Arthur isn't looking for it but he sees it anyway.
He sees the flash of gold in Merlin's eyes—the outstretched hand, the whisper of words on lips, the fire that brings itself to life— and his world tilts dangerously, blurring around the edges. Fear settles into a cold knot in the pit of his stomach and a thousand thoughts flash through his mind: axes and crimson blood and the emptiness of a world without Merlin.
Arthur's breath hitches and Merlin must have heard him because he looks up in surprise from where he's crouched on the floor in front of the fireplace. There is a hesitation, a brief moment when their gazes meet and the light from the fire reflects in Merlin's eyes, and it's almost like Arthur is seeing it again. He swallows, and his chest aches.
Merlin's voice is quiet, cautious, and his head tilts just slightly toward the fire. Arthur stares at him and opens his mouth, not knowing what he needs to say but knowing he probably should. Nothing comes and he snaps his mouth closed again, fist clenching unconsciously at his side. Merlin's brow creases and he stands slowly, eyes taking in Arthur's tense form.
"Arthur?" he repeats, and there is something in his voice that wasn't there before, something closed off and blank and self-protective. Arthur watches him, gangly limbs unfolding and long fingers moving hesitantly over the cloth of his trousers. "Arthur, what's wrong?"
Arthur looks carefully and can see the terror hidden deep in Merlin's eyes. He feels sick. "Nothing," he forces out, and finally breaks eye contact, pinching the bridge of his nose between his fingers and then rubbing them over his eyes. "Meeting with council," he says shortly, and kicks his chamber door shut behind him. Idiot Merlin, leaving it open. "Father was in a right state over the lack of guards at the northern borders."
"Oh," Merlin says, and now that Arthur knows he should listen he hears the hint of relief; Merlin starts chattering away like normal. "I went ahead and brought your dinner up, it's roasted hen and potatoes tonight. I think the cook overdid the hen, but the last time I said something I was banned from the kitchens for a week and had to get Gwen to fetch your meals. There's also bread and cheese and grapes; I thought you might like those as well, since the hen is probably dry as dirt."
He keeps talking but Arthur isn't listening. He drops his hand and stares at the food on the table almost uncomprehendingly, but the part of his mind that isn't desperately seeking answers nudges him and he moves forward stiffly. The chair seems harder than usual when he sits, and Arthur imagines that he can feel every grain of wood in it through the layers of fur and clothing.
He is suddenly over-sensitized: the brush of his tunic against his skin, the fading light from the window, the sound of Merlin's voice in the background. The hen is indeed dry, his teeth grinding over the meat as he chews his first bite. It doesn't taste like ashes or gruel or anything other than overcooked bird, and Arthur almost laughs at the utter normality of everything around him.
Merlin continues talking, moving around Arthur's room as he goes through the motions of the routine that has become his usual. He pulls out Arthur's sleep shirt and trousers, laying them across the bed, and then adds a nearby bucket of steaming water to the already-full tub that's been waiting. The bedcovers are turned down and all but a few of the candles extinguished.
"I've got your armour down in my room," Merlin is saying, gathering the washing cloth and a bar of soap and setting them beside the tub. "I'll polish them tonight and have them ready for your training session in the morning. How is that new knight coming along, by the way?"
It takes Arthur a few moments to realize that he's been asked a direct question. He blinks, and Merlin gives him a slightly bemused expression. "Oh," he eventually says when the words register. "Um. He's young but he's a fast learner. Has a weak spot on his left when he parries, but I'll work that out of him."
Merlin nods, his lips twisting upward, and it strikes Arthur suddenly that it's been much too long since he's seen a real smile cross Merlin's face. He swallows again, unable to stop himself from drinking in Merlin's features with his eyes. He's too thin, his cheekbones even more prominent than usual, and there's a shadow somewhere in his expression that Arthur can't quite catch.
"I'm sure you will," Merlin replies with undisguised amusement as he turns toward the fire and adds more timber. "Shall I have Gaius send him some salve, then?"
