There were voices in the hall again. Laughter. Arthur pressed his ear to the door to try and catch more of what was being said, but the voices were too far away, footsteps clacking farther away until they were gone again.
Arthur had slept in, as he normally did, because there wasn't anything worth getting up for. It was easier to just sleep until he couldn’t anymore. He’d woken up feeling like his head was too full of sleep and so then he’d have to get up and move around to shake it out and make room for new sleep. He'd been having the same dream he normally did—of walls and books and snatches of voices in the hall, but he didn’t worry about it. What else was there to dream about?
He woke up to the smell of straw (itchy and constant) linen—musky and familiar, and the chamber pot in the corner—acrid and foul. First meal was on the floor. It was on the same tray it was always on- a flimsy wooden thing that slipped through the iron slot in the door easily. got up. He walked two paces to retrieve it. He sat at his small table. He ate. Alone. He used to…but now he ate alone. One chair. One small table. One tiny bed.
The maid, when she comes, will not talk to him. She will knock on the door. Arthur will slide his chamber pot, his bed linens, his dirty, smelly clothing through the slot. They come once every three sleeps with clean linens, a clean chamber pot, clean clothing and leave Arthur to put the linens on the bed (square and neat as he always has), the clothing on his body, and the chamber pot in its customary corner, all just as his brother taught him. Sometimes they would slide a bucket of cold water, a brush and a cloth under the slot, and he will scrub himself raw and aching, then scrub the floors spotless, and then slide the dirty water back under the door. He no longer stares at the water and remembers how they used to play. He just takes off his clothing and rubs himself clean, head bent, having to reach his back by himself. There’s nothing he can do about his hair. It is greasy, heavy and tangled down his back. He uses it as a pillow sometimes.
The only other thing to look forward to is the talking in the halls. Sometimes he hears people in the halls. They talk. People forgot about him. He presses himself to the door to listen. He knows his Majesty remarried. He knows his Majesty has a new, better son—not his brother, not his brother, because his brother had stayed down here with Arthur even though it was dark and quiet, because he loved Arthur. The new son never visits. He might not even know Arthur is alone down here. He has a little brother, now, whom he can’t do anything about. He can’t protect him, or show him things, or hold him tight at night.
But then, his new little brother hadn’t killed his mother. He had a mother. And he grew up, and was now old enough to sleep with three or four maidservants a week, which meant that Arthur was old enough to sleep with six or seven maidservant a week, but he didn’t get to sleep with anyone at all. Arthur knew what sex was, well, he sort of knew, because his older brother had told him. Sometimes, he could hear groaning outside his door. One time he saw— through the thin slats of his door— the shadowy embrace of two servants in the middle of what he assumed to be sex. He didn’t quite know what was involved, but he’d tried to piece it together, and then it made him hard. His brother had explained about that, of course, so Arthur hadn’t been scared or anything, he hadn’t worried, he’d known. Of course. He knew people snuck away to have sex, and it was always a man and woman and since Arthur didn’t have anyone like a woman, he had to trick his pecker into thinking his hand was one. His pecker was really stupid. He knew you had to sneak away to have sex, so he hid in his fort. It was nice having something to himself.
Except now he had everything to himself and he didn’t want it. He wanted someone to share it with. It had been two birthdays since his brother had…gone…and now Arthur felt a little less like gouging the pain from his stomach, a little less like lying in bed and never moving again. He’d spent long enough doing both of those, seamless dark days in bed with no energy to move. And then, one day, he did, and so he’d gotten up and puttered around.
There was something in him that was thick and immovable that refused to let him to just lie down and starve. He got up, even though it hurt to move, and he couldn’t think of anything beyond that it hurt to move. He sat down. He ate.
And he kept on living.
What Arthur knew for certain was that he would never have sex. He didn’t deserve to, not really, because he would likely hurt whomever he touched. His Majesty had told him often enough that he was such a crime against mankind that he had killed the most beautiful, wonderful woman in the world— his own mother. When he was younger his Majesty had come down and yelled at Arthur about his mother, but his big brother had put his hands on Arthur’s shoulders and promised it would be okay, clutching him close afterwards. He’d buried his head in his brother’s shirt each and every time, wanting just for his Majesty to let him be.
He would keep Arthur company in the dark. He loved Arthur so much that he’d stayed in the dark with him, because he knew Arthur couldn’t go out. He said he knew Arthur wouldn’t hurt him. Mother had been an accident—and hadn’t even been his mother, so it was fine. Arthur was his blood. It was fine. He’d protect Arthur. It was fine— someday, when they figured out how to be dead, she would explain. Arthur had dug his nails into the floor and lost himself in his brother’s words until he realized his Majesty was gone and he could fall on his side, his knees aching from being on the floor, and…and his big brother would stay. He’d pick Arthur up and put him to bed, press his lips to Arthur’s temple and tell him to sleep well. Arthur would clutch his big brother’s hand because he was all Arthur had. All he ever, ever had.
Now, though, when his Majesty stands outside his door and reminds him of what kind of beast he is, he doesn’t reply that he already knows that. He knows what kind of monster he is, and if he could figure out a way to be dead himself, he would. It was right that Arthur was locked up. It was right that no one talked to him. It was right that he was kept near The Dragon; they were both monsters. He wished, though, often wished, that his Majesty had not granted him this kindness. Would not keep him in here alone; he should be alone, he was dangerous—but he didn’t like it.
He got by.
After he finished eating he slipped the tray under the door, turned and looked around his room, them began the only other thing to do at length besides sleep—exercise. So Arthur stretched, did his push ups, reached up to the bar above his bed and performed his pull-ups, jumped down to do his sit-ups and jumping jacks. He did all the things he was told to do to stay healthy, all the exercises his brother had made into a game and a contest. He didn’t know why anyone would want him healthy, not anymore, but he did it because he was told to, because what else is there for him to do? He talked to himself; he desperately listened for snatches of songs. Very, very rarely he heard whole stories from a traveling bard who had, a few times, practiced outside his door, and Arthur would want to beg for him to come back and tell him another. He and his brother used to pass the story between them like their meals, taking sips and expanding the tales, letting them grow massive an unwieldy between them.
Now he repeated it as best he could, running his fingers on the door as he told himself his new story.
Other than exercise and sleep he only had a few options for entertainment. He paced. He talked to himself. He curled up in his blanket and made up stories, he remembered to himself about days that had been slightly more eventful. He jerked off if he felt inclined. He ate. He sat and looked around. He counted to ten.
His room was a bed, a table, a chair and a door. There was no light, but there was nothing for him to see. Light flicked from out in the hallway sometimes. He liked to watch it on the wall; making shadows he could make stories about (One time there was a blob, next to the first blob, that flickered).
He wanted to know how someone became dead. When someone became dead they went away forever. Arthur wanted to go away forever. He didn’t know how.
And then, much more infrequently, there had been Arthur’s mouse. He loved his mouse. Arthur had been so enchanted by it: that it had moved in careful, scurrying movements. That it had eaten with such feverish fascination. Once he’d known it was there he'd put out food for it, hoping it would stay longer. It had: taking his bread and nibbling at it. Eventually the mouse had scurried away again and Arthur had felt sad for its loss. But it had come back and he kept feeding it, hoping to make a friend. Over more than ten sleeps it had taken bits of his sheets to make a nest in the wall. He'd heard it squeaking and shuffling around and he always made sure it had food so it would come to him more.
His mouse had been with him for a very long time. He did not know how long, everything was the same and he could only count to ten. It had been with him less time then Arthur had been alive, and it had come after his brother.
Sometimes he could hold two sets of ten in his head, but that was all he had generally managed. He could hold as many tens as his fingers and toes could. He didn’t want to think about when he’d had four sets of ten. He didn’t like thinking about things. He liked to exercise until he fell asleep, get up and do it again. Sometimes he liked to remember. Just... not about before his mouse. He was fine with remembering his mouse. That was nice.
He had some landmarks to recall, curled up in his blanket. Once the mouse had scurried into his hands, because Arthur kept feeding it, had fed it for so long and had always been there so it had grown accustomed to him. Arthur didn’t make loud noises, he didn’t move too quickly, and he’d done everything he could not to frighten the mouse.
First the mouse had sniffed his fingers, so Arthur had held very still, so very, very still. He had wanted to memorize that moment. He’d wanted to forever remember what it had been like; shaking and hopeful, to have another person look up at him and crawl gently, gently into his hands. Arthur still hadn't moved, but he'd been able to feel the mouse's pulse beating against the palm of his hand, and he'd wanted to bang on the door at all those voices, at Big Gruff and Tiny Shrill and Loud Whisperer and tell them about how he’d gotten a mouse to sit in his hand like it had been the safest place in the world.
He hadn't though; he'd just sat, and sat, and sat, until the mouse had run away again. Afterwards he had stared at his hand, relishing the exact way the mouse had felt against his skin; its fur and the tiny claws of its feet, its breathing like the quick flicker of torchlight. He'd been overjoyed, because something had changed. He’d had a mouse, and he’d had a secret. The mouse might come again. He hoped it did. It was the only thing he knew— other then the voices outside his room— that did not run on a schedule. He had some control over the mouse; he could leave food out so that it might come. He had no control over the voices outside his door or what they would say.
Now, however, was the time for exercise. He took off his shirt—didn’t want to ruin it with sweat in the tight cloistered heat of his room—then did pull-ups on a bar worn smooth from the many times he'd wrapped his hands around it, pulled his chin up, lowered his body down until his world narrowed further to the tug and ache of his muscles. He could control his body. He did know that much. He might have been a monster who’d killed his own mother, but he knew his own muscles and bones. He knew the ache of his body when he worked, and he could control that. He understood that.
His mother had died to give him a body, and his Majesty had let him keep it, and his brother had shown him how to use it: so he used it, willed control over it, stretched as far as he could, and when something caught, when something hurt, he worked until it didn’t, worked at the stretch. He couldn’t show anyone, there was no one to impress but himself, and he didn’t know if other people were born better, born so they didn’t hurt.
Maybe he only hurt because he was a monster.
His brother had called the people outside their door “ghosts.” Arthur hadn’t realized they were other people—people like him and his brother, until he was much older, and in his head he kept calling them ghosts, because they weren’t real. Not like he was, with elbows he could feel and the hair heavy and dragging down his back. Not the way his brother was—grunting in exertion as they did push ups and sweated and stank and scrubbing Arthur’s back for him when the wash-bucket came.
They'd listened for the ghosts—it had been one of their main past-times, stomachs down on the floor and listening to the hole at the bottom of their door for voices. They'd caught snatches and bits: catching up sentences and acting out the scenes they thought they heard. Marching like guards, or weeping like prisoners. They'd often played guard and prisoner, or knight and horse (Arthur had made his brother be the horse).
The only thing his brother couldn’t make into a game was his Majesty’s visits. He’d put his hands on Arthur’s shoulders and hold tight, comforting, and then when his Majesty was finished he held Arthur in the corner. When it was Arthur’s birthday, Arthur’s brother was chained to the wall and had to watch as Arthur got his birthday presents, shouting and trying to help him. Arthur never blamed his brother for anything, he was a viable part of Arthur, as if he’d been cleaved off him like an arm, and fashioned into another, bigger, person.
“I’m sorry,” Arthur’s brother would whisper in the dark after his Majesty was done with him, “I’m so, so sorry.”
“Sing,” Arthur would command, head on his brother’s chest and his brother would take a deep breath: “Ride a cock horse to Banbury cross…”
Sometimes Arthur missed him so much he didn’t even bother getting up all day.
One day, after he’d eaten and he’d done all the sit-ups he could manage in any direction, and all the leg-lifts he could stand, he’d heard something outside his door. He’d pushed himself up and crawled to door, pressing his ear to the iron slat. He heard someone walking, talking to himself—a low murmur. Arthur leaned closer until he got a crick in his back trying to listen, to identify the voice. It was a new voice—none of the usual suspects— a low, male voice. The man was tall, because his voice was higher up than his Majesty, Arthur would guess. Uneducated, as he sounded more like the servants than his Majesty. Thin, judging from the way his voice resonated, but Arthur wasn’t wholly sure.
"Bloody bleeding voice in the middle of the night got..." The voice trucked along and continued down the hall. The night? Was it night? Arthur didn’t know the concepts between night and day. He’d heard about them, stumbled over the words, but he knew night was when the guards started gambling—when people hushed and snuck down here to have sex in the torchlight. The day was when his Majesty could sometimes come and tell Arthur he deserved to die.
The man was going towards The Dragon. The Dragon was the only thing down the hall from Arthur’s cell, as far as Arthur knew. Sometimes he could hear The Dragon roar or rage when it is displeased by something. Arthur was always aware of The Dragon. He could feel the slow steady scratch of it digging, he sometimes felt the walls tremble and he had no idea what it was doing. It never talks to him though, so they sit in the dark in mutual silence.
Save for that day, that day The Dragon talked. Arthur could hear it talk: a booming, giant voice that made him shrink in on himself. He couldn’t hear what The Dragon was saying, but the creature’s voice was expansive and commanding— a voice that did things rather than asking. Arthur let the iron slat clang back down and sat next to the door.
The man was talking to the Dragon. No one talked to The Dragon. No one. Just like no one talked to Arthur. His Majesty sometimes talked at Arthur, but Arthur never responded. Arthur tended to just stare at the door in shame as he knelt. It used to happen all the time when he was a child: his Majesty would rail at him and make sure he knew that he was a beast best kept locked away. Now he had no time for Arthur, and Arthur missed him. At least when he’d hated Arthur he’d remembered he was there.
Sometimes Arthur worried that people would forget he was down there and the food (and his mouse) would leave.
Maybe that would be best.
The Dragon was laughing— a terrifying, shuddering noise that Arthur felt in the walls and down in his bones. He hugged his knees, and closed his eyes—not that the dark changed—because this had never happened before. He didn't know much about The Dragon; he wasn't even sure what The Dragons were other then some kind of unnatural beasts like Arthur. He did know it was huge because of the sound it made. He knew it was chained because of the constant jangling of metal.
The scream of metal against rock screeched down the hall and Arthur covered his ears because the sounds were too much for ears tuned to the feather-light heartbeat of a mouse. Then it was silent again. Arthur pressed himself back to the slot and listened. Soft, carefully footsteps padded up the staircase and shuffled down the hall. He waited for them to go past him, but they stopped. He peered through the slot and saw a pair of brown boots, tied together with cord and stitched together from scraps of leather. Peasant boots. Arthur knew boots. He was well-versed in the art of peering at shoes.
"Um...hello?" The man said, shuffling closer, the firelight from his torch playing over the tops of his feet. "Arthur? Is that your name? Arthur? You in there? If you’re not I’m going to feel like an idiot just talking to a door. The Dragon said you were and…uh…well I’m not sure if you can understand me actually…”
Arthur pressed against the wall, didn't know what to do: the man had talked to The Dragon, and now he was talking to him. The slot clicked closed and after a moment of shuffling the voice came much closer to the ground. The man was crouched in front of the slot.
"Arthur? I know you're in there, I can hear you breathing. Uh...my name is Merlin? I just...um. I came to say hello? You don't have to say anything, I guess, I mean if you're not supposed to, but um...do you mind if I come around a bit? It's sort of funny; I'm not sure-um. So there's this Dragon under the castle, right next to you, right? And he was calling my name in my sleep, and so I came down here and he told me about you. He said you've been down here awhile and…well, the rest of it didn’t make a whole lot of sense, honestly, but I don’t really like when people are locked up for no reason, you know?"
A hand wiggled through the slot and held itself out. Arthur stared at it. It was bigger than the maid's quick and harsh hands that he caught glimpses of shoving things through the slot, but they were slenderer than Arthur's. Arthur stared at it.
"Oh, I guess you don’t shake hands a lot. Well, for one, you shake it. My hand, with your hand? It’s called a handshake. To say hello?"
"Why?" Arthur croaked, his voice rusty and underused in his throat. He never tended to do more than whisper to himself in case the mouse came around. He didn't think he'd said the word wholly right, but Merlin's hand went flat on the ground.
"Why what?" Merlin asked.
"Why shake?" Arthur cleared his throat, coughing into his fist.
"Uh...it’s just something men do. You know, to make sure the other isn't hiding a dagger up their sleeve. Only, you know, metaphorically."
Arthur didn't know what Merlin was on about, but he gently reached forward and picked Merlin's hand up by the thumb and waggled it from side to side. Merlin laughed and groped around, clutching Arthur's hand and briskly jangling it up-down. Merlin let go and Arthur stared at his hand, because Merlin had not only talked to him, he'd touched him. No one touched him, not anymore. His brother used to hold him all the time, used to hug him and wrestle and lie with him in bed and tell stories. Now he was alone.
Arthur felt his hand buzzing a little when Merlin's hand withdrew through the slot.
"Sorry if I woke you up, I had to come down at night, since the dragon woke me up. I'll let you get back to sleep, okay? I uh...I'll be back? If you like? I have to go to work during the day, I'm Gaius' new assistant and he has me running errands all over the castle and I'm going to have to start brewing, and I've made jam with my mum, so I don't really look forward to standing in front of a hot fire and cauldron and stirring for several hours, but a job is a job, right? It gives mum a bit of leeway, though Gaius can't cook for the life of him. He fed me porridge for dinner, can you believe it?"
Arthur didn't respond, not knowing half of what Merlin was talking about, and stunned that he was talking to him, chatting with him, like they were friends. Like the people in the hallways did.
"Uh, right, you're probably tired. Sorry, I'll try and come earlier next time, eh? You have a good night, Arthur. Okay?"
Arthur made a quiet noise, but Merlin didn't hear him. Merlin patted the heavy metal door, and then his footsteps padded away. Arthur put his hands to the door and felt the familiar lines of metal and bolts. He pressed his ear closer to better hear Merlin’s footsteps. Arthur wanted to yell for him to come back, because soon enough Merlin would learn that he shouldn't speak to Arthur and that he especially shouldn't touch him. And then Arthur would be alone again, so he wanted Merlin to come back and talk to him as long as he could before he learned better. It was selfish. He didn’t yell out.
He crouched in front of the door and stroked it, his hand still warm and feeling the illicit press of Merlin's skin against his own. It had been so long…and it felt different now. Merlin’s hand was…it was different. It was different than his brother’s had been. Lighter.
The mouse squeaked sometimes. The bed creaked sometimes. There were voices in the hall. Sometimes he clapped his hands to hear the sound. Sometimes he clapped his hands until they hurt too much to clap anymore. Sometimes he hummed. Sometimes he told himself stories in a harsh whisper. Sometimes he worked so hard all he could hear was the pound of it in his ears. Sometimes his Majesty yelled at him.
"Merlin," he whispered, looking at his hand. He didn’t move, instead he whirled the scene in his head over and over, reenacting it to himself, telling himself a story about how Merlin had talked to him, talked to him and touched his hand. He was like a storybook character. An exciting name, Merlin. So different from all the things that had made up Arthur’s life before now. And he was so tired of being alone.
Maybe he only hurt people who loved him. Maybe Merlin could come by and be fine. He’d heard stories about friends and wanted one.
Arthur scuttled to his bed and pulled the scratchy wool blankets around himself. He usually exercised much longer, until he could do no more, and then did more anyways, because otherwise he could only sit in his room and stare into the dark. When he was younger he used to play in his fort, imagining his mum had come back and said it had all been a mistake, and his Majesty would unlock his door, and his brother would say he knew it, that he believed in Arthur, and they would all walk out of the dark into...
That never happened. He'd resigned himself to the fact that when people died they did not come back. When you were a monster, you were a monster forever. He didn’t know what dying was; he just knew killing someone was the most wretched thing a man could do— so wretched that he was locked away down here. His Majesty threatened him with death and Arthur didn't know why when Arthur killed someone it was bad, but his Majesty could kill him with no problem. He didn't think about that. He was a monster.
He stared at his hand. He twitched his fingers open and closed. Merlin's hand had been warmer than his, dry and bony. It had been hotter than his brother’s, so much warmer than anything he’d ever touched before, because everything in here was the same temperature.
Arthur could remember what Merlin's knuckles had felt like under his thumb, the clasp of his fingers around his palm, and then the firm jarring of the shake. Arthur rubbed his fingers together and said Merlin's name again. And again. He said it again quietly, and then louder, jumping at the sound of his voice and curling the blankets more firmly around him.
He hoped Merlin came by tomorrow. Of course he would. He was going to be Arthur’s friend. Arthur closed his hand into a fist and curled up on his bed, not tired, but unwilling to continue his exercises. He didn’t want to blank out the feeling in his hand.
He eventually got up for second meal, just as he always did. He put a crumbling crust of bread out for the mouse, and kept most of it for himself, since he was bigger than a mouse. He drank the water, ate his apple, and his thin, waxy slice of cheese. He chewed on his bitter, leafy greens, ate the dry hunk of meat. They tasted the same as they always did. It was the same as it always was. He pushed the tray out again and then, feeling so full of energy he could shake apart, went back to exercising.
Uther does not want to admit it; he’s gotten so good at not admitting it that he has very nearly fooled himself—it’s been twenty-one years, after all, he’s had plenty of time to trick himself into believing his version of reality. He thinks that Igraine was perfect: the singular gorgeous being of his dreams. That their love was the strongest, purest form of human affection. That Arthur was born naturally, that he merely asked for a bit of help from Nimueh, not a miracle. He thinks he asked for a blessing, to show that he had nothing against the human members of the magical populous—just the monsters. He didn’t know what he was asking for, he thinks, he thinks Nimueh didn’t warn him. He remembers clearly putting his hands to his wife’s belly and kissing the swollen flesh, feeling for the fresh kicks of his baby boy. Of his beautiful, strong, unstoppable heir, to lead his kingdom into further glory.
He thinks he was betrayed, that Nimueh made Arthur a demon who sucked the life from his wife. He thinks that this is how he knew all magic users were monsters. That he had to kill all of them—even the ones that looked human. He got rid of his son, but was too in love with his wife—his beautiful, perfect wife, to have her baby slain with the rest of the monsters in the courtyard, thrown into the pyre still living, gagged and bound, tossed like kindling as smoke rose thick and black. He watched the fires, of course, as his almost-would-be-son was nursed by a stranger’s breast and not his mother’s.
He thinks he's being merciful when he entombs Arthur down below, he thinks he is doing a kindness. He has been cursed, what should have been a healthy, normal human boy was a golden-eyed, ruddy-faced worm. He should have been thrown on the fire before he could gain power, but Uther could not dishonor Igraine that way. Her body was enshrined and it is far away from where Arthur is left, squalling. If he lives then Uther might redeem him. If not then it is fate.
The truth? Igraine was nothing more than an excuse.
But you knew that.
Merlin came back every day between first and second meal. He couldn't ever stay long, but he always came. Arthur would sit close to his side of the door and press his palms against the cold iron. He listened to Merlin describe his day. Arthur didn't know why Merlin kept visiting him. Arthur could barely croak out five words in a conversation, and he really wasn't worth talking to, but Merlin came anyways. Never predictably. Arthur would go through his routine and at some point he'd hear the soft pad of leather shoes and he'd stop what he was doing to press against the door, hoping it was Merlin.
Sometimes it was not and he'd back away, returning to his exercises, or lightly dozing, or eating, or staring up at the dark with his trousers off and remembering how Merlin's hand felt around his own. He kept the hand Merlin had shook fisted tightly on his chest, his other rubbing himself. That was different then when he normally did it, and better, because at some point he realized he could imagine Merlin’s hand touching him other places like…like his neck, or his hair or…or…anywhere. Obviously two men couldn’t do anything, that would be silly, but he liked the idea of Merlin being around. Of having a room with Merlin and touching himself in a fort with Merlin on the other side. He felt on fire, and he jerked off far more than he normally did, and it was only the fact that it hurt when he tried too many times in one day that stopped him from doing little else.
At first Arthur had his reservations, not knowing what Merlin wanted with him of all people (surely there were more interesting people for Merlin to talk to? Out there?), but Merlin kept coming and kept just...talking. To him. And so Arthur would listen, even if the words made no sense, he’d listen to the way Merlin’s tongue clicked. Merlin talked about an endless arrangement of things, things about what he did for Gaius, about what the weather was like (Arthur had no concept of rain, and the idea that water fell from above made him try pouring his water over his head and blink upwards in the dark.) Merlin told him gossip; Merlin told him what people had worn that day. There was no reason or sense to what Merlin said, but Arthur listened.
“Here,” Merlin said, one day, pushing his hand through the slot. He generally started their meeting by putting his hand through the slot in the door and letting Arthur practice shaking his hand, and each meeting ended with another handshake. Arthur craved those moments more than he craved his next breath of air after jumping in place for ages. Arthur looked down and took whatever was in Merlin’s hand from him.
“I did some carving today, you remember? Carving? And I thought I’d make you something. It’s a snake. I made all the links, see? And strung them on some twine, so that it wiggled? See? I made these for the children in my village. Not that I think you’re a child, I just thought…well, if I had nothing to do…I mean…did you ever have toys? Just um… things?”
Arthur took the wooden object and waggled it back and forth in his hand. He bent to look at it in the light. It was long and thin, with a curved, smooth head, filling out to a curved body and a tapering tail. It waggled back and forth and Merlin reached in and gently guided it over the floor, making hissing noises. “I’m a ssssnake,” Merlin said, “I eatssss thingsss and ssssslide around doing sssnake thingssss.”
Arthur didn’t know what was going on, but he knew the difference in Merlin’s voice, the sizzle of the fricative “s” from between his teeth and he barked out a sound that popped harsh out of his mouth. Merlin paused and his laugh was much smoother, much more polished. “Yeah, well, you know. You can do what you like with him. Or her. It was just a thought I had.”
Arthur had clutched the toy and didn’t know what to say, but Merlin took the issue out of his hands by going back to talking. When he eventually left Arthur sat on his bed and made the snake slither, whipping it back and forth and hissing quietly to himself. He kept the snake on his pillow so he wouldn’t lose it and the mouse wouldn’t abscond with it.
Merlin kept coming, he didn't seem to mind that Arthur never said anything other than a word or two to let Merlin know he was still there, he'd just keep going, until Arthur's head was clotted with words he didn't know, and ideas he'd never had. Arthur had asked, when Merlin had been describing someone's green dress, he'd asked...
"Green?" He’d been letting his snake waggle back and forth on his thigh when the word caught his fancy and he’d needed to know.
Merlin had paused in his rambling and cleared his throat, "ah, what?"
"Green?" Arthur had asked.
"Oh, green. It's a color? You know grass?"
"Oh, I suppose...wait, ah, is it dark? In there? All the time?"
"Yes," Arthur had said.
"So you haven't seen colors, have you? Oh, uh, green is a color, colors are like the... they're like textures but for your eyes. You know how some things are soft and some things are scratchy? That's sort of like colors. Or they're tastes, too, maybe. Like sweet or sour? And people have their own favorite colors, right? I'm pretty fond of blue, myself. Oh here!"
Merlin shuffled around and then the slat at the bottom of the door opened and fabric stuck through. "See that? That's blue."
He was holding the torch down so Arthur could see the flickering in-and-out color.
"That's the color of the sky. Well, sort of. That color, but you know, lighter. I suppose this more the color of the ocean."
"Ocean?" Arthur asked, petting the scratchy warm fabric. Arthur looked over the color as Merlin explained what he meant until Arthur felt salt in his mouth and tasted blue with his eyes and Merlin, when he did leave, left the scarf, which Arthur wrapped around his hands over and over, and realized Merlin had now given him two things and Arthur had nothing to give in return.
He hadn't seen the mouse for more than ten meals, and he found he really didn't mind, because Merlin came, and Merlin had given him a toy and had given him a scarf that smelled like so many, many things that Arthur had no name for. He tied the scarf around his wrist, so it would always be there, and spent some of his long hours rolling the snake back and forth, running his fingers over the segmented bits of smooth wood and trying to digest Merlin’s words in his head into stories he could tell his mouse, should it decide to come back. He hoped it would, he still liked his mouse, even if he sort of had Merlin and Merlin gave him things.
The best thing, though, that Merlin gave him was a candle. He showed Arthur how to light it—told him to be careful around his sheets and straw, and he flicked the fire onto the candle. Arthur had stared at the fire then—more amazed—at his room. When Merlin left he peered into each and every corner, looking at the stones, and his blankets, at his clothing, and the mouse house, at his table, and when Merlin came back he asked the colors of everything he had (white, brown, grey). He couldn’t hold the candle for long, it flickered and hurt his eyes, but he kept it tucked away, wrapped up in case his mouse wanted to eat it.
It became so Arthur actually looked forward to waking up. He still exercised, he still played with his snake, and investigated his tiny cell with his candle, and he still went through his routine, but he had Merlin's visit. Merlin’s visit was something to look forward to. It would be randomly slotted into his day, sometimes for the barest glimpse of a hello, sometimes for entire...entire... for ages, but they all felt short. When Merlin left he was left alone again, but then he’d have time to muddle out all that he was learning. His head was no longer packed with sleep, no, but with words.
"Arthur, I will get you out of there," Merlin promised, suddenly, "I would have already but...I just need a little more time. I need to make sure I can keep you somewhere safe and I can’t…I can’t get through the door. I’ll figure it out, I promise."
Arthur had never considered that Merlin might want to get him out of his cell. He had never before considered going out as a possibility, not really. It was a story he and his brother told themselves often enough, because outside was an adventure, but they never put any effort into escaping. It was an idea. Most children dream of flying. Arthur and his brother dreamed out getting of their room.
It was odd enough that Merlin talked to him, that he brought him treats in the form of textures, colors, flavors, that his fingers would brush Arthur's as he handed him nuts, berries, breads, meats, cheeses—things so savory that saliva dripped from Arthur's mouth. It was odd enough that Merlin shook his hand and explained to Arthur the things outside his door, even if Merlin’s explanations also needed to be explained. They’d gotten drunk once, Merlin telling rambling stories about his home and passing a wine skein through the slot. The liquid had been bitter and burned, but he'd kept drinking because he liked how soft and quiet Merlin's voice was, and if they drank together, Merlin would stay. Arthur had then fallen into the sleepy dizzy happy feeling of drunkenness and had laughed at the sound of Merlin’s words cozying up together, the wine making his vowels so affectionate Arthur couldn’t detangle them from one another. Merlin had laughed too and Arthur had wanted to take the sound and put it in a box and keep it to himself, like all the secrets he had now.
