There was so much red.
As much as one of their cloaks, one of the knight's cloaks – one of Arthur's cloaks.
And, thinking that, he could almost be okay with this. With watching his blood drip out onto the forest floor and just thinking that everything he had done had been for Arthur.
But, he was done now.
Merlin was just too tired.
He had waited until after the ceremony – until after Arthur and Gwen had left the feast, amongst rousing cheers and more than one jeer from the knights to Arthur with some rather provocative motions – to go. To get out. To leave. To escape.
Because he felt suffocated within the castle walls. Because, because, Merlin just knew that he had done enough – he had helped Arthur to become King as he should be, he had delivered his sword to his hands, Gwen and Arthur were finally married – everything was in place for Arthur to do whatever it was he was destined to do.
But, he also waited until after the ceremony because, maybe just a little bit, he was hoping Arthur would call it off again. Call it off and look at Merlin.
And see Merlin. See what Merlin had been hiding these past few years. See everything he had been hiding.
But, that hadn't happened.
And, really, Merlin should have been okay with that. He had been for so long now.
But he had been, for so long now; for too long really – other people would have broken by this point.
Besides, it wasn't much to ask for, was it? Really? A little bit of recognition?
Gaius always went out of his way to thank Merlin, or tell him good job, but was it too much to ask that it be Arthur thanking him instead? Maybe patting him on the shoulder a bit, or even, dare he think, a hug?
It was, apparently, too much to ask for.
Merlin couldn't take any of this anymore.
So, he had waited until after the ceremony, when Gaius would surely think he was with the knights or some of the other servants or something, and the knights would think he was with Gaius, and he had slipped out to the surrounding forest.
And, yes, he had been careful – this was planned after all. Planned with shiver running up and down his spine from what seemed to be a cold grip on his heart. He had headed out to an area they had never gone for a hunt – not that Arthur was likely to be leaving Gwen's side for at least a week – an area that was a good distance from any of the roads.
It would be at least a day before anyone started looking for him. At least a day before Gaius realized Merlin wasn't just out working all day and that he was, that he was gone. It was hard to swallow, thinking about Gaius and what he would look like when he realized Merlin was gone. That was the reason Merlin had left no note – he couldn't bring himself to imagine what he could say to make any of this okay.
Because it wasn't. It wasn't okay.
The clearing he found was one he had never seen before – perfect, all the more difficult to find him later.
He almost wished they would never find him.
He lowered himself to the forest floor and remained still for a long moment, merely looking around at the surrounding trees. The forest was quiet, as it often was in the night, and there was a chill in the air.
Fingers shaking, he pulled out his small dagger from its position at his belt. It was a little thing, more for decoration than anything that had once been Arthur's.
It had been years ago, back during one of the feast celebrations of some holiday, and Arthur had been receiving daggers and the like as gifts for years. He had far too many of them. He had been inspecting this one, and declared it a fine piece of craftsmanship, but a rather poor excuse for an actual weapon.
Merlin had merely nodded from his place across the table, tending the fire, and Arthur had looked over at him for a long moment, twirling the dagger in his hand.
Passing it over, he had shrugged and said, "In case you ever get kidnapped or something. Might as well have a small chance of protecting yourself."
Merlin had smiled.
Protecting himself – well, Merlin supposed that wasn't the case. But, it almost was – he was so tired of shielding himself from expectations.
Expectations of praise and acknowledgement. Expectations that one day Arthur would lift the ban on magic and Merlin would be free, free, free.
He was protecting himself, he decided with a nod, unsheathing the small blade.
Merlin raised it to his wrist and sliced smoothly and slowly. The pain followed with a sharp bite, causing his hand to tremble further. He watched, for a moment, as blood blossomed up along the cut and then began to run along his arm.
Shifting the blade to his wounded arm was more difficult than he had expected – the pain in his wrist growing with each movement. He mirrored the cut along his right arm and let the blade fall to the dirt.
His shoulders slumped and he wanted to go back. Back to Ealdor. Back to when he was young and naïve and hadn't been forced by destiny to do so many horrible things. So many terrible things. So many great things.
Back to before he knew Arthur.
But it was too late.
He watched the blood pool out around him and thought, distantly, that there was too much blood.
Too much blood – he was going to die.
Yes, he thought, he was going to die.
The patients he had seen Gaius work on – knights who had been stabbed in battle, townspeople who had been in accidents – had never bled out this much. Not without going into shock.
He wondered if maybe this was shock.
His hands trembled and his head tipped back slightly. Oh, yes, this was probably shock.
But, no, his hands hadn't stopped.
They were instead forming a cup between them. And sliding in between his legs to scoop up some of the spilt crimson liquid.
No, no. What was this?
There was a twist deep in his gut and suddenly he felt like he was trembling all over, on the inside. Like his heart was fluttering in his chest and everything else was fluttering along with it.
His hands moved up towards his mouth and his jaw dropped.
Blood poured down his throat and he tried to spit it out or shut his mouth or pull away his hands.
