Merlin was so cold.
He leaned his head between his knees and wrapped his arms around his legs until he was more or less huddled into a tight ball. He was cold — and not just because of where he was, although dungeons weren't meant to be pleasantly toasty. No, this cold seemed to one from inside him.
It was like — he doesn't know what he'd expected. He'd lied to the man for ten years. Surely anyone would have reacted badly after that. Of course he'd be angry, of course he'd feel betrayed it was only logical. But — knowing this couldn't have prepared him for the look in Arthur's eyes, it was like Arthur had never seen him before — he had looked revolted.
Merlin wonders if he should be crying or even be angry, his closest friend had ordered him into the dungeons to await trial and left him there for a week. But he just can't seem to find the energy he'd need to cry or rage. He was just so exhausted.
There was the sound of booted feet against hard stone and he didn't have to wonder long because a guard opened his door with a set of keys and stepped inside before roughly pulling him to his feet.
Merlin winced as the man began to drag him towards the stairs at too fast a pace for someone who had been sitting in a cell for a week. Merlin stumbled up the stairs nearly falling, his eyes squinting as they came closer to the light of the castle, warm and inviting compared to the dark and dank dungeons.
Recognizing where they were going Merlin's stomach sank. It would appear his trial was today. The double doors to the throne room where pushed open and he found himself on the ground in front of Arthur and Gwen.
"Merlin of Ealdor, you've been charged with using enchantments inside a kingdom where such—practices are outlawed. How do you plead?"
Merlin swallowed, his Adam's apple bobbing, "Guilty. But I'm not a traitor—"
"'M not a sorcerer."
"You lie. You just pled guilty."
"Of using magic. But I'm not a sorcerer, 'm a warlock."
Gwen titled her head, "what is the difference?"
"The difference is warlocks and witches are born with their power, usually it appears in their late teens. Sorcerers and sorceresses have to learn to manipulate the magic around them because—unlike warlocks and witches—they don't naturally have a supply of magic inside them."
"And you, Merlin. When did yours appear?"
"Mum used to tell me that within hours of my birth I was doing magic, things flying through the air and scaring her to death."
"But you just said that it appears around their teens." Arthur arched his brow at the man who was still kneeling.
"Usually. I'm—umm—I'm an unusual case."
There was a burst of laughter quickly followed by the most fake coughing Merlin had ever heard. Arthur looked over his eyes steely and glared. Gwaine grinned and stared right back at the king not the least bit ashamed.
"Sir Gwaine, I trust you can control yourself, or do you need to be removed from these chambers?"
Gwaine grinned but none the less settled back down.
But the brief pause had allowed Merlin to think and his mind had found the one conclusion it had avoided in the last week. If he was executed then who would protect his friends? Who would protect Camelot? And—who would protect Arthur?
Quickly he scrambled up off the ground and spoke before Arthur could speak a word to sentence him.
"Wait, you can't kill me!"
"The punishment for sorcery is death, and while—"
"What?" Arthur questioned.
"Use cold iron handcuffs. They stop magic; I won't be able to use any while wearing them. Please, don't kill me I need to be here to protect you, to protect m-my home," he begged, his voice breaking. "Please—I'll do anything."
Because it was better he still be here and be unable to do magic then to not be here and leave it up to fate. At least if he was here he could watch over them, protect them. Or try to protect them with—more physical means.
"Why should I believe you? How do I know that they won't magnify your powers instead of smothering them? But better yet, how can I trust a word you say when you've lied to everyone—even your king—for ten years? Trust is a fragile thing and I don't believe it to be easily repaired."
Merlin frowned and dropped back to the ground, before he lowered his head to his knees, his spine a long arch under his shirt that was clearly visible, a fragile looking thing.
He reached up then, untying the knot at his neck, he let his red neckerchief fall to the ground before scooping it up, cradling it close to his chest. He held it there a moment before gently folding it and pushing it so it slid across the floor and away from him. It was perhaps the finest thing he owned—though, admittedly, he didn't own a lot—and it had been a gift from Arthur.
He didn't want blood getting on it.
"Then do it now. I won't fight you."
He bent lower still, until his neck was straining, cords of muscle visible beneath alabaster skin that had been pulled to its compactly. He wouldn't fight back but—he had hope that enough of the bond he and Arthur shared still remained that Arthur wouldn't strike him down.
There was a sigh and then, "cold iron you say?"
He resists the urge to sigh in relief.
