Okay, I wrote this last night with pencil. I am not kidding. I utterly despise writing anything by hand, but managed to punch this out by working solidly from around one till four in the morning. I really have to stop doing that. So as a result of the early morning insanity, I really don't think it's all that good, but would be glad to hear your thoughts anyway! Hint hint.
They were hunting.
Or more accurately; Arthur was hunting, and Merlin was carrying the bags and messing up the hunt, as usual.
Honestly, he thought in exasperation as Arthur finished yelling at him for scaring away the game, you would have through he'd have learned by now not to bother taking him hunting. Perhaps he (foolishly) believed that Merlin would improve with experience. Why he bothered at all was beyond Merlin.
So the eyerolling from the dark-haired manservant was at a maximum as he traipsed wearily after Arthur as the Prince followed seemingly invisible tracks along the forest floor.
Merlin was wandering along in his usual aimless way, looking up at a magpie in the branches of the trees above him. It seemed to be following him, hopping and flapping from after him branch to branch, and he frowned as the old country rhyme his mother used to mutter sprung to mind – one for sorrow…
His train of thoughts was interrupted as he bumped heavily into Arthur, who had stopped suddenly on the edge of a clearing. Merlin stumbled back and winced in anticipation of a clout round the head,
When it never came, he opened one eye hesitantly. Arthur hadn't moved. Merlin opened both eyes in shock – was he hurt in some way? – then saw what the Prince was so fixated upon.
There in the centre of the clearing, was a baby bear. And Arthur was slowly raising his crossbow. Merlin gasped and stepped forward without thinking, laying a hand on the weapon and pushing it down.
Arthur turned to him furiously. "Merlin! What the hell do you think you're doing?"
"It's a baby –" Merlin started earnestly.
Arthur punched his shoulder. "You girl, Merlin!" He shook his head in scorn and pushed Merlin away, raising his crossbow again and moving into the clearing in his hunter's creep.
Merlin darted forward. "It's a baby bear!" He whispered harshly. "You idiot! Its mother will be close by –"
"Shut up, Merlin." Arthur rolled his eyes and pushed Merlin away again. "Go back and wait – I don't want you messing this one up." He started forward again, silent and stealthy. The cub didn't have a prayer.
But that was what mothers were for.
Merlin dithered – mother bears were ferocious creatures at best, but when their young were threatened they were enraged and unstoppable. Arthur's crossbow would be completely useless.
He watched helplessly as Arthur knelt behind a clump of ferns and took aim. Then he saw the shadow looming up in the trees behind the cub. It reared up tall and Merlin's eyes widened in horror. "Arthur, look out!"
An arrow shot past the cub as Arthur, distracted by Merlin's yell, missed. The cub squeaked and fell backwards, and the leaves on the trees trembled as the mother bear roared with fury and charged out of her cover, straight towards Arthur.
Merlin's eyes flashed gold and the world slowed down. Not slow enough! Merlin acted without thinking – have to save Arthur – and his hand flew out. "Esjek!"
The magic exploded from his outstretched fingers and rushed towards Arthur, forming a protective dome over him even as the mother bear raised her whole top half and brought it hurtling down…only to crash onto the shield rather than Arthur, who was crouched on the ground, arms up defensively, as if it would have offered any protection.
After a second, he realised that he'd been crouched for too long, and looked up. The mother bear roared with frustration, smashing the barrier with her front paws.
Arthur's eyes widened and his jaw dropped. He spun around, searching for the source of the shield. When he saw Merlin, hand thrust forward, sweat shining on his forehead with the effort of keeping the bear from obliterating him, he gaped in shock, his mind denying what his eyes confirmed – Merlin was a sorcerer.
The bear slammed herself down on the barrier one last time, and Merlin fell to his knees. But the angry mother just bellowed her groaning roar at Arthur, who continued to stare at Merlin. Giving up, she turned away and lumbered away into the forest, roaring at the trees as her cub scampered from hiding to join her.
Merlin let the shield fade and fell forward onto his hands, breathing heavily. He looked up as Arthur walked over to stand in front of him. "See?" He gasped. "I told you the mother would be close."
