The castle, when Merlin finds it, is more ruins than intact walls, crumbling stone arcs overgrown with ivy washed in orange and purple from the setting sun.
It might’ve been funny how these hide-outs are always the same pathetic locations if Merlin had the mind to spare it a thought. As it is, the only thing holding him back from razing it to dust is that Arthur is in there.
He knows Arthur is here, can feel his magic buzzing underneath his skin with the certainty of it. After over a week of searching for him, of not knowing what happened to him and if he were even still alive, Merlin’s patience is hanging on a very, very frail thread.
There are only a handful of guards at the entrance and he knocks them out with barely a thought. The pull in his chest is getting stronger, and he doesn’t bother being subtle, doesn’t bother hiding the rage that he’s sure must show on his face.
“Who are you?” a guard demands, about three corridors in, and Merlin bares his teeth.
“The last face you’re going to see if you don’t move,” he presses out, and he has to push down the urge to enact revenge for whatever they’ve done to Arthur.
“You can’t just—”
Merlin lets his magic flare, and the two guards drop to the ground. He doesn’t encounter anyone else as he makes his way deeper into the castle.
The air is stale and dusty, the corridors littered with debris and the bones of smaller animals, crunching underneath his feet. It’s such a hopeless place, and it might’ve rubbed off on him if not for how his magic is rising and urging him on with every step.
It wouldn’t do this if Arthur wasn’t still alive, it wouldn’t, it wouldn’t—
He arrives at a narrow, steep staircase leading to what must be the dungeon, and it’s only the walls on both sides that keep him from taking a tumble down. Quiet voices reach him before the last bend, and he steels himself for whatever it is he’s going to find.
Low light from a few torches flickers through the open space in front of a row of cells. Two men are sitting at a rickety table, playing dice. They only notice him when he steps further into the room, but he barely pays them any mind.
Only one cell is occupied, blonde hair catching the glint of the fire now and then. It’s matted, dark streaks in between that eventually trail over temples and cheekbones, down a pale throat.
Arthur’s head is lolling to the side, but his hands are strung up above his head, chains locked to a nook in the wall. He doesn’t seem conscious.
The guards have barely moved before Merlin slams them into a wall, and it costs him the last remains of his self-restraint to leave it at that.
The door to the cell bursts out of its hinges and Arthur’s head jerks up, his lips curling back. His eyes are unfocused, and his voice hoarse when he spits, “No matter how hard you try, I won’t tell you anything.”
It penetrates the rage that’s clouding Merlin’s brain, and he takes a breath, and another one before slowly entering the cell.
“Hey, it’s me,” he says quietly, concern growing when Arthur stares at him, uncomprehending. “Merlin. It’s Merlin. You’re safe now, alright? I’m going to get you out of here.”
Finally, Arthur gives a slow nod, and his lips quirk into a poor attempt of a smile. “Knew you’d come eventually. Took you long enough though.”
Merlin’s not sure what, exactly, is the sound he makes at that; something between a sob and a laugh, but he’s not all too keen to inspect it too closely.
Instead, he makes quick work of the shackles around Arthur’s wrists and ankles. Arthur immediately slumps, half of his weight landing on Merlin, and anger flares once more in his chest.
“Are you alright? Can you walk?” he asks, wrapping an arm around Arthur’s waist and trying to assess how badly he’s hurt.
Arthur barely reacts to the touch, his face pressing into the crook of Merlin’s neck. “Nothing I couldn’t handle.”
That’s not at all reassuring, but he’ll have to take it until they’re out of here.
The stairs pose more of a problem than he would’ve liked, and Arthur’s breathing is laboured when they reach the top.
“Can’t you just—” Arthur slurs, his syllables running into each other, and he waves his hand around in what Merlin assumes is supposed to mean magic.
It robs the breath out of Merlin’s lungs, if only for a second; Arthur referring to his magic like it’s something normal, like he doesn’t still resent Merlin for it.
Only for a second, though, because up here he can also make out the sickly pallor to Arthur’s skin, the sweat on his forehead, and the cuts and dark bruises littering his face.
He doesn’t answer, only tightens his grip and drags them back the way he came.
A cacophony of voices reaches them just as they’re about to move down the last corridor, and Merlin locks every single door but the exit.
“Damn, how many are there? What the hell did they want with you?”
