So, like I said to nekare, this was the ficcish equivalent of sticking two fingers down my throat. Because sometimes you have essays and dissertations and portfolios to write and your brain STILL thinks it's a good idea to start fixating on a new series. SO. This is me officially getting Merlin out of my system - at least until after Christmas. Okay? Okay! Unbetaed, unchecked, and entirely unapologetic about it, I'm afraid.
Title: To Be Known
Summary: So this is what it felt like to be normal. Merlin opens his eyes to the cool, shining metal of Arthur's unsheathed blade. "Sorcerer," Arthur spits. ~3,500 words.
When it finally happens, it’s not what Merlin expects. A decision should have been made, he thinks numbly. Somewhere, in all this mess, he should have been given the option to think: yes. To think: now. He had imagined saving Arthur’s life, gold at his fingertips, gold in his eyes. That was how it was meant to be. He would save Arthur from the impossible, save him from the whole world, and then he would kneel at Arthur’s feet and wait. Whether for Arthur’s hand or the tip of Arthur’s sword, Merlin had never got quite so far as working out.
But this. This is not how it’s meant to go. Curled tight in the leaf-mould of the forest floor, his magic pulling his insides apart, splitting him down the seams. He’s vomiting air charged with colour and he can see it painted on the backs of his eyelids, can feel it in his stomach, his lungs, his bowels. He convulses once, twice, sobs with it, and the last of his power is dragged out of him, pulled into the clearing and dispersed amongst the trees.
Merlin lies still. Inside of him, there is nothing but quiet emptiness. He can’t feel the green-earth-old-ancient presence of the wood pressing in around him anymore. He can’t feel the stoic dullness of the pack horse. He can’t feel the red and gold of Arthur, a loss which hurts, the prince ingrained further within him than he ever could have imagined.
So this is what it felt like to be normal. Merlin opens his eyes to the cool, shining metal of Arthur’s unsheathed blade.
“Sorcerer,” Arthur spits.
The aftermath isn’t exactly what Merlin would term pleasant. Arthur binds Merlin’s hands tight with whipcord, puts a hand under Merlin’s elbow and hauls him to his feet. The resulting nausea sends Merlin to his knees again, choking up sour bile and the remains of breakfast. He’s shaking when Arthur pulls him upright once more, almost swaying against him he’s so unsteady on his feet.
Arthur sharply pulls back. He doesn’t look at Merlin.
“Move,” he says.
“Arthur, I -”
“I can -”
“I’ve been told this place strips away magic,” Arthur says, cold. “But maybe I shouldn’t take that risk and cut out your tongue just to be sure.”
Merlin shuts up.
The cold point of Arthur’s sword rests against the nape of Merlin’s neck in emphasis. Merlin needs no further encouragement. He stumbles forward, willing one foot after another, focusing on the pervasive emptiness eating up his insides. Rather that than think of what Arthur’s face had looked like, split apart by Merlin’s betrayal.
They walk in silence for a long time. Merlin listens to Arthur’s steady footfall behind him, the double-beat rhythm of the pack horse behind that. It’s an odd feeling being without magic, and he probes at it like he would a broken tooth, feeling the unfamiliar scratch against his tongue and flinching at the sharp sensitivity of exposed nerves. It’s like his senses have contracted somehow, like he’s partially blind, partially deaf.
Merlin stumbles over his own feet and almost ends up on the ground again.
“You’re a complete idiot,” Arthur says from behind him, biting the words out with enough bitterness that Merlin is fairly confidant the prince is talking about more than just his eternal clumsiness.
He wants to say, I’m sorry. He wants to say, it was to protect you. But, more than anything, Merlin knows his prince. He doesn’t need magic to feel the anger brewing behind him. Placing the truth at Arthur’s feet right now would be taken as an act of war and Merlin isn’t always completely imbecilic, despite what Gaius might say. So he just hunches his shoulders closer to his ears and doesn’t say anything.
But Arthur won’t let it go, like a dog worrying at a bone. “I’m curious,” he says, his tone dangerously light. “Were you merely so assured in your abilities, so arrogant, that you thought you alone out of your kind could walk amongst these trees without ill effect? Or was it your certainty that I would continue to be too damned stupid to see you for what you really are?”
The young girl on the forest’s edge had told them the history of the trees, her eyes searching out Merlin’s even as she addressed Arthur, flowers of a kind Merlin had never seen before braided in her hair. The forest had once been a place of the darkest sorcery, she had said. Hundreds of innocents butchered, unimaginable crimes committed. And then the very trees had rebelled, the earth of the isles imbued with the most ancient of all powers, and no person of magic had since been able to pass through.