Arthur makes a noncommittal noise and watches the orange flames grow bigger. In his mind he sees another fire, hot and dangerous and big enough to consume a man fully grown. "I think that's all for tonight, Merlin," he says tightly, reaching for his goblet. "You're dismissed."
Merlin looks back at him, surprise flashing briefly across his face. "Are you sure?" he asks after a moment's pause. "You aren't even done eating."
Arthur glances down at his barely-touched plate and takes a deep, calming breath. "I'm sure," he answers. He forces himself to smirk and drag his eyes back up to Merlin's. "You can just take the plates back with the breakfast dishes in the morning. I'm sure you can handle the double load, along with all of my laundry that still needs to be done. Besides, you have to go polish my armour. You said so yourself."
Merlin's grimace would have been satisfactorily amusing just a few hours before. "Of course." He snorts and heads for the door. "Anything else you need before I go, sire?"
Arthur can do nothing more than shake his head, which earns him an odd look. "Goodnight, Merlin."
Merlin frowns slightly. "Goodnight, Arthur," he says unsurely.
Arthur pretends not to notice when Merlin snags some of the cheese and bread as he walks by.
Everything changes but Arthur's the only one who knows it has.
He looks out his window at the courtyard below, watching the people go about their daily lives. Sometimes he sees Merlin, heading from one chore to another, stopping to talk to the people he knows. Arthur never sees him do any magic in public, and the part of him that doesn't hurt is relieved.
He doesn't ask himself why Merlin never told him. The answer to that is painfully obvious.
The sword is heavy in his hand as he battles back one of his best knights. Sir Kendall is strong and skilled, and Arthur knows that he must concentrate if he wants to win. Steel clangs as it meets more steel, singing out the song that every warrior knows. His tunic sticks to his skin beneath his armour, sweat trailing down his spine to pool in the small of his back.
Arthur is aware of Merlin standing just outside the training area, watching closely. This is nothing new; Merlin always watches. But now—now Arthur knows that he isn't just watching. Merlin's stance is casual, almost bored. Arthur can see, though, when there is a break between knights, the way his shoulders are tense and the way his eyes track every movement.
So Arthur is very, very careful. He thrusts and he parries, spins and swings and lets the clash of metal on metal ring through his ears and into his head, drowning out every thought but the one he can't seem to forget. Sir Kendall matches him move for move, the rest of the knights silent as the battle continues. It goes on and on, until Arthur finally sees the opening he needs.
Kendall is down in two short thrusts, sword skittering across the dirt and the point of Arthur's at his chest.
"Do you yield?" Arthur asks, voice loud and commanding as he slips his helmet from his head and drops it to the ground.
Kendall reaches up to remove his own helmet, sweat-soaked hair clinging to his face. "Aye, my lord," he says through heavy breaths, inclining his head respectfully.
Arthur nods and drops the point of his sword, reaching out with his free hand to help Kendall up. "Good man," he says, clapping him on the shoulder. Merlin is still watching from the side. "I think that's it for today," Arthur says, turning toward the rest of the knights and waving them off.
They leave gratefully and Arthur walks over to Merlin, taking the skin from him and gulping down the water inside. He can feel Merlin staring, blue eyes that shine gold when he thinks nobody can see him trailing over Arthur's neck as he swallows. Lowering the skin, Arthur drops his gaze and catches Merlin looking right at him. He smirks slightly and Merlin flushes.
The air is thick between them and Arthur's heart clenches, stomach tightening into a hot-cold ball of something. Now, he thinks. Tell him you know. But Merlin is staring at him with those blue-grey-sometimes-gold eyes and his mouth goes dry despite the water he just drank. He struggles to find the words, fights with himself so he can say it just right.
"Well, come on, then," Merlin eventually says, turning and heading for the armoury. "Let's get you out of that before it rusts."
Arthur trails after him, thinking vaguely that he shouldn't be the one following.
There's going to be a small feast, so he gathers a hunting party and sets out at dawn. Merlin is with him, as usual, and Arthur makes sure to only choose knights that he can trust with both his and Merlin's lives.