"This is not forgiveness, Merlin. Nor do I trust you; you lied to me for far too long for that. This is convenience, I don't wish to have to train another servant, nor do I want the questions that your execution would bring to my reign. No one outside this room knows of what you've done and it must stay that way."
So nothing had changed, except – except Arthur couldn't trust him now.
"I understand," he says.
What he doesn't say is this. That he doesn't expect Arthur to forgive him because he couldn't forgive himself, and if one could never forgive themselves than how were they to expect someone else to forgive them?
Arthur wished he'd known.
Had Merlin told him? He couldn't quite remember, he knew there'd been attempts to explain how he was different—but he – he didn't think that Merlin had ever come out and said what the cuffs were doing to him.
But he couldn't quite remember either, he couldn't remember much from those weeks except for the anger that had turned to horror. He gently strokes his finger along a too sharp cheekbone before lowered his head into his hands.
They didn't know if Merlin would survive. Didn't know if he would last through the night even, he was so sick that Arthur feared looking away for a moment lest he pass while he wasn't watching.
And Arthur—who was raised without religion—he prays to any and every god out there to please spare Merlin.
Merlin wakes with a gasp, drenched in sweat, his wrists and ankles numb under the hated iron bracelet-shackles, the horrifying images of his nightmare lingering in his mind.
He shivers, and begins to rub his arms vigorously, trying desperately to bring some warmth back into his body, he's been so cold since the bracelets had been placed on his wrists that he fears he'll never be warm again. He sits up in his bed bringing his knees towards his chest. It hurt. It literally felt like the cuffs were strangling him, like he was only getting the barest amount of oxygen he needed to survive.
He—he hadn't thought when Arthur presented these to him that it would hurt so much. He knew his magic was a part of him, but he hadn't expected it to feel like this, like something had broken inside of him.
He turned his head. It was early, the sun only visible through the barely there lightening of the sky, Gaius was still asleep and would be for another two hours or so and it would be another hour after that still before it was time to wake the king. Normally, he'd have risen with them, would have been out collecting herbs for Gaius, or delivering medicines, because despite being the King's manservant, he was also Gaius's apprentance. But - Gaius hadn't given him a list of things he needed to do and the only other ones awake right now yo miss him would be other servants and the queen who rose with them because of her years as—just that—a servant. Merlin knew logically that he had nothing dier he needed to do and that he should go back to sleep, that he'd been sourly lacking of it for a while now, but he also knew that he wouldn't be able to.
He sighed and swung his legs over the side of the bed and stood, moaning when his feet touched the ground, his very joints aching. Slowly he dressed and then made his way down the stairs.
He grabbed a slice of bread from the night before and quietly made his way out of the physician's chambers. He nibbled on a corner and made his way through the hallways until he came to his favorite place in the castle.
Ducking behind a tapestry he settled himself on the padded window seat his eyes taking in the sight of a peaceful lower town through the open window. He sighed and brought the slice of bread to his mouth and took a bite.
He wasn't all that hungry but he knew that if he didn't eat the chores today would be twice as bad as usual, and that was saying something because in the two months since he'd returned to work for Arthur, the man had been trying to make it as difficult for him as possible.
He took another bite and groaned, the nausea that had been ever present since the iron bracelets had been put on and that had kept him from his dinner last night rearing up inside his stomach.
There was no way he was going to be able to finish even the slice of bread if he wanted what he'd already eaten to stay down. He looked at the half eaten slice for a moment before breaking it into smaller pieces, and chucking it out the window for the birds.
He sighed and leaned his head in his hands.
Slowly without his notice time began to creep by, the sun gradually getting higher in the sky until he could feel its warmth on the back of his neck. It was that that managed to bring him out of his thoughts and it was with a sinking feeling that he realized that he was now late.
He bolted out from behind the tapestry and towards the kings chambers like hell was at his heels. As soon as he saw the two ornate doors though, he slowed and took a moment to try and calm his heart before swinging the two double doors open.
The room was quiet and the bed empty, he sighed feeling like he'd just dodged a disaster in the making. There was a lengthy list of chores for him on Arthur's desk and he groaned and prepared to set to work.
But first he picked up the quill and dipped it in the ink and began to write. He'd try to explain once more because he didn't think he could live like this for much longer before it drove him to—
He hoped Arthur would listen.
Arthur looked up when he felt arms around his shoulders; he sighed and leaned into the touch.