He doesn’t really expect an answer, but Arthur hums. “Wanted to know who you are. Who Emrys is. Tried drugging me when their torture didn’t help, but it wasn’t successful either.”
Merlin’s heart freezes in his chest, air stuttering through his lungs, and it’s only Arthur’s warm, solid body at his side that keeps him going.
Somehow, he gets them beyond the treeline of the forest. Arthur’s steps are slow and uncoordinated, and his laboured breathing betrays the pain he must be in. It’s barely a conscious choice, but Merlin let’s go of the grasp he has on his magic, and the castle crumbles behind them.
Arthur jumps at the crash, at the noise of grinding stone being reduced to nothing; it’s that alone which leaves guilt crawling through Merlin’s veins.
He doesn’t pay it much mind. Arthur sags against his side, legs giving away underneath him, and Merlin fails to move him any further.
Carefully, he lowers Arthur to the ground and kneels beside him. “You’re such a prat,” he mutters, getting the waterskin from his belt and untying his neckerchief. Wetting the fabric, he starts cleaning the blood and grime from Arthur’s face.
“Of course, you wouldn’t say anything, would you? As much as you don’t talk to me anymore—” He chokes, the last week—weeks—suddenly catching up with him.
Revealing his magic to Arthur, and all he’s done; the night-long conversations, the anger, the forgiveness. The silence and the distance.
Arthur didn’t execute or banish him, but he didn’t take it well either, not that Merlin can blame him.
Can’t even blame him for his stupid, stubborn insistence to not have Merlin come along for a routine patrol and for it going all horribly wrong; can only blame himself for not having anticipated that, and also, apparently, being the reason for why it happened in the first place.
“You should’ve just told them,” he murmurs, running his hands over Arthur’s arms and ribs to check for injuries. “Why wouldn’t you just tell them?”
He knows why; knows that they decided to keep it between them until the laws were going to change, until revealing Merlin’s identity wouldn’t pose only more of a threat to both of them.
A part of him still doesn’t understand why Arthur would protect him so stubbornly, at the risk of his own health and life. Or maybe he does, on a rational level; knows he’d do the same, but then, his feelings for Arthur have always been different than the other way around.
He jumps when Arthur’s fingers curl weakly around his wrist. When he looks up, he finds Arthur’s eyes on him, glazed over and unfocused, and he’s helpless against reaching out and brushing the hair out of his face.
“Idiot,” he says because it’s that or spilling his heart out, in a small clearing with what has once been a castle and is now merely a pile of grey dust as their only witness.
“Couldn’t,” Arthur mutters, fingers tightening around Merlin’s wrist. “Said they knew that I had to know who you are. Protected me for so long. I’d never, Merlin, I—”
“Shh,” Merlin says, and his eyes are burning, his throat too tight. “Don’t talk, you need to rest.”
Arthur makes a sound in the back of his throat that might’ve been a scoff, under different circumstances. “Just heal me,” he demands, petulant, and of course Arthur bloody Pendragon would still utter orders after having been nearly tortured to death.
“I can’t,” Merlin says, and trying to hold the tears back is clearly a lesson in futility, so he just gives up. “You’ve been drugged, and I don’t know with what. I could make it worse.”
“Can’t get much worse,” Arthur croaks, and then he starts coughing, his whole body shaking with it.
It hurts to watch, hurts to be unable to do anything but squeeze Arthur’s hand and offer him water when the coughs finally subside.
“I’m sorry,” Merlin finally says, and Arthur’s eyes are restless on his face. “I’m so sorry.”
“Don’t be,” Arthur slurs, untangling his hand from Merlin’s grip with sluggish tugs. Merlin’s heart sinks, only to start thundering against his ribs when Arthur’s fingers skim over his jaw. “You know I love you, yeah? Would do it a hundred times over. Got to keep you safe.”
The way Arthur looks at him, all unmasked fondness and raw honesty, has Merlin choking on a sob, has hope unfurling in the place underneath his heart. He has to remind himself that Arthur’s been drugged, that he doesn’t know what he’s saying, and that he might very well not mean the half of it.
“Me too,” he presses out, and then he shoves it all down, away, into the corner of his mind he tries not to touch if he can help it. “Come on, I can’t heal you with magic, but I have to dress your wounds. Where else are you hurt?”
Arthur watches him for long moments, his mouth trembling and unhappy even as he tries to hide it.
