Arthur would never be able to close his eyes again.
Sleep? Arthur would have to do without. Blinking? Impossible.
Because every single time Arthur closed his eyes, the image of Merlin, smiling brilliantly as blood bubbled from behind his teeth and covered his mouth in a slick, dark mess was burned permanently into the black just behind Arthur’s eyelids.
Arthur knew what Merlin’s blood tasted like.
Merlin had made sure of that, no matter how unintentional. He had raised his fingers, crimson and shaking, and pressed them to Arthur’s lips. His hands were shaking so badly that Merlin smeared his blood over Arthur’s lips and jaw and down his neck as his hand went limp and his head lolled to the side.
Arthur knew what Merlin’s blood…
He couldn’t even linger on the thought too long before bile rose up in Arthur’s throat and Arthur had to hurriedly think about something—anything!—else before he emptied the contents of his already empty stomach.
It was already empty because as soon as Merlin’s hand had fallen away and he had wilted, Arthur opened his mouth to speak. But Arthur could only taste metal and brimstone and Merlin and he could feel the texture of it against his tongue because instinct had forced his tongue forward. He tilted Merlin away as he turned as much as he could and heave until his stomach stopped rioting and his mouth stopped burning with the taste of Merlin’s life.
When Merlin had closed his eyes, Arthur, for just a split second, was sure that he had died.
That his last action in this world was to force Arthur to taste the blood that Arthur himself might as well have spilt with his own hands. Arthur’s breath stopped for the four seconds it took to realize that Merlin’s eyes had closed and his chest still rose. If Merlin had died, his eyes would be open or Arthur would know. Something in him would have felt his Merlin leave him.
Arthur’s entire life had been lived on two basic rules.
One, everything is made as an exchange. Two, every exchange has a price.
Arthur’s life was an exchange for his mother’s. The price was the look in Uther’s eyes every time he looked too long at Arthur and the curl of his lip as he turned away again, sharply, his disappointment a physical thing that he did not hesitate to use against Arthur.
Merlin’s act of bravery had been traded for a position in the royal household. The price, at least at the time, was Arthur’s sanity.
Arthur’s heart was given to Gwen in exchange for her own. The price had been her eventual betrayal, falling back in love with Lancelot and leaving Arthur bereft of warmth.
Talking with Merlin about the panic building underneath Arthur’s breastbone more and more every day was a trade for the loneliness that Arthur had been told he must cherish and prize. The price was Arthur’s pride, and the addition of the crushing fear that Arthur would always say too much.
Merlin was trying to trade his life for Arthur’s, and the price was that Arthur would be forever cursed by the knowledge of the exact taste of Merlin’s blood. He knew the texture and the bite of metal and what it looked like when it stained Merlin’s teeth. When it stained Arthur’s hands. When it gushed, unendingly, through his unworthy fingers.
The assassin—no, not assassin, Arthur thought sharply. An assassin would mean that Merlin was dead and Merlin was not dead, nor was he going to die. Arthur would make sure of that.
He was only sorry that he was not able to feel the attacker’s breath leave him, see the light fade from his eyes as Arthur buried his sword to the hilt in the recreant’s insides. But, he had ran into the forest like a coward. The dagger was meant for Arthur, and the bastard couldn’t even stay long enough to see the job completed.
The dagger was of course meant for Arthur.
Being royalty meant having a target painted forever on your back, especially under such a harsh ruler as Uther. Arthur hoped that his own actions would speak for themselves and Uther’s enemies wouldn’t become his own, but he knew now that that was a foolish hope. He knew now that everyone he loved would always be victim to his crown.
Why had Merlin done that? Why had Merlin run after that witch at all?
Merlin was the bravest man Arthur knew, undoubtedly, but his bravery and loyalty often ran aground into idiocy. Arthur had always feared the day that Merlin would take his devotion to Arthur a step too far and end up hurt. End up taking the hate that was meant for Arthur onto his own shoulders.
Merlin had done that all too literally, and Arthur hated him for it.
