A/N: This is it, folks! Thanks to everyone for your amazing reviews, alerts, favoriting, and general support. I am so thrilled that this has been a success, and it is thanks to you. Take care, and hopefully you'll hear from me soon...
Distantly, he hears wood splinter. The doors of the castle.
"NO!" He roars to the sky, and falls back, hands fisted in Merlin's shirt. "No." His head falls forward onto the blood-soaked fabric. This is the apocalypse, a red sky and evil's army destroying his world, and their only savior has bled out on the roof.
"Come back," he whispers.
The grief rips his chest, and he gasps against the pain, tearing his throat raw with each breath, and he knows that this is what it's like to be without hope.
Arthur reaches the bottom of the stairs and raises his sword, eyes drained dry and heart buried under the pulsing rage to fight. The enemy has not reaches this back hall yet, but he can hear the chaos from just around the corner—the roars, the too-high wailing of women. He runs forward.
He rounds the corner, and the first thing he sees are characters jumping out of the tapestries.
Warriors encased in dated armor clamber out of the green stitching, wielding primitive swords—primitive but effective, Arthur notices, as the six knights dispatch Palengard's blue-dressed soldiers. Women in cone hats lift their skirts and step out, skipping along the walls to usher Camelot's women down a side passage, while an entire hunt, complete with a dozen curled-tail hounds and four horsemen, leaps into the melee. The dogs howl and the horses scream, and the line of new allies brings the tide of blue soldiers to a bloody deadlock.
Arthur gapes, but shakes his head and adjusts his grip, determined to fight even in his insanity.
He gets one step before the windows shatter, the wind screaming and shards flying into the soldiers, crammed too close in the stone halls. Their yelling pitches high into fear.
Clanking from behind, and Arthur turns to see knights run past him, swinging axes and clunky broadswords and dressed in total armor—he catches the glimpse through one visor and sees nothing. They are the suits of armor that usually line Camelot's halls, antiques or artworks, but now they charge into the battle.
Four, eight, twelve pass Arthur…
Cries for retreat begin to pick up. Some of Palengard's men aren't waiting for the order, and they flee from the strange army.
So this is what he meant by his death causing the magic to go haywire. Arthur huffs at the understatement.
A troupe of rats scamper down the hall, between Arthur's legs and along the walls, and disappear into the fray. They vanish in the crowd, but he sees at least a few men start hopping, trying to shake something free of their legs.
"Only you, Merlin," Arthur mutters. He turns and runs, planning a new route to the Great Hall. Most of his people would be sheltering there along with the injured, and he might be able to organize some sort of cohesive defense from there.
Despite himself, he laughs.
The journey to the hall is the strangest Arthur has ever experienced.
He passes by huddled citizens trying to escape, and he points them to the back exit through the kitchen. Their faces shine with relief at seeing him, but he never stops.
But they're not the only ones. He runs past empty tapestries, rimmed in flowers but devoid of characters. He meets some materialized people—a jester in a belled hat, an archer with pointed shoes, nobles in tights and carrying lyres—and yells, "Follow me! The Great Hall!" Soon he's leading a bizarre procession.
More rats and mice scurry past in formations.
He runs into a grander hallway, near the Great Hall, with stained-glass windows. He's already past the first two before he notices that they're empty too, just a solid background tone. A couple have been blown in by the wind, and crows, falcons, even starlings are fluttering through, cawing and tittering as they hop from sill to sill, seeking eyes to peck.
Doors slam and creak, blocking enemies and allowing passage to others. A shadow, cast by a statue, twists and swims across the ground, skating faster than Arthur and slipping under the door at the end of the hallway. He cannot imagine what kind of death it brings.
He rushes towards the door. The latch lifts and the door swings open invitingly, and he and his trail of figures jog through.
There's a figure striding down the hall, and Arthur splits into a smile at finally seeing a familiar face. "Leon!"
He skids to a halt, but his followers continue towards the Hall, which is waiting just around this final corner.
His friend's jaw drops and they clasp arms. "Sire! My God, it's good to see you! We feared you were lost—"
Arthur takes off, Leon jogging alongside. "All that later. Report."
Leon laughs. "It's utter madness. The whole castle has risen against Palengard's men, and well! They nearly reached the doors of the Hall, but the castle has turned them back."
