Fandom: Merlin (BBC, that is)
Characters: Arthur, Merlin, assorted bandits.
Series: I have a vague idea for a sequel, but none for now.
Warnings: Umm, spoilers for eps... up to 1x11, I think. Mention of torture. Other than that, mainly the boys being themselves.
Misc. Information: In which there is a plethora of exceedingly incompetent bandits, Merlin flails, and Arthur fails at emotional comprehension. AKA: An Arthur-finds-out-about-Merlin's-magic fic. [summary edited 3.11.09 to remove ableist language - I am *so sorry* about that :(]
This can be read as gen or pre-slash depending on which you like; the prospective sequel would be slash, so.
Also shit, I'm going to have to go rework my tags as character name = fandom name. :(
The whole thing is, of course, entirely Merlin's fault.
After all, if it hadn't been for Merlin oversleeping for the third day in a row and having forgotten to clean Arthur's red shirt and having left his primary training sword in a truly frightful state, Arthur would never have decided to go hunting that day out of annoyance. If Merlin hadn't stumbled along making more noise than the rest of them put together and scaring off all the game, they would never have gone so far from the castle. If it hadn't been for Merlin spooking that rabbit, Gawain wouldn't have tripped over it and have had to be helped back to the castle. Indeed, if Merlin hadn't done all of that, Arthur wouldn't have been so frustrated as to insist on continuing on with the hunt alone. And if Merlin hadn't tagged along and made such a nuisance out of himself, Arthur would definitely have noticed the bandit encampment ahead of time.
He isn't quite sure how it's Merlin fault that he tripped over a rock at the edge of the camp and therefore wound up tumbling head-over-heels to end up lying at the foot of the bandit leader instead of valiantly fighting for his freedom before being overcome by sheer weight of numbers as was really his right, but it definitely is somehow. Given a bit more time, he's sure he can think of a reason.
Arthur glares at Merlin as the shackles click shut over his wrists. "This is all your fault, you know."
Merlin, who is being pinned to the ground by three men (one more than Arthur, to add insult to injury - he knows that bandits are stupid but really, can't they see who the dangerous one is here?), mumbles something that Arthur can't quite make out but ends with "prat".
Arthur has just decided to do the noble, royal and generally mature thing and ignore him when the bandits finally get around to chaining Merlin up. As with Arthur, the shackles click shut. Unlike with him, they then immediately begin glowing with an eerie golden light.
His train of thought has managed to get from "magic!" over "the chains are enchanted!" all the way to "Merlin's are enchanted and mine aren't?" when he realises that the bandits seem to be just as surprised as he is. People are running around shouting, pointing at Merlin, shouting some more and generally being so chaotic that Arthur is tempted to stand up and just shout orders. Bandits or no bandits, watching this - this parody of organisation is making him feel embarrassed on their behalf.
It takes five minutes for the leader to regain control, such as it is, over his people; it seems as if the only ones who are not running around like particularly empty-headed noblewomen who've seen a mouse are the ones sitting on Arthur and Merlin. (Arthur winces. Telling Uther he managed to get himself captured by this bunch of idiots is not going to be pretty). When the shouting has finally quieted, the man walks forward until he's standing in front of Merlin.
"Sorcerer," he spits, and oh, Arthur could have so easily put it off as the rantings of a deluded madman if he hadn't chanced to look at Merlin's face at the same moment.
It's not even the expression, it's that Arthur is reasonably sure Merlin's eyes were blue just five minutes ago.
Arthur is left trying to put together two entirely contradictory pieces of information. On the one hand, magic is evil. Sorcerers are evil, isn't that what he's heard for the entirety of his childhood? Has seen for himself, time and time again? Sorcerers are evil and selfish and cruel and their main desire is to destroy Camelot, that's just the way the world is.
On the other hand, Merlin is Merlin.
