Summary: Trapped in a winter storm, Merlin has nightmares about Arthur's reaction to his magic. Can they ever reconcile or will Arthur hunt him down and finish what he'd begun?
Word Count: 3044
Author's Notes: Many thanks to my wonderful beta, gwylliondream! She rocks. My recipient requested the following: Trapped in a winter storm, one is injured - afterwards, during the recovery, the other keeps vigil; AU-magic reveal happens earlier...angst results and maybe Merlin has to leave Camelot during a terrible blizzard because Arthur has trouble making peace with the reveal (Arthur could go and rescue him).
Disclaimer:Merlin is owned by the BBC and Shine. No copyright infringement is intended and no profit is being made. Don't send us to the dungeons.
The air was filled with snow, hard, biting crystals that cut sharp and deep into his skin. The wind was howling, too, desperate sounds, almost as if there were wolves on the hunt or the hounds of Camelot were lusting after blood. Merlin had to suppress a shiver at the thought.
Pulling his threadbare jacket closer around his shoulders, he looked back into the chaotic whirl of ice and storm and hoped that his trail was obscured enough that even Arthur wouldn't be able to find him. Not that Merlin would resist if he did.
Arthur had already cut out Merlin's heart when Arthur found out about his magic, and if the rest of Merlin followed that pain into nothingness, would it really be so bad?
Cold steel, cold eyes, cold words.
In comparison to Arthur's reaction, the bitter gale was nothing, merely a shroud of white covering the land, a natural thing in winter, almost welcome because it sheltered as much as it killed. Unlike Arthur.
Ignoring the frozen tears on his face, Merlin choked back the sobs trying to escape his chest, refusing to let that final grief free. He still couldn't believe, even now, that Arthur had attacked him, had tried to cut his throat. It had been folly to ever think that Arthur could have accepted Merlin for what he was, that they could have been friends or maybe something more. And with last dregs of hope gone, Merlin stumbled further into the storm, seeking a way to escape his own stupidity.
He'd already stopped shivering. The effort to push through the drifts of snow was taking more and more of his energy and it was hopeless anyway.
He'd not planned to run from Arthur. He had, in fact, thought of nothing but running to him in the morning's celebrations. Midwinter festival and an exchange of gifts, final barriers broken and the promise of kisses shared. But he'd been late and chores weren't going to finish themselves and he'd been foolish, so foolish, to let down his guard.
When Arthur strode in and saw the reflection of gold in Merlin's eyes, he'd reacted with sword and sinew and cold, so cold that a snowstorm was summer-hot in comparison.
Merlin fled, his wound dripping blood where Arthur had cut him. There had been no time to warn Gaius, no time to gather the pack he'd always left in his room just in case he needed to escape. It wouldn't have mattered anyway. He'd long since forgotten to keep the pack ready, had let the trail provisions moulder, the wool on the bedroll beginning to unravel, because he was always Arthur's and his king would never hurt him. Or so he thought. He'd grown complacent and then comfortable and this was the result.
Freezing in the snowy air.
Finally, his mind whirling, his body numb with cold, Merlin didn't see the rock hidden under the snow and tripped headlong into the frozen snowbank. But by then, he was too far gone to care and it felt almost warm to lie there and let the snowflakes float down, down onto his face. They seemed as beautiful as falling stars, soft, perfect crystals dancing in the air, singing a quiet melody that Merlin couldn't quite make out but it soothed him.
When the dark finally came, Merlin sighed in relief and let it in.
It is said that the dead tell no tales but Merlin knew better.
He thought he'd never hear the shrieks of the Dorocha again, but they were back, surrounding him, plunging into his body and out again, turning him to ice. He was helpless against them and so he lay there, held down as they mocked him, shrieking out their triumph.
The rift between the worlds was open again and they had come for him and they would tear him apart when they were done, but first they'd take his magic and use it against Arthur. And as they dove in and out of his skin, laughing, screeching, their winter's touch agonizingly cold, he tried to cry out, but his throat was clogged with snow and he couldn't even scream.
