Anticipation was a dull, insistent knot in Arthur's stomach as they drew closer to Camelot.
And as the thud of hooves turned into the clatter of cobble, he dismounted fluidly and helped Merlin down to the ground quickly, holding him steady as his knees wobbled from the long ride. It was late afternoon, the courtyard full of people and noise that made Merlin turn his head worriedly from side to side, folding and unfolding his wings in what Arthur was quickly recognizing as a nervous tick.
A stable hand rushed up to them, as well as several of the red-cloaked knights. None of them paid Merlin's wings any notice, and Arthur let out a breath of relief.
Behind them, Morgana said, haughtily, "Leave us."
Percival bowed, "The King requests your presence, my Lady. Sire."
Arthur inclined his head as an affirmative, then waved the knights away. They left, casting them doubtful looks of those who had been given orders, but were reluctant to obey.
"Gwen, I need you to take Merlin Gaius immediately."
At these words, Merlin pulled his arm out of Arthur's grip.
"I know the way, I'll be fine. And I'm coming with you."
"You are going to go to Gaius' and stay there," said Arthur, voice tight with tension, the first words he had spoken to Merlin all day, "I can handle my father."
Merlin opened his mouth to protest and Arthur cut him off impatient.
"No, Merlin. For once, just do as you're told."
Merlin looked mutinous for a moment, eyes unfocused. He was glaring over Arthur's shoulder, about a meter off, and Arthur's gut twisted again, sick. Merlin should never have to look that way. If only Arthur had not left him alone in a fit of jealous anger, what was he thinking-
"Come on, Merlin," said Gwen, coaxing, "Arthur's right, you need to see Gaius."
Merlin's brow was furrowed in an unhappy expression, but he conceded, fumbling for Gwen's guiding arm, wings angled carefully away.
Arthur watched Gwen lead Merlin away, across the busy courtyard, until they were both out of sight. He sighed.
"Uther isn't going to be happy," said Morgana, unhelpfully.
Arthur passed a tired hand over his face, feeling tired and wrung out.
"Just…be quiet and leave the talking to me, Morgana."
She fell in step with him as they ascended the castle steps.
"That has never worked out before," she pointed out. Arthur glanced at her.
"Father is going to have a fit if he sees you dressed like this."
Morgana flicked back a curl of her hair, careless, but she didn't argue – which made Arthur think that maybe she did know what was at stake here.
"I'll get changed," she said, as they reached the top of another set up stairs, then she smiled, razor sharp; "You go on ahead."
Arthur glared at her, without much heat, and made his way pass a set of guards, rounding the corner to the council chambers where his father usually held court. His hands felt cold, nervous as he never was before a tournament or faced with monsters. When he reached the towering double doors, Arthur paused. He counted to ten, slowly, before raising a fist to the dark oak panels.
He knocked, twice.
"Enter," came the voice of the King, and Arthur pushed open the doors into the hall. It was empty, save for the King. The doors closed behind him, echoing ominously in the silence.
"My Lord," said Arthur, back stiff.
"Arthur," said his Father, voice cold, "Do you want to tell me where you have been?"
Arthur took a deep breath, and braced himself.
"Ealdor, my lord."
"I seem to recall giving you orders," said Uther, conversationally.
"Orders which you disobeyed."
"You knew my decision on the matter." said Uther, voice quiet. But Arthur could hear the underlying torrent of anger and displeasure, like a storm under a calm sea. "Yet still you rode out with my ward on the behalf of your manservant."
Arthur held his father's gaze, defiantly.
"Merlin has shown me great loyalty always- a loyalty which is beyond his call of duty-"
Uther slammed a fist into the table.
"And which is certainly beyond your own! Do you know what this looks like? The Prince of Camelot, gallivanting off beyond our borders at the whim of a servant."
"It shows that we care for our people, no matter where they are," said Arthur, gaze carefully lowered.
"Indeed," said Uther, voice suddenly reverting to calm, "…And it shows that you evidently care too much. The lengths you go to for this boy of yours."
Arthur's eyes snapped back to his father, eyes widening at the implications.
