It was too bright. The small ray of sunshine that peeked through the curtains that Gaius had specially gotten for him felt like it was drilling holes through his head. With a painful grunt, Merlin turned his head away to the other side, but even then, with his eyes firmly shut, he was still painfully aware of the small sliver of light.
"You lied to me!"
It was no use. Despite turning his head, and closing his eyes shut the sunlight still made him feel nauseous. A month in an oubliette could do that to a person after all.
"I didn't want to."
"Gaius," he croaked out. It came out more unintelligible, but thank the heavens, his mentor must have heard for the door immediately slammed open. Merlin cringed at the sound, a steady thrum resonating in his head, an effect of his door bouncing off the wall followed by the old man's incessant apologies as he rushed forward to check on his Ward.
"L-light…" he muttered. The very next second, it disappeared, and the room was plunged into a more tolerable darkness. Never too dark though, never again. But enough for Merlin to not be drawn into his nightmares.
Nonetheless, he couldn't help but jump when he felt a cool hand on his forehead. Even after recognizing it as Gaius', his pulse refused to slow down.
"Oh my boy," Gaius whispered mournfully as he took in the sight of the deep dark circles, the wide open, alarmed yet glassy eyes. The deathly pale skin stretched taut against bones.
"Guards! Take him away!"
"Gaius..." Merlin whispered before he fell asleep again, the Devils from his dreams jumping forward to embrace Merlin as he fell unconscious.
The knock on the door broke Arthur from his thoughts, and with a sigh, he massaged his eyes one last time before neatly crossing his hands on the table in front of him.
The door slowly swung open, and when Gaius slowly crept in, Arthur had to force down the feeling to immediately stand up. But even then, his breathing quickened as he prepared himself to hear of news on Merlin. To hear of the consequences of his actions.
"I don't want to ever see him again."
"You called for me sire," Gaius said in a monotone. His hands were dutifully crossed in front of him, and the stare he gave Arthur, if not a glare, was cool and collected.
"How-how is he?" Arthur faltered. The very thought of his friend made him grimace - but no, he couldn't be called a friend anymore, could he? Not after what Arthur had done.
"Put him in the oubliette."
"He is resting. Sire," he added as if as an afterthought. Arthur sighed.
"Has he woken yet?" He asked, hesitantly.
Gaius' steady stare didn't falter. "Only once, but he quickly fell asleep again."
"Of course," Arthur nodded, unsure of what else to say.
"Do you not hear his screams? Every night, Arthur! The whole castle shakes with his grief and you just sit here feasting on your dinner!"
Eventually, Gaius spoke. "By your leave sire," at Arthur's slow nod, Gaius promptly made his exit, not once looking back.
"He will never be the same again Arthur. Not after what you've done to him."
He blinked, his eyes adjusting. Even with the darkness that made others squint to see properly in the room, it still was uncomfortable to Merlin's eyes.
"Gwen?" The figure of his friend slowly came into view, and with a barely concealed wince, he turned his head to meet Gwen's gaze as she lowered herself into the chair by his bed.
"How are you?" He asked, his voice hoarse from the screams he let out again at his dreams. Gwen let out a sharp laugh, that sounded more like a sob than anything.
"I honestly think I'm the one who should ask you that Merlin," she said, tears glistening in her eyes. He gave a shaky smile.
"I'll be fine."
The dark smothered his eyes. Anywhere he tried to look, but only a blanket of black met his stare. It was so heavy, he fell to the floor, eyes clenched tight as he curled into a ball, trying and failing to not whimper.
He had been awake for a while now. Actually, he had barely slept. Unless he had been forced to consume one of Gaius' sleeping draughts, he forced himself to stay awake, too shaken to want to fall back into the clutches of his nightmares again.
A sound of cloth rustling caught his attention, and his breathing hitched.
"So you're awake."
That voice. He would never be able to forget that voice.
"You betrayed me."
"I-I wanted to apol-"
His dry voice surprised both of them, but Merlin didn't regret it.
"W-what?" He could almost hear the incredulity in the pra- the King's voice.
"I said don't," Merlin said. His eyes never strayed from that knot in the wood on the ceiling above.
Silence, and then, "You don't want me to apologize?"
Had he had the strength, he would have gotten up and yelled. Maybe his magic would have helped. But instead, with no energy left in him except to heal, he could only let the anger simmer within him, creeping out through his voice alone.
