Merlin was usually careful enough.
He knew he wasn't the most subtle with his magic - especially since Gaius never stopped lecturing him about it - but he rarely ever exposed it. Which meant that, for the most part, nobody would think to call him, the clumsy but joyful and loyal manservant, a sorcerer.
For the most part.
Every so often, someone would accuse Merlin of practising magic and there’d be a risk of jeopardising his destiny.
This time, however, it was a little more serious.
This time, it was a witchfinder.
And a fraud of a witchfinder at that.
Merlin catches Gaius’ eye as the witchfinder drags him into an audience with the King. The physician is doing a terrible job of hiding his concern, in Merlin’s opinion.
“What is the meaning of this?” Uther demands, raising an angry eyebrow at the witchfinder.
“The boy cast a spell on my horses!” The witchfinder declares, shoving Merlin forward.
Barely catching himself, Merlin shakes his head at the King. “I wasn’t, I swear-”
“All due respect, My Lord,” the witchfinder interrupts, “but surely you wouldn’t trust the word of a mere serving boy over mine.”
Uther frowns, clearly torn between what he wants to believe and wanting to save his reputation. If it comes down to his reputation, Merlin knows he’s doomed.
“Do you have any proof of this accusation?” Uther asks.
“You can’t have missed that my horses rampaged through the city as if possessed!” The witchfinder has the audacity to look offended, as if he hadn’t been the one to cause them to do so.
Gaius steps forward before Merlin can try to argue again. “Sire, I think we should remember what happened with Aredian before you pass any judgement.”
The witchfinder stiffens at the name and Merlin groans to himself because, if the two witchfinders are somehow related, there’s no way he’s going to let this go before Merlin is dead, or worse.
“Aredian, My Lord?” the witchfinder asks, his voice the epitome of innocence.
Uther’s silence acts as a cue for the witchfinder to grab Merlin again. “If there are, as you say, multiple who have accused the boy, perhaps there is good reason for it?” he suggests, tightening his grip on Merlin as if daring him to argue.
There’s a silence in which Merlin mouths an apology to Gaius.
Then Uther nods solemnly. “Very well. You may question the boy for three nights. If he then confesses to me, I will let you do as you wish.”
Merlin’s eyes widen but Gaius and Gwen - who seems to have appeared from nowhere - look more hopeful than before. Apparently they haven’t heard of how witchfinders force confessions from people and expect Merlin to easily survive his interrogations.
Once Uther's word is finalised, the first thing the witchfinder does is drag Merlin along and throw him into the small cage that lives on his cart, securing heavy metal shackles around his wrists.
He thinks he’s gotten lucky but no, as soon as the metal clamps around his wrists, something breaks inside of him, smothering him from the inside. Just his luck to be accused by a witchfinder that knows what kind of shackles can suppress magic.
Despite the pain, Merlin glares at him once he’s done. “I know you’re framing me.”
The witchfinder laughs as he spurs his new horses on and they start moving. “Just as you framed my father.”
A small gasp escapes Merlin. “You’re Aredian’s son?”
“Aren’t you a smart one?”
He doesn’t have a chance to answer because Aredian’s vengeful son turns a corner and he’s painfully thrown against the side of the cage. He ends up focusing on trying not to cry out every time Aredian’s son makes the journey more difficult for him, which is almost continuously.
It doesn’t help that it feels like someone is slicing into his soul with every passing minute, the shackles effectively dampening his strength entirely. By the time they stop, Merlin is sure he’s gained a dozen bruises, if not more.
He exhales softly as he hears Aredian’s son climb down and walk round to him. “I take it you won’t be ready to confess yet?” he asks languidly, clearly happy with this situation.
“I can’t confess to a crime you committed,” Merlin replies, not even trying to hide the venom in his voice.
“Oh, but you will…” Aredian’s son laughs. “But since we have three nights and I rarely require more than one, how about you enjoy a quiet night under the stars for today?”
“What?” Merlin finds himself asking before he can stop himself. It’s only then that he takes a moment to look past the pain and at his surroundings, seeing nothing but trees.
Aredian's son unlocks the cage and unhooks the chain from the side of the cart, yanking Merlin out of the cage and forcing him to tumble onto the ground. With a groan, Merlin pulls himself to his feet and stumbles after the witchfinder, who doesn’t even look back as he pulls on the chain that links Merlin’s shackles together.
They don’t stop walking until they reach a quiet, secluded clearing, where Aredian's son unlinks one of the shackles long enough for him to push Merlin in front of a tree and wrap the chain around the trunk so Merlin ends up effectively tied to it.
He’s too tired by the suppression of his magic to even fight back and the witchfinder takes this as a sign of him being in control of this situation.
