Arthur had seen it happen – Merlin’s eyes flashed gold for the briefest of seconds. Nothing else seemed to happen, but Arthur knew the truth. He waited until they were alone for the evening, the rest of the castle having gone to sleep long ago.
“You have magic,” Arthur stated. He knew this for certain; there was no need to ask Merlin, giving him the opportunity to lie to Arthur yet again – to betray him. “You’re a sorcerer.”
“A warlock, technically,” Merlin muttered, looking anywhere but Arthur’s angry eyes.
“You lied to me.” Merlin was silent. “I refuse to have a liar serving me.”
Merlin flinched, turning his head down to face the floor as he fought back tears. Everything he had done, everything he was, relied on Arthur. His magic was for Arthur, his life was for Arthur, his love was for Arthur.
He knew that he couldn’t explain that right now. Arthur was angry, and he could be ridiculously stubborn – more so than usual – when he was angry.
“I want you to leave,” Arthur ordered. Merlin nodded resignedly, his shoulders drooping with the weight of sadness, regret, and failure. “Merlin.” Arthur’s voice caused the warlock to pause in the doorway. “I don’t need or want a sorcerer serving me. You are relieved of your duties. Go back to Gaius and…don’t let me see you again.”
Merlin managed to hold in the bubbling sobs until the door was shut firmly behind him. Then, and only then, did he crumple to his knees, back sliding down the wooden door that separated him from Arthur.
He hadn’t expected this. Or, maybe he did. This was a somewhat reasonable reaction to his magic and his lies, after all, even if it hurt.
And it hurt worse than anything Merlin had ever experience. This hurt in a way that Merlin wasn’t sure he could bear for long. He felt like his heart was shattered, like his whole body had simultaneously imploded and exploded, and his mind was the only thing left in the rubble.
So for once, Merlin decided to do exactly as he was told.
Merlin did one thing well: staying out of the way, just as Arthur had ordered. Unfortunately, Arthur should have expected that Merlin’s absence would be noticed rather quickly.
“Where’s Merlin?” Gwaine asked bluntly the very next morning.
“I don’t see how it’s any of your business what my servant does,” Arthur retorted, his tone much harsher than Gwaine had ever heard before. “Begin,” he said, addressing the knights as a group. Most of them dispersed, obediently going about their training, but Gwaine and Leon stayed back. “I said-”
“I heard you the first time, princess,” Gwaine responded, casting a sidelong glance at Leon. “And I’ll ask you again, where is Merlin?” Arthur pursed his lips, refusing to answer. “Let me remind you that the only reason I continue to protect your royal backside is because of Merlin,” Gwaine said lowly.
“Is that a threat?” Arthur responded, his barely restrained fury evident in his words.
“It’s the truth. My first loyalty was and always will be to Merlin. If you’ve hurt him again-”
“Again? When have I ever hurt Merlin?” Arthur nearly yelled. All of his anger, his frustration, the betrayal he was feeling: it was all roiling within him, ready to lash out at any minute.
“Besides all of the shoves and bruises? All your insults?” Gwaine answered.
Gwaine’s words finally put Arthur over the edge. His face morphing into one of pure rage, he ran at Gwaine, shoving him to the ground as he pummeled his chest through the chainmail. “How dare you, how dare you think I would ever hurt Merlin-”
Leon finally intervened, seeing that Gwaine was a fraction of a second away from retaliating. Arthur was pulled off the knight, still swinging wildly and thrashing in Leon’s grasp.
“Then where is he?” Gwaine asked again, still laying in the dirt.
“Working for Gaius. I have no need of him any longer,” Arthur confessed, his tone deliberately uncaring in order to hide the heartbreak he felt inside.
Gwaine gaped, finally stuttering out, “You…what the hell, Arthur?” Leon had to agree, struggling to hold Arthur back. Gwaine scrambled to his feet, standing face to face with Arthur once more. “Why would you do something like that? He’s more loyal to you than any of the knights!”
“HE HAS MAGIC!” Arthur bellowed in Gwaine’s face. The knights nearby went conspicuously silent, but a quick gesture from Leon had them resuming their training, albeit much slower and quieter than they had been a moment ago. Arthur took a few shuddering breaths, his whole body quivering with his angry, as he said, “He lied to me.”
