Title: The Other Side of the Edge
Summary: Arthur tries to talk Merlin out of a long fall with a sudden stop, and then gets a little more information than he bargained for. Sequel to "Standing on the Edge of Forever".
WARNINGS: Possibly touchy subject, suicidal type thoughts
Disclaimer: I own nothing.
AN – By popular demand, here's Arthur's point of view of Standing on the Edge of Forever. It's not that long, I recommend you reading it first. : ) Anyway, this one grew from a companion piece into this. Apparently Arthur had a lot more to say on the subject than I originally thought. Not intended as slash. ALSO. I am working on the next chapter of The Lost, and will have it up soonish. Okay? Okay.
ON WITH THE FIC!
Merlin had been acting off for days now. Being quiet. Eyes going distant when he thought that no one was looking. All 'yes, Sire', and 'No, Sire' and being polite and demure and servant like. It irked Arthur, but he let it go, figuring that Merlin, girl that he was, was probably just having his monthlies or some other such nonsense. But then, after training, Gwaine had sidled up to him and said, "Did you and Merlin have a fight, Princess? Do I have to beat you again?"
That meant that other people – well, Gwaine, anyway, Arthur wasn't sure if Gwaine counted as 'people' – had noticed something off about Merlin. Now, though, Arthur couldn't find him anywhere. But he wasn't worried. No, no, he was just walking about the castle at night because he was irked that Merlin had forgotten to clean his boots again. Certainly not worried that no one seemed to know where Merlin was. Annoyed, maybe, but not worried.
"You, there," Arthur said, waving down one of the guards, "You haven't seen my servant anywhere, have you? Tall, clumsy, looks a bit shifty…"
"I saw him go out onto the wall, Sire," said the guard.
"Excellent," said Arthur, "I can throw him off, then. Make it look like an accident."
The guard laughed good-naturedly as Arthur moved away. After all, the squabbling between prince and manservant had become something of legend in the city of Camelot. "Merlin?" Arthur called, throwing the door open and stalking out onto the wall, "You've forgotten to clean my boots, and a guard saw – Merlin!"
Later, Arthur would try to convince himself that he was only somewhat thrown off balance by the sight of Merlin standing right on the edge of the wall, arms loose at his sides, staring down at the courtyard far below. But, now, in the moment, he couldn't think through the haze of fear and confusion. Because it really looked like Merlin was about to jump. He was getting ahead of himself, he decided. After all, this was Merlin, wasn't it? He probably had some hairbrained explanation about how he came to be standing on the wall like that. All the same, when Arthur spoke again, he kept his voice low, calm, "Merlin? What are you doing?"
"Thinking," Merlin said, and his voice was flat and monotonous. It made the hair on Arthur's neck stand up straight, and a feeling of flat-out wrong sank deep into his stomach.
"I understand that thinking is probably a new concept for you," said Arthur, sinking instinctually down into the easy banter that generally flew between he and Merlin, "But most of us tend to do it on the ground. Not standing on ledges."
Merlin laughed, an easy and honest sound. It set Arthur's nerves at ease slightly.
"Step down before you trip over yourself and fall," he added.
"Fall?" said Merlin, not turning, and whatever relaxation Arthur had found vanished abruptly. Again, he was struck with an overwhelming slap of wrong. This time, it was in the way that Merlin swayed forward ever so slightly, the movement small enough that Arthur wondered if he had imagined it. "Falling would be bad," Merlin said, quiet enough that Arthur almost didn't hear him.
"Very good, I'm glad that we agree on that."
"It would probably kill me."
He might as well have turned around and kicked Arthur in the stomach. It would have had the same effect. He wanted to scream what the hell are you thinking, you bloody idiot, how dare you even consider something like this? He wanted to grab Merlin off of the wall and shake him and shake him until he realized how crazy all of this was, but, God, what if that scared Merlin before Arthur got him to safety and sent him plummeting over the edge and Arthur couldn't stop it? Hell. Oh, hell. How the hell had he managed to get into this situation? How had Merlin? How had Arthur let Merlin hit this point? "It would," Arthur finally said, feeling like every word weighed a thousand years, "So why don't you come down before that happens, yeah?"
Merlin shook his head, one of his hands clenching briefly into a fist. "Not yet," he said.
"Okay," Arthur said, holding up his hands even though he knew that Merlin couldn't see him, not staring out in front of him like that. His mouth had gone dry. He scrambled for something to say, something that would get Merlin talking, because if Merlin was talking then he wasn't thinking about throwing himself off of walls. "How about you tell me what it is you're thinking about, then."
