When Arthur was twelve years old, he developed a rather unfortunate crush on Morgana. She was small and pale and had such lovely hands and she fought better than most boys he knew.
"You really are an insufferable little toad, Arthur," she would say, and while it stung his pride to hear insults like that from her every day, it only made him all the more obsessed with her.
He used to spend hours daydreaming about how it would be if one day bandits caught her riding in the forest. He would be the one to save her of course, and he'd run in with his sword swishing in the air and drive them all to their knees as they begged for mercy. She would be so grateful that she would kiss him lightly on the cheek and tell him he was brave and handsome, that none of his father's knights could be as brave and as handsome as he.
Arthur would cover it up, of course, and the more enthralled he was with Morgana, the more he teased her.
"You remind me of my horses," he would say, "but they are all much prettier than you." He would tug at her hair and pull her chair out from under her at the banquet table, laughing when she fell, and Uther would cuff him around the ear and send him to his chambers without any supper.
Arthur isn't a child anymore, but some things never change. Merlin has the same effect on him as Morgana once did and Arthur finds himself acting in ways he knows he shouldn't. The compulsion to yell at Merlin and pelt him with various hard objects has next to nothing to do with the fact that Arthur is trying to exert control over his manservant.
Merlin is always too close, too comfortable. "You need a new tunic," he says, "this one is— a little snug. Have you been eating too many pies, Arthur?" He pats Arthur's stomach and runs away when Arthur tries to kick his backside. He's always much quicker than Arthur expects.
It's been worse lately, the way Merlin pushes himself into Arthur's space and the way he smells (like sweat and dirt and the herbs that he picks for Gaius) and how warm he is (so warm, Arthur wonders if he is warm everywhere). Merlin permeates every thought Arthur has. His face heats whenever Merlin is near and it's hard to focus on council matters and the training of new knights when all Arthur can think about is how easy it would be to just reach out and touch.
Kingdoms are not built on easy, Arthur, his father always said. Arthur loves his father dearly and respects him, but there are times when he thinks he might be full of horse dung. Nevertheless, he finds himself reverting to his old Morgana tactics (best not to think about how inappropriate that all was, knowing what he knows now).
"Was that a boot you just threw at me?" Merlin asks.
"Missed, didn't I?" Arthur says, with a shrug of his shoulders.
"Well, yes. But that isn't the point, is it?"
"Oh dear," Arthur crosses his arms and cocks an eyebrow at Merlin. "Did your little feelings get hurt, Merlin? I'm sorry, I truly am. Are you going to cry now?"
Arthur laughs and looks back down at his battle plans. He can sense Merlin back away then, no longer close or comfortable. Arthur can't feel the warmth of him and when he looks up again, Merlin is on the other side of the room with a bucket of soapy water and a scrubbing brush. He doesn't make any sound, doesn't even complain about how the floor hurts his knees. It's foreign and wrong, but it's better that way, easier for Arthur to forget just how much he wants to give in.
"So I asked her if she had any sisters and she said oh yes, and the next thing I knew I was on my back in the hay with three of them. All identical. Well, except for the one with the distinguishing mark on her—"
"Gwaine," Arthur says, "is it not bad enough that I have to ride with a blinding headache? Do I have to endure your mind-numbing chatter as well?"
"Merlin loves my mind-numbing chatter, don't you, Merlin?" Gwaine gives Merlin a dazzling grin and Arthur thinks about how satisfying it would be to knock him from his horse and shove his face in the dirt.
"Pardon me. Here I was thinking I was your lord and deserved a moment's peace and quiet. By all means, if Merlin approves please do continue."
Merlin mutters and though Arthur is looking at his back, he knows exactly what expression Merlin has on his face. He tightens his fingers on the reins. "Oh, you are alive, Merlin. I wasn't sure as there was a distinct lack of your mouth flapping. Blissful as it was."
He wishes he could shut it off, this constant need to poke at Merlin, but he can't help it. This silence is far worse than Merlin being too close for Arthur's comfort. He isn't Merlin when he is like this: subservient, barely speaking, and not at all full of good humour. It makes Arthur want to grab at him, to make him open up, to see if what’s in Merlin's eyes is a reflection of what is in Arthur's heart.
