"There's an assassin in the court."
Merlin said it lightly with only the faintest trace of trepidation. And that trepidation wasn't because of the assassin (huh, with his highly illegal yet also highly useful magic he could handle a lowly assassin. Hang on, it used to be illegal, he kept forgetting, Arthur had rescinded the bans when he became king. It was just that Arthur hated him so much he still felt like he did when his magic had been banned and Arthur had known and hated him for it as a traitor to the crown.)
No, his trepidation was caused by the assassin's target.
Which was currently eyeing him from where it was seated at the table.
"I thought I told you that you weren't welcome here," Arthur replied, with a thunderous expression. Merlin looked downcast as he moved tentatively into the room; Arthur's continued anger at him made his stomach pang.
"I thought I told you I wasn't leaving."
"I don't want your help," Arthur hissed, standing so abruptly his chair toppled and crashed to the floor. His ex-manservant looked at him with an increasingly pained expression,
"What do you want me to say? I've said I'm sorry, I've explained why I did it! Because of your father's laws against magic. I've told you I wanted to tell you, I've told you I tried to tell you. I've…I told you everything, I'm sorry! I've got nothing left to-"
"Just because you are sorry doesn't make it okay!" Arthur snarled, moving out from behind his desk as though he thought he'd need room to manoeuvre, as if this were combat and Merlin the enemy, "You betrayed me. You can't just apologize that sort of thing away!"
"I know," Merlin said meekly, "but I'm sorry all the same."
The King was looming across the room like a shadow at noon, but in the end he just sounded defeated,
"That just isn't enough anymore, Merlin."
"Why can't it be?" Merlin whispered, but Arthur was turning away, turning to lean against the window sill and look out the window, though he wasn't looking out the window at all but at his hands.
"I want to help!"
"I don't want your help, don't you get it?" Arthur turned and slashed one hand through the air like a knife or a signal of execution, "Go find another destiny!"
"But…I don't want another destiny," Merlin said from where he stood, lost somewhere in the middle of the room.
"All I ever wanted was a friend," the King's voice was wet with sadness but continuing to say everything in his broken heart, "people only ever tried to act out their sorry façade of friendship because I am a King, because I have power, prestige, and they want a taste of it. No-one ever liked me for me. Then you came to Camelot, you and you're complete disregard for social status or social acceptability. And even you needed a dragon to tell you it was your destiny to tolerate me before you would contemplate being near me…getting to know…but no…I've spent my life trying to find something real. You were the closest I ever had to a friend…and even then it was just because of you and your righteous quest to prove magic is good. Well I get it!" He stepped savagely forwards, as though that step was driving a knife through the pretences he saw.
"Magic is legal. It's back in Camelot. Are you happy, now? Are you done? I'm the king; I have squadrons of trained sorcerers to protect me from any magical or non-magical threat. You're not needed! You're not wanted! I can't stand the sight of you…everything I thought I had and everything that was a lie."
"No Arthur, it was never…It only started…I do like you, for you! I am your friend! I don't care that you're the King. The legalising of magic was a…side benefit…it wasn't…" And Merlin, who lied nevermore, never since his confession and Arthur's agonized shouted command of Merlin to never lie again, was betrayed by his honest tongue.
"Yes it started because of the destiny thing, but I grew to like and respect you for more then-"
Arthur stepped forwards with such an expression of grief the words died in his throat and he swallowed them down; rejected truth like bile in his stomach.
"No more," Arthur said, his voice husky. Merlin reached up in an instinctive gesture to reassure him, to somehow comfort him even though it was he who had caused Arthur's pain. Surprisingly he saw Arthur mirroring the gesture and for a moment he thought, confusedly, that Arthur was going to shake his hand. But then Arthur's large, warm hand was closing around Merlin's wrist…with something cold and hard snicking closed around him. With a shuddering gasp the warlock went to step back, his other hand coming up to discover what that thing was and to get it off but, snick, Arthur now held both of his wrists in his hands. His hands still covered what Merlin knew, due to the horrible weakness that went through him, to be cuffs made of iron.
Iron- magic's bane.
He'd told Arthur, of course he'd told him about the reaction iron had on sorcerers and sorcereresses alike. He trusted him to use this knowledge for good, against those magic wielders who would murder and hurt…but these cuffs fit too well for any other explanation; Arthur had these especially made for him. For Merlin. For faithful, foolish Merlin.
One of his knees wobbled, but he was too distracted feeling hot and cold and sweaty and sick to try and regain control of the joint. He half fell forwards, Arthur's hands still on his wrists the only thing holding him off the floor for now.