"As I said, Merlin has shown me-"
"Remarkable loyalty, yes," said Uther, a calculating look in his eyes that Arthur did not like. "What is more remarkable is the loyalty you show him. You have now twice defied me in account of this boy. What am I to make of this?"
The king was questioning his loyalty. His father was questioning his loyalty to the crown, over Merlin. A year ago, if anyone even suggested this possibility, Arthur would have challenged them to the death.
But now…Arthur knew his father had every right. Because here he was the Crown Prince, standing in front of his king. And he had absolutely no intention of revealing Merlin's secret, because it meant risking Merlin's life. His own anger, betrayal, hurt – they didn't matter in the face of this cost. The choice had already been made, because there wasn't any choice at all.
And Arthur knew it would come down to this, the moment he saw Merlin's wings, splayed white as he lay dying in a pool of his own blood; Will traitorous. Traitor.
"Nothing, sire," he said, solemn, "I am your vessel to command."
Uther raised both eyebrows.
"And yet… If I didn't know better, I'd say the boy has bewitched you."
Arthur's breath caught.
"It won't happen again," he said.
"You're right," said Uther, sharply, "It won't. You will report to the captain of the guard for ten lashes-" and something must have shown on Arthur's face, because Uther continued, "- and I hope that will teach you the lesson I have failed to instill in you." The last time, was not said, but Arthur remembered that moment as clearly as if it were yesterday. It was burned into his retinas; the image of his father's gloved hand crushing the Mortaeus flower, the sickening nausea as Merlin's lifeline was thrown away. Desperate fingers through the bars.
"Yes, sire," said Arthur, forcing out the words.
"And you would do well to remind your manservant of his place," said Uther, every word a thinly veiled threat. "Or I may be forced to remind him for you."
Behind his back, Arthur clenched and unclenched a fist.
"Yes, my lord."
Uther looked at him for a long moment, his expression unreadable, before he flicked one hand, the motion sharp like the signal for an execution.
And as Arthur turned to leave, he finally noticed something that had escaped his attention when he first entered the hall.
The mirror was placed strategically to the right of the double doors, allowing those facing it a clear reflection; while catching those entering the hall unawares. It was the largest mirror Arthur had ever seen, easily six feet high, smooth as Morgana's vanity glasses, gilded in gold. It must have cost an unimaginable fortune. It certainly had not been there when he had left, four days ago.
His reflection stared back at him for a split second, face pale, brow furrowed and expression grim. Then he banged through the double doors, and out of the hall.
"I tried to heal a girl," was all Merlin offered in explanation. Gaius had sent Gwen off on the pretense of needing fresh water, and now they were sitting across the table from one another. At least, that's where Merlin thought Gaius was.
He didn't want to talk about Will.
"You tried to heal her- Merlin, what were you-"
"She was in terrible pain," said Merlin, voice thick in his throat, "I didn't know what was wrong with her."
There was a deep, sad sigh, then the sound of glass clinking against glass; slight steam hissing from a flask. Merlin tried to pinpoint where each sound was coming from, frowning in concentration.
"A fire, you say."
"Well, without seeing the rest of her wounds, I cannot tell the extent of your injury. The blindness could be temporary…"
"Or it could be forever," said Merlin, dully.
"We must hope for the best," said Gaius, and Merlin heard the scrape of wood against stone. Gaius was standing up – yes, he could hear the footsteps; a familiar sound that had always been an unimportant background noise to Merlin – but now was one of his only connections with the world around him.
"When I heal people," said Merlin, uncaring that he was revealing his secrets all at once – he really didn't care much about himself anymore- "When I- I always take on their injuries. But my magic helps me heal. Maybe…?"
Gaius set down something heavy on the wooden table in front of him. It smelt a little like dust and that old smell. Parchment. Books. Merlin fidgeted with the hem of his tunic, feeling useless.
"Have you noticed any changes?" asked Gaius, gently, "Shades…patches of light from dark?"
