In retrospect, this was his fault. He’d tampered with Old Religion, with its rules, and the price is always high.
Now he understands the darkness in Nimueh, her desperation, her desire to destroy. It all stemmed from unconditional love, tainted by hurt and self-hate. She wasn’t strong enough to redirect the rules of magic, or she didn’t want to, but either way, her guilt seeped through.
He is stronger than Nimueh. He’s thought everything through, finding the proper substitutes. But Old Religion is not forgiving, nor is it malleable as one would think. The exchanges are unwritten but in existence, based on the most basic rules of life.
Gwen is pregnant. It has been two years since her marriage to Arthur, and while the court was polite enough not to talk in front of the King and Queen, there were no end to the supply of whispers. No matter now, because Gwen is pregnant. Arthur needed an heir, simple as that. Arthur needed an heir, and Merlin has never been able to deny Arthur anything.
Gwen was ecstatic when she first found out, and Arthur carried the air of a proud but nervous man. Merlin made sure that the magic would not harm Gwen, nor turn on her or the child. He’s made sure that Arthur will never become his father, blinded by hate and fear, because he would never lose Gwen.
The trade was simple. For every life made, there must be one given.
For the life of the heir that Arthur desired –
There never had been any doubt in Merlin’s mind. He had known from the beginning how this would end.
Arthur says nothing at first. He and Gwen brave the courtyard talk without turning their heads, but eventually like all things, the strain shows on Gwen’s face, in Arthur’s voice.
When Arthur finally says something, it is in passing, and the resignation in Arthur’s voice is surprising, even to Merlin. A well-meaning advisor stops Arthur and informs him of a visiting physician that came “highly recommended.” Merlin watches as Arthur’s shoulders stiffen slightly, before he dismisses the advisor.
They walk in silence, Arthur staring resolutely ahead, Merlin staring at the walls of hallways, the passing tapestries. He can feel the tension radiating off Arthur, how he is boxing everything in and away, and Merlin’s heart swells in sympathy.
Then Arthur turns to look at Merlin, looking much older than he really was. “I need an heir,” he says, so quietly that Merlin almost misses it. “Camelot needs an heir. I would gladly name one of Morgana’s children as regent, but the people would consider the sovereignty of Camelot lost.”
Merlin doesn’t mean to, but he slips into Arthur’s mind, and watches as Arthur imagines his child, a little blonde boy, tumbling about in the field where the horses grazes, and where Arthur had taken Merlin hunting in the past summers, week after week, before he became king. Merlin turns, and then he sees the little girl, with dark wavy hair and blue eyes, petting a colt, daffodils clutched in one hand. The specificity of each child, from their looks to their age, to where Arthur would take them for fun is shocking to Merlin, like being shoved underwater for too long.
Arthur hadn’t said anything. He never did. Arthur carried his hurts as close as he could and his desires closer, unwilling to have them exposed as weak points.
Merlin just nods weakly as Arthur continues talking, the images of the children seared across in his mind. When Arthur leaves, Merlin sits down, and puts his head in his hands. He could do this, he realizes. He could give Arthur what he most desired.
He does not think of how the daughter Arthur wanted was pale and light, unlike Gwen, and how Arthur’s son carried the colour of Merlin’s eyes.
It is Gwen who caves first, and appears at his door, hands nervously tucked into an apron that was no longer there. Merlin lets her in, and is about to make her something to drink, something warm and soothing, when her hand on his arm stops him.
“Merlin,” she says, her dark eyes searching out his. “I know you know. Is there anything, that you can – anything at all?”
Please, screams her eyes. Merlin takes her hand, and squeezes it lightly. “Gwen,” he begins.
“I know. I shouldn’t ask. But –” her voice, choked, breaks off. But I’m the Queen of Camelot, and the people need an heir. But Arthur needs a son, a daughter. But I can’t do this, when they’re watching me and whispering things. But I want a child so, so badly.
He doesn’t say anything.
A month after Gwen is announced pregnant, Morgana shows up in his dream, furious.
“Why?!” She shrieks, before throwing herself at him, hands in fists. It hurts, in the fuzzy way dream-injuries hurt, the pain startling, but disappearing as fast as it appeared. She hits him, again and again, open palms against his chest, and he’s missed this, not the abuse, but the acknowledgement that he existed, that they once knew each other as friends, as allies against what they perceived was wrong, siblings in magic. Uther had brought them together, and Uther had torn them apart. After Uther’s death, Arthur had sent out envoys to the Druids, looking for Morgana, and failing each time.
