It didn’t happen as Merlin imagined it would. He had run through a thousand scenarios a thousand times: defending Arthur from nefarious sorcerers, risking his life to save Gaius from a wasting magical illness, dashing in to rescue the Queen from a persistent admirer. He couldn’t have conceived that it would be so mundane.
Everything began with a cup. More properly, Arthur’s favorite goblet, a present from his father many moons ago. As usual, it was perched wherever Arthur had last been, buried by the administrative detritus of ruling a kingdom but always near, familiar and comforting. Of course, Merlin knocked it from the edge of the table. Of course, it hurtled to a shattered doom upon the flagstone floor. And, of course, without a second thought Merlin reached for his magic to catch it and to save Arthur from that sad, far look he got whenever he thought of his father.
And, of course, Arthur was at his desk, hand extended in a futile attempt to catch the goblet. Merlin wouldn’t be surprised if Arthur had felt the warm brush of his magic. It didn’t matter, though, because the King’s eyes were wide but focused on his, his mouth agape.
Merlin didn’t need a mirror to know the amber flow of his eyes had yet to fade. He knew, in that second before Arthur moved, that he had to say something. Anything. Crack a joke, make up an explanation. Anything. But fear and joy and anxiety choked him, their cruel hot hands closing his throat. And then, as if in passionate rebuttal of his magic, which had stretched time, Arthur moved in a frantic lunge which not even Merlin could have stopped. A sword was in his hand before Merlin could breathe, and the point slashed its way towards the frozen warlock.
Neither Merlin nor Arthur paid much attention to whether or not it connected. Once the movement was completed, Arthur’s strike finishing its crescent in the air, they froze again, staring, panting. Arthur wouldn’t meet his eyes, their gaze burning with anger a step below meeting Merlin’s stare. The King stayed a sword’s length away, panting for both of them and muscles taut.
Merlin, still not breathing, fled.
Darkness had crept its way into the King’s bedchamber without his notice or permission. When visitors had come to his door he had gruffly ordered them away, still crouched on the cold floor with cold sword in hand. He felt paralyzed by the weight of this new knowledge, anger and fear and sorrow dragging his limbs earthward.
The Queen found him this way, stiff with misery and the chill night air, holding a sword dripping with blood and unfocused eyes red and wet.
Merlin didn’t stop to pack. He didn’t even stop to think. He just ran and kept running until his legs collapsed beneath him. Vaguely he remembered hearing shouts, his name, questions, but the only thought he could focus on was Arthur’s face. The sword in his hand.
Arthur had struck him, but perhaps the blow Merlin had landed was worse. What had he done?
Days passed, and the growing stoniness of Arthur’s expression prevented anyone from asking where Merlin was. Gaius sought out everyone else, but the man who had defied Uther and still kept his head only dared to skirt the presence of the King. Gwaine tried, at once light-hearted and deadly serious, but Arthur only turned vacant, feverish eyes on him and the words died between them. Leon merely bent his back under his Monarch’s oppressive mood, and Guinevere fretted silently, keeping close to Arthur but eyes always seeking for Merlin.
The air was heavy, the light gray. Every passing hour leeched color from Arthur, gold and blue and red all muddied and faded. Camelot faded with him.
No one knew what had happened, and no one knew what to do.
Merlin creaked through the hours of light, a stiff wooden puppet on a slack string. He ate the berries he remembered Gaius had said were safe. He drank from the tiny stream outside of his small cave. And he waited, breath quiet as death and body still as stone.
At night he didn’t even bother to light a fire. No meat to cook, no need for warmth. The leeching away of his life seemed only fair, a slow retribution. Merlin was determined to stay, anchored to this spot by a desperate hope that he would be forgiven, or that he would die and his grief would seep away with his warmth.
It was only when his fingers clenched in a cold, tired spasm that he realized he was still holding the goblet.
It was very unlike Arthur to leave blood on a weapon. A knight was only as good as his weapons, and a rusty sword could be a death sentence on the field of battle. But he couldn’t bear to touch it, the steel gleaming a dull threat from the floor of his chambers. Merlin should have picked it up by now…
Arthur had already half-formed the name when he remembered. He snapped his mouth shut against a deep, cloying wave of nausea and stepped over the blade, eyes resolutely flitting away from the dull brown stain marring the silver.
Slowly lowering himself into a chair, Arthur couldn’t stop his eyes from again and again looking to the sword. He knew, distantly, he had hurt Merlin. This should matter; this should worry him. But Merlin had also hurt him. He trusted him—Merlin was his friend! His only friend, if he was honest with himself. He had his knights, his wife, his loyal subjects, but no one was to him what Merlin was to him. A steadfast source of warmth, honesty, affection, and unfailing loyalty.