It's as they're on their way back with several successful kills that they're set upon by bandits. Arthur isn't surprised in the least; it happens so frequently he almost expects it now. The problem, he thinks, is Merlin. It occurs to him that Merlin has probably used magic in these types of situations in the past, but now that Arthur knows it's different.
No less dangerous, but somehow different.
He easily takes out three of the poorly-trained men, and his knights are holding their own. Merlin is trying his best to use a sword but it's never been something he's good at, and the bandit he's fighting is quickly gaining the upper hand. Arthur yanks his own sword from the man he's just killed and runs toward them, heart beating frantically in his chest.
He's nearly there when the man knocks the weapon from Merlin's hand; it goes spinning through the air and then skids across the ground. Merlin stumbles backward and Arthur can see him start to raise his hand.
"Hey!" he shouts loudly, hoping to distract them both.
The bandit turns in surprise to face Arthur, who bears down on him with a carefully controlled swing of his sword. The man recovers quickly and blocks Arthur's swing with one of his own. It's a shock for Arthur to discover that the man isn't nearly as bad as the others had been, and soon they are locked in fierce battle.
From the corner of his eye Arthur can see that Merlin hasn't moved. He's watching the two of them, eyes wide and expression fearful. Arthur focuses on the bandit, fighting with all he has; he absolutely cannot let Merlin use his magic. There are too many witnesses. Unfortunately the man is strong, and much better trained than the others.
Arthur is forced to step backward as he fights him off, trying desperately to keep the advantage. It happens then, just as he has to step back for the second time. The heel of one foot catches on the root of a nearby tree and Arthur trips, landing hard on his back as his sword is knocked from his hand and skitters away.
The bandit grins wildly as he looms overhead, sword poised above him, ready to strike. Arthur tries to kick out with one foot and trip the man but he misses, and as he scrambles backward the only thing he can think is Merlin. It's only slightly unexpected when the man suddenly jerks and freezes, his jaw going slack. The sword falls from his hands and Arthur manages to move his leg just in time.
As he watches, the bandit's eyes glaze over and he crumples sideways. Arthur stares at the sword—Merlin's sword, the one that seconds ago was out of reach—that is sticking out of the man's back. Arthur's breath comes harshly and he turns his gaze to Merlin. He sees the nearly-faded gold in his eyes, and knows that just a few weeks ago he would have attributed it to a trick of the light and the rush of adrenaline.
"Alright?" Merlin asks cautiously.
Arthur swallows and nods shortly, pushing himself to his feet. "Yeah," he says, and thinks, Now, now, tell him now. Instead, he reaches over and pulls out the sword, carefully avoiding Merlin's wary gaze. "Looks like you might not be completely useless with a weapon after all."
A barely-audible breath shudders out of Merlin and his weak smile is just-this-side of watery. "Guess not," he says thickly.
Arthur wipes the sword off and hands it back to Merlin before turning to look around for his knights. If they saw anything—but no, they are all alive and otherwise occupied with the bodies of the group of bandits. The cold knot of fear in Arthur's stomach loosens slightly and he closes his eyes to take a deep, calming breath.
Merlin's secret is still a secret, and he is still safe.
Later that night, Arthur watches Merlin closely. Gaius has sent up some salve for the cuts and bruises he sustained during the earlier skirmish, and Merlin is helping him apply it as they stand beside the table in Arthur's room. The salve is cool against his skin, a direct contrast to the warmth of Merlin's hands as he massages it in. Arthur's eyes trace the line of Merlin's nose, his cheekbones, the shell of his ear and the curve of his neck.
"How is it that you attract so much trouble?" Merlin mutters, brow creasing as he carefully works the cream into Arthur's arm.
Arthur can't help but grin. "It comes with the crown, I think."
Merlin snorts and glances up at him, eyes shining with amusement. "I think it's just you," he says. "The crown has nothing to do with it."
"Is that right?" Arthur asks, heart stuttering as Merlin's fingers lightly trace the old scar on his chest.