Ah, Arthur had let go. Hello floor.
"No magic, no destiny," Arthur said in a resolved voice and Merlin braced his hands against the floor, looking up at the tilting room and Arthur who didn't seem to be notice that the floor was no longer horizontal.
"Arthur…" Merlin blinked, sickeningly dizzy, and prayed he wasn't about to humiliate himself by vomiting. "What are you…where are you going? I'm sorry!"
"I'm going to court Merlin, and you are going home and learning to live without leeching meaning for your existence off of your admirable patience in putting up with the King," Arthur grabbed his court robes savagely (he was going to crease them) and yanked them on.
Court…court…that meant something, Merlin had been telling Arthur something about the court…the assassin!
"Arthur there's an assassin in the court!" He burst out. The room was quiet, the only sound being his ragged breathing and shuffling on the stone floor. Arthur had already gone.
"Damn it!" Merlin swore and hurriedly stood. His vision flashed white and black, his head keened and he staggered sidewards. He couldn't feel his magic. It didn't feel like Arthur had touched him with iron as much as it felt like Arthur had thrust a yawning chasm into Merlin's gut and hidden his magic somewhere in the bottom, so far down in such pitch darkness Merlin didn't have a hope of ever finding it again. But that didn't matter at the moment. He was kneeling on the floor again and gripped his head tightly in his hands and drove focus into his brain. Then he was able to stand up and stumble, albeit at a very alarming angle, to the door of Arthur's chambers.
Arthur was so furious and hurt and disbelieving (and damn him if he didn't feel the slightest, tiniest bit guilty) he crammed his crown on his head and barely looked left and right as he marched into the main hall where court was held with large, angry strides. He was so angry in fact that he had completely forgotten about the minor detail of the assassin in the court Merlin had told him about.
Taking the steps two at a time, which appeared slightly unbecoming of a king, Arthur went straight to his throne and sat down next to Guinevere, who was seated in the queen's throne. She looked up at him with a carefully neutral expression, but he could see the anxiety she was masking in her eyes. He appreciated that she didn't embarrass him by asking him in front of his subjects, and he met her eyes to try and tell her this through his similarly blank expression.
Gwen was wearing similar court robes to him over a formal shirt and formal pants. There had been a bit of an uproar in the royal advisors when Gwen had suggested she wear pants, but when she saved Arthur's life during his coronation (Geoffrey had been possessed and attempted to behead him with a ceremonial sword in what was quite an athletic display for such an old librarian) he had realised the practicality of the notion and backed her up. Just as Uther had used his position as king to make society believe magic was evil, Arthur now used his position as king to make society accept the slightly unorthodox clothing.
He'd received quite a bit of support by the suppliers of the noblepersons clothes in Camelot, as nobles and noblewomen were both emulating the king and queen and getting matching sets of formal shirts and pants. To his dismay he'd set a fashion trend.
(Merlin had teased him about it unforgivingly, before Arthur had learnt about his magic and hated him unforgivingly.)
Arthur remembered the laughs and doubly hated Merlin, doubly hated himself. It was strange, feeling so worthless with so many people arranged before him. Guards and nobles, what was today for again? Quietly he inclined his head to Gwen and asked.
"Your knighting Sir Edwards," Gwen's eyebrows were pinched ever so slightly as she looked from Arthur's clenched fists to his stony expression. Somehow within the careful neutrality and the anger it masked she saw a flicker of confusion and elaborated,
"He's the boy who had a limp. You chased him twice around the practise field because of bad-form before you discovered it was because he'd rolled his ankle. That's why you let him apply for a knighthood even though his mothers' a maid," her eyes quirked, "because he showed tenacity and strength of spirit…well, that ad because you felt bad that he couldn't walk for four days afterwards."
Huh, trust Gwen to pick up the one memory of the boy that would immediately identify the boy to Arthur. Of course it was an embarrassing thing Arthur would've rather not had on his mind at the present point in time.
"Let's get on with it then," Arthur said in a quiet, angry voice, sudden impatient with the nobles simpering up at him, the knights standing guard who looked at him as their leader, the random stranger standing up who was probably about to fling himself on the ground in some ridiculous prostration to train and gain favour in his eyes. He sighed and went to rub his eyes when suddenly a thousand things happened in rapid succession…
He discovered he couldn't move his arm, arms…entire body!