“They’re going to discover you’re a fraud, you know,” Merlin warns, testing how far he can go and realising he literally cannot step away from the tree without uncomfortably pulling his arms backwards.
“No, they’re going to discover you’re a sorcerer,” Aredian’s son replies, harshly kicking Merlin’s knee so his legs buckle and he ends up on the floor yet again, groaning softly.
“Now, I’d avoid sleeping if I were you… what with all the snakes and that.”
He has the nerve to wink as he walks off, dropping petals behind him that Merlin can tell will attract the snakes that may have otherwise left him alone. Sometimes, it’s truly a curse to be Gaius’ ward and know so much about which plants attract which species.
Merlin stretches his legs out and winces as his knee starts throbbing but he can’t do anything about it, especially since he can’t use magic.
“This cannot be happening,” he mumbles to himself as he tries and fails to get comfortable, the tree digging into his back and the shackles feeling as though they’re digging into his bones.
Attempts to slide his wrists out of them only result in him breaking the skin there, leaving it more painful than before. Sighing, Merlin gives in and simply closes his eyes, preferring to be asleep than awake and in pain.
It doesn’t last long.
He wakes to a burning sensation.
He’s not sure what’s causing it at first but it’s not hard to figure out the source when his arms feel like they’re on fire, his wrists feel like they’re about to fall off, and the shackles feel as heavy as the burdens of his destiny as Emrys.
Biting his lip to stop himself from crying out and giving his magic away, Merlin curls into himself and struggles with the shackles, the dull clinks of the metal barely registering to his ears as he finds it harder and harder to breathe.
“Stupid Uther…” Merlin mutters through gritted teeth, somehow finding himself wishing that Arthur had been there to negotiate on his behalf.
With half a sob, Merlin gives up on the shackles, his wrists stinging from the myriad of cuts caused by the uneven metal and his head pounding as his magic screams at him from where it's being cruelly forced down.
It’s a small mercy that no snakes attempt to approach him despite a few having appeared, lured in by the scent of the petals. He's content to have survived what the witchfinder had attempted to throw at him, just like he'll have to survive anything else thrown his way.
By the time Aredian’s son returns, Merlin is exhausted.
“Well, well, well. It looks like someone foolishly did themselves a fair amount of damage overnight,” Aredian’s son drawls, laughing at the state of Merlin’s wrists.
Merlin just glares at him, too tired to argue or defend himself.
“If this is what happens before I even touch you, I can’t wait to actually get started…”
Something inside Merlin, something that feels a lot like hope, dies at the very thought.
But he’s too busy trying not to cry to care.
He has to get through his. To prove Aredian and his twisted son wrong. To prove to Gaius and Gwen and anyone else that believes in him that he won’t let them down. To make sure he’s there to protect and serve Arthur.
So when Aredian’s son unwraps the chain from the tree and roughly pulls Merlin back towards the cage on his cart, Merlin stays silent and focuses on breathing, on hiding the agony burning inside him, on staying alive for destiny's sake.
Out of everything, witchfinder shackles will not get the better of him.
He can’t let that happen.
Arthur's worrying is of no help.
He'd argued with his father until he’d been sent to his room, he’d paced the polish right off his floor, and he’d thrown enough objects around for his room to look like it'd been attacked by a beast of some sort.
But none of it had helped to get Merlin back.
None of it could undo his sentence with the witchfinder.
The sentence that, while Arthur was busy worrying, Merlin was suffering through.
“No,” Merlin repeats, his voice barely some sort of hushed whisper.
He’d tried not to talk at first and, in a way, he’d succeeded.
He hadn’t confessed, but he’d whimpered.
He’d whimpered and moaned and eventually cried out when the superficial pain on his skin had started to match the oppressive pain in his very bones.
Aredian’s son was fond of blades.
“Confess!” the witchfinder snarls again, cruelly dragging the small dagger down Merlin’s arm yet again.
“Not until you do,” Merlin bites back, but his defiance is weakened by the whimper that escapes him next.
He’s not sure he can handle any more slicing into his skin, he’s not even sure he should be awake with the amount of blood that seems to be spilling out of him. The constant agony of the shackles suppressing his magic doesn’t help either.
Aredian’s son groans, throwing the dagger to the corner of the room that Merlin had been brought to earlier that morning. Apparently, surviving the night outside was a double-edged success and had only lead to more severe interrogation ‘techniques’.
Merlin winces as the metal clangs against the stone walls, letting his eyes fall shut as he leans against the cold wall. At least it provides some relief from the way his magic is literally burning to be set free inside him.
