The feeling of triumph over mastering his powers and sending Kilgharrah away wears off in fits and starts. Even at the beginning, his joy isn’t as fierce and unsullied as Arthur’s because he knows the price they paid to defeat the dragon, and he isn’t sure it’s a price he was willing to pay. But Merlin can’t help feeling giddy and glad as Gaius ushers him back to their rooms, and when he falls asleep that night, he sleeps deeply for what feels like the first time in weeks.
For a few days, Merlin hardly sees Arthur as the prince oversees the rebuilding of his ravaged city and Merlin restocks herbs and potions for Gaius, and there’s enough satisfaction in the work to push him back from the cliff’s edge he can see out of the corner of his eye whenever he pauses to think. Still, his griefs start creeping in around the edges: Freya, Morgana, Balinor, countless knights and townspeople ...
(There’s a little girl who used to throw the softest fruit when he was in the stocks who was burned, burned because of him and how he freed the dragon. Oddly, she’s the one who bothers him the most at first.)
When Merlin is finally summoned back to being the prince’s manservant, he expects their conversation to begin with a stream of orders and the grin Arthur uses when he knows he’s annoying Merlin, but instead he’s greeted with a somber expression and hesitant words. “I thought I might give you a week off, to go home to Ealdor. It’s been a while since you saw your mother, and I meant to send you to her weeks ago, but then everything ...” I meant to send you to her after I met my mother and almost killed my father, he means, but Merlin doesn’t leave him to speak around that any more.
“I’ll wait until it’s a bit less busy around here, if it’s all the same, sire,” says Merlin, and isn’t sure why he’s putting off going home until he realizes that if he went, he would have to tell his mother everything, and he doesn’t know how to tell her that he’s the reason for his father’s death.
(His father wouldn’t have taken a sword for him if he hadn’t known Merlin was his son. Merlin doesn’t like to think about that.)
Arthur, back on safer ground, rolls his eyes. “Merlin, it’s not as if you’re doing irreplaceable work. I can enjoy the service of a competent manservant for a week, even.”
“I’m helping Gaius. Really, it’s fine. Thank you,” says Merlin, and goes to find something to polish so Arthur will leave him alone.
That night, thinking of what he could possibly say to his mother, to tell her the truth without feeling like a murderer, it all seems to crash down at once, leaving Merlin half-running out of his chamber because the walls seem too small to contain his thoughts.
He ends up on the balcony, clutching at the stone and staring out at Camelot in the dark, and letting a litany of names wash over him, names of people who have died because of his incompetence in the past few months. Freya, beautiful Freya, who just wanted to be somewhere green and lovely, and he should have found a way to get her out long before Arthur’s men killed her. Morgana--couldn’t he have told her what he was? They might have found a way out together. And then everyone the dragon had killed and Balinor, who’d stayed safe from Uther for years but died because his son couldn’t move away from a sword fast enough.
No, thinks Merlin. It started before that. Will. Hunith almost dying because he hadn’t made Nimueh promise it was he who would die. Gaius going to die for him. Gwen imprisoned and sentenced to death because he’d tried to save her father’s life. Even Arthur, more than once. And then ... why not add other lives to the tally? What about every sorcerer who died at Uther’s hand because Merlin had kept Arthur from killing his father?
And Merlin thinks Enough. Enough now.
If no one gets close, if he does not get close to them, they might be safe. Then Merlin can be Camelot’s protector, Arthur’s protector, and not let anyone else feel that they have to protect him. So he draws back. It’s not as if he’s the only one any of them has: Gaius has the King, who has been kinder to him ever since Aredian was proved false. Arthur and Gwen have each other, and neither’s loyalties are torn quite as much with Morgana gone.
(Morgana gone because of him.)
So it’s easy to tell Gaius that Arthur has a hundred chores for him to do and easy to tell Arthur that Gaius’s supplies need more replenishing than he’d thought, and both are true. He doesn’t give himself time to relax, or breathe, or really do much but work and eat and sleep a few hours a night.