Arthur's voice, when he spoke, was low and unreadable. "Merlin…"
"But did you listen?" Merlin struggled to his feet, desperately trying to diffuse the tense situation. "Of course not."
"You never listen!" Merlin gabbled, not meeting Arthur's eyes.
Merlin gulped and fell silent, his eyes on his boots.
"Look at me."
Merlin raised his gaze and looked at a bush to his right, shifting uncomfortably. "Arthur…"
"LOOK AT ME!"
Slowly, Merlin obeyed.
Arthur's face was unreadable, a hard mask, but his eyes were a roiling tumult of emotion, almost painful to look at. "You used magic." It was not a question, and the Prince's voice was hard. Merlin began to sweat – he recognised the tone as the one Arthur used on criminals he was interrogating.
"Yes." He lowered his gaze and swallowed nervously.
"Why?" Arthur hissed.
"To save your life." Merlin looked up in surprise. Surely that had been obvious?
Arthur dropped his gaze and looked away. "Merlin, sorcery is a crime punishable by death." His voice was cold. "You knew this."
Past tense. Not good. Merlin started forward. "Arthur…"
"Don't touch me!" Arthur spat, jerking away from Merlin's outstretched hand. Merlin pulled it back like he'd been stung.
"Arthur –" He began desperately.
"No." The Prince held up a hand and glared at the forest floor. "No. You knew this." He looked up at Merlin, hatred blazing in his eyes. "Magic is evil!"
Merlin jerked and stared at him in shock and hurt. "Arthur –"
"No!" Arthur shouted, and Merlin flinched. "How could you? I thought you were my friend."
"And I thought you were mine." Merlin whispered, more hurt than he let on.
"Friends don't deceive each other." Arthur hissed. "You betrayed me!"
"I saved you!" Merlin cried. "Arthur –"
"No." Arthur turned away, shaking his head. "I don't want to hear it."
"Tough!" Merlin snapped. "You can't just judge me like that!"
"You force judgement upon yourself by your actions." Arthur snapped back. Merlin was stunned at how much he sounded like Uther "Magic? Magic, Merlin? Magic is evil!"
Merlin stared at him, his eyes shadowed. "Do you really believe I'm evil?" He asked thickly.
Arthur sucked in a breath, swallowed, and looked away. "I don't know." He whispered.
Merlin closed his eyes briefly, pushing his agony at those words back. "What are you going to do?" He asked fearfully.
Arthur took a deep breath and let it out in a sigh. "I don't –" He started, then stopped and shook his head, closing his eyes. "Merlin, magic in Camelot is forbidden on pain of death."
Merlin swallowed. "Are you going to turn me in?"
"No." Arthur said without thinking, and frowned. There was a long pause. "I'm going to let you run."
"Run?" Merlin repeated disbelievingly.
"Yes." Arthur kept his eyes closed. "Magic is not outlawed everywhere. I'm sure you'd find a home in one of the neighbouring kingdoms."
"You – you're sending me away?" Merlin whispered.
"No." Arthur turned to face him, face hard and eyes cold. "You're fleeing for your life."
"But I can't leave!" Merlin cried. "You can't make me leave – I saved your life!"
"Using magic." Arthur said through gritted teeth.
"So?" Merlin tried desperately.
Arthur's eyes flamed to life and he stalked forward, glaring right into Merlin's eyes. "So? What do you mean 'so'? Magic is evil!"
"Magic is what the user makes of it!" Merlin clenched his jaw and sniffed. "And I'm not evil!"
"But you practise magic." Arthur said harshly.
"I can't help it!" Merlin protested.
Arthur snarled, unbelieving. "Sorcerers choose the paths they take."
"I didn't!" Merlin cried. "I was born like this! I can't help having magic any more than you can help being a Prince! You said you don't like it sometimes, but it has to be done. It's like that for me – I didn't like lying to you, but it had to be done. I have to protect you. It's my destiny."
Arthur glared at him. "Stop it, Merlin."
Merlin blinked hard and glared back. "It's the truth. It's my destiny to protect you – if I counted how many times I've saved your life using magic, I'd run out of fingers."
"When have you saved my life using magic?" Arthur demanded angrily.