"Why?" Arthur had asked; because, really, why would anyone want to talk to him so badly that they'd open the door? No one opened the door, the door couldn’t be opened, he thought. It was a taunt; other doors were wood and creaked as people entered and exited them, but Arthur’s was silent, iron and stationary. It might as well have been another wall. Did Merlin... did Merlin want to touch him more? Maybe? Arthur wouldn’t mind that.
Not for the first time Arthur wondered what The Dragon had told Merlin to keep him coming back.
"No one deserves to live like this, Arthur.” Merlin had said quietly, voice thick and determined, “you didn't do anything wrong. I'm going to get you out of here. I'll show you the sky, and grass, and velvet. I'll get you whole sheets of velvet to roll around in, and furs and sunbeams, and anything you want. Really, anything…I promise. I'll make this right again."
When Merlin left Arthur had taken his snake, his scarf, and his candle and rolled them around, trying to think of what…of why…of how…and finally it occurred to him that Merlin simply didn’t know. He thought Arthur was a normal person locked in here. Merlin thought Arthur was just another person, another person like Merlin. The only difference between them, to Merlin, was that Arthur just happened to be locked inside a room. Merlin didn't know what Arthur had done. Merlin had no idea what kind of beast Arthur was; if Merlin found out he would hate Arthur, and Arthur would go back to his routine of exercising and wondering if the mouse might visit. The mouse was not as good as Merlin. He didn’t want to be alone again. Eventually the candle would burn down to nothing, eventually the scarf would wear away to nothing, eventually the snake would break and Arthur would have nothing. Again.
It was much worse having things then losing them, he’d discovered, than not having them at all.
Arthur still talked to his brother; sometimes he forgot he was gone, and sometime he thought if he talked enough then his brother would find his way back to him. He sat on the edge of his bed, slouching and with his hands hanging between his knees, and he’d talk. He was still waiting for his brother’s hand on the back of his neck, even though it never came.
He told his brother about Merlin, imagining the slick tear of his brother chewing on his nails, the click of his teeth as he tugged at loose skin on the cuticles, the fidgeting brush of fabric as he moved. Sometimes Arthur still found nail clippings—sharp, hard things that he swept into a pile by the door. Sometimes he got rid of them in the chamberpot, because he worried they’d keep growing and they’d impale and kill him, or there would just keep being more and he’d drown in the sharp, painful jabs of his room filled with his brother’s nail clippings. They’d joked about it, shoving each other, just as they joked about shit and piss and vomit, snot and farts, sweat and sneezes, and later come, joked about every weird thing their bodies did until it was just…normal. Now Arthur was worried.
He was worried about a lot of things, because his brother used to be here, and now he was not, and he might had died, and he might have gotten lost in the shadows, or this might be the longest game of hide-and-seek they’ve ever played. Arthur doesn’t really know.
“His name is Merlin,” Arthur said, but if his brother has been listening, he would know that. “He wants to get me out of here.” And his brother would know that too.
“Please come back. I need you.” His brother knows that too—and either he didn’t care, or couldn’t do anything about it—but in Arthur’s head there is no distinction.
Then, suddenly, someone else visited, and it was not a good visit. Merlin’s visits were precious things, the maid’s visits were routine things, but his Majesty’s visits were to be feared, now that he had to face them alone. Arthur had been sitting on bed, rubbing Merlin's scarf with his palm, like he would if the mouse would sit with him long enough. He was feeling good, Merlin had stopped by shortly after first meal and given Arthur a small apple, which Arthur had eaten—core and all. He hadn’t been able to stay long, but Arthur could still taste fruit on his lips. His mouse had crept out and gleefully run off with a rind of waxy cheese after letting Arthur waggle a finger between its ears. He was coming down from a fierce bought of exercise, and wondering if he wanted to take a nap or maybe jerk off a bit, then close his eyes and faithfully recount the day to his brother, who maybe would have forgiven Arthur by now and let Arthur tell him about his day.
He didn’t think his brother would trust Merlin. He would say Merlin was too good to be true, that he was a trap. His brother had often worried about these things, since he was older and had seen things. Arthur just wanted a friend. He didn’t see what was bad about friends. He’d had to make up all his friends.
Then his heart quickened in his chest and he sat up, quickly gathering his prizes. Arthur recognized the jangle and clank of his Majesty’s walking, a sound that was his earliest memory and burned into his mind from repetition. Though his Majesty had not visited for so long Arthur had expected he'd been forgotten, he was there now. Arthur quietly scrambled to hide the things away; as long as the things were hidden it would be fine. his Majesty didn't need to know about Merlin. No one needed to know about Merlin. Arthur needed to protect Merlin.
Satisfied that the scarf, snake, candle and kindling kit were hidden he knelt in the place he always knelt, so much so his knees had worn dents in the stone, and bent his head. The door would not open, of course it wouldn’t but maybe his Majesty could see through the iron right into Arthur and he had to behave. He absolutely had to behave.
The jangling stopped and he listened to his Majesty’s breath. Merlin's breath was more fluttery and quick, probably because he was always on the verge of saying something, whereas his Majesty's breathing sounded, always, like he was just about to take that final breath before shouting. He did not shout at Arthur; Arthur was not worth shouting at.
"Do you know what day it is?" his Majesty asked, hoarse and quiet. Arthur clutched his thigh muscles, trying to control his breathing. He had not known the day, he never knew the day, they blurred in and out of each other into a monotonous stretch of dark, however there was only one day that mattered in all the days he sat down there, here, waiting. There was only one day that his Majesty marked with any importance. Arthur hoped Merlin would stay away. Merlin had already come that day. He’d brought an apple. He wouldn’t come again. Merlin would be fine. Merlin would be safe.
"My birthday, sire," Arthur said, because though all days and nights passed the same for him and the only thing he looked forward to was Merlin (who said he'd sneak something called "pie" to Arthur so he could try it-Arthur had wondered if that was another color, but had worried he'd sound stupid. He didn't want Merlin to think him stupid. He might stop coming by.) There was only one day that mattered to his Majesty, who let Arthur live only to do this. This one-day.
"Your birthday," his Majesty said, "and once again you must pay the price for your continued survival." A thud meant his Majesty had rested his hand on the door, “I have let you live Arthur, and I had hoped that containing you would burn the taint from you. That one day you’d be able to join me in the light, but you continue to be sullied.”
Arthur stared at the floor, shaking. He used to, long ago, dream of a day when he would no longer be a monster, but it never happened. He didn't like his birthday. He didn't like it at all. On his birthday he and his brother had used to hide in the corner, his brother holding him and swearing, swearing to protect him.
"If you were a man instead of an unnatural beast you would be of age today. Had you spared your mother we would have celebrated today," his Majesty continued. “Had you been… had merely locking you away been enough. You look—“
He trailed off, then cleared his throat and announced: "So this year we will do something special." Arthur looked away from the door. He didn’t want to do something special he didn’t—
His mouse was out. It was chewing on a bit of bread. It was out and chewing and it was In the Open; his Majesty was going to open the door, and... and give Arthur a present. He was going to give Arthur a present while his mouse was out. Arthur hated presents. They always hurt. He wanted Merlin. No! He had to protect Merlin, Merlin had to stay away. He had to protect his mouse. He had to protect his mouse and he had to protect Merlin. Merlin was safe; Merlin was away—but his mouse.
The locks on the door clanked open, creaking and groaning with the sheer wrongness of what they were doing, of the fact that they were being forced wide when they spent forever clasped shut. The door was opening, the door was opening and his mouse was right there. Arthur panicked. He snatched up the mouse as the door creaked a bit wider. The door was opening. The mouse struggled in his hands, not used to Arthur grabbing. Arthur had always touched the mouse on the mouse’s own terms. Now he grabbed and clutched down. The mouse let out a tiny pained, betrayed noise as the door readied itself to fling wide. He ended up stuffing his mouse down his shirt. Hopefully it would be over soon. Hopefully he could protect it long enough to help it escape. He could do this. He had to do this.
The door reluctantly crept further and further into the room, until it slammed against the wall. Arthur closed his eyes, bowed his head. his Majesty came in, the door shining wide with flickering light, but Arthur did not look upon the face of his Majesty. He was not allowed. He wouldn’t…it would be over soon.
"You get to come out today, Arthur." his Majesty murmured, quiet and almost mimicking the tone Merlin used—soothing and pleasant, save it wasn’t, it couldn’t be, it wasn’t, "Do you know why?"
Out? They were...they didn't go out. Arthur never went out. Not once. Not ever. his Majesty only came in once a…a…year and Arthur dreaded the event. Arthur did not go out. It was bad enough the door opened, but to, he had to, but the…
"No, sire," Arthur whispered. He felt the mouse struggled against his belly, clawing at the skin, and Arthur curled in on himself.
"There have been rumors of late, rumors of a Prince under the castle that will cease famine, stop wars, and unite all the kingdoms of this land together. There are stories—though I have tried to quash them—of a prince who will bring magic into my Kingdom and undo all the work I have struggled for. You are tainted still; these stories tell me that locking you away was not enough to leach this sickness from your bones. No, they tell stories about you. I have tried, Arthur, to cure you—though only death ever could—and I will try again today. Today I will bleed you of this disease as if it was a pox and you will either be clean of the taint, or you will be dead.”
"Where are we going, sire?" Arthur asked, trying not to shake. He would not shake. He was strong. He exercised. He was strong and he wouldn't be afraid. Where could they be going? Where they going to a different room? What other rooms were there? The...the kitchens? Merlin talked about the kitchens...The Dragon? Where... His mouse scrabbled at his belly, trying to find purchase to escape.
"Outside," his Majesty said, "to show the people how I treat magic in my kingdom. You may still be good. You may one day still be good.”
Arthur wanted nothing more than to be good, he just needed to know how. He realized there was light, painful burning light scrambling at his eyes. He turned to look around his room. maybe his brother would come out now, maybe… But he was nowhere. His little room was illuminated and it was just…him. That was his bed, and his table, and his chair and his chamberpot, and that was it. That was all he had. He could see footprints in the stone, and long scrapes from how he pushed the chair in and out each day, and the mattress sagged and…his brother was gone. Really, actually gone.
his Majesty grabbed Arthur by the shirt collar and yanked him up, knocking the mouse loose to find it’s placement again. Arthur followed, not looking up and looking out the hall, at the same rock wall he had seen glimpses of for years. Now it was there, full-bodied and craggy and Arthur couldn't look. He'd wanted to go out for...for as long as he had wanted anything, but...he wanted to be good…but….
The hand tugged and he followed. He let his feet move, he followed the arm, followed his Majesty—no concept of anything, any of this. When he feet stepped on rock his soles had not memorized he looked and he could...he could see all the way down the hall. It stretched beyond, and on and on, dark and endless. Arthur stopped moving, even when the tug stretched. He looked.
He looked at his Majesty for the first time. He knew his voice, he knew his footsteps, he knew how he breathed but he had not seen his face. He was dressed in the black of shadows and...and other colors. The color of torchlight, only darker, thicker and richer, like...like... Arthur shook. His clothing was thick and heavy, sweeping around him like its own room, its own being, moving a beat behind his Majesty.
his Majesty turned and looked at Arthur, looked at Arthur looking at him.
"You will turn your eyes down," the crippled, wrinkled-bed-sheet man commanded, sweeping in...in...Arthur didn't know, couldn't describe. Dressed in dark, and his skin matted and wrinkled like wet cloth. Arthur had his own expectations of what his Majesty looked like, shadowy and huge and booming forth like the crash of The Dragon’s bellowing voice, but he wasn’t…He wasn’t.
He wanted his brother. He wanted someone there. He wanted his brother to protect him. He didn’t want to go out. Merlin had to stay away though. Arthur could protect Merlin.
Arthur looked down and walked. There weren’t enough walls, and then they went up and Arthur didn't understand how the floor stacked upwards. He got tangled in his own hair, his beard, his clothing, and they just kept walking, there was...there light. It hurt his eyes, like pressing, pressing too hard. his Majesty just walked faster. Sounds of... voices!voices!voices! Scalding light.
Arthur wanted to run back to his cell, lock the door and curl up in his bedcovers and never leave, to go back to the quiet and the dark and the...
"Arthur," a voice whispered, the shattering of a pot, and Arthur turned.
Blue eyes. Like the scarf. Only...more. That must be the sky, Arthur thought, distantly, almost as if he were a stranger in his own head.
Arthur shook his head at the man. The ground changed, the light got brighter, too bright, brighter than anything he could… the smells, the smells…
What happened after the Hidden Prince collapsed was something that was never wholly agreed upon.
Everyone saw him go down just as the King was dragging him out of the castle and onto the steps. Everyone, actually, had seen a man faint—technically no one had known who he was to begin with, they had just seen the King dragging a scruffy, dirty, matted-hair wreck of a man out into the light.
Yes, that is what happened. Everyone had turned to see what their King had called them to the courtyard for, packed tight and barely breathing room, farms lay empty, sheep tended by shifty-eyed children, shops unminded and thieves not touching the spoils because they were hanging around waiting to see what the King wanted them to see. The guards had walked the streets making sure everyone had come to see the King’s announcement (though most people did anyways, since well…it was something to do) and what they saw was man so pale the sunlight pierced through him like the finest linen. The King had yanked him out in the daylight and the man had come out, blocking his face and cringing, before his head snapped left, staring at something, and he blinked and collapsed into a pile of rat-nest hair and limbs.
The whipping post was already set up and waiting, tall and rough, a heavy ring drilled into the old, aged wood, manacles dangling down, rusty and thick. The King beckoned two guards over, but only one was needed to hoist up the unconscious man and harshly lock his wrists into the cuffs. He hung limp in them, a little rag of a thing, musky and old.
The King marched forward, declaring: "Here is the so-called savior of magic, here is the man your stories tell you will fill my kingdom with sorcery. Let me tell you that I will not stand for magic in my kingdom, and I will seek it out and destroy it. I will not stop until every drop of sorcerous blood is purged and burned.”
Some people—people who were closer to the platform, said he repeated his last statement, that he stared at the man on the whipping post and that it wasn’t his usual dispassion—King Uther Pendragon eliminating those befouled of magic as one would dispatch a stain from a cloth.
The people said nothing, crowded around as they were, peering to see if they could get a better view, hobbling over one another and jostling demurely so they could see. They agreed, everyone agreed, that The Queen stood quiet and powdered, clutching the hand of her son and her young daughter. That's what she always did, though, just...stared, like a ghost, a specter of a woman, really. No one ever saw much of her, crowded behind Uther as she always was.
The headman uncoiled his whip and the first strike cracked so hard everyone flinched instinctively away as it landed harsh across the prisoner’s back, pain and blood thick and oozing.
In any case, the accounts agreed that the man on the post screamed awake and then fell unconscious again at the next strike Some said the earth shook, some say he cursed, some said he sounded more like a wounded boar, a lost animal, a hurt child.
Someone said that they heard it first, the Carpenter swears by it, said he was hustled in the back, near the castle, and he knows, he knew he heard a voice quiet, heartbroken, whispering "Arthur.”
Others say the ground itself quaked first, that the streets rolled like the ocean, stones flinging upwards and tossing the crowd back. Others say first the clean sky turned black like pitch, rolling across the blue like a pupil dilating. The Carpenter swears the name came first.
“Just Arthur he said. Just the name, didn’t make much sense at the time, but it came first, I tell you. Said Arthur and then right then the whole sky when dark as you please—”
There was another hit. Maybe the earth rolled later. Maybe the hit came first. Maybe they came at the same time. The headman went for the next hit and it struck hard into the muscle of Arthur's back. That’s when people said the rain started. When the hit curved across the man’s spine, yes that's when the rain started. The rain was no normal rain—normally it misted. This rain punished, belting without wind.
Someone said the boy came out of nowhere, just was there all of a sudden. Some said he appeared in a strike of lightning, down-stroke then man. Some said he burst through the doors of the castle and walked through the crowds as easily as if the crowd was grass parted by the wind. Some said he had to struggle through the people like anyone else—but no one really believed them.
"Uther Pendragon," The boy yelled, the center of the swirling, pelting, bleeding rain. "Is this how you treat your own son?"
"Sorcerer!" Uther pointed, "apprehend him."
The boy—some said he was a demon with eyes like fire and skin as pale as maggots and hair the color of burnt wood. Some said he was an angel, with gleaming eyes the color of richest sunlight, untarnished skin and hair that dripped dark down his neck. Either way, he forced the people aside and sent the guards flying, tossed aside easily as if they weren’t huge men caked with armor. He marched up the steps and people said the air crackled, that everything smelled burnt. Some said the smell was that of the ghosts of those who died in the Purge.
No one was comfortable enough to disagree with that.
The thin whip of a boy stood firm, shaking—some said with rage, some say with power—"Why? Why are you….Wasn't locking him away enough?” He grew quiet and the crowd—though confused and terrified—quieted with him. “I mean…wasn't it enough to torture him for something he had no control over? Keeping him away from…from everyone? From the sunlight? From…but now you have to hurt him too?"
"He is-" Uther stood, red faced, angry, terrified, shouting.
"It was only Arthur that kept your city safe. It was only ever Arthur who would keep you safe. If you’d…if you’d raised him properly he would have…he would have loved you, you know. He would have done anything for you. He would have killed—” The boy’s voice shuddered to a halt and the air went tense and still, thick, almost impossible to breath. “And you could have been safe. You would have still been…been unbearably wrong, but you would have been safe. Instead you had to hurt him. And I can hurt you. You kept him away from us, but now?”
"You'll see," The man said, and some said the very air chilled at his words as he flung The King from him. He grabbed the Hidden Prince, clutching him tight. Some said the wretch blearily open his eyes, looking up and smiling, or frowning, or crying out in fear. Some said he just hung limp, but the two still vanished in a painful, burning smog of smoke and swirling shrapnel.
Then the platform that had served center stage of the public square was bashed into nothing more then bloody splinters. Then the ground shuddered open into a deep, endless pit: a deep, damning pit that gurgled and stank like any bog, and in the middle, out from the filth and disease and muck, a proud, ivory rock rose, and rose, strutting high and jagged into the air and then remained, a single glinting sword jabbing out high above them all as the bog frothed beneath it.
Well, it could be called a bog provided bogs could be made of blood and skeletons. That was something everyone could agree on, because it was still there, and as it oozed out into the square, people stumbled back and cowered. Uther scrambled up the steps to his castle, his wife dutifully following behind with her sneering children, but before he could reach the door the very earth beneath them cracked. Creaked and with a roar shook the windows out of the castle, shattering them into gleaming, colored rain. And then, when in the midst of the painful rain of glass the dragon— the now ruby, angry, snarling dragon— slammed his way through the ground and roared at the citizens of Camelot and flung himself into the sky.
When the glass stopped falling, the entire courtyard was caked in blood from the oozing bog so thick it could have been a whore's cosmetics. It was thicker than snowfall and it did not dry, and it did not clean and the people knew that they were plagued.
Everyone could agree on that.
This was not his room.
It was not pitch dark like his room. His room was dark, his room was dark all the time. It was not musky like his room. It was not small like his room. It was not familiar like his room. This was not his room. It wasn't completely light either. His eyes still hurt, but the sunlight was filtered through heavy cloth, just barely teasing through the sides. A fresh breeze carried scents, but not so many that he was overwhelmed. And this was not his bed. These were not his linens. That was most certainly not his pillow, or his blanket. This was not his mattress, those were not his floorboards, and none of these walls were his walls, not one of them.
He clutched the blanket, different, soft, and warm. Strange.
Had his brother saved him? Had he forgiven him?
He was not in his clothing. This was not his clothing. He knew his clothing and this was not it. His clothing itched and this... was soft.
He wasn’t even sure he was in his body. He felt…he felt strange. His back hurt. His back didn’t normally hurt like this. He felt…he didn’t know. He'd been sleeping on his front. He never slept on his front. He could never find a good angle for his neck without smothering himself.
He was alone but the door was pointedly open. Not fully open, just cracked enough for him to note that it wasn't locked. The door was open, it was wood, wood, and it was open. He could just…he could get up and leave. He could stand up right now. He could put his hand on the strap. He could pull. He could look out into the hallway. He could walk out the door.
There was a window, covered with heavy curtains. There was no table, just a wide rag rug, a cupboard, and a washstand. He got up; he placed his bare feet on the rug. It was lumpy.
He looked over and there was his mouse in a bowl. His mouse was his. That was his mouse. It made him feel better. His mouse in a small nest, its leg in a splint and it was breathing quietly. Arthur reached forward and stroked down its small back. He had saved it. It was okay. He collapsed back into his own nest, not quite a bed, but he was too comfortable to do anything but curl right back up and go to sleep, unsure of how he felt about the open door, and the window and being not in his room.
So he went back to sleep, covering his face with his blanket and trying to ignore how fluttery and out of place he was, wondering if this was a trick of his Majesty, if he was going to be allowed to get used to the light and the smells and then get locked away again forever. Arthur squeezed his eyes shut until lights pulsed behind his eyelids and his heart slowed. If his Majesty wished to do that to Arthur he had the right. Arthur just wouldn't leave the room. He knew once he left someone would grab him and drag him down and away and he'd never see blue again.
He just had to save the mouse first. If that were true he would just save his mouse.
The next time Arthur woke up it was to the smell of food. It was not his food. His food was as familiar as the taste of his own saliva. This was something new, something strange, something that made his stomach growl and gurgle in a way it never had before. He opened his eyes to see that...someone he did not know was holding a tray that smelled like… he didn’t know.
"Um, hello, I didn't quite know how to wake you up, so I decided to let the stew do it for me. You've been asleep awhile, and Merlin says you've never missed a meal. I just whipped up the stew we've been working on for the last fortnight or so, you know...or well, I suppose you don't. Merlin would be here, but he sort of...tuckered himself out. Saving you," She smiled a bit, then put the tray down and helped Arthur sit up. He looked, perplexed and wary at where her hands went, under his shoulders, carefully guiding him into the mountains of fluffy pillow stacked up behind him. “He’s not supposed to overextend himself that much; he’s been working himself into a frenzy over you. He even made you this nice little room. Do you like it? The room? We didn’t know what you’d like, but he wanted to put all the color he could find, and then he thought it might be too busy and then well, you know Merlin…” she trailed off and cleared her throat and set the tray on his lap.
Arthur stared at her.
"Do you...do you know how to use a spoon?" She offered after a moment. He did not. He wasn’t even sure what a spoon was.
He blinked and she picked up a scoop by the handle and then demonstrated. Oh, that was a spoon. Well obviously, of course he knew how to use a spoon. His brother had shown him how to use a spoon. He was just…confused, right now. He watched her, and then she put it in his hands, wrapping his fingers around it (touching him, touching him, just...just...) and then slowly guided his hand into the stew and he showed her, sliding the warm food (warm food? Food came warm? Only people came warm, everything else only warmed around people. Was this food people?) into his mouth.
He stared at her, wide eyed, and then began shoving the stew into his mouth, curling around the bowl and eating up the delicious, thick broth, the chewy bits of meat and the soft vegetables like she might take it away again. She didn’t, she just stood there, then sat awkwardly on the edge of his bed, as if unsure what to do with her body. Arthur felt like that right now too. Maybe this room was new to her too.
"My name is Gwen, Merlin didn't want anyone coming in here until you were a bit more sorted, because he was worried you'd get overwhelmed, and if I'm talking to much or if I’m too close or anything you should tell me. And we thought about leaving you alone, but you’ve been…I mean, um… but you needed to eat, and Merlin can't even get out of bed, and he tried, I mean…but Morgana is sort of sitting on him so he won’t, you know Merlin, I guess-" She covered her mouth with her hand as if to push the words back inside then offered another smile, “Sorry, I talk when I’m nervous.”
Arthur stopped eating and continued to stare at her, panicked. Why couldn’t Merlin get out of bed? Was he dead? Had he died? Had he died and was now dead? Was it Arthur’s fault? Everything was his fault. He’d killed Merlin too. He dropped his bowl down to his lap. He just wanted a friend, was all. He hadn’t meant to kill him—
"Oh he's fine, really,” She was quick to reassure, her hands fluttering in front of her. Maybe he should give her the spoon so she would have something to do with her hands. Her hands seemed very confused about what to do, maybe she should touch herself? That’s what Arthur did when he didn’t have anything else to do. Did girls do that? Why wouldn’t they? “He'll be fine. He just over-extended himself. What with getting you and making such a big scene, and then getting this place sorted. We're in an old guard post, if you were wondering. If you ever want to look out the window the view is amazing. At night maybe? So your eyes can adjust? I suppose that will take awhile."
He nodded slowly, and then went back to eating his food. Gwen sat on a chair and smiled quietly at him. He liked her...her clothing. It was...nice. He drank the cool water and then put down the tray, unsure of what to do. She swept it out of his hands and gave him another smile.
"Oh, I'll just take that. Do you want to rest a bit more? Does your back hurt any?"
His back was starting to ache in a noticeable and deep way and so he nodded, gesturing and then dropping his hands back in his lap.
She put down the tray and helped him roll onto his front; "I'm going to rub some salve on your back, okay? It’s going to be a little cold, and might tingle a bit. Are you alright with that?"
He nodded and she moved slowly, like he was a mouse. He didn’t mind. Maybe he was. Maybe to people like Gwen and Merlin he was a mouse. It was better than being a monster. He clutched his pillow and noted that his mouse was contentedly gnawing on one of the many seeds scattered around him. Arthur wondered if they knew that bread was the mouse’s favorite. He didn’t trust seeds. They looked too small and round. Like what the mouse shat out.
"I'll go tell Merlin you're doing well, then. He's been asking about you non-stop. If you're up to it, I could take you there?" Her hands fluttered in front of her again. Arthur shook his head. She told him to call for her if he needed anything and picked up the tray. Then he watched her leave, all his skin aching because of how much contact he'd had, and he clutched his pillow harder and closed his eyes, determined to sleep the weird feelings away.
He washed up, patting around his face and feeling it bereft of beard for the first time since he was much, much younger. He’d been frightened when his face had first started growing fur—his chest, under his arms, his crotch, his legs, and his arms his cheeks and chin—thinking that it must mean he’d turned into an animal. And while eventually the other fur had stopped, the stuff on his head and his face just kept going and he hadn’t known what to do.
He had some stubble, but the tangled growth of hair was gone. The mat atop his head had been snipped off, and he was left with a short fuzz that prickled against his palms. He felt lighter, save for the dragging, aching pain in his back. He sat down and watched his mouse limp around the large glass bowl filled with wood chips. It didn't seem inclined to move much and just went to get water and nibble at seed and gnaw on a stick someone had gotten it. It seemed fond of its stick.
Arthur looked at the door. There were no voices in the hall, but he heard people snoring. He peeked out. Still no one. He swung the door open and shut quietly, bouncing it between his hands. He watched it as it moved on leather straps. He could leave if he wanted. There was no one in the hall. He could step out a little. He could look down both ends of the hallway. No one was there.
He closed the door, not shut, but just so the edge rested against the doorjamb. He went back to sit on his bed and do some stretches. Maybe tomorrow. He'd look out tomorrow.
He glanced at the window with its heavy curtains and decided he’d look outside later too. It wasn't going anywhere. Maybe. If it was a trap it wouldn't... wouldn't hurt so much. He wouldn't have the scent of the sky behind his eyelids, wouldn't have the texture of the hall under his feet. He would be able to go back to the dark. He would...it would be fine.
He clutched his hands between his knees and took several deep breaths. He closed his eyes; it would be fine. He focused on the mouse and reached forward, petting its small back, its heartbeat fast against his fingers. It snapped its head up and stared at him, quivering yet staying still. Arthur withdrew his hand and went back through his stretches, save when they pulled his back too much and he had to breathe through the agony. He stopped working out when the sweat made his back burn like torchlight and he writhed on the bed to make it stop, save that pulled, and he may have made a bit of noise, because a pale, shaking man was at his door and staring at him.
Arthur stopped and the man tumbled in, shaking and kneeling next to Arthur's side, "Shh, you shouldn’t move. Lie down. You need to rest."
That was…that was Merlin’s voice. It was Merlin, hoarse and looking...looking...Arthur lay down and Merlin stumbled around, taking a few breathes and gently, gently beginning cleaning his back. Arthur said nothing. This wasn’t even his pain. His pain was subtle and familiar, it settled deep and throbbed. This pain was too sharp, too needy. This wasn’t even his pain.
"You should rest. These are bad whip marks," Merlin murmured, his hand steady as it cleaned, and Arthur was the one who stared at him. "If you sweat it'll just sting like a...well I guess you noticed that, huh? I'll get the salve-"
Arthur grabbed his wrist, staring at him, and Merlin jerked in surprise, "...tired," Arthur finally decided that was the best word in his vocabulary to describe how Merlin looked. Merlin smiled and hesitantly stroked his palm over Arthur's scalp.
"Sorry I had to cut off all your hair. It's amazing you didn't have lice. Though I guess it was a matter of where you would get lice. Still, I tried to salvage it, but Morgana told me it was a lost cause. It'll grow back. Though I suspect you don’t mind about the beard.” Merlin’s passes over Arthur’s head grew more familiar and assured after a while and Arthur sighed under the contact. “I should let you sleep, if you're tired."
"You're tired," Arthur parroted, still holding Merlin's wrist. He didn't know quite what he was doing, but he didn't want Merlin to leave. He was safe as long as Merlin stayed. He wasn't sure he could handle the prolonged contact; save...save his skin was hungry. So hungry and Merlin looked...bad and Arthur wanted to fix it. So he tugged and Merlin hesitantly sat on the edge of the nest.
"Sleep," Arthur said, commanded, like his brother used to. People should sleep together, he knew, it was better that way. Merlin carefully lay next to him and curled so Arthur was cradled by the pillows and blankets.
"You sure this is alright? It doesn’t hurt?"
Arthur nodded and Merlin nodded back. Merlin took Arthur hand and shook it and Arthur smiled.
"-was fine," Merlin murmured.
"Yes, that's all well and good, but did you think about how maybe that you were still sick? Look at you, you’re ready to pass out again right now."
"It's really not that bad."
The female voice huffed and Arthur's head spun with how many people he'd met in the short time he'd been in this room, and now there was one touching his head, and another talking, and Gwen was around somewhere, and...
He leaned over to see how his mouse was doing. It was hiding in a carved out block of wood. It's home was also a bit bigger than it had been last time, going from a few hands breadth to the length of Arthur's arms, lined with woodchips and seeds that were scattered gently inside.