“He thought he had to!” Gwaine retorted. “What happens to sorcerers in Camelot?”
Arthur paused, letting Gwaine’s angry words sink in. “You knew.”
“I suspected. We’re not all as thick as you are, princess.”
Arthur scowled, finally wrenching himself from Leon’s grasp. “Get to work. I expect you to practice your drills for twice as long as everyone else.” That was as good of a punishment as Arthur could exact without physically harming Gwaine – which he was still very close to doing.
Arthur fell into a restless sleep that night and for many nights after. He was normally lulled to sleep by the soft shuffling sounds of Merlin bustling around the room, preparing things for the next day, except Merlin wasn’t there. The absence filled Arthur with both anger and regret – anger that he had been lied to by his own manservant and regret that he had let it come to this, that he had somehow become this dependent on a sorcerer.
Regret that he had been foolish enough to fall for the betrayal.
It was over a week later – a week without seeing Merlin’s big ears and dimpled smile, a week without needing to roll his eyes as his manservant’s ineptitude – that Arthur was shaken from the edge of sleep by a timid knock on the door. He ignored it at first, but a second knock, even quieter than the first, finally pulled Arthur from his bed.
Tearing the door open with annoyance, Arthur was prepared to reprimand whoever dared to wake him at this hour of the night. His annoyance turned to rage when he noticed the familiar neckerchief, big ears, and terrible posture on the other side of the door. “I thought I told you-” Arthur began angrily, his voice booming through the empty castle hallway. His words were cut short though as soon as he caught sight of Merlin’s face.
There was blood; lots of blood. It seemed to be stemming from a wound on Merlin’s scalp, but Arthur couldn’t be sure in the shadowy hallway. There were bruises, too, that spread along Merlin’s pale cheeks and oh gods were those handprints?
And that wasn’t the worst of it. What scared Arthur the most were Merlin’s eyes; they were glassy and unfocused. They looked…dead.
“I’m sorry,” Merlin croaked. “I didn’t…I didn’t know where else to go,” he finished, a choked sob breaking from his throat as his legs finally collapsed beneath him. Arthur, with reflexes only a knight could have, slid his hands under Merlin’s armpits just in time to keep him from hitting the hard stone floor.
Unconsciously, Arthur pulled Merlin tight against his chest. He was trembling against Arthur’s strong arms, threatening to fall once more. “I’ve got you,” Arthur murmured into Merlin’s ear just before he felt his former servant go limp in his arms.
For all Arthur’s anger and hurt at Merlin’s betrayal – his lies and magic – Arthur didn’t give a second thought to placing the bloodied servant on his own bed and adjusting his body so he would be as comfortable as possible. He grabbed his wash basin, moving it closer so he could sit on the edge of the bed and wipe away the crusting blood from Merlin’s face.
As he dabbed the cloth at the source of the blood – a nasty looking gash that ran from Merlin’s forehead nearly to his ear and would likely require Gaius’ attention – Arthur was finally able to just look at Merlin for the first time since he had sent him away. He was somehow both shocked and unsurprised to find that Merlin looked much the same as he always had. Big ears, pale skin, cheeks that he knew dimpled when he smiled or laughed.
A sorcerer shouldn’t look so innocent.
There were differences, too, though. The gash, for starters, and Merlin’s haunted eyes that just…didn’t look quite right. Dark bags took up the space under Merlin’s eyes, obvious evidence of stress and lack of sleep.
And still…Arthur stared and stared, poring over every wrinkle and scratch and eyelash, yet there was nothing that screamed sorcerer.
When all the blood had been cleaned away, Arthur finally sighed. Merlin looked…he looked peaceful despite the large bruises that stretched from cheek to ear. The bruises had darkened now to a horrid purple, so clearly defined that Arthur could see the shape of every finger that had dare harm Merlin. He had the sickening urge to lay his hand on top just to see how the shapes lined up – he knew the bruises on Merlin’s face would be much larger.
Merlin still hadn’t stirred. Arthur stood from the bed, returning the basin to its usual location and pointedly looking away from the tainted pink water that rippled inside. Turning back to Merlin, Arthur felt distinctly helpless.