It was the most direct way back to Camelot.
“Maybe we shouldn’t,” Merlin suggested, peering doubtfully into the gloom between the trees. His heart was a nervous flutter in his chest. “You know, innocents butchered, unimaginable crimes and all that.”
Arthur had grinned at him before striding into the forest. “Scared of ghosts, Merlin? Come now. At least this is one place we can be certain not to meet with sorcery. It will be a pleasant break.”
Merlin had looked behind him, searching for assistance, but the girl with the flowers in her hair was already gone. It didn’t come as much of a surprise. Distracting himself with the thought that if he ever reached the dizzy heights of mysterious, magical messenger, he would not only stick around to offer help to any beleaguered heroes, but would provide written instructions and colour-coded diagrams, Merlin screwed his eyes shut, gripped the pack horse’s reins tighter, and walked into the wood.
He had expected some sort of repercussion - an invisible barrier to keep him out, magical repulsion, a fireball, something. Anything which would finally reveal him for who he was. But there had been nothing. Opening his eyes and feeling more than a little foolish, Merlin had rushed to catch up with Arthur, not daring to question his lucky escape.
Perhaps he should have.
The tip of Arthur’s sword digging into his back is enough to freeze Merlin’s thoughts along with his feet. They both stand there, unmoving. The forest is still and too quiet as the horse obediently pulls up behind them.
“I asked you a question,” Arthur says, soft and deadly. “You will answer me.”
Merlin twists his bound fingers together and clamps down on the inadvisable urge to shift his feet. “I thought - I thought it would keep me out, not - I didn’t realise what it was going to do. I was an idiot. I was the biggest idiot ever, yes, you’re right. It wasn’t about you. I’ve never thought you were stupid, Arthur. A prat, yes, insufferable sometimes, yes, but I swear -”
“I said, enough, damn you. Only you could be idiot enough to run your mouth off with a sword at your back, Merlin, I swear.”
But the sword in question is then sheathed and the push to keep moving, when it comes, is not from cold metal but from Arthur’s gloved hand at Merlin’s shoulder.
The gloom of dusk has firmly set in under the trees when Arthur calls a halt.
“Sit there,” he instructs, gesturing.
Merlin sits. The ground is damp from recent rainfall and moisture seeps its way through his clothes to bare skin. He doesn’t complain, just watches Arthur as the prince tethers the horse and starts unloading provisions to set up camp. The task takes longer in the care of just a single pair of hands, everything taking twice as long. Arthur only rolls out one of the bedrolls, Merlin notices, and he hunches in on himself, feeling cold and miserable and alone.
After roughly scraping out a fire pit, Arthur crouches down at Merlin’s side, more whipcord in his hands.
“It’s not necessary,” Merlin says, a strained plea. “I’m not going anywhere. I’ve got nowhere to run to, you know that. There’s nowhere but Camelot and Ealdor and I couldn’t, not anymore.” He’s suddenly desperate to make Arthur understand, desperate to fill up the cold emptiness left behind without his magic. “Please, Arthur. I swear it.”
Arthur doesn’t look at him as he wraps the cord around Merlin’s ankles, around and around and around, tying it tight. “You’ve got nowhere to run to that I wouldn’t find you, Merlin. Of that, you can most certainly be sure,” he says, and the promise sinks like winter chill into Merlin’s bones. If there is one thing he has never doubted, it is Arthur’s word.
After checking the knots, Arthur stands. “I shall be back shortly with firewood,” he says. “I apologise for the necessary precautions, but you will have to excuse me for not being able to take your solemn oath as truth anymore.” He does look at Merlin then, and the smile he graces him with is sharp like broken glass.
Merlin watches him until the darkness swallows Arthur whole. He had thought it would have been a relief to get out from under that angry, oppressive contemplation, as it was at the castle on those rare occasions that leaving Arthur’s rooms was just as much an escape from the prince’s foul mood as it was in necessity of doing his duties. Instead, left alone with his troubled thoughts and the sounds of the forest, Merlin just wishes Arthur back.
Just as Merlin is beginning to twitch with every creak of a tree, with every snap of a branch, painfully aware of just what it could mean to be tied hand and foot in a forest with no weapon - mundane or otherwise - to defend himself, Arthur returns. He has a bundle of wood cradled in his arms and he clumsily drops the load by the fire pit, crouching by Merlin to unbind his legs once more. Without a word, Arthur then turns his back to him and starts building the fire.
The wood is damp. Merlin knows from the way Arthur’s muttered curses get more and more colourful. He knows it from the strike of flint against steel, again and again, and the smell of burnt tinder. He knows it because his backside is soaked through from the wet ground. The line of Arthur’s shoulders is getting steadily tenser and Merlin wants to reach out, to squeeze the muscle there, to take the flint and steel and start the fire himself.