Around the corner, and the doors are there, flanked by four more of Arthur's men. They are bedraggled and bandaged, but they're alive, and when they see Arthur they light in surprise and questions.
"The castle's alive!"
He waves them back to their stations and placates with, "Later, men. Stand firm; that army is large and may be back."
The doors creak open of their own accord, and Arthur steps through to meet the eyes of a thousand refugees.
From that point, the victory is too easy.
Personally, Arthur suspects the rats are the final straw. They latch on to ankles and swarm; they don't kill, but they certainly frighten and trip. All Arthur and his men do is usher the fleeing men in the right direction, though that's a slow process. Buckles spontaneously snap, causing soldiers to trip over their own belts, and stairs shift beneath their feet. Any who dare to face a knight find their blades burn hot or snap free of the hilts.
They pass a hall close to the kitchens, and several men are knocked out by tapestry maidens wielding pans. Most of the men are mercenaries, Arthur knows, with no motivation to kill now; he orders them made prisoners and plans to release them later.
Arthur runs out into the courtyard, tailing a few meters behind the last two dozen rat-laden and bird-pecked men, sword raised but unused. They rush through the gates hollering.
Swarms of crows and falcons circle from beyond the wall, periodically diving. Wind whips his hair in angry gusts. In front of him, a tree root forces its way up through the stonework, tripping a soldier.
He hears the howling and squealing of wolves and boars, though he cannot see any through the narrow view of the gates.
He orders his men to stop at the gate. They watch these last soldiers flee down the wrecked streets of the city, leaping over fires and charred bodies. Only a fraction of the army actually entered the castle, Arthur realizes; most had been killed or turned tail upon Palengard's death.
The suits of armor begin marching back inside. The hunting party from the tapestry reconvenes in the courtyard, the horses' eyes rolling and tails arched high, the dogs running circles. The riders bow their heads to Arthur as they head back, the horses picking their way up the steps.
He stands, counting faces. Many of his closest knights are there, bleeding but upright, but when he asks after Alymere he gets shaken heads.
The birds scatter, the rats vanish into cracks, tree roots retreat back into the ground, the wind settles. The howling fades into the distance.
Arthur and his men stand alone. The silence presses his mind like death, and he clutches to their breaths, mind temporarily blanking in the wake of Merlin's sacrifice.
A drop hits the back of his palm; horrified, he looks down but sees a line of water slide across tendons.
It pours, the water cold and pure, and slowly the red sky fades to gray.
The men begin to cheer. Arthur wishes Merlin were here.
The order is a current pushing against knees.
Magic winds tight like a lyre string under the compellation and plucks a reminding pitch, calling.
The magic snaps.
And the whip-sting startles him into being and light fractures into his eyes and he heaves in air and sound floods in and the metal burns skin and gods the breeze is a million feathers and the magic has filled his drained veins and is singing singing singing to obey and before he remembers anything it overflows into the stone and seeps the whole castle in shining gold that only he can see through the white glare.
Minutes pass in a haze of exhaustion, the magic overwhelming him and surging through, drowning his own willpower beyond that instinctual call. There's only gold in his mind: gold hair, gold glory, gold magic…
Time passes, and slowly the magic settles back into him, crackling raw. He breathes, letting it pull back like the tide. It leaves behind the grit of senses, far quieter than that initial surge.
Why am I here?
He knows he was dead; he remembers Arthur and falling into black, though nothing after. And the magic, sparkling and rushing through him like a broken dam, tells him as much. He was supposed to stay dead; even if self-resurrection were possible, he had resigned himself to judgment in the afterlife because he'd managed to redeem himself in this one. Palengard was dead, Arthur had the sword, and somehow Arthur forgave him, though his death was an implied condition of that friendship.
He breathes in, out. His whole body aches, and the ground rotates beneath him. He daren't open his eyes yet, so to distract himself, he tries sorting through the tumult of noise beating his ears.
Women's voices, and though some are crying, there's laughter and cheering, and that proves that the war is over. Happiness softens the pain for a moment.
A sudden question crosses his mind. Kilgarrah? He projects the thought, and the pain pulses in his mind. He winces and lifts a hand—the movement's not worth the sore burn, and he lets it fall back onto metal.