When they set up camp for the night, Arthur tries to ignore the way his chest hurts when Merlin serves him his dinner without even looking at him and sits down next to Gwaine to eat his own.
"What are you thinking about, Merlin?" Arthur asks, in between spoonfuls of stew. "The way you made an idiotic mess of my riding gear this morning? Because even for you, that was really special.”
Merlin looks up at him, his eyes dark. Arthur waits for Merlin to hit him with it, one of his surly retorts. Anything would be preferable to the horrible, awkward silence.
"Yes, sire," Merlin says, then looks down at his bowl.
"Did you get out on the wrong side of the bed?" Arthur asks, mouth upturned. "Not enough beauty sleep? You do need quite a lot of it, after all."
Merlin looks up, one eyebrow cocked, and something in his expression, in the set of his jaw makes Arthur think about hesitating, but he can't stop now. The silence is too cloying. If he can just force Merlin out of this mood he's in, maybe he would stop walking around with a face that makes Arthur want to apologise for much more than he should. After all, princes should never need to apologise for anything, everyone knows that. Except Merlin apparently, but he always manages to turn everything inside out.
"Really, Merlin, what has gotten into you?" Arthur asks, pulling at a wayward thread hanging off the knee of his trousers and deliberately not looking up. "You've barely said two words today."
"Just a long ride," Merlin says, "bit tired is all."
Merlin really is a terrible liar.
Arthur gets to his feet and throws his hands in the air. "I give up. You're as stubborn as my father, you know, and that's really saying something, Merlin."
The look Merlin gives him for that is quite probably the foulest thing Arthur has ever seen directed at him, and he's been face-to-face with a troll for god's sake.
Gwaine looks from Merlin to Arthur and back again and just laughs. "Get some sleep, you two," he says, and warms his hands in front of the fire. "I'll keep watch."
Arthur retires to the tent and Merlin follows soon after, the uncomfortable tension hangs heavy in the air between them.
“Arthur!” Gwaine’s shout raises the hair on his arms. Arthur turns to shake Merlin, and draws in a sharp breath when he sees his bedroll is empty. He grabs his sword and stumbles outside. The sun is too bright. Arthur wipes his eyes and tries to focus.
Gwaine grabs his shoulder, panting for breath. "Sorcerer. He threw some kind of flameball, barely missed me. Got our supplies though." He points to the sack of food and water, which is nothing but a steaming pile of ash.
"Where's Merlin?" Arthur asks, his eyes flicking around the campsite. Still no sign of him. He runs a hand through his hair, sweat gathering at his forehead.
"I thought he was with you," Gwaine's eyes are wide and his voice sounds thin.
Arthur shakes his head. "Come on." He runs towards the trees, Gwaine close behind him. They're just about to the edge of the wood when the sorcerer runs forward to meet them, waving his hand in front. Arthur feels himself thrown backwards. He hits the ground with a thud and his back slams hard into it.
"Gwaine?" His voice comes out strained and whispered, his body aches with the impact of the fall.
Arthur's still winded, but the sorcerer is advancing on them and he isn't going to have another chance. He gets his sword in his hand and kneels. When the sorcerer comes closer, Arthur is ready for him. He swings, cuts across the man's kneecaps. He falls back with a pained cry. Arthur gets to his feet; his blood is pumped with it, the energy and exhilaration of the battle.
"What do you want?" Arthur demands, his sword point digging into the sorcerer’s throat. He's only a boy, can't be more than sixteen, and he wears a druidic tattoo on his shoulder.
Gwaine is up now and on the other side, his sword pressed into the sorcerer's stomach.
"To make you pay," he says, breathlessly, "for all of my kind you've persecuted."
"Just the usual then," Gwaine says, rolling his eyes. "Get up, boy, and I wouldn't try anything fancy."
The boy looks up at Gwaine and then turns to Arthur, says, "Haven't found him yet, have you? Try the forest." He mumbles a few words, a spell, and there's a flash of light. Arthur blinks, can't make his eyes focus for all the white spots in front of them and when his vision returns to normal, the sorcerer is gone.