“Arthur,” he tries - just a single word - but it’s enough.
“Shut up.” Arthur rounds on him, his eyes furious. “Shut up, Merlin, do you hear?”
He looks on the edge of real violence, his jaw square and his fists trembling, and Merlin stares at Arthur just long enough to trace the loathing on his face, then looks down, turns his head away.
Arthur doesn’t start hitting the flint and steel together again, though.
After a long, terrible moment, he says, “I suppose your skill with starting fires had more to do with sorcery than any real ability.” His voice is calmer but still hard enough to make Merlin want to flinch away.
“In your father’s court,” Merlin says, quietly, “no one can rely just on magic to survive.” It takes an effort, but he makes himself meet Arthur’s eyes again. “I could try, sire.”
“How do I know you’re not trying to trick me?”
“Because I’m still Merlin.”
Arthur snorts vicious laughter. “Merlin lied to me. Try something better than that.”
Merlin raises his chin and holds Arthur’s gaze. “Because everything I’ve ever done was with your best interest at heart.”
Arthur considers him. “Get up,” he says, finally.
It takes some effort without the use of his hands, but Merlin regains his feet. Arthur beckons him forward a step, then reaches out and jerks him closer, fingers wrapped tight around the bindings at Merlin’s wrists.
“If you betray me again, I will kill you myself.”
Merlin nods. There had only ever been one secret between them, one possible betrayal. And now it was finally done.
The whipcord had long-since bitten into the flesh, stopping the blood, and when Arthur carefully unwraps his wrists, Merlin’s hands are cold and unfeeling. He clenches them awkwardly, then stuffs them into the warmth under his arms in an effort to bring sensation back.
“Sorry,” he mutters. “I’ll be as quick as I can, just -” He winces as he tries moving his fingers against the rush of hot needles. “Give me a moment.”
“Take your time,” Arthur says, and Merlin shoots a look at him, uncertain whether the bite in his voice means sincerity or the opposite. He doesn’t chance it, and as soon as he’s confident he can handle the flint and tinder without dropping it, he holds out a hand.
Arthur stands behind him as Merlin kneels by the fire pit, examining the wood as best he can in the dark. He breaks a log apart, touches a finger to its mostly-dry centre, lays it to one side. Most of the wood is too wet to use, but some of the pieces seem like they might catch with luck, and even a small fire would serve to dry out the other branches. Placing the driest of the kindling in a tiny pile, Merlin leans over the pit and prays as he strikes flint against steel, holding the tinder steady.
The first time doesn’t catch. Neither does the second or third. Sweat beads at Merlin’s temples and he’s aware of Arthur watching, aware of the yawning pit within his soul whenever he unthinkingly reaches for the magic that isn’t there. The fourth time is more luck than success, and Merlin nurses the tiny flame, patiently coaxing it until it’s not just the kindling alight, the fire catching to some of the larger logs. He places the rest of the wood around the blaze to dry, then leans back on his haunches and into Arthur’s legs. He almost overbalances in his haste to jerk himself away, one hand outreached to steady himself in the cold, damp mulch at his feet.
“Sorry,” he says, quickly. “Sorry.”
“Yes,” Arthur says. “Yes, please be sorry, Merlin. How dare you manage to get a fire going.”
Merlin can hear the eye roll in the words and it’s too familiar, too normal. Something catches deep and painful within his chest and he doesn’t dare move, not even after Arthur has walked around the fire to his bedroll to start sorting through the bags of provisions.
“Well?” Arthur turns to look at him, an eyebrow imperiously raised. The fire casts dark shadows into his eye sockets, obscuring his full expression. “Get your bedroll then.”
Merlin stumbles on his way to the horse, too aware of Arthur’s eyes on him. The horse is warm and smooth to the touch, and Merlin strokes a hand down her flank, trying to clamp down on the traitorous hope that had been sparked by Arthur’s words. The horse noses curiously at him but otherwise does not even shift, good treatment and food enough making certain she had never learnt fear within Camelot’s walls. After all, Merlin thinks, it is men, women and children who die on the block, watched by their friends, their king, never mourned aloud. It is men, women and children, Merlin thinks, not animals.
Feeling more grounded, if a little sick, he unfastens his bedroll and takes it to the far side of the fire.
“No,” Arthur says, before Merlin has the chance to lay it down. “Put it over here.”
