Actions

Work Header

Price of Magic

Chapter Text

To be fair, somehow, he didn’t see this one coming.

Which is surprising in and of itself, honestly, usually he’s much quicker on the uptake. Usually he’d have already singled out who, and why and how to stop whatever plan they’d made, be it a sword in a hallway or an arcane piece of ancient magic.

He was used to that, prepared for rogue sorcerers and cursed objects and shadowy assassination attempts in quiet castle spaces, he was prepared to knock a goblet out of the others' hands if someone so much as blinked at them wrong, ready with an excuse of his clumsiness, knowing the others knew by now the difference between him actually stumbling and a desperate move to protect them.

Perhaps it’s because it’s been peaceful. Morgana is ruling beside Arthur as an equal, all the injust laws against magic have been repealed, the people are happier than ever. There had been no omens, no strange sightings, no whispers of monsters lurking nearby, perhaps it’s because he’s so used to people targeting them so obviously he can spot them from miles away, perhaps he'd just gotten the short of the stick this time.

Perhaps it’s because he’s so focused on threats to Arthur that he hadn’t even considered someone would target himself, would slip something into his own goblet, would choose to go at him over any of the others. Despite what they all say, he’s never seen himself as really all that important.

It doesn’t make any sense, really, and he can’t quite figure out why, he would get it if it were a distraction, or something to get him out of the picture so that an attack could occur, but it isn’t, at least not immediatly. He’s aware enough even now, to be searching for threats, though reaching with his magic seems to make it worse, sends shards of glass piercing into his veins, but he doesn’t let up until he’s sure. He’s sure this is all there is to it, at least for the moment.

Well. That’s not so bad, then.

He's sure the knights don’t agree, based on the distant shouting he can hear, he thinks Percival is telling everyone to back off, give them space. He's pretty sure it’s Lancelot, who balls up his cape and slips it under his head, so it isn’t cracking against the hard stone every time his body judders and convulses. Gwaine is running for Gaius, and Leon is searching the crowd, eyes sharp, trying to spot a single tic of suspicion on someone's face. Elyon is holding Gwen's hand, who started rushing to him as soon as he fell, and Arthur…

Arthur is squeezing his hand, he’s so warm, and he’s squeezing his hand, promising not to let go, he thinks, but he can’t hear him, past the roaring in his ears, the pounding in his skull. His stomach twists violently, and he retches, feeling as if he’s been turned inside out, his organs shoved into an oven and baked into mush, and everything hurts.

He reaches for his magic on instinct, it can help, it can heal him, and for a moment, it almost does, the familiar flicker of warmth wrapping through him.

Then it turns into fire, searing iron brands under his skin, and he screams, his voice echoing with power at the agony coursing through him as the poison latches on to his magic and ignites, kindling into a raging inferno.

Distantly he hears Arthur's frantic voice, calling his name, begging him to hold on, just a little longer, come on, you moron-

His body has other ideas as everything in him shudders, then shuts down.

He hears distant voices, feels distantly things are happening, and he whimpers as he's lifted, the shift hurts, everything hurts, but then he's held close against someone’s chest, and they smell like leather and metal and ink and relaxes as much as he can, because this is safe.

That doesn’t stop him from trembling, as every step seems to jolt the marrow from his bones, seems to send another wash of heat through his body, tingling at the tips of his fingers and toes, like acid eating away at them. Weakly, he tilts his head closer to the body, feeling it still.

“Merlin? Can you hear me?” he manages the tiniest of nods, already slipping back under, the harder he clings to awareness, the faster it seems to slip from his grasp.

“you’re going to be alright, Merlin, ok? We’re taking you to Gaius, and he'll… he'll fix this.” He hates the tremble in Arthur's voice, and realizes for some reason it’s fear. They’ve been in much worse situations, and Arthur is never afraid. It’s not like him to start now. He casts out with his magic, trying to make sure Arthur's truly alright, but as soon as he does every muscle in him tenses as white hot agony shoots through him, sending him choking and gasping, something sticky and wet leaking from his nose. He hears Arthur curse, feels him speed into a run, the world fading out to black.

“-don’t know sire.”

“That’s impossible. You always know, or have a suspicion, at least, I know you do, even when you and Merlon won’t tell me what it is.” Pacing.

“Believe it or not, there are things in this world I have not seen, and, unfortunately, this is one of them.”

“no. No, surely there's an answer, what’s the point of all these moldy old books if not a single one of them has the answer!?” loud thuds, crashes. The table being swept clear of its contents, sending them flying to the floor. He manages to crack open his eyes, seeing Arthur resting heavily on his hands on the table, head low, exhaustion stamped across his shoulders.

“Sire-"

“We can’t afford to lose him, Gaius. I can’t…” Arthur breaks off with a low puff of air, and when he raises his head, his eyes glisten. “please, Gaius.” Comes the plea, and it sounds so broken, he longs to reach out, to comfort him, to tell him it would all be alright, but he doesn’t have the strength to bend his toes, much less actually speak.

“I know, Arthur. He means a great deal to me as well. I promise you, I will do everything I can, to get him through.” He’s never seen Gaius this soft with Arthur before, he’d laugh, if he could. But Arthur smiles, a small, tired smile, but it reaches his eyes and it warms him inside, seeing Arthur smile, as he drifts away once more, missing the strain that comes back to Gaius as he looks to him, his frown deepening.

“what do we know?” Lancelot, his voice low.

“Not enough.” That’s Gwaine.

“And that isn’t helping.” Elyan. Despite speaking quietly, he’s the loudest. He realizes Elyan must be the one sitting beside him, dabbing at his forehead with a cool rag.

“He was the one and only target. The poison is actually part enchantment, some kind of binding spell. Its effects won’t fade on its own. It wouldn’t be toxic to any of us. Gaius is trying, but as of yet, there is no antidote or reversal.” That's Percival. The room stills at his words, all the air sucked out of it.

“Who? Who did this?” Lancelot near growls, ready to stab someone through the chest.

“Also unknown. Being worked on."

“How are we so useless at this? How have we not been able to fix this?” Elyon.

“Because Merlin's always been the cleverest one of us. He’s always steps ahead, before we even catch wind of a threat, he’s stopped it.” Gwaine answers solemnly. “and curing unknown poisons is usually something he can manage in minutes, sussing it out with his magic."

“It was a smart move. What? It was. He’s Camelot's best defense system. Obviously he’s so much more than that, I'm talking from a strategy perspective, but even that gives someone an advantage. Not only is the Court Sorcerer out of commission, the most powerful one here, it also has all of us distracted and distraught. And none of us saw it coming. That itself is a feat.” Percival, and the room goes silent again.

“So. We should anticipate an attack. Possibly from other magical forces, if they slipped through so easily, and had the knowledge to do… this.” Elyon says grimly, though the hand he brushes against his hair is soft and gentle.

“He’s stable, at least." Lancelot adds, trying to keep positive. “He’s not getting worse, not significantly, anyway.”

“We need to prepare. If something is coming, we must be ready.” He hears the men getting to their feet. Leon isn’t here, nor is Arthur. Leon must be making the king get some rest, which he no doubt needs. And the others all need to be rested and ready as well, but... he doesn’t want them to go. It’s selfish, but having them here, hearing their voices around him, eases the ever present burn in his chest, lightens the weight pressing in on his lungs, it makes it hurt less.

All he manages is a pathetic mewl, as Elyon's hand draws away, curling up slowly into a ball, trying to ease the pressure, ease the ache eating away at him. The intense agony iss gone, leaving him with this low burn, this crushing sensation, and he hates it. He hates feeling so weak, so useless.

“Shh, Merlin. It’s alright. I’ll take care of him, for you, until you’re back on your feet. Nothing is going to happen to Arthur. I swear it.” Lancelot, of course, Lancelot. He shudders, at the softness of chapped lips pressed for a long moment to his forehead, gods, how is everyone so warm, leaning into the touch as he drifts under again.

He shoots upward, regretting it as his head pounds and his body screams in protest at the sudden motion, but he doesn’t have time to care, as he tries to shove himself upwards.

“And where do you think you’re going?” He blinks, bewildered, his vision speckled with blobs of darkness, but even through it he can recognize Gwen's stern face staring at him.

“I need to go.” He rasps, it chokes his throat, and he coughs dryly, his throat is parched. Gwen's face softens, helping him raise a cup of water to his lips, his hands too shaky to hold it steady himself. Swallowing hurts, but the water helps immensely. Gwen tries to push him back down, but he weakly bats her hand away, stumbling to his feet, almost instantly dropping to the ground, sharpness lancing up his spine, twisting his gut. The only reason he doesn’t collide with the hard stone floor is Gwen's steady hands.

“Merlin, you’re freezing.” She murmurs, rubbing up and down his arms, her hands setting his skin tingling with soft warmth.

“Seems to me you lot are always hot.” He mumbles, and there, that gets Gwen to smile. Then he feels the tug again and gasps. Something is wrong.

“Merlin?”

“Gwen, what’s happened?” he asks. Gwen raises her chin.

“Who's to say something's happened?” Her point is underscored by a distant rumble, the castle nearly shaking around them.

“Arthur's in trouble.” He breathes out, looking desperately up at Gwen. “We’re under attack, and Arthur's in the thick of it, like always.”

“he’s got his knights, and Morgana is handling the magic, Merlin, they will be fine.” They won’t be. The attackers wanted him out of the way for a reason, and while Morgana's strong, as strong as he is, even, she isn’t fully trained, yet, can’t access all of it. She’s not a match for whatever is happening out there, not alone, not yet.

“I need to get out there.” He fumblingly pushes Gwen away, getting unsteadily up to his feet, swaying, but this time his legs hold firm.

“You can’t, Merlin, please, just listen-"

“There’s no time-"

“It will kill you, Merlin!” Gwen shouts, startling him into silence. “The only reason you’re even remotely ok right now is because you’ve been unconscious and not using any magic! The poison is still there, Merlin, it reacts to magic! The moment you use a spell, it’ll tear you apart!” Ah. That makes sense, why it’s an ache now, instead of agony. He constantly uses magic in some small way, so it’s leeching onto that, but it isn’t enough for the poison to really get its hooks in. He takes a long, slow breath, in and out.

“Better me than them.” He can see the shock on Gwen's face, the astonishment. “Now, I am begging you to get me out there, but I will crawl my way to the parapets if I have to.” Despite how he’s staggered against the wall, struggling for breath, his determination is fierce as ever. “I can’t lose him.” Gwen sighs, cupping his cheek.

“and what do you think Arthur would do, if he lost you, Merlin?” She asks softly, not waiting for him to answer, wrapping an arm around his shoulders to support him. His nerves twist with guilt, thinking over her words, but he shakes it away. He will always put his life on the line for Arthur. It’s his destiny, but more than that, it’s become his honor. The world needs Arthur more, anyways. It always has.

“Merlin! What on earth are you doing up here?” Morgana scolds, as soon as they step out onto the parapet. They had to stop several times, for him to catch his breath. His brow is covered in a fine sheen of sweat, from the concentration it takes to keep his magic from doing anything at all, he hadn’t really realized how constantly it did things, until he had to reign it in completely. He’s exhausted already, and the wind up here is freezing, and he’s shaking so hard his teeth are chattering.

“have ‘t help.” He answers. Morgana sweeps off her cloak, wrapping him in it instead, and he can’t help his shoulders slumping, at the softness of it, the warmth.

“He was going to make his way here or die trying.” Gwen explains, and Morgana lets out a soft huff.

“Of course he was. Come here. It’s almost over, they’re outnumbered and we’re pushing forwards. I’ve been countering their spells well enough, thanks to your lessons.”

He lets himself lean heavily against her, as she pulls him close to her side, looking out over the battle raging below.

It’s true. The invading army is retreating, being pushed back, and even from here, he can spot Arthur, his broad form unmistakable as he swings his sword, his knights fighting beside him, weaving around each other in practiced motions, a ravaging choreography as they cut a path through their foes.

But something’s not right. He can’t tell what, not yet, but something in the way the army's pulling back, but not panicking, as they should. Something in the way they take a few more blows to go down than they probably should. Something about how while there is blood, yes, there’s not nearly enough for what carnage Camelot's men are doling out. It’s a trap, somehow, it’s a trap, he just doesn’t know how, if he could just reach-

He bites his cheek until he tastes copper, forcing the surge back down, a warning tingle in his fingertips. He just has to wait. He has to wait for the trap to snap shut and hope he can react fast enough to stop it.

“Something's wrong.” Morgana says, and he nearly startles. He’s been so focused, he forgot she was practically holding him up. But of course she can tell, even without magic she’s a brilliant strategist, she knows the army isn’t behaving right.

“Where? Where is it coming from?” If he has a target, maybe he can nip it in the bud.

“I don’t… all over. It’s coming from all around them. I don’t understand-" Merlin does, a moment before he sees someone raise their hands, silver lights sparking from their hands, he understands a moment before the fallen soldiers rise, picking up their weapons, trapping Camelot's men in a thick swarm of enemies.

This time, when one of the undead goes down under the blows of a sword, they rise up not a second later, resuming their assault. This time the tide is turning against the knights. There are too many enemies, they are tiring, growing slower, clumsier, his breath catches as a sword slices across Percival's cheek, another clanging off Arthur's shield, barely blocked.

At another flash of silver, his eyes snap back to the sorcerer, seeing him hefting something in his hands, not needing to use his magic to see it’s riddled with enchantment, it would pierce right through the heart of Camelot, the heart of Arthur, and bring the entire kingdom crumbling down around them in mere moments. It was destruction and death and cruelty, that would imbue itself into the land, making it a hard, cold, unlivable place for all eternity.

No. Not on his watch. Not his family. Not his friends. Not his Arthur.

With a wordless cry he breaks from Morgana, stepping forwards and throwing off the cloak, eyes molten gold. For a moment, his power rushes through him, shining and untainted, and he can feel everything, every atom, every tree, every molecule of air, he can feel the entire world responding to his call.

Then that blinding agony rushes through him. He can feel the sorcerer smirk as he throws the spear, thinking he’s won.

‘Ignorant oaf' he thinks, gritting his teeth, shoving back the pain, forcing his magic to his fingertips. It’s hard, so much harder than it should be, with the damned poison eating its way into his center, now that magic is flowing again, he can feel it creeping closer to the well of power at the core of him. If it reaches that, there was very possibly no coming back from this.

It doesn’t matter. He shoves his thoughts away, too, it’s taking everything in him not to fall to his knees, not to black out from the strain, and he hisses out a sharp breath from between clenched teeth, twisting upwards with his magic.

Instantly, the ground rises up, lifting Camelot's men skyward and out of reach. Then a flick of his wrist and the undead are burning, their eerie, echoing cries ending one by one as they fade to ash, their souls settling peacefully into the ether. Finally, he clenches his fist, freezing the spear in midair, at the top of its arc, finding some satisfaction in the fear now in the sorcerer's eyes, as his own weapon spins to point back at him, impaling him through the heart before he can vanish.

He has just enough presence of mind to lower the men back to earth, now that the danger was gone, before crumpling to the ground, chest heaving as blood drips from his nose, the corner of his mouth unable to catch his breath, unable to breathe past the bone crushing pressure pressing in on him, sweat drenching him as he shivers so hard his muscles ache from it, an inferno raging through him, the heart of the fire deep in his chest, a corrosive heat devouring his well of magic, and therefore his very self. He is magic, made of it, and once this poison does its work, tears it all to shreds, he'll breathe his last breath.

He’s very thinly aware of a distant roar, someone screaming his name with heart wrenching panic and pain, and it sends a pang through his heart.

‘S ok. S worth it, for you, ‘s always worth it' he speaks into Arthur's mind, surprised at the anguished turmoil there. Then the inferno spikes and he drowns in fire.

Chapter Text

He’s shaking.

He’s shaking, he’s shivering, he’s cold, he’s so cold. He curls tighter into a ball, hugging his knees to his chest, trying to preserve any warmth that he can, but he can’t stop shivering until his teeth are chattering, and all he can feel is pain, and cold, and it hurts, it digs into his pores, it settles on his chest, and it aches, pushing down like a physical weight until he coughs, hacking, which in turn sets his chest ablaze with pain, and has him whimpering, trying to curl tighter, the taste of iron thick on his tongue.

“Merlin. Oh, Merlin, shh.” That voice, he knows that voice, just hearing it makes him a bit warm inside, makes his shaking not so bad, eases some of the pressure. He flinches, at a touch to his head, though he’s melting a moment later as a hand starts to card through his hair, gently, so gently, grazing his scalp. He manages to breathe, as the soft pets continue, though his throat feels tight and scratchy. He doesn’t know how long it’s been, before he manages to open his eyes, squinting at how bright absolutely everything is, realizing he’s piled under blankets, a raging fire going nearby, and he realizes too he isn’t in his own bed. He’s in Arthur’s. He makes a sound, tries to move, agony piercing through him as soon as he so much as twitches his fingers, a harsh gasp tearing from his lips, tears streaming from his eyes.