"The night Uther made me your manservant." Merlin snapped. "Bringing the snakes on Valiant's shield to life. Burning the afanc. Killing the griffin."
"No," Arthur shook his head, "You couldn't have…"
"Killing Edwin." Merlin continued recklessly. "Cracking the branch when you were fighting the bandits who had Sophia. Saving you from Sophia and Aulfric. Giving your father the sword to kill the black knight. The whirlwind in Ealdor. Offering my life for yours on the Isle of the Blessed when you were bitten by the Questing Beast. Protecting you from an angry mother bear just now," he finished, breathing heavily. "That enough for you?"
Arthur closed his eyes painfully and clenched his fists. "That changes nothing." He said finally, hating himself.
"What?" Merlin gasped. "How can you say that?"
"By remembering my duties as Prince." Arthur said, unable to look Merlin in the eyes.
"No," Merlin whispered. "Arthur, please…"
"You cannot stay in Camelot." Arthur shook his head.
"Just forget this ever happened." Merlin pleaded. "Just go back and be normal. Please! Please, Arthur, let me stay. Keep my magic secret and everything can go back to how it was."
"I can't." Arthur cried, his eyes anguished as they met Merlin's. "How can I ask my people to respect and obey a Prince, and King, who breaks his own laws?"
"When you are King you can change the laws!" Merlin gasped. "But you have to survive till then! Please Arthur," he added as the Prince looked away. Merlin's voice broke. "I'm begging you."
Arthur swallowed. This was torture. But he steeled himself against the pain. "No, Merlin!" He said harshly. "You have to go. Run now, and never come back. It's the only way."
"No it's not!" Merlin argued desperately. "You just don't want to see it! But I have to protect you, Arthur. How can I protect you if you send me away?" His voice was agonised, and his expression, when Arthur looked up, was exactly the same.
"That's why?" Arthur said disbelievingly. "Not because you can't get any supplies, will be out of a place to live, say goodbye to Gaius or Gwen…you don't want to run…because then you wouldn't be able to protect me?"
"Of course!" Merlin gasped in exasperation. "Nothing else matters, Arthur. It's my destiny to protect you, and yours to become a great King and unite Albion."
Arthur stared at him and shook his head slowly. "It doesn't matter, Merlin. Destiny, protection – any of it. Just…run. Please. For me."
"Why?" Merlin choked.
"Because I don't want to have to turn you in." Arthur ground out each word painfully, meeting Merlin's eyes, determined to make him see, make him understand. "Don't make me watch you die."
"I won't die." Merlin said simply, holding Arthur's gaze. "The King would have to send an army, Arthur. I'm too powerful. You couldn't give me in even if you wanted to – I do have some sense of self-preservation. But I'm not leaving. You can wave your sword and shout until you're hoarse, but I'm not going anywhere."
Arthur glared at him. "I can't ignore this, Merlin! Don't you understand? Every time you've saved my life using magic you've broken one of Camelot's most important laws. Laws I have sworn on my blood and breath to uphold. I can't just go on and pretend none of this ever happened."
"Then don't." Merlin said quietly. "I understand. You've gone against your father and Camelot's laws for Morgana, Lancelot, Gwen, the druid boy…but not for me." He looked up at Arthur angrily, blinking back furious, helpless tears. "It's okay." He waved a hand in a mocking gesture of carelessness. "As long as you're doing what you think is right, after all, what can possibly go wrong?" He glared at Arthur hurtfully.
Arthur sighed. "Merlin…"
"No, no, I understand." Merlin shook his head, his throat closing up with suppressed tears and making him choke. "I'm just a servant. Not as important as them. Not important to anyone." He glared at Arthur bitterly, and a single tear escaped his eye, falling down his face quickly in a clear, thin line.
"Merlin…" Arthur tried again.
"No!" Merlin turned his back to the Prince, wiping the tear away in heated embarrassment. "It doesn't matter. Doesn't matter that my best friend thinks I'm worthless, would give me up to be killed, believes I'm evil. It doesn't matter at all, and do you know why?" He turned to him fiercely. "Because I'm staying anyway. I know a place in the castle no one will ever find me. And even if I'm worthless to you, Arthur Pendragon," he spat, "I'll still protect you, even if you're the one hunting me."
