his head up and pushing Merlin until he's flat against the stone wall.
"You know, as my servant, you’re supposed to do whatever I tell you."
Merlin's throat constricts, his tongue seems to grow two sizes too big, he feels panicked, as if he'd very much like to stop time and escape. Arthur is licking his lower lip, and peering closely at him, and crowding in close, there. It takes heretofore untapped reserves of will-power not to shorten the distance between them and capitulate to Arthur's will.
He swallows thickly. "As a prince, you’re supposed to be noble."
"In my experience, nobility and propriety aren’t necessarily paired together," Arthur says, which worries Merlin for a moment, but then Arthur steps back and gives a rueful twitch of his eyebrow. There's a heaviness to his tone. "It’s strange. I’ve been assuming all this time that we both... that you... but I suppose it was wishful thinking. I’m sorry."
"No need to apologise, Sire," Merlin says, turning away from Arthur's painfully soulful gaze. "Did you still want to go on a hunt?"
"I don't think so. I have no desire for hours of your discomfort in my presence. You may go."
Merlin frowns as he edges past Arthur. It occurs to him after hurrying down the hallway that from now on it may be difficult to tell whether the antidotes are working. Arthur broods over all kinds of trivial things, and there shall be nothing to say whether any future brooding is Merlin related or not. Then again, Arthur isn't one to give up easily when he's in this mood, so chances are there will be plenty of opportunities to determine if he remains besotted.
Merlin comes to the conclusion that love enchantments are the work of the most evil sorcerers.
This time, Merlin enchants a crystal to keep watch on Arthur, and sets it up in his room as he completes potions number twelve to twenty. According to his coded message, Gaius is out in the lower town treating patients, so Merlin isn't under close-scrutiny, which suits him fine. The crystal is a gigantic risk, but it's necessary in these trying times, and it isn't like the guards search all rooms all the time for sorcery. He's done it before, much to his shame. Once when Arthur was sent to Mercia while Merlin was suffering from fever and forbidden from riding with him. Another late at night and he was feeling desperate and alone.
He glances at the crystal every ten minutes or so just to check that Arthur is safe. He certainly appears to be. He attends a never-ending meeting, sitting by his father's side. During the meeting, Arthur gives five large, undisguised yawns and rolls his eyes frequently. At one point the person Arthur has been speaking with storms out of the room. Merlin frowns to himself as he watches this, grinding some nettle seeds with Gaius' favourite pestle.
That evening, the players perform. They're amusing, Merlin grants them that. He may not trust them, but there is no doubt in his mind that they are capable at their chosen profession. There's dancing and poetry and singing. Swirling colours and elaborate costumes. Some of the men make very pretty girls during a sketch about collecting flowers that Merlin doesn't actually understand but is entertained by regardless.
Arthur is rather loud in his critique.
("That last note was hideously out of key."/"I don't think it's strictly right that someone should bend like that."/"This is laughable as opposed to dramatic. You should all be ashamed!")
Merlin slips nine more antidotes into Arthur's food and drink, and incants on the sly when he is positive Uther and his guards are otherwise diverted. Arthur continues to sigh whenever Merlin slides into his field of vision, and visibly bristles when Merlin smiles at Gwen.
None of the players look at Arthur any closer than most people would look at a handsome prince. They all concentrate on providing entertainment that makes the king and his court clap and laugh. There isn't even anything that passes for magic pretending to be mundane. Merlin pours Arthur's wine and contemplates this. He can see Arthur examining him in his peripheral vision, but refuses to meet his gaze.
Arthur excuses himself from the table unceremoniously by saying he needs to relieve himself. There is an audible gasp and titter from the surrounding ladies. Uther looks outraged, but not enough to disrupt the performance.
Merlin follows Arthur. It is, perhaps, not the smartest thing he has ever done, but he is concerned. He watches as Arthur stomps through the hallways and up the stairs to his chambers. He doesn't bother to knock on the door as he follows Arthur into his room.
"Are you all right?" he asks, although he suspects he knows the answer.