“Oh, love, come here.” He whines sharply as his world shifts, too weak to even lift his own head, but the person does a remarkable job of holding him against themselves in the perfect position so that nothing is cramping or falling asleep, cradling his head like he’s something precious, something delicate, and he could feel the strong heartbeat thrumming against him, the chest rising and falling in deep, even breaths, completely opposite to his own shallow, sharp inhales and exhales that sent pain stabbing into his lungs, through his ribs.

“I’ve got you. Shhh, I’ve got you, Merlin.” he blinks, finally managing to see past the brightness of the space, though everything is still hazy and blurred.

“a... arth’r?” He manages, barely a whisper, but Arthur’s blue eyes are immediately locked on his, relief and fear rushing across his face in equal measures.

“Yes, it’s me, Merlin, it’s Arthur, I’m here.” Arthur murmurs softly, slowly reaching out, brushing his thumb across his cheeks, wiping away his tears. “I’m here.” He squeezes his eyes closed as another shuddering jolt of pain wracks his system, that fire inside climbing higher, hotter. He can feel it, the void that’s slowly devouring his magic, his soul. So it had reached his center.

“m sorry.” he gasps into Arthur’s tunic, hands weakly clutching at it, as if once he lets go, Arthur will vanish. “s...so s...sorry...”

“for what, love? Saving my royal arse yet again?” He manages a small smile at that, at the pure fondness in Arthur’s voice as he says it.

“f... for this. For...lea-ving you, like th-is-”

“No.” Arthur nearly growls, it rumbles against his chest, Arthur’s arms tightening just slightly around him, his entire body curling around him protectively. “No, you aren’t going anywhere, Merlin, you aren’t going anywhere. You’re staying right here in my arms, you’re staying right here. You’ll pull through this. You always do.” Arthur sounds so sure. It almost breaks his heart, how sure he sounds. He doesn’t have the strength to crush that hope. So he just stays quiet, just lets Arthur hold him, rock him slowly, talk away quietly, rubbing his back when he coughs and pressing gentle kisses to his forehead every time he shakes from chills or pain. He doesn’t want this to end, so he clings to consiousness as long as he can, before he’s dragged away into the dark.

He sees Arthur, eyes glassy and open, splayed on the ground, crimson spreading in a pool around him, soaking the earth.

He sees Gwaine, always so boisterous, silent and ashen, cheeks sunken and eyes dim, wasting away from a plague he couldn’t stop.

He sees Percival, giant, gentle Percival, shackled in chains, treated like a beast, forced to fight for lords’ amusement, scars littering his body as he slowly loses his sanity.

He sees Leon, shattered at Uther’s hands, bones crushed and pummeled so he’ll never walk again, never be himself again, the resignation in his eyes crushing him.

He sees Elyan, sobbing on the ground as he clutches Gwen close to his chest, her face too pale, her body limp, he didn’t see the danger, and now Gwen is dead, because of him. He doesn’t blame Elyan for running him through.

He sees Lancelot, the first one who knew, tied to a pyre, burning at the stake, because he’s taken the fall for all of his own stupid magics, and the fool has the nerve to smile kindly at him as the flames rise, before his screams start.

He sees Morgana, losing her sanity, as her dreams rip her apart, her anger boiling over until she snaps, and all of Camelot burns for it.

He sees them die, sees his family, die, over and over, and he can’t stop it, every time he’s too late, or too slow, or too weak, or too stupid, and he can’t stop it, he can’t save them, he can be better, he just needs to be better, please, he can’t lose them!

“-going to hurt himself-”

“Have to hold him down-”

“I can’t. I’ll let go, if he fights, I can’t-”

“It’s ok, sire. All of us understand.” Then weight. Weight on his arms, holding him in place, and he snarls, no, he needs to get out, he needs to save them, he needs-

“Don’t!” He registers that as Arthur a moment too late, he’s already lashing out with his magic, sending the weight flying off of him, from the ‘oofs’ and thumps he hears, he surmises it’s the knights, but he’s hardly aware of that right now, as he retches, feeling as if every inch of him has been ripped to shreds by rabid wolves, then haphazardly glued back together. He hears a ‘bloody hell, Merlin’ from Gwaine, he thinks, realizing based on the taste of copper in his mouth and the sickening thickness as he swallows through his pinhole tight throat that he’s upheaved mostly blood.

It hurts.

Gods, everything hurts, so badly, it’s like nothing he’s ever felt, this pit in his chest. It doesn’t even burn anymore, not really, it’s just an emptiness, settling into his center, he has a pitiful amount of light left, barely enough to just maintain his existence. He can’t even open his eyes, he’s gasping for breaths, only the slightest amount of air wheezing in and out of his lungs, his every muscle and fiber and strand of hair absolutely pounds, grinding him to dust under its endless hammer blows. All he knows it hurts like nothing else ever has, and he wants it to just end. He’s pleading, begging, for this to just end. He hears sharp inhales all around him, he must have said that out loud, he can’t tell anymore, he just knows that he’s hurting, and he’s fading, and he has at best a day, most likely a few hours, before his magic will give out, and that means he’ll die.

Then suddenly everyone is yelling. Oh. He must have said that out loud, too, because now all the knights are arguing, shouting, panicked voices filling the air, he thinks only Leon and Lancelot are maintaining their cool, trying to settle the others. He hears a loud clang that makes him jump, that he recognizes well enough as Arthur throwing something hard against a wall, followed by Leon speaking softly, but it’s all too loud, it’s too loud, and it hurts, more hacks bursting from his lips, and he’s choking on bloody phlegm and he can’t breathe, and it’s too bright and too loud and too cold and too empty, and he’s... he’s afraid.

Not of dying. He’s never much been afraid of that, not the concept, anyway, though certain methods did send his heart racing with panic, especially in the early days, when being burned at the stake was still on the table if anyone found out about him.

No, he’s not afraid of death. Death is an old threat, always hovering over his head, it’s an old friend at this point.

He’s afraid for Arthur. Afraid to leave him, to make him do this by himself, to pass on because he knows Arthur will blame himself for it, and it will break him. It’s already breaking him, he can feel it, and that makes everything hurt all the more because he doesn’t want to leave them, he doesn’t!

“Merlin. Breathe, Merlin, just... just breathe.” Gwaine, he’s holding him, slowly sitting him up, easing some of the strain as he struggles to inhale, feeling blood dripping from his mouth again, finally managing to get something akin to a steady pattern of shallow breaths in and out.

“Merlin...” Arthur, voice small and soft and he shivers at the devestation there, his eyes blearily fluttering open at hands tenderly cupping his cheeks. Arthur is crouched before him, tears openly slipping down his face, and he hates it, he hates how broken his so usually strong and stubborn king looks.

“s ok, ‘rthur. You'll... be... okay...” Arthur chokes out a laugh, though there’s no humor on his face as he shakes his head, reaching for his hand and pressing it to his lips.

“you are the most ridiculous man I have ever met, if you truly believe that. And one of the most foolish, if you think I’m just going to accept this.” Arthur murmurs, he’s so soft, he’s so incredibly soft, as he leans forwards, pressing a kiss to his forehead, hovering there for a long moment, their breath mingling.

“All of you go get some rest. I’ll call if his condition worsens.” Arthur doesn’t pull away from him as he speaks, his voice firm once more, as strong as always.

“Sire...” Elyan, hesitant.

“I promise, I just... I need some time.” Arthur’s voice cracks, and that does it. He can hear the assent from the knights, a couple giving him soft touches to the shoulder, Gwaine settling him back against the pillows, propped halfway up to sitting, ruffling his hair.

“you hold on for us, hear me?” He just gives him a small, tired smile, Gwaine’s frown deepening as he leaves the room. Only Lancelot is left.

“Whatever you’re up to, you’re going to need help. And I’m not leaving his side. Not for a second.” His eyes slip closed, their words drifting far from his understanding, snagged in a restless half sleep, only their voices tethering him to reality.

Movement.

He winces, as it jostles him, but he can’t do much else, he’s so weak, he’s so endlessly exhausted, but the movement makes his head pound harder, and there’s cold wind against his face. He's pressed close against Arthur’s chest, though, and that’s alright. That’s safe. Then he’s passed off to somebody else, and a low keen escapes the back of his throat, everything in him is attuned to Arthur, always has been, and his magic is so small, now, he can’t even reach out and feel him.

“I know, Merlin, one moment, just a moment." He shivers harder as another gust of wind sends chills down his spine.

“Alright.” Arthur, and then he's being lifted upwards, the shift sending his head reeling. But Arthur's arms are around him again, carefully tucking the blanket he's swaddled in back around him, one arm around his waist, the other cradling his head. He hears Lancelot mount up ahead of them, then the sharp clop of hooves. Every one sends sharp lances of pain through his skull, each smooth step twisting his sense of direction, his internal balance spinning like a compass needle, unbearable vertigo rushing through him.

“Will this work?” Lancelot, he must be leading Arthur’s horse, he’s ahead, not by much.

“I don’t know. I’ve seen Merlin do it before but...”

“But he’s Merlin.” Lancelot finishes fondly, and he can picture the way his brows are drawn in worry, the shadow in his eyes, but the small smile on his lips. They continue on in silence, and he drifts again, until the horses stop.

“Here?” Arthur asks.

“It’s where he’d go. I don’t know if it’s simply because this is the closest sheltered clearing away from the city, or if there’s some significance to the spot.” His world shifts again, Lancelot holding him now, and he doesn’t even have the strength to open his eyes, to see where they are. He gasps, at a soft kiss to his forehead, a hand brushing over his cheeks.

“hold on, Merlin. Just hold on, for me.” Arthur murmurs, and he nearly whines as he draws back, it hurts so much less, when Arthur is near him, holding him, his magic stabalizes just a bit at his touch, because it has always been for Arthur. It responds to him, and right now it is dwindling, flickering like a candle in a harsh breeze, threatening to be snuffed at any moment, and Arthur, Arthur is the only shield between his power and the storm. His life force and destruction.

He hears Arthur take a few strides forwards, before stopping, taking a deep breath.

“DRAGON!” Arthur shouts, so loudly in the silence it startles him, then his slow and foggy mind caught up with what Arthur had done, was doing, calling for Kilgharrah. While he and the dragon are on relatively good terms, and the dragon had always put his faith in Arthur, that doesn’t mean he will take kindly to Arthur trying to call for him.

He has no doubt the dragon will respond to the call. He doesn’t have to, of course, Arthur isn’t a Dragonlord, he can’t command Kilgharrah to come, but it’s enough of an oddity to make him curious, and when you’ve lived as long as the dragon has, anything completely out of the ordinary is a break from the monotony of eternity.

“Did it work?” Arthur asks, searching the skies, no doubt.

“I don’t know. We just have to wait.”

He senses the dragon just before he hears the wingbeats, feels the powerful thumps of air, the surprisingly gentle thud, as he drops the last few inches to the ground. Just being so close to something so magical made his bones ache, made him all the more aware of his own failing magic, the freezing pit in his stomach hardening. It speaks volumes that the dragon doesn’t even seem to know he’s here, doesn’t sense his presence. That... that does not bode well.

“Sir Knight.” Kilgharrah greets, rather warmly, then again, Lancelot is the one he’s really met before. “Young Pendragon. Why have you called for me?” He hears Arthur take a deep breath, squinting open his eyes he can see Kilgharrah looming over him, though his head is tilted in question. He notes with relief that Arthur at least had the presence of mind not to bring any weapons with him, and he’s doing a very good job of not reaching for where the pommel of his sword normally rests. It’s unnerving, he knows, standing under that ancient gaze. You get used to it, after the first dozen times and when you have an advantage against it, but it’s still... a lot.

“I need your help.” Arthur voice strong and unshakable, but still quieter, than usual. Less boisterous.

“I am not a packhorse, and I am not a weapon. If that is all, young Pendragon-” he raises his wings.

“Wait!” Arthur cries, and the desperation sings in his heart. “please. Wait.” Arthur’s voice has dropped to a whisper, and his head hangs low. He glances back at them, nodding, and he squeezes his eyes shut as Lancelot steps forward, and it aches, the world spinning away for a moment.

He opens them what must only be moments later, coming too at a soft huff of air against his face, deep endless eyes looking down at him with a mixture of fondness, exasperation and worry. He’s getting tired of seeing that look on his friends.

“d...dragon...” he rasps in greeting, vision blurring so much he can’t even tell what he’s looking at.

“Young Warlock. What have you gotten into this time?” He huffs, though it turns into a cough, he can’t even hardly do that anymore, with how little he can breathe.

“s my own fault. Shoulda b’n payin more attention...” his eyes slip shut, and feels the soft leatheriness of scales against his cheek.

“Accidents happen, young warlock. Even you cannot catch everything.” He doesn’t respond, he can’t, but he disagrees, and he knows the dragon knows it, from another gentle huff.

“Can you cure him? We can’t... there’s nothing we can do, against this.” he can feel the rumble in Kilgharrah’s chest.

“And what would you give me, for my aid, young Pendragon? What cost are you willing to pay?”

“Anything.” The answer is immediate, and he’s sure he’s heard Arthur wrong, because in no way is he worth nearly as much as anything Arthur would be willing to part with. Kilgharrah hums, no doubt scrutinizing Arthur under his gaze, though he doesn’t hear Arthur backing off, either. “I will give anything. My kingdom, my wealth, my life, anything. I have done it before, for him, and I will not hesitate to do it again. Whatever you wish from me, Great Dragon, it is yours.” Arthur is... Arthur is on his knees. He’s on his knees, head bowed, shoulders slumped. “Anything, not to lose him.”

“Rise, young Pendragon. You have sacrificed enough, for this land and its people. You have the truest intentions I have ever sensed, in this matter. And destiny is not done with you two, yet. He will need rest, and he will be weak, but I will cure his ailment.” Arthur lets out a breath that comes out as more a breathy sob, tears streaming down his cheeks as he rises, meeting the dragon’s eyes.

“Thank you.” Kilgharrah simply nods, though Merlin can feel the approval radiating off him.

“Set him down. I must use my fire. It will not harm him, contrary to your myths, dragon breath can do other things besides wreak destruction.” He shivers again, as Lancelot sets him down, the ground cold and hard below him.

“This will be uncomfortable.” The dragon apologizes, and then he gasps, able to see the orange of the flames through his eyelids, it burns so bright it sends tears trickling down his cheeks, which are immediately evaporated by the fire. It’s hot, uncomfortably hot, but it doesn’t burn, not quite, it’s just scorching hot. Then he breaths in, and the fire comes with, flooding through his bloodstream, and this, this hurts, but in almost in a good way, like cracking his neck when it’s sore, or the sharp pins and needles as a limb starts to wake up. It burns him back to life, reigniting his spark, kindling it carefully until all the sickeningly sticky, dark power from the poison is scorched to cinders, and all that’s left is the pleasant buzz of his own magic in his chest, heady and invigorating. It’s still too little, but it isn’t being eaten away, now, and even this much is more than he’s had since he stopped the army. He feels solid, once more. Solid and real, and exhausted, as the flames cease, the flickers of fire vanishing leaving the clearing darker than ever.

“Merlin?” Instantly, Arthur is there, as he groans, blinking open his eyes. Gods, he feels so much better. He can breathe again, he’s forgotten how good it feels to be able to take a full, deep breath, in and out, without it pulling at anything, leading to wet coughs, and the pressure on his chest is gone as well, his lungs clear. His head doesn’t spin, anymore, as Arthur collapses onto the ground beside him, pulling him onto his lap and helping him to sit, supporting him against his chest, an arm around his back, as his head lolls limply against him. He doesn’t hurt. Nothing burns or aches or plagues him with chills, it brings tears to his eyes, how good it feels to simply be, to reach out shakily with his magic, and feel no backlash, to feel a steady trickle replenishing what he uses, rebuilding his shattered natural reserves.

“Merlin!” He’s started drifting. Arthur is scared. He forces himself to take a breath, to get his thoughts in order, to focus in on Arthur’s face, his blue eyes clouded with fear.

“here. I’m... I’m here.” Arthur grins, his entire face alight with joy and relief and oh, he would give the world to see that look on Arthur’s face more often, he’s glowing with it. Then Arthur presses a kiss to his head, and pulls him closer, holding him as near as he can, cradling his head, rubbing his back, his arms, reassuring himself that he’s still here, still in his arms, still alive, shaking with great gasping sobs.

“Don’t ever do that to me again, Merlin. Don’t you dare.”

“wouldn’t dream of it, sire.” Arthur laughs, at the snark in his voice, and he nuzzles closer, burying his head against Arthur’s chest, letting out a low breath, exhaustion sinking into his bones.

“Go to sleep, love. You heard the dragon, you need the rest.” Arthur’s lips brush over his forehead, his eyelids, the tip of his nose. “sweet dreams, love.”

Chapter Text

He wakes up.

