It became an interesting experience to watch Arthur flirt. It was something Merlin had witnessed hundreds of thousands of times before- the way his eyebrow rose and his eyes gave off that small sparkle Merlin just knew he could somehow work up on cue. His words turned from curt and half-ordered to smooth as silk, brushing past the ear like honey. His mouth seemed to know the position to go- a quirked little half smile that caused him to look the perfect combination of arrogant and dashing, enough to make Merlin's insides turn to mush.

Along with the familiarity of Arthur's flirting technique came his own small game, in which he flitted around the dance floor and tried to pretend both to himself and to anyone who claimed interest in the skinny manservant balancing two jugs of wine that he wasn't, by any means, head over heels for his Master, the aforementioned King of Camelot. He was a master at controlling his face, keeping his expression neutrally blank even when Arthur, glancing up from a chat with a flower in a flowing blue gown, shot him the flirting look unintentionally while signaling for a glass of wine.

It was more than enough to cause him to stagger as his knees went weak, or it would have done if Merlin wasn't used to controlling sudden changes in strength and wasn't known for being clumsy. He took the shaking of his knees in stride and made the slight stumble look more like a trip than losing all the feeling in his knees in the span of a single look. Pull yourself together, Merlin, he told himself fiercely- even if Arthur did look like a golden lion stalking among his multi-colored pray, blond hair glowing in the candlelight and coronet reflecting with various colors.

"Your wine, milord," he managed once he finally had pulled himself together enough to approach Arthur, who was continuing to talk to the girl in blue, who Merlin could now make out had brown eyes and a cascade of brown hair. He couldn't help a pang of absolute jealousy- Arthur's eyes had never looked at him like that, so full of admiration and glittering on the outsides with mirth.

For one stolen moment he considered the pros and cons of splashing her with the crimson wine, staining her brilliant blue gown, but then smothered the idea. Too risky. He handed Arthur his wine just in a way so their fingers brushed and Merlin had to bite back a small smile of pleasure. Arthur didn't seem to notice.

He was turning to hand the girl- Clara, Arthur had stated previously- her wine when she shot him a glare fierce enough that even he got a bit startled and stepped back a step. "My lady?"

Arthur turned to look and in an instant her expression was schooled back into the serene smile and slight blush. "Oh, your highness, I was just going to tell your servant that I wished for white wine, not red. My apologies, certainly."

The look she shot him was certainly not apologetic, but he was willing to let it slide. For now. Merlin swallowed slightly, Adam's apple bobbing in his throat, and slid into a graceful bow.

...After eight years at Arthur's side, one did tend to pick up such things. Just because he wasn't overly formal with Arthur did not mean he did not know how to be an adequate servant- perhaps even a decent one. Arthur's slightly raised eyebrow- a signal of being impressed to anyone well-versed in the subtle language of Arthur's body (a skill he was proud to have mastered after the second year and continue to improve on every day).

"Of course, my lady. I do sincerely apologize, I will return swiftly with your drink." The words might be overly formal, but no one other than Arthur would catch the difference. The King in question now looked certifiably amused, lips twitching in such a way as to disguise a hidden chuckle. The eyebrow rose just a bit more- to ask, "What in the world are you playing at?"

Merlin just inclined his head an imperceptible amount- Arthur was as well-up in the language of Merlin as Merlin was for him. To them, the small movement spoke volumes. "Explain later." Then he was off, back to the table, Lady Clara left none the wiser.

At the serving table in the kitchen, surrounded by no one by servants, Merlin was allowed two precious seconds to kick the edge of the table hard enough to send pain reverberating through his toe and swear softly. The way he looked at her was hurting him more than he had expected, and he hadn't liked the look in her eyes. But what was he supposed to say? "Oh, excuse me, Arthur, but I think your date might be like all the other ones you've ever had- lethal and probably working to kill you in some way."

Oh, yes. That would go over so well. Also, Merlin didn't sense any magic on her. Normally that wouldn't totally mean she wasn't magic (powerful sorcerers could hide their magic), but his powers had grown over the years and he was certain (mostly) he could know if there was some sort of malevolent presence in the castle. Especially if that presence was right in front of him.

But for the first ball in ages, nothing felt wrong or out of place- despite the bird hanging off Arthur's arm and eating him up like a worm. Maybe it was just his jealously talking, but he knew it couldn't end well.

Lost in his thoughts as he was, he almost didn't notice that Arthur and the Lady had changed their position when he emerged with the wine. Catching them in the corner of his eye, he balanced the goblet on the mandated tray all servants were supposed to use even if they were carrying one goblet of bloody wine and changed directions. Expertly swerving around dancing girls and gabbling men, he was just about to hold his hand up to catch Arthur's attention when something on the inside of his stomach wrenched him forward.

Next thing he knew he was crashing forward with the force of it, slipping across the dance floor, white wine soaking the one person he'd rather not have been anywhere near. The Lady in Blue.

"I... oops?"

Her gaze on him seemed to melt his insides, as if her very gaze of disapproval could feel like hundreds of small daggers stabbing into his stomach. He understood people being mad at him, sending him cruel looks that made him want to curl into a ball and cry- Arthur was a master at the 'most seriously unamused/Merlin-shut-up-now' looks. But this... this was anger personified, this was a look that could actually cause pain without words, without feeling, without anything more than an absolute glare to the target of her misery.

Merlin gasped and attempted to pull himself up to his knees, half-bowed at her feet. The music continued and yet the more intrigued dancers around them had stopped to watch the small scene- interested only as another aspect of entertainment for this evening. Could no one tell the agony he was in? His teeth were gritted and a sheen of sweat appeared on his forehead but he couldn't look away, her brown eyes narrowed and full of wrath.

He was about to lower his head in defeat when a few simple words broke the spell and the pain vanished, leaving him gasping in place and trying not to show it, using every bit of his experience in hiding magic to hide his shock and pain. "Merlin!"

Arthur's voice was livid- of course, why wouldn't it be- but ever so slightly concerned. Merlin was clumsy, yes, but he rarely tripped on something of that magnitude, and besides, there was nothing to trip over. Was he hurt? Dizzy in some way? But the concern was quickly blotted out by anger, causing Arthur to stalk forward and lift Merlin nearly off the ground with a fistful of his shirt.

Merlin's feet scrabbled and he couldn't move, tray already strewn on the ground around him. He attempted to dislodge Arthur's fingers but couldn't, instead attempting to plead with him silently with his eyes and his face. 'Arthur, please, it was an accident, don't...'

"Let him go." The voice was soft and for a moment Merlin couldn't quite comprehend that the same fluttering voice could come from a woman who had that much rage in her eyes. He expected dark tones, somewhat like Morgana's, thick with the bitterness of generations. But her voice was light with a cheery cadence and it was as if he had never heard something so wonderful before. Arthur, turned to her, half-dropping Merlin in a heap on the ground, and gave her a confused, yet warm look.

"He defiled your gown, my lady, it won't be but a moment..." Arthur's voice sounded confused and slightly dejected, like he was unhappy not to be able to be pleasing her.

"Leave him. It was an accident, certainly. But I do not wish to have a servant of that clumsiness at the party and if he could manage to trip that spectacularly over thin air-," here she paused to have a quick smirk and chuckle at his expense-, "perhaps you should send him to finish his nightly chores and go to bed."

"Yes." Arthur was quick to please, too quick, it seemed to turn Merlin's insides in a way that had nothing to do with butterflies and more to do with fear. "Merlin. Do as the lady commands, and Get. Out. I will talk to you later."

Merlin scrambled unsteadily to his feet, shooting Arthur a wounded glance. It was an accident, Arthur, she's somehow manipulating you, I swear...

For a moment Arthur's eyes softened and he went to take a step forward, but the Lady's voice rang a slight octave too sharp. "Arthur, my King, would you show me somewhere to wash? I do wish to fix my dress." Her words spoke promises both Merlin and Arthur were aware of, and Arthur turned like an excited puppy dog, leaving Merlin feeling sick.

Miserably, picking up the goblet and the wine and feeling the gaze of some dancers who had watched the whole thing, Merlin slumped out the back of the hall, knowing only one thing for certain.

Arthur was enchanted. Only slightly, maybe not even magic or such a thin layer Merlin's own senses didn't pick up on it. It wouldn't even be at all noticeable to someone who wasn't Merlin, who didn't know every twitch of Arthur's face or blink of his eye. It wasn't even as if he was being led- everything he did seemed to be of Arthur's own free will. It was as if something else was changing what he felt. Playing with his emotions.

Merlin's eyes widened. Emotions. If she could somehow manipulate Arthur's emotions, it could explain why he was so docile, where that burst of terrifying rage came from, and... it could also explain the look of longing in his eyes. He might not be truly in love with her.

Slightly appeased, but still feeling the rolling in his gut where her gaze had hit him like an anvil (still yet unexplained...) Merlin climbed the few flights of stairs to Arthur's room. He would not go to bed like his King had ordered- he'd talk to him when he wasn't under the poisonous influence of Lady Clara.

Sitting down on the bed, he peeled off his slightly-nicer jacket he wore to feasts and banquets and settled in to wait for his King.

