Title: World Shaking Down
Warnings: Eventual violence and some character death (minor character)
Summary: You can't save the dying with words... and, yet, Balinor is still breathing. Arthur would know. He saw it. All of it. Including the part where *Merlin* did *magic*.
Disclaimer: Nope, don't own any of it. Just playing around.
Author's Note: This is my first foray into this fandom, so my apologies if anything seems a bit off. Also, I'm not British, and so I'm sure at some point in this story I'll accidentally make that glaringly obvious. If you see something that doesn't fit, I'd love for you to tell me. Actually, I'd love feedback in general. Constructive criticism is fine and often helpful; random flames make me sigh and/or laugh (depending on how strange and badly punctuated the comment is) and wonder how some people never learned any manners. Thanks for reading!
If Arthur had been trusting once, that time has passed, slipping like a loosening knot until the pieces of the rope have parted company entirely, dropping Arthur's carefully crafted, unchallenged world—or that which had been crafted for him. The loosening had been slow at first, small changes—the pieces straining against each other, sliding away slowly… but once they slipped loose, everything hurtled downward all at once, with a drop so fast that he found his heart in his throat with the beat choking him.
He hasn't hit the ground yet.
He knows the moment the rope had broken apart. Ten seconds ago. Eleven now. His heart is still beating. Twelve. And it is still in his throat.
The dragonlord had been injured. Badly. Arthur hadn't seen it happen, but when he'd stumbled over into the clearing, Merlin had been leaning over him, the bloody sword on the ground telling the story better than Merlin ever could. Even if it hadn't, Merlin's frantic, desperate moves would have made it obvious. Between his choked breaths, almost on the verge of sobs, there had been something—pleading words. Begging, because God knew Merlin was not a knight. If he had been, he would have known too well that nothing can stop the inevitability that a sword between the ribs invites. Words have no efficacy against cold steel—you can't tether the dying to you with words.
Arthur swallows. Words can't do that.
Words can't do what they just did.
Twelve seconds. Thirteen seconds. Fourteen, fifteen. Sixteen. Infinity. Something even longer.
His sword is still in his hand from his last kill, but the way his arm moves it forward, drawing the rest of his body after it toward Merlin doesn't seem like him. This is a mistake. It must be. But his sword is still at Merlin's back, the tip just barely pressing to his jacket, because that is just what you do when you see someone use magic to tie a man to life.
Merlin tenses at first, letting Arthur read the clear line of disbelief in the tightening of his shoulders, right before he shuffles forward just the smallest amount, steadying himself with his hands. He's slow about the way he flips himself over, and he braces his hands on the ground, curling his fingers into the dirt forcefully enough that it bites up under his fingernails. Then, just like that, he's facing Arthur. Just sitting there on his backside looking up at the sword still extended toward him.
For just a moment, it could be nothing—like the slowly assessing look Merlin gives might not be so different from the one he fixes Arthur with when he's trying to tell whether he's serious about something or not. Why shouldn't it be the same look? That's exactly what Merlin is doing. It just that this is wildly different than trying to figure out if Arthur means it when he tells him to wear that official serving uniform. Or to eat rat. Or to lie to the king so Arthur can sneak away for the day. Or… so many other things. No, none of it's the same. This is life… or maybe death. Merlin's life. Merlin's death.
"Tell me I'm wrong," Arthur breathes out, voice unsteady where his arm is not. "Tell me."
But Merlin doesn't tell him anything. He just leans back, looking up at Arthur with a wide open expression: his lips part, and his tongue darts out to wet them as he slowly begins to shake his head. "I wanted to tell—"
"Shut up!" His sword pushes forward to press in against Merlin's shoulder. Just a quick flick to the right, and he'll hit that place in a man's neck that makes him bleed and bleed and bleed…
For once in his life, Merlin does what he's told. A good servant, though—a good servant would drop his gaze. But not Merlin. Merlin keeps staring at him, talking with his eyes in a way he's given up with his voice. Unbelievably, there's something strong about it, even with the tears shed for Balinor clinging to his black lashes. I'm sorry, Merlin doesn't say.
Sorry. He's sorry? Arthur can't—he can't imagine—Merlin is sorry? Like that's all it takes?