One moment he’s in deep darkness, the next he’s blinking his eyes open, hissing and squinting in the early morning light filtering through the curtains. He turns his head at a snore from off to his right, snorting slightly at Arthur, sprawled across a chair, drool stains on his clothes. He frowns as he realizes Arthur’s clothes are rumpled, likely not changed in a day or two. His face seems paler than it should, and there are dark circles around his eyes.

He tries to reach out, finding he can barely lift his hand, weak as a kitten. He feels stronger, though, so much stronger. His magic is back, or working on it, at least, it’s just the physical effects of the poison he’s recovering from, now. No wonder he’s still exhausted.

He doesn’t realize Arthur’s stirring, lost in thoughts as he is, until Arthur jerks upright, startling a squeak out of him at the sudden motion. Instantly, Arthur’s eyes are on his, widening at seeing him awake, and before he can even say a word, Arthur is perched on the side of the bed, squeezing both his hands gently, eyes roving over every inch of him.

“Merlin.” He breathes out, and something about the way he says it, soft and warm, like it’s something special, has the tips of his ears burning. He has to look away, casting his eyes down, focusing on the blankets piled atop him.

“Arthur.” He mumbles back, yelping at a light slap to the back of his head, it didn’t hurt, just startled him. He doubts Arthur has it in him to ever truly hurt him.

“What the Hell. Were. You. Thinking?” Arthur growls, and he shrinks back slightly. He doesn’t think he’s ever heard Arthur this furious.

“I was doing my job.” He protests, and Arthur growls, dropping his hand and starting to pace the room.

“You were doing your job. You nearly died, Merlin! I know you knew if you used your magic you would very possibly die, but you still did it, you moron!” He’s baffled. He doesn’t understand why Arthur is so furious.

“I’ve nearly died lots of times and you’ve never gotten this uppity about it. I don’t see what the big deal is.” Arthur stutters to a stop, freezing in place, and he hates that Arthur is facing away from him, that he can’t read his face right now.

“You don’t see what the big deal is.” Arthur’s voice is far too even, far too cold. It makes him want to comfort him, pull him close and fix whatever is wrong, but instead he just stares as Arthur spins on his heel, stalking back over to him with fire in his eyes.

“The big deal is I was hours, possibly minutes, from losing you! I was watching you die, in my arms, and there was nothing I could do about it! And the worst part is, YOU CHOSE IT!” Arthur roars, and he flinches, instinctively curling inwards, trying to protect himself, hating the flash of regret in Arthur’s eyes more than anything, as he stumbles back a step, the fire dying instantly, as he slumps.

“and here you are, still weak and helpless, and I’m shouting at you like some kind of bully.” Arthur squeezes his eyes shut for a long moment, taking a deep breath.

“I would do it again. I will do it again, if I have to. I will do whatever I must to keep you safe, to keep all of you safe. I can’t let you get hurt, Arthur. I can’t...”

“And what do you think it does to me, Merlin, hmm? Do you think it doesn’t hurt me, every time something happens and it is inevitably you, using yourself as a human shield to block whatever harm is coming my way?”

“I... hadn’t particularly thought so, no.” He answers, too out of sorts to respond otherwise, watching Arthur’s shoulders fall, his entire frame softening as he comes back to the bed, simply looking at him for a long moment, before reaching out, tucking back his hair, hand resting against his cheek, his thumb lightly grazing it in gentle strokes.

“have I truly been so terrible to you, that you think I wouldn’t mourn you more deeply than I have ever mourned anything or anyone in my entire life? You... you are the most important thing in my world, Merlin, and I would never recover, if you were taken away from me.” He blinks, it’s all he can do, his mind is pulling a blank.

“I don’t understand.” He whispers, they’re so close to each other, he can see the pain and regret in Arthur’s eyes, at his statement, and he looks away, twisting the blankets in his hands. “I don’t understand, why... me? I’m not...” He breaks off, voice trembling, and he can feel tears pricking the corners of his eyes, holding them back with effort.

“Not what, love?” He shudders, at the softness there, Arthur’s hand catching his chin, gently guiding it back up, to meet his eyes, and that single touch has him weak for an entirely new reason, so he squeezes his eyes closed, unable to face Arthur, not with all the other emotions already pulsing through him.

“I’m not worth it. I’m not special, I’m not noble, I’m... I’m nothing, not compared to you. Look at all you’ve accomplished, all you’ve done, in such little time, how am I anything, worth more than all of that? How could my life ever be equal to, much less worth more, than yours? Why would you ever... why would it ever be me?”

“Oh, Merlin, my Merlin...” He gasps, as warmth floods through him, his eyes fluttering open for a moment, realizing Arthur’s lips are on his, he’s kissing him, then he melts, folding into Arthur’s arms, as they break apart, silent tears running down his cheeks, as Arthur brushes them away, kissing his cheeks, before brushing his lips against his for a brief moment, pressing their foreheads together.

“you have always stood by my side. You have weathered every storm, you have taught me how to be a better person, a better man, a better king, you are my most trusted companion, my truest ally, and my best friend. You have constantly laid your life on the line for me, and I am constantly baffled as to what I have done that has convinced you to put all of your faith in me, because I am wholly undeserving of such complete trust. And every time you do something foolhardy and incredibly brave I’m equal parts terrified and endlessly proud of all that you’ve become, of how much you yourself have grown, since that first day when we were ready to rip each other’s heads off. You’re so much stronger than you’ll ever admit to yourself, so much braver than you give yourself credit for, more stunning than you’ll ever believe. I wish you would put half as much effort into trying to live for yourself as you have put into trying to die for me.” He shivers, as Arthur runs a hand down his arm, softly taking his hand. “how you can believe, after everything, that you are nothing is beyond me. You are my Everything. My love, my sorcerer, my Merlin.” This time, the kiss is long and slow, deep and soft, filled with all the feelings he has that he doesn’t understand how to name, fueled partly by desperation, that the moment it ends, all this will vanish.

“you need to rest, love. I’ve gotten you all worked up.”

“don’t-" he yelps, cutting himself off, feeling so stupid, at his own weakness.

“What is it, love?”

“s nothing.” He mumbles, trying to slip off of Arthur's lap, to retreat back into himself, but Arthur doesn’t let him. He catches his chin, and once again he closes his eyes so he doesn’t have to meet Arthur's.

“hey now, it’s ok. Whatever it is, Merlin, I promise you it’s ok.”

“Don’t… don’t leave.”

“oh, Merlin. I’m not. I’m not going anywhere, love, I'm right here, I'm right here.” Arthur soothes. “come here, Merlin.” He doesn’t hesitate, this time, curling up against Arthur's chest, he’s so small, compared to Arthur, he fits easily against him, completely hidden from the world, as Arthur secures him in his arms, shifting them so they’re lying down, pulling the blankets up around them. He feels like a tiny kitten being cuddled by a lion.

Arthur resettles, slinging a leg over Merlin's, as he stretches out just a bit, one of his hands finding its way into Merlin's hair, idly playing with it, teasing through it slowly, scritching at the nape of his neck, relishing every little sigh it elicits as Merlin slowly relaxes against him.

“You’re mine, Merlin, as long as you want to be, you’re mine, and I will never leave you. I promise.” He shivers, at the whisper in his ear, then Arthur kisses the soft spot just below it, the warmth sending him tumbling into bliss.

“has he woken?”

“once. He…” he hears Arthur hesitate, then sigh. “he seems to not understand his own worth, or that he has any worth at all.”

“Of course he doesn’t. What are we going to do with him?” Gwaine.

“It's my fault, isn’t it? I mean, he’s with me all the time, how could he not know, unless I hadn’t made it clear?”

“Because he's Merlin. He gets lost in his own head. He gets so wrapped up in making sure the rest of us are safe, that he doesn’t think twice about his own well being. That’s on all of us.” Lancelot answers.

“We need to be more careful, with him. We need to make sure he's aware of how much he does for us, we need to state aloud that we appreciate him, because he doesn’t notice our other forms of thanks.” Elyan, and he shivers slightly, at a soft, cool touch to his forehead. It startles a small sound out of him, and the conversation freezes.

“Merlin?” Percival, whose been quiet. He always does like to listen more than speak.

“Mmhmm?” he manages, cracking his eyes open after several long moments of struggle, he doesn’t understand how he can still be this tired.

Instantly, the faces of the knights slowly come into focus, and he smiles sheepishly.

“hi.” He winces, his throat is dry, he probably slept with his mouth open. Elyan helps prop him up on the pillows, holding a cup to his lips. He drinks, wincing at the bitter taste that’s barely covered with honey, but it does the trick, warming him from the inside, settling his stomach. He'll have to thank Gaius for that one later.

“How are you feeling?” Lancelot, brows drawn.

“I’m fine.” He replies, eyes flicking to Gwaine at his scoff.

“What? I am! A little tired yet, but otherwise I’m fine.” He protests. He flicks his fingers, straightening the blankets, fluffing the pillows, opening the curtains smiling as he finishes, trying to hide how much using that miniscule amount of power has drained him. Based on the flicker in Leon's eyes and the small frown on Lancelot's face, neither are buying it.

“You’re supposed to be resting.” Arthur, fondly exasperated.

“well I was, until that lot started gabbing over me.” He snarked, the knights having the good grace to look a little chagrined.

“We were worried.” Percival, and he huffs, swinging his legs over the edge of the bed, trying to get to his feet, met by instant protests that fill the room, and Elyan pushing him gently back into bed.

“And just where are you trying to go?” Gwaine, staring him down with his arms crossed, a rather impressive stern look on his face. He doesn’t remember ever seeing him look stern.

“I’ve work to do? We were in talks with the druids about opening up schools for magic, and if they would be willing to at least teach about their culture, if not how to actively do magic, given how private they are, I have Morgana's lessons that I have to make up for missing with her, I have to figure out who that sorcerer was and if he was alone or part of a bigger movement, and if it’s the latter what they want and how to stop them, I have to determine if there’s still an ongoing threat, and I have to stick near you,” he looks at Arthur “in case I can’t figure it out before someone tries something else, and I have to figure out what that poison was and how to counteract it and sense it, because if one person figured out how to make it someone else will, sooner or later, and if I'm not prepared for it, next time I might not be able to stop the threat before it destroys everything you’ve all made!” He's panting for breath, he can’t seem to get enough air, there's so much to do, so much he needs to do, and there’s so little time, because something is always coming, some threat is always knocking on Camelot's door, and he won’t let it take them, he won’t let it take Arthur!

“Merlin. You need to breathe. Take a deep breath for me. You can do it.” He can’t tell who it is, it’s too garbled, his mind racing too fast. He has to get up. He has to get up and get to work, he has to move-

“Shh, right now you just need to breathe. In…out…”

“I-i-i…”

“Shh, shh, shh, Merlin. Don’t try and speak right now, just focus on breathing, you can do it, love, just follow me.” He flinches as hands untangle his from his hair, when did the get there, and guide him to something sturdy and strong, moving up and down in an exaggerated motion. Slowly, so slowly, he starts to copy it.

As the speckles start to recede from his vision, he realizes his hands are fisted against Arthur's tunic, the king counting slowly, the pattern of breaths he’s copying. He winces, and goes to pull away, but Arthur captures his hands in his, squeezing them gently.

“sorry.” He says quietly, a bit startled when Arthur just raises one of his hands to his lips, giving it a soft kiss, looking at him with too soft eyes.

“You put so much on your own shoulders, Merlin. The safety of the entire kingdom doesn’t all rest on you.” He lets out an incredulous laugh, shaking his head.

“Except it actually pretty much does.”

“Merlin-"

“There are threats, that only I can detect. There are threats only I can stop. And at this point, most of the threats that come to Camelot are of my variety, rather than yours.”

“That doesn’t mean you have to do it alone.” Lancelot, low and sincere, honestly, he’d forgotten the others were even here.

“what?” Arthur smiles gently at his question, running his thumbs over his knuckles.

“You aren’t alone, Merlin. You have us, all of us.” Leon.

“Gods know I'm not here for him.” Gwaine makes a show of grimacing as he gestures at Arthur, which gets him to let out small laugh at the “hey!” it gets from Arthur, though he’s smiling too.

It fades after a moment, and he looks away, down at the bed, they all look so sincere.

“We want to help you, Merlin. What do you need, from us? What can we do?” Elyon, and he doesn’t know what to say to that. He doesn’t know why that simple question has tears flooding down his face.

“please love.” Arthur murmurs, and he breaks, scrubbing his hands over his face, once again tangling them in his hair, squeezing his eyes shut.

He doesn’t know. It’s so… much. It’s so much, having them all… all care, like this, he doesn’t have an answer, but he doesn’t want them to worry, he wants to help them, wants to fix what’s worrying them, but he can’t because it’s him, it’s always him, isn’t it, it always comes back to him not being good enough!

“merlin…” he flinches back from Arthur's touch, pulling his knees up, hiding his head against them, feeling his magic spark at his fingertips, trying to protect him, reaching out and finding Arthur, it always looked for Arthur first, before tapping the rest of the knights, making sure they were all safe. Then it expanded outward, reaching Morgana, Guinevere, the castle, the servants, the city, only relaxing once it knew all was well, leaving him once again sapped and exhausted. He slumps back against the pillows, staring up at the canopy of the bed, vision blurring.

“I need some time. Alone. Please.” He finally manages, able to sense the shattered concern radiating from Arthur, the worry from the rest of the knights overwhelming, and he couldn’t think, with all of them here.

“alright. Alright, Merlin.” He feels the bed shift, mourning the loss of warmth, looking up as Arthur brushes his hand. “Two of us will be at the end of the hall on guard at all times. If you need anything, we’ll be here.” He nods, his throat too thick to choke out words, as everyone gives him a soft pat, a gentle smile, before all filing out of the room, the door falling shut behind them.

It’s quiet.

He forces a deep breath in and out, forces his muscles to relax, his hands to uncurl and lay flat against the cool sheets. A gentle breeze blows through the window, carrying the sounds of the courtyards, the training grounds. He focuses on that, on the breeze against his face, the scent of spring flowers and stone, the feeling of Camelot, alive and well and whole.

He lets that sense fill him, lets it well up and fill him with security, with safety, with warmth. Lets all thought drift away. He doesn’t want to think right now. If he thinks, he’ll be overwhelmed, he just needs time to let it all… settle.

Chapter Text

He doesn’t know how long it’s been, when he opens his eyes once more. He’s been drifting, not quite asleep, letting his mind wander.

Late afternoon light filters through the windows, the curtains keeping it from shining right in his eyes. He feels more centered, more settled, almost like there’s a few degrees of separation between himself and his body and his mind.

He looks up at a rustling sound, seeing Gwen bustling about, stoking the fire just a bit, replacing the old flowers with freshly cut lavender and lilacs.

Her movements are practiced, steady, and he smiles as she hums to herself, just a bit, tucking back some hair that had escaped her pony tail.

“You needn’t do all that. I can manage, myself.” She jumps at his voice, spinning with a hand on her chest, though her eyes soften as she meets his.

“I know, Merlin. But just because you can doesn’t mean you have to. There's no shame in getting looked after, when you aren’t at your best.” He swallows hard, looking away with a huff.

“I know.”

“you know when it comes to the rest of us. You don’t when it comes to yourself.” He winces.

“why is that, Merlin?” He lets out a long, low breath, as Gwen comes over, sitting on the edge of the bed. For some reason, it’s easier with her. Maybe because she was his first real friend, in Camelot. Maybe because in many ways they grew up, together, they changed, they learned, they evolved, along with Camelot and Arthur. They’re both tied to the royals, him to Arthur and her to Morgana. She understood, a bit, the pull of destiny and how much it ached, sometimes, knowing he really didn’t have actual choices, in life, he was just a puppet on a string, playing a part, a role, a mask of his own face to pretend it didn’t hurt as much as it did.

It’s easier, now. It doesn’t hurt as much, now. He hasn’t felt bitter about in years, not since he truly learned Arthur, saw him use softness and kindness and compassion to earn the peoples' loyalty, ruling alongside Morgana, giving her equal power, the power she had always deserved, fighting for those with magic, for the outcasts and underprivileged. It’s beautiful to watch, and he’ll admit that it’s all been worth it, to get to here.

That doesn’t really make it any better. Any easier. It doesn’t change what he went through, to make it this far.

“merlin?” he blinks, realizing he’s been staring into the distance. He smiles wryly, shaking his head to clear it, letting out another low breath.

“I have magic. I am magic.” He says simply, Gwen nodding, her face serious and considering.

“I know, Merlin.”

“You know now.” He corrects gently. “I’ve had it all my life. I lived with it in Camelot for years, doing my best to learn how to control it, how to use it… how to hide it. I’ve become awfully good at hiding things.” He says softly, eyes flicking to Gwen’s as she places a hand atop his, unable to quantify the look she was giving him, somewhere between a muted horror and sadness and unbearable gentleness.

“Oh, Merlin...” He shrugs.

