Merlin has come to terms with the fact that Arthur doesn't want him. For years, and through battles, through both losses and wins, Merlin has needed someone, needed Arthur, and he's always said no, or turned away. And they've got on with their jobs - king and sorcerer, building and burning - and Merlin has needed, and done nothing, because that's how Arthur wants it, and more than needing things for himself, he needs to do things the way Arthur wants them done, in spirit if not in method. Not a good servant - he's sloppy, accident-prone and disobedient - but always a loyal one, true to the bone.
Arthur had a wife, for some of the years Merlin has wanted him, and Guinevere was Merlin's friend once (Merlin's friend first) , so he didn't even ask, in those years. He tucked it all away then, not wanting to hurt her.
She isn't his friend any more. No-one who leaves Arthur bleeding on his insides will ever be Merlin's friend. He went to Arthur's side, to Arthur's bedchamber that night, and he sat at Arthur's table while Arthur paced, and then he perched on the edge of Arthur's bed while Arthur tossed and turned, and in the morning he woke up in a knot on the floor by the foot of Arthur's bed like a dog, a loyal, faithful dog.
Merlin would rather be a dog than a tool, rather be a companion than a shameful means of release and nothing more. So like Arthur's dog he haunts his side, fetches and carries, bites at enemies and barks at threats. He's a dog with teeth, guard and ratter and pit-fighter in one, but still a dog, because being a dog and biting is better than being a sword and cutting only by someone else's will.
Better a dog than a weapon. Always better a dog than a weapon.
He isn't Arthur's only hound - the knights are a belling, baying pack and they're trained to be so. Merlin takes some comfort in that, in having a pack to run with. And they welcome him as one of their own, even if they do treat him a little as if he were the runt of the litter. He's happy with that treatment. He doesn't want them to know how long his teeth are.
On occasion, Merlin has visions, sees things. Not many things, more colours and shapes and ideas. Sometimes he sees the same patterns over and over, one thing in particular.
It's this: Arthur will die in battle.
That doesn't sound like a premonition, but it is. It's not a bet or a likelihood or a guess, it's a truth. Arthur will die in battle, and Merlin will see him fall, and not be able to do anything about it. Merlin can't let go of it, can't do anything but scry harder and further and longer, trying to root out the source of it, what's going to cause it, so that he can stop it before it starts.
He hasn't found it yet. He goes into battle with Arthur prepared to die every time.
He scries in between battles with a dull fever burnished by the years he's done it. He doesn't ever expect to find anything more than what he already knows, but he casts around anyway, scenting, scenting, in any breeze he can find.
In Merlin's twenty-sixth summer, the tenth he has served Arthur (and now the phrase 'man and boy' gets used without irony), he catches the gold of magic, just a flash of it, alongside the brown-red of Arthur's blood. He has had the sight of Arthur's last long bleed before his eyes so long it doesn't raise anything but an angry, dull ache in him when he sees it, but the magic, that burns him like a brand.
The next time he scries, gold and brown-red are matched to a swirl of green cloth. By the time the eyes appear, blue and hard like tempered steel, Merlin knows.
The whisper of 'Emrys' that hisses through the next vision just confirms things.
Merlin packs his things quietly, in the chambers he occupies next door to Arthur's, the ones that were Gwen's, once upon a time, but now have the connecting door bolted and locked. He readies his bag of supplies and a cloak. No food, no bedroll - he doesn't plan to stop anywhere.
Sometimes, he can be a bad and disobedient dog. He leaves that night, without telling Arthur.
It hasn't been illegal for the Druids to travel through Camelot land since Arthur took the throne. Merlin knows where he will find Mordred. They have favourite camping spots like anyone else who travels a good deal. The patrols keep an eye on them. There is a group of them to the west of the castle, in the thickest part of the woods, sheltered from weather and prying eyes alike.
Mordred is no longer the boy Merlin still pictures him as. He has grown well, into a young man of eighteen or so, of a height with Merlin, and filled out wiry and strong. But taller or not, he is still the same as he ever was - cold and curious and demanding and dangerous, wanting things from Merlin that Merlin cannot give and cannot be. He camps with a war-party, unafraid and unashamed, and he is whetting a long knife by his fire when Merlin walks into their midst.
'Emrys,' he breathes. His spoken voice is unfamiliar. 'And so you have come to bargain for your king's life.'
It isn't a question. He knows, of course he knows. The Druids school those of their children with the aptitude for foresight young. Mordred has had a concentrated education in the art, unlike Merlin, just as he has had tutelage in the magics of battle and harm and healing, properly and systematically. Unlike Merlin, who taught himself as and when he needed it from a book, and made most of his spells up out of desperation, and who still, despite everything he's tried, cannot heal.
So Mordred is more skilled. Merlin knows he is stronger, a mastiff against a greyhound, a warhammer against an assassin's blade. But it's sheer weight and brute force. If he can catch Mordred, he can break his back. If he can't …
He dumps his pack and starts to draw up power, determined to have it out here and now; Mordred puts his knife down carefully and stands. He waves a hand at his men, who have started to stir. 'Emrys and I will discuss this matter inside,' he says. 'Unless of course, the great sorcerer wishes to battle it out without negotiation first?' He smirks. 'Rumour has it you kill other magic-users on sight these days. What happened, I wonder, to the man who saved a Druid child's life all those years ago?'
Merlin clenches his fist, dispelling the gathered magic. 'Rumour lies,' he says as evenly as he can. 'I fight in battle like any other man of Camelot - I only kill when I have to, for the safety of the kingdom, and the king.' But you would have killed him as he stands in front of you if he hadn't said that, wouldn't you, something in Merlin's head says, and this time the voice isn't Mordred's. I am in the right, the rest of Merlin retorts. Magic is still illegal in Camelot save by Arthur's express permission, which I have, and Mordred does not. I'm within my rights to do as I see fit, to protect the king.
Mordred's expression is knowing, like he can see into Merlin's heart and find his old love for Arthur growing there still like a vine. Mordred shakes his head, and beckons Merlin to follow him into the largest tent of their encampment. When they are alone, he asks 'Will you kill me, for Arthur's sake?'
'So you are going to kill Arthur, then,' Merlin replies. He feels cold inside. In a battle, there is little time to think and so you just act, do whatever instinct drives you to, until desperate defence and haphazard offence become habits, and terror has trained you. He feels his training keenly now, like the tug of a leash. He feels threatened by Mordred, and so he wants to lash out. He wants to strike, to bite.
Mordred laughs. 'Emrys,' he says in a voice that's almost friendly and comradely, 'I have intended to kill Arthur since I was a boy. You knew that already, or you wouldn't have come. So the question is, what will you do to save him?'
'I would do anything, to save Arthur,' Merlin says. It's meant to come across strong - instead he knows he just sounds desperate.
'You would kill me, to have a murderer stay on the throne.'
'He'll unite Albion,' says Merlin in a rush. 'He is merciful and fair, he lets your people wander and trade freely in his territories -'
'He is still an enemy of magic, even if you have a pardon,' Mordred retorts. 'We will never be free so long as the land is under his yoke. Many times have we asked you to join us, Emrys, and every time you refuse us.' He takes a breath, and then says, 'Your bond to Arthur - it's love, isn't it?'
Merlin says nothing.
'You love him.' Mordred sounds curious, perhaps a little disdainful, rolling his distaste in his mouth like wine.
'What would you know about love?' Merlin asks bitterly. 'What would you know about loyalty?'
'More than you, Emrys. More than you ever could.' Mordred steps forward, close enough to touch, and runs a curious finger over Merlin's lower lip. The possessiveness in the gesture is hard to miss. 'It is an urge, nothing more. An urge you have never indulged, have you.'
It's a guess, just a guess. No-one knows that about Merlin.
'Whether or not I have, it's none of your business,' Merlin says, yanking himself back. 'I came here to bargain with you-'
'No, you came here to fight me,' Mordred says, stepping back, a little amused. 'But if you truly wish to bargain, I'm sure we can come to an agreement. You do have something I want.'
Mordred meets Merlin's eyes, waiting for him to deduce what that something might be. 'Come on, Emrys,' he says, and as Merlin moves away from him he comes forward again, keeping the distance between them short and hard to focus through. He's less than an arm's length away, and Merlin would back up more but suddenly the tent-wall is in his way. 'We could help each other,' Mordred continues. 'You'll have my word, I won't touch Arthur, if you give me something in return.' And then he smiles like a knife, and it slices its way to the pit of Merlin's stomach, as he adds, 'You might even enjoy yourself.'
Merlin is about to tell him no, but Mordred reaches out to twist his fingers in Merlin's neckerchief, and in Merlin's head he says, You know there's power in it, just like there's power in blood, or in a lock of hair or a beating heart or a fingerprint. There's power in anything personal. And I need it - I'm not as strong as you, Emrys, no-one is. You could save your precious Arthur from my knife, and I would have the spell I need completed. And all it will cost you is your innocence.
Merlin killed his first witch for Arthur at the age of sixteen. The idea that he still has some innocence left to give makes him want to laugh bitterly. 'What spell?' he asks. 'I won't bargain Arthur's survival on the battlefield against you bespelling him.'
Mordred's hands curl around Merlin's shoulders. My spell has nothing to do with Arthur. You have my word on it. And if you don't trust my word, then we would have no bargain anyway.
Merlin grits his teeth, and tries to think. 'What do you need from me?' he asks. Because yes, he gets the general drift of it, but magic is contrary and hard to steer, and unspeakably finicky. What will Mordred need? What does he want? To touch? To take? Does the spell require a libation? Of Mordred's seed or Merlin's, or is the fluid secondary to the act itself? Does Merlin's innocence mean his hand? His mouth?
Merlin is aware that he's starting to panic, that his breath is shortening and his thoughts lengthening into convoluted, confusing trails. Mordred's hands slide down Merlin's arms, caressing him softly. The symbol is the thing, he says, still in Merlin's mind. He must know how much Merlin dislikes that, or he wouldn't continue. The beginning of life, magic mated to magic, but an impossible union for an impossible task. I need your release from you, and to spend myself in you. His eyes are fixed on Merlin's, impossibly blue and unnervingly direct, and he asks Is the price too high for you, Emrys? with the hot itch of a smirk painting his tone. For Arthur's life?.
'Never,' Merlin says, staring back. 'Never.'
It isn't that Merlin thought that, if Arthur ever took him to bed, it would be rose-petals and poetry and courtly hand-holding. He didn't often even entertain the idea that a bed would be involved, rather than a bedroll, or a tree, or the cold, hard ground. But he'd thought, if he ever did this, that it would be Arthur. Arthur's hands, Arthur's mouth and breath and shape and certainty, and that he wouldn't be giving it away - he'd be begging Arthur to take it.
He does his best to imagine it is Arthur, but Mordred's hands are thin and chapped, and he's silent as he touches Merlin, a weird, tense triumph in what he's doing. Merlin had always thought that if he ever did this, the person he did it with would want it, and him. Mordred … Mordred wants this, but -
Think about him.
Merlin shivers. It's cold in here - it's a tent in the middle of the woods, and the brazier has gone out already, of course it's cold - and Mordred has pushed Merlin onto a couch and parted his clothes in order to get at skin, in patches and snatches.
Think about him, Mordred says again, and then, out loud, 'Think, Emrys. Think about whatever you have to, but our pact holds no water if you cannot see it through,' he growls. They're pressed together on the couch, and Merlin squeezes his eyes shut and wraps his arms around Mordred and tries to remember what he thinks of when he touches himself, the moments Arthur's been close, the moments Merlin's thought, maybe this time, maybe he'll see, maybe he'll let me, maybe …
Mordred turns Merlin over, hauls him in close, back-to-belly, and slides a hand into the space he's opened in Merlin's breeches.
'You're not trying, Emrys,' he hisses when he finds Merlin only half-hard. But he needn't worry - much as Merlin resents it, skin is skin and heat is heat, and with his eyes closed, Merlin can just let it be fantasy. Just fantasy, not real. Never real.
Until he hears muttering behind him, and realises Mordred is incanting. Spells swirl past him, and there, there, Mordred's skin and Mordred's words and Mordred's magic are too much, the stupid physicality of contact and the trained-dog reflexes of battle-sorcery, and the sheer wrongness of this drive Merlin to perverse and gasping hardness. He ruts back shamelessly against his enemy, feeling Mordred's length through the rough fabric of his breeches, and realises that while this is ritual, and it has steps and goals, Mordred wants this, for himself as a man and not just as a sorcerer.
Merlin moans, the sound ripped from his throat almost in protest, and peels his eyes open only to see tendrils of power curling towards the map-table, where something is glowing with a weird light. A brass cup, broad-bowled and strong-stemmed, and he has seen it before. Where has he seen it before?
Mordred is still chanting, his voice soft and growling, catching on the syllables of the spells, but he somehow finds the time and the concentration to say You need this as much as I do, Emrys, don't falter now.
Merlin grinds his teeth, shoves back ruthlessly, and feels hollow and faithless and viciously triumphant at the same time, just as Mordred adds after all, you're doing this for him.
For Arthur. Not with Arthur, or because of Arthur, or even without Arthur - for Arthur. For Arthur in the same way that the knotty scar down Merlin's side was for Arthur, and the poison he drank and the spells he broke and the people he killed, all for Arthur.
Merlin's breeches are around his knees now, constricting his movements, and Mordred's low, insistent chanting has dragged the magic up to his skin, bathing the world in slow gold when he blinks and warmth where Mordred touches him, because the magic recognises its own even if Merlin refuses to acknowledge the kinship between himself and the Druid.
Spread for me, Mordred says. His mind-voice is distracted and dull, because he cannot allow his spell-speaking to falter, and somehow, that makes it easier. Merlin shoves his trousers further down, ignoring the chill in the air, and does his best to comply, feeling a little drunk on the magic-hate-fight-touch-need of it all. It's like battle fever, a little, and it's familiar in so many ways, Merlin the good dog, protecting his master. Mordred's fingers are thorough in him, wet somehow, knowing somehow, stretching Merlin to make way and hurting him just a little, a stinging reminder (probably not deliberate) that this isn't making love, or even war - this is making a deal, dirty and underhanded and secret and wrong.
When Mordred pushes into Merlin's body, Merlin shoves away the pang that he's losing something, or worse, that he's broken something that didn't even belong to him.
I know you want it to be him, Mordred says, distantly. I'm sorry, Emrys, I am, but we can't always have what we want, how we want it, and he sounds like … like he knows, somehow. What it feels like. And he won't thank you. And perhaps he will never know - are you going to tell him? Mordred asks, as the sound of his spells rises and falls around them. But you'll always know you did it for him, won't you. At least you can have that to console yourself.
In, and in, and in a little more, just tiny grinds and pushes. Merlin is a physician now, and he knows things can go up there, and that sometimes they have to. And he's not blind, and there are stableboys and knights, and he knows things can go up there, and that sometimes it feels good. But this hurts, like the wound in his side, but more like the roiling churn in his gut from the poison all those years ago, and all Merlin can think is, Arthur, like a battlecry, the hardness between his thighs a sign that this is not in vain. Merlin agreed to this for a reason.
Mordred seats himself fully, and his magic flutters, shreds like an ancient banner in the wind, before he gets control of it again. Merlin's magic, however, is ringing like armour struck by a blow, and he surges back against the druid, a riposte, trying to make him lose himself in it. The brass cup overflows with magic now, and still Mordred pours more into it, Merlin pours more into it, as they grind together.
It takes Merlin a few moments to realise after the spells have stopped, to notice that Mordred's forehead is against the nape of Merlin's neck and that Mordred is thrusting erratically, desperately, one hand around Merlin's erection, and his voice, his actual voice, is scattered, tiny, asking Merlin 'please, please …'
For the first time, he sounds like a young man rather than a supercilious sorcerer. He sounds human, and he sounds desperate and sad, and Merlin pushes back one more time, and one more time, until he feels Mordred spend in him and his own release come out of relief and overstimulation.
He buries his face along the white inner edge of Mordred's forearm, draped under him this whole time, and tries to breathe.
'You've saved your king,' Mordred says as Merlin is cleaning himself up. He has his hands curled around the gleaming brass cup, staring into it like it holds some kind of answer for him. 'You've saved your king, and now you know how loving feels.'
Merlin stops, his breeches half-laced, and stares at the younger man. 'That wasn't love,' he says.
Mordred looks up, dark-eyed, and laughs. The light from the cup catches around the shape of his face, almost eerie in the half-light of the tent. 'Love and loving are different things,' he says. 'Love is a fairy-tale. But loving is something you can do.' He shrugs. 'There are other words for it, if you prefer, but they're all fairly ugly.'
The plain way he says it makes Merlin shiver, and finish dressing hurriedly. 'You're wrong,' he says, going to the tent-flap. 'You're wrong.'
Mordred's expression is cold. 'Go back to your king, Emrys. Go back and lie to him about where you've been without his permission.' He moves away again to set the cup down, and Merlin turns upon his heel and walks out, into the fading darkness. It's nearly dawn, he realises. Arthur will be awake by the time Merlin makes it home.
He doesn't let himself limp home, despite feeling how he does. He has his pride. But he doesn't make it home under his own power, either - he's picked up by a search patrol led by Leon an hour or so after dawn, not far from the edge of the forest. There's not a lot of point trying to argue with the knight, and anyway, a ride back to the castle will save Merlin's feet, so he clambers aboard his long-suffering horse quietly.
He tries not to squirm against the saddle, and then tries not to blush when Leon looks at him oddly.
'His Majesty is worried,' Leon says after a while. The men riding behind them keep a respectful, quiet distance. 'It isn't safe to wander off in the middle of the night.'
'I wasn't 'wandering off',' Merlin retorts. 'I had a reason for going out there. And you of all people should know I can defend myself.'
Leon looks at him again, measuringly, and doesn't say a word. Merlin scowls, and urges his horse on. He ignores the gnawing inside him that says, if he was truly capable of defending himself then he would have found another way. It's ridiculous. He hasn't been hurt. He wasn't forced. If he had killed Mordred, which he could have, he would have come back here feeling … not happy, but …
Normal. He would have come back feeling normal, the same way he always feels when he comes home from a battle - scraped, angry, sad. After ten years, that's normal. He hates it, but it is, and this isn't. No-one has been hurt, and he has an assurance now that Mordred will not seek to take Arthur's life, so why does he feel so raw?
He wants to scry, to find out if that future is buried yet. He wants it so badly it burns, but when he gets to his chambers, he finds Arthur there toying with the candles on his bedside table. 'You're going to tell me an extremely unconvincing lie, aren't you,' he says, not looking up.
'I have work to do,' Merlin mutters. He wants to scry, and then he wants to wash, and then he wants to curl up into a ball. He doesn't want to see Arthur right now, not after that. Not after Mordred.
'After spending a night in the woods, you have work to do.' The king doesn't sound convinced.
Merlin shrugs. 'Magic.'
Arthur is still not looking at him. 'After all this time, you still lie to me when things are important.'
'No. Merlin, no.' He turns, and in the steadily-increasing light Merlin can see that he hasn't slept - there are bags under his eyes and his hair is rumpled. 'No more lies. I need to know I can trust you. I need to know -'
'If Leon or Gwaine had gone, you wouldn't ask,' Merlin snaps, cringing internally but unable to stop himself. 'All I have ever done with my magic is protect you and still you can't trust me with it. Can't. Not even won't - you can't.' He falters, and a dry sob racks his throat. 'Please, Arthur. Go away. I'm tired, and I have work to do,' he whispers.
He goes to his work-table, meaning to ignore Arthur until he goes away, probably angrily, but before Merlin can sit, Arthur grabs him by the shoulder and turns him about. 'I didn't mean that,' Arthur says.
'If you didn't mean it, why did you say it?'
'What was so important you had to go out into the woods at night, alone?'
'Some battles have to be fought at night,' Merlin says dully. Arthur's fingers are tight on his shoulders, lighting up the places Mordred touched him before.
'Alone?' Arthur asks, as if that is the sticking point.
'I never go into battle without you.' Arthur holds Merlin out at arm's length, staring at him like he can see something down there. 'But you …'
'You can't fight this kind of battle.'
'You've never let me try.'
Merlin wants to laugh. Laugh and laugh, because Arthur has no idea.
What hurts is, this should be his properly - Arthur with his hand on Merlin's shoulder and his face all open like there can't be secrets between them, and this … ache, which is like any ache, from stretched muscles and bruised flesh, should be there because Arthur put it there, but …
But it's not, and Merlin can't explain it. He feels like it'll always be Mordred he thinks of when Arthur touches him now.
So he reaches out for Arthur, trying to force that feeling out, dissolve it, overlay it at the least. But Arthur jerks away from him, and he feels no real surprise - this has happened before. Normally he would let Arthur go, but. But he's got wetness between his thighs that Arthur didn't put there, and magic flowing round his veins that Arthur wasn't the centre of, and he needs Arthur now. He needs to know what he did it for. So he pushes forward and presses a kiss to Arthur's mouth.
His lips are parted and dry, and Arthur opens for him for the space of a breath before clamping shut again. 'Don't,' he says. 'Don't, Merlin.'
'I know you don't …' Merlin says weakly. 'But I … it's been a long night, and I-' He trails off.
Arthur is staring at Merlin, but not at his face. Merlin tries to follow the direction of his gaze, and realises his eyes are fixed on Merlin's neck. As if Merlin's in a trance, he raises a hand to that spot, where, he realises, it's warmer and tighter and sorer than the rest of his skin, and there are marks, impressions …
'And what kind of magic was that?' Arthur asks, the control in his voice so strict it shakes. He takes his hands off Merlin entirely. 'What kind of battle were you fighting, exactly?'
'The kind you can't,' Merlin retorts. 'The kind of battle I have to fight for you. That's why you keep me, remember? That's why my head is still on my shoulders - there are battles you can't fight, Arthur, and I fight them for you, and it breaks the law every time I do, but I still do it. Because you can't.'
It's unfair, Merlin knows - Arthur has tried to have the law changed, but Merlin would never let him, would rather be pardoned over and over than have Arthur's enemies have the freedom to work spells over him. That spell, Merlin reminds himself. Must find out what it does. This isn't over yet.
Arthur stops and stares, again. His eyes are too sharp for someone who never sees the things Merlin would wish him to. 'I thought you were my friend,' Arthur says.
'I am,' Merlin says.
'But you act like you want to be treated like my sword, sometimes,' Arthur continues. 'And then sometimes you act like you still just want to be my servant. And now.' He takes a deep breath, and says, 'Merlin, I can't let you be my whore.'
Merlin stares at Arthur, and he stares back for a split-second, and then swears, and leaves.
When he's gone, Merlin tucks himself into the corner between his work-table and his bed, and draws his legs up to his chest, and breathes til his chest hurts like he's been kicked by a horse. He falls asleep like that, tucked in tight, and when he wakes up in the middle of the day, the sun striping the floor through the windowpanes looks like prison bars.
Merlin manages to pull himself together in time for dinner.