"You don't just throw me in the dungeons for a month, scar me for life, then let me out with a simple apology? It's not as simple as that, sire," the once light word used as a teasing gesture, now so insulting and mocking, yet from the same but not hardened tongue.
"I was born with magic," Merlin hissed. Even without seeing, he knew the man would have visibly flinched at the word. "I grew up believing myself to be some sort of monster, not allowed to let anyone know who I was in the fear of my life. And rightfully so, because when I, out of my own doings, go and tell someone in the belief of our friendship," he knew his words were hitting home, but he didn't care, didn't stop. A month in darkness does that to a person. "What does he do? He throws me into the deepest, darkest dungeons."
"I didn't have a choice."
With each word, his tone increased till he was just but shouting, leaving him to gasp heavily for air.
Silence filled the room again.
The door opened and closed, leaving Merlin all alone in his bed.
A single tear slipped out.
Days went by, and not a single day passed without Arthur coming up to see him. For a while he would just watch, while Merlin lay there in stony silence, and he would leave. But before he left, he always apologized, the one thing he would say, before leaving the room.
Gaius had deemed Merlin fit enough to sit properly after the first few days, and even then Merlin felt like his bones were going to collapse within him when he sat resting his back against the pillows. Nonetheless, it was better than staring at the ceiling.
He still didn't look at Arthur though.
"I wish I could have told you earlier."
Arthur knew patience was a virtue, especially if he was to get past the thick wall Merlin set up after this. But his was wearing thin. A fortnight had past, and Merlin could now eat by himself without his hands shaking too much, though he never ate in front of him. After the first, short outburst that left Merlin out breath, he hadn't uttered another word.
Arthur wondered if he had truly broken his friend beyond repair.
"Is there nothing I can do?" Arthur asked hopelessly one day. Across from him, Morgana only continued to give him her icy glare. Eventually though, it was Gwen who spoke, the smallest amount of pity she might have felt evidently enough.
"Why don't you try lifting the ban on magic?" She suggested. Immediately, Arthur turned towards her, his mouth open to give a retort but then he stopped, his mind working out that thought.
Slowly, he closed his mouth, a grim smile gracing his lips but both the women in the room didn't miss the hopeful look that lighted up in his eyes.
"He lifted the ban on magic."
His hand faltered, but didn't stop as he steadily raised the spoon to his mouth before gently putting it back into the bowl. After a few more sips, and he wearily set the bowl on his lap, unable to stomach any more.
"And you?" At Morgana's confused look, he went on. "Did you tell anyone about your magic?"
By anyone, they both knew he referred to Arthur.
But Morgana shook her head.
"I haven't spoken to him since."
"You're as worse as your father, Arthur Pendragon, try as you might to deny it. But you're like him in all flesh and bone; words, thoughts, and actions."
Merlin raised the bowl again, trying to at least get one more spoonful into himself. But the moment the broth touched his tongue, he had to fight off the gag that formed in his throat.
He put down the bowl again.
"That's it, steady now mate."
Merlin leaned heavily on Gwaine as he took another step, his weak knees threatening to buckle under his light weight of it weren't for the firm grip the rogue had on him.
He paused, taking a deep breath and letting it out, while Gwaine patiently waited. Across the room, pretending not to notice their progress, Gaius stood at his bench, fumbling with the same two vials for the past five minutes. He eventual gave up all pretense though and just resorted to staring worriedly at his Ward directly.
"I think that's enough for today Gwaine," Merlin said tiredly.
With a him of agreement, Gwaine immediately helped move him to the bench, or rather just take the majority of Merlin's weight into his arms while Merlin awkwardly let his feet drag under him before sitting down.
"Well, I've got to go off to training," everyone in the room could see the clear displeasure in the rogue's eyes, but they also knew he was mainly only going in the hopes of bashing up the king even more. Merlin stayed silent the whole time though.
"You know what? You're the biggest coward I've ever seen in my life Princess! A big, foolish coward!"
"You keep out of trouble mate!" Gwaine called out after a light clap to Merlin's shoulder as he exited the room. The moment he had left though, Merlin dropped his mask, letting only his mentor see the weariness and exhaustion gracing his features.
"Here my boy," Gaius held out a vial to Merlin, and the warlock recognized it as the one to help numb his pain. With a slight wince, he reached out and took it from his mentor's hand. He was just about to swallow its contents in one gulp when the door opened again.