Guinevere kissed his cheek and sighed herself before coming to sit in the chair—previously occupied by Gaius who Arthur had sent to bed hours earlier with a promise to wake him should there be any change, good or bad—next to him.
She grabbed his hand and picked it up, her thumb rubbing circles into his skin.
"You should be asleep," he said finally.
"As should you," she sighed. "I couldn't, not with Merlin here, not when we don't know—not when we don't know. He's my friend too. I'm sure when Gwaine gets back he'll be here as well, that is if—he'll want to be here."
It was quiet for a moment, and then, "you can say it. We might lose him, tonight even, and it's my fault that those stupid cuffs were on his wrists in the first place. It's my fault that Merlin is here and not—if he dies, Guinevere, if he dies—it'll be my fault."
"Arthur, it's not your fault. I know—"
"It is. I've been every bit the prat he accused me of being. He's my best friend, Guinevere. My best friend—and I didn't realize it until he—he could die, and he'll never know that I care, he must think I hate him with the way I've been treating him lately. I was so angry about the lies that I let it blind me, it was all him, I see that now. All those times when I shouldn't have survived, all those times we only escaped because a branch fell at the right moment, it was him. He lied yes, but have we given him a reason not to? He's been protecting us—and what do we do? What do I do? I cut him off from his life force. He tried to tell me too, he wrote me a letter when speaking failed —I just didn't listen well enough."
"You didn't know. You didn't know what you were doing, it doesn't excuse the way you've treated him, nothing will excuse that," She ran her hands through his hair, her eyes closed tight against the threat of tears, "but you didn't know what the cuffs were doing."
Arthur looked up at her.
"Is that any excuse?"
They were killing him, he thinks, these cursed bracelet-shackles on his wrists and ankles.
He wasn't sure how much longer he could last like this, he'd tried to explain once, he thought—but maybe he hadn't, because he prayed Arthur wouldn't keep then on him if he knew they were hurting him—but couldn't quite remember.
But Arthur hadn't listened—or he hadn't explained well enough, maybe? He just wasn't sure of anything but that it hurt and his magic wanted free—because he could still feel it, deep down inside him—and that the fever was messing with his head, he needed to talk to Arthur and he needed to do so today.
Merlin pushes the doors to Arthur's chambers open slowly with his shoulder his hands full with Arthur's breakfast tray. His every step sending shooting pains up into his hip, he carefully breathed through his mouth, holding Arthur's breakfast as far away from himself as possible, the truce with his stomach tenuous at best. He coughed, his chest feeling heavy and making it hard to breathe, before he sat the tray on the table and pulled the blinds open, letting the early morning sunlight flood in, it was torture on his pounding head but it was one of the surest ways to rouse the king, his wife already gone for the day.
Sure enough there was a grumble from the bed and Arthur rolled over turning his back to the light.
"Time to get up, sire. Breakfast is on the table."
At the prospect of food Arthur pulled himself from bed and half stumbled over to the table. Merlin winced as the smell of the sausages caused the nausea to rear its ugly head; he swallowed convulsively and closed his eyes, breathing slowly through his nose.
Merlin ignored him, still trying to regain control of his rebellious stomach.
Finally when he felt like he could open his mouth to respond he spoke, "yes, Sire?"
Arthur glared before preceding to list his - apparent flaws, and to berate him, telling him that if he had another master than he'd be dead a million times over from the whip of the steward, told him the various horrible ways he'd die. There was no fire behind it, Merlin could see that, Arthur wouldn't hurt him intentionally like that, enough of their mond remained for Merlin to be sure of that. Flying cups and forks aside, it was all empty words , but they still packed a punch. He missed his Arthur, the one that was never cruel for the sake of being cruel—because that was what he was being, and he had to know it. But this, he reminded himself, this was his Arthur now.
This is what his betrayal had done.
Time flew by in a haze for Merlin, the morning sun rising higher, reflecting off the white snow that blanketed the ground, and Arthur left. But Merlin hardly noticed, It was a beautiful day, Merlin decided, but that wouldn't help him. He sunk to the ground numbly, his legs giving out beneath him. This was it, he could see that now, Arthur was still so angry, it'd been four months, Autumn had faded to winter, and he was no warmer to him then the day the cuffs had been placed on him.
And he wouldn't listen to Merlin, no, not anymore - and the cuffs- they were hurting him, and - and - he was going to die. He could feel it.