(He only sleeps when he is so exhausted he can barely stand, and paradoxically, less and less each night. It’s as if Camelot needs someone keeping vigil, and with Morgana and her nightmares gone, the task has fallen to Merlin. He welcomes the task, uses it as penance.)
He goes near-silent, and it’s not as hard a trial as he thought it would be. Gaius seems worried, at first, but he’s still busy treating burns, and glad that Merlin lets him rest in the evenings while he polishes Arthur’s armor to a shine (again). Gwen walks the castle, at a loss without her lady, and haunts the audience chambers as group after group of nights comes back with no news of Morgana. She and Arthur talk, always in public, always proper. Merlin watches, and if his heart aches, he ignores it. Everyone is safer if he’s alone.
Gwen catches his arm one day as he passes her on his way to get Arthur’s breakfast. “Are you all right, Merlin? Have you been sleeping?” She pauses. “Are you--are you having nightmares?”
Merlin would take Morgana’s nightmares along with her vigil gladly, but he hasn’t seen a hint of the future. “I’m fine, Gwen,” he says, and gives her a deliberately insincere smile. She recoils.
He looks in a mirror later and realizes that he does look like Morgana did in the days after the Questing Beast, when her dreams drove her half-mad. Then he goes to pick mushrooms for Gaius.
Arthur takes the longest to figure out that something is different, and he starts giving Merlin odd looks just as Merlin was starting to hope that his withdrawal would be easy. It hurts, not speaking his mind, not having friends to confide in and laugh with, but it would hurt more watching them die around him, so he’s glad to pay the price.
“Muck out my horse’s stall, Merlin,” says Arthur one morning, with the grin he always uses when he wants desperately to annoy his manservant.
“It’s already done, sire,” says Merlin in his most neutral tone of voice, and tells himself not to take enjoyment in Arthur’s dumbfounded expression. “I had a free hour yesterday afternoon.”
“Well.” Arthur flounders for something to say. “Good to see you showing some initiative for once.”
Merlin does more chores than he is strictly required to do, and does them all faster than he did before, so that when Arthur orders him to do something he can say it’s already done and excuse himself to Gaius’s storeroom, which is safer.
Nearly a month passes, and Merlin can almost feel the space around him even when he’s in a crowd. It starts to feel right, in a way. He’s still lonely, so lonely he can hardly breathe for it sometimes, but this is his punishment. This is what he must do to save lives, so this is what he will do. And if Arthur stares at him for long minutes sometimes without speaking, Merlin just acts like any competent servant would and asks him what he needs. Arthur never has an answer.
(He saves Arthur’s life twice and almost lets himself believe that he’s working his way towards forgiveness--but then he remembers that this withdrawal is not just penance, but prevention as well.)
Arthur tries to cheer him up a few times, in the same way he did after Freya died (oh gods, Freya, the death that’s perhaps least his fault but still one of the ones that hurts most), but Merlin keeps his tone cool and insists that nothing is wrong. And since Arthur can never figure out if he’s the reason for Merlin’s mood, he always retreats in the end.
There’s always a cold, numb knot deep in Merlin’s chest, one he can’t untie no matter what he tries, even though they’re in the glorious heady rush towards the end of the summer and the whole world seems limned with gold.
As they start bringing the harvest in, preparing to refill the granaries, Merlin realizes it’s been weeks since Gwen tried to stop him when they passed, since Gaius tried to cajole him into one of their old talks, since Arthur has tried to roughhouse him into a better mood. (Arthur keeps watching him when he thinks Merlin isn’t looking, but that too will end in time, Merlin hopes. Arthur said it himself, that night in the inn: they can’t be friends. Maybe eventually they can just be master and servant again, and it will all be easy). Arthur and Gwen seem to be spending less time together as well, and sometimes when he passes Gwen she is staring out past Camelot, and Merlin wonders whether she’s looking for Morgana or Lancelot, and what happened between she and Arthur. Arthur throws himself into training, and Merlin is glad for the increased scratches in his armor that keep him too busy to ask himself more questions.