But he was unable to do anything but watch.
Oh, no, no, no.
His body moved again and again, bring more of the blood back up to his mouth and this shouldn't be doing anything - shouldn't be helping anything. This didn't make sense. What was this?
What was this?
The cuts of his wrists, he noticed between forced swallows, were clotted like hour's old wounds. The liquid was thick in his throat, bringing tears to his eyes again and again as he was forced to drink his life's blood back into his body.
His mouth was full of the taste of iron.
He would never get it out.
Finally, his hands slowed and his right hand brought a blood-stained leaf up to his lips to lick clean. Merlin turned his face away and threw the leaf aside. The twisting curl in his stomach slowly faded and he opened his eyes to peer at his wrists.
The wounds were already scarred over, fresh pink flesh that was tender to the touch. He lifted his hands, stained as they were, to his face and pressed the palms into his eyes.
This couldn't be.
The moment he landed, Kilgharrah spoke softly, "I am so sorry, Merlin."
Just his name made his throat squeeze tight. Of course Kilgharrah would know – he could most likely smell the blood, the stench of it filled the clearing. "Just," he started, and his voice was hoarse and his throat was dry and he could almost feel it pouring down again and filling his mouth and –
"Just tell me why," he finished, head bowed with his forehead on his knees.
Kilgharrah was silent for a long moment, shifting his position uneasily, before he replied, "This is your destiny."
Merlin almost shouted his next words back at him, "I'm sick of destiny! Can't I even control my own life?"
Wings beat softly for a moment and Kilgharrah lowered his head to look straight to Merlin's eyes, "It seems to me more than control your life, you simply wish to end it."
His fury quickly diminished as he turned his head away in shame. This was why he hadn't left a note – if he had somehow failed, Merlin hadn't wanted anyone looking at him as Kilgharrah was.
"I would mourn your passing," the dragon added, his voice somber and quiet, "But, I would not blame you."
Merlin tilted his head back towards him and shook it weakly.
"I understand," Kilgharrah declared, ignoring his protest, "But, young warlock, I will tell you there is still a dawn coming, even though it seems as if all light has fled the world."
"No riddles," Merlin sighed wearily.
Kilgharrah cleared his throat and amended his statement. "There is still much to hope for – not all you think is lost is truly lost yet."
Their eyes met for a long moment and Kilgharrah bowed his head slowly. "I hope to see you again, my kin."
Merlin couldn't watch as he retreated and stretched his wings out – pulling air under them and taking off. He couldn't look up from the ground for a long time.
Merlin took his time returning to the castle – stopping at every stream he found and scrubbing his hands in the cold water. He stared at one stream – one of the deeper ones that he and Arthur had bathed in on one hunting trip, back when everything was mostly okay and Merlin was happy with what he was doing.
He stared at the stream and considered pushing himself under the surface and staying down there, at the stream bed.
It wouldn't work.
He knew it wouldn't.
But, he still wondered if it would be the same – foiled by magic controlling his body – or if he would simply just float there, not breathing but not drowning and just peaceful and quiet under the water.
And he thought of Freya.
Approaching Camelot sent a twisting queasiness through his stomach – it was almost dawn now, and there would be people moving about in the lower town, no doubt.
He found he couldn't look a single person in the eye, even when they called out to him and he waved back. Trying to raise his eyes made him shiver with shame and he kept his gaze on the ground.
If he met their eyes, they may know what he had tried.
As he walked, he continuously pulled down on his sleeves – trying to stretch them down over the marks on his wrists. Merlin was grateful none of the blood had stained his clothes – that would provoke questions he didn't want to answer.
He paused before the entrance to the courtyard, peering up at the high siege wall. He, as Gaius' apprentice, had dealt with those who had fallen from the height. Most of them had been guards, shoved over already wounded – Merlin suspected Morgana was the cause of most of these – but some of them were those of people who had jumped off, late at night, when none could see them.
He had dealt with their bodies and was well-aware of the damage that came from such a fall.
It was only for a moment, but Merlin considered jumping.
An image of his hands piecing together his broken body flashed through his mind and he shivered from head to toe.
After he had changed and somehow managed to avoid speaking to Gaius at all, Merlin made his way to Arthur's chambers. He was expecting there would be a bit of a mess out on the table for him to clean, but that the, the other parts of his rooms would be occupied.
The bed parts of his room, specifically.
Thinking that, it was difficult for Merlin to open the door at first.
Of course he was happy for Gwen and Arthur – that they had finally decided to marry.
But, still, it was painful.
Watching Gwen take the place at Arthur's side that had almost kind of been Merlin's until now.
He opened the door as slowly and quietly as possible, peering around the edge to ensure it was safe for him to enter.
Merlin pushed the door open in shock when he realized Arthur was striding away from his wardrobe, fully dressed.
See, he thought to himself as he inspected the King and found he was perfectly clothed, Arthur didn't even need him anymore. Not now, now that he could even dress himself. Properly.
