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and with my opened mouth i join the singing light

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Merlin would never be able to close his eyes again.

 

Every single time Merlin had tried to take a break for himself, Arthur ended up bumbling into another category of disaster with his sword swinging and dumb, stupid face lighting up with challenge.

 

The danger just happened to stumble upon them, for once, while the knights and Merlin were making the journey back to Camelot after a sickness outburst in a border town. Arthur and a couple of his most select knights—Leon, Gwaine, Elyan, and Percival—had volunteered to travel with Merlin to reassure the townspeople and provide comfort. Merlin was the only one actually doing the difficult bit, like always. Gaius suggested, and Merlin agreed, that Merlin was needed in case the plague—which had unusual symptoms if the woman who had petitioned Arthur was to be believed—turned out to be more than a standard illness.

 

Indeed, Merlin had found a poultice bag radiating a dark energy in the town’s well and had quickly disposed of it.

He and the knights left the town lauded as heroes, but Merlin grumpily wondered why the knights were so praised when all they had done was lug blankets to and fro and talk with the townspeople.

That last bit was a little uncharitable, but Merlin was on edge. An abandoned poultice bag with no sorcerer or sorceress guarding it? It didn’t seem likely, and Merlin, for the first time in his life, was concerned that he hadn’t had to fight anyone.


That was why, when Merlin had tried to lay his head on his horse’s neck for two seconds, trying to gather his thoughts, and he heard many someones thrashing through the forest, a small part of Merlin was relieved.

 

At last the world made sense again.

 

But that was also why Merlin would never be able to take a break.

 

Because currently, a sorceress and ten of her cohorts were shooting spells and swinging swords at Merlin’s friends.

 

The cacophony of battle rang through the forest as the setting sun dappled the forest with orange light. Arthur was shouting orders at the knights, encouraging them and sending them in the appropriate directions. Merlin’s chest felt tight as he watched Arthur work, dodging and sweeping and leading.

 

Merlin tried to shake the thoughts from his head as he scanned the scene, looking for the sorceress—the biggest threat to Arthur and his friends.

 

There.

 

Movement behind a tree caught Merlin’s eye as the woman—young, only a little older than Merlin, perhaps—backed away from the scene. Her gaze caught Merlin’s, and she smiled a slow, lethal smile.

 

Merlin didn’t even hesitate.

 

He ran after her, legs pumping, heart thumping, eyes trained solely on her as she cackled and ran.

 

“Merlin!” Arthur’s voice shouted somewhere behind him, but Merlin knew that he couldn’t slow down and he couldn’t take his eyes off of the sorceress. So, he kept running.

 

Merlin dodged branches, leapt over logs, and tried to avoid the brambles tugging at his feet. The sound of fighting grew fainter and fainter before the sorceress stopped in her tracks and swung to face Merlin.

 

Merlin’s magic hummed underneath his skin, ready to defend as Merlin slowed his pace and stopped altogether.

 

They stood, barely ten meters apart as their chests heaved and they waited for the other to make the next move.

 

“You will never mean as much to him as he means to you.” The woman said simply, and Merlin was taken aback. Of all the threats and warnings he expected to come from the woman’s mouth, this wasn’t one of them. The sentiment stung sharply before Merlin tried to shrug it off.

 

It’s a distraction, a voice in Merlin’s head warned, and it sounded a lot like Arthur. Merlin lowered into a fighting stance, his magic singing as he prepared for an attack.

 

“You know nothing,” Merlin said, mouth twitching into a smile as the woman scowled deeply.

 

A great crashing came from Merlin’s left and halted the spell the woman had begun chanting. Arthur, sword in hand, emerged from the dense foliage.

 

“Are you going to make a habit of chasing dangerous witches with no weapons?” Arthur grated between clenched teeth as he shot Merlin a glare.

 

Merlin was about to make a sharp retort when movement behind Arthur caught Merlin’s attention.

 

One of the woman’s companions was hidden behind a tree, and he reached into his cloak. Time slowed down and, Merlin had the presence of mind to realize, he wasn’t sure whether his magic was doing it or if panic had made time clot together.

 

A flash of metal caught the dappled light of the forest and Merlin didn’t have time to think. A thin, sharp dagger as big around as a broom handle was poised at the tip of his fingers. His eyes, burning with anger and hatred and vindication, settled on Arthur’s back.

 

“Arthur!” Merlin called, but he knew, deeply and instinctually, it would be too late. Merlin had spent years watching Arthur train and knew exactly, down to the half-second, how fast Arthur’s reflexes were. He had seen Arthur run drill after drill and fight countless of men, to the death and for sport.

 

Merlin knew that Arthur wouldn’t be able to move. His back was turned, he wouldn’t have enough time he wouldn’t have enough time, he wouldn’t have enough time—

 

Merlin broke out into a sprint, lunging forward, catching Arthur’s shoulders as he turned around, placing himself between the assassin and Arthur and—

 

Nothing happened.

 

Merlin watched as Arthur’s face morphed from concentration to confusion to annoyance in the span of seconds.

 

“What’s the matter with you?” Arthur asked, quirking his brow as Merlin held tightly to Arthur’s shoulders. Merlin frowned, and tried to inhale, but choked on a cough. He opened his mouth, trying to speak but his mouth was sticky and full and he felt warm, warm, warm, warm spilling down down down down…

 

The world tilted on its axis a little bit, and Merlin leant into Arthur’s body. Why was the world tilting?

 

Arthur’s face shifted from annoyance to horror. Merlin hadn’t seen that look on Arthur’s face in a long, long time and decided at once that he didn’t like it very much. He needed to protect Arthur from falling down; with urgency, Merlin thought that’s the only thing he needed to do and he needed to do it right now. Merlin leant into Arthur harder, hoping that his presence would comfort Arthur while the world shook. His legs felt weak. Probably from all the forest-shifting.

 

Behind Arthur, the sorceress was gone and Merlin knew that the man behind the tree probably was, too, or else Arthur would not still be at his side when danger was so close. Arthur would be charging around, trampling through the forest, swinging his sword wildly, Merlin thought with derision. Arthur doesn’t have time do stand here with me.

 

Then, suddenly, blindingly, unimaginable pain exploded along his back, racing across his shoulder and settling on the right side of his chest. Merlin tried to cry out but he choked again on the warmth in his mouth and coughed raggedly, red speckling Arthur’s armor.

 

Oh, Merlin thought fuzzily, I’m bleeding.

 

He looked down, trying to find out why he hurt so bad, and found the point of a dagger protruding from his chest. Its scarlet metal glinted sinisterly in the light of the forest. Wet, red metal? Merlin tried to think of a blade that was red and wet, but his brain slowed to a stop and most of his thoughts with it.

 

Hm, Merlin mused, before his legs stopped working.

 

Time got a little fuzzy.

 

Merlin found himself on the ground, but didn’t remember how he got there. His arms didn’t hurt with impact, so he hadn’t fallen, but his back and front still blazed in agony. The pain paralyzed Merlin so entirely that he couldn’t even open his mouth to scream.

 

Arthur’s bright eyes were right above him, so close, so close, so close, and Merlin tried to hold his next cough inside of him because he wasn’t able to breathe but Arthur would give him triple chores next week if Merlin coughed crimson in his face.


Arthur’s lips were moving.



“…lin! Talk to me, Merlin!” Arthur turned his head away, looking up, past Merlin’s head. “Gwaine! Leon! Someone!”

 

Merlin felt peeved. Couldn’t Arthur see that Merlin was in pain at the moment? If Merlin felt like talking, he would very much be talking at the moment, thank you. However, Arthur looked very scared, and Merlin felt panic in his own chest well up at Arthur being afraid. Merlin need to say something, to comfort him. Merlin opened his mouth, and tried to force sound out, but all that came out was more blood.

 

Merlin barely had time to turn his head to the side before he was spilling the contents of his throat—blood so dark it was almost black—onto the leafy floor underneath him with wheezing, hacking coughs that rattled Merlin’s skull.

 

Oh, Merlin thought.

 

Hm.

 

That doesn’t seem very healthy.

 

Merlin’s mind was swimming.

 

Focus, Merlin, focus, his mind cried. We’ve been injured! Stay alive! What do we do to stay alive?

 

Hm, Merlin pondered, head fuzzy, ears still ringing. He tried to flick through his memories of Gaius telling him how to care for the wounded. Merlin knew that there was something he needed to do if he was bleeding, but every time he grasped onto the thought, it was gone again, like a wisp of vapor.


A gust of wind rattled the blurry leaves far above Arthur’s head, and Merlin shivered. He tried to shiver, anyway, but his limbs had lost the coordination to do something so graceful and specialized. Instead, he twitched violently in Arthur’s arms, shuddering and jerking wildly. Arthur tightened his hold on his shoulders, saying something.

“…most here, Merlin. Don’t you…” Arthur’s voice was so shaky that Merlin’s brain decided it didn’t want to try to hear the rest. Merlin’s chest ached from where Arthur was pressing down heavily on it.

 

Realization dawned on Merlin.

 

Yes! Of course! Gaius said that he needed to apply pressure to where he was bleeding to staunch the flow of blood.

 

Merlin raised a shaky hand to his mouth, and pressed down.

 

Yes, he was bleeding a lot from there.

 

Now that that was taken care of, Merlin tried to focus on his surroundings.

 

Arthur was shivering above him—wait, no, he was quaking. Arthur was shuddering so hard that Merlin was afraid his bones were going to snap or shift out of place. One hand was pressing sharply onto the right side of Merlin’s chest and Arthur had an arm underneath him. Arthur’s other hand was pressing into Merlin’s back, over his right shoulder blade. Merlin’s left side was pressed into the metal of Arthur’s armor and his right side wasn’t touching the ground at all, Merlin now realized.

That was very kind of Arthur, but Merlin’s right side wasn’t hurting at all now, so he was really fine. In fact, it was the only warm place on Merlin’s body right now, since it had gotten so cold in the forest.

 

Merlin was taking care of his wound, just like he was taught. He shifted his hand over his mouth so prove the point, hoping to remove the look of pure terror on Arthur’s face. Merlin was saving the day, all by himself—again.

 

But Arthur wasn’t paying attention to Merlin, like always. He was scanning the forest, looking for something, but Merlin didn’t know what he could possibly be looking for. Merlin moved his hand not pressing down on his mouth to tug at Arthur’s hand on Merlin’s chest.

“I’m fine, Arthur,” is what Merlin wanted to say, but he forgot that his mouth was blocked. When Merlin tried to move his hand, his throat spasmed, and black blood bubbled through Merlin’s fingers. Arthur’s eyes widened even further, and his face contorted in an expression Merlin’s brain was too fuzzy to figure out.

 

Arthur shifted Merlin in his arms, and Merlin’s head spun unpleasantly.

HELP!” Arthur suddenly screamed, so loud, so deep, so piercing that Merlin winced sharply, and his head took another spin. Merlin tried to shoot Arthur an unimpressed look, but was distracted by the fact that Arthur was very filmy and fuzzy around the edges.