He and Arthur and the knights dine together most evenings. Arthur does not hold to his father's insistence that a distance between the king and his men be maintained, and so they discuss matters of defence and strategy and morale amongst the soldiers over roast venison and parsnips.
Leon will not meet Merlin's eyes, and Arthur speaks too loudly and drinks perhaps a shade more wine than he would generally do. And after the pudding, Merlin stays behind to help the girl clear up so as to avoid having to walk down the corridor with Arthur, or behind him, or near him at all. He just wants to hide in his room tonight, and sort things out in his own mind.
But Arthur is in Merlin's rooms when Merlin gets there, sitting perched on the edge of his work-table, and there is a steaming bath in the middle of the floor, with a screen.
He speaks without even looking at Merlin. 'However you got those bruises - and don't think I can't see them, Merlin, your collar hangs low at the back - they're bruises, and they must hurt. And you need to wash.'
The idea of bathing with Arthur looking on is abhorrent. Merlin doesn't want anyone to see him like this, particularly not ... As if he knows, Arthur gets up and moves behind the screen.
'Wash, Merlin,' he says. 'Soak your bruises. And while you do so, we can talk.'
Slowly, gingerly, Merlin begins to undress. He has to lean against the edge of the steaming tub to get his breeches off - his legs are too sore to bend. When he settles in the water, he can't help the tiny noise of relief he lets out.
'What do you want to talk about?' he asks as casually as he can while scrubbing his feet. He wants to do this thoroughly - he's avoiding moving to other parts of him.
'I wanted to say that … I apologise for calling you what I did,' Arthur says, his voice tight like it always is when he has to admit he's been wrong. He hates it, but he refuses to be like Uther, heavy-handed and unyielding, so he will say things like this through his gritted teeth.
So much of Arthur's life is spent refusing to be like his father.
'I forgive you.' Merlin concentrates hard on the skin behind his knees. 'Will that be all, sire?'
'Now I know something isn't right,' Arthur says in a strained parody of a joking tone. 'You never forgive me this easily.'
'It was just a word,' Merlin says. Whore is just a word, and a touch is just a touch, and a bruise is just a bruise, and a spell is just a spell. Until you don't know what the meaning behind it is, and then … then it isn't. Merlin has to find out what that spell was, and he has to stop obsessing about the marks Mordred left behind and the ones he didn't, because he wasn't cruel, and Merlin has to stop shivering when he thinks about touches he has had and touches he hasn't.
There's the noise of Arthur getting up, then pacing behind the screen, before he says 'Merlin, will you just tell me what happened?'
The slosh and swash of the water, hot against Merlin's skin, is seductive and relaxing, and he says, 'I saved your life.'
'By having someone bite you on the neck.'
'By giving someone something they wanted in exchange for their not stabbing you,' Merlin retorts before he can stop himself, and carefully kneels up to wash where he's been avoiding. He's washed here all his life with no thought for it, but now …
Merlin drops the washcloth, startled, when Arthur appears around the screen. Merlin hunches over reflexively, but Arthur isn't looking anywhere but Merlin's face, and they've gone swimming naked together, and Merlin cannot feel like this about Arthur, not if they're ever going to get back to how they were, so he forces himself to uncurl and face Arthur's gaze.
'Merlin,' Arthur says, like he's been punched in the belly. 'What have you done?'
'What I had to,' Merlin says softly, forgetting his nakedness and leaning towards Arthur. 'And I'm not sorry for doing it.'
'What could they have threatened? What could they possibly have done to me that was worth that? God, Merlin, the oath the knights swear might have them promise their lives, but not that, and you never even swore an oath - you should never … I know if you were still my servant, that everything … but that?' Arthur seems to realise he's shouting, and breathes for a moment, forcing his shoulders down, his stance easier, and then says, 'Merlin, that was never mine, never something you should have had to do for me.'
His eyes are wistful, just for a second, and Merlin is tired, and has had enough of this. 'It's always been yours,' he says, his own voice ringing cold and exhausted in his ears. 'You never seemed to want it, but it's always been yours.' He shrugs. 'So if I could use it to help you …'
'Who was it?' Arthur demands. 'Who is this enemy I can't face, who wants you in their bed to save me?'
'I can't tell you,' Merlin says. 'If I tell you, you'll try to find them, and it'll all have been for nothing.'
'If you tell me, I can kill them,' Arthur growls. 'And then this will never happen again.'
'No,' says Merlin, and Arthur glares, and then looks away.
When he turns back, he says, 'For the time being, I'll relieve you of your duties, so you can … recuperate, I suppose.' He hesitates, and then says, 'If there's anyone you'd like to see, anyone who ought to know. A … friend -' and Merlin realises what he's getting at.
'No, there's no-one,' he says. 'No-one like that.'
'No-one at all?' Arthur asks, giving Merlin an odd look. 'Here, you've been in there an age,' he adds, and grabs a towel. 'Up you get.'
Merlin drags himself up and snatches at the towel, faster than he'd like. 'Really, no-one,' he says, concentrating on getting himself dry instead of on Arthur, Arthur's presence. When he looks up, Arthur has turned around, presumably to give Merlin some privacy. But he keeps talking.
'I'll leave you to it then,' he says. 'I shall be working on the reports from the Mercian border this evening.' Which is code for 'I'll be in my room if you need me', because Arthur can't say that out loud. And Merlin wants to go with him, and curl up on his bed and watch him do his paperwork - but that's an old want. To lie in his bed and wait for him to be ready to retire, to help him undress and into his nightshirt, which Merlin used to do anyway, and then to kiss him and draw him down under the bedclothes, and -
And daydream-Arthur's eyes, warm blue and wanting and more communicative than his voice or his actions could ever be, turn into Mordred's eyes, steel-blue and sad-young-desperate-powerful, and Merlin says, 'No, no, I'm fine, I'm fine,' and shuffles himself into his own nightshirt, fast and ungainly so that, when Arthur turns around in consternation at the sudden panic in Merlin's unschooled voice, he's presented with Merlin all covered up, but askew.
'If you're sure,' he says, and there's a long, lingering moment before he takes his leave.
Merlin curls up tight in a corner of his bed and dozes, his head all full of Arthur talking about 'that', and how it wasn't his. Except it was. Merlin doesn't know how Arthur hasn't known that. Doesn't know how Arthur could have thought there was anyone else. Tomorrow, Merlin needs to start work on figuring out what that spell was about. He knows he's seen that cup before, and Mordred's words about the beginning of life, of an impossible task, have to mean something.
It has to mean something. This whole … it has to mean something.
Arthur paces through the castle. His head is a mess. He's spent most of his life schooling himself to clear thought and logic, but when you introduce Merlin to the equation, he gets spun about. No-one like that, Merlin says. And Merlin kissed him, which Arthur can't let him do, ever, because kissing leads to other things and since they were boys together Arthur has wanted those things, and he can't have them. It would be an abuse of his position. If it were to become widely known it would mean the end of any attempt Arthur might (eventually) make at remarrying and establishing a succession. Merlin would become a target for kidnap - Arthur would become a laughing-stock.
And these are just excuses, but they're valid.
Arthur has known (again, since they were boys together), that Merlin shares his feelings, and he's had to step away on more than one occasion, but not like that, not for years now. But … He's always assumed that when he married Gwen, Merlin gave in, and found someone else. Someone sensible, someone good for him. Someone who wasn't going to lead him to his death.
To be honest, he's assumed that person was Gwaine.
They've always been close, Merlin and Gwaine - close, and tactile, and Arthur has always allowed Merlin leeway where Gwaine is concerned because he can trust Gwaine with him. He can swallow his jealousy because of that trust.
But Merlin says not. He says no-one, which probably means that whatever he has had with anyone is no longer in effect.
He reached for Arthur. But if he wants physical comfort, to be held, to be reassured, then Arthur can't. Because Arthur isn't sure he could keep it at holding without kissing, at kissing without touching, and that isn't how you treat someone you love.
Arthur knocks at Leon's door, where he knows Gwaine and Leon are having a post-prandial drink. He knows this because he asked that it be so. Of all the knights, they are the closest to Merlin. They will know, if anyone does, the answers to Arthur's awkward questions. Leon answers, and ushers him in.
'Sire,' he says, inclining his head a fraction. Gwaine just nods curtly, as is his wont.
'I asked you two to meet me here so that we can speak of Merlin,' Arthur says. He gestures at them to sit at Leon's table, then follows suit. He leans his elbows on the tabletop. 'You know he went to the woods last night. He says he was performing some magic or other out there, but that isn't all, to my reading of the situation.'
'He was hurt,' Leon adds. Arthur looks at him, raising an eyebrow, and he continues, 'His gait was stiff and his seat on his horse was bad.'
Gwaine snorts, and Leon amends, 'Well, worse than usual.' Their joke makes Arthur ease a little. He forgets so easily that Merlin has friends. That he has friends, not just knights and vassals and servants. He didn't set out to have them, but here they are.
Gwaine leans forward, smile growing cold as he becomes serious. 'I could take a squad out to the woods,' he offers. 'Bring in anyone I find?'
'I may need you here,' Arthur confesses. He schools the impending blush away from his face, and says, 'I appreciate that this is a personal question, and if you know the answer you may want to spare Merlin the gossip, but … you two are Merlin's closest friends. Has he ever had a lover?' He bites his lip, a tiny nibble, and then adds, eyes on Leon first, but then on Gwaine, 'Or were you ever intimate with Merlin yourselves?'
Credit to them - instead of being shocked at his latter suggestion, they think about their answers. Leon speaks first. 'I can't say I've ever known him to be close to anyone,' he says carefully. 'And I haven't … no.'
Leon's interests are strictly with women, Arthur knows that well enough, but it's as well to ask - the pleasures of men sometimes become more interesting after a battle or before one, when you're soaking in nervous energy, and Leon and Merlin have been at war as brothers-in-arms enough times over the years that it's not an impossibility. But no. Leon would never lie, not about something this important.
So Arthur turns his eye to Gwaine, who is leaning back in his chair with an unhappy, twisting expression on his lips. 'And you?' Arthur asks.
'I've never touched Merlin,' Gwaine says. 'Although I've offered.' He raises an eyebrow, daring either Leon or Arthur to say anything.
'And anyone else?' Arthur asks, pushing on.
'The only person I've ever known Merlin to show more than a friendly regard for, sire,' says Gwaine, leaning forward again to stare Arthur directly in the eye, 'is yourself.'
- It's always been yours -
Arthur's been running on the assumption that 'it' was Merlin's body, or, or … sex with Merlin. He's been assuming Merlin knew what he was doing when he went out there, that Merlin has been with people and has known someone's love, and someone's touch, and that he bartered himself with that knowledge for Arthur's life.
- the only person I've ever known Merlin to show more than a friendly regard for, sire, is you -
Arthur leaves Leon's chambers, his thoughts in an ugly spiralling knot, and without much thought for the time of night he goes to the armoury, thinking to sharpen something or polish something or do something useful with his hands. He hasn't got the presence of mind for his paperwork right now, despite what he told Merlin, and he feels guilty about that as well, but he can't sit in his room knowing Merlin is next door, alone. He hopes Gwaine or Leon or both of them will go to him and keep him company.
And it turns out that he's too useless to even do a simple job of work, because he gets down a long knife, the oldest, dullest knife he can find, and finds a stone, and sits down to the task of sharpening, but all he ends up doing is staring at the shield with the Pendragon arms hanging on the wall. His arms. His symbol. Merlin and Arthur have fought side-by-side under that banner for years.
'If he couldn't have you, he wasn't interested in anyone else,' Gwaine says from the doorway. Arthur looks around and spots him leaning against the doorframe. 'He knew you didn't want him like that, but he loves you. He wasn't going to betray that, and he wasn't going to pretend to love someone else, either.' The knight is trying to sound diffident, but Arthur has known and fumed at and respected Gwaine for long enough now that he knows when Gwaine isn't being entirely truthful. This situation cuts Gwaine to the quick, and Arthur has always known he had a high regard for Merlin, but he realises now how deep that goes.
He sighs, and puts the knife down.
'But I do,' he says bitterly. He shouldn't say it. 'I always have. Wanted him, I mean.'
Gwaine comes properly into the armoury, an angry expression on his face. 'And yet you let him think -'
'I let him think otherwise, hoping he'd move on,' Arthur interrupts. 'He's useless at making his own decisions. I can't … he does everything else for me, I can't let him -'
Gwaine rolls his eyes, and sits down next to Arthur on the bench, and then punches him very hard in the arm. 'You deserved that,' he says before Arthur can say a word. 'You deserve a lot more, actually, but it's pitch black out there and if I'm going to beat you black and blue with the flat of my sword for your sheer stupidity then I'd like to do it sometime when I can see what I'm doing.'
'You think I'm stupid, for not letting Merlin throw his affection away? I can't - I have responsibilities, Gwaine.'
'If you had just seen,' Gwaine retorts. 'If you had just got your head out of your own arse long enough to see how much he loves you, and frankly I'm surprised you didn't see it even with your head up your arse, and to see how much it hurt him to think you didn't love him back, then maybe, just maybe, Merlin wouldn't have thrown his virtue away.'
Arthur blanches. Gwaine grins humourlessly at that reaction, and keeps talking. 'None of us - you, me, Leon, any of the knights - none of us ever touched him. And he was never one for the girls. He was keeping himself for you. He gives you everything else, have you noticed that? He sacrifices everything he has for you, so when someone - and I will find out who, and I might not bother with a trial or a formal execution when I do - asked him for his virginity in exchange for your life, what do you think he said?'
Gwaine's face is stony. 'Right now, he'll be worrying that whoever it was is going to come back, and all he'll want is for you to be safe and not angry with him.' Gwaine brings his face very close to Arthur's, and says in a quiet voice, 'I am going to take ten men-at-arms and follow the trail this morning's patrol took, and then I'm going to follow Merlin's tracks, and God help anyone I come across. You need to talk to Merlin.' He gets up, and walks towards the door
'Knights don't order kings about,' Arthur points out, but his heart isn't in it.
Gwaine turns and looks at him for a long moment before he says, 'But friends give advice.'
Arthur can't bring himself to rush to Merlin's chambers. He doesn't know what he'd say, and anyway, what if Merlin is asleep? He probably doesn't even want to talk about it any more. Ever again. To anyone.
However, Arthur did say he would do paperwork tonight, so he tries to put Merlin out of his mind, and goes to his own rooms. It's late enough that the torches have burnt down to a warm, orange glow, and he pads through the hallways doing his very best to think of only the fraught but stable situation on the border. He makes it two whole minutes, being a very responsible general and thinking about the disposition and deployment of his forces, and then he opens his chamber door and the whole illusion disappears.
Merlin is dozing at Arthur's desk. There's a single candle flickering, almost out, in a holder by his elbow, but the rest of the room is dark. Because Arthur wasn't expecting anyone to be here, he didn't bother to close the door quietly - he just let it go as he passed through, and there's a sudden bang behind him as it slams. Merlin startles and the candle falls.
Magic flashes golden in the orange glow of the the candle, halting its descent, and Merlin whirls around in his seat, his eyes wild and bright and his hand upraised in a way that makes Arthur suddenly afraid. He's seen that gesture so many times, seen what Merlin can do with it. And the candle hangs in mid-air beside Merlin in his duelling stance for a split-second before Merlin realises who has just interrupted his doze. 'Arthur!'
The candle falls and goes out.
'I had to meet with Leon and Gwaine,' Arthur says, because he wants to say sorry, but he always feels it's better to say why. There's a scrabbling sound and then light flares again around Merlin's hand and the stub of the candle.
'I didn't mean to stay,' Merlin says, putting the candle back on the table and standing up. 'But I think I must have fallen asleep.'
'It would seem so,' Arthur says. He wants Merlin to stay, now that he's here - he wants to put Merlin in his bed and curl around him and keep him there until … things are better. Arthur doesn't know how to fix this, this tangle of pain and need and want and duty, the duty he has to Merlin because of the duty Merlin thinks he has to Arthur, which isn't a duty, which Arthur would never have … Never. Never ever.
'I should get on with my work.' As soon as Arthur says it, Merlin starts to move, and Arthur hurriedly moves after him, catches him by the wrist and adds, 'You may stay. I'd like your opinion on some of this, actually.'
'I'm tired,' Merlin says, and he looks it - his eyes are sunk deep, a hint of bloodshot threaded across them, and his posture is even worse than usual, as if the effort of holding himself upright is almost too much. 'I shouldn't have -'
'Yes, you should,' Arthur can't let go, although Merlin is shifting in his grip like he wants to run. 'Of course you should, Merlin.'
'I'm going to start work on Mordred's spell tomorrow,' Merlin says. 'I don't think it'll take me too long to find something -' He tries to pull his wrist free, but Arthur's grip has tightened like a vice, his blood running cold at the mention of the name.
'Mordred?' he asks, his tongue suddenly thick in his mouth. 'You bargained with Mordred?'
Merlin goes white and tries again to get away. Arthur drags Merlin into his arms instead, holds him as he shakes and fights. 'It's okay, Merlin, it's fine,' he says scratchily in his warlock's ear. 'Ssh, please, Merlin -'
'Can't,' Merlin says, starting to calm in Arthur's arms. 'He was - he said he'd kill you, Arthur, I had no choice - '
'You're afraid of him,' Arthur says. 'Why are you so afraid of him? He's just a boy.'
Merlin pulls free enough to look Arthur in the eyes. 'He's not just a boy, he's older than you and I were when we met, and he's a sorcerer. He's powerful, Arthur, and he's angry. They're all angry, all the magic ones. I don't think they'll ever stop being angry,' he adds, looking away. 'Your father made a lot of enemies.'
'Are you angry?' Arthur asks, still holding Merlin by his elbows. The idea that Merlin would side with the magic-users instead of with him is like a knife through Arthur's heart.
'Sometimes.' Merlin says, and he looks tired. 'But never with you. I get angry with your father, and I get angry with the world, and I get angry with lots of things, but never with you, not really.' His eyes are shaded with something weary and old when he looks at Arthur properly. 'I wish I could be,' he whispers.
Arthur's heart tightens. What is it that drives Merlin to be so forgiving of Arthur when he doesn't deserve it? So protective even though Arthur is more than capable of protecting himself? So proud of Arthur when Arthur is just another king in a line of kings and makes the same mistakes the same way? What is it Merlin wants? Arthur has never worked it out, and the only thing Merlin has ever asked for is … Arthur himself.
And Arthur has never given that to him.
They keep contact for a moment more, before Merlin says tentatively 'I should go.'
Arthur has two options - 'no, don't,' and 'that would probably be for the best.' Instead of giving either, he hesitates. Merlin half-smiles, more in his eyes than his mouth, and says 'I'll be in the old workroom most of tomorrow,' slipping out of Arthur's hold. 'I have to work on that spell.'
Mordred's spell. Arthur remembers. Mordred, who it seems Arthur is supposed to be afraid of, who left the greenish bruises on Merlin's hipbones that Arthur saw, despite Merlin's best efforts at concealment, when Merlin bathed. Mordred, who Arthur desperately wants, in this moment, to kill.
Arthur hopes Gwaine doesn't find Mordred. He wants to find him himself. Find him, and other things. Druid or not, he can't magic cold iron, he can't disappear out of chains. He can't stop the swing of an axe …
Sometimes, Arthur can see how his father ended up the way he did, consumed by hate. It's easy to hate what hurts the things you love. It's easy to hurt the things you hate. It's so easy.
'Don't go,' he says, too late, as Merlin slips out of the door.
Merlin tries very hard to make Arthur replace Mordred every time he closes his eyes, to turn it back to all the fantasies he's ever indulged in over the years, but all he ends up with is a weird meshing of the two, and he lies in bed shouting at himself internally to let go, for God's sake. Just let it go. He asked, you said yes, no-one was hurt. Even though you didn't really want it, it isn't as if he forced you.
He just gave you no real choice, that's all.
But he didn't force you, did he. You could have walked away. You could have. You could have killed him, if you'd wanted to, it would have been easy. If he was really threatening Arthur, why didn't you kill him? You've done it before.
Maybe you wanted it.
Maybe it's for the best. You know what it's like now - do you want Arthur to do that to you? If you're always going to be like this about it, maybe it's best Arthur never did. What if Arthur wants to, though? You thought he didn't want you, but you were wrong, apparently.
You always wanted him to. Do you still? Has Mordred ruined you? Were you already broken? Would this have happened no matter who did it?
There have been people who have asked Merlin to bed; serving girls, squires, on one occasion years ago a noble lady who didn't so much ask him to bed as ask Arthur for the loan of him (and at the time, Merlin had been more amused at Arthur's expression than anything else), and Merlin has turned them all down because, well, he had his eye elsewhere.
There is one person, though, who did something other than ask for a tumble in the sheets - there's Gwaine, who didn't ever ask at all, for anything, but Merlin isn't stupid.
Merlin's head aches, thinking about it, all these questions that keep coming out of nowhere, that he has no answers to. He just wants to know how coupling works between friends, the way he understands the difference between war and friendly sparring, because this? He's seen villagers who were thrown into battle before anyone even showed them which way round to hold a spear, and he knows very well how battle-shock works, thank you very much. He needs to understand to make this pass.
Gwaine. He will ask. He'll explain, and … they're friends. They're close. Gwaine has tumbled maids and stablehands before. If Merlin asks, Gwaine will surely do this for him. And then he'll know.
He has a plan for tomorrow. He will go to the workroom, where Gaius's old books have become a second specialised library, for his use alone, and where he can be left in peace to find out what Mordred wanted with his magic, what spell he was kindling in that goblet. And when he has solved that problem he will go to Gwaine.
It takes Merlin ten minutes to find the book with the goblet in it, and as soon as he sees it he kicks himself, because he knows that cup. That cup saved Arthur's life, and nearly killed Merlin's mother and Gaius in the process. The power over life and death is something Nimueh revelled in, and Merlin tries not to think about, and now apparently Mordred has hold of it.
The question is, what is he planning to do with it? Killing? Or healing? Finding the answer to that is harder. Merlin goes through all the usual books and comes up with nothing, and four hours later when Arthur comes in to see what he's up to he barely turns around, he's engrossed in his book; horrified, but engrossed. The things Gaius kept on the dustiest, most distant shelves are fascinating and disgusting and stomach-clenching.
Merlin has a book of sex-magic open in front of him, and he has to fight the urge to slam it shut when Arthur comes over to see what he's doing, and peers over his shoulder.
The book is open to a depiction of ritual fellatio - a ceremony to bring on a full harvest after a bad growing season - and Merlin can't help but notice Arthur's intake of breath and the tiny twitch of his fingers on Merlin's shoulder as he looks.
'Finding anything?' he asks after a second's pause.
'Maybe,' Merlin says, trying to ignore how being so close to Arthur makes him feel - weird and warm and on-edge, not quite trembling, but hyper-aware of the pressure of Arthur's hand and the nearness of his body heat.