Ultimately, she had returned on her own, appearing one evening in the dining hall and looking like she had never left.
Upon her return, Arthur had taken Morgana aside, and told her that she was her own free person, that if she wished to marry, she may, to whomever she desired, and if she didn’t, she could remain in Camelot. Arthur had stressed that in no way or form would she not be married off for political purposes. Morgana had laughed at that, and then in a neat little snarl told Arthur off, but Merlin, who had been witness to this exchange, saw the relief in her eyes. Morgana still held herself differently than before, but she no longer bore the weighted air about her. She and Gwen were inseparable, as if making up for lost time, and Arthur sought her company for dinner every evening, but she and Merlin held a testy, fragile truce, eyeing each other with wariness, not sure how much to reveal to Arthur and Gwen, of how much forgiveness they each sought and held. For the months after her return, Merlin stayed away from the outer courts, from Arthur and Morgana. Those were lonely months for him, and he spent many weeks out in the forests.
Morgana eventually married Leon, and had two girls, both like little imitations of Morgana herself, but Adela, the youngest, was solemn and still, her sharp eyes missing nothing.
Morgana lands a sharp blow to his jaw with her fist, and he reels back, clasping a hand to his face, the sharp pain blossoming quickly across the lower side of his face before fading away to nothing but heat. He falls, hard. Morgana stands over him, hands still raised as if to hit him, shock in her face. Merlin smiles weakly. “I’m alright,” he says.
Morgana exhales quickly, and then shuffles her skirts until she could sit down.
He touches her wrist. “Morgana.” She looks at him, a mere glimpse of the impatient girl they once knew, and then it’s gone, replaced by tempered steel. “Morgana, I’m truly sorry,” Merlin says.
She presses her lips together. They both know that it’s not about the loss of Uther, or Arthur and Gwen. Finally, she says, “I’m sorry too.”
They sit there, watching Merlin’s version of the cosmos, galaxies swirling around. Morgana smiles when a particularly bold star swoops by her cheek. “You’ve grown more powerful.”
“You would have done well under the tutelage of the Druids.”
“Is that what they told you?”
Morgana ignores the sharp jibe and waves away a wandering planet. “Arthur’s never going to forgive you for this.”
“Forgive me for what? Trying to kill you? Giving him an heir?” Merlin smiles mirthlessly. “Did he forgive me for being magic? Did he forgive you?” His rage surfaces, and for a minute, Merlin contemplates burning his dream and leaving, but he stays, squeezing his own fingers together, and changes the dreamscape. They’re sitting by a lake, the one where Arthur was nearly sacrificed to the Sidhe, and it’s cruel, he knows, since Morgana still dreams of this lake. “I knew, from the very beginning, what had to be done.”
Morgana looks at him sadly. “Oh, Merlin.”
“Morgana,” Merlin says, carefully. “Arthur needs this. Arthur wants this child so badly. And it’s not just for him and Gwen, either. Camelot needs an heir apparent.”
Morgana shakes her head, her face softening in the first vestiges of awakening. “He didn’t ask for you to make him a child.” Her hair dissolves slowly in the light, tendrils curling like it was on fire.
“He didn’t need to. He never needed to ask.” Merlin holds out his hand, watching as it becomes translucent. “We can only ask for so much in life. Arthur never asks for anything.”
Morgana’s nothing but a face now, light filtering through her lashes. “You don’t either.”
At four months, Merlin loses the ability to conjure water. He stares at the cracked ground in one of the lower villages, not quite understanding. When the villagers ask about the water, he makes up an excuse, weak in his ears, and promises to return. He spends the rest of the day in his chambers, drawing dragons in the air.
Very quickly, he loses other things; the weather is suddenly recalcitrant when he tries to manipulate it; at a banquet celebrating a visiting delegation from the West border kingdom, Merlin’s phoenix, conjured out of fire, dissipates suddenly and unimpressively, fizzling out to wisps of smoke. At the court’s confused looks, he quickly turns the smoke into twinkling lights, gathering them above the princess’s head in the shape of a crown, much to her delight. Morgana shoots him a concerned look, but he shakes his head, heart racing, and puts an impish grin on his face, before bowing clumsily. It was easier for the court to think that he was eccentric and odd.