 

Merlin tried to reach up and check to see if Arthur really was floating away, piece by piece, but the side of his head was solid. Light blond hair caught the light, and Merlin pressed it down against Arthur’s scalp—just to keep it there. Just in case.

 

Arthur was so warm.

 

“Merlin, you are the most foolish man I’ve ever met. Why on earth would you do that? You are not going to die for me. Not here, not ever, not now.” Arthur said, voice cracking on the last word, and his voice was very breathy, like he had just come back from a week’s worth of drills. Warm drops of rain landed on Merlin’s face.


Merlin sluggishly tried to catch a look of the rain but it was still sunny. That didn’t make sense. Merlin looked at Arthur, wondering if he was seeing this, too, but Arthur’s face was drawn up in a sob, lips pressed together tightly, so tightly that his mouth was only a slash on his face. Merlin caught a glimpse of falling gold, lit up by the golden light coming from the tops of the trees. Drip, drip, drip drip drip drip drip—

 

They were coming from Arthur, and Merlin knew that they could be nothing but tears.

Why was Arthur crying?


Arthur never cried.

The last time Merlin had seen Arthur cry was when Uther had died. When Merlin had unintentionally sped the man’s death and watched the life leave his body—a great exhale and then slackness.

 

Nobody was dying now, so why was Arthur crying golden tears?

 

“—‘ve got so much to do, don’t think you’ll be getting out of it this easily. I need you to clean my chambers and I need you to whet my sword and…and I need you to collect wood for the fire and—“ Arthur choked, and Merlin watched with bleary eyes as Arthur’s throat spasmed underneath the skin of his neck. “I need you…I need you.” He said, over and over again, but Merlin wasn’t paying attention anymore.


The jerk of the lump in Arthur’s throat was concerning. Just in case Arthur could be bleeding, too, Merlin removed his hand from his own mouth.

 

Merlin would not let anything happen to Arthur, even at his own expense. Plus, he had been staunching the flow of blood pretty well, so a few seconds for Arthur wouldn’t hurt.

 

Merlin’s hand was streaked red and orange with the smears of his own blood as he struggled to lift his hand to press to Arthur’s shaking lips. Merlin’s other hand, the one on Arthur’s head, he let go limp. This one was the one that really mattered, he thought, as he held his gory fingers to Arthur’s mouth, leaving trails of red on Arthur’s face.

 

Arthur’s eyes were unnaturally bright as the sun caught the wetness there and made the tracks on his cheeks glow with an unnatural light. Arthur’s hair caught the sun, his eyes caught the sun, his cloak caught the sun, Arthur was the sun.

Bright, bright, so bright.

 

Merlin smiled, a big, toothy, grin as he looked up at Arthur the Sun, his King, glow and glow and glow. Merlin was keeping him safe, Merlin would always keep him safe.

 

“Arthur.” He said, still smiling, blood clogging the word and making it sound like a croak and not the promise—the oath, the vow, the covenant—Merlin wanted it to be.

 

But the blood kept coming, spilling over his chin and down his shirt and Merlin felt himself falling asleep as Arthur opened his mouth and made an unintelligible noise. Merlin couldn't help but surrender to sleep, feeling his eyes close and his mind drift away.

 

Weightlessness.

 

Then black.

Chapter Text

Arthur would never be able to close his eyes again.

 

Sleep? Arthur would have to do without. Blinking? Impossible.

 

Because every single time Arthur closed his eyes, the image of Merlin, smiling brilliantly as blood bubbled from behind his teeth and covered his mouth in a slick, dark mess was burned permanently into the black just behind Arthur’s eyelids.

 

Arthur knew what Merlin’s blood tasted like.

 

Merlin had made sure of that, no matter how unintentional. He had raised his fingers, crimson and shaking, and pressed them to Arthur’s lips. His hands were shaking so badly that Merlin smeared his blood over Arthur’s lips and jaw and down his neck as his hand went limp and his head lolled to the side.

 

Arthur knew what Merlin’s blood…

 

Arthur knew—

 

Arthur knew.


He couldn’t even linger on the thought too long before bile rose up in Arthur’s throat and Arthur had to hurriedly think about something—anything!—else before he emptied the contents of his already empty stomach.

 

It was already empty because as soon as Merlin’s hand had fallen away and he had wilted, Arthur opened his mouth to speak. But Arthur could only taste metal and brimstone and Merlin and he could feel the texture of it against his tongue because instinct had forced his tongue forward. He tilted Merlin away as he turned as much as he could and heave until his stomach stopped rioting and his mouth stopped burning with the taste of Merlin’s life.

 

When Merlin had closed his eyes, Arthur, for just a split second, was sure that he had died.

 

That his last action in this world was to force Arthur to taste the blood that Arthur himself might as well have spilt with his own hands. Arthur’s breath stopped for the four seconds it took to realize that Merlin’s eyes had closed and his chest still rose. If Merlin had died, his eyes would be open or Arthur would know. Something in him would have felt his Merlin leave him.

 

Arthur’s entire life had been lived on two basic rules.


One, everything is made as an exchange. Two, every exchange has a price.

 

Arthur’s life was an exchange for his mother’s. The price was the look in Uther’s eyes every time he looked too long at Arthur and the curl of his lip as he turned away again, sharply, his disappointment a physical thing that he did not hesitate to use against Arthur.

 

Merlin’s act of bravery had been traded for a position in the royal household. The price, at least at the time, was Arthur’s sanity.

 

Arthur’s heart was given to Gwen in exchange for her own. The price had been her eventual betrayal, falling back in love with Lancelot and leaving Arthur bereft of warmth.

 

Talking with Merlin about the panic building underneath Arthur’s breastbone more and more every day was a trade for the loneliness that Arthur had been told he must cherish and prize. The price was Arthur’s pride, and the addition of the crushing fear that Arthur would always say too much.

 

Merlin was trying to trade his life for Arthur’s, and the price was that Arthur would be forever cursed by the knowledge of the exact taste of Merlin’s blood. He knew the texture and the bite of metal and what it looked like when it stained Merlin’s teeth. When it stained Arthur’s hands. When it gushed, unendingly, through his unworthy fingers.

 

The assassin—no, not assassin, Arthur thought sharply. An assassin would mean that Merlin was dead and Merlin was not dead, nor was he going to die. Arthur would make sure of that.

 

He was only sorry that he was not able to feel the attacker’s breath leave him, see the light fade from his eyes as Arthur buried his sword to the hilt in the recreant’s insides. But, he had ran into the forest like a coward. The dagger was meant for Arthur, and the bastard couldn’t even stay long enough to see the job completed.


The dagger was of course meant for Arthur.

 

Being royalty meant having a target painted forever on your back, especially under such a harsh ruler as Uther. Arthur hoped that his own actions would speak for themselves and Uther’s enemies wouldn’t become his own, but he knew now that that was a foolish hope. He knew now that everyone he loved would always be victim to his crown.

 

Why had Merlin done that? Why had Merlin run after that witch at all?


Merlin was the bravest man Arthur knew, undoubtedly, but his bravery and loyalty often ran aground into idiocy. Arthur had always feared the day that Merlin would take his devotion to Arthur a step too far and end up hurt. End up taking the hate that was meant for Arthur onto his own shoulders.


Merlin had done that all too literally, and Arthur hated him for it.

When Merlin had finally fallen unconscious, Arthur had screamed. Loudly, as loudly as he had ever done anything, praying to whatever gods were listening that it would be loud enough for the knights to hear. Arthur didn’t know how far they were from the knights—the chase had been too fast and too panic-filled on Arthur’s part to pay much attention to the specific turns that the witch had made. But Arthur knew enough about battle wounds to know that carrying Merlin through the woods blindly would seal his death.

 

So he yelled. And bellowed. And screamed and hollered and wept for help until his lungs ached and his throat was raw. It realistically was probably no more than a quarter hour but it felt interminable, like the only two people left in the world were Arthur and and a bleeding, unconscious Merlin.

 

When the knights finally came, Arthur was so grateful that he actually began to cry anew.

 

The knights were battle-weary and out-of-breath from their search. Their faces were pale and wretched, and Arthur knew that he himself was a disaster. No one would look Arthur in the eyes, although Arthur desperately tried to make eye contact. He needed to know that he wasn’t gone, too. That he was still breathing despite his burning lungs and aching throat and numb limbs. Despite the fact that all of the fight had left him at once and his mind had gone light and fuzzy.

 

No one had said anything for a minute. Gwaine stumbled disjointedly forward until he had fallen to his knees, grabbing wildly for Merlin’s hand. And then Percival had to hold Gwaine down as he made a lunge at Arthur, eyes blazing and mouth spitting.

 

How could you let this happen?” He demanded, growling, feet scrabbling uselessly at the leafed, wet, wet, wet forest floor. Arthur couldn’t feel his hand where it was pressed against Merlin’s shoulder. Arthur knew that Gwaine had said some things, then. Things meant to cut and slice Arthur deep, but if he thought about it now, Arthur couldn’t remember a single one of them.

 

“I-I…” Arthur hadn’t had the energy to be indignant or self-righteous. He had done this to Merlin. “We have to get him back to Camelot. He needs help, Gwaine.”


The fight left Gwaine at once as he collapsed once more to the ground, this time only having attention for Merlin, brow pinched in stony concern.

 

He was pale and shaking when he checked Merlin’s pulse and Arthur had to fight the instinct to slap Gwaine’s hand away from Merlin. Merlin was alive, of course he was alive, Arthur would fight Death Itself if it tried to dig its claws into Merlin’s back.

 

When Percival reached to grab Merlin’s limp form away from Arthur, all of the emotion numbed by Gwaine came back with a crushing force. Arthur was a wheezing, spitting mess, crying and grabbing at Merlin’s clothes in an attempt to keep him close. He knew it was ridiculous, and silly, and weak, but Arthur didn’t want to know what he would do if Merlin wasn’t by his side for longer than a couple of seconds.

 

No one tried to grab Merlin again.

 

However, when Leon approached with his untied cloak in his hands and calming words on his lips, Arthur let him. Arthur watched carefully as Leon bound Merlin’s shoulder and arm tightly, and the small noise that Merlin made caused every nerve in Arthur’s body to come alight. Merlin was alive, of course he was, he was going to stay alive.

 

Arthur could feel every pair of eyes on him as he gathered enough strength to stand on shaky legs, carrying his life in his arms.

 

The ride back to Camelot was frenzied and unstoppable. The blur of the forest was only punctuated in Arthur’s memory by his regular checks of Merlin in his arms. The knights were silent and grave, and Arthur was grateful for their somber swiftness.


The ride through the village as they approached the citadel was chaotic. Arthur refused to slow his break-neck pace, instead yelling at the townspeople to get off of the road quickly. The offense on their faces was quickly changed into shock and horror at the blood-covered king and his ever-present companion. Arthur knew there would be talk, and a king should never show such panic, but his thoughts were only of Merlin, Merlin, Merlin.

