Title: What You Carry With You
Author: Ras Elased
Summary: Truth and knowledge are just as heavy as any yoke around the neck. For all Arthur's posturing, he is not Atlas, and he can't shoulder the weight of the world.
A/N: For reel_merlin, based on the movie Superman II. (Actually, mostly just the ending scene, because I am a sap, and that scene turns my heart to mush every damn time.) Takes place between 1.10 and 1.11, and I should probably mention that this is a part of my personal canon, because I firmly believe something like this happened between these two episodes. That's the only way to explain how Arthur goes from practically calling Merlin out on his magic in 1.10 to being utterly oblivious (and unintentionally hurtful) in 1.11. Plus, no way is all of Merlin's emo due to the unicorn. *g*
Major thanks to lantean_drift for the speedy and awesome beta job. You're amazing, hon! ♥
It all changes on their way back from Ealdor. Arthur has always had his suspicions, buried deep, deep in the recesses of some unacknowledged corner of his mind, somewhere he dared not look too hard, even when Merlin declared himself a sorcerer to the royal court itself. Then there was a whirlwind, and Arthur got swept up in it, battered about like the dried husk of a leaf. This time, he cannot forget his suspicions.
He tests his instincts, one frigid night on a hunt.
They're not lost, though Merlin doesn't know it. Arthur knows exactly where the castle is, could point to it and number the paces it would take to get there. But he lets Merlin grumble about "pratly princes with no sense of direction who insist on going hunting in the snow." Merlin is too busy griping to notice when Arthur pockets the flints from their packs.
They make camp for the night. Arthur orders Merlin to start a fire, and then says he's going to the stream to fetch water. He pauses at the edge of the clearing when he hears Merlin curse. He turns to see Merlin buried elbow deep in one of the packs, searching. Without a fire, they'll surely freeze to death in the night. Arthur is counting on this.
When he returns from the stream, there is a fire blazing bright in the center of the clearing, and Merlin has already set out their bedrolls for the night. Merlin smiles, wide and guileless, and the familiarity of it feels oddly incongruous with the weight of confirmation. Had Arthur really been expecting to return to find Merlin wearing a black cloak and a different face?
Arthur casually tosses the flints at the foot of Merlin's bedroll, then waits. It takes an incredibly long, awkward silence accompanied by a raised eyebrow before realization makes every last trace of color drain from Merlin's face. He looks absolutely, completely terrified, and Arthur is inexplicably reminded of that afternoon in the marketplace, when Merlin had rather gleefully insulted him with a combination of idiocy and sheer bravery. It is not right that Merlin should look so scared.
Merlin opens his mouth, pallid, trembling lips forming that shape they always make just before he says Arthur's name, but Arthur turns away. "Do try to be more careful in the future," he says, then lays down on his bedroll, back to the fire.
He had not even considered Merlin's execution an option, and the knowledge settles like a stone in his gut.
It's no secret that Arthur has always suspected he has a guardian angel. He has said as much to those closest to him. To Morgana, and to his father. What he has not ever voiced, and what he only admits to himself in moments of sentimental weakness, is that he has always imagined his guardian angel to be his mother.
He is irrationally angry at Merlin for taking that from him.
Arthur tells himself that is why he goes after the Alphyn alone.
The beast's jaws are stained red with blood from its latest kill of the village livestock. They snap at him like an overly large cat playing with a mouse. Arthur swipes at it with his sword as it draws near, trying to find flesh beneath its thick pelt. When Arthur manages to slice off one of its ears, the creature decides to stop playing with him. It raises a paw with viciously curled claws the size of Arthur's blade. Arthur hears his name shouted through the trees like mothers shout for their children at the swing of the executioner's axe. There is a blinding flash brighter than even the midday sun and the air shakes with thunder Arthur can feel in his chest, and all Arthur can think is Merlin, you idiot and Please god, I hope you're alone. I hope nobody sees you. Then a monstrous paw strikes his shield and sends his body flying backwards, head smashing into a rock with a sickening crack.
When Arthur wakes up, Merlin is cradling Arthur's aching head in his lap and he is chanting softly under his breath and his eyes are an unearthly, luminescent yellow. Arthur feels like he is carrying a lead weight in his chest. Why couldn't Merlin have been obedient for once in his idiotic life and stayed away? Arthur knew this would happen. He knows it will again. Sooner or later, Merlin will give himself away as he fumbles his way into saving Arthur's life. "Merlin," he says, and this time it is his turn to sound like the mother watching the axe fall.
