(That said, this is MERLIN fic, but my next port of call will hopefully have something more of a Supernatural/RPS flavour.)
Summary: It’s a gradual realisation. But a month after the attack, five days after the fever breaks and his mind is finally his own, Arthur realises Merlin is long gone. ~2,900 words.
Notes: A long time ago, I made a pact with myself to never use parentheses in a title. Today, I break that pact. I plead general ILLNESS, okay? Thanks go to the incomparable svmadelyn for reading this over and taking pity on me. :)
It’s a gradual realisation.
Arthur burns with fever, thick-tongued and delirious, and the cool hand that places the damp cloth on his forehead is Merlin’s, just as it is Merlin’s voice which carries him through his nightmares, soothing, calming.
The fever burns out, leaving Arthur tired and scorched to his bones. He doesn’t see Merlin after that. A boy with thin hair and a thin smile serves him, bowing to him, murmuring yes, sire and no, sire and three bags full, sire. The boy goes silent and round-eyed when Arthur finally snaps, demands to know where his manservant is damn it, his voice cracked and painful and nowhere near strong enough.
Finally fit enough to stand, fit enough to walk, and Arthur finds himself standing in Merlin’s small room. He sits soon enough, falling down onto the dusty, unmade pallet, and does nothing but stare into empty space. Breaking in through the thick boards nailed to the doorframe, barring entrance by pain of death, required more exertion than he had to spare.
It’s a gradual realisation. But a month after the attack, five days after the fever breaks and his mind is finally his own, Arthur realises Merlin is long gone.
“You knew,” he says.
Gaius holds out the yellow tincture that closes Arthur’s throat with the need to gag every time he swallows it (dawn and dusk every day, for strength) and looks at him blandly.
“Knew what?” Gaius asks.
After his dismissal of the first serving boy assigned to him, then the second, then the third, Morgana had lent Arthur Gwen’s services. Arthur had watched the girl move softly about the room, changing the wash water and straightening the bedclothes. He had watched her, had hated her, and had said the same thing to her then.
Gwen had stopped, her back to him. When she turned, her shoulders were rigid and her head was held high. She had looked at him, tears in her dark eyes, and hadn’t had to ask what he meant.
No, she had said. No, sire. I did not.
After she left that time, she didn’t come back.
Gaius doesn’t look at Arthur like Gwen did. Gaius’ expression is a study of bemusement, as if anything said nowadays wasn’t about Merlin in some form or other. Gaius looks at Arthur as if nothing has happened, and Arthur could perhaps believe it if it wasn’t for the slight tremble in the hand holding out the potion. If it wasn’t for the way the physician’s robes swallow him up, the body beneath frail and old for the first time.
“If that is all, sire?” Gaius says, the same old hint of impatience in his voice.
Arthur could push. He could wrap his hand around the soft, sagging skin of the old man’s throat and squeeze until he got what he wanted. Harder still, he could accuse Gaius properly, could say: you knew he was a sorcerer when I did not.
Instead, he takes the yellow tincture and swallows it down with his fury.
His father nods at him when Arthur tells him in front of the whole court.
“Yes,” Uther says, pleased, and flexes a gloved hand on the arm of his chair. The king has been ever more obsessed since Merlin. Searching through the surrounding villages, posting guards at the castle gates to check anyone who enters. The executioner has been kept busy these last few months. “Go with my blessing.”
There is pride in his voice, pride in his eyes, for a golden-haired son who will continue his legacy. Arthur bows, tight-lipped, and leaves.
He handpicks the two knights to come with him and no one questions his choices. Those who fight beside him are all loyal to a fault. It is a most dangerous mission, he tells them. The most dangerous. The traitor they hunt is a sorcerer. He is cunning, Arthur says. He is deceitful.
They do not question him.
Sir Calahan’s knee gives out on the second day. For too long now, the weather has been unforgiving. The ground beneath them is sly and slippery and the mud is thicker than the grass, forcing them to lead their horses down the steep inclines in fear of injury.
It is not so unexpected, after all. The knee is an old grievance and Calahan older still. Arthur claps him on the shoulder, tells him there is no shame in it and orders him back to Camelot with a message for the king.
I will succeed.
The thicket they shelter in for the night is dark and prickly. They keep the fire small out of necessity and there is little comfort to be had in the trail rations. Arthur sits and thinks about nothing, feeling neither the cold nor the discomfort.
“He is a great sorcerer, then?” Sir Percival asks, shifting on his bedroll. “He never looked like much.”
A log bursts on the fire and Arthur says, “He defeated life and death itself. He is more powerful than you could ever imagine.”
When he thinks back, Arthur fancies he can remember the feel of the poison slipping through his veins, his limbs dead and heavy, a crushing numbness spreading into his chest, black and terrifying. The thing which had once been a man had stood above him and smiled, its eyes white and milk-filmed, its skin grey and mottled with decay.
Arthur remembers: Merlin right there, leaning over him, his face pale. Then there is nothing else.