When he nearly sets his chambers on fire trying to light his fireplace, he slips out of the castle and goes to the lake.
He’s been at the lake for less than a day before Arthur makes an appearance. He looms imperiously over Merlin. He’s also fully dressed in court clothes, meaning that his departure from the castle was unexpected.
"You have a meeting with the delegates today," Merlin murmurs. He did too, but he’s spent the last four days trying to salvage his magic.
"It's not pressing. I've Guinevere and Morgana to thank for that." Merlin looks questioningly at him. “Gwen’s managed to convince the entire delegation and their families to a spontaneous little trip to the Eastern orchards. Merlin smiles at this, Gwen and Morgana smooth talking the wives of the delegates into visiting one of their prestige farming locations. It wouldn’t take very much to convince the delegates to accompany them as well, especially if there is an excuse to get slightly drunk.
Arthur looks out at over the lake, and then removes his cloak and gloves. Merlin looks up at him in surprise as Arthur removes his crown, and tossing them carelessly into a pile, sits down next to Merlin.
"What's going on, Merlin?" His voice is kind, and more like the man Merlin used to know, as opposed to the king.
"Nothing." Merlin tries to smile. "I'm - " and then he stops. He's not even sure himself, of how to tell Arthur, oh, by the way, your court sorcerer is secretly dying because he decided to create you a child. It was cruel all ways he thought it, and so he goes for the easy. "I'm just tired. It’s been a long week.”
Arthur snorts. "You are never just tired." They look out at the lake, when Arthur says, quietly, "What's really going on?"
Merlin feels the prickling of tears behind his eyes, and really, he is tired, of everything, because there isn't enough of him to go around, between keeping the wards that protect Camelot from failing and defending the army in battle and slowly dying - Merlin sucks in a shaky breath.
Arthur notices, and places a hand on the back of Merlin's neck, like old times, before responsibilities took Merlin's place in Arthur's life. "Tell me. I don't know - I can't help you if you don't talk to me."
"My magic is failing," Merlin blurts out. It's not the truth, but it's a near thing.
The hand on his neck tightens. "What?"
"It's." Merlin stops. "I'm losing my magic."
"But you were born with it. You can't just lose your magic." Arthur’s voice is calm, but the tremble in the hand on his neck belies his confusion.
“But I am.” Merlin closes his eyes, and thinks of drawing life from the ground, the Earth, the gold of the magic seeping into his body and making him warm for the first time in a long time. It would be so easy to do so too, just an inhale and a strong thought.
"Does anyone else know?” Arthur rubs his hands over his face.
Merlin doesn’t answer.
“Merlin!” Arthur grips his upper arm, grip fierce and painful. “Does anyone know!”
“No!” Merlin shouts. Arthur lets go of his arm quickly, and Merlin puts his hand where Arthur’s hand had been. “No,” he repeats, quieter.
“How,” Arthur begins, and then stops, because really there is no kind way of asking.
"It was water, first," Merlin said lowly, moving his hand over the ground. Before, water would pool out from the earth without hesitation at his will, but now the ground remains dry. "Then it was fire." Sparks fly out from Merlin's palms, nothing more than a light show. Arthur follows a spark to the ground.
“We can’t afford uncertainty right now,” Arthur says. “There are rumours of a war within Mercia, and as allies, we may be called upon. We cannot afford to appear less than capable.” Merlin knows Arthur doesn't mean it that way, but the words sting anyways, implications of his uselessness without his magic.
“The wards I put up are still holding,” Merlin says, defensively. “They’ll hold.”
Arthur gives him a long look. “For our sake,” he says, but not unkindly, “they’ll need to.”
They go to war, even though it is not theirs, but Mercia’s civil war. Prince Alvarick, King Bayard’s second son has declared war on his elder brother, and divided Mercia.
It is hard, even with Merlin’s magic. The wounded pour into the tents every night. There have been no deaths, and for that Merlin breathes easier. Arthur hadn’t wanted to leave Gwen, but he had refused to lead his men into battle from far behind the battle lines. He had ordered Merlin to remain at the castle, but they both knew that Merlin would be crucial to their plans.
Merlin lasts two battles against Mercia before his magic flickers out abruptly. They are on the last leg of their campaign, a vital battle that may be the deciding factor in the war, and Merlin is useless on the battlefield. He’s been protecting Camelot’s army all this time, holding individual shields for the foot soldiers, and ghosting the knights and their horses across holes in the ground that would have otherwise felled them. Out of the corner of his eye, he sees Arthur viciously run his sword into a Mercian knight. Leon is near Arthur, covering his back, Gawain close by.