"Damn it," Gwaine says, still wiping at his eyes, "can't believe the little shit got away."
"Merlin." Arthur's heart starts to pound faster and faster. "That way." He sprints towards the forest, his chest heaving with the pace he and Gwaine are keeping. He stops stock-still when they get to the first clearing. Up ahead Merlin is sprawled face-down on the ground. He isn't moving. Arthur swallows and tastes bile in the back of his throat. He digs his fingernails into his palms so hard that the skin breaks and he knows if he looks down there will be blood, red and sticky, welling from the wounds.
He hears Gwaine's sharp intake of breath behind him and Arthur fights the fear in his blood, tamps down on it and says, breathless, "The sorcerer may have— We need to roll him over."
Gwaine nods, slowly. His face is pale, but he drops to his knees and rolls Merlin over. Merlin's eyes are glassy. His skin is cut and bleeding and Arthur can't even see the rise and fall of his chest.
Arthur falls down to the ground and his hand clutches tight on Merlin's shoulder. He bites the inside of his cheek, hard.
Gwaine presses his fingers under Merlin's jaw. "Sire. There's no pulse."
Gwaine's voice is shaky and Arthur doesn't want to hear it, not now. He needs to think, try to calm himself and he can't do that when all he can hear is barely-restrained emotion.
"Check it again," he orders, squeezing his eyes tight. "You hear me, Gwaine? Again."
Arthur opens his eyes and stares at Gwaine. He nods; pressing his fingers in again, and drops his head. Gwaine sighs, slow and laboured, whispers, "I don't want to believe it either, Arthur, but he's gone."
Something angry and violent rips through Arthur and he stumbles and yells as he gets to his feet. He runs forward and slams his fist into the nearby tree, again and again. He brings his arm nearly all the way back, his stance wide to ground himself and puts more and more force behind the blows every time he punches forward. His throat hurts from the unbound cries he utters, the sound he makes grates on his vocal chords, and he starts to choke. White-hot pain stabs through his knuckles, it shoots through his nerves as it travels all the way up to his forearm, enough to make him think about stopping. Instead he pulls his sword out from his belt. It's so heavy, but he starts to swing wide and forceful and savagely slices into the tree, erratic blows that fling bark everywhere.
As he drives his sword into the wood, sweat pours down his forehead and he grinds out wordless, anguished noises, Arthur wonders what Merlin would say, what he'd do. He'd try and stop him of course, tell him to calm down, probably risk getting hit himself. Or maybe he'd just watch, with those too-blue eyes that always saw too much.
Arthur starts to tire, his muscles ache with the force of every blow now. His chest heaves, strained with the effort to draw breath. He imagines himself standing over the sorcerer, smashing his boot down hard onto the boy's face, over and over, imagines the bark that flies everywhere now is flesh and bone and blood. Arthur wishes that they'd caught him, that he could have watched as the flames started to rise from the pyre and melted the boy's flesh from his body. Wishes he could have heard the screams.
His father would be so proud of him.
Gwaine's voice cuts through his fantasy, makes him aware of where he is once more. He bellows one more time, his voice so raw that it hurts. He buries his sword in the tree-trunk and holds himself there; one palm rests on the tree while he gasps for breath.
"Arthur," Gwaine repeats, his voice soft.
"Don't— say another word," Arthur manages to pant out. He pulls his sword from where it is wedged in the wood. His hand cramps, there's a sharp pain in his wrist and his fingers throb around the hilt. He can't hold it anymore and his sword falls to the ground.
"Gwaine, if you value our friendship at all, you'll leave us. Now." His voice comes out cracked and broken and he looks down at his knuckles, bloody and swollen from the force of his punches.
Arthur hears Gwaine's footsteps behind him, listens as the sound of them gets more distant. Only then does he allow himself to walk back to Merlin and fall down. He pulls Merlin into his lap.
"You just keep doing this, don't you? Damn you, Merlin, you have to stop. You're not a bloody soldier. Just— why do you have to be such a pig-headed, lack-brained idiot?"