“There is a rumour he saved your life,” Percival says. “I ordered my boy to the whipping post for passing such nonsense on.”
Arthur nods. “We should sleep,” he says. “We’ll need our wits about us tomorrow.”
“He really is that powerful?”
“It will be the test you have been living for. And without Calahan - well.”
Percival looks at him and Arthur says nothing more.
The fourth day is no less grey than the first, second, third, but the branches overhead are touched with the first green of spring. Moving through the forest is a welcome change to bleak grassland.
In the last two days, Percival has developed a hacking cough, rattling lungs, a dry fever. Percival’s armour has started to rust, and he shows Arthur how difficult it is to lift his arm. Percival’s horse has gone lame, the clean slash across its foreleg looking more like a cut from a knife than damage from a fallen branch.
Arthur listens and tries to look concerned. Percival was one of the last knights appointed by his father, a favour granted to an old family, a treaty kept. Under Arthur, the man would never have got past the training ring.
“So,” Percival says, and coughs weakly, “it is with regret that I take my leave of you. But to continue would be the death of me and I would only endanger yourself with my presence, sire.”
Arthur has been learning since he was born, and his expression gives nothing away.
“Of course,” he says. “Tell my father he has nothing to fear. Your courage gives me strength.”
Percival nods and has the grace to look a little awkward.
Alone, Arthur presses forward. He hears whispers in the villages he passes through, nothing definite, nothing sure. It is there in the lack of winter sickness, in the healthy livestock, in the unreasonably mild weather. And for all the peasants stand and gawp, they do not truly look at him, their eyes sliding away from his face, nervous. They are hiding something.
Arthur suspects he knows what. Who.
In one of the larger villages, he stops at the inn. Orders tankard after tankard of their frothy pale ale and acts more drunk than he is. The innkeeper and his wife gradually relax in his presence, and Arthur smiles at their daughter, winks and asks her to share a drink with him. Asks her to share more.
Upstairs, Arthur really looks at her. The girl is better fed than most villagers, her face round and flushed and pretty with it. Her dark curls reach the soft cream of her shoulders and she steps out of her dress, coy in the presence of her prince, her breasts round and full and beautiful.
Arthur places his hands on her waist, tugs her forwards onto the bed. She laughs, gasps as Arthur puts her on her back, then goes stiff and silent when he puts a blade sharp to her throat.
“You will tell me,” Arthur says, “all about the man they call Merlin Emrys.”
The girl shudders in his grip, desperate and terrified. A short while later, Arthur leaves the inn, unrepentant and knowing all he needs to know.
Four villages later, Arthur finds him.
Four villages later, Merlin looks up from the bedside of a child too pale for life, and flinches when he sees him, gold fading from his eyes.
“Arthur,” he says.
Arthur’s sword is cold and heavy in his hand. Merlin looks at it for a long moment, then nods.
“Okay,” he says. “Okay. But - somewhere else, alright? Not here.” He stands and stares sadly down at the blond boy lying stiff on the pale sheets. “There’s nothing more to be done here, after all.”
Placing a hand in the shock of gold hair, Merlin closes his eyes and says something too soft for Arthur to understand. Arthur waits for Merlin to cover the boy’s face up with the sheet, then signals him to lead the way out.
The villagers are gathered restlessly outside the small dwelling.
“Yer highness,” one of them says. “This ain’t right. That’s what we’re all here to say. That this ain’t right. He ain’t done wrong by no one.”
“He’s only doing good, your majesty. He saved Thatcher’s little girl over in the next village.”
“He’s done more for us than your father ever has, y’hear?”
Arthur looks at the speaker, a tall, broad-shouldered man with a lazy eye. “If I hear you speak thus again I will have you tried for treason,” he says, coldly. “This village comes under the protection of Camelot and you would do well to remember that.” He raises his voice, addressing them all. “You know the price to be paid for sorcery, and this -” he prods Merlin forward with the sharp of his sword “ - is a sorcerer. Leave now and I will be lenient enough to not try you all for harbouring magic. If you don’t, you will share his fate - men, women, children alike - and your village will be razed to the ground. It is your decision.”
The villagers look at each other.
“He couldn’t make me go with him if I didn’t choose to,” Merlin says, soft, appealing to the gathered men and women but sounding so damned miserable about it Arthur doubts anyone believes him. “You don’t have to worry.”
One by one, the crowd gradually disperses, muttering dark thoughts non-too-quietly. Arthur isn’t surprised: in the reality of facing death, it takes a rare man to lay down his life for another.
He flexes his wrist, his sword point digging fractionally more into Merlin’s back. “Lead on,” he says, grimly. “I will not do this under the eyes of people who might decide to do something foolish after all.”
Merlin nods, his back a rigid line, and starts walking.
“I suppose you want to know why I never told you.”
As they walk, Arthur glances back, keeping an eye on their retreat; experience has taught him it pays to be careful, to never underestimate even the smallest threat. He doesn’t answer Merlin.
