Title: monsters or miracles
Pairing/s: Merlin/Arthur (implied)
Character/s: Merlin, Arthur
Summary: Canon AU. What he doesn’t say, but Merlin hears anyway, is: you’re a monster, Merlin. And, I won’t let you hurt anyone else the way you hurt me.
Warnings: Involves self-harm and self-destructive tendencies, semi-abusive behaviour (though with good intentions), and basically me being a dick to Merlin, poor baby.
Word Count: 985 words.
Prompt: #220 insecurity. Also inspired by this KMM post.
Author's Notes: This, uh, got kind of darker than I intended. Oops.
“In all known time, there has never been a greater monster or miracle than the human being.”
— Bryant H. McGill
When Arthur finds out, he doesn’t react the way Merlin expects him to. There are no recriminations. There is no blame. Instead, he seizes Merlin’s wrist and holds on tightly. “You can conquer this,” he says. “I’ll help you. I won’t let it corrupt you, Merlin.”
What he doesn’t say, but Merlin hears anyway, is: you’re a monster, Merlin. And, I won’t let you hurt anyone else the way you hurt me.
Which, Merlin thinks, is fair enough. If he were Arthur, he wouldn’t forgive him either.
Arthur says, “Fasting helps to purify the blood and balance the humours. I want you to try it for a week. No food, just bone broth and water.”
“Yes, sire,” Merlin says, looking at Arthur’s breakfast longingly.
Three days later, clearly tired of this enforced moderation, his magic produces sixteen perfectly-baked apple tarts, Merlin’s personal favourite, and sets the entire stable block on fire.
“Obviously, fasting didn’t work,” Arthur says. There are burns up his left arm; the right one is still in its sling, which is singed around the edges. He looks tired and there are smudges of soot beneath his eyes. “You’re even less subtle than usual when you’re hungry.”
“Yes, sire. Sorry, sire.” Merlin looks at his feet. The knowledge that he’d come so close to injuring Arthur a second time makes him feel sick.
“Merlin.” Arthur touches his chin, forcing him to look up and meet that steely, bright-blue gaze. “We’re going to beat this. I promise.”
Cold iron doesn’t work either. The restraints only last a day before Merlin wakes to find they have melted off his wrists and are lying warped and twisted on the wooden floor by his bed. Merlin stares at them for several long minutes, horror pulsing through his veins. What kind of creature is he, to be able to do something like this in his sleep? When Arthur claps his shoulder and tells him to buck up, they’ll figure out how to fix him eventually, Merlin flinches away from him in alarm, and when he undresses Arthur for his bath later that night he does his best not to touch the prince’s skin as he works. His hands are the most dangerous part of his body. He has killed with those hands.
Being bled makes Merlin feel woozy and weak, but has no discernible effect on his ability to perform magic. Burning incense only makes him cough, and a potion brewed from Gaius’ strongest herbs while the old man is away on a house call stays down only long enough for Merlin to register its foul taste before he vomits it all back up again, along with everything else he has eaten that day. His magic clears away the mess almost instantly, and Arthur sighs.
“Have you ever tried simply not doing magic?” he asks in exasperation.
Merlin stares miserably at the ground, his shoulders hunched. “I can’t seem to help it, sire,” he admits.
Arthur watches him all the time, now. After the debacle with the amulet, he suggests that maybe they should take some time to think, to regroup. Merlin wonders if he’s considering the appropriate form of execution. Sorcerers are usually burned, he knows, but burning is a cruel death, and in spite of everything he’s done he doesn’t think Arthur wants to punish him. He wonders whether drowning would even kill him. He wonders if he’ll feel it when they cut off his head.
He tries not to do magic very often, but sometimes the power just slips out, darting away from him like a restless horse in need of exercise. He mends the broken hinge on Arthur’s door with a touch. He un-shatters Gaius’ glasses. When Gwen trips on her way down the servants’ staircase, Merlin slows time without thinking so that he can catch her before she does any serious damage. Merlin admits all of this to Arthur when he asks about it, because Arthur already knows about the magic and can hardly hate him more than he already does. The prince looks at him for a long time and says finally, “Only you, Merlin.” And, “Perhaps we’ve been going about this the wrong way, after all.”
The next morning, Arthur shoves and pinches and bullies him awake just before dawn and drags him out onto the practice field. Merlin thinks about running, but decides it’s probably not worth the effort.
“Is this the part where you hack me to death with a practice sword?” he asks. “Because honestly, I think I’d prefer the axe, if it’s all the same to you.”
“I’m not going to kill you, Merlin,” Arthur retorts, his eyes blazing with determination. “I’m going to train you.”
Which, all things considered, is probably worse.
Training hurts. But it gets better. The outbursts are more infrequent now, and his magic is quieter, less a restless stallion than a satisfied domestic cat. It still doesn’t obey him all the time, but he can feel it trying, and it helps to know that he’s no longer so much of a threat. The first time Arthur says “Well done, Merlin,” he tosses it over his shoulder like it’s a stupid, inconsequential thing, and maybe it is, but something between them lightens anyway, and Merlin begins to breathe again, little by little.
The second time he says it, Arthur’s hand slides up Merlin’s shoulder and the pad of his thumb runs across the nape of his neck. Sweat drips down Merlin’s spine, and he shivers.
The third time, Merlin is still bent double with exhaustion, his whole body wrung limp and trembling with the effort of knitting bone and sinew and blood back into a living thing, and Arthur doesn’t have to say anything at all; because he breathes, and moves, and opens his eyes, and smiles, and just for that Merlin would lay the whole world at his feet.