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There was a dark splotch on Merlin’s chest.

That, in and of itself, wasn’t unusual. Most people did. What was unusual was his grew and grew until long inky tendrils cut into his wrists and wound around his throat so that he had to wear long sleeves and a neckerchief at all times.

Right above his heart was tiny blank space in which was squeezed the name “Uther.”

That bit wasn’t at all surprising. Merlin was pretty sure most magic users had that, and, for that matter, not just them.

His mother had it too.

 

You couldn’t go through life without getting hurt and hurting others in turn. That was just life.

But your body wanted to keep living, so it gave you fair warning about who would do you the most damage along the way.

 

“I don’t need help,” the prince said flatly. “I’m a grown man, I can dress myself.”

“It’s not that I’m not glad to hear that, but the man who was explaining all this said - “

“I will be dressing myself,” Arthur said again. “And bathing myself while we’re on the topic.”

Merlin shrugged. He hardly wanted more chores. He didn’t even really want this job at all. “Fine by me. I’ll just . . . give you some privacy then?”

Surely he imagined the flicker of relief in Arthur’s eyes.

 

The most damage didn’t always mean the killing blow. Sometimes it just meant starting the cascade of events that led to it.

 

Merlin was sure a lot of people had “Uther” on their chests. He just really hadn’t expected Arthur to be one of them.

He finished dressing the wound on autopilot, suddenly glad that they’d taken this hunting trip alone, bandits or no.

Arthur’s eyes flicked open as he finished. He immediately looked down at his own bare chest.

“I’m sorry,” Merlin said quietly, meaning it. “I had to.”

Arthur’s hand gripped Merlin’s wrist with almost bruising force. “You can’t tell anyone.”

Merlin didn’t think he’d ever seen Arthur this panicked before. “I won’t,” he promised. And then, because Arthur was still panicking, and that made Merlin want to do stupid things to try to fix it, he blurted out, “His name’s on my chest too.” In much the same way Arthur’s was, actually. Only on his own chest had Merlin ever seen so many thick, dark webs before.

“Show me,” Arthur demanded, struggling to sit up.

Merlin helped him first before lifting up his shirt to show his own mess of wounds, past, present, and waiting to come.

Arthur slumped back against a tree. Merlin lowered his shirt.

“I love him,” Arthur said, a little plaintively.

“I know.”

“He can’t find out.”

Merlin was amazed someone hadn’t long ago told him, but Uther had probably blamed magic and stormed out. “He won’t.”

 

The lines predicted future pain, but that pain could be prevented, through a reconciling friendship . . . or by striking first.

 

Merlin looked down at Uther. All he had to do was not heal him. Save Arthur, one more time, just by doing nothing at all. The hard part had been done by other hands, a sorcerer with too many lines on their chest to bear.

Tell Gaius he couldn’t heal the poison, and it was done. The poison in the land could begin to heal. Arthur wouldn’t even blame magic; Merlin was the only one to fully figure out what had occurred.

Black lines wrapped around Uther’s chest like a vice were just visible through the top of his nightshirt. Merlin tugged the cloth down.

A thick scar blurred, but didn’t hide, Uther’s own name.

Merlin sat with a man’s life in his hands, and he wasn’t sure if he should laugh or cry.