It's stupid and wrong, and Merlin's an idiot now as much as he ever was, but Arthur—he can't deny that he's made his decision a long time ago, even if he never actually did. Maybe he made it before he even consciously knew what he's now seen. Because Merlin? He was never much good at hiding. There are too many unexplained events, too many things to really, truly miss. Arthur would like to think he's not that blind. He's not, is he? Except he is. There may be a reason for that. He didn't know, had no idea… but did he really want to know? He should have entertained the possibility. Merlin has been accused of sorcery more than once. Why hadn't he looked a little more closely at what Merlin was doing?
But he hadn't.
He hadn't wanted to.
Whatever and however, the sword is falling from his fingers, even as his hand keeps thrusting forward. If he'd kept a hold of the sword, it would have gone straight through Merlin by now. Instead, it's on the ground, and the slap of flesh on flesh echoes instead.
It's less lethal, but far more personal.
Good. Personal is good. Merlin lied to him. The bastard lied to him. And thatis So. Very. Personal.
Merlin lets him lash out. There's no other explanation for it, because if he can save a dying man's life? He can certainly get Arthur off of him. A hand around his throat and a forearm smashing him to the ground should be nothing.
Still, he goes to the dirt like he isn't what he is.
What he is. A sorcerer.
"You have lied to me all this time—"
There's an aborted swallowing motion against his palm, and Merlin's face pulls tight in a grimace when he realizes how useless that is. Still, Arthur must not be squeezing as hard as he thought he was, because Merlin is still apparently capable of speech. "I didn't want—"
"I should kill you."
Merlin might even agree, because he blinks his eyes closed, and all Arthur can really think is that resignation shouldn't look like that. It shouldn't be so simple. This is Merlin. He's never resigned himself to anything. He never takes orders without at least a grumble. Why now? Do it, Arthur wants to scream. Protect yourself. No questions asked, just throw off the weight on him and run. Then it wouldn't be a decision, and everybody's loyalties could stay settled where they ought to be. A lack of decision would make the decision for a prince who's a friend, or a friend who's a prince.
Prince or friend: that is the decision.
But Merlin—because he has not, Arthur thinks with a curse, never made things easy—doesn't seem inclined to give him that luxury.
Instead, he just lies back against the ground, hair grinding into the dirt as Arthur presses him more firmly down, fingers flexing against Merlin's warm flesh. It must hurt, and Merlin's face is reddening, but the most he does to struggle is to bring a hand up to curl around Arthur's wrist. His nails dig into the flesh he finds there, but it is a small hurt compared to what's being done to him.
Why are you letting this happen? Arthur doesn't scream.
No, instead, he just grinds out from between clenched teeth, "I have to kill you." It should be a statement, but even to his own ears, it sounds far too much like he's asking a question.
Later, he will realize that it was never even a possibility that he would bring Merlin to his father. If he has to give his servant death, it will be at his hand, and it will be quick. He won't see Merlin burn. He shouldn't feel that way, of course. Magic is evil. By everything he's been raised to believe, Merlin deserves nothing less, and by the laws of Camelot, that's exactly what should happen.
Should fades, though, and maybe he's only belaboring a question he's already answered.
"Have you ever used it against me?" Arthur hears himself demand.
Merlin tires to swallow again against Arthur's hand, even straining a little this time, one hand pushing ineffectually at Arthur's chest… Or maybe not so ineffectually—it's enough to get Arthur to loosen his grip just enough to let a few words fight their way past Merlin's lips: "Wouldn't ever hurt you—"
He presses down again. Merlin chokes.
"You're lying. You've got to be."
Does he? Does he really have to be lying? Or would it just be easier? Because if Merlin is telling the truth, he's guilty of nothing beyond using magic. No actual harm. To kill him would be to condemn a man for doing good, albeit for doing it with a banned method.
To let him live would be to spit in the face of the laws of the very kingdom he will one day rule.
"What if you're dangerous?" he grits out. "I can't—I can't trust you." If he's wrong, and he spares Merlin—the damage will be on his head. His fault.
Damn it, though, how can someone who trips over his own feet be dangerous? And Merlin doesn't smile like he's dangerous—every morning, he always wakes Arthur with a smile, and as far as Arthur knows, evil doesn't wake you with trite phrases and sunlight. Evil doesn't bring you extra when the kitchen makes your favorite pastries. This is Merlin. He brings Morgana flowers. He laughs with Gwen. Sometimes (fine, often) he even manages to keep Arthur entertained with his antics. And besides the whole matter of sorcery, the worst lies he's ever told to Uther are ones so badly crafted that he had to know he'd get a day in the stocks in turn for getting Arthur some time alone with a girl. Lying to keep Arthur out of trouble for neglecting his duties? That's not exactly malevolent.