"No, I'm not," Arthur says, huffily. "I'm tired. I'm going to bathe and then I'm going to sleep."
"I'll prepare some hot water."
"Get someone to help you with the pails of water this time. You always look exhausted when you do it alone. I have no doubts that you're stronger than you look, but you do have limitations."
"Um. Okay. I'll be back soon."
Merlin asks Gudgeon to help him. He's one of the kitchen hands, and he owes Merlin a favour. He knows that if he doesn't come with another servant, Arthur will be even more annoyed with him, and it's not like he can tell Arthur he lessens the weight of the water pails with a short incantation. Arthur does look suitably assuaged by him coming in with another servant, Merlin would even go so far as to say he almost looks pleased.
It takes ten minutes to set everything up. Gudgeon leaves with a, 'better you than me' raise of his eyebrows. The water is at the perfect temperature and the fire roaring. Merlin presses his lips together and clasps his traitorous tongue to the roof of his mouth. Arthur comes from behind his screen wearing only a towel and the firelight makes his hair glint and his eyes shine.
"It is expressions like that that led me to believe you were attracted to me, Merlin," Arthur says, voice husky. "You should beware what your features do when you're not paying close enough attention."
"I don't know what you're talking about."
"No. Of course you don't. You don't know a thing, do you?" Arthur scowls. "Prepare my clothes."
Merlin turns towards the wardrobe and pulls out Arthur's shift and breeches. He concentrates on the material, checking for moth-bitten holes; spreads the items of clothing meticulously on the bed. This has always been the worst of his duties regardless of this current circumstance, constantly being so close, without permission to be intimate. Seeing Arthur's vast expanse of skin flushed pink in warmth. The curve of his muscles. The arch of his neck as he leans his head back and closes his eyes. More than once Merlin has touched himself while such memories play across his mind's eye, flickering, and repeating, and making him yearn.
"I suppose you're too cowardly to wash my back," Arthur says, his voice edged with spite.
Merlin is just angry enough to whirl around and stamp close to the bath, collapsing onto his knees and dragging a washcloth along Arthur's shoulders. His toes curl tight in his boots as the pads of his fingers sear with the heat of Arthur's skin. His heart beats impossibly fast as he tries to track scars as opposed to dwell on the beauty of Arthur's body from this angle. Arthur makes a sound that Merlin believes should be outlawed; smooth and deep and contented. He tilts his head to the left as the washcloth glides over his right shoulder, exposing more of his neck to Merlin's gaze. Merlin's chest is tight as Arthur leans forward and water rivulets trickle to his lower back, sliding down his spine.
Merlin closes his eyes and finishes, standing shakily up and heading towards the door. "I trust that this is all you desire," he calls over his shoulder, hoping against hope Arthur will let him go.
"It's not," Arthur says, low, quiet. "But it will have to do."
Gaius has finished all but one of the various love-at-first-sight spells' antidotes, but Merlin doesn't stay to discuss this. He rushes through the room complaining of gut-ache. It is, at least, partially true.
Safely in his room, he uses the crystal to watch as Arthur climbs out of the bath, long-limbed and elegant. He tells himself he would have seen this in the first place, so therefore it isn't the act of a creep, and yet he feels guilt as he watches Arthur dress. Not enough to stop, but enough to hold off alleviating the pain caused by being hard within his too-tight breeches.
If I can't cure Arthur soon, Merlin thinks, I am going to shatter and the wind shall carry me to the ends of Albion. Then he thinks, but it would have been worth it.
Arthur is already dressed when Merlin comes to serve him breakfast. Merlin practically bursts into song in elation. He slips the final antidotes into the water and the porridge he insists Arthur eat once a week and tidies the room.
"This water is disgusting," Arthur says. Well, growls. He's not in a very good mood today. He's already spent more than a moment complaining about the lumps in his bed.
"Would you like more?"
"No, no I don't want more of the disgusting water, I do not punish myself for the pleasure of it. Unlike you." There's a pause, and then, "why won't you admit that you want me?"