Merlin’s shaky breath echoed steadily in the eerily silent room. There wasn’t much Arthur could do; he couldn’t bear to stare at Merlin’s battered face anymore, so he settled himself on the floor next to the bed, resting his head against the wall behind him. He was left alone with his thoughts – thoughts that were consumed with rage again, but this time, it wasn’t directed at Merlin.
Someone had hurt Merlin – his Merlin. And for all the things he had said, pushing Merlin away from him, finding out he was a sorcerer…
It turned out that it hadn’t changed a single thing.
Merlin was Merlin, after all. Merlin, his idiot manservant that somehow couldn’t bring breakfast without messing it up yet was always the first to stand by Arthur’s side in battle. Merlin, who somehow always knew how to handle Arthur’s intense moods, whether it be pulling him from the depths of sadness or telling him what an utter clotpole he was being until he reverted back to his stubborn royal self.
It was…Merlin. Just like it was Merlin to come to find Arthur when he was hurt, even though Arthur had last told him to stay out of his sight.
Merlin’s breathing hitched, and then there was shuffling on the bed. Arthur glanced at the man, watching him come awake finally. A soft moan came from Merlin’s lips, his hand unconsciously coming to touch his face only to wince at the contact.
“Careful,” Arthur murmured. “You’re pretty…” Pretty what? What could Arthur say? Beaten up? Battered?
Merlin froze at Arthur’s voice, his eyes blinking open to take in the curtains on the bed and the familiar room. “Oh no,” he whispered, closing his eyes tightly again as if he could block out everything around him.
“You’ve got a cut on your head. You should probably have Gaius check that,” Arthur said, ignoring Merlin’s response.
“I’m sorry,” Merlin said, eyes opening once more as he rolled onto his side to face Arthur. “I shouldn’t have come here. You told me not to…not to let you see me ever again, and it’s the middle of the night, and I could have gone to Gaius but he’s been so tired lately, and Gwaine would have overreacted, and Gwen was too far, and I don’t- I don’t really have anyone else, so I thought that maybe you would help me, but I know you told me-”
“Shh,” Arthur murmured, trying to stem Merlin’s stressed ranting. “I don’t care about that. Forget what I said. I was…I shouldn’t have said it. I’m glad that you came to me,” the king told him. He waited for Merlin to say more, but he seemed to have lost all his energy. “What happened?” Arthur asked quietly.
“I was an idiot,” Merlin muttered.
“You’re always an idiot; that’s nothing new,” Arthur said, his tone just shy of teasing. “How did your stupidity get you…” Arthur wasn’t really sure what to call Merlin’s appearance, so he settled for waving his hand, gesturing to all of Merlin.
“I was angry and frustrated and lonely, and you told me…so I went to the tavern. I shouldn’t have accepted that drink. I know I can’t handle…” Arthur’s brow furrowed as he tried to piece together what Merlin was talking about. “I never drink, and of course the one time I do, it’s laced with something, and I can’t- I couldn’t- couldn’t control my m-magic, couldn’t stop him,” Merlin pressed on, small hiccups interrupting him every few words as he struggled to keep his breathing under control.
Arthur wasn’t used to hearing the word “magic” come out of his friend’s – no, Merlin couldn’t be his friend anymore – lips, but that shock paled in comparison to the fear he felt at the rest of the explanation. “He just…I didn’t want it and he took me back to his room and…Arthur, it hurt,” Merlin moaned, tears finally falling down his eyes.
And of everything that Merlin had said, Arthur was most struck by the fact that Merlin had been hurt, someone had hurt Merlin, and he had decided to come to Arthur.
Arthur shifted onto his knees, resting his elbows on the side of his bed so that he could grab Merlin’s hand fiercely between both of his own. Merlin’s head jerked, as if spooked out of a memory, his eyes wide and his chest heaving. Merlin stared into Arthur’s eyes, the pale blue he was so used to that looked absolutely heartbroken now, and he squeezed Arthur’s hands back as best he could. He was clinging to the contact, a lifeline keeping him in the here and now and away from…
He could still remember the feeling of hands on his body, his stomach; possessive hands that were so different from Arthur’s grounding hold now. Cruel hands, hands that took what they wanted and left Merlin with pain and the urge to scrub himself clean from the inside out.
