It is not a day for tragedies. The ground holds a settled warmth, and the sun is currently turning the forest line to burnished orange. Arthur jogs backward, his shirt tails loose and flying in the evening-sweetened air. Even Lucan feels the right to antagonize his prince; Merlin can hear the chuckles from the others as the knight flings the daisies he has linked together. The circlet comes apart in mid-toss, showering petals into Arthur's hair and down the back of his collar.
"Perhaps you'll give Old Mag a token next time, your Majesty!" Lucan shouts, and they all laugh, because Arthur has never been difficult to feel comfortable around, even when speaking of trysts with ancient lady herbalists like Old Mag. "A pretty posy?"
"And tell her you spent all day fashioning it with the sweat of your brow?" Arthur replies, to even greater uproar. Lucan has to stop and clasp his knees. His blond curls dance as he laughs.
They look smaller, all of them, without their usual armour. Slim and lithe, and perfectly capable of running for fun, telling jokes a child would clap for, acting out the youth their elite lives forced away from them early. Merlin knows Arthur has aged beyond what he should. They are mid-twenties, now, but Arthur will be king before he knows it, his knights will be his court, and whatever boy still lingers inside the prince's sun-bronzed body will gather its toys and slip away into the darkness.
Today, this evening, it is time for childhood again: daisies linked by the hands of warriors and fisticuffs with a prince who is still just as much a boy as the rest of them.
Everything is perfect. And yet Morgana's face is marred with a frown where she reclines under Uther's canopy across the field. She looks away, up toward the hills and the treetops, the rose-coloured clouds and the turrets of the castle. She had paced until Uther, wine goblet in hand, told her to "sit down, Morgana, for the love of all saints, will you enjoy yourself? It's finally summer!"
"Do you know what Old Mag told me, Lucan?" Merlin turns back to Arthur and finds his lord's smile bright and devilish. "She misses your visits in the evenings, but she likes Gawain's smile best in the morning!"
Gawain's mouth falls open, and he yanks his hat off to fling it at Arthur, chases him several yards and ends locked in a spirited shoving match, shoulder to shoulder as Arthur turns neatly out of each push. Eventually, grins are all that is left of the taunting, and Gawain and Arthur clasp hands. Arthur claps his back, but it is only when Gawain turns around that Merlin can see the daisy chain hung slyly from the knight's collar.
Arthur wiggles his eyebrows at Merlin, and it is even rarer a moment, kinship all over them and between everyone while the warm night sweeps in. Merlin grins back and makes a gesture at his side that has Arthur glaring in mock anger.
"Surely you ought not make such a fool of yourself, Arthur," Morgana calls across the grass. She sounds irritated, the words thrumming with something more troubling. But Merlin can see Gwen hiding a smile where she stands behind her lady, plaiting Morgana's luxurious hair. There must be something in the air tonight; even the king has relaxed.
Arthur steps back, away from his knights, away from Merlin, and raises his hands. "What can I say? You always tell me I'm so good at it."
Spoken in that ridiculously pompous tone of his, that is enough to send a swift grin over Morgana's lips, and then the others can laugh without regret. Arthur turns, faces the forest with his hands cocked at his hips, ever the fool when the air is right, and smiles. His contentment is infectious; Merlin approaches, feeling genial and friendly, bound even more firmly to his prince. Arthur watches him come, lifting a severe eyebrow, likely planning something to make Merlin into the idiot of the evening—it's all over his face—and then jerks, hard, exhaling sharply, shoulders arching forward as he stumbles back.
Merlin takes an entire step, dreading what evil is in store for him, before he sees the shaft protruding from Arthur's chest.
For the tiniest of seconds, Arthur wavers, hands half raised. The angle of the arrow is square, stabbing outward to a cruelly feathered end. It has come from straight on, from the forest, the only thought Merlin manages before a second shaft joins the first, and Arthur completes his fall. Merlin is already running for him when he hits the ground, head smacking down and hands curling around the first jutting shaft.
There is quiet no longer. Yelling; the sound of a bow twanging rapidly, the rasp of swords drawn. Arthur gasps on his back, heels digging into the earth. A knight sprints by, Tyrell in fiery red, sword flashing the orange sunlight into shards over the grass. Another knight follows with a vociferous curse, and then they are gone, heading for the trees and the echo of the arrows' path.
Merlin's knees burn where they've struck the earth. He grabs for Arthur's shoulders, holds him as still as he can even as Arthur writhes. The first shaft quivers from just inside the vee of Arthur's collar. The second arrow is below the first, and has plunged more deeply, right through his tunic. Arthur's head heaves convulsively from the ground. Red spittle flicks over his lips, staining, and Merlin snatches his hand, wraps his fingers as tightly as he can.
He feels Arthur's body, a tremble of faltering rhythm. Merlin scrabbles for Arthur's shirt, rips the collar away with a sharp tug. Arthur cries out, neck arching. Merlin sees tears slipping out as he works his fingers under the fabric until they meet and press to firm, warm flesh, heaving for want of breath. Arthur struggles, teeth clacking together, fingers clenching hard enough for his nails to pierce Merlin's skin. Merlin has practiced this spell over and over, but never with the desire to use it like this, to feel its doomsday beat striking from Arthur's body. It sends sickness into Merlin's belly like he's never felt. He does not want to see inside this body, see the way in which it is falling to ruin, as the spell will allow him to. Arthur is… Arthur.
They will send for Gaius. Probably already have. And Gaius will come, and it will be too late. Arthur stares up at Merlin. His teeth grind and he coughs; blood trickles from the corner of his mouth, down his chin. Merlin wipes it away with his thumb. And knows.
This is the end of it.
He feels Arthur's heart slowing, a thumping, wrenching fight that is quickly being lost, for there is the taste of iron in heart's blood, the razor edge of metal curving through the tissue of Arthur's heart. The first arrow is lodged there, an imperfect shot, but perfect enough to drag Arthur's life from him in the next few seconds. And Merlin has wasted too many.
Sound breaks, footsteps thump down; Gawain is at his side, holding Arthur's jaw open to keep his teeth from breaking against each other. He pushes his leather glove into Arthur's mouth, hands shaking, flecked with blood. Merlin hears the sound of others pounding the earth toward them. Arthur's eyes lose a sliver of colour, glazing even as Merlin watches, as he feels the slowing thud-thud. He must act, and it must be now.
Merlin concentrates, shuts his eyes, and plants his hand on Gawain's chest. The knight's question is lost in the clap of magic, the whistle and ring: Gawain flies headlong over the earth, shooting away from Arthur to land in a tumble on the lush grass. Lucan shouts, draws his sword with a painful shear of sound. But Arthur's hand is clenched to Merlin's wrist now, and Merlin draws all the energy he can up around Arthur's body from the earth and molds it, an iron shell between them and the rest.
He only needs a few minutes. What comes after will not matter if he doesn't succeed. He will not care anymore, not with Arthur's body on the ground and his blood drying forever on Merlin's hands.
Arthur is covered in warm blood, spilling from the fine wounds in his chest, each pulse echoed in a sickening twitch of the arrow shafts. The smile he wore moments ago is nothing but a ghost on his face, the knowledge and the child's fear etched in his eyes. Pain rocks through Merlin with a viciousness he is not prepared for. He crumples, cupping Arthur's face, smoothing his bloodied hair with both hands and saying ragged things, running fingers over Arthur's throat and chin and forehead, unable to keep still—
Arthur swallows with a rattle. The sheen of red on his throat ripples. Even in his agony, he stares at Merlin, awed and terrified, and… oh god, desperate and dying.
Some part of Merlin's mind reminds him that the outside world is now chaos. Those who are not running are standing. Gaping. The knights are another matter. They've been trained by the best, by the man bleeding to death on the ground before them. They've been trained to go to him, to get between him and death; they've already pulled blades and are beating upon Merlin's shield, but there is no time, no concentration to waste. It will be the last thing he does, but Merlin is going to do it because the alternative is only a numb wish for death.
He knows the bubble will hold them all out, at least until he has given everything he has to give. It will collapse when his strength does. Until then, the arrows jerk with each of Arthur's breaths, taunting Merlin until he grips the first one with one hand, clasps Arthur's jaw between his fingers, and snaps the shaft off with a twist of his wrist. Arthur chokes, gags. Merlin breaks the second shaft, and Arthur coughs blood; it is then that Merlin senses where the second arrow has got to, filling one of Arthur's lungs with raw fluid. Arthur's fingers dig deeper into Merlin's skin, and Merlin panics, stabbing his power downward, wrapping it round the heads of the arrows and clenching and clenching until the metal is suddenly gone, melted clean away.
The magic slips, ebbing and sweeping in again. Merlin wrenches it furiously from the air and wraps it into a hard, throbbing ball inside his chest, because Arthur is the one beneath him on the ground, it is Arthur's heart and lung that are punctured and leaking, and Merlin will not have it. Not while he is still able to bend what should be into what he needs most instead.
It is less of a spell than an intent, a willfulness to mend the broken threads in Arthur's body. Merlin shudders as the first waves rock him. The magic rampages, more volatile than any he's ever felt. The panicked noise from beyond their sphere is swallowed in a frail ringing. Arthur's eyes fix on him; his breath whistles in and out, in and out, the rush to the finish. Merlin grips Arthur's hand, presses down on Arthur's chest. Presses it back as it comes to take him.
This is unnatural, appallingly so. It sucks its toll away from Merlin in thick, bludgeoning wrenches. Merlin sways, dizzy and sick, as the natural order fights back. Arthur should be dying, and if nature has its way, he will. Only, Merlin twists the order of things, yanks strands free and twines them together inside Arthur's chest. He pushes, nature pulls; Merlin sags and hears Arthur's heart slip, and forgets how to breathe. He is losing the battle.
The sound Arthur makes is weak, forced from his lips in a whoosh. It jettisons Merlin back into equilibrium, and he stares down as Arthur stares up. Arthur's lips are bluish now, pale-edged where they are not bloody. Merlin can feel the power building, the last flood he will need—he knows it, he can feel it—but he needs… oh god, he needs…
Arthur gives it to him silently. A hand wavers and clasps around Merlin's, locking his grip on Arthur's other hand. Arthur sees the gold fire in his eyes, sees and understands, and grasps his hand anyway. Arthur nods, a quick little jerk, and opens his mouth. Breathes, "Merlin."
It races faster than blood through Merlin's veins, dragging the magic with it. Merlin sends it into Arthur's body, right through their linked hands, the power of it driving Arthur's muscles taut. Merlin can see the thready mess in Arthur's chest; he guides it back together, the strongest need he's ever felt, splicing what has been shredded, repairing what has been cut, and pulling Arthur's heartbeat up from the deep, hollow thud…thud…thud.
"Arthur," Merlin whispers, out of breath, full of vertigo and the heady taste of Arthur's blood mixing with his magic. The light is too bright, too blue. He knows he is doing it, surrounding Arthur with this otherworldly aura, barely containing the magic he has called up. He knows he has given himself up completely, that his secret has been unleashed along with his power in front of everyone. He knows that he literally holds Arthur's life in his hands. The energy flowing over his palms bears Arthur's scent, caressing his skin with the familiar brush of Arthur's fingers on his shoulder, Arthur's hand as it once ruffled through his hair, Arthur's rapid breathing as he shoved Merlin into the ground and divested him of his training sword. Arthur's eyes alighting on him in firelight. Arthur's smile, sliding into stunning existence because of something Merlin has said.
He will be glad to die if Arthur takes that energy with him into the dark.
The blue of Arthur's eyes fades, even as his tattered gaze remains fixed on Merlin. The salt of tears and blood stings Merlin's nostrils. He presses his palm to Arthur's chest, nearly digging his fingers beneath the skin, reaching for what is still loose, still ripped. Arthur's breath stutters, hitches, and finally freezes. His fingers go slack on Merlin's wrist, trembling for just an instant and then falling still. Merlin is caught in a terrible void of silence, feeling the last torn tissue inside mend together so… so slowly.
And then Arthur's eyes shoot wide. He heaves a rich gasp, his chest arcing as he sucks air into his lungs. Merlin catches him before he hits the earth again and eases him down. His hands slip in Arthur's blood, and he grips harder, feeling the too-fast rise and fall of ribs beneath skin that suddenly feels and looks too thin. Arthur chokes, a wet cough that reddens his mouth again. But he is breathing. Merlin presses a hand back to Arthur's chest and feels the blessedly steady thump-thump-thump that he thought he'd lost. He can't help himself; he bends, puts his ear to Arthur's chest and listens, lets the throbbing pulse fill his ears and head and limbs, and finds that he is clenching his teeth so hard they hurt. For a long, long moment, he can't get himself to release Arthur, can't get himself to rise, or do anything except listen and listen, and beat the sound into his memory because he needs it. He'll want it even more desperately in a minute.
He feels a hand at his nape, and fingers lacing sluggishly around one wrist. Merlin finally relinquishes the sound of Arthur's heart, feeling like he is made of stone, unable to move, unable to see and not feel ill. He's never felt so worn through, as though his skin is trying to drop off his bones. It's a colossal effort to lift his head.
When he does, he finds Arthur gazing at him with darkly smudged eyes. His face is pale, lips white. The blood on them is so dark in comparison that it looks unreal. Merlin's mind whirls—a dream, all of it?—but then Arthur swallows, a laborious, broken sound. His hand squeezes Merlin's as he struggles to breathe normally again. Merlin raises his free hand and smooths dampened fringe from Arthur's forehead.
The sphere shivers and cracks, splintering in every conceivable direction. Merlin can feel it giving way, can hear the yelling beyond growing louder and louder. Another struggle to let go of Arthur completely, and then he has done it, and he's gone numb, but he's standing and looking out, waiting for the shield to fall away.
It does, with a snap. The air vibrates, the leftover hum of lingering power. His ears still ring and he looks dully out at the rest of them.
They all stare at him. The knights' swords have gone slack at their sides, and they are open-mouthed and staring. Morgana is on her feet, clutching Gwen and staring. Uther is up, his hunting dagger clenched in one hand, and staring. The fury, the ruthlessness, is bitter in the king's features. The last magic slips away with a low hum, and the field goes silent.
Then everyone moves at once.
The closest is Gawain, a tower raising a glinting sword over one shoulder. He dashes for Merlin, reaching a hand out as well, because Gawain is not a killer, not a murderer, but Merlin knows the feeling of one's prince dying on the ground at his feet, knows what it does to a person. He does not move. He hears the stretch of bowstrings farther back, the nock of arrows, and his mind will only tell him, it's over.
Gawain stops short just beyond Merlin's reach, backtracking a step, as though he's just remembered what happened moments ago, and that Merlin was the cause. Merlin watches him numbly, hearing Arthur's shuddery breathing below. But he must look at Uther, he can't keep himself from turning his head. The hatred on Uther's face is horrifically familiar, seething, the fear and knowledge of what that level of magic can do. The king's judgment is clear in his eyes. Gwen cries out, struggling against Morgana's arms, and Merlin knows she can see it too, that she will try to get to him, to put herself between him and the arrows if only to halt their passage for a moment.
He's so, so weak. He can barely stand.
Movement, again. Merlin flinches. But it is not coming from in front of him. Arthur drags himself to his knees, spitting blood into the trampled grass. His hand rises and twists itself in Merlin's tunic, and then somehow, Merlin has no idea how, Arthur gains his feet. He sags into Merlin, turns so his back is pressed to Merlin's front. Merlin can't think. He knows he has not healed Arthur, only staved off the razor claws of death. And yet Arthur is up, breathing and alive against him, his blood-soaked tunic plastered to Merlin's front. Merlin clasps Arthur around the chest instinctively, holding onto him. Arthur's arms slide back and lock on either side of Merlin's hips, bracketing, guarding, but Arthur's fingers clench into the fabric of Merlin's jacket, shaking as he sways and finally, finally slumps against Merlin fully. Merlin is all that is holding him up.
"Arthur," Merlin breathes, a miserable plea, "what are you doing?" All he can do is clutch Arthur to him and remember how fragile the man's insides are, how easy it was to rip them apart. How they are barely back together again.
Arthur does not answer. He just faces forward, glowering, shaking like a leaf about to fall, there between Merlin and the rest of the party, with no mail or armour, nothing but thin fabric shielding his body. Gawain's sword thumps to the ground, and Uther's face sags, utter horror replacing the fury. The king lunges for the nearest knight, yanking the man's bow down. "Put them down, for god's sake, you're aiming your arrows at my son!"
The knights lower their weapons slowly, as though they can't quite agree with the order. Merlin sees amazement in their faces, sorrow in some, fear in all. Gwen still struggles to break Morgana's grasp, but even she is looking at him as if she no longer knows who he is. Her eyes are wide; they glimmer with unshed tears.
Morgana is the only one who looks like she understands. The person she sees is still Merlin.
It's become a stalemate, and Merlin has no idea what to do anymore. His brain is washed through with nothingness; only the knowledge that Arthur still breathes resonates. He's lost his energy, his magic, and does not know where to begin looking for it.
"Arthur," Uther hisses, a wretched anxiety lilting the name. "Get out of the way!"
Arthur's jaw clenches. Merlin can see the stain on his tunic widening, feel it soaking through to his palms where he holds Arthur around the chest. He remembers that he's the one keeping Arthur in place and shifts his grip to let him slide down, when—
"Any…" Arthur's voice fails; he swallows, and the sound holds an ugly rasp. "Any blade that reaches Merlin…" —he sags further, fingers clamping tighter to Merlin's hips— "goes through m… me first."
The tear slides hot and heavy down Merlin's cheek; he can't speak. Magic prickles to life in his chest, a trill of energy he'd thought long gone. For a second, the only things he is aware of are the sound of Arthur trying to breathe and the dampness between their bodies that he knows is Arthur's blood. A lot of it. Grief tightens his fingers, pulling Arthur closer, supporting more of his weight.
Gwen cries openly now; Morgana's eyes are very bright. And Uther… Uther stares at them both, indecision all over his face. But alongside it is pure anguish, a parent on the verge of losing his child. Merlin's hands go numb; he loosens his grip on Arthur.
"Merlin." It's just a wisp of sound. Merlin bends his head to Arthur's shoulder. "Mer…"
He nods, presses his fingers against Arthur's arm to show him he hears. Arthur's hand crawls up Merlin's side and gains a better hold, but Merlin can feel him trembling.
"Merlin, can you… leave?" Arthur rasps, very quietly.