"And don't you dare think I haven't noticed you're still using magic. You're going to make yourself ill for days at this rate."
"I can't not use it. I get antsy. So I do magic. It's fine. It's like...stretching. I'm just stretching a little.”
“Oh and what about your carving?”
“I get bored!”
The woman huffed and Arthur looked up at her. She gave him a once over and huffed again, "He's been working on the mouse home, as you can see. Also, you shouldn't have let him get out of bed. After he went to get you he couldn't even move."
"Merlin, he's like a child. Someone needs to tell him what’s acceptable and what’s not. I feel bad for him, of course I do, but you're sick. I know what it's like to overextend yourself."
"And if I remember correctly you didn't take time to rest either."
Morgana, as Merlin had called her, cupped Merlin's face gently, "we worry about you. I’m very happy we finally rescued Arthur, believe me, I am. I’m overjoyed you cursed Uther Pendragon back into the rat hole he climbed out of, but you’re exhausted."
Arthur didn't entirely understand what was going on. They'd been...fighting...and then they...stopped fighting? And were now being friendly. People who fought kept fighting, and people who were friendly didn't fight. That was how the world worked. his Majesty yelled at Arthur and that did not change. Nothing Arthur did would change that.
Arthur focused on his mouse, which he could see sleeping in its nest in the wooden block, and Merlin kept stroking over Arthur’s bristly hair as he and Morgana talked.
"I'm hungry," He noted after a moment, because he was and he wasn't sure, exactly, when food came.
"Morgana, he doesn't-" Merlin started up again and Arthur frowned, and shook him off, pushing himself up. Morgana seemed more inclined to tell him how people were supposed to act, and if...if he wasn't...then he needed to know. He knew he was not like people, because he was a monster, but he wanted to pretend. She would tell him how to pretend. "Politely?"
"Say ‘please’," she instructed.
"Please." He parroted, and she smiled. She looked a lot like Merlin, only less...less. She looked...better. Merlin looked sweaty and his eyes were red rimmed, but Morgana was clean and bright-eyed. Arthur frowned. Maybe this was why she was upset. Merlin was...was not...better. Sick, she said, sick like the people Merlin had helped back before, when he worked for Gaius. Sick like…what was in Arthur? Sick like what he’d—
He didn’t want to think about it.
"Good, I’ll go see if we have anything, you both need food. And sunlight, you're like ghosts."
She swept out and Merlin laughed a little and leaned back into the pillows.
"So that was Morgana."
Arthur stared at Merlin and then nodded, because that had been Morgana, yes. He wasn't that dumb. Did Merlin think he was that dumb? He hoped not.
"She's kind of... She used to be the King's ward before... well. She found out about you and we decided to help you out, because really, no one should live like you did. Do you...she's getting food, but do you need anything else?"
Arthur rested back down and closed his eyes and then nudged Merlin and said, "Please."
"What—oh," Merlin laughed again and went back to petting over his head and Arthur basked, the hunger of his skin momentarily appeased.
And when he got them, he learned to say thank you, and he learned that he could get things. He could receive things just because he asked for them. Sometimes someone said no, and he nodded and didn't ask again. He always said thank you anyways, because they had listened.
He learned that if he wanted his linens cleaned he had to fold them up himself and put them outside the door, not just through a slot, but that was fine. If he wanted his room clean he'd have to do it himself, but he was used to that. It took awhile for his back to heal enough for him to sweat and not have it sting, but when it did Morgana and Gwen showed up with a bucket of soapy water and demonstrated how to scrub his floor clean—properly clean, not just how he’d been doing it. They showed him how to empty his chamber pot into the slosh bucket and scrub it out for himself—that was new. They showed him how to flip his mattress (apparently that was important) and change his sheets. They showed him how to shine his boots and mend his clothing. Of course, he knew how to do all these things. His brother had shown him, but he hadn’t cared for a while.
Merlin carefully showed him how to shave and Arthur cut himself plenty, but Merlin washed his face, and dabbed his wounds and Arthur kept on trying. He didn't mind. It gave him something to do: he exercised, he shaved, he cleaned and he practiced sewing. He had his first pair of boots—they'd measured his feet and everything— and he shined them obsessively, chasing imaginary scuffs and smudges. When Merlin came in he shined Merlin’s boots too, because they were there. Merlin would laugh, hold out his feet and scratch Arthur’s scalp as he did so, because Arthur liked him to, and Merlin was trying to indoctrinate him into the world of contact as best he could. He was wary around the others, and even with Merlin he sometimes shied away. The contact sometimes became too much, but he liked his head scratched. It was like he was a mouse, only bigger and stronger.
His mouse made a home as well. He gave it things to build with and it seemed perfectly happy to build a strong, warm nest of bird down and rags and hair in its wood block, and to store food in its cheeks and bury it for safe keeping. He had to clean the wood chips often because of how much the mouse defecated, and he put it into the slop bucket with his own waste and put the clean chips down. The mouse would then explore the changed surroundings and begin to shift things around to its own satisfaction. Soon it just did its business in one corner of the dish and Arthur change his routine to suit.
Merlin would carefully test the bone of the mouse's broken leg, but it wasn’t better yet. Merlin still didn’t look much better himself, but Arthur didn't understand what was wrong with him, but maybe magic took longer to heal then backs or bones.
Arthur had learned that he wasn’t supposed to touch himself in the presence of others, no matter how good it felt or how much he wanted to. Merlin had grabbed his wrist and told him as much, sympathizing with Arthur, but saying it just…wasn’t polite.
Arthur had rubbed his heel against the crotch of his trousers and nuzzled against Merlin. He could make a fort, and they could sleep in the same bed, and everything would be just as he had always imagined, only Merlin was powerful. Too powerful to die. Merlin had jerked and stared down at him, turning red. Arthur got nervous. He didn’t think people were supposed to turn red.
“I… you want to keep that for yourself. Or, you know if you…uh…okay so…um,” Merlin flushed more—it looked better on Merlin’s skin than it did on the neckerchief that used to be around his neck. Though he still didn’t like it. It was his Majesty’s color. Merlin had stopped wearing red when Arthur had mentioned that, and Arthur was still in the same blank grey and browns he’d always been in. “People are weird about sex, I mean, nakedness and all that. Do you…uh…” Merlin rubbed his face.
He’d said if Arthur ever shut the door (it would open right back up again, which Merlin demonstrated) then everyone would leave him alone to do…whatever he felt like. Arthur had nodded, but he didn’t like that idea as much as he’d liked his own. He didn’t like Merlin leaving the room. He hated being alone. He was too worried the door would stay shut forever, and that worry overpowered his need to touch himself. Sometimes the urge became almost unbearable—he was used to days of exercise broken up by food and getting a few off, but then it stopped and he sometimes woke thrust up against the sheets and biting his thumb…but he had to stop. He had to stop because what he had was better.
One day he woke up and he’d gotten the sheets sticky and he hadn’t been…but he used to do that when he was younger—his dreams hadn’t changed, just got weirdly hot and uncomfortable—before he learned how to deal with it while he was awake. He had carefully washed clean what he could of the sheets in his washbasin, then folded them up and placed them outside his door.
He didn’t leave his room, and he didn’t close the door, and sometimes Merlin gave him shifty little looks when he thought Arthur wasn’t paying attention. Arthur was always paying attention. He just didn’t know what anything meant.
Arthur learned that the outside world was dangerous and he didn't want to go out there. Lancelot came one day, looking for Merlin. Arthur stared at Lancelot. He was strong, tanned, and he stood up straight. His muscles were thick and meaty, unlike Arthur's stringy toughness or Merlin's... Merliness. Arthur found Lancelot was better spoken than he was, was kinder than he was, was...was better than he was. His family had been slaughtered. His mother had died. Lancelot’s his Majesty had died. Everyone he had ever known had died, and Arthur found out that the whole world was like that, dying and killing and cold and vicious.
Maybe that’s why his brother had chosen to live down with Arthur. Maybe he hadn’t loved him at all and that’s why he refused to forgive him. He just was afraid of the outside.
Still, it had been exciting to listen, to hear Lancelot tell stories. Arthur had listened because he needed stories, he craved stories like food and water and touch, but he saw scars and realized they were old wounds, and realized Lancelot had gotten hurt, and realized Merlin had gotten hurt, and Morgana and Gwen, and the one time he'd been outside himself he'd gotten two thick and deep wounds on his back. The mouse had broken its leg.
He still refused to look out the window, but sometimes he stood and held onto the curtain and watched the light curl out from under the edges like smoke.
"Nothing bad is going to happen," Merlin said, one day, just sitting on Arthur's bed and whittling at another stick so Arthur's mouse would have more wood chips. He’d already made Arthur another snake, since he’d lost the first, and Arthur spent a lot of time just letting the snake slither over his sheets, and Merlin never said anything of it.
"If you open the window,” Merlin clarified, “Nothing bad will happen if you open the window.”
Arthur continued to stare at the heavy curtain and gently manipulate one of the folds, "Time?"
"Evening. Just had supper," Merlin said, the scrape-clunk of his work lulling Arthur into relaxation. "It isn't bright out. Don't you want to see the stars?"
"The stars, please..." Arthur stopped, dropped his hand.
"Nothing will change,” Merlin said.
Everything would change.
"You'll still be you and I'll still be me, and nothing bad will happen."
Arthur didn't wholly believe him and Merlin got up, "If you could open the window then maybe it'll be easier to go out the door. You could visit me in my room, you could walk around, you could learn swords from Lancelot, and help Gwen with the wash and learn to ride with Morgana and-"
Arthur stared at Merlin then touched the cuff of Merlin’s sleeve, “Never please.”
“You. Never please.” Arthur struggled to find all the words he needed, but they fell flat in his head and he couldn’t find anything.
“I’m never pleased? Arthur I don’t mean to ask-“
“No,” Arthur shook his head, and sighed in frustration. “You. Never please for things. You…” Arthur fisted his hands at his sides. He wanted to ask why Merlin never asked for things, why he didn’t… Arthur would if Merlin asked. But he couldn’t say it, so he just looked at the floor.
Merlin didn't say anything and instead dropped his contact with Arthur and sat back down, picking up his knife and stick, not starting again, he just sort of held them. Arthur sighed, "Thank you."
Merlin put his things down, "I do need something, but I can't...ask for it, right now. I'm fine, really."
So he had understood that…that was good. At least. Arthur stared at him, then sat down, "Please."
Merlin shook his head, "I'll get what I need when I need it. Until then I'm more worried about you."
"I'm fine," Arthur promised, he was. He did his chores, he did his exercises, he ate, he drank, he took care of his mouse, he talked with an entire four other people, Merlin touched him, and his life was better than he ever could have imagined before, even comprehended before.
"Then how about you look out the window, eh?" Merlin asked, nodding to the curtain, "You're not going to get anywhere by living like you used to, you know."
"You need, tell me.” Arthur said, carefully, then and he nodded at the window, “I’ll look.”
Merlin set his jaw, "Arthur, I can't."
Arthur stood, gritted his teeth, took a deep breath, and flung open the curtains.
Everyone had the moment when they first saw the stars, of course they did, and for the most part, everyone saw the stars before they had the words to describe them. This was equally true of Arthur, though he was not pre-verbal. He simply had never needed the words for something that glimmered in the darkness.
They were up a tower, which Arthur was just now discovering, higher above the ground than he had ever considered being. Since he had only barely had dreams of just inching to the surface, the idea of being able to look down on trees, and across landscapes was... but that wasn't the important part. They were in an old guard tower near the sea, and his window faced only the sky and the ocean, and for a moment it looked like all there was, all there ever had been outside his window was an endlessly rippling and stretching fabric of light and dark and depth.
He'd asked Merlin about the stars before, and Merlin had said it was like looking at a light through the weave of a dark woolen blanket. Morgana had said something about diamonds, but Arthur had never seen diamonds, and Gwen had just smiled and said it was like the twinkle in a friend's eye when they smiled and Arthur had thought about Merlin and smiled to himself.
It wasn't though. It wasn't like any of those things. All these things were small (he thought), he could handle them, this was...this was....
He'd lived his life in a room that was 8 feet wide, 12 feet long and 8 feet tall. That had been his life, that had been the confines of his entire existence, that had been his body and he’d been rattling inside that form, keeping it clean, keeping it working. Now... it was beyond that. It was beyond measurement. It wasn't just the pulsing lights in the sky that he had no name for, but the depth of the blue, the stretch of the ocean, the fact that he could fall and fall and fall and never find any balance. He lost where his feet were, where his hands were, he had no body, it had been peeled away and inside he just...fell.
This is not what Arthur thought, exactly, but it was the best way to describe exactly what he was feeling at that moment. It was as if you had drunk nothing but water and eaten nothing but wheat germ for days, and then suddenly burst into a well-stocked, expensive spice cupboard and dumped each and ever possible taste upon your tongue, slathered ginger with saliva and gnawed on raw chili's, drowned your mouth with vanilla extract, chewed on cinnamon, crunched on nutmeg, tossed peppercorns raw and whole in your mouth. There is the no other way to put it, and Arthur didn't even have that.
He felt, at length, Merlin's hand on his shoulders, whereupon he became aware, once again, that he had shoulders, that he had hands that were gripping the curtains, tearing them, that he was more then just a jumble of oversensitive eyes. That he had feet on the ground and air in his burning lungs and it was like...No. It just was. Everyone had the experience of when they first saw the sky, when the color of it, the shape of it, and the textures of it ran for the first time through their outstretched fingers. And no one could remember. And that was a blessing. It was such a potent sense of wonder and awe that other, normal things lost potency and importance. As if all one's taste buds had been burned away and one could only taste with the colors bursting in front of their eyes and the pain racketing down their throat.
Arthur had no concept of how long he had been staring, or how long Merlin had been standing behind him, clutching his shoulders and saying nothing, or maybe saying a lot that simply did not matter, because sound did not matter, not when all he was could be summed up in his pupils and irises.
For a moment he couldn't tear himself away from the sight, like it was a part of him and he was blending into it, and then with an audible rip-that he thought was himself ripping away, but was actually the curtains— he grappled Merlin to him and threw them to the bed, wrestling until they were under the covers and all he could see was the light behind his eyelids and all he could hear was their-his-frantic and confused breathing, and his-their- heartbeat in his ears.
“It’s alright Arthur,” Merlin promised, “it’s going to be fine.”
Arthur clutched Merlin and tried not to drown.
He could touch Merlin then, with hesitant, unsure gestures that he never made when Merlin was awake because he might do it wrong. Merlin was probably an expert on touch, he probably had tens of people touch him daily. He probably knew the texture of other people’s hands, like how he knew language while Arthur was left stumbling in the syllables. Like Arthur had known the confines of his room. Arthur wanted to learn all the thing Merlin knew, he wanted to know. So he would card his fingers through Merlin’s hair, slowly, carefully, as Merlin hummed deeper into sleep.
The mouse also faced the window. It crouched on its hide legs and sniffed at the ocean air that curled in. Maybe the mouse had never seen the stars either, Arthur thought, maybe it had never smelled the ocean. Maybe the mouse was struggling to think of how to understand too. Arthur sat at the end of the bed and gazed out, watching the subtle motions of life, the ripples of water and the crunch of sand and the waving of grass, and his mouse stared with him.
He wondered if his brother had seen the stars before he went in the dark with Arthur. He must have, he’d tried to describe…things…but by the time Arthur understood, his brother had been down with him too long and hadn’t known what to say.
He wondered what they felt like. He dragged his eyes over them, but distance denied detail. What would that much water feel like? What would it be like to cover himself in it? He submerged his hands in his washbasin and wondered what that would feel like all over, being touched all over by water and salt and the rocking of the ocean. Merlin said you could float in it, and Arthur couldn’t figure out what that would be like. He would be like one of his mouse’s seed hulls in his water dish. It was confusing.
Arthur spent an equal amount of time looking at his door, wanting both to run out through it and never stop, and to shut it and pull the bed in front of it and shut the window and not deal with any of it anymore. He’d ripped the curtains off— Merlin slept better with the moon shining in, so Arthur kept it like that. His mouse liked looking out, he…he might’ve just been making excuses—he knew he was making excuses. He didn’t care.
Arthur lay down next to a limp and warm Merlin. He fiddled with the fringe of Merlin’s hair and then tucked his hands away. He wondered why Merlin had saved him. He rolled words in his mouth and dropped them out—heavy as stones and just as stupid. He told Merlin about the dark, and his brother, and about the pet dog they’d made up, and about the ghosts in the hallways.
Merlin rolled, turned to face Arthur and mumbled nonsense, groping around and petting Arthur's hair. Arthur pushed himself up and away and went back to staring out the window and down at the mouse, which had snuggled into its woodchip cave. The mouse gave him a worried look. Arthur closed his eyes. The mouse didn’t need to worry about him. Arthur was fine. He envied the mouse a little, for not feeling constantly as if he was transgressing with his very existence, but who knew? Maybe the mouse did.
And he’d be able to fix Arthur, and take them out into the light, away from his Majesty, and Arthur and his brother would be safe. They invented him, between them, so that he could make stone crack, and make dead people not-dead, and ride around on dragons, and be able to out-shout his Majesty and protect them from anything and tell stories. He’d be able to fly, and dig and swim and do all the things in stories and more, and he’d have tens and tens of friends, and when he rescued them he would let his friends be their friends.
“Do you think he’ll bring mother back to life?’ Arthur would ask, because he’d always been able to speak better around his brother. Even if he used the wrong words they were the right ones.
“Of course he would. He can do anything,” His brother had said, holding on to Arthur, “he’ll take us out of here and we’ll do all the things everyone else does, and we’ll have a room that we can open the door of, and everything will be soft and we can each have a fort.”
Arthur had wanted it so badly he’d almost cried, but he hadn’t. They’d told that story to one another loads of times, making it bigger and bigger and bigger until it passed the room and sank into the walls.
Then Arthur’s birthday came and he didn’t want to hear about any stupid stories, and his brother had held him and apologized for not being able to save him. And Arthur had hid in his fort and had not wanted to hear it again. His brother had tried singing him his horse song, but Arthur had shouted he was too old and his brother had gone quiet and the bed had creaked and Arthur hadn’t come out for ages and ages.
And it wasn’t like Arthur didn’t know. It wasn’t like he was under the impression that staying in his room was good. It wasn’t like he didn’t want to leave. He knew he couldn't just...hide away in here. He couldn't...he couldn't just... He should want to see the sun and the sky and things in the daylight. He should want to run around on the beach and rip up hunks of grass and he should...he should be able to leave his room and go wherever Merlin went.
He stood straight and urged his feet to move forward. He glowered at them, but they were resolute. He took a few deep breaths and closed his eyes. He took one step into the hall, got dizzy. He tried to scramble back into the room, but the next thing he understood was that he was falling.
He wasn't out for long; Merlin must have heard the thump of his head hitting the floor, stumbled up the stairs and pulled him back into the room. Merlin looked green, flushed and pale all at once and Arthur wasn’t certain that anything like that should actually occur. Arthur shut the door with his foot, flailing to settle himself down, because it was fine… he was fine, no…wait… and gasped for air, staring at the firmly shut door. He didn't know what he needed.
Arthur pushed Merlin away and shook his head. Merlin backed away slowly and crouched a few feet away and Arthur didn't know what he wanted. He just knew that he didn't deserve to leave the room, because he was stupid and couldn’t even leave a room without falling over and worrying Merlin. his Majesty had been right all along and this entire endeavor was stupid, it was hurtful, he couldn’t…he… he didn't deserve Merlin and he didn't...Merlin was probably sick because of him. He’d hurt Merlin just like everyone else. He looked so wretched now because of Arthur. He probably had been fine before. Arthur’s back stung in vicious agreement.
Arthur opened the door again, getting vertigo just looking at the threshold, and so he stared at the floor, the safe, normal floor instead: "Out, please."
"Do you need help?" Merlin asked,
"You, out, please,” Arthur said and Merlin looked sad for a moment. That’s what frowns meant, sad. That’s what eyebrows pulled together meant, sad. Arthur squeezed his eyes shut for the comforting lights behind the dark. "Thank you."
Merlin slowly went out and patted the door, “Alright Arthur. Call me if you need me."
Arthur nodded, "Please thank you, yes."
He shut the door behind Merlin and pressed himself against it. He'd killed his mother and now he was going to kill Merlin, and he... he... no. He refused. He refused to do that and he grabbed the mouse and put it outside the door , because he...it...it would just get hurt, it would... and dragged the bed in front of the door and covered the window with his blanket and took a deep breath. He began his exercises. He just needed to protect them. That was all. They just needed to be protected. He couldn’t protect anyone else, but he would them.
He would be the brother he should have been, the son he should have been.
Chapter 3: 8x12x8 Part 3 of 6
Gwen woke up as she normally did, to the sun shining in her face, and Morgana’s face pressed to her neck, and not a pillow anywhere near her. Morgana tended to steal all the pillows and still end up using Gwen’s shoulder for one instead. Gwen yawned, gave Morgan a good-morning back scratch and rolled out of bed. Morgana mumbled, curled up and over and smashed her face into one of Gwen’s pillows. For the smell.
Gwen smiled at her before she began getting dressed. She and Morgana had switched to trousers and tunics after a fortnight of living in exile, because Merlin hardly cared and Lancelot just had to accept the fact that women had limbs. It was far simpler and more practical then sweeping around in gowns and petticoats and stays and what not. Hunith stayed in her skirts; she’d grown too used to them to change, one light fluid skirt, and a second over it that was tucked into her belt, so she could carry things and the like. Gwen slid the knife from under the bed into her boot and then knotted up her hair. It was too curly to braid like Morgana’s, so they settled for keeping it back and out of the way.
Now that Merlin was weakened they all needed to be on their guard. It was much easier to be armed and go about their chores in trousers. Morgana took a special delight in it— riding and running and climbing trees like she’d always wanted, her hair coiled tightly in a braid. It was only Hunith's insistence that they might one day need Morgana to take on the appearance of a lady that kept her from chopping it all off, though Gwen thought perhaps Morgana did have some residual vanity for her looks, even if she would sacrifice it for better mobility and freedom from having to brush so often.
Gwen joined Hunith in the kitchen, inhaling the thick and yeasty smell of fresh bread. Hunith handed her a platter, "Here's Arthur's dinner, dear." They had noted that Arthur was generally only active during the night, and even then he’d shuffle around for a length, stop, be silent for another length, and then get up again. He had about three short days instead of one long one.
"Thank you, I'll be right back to help you with breakfast,” Gwen thought Arthur would quite like the bread. They’d given him the upper crust since all he’d ever gotten before was the dried-out burnt bottom. Hunith had professed a desire to spoil Arthur as much as she could when Gwen had told her about how flabbergasted Arthur had looked over the stew. Merlin hadn’t thought Arthur had ever had warm food before.
"No rush. Merlin and Her Ladyship won't be up for awhile yet, I suspect. Merlin never was one to get up at a proper hour. And Lancelot is getting good at helping with meals." Morgana herself had been up late learning with Lancelot and curled up around Gwen still a bit damp from sweat even after trying to wash off the worst of it.
Gwen went up the spiraling, rickety stairs that Lancelot and she were going to rebuild one these days. Lancelot was a strong, brave lad, and he could chop wood, and Merlin would happily help sand it, but neither of them had any idea of how to build a good solid stair. Her father was still in Camelot, because of his smithy, but they intended to get him out within the month. Especially since Merlin had gone and cursed the place. Her father was hoarding nails and horseshoes and whatnot and they went by every week or so to pick them up, to check on him and hear any news. Merlin said when he felt better he could help make Tom, her father, a forge, and they’d see what they could do about pilfering from shipments of ore headed south. Merlin intended to raise an army, after all, and they would need weapons. He wanted to save everybody, and when you looked at him, when he was cracking the earth open, or calling lightning from the sky, or talking about Arthur… sometimes you thought he could. Merlin could save everyone.
Gwen stopped outside Arthur's door. Arthur’s mouse—who she's been secretly calling Cornelius, because it just looked like a Cornelius and it seemed a shame to leave it unnamed—was outside the door, the wide, slopped habitat sitting out in the hall. She frowned and gently knocked on the door. It was closed, which it hadn't been since Arthur got here, and she didn't want to just barge in there in case...well it was Arthur's room, he could keep the door anyway he wanted. They told him so often enough. It was his space as long as he took care of it, and he could stay in or come out as he pleased, and Merlin said if Arthur ever did come out, to try and not make a big deal about it and make him feel awkward.
"Arthur? Arthur, are you all right? What’s your little friend doing out here?"
"Fine," Arthur answered, he sounded out of breath and Gwen frowned. Maybe...Oh. Oh! She felt her face heat up and a giggle struggled for freedom in her stomach. Merlin had said something about...with men and their...um...needs. He probably just hadn't wanted his mouse friend to...um...see. "Oh, I'm sorry, I didn't...Oh uh...I have your...breakfast, you can just...you just can pick it up when you're, um...ready?" She cleared her throat and put the tray down and put the pile of seeds in the corner into Cornelius' cage. She quietly stepped away and sat down very hurriedly in the kitchen.
"And how is he today?" Hunith was starting a chicken stock with the bones from the chicken they’d eaten two nights ago, cutting the skin into strips and ripping apart the bones from one another.
"Busy!" Gwen squeaked, "very...busy...doing...things."
Hunith looked up and smiled to herself, "Off 'picking herbs' is he?" Gwen made a face and shook her head, "at least he closed the door." Hunith said, "Feed the starter, will you?”
Merlin’s mum had sent him to Gaius not necessarily for Merlin’s sake, but for Gaius’s. While she didn’t exactly trust that her son had a good head on his shoulders (far too many times had she come back to their house to Merlin frantically saying “the fire was small and completely manageable and an accident!” for her to wholly believe that), but she did trust that he meant well and Gaius himself could keep him mostly out of trouble. Merlin could always be trusted to mean well, he just had far too much power for that to be entirely safe.
When Merlin had been seven and hadn’t just used his power to get things off high shelves for her, and amuse himself with pebble-wars, he’d seen someone drowning a sack of kittens. He had run over and snatched the kittens out of their hands, and run back to her with the drowned little darlings.
Hunith had suggested that they bury them, maybe say a few prayers, but Merlin had been blotchy faced with grief and anger, but instead of wanting to go to the man who’d done this, he forced the kitten’s alive again, taking the water out of their little lungs and starting their hearts again. There had been three who’d stumbled blearily out of the bag, peering around with death-filmed eyes and had shuffled over to Merlin. He’d smiled and Hunith had only been able to stare as her son nuzzled their wet heads. It was just that when he didn’t focus on them they’d flop sweetly into death again and he’d panic, staring them back to life only to start all over again. Hunith had tried to tell him that they weren’t alive, that it was only hurting him, but he’s furiously stared at them, and petted their heads and told them it would be fine.
Her son, she knew, while foolish to the point of refusing to sleep and staring at three little, wobbling, not-dead kittens until she’d had to snatch the kittens away from him and burn them, meant well. He always meant well, and that was the problem. Even when he knew the kittens were dead, he’d cried. Even when he was so tired he couldn’t do anything but slump and stare, he’d cried, He cried for cats and he’d buried his face into her skirts as the kittens mewled and burned until their bones fell apart. She’d known then that her son was never going to be sensible; he was never going to be the man that lead the army. Her son was someone who just wanted to save everyone and it was a painful, brutal journey for him to understand that he couldn’t. That he couldn’t make the bandits see that what they were doing was bad. That he couldn’t stop the tax collectors from coming. That he couldn’t just make things better.
She knew this about him, and if she ever got too sad about it, he would—even as a young man—hug her and fill their tiny hut with little, tinkling lights until she smiled. The lights were always soft against her fingers, warm and smelling of bread and fresh breezes. Though her son was messy and absent minded at the best of times (and had the penchant for starting small fires) she could trust that he would always do his absolute best to do what was right, even if hurt him.
So. She didn’t send Merlin into the thick of things for his own benefit—though if anyone could convince her son that magic didn’t solve everything, it was Gaius, who knew that well enough— it was to convince Gaius that his loyalty was misplaced. Gaius had served Uther since the early days, back when he killed dragons to keep Camelot safe, and the Dragonlords had been honored guests. Hunith had worked there back then, no magic of her own, though generally sorcerers were regarded in the same light the women leisure houses were—necessary, but one did not invite one to dine with one. The Dragonlords, though, were far too strong for that. Gaius had just been a physician apprentice then—shy, and unable to recite an incantation to save his life but a dab hand at potions. She and he would come to the kitchens too sniff out their herbs and she would bake. She learned plenty about the medicinal arts, but he learned nothing about the culinary.
She had no idea how someone so good at potions couldn’t even make half-decent stew.
Things had been happy enough in Camelot. Hunith had become a favorite baker for the Dragonlords who (in general) liked sweets and red meat, and she was good at the first, and the later was hardly difficult.
Balinor took a shine to her, he smiled when he snuck down for pie, trying his best to win another slice, and she had, on several occasions, automatically slapped his hand away with her spoon. The first time she’d frozen, because he was a Dragonlord, but he had laughed and then next day brought her an armful of fruit with a happy, expectant look. So she’d made him his desired pear-apple pie.
After a year of the marriage between the King and Queen, and still no sign of an heir, Gaius became distant—the actual physician thought everything could be solved by the diligent application of liquor and leeches, but nothing he’d done had helped the Queen to take. So Gaius took over, giving her potions daily to help fertility, as Uther searched for more remedies. The dragons were falling steadily—the time of dragons coming to a swift and bloody close, as humanity grappled to take over the land which had been ruled by mythical creatures for so long.
She hadn’t known that life would go the way it did. That Uther would go to a Priestess of Life and Death, and put his wife’s life down in exchange for a son. She hadn’t known he’d turn on all magic users once the dragons were gone and rid of—public executions replacing imprisonment or exile. He even turned on the Dragonlords in the end, calling them powerless now that the dragons had been defeated, and those who had once had all the power had none. So she and Balinor had escaped to Ealdor, where there were no such laws. Gaius though he…refused.
Uther might have forgotten Gaius was a sorcerer, might have misplaced that. She didn’t know what Uther had done to earn such trust for Gaius—he refused to run with them, to find a home where they could be safe. She suspected though, it wasn’t Uther he was defending.