"Merlin…" Arthur reached out, but the dark-haired boy turned away with an angry sob.
"No." His shoulders shook as he tried desperately to rein his emotions back under control.
Arthur frowned. This was too much for him to deal with. He should turn Merlin in, though that definitely wasn't an option, or at least make him run. But seeing the boy so desperate and intent on protecting him was tearing him apart. He couldn't think, couldn't act.
He stared at Merlin's back, trembling as he lost control over his crying, and broke.
Merlin's cheeks were red with humiliation as he started to cry in earnest, tears leaking from the corners of his eyes and his chest seizing up painfully. He hung his head, acutely aware of the cause of his suffering standing right behind him, watching him.
Then warm hands gripped his shoulders and turned him round, pulling his body into another's, his head burying in someone's shoulder. And suddenly it didn't matter that the someone was Arthur, Prince of Camelot and Merlin's master. After all, he knew Merlin's secret now, so what else mattered?
Merlin gave over to the comfort and bawled uncontrollably into Arthur's shoulder, shaking as Arthur rubbed his back slowly. Had anyone seen the pair, they would have dismissed the image as a fairy-made hallucination and forgotten about it. After all, who would believe the picture of the Crown Prince of Camelot comforting his sobbing servant as real?
Eventually, Merlin pulled back, red-eyed and sniffing, his cheeks warm with embarrassment. Arthur just smiled and kept rubbing his back. Merlin sighed. "I don't understand you," he complained. "One minute you're threatening to hand me over to the King and calling me evil, and the next minute you're…" He shrugged helplessly. "Nice."
Arthur laughed. "That's the best you could come up with? Nice?" He sighed and sat down, frowning. "I don't know what to do." He muttered. "You're right – I've broken the laws before, but those occasions were short. Sporadic. This is so…" He gestured inadequately with his hand. "Big. Permanent."
"Yes," Merlin admitted, wiping a hand across his face and sitting down next to Arthur, "it is. But it's not like I'd tell anyone you knew if I got caught. Which is pretty unlikely."
"I hope so." Arthur muttered.
Merlin looked at him with wide eyes, hardly daring to hope. "Does that mean I can stay?" He asked in a whisper.
"You said you'd stay anyway, didn't you?" Arthur shrugged awkwardly.
Merlin took that as a yes and made a strange half-gasp, half-squeak choking sound, flinging his arms around Arthur's neck. "Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you!" He gabbled.
"Yes, Merlin, you're welcome." Arthur rolled his eyes and smiled as Merlin withdrew guiltily. "But Merlin," he added seriously, "you have to swear to me you'll only ever use your magic in service to Camelot. Ever."
Merlin looked slightly offended. "Of course I swear." He huffed. "I've had plenty of chances to kill you and plunge Camelot into ruin and despair, without even having to use magic."
"Thanks, Merlin, that's really reassuring." Arthur rolled his eyes and stood up, offering his hand to Merlin, who took it gratefully. "Come on," he said in his Prince voice. "Let's go home."
As the pair walked back through the forest, Arthur's crossbow lay where he'd dropped it. The magpie Merlin had seen earlier fluttered down like a torn scrap of paper and perched on the weapon, leaning down and cawing loudly.
Another flash of black and white, and the magpie's mate joined him, hopping around and beating her wings fussily. As the male reassured her, they touched beaks and leapt up together, clawing their way into the sky and soaring high above the Prince and the warlock below.
Merlin looked up and his eyes caught the two birds in flight as they danced together for the sheer joy of living. He smiled as he recalled the next part of the country rhyme –
One for sorrow, two for joy.
I thought it wasn't all that good but...hey! You kind reviewers seem to like it! I kinda wanted more angst, but I really can't be arsed to change it. I'm too busy with my George Porgie fic, my Gwen-marrying-Arthur fic and my MerlinxOC fic. Not to mention a tonne of art and science revision I really should be doing but am managing to put off with a kind of professional ease. Sorry, rant over, hehe. ^^'
So, uh...yeah. Thoughts would be nice, please. Ale for reviewers!