"Mm-hm," Merlin answers, and then his hand is sliding over Arthur's shoulder and up his neck, fingers tangling in the hair at the back of his nape.
Arthur's breath hitches at the unexpected move and he can't look away from Merlin's eyes as they grow darker. He reaches out and catches the wrist of Merlin's free arm in one of his hands, grip purposely loose. "Merlin…"
"Arthur," Merlin returns, a smile playing around his lips.
Arthur swallows and tugs gently on Merlin's wrist, eyes closing and breath hitching as Merlin moves close enough to press against him. "Merlin."
Merlin kisses him, firm and sure, lips chapped and rough and utterly brilliant. An odd, desperate noise sounds in the back of Arthur's throat and he opens his mouth, tongue flicking out to lick at Merlin's lips. He parts them and Arthur bites back a whimper as their tongues meet, his hand tightening around Merlin's wrist. The fingers in his hair move further up and grip harder, holding him in place as Merlin slots their mouths together and slides his tongue across Arthur's, making him groan.
His heart pounding in his chest, Arthur brings his free hand up, faltering slightly before pressing it into the curve of Merlin's back and pulling him even closer. Merlin moans softly and arches against him, their cocks brushing together through the layers of their clothing. A shiver slides down Arthur's spine and his breath catches in his throat.
"Arthur," Merlin murmurs into his mouth. "Arthur—"
There is a kind of desperateness in the way that Merlin says his name, and Arthur has to pull away and rest his forehead against Merlin's, closing his eyes. He struggles to drag air into his lungs, dizzy and overwhelmed, wanting so much he aches with it. Merlin's hand slips from his hair and around to cup his jaw, thumb tracing along his bottom lip.
Arthur opens his mouth instinctively and catches Merlin's thumb between his teeth. His eyes open and he looks directly into Merlin's as he sucks the digit further in, circling his tongue over it. Merlin's pupils blow wide and he rolls his hips against Arthur's, a deep whine echoing from his chest.
"Fuck," Merlin breathes, and pushes his thumb further into Arthur's mouth.
Arthur sucks lightly on it, watching the way Merlin's eyelids flutter and his mouth parts, tongue running along the full bottom lip. Arthur closes his eyes for a moment and loses himself in the sensation of Merlin's thumb in his mouth. He eventually pulls away, lips twitching at the look of disappointment on Merlin's face, and leans forward to give him a swift kiss.
Merlin watches, eyes growing wide, as Arthur slowly sinks to his knees in front of him. He makes a choked noise when Arthur runs his hands up his thighs to the laces at the top of his trousers, purposely avoiding the hard length pressing against the cloth. Merlin's hands scrabble at the table behind him, fingers curling around the edges, knuckles turning white with his grip.
Arthur quickly pulls the ties open; he can hear Merlin's ragged breathing above him, and has to bite down on his bottom lip to keep from moaning aloud. His hands are trembling, heart beating out a sharp staccato in his chest, and he knows that if he has to stop now he won't be able to take it. Swallowing hard, he hooks his fingers around the top of Merlin's trousers and slides them down.
The sight of Merlin's hard cock sends a jolt of heated arousal curling through his belly. He reaches up with one hand and wraps it around the base, a thrill coursing through him when Merlin groans softly and cants his hips forward. Arthur flicks his tongue out and catches the bead of liquid forming at the tip, and Merlin's groan becomes strangled.
Arthur closes his mouth around the head and sucks lightly, like he did on Merlin's thumb. Merlin presses forward just slightly, obviously hinting, and Arthur chuckles once before sliding his mouth all the way down to where his hand is. The tip of Merlin's cock touches the back of his throat and he swallows around the length.
"Christ," Merlin gasps, one hand burying itself into Arthur's hair.
Arthur slowly pulls back, dragging his tongue along the vein on the underside, before quickly moving back down. The fingers tangled in his hair tighten and Merlin makes another strangled noise, his thigh tensing beneath Arthur's hand. His hips jerk and Arthur chokes a little, but he only pulls back slightly before swallowing Merlin's cock down again. Merlin whimpers above him, and begins rolling his hips in tiny, hitching movements.