Arthur's body aches with exhaustion and tears sting his eyes. They start to spill down his cheeks and he doesn't move to wipe them away, just lets them drip down onto Merlin's nose. "Damn you for making me cry. Princes aren't supposed to cry. But you made me. You make me want to do all sorts of things I shouldn't, don't you?"
There's dried blood smeared on Merlin’s cheeks, which contrasts with the milky-white pallor everywhere else. His eyes are so blue still, and Arthur has to look away for a minute.
"I'm sorry," he says, "for everything I've done and said the last few days. I just— I panicked. You were getting too close, it was getting too hard not to—"
Arthur wipes at his wet face with the palm of one hand. "God, you're such an idiot. A stupid, loyal, lovable idiot. And I'll never be able to tell you just how much—"
Gwaine clears his throat behind him and Arthur flinches. He shifts Merlin out of his lap, cradling his head as he lays him carefully on the ground. Arthur straightens himself, elongating his posture as he clears his abraded throat.
"Arthur," Gwaine says, "I'm sorry, I know you probably want to knock me out cold right now, but we need to get Merlin back to Camelot before nightfall. So that we can—"
Get him back to Gaius so he can clean him. Prepare him for the pyre. Someone is going to have to ride to Ealdor, tell his mother. Arthur will do it, he'll have to. The mere thought of it makes his chest ache.
Arthur inhales long and deep and swallows all the things he still wants to say to Merlin. So much wasted time. Uther always told him that regret was a useless emotion, that it causes nothing but harm, and Arthur had always believed that. He wipes away the clumps of dried blood from the scratches on Merlin's face. He runs his thumb over those full lips and the pad of his thumb catches on the pockets of chapped skin.
"Gwaine," Arthur says, "you know perfectly well how far it is."
Gwaine shrugs. "You know me, Arthur, I barely remember my own name most days."
"I've told you already I don't wish to talk. Will you not grant me a moment's peace?" Arthur nudges Hengroen, and he trots faster, leaving Gwaine behind for a few blissful moments. It still hurts to talk; his throat is lumpy and raw, like he constantly needs to cough.
"He'd want me to make sure you were okay," Gwaine yells from behind him and Arthur closes his eyes for a minute, just concentrates on his breath. When he opens his eyes, Gwaine is level with him again.
"I was supposed to protect him, Gwaine," Arthur says, "and I couldn't. I cannot even begin to tell you how that makes me feel."
"You weren't the only one supposed to protect him, Arthur."
"But it was my job." Arthur looks down at Merlin's body, slung over his horse. "I failed."
"Tell me one thing, Arthur," Gwaine says. "Do you think Merlin didn't know exactly what he was doing? It wasn't the first time. And he would have done it a hundred times if he could."
Arthur bristles. "You don't have to tell me that. I know Merlin better than anyone. Yes, even you."
"Forgive me," Gwaine says, "I didn't mean—"
"No, Gwaine, I'm sorry." Arthur looks over at him. "I did tell you I didn't want to talk, though. You're as stubborn as he was."
It feels wrong referring to Merlin in past tense. Arthur doesn't want to get used to it. He takes a moment and looks down at him, his pale lips and his smooth skin, marred only by the scratches on his cheeks.
"Gwaine? There's something—" He tightens the reins, and brings Hengroen to a stop. Arthur jumps off and grabs at Merlin's face with both hands. Gwaine jumps off his horse too and comes over to look. There is fresh blood, which seeps from the wounds on Merlin's cheeks. Arthur runs it between his fingers, it's sticky and warm.
"He still bleeds," Arthur says, checking again by swiping his thumb over the cuts. "Is that not strange?"
"It's not strange. It's impossible, Arthur." Gwaine's face changes, a wide grin spreads across his face and his eyes look brighter. "Dead men don't bleed."
Arthur lifts his hand and shows Gwaine the smears of red on his fingers. "Not like this they don't." His heart thuds faster and faster.