Mercia had employed sorcerers as well, less experienced and less skilled, but with the sheer multitude of them all, even the weakest sorcerer was distracting, their weaker spells bouncing off Merlin’s shields, ineffective but annoying, requiring Merlin to concentrate harder.
He knows it’s only time before Arthur realizes Merlin’s shields are not working. The army has become dependent on Merlin for defense, allowing them to advance on Mercia with less effort and casualty. It’s not a fair fight, but Arthur has ordered his soldiers to wound, as opposed to kill, and it’s always more difficult to incapacitate than to decapitate. At this point, most of the soldiers fighting for Mercia were merely children, Mercia having run out of uninjured soldiers.
Leon is the first to go down, an arrow to his shoulder, a wayward but lucky shot. He rolls to the side and rips the arrow out, his groan reaching Merlin’s ears. Merlin tries to throw a shield up, and over him, but the arrows are coming faster now, and closer to Leon and Arthur. Geraint appears, and pulls Leon up, moving out of the line of fire.
Arthur fells his opponent and drops to a knee, sword coming up in defense, quickly scanning the battlefield for Merlin. Merlin throws both hands out, something he hadn’t done since he was young, and calls spell after spell, trying to put the shields back up. His hands spark, but Merlin doesn’t feel the flow of magic. There is a heavy emptiness all of a sudden, a draining black that swirled from his head to his feet. He looks desperately at Arthur, hands still stretched out in front of him, and Arthur’s eyes widen in realization.
There was no time. Already, Merlin could see three of Mercia’s sorcerers moving towards Arthur. He whispers an apology to the Earth, and slams his hands on the ground, pushing the energy underneath Camelot’s army. He could feel it, ripples of something moving in waves underneath the ground, and he watches as the ground shudders before giving way underneath the Mercian soldiers.
Merlin looks at Arthur, triumphant look on his face. Magic is coursing through his veins, and for the first time in months he feels awake and alive.
Whatever Arthur was shouting at him was swallowed in a roar of wind. Arthur is running towards him, something fierce on his face.
Merlin frowns. He doesn’t understand, because he’s essentially stopped the battle, finished the battle by ripping up the ground like old tapestries, so why is Arthur –
And then he stops. He’s getting colder, not because of the borrowed magic leaving him, but because of the throbbing in his back. He reaches behind and tries to touch whatever is hurting him, but his hand brings back nothing but blood, hot and thick.
“Lucky shot,” Merlin murmurs. Someone is pressing down on his back, and he writhes in agony, the whole world bursting into a cloud of red and black.
It is mid-noon when he wakes, face down in a cot. Whoever laid him there had made an effort in disguising the hard slats of the cot, but Merlin feels them anyways, striping across his body. He groans.
Merlin turns towards the voice. Leon is sitting on a stool, carefully rolling up what appears to be a map. He inhales carefully.
“How long was I out for?”
Leon smiles ruefully. “Long enough.” At Merlin’s slightly cross look, he clarifies, “Four days.” He stands and heads out of the tent. “Arthur will want to know you’re awake.”
Merlin feels the burn on his back, the skin tight around what must be slightly inflamed wounds. He tries to muffle a groan, but it slips out, weak even to his own ears.
“Don’t move. You’ll make it worse.”
Merlin does exactly the opposite, turning his head too quickly towards the sound of the voice, and the room swam.
“Idiot.” Arthur’s voice is warm, but tired. He comes to sit at the edge of Merlin’s cot.
“I’m alright, Arthur,” murmurs Merlin. “Nothing permanent.”
“It could have been.” There’s no anger, but a resignation, something Merlin picks up on immediately. “I suppose we should thank you for that little stunt.” Arthur runs his hands over his face. “Although I wouldn’t call it little.”
“Alvarick has conceded defeat,” Arthur says. “It’s done.” He reaches for the back of Merlin’s neck, and rests his hand there, the heat from his hand seeping through the thick bandages.
“Merlin,” Arthur says, softly. “We’re going home.”
It’s worse, back in Camelot. Whatever it was that he did at the last battle, it had stolen nearly everything. His injury heals slowly, but he lies, lies, lies to Arthur whenever Arthur asks of it. He feels the pull of exhaustion, now more than ever, tugging at him, draining him. Adela, Morgana’s youngest, keeps looking at him, her big blue eyes trained on him constantly, and he finds himself avoiding her altogether.