None of this makes any sense. Merlin is—he's not evil.
No one could possibly be that good an actor.
More dirt catches in Merlin's hair as he shakes his head, and for the first time, he really moves, trying to push Arthur off. It's a pointless endeavor, of course: if Merlin only uses physical means, he might as well not bother. They both know that.
And, yet, it's a comfort that he's at least trying.
"Ar… thur…" he wheezes, flushed all the way down his neck now. It makes the line of white surrounding where Arthur's fingers are seem even brighter. Blood rush against skin that's been squeezed bloodless by Arthur's own hands.
Merlin will die if this keeps up. He needs air. Just like any man, he needs to breathe. Even sorcerers need to breathe. And that—it's just a very real detail.
That shouldn't be such a pull back into reality… but it is. Merlin suddenly feels more solid, skin more sweaty, more like a person and less like a nightmare concept of sorcerer. Whatever he is, he is still a man—still the man Merlin—and if Arthur kills the sorcerer, he will kill Merlin too. A very real Merlin. That same Merlin who cleans his armor and scares away game on hunts. It will be a very real kill, and it will be personal in a way that killing just a sorcerer wouldn't be.
That is his choice: kill Merlin or let him live.
"You're a… sorcerer."
Yes, and he is still Merlin.
There is no way to avoid that: kill the sorcerer and he'll kill Merlin too.
The decision was made from the beginning, he knows, though he'd never admit it. At least it was made in all the ways that mattered. Arthur can't imagine otherwise, even looking down at the evidence to the contrary: Merlin as his face purples and his eyes flutter as he lips twist silently, trying to taste the air. When his fingers begin to go slack around Arthur's wrist, reality can't be denied: Arthur either has to kill Merlin or not, and he's running out of time to decide.
He's already decided.
With a harsh shove, Arthur pushes himself back away from Merlin, falling against the ground as he watches, waits. It's cold. There's dirt under his palms, scratchy with tiny twigs; a shard chipped from a rock presses against his palm, imprinting in his skin. Somewhere in the last few seconds, though, his senses have shifted, and that tiny hurt seems like nothing: he feels numb, and everything seems tinted with a color he can't describe.
Breathing, though—there's the sound of life.
The air is filled with achy gasps—both Merlin's and Arthur's. The cramps in his lungs radiate down into Arthur's fingers, seizing along with his lungs as one draws air and the other tries to loosen after being clenched down in a death grip. Everything seems cramped. It might be his lungs, or it might be his fingers, but at least Merlin is breathing despite it all.
He may be destroying everything, but he's made his decision.
It just—is it right?
By the time Merlin rolls over onto his side, he's begun coughing, though his eyes stay warily on Arthur while he fights to regain his breath. One hand goes gingerly to the red ringing his throat, skimming it with light fingers and wincing, probably in direct spite of his desire to hide any weakness. Arthur can understand, though—being choked hurts.
"Arthur," he says like a complaint as he bends forward, hanging his head loosely enough that he can shake it a bit, back and forth, disbelieving and disapproving all at once. How very like him. If only Merlin could multi-task as well in his duties as he does in his expressions.
Why is he even thinking this? He almost killed Merlin, and he's thinking about chores.
What is wrong with him?
"I want a check on it."
This time, when Merlin's head jerks up, there's surprise on his face. It somehow dampens the confusion so obvious in the raised line of his brow. "W-What?"
"There has to be a way. I don't—I don't need to control it. But I want to be able to stop you."
If it's possible to look offended when just recovering from being choked, Merlin manages it: his eyes narrow, and his fingers stroke absently over the skin of his throat, automatically drawing Arthur's eyes to the spot in a reprimand that Merlin probably didn't consciously intend, not because he wouldn't be justified, but just because Arthur can't believe he'd be that subtle.
"You can't really think I'd—"
"It doesn't matter what I think. I have a duty to Camelot."
Merlin stares at him. There's hurt there, certainly, and it's not hard to understand why. And damn it all, but Arthur does want to trust him. He thinks he probably even does. But that niggling sense of what if tickles at the back of his mind until his fingers itch, violently enough that he digs his nails into his own palms, trying to alleviate the irritation. He's trusting his judgment, and if he turns out to be wrong—
No. Not an option. "There has to be a way."
