Pick up the Pieces
It was a little like hate.
But it wasn't, not exactly, because hate to Merlin was usually a colder affair; something that made you want to hurt and hit at all costs. This was more like wounded love. Because it hurt, it burned, and it made them angry, but somewhere really deep the affection was still hidden.
They just didn't show it anymore. They treated each other like they weren't best friends. Arthur told Merlin what to do, and Merlin did it without complaint or laughter. They didn't mock each other anymore.
That hurt, it really hurt. It made Merlin lose sleep and feel emptiness in his stomach that transformed into dizziness every time he tried to move too much. He felt sick, like he hadn't eaten in days. However, that wasn't the worst part.
Sometimes Arthur would ask him questions. Easy ones, hard ones. Merlin did his best to answer them all truthfully.
"So Will was not a sorcerer?"
"No, he wasn't. He lied to protect me."
"Did you ever try to hurt me with it?"
"Never consciously. There was a while there when I was possessed by this snake thing inside my neck, after Morgana captured me, and I don't know what I did then."
"Since I was born."
"Nimueh? Whatever happened to her after she tried to kill me and make you drink poison?"
"She's dead now. I killed her when she killed Gaius. It started with the Questing Beast…"
"Halig. And you were acting so dodgy then, and stealing my food… Did that have to do with it?"
Yes, sometimes the questions hurt. But they weren't the worst part either.
Arthur hadn't made up his mind. He hadn't decided if he would lift the ban on sorcery, or execute Merlin. He hadn't told anyone yet, though. Sometimes he would smile a little when Merlin dropped something, and Merlin would think that it would all be okay. But sometimes his eyes would look hard and unforgiving, and Merlin would swallow and wonder whether it would be beheading or burning.
I don't want to burn. I don't want to burn.
That was the worst part.
Merlin couldn't stand the waiting. He could have left; he could have run away. Arthur didn't watch him. The king would let him go, probably, if he disappeared in the middle of the night. But Merlin didn't have the heart to leave without knowing how it ended.
It continued. But it couldn't continue forever.
For some reason, it was the one question that Arthur kept coming back to.
"Why did you stay in Camelot?"
It was a hard question to answer. Merlin was never sure he got it exactly right. But luckily Arthur kept asking it.
Merlin would say, "The dragon told me to, and after a while, I started to like it," or "I fit in. I had friends for the first time," or "Where else would I go? My mother sent me here," or, finally, when he was feeling very deep and truthful, he said, "It is my destiny to help you be the greatest king Camelot will ever see, unite Albion, and restore magic to the kingdom."
But for some reason, that last answer made Arthur angry. Arthur would yell at him when he gave it. "You just stayed because of destiny?" he would shout. "You didn't care about any of us?"; "How could you be so stupid! We kill people like you here!"; "Restore magic? So you were. You were using me, trying to get close to me, just like everyone else!"
Arthur would throw things.
But even though he yelled himself hoarse, there was something else that bothered him, besides the words he actually said. Merlin, for once, didn't know what it was that was bothering him.
He must not have gotten it out of his system, though, because he kept asking.
When Arthur first found out, when they were alone and he'd disposed of the threat that had tried to take his king's life, they had fought. They fought out loud; they yelled and screamed. They called each other every word they knew. And if Arthur referenced how Merlin was fatherless, then the warlock deserved it because he'd called Arthur's own father and his methods things that would have made anyone cringe.
They'd rehashed every fight they'd ever had, and Arthur had hit him. Merlin had hit Arthur back. But his blow had been pathetic, and he knew it.
The fight hadn't made such a difference, because it had just been anger and frustration getting out. It hadn't been until after that they really started to feel the hurt. Arthur felt the betrayal, and Merlin fight the vulnerability of waiting for the verdict of the only person whose opinion really mattered to him.
And eventually Merlin had stopped fighting as he waited. He started keeping his head down. Arthur's retorts got bitter, and Merlin's responses were weary. They stopped treating each other like they knew each other.
"No, Kilgharrah," Merlin said late at night, unable to sleep, standing out in a field and feeling the need to talk to kin. "Whatever he decides, I don't want you to interfere. I think… I think I'll accept what he decides this time."
"What if the king acts rashly, young warlock?"
"I'll have to talk to him until I know he's making his decision out of a clear head.
It didn't continue forever. It was a little thing that made Arthur snap.
Merlin reached for his master's cup during a council meeting to refill it. He held it still, but somehow it got away from him, and the cup fell to the side as red liquid splashed over the tablecloth like blood.
It was such a clumsy, human thing to do.
Arthur looked up. His eyes were hard. "Guards!" he called, standing, his back straight and his face set. "Guards, arrest Merlin. Put him in the dungeons, please."
The council looked at each other as though their king had lost his mind, but the guards moved forward. Merlin put the pitcher down and folded his hands in front of him, the picture of unsurprised, impassive, resigned submission.
The announcement was semi-private. Arthur told the Round Table. Gaius, Gwen, Gwaine, Leon, Percival, and Leon were told that Merlin had magic, that he'd been using it in Camelot, and that Arthur was now ready to make the decision as to his fate.
Gwen had begun to cry, but Arthur couldn't help that.
What really drove Arthur mad was that no one seemed to trust him to make any decision correctly. All of them gave their opinion and seemed to insist it was the right one.
Gwen kept crying and begging him, but he didn't even listen. Gaius kept cautioning Arthur to be rational, but Arthur could understand that—Gaius always gave his opinion, and from the paleness of his face, he was terrified for his ward.
If had just been Gaius, perhaps Arthur could have accepted and understood it.