When they’d burst into his chambers, packed and ready to flee, he’d been cradling the infant prince. He’d been so tiny back then, so tiny and pale with eyes a beautiful blue that Gaius said he’d hoped would never turn another color. He’d sat there, rocking Arthur back and forth, and no matter how they had pleaded with him to go.
“The boy’s mother is dead and his father is sick with grief,” Gaius had said, “he deserves someone to hold him at night. The King has only allotted him a wetnurse.” He rocked back and forth, humming under his breath—off-tune.
“I can’t take him with us, the King will never rest if his son is kidnapped. You two go. Be safe. Find happiness.”
Hunith had kissed his forehead and they had fled. And Gaius hadn’t left. Now, years later, after Balinor fled when he heard Uther was offering a reward for dead Dragonlords, (and the King of their new home was nothing if not greedy) when he own son was floating himself around in jumps and starts, he still refused to leave.
So she sent Merlin, because Gaius maybe would flee for Merlin if he wouldn’t flee for himself.
Arthur's food and mouse was still outside his door when Gwen went by after breakfast. When she knocked there was no answer and she figured he must have fallen asleep. He could always ask for food later, and Lancelot was basically always hungry, so she came down and gave him the tray. He smiled at her and began eating, instantly looking up and complimenting Hunith’s cooking. She patted his shoulder and called him a “good boy.” It was hard to tell if Hunith had adopted Lancelot as her charge, or Lancelot adopted Hunith as his Lady. Once—when bandits had rode through and tried to use their guardhouse as a place to stay for the night—it had only taken one ruffian leering at Hunith for Lancelot to attack; Morgana had fallen into the fray in short order.
Merlin hadn’t been around then, busy trying to save Arthur from a door made of cold iron and sealed with blood magic that Uther probably didn’t know was there, but that guarded his son against both aid and harm. As long as Arthur never passed the threshold nothing could touch him except through the slot in the bottom—and even then, nothing that was dangerous— and only someone related to him could open the door.
In any case, Lancelot had seriously injured three men and Morgana gotten some good hits on another two, and the thieves had cut their losses and run. Hunith had stabbed a man in the knee, and Gwen had stolen a horse. They’d sold the horse later and gotten more supplies—like Arthur’s rather expensive bed and linens. Gwen was good at thinking of things like that.
"It's not like Arthur to forgo meals," Hunith said, "you don't suppose he's getting sick?"
Merlin was slumped over his soup and poking at the vegetables, "He tried to go out last night. It...didn't go well. He kicked me out. He must still be out of sorts." He went back to carefully spooning food into his mouth and chewing for an absurd amount of time. Hunith gave him another hunk of bread and cradled the back of his head.
"He shouldn't push himself like that," Gwen said, moving over to find her flax and start dropping thread. They could always use thread. Morgana was a horrible spinner, and Merlin fingers were too soft. Maybe she'd see if Arthur had a hand for it. It would make him feel useful and he wouldn't have to go anywhere. Doing something always made her feel better, having something to do, and clearly seeing it getting done. She licked her thumb and began twisting the fibers, listening to the conversation. Hunith would usually start telling stories after Gwen had gotten to spinning for a bit—spinning was good handwork, and low mind work, so it was a perfect time for stories.
Merlin was soon shoved back into bed, though he said it wouldn't do him any good and he wanted to help. He refused to say what would make it better, just that it had something to do with his curse on Camelot— a living, breathing curse that they heard more of every time they visited Gwen's father. It didn't hurt him, or most of the populous, which was why, they thought, it hurt Merlin so much. It was hard to make the rain only fall on the unjust.
Instead, he lay in bed and asked Gwen to keep him company, so she moved her supplies to his room, and he curled around his pillow and took over weaving a story as she spun and spun and spun.
Arthur didn't eat his breakfast the next day either, and the mouse was still outside. Gwen frowned and then carefully picked up the bowl, "Arthur? I'm going to take your mouse to my room, okay? When you want him back you just tell me, okay? I don't want anyone to walk on him, and I think he looks lonely."
Arthur didn't respond and she carefully carried Cornelius to her room and put him on her dresser. He didn't move once, just crouched, scared and hesitant, in his wooden block as she changed the water dish.
When he still resisted dinner, Merlin got up and began to knock on the door, "Arthur? Arthur, it's Merlin, can I come in?"
"No," Arthur said, voice scratchy and dry. Had he run out of water? What was he trying to do? Kill himself?
"You need to eat, Arthur," Merlin put his palms flat on the wood, supporting himself, as Gwen held the tray. "Please eat something."
"Not hungry," Arthur said, "Go away please, thank you."
"Arthur, I'll go away if you eat. You need to eat. I won't leave until you do."
"Go away Merlin, please, thank you," Arthur voice went sharp and cold, much akin to Uther's voice when he'd been speaking of Arthur.
"No, Arthur, I'm not going to go away if you won't eat. I'm not going to do what you want if it means you're going to hurt yourself."
He was answered with stubborn silence.
"I'm going to stand here until you take your food," Merlin promised, resting his head against the door, "and I'll just keep talking. You know how long I can talk. I'll keep talking until you open the door and take the food, and then I'll leave if you want."
Gwen got a chair. She tried to give it to Merlin, but he shook his head, leaning heavily against the wood and talking about utter nonsense. So she sat and got her spinning and quietly dropped thread while Merlin talked—and he could talk. He could talk the moon from the sky and get men to drop their swords— if only to make him be quiet. Morgana walked by, watched them a moment, got a chair and came back with chain-mail, which required constant, vigilant maintenance, and Hunith sat with a bushel full of beans to be cleaned. Lancelot had armor to be polished and a tunic to be mended and soon they were right outside the hall, listening and waiting.
But Arthur said nothing.
Arthur didn't know what to do. He wasn't used to making choices and then having consequences. Hell, he wasn't used to making choices at all: his Majesty and his brother made the choices. Arthur just went along with them. Here was one of his first big ones, and he was doing it for Merlin but there Merlin was and he wouldn't leave, even when Arthur asked, even when Arthur had tried to emulate his Majesty's voice that had always made his stomach feel like clutching up into a rock, Merlin still hadn't left. He looked around and shut his eyes. This was too complicated. He wanted to save Merlin and Gwen and Morgana. He wanted to save them, because the only person he hadn’t hurt yet was his Majesty, and that was because nothing could hurt his Majesty. He’d killed his mother, and his brother.
His stomach hurt and he felt dizzy. He’d never skipped a meal before.
Arthur could hear the door creak with Merlin’s weight, and the strain in between his words, but Arthur figured that as long as Merlin didn't come in it would be fine. Merlin had been okay when he'd been on the other side of the door before, hadn't he? It had only been when they touched, when he came into Arthur’s world and stay there, that he got sick.
"Will you eat if we slip it in under the door?" A voice eventually cut through Merlin's weary monologue. Arthur didn't recognize it, "It's Hunith: I'm Merlin's mum. If you don't want to open the door we could try and get it under the door. How's that? It's that, or I will knock this door down and feed you myself."
Merlin's...mum. Arthur scrambled to push against the bed and stared at the wall, "His...mum?"
"Yes, and let me tell you, I put up with enough nonsense when he was growing up, but I never had to deal with a boy not eating, and I don't intend to. So you can either open the door and grab the food for yourself—we won't be in the hall, I can get Lancelot to cut a hole in the door and slip this to you, or I will take this door off the hinges and stand there until you eat this food."
"...mum..." Arthur muttered to himself.
"I'm giving you until the count of five before Lancelot has to cut these straps,” Hunith warned.
"Hall, please.” Arthur said, quickly, the entire concept of Merlin and Merlin having a mum, and the door and…it was all far too much to deal with in a day. "Just...stay away, please."
"We'll be back soon to check you do get it, and you'd best eat it, you understand?"
"Yes, thank you," Arthur said. He listened as they =walked out and he moved the bed away from the door, listening for breathing or the creak of someone shifting their weight, whispers or shuffling. When he heard nothing, he peeked out. There was just the tray sitting on the ground. He snatched it up and forced himself back into the room, made himself close the door. He methodically ate his food and slipped the tray back outside and looked up.
Merlin was there, standing against the wall. He floated the tray from Arthur's hands to his own, even though he should have been in bed and resting. Arthur looked at the shadows under his eyes, drenching his hair and the space under his cheeks. Arthur pulled back inside and slammed the door, holding his body against it, in case someone tried to force their way in. "You should leave, please."
"Why?" Merlin asked, "did I do something wrong? Is this about the hallway, because, really, it's fine-I..."
"Why don't you get better, please?" Arthur asked, leaning against the wood, like they used to do, back when his room had been his, and this had only started to stop making sense.
"I told you-"
"Then leave, please." Arthur sat down, "I ate, and…you said… if I ate."
Merlin said nothing as he walked away, but Arthur listened anyways, then pushed the bed back in place and threw himself back onto it, glowering up at the ceiling, arms and ankles crossed and hands shoved under his arms so hard his muscles ached with the tension slick and hard inside them.
Merlin stared up at his ceiling. He was tired. He was always tired. Tired like he could just fall back to sleep, constantly, even standing, even if he just woke up, he wanted to curl back up and rest. In his dreams he wanted to sleep. Without Arthur there it got worse. He didn't have anything to focus on, to keep him awake, and so his energy just eked away like heat from a broken smokehouse.
He got up to eat and tried to talk to people, and then he'd fall asleep in his stew, or under the table, or leaning against the wall. He fell asleep talking to Arthur, leaning against the door and trying to figure out what went wrong. He liked being next to the door; he could hear Arthur moving around. Which, yeah pathetic, but he didn't know what had happened, and Arthur wasn't exactly the sharing type. So, really, his only option was pestering Arthur until he complied, but Arthur was apparently the stubborn sort.
Merlin sort of wished he had a better idea of why Uther had locked Arthur away for so long. Gaius has said something about magic and something about madness, but it was generally just something no one talked about, and so Merlin didn't know why Arthur thought he should lock himself up. It was amazing Arthur had survived as well as he had, considering. They sometimes found children who had gotten lost in the wild, feral children who survived their parents’ slaughter or their own kidnapping, and grunted and growled and had no concept or care for anyone around them, just for food. Merlin had never seen one, but Lancelot had, once, at a faire. The Feral Child they called her, and she had taken out a rabbit with her teeth to people’s applause and responded only to violence or reward like a dog. Lancelot said she’d had a glittering sort of intelligence, somewhere in her eyes she was a reasonable creature— just barred off from humanity. He’d set her free, back into the woods, and what she did after that he did not know.
Arthur was laconic, but he could, at least, talk. He hadn’t gone mad.
Merlin woke up again to a hand on his head and his mum staring down at him. "You should go to bed."
Merlin shook his head, "It's fine. I'm fine; I'm just-"
"Tired. I know,'” Hunith stood and knocked on the door.
"Arthur, it's Hunith."
The sounds from inside stopped and Merlin pushed himself up.
"Open the door, Arthur."
There was a pause, a pause so long Merlin thought Arthur was going to ignore them forever and just die in that room and they’d never figure out why.
Arthur opened the door a crack and peered out, he stared at Hunith with a sort of wide eyed wonder and... Merlin wavered…Arthur looked at her with a kind of aching hunger, and who knew where he'd learned such facial expressions. Maybe they were just part of being a person—ingrained like breathing.
"Merlin has been falling asleep out here for the last week, and you can either let him in or deal with me. He won't leave, so you'd best accept that now."
He looked scared, and then set his jaw, "I can't. He should...make him better, please."
The rest happened in a kind of muggy confusion. Hunith reached forward, Arthur looked utterly terrified a moment and wheeled backwards, the door slamming shut on Hunith’s hand and then bouncing open again, Arthur collapsed and crumpled awkwardly over his bed frame. Hunith clutched her hand and hissed in pain.
Merlin jumbled himself upwards into something resembling walking and went to his mum. Her finders curled inwards and she was breathing through her teeth, in pain but refusing to make a big deal of it. Arthur was coughing and groaning, crawling down and staring at them they might rip him to pieces any second.
He saw Hunith and stood, pressing himself against the wall.
"Take her away please, you need to...need to get her away, I'm sorry, I didn't...please, please, just-sorry, sorry, sorry."
Merlin had thought to yell at Arthur but he looked so utterly...disgusted...with himself that Merlin just helped his mum up and called for Lancelot, deciding that this was about far more then a hallway.
Arthur knew three things: he knew them down and out and around and those were the three things he knew. The dark could be a lie, his body could be a lie, and the voices in the hallways could all be lies—ghosts. He'd dreamed, and woken up and not known which he was doing for days and days and after his brother…he hadn’t known anything at all.
He knew three things: Mothers were the most vital element. The most sacred creatures, and the most perfect beings; they were what separated monsters from men, they were doors between inside his room and out in the world. They were the difference between being alive and dead. Killing one was a crime one could never be forgiven for, and hurting one...hurting...
The second was that big brothers had to protect their little brothers from everything, especially themselves, and if Arthur had a little brother—or rather he had a little brother who knew who Arthur was—then he had to protect him. Merlin was sort of like his little brother. He was little. Arthur was bigger than him, so Arthur was the big brother, and Merlin was the little brother, and Arthur had to protect him.
The third was that he wished his Majesty hadn't shown him leniency, because here he had hurt someone again. He'd been trained to kill since birth by his own existence. Keeping him in the dark hadn't been enough, hurting him hadn’t been enough, his own brother hadn’t been enough, time hadn't leeched it from him and now he just-
He realized someone was holding him. Someone who smelled like flour and fire and he looked and Merlin's mum was...holding him. Holding him like his brother used to, all arms and desperation in the dark. Merlin was holding him. They were both there and he had nowhere to back away or go or... he was talking. Since when had he started talking?
"Arthur," Hunith said stroking his hair, "Arthur, you need to breathe. Breathe with me a moment. Breathe like me, focus and breathe like me. Inhale, good, now let it out. Slowly, slowly. There you go."
Merlin had one arm wrapped around Arthur and with the other was looking at Hunith's swelling fingers and muttering thick and sizzling words over them.
Arthur did what Merlin's mother told him to, because she had told him to, and she was a mother, and maybe if he did exactly as he was told he wouldn't be blamed. He'd always done as he was told, even if he was only told once, except the door. He’d fought about the door, but that was because he knew better and just couldn’t explain. He'd been shown his exercises once, but he did them faithfully. When Morgana told him manners, he did manners. Well...he hadn't opened the door, but he'd...he hadn't wanted to.
And now they just...
“...majesty very...you need to move please, and I will-you need to move please, because I kille- I-" he honesty didn't even know how to string his words together correctly and Hunith gripped harder.
"Arthur, I don't know you well, I don’t know what happened to you any more than Merlin does. But you need to listen and understand: you aren't who your Father said you were. You didn't deserve to be locked away."
"You did no such thing, you hear me? You didn't do any such thing. Now Merlin and I are going to help you up, and he's going to give you a shave, and we'll get a tub in here so you can have a proper bath, and then you are going to come down to dinner."
He stared at her and she stared back.
"You can have all the time you need to figure out where you want to be and who you want to deal with, but we have to talk about mothers, and you need to hear it from someone who is one."
She kissed his forehead and showed him her hand, pale and worn and perfect, "I'm just fine dear. You didn't do anything."
Merlin slumped against Arthur as she got up, pressed a hand to either of their cheeks, "You're good boys."
Arthur had no idea what to do, but Merlin seemed to know well enough. Merlin sat him down on the bed, lifted up Arthur’s face and told him to stay very still. Merlin shaved him. Arthur held very still, tilting his head as Merlin instructed and not even aware enough to worry properly. If Merlin wanted him dead, Arthur would let him. Maybe Merlin was the big brother. He was a bit taller.
Arthur bathed himself and it felt so extremely odd that Merlin had to come back in again because Arthur wanted to share that fact that he was submerged in water and there were bubbles, and then there was the door. The door was the problem. The door was always the problem. But his feet were underwaterdidn’t leave his room, nevermind that this was not his room, and nevermind that he had left before. All it had done was hurt.
Arthur looked at him.
"Go on, just do it. You don't want to upset mum, now do you?"
Arthur closed his eyes and Merlin clasped his hand around Arthur's like he had that first time, and it was warm, and rough and clutched tight around his. It tugged and he moved forward, and then they stopped.
"Arthur. We're outside your room,” Merlin said, quiet and with his hand still clutched around Arthur’s.
Arthur opened his eyes and stared through the doorway, from the outside looking in, and he looked at the bed, hat the covers, and he looked at the walls of the hallway. He looked down the hall. Merlin didn’t mind them standing there for awhile, Arthur staring into his room, then down the hall, then at the floor. Arthur thought he felt like how the black places between stars felt.
"Thank you," Arthur said.
Arthur’s brother had raised Arthur—he’d taught Arthur everything he knew: language, stories, how to make a bed and how to eat, how to clean up after himself, and how to while away endless, monotonous hours in a dark room with no hope of release. Arthur’s brother said it was his job to protect his little brother. He’d only been seven when he’d been entombed with a barely-weaned baby, but he’d known enough to want to be down there.
Arthur’s brother was a bastard to a King who was determined to make his dead wife a saint, and himself a living martyr to her cause, and the most Arthur’s brother could expect from life was to be a servant who could count on taking every hit the people would rather be giving the King—that is, if he wasn’t exiled, or killed. Being imprisoned wasn’t as bad a fate, overall. At least he’d have Arthur—when he first saw his little brother, he’d stared (covertly) from behind a tapestry, and thought that…that perhaps that baby could love him, since his mother wouldn’t, and his father wouldn’t, and no one else in the entire kingdom would even look at him, but babies had to love you. They didn’t know any better.
So he’d offered himself up when his father decreed that Arthur would be hidden away, locked up and kept in the dark because he was a debasement, an evil, foul atrocity. He had only been thinking that his brother needed someone to care for him, and Arthur’s brother needed Arthur because it was the closet chance he’d ever have at usefulness or happiness. So he’d stood, holding a sleeping Arthur in his arms as the heavy, thick, iron door swung closed and the clack, click of locks echoed in his tiny, pitch dark room, and there was the clang of a bar being dropped into the slot and the ka-thunk of it being bolted closed. That door would never be opened again, he’d thought.
So he’d begun feeling his way around the room that he’d soon know so very well.
Supplies were slid under the door, and he changed Arthur’s nappy, as he was taught—difficult to do in the dark, but he eventually (after a lot of messy failures) got the hang of it. He fed Arthur porridge and Arthur would whine or fuss, but he’d eat eventually. He ate his own bland, repetitive meals, and tried to hush Arthur when he fussed. It gave him something to do, and if they both cried, then who was going to know the difference? It was their own little kingdom, and sometimes they both cried and sometimes he clutched his brother and begged him to stop, just stop, just for a bit. His days and nights were dictated by Arthur and eventually he didn’t know which it was anymore. And then he stopped caring.
He taught Arthur to piss and shit in the chamberpot, and then covered it up again for him—their room always stank, so much so that he stopped smelling it anymore, but it was still stuffy. The only air came from under their door, and there was no breeze so he always felt a few moments away from suffocating. Arthur never seemed to mind. Arthur didn’t know any better.
He taught Arthur words—his name, then Arthur’s own, placing his hands on the textures of the bed and blankets, the wall and floor and told him the names, over and over until Arthur slapped his hands against the floor and chanted “Floor, floor, floor”
There were days when he wanted to talk to anyone, when he wanted anyone in the world to come and just stay long enough to tell him what the weather was outside, but he just held onto his little brother and told him stupid, circular, pointless stories and rode his own Banbury Cross horse, up and down, up and down and said the rhyme until Arthur chanted along with him.
He only knew time passed because they grew, the bed had less room for them, and Arthur’s syllables got smoother, “ride a cock horse to Banbury cross.” They exercised, they told more stories. Arthur’s food went from softened millet mash to the same meal as his, them passing food back and forth, chewing stories, songs, “all the pretty little horses” was Arthur’s favorite. They could spend an entire day just lying on their bed singing the same verse over and over, and why not? They had nothing else to do.
“We are gentlemen of leisure,” he told Arthur once, in their fort they’d made from the table and a sheet. It was even more stuffy and enclosed, but they liked the fort. It was how they got to be alone from each other.
“Bells on her toes, she will make music wherever she goes.” Arthur sang to himself, head on his brother’s knee and tapping his fingers on the floor. Arthur had never gotten in the habit of biting his nails that his brother had, but he still sucked his thumb at the age of four. When he’d been teething he could only chew on the knotted corner of their blanket. When he wasn’t sucking his thumb he had a hand down his trousers, and his brother didn’t see the point in correcting him as his mother had. Arthur could have whatever comfort he wanted.
It wasn’t like he’d ever need to leave.
Arthur had been gently pushed into a chair and had food put in front of him. He knew how to eat at a table; he knew how to use utensils, now. He just couldn't quite get past the fact that there were other people who were also eating. When he an his brother had eaten they’d passed the food back and forth, taking bites of bread and meat and greens, resting their foreheads together and telling stories quietly afterwards.
They were talking with each other and generally letting him stare down at his hands, as he wanted to. They would talk and he’d forget what he was doing with his spoon, and then he’d focus on eating and lose the thread of the conversation. He and his brother’s voice had made sense .
Merlin was next to him, pressed along his side, and Arthur looked down at Merlin's limp hands, dangling over the chair arms. It was less—he thought—that Merlin was trying to comfort him and far more that Merlin was simply too exhausted to sit up on his own. Arthur had done that before, worked himself until he was incapable of moving, just laying on the floor as he shook, waking up sore and shivering. Sometimes it was worth it though.
"Eat," Hunith told him, and he ate, focusing on chewing and tasting, closing his eyes and falling back into the pretense that he was in his room, and could hear them through the door, and Merlin was the only one resting beside him. It was less that he wanted that, and more that he simply didn't know what else to do with himself and his hands and the scrape of spoons against trenchers.
He slid his arm under Merlin's, supporting him as he sleepily curled around Arthur. Hunith led them into a room full of chairs curled around a fireplace, and Merlin slumped into a seat. Gwen picked up a complicated looking jumping of thread and whirling things, Morgana had a shirt that seemed to be made of metal that she was diligently applying something black and smelly to with a rag, Lancelot was breaking and “scrunching” the long, rotted stalks of flax and getting the fibers out. Making clothing, apparently, took a lot of work, as Gwen was cheerfully explaining.
Merlin picked up a lump of wood and began carving it with sure, but slow fingers. Hunith had the fibers of flax that Lancelot had already done and was doing something called “hackling” which removed something from something so Gwen could do her something, so they could have thread, and there were two kinds of thread, and one kind was for one thing and another was yarn, and it was all very perplexing to Arthur, and to Merlin too, apparently, as they didn’t let him have anything to do with it.
Gwen dropped her thingy and began spinning it, rolling the fibers in her fingers, quick and nimble and letting the dangling, spinning part wrap the fibers tight around one another as she gave more lead, pulling the unspun fibers out and fanning them. It was soothing to watch.
"Arthur, you can come comb out the wool," Hunith said, nodding to a basket full of globs of something and metal combs. It was wool, apparently, and all he had to do was take a chunk and scrap the combs together until it was fluffy and wispy, and then put it into a different basket. It was awkward and unsure at first but there was a rhythm to it, something in Hunith’s humming, and he fell into his hands.
"Tomorrow you can help me churn butter," Hunith said, as if it was taken for granted that Arthur would assist her. "It'll be before dawn so the light won't hurt your eyes, and we can move the churn into the hallway, if you like."
He nodded and she began to explain chores to him, and when Merlin fell asleep she caught the knife neatly and put it aside and nodded to him, "You take him upstairs to bed, he sleeps better with you."
Arthur put the combs in the basket, his small mound of finished wool was much smaller than the skein of yarn Gwen had finished, or the bushel of flax Lancelot had done. He looked up at Merlin, hauled him up by the arm and together they stumbled upstairs into Arthur's room. Back into his room, in that he had left it and now had to return. And now they were back. In his room. Which they had left.
Arthur sat on the edge of the bed, sucking on the broad side of his knuckle, thoughtfully. He’d grown out of sucking his thumb, but when he was thoughtful he generally began gnawing or sucking on his thumb knuckle. Merlin burrowed under the covers and Arthur eventually, slowly, crawled in next to him and shut his eyes, feigning sleep, because actual sleep was as impossible as everything that had already happened that day.
He'd combed wool for Merlin's mum and gone outside his room and...
He wanted his mouse back. He sucked his knuckles, biting down on the fleshy-bone of it and decided he’d get him back…later.
Arthur did not remember ever dreaming before, or rather, he remembered that he had dreamed, but that it hadn't been worth remembering. He'd thought maybe people who didn't see the same space and did the same things might have more interesting dreams. He tended to wake up with a vague feeling like he had been staring at the same sight he was then pointlessly staring at when he awoke.
He awoke the next day with the feeling he'd been somewhere else doing something else, but he couldn't figure out what. Merlin was asleep next to him, and Arthur felt mildly disconnected to his own skin at how easy it had been to switch from sleeping utterly alone to trying to sleep next to someone else's body. Granted, when anyone who wasn't Merlin reached for him he flinched, but that made sense enough to him.
He didn't want to leave the room. He didn't want to leave the bed. He felt...he itched, bounced with... he didn't know what. He felt like he'd been trying to bounce his left leg. He could easily bounce his right one, he would sit and it would start bouncing, but he had to think about the left one and it burst up and down with halting, confused jerks. He was far too aware of his body when he tried to bounce the wrong leg. Right now he was just too aware of himself, as an object, as a thinking object, to be wholly comfortable. His tongue, for one, seemed to take up far too much space in his mouth, and his toes felt too pressed together, though he had noted his own toes were spaced apart far more then Merlin's were. Arthur blamed this on boots that made people’s feet stick together in uncomfortable and awkward ways and kept rubbing against his ankles. He didn’t even like it when his feet tangled with Merlin’s, much less when some boot kept rubbing and rubbing and rubbing at his ankle it felt like all his skin had fallen off.
Merlin rolled over and flopped an arm over his chest, and Arthur picked up Merlin's hand in his own and was aware that the ceiling was above them somewhere, dark and encroaching, and that there were walls and people, but they didn't matter. Not any more then his dreams had, and he couldn't even remember those.
He thought if he left the tower and smelled the air he'd start running and never come back, and get lost. In his head the term "far away" meant "over there, somewhere, where someone cries to no one 'I am lost'." That’s how it went in stories, he was fairly sure. Merlin was limp and warm in his hands, like the sponge of bread from the oven, which Arthur could crumple into small, dough-y balls and stuff eight of in his mouth all at once. He didn't want to leave, he'd been stuck in one slightly shifting moment for most of his life, which had changed and now changed again, and he wouldn't mind spending the rest of his life in this moment, because it was good enough.
Someone knocked on the door, but it was open a crack, again, and Gwen peeked her head in. “You awake?”
Arthur nodded, and then glanced at Merlin, and she smiled and playfully put her finger to her lips with a nod, “I just thought I’d bring you back your friend. Can I come in?”
Arthur nodded. Gwen came in with his mouse and put it on his desk, smiling at him and Merlin. "He hadn't been sleeping well when you...well, of course it's not your fault, exactly, he just worried, was all. I’m glad he’s sleeping now. You understand."
"No," he looked at her and she smiled again and knelt next to the bed, resting her hands on the sheets next to his stomach.
"I don't want to leave the room please," He said, glaring at the door, "I won't close the door, and Merlin can leave and I will eat, but I don't want to go out again."
"You don't have to."
"Shh," Gwen gently patted his shoulder, "Arthur?"
"I saw the inside of your room once, you know.”
He blinked at her.
"There were footprints in the stone, places you had stood and paced and walked on so often you'd worn them away. There were grooves in the ceiling bars where you did your pull ups. Your table had the outline of your tray rubbed away and there were rivets in the floor from where you pushed in and pulled out your chair."
Arthur stared at her.
"No one should live in a room long enough for the room to fit them like a shirt. I know it's comfortable, Arthur, I know it's familiar but...you deserve better. I mean, this is better, I guess, but you deserve the sky. Don't you think?"
"I deserve to die," Arthur whispered, so Merlin wouldn't hear, "Don't tell Merlin, please."
"What?" Gwen shook her head quickly until her features blurred, "No Arthur, you can't think like that. I know it...well I don't know, because I'm not you, and your life has been...hard, and I can't imagine, but it's been hard, and it's going to be hard, but it's worth it. I promise."
Arthur set his jaw, "I want to, I don't deserve to. I am using the words right?"
"Maybe if you could...explain a bit more? Maybe?"
Merlin mumbled in his sleep and she smiled a bit and brushed his hair aside. Arthur stared at Merlin then took a deep breath.
"You know… his Majesty put me in my room," Arthur asked, staring up at the ceiling that he was once again all too aware of. “he…he put me…put me and…my brother—because my mother…because I…" he felt ill, so sick he wanted to curl up and never move again.
“You have a brother?” Gwen cocked her head, frowning, “Where was he?”
Arthur shook his head and looked at the wall, “Me and my brother…in…in the d-dark…” he put his hands to his ears and closed his eyes. She put her hand on his knee. He and his brother were locked in the dark. In the dark and he had killed his mother and if he could tell them, then they would get rid of him and Merlin wouldn’t want him anywhere near his mum.
She squeezed his knee, "Arthur, you can't have done anything wrong, you were just a child when he...when you... Arthur you didn't do anything wrong. I promise. Now where is your brother? Is he in another room?"
He looked away, didn’t want to talk about it. "I want to stay in here today, please."
"You can stay in, but you didn't..." She bit her lip and placed her hand over his, and Merlin's, "there is nothing you could have done that will change our minds about you, Merlin...he's killed people, you know? He feels bad about it, and they weren't...nice men, but he killed them, to protect us."
Arthur stared at her and she pressed her hands to her mouth and then looked at her dress.
"And you were a baby, you couldn't have done anything, Arthur. What happened? You were just a baby. Did your father suspect your mother of infidelity?"
He shook his head.
"What then? Did she use magic? Is he punishing-"
"No," he yelled and Merlin snorted awake, clutching Arthur's hand and blinking.
There was a painful pause and then Gwen put her hand on his shoulder, "Arthur did...your mother is dead and...but he wouldn't would he? He wouldn't..."
He shut his eyes and shook his head, "Not in front of Merlin."
"What?" Merlin said, "What's going on?"
"Please, leave, please." Arthur stared at her.
She swallowed, "Oh Arthur. He did."
He shook his head again.