Merlin is Merlin, the worst manservant he's ever had, who talks back at him and insults him (and is his friend) and will keep on saving Arthur's life via recklessly endangering his own - up to the point where Arthur has to step in, because really, it's the second time Merlin is trying to drink poison meant for him and if he insists on trying to trade his life for Arthur's he can at least be creative about it. Merlin is Merlin, who looks at him with such unshakeable loyalty in his blue - gold - whatever colour they are eyes that it secretly terrifies Arthur, because although he's met many people who came to Camelot fully willing to serve Arthur, the Crown Prince only to have that dissolve when confronted with Arthur, the person, he hadn't met anyone before for whom it went the opposite way.
Merlin is Merlin, and Merlin would never hurt him.
Besides, Arthur tells himself hurriedly because that last had sounded entirely too girly for comfort, Merlin is an idiot. It's a fact of nature - the sun rises in the east, spring follows winter, Merlin is an idiot. Although Arthur can just barely stretch his imagination to cover Merlin being a sorcerer (really, Merlin, being a sorcerer, have there ever been two concepts less likely to be connected?) and managing to hide it, it is simply physically impossible for Merlin to have managed that and be secretly plotting to betray Arthur on top of it. Lack of brains. One might as well ask a fish to fly.
Or a sorcerer to be good?
Arthur sneaks a look over at Merlin in the hopes of avoiding the paradox. Maybe, he thinks - in an entirely non-hysterical manner because he isn't Morgana, really - maybe the sun had just caught Merlin's eyes in a particularly odd way and the bandit leader is a deluded madman after all and when they get free they'll have a laugh about Arthur entertaining the ridiculous notion of Merlin, Merlin, being a sorcerer-
Nope, still gold.
And Merlin is Not Looking At Arthur in a way that really, really deserves the capital letters and his face is drawn tight and he looks nothing short of ridiculously miserable. So miserable, in fact, that Arthur would accuse him of acting because it shouldn't be physically possible for a human being to look like that, like their entire world has just come crashing down around them, except that he knows exactly how bad of an actor Merlin is and-
One of the two, one of Arthur's deeply-held beliefs about the world, has to break, and there isn't even a question about which one it is going to be.
Arthur suspects that realising magic is not intrinsically evil after all should be, somehow, a big event. Trumpets are called for. Fireworks. An audience, because he certainly isn't counting the bandits who are currently ignoring him entirely in favour of his manservant. At the very least, it should be a mental big event, an epiphany, an upheaval, a- well, something like that anyway.
Instead, it feels rather like "oh, so that's that then." Arthur decides to blame this on the shock and promise himself to realise it properly later, because he's quite sure this deserves trumpets and fireworks and he'll be damned if he'll let himself be cheated out of them.
The bandit leader has been nattering on all this time, but because most of it has been along the lines of "help a sorcerer help magic help" Arthur has seen no problems with filtering him out. After all, trying to come to terms with Merlin being a sorcerer (maybe if he keeps repeating it, it will stop sounding so absurd) has been bad enough; if at the same time Arthur has to deal with people being afraid of Merlin - probably the least threatening person in all of Camelot, and he is counting old women and small children - his mind will probably break from the strain. However, the gabble seems to be changing.
"You over there! Get the cuffs! You know which ones!"
Arthur frowns. Could the man actually be planning to do something instead of just standing there panicking like a green youth? Because if he is, Arthur might have to revise his estimate of his intellect. Perhaps he does beat pond scum after all.
Wonder of wonders, the milling bandits manage to not only figure out which of them "you over there" is supposed to be, but also actually bring what are probably supposed to be the cuffs. He catches only the barest glimpse of them, but that is more than enough to make him start fighting giggles.
Cuffs? Try bracelets. Delicate silver bracelets, the kind of jewellery Morgana gets boxes upon boxes of on her birthday because they "suit her complexion", which she then immediately tries to trade for weaponry. These things couldn't restrain a ten-year-old child. Even Merlin should be able to get out of them after a while.
Assuming he can't just snap his fingers and make them disappear by magic, of course. Arthur is really going to have to get used to that.