“It wasn’t so bad. Arthur… is pretty oblivious, at the best of times. It wasn’t hard to hide it from him. I flat out told him, a couple times, and he didn’t believe me. Laughed it off. Was for the best, at the time, really.
It wasn’t him, I was scared off, not really. Even at his worst, I don’t think he would have… have executed me. Banished me, thrown me in the dungeons, maybe. It was Uther.” Just saying his name makes him shiver, the memory of his steely eyes, of his cold voice, the venom and frozen hatred that always, always, was directed at magic, even though half the time it hadn’t caused any harm, and the other half it wasn’t even real to begin with. So many innocent people, so many of his people, and Uther had slaughtered them all for no reason.

“I always thought sooner or later, he would find me out. Or someone else would, who wanted to gain favor and would turn me in. Or worse, someone would accuse Gaius, everyone knows he practiced before it was outlawed, because of something I’d done, and gods know he’d try and take the fall for me, and I wouldn’t let him. Not ever.

“Between that, and saving Arthur’s life every other day, and dealing with a dragon most days, and trying to rein in my magic at every turn, I never… I didn’t think I would see the day Arthur was crowned king. I thought I would be dead by then. Five times over, at least. And that was the most pleasant possibility.”

“Merlin-“

“do you know, how many people have died, to keep that secret? To keep me alive, to keep me safe, because everyone knew, before I even had any idea, everyone else knew, that it was my destiny to protect Arthur. I never had a choice. I’ve never had any choices, not really. And sometimes I’m so… tired. I’m so tired, of everything. If I stop, if I give myself a single moment to stop and breathe and think, I just fall apart. I can’t… I can’t let myself think about it. Which is stupid, because I’m safe, I know that I'm safe, so it’s stupid to be scared now, of something no longer happening. It’s stupid, to be scared of a man no longer alive, it’s stupid to sometimes still hate my magic for making me this way, when all I wanted was for once to have a chance at being normal, and be able to just live my life!” He heaves in a deep breath, sinking back against the pillows, a resigned numbness filling his bones.

“but what I want doesn’t matter. It never has. It’s easier, if I just… don’t. Don’t hope for things, don’t ask for things, just do my job and nothing else, because every time I get distracted by my own wants, something slips by me and I'm almost too late. I can’t afford to be too late.”

“Merlin-“

“And everyone’s so worried about me, and I still don’t really get it, which makes me feel worse, because I don’t deserve their time and effort, but I can’t convince them otherwise, I can’t make them see-" He's cut off by the sob that bubbles out of his chest, and he’s crying again, gods, he’s so sick of crying. Then Gwen is pulling him into a hug, a mama bear Gwen hug, firm and solid but soft and warm, and he buries his head against her shoulder. “I can’t make them see that I'm not a good person.” He manages, the words clawing at his chest, it feels like his lungs are trying to burst out of his body, with how hard he’s heaving in air, and Gwen just holds him tighter, cradling his head, as he cries and cries and cries, until he slips into unconsciousness once more.

Next time he wakes, it's to Morgana's hawk sharp eyes on his. Before he can say anything, she shakes her head.

“here. You need to eat.” He props himself up and accepts the muffin and apple, only realizing once he takes a bite how starving he is. He scarfs it down quickly, his stomach twisting at the food, though the nausea settles quickly. He can’t shake the feeling of her eyes on him, as he twists the blankets in his hands.

“Gwen told me, what you said.” Her voice is soft, and for some reason, that makes him flinch.

“Which part?” She huffs, sitting on the edge of the bed.

“The part where you said you aren’t a good person.” He blinks.

“oh.”

“oh? That’s all?” he glances at her, but her face is inscrutable.

“Well… yeah. It’s true. I’m not… good. I don’t deserve all of this. I don’t…” he breaks off, smiling wryly, it doesn’t reach his eyes. “I'm not a good person. Not with all the things I’ve done, all the people I’ve hurt, there’s not enough time in the world, for me to atone for it all.”

“what have you done, that you think is so unforgivable?” he barks out a harsh laugh, head hanging low.

“I’ve hurt people. I’ve killed people, not just the enemies looking to strike down Arthur, but other actual good people. I’ve helped persecute and slaughter my own people, I worked against those with magic for so long, I hunted them, I killed them, when I was supposed to be protecting them. And I did it all selfishly, to play the role that I needed, to survive.”

“You just said it yourself, Merlin, you needed to do it to survive. That’s not a bad thing, it doesn’t make you a bad person, it just makes you human.” He pulls away, from her touch, shaking his head.

“But I’m not, not really, not fully, I don’t know what I am, but it isn’t that.”

“Merlin. It doesn’t matter what else you may be, you are human. And it is human, to be scared, to protect yourself however can, by whatever means necessary. And even if we didn’t know it yet, we needed you, here. If you hadn’t done what you did, to protect yourself, how many times over, would Arthur be dead, would I, be dead?” he shudders, just thinking about it. More times than he could count, at least.

“That explains my actions. It doesn’t… doesn’t excuse them, doesn’t atone them, doesn’t-"

“Then what will? Everyone else has already forgiven you, Merlin, and making yourself a martyr definitely won’t help anyone!”

“At least then I would finally be free!” He shouts back, anger rising and fading as quick as it came. He doesn’t meet Morgana’s eyes, as she shifts closer, can’t help but lean into her touch, as she wraps an arm around his shoulders.

“You’re allowed to want things, Merlin. You’re allowed to do things for yourself, to choose to do things just for yourself, you’re allowed to be selfish, Merlin. You’re allowed to take, without always having to give.” He shakes his head, feeling so stupid and slow.

“I’m not. I’m not, because every time I try, every time I do, it gets taken away. I can’t have things. I can’t have things, or I get hurt, or someone gets hurt, or it rebounds back on everyone else, all because I wanted something. It isn’t worth it.”

“It is. It is worth it, Merlin, you are worth it. And those things happening, are not your fault. They aren’t. And not every disaster is your responsibility, and yours alone. The safety of the kingdom and the people in it, are all of our duties, and none of us alone are strong enough to bear that burden and responsibility. That includes you, Merlin. If you keep going like this, it will crush you under its weight. It already is starting to, if you truly think so little of yourself. You can’t hold us all at arms length. And you don’t deserve to be alone. You don’t deserve to hurt. You don’t deserve to be so afraid, and you are not, could never be, a bad person.”

“you don’t know that.” He mumbles.

“I do.” She grasps his chin, softly but firmly, making him meet her eyes. “I have met bad people. My father was a terrible person, and a worse king. You are not like him. You could never be like him. You’re kind, Merlin. You’re kind and sweet and passionate. You’re far too compassionate for your own good, always putting everyone else's wellbeing above yours, not just Arthur's, but mine, the knights, the peoples'. Even when it meant death if you were found out, you still used your skills to protect a world that hated you.
You aren’t a bad person. You aren’t a monster. You are allowed to let yourself be happy.” He smiles wryly, feeling an emptiness in his chest, as he lets out a bitter sigh.

“It’s not that simple. I don’t really get to choose much of anything. I’m being led down a path by the hands of fate, and the harder I fight, the harder they pull, until I can’t do anything but stick to the trail ahead or shatter. I’ve tried, Morgana. I’ve tried to live life for myself, tried to fight it, tried to choose a different path. I can’t. I physically can’t.
Did you know, I can’t really leave Camelot? I’ve tried. Unless I'm leaving to face a threat to the kingdom, my magic won’t let me go further than partway through the woods, unless I’m with Arthur or the knights. I get a certain distance away, and something in my chest pulls tight and it hurts, to take a further step away, and it hurts more for each successive step until I can’t help but turn around just to get it to stop.
Figured jt out the first week or so. I was frustrated and scared and lonely and I didn’t want this, I didn’t want to do this, have this big grand expectation hanging over me from the old religion, and I didn’t think I could stand Arthur for another day or I’d lose it in front of him and then… well, we know the price of that, back then.” He shivers slightly, at the protective hand she lays on his knee, swallowing hard. “so I decided I’d just go home. Go back to Ealdor with my mother and Will and forget all this nonsense.
But I couldn’t. I couldn’t go home, I couldn’t leave and it hurt, and I just wanted my mother to tell me everything would be ok, and I couldn’t even make it past the woods.
I just… I just fell there and cried until I went numb and the sun started rising and I trudged back to Arthur's room to do a job I didn’t want for a person I didn’t like in a place just itching to kill me.
Most of that has changed. I don’t really want to go anywhere, anymore. But it would be nice, to have the option. To have any options.” He looks up at Morgana, surprised to see her eyes glistening.

“That’s… why didn’t you say anything?” He shrugs, arms wrapping around himself.

“doesn’t matter. Besides, between the dragon trapped in the basement, and keeping my magic hidden, and trying to keep Arthur from getting himself killed, I didn’t really have time to throw myself a pity party. It’s just… just another thing to work around.” He tries to smile, his usual, teasing smile, but it falls miserably short if the look on Morgana’s face is anything to go by.

“What else is there? What do you mean, another thing to work around?” He hugs himself tighter, not realizing he’s shaking until she pulls him closer, and he tucks his head against her side. It’s strange, how much she’s come to feel like an older sister, he feels it now, as she radiates fierce protectiveness and safety and gentleness, as he lets out a shuddering exhale.

“that’s the main thing. I’m tied to Arthur. When I was sick, it was… was better, when he was close. It helped it stay stable, helped me hold on. It always reaches for him, looks for him, acts to help him, sometimes without me even telling it to. But it’s more than that. I’m tied to Camelot. If the world suffers, so do I. If the land is sick, it affects me as well. I can feel it, hurting, asking me to help, to make it stop. When plagues or curses or whatever happen, I don’t… I only have so much time, before it hits me as well, depending on how strong it is.
My magic… I… was made to serve Arthur, made to serve Camelot, made to protect the king. I can’t do anything else. If I don’t act, my magic acts for me. If I don’t know what to do, how to stop it, my magic is just… pulled from me, just does whatever it has to on its own. That leaves me exhausted and achy and tired and I need rest but I can’t, because there’s always fall out to deal with and I have to just push through.” He hears Morgana let out a low breath, brushing back his hair.

“You two are idiots.” She says it so fondly he can’t take offense, and really, she isn’t wrong, he just doesn’t know what context she’s speaking off.

“you’ll have to be a little more specific. And please don’t lump me in with him. I’m an idiot, but he’s a complete and utter hopeless moron.” That makes her laugh, just a bit.

“You’ve said your magic is tied to Arthur. Tied to keeping him safe, keeping him from harm. There’s nothing that makes him more upset and afraid than the thought of losing you, and a close second is the thought of you suffering. He was inconsolable, I’ve never seen him so terrified, as when you collapsed, as when Gaius said he didn’t know how to cure you. If you want to keep him safe, Merlin, you have to keep yourself safe. You have to let yourself live, take care of yourself, be selfish, be happy, be yourself, just yourself, that’s all he’s ever wanted. And if you can’t do all that for yourself, then you can do it for him.” It’s… it’s clever, he’ll give her that. He doesn’t know if he can get away with that workaround logic, but he supposes Arthur has already told him that himself, Morgana is just echoing his words, now. He doesn’t know if he believes them, yet, but a flicker of something dangerously close to hope is flaring in his chest, as her gentle touch soothes him back to sleep, feeling a bit… lighter.

Chapter Text

They’re in the woods.

It’s just him and Arthur, this wasn’t supposed to be dangerous, it was just a little hunting foray, no need to even bring any of the knights.

That was a mistake, of course, because the one time he doesn’t talk Arthur into having some sense, of course something happens.

It’s partially his fault, he knows. Arthur is a little too confident, a little more sure of himself than he should be, because though Arthur doesn’t realize it, it’s Merlin who keeps him from getting harmed in the midst of battle, when there’s enough mayhem no one questions who threw that spear, or where those roots came from. He can use magic in the melee without fear. But when they’re outnumbered thirty to two, it’s a different story.

“Surrender now, and I’ll grant you mercy.” Arthur, strong and proud and he curses in his head. There’s nothing he could have said that would make the bandits more likely to attack. The leader howls, and then all the men charge, more swinging out of trees, jumping to block their path of retreat. There’s nowhere to go, and they’re about to swarm Arthur (and himself, but that doesn’t even cross his mind) and he knows he doesn’t have a choice.

There’s no way to hide it, this time. No way to be sneaky about it, there's too many of them and not enough time, and no knights here to cover for him, no place to slip away unnoticed, he has to do this now or he won’t get the chance before they’re both dead.

He steels himself. Stands up straight and tall, stepping before Arthur, eyes blazing molten gold.

A few whispered words have the forest coming to life. The trees reach out creaky branches, catching and entangling the bandits, roots trip them, then grab their ankles and drag them screaming at whip fast speed through the underbrush, tossing them away through the air.

A flick of his fingers has the few that managed to dodge all that flying backwards through the air, slamming against tree trunks so hard he hears bones crack, then vines climb up their bodies, ensnaring them and trying them in place.

The hair on his neck stands on end and he spins, so fast it startles Arthur, who ducks, as he twists his hand, and the sword about to come down on Arthur rips itself out of its owner's hands, before running him through of its own accord.

Just like that, it’s over. The forest is still, once more, the birds resume chirping, the leaves rustling, but all he can hear is his own pulse, rushing through his ears, color draining from his face as he realizes just what he’s done, terror shooting up his spine as Arthur straightens, disbelief and shock written across his face, his sword drawn, pointed at his chest.

“Merlin-" he turns tail and runs.

Runs as far as he can, as fast as he can, the forest parting for him, closing up behind him, hindering Arthur, if his cursing was anything to go by.

He doesn’t know how far he’s gone or how long he’s run, when his legs finally give out.

He collapses into a pile on the forest floor, pulling himself into the shadows of the huge oaks, tucked between two roots, as he curls into a ball, heart racing erratically, gasping in heaving breaths that don’t fill his lungs.

Gods save him, what has he done, what has he done, what has he DONE?!

He'll be killed. Surely, he’ll be killed, Arthur had seen, Arthur had seen and now he knows and no matter how stupid he often jokes about Arthur being, he knows the prince is no fool. He’ll be putting the pieces together, as he stalks him through the woods, going over every moment in his presence, every battle, every close call. He’ll have realized, just how much he's done, how powerful he truly must be, and that kind of power can’t be allowed to continue.

He can’t even run. He can’t flee, he'll only get so far, before his magic snaps taught and won’t let him go any farther, he can’t get away, he’s trapped, he’s trapped and Arthur knows, and he knows there’s no way of getting out of this. He’s just a dead man walking.

A harsh, hysterical laugh bubbles last his lips, and he can’t stop, though it turns into whooping sobs, before exhaustion settles in and he slumps back, letting his eyes slip shut, hoping Arthur at least has the mercy not to wake him, and make it quick.

He wakes with a soft gasp, eyes flaring gold, letting him see in the dark chamber, mind muddled with sleep, before he finally half wakes up.

“arthur?” he slurs, blinking his vision clear, the king smiling softly, a bit chagrinned.

“I didn’t mean to wake you. Forgot what a light sleeper you usually are.”

“Wha's the matter?”

“nothing, love. Everything’s fine.” Arthur soothes quickly, sitting down on the bed beside him. “you just seemed to be having a bad dream, and I thought… well, I thought contact might help.” He hums in agreement, closing his eyes and leaning into Arthur's hand, as he gently strokes his cheek.

“wasn’t a nightmare. Was a memory.” He mumbles, feeling Arthur's brows knit, though he doesn’t otherwise move.

“not a pleasant one, then. You were shaking.”

“It didn’t start well, but it ended up alright.”

“oh?”

“was when you figured out about my magic.”

Ah. He remembers that clearly as if it happened yesterday.

Outnumbered, alone, and knowing no matter how hard he fought they were either going to die or be taken hostage.

Then Merlin had stepped in front of him, and he hadn’t had time to even ask what the hell he was doing, before everything went haywire.

He hadn’t understood, until Merlin spun around, eyes molten, and he’d instinctively ducked, seeing the sword fly out of the bandit's hands and impale him.

He hadn’t even realized he’d drawn his sword, standing in position, until Merlin's frantic eyes turned to him and he’d gone so pale Arthur had thought he was about to faint.

Then he’d ran.

He’d found him hours later, stumbling through the woods in the dark, calling his name with more and more desperation, until he stopped, hearing a small snuffling, following the sound and nearly tripping over Merlin.

He was slumped into a pile between the roots of a tree, the branches having woven a roof over his head. He was trembling, shaking, really, all curled up, unsteady gasps of breath and shallow sobs shaking his frame.

“Merlin.” He’d said softly, kneeling down when he got no response, lightly shaking his shoulder. “Merlin.” His head had shot up and he’d sucked in a sharp breath, at Merlin's state.

His face was still too pale, accentuating the redness and puffiness of his eyes, his cheeks and nose rubbed raw from scrubbing against them, no trace of the usual cocky or sardonic smile on his servant's lips, instead they trembled, like the rest of him, as he scrambled back as far as he could, pressed against the tree trunk, Arthur realizing for the first time how small Merlin really was, despite his tall lankiness.