When Merlin had finally fallen unconscious, Arthur had screamed. Loudly, as loudly as he had ever done anything, praying to whatever gods were listening that it would be loud enough for the knights to hear. Arthur didn’t know how far they were from the knights—the chase had been too fast and too panic-filled on Arthur’s part to pay much attention to the specific turns that the witch had made. But Arthur knew enough about battle wounds to know that carrying Merlin through the woods blindly would seal his death.
So he yelled. And bellowed. And screamed and hollered and wept for help until his lungs ached and his throat was raw. It realistically was probably no more than a quarter hour but it felt interminable, like the only two people left in the world were Arthur and and a bleeding, unconscious Merlin.
When the knights finally came, Arthur was so grateful that he actually began to cry anew.
The knights were battle-weary and out-of-breath from their search. Their faces were pale and wretched, and Arthur knew that he himself was a disaster. No one would look Arthur in the eyes, although Arthur desperately tried to make eye contact. He needed to know that he wasn’t gone, too. That he was still breathing despite his burning lungs and aching throat and numb limbs. Despite the fact that all of the fight had left him at once and his mind had gone light and fuzzy.
No one had said anything for a minute. Gwaine stumbled disjointedly forward until he had fallen to his knees, grabbing wildly for Merlin’s hand. And then Percival had to hold Gwaine down as he made a lunge at Arthur, eyes blazing and mouth spitting.
“How could you let this happen?” He demanded, growling, feet scrabbling uselessly at the leafed, wet, wet, wet forest floor. Arthur couldn’t feel his hand where it was pressed against Merlin’s shoulder. Arthur knew that Gwaine had said some things, then. Things meant to cut and slice Arthur deep, but if he thought about it now, Arthur couldn’t remember a single one of them.
“I-I…” Arthur hadn’t had the energy to be indignant or self-righteous. He had done this to Merlin. “We have to get him back to Camelot. He needs help, Gwaine.”
The fight left Gwaine at once as he collapsed once more to the ground, this time only having attention for Merlin, brow pinched in stony concern.
He was pale and shaking when he checked Merlin’s pulse and Arthur had to fight the instinct to slap Gwaine’s hand away from Merlin. Merlin was alive, of course he was alive, Arthur would fight Death Itself if it tried to dig its claws into Merlin’s back.
When Percival reached to grab Merlin’s limp form away from Arthur, all of the emotion numbed by Gwaine came back with a crushing force. Arthur was a wheezing, spitting mess, crying and grabbing at Merlin’s clothes in an attempt to keep him close. He knew it was ridiculous, and silly, and weak, but Arthur didn’t want to know what he would do if Merlin wasn’t by his side for longer than a couple of seconds.
No one tried to grab Merlin again.
However, when Leon approached with his untied cloak in his hands and calming words on his lips, Arthur let him. Arthur watched carefully as Leon bound Merlin’s shoulder and arm tightly, and the small noise that Merlin made caused every nerve in Arthur’s body to come alight. Merlin was alive, of course he was, he was going to stay alive.
Arthur could feel every pair of eyes on him as he gathered enough strength to stand on shaky legs, carrying his life in his arms.
The ride back to Camelot was frenzied and unstoppable. The blur of the forest was only punctuated in Arthur’s memory by his regular checks of Merlin in his arms. The knights were silent and grave, and Arthur was grateful for their somber swiftness.
The ride through the village as they approached the citadel was chaotic. Arthur refused to slow his break-neck pace, instead yelling at the townspeople to get off of the road quickly. The offense on their faces was quickly changed into shock and horror at the blood-covered king and his ever-present companion. Arthur knew there would be talk, and a king should never show such panic, but his thoughts were only of Merlin, Merlin, Merlin.
Arthur was off of his horse before she had even stopped, and began to run up the steps of the castle, uncaring whether the knights were behind him as he yelled for Gaius.
Gaius had met them in the hallway in front of his chambers, eyes wide and horror-stricken as Arthur pushed past him and placed him on the bed. It took as much willpower as Arthur had to let go of Merlin as Gaius rushed forth. The knights tumbled in after Arthur as Gaius knelt to examine Merlin’s prone form.