Guinevere adjusted the cloth on Merlin's head. Her fingers sweeping the coal black curls away from his forehead. Merlin didn't stir, but she hasn't expected him to. It was early morning now and Arthur had finally fallen asleep about an hour ago.
It was a good sign that Merlin had survived the night. That while his breathing was still labored, and his skin too hot, that he'd at least held his own, and while he hadn't improved, he'd stayed relatively stable.
She couldn't imagine a world without him.
Merlin had been here in Camelot for a little over ten years and he'd changed so much, it was because of Merlin that she was able to stand before her people as queen; it was because of Merlin that Arthur was the king he is today.
In return—they'd almost killed him.
They hadn't known, of course they hadn't, even in the height of his anger Guinevere had known that Arthur would have never executed Merlin, she didn't even know if he could have stood banishing the man. But Arthur, he'd been angry—and Arthur had been scared, and Merlin had handed him the broom to sweep the problems under the rug. In this way, they'd never really got to the heart of the problems in their relationship, and it had festered.
So Arthur, he'd stayed angry and Merlin—he got sicker and sicker until he'd—But worse of all—she was to blame as well, because Arthur could blame not seeing what was happening—but she had seen it, had seen how he was paler and skinnier and just how unhappy he'd looked.
But she hadn't stepped in to fix it. She'd hoped they'd do it on their own. In this, she shared the blame with her husband.
He wraps his arms around his stomach tightly, the tossing and churning making him moan. Something was seriously wrong, he hadn't expected things to go downhill this fast. He'd felt relatively okay this morning—or at least no worse than yesterday, or the day before that. He'd expected he'd hold on for a couple months yet.
But now—he felt like he was on fire.
He whimpers, bending double, his face having twisted into a mask of pain, tears dripping down until he could taste the salt, which only made him feel sicker to his stomach, his joints and muscles screaming at him with increasing levels of intensity.
"Merlin, I thought I told you to have this place clean?"
Merlin ignores him, or doesn't hear him perhaps, and Arthur kicks his boots off ready to reprehend the servant but — something made him feel uneasy about the situation. Arthur frowned and stepped forward as—suddenly Merlin moans and gags, his whole body tensing up in a way that surely was painful, because even through his clothing Arthur could see his straining muscles.
He tries. But Merlin doesn't answer, thoroughly worried now and any annoyance having faded, Arthur rounded the corner of the bed and stared at his servant in shock. Merlin had a bucket between his legs and was deathly pale excluding two spots of red high on his too sharp cheekbones, with deep dark circles under his eyes, but the worst part was the bright red that stained his chin.
It—it looked like blood.
Merlin whimpered, lurched forward, and vomited, bringing up a bright stream of red, he heaved again and nearly fell off of the edge of the bed, would have, if Arthur hadn't grabbed him and pulled him farther up onto it. Merlin heaved a final time before slumping back against Arthur, his head lolling about on his shoulders as if his neck was unable to support its weight.
Arthur tried only to get no response except a few ragged sounding breathes. Arthur slapped his cheek gently getting no response until finally Merlin looked up at him, his eyes at least semi focused, he breathed in and Arthur could hear the rattle in his chest, his lips parted to show teeth stained pink.
"A'hur...?" He slurred.
Arthur almost didn't hear him over the sound of his racing heart that echoed in his ear.
"Hmm...it hurts...m'sorry...need them off..."
"Need what off, Merlin?—Merlin!"
Suddenly out of nowhere Merlin had tensed up, his eyes rolling towards the back of his head as he began to shake. Arthur's eyes widened as he came to rest on the floor with the mans head cradled in his lap. The terrifying tremors lasted only a few moments but they left Merlin a mess of whimpers and wheezing breathes. Arthur brushed his hair away from his face, the contrast vivid and frightening between the tresses and the too pale skin.
Merlin cried out then, trying to curl himself into a ball, but could only get half way.
That was enough for Arthur; gently he lowered Merlin's head to the ground and stood making his way to the door. Quickly he flagged down a passing servant to go get Gaius before rushing back to Merlin's side. Gently he picked the man's head back up and ran his hands through coal locks.
"M'sorry...A'hur...about hav'n...ma'ic...know you hate't...need it..."
Arthur could make out little of the disjointed babbles, and shushed him, brushing his hands through sweaty locks and against too hot skin, trying to keep the younger man relatively calm in fear that if he got himself worked up it would set off another set of convulsions. But his efforts were in vain because by the time Gaius arrived Merlin was immersed in another fit, this one having lasted several minutes longer than the last. Merlin made a gargling sound and Arthur flinched, he'd never felt this helpless.
