"You know what?! Screw you! Just because you're king doesn't mean you get to decide everything! I'm coming with you!"
"But that's exactly what being a king means! It's my decision! For once in your life, Merlin, do as you're told!"
Arthur and Merlin stood a facing off in the middle of the military tent which they had set up earlier that day, both of them red in the face from yelling and forcing themselves to hold back punches. Arthur was quickly loosing his grip on the urge to pin Merlin down and force him to obey, like he had the second day he'd met him. Merlin, in turn, had never chafed as much against his promise to Arthur that he'd never, ever use his magic against him. Merlin clenched his hands by his side and forced his magic to stop at this fingertips.
"Fuck that!", Merlin retorted, "I'm useless back here while you're out there fighting who knows how many men! I am coming with you!" Merlin ground out, squaring his chin and refusing to back down.
"That's it!", spat Arthur as his temper reached it's breaking point. He lunged forward, grappling with Merlin for a second before sweeping his friend's feet out from under him, dropping him faster than a stone. Arthur went down with him, one hand under Merlin's head and one hand pinning Merlin's arms above him as the air rushed out of the warlock's lungs. After Merlin's lungs remembered how to draw air but not before he'd stopped heaving ragged gasps of breath, Arthur squeezed down harshly on Merlin's wrists and drew his other hand across Merlin's pale neck.
"This is all it would take to slice open your throat." Arthur hissed, then curled his hand into a fist and pushed it into Merlin's stomach. "This is would be someone cutting open and spilling out all your insides." He fixed his hand flat again, jabbing the point into the ribcage above Merlin's heart. "This is someone piercing their sword through your heart." Arthur's voice cracked at the last bit, his eyes filled with visions of how it would look in real life, out on the battlefield, with Merlin bleeding out from mortal wounds. It still took only split seconds to disable him, whether he was holding a weapon or not. Arthur could smell the tang of blood as he watched his middle finger digging down hard enough to feel the precious heartbeat beneath; his anger renewed itself.
"You would be a useless waste, dead on the battlefield! You're not going! You'd be killed in an minute and we cannot lose you. I cannot lose you."
They laid there, both breathing harshly, before Arthur pulled himself upright, tugging Merlin up after him. Merlin swayed on his feet, biting back thoughts, and Arthur steadied him for a moment before pushing him to the opening.
"You will be here in the morning to help me ready for battle, and then you will spend the the day helping Gaius prepare and treat the wounded. Right?" Arthur ground out, his fingers digging into Merlin's shoulder.
Merlin scowled, but relented "All right!", huffing out his breath and retreating angrily out the tent.
Arthur fought the urge to reach out for him, wrap him a sheltering embrace. He fought the urge to run his hands over him one more time to make sure he was sound and whole. He'd learned that such actions, in the past, had only roused Merlin's protective side. And it was Merlin's protective side that Arthur couldn't risk coming out in tomorrow's battle; so Arthur just clenched his fists and bit his tongue as he watched Merlin walk stoutly back across camp. Merlin might hate him for it, but he'd be safe.
Merlin rubbed his eyes for the hundredth time while flipping to the next page of his magic book. Somehow this wearing process was reassuring. Yes, Merlin had only a few hour between now and when Arthur went off to fight an extremely, if not impossible, foe, but here he was, as always, searching through this same book, trying to find an answer. Tomorrow Camelot's army would face Mercia's and Mercia had the larger army. But Arthur wasn't dead yet, so somehow this process could pull through for one more time.
If only he hadn't told Arthur he was a sorcerer. Though, Merlin admitted, even if Arthur hadn't started going on about safekeeping him for his abilities, he'd probably still be in this same overprotected state after he and Arthur started sharing a bed. After they had started whispering things to each other in the dark, after all their passions had been spent, that they could never justify to the court.
His memory flickered back to Arthur pinning him down, his usually gentle hand formed into a point aimed at his own heart. He remembered Arthur's eyes, dark and wild, fighting against whatever demons he saw before him. This campaign was getting to Arthur, much more so than usual. Maybe things would have been easier if he was just an inept manservant, but either way, he would not go down as useless! This much he'd make sure of.