At first, Merlin has no idea what he's talking about. Then it hits him, that vibrant energy in his chest flutters again, and suddenly he's hanging onto Arthur as though the man is about to slip away from him. "Don't do this," he pleads, "Arthur—"
"Merlin," Arthur cuts him off—then coughs violently. He nearly keels over, and Merlin lets him, desperate to have him out of the way of the arrows. But Arthur keeps himself upright by sheer will, holding fast to Merlin's body.
"Arthur, you can't," Merlin manages. Arthur turns his head, an unsteady twist that reveals a profile etched with pain.
"Merlin, please… help me save you." Arthur's voice cracks on the word 'save.' He cranes his head further and meets Merlin's gaze. His chin and cheeks are streaked with blood. The look in his eyes forces Merlin's breath from him. Arthur's gaze flickers over his face, and then he wipes the moisture from Merlin's cheek with his thumb. "Now," he wheezes, "can you go?"
Merlin is locked in Arthur's gaze. He nods. It will take everything he has left, probably more, and he's only done it twice before, short distances between places he knows as well as he knows Ealdor: his room, and Gaius' workroom.
Arthur nods in return, then erupts into coughing that wracks right through him. Merlin grabs him up and holds on until it is finished. He can see the knights' hands twitching on their bows, their weight shifting back and forth uneasily. Uther's expression has let anger back into play; Merlin knows that as soon as Arthur is safe on the ground—which is where he will be in moments, regardless of what else happens—his own life is forfeit. Arthur grasps hold of him hard. Merlin can feel him summoning energy. He doesn't know what for until Arthur heaves himself around and threads a bloody hand into Merlin's hair. His lips press at the corner of Merlin's mouth, an exhalation skating across his chin. Merlin gasps, hears startled exclamations from those watching. "For me," Arthur hisses, and then his grip tightens unbearably.
Merlin's heart hammers to a frenzy as Arthur shoves himself away and staggers back. Uther yells something, but Merlin can only hear ringing as he scrambles for the last flecks of energy still trapped in his breast, balls them together and flings them outward, picturing… picturing trees, darkness, silence. The air blurs; Arthur is a swaying fog of red blood, white tunic, and ashen skin. Merlin's vision quakes; he hears screaming, or perhaps it is the magic. The last thing he sees before the field disappears is Arthur, tumbling to the earth.
* * *
He does see towering trees and blue darkness—he feels the cold rush of night air—before he passes out completely. And then everything is indeed silent.
He awakens to a void, pricked full of tiny white lights. Merlin blinks, almost falls back into stupor, and then opens his eyes again. His limbs feel as though they are filled with stone. He can't even be sure he's breathing.
Just as he recognises the stars for what they are, he realises it's night, and it is very, very dark. He is cold; his shirt is stiff, sealed to his skin. Dirt. He's lying on spongy earth, pine needles sticking into his fingers. Merlin digs for purchase, trying to remember what he is doing here, and where here actually is.
It is the smell of blood that jolts him upright, clutching at his shirt and rasping Arthur into the darkness. Immediately the strain is too much; he falls on his side, panting, tasting grit in his mouth and Arthur's blood on his lips. Salt from tears brought forth by the wind. Merlin squeezes his eyes shut and tries to slow his breathing, tries to remember the truth and not one of the terrible dreams now assaulting him.
Arthur is alive. He's alive.
His blood is all over Merlin. Merlin grasps fistfuls of his tunic, gasping. He hurts, everything hurts. There's not a bone in his body that doesn't feel as though it has been slammed with a mace, not an inch of flesh that isn't bruised. God, what did he do? What did he do to himself? And where is he?
Dear god, where is Arthur?
Ages go by, Merlin's mind tossing and aching, muscles burning even with the effort to breathe. He makes odd choking sounds that echo in his ears like screams. But there is no one to hear them. There is magic back inside him, and everywhere it touches, dancing between heart and lungs and limbs, it feels as though he is being seared with fire. Merlin rolls, clenching his teeth, and stares up at the hole of sky in the trees. Breathes and breathes. And breathes.
At last, the pain fades, just a tremor of what it was before. Weariness washes over him; he can do nothing but lie there, swallowing, listening to his heartbeat thudding in his ears. When he no longer feels the pain, he risks sitting up. It is a slow, painful process anyway, but finally he is upright, hugging his arms around his knees and shivering.
The sun is gone and the stars hold sway. The moon is a white gleam through the trees to his right. It is at exactly half-crescent. He has only been unconscious for a few hours then, not long enough for the moon to wax or wane. The stars look the same as they always have, and he can only hope that means he's not far from Camelot.
Though perhaps it would be better to be far away.
Getting up, when he manages it, and, finally, walking… They hurt. Merlin is as sore as though he's been beaten, and deeply chilled. He has no cloak; the evening had been so warm. So… perfect. He presses a hand to his eyes and tries his best not to sag back down to the ground. All of that perfection, leading to this: him out in the woods somewhere while Arthur—god knows what happened to Arthur once he fled. The only thing that stops him from breaking apart completely is the memory of Arthur's voice.
For me. Go.
"I'm sorry," Merlin whispers, "Arthur, I'm sorry."
He can't go, not any further. He promised he would; he might not have spoken the words but the promise was made anyway. Only it's physically hurting him not knowing where Arthur is. He can't leave this unfinished, can't disappear into the forest without knowing what became of Arthur's sacrifice.
The decision is fully formed before he recognises it for what it is, and his feet have already begun to move. He heads for the moon, because the way the light shines tells him there is an opening somewhere, a place to get his bearings.
It's closer than he thought. Merlin stumbles out of the tree line into the field where Arthur lay bleeding. For a moment, panic is all he knows. He was just a short walk from them all. It's a wonder and a blessing that Tyrell and the other knight didn't trip over his body during their search for the bowman who shot Arthur. Merlin stares at the now-barren, moon-drenched field and the castle with all its heady lights beyond. But there is tension in the lights tonight, none of the warmth Merlin is used to. He quickens his pace as best he can; it's as though he's being pulled there by someone else altogether.
Staying in the shadows of the lower city is confusing. There are hundreds of people who don't want to be found down here, but Merlin is only one, and he's moving with his whole brain fogged over. Someone should recognise him, except Merlin needs not to be recognised, and his veins are buzzing yet again. He's too focused on getting to the castle to connect the two until he nearly stumbles into the path of several frantic foot soldiers. Merlin startles back into the darkness of an empty market stand and takes a deep breath.
Here, at the liminal place between the lower and upper echelons of Camelot society, a pall has fallen. Those who are outside in the dark move slowly, as though drugged. Their eyes are wide, their brows puckered, and they whisper like it's become law. The only true motion comes from the small bands of knights and guardsmen weaving doggedly through the street. When he realises why, Merlin thinks he might vomit; he staggers into a wooden wall and slides to his knees in a stagnant puddle.
The entire city is reacting to what's happened to Arthur. They are quiet, their words as soft as a funereal ritual. They… are already grieving.
It spurs him to his feet again, and this time he does cast a spell to conceal himself. He rips an old, sodden cloak from where it's been hung to dry over a crooked fence, and pulls it over his head. It smells like mold and also faintly like pig slop, but it's dark enough for the dirt not to show, and it is not difficult to make his way through streets that are empty of all but the distracted wraiths of people in fear for their prince.
He wonders what Uther has told them about what happened. Perhaps he has done nothing but stay with his son. As harsh as Uther is, the latter seems very likely; Merlin would have to be an imbecile not to see how Uther feels about his only child. The question is whether or not that stands firm against the presence of magic.
"I've ruined this," Merlin says aloud, and stops right there in the street. People pass by him without noticing the beggar in their midst; Merlin comes to himself and gets away from the open places, but he can't get away from the sense of foreboding that first hit him when he knew Arthur was dying in that field, and that his gift was the only chance his friend had: They all know about him now, everyone important. Arthur knows, and Morgana, if she didn't before. Gwen knows. But most importantly, Uther knows. And Uther will hunt him regardless of the fact that he healed Arthur. No, because of that fact, Uther will hunt him down. The life Merlin loved, his constant companionship with Arthur, is officially dead.
It's too big an idea to acknowledge. Merlin shuts his mind down as best he can and focuses on staying concealed. The upper city causes him little trouble. The castle gates, however, are teeming with guards, led by knights who know Merlin's face and form well. Concealment spells are meant to push the eye away, and can be overridden if one knows the caster.
Merlin brings other magic into play, expecting it to hurt, to burn and rage at his fingertips as it did throughout his entire body in the forest. Oddly, it is easy, like flicking the petals off a daisy or swatting a fly. Merlin shudders at the sensation; it's as though his magic brims at the edge, pouring readily through any outlet he will give it.
He can't think about the other possibility hiding just out of sight, the very worst thing Merlin can imagine. He can't consider that the city is so darkened in body and soul because Arthur has already—
"No." It comes out choked, hardly sounding like a word. Merlin makes himself move, shadow to shadow. Surely he would know, even as an outcast. Everyone would know, within an hour. Even the other kingdoms would know by now if… If.
Merlin sends false noises into the night, and blind corners into the angles of the knights' vision. He fades right past them, a mere shade that they will not remember except in their dreams.
Inside the castle, the mood is dire, the hallways haunted by servants wearing pale countenances. Merlin goes to Gaius's rooms first, but they are empty. The furniture, all the books and beakers and cupboards, have been thrashed or shoved across the room; it is almost unrecognisable, and Gaius is gone. Merlin clings to the door frame, fingers digging into the wood. But he can't let the fear for Gaius bubble up. He can't, when he does not know where Arthur is.
But he knows where he would take Arthur, if not to Gaius, and he goes there as quickly as his magic will clear the path.
It is frighteningly easy to incapacitate the guards outside Arthur's chambers. Merlin's hand doesn't start shaking until all three of them are slumped against the walls or spread-eagled across the floor. They look like corpses in the torchlight. Merlin swallows hard against the bile that rises.
It had cost him nothing to subdue them. Just a spread of fingers and a twitch of his thumb, and their eyes rolled up, leaving them to fall where they stood. Merlin's mind threatens to blacken; he has to crouch, breathe, and count to twenty before the dizziness abates. It is not magical vertigo; it is knowing he's done it. That he is capable of it.
What in the name of god did he do to himself? To his magic?
Some time later—he doesn't know how long—he pushes himself up and approaches Arthur's door. The hasp gives a resounding clack that echoes right through the corridor, and the oiled hinges swing the door silently inward. It is very dark inside.
His mind balks; Merlin freezes, and the worst is real. Arthur is not here because Arthur has… Arthur is…
His eyes adjust to low firelight, barely brighter than embers. The room is stiflingly warm. Arthur's bed looms like a spectre, all the curtains drawn but the one on the left. Merlin shuffles toward it, clutching his stolen cloak so tightly his knuckles burn. He rounds the left bedpost and squints into the darkness, and there is definitely someone in the bed, tucked to the chest in white sheets as though sleeping.
Arthur's hair gleams in the fire's light, and Merlin sucks in his first breath in many, many seconds. He crosses the remaining space in two steps and bends over the bed, noting that Arthur is breathing, that a fragile pulse flutters at his throat.
Arthur's body is hot; Merlin can feel the fever radiating off of him even at the edge of the bed. His knees go weak; he drifts down to the floor at Arthur's side. Arthur's hand is limp on the bedclothes, his skin washed out, lacking all of the vitality Merlin has come to depend on. "Oh god," he whispers. He is two heartbeats away from praying, but he has no idea how to say any of it, except for please, please, no, and please…
He reaches for Arthur's hand, an impulsive, desperate grab, and stops. Looks at his own hands, then raises both in front of his face. Magic did this, magic kept Arthur alive. And Merlin has no idea who he should pray to anymore.
Suddenly he can't touch Arthur. He's terrified that the power inside him will rush out and devour the slender thread of life he has fashioned. And what has he done, except leave Arthur lying in death's palm anyway? This fever, it's beyond him, beyond his strength and all his otherworldly power, beyond the spell to see inside bodies and the minor charms to heal. He has no idea what he did on the training grounds, or how he did it, just that he needed to, god, he had to save Arthur.
"Arthur," he whispers. Arthur does not move. Someone has cleaned him up, wiped the blood and its iron odor from his face and chest. The bandage over his heart is discoloured, sodden through the topmost layer. The edge of infection breathes into the room. Merlin can feel death and decay waiting just outside the realm of sight and sound. Fear jerks hard in his chest, and he snatches out, grabs Arthur's hand this time and holds on. The heat coming off his skin is incredible. Merlin's eyes blur; he drops his face down onto the cool sheets and tries not to cry.
The door's low creak rouses him all the way to his feet, one hand still gripping Arthur's, the other stretched out before him, fingers wide, the words of spells on his lips. The newcomer stops short, then yanks the door shut behind him, cutting off the spill of torchlight from the hall. The man's step gives him away even as Merlin bites his tongue to bleeding, staving off the magic: it is Gaius, Gaius's hands clutching his shoulders, Gaius's face looming in the dim coal-light. Merlin's legs give out again and Gaius catches him.
"Merlin." It's a hiss, full of so many emotions. "I should have known. You've left a trail, boy!"
"Not much of one," Merlin murmurs, drunk on relief and the insane heat of Arthur's hand in his.
Gaius shakes him. "Guards flopped down in the hall right outside the prince's bedroom? You are damned lucky I was the first one here!" He shakes Merlin again, and then his eyes widen and he sits him down on the edge of the bed carefully. The frame creaks. Both of them look at Arthur, their breathing hushed.
Arthur does not move. Merlin watches the shadows leak along his profile, throwing most of his face into sticky darkness.
Gaius rubs his hands over Merlin's shoulders, the way he does when he is trying to keep the blood flowing to an injured limb. "Good lord, Merlin. What have you done to yourself?"
"Gaius…" Merlin's voice cracks. The old physician's eyes widen again, and then contract. He glances at Arthur, but by the time he speaks, his voice is hushed with awe.
"It is true, then." His gaze is so sad, amazed, and very tired. His hands tighten on Merlin's shoulders. "Merlin—"
Merlin can hear questions coming, about arrowheads, about which spell he was able to twist the way he did, why Arthur's wounds are knit only just enough. And he can't answer them, he hasn't the presence of mind.
"He's dying," he bursts out instead, shocking himself. "He's dying anyway." It is most definitely a sob trailing those words. Merlin cannot feel anything but failure.
"Arthur is gravely ill," Gaius corrects sharply, "but he is not dying, Merlin, not while I have any say about it. Not while you—" The sentence ends without an ending. Gaius moves past it. "Infection has spread into his wounds. It is too difficult to say right now how far it has moved inward. But I will do everything in my power to keep him alive, Merlin, do you understand me?"
He does; it's instantly clear. Gaius will do as Merlin did, use every piece in his arsenal, because to do otherwise would be to shame them all. To destroy Merlin as well as Arthur. Gaius holds blame very secretively, but most secretively for himself. In the face of whatever he has done that brings his never-ending guilt to the fore, and in the face of what Merlin did for Arthur mere hours ago, he could not live with a loss of this magnitude.
Merlin wants to yank his guilt from him, lance the poison and let it flow away so the wound can heal. Gaius spurs himself on the edges of his wounds, Merlin has long seen it, but never as clearly as he does now. His eyes break into fresh stinging and he clutches his mentor's—his protector's—arms and holds on because he cannot speak.
"Can you heal him?" Gaius asks quietly. The old man's face is curious, drawn but speculative. Almost as one who dares to hope that he can pull the reflection out of the pond into which he stares. Merlin trembles, grasps tighter to Arthur's fingers.
"I don't know."
Gaius nods as if he has all of the answers he wants, not just the spoken ones. He lets go of Merlin and drags a chair to the bedside, then puts Merlin into it. He grips Merlin and Arthur's clasped hands in his own. "You can," Gaius says quietly. He brushes a strand of hair from Merlin's face, nods once, and then backs away from them both.
"I must revive the guards," he mutters. "Convince them of something." He turns to the door. Merlin stares helplessly down at Arthur's slackened fingers across his palm. He can feel Gaius' eyes.
"Stay with him, Merlin. I will return with his next treatment."
* * *
Gaius does indeed bring a concoction for Arthur, and food as well. Merlin attempts to eat, but his throat clamps shut and nothing will pass down it. He holds a crust of bread in one hand, Arthur's fingers in the other, and gazes at the wounds Gaius reveals when he changes Arthur's bandages. They are very small, and yet they have caused terrible damage. Two little holes in Arthur's chest, surrounded by patches of blood that the cloth could not wick away. Even as Merlin watches, they begin to ooze. He sees a star's shape vaguely in each perforation, where the multiple barbs entered and stuck. He wants to touch Arthur's chest and make sure that what he has healed is still healed. But he can't bring himself to move.
Surely he will only cause more damage should he touch Arthur with intent to heal him further. His magic jitters within, flinging itself around like it doesn't recognise him. Merlin is terrified of what will happen now, should it be set free in any form, even to ignite a candle.
The thought that he might not be here now, that he might still be out in the woods, in the dark, is enough to make Merlin's breath freeze. In all the fear and worry that afternoon, it never truly occurred to him that Arthur might die anyway, and that he would have been elsewhere when it happened. It shoves the bile up into Merlin's throat and makes him grip Arthur's hand so tightly it turns his fingers even whiter, and Merlin has to force himself to let go. He doesn't know what he would do with himself if Arthur died and he wasn't at his side.
And then he can no longer sit still with his thoughts, and turns to Gaius instead.
"He's been unconscious since you… since you departed," Gaius says. His brows knit, but his concentration is all for Arthur and the salve he massages into the prince's seeping wounds. "By the time I was notified, he'd already lost a great deal of blood," Gaius continues in a voice that no longer allows for emotion. "They brought him back to the castle. Merlin—" Gaius turns, salve jar in hand. "You have no idea what you've done."
"I know what I've done," Merlin mutters, miserable beyond anything he experienced in the forest.
"No." Gaius grips his wrist. "No, I mean to Arthur. Merlin, those arrows should have killed him. Those marksmen had keen eyes. Both shots were meant to kill, and either one would have, had the other missed."
Merlin stares at him dully. "Marksmen."
Gaius nods. "At least two of them. The arrows are hand-fletched, and there are distinctive differences in style that a practiced archer is able to recognise. After he brought Arthur here, Gawain was good enough to go back for the arrow shafts. Or what was left of them."
The quiet is ominous. Merlin cannot look Gaius in the eye.
"Merlin, I found no arrowheads."
Merlin knows Gaius will just wait him out, and right now, Gaius's is the stronger will. "They were… in his heart," he whispers. "And his lung."
"Yes," Gaius answers softly. "I saw the blood in his mouth."