Merlin stops his chanting long enough to say, "You could have died, you prat."
Arthur closes his eyes against the burning yellow, but now all he can see is a burning pyre. "Don't be daft, Merlin," he says. "I always knew you'd save me." Arthur imagines no one besides himself could be more surprised, and at the same time not, to find that what Arthur actually means is, "I'd die to protect you."
Honestly, sometimes Arthur thinks it would save him a great deal of trouble if he just tied Merlin to him with a leash.
They are on a hunt, and it's the middle of the night, and Arthur is supposed to be sleeping, but instead he is searching for his wayward manservant who has somehow managed to wander off into the darkened forest, alone. There is a faint light up ahead, and Arthur is heading towards it, because it would be just like Merlin to be using magic out in the open where anyone could see him.
But when Arthur reaches the edge of the clearing, he stumbles to a halt. Merlin is there, but he is not the one creating the light. There is a woman standing with him, wearing a dress made of flowers and wreathed in white light. It shines on the leaves and trees around her as if it were daylight, though beyond her small bubble of light it is only a pale glow like moonlight. Merlin is inside her ring, his face lit up and smiling.
They are just…talking. If it weren't for the mysterious light and the fact that the girl's hair is blowing in a nonexistent breeze, Arthur could easily mistake them for longtime friends who happened to run into each other at market. Merlin's mouth twists wryly and the girl throws her head back in a laugh that apparently only Merlin can hear, and Arthur realizes with a shock of cold dread that Merlin is telling jokes with a powerful magical spirit of the forest.
Arthur had never considered the possibility that he didn't know the real Merlin. Even the revelation of Merlin's magic was just a facet that Arthur incorporated into his view of who Merlin is: Arthur's idiot manservant, loyal to a fault, who also possesses the power to perform spells. Now, Arthur realizes how wrong he was. This, this is the true Merlin, who uses magic as easily as breathing, who converses with forest nymphs as if they are old friends, who is quite possibly more powerful than any of Camelot's most feared sorcerers. And who, Arthur realizes as he takes in the simplicity of Merlin's smile, is far more at home in the realm of magic than he's ever been at court.
The woman reaches out and touches Merlin's elbow lightly, and Merlin gives her a look that is equal parts shy and coy. For a moment, Arthur is torn between wanting to turn away, to run from that image, and desperately, selfishly wanting to call Merlin back to him. And it would be selfish, because this is Merlin, but he is also so much more, and how can Arthur hope to hold on to that? Arthur has never felt inadequate in his life, but next to this he feels small and inconsequential, like a leaf trying to command the wind. This is too big, too big. His father's honor, his duty to Camelot, and now this. Truth and knowledge are just as heavy as any yoke around the neck. For all his posturing, Arthur is not Atlas, and he can't shoulder the weight of the world.
Arthur makes his retreat, but he doesn't sleep. He can't close his eyes without seeing images of Merlin in the clearing, following after the woman's otherworldly light and never coming back. He is still awake and stupidly grateful when Merlin stumbles into camp, nearly walking through the cooling embers of the fire in his clumsiness. He waits until Merlin is curled up on his bedroll, the night silent around them, before he says, "You don't have to stay, you know. You could be off, somewhere, doing…whatever it is you do." He makes a vague hand gesture towards the forest that he hopes conveys his message without signaling that he was spying on Merlin's rendezvous with a forest nymph.
"I know," Merlin replies simply. He doesn't even have the good grace to pretend he thought Arthur was actually sleeping.
Arthur wants to ask so many things. Why are you wasting your time? Am I holding you back from something bigger? Wouldn't it be so much easier if you would just go? What he settles on, though, is, "Then why do you stay?"
Merlin turns the full weight of his smile on Arthur and shrugs. "Because I want to."
The knowledge should make Arthur feel lighter, but it doesn't.
"You wanted to see me, Father?"
Uther looks up from his reports and favors Arthur with a flat gaze. "Yes. I have an important matter I need to discuss with you. I trust the recent increase in magical attacks on Camelot has not slipped beyond your notice?"
Arthur ignores the prickling of the hairs at the back of his neck and maintains his composure. "Yes, Father."
Uther nods gravely, though Arthur doesn't pretend it is any form of acknowledgement for his words. "Naturally, this presents a grave concern on my part for the safety of Camelot. Given the extent that these attacks have focused on the royal court, I'm forced to conclude the possibility of a traitor in our midst."