Gaius's eyes widened and he hit his knees next to Arthur.
"Turn him on his side quickly before he chokes on his own vomit—and make sure he doesn't hit his head!"
Arthur did as was instructed of him and almost cried out when, the moment he was turned on his side, Merlin brought up a stream of red, coughing and retching amongst the quaking of his body. He would have let him chok—oh dear god.
"What's wrong with him, Gaius?"
Gaius's face hardened. His eyes sweeping over the meager form that lay quaking between them, but all at once the tension drained from the old man's body, his eyes closing for a moment as he let out a deep sigh.
"I believe those shackles you put on him are doing this, sire."
Arthur stared in horror.
Arthur woke around late evening with a dry mouth and still tired eyes; he blinked and yawned before jumping up immediately when he saw the cot where Merlin had lain empty.
Oh god. Had Merlin passed during the night? Oh—dear god. Had he slept through Merlin's last moments? What if he had died alone because everyone else had been asleep? Worse yet—what if he'd awoken before the end and had tried to call out only for no one to answer?
The room spun around him and he found it hard to breath, like someone was sitting on his chest. Frantically he tried to pull in more air but — he saw spots dancing before his eyes and there was a woman's voice but he couldn't hear what she was saying through the pounding of his heart.
"He's alive still, Arthur! We only moved him!"
But Arthur didn't hear her, he'd already passed out.
Arthur carried Merlin back to Gaius's in him arms , his mind light years away from his body. Merlin groaned, as if - even in his unconscious state - he was in pain and Arthur clutched his feeble weight tightly to his chest, he'd wanted to run for the keys to the shackles immediately, but Gaius wouldn't have been able to carry the unconscious man to his chambers where he could be better treated. He pushed the door to Gaius's chambers open with his shoulder with no little amount of relief and stepped in, immediately laying the feverish man on the patients cot. Merlin didn't so much as wake, he simply lay there, unresponsive and pale.
Gaius immediately set to work. He removed the man's shirt and Arthur flinched back at the sight. Merlin had always been thin for as long as he'd known him—but now he was practically skeletal.
This was his fault.
Merlin may have suggested the—torture devices but he'd been the one who placed them on Merlin's wrists. He'd seen the moment the color had drained from his face, had heard Merlin cry out at the loss, but he'd done nothing but make sure the man was stable and then walk away without a word.
And—he'd been cruel.
He startled out of his thoughts when suddenly Gaius was in front of him glaring, his face steely and his eyes dark.
"H-how is he?"
"We'll be lucky if he survives the night."
Arthur reeled back.
"But-but he was fine this morning!"
Gaius glared, and looked like he was only restraining himself from physically harming the man, Arthur didn't know if he would stop him.
"No, he was not 'fine.' He has not been fine in a long while, but there's been nothing we could do. It is the cuffs that have caused this, and despite him explaining his differences to you, you ignored him. The cuffs should never have been put on him, he doesn't just have magic, he is magic and you've—"
"I'll go get the key—we'll take them off him, won't that help? Just please, don't let him die!"
And Gaius must have been angrier than Arthur thought and he must have been feeling vindictive because—"But Sire, I thought that was what you wanted—for his magic to die, and you must be pleased to be taking out a sorcerer, daddy's little —"
"Stop, please," Arthur begged, his hands in his hair, pulling on the light strands—because he couldn't stand to hear it. "Please, Gaius. I know you're mad at me, you have every right to be, but there must be something we can do."
"There is nothing," and it's then that Arthur notices the tears streaming down the old man's cheeks, "It's not his body that's sick, it's his magic. His magic is tearing itself apart trying to escape its bounds, the fever, the vomiting, the chest ache, along with the muscle pains, the convulsions, —it's only his body showing externally what's going on internally."
"But if we remove the cuffs his magic will heal him—heal itself, right?"
Please—please, he begs silently—oh please, say yes!
"I don't know if he has enough time left for it to heal."
"But we can try, yes? It won't hurt him to try? Please, I can't lose him without knowing that I tried everything I could to save him!"
Finally Gaius nodded.
Arthur woke to a horrid smell and his own stark realization that Merlin was gone and it was Arthur's own fault. He'd killed Merlin, fisting his hands in his hair he sat up, screwing his eyes shut against the ache and the lump in his throat.
"So, you faint when you can't see me?"