The time came and went, leaving Merlin growing more and more aggravated. He had slumped against the side of the bed, yawning and fighting the sleep that longed to come, especially in the warm squishy bed that smelled of Arthur. For a brief second he considered indulging himself, flopping backwards and spending one moment curling into the warm sheets and drinking in the warmth and the smell he never got to actually enjoy- but thought better of it. Arthur would know, Arthur always knew, and that was a conversation he'd rather not be forced to deal with.

He was about to get up- Arthur apparently wasn't coming back for a while, and if he was, it would be probably so drunk on wine he couldn't string two words together, let alone hold an intelligent conversation about the distinct possibility his new girl could be some sort of sorcerer- when the tinkling of woman's laughter swooped down the hallway, followed by Arthur's husky laugh that he gained when he was incredibly drunk and having a great time.

Even the sound of it managed to cause Merlin to swallow- when not aimed at him, the sound hurt as much as the woman's gaze. They were getting closer, maybe he should...

Then the sound of a gasp and the tinkling laugh of pleasure filtered through again and all he could see was red for a second before panic filtered in. They were coming here; they were coming back to Arthur's room, if he was found here...

Scrabbling backwards, not wanting to get caught nor really preferring to hide somewhere while that was going on, he hesitated for one second too long. The door swung open of almost its own accord based on how much attention Arthur was giving it, one nearly carrying the Lady. His arm was around her, the other looking only momentarily dislodged to push the door open, before stumbling backwards to wrap it in her hair, lips glued to hers, pulling her up so she was mostly in his arms, one of her legs around his own, moving backwards to collapse onto the bed.

Merlin stood stricken, frozen, eyes wide and fighting back tears of betrayal he knew didn't make sense because Arthur didn't know, wasn't aware and was enchanted, these feelings of lust were being caused- but he couldn't consider that. Not now, not when he was watching and it hurt as if someone was carving his heart out with a rusty spoon. He couldn't move, transfixed on the scene in front of him, a beautiful calamity.

And then Arthur's eyes snapped open for a second and saw Merlin, standing like a statue in the corner. "Merlin!" he gasped, for a second the drunken haze falling from his eyes, pushing her away.

Even with hair mussed, dress falling off of one shoulder, cinched up by her knees and face flushed, the woman managed to look intimidating. "Didn't we tell this servant to go to bed, my lord?" she said darkly.

Arthur's eyes hardened. "Yes. We did."

"Arthur, I-,"

"No." He moved forward and Merlin got a perfect view of his own state- eyes shining with wine, anger, and perhaps something else, golden hair messed up and sticking up in weird angles that made Merlin battle back a burst of longing that made him want to run his own hands through it and mess it up further, his clothes all askew. He grabbed Merlin and dragged him close- for an awful and wonderful second Merlin thought he was going to kiss him.

But no. "I thought I told you to get out," he hissed, voice quivering with suppressed rage.

"Sire, I-,"

"Merlin." He raised a hand and Merlin watched it come down in fractured images before pain exploded through his face and he fell to the ground at Arthur's feet with a strangled sob. "I wanted to... I was going to help you after the party... I'm your attendant, Arthur, I..."

"No." Arthur wasn't hearing a word of the strangled apology from the servant at his feet, caught by the words of his Lady. "Arthur, get him out of here."

"Yes, darling." His voice was so full of not just love but absolute reverence that Merlin considered the pros and cons of covering his ears, trying to scrabble to his feet. Arthur's hand caught his arm and wrenched him upright- Merlin knew he looked a sight trying to hold back tears of pain and absolute wretchedness, but that didn't seem to matter as Arthur hauled him bodily across the floor. He threw open the door, and with one last look shoved Merlin out of it, causing the servant to stumble and fall.

For a single moment, half-way out into the hallway, their eyes caught and the hold in Arthur's seemed to dim and looked pained at the sight of the ravage in Merlin's. "Mer, I'm-,"

"Arthur!"

His back straightened, his eyes grew hard again, and the large wooden door slammed shut in Merlin's face. Not two seconds later a womanly squeal of joy emitted itself from the room and Merlin didn't have to think to know what was happening.

Stumbling backwards, clutching his face, he made it to the first small alcove before falling to his feet and letting out the first sob, emitting itself from somewhere in his chest. Sticky blood was already starting to come from where Arthur had punched him, his signet ring he always wore to parties catching on Merlin's soft skin.

Merlin knew he needed to help Arthur, that he wasn't actually in love, but in this moment, all he could do was cry.

The next morning was defiantly one of the more awkward mornings he'd ever had. He scrambled out of bed at the crack of dawn although he didn't manage to get back to his bunk until the stars started to fade, not wanting to make Arthur any angrier at him than he already was. It didn't take much to hide the small wound once it stopped smearing blood down the side of his face and his pillow- head wounds tended to bleed a lot, but many were just superficial. A bit of mussing with the hair on his right side did enough to slightly mask the livid red cut- enough that he could draw attention away from it if it was brought up.

Once breakfast was in his hands, he walked to the door of Arthur's room and back to the top of the stairs what must have been ten times. The guards at the end of the stairs shot each other bemused looks, chuckling to themselves. Both had been privy to the rumor that their King had brought a girl back to his rooms the night before, and sensed his servant's agitation at bringing him breakfast.

Merlin's hand reached for the doorknob at the absolute least as many times as he had paced the hallway. Would she still be there, or had she already left? Was Arthur awake and hungry, prone to fits of anger because of it? Or was he still asleep, working off the massive hangover he must be nursing from the night before? Breakfast was the Cook's Infamous Hangover soup, brewed for what must have been half the nobles in the castle. All Merlin had to do was show up before it was shoved into his arms- the talk of his King's revelry had passed to the kitchens in due course. Nothing stayed secret in a castle, at least, not among servants.

Although there was no talk of him getting cast out like an unwanted pet the night before, so that was a blessing in disguise. Perhaps they just didn't feel obligated to discuss it in front of him- he was friends with many of the servants and it wasn't really something to be proud of.

Regardless, Arthur would most likely be needing the stew, and that led to the question of how much of the night before did he actually remember? Of course he would most likely remember his night with the Lady Clara, but would he remember Merlin's presence? Remember hitting him, or just kicking him out? Merlin could see the drink swimming in Arthur's eyes when he was being yelled at- or Clara's magic- which led him to believe he might just get supremely lucky.

The scratch of pen on paper and a pained gasp emitted itself through the door and Merlin made up his mind, changing his mind from bursting through to knocking at the last possible second.

"Is that Merlin with my bloody breakfast?" Arthur snapped through the door- sounding like a rhetorical question to Merlin as opposed to someone else in the room. He also didn't sound happy- Merlin could only pray he didn't have more than a foggy memory of the night before.

He pushed through the door and saw his King bent over a few papers on his desk (the real reason the visiting nobles were here, to discuss the continuation of the peace treaty). His eyes squinted and there was a glimmer of pain in his features that only Merlin could see.

Merlin winced in phantom sympathy- he'd woken up on the wrong side of the bottle more times than he could count, and it only seemed fair. Although Arthur always seemed to have a cruel glee on working him extra hard on those days, as if working while hung over could increase his (decidedly light) tolerance for liquor.

"My lord?" Formality, today, until he figured out how much Arthur remembered. "If you remove those papers, my lord, I can serve you."

Arthur glanced up at Merlin with a bleary gaze and nodded, moving the treatises off his desk in favor of the soup. He pulled a disgusted face and Merlin fought the urge to laugh and tease as he normally would have. Today was a day for apologetic formality.

"Hangover soup?" Arthur grumbled, stirring it. "I do believe I need it, I had quite a night last night..." His words trailed off and he glanced up at Merlin with new eyes. The boy flinched slightly but other than that made not a sound, eyes flicking to the ground.

"I... I hurt you," he mumbled, confused, eyes flicking back and forth as if he was searching his memory for a reason why. His eyes alighted on the wound right above Merlin's ear. "I hurt you. I hit you... I... uh..." His face screwed in pain, this heavy thinking was doing nothing for his extreme headache.

That was it. Merlin swooped down and gently placed a hand on Arthur's head (checking the headache- physicians got away with a lot of soothing physical contact under the guise of examination, or maybe that was just him) to stop him from thinking. Arthur's tormented and confused eyes met his soft ones. "I don't..."

"Shhh," Merlin said. "Wrong place, wrong time, you were drunk. Eat your soup."

Arthur's face turned pale and Merlin cursed himself- wrong words, too. "The... the Lady Clara... I...," he blinked. "I dunno what came over me last night."

This was pleasing information- Arthur was no longer under her spell unless they were close. "Arthur...," Merlin pulled up a chair and gestured for him to start eating while they were talking. "I'm not sure if I'm right, but can you promise you'll listen while I explain something to you?" It never hurt to make sure he wasn't going to get thrown in the stocks for a conversation of this nature before it happened.

Arthur nodded, an eyebrow raising while taking a large spoonful of soup and grimacing slightly as his stomach turned. Go on.

"Well...," he said, before taking a deep breath. Best do it quick. "I think Clara might be a sorcerer."

"A sorcerer," Arthur deadpanned, one eyebrow raising and looking like he was about to burst into laughter- the exact opposite of the reaction Merlin wanted at the moment.

"Yes," he stressed, leaning over the desk and trying his best to act like he knew what he was talking about without giving too much away, trying to convey the absolute seriousness of the problem.