'Gwaine went out with two squads to try and find Mordred this morning,' Arthur says after another pause. He raises a hand as Merlin whirls around to protest. 'I know, you think it's too dangerous and that he shouldn't be risking people's lives for you, but it's not just for you, all right? If Mordred is plotting something, and you can't - just say you can't - work out what it is, then our best hope is to find him and either stop him putting his plan into motion, or questioning him to find out how we can stop it if he's already started.'
'I think I'm nearly there,' Merlin says, leaning back on the table and incidentally covering the book with one arm. He hasn't missed how Arthur's eyes keep darting to it, like he can't help himself. 'I should be able to find out what he's doing soon.'
'I hope so,' Arthur says, his voice warm, 'but I can't say no to the opportunity to find out what Mordred knows, if Gwaine can find him.' He's so close, Merlin could wrap a hand in the soft hair at the base of his scalp and pull him in, it would be so easy, taste so good.
'I know,' says Merlin, instead of doing that. 'I just -'
'Do you want to come for some lunch?' Arthur asks tentatively, although he should know what Merlin's answer will be, because Merlin never eats while he's working like this.
'No, I'm fine,' Merlin says, and goes to turn back to his book before Arthur can lean any closer, because this tease of an almost-kiss is too cruel.
'Don't work too hard,' Arthur murmurs behind Merlin, and then strides out of the room.
Merlin needs to find someone to help him with his other question, otherwise he's going to ask Arthur, sooner or later, and then how he feels about Arthur will be all muddled and tangled with how he feels about … that sort of thing, and he won't know, won't know if he's all broken inside from this.
'Oh,' says Arthur, poking his head back in. 'I'll send Gwaine in to see you when he gets back - even if he doesn't find Mordred he may have discovered the remains of his camp, if he's moved on, or something like that. If there was anything left behind that might be of use to you, he'll know it.'
Merlin swallows, and nods.
By evening, Merlin is certain. He's tried every book, but he keeps coming back to the one he's almost embarrassed to look through; one page in particular, where two men are entwined with magic growing like vines from their mouths and eyes and fingernails and navels and entangling around a vessel. Merlin had at first just flipped through the pages of the book, avoiding looking too closely, but that image caught his eye, for obvious reasons.
He looks everywhere else, just in case, but with no other leads, he turns back to it. The writing is tiny, so small he practically has to press his nose to the page to read it.
It's there - exactly what Mordred said - 'The beginning of life, magic mated to magic, but an impossible union for an impossible task' - and it goes on. Sex as the creation of life, surrender as a sacrifice, payment (Merlin swallows hard and keeps reading), the coming together of magic and magic as mother and father …
The spell resurrects. Bodily resurrection of someone dead.
Merlin slams the book shut almost reflexively, wanting to shut the possibility away as fast as possible. But there's a list, in the back of Merlin's mind, that's always there - all the people, all the names. All the magic-users he's killed for Arthur - grieving mothers and angry Druids and homesick Sidhe, vengeful witches and orphaned children - all of them with reasons, and all of them dead because Merlin bet on Arthur's destiny instead of accepting their right to vengeance.
Any one of them could be Mordred's goal, although it's most likely to be someone strong, someone powerful.
'I'm not as strong as you, Emrys, no-one is,' he'd said. And it's true, although sometimes Merlin wishes it wasn't - he's never met anyone who could withstand him for long. Some people are more tutored, and some people are more practiced, and some people are more subtle, but no-one has ever been more determined.
The question of who it could be niggles Merlin, his hands squeezed down on the book as if to keep the idea shut flat inside it and unable to escape, until there's a knock at the door.
'Come in,' he calls, still thinking.
'Merlin?' Gwaine says, poking his head round the door, and Merlin's stomach, already twisting in apprehension, drops. Suddenly, it seems very hard to ask for what he needs. He knows Gwaine is, well, interested. But he's never actually said so.
'Come in,' Merlin says again, trying to look nonchalant. 'Did you have any luck?'
'That Druid friend of yours,' says Gwaine, saying 'friend' in a way that makes it clear he doesn't think there's anything friendly there at all. 'I've got fifteen of the lads bringing him in as we speak.' He comes right into the room, and then over to Merlin's side. 'When did you last eat?' he asks, frowning. He's still in muddy chainmail and he looks cold and wet and bruised, and Merlin's had a good night's sleep and been indoors all day, and yet it's Gwaine asking after Merlin's health.
'Not long ago,' Merliin lies. 'When did you last eat?'
'I had a lump of cheese in my saddlebag,' Gwaine retorts. He pulls Merlin up out of his chair gently and eyes him. 'Come on, you need dinner. You're going to the kitchens.'
'I don't need dinner,' Merlin says. 'I have work to do.'
'Arthur says you're working on figuring out what Mordred … what he was after,' Gwaine asks tentatively.
Merlin sighs. 'He told you, then.' Merlin can't feel any more shame than he does - the feeling is almost numb now - so knowing that Gwaine, and presumably Leon, knows doesn't pinch him any harder. And Gwaine's expression isn't disgust or pity, which helps.
'Merlin,' Gwaine says, 'Please tell me that wasn't …'
'Wasn't what?' Merlin asks, trying to fight the sarcasm that wants to leak out of him. He knows. He knows. He's an adult, a man, however can he have never done that? How odd. How unnatural.
'Wasn't the first time you'd …'
Merlin sighs, and tries to pull out of Gwaine's hold on his shoulder, to no avail. So he looks down, and says. 'Yes. It was. Does it matter?'
'I'm going to kill him,' Gwaine breathes, and Merlin looks up. Gwaine is practically vibrating with anger, and his hand has tightened over Merlin's collarbone. 'Of course it matters, of course it -'
'Why? It was never going to be … I mean, I wasn't saving it, I hadn't got round to it yet. I probably wouldn't have ever … so why not just. Make use of it?' Merlin shrugs, as best he can with one shoulder in Gwaine's vice-like grip.
'Oh, Merlin …' Gwaine says softly, sadly. 'It should have -'
Merlin has had enough of this. Enough of this attitude and his own moping and Gwaine's expression, which is like a punch to the gut. 'What? Been special? I'm not a girl, Gwaine. Most of the men I know lost their virtue in haystacks at the age of sixteen. It doesn't mean anything to them then, not really. Why should it have been 'special' just because I'm old for it? It meant something in that I did it for something -'
'But did you enjoy it?' Gwaine asks, which gives Merlin pause.
'Of course not,' he says. 'Not, I mean … no, not … not really.'
'That's why.' Gwaine lets go of Merlin. 'It's not just about meaning or … or love, or virtue, or any of those things. But all those sixteen year olds in haystacks? They do it because they want to, Merlin, they do it because they like it. And you haven't had that, and that's a tragedy.'
He shakes his head, and starts to turn away. 'Arthur will want you to be there when he questions Mordred. The men should have him in the cells soon. You should have something to eat first, though.' He goes to the door to see himself out.
Merlin bites his lip and summons up his courage. 'Gwaine?' he asks. Gwaine looks back, raising an eyebrow. 'If I wanted to … be a sixteen year old in a haystack …?'
Gwaine swallows hard, and says, 'Come to my rooms after supper.'
Arthur feels a hot, fat, satisfied feeling settle in his chest when he sees Mordred in chains in the cells. Behind him, he can feel Leon's solid, calm presence and Gwaine jinking from foot to foot in the way that tells Arthur he's on the verge of doing something stupid.
In front of them, between them and the cell bars, is Merlin.
'I already know it's a resurrection spell,' Merlin is saying. 'You might as well tell me who you plan to use it on.'
There's a pause, and then Merlin says, 'Out loud, please. I won't speak with you like that.'
'What does it matter to you who I choose to bring back?' Mordred asks. 'So arrogant, assuming I'm preparing a surprise for you.'
'Aren't you?' Arthur breaks in. Mordred's gaze, lamplike and pale blue, turns to him.
You haven't changed a bit, says a voice lazily in Arthur's head. Still controlling, still … what was that word Merlin always used? Prattish. Still prattish. Arthur glares, and Mordred's smile grows slowly like treacle dripping. And you still want him. So possessive, Arthur. Does it help if I tell you you'll have him eventually? I know, you know. I can see things like that. You'll have him. And then Mordred grins wolfishly, showing his teeth, and adds Although you'll always know I had him first. And maybe I won't have been the only one, by the time you get up the courage to turn to him.
Leon has known Arthur too long - he grabs Arthur's shoulder as he lunges for the Druid. Gwaine catches on fast and lays hold of Arthur as well. Mordred is laughing, and Merlin turns around, frowning.
'Maybe I should do this by myself,' he says.
'It wouldn't be safe,' Leon counters, as Arthur stops struggling. 'His Majesty perhaps shouldn't be here, but it's unwise to leave someone alone with a prisoner.'
'I'll stay with him,' Gwaine says. Leon eyes him for a long, slow moment, and then shakes his head.
'No, you accompany His Majesty back to his chambers. I'll stay with Merlin.'
Arthur opens his mouth to argue and Gwaine rolls his eyes, out of sight of Mordred. That's enough to make Arthur subside. He hates to be that predictable. 'Come, Gwaine, we have tomorrow's training to organise,' Arthur says brusquely, and leads the way out of the dungeons. Gwaine follows.
'I hate leaving them down there with that Druid,' the knight says suddenly, when they're climbing the stairs to the royal wing. 'I know Merlin can take on anyone, and Leon's no slouch, but …'
'But if something happens, you'll always feel like you should have been there,' Arthur says. He knows. That's how he feels, as well. 'And Merlin …'
They pass a window-slit, and Gwaine turns, stops on a stair. 'Merlin is stronger than you think,' he says, looking down at Arthur with the setting sun playing on his hair in golds and pinks. 'What he needs is you to stop trying to protect him. Protecting you is supposed to be our job.'
Arthur thinks of battles where Merlin took wounds and stayed on his feet fighting for days, and then faltered when he realised how many he'd killed, but never seemed to regret it. 'I know he protects me,' he says. 'I couldn't ask for better. But he does need protection of his own. Mostly from himself,' Arthur adds, muttering it.
'Is that what you're trying to do?' Gwaine asks. It makes Arthur uncomfortable to have to look up at him, two steps higher on the staircase, so he moves up, aiming to put them on the same level. The staircase is narrow enough that that just puts them too close for comfort. Arthur looks sideways, past Gwaine rather than at him.
'It would never work,' he says. He takes up the truth again as his shield, even though he hates it, even though he would ignore it if he thought … if he thought it would do any good. 'You know that. I have a duty to this kingdom, to produce an heir, and -'
'And Merlin loves you,' Gwaine retorts. 'More fool him, but he does.' Arthur can almost taste Gwaine's frustration in the air.
He shrugs, and says, 'Which is why I say, he needs protecting from himself.'
Gwaine rolls his eyes. 'Honestly, Arthur? He's a big lad. Big enough to make the decision that he loves and wants you. And you tell me you want him, so what are you going to do?'
'I can't - '
Gwaine throws up his hands in despair. 'And if he needs someone?' he asks in a low, hurting voice.
Arthur doesn't know what he's supposed to say, or how he can make it any clearer that he thinks this love they have of each other is nothing but destructive, nothing but a way for both of them to get hurt. It's not healthy to feel something that consuming and selfish and hungry for another person. If Merlin asked him and Arthur said yes, knowing this, it'd make him no better than Mordred.
'It wouldn't be right,' he whispers, and for a split-second he thinks Gwaine is going to attack him right there on the stairs, but instead his knight growls and turns away, storms away.
'You'll lose him,' Gwaine warns as he goes, his voice hoarse. 'He'll go to someone else.'
'Good,' Arthur mutters, and tries to tell himself that the roll in his gut is no different to the rebelliousness of the flesh after swallowing medicine. It feels bad now, but in the long run, it will help. He doesn't say, 'I hope he goes to you,' but he means it.
Leon draws Merlin away from the bars of Mordred's cell after an hour. 'This is getting us nowhere,' he says quietly. 'He knows he isn't facing execution, so he feels he has no reason to tell us anything.'
Merlin knows he's almost shaking with anger now, and that Leon is right, but he hates the idea that he can give up. He hates it. His time down there could mean lives. Could mean Arthur's life. 'Give me time with him,' he says. 'Time alone. You're Arthur's knight, Mordred knows you'll obey the rules. But he knows I'll kill for Arthur.'
Leon frowns. 'And will you?' he asks.
Merlin bites his lip. 'No,' he says, and knows it's not absolutely the truth. From his expression, Leon knows it too.
'Arthur won't like it,' Leon says slowly.
'Sometimes we have to do things he doesn't like, for his own good,' Merlin points out. 'He's the king, and he has to be high-minded. We don't.'
'I swear, you aren't the boy you used to be,' Leon says, clasping Merlin's shoulder tightly for a second. 'But I think I'm glad for that. Five minutes, all right? I'm not leaving you down here with him any longer than that.'
Merlin is already getting keyed up. 'Fine,' he says. 'But do me a favour, and lock the door behind you?'
'No. I don't want you to let this get so far as to need a locked door, do you understand me?'
Merlin can see why Arthur has Leon as his second - he's so strong and proper all the time - but he can't help but feel a momentary stab of frustration. Doesn't Leon see where this could go? Merlin doesn't want anyone running in on the places this might lead.
'Merlin?' Leon asks.
Merlin clenches his fists to feel his nails bite into the palms, and says, 'Fine. Go, then,' and listens to Leon's footsteps recede before he turns back to Mordred.
You know I won't tell you anything, Mordred whispers in Merlin's head. You know that. Why are you bothering?
'Because I can make you tell me,' Merlin says, meeting Mordred's eyes. 'I know you don't want to, true. I know you'll resist. But you know I'm strong enough to make you.'
Mordred's eyes widen, and he looks even more boyish, and young, young for the first time. Merlin takes a deep breath, calls the spell he wants to mind, and steps forward, reaching for Mordred's magic to draw it off like bile from a wound.
The night wears on, and becomes the grey light before dawn. Gwaine doesn't keep mead in his room, because he's well-aware of his own weaknesses, but he wishes he had a bottle now. He paces. This would all be so easy if he had never gone to that tavern all those years ago, never been struck by Merlin's easy grin or Arthur's idiot nobility.
Gwaine has just about given up on Merlin coming to see him, when there's a knock at his door. Before he can even open it, Merlin storms in. His eyes are desperate dark in the centres and almost showing their whites around the edges, and Gwaine gets up to greet him and is caught by his elbows, Merlin leaning in close to his body like he needs to be held.
So Gwaine holds him, pulls free in order to wraps his arms around his friend. It's calm and quiet, just Merlin standing still while Gwaine enfolds him, and eventually he says, 'He won't break.'
Gwaine assumes he means Mordred. 'You'll get through,' he says. 'No-one's ever been able to hold out on you long.'
Merlin laughs, a little harshly, and then pulls back a little to look Gwaine in the eye. 'Did you mean what you said this afternoon?' he asks. 'If I still want …'
'Merlin, I'm your friend,' Gwaine says, trying to stay on the right side of agreement, the side that doesn't involve him drawing Merlin down to the bed and showing him how he would love him, if Merlin would only let him. 'And if you do, if you really want, then we can, but … Arthur …' he trails off. Gwaine knows he can't compete with Arthur. But Arthur is sitting out this tourney, and if Merlin wants anything from Gwaine, he'll give it, and he can't deny … he wants Merlin. Arthur is a fool. Gwaine wishes he could show him how much of a fool he is, wishes he could bring him in here and force him to see.
'Arthur won't,' Merlin whispers. 'And I need …'
'I know,' Gwaine says. 'Come to bed.'
Merlin takes his hand.
Gwaine does his best to put Arthur out of his mind, despite the fact that he knows Merlin probably can't. He wants to put Mordred out of his mind as well, but the desire to burn the Druid's touch from Merlin's flesh is too strong in him. He wants this to be perfect. He wants this to be everything Merlin needs, and he doesn't know if it can be without Arthur there. But he tries. He takes off their clothes, trying not to hurry, and he lets Merlin touch him wherever, whenever he wants, and he kisses Merlin and tries not to let his hunger show too much.
Merlin's skin is hot and smooth to the touch, and Gwaine runs his hands over it, watching where Merlin flinches and where he squirms. He drags the pad of his thumb over Merlin's side, where there's a rope of scar-tissue that he doesn't think he knew Merlin had, and watches the breath catch in Merlin's throat.
'I'm not going to break, you know,' Merlin says quietly, his face muffled somewhere under Gwaine's collarbone.
Gwaine tilts his head down until he can find Merlin's lips with his own, and kiss him silly. 'Tell me what you want,' he murmurs, stroking slow down Merlin's sides.
'You,' Merlin says. 'This.' Which Gwaine takes to mean I don't know. They're rubbing together now, Merlin's hips pushing and stuttering, and it's addictive. Just like this, Gwaine thinks. We can do it just like this. So he brackets Merlin's waist with his hands and starts a rhythm, slow and wet and stable, with Merlin gasping into the damp skin of Gwaine's neck and hair, and their movements start to speed up, get sharp edges, when there's a knock at the door.
They both freeze, Gwaine biting down on the frustrated groan he wants to emit, and Merlin wheezing a protest against his pulse, and the knock comes again, and again. Finally Gwaine shouts 'Yes?' in the most exasperated and 'just-woken-up' tone he can manage.
Leon shouts back 'Sir Gwaine, you're needed with his Majesty on the wall-tops. A Druid force marches on Camelot.'
Merlin is up and off Gwaine before he can react, scrambling for his clothes, and Gwaine follows suit inside of a second, everything else forgotten, because they have work to do. What they also forget is that Leon is only expecting Gwaine to be in there, so when Merlin yanks open the door, all rumpled and with his shirt unlaced and no neckerchief, and Gwaine behind him desperately trying to get into his gambeson, Leon's expression shutters tight and his mouth twists.
'Who's leading them?' Merlin asks, as if he hasn't noticed Leon's reaction. 'And has anyone gone to the dungeons to check on Mordred?'
'There is a woman at the head of the force, our scouts report,' Leon says. 'And if you think it's necessary I can send someone to the dungeons.'
'Send a squad, have them bring Mordred to the audience chamber,' Merlin says in a distracted voice. 'You said Arthur's on the wall-tops?' he adds, but doesn't wait for a response, just goes.
Gwaine continues to do up his gambeson, waiting. When he finally looks up, Leon fixes him with a basilisk eye. 'Be sure you know what you're playing with,' he says. 'There are hornets' nests I would prefer not to kick, if I were you.'
'We don't have time for this,' Gwaine retorts, because he's a long way past kicking. 'Come on.'
Merlin hates that he loves this. Arthur is standing on the wall-tops in full armour, gilded in the light of the rising sun and looking out over the oncoming Druids. Merlin's heart is pounding in his chest and he feels the power in him well up, begging to be used, and then Arthur hears him coming and turns to meet his eyes, and that look, that proud, desperate, battle-ready look on Arthur's face makes Merlin feel like together, they can take on the world. And he loves that. He just hates that it takes a situation like this to make him feel it.
'There are only twenty of them,' Arthur says.
'Twenty Druids,' Merlin points out. He flexes his fingers. 'And we don't know that they're here to fight,' he adds.
'True,' Arthur says. 'Do you know who that is at their head?'
Merlin leans on one of the merlons and squints. She's shapely, dark-haired, with something seductive and confident in the way she walks. She wears no armour, just a dress the colour of pigeon blood. As he peers down on her, she smiles up suddenly as if she can see him, and all Merlin's certainties drain away, because he knows who she is, oh yes.
'Merlin!' shouts Nimueh as she reaches the main gate. 'Shall we have our reckoning at last, you and I?'
Merlin doesn't fall, doesn't falter, doesn't stumble, not physically. Just mentally. Just in his head, where he's already been bruised and dragged around like a puppet on a string. He feels a presence behind him and has to school himself not to snarl and whirl with a palmful of fire. Just as well he didn't, because it's Gwaine. 'We've had Mordred brought to the audience chamber, as you asked,' he says.
'You what?' Arthur says, his attention snapping to his knight and sorcerer rather than the threat at the gates. 'Why?'
Merlin pushes past them both, trying to get off the wall and down into the castle again. Behind him he hears Gwaine say, 'Because Merlin asked us to. And some of us trust his judgement,' and Merlin winces, because the last thing he wants is to cause strife between Arthur and his knights, least of all Arthur and Gwaine, who have never been the closest of friends.
But that doesn't matter right now, not really - there are other things. Mordred. Before Merlin even gets to the audience room, the Druid's voice reaches him.
He sounds faint, but he says the same things he said when Merlin was left alone with him in the cells. Do you feel strong now, Emrys? Do you feel better?
Why? Is that how you felt when you stole from me? Merlin demands, too angry to wait and speak out loud. At least what I took from you will come back
I never put your life in mortal danger to get what I needed Mordred says, scratchily. But if I have to fight off the brave, brave knights of Camelot with no magic to serve me, how do you think I will fare?
About as well as they fare when they face you with your magic intact Merlin snaps, finally reaching the doors to the audience chamber and shoving them apart. Mordred sits slumped on the floor, surrounded by guards. 'Tell me how to undo your spell,' he demands, feeling the magic he took from Mordred writhe in the chains he's got it in the back of his head, fiery and angry at imprisonment and wanting to get out, wanting to hurt. The realisation that the magic just wants to hurt, that it will help him make Mordred tell him what he wants, even though it's Mordred's power, stops him for a second.
'There is no way,' Mordred chokes when Merlin stands in front of him. 'What's done is done. She lives again - you'll have to kill her again. And you and I both know that isn't that easy, is it, Emrys?'
'I've done it before, I can do it again,' Merlin retorts.
'But you're not a killer, Emrys, you keep telling me that. You only kill when you have to, and you only think you have to when your precious friends are in danger. You have no instinct for self-preservation.'
'What are you saying?' Merlin asks, trying to keep his voice strong and angry.
Mordred laughs, hackingly. 'I'm saying,' he says, 'that you're the only thing standing between magic and the throne of Camelot, and we have realised it.'
There's a sudden thumping sound, three pairs of running footsteps. 'Get him out of here,' commands Arthur, and suddenly Gwaine is at Merlin's side, holding him by the wrist tight and trying to see into his eyes.
'I'm fine,' Merlin mutters, brushing him aside. 'Let me go, I need to get back out to the wall-top.'
'I'm confining you to your room, with an armed guard,' Arthur says, squaring up to Merlin as he tries to walk back out of the room. 'This all appears to be a direct campaign to get at you, and I will not let them do that.'
'You can't fight her,' says Merlin, driving down against the magic that wants to take over. 'Not without magic. Not without me.'
'I don't care,' Arthur says. 'We'll find a way. Now, will you go or do I have to make the guards drag you?'
'No-one's going to drag Merlin anywhere,' Gwaine growls.
'Gwaine, stay out of this,' Arthur snaps. 'Merlin? Choose.'
They stand there for a second, Merlin and Arthur staring each other down, Gwaine too close behind Merlin with one hand on his shoulder and the burn of Mordred's magic in Merlin's veins. It's overwhelming, heady like a drug.