Merlin's breathing hitched slightly. Arthur wanted to kick himself. "I can't," Merlin said.
"Because you wouldn't like it very much," said Merlin, and Arthur could his words quavering. Some part of the prince was happy. Any sort of emotion was better than that utter blankness that had worked its way over Merlin's voice, wasn't it?
"Try me," Arthur said.
"I can't," Merlin insisted, slumping slightly. Slumping forward. Arthur flinched towards him, but Merlin didn't move anymore.
"I swear, Merlin, whatever it is, we'll fix it. I just – we can fix it, all right?" Arthur said, barely even hearing himself talk anymore, "Come down, and we'll figure it out."
Merlin let out a bark that was closer to a sob than a laugh, and said, "You can't fix everything, Arthur."
Oh, screw this, Arthur thought, and took a step forward, two arms' length from Merlin and the edge. "Not if you don't let me try," he said.
"I'm not going to jump," Merlin said, softly. The words and the relief they brought made Arthur go weak in the knees, but they were still just words, and Merlin was still standing on a wall, toes poking over into oblivion. Merlin swallowed, and said, before trailing off, "I only wanted…"
"Wanted what?" Arthur said. Merlin didn't respond. He just stared downward, unflinching. Arthur had seen seasoned knights go slightly green and swaying when looking down from this height, but Merlin just kept looking down, kept still. Arthur crept closer, inching his way forward. "What?"
"I only wanted to understand," Merlin said, barely above a whisper.
"Understand what?" Arthur said, knowing it was useless to ask, having to anyway, further out of his league than he ever been before. This wasn't fair – Merlin was the one who was supposed to be hopeful and carefree and wise. Merlin was the one that talked Arthur out of doing incredibly stupid and self-destructive things. Everything was turned on its head and it was wrong and it made Arthur dizzy. "Why don't you come down from there, right over here, and you can tell me all about what you wanted to understand."
Merlin didn't answer. He just rocked forward ever so slightly again, staring out at nothing, stupid neckerchief and coat fluttering in the breeze. Arthur, at the end of his rope, reached out and grabbed Merlin's foot. Merlin looked down at him, and his eyes seemed impossibly wide. "Merlin," Arthur said, and there was a lump in his throat, big and blocking and painful. He didn't know what to say, what else he could say. So, instead of some words about loyalty and whatever-the-hell-else Merlin would say if things were normal and Arthur was the one about to be rash and ridiculous, Arthur just said a single word. "Please."
Merlin stared at him for a long time, and then nodded. He turned so his back was to the drop and began to climb off of the wall. Arthur reached forward and grabbed him by the wrist, yanking him away from the ledge and whirling him around so his back was to the castle, and Arthur stood between he and the drop. Merlin, legs folding beneath him, sat on the ground. Arthur watched him carefully for a moment before squatting down in front of him. Then, Merlin stood up and turned towards the door, not saying anything.
Arthur was on his feet instantly and grabbed Merlin by the shoulder. "Where are you going?" he said.
Staring at a point somewhere to the right of Arthur's head, Merlin said, "You said I forgot something with your boots. I was going to –"
"Forget about the boots," Arthur said, not sure if he was going to laugh or cry or scream a bit.
"I said to forget about the boots!" he bellowed, and then bit his tongue. Scream a bit it was, then.
"It wasn't what it looked like," Merlin said then, fidgeting from foot to foot, staring down at the stones of the ground now.
"No? Then what was it?" said Arthur, and again he was almost knocked over with the urge to grab Merlin and shake him until he started to make sense again, "Because it looked like you were going to –" he cut off, unable to voice the words, unable to bring the actual thing out into the real world. So, he amended, "It didn't look good."
"I," Merlin said, and for a quarter of a moment Arthur thought that he was actually going to get a straight answer out of Merlin for a moment. But then, instead, all Merlin said was, "Its complicated."
"I wasn't going to jump," Merlin said, crossing his arms over his chest, shoulders slumping, looking utterly defeated, "Really. I wasn't."
Arthur didn't say anything. He didn't think that he could. The fear and the anger and the betrayal – and didn't that last one come as a surprise, but, still, how dare Merlin even think of something like this – had become physical things in the back of his throat.
They stayed up there for a long time, silent. And then Arthur had stood, still wordless, and walked down the stairs. Merlin followed mutely behind, a slouching shadow, still kind of hugging himself. Arthur walked straight to Gaius's chambers, and he heard Merlin release a slightly shuddering gasp as he realized that Arthur was bringing him to the physician, but still he followed the prince along. But when they walked in, there was no sign of the physician.
