K+ or T for noble suicidal tendencies, minor language.
Title is from a Swedish proverb - "Love me when I least deserve it, because that's when I really need it."
Disclaimer: If I owned Merlin, Mithian would stick around (she and Arthur were lovely together and you know it), Leon would have his own story arc extending over at least six episodes, and Agravaine would have drowned in a bog five minutes into 4.01.
When I Least Deserve It
"You wouldn't be about to run off and do something stupid, would you?"
The voice was as familiar as Merlin's own, the words a simple variation on a thousand previous conversations over the last seven years, but Merlin was unused to the tone being applied to him. That was the tone Arthur usually reserved for saving Camelot – the Just try to stop me and see where it gets you tone that normally resulted in Arthur running off and doing something stupid himself.
Merlin turned around slowly, taking in Arthur's wrinkled clothes, blue cloak (Merlin really should have gotten one of those – everyone else had one for their errands of sneakery), and set jaw. Arthur hadn't even gone to bed, just dismissed him for the night and followed him out of the castle and into the woods.
"Me? Never," Merlin finally replied, too late to pull off the cheerful nonchalance he was aiming for.
"What? I'm just – "
Bloody prat kings and their bloody awful timing. Merlin had been ready, having managed to sneak his farewells into conversation with everyone he'd talked to today. Arthur had been the last and hardest, but Merlin had gotten through it and walked out dry-eyed. Now the dollophead was chasing him down and making everything difficult, just like he always did, and Merlin didn't know if he'd be able to get through another goodbye.
"Why are you following me?" Merlin demanded, annoyed.
"Why are you leaving?" Arthur said obstinately.
"I have a legitimate reason. I thought I just sent you to bed. So why are you following me?"
"You're not as subtle as you think you are."
"The last time you tried something like this, I knew you half as well as I do now, and I was too drugged to notice until you were already back safe and sound," Arthur said challengingly. "I'm too awake for you to pull it off this time."
Oh yes, the Questing Beast incident. Had it really been that long since Merlin had been so sure he was going to die? No, there was also the time with the Dorocha, but Merlin had been waiting till they were closer to the Isle of the Blessed to say his goodbyes, and then he'd gotten half-frozen, and then Arthur had been trying to say his goodbyes, and Merlin had known that Arthur would pick up on it if he tried to do the same.
"I don't know what you're talking about," Merlin replied, remembering belatedly to look confused.
"You're a really terrible liar."
Time for a new tactic. Merlin approached the king and took his elbow, steering him around condescendingly and taking a couple steps back toward the castle. "C'mon, Arthur, back to bed. I think you had a dream and you're confused now."
"Don't, Merlin!" Arthur growled, briefly reclaiming his arm only to grab Merlin's wrist. "We are going back, but you are staying there if I have to sit on you to make it happen."
Merlin struggled. "I have to – "
"Arthur – "
"What's this about?" the king demanded. Merlin ceased his scrabbling and stuttered to a halt. "Is this about Mordred?" Arthur continued sternly.
Merlin wilted. "I don't know how – I'm out of ideas, Arthur, I don't know how to stop him. This is the only thing I can think of."
"How can you even consider – "
"He said he'd kill you, Arthur! You heard him!"
"And you think he'll just let you die in my place? That he won't come after me as soon as you're dead?"
"It's all I have!"
"I'm not letting you die for me!"
"I'm not letting you die when there's still something I can do!"
The circulation to Merlin's hand had been mostly cut off by Arthur's grip on his wrist, but he managed to steal it back when Arthur loosened his grasp for a moment. He immediately retreated several steps, almost backing into a tree. Arthur followed him, face dark with protective rage.
"I'm magic!" Merlin shouted, desperate.
It worked. Arthur froze, expression somehow relaxing and tensing all at once.
This wasn't what Merlin had wanted. He had wanted to leave Arthur still believing he was his perfectly ordinary, idiot servant. He had wanted to die knowing that Arthur was still his friend, still thought well of him.
But he wanted to die knowing that Arthur was alive so much more than that.
"I'm a sorcerer. Have been for ages, studying magic right under your nose," Merlin blurted. "Right under your father's nose, too. I wonder what he'd do if he knew he'd put his only son in the way of what he feared most."
Merlin looked at the carpet of leaves around his feet, not wanting to see the hatred appear in Arthur's eyes.
"I stole your free will when Morgana took Camelot last year. I said you were knocked out, but you were wide awake the whole time, blundering about like a village idiot. I enchanted you, watched you putter around like a child, so eager to please, and I enjoyed it."
Arthur said nothing.
"I knew about Morgana almost as soon as she came back. I never said anything to you or anyone who could have stopped her. You wouldn't have believed me, so I thought it would be better to let her go on without any hint of suspicion from anyone else, rather than even try to warn you. Same with Agravaine. I tried a couple times, and you wouldn't listen, so I just shut up and let him betray you."