 

Arthur was off of his horse before she had even stopped, and began to run up the steps of the castle, uncaring whether the knights were behind him as he yelled for Gaius.

Gaius had met them in the hallway in front of his chambers, eyes wide and horror-stricken as Arthur pushed past him and placed him on the bed. It took as much willpower as Arthur had to let go of Merlin as Gaius rushed forth. The knights tumbled in after Arthur as Gaius knelt to examine Merlin’s prone form.

 

“How is he?” Gwaine asked, panting heavily at the run. He was pointedly not looking at Arthur. Arthur realized that he himself was also out of breath, but he hadn’t even noticed. He had not been able to breathe properly since—


Gaius didn’t ask what happened, as he gently unwrapped the wound and then winced sharply. Arthur sympathized with the old man. Merlin was like a son to him and to Arthur…Merlin was all he had left.

 

“I’m going to take the dagger out. Gwaine, get me some yarrow and pyrola extract. Percival get me some water. Elyan, I need clean linens. Leon, I’m going to need you to hold him down.” Gaius said, every single emotion on his face gone. Arthur noticed that Gaius hadn’t given him a task to do and barely had time to wonder what that meant before his words registered.


“Wait, hold him—“ Arthur began, before Leon was in front of him and Gaius’s arm moved sharply.

 

Arthur would be grateful later that he could not see it.

 

Merlin’s body jerked suddenly, spasming out of control as the wood posts of the bed rattled against the stone floor.

 

“What are you doing?” Arthur bellowed, panic and terror seizing his heart in a vise. He tried to push forward, but Gwaine, who had passed the ingredients to Gaius, had held Arthur back. Arthur thrashed against his hold until Merlin had stopped, and Arthur went limp.

 

Time passed in a blur as the returned knights bustled to and fro in front of him, passing back and forth wet rags and tinctures. Gwaine still held Arthur in a grip, and Arthur didn’t know if it was to keep him or Gwaine from pushing forward toward Merlin. Whatever tension that had been between them was gone—they both had too much to lose.

 

At last, Gaius had pulled away, sweat beading on his brow and blood smeared on his hands when he looked up at Arthur. The look on his face stopped the world.

 

Arthur’s stomach fell through the bottom of his shoes and the world went fuzzy around the edges.

 

“He’s…” Arthur began, panic making his words halt abruptly as he choked back a noise of pure emotion.

 

“No,” Gaius said, and Arthur had tried to breathe again. “But,” Gaius began again, eyes sorrowful and anguished.


“The dagger pierced his lung. He’s bleeding internally. The dagger…punctured a hole in his bone and displaced a lot of tissue. I’ve done what I can to slow the blood flow, but only time will tell.”

 

Arthur tried to process this.

 

“So, there’s a chance?” He asked eventually. Gaius’s face twisted up in an unidentifiable emotion.


“I don’t want to give you false hope, Sire.” Gaius paused, choosing his next words carefully. “The best I can give him is time, and,” Gaius’s eyes flicked down to the floor, “a smooth passing.”


Arthur’s ears were ringing.

 

“No.” He said simply.

 

“No?” Gaius asked, eyes flicking back up to meet Arthur’s.

 

“No,” Arthur repeated. “He’s not going to die on me. I won’t let him.”

 

Gaius sighed heavily, heaving himself up from his stool above Merlin’s bed. The old man said nothing has he shuffled over to one of his worktables and began sorting through vials.

 

The knights had encouraged Arthur to go clean the blood from his hands and arms. When Arthur expressed his absolute refusal to leave Merlin’s side, Leon brought a bucket of water for Arthur and a change of clothes. Arthur couldn’t even find the words to express his gratitude as he wordlessly changed. Arthur looked at his arms. As gruesome of a picture he painted, Arthur was afraid to wash the blood off. What if this was the last bit of Merlin Arthur ever got? What if—

 

No, no, no.

 

Arthur had plunged his arms into the water and scrubbed and scrubbed until his skin was raw and tender and the water was rusty and brown. Arthur would not let this be Merlin’s legacy on him. Merlin had so much more to give him, and Arthur was going to give him that chance. Leon had cleared his throat and pointed at Arthur’s face.

Oh.


Oh god.


Arthur had ridden through the town, had run through the castle, with blood smeared across his face, around his mouth, and down his chin. Arthur looked like he had eaten a creature alive. Arthur scrubbed at his face then, too, taking extra care to clean his mouth. His lips were raw and bleeding with his own blood by the time that he had stopped but Leon had only given him a rag to stem the bleeding and the knights said nothing. Elyan winced, and pointed to the side of Arthur’s head.


Arthur, confused, placed a hand where Elyan was gesturing, and his stomach turned. Right. Merlin had held Arthur’s head in his hand. His hair was clumped and tacky underneath his fingers. He reached for the bucket when Percival grabbed it away from him.


“Let me get you some clean water,” he said, sounding sick to his stomach. Arthur echoed the sentiment deeply. Arthur was so soaked in Merlin’s blood that its imprint would never leave Arthur’s skin. Arthur would never again be able to look at his hands, his face, his hair, without seeing the impression that Merlin’s blood had irreparably dealt.

 

That was where Arthur was now, hair freshly scrubbed, arms pink and raw, rag to his lips as he stared at Merlin’s prone form. He counted Merlin’s ragged exhales until he got to one hundred and thirty seven before he lost count. Arthur waited.

 

And he waited.

 

And he waited.


Arthur wondered how he had ever let anyone as delicate and fragile and human as Merlin get so close to him. Then, he realized, he didn’t. Merlin had wormed his way into Arthur’s affections all by himself.


Merlin was always pushing Arthur’s boundaries, always wanting Arthur to do more, to be more, than Arthur was capable of being. He always wanted Arthur to be kinder and more understanding; he was always pushing him to be more accepting, more patient, and more willing to let actions speak before reputations did.

 

But Arthur didn’t know how he was supposed to do that when magic was about to take Merlin away from him. No.

No.

 

Magic was not going to be taking Merlin away. Not today. Not on Arthur’s watch. There was no doubt that magic was evil, now. The sorceress had done this to Merlin—Arthur’s Merlin. Uther had been right ever since Arthur was a boy. What Arthur had seen as grief and fear was actually truth. Magic would not stop taking from Arthur. It took his mother, it took his father, it took Morgana, and now it was trying to take Merlin.


But Merlin was fighting, still. His chest still rose, which meant that Merlin was fighting—fighting to stay with Arthur and be at Arthur’s side.

 

But the question still begged: Why did Merlin have such faith in Arthur?

 

Arthur was nothing if not his father’s son—stubborn, prone to grudges, angry, rash, fearful. But Merlin had stood by him anyway, pushing back against Arthur’s moods, meeting Arthur blow for blow. He was just a servant, why did he care about Arthur so much? Arthur had given him no reason to care for him so much.

 

Arthur didn’t deserve it.

 

He didn’t.


Arthur wasn’t worth the pain Merlin was going through, getting paler and paler every day, sweat beading on his brow and smeared across his face. Merlin had heavy, dark bags under his eyes, which were the only color on his pallid face. His eyelids themselves were a dark, ugly purple, and Merlin’s eyes looked sunken in like a skull.

 

Three days after…it…happened, Arthur was still sitting at Merlin’s side, inconsolable and unwilling to return to his duties. It didn’t matter. What good was Arthur to his people if he couldn’t even help the people he loved the most?


No, no, no.


Don’t think about that.

 

It doesn’t matter now, only Merlin matters now, Merlin’s the only thing that’s ever mattered.


Stop.

 

Stop.

 

Arthur took a breath to measure himself.

 

It wasn’t good to think about such things, now. Arthur didn’t know if he could finally allow himself to acknowledge what had been blossoming behind his breastbone if he was about to lose it—


NO.

 

Arthur would be resolutely not thinking about Merlin or his eyes or his laugh or the smile he tried to hide as he ducked away from Arthur. (Didn’t Merlin know that Arthur loved anything Merlin would give him, including his smile?)

 

Arthur wouldn’t be thinking about the space that had grown smaller and smaller between the two of them since Gwen left, and, if Arthur was going to be honest with himself, before Gwen left, too.

 

Was everything because of Arthur?


Arthur was too afraid to love Merlin and too late to love Gwen. And now Arthur was about to be too late again. The Pendragons’ hearts were a curse. Uther loved Arthur’s mother so much it killed her and the kingdom felt its aftershocks for decades. Arthur loved Gwen, so she had no choice but to choose another. And now, Arthur had killed Merlin.


Stop!

 

No, no, no--

 

Merlin was not going to—

 

Stop, please!

 

Shut up!

 

A hand on Arthur’s shoulder shocked him back into the present.

 

“Sire, I didn’t mean to startle you,” Gaius’s comforting voice soothed. “Are you alright? You’ve been…”

 

Gaius placed his hand over Arthur’s, which Arthur now realized had been picking the skin around his nails into a spiked, ripped mess. Arthur straightened in his chair.

 

“I’m fine, Gaius.” He said, avoiding eye contact.

 

A knock at the door stopped whatever reply Gaius attempted to make.

 

“Come in,” Gaius said, moving towards the door. Gwaine stood silhouetted against the light of the torches outside, and Arthur realized with a start that it must be night. Arthur had spent an entire day uninterrupted with no recollection of the day passing.

 

Gwaine came in, side-stepping Gaius and moving straight to Arthur. Arthur braced himself and he realized that he was bracing for a hit. Gwaine stopped in front of Arthur. His fists were clenched.

 

“Sire,” Gwaine said, and his voice was overly formal, “I apologize for the way I acted earlier when Merlin…” Gwaine cleared his throat. “When Merlin.” He concluded, the smallest of bitter, fake smiles tugging at the corner of his lips. The glint of warmth in his eye when he looked at him caused Arthur to loosen his spine’s rigidity. Gwaine wasn’t here to fight. Gwaine sobered once more.

 

“I shouldn’t have said what I did.” Gwaine continued. He paused, just for a second, but it made Arthur’s skin crawl in anticipation of what he would say next. “I knew it would hurt you, and that’s why I said it.”

 

Arthur relaxed. At least Gwaine wasn’t going to repeat what he had said. Arthur didn’t remember any of it, and he didn’t want to have to rip open the crevices of his mind and seek it out. Whatever he had said was best laid hidden.

 

“Whatever you said, I’m sure was correct,” Arthur said. Gwaine’s eyes opened in shock. Arthur noticed Gaius sneaking out the door behind Gwaine’s shoulder.

 

“Arthur, believe me when I say that I had no right to doubt your devotion to Merlin.” Gwaine swore. He reeled in a stray stool and sat down on it with a heavy thud. Arthur noticed then that he was wearing plainclothes instead of his knight’s garb. Arthur had a hard time imagining Camelot functioning without Merlin there to fuel it, so he supposed it made sense. That was perhaps giving Merlin too much credit—the idiot couldn’t even keep his blood inside of his body—but his vivacity gave Camelot verve and brightness in a way it was sorely lacking.