Merlin made a beeline for his small side room. Arthur let him, pulling out a chair and sitting with a huff.
Merlin turned at the noise, looking at Arthur, head tilted to the side. "What are you doing?" he said.
"Sitting," said Arthur.
"Because, we don't know when Gaius is getting back, and so I think I'd rather sit to wait for him."
"Why are you waiting for Gaius?"
Arthur stared at Merlin. "Why do you think?" he said.
Merlin gritted his jaw. "I think," he said, "That you should go."
"That's lovely, Merlin," said Arthur, "But I outrank you by several million degrees."
Merlin looked like he was about to argue, but then one of the younger serving boys came bursting into the room. He froze, seeing Arthur sitting by the table. It took him a moment, but then his eyes got round and he dropped into a bow. It turned out that Gaius was down in the lower town assisting with a particularly difficult birth, and had sent the boy running for supplies as Merlin had been nowhere to be found. The physician expected to be gone until morning.
"There," said Merlin once the boy left, "Gaius won't be back all night. You might as well go."
"And leave you here to your own devices?" said Arthur, "No, thanks."
"I wasn't going to jump," Merlin repeated again, "I'm fine."
"Why were you on the wall?"
"I told you," said Merlin, wringing his hands a little, "I can't."
"Merlin," said Arthur, "I'm not leaving until you've told me what chased you up onto a tower."
"It's none of your business."
"I'm the prince," said Arthur, standing, "And you are my servant. Ergo, my business. Talk."
"No, Merlin, not until you tell me what the hell you were doing up there. Not until you tell me why."
"Because it could have been me," Merlin burst out, eyes welling up with unshed tears, "He, I – Oh, God, it could've been me, it's almost been me, it should have been me –" he cut off, looking more terrified than when he'd been standing on the wall, staring at Arthur, mouth hanging open.
"Merlin," Arthur said, feeling utterly useless, "Merlin, I have no idea what you're talking about. I…"
Arthur didn't know what caused the thought to drop into his mind, but at the same time he didn't know how he could have possibly missed it before. The sorcerer who had resisted arrest some days ago, who had chosen to take his own life by throwing himself to the courtyard below rather than be taken into custody. Merlin becoming suddenly close mouthed and serious over the same amount of time. I only wanted to understand.
"He was a fugitive, Merlin," said Arthur, "He'd broken the law. His fate was regrettable, but he'd practiced magic, and death was what was coming for him anyway."
Merlin visibly flinched.
It was like someone had lit a torch in Arthur's mind. It could've been me, it's almost been me, it should have been me. "Oh," said Arthur. "You're a…oh. Oh."
Because that made sense, didn't it? It made sense about how Arthur had made it this long, especially with all of the dangerous magical creatures that made a habit of coming after him. It made sense about how Merlin was able to cope with a workload that should have taken two servants at least while running errands for Gaius as well. It made sense how Merlin was never hurt though he never wore any kind of armor and couldn't fight to save his life. It made sense how many times Arthur had been bashed in the head, only to wake and find that everything was fine now.
"You're a sorcerer," Arthur said.
Merlin was shaking, hugging himself slightly. Now he looked even more petrified. As he should be, right? Because Merlin was a sorcerer, and they were in Camelot, and Arthur was the prince. Every breath that Merlin took was punishable by death. No wonder he'd been up on the wall like that. "Can't you just," Arthur said, "I don't know, can't you just not be a sorcerer?"
Merlin shook his head. "No," he said, "No, it doesn't work like that. I can't help it, it's – I can leave. Please, don't turn me in, I'll leave and –"
"Merlin, shut up," said Arthur, "You're not leaving, and…and I'm not going to turn you in."
"You're not?" Merlin said, blinking rapidly.
"Of course I'm not," said Arthur.
"But, the law," said Merlin.
"You aren't evil, Merlin," said Arthur, "You've had plenty of chances to do damage to the kingdom. You could've let me kill my own father, but you…you're really a sorcerer, aren't you?"
Merlin nodded mutely.
"All right, then," said Arthur, running a hand through his hair. If Merlin was a sorcerer, and Merlin wasn't evil, how many other not evil sorcerers were there? How many had been killed in the name of Camelot? He couldn't think about it now. Later. He'd deal with that particular thing later. "All right."
"You're not angry with me?" Merlin whispered.