"Who did what?" Merlin asked, voice still all soft and confused with waking up.
Arthur turned over and refused to look at either of them. "Arthur...I mean I think...his mother died in...in childbirth didn't she?"
"What? Uther wouldn't...not just for-"
Arthur covered his head with a pillow and refused to respond to anyone, curling up and just needing, he just needed, but they knew and they'd take him back, and they didn’t know about his…but they wouldn’t need to. He’d killed his mother, that was crime enough. His brother had just been confirmation of his monstrousness. Merlin wouldn't— because he loved his mum and he'd never forgive anyone who had hurt their own and he'd be back to bread and musk and the dark.
He crawled under the bed because seeing the moonlight when he knew he'd be locked away again hurt too much. He berated himself, he should soak it up like a rag and hope it stained, but it just...god he was pathetic. Of course he was. He'd killed his mum and now they knew and...
It was Hunith and he pressed against the wall under the bed.
"Arthur we need to talk, and we all agreed it'd be best from me. I need to tell you some things. You're fine. You're safe. We aren't going to hurt you."
"No!" Arthur said, and closed his eyes, "I won't...just close the door, when you go I can't...I might run and hurt someone and-"
"Gwen's mum died in childbirth, you know, when she had Gwen. So did the Lady Morgana's."
Arthur said nothing.
"Two of my dearest friends died as well. Childbirth is hard, Arthur. It is hard on women and sometimes...many times...far too many times, things go wrong. And women know this, your mother knew this, and she still carried you. You did nothing wrong, Arthur. I know you don't believe me right now, and you need some time, but Arthur? You did nothing wrong. You aren't going to hurt me or Merlin. Your father—his Majesty, if you'd like, though I wouldn't—went mad, Arthur. You didn't deserve it."
He must have deserved it. Otherwise...he'd been locked up for no reason. He must have...she must have been lying. To get him out from under the bed. It must be a trap it...
"Arthur, I just need you to think about that for awhile. I can explain better later, if you'd like, but I just need you to think about that for a little while. Guinevere was never locked away. Lady Morgana either. Their fathers loved them very much."
“What about my brother?” Arthur asked.
“What happened to your brother, Arthur?”
Arthur didn’t say anything, squeezing his eyes shut, and his fists closed and his body in a tight knot.
“Arthur, can you tell me what happened? Did he…is he dead? Did he hurt you?”
He slid his arms over his ears.
And then he was alone again.
There is something that no one understands, something he thinks no one could even begin to understand no matter how many times Uther tries to restate it in his head—he could never get the wording right for his imaginary audience. In plenty of stories the hero did horrible things for the sake of love—why was he different? Why is his kingdom cursed? Wasn’t that wretched sorcerer doing this to his people, to him because he loved the monster inside what could have been his son?
He, he and a hundred others, had commented on Igraine’s beauty, had wished to plunge their hands into the fall of gold hair (not gold, nothing so tamable. Rather, it was the color of victory), had traced her lips with their eyes, had longed to be her first and only, to kiss up bare legs and spread their hands over her belly, longing to save her neckline that was plunging to it’s demise, only to dive back in. They wanted to fill her up and leave her bursting.
Her eyes were quick, intense, always looking at things in painful, shuddering detail, at him, and that, perhaps, was why he first loved her. She could look at him and rip him to pieces with the simple act of gazing at him, a gaze that said I am beyond any of your capabilities. He did not compare her to flowers after that, he wouldn’t compare her to anything, really, except he couldn’t help it. He tried to explain to his comrades (back when he had comrades, when Glorios was alive and not twisting in his grave because his daughter had turned into a filthy whore and seer.)
Flowers wilted and she did not.
And it was not just that...that sword point intensity, though he loved that about her in particular. It had been one of his favorite facets of he right up until she’d lay bleeding and weak and begging and… he remembered their wedding night more clearly. How she had sat up proudly on their nuptial bed, staring at him, challenging. Not passive, and there, there maybe was why he fell in love. That smile, that real, glittering smile, that invitation to be flayed open by her look. For her to sooth and suture the pieces back together, to be cradled in her arms and conquered by her body and-
"Uther." She had sighed, holding out her hand, "you're getting introspective at a rather inconvenient time."
He had laughed, because he’d been happy then. Love hadn’t been painful, then—or if it had, it had been kitten claws compared to now. He’d come forward, kissing her hand and she, not accepting that—as she had never accepted anything but a killing move on first blow—had grabbed his hair and pulled him up, to kiss, kiss as they had any number of times, fully clothed and resisting lust, until now, until that day, until it was finally acceptable. She’d coiled around him and kissed him, fierce, hard and he’d returned it, following her, half-laughing. "You are mine tonight." He’d murmured.
"Mmm, and you, equally so, if you would cease thinking so much. You know, animals manage this, I'm fairly sure we, two capable adults, can do equally well."
"I'm not think-"
She’d snorted and plucked open the laces of her wedding night clothing. "This shift is supposed to allow you only the minimum of access to me, you know."
He’d swallowed, and he’d been young then, hot-blooded, then. She’d smiled again, "We are married, and you are young yet. I doubt it will give you vapors to see all of me."
"Igraine," He’d murmured, because she had been playful, and clever, and had seduced him even when most women would have closed their eyes and spread their legs and cried. She wanted him, and not just because he would be King.
"Well, hurry along then. I married you too, you know. I might want to see what I'm in for." She’d shoved him lightly and he’d rolled off the bed, theatrically falling to the floor and she’d peaked over the side, like they could just frolic and nothing could ever hurt them. "Careful, don't want the rats to get you before I do."
"Somehow I feel the rats will be kinder to me." Uther had said, wanting her to laugh. He wanted her to always laugh with him. He’d rolled over and stared up at her and he was losing the details of her face, he’d lost them long ago, likely, and now he didn’t know. He didn’t know but he could remember parts, bits and pieces sliding into place. Her shift had been hanging off her shoulder slightly, the round glorious pallor of her skin had been, he thought, the most perfect thing he’d ever seen. Her collarbones had stood out from her skin (called porcelain, called milky, and he thought, no, no not...not fragile. The gleam off a sword, off armor, the sun shining high before battle, except when she broke) "It is my first night as a married man, you know."
She’d rested her cheek on one hand. "Remove your trousers."
He’d blinked up at her and swallowed, then he had done so, complying, as always, to that determination. She would be a glorious Queen, had been for her short, beloved reign— not bowing to his will, but making sure the logic and will behind his actions were utterly solid. She would be kind where he was firm, and they would have…they would have… a partner not chattel.
"Undergarments? How bothersome. Off with those as well."
"Igraine." He’d crawled back up onto the bed. "I am your husband. You should remove my undergarments."
She’d made a childish face and he couldn't hold his stern expression and they’d fallen back into the sheets, laughing— the nobles who had been listening to make sure the marriage was consummated had likely been confused as Uther and Igraine kissed, quiet and rolling over the bed. They’d divested, and he, at her bidding, showed her how he...pleasured himself thinking of her, but no one needed to know about that. That was his own secret memory, he’d done it because she’d wanted to know. She’d been curious, and engaged and beautiful, so, so beautiful. She did the same and he’d experienced her with amazement, her expression, her sounds and though he had endless, tempting, forbidden flesh to freely stroke, he chose to touch her cheek and call her a wonder.
She kissed him. "Take me as your wife?"
"Forever and no other, your husband?"
"Forever, and no other, darling." And she had kept her promise, but Uther…not Uther. Uther had lied. He’d lain with another woman who had closed her eyes, spread her legs and cried. He’d felt nothing then, he felt nothing now.
Arthur carefully placed his mouse in his cupped palm. It had been well taken care of, but seemed more nervous for the treatment. Arthur tickled his fingers behind the mouse's ears, smiling to himself a little. It curled up tight and shaking in his palm. Arthur carefully put him back, watching as it limped into hiding.
Everyday with his meal a basket full of wool hunks appeared, and he spent the day exercising- pushing himself harder, ever harder, because it was easier than thinking. he hadn't been made to think, he hadn't been made for anything good. He spent what little rest of the day he had left carding wool. It had been much easier before, when he just had to exist and pass time until he died and could apologize to his mother in person. He hadn't thought much about what dead meant, or what would happen, just that it meant you went away and did not return, and that to make anyone dead was a horrendous crime, but mostly only your mother.
Merlin had killed. Merlin hadn't been locked up. Merlin still had his mother. Maybe as long as you didn't kill your mother it was fine. Maybe it was only killing them that was bad. Merlin hadn't been locked away. Merlin could move things with a gesture, and defend a tower with no more than determination. He was kind and talked to Arthur... and Arthur? Arthur storked his mouse behind the ears, fed him, put him away, and then did push-ups.
8, 9, 10, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5
Gwen had killed her mother, and she wasn't locked away, she was in the daylight, she got food and could make hunks of cloudy wool into thin and pliant thread. She could break flax stalks and separate the thin strips of fiber into neat piles. She smiled and tried to talk to him, and snuggled with Morgana. She was strong and sweet and took care of his mouse. Maybe it was just Arthur.
6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5
Morgana has killed her mother, and she wasn’t locked away. She rode horses, and ran laps, and wrestled Lancelot to the ground, and climbed trees. She could sharpen a knife until it could shave the hairs off Arthur’s arm, and spit farther than he’d ever thought a person could spit. She told Arthur the rules of being outside, and she would pull Gwen close and bury her nose into Gwen’s hair like Arthur did to Merlin sometimes: like the smell was the only thing worth breathing. Maybe it was just Arthur.
6, 7, 8, 9, 10.
Why though? What had he done? He'd killed his mother, he deserved it: he deserved this. He…his…brother…and even if he hadn’t he’d proven it with…with his brother. He deserved it. He’d hurt his brother, who taught him and held him and sacrificed himself to stay in the dark with Arthur. But his brother had been after? Maybe his brother could have been safe. Maybe… Hunith had said he hadn’t done anything and she was a mother, and if mothers were the most precious of beings, then she couldn't be wrong. Maybe mothers just loved all children without being able to stop, and didn't know better. Arthur didn't think so though. He didn't want to think. He shoved himself up from the floor and lowered himself again, keeping his back straight; his toes tensed, his stomach hard, staring at the wood grain.
1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7
He had made palm prints in his floor. His hands had nestled into them and his toes had fit into their grooves. He'd done countless push-ups, moving to the ground and pushing himself back up again over and over, and he counted, but he only knew 10 numbers, (8, 9, 10) and so he just repeated in cycles, working up and down and never getting anywhere, moving his hands in a tight triangle to work his arms in a different way, because his brother had said if he just did too many normal push-ups he over-develop some muscles, and leave the rest weak, and then suffer horribly. He started again. 1. 2. 3. 4. 5. 6. 7. 8. 9. 10.
And then, when he was too sweaty and tired to push himself up again, he rolled over, dragged himself up the wall, and, after a few breaths, combed wool until he recovered a bit, drank some more water, ate a bit, re-did his stretches and started on his sit-ups. 1. 2. 3—
Merlin usually came at some point, sometimes Gwen, occasionally Hunith, and once or twice Lancelot— who would just quietly get down to exercise with him. Most everyone else would sit on the bed, Gwen had her spinning, and Hunith had mending and Merlin would whittle or sleep. No one said anything to him, just let him work himself into exhaustion. Then they'd help him clean up the slick of sweat and rub the ache from his muscles, pull through the last of his stretches and get him into bed. It was better then before, when he'd collapse and then wake up the next day with stiffness all over that took ages to work out.
Morgana, as a rule, just sort of sat down and stared at him, arms crossed over her chest, legs stretched out across the floor, occasionally commenting on his form, or reminding him to stretch. It was like she was trying to push him out of the room with her eyes, but he refused to go. He wasn’t going to go and she couldn’t make him.
Then he'd get in bed and whomever had been with him would touch him somehow, a stroke to the hair, a kiss to the temple, clutching his hand, a quick pat to the shoulder. Merlin would tell him that it hadn't been his fault, Gwen would say that it hadn't been his fault, Hunith would say it hadn't been his fault, Lancelot would say no man, no matter how born, deserved such dishonor, and Morgana said his Majesty was a crazy nutter who deserved to be hoisted and burned.
And the next day would be the same. And the next. And the next. And the next. Onwards as he combed wool and worked out, and went to bed. Day after day after day until he was so sick of it that he could have retched the entire situation like bad meat. But he didn’t stop; he just kept going, because that was what he did.
Arthur loved his brother. He knew that. He knew that he needed him, and he couldn’t imagine existing without him. He also knew he loved his brother, because when his brother was gone, he hadn’t…he didn’t remember.
He’d killed his brother. It was his fault. They’d had a fight, they had fights sometimes, and Arthur had shoved him away. Arthur didn’t remember what he’d said, he couldn’t…everything hurt too much, but when he’d looked…he’d looked all over his room, calling for his brother, but he’d been gone. He’d been gone, and the door was still bolted shut and his brother was gone. That had been five birthday’s ago and he’d kept looking. He’d been frantic, because…his brother had always been there. His brother was as real as the dark or as the fact that Arthur was a monster. He sang to Arthur, he protected Arthur, he had always been there.
He’d climbed the walls and tested every inch of the beams. He’d held his breath and listened for another person breathing. He listened and felt and looked and was frantic, because where had he gone? He had to be hiding…he…
He had searched, ripping his mattress apart and shoving everything around, and his brother hadn’t been anywhere. He hadn’t…he’d left, but he couldn’t leave. There was no way to leave. Unless…
Unless Arthur had killed him.
Arthur had fallen into the corner and wailed, and he didn’t remember after that very well. Not that it mattered. He’d killed his brother; he bashed his head against the wall, over and over.
“Ride a cock horse to Banbury cross,” He’d muttered to himself, hands on the door, “to see a fine lady upon a white horse;”
and his brother hadn’t come back;
“with rings on her fingers and bells on her toes;”
and his brother hadn’t come back;
“she shall have music wherever she goes;”
and his brother hadn’t come back;
“Ride a cock horse to Banbury cross;”
And his brother hadn’t come back, but Arthur had lost his voice, and his brother hadn’t come back, and Arthur had kept mouthing the words, and his brother hadn’t come back.
“To see a fine lady upon her white horse…”
Morgana taught him about jokes. He didn’t quite get them—he eventually understood that hart and deer were kinds of animals whose names sounded like heart and dear, but he didn’t see why he should laugh about it. Or, Lancelot had a joke, which Merlin and Morgana laughed at, but Arthur thought was sad:
“A man asked his neighbor, whom was but late married to a widow, how he agreed with his wife, for he said that her first husband and she could never agree.” Lancelot began, as they sat in Arthur’s room, doing their customary tasks and keeping him company. They often told jokes and stories in the evenings, and while Arthur enjoyed the stories greatly, he never got the jokes. Never.
“‘By God,’ quod the other, ‘we agree marvelous well.’” Lancelot continued, ‘I pray ye, how so?’ said the first. ‘Marry,’ quod the other, ‘I shall tell ye. When I am merry, she is merry, and when I am sad, she is sad. For when I go out of my doors I am merry to go from her, and so is she. And when I come in again I am sad, and so is she.’” He finished and Gwen let out a delighted bark of laughter while the others chuckled and Arthur looked around. Morgana had explained marriage to him, and he didn’t like it. Why would someone be with someone else forever if they didn’t like them? Arthur would marry Merlin, he thought. He liked Merlin.
Sex—and thus bawdy jokes—also wasn’t funny, though sometimes when he got the joke he wanted to go to his room and close the door. He didn’t understand why someone tripping over something would be laughable, and when Merlin tried to explain physical comedy, he’d gripped him close and glared at the stairs.
“No, see, it’s funny because it’s mistaken identity. They’re twins, and so she thinks it’s her husband, but it’s actually his brother and so she’s yelling at him for something he didn’t do.” Morgana was trying to outline the plot of The Menaechmi.
“But he was his brother,” Arthur said, stubbornly, “they shouldn’t have been split up.”
“No, but they—“
“They should have stayed together,” Arthur hit the table, “they should have stayed together forever, because that’s what brothers do. That’s what they’re supposed to do, and it’s not funny. Not funny.”
“It’s not funny,” he’d yelled and went to his bed and he’d gripped onto his pillow and shoved his face into the soft cover of it. It wasn’t funny; it was horrible, because he wanted his brother back. He wanted him back. He’d never met his mother, and he was happy with Hunith, but he wanted his big brother and he wasn’t…he wasn’t here. Why couldn’t Merlin find his brother?
A hand settled on the back of his neck.
“What happened to your brother, Arthur?”
They’d had a fight after Arthur’s birthday. It had been the only thing they could fight over, the only change in their routine. Arthur hadn’t wanted comfort. He had wanted his brother to kill his Majesty like the hero always killed the monster. His brother was the hero so he should kill the monster. The monster who wasn’t Arthur.
Arthur had been selfish. He just hadn’t wanted to hurt anymore. If he hadn’t been selfish, if he had understood that his brother knew better, than it wouldn’t have happened. If he had been good, it wouldn’t have happened. He didn’t know what had made him selfish, normally…normally he wasn’t. He just hadn’t wanted to hurt anymore.
“I’m too old for this,” Arthur had shouted when his brother had tried to sing for him, and he’d pushed. He’d pushed his brother away for the first time, and it had been quiet. His room had been quiet and he’d been so angry. He’d been so tight in his skin, and he wanted to get out of there. He wanted them to leave and find someplace safe, and he’d pushed his brother away. “I’m too old to be in here with you. It’s not a kingdom. It’s stupid. This is stupid.”
“I’m too old.” Arthur had shouted.
A hand on his shoulders and he twisted away, “Go away.”
“No, Arthur, come on. Ride a cock horse to Banbury Cross-“
“I don’t even know what a cock horse is” Arthur had shouted. “Go away, go away and kill him. Protect me. You’re supposed to protect me.” He’d shoved his brother away again, as hard as he could and there hadn’t been a response. There hadn’t been any noise at all.
He’d called his brother’s name, but it just echoed dull and empty in the room.
And then he’d been alone.
Arthur didn’t get out of bed for a week after the joke, and Morgana had apologized, and Merlin had sat in bed with him, silent and sad, petting his hair. Arthur just stared at the wall and muttered Banbury cross to himself, gnawing on his thumb knuckle until it bled and then sucking on it. No one stopped him.
The pain was old, if overpowering, and eventually he got up and went back to work. He didn’t talk, he didn’t want to talk. He wanted his brother back. He wanted his brother back, but pleading with them wasn’t going to serve him any better than pleading with the empty air had, and he knew they whispered after him, he knew they talked about him, but he didn’t care. He wanted his brother back; he would be fine going back into the dark if he could have his brother back.
But, like with his mother, it wasn’t ever going to happen, was it? So he just churned the butter and combed out the wool and eventually Merlin took his hands in his and stopped Arthur from worrying the scabs on his thumb.
“Arthur, you didn’t kill your brother.”
“You didn’t,” Merlin insisted, “Your brother…how long was he down there?”
“Forever,” Arthur grumbled, “he was…he’s dead.”
“As long as you were?”
“And he took care of you?”
“No one else?”
“You don’t know anyone named…Gaius? The man I worked for, you never met him? He never told you how to stay healthy?”
“My brother told me,” Arthur jerked his hands away, “My brother taught me everything. There was no one but me and my brother.”
Merlin stared at him for a long time and then he rested his forehead against Arthur’s. “Arthur, I’m going to do something very cruel to you.”
Arthur stared at their knees.
“And I hope you will understand someday, but right now I’m going to be very, very cruel and you will hate me, but I need to.”
“I just want him back,” Arthur said, “why can’t you just bring him back? I’ll do anything, just bring him back.”
Merlin took a deep breath and his eyes flared gold, words as thick as Hunith’s treacle dripping out of his mouth, soft and sticky and mashing up his brain.
“What?” Arthur began and then jerked in chair, pain dragging his spine out through the top of his hair and he gasped for air—
“I’m letting you remember the truth,” Merlin whispered, clutching Arthur’s hands, “I shouldn’t…I’m sorry Arthur, but I can’t... I’m sorry. You don’t have to forgive me, but… you have to know.”
Arthur stared unseeing at the ceiling.
When Arthur was smaller, much smaller, before he got any hair besides the stuff on his head, he’d heard a story in the hallway. He’d liked listening to stories—he still does—but he shaped the words in his head and hands, and it’s like they wanted him to know them. Even though he couldn’t see what word was what, he could feel them settle in his head, clear and obvious in their patterns. Like someone was putting them there.
(No, my brother taught me. My brother taught me to talk.)
He heard a story about two brothers, and how one brother always looked out for the other. And Arthur had sat there, in his room, in his fort made of his table (he liked his fort, even though there was nothing different from his room and his fort, at least he could crawl out of his fort into someplace bigger) punching his pillow and thought that he would like a brother. He’d be bigger than Arthur, a big brother, and he would stay in here with him, and he would tell Arthur stories. He wanted a big brother to tell him stories, and his big brother would knock on the top of the table when he wanted to come inside Arthur’s fort and Arthur would let him in, and he could lean on his brother when his brother told him stories, about…about his mother. His big brother would have met his mother, and be able to tell him about mothers and what dead was, but he wouldn’t blame Arthur. He wouldn’t be mad. He’d…he’d….his big brother would love Arthur more because…because…he just would. He just would. He would just love Arthur and that was that.
(No, we heard a story about a wizard—it wasn’t like this. This is wrong—)
For awhile, for a long while, he thought about what his brother would be like. He ate more than ten meals thinking about, he fell asleep hugging his pillow and imagining his big brother, his big brother who would teach Arthur words, and bring light, and show him games, and…and things. He’d hold Arthur like people were supposed to, and show him how to do everything, and it wouldn’t be so bad, down here, he wouldn’t be alone. That was the thing that got him, not the dark, not that he couldn’t leave—no. He could be a monster, fine, it was just…Gaius…Gai, he remember Gai, he remembered someone other than his Majesty coming in and not yelling, not pushing, just telling him what to do. How to survive. He remembered how it felt to be held.
(No, I don’t know him. I don’t know who that is. Why did he leave?)
(Uther is the only one who could open the door. He stopped letting Gaius in after he knew you’d survive, but he still came to see you.
He made someone like his big brother, he piled up his pillow and his blanket inside his chair and curled up in it, wrapped his sheets around himself and pretended it was his big brother, and stayed there, eyes squeezed shut, curled up in the chair and with the pillow and the blanket and pretended, pretended as hard as he could that his big brother was there, and holding him, and he wouldn’t have to be down there alone.
(No, he was there. He really held me, and he really told me stories. That happened, stop lying! )
Uther brought Gaius down, sometimes, to teach him what he could, songs and stories and things to help him survive the dark. No good punishing someone if they weren’t alive or sane enough to feel it.
( No, it was my brother. No, it was my brother, it was my brother. )
He didn’t let his big brother go for a long time. A very, very long time. He’d had other ideas, he’d kept a pet dog for awhile, but then he’d gotten angry at it and killed it, because it couldn’t talk back, and Arthur could…he could kill things. That’s why he had been down there. He didn’t kill his big brother though, because his big brother loved him even though he’d killed their mother. His brother told him stories and protected him from loneliness. His brother held him at night and didn’t mind anything Arthur did. His brother…his brother was a bastard, he decided, because he’d heard about bastards, and his brother would just want someone to love him. Arthur would love him.
(Stop it. Stop it, please stop it. )
He talked to his big brother, now, he told him stories too, he would make his chair and crawl in it and tell him the stories he made up—about their mother, about what the world was like outside (because sometimes his brother didn’t know as much as him. Sometimes his big brother was smaller than him and they fought and Arthur always won, growling and tussling on the floor) and he held tight and showed his big brother his exercises, and they had contests—Arthur always won, except when his big brother won and then he could feel safe, because his big brother only let him win, because nothing could defeat his big brother (except when Arthur beat him).
Arthur would clutch his pillow and scoot himself tight against the wall and convince himself, sometimes so viciously that when he realized he was alone— that it was a game—he couldn’t do anything but press himself into the corner and cry into his pillow, because why couldn’t he have a brother? Other people had brothers. Why couldn’t he? Why did he have to be alone in the dark and the quiet and only hear the sound of his own voice? He’d reach for a hug and find air, the blanket would slip and he’d realize he was just in a chair. All it was was a chair. Then he’d press his hands to his ears and convince himself again, letting the weird echo of his voice in his head be his brother’s voice.
(Stop it. Stop it. Stop it.)
Thankfully the moments he remembered got less and less frequent and he could come out of the corner and hug his Brother, who was as big as ten Arthurs and whose voice boomed even louder than his Majesty, and sometimes, his brother had the secret power to make people undead, and he said that one day he, Arthur and his mother were going to walk into the sunlight, and everyone would love Arthur. Everyone who mattered, anyways.
(Why are you doing this to me?)
Arthur curled up and covered his head, “Make me forget.”
“Arthur I can’t just—“
Arthur didn’t say anything and Merlin was crying too. Arthur didn’t care. His brother was dead. Arthur really had killed him. Had killed him from the only existence he’d had. He had…hadn’t even…and Arthur had been all alone. He could recall every painful moment of it, of being down there and having no one. Not a single person to hold him or look at him or talk to him. Every painful moment of playing by himself on the ground, of touching himself just so something would, of singing over and over and over alone on his bed, as loud as he could to drown out the creak of the castle. Of…of no one giving the slightest thought to him, down there, alone.
He’d made up a brother. He’d made him up. No one had loved him. No one had cared that he’d been left down there. Just Gaius, just long enough to teach Arthur to function and then…nothing. Day after seamless day and there had been no reason to get up in the morning. There had been no one to talk to. Nothing to make his mind work, and his life had been sticky and slow and so pointless that he could scream—and he had, and no one had heard him. He’d been a little boy, growing more into the room than his own body.
In the spring, Arthur had been in the room.
In the winter, Arthur had been in the room.
In the summer, Arthur had been in the room.
In the fall, Arthur had been in the room.
In the room, Arthur had been in the room.
And the only reason he’d gotten up was because of a stubborn, angry nugget of himself that forced him up every day, made him eat, and breathe and live, and then, when he couldn’t figure out the point to it anymore, that hard angry nugget had made up his brother.
And then, just as easily, had gotten rid of him.
Arthur got up, shoved himself away and grabbed his chair. His hands went through the motions of making his pretend brother without him needing to think about it. Merlin watched and Arthur flung himself into the chair, squeezed his eyes shut, held as still as possible.
But it wasn’t him. It was just a dumb chair.
Arthur pressed his face into the pillow.
“Arthur, come on. Arthur you don’t need to do that.”
If he’d fooled himself once he could fool himself again. He could bring his brother back, and then they’d be together, and he could… he could have him again. He could have the stars, and Merlin and his brother.
“I’ll bring him back.” Arthur said, “You’ll see, I’ll bring him back.”
Merlin grabbed his head, and Arthur opened his eyes and Merlin was crying, he was crying and he shook Arthur. “No, no don’t. Don’t do that. You don’t need that anymore. You have real people now.”
Merlin would just tell him, Arthur realized. Even if he tricked himself, Merlin would just be there, and he would be different. He’d never get to forget that it wasn’t real.
Arthur didn’t cry, but Merlin did. Arthur went to bed.
For awhile he stuck to his routine, because it’s just what his body did. He didn’t even think about it, it just happened.
When he woke up, one day, and saw a little curved snake on his belly, better and longer than his first had been, he didn’t want to get up and exercise anymore. He picked up his new snake and waggled it in the air, watching the tail twitch to the left and to the right. Or maybe to the right, then the left. He had a hard time telling. No one had ever shown him, after all.
“I’m a sssssnake,” He hissed quietly, “I do sssssnake things.”
He hurt, he ached all over, and it hurt to breath because of how badly his stomach hurt, and he didn't want to get out of bed. He didn't want to comb the stupid wool, which made his fingers smelly and slick with grease, and he didn't want to eat any more bread, and he didn't want anyone to tell him it wasn't his fault, because if it hadn't been his fault why had he been locked away? Why had his entire life been in the dark, and the musk and the empty? Why had he had to learn to talk from whispers in the hallways? Why had he had to hurt, and wait, and be silent? Why had no one touched him?
If he didn't deserve it, then why? It didn't make any sense, and he thought about getting up and pushing himself into mindless exhaustion, but he didn't want to and no one could make him and he could sit in this bed with his snake if he wanted to.
...no one could make him do anything. He could lie in bed all day if he wanted. He could touch himself all day if he wanted. He could...he could be bad if he wanted, and...and what would they do? Lock him away again? He could...he could fight them. He was strong and they were...he could...and even if they did he'd be bad there, he'd be bad until someone did something and then...and then...and then the world would make sense again, because then he would know he deserved it. And then he could…he could shove himself away.
He swung the snake tail left, he switched it right. He could play if he wanted. He took the tail and head of the snake and yanked them apart. The vertebra making up the toy scattered and scuttled across the room. He could be bad.
He threw his pillow across the room, watching it land with a soft whump. He picked up his blanket, balled it up and threw that too. They lay in sad little lumps across the room. He got up, and threw his boots across the room, and they thumped and fell and nothing happened. They were just there. Across the room.
So he looked around, steeled himself and decided that if he was going to do this he might as well do it...he should...he'd been locked up for—
The water bowl, however— that had shattered, oh that had crashed against the wall and fallen in glittering pieces and water had splashed over the floor, onto the sheets. The chair crashed to pieces, the table bucked, the bed creaked and snapped, the straw flew everywhere, the window smashed and bled, the door snapped off its hinges, his throat ran raw and his voice pushed thick out of his gut. His fist crunched against the wall, so he yelled and punched again, bashing at the walls and yelling, just yelling for the sound of it, because he'd been locked in the silence, in the quiet for years, and if he hadn't deserved it then why had it been so damn silent?
“Ride a cock horse to Banbury cross,” He tore at the blankets, and bashed the water pitcher against the walls, the doors, the window, his own legs, tossing it aside and kicking the wall, punching it, scraping his nails against the floor.
If he hadn't deserved it then why had it happened? Why had his brother been killed? If he didn’t deserve it couldn’t he have his pretend big brother back now? If he hadn’t deserved it why was his mother dead? Why couldn’t he have grown up in the sun? “To see a fine lady upon a white horse—“
The mouse went flying when he tossed the bowl and it broke, wood chips throwing up and falling down again like rain, urine, feces, seeds and woodchips. The wooden box clanged as it fell, the nest turned over and everything broke. Arthur stopped, staring at wrecked home of his mouse and his knees hit the glass hard, he didn't notice, scrambling over to the mouse, picking it up and staring. No, not again. He can’t have done it again. He’d pushed his brother and—
He ran his fingers over the mouse’s tiny body. He couldn’t have done it again. Not again.