He hasn’t moved away from the wall since he’d been roughly thrown there and the chain connecting his shackles had been fixed into a bolt on the wall. There’d been no reason to aggravate Aredian’s son; his only goal is to survive, to get back to Gaius, and to carry out his duty of protecting Arthur.
He can vividly feel all of the cuts littering his unfortunate skin, all the blood that falls over his fingers and slides down his torso. It hurts in a way that he can’t describe.
“I am not without mercy,” the witchfinder declares unexpectedly.
A broken laugh escapes Merlin as he shakes his head in disbelief, not bothering to open his tired eyes. He can’t see any mercy in such a cruel kind of torture.
“I will give you one more chance to confess,” he continues, his footsteps getting louder until he stops and crouches in front of Merlin, uncomfortably close, “before I take this to the next level.”
Something infinitely sharper than any of the blades that had been used on him throughout the day touches the back of Merlin’s hand and his eyes shoot open reflexively.
He must have said that out loud because the witchfinder laughs. “I can’t have you bleeding out, now, can I?”
“No, please…” Merlin mumbles, finding a little strength in the newfound fear that shoots through him and shuffling away, as far away as possible. Not far enough.
“Is that a confession?”
It’s a needle.
Merlin shakes his head weakly, biting his lip as Aredian’s son scowls darkly before sighing and arranging himself better, pulling Merlin’s arm towards himself in a firm grip.
“Well, then, I’ll have to make sure you don’t die so I can continue.”
Merlin whimpers softly and squeezes his eyes shut as the needle is pressed to his arm, into his arm, into the skin right at the edge of a cut, and then pushed, pushed, painfully pushed deeper until the thread is pulled through.
He cries out immediately, trying to get his hand free, but there’s no use, the witchfinder is stronger. He makes a mockery of stitching the wound back together, unfathomable jolts of pain sparking along Merlin’s arm as he bites his lip hard enough to make it bleed.
By the time the wound is stitched back together, the witchfinder is grinning and Merlin is close to crying.
He yanks his arm back as soon as it's released and whimpers, knowing the wound could have done with a simple bandage instead. It’s almost alarming how neat the unnecessary stitches are, almost a parody of when Gaius has done the same for him in the past.
“There, see, that wasn’t so bad…” Aredian’s son drawls, close to sounding like he actually cares about keeping Merlin alive.
A small part of his brain is telling him that this is all for show, that it’s all being done so the King can’t complain and accuse the witchfinder of anything, but he’s blinded by the throbbing in his new stitches.
“You seem relieved…”
Merlin looks up sharply, cradling his arm.
Aredian’s son smirks at him. “Come on now, don’t give me that look. We’ve only just started, after all.”
“No, no, no,” Merlin breathes, shaking his head, trying to move away, failing to move away because of the shackles, his eyes widening at the implication.
Before he can make sense of anything, Aredian’s son has pushed him to the floor and is hovering above him, pressing down on his chest and brushing the needle against the gash in his side.
That one does need stitches, Merlin can admit. But he wants Gaius to do it, he doesn’t want this, he can’t handle this, please-
The needle pushes in.
His thrashing is weak because his soul feels drained but he’s aware of himself crying as the witchfinder just laughs above him, using the thread to pull his skin back together as if this is all a game, as if Merlin’s pain is nothing more than background music.
He feels himself starting to lose consciousness halfway through but he doesn’t get the mercy of staying unconscious, his magic forcing him to stay awake, to stay alert.
So he just screams, his hands curling into his fists and his teeth starting to ache from being clenched together too hard. He can’t move, he’s pinned down by the weight of the witchfinder, but his free leg kicks at the witchfinder desperately, uselessly.
Merlin can feel his resolve crumbling; this is something new, something no spell or book could have prepared him for. This is pure evil and he can’t do anything, he can’t find a way to stop it, he can’t figure out how to handle it.
“Please!” he finds himself whimpering, wishing it would stop.
Not until the knot is tied and the gash has been closed in the most awful way possible.
Only then does he breathe, every breath tugging slightly on the stitches but letting him exhale his pain away. Or rather, imagine that he’s exhaling some of his pain away.
“One more, I think…” Aredian’s son muses, glancing over Merlin.
He shakes his head again, silently pleading for him to stop.
Aredian’s son clicks his tongue as his eye catches the wound on Merlin’s shoulder; Merlin watches as the idea forms in his mind but he’s too exhausted to even try and defend himself this time.
He’s rolled over so that the cold floor is pressed to his face and he can see nothing but stone and blood, the shackles digging into his wrists painfully and Aredian’s son settling into place above him, pinning him down again even though he wouldn’t have the strength to move anyway.