He made a sound of distress in the back of his throat,
Gwen turned to look at him,
The servant's door slammed open,
The stranger started yelling,
People of the court turned towards him (were they turning through honey? It was like time was slowing down…)
And everyone was lunging away, scrambling towards the walls, as the stranger lifted a silver knife the length of Arthur's forearm deep from beneath his robes.
Oh yeah, now he remembered, hadn't Merlin mentioned something about an assassin?
"This is for my little girl, my daughter, you murderer!"
Seeing the knife the nobles were pushing and shoving each other to get out of the way, the knights were confused, instincts and honour confusing their feet, Gwen had seen Arthur's strife and was rising to place herself between him and the stranger…
But the stranger's arm swung down and the knife was suddenly flying down the hall and Arthur was twisting his head hopelessly to the side (towards Gwen) whilst trying to keep his eye on the enemy and was unable to fold away his chest which was exactly where the knife was going to hit him and kill him and he would die and he would be dead…
Then there was a flash of faded blue and red as Merlin stepped into the flight of the blade and lifted one hand to stop it. Merlin was flinching instinctively, but flinching backwards along its trajectory so as to remain between the King and the knife.
Time abruptly resumed itself. A knight behind the assassin lurch forwards and snapped the pommel of his sword around to collide with the man's head. The assassin lurched forwards and fell to the ground, unconscious. As he fell his magic released Arthur who was still in the motion of fighting to flinch and, upon being abruptly released, hunched violently over the side of his chair just as Gwen completed the motion of stepping in front of him. There were yells and the sound of overturning furniture for a moment as Arthur gasped, insides melting, and was checked over swiftly by Gwen. Just in case the knife had suddenly grown wings and literally flown around Merlin and down the hall to his chest.
Suddenly Arthur was standing with no clear recollection of how when he had done so because he was, again, overwhelmingly furious at Merlin.
"Merlin!" He bellowed. Gwen looked from him to Merlin but was distracted by a well-meaning but overly-attentive knight trying to run his hands over her to check for injury. With her moving to one side there was nobody between them; Merlin was still facing down the hall away from Arthur.
"You lied to me, again!" Arthur snarled, wondering bitterly why he was so surprised. "You said iron blocked magic!"
"It does…" Merlin said in a strained way.
"Then explain to me how exactly did you stop that knife with magic?"
"I didn't stop it with magic," Merlin's voice had the strained, suppressed tension of someone trying and failing to sound calm. His head turned before his body, so Arthur saw his pale skin and wide, shocked eyes before he looked down and saw the knife sticking through the palm of Merlin's right hand.
Merlin looked down and the world stopped for a moment.
It looked almost ridiculous; the knife was absurdly huge compared to his hand. The blade had hit him between the two middle bones of his hand almost dead center, with his hand almost half-way up the blade. The sharp edge of the blade was positioned on the side facing down the rest of his arm, which was, he supposed as his vision swam lazily at the edges, the only reason it hadn't sheered straight through the skin and tendons that, miraculously still held between his middle fingers.
And blood was streaming from the wound. There was a fine spray of red drops on his hand from when the knife had initially impaled his hand and the sudden impact had caused a small spurting of red. Some of these drops had run together down his hand or been consumed by the thicker streams that pooled in the life-lines of his palms, dripped down his fingers and onto the stone floor.
It felt like his arm was on fire, literally being burnt, not just his hand. Every shift, every movement in his hand seared up his arm, which to make matters worse was trembling in agony.
Merlin looked and looked Arthur who was looking at him and time resumed; starting with a bang that made Merlin startle. His body, seeming to think that it was already moving, started to fold quietly to the ground and he threw out a hand, his left hand, to catch himself so he didn't knock his other arm, when it turned out he didn't have to. Because Arthur was there and catching his fall for him. Bracing their shoulders together the King wrapped one arm around Merlin to hold him steady and gently knelt, letting Merlin clumsily fold his legs beneath himself. His other infinitely gentle hand gripped Merlin's injured wrist, stilling the trembling, not seeming to notice or care that blood was dribbling and smearing its way over his expensive court robes.
Merlin clenched his teeth together as Arthur yelled for the physician and focused on not shaming himself by putting voice to the pitiful whimpers in his throat.
He breathed in violently, his chest shuddering and teeth whistling, hoping briefly that he would pass out.
He exhaled shakily and his breath hitched. He swallowed, trying to loosen the knot in his throat.