At odd moments, he finds his hands shaking, and he’s left wondering how long they have been, and why. Some mornings he wakes after his brief sleep to find his face wet and his eyes lined in red, and later in the day when he remembers his dreams, he remembers arms wrapped around his shoulders and back, his face buried in someone’s neck, and the sheer relief of human heat.
(Perhaps if he were someone else, he could find some serving girl or stableboy to touch, but Merlin knows he is not the sort to be able to have that connection without feelings, and then they would be bound to die.)
Merlin had always been too involved in everything in Camelot to really understand its workings before, but now he finds himself watching from various vantage points for hours when he has free time. He sees how lonely and afraid Uther is, especially without Morgana there. He sees the people of the city and their conflicts and love affairs and politics. He sees how Gwen eases fights and is always staring off into the distance looking for Lancelot and Morgana, not as present as she once was. He sees how much Gaius cares for all of his patients, and how he walks bowed down when he loses one.
Most of all, though, he sees Arthur. All of Arthur, not just how he’s always teased Merlin, not just the golden prince everyone else sees, but the king he’ll be someday. Not just because the dragon believed in him, but because it’s who he’s meant to be. Arthur, greeting a child on the street by name. Arthur, conspicuously dropping a coin near the father of a family that’s doing badly. Arthur, training his knights, and how worried he looks whenever one defeats another too quickly. Arthur, noticing more than Merlin ever gave him credit for and starting to act on it in his own quiet ways.
(He understands a few things he didn’t understand before, and realizes that Arthur is the one he has to stay away from more than anyone else.)
So, all things being as they are, it shouldn’t surprise him that Arthur is the one who cracks his walls open like an egg for breakfast.
The shaking is getting worse. Merlin thinks it’s the buildup of too much grief and guilt, but he won’t burden anyone else with his problems, and he can deal with a tremor in his hands.
(If he tells someone, he’ll have to let them in, and nobody has died since he drew back.)
One autumn afternoon, he returns to Gaius’s chambers after a long day to find Gaius tending to a wounded young woman with long dark hair, and he sees Freya, he sees Morgana, and all he knows is that he has to get out. He says, in a voice that he knows is too stiff, that he’s forgotten something, and he makes it to a deserted hallway before he stops and presses his forehead against a wall. He isn’t shaking yet, but it’s a near thing.
“Merlin?” someone asks, a voice he should recognize, but it sounds so unsure that he doesn’t, so he just shakes his head, just enough to be seen, and keeps his eyes closed. “Merlin, are you hurt?” He shakes his head again. “Right, that’s enough.” There, there’s the note of annoyance, and he knows that if he’s to keep everything as it should be he should tell Arthur he’s fine, just winded from running off on a chore, but he can’t make himself open his mouth. “You’re coming with me.”
Arthur’s hand is on his shoulder. It’s not that Merlin hasn’t touched anyone in the months since his resolution--he adjusts Arthur’s armor, fixes the fit of his jackets, brushes against people as he goes about his errands--but this touch is deliberate, and there’s no way to write it off as a chore or even normal. “I’m all right,” he says when he realizes Arthur is taking him to his chambers. “I’ll go see Gaius. It’s just a headache.”
“No, it’s not, and no, you won’t,” says Arthur, and doesn’t let go of his shoulder. When they get to his chambers, he actually shoves Merlin down into a chair before leaning his hip against the table a few feet away. “Tell me.”
“It’s nothing, sire. Nothing that will make me remiss in my duties, I promise,” he says, using the tone he’s learned over months of being a dutiful servant.