Gwen is more pregnant than ever, glowing and radiant. Merlin knows he looks the opposite. His cheekbones are prominent, as if he was back in Ealdor, hungry and cold. Morgana has taken his breeches in four times in the last week, even though it was below her station many times over. Each time, she touches his wrist, her eyes wet and each time, he kisses her forehead in gratitude.
He doesn’t dream as often as he used to. Dreams required energy and magic which he did not have to spare, and he finds himself waking in the mornings, drenched in cold sweat, with no recollection of the night before. Morgana grows increasingly agitated, her expression fixed into one that resembled the look on her face before Morgauese stole her away.
He counts the months down with Gwen, but for entirely different reasons. When Gwen hits seven months, he takes leave again from the castle, and spends a week slowly pushing the rest of his magic into the wards that surround and protect Camelot.
When he returns to the castle, he is completely and utterly without magic.
One day, sometime in the middle of the eighth month, Adela walks into his chambers unannounced and undetected and says very clearly, “Uncle Merlin, do you want to see – ”
He never hears the rest of what she is saying, because he comes face to face with an enormous glittering dragon. His heart stops, and for a moment, he sees Kilgarrah, all of his disapproving glory.
Two sides, thinks Merlin.
Then the dragon disappears as quickly as it appeared, and Adela must have noticed his shock, because she hurls her body into his.
“I’m sorry,” she cries, “Mother says the dragon was your favourite. Don’t be mad, please. I just wanted to make you feel better.” She hugs him tighter. Merlin smoothes a hand over her hair.
“Adela, why would you think that?”
Adela merely sniffles. “You’re sad, Uncle Merlin. In my dreams, you’re always crying.”
Merlin’s throat closes up at that, and he swallows, trying to even out his voice. “Well,” he says, kindly. “I feel a lot better now.” He doesn’t. He’s still terrified, but a seven year old does not need to know that. “It’s a lovely dragon. Why don’t you show me what else you can make?”
Her eyes brighten up at that.
He spends the rest of the day teaching her how to conjure up proper butterflies.
The next time Merlin is asked to perform in front of a visiting prince, he politely declines, and leaves the banquet hall in tears.
Arthur follows him to his chambers. Of course he does.
“What’s going on. Merlin. You have to tell me, because something’s different,” Arthur pauses, his frustration clear on his face, “you’re different.” Merlin feels the shift in emotion, realizes that Arthur will no longer tolerate the faintly veiled answers he’s been providing.
“Nothing,” Merlin says. He shrugs and turns to leave, but Arthur grips him tightly around the wrist. Merlin winces, and schools his feature into something blank, something he would have worn on his face from before.
“Merlin.” Arthur’s squaring his jaw, like he always does before a tournament, before a confrontation with Uther. “Please.”
Merlin nods, and Arthur releases his wrist. “Know, Arthur, that I don’t regret this. I don’t regret any of it.”
Arthur looks confused, but he waits for Merlin to continue.
“I don’t have any magic.” And now that he’s saying it out loud, Merlin feels the loss, sudden and great inside him. Where there used to be a hum of life, a stillness has taken up residence. “Not anymore. I won’t have it ever again.” His throat closes up at this admission, and Merlin wants to weep, to cry and to scream, to hurt and make Arthur hurt. But he means what he said. He regrets nothing, and would do it over and over again just to see happiness settle into Arthur’s face.
“And how did you lose the magic?” Arthur demands. He’s clenching and unclenching his hands. There is a look descending into Arthur’s eyes, something startling and painful.
“It’s the price for something worthy.” Merlin swallows.
Arthur moves closer. “Something worthy.” He shakes his head. “You’ve lied to me to keep me safe, but no more, Merlin. What could be so worthy of your magic?”
Merlin closes his eyes. “Your child, Arthur, is worth more than anything.”
“I don’t – ” Arthur looks up sharply. “Merlin.”
“I regret nothing, Arthur.” There’s something rising up quickly in Arthur, something dangerous and filled with sharpened edges.
“I will not be my father. I won’t! I can’t lose Gwen!” Arthur grabs Merlin’s arm and shakes it roughly. “I will not recreate my father’s legacy! I will not kill my wife for my child!”
