He knelt beside Merlin, rolled him over and brushed the dirt off his face, and grabbed at his shoulders desperately. Merlin's face was ashen, and there was blood on the ground and blood on his hands and blood on his shirt, and he cried out when Arthur touched him. Arthur's hands frantically peeled Merlin's shirt away from the wound, baring the open flesh.
"Tell me what to do," Arthur pleaded. "You know – you've watched Gaius – tell me what to do."
Merlin heaved in a long, shuddering breath. "'s the point... Going to die anyway, aren't I? If it wasn't this, then... your father..."
Arthur jerked back so sharply his fingers dragged across the wound. Merlin closed his eyes briefly and went whiter still, but his lips were tightly pressed together and he said nothing when he looked back up at Arthur.
"I wouldn't let him – I wouldn't – don't be stupid, Merlin. You're not going to die."
Arthur heard his voice crack on the last word and swore under his breath. Merlin's lips curled upwards slightly at the corners.
"You've had worse," Arthur said, looking down at the blood on his hands and feeling sick. "I think."
Merlin gave a thin, shaky laugh, then winced.
"Tell me what to do," Arthur said again. "You brought supplies, right? Bandages and – and things."
Merlin shook his head. "There's... nothing you can do."
"Surely..." Arthur hesitated, hating the words before he even spoke them. "Surely your magic..."
Merlin seemed to know how much it cost him to say it, if the look in his eyes was anything to go by. And, gods, Arthur didn't have the time to feel angry, or betrayed; that would come later, when this was over, when this hot panic wasn't coursing through him.
"I'm useless at healing," Merlin said.
"And here I thought there had to be at least one thing you were good at."
Merlin smiled faintly, and shook his head again, sucking in another harsh breath as the smile disappeared.
"Does it hurt that bad?"
"No, it's not."
"It hurts... to breathe." Merlin closed his eyes. "Arthur, would you..."
"Whatever you want."
Merlin moved his fingers. The knot in Arthur's throat drew tighter and wordlessly he reached out, taking Merlin's hand. It felt cold and clammy beneath his own. Merlin's blood was still wet on Arthur's palm.
"I never... used magic to hurt you," Merlin said with difficulty. "You have to know, I would never..."
"Shh," Arthur said as Merlin's fingers tightened around his almost as in a spasm. "Save your strength. I know, Merlin, of course I know. I... You've obviously not been honest about everything – or anything, really –, but I know your loyalty is to Camelot."
"It isn't," Merlin said, his thumb stroking across the back of Arthur's hand. "My loyalty lies with you, Arthur. Only you. Camelot means... nothing without you." He paused to regain his breath. "I'm sorry I lied."
"Don't talk," Arthur said. "For the love of God, don't talk."
"Have to." Merlin opened his eyes; blue sought out blue and latched there, desperate. "When else will I be able to?"
Pulling on the steadily draining reserves of his strength, he propped himself up on one elbow. His other hand remained in Arthur's.
"You deserved to know. And I... I always knew that. I'm glad you found out. I'm sorry it had to happen this way, but... I would have told you. Eventually, I would have."
He turned his hand so their palms were pressed together and laced his fingers through Arthur's. His eyes burnt with the heat of a fever and something else, something fierce and desperate.
"I've imagined this moment, you know. Sometimes I was a little less dead than this, but other times... other times I was even further gone."
Arthur knew what that meant, knew that Merlin had believed he could have had him executed. He tried not to linger on how he felt about that, because if he did, he just might end up – but no. No man is worth your tears, he told himself fiercely. No man is worth your tears...
"I didn't know how you would react," Merlin murmured. "I was a coward. Arthur, tell me... what you're thinking right now. I need to know. I've thought about this... so many times, and –"
"Gods, Merlin. We'll talk about this later, all right? There are other things –"
"There will be no 'later,'" Merlin said, with a finality that sent a chill running up Arthur's spine.
Arthur's stomach dropped. He felt cold now, as cold as death itself, colder than Merlin's hand in his. His eyes prickled dangerously. No man is worth your tears.
"Don't do this to me. I don't want to lose you. I can't lose you."
"I'm sorry, Arthur. For... everything."
"There has to be a way," Arthur said. "How am I supposed to survive without you?"
"You won't... last a day," Merlin said, humour sparking in his feverish eyes. "I was meant to protect you."
The words triggered a memory in Arthur's mind. "I swear I will protect you or die at your side." And now Merlin was honouring that oath, and Arthur wished he wouldn't.
"I suppose... now I've failed."
"You've never failed me."
"I lied to you."
"Yes," Arthur said, "and if you weren't in this state you'd be getting an earful about that. But not now, Merlin, for God's sake not now. There has to be something, anything –"
"Don't, Arthur. Just..." Merlin seemed to struggle for breath; he blinked several times as though he were trying to focus his vision. "Please, just... stay?"
"Yeah," Arthur said, his throat closing up and a dull pain settling in his chest. "Of course. I'm right here."
"Will you... talk to me?"
"I'm sure you can... think of something."