As he was desperately trying to sob fall to the ground sobbing pathetically over the blistering pain that seemed to be eating away at his consciousness he suddenly became conscious of his proximity to the King. His thoughts were hazy and jumbled and he made to stand, thinking that he would very much like to get away from Arthur so that he could fall apart where Arthur wouldn't see him and despise him for being a coward as well as a traitor.
"Hey, hey, hey," Arthur soothed, stopping yelling at the surrounding knights when Merlin moved. Merlin struggled but the arm around his shoulder was too tight. It wasn't tight in a bad way; it was tight in the sort of way that forced him to remain in his skin and not floating around the ceiling to get away from his hurt body. But even though it was Arthur's arm keeping him sane he struggled to dislodge it.
"Get off," He said harshly; well, at least his voice didn't sound as wobbly as his insides felt.
"Merlin, stay here, Gaius is coming," Arthur said softly but Merlin tried to rise again. His feet slipped and he felt down again, jostling his arm.
"Stop moving, you idiot, you'll hurt yourself further!" Arthur said in a worried tone, trying to hold the injured arm aloft to stem the flow of blood. As his arm was moved out and up Merlin's vision flickered rapidly white-red-gold-black and he slumped against Arthur. If pain was a sound his arm was nails on a chalkboard.
"Why did you do that?" He Arthur's voice somehow cutting through the ringing in his ears, though his voice was very gentle, more of a breath Merlin wasn't entirely sure he was supposed to have heard. Replying back up into the coppery smelling air above him Merlin said,
"Because that's what I do. I save you, that's my thing," remembering their earlier argument Merlin put in the extra effort to formulate a sentence that might somehow get Arthur to understand what he had been trying to say earlier, "Not 'cause of destiny. I don't care about destiny. You were in trouble and I could help, what sort of friend would I be if I didn't?"
There was silence from above him, well, silence from the little world he and Arthur were in. The universe around them was quite loud in a muffled sort of way. Concerned he'd screwed up his words again Merlin reached up to try and get Arthur's attention, as if Arthur might forget he was there when he was bleeding all over him in the middle of his court. His voice was stronger though, and when his hand touched Arthur's shoulder he took a firm hold of the cloth with a steady hand,
"I'm going to keep doing this Arthur, I'm going to keep stepping in front of knives until you realise I'm not doing this for destiny. I don't need my magic, I don't need destiny, to try, to want, to save you."
"Shut up," Arthur said. He'd said that when Merlin had first mentioned destiny, but in an entirely different way. Whereas that 'shut up' had meant 'I hate you and can't stand the sound of your voice' this 'shut up' was laced with concern and worry and 'you can't even begin to understand how much I want to believe you.' Merlin decided around the red knot in his mind that he'd take this as a good thing.
"Where's Gaius?" Arthur said distractedly. Someone had bought him a Pendragon-red banner, which he attempted to wrap around Merlin's hand to stem the slightly alarming flow of blood which was showing no signs of stopping. Crying out Merlin writhed in his grasp and was half out of his grip by the time Arthur seemed to realise that maybe, just maybe, his attempts weren't helping.
Leaning on his left hand, hunched instinctively over his injured hand like a wolf with its paw caught in a trap, Merlin turned and spat a mouthful of saliva and blood onto the floor. He'd bitten his tongue. Damn, but then in the scheme of things it was probably the least of his worries. (Well actually, thinking about it, the least of his worries was probably something like the flavour of cheese in the Mercian court and it's implication on trade with whoa, what was he thinking about? He hadn't lost that much blood had he?)
Suddenly Gaius was blurring in and out of his vision in front of him.
"Oh, hello Gaius, how are you?" He said faintly, looking up and slipping in his own blood. He would've pitched face first into Gaius's chest if Arthur hadn't caught him. Dignity? Who needs dignity?
"Merlin what have you done to yourself?" The old man said, his voice an agony of worry as he looked at the hand Arthur had reclaimed and held out for him to look at.
"Don't touch it!" Merlin gasped fearfully as Gaius' hand had moved to his. Gaius' eyebrows drew together in the middle with worry when he looked at Merlin, then he turned to Arthur.
"I can't treat him here; he needs to be in my chambers. That's where my equipment is, and it's sanitary and…without the audience," the furious glare Gaius sent to the surrounding people who had begun noticing the scene occurring in the middle of the hall was enough to make lesser men and women then they scuttle for safety.
"But…Gaius he'll bleed out!" Arthur said anxiously. Come to think of it there was actually quite a lot of blood, Merlin thought blearily looking at his arm.