“Your--I’m not worried about your duties, Merlin!” Arthur bursts out, hands brushing through his hair in that way that means he thinks he’s tasked beyond all endurance, and Merlin wonders how long it will take him to forget what every twitch of Arthur’s eyebrows means.
“I see no reason why you should be worried about anything else, sire. Have you thought of another chore for me?”
“I have let this go on for months!” Arthur shouts, as if Merlin hadn’t spoken, and Merlin feels a quickly-quelled flare of annoyance that he hasn’t allowed himself before. “Months, because I thought perhaps you’d realized ... realized that ... that doesn’t matter. Or maybe that you were angry with me, or ... I don’t know, I just thought it was me, but then I’ve been looking, and you haven’t been talking to Gwen either, and I imagine Gaius would look less miserable and more harried if you were speaking with him, so I would like to know, Merlin, to whom you actually are speaking.”
“Begging your pardon, sire,” says Merlin, without a hint of sarcasm, “but as long as I am doing my job, I don’t see why it matters.”
Arthur just stares, and Merlin slips out, and hopes that’s an end to it.
It’s not the end. It’s the beginning of something that Arthur seems to be planning like a battle, and Merlin defends himself like a fortress. He doesn’t meet Arthur’s sallies with boiling oil, though, like he once might have. Instead, he meets cajoling, sympathy, yelling, and concern with icy indifference.
“I thought we might go to Ealdor before the frosts come,” Arthur says once, and Merlin answers that he’ll go visit his mother in the spring. Alone.
“Gwen asked after you today,” he’s informed once, which is a low blow, but Merlin just shrugs and goes back to preparing Arthur’s bathwater. He wants so badly to give in, to tell Arthur he hasn’t done anything wrong, but the second he does, Arthur will be in danger again.
“No, don’t put your mail on, I’ll just use a practice dummy.” “Let the stable boys take care of my horse for once, Merlin, that’s what they’re there for.” “Don’t be an idiot, you don’t have to wear the hat to this feast.”
Merlin starts to feel, absurdly, like he’s being courted. Arthur gives him bits of food, tries to make him converse on a number of subjects, and always seems to be searching him out in crowds to make scathing comments about other people, or just to remark on the weather. Merlin feels off balance, besieged, and is not naive enough to wonder why his heart starts jumping to his throat whenever Arthur comes closer.
He starts to think about leaving Camelot. Arthur is stubborn, and he’s decided for some reason that he wants Merlin back as he was, so it would be safest for Arthur if he left--but then what if threats came anyway, and Merlin wasn’t there to save him?
(He catches himself wondering once why Arthur hasn’t enlisted Gwen and Gaius’s help in this siege of his, and wonders if it’s Arthur’s pride or his desire to protect Merlin’s privacy driving this omission. He doesn’t dare ask.)
“I miss you,” Arthur slurs one night as Merlin supports him on his way back to his chambers, and trails his fingers cold up Merlin’s neck. Merlin shivers, and it’s then that he realizes the shaking has stopped.
He finds an excuse to stay tending to Arthur’s fire until the prince falls asleep that night, and then he stands and watches him for a moment. “Please stop,” he whispers. “You’re only making it harder for both of us.”
“If you tell me why,” says Arthur the next morning, and Merlin’s heart sinks because perhaps the prince wasn’t as deeply asleep as he thought, “if you give me a good reason for your acting like this and not talking to anyone, then I’ll leave you alone.”
Merlin wants to tell him the truth, but then he thinks the magic would come out as well, and how could Arthur forgive him for that? (He tries to believe that he’s just trying to save his skin so he can keep protecting Camelot, but he’s never been good at lying to anyone, least of all himself, and he knows that Arthur’s lack of forgiveness would mean more than his own death sentence.) “It doesn’t matter, sire.”
“It matters to me.” Arthur toys with the bread Merlin brought with his breakfast. “You’ve been so unhappy, and you won’t allow me to help. And if I thought it was just me, then it would be your business, but it isn’t just me.”