Arthur lets him; he unwraps his hand from the base of Merlin's cock and places it on Merlin's other thigh. Merlin groans and his hand grips Arthur's hair hard, recognizing the movement for what it is. He thrusts a little more forcefully, the head of his cock sliding into Arthur's throat. Arthur makes a muffled noise and his fingers dig into the flesh of Merlin's thighs.
A string of curses spill from Merlin's mouth and his hips stutter out an uneven rhythm. Arthur looks up at him then, takes in the glazed expression and slack jaw. Their eyes meet and Merlin's widen fractionally just as there's a sharp tug on Arthur's hair. He senses it as a warning and manages to pull back enough not to choke as Merlin comes.
He's barely managed to swallow before Merlin is dragging him up and into a deep, messy kiss. They both groan, and then Merlin is working the laces on Arthur's britches free and shoving his hand inside. Arthur's hips jerk as Merlin's fingers wrap around him and pull, and a sharp breath catches in his throat. He buries his head against Merlin's neck and pushes his cock through the tight circle of Merlin's hand.
It only takes a few hard strokes before he's spilling over, gasping out Merlin's name. Merlin lets out a soft breath, working his hand on Arthur's cock until it becomes painful and Arthur has to push him away. He raises his head and catches Merlin's eye. They stare at each other for several long moments, and Arthur suspects that they're both letting what just happened sink in.
"Bed?" Arthur asks eventually, unable to keep the hope from his voice.
Merlin's brilliant smile is answer enough. "Yeah," he says, sounding as breathless as Arthur feels. "Bed sounds good."
Tomorrow, Arthur thinks as Merlin twines their fingers and pulls him forward. I'll tell him I know tomorrow.
When Arthur wakes, he's alone.
He's disoriented for a minute, struggles to get his mind to focus. The bed is warm, warmer than usual, and he's off to the side rather than in the middle. Sitting up, Arthur glances blearily around his room. Everything seems to be normal: the fire is low, the window is open, and his table is empty because Merlin is always late—
Arthur turns and stares blankly at the place beside him, the place where Merlin had fallen asleep several hours before. The sheets are rumpled and the pillow has an indentation, but there is no other sign that Merlin has been there. Arthur feels cold, and his hand shakes slightly as he reaches out and sets it down in the empty space.
There is still warmth, though it's fading; Merlin probably hasn't been gone that long. Arthur wants to feel angry—he wants to want to yell and break things and sack Merlin, maybe throw him in the stocks and pelt rotten vegetables at him himself. He won't do anything, though, he knows, because it isn't anger that he's feeling.
Arthur pushes the covers back and slides out of the bed. His limbs feel heavy, uncooperative, and he has to force himself to walk to his wardrobe and rummage through it for clothes. There isn't anything important for him to do that day so he grabs a pair of britches and his favorite red tunic and quickly pulls them on.
He's just finished tying the laces when the door to his chambers opens and Merlin comes in, tray heavy with food balanced on one arm. Arthur freezes, stares at him and wonders if maybe he's going mad because Merlin looks happy. He kicks the door shut behind him and carefully sets the tray down on Arthur's table before looking up.
"Oh," Merlin says, sounding surprised and maybe even disappointed. "You're already dressed."
Arthur swallows. "Your powers of observation will never cease to amaze me, Merlin," he manages, because that's what he would have said at any other time so why not now? But no matter how hard he tries he can't help but flick his eyes toward the bed. "You were gone," he blurts, and then winces.
Merlin blinks and then points at the tray he just set down. "Breakfast," he says slowly, and then his eyebrows crease and he continues hesitantly, "Unless you're relieving me of my regular duties…?"
The relief that floods through Arthur is nearly overwhelming, and he lets out a quiet, shaky breath. "Don't be ridiculous," he scoffs as he makes his way over to the table. "Of course you aren't relieved of your regular duties."
