Merlin fell to his knees, bowed his head, bared his neck. It took all his willpower not to reach out, not to grab at Arthur's legs. Not to beg.
"You will not speak." Arthur's voice was the crack of a whip, and it stung just as much.
They were alone and the sky was clear, the sun directly overhead. Waves of heat shimmered, blurring their horses, blurring the dead. So many dead.
Merlin's arm felt wrong, his face hurt, his torso scraped raw. It didn't matter. Arthur was alive.
Merlin kept his eyes on Arthur's mud-splattered boots. He'd cleaned them just that morning, before Arthur knew. Before they were overwhelmed by ex-soldiers turned mercenaries. Before Merlin used his magic to save Arthur.
A simple day's hunt was all Arthur had wanted. A day away from his regent duties, a day alone with Merlin.
"Fancy a pheasant, Merlin?" he'd said. "That's your favorite, isn't it?"
The resulting glow that had warmed Merlin's insides was long gone, now replaced with icy, paralyzing fear.
"Four years, Merlin."
"Four years you kept this from me."
Merlin nodded, miserable. He'd never allowed himself to imagine this moment.
Arthur's sword clattered to the ground, and he grabbed Merlin's shoulders, pulled him up. "Look at me!"
Merlin never thought of himself as a coward until that moment. He didn't want to see Arthur's rage. He couldn't face it. He kept his eyes down and stared at Arthur's armour -- at the armour he'd cared for with meticulous precision for what felt like a lifetime.
"Merlin! Look at me."
It wasn't the words that gave Merlin courage, it was Arthur's voice. It had gone low and broken.
Merlin looked. It wasn't anger Merlin saw; it was pain. Arthur's eyes were beseeching. His fingers dug painfully into the flesh of Merlin's biceps. "Why didn't you tell me? Why? What did you think? Did you think I'd let my father execute you? Do you think so little of me?"
Arthur shook him, and Merlin felt like a rag doll, utterly without power to work his own limbs. Pain shot through him, but he ignored it, gasping, "No, Arthur. No! I don't think little of you. I think everything of you. I have to."
Once he met Arthur's gaze, he couldn't drop it. He had to let Arthur see his faith, his undivided loyalty. Arthur's stare was unwavering, and in his eyes Merlin could see the quickening of a thousand questions. "You've saved me before today."
Merlin drew a shaky breath. "Yes."
Arthur closed his eyes, braced his forehead against Merlin's. His next words were hot breath on Merlin's face. "You're always at my side."
Merlin put his hands on Arthur's hips with trembling fingers. "Protecting you," he whispered against Arthur's cheek.
Arthur's grip slackened and he stepped back, eyes wild. "You could have died if you'd been seen." He gestured at the score of broken bodies around them. "How will I explain this to the patrol? The report will go to my father."
"I can take care of this," Merlin said, suddenly weary. His face stung, his side was on fire, his arm felt too loose.
"You could have died."
"I won't get caught."
"I caught you!"
"I couldn't let you die. I will never let you die."
Arthur barked out a hollow laugh and collapsed, arse in the dirt, legs splayed in front of him. "God, Merlin. You."
Merlin dashed to his side, crouched low. "Arthur, please. I'm sorry it came out this way. I didn't want you to find out like this --"
Arthur was quick; he had Merlin on his back in seconds, trapping Merlin neatly beneath him. "How then? How did you want me to find out?"
Merlin blinked up at him, took in the clear blue of his eyes, the determination shaping his need to know.
"I wanted you to see magic used for good. I wanted you to see it as I see it --"
"Your face," Arthur said, suddenly unsure. He traced Merlin's cheekbone with his thumb."You've got a bruise."
"One of them hit me."
"And you killed him."
"Or you did. I don't know." Merlin clutched Arthur's hand, continued, earnest. "Arthur, my magic is --"
"Stop. I don't want -- you're a bloody mess. You never look like this after a fight." He frowned, rolled off of Merlin, sat him up.
The movement forced a gasp out of Merlin, and he felt his side with careful fingers, probing for injury, but it didn't matter, it didn't matter; he had to tell Arthur everything. "I was born with magic, you see. And I only use it to --"
"Your arm is bleeding," Arthur said. "Why are you so beat up?"
"There were too many this time. I couldn't stop the blows. I had to make sure you were safe. But Arthur, about my magic, you have to understand --"
"Take your shirt off."
"I want to see. I want to make sure your ribs aren't broken."
"This is important, you, you clotpole! Don't you want to hear --"
"Merlin," Arthur said, reaching out to touch the bruise on Merlin's face, "it's more important that you're well enough to do your chores tomorrow."
Something like hope unfurled in Merlin's chest. "My chores."
"Yes." Arthur's voice was gruff, and his eyes were too wide. "I've become quite used to the way you tidy up."