"I…" How to describe what he did? It feels so reckless now, melting the metal right out of Arthur's body as if he were throwing stones into a pond. God knows how he didn't take Arthur's heart and lung right along with it! Suddenly Merlin is breathing too quickly; he can't get enough air. Gaius pulls him upright by the shoulders and rubs his back with forceful strokes.
"Merlin, breathe. It's all right."
When he can speak again, Merlin bends his head to his knees and shuts his eyes. Arthur's hand lies limply in his. "I could see them, Gaius. The arrowheads."
Gaius is quiet for a moment. Then he exhales. "The sighting spell." His voice has a proud lilt to it, and Merlin's distress rises again.
"You don't understand, I saw them. In his heart and in his lung! And I—I—" He gestures frantically. "And now he's sick, Gaius, he's…"
Gaius frowns and turns back to Arthur's wounds. "The infection is a recent development. This fever is only an hour old."
The gravity in Gaius' voice is clear. Merlin's chest tightens up even more; Arthur's skin is so pale, his face so gaunt, and suddenly Merlin needs it out of him as though it is a poison. "I melted them! I took them right out of his body! Oh god, I've killed him, I was an idiot to—"
"Merlin!" Gaius grabs him by the shoulders again and pulls him up with a firm shake. He gives him another one for good measure, and Merlin's teeth clack together. "Merlin. What you did saved his life. If you hadn't done it, these wounds would have killed him in seconds. He's still alive because of you."
Merlin knows he'll break apart if he opens his mouth. Gaius most likely knows, too, because he gathers Merlin close and holds him there. "He'll be all right," he murmurs. "Arthur is not one to give up, you know he isn't."
But it isn't a promise; Gaius can't possibly make such a vow.
The fire crackles, the only sound in the room. Except… Merlin becomes aware of the sound of Arthur's breathing, not nearly as strong as his and Gaius's, but there. Definitely there. He watches Arthur's chest rise and fall, and finally, Gaius lets him go and turns to redress Arthur's wounds.
"I want to stay with him," Merlin murmurs. He turns Arthur's hand in his so that they are resting palm to palm.
Gaius nods sagely. "Best place for you, I suspect. At least in the castle. They are searching for you." He looks troubled, his face pocked with shadows due to the flickering firelight.
The idea of getting up, of running again and leaving Arthur, is agonising. "Gaius—"
"I've sent Uther to bed for the night," Gaius interrupts, and there is something new and grim in his voice. Merlin imagines a strong sedative placed in the king's hand. "He'll sleep until dawn. Fortunately for us, you are not the biggest problem. Tyrell returned from the forest with a dead assassin."
Merlin knew there would be assassins, of course, but it's still shocking to hear it, to realise that of all the attempts on Arthur's life, one did get through. He trembles, trying not to look at the clean bandage stretched across Arthur's chest.
"The knights have split into hunting parties, the larger one for the second assassin, the smaller for you. But they won't bring their search here, not with Arthur so ill." Gaius's tone turns tender. He brushes a lock of hair from Arthur's forehead. "The entire city is immobilised by what's happened. Yes, I think you are safest here, as close to Arthur as you can get. We'll sneak you out in the morning, down to your room. They've already tossed it; they've no reason to go back."
Merlin should ask about the spellbook, his supplies and notes. But he hasn't the strength. At this moment, it wouldn't matter to him if the entire lot had been burnt out of existence. All that matters is in this room with him.
"We should tell Gwen," Merlin says at last. "And Morgana."
Gaius's expression draws tight. "I think it would be prudent to keep your presence a secret, Merlin."
"Morgana…" He sighs. "She won't tell Uther."
"I know." Gaius lifts an eyebrow. "But Morgana and Gwen's loyalty is not the issue. Uther's… persistence is, were he to suspect them of concealing you. No, I think the fewer people who know, the safer we all are."
* * *
The night is silvering when Gaius squeezes Merlin's shoulder and draws him to his feet. "We've got to get you out of sight."
Merlin's dread is absolute; he clings to Arthur's hand, more than unwilling—unable—to leave his side. His belly is an iron weight, sinking deeper with each of Arthur's brittle breaths. But Gaius pries his fingers gently away and leads Merlin to the door.
Distracting the guards falls to Gaius this time. Merlin has no idea what he told them after they woke, and he doesn't listen now. Their backs are turned from the doorway long enough to get him out and around the next corner.
The castle's corridors are eerily silent; it feels as though the entire entourage of servants, nobles, and visitors is asleep. Merlin hears the echo of his own passage, unsteady from pain and lack of sleep, and knows he is making too much noise. But his body will not react to the fear. He drags himself forward only because Gaius intends he remain undiscovered. For Merlin, the danger seems very far away.
Gaius's door creaks, letting them into the ransacked rooms. The physician quickly bolts the lock behind them and hustles Merlin through the bric-a-brac, the scattered papers and gutted shelves, up the short flight of stairs to his room. The knights have spared nothing. Merlin stares blankly at the mess, then inches around the toppled wardrobe—right across the doorway, an unintended barricade. He gets as close to his bed as he can manage, then tumbles into it, wondering with half a thought whether Gaius will try to cover him with his blankets.
And finally sleeps.
He dreams Arthur opens his eyes. They are lively and blue and healthy, and they recognise him.
* * *
Merlin wakes with inspiration on the edge of his tongue. The room is filled with sunlight; it must be fairly late in the morning by the angle of the rays on the walls. Merlin closes fingers around the blanket that is draped over him and sits up.
It hadn't come to him like this last night, but now, as though the sun's warmth itself has gifted him the thought, Merlin thinks that healing Arthur may not be so different from healing him before. He is definitely not as well-versed in the human body as Gaius is, but even Merlin could sense the wrongness in Arthur there by his bedside, the change the infection reaped in his look and smell and respiration. It is gut knowledge, not something he will ever be able to shape with words. But it is something he knows: what is wrong with Arthur is a fundamental wrongness. It shouldn't be there, just as those arrows shouldn't have been. Perhaps it is as simple as reaching in again with his magic, sorting what is right from what is wrong, and fixing it.
He's always had a few test runs before the practical use of a spell. It makes him rather ill to think of trying untested healing magic on Arthur, especially healing magic that he's fairly sure only he knows exists. But his magic has settled as he slept; his body and mind have rested. Merlin knows there is little time left for Arthur.
Gaius surely would have woken him had something changed for the worse, no matter how short a time he'd been asleep. Merlin inhales, exhales, inhales more slowly, and exhales the same. He'll have to be as in tune with himself as he can possibly be to even think of doing this, and he still feels off-kilter. Out of balance.
Uther's voice coming through the partially open door makes Merlin start so badly he almost falls from the bed. His heart hammers at his ribs, and he sways, sick and disoriented, staring at the door with its haphazard shield of furniture. Uther's found him, he knows where he is, and this time Arthur is not there to force himself between.
It takes far too many seconds for the low tones of Uther's voice to shove reality through Merlin's panic: there is no way Uther would be this calm, knowing he stands metres from the wizard who bespelled his son. Merlin presses his hands against his eyes tightly enough to see bursting lights in the darkness, and then raises his head again.
The voices in the next room continue their murmuring. Merlin recognises Gaius as the second speaker. His heart settles even further: if Uther is here, then Arthur cannot be so far gone.
The open door still scares him, but Gaius would have had no time to reorganise the room, and a closed or bolted door to Merlin's room, especially when he is supposed to be missing, would only strengthen suspicions. Perhaps all Gaius had time to do was distract. But it is a gamble, leaving nothing but toppled, displaced furniture to hide Merlin from view. A dangerous gamble. Merlin recalls Morgana hiding a particular wizard and a certain Druid boy behind her screen, and thanks the old magic that the ploy has seen fit to work its spell again.
Still, he rises slowly, drops to the floor, and crawls as close to the toppled wardrobe as his nerves will allow. There, he leans against the cool wood, blinks the last of the sleep away, and listens.
"He's told us little. A false name." Uther sighs, and Merlin can hear the creak of a chair being settled into. "But he will not last it out. He strikes from a distance, far away from his target, with a damned quiver of arrows!" The disgust in the king's voice is palpable. "He is weak. We will break him."
There is the sound of liquid being poured, and Gaius speaks. "Has he given any hints as to who is behind this?"
"Not yet. Not yet." Such a cold, furious undertone. Merlin feels dull fear in his chest, knowing that fervor and dedication well. Uther will get what he needs from this captured assassin, and then the man will die. Whoever he is.
Uther could very well turn that dark eye to Merlin in a day or two. An hour. A moment, and Merlin will be the one with the fire licking his feet. His hands shake. He clasps them together, kneading his fingers and forcing himself to breathe normally. Uther does not know he is here, in the very next room. Perhaps if Gaius had indeed closed the door—But he did not. There's no use worrying over how things might have turned out.
"He may merely be a pawn in this, my lord," Gaius says, cautious, but Uther barely lets him finish.
"He is a coward! He does not deserve to live. He couldn't even look my son in the eye—" Uther's voice cracks. For a long moment, everything outside Merlin's door is silent. He suddenly needs to see, to witness the grief that he feels so piercingly, to see proof that he is not the only one who suffers from it. Merlin lifts his head, gaining his knees very, very slowly, and peers between the toppled wardrobe and the strewn shelving angled across it.
Uther sits with his back to Merlin, in the same clothing as that he wore out to the field the previous evening. His hair is a wreck: his fingers have worn tracks through the graying strands, sending them askew. For all his slumped composure, there is tension in Uther's shoulders, in the back of his neck and in what Merlin can see of his jawline. Merlin knows that if Uther turned around, there would be marks under his eyes and deep shadows across his mouth and cheeks. The king is restless, jittery. He sits still only because he has exhausted himself, but he cannot relax. The feeling is horribly familiar.
"How fares my son?" Uther asks, in a much weaker voice. If not for Merlin's own eyes, he would have sworn they were the words of a different person.
Gaius's softened gaze tells Merlin that it isn't the first time the king has asked this question today. He passes Uther with several vials in his hand, and lingers to squeeze the king's shoulder. "Better than I could have hoped for. He has rested well through the night and shows no signs of weakening, my lord."
"But no signs of strengthening, either." Uther's tone is as hopeless as a drought-ridden countryside. "If that boy has done something—"
Merlin cannot breathe, but in the silence that follows Uther's words, he's almost glad of it. His own heartbeat pounds in his ears like the drumming of warhorses on dry earth; if either Gaius or the king heard it and turned to look at him, he would not be surprised.
"That boy," Gaius says, his voice a somber weight, "has most certainly done something. He is the reason Arthur still breathes."
Uther's retort cuts. "You have no proof that he hasn't done something else, something to suit his own ends. He is a sorcerer, Gaius! A user of magic. He as well as threw it in our faces out there! To think that he has been right here, within my walls all this time—"
"Merlin is not Nimueh," Gaius interrupts sharply. "This tragedy is not of his making, nor would he ever harm your son in order to forward an agenda against you or your kingdom!"
There is another spell of silence, and Merlin can hear Gaius breathing hard. Then, "I am truly sorry, my lord. I apologise for my tone."
Merlin can hear the steel of Uther's answer. "But not your words, Physician."
Gaius inhales. "I stand by them, my lord. Merlin is not a killer."
The contemplation is so thick it nearly buzzes. "He is powerful, however," Uther says. The words strike and fall, each one ominous as the thud of a battering ram upon castle gates. "Too powerful. If he can…" —a quick intake of breath— "If he has the power to turn back death…"
Then he has the power to cause death. Merlin discovers he's chewed his lower lip to bleeding, and forces himself to stop. The thought of using his magic to… to rip someone's life away just as he tugged Arthur's back from the brink… It's the scariest thought he's ever had.
His magic stirs within him unfamiliarly, as though rising out of sleep, and Merlin swallows, dizzy.
"What village is he from again?" Uther says, the words as swift as his calculation.
"Ealdor," Gaius answers. "But he would not go there, Sire."
"His mother is there."
"Whatever else he may be, Uther, that boy is not selfish, and he is not evil." Gaius sounds almost irate. Too disdainful to address his king. "He knows you are hunting him! He would never willingly bring harm upon his mother."
"I would not go there to harm his mother," Uther seethes.
"Wouldn't you?" The question lingers like the burn of a lash. "If she were found harboring him?"
Uther's silence is disconcerting, not as one keeping a stubborn muteness, but as one without an answer. Merlin prays with every knot of energy his short rest has given him that he has not in fact placed his mother in grave danger simply by existing. By continuing to exist, by being connected to her. The witch hunt could go on and on, carving through the rough tracks of Camelot and right up to the doors of Ealdor if Uther Pendragon so wishes.
The blow has struck so close to home this time—indeed, right into Arthur's living heart—that Merlin would almost understand Uther's massacre. Understand, and not be able to blame him.
"He is a wizard, Gaius," Uther growls, and even then, the words are flat and final. Merlin shuts his eyes.
"He may be. But it will not be denied that he saved the life of your son, Uther."
The most interesting part is that Uther does not answer right away. Merlin waits for the righteous tirade, the malice born of years of grief delivered at the hands of magic, and each second that passes by draws such an outburst further and further away. When Uther finally does speak, Merlin is holding his breath.
"Yes, he did," is all Uther says.
When nightfall allows Merlin’s return to the upper chambers, Arthur’s fever is much worse.
The room is no longer quiet, nor remotely restful: Arthur’s body is a twitching, turning heave of sweat and motion. The fever beats from him in waves, glossing his throat and melding his hair to his forehead. And yet his skin is frighteningly pale, the shadows under his eyes as blue as bruises. His hands clench into fists so tight that Merlin winces and pries his fingers loose. The weight in Merlin’s stomach solidifies further with each step he paces along the edge of the bed, watching Arthur’s lips part to mutter gibberish.
Finally, he has to sit. Merlin grabs Arthur’s hand from the mussed blankets and clasps it in his own, desperate to keep at least one part of him as still as he can. Arthur shudders bodily; then, for a brief time, his motion quiets down except for the fitful shivers that skate through his muscles.
If he stays here, watching Arthur slide back and forth between worlds, Merlin will go out of his mind.
He never sat with Arthur after the Questing Beast’s bite, and perhaps that was kinder. Then, he had moved, he had ridden, he had done what needed to be done, even though he felt the fierce regret of his absence later, watching Arthur move about his rooms as carefully as a plague survivor, cradling his injured arm and arresting all of Merlin’s power to think about anything but the fact that he was not there at Arthur’s bedside when his prince needed him most, when Arthur fought and very nearly lost.
But he is here now, Arthur is fighting again, and Merlin doesn’t… he doesn’t know what to do. His ideas of reaching in and fixing whatever is wrong, so clean and well-formed outside in the light, are choked and muddied here in the dark where Arthur thrashes out his illness. Merlin’s throat has long gone dry, his fingers twitching as his still-scattered power seeks a route of escape. His first touch to Arthur’s chest was a frenzy of static; Merlin yanked his hands back so fast he nearly strained his shoulders. Now… Now he has had time to sit and calm himself, but the fear is still there, throbbing at his temples.
If he touches Arthur, if he tries to heal him and can’t control it, he will kill him. He knows it.
He also knows he cannot sit by and do nothing.
God, he’d wished so hard the night before for Arthur to show some life again, to move or to speak. Even dreaming would have been a relief. But this is life and movement, and dreams—nightmares—and it's more horrible than the stillness: now Merlin can see Arthur fading. He is witnessing it, and his whole body itches to stop it.
“Gaius,” Merlin says, very softly. Gaius approaches from the corner where he has been sitting. Merlin’s guardian meets his eyes, then leans forward to feel Arthur’s forehead, to touch the pulse at his throat, to cautiously peel back the bandage and study Arthur’s wounds. Gaius’ face pinches further; his mouth turns downward and Merlin can swear he is grinding his teeth. Then Gaius inhales and nods to Merlin. Steps back.
Merlin allows one more hesitation, then places his hand on Arthur’s chest with his palm over the bandage, fingers against the searing heat emanating from Arthur’s skin. He shuts his eyes and whispers the words to the sighting spell. One of them catches on his tongue, but he gets it out, forcing his mind clear. His insides shift awkwardly, a sideways hitch, and suddenly he can see the damage, burgundy heat and darkness, damp, cloying infection, and the ponderous throb of blood through Arthur’s body. It thumps in Merlin’s veins like a second heartbeat, but something is not right, Merlin can feel the surge, down his arm and out the tips of his fingers, a harbinger tearing its way free of him. Arthur jerks, arching under Merlin’s touch. Merlin tries to steady the flow, to coax its energy toward healing, but words do not help him; they clot on his tongue and fall off its edge like stones, and all the while the power rushes out and out. Arthur’s body gives a horrible shudder. Merlin wrenches his hand away and almost falls over, the loosed power swamping back into him and making his sight too bright. Everything quakes as though the castle is shaking, and then Gaius grabs him roughly. Merlin can’t stop the gasp that leaves his lips.
“Merlin!” Gaius squeezes so tightly. The power gives yet another surge. Merlin pulls his mind out of its spin and forces the man away as quickly as he can. It’s barely a warning, more of a shove, but Gaius backs off while Merlin shakes and tries to get hold of himself.
It takes a harrowing amount of time. Merlin clenches his teeth, shuts his eyes and mouth, stops breathing entirely. It feels as though the magic will tear through any opening it finds, his nose and ears, his very skin. After several minutes and many strangled gasps when he simply must breathe or pass out, Merlin feels the energy ebb and slide back down, coiling and twisting, then lazy, then… then quiet. Finally quiet.
Merlin opens his eyes to dim firelight. Arthur remains as he was before, breathing shallowly, his eyelids twitching with fever dreams.
“Is he…” Merlin croaks, and Gaius is at his side, feeling Arthur’s forehead again, counting breaths. Counting beats of his heart where they flutter at the base of his throat.
“He is the same.”
Merlin turns away, curling down, trying to wrap himself around his magic.
Arthur isn’t the same. How can he be, after what Merlin just did to him? He really has no idea what he did, but it was not helpful: destruction lurked at the core of it, razing and hot and barely contained. If he has truly done no further damage, then he is the luckiest, stupidest fool alive.
He waits while Gaius checks the bandage, and is only a little relieved to learn there has been no additional bleeding. Gaius studies the two wounds, his face grave. He mops them with a clean cloth. Merlin has to force himself not to look away.
“They are not closing,” Gaius mutters as he resettles the bandage.