All in all, he watches with bemused contempt as You Over There gingerly approaches the bandit leader, hands over the bracelets and flees back into the milling mass. The leader edges towards Merlin and cautiously unlocks his shackles. His hands shake with urgency as he fumbles with the bracelets, and Arthur can't quite understand why they're panicking. After all, three men sitting on him aside, Merlin currently looks about as dangerous as a puppy. One who has had all his teeth taken out, been starved - snick, that's the first bracelet - and then kicked a few times for good measure.
And really, it's not as if those feeble bits of wire-
As soon as the second bracelet clicks shut, Merlin makes a strange, choked noise, then his eyes roll up in his head and he collapses like a puppet whose strings have been cut.
Arthur has to get to Merlin now and it doesn't matter about him being the idiot who got them into this whole situation in the first place or him being a sorcerer because Merlin is still Merlin and no one but Arthur gets to hurt him, so if only he can just get this weight off his back-
Everything goes dark.
When Arthur regains consciousness, he finds himself confused.
First of all, this isn't his bed in Camelot. Now, this wouldn't be a cause for concern, but it is also not his bedroll at a camp somewhere, and he can't think of anywhere else that he should be regaining consciousness (apart, possibly, from Gaius' quarters, but he doesn't get injured that often). Matters are complicated by the fact that he's not even lying down, he's in a half-sitting position slumped against something, he can hear two unfamiliar voices and there is the cold sting of metal around his wrists and ankles-
He's been captured by the sorriest excuse for bandits in Camelot, it is completely and utterly Merlin's fault, and Merlin is a sorcerer. Although Arthur can't help but hope the last part is due to the head wound rather than actual reality, because really, what?
And he should probably really be paying attention to what the bandits are talking about.
"-prince of Camelot," the first voice says, and Arthur has to hold back a wince. He'd hoped they wouldn't realise who he was. "Should get a nice ransom for him, eh? Camelot's rich right now, and their king should pay through the nose for his only son. Could set us for life!"
Well, that's a relief - they're planning to ransom Arthur back to Camelot, instead of one of the other kingdoms who might be interested in him. Mercia, perhaps, with whom they've been on the verge of warfare ever since that business with the poisoned goblet - at least Arthur doesn't have to worry about being sold to an enemy if he can't escape. Provided, of course, Uther pays the ransom in the first place, which is hardly a given - his father will be expecting Arthur to find his own way out of the situation. Arthur has to suppress another wince at the thought of Uther's disappointment if he has to be rescued like some damsel in distress.
"And the sorcerer?" the second voice asks and Arthur spends a moment thinking sorcerer? There's a sorcerer involved in this mess too? That's the last thing we need! before remembering that oh, right. Merlin.
Apparently that hadn't been the head wound after all. Pity.
"Auction him off. He should fetch a higher price than the prince if we do it right - I know King Cadwallon would give his eye-teeth to have such a strong sorcerer under his complete control, for instance. Pity the cuffs make him so useless, but I'm sure his majesty will find a way around that." The voice pauses. "Break him, maybe. Enough torture should make even a sorcerer compliant, don't you think?"
Again, there's a moment of sheer disbelief in which Arthur can't quite believe that these people are talking about Merlin. Torture is a concept that should have nothing to do with Merlin just like sorcery shouldn't. Merlin is just the idiot manservant whom Arthur puts up with with great forbearance and patience, essentially harmless unless you give him a sword in which case he poses a great threat to himself. The thought of him having any kind of power, of him having enough power that people want to torture him so that they can control him-
Not giving himself away feels like the hardest thing Arthur has ever done. He wants to get up and shout and kill something, not necessarily in that order. However, he suspects the chains will hamper the first and the third and the second won't be of any use at all. Instead, it's best to try and keep as many advantages as he can. Maybe, if they think he's still unconscious, they'll not guard Arthur and leave open an escape route. Ordinarily he'd feel ashamed to be grasping at such straws, but these bandits are so incompetent that he wouldn't put it beyond them.
It feels like an age before the two men do anything. They talk and talk and talk like gossiping old women, and Arthur is expecting them to sit down and get out the teacups when one of them approaches him - he can hear the footsteps coming closer - and pokes him in the foot. Arthur doesn't react save for wishing that combat training at Camelot entailed learning how to kill a man with your toes. At the moment, it seems a far more useful skill than sword-fighting or archery.