Merlin screams again as he starts stitching.
This one hurts the most.
He can’t stop the tears escaping from his eyes as the needle is pulled through his skin, weaving away the wound but leaving behind unmeasurable agony in its wake.
He slumps into the stone below him, letting his tears fall as soft sobs leave his tired, bleeding lips. If he didn’t have magic, he’d have been mercifully unaware by now, but it’s just his luck to be plagued by the reminder of his destiny, his responsibility, his duty to fulfil the expectations looming above him.
“Puh- Please…” Merlin manages to plead as the witchfinder harshly yanks the thread at one point and sends a whole new wave of pain down his spine.
“I don’t know what you’re made of that’s keeping you awake,” Aredian’s son mutters, something like concern flashing in his voice for half a second. It disappears as soon as he adds, “But you could just take this chance to confess.”
Despite everything, Merlin shakes his head, letting his eyes close once more.
He’s so tired that he wouldn’t even have the energy to form a confession if he’d have wanted to. Not that he does. He never will. Not even if it kills him.
And as the third gash is finally stitched up and Aredian kicks him back into the corner, agony from all three wounds flaring up enough to entice yet another broken sob from his lips, Merlin thinks it just might.
Merlin rarely screams.
He’s so used to being quiet and hiding his pain to maintain his reputation as a bubbly manservant who always smiles at everything and cracks endless jokes. Even in front of Gaius.
The last couple of days have made up for all of that.
He easily loses count of how many times he’s screamed in pain during his sentence with the witchfinder, both due to internal agony related to the magic-suppressing shackles and the inflicted external wounds.
And the third day’s morning sees him screaming yet again, albeit weakly this time, as freezing water is unkindly poured over him; it’s a shock and a half.
“I thought you might be dehydrated,” the witchfinder explains, even though it’s more of a taunt.
Merlin just glares up at him, not even bothering to try and straighten his posture from where he’s awkwardly slumped against the wall because his limbs feel like the mud he usually has to clean off the horses after it’s been raining.
“What? No thanks?” Aredian’s son crouches down and lifts Merlin’s chin with his hand, smirking. “Do you need more incentive to show your gratitude?”
Naturally, Merlin doesn’t reply.
He’s too busy trying to figure out if he’s now freezing because of the unwanted shower or if the burning in every atom of his magical being is just so intense that it only feels as though his soul has frozen over and is now shattering into tiny fragments, fragments that are slowly piercing his organs.
Within seconds, the witchfinder’s other hand presses down onto the stitched wound on his arm, eliciting a sharp, broken whimper from Merlin, who can’t help but also flinch away from the pain.
“Much better!” Aredian’s son beams brightly, as if he were a child getting his way.
A lack of sleep means Merlin doesn’t even have the energy to mentally form a comeback to that, never mind actually say one out loud. He just waits until Aredian’s son is satisfied and lets go of him again so he can exhale softly, pulling his arm closer to his chest protectively.
“I had so many fun things planned for today but I might have to change them if you’re so unwilling to talk,” Aredian’s son announces.
Merlin just waits, blinking water out of his eyes.
“I think we’ll go for a ride,” he announces eventually, making Merlin groan.
He knows what’s coming but it still hurts - it hurts so, so much - when Aredian’s son unfastens the chain and yanks him to his unsteady feet, not bothering to let him steady himself before starting to march towards the door.
Merlin almost falls over in his haste to stumble after Aredian’s son, his numb feet just about managing not to let him fall until they arrive back at the cart. Only then does he stumble and end up on the ground, groaning softly as the witchfinder grins down at him.
“Pathetic,” he comments gleefully.
Merlin flinches from the word, using his less injured arm - that is, the one without the stitches - to push himself upright as he bites down on his lip to stop himself crying out.
Aredian’s son just grabs his ruined t-shirt and hauls him up, practically tossing him back into the cage before securing the chains to the cart once more. He’d lost his jacket and necktie at some point, probably when all those blades had gotten involved, so he can’t stop himself from shivering when his skin touches the cold metal of the cage.
Merlin lets his eyes shut and refuses to acknowledge the question, but regrets that when Aredian’s son bangs on the cage, the reverberation echoing through his bones and drawing out yet another whimper.
He feels himself slide down until he’s not touching the bars anymore, curling into himself to make himself smaller, less noticeable, less of a target.
Aredian’s son just angrily grumbles something about a confession and, soon enough, the cart starts moving. Hitting as many rocks and bumps in the road as possible, it seems.
When they stop, Merlin doesn’t notice.
What he does notice, however, is the chains rattling and the shackles rubbing against his bruised wrists, where the skin is raw from when he’d found the energy to struggle.