Merlin nods, a little surprised, and dutifully carries the bedding over to where Arthur is pointing. He spreads it out on the far side of Arthur’s own bedroll, careful to keep enough distance between their beds even if it means he's too distant from the fire to benefit from it's warmth.
When Merlin straightens up, Arthur is looking at him coolly.
“Are you really going to make me drag your bedding over here myself, Merlin? Not there, you idiot. Here.”
He is pointing at the space of forest floor right next to his own bedroll. Merlin stares at him.
“You want me so close?” he asks, confused. “I thought you would rather -”
Arthur’s expression tightens. “Unless you want me to truss you up like a pig on a spit for the night, you are going to sleep where I can lay hands on you if needs be. Do you understand, or would you rather I spell it out further?”
Merlin gets it. Without a word, he moves his bedroll so its edge overlaps Arthur’s, then sits down. He tells himself he should be grateful Arthur trusts him enough not to tie him up again, but all he can think of is the last time they slept like this. Then, it was for mutual warmth. Now, it’s so Merlin cannot run.
Arthur sits beside him and silently holds out a steaming tin of heated water and a couple of the trail biscuits. What little food Merlin had had inside of him had all come up messily with his magic, and his stomach contracts with forgotten hunger. He eats the biscuits so fast that Arthur offers him another, a pinched look about his mouth.
“Careful,” he says, sounding put out about it. “You were sick, remember? If you vomit on my bedding, I’ll tie you to the horse for the night.”
Merlin doesn’t point out that he was only sick because his insides had been torn out of him. That he had retched and retched until everything in his stomach had come up, and that it still hadn’t compared to having his magic forced up his throat and out his mouth, his nose.
He doesn’t need to mention it. Arthur hasn’t forgotten.
The canopy of the forest is thick and dark, but not enough to block out the night sky completely. Merlin stares up at it, through the black of the leaves to the less-black of the sky. He cannot see any stars.
Beside him, Arthur is awake too.
“Did you mean it?”
Merlin shuts his eyes and the blackness he finds there is blacker than the sky, blacker than the shadows beneath the trees. He had hated his magic at times, resented it at others, but now that it’s gone, he can’t help thinking of it like the sky without stars.
“Did I mean what?” he asks. His nose is cold above the blanket.
“Did you mean what you said. About everything you’ve done being for my good.”
“Would it matter?” Merlin says. “You are Uther’s son. You don’t trust magic, you hate it.”
Arthur takes too long to reply and it is answer enough. Merlin rolls onto his side and hunches his shoulders, suddenly wanting far far away.
“You lied to me,” Arthur says, finally. “I cannot forgive that.”
Maybe, thinks Merlin, when I am on the block, you will find it easier to forgive. He trembles, swallows, and says, “Go boil your self-absorbed head, your highness.”
Suddenly, a hand is at his throat, too tight against his jugular, too hard against his adam’s apple, making it hard to breathe. Merlin swallows again and holds very, very still. He could fight his way out of this, he thinks. Maybe. If Arthur wanted to kill him, Arthur would, but not like this. Merlin knows these hands. He knows them from gloving them, gauntleting them, from washing the blood out of the whorls of the knuckles. He knows every callous, every new scratch, every old scar. If Arthur wants to kill him, it will be at the impersonal, unknowing end of a sword. Not these hands. Merlin will make certain of it.
Then, Arthur’s fingers flex, loosen. Merlin doesn’t move. He listens to his heartbeat slow down, steady, a muted throb against the warmth of Arthur’s hand. Arthur doesn’t let go, but the grip around his throat isn’t a threat anymore. It’s contact, touch. Maybe even something like reassurance.
“You’re shivering,” Arthur murmurs, and shifts closer, pressing himself to Merlin’s back.
Caught between the warmth at his back and the intimate touch at his throat, Merlin feels ready to shatter into pieces. Heat floods the hollow emptiness within him and he sobs - just once. A dry, broken sound.
“It’s okay,” Arthur says, warm breath at his ear. “You’re safe. I give you my word.”
Merlin has never doubted Arthur’s word.
The next day, when they reach the very outskirts of the forest, Merlin falls down, tearing at his neck and struggling for breath, choking on the glimmering colour that is trying to ram itself back down his throat. It keeps on going, one dazzling thread after another, and he’s drowning in it, his eyes watering with pain, the need to breathe so intense he thinks he’s going to black out.
And Arthur is there. Arthur, who sees Merlin collapse and catches him. Arthur, who holds Merlin through it, jaw clenched and fingers clutching at him just a little too tightly. Arthur, who strokes Merlin’s hair out of his eyes when it’s all over and says, okay, I guess we don’t have to come back to visit if you really insist on it.
Arthur, who is red and gold once more.