Arthur's heart stops and his stomach goes cold. He knows. He knows and he is trying to discover if I know as well, and I can't let him take Merlin. Not Merlin. I must do something. Arthur's hand closes over the hilt of his sword before he can stop himself. If his father notices, he doesn't say anything. Arthur loosens his grip but does not let go. He does his best to keep his voice level and dismissive as he asks, "You suspect a sorcerer spy in the court? That's impossible. No one so close to the crown would dare use magic. They'd be signing their own death warrant."
Uther's eyes narrow in consideration. "Do not be so quick to dismiss it. Hubris will blind even the greatest kings to treachery." Arthur feels the full weight of his father's gaze, and he stands up straighter because of it. "Think on it. Have you noticed anything suspicious amongst the knights? Or the servants, for that matter?"
Arthur's eyes meet his father's, betraying no weakness, no quarter, and no hesitance despite the frantic rushing of blood in his ears, screaming at him to run, or to fight, to protect at all costs. The leather of Arthur's glove creaks as he tightens his grip on the sword. "No, sire. I haven't noticed anything of the sort."
Their gazes stay locked for several more moments, and Arthur wonders if it is only himself that can feel the thrum of tension hanging heavy in the air. At length, it is Uther who looks away. "Hmm. That proves nothing. A sorcerer who has gone this long undetected would be a formidable enemy, and dangerous. We must be vigilant, lest this traitor slip through our fingers."
Arthur recognizes the words for the dismissal they are, and he nods a brief bow before he leaves the king's chambers. The bulky doors bang shut with the resounding crack of heavy wood. The sound knocks a tight exhale from Arthur's chest. He unclenches his fist from his sword hilt.
Somehow, the knowledge that Arthur would die for Merlin pales in comparison to the realization that his sword is already partially unsheathed.
That night, Arthur dreams. In the morning, Merlin is there to shake him awake, one hand clenched in the shoulder of Arthur's sweat-soaked nightshift. The warmth of Merlin's hand feels good against his clammy skin.
"Arthur, are you…What's wrong?"
Arthur shuts his eyes. He will not voice the horror of feeling his father's blood on his hands, warm and slick, so he says instead, "My father is starting to be suspicious that there is a sorcerer inside the royal court." The fist in Arthur's shirt clenches so tight he can feel Merlin's nails digging into his skin. Arthur opens his eyes just in time to see the blood drain from Merlin's face, and Arthur wants to pull him close and shake him until some sense rattles loose from that daft brain of his.
"I love my father," Arthur says, sounding as if the confession is being ripped out of him. "If it ever came down to a choice between you and my father, you know who I'd choose."
Merlin looks as if Arthur just reached down into his chest and tore out his heart along with most of his vital organs. "I do," he says, quiet and resigned, and Arthur reaches up to grasp Merlin's fist that is still clutching Arthur's shirt, because no, Merlin really doesn't understand at all.
Arthur has a flash of his dream, of his blade cutting his father down without hesitation or remorse, and his hand tightens over Merlin's in a bone-crushing grip. "Do you?" he spits, harsh and intense and just short of accusing. How could you have done this to me? Look what I've become. The words form in the back of his throat but lay heavy on his tongue, unable to be forced past his lips. What Arthur says instead is, "I wish I'd never…" before he stops himself cold. Still, the half-admission settles on Arthur's shoulders, adding to the steadily growing weight he can feel pressing him down, like lead in his veins, so much more oppressive since he learned the truth of Merlin's secret. He is afraid that sooner or later, the weight will bring him to his knees.
Arthur is staring out his window into the morning sunrise, because he cannot look anywhere else. Everywhere he looks, he sees signs of Merlin—the real Merlin. Now that his eyes have been opened, Arthur sees Merlin in the flickering of his candles that never seem to need replacing, in the tight creases of his bed linens, in the gleaming shine of his freshly polished armor. He sees Merlin's magic everywhere, and it makes him want to shut his eyes. His bones ache with the weight of his knowledge.
Merlin comes in with breakfast, but Arthur doesn't turn. "Leave it on the table," he says flatly.
Merlin does, but he doesn't leave. Arthur can practically feel Merlin's stare pinning him in place. "It will get easier, Arthur. With time," Merlin says quietly, as if treading on broken glass.