Merlin finishes spreading the blankets on Arthur's bed and rises, slowly. His hands curl into fists against his volition. "What good will come of admitting it?"
Arthur crosses the space between them and takes Merlin's wrists. "Well, you dolt, I'll push you onto this bed and bring you to heights you have previously only dreamed of. I've been told I'm a very generous lover... though I'm not always sure that can be true. To be honest, once or twice, I've fallen asleep directly after my completion without checking that the other person has reached theirs, but, this is what my lovers have said."
"I can't, Arthur," Merlin says, wrenching himself away. "I can't."
He runs from the room as quickly as he can.
"That’s it, we’re at the end. There’s only one remedy untested."
"It says here that you need to mix this and the essence of the one the enchanted person professes love for with a substance they hate."
"When you say essence..."
"Well, Merlin, when two people love each other very much, or are expected to produce an heir---"
Merlin cuts Gaius off, flailing his hands. “That’s really all I needed.”
“Are you sure, because we haven’t had this discussion as yet and I have sketches.”
“I’m positive. Thank you.”
Gaius gives a short bark of a laugh. "It means we add a strand of your hair to the herbal paste, Merlin. My goodness, you really aren't thinking straight, are you?"
"How many times do I have to tell you that this isn't funny? In how many ways and tones of voice can this be conveyed?"
"Is he really terrorising you?" Gaius asks, sympathetic for once. "Outside of his chambers he hasn't been acting as if he's in the throes of seduction. From all I've heard, he's been increasingly impolite, but not necessarily smitten."
"I don't want to talk about it."
"There is a method of determining precisely the enchantment one is under. It is dangerous, and complicated, and requires the roots of a flower that grows a day and half's travel from here, which is why I haven't mentioned it, but if this final remedy doesn't work..."
"It has to work," Merlin says, vehemently. He replays Gaius' words through his mind and rounds on him. "How long have you known this indication spell exists?"
"I've always known."
"Really? And it hasn't occurred to you before now that it might be useful?"
Gaius' eyebrow arches high. "It's dangerous, Merlin. It's a last resort."
"I don't believe you sometimes, I truly don't."
Merlin learns that Arthur has been confined to his chambers from Gwen. He's travelling to the kitchens to prepare Arthur's lunch, so preoccupied he doesn't even realise Gwen's trying to gain his attention.
"Do you know why?" Merlin asks, kicking himself that he'd refrained from covert espionage this morning.
"Morgana says it's because he has the manners of a brain-dead ogre. He told King Uther he was being unreasonable about sharing the food stores. He used the words miserly and cruel."
"That sounds like something Morgana would approve of Arthur saying. Hang on, what did he say to Morgana?" Merlin asks, curious.
Gwen blushes, stumbles over her words. "It was something about the cut of her dress exposing enough of her décolletage even a blind man would have the view of a lifetime." She frowns. "He then said he doesn't know why she feels the need to dress this way because she is the smartest and very nearly the bravest person he knows in all of Camelot."
"That's --- mmm," Merlin says, pondering over this. "Thanks, Gwen. Excuse me, but I suspect the prince will be hungry and I wouldn't want to deprive him the pleasure of angry chewing."
Part of him --- the same dark, shameful little part that takes the crystal out at night sometimes and watches Arthur sleep --- doesn't want this antidote to work, but Merlin spreads it over the rye bread that Arthur frequently used to throw at Merlin's head before he explained he detested the taste. He places ham between two chunks of the bread and magically changes the appearance so that it looks like the light wheat Arthur enjoys.
"At last," Arthur says when Merlin sets his food on the table. "I've been dumped here. Locked away. Simply because I spoke my mind."
"I heard. It must be terrible being you."
"It is!" Arthur rages. He collapses into his chair and begins tearing his bread into pieces.
Arthur takes two full bites before he starts spitting the food out. "What is this? It's vile. Repulsive. It is, without a doubt, the worst thing you have ever served me. And this is including rat stew."
"Indeed. I bet it makes you want to throw stuff at my head, right?" Merlin ventures. "I'm sure the idea of ever touching or kissing me is repugnant?"