Merlin squinted, trying to see through the impenetrable blackness. He even pushed at the magic, not sure what to do, but thinking see see see see, as hard as he could, visualizing the room around him in vivid afternoon colours. He urged the magic towards his eyes, trying to replicate the same thoughts he did when he healed; his eyes-
There was a bang of door against stone, and "Here's the water!". Breathless, soft footsteps and swishing of skirts. Gwen. The bucket was set on the floor, and Merlin could hear the tell-tell swash as water splashed over the edge of the wooden pail.
"Thank you, Gwen," said Gaius, and Merlin tried to turn to look at her, but she was moving around too much; the multiple pairs of footsteps confusing him. He bit back his frustration.
"W'Must clean around the eyes – please wash his face for him, Gwen."
Merlin felt the burn of humiliation hot on his cheeks.
"I can do that myself!" he protested, reaching out a hand for the cloth as something was dipped into the water and wrung out. Gwen placed it in his palm, wet cold, and Merlin snatched it and began scrubbing at his face furiously. They let him at it for a few moments, before Gwen pulled gently at his fist and retrieved the cloth. Merlin heard her dipping it back into the water then, tilting his chin with a finger, began dabbing at the corners of his eyes with it.
"I'm useless," he said.
"It's not your fault," said Gwen at once, "And I think you were very brave, rushing into the fire to save that girl. I mean, not that you aren't usually brave, and it was a little stupid, seeing you've been blinded now – though I'm sure you won't be forever! You'll get better…he'll get better, right Gaius?"
And answering sigh.
"Of course he will."
And Merlin smiled, despite himself, feeling his lips curl up at the corner.
"Hmm," said Gwen.
Shuffling footsteps. An odd sound he couldn't place.
"Here, Merlin. You need to take these eye-drops, they might help with any burns…" and Merlin let Gaius pry his eyelids apart, fighting the urge to blink when a cold, stinging liquid made his eyes water. "I'll leave the dropper by your bedside," Gaius continued, "And you'll need to administer it three times a day."
There were more noises, and then Merlin jumped at the feeling of cloth on his face.
"You mustn't open your eyes. You need to let the potion take effect," said Gaius, wrapping what Merlin was sure was a piece of linen or bandage around his eyes like a blindfold. Fingers at the back of his head, tying the cloth in a knot so that it was tight enough to stop him from blinking at all.
"Okay," said Merlin. It was very dark.
"You must tell me if it hurts – or anything changes at all," said Gaius, voice gentle.
Merlin nodded wordlessly.
"Would you like me to fetch some food from the kitchens?" asked Gwen. At her words, Merlin's stomach made a gurgling sound in response, as if announcing to the world just how hungry Merlin actually was. There was the sound like a pile of books being shifted, bottles moved. A scratching noise somewhere behind Merlin. From the window?
"That would be very kind, thank you Gwen," said Gaius, and Merlin saw Gwen's beaming smile in his minds' eye, easily conjured. Footsteps, then the door opening and closing. Merlin could hear her walking all the way down the corridor. Gaius sighed again.
"Oh Merlin," he said, and he sounded very old and very tired.
"I had to," said Merlin, but meant I had to try, to see if it was my magic, or destiny or…I had to see why I couldn't save Will. His magic had never been so much controlled by spells or words on a page like normal sorcers- the words were just a way to focus his thoughts. It was desperation and sheer will that brought his magic into being. Did I not want enough? Thought Merlin, horrified, whole body going numb with the possibility, did I not want Will to live? Was I too shelfish?
"I know," said Gaius. But he didn't. Nobody knew.
Merlin wondered where Arthur was.
Arthur, who had barely spoken a word to him the entire day, a blank space as he led Merlin back to camp. He'd barely touched him, as if keeping a careful distance away. Merlin thought back to the kiss; Arthur's hands sure and warm on his face; rough with sword calluses but gentle nevertheless, gentle even as he kissed Merlin breathless.
Perhaps it had been a mistake; something Arthur regretted. The thought made Merlin's heart seize painfully.
Suddenly, he didn't have any appetite at all.
"Gaius- I think I'll go to sleep now," said Merlin, rising from his chair, carefully pushing it back so he wouldn't knock it over.
"But you haven't had your supper!" said Gaius, surprised, "why don't you-"
"I'm tired," said Merlin, which was half true. He felt bone weary, and the constant darkness was wearing thin on his nerves, making him constantly tense, alert, blind.