But it was his eyes, that had taken him aback. The amount of panic and fear and pain, slight glow of gold around his irises, the heartbreak on Merlin's face, it twisted Arthur's gut, how absolutely petrified Merlin was. How petrified Merlin was, of him.

“Merlin…” he tried to reach out, and Merlin had flinched back hard, chest rising and falling rapidly, eyes going even wider, looking like a panicked deer, his hands digging into the hard packed earth.

“please… I’m sorry, please, don’t… don’t… I can’t… I-I-I…” His gut had twisted harder, almost making him sick, as he realized just what Merlin was afraid of, that he thought he was about to die from his sword, at best, be hauled back to Camelot to burn, at worst.

“Shh, Merlin. I’m not going to hurt you, I swear I'm not going to hurt you.” He vowed, raising his hands slowly, shuffling back a couple paces, trying to make himself smaller, less threatening.

“I can’t help it, you have to understand, I didn’t want it, didn’t ask for it, I w-was born with it and I can’t make it just go away, I’ve tried, and I had to hide, I’m sorry, I’m s-sorry, but I’ve never used it to h-hurt you or Camelot, I wouldn’t, I won’t, I w-would n-never, I’ve n-n-never…”

“I know, it’s ok, it’s ok, Merlin.” Merlin had just shaken his head, hands digging harder into the earth.

“Please, Uther will kill me, he’ll b-burn me, y-you can’t tell him, you can’t tell anyone, please, if you’re going to turn me in, just k-kill me, instead, it’ll be f-f-faster than the interrogation and the t-torture and the b-burning, please, Arthur, Please!” He was doing his best not to shake, himself, in fury at the absolute agony on Merlin's face, his words cutting him to his soul, because they were true, he knew they were true, and how long, had Merlin been living with this axe hanging over his head, scared out of his wits, and keeping on anyway?

“Merlin. Listen to me.” He gripped Merlin's chin, forcing him to meet his eyes, hating the small whimper that escaped Merlin's lips, how hard he really was shaking, how cold he was, how afraid. “Listen to me. I swear on my life, my father will never know. Never. This stays between you and I. I’m not turning you in, I'm not going to harm you, and I swear on my throne I will throw myself on the pyre to smother the fire before I let you burn.” Merlin's breathing had slowed, some of the panic fading from his eyes, some clarity returning.

“A… arthur?” he’d never heard Merlin sound so small.

“I’m here. I promise. You’re safe, Merlin, I swear you’ll be safe. I’m not about to let you out of my service so easily.” That had gotten the flicker of a smile, then Merlin had collapsed into his arms, drained and exhausted and freezing, and he had never been more fond of his idiot, lovely, brave, sorcerer.

“I'd figured out before then, you know. That you were telling the truth, when you’d told me before you had magic.” Arthur says, and Merlin raises a skeptical brow at him.

“You had?” he asks.

“that you had some measure of magic? Yes. I’d caught flickers of things, here and there, when you weren’t quick enough to quite hide them. I just didn’t understand how powerful you really are. That’s what took me aback, that day. The strength you possessed. It stunned me.”

“It scared you.” He softens, at the tremble in Merlin's voice, kissing his forehead, resting his there.

“Perhaps for a moment, but no longer than that. It scared you, Merlin, just what you could do, just what you had done, but it hadn't scared me. I’ve never been scared of you, only for you.”

“Perhaps you should be afraid of me.” Arthur chases that whispered thought away with a chaste kiss to his cheek.

“never.” He pulls away, pulling his knees to his chest, closing his eyes.

“I wish I could say the same. That I’ve never been afraid of you.”

“that’s different, Merlin. You had reason, to fear me, good reason. If I had discovered you on the first day, the first week, even the first month, I hate to think what I would have done. It scares me, Merlin, what I would have done. You had every right, to be terrified of me. And I know, now, I know, how wrong I was, to be so angry and hateful towards those with magic. You’re the one who taught me that.”

“I imagine Morgana whooping your sorry arse a couple of times probably helped, as well.” Arthur laughed, which made him smile, slowly leaning closer, until Arthur huffed, reaching out and tugging him close, tucking him under his arm. He doesn’t hesitate, in burying his face against Arthur's side.

“I love you.” Arthur murmurs lowly, and it makes him shiver, how much he can tell Arthur means it. “I wish you could see how brilliant you are, Merlin. I know I tease, but you truly are the bravest man I’ve ever met.” He gives a disagreeing hum in response, the soothing feeling of Arthur being there, right there, making his magic coil happily in his chest, rumbling like a purring cat, making his eyelids droop.

“Don’t want this to end.” He mumbles, hands curling against Arthur's shirt.

“It won’t, love. I’ll be right here when you wake.

Chapter Text

He smiles to himself, watching Merlin slip asleep, the worry lines on his face fade, a rare peacefulness about the man. Merlin is always on the move, always doing something, to see him peaceful seems… special.

He hadn’t seen him peaceful since the poisoning. And with all the turmoil it’s brought about, he imagines Merlin hasn’t had much reason to feel at ease.

“Do you realize how tightly he's bound to you Arthur?” Morgana had demanded, storming into his office, the door slamming behind her.

“I’m sorry, what are we talking about?” he’d asked, bewildered by her sudden fury.

“Merlin, of course. What else has there been to talk about?” she’d snapped and he supposed that’s fair, though it hardly cleared up the issue.

“Has something happened?” He was rising before he realized it, worry stinging at his heart. He’d been recovering well, sleeping mostly, but there was magic at play and that complicated everything.

“he’s fine, Arthur. Sit.” Morgana ordered, though her bearing had gentled, her tone soft, as she sat across from him. “I’ve just had a very worrying conversation with him, and it left me upset.” He sighed and slumped back in his chair, rubbing his forehead.

“There’s been an alarming amount of those happening lately.”

“Well, I think he’s actually spoken about himself more in the last week than he has the past several years.” And that too, is a worrying thought. Merlin hates talking about himself more than almost anything else. He must be truly exhausted and out of it, to let so much slip and it scares him.

“What did you need?” he didn’t want to ponder that further.

“You aren’t going to like it. Promise me you won’t storm off.” He locked eyes with his sister, nodding once.

“I won’t.”

“Merlin can’t leave Camelot.” He’d blinked in confusion, at her words.

“What… of course he can?” he’d sat frozen as she explained what Merlin had told her, how his magic worked, the limits of it. When she was done, he’d squeezed his eyes closed, trying to stifle the anger growing in his chest, the tears threatening to fall.

He’d sat like that for a long time after he’d sent her away, despite her concern, saying he needed some time, thoughts swirling in a whirlwind. Just how much had Merlin already given up for him? He had a feeling he didn’t want the answer.

It was like the first week after he’d learned Merlin had magic. It had been pretty close to hell.

They barely spoke, though not for lack of him trying. The easy banter between them was gone, every time he cleared his throat, Merlin jumped, every time he twitched, Merlin flinched, without thinking he’d tossed a pillow at him one morning, and Merlin had jerked back so hard he’d hit his head against the wall, freezing the pillow in place in midair, before he realized just what he’d done, the pillow dropping to the floor.

Merlin had finished his chores in record time and then all but fled from the room, without saying a single word. He’d realized then that despite his words, Merlin was still scared, so scared, of getting turned in. It hurt his heart, a little, knowing Merlin feared it from him, though he didn’t blame him. There was a time when that fear would have been warranted, and it wasn’t all that far in the past.

And then he’d disappeared. Suddenly Merlin was nowhere to be found. Questioning the knights got him concerned looks, everyone just as unsure as he was, as to where he could have gone. Gaius’s answer was the tavern, of course, which he knew better now than to believe. In truth, he’d never fully believed it when Gaius said he’d disappear to the tavern for days at a time, though he hadn’t imagined magic quests were the cause, rather something personal, maybe a girl, or something, he didn’t know.

He’d fretted, pacing, restless and irritable, even Uther had commented on his behavior, and he’d forced himself to pull it together, to throw himself into training, to focus on his work, because there was nothing he could do for Merlin, wherever he was, besides keeping any suspicion off of him.

Then he’d returned to his room, after training, and froze in the doorway, Merlin puttering about, making the bed, though his movements seemed even more awkward than usual.

“Merlin?” The man had jumped, spinning to face him, though he kept his head ducked.

“Sorry sire. Let me.” He was so stunned at Merlin using his title sincerely that he didn’t protest, as Merlin started helping him out of his armor. Unfortunately that kept him mostly behind him, and he couldn’t get a read on his expression, his body language. At least, he couldn’t until Merlin took the pile of armor and started to the closet, stumbling and inhaling sharply, all of the metal clattering to the floor. He was at his side in an instant, a hand on his shoulder, instantly shrugged off.

“I’m fine. Sorry.” Merlin had tried to recover, but the strain on his body was obvious, now, how he winced, how he sucked in sharp breaths, trying to push through whatever pain he was feeling. He watched him stumble through a few more chores, before he took him by his shoulders and ignored how hard he flinched.

“Sit.” He ordered, Merlin looking for a moment like he was about to argue, before he just complied. Somehow that had burned him more than the icy silence that had been between them the past week.

“What's wrong?” he’d questioned, leaning against the bedpost, looking down at Merlin, who just kept his gaze locked on the floor.

“nothing.” He’d scoffed, Merlin's shoulders hunching.

“You vanish for two days and are walking like there’s broken glass under your feet, something has happened and something is wrong. So, out with it."

“I said I'm fine.” Merlin had grated out, shoving to his feet and past him. “now, if I may be excused, Sire…” that time his title had at least been said sarcastically, though he didn’t like the bitterness it also held.

“You may not, Merlin!” he’d stopped him with a hand on his back, Merlin instantly freezing in place, muscles tensed, a sharp hiss escaping between his teeth.

“arthur… please…” he’d pulled back as if he’d been burned, at the desperate edge to Merlin's voice, only to surge forwards and catch him as he swayed on his feet a moment later, slumping against him.

“you’re hurt.” He could feel the bandages through Merlin's shirt, wincing as he realized they were exactly where he’d placed his hand.

“it’s nothing.”

“it isn’t nothing, you can barely stand, you should be resting!”

“Well I’ve managed perfectly fine all the other times and gods know you don’t make it easy!” merlin snapped, pulling away from him, arms wrapped around himself as he glared at Arthur.

He’d stumbled back a step, and Merlin paled slightly, realizing what he’d said.

“Every time you’ve vanished, you’ve come back injured?”

“Not… not every time, I mean, most times, yeah, but! Usually it’s nothing, just some scrapes and bruises, nothing this bad, not that I’m hurt badly, I’m exhausted, more than anything, usually.” Merlin rambled his head spinning.

“I made it worse. Every time you came back, I piled on extra chores and made ones up and sent you on wild errands, and the whole time you’d been gone defending us, and injured, and I made fun of you, embarassed you, berated you… Merlin, I-"

“Don’t. Don’t say you’re sorry. You didn’t know. That isn’t your fault. Don’t apologize to me when you haven’t-" Merlin had doubled over, tremors wracking his frame, and without a thought he’d rushed to his servant's side, easing him to the floor, noting for the first time how cold and clammy his skin was, how pale, but how his cheeks were slightly flushed. Merlin gasped, another small tremor shivering through him.

“You’re not just hurt, you’re ill. Merlin, what happened?”

“Livestock going missing, strange tracks, strange sounds. Led to a cave system. Serket nest.”

“Serket… what?”

“giant scorpions, basically. Bout my height, in length. Double if we’re counting tails with the stingers. Anyway-"

“and you went by yourself?” Merlin had shot him an annoyed looked.

“What was I supposed to do? No one notices me gone, but if I vanish with Lancelot-“

“Lancelot knows?!” he’d half shouted, voice strangled, and that awful haunted look had returned to Merlin's eyes, his face blanching further, and when he’d tried to reach out, to chase away that look, Merlin had flinched away as if he'd been struck, toppling the chair over backwards, tumbling gracelessly out of it, scrambling back against the wall, breathing heavy.

“don’t be angry. Please, I had to show him, and he swore not to tell, don’t… it’s m-my f-f-fault, I-" he’d broken off, face twisting, a small cry escaping his lips as he curled in on himself.

“Merlin, you’re making it worse, please, it’s ok, it’s ok. I’m not mad, just… just surprised. You’re not in trouble, Lancelot isn’t in trouble, it’s ok.” He soothed, keeping his distance, hands raised placatingly before him, eyes pleading for Merlin to listen, before he hurt himself further.

“I’m s-sorry, I…”

“Shh, it’s ok, you have reason to be afraid. I'm… I'm glad, that you’ve had someone, you didn’t have to hide from. It’s ok. It’s ok.” After a long moment of Merlin looking hard at him, he’d slumped, taking a shuddering breath.

“ok.” He slumped slightly too, breathing easier.

“Ok. Now, what happened?”

“R-right. I Had to raze the whole nest, or they’d start going after people next. Hard to track them all down through the caves, too much echoing to listen for their hisses, too many crevices for them to hide in.” he sucked in a breath.

“you got stung. We need to get you to Gaius, he-"

“Already took care of it, best he could. The antidote just… works slowly.” Merlin had clenched his fists, riding out another sharp wave of pain. “nothing for it but to wait it out.”

“that doesn’t mean we can’t make it easier.” He’d said, scooping Merlin up, depositing him on his bed, despite the servant's protests, ignoring how his heart broke at the doubt and fear still lining his face. “hush now, and let me see.” Merlin flushed, but complied, pulling up his shirt. He’d inhaled sharply again, at the deep purple tracing up his veins, the wide circle of puffy flesh around the puncture wound an angry bruise that would no doubt be tender for weeks, the flesh there still hot to the touch, infected with venom.

“Don’t move.”

He’d laid a cool washcloth over the wound, another across Merlin's forehead, rubbing his shoulders firmly and gently teasing through his hair, across the nape of his neck, easing the other aches and pains that he could, until Merlin's hand found his, squeezing tight.

“thank you.” Merlin whispered, voice hoarse, and he knew he didn’t just mean for his help with his wound. He’d squeezed Merlin's hand back.

“Always.”

He blinks back to the present at Merlin making a small sound, pressing closer against him.

“Shh, love. I’m here, right here.” He soothes, lips quirking up as Merlin instantly settles, relaxing once more.

He runs a hand through Merlin's untidy hair, sighing. This reminds him too much of then, of finding out just what Merlin was doing, just how selfless he is, how he grinned and bared and hid his pain to protect himself and Camelot. He’d thought that was finished, when Merlin stopped hiding his ailments when he returned from his magical quests, when he let Arthur help instead of pushing him away. Clearly they’d run deeper than the surface wounds, and he hadn’t had the foresight to look.

He’s exhausted. He’s so tired. Tired of Merlin getting hurt, tired of learning second hand just how deeply that hurt runs, tired of learning, over and over again, that Merlin keeps finding new ways to hurt himself, to punish himself for crimes he thinks he's committed.

How Merlin can think himself anything other than a hero is beyond him, how he shoulders so much guilt for doing so much good… well, he has the feeling that has more to do with being told repeatedly by everyone around him for years that magic is evil and so is anyone who uses it. No matter how strong you are, at some point you’re going to start to believe it, at least a little.

It twists his heart, that Merlin thinks himself so… unlovable. He'll have to work twice as hard as he has been, to convince the man otherwise. He doesn’t mind, it’ll be worth it, if he can get those terrible thoughts out of Merlin's head. And the blushes his compliments and doting will no doubt reveal are quite the incentive, as well.

Chapter Text

He wakes to a soft breeze, a pounding head, and a dull ache, in his chest.

And Arthur is gone.

He jolts up, heart racing, magic reaching, though the strain made his head pound harder, relaxing as he feels him nearby, coming up the stairs.

He takes a moment to catalog himself, closing his eyes and feeling for his center.

He’s still achy, sore. He’s still tired, weak. He suspects he will be, for a while. But his magic is flowing easily through him, again, sparking at his fingertips with barely a thought, wreathing up his arms, glad to stretch its legs. He lets it, golden glimmers floating through the air like fireflies, draping across the windows and the bedframe, circling around and around him in a spiral of magic.

He lets out a small, happy, laugh, at the relief it brings, the rightness, feeling out farther, to the world around him, feeling the air, the earth, the castle, bursting with movement and life and energy. It responds to his touch, awaiting his call, greeting him with happy whispers in a language as old as time itself.

He wraps himself in this feeling, this warmth, this comfort, smiling softly as he opens his eyes.

Arthur is leaning against the doorframe, brilliantly blinding through the eyes of his magic, his aura a shining, pure molten gold. Arthur always has been the shining heart of Camelot, and his aura is no exception.

“Hello, Merlin.” Arthur says softly, as he lets his power dissipate, the golden sparks dissolving into the air, his vision slowly clearing, returning to normal, so he can see the utter fondness on Arthur's face, the soft adoration shining in his eyes.