He hisses softly, his eyes blearily blinking themselves open.
Merlin gasps, pulling himself upright with newfound strength, carelessly lifting a hand to rub his eyes, ignoring the pain that shoots down his arm.
“I can’t- Merlin, stop moving!”
But Merlin obeys anyway, his gaze finally focusing on a familiar face as Arthur draws out his sword. Despite the familiar face, however, Merlin flinches as light glints of the sword, pulling himself into the opposite corner.
“No, Merlin, I wasn’t-” Arthur cuts himself off, sighing sadly, and swallows before sheathing his sword almost guiltily and turning to the menacing chains once more.
Merlin lets his eyes fall shut again regardless of how much he wants to see Arthur, how much he wants to see if Arthur will stay.
He’s missed Arthur.
There’s about a minute’s silence before an almighty, metallic noise rings out and Merlin abruptly feels alive.
He gasps, ducking his head to hide his eyes as they widen because he can feel, actually feel the powerful golden glow that radiates from them. He covers his head with his arms as his heart blooms again, as his soul finally starts to thaw and comfort him again, as his magic roams free under his skin again.
He’d forgotten how liberating it feels to be able to breathe normally.
He waits until he feels his magic settle, nestle inside him where it can’t be found, before looking up.
Arthur’s tears greet him.
He frowns but no, he’s not hallucinating, Arthur Pendragon is in front of him, is crying in front of him.
“Arthur…” Merlin breathes, a small smile blooming on his face.
Arthur looks conflicted but he beams as Merlin smiles, letting them share their relief for a moment before clambering onto the cart and unfastening the bolt on the cage, practically throwing the door open.
“Come on, Merlin, I have to get you out of here,” he says quickly, hushed.
Merlin nods, pushing himself towards Arthur and letting himself be swiftly but kindly guided off the cart.
Instantly, there are arms around him.
Merlin’s smile only lasts a second before Arthur’s hand brushes the stitched wound on his shoulder and he cries out, wincing enough for Arthur to pull back in concern. “Merlin?”
“S- sorry,” he manages, unable to stop smiling despite the pain.
“Oh, Merlin. I’m so sorry,” Arthur tells him sincerely.
Someone starts yelling somewhere behind them - apparently, Aredian’s son hadn’t missed the commotion - and Arthur’s eyes widen, glancing around frantically before settling back on Merlin. “I’m sorry if this hurts,” he whispers.
Then Merlin’s feet are leaving the ground and his head is suddenly on Arthur’s shoulder.
He whimpers but clings to Arthur as he bites down on his lip, forcing himself to stay quiet, focusing on his magic, trying to see how much of it he can use to help them escape, to help prevent Arthur having to face the witchfinder too.
Not much, apparently.
But just enough.
With the help of Arthur’s strength and a sprinkling of Merlin’s magic, they manage to make it far away enough that they can’t even hear whoever it was chasing them anymore. Only then does Arthur stop and let Merlin down, making sure there’s a tree behind him that he can lean on.
“I’m so glad you’re alive.” Arthur smiles.
When he doesn’t continue with how he’d be losing someone to use as target practice or something of the like, Merlin lets himself smile properly for the first time in days.
“Why… I mean, how did you…?” Merlin stops suddenly, unsure of what exactly he should be asking.
Arthur understands anyway.
He shrugs. “I persuaded my father that three nights was far too long to result in a genuine confession and then I simply followed the tracks to find you.”
“You followed the tracks?” Merlin echoes, unsure where his energy is coming from but unable to resist an opportunity to tease Arthur.
Arthur clears his throat pointedly. “I may have, uhm, asked… everyone… if they’d seen a witchfinder.”
Something soft, something like happiness, spreads through Merlin as he imagines Arthur questioning so many people just to look for him. It means more to him than he can care to admit and it makes his suffering at the hands of the witchfinder just a little more tolerable.
“Arthur, we can’t stay here,” Merlin finds himself saying, despite his heart wanting to do just that.
Arthur nods solemnly. “I know, we have to get you back home- Uh, that is, to Gaius. So he can heal you. Because you don’t look good at all.”
Merlin has questions but he makes a note of and saves them for another time.
When Arthur moves to pick him up again, Merlin holds up a hand and steps back just enough to prove a point. He ignores the way Arthur looks horrified at the bruising on his wrist and swallows. “I can walk.”
“We’ll be faster this way,” Merlin argues.
Arthur takes a moment but nods once more, pausing briefly before grabbing Merlin’s hand and starting to run.
“I only said I could walk, Arthur!” Merlin yells as they start moving.
“You also said you wanted to go faster!” Arthur yells back, his voice laced with equal amounts of amusement and concern.