Metal? Curiosity has him slitting his eyes before he can catch himself, and the light pierces through white-hot and he hisses sharp sharp sharp and the gold surges in his panic because he's going to die all over again…
Merlin finds himself on his side, both hands against his head. His eyes slit again. The light doesn't hurt much, but things glare to brightness, blurring white. He blinks, trying to focus, and thinks, How long have you been calling? A winced pain, but less than before.
That was my fifth try. The rumble gives away no concern. Welcome back to life.
There's amusement in that message. Merlin breathes quick, sorting through the pain-sight and the magic-sight to reality. I don't feel welcomed.
Patience, warlock. Balance will return in time.
He stares at the copper plating in front of him, the mint sprouting from the stone, and the caking blood. He'd laugh at the absurdity, but that would definitely rattle him into unconsciousness.
Are you hurt? He asks. He gets a chuckle in return. You've gone, he realizes, feeling the faintest rush of air that's miles away.
Once you returned.
But this is impossible, he thinks. Unless he cannot be killed with a sword... Arthur's taunting voice echoes off the plating—not human—and Merlin scans the stone to Palengard's body, Arthur's armor too large for his true form.
Arthur commanded you return. You had no way to refuse.
The words loop through Merlin's mind, processing while he watches the mint sprouts wobble in the breeze. He breathes out, bending one in half. Muscles strain across his stomach as if cinched too tight, and the weight of sleep presses him to the stone.
Merlin blinks, in and out of sleep; he passes into a doze, and has a half-dream of cupping blue light in his palm.
The clouds, still red, rumble. Merlin sucks in air and forces open his eyes, the light burning against his aching head. He forces the thought out, a word with each breath: Like… the light. Fevered. He called.
A wing-beat's pause. Perhaps.
A sharp wind rattles the mint in frenzy.
Merlin breathes in. The exhaustion blurs across. Out. He just remembers the unsettling. Kilg…
Kilgarrah sends a reassuring throat-throb. It is Dragon, and Merlin's spine softens.
Water splatters onto his skin, the stinging startling him, and then it pours cold, pinging off the plating.
Merlin watches the rain wash away the blood until he drowns in sleep.
Arthur retrieves the body alone.
He has little time, even after the battle is officially over. People need guided back to their homes, and those with destroyed property need arrangements made. There are dead knights, a worried father to placate, and above all: the magic.
People are grieving and shell-shocked, drained by panic and battle; they stare at him with wide-eyed questions, but shuffle out in silence. They are still processing the victory and its costs. Some, Arthur know, will accept it with far more ease than he.
The knights, bless them, are happy to obey his orders in their turned-over world. They ask no questions, trusting that he'll restore order in time. Perhaps they are too trusting.
He has yet to really report to his father, though he'd dropped in briefly and tried to reassure him.
"We've won, father," he'd said, voice loud in his father's chambers. "The dragon and magic have gone. All is well."
His father scoffed. The lines carved deep fans from his eyes, and he sank into his chair as if defeated.
Arthur curled his hands behind his back, suddenly angry at the ingratitude.
It wasn't until he saw Guinevere that the hot rage collapsed, because her eyes were so opposite, melting with beautiful sympathy.
"It's Gaius," she says, caramel eyes shining. "He's grief-stricken. He won't talk. Oh Arthur, it's Merlin, isn't it?"
Arthur can't meet her tears, so he nods to the ground. He'd broken the news to the physician himself, pulling him aside and forcing himself to speak for the poor man's sake. If he'd waited any longer, he'd never have had the courage.
"I know he saved us," he'd said. "No matter the means, he died a hero."
Gaius' grizzled face was frozen still as death. "He was always a hero, sire. He wanted to die a friend."
Arthur retreated, heart hurting.
Gwen chokes a sob, and he wraps his arms around her. Even she is bloodstained from her work in the infirmary.
"He was so silly," she sobs, "and so kind. It's not right."
Arthur forces a swallow and stares over her curls down the empty stone hall.
"He was a good friend," he says.
Now he climbs the steps alone, the spiraling turret silent but for the rush of rain. His body and mind ache with exhaustion.
Only he and Gaius know what Merlin has done, and Arthur wants to keep it that way. Better to have Merlin a common casualty than a magician traitor, which would implicate Gaius as well. But that means removing Merlin from a sight that didn't see battle—and is filled with signs of magic.