“Hello, Arthur. Fancy meeting you here.” He replies with a lopsided smile, Arthur hiding a chuckle, raising a brow.

“It is my room, Merlin.”

“Is it? Hadn’t noticed. But now that you mention it, there is quite a pompous air about, isn’t there?” Arthur grins, a laugh bubbling out of him, and he can’t help the smile in response. It feels… so right, so good, to see Arthur laugh, smile, be happy.

Then Arthur's across the room, hands in his hair, lips on his, sparking warmth and light through his bones, and he registers his magic bursting out of him at the strength of the joy, golden fireworks bursting through the air, twisting through Arthur's hair, swirling around them until they break apart, vanishing as he opens his eyes, staring breathlessly into Arthur's.

Then Arthur cups his face so tenderly, kissing him again soft and slow, before leaning closer, resting their foreheads together, cradling the back of his head. He feels the shuddering breath Arthur lets out, the tension slowly releasing from his shoulders, his own body slowly folding against Arthur.

“Merlin, Merlin, my Merlin. I’d thought I’d lost you, this time.” Arthur murmurs, and he quirks his lips.

“I think it was pretty obvious once you called a dragon that I was going to live.” Arthur pulls back slightly, hands sliding down his arms to squeeze his gently, those aching blue eyes still locked on his face.

“That’s not what I meant.” He looks away, smile dimming.

“I know.”

“We have to talk about it, you know. All the very Un-Merlin like things you said, while recovering.”

“Or maybe those were the truest words I’ve ever spoken.” He counters, hating the softness Arthur uses, to tilt his chin up, worry and love written across his face. He goes to say something, and he shakes his head. “Can we not do this now, please?” Arthur softens, brushing back a stray piece of hair.

“of course, love. Are you feeling up for a small venture outside? Gaius said fresh air would be good for you.”

“please.” It’s stifling in here, now. The walls press in on him, he’s not close enough to the earth, to the world, and suddenly being inside is too much.

“alright, Merlin. Let me help.” Arthur places a hand on his back, another on his waist, holding him steady as his head spins at the shift in altitude, breathing in deeply.

“I’m fine.” He mumbles in response to Arthur's questioning look. His eyebrow raise makes it plain he doesn’t believe him fully, but lets it slide.

In the end, despite his protests, Arthur ends up carrying him down the stairs, only setting him down once they reach the training grounds, empty at this early evening hour. With Arthur's steady arm around his waist, he manages to make his way across, before sliding down the bark of an old tree, one of several providing shade along the field, head resting back against the trunk, staring up at the leaves flickering in the breeze.

He lets out another long breath, slowly closing his eyes, resting his hands palm down on the grass, feeling the earth thrumming beneath his fingertips, life teeming throughout the dirt, gold tracing itself through every strand of grass, every tree, every animal and plant and being, filling him up inside as he breathes, feeling… full, for the first time in what feels like forever.

He's aware of Arthur sitting at his side. How could he not be? He’s always aware of Arthur, even more so now, when the man's attention is fixed on him, silent and patient. He can feel the softness of his eyes, the slight upturn of his lips, as he sighs, relaxing back against the tree, seeking out his hand, resting his atop Merlin's. It sends a shiver of warmth jolting through him, the world exploding into prisms of light behind his eyelids, able to see everything, sense everything around him, with crystal clarity. His magic always was more willing, for Arthur.

Though perhaps that isn’t just his magic talking.

He lets out one last long breath, feeling steadier than he has in ages, stronger than he has in ages, almost normal.

“I’ve watched you die. I’ve watched Camelot fall to pieces. I’ve seen what the futures without you look like. And in all of them, you died because I failed. I failed you.” Arthur makes to say something, but he squeezes his hand harder, a silent plea not to say anything, not to interrupt, as he organizes his thoughts into coherency.

“I exist for you. I have always been yours, even when I didn’t know it yet, even when I hated you, I was yours. I can’t leave your side, I can’t help but defend you, I can’t help but fear what losing you means for me. I don’t know if it’s even possible, for me to continue on if you died. I wouldn’t have a purpose, anymore. The world wouldn’t have a use for me.”

“So. This… is this… because of that? What we… have? Is it…”

“No, Arthur, that’s not…” He pulls his knees to his chest, pulling away from Arthur, scrubbing his hands over his face, running them up through his hair.

“I’m drawn to you. I didn’t have to like it. You were an obnoxious, beastly prat when I first met you, and I wanted nothing to do with you. And just because destiny bound me to you, didn’t mean I had to try very hard to protect you. But… but I saw who you could be. I saw who you really are, behind all the walls and the defenses you had to put up to survive, I saw that you were willing to learn, and more importantly, willing to admit, grudgingly, that you were wrong. You could change your mind, Arthur, and that… that gave me more hope than anything. You had no reason, ever, to listen to me, but you still… did.

“so, no, I didn’t have to spend hours pouring through books, finding the obscure knowledge that would stop a threat, I didn’t have to venture out alone countless times to face a foe I wasn’t sure I could beat. I wasn’t forced to give you my loyalty, but I did. I… have.

“I… believe in you, Arthur. I believe in what you’re doing, the kingdom you’re building, the person you’re still growing to be, and I will do anything to protect it. To protect you. That isn’t destiny forcing my hand. It’s my heart. My future has always belonged to you, but my soul… that I chose to give you. I just… I never thought you would care…”

“oh, love.” Arthur murmurs, bringing his hand to his lips, kissing it gently, as he opens his eyes, still surprised, at how soft Arthur is being, how softly he looks at him. “Do you really believe, all of what you’ve said? About not being allowed to be happy, not being worth it, not being good?” He lets out a low huff, looking away.

“some days are better than others. I… know, logically, I know, that you all… care about me, but it’s hard to get myself to believe it, to… to believe that I’m worth it. I’ve been through so much, Arthur, there’s so much that you don’t even know about and sometimes it just…” he hisses, swiping at his eyes. He doesn’t know how to describe it, the pit of loathing and icy despair that opens in his chest, sometimes, the weight that drags him down, makes it hard to focus and even get up, some days, the absolute surety that he has failed, will fail, that makes it harder and harder to breath, until he can’t form words, can’t even think right. The panic, that comes over him, at the thought of anything, anything at all, happening to Arthur, because it will be his fault.

“I know. I know love, what it feels like to have the weight of the world on your shoulders. And you bore that burden for so long, all alone, under threat of death. Being overwhelmed, being afraid, that’s normal, Merlin. There are soldiers, you know, who go into battle, who see horrific things, and when they return, they aren’t the same. Leon probably could describe it better, but what I’m trying to say is it’s nothing to be ashamed of. How you feel, even when you know what you’re feeling isn’t rational, is real. It’s real, Merlin, and it’s ok. It’s ok.” He shoots Arthur a watery smile, before his face crumples and Arthur pulls him close, tucking him under his arm. It feels so right, being there, just like he was always meant to fit just here, pressed against his king.

“Shh, love. I’ve got you, I’ve got you.”

“I know. I kn-know, it’s just… it’s so hard, Arthur, all of it, and I p-pretend that I’m fine, enough that I b-believe it most days, but I’m… it h-hurts.” He manages, curling into Arthur’s warmth, his scent of leather and ink, pretending nothing else exists.

“What hurts, Merlin? What can I do?” Arthur’s voice is a whisper in his ear, and he shudders, hands fisting against Arthur’s shirt.

He doesn’t know what to do, besides tell the truth. He’s tried everything else, after all, and clearly that hasn’t worked, hasn’t protected him from harm, hasn’t helped him feel anything besides miserable.

So in fits and starts and gasping breath, he tells Arthur everything. Every quest he’s ever gone on, every monster he’s faced, every time he was almost caught, every time he was almost found out, every injury and curse and spell that has ever befallen him, all the times he was sure he was about to die, and no one would even care, no one would miss him, because he’s just a stupid, clumsy, replaceable servant, after all.

How when Morgause appeared, and summoned the knights, he’d had only one way to stop them, to stop her, how Morgana was unwittingly the center, how he’d had to reveal to her his magic, to ask her to trust him, how she allowed him to poison her with the hemlock, to stop Morgause. And then when she fled, how he tracked her, fought her, nearly died in the battle with her, before managing to kill her.

“I really didn’t think I was going to make it back, that time.”

He’d stumbled back to Camelot, somehow, though his vision spun and his head ached, more than half dead, and he just wanted to rest, but he couldn’t, he couldn’t because there was so much to do, and to cover up, and Morgana finally had called him to her chambers, demanding an explanation, and midway through he’d swayed on his feet and nearly collapsed from exhaustion and strain and stress and sickness, then she took him by the shoulders, laid him down in her bed, and told him to sleep, her answers could wait.

“So, she knew before I did?” Arthur asks, interrupting. He nods, face still pressed against Arthur.

“yes. By maybe a year. Taught her the basics, enough to handle her dreams, nothing more. Too dangerous, with how close she was to Uther, and she begrudgingly agreed.”

“You were close to Uther, too, Merlin.”

“Not the same. He didn’t pay attention to me, like he did you two. I was just a servant, I wasn’t important enough to notice.”

“you made him notice you, you idiot. You never acted like a proper servant, not even in front of my father.”

“Well, then he was too busy being angry at me to be angry at you.” He feels Arthur let out a long sigh, drawing back and cupping his face, kissing the tip of his nose.

“My lovely, lovely, idiot, Merlin.” Arthur murmurs, so sweetly he couldn’t really take offense. And really, he’s not wrong. “You have always been far too considerate, for your own good. Far too willing to take on pain, for others’ sakes.”

“Just part of my charm.” He mutters, making Arthur chuckle, pressing another kiss soft and slow to his lips.

“I’d like to tell the others, all of what you told me. All of what you’ve done, what you’ve been through. What you’ve survived.” His brow scrunches, confusion on his face.

“why?” He asks quietly, stifling a whine as Arthur draws back, just enough they can actually see the expressions on each others’ faces, shivering as Arthur runs his hands down his arms, taking his hands and squeezing them lightly.

“Because I think it will help them better understand, and that will help them to help you. And because you deserve to be recognized, for just how much you’ve done.”

“No. I don’t want that, Arthur, I didn’t do this for some… some reward, I don’t-“ He starts babbling, because he hates that idea, hates all the attention that would come with, he gets enough of that as court sorcerer, though at least it’s mostly only from visiting nobles, everyone else still acts normal around him, especially the other servants. But if everyone knew, he would never be free of it all, never be free to just… be.

“I know. I know you didn’t Merlin, and that just makes you more incredible, love, I know you wouldn’t get a lick of peace if I did all I wanted, to repay you. Just the knights, is what I was thinking. They deserve to know, just how many battles we’ve won, because of you, just how many times we’ve had our lives saved, by you. I can at least do that much. You’re their brother in arms, Merlin, you’ve fought enough battles with us, even without knowing about the magic, for that to stand true.” He still hesitates, it’s daunting, that many people knowing, there’s still a part of him that’s afraid to share his magic with anyone, still a part of him that’s terrified because he still expects to be hurt for it, as illogical as that is, being court sorcerer and all, but he can’t help it.

“It’s ok, love. Just think on it, alright? I won’t tell them, not unless you want me to.” Arthur tucks his hair back slowly, hand lingering against his cheek, against the almost invisible scar from a blade that got a little too close, tracing it back and forth with his thumb. “Even just Lancelot, if that’s easier. He probably knows more of it than most of the others.” He hums noncommittally, realizing at some point his eyes had drifted closed, the only thing holding him up Arthur’s hand on his cheek, the other on his waist.

“Are you tired out, love? We have been speaking an awful long time.” He blinked open his eyes briefly, realizing the sun was almost fully set, the first of the stars coming out in the early evening night. They glimmer beautifully, but he only has a few moments to stare at the sky, before he yawns hugely, eyes squeezing closed as his jaw cracks.

“Well, that answers that, doesn’t it?” He doesn’t protest this time, as Arthur scoops him up, carrying him bridal style across the training grounds. He’s already asleep, when they reach Arthur’s room, only waking briefly when the king lays him down in bed, blinking blearily up at him.

“Arthur?”

“Yes, love?”

“You can tell them. The knights.”

“Are you sure, Merlin?”

“yes. I don’t know how to… to let you help, let them help, but… but if they know, then maybe they’ll be able to.”

“Alright, love. I will. I’ll be to bed soon, just have some work to get done.”

“m’kay. Just… just keep talking? So I know you’re there?” it’s a foolish attempt to stave off nightmares, or unpleasant memories and dreams, and he has little hope of it working. Still, it helps ease him into sleep, drifting off to Arthur’s voice reading reports, and his chest warms at the fact that Arthur doesn’t criticize him or call him stupid, for his need for comfort.

Chapter Text

Panic.

Camelot is in chaos, the knights are defeated, everyone is waking up, and he should be back at the castle, he should be right by Arthur’s side, he should be right by Morgana’s side, for the gods’ sake, he’d poisoned her with hemlock, and no one else could even know or she would be at best imprisoned for magic!

No, instead, he’s taken a horse from the stables, and is charging through the woods tracking down the most dangerous sorceress he’s ever encountered, before she can do any more damage because she will, she won’t stop until Camelot is destroyed and though he hates Uther at least as much as she does, he won’t stand for her vengeance falling on the royal siblings’ heads.

He’s thrown off his horse by a blast of energy, sending him tumbling head over heels across the ground, his horse fleeing, and he barely has time to get to his feet before the next attack hits him, sending him slamming back against a tree.

“You. Ruined. EVERYTHING!” He barely manages to deflect the next attack, desperately trying to keep on his feet at her barrage of magic, he couldn’t find an opening, he couldn’t even find where she was!

“You stupid, traitorous, warlock!” He yelps, spinning out of the way, a blast of fire erupting where he’d just been standing, singing his cloak. Blindly, he fired off a ball of light, tossing it up and squeezing his eyes closed before exploding it with a single word, hearing Morgause scream as it blinded her.

He shoves himself up, summoning a bolt of lightning, sending it crashing down on her, though it scorched his hands, left them burning in pain, but he doesn’t have time to focus on it, because she’s deflected the worst of his blow, though her clothing is now as ragged and scorched as his is.

Between one blink and the next, she’s on him, slamming him hard against a stony outcrop, her hand around his throat lifting him off the ground, unable to do anything but struggle weakly as she squeezes, vicious fire burning in her eyes.

‘I never would have guessed, it was you. The bumbling idiot, playing the part of the fool. Why defend the Pendragons, when they’ve caused so much misery? You should have thrown your lot in with us, when you still could.’ He winces, her voice inside his head, and he can feel her, digging through his brain, searching through his memories and uncovering his every secret, gathering all the information she needs to destroy Camelot forever, to destroy Arthur.

It hurts. He wants to scream, with how badly it hurts, her cold fingers prying through his memories, reliving a thousand sensations and nightmares at once, as she pries him apart from the inside out, darkness encroaching on his vision.

‘he won’t even miss you. You’re just a servant, after all.’

No… no, Arthur would… he will… he has to!

He struggles again, knowing she’ll see it as futile, but he’s close, so close, and there!

He manages to grasp the dagger Arthur makes him carry, because he can’t go out unarmed, Merlin. Arthur had made sure he knew how to use it, knew how to hold it.

“Like this, Merlin, one would think you’d have some basic skills.”

“Well, some of us don’t enjoy going around stabbing things for fun!”

“Just, at least, try, Merlin, I can’t have you coming out on patrol with us weaponless, imagine what it would do to my reputation if you got yourself killed.”

He can feel Arthur guiding his motions, as he corrects his grip, as he aims through the spots in his vision, as he plunges downwards, straight into her chest, straight into her heart.

Instantly, she staggers back, shock in her eyes, as he drops to the ground, wheezing for air, his mind muddled and broken.

“You. Will. Suffer.” He doubles over, at the wash of intense agony and sickness that roil across him, into him, the world spinning and spiraling into fractals around him as her last curse takes effect. As Morgause’s eyes go dark and dead, he shudders, sweat beading his brow, as he curls in on himself, consciousness fading out as the sickness takes him.

He shoots upwards at a soft shift in the air, bracing for the attack, already weaving shields around himself, vision spinning at the sudden shift in altitude.

“Easy, Merlin.” It takes a moment, for his senses to steady, to recognize the voice as Leon, the man raising a brow as he meets his steady gaze for a moment, before he has to look away, wincing.

“Hey, now. What was that?” he blinks, tilting his head.

“what was what?” he asks, though he knows, what Leon means.

“Merlin.” Soft and stern, fatherly, in a way he never got the chance to know, from Balinor, and he deflates.

“Just… just a bad dream.” Leon frowns disaprovingly, shaking his head.

“It was more than that. You shouted, in your sleep. Sent me charging in here, to see who dare lay a hand on you.” He flushes.

“You needn't have done that.” He mumbles.