Merlin flipped another page and found something he could, potentially, use. It wasn't the invincibility spell he was hoping to find... But it was close enough. It would suck. But it'd hopefully be close enough.
The next day dawned bright and early. Merlin strapped him into his armor with a determination that didn't match up with a man staying behind the lines.
"You've sworn that you'll stay behind the battle lines and out of range of arrow-fire, right?", Arthur pushed, knowing something was behind that determination, but not knowing what.
"Yes, sire," Merlin stated, without quite as much sarcasm as usual. Something was up. Arthur tried to find the answer in Merlin's eyes, but all he found were resolved, resigned, beautiful and stubborn blue eyes staring back. Whatever was going on, he'd have to deal with it when he got back; right now it was time for the fight to start and he had a responsibility to get as many knights back alive as possible.
Merlin finished buckling his armor on and grabbed him by the chain-mail under his neck, pulling Arthur's face in towards his own. "Be careful out there. Don't forget. Be. careful."
Arthur nodded, "I promise". He walked out of the tent, hearing Merlin mutter something softly behind him, but when he turned back, Merlin was just standing, watching him, once again wearing that look of resolved determination. Maybe he should tell the master of the guard to keep an eye on him.
Arthur marched up to Coll, the head of his army, and started inquiring about his troops and recapping the battle plan...
Arthur swung his sword down again, chopping down another fighter before lunging his horse forward to lend aid to one of his knights besieged by two other men. They were winning, but it was a closer battle than he'd ever like to see again. He felled one of the two men, freeing his knight to dispel the other, and took a moment to glance around the battle. He wiped the sweat out of his eyes yet again. Maybe they could have used Merlin's sorcery to help them out. There was no doubt he was frighteningly powerful. But Merlin was more than just a sorcerer. He was his friend--his closest friend--and of late, so much more than just a friend. Arthur shook himself out of the soft thoughts--he was a king who, despite everything, would need an heir. And it was the fortune of a hundred lifetimes that he found the one sorcerer willing to ally with him, after all the slayings of his father, to be the most powerful of the realm bar none. As a king, he reasoned, he could not squander such a blessing.
But his luck hadn't run out with Merlin, Arthur mused between cutting down two charging Mercian fighters, this battle was going very well. Not a single significant hit had landed on himself this entire battle, despite the length of this fight, and he could have sworn that that one enemy knight had come close to enough to deal him a fairly significant blow across his left side. Not enough to kill, but surely enough to take it's toll. And yet, by some providence, the sword hadn't been quite long enough to reach, and other than the deep fatigue of several hours of fierce battle, Arthur felt alright. He forced his arms once again above him as he slashed down at another soldier. They were winning--the Mercians had to give up at some point soon. He pivoted his horse to the left and ran through a soldier harassing another one of his men.
He spotted a gap between the soldiers that would lead him to within striking distance of two of Mercia's strongest knights. If he could reach them and take them out... but he suddenly remembered Merlin's entreating 'Be careful' and his own promise in return. But he was fighting at such top form today! Would it even count as a risk? However, he was king now, and wasn't supposed to take such risks... Before he could decide, the gap closed and the chance was lost. Sometimes Arthur hated being king. No way around it, he would just have to fight his way through by brute force. Arthur steeled himself to start in on another attack on the opposing forces before him.
Then, sure enough, one of the leaders of Mercia's army was calling for a retreat. His men rallied with the news and started driving the Mercians from the field with renewed vigor. This was it, after the fallout from this devastating battle, Camelot would probably have another three or possibly five years of peace between the two kingdoms--Arthur couldn't wait. But first, he had to free Gawain from the skirmish he was still entangled with...