It is Arthur's duty. He tells this to himself as he climbs the stairs, but halfway up he leans against the wall, stopped by the ripping in his chest, the pressure that makes him want to yell—and he remembers this; it was in Merlin's memories too, the ones that flickered past fast and sharp as knives. Now it's his.
He bites back the yell and climbs, mind swallowed in sudden numbness.
He hardly feels the water soak his hair and slip under his armor as he shuffles across the battlement toward the body, sidestepping Palengard's carcass. The rain has plastered Merlin's clothes to his emaciated frame, making him so small.
Arthur kneels and tries not to look at the still face, but he glimpses and his breath catches. He looks down and rolls Merlin onto his back so that he can pick him up.
The head rocks and a knee bends, accompanied by a sleep-garbled mutter. Then stillness—but for the rise and fall of his chest.
Arthur just stares, watching that up-and-down until he's soaked through.
He only notices the passed time when the rain begins to thin, and even then he cannot say how long he's sat, looking. Daring, just daring, he tries thinking it: Merlin's alive.
Rise, fall. He tries again, fearing this reality will shatter: Merlin's alive. Rise, fall. Rise, fall.
It floods through and froths over, and suddenly he's laughing, face raised to the rain, and a tear's lost to the downpour.
Merlin grumbles at the fuss, head rocking towards Arthur, and his brows furrow. "Nah yea'."
Arthur falls forward, hands fisting in Merlin's shirt, and through the laughter he exclaims, "You're asleep! I cannot believe you're asleep! Only you!"
Two eyes split open, blue as sky but slouched in sleep. They track up to Arthur's face, completely unimpressed. "M'day off. Res'rected cuz of you, prat."
Arthur beams. "You've used all your holidays, Merlin. And it's not my fault."
Merlin scowls up at him. "'Tis. You called f'me." He winces and raises a hand to his temple, but his eyes are sharpening. They flicker back to Arthur, and suddenly they widen. "Arthur." He braces up on his elbows, the struggle leaving him breathing quick, so Arthur pulls him up to sitting. Merlin sways and brings both hands to his head, but his eyes skitter to Arthur in wide waiting.
Arthur's still swimming in joy, stunned by it, so he reassures, laughter flickering the words, "We've won, thanks to you. Well, you and the rats."
Merlin scoots back and slumps against the wall, the heel of his palm pressing a temple. The panic softens in curiosity. "Rats?"
"Swarms of them. And the shadows! You meant it when you said things would go crazy."
A half-smile skims across Merlin. "Got away from me from a bit," he admits. "It's all settled now," he adds hastily. "It won't happen again, I promise."
Arthur shakes his head and raises his palms, still chuckling.
Merlin gulps, looking anything but happy. "I'm sorry," he says, and the ground drops out from under Arthur. He freezes, knees cold against the copper, and stares into Merlin's eyes.
Heart skittering, he blurts, "You are alive, right? This isn't some trick?"
Merlin shakes his head, hair sopping. The rain has fallen to a drizzle. "No, no, I'm really alive." His words have begun to shiver with the cold, and his hands wander to the edge of his shirt and worry the fraying edge.
First there's relief, but then Arthur's eyes narrow. "You sound guilty. Why do you sound guilty?"
Merlin's hands stop and he blinks at Arthur. "Because I was supposed to die," he says, as if Arthur had just asked something profoundly obvious.
Visions of plagues and reapers fill Arthur's mind. "Has this… unbalanced things?"
Merlin's brows furrow in confusion. "Magically?" He flutters a hand toward the stairs, encompassing all that had happened. "All that madness was the aftershock. It's settled now."
"Oh. That wasn't… never mind." That was you alive? He blinks rain from his eyes. "Then what's the problem?"
Merlin still looks confused. "Well, now I'm here."
"I fail to see the problem with that. Besides it being wet, I mean."
Merlin opens his mouth, but suddenly it clacks shut.
The singing copper has fallen silent; Arthur holds out his palm, but there isn't even a mist.
Merlin's staring at him, skin shining wet. Arthur's palm drops. "What?"
His eyes narrow in outright suspicion. "Why are…" He trails off, eyes shifting across Arthur's face.
"I don't get it," Merlin says at last.
"Nothing new there."
Merlin huffs an exhale and blurts, "Why are you like this?"