"You're the one who always prattles on about nonsense, not me." Arthur looked down at him, at Merlin's white face and his pained expression, and somehow found the words. "I just... You've done a lot for me, haven't you? I don't know what I'd do without you. I hate that you didn't tell me about the magic –" and he could hate himself for bringing it up, but the only thoughts in his head at the moment were magic and you can't die, so he chose the lesser of two evils – "but I understand why. If things were different I would be furious, but... I can't just now, can I?"
You're dying for me and there's nothing I can do about it and I don't want to watch you die and if you pull through, I swear, I'll never say anything bad about magic again.
"Why did you do it? Throwing yourself in front of that blast – that was a whole new level of stupid."
"I thought my... magic was powerful enough to stop it. I was... wrong." Merlin smiled a little and forced the next sentence out without pausing. "As long as you're alive, it was worth it."
"How many times have you saved my life?"
"I haven't... kept count."
Merlin slid down into the mud again, unable to keep himself propped up on his elbow. Instinctively Arthur moved behind him, letting go of Merlin's hand and instead arranging them so that Merlin's head was in his lap.
"This is comfortable," Merlin said.
Arthur stroked his hair away from his forehead – his drenched, feverish forehead that contrasted sharply with the coldness of his hands.
"Arthur, will you... do something for me?"
"After this, would you..." Merlin drew in a harsh breath; his voice was desperately weak. "Would you try... to rethink some things about magic?"
Arthur stared down at Merlin, his hand suddenly still. "Magic did this to you."
Merlin shook his head. "A person did this to me. Magic isn't... it doesn't act of its own accord. Some people use it... for good."
"Like you, you mean."
"I'm not asking you... to change the law. I just... want you to think about it. My magic is... a part of who I am, and it always has been, and – and I don't want you to hate me for it."
"I don't hate you," Arthur said hoarsely. "Merlin, I'd – I'd change the law in an instant if it could – if it could –"
If it could save your life.
"There are others," Merlin said, knowing what Arthur meant without it having to be said.
"It will be the first thing I do when we get back to Camelot," Arthur promised recklessly, the pressure building up behind his eyes. "I'll change everything – you won't have to hide anymore."
"Arthur..." Merlin's voice was weak. "Arthur, we both know I'm not going back."
Arthur shut his eyes briefly, and when he opened them again, they were completely dry. No man is worth your tears. He couldn't be weak, not now, not when he had to be strong for the both of them. He wouldn't let Merlin down in this of all things. Merlin needed him now, for probably the first time since they'd met.
"Then – then I swear I'll change the law," he said. "I will, Merlin. For you, for everything you've done."
Merlin's hand rose, trembling, to cover Arthur's in wordless gratitude, as though words cost him too much energy to be worth it.
"I wish – I wish you hadn't done this," Arthur said. "I should be the one – the one –"
"I would never have let that happen. Don't be sorry, Arthur. I would gladly die... a hundred times for you."
"It shouldn't be like this. I'm not worth it – I'm not worth you – this is too much. You've done too much for Camelot, for me."
"For you, Arthur, anything."
And that was the exact moment when Arthur understood. All the meaningful glances, the blind devotion Merlin had for him, the support, the silent acceptance of insults and mockery, the light in his eyes when Arthur took him seriously – they all meant something. Something that ran deeper than adoration and was much, much stronger than friendship.
"What am I supposed to do without you?" he asked brokenly.
And Merlin, Merlin who had never behaved like a servant, Merlin who had teased and mocked and insulted, Merlin in his dying moments breathed out the reverent words that clawed at Arthur's heart and refused to let go.
"You'll still be... a prat. And you're going to be... the greatest king Camelot has ever known, with or without me. I'm a servant, Arthur. Just a servant."
"Stay with me," Arthur begged, recognising a farewell when it was spoken.
The faintest of smiles curled the edges of Merlin's mouth. "When have I ever done as you said?"
"Now's a good time to start," Arthur said desperately. "Just this once, listen to me – don't leave me –"
"Don't – let go," Merlin said, his voice torturously raw.
He blinked slowly, once, twice – on the third time, his eyes remained closed. His breathing was still labourious, growing more and more so by the minute. Arthur closed his eyes, clenching his fingers around Merlin's hand, and focused on the sound of Merlin's breathing.
"I'm never letting go," he whispered.
"By the way, Arthur..." Merlin's voice was weak and hoarse. His lips twitched into the ghost of a smile. "You're welcome."
Arthur didn't trust himself to speak past the lump in his throat; he only squeezed Merlin's hand tighter, trying to anchor him into this world.
"Merlin," Arthur said, hearing the hitch in that last breath, and suddenly he could speak again, the words ripped from his throat, his soul, his heart, "no, Merlin, don't –"
Merlin's hand fell limp in Arthur's.
He didn't breath out.
"No. No, no – For God's sake, Merlin, you're not just a servant," Arthur said fiercely, the tears spilling over freely now that Merlin couldn't see them. Raw, jerking sobs racked his shoulders and seared his throat because, by the gods, by all that was sacred in this world – he was worth them, he was worth Arthur's tears and a hundred times more.