“I really did, actually. If someone harmed you, they will receive not only my wrath upon their head, but the wrath of the whole round table. With Arthur's sanction.” He almost laughs, but Leon isn’t smiling. He’s dead serious.

Leon must see the incredulousness on his face, because he sighs, moving so he’s sitting on the bed beside him, patient.

“it was Morgause.” He mumbles after another moment of silence, fisting his hands into the blanket, legs dangling over the side of the bed. Just saying her name makes him shiver, and he hates it. She’s dead, there’s no reason to be afraid, anymore. “Just a stupid memory. That’s all.”

“It isn’t stupid, Merlin. Not if it’s upsetting you.”

“Well, it shouldn’t be, should it? It’s over. That was years ago. All of it was years ago, so why… why won’t it all just leave me alone?!” He snaps, angry, as he pushes off the bed, away from Leon, pacing across the floor, unable to sit still, despite his legs protesting the exercise after such a period of disuse.

“because it isn’t that simple.” The steadiness of Leon's voice just makes him angrier.

“Yes it is!” He shouts, sparks flickering between his fingers, frustration building in his chest. “Why wouldn’t it be?! I killed her! That’s the end of it!” He hisses, as Leon grabs his shoulders, forcing him to stop moving, struggling for a second as strong arms come around him, before they squeeze softly, and he gasps, sagging against Leon. “it… it is… it…” They stay like that for several minutes, Leon rocking slightly back and forth, enveloping him in his arms, shielding him from the world. A laugh burbles out of him, bitter and harsh, tearing at his chest. “I’m just… j-just a coward, aren’t I? C-can’t even… even s-sleep, without h-having a b-breakdown…”

“No. Merlin, no. Never. Not for this, never for this.” Leon’s voice is firm, almost strict, it leaves no room for argument. “All warriors have demons they must fight, even long after the force they represent have been vanquished. These demons keep us from sleep, some nights, haunt our dreams on others, they can be summoned to the forefront of our minds by something as simple as a single word, or a loud noise, or a certain smell. They tell us we are cowards or useless or should be ashamed of ourselves for existing. Most importantly, most critically, the demons always, always, lie. And I’m so sorry, Merlin, for not realizing sooner how many of them you have been trying to fight, all on your own.”

“y… you..?”

“Shhh, yes, me, Merlin. I have been a knight for over half my life, and half of that was under Uther’s rule. There are things I have done that haunt me, visions that creep into my dreams, demons of my own making, from my own faults, that threaten, some days, to drown me in their depths and some days I believe them when they tell me I deserve it. Do you know what happens, on those days?” He asks gently, and he shakes his head, overwhelmed.

“Gwaine drags me out of bed, makes me go get something to eat, forces me outdoors and chatters on and on until the clouds start to fade. Nights I can’t sleep, without seeing flames, Percival finds me on the parapets, doesn’t say anything, just stays with me, so I know I’m not alone. When I can’t get the screams out of my ears, Lancelot pulls me away from the castle, out into the market, where the hustle and bustle are too loud to even hear myself think, then Elyan finds us and brings us to his home for supper, chasing the last of the numbness away. And on days where none of that works, Arthur comes to me, speaks gently, tells me it is ok, that I am forgiven, that all of the good I have done has outweighed the bad, that he wouldn’t rather have anyone else by his side. And that? That is always enough.

“It isn’t cowardly, Merlin. No one sees it as such. Not a one of us, especially not any of the knights who have been in the field with you, and even less those of us who know everything you’ve sacrificed, over and over again, for the rest of us. You have demons, Merlin, and only you know what shapes and forms they wear, but that doesn’t have to be the case. You don’t need to fight them alone. I won’t allow you, to fight them alone. I won’t let them take you, and I won’t let you believe yourself to be something you’re not because of darkness you’ve been forced to bear witness to, and the darkness that others have pushed upon you.”

He shudders, Leon wraps his cloak around the both of them, adding another layer between him and the rest of the world, dampening the sounds of the castle life further, his shaking finally starting to quell.

“so. Arthur told you lot, already?”

“he did. And I’m glad you allowed him to. I know I will never truly know everything, you’ve done, but even Lancelot only knew half, at most, of what Arthur told us. It helps us understand, better.” Leon pauses a moment, thinking. “You did give him permission, didn’t you?”

“what? Yes, I… did.”

“good. Gwaine was convinced that you would never willingly tell someone that much about yourself, much less let that information be shared, he was threatening to start a coupe against the king, if he found out he was right.”

“You wouldn’t’ve let him, though.” He states, looking up when Leon doesn’t respond, the man looking down at him with an expression that gives away nothing. “Leon, you wouldn’t actually…” The look on his face says yes, he absolutely would, start a coupe against the king if Arthur had hurt him or forced him to talk, and that sends his mind reeling, his world flipping upside down.

“o…oh.” He manages weakly, feeling Leon chuckle softly, gently chucking him under the chin.

“Oh, indeed.”

He feels well enough, that day, to make it down to the training grounds himself, though Arthur hovers next to him the whole way, like a fretting mother. When he teases him for it, Arthur just snorts, telling him someone has to make sure he doesn’t trip over his own feet and break his neck on the castle stairs, it would really just be embarrassing.

The knights halt their bantering as they make their way across, all eyes on him, and he waves awkwardly, uncomfortable with all the attention.

“Good to see you up and about, mate.” Gwaine breaks the silence, an easy smile on his face, belied by the relief in his eyes, as he clasps his arm.

“Feels good, too, though it was quite interesting, watching His Highness try and figure out how to function on his own.” Arthur sputters, and he doesn’t imagine the wave of ease that disperses the tension from his friends' shoulders at his banter.

Soon enough, he’s settled at the edge of the field once more, standing to stretch his legs, trying to rebuild some strength, rolling his eyes as his idiot friends run at each other with bits of pointy metal for fun.

It’s the first time since all this started that he truly feels like himself, again. Maybe better, even, as Elyan takes a break, sidling up to him quietly, as if trying to spook him away. He waits a moment, to see if Elyan will break the silence, before clearing his throat.

“Had enough of trying to kill each other for the day?”

“Not nearly. I expect Arthur'll run us ragged to make up for all the sparring he missed these last few weeks. He never left your side, you know, unless it was absolutely necessary.”

“Sap. And he calls me a girl.” He mutters, with nothing but fondness, Elyan's eyes glinting with amusement, his attention drawn back to the field. Percy had let out a victorious shout, and he grins, seeing him help Lancelot back to his feet, who thumps his back in congratulations, grinning wider as Gwaine not so subtly exchanges coins with Morgana, who had rejoined the sessions Uther had forbid her from participating in as soon as he was gone.

Honestly, she was the only one who could take Arthur in a fair fight, and even more so in a dirty one.

“Merlin…” His attention shifts back to Elyan, at the shift in his tone, the man looking at him with a depth he didn’t particularly care for. “We just… wanted to thank you. All of us. For all that you’ve done.” He sighs, sagging back against the tree. He already regrets telling them.

“You needn’t.”

“I do.” He shakes his head, staring off into the middle distance. “I do, Merlin. Because otherwise you won’t realize how amazingly spectacular you are. You’ve saved all of us more times than I can even imagine, often with dire consequences to your own self. That matters, Merlin. You matter. And we all mean that. I just got elected the one to say it, since we figured all of us saying it would overwhelm you.” He looks back to the field, and Percival nods slightly at him, Gwaine shoots him a small salute, Morgana a gentle smile, Leon tilts his head, a silent ‘I told you so’, that has him shake his head slightly.

“I don’t deserve it. Not with all the times I’ve failed.”

“You deserve it even more, because for all the times you feel you failed, we’re all still standing. For all the unfounded guilt on your shoulders, you've never stopped trying to save everyone, even though that’s impossible under the best of circumstances.” He sags further, surprised at the weight that both lifts from his shoulders and crashes into his lungs like a boulder at Elyan's words.

“Merlin?” he pastes on a smile, shaking off the feelings away like a dog shaking off water, pushing them away to decipher later as he takes a deep breath.

“I’m alright. I'll be alright. Long as you lot don’t start treating me like some kind of savior, all of a sudden. I’m still just… just me.”

“You don’t have to worry about that, but you should know we’re all watching you like a hawk, now. Don’t even try hiding if you’re hurt or upset. No matter how small or stupid you think it is, it matters to us.” He swallows back the lump in his throat, relieved as Elyan squeezes his shoulder once, making to leave. “I'll let you have your peace, now. Just don’t forget what I’ve said, alright? And don’t fool yourself into thinking we don’t mean it, either.” And with that he’s alone again, watching Elyan trot back to the field, taking a stance against Lancelot, grinning.

He huffs, smiling despite himself, feeling his muscles relaxing. He does feel better, lighter, and right now, he can believe Elyan, when he says he’s done his best, not everyone could have been saved. On a bad day, maybe not, but he’ll still hear them in his mind, reminding him he’s not alone.

Chapter Text

He’s alone.

It’s dark.

He can’t see, but he can feel his wrists are tied behind his back, harsh ropes digging into his flesh. He shifts, trying to understand, trying to figure out what’s happening, only to realize his entire body is bound, tied tightly, so tightly he struggles to breathe.

He flinches, as a single match sparks in the darkness, the hiss of it pounding in his skull.

“What have you to say for yourself?” his blood runs cold, freezing in his veins, his vision swirls and he’d fall to his knees, if he could.

It’s the witch finder, his cold steel eyes reflecting the burning match, face a mask of hatred.

“n…no… please…”

“He doesn’t deny it. Highness?” the witch finder turns, and suddenly it’s not the dark, anymore, suddenly they’re in the courtyard, a silent crowd surrounding the stake, piles of wood at his feet, and Arthur steps forward in all his shining finery, eyes hard as diamonds.

“please" Arthur ignores him, if he even heard, and he makes desperate eye contact with Gwen, Morgana, the knights, but all of them, even Lancelot stares back at him unflinchingly, nothing but a black abyss in his eyes.

‘merlin'

“The sentence is death.” Arthur's voice is flat, dead, and he knows this isn’t him, isn’t any of them, he can feel the black current of magic flowing through them, the power manipulating their minds, the light, girlish laugh of Nimueh in his ears, but even without it, he would have forgiven them.

That doesn’t make it hurt any less, when they each place a torch to the pyre. It doesn’t hurt less when the smoke chokes his lungs, sends tears streaming down his face. It doesn’t hurt any less when the first tongues of flame reach his toes, the fire sparking against his clothes, enveloping him in flame that even his magic can’t extinguish. It doesn’t hurt any less that he’s failed them, failed them all, for the last time.

‘Merlin!’

“I’m sorry…” he choked out through the ash coating his tongue, the agony eating through his flesh, searing away his skin. “I’m s… sorry, I’m sorry… I-"

“Merlin!”

It’s hot, it’s so hot, and he can’t breathe, choking on the scalding air, it burns him, going down his throat, scorches his insides, and it hurts, everything hurts, aches, throbs!

“Shh. Shh, love, shhh.” It’s distant, so faint he can barely hear it over the roaring in his ears, the roar of the flames, climbing his body, devouring him, everything burns, and the ash tastes bitter on his tongue.

He’s still stumbling over apologies, he can feel them pouring from his lips, though he can’t stop them, a thousand ‘I'm sorrys" because he is, he is, he is, gods save him, he’s sorry!

“Breathe, Merlin, come on, you have to breathe.” Something strong and steady lifts him, he thinks, even that is becoming harder, through the blackness that clouds over his vision, the red dancing behind his eyes, the flames under his skin.

“Easy, love, easy. Almost there.” He whimpers, he doesn’t want to go, doesn’t want to die, he can’t leave Arthur, he can’t, he can’t! Please, please, he doesn’t want to burn! He’ll do anything, anything else, even if it means living shackled and chained for the rest of his life, he'll do it for the chance to keep protecting Arthur.

He feels the thing holding him stumble, at his pleas, but before he can continue with the headway he's maybe made, cold slams into his body like a shockwave.

He sputters, struggling to understand, to reconcile the cold with the flames, still hearing the screams, but they’re becoming farther and farther away, that quiet voice murmuring to him becoming clearer and clearer.

“Come on, Merlin. Open your eyes.” Open his..? Weren’t they already open? He was… he couldn’t…

He struggles, trying to fight back the waves of dizziness, the confusion muddling his mind, pulling down his limbs, making them oh so heavy. He fights to move, to become aware of his surroundings, to feel something other than the heat and the cold and the fire. The more he tries to focus, the more he feels cool wind, gentle touches, and finally, a soft warmth against his forehead that has him finally gasping in a deep breath of air, his eyes flying open.

It takes him a moment, for his muddled mind to catch up. Stars. Night sky. Soft breeze. The city spread out below them. Arthur’s lips pressed gently against his forehead, pulling back as he shifts, his blue eyes brilliant in the darkness.

Arthur smiles, so softly, and reaches out, caressing his cheek.

“There you are. There you are, love.” He squeezes his eyes shut, shaking his head, pressing the heels of his hands to his eyes, trying to stifle the tears spilling out, the gasping sobs breaking past his lips.

“S… sorry, s…so… sorry…”

“Shh, Shh, Shh, Merlin. Don’t apologize, you have nothing to apologize for, shh.”

“I kn…ow better, I know… I…”

“It’s ok, love. Just breathe. Just breathe.” He can still taste the ash on his tongue, feel the heat of the flames, how many has he watched burn, innocent, all of them, even the ones that actually had magic to begin with, and he didn’t stop it, he could have stopped it, but instead he just stood there and watched, pretending he was fine, though his hands shook and his soul shattered, and if anyone asked the tears were from the smoke in his eyes, not the screams of the victim. Sympathy with the accused is how you get thrown to the flames as well.

Instead he folds against Arthur, gasping at the sobs wrenching their way from his body, unable to stop the memories from flashing through his mind, barely aware of Arthur gathering him up in his arms and holding him close, brushing a hand soothingly through his hair, up and down his spine, murmuring softly and gently to him, over and over, promises of safety and warmth and love, that slowly, too slowly, drive away the screams.

“oh, love, have you always been this afraid?” Arthur murmurs, clearly surprised when his answer is a breathy, emphatic, ‘yes’, his hands gripping Arthur’s tunic so hard his knuckles are turning white. In turn, Arthur squeezes him tighter in his hold, a rush of warmth/safety/nearness/good overwhelming him at the sensation, thoughts fleeing as all he can do is nuzzle closer, hiding his head against Arthur’s neck. He laughs wetly.

“I’m terrified half out of my mind, always. Even… even now, gods, especially now…” he chokes out, Arthur humming slightly, pressing a kiss to his neck that makes him shudder. “I’m so sc… scared…” he whispers, the confession lingering in the air between them.

“I can still hear them, see them, I could have saved them, I could have st… stopped it, gods, I should have done something, and in my dr-eams, it’s always me, on the pyre, and I d-deserve it, I let them all burn, I let them…”

“Oh. Oh, no, my darling, no. There’s nothing you could have done-"

“I COULD HAVE STOPPED IT!” he doesn’t mean to yell, but he can’t help it, shoving away from Arthur, shaking his head, he can’t possibly explain the black hole in his chest, when he thinks of the flames, the smoke, the screams. “I could have stopped it a thousand ways, could have made rain fall from the sky, could have parted the flames with my hands, could have fought and actually protected the people I was supposed to, could have… have…”

“And then what, Merlin? Everyone would have seen, my father, would have seen. What then?” his lips twist in a bitter smile.

“Then at least the next body on the pyre would have deserved his fate.” Silence. Silence so loud it aches, and before he can even really think over what he’s doing, his eyes flash gold and he’s gone.

He doesn’t realize where he’s materialized, at first.

The sensation of teleporting has his head spinning, making him dizzy and disoriented, not that he has the capability of intelligent thought right now, not when the screams are still ringing and the guilt is clogging his lungs, choking his throat, not when he can’t breathe through the memories and fears and shadows, not when all those demons Leon spoke of warriors having are all flitting through the darkness in front of him, whispering in his ears, tracing cold hands across the back of his neck, down his arms, up his legs, covering him in sorrow and fear and misery and grief and it hurts, gods, it hurts!

“What on earth is…” The familiar voice cuts off, exasperation and annoyance shifting in an instant to something softer as a dim glow lights the room, making him curl in on himself tighter, squeeze his eyes closed harder, it was too bright, and it wouldn’t stop, and thank gods this place was lit with magic globes now, and not torches because even the thought of burning wood is enough to make him gag.

“Oh, my boy.” Gaius. He’s been avoiding Gaius. It isn’t fair, he knows, because he knows how worried Gaius must be, he knows Gaius sees him as a son, because he sees Gaius as a father, he knows Gaius cares so much, but Gaius sees everything, when he wants to, and he hadn’t wanted Gaius to see this.

To see how broken, he is.

Gaius has enough to worry about, he was trying to stay away until he could hide better, pretend like usual, until he could keep himself together, then he would venture down here with a smile and a quip and an apology for not coming sooner, but the knights were so busy fawning over him he could barely escape their attention for two seconds without one of them checking on him, but he brought all the supplies he knows the physician must be low on by now!