Arthur was turning his head to look at Merlin when Merlin's eyes fell on the sword belt he was buckling around his waist.
There it was, laying on the table – the sword that could slay, well, anything, Merlin supposed. In all his experiences, that much had been true anyway.
The sword that could slay anything.
Arthur was staring at him now, mouth quirked in an odd half-smile. "Good morning, Merlin – you just wake up?" he declared, suddenly, words dripping with sarcasm.
"I, er, where – where's Gwen?" Merlin asked, peering around the room.
The other man gave him a look and replied, "She has her own chambers. You should know – you spent all week cleaning them, didn't you?"
Merlin's eyes found the sword again, glinting in the sun hitting the tabletop. "Er, yes," he answered, shrugging slightly, "How about a polish for that?"
Following his gaze, Arthur huffed, "Would rather get some breakfast, seeing as how you should have brought it up a while ago."
Merlin jerked his head up and down in the semblance of a nod. "Of course, of course, I'll just take that and go." He stepped towards the blade and stretched out his hand.
"It doesn't need a polish. Didn't you polish it right before the ceremony?" Arthur asked, eyes on Merlin as he crossed the room.
Shrugging and sending a rather fake, extremely exaggerated grin back at him, Merlin said, "You know how much I love to polish this."
He let his gaze linger on Arthur's for a moment, studying the way he was still smirking slightly at Merlin's ridiculousness and how his eyes were dancing from the banter.
This would be the last time he saw Arthur.
But, he had been able to look at him the night before thinking the same thing – the sudden sluggishness in his legs was nothing but exhaustion from his walk in the forest, not regret or anything.
Arthur merely rolled his eyes in response and waved Merlin out. "Be gone then; I don't need your company."
Merlin laughed, able to tell how awkward it sounded, and left the room, sword clutched tightly to his chest.
This would end everything.
Merlin made his way down to the armory – he needed a place to leave Arthur's sword while he sent his breakfast up. Plenty of the other servants owed him favors and could take the meal to Arthur for him – the king would most likely fuss at them for not being Merlin, though.
Now, he needed to find somewhere secluded from the rest of the castle – he didn't think he had the will to walk all the way back out to that clearing again.
It was as easy as he expected to get one of the kitchen boys to take the food up to Arthur - the only trouble he faced was a wooden spoon to the hand when he attempted to grab a roll for himself. Ducking out of the kitchen under threat of worse harm, Merlin slowly tread down the hallway.
He knew there was a tower or two that were only used when the castle was under attack, but Merlin somehow couldn't bring himself to want to go there.
It wouldn't really matter anyway.
Where they found him.
His steps slowed as he approached the armory. He was just so tired.
No, just here was fine, he thought, entering the room.
Looking around, at the swords and armor and shields and lances – most of them ones he had had to work on at one point or another – he felt like everything was being flaunted in his face.
Because, no, he wasn't lovesick over Arthur – he wasn't doing this because Gwen was marrying the man he kind of, maybe a little, maybe a lot, probably more than anyone else, loved.
He wasn't completely lovesick over Arthur.
He made his way to the far corner of the room, tucked back behind a cabinet and a stack of breastplates, and knelt down with the sword gleaming in the dirt before him.
But, it was also because he had watched Arthur accept peasants and rogues and strangers as his most trusted knights – not that he held it against them, or against Arthur, but it had still happened and it hurt to watch them become his circle of support and get pushed out a little bit himself.
Yes, they had all been there at the Round Table – so had Gaius, and Gwen – but after, it seemed as if Arthur had forgotten what he had said there. That they were all equal, that they had all helped Arthur in some way.
Merlin hadn't stood up without prompting because, well, what had he done that Arthur knew about? He accomplished little that he could actually explain to Arthur, and so he often thought the other man brought him along to poke fun at and push chores onto. He didn't need Merlin's company – had said so himself.
He ran his fingers along the gold embellished into the blade.
It wasn't as if he didn't know Arthur had done things for him – Arthur had drank what he thought was poison for him once, and he had chosen to sacrifice himself over Merlin when facing the Dorocha.
But he had done those things out of duty.
Because he was Arthur.
And that's why Merlin loved him.
But it wasn't enough – not after years of simple pats on the back from Gaius and acting like a fool around everyone else so they would never know what he could do.
He just wanted to be, to be special to someone – to be wanted for himself and not for his destiny. Merlin had had to bury the only people who had treated him in such a way.
And, it wasn't just that – the yearning for acknowledgement.
He stroked along the blade again, testing the edge with his finger and finding it as sharp as ever.
He was weighed down by guilt, all the time, for everything. For every betrayal Arthur faced – because Merlin should have been able to do something before he ever found out. For every loss in battle – because if Merlin was braver and smarter, he would be able to defeat all their enemies without revealing his powers.
For Morgana – because even now, every time he thought of her he still thought of the most beautiful woman in the world he had first thought she was. He thought of her vivacity and bravery in the face of Uther's tyranny.
He thought of her face when she realized he had poisoned her.