There's the noise of someone clearing their throat, and then; 'I'll take him, sire,' says Leon.
The second both Mordred and Merlin are out of the door, Arthur lets his guard, his poise, drop.
'I'm starting to think Merlin's right, and you have a death-wish,' Gwaine says, but Arthur ignores him and stomps back out towards the wall-top. 'I'll fight with you until I'm cut down, Arthur, you know that, but this is foolish. You need magic to fight magic.' Gwaine follows him, and Arthur whirls on him in a clank of armour.
'They'll kill him,' he growls. Gwaine is Merlin's friend, he should see what Arthur is trying to do here. But instead the knight takes Arthur by the shoulders and actually shakes him, hard and sudden and close. He shakes the breath from Arthur's lungs and holds tight. He's angry, the same way Merlin gets angry, but Gwaine isn't afraid to touch Arthur the way Merlin sometimes is.
'Do you honestly think he'll stay where you put him? He's going to get out, Arthur, and he's going to do something stupid, you know that.'
Arthur wrenches free. 'Leon will watch him.'
'He's more than capable of getting Leon out of his way. He's capable of anything when he thinks you're doing something dangerous, and you are.' Arthur reaches the door that leads out to the wall-top, and the last thing he hears before his ears are filled with the whipping of the wind is, 'One day he's going to die for you, and all because you were too stubborn to let him fight on his own terms!'
Leon has Merlin by his wrist, and Merlin goes mostly because he's trying to think of a plan more than because he's in any way under Leon's control. But Leon doesn't take him to his chambers. He drags him, so deep in thought he doesn't process it until they're nearly there, to the physician's workroom.
Merlin just cocks his head at the knight. Leon lets go and crosses his arms. 'You know as well as I that his Majesty is being a fool,' Leon says. 'He's blinded by his fondness for you, and as convinced as you are that you know what's best for him, he's equally convinced that he knows what's best for you.'
Merlin just gapes. Leon going behind Arthur's back is a startling new development. Leon sighs. 'And I think, in this case, that you have the right of it. That being said, instead of dumping you to stew in your rooms, I thought perhaps you and I could start looking for some way to best these sorcerers.'
Merlin looks at Leon, and sees an actual way through in those calm grey eyes. 'Come on then,' he says, rubbing his hands together. 'I'll need you to get down everything on the shelves marked 'Old Religion'.'
'I dare say you've thought to keep your warlock safe by keeping him hidden,' Nimueh cries from below the battlements. 'And since I doubt you'll let me into your keep, will you parley with me before your gates, King Arthur?'
Arthur has precious little choice. He leaves Gwaine on the wall-tops and takes a squad of five through the sally-port, his teeth gritted and his hand clenching convulsively on the hilt of Excalibur.
The dark-haired woman, Nimueh, looks the same as she did the day she left him to his death in the caves beneath the forest of Balor - old with a youthful face, somehow balancing between those extremes, ageless. She smiles widely as he approaches. 'Arthur,' she says, gesturing for him to follow her to where she has a table and two chairs set out. 'Will you join me?'
With bad grace, he sits. 'Do you mean to lay siege to my castle?' he asks. 'A force of twenty, even twenty sorcerers, is unlikely to succeed.'
'Your castle isn't our goal,' Nimueh says, pouring two goblets of wine. Arthur ignores his. 'But you have a warlock amongst your troops, don't you?'
'I also have a quartermaster and a standard-bearer,' Arthur points out. 'What's your point?'
'You think that just because you have pardoned him that all his crimes are absolved?' Nimueh leans her chin on her hand, smirking at Arthur. 'We magic-users have laws and crimes of our own. Give him to us, and you'll be rid of us all. We know your law still forbids magic - why harbour him?'
'I don't harbour Merlin,' Arthur says angrily. 'And I will tell you now, if you mean to take him from me, you'll have a fight on your hands.'
Nimueh's eyes are pale and amused as she regards him. 'It will be easier on you if you give him to us, than if he walks out of his own volition.' She leans back in her chair. 'Something tells me you'd rather betray him yourself than have him betray you.'
'He'd never -'
'He would if he thought it was for the best,' Nimueh says. 'Haven't you noticed that about him? Always so desperately stretching for what's best, and making every mistake along the way as he does so. What a sad fate for such a great power.'
'He made the right choice when it came to you,' Arthur retorts. 'You do and say nothing but evil.' He gets up. 'If you and your party are not off Camelot land by nightfall, I will deal harshly with you.'
As he walks away, she says 'Keep a dog chained up too long and it'll bite you.'
'I don't treat my men like dogs,' he fires back, still walking.
'But do you treat your sorcerer like a man?' is the last thing he hears before the wicket-gate slams shut behind him.
Night falls, and Merlin and Leon remain closeted in the workroom. Leon's been increasingly confused, increasingly disturbed, by the things he's finding in the books (although he's been trying to hide it). Merlin hasn't the time to reassure him that not all magic is like this, and that this is not all that magic is for, because he's been racking his brains all day to sort this tangle out.
By the time their last candle starts to burn down, Leon has dozed off. A knock at the door startles Merlin out of his contemplative, panicked daze, and jolts Leon awake at the same time.
Arthur storms in, before Merlin can do anything sensible, like hide. He doesn't seem surprised to find either of them here, but his expression is furious. 'Tell me you have a solution,' he growls. 'Otherwise I will kill her with my bare hands, magic be damned.'
Merlin stares at Arthur, at his dull chainmail and matted hair and at the wrath in his eyes, and realises the solution has been staring him in the face all along.
Arthur gathers Merlin, Gwaine and the rest of the knights in the audience chamber and tells them to wait for him. Then he grabs Leon and takes him into a guest chamber where no-one will hear them.
'I want an explanation for why you disobeyed me,' he says, He keeps his voice even, because he's not angry, not with Leon. Despite the disobedience he did the right thing, and this is why Arthur has knights like Leon, who can be trusted to do right even when he, the king, is blinded for some reason or other. But they still have to be held accountable.
'With respect, your Majesty, your orders were not made by a man thinking logically.' Leon stares at a spot somewhere above Arthur's shoulder as he replies. 'I kept Merlin out of the way of the enemy, and occupied, which I believe was in the spirit of your instructions, but at a profitable activity that will perhaps afford us a chance at victory.'
'You talk like a politician,' Arthur says. 'Speak like a knight, Sir Leon. Tell me how you think we're going to win this battle.'
Now Leon looks at him properly, meeting Arthur's eyes with his own, almost serene, grey ones. Leon is a tactician, this is his talent. 'Our search threw up nothing specifically to undo Mordred's resurrection spell,' he confesses. 'But it does appear that even though she's been brought back to life, no extra power attaches to her. Perhaps Mordred called her to life to advise him, or to add her strength to his in this battle, and now that he's our prisoner, she's taken command, but she's no wraith or thrall - she's as she was before, and Merlin killed her before. There is a good chance he could do so again.'
'And how do we prevent her, or her forces, from killing him?' Arthur asks. 'His advantage in the past has been not being the target. Now he is.'
'He doesn't have to be within her sightlines in order to ensorcell her, surely,' Leon says. 'If he were kept on the walltop and a force sent down to engage her men, that might be enough of a distraction.'
Arthur isn't good at delegation, although he has learnt. And he knows that possessiveness is one of his greatest failures. But Nimueh's words - Do you treat your sorcerer like a man? - have stung him hard, perhaps harder than they should because of the truth behind them.
'We'll try it,' he says. 'Tomorrow at dawn we'll begin.' It's meant to be a kind of dismissal, but Leon stands still. 'Is there something else, Sir Leon?' Arthur asks.
'Yes,' says Leon, and Arthur isn't surprised to note that his eyes are fixed upon that distant spot over Arthur's shoulders again. 'I wouldn't bring this up, sire, except that I feel it's relevant in this moment. You asked Gwaine and I yesterday if we knew of Merlin having taken a lover.'
Something clenches tight around Arthur's heart.
'That's correct,' he says, trying to sound casual about it. 'Why, have you heard something?'
'When I went to wake Sir Gwaine this morning, sire, Merlin was in his rooms.'
'They could have been talking,' Arthur points out - being reasonable, or in the grip of denial, one of the two. 'They have been friends a long while.'
'I believe this was more than that,' says Leon in a stilted manner. 'I know this is a delicate subject -'
'You're dismissed,' Arthur says a little more snappishly than he means to. 'Thank you, Sir Leon, that will be all.'
Leon leaves without another word. And Arthur has to go back into his audience chamber and face his men. Face Merlin. Face Gwaine. Outline this vague plan and hope they have suggestions, and watch the man he loves (he can say that, in the privacy of his own mind. He can admit to love here where no-one can hear it) help construct a scheme that may kill him.
Arthur looks around, but there's no-one there. He reaches for the doorhandle -
It's a faint whisper, inaudible, echoing around the vaulting of Arthur's skull. Mordred, he realises. He grits his teeth and decides to ignore their Druid prisoner. The doorhandle turns under his grasp -
Your plan will work, but at the cost of lives Mordred says, foggily. I can help you, I can help you save your Emrys too, and all it will cost you is my freedom.
We do not treat with sorcerers. We do not negotiate, we do not compromise. Arthur repeats his father's mantra with stolid determination.
You parleyed with Nimueh.
Arthur opens the door and goes to his men. Mordred can hiss all he wants, the little snake. It will all be lies anyway.
When Arthur comes through the door, he looks exhausted, sweaty and grimy and tired inside his armour. But his back is straight and despite the bags under his eyes his gaze is strong, and it finds Merlin first of anyone in the room, like Arthur's looking for reassurance from him.
'Sire?' Percival stands up as Arthur finds his way to his chair. Everyone else does likewise, even Merlin.
'Be seated, all of you,' says Arthur, flapping a hand at them. 'We have a lot to discuss tonight and not that much time. We're going to fight, but against twenty-one sorcerers, our odds are not good. As you know, we have one sorcerer of our own,' and here he nods at Merlin, and goes on, 'but we have to use his abilities wisely. If the enemy can kill or incapacitate him -'
'You're going to let me fight?' Merlin says. He can't help it, it's like the words are punched out of him. Yesterday Arthur had wanted to lock him up rather than put him anywhere near harm's way - anywhere he could be useful. And he wants to be useful. He wants to fight. It's been two days of hurt and uncertainty and slowly bubbling, boiling anger. He's been used by magic and he wants to slough off that feeling, scrape it from his skin, burn it with fire, bite until it bleeds from him.
Merlin's seen battle-fever and the drive for revenge in men before, and he can recognise it in himself now in the same way that he can recognise that he has blue eyes - as an unchangeable fact.
Arthur meets his eyes. The other men look up or away, except for Gwaine, whose gaze Merlin can feel light on his face. 'I fear I - we - wouldn't get far without you,' Arthur says, something naked in his voice, and Merlin can't help but search for a further meaning in that.
'How far away from your target can you work a spell?' asks Elyan of Merlin, cutting through the moment like a mercy-stroke. 'Can you stay inside the keep?'
'Wouldn't it be more use to be with your books?' Gwaine adds.
'I - I need to be within sight,' Merlin says, looking around the table. Elyan is looking pensive, putting thought into the problem with the same intensity he used to apply to swordsmithing. Gwaine's face is still the same dear, trusted one that he asked to help him, and he wonders if it hurt Gwaine to see Merlin leap out of bed in order to hare after Arthur. 'I have to see where I'm aiming,' he adds a little lamely, when it becomes obvious that Gwaine is waiting for more of an explanation.
'If your sightlines are unimpeded, does the distance matter?' asks Percival, resting his chin on his hand. 'If we placed you on the western tower …'
The discussion goes on for another hour, then two, and Merlin hears them all out, all their plans for preserving him so that he can pick off the enemy one by one like a man hunting snipe while they bravely and foolishly charge about with swords on the ground, and none of them will work, not without frustrating his vision and his range and his favourite tactics.
'I have to be on the wall-top,' he says for what feels like the fifteenth time, his head in his hands. 'It's the only place I can stay relatively out of sight while being close enough to fight from. Please, just listen to me.'
'It's near the middle of the night.' Arthur says, looking at the flickering candles. 'The plan stands as it is. Merlin will take his post on the wall-top near the gatehouse. I'll lead the knights from the wicket-gate. Now, will you all kindly go and take some rest?'
The knights dutifully file out. They know they will need their sleep, and they're all well-trained and disciplined enough that they'll be able to snatch some. Merlin, on the other hand, knows very well he won't. That nervous biting energy will not let him alone. It never does before a battle, but it's worse tonight, worse than ever before. He wants to fight now. He wants … he doesn't know what he wants.
Gwaine lays his hand over Merlin's shoulder as he goes, and that sparks it. Merlin meets his eyes, and sees the invitation there, to finish what they started. He parts his lips, meaning to say something -
'Sir Gwaine? If I might have a word,' Arthur says behind them. 'It'll only take a moment. Go on, Merlin.'
'Yes, sire?' says Gwaine in that manner he has that gives the lie to his polite words.
'Merlin,' Arthur says. He doesn't know how to do this, or really, what he's doing, but there is one thing that is imperative, that he has to know. 'How is he?'
'Seems to be bearing up, I'd say,' Gwaine shrugs. 'You were watching him too, why ask me?'
'Because you had Merlin in your bed last night,' Arthur says bluntly. He holds up a hand before Gwaine can protest. 'Please, save your breath. I just want to know if he's recovering.'
Gwaine twists like a fish, pacing in front of Arthur for a minute, before he says 'I don't know about recovering. He's angry. And he's confused. He doesn't know what he wants, or what to do, but he's angry. I'll be surprised if Nimueh and her men leave here alive tomorrow. I've seen men in his state punch far above their weight, win against ridiculous odds.'
'Our plan isn't the strongest,' Arthur admits.
'We all know that. But it's the only one we have, and we have to field Merlin or we'll lose. And he needs to fight, Arthur, he needs to fight more than he needs anything else right now.'
'More than anything?' Arthur asks. 'More than whatever he was seeking in your bed last night?'
'It's the same thing,' Gwaine says, shrugging. 'He feels unmanned, and I don't blame him. Mordred gave him no choice at all over what they did. He wants to take action on his own authority. He wanted to make the choice last night, to do that again because he wanted to.'
'And did it help?' Arthur asks bitterly.
Gwaine ceases in his pacing and comes to stand in front of Arthur. 'Leon raised the alarm before we could make much of our opportunity,' he says, and Arthur can't decide if he's disappointed or relieved. 'Arthur, I won't lie to you. If he comes to me again, my answer will be the same. I'll help him, if he wants my help. And you have made no claim on him like that, so I won't feel bad for doing it, at least, not on your behalf. But you -'
'I know,' Arthur grits out. 'I should take him to bed.'
Gwaine cocks his head at Arthur, and then shakes it, slowly. 'No, Arthur,' he says. 'You should ask him to take you to bed.'
'I -' Arthur begins, then snaps his mouth shut. He runs his hands through his hair, twisting and pulling, trying to wrench out the right words. 'Gwaine, I -'
'I swear, I will do all I can for both of you,' Gwaine says in a low voice. 'But this is something you and he have to do for yourselves, Arthur.'
'And you?' Arthur asks, because he's not foolish enough to think Gwaine will be happy to step out of Arthur's way in this matter, nor cruel enough to expect that. 'You love him as much as I do.'
'I will be happy if Merlin is happy,' Gwaine says. 'That's all any man can hope for when he's in love.'
He stands there for another moment, then steps away, out of the room, leaving Arthur standing there, uncertain of what to do now.
There is a sound very like a throat being cleared, the noise someone makes when they wish to attract your attention, but it isn't quite - Arthur turns on his heel, expecting to see someone behind him.
I have a riddle for you, Arthur whispers Mordred in Arthur's skull. How can the most powerful man ever trust the men below him? By how they act towards him? But acting is acting. By how they speak with him? But they could be lying.
Then how? Arthur wonders. He doesn't bother speaking - Mordred is in the dungeons, he wouldn't be able to hear him. But the thoughts in Arthur's head he can still, apparently, hear.
By how they speak and act with the other men Mordred says. People are truthful only if they feel no threat, and even then, not always.
Can Mordred really help Arthur to win this battle and save Merlin? Or is he lying?
That's a question only you can answer to your own satisfaction. But I invite you to think about whether or not you are truly a threat to me
I could have him put to death this instant, Arthur thinks.
But I know you will not Mordred counters. Even Emrys didn't, when he had the chance, and he could have much more easily than you can. No, Arthur, you I can speak truthfully with, and you may speak truthfully with me at this moment, while I have no magic to speak of.
Arthur wonders what Mordred's plan is.
Very simple. You let me follow your knights through the wicket-gate, dressed as Merlin. We don't look too dissimilar. He has drained me of the majority of my magic, so I'll hardly be that much of a danger to your fine, strapping men.
He'll turn on us, is Arthur's immediate thought, as he stares off into space, sitting at the heavy table he holds his councils at. He can't be trusted.
I want my freedom. This is the easiest way to get it.
But he wants Merlin dead.
Far from it. I want Emrys to support our cause, not yours. Emrys dead is no use to anyone.
It makes Arthur angry to hear this brat talk about Merlin like that, as if he is an object. His fists clench. There's a ghostly laugh in his mind, humour, but laced with something bitter.
Why not? He's a means to an end to me, as he's a servant to you.
That's not -
Oh, but it is true - Arthur gets up and throws his chair at the wall, enraged. This Druid boy knows nothing about what Merlin is to Arthur. Nothing at all.
Arthur storms out of the room, and starts the long walk down, to the dungeons. Mordred keeps talking.
I have eyes and ears, Arthur, and I have people who bring me rumours, and I have the talent to see inside your mind, and I know exactly how you treat Emrys. You say you love him, but it's a lie. It's a lie, because if love were true, if your love were true, then you'd let him go to your knight, because Emrys's happiness would be your desire. Instead you treat him as if he were your property, as if he has less power than you, as if he has no desires worth respecting and no requests worth granting, because you don't trust him. And you don't trust him because he is of magic. That is all there is to it. You want him, and you think you love him, but it's a lie. You could never love magic, and you refuse to defile yourself by touching it even if your animal nature wants to have him. There's a breathless anger in Mordred's silent words, and something that hints at fright. Arthur's pace gets faster and faster down the stairs as the anger seethes in him.
He finishes up at the bars of Mordred's cell, breathing hard and rough. Mordred looks up at him with moon-pale blue eyes, darkly dilated because of the lack of light down here, and smiles a brittle smile.
'Emrys thinks he loves you too,' the Druid says in a faint voice. 'His mind is rotten with it. When I took him to bed with me, I needed his reaction to be genuine, you understand. Magic is sometimes so simple. He had to want.' Mordred coughs reedily. 'He thought of you.'
'Why are you telling me this?'
'For you to agree to my plan - for me to get my freedom - you will have to trust me at least a little. At least for now. To get that trust I must tell you the truth. It's a simple equation.'
The boy looks almost consumptive, wasting away. Arthur knows the food his jailers provide isn't that bad - there is something wrong here. 'What affliction are you suffering from?' he asks roughly.
Mordred laughs. 'One that will heal itself in time. Your Emrys took my magic. It will replenish, but I feel its loss for the time being.'
Arthur does not condone the use of torture. The idea that Merlin would - that he could do something like that … Arthur bites his lip.
'So will you agree?' Mordred asks. 'Will you let me be your decoy in exchange for my freedom?'
Arthur needs to talk to Merlin. To ask him, like he has to ask him so often, what exactly he thinks he's doing. But Mordred is right. This will work. At the very least it will buy them time. 'I agree,' he says. 'My men will come for you in the morning.'
As he leaves the dungeons, Mordred calls up after him 'Sleep well, Arthur,' and Arthur isn't sure if that's sarcasm that paints his tone or the reediness of malady.
It is shaping to be a long night. Merlin will spend it in his workroom, reading. In this one room he estimates there are some twenty books of magic, a good store. But none of them are the one he wants. He settles himself at the desk with his book, his oldest, his favourite, the one Gaius gave him so long ago. He has read it so many times, cover to cover, that he feels as if he could recite it. He knows every word. But he reads it again at times like this because new spells are not what will get him through battles. No. New spells are for learning in times of peace and plenty, when he can practice safely and carefully and no-one's life is at stake.
What he needs now is just to know the spells he knows, to hold them in his mind and the palm of his hand like Arthur holds a trusted blade. To know that whatever magic he uses, no matter how old, how crude, will work. So he pores over his old, favourite book, settling things in their right places in his mind.
Every so often his eyes and mind wander, and the wisps of colour and possibility that form the futures start to swim in front of his eyes. More red now, than before - the red of Pendragon livery rather than blood - and more silver, less gold, chainmail rather than magic drawing his gaze. But that scent is not the one he should be following tonight. Tonight he follows a different trail by necessity, so each time they arise, he shakes his head to dispel the visions of what could be, and concentrates on his book instead.
The door creaks open, then shut again. He doesn't look up, not really. His fingers are too busy tracing the jewel-bright paint of the illuminations on the page he's studying.
'Working hard?' Gwaine asks from behind him. He lays one hand on Merlin's shoulder. 'You should get some rest.'
Merlin half turns in his seat. 'I could go to bed,' he allows. 'But I wouldn't be able to rest.'
'I think we all feel like that, the night before a battle,' Gwaine says. He stands there and doesn't say anything else for a moment, and Merlin gets the feeling that there is something else he wants to say.
Merlin has no patience, this evening. He has work to do. 'Out with it, Gwaine,' he says. 'Tell me.'
Gwaine takes a breath, and says, 'I talked to Arthur. I told him he should come to you. I told him that you and I never - that he should be with you.' He drops his hand from Merlin's shoulder and leans against the table-edge instead, looking away and scrubbing his palm over his face. 'Merlin my friend, this is why I never used to stay more than one night in any town. This is such an ugly tangle.'
Merlin gets up, pushing away from the table in order to stand with Gwaine, to draw his face around to look at Merlin properly. 'Then we will stop pulling at it,' he says. 'We'll leave it be, yes? We have other things to worry about.' He peers into Gwaine's eyes, and then adds, with what he knows is a weak smile, 'and you need to get some rest, as well.' He starts to pull Gwaine back to his feet, to try and propel him toward the door, but Gwaine catches his wrist.
'And after this is done?'
'Then we'll see,' Merlin says, and pushes the knight out the door before he can say the things he wants to, like let's try again or please, Gwaine, because that moment is passed, maybe never to be recovered. Merlin is too tired to tease out the nuances of what he wants right now, anyway. He just wants for this to be over.
Rather than worry about the future, Merlin settles back to his book. But it does no real good. He turns a page, and turns the next, and the next, and before he knows it, dawn is threatening to break, and soon it will be time to muster. Merlin shuts the book. There is one place, and only one place, that he has to be before a battle. It is a duty he's never managed to let go of, despite Arthur taking on a new body-servant and Merlin taking on the role of physician instead.