It was a full eighty minutes into the fight before Merlin gasped at the sting of pain and looked down and saw the first gash on his right thigh. But then again, Merlin chuckled darkly, Arthur was the best knight in Camelot--it would take a while before anyone would be able to lay an finger on him. And now Merlin had the assurance that the spell had taken hold. Arthur would be untouchable.
Arthur would also hate him for it, but he would be safe.
Merlin stepped into one of the empty tents and bound his thigh with some of the extra bandages they had prepared for incoming wounded. By this time, he also had a shallow cut, low on his right arm that he quickly patched. The fighting must be getting pretty heated.
He was in the middle of carrying a knight to an empty pallet when he felt a particularly sharp hit to his left leg. He managed to ease the knight down gently, despite the new gash, and bit down a cry as a rib-brusing hit landed across his stomach. Oh gods, this sucked. Merlin grabbed more bandages and hobbled over to the last empty tent. He hoped Arthur remembered his promise to be careful. Even he understood how it was far too easy to get caught up the adrenaline of battle and forget all good sense. Though why anyone would willingly subject themselves to all this pain, Merlin had to wonder.
It was another two hours before he finally felt a hit that must have cleaved right through the chainmail. His practically spun around in place as his side split open. This was not something he'd be able to fix up in some--now nonexistent--empty tent. Time to get reinforcements. Man, was Gaius ever going to yell at him.
Merlin stumbled over to where Gaius was working, clutching his side. He watched and waited while Gaius finished coaxing some medicine down a soldier's through before speaking up. "Gaius. I'm sorry to ask, but I'm going to need some help."
"Merlin?" Gaius asked, taking in the bleeding side and other signs of injury spotting his ward's clothing. His eyebrows bunched together in worry, "what's happened to you?" He moved to push Merlin down onto a cot, pulling his tunic up, off of him.
"I--", Merlin started, wincing sharply as some unseen blow, and Gaius's eyes grew wide at the sight of a new deep bruise appearing along Merlin's ribs. "Gaius. You've just got to...", Merlin winced again, "Just keep me from loosing too much blood? I can't keep--" Merlin flinched again, arching his back while his eyes rolled up in his head as he slumped over.
Gaius caught him eased him the rest of the way down; watching in horror as another red stripe appeared on the pale skin.
"Merlin! You didn't!" Gaius shook his ward's shoulder, but Merlin didn't move to reply.
Gaius ran to the entrance of the tent, finding the first soldier he saw and commanded, "Find King Arthur! Relay to him that he must come back to the medical tent at once! Let him know that it's an emergency!"
With the battle ended, Arthur was left to try to salvage those of his men that he could. From a cursory overview of the field, Sir Owell was alright but everyone else other than Owell and himself seemed to have come out of the battle a bit (or more) worse for wear. Even Lancelot had taken a fierce blow to his right shoulder. Arthur dismounted and hauled Sir Lamorak upright, pulling the fallen knight's arm over his own shoulder as they stumbled back to the medical tents. Everyone else he could see was able to make it back to camp on their own. He laid Lamorak gently down on a cot, checking to make sure he hadn't reopened his wound, before looking up to see where he might be needed next. A servant girl joined him, double checking the wound and starting to take off the knights' armor, dipping into jars of ointments when she found cuts and gashes.
Arthur had only been standing back upright a few seconds before no less than two knights and four servants came towards him from various directions. "There you are, Sire!" started Owain. "Gaius has requested you come to the medical tent immediately. He said it was an emergency."
"But...?" Arthur started, looking down at himself even as he started towards the main tent. He was fine! Why would...? Arthur groaned as a heavy, cold weight filled his stomach; he had a bad feeling about this and a certain dark-haired someone it would surly involve.
Arthur ran into the main medical tent, locating Merlin and quickly checking him over. He was pale, but was still breathing steadily. There were dark bruises everywhere. He had a few gashes on his arms, more along his legs, and one particularly deep one along his left side, right above the hip. He remembered that wound. It was identical to the one the Mercian knight should have scored across his side.