The door swings open suddenly, letting in a shaft of hallway light. Merlin starts, and Gaius shoots to his feet, face aghast. Gwen enters, shutting the door behind her and closing out the light. Merlin can barely breathe; his lungs are still seizing with the expectation of being dragged away by Uther’s guard. Gwen turns, squinting, and walks cautiously into the room, a pile of folded linens in her arms.
When she sees him, she freezes. Her shoulders hunch, and then her mouth drops open—the linens nearly spill from her hands. Gwen catches them, just barely, and dashes toward him, dropping the pile onto the bed in a heap.
“Merlin!” she hisses, flinging herself at him. Merlin barely has time to stand before his arms are full of Guinevere. She clutches him as though he is about to vanish, her grip fierce around his torso. She smells like hearth smoke and weariness, and she is shaking, he can feel every tremble. “Oh my god,” she breathes, squeezing him, then pulls back and clasps his face in both hands. “Merlin.”
“Gwen,” Merlin murmurs, relieved to the point of dizziness. Gaius crosses into his sight, hurrying to the door and drawing the bolt across it. It's not something either of them would have missed, had they not been so very, very tired. And so distressed. Merlin’s anguish rears up. He turns, still holding onto Gwen, to look at Arthur.
It smacks into him all over again, how very sick Arthur is, how much of it is due to his actions. He chokes, hiding it behind a swallow, but Gwen’s fingers press against his cheeks. He can’t look her in the eye or he will lose the stability he’s managed to build up over the last day of waiting and planning and… and failing.
“Thank god for you, Merlin,” Gwen whispers, almost as though she knows the fear that’s flying through him. Merlin stares at her. Gwen smooths his hair with tender fingers. Her eyes stray to Arthur. “Thank god,” she repeats.
Merlin belatedly pulls out of her grip, but she remains beside him as he eases back into his chair, rubbing furiously at his face to keep back the tears that threaten. He can’t look at her or his walls will shatter, so he sits on that cliff’s edge without speaking or breathing or seeing.
Finally the heat recedes from his throat. Merlin opens his eyes. Arthur’s eyelids twitch furiously, his mouth a grimace. He looks so wrong; his face is a sickly fever-flush. Merlin watches for as long as he can, fighting not to reach for Arthur’s hand because Gwen is right there and, for some stupid reason, it feels like he shouldn’t, like… like she will think things of him behind her eyes, things he isn’t sure he wants her thinking, and perhaps he’s just thinking too much about it all. And then Arthur’s head turns sharply, his mouth opens in a pained groan, and Merlin can’t stand it: he closes his fingers around Arthur’s.
Gwen waits quietly, and eventually things stop feeling so weird. But Merlin still bears an ache deep in his heart, one that won’t let him look to the first friend he ever made in Camelot after Gaius.
How in the world must she see him, now that it’s all out in the open? She must have gone over everything in her mind, every discrepancy in their discussions, every time Merlin said or did something a little off-kilter, every time something slightly miraculous happened to fix the scattered world they stumbled through. She must have thought through it all and wondered how much of a hand Merlin had in it. How much magic she had missed, how many times Merlin could have helped her. How many times he’d chosen not to.
He's too tired for these thoughts. He knows he can’t handle the moment when Gwen finally does look at him with reproach in the melancholy brown of her eyes. Because even if she won’t, she should. He could have helped her, consequences be damned. He could have saved her father, and he could have blown apart Uther’s dungeons and led Gwen out of them. Uther wouldn’t have been able to stop him.
It might be the most significant difference between him and the others who were killed in the purge. Merlin’s magic roils within, a physical growl of movement, and he knows—knows—that none of them felt this. None but Mordred, none but the Druids, who are entities unto themselves. Eventually Morgana, maybe, but… None of them could call their powers to their service without a word. Not like him.
He wonders how many of them lost control of their magic, the way he is losing control of his. Perhaps that’s why he's such an anomaly; perhaps everyone like him is inevitably swallowed up by their own raging power.
He settles Arthur’s hand carefully on the bed and leans back. Away.
He’s been so, so lucky. It’s an absolute miracle that he has come this far, gone on this long without being discovered. It was truly only a matter of time, but he’d chosen to be naïve, to not view it in that light. To ignore not only inevitability, but the fact that he would involve other people he loved when it finally happened. The worst part is that it's no longer his choice. He can’t very well tell Gaius not to hide him from Uther, or Gwen not to lie for him. He couldn’t make Arthur step out from between him and the arrows. They do it because they love him, because he’s gained their friendship and their trust, and maybe it would have been better not to have cultivated any of these ties because now they all risk their lives. Even Arthur, who is already almost—
Merlin stops the thought as soon as it starts. He doesn’t realise he's shaking until Gwen draws his hand into hers. He wants to pull free and start building up the barriers between them that will eventually save her life. But he can’t. He can’t let go of his friends. He isn’t strong enough.
“Merlin?” Gwen strokes back strands of his hair. There is so much concern in her face, as heated as the firelight. “It’s all right,” she murmurs, a curious lilt. “It’s all right.”
Merlin meets her eyes and just lets her hug him. Hugs her back too tightly because he is too weak to even think of making her hate him. He could never hurt Gwen that way, Gwen, who has never hurt a soul in her life. For many moments, they remain like that, and Merlin feels somewhat safe for the first time in days.
He can’t control what happens here. As much as he just wants to wave his hands over Arthur and heal him, have his friend back… The only person he can control is himself. He’s already let Gaius risk his neck with flimsy reasoning. That was last night, but tonight, sitting here beside Arthur, terrified he will kill him with a mere touch… Tonight Merlin knows he can’t let Gaius risk himself again. He has seen in his face that Gaius knows it as well but is not yet willing to throw Merlin out into the cold.
And when Arthur’s breathing sharpens, almost a rattle, Merlin isn’t sure he'll be able to leave this room anyway, no matter what Gaius does.
Gwen remains by his side. Merlin isn’t sure how much time actually passes, but Arthur grows minutely quieter as the hour slips by. Not normal sleep, but not as frenzied as it was. Merlin is half certain that he’s imagining the improvement, but Gaius’s eventual nod—the way his eyes slide shut as he bends over Arthur—decides it.
“He is more relaxed,” Gaius informs them, checking Arthur’s pulse. He dips the cloth back in the basin beside the bed and bathes Arthur’s face. When his attention turns again, there is calculation in his eyes, all for Merlin. “And you need some fresh clothing.”
Merlin shakes his head. “Just a cloak that’s warm,” he mutters. Gwen squeezes his hand and rises.
“I’ve just the thing.”
“Gwen,” Gaius says softly. Merlin returns his gaze to Arthur, settling his hand as close as he dares to the other man’s. He can hear Gaius and Gwen’s discourse, though he suspects he’s not exactly meant to.
“He can’t stay here tonight,” Gaius finishes.
“What about your rooms?”
“I won’t risk it again. We came too close to being discovered, and by Uther himself.”
Gwen is quiet. Then, “All right, give me a little while to get things ready. I’ve somewhere he can go.”
“Not the Lady Morgana’s chambers,” Gaius warns, and Merlin turns to see Gwen’s fleeting smile.
“Not what I had in mind.”
Gwen departs and comes back nearly three quarters of an hour later with a clean, black cloak made of durable wool. It looks as though it has never been worn, and it bears the detailed hemming and stitch-work of a garment fashioned for the upper class. Merlin suspects it was made for Morgana, but Gwen presses it into his arms with such a warm expression that he doesn’t question.
“You’ll have to leave Camelot,” Gaius murmurs reluctantly. “Into the woods again. You can’t stay within the castle walls, and the city won’t be safe to hide in.”
“He’ll come with me,” Gwen says firmly. “To my house.”
“They may very well look there, Gwen,” Gaius admonishes, but Gwen’s frown turns stubborn.
“Then he’ll stay in the old forge room. Besides…” She hesitates, then gestures at Merlin. “I think he can take care of himself if they come back.”
Her words thud into the silence. Merlin looks away from the both of them.
But he can still sense Gaius’ head shaking. “It’s not safe, for you or for him. A quick stop for supplies, but not an entire night and day. Perhaps… Merlin.”
He finds Gaius’ eyes intent upon him. “Do you recall that hunting lodge north through the forest? Old and overgrown? I took you to look for hawthorn there on the lee side of the foundation.”
Merlin nods slowly, then more firmly. He does remember the building, old grey stones, each uniquely shaped, the roof full of holes and the interior doused in gentle, liquid sunlight. Moss and vines all over the walls, inside and out. “Yes.”
“Do you think you can find it again?”
“Gaius, I…” Merlin tries to comprehend what exactly he's being asked to do. “No.”
It breaks on his tongue. Gaius’ eyes widen. “Merlin, you are not safe here.”
“I can’t.” Merlin has to start again. “Can’t go. I have to… Gaius…”
He glances at Arthur.
Gaius’ face softens. He puts his hands on Merlin’s shoulders. “I know. I know, Merlin. But tonight you have to get out of here. To somewhere safe. Now. Can you find the hunting lodge again?”
Merlin hesitates just long enough to make Gwen fidget, but interrupts her before she can renew her argument. “Yes.”
Gaius nods firmly. “Then you must go. Quickly, before it gets any later. Uther will be restless; I could not give him the same draught twice. He’s already got his eye and those of his knights on all of us, including you, Gwen.”
“Not all of his knights,” Gwen confides to Merlin out of the side of her mouth, but doesn’t say more.
Merlin dons the cloak with numb fingers and a mind that is not much better. It’s hard to leave the room, and yet it's also a gift. Every second he watches Arthur thrash, every time he hears him moan, Merlin’s panic catches up to him that much further.
There must be something else working for him, Merlin thinks dully: the guards have yet to witness his entrance and exit, and despite Gaius’ distractions and Gwen’s swift ushering, Merlin just doesn’t buy it. They should have raised the alarm. They should have felt the presence of another.
But they don’t.
The reason for the new cloak becomes clearer as they traverse the stairs, the halls, and finally the courtyard: whoever is under it is upper class, and soldiers will not haunt a noble with a servant trailing. Gwen follows at a respectful distance but Merlin hasn’t the energy to act the part of nobility. He barely has the wherewithal to wonder at the slow frenzy that seems to be building inside, close to his heart. It's a frail plan to dress Merlin in Morgana’s cloak and follow him out, and any guard worthy of a place in Camelot should notice the oddity. Merlin’s continued free passage only serves to make him more nervous, less stable. Gwen pushes him on with the sound of her steps, barely rushing, behind.
They achieve the front gate and cross the bridge. The night is very dark; the stars have clouded over in ominous black, and Merlin feels the sting of rain against his cheeks. It will not hold against the rich fabric of his borrowed cloak—borrowed? When exactly will he be coming back to return it?
That is the worst of it. Once he is outside, Merlin cannot imagine himself back inside Camelot’s walls. He cannot picture ever seeing Arthur again.
His legs wobble and Gwen catches him, braces him until he can walk on. Perhaps she thinks he has tripped.
Gwen’s home is dark, the door bolted securely from the inside. She stops in the middle of the road, staring through her own window for so long that even Merlin’s deadened nerves alight. He frowns as she turns the bolt back with a key. She beckons him in before her and shuts them into the darkness. The coals on her hearth have died down low enough to cause no danger, and Gwen stoops to light a small taper.
They are not alone.
Gawain is there, standing in the shadows of Gwen’s kitchen. His arms hang loosely at his sides. Merlin can see that he wears gauntlets without armour, a sword belt without a weapon. Behind him, Tyrell leans against the wall. His pale eyes are sharp in the strange light. One lean hand cradles a thin, wicked dagger, and he turns it over and over, the rhythm unaltered by their arrival.
Gawain has calm written all over his face and body; there isn’t a hint of fear for his own well-being. But the tension in Tyrell’s frame shows how far his trust of Merlin goes. The knight watches Merlin with wary eyes. Still, his dagger is not yet embedded in Merlin’s body, so that bodes well.
“I am glad to see you safe,” Gawain says to him suddenly, “even if no one else is.” Perhaps it is a reprimand for Tyrell. It's certainly not for Gwen. Merlin can see the other knight is not perturbed by his companion’s statement. These are two of Arthur’s best, and Merlin knows better than anyone how much Arthur favours those who can think for themselves and develop their own opinions.
After a long look, Tyrell turns to Gwen. “The prince? How is he?”
Her face bows in a grimace. “Not well.”
Merlin wants to cut free of his inner bindings and cry out that Arthur is not well at all, he is lying at Death’s feet, for god’s sake. Even Gaius’ trained eye is not enough for Merlin anymore. His entire body is out of sorts. Things feel like they have detached inside, and he can’t help the similar jittering of his emotions, as though they are trying to climb out of him and spill all over the floor.
“Your quarter’s been searched again,” Gawain says to Gwen. “Forgive us; the door was open when we arrived.”
Gwen shakes her head, glancing at Merlin. “No, it’s fine, it’s all right. As long as no one saw you?”
Tyrell shakes his head. Gwen sighs. She takes one of Merlin’s hands.
“They’ve refused the search,” she explains. “Gawain and Tyrell refused to take part in apprehending you.”
“It’s a blessing the king is so distracted, else we would have been thrown in the dungeons,” Gawain says, his tone only managing half a joke. “As it is, our weapons have been… liberated.”
There is trouble between Gwen’s brows. Merlin knows this rebellion will not go unpunished, just as soon as Uther is certain of his son’s survival. If… if that ever happens. Merlin cannot summon a response to Gawain’s actions or Tyrell’s nonchalant dagger-twisting. What they’ve done is mutiny against their king. And they're too noble to leave Camelot because they are knights, sworn not only into service but into belief. That is almost worse.
“Uther’s prisoner dies tonight,” Tyrell says suddenly. They all stare at him. He stares back at each of them in turn, his eyes especially hard on Gawain. “We’re wasting time.”
“He’s of Coenwald,” Gawain says immediately. His manner goes cool, the reality of fighting by the sword. Businesslike violence, precisely trained. “There were two assassins, sent by Theodoric.”
Merlin meets Gawain’s eyes. The knight looks steadily back. Tyrell is also watching him, his hands finally still.
Uther has the information he needs. Theodoric and his manor on the border of Mercia will be crushed by knights bearing the symbol of the dragon. His house will fall. Gawain’s throat moves. “Uther oversaw the interrogation himself. But we…” He gestures back to Tyrell. “We’re going to get to the border before him.”
“You have no weapons,” Gwen argues.
Gawain’s expression smolders. “Not at the moment.”
The information buries itself in Merlin’s ears, a low buzz trickling through the turmoil inside. He knows of the manor; he knows of the border protection it supposedly gave. Gwen speaks, but Tyrell only looks to Merlin. His eyes glitter as though coated in glass.
“You’ll have to take Merlin out by the lower road,” Gawain is saying. “They’ve got all of the gates guarded, and they’ll be marshalling the second Uther gives the word. You can get out of the city where the stream does.”
Under the wall then, while Gwen hurries back to Arthur and Gaius, while Gawain and Tyrell make for the manor on their own. But Merlin is too tired for games. He interrupts with barely a thought, cutting the knight’s words in two. “Why aren’t you scared of me?”
Silence falls, and Merlin frowns at Gawain, studying, wary of the least flicker. “Why side with me over the king?”
For an instant, Gawain’s expression morphs into something truly frightening. But when he answers, his face has aged. Settled. He takes Merlin’s arm in a sure grip.
“My lord, I serve any man who loves our prince as you do.”
Tyrell says nothing, but his nod speaks volumes.
Merlin has no rebuttal. It is the most certain truth he knows: for love of Arthur, his people will overturn mountains.
Gwen’s chin sets itself stubbornly. “He’s not leaving,” she says. “I’ll not send him out into the night. He’s staying here until morning, at least. You could misdirect—”
“They’ll never listen to us,” Tyrell mutters. He meets Merlin’s eyes again. “Not after we refused the search.”
Merlin nods slowly, then again. He understands: Tyrell can indeed separate what he loves and what he fears. He has the rare ability to weigh the two before striking forward. It's no wonder Arthur chose him for knighthood.
“There's little we can do to help you,” Gawain says, as soft a blow as he can make it. “But we wanted you to know we’re with you. We’ll do whatever is in our power to do.”
“He has to leave,” Tyrell finishes. Gawain puts a hand on Gwen’s shoulder.
“They will never stop looking.”
Whatever hold Gaius’ orders have left over Gwen, it departs in a rush. She slumps so completely that Merlin moves to catch her. But she rights herself. “Fine.” No more than a breath. “Then he’s going to need food.”
She packs him a blanket as well, from right off her bed, and fills a small jug with water from the bucket on the hearth. Her work is quick, but Merlin sees the tremble of her hand as she stoppers the jug. He inches closer, and then Gwen plunks down the satchel and lurches around, into his arms. Her hands fist in his cloak. “Merlin, don’t go, stay here. Please.”
She knows, then, that he might never be back within her sight.
Merlin clutches her tightly. “I’ll come back,” he whispers into her ear. “I have to.”
“He’ll be all right,” she whispers back. “He will.”
He blinks, and the shuddering magic within quiets, just for a moment. Merlin sinks into the silence and holds Gwen close.
Then he is out in the night, hugging the wall behind Gawain as the disgraced knight leads them down into the lower town and the darkness.
* * *
Merlin is well into the forest when the thought occurs and turns his feet east.
He should not go there. Some part of him knows it, knows this will end in further pain. But it's a clinical thought, and right now, Merlin’s emotions hold absolute sway. He cannot stop his feet, and the promise of pain is not enough.
He's already in pain.
It sizzles, static bursts that trip along his arms and raise the hairs from his skin. His stomach rolls with it; he's likely to be sick long before he reaches the place he is headed. It gnaws at his innards with invisible, serrated teeth, too much energy flooding into one place all at once. Merlin’s fingers burn, his eyelids feel like they are being stabbed with thousands of needles. His lips ache and his hair… even his hair is a mass of dull, unfocussed wretchedness. He feels like part of his body has been torn away, a gaping wound that will not stop gushing. His skin feels translucent with heat, and when he looks down at his bare arms in the moonlight, his eyes trick him into thinking he can see right through to his bones and muscle and blood. Perhaps it's not a trick. Its wrenching is relentless and bone-deep, and Merlin sobs, exhausted.
His magic roils. He can feel the push and pull like he never has, a tidal pulse. As violent as the ocean’s waves. Oh god, what is this magic he has learned and accidentally controlled? What has he imprisoned inside himself?
For one wild instant, Merlin knows that what is singing through his veins is Arthur’s death. It is ugly and burnished red. Arthur’s body is there, casket-ensnared and white as chalk stone. Nothing moves because Merlin has trapped it all, and he needs to get it out of him; he can taste Arthur like a potent wine, his beating heart and filling lungs, soured and stagnant, the vine cut… just cut away, right out of his hands.