He turned and walked in the direction of his room, Gaius crying out "Merlin, careful-", and he walked into something below his outstretched hands. It collided rather painfully with his hip and there was a crash. Merlin grappled with the blackness, trying to find something to anchor himself as he stood as still as he could, not knowing where to put his next step.
"Sorry! Sorry, Gaius, I'm sorry-"
"It's alright, it's just the desk, nothing broken. Let me-"
And he felt Gaius's hands around his shoulders, guiding him to the left of where he was going.
"Careful now, mind the step- one, two three, that's it."
The creak of his bedroom door opening, then Gaius turned him around, pushing on his shoulders for him to sit. Merlin felt over the smooth-rough material of his blanket, and reached to toe off his boots, shrugging off his jacket and handing it to Gaius. Haltingly, he climbed under the covers, hands patting carefully until he found his pillow. He stretched out both wings slowly, then let them fold back.
He repeated the concealment spell once more, just in case, then – Arthur knew now.
He could barely wrap his head around it.
"I'll bring you up some supper later," said Gaius. Merlin nodded wordlessly, turning onto his stomach so his wings could fan out above and beside him without being crushed, his cheek pressed into the pillow. He blinked in the darkness.
Footsteps. The door creaked, and then clicked shut.
Merlin shut his eyes right and pretended that the darkness was natural. Because he had blown out the candle and it was a moonless night and there were no cracks under the door.
He didn't fall asleep for a long time.
The pain was not unbearable. It wasn't – sharp, new, taking his senses by the roots and it felt as if the nerves on his back were flayed – but not unbearable.
Arthur couldn't hold back a hiss as Gaius swabbed something stinging and foul smelling over an open wound. He hadn't asked questions when Arthur came -
"This should help keep infections at bay," said the physician, repeating the dabbing motion down the length of Arthur's back.
"It smells absolutely disgusti- ow!"
"The best things often do, sire," replied Gaius dryly, setting the jar of cream and balm back onto the table. He started to unravel a small roll of starch white bandages.
"I don't need those," protested Arthur, making to stand up. Gaius pushed him back into his chair with a terrifying eyebrow.
"Of course not, sire," he said, and starting dressing the worst of the wounds. Arthur sat still – taking in the plates on the rickety table, a bowl still full of stew – untouched. An empty tin plate next to one still holding a hunk of dry looking bread. He glanced at the door to Merlin's room.
"Is Merlin- is he alright?"
Tying off the last of the dressing, Gaius sighed and began clearing everything away, but did not reply immediately.
"The damage to his eyes are quite severe, your highness," said Gaius at last, "I'm afraid he won't be able to do his duties for the foreseeable future."
Something twisted in Arthur's stomach.
"But he will recover," he said, sounding more confident than he felt. Merlin must get better. He would.
"Merlin usually…he heals well. But whether or not his eyes would make a full recovery…I cannot say."
Arthur looked hopelessly around at the rows and rows of books, potions and powders lining the shelves of the physicians' workshop.
"Surely there is something!" he exclaimed, voice rising. He gestured towards the tomes, "Something that would work!"
"Trust me sire, I'm doing everything I can," said Gaius, with a note of tired frustration in his voice that made Arthur feel pause; chided. "Science isn't invincible. There is no sure cure for injuries such as this. I can only hope to heal the eye partially."
Arthur wasn't aware of moving; only that he was suddenly standing, his chair thrown back.
"You mean that Merlin is going to be blind for the rest of his life?" he half shouted, the horror of it rising in his throat like bile, making his heart stop. The wounds on his back twinged painfully with movement, but Arthur barely noticed. "But his injuries aren't even-"
Both he and Gaius turned.
Merlin standing was in the doorway of his room, barefoot, one hand on the rickety wooden door. He was wearing a large night shirt, and Arthur was struck by how small he looked – dwarfed by the arch of his wings behind his back. And then it occurred to him that Gaius must know about Merlin's secret too.
There was a swathe of white bandages around Merlin's eyes. His hand came up, wary, patting the air in front of him whilst his other hand clutched at the edge of the doorframe as he shuffled forwards, tottering dangerously on the edge of the top step.