"Hold him steady for a moment sire," Gaius reached into his physician's bag and withdrew a roll of bandages. He reached for Merlin's hand again; Merlin struggled but…this was Gaius, and Gaius wanted to help…he gritted his teeth and forced himself still.
"Good boy," Gaius said as Merlin quietly offered his wounded hand, palm/knife hilt turned upwards.
"Do you want to pull…pull the knife out?" Arthur asked, looking away from Merlin's agonized, trusting expression. The boy flinched in his hands; a flinch rapidly followed by a shiver, but didn't draw away again.
"No, sire, it would be better to do that in my chambers where I can treat the increased bleeding that will probably occur."
"Increased blee-" Merlin began saying with an alarmed tone but then Gaius had gripped his hand and was gently but firmly wrapping the bandage around his wound to staunch the wound. Whatever blood had still been in his face vanished and he balked mid-sentence.
His ears rang louder than ever and his vision blurred black so badly he had to grab a hold of Arthur to steady himself, to make sure he wasn't alone in the darkness. His stomach informed him it would really rather not be part of his body at that particular time, but he was able to stem its protests until Gaius had finished quickly wrapping the bandage. When he had finished Merlin promptly twisted and dry-retched on the floor.
"Alright, up you get," Arthur said, ignoring Merlin's embarrassment for which he was incredibly grateful.
"I don't know if that's a good idea…" Merlin supplied, but Arthur had already hooked his shoulder beneath Merlin's and pulled him to his feet. He actually blacked out for a split-second, but then came too with just enough focus to weakly attempt to support his weight. As strong as Arthur boasted himself to be it would be a bit too undignified for the King to pull a muscle lugging around his sorcerer, and by the expression on his face Arthur had been quite close to doing so. As they moved across the room Merlin forgot how to think, blinking dumbly at Gwen who had rushed to open the door for them. It took him half of the distance to Gaius' chambers to remember how to say thank you, and when he did so Arthur just gave him an odd look, wondering who he was thanking for what.
By the time they had arrived at Gaius chambers the pain had grown too much and Merlin had retched again, this time actually bringing something up, to his great shame and embarrassment. Arthur had told him not to worry about it and regaled about the privilege of delegation, now that Merlin was a ranking member of the King's court he could just order a servant to clean it up. That hadn't made Merlin feel much better; he wouldn't want to clean up someone else's mess so he doubted any servants would want to clean up his. But, as Gaius had said reassuringly, there wasn't much he could do about it now.
When they arrived at Gaius' chambers Arthur set Merlin gently down on the stool next to the workbench where Gaius had instructed him to. Sitting next to Merlin on his injured side, Arthur was arranging the injured hand on the table where he would be able to hold Merlin for Gaius.
Merlin didn't want to think about why he'd need holding still.
Gaius was bustling around the chambers getting a variety of things. He'd yelled at a guard as they were exiting the hall to get him some boiling water from the kitchens, which the guard brought in a bucket they had to carry with both hands. They'd then been ordered back outside but told to wait around in case they needed anything further. Gaius had such an intense expression the guard had acquiesced without a word in protest.
Merlin was trying to sit up under his own power but his spine was wobbling in a way no spine should wobble, so Arthur put an arm around his shoulders again. The last thing they needed was to have Merlin pitched backwards and cracking his head open on the ground, so knowing Merlin this was exactly what he was seconds away from doing.
Rolling up Merlin's sleeve to tie a tourniquet to his upper arm, Gaius froze and, reaching out, touched the cuff on Merlin's skin. The metal was freezing despite its contact with Merlin's skin and even though he only had a minute amount of magic Gaius felt his insides clench when his skin came into contact with it.
"Iron?" He said, wheeling on Arthur who looked up, startled. "Iron, sire? What is the meaning of this?"
Arthur opened his mouth and looked down, at a loss of what to say, he swallowed. He realised with a swooping feeling in his stomach that he'd intended to keep the cuffs between him and Merlin. It wasn't that which made him feel the sudden rush of shame, well, not mostly; it was the realisation that he had known Merlin wouldn't tell anyone because he wouldn't have wanted to turn them against their King. Merlin would've hidden it, Arthur had known this, and somehow he'd mistrusted him anyway.
"Arthur Pendragon why have you…why have you handcuffed my boy?" Gaius loomed over Arthur, who couldn't escape, eyes blazing like Arthur's was sure his had when he'd first learnt of Merlin's magic.