"And if I tell you there isn't? Will you kill me?"
There. Finally an answer. An indisputable one, said out loud. Magic or no magic, he won't kill Merlin. He can't. Not in good conscience.
"Then why would I let you do that?"
"Because I'm asking you to."
Good Lord, he might as well have kicked a puppy, what with the way Merlin frowns, the expression seeping into his eyes, closing them off into a chilly blue. He looks almost like a child pouting, and while sometimes Arthur is rather inclined to think he acts like one too, he doesn't much want to deal with that sort of attitude at the moment.
"I've never done anything to—I've never—I've protected—" He pauses, lowering his head and peering up at Arthur through his bangs. "Why don't you trust me?"
"You've lied to me for years."
"I've protected you for years," he corrects, tilting his chin back upward and giving Arthur are very good view of the forming bruises collaring his neck. Again. And damn him, an intentional move or not, it's still completely effective: the clenching Arthur feels in his gut can only benefit Merlin.
The truth seems to clench up along with those muscles. That can, of course, mean nothing good, because when he relaxes, everything he doesn't want to say seems to spring to the surface, bubbling out of his mouth before he thinks better of it. "If it were only trust, Merlin, this would never be a question."
Leaning back, Merlin splays his hands behind him on either side of his own body, taking his weight. There's a stray leaf in his hair, draping just low enough that it's got to be tickling the skin at the hairline by his temple, but he makes no move to pull it away. He's all slightly cocked head, narrowed eyes—too focused on Arthur to bother with anything else. "Then why is it a question?"
"Because it is also my duty to Camelot—to my father—to hold to the law. And… you know what the law is."
Merlin really has no right to look affronted at that, and, yet, he does, as though he thinks Arthur is the one being hypocritical. "You'll be breaking it no matter what you do if you don't turn me in. Having some kind of way to stop what I can do—it won't make it go away altogether."
Is Merlin really arguing that? Really? "Do you want to die?"
"No," he admits with a quick shake of his head. "You know that."
"Then don't say things like that."
"Merlin," he interrupts slowly, raking a hand through his own hair, trying not to think about what he's saying, "Don't place yourself between me and my loyalty to my father. Whether or not he's wrong, he's still the king. His word is law. I can't believe that you want to press me to commit treason. Not when there's another way."
A rather underhanded move? Oh, yes. But if that's what it takes—if that's what he needs to do…
He knows he's won—sees the moment Merlin's face relaxes, jaw slackening enough to part his lips. A personal appeal will prevail where a legal one won't. Merlin won't deny him, not knowing that, more than anything, this is a way for Arthur to live with his decision. Betrayal is still betrayal—he is still breaking the law by letting Merlin live—but a compromise eases the conscience. It justifies things—negates all his father's reasons for wanting to have a sorcerer killed. A sorcerer whose power can be curtailed at any moment is no danger.
Keeping Merlin alive becomes justifiable.
It's still treason, but it's treason with a better reason than just blind trust to back it.
"Is there a way, Merlin?"
He's had men baring down on him with weapons on multiple occasions, but this—the look Merlin is giving him—somehow cuts at him more. A moment, then another, with nothing but blankness. And then Merlin looks away. "I—I think—yes—"
"Do you really want this?"
"I want to know that I can stop you if I need to. I want to know that you can never be a threat."
He trusts Merlin. He does. But he's only human—and doubt, it's a very human emotion. Trust is a choice, and as such, Arthur has never believed that it and doubt are mutually exclusive. So he's going to doubt, but he's still going to choose to trust too—to believe that Merlin won't use what he has for evil. Even now, closing his eyes and taking a deep breath to steady himself, he can't convince himself otherwise. But the possibility—it's daunting. Why not erase it entirely? If Merlin truly isn't going to use his magic for wrongdoing, there is no reason not to do this. If he's not doing anything wrong, there will never be anything to stop.
"Do you think I could be a threat?" Merlin asks quietly.
Arthur just shakes his head.
"Then you just want a reason? Something—"
Something you can use to tell yourself that what you did was right. Something that makes the decision logical and not just a choice wrapped entirely in a feeling—in an unexplainable trust. Because trust? It's not proof.
Merlin doesn't say any of that… it's not even something he'd probably think. But Arthur could swear he hears it anyway, and maybe that says more about where the logic is coming from than he'd like to admit.
"No, I'll give you that."
