Title: A Minor Detour, Part 12
Character/s: Merlin, Arthur
Summary: That was the feeling he’d seen in Arthur’s features, which was why all half-dozen of the opening gambits he’d practiced for this conversation flew out of his head and instead, he found himself blurting out, “You can still go back.”
Word Count: 1,000
Prompt: #245: Enough
Author's Notes: Part 1 | ... | 10 | 11 || All Parts on AO3
Merlin stumbled in the doorway, caught by the faraway look he saw reflected in the thick panes of the airlock window. It was gone in a blink, Arthur’s expression schooling itself into neutrality as he turned.
“Merlin.” Arthur’s voice was soft, but it carried over the space between them that felt as vast as the empty distance between Ealdor and wherever the void they were now.
Not that Merlin didn’t know where they were. Most of the time he couldn’t stop knowing where he was in the galaxy, though he’d been temporarily disoriented when locked in Gwaine’s hold without even a window to track their course, then again in the Albion’s cells. But once they’d reached the shuttles and Merlin had been able to stand at a console and look out across the expanse of distant lights, he’d recovered his place in the void and tracked it ever since. It was just an awareness he had, like a glittering overlay in his perception of the universe.
As long as he knew where he was, he was also capable of calculating exactly how far he was from his home without much thought; it was why he generally tried not to think about it. He didn’t miss Ealdor, not really—there was nothing left for him there—but the sense of distance made him feel small and vulnerable in a way that he never did when just contemplating the reality of being a breakable collection of parts floating through an infinite vacuum with only some fallible human engineering to stop the chaos flooding in.
That was the feeling he’d seen in Arthur’s features, which was why all half-dozen of the opening gambits he’d practiced for this conversation flew out of his head and instead, he found himself blurting out, “You can still go back.”
It clearly wasn’t what Arthur expected to hear any more than it was what Merlin expected to say. “I can... What? Merlin, what are you talking about?”
“You and the rest of the guys. Drop me and Gwaine somewhere and take the shuttles back. Your—the admiral will be livid, but if you tell them the two of us, I don’t know, forced you or blackmailed you or something. He’ll have to be reasonable, it’s not like he’ll discharge you or throw you on some prison colony like he was planning to do with me.”
Arthur took an angry stride towards him but then stopped himself, fist clenching and head turning away. “He was going to send you to the Gauntlet,” he told the wall.
“Oh smeg.” Merlin’s voice came out small; that was a hell of a lot worse than even he’d been expecting. But he put on a brave face and said, “But still, I mean, that’s me. He’s always hated me, you know he’d be more than willing to call the whole thing my fault and let it go at that.”
“Not this time,” Arthur said, still not looking at him. “Even if I wanted to go back, if I were willing to lay all the blame on you, which I’m not and it’s all very clearly my fault... Haven’t you ever wondered why my father dislikes you so much?”
Merlin shrugged. Of course he had. He’d had entire weeks in quarantine to ponder the question, not to mention countless hours of punishment details scrubbing areas of the ship that even cleaning bots didn’t bother with. But he’d never been able to come to a satisfactory conclusion, and in the end it didn’t really matter. It was what it was, and what it was was Admiral Uther Pendragon having it out for him.
“I figured it was just my winning personality,” he said rather than get into any of that.
It earned a startled laugh from Arthur, and his eyes back on Merlin’s, though the bright blue of them was still weighed down with guilt. “That’s more accurate than you might think. He thinks you’re a distraction, that my association with you is stopping me from reaching my full potential.”
“He’s—Well, he’s not exactly wrong, is he?” Arthur looked about ready to protest, so Merlin plunged onward. “There was that thing on Gawant Homeworld, and the time I melted your promotion exam. The three times.”
“Not because of that. He thinks I’m smitten, Merlin. With you.”
“Oh,” Merlin repeated, feeling dizzily breakable the way he did when forced to fathom the unfathomable interstellar distance to his birthplace.
They looked at each other for a long stretch of silence; Merlin had to lick his lips and swallow before he could make any more words come out, and he saw Arthur following the movement then catching himself.
“Is he... Is he wrong about that?”
Arthur’s whole body slumped and his face crumpled. It wasn’t exactly the reaction Merlin had been hoping for, especially because he’d been pretty sure, after the moment they’d shared in his cell, that he knew the answer.
“Can we postpone this discussion?” Arthur asked quietly. “There’s been a lot going on and I think... I just think we should take a bit of time, figure out what we’re going to do with everyone first.”
Merlin nearly broke at how tired Arthur sounded. He’d done that, selfishly trying to place this thing between them in front of all the other issues burdening Arthur’s mind. Even as an outlaw, on the run from Camelot’s regulations and his father’s expectations, Arthur was first and foremost a leader. The Knights would look to him for what to do next, and he took that responsibility to heart. He’d made incredible sacrifices for Merlin already, and needing to hear him say why was childish insecurity on Merlin’s part.
They had each other already. Hadn’t Arthur just proved that nothing in the void, not even the things he valued most, could keep them apart? Arthur cared for him, and if it turned out it wasn’t quite the kind of caring Merlin hoped for, it was still more than enough.