Arthur frowned at the look in his servant's eyes and took another bite of soup. "You can't honestly be serious, Merlin. A sorcerer? Clara? I would most certainly know."

You knew her very intimately last night, Merlin's mind supplied, but he quickly squashed it. There was no need to remind Arthur of things he might not yet remember, and besides, that was something he really didn't need reminding of either. His breath came a bit fast and he tried to quell the anger before it rose any further.

"Just listen to me, Arthur," Merlin pleaded, unsure of what else to say. Arthur was going to demand proof he didn't have. What was he trying to do- alerting Arthur to the problem was just going to go badly, put him on edge and tear them further apart. "Think of how you felt last night," he eventually finished lamely. "You weren't in your right mind."

Arthur raised an eyebrow. "I was drunk, Merlin. Out of my head. What kind of frame of mind do you think I was in?" But then his brow furrowed. "Although... I don't really remember drinking too much la-,"

His voice was cut off by a cheery voice ringing out. "Artie?"

The Lady Clara.

She stepped through the door, today dressed in a supple green dress that didn't leave much up to the imagination, neck line plunging down like it wasn't going to stop. If Merlin wasn't totally and utterly convinced she was evil and out to kill Arthur, and wasn't completely sure he didn't swing that way in the first place, he'd be on the floor drooling in a moment. There was nothing stopping Arthur, who looked up and seemed to fall into a trance the second he saw her. It wasn't noticeable to anyone else and barely even noticeable to Merlin, just a small haze coming over his eyes. He was seeing the vision of beauty.

Merlin's stomach churned. "Arthur?" he said, waving his hand in front of Arthur's face, like they had jokingly done a hundred times before. Except this time Arthur's hand shot out and snatched Merlin's wrist, squeezing so hard it was painful and shoving Merlin's hand back down towards his lap. He let out a small squeak, more of confusion than shock. Sorcery? he allowed himself to wonder for a moment. They were just having a peaceful conversation, what-

"I was drunk, Merlin." Arthur's voice was cold. So he remembered what they were talking about. "Drunk, and yet completely aware of what I was doing. And I wasn't aware my romances are any business at all of my servant. You are to clean my rooms and assist me when I require it. Other than that, you are to stay out of my way." The last words were hissed across the table, his blue eyes like chips of ice and Merlin watched them melt as he glanced up at Clara.

"The picture of beauty," he said lowly, climbing out of his chair and going to meet her with a kiss that Merlin couldn't turn away from. He felt glued to the chair, as if he couldn't move. Arthur was being needlessly cruel, but the scariest part was that he was acting as Arthur would have. Normal Arthur, non-enchanted Arthur... that was his anger. Those were his words. It wasn't goofy Arthur who would explode into a passionate, fire-filled rage. It was Arthur's rough voice with eyes cold as the steel of his blade, no humor in his expression.

It was the face that sometimes haunted his dreams at night.

The Lady Clara shot Arthur a disarming smile and then turned to Merlin. "Does your manservant continue to be needed, sire?" she said coolly.

"No," Arthur said distractedly, waving his hand curtly at Merlin. "Get out and go do whatever it is you should be doing."

The wave of his hand broke something inside of Merlin, but he was done cowering and crying and taking this abuse. Something was wrong, deadly wrong, and he was going to DO something about it. He rose from his seat and stalked over to Arthur, pulling Clara away from him.

"Did you listen to a word of what I said?" he pleaded with Arthur. "Arthur, please, she's dangerous!"

Clara made a sound of displeasure behind him and Arthur looked down his nose, his face growing deadly stiff and jaw clenching. "Release me. Now."

Merlin wasn't even aware he was holding onto Arthur's shoulders and shaking him, but he didn't let go. Instead, he just gripped Arthur firmer, as if something could be felt swimming under the surface and consuming Arthur.

Nothing.

Arthur slapped his hands away and, without warning, shoved Merlin to the ground so he landed firmly on his knees. "This is where you should stay," he growled into Merlin's face, shoving Merlin's head so he was looking down at Arthur's feet instead of into his eyes before fisting his hands in Merlin's hair and dragging his eyes back up again.

Merlin bit back a cry of pain and tried to keep as stoic as possible. This wasn't Arthur, this was her, this was her... his mind repeated frantically on a loop as tears gathered in the corner of his eyes.

"You are a manservant," Arthur seethed at him. "You are not worth the dust on my shoes. You are not worthy to touch me; you are not worthy to even look at me. I don't know what delusion got into your head that you ar-,"

"I am your friend!" Merlin wailed, cutting Arthur off, feeling every word cut into him like daggers.

"Friend?" The word was cut off in a bark of laughter. "Boy, I don't know where you got that into your mind. I am not your friend. I am your King. And soon to be your worst nightmare until you get that into your head."

"I got it from you," Merlin said coldly, voice shaking.

"I am not your friend," Arthur said, somehow the low whisper more terrifying and heartbreaking than the sharp growl. "You are a servant. Now get out of my sight."

He threw Merlin to the ground, the boy collapsing. He drew himself to his feet with the last vestibules of dignity, hearing Clara laugh as he drew himself out.

His only comfort was the glimmer of gold in Arthur's eyes- a small mercy.

Doing his chores for Arthur was proving to be, if anything, more emotionally draining than it was physical. He couldn't understand what prompted Arthur to say such cruel things- well, he could, but he just hated to dwell on them. He raked the stables so long and so thoroughly that his hands were shaking and sweat was pouring down his face by the time he finished.

He just couldn't wrap his mind around it. He'd heard whispered rumors and mentions in his magic book about a species that could influence sorcerers if they got permission- taking over their magic and using the magical people as little less than puppets, a storage space for magic when it wasn't being used. It had been said that these so-called Tamers could also influence emotions of the sorcerers, tug and pull so every order given the sorcerers would want to carry out. They were desperate to please.

Merlin didn't want to consider how much it seemed like Arthur had fallen under a Tamer's spell. But that didn't make sense, because Arthur wasn't a-

"Merlin."

He whipped around, nearly dropping the rake in his haste to face the voice that rang out hauntingly close to his ear. "Lady Clara."

The woman in question gave him a long smile, looking like a contented cat. "My dear Merlin, how does it feel? To be here, instead of attending your King at his Knighting ceremony?" Her voice was nearly a purr, swaying forward until her lips were against the shell of his ear. He let out not a sound, standing perfectly still with a chin raised haughtily.

"I thought you'd be this way," she murmured, grabbing a piece of straw from the ground and glancing at it like it disgusted her before swiping it under his chin and receiving an involuntary shiver in return. "I could tell Arthur you're not being very pleasant to me." Her full lips fell into a pout.

"What do you want," His voice was stiff and cold and he hadn't moved his eyes from where they were transfixed on the back wall, veins humming with hidden magic, ready to attack. "Why are you here?" They weren't questions-more like commands.

"Oh, baby, you don't really think I'm going to make it that easy," she simpered, bottom lip trembling. "You really don't know me that well."

Merlin's Adam apple bobbed in his throat but he didn't react, swallowing down his words. If he looked at her, he knew he'd feel himself being drawn in, as if she had learned the art of seduction and was using her full tools on him.

Tamers could only take what they want if they are given permission, he told himself firmly and forced himself not to look at her although his knees went weak.

"Pity," she said softly, ducking behind him. A nerve leapt in Merlin's jaw as it clenched- he didn't like having her behind him. She fiddled with something on the back of Merlin's neck and the next thing he knew his filthy neckerchief was falling to the ground.

He couldn't help feeling incredibly exposed, especially when her fingers traced the slender line of his jaw and cheekbones, down his neck, and dipped into the hollows of his collarbones. "You're a very pretty boy if you'd clean yourself up a bit," she whispered into his ear, breath puffing across his face, "and yet, Arthur's King."

His ears pricked but he made no other motion of showing he was paying attention. "I have no one else to gloat to," she frowned slightly, painted lips a perfect downwards semi-circle like the curve of a bow, "so it might as well be you. I have to get you out of the way anyways."

Merlin shivered slightly, and she felt it. "Oh, come on, honey," she chuckled after a second, glancing around at the pristine stables. "You can't honestly think I have the power to get rid of you myself. I'm low-powered, no, baby, I'm just the messenger." But with the purr of her dulcet tones in his ear, he couldn't help but think it was a lie. "I'm to be Queen. I'll be your Mistress. Won't that be nice?"

"You'll never be my Queen." His voice was ragged.

"Mmmm. No, not to you, certainly. You'll be taken care of that beforehand. How'd you like to have your loving man kill you?"

Merlin froze.

"It isn't hard. The emotions in him are so powerful and so loud. You should have felt him during sex-," Merlin let out a dark growl, at which she laughed. "No, you wouldn't like that, would you? Well, some say death lets off the same endorphins right before you pass on, so, maybe you'll get some time at the hands of your lover."

She came back around front, holding his hands and smoothing her thumbs over back of his calloused and yet supple ones. "I'm not at the ability to implant emotions," she said casually, as if she was talking about the weather and not planning his death, "but I can bolster ones already there. The spark of interest for me- the same one I can feel you feeling, despite your deepest attempts not to- was incredibly simple to inflame. So was the doubt in the back of his mind for you. The thought that maybe the friendship could never work out- the class difference was too much."