Before he can reach his chair, however, Merlin slips around the table and steps in front of him, placing a hand on Arthur's chest. "You thought I had left," he says, a bit of shock in his voice. "You thought that I had left and wasn't coming back."
Arthur flushes and glares, purposely clenching his jaw so that he doesn't blurt out anything else. Merlin just shakes his head, looking slightly amused, and curls his hand into the fabric of Arthur's tunic. "Daft," he mutters, and pulls Arthur into a deep kiss.
Arthur shudders, wrapping one arm tightly around Merlin's waist, and opens his mouth to slide their tongues together. Now, he thinks. It has to be now. He breaks the kiss with a small gasp but keeps his arm around Merlin, who very nearly ruins it by dragging his tongue along Arthur's jaw, making him moan.
"Wait," he rasps out, stepping back slightly and placing both hands on Merlin's upper arms. Merlin blinks at him dazedly and Arthur has to force himself to not dive back into the kiss. "Merlin," he starts purposely, and Merlin's expression suddenly becomes edgy, not closed off but ready to be. Arthur falters slightly but takes a deep breath and continues. "Merlin, I—" He stops, the words refusing to make their way out, nearly choking him. Merlin stares at him in confusion, bringing one hand up to rest on Arthur's waist.
There's a sharp knock at the door and both of them jump, swinging around to look at it. Arthur hesitates, but when the knock sounds again he grimaces and drops his hands, gesturing for Merlin to answer it. Merlin shoots him an inscrutable look and moves toward the door. Arthur pulls his chair out and drops down into it, scowling at his breakfast.
Merlin speaks briefly with the servant on the other side of the door and then shuts it, turning back to Arthur. "The King has summoned you," he says. "You're supposed to go down to the council chambers right away."
Arthur sighs and grabs an apple as he pushes back from the table. This probably won't be good.
"They've captured a sorcerer," Uther says.
Merlin, Arthur thinks, terror and panic paralyzing him until he remembers that Merlin is still up in his chambers, safe. He takes a slow, deep breath and concentrates on slowing his suddenly-racing heart. "Oh?" he says, trying his best to sound unaffected and disinterested, carefully keeping his features blank.
"In the village," Uther continues, sitting back in his chair and scowling. "Witnesses say one of the wheels on his cart broke and he was trying to move it from the main road." Uther stops and waves his hand dismissively. "Never mind, it doesn't matter. He'll be executed at dusk tonight."
"Tonight?" Arthur exclaims in shock. "That's a bit fast, isn't it?"
Uther sits up straighter in his chair and gives Arthur a sharp look. "He performed magic, and his punishment shall be death. The sooner the better, so as not to give him more opportunities to escape."
Arthur knows he shouldn't say anything, knows he should let it go, but he thinks of Merlin and the words tumble out of his mouth before he can stop them. "But it was just a broken wheel! Surely that isn't worth a man's life, magic or not."
Uther rises from his chair, placing both hands on the table in front of him and glaring at Arthur. "Are you questioning my decision?" he asks, voice low and dangerous. "Are you questioning the laws I put into place for the safety of this kingdom?"
Arthur sets his jaw and drops his eyes, hands clenching into fists behind his back. "No, Sire," he says tightly.
The room is tense and silent for several moments and then Uther slowly sits back down, posture stiff. "Magic is dangerous, you know this. It must be stopped. The reason behind the use matters not."
"Of course, Sire," Arthur answers, staring hard at the floor. A muscle in his jaw jumps.
There is another pause and then Uther says, "I expect you to be there. This can serve as a lesson to you as well."
Arthur feels himself pale and has to swallow. "Yes, Sire," he manages, the words thick on his tongue.
"You're dismissed," Uther says.
Arthur bows shortly and turns, stalking from the room without another word.
He doesn't go back to his chambers; he isn't sure he can face Merlin at the moment. Instead, he heads down to the armoury and grabs a sword. There are training dummies set up in the fields for the knights to make use of whenever they need, and Arthur quickly sets about hacking them to pieces. Fighting an actual person would have been better, but he's not entirely sure he wouldn't seriously hurt them.