“You won’t lose Gwen,” Merlin says softly. “I’ve made sure of that. It’ll be okay, Arthur.” Merlin hurts everywhere, inside and out. He hurts with Arthur’s anger, and he hurts with the knowledge that he will never be first, but second, third, last.
Arthur looks at him, eyes hollowed with fear and exhaustion. “There had to be a sacrifice, Merlin. You are not above the Old Religion. We both know that. Who did you give in return for my child?”
Merlin shakes his head.
“Who, Merlin? A villager? A foreigner? One of the exiled sorcerers come back for me? Who?” He shakes Merlin again. “Tell me!”
“Me,” whispers Merlin.
Arthur lets his arm go, and steps back, shaking his head violently. “No. No, Merlin. You can’t.” He’s breathing quickly, and Merlin steps to placate him.
“Arthur – ”
“No. Merlin, not you. You can’t have!” Arthur slams his fist against his table. “Undo the spell! Take it back!”
“You can’t just will a baby gone, you stupid prat!” Merlin shouts. His breath is coming in short, and he pants with the effort of arguing with Arthur.
“I never asked for asked for a child! Undo it! Whatever you did, I order you to undo it!”
“I CAN’T!” Black spots are appearing in the corners of his vision, but he fights it. “I can’t! I can’t!” He wouldn’t even if he could. He knows Arthur loves this child already, loves the idea of fatherhood. He knows Arthur wants the child, would give up kingdoms for it.
“Were you ever going to tell me? Were you going to wait until you just died one day?” Arthur is shouting something else, something that sounds cruel and biting, but the words swim around Merlin’s ears uselessly, like listening to the songs of the water snakes, distorted in his skull. For a moment, he wonders if he is already dead, and someone slaps him sharply across the face.
The sting brings him back, and his vision clears to reveal Morgana, face filled with fury. She must have followed them out of the hall. “You do not get to make judgements, Arthur Pendragon!” she snaps, and pulls Merlin up against her.
“Morgana!” Arthur roars.
“Everything he’s done has always been for you,” she says, her voice breaking. Through the haze that clouds his sight, Merlin can see tears sliding down Morgana’s face. “He’s never thought of himself. Arthur, please.”
Before he slips back under, Merlin wonders why the expression on Arthur’s face resembles something like regret.
In the last months, Merlin keeps mostly to the castle. He teaches Adela as much as he can, and keeps Gwen and Morgana company when they wander down to the courtyards, but most of his time is spent in the armoury. He runs his fingers over and over again on the links of Arthur’s mail, and it is here that he regrets losing his magic most. He still whispers all the enchantments he knows, every ward he’s every learned, every charm and protection he could recall, but there is nothing flowing from his fingertips. All that he has now are his wishes, his hopes, and so he says them quietly over the armour, fingers catching on the joints of the armour.
Arthur catches him once, and instead of berating him for wasting time, like he used to, he joins Merlin on the bench. Arthur spends more time, as Merlin would teasingly call it, hovering over Merlin, accompanying to the stables, to the courtyards. There isn’t any time left, not for banter, not for small and thoughtless jokes, and both of them know it.
And then, one day, as Merlin is walking with Morgana back to the main hall, he crumples to the ground without warning.
“Merlin?” Morgana asks. She hauls him upright against her, her grip like iron.
“The baby,” he gasps. “Gwen.” His vision whites out for a moment, and he goes down again on one knee. He can feel all the strength in his body leaving him, slipping out of him like hot blood back to the Earth.
“Is something wrong with the baby? Merlin!” Morgana cries.
Merlin shakes his head. “Coming. The baby.” The world is shuttering down to a very narrow point, and he goes subsequently cold and hollow all at once.
Morgana goes silent. Gwen had been feeling off for days, and they had all known that the baby would arrive soon, but they also knew what it meant for Merlin. “Let’s go,” she says, the strain in her voice evident. “We’ll get you back to your chambers.” Her hand tightens around his waist. Vaguely, he wonders why she doesn’t just call for someone to help, but then he remembers, ruefully, that this was Morgana, and she would skin her own dinner when they went hunting with Arthur, so why would she even call for –
Then white sears across his vision, and then nothing.
Nothing at all.
He wakes to the quiet of his chambers. Light filters through the windows, and he watches the dust flit around in the beam.