Merlin had anticipated himself falling but he does nothing of the sort, a strange sort of strength pushing him forward, allowing him to keep up with Arthur as they sprint their way towards Camelot.
They don’t speak but they don’t need to.
If Arthur’s hand wasn’t firmly gripping Merlin’s as they ran, Merlin would have thought he was imagining this as some kind of fever dream. It just seems unreal that Arthur would search so desperately for him but he’s not complaining; if this is the reward for maintaining his end of destiny’s bargain, he’ll gladly accept it.
“Are you okay?” Arthur asks breathlessly at one point, glancing sideways.
Merlin nods, not even lying when he manages to reply, “Never been better!”
They carry on, through the forests and over the mostly deserted roads, stopping for nothing and no-one as they move, their fingers firmly intertwined as if their lives depend on it.
Eventually, the castle comes into view and the two of them share a slightly exhausted but still exhilarated grin as they somewhat carelessly navigate their way through the streets until they burst into the courtyard.
Coming to a stop, Arthur looks over to Merlin, pure relief in his expression.
Merlin sends him a lopsided grin in return.
But then the blistering pain of the last few days catches up to him and he whimpers again, his hand falling from Arthur’s as he doubles over, his body aching all over.
Agony burns and dances across his skin, creating nonsensical patterns between his wounds and connecting the dots of all his bruises. It hurts and although it's slightly better than before because his magic is trying its best to help dull his pain, it still hurts a little too much for him to bear.
He can hear Arthur’s concern but it seems that his adrenaline could only last so long.
Satisfied that he’s back in Camelot, back where he’s safe, back home, Merlin offers Arthur a soft smile before letting the soothing comfort of darkness take over, take away his pain.
He just about registers himself collapsing before he sinks into unconsciousness.
At least Arthur's there to catch him this time.
Arthur was no stranger to scars.
A knight’s duty is to battle and continue to battle even when injured.
Naturally, not every battle can be won and often, Knights would return home with more injuries than victories, injuries that slowly but surely healed into scars of memory and experience.
Having scars should have been a trait reserved solely for Knights.
Merin shouldn’t have scars.
A strange kind of fury blossoms in Arthur’s heart every time he’s reminded that his manservant and his - dare he say it - his friend had been injured, tortured, and left with scars.
He knew Merlin would scar as soon as he’d seen him, there’d been far too much blood smudged on his bruised skin and soaked into his rags of clothes for anything otherwise. And then they’d started moving and Merlin had winced and flinched but pushed through and his hand had smeared blood into Arthur’s skin while their fingers had been intertwined.
Merlin had been his responsibility and he’d failed him and that blood can never truly be washed off his hands.
Just like the witchfinder’s cruelty will never truly leave Merlin.
Arthur doesn’t even get to see Merlin for what feels like an eternity after they return to Camelot because Gaius forbids it and not even Arthur would dare to interfere with a court physician’s love for his son.
But not seeing Merlin doesn’t mean he’s not constantly reminded of him.
It seems that everything he does is somehow connected to Merlin so even waking up in the morning without their usual exchange of meaningless teasing feels strange, disjointed. If people didn’t respect his position as Crown Prince or First Knight, he’s certain they would have pointed out his general lack of enthusiasm, lack of spirit, lack of life.
And they’d be right; he misses Merlin.
He misses him more than he can explain. More than he can express. More than he can handle.
So he waits.
He waits and waits and pretends that he’s not suffering with his guilt and his concern and what seems to be his affection for Merlin.
It feels like years later when Gaius finally summons him.
Arthur’s never run so fast.
He thunders through the castle corridors until he reaches the physician’s study, composing himself enough to knock once, twice, thrice.
“Come in,” Gaius calls from inside.
Taking a breath, Arthur pushes the door open.
Only to be hit with something.
“Ow!” he exclaims, rubbing his head and glaring at the lowly twig that had bounced off him.
“What took you so long, clotpole?” Merlin teases.
Oh, how he's missed that voice.
Arthur feels himself laugh before he looks up, catching Merlin’s eye immediately, his feet pushing him forwards before he can think about it but his brain quickly catching up and making him freeze just before he gets round to embracing his manservant.
Merlin grins and pushes himself off the bench, wrapping his arms around Arthur.
It’s just about the happiest Arthur has felt in his life.
“Merlin…” he breathes, taking care not to press too hard as he wraps his own arms around Merlin, a relieved smile taking over his face.
They stay wrapped within the moment and each other, neither of them wanting to ruin their reunion in any way, anything they’d previously planned to say forgotten in favour of savouring one another’s presence.