Arthur crossed the room in four strides. One step and Merlin would have been tumbling down the stairs.
Idiot, his mind supplied, and there was a rush of warmth filling his chest like sweet wine.
"Hey. Hey- careful," said Arthur, taking care to keep his voice low and calm, steadying Merlin by the shoulders. He tried to push him back into his room, and Merlin stumbled, letting go of the door to fist a hand in Arthur's tunic.
"What are you doing out of bed?" asked Gaius, voice strained with worry.
Merlin's head turned to the left, trying to pinpoint where Gaius was.
"Heard Arthur," he said, words sleep slurred. His hair was sticking straight up on one side, a tuft, whilst plastered to his head with sleep on the other. He turned back to Arthur.
Arthur berated himself for waking him up in the early hours of morning, when Merlin should have still been resting. He himself felt weary to the bone; his back a constant source of pain – but it seemed a mere discomfort next to Merlin's blindness.
"I'm sorry I woke you," he said as he sat Merlin back onto his bed. He pulled the thin blanket over Merlin, wrapping them about his shoulders and over his wings so he wouldn't chilled. The last thing Merlin needed was a fever on top of everything.
Merlin let go of Arthur's tunic to hold the blanket in place. Arthur could feel the phantom pressure of a hand on chest, warm, and he mourned the loss of it.
There was a movement in the doorway. Arthur looked up. Gaius was staring at them both with wide, shocked eyes, gaze moving from the blanket around Merlin's wings to Arthur, who stared coolly back. There was a long pause. Then Gaius turned and retreated back down the steps, closing the door behind him.
The room was dark save for the weak moonlight filtering in through the window. Arthur pulled over a chair and sat down next to Merlin's bed.
"The King," said Merlin, "Did he…am I in trouble?"
"I think my Father is more displeased with me. Keep your head down for a while and you'll be fine."
Merlin frowned, a little crease appearing on his forehead.
"Are you alright?" he asked, words clearer as sleep faded.
"Of course I am," said Arthur, trying to sound nonchalant.
Merlin lifted his head, as if to seek out Arthur's face – but then stopped as the bandages tugged on skin. Arthur resisted the urge to touch.
"He just shouted for a while, that's all," lied Arthur, trying to reassure Merlin who looked rather unconvinced.
Long minutes passed by in silence.
"Arthur, about the-"
"You should go back to sleep," said Arthur, interrupting, trying to divert Merlin's attention away, "You need the rest to recover."
Merlin's frown deepened, lips pulling down at the corners.
"Not tired," he said stubbornly. "I…"
"Did you have any dinner last night?" asked Arthur, remembering the untouched food on the table in the workshop, "Do you want some now?"
It was Arthur's turn to frown.
"As in you're not hungry, or you didn't have-"
"I'm blind, Arthur," said Merlin, flatly, "Not five years old."
Arthur fell silent. The truth was, he didn't want to talk about what had happened in the forest. His emotions were a bright, vivid colour they had never been; out of control and Arthur didn't know what to do. And emotions were dangerous, left unchecked. Emotions were something that could be exploited, something anyone and everyone could see, if not kept close. So Arthur had tried dismissing the kiss as something reckless; the result of impulse, a mistake. He tried to put it out of his mind, on the ride back to Camelot. But it was hard to forget it with Merlin, a warm, warm presence behind him. It was hard to forget now, Merlin sitting so close, vulnerable and trusting (because Merlin had kissed back, said a voice in his head, he had kissed back, he wants), close enough for Arthur to reach out and-
Arthur stood, abruptly.
"I'll send someone to fetch food. You should rest."
And with that, he left Merlin's room, almost slamming the door shut in his haste.
"You must not let Merlin enter the council chambers. Under any circumstances."
"The council chambers? Why?"
Gaius looked grave, and he sighed; a tired sound.
"The mirror, sire. I'm afraid your Father suspects."
Merlin learnt how to walk by touch.