“If you say fine, Arthur, I swear to the mother and the maiden—”
A sound that comes as close to a huff as Arthur’s probably going to manage cuts him off and Arthur closes his eyes. Draws a deep breath, hands clenching and unclenching weakly.
Merlin thinks that bringing down the castle on their heads wasn’t nearly enough.
“Everywhere. I don’t know, I spent a lot of time trying to not pay attention to it,” Arthur finally says, and the admission alone is like a bucket of ice on the pyre of Merlin’s fury.
“Alright,” he says, swallowing it down. “Can you sit up?”
It takes a lot of careful help from Merlin, and the pain is carving lines into Arthur’s expression with every move. Eventually, though, he’s sitting upright, slumped against Merlin’s side.
They don’t speak as Merlin carefully cuts away what remains of Arthur’s shirt, and he bites his tongue at the wounds on Arthur’s arms and chest and back.
His magic is itching to reach out, to heal and soothe, and that alone is rare enough. Still, he pushes it down too, Gaius’ lectures about how fickle drugs and magic are something he’s never forgotten about.
Instead, he starts the slow, careful process of cleaning the torn skin of blood and dirt, the only mercy that by some miracle, none of it looks infected yet.
Arthur winces occasionally, his fingers of one hand clenched into the hem of Merlin’s tunic.
“I’m glad you came for me,” he says at some point, and Merlin has to strain his ears to understand him at all.
“Always, Arthur. I’ll always come for you.”
“Wasn’t sure, this time. Couldn’t have blamed you if—”
“Shh,” Merlin shushes him, again, and it’s as much for his own sake as it is for Arthur’s. “Don’t be stupid. There’s nothing you could do that would ever stop me from making sure you’re alright.”
It’s a mercy, too, that he doesn’t have to look at Arthur’s face while saying this, the truth of it heavy around his shoulders.
He’s just about to grab for the ointment and bandages he brought when Arthur’s hand curls around his neck, his fingers cool against Merlin’s skin. Where he’s still taking all this strength from, Merlin has no idea.
“Thank you,” Arthur murmurs, voice laden with pain and grief and guilt, and something Merlin doesn’t dare name. “I don’t understand why, but thank you.”
Merlin carefully wraps his fingers around Arthur’s wrist and leans their heads together, taking a moment to just breathe; to feel Arthur’s pulse beating underneath his fingertips, still a little unsteady but unmistakably there. To promise himself that no matter how much of what Arthur’s revealing is only due to being drugged, he won’t allow them to drift apart again.
More of Arthur’s weight sags against him, and when Merlin twists to look at him, his eyes are closed, unconsciousness finally dragging him back into her grasp.
He finishes wrapping Arthur’s wounds and dresses him in a clean shirt, then carefully settles him on the single bedroll he conjures up. After starting a fire, he sits close to his head, readying himself to keep guard for however long it will take until Arthur’s slept off the worst of it.
It’s just when the sky turns from pitch-black to dark blue, stars fading in favour of the first gossamer threads of dawn, that Arthur finally stirs.
His breathing picks up, limbs twitching, and Merlin reaches out to lay a steadying hand on his shoulders.
Before he can blink, he’s pinned underneath Arthur, one arm pressing down on his throat and Arthur’s legs rendering him unable to move. He probably should’ve expected this, all things considered.
“Careful, or you’ll irritate your injuries further,” he croaks out, even though it’s quickly becoming difficult to breathe.
Arthur’s eyes are wild where they stare down at him, and it takes another few seconds before his hold finally loosens. Instead of moving away, he collapses, forehead coming to rest in the crook of Merlin’s neck.
It makes his chest ache, and he’s helpless against the urge to reach out and carefully splay his hands over Arthur’s shoulders.
He’s trembling underneath Merlin’s palms, small shivers running up and down his spine, and his fingers are digging into Merlin’s shoulders.
It’s bordering on painful, but Merlin truly couldn’t care less.
“You really came. It wasn’t a dream,” Arthur eventually whispers, and he sounds so, so fragile.
Merlin has a hard time breathing, and it’s not because of Arthur’s weight; the thought that none of this would’ve happened if not for him hasn’t left him alone all night. It’s all the more tangible with Arthur clinging to the shreds of his composure.
“I’m sorry,” he says, his voice cracking with how much he means it.