“At least sit down, will you?” Gaius scolds, but not unkindly.
Sighing, Arthur pulls back so they can both take a seat on the bench, refusing to take his eyes off Merlin, noticing the way he holds himself tighter, as if afraid of falling apart.
“I’m sorry, I tried-” Arthur begins, only to be cut off as Merlin lifts a hand.
“I know, Arthur. It’s okay… You came for me, didn’t you?” The soft smile on Merlin’s face is so pure, it makes Arthur want to scream.
He doesn’t, of course.
He just takes Merlin’s hand, frowning at the small, almost invisible marks on his skin that he knows he should have prevented.
Merlin clears his throat after the silence stretches between them. “My face is up here, you know?” he jokes.
Arthur looks up slowly, unable to stop his gaze wandering over the rest of Merlin, the bandages peeking out from under his shirt, the few bruises that have failed to fade even after so long, and the way he seems to be smaller, more vulnerable, more fragile.
He knows Merlin is far from fragile, he knows that.
But he can’t help himself.
“Arthur, please,” Merlin says quietly.
Guilt flashes through Arthur again as he finally meets Merlin’s eyes and notices the almost-healed cut on his jaw and the healed but not entirely invisible scar on his forehead.
But he smiles nonetheless. “It’s good to have you back, Merlin,” he admits.
“It’s good to be back,” Merlin replies as he stretches a little, “but I’ve been in this room for so long, I’ve just about forgotten what wildflowers are like.”
It takes Arthur a second to register what Merlin’s said but then he bursts out laughing, shaking his head. “Surely you’d see the herbs and such that Gaius uses in his potions?”
Merlin makes an incredulous face. “Do you really think crushed remedy ingredients are anything alike?”
“I don’t know Merlin, I don’t often spend my time admiring flowers like a girl.” Arthur rolls his eyes.
“Ah but you do sometimes?” Merlin raises an eyebrow and Arthur scoffs, gently shoving his arm.
A stifled gasp escapes Merlin as he squeezes his eyes shut for a moment. He reopens them almost instantly but it’s too late to pretend that nothing had happened, that he's alright.
“I’m so sorry,” Arthur blurts, awkwardly jerking back and pushing himself off the bench to stand upright, not even trusting himself not to hurt Merlin anymore.
“It’s not your fault,” Merlin murmurs in response, sighing.
But it is.
It’s Arthur’s job to protect Merlin and here he is further aggravating his wounds. Maybe Gaius was right to keep them apart, at least until Merlin was stronger, better, back to his old self.
But he can’t ever truly be back to his old self because he’ll have to carry the scars of his time with the witchfinder on his skin for the rest of his life.
“Please- Arthur, don’t… leave.”
Merlin’s voice breaks through his guilt-fueled doubts.
He doesn’t even have to think about it before sitting back down, shuffling as close to Merlin as he physically can, offering him a reassuring but apologetic smile.
“I won’t,” he promises.
It’s an easy promise to make.
Merlin’s loyalty is unbelievable, unrepayable, and if he’s willing to let Arthur stay near him- if he’s asking for Arthur to stay with him even after such an ordeal, Arthur will gladly honour that promise with his life.
He knows it won’t be too difficult for Merlin’s endlessly, hopelessly kind heart to forgive him but until he feels as though he’s kept this promise for as long as he’s able to, he’ll never quite forgive himself for letting Merlin have to bear the burden of his scars.
Merlin wakes up crying.
He’s not sure why at first but flashes of blades and chains and indifferent smirks are enough to let him guess that, apparently, he’s not recovering as well as he’d thought.
And if that wasn’t enough, he could easily have guessed because lately, it was common for him to lose out on sleep and end up experiencing his past pains all over again. It seems that, unfortunately, he’ll never quite get used to it.
Angrily, he wipes the tears from his eyes and pulls himself out of bed because the sun seems to be peaking through his window anyway so there’d be no point in getting back to sleep.
He’s still a little disorientated by the time Gaius wakes up and serves them breakfast so he says nothing, keeping his troubles to himself, not wanting to worry the man he considers to be his father.
“Are you feeling alright, Merlin?” Gaius frowns at him once they’re both finished and Merlin’s halfway out of the door.
He briefly considers replying truthfully.
“Of course, Gaius!” he smiles widely before closing the door behind him and making his way to Arthur’s chambers.
Arthur’s still fast asleep, no surprise there.
Rather than immediately waking him, though, Merlin sets up the armour for later, tidies away what he can, and sets the table for breakfast before attempting to rouse him.
“Arthur, come on, you’re going to be late!” Merlin all but yells at said prince, yanking the covers off him and chuckling when Arthur grumbles in response.