Merlin’s tears drip into his mouth and he stumbles, hits a tree, falls to the dirt. His grief is unbearable. Arthur’s death is everywhere, as though it has already happened, in his mouth and in his ears, in his belly. All over him. Merlin cannot move but to struggle for enough air to stay conscious.
Somewhere, at some moment, his stricken state transforms into rage.
The hurt done to him is an acute, stabbing thing. His mind tells him there are others, Morgana, Uther, Gaius and Gwen, all with open wounds. He knows. But he can only feel the injury that has been inflicted upon him.
They came after Arthur. They threw his life straight into the jowls of starving wolves.
Merlin hears one word whispered, hears it very clearly, the cut through skin, the plunge through ice into frigid darkness.
He walks for some time, his legs as stiff as wood. But his stride is somehow long, his feet certain upon the forest floor. And then he can’t remember walking anymore, but the manor house is there on the hill before him when he steps free of the forest. It makes little sense; to be here, he would have to have traveled for miles, for at least a day, and part of him knows it, but he can’t hear that part very well. There's too much noise in his ears. It's deafening.
The gates might as well be cabinet doors when he passes through them, and the sentries, wherever they are, do not sound an alert. Merlin finds his way through the inner keep, following some sort of scent trail: his feet just know where to take him. Everything twisting and turning inside draws him there, a hand tugging round his stomach.
His entry into the main hall does not go unnoticed. Merlin watches as Theodoric gives an irritated dismissal to the servant he mistook him for. Merlin does not move and Theodoric stops, squints, and struggles out of his high-backed chair behind nearly empty plates of food scattered across the table. “Who is God’s name are you?”
Merlin doesn’t bother to answer. Those words won’t come, anyway. He moves further into the room, toward Theodoric’s table.
Theodoric grimaces. “Guards,” he calls, almost nonchalant, and Merlin flicks the doors shut with a thought, the rasp of them over the floor almost a shriek, the clang when they slam thunderous. He sends the torches out in a hiss. Theodoric stares at him, frozen halfway out of his chair in a shaft of moonlight.
“Sorcerer!” he snarls.
Merlin can hear the thud of his heart in the darkness. Or maybe it is only his own heart. “Arthur Pendragon,” he says. The words bounce, echoing in the vast chamber like an uttered spell.
Theodoric’s skin turns the color of ash. He clenches both hands to his armrests. Merlin walks forward, one step, then another. Another.
“No,” Theodoric whimpers. “No, I never—”
“Yes, you did,” Merlin hisses. His own voice is unrecognisable, juddering with the pent up power inside. He can feel the fear lancing toward him from Theodoric, the guilt, a single palpable entity. “Yes. You did.”
Each word is an effort.
Theodoric moans and shrinks back in his chair. Merlin has no idea what the man can feel, if he can sense Merlin’s mood just as well as Merlin can sense his.
“Before you decree death, you should consider who might come to avenge your victim.” Merlin voice grates, the fury of a storm. The muscles in his hands and arms clench, spasms wracking through.
The expression in the noble’s eyes has moved far past terrified. “Please,” he whispers. “Please, my lord. Have mercy.”
“As you did.”
“I did not know!” Theodoric's hands lift, pleading with the very air, with Merlin and all the power grinding through the room, threatening to rip right out of Merlin’s skin. It’s inside him and it wants to get out, but Merlin has the strength to control it for a little longer.
Now, though… he does not want to.
“I’ve brought back your gift,” Merlin whispers. It echoes, and it shouldn’t, it's much too soft. Theodoric’s face goes bloodless. Merlin watches sickness rush over him, smothering him with the knowledge of fate.
Merlin’s arm comes up, slowly with fingers splayed, and his mind is abruptly a cold, fiery blue.
“Please,” again, “plea—”
Cathartic agony seizes through Merlin’s skull as his shaking hand erupts, searing the room in blinding light.
* * *
How he finds the hunting lodge, he doesn’t know. He only knows that he is a long, long time in darkness, as ephemeral as the fuzzy seed pods careening on the wind every fall, blowing in and out of focus, his tongue covered in the taste of rust. He tastes Arthur’s blood in his mouth, on his lips as though it is still that day and he is holding Arthur an inch from death. And then there is pain, the great, willowy pain of exhaustion.
When he wakes, it's still dark. Or dark again. The overgrown walls of the lodge bend over him like a protective veil, and above, clear starlight shines through the chinks where the roof has fallen in.
He trembles, his thoughts long gone, leaving him empty and exhausted so he nearly falls yet again outside Arthur's door. It is the sixth time he feels he will not be able to get back onto his feet: Outside the lodge, in the woods, again on the road and then in Camelot's streets, inside the castle's gates, and finally, now. Merlin sways, muddled. He can't feel. His brain and body no longer seem to possess that power.
It's a wonder he's made it to his destination. He can't remember casting a single concealment spell, or even ducking into the shadows he passed on the way. And there were many shadows, many streets and many people to hide from. He should be shot and lying on a pallet, or lagging against a dungeon wall with his wrists chafed to bleeding. But he has little energy with which to care. Merlin tries, and fails, and then just presses on to the thick oaken door before him, because pressing on is all he's done since he awoke.
No. Since Arthur was shot.
His right hand hurts too much to turn the latch on Arthur's door. The ache is raw, and bone-deep. His skin is unmarred; he has scrutinised it blearily over and over. But touching it—moving it at all—is incredibly painful.
His gaping mind keeps insisting that he has fired Arthur's death through his fingers, and if so, then death's burn is indescribable.
He manages the door at last, gripping awkwardly with his left hand. It shakes so much that the door nearly shuts again, but he forces it open with his knee and gets inside, certain he will collapse.
He doesn't, but it's a very near miss. Someone catches him, someone standing in the darkness to his left. Merlin feels the neat press of nails into his arms and lush fabric brushing over his injured hand.
"Good lord," Morgana says quietly near his ear, "we'll have to get Arthur out of the bed and put you in it."
He sags in her arms, and then jerks up again as what she's said reaches his brain. They both look to the bed, but Arthur lies much as before, very still in the dim light. Merlin can see the rise and fall of his cleanly bandaged chest from where he stands.
"He hasn't woken." The stridency that usually dwells in Morgana's voice is suppressed. Her hands tighten on Merlin's arms. "But his fever's broken, Merlin."
"When?" he croaks out.
"Early this morning." That is Gaius, rising from his station at Arthur's table. Merlin can only stare dully, but Morgana nods.
"You can already see that he's…"
She stops. Merlin doesn't need her to finish. He slithers out of her grip and makes for Arthur's bedside. Before he even thinks to reach for Arthur's hand, he can see the difference. There is blood moving swiftly under his skin again, and though Arthur is still as pale as moonlight on the grass and just as fragile-looking, there is no warmth but what should be there. His throat ripples to a steady beat; Merlin's eyes fix on the motion and he has to force them not to linger. Instead he concentrates on the tinge of pink where shadows collect, smudges cradling Arthur's closed eyes. Morgana is right: he looks better than he did, much better. Merlin drops onto the side of the bed, feeling as though all his muscles have gone.
Morgana comes to stand behind him. He feels her gaze like a warm shawl spread over his shoulders. She says nothing, and Merlin just watches Arthur, his hand resting within inches of the prince's. He can't quite get his fingers to move forward, to grasp Arthur's. The edge inside him has melted away and the magic has quieted, but still his nerves fire with fear that he'll… do something if he touches Arthur.
He's not sure how long he sits there watching Arthur breathe before a knock sounds on the door. Gaius lets Gwen in with a wash basin, and holds a hushed exchange with Morgana while Gwen wraps Merlin in an embrace and threatens to keep him there for good. Her arms are firm about him, her grip a steadying anchor. He closes his fingers over her forearm and listens as Gaius tells Morgana he is going back to his chambers to prepare the next treatment.
"How long?" Morgana asks.
"Should take me half an hour. Make certain you bolt the door. I will knock twice, and then once more."
Morgana assents, and then Gaius is gone and the room slips back into silence.
Arthur lies in the same position on the bed, propped limply on several pillows, and suddenly, Merlin loses track of time. It feels as though he has been gone for days. Logically, he knows that isn't the truth, but his body and mind bend under a much greater strain than the trials of one sunrise. He hasn't thought about any of it. He hasn't the strength. Perhaps it's his body's way of protecting him.
Morgana's hand on his shoulder startles him. "Are you alright?" True worry bends new lines about her eyes.
"I'm…" He stops. He doesn't even know the answer.
"The lodge," she says. Her brow wrinkles. "It's still safe. Isn't it?"
They've told her everything, then. So much for secrets. But Merlin is glad. He feels a small army building around him, and, tiny and powerless as it is… He feels safer with them at his back.
He nods, winning the quickest of smiles from Morgana.
Gwen settles a cloth on Arthur's forehead, and Merlin turns to watch. It's a chore to keep breathing, but for a different reason than before. Arthur's breathing, however, is steady. Smoother. And maybe the change is all in Merlin's head, but he feels like his body has been punctured and the pressure is seeping out. He slumps against the bed and slides to the floor. Morgana bends, hands at his shoulders, but he waves her off.
"I'm alright. Just worn out."
She opens and closes her mouth, then leaves his side and returns with a chair. "Here. Much better than the floor."
She smiles at him again. It is watery. He can't remember ever being so grateful to her, though he's sure he has been.
Merlin watches Arthur sleep. It's a long time that he sits there; the fire goes down twice and Gwen stacks more logs atop the flames, the wood clunking softly together. The hiss of coals being stirred sounds far off. Morgana sits back from the bed, in a chair placed a little behind his. He wonders how long she has been here, been awake. Watching over Arthur. He wonders if either Gwen or Gaius have slept.
When Gwen stirs the fire a third time, a log breaks noisily, falling into pieces across the hearth. Gwen jumps to catch them, and Arthur stirs.
The way Arthur's face shifts, a tiny flux of muscle just around his nose, a flicker between his brows—his lips part and Merlin hears the new inhalation. It pierces him like an arrow straight through the chest. He catches himself on the mattress as Arthur's eyes drag slowly open.
Their blue is faded, almost as colourless as water. Merlin sees the focus slide into Arthur's eyes, and it is a difficult journey. Arthur blinks as one who is drugged. Blinks again. Breathes a raspy yet still curious, "Merlin."
And then Arthur's eyes open wider. His throat seizes visibly and his head jerks off the pillow. "Merlin," he forces out, "what are you—" The words crack, so plaintive that despite the pain, despite the fear, Merlin grabs Arthur's hand, the one resting by his head, in both of his.
"Arthur, shhh," he pleads, for Arthur's shoulders have tensed to near-atrophy. The coughing wells immediately, hoarse rasps signaling what little energy Arthur truly has. Merlin presses him back to the bed as gently as he can, Morgana's hand gripping the bedpost out of the corner of his eye, Gwen's fingers smoothing over Arthur's forehead. Arthur's fingers convulse around Merlin's, holding their hands together on the pillow, and even if Merlin wanted to get free, he knows he will not be able to.
Finally, the attack lets Arthur alone. He stares up at Merlin, breathing heavily, his expression utterly lost. Merlin has to clench his jaw to keep the burn from flooding his throat. He thought he'd seen the worst, but this Arthur, frail and sick and still struggling to make things right, is the most vulnerable he's ever seen.
"Rest easy," he manages at last. His voice stutters, too. He rubs Arthur's hand. "We're in no danger."
Arthur's eyes flicker, a ghost of the life that should be in them. But he doesn't look away from Merlin's face. His free hand climbs agonisingly over his own body and comes to a rest atop the thick bandage. His fingers quiver, almost a spasm. "Merlin," he tries again, a mere breath. "Should… go."
"I know." Merlin nods, at the point of tears without knowing how he got there. "Arthur, I know." He wraps his hand tightly around Arthur's, and even now the prince's grip can be described as fierce. Not strong at all, but there is meaning behind it. "But I'm not going anywhere just now."
Arthur doesn't answer. His gaze weighs heavy on Merlin for several seconds, and then Arthur turns his head, lets it drift toward Merlin's hand until only his profile is in view, and presses their linked fingers against his forehead. His skin is still hot, very dry. Arthur shuts his eyes and breathes as deeply as he is able, and Merlin can only squeeze his hand because he can't get the words past the barrier in his throat.
Morgana's pale hand reaches silently from behind Merlin and alights on Arthur's upturned cheek. She caresses his face cautiously, as if she might break him with a firmer touch. "Arthur, thank god," she whimpers, and breaks off. Merlin watches her fingers thread through Arthur's hair, resettling his fringe in an almost motherly manner. He knows, somehow, that she will not speak again.
"How…" Arthur draws another breath and starts again. "How long…"
"Four days," Gwen whispers. Arthur's eyes close and open. It's all very slow, as though he is about to pass out. And then he stiffens again and Merlin puts a hand on his shoulder.
"My father—" Arthur gives up, but the dart of his eyes between the rest of them is frantic.
Morgana understands first. "No. Arthur. Merlin is safe, they think he's gone. They… He has been gone. Mostly."
Merlin does not correct her. He leans over Arthur. "Please don't. Arthur, I promise you. It's all right. You'll hurt yourself if you…"
Arthur stares at him. He swallows. It looks painful. Merlin is aware of Gwen moving away from the bed. He hears the trickle of water being poured, and then there's a cup in his hand. Arthur eyes it with an energy Merlin didn't think he had. With Morgana's help, Merlin props Arthur's head up enough to give him a sip without spilling. Arthur drinks noisily and collapses with a worrisome cough.
For a minute, none of them move. Then Morgana bends and kisses Arthur's forehead. She draws Gwen back a little, murmuring about broth, something for Merlin to eat.
Arthur's chest labours. He grips Merlin's hand. "You got away."
The escape rushes back: the woods, the pitch darkness. Arthur's blood drying on his skin. Merlin nods.
"Thought…" Arthur briefly closes his eyes. "I wasn't going to see you alive again."
It's too similar to Merlin's thoughts, to the death he feared he would face. His throat fills; he jerks, squeezes Arthur's hand hard.
Arthur's mouth twists, and Merlin's eyes sting with salt tears. "Had to come back," he whispers, more to Arthur's hand than to its owner. Anything louder and his voice will break. "Needed to see you."
Alive, he means. Healing, well again, sleeping, something other than bloody. The words lock up. Arthur blinks rapidly.
"The knights are looking," Merlin says at last. "All but Gawain and Tyrell."
Arthur's lips go thin. He looks beyond Merlin as if the two disgraced knights are in the room. Nods once, firmly.
"My father," he rasps.
"Thinks I hurt you." The idea is sickening. Merlin has to remind himself not to crush Arthur's hand.
Arthur stirs more forcefully, and Merlin presses him back. "No, Arthur, don't. If you'd seen… what he saw… What I did…"
He dug arrowheads right out of Arthur's bleeding chest. Merlin is nauseated at his own arrogance.
"Glad you came back," Arthur croaks, very quickly. He trembles, and Merlin fears another coughing fit. But it recedes. Arthur's mouth opens and closes. He slumps into the pillows.
"I tried to go." Merlin strokes Arthur's hand with his thumb. "I did."
Arthur smiles faintly.
Gaius' three knocks sound, much sooner than predicted. Morgana opens the door a crack, then lets him in. Arthur's hand tightens on Merlin's until Gaius gets closer to the bed.
"I've managed some food," Gaius says. "Morgana, as far as the cooks know, you've suddenly taken a liking to roast pheasant."
Morgana's lips twitch downward. "Oh, yes. My absolute favourite."
Gaius stares down at his patient, uncomprehending. "I… Arthur?" He goes into a flurry of motion, checking Arthur's eyes and pulse, feeling his forehead. As he tests the bandage for any loosening, Arthur watches him. His eyes are still dull. But he's awake.
"How do you feel?" Gaius asks at last.
Arthur makes a face and shuts his eyes.
"Yes, I'm afraid that is not unexpected." Gaius pats the bandage absently. Arthur catches his hand. Even now, Arthur's reflexes are quick.
But they do have a price. Arthur winces and holds his breath. His body goes rigid. Gaius settles him gently onto the pillows. But Arthur has never been one to give up.
"Gaius. Thank you."
Gaius' smile is melancholy. "I wish I could take the credit, Sire."
Arthur nods. "I know." His eyes move back to Merlin. "I know."
Gaius looks at Merlin as well. Something in his expression dims and he leans in, murmuring words in Arthur's ear. Arthur never looks away from Merlin, even as the change steals over his features.
"I know," Arthur says again. It's nothing but a whisper.
Morgana places a hand on Gaius' arm. "Gaius… What about Uther?"
Gaius looks at her, puzzled. Her eyes dart to Arthur.
"You know I would never give Merlin up," she says, the words firm. "I'd rather die. But… you haven't seen Uther as I have these last few days. He's falling apart." She looks half mad at herself, and gazes at Merlin helplessly. "Arthur's awake. He's alive and he's awake, and I can't… Uther has to know. We can't keep this from him. I…" She draws herself up and sets her mouth, as if expecting a fight. "I won't keep it from him."
Gaius' face falls, and Gwen makes a sound. Morgana has gone pale. "He's desperate for you, Arthur. I've never seen him this way. He might as well be a walking ghost."
Merlin doesn't want to believe. Uther Pendragon could never feel so keenly about anything, and Morgana has no sympathy left for her guardian. But they are lies and Merlin knows it.
Gaius stands. "She is right. Merlin—"
Strangely, it is Morgana who seizes Merlin's arm. "He doesn't have to leave. I won't have him thrown out of Camelot."
"Morgana, he cannot stay," Gaius says wearily. "Eventually he will be found. And when he is—"
Morgana's fingers clench tighter. "When he is, we will all stand between them."
Merlin's chest hurts. He does not deserve these people as friends. It's the one thing he is absolutely certain of.
Gaius looks as though he might yield. But Arthur grabs Gaius' arm, rising off his pillows.
"My father will not stop for us."
Merlin can see Arthur's fingers digging white spots into Gaius' skin. Gaius and Arthur stare at each other, speaking through their eyes. Arthur's voice drops. "And I'm… I can't…"
Gaius nods. "Do not fear, my lord. There is a place safe from your father's sight, I promise."
But Arthur is right: there's nothing to stop Uther, not even his ward. Or his son. In the king's mind, if Merlin is trying to kill Arthur, then there is no better time than now, when Arthur is weak, unable to defend himself.
Or unable to defend Merlin.