"No," Arthur moaned, tilting Merlin over onto his side. There, on his back, was a long, diagonal slash he had counted himself lucky to have dodged in the middle of the fight. He eased Merlin onto his back and looked at his right shin. There. There was a bright red cut down to the bone that showed the injury he was supposed to have received after failing to notice that trio of soldiers who had attacked him all at once.
"Merlin!" Arthur gripped his manservant's arms tightly, "Merlin, if you've done what I think you've done, I am going to kill you! I swear! Merlin! Answer me! Merlin!!"
Merlin just laid still and unheeding on the pallet as Arthur broke down beside him, curling over his friend's body. "We've won. It's over. We won, you stupid prick! I don't have a single wound on me and you've... you're..." Arthur's breath hitched as he clung to Merlin's side.
"Sire," Gaius kneeled down beside him, "with any luck, he'll be okay. His wounds, though they look bad, should all heal fully."
"Don't talk to me about luck!" Arthur sat back upright, his eyes fierce and wild, "this luck was all his doing! It wasn't luck at all!"
"Arthur, Sire," Gaius started again, trying to calm his king, "Merlin will be okay. Merlin is going to be alright!"
"Why won't he answer me!" Arthur demanded, 'Why won't he wake up!?" Surely if Merlin was really alright he would be answering him, giving out one of his insolent replies or impish grins, not lying here as still as the...
"Sire! He's merely sleeping. You know how easily Merlin tires at the end of the day, especially after preforming... after magic..." Gaius hasted, still stumbling over admitting about the magic, even after the past few months. "He'll be awake again after he rests."
Arthur haltingly accepted Gaius's words, sagging against Merlin's cot. "Check him over one more time?" he pleaded and Gaius nodded before searching over his ward again, stopping to rub fresh ointment over the cuts that looked in need.
Gaius looked down into Arthur's tired blue eyes, "He will be okay, sire. You can stay here as long as you'd like. I do not know precisely when he'll awaken."
Arthur merely nodded, unstrapping his vambrances and pulling off his hauberk. He glanced over at Merlin, sleeping deafly on the cot. "I'll keep an eye on him for you", he solemnly swore.
It was Gaius's turn to nod, as he left the tent. "Just holler for me if anything changes."
It took four more hours of waiting and gentle cajoling for Merlin to open his eyes.
"There you are," Arthur stated softly, "You are in deep trouble", he rebuked gently, "and if you don't remove that last spell, you... and I both... are going to spend the next foreseeable future locked safely away in the dungeons. What were you thinking?"
Merlin looked Arthur over blearily. "You're okay? You didn't get hurt?"
"Mer-lin," Arthur said, pained, "doesn't the fact that you're here instead of me, tell you that your damned spell worked!?"
Merlin swallowed hard at the sight of his friend, "Please don't feel guilty."
"Don't feel guilty!? Don't feel--you took all my hits for me! And I didn't even realize it!", Arthur raged, his voice braking, "I am going to feel guilty and it's all your fault, you bastard! How could you!?"
Merlin chuckled weakly, "You're always the strongest, always the best, but I couldn't leave you unprotected. I refuse to be useless against all that you face."
Arthur reached out to grip Merlin's hands. "You've never been useless. You've always been the best, the surest and the strongest hope I have. Yet you've jeopardized that just to save me from a few cuts in the midst of a fight."
"Each time a warrior gets wounded in battle, he slows down both his offense and defense. Didn't you tell me that just a few months past?"
Arthur squeezed his hand tighter in both frustration and appreciation; the fight would have been a lot harder with those wounds. "You're too important..." Arthur started... But this argument would never be solved in one day and right now Merlin needed to rest and heal. He growled out a sigh of frustration before raising his hand to run through the curl of black-brown hair. "Sleep and rest, you idiot. Only you would be fool enough to risk himself for such a small advantage." He gently shifted his hand to smooth the wrinkle between Merlin's brows.
"Small advantage?", Merlin mumbled, his eyes closing, "Your life is never a small advantage, you prat..."