Arthur lifts his head, just far enough to look down at Merlin. His eyes are clear now but still red-rimmed, the dark smudges underneath barely distinguishable from the bruises on his cheeks and jaw.
“You’ve nothing to be sorry for.”
“Of course I do, I—”
“Didn’t you listen to me yesterday?” Arthur interrupts, a hint of his usual smile tugging at the corner of his mouth. Uncertainty still lingers in his eyes though, and he swallows a few times before he goes on. “I’d do it a hundred times over to keep you safe.”
And Merlin—Merlin doesn’t know what to do with that. Doesn’t know how to shove down all the relief and the terror and the overwhelming affection that’s been coalescing into something heavy and bitter over the last few weeks. Doesn’t know how he’s supposed to hide any of it for another second, and that maybe, he doesn’t want to either.
So he does the only thing he can think of; shifts his hand until his fingers tangle carefully into Arthur’s hair, watching his face for any sign of discomfort. Breathes in and out when he doesn’t find any, and slowly lifts his head to brush his lips against Arthur’s, just once. It’s barely there, courage deserting him just as soon as it appeared, and he has to close his eyes against the inevitable reaction of—
Arthur’s lips chase after his, soft and gentle but not leaving any room for doubt. He still smells like blood and dirt and sweat, and Merlin’s still terrified to touch him, for the whole scene to shatter apart any second now. It’s also the safest he’s felt in a long time.
“You’re an idiot,” Arthur murmurs against his lips, and this, more than anything, finally loosens the tight knot in Merlin’s chest.
Bringing his other hand up to Arthur’s jaw, he pulls him down again, lets the kiss turn more insistent. Pouring everything into it, his apologies and his guilt and his worry, all the things that words always fail to convey just right, and hopes, begs to every deity that will listen that Arthur understands.
“Are you sure I’m not still drugged?” Arthur asks when they break apart, his fingers skimming over Merlin’s cheekbones, and Merlin can do nothing but grin up at him with what he’s sure must be adoration written all over his face.
“I do hope so because otherwise, that would mean they’d caught me too.”
Arthur’s eyes glint, the first rays of sunlight breaking through the canopy of leaves and washing everything in gold and orange.
“Well, we can’t have that, all my good efforts going to waste.”
Merlin’s stomach sinks at the reminder, but it must show on his face because Arthur’s fingers press more firmly against his jaw. “Stop that. It’s not your fault—I should’ve let you come in the first place, or rather, they shouldn’t have done it in the first place, yeah?”
“They won’t be a problem anymore,” Merlin answers, words wrenched out of his throat in the desperate urge to assure Arthur that he’s safe, truly safe, and that Merlin will keep it that way come hell or high water.
Arthur hums, his head tilting slightly while never taking his eyes off Merlin. “I distinctly remember you bringing the castle down on their heads, so I’d say so.”
“Yes, Merlin, I remember. And if you’re asking me if I remember telling you that I love you—” Arthur cuts off, his gaze flickering away before he visibly steels himself, his eyes so very earnest when they meet Merlin’s again. “—then yes, I do. And I meant it; I’m sorry it took me so long—”
Merlin surges up, pressing their lips together, and it’s a little brilliant, the first warmth of the morning and Arthur’s solid weight covering him, every last ounce of fear seeping out of his body, taken away by the land. It’s only right, in a way; Albion is Arthur’s, has always been Arthur’s, and what—who—else should be able to relieve Merlin of all the weight that’s become such a constant companion?
It’s only when Arthur flinches slightly underneath his hands that he remembers himself.
“Shit, I’m sorry, you’re still hurt and—”
“Merlin,” Arthur laughs, his eyes crinkling at the corners, “it’s fine. But I’ll be ever so grateful if you’d heal me now; prove that all of that mighty magic is good for more than reducing ruins to rubble.”
Maybe Merlin should feign insult; should huff and roll his eyes and tell Arthur to be grateful, for once in his life. Maybe it should be more complicated than this, but there have always been many things that the two of them should and shouldn’t be, and Merlin’s all too ready to go back to defying each and every one of them.
“You’re lucky that I love you,” he says with a grin because there’s no reason to let Arthur’s head become too big.
Arthur’s features soften though, his eyes fluttering close. “I really, really am,” he says, and well, what is Merlin supposed to do with that but kiss him again, again and again until they’re both breathless with it.