But Merlin had lied to his face for years, their entire relationship. He was a sorcerer, had probably been secretly using magic for all this time, laughing at the clueless Prince who fancied himself more powerful than his manservant. Arthur knew, though, with a deep certainty, that Merlin had never hurt him. Lied to him, betrayed his trust, but the King couldn’t deny that his friend (could he still call him that?) would never hurt him, would only protect him.
Did any of that matter now? He simply could not stomach another person, a loved one, who wasn’t honest with him, who moved in shadows and never brought Arthur into the light. Especially Merlin. Surely the sorcerer, Arthur tensed at the word, knew what this would do to him after Morgana and Agravaine. Hell, after his father. Why would he hide it? After all these years, had Arthur not earned any trust at all?
He remembered, suddenly, Merlin’s tentative arguments for magic, how Merlin always knew what was going on and always tried to get Arthur to do the right thing earlier than Arthur was willing. Now he understood so many things that had puzzled him. Magic. Merlin had magic.
Arthur startled at a sharp crack. He uncurled stiff, white fingers from his chair to discover the arms had cracked. The sword remained before him, still but loud as screams.
He woke the next morning, exhausted but determined that this was enough. There was so much wrong between them, but Arthur knew he could never live without Merlin with him, even if they had an eternity of apologies to make, of secrets and hurts to share. Arthur turned to Gwen, sleeping peacefully across the large mattress. She would support him, he knew, but she would never understand. To her he was golden, not perfect but an unfailingly good man. This anger he had to work out with the one person who would understand.
Days and nights had become fluid. He existed only as the molten flow of magic, his consciousness burned away with pain and weakness. As if an echo, he felt his sticky, clammy hands, a persistent ache of pain in his side. Couldn’t move, though, couldn’t move. Had to stay. Had to make it right.
Burning singed his nerves, heat dried his skin, but he stayed, crouched, dry gold eyes frozen open. He had to pay. He had to make it right.
His feet remained rooted to the earth, his hands clenched on the goblet. This was the only way. He deserved this.
Stay. Stay. He needs this. This is right.
“Merlin!” Something wrenched him away, off his feet. He fell with no control, lifeless into someone’s arms. “Merlin! Oh my Gods! Merlin!”
Oh, the voice! Arthur! Finally he let himself fall into darkness and cold.
A low, grinding moan brought him back into consciousness. He was warm but not burning, his muscles finally relaxed. He knew the moan was coming from him but he couldn’t stop it because every muscle ached and he felt only the smallest reservoir of energy, barely enough to flutter his eyes open.
But that weakening draw was worth every moment, as his awareness was greeted with Arthur’s tired but smiling face. He couldn’t speak, but his lips formed sorry a thousand times. Finally Arthur reached a hand out to him, touching his face with gentle fingers. Eyes wide, Merlin waited.
“I can’t say I forgive you,” the King began, “but I am glad that you…that you’re all right.” Merlin tried to fumble his hands up to grasp Arthur’s. “No, no Merlin, stop. You’re too weak. Just be still. I’m here. You’re here. You and I aren’t going anywhere.”
It wasn’t forgiveness, it wasn’t even close, but it was enough. Merlin settled for leaning into the rough fingers still resting on his check, and faded again into sleep.
Arthur should have returned to Camelot days ago, but he had left reliable Leon in charge, and Merlin was so frail, white and bloodless and absent, almost gone. He was still angry, fury and hurt battering within him, but he was also terrified. Merlin had hurt him, but he couldn’t leave him. Arthur would never let him leave.
So he stayed, a hand on Merlin as often as possible, eyes still unable to meet Merlin’s but never leaving him, always watching and keeping Merlin with him, keeping him alive. They hadn’t talked since Merlin had first awoken, but they worked together silently, their silent rituals and habits undisturbed by their mistakes. Arthur found this reassuring, that Merlin was still Merlin, still hopeless, still absurd in his own affable way.
Finally the words wouldn’t be contained anymore, and Arthur asked the only question he could as he guiltily mopped up the ragged, almost bloodless gash in Merlin’s side. “Why didn’t you leave? Why did you stay here? You almost died. “
Merlin, head turned away but hands near Arthur’s, stretched along his stomach in search of a connection with his King, his friend, breathed “Couldn’t leave you.”
Arthur’s eyes slid up unthinkingly, blue searching out blue. Merlin turned and their eyes met, on level for the first time in weeks.