“Who did this to you?” Arthur demanded, perhaps a bit more harshly than he had intended. After all, he was still angry with Merlin, wasn’t he? He had no right or reason to want to…hold him and protect him.
“Doesn’t matter,” Merlin mumbled.
“The hell it doesn’t!” Arthur exclaimed. He felt guilty a second later as he noticed Merlin’s harsh flinch at the sound. “Who hurt you, Merlin?” he insisted.
Merlin wasn’t sure if it was the fact that Arthur sounded absolutely horrified by the idea of Merlin being injured or if it was a reaction to hearing Arthur say his name after weeks of being ignored, but he found himself nearly whispering the answer.
Arthur couldn’t hear him properly. He was able to make out the word ‘knight,’ but no, that couldn’t be right. None of his knights would dare harm what was his…
…but Merlin wasn’t his, was he?
“I’m sorry, Merlin,” Arthur said more gently this time. “I couldn’t understand what you said.”
“Sir William,” Merlin said more clearly this time. Arthur felt his stomach drop. William was one of the newer knights – pleasant enough and a hard worker, but quick to anger.
But Arthur had never thought he was capable of doing something like this to someone that was his. It filled him with a possessive fury to think of him…of Merlin…
And Arthur’s heart broke just a little more.
“He will pay, then,” Arthur stated just as casually as if he were announcing that he would be having his dinner in his rooms.
“No, no, Arthur you can’t,” Merlin pleaded, his mind overrun again with fear and desperation and the thought of how he couldn’t get away-
“Merlin, I am the king. Someone has clearly committed a crime. If this had happened to someone else, if someone had come to you, wouldn’t you want them punished?”
Of course, Merlin thought to himself, but that would be someone else. Someone who isn’t a sorcerer and someone who hasn’t lied to you like I have. They wouldn’t deserve it like I do.
Arthur accepted Merlin’s silence as an answer of agreement, unaware of the spiral of thoughts Merlin had begun to drown in. Sir William would certainly pay, but Arthur couldn’t be the one to do it. Merlin had come to him – needed him – tonight, and he couldn’t be gone long enough to exact a proper punishment on the knight.
But there was one person that Arthur could trust to fulfill his revenge, someone who was almost as protective as Merlin as Arthur was.
Giving Merlin’s hand a firm squeeze, Arthur stood from the floor. “I will be right back,” Arthur told him, not waiting for a reply – as if anything Merlin could say could stop him, anyway.
Arthur was grateful for the deserted hallways as he walked purposefully to the knights’ quarters. The king raised his hand to rap firmly on the wooden door in front of him. “Gwaine,” Arthur said tersely the second the door was opened.
“Arthur? What the hell do you want at this time of night?” Gwaine asked groggily.
“I need you to do me a favor. It’s about Merlin.” Any reservations Gwaine would have had were gone in an instant.
Arthur returned to his room to find his bed conspicuously empty. He panicked for a moment before realizing that Merlin couldn’t have gone far – not in the state he was in. He searched his room, for once cursing the large space and furniture casting indistinct dark shadows all over. Finally, he found him.
Arthur’s heart broke at the sight: Merlin was curled into a ball, knees drawn up to his chest as he pressed himself into the tightest crevice in the darkest corner of the Arthur’s room. If it weren’t for the bright moonlight streaming through the window, Arthur wouldn’t have been able to find him at all.
“Merlin,” Arthur whispered, his voice cracking. “Merlin.”
“Arthur,” Merlin moaned. “Please, no, I’m sorry,” he cried. He kept his arms curled protectively around his head. “I’m sorry, I deserved it, I’m sorry.”
“I’m not going to hurt you, Merlin,” Arthur told him, feeling like the breath had been knocked out of him from Merlin’s reaction alone. He watched as Merlin shook his head slightly within his arms as if he believed Arthur were lying.
Arthur tried to reach out for Merlin, his hand barely brushing Merlin’s arm, only to be shocked by some invisible power. He jerked back, suddenly fearful – not of Merlin, but rather for Merlin. He was afraid to hurt him after all he had been through.