Merlin and Gwen tumbled into the room, staring at him staring at the mouse in his hands and they looked around at the ruined window, the crumbled bed, the straw, glass, ceramic and woodchips everywhere, the popped joints of the snake when Arthur had torn it until the thread snapped. Arthur curled up, clutching the mouse to his chest.
"No, no, no, no, no..." He murmured, shaking and not knowing how to tell if it was hurt or not, not knowing the difference between alive and dead save for his own existence. "No, no, no, sorry, sorry, sorry, please sorry, thank you, sorry, sorry, no-"
"Arthur you need to let go and let me see." Gwen said, but it, no, it couldn't. He couldn't have. He couldn't have. He wouldn't have, not when he'd been so careful, he had always been so careful, why hadn’t he stopped? The mouse didn't deserve...didn't...
"No, no, please, please," and someone was pulling him back and his hands went limp, someone taking the tiny, fragile body from his bleeding and crippled fingers. He turned and pressed his face into the warm, fragile body behind him and shook, because if it hadn't been his fault...it hadn't been the mouse's fault that he'd... he'd just... it hadn't been the mouse's fault, but it had happened anyways, because Arthur should have stopped, but he hadn’t. Why hadn’t he? He’d always been so careful.
Merlin took him downstairs to sit on one of the benches in the fireplace room, wrapped him in a blanket and got him some warm milk to drink. Then they left him so they could talk, and he sat alone to stare into the pale, thick liquid and the thought of drinking it made him feel ill. His stomach clenched and his innards writhed at the idea of consuming anything, so he just put the mug down and looked at his bare feet.
"Arthur," Morgana said, and he didn't look up, "your mouse is still alive, if you care."
Arthur fiddled with his fingers.
"You know there are consequences for your actions."
“We're never going to lock you up. No matter what you do, we're not going to lock you away. We might knock you out, chain you outside, maybe, if you get too violent, but we'll never put you back there. I'm not talking about punishment; we don’t have the right to punish you for this. You didn’t hurt us. I'm talking about consequences. You destroyed your things—they were your things, so you have the right to do that, but now you don't have anything save all that broken stuff."
He stood up abruptly, but he didn't know what to do after that. "...things?"
"Yes," She said, sitting down in a wide-legged sprawl, and tapped her ragged nails against the wood of the armchair, "but now you don't. Those are the consequences, along with that fact that you hurt your mouse, and all that trust you built up is likely gone," she made a gesture that Arthur didn't know, and she stared at her own hand a moment, "Hunith and Merlin are discussing what to do about you, whether they can trust you. Personally, I get it."
"Your mouse won't be eating from your hands, or walking into your hand anymore. Who knows if he ever will again."
Arthur nodded, "You...get it?"
"I wasn't exactly locked in a dungeon, but I was trapped in my own lifestyle that was just as ill fitting. When I got out I went wild— drank because I could, spat because I could, burned all my gowns. I regret that a little, we could have sold those for extra money, but...that's a consequence."
"What is my consequence?"
"Your consequences," Morgana corrected, "Besides your mouse being hurt and wary of you, well...you wrecked your bed frame. It’s superficial and you'll be able to fix it with some help, but the mattress is a wreck. You'll need to clean up the hay, glass and broken pottery, and you've ruined your window, so that'll need to be boarded up, so no window for you, and glass is…extremely expensive. You had the only glass window in the tower—the rest are open, or down here, covered in grease paper. Merlin got that for you because he wanted you to have that luxury, but…” She shrugged, and she didn’t sound like his Majesty. She wasn’t trying to make him feel bad, wretched and small, she was just…telling him what he’d done and what he could expect because of it. “Mostly you'll just need to fix everything, and until you do you won't have anything. You could, of course, not fix everything, but then you’re stuck with not having anything."
"What...do I do?" Arthur looked out the door, "I mean...first."
"What do you want to do?" Morgana asked and Arthur paused, and without thinking, walked out of the fireplace room, and found Merlin on a stool, sitting across from his mother. Arthur stood still and they looked at him. He was tired of people looking at him. He was tired of everything. His face hurt, and his head hurt, and his hands hurt, and his entire torso was a big empty room hurt, and if dying was anything like this, then he understood why his Majesty hated him so much.
"You feel better?' Merlin asked.
“I miss my brother.”
“Arthur your brother…he didn’t…” Merlin began then Hunith put her hand over Merlin’s and Merlin blinked down at the table, pressing his lips together.
“I still miss him.” Arthur said, “I miss him more, now, because I didn’t even have him to begin with. So now there’s just…more time to miss.”
“Arthur,” Merlin began, but then he didn’t have anything to say and Arthur looked at his feet.
“He didn’t have a name,” Arthur realized, because Arthur’s brother had never needed to have a name. He was simply Arthur’s brother. And Arthur should have realized. He was dumb to not have realized. He was dumb for having managed to trick himself that a chair with a sheet could be someone who would have stayed with him.
They didn’t say anything, so he turned and walked away.
He took one look at his room, and then slept in a closet.
And now you know about Arthur's brother.
Chapter 5: 8x12x8 Part 5 of 6
Arthur caught the very edge of his brother in a dream and he wrapped that around himself.
They found him there.
“You’re going to need to lie to him,” Morgana eventually said, after another day passed where Arthur talked to himself in a low muttering, hiding in the closet and never opening his eyes. They’d tried shaking him out of it. Tried letting him sleep it off. They tried fitting into his delusion, but none of it worked. Arthur wasn’t listening, and even holding him down didn’t work, because he just wrestled with vague eyes and asked his brother to let him up, looking over Lancelot’s shoulder. He didn’t want to be free right then. Right then all he wanted was to go back into the dark and hide there.
Merlin watched as Arthur in a curl, under the blanket Merlin had thrown over him. Arthur didn’t even notice Merlin or Morgana, just as he hadn’t for the last five days, and wouldn’t for the next five, or the next, or the next, and Merlin thought he should have just left Arthur down in that hold and given him the delusion of his brother back. Arthur would have been happier. But…this wasn’t about happier.
But the Dragon had said Arthur needed to be sane(ish) and alive in order to unite the people. And Merlin hadn’t been able to leave that young, scared voice behind the door. He couldn’t do that. He should have…He should have just given Arthur back his brother.
“What do you want me to do?”
“Give him his brother back,” Morgana said, rubbing his shoulders. Her fingers were strong and every muscle in his body ached, ached and she helped. “It’s the only thing he’ll care about, now. I told you not to tell him.”
“I had to tell him, Morgana he wasn’t…he thought he was a monster, and he’s not. What was I going to do?” Merlin looked at Arthur, “I don’t like lying.”
“Also you’re rubbish at it.” She drops her hands and both turn to look at him awhile—Arthur looks like a little kid, only without the grinning. Arthur’s face is as lax and inexpressive as it has been.
“His brother was never alive.” Merlin said, staring as Arthur huffed at something his brother had said, or pretended his brother has said, or remembered something. Then he began in on his horses song again, and it sent shivers down Merlin’s spine to hear Arthur like that to…Arthur had been getting better and now he…now he wasn’t. Now he’d fallen back into…into this. “He can’t stay like this. Its fine that he was like this before—he had someone, at least, even if he made him up, but we’re here.”
“And why do you think Arthur attuned to you so quickly, Merlin?” Morgana said, and she didn’t mean to be cruel any more than Merlin had, but it was, “it was because you were the only one to talk to him. He didn’t have anyone else. You think that’s any healthier?”
“I exist,” Merlin said, turning his head away.
Morgana sighed, “either you need to give him his brother back, or you need to get rid of him completely. You can’t leave him like this. You’re in no state to protect him, and he’s in no state to be alive. Maybe if he were normal, but he made up a brother just so he’d have someone to talk to. Merlin, he…” Morgana rubbed her face. “Merlin, just… do this for him. He’s not going to get better. He doesn’t want to.”
Merlin stared at the ground between his feet. “Give me more time.”
Arthur didn’t respond to someone slapping him across the face either, for the record, or being shouted at, or begging. He just lay there, and no amount of saying anything convinced him otherwise.
“You don’t have more time. Uther is sending out the last of his knights to attack, and you’re sliding backwards. Do you want your mum to die because—”
“Morgana,” He interrupted, “I’ll take care of it.”
Merlin sat on the edge of his chair, staring as Arthur curled in tighter around himself. Arthur had spent the morning having a piss-holding contest with his brother, which apparently was a common enough occurrence in Arthur’s head, and Arthur was rather stubborn about it, holding onto his pillow and absolutely refusing to even look at the chamberpot, though it had been several hours and several glasses of water (Merlin wasn’t sure if Arthur was drinking for both himself his brother.) He only caught fragments and bits of what was going on, as sometimes Arthur spoke for both of them, and sometimes he sank in deeper and didn’t speak at all.
Merlin closed his eyes and gathered together scraps and pieces together, what would normally feel endless, what was normally so easy to reach and to come at his beckoning (once it realized what he wanted), was limited and overtaxed and weak, a crippled, limping thing. But he’d do what he needed to.
Merlin put his hand to Arthur’s head and then took a deep breath and settled his magic like a warm blanket over Arthur’s mind. It hid and blanketed and brought him the confinement Arthur needed. It took the last bit of energy he had, but when Arthur looked up at him, and smiled, big and wide and wrapped his arms around him, pressing his head to Merlin’s chest like the last few weeks hadn’t even happened. Merlin rested his head on the top of Arthur’s and he felt like his guts were dripping out of his feet, and like he would deserve it if they actually did.
He was too tired to do more, but Arthur carried them both back to his room and Arthur shut the door firmly behind them. “I missed you, big brother.” Arthur said.
Merlin was limp and tired and he rested against Arthur and Arthur settled them against the wall and Merlin fell asleep, or rather, not fell, plummeted, dropped like a stone and gained speed and was gone.
Arthur held his brother through the night. Merlin was exhausted and Arthur could be there for him now. Could hold onto him and keep him safe. He could rest, they had all the time in the world. He made a nest from his ripped blankets and torn sheets, from feathers and goose down and he tucked Merlin in it. His brother had gone. But now he was back. And everything was fine.
Arthur lay himself down.
Everything was fine. He had all the things he wanted, all the pieces were put back, and he would fix this room, and he would fix his brother and everything would be fine.
And then, morning found Arthur.
…and staring out into the growing dawn, having nothing to block the light with, he squinted, but he was determined to keep staring. He would see. He would see.
There were stories of men—having been buried in cave-ins or trapped in deep dungeons —being rescued. They would keep their composure, grateful for their salvation shaking and relieved, but fine. Fine, that is, until they saw the sun. Then…oh then they'd fall to their knees, tears in their eyes, grasping up for the heat of it, the burn in their eyes and the way their skin was starving for sunlight. That was when, they said, they knew it was real.
Arthur had never seen the sun, had never seen the embarrassed flush of the sky, had never seen the first inklings of gold mixing in with green trees and the entire world shuddering alive with color, still chilly from the night. He shaded his eyes, not exactly from the light, though it hurt, but at the sheer color of everything. He'd gotten accustomed to the grayscale landscape, the color of dark blue bleeding into familiar nonsense-darkness, the harsh light-and-dark of firelight, crawling up walls. But now the dawn was glowing the color of his skin after a hot bath and the ocean was eating up the sky like they could reflect each other onwards into eternity.
Merlin had often tried to describe colors, and Arthur had seen glimpses, backhanded inklings of them, but here were all of them, green like the potent smack of new herbs, and blue like he'd only heard whispered and... his own skin, his own nails, pale, all so sick and disgustingly pale compared to the sky, compared the warm woods of his room. And Merlin, oh…Merlin.
This is not what Arthur thought of, none of these words, because words were beyond him, utterly out of his reach. All he could do was look outside and the shrieking pain in his eyes, and the colors, oh god, colors everywhere, everywhere with colors. So many colors. Colors like push-ups, over and over until it burned, until it hurt, until he got so lost in them that he didn't even know if he was breathing anymore, and maybe that burn in his lungs was a need for air, or maybe it was a need for more, and who even cared? Fuck, colors. If the colors could have been a line of poetry, or prose, or anything, a sentence, a statement, a word passed in a crowded street, if they could have been solid and real like language then he would want to hear that sentence and only that sentence the rest of his life. If he were trapped in the dark again, he wouldn’t mind as long as he could trap that statement in a box like a mouse and just hear it scratching around. He would be content. Who even could care about anything else? What did it matter?
Only it was not, it was bigger, it was grander, it was outside his window and painfully utterly bright and real and the birthright of everyone who had ever been born except for him. The grass and the sky and the ocean bled together until it was a hazy blank mass of color and light and nonsense and he closed his eyes, but they were still there.
"I want to go outside," he said, to himself, realizing that he did, he really honestly did, that he was thirsty for it. "I want to go outside," he repeated, because he could.
He backed out the door, catching himself on the frame and almost tripping, but refusing to turn around, until the window was out of sight and he pummeled down the stairs, ripped through the kitchen and sprang outside, outside where Hunith was doing...something and Gwen was pulling water and-
He fell to his knees, staring up at the sky and wished he could plant himself there, and his eyes seared down deep into his skull, and his chest felt tight but he could smell it, he could smell the daylight and it got into his lungs and kept him there, enraptured.
When Merlin cursed Camelot, he cursed it with several ways to escape it, because that's how curses work. The curse for one, would only be truly gone when the sins of the father had been completely atoned for— mostly by Uther's death or life-long imprisonment— a possibility that grew ever closer and more plausible with every passing day of bloody streets, rainless skies, the stench of grave soil pouring from even the cleanest of linens, and salt water leaking from the stones, potent and taunting. The people were not directly harmed by the curse, but that did not mean they were happy with what had happened to their country.
When Merlin cursed Camelot he made himself the idol of the curse, taking on the full stress of maintaining the magic, because he didn't know any better. The thing with magic was this: to fillet a fish one needs hand skills and a sharp knife. One could cut into the raw length of a fish with years of experience and knowledge, one could have their brains contained in their fingers, but if they have a dull knife, they'll fumble, fall, fail. And a person can have a knife sharp enough to bisect the truth hidden in a roll of nonsense, but if they don't know how then they would only hurt themselves and have a mess of fish. Merlin had a knife sharper than a lost childhood, but he didn't have the slightest idea of what to do with it, so he took the burden of a curse and it drained him, drained him of blood and tears and left him devastatingly thirsty and tired.
The second Arthur saw the sun Merlin felt a hard stone of energy just out of reach in his belly loosen, just a bit and he tossed awake, breathing hard. When Arthur stumbled out under the sky the stone pounded apart and he leapt out of bed, down the stairs and into the shining dawn behind him. Arthur looked like he was in conversation with the sky, his entire body language directed upwards.
Merlin stopped at the doorway, holding himself upright. Parts of the conditions for his curse were met and he could breathe without a weight on his chest. Arthur didn't notice any of it, staring upwards, and he was a picture of religious reverence for the color of the sky, and maybe he was crying, or maybe Merlin was, but it didn’t matter. It didn’t matter, because finally. Finally Arthur was really, truly, out of his room.
No one said anything, no one did anything but stand and watch—Arthur as the sun rose, the dawn losing it's its flush and solidifying back to blue, the ocean copying the color. It was worth watching. Morgana came down the stairs in her thick boots and loose tunic, starting to ask what was going on, when she saw Arthur and gripped Merlin's arm and he nodded, not knowing what he was doing, affirming, or answering or just...nodding, because his stomach had dropped out and he just wanted to swoop Arthur up in some sort of embarrassing hug and roll around in the grass like everything could be fine now.
But eventually Arthur did move, because it was getting too bright for his eyes and he turned away. They helped him back inside and he sat down against the wall and rubbed his arm against his face.. Merlin plopped down next to him, his bones feeling limp and gelatinous, his head heavy with happiness and his cheeks hurt with grinning. Arthur looked brilliant in the daylight, his dank hair catching fire with luster, and his pale, pale skin gobbling up the flush of the sun until he looked properly healthy, properly alive. Arthur peeked up at him, biting his lip, hands fisted in his lap, barely even breathing.
"Hmm?" Merlin kept his hands to himself, because Arthur looked likely to hide, and-failing that-likely to bolt, even though Merlin sort of really wanted to climb into him and share this feeling. This feeling of…just…Arthur had been in the sun.
"I saw the sun," Arthur said, with a tone of wonder that Merlin didn't remember ever hearing in it's most honest form in ages.
"Yeah," Merlin agreed, "you did."
"What do I do now?"
"Well, as I recall you have a bed to make," Hunith interrupted, "and you could always sand some pegs after Merlin carves them. Why don't you see what you need to do while I finish up breakfast."
Merlin pushed himself up and then held him hand out, "Arthur? Bed?"
Arthur took his hand and hoisted himself up, and they went up the stairs, and they did not work on Arthur’s bed, instead Merlin lay down in his own and pulled Arthur down with him. Arthur stopped short, putting his fingers to Merlin’s smile, then, slowly, awkwardly, copied it. And honestly? Merlin felt like he’d seen the sun too.
After that things went faster, but Merlin wasn’t sure if it was because Arthur saw the sun, or because Arthur thought Merlin was his brother. It did mean Arthur spent a lot less time mourning for something lost and blaming himself for it. But it…Merlin hadn’t done it on purpose, he’d just been trying to give Arthur his brother and then…then he’d looked at Merlin and… And Arthur didn’t look at Merlin like a brother, partly, Merlin supposed, because Arthur didn’t really know what a brother was supposed to be. It was just a word to him, a word that meant everything, a word that meant he wasn’t alone, that he wasn’t a monster, that he wasn’t unwanted. It didn’t mean the same thing to Arthur as it did to Merlin.
Arthur didn’t look at Merlin the way a brother would. But he looked at Merlin like what Arthur thought “brother” meant which was…Merlin wasn’t sure he deserved that. He really wasn’t. It made him itch down in his spine, because he wasn’t sure he deserved to be looked at like that.
And Arthur seemed determined to make his eyes adjust to the sunlight, but it hurt too badly to just go out with his eyes wide open. So Arthur took to lying outside with his eyes closed, curled up next to Merlin as Merlin carved, adding an arm over his eyes if it got to be too much, but he seemed to use that as a last respite.
His skin couldn't be out long either, not that it was horribly sunny all that much. Arthur could almost handle cloudy days, and so they stayed outside. Merlin carved the pegs for the joints of Arthur's bed, Arthur rubbing them smooth and equally sized when they returned indoors. They’d soak them in cold water, and then let them swell and expand in the joints of the bed and hold it tight. Steel nails were expensive and then hard to disassemble. The wooden pegs would hold firm, swell in the heat of the sun and the fire, and if need be could be removed and the bed taken apart to be stored or relocated.
Arthur liked pounding the pegs in the best.
For Arthur it was a series of small but precious landmarks. The moment when he got his bed back together and he pulled his brother down to sleep in it, like they used to, back in the room.
The moment when his mouse's leg was healed, and it still didn’t trust him, but Arthur was just happy it wasn’t hurt anymore.
The moment when they all worked together make him a new table, which stood study and firm and he and his brother made a fort like they used to and his brother laughed.
The moment when Arthur asked Lancelot to teach him sword play, so Lancelot took Arthur out in the evening, or at dawn and out on cloudy days when the sun wouldn’t blind him, and led him through the most basic moves. The practices made Arthur hurt in a way he was unused to, they forced his muscles to move in ways he hadn't made them move a number more than ten sets of ten tens could measure and everything felt strange and different, like a new guest inside himself.
The moment when he got fully into the habit of sitting right next to Merlin on the evening bench and leaning on him when he was tired, because Merlin didn’t mind. Merlin would just nuzzle his cheek against the top of Arthur’s head and continue to use his carpentry to help around the house, if there was anything that needed making, but more often than not to make knick-knacks. Arthur had six wooden animals. None of them were snakes. None of them did snake things.
His first run.
His first run was next to Lancelot. Later, he grew to crave the raspy slide of air down his throat, the changing (changing!) landscape, and the pound of shifting terrain under his feet. The first ten and next four runs were terrible, but he kept going because he wanted to run, he loved seeing things and moving and moving away, and the ability to choose when to go back or not. And after the first ten and next four it got easier, well, easier after that first stretch of agonizing distance. But he craved the rest of the run, the bit after he found the place inside himself which was both safe and expansive. His insides felt lighter when he ran, a heady feeling the twisted around and made his head feel like it was opening up. He’d smile at Lancelot, and Lancelot would grin back.
After each run he and Lancelot would wade into the cold ocean to cool the fire in their calves, and Arthur would fall back on the beach and pant up at the grey sky, the stretch of his body perfect and glorious, and he would think that even if these—the runs and the swords and everything—weren’t his exercises, and he was far more aware of his legs than he ever had been before, he was claiming these feelings in the name of himself.
Morgana also helped him with swords, but her style was deeply more sneaky and underhanded than Lancelot's, who would announce his attack and move in lines that Arthur learned to anticipate, but Merlin said that was mostly because she couldn't exactly have gotten anyone truly reputable to teach her anything. She said, though, it was because she liked far more to cut to the quick of a situation. All he knew is that he usually was very bruised at the end of the day and his brother would fuss over him and rub slave into the worst of the bruises and that relief was worth the pain.
More importantly Morgana taught him how to be People, because no one else would. He knew he wasn’t, he knew he got things wrong, entire conversations passing right over his head and silent exchanges that he had no hope of decoding. He knew that if someone smiled they were happy—which was the light, exploding feeling in his head, and when people clenched their fists and shouted they were angry—the confusing, muddled impotent feeling of needing to destroy something.
Morgana sat him down and made expressions at him until he knew what each of them were. She explained sarcasm, whispering, shouting, laughing, singing, playing, and he chanted the rhymes he learned to himself as he plunged butter. He liked rhymes.
And since they were often in the kitchen together Hunith would join him and they would sing out as she cooked cabbage and he moved the plunger relentlessly up-down because he didn’t get tired like Merlin would, or bored like Morgana.
Morgana would make him make the faces too, while they worked, poking her finger at his eyebrows and the corner of his mouth, quietly fixing the shapes.
Morgana also tried to teach him about the humor of insults. That didn’t work out well.
He tried one out on Merlin and then instantly felt bad and brought him a biscuit. Merlin had looked like he was ready to laugh, and Arthur didn’t think biscuits were funny either, but he’d rather make Merlin laugh with biscuits then call him an idiot, so he brought Merlin more biscuits and tried smiling and Merlin fell out of his chair. But he was laughing, so it was a good fall.
Arthur’s brother was weird, but he was Arthur’s.
Morgana had then just put her head in her hands and gave up on that.
Lancelot had taken a much more direct approach, something which Arthur had come to depend on from him. He had snuck up behind him with tense fingers and dug them into Arthur’s sides. Arthur had been confused until a startled shout burst from his throat. He was laughing. He was certain what it felt like, but he was laughing. He fell to the ground and tried to get away, because it was too much happening at once, but Lancelot just grinned and went for his belly and Arthur kept laughing, struggling, and trying to twist out of the way, breathless and the worrying feeling of being about to pee rising above the laughter. Lancelot stopped when Arthur asked him to and Arthur was left feeling giddy and loose on the floor, still chuckling and both anticipating and fearing another attack.
“Tickling,” Lancelot supplied, “Merlin is ticklish at the bottom of his feet.” He added, “but you have the be to be careful. A little tickling is fine, but too much hurts. Also, he kicks.”
Arthur nodded. Sometimes when he’d grabbed his brother’s feet he’d barked out in laugher. Of course he knew about tickling. His brother had taught him about tickling. He knew all about tickling. He knew how to tickle his brother.
Gwen knew a thing or two that felt magpie-esque and Arthur devoured it all. He combed the beach for flotsam, he chopped firewood, he brought in the water buckets, he fed the horses, he milked the cow, he helped build the chicken coop, he churned butter for market, he helped with his new chair, his new door, took the cold pats of butter to the nearest town that was not Camelot and looked at the buildings, the people, and gripped Merlin's hand, handled his first coins and had his first conversation with a stranger. He bought a new home for his mouse.
Arthur sat down, leaning against him, "So...you know...wheels?"
"Yes, I am aware of wheels. They go against the ground and make things move. Carts and stuff."
Arthur huffed, " You were making a joke?"
"Yeah,” Merlin grinned. Merlin enjoyed jokes. He always had, but Arthur had never quite understood them. But Morgana did, so now he and Morgana could joke with each other. Arthur knew all about jokes. His brother had taught him about jokes. Arthur was getting better at recognizing them, but they weren’t ever funny, to him. He laughed at Merlin’s, because it made Merlin happy.
Except tickling Merlin. Tickling was hilarious—always had been.
Arthur looked back down at his feet. "Is there a way to… spin a wheel without it touching the ground?"
"Yeah, I guess, on a rope or something. Why?"
"My mouse needs to run, and I don't want him to...He might get hurt, so I thought of how he could run without running away, and I was looking at a wheel and..."
"Huh," Merlin said, bowing his head like he usually did when he was thinking. "I can't make a wheel like that, it'd need to be small and light enough for the mouse to move while running. A wooden one would be too heavy."
So Arthur went away and solved his first problem, trying out any number of wheels and support structures, with cloth and string and twigs, and eventually getting two sturdy hoops of thin, light metal at some expense from a jeweler. He steadied the hoops with rungs of thin, lightweight wood, held up with a frame of metal and greasing the wheel where it met the frame.
He carefully put it in the mouse’s little home and waited.
His mouse sniffed around the structure, ignoring it for a bit as it toddled around to get some food, nibbling at a seed and then lapping up water before trundling around the sides of the bowl. Arthur kept waiting. He liked watching his mouse, but now their was a frisson of anticipation with it.
The mouse did, eventually, climb in and sort of rocked back and forth experimentally. It tried to climb to the top and the whole thing moved under it, so the mouse tried to outspeed the wheel, running as the tiny wooden spokes sped under its feet.
Arthur smiled, watching the mouse run, then frowned as he wondered if it ever bothered the mouse that he never got anywhere. It just ran until it was tired, but it was still trapped.
Arthur tried telling his mouse jokes to make sure it was happy, but his mouse didn’t seem to get them either. And the only jokes Arthur liked were knock-knock jokes. And tickling. But those weren’t jokes. and the mouse ran away from Arthur now.
“Hey, mouse, knock, knock,” he said, waited a moment because mice couldn’t talk, and then pretended it had said “who’s there?”
“Arthur.” He finished and smiled to himself. The mouse gnawed on another millet seed. His mouse needed small and but frequent additions of food around his cage, unlike Lancelot who liked to eat a few big meals a day. Arthur ate two meals a day, but now that he could snack, he liked to. Sometimes Merlin ate a lot, and sometimes Merlin wouldn’t eat at all, which was strange, but his brother was weird.
Merlin made the glass for Arthur’s window by himself, since glass was unnaturally expensive and Merlin could dig his fingers in the beach and pull a sheet of glass from the sand, slick and flat and perfect, much better than the warped, bumpy sheets they could buy in town.
“All the glass in Camelot was made by sorcerers,” Merlin said as he cut the glass with a screeching slide of his nail the line she made glowing golden and the glass falling apart as easily as wet sand, “Especially the stained glass windows. Something else U…his Majesty seems to be blind to.”
“Glass is clear,” Arthur tried. Merlin didn’t laugh, but he smiled a little at Arthur, then went back his work. Arthur shoved him a little and then Arthur smoothed the wooden frame like he’d been told to, and then he’d cover it with varnish to keep it tight for the weather—a mix of fats and oils and sticky tree sap.
They fit the glass into the frame, then that into the wall and stared down outside through it. It was clear and clean and Arthur put his fingers to it. Merlin smiled, breathed hot fog over the cool glass, and then stroked his finger through the mist, a dot, another dot, then a curve. It took Arthur a moment before he realized it was a smile and he smiled back until it faded away.
Gwen hung the curtains, fabric Arthur had helped sew together, his tiny stitches taking much, much longer than Gwen’s did, and he’d gotten frustrated plenty of times, but he always had to undo the sloppy, messy stitches he wanted to make to get done faster and undoing them took far too long.
Arthur looked around his room feeling more properly like something that belonged to him, since he’d helped craft it. He smiled and sat on his bed and watched his mouse run.
That night he let Merlin sleep curled up and alone in their bed as Arthur stroked an expression into the window over and over again.
In monogamous animals it is nearly impossible to tell the male from the female. No one knows this yet—it is a secret of nature that no one has learned. Far away, in distant lands unheard of, the black vultures—whose male and females resemble one another to a key—mate for life. Not just mate for life, no, they value monogamy so highly that they will strike down any other vulture found committing adultery. They are principled creatures, vultures.
Ducks mate for life and if their mate dies, they will continue on in the world, alone and pining. Sometimes they’ll lie down next to the body and simply wait to die, waiting for something to eat them, sitting and preening the feathers of the one they’d lost.
Animals that mate for only the breeding season will pull out bright colors, fight to the death for the right to mate, they will build homes and collect shiny pebbles and make spectacles of themselves. But then, duty done, the female with drive the male away, the male will die. Or the male will boot the female away and she will raise the young by herself.
Human males and females have only a majority physical resemblance.
Uther Pendragon married again after his wife was murdered— he had to, he had to have an heir, he couldn’t let his own grief get in the way of what was best for Camelot. He'd committed such vile acts to get his first one, to get the grotesque beast he’d locked in the dungeons...but when he'd held the whelp, as his wife, his beautiful wife who...so much blood...oh Igraine. Oh beautiful Igraine…as he held the squirming spawn in his hands, and its eyes had gleamed gold, sucking the life away from its own mother… as his own mother's had gone pale, so pale and lank and dim... No, that was not an heir.
He’d tried to give her the child he wanted, but he’d been wrong. He’d failed. All the months as they had gleefully awaited the birth of their son (he refused to hear otherwise, it would be an heir), his hands on her belly, her smile in his eyes…but she’d died. It had been wrong.
So he had to marry again, but she was not his wife, she just had a viable womb and the prestige to benefit his kingdom. That was all. That was enough. After she bore him a child he sent her away to the Queen's chambers and didn't pester her, didn't notice her, didn't think about her.