Once the Dorocha had gone, other horrors appeared, skeletons and griffins bent on tearing him apart, a unicorn with its horn bloodied with Merlin's entrails, Questing Beasts and Afancs and so many monsters that he lost count.
But worse to come were the faces of those he'd killed, the innocent, the guilty, and all by his hand. He begged for their forgiveness but they merely added to his agony as they pulled at him, taunted him, blamed him. They rolled his body into an icy river, watched him struggle to climb back up and warm himself by a meagre fire, and then they pushed him in again.
When they'd finished playing with him, they buried him underneath the frozen snow, and no matter how much he struggled, the ghosts of those he'd murdered pressed down until it seemed he'd never breathe again.
After an infinity of cold, there was heat, the warmth of a summer's day. Smiling, he tried to turn but he couldn't move.
Arthur was there, in the courtyard, standing below the scaffold, staring up at Merlin. His mouth crabbed in distaste, Arthur nodded to someone behind Merlin, and suddenly Merlin was jerked back, ropes twisting around him, tightening until he couldn't move. Then there was the smell of smoke, and as he looked down again, he saw Arthur holding a torch, his eyes cold as a winter's storm.
And Merlin realised where he was, the timber piled high around him, not wet wood that would smoke and stun and kill with kindness, but dry firewood meant to burn agony into Merlin's flesh. Struggling, Merlin crying out in horror, begging for mercy, and for a moment, he thought Arthur might listen. But instead, Arthur shoved the fiery torch into the woodpile, and watched, a satisfied smile on his face, as Merlin screamed and screamed while the fire burned him alive.
When Merlin woke, it was to the sound of water, flowing over rough stone somewhere off in the distance, and closer, the muted crackle of a campfire. No howling wind, no trees creaking, or snow falling hushed upon his face. From the echoes, it would seem he was in a cave or perhaps a tumbled-down keep, sheltered, out of the storm.
Someone had covered him in a soft blanket, had tended to his wound. He could feel the bandages pulling and there were stitches there, too, deftly done. The smell of stew, cooked hours ago by the odour, still lingered in the air and the fresh scent of burning wood that should have soothed, but after the nightmares, only haunted him.
He might have been a coward – Arthur would have accused him of it a dozen times by now – but Merlin didn't want to open his eyes to see what new horrors awaited him. Besides, he felt weak as a girl's petticoat, and although hungry, the thought of sitting up and finding out where he was and who had given him the blanket was almost more than he could bear.
So he lay there a moment, trying to decide if he were still alive or merely in a hell of his own making.
There was another sputter of burning sap and wood shifting in the heat. But beyond that, there was the rhythmic sound of stone against steel, long and drawn out, shush, shush, shush, and it took a while before Merlin realised that whoever it was, be it bandit or rogue knight or one of Camelot's finest, they were sharpening their sword to cut, to defend, to destroy.
At that, Merlin froze, tried not to move, to make himself invisible. But it didn't work.
His body rebelling, Merlin coughed into the damp air, great shuddering gasps of it, and then he turned, his throat working to keep the bile from spilling all over the cave floor, trying to breathe.
Still fighting his weakened body, he didn't look up when a warm hand wiped away the spit, brushed his hair back, and settled the blanket around him again. He didn't want to see kindness in a stranger's eyes, but when a cup touched his lips, he opened his mouth and swallowed the contents down. The heated water was heavy with the bitter taste of herbs used to settle the stomach and reduce fever. Merlin lay back again, murmuring his thanks.
"What were you thinking? If I'd been a little slower or missed the trail, I might have never found you in the snow."
Merlin hadn't thought to hear that voice again, but he knew it was as inevitable as the sun rising in the east. Arthur would never have let him go.