"Still unconscious," the bandit yells.
"Still? Hmph. Pretty-boy prince must have a soft head," and while Arthur is resisting the temptation to sit up and shout that he is not a pretty-boy, damn it, he would have taken all of them if it hadn't been for the stupid rock at the edge of the clearing, the man continues. "Well, it looks like he'll be out for a while. Let's go see what Bearn has whistled up for dinner today."
And finally, they're gone.
Arthur opens his eyes.
He's in what looks like a large tent - too large; the bandits must have moved them because he can't remember seeing anything of this size in the clearing. Arthur scowls in frustration, because he knows a quick rescue is becoming more and more unlikely. The encampment they'd found hadn't been too far from where they'd left Gawain and the others, but who knows where this is. The tent is full of crates and boxes - Arthur suspects that's what he's propped up against - and Merlin is lying sprawled on the ground a few feet from him.
Merlin isn't chained up at all, and Arthur can't help but find this deeply unfair. The silver bracelets are still clasped around his wrists, but apart from them Merlin is entirely unrestrained. Why, as soon as he regains consciousness he could just walk out of he-
Merlin's face is drawn and haggard, his blue eyes a stark contrast to his too-white skin. He's awake.
"Merlin?" Arthur asks, carefully.
"Um." The reply is so soft Arthur can barely hear it, barely see Merlin's lips move.
Arthur is about to demand why, exactly, Merlin is still hanging around here when he can just walk out at any time, when his mind decides to add up Merlin's peculiar motionless sprawl and the silver bracelets and come up with magic.
Merlin seems to take Arthur's silence as some kind of challenge, because he keeps talking. "I'm, um. I'm... sorry, I'm really sorry, I didn't... want to lie to you, I-"
It's obvious Merlin is trying for a spate of babble reminiscent of Gwen's, but the words fall achingly slowly from his lips and his chest is heaving with the effort. "Merlin, shut up," Arthur orders him desperately. It's not that he's worried, not at all - it's just that the last thing they need right now is to have the idiot drive himself to exhaustion talking about his feelings. "Look, I know you're a right girl sometimes but do you think we could leave this until after we escape from the bandits?" he adds.
Merlin stops talking in favour of looking even more upset than before. Arthur wonders for a moment what's bothering him now, then decides it really doesn't matter. Because, well, bandits. If there was ever a time to coddle Merlin, it's not now.
"Can you move at all?" he asks instead.
"...no," comes the barely audible response. Then, "Why don't... you leave?"
"Shut up, you idiot," Arthur says again because at this rate Merlin will make himself faint and Arthur is having enough trouble thinking of a way to escape without having to incorporate dragging Merlin's unconscious body into the plans. "And for your information, it is rather difficult to leave when your feet are chained together. What do you want me to do, hop?"
Merlin doesn't say anything. Maybe he has finally managed to parse the meaning of "shut up". Arthur won't discount it as a possibility; after all, miracles have happened before.
Arthur puts all that out of his head and starts thinking furiously. There has to be a way to escape. Not just because Arthur refuses to need to be rescued, not just because of the threat to Merlin - no, there has to be a way to escape because from everything he has seen these bandits are entirely incompetent, and should therefore lose in any battle of wits with the highly intelligent, cunning, tactically brilliant crown prince of Camelot.
Technically, both he and Merlin can move. It's just that he is chained up enough that movement is very slow and very awkward, and Merlin is having his strength drained by magical bracelets. Which is a pity, because the magical bracelets look so flimsy that even Merlin should otherwise be able to break them with little trouble, and-
Oh. Of course.
Really, it's embarrassing it took him this long to realise.
Making his way over to Merlin is very difficult, slow and humiliating process - Arthur never realised just how much being able to separate your wrists and ankles is necessary for movement. Instead, he finds himself inching forward in a half-rolling, half-crawling manner.
There are times Arthur really wants to strangle Merlin for his complete and utter inability to follow a simple order. "I said, shut up."