Arthur looks back at him, and it crushes slowly against Merlin, the resolve in Arthur's eyes, the fact that he truly cannot stay here any longer. That he will not be able to return at all this time.
"I want you to go," Arthur rasps. The words are barely words. His nod is nothing but a tilt of his head. "I… need you to…"
"I'll come back," Merlin whispers. Arthur's fingers clutch his, unbearable, and Merlin's throat aches. He jolts into motion, attacking the ties of the leather thong around his wrist, pulling until the worn knot releases. The band falls free and he wraps it around Arthur's wrist. Ties it off.
Arthur's eyes find their way from his wrist back to Merlin's face. Merlin looks down at water-slick leather, brown with age and accidental polishing in rivers, in snow and washbasins. It curves around Arthur's wrist tenderly as though it has always been there.
"Merlin," Arthur whispers.
It's more instinct than conscious thought: Merlin lifts Arthur's hand in his and presses his mouth to the back of it. And holds, because the heat is so familiar and the smell is of Arthur and leather, no longer of death. He realises what he is doing very suddenly and freezes.
But Arthur only looks at him and it's so startling, so painfully, utterly open, that it scrapes right across Merlin's heart. Oh god, he can't breathe. He's never been looked at like this, like something's been chopped away, spinning end over end just out of reach, barely touching. Arthur's eyes, as pale as they are, look so blue, fragile and vibrant.
And not new.
He has been looked at like this before, but not when he knew what lay behind it.
It's all he can do to let go. To follow Gaius one last time. To stop himself from settling at Arthur's side and taking whatever may come.
The lodge is so quiet. Merlin has no idea when he grew so used to the noise of the city, the sounds of the market, the clatter and clang in the kitchens and the general murmur of voices he could never discern. Now that it is absent, Merlin's muscles twitch. His skin feels too tight, as though he's being watched by something in the forest, or in what is left of the walls.
There is no one for miles. The afternoon sun sinks low, casting the lodge into heavy oranges and reds. Merlin's body aches as he pushes cloaks and blankets and leaves into a pile under the only fully intact section of the roof. He just wants to fall into the makeshift bed and sleep, yet he suspects he won't be able to, that there's too much energy ricocheting through his blood. He finds himself pacing the length of the lodge, clenching and releasing his hands, the mantra of He's alive, he's alive running endlessly through his mind.
Arthur is alive. It's only just starting to catch up with Merlin, along with the hunger and the exhaustion. He finally lets it in, lets it dip deep into the realm of reality. It's discomfiting each time his thoughts circle, sliding back again and again to the understanding of Arthur's danger, only to sweep up into the realisation that Arthur is not in danger anymore. He is healing. He's awake and coherent enough to order Merlin out of harm's way, and that… that is the true sign that Arthur is going to be all right. Merlin knows it was an order, no matter how weak, no matter the lackluster delivery, and this order is one he can follow. He's too washed out to do anything else.
Merlin eats some of the food in his pack, cold pheasant and chewy bread, then collapses atop his bed of cloth and leaves. He's not sure he's in control of his body anymore, but it's not the same loss of control as that which he felt with his magic. This is familiar: weariness and the end of the road for this day, at least. He's asleep before he finishes the thought.
But perhaps his body knew something he didn't, that once some things are allowed in, the others will not be far behind.
Merlin jolts awake to muddled darkness, his hand aching, his breath coming too fast. There was a nightmare, but all that remains are messy colours in his head, excruciating sounds and a lack of air. Merlin scrambles to sit up, clutching his head, rubbing his face furiously, not sure where he is. It all comes back, wave after never-ending wave, blood and Arthur and threat, darkness, death.
It is the death that stays with him. Merlin stares unseeing into the blackness.
He's killed a man. Not in defence, not even in Arthur's defence, but in an act of simple vengeance. Arthur's death was a moot point; his survival would have happened or not. He, Merlin, had been attacked, deeply injured, so he sought the attacker out and, with his magic, his most treasured and sacred possession, he ended that person's life.
Merlin is immediately sick all over the ground. He clutches at his stomach, remembering the way his heart jumped and his teeth ground together, remembering the fierce satisfaction when it all finally blasted out of him, heading straight for the person he'd sought. He recalls how good he felt and keels over, stumbles up toward the door of the lodge and shoves himself through it before his legs stop functioning and he falls. Hits the earth. Can't breathe for the sobbing.
* * *
Dawn breaks, low and cold. Merlin sits against the wall beside his bed.
He's killed with magic. But it… this. It's different from Nimueh, from Sophia and her father. Magic creatures, all. Alive, and then dead, due to his direct actions. He regretted without regretting, because there was no other option, and every fiber of him knows it. Losing Arthur was not an option. Losing his mother and Gaius… those were not options. Death was imminent, and he acted. He acted and he killed, and lives were saved.
But this. This is revenge, after the fact. This was a calculated hunt, a furious ambush, and the satisfying severing of a life. The magic was just incidental: Arthur's death eating away at his innards was merely the weapon swung down upon the head of his prey. This was not in protection of his village, of family and friends about to meet their bloody end unless he…
He did not kill for answers to riddles or to stall the onrushing seconds of a fading life. He killed because he wanted to return his own agony tenfold.
He curls himself up on the floor and doesn't get up when the sun rises. He doesn't move from his shivering ball for half a day.
* * *
The lodge is hidden, the path to it heavily overgrown. Inside, the east corner makes Merlin's bed. Fresh leaves among the fabric each evening. The heat from the day bakes out of the walls at night, and the air is almost balmy. In the morning, the light shafts through holes in the roof and glitters on dewy moss, warms the floor stones where Merlin has cleared them of bracken. There's a hearth in the west wall, a solid black pot dangling there still from an iron ring. It takes Merlin a whole day to clean the space, to drag the pot down to the stream and scrub it with sand from the creek bed. The water is cold; Merlin washes his clothing anyway, shivering and naked on the shore, then wraps Gwen's blanket around his shoulders and carries it all back to the lodge in the gathering dusk.
The noises change at night, from birdsong to chitters and rustles in the underbrush. The wind in the trees is constant; Merlin lies on his tumble of cloth and listens to animals move outside, to the whistle of the breeze over the crumbling chimney. When he is too tired, he sleeps. Three mornings out of four, he wakes thinking he's in the castle and he's let Arthur's fire go out.
Mornings are cold.
He sets the lodge to rights as well as he can, and when he's finished, it looks livable. The bench that still functions is outside the door, where the sunlight hits it at dawn and remains long enough for Merlin to rise and go out and sit until his skin fills with heat. His pack hangs on one of the remaining hooks inside; the broken bench lolls beside the hearth. He's so tired and hungry by the fourth day—Gwen's food all but gone—that he stands by the stream and has a wriggling fish sailing toward his outstretched hand before he realises what he's done.
After that, it's only a matter of time. The broken bench splits readily under a jolt from his fingertips, the seams in the warped wood cracking unevenly apart. When he speaks the spell to start a fire, flames burst free of his fingers and billow against the wall, and Merlin flings himself back as it snuffs out. He can't seem to get the hang of it until nightfall, when he finally keeps it down to a flicker, but it's still more than enough to catch the kindling.
Everything is amplified. The words he's practised again and again now contain a rampant power Merlin has never felt before. The fish come in droves until he forces his magic down. He feels like he is constantly packing it away into different niches in his body, storing it here and there, and there's too much for all of it to fit. It pushes against his walls with every incantation, until he pants and sweats at the effort of controlling it.
On the sixth morning, he rises too early, freezing and swamped with dreams. When he raises his hand, he forgets to speak, and the fire flickers to life in the hearth in a comforting hush. He stares. Tries it again. This time, his magic merely flows along its current through his limbs. It does not push or pull. It simply… is.
It comes as a knock straight to his lungs the day he realises that the reason he wasn't caught in Camelot was because he didn't want to be.
Merlin has to stop, to grab hold of the edge of the bench he's just sat on to keep from sliding to the ground. He still cannot make heads or tails of what his magic was doing to him during those horrible days just after Arthur's injury. But he knows he wanted more than anything to be hidden, to be concealed long enough to reach Arthur's side. He knows that spoken spells were not working as they should have, and he knows—knows it, damn it—that magic was veritably pouring from every outlet he gave it.
He stayed hidden because he wished to be invisible, wished it so badly that his magic made it true.
The thought is frightening enough to keep Merlin from testing his newfound powers again for an entire day and night. The idea that he could have killed Arthur at any second without even knowing he was doing anything… Just by being there, by being near him and by touching him.
It takes him until early morning on the eighth day, the sky still dark and his dreams tossed with nightmarish uncertainty, to sit straight up in his makeshift bed and realise that he is wrong again.
He could never have killed Arthur accidentally, because he could never, ever have wanted that. Never.
Merlin sleeps after that, well and deeply.
* * *
So many things make sense to him now: why Uther never found him in his ransacked room, why he could move through the castle and the city right under the noses of the guards. How he found his way to the keep at Coenwald.
Merlin walks through the forest, his hand out before him, fingers alive with the pulse of different plants. There are berries he can eat and berries he can't, herbs that season the very air, roots that contain nourishment. He can feel the heartbeats of the hares in the undergrowth and the birds in the trees.
If he wants it, if he desires its location, he finds it. He tastes it on his tongue.
But he no longer tries to create from nothing. One morning he coaxed a vine full of ripe gourds from the ground beside the lodge. He picked the ones he needed and prepared a meal, and afterward, he went into the forest to delve into the life there again, and found a tree he had visited the day before withered and twisted, its leaves crumpled and brittle on the ground. The scent of his new magic was all over it.
Now he plants the seeds of the gourds he has used, and walks a long way until he comes out of the forest and onto a farm with a fence that has fallen down. The fields are lush with growth. Merlin begs seeds from the farmer and in return, he helps him reconstruct his fence and leads the goats back out of the shed where they have been tied.
* * *
The lodge's contents bear the brunt of his experimentation. The bench now has a glossy sheen and sturdy legs; the pot on the hearth is shiny as new. The roof and walls are whole again where it counts, though Merlin left the creeping vines alone. He spends a day fixing the holes in his shoes and then undoing it when they no longer fit. Fixing them again, more carefully. Undoing it, just to prove that he can. Fixing them one last time. Fire is easy to control now, easy to bend to specific tasks like heating the pot or roasting a fish. All Merlin has to do is think, think and direct.
He messes about with his bed for hours, crafting a real mattress out of the blanket and leaves, a pillow from the cloak. He makes the mattress huge, then tiny, lifts it high off the ground on legs and a frame, then sets it back on the floor again. He tries to send the mattress out the door and back in, but he nearly breaks the door frame and hastily abandons the effort. He makes the mattress as hard as stone and then as soft as the fur of a puppy. It takes him two nights to get to a firmness that cradles him like a baby, and then he sleeps even better.
Most of the time.
The nightmares cling to him like the vines cling to the walls. One death for another, one for another. The person who should have died has not, thanks to him. But there was still a price to be paid. One for another.
If Gwen knew, she would hate him. In the light of day, it's easier to scoff at the idea, but at night, Merlin cannot push the thought out. He remembers the look in Gwen's eyes when her father was killed, not hate at all, but loss, terrible loss. He wonders when she realised that he could have helped her and didn't, because she will have figured it out by now. It is inconceivable that she has not. He wonders when she will realise the part he played in her arrest even earlier.
Gaius is no source of pain—he has known the majority of it from the beginning—but Morgana… Merlin remembers the hard ache in her eyes after bouts with her visions, and thinks about secrets kept, help he might have given her. She will know he withheld it, and she will ask herself why he left her alone with her newfound powers, her budding terror.
When he can stand it no longer, Merlin gets up and walks himself to exhaustion in the woods, then stumbles back into the lodge to sleep in oblivion.
He tries not to think of Arthur, but when he succeeds, it's like trying not to blink: his eyes sting until all he can do is sit and cry, and try to be quiet about it. It makes no difference that there is no one around to hear it.
When he dreams without nightmares, he is sitting beside Arthur's bed. The firelight glows golden and Arthur draws a deep, steady breath. Exhales. His chest is unmarred, smooth in the flames' flicker. Merlin wants to reach out, to touch. To make certain.
Each time, he wakes before he can move.
The days pass. Merlin's hair grows longer, curling about his nape and ears. He improves his new home, tends the garden with care and growing satisfaction as tiny sprouts rear their heads. The light is green in the mornings, pink at sundown. He shifts through the hours in comfort or in utter, unbearable restlessness. The ache of a missing voice, the smells he wishes he could remember… It takes him a week to figure out that he is the loneliest he's ever been, and then he can barely breathe. Then, the garden is not enough; the warm pulse of firelight and the comfort of his bed do nothing to ease the jagged hole. In those moments, he shakes on the verge of breaking. Knowing what he needs, who he needs, but never truly searching out how much he needs to find it, because then… then he might not be able to resist the pain.
So Merlin wakes and sleeps, experiments and tends, and just needs, with all of his soul.
The feeling does not disappear, but eventually it retreats into the background, and Merlin begins to feel alive again.
The forest speaks to him in gentle tones, never words, at least not words as he has understood them. His walks become a daily occurrence, not to forget, but to remember, to relish the liquid silver singing through his limbs, the tingle in his fingers as he brushes over leaves and twigs, flowers and ragged strips of bark. He plucks herbs and binds them together, and feels their latent power radiating into his hands. It feels as though he's known this power all along, only now he has been given its name, hears it when it rises through him. Speaks it on the breath of every sigh as he coaxes the magic forth to mingle with that of the forest.
And the forest speaks his name in return.
* * *
The wind shifts, blowing freshly through Merlin's hair. He rises, craning his head to the forest behind him, and just… knows. He knows.
This is the day Arthur will be with him again.
Arthur is not alone. His knights ride with him, and Merlin is glad of it. It's not yet five weeks since the prince's life was nearly snatched right out from under them, and the forest is still wide, still dark. But Merlin knows how to deal with all of that now. Just as he knows that Arthur is not wearing any armour, that it's still too heavy, too smothering for his healing body. His knights are wary, as jumpy as children at ghost stories, their arrows already nocked to their bows. Merlin can taste their uneasiness like an aroma shifting over his tongue.
He can taste Arthur's serenity as well, and a part that defies all his logic is not comfortable with that. He can readily dismiss the fear of the royal knights, but Arthur is too placid? Incongruous. Merlin breathes. Waits.
They take their time. Arthur's pervasive calm expands to include their travels, their lack of speed. Merlin stretches out and ponders the tides washing around Arthur, whether the cool, steady one is Gawain, the jumpy, tingly one Lucan. He knows nothing about how any of it turned out, whether Tyrell's title was rescinded, whether Gawain was banished from service. If Arthur had anything to say about it, Merlin knows neither can be true.
But he doesn't know. He hasn't seen Arthur in weeks. Merlin's breath stalls in his throat. He swallows.
The knights stop a half mile out. Not willingly; Merlin can feel the unrest. But they will do anything for their lord, and suddenly… suddenly Merlin is certain of Gawain's presence because Gawain would believe the prince if he said… if he said that Merlin…
If there might, in fact, be some reason why these woods hold no danger for Arthur Pendragon, Crown Prince of Camelot.
A sense of peace washes through Merlin, unexpected, but his magic moves before his mind can form sluggish thought. All of it sings for Arthur's safe passage, his well-being. His shield against any who dwell within reach. Arthur exists in his own sphere, full of the trees, the wind, and Merlin's desire to see him safely through, come flood or assassin.
He can feel Arthur moving through the woods, the ebb-tide of the nearest trees and delicate grasses swaying back to let him through. It's a lazy shift of energies, like the river flowing around rocks, tumbling plants and fish and righting them again. Arthur's energy is spiced and hot with human life, far from the cool, watery breeze of the forest. Merlin feels each of Arthur's steps as though he can see them taking place, the soft thump of boots sending motes into the air, a steady stride that denotes good health. There is no sense of sickness on the air; the forest drifts around Arthur as he approaches. Lets him in and pushes him gently on his way through.
For the first time, Merlin realises how lovely Arthur's energy is. Now that it's not steeped in illness, and now that his own eyes are opened… God, but Arthur is beautiful. Warm scents: goldenrod and the cinnamon-red of heated earth. That heat shoots out into the forest and each tree leans toward Arthur as he passes, bending silver-green mint and waving it back again like wheat in the wind. And it is so, so familiar that Merlin knows right away how long he's lived with it, had it wafting around him and not even known it, but… he had known it, somewhere. Arthur's energy has beaten against his for years, lifted and held his, clashed off of his, and finally entangled with his.
When Arthur steps out, over the boundary line of his dwelling and into sun and sight, Merlin breathes.
There is a moment where Arthur just stands there, clad in dark breeches and boots and the red tunic Merlin has so often seen embracing his lean frame, and looks at Merlin. His eyes close a little, and he gives a single, shaky nod. His mouth twists briefly into a grimace, but when his eyes open wide again, they settle immediately and hold to Merlin, studying, viewing and deconstructing and absorbing all at once. It's the first moment; Merlin can only look back, at Arthur's upright stance and the healthy glow of his skin, and try not to react the way his body is attempting to. The last time he saw Arthur, he was half dead, and now… now it's just enough to know that he isn't. He isn't.
Arthur moves forward, boots crunching through the grass on the path proper. Even knowing that his will alone is enough to keep Arthur's body free of arrows and steel, Merlin's heart slips up into his throat with each of Arthur's strides, because his mind won't let go of what Arthur's death looked like, bleeding there on the ground, clutching hands and wild eyes. Moreover, the thought that he has such control over the whim of the world is still too massive to entertain. Perhaps someday, when he's not awash in chaos, watching Arthur draw nearer.
When they are just an arm's reach from each other, Arthur stops. Merlin still cannot take his eyes off him: he's not the same man Merlin left lying on a sickbed, and he is not the same man Merlin saved on the field. It seems ages ago. Arthur is more than all of that now, and it's blinding, what Merlin can see.
He drops his eyes. There haven't been many times that he has felt the soul-deep need to bow to Arthur. When the urge does strike, it's a heady blow, and Arthur has always earned it. This time is the sharpest, the most fervent, of them all.
"You're all right," he says, and looks down, at Arthur's sleeve.
Arthur doesn't respond. Merlin raises his eyes then to find Arthur watching him, his expression full of overwhelming implications, realisations, events that Arthur must have been thinking about ever since he regained consciousness. Things Merlin can no longer hide because he dove in head first, and damn everything, he doesn't regret what he did for an instant. He can't regret it because that would mean regretting Arthur's continued existence.