 

Arthur realized that silence had fallen between them. Was Gwaine expecting a response? Arthur looked at Gwaine to find that the man was fiddling with the strings on his shirt-tie—he was clearly weighing his next words carefully. The man could never keep the damn laces closed; he was always looking for attention. But they gave away when Gwaine was nervous—he couldn’t keep his hands off of them.

 

“We could hear you,” Gwaine said slowly. “Screaming, I mean.”

 

Arthur’s entire body seized. Once. Twice. He desperately sought to keep a control on his body—something that he had never had to do before.

 

“We couldn’t find you. Leon kept hearing you on the west, Elyan kept hearing you east. I swore you screams were at the south.” Gwaine swallowed thickly. “I think the enchantress laid a spell. I’m sorry we were too late.”

 

Arthur rubbed his face with a hand, trying to mask the emotion that he knew would lie there. The knights couldn’t find them. The witch had discombobulated Merlin’s rescue. The witch was playing with them all, the whole time. She wanted Merlin to be too past help by the time help had arrived. Had she attacked the town specifically for Merlin’s sake? Why?

 

“I could describe what it felt like to see you two…the way we found you,” Gwaine continued, “but I don’t think there’s a human being alive who knows what I’m feeling more than you do.”

 

Arthur inhaled deeply, trying to ignore the way his hands were shaking.

 

“Why are you here, Gwaine?” Arthur asked, finally. Arthur didn’t have the emotional depth at the moment to parse out what Gwaine wanted from him. He felt like a polishing rag—run over and over and over in one spot so long that the strings themselves were worn and frayed. Arthur felt ready to tear.

 

Gwaine shrugged helplessly.

“I wanted to apologize. I don’t expect your forgiveness, and I understand if you want to excuse me from knighthood.” Arthur went to interject but Gwaine’s next words turned Arthur’s tongue to lead.

 

“And I came to say goodbye.”

 

Gwaine was leaving? Arthur felt another pang of grief that he didn’t even know he could still feel worm its way into his stomach. But when Gwaine reached out towards Merlin’s bed and laid a hand on Merlin’s pale one, Arthur realized what he had meant.


Gwaine wasn’t the one leaving. Merlin was.


Arthur’s breath got stuck in his throat. His eyes stung. Arthur hadn’t realized that he had shot up until his legs were already moving towards the door. Gwaine didn’t call after him.

 

Arthur’s breath was coming faster, faster, faster, his vision was blurring, his legs were pumping, the door was slamming, Arthur was running.

 

It didn’t matter where, it didn’t matter how, Arthur had to get out of that room that smelled like death and looked like Arthur’s nightmares and felt like misery. Arthur was stumbling blindly through the castle corridors, slamming against the walls that he didn’t have enough grace to clear as he sprinted around corners.

 

Braziers that held the dim lights of the hallways clattered noisily to the ground as Arthur hurled them to the floor. The fire that they held skittered across the stones before dying out in the cold air.

 

Arthur couldn’t see what doors he slammed through until he was ripping the curtain in front of him to the floor. It was a guest room that was vacant for the season. The curtains had been closed, the linens of the bed had been stripped. The room felt hollow and empty. Someone used to reside here, and now it was empty. Just like that. Gone.

 

Arthur caught his balance on the table to his right.

 

Arthur’s grief and panic boiling into rage so tangible, so palpable that Arthur could feel it buzzing in his fingers.

 

Arthur knew that people loved Merlin. Everyone loved Merlin. Arthur…loved him. If Merlin were gone, nothing would be the same. Arthur wouldn’t be the same. The knights, Camelot, the world wouldn’t be the same.

 

But seeing the grief so plainly on Gwaine’s face made it real. Everything that Arthur had been feeling had been for himself.

 

Selfish, greedy Arthur Pendragon.

 

Merlin didn’t belong to him, Merlin was going to lose his life because Arthur couldn’t do anything. Merlin was going to die.

 

Arthur loved Merlin and that had doomed him.

 

It wasn’t fair to Merlin, it wasn’t fair to Gaius, it wasn’t fair, it wasn’t—

 

Arthur picked an empty vase off of the table and hurled it with all of his might against the wall. The shattering of glass made Arthur’s skin tingle.

 

Arthur didn’t think, then. He just acted.

 

Arthur picked up a chair and slammed it against the wall, watching the splinters rain down in chunks. Arthur turned into a one-man blur of destruction. He tore the tapestries from the wall, ripping them until only fine threads stood, frayed against the light of the room, looking like veins. He ripped the curtains from the windows and felt the curtain rod give under his strength. The blinding light of the moon flooded the room but it wasn’t enough it wasn’t enough, nothing would ever be enough

 

When Arthur came to, the room was destroyed. Arthur’s chest was heaving as he examined the carnage. The table was in half, the chairs were nothing more than slats and wood pulp, the braziers were bent and broken. The dresser was beaten and bent and scratched—it’s doors hung open like hollow eyes, bent on their hinges like broken bones. The mattress was off of the bed and was spilling its feathered guts all over the floor. Broken glass and torn fabric covered the ground.

 

And Arthur didn’t feel

 

one

 

ounce

 

better.

 

Arthur still felt wretched and broken and wrong.

 

Merlin was right all along: the only thing Arthur could do was wield a sword and his only solution was to destroy.

 

Arthur couldn’t put any of this back together. He couldn’t go back in time to fix any of this. The room was broken. Arthur was broken. Merlin was broken.

 

And Arthur couldn’t fix anything.

 

Arthur fell to his knees and relished the bite of glass against his skin. It hurt, but it was feeling.

 

Arthur wished he could go back in time and keep Merlin away. Arthur wished that he had been the one to take the knife, feel it punch through bone and sinew and find its place buried in his lung. It would be easier than this. Arthur wished he could go back in time and tell Merlin that he loved him, that he would pick him every time, that he was sorry it took so long. Arthur wished that he could see Merlin’s eyes light up once more and watch his Adam’s apple bob in his throat as he laughed with reckless abandon. Arthur wished Merlin could tell him what to do.

 

Every part of Arthur’s body ached with the sheer intensity of the desire to see hear Merlin’s voice again, feel his skin again, see his eyes again.

 

But Merlin was slowly dying, very much too far away from Arthur at the moment.

 

Arthur stood on shaky legs, feeling the glass stuck in his knees rise with him. The glass and wood crunched underneath his boots as he made for the door.

 

Arthur left, destruction in his wake.

Chapter Text

Leon had to keep his eyes on Arthur.

 

Elyan had come to him the other night, eyes wide and sad and hopeless as he told him that one of the guest rooms had been beaten to a pulp. Leon, still in his nightclothes and blinking away sleep, had sighed and gotten dressed in a hurry.

Elyan knew a lot of the maids, because Guinevere had known a lot of the maids. So when unruly guests arose, the maids always approached Elyan or Merlin. That night, the maid in charge of that wing of the castle had come to Elyan. Everyone knew where the king was, but no one dared approach him with a trivial matter such as this. Elyan had confided, though, that he feared the king had done this himself.

 

It was unsurprising.

 

The knights had been on an extended leave of absence, as they each grappled with what they had seen in their own ways. Percival had gotten quieter than ever, retreating into his own mind and own self, seeming smaller than should have been possible for a man of his stature. Elyan had thrown himself into training, anger and righteousness making his blood boil. Gwaine, oh gods, Gwaine. He had almost dropped off of the face of the earth completely, only seen when Percival retrieved him regularly, piss drunk, from the tavern.

 

Leon applied himself to his work with more fervor than he felt he could handle.


The king, while here, was absent, and Leon would be damned if he let anything happen to Camelot while he was grieving.

That’s not to say Leon wasn’t grieving—he woke up sometimes with a pain in his chest so intense that it felt like the world was spiraling out of control—but as the knight with the most seniority, he had an obligation to head the training and the council meetings and the regular goings on of the palace.

 

Leon had always taken care of Arthur, cleaned up his more childish messes and smoothed over his abrasions with a calmly placed word.


On Arthur’s worst nights—when he was just a boy, barely a teenager, and Uther expressed his distaste more…aptly—Leon had held him and comforted him with platitudes while the boy shook so hard Leon was afraid his bones would rattle apart.

 

After Arthur’s first raid—the one in the woods that slaughtered men, women, and children indiscriminately—Arthur wouldn’t speak to anyone for weeks. He carried a haunted, terrified look in his eyes that Leon tried to warm with comforting words and strong hands on his shoulder.

Arthur had turned to Leon for years for help, counsel, comfort.


Now that he had Merlin, his requests for Leon’s assistance were fewer and farther between, but Leon held no grudge for it. He himself loved Merlin too much for any grudge against the man to last longer than a couple of days. Leon was incredibly grateful that Arthur’s small circle of confidants had widened, even at his own expense.


Arthur was also coming into himself, becoming stronger, more self-reliant, more assured. Leon was proud to see the transition. If he were any more braggadocious, he would like to think that he had something to do with that, perhaps planted the seeds that made Arthur into the man he was today. Like an older brother, perhaps, if he were feeling particularly sentimental and indecorous.

 

But Leon had always cleaned Arthur’s messes and protected him when he could, and he wouldn’t stop now.

 

Walking into that room had broken a part of Leon’s heart off, chipped away little by little like a sculptor with a chisel. If this chaos was what Arthur was feeling on the inside, he was more lost than Leon had thought.

 

As he busied himself with cleaning—aided of course by the maid and Elyan—, Leon couldn’t take his mind off of the man that inspired all of this rage.

Merlin, the unofficial mascot of the Camelot knights, had been unfailingly loyal and intensely protective of Arthur almost as long as Leon had known him. As far as Leon was concerned, Merlin earned all of the loyalty that the knights had sworn to him. Leon had met some of his closest friends because of Merlin, and he owed him a great debt for being so continuously protective of Arthur, especially when Leon himself couldn’t be there.

Once most of the debris was cleared away, Leon and the maid busied themselves setting right what they could. They worked in efficient silence.


“Most knights wouldn’t help with this, sirs.” The maid piped up, using a broom to hang the untarnished curtain in the room back on its pole. Leon and Elyan shared a look. Leon noted the resilience in his gaze and fortified himself with it.

 

“We are doing our part for the kingdom, …” Leon raised his eyebrows, questioning, and the woman flushed a deep pink.

“Leia.” She muttered, wiping her dirtied hands on her skirt and looking away. She looked so much like the girl that Morgana had been a decade ago when she had first come to the castle—dirty, sad, determined—that Leon had to look away.

 

The rest of the work was done in amiable silence as they finally had to remove the parts of furniture that were too broken to fix. Leon hefted what was left of one door of the dresser out into the hallway and wiped his sore hands on his trousers. Elyan, properly winded himself, came to stand beside him.

 

“Leon, I don’t know how much longer the king can be out of court.” Elyan confided, out of breath, in a low voice. “You know as well as I that the council members expect an audience with the king, soon.”