He pads through the quiet, dark castle, flexing some warmth into his fingers and feeling pre-battle nerves weave themselves into a burning shield between him and the world, and pushes open the king's chamber door.
Arthur is waiting there in the light of a candle in his hose and gambeson, waiting to arm up.
'Ready?' he asks, as Merlin lifts the cuirass.
'Am I ever?' Merlin asks, half to himself.
Arthur catches his arm, twists him so that he has to meet Arthur's gaze. 'Always,' he says, in a low voice. 'I don't think I've ever seen you hesitate, not at a time like this.'
'You're a good leader,' Merlin says, pulling free to tighten straps. 'I follow you gladly. I always have. I always will.'
'You're my right arm, Merlin,' Arthur says. 'Without you I -'
'Without me, you'd still be who you are,' Merlin cuts him off, lifting the gorget into place. 'You might have done things differently, but you'd be the same man. The same king.'
'You know that isn't true.'
Merlin kneels to get Arthur's poleyns, and tries not to look up as he says, 'Don't talk like this. You're making me think this stupid skirmish will be our last battle.'
'I just want you to know -'
'I love you, Arthur,' Merlin says, and now he does look up, sitting back on his heels before Arthur feeling for all the world like he's swearing his fealty. 'And we are both coming back from this.'
Arthur puts a hand on Merlin's shoulder and coaxes him back up to stand. 'I know you took Mordred's power,' he says. It's not what he meant to say, judging by the look on his face - it's just something that's been stewing. His mouth curls unhappily, and he adds, 'I wouldn't cut a man's fingers off to make him talk.'
'But you'd take away his sword, wouldn't you,' Merlin replies. 'I know he looks sick now, but his magic will return. A man's fingers will not grow back.
'I don't like it.'
'I knew you wouldn't.'
'So why did you do it?'
'Because I knew you wouldn't.' The exchange of words is faster, lower, harsher than Merlin would like any exchange of words to be before a battle, but they need to be said, even if they shatter the calm that was here a second before. 'Wouldn't do it, not wouldn't like it,' he clarifies. 'Sometimes you're too noble for your own good, Arthur. Your father would have killed him as soon as look at him.'
There's Merlin's mistake, right there, in the flare of Arthur's nostrils before he gets a hold on his temper.
'I am not my father,' Arthur says in a stony voice. 'And as it so happens, your actions play into my hands. Mordred, powerless as he is now, is a part of our plan.'
Merlin feels his blood run like cold water in his veins, thin and weak and clear, at that. 'No,' he says. 'No.'
'Yes,' says Arthur, and cinches the buckles on his vambrances tight. 'Don't make this a battle between you and I, Merlin. You say you follow me gladly. Here's my judgement - we will use the tools we have.'
'If Mordred is a weapon, he's a double-edged one,' Merlin says, but even as he says it he knows Arthur won't budge. 'He'll cut us up as much as he can while we hold him.'
'We won't let him.'
Arguing with Arthur when he's like this, like he's taken the armour into his very being, has never been any use. Merlin gives up. 'I'll go to the wall-top,' he says. 'If you're finished with me?'
Arthur slaps Merlin on the back, before-battle camaraderie doing its best to hold on. 'I'm sending Gwaine up to keep an eye on you,' he says, and holds up a finger when Merlin would protest. 'If you want to be in my army, you will obey my orders, Master Sorcerer,' he says.
Normally Merlin would blow past that sort of order with a joke, with a foolish refusal that Arthur could snap at him for, and the proper bounds of their stations would be held to. But after the past few days of harsh necessities and not enough sleep, Merlin couldn't care less about propriety - truth is more important, and Arthur needs to know exactly how Merlin feels about his loyalty to Arthur. 'I'll always obey,' he says as fiercely as he can, knowing there's a touch of bitterness bleeding through in his tone. 'But Arthur, after this …'
'After this, we'll talk,' Arthur promises.
'After this, we'll do a lot of things,' Merlin says, just as there's a knock at the door.
'It's time,' says Leon.
Merlin leans in the shadowy space between two merlons and watches as Arthur and the knights jog out onto the field before the castle gates. Gwaine is standing there too, a shade behind him, with an easy hand on his bowstave and quiet, even breathing. Merlin is glad of his company and glad of the warmth, the ease, the awareness of each other, that flows between them. At another time that might have been the spark to light desire - right now it keeps them attuned, battle-ready.
'Do you know what you're going to do?' Gwaine asks quietly.
Merlin shrugs. 'Not until I see what she does first,' he replies, not looking around. Nimueh's forces are arrayed in a rough semi-circle, every man choosing his own place to stand, in stark contrast to the two straight lines of Arthur's men.
'Do you ever strike first?' Gwaine asks curiously. 'I don't think I've ever seen you attack.'
'It's not what it's for,' Merlin says. Nimueh is moving forward now, to meet Arthur in the space between their men, and trying to work out their conversation and her next move is distracting him from conversation. 'I won't use magic like that.'
Arthur and Nimueh bow stiffly at each other and then return to their troops without turning, both unwilling to risk showing their back to the enemy. And then there's a kerfuffle when the sorcerers note someone coming out of the wicket gate towards them, and Nimueh turns, and Merlin crouches, focuses, waits, hears Gwaine behind him with the creak of a bow bending and the silken ruffle of an arrow being drawn from the quiver.
It's unsettling how much Mordred looks like Merlin. It upsets Merlin somewhere in the pit of his stomach and the dark spaces of his brain, visceral and fundamentally I am not him, we are not the same, I do not do as he does, we are not kin, I will never be that, an utter rejection that is only as strong as it is because they are alike, or at least, somehow cut from the same cloth.
But we are different Merlin tells himself, wound tight and waiting. Someone is going to realise that that isn't Merlin soon. Soon. Soon -'
Merlin sees it the moment Nimueh's eyes clear and she knows … but he thought she would be happy. Her face has slipped into a rictus of terror, not the exultation he is familiar with on her perfect features and was expecting. She is unhappy to see Mordred, she is frightened.
'What's happening?' Gwaine asks from behind Merlin.
Merlin doesn't answer. He waits for Nimueh to act. She has to, she will do something - she didn't become as powerful as she is without mastering her fears, but she stares, and stares, and Mordred gets closer and closer.
Merlin doesn't realise he was holding his breath until he chokes. Mordred has thrown his arms up, and he's calling, calling to the magic Merlin took from him, that Merlin twisted into his own veins to keep it safe. Merlin drags in a breath harshly, lets the foreign magic go because there's no point fighting it - the call of like to like is too strong to struggle against unless Merlin wants to strangle on it. He'd probably win if he really wanted it, but it's not worth it, not for magic as toxic as Mordred's.
But the call goes on, even as Mordred's magic streams back to him - and suddenly Nimueh crumples, and there's more power than before floating in the air, lightning-charred power, tasting of burnt blue air and steam. Nimueh's power, that went to the grave with her and came back with her - Mordred is summoning it, and killing the witch as he does so.
Merlin watches as she twitches her last, feeling numb.
The Druids cluster around Mordred then, leaving Nimueh's body where it has fallen, like a stringless puppet. Merlin feels a stab to his heart for her, but there's no time.
Gwaine is hissing 'Merlin? Merlin? I've got a clear shot, should I -'
'No,' Merlin says, coming back to himself and testing frantically for any weakness in his own power where Mordred's clawed at it. There is none. None. He is whole. 'No, you wouldn't make it, he'll turn the arrow.'
'What do you want me to do?'
Merlin measures the distance from here to the ground. Perhaps three floors of the castle in height. Mordred is already looking up at him - his hiding-place is no hiding-place any more. He cannot sit here and snipe.
'Cover me against the other Druids,' he says, and jumps, and falls, and glides on his power spread behind him.
Even with the vast wing of his magic streaming out to keep him afloat, the landing is hard on Merlin's legs - they turn to jelly as he hits the ground and rolls. But there is no time to worry on the numbness and pinprick pains that stripe his muscles - Mordred is moving to the Druid line, where they seem less than surprised to see him, and Merlin in his turn has to strike for the knights, get between them and the enemy before they think to do anything clever, like charge.
So Merlin runs, drawing up the power he spread to help him fly and barely noticing the zip of arrows over his head as Gwaine fires on the Druids, who deflect his arrows while they have the concentration to. Merlin wishes Gwaine would save his shafts for when they will do good, but that's at the back of his mind, because the numbers-game he is about to play is occupying the forefront of it.
Arthur and a squad of knights to protect. Mordred and twenty Druids of varying strength to fight. Merlin's magic is a living thing inside him, counting and sniffing the air and snarling. It sees the odds and it likes the odds and …
… and that feeling that Merlin gets, that he could do anything, that there is nothing that could be a barrier to his power, that he can take what he wants and kill anyone who gets in his way and order the world to his liking, is starting to swamp him again. He pushes on. The world is not his to play with, not like that. He swirls a finger, calls out to the air and feels a wind start. The air was one of the first elements he heard calling him, and now it comes when he summons it, like an eager hunting-dog.
He plants himself in the middle of the field, between the two parties. 'Mordred,' he says, and he knows the young Druid will hear him even over the whistle of the wind. 'If you go now, I'll let you.'
It's not much of a warning or a threat - it's not much of anything really, except the naked truth. And it means Merlin doesn't have to say, if you don't leave, I'll kill you.
'You won't be able to stop me now,' Mordred says. 'I have her power as well as my own - together, they should be enough even for you, Emrys.'
'These men and this kingdom are under my protection,' Merlin calls through the howling air. 'I won't let you hurt them. I won't let you hurt the king, as long as I stand here.'
Mordred smiles, thin-lipped. 'You won't have to let me. Dead men have no defences, and I do not think you will be standing there for too much longer. Emrys, you don't seem to have realised. We will have this kingdom and this land back. Pendragon is the stumbling block to that, and you are the stumbling block to Pendragon. So either you move, or I will move you.'
'You can't match me,' Merlin says.
'Can't I? Even with the power of a Priestess of the Old Religion at my fingertips? I suppose we will find out,' says Mordred, and lashes out, snake-fast.
Merlin blocks, just. He's fought Mordred before, and he fought Nimueh years ago, and there is something awfully like a match between them and the way their magic slots together in Mordred's hands. It flays Merlin like a whip, cuts like a shard of glass at him as he deflects it, and around him he hears battle commence properly, knights against druids, but his focus is on Mordred.
It is like trying to hit a raindrop with a hammer. Mordred splinters and runnels away from him at every turn and comes back to strike again and again. Merlin twists like an eel to avoid it but keeps getting sliced. There's blood trickling down one side of his neck from his ear, he can feel the warmth, and Mordred, standing there in Merlin's clothes, looking too much like how Merlin remembers looking when he was younger and stupider and better at telling lies, appears unhurt.
You won't catch me, Mordred says. Maybe even with her added to me I can't crush you - and he sounds a little angry about that, - but I won't need to. You'll tire.
The air smells of battle, by which Merlin means it smells of mud and sweat and the tang of blood and the dull stench of smoke, and it tastes of silvery magic in the air. Merlin can't afford to stop and tend to the stitch in his side or the crusting cuts on his body, but he looks side to side, frantically, to find Arthur. The king is fighting for his life, his men formed up beside him. The Druids cannot stand up to the knights - they have no concept of teamwork and alone, their magic isn't the worth of a bean against Arthur's trained swordsmen - but if Mordred kills Merlin, that won't matter. The knights start to circle, to outflank. The Druids don't notice, or if they do, they have no notion of how to succeed against such tactics.
It seems like Arthur was looking for Merlin too, because for a flash their eyes lock. A Druid goes down, screaming, with one of Gwaine's white-fletched arrows in his throat, and the look is broken, but Merlin knows what he has to do now.
Mordred doesn't train his men into an army, because Mordred does not care how his men fare in a battle, Merlin realises. Mordred doesn't teach his men to work together because Mordred doesn't know how to work with others, and because if they can work together they could topple him. Mordred didn't even resurrect Nimueh for her skill or her guile or her help - he resurrected her to sacrifice her again for the sake of her power, to use her as a weapon.
Arthur is shouting something - Merlin can't hear the words properly. It doesn't matter. The earth is shaking under him and the rain is falling like it will never stop - Mordred and Nimueh and the Old Religion choose their weapons wisely and familiarly - but Merlin has the reins of the winds in one hand and a palmful of fire in the other, and he watched his mother at her spinning and weaving often enough to know how to do this trick.
With barely a word or a motion except for the flicking of his hands, Merlin weaves together air and unblinking flame into something like a fisherman's net - wide and fine-meshed and strong, to catch and hold with, big enough for person-sized prey. Let Mordred cut his way out of that with his power if he dares.
The knights have flanked the Druids, ringed them round, and Merlin is glad of that as he casts his net. He vaguely realises that the arrows have stopped flying.
A pretty trick says Mordred, but he sounds worried. He ducks, he shrugs, and the net still finds him, he dodges left, he dodges right and it still chases, so in the end he runs forward. The net catches up with him as he barrels into Merlin, and they go down together, trapped in the web Merlin made.
'Merlin!' Arthur shouts, somewhere behind, and Merlin twists his head to try and see his king just as Mordred produces a knife.
'Get back,' Merlin roars, shoving at the net with his hands and his mind, trying to find the opening so that he can slip out and leave Mordred caught, but he has to slide away from Mordred's jabbing blade time and again, and he can't find it, and if Arthur touches this net he will burn like a twist of dry grass in summer - Mordred is steeped in enough earth and water magic that he can shield himself, and Merlin built the net, they are both unharmed, so long as they keep some power about themselves. 'Arthur, get away, I'll handle this -'
Merlin rolls to one side as the knife comes down again, and sees Leon wrestle Arthur back to where his men are dealing with the last of the Druids before Mordred claims his attention again.
They're killing my men, Mordred says, his face masked in rage. They're killing magic, don't you care?
'You started this,' Merlin grits out, and knocks the knife away and out of the net. He pins Mordred down. 'If you cared about the future of magic in Camelot you'd help us rebuild, not try stupid stunts like this!'
There will be no future of magic in Camelot if you yoke it and make it pull your plough, Mordred spits inside their minds, the way he always talks when he's angry. All or nothing, Emrys.
He's struggling now, but he can't break Merlin's hold, so Merlin reels in the net.
Will I go back to your dungeons? Will Arthur burn me? For your precious justice and your precious Camelot under the rule of a Pendragon?
'You'll stand your trial and face your punishment,' Merlin says, the net's power absorbed back into his body, holding firm against Mordred's struggle.
The hell I will, snarls Mordred, and in a sudden show of strength he hurls Merlin off him and flings a double-handful of power at Arthur, and runs.
Merlin has not even a split-second to decide, and he doesn't need it. He dives after Arthur, leaving Mordred to bolt, more like a hare than the rat he is. Whatever spell it was that Mordred threw, it burns blue afterimages like the sun on the inside of Merlin's eyelids, and it screams through the air like a hawk, fast, fast, faster, and Merlin has to reach out his hands to stop it, to throw a barrier in front of it - and the world goes white like it did when Merlin's lightning struck Nimueh.
Merlin reels at the force of it, but stays standing. When his vision clears though, Arthur is on the ground, pale amongst the bodies of the dead and the bound, struggling forms of the live Druids - see, Mordred, they have not all died -
'No, no, no,' says Merlin, falling and crawling. 'No, no -'
Flashes of visions, the scrying he has fought so long to learn now coming unbidden, scrape over his eyes - blood, cloaks, chainmail, a charge, a Pendragon banner waving brightly, a kiss, two silhouettes on a skyline, Camelot torn down by catapults, dragons in formation in the sky - and Merlin scrubs frantically at his face to try to shift them, to see the now and the king almost at the tips of his fingers -
Leon is beside him, drags him to his feet, and together they get to Arthur - the knights part to let them in. He's so still. Merlin can't bear it. 'Arthur -'
'He's breathing,' Leon says, pulling Merlin's hands to Arthur's chest, to show him, to feel it rise and fall, to his mouth where the breath rises warm and wet against Merlin's palm. There's a clatter behind them and Gwaine, Elyan and Percival race up.
'We saw him fall,' Gwaine rasps, 'Is he -' and Merlin is suddenly struck sideways, as one tends to be in moments of panic, by the memory that when Arthur called for him he left Gwaine's bed without a second thought - and Gwaine came after him, without a word, without a thought either - came after him, to Arthur's side -
Elyan's fingers find the pulse in Arthur's throat, and he sags in relief. Percival moves to pick Arthur up, but Merlin stops him - Arthur's spine must be checked for damage before he can move. He starts that job, glad to have a reason not to look at anyone.
'Will he live?' Gwaine asks, his breathing back to normal. Merlin wishes he had that strength - his own heart is beating like a drum in his chest and his lungs can't seem to catch as much air as they'd like.
'He's fine,' says Leon, loud, for the benefit of their men and those Druids still able to hear.
Gwaine nods, hard. 'I'll go,' he says, jerking his head out in the direction Mordred took. 'I'll bring him back.'
'No,' says Leon. 'We need to get his Majesty inside. We need to get him well again, and while we wait for that, we can't split our forces.'
Merlin lets them talk. They know more than he does about defence strategies. He carefully keeps feeling about Arthur's head and neck, checking for spaces and bruises and angles that shouldn't be there. When he finds none, he starts to strip Arthur of his stupid heavy plate. It feels wrong, doing it here on the battlefield with Arthur unconscious, but it has to be done. When it's all fallen away, useless, Merlin heaves Arthur across his shoulder as best he can, and staggering a little, starts towards the castle. Even without his armour, Arthur is heavy.
Five strained paces later Merlin feels the burden lessen. Percival has fallen into step with him, lifting and bearing some of the weight of their fallen king into his keep.
Gwaine doesn't like it. He saw Arthur fall and he saw the power that felled him, and while he knows first-hand how expert the doctoring is that Merlin learnt from Gaius, Merlin can't heal. His magic isn't that kind, it seems. So after seeing the cold-flickering fire that dropped Arthur, the weakness of his breath and the chilly, sweaty pallor of his brow as they carried him into the castle, it seems odd to Gwaine that he's so hearty a day later.
'It only knocked him out,' Merlin says, distractedly, when Gwaine tries to bring it up. 'It was just a push, Gwaine. I know it looked showy, but honestly. You're overreacting.'
He's tidying up his workroom. There are books with disturbing illustrations scattered around and they swept a good deal of parchment and poultices and herbs to the floor in their haste in bringing Arthur here to be doctored, and all of this needs to be picked up.
'Just be wary,' Gwaine says. 'Leon's given me two squads, and I'm going to search for Mordred -' again, he adds mentally, '- but that means the castle's garrison isn't going to be up to strength. Promise me you won't let your guard down.'
'Gwaine,' Merlin says, stopping for a second and holding a hand up. He's smiling, which is a sight Gwaine had almost given up hope of seeing again. 'We have Arthur, don't forget. And Leon, and Percival and Elyan, and all the squads you aren't taking, and I might just about be able to muster some strength if needed. We'll be fine.'
The birds are starting to sing and the sun is starting to slide over the horizon. Gwaine doesn't have the time to stay and try to explain his fears to Merlin, and in this moment, with the earliest rays of the sun pricking their way through the dust on the windowpanes and the vestiges of that smile still lingering on Merlin's face, he doesn't have the heart. He offers up a brief, desperate prayer that Merlin's right, that Arthur is fine, that this is nothing more than the paranoia of an ex-drunkard, and makes for the stables.
Mordred's body is hidden somewhere in the dark and the damp, and he is not using it.
The world is different from behind Arthur's eyes, but not that different. This body fights him still, but he has its reins too tightly held for it to do much beyond the flicker of an eye, the tremor of a finger. Arthur sees the world in a riot of colours and contrasts of texture that Mordred has not experienced before - they both startle at movement, though, and they both often move, react, before they think.
This body has no magic, none of that sense of connection to the earth that Mordred is used to, however, and where Mordred would reach for his power when startled, Arthur will reach for a weapon. That takes some adjusting to.
For the most part, and even if this was not how he'd meant things to go, Mordred is happy with how his plan has worked. Using Nimueh's power has given him control of Arthur, and through that he has control of Camelot. It isn't conquest, but it's a start.
He cannot stay like this for too long - if his own body dies, he will die, and it will all have been for nothing. He cast strong spells on himself first, though, before sending his soul back through the magic he latched onto Arthur with - he has weeks at least. He will take control. He will repeal any and all laws on magic that Camelot has. He will order things as he wants, and then to seal the bargain he will walk Arthur away and have him take his own life, heirless, and then Camelot will be free for the taking.
It should not take more than a few days, if he is clever and quick. The nobles and the knights will hesitate before conniving against him, provided he works speedily and does nothing too untoward or overt or un-Arthur-ish.
It is the perfect strategy, until Mordred sees Merlin coming out of his chambers one morning, and has to clench his hands into fists to stop himself from reaching out. He knew that his and Arthur's desires coincided here. But to feel the depth and breadth of physical attraction in Arthur's body is something else, something new. Something he cannot ignore.
Merlin notices him, and smiles. Mordred makes the body smile back, and realises he doesn't need his magic to see what's lurking in Merlin's mind.
Well then. He can do everyone a kindness. A favour. After all, it's what they all want.
'Do you ever rest?' Arthur asks, putting a hand on Merlin's shoulder. 'You've been in here all day.'
Merlin hadn't seen him in the shadows, and startles. 'I'm fine,' he says, smiling. 'There was a lot of work to do,' he adds, by way of explanation. 'We made a bit of mess, getting you back on your feet.'
'Still, you should relax,' Arthur says. 'Come, have supper with me tonight.'
'That would be nice,' Merlin admits. His shoulders and back ache from bending and straightening, picking things up and putting them on shelves all day, and worse, he's been alone all day. He still cannot shake his circling thoughts when he's alone. This slowly-returning normality is the best balm, he knows that, but it takes time. He doesn't like himself much after a battle. A quiet, mildly social evening would ease him. 'Shall I tell Leon and Elyan and Percival?' It's a shame that Gwaine is off on patrol.
'Why?' asks Arthur, looking puzzled. 'I thought, just you and I.' Merlin's expression must be curious, because Arthur adds, 'I'm tired still. I just fancy a little quiet company, that's all.'
Which is perfectly reasonable. 'Oh, of course,' Merlin says, unsure of why this throws him.
Arthur smiles, and claps Merlin on the shoulder again. 'Excellent.'
He walks off, towards the council chambers. Merlin notes with a little knot of worry that his stride is still not quite back to normal - he walks a little more slowly, less determinedly, than usual. Perhaps the jarring to his spine was more severe than Merlin had thought. Not that Arthur would ever complain if he was in pain, of course.
With that in mind, Merlin goes back into his now-tidied workroom and takes down the ingredients for the posset Gaius used to give Uther for the pain in his bones. This could be nothing, it could be tiredness or stiffness only, but better safe than sorry. At the very least, the drink will help Arthur to sleep.