“Adela?” Merlin slowly moves his head. Adela is sitting on the floor, little fire butterflies fluttering near her. He tries to shift himself up, but nothing seems to be working. Instead, there is a vague numb feeling settling over his body. “What are you doing here?”
“Mother is helping with the baby,” Adela waves her hand, and the butterflies disappear. “She says she’s going to be right back.”
Merlin nods. “What are you doing here?”
Adela stands up and sits at the foot of his bed, looking vaguely guilty. “Uncle Arthur told me to wait until he could come. He said that I’m to keep you company.”
“Well, then I’m glad to have your company.” Merlin smiles.
Adela smiles back at him. “Do you want to see the puppy I made?” Without waiting for an answer, she pulls a small, glimmering puppy out of the air.
There is a sudden jolt of pain that shoots through Merlin’s hands and continues up to his elbows. Somewhere, he thinks he hears a woman screaming, and he knows. He doesn’t want a little girl to witness his pain, because it will get worse before – and he stops thinking there, because there is nothing after the end.
“That’s wonderful,” he musters up, fighting the pain that’s slowly creeping up to his neck. He needs to send her away before he starts screaming in pain.
“I learned it yesterday.” She beams. “I wanted to show you first.” The dog is making circles, little dots of light flying everywhere.
“I think your sister would love to see this.” Merlin places a smile on his face. “Why don’t you show her, and maybe you could show her how to make the butterflies too.”
Adela’s face lights up, and she moves off the bed. “Okay.”
“Okay, Adela. I’ll see you soon,” he says, fondly, ignoring the shudders that are gripping his chest watching her make her way to the door.
At the door, she pauses. “Uncle Merlin?” Her eyes are filled with tears, and her lower lip trembles, but she doesn’t cry. “It’ll be alright. Really.” Then she runs out the door in a tumble of skirts.
A flash of heat races down from his temples, leaving his cheeks numb. He’s terrified, but this is what he’s expected from the very beginning, so he can’t complain now.
And he thinks of when he first walked through the gates of Camelot, and when he first saw Arthur, Arthur in his goldenness, Arthur, who despite his failings, tried so very hard, and was an upstanding man.
"Arthur," he whimpers. The pain radiating down his spine is excruciating, leaving him gasping into his pillow. He wants Arthur so badly, or even Morgana, but they’re with Gwen. He knows the child is coming soon. He’s been fighting the ebb of unconsciousness for so long now.
A calloused hand grasps his, palm damp, and another sweeps across his forehead, resting on his cheek.
This wasn’t right, Merlin thinks, through the haze of exhaustion and pain. Arthur should be with Gwen, who’s giving birth, who will need Arthur, and Arthur is here, kneeling next to his bed like a stupid besotted maiden. He looks blearily at Arthur. “Why are you here?”
“Don’t be stupid,” Arthur chokes out. “Why wouldn’t I be?” When Merlin’s vision finally clears, he sees that Arthur is kneeling on the floor beside the bed.
“Gwen. Oh my God, Gwen. Is she alright?”
Arthur smiles, full of pride. “Yes. Morgana’s with her right now.” He chuckles. “The physicians are all with Gwen as well, but she’s trying to kick them out.”
Merlin feels relief, and smiles at this. He’s worried for Gwen and the baby for the longest time, and now everything is almost complete.
Arthur slips both hands under the covers and feels around until he finds Merlin’s hands. Hissing at the coldness of them, he wraps his hands around them, rubbing them lightly. They’re silent, Arthur running his fingers over the backs of Merlin’s hands and fingers. He’s angry, Merlin thinks.
“You don’t have to be here,” Merlin murmurs.
Arthur looks hurt, and then the hurt morphs into indignant offence. “Don’t be stupid,” he repeats. “You’re my – ” and then he stops, because they’re both not sure anymore. Then he says, “Move over," voice rough, pushing gently at Merlin’s shoulder.
Merlin stares up at Arthur in confusion. “What – ”
Arthur unfastens his cloak, dropping it unceremoniously onto the floor before sitting down and pulling off his boots. He lifts the covers and slides underneath them, pressing himself to Merlin and gently shifting the both of them until Arthur had enough space. He faces Merlin, eyes searching Merlin’s, and then he smiles, young and breathless. “Tell me something I don’t know. About you. Something.” He threads his fingers through Merlin’s. “Tell me anything. I never asked, and you know everything about me.”