And guilt would swamp over him until he felt like collapsing from it and crying himself into a deep, deep sleep.
Merlin moved his hand to the hilt of the sword and gripped it. He peeled off his shirt with his other hand.
Take me up.
So he would. He turned the blade so the tip was barely brushing his stomach.
Cast me away.
He hoped Arthur wouldn't – after finding it with, with Merlin here. But, surely he wouldn't – because this was the symbol that he was the rightful King of Camelot and Arthur would never give that up. Couldn't give that up.
Merlin would have avoided forcing that trouble on him if he could – but, he was sure there was no other way.
He took a deep breath, closed his eyes, and thrust in with the blade.
It was worse, this second time. Because it wasn't just the utter wrongness that came with watching your own hands hold your flesh back together while the wound knit over.
No, this time was accompanied by a stabbing sharp pain all through him each time his magic moved his body.
Like a punishment.
He was biting hard enough to cut his lip by the end of it. As if to mock him, his left hand brushed against the new cut – sending a series of shocks through him – and healed that too.
Merlin leaned back against the wall and panted, starting at the sword.
His head fell onto his knees and he felt like just like he had before, in the clearing.
At least Arthur wouldn't be faced with claiming it back now.
He sat back up and stared at the sword.
Arthur had claimed it – he had set a spell on the sword to keep it in that stone until he chose to release it, but he had been thinking the entire time that the only one worthy of the sword's power was Arthur.
Not just because of Kilgharrah's words, but because he understood now – after using it himself against the Cup of Life – not just understood, but had felt, the power that rang through the blade. And, only Arthur could hold that and not become obsessed, he was sure.
His magic must have picked up on those thoughts, and changed the weapon so only Arthur could truly wield it.
Arthur would never just up and stab Merlin, especially not if he asked. He'd probably just laugh at him and tell him to go dunk his head in a water barrel until he was sober. Merlin could try to jump in front of his blade at their next conflict, but Arthur was such a skilled warrior, he would probably be able to stop the blow.
No, the only way this would work was if he…
Was if he manipulated Arthur into…
Into hating him.
The mere thought made him shudder – of all he dreamed of, Arthur's acceptance was the one thing he desired most.
To throw that away – to throw that away would be torture.
But, Merlin supposed, leaning forward and retrieving his shirt and hissing as the bending caused his new scar to twinge, he was throwing everything away.
This could work.
Of course, running up to Arthur and pushing the sword at him and trying anything would be foolish – Merlin knew that much at least.
No, he'd have to wait 'til morning.
Merlin carefully wiped down the entire blade, glancing at the door at random intervals to ensure no one would walk in on him. The knights were most likely still sleeping off their hangovers, though, and the squires would be relishing in their day off.
He did polish the beautiful thing in the end – wouldn't do to give Arthur anything to ask questions about.
Merlin spent the rest of the day performing small tasks for Gaius. The other man gave him looks over the rims of his glasses occasionally – brows lowered in concentration – but they said little to each other the entire day.
Merlin almost wished they had spoken instead – anything to distract him. Then, maybe, he'd feel a little less ashamed and a little more like he belonged again. He almost wished Gwaine had come bursting in with some random 'quest' for them to complete as he occasionally did – often one to scour the local tavern for 'disreputable wenches' or 'borrow' Arthur's prime mounts and go for a race around the citadel.
He instead made his way up to Arthur's chambers with his evening meal and the sword resting on his arms. Merlin paused before the door again – surely Gwen would be in there now. Isn't that what married couples did? Spend the first week or so just locked up in their rooms together.
A soft knock and he entered, peering around the door again, and he was less surprised to see Arthur alone again – standing before the fire and studying the flames. "Finally learn to knock?" he asked, voice soft.
"Well," Merlin shrugged, placing the meal on the table, "Had to learn sometime I suppose." It was so easy to slip back into their normal routine.
He placed the sword on the table next to the plate and watched Arthur turn at the sound of it hitting the wood. He had a small smile on his face, "All polished then?"
"Of course, only the best for you, sire," Merlin replied, taking a step back and waving at the food. "Unless there's anything else, I'll be on my way." His tone was off, he knew, and he would normally never say something like that – not unless he was hiding something from Arthur.
Merlin hoped Arthur hadn't realized.
Arthur paused in the middle of lowering himself into his seat and then completed the action. "No, Merlin, that will be all."
Merlin felt his eyes on him as he made his way to the door.
Merlin began to doubt himself as he ran his fingers through his hair to get some of the sleepiness out of it.
The only flaw in his plan is that maybe Arthur would still forgive him – he still forgave Gwen after all, even after everything she had done. But, he could make it so there was nothing to make him want to forgive. Merlin could, could lie – could lie and tell Arthur all his mistakes and none of his successes.
He nodded to himself as he made his way into the King's chambers, immediately heading for the bed and shaking Arthur out of his sleep. The other man grumbled under his breath, waving a hand towards Merlin in a vague attempt to ward him off.