But did none of them think he could make decisions? Didn't they trust him to decide what was right?
Gwaine was the worst, Arthur found. He was practically threatening the king by that night as Arthur stormed through the castle halls, his red cloak billowing out behind him.
"Arthur, he has done so much for you… He's saved your life!"
"Thank you, Gwaine, it's not my memory that is defective," Arthur responded coldly. "He's done quite a bit to make sure his 'destiny' comes true."
Gwaine growled dangerously and picked up his pace, grabbing Arthur by the arm and pulling him around to face the knight. "Merlin is my friend, Arthur."
Arthur jerked his hand away. Gwaine thought he was scary, but he had nothing on Arthur's fury at that moment.
Gwaine continued, yelling in Arthur's face. "And he's yours too, so I'm not just going to stand by and watch you execute him!"
"Then don't look!"
Something in what he'd just said caught even him by surprise, and he took a step backwards, his face going slack. And then he spun around and rushed away to the dungeons, leaving Gwaine standing there, wide-eyed.
Arthur wouldn't tell Gwaine what he had actually decided. He knew Gwaine was dying to know, and Arthur wasn't sure why he wanted to torture the man—one of his friends. Let Gwaine feel a little of his pain, though. Let Gwaine panic about what that word had meant, about what that look signified for once.
Arthur's feet tapped against the stone floor as he descended into the dungeons, the torches casting everything into deep shadow. The day was lengthening into twilight.
The second Merlin heard Arthur coming, he was at the bars of his cell so quickly that Arthur thought he had been thrown into them at first.
Clutching at the bars like they were a lifeline, Merlin spat out words it seemed he had been sitting on since he came down here. "Arthur," he said, nearly babbling. "Arthur, my mother and Gaius didn't know, okay? They didn't know?"
"They didn't?" Arthur said, a little confused at first as to why it mattered.
"I learned it and didn't tell them." Merlin's face was desperate. There wasn't even any room for pain.
"I thought you said you were born with it?" But then Arthur understood. Even association with a sorcerer could get you killed in Camelot. He had forgotten. Merlin had not.
"I lied," Merlin said, but it was obvious he was lying.
Arthur still felt guilty for leaving Gwaine behind in torment. But he'd made Merlin wait long enough. "Your mother is outside of my kingdom, Merlin," he said. "And as for Gaius, he is above suspicion."
Merlin sagged against the bars, his face down on his clenched hands. "Thank you," he whispered as all the desperation left him. It sounded almost broken in the darkness. "Thank you."
For a second they stood there in silence, Arthur steady and tall on the outside of the cell and Merlin hunched on the inside. Arthur watched him as he took deep breaths.
He could probably break right out of here. He's much more powerful than I am. He could have killed me any time. Am I really so weak?
At last, without looking up, Merlin spoke. His voice was small. "Please don't burn me," he said. Arthur stared at the top of his head, the closest thing to his face that could be seen.
Arthur straightened even more and put his head back. "Merlin, tonight someone will come with a key and break you out of this cell. You are going to go to the stables, where your horse will be tied. You will ride out of Camelot. No one will know why you left. And you will not come back."
Merlin looked up, bewildered. His eyes were still wet—had he been about to cry? "What?"
"You heard me. On pain of death, Merlin, you must never come back while the law stands."
"But…" There were so many things wrong with that. Exile? He was being sent into exile? But not to death—what did that mean? What about destiny? "But Arthur, if I'm gone," he said, "I can't protect you."
Arthur's voice was icy. "Merlin, I am a knight of Camelot. I can defend myself. And I have knights to protect me. I am not a child."
Arthur's face closed off entirely as he recoiled from that sound. As though it had burned him. I am not a child. I am not weak. I can live without my secret sorcerer.
Perhaps there had been a chance Merlin could have convinced him, but not anymore. Without another word – not even a goodbye – he turned and walked away.
It was Gwen who came for Merlin. There was no danger involved; the guards had been carefully instructed. And Arthur could trust her not to run off with Merlin. One of the knights might do it.
Arthur watched from the window as the two figures slunk across the courtyard toward the stables. His arms were crossed over himself, as though for protection. His chest ached.
Merlin had to go, he reminded himself. In order to keep the peace. In order to allow Arthur space to think, to evaluate—to learn to live without that man as his shadow.
Merlin's betrayal had shaken him so entirely he couldn't stand. He hadn't realized he was so dependent on the warlock, and it wasn't acceptable. Not if said warlock was going to lie to him so much, as it seemed he was.
Arthur was not a child! He was a grown man, capable of protecting himself and those he loved, capable of running a kingdom. Capable of being great. And he couldn't be great if Merlin was propping him up. No, a great man was great in and of himself. Friends helped, they did not dictate.
As Merlin reached the stables, he turned and gave the window a look—as though he could see Arthur there, watching. As though he wanted the goodbye they had not gotten. But Arthur drew back from sight, his arms still crossed and his face stony.
He was losing Merlin. But forever? Forever was a very long time.
Inside, he ached. He hurt, physically in some parts.
It wasn't hate. It was more like wounded love.
A/N: Okay, so this will be a collection of semi-oneshots. They'll all follow the same story, but they might not all follow each other exactly. It's going to be about Merlin coping with exile and Arthur learning how to be the great, self-confident king he wants to be—without Merlin's help, because he feels like he must. In the end, of course, things will work out, and some will be a lot more light-hearted than this chapter! I actually don't know exactly where I'm going. But no, they probably won't all be in this fractured format.
Any ideas for oneshots?
So, I WILL update this… But probably not until I've finished Polishing Armor. I must finish it!