He drops a cork under the bench as he starts to decant the mixture into a little bottle, and when he drops to his knees to retrieve it, he realises that his cleaning efforts weren't as thorough as he might have liked - there is a sheaf of papers down here, and a book, shuffled with lengths of string and brittle, aromatic stems of dried rosemary. He scrapes the whole mess together one-handed and picks it up, meaning to sort it and file the documents away.
He tugs some leaves of paper out from where they've been trapped inside the book, opening it in the process. The page it opens to shows two men and a goblet, and Merlin's mind goes blank-white-hot in the space of a breath. He slams down the bottle of pain-killer onto the book in his haste to get the image out of his sight, and ends up spilling medicine all over the fine calligraphy and gold leaf. He cannot bring himself to wipe it up. His hands are shaking.
But Arthur may need that posset. Merlin shovels the entire bundle of book, papers and herbs and streaky wet potion into a pile in the corner of the room, to be dealt with later, and makes the medicine over again, carefully mixing and shaking and judging colour even though his breathing is shaky and his fingers are betraying him, not moving with their usual surety.
His calm slowly ekes back as the dusk descends and he makes his way across the torchlit courtyard to Arthur's rooms in the inner keep, and by the time he knocks, he almost feels himself again.
The room is lit warmly with firelight already. Arthur sits at his table, dressed in an old, soft pair of breeches and a thin shirt - informally. Comfortably. He gestures Merlin over. 'Come and sit,' he says with a smile, and Merlin wonders what has pleased Arthur so much that he's this familiar tonight.
Merlin sits opposite Arthur, setting the little bottle down before him. 'What's that?' Arthur asks, still friendly, which is odd, but Merlin is more concerned with trying to check for evidence that he's hurting and hiding it (because if Arthur can walk and talk, he will never admit to infirmity), to be honest, than with his manner.
'Oh. I made it for you,' Merlin says, trying to tame the stiltedness of his voice. 'I noticed you looked a little stiff earlier, so I made you up a remedy. Gaius always used to use this one for your father.'
As soon as he says the words, Merlin winces, waits for Arthur to bite his lip and pretend the reminder doesn't cut him, but instead he smiles and reaches across the table to take the bottle. Their fingers brush. 'That's very thoughtful, thank you,' Arthur says.
'I'm starting to wonder if that knock on the head was harder than I thought.' Merlin tries to make it a joke, because the air in the room seems to have suddenly become warmer and closer. God, he wants to kiss him so badly, wants to taste him. 'What happened to the Arthur I know?'
Arthur takes Merlin's hand. Merlin's breath hitches. 'He got a knock on the head and started to see some sense,' Arthur says in a low voice. 'He started to see what he could have, if only he weren't so stubborn.'
'Arthur -' Merlin can't look away. Arthur's eyes are holding him, looking for something in him, and his fingers are tight between Merlin's. He gets up, walks around the table to where Merlin is sitting.
Merlin is forced to look up at Arthur then, with their hands still clasped tight. He shivers, because oh, he lusts still, after everything, he craves -
'Tell me you want this,' Arthur breathes, and Merlin's chest constricts, because he does, he does, so strongly and hungrily. Arthur pulls Merlin to his feet, seeks his mouth, and they kiss, and so Merlin hasn't the opportunity to actually answer Arthur's question, to tell him yes, that he wants this, he wants Arthur.
This is almost what he'd imagined - the need of it, the speed of it. Arthur finally, finally actually telling him what he wants. He hangs on as Arthur bears him to the bed, and then he slides his hands up under Arthur's shirt, the way he's wanted to for so long.
Arthur is quiet, breathing harshly and raggedly, and that throws Merlin a little, that silence - he keeps straining his ears to hear chanting that isn't there - but it's Arthur, Arthur under his hands, he'd know the feel of that body anywhere.
'Come on,' he says, trying to get Arthur's breeches undone. He wants Arthur to just lift a little, but instead he climbs off, strips himself fully while Merlin watches. He shows himself off, running a hand up his thigh, and then he turns his attention to Merlin. There's something oddly hesitant about the way he looks when he opens Merlin's shirt and trousers, and pulls them off, but then he crawls back onto the bed and nothing is hesitant at all - he takes Merlin's hands and places them where he wants, he rolls Merlin to his side and stretches out behind him, and Merlin cannot help but do as he's told, thrown and overwhelmed and wanting to touch so badly.
He wants Arthur to speak, though. He wants him to talk, to moan, to say something, but Arthur stays almost completely silent.
This isn't familiar. Merlin won't let it be. Perhaps there are similarities to … to Mordred, but it doesn't count. It doesn't. That wasn't this. That was a fight by other means. This is Merlin and Arthur, and he loves Arthur, and he's fairly certain Arthur loves him. This isn't the same.
And then Arthur nudges Merlin's knee up a little higher with his hand and says, quietly and hoarsely, 'Spread for me.' His hands tremble as he does it.
Merlin freezes. No. No, no, no. Not like that. Not those words.
'Come on,' Arthur says, and gentles him into position. He can't know. It isn't his fault, he can't know. 'Merlin, open up.' His voice is soft and his hands are kind on Merlin's skin. 'It's just me,' he says, breath hot in Merlin's ear, and that's nice, that's familiar, and it is just Arthur, so Merlin makes himself relax - sighs and shoves the tension away.
Arthur's fingers are keen and steady, and the feeling of him inside Merlin's body is so true and sure that Merlin can almost put the fright out of his mind. They roll, eventually, so that Merlin is sprawled across the bed with Arthur braced above him.
Arthur still won't speak. Merlin has sound curling out of him despite his every effort, but Arthur just breathes like he's concentrating, until he comes, and then there's a broken noise from his throat, desperate, and he pulls Merlin's head around to kiss him, and that's when Merlin's body lets go, and he spends into Arthur's sheets with a whimper.
There's a moment, just a moment, when Merlin thinks he could curl up here and sleep for forever, and he's reminded of Gwaine telling him they do it because they want to. He wanted to. And now it's done. Sleep ...
But then Arthur pulls away, gets up to clean himself off with a discarded shirt, and pull his breeches back on. 'Stay?' Merlin asks him in a soft voice. He just wants to hold him at last, that's all. He just wants to have a moment, a second, to be Merlin and Arthur alone, stripped of their roles and lives and destinies.
'I can't,' Arthur says, doing up his belt. 'I still have documents to deal with,' he adds as he drags his shirt on. 'You'll be able to see yourself out, won't you?' He seems like he's in a terrible hurry, for a man who said he wanted a night to himself with some quiet company. He seems like he's running, the way - Merlin hates himself for thinking it, but - the way Merlin left Mordred's tent. Head held high, measured stride, and running nevertheless.
The door closes behind Arthur, leaving Merlin alone with himself in this room that smells of warm skin and tastes of sweat. And that, more than anything, is how this should not have ended.
Even spells cannot keep the heart in Mordred's body quiet. He would swear it thumped like a drum, far away from him in the dark.
He leans against the wall in an alcove after he's wrestled himself clothed and out of Arthur's chambers. His breathing is under his control, but his heart and the pounding of his blood is involuntary.
The difference between what he has just done and what he did in his tent in the woods is in Merlin's actions, in his reactions. Mordred was right - Merlin thinks he loves Arthur. Amazing how that colours things, amazing how it changes things, even though the scene was acted out almost exactly as before. It makes no sense.
Still, at least now he has it out of his system. It was foolish, but hardly time-consuming. He bites his lip and tries once more to stifle the thundering of his blood, and then shakes himself. He has more important things to deal with now than weaknesses of the flesh.
One of his fists clenches without his permission. Of course, he forgets. This is not his flesh. No matter, though - it will do as he bids. He walks it through the castle to the library, one foot in front of the other, trying to master the broad-shouldered, unstoppable stride that is so characteristic of Arthur that Merlin noticed he wasn't using it.
The librarian, a fat, pale old man whose air of wisdom is nothing more than a veil of boring, useless facts hiding no power at all, is clearly unimpressed to be interrupted in his late-evening reading, but Arthur (Mordred-as-Arthur) is the King, and cannot, will not, be refused.
Uther's decrees on the ban of magic in Camelot are short and brutal - Arthur's amendments are but tiny cracks in the armour they represent, just to allow his special little exception, just to allow Emrys. Mordred will need some time to think of the correct form of words to have the laws rewritten, but not that much time. He takes the stack of papers, ignoring the fat librarian's unhappy expression. He is the king. The documents are his to move as he wishes.
His chambers are empty and cold when he returns. He puts the papers on the table, and looks around for a moment at the tallow candles in the candelabrum, and velvet curtains holding the night outside. It is everything a king should expect.
Mordred will enjoy it while he has it, and perhaps one day soon it will be his by conquest rather than by subterfuge.
He keeps moving - touching, feeling, considering the trappings of royal life. Everything from the smooth stone of the walls to the size of the bed is excessive and ostentatious. He slides a hand over the walls as he approaches the bed. The smell of sex lingers there. He circles the mattress, stroking the sheets lightly, curiously. He wants it stronger. Dragging his fingers across the cloth, feeling the coldness, the damp places, he can track the wrinkles and rumples from the drag of bodies across it earlier. He wants it again.
Normally he isn't given to impulsiveness, but he can hardly be blamed. And he isn't the only person to be hungry for this, either. The want of this body isn't solely due to his mind's desires, and Merlin … oh Merlin. Mordred saw his hunger when he took Merlin for the first time, and felt it again not an hour ago in this very room, as well.
The flicker of the slowly dying candlelight draws his attention to the dulled, warm-yellow brass fittings on a door that nestles near to the bed-head. The door must join this room to another, rather than to the hallway. And whose chambers would a king's adjoin, but the queen's?
Arthur has no queen. But Mordred can guess who might be trusted enough, close enough, to occupy those rooms.
He tries the handle only to find that it will not give. However, Arthur keeps his keys in a drawer in his ornately-carved bureau. One of them will surely fit that lock. Mordred likes little problems like this, with solutions clear step after step. He will open the door. Whatever feeble, moral reason Arthur thought he had to keep it sealed is hardly applicable now. Merlin will be on the other side, waiting for him. They will come together again.
Mordred can never understand why people make things so difficult for themselves.
The handle turns, and Mordred steps through. 'Merlin,' he says in Arthur's voice, tasting the way arousal makes it hum low in his throat, so much deeper than it would be in his own.
Merlin, in his nightshirt, turns away from where he was extinguishing the last few of his candles. 'Arthur?' he says, and there is something uncertain in his manner. Mordred wishes for his power and has to stop the body from reaching for its belt-knife in reaction. A knife will not help him read Merlin, although the idea of it is intoxicating, a sharp blade against all of that milk-white skin ...
Maybe one day he will hurt Merlin and Merlin will want it.
'Will you come to bed with me?' Mordred asks, direct and entitled and perfectly Arthur. Having had it once he would not hesitate to ask a second time, surely. And Merlin never says no to Arthur.
But this time Merlin hesitates, fiddling with the candle-extinguisher, and then says softly the one thing Mordred was sure he wouldn't. 'No, sire.'
There is a tremor in Arthur's face that feels like the ghost of a triumphant smile. Mordred forces Arthur down, but he cannot stop himself from bunching his hand into a fist.
The sound of twenty-one sets of horses' shoes clattering into Camelot's courtyard is one of the most welcome sounds Gwaine has ever heard, particularly because the twenty-first horse belongs to him.
They did not find Mordred. On the other hand, Camelot is still standing and both Arthur and Merlin come out to meet the returning patrol, and right now Gwaine will take that as a minor victory in its own right.
Arthur is smiling, but he doesn't greet the men as heartily as he normally does. Merlin stands behind Arthur's shoulder like a shadow, in his usual manner, but he is not smiling, and usually he would. Gwaine is struck once more by the odd sensation of wrongness that seized him before he took the patrol out.
'Merlin, my friend!' Gwaine says loudly as he dismounts, and he sweeps the sorcerer into an embrace. Merlin goes stiffly, although he relaxes into it after a split second. 'What's the matter?' Gwaine murmurs in Merlin's ear as he holds him.
Merlin pulls back, and shakes his head minutely before stepping back to allow Arthur to clasp Gwaine's hand.
'Did you find the Druid boy?' he asks, squeezing Gwaine's fingers perhaps a tiny bit tighter than he would ordinarily. Gwaine returns the pressure with a level, friendly look.
'I'm afraid we found no trace of him,' Gwaine says. 'But we made a thorough sweep of the lands around the castle. He ran far, your Highness. Far and fast.'
'So it would appear,' says Arthur. He turns to lead the way back into the castle, and Merlin turns with him. As he does so Gwaine looks down and sees the shadow of a bruise on his wrist, and his entire body goes cold, slow, suspicious as the feeling of victory he felt not five minute ago recedes like the tide.
'What's wrong?' Gwaine asks Merlin, cornering him in his workroom late at night. Merlin should be in his bedchamber, he knows that, but he … but he can't face Arthur opening the door between them again, the one that should, he knows now, have always stayed locked. 'What did he do to you?'
'I don't know what you mean,' Merlin says, but he knows he's a poor liar.
'I mean Arthur.' Gwaine says, his eyes hard. 'What did he do to you?'
'Nothing.' Merlin turns away, searching for something to do that means he doesn't have to look at his friend.
Gwaine doesn't touch him, or try to drag him around so they can talk face to face, which Merlin is grateful for somewhere in his heart, but he doesn't leave, either. 'Did you and Arthur go to bed?' he asks, eventually, and his voice is deep and hurting like a sword-cut.
'Yes,' Merlin says quietly. 'I'm sorry, Gwaine.' And he is. Sorry. Sorry that he ever did that with anyone, sorry for leading Gwaine on. Sorry for not killing Mordred when he had the opportunity.
'Did he hurt you?'
'He didn't mean to. He's not himself.' It comes out as a whisper, and the room is so quiet around them that Merlin can hear Gwaine's intake of breath at that.
'There's something wrong with him, Merlin. This isn't … he wouldn't do this, not to you.' And Gwaine steps up into Merlin's space and reaches for his arm as Merlin turns to look at him. Merlin hisses as Gwaine's fingers find his bruises. 'Did he force you?'
'God no!' Merlin says, the words shocked out of him. 'No, he just. Afterwards. He asked again, and I said no.'
'And he hurt you.'
'It wasn't like that.' Merlin doesn't know how to describe it, the look of sudden, alien anger in Arthur's face, the snakelike speed he grabbed Merlin with, and then the force he shoved himself away with before Merlin could even react, leaving behind nothing but a painful ring of marks and the echoing sound of the door slamming. 'He's been through so much. God knows what Mordred's magic did to him. We just have to be patient.'
'And let him do this to you again?'
'How do you know?' Gwaine says, dropping Merlin's wrist and stepping back again like he's trying to not crowd him, like Merlin needs space. Maybe he does. He's not sure.
'Because I won't be there to tempt him,' Merlin says. He nods at the little antechamber that used to be his room and which he now keeps made up for patients who need time to recuperate or to be kept under observation. 'It's my fault. I should never have let him persuade me.'
'Don't put this all on yourself,' Gwaine says. 'He's a man grown as much as you are, and his mistakes are his own.' He gives Merlin a pat on the shoulder that's almost tentative. 'It's late. You should go to bed,' he says, and points up the little flight of stairs as if he's Merlin's mother, then starts to leave.
'Where are you going?' Merlin asks harshly, because he doesn't like the look on his friend's face - too angry and closed off for the Gwaine he knows - and he can feel something similar sliding over his features. Go to bed, indeed.
'To talk to Arthur,' Gwaine says, and shuts the door behind him. Merlin has heard that noise too often lately for his liking. It takes all of his strength to calm the snappish, irrational anger it strikes within him, but he has to. There's no use in it - he has bigger problems at this moment.
Mordred is losing control of the body. Of Arthur. Whether or not this is because his own body is calling his consciousness back or because Arthur is somehow fighting him from within, he doesn't know. All he knows is that he reached for Merlin and the body, unbidden, wrenched him back.
He paces Arthur's room like a caged lion, considering. If it comes to it, he will simply make a sweeping proclamation and have Arthur ride out to his death. The disadvantages are that such an act will be inelegant and unstealthy; the advantages are that it will be swift and sow chaos by its speed.
Mordred had hoped to have time to frame it as benevolent King Arthur's gift to his magical subjects, or a sop to his faithful sorcerer, or similar romanticised nonsense. But even as he thinks it he feels his fingers - Arthur's fingers - twitch again, and knows he hasn't the time to waste on verisimilitude.
He is about to sit down with the documents he took from the library - he will burn those afterwards, to slow down anyone who wishes to reinstate past laws - when there is a sudden and thunderous knocking at the door.
Mordred ignores it at first, but whoever it is is both loud and persistent. Not a servant, clearly, and unlikely to be one of the courtiers, who might knock at such a late hour but would never be so insistent. A knight, then, and one who feels some urgency behind his wish for an audience. Mordred needs the knights, for now. The knights are a buffer between Arthur and the court - if Mordred can keep up his pretense long enough, their trust in him will allay any suspicions on the part of others. So he gets up to open the door, and ignores the bite of fingernails into the palm of his hands. Let Arthur abuse his own body if he must. Mordred has been accustomed to far worse through his life - he will endure anything he has to to see the reign of the Pendragons ended.
He yanks the door open, contriving a patient expression, to admit Gwaine. He looks tired, this most erratic of Arthur's knights. And he looks angry.
'Gwaine,' Mordred says, inclining his head and affecting an Arthurish tone. He would prefer not to let Gwaine in, but the knight pushes past him brashly into the royal chambers. He stalks to the table, then wheels to face Mordred as he closes the door behind them.
'I know you're the king, and that you'll do as you please,' Gwaine starts, in a low, urgent voice. 'And Lord knows it's not as if you've taken my advice about Merlin before. But if you hurt him again, Arthur, you and I will have a problem.'
It's a threat. It's not veiled or softened in any way, and Mordred has been hunted by this man before and knows, in the visceral way of prey, that he can believe this - that Gwaine means every word. Arthur would not care overly, or at least, would not be afraid, but Mordred is, for all that he cannot show it.
'I haven't hurt him,' Mordred says. His acting is slipping, and he claws for Arthur's phrases, Arthur's mannerisms. He's made such a study of them, why do they elude him at moments like this? 'Why would I ever hurt Merlin?' He widens his eyes.
Gwaine's expression sharpens. 'I don't know,' he says. 'But you did - I saw the marks, Arthur, you can't deny bruises, or that you're the only person he would let put them there.'
Mordred's voice freezes in his throat as if someone is choking him, and try as he might he cannot retort. One second passes, two, and Gwaine starts to look at him strangely, then around the room as if there is something to be suspicious of, and he spies the papers on the table.
'These are the magic laws, aren't they?' he asks, reaching for a sheet of parchment.
Mordred wrests his vocal chords from what must be Arthur's obstinate grasp and hisses, 'That's none of your business,' lunging forwards and knocking the document from Gwaine's hand. 'Leave me,' Mordred growls. 'Leave.'
Gwaine moves for the door, but the way he looks at Mordred - Mordred has lost him now. Gwaine knows that this is not all that it seems, and if Gwaine knows then the other knights will soon, for he will tell them. Perhaps they will not believe him at first, perhaps they will all come around sniffing for confirmation of their own, one way or the other, but it won't be long now.
'Touch Merlin again without his permission and I'll kill you, king or not,' Gwaine says quietly as he opens the door. 'Let them call me regicide - at least no-one will call me faithless to my friends.'
Mordred holds his stare until the knight leaves, but his fear makes Arthur's heart beat rabbit-quick beneath his breast. Tomorrow. Mordred must make his move tomorrow, or this will all come tumbling down around him.
The tiny room that now serves as the castle infirmary was the first private space Merlin ever had, and in a way it remains the only space that is truly his alone. He had traded it once for the manservant's quarters outside the chambers Arthur occupied as Prince, and then for a nobleman's rooms when Arthur became King and decreed that Merlin should be his adviser, and then again for the Queen's suite after Gwen's betrayal. The court had thought that odd - Merlin still wonders a bit at it himself from time to time - but Arthur had brooked no argument, and the connecting door had always been locked, at least, until recently …
But none of those places had felt to Merlin like anything other than somewhere to sleep, not really. Whereas the physician's quarters, and this little infirmary, have been Merlin's place since he arrived in Camelot. He still feels territorial here, still feels safe. Still feels strong.
He falls asleep swaddled in old brown blankets, wakes to sunlight on his face through the unshuttered window, to the smell of drying herbs, sharp and cloying by turns, and it settles something in him. He breathes in the morning, and thinks of the poultices he has to make, the bandages that need rolling, the people of the castle who will have need of him. Arthur and the knights will be sparring by now, and one of them may strain a tendon or fall too heavily on a wrist. Later on, Merlin will take the polishing cloths and sand and deal to Arthur's armour with elbow-grease and spells of protection.
Dressing is quick when you don't have to wear court clothes, and breakfast is quicker when you don't take it - Merlin washes his face in the dregs of a bucket of water he'd drawn yesterday for cleaning with, and sets about his morning.
'My lord physician!' someone calls through the open door to the main chamber. It's a page-boy, clearly a new one - they all start off addressing Merlin formally, until they realise that nine times out of ten he doesn't realise they're speaking to him - and he looks a little out of breath. 'The King requests your presence by his side in the audience chamber at once. The entire court is to attend.'
And all of a sudden the bruises snap back tight around Merlin's wrist, cutting into his awareness when they'd fogged over during the night, and Gwaine's words about being on his guard, about how Arthur isn't himself, write themselves afresh into Merlin's mind. Arthur should be training with the knights at this hour, with the dew still fresh on the grass and the sun still low and pale golden and cool. Court functions are for the afternoons and the evenings, when everyone has attended to their business for the day. A summons in the morning bodes badly.
'Thanks,' Merlin says, putting down the jar of dried feverfew he was examining. 'I'll just go and change -'
'I - I don't think there's time,' the boy says, uncertainly. 'And his Majesty wasn't in formal gear -'
'All right,' says Merlin. 'All right -'
He's dithering. There shouldn't even be a question here as to what he should be doing - going to Arthur's side. He's been called to heel, after all. So he does, he goes, but he's thinking about it, as if there were another option. As if he doesn't want to. As if it's not the right thing to do, or -
Or as if it isn't Arthur he's going to at all.
In response to the page-boy's agitation, he breaks into a jogging run, and even then, a good portion of the court is assembled before they get there. Arthur looks up as the guards let Merlin in, and motions him up to the front. He's dressed in hunting gear, as if he's about to go somewhere, and there is a scroll on the seat of his throne.
'Arthur?' Merlin says quietly as he approaches. 'What's happening?'
'Something that should have happened a long time ago,' Arthur says, and he claps a hand on Merlin's shoulder, aggressive-friendly. Before he lets go, though, his fingers tighten oddly. Merlin looks into his face, and … there's a flash of, there's something -
'Ah, Leon,' Arthur says loudly, stepping forward out of Merlin's space, beckoning. The last few have entered - Leon, Elyan and Gwaine amongst them, and Arthur gestures the knights to stand with him. The guards take their places by the great doors.