Arthur looked over at him. He wanted to be angry, he thought. He should be angry. But Merlin was still quivering and shaking and hugging himself and sniffling a little. The servant looked more like a scared and lost child than an evil sorcerer bent on the destruction of Camelot. A voice in the back of his head that sounded a lot like Uther whispered that this could all be a trick, that magic was evil and conniving and couldn't be trusted. Arthur calmly told it to shut up.
"No," he said, slowly, and it was true. He suspected he would be much angrier later on, when Merlin didn't look like he was going to fly to pieces at any moment. "Not angry. Not right now, anyway. Damn it, Merlin, why did you even come to Camelot?"
Merlin shrugged slightly, still shaking, looking like he might tip over. "I don't know. It seemed like a good idea at the time," he said, "I, um – are you sure you don't want me to leave?"
"Why? So you can toss yourself off of a different high thing?" Arthur said, harsher than he meant.
Merlin let out a shaky breath. "I wasn't going to jump," he insisted, staring down and to the right of Arthur. It occurred to Arthur that he was not the one that Merlin was trying to convince. Merlin met Arthur's eyes in a short and darting glance. "You're really not going to turn me in?"
"No," said Arthur, and then tilted his head slightly, pretending to think, "Then again, if you're really so keen to die in the courtyard…"
Whatever little bit of color was left in Merlin's face drained away, and he swayed dangerously from side to side.
"I'm not serious, Merlin," said Arthur, feeling what he thought to be a ridiculous amount of guilt rising in his chest, walking over and patting Merlin's shoulder a little awkwardly, "Really. I'm not turning you in. This doesn't change anything – I mean, it changes everything, but it doesn't have to change anything. Or something to that effect."
"That's good," said Merlin, faintly, "Arthur?"
"I think I'm going to be sick."
"Sit down, you idiot," said Arthur, pushing Merlin over to a chair and forcing his head between his knees, "So. You practice magic."
Merlin's voice, when he answered, was soft and muffled, "Yes."
Arthur swallowed down a million questions. There would be time for that later. Instead, he said, "Are you any good?"
Merlin sat up slightly, resting his elbows on his knees and blinking at Arthur. "What?"
"You. With your…your magic. Are you any good, or are you as abysmal with it as you are with a sword?"
"I, um," said Merlin, frowning, "What?"
"Well, if you're going to be my Court Sorcerer you're going to have to at least be decently at it," said Arthur, trying the words out and finding them fitting, "Honestly, Merlin. Be serious."
"Your…Court…" said Merlin, "What?"
It took much longer than Arthur thought strictly necessary to get the idea through to Merlin. Then it suddenly sunk in, and Merlin seemed hell bent on arguing the point ("I can't be your Court Sorcerer, Arthur, magic's illegal.") and Arthur brushing off all of those arguments ("Not now. When I'm the king, Merlin, think it through."). Eventually, though, Arthur managed to bring him around to accept that, like it or not, Arthur was planning on making him a member of the court.
"Fine," Merlin finally said, glaring, "I'll be your Court Sorcerer if you come up with a different title. I'm not a sorcerer. And you don't tell Gaius."
"Don't tell Gaius about what?" Arthur said.
"This whole you knowing thing, for now, at least. And about before," said Merlin, not meeting Arthur's eyes once again, "Tonight in general. It'll only worry him."
Arthur stared at Merlin for a long time, saying nothing. Merlin, still sitting, just waited. "You realize that if I don't tell Gaius, you're agreeing to a future position," said Arthur, "One that you will not be able to fill if you…if you were to – you know. Do that. And I swear to God, Merlin, if you were to – I won't change the law. I won't do it unless you're there to set a good example for the rest of the magical rabble-rousers that are going to come scuttling out of the woodwork."
He was lying. They both knew that he was lying. They both knew that as soon as Gaius came back, Arthur was going to tell him what had happened, because regardless of whatever Merlin had intended when he'd wandered up to the wall, there was no denying the end. They both knew that Arthur wouldn't keep the laws if Merlin wasn't around. Still, though, Merlin ducked his head in a nod and said, "Okay."
"Okay," said Arthur. Merlin sagged slightly, letting out a breath of air through his nose. Arthur frowned, "Why don't you go to sleep, Merlin. You look awful."
"Thanks," said Merlin drily. He stood and walked with heavy steps towards his room, and then turned, looking at Arthur questioningly.
Arthur waved him forward. "I can see myself out. I'm not completely useless, you know."
Merlin snorted, and the look he gave Arthur was the equivalent of any vocal retort. He wandered away into his room. He left the door standing open. Arthur waited until he heard the sounds of Merlin laying on the bed to sit back down, propping his feet up on the tabletop.
He wasn't going anywhere.