Title: a sudden sunlit hour
Character/s: Merlin, Arthur, OMC
Summary: Arthur knows. Merlin knows that he knows. It makes some things more difficult, but other things aren't difficult at all.
Warnings: Minor character death (off-screen).
Word Count: 884 words
Prompt: #221 decision.
Author's Notes: This didn't turn out anything like what I was intending. Oh well. Title comes from Into the Hour by Elizabeth Jennings.
Arthur returns to his chambers in silence. Merlin is waiting for him as usual, standing beside a bath which Arthur carefully does not notice is still steaming in spite of the chill winter air. By rights, it should be stone cold — Arthur had been delayed by the council for some time, had been expected back in his chambers hours ago. Merlin’s hands are trembling as he helps Arthur remove his cloak, and for a moment the king wants to catch hold of him, to shake him by the shoulders and shout that he would like to see Merlin do any better, and what else could he have done? The law is the law is the law, and the law in such circumstances is painfully clear.
Instead, he says nothing. Once naked, the cold pulling his nipples taut, pebbling his skin, he steps into the overheated bath and sinks down until the water covers his body. The tub is a foot or so too small, despite being the largest in the kingdom; he has to bend his knees in order to fit, and sits there curled in on himself, trying not to think, trying not to feel, while the steam from the water rises around him and refuses to grow cold.
The man had been a traitor, that much had never been in doubt. The fact that he had been using magic to do it had been almost irrelevant, since feeding information to the enemy was still treachery whether it were done by magical means or mundane, but it was enough to condemn him to the pyre instead of the headman’s axe. Arthur is not so used to betrayal that he can find it in him to be indifferent to any of the forms of perfidy committed against his person, yet he finds that this, the depressing banality of it, is what weighs him down the most. That, and the fact that every time he closes his eyes, all he can see is Merlin’s face when he’d pronounced the young man’s sentence.
A hand brushes his back, and Arthur starts, splashing a little, but then there are long fingers splayed against the base of his neck and the king goes still, knowing Merlin’s touch without turning. “Let me,” Merlin says. “Arthur, let me— “
Arthur bows his head further forward, clasping his arms around his knees. Merlin picks up some kind of cloth and after a hesitant moment soaks it and begins to scrub in slow circles down Arthur’s back. They don’t do this, usually. Arthur is not shy when it comes to his body but with Merlin he has come to realise that discretion is probably the better part of valour. Nevertheless, there are moments, when Merlin asks, and Arthur allows it, that Merlin is permitted to touch him, massaging a slow warmth back into his muscles when it seems that no other source is up to the task.
The fire beside him flares, then dims. Arthur stretches and sinks beneath Merlin’s hands, bracing his arms on the sides of the bath to keep himself from reaching out in a way that he’d regret, come morning. Sometimes, he wonders whether Merlin is aware that he has given himself away a hundred times over since the day he’d come to Camelot, a thousand times over since the day he entered Arthur’s service. He’s so careless that sometimes it makes Arthur unbearably angry, because Camelot is not kind to foolish men or to sorcerers, and Merlin is both at once and therefore doubly endangered. But to acknowledge Merlin’s magic is to acknowledge Merlin, and Arthur isn’t sure he is ready for the consequences that such an act will surely bring. Not yet. Maybe not ever.
“Do you know if he had any family?” Arthur asks, when Merlin has stopped scrubbing and is just leaning there, warm breath on Arthur’s shoulder, one finger tracing the ridge of Arthur’s spine in a gesture that makes him shiver. “There was a woman, in the crowd…”
“A wife and two small children,” Merlin says, without inflection. “The villagers will see to them, sire. It is…how things are done. The people look after their own.”
That they shouldn’t have to is unspoken but obvious between them, and Arthur shifts in place; straightens. Merlin’s hand drops away from his back.
“Did you know him?”
“Only to speak to.” His voice is wary, guarded. He goes to fetch Arthur’s towel and turns his back to the king when he says, “He was a nice man.”
A nice man. Arthur wonders if all traitors are nice men; men with clumsy smiles and too-big ears, inevitably beloved by someone against all reason and good sense. He gets out of the bath. Merlin dries each limb with fastidious care and doesn’t quite look him in the face as he does it, which is how Arthur figures out that he knows. He knows, and he’s still here.
“You really are an idiot, you know,” Arthur tells him. Merlin looks up, startled, and then Arthur yanks him to his feet and kisses him unceremoniously, and he thinks to himself that there are still some right choices left to him, if he has the courage to make them. There are still some things left that he can change.