“How is he?” Gwaine asked, panting heavily at the run. He was pointedly not looking at Arthur. Arthur realized that he himself was also out of breath, but he hadn’t even noticed. He had not been able to breathe properly since—
Gaius didn’t ask what happened, as he gently unwrapped the wound and then winced sharply. Arthur sympathized with the old man. Merlin was like a son to him and to Arthur…Merlin was all he had left.
“I’m going to take the dagger out. Gwaine, get me some yarrow and pyrola extract. Percival get me some water. Elyan, I need clean linens. Leon, I’m going to need you to hold him down.” Gaius said, every single emotion on his face gone. Arthur noticed that Gaius hadn’t given him a task to do and barely had time to wonder what that meant before his words registered.
“Wait, hold him—“ Arthur began, before Leon was in front of him and Gaius’s arm moved sharply.
Arthur would be grateful later that he could not see it.
Merlin’s body jerked suddenly, spasming out of control as the wood posts of the bed rattled against the stone floor.
“What are you doing?” Arthur bellowed, panic and terror seizing his heart in a vise. He tried to push forward, but Gwaine, who had passed the ingredients to Gaius, had held Arthur back. Arthur thrashed against his hold until Merlin had stopped, and Arthur went limp.
Time passed in a blur as the returned knights bustled to and fro in front of him, passing back and forth wet rags and tinctures. Gwaine still held Arthur in a grip, and Arthur didn’t know if it was to keep him or Gwaine from pushing forward toward Merlin. Whatever tension that had been between them was gone—they both had too much to lose.
At last, Gaius had pulled away, sweat beading on his brow and blood smeared on his hands when he looked up at Arthur. The look on his face stopped the world.
Arthur’s stomach fell through the bottom of his shoes and the world went fuzzy around the edges.
“He’s…” Arthur began, panic making his words halt abruptly as he choked back a noise of pure emotion.
“No,” Gaius said, and Arthur had tried to breathe again. “But,” Gaius began again, eyes sorrowful and anguished.
“The dagger pierced his lung. He’s bleeding internally. The dagger…punctured a hole in his bone and displaced a lot of tissue. I’ve done what I can to slow the blood flow, but only time will tell.”
Arthur tried to process this.
“So, there’s a chance?” He asked eventually. Gaius’s face twisted up in an unidentifiable emotion.
“I don’t want to give you false hope, Sire.” Gaius paused, choosing his next words carefully. “The best I can give him is time, and,” Gaius’s eyes flicked down to the floor, “a smooth passing.”
Arthur’s ears were ringing.
“No.” He said simply.
“No?” Gaius asked, eyes flicking back up to meet Arthur’s.
“No,” Arthur repeated. “He’s not going to die on me. I won’t let him.”
Gaius sighed heavily, heaving himself up from his stool above Merlin’s bed. The old man said nothing has he shuffled over to one of his worktables and began sorting through vials.
The knights had encouraged Arthur to go clean the blood from his hands and arms. When Arthur expressed his absolute refusal to leave Merlin’s side, Leon brought a bucket of water for Arthur and a change of clothes. Arthur couldn’t even find the words to express his gratitude as he wordlessly changed. Arthur looked at his arms. As gruesome of a picture he painted, Arthur was afraid to wash the blood off. What if this was the last bit of Merlin Arthur ever got? What if—
No, no, no.
Arthur had plunged his arms into the water and scrubbed and scrubbed until his skin was raw and tender and the water was rusty and brown. Arthur would not let this be Merlin’s legacy on him. Merlin had so much more to give him, and Arthur was going to give him that chance. Leon had cleared his throat and pointed at Arthur’s face.
Arthur had ridden through the town, had run through the castle, with blood smeared across his face, around his mouth, and down his chin. Arthur looked like he had eaten a creature alive. Arthur scrubbed at his face then, too, taking extra care to clean his mouth. His lips were raw and bleeding with his own blood by the time that he had stopped but Leon had only given him a rag to stem the bleeding and the knights said nothing. Elyan winced, and pointed to the side of Arthur’s head.
Arthur, confused, placed a hand where Elyan was gesturing, and his stomach turned. Right. Merlin had held Arthur’s head in his hand. His hair was clumped and tacky underneath his fingers. He reached for the bucket when Percival grabbed it away from him.