"I didn't, I just-"
"You most certainly did. No wonder he was stabbed, he couldn't protect himself with his magic! You take these off right now or so help me!" Gaius snarled, eyes flashing. Arthur dug in his pockets; key, where was the damn key? Only too aware of the plethora of medical instruments that would only serve too well as supplementary murder weapons for a mad physician.
"I can't believe you, Arthur!" Gaius hissed at him as Arthur pulled the key out of his inner coat pocket, "I just cannot believe you!"
Snatching the key from Arthur's hands Gaius turned his head in disgust from the prince and, gently, went about unlocking the metal cuff on Merlin's bloodied wrist. Arthur noticed with some confusion that whilst the skin beneath it was slicked with blood the iron was quite clean, however Gaius distracted him from his observations before he could ask why this was.
"I understand that you felt betrayed by Merlin, but I also know that you knew he wasn't a threat! Not after you rescinded the ban of magic on his advice! So why have you done this?" Gaius moved around them to reach Merlin's left hand, he'd obviously correctly guessed the iron cuff was one in a pair.
"I just…didn't want him being my friend only 'cause destiny had told him to be, and…and…I thought if he didn't have his magic he'd let go of his destiny and leave me alone…" Arthur said softly. Gaius unsnapped the second cuff and Merlin shivered and made the softest of keening sounds; Arthur wasn't sure whether Merlin knew he had made it. Arthur was also surprised and a little horrified to see that the ring of skin positioned beneath where the iron had rested was red, not from blood, but the sort of red of burnt skin. He could even see that some of the skin had cracked like a burn. Sickened, he averted his eyes as Gaius started speaking again,
"You fool. You know Merlin just as well as I do. He'd be saving your life even if it was his destiny not to. But thanks to you he couldn't use his magic to save you and he had to get creative! He could've died!"
Gaius and Arthur jumped; it wasn't that they'd forgotten that Merlin was there, it's just that they'd both seemed to think he hadn't been able to hear them even though their conversation was taking place over his head.
"Lay off Arthur, its ok," Merlin said softly. He seemed to only be half conscious, though there was a little more colour in his face now that the anti-magic cuffs were gone, and was coming very close to leaning his head on Arthur's shoulder, though he wasn't quite there yet.
The old man rested a hand on Merlin's head and sniffed slightly; Arthur suddenly realised Gaius was blinking through tears and felt doubly ashamed of himself. However despite the tears in his eyes, Merlin's voice appeared to have reminded Gaius of his priorities, and he quickly tied the tourniquet to Merlin's arm and swiftly undid the bandages. Merlin's breath hitched as he did this, and Arthur could feel his muscles clenching in place as he fought not to recoil.
"Ok Merlin, I need to remove the knife now."
"Do you have to," Merlin mewled, "we could leave it there…it'd be useful for cooking, I'd never be short of a knife to cut up bread again."
"Sorry boy," Gaius said and looked at Arthur, a temporary truce in his eyes as he needed the King's strength, "you'll have to hold him still sire."
"Are you sure you don't want me to pull out the knife? Or call in a guard? We should do this once and you might not be…it might be lodged in there pretty tight."
"No sire, I've done this before. Just hold him still for me," he turned away and picked up a small, rather dented piece of wood. Holding it up to Merlin's face he said,
"Merlin, you know what this is for."
Merlin eyed the wood apprehensively and seemed to be trying to find a way to voice his internal monologue. He ended up resorting to 'I hate this' but took the piece of wood between his teeth and looked up at Gaius resolutely. Standing up to get a bit of leverage, Arthur put both arms on Merlin's injured one and gripped it firmly, not wanting his fingers to slip on the blood. Gaius gripped the knife handle, Merlin closed his eyes and breathed in swiftly through his nostrils, and Gaius pulled out the blade.
Merlin rose beneath Arthur's arms as through trying to stand, his face clenched like a fist before a fight and with a collective shattering bang the vials lined up along the walls exploded. Flinching, Arthur kept a hold of Merlin as the blade was still coming out, and with a sudden alarming crack an upturned bucket over by the fireplace caved in upon itself as though under severe pressure from all sides. Finally the tip of the blade emerged, red and dripping, and just as Gaius had predicted the flow of blood increased from Merlin's hand. The lamps flared so bright Arthur and Gaius had to close their eyes, then as the metal of the lamps melted and the light died they could look again. Light still came in through one of the windows, but it was nowhere near enough light for Gaius to perform a medical procedure.
"Merlin," Gaius said calmly, as if the boy had not just destroyed several of his possessions using only the power of his mind, "a little light if you please."