Finally opening his eyes, Merlin saw Arthur frowning down at him. Gulping air, his throat still raw, Merlin said, "You should have let me die."
Arthur looked unhappy, his mouth twisting up with distaste or worry or whatever the hell he was thinking. Merlin didn't know anymore and he wasn't sure he'd ever known Arthur at all. "Merlin…."
Then it finally dawned on him. Arthur hadn't meant to rescue Merlin, had only tracked him down to bring him back for trial. Arthur always insisted on a trial, as only a fair and just king would – or so he said. But the outcome was always the same, death to magic users, and the law would have to be upheld, especially for someone working in the royal household.
"Arthur, I know you have to take me back." Merlin closed his eyes again, letting tears stain his cheeks, letting grief take him at last. "But please, when it's done and you have to… when you must execute me, Arthur, make it quick. Please."
"Merlin, don't talk such nonsense." Arthur's hands were grasping at Merlin's shoulders, shaking him a little. He sounded furious.
It would be fire then after all, not dying in the snow, or letting Merlin bleed to death from ax or sword. Arthur would have to set an example. A slow and agonizing death to the man who had betrayed Arthur for all those years.
Merlin was too exhausted to fight him. He said softly, half to himself, "I'm afraid of the pyre."
"Merlin, gods, no. Don't." There was a sharp breath, and Arthur's voice was fierce as he pulled Merlin into his arms. It would have been wonderful, the warmth of his embrace, the way his breath tickled Merlin's skin, the softness of Arthur's hair against his cheek, were it any place else. But Merlin knew it had to be a dream that even now taunted him with longing. "I'm not here to kill you, you idiot. I'm here to rescue you."
The words didn't make sense. After all, Arthur, his Arthur, had tried to cut his throat, had flung out cold words and colder actions at him. It had to be a trick somehow. But Arthur wasn't given to deceit.
Still, Merlin didn't pull away. Instead he tucked himself into Arthur's embrace and waited for the final thrust of the knife.
"Merlin, I'm sorry. I know I don't always react… well. And I thought… I thought you were… a monster. Wearing his face. To trick me." Arthur tucked his face into Merlin's shoulder, nosing the hollow there. There was a hitch in his voice as he said, "And that you had been imprisoned somehow, maybe even killed, and a sorcerer there pretending to be you."
"Not a monster." Merlin shook his head but didn't pull away, just sat there soaking in Arthur's warmth.
"I know that now," Arthur said. "It took quite a bit of persuasion, but Gaius told me the truth when I confronted him."
One hand wrapped around Merlin's arm as he drew back from their embrace, Arthur must have seen how exhausted Merlin was. Nodding toward the bedroll, Arthur pushed him back down, and then with surprising gentleness, tucked the soft blanket under Merlin's chin.
Arthur scowled a moment, then shook his head. "Trying to get the truth out of Gaius was difficult. I suppose living all those years under my father has made him cautious."
For a moment, there was nothing more to be said. Arthur seemed to be struggling with something and Merlin just gazed up at him, watching the firelight dance across Arthur's face, noting with faint relish that his blond hair was all askew and only made worse as Arthur ran his fingers through it over and over again, that his lip had been bitten red from worry. But more importantly, Arthur was avoiding Merlin's gaze, instead staring toward the cave entrance and frowning.
"You hurt me." Merlin hadn't meant to say anything.
They both knew it was true - sometimes they functioned better by avoiding the obvious, but it just seemed to spill out. He sounded pathetic, too.
But once said, it couldn't be unsaid.
Colouring slightly, Arthur looked down at his hands, scowling. "Yes." A long, long moment later, still not looking at Merlin, Arthur said, "Why couldn't you have trusted me? I thought we were… friends at least."
His idiot prat could be so oblivious at times, but the misery in Arthur's voice gentled Merlin's reply. "You'd have cut off my head had I told you. Almost did this time."
Arthur flinched at that, as if Merlin had struck a blow.