“Let me get you some clean water,” he said, sounding sick to his stomach. Arthur echoed the sentiment deeply. Arthur was so soaked in Merlin’s blood that its imprint would never leave Arthur’s skin. Arthur would never again be able to look at his hands, his face, his hair, without seeing the impression that Merlin’s blood had irreparably dealt.
That was where Arthur was now, hair freshly scrubbed, arms pink and raw, rag to his lips as he stared at Merlin’s prone form. He counted Merlin’s ragged exhales until he got to one hundred and thirty seven before he lost count. Arthur waited.
And he waited.
And he waited.
Arthur wondered how he had ever let anyone as delicate and fragile and human as Merlin get so close to him. Then, he realized, he didn’t. Merlin had wormed his way into Arthur’s affections all by himself.
Merlin was always pushing Arthur’s boundaries, always wanting Arthur to do more, to be more, than Arthur was capable of being. He always wanted Arthur to be kinder and more understanding; he was always pushing him to be more accepting, more patient, and more willing to let actions speak before reputations did.
But Arthur didn’t know how he was supposed to do that when magic was about to take Merlin away from him. No.
Magic was not going to be taking Merlin away. Not today. Not on Arthur’s watch. There was no doubt that magic was evil, now. The sorceress had done this to Merlin—Arthur’s Merlin. Uther had been right ever since Arthur was a boy. What Arthur had seen as grief and fear was actually truth. Magic would not stop taking from Arthur. It took his mother, it took his father, it took Morgana, and now it was trying to take Merlin.
But Merlin was fighting, still. His chest still rose, which meant that Merlin was fighting—fighting to stay with Arthur and be at Arthur’s side.
But the question still begged: Why did Merlin have such faith in Arthur?
Arthur was nothing if not his father’s son—stubborn, prone to grudges, angry, rash, fearful. But Merlin had stood by him anyway, pushing back against Arthur’s moods, meeting Arthur blow for blow. He was just a servant, why did he care about Arthur so much? Arthur had given him no reason to care for him so much.
Arthur didn’t deserve it.
Arthur wasn’t worth the pain Merlin was going through, getting paler and paler every day, sweat beading on his brow and smeared across his face. Merlin had heavy, dark bags under his eyes, which were the only color on his pallid face. His eyelids themselves were a dark, ugly purple, and Merlin’s eyes looked sunken in like a skull.
Three days after…it…happened, Arthur was still sitting at Merlin’s side, inconsolable and unwilling to return to his duties. It didn’t matter. What good was Arthur to his people if he couldn’t even help the people he loved the most?
No, no, no.
Don’t think about that.
It doesn’t matter now, only Merlin matters now, Merlin’s the only thing that’s ever mattered.
Arthur took a breath to measure himself.
It wasn’t good to think about such things, now. Arthur didn’t know if he could finally allow himself to acknowledge what had been blossoming behind his breastbone if he was about to lose it—
Arthur would be resolutely not thinking about Merlin or his eyes or his laugh or the smile he tried to hide as he ducked away from Arthur. (Didn’t Merlin know that Arthur loved anything Merlin would give him, including his smile?)
Arthur wouldn’t be thinking about the space that had grown smaller and smaller between the two of them since Gwen left, and, if Arthur was going to be honest with himself, before Gwen left, too.
Was everything because of Arthur?
Arthur was too afraid to love Merlin and too late to love Gwen. And now Arthur was about to be too late again. The Pendragons’ hearts were a curse. Uther loved Arthur’s mother so much it killed her and the kingdom felt its aftershocks for decades. Arthur loved Gwen, so she had no choice but to choose another. And now, Arthur had killed Merlin.
No, no, no--
Merlin was not going to—
A hand on Arthur’s shoulder shocked him back into the present.
“Sire, I didn’t mean to startle you,” Gaius’s comforting voice soothed. “Are you alright? You’ve been…”
Gaius placed his hand over Arthur’s, which Arthur now realized had been picking the skin around his nails into a spiked, ripped mess. Arthur straightened in his chair.
“I’m fine, Gaius.” He said, avoiding eye contact.