It isn't just the blood. Merlin isn't stiff like a dead man should be: when Arthur lifts his arm, he still feels pliant and warm. There's nothing about the way he is that Arthur is used to with a corpse, except for the fact that he can't see him breathe, can't feel or hear his pulse.
"It makes no sense," Arthur says, "Gaius. He'll know. We must get him to Gaius."
They don't speak for the rest of the journey. They take turns with Merlin on their horses and Arthur desperately tries not to imagine what it would be like if Merlin suddenly reached out and touched him, and murmured, "I wasn't dead, Arthur, just sleeping."
Gaius's face is ashen when Arthur carries Merlin in and lays him down on the examining table.
"Merlin. No." His voice is so broken that it makes Arthur's throat dry up. "He's dead."
Arthur squeezes Gaius's shoulder. "I know. Except—"
"Except?" Gaius feels Merlin's pulse and shakes his head.
"I'm just not sure." Arthur runs a hand through his hair. "I thought— but he was bleeding two hours ago. And he doesn't feel stiff or cold. Gaius, is there any possibility that—?"
Arthur hates that the crack in his voice betrays him. Gaius looks up at him, his eyes kind, and Arthur wonders, not for the first time, what it would be like to have this man as a father, instead of his own.
"Tell me what happened, your highness," Gaius says. "Please don't leave anything out. It's very important."
"There was a sorcerer, a boy." Arthur paces as he speaks, "Merlin ran after him, I suppose, because Gwaine and I found him in the forest, on the ground. He had no heartbeat, but—"
"Would you like me to look at your hand, sire?" Gaius stares at Arthur's knuckles, and Arthur hides his hands behind his back.
"No." He looks down at the floor. "Thank you, Gaius, I'm fine."
When Arthur looks up again, Gaius is still staring at him, an eyebrow raised.
"Are you going to examine him?" Arthur asks, and when Gaius finally looks away, preparing his examination of Merlin, Arthur unlocks his hands from behind his back. He stares down at the injured one with its cut and bruised knuckles, a mess of red and purple.
Gaius examines Merlin thoroughly: lifts his hands up and lets them fall, taps on his knees and runs a pin over Merlin's forearms.
"I think," he says finally, "there is every chance that Merlin has been cursed."
"He is alive?" Arthur asks.
"I do believe that is a foregone conclusion, sire."
Arthur's heart hammers in his chest. "Well, good. It would be a nightmare to have him replaced, after all."
Gaius smiles and nods. "Indeed, sire. And now you must let me work, if you'll allow me to be so blunt. I'll send word as soon as I have any news."
"Immediately. Day or night, Gaius, you understand?"
"Yes, sire, I do."
Arthur nods curtly and makes for the door. When he has shut it behind him, he runs a shaky hand through his hair and allows himself a moment to just breathe.
There's been no word from Gaius, but Arthur thinks he should maybe just pop in and make his presence known anyway. After some breakfast and a change of clothes. Perhaps a bath if he can bear to stomach another servant's company long enough to make them draw one.
"I do marvel at the fact that you cannot even dress yourself for bed, Arthur."
He starts at the sound of a croaky and achingly familiar voice. Arthur's belly floods with warmth.
"Merlin?" He sits up in bed. "You're— here."
"As always," Merlin says, "I am astounded by how quick-witted you are." He sets Arthur's breakfast tray on the dining table. He moves slowly, and he's a little pale, dark circles under his eyes, but he's alive and in Arthur's room and it's as if nothing has changed.
"There isn't any cheese this morning. Gwaine and Percival ate it all, but there's ham and plums and if you even think about throwing boots at my head, Arthur, I'll—
"You'll what? Utter baseless threats that you have no intention of following through on?" Arthur swings his legs to the floor and fights the compulsion to stride over and just grab Merlin, pull him in and embrace him.
"I asked Gaius to contact me as soon as there was news. Why the hell didn't he—?"
"I needed some time," Merlin says, "Don't blame Gaius. He thought that it would be best for me to sleep as long as I could. You too, you looked wretched."
Arthur's head starts to pound and he feels like he might be sick. "How could you know how I looked, Merlin? Could you—?"