Her grin was feral, like a cat, as Merlin's mouth dropped slightly, understanding her meaning two seconds after she said it. "So when you try to tell yourself that it's all me, remember something...," she leaned in to whisper in his ear. "I had to get the thoughts from somewhere." She planted a kiss on his cheek, "Ta!" and walked out.

Merlin watched her leave, frozen in place and stricken, lipstick in the shape of her cupid bow lips on his cheek and seeming to stain his soul.

He didn't quite remember the trip back to his room, mind firing at about a hundred different synopses and looping in a circle, trying to function correctly after getting his insides turned inside out and tied into a knot. He stared up at the ceiling, gasping softly and continuing to rub at his cheek even though the remains of the lipstick had already been rubbed off onto his pillow. Sickening tears dripped down his face and he knew he was going to hurl, but couldn't find the energy to get off his bed.

Arthur was in danger, horrible danger, and Merlin couldn't do anything about it. Lady Clara was only a problem when she was near Arthur and had the ability to influence him. But the only place Merlin couldn't do magic was right in front of him- and there was no way he could reveal his magic. If Clara could bolster Arthur's feelings of class difference so hard he hit Merlin in the face, he would be dead in a second regardless of what Arthur truly felt about his magic.

A mental imagine of him, going up in an inferno, Arthur laughing haunted his mind for a few moments before he quashed it viciously. No. He wouldn't let it happen- and if it did, so be it. He would rescue Arthur. He was his friend... more than his friend, not that Arthur knew about it. His stomach flipped again and he let out a small groan- his feelings for Arthur not doing much good to his already nervous stomach.

When he next glanced out the window, it was late. He was late with Arthur's dinner. Part of him wanted nothing to do with it or Arthur ever again, but he couldn't let the King go hungry even if he wanted nothing to do with the man. Climbing slowly out of bed he shakily walked into the kitchen where a tray was hastily shoved in to his head, sent up to Arthur's room with admonishments on his tail.

"...Arthur?" he questioned softly.

"Come." The response came moments later and Merlin slowly pushed open the door, walking on absolute eggshells. He didn't want to be in Arthur's room, didn't want to be anywhere near. But he moved closer to his King, head bowed over his work and looking like he didn't want to interfere. Did he...?

"I thought I said I didn't want to see your face in here again." His voice was hard and eyes like flint, and Merlin couldn't help but physically flinch as if expecting a blow, eyes downcast. "I'm sorry, milord."

"You should be. I should throw you in the stocks, or better yet, the dungeons for your offence."

Merlin let out a small whimper of apology, shuffling his feet. He had never felt this way around Arthur before- not even when he had first started in Camelot. Arthur might have been an arrogant prat, but he at least had some honor. Merlin might have spent more time in the stocks than out, but at least he wasn't afraid Arthur was going to physically strike him- at least, not hard. But now?

"Not even going to stand up for yourself?" Arthur growled. "You disgust me."

The words seemed to go through his heart like a dagger. "Arthur, I-,"

"No, Merlin, just get out."

It was only as Merlin sighed dejectedly and slipped out that he realized Lady Clara was nowhere to be seen.

Her power was growing, and that was unnerving. He didn't know if that meant Arthur was submitting even more to her, or if she was gaining her power from someone else, but it was terrifying.

Servants gave him strange looks as he passed, holding the empty tray and looking like a kicked puppy. A serving girl tried to approach him but he didn't look her in the eye, hurrying on. Arthur's hated seeped to sap him of energy- he felt sick and shaky, face pale and with a gray pallor. He couldn't understand why it affected him like this- there was no such thing as physical problems from a broken heart- was there?

He pushed the idea away and finished up the rest of his chores for that day and the rest, not wanting to give Arthur any more ammunition to attack him with. Although Arthur was in his mind, however, the forefront of his mind was Clara. He didn't know what to do with her- how to stop her magic. He could kill her, certainly, but something about that turned his stomach on edge. He didn't want to hurt her.

His body's connection to her put him on edge. Why was he so controlled? Her kiss, while repulsive, made him want to turn around and press his lips against hers, kissing the life out of her, sinking to the ground and submitting to her tender hands. And that, more than anything, frightened him. Why?! He loved Arthur, but there was something around her that called his magic, compelled him to her, wanting her to sing his praises, declare her as his Queen.

He shook his head viciously and bent back down over the dented breastplate he was polishing, rubbing it so hard the force shook through his body. He wouldn't dwell on it anymore, except...

If she was what Merlin assumed she was, a Tamer, than it could at least remove some of his confusion. Tamers were made to be naturally appealing to sorcerers, drawing in their magic like honey to manipulate their target until they submitted and were able to take advantage.

But why Arthur?! He didn't have magic. God knew he didn't have magic. So why him? What made him submit to the touch of a Tamer? She should be nothing more than a pretty girls- one of the downfalls of a Tamer that without their captured sorcerers, they could do nothing offensive. What was making her able to influence his thoughts?

And was that thought really there? Merlin whimpered softly, feeling the tears start to roll up from frustration, confusion, and rage. Why did he think that just because of their differing statuses they couldn't be friends? It didn't make sense.

And yet it made perfect sense. Arthur had always been reluctant to admit they were friends. And now...?

He let out a deep sigh, hundreds of thoughts running through his head at top speed, causing him to tremble from the force of them and the danger they heralded. He couldn't do this alone, but...

Gaius was out. Gaius, even old, even feeble, was a sorcerer as well. He wouldn't put anyone in the range of Clara who could potentially be manipulated to her. He wouldn't wish the threat of Taming on his worst enemy.

He would deal with this once and for all. Hands white-knuckled on the table, reaching out and grabbing a small dagger, he made his decision. He would find Clara and end this, one way or another.

If he needed to submit to her, so be it. Camelot, and Arthur, would be safe from her poisonous influence.

He'd figure out why Arthur was affected- later. There were many questions to ask.

The dagger snug in his boot, Merlin slipped out of the armory. The cold metal rubbing against his skin felt like a pulsing signal, and it felt like every person he passed could somehow read his intentions in his face and could see the dagger under his pant leg. It was almost like that very first week in Camelot, where he felt his magic was on display for anyone to see it.

Forcing a deep breath in and out he forced himself to quell that fear- no one could read his mind, no one knew of his plans. What were his plans? They were radical and stupid, but at least having something was making him feel better than desperate uselessness. Was he going to stab her? Just walk up to Clara and thrust his small, pathetic little blade into her heart?

Did he have the guts? He'd never killed anyone in that sort of cold blood before. He'd killed- it was hard to do magic and protect Arthur without sparing a few lives here and there. But it was always indirect- he'd never purposely looked at a man and pulled their lives away. Arthur never even had done it- the only men he'd killed was in the heat of battle.

Besides Agravaine and the King of Caerleon. Both didn't count, both had their reasons, both were atoned for. But could Merlin do it again? Purposely kill her?

He viciously squashed the rising doubts. There was no choice. He'd be damned for his sins, of course, but it was to protect Arthur. Everything he did was to protect Arthur. If killing Clara meant that she could no longer influence his King and force her will on him, then so be it.

It shall be done.

He forced himself to meet the eyes of the serving boys and girls passing him if they met his, shooting small smiles and pleasant looks. The whispers had already started about his frantic nature earlier and he hoped to appease their worries. Talk could brush the wrong ears, and he couldn't risk any idle speculation getting to the wrong people.

Two left turns, a right, up the stairs, and he found himself in front of Arthur's room without having consciously walked there, lost in his thoughts. He hoped Arthur was out and that he could find Clara alone- killing her with Arthur there might be impossible. He, even implanted, had feelings for her. Seeing that devastation in his eyes as she died might rock even his strong resolve.

Two sharp raps on the door- his long-ago signal to Arthur that it was him and not someone else, so the King didn't have to frantically smarten up and look Kingly. Even the small gesture caused him to smile slightly- - the grateful smile that followed afterwards always seemed to illuminate Arthur's face.

It was because of that smile, those blue eyes, that he did what he did. Worked from the sidelines to make sure his King had the best and easiest possible Kingship.

What was the life of a servant compared to that of a King?

There was no answer at the door, feminine or male, and Merlin frowned, trying to push open the door. Locked, and night was falling. Cloying darkness was already squeezing under doors and windows like ink, blocking out all slivers of light except for the pools under the torches that had been lit earlier that evening.

Of course this whole endeavor would have to be done by candlelight. It sounded almost as if this was all a badly written story Arthur would murmur to him and the Knights when they sat shoulder to shoulder around a hunting campfire, swapping tales that ranged from bawdy to chilling. Merlin couldn't help but hope those days would return someday.

He turned, took a few steps, and without warning found himself flat on his stomach, sprawled across the floor. The air seemed to shoot out of him and his forehead slammed into the stone floor, knocking him dizzy for a few precious seconds. He blinked, forcing his head to stop spinning, propping himself up on trembling arms.

Frantically, he tried to piece two and two together. Was he attacked? It had all happened so quickly- did he trip? His mind was whirling. Pain shot out. Stomach churned.

And then a melodious voice appeared over his shoulder, one hand twining in his short hair as she stepped over his back. Merlin froze.

"You can never take a warning, can you, my dear?" she purred, hands running down his back and tracing the lines between his shoulder blades. "I thought I had told you that if you interfered, I would kill you."