Arthur's face goes vaguely sad. He rubs his forehead with his fingertips, and the motion is so familiar that Merlin is transfixed.
"I'm all right," Arthur answers quietly. His lips curve, a smile that hides nothing behind it.
Merlin nods to himself. Nods again. Arthur moves forward, an unsteady jolt, and Merlin realises he's swaying. He rights himself, holding up a hand, and Arthur halts.
And frowns. Looks away in such a manner that Merlin's throat closes. Arthur shakes his head. The old anguish erupts, as though it has only lain dormant, and for a moment, Merlin feels their connection snapping.
Arthur's words bring him back to earth. "This is a beautiful place."
Merlin tries to reorient himself but instead finds Arthur calm, wafting in the breeze again with the trees. The previous pain is gone, though Merlin is certain he felt it. Arthur inhales through his nose and closes his eyes. "Used to come here as a child. Before the summers with Kai."
Arthur turns as though his memories lie in movement, gazing over the clearing, the still-dilapidated lodge house, the small garden, and finally Merlin. "Now it's all ruins."
The pain slips into Merlin's awareness again. At first he thinks it's his own, until he looks into Arthur's eyes. Arthur's throat ripples.
"You never said anything."
There are words, explanations. Merlin can't grasp any of them now. He can only return Arthur's haunted stare.
"How many times did you save me?" Arthur asks. "How many times did I think myself skilled, undefeatable? Or just blessed?"
Merlin no longer wants to meet Arthur's gaze. "I'm… so sorry. Arthur."
Arthur's brows pinch. Merlin knows now that he's thought it all through, every last event, and then, as if to stab the blade deeper, Arthur begins to name them.
"Valiant." The name is a stone in a pond. "Aredian. The windstorm at Ealdor, the troll… My boots, and my armor and my keys." Arthur shudders. Pauses and looks straight at Merlin. "The Questing Beast?"
Merlin can't refuse Arthur's stare.
Arthur moves closer. "The light in the cave?" he asks, very softly.
Merlin nods. For a long time, Arthur just looks at him. The pain flitters in and out. Merlin's mind reels at the unevenness of it.
"It seems I owe you even more," Arthur murmurs.
Merlin has to try twice to get the words out. "No," he says at last. Shakes his head. "You've never owed me anything."
Arthur moves gingerly, walking to the lodge and settling down on the bench beside Merlin's arrangement of dried herbs. His knuckles tense around the edge of the wood, discomfort flitting about his eyes and mouth. Merlin follows, searching the vee of Arthur's shirt, the lacings loosely hung, the flawless stretch of skin he can see.
Whatever Arthur is saying goes quiet, ending with "Merlin?" Not really a question or a statement; Merlin has no idea how Arthur manages both at the same time. He looks up to find blue eyes fixed quizzically on his face. Arthur looks down, craning back, eyes dropping to his own chest, and then rising again. They watch each other for several seconds.
"You want to see my war wounds?" And suddenly Arthur is just a boy again, the climax of a prank hanging on his lips. Merlin's chest hurts fiercely.
Arthur sends him a quick grin and rises from the bench. He reaches to loosen his shirt laces. His fingers travel surely, tugging here, pulling there, and then he pulls the material away and bares the left side of his chest.
Merlin looks. But something in his mind is not letting him see. Arthur's hand, the knuckles paler than they used to be, hovers there, a curl of fingers that Merlin can remember clasping until his own hand was numb. Arthur breathes; his chest rises and falls, and Merlin starts forward as though Arthur has reached out and pulled him.
Arthur is silent as he lets Merlin look. Two little marks, now as harmless as old calluses, each one rayed like a small, perfect star. But Merlin has not forgotten them. He touches. Arthur's skin is full of heat under his fingertips. One of the stars has a jagged edge, a tiny fold of scar tissue that bumps under Merlin's thumb, and then Arthur moves, grabs his hand just where it meets his wrist and wraps his fingers around it. Merlin realises he is shaking.
"Steady on," Arthur murmurs. It's spoken so calmly that Merlin can't understand it at first, and suddenly he's pressing his palm flat to Arthur's bare chest, hiding the stars from sight, and trying to remember what breathing is like.
"Merlin," Arthur says. He reaches up, smooths one hand over Merlin's hair, and Merlin straightens and sways all in one movement, one fist pressed hard to Arthur's side, abruptly closed in Arthur's grip. He leans in, can't help but fall, and is gathered and steadied, and kissed, all as easy as exhaling.
A second later, Arthur's body curls and he breathes out a tiny, torn sound against Merlin's lips. Everything tightens, his grip, his muscles, the press of his mouth to Merlin's; Merlin hears, tastes, some sort of collapse. His chest is a single overwhelming ache, and Arthur's hold on his hand is as natural as if he's always held fast to Merlin's hand, to his body and soul.
Merlin knows now that he has.
Arthur ends the kiss, kneads a hand through Merlin's hair, and pulls him close. Merlin can smell him, so familiar, now healthy and vibrant. He feels lips press against his forehead and linger, feels the huff of Arthur's breath stirring his hair. He can't help the way his fingers curl into the back of Arthur's tunic, holding that new heat as close as he can.
"I don't…" Arthur's voice shudders to a stop and Merlin opens his eyes. Arthur's grip tightens. "I don't know how to thank you."
There is nothing to be thanked for. Nothing. Merlin knows he would do it again, though he dreads its necessity. There is nothing Merlin would stop at to keep Arthur breathing, able to speak and stand and hold onto him like he's doing right now. He will call deep, dangerous magic to his fingers a thousand times if that is all that stands in the way of Arthur's demise.
"And I don't want you to do it again. Ever."
Merlin jerks back. Arthur's hand drops, and Merlin steps away, trying for the right amount of space to make those words make sense. But they don't, they never will.
"What?" Merlin manages. It sounds like a snake's hiss to him.
It's too much, looking Arthur in the face and seeing the way Arthur sees him. God, what does he look like to Arthur, now that Arthur knows everything about him? Everything, even what Merlin has not yet said aloud, because Arthur was never, ever a fool. His prince, his future king, knows it all.
Merlin speaks, low. "I did what I had to do."
"What you did, Merlin, is save my life." The words pierce, unforgiving as only Arthur can be. Merlin meets his eyes and sees the force coming back at him; Arthur will be right in this as he is in everything, and the worst of it is, Merlin cannot argue the point this time.
"Merlin, you…" Arthur breaks off and looks around skittishly, as though his thoughts are heaving themselves away from him. But he will catch them because nothing ever ultimately escapes from Arthur's grasp when he desires it, and Merlin is suddenly too afraid of the barriers being broken down, the ones he himself has already smote into dust. He reaches, touches. Pulls back. He has warm herbal broth in the lodge, and tells Arthur so, but Arthur is having none of it.
"No, let me say this." Arthur turns Merlin's wrist as simply as breathing and locks his fingers around it, pulling him to a halt. It's hard to meet Arthur's gaze, but harder to stop once he's begun. Arthur licks his lower lip. "Merlin, you sacrificed your life to save mine. Again."
He's seen tears in Arthur's eyes before. This time the glimmer is frustrated, helpless.
"You have to stop doing that," Arthur hisses, clenching Merlin's wrist, gathering his other hand up.
Merlin opens his mouth. Shuts it. Gets angry. "Do you even know what you're asking?"
Arthur looks at him mutely. The expression on his face is so suddenly full of pain that Merlin pulls away.
"And let you die," Merlin spits out.
Arthur rubs his hand over his face again and looks toward the sky. His throat is a creamy, perfect arch, half shadowed by the lodge. "You misunderstand, Merlin. This hasn't to do with me."
"Of course it does!" Arthur's nervous energy has spilled into Merlin; he can't stop the words. "You'd be dead in the ground!"
"I know that!" Arthur fires back. His hand whips back down to his side, clenching. He's gone terribly pale.
Merlin shakes, half with fear at the way Arthur looks—nearly in his grave all over again—and half with the need to make him see. Arthur meets his glare, then he jerks forward too quickly for Merlin to anticipate and wraps a hand in Merlin's sleeve just over his forearm. "I know you kept me alive, don't ever think that I don't know what you did for me. But at the cost of your life? Merlin."
He utters Merlin's name as though saying it is another stab to Arthur's own heart. As though the word is cutting off his breath even as it comes out. As though Arthur needs to say it, needs to hear it, a spell in and of itself. Merlin stares, wordless. A tear gathers on Arthur's eyelashes, a spark in the sunlight.
"You'd be dead and in the ground," Arthur echoes.
Merlin frees his arm with a yank. "I'm not," he hisses.
"You were almost as good as! And then you came back, when you should have gone. Merlin, do you see?"
He does, actually. It's an ugly, ugly paradox, one they will no doubt tangle themselves in again. He focuses on Arthur's trembling hand instead of his face, and speaks lowly. "You'd rather be the dead one, then?"
Again, silence that doesn't need words to speak its piece. Arthur's fingers relax abruptly, hanging at his side. His thumb rests against the hem of his breeches.
"I'd rather you be alive," he whispers.
Merlin feels his magic twining through him, his gift and his curse. At times, his weapon. Now, his truest and most sacred connection to the man before him, and he will never, ever give that up, not to save his own life or anyone else's, but to save the life of the one to whom it has tied him.
He knows, deeper than thought, as deep as this new magic itself, that Arthur feels the same.
Must it always be a balance with magic? He wants to scream, to wrench Nimueh out of the ether and shake her to ribbons again for being right even when she was wrong, for knowing the roll of thunder as well as the strike of lightning that flickers omnisciently before it. He cannot be the life taken in order to save Arthur's—Arthur will kill himself before he allows that—and yet he will not be the one who lives at the expense of the other.
Merlin gives the magic a tiny bit of rein, and it whispers through him, making promises that he believes: This time, with this man, it will not be either or. It will be both, at one time, in one place.
"Do not ask me not to protect you," Merlin says. It's not as firm as he had hoped, but it is heard: Arthur's mouth presses into a line. "I don't have it in me to do that. Arthur, I don't."
Arthur looks as though he might fly apart with the energy he's containing. His head whips to the side; Merlin watches the bob of his throat, the clench of his jaw. He listens to the silence when Arthur does not argue.
He wants to reach, to touch Arthur, as he has done in every dream since coming to the lodge. But the weight is different now, the air shifting around them not the same as it always has been, and he cannot get himself to move.
"My father would have seen you burned." Merlin hears how much of a struggle those words are. Arthur brings them out fluidly anyway, but the injury is clear, cavernous, and Merlin cannot keep from marveling over the wonder that is Arthur, that he has the ability to be multiple things at once, to feel so much and express so much, and still hold tight to his control. It's a sort of magic on its own, and Merlin feels its power.
"What will you do?" he asks. Arthur studies him in such a way that Merlin wants to hold his gaze and hold it and hold it and… forever.
"Wait, I expect." Arthur speaks lowly, some energy lost where before it had always been strong. "Welcome you back, when it's time."
Back to Camelot. Merlin shuts his eyes.
"Until then, I'll come to you," Arthur says quietly.
Merlin's eyes fly open and he stares. Because… because Arthur's regard is the support of hard, firm earth beneath Merlin's feet. He wants to break; this has the power to break him, and he's not even sure yet what Arthur has promised.
"Your… The king." It's not a question. It's not an answer, it's nothing but three words. It's all Merlin can manage.
Arthur's face goes sad. He rubs his forehead again. So simple. So riveting.
"He won't do anything," Arthur says at last. "Not about this."
Merlin absorbs the words. "Even though I use magic."
Arthur frowns. It's a hard expression. "We've come to… an understanding."
Merlin waits, and finally Arthur sighs and drops his eyes. "You saved my life, Merlin. He won't come anywhere near you."
The silent Not while I am here to keep him away is almost visible in Arthur's expression. Merlin has to breathe, to take it all in again. The truth is that he's safe. Arthur has extracted a steep promise, but when it comes to his son, this time Uther Pendragon will be a man of his word.
It does not make Merlin happy, or relieved. All he feels is the distance that already stretches between them, a distance of miles and days, and eventually… too far to traverse for either of them. It spikes through him again, how much he misses Arthur, how much he thrives on being with him. He's almost ready to fling himself straight into the fires if it means he gets to go back to Camelot with Arthur this one last time. For all their power and promise, the forest and the earth are no match for Arthur Pendragon.
"Eventually…" He doesn't want to say it. Saying it brings it to life. "Arthur. It's a long way, and you…"
I'll be alone. The crux of it is worse: Without you.
Arthur studies him for so long, with such an unreadable countenance, that Merlin becomes aware of his own heartbeat again. And Arthur's pain, still swirling sleepily down deep. Arthur blinks and turns, as though in a daze, to the line of trees.
"You once said that you'd watched me overcome every one of my fears."
Merlin remembers. "Yes."
Arthur's face shivers. His chin lifts. "Well, you're wrong." He pauses, staring blankly into the forest. "There's one I can't overcome."
Merlin shakes his head. Arthur can surmount anything, surpass anyone. He says it aloud, and Arthur faces him, eyes a little wild.
"No. I've tried. Over and over, each time. I will never be able to get around the idea of losing you. In that field, I did lose you. I saw it coming, and I broke."
Arthur is—Merlin starts forward, and Arthur backs off. He raises a hand, shutting his eyes. Merlin can see more tears glistening on his lashes. "Merlin… You have to understand. I can't not come here."
And one day I won't be able to help coming to you, Merlin wants to say. But he can't. His throat is too tight, Arthur is watching him again, and his gaze is too weighted. Merlin can suddenly feel the proximity of the wall at his back, the sturdy stones and living moss. So close.
Arthur steps toward him so fast that Merlin's breath hitches. He raises his hands, instinctual, and Arthur catches his arms, slides up them until he grips Merlin's elbows. They are so close that Arthur's sigh brushes over Merlin's mouth.
"There was a part of me," Arthur breathes, "that thought I'd never see you again."
Each fingertip pulses heat into Merlin's arms. He can feel the rise and fall of Arthur's chest, a sliver's width from his. Arthur's eyes flicker down and when they lift, the gold in them goes so much deeper than Merlin's magic ever could. It strikes straight as an arrow, cutting through Merlin's shields, curling in his belly, expanding in his chest. Merlin sags against the wall and Arthur takes his weight, holds him up as he has always done.
Arthur's body shakes, an unceasing tremor. He looks right into Merlin's eyes. "I thought we were finished."
His nose brushes Merlin's, the smallest touch. Arthur trembles violently, lips so close.
"I should have known better, Merlin. We two are never finished."
It floods Merlin fiercely, sweeps the breath right out of his lungs, and he pulls with hands and magic, everything, pulls Arthur in, their mouths and bodies together, their heat. Arthur kisses him hard, shoves him up against the wall of the lodge and takes Merlin's thoughts apart. One hand settles at Merlin's nape, fingers too hot on his skin. It feels so, so familiar, a sweet sound he'd forgotten long ago, now returned and spindling every emotion he's ever felt, shedding torrential light over them all until Merlin cannot stop the ache of it, the burning behind his eyes. Merlin tugs Arthur in, hitching against him, finally, finally feeling Arthur's energy twined with his like it should be, the red heat and zest of it, the forest slithering around them both, and Arthur's body, a shockingly mortal presence against his, firm muscles in arms and shoulders he knows, the abrupt cant of Arthur's hips—Merlin moans, unable to breathe through the radiance pouring through him. He winds his leg around Arthur's, needing him even closer, both knowing and not knowing how to achieve it, and then the physicality of it takes over, rams into him and leaves him scrabbling at Arthur's body, yanking him in. Arthur gasps into his mouth, kisses him, catches Merlin's lip with his teeth.
Pulls back. Rocks into him steadily and meets his eyes across a space of inches.
Merlin curls a hand into Arthur's hair and breathes in time, fists damp golden strands in time, feeling each puff across his mouth, feeling his name when Arthur utters it, feeling too much heat building in his belly, feeling like he's finally come home. Feeling the soft touch of Arthur's mouth, the lightest of kisses, just before they both fall.
Inside the lodge, the sunlight splinters over Arthur's hair, across the planes of his face. Merlin can't let go of him. He tangles his hands in that hair, presses his lips to that face. It's a push and pull, him and Arthur, rolling through the very air like waves up and back over hissing sand. Every motion that is his is also Arthur's: they kiss in time, they stumble in time. Arthur's heart beats in time, a swift, lush thud-thud, thud-thud that Merlin loves with all his being. He finds the vee of Arthur's tunic and fits his palm to bare skin just to feel it, as though he can hold Arthur's pulse if he just reaches deeply enough, and Arthur will likely let him do it.
Arthur cradles Merlin's face and exhales into his hair as they make their unsteady way through the room, presses his cheek to Merlin's forehead as though he's breathing Merlin in, skin to skin. His hands tremble and Merlin kisses one palm, lacing their fingers together. The warmth of Arthur's body keeps surprising him. He can smell that life now, hear it, touch it like it's a solid thing.
Arthur kisses him hard, off-center and lingering. It hurts deep in Merlin's chest, not that he nearly lost this, but that he has it. The ache is horrendous and so, so sweet.
Arthur pulls back and tugs his tunic over his head, flings it away and drags Merlin to him again. Merlin presses his lips to the first puckered star of skin and feels Arthur's chest heave. He moves to the second, but Arthur wraps him close, lifting Merlin against him, and dives into a kiss so fervent it yanks a moan from deep inside Merlin's body.
Arthur keeps touching his face: his mouth and the slope of his nose, slipping thumbs gently to the corners of Merlin's eyes. Fingers glide along the arc of his ear and the pressure of Arthur's mouth changes, goes tender, vulnerable, searching, until Merlin forgets which emotion he's feeling.
He does know that he wants to feel this specific touch again and again forever, for as long as he's allowed to have Arthur, to be at Arthur's side. He wants so much that he can't think, can't move except to languish in it. Everything tightens up at once and Merlin jerks—the touch is lost.
"Please—" He doesn't know what he means to say or do, and Arthur snatches his hands away from where they've come to claw, to seize at Arthur's face, to keep him from leaving.
"Don't. Merlin?" Arthur sighs the admonition out, the question. His mouth slips to the side, alights again just by Merlin's ear. "Please, just let me have you?"
Oh god, he is Arthur's. Arthur has all of him and has for years. Merlin can't breathe past the emotion exploding in his chest, an immense burst of heat and light. It's magic, it's elemental, and it's something Merlin's never felt before.