"You hurt me," Merlin said again, his voice stronger this time, unwavering. "But the truth is that underneath it all, I'd been expecting you to for some time now."
Arthur twisted around, stared down at Merlin in horror. "How can you say that?"
"I have magic, Arthur. And you made it quite clear how you felt about it." Merlin didn't want to fight with him. His escape from the castle had been traumatic enough, but he wasn't about to let Arthur get away with thinking he was the injured party when Merlin had lived in terror from the moment he entered Camelot.
"And how was I to know any differently when you kept secrets? When you lied to me every bloody day?" Arthur's affront would have been almost amusing if things hadn't been so dire.
"Because every bloody day could have been my last." Merlin hadn't meant to shout. His chest hurt from it and he was having trouble breathing again. It took several heartbeats before he was calm enough to say, "I've been afraid for a very long time."
Blinking in shock, Arthur looked devastated as he stared down at Merlin. He started to speak, then he must have thought better of it. Then a moment later, as he raked fingers through his hair again, he said, "And yet you stayed."
"I made a promise. To be your servant until the day I died." Letting out a long, ragged sigh, Merlin looked away, off into the cave's darkness. "I thought today would be that day."
"I had no idea." Arthur reached out, touched Merlin's shoulder, letting his hand rest there, warming Merlin.
Merlin reached up, covering Arthur's hand with his own. Giving Arthur a little smile, small enough to be tentative, but hopeful, as he tried to thaw the frozen waste between them, Merlin said, "I kept that part of me hidden. And most of the time, I liked being your servant. When you weren't being a total prat."
Arthur must have wanted to bridge the chasm, too. Sending Merlin a slight smile back, he nodded. "I promise things will be different. But there can be no more secrets, no more lies."
"I won't stop doing magic. Not even for you. Not anymore." Things could not remain as they had been. There was only forward.
To Merlin's surprise, Arthur nodded. "All right. But if it hurts my people in any way, I won't stand by and allow it, not even for you."
"I wouldn't expect any less of you." Merlin let his smile grow a little wider. "Besides, I've been protecting Camelot and you for years."
"You couldn't protect your own backside, never mind mine." Arthur shook his head. If Merlin didn't know better, he'd have sworn that Arthur rolled his eyes, too, but it had to be a trick of the firelight. "I bet you tripped over your own feet, didn't you? In the storm?"
"Ummm. Well, there was a rock." Merlin's face heated a little at that.
Arthur let out an inelegant snort, worthy of the knights of Camelot. "Oh, Merlin, never change." With one hand, he swiped his fingers across Merlin's head a couple of times, then smoothed down the ruffled hair, lingering a little too long to be quite accidental. "And now rest. Tomorrow we'll head back to Camelot. And I believe there is much mucking of stables in your future there."
Merlin did roll his eyes at that. "There are stable boys to take care of it, you arse." Then before Merlin could lose his nerve, as Arthur moved to stand, Merlin reached out, grabbing his hand, and turning it over, kissed the inside of Arthur's wrist. "Arthur, thank you."
Arthur's eyes darkened, and his gaze grew intense. His palm cupped Merlin's cheek and the heat there was more than any winter storm could withstand. "When we reach Camelot, we will talk of more than magic. And then…." Arthur leaned down and brushed his mouth across Merlin's, and then pulling back, he said, "I have my own secret to share."
With that, Arthur stood and walked away, muttering something about firewood and heat and dinner.
As Merlin lay back down, as he thought about tomorrow and all the other tomorrows to come, he remembered that midwinter had always been a time when darkness ruled. There were long nights and snowstorms and aching cold. But it was also the time of hope. For each day that followed was a little lighter, a little warmer, with the promise of new beginnings.
So it would be for them. Their winter of lies, of betrayal and fear, was melting away into spring.
And when Arthur looked back at him, mouth quirking upward in a smile, Merlin knew that it would be all right between them.
At long last.