She must have been waiting in the shadows. Pushed him- be it by magic or physically he wasn't sure. He couldn't move-speak-breathe. Everything was choppy, her magic lay in the air like a perfume, heavy and thick and pervading every piece of his body. He couldn't think through it, becoming weak and pliable under her hands.

"Is...," her laugh tinkled from somewhere above him, her weight situated predominately over his back, shoving him down into the stone floor. It didn't occur to him he could buck her off. "Is this a blade? Were you going to kill me, little one?" Her voice left a warm trail down across his ear, chestnut tresses falling down in his face and causing him to shiver miserably.

It was as if whenever he was around her, he lost all sense of commitment. It wasn't like Arthur, puddy in her hands, but he couldn't move. Frozen. Paralyzed. His thoughts, once so simple and direct, were scattered and broken, flashing through his mind like a guttering candle. Her finger slid down the length of his leg and drew out the blade, causing him to kick feebly. The action against the freshly sharpened blade was enough to nick him- and with the pain came a ray of recollection.

"Get you away from Arthur," he gasped. That thought was strong enough to be remembered, even if he could barely understand his own name. "Arthur."

"Arthur's fine, my love," she hummed gently. She was trying to use her persuasion techniques, her seduction. Get him to believe whatever she wanted.

"No!" he gasped, magic shimmering under his skin, an instinctual reaction. That was where it all went wrong.

"Yes!" she screeched, the harsh sound somehow grating against his ear, shocking him into awareness. But it wasn't fast enough. Her painted nails sunk into his shoulders on either side of his neck, gaining purchase. Crimson nails mixing with crimson blood from five simple little holes, her nails filed sharp enough to slice through layers of skin.

He let out a yelp of agony and his back arched against the pain, attempting to fight her off, blood trickling in individual droplets down his back. It wasn't the pain that frightened him- it was when she got hold of him, he could feel his magic rushing up to meet it. His eyes flew open and flashed between gold and blue, body bucking and jerking and attempting to break free, pure terror pervading every sense and emotion he had.

When his magic met the tendrils of her own, everything seemed to slow down for just a second. Time slipped by, moment by moment. Then the connection was made and it was as if someone had grabbed a piece of his soul and wrenched it out, drawing a gentle stream of his essence out of his body.

Merlin was being drained. There was no other way to describe it. His magic, his life force, was being eaten up, pulled into Clara. As his thrashing grew weaker and weaker, she got stronger and stronger.

He couldn't fight it, he couldn't do anything. He was being Tamed- not influenced to her will, she had said she wasn't a high level Tamer who could not only take magic from their host but replace it with their own- and could only watch, detached, as everything he was was taken out of him.

Right before everything went black and the last stretch of his essence snapped off and left him a husk, a voice came from overhead. Not Clara's, deeper and more masculine.

"Clara? What... what are you doing?"

Arthur.

He would like to say that at the sound of Arthur's voice, everything came rushing back inside him and he gained the strength of a thousand men, fighting off Clara with one hand tied behind his back, leaping up, and swooping Arthur off his feet.

But this was real life, not deluded fantasy. Clara's divided attention gave him a few moment's respite and he gasped, drawing in air back to his starved lungs, body heaving. He was flat on his stomach and rested his warm forehead against the cold stone floor, trying to draw comfort from the flagstones against his cheek. He couldn't move- every piece of him seemed to weigh hundreds of pounds, aching miserably.

Clara pressed a soft kiss on the back of Merlin's neck, causing him to jerk and moan softly, before sitting up and moving to Arthur. The relief of pressure on his lower back allowed him to shakily draw himself into a somewhat-upright position, balanced on his knees and hands like he was going to crawl. Even that forced the boy's head to hang and gasp, drawing in air like he had just run a mile, full-tilt. The ground was spinning and his arms trembled madly, as if she had drawn the very strength out of his bones.

"Good morning, my love," Clara said sweetly, voice back to normal instead of the grating cackle that just emitted itself a second beforehand. She sashayed over to Arthur, who, despite himself, took a step back. Merlin. There was something important about his servant, looking broken on the ground, taking long, ragged breaths.

Then Clara's fingers gently stroked along his cheekbone and he lost all sense of thought. Why would a serving boy matter to him? Probably did something wrong and was pun-

His thoughts completely stopped as Clara's voice crossed his ear, sultry tones like velvet. "This serving boy has tried to attack me, Arthur," she whispered, somehow still incredibly soothing even though the words were harsh. She flipped the blade over in her hands and showed it to Arthur, whose mouth fell open. The silver dagger was stained with blood- Merlin's blood, though Arthur didn't know that. She then revealed her hands and the bodice of her dress, which were stained with droplets of Merlin's blood. "He scratched me. He tried to kill me." Her voice was nothing more than a whimper. "Artie... kill him for me. He attacked a Princess."

By now, Merlin had managed to pull himself halfway to his feet, feeling hollow and empty as if something integral was gone. He swayed back and forth, unsteady on his feet, blood pooling in his boot from his cut leg, feeling drips slide sickeningly down his back from the still weeping holes. He looked up to see Arthur's eyes turn to his, Arthur's blue eyes meeting his dazed gray ones.

Arthur's eyes were completely dead, as if someone had reached in, taken everything that was Arthur, and wrenched it away. He was a puppet on a string, controlled by invisible tendrils of power. Merlin took a shaking step back, but was stopped by the wall. He didn't have enough energy to race away down the hall.

"Did you try to hurt Clara?" Arthur's voice was cold, but not dead. It was alive in fury, hurt, and pain- the same voice he'd used when he asked about Merlin when he got hurt. The voice of worry for a friend manifesting itself in anger. To hear that voice turned on him felt like another one of Clara's nails stabbing into the skin right above his heart.

"No," he said quickly. A lie. Just another to add to the list.

Arthur's voice showed he knew the truth. "I've seen the blade, Merlin." He stalked forward, pushing Merlin closer and closer to the stone wall. Merlin's eyes held a glimmer of panic. "I know the truth."

Merlin reached for the magic usually inflamed inside of him and felt nothing. His mouth fell open and he reached again. Nothing. Nothing, nothing, nothing! His bottom lip trembled as he looked over at Arthur, seeing him ball up a fist.

How would you like to be killed by your King? Clara's words rang through his mind and he looked over Arthur's shoulder at her, nearly glimmering from the magic she stole from him, smiling wide. No use begging her to stop. Without him, no one would have any idea and she'd be wide open to marry Arthur and take the throne. Without him, no one would be able to stop her.

Arthur stepped forward and, without warning, grabbed Merlin by the shirt and shoved him bodily into the wall. All the air Merlin worked so hard to regain from falling earlier whooshed out of his lungs and he let out a whimper. Arthur barely paused, just releasing him and letting Merlin fall shakily back to his feet.

Merlin didn't realize how terrifying Arthur's face could be until all that anger, rage, and betrayal was turned on him. His heart clenched and he tried to make himself as small as possible, not wanting to see those eyes staring at him. He couldn't see Arthur's hatred.

In doing so, he didn't notice the fist colliding smack into his face until it made impact. Pain exploded and he went sprawling, the back of his head slamming into the wall, slipping down to hit the ground with a cry of pain. His mouth fell open in a wordless gasp, hand coming up to feel the blood soaking into his raven hair from Arthur's signet ring. "I have been told to kill you," Arthur growled from up over his head, shaking out his hand and smiling something fierce. "Maybe that means I can finally get a better servant. One that's not so much of a fuck up."

The words hurt more than then punch and tears gathered in his eyes. "Arthur, please... I'm was just trying to he-" The words were cut off as Arthur dragged him up to his feet. For a moment Merlin thought he was going to show mercy before another fist collided in his face, cutting his eyebrow and causing blood to drip down his face. He wiped it off and stared at Arthur, mouth open to beg for mercy but unable to figure out how. He knew blood was smeared across the right side of his face, could feel and taste it's salty tang as it dripped across his lips. Tears cut a trail in the grime but he couldn't bring himself to say another word, cowering at Arthur's feet.

It would always have ended like this, wouldn't it? Even if he had his magic, he could have never laid a hand on Arthur. He still loved the man, more than his entire heart could have. He just wish he hadn't failed him so miserably.

Arthur drew back his foot, going to kick him in the stomach- Merlin knew it would be painful and clenched his eyes shut- when the blow never came. He cracked his eye open, even with one nearly sealed shut with dried blood, and peered up at Arthur.

His face was ravaged with fear, abhorrence, and disgust. Tears were gathered in the corners of Arthur's eyes and he was trembling, foot wavering from where it was held a few inches off the ground. Behind him, Clara had lost her smirk, glaring at Arthur.

"Do it!" she shrieked. "Kill him!"

Arthur closed his eyes and when he opened them again, some spark that was missing before had returned. He leaned down and Merlin flinched backwards, but Arthur only gently pulled Merlin to his feet, hand incredibly gently wiping the blood from his face with a clean sleeve. Arthur's face changed rapidly from emotion to emotion before it settled on wrath. Not towards him, towards Clara.

He whipped around and Merlin watched as Arthur stalked towards the Tamer, whose eyes were wide and was backing away. "Arthur, darling! I love you, what are you doing?" The air in the room had gone heavy, as if she was influencing how they thought and moved, but it didn't cause Arthur to pause. With one crack of his hand across her face she was down, unconscious.