“I don’t know." Merlin wrinkles his nose. "You already know pretty much everything.” He pushes himself deeper into his pillow. “Um, one year, when you were being especially difficult – ”
“Was not,” interjects Arthur.
“ – I turned all your night things pink, for three weeks, and blamed it on the laundresses.”
“That was you?!” Arthur looked suitably outraged at the gall of it all, and Merlin chortles.
“It was a lovely shade, especially on you.”
Arthur lightly cuffs the side of Merlin’s head, turning it into a caress halfway.
For a moment, a selfish moment, Merlin is glad of Arthur’s presence. And then, he shoulders up his pain, locks it away. “Don’t be a right prat, yeah? Not everyone’s as saintly as me to put up with you.”
“Not everyone’s an incompetent servant like you, though. What am I ever going to do without your idiocy?” Arthur’s voice is light, but his eyes are wet.
“Excuse you,” Merlin rasps, smiling tiredly. “I was an excellent manservant, if my promotion to Court Sorcerer is anything to go by.”
Arthur’s face crumples slightly at this. “Yes,” he says softly, hands mapping the bones of Merlin’s face. “Yes, you were. There was no one like you.”
“Do you want to know something else?”
“What?” Arthur tilts his head in question.
“You’re a good person, Arthur. You,” Merlin says, his tone a little more forceful than he meant to, but Arthur had to know this. “Not as King Arthur. Just you. And people might tell you differently, but you need to know that you are a good person, and a kind person, and I believe you’ll always do what is right.” Merlin shifts uncomfortably. His left leg is numb, and he shivers.
Arthur makes a wounded noise at this.
“And,” Merlin says, quietly. “You were always the one. Always.” And he knows he sounds like his heart is breaking, and maybe it is, and Merlin finally lets a few tears slip out, trailing down the side of his face. Because all his life, he was looking for a place to belong, and now he’s found it, with Arthur. King Arthur, who belongs to the whole of Camelot, to Albion, to Destiny, who dictates his fate and future. To Gwen, who loves him, who’s carrying his child, and this is something that burns through Merlin greater than the pain. He will never have the chance to be loved like he always wanted to.
“Merlin,” Arthur chokes. He pulls Merlin as close as he can, hiding Merlin in his arms.
“I’m afraid,” Merlin says faintly, his tears slowly soaking into Arthur’s shirt. Arthur tightens his arms.
“Ask me to stay,” exhales Arthur into his hair. “Ask me. Merlin, please.” He’s shaking against Merlin, fingers tightly squeezing his. “I haven’t, God, Merlin, I haven’t had enough time with you.” He carefully palms the back of Merlin’s head. “I’ll never have enough time with you.”
Merlin closes his eyes and concentrates on breathing. The scent of Arthur fills every breath he takes. He’ll remember everything until the end. His legs are now completely numb, a tingling quickening up his spine and creeping up his neck to caress his face. “You should go, Arthur,” Merlin breathes, and turns his head to the door. “The baby’s coming now.”
A pained look crosses Arthur’s face, deeply sorrowful. He squeezes his eyes shut, and for a second, looks every bit the boy he was, feigning bravery and confidence where there was none. “Merlin.”
This was it. The cold is all his body is now. It’s harder to breathe, his lungs refusing to inflate to full capacity with every inhale. Everything inside is wailing for Arthur not to go, to stay with him, because he’s terrified, the black at the tips of his fingers, caressing his bones, but Merlin viciously quells his fear.
“Go, Arthur.” There isn’t time now. He doesn’t want Arthur to see this, to watch him die. He wants Arthur to remember life, Gwen’s strength, his child’s first cries. He slips his fingers out from in between Arthur’s, and reaches for Arthur’s face, swiping his thumb across his cheekbone and his fingers across his brow. “I’ll see you sometime, yeah?”
Arthur looks at him, long and steady, something unsettling in his eyes, before leaning in, softly pressing his lips to Merlin’s. “I’ll always see you.”
He watches Arthur walk to the door, a flurry of red and gold from his cloak, shoulders pulled back and back straight. When he reaches the door, Arthur turns around and smiles at Merlin, his blue eyes bright and brilliant.
And then he is gone.
There is a lone bird calling out from across the towers. Merlin closes his eyes and the darkness that he had so desperately fought off sweeps over him.
The child is a boy. The child squalls, blue eyes blinking furiously before scrunching them tightly closed.
Arthur holds his son to his chest, tears hot on his face, and does not think of Merlin.