Merlin/Arthur, spoilers up to 1x11, dialogue-heavy.
As far as I remember, ffnet doesn't allow brackets in the title, hence the abridged version of it.
Disclaimer: I don't own BBC's Merlin, just borrowing these characters for fun and no profit, no infringement intended.
Breaking Point (Not Quite There Yet)
"Left." He manages to catch the blow, and it sends a shock through the sword and his arm and his whole body. "Right." He gets that one too, but the brief clash of swords can't really be called blocking, and he stumbles back under the blow that lands on his shoulder despite of it. "Come on, Merlin," Arthur snaps at him, mercifully giving him a brief moment to catch himself after he's almost fallen. "Left."
He raises his sword; he's getting better at following these directions, moving automatically as Arthur announces his attacks. But considering it's also the only thing he's getting better at, he doesn't see how this would be any help whatsoever when he faces someone who doesn't tell him what his next move will be.
"Wai– " he calls out, uselessly, and stumbles down when both swords – there's no strength in his block at all, he admits as much – land on his helmet. For a moment, he blissfully closes his eyes: his body hurts all over, and it's not exactly comfortable lying on the ground in full armour, but laying down has never felt so wonderful. He's had a headache since the morning, and this is not helping.
"Get up," Arthur snaps, impatiently. "I don't know how long I've been doing this and you're not getting any better." He sounds slightly offended by that.
"Right." Merlin glances up. "It's hopeless. Let's stop."
Arthur just goes back into battle position, as he usually does when he suggests this: you can't argue with a sword being hurled at you. Merlin groans, and gets up, and almost falls down again under the next, unannounced blow, and really, this is the last bit of evidence that Arthur does this just to torture him: he's not getting any better, it's a fact, and Arthur could have better sparing partners, and from time to time – when Merlin is catching up, he thinks, but he admits that he might be imagining that part –, he goes to the next level where holding against him is completely impossible for the novice he is, just for fun, and really, sometimes Merlin doesn't know what stops him from throwing a really vicious spell at him.
He's considering it now – except that with "vicious" he means "mildly annoying and discreet", because he's not stupid, and anyway, this is Arthur, he wouldn't throw vicious spells at him if he were attacking him in serious. And they're alone in the middle of a meadow, there's nothing he could use to make it inconspicuous – and Arthur is way too arrogant not to suspect something is amiss if he just makes him stumble over his own feet.
But maybe – yes. He ducks down, catching a low swipe at his left, and concentrates on the shoulder piece on Arthur's armour.
"Right!" Arthur announces, fully aware he'll be too slow for this one, and Merlin smirks when the piece clatters to the floor.
Arthur stands still, sword still raised, and stares at the ground with a puzzled look that Merlin finds deeply satisfying.
Merlin slowly raises back up; Arthur shots an annoyed glare at his smirking face that he doesn't scold back into neutrality fast enough.
"You're responsible for my armour, you know," he snaps.
"It was perfectly fine this morning, sire," he says, accusingly; not a lie either, and the suggestion of "so clearly you must have done something to it" is clear enough that even Arthur, who's still sometimes too surprised anyone would dare insult him to catch some of the more subtle instances, must notice it. "I have a witness."
Clearly, Arthur does notice, and Merlin begins to think that maybe he should have waited until he isn't holding a deadly weapon with saying anything at all when a sharp, dangerous look enters his eyes.
"I guess I'll just have to continue without armour then," he says.
Merlin pales; this is – not good. Arthur without heavy armour to slow him down is worse.
"Wait – " he says, holding up both hands, hesitating between approaching and backing away. "Maybe I can fix it!"
"You?" Arthur snorts, and, knowing better than to ask him to help him right now, begins to strip out of the rest of his armour with surprising dexterity for someone who usually requires assistance with this.
Merlin wakes up, and this time it's not hard metal poking into his back. He's on a bed. There's something insistently hammering on his head though, not to mention the rest of his body which hurts, and he'd really rather fall asleep again. Still, his eyes flutter open: he recognises the familiar ceiling of his own room. He blinks, slowly lets his gaze wander –
And finds Arthur, stripped of his armour as well, in simple clothes, leaning against the doorframe.