Merlin does - for now. Arthur finds himself silently thankful because if Merlin said one more word - or, god forbid, started laughing - Arthur would really have to strangle him. Although he probably shouldn't be surprised that Merlin hasn't seen what Arthur is trying to do. After all, if it took Arthur this long to come up with the idea, Merlin should be fundamentally incapable.
Finally, he makes it to Merlin's side and pushes himself into a sitting position. Merlin is still silent, wonder of wonders, albeit staring at him in an odd, vaguely puzzled manner. Arthur wonders about it for a moment then puts it out of his mind in favour of more important things.
Merlin makes a pained yelp as he grabs onto the first bracelet and wrenches.
At first, Arthur thinks it isn't going to work - he can't get a good grip with his hands chained together and the metal is stronger than he had expected. He wonders suddenly whether the bracelet might have been enchanted for sturdiness as well, and what he's going to do if this doesn't work. Even if he can get unchained, Merlin's obviously not going to be of any help in this condition, so-
The metal snaps, and Merlin twitches. Arthur looks down at him - but no, although there now is a slight flush rising on his cheeks Merlin remains too still. Of course, he should have known. Since when are these things ever easy, anyway?
The second bracelet comes off almost immediately, with an odd crackling sound. This time, Merlin gives a great, heaving cough, then starts gasping for air as though he'd been suffocating. Colour is rushing back into his face, his limbs are trembling and he looks far more alive than before.
For a moment, Arthur just sits and watches him breathe.
Finally, Merlin blinks and looks at him. "Um. Thanks. I mean, um, for getting off the cuffs and all."
Bandits or no bandits, Arthur can't possibly let such a perfect opening slide. "Cuffs? Well, I suppose you can call them that. If you're blind, that is," he adds with relish. "They were bracelets, Merlin. Bracelets so girly even Morgana wouldn't want to wear them, which of course means they suited you perfectly-"
"All right, all right," Merlin says, carefully pushing himself upright. "Bracelets, then."
Arthur finds himself slightly surprised - he'd expected a proper retaliation, and at least one usage of "prat" or an overly-sarcastic "sire". One might almost think that Merlin is finally learning how not to insult his prince, except that long months of experience have taught Arthur that this is a hopeless cause. Perhaps it's just exhaustion. Not that he minds Merlin not being incredibly rude, really, it's just unusual.
"Now that you've accepted my superior experience and wisdom on the matter, can you possibly get moving?" Arthur asks drily.
Merlin blinks at him owlishly. "Well, yes. But what about you?"
Arthur glares at him. "I was rather hoping you might do something about these, Merlin," he says, lifting his wrists. "Look around for keys, or-"
But Merlin is talking over him. "Oh, why didn't you say so to begin with. I can just do this," he says, and then-
Hisses something in a language Arthur mainly hears in nightmares, and his eyes glow gold and Arthur can feel the hair on the back of his neck stand up at the feel of magic in the air-
As he flinches back, the shackles click open and fall to the ground.
"Um. If that's all right with you." Merlin's voice is far too soft and oh, right, Merlin is a sorcerer. Handy, that.
"No, I'm going to yell at you and put you in the dungeons for having the temerity to rescue me instead of leaving me here to await ransom," Arthur says sarcastically as he gets up. How he's missed freedom of movement. "Of course it's all right with me, idiot."
Merlin doesn't say anything in response, and Arthur looks at him in surprise. Tired or not, Merlin doesn't usually let these things pass without comment.
Merlin is standing far too still, still enough that Arthur's heart clenches as he remembers before with Merlin lying motionless on the ground, and has that odd expression on his face again. Puzzled isn't quite right... wary?
It must be the exhaustion, Arthur tells himself. And possibly shock - Merlin can't possibly be very used to being captured like this, and who knows what those damned enchanted bits of wire did to him. His fists clench at the thought.
And really, it's ridiculous enough that he's worrying about Merlin. Worrying about Merlin when they are in a bandit camp and their ex-captors might come back at any time is just - well, one has to wonder if stupidity is contagious. Whatever is wrong with Merlin will just have to wait.