Arthur froze and turned his head barely daring to open his eyes incase he was only imagining it—but no, even when he blinked he could still see a pale as death and sweaty Merlin. The man flashed him a weak smile, and pulled the blanket draped over his shoulders tighter around himself. Arthur gaped—but the bed it'd been empty.
"They'd moved me up to my room while you were sleeping—but you freaked out when you woke up and didn't see me and fainted in Gwen's arms," here he paused, faintly smirking before his almost gray lips turning down into a frown as he shivered. "So they moved me back d-down h-here."
Arthur frowned as Merlin gave another shake, his teeth clanking together.
"Should you be awake? I mean—how are you feeling, Merlin?"
Merlin grinned shakily. "Probably not, but I can't sleep when my stomach is so—uneasy." He moved the blankets edge back to revealing a bucket positioned between his legs that must be the source of the foul smell and a glimpse of a pale chest with all too visible ribs.
"But—but you're doing better? It worked?"
The edges of Merlin's lips fell once more.
"My—my magic is trying to heal me, I'm conscious and I'm not critical anymore, but I'm not out of the woods yet. I have a long ways to go before I'm back to where I was before the cuffs were put on me," he paused and shivered.
"T-thank you, by t-t-he way. F-for taking 'em off m-me."
Had Merlin been expecting him to let him die?
Arthur frowned and pulled the blanket off of himself and offered it to Merlin, only for the man to shake his head.
"F-fever. Probably shouldn't b-be using the o-one I'm using n-now."
Arthur lowered his hand, the blanket falling into the narrow space between their two cots. He twisted his hands together, watching as the appendages turned white from the strain he was putting them under.
Finally, he raised his head and took Merlin in.
There was a fever rouge upon his cheek bones, although not nearly as bad as when he'd first found him. His face was a strange mix of gray and green and he was shaking as his head lolled about on his neck, his eyes closed as he breathed in and out slowly and deeply.
"Merlin?" The man looked up. "Why didn't you tell me what the cuffs were doing to you?"
Merlin almost didn't answer.
"I-I tried, I tried to explain that I was different. That my magic was a p-part of me—but you w-were j-just so angry. You were p-purposefully cruel, Arthur, a-and I-I'd figured I'd hold o-out for a c-couple more months y-yet b-but you were so a-angry. A-after awhile, tr-truthfu-fullly, I j-just figured you wouldn't c-care. I-I feel so s-stupid right now. I should have known you wouldn't do t-that."
Arthur frowned and was about to ask another question when Merlin's eyes flew open and he gagged, a hand clamped over his mouth as he attempted to breathe through the nausea. Arthur was behind him in an instant rubbing his back in slow circles. Merlin lurched forward, his whole body growing taunt and whimpered.
Arthur frowned and wrapped his other unoccupied arm around the man's front so that he was supporting most of his weight.
"Shh," he tried when Merlin whimpered again. "It's all right."
Merlin didn't respond—couldn't because in the next moment his head was in the bucket and Arthur literally felt the man's stomach contract under his arm, but there wasn't anything in his stomach and Arthur winced as Merlin set into a bout of dry heaves.
Merlin was sick—would be for however long it took his magic to recover—and it was Arthur's fault, he'd done this. Merlin finally sat back, trembling. Up close Arthur could see the sweat beading his forehead and making his limbs clammy to the touch.
"Merlin," he shook his head, suddenly breathless with the want for Merlin to understand how much he regretted this. Doing this to him—hurting him like this. "I am—so sorry."
"You d-didn't know."
And Arthur felt even guiltier because Merlin, he wasn't even mad. If he was at least Arthur could make it up to him—although he doubted it would ever be enough—but he wasn't.
"Why aren't you mad at me?"
Merlin turned into Arthur's chest, unashamed, and nuzzled into Arthur's shirt. His breath warming the air in between them, finally he responded.
"S-should I be?"
"Yes! Yes! You should be furious, you shouldn't be able to look at me, you should—you should hate me for the way I've treated you the last few months—this would be so much easier if you did."
"I c-can't hate you, A-Arthur. Maybe I was angry in the be-beginning, but what does being a-angry solve? We-we've hurt each other enough."
Arthur wrapped his arms around Merlin, suddenly exhausted, because Merlin was right, Merlin was always right and if only he'd been able to see this sooner— "S-stop it, Arthur. I-I can hear you thinking. I-I'm going to b-be fine. I forgive you."
And really, that was all he'd needed to hear.