Everything seemed to happen all at once. With her unconscious, nothing was continuing its hold on either of them. Merlin collapsed to the ground, no puppet strings holding him up, dissolving into tears of terror and relief. Arthur blinked a few times and then, hesitantly, walked over to Merlin, hand held out and shaking.

"...M...Merlin?" he asked incredibly tenderly. His voice was heavy with guilt and thick with tears himself, glancing down at Merlin's blood stained on his hands. "L...love?"

Merlin glanced up, clear tears mixed with red blood on his face. Arthur moved over, and when Merlin made no retort, pulled the man into his lap, ripping off a piece of cloth and slowly cleaning Merlin's face. "I did this," Arthur whispered, voice ravaged with grief.

"No," Merlin choked out, trying to gain his voice back. "Clara did this. She was using you."

Arthur leaned down, eyes on Merlin's. When the man said nothing, his lips brushed against Merlin's bloody ones in a sweet, soft kiss.

Merlin passed out.

The next few hours were fractured at best. He was carried- flashes of pain somehow managed to pervade through the darkness and into the depths of his dreams, causing him to stir and gasp. Every once and a while he was able to swim to the surface, fighting his exhaustion and pain to glance around through slitted eyelids. And yet, the images that greeted him were foreign and strange enough to make him fall backwards into unconsciousness again.

Arthur's shirt, bent over him.

A bit of talking, snippets of conversation. Was that his name they were whispering?

The heady scent of Gaius bent down close over his face, checking his breathing and taking his pulse.

Arthur again, always there, a constant presence by his side. Warm, rough hand entwined with his own, clutching his weak one in a comforting grasp, thumb rubbing small circles on the back of his hand.

"...'thur?" he managed to croak after not directly falling into unconsciousness what must have been the sixth or seventh time he woke.

"Merlin?!" Arthur gasped, rushing forward so his worried face appeared in Merlin's limited line of sight. He winced, trying to turn his head away from the brighter light, and then gasped. His headache was worse than he had ever felt in his life, pounding in the back of his skull and threatening to burst out of his head.

"S..sorry," Arthur said quickly, smoothing Merlin's hair across his face and pressing a rag filled with ice against his cut and bruised face. The sorry was for more than just startling him, and both of them knew it.

It was quiet for a moment before Arthur cleared his throat. "You're awake...," he murmured, voice filled with relief. "I was scared you wouldn't wake, even with all Gaius told me. He knew you'd pull through. A fighter... my little fighter."

Merlin couldn't help but smile- a slight upward turn to his lips to acknowledge Arthur's claim. "...Not goin' n'where..." he whispered before coughing violently, the small phrase enough to steal the air from his lungs. Panic flashed through his mind for a moment as he couldn't get enough air, gasping, until a firm hand pushed on his back and got him to sit up. Arthur's hand was rubbing gentle circles on his back.

With his other hand, Arthur softly pulled one of Merlin's up to splay across his chest. The King breathed deeply and Merlin could feel the gradual rise and fall of Arthur's warm chest under his fingers and used it to time his own breathing. Slowly he found himself breathing in time with Arthur. In-out. In-out.

The panic faded slightly and Merlin pitched forward, exhausted. His forehead hit Arthur's shoulder and instead of pushing him away like Merlin had expected, Arthur just held him close. "I should have listened to you."

Even with eyes half-closed and brain scattered, Merlin realized Arthur had been planning this conversation and needed to have it. He pulled back out of his arms just a bit to look at him, but Arthur's strong arms drew him back. Submitting, he relaxed into his chest.

"I knew there was something wrong about her," he said softly, fingers playing in the short hairs at the base of Merlin's neck, tracing the outer edges of a livid blue-ish black bruise on his jawbone. "But I didn't want to think about it. No, it wasn't that... I couldn't think about it. I don't know what happened to me."

Merlin made a small, soothing sound into Arthur's ear and took a deep breath. "Tamer," he whispered.

Arthur raised his eyebrow but didn't probe for more information. It would all come in time. Merlin was too hurt, he shouldn't be-

"Manipulates- emotions-" Merlin whispered softly, trying to get the information across. He couldn't let Arthur live with the thought that he wasn't being controlled, that he purposely hurt Merlin. "Takes thoughts-makes them grow."

"The thought that our status was too far for us to be friends," Arthur concluded, nodding. "She got into my head- a sorceress?"

Merlin nodded.

"That's what you were trying to tell me. And I wouldn't-,"

"Couldn't."

"...couldn't listen to you."

Arthur's arms held Merlin close. "And she used me to destroy you- the one person who sensed her for who she really was. The one person who knew me so well to be able to see the small indicators that I wasn't in my right mind. The only person that might have posed a threat to her. My Merlin."

Merlin nodded, hair brushing up against the bottom of Arthur's chin, who rested his head on top of Merlin's. There was more to the story, of course, but things Arthur didn't need to know. Especially when he was holding him so close, the warmth of his skin pressing in and warming up Merlin's.

"I'm sorry," Arthur murmured, voice low with guilt. "I hurt you," he pushed Merlin back a bit, ignoring his squeak of protest, tracing the bruises and swelling of where his fist had slammed into Merlin's face two or three times, "I did this. I hit you."

Merlin shrugged, blue eyes hazy with exhaustion and the remnants of a concussion. He started to slump forward again but Arthur caught him, adjusting his pillows so Merlin could sit up against them. "Gaius made me promise not to let you fall back asleep if you woke. He said it could be dangerous."

"Where is he?" said Merlin quietly.

"Out fetching water. He should be back soon." His face looked worried but proud, fingers going to Merlin's face again to gently touch his cheek, turning it into a small caress at the last minute. Merlin leaned into it despite the small amount of pain it caused, letting out a small pleased tremor. "I don't think I can explain how proud of you I am right now."

"Me?" Merlin chuckled weakly. "You."

Arthur shook his head. "The only reason I was able to come out of her power is because I was hurting you. You were crying at my feet- I couldn't-"

He trailed off; Merlin's face growing cold at the memories. The hand returned to his face, stroking softly and soothingly. "You fought her for a long time. You let her know you knew, even when she could have killed you. Even when she tried to kill you- Merlin, you were very brave."

"Not a coward?" His eyes crinkled in a grin, although it hurt his face to move.

"No." Arthur smiled as well, running a calloused thumb over Merlin's soft lips, remembering another piece of that night. "You're not. An overly-loyal idiot with no sense of self-preservation, but not a coward."

Merlin froze at the feeling of Arthur's finger on his lips. Without a second thought, he kissed it, increasingly gently.

Arthur's eyes travelled up to meet his. Slowly he leaned forward, using the hand on his lips to angle Merlin's chin. Anticipation and a warm desire flooded Merlin and he leaned close...

The door opened. "Merlin!" Gaius gasped. "You're awake!" He bustled over and Arthur's hand dropped, looking apologetic.

"I was just looking at his bruises," Arthur improvised. Gaius looked back and forth between the two, as if sensing what he had interrupted, and then shook his head.

"I'd like to have a moment alone with my patient, Arthur. And I'm sure he's hungry, if you'd fetch him something or have a servant fetch him something, we'd both be much obliged."

Merlin nodded softly and Arthur glanced between the two of them, eyes flicking down to Merlin's lips for a second longer, and then left.

Once Gaius was sure Arthur had closed the door and wasn't lurking in the hallway, he turned back to Merlin. "So. I want the real story of what happened the night before last."

Merlin blinked, still a bit dazed from what had just transpired a few seconds beforehand. Gaius hopefully attributed it to exhaustion and the physician adjusted the pillows so his charge could lie back more comfortably.

"I got the story from Arthur," Gaius continued once Merlin had focused on him instead of the door through which the King had just disappeared. "He burst through my doors at some point past midnight, holding a bloody you. His face was streaked with sweat and looked miserable- begged me to take care of you."

Merlin flushed softly- Arthur had carried him away from the scene of the whole misfortune and brought him to Gaius. That must have been why everything seemed so choppy and bumpy, bouncing around in Arthur's arms.

The physician dunked a wad of cloth into a bucket of clean, ice cold water before cleaning off the bruises again, treating the few small cuts on his face and wiping away the last of the dried blood. "Swellings gone down," he murmured to himself. "Good." Then his eyes drifted back up to meet Merlin's. In the small amount of time that had passed, his eyebrow had dropped into his disappointed scowl. "Mind regaling your own account of the misadventure?"

Merlin let out a small sigh and chuckle as Gaius continued to smooth some ointment on the worst of his bruises. "She was a-"

"A sorceress, yes, I know that," Gaius interrupted, "and it might please you to know the first thing Arthur did was lock her up. She's awaiting execution- the King informed the court he came upon her attacking you with her magic. Because you knew her for what she really was? He declared you a hero."

Merlin raised his own eyebrow. "She was a sorceress, yes, but she was also a Tamer."

Gaius almost dropped his cloth. "Excuse me?"

"She was very open about it."

"She came here for you, then? Arthur was an unexpected prize?" Gaius frowned. "To hear that Tamers are stirring after all this time is worrying. They're an ancient race."

"What are they?" Merlin frowned, wincing and attempting to shift, small pinpricks in his back aching. "They're not sorcerers. She couldn't cast a spell."