The prince pushes off the doorframe and approaches the bed.
"How are you feeling?"
"I – " He blinks again. He's not really feeling worse than usual after sparring, except that maybe his head hurts even worse, and he's a little dizzy. "Awful. What are you doing here?"
"What does it look like?" Arthur snaps, takes a cup from his table, and hand it to him; Merlin sits up to take it. "Gaius is making a visit. He said to drink that."
"What happened?" Merlin asks, after taking a gulp and wincing at the taste.
"You fainted," Arthur says easily, and leans back against the table, looking at him.
Merlin narrows his eyes.
"You knocked me out."
"You fainted," Arthur just repeats; Merlin supposes he has no choice but to believe him; after all, it's not like Arthur would feel bad enough about it to lie. "You could have told me you weren't feeling well."
"I did," Merlin points out, after bravely drowning the rest of the potion.
"Told me you were actually not feeling well, I mean," Arthur snaps, annoyed, before turning to take a familiar pot from the table. "Gaius also said you should rub that on any wounds you have." He smirks. "Need that a lot?"
Merlin opens his mouth, at a loss as to whether he wants to glare at Arthur or just give him a disbelieving look. Sometimes, he really, really doesn't understand how someone can be at the same time so hopelessly heroic and so, so –
"I'm sure it's great fun," he snaps, snatching the pot from Arthur's hand, "for a knight to knock around a servant who's had no battle training."
"It is, actually," Arthur says. "But it's really not my fault you're so bad at this."
"You're teaching me," Merlin snaps back, before taking off his shirt and throwing it at the prince's head. "So it is." He knows he's playing with fire here, he's just inviting Arthur to load more training on him with that one, but he can't help it.
"You're just that untalented," Arthur says; he twirls the shirt between his fingers for a moment, before putting it aside, approaching him again, and holding out a hand. "Let me."
Merlin, who's struggling with putting the ointment on his back hesitates for a moment, glowers at Arthur, but relents, and hands the pot over. He even obeys when Arthur snaps "move" at him, so he can sit on the bed behind him.
Arthur's hands are surprisingly gentle when he begins to rub the ointment onto his wounds, fingers patiently drawing small circles, and it's weird, because Merlin can easily imagine knights, and thus maybe even the prince, dressing their wounds for each other in a businesslike manner, but not this, with this gentle application; he allows his eyes to fall close. The first touch of slick, calloused finger on a bruise or a clenched muscle always stings a bit, but the pain relents almost immediately under Arthur's continuing touch, just both insistent and soft enough. And while the bruises won't just go away, the tension in his muscles eases, and still Arthur goes on; if this were Gaius, he'd feel guilty about using up so much of his time, but Arthur owes him, and then, he doesn't really think about it, until eventually the touch stops, and he feels Arthur resting his forehead against his shoulder.
Merlin is still for a moment, and briefly wonders if maybe Arthur has fallen asleep, except that he's lightly tracing over his side with one finger, a contact Merlin is suddenly very aware of, oddly so considering Arthur has been touching him the whole time for possibly an hour; and his breathing is uneven, warm, humid air tickling against his back.
Maybe he'd leave it at that if he wasn't still a bit irritated, or at least – because he's been very relaxed, until a moment ago – feels he should be; instead, he turns a bit, enough to look at Arthur, who raises his head lock eyes with, looking unaccustomedly cautious.
"Arthur?" he asks.
The prince blinks at him, very close all the sudden, and then leans forward to kiss him, lips carefully encapsulating his lower lip, tongue slipping in, warm and soft, and Merlin barely has time to get over his surprise and kiss back before he breaks the kiss again.
"Sorry," Arthur says – reflexively, of all things, does he usually make a conscious effort to avoid apologizing? or is it something reserved for extremely dire mistakes like kissing Merlin?
"What for?" he asks.