Whatever he has left to give, he gives up; Arthur can have anything and Merlin is now capable of attaining it all for him. There's nothing out of his reach at this moment, which stretches, lengthens and sharpens to sensation, to the feel of Arthur on him, over him and around him. It circles down into things he should not know, not from where he is, but he can see their magic tangling, weaving so tightly it will take more than death to set them free of each other. Arthur urges him down onto his back and seals their mouths until Merlin can barely see past the flicker of lights, and then he's closer than he's ever been. Merlin feels him inside and out, pain and pleasure so keen he can't tell one from the other, and then Arthur kisses him again, a slow nibble that belies everything else, where their bodies are joined together and the heave of magic so fervent it will blow through the walls of the lodge and spiral out into space.
Arthur Pendragon is his breath, his heart's blood. Arthur Pendragon is all that he needs.
Merlin takes Arthur's face in shaking, sweaty hands and, as they strain together flat across Merlin's conjured mattress, he kisses every word he can't say back into Arthur's body. He needs to breathe to speak the words aloud, but he doesn't need to breathe for this.
Not to tell Arthur how much he loves him.
* * *
Merlin wakes and Arthur is looking down at him. The warmth of Arthur's arm is beneath his neck; Arthur's shoulder is a firm pillow under his head. He strokes Merlin's hair slowly, and his chest rises and falls within Merlin's sight. The two scars glisten.
Perhaps he smiles up at Arthur, because Arthur bends his head to Merlin's bare shoulder and kisses it. "Good morning."
The light outside is soft and green. Merlin turns his face into Arthur's neck. He inhales; scent fills his nostrils, and suddenly his eyes and throat are burning. It swells, it takes him over all at once. He shakes and cannot stop.
Arthur holds his shoulder, his nape. "Merlin." He pulls back but Merlin grabs him and clutches. Cries.
"Merlin," Arthur says, desperate. He succeeds in parting them, then cups Merlin's face, strokes his hair and down over his throat. His eyes dart. "Are you hurt?"
Merlin shakes his head. And Arthur did not hurt him with what they did either, because that is the next question, the one he most wants to assuage. But he can't speak. He presses a hand to Arthur's chest, bracketing the twin stars. Arthur's eyes widen.
He takes Merlin's face between his palms and gathers tears away on his fingertips. "What?" It's asked so tenderly. Arthur's expression is attentive, his brow creased, worried for a misstep. Sweat gleams in the dip of Arthur's throat, dampens his chest. Sets his face alight.
Merlin catches his breath as best he can because the moment is here, and there's something he hasn't told Arthur.
He can't. How can he admit to Arthur that he'll never again be equal to the soul he has saved? He's killed in vengeance, after the fact. He can feel the magic exploding out of him all over again, snapping Theodoric's life away. It was so easy.
But Arthur takes his hand and holds it tight, pressed against his own chest. "Tell me what you've done."
"I killed Theodoric. For trying to kill you."
It's out, but not gone. Nowhere near gone. Despair rises: something in him thought that lancing the wound, opening it up for Arthur and letting all the poison flow out, would fix everything. Maybe even reverse it somehow. Now Arthur has the power over it and still nothing has changed: Merlin is a killer. A murderer.
Arthur's hand around his doesn't move, doesn't even tighten. "What happened, Merlin?"
What happened? What happened? "You almost died!" It's a cry he wasn't planning on. "I couldn't fix it, I couldn't… save you! Everything I did just made you worse, and I—"
He's losing him. As soon as he threw that magic back at Theodoric, he lost Arthur. Until now, that thought felt melodramatic, but with Arthur's heat beating into his side, with Arthur right here, nothing feels out of the realm of possibility, and Merlin finds the notion horrible, that this lack of limits could be bad as much as it's good.
He'll do anything not to relive those dim, humid hours in Arthur's room, his nostrils filled with the smell of blood, unable to see past the pallor of Arthur's skin or the strain of each breath. But how else can he make Arthur understand?
"It was poison," he whispers. "It was your death, and I threw it back at him."
"To save me?"
He can feel each of Arthur's exhalations across his bare shoulder. "Wouldn't have made a difference then." He feels so sick, like vomiting. Doesn't want to see whatever expression is in Arthur's eyes.
Merlin jumps. Stares Arthur in the face. But Arthur looks back at him steadily, blue eyes ringed with a potent silver that Merlin has never seen before. He knows it's always been there, beaming out at him. He has just been too blind.
"Don't thank you?" Arthur counters. "For killing him? For loving me that much?" Merlin cringes back but Arthur holds on, forces him to stay and take it. "I am grateful, Merlin, do you hear me? I. Am. Grateful. I'm glad to be alive. I'm glad you're alive and he's dead, because between the two of you, there is no decision. None."
"Arthur, he didn't have to die," Merlin whispers.
"And you didn't have to save me. You never have to save me and yet you do it. You always, always do it. No matter the cost to yourself, Merlin, and there are many different kinds of costs. I know."
Merlin feels the thud of a separate heartbeat as old as humans themselves. It thrums through Arthur, down through the earth and deeper still. It's there in his own body too, and they're all riding on its swells: on a battlefield, amidst blood and the dying, between a single second of life and the next, there are far too many costs to count.
"What has this cost you?" Arthur breathes unsteadily against his ear. His voice shakes and Merlin clutches onto him hard. The need to hold him together is instinctive, as pure as the cords still snapping into place between them, and Arthur is about to break. "Never wanted this for you, Merlin, I never… ever…"
Merlin can still hear Theodoric's soul shattering under the onslaught, a fragile echo brought back to life by Arthur's warmth. His mere presence. But the sound of Arthur absorbs it, encapsulates it and seals it away layer upon layer. Beneath it all, one thing rings true, and as hateful as it might be, Merlin cannot really despise it. He pulls back, looks straight at Arthur.
"For you," he whispers, "I'd do it again and again."
Something shivers behind Arthur's eyes. They track back and forth, rapid and unsettled, then suddenly brimming. Arthur pulls him in, lifts himself and catches Merlin's mouth in a trembling kiss. Merlin sinks under the onslaught, breathless; hearing, finally, because Arthur doesn't always speak in words.
This time, Arthur takes him in, opens himself and gathers Merlin to him as though he is the one who holds sway over all this magic. Maybe he does; Merlin doesn't honestly believe he can hold it all on his own. This is too large for him, one individual still gangly in limb and life; this is meant for two people to hold, to rein in if they can, to guide and shape and channel if they can't. Two souls. Arthur's hands skate over Merlin's back, seizing and tensing, gripping tight to his nape as Merlin bends over him, traces a path up his throat with the tip of his tongue, and Arthur's head falls back, throat bared to Merlin's sight and smell and taste. Arthur's breath goes ragged, the vitality dragged taut, exposed. Merlin treasures the feel of it, the heave against his own chest, the skitter of Arthur's muscles and the living salt of his sweat.
He feels it too when tears slide from the corners of his own eyes, and he feels it when Arthur touches his lips to them. Sucks them away.
* * *
"Why did you kiss me? In the field?"
It's the frigid edge of twilight and the forest hums outside, insects and animals and the leaves and wind. Merlin has never heard such a blend of harmonies, and he knows it's because Arthur was not here before. The forest is singing to Arthur.
Merlin is sore and achy, filled with the vibration of thought, as though the forest itself has slunk inside his body. Their bodies, because somehow he knows that Arthur, lying beside him on the bed, bare naked with limbs akimbo, feels the same.
"I was afraid I'd never get the chance again. That I'd… die before I saw you." Arthur turns his head to look at Merlin and his expression goes hollow, half-dead all over again. It scares Merlin badly, but just as quickly, the look is gone and Arthur blinks. "There wasn't a choice, for me."
The conviction is simple and frightening. Not only does Arthur not question it now, he never did. It erupted into his mind and became the truth, and Merlin sees once again how thin is the line which they walk, how carefully they two must navigate if they are to keep from falling off, from losing each other over its edges.
"I'm glad." How can he tell Arthur the immense treasure inherent in that moment, the memory of a warm mouth upon his at the instant he most needed hope? Something to pull him through three cold nights, a recollection of life beside a bed reeking of oncoming death? And then the many days after, with Arthur so far away when Merlin absolutely needed him close. It hurts more acutely in retrospect, knowing what he went without. He doesn't know how to go without it again, can't even let himself think of that inevitable moment when Arthur must go.
He is in love with a king. And Arthur is king in more than just body. Merlin's known it for ages. He's always known it. The magic has always known, even when the mortal Merlin Emrys was too stupid to realise.
If there is one thing Merlin wishes he could have done differently, it is to make sure Arthur always knew him as well as he knew Arthur.
"Are you angry?" Merlin asks. "With me."
Merlin starts to raise his hand and stops. Breathes out, raises it anyway, and sends iridescent snowflakes into the air. They dance and turn, and melt away just before alighting on Arthur's skin.
Arthur's fingers move a little in the hollow of Merlin's side. Finally he says, "No."
Merlin tilts his head to look at him. Arthur is contemplating the ceiling. The line between his brows is deep. Then suddenly it goes smooth.
"I could be angry." Arthur's voice is just a murmur. Merlin hears the trees outside lifting their boughs toward the sound. Arthur turns, shifts until he leans over Merlin, braced on one elbow. "Merlin, when it mattered, you chose me. You choose me. Even when it means your death."
"It's not a choice, Arthur." Everything in him feels subdued, as though Arthur is coaxing it back down, willing the moment to linger and last and never, ever break.
Arthur nudges his chin up with one crooked finger, then drops his own chin until there is nowhere else Merlin could look but at him.
"I may not have liked your secret, Merlin, but it was a necessary one."
Merlin stares into Arthur's eyes and has no idea how he could have feared telling him. It snatches at his lungs: in Arthur's hands, he has been and will always be safe.
After, Arthur kisses the moisture from Merlin's cheeks. When their lips meet again, Merlin tastes the salt.
* * *
Arthur stays for four days, and then the wind changes direction and Merlin can hear the melancholy in its voice.
"I know." Arthur shushes him, grasps his clutching arms and pulls him close. Stills him against his own body. "Merlin, I know."
How can he know when Merlin cannot even put words to this pain? Perhaps he should have thought this moment through; perhaps then it would be easier to loosen his grip. To let Arthur walk away into the future without him.
Arthur's eyes glimmer. He shuts them and Merlin's heart jumps at the tears that slip free, the tears Arthur turns his head to hide.
Arthur presses him down to the sheets amidst the wind's somber sigh and Merlin gathers it all close again, each newly tinged sensation, every burst of colour and light. He can see Arthur's past, his present and his future, three men wrapped into one, and through all of it, Arthur surveys his world with clear blue eyes, holds a sword Merlin knows in strong, capable hands, bears the flush of life in every inch of skin.
It will have to be enough, for now.
He helps Arthur pack, gathers food for his journey, and gives him messages to take to Gwen, Morgana, and especially Gaius. Arthur's fingers find and link with his every time they pass by each other, every time Merlin hands something across the space separating them. The trees continue to murmur, and at some point, Merlin hears contentment beneath the melancholy at last. It's always been there, down in the rocks and the soil. Arthur's land knows. It knows he is finally coming—has come—home.
At midday, they leave the lodge side by side, hands clasped loose and free. But when they reach the tree line, Merlin tightens his grip, rests his forehead against Arthur's, and lets himself break down.
"Don't want you to go." It's a plea as much as a whimper and it trembles out from the rock-bottom of his soul.
Arthur's breath hitches once. He rolls his forehead until their noses touch, and the scents of sunlight fill Merlin's lungs.
"Wherever I am, it's always with you," Arthur says. He lifts his chin and kisses Merlin's mouth—slow—as fluttery as a moth's wings, then gaining ground, speaking right to his heart with each press and every nip. Merlin's flesh warms. He clings to Arthur with both hands and Arthur squeezes him closer. Wraps his arms around Merlin and holds on.
Merlin keeps still for as long as he can, then presses his palm flat against Arthur's chest and concentrates. The first chilly slither snakes across from his skin to Arthur's. Arthur makes a tiny, wondering sound, and the chill spreads, widens and morphs into heat, both blazing and icy, but not painful—Merlin would never—and when it wraps all the way through, it folds them both inside itself, links them even closer, and Merlin can taste Arthur's skin and mouth and blood and breath all at the same time.
"To keep you safe," he whispers against Arthur's lips. Somehow he has found his way back. He feels he has always been looking for Arthur, they've always been looking for each other, circling and cycling and now that they've finally come together, there will be no wrenching them apart, not in the ways that really count.
"And you?" Arthur breathes. He tastes like warm summer air, drifting in and out of Merlin's body as though he has always been there.
You keep me safe, Merlin means to say, but it catches in his throat and instead he throws his arms around Arthur again and cleaves to him and kisses his mouth and throat and just in front of his left ear.
And lets him go, eventually.
Arthur walks to the edge of the trees and turns around. A wide smile, different from any other Merlin has ever seen, sharpens his features. Fastens them into Merlin's mind. Arthur raises his hand, touches it to his own breast, and Merlin raises his back.
The wind bites, glacial against his ears, and the castle pumps heat like an open wound, the blood of hearth-fires, tapestries hung to keep out the ice, windows shut tight and plugged with cloth to ward off the snow's bitterness.
Merlin cuts a swath through all the white with a gentle thought here and twitch of a finger there. The ebb and flow of people through the gates is somber, as quiet as the death so lately visited upon the land.
It was quiet. Deep in the forest under a roof of woven ivy, Merlin heard it all the same.
He threads warmth toward each person he passes and watches it traverse the space, a tendril the colour of a flushed cheek. Their grief is delicate, complicated. Heartfelt and tender, as a deep gash aches. They do not know what to do with it, not one of them. Anger billows alongside relief, guilt, and genuine sorrow, separate hues to Merlin's eyes, and he can see the silver hem of untapped magic in some, a fierce lining beaten thin by the barrage of emotion. He stretches out and nudges it back inside them, slipping somnolence gently beneath each barrier. There may never be a time or a place for some of them, and the others he may face in a time ahead full of dark days, but that is the stuff of the future, and now Merlin follows the dripping trail of the one thread that overwhelms them all with its vibrant, ringing grief.
Twenty-seven months since he first fled Camelot, and fifteen days since he last saw Arthur. Fifteen days since he held onto him, tasted the impotence on his lips and felt the inevitable, approaching loss in his limbs. Merlin saw yesterday coming long before it actually happened, and when Arthur stepped through the trees fifteen days ago, back into his sphere one last time, he asked, but Arthur…
Arthur said no.
Not yet. He shut his eyes and whispered. Every movement dragged, every breath was a struggle within. I want—I need you to wait.
Leaving the lodge was as anticlimactic as breathing. He remembered the way back and walked it on foot. Two days' travel. Today, Merlin makes his way through the open gates and into the castle on steady legs. No one stops him. He can feel eyes on him, tracking his progress, and he wonders what they know. Yesterday, and fifteen days ago, and between, his presence would have done damage, but now the ultimate blow has been struck: Merlin's existence can no longer torture a dead king.
Merlin feels Gwen's bright copper shine and Gaius' stately, earthy drift as if he saw them yesterday. New knights, new chains of devotion and loyalty linking the castle towers together. But Morgana's essence has long faded, still woven through the corridors and into the very stone. Night lily and indigo. Merlin can recall the instant he knew she'd gone—a nightmare jolting him awake and onto the floor in the night's darkest stretch, breathless, heart thundering, blood and broken sunlight and so many bodies, the sour taste of the land years from now stripped of its life-force— rocking the careful scale even further off its axis, and now the castle itself reaches out and draws him in, pleading for balance long since toppled, urging in sibilant whispers to hurry, welcome and hurry.
The audience room is dark, plunged into shadows made all the deeper by the intermittent torches on the walls. The echoes of people, hundreds passing in and out to pay homage, to stand vigil, to look one last time upon their general in arms, everything weaves together into a chaotic tapestry, layered with the passage of hours and days. Now the space is empty, the casket gone, and though the room still smells of incense, a weight has been lifted. A breath of virgin air has flowed across Albion, for better or for worse.
Arthur sits alone on the steps beneath his father's throne. The crown is at his feet, as though it has been pushed to the side with the toe of a boot. His clothing hangs on his body, his face sallow, his stubble untended and lengthening, and everything is muted: anemic twilit gold. Lackluster, deadened far below its natural surge. It makes Merlin's chest hurt to witness the absence, to sense the void that strength once filled and see too many years of wear to account for. Merlin has seen Arthur in his mind for days, weeks and months, but at the first physical sight of Arthur's bowed head, bowed body, heat trembles through Merlin's blood, frothing, screaming to be released, to find anyone ever responsible for Arthur's pain and end them utterly, past, present and future.
The sensation slips away and Merlin swallows. He wants to promise healing. A moment when this hurt will mean little, when Arthur will not think of one thing before all others, an all in good time.
He knows Arthur felt his approach and knew the moment he'd stepped through the gates. Saw him coming without using his eyes. But Arthur's actual reaction is still difficult to take, motion forced into life, bones and muscles aging before their time: his shoulders convulse and he sits up straight on the steps, feet sliding to brace beneath him.
"Merlin," he chokes, and reaches out.
In a blink, Merlin crosses the floor. He grasps the hand extended and pulls them together, scents and colours finally rejoining, twisting back together amidst the darkness and showering it with new light. He tucks Arthur's head close to his chest, enfolds him tightly in both arms and feels the upwelling of it sucking at him like a tide, the heat of a grief that will not abate. Arthur's body shakes; he's drowning in it. He squeezes too tightly and kneads his fingers into Merlin's cloak, and bleeds it all out into the atmosphere, into Merlin himself. Merlin cannot stand against this onslaught. He drops to his knees, presses his lips to Arthur's hair and inhales. Exhales. In and out, until Arthur's hitching quiets, eases back and falls into a steady rhythm again.
He holds Arthur to him there on the steps, finally warm after so many months of being cold.
"Love you," he breathes into Arthur's hair. Strokes his head and the curve of his ear and the downy slope of his neck until his fingers meet fabric. His voice does not cooperate; it leaves him in fits and starts like the half-uttered spells he no longer needs. "I… So much. I'm so sorry."
This, Uther's death, was always going to be his homecoming. But he never wanted it.
Arthur's arms tighten around his body and Merlin stretches out, finds the center of his lover, his king, beneath blood and skin and sinew, and molds himself around him. Gives him every thought and feeling one after another, and they are all, all Arthur. Every last one.
When Arthur's soul answers, the power of it steals Merlin's breath; the first drop of sunlight ripples into the murk of months apart, touches down against him, and, amidst the sadness, welcomes him home.
All roads lead to you, there is no journey's end.
~Never-Ending Road (Amhrán Duit) by Loreena McKennitt