"No, they're not sorcerers in the original sense." He put down the cloth and looked deep in thought. "Like I said, they're an old and extremely powerful race. Not so different from sorcerers- they're created every once in a blue moon. A young babe who was supposed to have inherited magic instead realizes they can take. Consume and use the magical abilities of others."

"She took my magic from me," he said slowly. "I was powerless- I could feel it being pulled out. But she couldn't control me."

Gaius nodded. "Some Tamers are more powerful than others. Was she working alone?"

Merlin shook his head. "She said she was just the beginning. She wasn't here for me- they had no idea I was even here in Camelot. She was planning to influence Arthur into marrying her, installing herself on the throne of Camelot."

The skin on Gaius' face grew pale. "That would be disastrous. No one else noticed the changes in Arthur's personality other than you, am I not correct?"

"No, that's right."

"Because you're magic itself. You were able to see at least a small glimpse of her deception, enough for you to get worried. But..."

"Are you wondering how she could control Arthur?"

"How'd you guess?"

Merlin shrugged. "I wondered it myself. She said that since destiny entwined him to me, he has a low level magic field of his own. Not enough for spells but enough to let her in."

"Ah," Gaius said softly. "I had considered that angle myself. Arthur is remarkably susceptible to things non-magic folk often pass by. And your magic is more powerful when connected somehow to him. You've noticed that."

"Yes," Merlin said slowly. "But... how was she able to influence Arthur anyways without me noticing? There was no magic push at all- I couldn't sense anything and I was barely across the room when they first met."

"That, Merlin, is the Tamer's biggest weakness," Gaius said softly, but with a smile. "They cannot influence someone that doesn't, in some way, wish to be influenced. They need to be let in- given permission. That's why many have mastered the art of manipulation-,"

"-seduction."

Gaius flushed at the dirtier word but nodded. "Yes, seduction. A kiss, or more, is one of the strongest permission they can be given."

"She found out I knew. She threatened me in the stables and then carried out her threat- she found the remnants of Arthur's fear that we couldn't be friends because of our status and inflamed it until he wanted me dead."

Gaius smoothed more cream against another one of his bruises. "You said she was just the beginning."

"Yes."

"You're lucky she'll be dead at dusk. If word got out to Tamers that the most powerful sorcerer ever lived in Camelot- it would become a competition to see who could Tame you first. The more powerful the sorcerer, the more power they wield. You'd be the ultimate prize in any Tamer's collection, Merlin. You must be on your guard."

Merlin couldn't help but shudder, considering his magic not only sucked out of him like it was with Clara but being bound to someone else's will- a puppet. It was a terrifying thought.

Gaius looked at him softly. "Don't worry. You've got people looking out for you. If anyone starts to worry you I'm sure Arthur will help you stay away from him or her."

Merlin nodded and Gaius finished the final touch on his wounds. "Sleep now. I think your concussion has faded enough, and you need your rest."

"Arthur?"

"I'll send him back down."

His eyes fluttered shut and Merlin submitted to the yawning mouth of exhaustion, images of Tamers and puppet strings dancing behind his eyes.

When he awoke, the room was quiet. No one was hovering by his bedside- apparently assured he wasn't going to go into cardiac arrest in the middle of the night if he wasn't constantly watched. He appreciated the silence and used the opportunity to actually show his pain on his face, wincing darkly as he attempted to move. He didn't have to fool anyone to cause them not to worry, so took stock of his own injuries at a leisurely pace, skimming slender fingers across scabs and bruises to figure out how much they hurt.

Once he decided that he would live, he settled back among the pillows and looked around. Gaius was curled up on his own cot, snoring slightly, and Merlin couldn't help but smile at the sight. He had probably been by Merlin's bedside for the past few days and he was glad his mentor could finally get the rest he deserved.

Although, he couldn't help but wish Arthur was there with him when he woke up. It was nice not to have to constantly put on an act for the King to stop him worrying, but once that was done he wanted Arthur there. His presence helped take his mind off the fact that the whole right half of his face was a burning mass of pain.

There was one way in particular that Arthur could distract him that he wished wasn't rudely interrupted. Gaius was trying to help and Merlin appreciated that so much, but he couldn't have just waited a few more seconds?

Oh well. For better or for worse, it was done now. It wouldn't happen again- it was a heat of the moment situation, wasn't it? Arthur would never look at him like that again.

He was drifting back into sleep when the door creaked. His eyes snapped open again to reveal a shadowy figure.

"Hello?" Merlin asked, forcing his voice to work although it hurt moving his jaw. The figure moved forward with a rustle and pulled down his cape, revealing a sheepish King. "Hey."

An arching eyebrow was his only response—it asked all the questions he needed it to. Arthur pulled out a small basket from under his cloak and handed it over. "Moving fast enough, no one looks too closely. I was pretending to be a servant."

Taking the basket graciously, Merlin opened it to reveal a few loafs of bread, some cheese, and a pottery crock of still steaming soup. "A servant?" he asked while tearing the lid off of the crock and ripping off a piece of bread to soak into the stew.

"Yeah," he said with a slight flush. "I'm King, Merlin. I can't be seen spending all the time in the Physician's chamber by the bed of my servant. People will talk."

"Seems that's all they'll ever do," he said around a mouthful of bread, chewing carefully as to not cause himself more pain. It hurt even to chew gently, but he was ravenous.

"But people will just think I'm another servant going to attend on you or stay with you. They might talk, but a relationship between servants is nothing to be frowned upon- in fact, it's almost encouraged." Arthur shrugged and moved forward so he could adjust the pillows for Merlin to prop himself up on. "So I decided to be a servant."

He ate a few more bites of stew-soaked bread before replying. "You're planning on staying here with me, then?"

Arthur played with the hem of his cloak. "Yes. If you'll have me." Both were acutely aware of what had happened a few hours before, and both were trying to avoid the conversation entirely.

"I heard you have Clara in jail?"

"Yes," Arthur responded, snapping into all-business mode, "I do. She's under constant surveillance, and unless one of my guards is magical, which I doubt, she should not be able to get out. Even if she does, we will catch her. You're safe, Merlin. I promise."

Merlin couldn't help but be grateful for Arthur's analysis of the question and the ability for him to discover the one lying just under the surface. "Execution?"

"Dusk. So in a few hours. I actually came to open the offer for you to come with me if you feel like you can handle it. I want us to be the last thing she sees- the men who beat her horrid skill." Arthur's voice was vehement and then turned soft. "I want everyone to know who saved their King as well."

"...What?" Merlin glanced up at Arthur, whose eyes were warm and proud. "Everyone?"

"You saved my life," he repeated gently, cradling Merlin's cheek with a large hand and rasping a rough thumb across his bruised cheek, "at the risk of your own. If a knight did that, he'd be rewarded, and that's his job. You're just a servant- there's no reason for you to risk your life for me other than just pure loyalty."

"Loyalty should be the only reason," Merlin said softly, leaning into the touch. "You're my friend. I don't want to see you hurt. Not to mention you're the King of Camelot."

"That doesn't seem to make an ounce of difference to many other people," he snapped back, rolling his eyes. "You're different. You're... you're Merlin."

"I'm Merlin?" His eyes glowed in mirth. "That's the only reason you can come up with?"

"It's the best reason," Arthur responded, and leaned forward. Without any more warning, he kissed him.

Merlin wanted to pretend he was surprised- and in a way, he was. But instead, he felt... nothing. Not a bad, empty nothing, but just... nothing. It was as if his entire head had short-circuited and he wasn't allowed to feel or think or react. The only thing in his mind was Arthur, the taste of him, the feel of him, and the rough urgency of his lips against his own, moving in time with each other.

Then Arthur pulled away, eyes worried, as if he was afraid something was wrong. "...Merlin?"

"Shut up, Arthur," Merlin retorted, chuckling under his breath and seizing Arthur's shirt, pulling him back down again.

Arthur knew Merlin was hurt so he took control, slowly and carefully as if Merlin was made out of glass and could crack at the slightest pressure. Gently he maneuvered himself so he was propped up over Merlin on his hands and knees, lips glued to Merlin's- carefully. Merlin's breath was fast into the kiss, surprising even himself at how limp he went. He trusted Arthur not to hurt him so didn't have trouble letting the other take control, hands sliding up to twine behind Arthur's neck and tangle in his hair.

Leaning back just a bit freed Arthur's hand from needing to support his weight and instead it skimmed across Merlin's hips, causing Merlin's heart to stutter and breath to catch. Hoarse laughter came from above as Arthur chuckled at Merlin's reaction, breaking the kiss to nuzzle his nose and allow them both to catch their breath.

Luminous blue eyes met and Arthur's finger curled under Merlin's chin, pushing his face up just a bit to better study it. His thumb curled to cup his cheek, angling his face to catalogue the bruises and cuts. "You were willing to die for me...," he whispered scratchily, skimming a kiss over the worst of the bruises and feeling Merlin tense beneath him. "How can I repay that?"

"Shhh." Merlin's voice was a near growl and Arthur's eyes met his again to see a flicker of anger. "You'd do the same for me, so. No need for repayment."

"I suppose," he said softly, nibbling slightly on Merlin's bottom lip to get him to stop talking. "But it was a rhetorical question." Instead of letting Merlin answer he pressed him back against the cot and kissed him again, slowly. Languidly. Like they had all the time in the world.