"I –" It's strange watching Arthur like this, he looks open and vulnerable, and part of Merlin just wants him to close up and be beyond any hurt; even more so, when Arthur seems to make an effort not to, because it's beyond endearing. "You don't mind," he asks slowly.
"No," Merlin snaps, and can't help thinking of the time Gwen kissed him, what is it with the apologies? He shifts around on the bed so he can face Arthur without having to crane his neck. "You – what did you think why I put up with you?"
Arthur narrows his eyes at him, and he still looks a bit lost, and Merlin wonders if he'll get this at all; then suddenly he grins brightly.
"Good!" he says, sounding relieved, and before Merlin even has time to notice what's going on, he's suddenly flat on his back, with Arthur straddling him.
Apparently, he's translated "I don't mind you kissing me (quite the opposite)" to "I want to have sex with you right now".
To be fair, he wouldn't be too far off the mark if it wasn't for the fact he's still feeling a little dizzy. He brings his arms to Arthur's chest to push him off. The prince rolls to the side, next to him, and gives him an unsure glance.
"I just – not right now," Merlin tries to explain; his head is swimming. "Not feeling too well..."
He can feel Arthur relax next too him just by the way the mattress shifts beneath him, and lets his eyes fall close.
"Tease," Arthur murmurs; Merlin's eyes blink open briefly to see the prince smiling at him.
When Merlin wakes up again, the light from the window is a little dimmer, though it's not dark yet; his head hurts less, and he turns it to the side, to see...
He jumps up into a sitting position with a start, eyes wide open, and he's probably lost his chance to claim innocence with that reaction: on the chair across the room, Arthur is still sitting, looking at him; on his lap, he holds a book.
Merlin feels cold all over.
"What, Merlin," Arthur says, in an even voice, "is this?"
He waves the book at him lightly.
"It's, a book?" Merlin says, with a small grin, and maybe, in the circumstances, it's not a good thing he's so good at implying "what, are you too stupid to see that" without having to say it. But really, Arthur's never seen spellbooks, why would he recognise one?
"What kind of book?"
"Huh, I don't know." He cranes his head, pretending to try to see its spine better. "Herbs?"
"It's a spellbook," Arthur says, in a hard voice. Merlin gulps.
"No it's not," he says.
"Yes it is. Answer me this, Merlin: are you a sorcerer?"
Merlin's eyes widen: whatever it is he would have expected of a situation like this, it's not this direct question. And really, he should have prepared for a such a moment, and yet all he can find is wild panic and an edge of that ever-present irritation he often feels around Arthur.
"No, I'm not."
"You're not?" Arthur repeats, and suddenly Merlin feels even worse, because he doesn't want to be lying to Arthur, he'll feel almost as horrible if he can convince him of this as if he can't. Lying by omission is different, whatever anyone might say.
"No," he repeats, in an absurdly high-pitched voice. "Of course I'm not."
Arthur looks down; his face is unreadable, hard, correct Crown Prince of Camelot face, not Arthur, except that this is Arthur too, and that makes it worse, makes something inside him hurt, and it's not the fear; not the fear of execution, anyway.
Then Arthur says: "Do you know a sorcerer, then?" and suddenly the fear returns with full force.
"No," he says quickly, again.
"Have you ever seen Gaius use magic?" Arthur asks, still looking down at the book, pocking its spin thoughtfully.
"No." Merlin shivers all over: he hadn't been thinking of this danger.
"Merlin, this is serious, think before you answer. I found this in his house."
"Gaius doesn't use magic," Merlin just says, desperately.
"We never found out who healed Gwen's father," Arthur murmurs thoughtfully.
They haven't. It's not like Uther to overlook something like that, but the discovery of who it was who did the other, the evil magic took his mind off everything else.
It's not like Arthur either, unfortunately.
"Not Gwen," Merlin says quickly, and adds, because this feels very important all the sudden: "I'm not in love with Gwen."
"I know that," Arthur dismisses, and gives him a look that makes Merlin's heart break, and suddenly he can't hold on: this isn't at all going like he expected, and it's worse.
"It's mine. I'm a sorcerer."
Arthur rolls his eyes at him.