"Gaius," Arthur strode into the room, firm resolve fixated on his face. "I would like to speak with Merlin. Alone," his tone held no space for argument, but even then Gaius stared at him coldly. However e eventually sighed, and with a quick grasp at Merlin's shoulder, he grabbed his medical satchel and left the room, muttering about his rounds as he closed the door behind him.
From his spot, Merlin didn't look up from the vial he held in his hands.
"I still feel betrayed you know."
For the first time, Merlin snapped his head up to meet Arthur's face incredulously. Shock and irritation was written on the warlock's face, but Arthur ignored it all as he continued talking.
"My best friend, the one whom I felt like I could trust with my own life, he felt like he couldn't trust me with his biggest secret?" Arthur exclaimed. But then he sighed, rubbing his hand across his weary face.
"Of course he wouldn't. Because he knew me better than myself, of my stupid ways," Arthur muttered as he shook his head. This time, Merlin noticed that it was Arthur who wasn't meeting his gaze.
The thought made him look back down at the vial.
"Not a day goes by, you know. That I feel like it should have been me in the dungeons. I wash stupid... Prat. And I don't think anything can fix that."
Merlin absently rubbed the rim of the vial.
"I'm not going to stand here, justifying myself for my actions, because what I did was outright wrong. And nothing… nothing can right that.
"But still... All I ask," Arthur walked forward, and the sudden motion made Merlin look up and meet his eyes. What he saw, surprised him as he looked into genuine remorse and pain.
"Can I have one more chance Merlin?" It was a mere whisper, as Arthur crouched down onto one knee, the action making him look up into Merlin's eyes.
"Give me another chance Arthur, please!"
He couldn't take it. He looked away.
He heard a choked gasp, and after a long while, the floorboards creaked as Arthur got up. An eternity seemed to pass as he walked to the door, his shoulders sagging down as if the weight of the world had dropped down on to him. His hand rested on the doorknob, as if he expected to be called back, but when no sound came, Arthur exited the room, fighting the tears until he entered the privacy of his own chambers.
Merlin tilted back his head and swallowed the liquid from the vial in one gulp.
Arthur stared out his window into the courtyard, the lower town just about visible. The people seemed happy, oblivious to the turmoil happening within the inner castle walls. Despite the first distrust that occurred when the King first lifted the ban on magic, it soon changed as sorcerers trickled into Camelot, and the whole lower town changed to a brighter place as magic filled the alleyways, making children and adults laugh alike delightfully.
He barely heard the door opening quietly behind him, but ignored it, brushing it off as one of the servants perhaps that came to clean his room by default, even though he hadn't assigned anyone in particular.
"How long are you just going to stand there moping?"
It wasn't with the same usual cheeriness that had always accompanied his voice, but it was his voice nonetheless, and directed at Arthur.
Arthur could barely contain the hope, his eyes widening and his breath hitching, but he didn't turn around, too scared that should he, he would only find a servant going around his room and that his mind really was going crazy.
It was enough of a prompting.
With a shaky breath, Arthur turned around. There, after another fortnight of not seeing him, his manservant - no, ex-manservant, but friend - stood.
"Merlin," he breathed out.
"That's what they call me," his tone, his smile, everything was so light, that one could have mistaken it for his usual cheeriness. But Arthur knew better, seeing the guarded expression in Merlin's eyes.
Nonetheless, his heart soared when he took in the fact that Merlin stood there in his chambers. Merlin!
"Ends up you're very persuasive when you want to be," Merlin mumbled in means of an explanation, as he picked at a stray thread in his sleeve.
Not really thinking, Arthur rushed forward, not paying attention to Merlin's sudden shock and stiffening as he saw Arthur coming forward, and he remained frozen, though now in shock when he felt the King envelope him into a hug.
"Merlin, you idiot!" There was no teasing, no goading. Only genuine fondness on his tone, and to Merlin's surprise he could feel his neck start to get wet from Arthur's tears. Hesitantly, he loosened his muscles to let himself draw his arms around Arthur as well, and it was only a moment before he melted into his friend - no, brother's embrace.
"I'm so sorry," Arthur whispered, the tears making his voice thicken.
Merlin blinked, before a smile stretched his lips.
"I know, you prat. I know."