Title: The Wizard
Character/s: Merlin, Arthur
Summary: The campfire was burning low, but there was still enough light for him to see the way Merlin’s shoulders hunched at the sound of his name, and without warning Arthur felt the anger inside him break, as clean and damning as a twig in the deep woods. “I think we need to talk.” [Epilogue to The Washerwoman]
Word Count: 1000w
Prompt: #287 Campfire
Author's Notes: This didn't turn out exactly the way I wanted, but oh well.
It wasn’t until they were bedding down for the night that Arthur began to think in terms of practicalities. The knights had been increasingly edgy all day, their hands straying to their swords more often than not, and it didn’t matter that Merlin had been quiet since they set out, his head down and his hands held limply at his sides – they were all too aware of what he was capable of.
“Tristram, you’ll keep first watch,” Arthur said, and began arranging the camp to his satisfaction. The knights he placed in a half-circle, evenly spaced; Merlin’s bedroll was dragged between his own and the fire.
“Are you sure that’s wise, sire?” Gaheris asked, giving the blankets a doubtful look, but he subsided when Arthur sent him a flat-eyed stare that said more than any reprimand. Merlin, perhaps recognising obedience as the better part of valour, went where he was bid without complaint, seeming not to notice that he was hemmed in on all sides by well-trained men with swords.
Not that they could do much damage anyway.
For all of Arthur’s caution, Merlin didn’t seem to have any plans to run. He lay curled at the prince’s side, his legs drawn up so tightly that their bodies barely touched, and were it not for the tension in his spine Arthur would almost have believed he was asleep. The urge to reach out and touch him was almost as powerful as the urge to throttle him, and he clenched his fists to keep from doing either. There were too many questions between them for short-cuts: either they would have it out, or it would be over, but either way things could never go back to the way they were.
“Merlin,” he said, when the others’ voices had died down and only the sounds of the forest remained. The campfire was burning low, but there was still enough light for him to see the way Merlin’s shoulders hunched at the sound of his name, and without warning Arthur felt the anger inside him break, as clean and damning as a twig in the deep woods. “I think we need to talk.”
There was a faint snort, and Merlin shifted. “I think the time for talking is over, don’t you?”
“You owe me an explanation.”
Merlin let out a laugh that was closer to a sob. “You know as much as I do,” he said. “He stabbed me, I died, I came back to life. What else is there?”
“Then– you do have magic?”
“Yes.” He let out a quiet breath and relaxed a little, as if admitting it out loud was a relief. “But I swear, I’ve only ever used it for you.”
There was a long silence, during which Arthur remembered a lot of puzzling things that all of a sudden made sense. He also remembered of the fear in Merlin’s eyes when he’d stepped in front of the blade; the way the pyre reeked for days; the solid thud of an axe meeting flesh.
It was second nature, somehow, to move closer; he settled a hand on Merlin’s hip, and when that didn’t feel like enough tugged him closer still, pressing his forehead against Merlin’s back.
“How many times— ?”
“Enough,” Merlin admitted. “Enough that I’m surprised I haven’t died before now, actually.” His voice lowered, sounding sheepish. “There were a couple of close calls.”
Arthur sighed. That told him more than he wanted to know, really, and it certainly made his next step glaringly obvious. “I don’t suppose you’d leave, if I told you to.”
“Not even just until I'm king?”
For a moment, Merlin hesitated, but then he shook his head. “It’s my job to protect you, Arthur. I can’t just leave. There are— ” He took a breath. “There are things you don’t know, things a sword can’t protect you from.”
Like you, Arthur thought, but he didn’t say it. “My father won’t be happy about it," he warned. "There may be…consequences.”
Just because Merlin couldn’t be killed by steel, didn’t mean he was immune to fire, or plague, or beheadings. It didn’t mean there weren’t a thousand other ways Uther could punish him for what he had done, for what he was.
“I can take care of myself.”
“You can’t take care of me, let alone yourself,” Arthur corrected. Then, when Merlin made to protest, he blurted, “I don’t want to watch him to hurt you.”
It was easier to say such things into the back of Merlin’s neck than to his face, to let his mouth brush against Merlin’s nape and pretend it was an accident than to know Merlin’s answering shudder for what it was.
“Arthur,” Merlin whispered, tangling a hand with one of Arthur’s own. “I did want to tell you about the magic,” he said. “So many times. I just…I was afraid you would be angry.”
“I am angry, Merlin. I’m completely furious.” But somehow, it didn’t seem to matter anymore. “I am also…grateful.”
Merlin let out a faint sound, and Arthur’s hand tightened on his. It suddenly felt dangerous to be so close, but not for the reasons he had expected.
“I couldn’t lose you,” Merlin admitted, his voice soft. He sucked in a sudden breath, as if he’d just remembered something else, and half turned towards Arthur, craning his neck to see his face. “There’s something you should know,” he said. “Before the ambush, when I went down to the stream— ”
“We’ll sort it out in the morning,” Arthur said firmly, deciding for once that any further revelations or catastrophes could wait until he’d had some decent sleep. He leaned down to nose at Merlin’s shoulder, feeling the steady dub-dub, dub-dub of his – magical, traitorous, inexplicably beating – heart. “Together. Now go to sleep.”
Merlin muttered something unintelligible about prats and arses, until Arthur pinched him for his insolence, but for the first time since Arthur had known him, he did as he was told.