"Merlin, I know you want to protect Gaius, but –"
"No. No I don't. It's my spellbook. Because I'm a sorcerer." And, in desperation, under Arthur's sceptic look, he adds: "Look."
And then – Arthur stares, when Merlin tenses up even more, and looks intently at the book in his hands, and then suddenly his eyes turn bright gold for a moment – and the book flies through the air and lands on the bed, on Merlin's lap.
There is a long silence. Merlin's hands are trembling violently under the covers, and he's sweating, staring down at the book. No way back now, and wow, demonstrating his magic by ripping something from Arthur's hands was so not a good idea.
"Give it back," Arthur says, but without any sharpness: his voice is soft and awed.
Merlin stares up at him. Then, he takes deep breath, concentrates on the book again, and –
Oh. He did not do that on purpose, not consciously, but the book would have hit Arthur full on the head, if Arthur didn't have inhuman reflexes. Merlin winces and then goes completely still; Arthur's eyes are invisible behind the hand that holds the book.
He lets it sink, very, very slowly.
"You," he drawls, "are such an idiot! What were you thinking, letting something like that lie around!"
"L –" Merlin stares at the prince in disbelief. "It was hidden!"
Arthur gives him one of these looks that say "how can something as stupid as you even survive?"
"Under a lose plank in the floor. Do you know how old that trick is?"
"You weren't supposed to search my home," Merlin says defensively.
Arthur just gives him another look, and Merlin looks down.
"When we first... fought," Arthur muses, and Merlin looks back up. "I remember, my chain got entangled...?"
Merlin's mouth drops open: out of all the incidents Arthur could have remembered!...
Still, he nods.
"I hit my knee, too," Arthur goes on, apparently warming up to the subject. "And I stumbled. Twice."
"No, wait!" Merlin protests. "That second time had nothing to do with magic!"
"Sure." Arthur snorts. "And I knew," he goes on thoughtfully, in a strange voice that's almost amused, "that you couldn't be doing all that work in a few hours."
Merlin mouth opens even wider. This – this is –
"You've been giving me tasks I couldn't do in time without magic on purpose?"
"That's not the point," Arthur says haughtily, and he's smirking, and Merlin's head is spinning.
"I've saved your life with it a few times too, you know," he says defensively, and he's surprised when the look in Arthur's eyes actually softens.
"The chandelier," he says.
Merlin nods. He's not surprised he remembers: it was a strange coincidence.
"And you didn't knock me out when I tried to elope with Sophia," Arthur adds, brightly, because apparently he's incapable of continuing in that vain.
"No," Merlin confirms. "You didn't try to elope either." Arthur gives him a questioning look, and he explains: "She enchanted you and tried to sell your soul for immortality."
"And you stopped her?" Arthur asks, insultingly sceptic.
"The light," Arthur continues, wistful again. "When I was in the cave, looking for the flower, there was a blue light guiding me." He looks at him in that strange, curious way again. "Was that you as well?"
"I – " The look on Arthur's face is strangely longing, and he really wishes he could say yes; Gaius spoke to him later, but he can't drag him into this. "I'm not sure. I was unconscious, but I could see you, and I wanted to help you... I don't know." Arthur is directing that "you idiot" look at him again. "What?"
"You," says Arthur, unbelieving, "are doing magic," he drawls out, "while sleeping."
"Just this once," Merlin protests, because ignoring that one incident with the snowstorm and the weathermagic when he was a child isn't really lying. He could have forgotten.
Arthur just shakes his head at him, and then suddenly starts, and all signs of amusement drain from his face.
"The unicorn," he says, suddenly cold, fearful almost. "You didn't want me to kill it, but you didn't – " He gestures at his eyes. " – stop me either." His eyes bore into him, and Merlin shivers, because for the first time – for the first time since this started, he only now truly realises – there's danger in his tone. "Did you know what would happen?"