"I released the dragon that attacked Camelot," he continued, trying not to let his shame into his voice. Surely he'd seen enough mad, hell-bent sorcerers over the years to play one now. "I lied to you and said you'd killed him, but I just sent him away. Didn't even kill him myself, and I could have. I had the power to do it, and I just let him go."
"You're lying," Arthur finally said.
"I'm not," Merlin bit off. "God help me, but for once I'm not."
Arthur didn't reply to that except to draw in a sharp breath.
"I let Morgana turn to dark magic. Let her think she was alone, let her think she might be mad when I knew differently." It was getting hard to see the ground in front of him, Merlin's eyes were so blurry. "And then I poisoned her for a spell that probably wasn't even her fault, and let Morgause take her away."
Merlin's waterlogged eyes made it halfway to Arthur's, dropped again, then gathered their courage and looked him in the face. Betrayal was there, and judgment, but also hesitation. Of all the times for Arthur to hesitate and overthink things, he would pick now.
Merlin hadn't wanted to go this far, but it looked like he'd have to. He took a breath and steeled himself, wondering if he'd even get a chance to run or if Arthur would run him through on the spot.
"I was Dragoon. I aged myself to trick you, and I let your father die."
There. That had to make Arthur hate him.
Turning away without looking back at his king, Merlin tried to set his mind back on his mission. Arthur might curse his name now, but he would live to curse it for a long time, rule Camelot well, maybe even eventually decide that Merlin, not magic, had been the root of all evil in Camelot, and end nearly thirty years of bloodshed. All Merlin had to do was go die.
Merlin had barely walked two steps when a heavy hand descended on his shoulder, rooting him to the spot.
No, Arthur, let me die for you. Don't kill me here.
Arthur walked around him into view, never releasing his shoulder.
No, no, Arthur, let me die for a purpose. Let me go.
"Gaius told me," Arthur said.
Merlin looked up at him sharply, confused.
"He told me there wasn't anything Dra – you – could have done. It wasn't your fault. Gaius knew that, and as his apprentice and as the sorcerer who cast the spell, you have to know that too."
Merlin swallowed hard, eyes drifting out of focus as some kind of uneasy medium between being unable to look away from Arthur and unable to look at him.
"Which leads me to wonder," Arthur said, "how many more of those things you mentioned are more complicated than you're saying."
Merlin cleared his eyes and looked at Arthur's face properly. Some betrayal was still there, and some anger, but Merlin mostly noticed the absence of condemnation. Arthur had not passed judgment. Arthur didn't hate him. Merlin had just let go of his worst secrets, and Arthur still didn't hate him.
"I tried to kill you several times," Merlin said in a small voice.
"But?" Arthur prompted.
"… But I was enchanted," he admitted reluctantly. "Had a snake in the back of my neck."
Arthur's eyebrows quirked and his lips pursed in mild disgust. "Your life's a lot more interesting than I give you credit for, isn't it?"
"Most of the time."
Arthur laughed a little, his grip loosening, and Merlin once again took his chance to slip away. He didn't even get all the way turned around before he was being pulled back.
"No more of that," Arthur said seriously. "No more trying to get killed, and no more trying to make me hate you so I'll let you. It doesn't work like that."
Then Arthur did something completely unprecedented and pulled Merlin into a hug.
Merlin didn't quite know what to do with that, so he mostly stood there with his nose forcibly buried in Arthur's shoulder. After a second, he tentatively brought up one hand, then the other, to rest on Arthur's back.
"How can you not be angry?" he murmured, so muffled that Arthur had to pull back and make him repeat it.
"It'll hit later. Too much all at once," Arthur answered, shrugging. "In the meantime, this is a lot less slimy and smelly than last time we tried this," he said as he reeled Merlin back in.
"Last time?" Merlin asked over Arthur's shoulder. "You've never hugged me."
"Of course I did!" Arthur said indignantly, pushing himself out of the hug entirely. "When Gwaine and I found you after the rockfall…"
"Oh!" Merlin said. "That was when I had the snake in my neck, so I don't remember any of that. You hugged me?"
"You lost your memory?"
"You hugged me?"
"Shut up, Merlin."
Arthur cuffed him lightly behind one ear and shoved him in the general direction of Camelot.
"Come on, I'm going back to bed if you'll promise not to try to die for me, and sitting on you till sunrise if you don't."
"But Mordred – "
"Can wait. We'll figure something out. So – promise?"
"Fine. No dying. Tonight."
"That really is all I can promise."
Arthur looked hard at Merlin for a minute, then finally relented. "We'll work on it tomorrow. For now, sleep."
The king and warlock headed back for the castle in a sort of invincible daze. Tomorrow, there would probably be yelling and arguing and bargaining and more yelling.
For tonight, they were too tired and too relieved to bother.