Part of him wants nothing more than to tell his father to go to hell, to do everything he can to help this man escape like he's done for others in the past. But Arthur isn't stupid, and he knows Uther. After his outburst earlier the King probably put extra guards in place. There isn't a chance in hell that he would be able to help without being caught and risking execution himself.
He doesn't know how long he's in the fields, but when he finally stops his arms are nearly numb and his breath is hard and labored. His tunic is sticking to his skin and his hair is completely soaked in sweat. Glancing at the sun, Arthur realizes that it's well after lunch and he's going to have to have a bath before making his official appearance.
He glares at the bits of straw scattered around the grass and then turns to go find Merlin.
A bath is already waiting for him when he arrives back in his chambers, and one of his nicer outfits is laid out on his bed. Merlin is standing by the window, staring down at where other servants are preparing the wooden platform for the execution. His face is pale, features drawn and blank, and it's obvious that he's heard.
Arthur shuts the door quietly behind him and Merlin looks over at him. Their gazes hold, and he can see the struggle and pain in Merlin's eyes. Now, Arthur thinks. He should tell him now, tell him that he knows and that he's sorry, that he doesn't agree with his father anymore. He opens his mouth, but the words won't come.
Merlin turns his gaze back to the window. "Are you going to need me at the…" He trails off, gesturing vaguely at the courtyard below.
Arthur has to swallow several times, images invading his mind of Merlin's face as he watches one of his own murdered. "No," he says thickly.
Merlin nods absently, still looking out of the window.
Arthur has seen many executions, ever since his father deemed him old enough at twelve. It never gets any easier. Some of them scream and cry and beg, and others are silent. Both instances are unbearable, but bear them he must. Uther doesn't give him a choice; to show weakness is intolerable.
So Arthur watches as the man is led onto the dais. He is tall and thin, with dark hair and light eyes, the innocence of youth still apparent on his face. His eyes meet Arthur's, holding his gaze for a brief, insolent moment. Arthur swallows the bile that rises in his throat and the man is pushed down to his knees, down until his head rests on the wooden block.
Arthur closes his eyes as the axe swings, and sees Merlin.
It's very late when Arthur finally returns to his chambers. Merlin isn't there.
The fire is low, the window closed, his bed perfectly made with his sleep clothes laid out on it. There's a tray of food on his table. Arthur carefully shuts his door and walks to the bed; he climbs, fully dressed, onto the cold sheets and stares at the ceiling until he falls asleep.
He watches again and again as the man—Merlin, it's always Merlin—is led onto the dais. Arthur is frozen, unable to move, to speak, to do anything that might save this infuriating, amazing, brilliant person. So he watches as Merlin is pushed down to his knees, down until his head rests on the wooden block, their eyes locked together in a thousand apologies that ultimately mean nothing.
It's Merlin, and Arthur watches him die.
He wakes with a strangled shout, fighting his way out of the dream. His heart is pounding, cold terror racing through his veins and making him shiver. Awareness comes to him quickly and he gasps for breath as he looks around the dark room. The sheets are tangled around his waist and legs, and he's wearing the sleep clothes he had ignored earlier. There's still a low fire but the window is cracked open and the food tray is gone.
Arthur takes several deep breaths and runs his hand over his face. Just a dream, he thinks. Just a dream. Merlin is alive, Merlin is safe. It wasn't real.
He repeats it over and over, dragging the covers up to his ears and burrowing beneath them.
It's been a week since the execution, and Arthur thinks he's going to go mad. Merlin has barely said two words to anyone, and hasn't really looked at him at all.
Every night, Arthur dreams of Merlin's death.
Some nights, the dreams tease at the corners of his mind, never fully forming. Most nights, he sees Merlin die again and again. An axe to the neck, a sword through the chest, fire licking at his skin. In the dreams, Merlin never screams or begs or asks forgiveness. Instead, he looks Arthur in the eye and says, All for you. Everything, always.