"Sorry," Merlin said hoarsely and a blue light appeared, perfectly positioned, above them. His eyes had been closed before when he was casting magic, but this time Arthur had seen the tell-tale shine of gold in his eyes.
"That's quite alright," Gaius said reassuringly and reached for a cloth that had been soaking in the bucket of boiling water to staunch the flow and clean the wound. As Arthur let Merlin clench his own with his free, un-knifed hand, he realised that Merlin could've very easily lost control and cast magic on them, just as he'd cast magic on the vials, bucket and lamp…all of which lay on the ground a little worse for wear. If a little worse for wear can be interpreted as no longer recognisable for what they were a few seconds ago. He realised that, in fact, it would've been instinctual for Merlin to attack them, as they were the ones who were causing his distress. It was to help him, but his instincts may not have known that.
Arthur felt a surge of appreciation for the mere fact of Merlin's every present consideration and self-control which he realised, of course, stemmed from love. The same love that, of course, was the basis of their friendship.
:::Merlin and Arthur:::
He'd been trying not to slump on Arthur, but Merlin was too damn tired and in too much pain to care anymore. His head was on Arthur's shoulder and his shoulder digging into the King's rib. Arthur had whinged about that, but when Merlin pointed out that he'd taken a knife for him Arthur retreated into silence.
When Gaius came at him with thread and a needle Merlin couldn't help pressing his face into Arthur's collarbone so he didn't have to watch Gaius prepare to stitch up his aching hand. Not only did Arthur tolerate this but he brought up the hand around Merlin's shoulders to rub the back of his head and neck, and it was only when he did so that Merlin realised his neck and shoulder muscles were so tense with pain and stress that they felt like they'd be tied up with cords.
As the needle pricked into the skin on the back of his hand for the first time Merlin swallowed convulsively, injured hand twitching, and spoke to distract himself,
"Do you believe me now? About me doing this for friendship and not destiny? Because I never do what anyone tells me to do, so why would I do what destiny told me to do? I certainly wouldn't put myself through this just because of some vague, abstract prophecy made by someone I have never known who lived about a thousand years ago. That wouldn't be a good enough reason."
"And I'm a good enough reason?" Arthur said warmly.
"I'd catch a hundred knives if that's what it took to be friends again," despite the obvious pain in his voice Merlin sounded sincere. It scared Arthur slightly, how willing Merlin was to make sacrifices for him; scared, but also reassured him. Being a King was often a lonely life, but as long as Arthur didn't push Merlin away he knew he would never be truly alone.
"So…are we friends? Do…do you believe me?"
Arthur realised he'd lapsed into silence again and hadn't answered Merlin.
"Of course I believe you, I'd be an idiot not to. I was an idiot not to. I'm sorry Merlin."
"Sorry?" Merlin tried to sit up, confused, but Gaius started tying a knot in the end of the stiches in his hand and he slumped back down again as the thread tugged in his skin. "What are you sorry for?"
"If I had believed you in the first place none of this would've happened. If I hadn't put that iron on you," Merlin wished he could've suppressed the slight wince in his body when Arthur mentioned the cuffs but he couldn't and, feeling Arthur also wince, he knew Arthur had noticed, "then you wouldn't have been stabbed. You could've used your magic to protect me and you and, well, knowing you, everyone. But no, I had to go and do what my father would have done and treat you like a common criminal, and I…"
"Arthur, it's ok," Merlin interrupted, "I know why you did it. But you were hurting and it was because of me and it was the only way out you could think of. I wish you hadn't, but maybe if you hadn't we wouldn't have…we wouldn't be friends again. And so as it did happen and it did end well, I'm just going to be grateful."
"Damn you and your optimism," Arthur said, but he was smirking and he bumped their shoulders together. "You probably weren't even trying to stop the knife, you were trying to high-five it or something weren't you"
"Pfft, yeah that's right Arthur, I was trying to high-five it," Merlin gave a laugh which may or may not have contained the slightest hitching sob.
"The entry and exit wound are not entirely closed as the wound needs to drain, so you'll have to keep it sterile and wrapped until it heals so your hand doesn't get infected," Gaius interrupted, obviously having paid no attention to their conversation. He stepped back, wiping Merlin's blood from his hands on a cloth. Shakily Merlin sat himself up; Arthur let him, but kept his hand on his shoulder, just in case.
"Thanks Gaius," Merlin said with a wry tone, "it's not like Arthur and I were joking after a few weeks of him hating me, please do tell me more about how my hand is draining fluid."