"I saw everything," Merlin says. Arthur's skin prickles sharply, and his cheeks begin to flush."It was like I was trapped in there and I couldn't move, but I could see and hear. I could hear you—"
"I see." Arthur pats the coverlet next to him and Merlin looks at the bed, then back at Arthur, hesitant. "Well? Sit down. I won't ask you twice."
"Didn't ask me at all, actually," Merlin says under his breath, and Arthur can't help the smile that curls the corners of his mouth.
Merlin sits down, but he doesn't look at Arthur straight away, just stares at the floor, takes a deep breath and looks up. He says, "You cried over me."
"I did not cry." His jaw is clenched tight and his voice wavers. "A prince does not cry. I told you once that no man was worth your tears, remember? It was probably dirt in my eyes."
"Arthur, don't try and— I heard what you said." Merlin looks directly at him, his eyes fixed and intent. "Everything you said. It's okay to have feelings and be human, you know. Even princes are allowed to be human."
Arthur snorts. "I dare you to say that to my father. I doubt even you're that much of a halfwit."
"He doesn't scare me."
"No," Arthur says, smiling, "I would imagine that's true."
Merlin reaches out then, runs his fingers over Arthur's bruised knuckles, and it's so gentle that Arthur barely even notices any pain. "I can't believe you did that to yourself. For me." Merlin's fingers are so soft, and they're like a feather when Merlin brushes them again, over Arthur's skin.
Arthur closes his eyes and breathes deep. "I thought I'd lost you," he says, "and I couldn't bear it. I know it doesn't seem like it sometimes, but—"
Merlin reaches over and kisses him then, and Arthur forgets about everything he wants to say, just concentrates on the brush of Merlin's lips against his.
"Is this okay?" Merlin asks, but Arthur doesn't answer, he simply wraps an arm around Merlin's waist and pulls him in close, deepens the kiss so that Merlin's mouth opens and Arthur's tongue presses in between his lips. He's always been a man of action anyway, when it comes down to it.
"Hated it," he says, in between sweeps of his tongue into Merlin's mouth, "when you weren't talking to me, and then when I thought you'd—"
"I know," Merlin says. He pulls back and stares deep into Arthur's eyes, his thumbs on Arthur's cheekbones. "It's over now. You never have to push me away like that, Arthur, because I know. And I won't let you."
Arthur laughs. "Won't let me? Merlin, have you forgotten who you're talking to?"
"No." Merlin lowers his mouth to Arthur's throat and brushes his lips over the pulse point, licks long and slow up the length of Arthur's neck. "You're still a right royal pain in my arse."
"I'll give you a pain in your arse," he says, and bites Merlin's collarbone.
"Oh really? That's an interesting choice of words."
"Ah." Arthur coughs violently. "Yes. That."
"Well? Are you just all talk, Arthur Pendragon? Or are you actually going to ravish me and rid me of my virtue?"
Arthur roars with laughter. "Your— oh please, Merlin. You don't actually think anyone would fall for that rubbish, do you?"
Merlin shrugs. "Worked quite well on Sir Caradoc. He seemed quite pleased to be relieving me of my virginity."
Arthur would like to send Sir Caradoc into the Valley of the Fallen Kings, or The Perilous Lands to be eaten alive by Wyverns. Slowly. But when he looks back at Merlin, he's laughing at him.
"You really are an idiot, Merlin."
A loyal, lovable, precious idiot.
Arthur pushes Merlin down into the mattress and kisses him deeply, whispers into his mouth, "You are not allowed to die, do you hear me? I order you, and I am extremely royal and important, so you'd better just do as I say."
"Yes sire," Merlin says, breathless and bold. He tilts his hips up to meet Arthur's and they slide against each other slow and lazy. Arthur comes with his mouth pressed hot and wet into the base of Merlin's throat and when Merlin follows, Arthur holds him, his fingers tight on Merlin's hips and his throat constricted.
Afterwards, when Merlin has wiped them both clean, Arthur reaches for Merlin and kisses him slow and thorough. His hands glide over every bump and blemish as he catalogues the dips and swells of Merlin's body.
Arthur is late to practice for the first time in years.