The sky is dark, heavy clouds blocking the sun as rain falls in torrents. Arthur stands at his window and watches the puddles in the courtyard grow deeper with every passing hour. He can see his reflection in the glass: hair dull and limp, circles under his eyes, cheeks hollow. He knows he looks awful but he can't bring himself to care.
Arthur leans forward and rests his forehead against the cool panes, staring blankly down at where he has watched many innocent men and women and sometimes even children die at his father's hand. He thinks of Merlin, of ridiculous ears and full lips and cheeky grins. He thinks of golden eyes and outstretched hands and the sharp blade of an executioner's axe.
There is a flash of red and Arthur blinks, frowning as he sees Merlin dash through the rain. He only hesitates for a second before he's out the door and running through the castle, not bothering to ask himself why. Startled servants jump out of his way but he doesn't pay them any attention. When he bursts out the front doors the rain soaks him instantly, weighing his clothes down and forcing his hair into his eyes.
He pushes it to the side in irritation, pausing at the bottom of the steps and looking around. He can't see Merlin but he had been going in the direction of the stables, so Arthur heads that way at a full run. The puddles splash up against him but he's already so wet it doesn't matter. He's obviously lost his mind, chasing after Merlin in the rain.
He almost doesn't see him in time and nearly crashes into him. Merlin is standing—just standing—in front of the stables, staring at the closed doors. Arthur barely manages to skid to a stop beside him, and Merlin looks over at him.
"What the hell are you doing?" Arthur yells above the sound of the rain.
Merlin shakes his head. "I don't know, really," he answers, turning back to face the stables. He shrugs. "Just had to get out for a bit, I guess." He pauses. "I thought about leaving."
"Leaving?" Arthur repeats, shocked and suddenly very frightened. "Why would you leave?"
Merlin laughs, and it's full of bitterness. "Don't play stupid, Arthur. I know you've figured out that I'm magic. You've been acting odd ever since—since last week." He stops, looks at Arthur with eyes full of sorrow and regret. "You haven't asked me to stay again. So I come in the mornings to wake you, and every day you're saying things, dreaming. About me, and my magic. And your voice—it's full of fear." He laughs again, and this time it sounds a bit mad. "You're scared of me. You—" He breaks off, a choked noise sounding in his throat as he turns and starts to move away.
Arthur reaches out and grips Merlin's wrist tightly, swinging him back around to face him. "I'm not scared of you," he says fiercely.
Merlin shakes his head but doesn't fight him. "It's okay, I get it. I do. And I'd rather keep my head if you don't mind, so could you please let me go? I swear, Arthur, I promise you'll never have to see me again."
Arthur nearly growls, tightening his grip and pulling him closer. "I've known for over a month." Merlin's eyes widen and he finally tugs on his wrist, tries to step back, but Arthur refuses to let go. "When I dream," he continues, "I see you dying. Over and over, by axe or fire or sword. I see you in place of that man last week, and that, Merlin, that is what scares me." He stops, swallows, strokes his thumb over the inside of Merlin's wrist. "I can't lose you."
Merlin stares at him, and Arthur can feel the way he's trembling. His hair is plastered to his head, water dripping from the ends and sliding down his nose. It makes his ears even more prominent, and his clothes frame his too-thin body. He looks utterly, completely shattered, pieces of himself open for all to see, and the only thing Arthur can do is lean over and kiss him.
Merlin makes a noise in the back of his throat and presses his body against Arthur's, licking into his mouth, clenching his fingers in the fabric of his tunic. Arthur releases his wrist and frames Merlin's face with his hands, kissing him deep and raw. He tastes of rainwater, and of the way Arthur imagines magic itself should taste.
Arthur breaks away with a gasp, tracing his thumb over Merlin's cheekbone. "Stay with me," he pleads, sounding broken even to himself.
"Yeah," Merlin says shakily. "Yeah, I think I will."
Arthur no longer dreams of axes and fires and death. He dreams of a day when he will be King and Merlin will be free.