Arthur's so confused he sits back on his legs. "What the hell are—" I don't remember. "Oh. You don't remember?"
Arthur waves an arm, trying to capture everything. "The, that—lake, and all the…" Merlin's beginning to give him that You're-Crazy look, so he says, "What do you remember?"
Merlin's eyes drift to the space beyond Arthur's shoulder. The blue fades to ocean depths. "There were two of you." His palms spread across his stomach, the fabric stained dark purple. It stretches under his hands, and raw pink peaks through the tear. "Palengard."
Arthur nods. Merlin's lips are tinting blue in the wet, and his bones rattle in a shiver. "Okay. Well, I assume you killed him, because next thing I remember I'm in the dream-world talking to you." He tilts his head at Arthur. "That was the magic's creation, not mine."
Arthur shakes his head at the implied apology. "I'm glad for it."
The grin is lopsided but the mutuality's genuine. "Yeah." Then he shrugs. "Then you ordered me back." He sounds accusatory, like Arthur has stomped into his room on a Saturday dawn and yelled him awake with orders.
"I don't understand what you mean," Arthur says, fear cooling his happiness. "I didn't do anything. I couldn't have!"
Merlin shivers in the wet. Rubbing circles on his temple, he says in an unsteady voice, "You did, though. You gave me an order, and the magic obeyed you." At Arthur's look, he adds, "It's complicated."
"Very, v-very complicated." He grimaces at the stutter and draws his knees to his chest. But then he's staring at Arthur with that same suspicious look. "You did it again."
"React to what?"
Merlin hugs his knees and picks at the rips there. "The magic. You're not... angry. Uneasy," he amends. He looks back to Arthur, a tilted, wary glance, and huddles in a tangle of limbs.
The memories, Arthur realizes. All those memories, the emotions, the grief and guilt and that blazing loyalty… He'd been Merlin, for flickered moments; how can he distrust that?
He hasn't even noticed his nonchalance until now, however, and this startles him. The memories have been absorbed into him; he felt the song in Merlin's blood, the crushing responsibility. Unless those memories were all a magical manipulation… Arthur grimaces at the rut and fists his hands, forcing himself not to slip into that endless circling. If he is to stay sane, he has to accept their truth.
Those were only moments. With a wince, he remembers that even those seconds had reduced him to a pleading ball on the ground.
Can Merlin really be sitting there, sane, with all those memories?
Obviously the connection had been unintentional, another symptom of the wild magic; Merlin doesn't remember them being sent. Arthur considers telling him; it's the honorable thing to do, and after all the secrets—and he doesn't doubt there are many, many more—adding another would set a bad precedent. So many stories, so many secrets. He remembers a shattered window, and wonders.
But then Arthur hesitates. Some of those were gouged places, still raw. He shifts his weight beneath him, suddenly guilty. He tries to imagine his mind, fragmented and incomplete, playing across someone's sight, and the horror twists in his heart; he rattles his head, hisses out a breath, and shakes away the embarrassment.
"Arthur, I didn't mean—I—pleasedon'thateme."
Arthur's startled back to the present. "Come again?"
Merlin's scrunches even smaller. "You want to kill me."
Arthur splutters, so shocked that he can only resort to, "I haven't even hit you!"
"Exactly. You're too calm." Merlin braces off the wall, tucking his feet beneath, but doesn't yet dare to stand. Pausing for breath, he says, "I'm sorry, really I am, for putting you in this spot. You shouldn't—" He catches himself, but the hard stare into the distance gives him away.
"Have brought you back?" Arthur finishes.
Merlin's lips flatten. "We'd sorted everything out."
Suddenly Arthur remembers a taunting man, breaths harsh around the arrow shaft. What are you going to do? Kill me? Arthur had said no, had even offered kind words; the man was dying and had saved them. There hadn't been any point in hate.
Standing at the lake, he had thought much the same thing of Merlin.
He wanted to die a friend. And he had, at the lake, because Arthur had shown the kind of mercy he does to all the dying. Now Merlin expects Arthur to retract that friendship.
Those songs in Merlin's blood were not dutiful hymns for a master, but screaming minors of improvised friendship. Arthur remembers his own mourning from just minutes before, the sense of slipping down a too-steep hill to fall into black. He is still mourning, on some level, the loss of an innocent friend, the naïve belief that not everyone carries tangled secrets. He'd liked Merlin's simplicity. He couldn't trust him to do a good job, but he could trust his humor and loyalty. He was an escape.