He had memorized the amount of turns in a corridor from Gaius's rooms to Arthur's chambers. It surprised Merlin how quickly he did this – the dark slowly becoming part of the world. He knew that the stone walls changed slightly, smoother, when nearing the stairs, how there were thirteen tapestries along the last corridor, and four niches which were annoyingly easy to walk into.
He could make his way around Arthur's room almost as well as his own, and he wondered if it was cleaner now that Merlin was actually spending time dusting and wiping the windows. The world was still as black as ever – so Merlin had no way of knowing.
Merlin paused in his polishing – Arthur's left boot, the one with brown leather, because it was a little older than the others- cocking his head to one side as the footsteps in the corridor beyond grew louder and louder. Strides. Slight metallic clanking. Arthur.
The door banged open, and Merlin's head instinctively swung towards the sound.
"Nearly done?" came Arthur's voice from somewhere near the table. There was the thwack of gloves hitting wood, and a helmet being dumped on a cabinet. Merlin huffed.
"Last one," he said, putting the boot down. He made sure to lay the cloth on its right side, next to the bottle, before standing up . Two steps forwards, slightly to the right- ah, there was the table.
He made his way across the room, around the large dining table towards the bed where Merlin knew Arthur would be standing. They had worked out a routine by now. Arthur would position himself in the same place after each practice so Merlin could help him out of his armour. The chairs of the table were all pushed back except the one in the middle, marking the route to the window on the other side of the room.
Once, Arthur had forgotten to push one of the chairs in, leaving it somewhere between the table edge and the wall. And when Merlin made his way to the wardrobe, the furniture caught him unawares and he knocked into the chair and tripped, nearly breaking his neck. It was disorienting and his knees still twinged with the bruises.
Arthur never forgot the incident.
Merlin's hands moved deftly over Arthur's shoulder, undoing the buckles and lifting the pieces of armour over Arthur's head. Then the mail shirts, Arthur's gauntlets in his other hand.
"I better see my face in those boots, Merlin," said Arthur, and Merlin could hear the smile in his voice. It warmed him, fueling the spark inside his chest that kept him preoccupied, when the darkness became too much.
"Your head's too big for that, sire," said Merlin, failing to duck the swat over his head.
Armour. End of table. Six steps to the left…chair- ah.
Merlin let the armour drop. There was a clatter as something slipped over his arm and onto the floor – one of the gauntlets? Merlin knelt down to the floor, keeping one hand on the edge of the table for a frame of reference and began feeling about the floor, one flagstone at a time. It didn't sound like the gauntlet had rolled far, must be here somewhere-
"Oh for- I'll do that. Merlin, leave it," said Arthur, realizing what Merlin was doing. There was something in Arthur's tone that Merlin couldn't identify, but he straightened up all the same; slowly, so he wouldn't accidently bump his head on the table. It hurt.
Aha! Merlin's fingers closed around the metal, just as Arthur snatched it out of his hands.
"Don't- I said I'll do it, Merlin. Honestly, just sit down," said Arthur, and there was the scrape of a chair being pulled back, then Merlin was being maneuvered by his shoulders and sat. Arthur's fingers brushed against his wings as he pulled away, and Merlin couldn't suppress a shiver of pleasure.
"Prat," Merlin muttered. Cloth, left hand side. Oil bottle, closer.
Merlin corked the oil for the armour and wrapped the rag cloth around the mouth of it, tipping it quickly heads over tails then back again. He reached for a piece of armour, settling it on his knees, and began to polish. He ran his hands over the surface of it, feeling for any dents or scratches.
There was the splash of water being poured from a jug, then another scrape of wood against flagstones. Arthur sat down across the table, and asked the question he always asked, after practice. Actually, Arthur asked this same question three times a day: once when he saw Merlin in the morning, once after practice and once at dinner – which he insisted Merlin have in his rooms.
Merlin spent most of his days either in Arthur's or Gaius's rooms. Neither thought he would be able to cope going outside by himself, or wander about the castle. He was beginning to feel horribly stifled, both by the black and the lack of freedom. His wings cramped most of the time because Merlin didn't' want to accidently knock something over with them. When he was polishing something, however, he could let them fan out naturally, the tips of the flying feathers brushing the ground.