"Arthur," Merlin finally said, voice calm and low.
Arthur sighed and tumbled out of bed, letting his momentum carry him towards the wardrobe as was customary each morning. Merlin met him there, already pulling out a clean – or mostly-clean, he supposed; it had been difficult to do laundry with all the wedding preparations – shirt and gesturing at Arthur to raise his arms.
The man scoffed at him and took the shirt out of his hands, "I can put on my own shirt." Merlin let his hand fall slowly and took a short step back. "Get my sword, would you?" Arthur added, head tilting towards the table as he pulled the shirt hem down towards his waist.
"Of course," Merlin replied, stepping over to retrieve the blade.
Soon now. He just had to wait until it was fully strapped on. It wouldn't do if Arthur reached for a chair or something instead in his anger. No, the sword was the only way this would work.
Merlin handed the sword and its belt over to Arthur and waited as the other man turned away and began to loop the belt on.
Just a bit more.
There was the clink of the buckle and the slight give in the belt as the sword's weight fell on it fully.
"I was the one who released the Great Dragon," Merlin said softly, almost wishing the words could be swallowed back down and he could run away because he truly didn't want Arthur to know.
Arthur's shoulders instantly stiffened and he turned to look at Merlin. "What was that?"
Here. Merlin could just laugh it off – pretend he had been to the tavern earlier, Arthur would surely believe that. The reflexive lying that had been ingrained in him over the years fought to the surface. No, no, no, no.
Merlin swallowed, trying to dry his parched throat, and added, "In Ealdor, I made the whirlwind and then forced Will to lie for me."
Eyes narrowing, Arthur straightened so he was facing Merlin fully. "Come again, Merlin. I must be mistaken, because I'm hearing you confessing to being a sorcerer."
Giving a hoarse chuckle – Yes, yes, yes, it was working, this was it, Merlin could already see the anger in his eyes – Merlin nodded emphatically. "Oh yes, a terrible one at that! I've killed people!" Other sorcerers who were trying to kill you and it was only because I didn't know any other way to stop them.
Arthur remained silent now, eyes darting all over Merlin's face and lips slowly pursing together until they formed a thin, white line.
"I've – I was the one who turned Morgana evil!" I'm so sorry – I never meant to, I just didn't know what to do.
Stop, some corner of his mind cried out. He could feel the push of regret and fear fighting against the drive of having this over, ending it all, being at peace for just a little while.
There, there, Arthur's shoulders pushed back and his hand twitching as if to move towards the hilt of his blade. "Shut up, Merlin," he warned, feet sliding apart slightly as he prepared himself to tackle the other man.
Merlin was shivering all over, inside, and maybe even his knees were shaking back and forth. He couldn't feel anything besides the fierce throbbing from his heart running through his whole body.
"I was the old man who, who said you have the brain of a, a donkey…And I mean-meant it!" Well, at that moment – but then when he saw the King Arthur had become, with Merlin's help and not even knowing it, he took it all back.
His palms were sweating, he was sure. This was worse than going to face Nimueh when he thought he was going to die – he hadn't cared what she thought about him.
He had been going to save Arthur.
Now who was he saving?
"I l-lied about your mother – that really was her ghost speaking to you with Morgause." I don't know, I don't know, but I wish it had been – I wish you had spoken with her just once, like me and my father.
That made Arthur's head jerk back with shock, a growl coming out between his clenched teeth. Arthur was nearly there – Merlin could tell. But he needed something to make him hate Merlin.
"I killed your father," he hissed. This was his last hope – he couldn't think of anything else, anything that could push Arthur further than this.
His shoulder was suddenly slamming into the stone wall, pain racing through his back, and his cheek was aflame with numbness. Raising his hand, he brushed along his cheek and found blood from where Arthur's ring had cut into his flesh.
Arthur was on him in the width of a breath – hand pressing into his shoulder and forcing him up and back until his spine was digging into the wall.
Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes.
Merlin forced his eyes open and stared into Arthur's. His pupils were wide and his brow lowered in such a way that Merlin was almost frightened to meet his gaze - his glare.
There was a moment when all he could feel was the fingers pressing, pressing, pressing into his shoulders and Arthur's breath hot on his lips. He almost wanted to lean forward and press a kiss into his mouth and apologize. And say sorry, I am so sorry, and beg for forgiveness.
But it was too late for that.
Arthur's hand was suddenly tightening around his throat. The other man was muttering, dark words that Merlin could scarcely make out but knew, just knew, that they were condemnations of betrayal and lies and why did he do this to Arthur, why?
He noted Arthur's other hand finally moving to grip the hilt of the sword, the sword he gave him, the sword that would keep him safe when Merlin was gone, and allowed his eyelids to slide shut, tilting his head back slightly. He breathed out a "Yes, the sword – won't work otherwise."
The squeeze around his neck tightened for a moment and then Arthur replied, "What does that mean?"
His eyes flutter back open – pupils wide with shock. No.
