Title: and you've had your fill of sinking
Character/s: Merlin, Arthur, Uther
Summary: To the best of Merlin's knowledge, King Uther had never struck his son, but then, he had never needed to — Arthur had always taken his father's disappointment as grounds for thorough self-flagellation, and he did a far better job of excoriating himself than the king could ever do.
Warnings: Discussion of off-screen violence. Heavy parental judgment. Angst and emotional hurt/comfort.
Word Count: 1000 words.
Prompt: #245 Enough.
Author's Notes: Title from All American Rejects' Moving On.
The search party did not return until just before dawn, early enough that most of the castle was still abed. Merlin was dozing in Arthur's chambers when they arrived, curled up in a chair by the fire to wait for news, but he woke when Arthur came in, startling out of sleep as a familiar hand came to rest on his head and stroked briefly over his hair.
“Are you calling off the search, then?” he asked, rubbing his eyes and yawning as he tried to shake the feeling back into his legs. “Is it over?”
Arthur shook his head.
“My father,” he started, before cutting himself off. “The king has ordered us to ride out again in an hour. He wasn't best pleased when I told him we had lost the trail.”
That much hardly bore repeating; Merlin could trace the weight of Uther's disapproval in the set of Arthur's jaw and the tension of his shoulders, the steely blankness of his face as he turned to peel off his sweat-soaked tunic. To the best of Merlin's knowledge, King Uther had never struck his son, but then, he had never needed to — Arthur had always taken his father's disappointment as grounds for thorough self-flagellation, and he did a far better job of excoriating himself than the king could ever do.
“I’m sure he knows you tried your best," Merlin said. He got up to hand Arthur a fresh shirt, trying to sound confident. King Uther was not known for his reasonableness or his tolerance of failure, especially where magic was concerned. “It’s not your fault if your quarry doesn’t want to be found.”
“They killed two of the Royal Guards,” Arthur said, his voice grim and briefly muffled by the cloth. “Of course they don't want to be found. That’s why we have to act fast, before they disappear for good.”
Those were King Uther’s words, or close enough. Arthur himself had begun pacing back and forth, his fingers flexing at his sides as if in silent argument with someone Merlin could neither see nor hear, although he could guess a little at the content. The deaths had been in self-defence, and the sorcerers — such as they were — were little more than children.
“Arthur,” Merlin murmured. He caught the prince’s arm as he strode past and tugged, using Arthur’s momentum to pull him around until they were face to face. “Enough. You’re not responsible for his mistakes, you know.”
Arthur took a shuddering breath, and let his head drop so that it was resting on Merlin’s shoulder, heavy as a lead weight but twice as precious. It was a concession of sorts, and Merlin threaded his fingers through the soft hair at Arthur's nape, his heart aching as the prince let out a tired sigh.
“Eat something,” Merlin said, coaxing. “Sit down, relax. You'll feel better.”
“I don’t have time to relax,” Arthur grumbled, but he allowed himself to be manoeuvred back onto the bed, and did not protest when Merlin filled a plate for him and set it on his lap. He picked at the bread and cheese without seeming to taste it. “My father thinks they must have headed towards Essetir, perhaps to join up with whoever sent them. We’re not to rest until we track down their camp.”
He lifted a bleak face to meet Merlin's eyes, and Merlin swallowed hard. “And when you find it?”
“You know my father.” Arthur's mouth twisted. “We can't let them escape.”
“I see.” Grimly, Merlin turned and began to pack the rest of Arthur's supper into a travel bag, adding enough for himself as well. Quite apart from anything else, he couldn't just sit back and allow Arthur to ride blindly into what could well be some kind of trap; nor could he sit back and watch the potential slaughter of innocents. “And you couldn’t talk him out of it?”
“What do you think I’ve been trying to do these past three days?” Arthur demanded. “It’s bad enough that they killed those men; the fact that they did it using magic is something he will not abide.”
“I was only asking,” Merlin said, and Arthur subsided, letting out another sigh that sounded something like an apology. He watched the movement of Merlin’s hands for a long moment, his eyes following them back and forth as Merlin folded up a second cloak before it apparently occurred to him that their actions had a purpose. He frowned.
“What are you doing?"
"I'm getting your things together," Merlin said, since that much was obvious. “And then I’m coming with you.”
“What?” Merlin stared at him. “But you just said — "
“You are not getting involved in this. The last thing I need is for my father to catch you using magic and decide to have you executed too.”
Merlin softened, stepping closer to the prince and putting his hands on his shoulders. “I can take care of myself.”
“You always say that," Arthur said. "But I’ve yet to see any evidence that it is actually true.”
Merlin kissed him, letting the slide of his tongue over Arthur's lips say what he could not, and Arthur’s hands bracketed his hips, fingers brushing bare skin where Merlin’s tunic had ridden up against his back. The empty platter slid off Arthur's lap and onto the floor.
“Please,” he said softly, when Merlin pulled back. “I can’t — don’t make me choose between you. Not yet.”
Merlin cupped his cheeks and studied him. His eyes were dark, though whether from sadness or a preemptive shame Merlin couldn't tell. “You won’t have to,” he said. “We’ll think of something, I promise.”
The prince sucked in a breath, and Merlin half thought he was going to protest, but instead he just let it out again slowly, something resolute entering his expression as he straightened his back and nodded. The warmth of his trust settled onto Merlin’s shoulders like a mantle. He could only hope it would be enough.