"Well? Are you coming or not?"
Escaping winds up being much easier than Arthur had expected.
First of all, the bandits decided to put up their prison tent directly at the edge of camp. Arthur finds himself honestly confused - incompetence is one thing, but how are these people even still alive? His estimation of their intelligence is not improved when he realises that the tent is also apparently entirely unguarded. There is a small fire burning nearby, which does imply that someone ought to be here, but still-
After some time spent crawling through the underbrush ("Arthur, are you really sure this is the right way?" "Hush, Merlin."), they hear shouts rising in the distance. Apparently the bandits have noticed that their supplies are on fire.
"You see, Merlin? They're going to be so busy fighting the fire that they won't have time to chase after us. A truly brilliant plan..." Arthur trails off, puzzled. It takes him a moment to realise that Merlin hasn't interrupted him, and another to realise that he had been expecting Merlin to interrupt him with some snide remark, to the extent that he hadn't even bothered to think about how to finish his sentence when he started speaking.
He has said it before and he'll say it again. Worst. Servant. Ever.
He turns his head back to look at Merlin. His manservant is still looking pale and shaky on his feet, and he's still looking at Arthur in that odd way. Not the usual odd look, which Arthur has learned to interpret as "I will annoy my wonderful, kind, more patient than I deserve master and make his life difficult and refuse to treat him with the respect he deserves because I am mentally deficient and actually enjoy the stocks". A different one.
If he didn't know better, he might suspect those thrice-be-damned bracelets had done permanent damage. Of course, he does know better, because it is entirely impossible for Merlin to- to-
Something cold and tight twists in Arthur's chest, and it takes him a moment to identify the feeling as fear.
"Come on," he says gruffly. "Let's get back to Camelot."
Gaius will know what to do.
Unfortunately, Camelot is quite a distance away, and Arthur had unfortunately neglected to check the camp for their horses before setting it on fire. By the second hour, he is kicking himself for the oversight. By the third, he is almost out of his mind with frustration.
It wouldn't be quite so bad as all that, except that unlike the previous times he has been - not lost, he knows precisely where they are - temporarily stuck in the woods with Merlin, there is no talk to lighten the atmosphere. Merlin seems intent on trudging along in silence, and reacts only half-heartedly to Arthur's attempts to make conversation.
Ordinarily, at this point in a journey they would have spent at least two straight hours sniping at one another, Merlin would have found half a dozen new insults to his intelligence prompting Arthur to threaten him with at least two extra training sessions and three hours in the stocks as soon as they got back to Camelot. Contrary to the intended effect, this would serve to make Merlin even more outrageous with his taunts until Arthur starts to daydream about the times he went on these adventures alone. He spent half of these trips wishing that Merlin could actually learn to be a half-decent servant and shut up for once.
Now he's discovered that given the choice he'd much prefer the banter.
"Um," said Merlin as if in answer to his thoughts. Arthur resists the urge to throw his hands in the air and shout "It speaks!" There's still something oddly tentative about his manner, and Arthur will not risk Merlin deciding to shut up for another three hours because he will go stark, raving mad and probably start talking to trees for lack of better conversationalists.
"Yes?" he says instead, trying to keep his voice gentle.
"About the. The magic."
Telling himself Merlin isn't a sorcerer would go so much better if he stopped saying things like this.
"The magic. Yes, I must admit that was something of a surprise. After all, if you had asked me this morning what my plans for the day were, I would certainly have said 'go hunting, get captured by bandits and find out Merlin is secretly a sorcerer who-" Arthur feels the sarcasm in his tone, sees Merlin flinch from the corner of his eye, and stops. Gentle. Right. Think of... of kittens. Frightened kittens you want to lure out of wherever they have got to. No, wait, that only reminds Arthur of the time when he was eleven and tried to save a cat from a tree at Morgana's urging. He'd needed stitches.
No cats, then. How about... maids. They're such skittish things, and Arthur knows how to coax a shy, uncertain girl into his bed-
Now he's thinking of Merlin with breasts, which is entirely horrifying.