Arthur shook him against the wall, knocking his head back and making dark spots flash up before his eyes. "What. Does. That. Mean. Merlin," he growled out, pulling his other hand back and raising it as if to hit him again.
Merlin stared at him, eyes stretched wide to the point of pain, chest heaving with an attempt to draw in enough air to provoke Arthur again or break free and escape or just do anything.
Arthur's grip loosened on his throat and air rushed down to his lungs and the other man was staring back at him, gaze wary and questioning. The hand that had been in the air slowly lowered and moved towards Merlin's wrist and Merlin tried to pull away.
Because this wasn't supposed to happen.
He wasn't supposed to know.
Arthur had his wrist now, peering at the inside of it where the fresh scar still lay. His fingers pressed against the slightly raised flesh and Merlin hissed in a breath.
In a flurry of moment, Arthur shoved him hard back against the wall – spots dancing before his eyes – and slammed his wrists into the stone above his head. Merlin let out a gasp of pain and felt his knees start to fold.
"Hold them there," Arthur hissed, voice low and dark in Merlin's ear.
Merlin nodded frantically and watched as Arthur pulled back and went to sit in his chair before the table. He settled in, eyes on Merlin the entire time – not even blinking – and steepled his fingers together under his chin. He remained still for a moment, merely looking at Merlin and steadying his breathing.
His next words shocked Merlin – mainly by their casual tone and also because they were accompanied by a completely open expression. As if he was no longer angry.
"You know, you were right."
Merlin gaped at him, hands clutching at each other over his head.
He sounded as if, Merlin didn't even know, as if he was happy about something.
"You once told me that you have tells when you lie – that you start sweating," a gesture towards Merlin's palms, "Your vision blurs," a vague wave at his eyes, "I bet your knees normally shake too, and, I think, just maybe you start stuttering." His eyes narrowed slightly again, "I should have noticed, but you clearly know how to work me into a fury.
"I should have realized because you, little idiot, are the most loyal, most brave, most kind soul I know and would never do half the things you claim without very good reason." Merlin couldn't help but shudder at the compliments – he had no idea Arthur had thought of him – or if he had any inkling, he had merely brushed it off as optimistic delusion – as more than just an occasionally well-spoken servant.
Sure, he had said they were friends once, but he always followed it with a joke. Or was going off to what was possibly his death. Merlin knew not to trust words said in the heat of the moment like that.
"You know," Arthur added, a small smirk appearing along the line of his mouth, "I've never told anyone, but often when I'm trying to think of the right thing – the good thing, the honorable thing – to do, I think of what you would do. If you were in my position."
He was smiling at Merlin. Smiling even though Merlin had just thrown some of his most painful memories in his face and tried to use him to kill himself.
Merlin couldn't believe it.
"So, I know you must be lying."
He started to pull his hands down, because he couldn't stand here and be lectured by Arthur – regardless of how nice it sounded, he knew he would be yelled at and Arthur yelling at him was the one thing that broke him the most, because he was always trying to make Arthur happy – and he had to get out right now.
Arthur suddenly sat forward in the chair, hands bunching into fists. "If you move so much as a twitch more," he declared in a quiet, calm, deadly voice, "I'll have you on the ground, arm wrenched up behind your back, before you can even contemplate what just happened to you. Then, I'll knock you out. So, don't. Try. Anything."
Merlin left his hands where they were.
And not, not just because of Arthur's threat – though he had watched him train and knew, knew oh so well, the speed and strength he held within his body – but because he saw how Arthur was eyeing his wrists.
He saw how Arthur was eyeing his wrists and knew from various trips into the vaults that there were terrible things there – things like shackles and collars that stripped a sorcerer of their powers and held them captive, weak and unable to fight back.
And he wouldn't be able to look Arthur in the eye like that – because at least, normally, he was worth something to Arthur, with his magic. He could protect him and keep him safe and could, at any moment, give up his life for Arthur. He didn't want to lose that.
And, suddenly, he wondered what he was even doing.
He lifted his eyes from the floor where they had fallen and looked at Arthur.
And Arthur was staring at him.
Expression completely at ease.
Just looking. At Merlin. Just looking at Merlin.
This. This was Arthur.
Fully focused on Merlin.
And, that was enough. Could be enough.
He had been so stupid.
A quiet "Oh" somehow fluttered its way up out of his mouth and he remained there, staring back at Arthur with his mouth dropped open.
And Arthur smiled.
"There. Now you've realized how fulfilling it is to have the full attention of the King of Camelot himself focused on you," Arthur declared, tone smug and eyes nearly dancing.
He tilted his head up slightly and ordered, "Now, tell me."
Merlin blinked rapidly, "T-tell you?"
"Tell me the truth, Merlin."
And, looking at him, Merlin could suddenly see both the free, kind Arthur of their campfires and hunting trips and the noble Arthur of the throne room at once – overlapping.
Though there were some things he could never tell one or the other, somehow he felt he could be completely honest with this Arthur.
He opened his mouth.