Arthur falters, glowers at his food. "This is your simple-headed way of getting me to stop wanting you? It isn't that easy. I've tried to rationalise and explain it away to myself countless times, but from your overly large ears to your gangly legs, I long to hold you close and give you every delight you've ever wanted."
Merlin grabs hold of the nearest post of Arthur's bed and hits his head into it repeatedly, until Arthur comes up behind and pulls him away, clasping him around the middle. Merlin lets Arthur set him down and he thinks he's going to cry he's so frustrated. There are that many more love spells, and it will take that much time, and he wants, he wants---
"You're under a spell," Merlin says, shrugging Arthur's hand off his shoulder.
"Really?" Arthur doesn't sound as sceptical as he has on other occasions Merlin has explained the love enchantments he's been under. "That explains a lot," he says, eyes going wide.
Merlin frowns at him. "Wow, thanks."
"I haven't been able to stop saying what I think. It's unnerving," Arthur continues. "It's not like words burst from my mouth against my will, but I've definitely been saying things I'd ordinarily only think and not say because people would be offended. It's been liberating, but troublesome. I know I shouldn't say something, but I eventually do. Huh." He beams. "It must be a truth spell."
"It's a love spell, Arthur."
"That wouldn't explain why I told Sir Leon he'd be prettier clean-shaven."
Merlin's frown settles lower. "There is a way of finding out what's wrong with you. But it's dangerous, and complicated, requiring the roots of a flower that grows three days travel from Camelot and back... and it involves magic."
"Ah. Right. So is this finally the time you tell me you're a sorcerer?"
Merlin splutters. He chokes on his own spit. He falls off his chair.
"You know?" he asks from the floor, pushing himself upright.
"Of course I know. I'm not a complete fool. It's the same as the attraction between us. We don't talk about it, because then we'd be compromised. I'd have an unfair advantage over you, you'd have an unfair advantage over me. We each of us could be hanged, or burned at the stake, or drowned, according to my father's idiotic dictatorship. So we keep it secret, and we hate it, and the tension grows..."
Merlin considers this. Arthur has spent the past several days being monumentally discourteous to everyone, which is not usually his way, usually he's only discourteous to him. Yet he can't help but feel that it might all be an elaborate ploy, that an enchanted Arthur is a cunning one, aware that pretending to be under a truth spell could be an ideal method for wooing him. Because Arthur can't, he really couldn't want him, could he? And if he truly had known about Merlin's magic before now, he would have banished him at the very least. His heart skips a beat at the notion that Arthur could be right. That his feelings could be true. He can hardly breathe for the thought of it.
"I'm going to ask Gaius for directions to the necessary flower. You should probably stay here in the meantime."
"I have no choice, remember? Father told the guards not to let me leave my room when I told him I'd make a better king than he could ever imagine."
Merlin stops dead in his tracks. "You said that?"
"You should have seen the colour his face turned. He looked like a massive juniper berry. It was hilarious. He wasn't at all consoled when I told him I loved him anyway. If anything that made him more furious."
"I won't be long," Merlin says, resuming his travel and opening the door.
"You say that but you're rarely correct," Arthur calls after him.
Merlin gathers supplies and begs Gaius for a map. Gaius is reticent to help, but Merlin pleads with all his might and eventually attains the equipment needed to clear this problem up for good. The problem with attempting to cure Arthur of a truth spell if he isn't under one is that the side effects run the gamut of causing deafness and severe abdominal pain. Not to mention that there are twelve different truth spells and one of them requires waiting a month. It seems safer to hope that it's one of the simpler versions if it is any at all.
Merlin bounces on the balls of his feet as he saddles his horse, hands shaking as he works at the buckles.
"You never do that right," Arthur says from behind him, coming and smoothing against the flank of the horse. "And hasn't anyone ever told you it's rude to run away?"
"Arthur, I thought you were confined to your chambers?"