"Sleep, Merlin" Arthur whispered, placing a kiss on his forehead, before taking up watch leaning against the bedside. Merlin was out before he could command it again.
Merlin healed over in the next few weeks, forbidden from leaving Arthur's chambers. The day after the battle they had broken camp and made it back to Camelot in a beleaguered march. Merlin had never been happier to see his king's chambers, but now he was nearly ready to crawl through all the long hallways just to escape. The first few days had been spent in a mix of hard sleep and intermittent wound dressings. The next week had been easier on Arthur's nerves but worse on Arthur's patience as Merlin began to regain enough strength and energy to protest being restricted to Arthur's bed and quarters. Especially since Arthur still had a tendency to break out in loud diatribes about Merlin's stupidity whenever he had to change any of the dressings.
"Won't somebody wonder what I'm doing here? In the royal bed, none the less?", Merlin asked again.
"I am the King, goddammit, and one of these days that'll mean something to you!", Arthur had replied, before storming back out of his chambers to find Gaius.
The following week hadn't seemed so bad. Merlin was clearly recovering from his wounds (or technically, from Arthur's wounds) and would be back to full health before long. Merlin even managed to surprise Arthur, sneaking in a private snogging session before the council meeting that afternoon. But Arthur still had worries and nightmares of Merlin pulling the same trick again. They wouldn't always be this lucky. This could not happen again.
"Merlin", Arthur greeted as he finished the long kiss that had greeted him as he returned to his rooms, "This cannot happen again."
Merlin frowned, knowing that this conversation had caught up with him at last. "I will always protect you. I won't let you be brought down. You're too important."
"You are equally important", Arthur rebuked, "You can't be bearing an undo share of the fight. There will be times when, I'm sure, we'll both be pressed to our limits. If you're carrying my burden, then you won't be able to withstand your own fight. And the fights you must fight, no other man could withstand. Not even I." Arthur leaned closer to rest his forehead against Merlin's.
"But," Merlin protested, "there wasn't anyone for me to fight. There was just you. And your men, against the whole Mercian army. It's not right for me to just sit back and watch, even with this being a fight of swords and steel."
"Maybe I was incorrect to prohibit you from helping, from fighting, in this battle," Arthur heaved a sigh, "In the future, I will try to figure out a way to keep you both safe from the fight itself--since your swordsmanship is still crap--and yet involved in the battle. You could be a huge asset." Arthur admitted but gripped Merlin tightly, "but never, ever again are you allowed to take my wound upon yourself, is that clear?" Arthur rounded on Merlin with last statement, staring hard into his blue eyes, waiting for Merlin to promise him. "Never, ever, again," Arthur demanded.
"You can't keep me safe forever. I can't promise never again, for someday it may save your life. But never again without seeing you in mortal peril. Without seeing that it would make the difference in a fight." Merlin replied back, stubbornly.
"Don't make me regret that you'll be able to watch the next fights", Arthur growled.
"You'll never stop me from watching again", Merlin shot back, "so you might as well get used to it!"
Arthur gritted his teeth at his defiance and pulled him into a fierce embrace. "When will you ever learn that you're worth more than me?!"
"Never! Because it's not true. At best we're worth immeasurably much together. At worse we're worth nothing each apart. So shut up and let me help you."
Arthur just wrapped himself tighter around Merlin, walking them back towards the bed. "Never ever, Merlin, never ever endanger yourself like that."
"I'll be safe when you are, Arthur. When you're in danger, I'll be in danger. This is the way it is with people so bound together. Accept it or not, you honorable prat, but it is what it is."
They bumped up against the bed and Arthur pushed them both down upon it. Merlin tucked himself up against Arthur, using a few flicks of his hand to remove the formalwear from his king, burrowing up against his bare chest. Arthur spent a few more minutes trying to find a better retort, no doubt, before simply drawing his Merlin towards him, kissing him deeply.
"As long as you don't leave me. As long as we're always together."
Merlin replied back in the quiet darkness of the room, "Never. I'll never leave you alone. That I swear."