And everything just came pouring out.
As he was telling Arthur everything, and yes, really, truly, everything, everything, everything, Merlin realized how blinded he had become – blinded by desperation and depression and fear that he was losing his place in Arthur's life.
He was telling of the times around Aredian's arrival when there was a knock on the door.
Arthur stood quickly and gestured for Merlin to remain where he was. 'Do not move,' he mouthed as he stepped towards the door.
Merlin craned his neck to see Arthur open the door just enough that only his face was showing and heard his muffled tones as he spoke with the messenger or guard or servant or whoever was in the hallway.
He wondered what it would look like to someone else – Arthur's manservant pinning himself to the wall while Arthur watched.
Merlin nearly shuddered to think of the connotations.
Arthur shut the door and made his way back to his chair. And, just looked at Merlin.
Merlin trembled and then began again.
When he finished, Merlin kept his eyes on the floor. His throat was dry from talking for so long and he swallowed noisily.
But, he was done.
He had done it – he had finally told Arthur the truth.
Merlin had thought the day would never come that Arthur knew everything about him.
He was trembling, trembling all over as he waited for Arthur to speak.
There was the sound of the chair scraping slightly along the wood floor and then Arthur cleared his throat loudly. "Come here, Merlin," he ordered.
Merlin raised his eyes slowly to see Arthur pointing at the floor before his feet. He took one step away from the wall, watching Arthur for a hint of movement the whole time, then another.
"A bit closer," Arthur directed.
"A little more."
Merlin stopped with the toes of his boots nearly touching Arthur's. Arthur waited until Merlin's eyes met his again and questioned, "You were attempting to have me slay you? With this?" He tapped the sword that Merlin saw was now resting on the table.
He swallowed again and then nodded his head jerkily.
He regretted it now – oh so much. Everything had been building up for so long – so many frustrations – and he had lost all sense.
But, Arthur would know that.
Sure, he would.
"I thought something was wrong, have suspected as much since I first realized you were keeping secrets from me – but there's just been so much going on with the rebuilding and scourging the surrounding land of Helios' men, not to mention the wedding and everything that came with that –" Merlin's breath caught in his throat at the mention of the wedding, "– and I, just, well, I am sorry, Merlin." His voice was thick at the end, and hesitant, just as Arthur's always was when he spoke of his dreaded, much repressed feelings.
Merlin nodded jerkily again, feeling as if his neck might snap.
Arthur studied him for a moment and then straightened significantly. Merlin recognized the posture he adopted when giving formal commands. He reached up with one hand and hooked the back of Merlin's neck to tug him down.
Their faces were only inches apart.
"Until further review, I, Arthur Pendragon, King of Camelot, sentence you, Merlin of Ealdor, to remain by my side for the rest of your life," he declared, voice clear and calm.
Arthur squeezed slightly, fingers pressing into the bruises forming from his choke hold before, "Because, Merlin, it's exactly what you deserve.
"A true place by my side."
He released Merlin and waited for the man to straighten up, knees shaking as if he would fall down at any moment. "Go over there," Arthur ordered, "Shirt off, and place your hands on the wall."
Merlin blinked and then shook his head, "What? No."
"Merlin. I want to see this with my own eyes – all that you have done for me," Arthur replied, voice slipping into the more appealing tone Merlin had heard him use on council members when they were arguing against Arthur's wishes.
He turned around.
Because Arthur always managed to convince them in the end, and Merlin would be no different.
His shirt hit the floor and Merlin slowly leaned forward to place his hands on the cold stone. He heard Arthur's steps as the man approached him.
He was almost certain the man meant no harm to Merlin – but perhaps he was still angry. For being lied to.
There was a soft brush of skin against his back. Arthur's hand traveling over him.
The fingers paused at a mark on Merlin's side. "What's this?"
Merlin tilted his head slightly, concentrating. "Um, Sophia and her father," he replied, remembering being tossed into the wall and the cut that had come from the rough stone.
The hand moved up to his arm and across to his shoulder, "And this?"
"Some time during the Great Dragon's attack."
The hand remained there and another set of fingers brushed against his arm. "This one?"
Merlin couldn't help but smile slightly. "My 'first battle wound.'"
Arthur's fingers pressed into the skin and moved on – sliding along his side, sending shivers up Merlin's spine, and skating past his stomach to stop at his breastbone.
"Nimueh," Merlin whispered, the memory of the pain nearly making him twitch away from Arthur's touch.
Arthur's fingers remained there and then his other hand – maybe just his thumb – brushed across Merlin's neck.
Merlin shook his head and Arthur cleared his throat, the sound almost a growl to Merlin's ears.
"M-morgana," he said with a sigh filling the name.
Arthur's hand came to grip the back of his neck while his other moved to his right shoulder. "And this?" Arthur's voice was almost hoarse.
Merlin felt his shoulder twitch under Arthur's touch as he answered, "The, uh, the bandits, with the rock fall?"
Arthur had known. Merlin could tell by the way his breath huffed out over Merlin's neck.