“Merlin,” he began again, “I know I have done terrible things. Sending you away is pretty close to the top of that list.” It was at the very top, if Arthur were honest with himself. He had hurt them both when he asked Merlin to leave, and although Arthur was supposed to be a generous king, he could also be selfish – like now. “I’ve done terrible things, and I’ve hurt you before, but have I ever lied to you?” Merlin shook his head again, a nearly imperceptible movement, and Arthur hoped that he was answering his question.
“Merlin, please. Come here,” Arthur murmured, opening his arms wide as Merlin peeked through his dark fringe.
Merlin longed to go back to those arms, the ones that grounded him so gently before, the arms that promised him safety and security and home – the arms that Arthur had ripped away from him, rightfully hurt by Merlin’s omissions.
He couldn’t go back to them.
“I’m sorry,” Merlin said once more.
“Merlin,” Arthur crooned, taking a deep breath as he stepped into Merlin’s space again, kneeling on the cold stone floor, and gathering Merlin in his arms. There were no shocks this time. “You have nothing to be sorry for, Merlin. You did nothing to deserve this. I’m the one who should be sorry,” Arthur whispered, one hand holding the small of Merlin’s back and the other smoothing his hair. “I am sorry, so sorry. I shouldn’t have – I shouldn’t have sent you away. I was mad and hurt, but that doesn’t excuse what I did and the things I said. I’m sorry that I reacted so badly. I’m sorry I didn’t trust you enough to let you explain. I’m…” sorry I let someone touch you, hurt you like this, Arthur finished in his mind. He was too afraid to say the words aloud.
“I just wanted…I’m nothing unless I’m at your side, Arthur,” Merlin stated harshly, his words muffled by Arthur’s shoulder.
“That’s not true at all,” Arthur said in confusion, his eyebrows knitting together as he tried to figure out where Merlin had ever gotten that ridiculous idea.
“I’m here for you. I stayed for you. I have nothing…my future is nothing without you, Arthur. Always for you.” And Merlin added silently to himself, as forceful as a dying prayer: I want to be yours. The mere thought caused him to get choked up again, sobs bubbling up once more only to be met with Arthur’s soothing words. “Then you sent me away!”
“It’s alright. I’m here. I don’t…quite understand, if I’m being honest,” Arthur said. Merlin deserved honesty, after all this. “I want you to be you. I don’t want your life to be committed to mine. You may be my servant,” and Arthur refused to put a past tense on those words, “but you are Merlin. You are first and foremost my friend. I won’t have you diminishing that.”
“It’s not…I’m not diminishing anything. There’s a prophecy. I am to stand by your side. It was my job, and I was happy to do that, Arthur.” Hearing Merlin’s use of the past tense felt like a punch in the gut. Was he no longer happy to serve Arthur?
“I shouldn’t have told you to leave,” Arthur said, his tone full of regret. “And if there is some way, some part of your heart that would be willing to…come back…”
“Please,” Merlin pleaded. “I didn’t want to leave you.”
“I know. I was an idiot, Merlin. I hope that I can prove to you how wrong I was. I hope I can show you that your devotion isn’t misplaced.” Arthur tightened his hold around Merlin’s shuddering body, hoping to protect him from the world around them.
They sat like that for what could have been minutes or hours – in the darkness of the moonlit room, it was difficult to tell. Arthur was grateful when Merlin finally drifted off into sleep, having tired himself out from crying and explaining and all the damn apologizing that he didn’t need to do. Arthur should have been the one apologizing, not Merlin.
A knock came at Arthur’s door for the second time that night; he rose from the floor immediately, carefully extricating himself from Merlin’s tight hold.
Gwaine was waiting, looking firm and solemn.
“Tell me you hurt him.” Arthur liked to think he was a reasonable king, but there was nothing reasonable about how he reacted when it came to Merlin. If Arthur were to handle it, the man would surely be tortured and brought back to full health, only to be tortured once more. Arthur needed to know that this monster was not still walking around unpunished or-
“He’s dead,” Gwaine confirmed. Arthur could see from his cold eyes, eyes that were as sharp as the carefully honed edge of the sword hanging from his belt, that Gwaine had handled it personally.
That might not have been quite what Arthur had intended when he asked Gwaine for the favor – and really, what else had he intended? Someone had hurt his Merlin – but Arthur was not about to complain. He responded with a sharp nod. “Good. I thank you, Gwaine. And…my apologies for my behavior recently.”