 

Leon shook his head, pushing the curls out of his face and inhaling a deep breath. His response was cut off by Leia coming out of the room, a bundle of ruined linens in her hands.

“I’ve got the rest, sirs.” She said, curtsying. “Thank you for the help.”

 

“No, thank you for keeping this discreet.” Elyan said, nodding at her once, eye contact intense. Leia took the hint. Her eyes sparked with a glint of determination.


“Anything for Merlin.” She said, power in her voice. Then, she was gone.


~

 

Arthur loved Merlin. He loved him, he loved him, he loved him, he loved him.

He didn’t know what he was going to do. Arthur held Merlin’s hand in his, pressed against his mouth. Arthur stared at Merlin, trying desperately not to blink. He didn’t want to see Merlin bloodied and broken again. And he didn’t know how much longer he could stand to see Merlin like this, either. His skin was a sickly shade—a ghostly, ghastly pale that made Arthur’s stomach twist unpleasantly. His eye sockets were more prominent than ever, and his cheekbones were sticking out so far Arthur could see the press of Merlin’s teeth against the sallow skin of his cheeks. He looked like a dead man, a skull where Arthur once only saw warmth and light.

 

Arthur closed his eyes.

 

Arthur moved his small finger, only slightly, to press into Merlin’s pulse point. It thudded weakly under Arthur’s touch, each small twitch seeming to tell Arthur, I’m here, I’m here, I’m fine, but not for much longer.

 

This was a nightmare that would never end.


With Uther, death had been quick enough. He had declined, then just like that, he was gone. Every man that Arthur had lost on the battlefield he could list by name, but their deaths had been instantaneous, quick, merciful. Even when people were burned or beheaded in the castle courtyard when Arthur was a boy, their deaths were quick. They felt pain only for a second, before they could feel nothing at all.

 

Arthur hadn’t prayed since he was a child, but every breath he exhaled was a wish that Merlin wasn’t feeling any pain.

 

Merlin’s death was far from instantaneous—it had been six days since Merlin had been stabbed.


Gaius called it a miracle that Merlin was still alive. Arthur saw it as nothing short of hell.

 

Every second that ticked by was agony, every breath Merlin took rattled like a coin in an empty jar, every time Merlin twitched Arthur’s heart jackknifed painfully. Merlin was there, Merlin was there and alive, but he couldn’t be farther away from Arthur’s reach.

 

And Arthur was entirely powerless.

 

Arthur didn’t have the power to retrieve Merlin from the depths of his own mind, he didn’t have a flower to retrieve or a monster to fight or a curse to break.

 

Merlin’s affliction was entirely, completely human.


And Arthur couldn’t control it.

“Tell me what to do,” Arthur whispered against Merlin’s knuckles. His hands were clammy with sweat and so pale that Arthur could see every vein underneath his papery skin. Arthur felt the sting of tears behind his eyes but they refused to fall. Arthur didn’t know if he was too tired to cry, or if all of his tears had been shed.

Arthur didn’t know anything.

 

“Tell me how to fix this, Merlin,” Arthur whispered again. His voice was ragged and crackly with disuse. He didn’t expect a response, but his heart still ached when only silence greeted him.

 

The thing Arthur wasn’t expecting now that Merlin was gone was the silence that haunted his every waking moment. Arthur didn’t realize how much he had come to rely on Merlin’s near constant chattering to fill the silence in his life. Arthur had grown up silent, surrounded and suffocated by cold silence so that his only choice was to like it. Arthur seeped in the silence of an absent father for years, until Merlin incessant chatter disrupted it.


Arthur remembered hating it at first. His constant need to narrate what he was doing and tell Arthur everything that was going on in the kingdom that day was exhausting. Arthur didn’t care what the baker and his wife were fighting about today, nor did he care that Tommy in the lower town had a cough and Gaius was annoyed that his mother kept summoning him. Arthur had to supervise every single person in his kingdom, he couldn’t be bothered with the menial everyday problems of the common-folk.

 

That’s what he had been told, and that’s what he had believed until he brought Tommy a toy solider when he went with Merlin into the lower town as he ran his errands. The little boy’s face split open into such a wide and trusting grin that Arthur’s heart fluttered. He knew immediately that this was what kind of king he wanted to be. Merlin’s smile was no less radiant, and Arthur felt jittery all over, like he was ready to fight a thousand wyverns. Arthur wanted to be a king that the people loved, that knew their names and knew what they were doing. Merlin refused to cease his delighted chatter for the rest of the day, and Arthur couldn’t begrudge him.

 

As much as Arthur whinged and hemmed, he really didn’t mind. Merlin’s voice was so telling of how he was feeling. If his vowels were lilting, he was happy; if his consonants were harder than usual, he was annoyed; when he was silent, he was sad. Arthur had come to hate the silence. Merlin’s verve and joy for life were so contagious that he couldn’t keep it all in his idiot mouth. So when he was quiet, he was hurting.

Merlin hadn’t made a noise in days, and Arthur felt each encroaching minute of silence like the weight of his armor—oppressive, familiar, suffocating.

 

Merlin always told Arthur what he should do. He couldn’t keep his opinions to himself if he tried. He was always blathering on and on about one thing or another and his opinions were there more than anything else. He didn’t like how one of the eldest council members kept trying to undermine Arthur’s authority, he didn’t like the new tariff on crops that was proposed today, he didn’t like that coat on Arthur because it made him look like his father, he didn’t like how Arthur wouldn’t talk to him for a month after Gwen left, he didn’t like how Arthur kept his emotions locked up about Morgana where no one could see them, he didn’t like this soup, he loved the sun when it poked through the clouds, he loved the smell of cinnamon whenever they passed the baker’s, he loved the new red cloak that Arthur was gifted from a kingdom Arthur was creating a treaty with, he loved that Arthur was mending the rifts that Uther had taken great cares to make.


Merlin was an enigma wrapped in a mystery. He was blathering on one second and then just like that, he was sober and silent, watching Arthur with those big, blue eyes of his. He went from annoying and youthful from one moment to wise beyond his years and sage in the next. Arthur couldn’t understand him and was genuinely looking forward to the years he would get to attempt to.

 

But now Merlin could give no advice.

 

Arthur wouldn’t be given the time to understand.

 

Arthur wished Merlin was awake right now.

 

Arthur stomach twisted. He pressed a kiss to the back of Merlin’s sweat-soaked hand in his.

“I’m sorry,” Arthur managed to croak. “I’m going to find a way, Merlin, I promise.”

 

Arthur knew of only one way to bring someone back from the brink of death. Arthur was terrified, he was completely and utterly undone by fear at just the thought of it. But Merlin deserved to live his life. And Arthur would pay any price to get him that chance.

 

Gaius was sitting at the desk on the other side of the room. He had been asleep for the past hour.

“Gaius,” Arthur called, and the old man snorted and shot up, almost falling off of his stool.


“Sire!” Gaius straightened himself, shooting Arthur a bleary look.


“Can magic heal Merlin?” Arthur asked. Arthur felt the muscles in his body tense, ready for a blow that would no longer come. The person who delivered them at the mention of magic was gone.

 

Gaius balked.

“…Sire?”

“I—I want to use magic to save Merlin’s life.” Arthur said. “Please, Gaius. I’ll do anything.”

 

Gaius didn’t move or speak for a beat. Arthur couldn’t even tell if the man was breathing. He was about to prompt him when Gaius snapped back into motion, like a startled deer. He slid off of his stool, and rounded the table.

 

“Arthur, what you’re asking isn’t a simple feat.” Gaius said, crossing the room to the huddled king and his servant. Gaius pressed the back of his hand to Merlin’s sweaty forehead, almost to preoccupy himself as he spoke next. They both knew that Merlin wasn’t running a fever. He was freezing. Deathly cold. “Merlin living this long was a miracle. He’s…” Gaius’s voice hitched. “He’s on Death’s threshold.” Painfully, slowly, Gaius met Arthur’s eyes, and he could see the reflection of everything he was feeling in those icy grey eyes. Pain. Guilt. Mourning.

 

Please, Gaius.” Arthur’s voice was barely a rasp. “Any price, I’ll pay it.”

 

Arthur didn’t need to say it aloud for them both to catch his meaning. Gaius turned away sharply, as if looking at Arthur proved to be too difficult a task. He took a deep breath, and Arthur could hear it shudder through his lungs. Arthur had forgotten how old Gaius was, but now he looked every year his age, perhaps even older. The lines in his face were deep—a spiderweb of story. A laughter line here, a dimple mark on the right side of his face from when he pulled a one-sided smile, the lines above his brow prominent there. Gaius wiped a hand over his face, swollen knuckles pressed to his mouth for a second, as if to gather strength, before he spoke.

“Sire, Merlin saved your life for a reason.” Gaius’s piercing gaze was on Arthur again, and Arthur felt like a little boy again, feeling indelibly stupid and naive as if the older man had patched him up from an injury he got while doing something he shouldn’t have. “He believed—believes—“ Gaius corrected himself quickly, eyes shining. “in the future that you will create. He will never forgive you if you give that up—if you throw away the chance he’s given you. And he’ll never forgive me for letting you.” Gaius’s gaze was intense, and Arthur felt that they were talking about more than just Merlin’s loyalty to him, but he couldn’t fathom what.

 

Arthur looked back at the man on the bed. Merlin’s eyes twitched under his sockets, once, as if in a dream. Shame curled low in his belly, but Arthur didn’t know why. He felt wretched, disgusting, selfish again, but why? Merlin’s life was worth just as much as his, so why did he feel so guilty for wanting a trade?

Merlin will never forgive you, Gaius’s words, spoken mere seconds ago, reverberated in Arthur’s head. It pounded against the sides of his skull, wanting release, wanting a denial. But Arthur knew it was true.


Maybe he just didn’t care if Merlin forgave him. Merlin would be alive, Arthur would be…gone. It wouldn’t matter.

 

Arthur’s entire life had been lived on two basic rules, and he knew what they were.

 

“You’re right,” Arthur said, once he realized Gaius was awaiting a response. Arthur brought Merlin’s hand to his lips again and pressed one last kiss there, closing his eyes tightly.


I’m sorry, He thought, pressing the intention of his words so deeply into Merlin’s skin he hoped that it reached him, wherever his mind was. If Gaius was surprised to see this display of affection, he didn’t show it as Arthur stood and turned for the door.


Every step away from Merlin’s prone form physically hurt, but Arthur knew what he had to do. He felt the finality of it settle into his bones and he closed his eyes tightly, bracing himself for what was to come.

 

“Goodbye, Gaius,” Arthur said, taking one look back at the older man—his guardian, his friend—before closing the door.

 

If Gaius wouldn’t help Arthur find magic, he was going to have to find it on his own.

 

~

 

Gwaine was waiting by the stables when Arthur had found time to sneak away from his chambers.