He thought about Arthur. Thought about how that had been the last name his beautiful Igraine had spoken, as she faded away into nothing more than meat. He thought plenty about the demon in his dungeons— dumb and dull and pale down there, like any worm, or mole or maggot. Still, he couldn't kill him, couldn't think to kill him, because a speck of Igraine might be in there, might hide somewhere in his eyes or his hair, his stature. He couldn't look at Arthur, but he couldn't bear to have what little remained of his wife on the block either.
Maybe he could cure the boy. Maybe he could sacrifice him and get his wife back. If, on her deathbed, he could have slit Arthur’s throat and brought her back to health he would have. He would have done so in a second.
So he'd kept him in limbo, locked away and tried to focus on his new son, but he was an uninteresting brat of weak blood and foul temper, and Uther could no more love him then love a bastard—which, in Uther's heart, he was.
And then, and then that wizard, that sick betrayer of life and nature had stolen Arthur, had taken him away from Uther's protection. He’d called Uther’s actions monstrous when his every breath was an atrocity. The demon inside his almost-son would get out, Uther knew it, could feel it. He’d been weak, he’d…he’d been impatient. He’d just wanted his son. He wanted a real son, the son he’d had with his real wife and he’d thought…maybe he could bleed the sickness out. That’s what magic liked, didn’t it? Blood and pain and sacrifice?
Uther just wanted his son, all he wanted was…was his son, but he couldn’t…he’d…he’d wanted to beat the evil out until Arthur was good and pure and sincere for once, just for a moment, and Uther would have been able to see Igraine just once, just for...for a moment. And he could have held his boy and…he’d been weak. He’d lost vigilance. He should have kept Arthur away. He should have kept him safe.
And now his city was cursed. He sat in his throne room, empty and dank. He sat, useless, as people fled the city and left him, left their king to rot in the castle's halls, left to thirst and smell the stench of blood and be visited by the specter of the warlock, the wide-eyed boy who cursed the greatest city on earth and stolen Uther's son—what could have been his son.
Uther must have been on to something if the warlock had grabbed on Arthur then, if he’d decided to snatch him up just as the whip fell down. He’d sent knights out, but none returned, and he didn’t know if it was cowardice or death that had taken them, and he found he no longer cared.
All he had left now was the specter. The specter stood and watched Uther, and never said a word— mute as the dead. Uther returned the favor and drank the sour wine leftover from the few remaining rotting caskets under the castle.
Uther drank and sat in his throne and didn't even notice when his wretched wreck of a wife fled into the country, spotted with boils and dripping pustules. Uther drank and didn't care as the buildings of his city crumbled and fell into the matted blood, blood and rats and corpses, in the streets. Uther drank and didn't care, because he could do nothing and...
The warlock specter stared at him, leaning against the wall, slumped and always entirely disapproving of him. A mere boy—a gangly, ugly one at that—was holding his kingdom in thrall. Who had died so the boy could have this sorts of powers?. What had the warlock had to sacrifice? Likely a mother-killer, likely ripped his own father’s throat out. Sold his soul and his being to evil itself.
"So this is it then," Uther said, looking down into his wine. "This is how Camelot falls."
The specter said nothing, just stared at him, worn and vindictive.
"Twenty years of a peaceful reign, of a glorious empire, and you end it. I've sent all my knights to comb the country for you—to chop off your head and deliver it to me. I offered land, women, wealth...and now I have nothing. They all died. Or left. And this is what I get for dedicated service. A dead wife, a failing kingdom, a demon-spawn son...and a wretched ghost of a boy to taunt me."
The boy said nothing.
Uther stood, wavered drunkenly and placed his hand on the arm of his throne. “Well, I did not become King by sitting by and drinking. You want to kill me, boy? You will do it in person."
The specter closed his eyes and faded away into the wall, sinking into the stone like bog water and Uther planned.
"My feets itch," Arthur said, staring down at his feet and wiggling his toes inside his boots. He really hated wearing shoes, but—as Hunith pointed out—he'd probably hate stepping on a sharp stone even more.
"Your feet itch. Feet is the plural of foot, you don't need to add an ‘s’. It’s like goose and geese," Morgana said, brushing her horse down. She spent more time on it than Lancelot—but she was also more given to the whimsy of braiding ribbons in its mane. Gwen said it was because deep down Morgana had actually quite liked being pretty and having nice clothing to wear. She just also liked beating people up and riding about like bloody revenge. Arthur didn't understand why should couldn't do both, but Morgana was odd and sometimes she acted like two things were like having the sun and the moon in the sky at the same time.
"And why do your feet itch?"
Arthur shrugged, "they just do. Not on the outside, they itch...in the bones?"
Morgana hummed absently, "Have you gone for a run today? Lancelot says if he doesn't run his feet start itching."
"I've gone for a run today," Arthur said, "do beet-"
"Boots," Morgana interrupted, because plurals were stupid and really, if she knew enough of what he was saying to correct him, then he'd communicated enough and wasn't talking just to tell people stuff? Things had been easier when he'd just been allowed to nod and shake his head, but Morgana was determined to make sure he could actually communicate. Sure, Gwen and Merlin talked to him—but he didn't really have to say anything back, and Hunith was content to sit in silence, or give instruction, or sing with him. And he knew the words to songs, even if he didn’t know what they meant.
He and Lancelot got along better when they communicated mostly in exercise. Morgana looked up when Gwen walked in, holding a basket of...well it sort of looked like she'd just grabbed a bunch of things and put them in a basket to Arthur, but he wasn't entirely sure what half of Gwen and Morgana's chores even were. He just lived there and made butter and combed wool and told knock-knock jokes to his mouse so his mouse would like him again. (He had a new one. “Knock-Knock” Mouse-y silence “Not-Arthur.” He thought it was funnier because he clearly was Arthur.)
"-boots make your feet itch?" Arthur finished, watching the two of them. He had a impression that Morgana was going to ask him to leave soon, which is generally what happened when Gwen came into the stables and did a certain thing with her eyebrows and Morgana got a particular sort of smile on her face. Arthur was still bad at expressions, but it happened often enough that he knew what to look for. Arthur got up and was already going.
"Not inside them, no," Morgana absently said, "why don't you ask Merlin?"
Arthur wondered, sometimes, if there was just a rule against men being in the same room as two women, unless one of the women was a mother. Surely if it were someone would have told him. They told him everything else, like how to correct the plurals of things, and even when things were "not really good to talk about, you know?" they still would, just flushing and inarticulate.
Arthur flopped down next to Merlin, who was sorting rags. Arthur wasn't sure what exactly went into sorting rags, but, again, he just lived there and churned butter. He was the number one butter churner. If there was any butter than needed churning, he was there. He liked the repetitiveness of it. It played to his strengths—namely the ability to do the same thing over and over again for hours at a time.
"Morgana and Gwen kick you out again, then?" Merlin asked, peering at a scrap of cloth and turning it from side to side in the sunlight before tossing it into one of six piles.
"Yes," Arthur looked at his mouse, which was running away on his wheel and loving it. The wheel squeaked every few rotations, but Arthur didn't mind it much. Merlin grumbled about it, mostly because Arthur dropped the mouse off in Merlin's room before he went for his morning run, because he didn't want the mouse to be lonely.
And some part of his worried a little that Merlin might think he wasn't coming back, so he left the mouse in his room to assure him he would return. He might have also done it to ensure that he didn't run away. He knew he wouldn't, that it'd be foolish, that he didn't want to and he had nowhere to go...but he just liked to be sure.
"I want to go for a walk, please," Arthur announced and looked at Merlin.
"You should do that then," Merlin agreed absently, "Don't forget to feed Cornelius...er, your mouse. You should also name your mouse."
"He is a mouse," Arthur said. "His name is Mouse and I want to go on a walk with you, please."
"Oh," Merlin paused, "why?"
"Gwen and Morgana go for walks. I want to go on walks, please. Thank You."
"They go for...well they go for walks, but um...Arthur when Gwen and Morgana go for walks, they aren't exactly... well they're. You see Arthur, when two..." Merlin started to go red around the ears, which usually only happened when Arthur spoke of touching himself—Arthur still didn't understand why it was fine to talk about killing people, but not about touching oneself—Merlin rubbed his face. It wasn’t like he and his brother had never had contents to see who could last the longest, or go the fastest. Maybe it was just the talking about it that bothered him? Merlin had lived out in the world longer than Arthur; he’d escaped so he could free Arthur. He had learned a lot, so maybe they’d taught him to go red when that sort of thing got brought up,
"Why do you want to go for a walk for? Didn't you run this morning?"
Arthur looked at his feet, "My feet itch."
"...did you try scratching them? A walk just seems a bit much for itchy feet."
"Inside the foot. In the bones." Merlin looked at Arthur then, attentive and his face pulled together in a way that wasn’t like any of Morgana’s examples.
"Let me look," Merlin was already tugging off Arthur's boots and socks looking at the soles of his feet. "What do you mean inside-... oh."
"What?" Arthur tried to look at his foot. Merlin gripped on and examined it. Arthur wondered if Merlin was going to tickle him. Arthur would kick him, he really would.
Merlin began absently rubbing Arthur's foot, "So...I may have set up a warning system, in case… in case something bad happened. I didn't know it'd be your foot, but magic is kind of weird like that, and really, if you read any magical text it just goes on and on about feet, so..."
Merlin put Arthur's socks back on and then fiddled with his boots, "Your...the K...His...Uther has left Camelot—I knew that because I felt better this morning, but-"
Arthur took his foot back and looked at the wide, gold splotch on the bottom of his foot. He touched it and it sizzled against his thumb…not with heat but like...like bubbles. Sharp bubbles, which he didn't think made any sense, but a lot of things didn't. Merlin, for one.
"That's...uh." Merlin rubbed his face and twisted his fingers into his hair. Merlin, Arthur had noticed, liked dragging his hands through his own hair. Arthur had tried it when he got back to his own room, just dragging his fingers over his scalp, his hair just long enough not to prickle anymore, and it felt good. He had never tried it before because the mat of hair on his head had previously been too thick and tangled. He think he’d like it more, though, it Merlin did it for him.
Merlin took a deep breath and looked down at his hands, "That's so I know he's coming for you."
They went downstairs. Merlin sat him down on a bench. He informed everyone of what was happening, but Arthur didn't pay much attention. Hunith quietly sat next to Arthur, her knitting bundled in her hands, the knitting needles gleaming in her hands and Arthur wondered if his mother had knit. his Majesty was coming and he would see that Arthur had found a new mother and hate him for it.
Unless... unless he tried to take Hunith? Unless he set up Hunith as his new mother. It made sense: as long as Hunith was Merlin's mum, she would be fine. If his Majesty came—and his Majesty could do anything—then he might... Hunith put a hand on his shoulder.
"We won't let anything happen to you," she promised, softly. "We'll keep you safe."
He looked at her, and her hand on his shoulder, then at Merlin.
He wanted to keep them safe. His brother had kept Arthur safe all of Arthur’s life. Everyone here had… had done things to protect Arthur, to get Arthur out of the room. But they couldn’t defeat his Majesty. They couldn’t. Arthur had to protect them.
And he had to deal with his Majesty.
He and his Majesty had things to discuss.
Arthur went out when it was dark, after everyone had gone to bed and was asleep. Merlin was curled up in the blankets, using Arthur’s arm as a pillow. Arthur had asked if he could sleep with him for the night, and Merlin had shrugged and gotten his pillow, because they did sleep together for the most part, but only if Arthur asked. Arthur had curled up and said nothing, just watched as Merlin fell immediately asleep. Arthur had let himself have an entire extra hour, just to himself and the quiet, with the mouse wheel creaking away and Merlin drooling mumbling about onions. Merlin often mumbled about onions.
Arthur didn't touch Merlin, save for the lazy hot arm Merlin had over Arthur's stomach, and the shiny trail of spit cooling on Arthur’s shoulder. He just lay there; in the bed he had made himself (with help), under the covers and staring out his window, inhaling and exhaling and not wanting to leave, but not wanting Merlin to be hurt. He didn’t fool himself into thinking he was much use—they’d gotten by fine without him, and would again, and then…then maybe Merlin could get better. He had to protect his brother. He couldn’t lose him again; he’d rather be locked away without him, know he could still see the sun then to lock them both down away in the dark forever. Merlin didn’t deserve that. His brother never had.
It took some doing to get himself out from Merlin’s heavy limbs, but he managed, settling Merlin back around Arthur's pillow, tucking the blanket to his chin, because it seemed the thing to do. It also seemed right to comb his fingers through Merlin’s hair, because he enjoyed that. Merlin mumbled and curled up under the blankets, knees tucked into the bottom of the pillow and back curved, head nestled into the groove between his pillow and the one he was holding. Arthur stared a moment longer, not knowing why he needed to devour this image as much as he did the stars or the sun.
“I’m sorry,” he offered, quietly and Merlin gave no response. Arthur pulled on his trousers and his boots, put some seeds in the mouse's cage and carefully tried to pet it behind the ears. It did not trust him and scurried out of the way. He pulled his hand back and looked around his room, picked up the dagger Morgana had given him after he’d finished cleaning up his room ("and your act."). It was sharp and she'd walked him through two very basic ("but utterly underhanded") attacks with it, and Lancelot had gotten him through a basic attack-parry-block routine. Those wouldn't help him at all, not against his Majesty, but...it felt nice to hold it. Maybe he’d get lucky, as Merlin put it. Maybe the gods would smile on him, as Hunith put it. Maybe he would live hard and die fast, as Morgana put it. Maybe everything would turn out fine, as Gwen put it.
He might, if he were better, have said something to everyone. Managed something to make them smile, made a joke that was actually funny, or make them feel better. He might have done something good for them before he left, but he couldn't think of anything. He didn’t know good deeds. He just wanted them to be safe, and if his Majesty was coming for Arthur, then it only made sense for him to kill Arthur and leave everyone else alone. For his Majesty not to hurt them just because Arthur was a bad person.
He crept out the door, and looked down the hall. Morgana and Gwen were tangled like uncombed wool and looked happy enough. Lancelot was sleeping peacefully on his side, alone, on the floor at the foot of Hunith’s bed, but maybe now that Arthur was gone he and Merlin could sleep together. That would be good for them. Arthur liked sleeping with Merlin far more than he liked sleeping alone, so he thought everyone should sleep together. Maybe in a giant pile of people and limbs. That would be nice. He wished he had thought that earlier, so he could have had that. But maybe that was wrong. Maybe it was a stupid idea.
He went down the stairs and out into the cool, chirping dark. He didn't really know where he was going or what he was doing, but he figured if his foot itched to take a walk, then he'd walk where it told him. So he started walking, and then running, because running felt good and he wanted to be as far away as possible before anyone woke up. He wanted this to be as done as soon as possible. No one could defeat his Majesty. He was...he had to power to decide who should live and who should die. He could do whatever he wanted. He could lock Arthur away if he felt like it and Arthur would...even if he hadn't done anything wrong it didn't matter. his Majesty had said Arthur was to be locked away. And if his Majesty came to kill Arthur, then Arthur was going to make sure everyone was safe, and take him on himself. He could do that. He could make that choice. They told him he could make choices, about food and chores and where to go.
Well fine. So he was.
He also could choose to be terrified and want to run the other way as far and as hard as he could. No one needed to know.
Despite his fear, and despite his worry, and despite the feeling in his stomach that he had swallowed his mouse and now the mouse was chewing its way out of his stomach (in his head he imagined the mouse sitting on a sack of chewed up meat, because clearly the mouse would go to the meat portion of Arthur's stomach.), despite all of that, Arthur still enjoyed running.
It was dark, of course, but that didn't matter so much, because it wasn't the dark of his youth. It smelled like things, like dirt, and trees and water. He liked running, he liked when his legs were shaking and tired and his ribs ached (though Lancelot told him if he could learn to exhale on his left foot instead of his right he wouldn't get such pins in his side. The problem being Arthur couldn't tell his left from his right to save himself.) He liked when his heart sped up and just as he was getting sweaty and gross and he didn't think he could run anymore, just as he passed that boundary, he broke into a place where everything was so easy. So easy to just keep running, so easy to just keep breathing. Where his mind settled into his own footsteps and everything drifted away. Words and feelings and his left and his right didn't matter as long as he just kept going.
Afterwards, of course, his shins would ache, and his feet would burn, and his breath would take its sweet time finding him again, and stretching hurt, and he had trouble climbing stairs, but it was always worth it to get his sore, aching body up in the morning and do it again. Right now it was calming, to duck under tree branches and leap over fallen logs and dodge-dodge-dodge around trees. His foot ached when he went off course, so he'd stop and turn until it itched again, and he'd follow it, breaking out of the woods into hilly grassland, pumping over the crests and stumbling down the slopes again, over and over, like a heartbeat.
He stopped just as the sun was rising, falling to his knees and gasping for air, his heart far too noticeable in his chest and his legs quaking, knees burning, and he quietly sat there on the hill as the sky turned pink and went through his stretches, slowly walking around to slow his heart beat, control his breathing. He was tired and hungry, but he hadn't want to steal any food before leaving, so he sat down and rubbed his stomach, drinking water from the sack on his belt and laying back on the grass, slowing his breathing as his foot itched incessantly in his boot and the grass tickled against his face. He rubbed his hand over his stomach, where he could feel his pulse beating away, closing his eyes.
He liked his heartbeat; it was the one other movement in his life in the dark. He’d always been able to exercise until it pounded at his rib cage, the way he never pounded against the door. He breathed slowly, letting his heart thud in a rhythm he endlessly counted by eights. One-two-three-four-five-six-seven-eight.
He opened his eyes again to a blue morning sky. They would know he was gone by now, maybe just for a run, maybe just for a swim, but they’d know he wasn't there any more. Maybe Merlin knew, Merlin had always found him before, in the dark, in the house. Maybe Merlin knew he'd actually left and was...maybe he was saddling up a horse and coming? No, no Arthur couldn't let Merlin find him. He had to get up.
He rubbed his legs and pushed himself up to standing, wavering a bit and then walking, down the hill and up a hill, and then down a hill, over the landscape and walking, walking, just keep walking.
Then he crested another hill and he saw the figure on a horse, coming from the way his foot itched and he sat down, watching his Majesty ride toward him.
Chapter 6: 8x12x8 Part 6 of 6
It wasn't hard to find people who knew the sorcerer who took his son, he was a flashy man who didn't—it seemed—to have an ounce of self-preservation considering he did nothing to hide the fact he was magic from the peasants. Everyone knew him, everyone knew where he was, everyone had some mark that he’d been in their lives: clean skin, straight teeth, healthy babies, warm houses, plentiful fields. Uther had to pretend, which was easy enough with the boils and marks over his skin from the curse, that he needed the sorcerer’s aid. He would have liked to slay the entire village, but…he needed to focus.
He lived in a tower by the sea, where he, his wretched mother, a rogue swordsman, and… the former Lady Morgana, whom Uther had tried to protect in the name of her father, but somewhere she had turned to the disgusting so-called solace of sorcery. Sorcery that had stolen his wife, twisted his son, captured his ward, killed his men...
No more. No more. He would kill this sorcerer, end the spell and show his people...his people....he would...it didn't matter. It didn't matter, he would just kill that boy and that's all he had to worry about. Kill the boy, drag Arthur back to where he belonged, either execute Morgana or put her in a cell too, depending on how far gone she was and how repentant. Everyone else, of course, would have to die—it was only right, it was only just. All who used magic were too crippled in their minds, too animalistic and wild to be considered human. They should be killed. They should all be killed.
He rode toward the tower on his horse, gleaming in armor; sword in scabbard, prepared to lay waste—he didn't need his army. They had been weak-willed fools, he didn't need anything, he had defeated dragons, he could....he could...
Something glinted gold off the next hill as he crowned yet another one, and somehow he knew...somehow he knew what that gold was. Who it was. It gleamed like victory and ached like loss all at once.
He got off his horse, "Arthur!" He knew. He knew.
He clanked down to the valley and the other man—his son—did nothing, said nothing, just stood at the top of the hill and stared at him. Sort of surprising that he was alive, in a way: a good surprise. Now they could start over, maybe. Uther could keep him safe, could make him better. The sorcerer hadn’t sacrificed him.
"Arthur!" He shouted again, with the intent of command but...he was in the sun. His son was there, standing in the sun with hair just like his mother's. Just like his mother and so tall...she would-
Uther barreled up the hill, his horse not stumbling once, just racing across the grass and stopping at the top of the hill, across from the boy, watching him.
He straightened his shoulders as Arthur looked at him warily as any animal, crouched slightly, eyes wide with blue and white.
"Arthur," Uther said once more. "Come with me."
"No, thank you." Arthur replied, "I don't want to go back into the dark."
"It's for your own good," Uther announced, because it was. It was the only way to save him, save part or parcel of Igraine from the far worse poison of magic. Better imprisonment than that.
Arthur shook his head, "Just leave. Please. Thank you."
Arthur stared at him, skin less ghastly pale, eyes focused, up and on him, for the first time, and he looked…he looked driven. Not driven to something, but driven past a point and he could stand no more. They’d dressed him in clothing that fit him, treated as if he were a person. As if he didn't have to be careful. They would undo all of Uther's hard work. He had to save his son. He had to preserve what little remained of Igraine.
There is a certain quality to that which is "nightmare." A certain quality that can't be recaptured easily: the intensity of the air, the specificity of the dark, the certain way things feel, the particular tangible weight words have, and the echo of any gesture or action.
Nightmares are not something that can be recreated, not re-enacted, which works fine for them. Nightmares don't need to be recreated to work, just referenced and the fear pounds, because there is a particular quality to nightmare. There is a particular quality to the memory of nightmare. There's no explanation— it’s just an experience, an experience without markers or measurable understanding.
Everyone has nightmares—they may not remember them, but they're a hallmark of childhood. Few people have lived in nightmares. Lived in a state where they cannot explain why they are afraid. It's not enough the bad things happen; it's not even enough to be powerless.
Arthur had lived a nightmare because he hadn't understood anything of what was happening to him. There had been no fears to face, because there wasn't any one monster to fear. No butcher taking a meat cleaver to his legs, no baker pounding down the dough of his belly and leaving his weak and useless in front of anyone he cared to impress, no candlestick maker dipping his eyes in wax and lighting the wick of his pride until it burned out.
Arthur had never even seen the face of his Majesty enough to fear it.
Now he had, and now he could.
Arthur was terrified of his Majesty—he'd seen him in shadowy glimpses, maybe, when he'd been a child—small, untrained, needy and weak and his Majesty had been broad, strong, the size of ten Arthurs all piled and collected together. Arthur had spent his entire life in the dark knowing that his Majesty could kill him. his Majesty could do anything to him, and it was his right. His power. Arthur only lived because his Majesty had allowed it—despite Arthur's...crimes...
And his Majesty had killed his brother, and it was only thanks to Merlin that his brother was still there, hiding in the blue of his eyes and a quirk of his grin. They weren’t…they weren’t the same person, but bits and pieces of his brother had been packed away inside Merlin. He knew that, he knew that, and he knew the reason his brother had died was because of Uther.
His brother had tried to protect him, had stood between his Majesty and Arthur that one birthday, because Arthur had asked him to, had begged him to. his Majesty had struck him down, and Arthur had watched his brother’s head smash into the corner of their bed, eyes wide and blank, and colorless blood dripping down the wood. Arthur had stared as his brother was stolen, pulled out of their room and he’d just knelt there. And his Majesty had blamed him.
But then Merlin had saved a few bits, just like he’d save Arthur, so he and his brother could be something like together.
But what if he hadn't done anything? What if...and that's what had been bothering him since he'd ruined his room. What if he hadn't deserved it? What if his brother hadn’t needed to die? What if he had just been small and powerless—like his mouse was and had been in the face of Arthur’s tantrum— and hadn't been able to change anything? What if it…what if it had been his Majesty’s fault? `Arthur tried to look past the crowd of memories of being afraid, and tried to find what he was currently looking at.
All he wanted to do was run away.
He wanted to turn around and curl back under the covers and let someone else, someone better than him, take care of this. But there was no one else who should have to die for Arthur's sake; his Majesty had killed Arthur’s brother, once. He might have even killed Arthur’s mother. Arthur wasn’t going to let him hurt Merlin or anyone else. Arthur's life had been forfeit since birth. Arthur had, at least, he’d thought his life forfeit, and there wasn't really that much of a difference between thinking your life forfeit and your life being forfeit. He didn’t know if he or his Majesty had been the one to kill his mother, not anymore, but she was dead, and it was down to the two of them. There wasn’t much of a difference anymore, between what had happened, and what would.
Just like there wasn't much of a difference between being afraid for a reason, and just being bursting-bloody-bladder-terrified. his Majesty was a man whose skin dripped off his face in heavy leather folds, whose lips were lopsided and bent in a scowl, whose eyes were the gleaming color of beetles. He stepped down from his horse.
Arthur swallowed and locked his knees. He was going to die standing up. He was going to die standing up in the daylight and he would find his mother and apologize. He would find the remaining bits of his brother and hug him. If that's what death was. Arthur still didn't really know. Death was leaving your little brother so lonely he could very nearly hook his fingers into the back of his skull and unhinge his scalp to get some relief— let a little air in.
Three things happened at once:
his Majesty drew his sword;
Arthur put his hand in his pocket to clutch Merlin's neckerchief;
and—unknown to either of them—Merlin cast a spell.
his Majesty swung his sword;
Arthur found his mouse in his pocket;
Arthur's arm swung up and blocked the blow, ducked around and freed his mouse.
Merlin was coming. Arthur shoved the mouse back in his pocket and charged without thought. He just had to finish this quickly, either way, either direction, it needed to be done. He just wasn't going to go back to the dark, and he wasn't going to let his Majesty take Merlin there either. What had happened to his brother, to his mother, to Arthur, wouldn’t happen to Merlin.
Merlin hadn't known Arthur was gone the second he woke up—Arthur was never there when he woke up, he was too busy running, or swimming, looking all wide-eyed and excited about everything. For a while he’d just stuck around Merlin, grinning at his surroundings, picking up things and bringing them to Merlin in utter fascinated delight. he He asked why the trees were so tall, and why the grass grew like hair, and where did the ocean water come from, and who put the stars in the sky, and where did the sun go? He asked and Merlin told him legends and Arthur would be off again, finding interesting rocks and shells. He’d started a collection in his room. They were lined up according to some order only found in Arthur’s head.
He was always there by breakfast though, he hated missing meals. It went against something in him profoundly—save that bit where he'd gone a bit mad, but that was to be expected. People went a bit mad sometimes. Morgana had gone a bit mad, Gwen had gone a bit mad. They were all more than a bit mad. Arthur was just…more so.
Arthur missed breakfast, and Lancelot hadn't seen him all day. Neither had Morgana. Arthur's boots were gone, his knife was gone his...well really the only thing he'd left was his mouse, his rock and shells, his bed and the like. His mouse looked scared, curled up in a tight little ball in the back corner of its habitat.
"Morgana?" Merlin looked over to where she was getting their (very, very rough) map of the surrounding territories.
"Already scrying," She said, because Merlin couldn't scry his way out of a hat, or even scry enough to know he was in a hat. Morgana was just good at seeing things, things that needed to be seen, things that couldn't be seen, things that were in plain sight but just wouldn't be seen.
"Any dreams?" Merlin asked, his own, much more physical magic stronger than it had been in months, stronger than it had been since... Merlin sat up.
"He's going after Uther."
The mouse was the only thing left of Arthur's, something that was really, truly Arthur’s, that was still in the room. Merlin could have focused the spell on, say Arthur's bed, but nothing really mattered to Arthur besides that mouse, who perched on its back legs and stared up at Merlin as he began working the spell. Once Arthur had the mouse, Merlin would be able to find him, protect him. As long as the mouse was alive Merlin could defend Arthur, and as long as the mouse was there, then Merlin would know where Arthur was. And Arthur would defend that mouse.
The mouse let out a cut-off squeak when the spell finished and Merlin hand burned hot. He got up and his mother grabbed his wrist before he pelted out the door.
"Merlin," she began then gave him a look, "...don't act too rashly."
"Uther needs to pay for what he did to Arthur."
She gave him a sad look and pulled him into a hug, a brief, hard thing, then cupped his face and looked at him as if it were going to be the last time. "Go save the world then."
He nodded and ran out the door, took the horse Lancelot saddled up for him. Lancelot also grabbed his arm.
"Please, if you would let me go out with you-"
Merlin shook his head, "I need you to stay here in case-"
"There is no 'in case' my friend, but I will stay here, if you wish it. I just..."
Merlin shook his head and patted Lancelot's shoulder, kicked his heels into the side of the gelding—one of the many they’d taken off the knights who’d attacked them and refused to cease— and rode off as hard as he could, the dawn well on it’s way to fully brightening the sky.
He didn't know how long it took, or how far he went, or how many times he physically tossed himself and the horse further and faster, until there he was-crowning over a hill and-
What it came down to was that Arthur didn't know how to fight. He'd been locked in the dark and the silence and a cell that was eight feet by twelve feet by eight feet. He didn't know spatial reasoning; he couldn't read someone's body language and guess when he was going to attack—he could barely tell a smile from a snarl.
Uther—though he was old, though he was mad, though he was tired— knew how to use a sword. He'd earned his kingship in blood and steel and he attacked without reason or mercy. Perhaps a man who knew how to fight would likely fight the battle easily, see the wide, desperate, angry swing of Uther's attacks and finish it. Arthur just scrambled to stay out of the way, to get near enough to pull off any of the moves Lancelot or Morgana had shown him, but he was confused. He didn’t know which to use where, and how, and what to do when he didn’t know what was going on, he just had to protect the mouse, had to protect Merlin, had to— had to—
What it came down to was Uther landing a blow. Not on Arthur, Arthur was protected—Merlin had spread spells on him like he was toast in need of butter. Arthur was drenched in protection. But Arthur didn’t know that. While Arthur was scrambling away like a crab, Uther stumbling over him, Uther smashed his hand down, and something small cracked under his hand. Arthur halted, staring up in the eyes of his father and shoved him off—armor and all, and instead of striking, he dug frantically into his pocket, ignoring everything else, needing, desperately needing.
He pulled his fingers out, wet and dusted lightly with fur and he looked at them, not knowing...no. Please, no.