Those words snap his head back up like a marionette on a string. That's it? All Merlin wanted was to know it wasn't about trust—not where it really counted? Of course, that's still mingled in with the problem, but if Merlin were to flat out refuse this, he still wouldn't kill him. You don't kill a man who's saved your life on multiple occasions.
No. Just no. He chooses to trust Merlin.
And Merlin, Arthur thinks a little wildly, is choosing to let him ease the risk that poses, simply because Arthur was willing to take that risk at all.
"You can do it then?"
Shrugging a little, Merlin admits, "I think so."
"You think so?"
That earns him a sharp glare. "It's not like this is something I've ever actually tried!"
Fair enough. "Then how are you going to-?" He trails off, settling instead for a little wave of his hand in Merlin's general direction to convey the idea.
Judging by the wrinkle that appears in Merlin's brow, it wasn't a gesture received all that well. "Look, I was born with this—it's not about just saying a few words. I can—I can feel the magic in me. The spells just control it better. But this—" He swallows, looking away for a moment, like he can't believe he's saying this at all. "I don't think this needs a spell. This is just me—just something I have to will my magic to do."
"Get on with it then?" he prompts, half a question. Really, why is Merlin waiting? Best to get this over with.
Best for both of them.
Best to do it before Arthur can really consider the implications of his request.
A quick swipe of Merlin's palms down the front of his trousers leaves faint stains, and while Arthur doesn't comment, it's not like he doesn't know what that means. Merlin's sweating. Nervous. "It's not as easy as that, Arthur," he snaps. "I just—do you even know what you're asking me to do?"
"Do you know what you've forced me to do?"
His answer comes in a shake of dark hair and a pursing of lips—scowling almost—right before Merlin reaches out his hand. When Arthur doesn't immediately reach back, Merlin shakes the limb lightly, giving him a pointed look that is more heavily laced with guilt than it should be. "C'mon then."
Arthur finally takes his hand. It's a bit odd how Merlin's hand feels light in his own, smoother too, without the sword calluses he's accustomed to. Merlin feels… too normal, when, somehow, he should be exceptional. Shouldn't he? But he's flesh and blood like any other man. He's even weaker than some men. Arthur could take him apart with a couple of well-aimed punches. And yet—he's—what he is. It's not as though he needs physical prowess when he could probably kill Arthur with a few muttered words.
Arthur squeezes his hand a little harder than necessary.
"You ready?" Merlin asks without looking at him.
Arthur nods, which is, admittedly, useless when the other person's gaze is on the ground. "Yes."
One of them is, then—because Merlin is not. Arthur has seen enough men put their lives on the line to know the difference. It's not even so much Merlin's face that lets him see it: the lines of his servant's skin actually smooth out when his eyes close and his breathing evens, but there's still a slight tightness in the corners of his mouth. It tells nothing, really—not to someone who didn't know what to look for—but Arthur is looking, and he doesn't miss the clue that isn't really there.
He's asked—sod it, he's asked this of Merlin, and all he sees is a hint of tension. If all his knights could have this level of courage—without the blind stupidity, of course, because, really, from Merlin's point of view, this is a terrible decision—Camelot would have the finest fighting force in Albion. Well, more than they already do.
Not that Arthur is biased.
Of course, if all his men fought like Merlin apparently does magic, Arthur can't imagine he'd be qualified to command them in the first place: there are no words to warn for what comes. Nothing really. No warning that Merlin has even begun beyond the tightening of his hand around Arthur's. Then, there's a quick hitch in his breath, like the magic is coming up out of him—or at least trying. Somehow, it seems to have caught within him, hooked on his insides or on a feeling—just not coming out.
And then it is coming out.
If there were anyone watching, Arthur is fairly certain that they'd be impressed with how he doesn't cry out when… whatever it is surges up through his body. They shouldn't be impressed. He can't cry out. There's no air in his lungs. He can feel Merlin's hand clenching against his, but he can't see it, and if there's anything to hear, he can't do that either. This… thing has stolen his senses, setting everything in him alive to the point where he can't feel—or where he can feel too much to feel anything else. His insides pulse and twist, like that thing caught inside Merlin is now settling into him too, and he really wishes his insides would stop trying to crawl their way out of him. They were put inside for a reason. Best that they stay there.
His last thought before his vision darkens is that apparently Merlin is as inept at this as he is at everything else he does for Arthur.
God help him, though, Arthur's sure a messy room never hurtthis much.