"I tied my bed clothes together and climbed out the window. The guards in Camelot are frankly useless. When I'm king I think I'll instil a rigorous training programme, with intense assessment, and frequent review."
"I'm coming with you," Arthur says, with authority. "I'm sure you've figured that out by now, since you're nowhere near as stupid as I often like to claim, but I thought I'd make it really obvious."
"I am. You'll only get yourself killed, and then I'll be stuck like this, forever. With the added horrendous bonus of being heartbroken. You never seem to remember to use your magic in battle when it could count towards saving your life. For me? Yes. For yourself, never. I despair of you."
"I deliberately don't use it," Merlin says.
"See, now, that is stupid."
"I didn't think you knew I could, so I had to keep it secret."
"Except when saving me."
"Well, yes, because it's vital then, isn't it?"
Arthur pierces him with a look. "Why?"
"I wish you'd been put under this truth spell. I'm curious as to what I'd learn. You're a mystery, even with everything I do know. You confound me."
Merlin looks up at the stable roof and watches a spider crawl rather than meet Arthur's gaze. He rubs his head. "If you're coming with me, you're going to need food."
"I already have it. Among other items, I packed the disgusting bread. I'm fully intending on swapping our meals when you're not looking so you get to taste how abominable it is."
"That won't work any more."
"I know. Have I told you how thoroughly obnoxious this affliction is?"
"Have I told you how thoroughly obnoxious you are?"
"Many times, but I suspect you only say that because you're in love with me. Which is all right, as far as I'm concerned, because I'm in love with you too." Arthur climbs up onto the horse and hunches his shoulders. "Seriously, Merlin, we have to cure this. Preferably before I tell you I once stole one of your shirts from the antechamber so I could sniff your scent as I pleasure myself."
Arthur's face goes comically still and then he makes a signal against his neck as if he wishes to kill himself.
"Maybe I could use a spell to make you mute?" Merlin suggests, fairly sure that a conniving Arthur would convince him against such an action.
"That's a surprisingly excellent idea," Arthur exclaims. He gestures to the saddle. "Up you get, the sooner we embark on this trip, the sooner I can be free of this curse."
"But then I'd be deprived of hearing what you think of my eyes," Merlin jokes.
"They're gorgeous and you know that, you dreadful tease," Arthur replies in all seriousness. "Let's not even mention your cheekbones. And those lips. Sometimes I think you're more beautiful than most girls."
Merlin doesn't use a spell to make Arthur mute. He luxuriates in his voice, rolling over him as the light changes. Arthur prattles on about many different issues. Sometimes he is egotistical, other times he is humble, frequently he is insightful. Merlin finds he doesn't get sick of hearing Arthur's opinions as he predicted he would.
They set up camp at nightfall. Arthur admits that he's contemplated seducing Merlin five times on the journey so far. His expression is very nearly a leer.
"But I won't force myself on you," Arthur says, "because I do believe in honour. When we do eventually come together, I want to know that you were as willing as I. Desire doesn't equal consent."
"Arthur," Merlin says, slowly, "I promise you that if this is, actually, just a truth spell, I will do things to you and with you that'll make your head spin."
"Is that literal or figurative, because it's it's liter---"
"It's figurative. Now, please, I need to sleep. You need to sleep."
"We need to sleep together," Arthur concludes.
They huddle up close under the stars and Merlin hums to himself until he's dozing. Arthur says he's out of tune, but Merlin doesn't mind.
The next day, Merlin does mute Arthur, at Arthur's fervent request. Before midday, Arthur had started telling Merlin embarrassing childhood stories, and it had been halfway during the one where he'd explained that Morgana had dressed him up and painted his face and he'd enjoyed it that he'd begged Merlin to block out any sounds emanating from his mouth. He'd insisted he'd clap were there any chance of danger.
There is danger. A horde of small yet vicious wild dogs attack as dusk falls, and together they fend them off with a couple of clever spells and Arthur's excellent swordsmanship. They fight back to back and Merlin is exhilarated as he realises this is exactly the kind of thing they'll be able to do unfettered when Arthur is king. They defeat the creatures within a much shorter period of time than they might ordinarily, with so much firepower their opponents seem terrified to mount another attack.