"Please," he begged of his hand and he didn't care that the sun was shining off Uther's armor as he charged at him, he didn't care that he heard the roar of victory, he stared at the blood on his fingers and lifted his knife and it sank in, deep and pulsing, a weight and a tremor jolting down his arm—but he didn't see it. Didn't feel it. He just saw his hand, no, it couldn’t. “Please” he begged again.
Uther fell to the side, blood spurting out of his leg, coating the grass, and he bellowed, staring at Arthur—reaching for him, but Arthur didn't spare him a look, had forgotten he was there, too busy staring at his fingers.
And so what it came down to, was that King Uther of Camelot was defeated alone on his son's knife, unnoticed and unloved, while the only person left in the world he cared for quietly begged a mouse not to be dead.
Arthur dropped the knife without thinking and scrambled the smashed mouse out of his pocket, all bones and fur and it was so tiny. Even out of its neat packaging. And he understood, this is what dead was. This is what he had done to his mother. He had taken all her insides and made them outsides and she would never move again. This is what his Majesty had done to his brother. This is what he wanted to be.
Merlin arrived just in time to see Arthur whisper "thank you" down to his cupped palms, closing his fingers, closing up his body in a tiny cell of grief.
What it came down to was that Arthur had defeated his father, not for himself, or his mother, or his brother, or his comrades, but because of a mouse. Merlin arrived just in time to crouch behind Arthur and pull him into a hug, as Uther reached for his son, face twisted in rage, in need, in pain. Merlin flicked, power warm and full and raging inside him. Uther across the field and left him prone on a hill, the grass twining around his ankles, keeping him still so Merlin could deal with what was important.
Merlin kissed Arthur temple, just as Hunith would have, “It’s going to be fine. I promise. Shh, now. It will be fine.”
“Fix him, please.” Arthur looked up at him, holding the crushed little body in his hands, so limp and battered and gone. Burst. Merlin covered his hand over the little body and picked it up. Arthur looked at him with such…faith that Merlin swallowed. Why couldn’t he fix this one little thing? Why couldn’t he make this one, tiny, little thing better for Arthur? Why could he fix a single damn thing for him and just had to keep telling Arthur that he was sorry, that there was nothing he could do.
Merlin pressed his hand to the side of Arthur’s face and whispered him to sleep. Arthur dropped off, slumped against Merlin, then onto the grass. Merlin bent down and kissed Arthur’s forehead again, stroked his hair and wished he could keep Arthur like this. Peaceful and safe and unable to be hurt by anything or anyone.
He took a few deep breaths and shuddered back up to stand. He could stop one person.
Merlin walked across the field to look down at the injured, cursing Uther. He stared down at him, and couldn’t even rile himself to be angry, he couldn’t find an ounce of rage, because he just…there wasn’t a point. It wouldn’t make Arthur feel better, to kill this man. It wouldn’t help anything.
“Why?” Merlin asked, still holding the dead mouse in his heads, even though it was slick and the tiny snapsnapsnapping mouse bones pricked into his palm. He didn’t let Uther talk. He knew why, but he couldn’t fathom…how a man could do that to his son. Do that to anyone.
“He went mad, down there…you know.” Merlin looked at the mouse and then tugged off his neckerchief, wrapping the tiny corpse up in careful, careful folds.
“He invented a big brother for himself, because he was a scared little boy with no mother or father. A little boy who just needed someone to love him. And you…” Merlin looked back at Uther, his red face and his billowing cheeks and the way he fought against the hold on the grass.
“All you had to do was love him, and you could have lived. All you…all you had to do was raise him, and you wouldn’t have needed to suffer. I would have left you alone, even if you had been harsh. Even if you’d been cruel, at least he would have seen the sun. I would have let you be.”
Merlin went silent then he crouched down and put his empty hand on Uther’s forehead, “But you didn’t, you hurt him, you hurt him so now he’s just going to keep hurting forever. So now I am going to do something very cruel to you. Something so you can keep hurting forever.”
Uther glowered at him. “Kill me then, kill me you unnatural tainted beast.”
“No, no that would be simple.” Merlin said. Merlin wasn’t going to kill him. He just peeled the falsehoods from Uther’s mind, the anger an the rage and the blame, he took all of those away so Uther had to face the simple, blank truth of his life. He’d been the one to beg Nimueh for a son, though she had explained the risks. He was the one who let her die, not Arthur, not magic, just Uther. Merlin let Uther’s sane, reasonable mind, the mind he’d had as a young man, awaken.
Uther eye’s went dull with shock a moment and then he tried to get up, “Arthur! No, please, let me just-“
“There’s nothing you can do for him now.” Merlin said, placed his hand on Uther’s chest and he enacted his actual punishment. He pushed down and Uther sank and kept on sinking into the dirt, eyes wide and sane and lucid and Merlin just watched the ground take him.
What it came down to was that Merlin was the most power wizard to ever live, and could fuse a man into the living bedrock of a lost little countryside if he wanted to. He could push him down and let him sink through the layers of dirt and sand and clay, of stone and coal and fossils, until he got down as far as he could go without hitting the center, and he could leave him there. Alive, undying, unmoving, unable to sleep or rest or have a single moment of his life go by unnoticed.
Merlin could, if he wanted, leave a sane man to go mad again, looking at what he’d done in horror as he was incapable of moving, of breathing, of doing anything but lie motionless, trapped in his own head. Merlin didn’t even give him even the space to twitch. Merlin was the most powerful wizard to ever live, and he was finally back to his old self— he could take the tiny blood sacrifice of a mouse and make it so Uther could live forever in that dark, motionless existence. Make it so Uther was forever hungry—for food, for touch, for the sun. Forever thirsty—for water, for love, for stimulus. He could make it so Uther was down so deep no one could find him, no one could ever dig him up or rescue him. No one could ever save him. He would be down there until the earth shattered and he was flung into the abyss.
What it came down to was that Merlin would have happily done anything if he could erase any time that Arthur could do nothing but beg a mouse to not be dead, but even if he was the most powerful wizard to ever live, all he could do was lift, or change, or fragment a delusion (since delusions were the spells men cast on themselves) and couldn’t take a memory. He couldn’t rip anything away that was burned in as strongly as a memory.
Merlin had to use his magic to pick up Arthur, but that was fine. He didn't mind. He had magic to spare now. Justice had been served and Camelot was free. Merlin was free. Arthur… Arthur was still locked up in his own head.
But Merlin would let him out of there too, he wouldn’t stop until he’d found the keys.
Merlin sat down under his tree, his magic book laying over his stomach, watching Arthur go through the basic training moves with a staff, Lancelot guiding him and Morgana commentating, the three of them stumbling to find some sort of sync. Gwen and her father were in his smith, something they'd added onto the main tower—work that should have taken months finished in a matter of weeks. Gaius was sitting in his chair, reading out in the sunshine. Things were coming together, Merlin planned to look over Camelot and clean it up someday soon. Maybe.
They had held a funeral for the mouse. Arthur didn't understand the point, wanting to know if a funeral would make the mouse better. Merlin had said no. Merlin explained what he had done to Uther only to Morgana, and she had nodded with vicious satisfaction at the idea of him being locked underground forever.
To Arthur he just said that Uther couldn't hurt him anymore. Arthur had asked if he could have his brother back now, properly, and his mouse back. If now that Uther was gone they could be returned to him. Merlin had wanted to ask if Arthur was planning to stop breaking Merlin’s heart in the near future, but he didn’t. He just said no, and Arthur had just…lay down to digest that. And then he just kind of didn’t get up.
Arthur stayed in bed for a while, mourning as well as he could figure out how. Gwen brought him fresh flowers, Lancelot told stories, and Morgana just looked fierce and vicious all the time—which seemed to put Arthur at ease. Arthur just...didn't look like he knew what to do anymore. After a fortnight of this Hunith had put Arthur's head in her lap, while Merlin curled up behind him, because the only thing Arthur had done since they got back was ask Merlin to stay, please—so Merlin had, thank you.
"Arthur, I know you're sad about your mouse. And everything else you’ve lost. And it’s fine to be sad.”
"I killed it," Arthur said, looking down at his hand, grasping at the air.
"No, Arthur, you didn't. You were trying to keep it safe. You loved your mouse, didn't you?" Hunith asked, stroking his hair as Merlin just held Arthur's hands. Arthur nodded. “Just like your brother loved you?”
“And your brother tried to protect you, and it got him hurt, didn’t it?”
“I should have…” Arthur made a half-hearted, pointless gesture and Merlin buried his face in the back of Arthur’s neck.
"Arthur, I think your mouse was something your mother and brother sent to you— to make sure you were safe and happy. And now that you don't need them anymore—because you’ve grown up and got us—all three of them are together again."
"How?" Arthur sounded more alive then he had in ages and Merlin should feel bad about how much they were lying to Arthur, but at this point Merlin would tell him anything if he thought it would help.
Hunith just smiled a little, "Mothers can do that. They always look out for their children.”
"Do you...do you think they're happy?" He asked after awhile.
"I think they're very happy that you're finally safe, and I think they're very proud of you."
"Proud?" He looked up at her.
"Yes. Proud that you made your own choices; proud you're in the sunlight. No mother wants to see her child locked up in the dark."
Arthur pressed his cheek into her hand, for a moment then sighed. “I’ll think about it.”
Hunith left to let Arthur think it over. And Merlin just held on. He wasn’t tired any more, and he got a bit antsy staying in bed so often when he wanted to go out and do things, but he could sit and carve and make Arthur animals, tell him stories about them. He didn’t make Arthur another snake, or a mouse. He carved him a quail, and a rabbit, a dragon and a unicorn, a horse and a hawk and Arthur fiddled with them, hopping the rabbit along the hills and valleys of the sheets and soaring the hawk over the landscape of his stomach.
When his hands didn’t want to carve anymore, he’d clean up, re-realize he was still saving woodchips, but not do anything about it, and sharpen his knife again. He was slicking the metal along a whetstone when Arthur rolled over and began telling him about his brother. Merlin kept his eyes down as he finished and put the blade and stone away, cleaned the chisel off, and wrapped that and the little hammer into his bag, then put his hand on Arthur’s head and listened.
When Arthur was done Merlin curled on his side, facing Arthur. “I wish I could have met him.”
“He was in your eyes, for a little while.” Arhtur said, explain how before he went to fight Uther Arthur had thought Merlin his brother, and how now, he did not. “But he went away when Uther did. He just wanted to protect me from him.”
“I know I’m not…him. Anymore,” Merlin said, fiddling with Arthur’s hand, and Arthur looked down to watch, “But I can try to be? I mean, I can…you don’t need protecting like that, but I’ll try and keep you safe. I swear. And we can play games and tell stories, and…well, I could have a piss holding contest with you, but we could do other things that aren’t so…uh…”
Arthur snorted and shoved him. “Walks. We can go for walks.”
“Yeah,” Merlin grinned and Arthur studied his face for several moments before sluggishly mirroring the movement.
It was Morgana who eventually goaded Arthur out of his grief stupor and to go for a run, Lancelot who convinced him that he really should know how to fight—even though the attacks from Camelot had stopped for good, bandits were still always a problem. It was Gwen who sat with him as he carded wool and she did her spinning and just did that thing Gwen did where she was comforting to be around. Hunith fed Arthur, and he practiced his smile on her until it didn’t look so ill-fitting and strange. Merlin suspected his mum was Arthur’s favorite, because she fed him, but Merlin couldn’t blame him. His mother was magnificent.
Merlin just tried to be around when Arthur needed him. Arthur wasn't comfortable unless Merlin was there, and Gwen had said Arthur acted a bit like a baby duck and Morgana had said something that Merlin was fairly sure happened to be an innuendo and Gwen had suddenly needed to go to her room. Morgana just smiled as she followed her up. Arthur had just looked at Merlin thoughtfully.
Arthur didn't seem to know what to do with him save to keep him close, watching the world warily in case it tried something. Sometimes he sat down and pulled Merlin into his lap and gripped onto him, and Merlin just let him after the first dozen times, because Arthur didn’t let go.
“You’re his bony, big-eared security blanket,” Morgana said, then plucked at his hair, “with very unfortunate hair.”
Merlin just brought up what she had looked like after she’d taken a knife to her own hair— that was, mildly insane, and she asked if he knew of other colors besides red or blue. Arthur still didn’t get friendly insults, but every so often he’d try one (mostly repeating Merlin’s) and Morgana just laughed.
Arthur got...not...well, but happier. He liked helping in the kitchen. Arthur liked crimping piecrust and bashing nuts. He really liked bashing nuts, and he took a mallet to them until they were “minced like a lady’s walk” as Hunith said. Arthur had said he was glad Morgana was no longer a lady if she would have had to walk like bashed nuts all the time. Morgana had fallen out of her chair laughing.
He filled out his frame with chores and training, running and as much good food as Hunith could stuff down his throat. He made up for lost time by touching everyone, not…like that (Merlin had once again tried to explain what “like that” meant to Arthur but Arthur had just sort of looked vaguely horrified, and Merlin had felt horrified, so they’d stopped talking about it).
Sweaty-smelly Arthur collapsed on the grass next to him and promptly put his head on Merlin’s stomach, and Merlin put his hand on Arthur’s shoulder, watching Arthur basking in the sunlight. Merlin noted aloud that Arthur was getting better at fighting.
Arthur yawned, "You trip over swords.” He then peeled an eye open to look at Merlin’s face to see if his joke had worked.
Merlin smiled and Arthur closed his eyes like a well-fed feline. Which maybe was not the best simile considering what had happened to mouse. Arthur just stretched out and the bones of his spine gave a pop and he sighed into the grass. “Lancelot says I have a very smart body.”
“There’s a bard and a fool that stop by here from time to time. Maybe the fool could teach you some gymnastics.”
Arthur didn’t know what that was, which led to Merlin awkwardly trying to show him summersaults and Morgana coming in with a cartwheel and Lancelot’s enthusiastic description of some flipping. Gwen, apparently, knew how to stand on her head, which was impressive, but only got one wobbly hand forward before she fell over when she tried to walk on her hands. Arthur tried several times but kept falling over, even when Lancelot held his feet.
"Hey," Merlin swiped some of the stick hair off Arthur's forehead when they all collapsed on the ground, Morgana and Gwen curled up around each other, and Lancelot, stretched out on the grass, contentedly sunning himself in the nice weather. Merlin could card his fingers through Arthur’s hair now and Arthur shoved his head up at Merlin if he should get distracted and stop. “You ever think...about getting another mouse?"
Arthur opened his eyes and looked mildly befuddled, "I have you."
"You saying something about my ears?"
Arthur just smiled at him, and poked his stomach when it gurgled, and that was progress enough.
It was five years after Merlin had buried Uther deep in the earth that Arthur pulled the sword from the stone. He’d had to climb the tower, but thankfully the stinking bog around it had compacted to clean earth, so he didn’t need to slog through that. Climbing a slick, smooth pillar was difficult enough without being covered in slime.
Merlin had cleaned up Camelot, scrubbing it down to the last flag stone, put glass in every window, and putting careful, diligent attention into every house. Not a single shack went un-heeded, and when he was done, it was the kind of richness that people once dreamed of. He sat atop the towers and looked over the perfect, model city, free of people or noise. He put gardens everywhere, letting trees grow tall and strong, reinforced the curtain wall, left no street unpaved. And then he’d locked it away, perfect and unsoiled, until Arthur was ready for it.
It wouldn’t be a lonely rule, but Merlin didn’t want to shove Camelot on Arthur until he was ready, and Arthur couldn’t rule a kingdom until he was prepared to rule himself. So he made a test. When he'd freed the dragon out from the caverns below the castle it had offered something in return for freeing him. It had given him a sword so soaked with magic it made Merlin's entire body feel warm, and said that it was only ever meant to be in Arthur's hands.
Since Arthur, at the time, had still been struggling to hold a sword properly, Merlin had had to come up with A Plan. He'd pulled a rock from the ground and sunk the sword into it, left it gleaming there as a symbol. He hadn't even needed a spell to put the sword in the stone—it had slipped inside like a knife between ribs and stood there, proud and gleaming. Arthur would only be able to remove it when he was ready to rule. And then he’d waited to be able to free Arthur.
He hadn't even tried to release the sword the first year, just stared at it and ran his fingers down the flat of the metal, smiling a little at whatever he felt in response. He’d climbed the pillar, handholds and foothold appearing just for him, but all he’d done was sit up there, staring over the city and then back at the sword. He’d stayed up there for a good long time, and Merlin sat at the bottom, looking up at Arthur’s feet kicking against the side of the towering block. Then they'd gone home. And the camps around the town increased as people flocked to them for protection. They began using some of Camelot’s abandoned fields for their own food, and Arthur helped, working just as hard as any peasant, even if he didn’t understand a damn thing about farming, and was often seated somewhere and given a menial task. He never quite got the self-awareness to pout about it.
The second year Arthur was better with his weapon skills, was making choices on his own, and was learning like he needed it to breath. He talked to everyone who was willing to talk and listened attentively, telling Merlin a mish-mash jumble of what he had learned, quickly and excitedly, and his facts would get sort of…mashed together, which either was funny or sort of devastating depending on the fact. It was a ritual, in either case, before they went to bed Arthur would make expansive hand gestures, and tell about his day. He still didn’t quite catch onto facial expressions, and so, no matter how excited he was, his face would sort of be vague and detached.
He could manage if he was focusing on it, but for the most part he expression was set at uninterested, and it took him forever to pick up on cues from anyone around them unless he focused, and he could hardly focus all the time.
So Merlin made them amulets from clear, smooth crystals that Arthur had found. Merlin strung on chains so they could be work about the neck, and the crystals would change color depending on their respective moods. That way he could look at Arthur’s blue stone and know he was happy, or his yellow one to know he was afraid, or the red one to know he was upset. And that way Arthur could look at Merlin’s stone, and his face and know what expression went with which emotion.
Generally Arthur had blue around his neck, which flickered briefly to other colors, but never long enough to really notice them. He liked to hold their stones together and make sure they were the same sort of blue. Arthur had moved into Merlin’s room. Gaius had taken Arthur’s room, and Arthur had smiled at him without recognition. Merlin made shelves for Arthur’s rock and shell collection and Arthur’s wooden figurine collection stood on top of their rubbish map, acting as markers or play toys, depending.
Arthur still didn't have a good handle on when or when he could not touch...himself, other than he had to do it in his room, and not when others were around. He really didn’t understand why it was socially unacceptable (and really, Merlin couldn’t quite manage to ever explain it well) so Merlin kind of got used to walking in on him. He'd probably have been more embarrassed if Arthur had shown an iota of shame, but his stone always stayed a pleased purple and Merlin’s usually flashed violet at the sight, but he kept that to himself.
It was rather hard to get the image of Arthur, spread over their shared bed and enjoying himself so thoroughly, out of his head. Merlin had grown up in a village with a lot of chores and not a single moment to himself, so he’d had to run off into the woods to grab a moment to himself. It had been a sort of torture, really, when everything had made him hard and he hadn’t been able to do anything about it.
At least he’d convinced Arthur that he should only relieve tension in his room and not when he was running around and…well…yes.
That year Arthur had explored the empty Camelot, looking into every house and building, running from door to door as Merlin followed behind him—his crystal had been an excited periwinkle the whole exploration, even if he hadn’t gone into the castle itself. Then, near sundown, Arthur had climbed up the pillar again and Arthur had rested his hand around the handle of the sword, but didn't tug, just held it and watched the sun go down. And then they'd gone home.
The third year Arthur was knocking Lancelot to the ground as much as not, and they were both searching to learn more from other, more accomplished swordsmen. Arthur was learning to shoot with a longbow and a crossbow, and his aim wasn’t the best, since he and sight weren’t exactly the best of friends. He had good vision, he just didn’t always know how to sync up what he saw and what he was doing. He could fight blindfolded though, and cocked his head for the sound of footsteps behind him. When bandits attacked at night, Arthur didn’t even need the weak, flicking help of torches to defend the tower.
He learned to barter at the shops, and he settled his first dispute. It had been between two five year olds bickering about whose turn it was to churn the butter by pointing out the he still churned butter, and look how strong it had made him. He’d lifted them both up and run around the field to the sounds of them squealing in joy, and then they’d both wanted to churn the butter, both of them holding onto the plunger and working away at it.
He’d gone into the castle that year, walking the ground level and investigating. He hadn’t even glanced at the stairs going down, or up, just understanding the layout. He’d looked at the throne room, running his hands over the throne and then looking over the rest of the room. He’d been much more excited about the kitchen and ran up and down the tables and the ovens, listing all the things Hunith could make.
“You know, a castle generally has a professional chef.” Merlin said, sitting on one of the butcher block tables and poking at the pans and cisterns and gravys boats on hooks over his head. “I love my mum’s cooking, but there are better chefs than her. They can make turducken.”
“What’s turducken?” Arthur asked, leaping up on the table and examining the pots and pans and ladles and spoons. Arthur loved kitchens. He liked investigating stoves and seeing if he could crawl inside the ovens. He liked big kitchens and spit-kitchens, and kitchens inside of other things. He even liked it when they made soot-bread in dying campfires.
“A chicken stuffed inside a duck stuffed inside a turkey,” Merlin explained, “and then you just eat the chicken which has all the juice and flavor of the turkey and the duck.”
“I would eat the turkey and the duck too,” Arthur said examining the chopping knives and the serrated edges of a bread knife, then moving to look at the butter churns and the pit with porous clay pots filled with water and packed with straw, ready for ice cut off the lake to slot inside, and cool eggs and butter and fresh pails of milk. They’d pack around the ice with sawdust, and chip bits off all summer long.
He tugged lightly on the sword that year, but it hadn't budged and he hadn't forced it. He still pulled Merlin to sit right next to him, or on top of him, after he climbed down, though it was no longer about needing Merlin for comfort and more just liking Merlin in his immediate presence. Morgana and Gwen had a hand-fasting ceremony and Arthur had been exceedingly delighted by the idea of bread with eggs and milk in it. “Cake!” he’d declared to anyone who would come near him. He’d fed Merlin two slices, and eaten four himself and then held Merlin’s hand and dragged him everywhere, because that’s what Morgana and Gwen were doing.
The problem with Arthur was that Merlin was sort of stupidly in love with him, and not just because they’d slept together basically every night for three years, or because Arthur kept jerking off as if he wanted Merlin to walk in on him, or because Arthur toted him around like his own special blanket. Arthur…just kept going, there were times when he had to shutter to a halt and recollect himself, but he could always be roused from them, and he was still…he was still good. He still wanted to meet people, and he still didn’t want to kill anymore, and when he found out about children he’d been delighted. He’d play with them—he would do their chores so he could keep playing with them. And he kept calling Merlin “idiot” with a shifty, pleased look (if he remembered to have an expression, and a tinkling, light blue about his neck even if he didn’t) that just sort of begged for Merlin to laugh with him. He was playful.
Hunith had laughed at them. Merlin had blushed and Arthur had fed him more cake, and when the dancing around the fire had exhausted Merlin, Arthur tossed him over a shoulder and took him to bed as Morgana laughed so hard she had to grip onto Gwen, and Gwen hadn’t been doing much better. Merlin was going to get used to be manhandled one of these days. He really was. He’d shaken a fist at Morgana and told her to take her wife to bed already, and Gwen had done one of her giggle-snorts and they’d both just fallen over with it.
In their room Arthur had curled around him and asked why he didn’t have wife, which meant he’d noticed more than Merlin thought he did.
“Why don’t you want a mouse?”
“I have you,” Arthur answered promptly, then paused and added, “idiot,” because he thought it was funny, the same way he thought his knock-knock “not Arthur” joke was funny. Merlin, he said, was clearly not an idiot, and so calling him one was funny. Morgana said Arthur failed at insulting people and Arthur had very solemnly intoned that her face failed at insulting people, and Gwen had giggle-snorted herself right off a bench. Arthur’s mood-rock had glimmered a warm cornflower of amusement.
“I don’t need a wife. I have you.”
“But you could have sex with your wife,” Arthur huffed.
Merlin bit down that he could have sex with Arthur too, because Arthur still didn’t really get it, and Merlin didn’t want to take advantage, and it was this big knotted up mess in him, and Arthur picked up Merlin’s amulet in surprise. “You’re purple.”
“It’s fine,” Merlin tried to take the amulet back and then Arthur shook the rock.
“You’re purple and yellow and red,” Arthur shook the rock, “that’s three.” He added, because Arthur was generally one emotion at a time, and was always interested when Merlin was more than one. “Purple?”
Arthur huffed and let it alone, curling up around Merlin and staring at the rock until it settled into a warm, comfortable aquamarine.
The fourth year he tried his hand at jousting, got second place in the shooting contest, and helped beat off a force of bandits that had come while Merlin and Morgana were busy giving the farmlands a bit of a "boost." He settled more disputes, enjoying it because he got to listen and make choices and people listened—though he consulted Hunith, Merlin, Morgana, Gwen and Lancelot for anything important. He took to studying under Gaius and found the idea of healing people to be such an amazing concept that when Merlin so much as stubbed his toe Arthur would pull him away to play doctor.
That year he’d spent an entire day just staring at the sword before pulling hard, but it still didn't move. He’d come down, looked at Merlin, swallowed, and turned around to work harder.
The fifth year he had an army of over a hundred men who had come from near and far when they heard of him. Men who were not royalty and so could not have been knights, men who'd been exiled and men with nowhere else to go. They had sorcerers and endless families who'd come to them for a hope of a better life. Arthur became a leader because they thought he was a leader and he listened— he listened to everything. He never could break the habit of saying please after every order, but it worked out well enough, people responded well to that.
That year Merlin found him, holding the sword in hand, holding it up to the moonlight and turning it in his hand. The pillar had snuck back into the earth, closed up and just a white circle in the courtyard.
He lowered it when Merlin came forward and he grabbed Merlin's wrist. Merlin thought he'd be tugged into Arthur's lap, but Arthur just stared up at him, holding onto his wrist and the sword.
"I am his Majesty now," Arthur said, looking over himself. He clearly didn't think of himself as a King, and he looked wide-eyed with fear, amulet yellow as jaundiced eyes whenever people called him the Lost High King, but Hunith promised that he just needed to keep having a good head on his shoulders. Arthur had said he didn't think someone who still struggled tying his boots should be the King of an entire nation, and Gaius had said that most kingdoms were ruled by whomever could kill the most people—and that was hardly a wise system either.
Arthur had bent his head down and worked harder, learned about crops and money and taxes, head spinning from the knowledge he stuffed inside it, but refusing to stop. The mental version of doing push-ups until he dropped.
"You're not going to be Uther," Merlin promised, "We won't let you. You think Morgana or I will sit for that? Or Mum? You will be a good King, Arthur. I’m not saying you won’t make mistakes, because you will, but I promise we’ll deal with them together."
Arthur looked at him, swallowed and stroked the inside of Merlin’s wrist, intently. "Morgana and Gwen...they...when they are happy they...kiss one another. I always thought that when I pulled out the sword I could...that you wouldn't..." He grit his teeth and sat up straight, "When you said you didn’t want a wife because you had me I thought…And you were purple.” Arthur smiled, “you often go purple around me.”
“Arthur,” Merlin flushed and Arthur didn’t let go.
“You go purple, but you never do anything. I thought when I pulled out the sword that you would think I was ready." Arthur lifted the sword and looked at it. “Do you?”
Merlin blinked. They had finally managed that pesky sex talk—and by “they” he meant “Morgana had put him out of his misery” - and Arthur had nodded and not said anything about it since. Nor did he even attempt to sleep with anyone, though he’d had offers. Even Gwen and Morgana had offered, actually, which was a bit odd (they never offered Merlin, not that he would, he just would like the offer), but Arthur’s amulet hadn’t even gone purple.
He’d just stared at Merlin more than ever, and Merlin had guessed why, well…had known why, honestly but hadn't done anything because Arthur had just...Arthur should make that choice, not Merlin. He needed to meet more people and make more friends so he wouldn’t be having sex with Merlin because he didn’t know what else to do.
“I know about my brother,” Arthur added, looking at the ground. “I mean…I know I made…” He swallowed, “I know what happened. What actually happened, that he never…happened.”
Merlin jerked and Arthur let go of his wrist, putting his hands on his knees. “It hurt, and…it still feels like I lost him, but I know that he wasn’t…wasn’t there. I said goodbye, anyways, because Morgana said he was a story I told myself, just like any story anyone tells themselves, and there wasn’t anything bad with needing a story to…get by.”
“Arthur—” Merlin began but Arthur shook his head.
“I know why,” Arthur said and his amulet was a sour red and he stared at nothing for a bit, fiddling with the chain. “I needed him, I still…I still want him back. That’s not going to change even though I know he was never really…” Arthur sucks in air and then rubs his face, the red cooling and for a moment the crystal clears completely and Merlin doesn’t know what that means. Arthur doesn’t move for awhile and then the stone fills with blue, again—pale and weak, but blue.
"I am H...King, now," Arthur said, slowly, staring at Merlin's nose, like he did when he couldn't quite make himself stare anyone in the eye. "I make my own choices, now. I understand things now."
Merlin blinked at him, and yeah, he did, but what did-
"Kiss me, please," Arthur stared at him, and he was purple, yes, but a purple suffused with a blue so deep it might as well have been dyed into the rock. Arthur stared at him like he was the source of all the stories in the world and Merlin swallowed.
“Yes,” Arthur said, simple as that, and then lifted his head and pointed out, “I am King.”
“Oh, so this is an order?”
Arthur nodded after his eyes flicked down to Merlin’s stone to see he was playful and purple and staring right back. “You didn’t before because you thought I only loved you because you saved me.”
“Don’t you?” Merlin swallowed and Arthur huffed again, kneeling up and grabbing Merlin’s chain.
“Morgana loves Gwen because she saved her.”
“That’s…different.” Merlin’s eyes slid sideways. Arthur tugged the chain.
“Is not.” Arthur said and Merlin bent and pressed their lips together, him still standing, Arthur still kneeling. Arthur gripped Merlin's wrist, not moving and Merlin didn't know how to kiss anyone either. It didn't matter. He pulled away and Arthur shook his head. "Kiss me, please. Properly."
So Merlin tried to kiss him like he'd seen Morgana and Gwen do it, smoothing his lips over Arthur's and pressing a hand to his jaw, holding him steady and still and close. It tingled, and Arthur pulled him into his lap gripping Merlin to him and rubbing his thumb over the sword grip. He buried his face into Merlin's shoulder. Merlin was the one who held their crystals together, to make sure they were the exact same shade of indigo.