“So rude,” Arthur comments as Merlin kindly manhandles him upright.
For a second, he sounds just like Aredian’s son, right before a dagger had been plunged into his skin because he’d refused to make a sound. For a second, he’s back in a hollow, stone room with no escape and no refuge from the cruelty of someone out for revenge. For a second, he forgets where he is.
“Merlin, you do have to move,” Arthur says impatiently, breaking the spell.
“Right.” Merlin clears his throat, pushing away his memories and focusing on getting Arthur into a more respectable outfit for his meeting.
They’re both quiet until Arthur sits down to eat, at which point the silence seems to be suffocating Merlin and he finally speaks up: “I need to, uh, feed the horses. Unless there’s anything else?”
Arthur frowns before shaking his head. “No, that’ll be all. But make sure you’re back here after lunch to get me ready for training.”
“Of course,” Merlin promises before sprinting from the room, his feet taking him towards the stables even though it’s not actually his turn to feed the horses and he’d just used the first excuse he could think of.
When he gets to the stables, he turns and takes the path that leads into the woods, walking until he knows he hasn’t been followed before sinking down into the leaves under a particularly tall tree and sighing sadly.
He lets his head fall onto his knees once he’s pulled them up to his chest, keeping his eyes open so that he doesn’t fall asleep but letting himself slump back against the tree trunk, too tired to hold himself upright.
And he cries.
He doesn’t mean to but he can’t get the scent of metal and blood and badly hidden hatred out of his mind and it’s driving him crazy.
Silent sobs ripple through his frame as he tries to breathe, tries not to fall into unpleasant flashbacks, tries and fails to stay composed.
Only when he knows he can’t stay any longer without risking being late and letting Arthur down does he push himself to his feet, wiping the tear-tracks off his face and breaking into a soft run.
“You’re late, as usual,” Arthur scolds as he bursts through the door.
“You’re ungrateful, as usual,” Merlin retorts, scoffing.
He swiftly goes over to the armour and starts getting Arthur ready, letting himself stay focused on securing the clasps rather than securing his emotions.
“You smell bizarre, Merlin. What were you feeding those horses?”
Merlin blinks in confusion before pausing. “Um… I wasn’t… Someone else already had so I went to collect herbs for Gaius instead.”
Arthur hums in acknowledgement, the two of them lapsing into a hushed quiet once more before making their way to the field so Arthur can embarrass the new recruits with his ego.
He must be having a bad day because Merlin doesn’t even know what happens between handing Arthur his sword and the end of the training session. He’s dimly aware that he’d been gathering weapons and assisting the Knights but he can’t focus on any of it.
“Merlin, get your head out of the clouds,” Arthur yells at him eventually.
It’s only then that he realises the sky has gone dark.
“Wh- what?” Merlin asks, blinking as Arthur walks over to him.
“Did you get hit in the head?”
Merlin nods without thinking, then frowns. “Wait, no. I don’t know.”
After a beat, a matching frown appears on Arthur’s face. It disappears before Merlin can comment on it and then Arthur is pulling him back to his chambers, his grip on Merlin’s arm soft and gentle but firm enough to hold.
“Help me with my armour,” Arthur orders him once they’re both back inside.
Merlin does so, without question.
He steps back once all the armour has been taken off, picking up the gauntlet and readying himself for having to clean it all before the next dawn.
But Arthur just shakes his head. “No, Merlin, they don’t need cleaning yet.”
“Then what do you need?” Merlin asks, dumping everything in the chest near the door so he remembers to clean it another time.
Arthur opens his mouth and closes it again, then repeats the process.
Merlin would laugh if he weren’t so curious. “Arthur?”
“Stay with me?”
It takes Merlin a second to process the request because Arthur had blurted it out as if it were trying to run away from him.
“What?” is all he can reply.
Arthur walks over to him and smiles knowingly, something he doesn’t do very often. “I know that something’s troubling you, Merlin. Perhaps if you stay with me tonight, I can help.”
Merlin’s heart grins as he understands why Arthur had been acting so nervous: he was just worried. But it’s not like Arthur can fight Merlin’s own mind for him, especially when he has no idea what goes on in there.
“Arthur, I appreciate it, but-”
“I know,” Arthur interrupts, “that I don’t understand entirely. But it’s worth a try, isn’t it?”
Even if he’d have wanted to, Merlin couldn’t argue with that.
“If you wish,” he mumbles.
Arthur’s explicit concern is almost surreal but Merlin lets himself have it, lets himself fall asleep in the presence of another despite the risk of his nightmares being a nuisance, lets himself be the subject of someone else’s help for once.
He sleeps soundly.