That was only the surface, a glare off the water meant to blind. He could not see past the glimmer, and had assumed the water shallow. Now he has swum in the deep dark sea.
The clouds roil, bunching into folds and highlighting at the creases. Wails and laughter echo off the stone. A dog barks.
Arthur sighs and stands, muscles pulling stiff. The movement startles Merlin back, his head tilting up with Arthur's rise.
"Come on," Arthur says, and holds out a hand. "You'll catch your death out here."
"Bit late for that, isn't it?"
Arthur's look is dry. "What have I told you about being funny?"
Merlin eyes the open palm. "To where?"
Arthur rolls his eyes heavenward. "Merlin, shut up."
"If you're going to execute me—"
"I'm not," he snaps.
Merlin blinks. Suddenly hot, Arthur drops his hand and gazes out at his Camelot, washed of blood and fire. The clouds roil, but the sun doesn't break through. Amid the chaos below a woman sings a few bars of hymn, but her voice slides sharp and the music sputters out.
"I'm magic, Arthur."
Arthur snorts. "I hadn't noticed."
"Letting me live would be treason."
Arthur's jaw clenches and he snarls, "Do you want me to kill you?"
"No." A shiver wracks Merlin, and he slumps back to sitting. "But I don't understand why you aren't."
"Neither do I," Arthur says, automatic. "It would spare me a lot of grief." But he knows he has already made this decision. He has already seen himself kill Merlin, and seen that it does not restore order or clear the smeared gray in his black-lined justice. Arthur has felt the loneliness, and killed the monster he becomes.
"But—" He reaches out and grabs Merlin's arms, pulling him up to standing. "I'd be bored."
Merlin gasps, startled and pained by the movement, and his knees fold; Arthur guides his fall so he ends slumped over the battlement, forehead pressed to the stone and palms spread wide.
"Owww," he moans, eyes shut. A couple sucked breaths, then, "This is worse than Beltane."
Arthur smirks, recalling Merlin's overhung absence the day following the festival. "I always suspected food poisoning was a lie."
Merlin groans. "Should've known. You won't even let me die in peace."
"And let you shirk all your chores?" Arthur sniffs. "You aren't getting off that easily."
Suddenly Merlin's beaming that stupid smile, cheek squashed against the stone. "I bet you've kept a list."
"It's a mile long, you lazy sod. I've got a child doing a better job than you." He's still smiling, even as he shoves off the stone and sways, this time remaining upright. It unsettles Arthur, and it takes him a moment to figure out why Merlin's grinning like a moron.
Quickly backtracking, he says, "I may make the replacement permanent. I'd forgotten what it was like to be treated with respect."
"I missed you too." He's still smiling, the silly git, even with the blue-tinted lips.
"You're owed a punch," Arthur says. "Would you like it now?"
Bracing his hand against the battlement, Merlin says, "No respect for the dead."
"You're not dead." Watching Merlin shiver, he adds, "Yet," and grabs Merlin's upper arm. His hand wraps over halfway around. Slowly easing him forward, Arthur says, "Gaius', now. You look wretched."
"I look like death warmed over." Merlin shuffles forward, cautiously adding weight to Arthur's hold.
"Shut up, Merlin."
His head pulses with the blood, and the light still aches, and the scarred-over muscle feels like it's tearing.
Arthur's hand is warm on his arm. Merlin can feel the heat along his whole side, soft against the wet and numbness. They shuffle along a few moments, then Merlin dares a hoarse, "It's a long story."
Arthur doesn't seem to hear. Three steps later, he says, "Yours always are."
The thought of telling leaves Merlin cold, afraid of toppling this stunning faith. "It's ugly," he warns. "I…" The muscles along his front seize, and his breath hitches and he lurches to a halt.
Arthur's hold tightens on his arm. "Merlin?"
Merlin sways into the grip, and his free arm wraps around his torso. "Know why people stay dead," he gasps, and tries to press warmth into his stomach. "Easier."
He stands, pain tugging with each breath, and considers telling Arthur to leave him for a few more days.
"Breathe deep," Arthur suggests, "and try talking; it'll distract you. Not that you need encouragement."