With a force of will, Arthur unballs his fists and lays them flat against the cool stone of the windowsill. His voice is as cold and rough as the stone under his hands as he says, "I know. Someday, I will be king. Then I will stop feeling like a fraud, and a traitor to my own kingdom. But until then…"
There is a silence that goes on so long it becomes a living thing, choking off Arthur's air. Merlin's hand settles on his shoulder, the touch lighter than a feather but heavy enough to tear at the seams of Arthur's carefully constructed control. "Arthur…"
Arthur whirls on his manservant, knocking his hand away and letting loose with all his pent up fury. "Do you have any idea what this feels like, living with this knowledge?" he shouts, voice strained. "I live every day in anguish. I am willing to betray my kingdom, my duty, my father. Every day, every moment feels like a betrayal, but I will do it…I…" Arthur stops, swallows hard, but the words keep tumbling from his mouth, despite the crushed expression on Merlin's face. "…I would do anything for you. I will endure this, because the alternative is unthinkable."
After a beat of stunned silence, Merlin sets his jaw and closes the short distance between them. He doesn't move, doesn't speak as he stares hard into Arthur's eyes. He is so close Arthur can feel the heat radiating in the air between them. Then Merlin slowly reaches up and wraps his fingers around the back of Arthur's neck and pulls their foreheads together. Arthur's hands instantly cling to the front of Merlin's shirt and he takes a deep, fortifying breath to choke back whatever noise just tried to rip its way past his throat. Merlin's breath is warm on Arthur's cheek as he whispers wryly, "So, that's how it is, then?"
Arthur would laugh if he wasn't afraid it would shatter him like crockery hurled against the stone wall. "That's how it is," he replies.
Merlin cups Arthur's face between his palms and tilts his gaze up until they are practically nose to nose. Merlin's eyes hold a steady blaze of emotion that threatens to rip through Arthur's chest like wildfire. "Someday, Arthur, I'll tell you," Merlin says. "When the time is right, I'll tell you everything. Until then, this is my burden to carry, not yours." Then Merlin's eyes flash gold, and Merlin's lips are on Arthur's, and Arthur doesn't know how to do anything but kiss him back.
Arthur feels like he is lit up and glowing, his blood is searing his veins, and his heartbeat is pounding inside his skull. He feels the weight lift, and he is suddenly lighter than air. He swears he could fly if he wanted to, but that would mean he would have to stop kissing Merlin, and he doesn't think even the castle crashing down around his ears could make him stop now. His heartbeat grows louder inside his skull, and his brain feels like it is floating away, dizzy with pleasure like he's been drinking heavy wine straight from the skin. He doesn't know anything but Merlin's lips, and Merlin's hands in his hair, and the heat of his body through his clothes, and Arthur doesn't want it to ever, ever stop. And then Merlin pulls away.
Arthur's knees almost give out beneath him. He tries to pull Merlin back, but Merlin steps out of his grasp. He looks utterly broken, but that's…that's not right. Merlin says, "I'm sorry," but Arthur doesn't understand. His thoughts are fuzzy and jumbled, and they slip through his fingers like grains of sand. He takes a step towards Merlin, but the reason why eludes him, like he just walked into a room and can't remember what he was looking for there. He sways on his feet and braces himself on the windowsill behind him. He puts a hand to his forehead and tries to blink away his blurry vision, to clear the sudden blankness from his mind. It takes a moment, but when he looks up, he sees Merlin standing there, next to the tray full of breakfast food. When had that arrived?
"What just happened?" Arthur asks, unsteady. When he gets no answer, Arthur blinks and tries to take step towards the table. His vision swims again and he catches himself on the arm of his chair.
Merlin takes a step towards his side, but stops himself. "Arthur, just…be careful. Your head will clear in a minute."
"I'm fine," Arthur snaps. "I just…I stood up too quickly, that's all." Although, he's not sure that's really right. This feels an awful lot like the time Merlin knocked him out with a block of wood, though thankfully without the blasted migraine.
Merlin smiles, but it looks odd somehow. "Are you sure you don't want me to fetch you some smelling salts? I hear they work wonders on swooning women."
"I did not swoon!" Arthur protests, lifting his goblet to his lips before catching the second part. "And I am not a woman!" he adds, glaring at his insubordinate manservant. "Don't you have work to be doing? My stables were looking especially in need of a good mucking out the other day."
The corner of Merlin's mouth quirks up briefly, but there is no cheeky glint in his eye that Arthur usually expects to accompany the smirk. "Yes, sire," Merlin mumbles.
He turns to leave, his shoulders slightly hunched. Arthur wonders what could be affecting his manservant. Perhaps a bit of trekking through the forest would cheer him up. It always works for Arthur. Just as Merlin reaches the door, Arthur calls out, "And saddle my horse for this afternoon. I feel like going hunting."
What You Carry With You