"No," Merlin says, shocked, all the panic that's been receding under Arthur's strange reaction to the discovery coming back. "No, I didn't. I just though it was sad to kill it." He looks back at Arthur – the prince's gaze is hard and searching – and tries to sound sincere, and only manages desperate: "I didn't know, I swear it." He looks down. "I don't actually know that much about magic, I've only learned it since I'm here. I just –" he makes a vague, helpless gesture, "use it." He pushes a box a few inches to the right for demonstration. "I always have."
Arthur looks at him for a few more moments, and then his lips break into a smile.
"Would have been weird if something you're good at required brains," he says, grinning.
Merlin throws him a half-hearted glare, because really, he's so, so glad Arthur hasn't yet announce he'll have him executed, but still, it's a bit unfair of him to take advantage of the situation to hurl abuse at him.
"What are you going to do?" he asks, in a small voice, after a brief silence. "Aside from insulting me, I mean."
Arthur looks down as well.
"I don't know," he says, passing the book from one hand to the other. "You can't keep this here, it's too dangerous." He glances up. "Maybe it'd be better if you didn't stay either."
"I – You're not going to tell your father?"
"He'd have you executed," Arthur snaps impatiently. "It wouldn't matter how often you've saved my life."
"I know that," Marlin says, and Arthur stares at him, and there's a long pause during which Merlin looks intently at Arthur's strangely puzzled face.
"I'm not," Arthur says, in the slow voice one uses when speaking to these slow of wits, "letting you get killed." There's a pause. "You idiot."
"Oh." Something warm floods all through him. "Thanks."
Arthur rolls his eyes.
"Did you really think I would?" he asks, and under the superficial exasperation, he sounds hurt. "Is that why you never told me?"
"I – don't know." Merlin looks away. "I don't think so. But I didn't want to make you chose. Between betraying your father and..."
He makes a vague gesture. Arthur stares at him with unconcealed affection and exasperation.
"You've been doing magic behind my back and probably made yourself more ineffectual just so I didn't have to make a choice? Are you – why am I even asking, I know you are." Merlin smiles weakly. "It's not a difficult choice at all," Arthur says quietly. "Maybe it should be, but I would never..." He trails off. "I wouldn't."
"I..." Merlin smiles softly. "I didn't think you would. And I'm not leaving, no matter what you say. But I thought you'd be more shocked. Or angrier."
"You were out for a while," Arthur says meaningfully.
"So... we're alright then?"
Arthur smiles at him brightly; there is, Merlin finds, a dangerous glint in his eyes.
"Yes. As a matter of fact, as soon as you're better, I'd like to try something."
Merlin makes a worried face and tries to look very ill.
"I don't think this is a good idea," Merlin states, stumbling a few steps back on the uneven forest ground.
The morning air is crisp and almost painful, but at least his illness seems over after almost a whole day and then a night's sleep – and he wishes Gaius hadn't told Arthur.
"I didn't ask you," Arthur throws back routinely, and goes into battle position.
"No, I mean, I'm sure this is a really bad idea," Merlin clarifies.
Arthur shakes his head.
"It's fine – no-one's going to see or hear us here." He holds up his shield. "Come on!"
Merlin crosses his arms, or does the closest thing that he can manage, in full armour, anyway.
"Come on," Arthur repeats, gesturing widely. "Just do that thing – " He rolls his eyes weirdly, and it takes Merlin a moment to realise he's apparently trying to imitate the way his eyes change colour when he does magic. "– where you move things on me."
"I don't want to attack you with it," Merlin says, doing his best to sound as serious as he can.
Arthur lets his arms sink again.
"If this is about showing that you won't use it against me, how about showing you can follow orders from time to time," he snaps.
Merlin is just about to argue back when, without warning, Arthur throws his sword at him.
It's not a dangerous throw, insofar as that can be said about anything involving an – admittedly, not particularly sharp practice- – sword, and it would just have clattered off his armour, but in the tensed state in which he is, Merlin reacts instinctively – or maybe, the temptation has just been too much – and stops it mid-air.
Arthur freezes at the same moment, as if he too had been touched by the spell, and for a moment Merlin wonders, panicked, how he's going to explain the crown prince being changed to a statue in the middle of the forest. Then a bright, almost maniac grin spreads over Arthur's face.