“Arthur,” Merlin starts, and realizes his mistake when Arthur looks up in shock and maybe something like hope. “Believe me when I say that it’s nothing you or anyone else has done. It’s all about me.”
“Is it that Morgana is still missing? I know you were ... fond of her. Gwen and I miss her as well, you know that, you could talk with us.”
And Merlin is tired. He’s been keeping vigil for so long, and he wasn’t meant to live so alone. He can only be noble for so long, and he knows how perilously close he is to breaking. “I should leave.”
“You are not leaving this room--”
“I should leave Camelot.”
Arthur gapes at him. “No,” he says a minute later, decisive. “You can’t. Look, if it’s about the ...” He closes his eyes. “If it’s about the magic,” Arthur whispers, “I already know, it doesn’t bother me. It did, but it doesn’t anymore. I trust you.”
It’s Merlin’s turn to gape, horrified, wondering where he slipped up and when Arthur saw, and he speaks without thinking. “It’s not that. It’s not only that.” Arthur’s face lights up in triumph, and Merlin backs away. “I’ve got to go.”
Arthur tries to stop him, but Merlin runs for the woods and spends the day picking herbs for Gaius.
“I thought you’d gone for good,” Arthur says when Merlin arrives with breakfast the next morning. “Please, Merlin. Do you want me to tell you you’re the best friend I’ve got here? Is that what’s making you upset?”
“Don’t tell me that,” says Merlin, and his voice is shaking. “If you care about me too much, if you trust me too much, you’re going to die. You almost have before, for me, and I can’t let it happen for real.”
There it is, the raw truth there for Arthur to hear, and Merlin is lightheaded with it. “What do you mean?” Arthur’s voice is slow, and his eyes never once leave Merlin’s.
“Everything I care about, everything I touch just goes wrong,” says Merlin, and then everything is spilling out, more than he should say, reckless truths he ought to keep inside. About Balinor being his father. About freeing the dragon. About what he did to Morgana. About Freya and her sweetness and how much he wanted to run from his destiny after Aredian and after keeping Arthur from killing Uther. About how he lied, when he said Morgause was telling the truth. About what had happened with the Questing Beast. “My mother, Gaius, Gwen, and you. That’s all I have left, now. And I won’t risk your lives like that.”
When he finishes, Arthur watches him for a long, long time, chest rising and falling a little more rapidly than normal, and Merlin wishes he would shout, wishes he would draw his sword and kill Merlin for betrayal, for treason, for murder, for lies. Instead, he almost lunges forward and jerks Merlin into an awkward embrace, arms strong around Merlin’s back, breath ruffling the hair by his ear, and Merlin can’t help melting into it a little. “You idiot,” he realizes Arthur is whispering eventually. “You complete and utter ... you clotpole.” Merlin feels Arthur smile against his skin. “None of that was your fault, do you understand me?”
“But it was--”
“No,” says Arthur, and lifts away from Merlin. Merlin, to his own embarrassment, clutches Arthur closer again, feeling like he might explode if he ever loses the contact. “No, you tried and did the best you could under the circumstances. No one could ask for more.”
Arthur kisses him, a desperate press of lips that Merlin was in no way prepared for, because while he’s been watching Arthur these months and falling slowly in love with a man becoming more a king every day, he has also been remembering Arthur’s care for Gwen, even if they haven’t been spending much time together lately. “I’ve been so worried,” Arthur whispers against his lips a few minutes later. “We’ll work through this. Together. Do you understand?”
It can’t be this easy. Merlin knows it can’t be this easy, that maybe Gwen will never trust him again when he’s kept her at arm’s length, that Arthur must be making an effort at holding back pain of his own after all Merlin told him, but he still finds himself kissing Arthur like it’s a promise, like it’s a vow, like he could never think of pulling away (and maybe he couldn’t). “I understand,” he says at last.
Arthur’s smile loosens the knot in his chest, and it’s not everything, but it’s enough.