"Say, do your eyes always do that?" Arthur blurts out, because he's been curious - doing magic in Camelot is dangerous enough without having flashing lights giving it away - and because he has to get the image of female Merlin out of his head somehow. After all, he's always known that Merlin was a girl but not litera- stopthinkingaboutit.
"Whenever I'm doing magic, yeah," Merlin says, looking uncomfortable. "Those things sort of - pulled my magic to the top. Odd way to make something detect magic, really. But really, what I wanted to talk about was-"
"Well, it was also glowing," Arthur points out helpfully before his mind catches up. "Wait, did you say the shackles only detected magic?"
"Um, yes?" Merlin looks faintly alarmed.
"So they didn't block your magic at all?"
"...no?" Now Merlin is looking confused. It is a very familiar expression.
"So what you are saying is that while those bandits were running around dithering and staring at you as if you were my father, you could in fact have done magic at any time? You were only actually prevented from doing so once they'd slapped those bracelets on you?" Arthur demands, unable to believe that Merlin could have been that incredibly stupid.
Arthur takes that as a yes, and completely forgets about being gentle.
"You blistering idiot!" he shouts. "You could have got us out of there at any time!"
"Look, I was only-"
"Or tried to, or at least done something instead of sitting there like a gormless-"
"Arthur, do we really have to-"
"And what would have happened if we hadn't been able to escape so easily?" Arthur yells. He thinks he'll never quite forget that uncaring voice saying break him, and enough torture should make even a sorcerer compliant. If those bandits had been just a bit smarter, a bit more competent...
"Arthur!" Merlin yells, his eyes flashing gold for a moment. A branch falls off a nearby tree with a loud crack and Arthur shuts up out of sheer surprise. "Could you possibly stop shouting at me for just a moment and tell me whether you're going to have me executed or not?"
"Executed?" Arthur asks dumbly. His mind seems to be working far too slowly.
"Yes! Executed! For doing magic, you know, that dreadfully illegal thing which your father tends to chop off people's heads for!" Merlin is still shouting and that odd expression is back on his face. Finally, Arthur manages to identify it as fear.
Directed at him.
Merlin is afraid of him.
"You honestly think I'd have you executed," Arthur says slowly, pieces clicking into place.
Before, he didn't quite understand why Merlin never told him. Didn't think it was particularly important, really - after all, Merlin was and is an idiot and men could go mad trying to fathom the reasons for an idiot's actions. Undoubtedly Merlin had some utterly ridiculous reason that would make no sense whatsoever to anyone except him. It hurt, a bit, that Merlin hadn't trusted him with this most important of his secrets, but mainly Arthur was angry at himself. He shouldn't have needed to be told, after all. Merlin is his servant, in his charge, it's Arthur's responsibility to know these things. Needing Merlin to tell him about being a sorcerer is rather like expecting his horse to say "mind stopping for a wee moment? My hoof hurts," if it lost a shoe rather than watch out for these things himself. Arthur looks out for Merlin because Merlin can't be trusted to know what's best for him and missing something this big is a complete failure of his responsibilities.
And he was right. Merlin did have a completely ridiculous reason for not telling him. Apparently, after all they've been through together, after saving each other's lives countless times, after Arthur's drinking poison for him - Merlin still doesn't realise that Arthur would never, ever allow him to be killed. Apparently, although Arthur knows that Merlin would never hurt him, Merlin isn't quite so convinced of the opposite.
It hurts, and Arthur feels something hot and ugly and entirely overwhelming rising in him like gorge. He stares at Merlin's scared face - scared of him, after all this time! - and is furious. And the angrier he gets, the more Merlin hunches in on himself, terror writing itself clearer and clearer on his face, and the more frightened Merlin becomes the angrier Arthur gets and he knows, he knows that they are teetering on the brink of something dreadful but he can't make it stop-
Look at him.