“Any time, princess,” Gwaine returned, glancing surreptitiously over Arthur’s shoulder to where Merlin was still curled up asleep on the floor, bruised and exhausted. “Arthur,” Gwaine began, “promise me something.” He knew Arthur was listening, but the king didn’t say anything. “Be careful with him. He’s been through so much. He will not trust people again easily, especially you.”
“You have my word,” Arthur said solemnly, his protective gaze turning towards his manservant. Merlin would be safe from now on – even from him.
Merlin woke in a sweat as dawn was nearing, his mind a flurry of thoughts of those hands again and pain and-
Just as Merlin’s breathing started to quicken, he felt Arthur’s reverent touch on his face. “I’m here,” the king murmured in his ear. That was when Merlin realized that at some point, he had been moved from the floor back to Arthur’s bed. Arthur’s body was tucked against his, warm and soothing and home.
Merlin relaxed almost immediately, melting back into the comfortable bed as he processed that he was safe. Arthur was here – Arthur wouldn’t let anything hurt him. “Please don’t leave me,” Merlin whispered, feeling incredibly vulnerable in the dim gray light of the morning.
It was morning. That had only happened last night.
“I’m not going anywhere, Merlin. I promise you. He’ll never hurt you again,” Arthur vowed, and something in the tone of his final words caused Merlin to stiffen.
“What do you mean?” he asked anxiously.
“I…he can’t hurt you again.” Arthur felt oddly ashamed of what he had asked Gwaine to do. “We took care of it.”
Arthur knew exactly what Merlin was asking. “Yes,” he confirmed.
It was such a small word, one little syllable, but it meant that Arthur – or someone on Arthur’s orders – had…had killed someone. And…
Merlin felt guilty that he felt absolutely nothing about it except relief. “Good,” he breathed, the word barely audible despite Arthur laying so very close. “You did that…for me?” Merlin asked timidly.
“You are worth all that and more,” Arthur replied fiercely, his hands coming to rest gently on Merlin’s cheeks as he stared into his eyes. “There is nothing that I wouldn’t do for you.” He hadn’t thought about the words before saying them, but they were without a doubt the absolute truth.
As Arthur considered the nonexistent limits, the lengths to which he would go for Merlin, the laws he would ignore, and the people he wouldn’t hesitate to kill, he realized that Merlin was so very different from everyone else in his life.
And the answer to the question that raised – Why was Merlin different? – was so very simple. It was the answer that explained the tidal wave of rage that had engulfed him earlier, the possessive need for Merlin to be both his and, above all else, safe. “I love you, Merlin.”
Merlin froze, looking more lost and frightened than when Arthur had told him that he knew about his secret. “I- I can’t- I’m not- I do-” Merlin’s mind was a mess of thoughts, things like Arthur can’t love a warlock and I’m tainted and I love you, I’ve always loved you, but none of the words strung together the right way. He felt frustrated, wishing that Arthur’s declaration had come at a different time – a point when he didn’t feel too broken to be loved and too scared to love back.
Tears prickled at the corners of Merlin’s eyes, gathering until they rolled down his cheeks. Gently, Arthur’s thumbs brushed away the tears, the motion so soothing and comforting that Merlin only cried harder.
The fact that Merlin couldn’t return his words hurt, but Arthur understood. He could wait. He could wait for months, years, an eternity if he needed to – he could even live never having heard those three little words as long as Merlin was by his side. “It’s alright, Merlin. You don’t need to say anything.” Merlin sobbed, a sharp choked sound that filled the silence of the room. “You know how I feel now, so you should have some understanding of just how serious I am when I say that I will always be by your side. I will protect you, keep you safe – whatever it is that you need, I will be here for you. Do you understand, Merlin?”
What could Merlin say to that? He didn’t understand why Arthur loved him, as much as he wanted Arthur to love him. Nevertheless, love as a driving urge did explain…well, everything else.
All that was left for Merlin to say was “I’m sorry,” and “Thank you,” as he burrowed into the warmth of the bed, Arthur’s strong arms pulling him closer so that they laid back to chest. The room was quiet, the light of morning growing stronger but the day still far off.
Never had Merlin felt safer.