Merlin shrugged and kept polishing in circles. The repetitive movement was soothing.
"No. It's still black."
"Has Gaius found nothing? There must be something in the libraries!"
Merlin bit his lip. Of course it wouldn't be in the libraries. Uther had all the books of magic burnt. Nearly all of them, anyway - and since Merlin couldn't read, and Arthur couldn't very well help look through a spell book, it was up to Gaius to find a cure.
For the first few days, Merlin had waited with anticipation. No matter what he said, Gaius always seemed to have the answer; some obscure passage in a even more obscure tome. And Merlin thought-
But his hopes gradually waned as the days passed without Merlin knowing, because there was no light to signal a dawn, only the rhythms of his own heart, the fatigue and exhaustion that called him to sleep, and the call of Arthur for him to wake. This was the price, and Merlin was paying it.
"Some things can't be cured."
"Shut up, Merlin," said Arthur, voice tight.
"I just don't want you to have false hopes about-"
"I said shut up!" Arthur snapped, and Merlin slumped back in his chair. He turned the armour over slightly, and started polishing a new patch of metal.
"Sorry," grunted Arthur. "It's not your fault."
"It's not yours either," pointed out Merlin.
There was a bang that made Merlin jump in his seat.
"Wait, I forgot. It IS your fault," said Arthur, voice rising in pitch. Merlin rolled his eyes for effect, though it made him feel strange whenever he did it. This conversation came up every few days or so.
"If you weren't so stupid and had a death wish, you wouldn't have rushed into a burning house!" ranted Arthur. Merlin imagined him gesturing furiously with a hand, the way he did when he was talking about Uther or something ridiculous (often both). "But that's the crux of the matter; you are incredibly stupid, aren't you? Just barreling in with no thought for the consequences, leaving m- the rest of us wondering if you- god I could wring your neck!"
Merlin turned the armour in his hands again and continued polishing. He would have whistled, just to piss Arthur off, but he didn't want Arthur to drop down dead from stress.
"Are you even listening to me?" Arthur demanded.
"It's done, alright?" said Merlin, without fire – just weary. "I saved a life, didn't I? And I'm still alive. With the added bonus that I don't have to see your ugly mug everyday."
Arthur didn't laugh.
"That's not funny," he said, quietly.
Merlin blinked, his hand pausing mid-circle. The smell of polishing oil was the only thing in Merlin's senses. That and the faint smell of Arthur's sweat and dirt.
"I know," said Merlin simply.
Because he did. He woke every morning, squeezing his eyes shut before opening them cautiously, hopefully – wishing every time that this was the day when his magic decided to heal him.
And every morning was still as dark as the one yesterday.
But with that darkness was the freedom that seemed even more important. Because Arthur knew. He no longer had to hide his wings, could let them stretch out and relax in Arthur's presence, not having to worry about brushing past. And Arthur seemed fascinated by them, Merlin thought, content a sweet warm bubble inside him. Arthur didn't avoid him, like Merlin had feared he would, nor did he speak to him as if a freak.
That alone, was enough light.
There was silence for a long time, tense and unhappy. Merlin's magic curled anxiously inside his chest, Arthur's bleak mood seeping over the table like a shroud, making Merlin fidget. Since The Incident in the Forest, Merlin's senses seemed hypersensitive, tuned to Arthur's every move and nuance. He suddenly recognized Arthur's footsteps, his smell, his voice, his laughter, his rhythm of breathing when irritated – and Merlin didn't know whether this was because of his blindness or…something else.
Whatever it was, it made his magic burn with a yearning that was almost too painful to bear.
"Arthur," said Merlin.
A quiet hum.
It occurred to Merlin that he didn't want Arthur to have the chance to hide, which he did every time Merlin brought up this particular subject. There would be the sharp tap of boots on stone, and Arthur would be gone in a flurry of clothes and closing doors. Merlin pushed back his chair carefully and stood, making his way around the table, one hand resting lightly on the edge to guide himself. He stopped just short of where he thought Arthur was sitting.
The silence of a raised eyebrow.
"Merlin," said Arthur, "You're supposed to be polishing the rest of that armour."