Merlin kisses Arthur then, only the once, but he does, adrenaline coursing through his veins as he tangles his fingers into his golden hair and giggles against his mouth. Arthur's eyes are bright and shining as he pulls away, and his smile is joyous and sweet. He goes to say something, then realises he can't, and points at his mouth expectantly.
Merlin lifts the spell.
"That was brilliant," Arthur says. "You were brilliant."
"So were you."
They find the flower that matches Gaius' sketch near a large grey boulder that reminds Merlin of the face of a farmer he knew in Ealdor; all craggy and covered in lichen. Arthur gathers two handfuls' worth of samples and puts them in Merlin's bag with care.
That night Merlin touches his lips as he thinks about the kiss and realises he's hoping against hope that Arthur is compelled to tell the truth and nothing more. He isn't sure he could handle the revelation of this being a love enchantment after all. The pain would swallow him whole.
The journey back to Camelot is fraught with stress and fear. Arthur's nerves appear to make him nastier, complaining about Merlin's sharp elbows and poor horsemanship, but he apologises profusely too, and begins an extended exposition about Merlin's multifarious charms that Merlin mutes only as soon as it becomes too explicit.
They journey through the night, with Arthur asking if there isn't a spell to make them go faster, and Merlin explaining the gaps in his magic knowledge.
"There are many things I can't do," Merlin says. "I'm positive there's a way, but I don't know it."
"You haven't had enough practice," Arthur declares. "We'll have to find a way to ensure that you do. Perhaps more hunting trips away from Camelot? Only the two of us."
"You don't think your father will suspect?"
"My father may be paranoid, but he is strangely blind to actual sorcerers. Hence, you."
"Gaius will suspect."
"We'll tell Gaius. About the magic part. Not about the bit where I'll fuck you open with my fingers each night we're away and slide inside you, deep and slow."
"Yes, Merlin? Don't sound so scandalised. I'm sure you were thinking it."
"That hesitation tells me everything I needed to know."
"I think you're getting worse."
"I think you must be right," Arthur says, not sounding at all concerned.
When they arrive in Camelot the sun has only just risen. The castle is a sight to behold as they trot straight to Gaius' chambers; shining pure and golden. Gaius informs them that they are in a great deal of trouble, but Merlin does not care, not even slightly, because he has to know the spell Arthur is under, it's absolutely imperative he discover the truth.
Arthur is told to wait in Merlin's chamber as the potion they need to create may very well explode. He says he would rather face the king's wrath and sets off to do just that. He tells Merlin that if he accidentally kills himself he will never forgive him, even as he cries himself to sleep at night. Merlin laughs, but says he understands.
Gaius raises an eyebrow. Merlin will not tell him about the possibility of this being a truth spell, he refuses. He sets resolutely to work.
Merlin sets Gaius' table alight five times before the end of the day. He singes his eyebrows and almost blows up the entire castle. It takes some very clever incantation to prevent every last item in the chamber from liquefying.
The crystal informs him that Arthur is pacing his chambers, looking ever more distressed. He feels the same, his stomach flipping left to right as he envisions the potential ensuing scenarios that may unfold. Perhaps, even if he's been under a truth spell, Arthur will forget all of his proclamations once rid of it. Then Merlin would feel obliged to prevent Arthur from ever finding out how he behaved, while continually remembering how his lips felt against his own, how his eyes shone as he proclaimed his love, trust and devotion. There are days Merlin hates his life.
His heart is in his throat when he arrives at Arthur's chambers with the potion. Arthur doesn't waste a second before he's tipping the neck of the bottle to his lips and swallowing it down, his throat working.
He finishes the bottle, puts it on the table, and looks at Merlin sadly.
"I don't think it worked," he says, before promptly falling backwards in a dead faint.
Merlin carries Arthur onto the bed and keeps watch. He keeps watch and wears a hole in the rug adorning the cold stone floor. He keeps watch and attempts all incantations he knows that are intended to wake a sleeping person. He becomes increasingly terrified that he's put Arthur into a vegetative state.