It's a voice coming from deep inside him, one he usually only hears when training his knights - telling him to watch that one, think more about this one, ask this next about his history. It lets him judge their capabilities, their strengths and weaknesses and what roles they are suited for so well that his force's reputation is spreading far beyond the kingdom. It's cool, calm and collected, nudging him to look below the surface, into the heart of the matter. Sometimes, when he is lying in bed at night beset with doubts - about himself, about his capability for rule - he clutches its memory to himself, because it is the voice of a king.
For a moment, Arthur doesn't see anything different. Merlin is clearly terrified, pale and shaking and trying to make himself as small as he can. At the same time, he is meeting Arthur's stare defiantly. It is a quintessentially Merlin thing to do, and Arthur would probably laugh if he wasn't so afraid of what would come out if he opened his mouth right now.
Then he notices. Arthur has seen Merlin afraid and bravely determined before - far too many times before, really, given the amount of trouble he gets into. This, however... there is something subtly wrong, different about his expression. Little wonder Arthur hadn't recognised it for what it was, because it's not quite the fear of a man facing his death and determined to go down fighting, it's not quite the expression of a man resigning himself to his fate, nor even that of a man who fears being betrayed. There is something starkly irrational about the terror in Merlin's face, making him think of a small child scared by ghost stories. Although that's still not quite it...
Arthur remembers Morgana mentioning, once, how she thinks magic must be inborn rather than learned, remembers the lines etched by worry in Merlin's mother's face and wonders. What must life have been like for Merlin as a child?
What was life like for a child living just beyond the borders of Camelot, where wizardry is persecuted and dealt with with lethal force, a child whose eyes glow gold and who breaks branches off trees without touching them when he gets upset? For whom concealing his inborn gifts day-in and day-out is a matter of pure survival?
Arthur imagines Hunith speaking to her son, telling him to be careful, not let anyone see, not let anyone find out, don't use magic. Imagines her trying to teach him control and instead teaching him fear, a kind of fear that Arthur is unfamiliar with, a slow creeping terror of discovery that accompanies that child every day of his life. The kind of fear that sinks down below conscious awareness, that sinks into the marrow and stays.
"Well?" Merlin asks him, voice shaking with a terror he probably can't even name, and all of a sudden Arthur isn't angry any more.
He knows, with the same crystal clear clarity as he knows which prospective knight will break on the battlefield and which will guard his back until death, that Merlin isn't afraid of him, really. Merlin is afraid of anyone finding out, not Arthur specifically, and that thought is far more comforting than he would have expected.
Now he should probably do something before Merlin faints from sheer terror. Under the circumstances, Arthur wouldn't even be able to tease him about it properly afterwards and that would be a dreadful loss.
He walks towards Merlin, seeing the other boy's eyes widen with each step he takes. Arthur is planning to throw an arm over his shoulders when long months of experience at dealing with Merlin rear their head. Because one of the most important things to remember is this: Merlin is a girl. Maybe not a girl in the physical sense (and he will never be able to erase that mental image from his mind) but in most other ways Merlin can be a complete and utter girl and therefore sometimes needs to be treated as one.
Arthur awkwardly wraps his arms around Merlin, one hand resting on the boy's waist, the other burying itself in his hair and guiding his head to Arthur's shoulder. Heat seeps into Arthur where Merlin is pressed rigidly against him and he can feel the sharpness of bones under cloth and skin, hear the breath just next to his ear.
If Merlin doesn't stop hyperventilating like that, he really will pass out.
"Merlin," Arthur says, because sometimes these things have to be put into words. "I'm not going to tell my father."
For a moment Arthur is afraid that Merlin is not going to believe him, but then all the tension seeps out of his body, his breath slows and his arms come up slowly to rest against Arthur's back.
"Thank you," Merlin whispers.
Arthur can't quite believe that he is standing in the middle of the forest after getting captured and escaping from bandits, hugging his manservant who is also an illegal sorcerer and sounds as if he is about to start crying-
"Don't cry, you idiot," he tells Merlin because that is really the last thing they need at the moment.
"You're such a prat," Merlin responds, voice cracking, and in that moment Arthur knows that they're going to be all right.
x-posting to merlinxarthur (is so slashy enough) and merlinfic.