"What happened in the forest," began Merlin, ignoring the jibe completely. And he could feel the atmosphere in the room drop; tension ratcheting upwards.
"We're not discussing that," said Arthur sharply. There was the tell-tell sound of wood on floor, and Merlin knew Arthur was pushing his chair back, he would be standing up and walking away unless – Merlin half lunged forwards until his hands hit the sides of Arthur's chair.
"Yes. Yes we are," said Merlin stubbornly, "Arthur-"
"I said we're not discussing the matter," said Arthur, voice flat.
Merlin didn't give up.
"Don't be a prat, you're the one who kissed-"
Merlin jumped when Arthur stood abruptly, the movement disorienting Merlin's fragile sense of space.
"And I'm sorry I did, alright?" shouted Arthur.
Merlin felt something cold clench around his heart, like a fist of iron.
He blinked rapidly, but the blackness never wavered. At last, he managed to force out a hoarse,
He couldn't hear anything beyond the his own heartbeat and Arthur's steady breaths. In, out. In, out. In-
"I shouldn't have lost control like that," said Arthur, words stilted and strange, "I took advantage of you and I apologize."
Merlin blinked – it was a habit he didn't realise he had until the action had become so redundant- shuffling his wings against his back in confusion.
"Wait," he said, frowning, "Wait- are you- you're sorry because you lost control? Not because you didn't mean it?"
Arthur must have been standing very still, because Merlin couldn't hear any movement at all. Just breathing. Hope blossomed in his heart.
"No. Y- I don't know!"
Merlin took a step forwards, because resisting the urge like resisting a fall – impossible.
"I don't understand-"
"That's because there is nothing to understand," said Arthur, voice sharp as blades, "It was a mistake and I-"
And Merlin couldn't stop himself. He took a few steps forwards, hands outstretched until his fingers brushed Arthur's jacket. Gods, if only he could see.
"Arthur. You idiot, I want- you're not taking bloody advantage-" and he, reckless and desperate, pulled on the jacket and kissed-
Merlin misjudged height and distance, and his kiss fell, not on Arthur's lips, but skin. Smooth skin; perhaps Arthur's jaw – but Merlin had no time to think before his hands were wrenched from Arthur's jacket, away. The momentum of the push threw Merlin off balance and he stumbled backwards, then his right foot somehow got tangled in one of the chair's legs, his hands clutching at air and then-
The edge of the table clipped Merlin's temple as he went down; a sharp blow of pain. Something fell to the floor with a metallic clatter.
"- Merlin. Merlin."
Which way was up?
There was the heat of a palm somewhere near his face, close enough to feel, not close enough to touch. Arthur.
"Jesus- I'm sorry, I'm- you clumsy oaf, Merlin. Merlin, can you hear me?"
There was a ringing in his head and something in his mouth. Merlin thought he might have bitten down on his tongue by accident. At least his back was cushioned by his wings.
Merlin turned his head towards Arthur's voice, struggling to sit up.
He couldn't breathe through the tightness in his chest.
"Is it because of my wings?" he asked, hearing the uncertainty in his own voice and hating himself for it.
Arthur was close. Merlin could feel his presence through the cloth of his breeches, through his thin shirt.
"We can't do this," said Arthur, his voice equally hoarse as Merlin's.
"Why?" asked Merlin again, "I thought you wanted-"
"It doesn't matter what I want," said Arthur – so quickly and so smoothly that Merlin laughed.
It hurt his throat.
"Yeah," said Merlin, "I- yeah, okay."
There was a long, painful silence. Merlin swallowed down a thousand words that he wanted to say; and the taste of them burned his throat as they went back down. When Arthur's hand closed around his elbow, to help him stand, Merlin flinched so violently that the hand disappeared at once. He didn't know whether he was thankful for the blindness or not; unable to see Arthur's expression.
It was another moment later before Arthur said, sounding distant and authoritative once more;
"I'm going hunting."
Merlin didn't answer.
He listened as, with a flurry of clothes and the closing of doors, Arthur was gone.
When Arthur shot the unicorn, Merlin dropped the bottle of polish with a smash.
ETA: pagebreakers edited in for easier reading. .