 

“Finally,” he muttered, kicking the worn toes of his boots against the doorpost. He rubbed his hands together, blowing warm air between his cupped palms. His eyes looked hollow in the thin, watery light of the torch above the door.

He gave Arthur a roguish smile as he approached, one Arthur had seen time and time again but now lacked its usual bluster. Arthur ducked behind the stable with him, hand gripping his bicep so tightly Arthur felt a little bad about it.


A little.

 

“Hey, hey, hey, princess, hands off the wares!” Gwaine griped, shaking his arm out of Arthur’s grip and making a big show of rubbing it out.

 

“What are you doing here?” Arthur hissed, pushing the hood of his cloak down to see him better. Gwaine nudged a rucksack at his feet.

 

“Same as you, I reckon.” Gwaine said, nodding at Arthur’s own rucksack slung across his back. Arthur shifted so it was less visible. “Knew you’d be over here eventually.”

 

If Arthur were any more amiable or any less tense, he would have made a retort, or demanded Gwaine return to the castle. As it stood, he could find the energy to do neither.

 

Gwaine tilted his chin up, mistaking Arthur’s silence for deliberation, and looked Arthur defiantly in the eye.

 

“I’m not slowing down for you,” Arthur said, pressing a finger to Gwaine’s sternum. Gwaine barked a laugh, that Arthur quieted with a swift jab to the ribs. Gwaine kept laughing, and Arthur felt his lips twitch into a thin smile.

Things felt, for a split second, normal.

 

Guilt snatched Arthur between its sharp claws immediately, ripping through Arthur’s skin and down to his bones.

 

Arthur had felt that there was no joy in this world without Merlin, no way that Merlin could be dead and Arthur would be alright again. Arthur didn’t know that he had repeated the words until they felt like a vow—a vow that Arthur had just broken. He had proven just now that Arthur could be okay without Merlin, even for a second, and that felt like such a betrayal that it left Arthur breathless.

 

He couldn’t find enough air to fill his lungs as he swung open the stable door. His saddle wasn’t where it usually was (Oh, Gwaine muttered, eyeing the place where it used to hang. It, was unsalvageable.) so Arthur grabbed another blindly.

 

Just like that, they were out into the night.

 

The wind felt incredible against Arthur’s skin, and he hadn’t noticed how stifled and hot he had felt before. As the houses thinned into plains, weight dropped off of Arthur’s shoulders. His chest heaved once, twice, thrice, over and over again until the sickening air of Camelot was out of his lungs.

 

Arthur could pretend, here, in the dark, that everything was fine. He could pretend that the familiar presence riding a horse behind him was someone else entirely and he was going into the woods for a reason not associated at all with what he was doing now.


But everything was definitely not fine, and Arthur had a job to do.

 

~

 

They found the shack exactly where Arthur and Merlin had left it, all those month ago, when Arthur was a boy, a child, who didn’t know what the weight of the crown felt like on his head.

 

Gwaine sidled up to Arthur as Arthur he stared at the house on his horse, not daring to dismount.

“I’ve been trusting that you know where we’re going, but…” Gwaine looked back and forth between Arthur and the house. “This place looks abandoned.”

 

Arthur dismounted, unable to look away from the front door for even a second.


“Gaius told Merlin that the most powerful healing sorcerer he had ever met lives here.” Arthur said, and realized suddenly that this was a terrible idea. “We” Arthur’s voice cracked but he pressed on, “visited him once.”

Gwaine tilted his head to the side, but dismounted as well, leading Arthur’s horse away as well as his own.

 

He returned a second later, but Arthur barely registered it over the roaring of blood in his ears.


“Will he help us?” Gwaine asked, pressing forward towards the door. Arthur wanted to reach forward and pull him back, but he knew that this is his only chance of saving Merlin.

“I don’t know,” Arthur answered honestly, following in Gwaine’s footsteps. The night was brisk and cool, the forest so dark and still behind the house that it felt like a separate entity looming over them. “The last time we parted it wasn’t on good terms.”

“Wait a minute,” Gwaine spun on his heel and was suddenly right in Arthur’s face. “Is this the bastard that ‘healed’ your father?”

 

Arthur should’ve expected this, but Gwaine’s words still felt like manticore acid splashed on his skin. When he didn’t do anything to deny it, Gwaine threw his hands up in the air.


“What were you thinking?” Gwaine spat, spinning on his heel again to pace in the other direction. He tore his hands through his hair, kicking at the dirt. “Merlin’s life is not something to be fucking gambled, Arthur.”

 

Arthur felt his hackles rise.


“Of course it’s not!” He shouted, stepping after him with purpose. “This is the only choice we have, Gwaine. There is not a single sorcerer in the world that would help me. This man is the only man who at least tried to help me. Gaius told me that my father had been cursed by Morgana and I don’t have a choice right now but to trust him. Don’t you dare think for a second that I value Merlin’s life any less than you do!”

Gwaine still had his back to Arthur and slapped Arthur’s hand away when Arthur tried to spin him around. Arthur heard him sniff, hard, and stopped. Arthur softened.

 

“Gwaine, we don’t have many options.” Arthur prodded. He steeled himself for what he was about to say. “I-I’m afraid because I don’t know if he will help us.”

 

Emotion on anyone, especially a king, was weak. Arthur made a point to never reveal his emotions to his knights, knowing that faltering could cause his men their lives. But this wasn’t a battle that Arthur could fight alone. This wasn’t a battle Arthur could win. Arthur needed as many allies—no, he corrected himself—friends as he could get. And Gwaine wouldn’t react to Arthur’s brave face. He had the uncanny ability to see through people, know what they really meant and how they really felt. Arthur supposed, if pressed, that’s why he and Merlin got along so well. Merlin could do the same thing.

 

Gwaine turned then, meeting Arthur’s blue eyes with his watering brown ones. Arthur felt relief and certainty settle into his bones. They were in this together.

 

“But I’m not leaving here until he does.” Arthur swore, searching Gwaine’s eyes for understanding.

 

Gwaine nodded, once. He swiped a hand down his face, and when he looked back up, cold resolution stayed in his eyes. He grinned. One could almost believe he meant it.


“Right, princess.” He muttered, turning back to the house. “Let’s get this over with.”

Chapter Text

The door to the cottage remained obstinately closed.

 

Arthur avoided Gwaine’s questioning look, instead staring straight ahead. Arthur knocked again.


Whump, whump, whump. The door rattled in its ramshackle frame.

 

“…Sorcerer?” Arthur called, realizing that he’d forgotten the warlock’s name.

“Nice one.” Gwaine commented snidely. Arthur elbowed him sharply in the side, taking only small satisfaction in his pained gasp. Arthur wracked his brain, but came up empty. The sorcerer had only mentioned his name once, and promptly knocked Arthur out. 


“It sounds like Dragon, I think.” Arthur hissed. “Dragon?” He called, unsurprised when no answer came.

“A sorcerer named ‘Dragon’?” Gwaine asked, disbelievingly. Arthur shrugged. An owl hooted somewhere far above them.

 

Arthur knocked again, impatiently. 

 

The door made a loud crack! and swung open with a long, drawn-out creak. Arthur winced, bracing himself for an angry warlock or a magical attack that…did not come. Arthur looked over to Gwaine, who had his hand on his sword, peering into the darkness beyond.

 

Gwaine and he made brief eye contact and Arthur nodded once. Gwaine took this as the sign that it was and drew his sword. They advanced into the cottage.

 

Dust and cobwebs seemed to cover every flat surface. The small table that Arthur had bumped into all those years ago was lined with a thick, dark layer of dust, like it had not been touched or sat at in ages. The bedroll in the corner of the room was rumpled and dirty. The rows of once tied-up drying plants now lay as skeleton-like husks—scraggly corpses lining the walls. Cobwebs were layered so thickly on the sparse, dirty windows that Arthur couldn’t see their horses tied up outside.

 

The watery light of the moon barely reached inside of the dark room, and Arthur found himself squinting into the dark. Water hit stone somewhere, and the steady drip, drip, drip calmed Arthur somewhat. 

 

Gwaine carefully crossed the room to the dark fire pit in the other section of the cottage, his footsteps crunching on fallen pottery. The noise was deafening in the quiet cottage, and Arthur’s eyes snapped down to look at it.

 

It was too dark to see, but Arthur could make out curved clay partially kicked under the table.

An unsettling feeling washed over Arthur, stopping his breath in his throat as he realized what it was. The same pot that Arthur had broken when he had first come here laid in ruins on the floor, cracked and grimy.

 

The sorcerer had not cleaned up the broken clay. 


“The fire’s cold. He’s not been here for a while.” Gwaine said, breaking the stillness of the room. If the steadiness of a solider had not been beaten into Arthur as soon as he could walk, Gwaine’s voice would have sent Arthur through the roof.


Arthur nodded in response, bending down to pick up a shard with shaky fingers. Why would he not pick this up? Arthur remembered him clearly, eyes wild as he berated Arthur for breaking it. Could he not fix it with magic? Could he not clean the ramshackle cottage with magic? 

 

When Uther had died, Arthur had not bothered to send knights to the cottage. The sorcerer had claimed to know Arthur’s next moves, and he would have to be truly foolish to return to his home. The sorcerer, as little as Arthur had known him, proved to be two steps ahead of him at every turn. Arthur had known the cottage would be empty, and by the time he had been able to process that his father was truly gone, he didn’t see the point in sending his knights away when they were needed in Camelot. After Gaius had proclaimed the sorcerer’s innocence and Morgana’s intervention, Arthur let the matter unofficially settle.

 

But had the sorcerer truly not returned since? Had Arthur banished an innocent old man from his home?

 

“This doesn’t make sense.” Gwaine said, slamming Arthur out of his head and into the present. He was now bent over an oven, one hand in the ashes.

 

Arthur straightened. Gwaine turned, holding out his hand and crossing the small cottage in two strides.


“Why does a warlock need to make charcoal?” Gwaine asked, holding his hand up to catch the meager light. Old, brittle charcoal sifted through his gloved fingers and fell to the floor in a shower of ash. Gwaine nodded behind him.

 

“He’s got barrels of the stuff. And a charcoal furnace.”

 

Arthur’s mind was spinning.

 

Nothing was adding up.

 

He examined the room one more time.


“I…don’t think he’s been here for years, Gwaine.” His voice was smaller than he wanted it to be as his eyes traced the cobwebs on the windows. “I—I don’t even think this is his house.”

 

“Fuck,” Gwaine whispered, spinning on his heel and slamming his fist against the wooden post of the back door.

 

Arthur wanted to bury his head in his hands and die here—just fall to his knees in the dust and shake until his bones rotted and his lungs clogged up with cobwebs.

 

The back door of the cottage slammed closed as Gwaine made an inhuman noise in the back of his throat, stomping into the night.

 

He…failed.

 

He failed.


Arthur fell to his knees, palms slapping against the stone flooring and dust flying like a ripple away from him. Arthur couldn’t get enough air in his lungs, and heaved desperately.

 

Magic would never fail to doom Arthur.