Gaius cuffed Merlin affectionately over the back of the head and then hugged him tightly. Merlin yelped with some indignation at the head-slap and his words 'You got blood in my hair!' were muffled as his mouth was muffled against Gaius' robes. Laughing, Arthur realised he hadn't felt the stab of remorse he would've expected to feel at Merlin's remark about being hated by the King. Examining his feelings Arthur realised this was because he finally believed Merlin, he believed everything. That Merlin was his friend, that Merlin forgave him, that destiny had nothing to do with either.
He also realised that he had forgiven Merlin for everything. Because he understood his friend and knew that he'd always tried to do the right thing and always admitted to and tried to fix his mistakes.
Merlin emerged from Gaius' embrace, distinctly ruffled though this could've been due to the events of the day and not the hug. The two younger men shared twin grins.
In both of them forgiving each other they could move past it, finally, and in moving past it they had accepted it, learnt from it and could now laugh about it.
Something Merlin the eternal comedian (at least in his eyes) wanted to do as much as possible. His hand still smarted and ached horribly but that was nothing he couldn't handle, not when his heart was whole and light. As Gaius began clearing up his equipment and calling to the guard still outside to run and fetch them hearty food and drink enough for three from the kitchens Merlin turned to
Arthur with a cocky grin.
"What are you smiling about?" Arthur said suspiciously, eyes narrowing and twinkling.
"You know, technically, I caught a knife out of mid-air," Merlin smiled as Arthur gaped.
"No way! You didn't catch a knife out of mid-air! You just got in the way of the knife!"
"I definitely caught it. I was reaching for it after all, that classifies as a catch."
"It nearly took your hand off!" Arthur's voice had risen several octaves in incredibility at Merlin's presumption.
Smiling Merlin waggled the index finger on his left hand at Arthur,
"I never said I caught it well. But I distinctly remember you telling me you wanted to learn to, as you have never been able to."
"I said no such thing!" Arthur spluttered. Merlin smiled smugly at the King.
"You most certainly did. It was a few months back, and as you have seen it fit to drag me around with you all the time since then I'd've seen you practise. As I didn't see you practise, you didn't, and as you didn't, it means you cannot catch knives and I can!"
Arthur protested loudly as Merlin laughed at his expression.
"I can give you lessons if you like," Merlin smiled innocently, and Arthur put him in a headlock. It didn't really classify as a wrestle as they both remained seated and Arthur was distinctly careful not to jostle Merlin's hand, but by Gaius' shrieks of outrage one might have thought Arthur had just upended a table on Merlin's head and then lit him on fire for good measure. They let Gaius pull them apart and smiled conspiratorially as Gaius restrained himself from shaking the both of them because Merlin was injured and Arthur was King and, therefore, shaking either of them would not be prudent.
It wasn't the last fight they'd have, but it set a precedent for the forgiveness they would always remember to give, to each other and to other people. Several days later Arthur broke royal protocol to go and personally visit his would-be assassin. He remembered what the man had yelled out before he'd tried to kill him, and listened to the mans' rant about his innocent magic daughter. Arthur pardoned the man and let him go, the man didn't understand. He stayed in a hotel that night; it was being paid for by the king so he found the most expensive room in Camelot.
After dinner when he was drinking a mug of mulled mead a man appeared by his side, it was the court sorcerer. His hand was wrapped in bandages and the man recognised him as the one who had stopped the knife. Terrified, the man was sure the sorcerer was about to turn him into a toad or a bat in revenge for his hand. But the sorcerer merely sat down next to him, placed the assassin's long, silver knife on the table, the knife had been thoroughly cleaned, and began talking. The sorcerer, who had introduced himself as Merlin, told the man about the King's stance on magic. How it had been Uther, not Arthur, who had committed the genocide against the magicians, and how attacking Arthur would achieve nothing. Merlin explained how people seeking vengeance merely made the cycle of violence continue, and the only way to stop it was to forgive. He then stood, slid the man's knife over to him, and said he hoped the man would find it within himself to forgive the Pendragon household and, if he couldn't, if he could at least abstain from any further violence.
"Arthur is trying to heal the wounds left by his father," Merlin had said softly, "people who try to exact their revenge just make this all the more difficult."
He'd then stood and left the hotel, leaving behind a very confused attempted-assassin. Never once fearing that Joul, for that was the attempted-assassin's name, would creep up behind him and knife him in the back, Merlin whistled to himself as he walked home through the brightly moonlit streets of Camelot.