Merlin droops a little. “Right,” he says. “Right. Of course not.”
They keep going, trudging onwards. Merlin doesn’t speak again and the only sound is the pervasive slick of mud beneath their feet. On and on they walk.
“Stop,” Arthur says suddenly, and Merlin does. They’re far enough away now. Above them, the sun is a pale disc behind grey, fast-moving clouds.
Merlin doesn’t turn around.
“Where do you want me?” he asks, his voice bitter. “On my knees? I guess your father wants it done out here rather than trying to get me on the block again. After what happened last time, I’m -”
“Merlin,” Arthur says. A warning.
The silence is heavy between them. Then Merlin straightens and nods, an awkward jerk of his head. With all the dignity of his too-skinny, too-tall frame, he lowers himself to his knees.
“I never thought it would be you,” Merlin says, and he still doesn’t look back, his voice too steady, too detached, not right at all. “I thought maybe a knight or two. Maybe a couple more if the king was determined to have me dead. But I get it now. If saving your life isn’t enough to prove myself, then I guess trusting in your friendship is nothing short of laughable.”
Arthur places his sword on Merlin’s shoulder and watches the flinch that works through his old manservant, the sudden outstretched hand that touches the ground for a moment, steadying, keeping his balance. He doesn’t think it’s his imagination that Merlin’s thinner than he once was, his old palace clothes hanging off him in a scarecrow-fashion even more ridiculous than before. Merlin is thinner, paler, more tense, less certain, his bravado skin-deep.
“You were a fool,” Arthur says.
“For trusting you?” Merlin snaps.
“No,” Arthur says. “For not trusting me enough.”
He lets the words sink in. Then he sheathes his sword.
“It took me less than a fortnight to find you,” he says, not cushioning the statement. “My father has patrols that cover more than half that distance and they’re moving steadily further out. Make no mistake, he will not rest until he has found you. However sympathetic these villagers are to your cause, however much you may help them, when faced with the prospect of death, they will turn you over.”
Merlin is still on his knees, but he’s looking at Arthur now, his whole body craned around, his face pale.
“Are you listening to me?” Arthur says, mustering all the coldness of the last few months and drawing it about him like a cloak. “You must leave Camelot. The surrounding kingdoms have no such hatred for magic and you can make a living amongst the villages. You were a damned fool to stay so close to the castle. You must leave and not come back.”
Like an old man, Merlin slowly gets to his feet. “I won’t,” he says.
Anger is creeping up Arthur’s throat, threatening to choke him. “Did you not hear me? I will not have your blood on my hands.”
“Arthur,” Merlin says, and reaches for him, puts his hands on Arthur’s face, two thumbs at the corners of Arthur’s lips and leans in and kisses him, all hot breath and cold, cold skin. Nothing but a sad, meaningless echo of what had been there before - before the secrets, before the lies. “It doesn’t matter. You’re here.”
Viciously, Arthur shoves him away.
“No,” he says. “No. I can forgive you many things, Merlin. I will not forgive you that.”
Merlin stares at him, his face broken open, spilling the secrets of his insides better than any uppercut slice to the belly ever could. Arthur averts his eyes, unwilling to take advantage, unwilling to feel anything like pity.
“You must leave,” he says into the silence. “If you ever truly considered me your prince, you will obey me.”
At that, Merlin flinches. “I have nowhere to go. This is my home. I need to be here.”
Arthur says nothing. Determinedly, he meets Merlin’s gaze and holds it, unmoving in his resolve, implacable. Merlin looks away first.
“I could fight you,” he says, soft and uncertain and still not looking at him. “I could be what your father thinks I am. I could hurt you before you even raised your sword. You know that.”
Arthur doesn’t even consider it a gamble when he steps forward and wraps a hand around Merlin’s neck, dragging him close. His grip is neither choking nor bruising, merely a warning. “Do not threaten it if you cannot carry through, Merlin. Not with me.”
Merlin’s heartbeat is strong and steady against his hand, not a fluttering panic. The lack of fear Arthur feels in Merlin’s presence apparently goes both ways. Arthur isn’t so surprised.
“Well?” he demands.
“Alright,” Merlin says, miserably. “I’ll go.”
“It is for your own good.”
“Yes,” Merlin says, and doesn’t sound like he believes it in the slightest.
Arthur watches Merlin hesitate and turn, holding himself hunched in and unnoticeable in a way Arthur’s never seen him before, not even on his very first day at Camelot. He takes five stumbling steps in the direction of the far-distant mountains and Arthur counts them, each one a dense weight forming in the bottom of his stomach.
One. Two. Three. Four. Five.
“Merlin,” he calls suddenly. “My father will not be alive forever.”
And it is a terrible thing to say - a treasonous one, even - but Arthur would not take it back, even if he could. He watches as Merlin walks away from him, away from Camelot and towards the distant border of the kingdom, and Merlin’s back is straight once more, his head held high.