Instead he’s appeared out of thin air on the patient cot, unable to stop shaking, to stop curling so tight everything in him creaks in protest, to stop the flood of tears down his face, to stop his frantic gasps around the pain and panic that’s slowly choking him, exhausted and dizzy, his magic swirling through him frantically, searching for what’s wrong, trying to fix it, fix him, but it can’t, he can’t, and it hurts!

“Easy, m’boy. Easy, now.” He shudders terribly, as warm, calloused hands settle on his arms, squeezing lightly. It’s so warm, Gaius is so warm, why is everyone warm but him?!

“Here we are.” He startles as something wraps around him, belatedly realizing it’s a blanket. It’s worn, and thin, but it’s warm, and it smells like herbs and roots and dried plants, the scents he’s come to think of as home, and he finds himself able to breathe again, as he buries his face against the cloth, finally cleansing the smoke from his nostrils.

 

“Your body isn’t used to gentle touch, Merlin, so any it gets feels more intense than it usually would. That’s why you feel so cold. It needs time, and lots of touch, to get used to it again.” He gasps as Gaius slowly rubs his hands up and down his arms, fire tracing a path where he touches, but it feels so good, so warm, Gaius is so warm, and he’s safe and he’s home, and he’s here, his low murmurings slowly drowning out the screams.

Finally he sags into Gaius’s arms, all the tension leaving his muscles at once as he pants, gasping in air as his sobs die down into hiccupping breaths, realizing Gaius has sat, pulled him onto his lap, is holding him, rubbing his back, easing the last of the strain as he just breathes.

“I’m sorry… S-sorry…”

“It’s alright, Merlin, it’s alright.”

“isn’t…” He mumbles, now that the adrenaline is fading he’s losing the battle to keep his eyes open, but he doesn’t want to sleep, he can’t go back into those nightmares, those memories, not when they’re still hovering just outside his awareness, just waiting to pounce, he’s terrified to close his eyes.

“stay here, my boy. One moment.” He almost whines as Gaius pulls away, gently leaning him against the wall, because he can’t hold himself up. He’s cold, so cold, without Gaius’s touch, and he pulls the blanket tighter around him, knuckles white as he clings to awareness.

“Here we are.” Gaius comes back into his shaky vision holding a vial. “Sleeping draught.” He shakes his head.

“Can’t. I can’t, I-“

“Easy, Merlin. It’ll give you a deep, dreamless sleep. You need the rest, and this will make sure you get it, no interruptions or nightmares.” He feels so small, as he looks at Gaius, whose eyes sparkle with kindness and sympathy in the dim light. He knows Gaius wouldn’t lie to him, wouldn’t ever hurt him, but he can’t stop himself from asking ‘promise?’

“Yes. It will do that, and nothing else. I swear it.” He closes his eyes, swallows hard, before nodding.

“ok.” If Gaius is surprised by his easy aquiesence, he doesn’t show it. Usually it’s a fight to get him to take anything, no matter how ill he is. There’s a secret fear, there, that he hasn’t shared, but he knows Gaius has noticed. He hates taking anything he himself hasn’t made or hasn’t watched being made in front of him. He’s been poisoned enough times, after all. It’s part of the reason he rarely eats in the mess hall, he sticks to fruits and hunks of bread, dried meats out on patrol that the others have already sampled. Banquets are one of the few times he ever partakes in food and drink outside of his usual fare, and even then, rarely much. Clearly, his fears are well founded.

But he doesn’t care, right now, because the dreams are already buzzing in his head, and he can’t, he just, he cannot handle it. Anything is better, than the smoke, the flames, the screams, the bodies, the pyre-

“Alright. Here you go.” Gaius uncorks the vial for him, and with barely a hesitation, he takes it, downing it quickly. Usually, he’d mix something like this into tea, to mute the strongly bitter flavor, but right now he couldn’t care less.

“Let’s get you comfortable, shall we?” Gaius, his voice low and soft, easing him into lying down, gentling a pillow under his head, draping another blanket over him, as the world starts to dim, his center of gravity tilting, making his stomach flip once, before everything settles and starts getting heavy, his eyes slipping shut.

“G’us…” he slurs, weakly reaching out a hand, barely twitching his fingers, he’s so heavy.

“I’m here, m’boy. You’re safe. You’re safe, here. You can rest.” Distantly, he feels a calloused hand holding his, another lightly stroking his forehead, the warmth stealing away the last of his instinctive resistance to the draught, letting the darkness sweep him away, into the abyss.

Chapter Text

Waking is slow.

Not unpleasant, just slow.

His limbs feel heavy, his eyelids more so, but it isn’t a bad kind of heavy. It’s a sleepy, delightfully warm kind of heavy, that makes him nestle into the blankets further, makes him want to slip back into a deep slumber and never wake up.

Perhaps he should take sleeping draughts more often, if this is how pleasant they make him feel. Or perhaps that’s just because he actually feels rested, for the first time in years.

He yawns, jaw cracking, slowly blinking his eyes open to early afternoon light. Gaius is reading at the table, glasses perched on the edge of his nose, a thick tome open before him. He winces internally, knowing the scolding he’s likely to get from his mentor, at his appearance the night before, as he stretches, sits up, though he keeps the old blanket wrapped around his shoulders for comfort. At the noise, Gaius turns to look, eyes softening.

“Merlin. How are you feeling?” He shrugs, throws on a small smile as easily as putting on Arthur’s armor, clearing his throat.

“Better. Just… a rough patch.” He winces as Gaius raises his eyebrow, his classically intimidating stare wilting him down.

“Seemed like quite a bit more than that.” He shrugs again, not meeting Gaius’s eyes. “Merlin…” He can hear the exasperation in Gaius’s voice, tinged with fondness.

“I didn’t mean to wake you. Did… were there any errands, you needed help with? I’m sure tending to me used up some of your supplies. Meant to get around to it earlier, but…” He trails off, breath hitching as Gaius’s hand cups his chin, tipping his head up to meet his eyes, the touch so soft and warm it nearly paralyzes him.

“You took a draught with no protest, m’boy. You can’t possibly think I’ll be fooled into thinking you’re suddenly alright.” For a moment, he holds out, then his whole body slumps, a tired sigh escaping his lips.

“Just another night terror. A… a bad one. I just… I need something to do, Gaius. I can’t keep just sitting around. I know I’m not back at full strength yet, but if I don’t do something then I’m going to go mad!”

“Alright. Here,” Gaius pulled away, rummaging through his papers, before handing him a small piece of parchment. “these should be simple enough to collect, and none are too far from the edge of the city. But if you start feeling weak at all, you come right back.”

“I will, I promise. I… thank you.” The relief at having something, anything, no matter how small to accomplish eases the weight on his chest, makes some of the tension fade from his shoulders.

“Of course, m’boy.” He doesn’t protest, as Gaius pulls him into a tight hug for a few long moments, before shooing him out the door, calling after him to be careful not to push himself. He smiles, stepping out into the sunshine, feeling better already.

He knows he isn’t alone.

He’s known it since he stepped out of Gauis's chambers and headed out with the basket, since he passed through the gates and out into the fields, felt the presence following behind, from a distance, like a shadow.

It doesn’t worry him, in fact, it’s quite endearing, really, both that Gwaine is keeping an eye on him and that he thought Merlin wouldn’t notice.

To be fair, he doubted anyone else would notice. The boisterous knight could be quite stealthy when he put his mind to it.

It is a bit funny, that Gwaine is out here protecting him, when most anything that comes his way he can handle with barely a thought, but still, his steady thrum in the background of his magic makes it easier to breathe.

He lets his mind wander, as his hands do the work, absently humming under his breath, as he picks the nettles, runs a gloved hand against the grain to remove the stingers, pulls off the leaves.

Soon the last of the knot in his stomach undoes itself, the sun and fresh air easing the final vestiges of the night before, and he just relaxes, sitting in the field, under the sun, he just… breathes.

He takes his gloves off, letting his hands dig into the grass, closing his eyes, feeling safe, perfectly safe, because Gwaine is still right there, and he won’t let anything hurt him, as he lets himself bask in the feeling of warmth and sunlight and life, the wonderful feeling of so much life teeming around him, every stalk and blade of grass and buzzing insect teeming with magic that sings in his bones.

He doesn’t open his eyes as the footsteps approach, a shadow brushes over him, the slight crunch of old grasses as another body lowers himself down to sit beside him.

“You left Princess in quite a state. Nearly tore the castle apart looking for you before Leon suggested checking your actual living quarters. Didn’t help that Gaius sent him away, said you were recovering, that you knew where to find him, when you felt like it.” His tone is light and conversational, but he can feel the undercurrent of… of something.

“so. You here to drag me back to the castle, then?” he blinks open his eyes in time to catch Gwaine's shrug and lopsided smile.

“Nah. Couldn’t care less what you’re up to out here, really, just thought… you shouldn’t be alone.” Their words from that first overwhelming conversation come back to him, that he isn’t alone, he doesn’t have to do this alone.

He thinks he’s starting to understand, what that meant, as he leans against Gwaine, who slings an arm haphazardly over his shoulder, pulling him closer, not saying anything else. Not asking, not pushing, not expecting anything, just… just being there, just offering his presence, offering to stand guard, offering to be the protector so Merlin doesn’t have to, ready to leave if he asks.

He doesn’t want Gwaine to go.

He turns his head, burying his nose against Gwain's chest, breathing in the summer scent of him, warmth and mead and armor polish, shivering slightly as Gwaine presses a kiss to the top of his head, carding a hand through his hair that has him melting moments later, trembling slightly from the unmitigated warmth of the sensation.

“Are you alright, Merlin?” Gwaine asks lowly, some time later, disrupting the light doze he’d fallen into, not quite asleep, just a hazy veil of calm and sleepy and warm surrounding him.

He opens his mouth to reassure Gwaine, to say he’s fine, nothing's wrong, before he thinks better of it.

He doesn’t have to do it alone. He doesn’t want to, not today, not right now.

So he closes his mouth and thinks about the question, tries to puzzle out the answer. And Gwaine just waits, patient and still, except for the hand still softly running through his hair.

“no.” he whispers, waiting for the scorn, waiting for the warmth to leave, ready to be rebuffed. Instead, Gwaine's arm tightens around him, and something warm and thick is draped around him, Gwaine's cloak, he realizes.

“Alright. That’s alright, mate. What do you need?” He nestles closer, letting out a snort of laughter as Gwaine simply pulls him onto his lap, his legs stretched out perpindicular to Gwain's, his head now tucked below Gwain's, his nose in the crook of his neck, the knight's arms around him firm and comforting and safe, the cloak creating their own little bubble of reality.

“Just…just this. For a while longer. Gaius said… I'm not used to gentle touch. Makes it warmer.”

“Gods, Merlin, is that why you’re always so cold?”

“mhm.”

“Well. You just stay right here, mate, right with me, and I'll keep warm enough for the both of us.”

It’s late, by the time he returns to the castle.

They’d sat in the meadow for a long time, before he mustered the desire to move, and even then, Gwaine wouldn’t let him go far, keeping an arm around his shoulders, slipping a hand into his, gently bumping into his side to steer him one way or the other, any little touch he could manage, he did.

He leaned into all of them. He didn’t want this warmth to go, he didn’t want this afternoon to end, it was so… nice.

Walking through the market, letting Gwaine’s chatter and bartering and flirting fill his head, chasing away any of his own thoughts, laughing and joking as he failed miserably at bartering, though all the shopkeepers seemed in on the joke, greeted him by name as he asked after their families and farms and houses.

Gwaine sweeping him behind him, surreptiously wrapping his cloak around his shoulders, squeezing his hand when he tensed, when something reminded him of something unpleasant, or when the crowd was too loud, or when a startling noise made him jump three feet in the air, and Gwaine ushered him into a quiet side street, speaking softly until his heart had stopped hammering out of his chest.

Letting himself be… cared for, cared about, those words ringing in his mind the whole day, ‘you don’t have to do it alone.’

He can’t do it alone, anymore. He can’t, or it will break him like Morgana says it will, and he doesn’t know why today is the tipping point, but it is. It is, and he can’t bring himself to pull away from the attention Gwaine is giving him, can’t find it in himself to say he doesn’t deserve it, can’t deny himself this warmth that he needs.

Still, his steps falter, as he climbs the stairs, anxiety churning in his stomach, because he’d vanished the night before, he’d spent the whole day avoiding Arthur, not actively, but he didn’t seek him out, either, and despite the knowledge that Arthur would never, never, hurt him, he’s still… afraid.

Afraid he’ll be angry. Afraid he’ll cast him aside, say he’s not worth the trouble. Afraid he’ll tell him to just get over it, already. Afraid he’ll tell him to go away.

They weigh down his steps, as he pushes open the door, hovering on the threshold, head low and gaze trained on the floor.

He hears the soft footsteps approaching, a soft exhale of breath, frozen as warm arms come around his waist, pulling him gently forwards, against Arthur.

“Merlin. My Merlin.” Arthur murmurs, and he folds into the embrace, burying his head against Arthur's chest, wrapping his arms around the back of his neck, not saying anything as Arthur just slowly rocks back and forth, holds him close, lets him breathe.

“M sorry. I shouldn’t have left like that, I scared you, I know I did-"

“Shhh.” Arthur draws back slightly, resting a finger against his lips, and gods, he doesn’t understand how Arthur can look so soft, how his eyes can be that warm and full of love, for him, of all people.

“You don’t have to be sorry. There’s nothing to apologize for, love. I'm proud of you.” His eyes widen just a bit.

“For what? I ran away.” Arthur shakes his head, smile soft.

“no. You took care of yourself, Merlin. I couldn’t help you, the way that you needed, so you went to someone who could. You didn’t run away, love, you ran to somewhere you knew you’d be safe. You let them help you, Merlin, that’s why I'm proud. Doing that is a struggle, for you, but you still did it. That’s important, that’s so important, and I will never be angry if the person who makes you feel safest isn’t me, or if you don’t even want to see me. You know what you need better than anyone, Merlin, I'm just glad you… you acted on it.” He shivers as Arthur tucks back his hair, his hand lingering against his face, caressing his cheek, no doubt feeling the heat from his soft blush, unable to tear his gaze away from Arthur's eyes.

He realizes he’s been silent for too long when Arthur’s eyes soften, his head tilts slightly in question, his touch gentling further as he softly strokes the sweep of his cheek bones.

“I just… still can’t believe this is real.” It comes out smaller than he means it to, his voice trembling.

“Oh, love.” He gasps, as Arthur kisses him, deep and slow, before melting into it, knees shaky as they finally part, their foreheads touching, Arthur’s arms around him protectively. “I’m never letting go of you, never again.”

“That’ll make life awfully difficult for you, I imagine.” He mumbles, feeling Arthur’s soft chuckle.

“Not really. You’re always just two steps behind me anyways. Wouldn’t change much. Wouldn’t change it if I could.” He hmms at that, and Arthur pulls back slightly, a small frown on his face.

“You know that, Merlin, right? I would never want anyone else by my side.” He doesn’t say anything, doesn’t quite meet his eyes.

“Merlin?” His shoulders hunch just a little, as he pulls away, one arm wrapping around himself in a hug, so cold now, without any touch.

“Sorry.” He mumbles. He gets swept into another hug, tighter than the previous one, closer, and he feels oddly like crying.

“No. I’m sorry, love, I’m sorry for not showing you just how much you mean to me earlier. I’m sorry for hurting you so much, without even realizing. I would be lost without you, Merlin, I truly would. I love you so much. I love you so much, and I will never get tired of telling you that, whenever you wish to hear it. Even if you’re sick of hearing it.”

“I don’t think that’s going to happen. I… I still have trouble believing it.”

“I know, love. And that’s ok, too.” His laugh sounds suspiciously like a sob.

“when did you become so kind?”

“When a certain warlock stumbled into my life and made me see sense.” The laugh this time is more solid, realer, as he smiles up at Arthur, who takes the opportunity to kiss him again, quick and soft, filling him with warmth and a lightness that chases away the last of the doubts in his mind that he means it.

“Thank you, Arthur.” He murmurs, laughing as his king sweeps him off his feet, carrying him to bed, refusing to let go of him, so he rolls his eyes and uses his magic to pull back the covers. Even then, Arthur doesn’t let go, whispering to him about how beautiful his eyes look, gleaming gold, making him blush and hide his face against Arthur’s neck, feeling his smile when he doesn’t try to argue.

He lets Arthur fuss over him, tuck back his hair, pull up the covers, tug him close until they’re hopelessly tangled around each other, one of Arthur’s arms hugging him close, the other buried in his hair, his face against the crook of Arthur’s neck, his hands pressed against his king’s chest, relaxing with every inhale and exhale he feels.

“I love you, Merlin.” He hears it on the edge of sleep, and smiles, nuzzling closer.

“Always, Arthur.”