Merlin daren't laugh. He eyes the doorway ahead, dark and holding a spiral staircase. Getting down that will be interesting. "I expected you to banish me."
The shifting stills and the grip squeezes. "Different topic, Merlin."
He shakes his head. He can feel the muscles warming, slowly unwinding. Taking a swallow of air, he says, "I may be evil." He stares into the black archway.
"You're not evil."
The certainty turns Merlin's eyes to Arthur. "How can you know?" I don't.
Arthur meets his gaze, choosing his words. He is… not sympathetic, maybe, but certainly knowing. Far too knowing for someone so dense.
Suddenly Merlin recognizes the warmth from Arthur's palm as more than body heat. It's his own magic, just traces of it, but certainly there. He concentrates, tasting the familiarity of it, trying to see…
"Merlin?" His arm is shaken. "Merlin."
His breathing is spiking, pain forgotten, as horror freezes cold in his blood. He saw he saw he saw oh gods and he tugs free, stumbling back, staring at Arthur's too-knowing sky eyes. Breaths come quick and shallow, and he backs, frantically sorting through the magic, trying to see which memories he'd actually been sent… He feels shamed, and he folds small, arms crossed and shoulders hunched, and he stumbles back into the corner.
He curses, and Arthur's eyes widen in surprise and realization. "The memories."
"You didn't say!" Merlin cries. "I didn't—I wouldn't—" He feels a flush of heat along his skin, and he accuses, "You didn't!" As much as he feared explaining, he would at least have had some control over Arthur's perception, a chance to construct a more tolerable version of himself. But Arthur's already witnessed it, unedited with all his wrongs and emotions. "Argh!"And he lifts his numb hands to his face, folding into the dark.
He breathes, embarrassment and violation warring with exhaustion. He picks through the pieces, wincing at his magic's choices.
From beyond his shell, he hears, "They were only moments."
He hears a boot scuff, Arthur wisely keeping his distance. "It's not that bad."
This is so audacious that Merlin drops his hands to stare. "Not that—I'm—Why did you bring me back!"
Arthur's gaze softens into pity, and this is almost worse than the nightmares.
"Shut up," Merlin snarls.
Arthur's brows rise. "I didn't say anything."
"You were thinking it."
His arms cross. "Mind reading, are we?"
"That's your job." Merlin glares. Cart wheels clatter below. Arthur stares back, a corner of his jaw stuttering in a held-back grin. "You think this is funny."
"Your reaction certainly is." Arthur saunters forward and reaches for Merlin, but he tucks his arm back and demands, "How can you pardon me?" The guilt bleeds into his sleep and frightens the wind enough to shatter windows. He has done evil for the good, and because someone has to take the punishment for the glory, he'd bled. The story's told in the stained glass; he just didn't expect the resurrection.
Arthur's eyes shine blue, lighter and smoother than Merlin's, which are chipped and flecked. The shelter under his jaw is still smeared with gore.
Instead of answering, Arthur says, "I didn't get to finish my question." He's still staring, hard, and Merlin shifts under the unaccustomed knowing. There's a message in the gaze. "At the lake, I asked you why you do this."
The wind weaves through Arthur's hair, gold as the emblem on his tunic, and simultaneous mourning and celebration echoes off the stone. Merlin swallows, trying to see the point in this question, the words in the rim of his iris. Beyond, the gray clouds roll, shading uneven as the sun struggles to split through.
He opens his mouth to speak, then catches when he realizes he is not going to say, Destiny says I have to. Initially, it was true, or even that he has nothing better to do, but now they taste like weak excuses for something truer.
Then his memory flashes an echo of panic at the moment when Arthur had faded from his dying vision, when the voices had been coming. He remembers the blind fear of death, but he had not run. He had swallowed tears, in that tipping moment when his chest stopped rising but he still felt real. He had remembered gold, and thought, I accept my sentence.
Arthur already knows why. In the gray striped with the blue in his eyes, Merlin recognizes the answer. Color saturates and the air is sharp in his lungs, and he feels hollow light with the peace that he does not deny the deaths in his wake, nor the crimes he has committed. But he'd do it again, because abstract destiny is not who he thought of when he died.
Merlin says, "Because you're worth burning for."
Arthur bursts into a white-bright smile just as the first flame of sun lights Merlin in glorious fire.