 

Over and over again it took and took and took.

 

It took his mother, it took Morgana, it took his father, it took Merlin, and it took Merlin’s only chance to live.

 

Or…

 

Maybe Arthur had done that.

 

Arthur had chased away the one sorcerer in the entire world that could possibly help him.

 

Arthur killed his mother, failed to support Morgana, sped up his father’s death and forced him to die in agony, let Merlin take the knife, and now had successfully destroyed any chance that Merlin would get to live.

 

Arthur had done it all.

 

He would never fail to doom himself.

 

Any good he was given he would dash upon the stone like a child playing with dolls. He was never able to keep anything because he didn’t deserve it.

 

Merlin was dying because Arthur was killing him.

 

Arthur’s hands balled into fists, and Arthur slammed his hand into the stone of the floor. Once. Twice.


He bit back the scream building its way up his throat. 


Stop.

 

Stop!

 

“Arthur.”

Gwaine’s voice broke the tension in Arthur’s body like a twig. Arthur, exhausted, raised his eyes to meet Gwaine’s, but the look on his face stopped him cold. Gwaine was sticking his head through the back door of the cottage, one hand waving Arthur closer.

 

Arthur stumbled to his feet, meeting Gwaine at the door. 

 

The cold air felt like sweet relief as Arthur’s lungs burned.

 

Gwaine held his hand out to stop Arthur before he passed him and held a finger to his lips. The strain on his face was gone, replaced by apprehension and interest.

 

Arthur listened. 

 

“I…don’t hear anything.” Arthur said, straining his ears.

 

“I know. There’s not even a breeze.” Gwaine responded, nodding towards brush of the forest ahead. “Then why is the forest moving?”

 

The brush was indeed moving, swaying and rustling as if by a strong wind. The movement seemed to limp slowly up the gargantuan trees until the leaves whispered high above. The branches high above groan with their movement, dark shapes skittering against the canopy of the sky. Arthur felt his stomach twist painfully, trepidation igniting adrenaline until Arthur felt jittery down to his toes. Arthur adjusted his sword in his sweaty palm.

 

Magic.

 

Arthur cast a look back at the abandoned cottage. Dragoon was gone, but sorcery this close to his home? It couldn’t be a coincidence. Arthur needed a healer—would get on his knees and beg if he had to.

 

He and Gwaine shared a look, then plunged into the darkness ahead.

 

~

 

The woods were silent—eerily, entirely silent in a way that Arthur had never experienced.

 

Ever since he was a boy, he had been hunting and moving through the forests all around Camelot. He had travelled through these very woods more times than he could count. The brush was always rustling with quarry and high above, birds would call and flap about.

 

But now, the only sounds were Arthur’s and Gwaine’s footsteps on the forest floor. Even the groaning and creaking of trees had silenced as soon as they had stepped into the tree line. 


A large crack had Arthur spinning around, heart thundering and sword raised, but was only greeted by the sight of Gwaine holding up his hands abashedly. He had stepped on a fallen branch as big around as Arthur’s forearm, cleaving it in two.

 

“Sorry, mate,” Gwaine whispered, shrugging as he plodded forward. Arthur made sure to thwack him hard across the back of the head as he passed.

 

Time plodded on. 

 

Arthur was not sure what they were looking for, but something propelled him further. After another half-hour, Gwaine froze behind him.

“What?” Arthur asked, unnerved by the look on his face.

 

Gwaine cursed. He was paler than Arthur had ever seen him.

 

“What?” Arthur asked again, moving back to see what was wrong.

 

“We…we were here.” Gwaine’s voice was raspy.

 

“Who?”


But Gwaine was already gone, taking off at full speed. Arthur cursed and chased after him. The night air was brisk, but Arthur felt hot and uncomfortable like it were dozens of degrees warmer. Gwaine stopped suddenly, and Arthur slammed into his back.

 

Arthur turned to curse him, but Gwaine was already off again, this time in a different direction.


The next time he stopped, Arthur grabbed him by the collar.


“What are you playing at—“


Gwaine’s eyes were wild as he stared down Arthur in the dark.

 

“In the woods,” he panted, “when we heard you screaming. We were here.”

 

Arthur’s blood ran cold.


“We kept moving, it must be nearby.” He turned and continued on, and this time, Arthur’s heart hammered for an entirely different reason. They moved in silence, covering distance, then doubling back and sending off again.

 

Arthur blinked.

 

It was lighter than it used to be. Thinking it could be just a trick of his mind, Arthur slowed and rubbed a hand across his eyes. But no, the forest was illuminated by a faint glow. Gwaine slowed, too. Arthur turned his head this way and that, trying to find the source of the light.

 

They moved towards it. Light brightened the forest bit by bit until Arthur could see, through the trees, a pale orb--no bigger than a bucket--suspended high above the ground. Arthur knew this light. He’d seen one before, a long time ago. It had saved his life. Arthur’s heart hammered in his ears.


A friendly mage! Could it be the sorcerer?

 

Arthur pressed forward, excited by the possibility of aid. Ten meters from the clearing, Gwaine grabbed Arthur’s arm in an iron hold.


“Arthur, wait.” 

 

Arthur spun on him.



“What? It’s magic. We can get help!”



Gwaine shushed him, and Arthur was struck by the strangeness of the situation. Usually Gwaine was running in unprepared, and Arthur had to be the voice of reason. Gwaine quirked a brow at him, as if he understood.

 

“We can’t assume that all sorcerers are good, mate.” Gwaine said, “Especially there.” He nodded his head at the clearing.


Arthur looked again, and felt every nerve stand on end.


The light Arthur had seen before had none of the warmth that the one in his memory did. It was a cold light, dim and grey and foreboding. A single figure stood in the clearing, bent over a bush. They were picking flowers and placing them in a basket at their feet. But Arthur knew this clearing. It was the clearing where Merlin had fallen. Arthur’s breath caught in his throat.

 

“Why is she back?” Gwaine wondered, and Arthur looked at him in confusion. “The sorceress. That’s her.” 

 

“How do you know?” Arthur asked.

 

“I know my women, mate.” Gwaine said, trying to lighten the mood, but the jibe fell flat in the silence.



Arthur looked closer, and indeed, this was the woman that dragged Merlin off through the forest. She was the reason for all of this. She was the reason that Merlin was lying on a cot back in Camelot, corpse-like and in pain. She was the reason that Arthur couldn’t breathe, the reason that everyone was mourning, the reason for everything. Arthur reached for his sword, but he couldn’t feel his fingers. So much rage boiled inside of him that he feared he would explode.

 

“Arthur, we can work with this,” Gwaine said. Arthur’s mind spun, and he tried to focus on what was needed. Merlin didn’t need his anger, Merlin needed his help.

 

“We can…” Arthur fumbled for a second before finding his footing. “We can trade amnesty for information.”

 

Gwaine nodded encouragingly, but looked confused.

 

“We won’t arrest them for trying to assassinate the king if they tell us how to save Merlin’s life.” Arthur was building up steam now, building resolve. Gwaine nodded again, slapping Arthur on the bicep.


“There you go, blondie. Knew you had it in ya.” 

 

Arthur was up and moving, and heard Gwaine sputter and try to follow. When Arthur entered the clearing, the woman didn’t stop her movements. The sorceress was petite and barely reached Arthur’s shoulder. Her hair reached her waist in neat plaits, as pale and slick as animal fat. The bush she was plucking from was large, as long as a man and half as tall as one. It was bursting with bright purple blooms. Arthur had never seen anything close to them before. Even the leaves of the bush didn’t look like the surrounding foliage.

 

“Witch.” Arthur called, drawing his sword from his scabbard. He heard Gwaine tromp into the clearing behind him. The sorceress leisurely turned, eyeing them with a lazy smile on her face. She didn’t look alarmed or threatened, which made Arthur’s hair stand on end. He didn’t like being faced with opponents who didn’t recognize him as one in turn.


“Oh, good evening, boys.” She said, and her voice was a purr. The sound grated against Arthur’s eardrums, and he clenched his teeth. “I heard what happened.”

 

“I’m so sorry to hear about your manservant.” She said, eyebrow raising. Arthur wanted to wrap his hands around her tiny neck. He thought about doing it for a second. It would be so easy.


But Gwaine shifted at Arthur’s shoulder, and he snapped back to the present.

 

“I hear it’s so hard to replace help these days.” She continued, and feigned a sympathetic frown. The orb above their heads continued to emit the cold, grey light, and the shadows it casted across her face made her look inhuman. “After all, he was so irreplaceable.”


Arthur stiffened. There was no way that this witch knew anything about Merlin, but her casual smirk, as if she knew something, set all of Arthur’s nerves on end.


“We need your help.” He ground out. Each word felt like hell. Arthur tried to remember Merlin’s face back in Camelot—sallow, deathly, terrifying—and the image came all too quickly to sober him.

 

The witch looked all too delighted.


“Oh, boys, not with that attitude,” She purred.  She cast a look between them, and her smile widened. “Kneel.” 

 

Gwaine reacted immediately, hoisting his sword higher.


“Not on your fucking life,” he growled, moving as if to step forward. Arthur stopped him with an iron grip on his forearm and sheathed his own sword.

 

Arthur looked at her.

 

Arthur kneeled.

 

The mud squelched around Arthur’s knee as he lowered himself. They formed a gross mimicry of a knighting—supplicant, ruler, witness. The witch crowed hideously, cackling like a frog was trying to crawl out of her throat. Gwaine’s hands pulled at Arthur, trying to move him, but Arthur’s will was stone. 

 

“I need to know how to save Merlin’s life.” Arthur said. The act of Gwaine kneeling next to him was heard and not seen, for Arthur stared up at her with as much dignity as he could muster. He might have been a supplicant, but he would be damned if she thought him any less than the King.

 

Her face froze mid-laugh. Confusion clouded her features, but she managed one more haughty chuckle before she let her amusement drop.

 

“Your Emrys is dead. We made sure of that, Pendragon.”


“Emrys?” Gwaine asked. She rolled her eyes, flapping her hand dismissively.


“Yes, yes. I think you all call him Merlin.”


Gwaine and Arthur shared a look. Alright, that’s not a good sign. The look they share debated whether she was mentally sound enough to continue speaking. A conclusion was reached. Arthur plowed on.

 

“Merlin is alive,” Arthur said, and tried not to think about the ‘barely’ that was implied by his tone. “If you tell us how to save his life, your clan of sorcerers will not be harmed.”

 

The witch looked startled, shaken. Her wide eyes flicked from Gwaine to Arthur and back. Arthur was used to people being shaken by his threats, but this seemed different.


“He’s…He’s alive?” She said, but her words got stuck in her throat. When neither man replied, she looked down at her basket, full of purple buds. “No, no. That’s not possible. The blade was enchanted with a curse of the Old Religion. No mortal—“


She stopped. She didn’t move. Arthur didn’t know if she was breathing.