His left hand slid down over his back until it reached the large mark near the base of his spine. Merlin began to tremble as his other hand traveled the distance to Merlin's stomach – touching the fresh scar there.
He began to tremble because he knew Arthur knew what that mark was.
Any experienced warrior could recognize that mark. And Arthur was as skilled and experienced as they came. He had most likely inflicted that wound on many.
He might even have a similar wound himself.
His fingers pressed into the scar on both sides.
Suddenly, Arthur was pushing him slightly forward as his hands pulled off from Merlin. Merlin nearly began to take a step back when he felt the heat of Arthur suddenly all along his back – the man had to be as close as possible without touching him.
Merlin felt something warm spread through his stomach.
Arthur's hands were suddenly on Merlin's wrists and Merlin jerked from the sudden grip. Arthur's fingers were like brands, searing into him.
When he began to speak, his voice was harsh and loud in Merlin's ear, "At first, you were just a servant, and then somehow you were my friend. And then I loved you, as a brother. But now, I could never love anyone as I love you. Because, since you have arrived here, you are the only one who has never left my side. Was that all because of this destiny you speak of?"
Merlin shook his head rapidly, mouth dry from hearing it.
From hearing Arthur say he loved him.
Arthur loved him.
His heart began to race.
Because, he loved Arthur too.
He opened his mouth to reply and found nothing but dry, dry air being pushed out. Swallowing, he tried again, "No. No, I – I have been fighting my destiny every step of the way.
"I remain at your side for you, Arthur – for the you I know, not the you I've heard you prophesied to become."
Arthur's chin brushed against his shoulder as the other man nodded. "Good."
His left hand twisted Merlin's wrist and brought it towards Arthur's mouth.
Merlin stared in shock as Arthur pulled back his lips and bit into Merlin's flesh.
Right along the scar.
He nearly whimpered again as Arthur continued to bite along the mark.
It was a flaming red when he was done.
He pressed Merlin's left hand against the wall again and his fingers were suddenly bearing into the marked flesh.
His head turned back so it was lost to Merlin's eyes and Arthur's voice returned to his ear, hot and heavy. "These belong to me now. And you can't do anything to them without my permission."
Merlin had no reply.
Arthur gave a small nod again – hair tickling Merlin's ear.
He did the same to Merlin's right wrist.
Merlin was completely shuddering when Arthur was done – head ducked down to stare at the floor and teeth gnawing on his lip. The heat in his stomach had changed to a, a twinge up his spine with every bite.
Arthur's hands moved back to his neck and his heat was gone from his back.
Merlin was suddenly cold.
Hand pressing on his neck to hold his head down – and Merlin tried to raise it slightly and failed, failed, failed – Arthur began to speak again.
"I had to have a queen, Merlin. To give Camelot stability – to assure the people that the Pendragon reign was strong again.
"People were worried about an heir already." He paused for a long moment – and the room was filled with the quiet sound of breathing – then he added, "And, you are not a woman."
"I'm not a woman?" Merlin echoed, tongue feeling like cotton in his mouth.
Arthur let out a sound that was almost a chuckle. "No, you're not."
But, Gwen is.
Arthur released him and Merlin took a stumbling step back from the wall, turning his body so he was facing Arthur.
The man was smiling at him – a free, open expression that Merlin had thought would be lost to him forever after Arthur married Gwen.
But he had only married her because she was a woman and Merlin wasn't.
Arthur took a step towards him and Merlin quickly stepped back.
Before he realized, he found himself being herded back towards the bed.
"You know," Arthur began to drawl, "All day today, Gwen and I will remain quietly in our chambers. The people don't have to know anything.
"But, she, and I, and all of us, we will be in our proper places."
Merlin was stuck between nodding along as if he understood and shaking his head because Arthur was making no sense. The result was a twitching tilt of his head.
"Gwen will bear my heir," Arthur added, giving Merlin a stern look, "It's nothing against you though, don't worry."
Merlin suddenly found his knees bumping against the bed and him falling back on the thick furs.
"Wha – I – what?" he stuttered as he pushed himself back towards the headboard on his elbows.
Arthur merely grinned – the smile the one he wore when facing a surely inferior opponent during a tourney, completely self-assured and almost predatory.
He made his way up the bed towards Merlin on his hands and knees and Merlin smacked his head into the headboard in his shocked rush backwards.
After a quick blink, Arthur's face was suddenly right before Merlin's and he turned his head towards the wood behind him.
"Listening for woodworms?" Arthur murmured against his shoulder, lips a mere breath's width from his skin.
Merlin shuddered from the warmth of his breath on his shoulder and neck.
He turned his face back towards Arthur and tilted his chin down slightly, so he was looking the man straight in the eyes.
"I'm sorry," he said. For all the things I've done. For the lies. For what I just tried to make you do.
A soft, chaste kiss was pressed against his lips before Arthur's reply came, so gentle it sent a throbbing rush through Merlin's heart, "Thank you."