A knock at the door stopped whatever reply Gaius attempted to make.
“Come in,” Gaius said, moving towards the door. Gwaine stood silhouetted against the light of the torches outside, and Arthur realized with a start that it must be night. Arthur had spent an entire day uninterrupted with no recollection of the day passing.
Gwaine came in, side-stepping Gaius and moving straight to Arthur. Arthur braced himself and he realized that he was bracing for a hit. Gwaine stopped in front of Arthur. His fists were clenched.
“Sire,” Gwaine said, and his voice was overly formal, “I apologize for the way I acted earlier when Merlin…” Gwaine cleared his throat. “When Merlin.” He concluded, the smallest of bitter, fake smiles tugging at the corner of his lips. The glint of warmth in his eye when he looked at him caused Arthur to loosen his spine’s rigidity. Gwaine wasn’t here to fight. Gwaine sobered once more.
“I shouldn’t have said what I did.” Gwaine continued. He paused, just for a second, but it made Arthur’s skin crawl in anticipation of what he would say next. “I knew it would hurt you, and that’s why I said it.”
Arthur relaxed. At least Gwaine wasn’t going to repeat what he had said. Arthur didn’t remember any of it, and he didn’t want to have to rip open the crevices of his mind and seek it out. Whatever he had said was best laid hidden.
“Whatever you said, I’m sure was correct,” Arthur said. Gwaine’s eyes opened in shock. Arthur noticed Gaius sneaking out the door behind Gwaine’s shoulder.
“Arthur, believe me when I say that I had no right to doubt your devotion to Merlin.” Gwaine swore. He reeled in a stray stool and sat down on it with a heavy thud. Arthur noticed then that he was wearing plainclothes instead of his knight’s garb. Arthur had a hard time imagining Camelot functioning without Merlin there to fuel it, so he supposed it made sense. That was perhaps giving Merlin too much credit—the idiot couldn’t even keep his blood inside of his body—but his vivacity gave Camelot verve and brightness in a way it was sorely lacking.
Arthur realized that silence had fallen between them. Was Gwaine expecting a response? Arthur looked at Gwaine to find that the man was fiddling with the strings on his shirt-tie—he was clearly weighing his next words carefully. The man could never keep the damn laces closed; he was always looking for attention. But they gave away when Gwaine was nervous—he couldn’t keep his hands off of them.
“We could hear you,” Gwaine said slowly. “Screaming, I mean.”
Arthur’s entire body seized. Once. Twice. He desperately sought to keep a control on his body—something that he had never had to do before.
“We couldn’t find you. Leon kept hearing you on the west, Elyan kept hearing you east. I swore you screams were at the south.” Gwaine swallowed thickly. “I think the enchantress laid a spell. I’m sorry we were too late.”
Arthur rubbed his face with a hand, trying to mask the emotion that he knew would lie there. The knights couldn’t find them. The witch had discombobulated Merlin’s rescue. The witch was playing with them all, the whole time. She wanted Merlin to be too past help by the time help had arrived. Had she attacked the town specifically for Merlin’s sake? Why?
“I could describe what it felt like to see you two…the way we found you,” Gwaine continued, “but I don’t think there’s a human being alive who knows what I’m feeling more than you do.”
Arthur inhaled deeply, trying to ignore the way his hands were shaking.
“Why are you here, Gwaine?” Arthur asked, finally. Arthur didn’t have the emotional depth at the moment to parse out what Gwaine wanted from him. He felt like a polishing rag—run over and over and over in one spot so long that the strings themselves were worn and frayed. Arthur felt ready to tear.
Gwaine shrugged helplessly.
“I wanted to apologize. I don’t expect your forgiveness, and I understand if you want to excuse me from knighthood.” Arthur went to interject but Gwaine’s next words turned Arthur’s tongue to lead.
“And I came to say goodbye.”
Gwaine was leaving? Arthur felt another pang of grief that he didn’t even know he could still feel worm its way into his stomach. But when Gwaine reached out towards Merlin’s bed and laid a hand on Merlin’s pale one, Arthur realized what he had meant.
Gwaine wasn’t the one leaving. Merlin was.