Gwaine slides into place beside Merlin, but says nothing. Merlin is still half-angry with him for his attitude last night, but one look at his face, drawn and tense, dispels that. Merlin goes to ask him what the matter is, but he shakes his head, mouths Later -
'People of Camelot!' Arthur says, and the room quietens. 'I have called you here to make official something which has been true but shamefully hidden for some years. I wish to make a proclamation, so that all who dwell in Camelot will know, that the ban on magic has been lifted within this realm. The practice of sorcery, for so long and so unjustly adjudged a capital crime in all cases, is now free and welcomed within Camelot's borders.'
Dimly, Merlin registers Gwaine's hand nudging his, the bump of Elyan's shoulder, Leon's smile, but it's Arthur's face that he watches - the sun gilding his features and spangling the dust in the air, and the naked triumph in his expression as he watches the consternation of the nobles. For so long as Arthur has been king, magic has been illegal just as it was in his father's day, save for by Arthur's express order - Merlin's use has been in battle and mostly kept from the eyes of the people.
'And as my first act under this change to our law will be to extend an official pardon to our Court Physician - and battle-mage - Merlin,' Arthur says, and takes Merlin by the wrist to pull him forward into view. There is a fierce light in his eyes and his lips twist into a smile that isn't his own.
But Arthur gave Merlin his pardon long ago - the first night he was King, in fact - and he had done it in this very room, the pair of them alone and wholly focused on each other, still a little unbelieving that their lives had finally brought them to this pass.
'It has to be secret for now,' Arthur had said gravely, clasping Merlin's shoulder. They had stood an arm's length from each other, and Arthur had been wearing his court clothes; his great red cloak and his sword girt at his side, but his crown was on the long council table. 'But I cannot let another moment pass in which you think I do not value you, or your loyalty, or your sacrifices for me.'
Of course, the next morning they were back to 'prat' and 'idiot' and smirks and glares as normal, but something of that evening kept on in the way Arthur touched Merlin's shoulders sometimes, or they way they caught each other's eye over the heads of a crowd. The title had come later, and the place of physician, but they had all followed from the twining of Arthur's cautious, measured tactics and Merlin's fierce refusal to have his main advantage taken away in the name of forgiveness that he didn't want, didn't need. He doesn't need recognition, he doesn't need a clean slate, he needs the ability to do his work and the certainty that his work is right.
If magic is free for use, if sorcerers may have their grievances heard, may be hired by others as swordsmen are, then when Merlin goes to strike he will always have to hesitate first. This will change him from executioner to murderer. Why would Arthur do this to him?
'This is long overdue,' Arthur says into Merlin's ear as he pushes him forward to be congratulated by the court. 'And now you will take your rightful place by my side. This is the beginning, Merlin, the future of magic in Camelot -' and suddenly Merlin knows.
The revulsion, the rejection is visceral. Merlin shoves Mordred away from him with both hands and the full weight of his magic, and Mordred sprawls across the cold stone floor in Arthur's body, his limbs moving the right way, the grunt of his breath as his lungs expel air on impact perfect, but this is not Arthur and Merlin wonders how he could ever have been fooled.
There is the sound of metal on metal as the knights unsheath their swords, and then -
'No!' says Gwaine, standing between Merlin and the other knights with his own blade naked in his hands. 'It's not how it looks!'
Mordred is starting to stir, looking groggy, and Merlin steps forward, feeling his rage rise and take hold.
'Clear the room,' Leon orders the guards over the shock-noises of the court, and moves forward as Mordred gets to his feet, meaning to help him up, thinking he's still Arthur - how can he be fooled so easily? Merlin half-thinks, even though he was fooled himself - and Mordred reaches for his sword.
Sharp redness wells through Leon's fingers as Mordred smacks wildly out and struggles to his feet and a guard position, and Merlin can see disbelief in the knight's face as he flexes his sliced palm, and then horror, realisation, as Mordred settles to his defensive stance.
Because Arthur might lash out, but Arthur would never stand like that, pigeon-toed and weaving, with a sword in his hand. Leon's uninjured left hand takes his own sword out, and Gwaine sweeps in to guard that hurt right side, and Elyan to back Leon at the left, and Mordred looks between the three of them with panic and cunning warring in his eyes.
'You dare to offer violence to your king?' he says, his stance and grip slowly strengthening as the effect of Merlin's power wears off. 'Do you forget the oaths you swore?'
'You are not my king,' says Leon, at the same time as Elyan says 'I never swore to you.' They look so angry.
'So who are you?' Gwaine asks levelly, even though there are few options, even though it's obvious, isn't it?
'I am Mordred of the Druids, and see how I have made a puppet of your king,' Mordred says, crows almost, and while his eyes stay flicking between his attackers, Merlin knows Mordred speaks to him. 'And are you harmed? Have I wrought terror on your kingdom? No. I have had days to bend you all to my will, and yet see how the people continue on in their lives. Magical rule is not whatever nightmare your Pendragons would have had you believe.'
'You think your pretty words will make us take you as king over Arthur?' Elyan demands, feinting left and right to keep Mordred penned. 'We're his knights,' he adds with pride and defiance. 'Nothing you can say will move us.'
'And nothing you can do will bring your precious Arthur back to you if I choose not to release him,' Mordred snarls, twitching. 'I can kill him with a thought - it would be easier than breathing -' His breath is coming in fits and starts, and his hands are shaking violently.
'You lie,' says Leon, inching closer. 'If you could kill Arthur, why would you have let him live?'
'If he is alive,' Gwaine points out. The three of them are still circling Mordred like a pack of hounds with a wolf at bay. 'We only have his word for it.'
'He lives,' Merlin says, inching into their circle. They let him in with barely a break, and he lets his power roll down his arm to pool in his palm, as much a weapon as their swords. 'Believe me, Arthur is still there somewhere.'
'How can you know?' Elyan asks. He doesn't take his eyes from his target, but Gwaine does, his gaze flickering to Merlin for a fraction of a second. Merlin refuses to meet his eyes, for it isn't what Gwaine thinks, even though Merlin could wish that it was.
'Mordred would have … hurt me, but something stopped him,' Merlin says stiltedly, unsure of how to say it. 'I think it was Arthur.'
'You're right,' Mordred says, and an ugly smirk twists Arthur's mouth. 'That was a mistake on my part. But before that, Merlin?'
Merlin says nothing, lets the burning in his hand slip through to touch his skin just enough to distract him with its sharpness.
Mordred laughs, and his laughter is reedy and choking. 'Oh, did you think that was Arthur?' he asks. 'Did you think that he was doing that? That he was making love to you, when he never has before -'
Gwaine's fist snaps Mordred's head back on its neck like a child's ragdoll, and first the sword and then the body falls to the ground. Merlin yanks his power back inside his skin and shoves Gwaine, who is shaking out his fist and hissing at the bruises that will form on his knuckles, out of the way to check that the body still breathes, the heart still beats.
'You could have killed him,' Merlin snarls up at the knight. 'What were you thinking?'
'I had an opening,' Gwaine shrugs. 'And I had my reasons.'
They tie Arthur's body to his bed, for it's big enough and strong enough to take struggling and punishment, and Merlin orders all of the knights out of the room. But Gwaine doesn't trust Mordred with Merlin, and doesn't trust Merlin with Mordred. 'I'm staying,' he says, squaring up to the warlock.
Out of the corner of his eye he can see Leon deciding to officially leave this argument alone, and Elyan shaking his head, as if he's not just as impulsive about the things he wants to do. They both think Gwaine is a fool for getting between Merlin and magic, but clearly they don't know Merlin as he does. They don't know it's not the magic Gwaine wants to keep Merlin away from.
'I'm not arguing with you, Gwaine,' Merlin says, stepping back. 'You can't be in here.'
'Leaving you alone with him is a bad -' Gwaine starts, and Merlin's eyes flash gold and all of a sudden Gwaine, Leon and Elyan are in the corridor with the door banging shut behind them. '- idea,' he finishes, and hammers on the wood with his hands. 'Don't be an idiot, Merlin,' he shouts.
The only answer is the sound of Merlin barring the door.
'That went well,' comments Elyan, and Gwaine wants to punch him, mostly because Merlin is as stubborn as a mule but he's on the wrong side of the door for Gwaine to punch him.
'He won't let Arthur come to any harm,' Leon points out, and takes up a guarding sort of a stance by the door. And Elyan does the same, and after a moment, so does Gwaine, because it's the only thing to do, and he doesn't want to have to explain to Leon that harm to Arthur is not what he's worried about.
The calm that comes with pushing everyone out of the room is almost frightening.
Like the moment before a battle, when Merlin's focus narrows to his one task - protect Arthur - locking the door seals away his fears. Merlin has an enemy to fight. Everything else falls away.
Mordred will not walk out of this room. Whether or not Merlin will is uncertain, but Mordred will not. Merlin will latch on, sink his teeth deep, lock his jaws until it's done. He sets the bar in place, half-listening to the knights' voices outside as he does so. When Merlin turns back from barring the door, Mordred is pulling at the ropes that secure his wrists and ankles.
'And so,' Mordred says, breathing hard, 'Once more you come to me to bargain for the life of your king. What will you trade me this time, I wonder?'
He wears Arthur like a cloak, Merlin can see it now. And he can see that Arthur is fighting, too - that Mordred hasn't full control over his thrall. That gives Merlin heart. 'This has to stop,' he says, moves to stand at the foot of the bed. 'You have no power here, there's nothing you can use against me. Let go, please.' He says it calmly, like a request. He wishes it were one.
'Oh, Merlin.' Mordred is sweating and shaking, and his left hand is yanking at the ropes so hard that Merlin can see it start to rub and split the soft skin at the wrist, but he is switching, twitching, changing constantly, like a madness. 'I have the life of your king at my mercy, more so than I ever have before. I could -'
'No,' says Merlin, and he kneels up on the bed as he says it, knee-walks over until his face is very, threateningly, close to Mordred's all masked with Arthur's. 'You couldn't. He's fighting you, and I'm fighting you, and we will win, Mordred. You're powerful, and you're clever, and you're strong, but you can't come between Arthur and his destiny. You can't come between Arthur and me. I won't let you.'
He leans back, reaches out and stills the left hand that is working itself to bleeding - Arthur's hand, he's sure of it. 'Leave him,' he says softly. 'And I will let you live.'
'And do what?' Mordred demands, leaning as far up and into Merlin's space as he can. 'You're a dupe, you're a traitor - a lackey for a gutter-noble's brat with a conqueror's heart, that's all you are. Emrys,' he spits. 'You aren't Emrys. Emrys would never skulk at a king's side like a cur while his kin are hunted and burnt. I will kill Arthur. I will, I will. You've seen it yourself, you know I will do it, Merlin. And if this is how, if I have trapped myself here by my foolishness, if the Old Religion wants my soul along with Arthur's then I'll pay that price to rid the land of the taint of Pendragon. '
His eyes are wild, his brow sweat-rimed, and that left hand struggles under Merlin's to make itself understood in frantic hunter's signal - it says trap and it says attack and it says kill.
And maybe that is what Merlin will have to do, but not the way Arthur thinks. 'I won't argue this with you,' Merlin says, and he's talking to them both. 'Leave him.'
'Do you know how to make me?'
Merlin thinks of bringing life to statues and paintings, thinks of Cornelius Sigan and the heart he was prisoner to, thinks of expelling possession from his own body, and feels the magic rise like sap through heartwood in him. 'Yes,' he says.
'And Arthur? He's twined with me, now. He has some control, but all that means is that he's not kept himself separate - we're almost joined at the mind now, Merlin, your fool of a king and I.'
Merlin smiles slow and cold and triumphant and hating himself, teeth bared, eyes narrow. 'You could take him with you,' he says. 'But it won't do you any good. You already taught me how to bring him back.' Here is one more thing for Merlin to do and despise; that night, that book, that chanting. That feeling, the way the magic burnt like pain and released like pleasure, like an arrow from a bow, like a climax. Mordred taught him that.
The magic starts to pulse beneath Merlin's skin, and he says, reckless and stupid and assured by the warmth of the hand beneath his, 'I could kill you both now. I could kill you both and I could bring him back to his body without you. And I would do it, too.' He moves to sit astride Mordred's body, to pin him like that, to lean in, to show him how that feels - sensuality without choice. It would be so easy, and the magic wants him to do it, to amplify its strength with lust and conquest, the way Mordred did. Mordred taught him that, too.
But would it be so much worse than killing him?
Arthur's fingers have stopped moving in their codes - instead the hand has tangled with Merlin's tightly, and squeezes encouragement. Merlin is not the only fool in the room, it seems. His breath mingles with Mordred's, and perhaps that's cruel, but it's personal - the hardness starting to be felt against Merlin's inner thigh, the way Arthur's pupils are dilated by Mordred's arousal - and personal …
Personal is powerful.
Merlin takes a shaking breath, and reins himself in. He keeps his grip, but he unties the ropes with twists of his thoughts, over and under and through, and coils them on the floor. Mordred didn't tie him, after all.
'Why do you choose him over magic?' Mordred asks reluctantly on a quiet breath. 'Why him, of everyone? Why?' His voice cracks, his hips buck under Merlin and there's a flash of disgust across his face as they do. 'Why is your loyalty to a man like him, who uses you for what your magic can do? He doesn't understand that it's part of you, and you choose him over it. Over part of your own self. Why not magic?' he whispers hoarsely.
Why not me? he's asking, and Merlin has asked that of himself so many times, and there is still no answer for him, and there never will be unless he can bring Arthur back.
And Mordred, young and trembling in a body that isn't his, is in his way.
Arthur's hand clenches in Merlin's.
'The choice was never mine,' Merlin says, pressing a kiss to Mordred's brow. He breathes in the sweat at Mordred's hairline - Arthur's sweat, Arthur's hair dampening dark, Mordred's angry animal fear in Arthur's eyes - and then leans down, leans closer. 'The magic chose him for me,' he says against Mordred's - Arthur's - lips, and the kiss takes him over, the chanting sweeps his brain, the magic swamps them both.
He feels it like a pressure at first, like he's reaching for Arthur and there's a wall in the way. But he can push it, and it will give, he can circle it, and it will turn but not run, and it tastes of moss, of river-water - cool and wise and old and young by turns, is Mordred's soul, flashes fire like lightning through a storm, and Merlin chases it like he chased Sigan's old, hot-ash-dusty presence. He goes deeper into Arthur's body with Mordred running before him rabbit-like.
And Arthur slowly returns the kiss, like he's waking from a deep sleep. He pulls his arms from Merlin's grasp, takes Merlin's face in his hands and drinks him in, taste to taste, tongue to tongue, breath to breath, but Merlin hasn't the concentration for it now, can't feel it long because he's driving himself into Arthur, chasing his prey.
Mordred is galloping away, out of Arthur's body, and all Merlin can do is follow.
Arthur floats back into his own body, and startles at the feel of sensation on his skin, that he's been cut off from for days. He remembers everything as if it were a shadow-play he'd watched - everything said, everything done while Mordred drove him - but he doesn't remember touch. He's almost forgotten how a body feels when you're in it.
It takes him long moments to realise that he can't breathe. Merlin is latched onto his mouth and his air, and Arthur opens his eyes only to see Merlin's closed, Merlin's skin pale - sick-pale, death-pale - and he pushes him off frantically in case he's what's doing that to Merlin.
Merlin flops onto Arthur's chest for a moment, then jerks awake and frantic. 'Arthur, no,' he gasps, and flings himself back to where he was before, but Arthur catches him, will not kiss him again, because that drained look is still waxy across Merlin's features and it is frightening. 'I nearly had him,' Merlin rages, caught in Arthur's hands. 'He's reached his body again, you idiot, I could have found him, I could have killed him,' he moans hungrily, and Arthur gives him a shake, because that doesn't sound like Merlin, that bloodlust.
'We can send out a patrol,' says Arthur, holding tightly. 'We'll find him, Merlin, I swear.'
'Too late,' Merlin moans. 'Gone now - can't find his body like that, can only follow his spirit, and it's gone.'
Their eyes meet, and Merlin's are hot sun-gold like the air in the Perilous Lands so long ago, and vicious. He struggles in Arthur's grip, trying to claw his way closer again, and Arthur holds him firm until the colour fades in his eyes and returns to his cheeks - until he's blue-eyed, pale-pink-cheeked once more, instead of a ghost-spectre with the glare of a demon - and then he pulls himself away.
Arthur lets him go, feeling numb, and Merlin unfolds his legs and slides off the bed, takes one, two wobbling steps towards the door. Arthur gets up, feeling just as much like a newborn foal on his legs, and follows him, because he doesn't trust - doesn't want Merlin to go off alone. 'Did you mean it?' Arthur asks, the first thing he's said with his voice in days. 'Is this - am I - was this not your choice? Did you mean that?'
Merlin's face is drawn and determined when he looks back at Arthur. 'I hope so,' he whispers, and turns back - turns away - reaching out towards the bar on the door.
It lifts by itself, to the movement of Merlin's hand, and when it falls to the floor, he does too, clearly exhausted. But Arthur catches him, and while they hit the floor, at least they're cushioned by each other.
When his knights burst in, they find king and sorcerer huddled together on the cold flagstones, Merlin's head in Arthur's lap. Elyan and Leon go to help lift him - Gwaine levels his sword at Arthur's throat.
'I'm fine,' Merlin says groggily when the knights try to pick him up, and Gwaine spares a glance in his direction, but his aim doesn't waver.
Arthur doesn't blame him. He remembers. He is, quite frankly, astonished at Gwaine's self-control in not stabbing him right this moment. 'I'm not Mordred,' he says quietly, and lifts his chin. 'But do as your conscience commands you, Sir Gwaine.'
'He's Arthur,' Merlin mumbles. 'He's really Arthur.'
'Oh, thank God,' Gwaine breathes, and drops his sword.
Merlin spends a week in bed, has to be tied to it in his sleep, when his magic takes over and he dreams that he has to track Mordred down. The urge to hunt is vicious in him, but it's the magic's urge, not his own. It slows and withers and leaves him after that week.
The urge to run, however, stays after he's over his bed-rest, because that's his, that's him. The bruises in him hurt deep-down, and he hates that feeling. He hates the way people look at him, treat him as if he's made of glass, or worse, of sharpened steel.
He sees why warlocks in the past have become hermits. Life is easier on your own.
But Merlin can't be a hermit - he can't run away from this. Arthur has to recover, and Merlin has so much to repair. He starts with the physician's quarters, he starts with his friends amongst the knights - he starts with the things he knows he can manage. Apologies are easy when you mean them, and he does. Leon and Elyan and Percival take his words in their stride, and they welcome him back to the practice ground as if all is forgotten.
Merlin puts off other things, though. He puts off the room that connects with Arthur's chambers, and everything that he would have to say if he were even to clean it out, let alone reinhabit it. He puts off Arthur, as well. Every time they are together he can feel Arthur's guilt, and he wants to be able to say that Arthur has nothing to carry that guilt for. It wasn't his fault, any of it, but Merlin can't find it in him to be the one to speak first.
As well, Merlin wants to talk to Gwaine about what they almost did, what he doesn't think he wants to do again, not like that, anyway. He thinks up speeches, but he never gets to give them - Gwaine gets there first. He catches Merlin in the corridor outside the physician's rooms, dust and sunlight catching on his hair like it did that first morning he woke up in Merlin's bed, so many years ago, and he kisses Merlin on the top of his head and tells him in a solemn voice out of a smirking mouth that he's sick of being the other woman.
'It was never going to work,' he adds, smiling the way he smiled when he woke up in Merlin's bed that first morning and said he'd be leaving, that no-one ever wanted him to stick around for long. He's hung on here in the face of his dislike of rank and nobility and rules, and for what? For Camelot's sake? Not at first, Merlin knows that much. But maybe now, yes. Arthur does that to people - shows them bigger pictures than they're used to, shows them how to be part of things.
'We -' Merlin starts, but Gwaine shakes his head, and keeps talking.
'I wish we could have tried, Merlin, but … you and Arthur. There's always been something there I could never break into. He needs you, and you need him.'
'And you and me?' Merlin asks. He wonders if Gwaine knows just how strained and broken his relationship with Arthur is right now, wonders if Gwaine is stepping aside for something that will never happen. 'Where does that leave us?'
'As friends,' Gwaine says. 'As brothers, maybe. They'll write epic songs about us and our mighty deeds, mark my words. All the things we've done together.' And he's still smiling, and he puts his arms around Merlin the way he's always done. The knot in Merlin's chest unties a little further. He could have loved this man. He does love this man, but …
Gwaine's eyelashes sweep against Merlin's cheek. 'Arthur doesn't get you all to himself. Destiny wants you to have friends too, doesn't it? Otherwise what's the point?'
Arthur grows back into his own body slowly - it takes him a week, it takes him two, until he feels everything properly again - but he never regains the thoughtlessness of the connection. He's always aware, aware of everything, as if his nerves have been stripped to leave him raw. It speeds up his reactions, and it speeds up his temper, as if Mordred left a little poison behind him.
'How are you feeling?' Merlin asks him quietly three weeks afterwards. He's making up medicines with steady hands, but he's not looking at what he's doing – he's looking at Arthur instead, like he's checking him for illness.
'Fine,' Arthur replies. 'Although having to traipse through half the castle to find my advisers isn't the best use of my time.' He keeps bitterness from his tone as best as he can. He just wants things to be as they were, even though he knows why they can never be, even though he knows why Merlin has been avoiding him.
He wants to apologise, but he doesn't know how. This is too big for any of the words Arthur could ever possibly summon. Even with it all straightened out into threads of who did what, and when, he cannot shake the knowledge that his hands were responsible for hurting Merlin, touched Merlin without Merlin's consent, and kept touching even when Merlin asked him to stop. The fact that he wasn't the one in control means precious little - they were his hands, and he heard the words, and still he could not stop his own body from doing the deed.
But there are some things they have to talk about, even if they're not the important things or the right things. Life continues around them, after all.
'I am the physician,' Merlin points out in defence of his whereabouts, looking down at his hands as he grinds herbs to powder. 'This is where I'm supposed to be, isn't it?'
'You're more than just the physician,' Arthur says, sighing. 'You're my sorcerer. My battle-mage, my adviser on magic. Which reminds me.' He pauses, wondering how to bring up the subject of Mordred's law-change, and how perhaps it was not such an untimely move, but Merlin speaks before Arthur can start again.
'Please, don't.' he stops moving, puts his hands on the table, breathes deeply, before looking up. 'I know what you want to do - I know you haven't had those papers put back. Arthur, please,' he says again, and his face is beseeching, 'I need those laws.'
'Merlin, that isn't –' except that it is, really. Maybe not so direct, not so quick, as Mordred was going to do it, but eventually … Arthur would like to see that particular legacy of his father's removed and forgotten.
Merlin knows when Arthur is being untruthful. 'But that's what it will come to, isn't it.' He paces away, all the way to the window he can barely see out of without going onto his toes. 'I need those laws. If someone attacks you, I can't – I can't stop and worry about whether I'm right in the eyes of the law.'
