Lancelot's ashes have hardly cooled when Arthur begins to think.
In the heat of battle, in the confusion created by the Dorocha and pain and fear and loss, it was easy not to think. In the aftermath, he still had one of his best knights to burn and grieve for. Now, however...
Arthur isn't sure he understands much about the Dorocha, or the veil, or how it all happened. He only knows it was a sorceress' fault. Morgana's fault. Magic took her from him, and now magic has killed Lancelot. He doesn't understand much more than that, but he does know the Dorocha kill with a touch. Gaius had said as much : "No mortal has ever survived their touch." It's hard to think of everything that implies.
He hates how strongly he feels about almost losing Merlin. He came so close. When he saw Merlin's face, pale and frozen after the Dorocha swept toward him, he was so certain it was over. Even when he sent him back to Camelot with Lancelot, a part of him knew he would never see Merlin again. Arthur never thought it would hurt so much, to lose his servant. He was ready to give his own life to close the veil, but not Merlin's.
"What is the life of a servant, compared to that of a prince?" Merlin asked, and they joked about it, but now Arthur knows exactly what it's worth, and it scares him. He wishes Lancelot hadn't sacrificed himself. Things would be less complicated now, and as they should be.
It's kind of hard not to think about Merlin, when Merlin is the first thing he sees every morning, and the last every night. Maybe that's why Arthur wakes up in a dark mood these days. He almost bites Merlin's head off for knocking over some wine three days after they burn Lancelot. The worst of it is, Merlin doesn't even retaliate, he only gives Arthur a long, pitying look and brings more wine. And Arthur hates pity, especially when it's misplaced. He isn't only mourning for Lancelot. He's angry at Merlin, even though he's not quite sure why, and doesn't think he wants to know.
"You shouldn't blame yourself," Merlin says quietly.
Even with the cup Merlin has refilled, Arthur hasn't had nearly enough wine for this conversation. He downs it in one go, then holds the cup out for more. Merlin obliges, though there's a concerned look in his eyes.
"I don't." It's not guilt. Lancelot didn't sacrifice himself for Arthur. He did it for Gwen, and Arthur isn't sure how he feels about that. Relief seems despicable.
"If you say so."
Something about the way Merlin's mouth twists spells out the word Liar, but Arthur pretends not to notice. Liar liar liar runs through his head, but in his mind it takes on a different meaning. He can feel his mood darkening.
"Lancelot made his choice. It could have been anyone. Many of your knights would give their lives for you," Merlin says. "I would."
"But what is the life of a servant?" Arthur asks darkly, staring at the swirling red wine in his cup.
He doesn't see Merlin flinch, but he can feel it, and he can't find it in himself to care. It's a low blow, but Merlin deserves it.
"Your life means something. Even if Lancelot hadn't done – that, someone else would have. You couldn't die. You'll be king one day."
Soon, Arthur thinks, because he isn't stupid, he can tell his father won't be in any state to rule anytime soon.
Arthur tosses the rest of his wine in Merlin's face. Merlin stands still as a statue as the dark liquid runs down his face, dripping into his mouth and trickling down the side of his neck. There's a new hardness around his eyes and mouth, and he stares at Arthur so coolly Arthur almost feels ashamed. He wants to reach out and wipe the wine off Merlin's face, but his shirt is clean and white and his pride is fierce. Merlin blinks the wine out of his eyes, but otherwise, his expression is fixed as stone.
"You should be dead. The Dorocha killed you. I saw it."
"How ? No one survives a Dorocha's touch."
"I don't... I suppose it never really touched me. It must have brushed past me."
Liar. How stupid does Merlin think he is?
Merlin drags a sleeve across his face to soak the wine up. "Are you still thirsty?"
I'm still sober, Arthur thinks. "Don't change the subject."
"I was just –"
"I know what you were just."
He stares hard at Merlin, wondering whether he would ever crack under the pressure. There's still a drop of wine on his lower lip. Arthur wants to kiss it away. Not so sober, maybe.
Merlin shifts beneath the heat of his stare. "Arthur –"
"My lord," Arthur corrects him.
There's a vaguely accusing look in Merlin's eyes when he says, "My lord," and doesn't say anything more. Arthur hates the distance between them, but it's Merlin's fault.
"You're dismissed," he says abruptly, looking away from Merlin's mouth.
"Sire ?" Merlin says, startled into the mark of respect. Arthur might have laughed under different circumstances.
"Get out." When Merlin doesn't move, he points at the door. "Out, Merlin."
Merlin doesn't budge. "You shouldn't spend so much time alone. It's not good for you."
"It's not good for you to stick around, but that doesn't stop you, does it?"
That, finally, finally pulls a reaction out of Merlin. He scowls. "What's wrong with you?"
"What's wrong with me ?" Arthur has to laugh at that. "I'm not the one who nearly died. I'm not the one who should be dead. Merlin, I thought you would die ."
"I'm not that easy to get rid of," Merlin says with an easy smile, but it falls from his face when Arthur gives him a quick, searching glance.
"I just can't understand how you survived."
Merlin looks highly uncomfortable. "I don't know, Arthur. Maybe I was just lucky."
"Lucky," Arthur echoes.
He honestly wants to believe Merlin. He always wants to believe Merlin. Sometimes he doesn't completely believe the stories Merlin spins, but he's always trusted him anyway. But today, it's too hard to.
"Luckier than any man ever was," he says, an edge of anger in his voice. "Lucky enough to survive when anyone else would have died. You want me to believe that luck brought you back when that Dorocha nearly killed you? When I asked Lancelot –" He saw Merlin start, and hated it – "he evaded my question. He didn't say it was luck."
And I was stupid, I was so happy to see you alive that I didn't press him for answers, didn't stop to think. Arthur stands up and reaches out. Merlin tenses up, but doesn't pull back when Arthur cups his cheek in one hand and forces their eyes to meet.
"I thought I'd lost you," he says again, suddenly wanting Merlin to know.
Merlin says nothing, only rests his cheek against Arthur's palm. He's warm to the touch and Arthur can't help himself ; his thumb brushes along Merlin's lower lip gently, removing the last drop of wine. He feels more than hears Merlin's sharp intake of breath. Say it.
"I wouldn't leave you."
That's not what Arthur wanted to hear, not even close. He lets his hand drop to his side and looks away, heat rushing to his face. He can't explain the disappointment that crushes his throat.
"Arthur," Merlin says quietly, and Arthur's eyes are drawn to his face again. Merlin's eyes burn, and his finger traces the spot where Arthur touched him. "You don't have to always be protecting me. I... I have ways to take care of myself."
Arthur stares at him, blue eyes piercing. He knows, and Merlin knows he knows. "Yes," he says. "I suppose you do."
And nothing more is said, nor does it need to be said.