 

“How can the curse be broken?” Arthur asked in an attempt to snap her back into focus. Her head tilted towards him, but her eyes never left the flowers.


“It…It can’t.” She said, and she sounded on the brink of tears. “The curse was designed to kill any living thing.  Emrys…had betrayed us for the crown. There was no other choice. He was supposed to help us, shelter us! A weapon that powerful should not have been commanded by the enemy. There was no other choice!” 

 

She sounded mad, and Arthur wanted to scream. The old sorcerer had been half-mad himself, but this sorceress was spouting pure nonsense.


“So the curse can’t be broken?” Gwaine tried again.


“His mortal body should have perished. The magic—“ She jerked down and scooped the basket up in her arms, almost emptying it in her rapidity. “The magic won’t let him die.” 

 

Arthur and Gwaine rose, swords unsheathing. She looked half wild, animalistic as she looked at her flowers. Her hair had come out of her careful plaits, and an unseen energy crackled in the air. The orb above them got brighter.


“The flowers—I thought…I don’t understand.” She wailed. “Emrys is a traitor! The magic should have killed him for his betrayal!”


Arthur was about to lose it. Gwaine was apparently two steps ahead of him.


“Stop!” He yelled, but it seemed to have no affect on her, and she continued to prattle anxiously.


Then, just as quickly as she started, she stilled.


“The magic.” She whispered. “I am such a fool.”


The sorceress fell to her knees, and began to carefully collect each flower that she had dropped one by one. Her hands were as gentle and slow as if she was picking up glass.


“King Arthur,” she said quietly, not straying from her task. Arthur almost didn’t hear it.


“Yes?”

 

“You are the Once and Future King. You and Your Merlin are two sides of the same coin.” The smile on her face was troubled. “I tried to cleave that coin, but magic has ruled in favor of destiny. He shall live.” 

 

The breath caught in Arthur’s throat. He didn’t know what she was talking about, but the words bounced around in Arthur’s mind until they stuck. He’d heard them somewhere before. They’d been whispered to him, given to him, sometime before. They were the truth. But in the moment it was all lost to the three words that made Arthur begin to shake.

 

He shall live.

 

Arthur’s knees felt weak, and the relief that overwhelmed him was too strong to be called relief. Arthur had known relief—when he crossed the threshold of Camelot after a battle, when a treaty was signed, when his knights turned to him and an unspoken gift of trust was passed into his arms.


This wasn’t relief.


It was encompassing. Overwhelming. 

 

“H-How do I help him?” He croaked, and Gwaine moved a little closer to him, shoulder to shoulder. Arthur hadn’t realized he’d been swaying.


“You are the only one who can,” She said, and held up a single purple bloom. “King’s Mantle.” It seemed almost grey in the light. “It is the flower that bloomed from Emrys’s sacrifice—his lifeblood.” She gestured at the shrubbery around her. 

 

Quick, sharp images of Merlin—bleeding, delirious, in pain—blinded Arthur’s mind. He didn’t want to think about how he had held Merlin in this clearing, how Merlin had bled out in this clearing. Arthur felt the familiar burn of hostility rise in his chest as he stared at the woman who had caused so much grief. She sat almost exactly where Merlin had lain, and the low, thick, green foliage was bursting—unnaturally so—with purple blooms.

 

“Take it.” She said, and gestured for Arthur to grab the Mantle from her hand. Arthur did. He made sure that he didn’t step near the bush. The flower was cool to the touch, and Arthur, startled, almost dropped it.

 

“Make a paste with it over his wound,” she said, “and tell him to wake up.” 

 

Arthur blinked.

 

“What?”


“Tell him to wake up.” She said again.


Arthur felt the edges of despair creep in.


“That won’t work.” His voice was a rasp. He didn’t say, I’ve done that. He didn’t say I’ve sat by his bed every day and begged him to live. But Arthur thought she heard him anyway when she nodded, and plucked a flower out of her basket. She held it up to the light.


“You are returning his offering.”

 

Arthur looked behind him at Gwaine. Gwaine looked like he believed it, and he nodded reassuringly at Arthur. That would have to do. 

 

“We will keep our word, sorceress. You and your people are safe.” Arthur turned, legs quaking, but something was tugging at his mind. He paused.

 

“There were three of us in the clearing. How did you know that you would hit Merlin?”

 

She looked at him, and the grey light of the clearing made her eyes glow a sickly amber.

 

“Simple. We aimed for you.”

 

~

 

The ride back to Camelot was no less frantic the second time.

 

Arthur was cradling the flower in his hand like a baby bird, like glass, like a child. He and Gwaine didn’t slow for more than the second it had taken to cross streams and leap fences. Arthur purposefully did not think of anything at all.

 

Their horses were steaming with sweat in the cold air as Gwaine and Arthur slid from them at the castle gates. It was early morning. The sky was lightening with the promise of dawn, but neither of them noticed as they pelted up the stairs.

 

They took them three at a time, four at a time. The stone edge of one clipped Arthur in the shin as he tried to take five at a time, but he hit the stairs—turning his body so his side hit instead of his hands—and Gwaine’s hands were scrabbling at him to get him up again.

 

When they finally burst into Gaius’s chambers, Arthur’s throat was so dry he felt like the heart that was beating there would choke him. Gaius jerked awake from his bed, eyes wide. Arthur could not yet speak, but held the flower out, panting around a smile so wide he thought his face would break.

 

“Paste. Wound. Words.” Gwaine gasped, and collapsed to the floor, heaving. Gaius did not let hope cloud his efficiency as he took the flower from Arthur and set to work. He was a blur of movement as he bustled from table to table, gathering ingredients and the proper tools.

 

By the time Gaius was finished, a palette of paste in his hand, Arthur felt like he could breathe again.

 

And only then did he allow himself to look at Merlin.

 

Merlin.

 

If he could be any more emaciated, he would have had no flesh left at all. His once hollowed eyes were so purpled and bruised that they looked like empty eye sockets. There should have been nothing keeping him alive. But yet, hollow breaths rattled so quietly that Arthur couldn't hear them at all. His skin was no longer pale but a sickly yellow that turned to grey on the shell that was his body. Arthur felt a sob bubbling up in his throat but he bit down on it just in time.

 

Whatever force that had animated Arthur for the past night vanished immediately, and he collapsed onto the stool by Merlin’s bedside, lifeless. Gwaine moved to stand beside Arthur as Gaius unwound Merlin’s bandages to apply the paste. Arthur looked away.

 

“Sire.” Gaius said in acknowledgement, and backed away once he had finished. Arthur grabbed Merlin’s pallid hand in his own. He looked up at Gwaine.


“I want Leon to be regent.” He said, and was surprised by how strong his voice was. Gwaine started.

“What?” 


“If this kills me, I want Leon to be regent. His bloodline can assume the throne.” Arthur repeated. Gwaine shook his head.


“No, absolutely not, Arthur. The sorceress didn’t say this would kill you.” 

 

“Sire—“ Gaius interjected, alarmed. Arthur silenced them.


“It’s always been a life for a life. A trade.” He said. “Always.”


He looked up into the grey eyes of the man who had raised him, then to the startled eyes of the man who had become a brother. Then he looked at Merlin, who couldn't open his.

 

“I’ve made my decision.” Arthur stated again. 

 

He shifted his hand so that he could intertwine his fingers with Merlin’s limp ones. He brushed Merlin’s bangs back from his forehead, and pressed his own forehead to Merlin’s ashen one.

“Merlin.” He said. “Wake up.”

 

For a beat, nothing happened.


Merlin’s chest continued to rise and fall, barely. But nothing happened. Arthur waited.

 

Arthur waited.

 

Arthur waited.

 

Merlin did not stir.

 

Arthur let a sob beat its way from his throat. He closed his eyes tightly, hoping that he could prevent his tears from falling on the side of Merlin’s face. He could hear Gaius slump against the table, defeated. 

 

Gwaine said something, hushed.

 

Arthur turned his head to him, but couldn’t open his eyes yet. He couldn’t look at Merlin yet, knowing that he failed. That the witch had betrayed them after all. That Arthur had killed someone he loved, once more.

 

Gwaine said it again, but it was barely louder than the first time. Arthur blinked his eyes open, but his vision was so blurry that it took a second for Gwaine to swim into focus.

 

Gwaine’s mouth was closed. But he said something again. 

 

Arthur’s eyes snapped to Merlin. 

 

Merlin had barely stirred at all, but his lips were parted. 

 

He…he had spoken.

 

Arthur was so startled by the ferocity of his joy that the stool had almost toppled with him on it.

 

“Yes!” He cried, “that’s it, Merlin! You daft idiot! Wake up!”

 

Merlin’s brow furrowed.

 

Arthur laughed disbelievingly, and looked up at Gaius. Gaius didn’t seem as happy as he should have been.

 

“Gaius!” Arthur prompted, tightening his grip on Merlin’s hand. Gaius didn’t look back at him.


“Merlin, can you hear me?” Gaius asked, placing a hand on Merlin’s arm. Merlin muttered something, but it was still unintelligible. His head jerked to the side, like a muscle twitch. His mouth opened, but formed words that had no sound. His brow furrowed further, and his head snapped to the other side.

 

Arthur’s joy was fading.


“Merlin?” 

 

Merlin made a low, pained groan, and his limbs began to move, as if caught in a nightmare.


“Merlin?” Gwaine placed a hand on Merlin’s uninjured shoulder, but Merlin soon jerked out of that hold. His groan was getting louder, and Arthur realized that it was not a groan at all, but words.

 

Arthur didn’t recognize any of them.


It was not any language Arthur had heard before.


“Gaius?” Arthur asked, panicked, as Merlin thrashed himself out of Arthur’s hold, head jerking back and forth as if being struck.

 

Gaius looked as frightened as Arthur felt as he tried to hold Merlin still.


“Merlin, you’re okay.” Gaius said, trying to be louder than Merlin’s words. “You’re safe.”


But Merlin seemed to hear none of it as he continued to flail.

 

Arthur tried to focus on Merlin’s words, but they seemed a nonsensical stream of sounds. Merlin’s cry rose to a shout. Arthur tried to prevent his head from hitting the cot frame, but Merlin was moving so quickly that Arthur couldn't prevent a couple of hits landing.

 

In a long stream of words, Arthur heard one that stopped his blood cold in his veins.


“-Emrys-”


Emrys. The sorceress had called Merlin Emrys.

 

Gwaine and he shared a wild look before Merlin fell completely still.

 

It happened so suddenly that Arthur was terrified for a split second that Merlin was dead.


Merlin’s eyes shot open, and chaos exploded around them.

 

Every single item that had been scattered on the tables around the room was thrown off, as if in a tempest. Glass bottles shattered as they hit the wall, beakers full of liquid cracked and spilled over the stones, and paper was thrown wildly. The bookcase was thrown over the banister, and books were ripped of their pages as they fell. Gaius, Gwaine, and Arthur were frozen in shocked, horrified silence as book pages rained down on them.

 

Merlin sat up.

 

His eyes were golden.