Arthur’s breath got stuck in his throat. His eyes stung. Arthur hadn’t realized that he had shot up until his legs were already moving towards the door. Gwaine didn’t call after him.
Arthur’s breath was coming faster, faster, faster, his vision was blurring, his legs were pumping, the door was slamming, Arthur was running.
It didn’t matter where, it didn’t matter how, Arthur had to get out of that room that smelled like death and looked like Arthur’s nightmares and felt like misery. Arthur was stumbling blindly through the castle corridors, slamming against the walls that he didn’t have enough grace to clear as he sprinted around corners.
Braziers that held the dim lights of the hallways clattered noisily to the ground as Arthur hurled them to the floor. The fire that they held skittered across the stones before dying out in the cold air.
Arthur couldn’t see what doors he slammed through until he was ripping the curtain in front of him to the floor. It was a guest room that was vacant for the season. The curtains had been closed, the linens of the bed had been stripped. The room felt hollow and empty. Someone used to reside here, and now it was empty. Just like that. Gone.
Arthur caught his balance on the table to his right.
Arthur’s grief and panic boiling into rage so tangible, so palpable that Arthur could feel it buzzing in his fingers.
Arthur knew that people loved Merlin. Everyone loved Merlin. Arthur…loved him. If Merlin were gone, nothing would be the same. Arthur wouldn’t be the same. The knights, Camelot, the world wouldn’t be the same.
But seeing the grief so plainly on Gwaine’s face made it real. Everything that Arthur had been feeling had been for himself.
Selfish, greedy Arthur Pendragon.
Merlin didn’t belong to him, Merlin was going to lose his life because Arthur couldn’t do anything. Merlin was going to die.
Arthur loved Merlin and that had doomed him.
It wasn’t fair to Merlin, it wasn’t fair to Gaius, it wasn’t fair, it wasn’t—
Arthur picked an empty vase off of the table and hurled it with all of his might against the wall. The shattering of glass made Arthur’s skin tingle.
Arthur didn’t think, then. He just acted.
Arthur picked up a chair and slammed it against the wall, watching the splinters rain down in chunks. Arthur turned into a one-man blur of destruction. He tore the tapestries from the wall, ripping them until only fine threads stood, frayed against the light of the room, looking like veins. He ripped the curtains from the windows and felt the curtain rod give under his strength. The blinding light of the moon flooded the room but it wasn’t enough it wasn’t enough, nothing would ever be enough—
When Arthur came to, the room was destroyed. Arthur’s chest was heaving as he examined the carnage. The table was in half, the chairs were nothing more than slats and wood pulp, the braziers were bent and broken. The dresser was beaten and bent and scratched—it’s doors hung open like hollow eyes, bent on their hinges like broken bones. The mattress was off of the bed and was spilling its feathered guts all over the floor. Broken glass and torn fabric covered the ground.
And Arthur didn’t feel
Arthur still felt wretched and broken and wrong.
Merlin was right all along: the only thing Arthur could do was wield a sword and his only solution was to destroy.
Arthur couldn’t put any of this back together. He couldn’t go back in time to fix any of this. The room was broken. Arthur was broken. Merlin was broken.
And Arthur couldn’t fix anything.
Arthur fell to his knees and relished the bite of glass against his skin. It hurt, but it was feeling.
Arthur wished he could go back in time and keep Merlin away. Arthur wished that he had been the one to take the knife, feel it punch through bone and sinew and find its place buried in his lung. It would be easier than this. Arthur wished he could go back in time and tell Merlin that he loved him, that he would pick him every time, that he was sorry it took so long. Arthur wished that he could see Merlin’s eyes light up once more and watch his Adam’s apple bob in his throat as he laughed with reckless abandon. Arthur wished Merlin could tell him what to do.
Every part of Arthur’s body ached with the sheer intensity of the desire to see hear Merlin’s voice again, feel his skin again, see his eyes again.
But Merlin was slowly dying, very much too far away from Arthur at the moment.
Arthur stood on shaky legs, feeling the glass stuck in his knees rise with him. The glass and wood crunched underneath his boots as he made for the door.
Arthur left, destruction in his wake.