"My head is killing me," Arthur's voice eventually says. He clumsily sits up in bed, peering around himself like a man newly loosed from the dungeons.
There is a glow above his head, and words begin to form in the light, shimmering as if comprising dust. They are words that Merlin recognises from the Old Religion. Words he has never had cause to use, but that he knows well enough. He can tell exactly which spell it is, even knows the counter-incantation off by heart.
"Arthur," he says, surprised he can get his voice to work. "It is a truth spell. Do you permit me to remove it? Your toenails may grow abnormally long for five days, but they'll go back to normal in due course. As will you."
"I'll get you to cut them for me after my bath and while you're down there I'll use my winsome charm to convince you to suck my---"
"I'll take that as a yes, then. Great! Excellent," Merlin says.
He presses his hand where Arthur's heart should be and recites the incantation. Arthur's eyes widen at the point when Merlin knows his own glow. There's vibration between them, the smell of gardenias in the air, and then nothing else, nothing remarkable, just Arthur sitting, staring as Merlin continues to touch his chest.
Arthur is silent for a long time.
"What are you thinking?" Merlin asks, tentative. He feels faint himself, like he'd be happy collapsing next to Arthur for as long as it took to recover from the past few days' ordeal.
"I'm thinking that you owe me things that will make my head spin. I'm also thinking some unpleasant comments that I'm not at all compelled to say out loud."
"I am so not telling."
"Are they against me?"
"They might be. But then again, they might not. The great thing is that you don't need to know and I'm not going to tell you."
Merlin punches Arthur's arm. He punches it hard enough he knows it would hurt. Arthur laughs and asks if it's the best he can do.
"Tell me a lie," Merlin says, still needing to test this, to be completely sure that all enchantments have been lifted.
"I have never once contemplated you stripping naked and climbing into my bed," Arthur says. "I do think you're possibly the most repulsive person in Camelot. Oh! And you're the best manservant I have ever come into contact with; remarkably efficiently, constantly organised, and always reliable."
"Sounds to me like you're back to your normal, prattish self."
Arthur gives Merlin that fond, soft-lipped smile he has come to know so well. He cranes forward and captures Merlin in a kiss that makes his eyes flutter closed and his breathing become unsteady. Arthur licks over his teeth and into his mouth, his tongue wet and warm against Merlin's own. He gives a low, broken moan when Merlin slides his hands up under his shift.
And Merlin thinks, never before have I been so pleased by someone breaking through my carefully constructed defences, before being unable to think at all, too caught up in feeling.
The players pack up to leave Camelot the next day. Arthur successfully convinces Uther to allow him out of his chambers, claiming temporary insanity brought about by food poisoning. Gaius very kindly backs up his assertions. He also doesn't ask Merlin where he got to during the night, which Merlin believes absolves him from any and all mockery and cruelty he may have dealt.
"I have a cheeky question to ask of you, Sire," one of the players asks, as he mounts his horse. He's the kind of man Merlin would automatically ignore, because he seems so incredibly dull. "Where are the most precious jewels in Camelot kept?"
Arthur laughs, his face growing ruddy with the exertion. "By my side," he says, light-hearted, but with a stare that belies his good humour. "Forever by my side. Farewell. You've been a most magnificent entertainment. Truly the best that Camelot has ever seen. I adored every second of your performances."
"You didn't mean a word of that, did you?" Merlin asks as they wave the visiting party away.
"Two or three, but beyond that, not a word."
"It's going to be difficult to squeeze the truth out of you ever again."
"I should have taken advantage while I had the chance."
"But do you think I might have ways of discovering your deepest, darkest feelings that others wouldn't?"
"I think, Merlin, that you will have to practice to find out if that is indeed the case," Arthur says with a knowing smile.
Merlin smiles back, taking a deep, steadying breath to prevent himself from springing on Arthur in clear view of everyone from the joy of love. It was bound to happen sooner or later.