"Yes!" he says. "That's – come on – " He holds up his shield again. "Throw it back!"
Merlin concentrates, and the sword swings back, clatters against Arthur's shield loudly and falls down.
Arthur's grin is even wider than before: all in all, he disturbingly reminds Merlin of the time he shot the unicorn, and he's tempted to remind him of how that turned out. If this is Arthur's standard reaction to not immediately threatening magic, the king is not going to be pleased.
"Let's try something else," Arthur says; he puts the sword and shield aside with care, and, ignoring Merlin's protests, walks over to the pack he's had him bring, and retrieves – Merlin winces – a mace.
Only one, too, he can't help but notice.
"Alright." He starts spinning the weapon expertly before he's even straightened back up. "I attack you with it, you throw it back at me."
Merlin staggers back a few steps when the prince approaches him.
"Arthur, I told you –"
His protest ends in a high-pitched squeak when the mace spins by an inch from his nose, leaving him trembling in shock. Arthur makes a few steps back again, still wielding the weapon with ease.
"Merlin," Arthur snaps at him, annoyed, like he's the one who almost got his head lobbed of.
Merlin narrows his eyes: fine, he thinks.
First, he wrenches the mace from Arthur's hand, sending it sprawling somewhere in the forest with the momentum; then he yanks Arthur's feet forward, making him lose balance. He's slowed down time without even having to think about it, and he eases Arthur's fall, as the prince loses his footing, a stunned expression on his face, lays him down to the ground gently. Frees time of his grasp again.
He stands still, a bit exhausted, his head hurting again, and he can hear the distant bird-songs again.
Arthur doesn't stand up.
Merlin shivers all over, and it's not from the illness' dizziness.
"Arthur!" He rushes over to the prince and is about to kneel by his side when he finds, with immense relief, that his eyes are open. "Are you alright?" he asks, anyway. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean, I wouldn't –"
"Merlin, will you shut up?"
His mouth falls shut; he eyes the prince warily when he gets back to his feet.
"I'm sorry," he says again.
Arthur gives him an exasperated look.
"What for? Stop looking at me like that, I'm fine. You didn't even – you were careful. Is that how you'd fight on a battlefield too?"
"If I can," Merlin mutters back, uncertainly.
Arthur looks at him curiously.
"Just how powerful are you?"
"I – don't know?"
"Very. I'm – very. I'm not learned, but I have a lot of raw power." He looks unsurely at Arthur, who's still studying him thoughtfully. "You're not – afraid of me?"
"Afraid?" Arthur looks insulted, and then throws the insult back: "Of you?"
"I did just disarm you and throw you down without even moving," Merlin throws back, which is stupid, he supposes, and he's still worried, but – can't help it; he never wanted Arthur to be scared of him, always wanted him to trust him, but a little bit of respect would have been nice.
"I told you to," he says.
Merlin glances at him, and he doesn't know what to make of it, this mixture of trust and arrogance, or whatever else he's supposed to understand this as.
"Merlin I – you drank poison for me," Arthur adds, and shouldn't their roles have been reversed in this conversation? "Of course, I got you an antidote, so maybe this was all part of a masterplan, but you're probably not smart enough to have come up with a something that convoluted."
Merlin just stares at him. Arthur is a prat. That at least is a clear, unchanging fact. Despite of himself, he starts to grin.
Arthur nods solemnly, and kisses him. Merlin puts both arms around him and pulls his body close; it's not comfortable at all, with all the chainmail, and he can't feel him at all, but still he holds on and kisses back hungrily, so they're both panting when they break the kiss.
Arthur smiles at him, all sweetness and wonder, like he's discovered the world is a lot more fun than he ever suspected.
"That's enough for now," he says, and turns round without missing a beat. "Gather the weapons," he throws over his shoulder.
Merlin glares at his back.
It's a while before he's found the mace, and Arthur stands leaning against a tree watching him, smirking, the whole time, so Merlin half-heatedly throws it at him when he walks past.
Comments are greatly appreciated! ;)