'And everyone else who uses magic for good ends?' Arthur asks. 'Don't make me prolong an injustice, Merlin.'
'You haven't tried a single person for sorcery since you took the throne,' Merlin snaps. 'Make all the exceptions you like. Judge people fairly, as you always say you will. But let me do my work. Please.'
'Sometimes we have to kill,' Arthur says, and hopes Merlin will understand this from him. 'Sometimes it's the right thing to do even if the law isn't as clear as it could be. I've killed people too, Merlin, and putting people to the sword is as illegal as doing it with magic.'
'I don't want to kill.'
'But you do.'
Merlin still won't turn away from the window. Arthur feels ridiculous standing behind him. 'I do what I have to,' the warlock says.
'Then live with that,' Arthur presses him. 'Accept it, Merlin, because you won't change what you've done. And the law allowing something doesn't make it right any more than the law banning something makes it wrong. You, of everyone in this kingdom, should know that.'
'I do live with it,' Merlin says. 'I live with it every day.'
'No, you don't,' Arthur retorts. 'You bury it as some twisted duty so that you don't have to think about it. You tell yourself that anyone who faces you with magic deserves to die, for my sake. I don't want that, Merlin.'
'I told Leon once that there were things we had to do for you, because you were too high-minded to do them yourself,' Merlin says, starting to sound angry. 'It's still the truth. Do this, and you're blunting your own weapons.' He sounds implacable.
'You're going to make it so easy for me to turn into my father,' Arthur says almost to himself, and Merlin turns. There's something set and stony in his face.
'I need to work,' he says, and moves back to his table. 'There's a cough in the lower town, I need to brew a syrup for it.'
For a king, Arthur prides himself that he is good at taking a dismissal. But he isn't finished. 'Are you planning on staying here?' he asks. 'Your rooms –'
'This is more appropriate.' Merlin shrugs. 'The consort's chambers should be for the consort, when you have one.'
'I want you close,' Arthur says without thinking, and then has to watch as Merlin pretends not to flinch. 'I mean, I'm used to having your counsel. All of your things are there, too.'
'Most of my things are here, actually,' Merlin counters. 'And if you need the counsel of your physician, sire, you can always find me here.'
After that, Arthur does leave. He brushes a hand against the door to the queen's chambers as he passes. And then he goes into his own chambers, and checks that the door between the rooms is locked.
He folds the key into a scarf and jams it into the very depths of his bureau, locked as well. The rooms can gather dust – there will never be another Guinevere, and if Merlin won't use them then that's that. The consort's chambers should be for the consort. If there is no consort – if the person Arthur wishes were there isn't - then they'll lie empty.
Arthur is in his chambers, staring out through his window and nursing a slow lunch as he considers what exercises he will run with the knights in the morning, when there is a sudden commotion in the courtyard below - an incoming messenger has almost fallen out of his saddle in his hurry to dismount. Arthur watches as guards and stablehands help the man up, and he frees himself from their aid and disappears into the keep, still rushing.
Sure enough, the next thing Arthur knows, he has a messenger falling through his door. He grabs the man before he can hit the floor, and takes the paper from him rather than requiring him to try and gasp out whatever news it is that has caused him to risk collapse in order to get it here.
Over the sound of the messenger's laboured breathing, Arthur reads. It's from Lord Dumfries, an old friend of Uther's in the Mercian court. Bayard of Mercia has fallen to poisoning, and his place has usurped by a fifteen-year-old second-cousin, who is mustering the army. He means to march on Camelot's border.
Arthur gives the messenger the rest of his lunch and leaves him there in his chambers while he seeks Leon. This kind of a challenge cannot go unmet, and while if he has any breeding or knowledge of how things are done there will surely be an official communication of war from this usurper, but if and when it comes it will leave little time to prepare.
Leon is in the armoury, conveniently. 'We can have the knights prepared and ready to ride as an advance guard in two days,' he says, barely looking up from the scrawled message and its details of what preparations Dumfries saw in the Mercian court.
'Do it,' Arthur says. This is no time for hesitation.
Two days later, Arthur takes up his sword, and tries to leave behind his memories of the last time he gave battle. Mercia employs no mages as warriors. Arthur has no need to feel that fear. He heads the knights on a white stallion, the column of their men snaking behind them, and tries to summon the pride he always used to feel at these moments.
Beside him, Merlin nudges his mouse-brown gelding closer. 'Off on another adventure,' he says under his breath.
Arthur suddenly finds himself fighting a smile.
Merlin has been trying to avoid Arthur, it's true. But now they're marching to war, and all the conflict in him, the anger and the hurt, the way he loves Arthur and wants him but is still almost afraid of his touch, is subsumed beneath the urge to be at his side.
They've said so many things that maybe they can never take back, about the law and about each other. Merlin doesn't want to take the things he said back. He meant them, they were true. But he doesn't think he can stay away any longer, no matter how high the walls they've built are. He wants to break them down and if he can't break them down he wants to sleep outside them like a mockery of a faithful hound.
He rides with Arthur, but he won't let himself sleep near him, or any of the knights. Instead when they halt each night he pitches a little medic's camp near the pack-animals, where his supplies are, and treats strains and grazes and cuts. And when the fires die down and he takes to his bedroll, he whispers spells of protection for Arthur until he falls asleep. He wants to keep Arthur's counsel and warm his bedroll. He can't.
The third morning on the trail, it's bucketing down. Under a thin tarpaulin strung between trees over the cooking area, Merlin spoons thin, sloppy porridge into his bowl, half-asleep, when a hand taps his shoulder. 'Morning,' says Arthur, looking almost as asleep as Merlin feels.
'Morning,' Merlin replies, and smiles. 'Porridge?' he asks, reaching again for the ladle. Arthur stills his hand.
'Just bread,' he says, but he keeps hold of Merlin's hand. 'Are you going to ride with me again today?'
'Someone has to keep an eye on you,' Merlin says, and pulls his fingers free. He hands Arthur a round of bread and starts to eat his porridge so as to discourage any more talking. But when they saddle up, Merlin follows Arthur into the column, and stays there. He's guarding. And with the threat of ambush always present, he can't bear to have Arthur out of his sight.
But with Arthur always in his view, everything comes back, stronger than ever. They've been at an impasse too long, Merlin decides, watching Arthur's back move under his shirt, in the rain. Something will have to give. Or someone.
He thinks it will probably be him. He's chafing at the bit, and he knows that all that's holding him back is his fear. He's afraid, afraid of the changes between them. Afraid to try and go back to how they were only to find it can't ever be like that again. Afraid that Arthur's afraid of him.
He thought, if he had to give up something where Arthur is concerned, that he could give up the friendship, the hope of love, in favour of keeping Arthur safe. But he can't bear it. He can't bear the distance any longer, he can't bear the harsh things he hears himself say to Arthur.
He can't bear that Arthur thinks he's a careless killer. It's not the truth. They ride along and everyone else is kitted out in the trappings of war; thick padding and thin steel, everything is sharp and hard and prepared, and Merlin wears nothing but linen and wool and layered magics. Merlin is the one least in his element here.
There's a yell from the left, and a sudden rush of movement in the trees - a Mercian scouting party has found them.
'To me!' bellows Arthur, and the knights and men-at-arms circle, bristling weapons outward, and form a ring, keeping supplies and the serving-men at their centre as best they can. Merlin squeezes his mount into the gap between Elyan and Gwaine and waits for an opening. The Mercians rush the circle here, there - anywhere they think there could be a gap to widen.
Eventually their lines do break, and in the melee that follows Merlin is unhorsed. It doesn't matter - ahorse or on foot, he burns everything he touches, everything he can reach, but his tactics are limited by the number of Arthur's men in his way. He knows he shouldn't think of it that way, but he can't stop the feeling that if only he were alone, in a crush of his enemies, he could simply lay this clearing bare with fire.
He falters, stumbles over a body, and knocks into someone in Mercian blue. The Mercian turns, whirling with an outstretched blade that would have gutted Merlin if he hadn't fallen backwards. The enemy looms, he draws back his arm to stab, and Merlin's hand closes around a discarded sword and a handful of dirt, slick with blood. He brings the weapon round in a clumsy arc as he lurches inelegantly to his feet, and the Mercian rolls away from it.
Merlin whispers for heat and watches the Mercian's sword go cherry-red, and then lunges, desperate to put the other man down before he can regain control of the fight. His borrowed blade slides between cuirass and fauld, through skin, through muscle, and he feels it bite home.
It's as if it drags him with it, the momentum, and he ends up too close to his adversary's face not to see the look in his eyes as he realises he's belly-cut, realises he's going to die. And there's nothing Merlin can do about that now - he's killed so many people and it didn't mean anything because he had to and they deserved it and all he did was … remove them. It was so easy - a push, a blast, a whisper, and they'd be gone, with barely even a body to bury.
This isn't like that. This isn't easy. Merlin has another man's blood all over him - all over his clothes, Pendragon-red - and all over his hands, and it isn't over. The Mercian's breath is still jaggedly shuddering out of his body, Merlin can feel it shaking the sword in his hand. He drops it hurriedly, and the man slowly sinks to his knees, still looking Merlin in the eye.
Merlin doesn't see him die - time might have slowed for him but all around the battle still forges on, and he makes a fine target, all unarmed and unarmoured. There's a sudden clash of steel behind him and he whirls only to see Arthur blocking a down-cutting sword, shoving another Mercian away, taking a spear-haft to the shoulder, turning, cutting, moving - he's a blur, and Merlin can only watch him as he goes.
The enemy close in around him.
Merlin starts to move, to chase after Arthur. He can see Percival, standing head and shoulders above the throng, fighting to join with their king, and he can hear Leon mustering the men, and he needs to join them. He needs to join them because he understands it now - that he's fighting because he has to protect them from that, that gasping, drawn-out end.
Never again will he think of this as duty, he realises as he storms forward. Duty is mundane and usual and normal and all the things that killing can never be, but Merlin never learnt killing as anything other than an easy way to solve a problem, to remove obstacles.
He could whisper and have every man here, friend and enemy alike, vanish from the world of the living. Death isn't something he makes with his hands, the way Arthur and his knights do - it isn't something he can measure in the weight of weaponry or the stains it leaves on his skin and clothes. Death is just something he can produce, like a stormcloud; dark and transient, threatening but never touching, and he's summoned it like he'd summon rain for all these years, letting his guilt clear with the sky afterwards.
If Merlin were angry, what would stop him taking it out on people? And Merlin is angry, for good reasons and for bad ones.
Merlin reaches Arthur's side and turns, reforms their circle with Leon, Percival, Gwaine and Elyan, and he looses wind and fire as they cut and parry, and every man that falls to him hammers the message home harder and harder.
Merlin has to be stopped. He has to stop himself.
Arthur cannot decide whether or not body-servants are helps or hindrances on the march. His current squire, Godfrey, is mouse-like in his movements, efficient in his duties, and like all good squires (and even Merlin suffered from this), a tyrant when it comes to what he thinks is Arthur's well-being.
They've been travelling for a week, skirmishing all the way, and the ground is wet underfoot, men and horses kicking up mud with every step. As soon as they reach their destination, the most defensible place Arthur and Leon could find on the map, the soldiers and servingmen set up tents; their own and Arthur's, and a physician's tent, and when Merlin disappears into the latter with his bedroll, a breath Arthur didn't know he was holding turns into a defeated sigh.
He took a deep, painful bruise across his shoulder in the last ambush before they pitched permanent camp, and it prevents him from lifting his right arm as high as he needs to. He tries to ignore it, but after he winces while undressing, Godfrey orders (or comes as close as a well-trained body-servant can to ordering) him to see Merlin about it.
'You should take better care,' says Merlin, smoothing something oily and astringent-smelling and cold onto the aching patch. 'You're the only king we've got, remember?'
'Yes, thank you,' Arthur replies, wincing. 'I'm well aware of that fact.'
'Thank you, by the way,' Merlin adds, quietly, a moment later. It takes Arthur a little while to understand what he's being thanked for. Then he remembers blocking an enemy strike that had turned out to be aimed at Merlin. He hadn't even thought - he'd just stopped a blow that would have hit someone he'd cared about. He barely thinks about the mechanics of the melee any more, more fixated on the dispersal of his men, keeping lines of retreat open, watching for enemy reinforcements and the like. Thrust, parry, block, riposte are habit now, as they should be, as they have been since he was old enough to lift a sword.
'It was nothing,' he says, rolling his shoulder to see how much freer Merlin's ministrations have made it. Considerably, is the answer.
'Not to me,' says Merlin. He puts his palm down on the meat of Arthur's upper arm to still him. 'How do you do it?' he asks.
'Do what?' Arthur replies, although he has an inkling.
'Just before you blocked that strike, I'd picked up a sword and stabbed someone,' Merlin says, picking up Arthur's shirt and offering it to him. 'How do you do that?'
Arthur shrugs back into the shirt, does the laces up. The question confuses him. 'Merlin, you've been protecting me from assassins since we met,' he points out. 'You've killed dozens of men for me.'
'It's not the same thing. That was for you. And it was magic. It … felt different.' Merlin almost whispers it. 'I felt him die, Arthur, I felt him stop breathing. He was just doing his duty.'
'You were just doing your duty. Do you regret it?'
'No. No - I just wish I hadn't had to.'
He looks … not lost, but mid-thought. Arthur wants to take him back to Camelot and let him never have to think about this again. There's something made of iron in Merlin at his core, but he bruises over it. The way the world is hurts him sometimes - Arthur wishes he could protect Merlin from that, even though he knows that Merlin would never want him to. 'That's the difference between killing and murder,' Arthur says, putting his hand on Merlin's shoulder, looking him in the eye. 'That's what we have the law for - to draw that line in black and white.'
Merlin's clothes are peasant-coarse and work-stained, his face is streaked with soot and unguent from where he's wiped his hands, wiped sweat and tears away, but when he nods, it's with such certainty that he could be the truest and noblest knight in Arthur's army. 'I understand,' he says, eyes shining with things that Arthur wishes he could read. 'I think … I finally understand.'
After six days, their furthest scouts report finding the main body of the Mercian army a day's march away. The Camelot camp erupts into a hive of activity – Leon, Gwaine, Percival and Elyan organise rings of defense, stockpiles of supplies, doubled guard rosters. Arthur takes to his practice and his drills - trying to find a measure of calm in repetition.
A rustle at the tentflap heralds Godfrey's arrival. Arthur stands, rolling his aching shoulders, and moves to the centre of the tent in anticipation of being free of the heavy mail.
When Merlin steps into the tent, something tiny loosens in Arthur's heart. It's been so long, but every move he makes is habit, is familiar.
'I told your squire he could have the night off,' Merlin says, and moves to help Arthur off with tunic and hauberk. His fingers are quick on fastenings just as they used to be. Arthur has noticed the differences between servants before, but he has never missed one the way he misses Merlin.
'Well, I suppose I'll have to make do,' Arthur says drily, muffled as they wrestle the mail off him. He expects to be allowed to deal with the rest of his clothing himself, and starts to turn away to do so. 'Godfrey is aware that I will still require his services in the morning?' he asks, reaching for the laces of his undershirt. He almost wants Merlin to leave again, or at least, to turn around and not watch him undress.
But Merlin steps into place at Arthur's chest and pushes Arthur's hand away. He looks at Arthur directly, soot-black lashes flickering briefly as he closes, then opens his eyes (as if he's summoning up words, or the courage to say them), and he says, 'I told him you would be looked after,' and he smiles, a little tentative and a little like he thinks he's just made a bawdy joke.
Arthur's heart leaps, and not only because Merlin's questing fingers have found his skin.
'Arthur,' Merlin says, still fiddling with Arthur's shirt-lacings. 'If I asked you, would you come to bed with me?' His cheeks flush sudden pink with his words. 'I won't begrudge you if the answer is no,' he says, 'I wouldn't blame you, after … well, everything. But if I asked?' He licks his lips. 'Please?'
'Why?' Arthur has to ask. The last time Merlin had his hands on Arthur's body, it was because his magic boiled within him, and he'd as good as confessed that the magic was the only reason he would ever consider … 'I thought you had no want for me of your own,' he says. 'I thought -'
'That destiny was the only reason I'd cared?' Merlin finishes for him.
'Something to that effect.'
'It'd be easier.' Merlin shrugs. 'I tried to make it true, too. I thought if I stayed away from you I wouldn't … want … so much any more. And I thought it'd be safer as well. Every time before - Well. It never really worked out, did it.'
He smiles, a little bit weakly but still with that brittle edge to it that Arthur has always associated with Merlin, ever since the business with the Questing Beast- Merlin wandered off into the night, and Arthur isn't sure why, or what he did, but before he left, he told Arthur how great a king he'd be, and he smiled like broken glass, like he's doing now.
'Never worked out' is a pale way of talking about the hurts Merlin has been through because of his love for Arthur.
'How do you know it will work out this time?' Arthur asks, his voice a little thick in his throat.
'I don't,' says Merlin, and he tightens his hold on Arthur's shirtfront as if he thinks Arthur will run. 'But what if something happens tomorrow? I - there are a lot of things I've done that I regret, Arthur, and I don't want this to be one of them any longer. So I'm asking you, please. Whatever happens, I won't be hurt by this any more,' he says, determined and beautiful and completely inexplicable.
Arthur wants to kiss him, and doesn't know how to start.
'No, you won't,' he says hoarsely.
There have been enough ruined kisses between them that this cannot count as their first, but this one starts warm and keeps heating as their blood rises - Merlin's mouth at first closed under Arthur's, then opening on a noise, allowing Arthur to nudge closer, to lick and let Merlin bite and vice versa until there's no separating their actions from each other.
Arthur's shirt falls to the wayside, and the rest of his clothes would follow suit in short order if he didn't dodge Merlin's hands and start on reciprocating. They're moving backwards towards Arthur's bedroll, and the sole remaining candle goes out smokily as Arthur flaps Merlin's neckerchief a mite too close.
In the faint glow of the campfires outside, Merlin's skin seems paler than ever, his eyes too dark to tell the colour of, and he pushes Arthur into the furs of his bed like he's hungry to see Arthur stretched out before him.
The ground is hard even with the weather, even with the plushness of Arthur's bedding over it, but somehow Arthur relishes the press of the land up into his shoulderblades, like an anchor to keep him in his body against the way Merlin stretches out over him.
'Will you give me your fingers?' Merlin asks, reaching for Arthur's hand where it's curled around his hip. 'Here,' he says, and sucks them into his mouth.
He's wanton with it, astride Arthur's hips, moving with such purpose, making noises around Arthur's fingers as if he doesn't care a jot about who might hear - and this is the difference, Arthur realises with a jerk, between deciding and not. The flash of memory comes unbidden, the sterile, numb sight of Merlin stretched beneath him - Merlin had agreed and he'd wanted but he hadn't really chosen, and he'd just let … let Mordred do as he pleased. This, though. This is the Merlin Arthur knows, who does things directly and bravely and just a little bit shamelessly.
Arthur's fingers are dripping from the wet of Merlin's mouth when Merlin lets them go, guides them to where he wants them. And he opens so easily to one, to two, that Arthur is swept up in sensation. Before he quite realises what he's doing, he's swept his free hand down over Merlin's chest and pinched one nipple softly, the other hard. Merlin's body jerks harder still between Arthur's hands and he cries 'unh-' quietly, pushing down on Arthur's fingers.
'Sorry,' Arthur groans, snatching his hand away, but Merlin arches his spine to push his chest out, and in the low light Arthur can see where his nipples have peaked under that treatment.
'Please,' Merlin says again, tugging Arthur's fingers free from his body and settling down, rocking the cleft of his arse along where Arthur's wet and getting wetter with every pound of his heart. 'Do it again,' he says a little breathlessly, and he moves back until the head of Arthur's cock rubs, then catches, and then he tilts and sinks down, and they're one in and around each other.
Arthur's voice wilts even as he moans. Merlin's eyes are huge in the dark, and he says 'Oh, oh -' as he moves for the first time. 'Do you see now?' he whispers. 'What we are together?'
Arthur can't answer that, but he has to say something, to explain … 'My council wants me to remarry,' he mutters into the sweat sheening Merlin's skin. 'I won't lie to you, Merlin -'
'I know what they want,' Merlin says, curving and arching for leverage. 'It doesn't matter. I don't want anything but you, Arthur - you can't make me your consort, you can't make me anything more than I am already. I'm not for your kingdom. I'm not for Camelot,' he gasps, rocking down. 'I'm for you, just for you. If you'll have me.'
Arthur struggles to lean up high enough to snag one of Merlin's nipples with his mouth, and Merlin rides him like that, grinds Arthur into the earth with his desire, until Arthur can't hold on any more and shoves up and up and up.
'I won't ever take another to my bed,' Arthur swears between his gritted teeth. 'Just you, Merlin, just you, always you -'
'Give it to me,' Merlin pants, and Arthur does.
The black behind his eyes is awash with lights, his skin is slick with sweat and Merlin's release when he blinks back to himself, and Merlin is sprawled over him breathing hard and unfit and triumphant.
'Kiss me again,' he says hazily, stickily, and Arthur does, because it delays the thoughts that threaten to flood him. He kisses Merlin while the firelight outside fades and their mess dries tacky on their bodies, and the taste is unutterably sweet, and Arthur is afraid of how fleeting it might turn out to be, despite all their fine, passionate words.
Merlin eases off to lie next to him, and Arthur says, before he can stop himself, 'I still don't understand.' He stares at the ridge-pole of the tent, so aware of Merlin's warmth at his side that he feels it like burning. He doesn't deserve this, not really.
For a long, long moment, Merlin says nothing. And then he asks slowly, 'Do you remember the Great Dragon?'
'Of course,' Arthur replies, making a face. 'He nearly burnt the city to the ground, Merlin.'
'He told me once -' Merlin sounds tentative, distant, '- that you and I are two sides of the same coin. Meant to be.'
Arthur's mouth tries to curl a little at that - it sounds a little too neat as an excuse, a little bit too much like a reason not to think of all of the bad that could happen, that has happened because of their association - but he says nothing.
'He told me again and again that we're halves of one soul, that we need each other, that we're supposed to be together, and I told him he must have got the wrong Arthur,' Merlin adds, snorting. 'But he kept saying it, and after a while, I realised that what he was saying was true, whether I liked it or not.'
'So neither of us had any choice,' Arthur says, reading between the lines. It won't change anything - he craves, the floodgates are open now - but it rankles.
Merlin rolls over and looks at him properly. 'We don't have any choice about when we're born,' he says. 'And we don't have any choice about where, or who we're born as. It's destiny, Arthur. You can fight it because of what it is, but you might as well fight the sky for being blue.' He leans up, close enough that Arthur's darkness-adjusted eyes can pick out his expression. 'Maybe I was always going to come to you in the end. But I'm not here now because the dragon told me I had to be - I'm here because I choose to be.'