A knock on the door startled them out of it. Arthur jumped, wincing like a child caught doing something naughty. "Y-," his word was strained and high-pitched, prompting him to clear his throat and scramble off of Merlin, perching on the edge of the bed. "Yes?"

"I thought you said they didn't know where you were!" Merlin hissed softly, slightly dazed and attempting to catch his breath.

"Shut up, Merlin," he retorted darkly. "Enter."

The door opened, revealing Sir Leon. His eyes flicked between the two of them- still slightly out of breath and flushed. "Erm. The execution is scheduled to begin in ten minutes, sire, if you wish to make your way to the courtyard."

"I..." Arthur cleared his throat again. "I... yes, Leon. Of course. I will be there shortly. That will be all."

Leon blinked and nodded curtly, turning on his heel. But neither of the two missed the small smirk on his face.

As soon as Leon was gone, Arthur turned back to Merlin, leaning back down to gently kiss Merlin again. The raven laughed softly- acute now of the sounds they were making and the fact that Gaius was still sleeping in the corner. Just their luck if he woke up to witness them snogging- Merlin would never hear the end of it.

"We should go," he whispered softly, caressing Arthur's face with a light hand. "Like he said, we only have ten minutes to get out to the courtyard."

Arthur nodded softly after a second, standing up and throwing his 'servant's' cloak down on the bed. "Your's now," he murmured, and then hesitated before dragging Merlin to his feet. "You sure you can walk? You won't pass out on me again- I don't think I could lug your dead weight back to Gaius' a second time."

"Oh ha-ha," Merlin retorted and Arthur let out a small, teasing smile before his face fell back to concerned. "Honestly, Merlin. Can you walk?"

He dragged himself up to a sitting position and gripped Arthur's arm, head going fuzzy for a moment from the abrupt movement. Arthur's hand shot out, holding him steady, studying him avidly. "Merlin."

"...'m fine. Trust me, I'm fine," he retorted sharply, throwing one leg out from under the covers, slipping into one of his boots. He was sick of being doted over—he rarely if ever had to be taken care of and he didn't like the look Arthur was giving him. Like he was fragile or could break at any moment. Arthur was by his side instantly, helping him unearth his other foot and then assisting him in standing up, throwing Merlin's arm over his shoulder and supporting basically all of his weight.

"Ugh," Merlin whispered as his stomach heaved, hand like a vice on Arthur's shirt. The King held him firmly, keeping his wobbling legs from giving out until his eyes could focus and he could steady himself. "Good?" Arthur whispered, kissing his temple.

"Good." Merlin's voice wasn't louder than a whisper, but it was firm.

Arthur's gaze was full of adoration. "You're wonderful," he breathed, squeezing him lightly. "My little warrior." The injured boy glanced up at Arthur and smothered a small smile, a blush staining his cheeks a light crimson. "I'm not that all that special."

"Don't you dare say that," Arthur snarled, surprisingly abrupt. He stopped Merlin from taking another step forward, adjusting his hands so he could grip his charge by one shoulder and stop all movement. Weak as he was, Merlin couldn't fight him or slip away—limp and boneless in Arthur's arms.

"You are the….," his voice trailed off, staring Merlin front in the face. "I don't know what to say other than that you are the most special thing to ever happen to me. And…" his voice was choked, now, filling with sobs that surprised even himself, "I almost lost you, and I was almost the person to take you out of my life. Merlin, that cannot happen. Promise me that will never happen."

Merlin blinked up at Arthur, blue eyes wide. He padded forward—Arthur didn't move—and their chests bumped. "I will not leave you unless you expressly order me to go," the raven breathed, one calloused thumb brushing away the tears that clung precariously to his tanned cheek. "I swear to you."

Arthur nodded; throat clogged, and frantically pushed the tears away with his free hand. "Come," he said, coughing lightly. "We've not a lot of time." Merlin realized the dismissal of the subject as it was given—Arthur wasn't one to put any sort of emphasis on his emotions and didn't like to show them, even if it was just in front of Merlin.

The small glimpse into Arthur's turbulent feelings put him on edge, and Merlin very lightly kissed him. "Yes, my lord."

The courtyard was loud. That was what hit Merlin first, a cacophony of sound that nearly knocked him off his feet. People were screaming, cursing, shouting, and trying to break down the low rope barrier that separated them from the pyre. They had heard (of course they had heard!) about the attempt on their King's life and made their disapproval abundantly clear. The sorceress that would burn that evening possessed the collective hatred of every citizen of Camelot.

Merlin hated it. The chorus of the crowd chanting "burn her!" seemed to resonate in his mind and burrow through his every thought. This was his base nightmare—this was the terror that lurked in his every waking moment. That he'd be found out, taken out, and burned in front of his friends.

He wouldn't wish this death on his worst enemy. But there was nothing they could do—the crowd was already assembled and they wanted blood. Arthur's eyes were blazing in a storm of blue—he wanted blood. He wanted to see Clara burn, and in that moment, Merlin was terrified of what he could do.

Of what would happen if Arthur ever found about him.

As they padded out onto the balcony, a hush fell over the crowd for a brief moment before whispers broke through the pervasive silence. People pointed and gestured—not at the King, but at the servant cradled in his arms.

"People," Arthur shouted. Eyes shot to him and caught him in a collective, penetrative gaze, under which Merlin flinched. "I want to introduce you to someone I'm sure you're all familiar with. My servant, Merlin Ambrosius."

No one said a word.

"He's the one who single-handedly saved my life." Arthur's voice didn't waver, even when Merlin started against him, shocked. "He found me when Clara was about to kill me. Saved my life and was hurt for it. His loyalty will not go unrewarded and I hope that you will treat him with the respect he deserves."

One small voice rang out in a cheer and then, with a shout like a clap of thunder, the entire audience exploded into cheers. Merlin cowered against Arthur, eyes wide and astonished. Arthur's hand didn't release his waist, fingers rubbing in small circles against his exposed flesh where his shirt rucked up.

"Take it in," Arthur whispered softly, almost as if he wasn't speaking at all. "This is for you. This is my love for you. My people's love for you."

His heart seemed to skip a beat—he couldn't reply even if he had wanted to. Tears dripped unabashed down his face. It was…interesting, being appreciated. After so long hiding and going unnoticed, the cries of joy were almost too much.

"Now," Arthur said, waving his hand and feeling the sound instantly stopped as if a spell was cast, "we get to what you've been waiting for. Bring out the prisoner."

A commotion exploded from down in the courtyard and Clara walked stately out between the two men. Her once gorgeous brown locks were mussed and tangled, and her sumptuous dress was replaced by a prison shift. And yet, her eyes were still hard and proud. Strong until the last, although splattered with mud and surrounded by curses and jeers.

"Clara," Arthur snarled, moving forward to the edge of the balcony. Her eyes rose and caught, stabbing into Arthur's as if drawn on an invisible tether. "You have been tried and found guilty for crimes of magic. Without all else, that still would have you dead in this Kingdom. But above that, you have attempted to seduce and kill the King and his servant. You have been judged and have been found wanting. In the name of Camelot, I hereby pronounce you to death. Have you any last words?"

The crowd instantly quieted down, waiting to hear what the captured sorceress would say—would she attempt to plead her case? Get a bit of forgiveness? Talk her way off the pyre, or stand strong in her beliefs and shock them all with some aggressive verbal attack like many other sorcerers and sorceresses that stood in that spot before her over the ages?

But Clara only tossed her head, moving her brown hair (that would most likely catch fire first) to her back. Her eyes flashed over the King and instead alighted on the spritely figure leaning precariously up against him. Merlin.

"You know my ways, boy," she simpered, and Merlin jolted against Arthur. Eyes followed her words to pin Merlin to his spot. His eyes widened and fear flashed through him, stepping closer to Arthur even when attempting to not look bothered.

"You know my methods," she said again. "Not just mine, but the methods of all who are like me. And you're too late."

The words rang across the courtyard and Arthur's hand tightened like a vice over Merlin's hipbone, fingertips sinking into the soft flesh of his stomach and using the sharp bone like a handle to keep a grasp on Merlin, who had staggered like the words were daggers slamming into his chest.

"What do you mean?" Arthur snarled back down, "We stopped your plot. You will burn, sorceress. We are never too late." The crowd around them started murmuring—was that a tremor of fear in the King's voice? What was wrong with the servant next to him?

Outwardly, Merlin was steady, eyes and a sight tremble the only indicators that inside, he was screaming. Arthur's grip would surely bruise, but that didn't matter, for without it, Merlin knew he would crumple to his knees.

"I sent a note," Clara revealed, voice reverberating over the courtyard as everyone stood spellbound under her words. "I suggest you close those windows on your cells, Pendragon. It is too easy to coax a raven to send one word out to my people. They know I am doomed to die, and Merlin, darling…," the voice was soft and gentle, an eerie parallel to her cruel words, "they know how you displeased me and just how special you really are."

Her eyes snapped back to Arthur. "They are coming, King. Like a wave you can never believe. All of Camelot won't be able to stand up to their onslaught. They will avenge me. My brother will avenge me."

"Enough!" Arthur shouted as Merlin let out a small whimper of terror only he could hear. He would never be able to sit by and listen when Merlin could produce such a noise. "Your plot will be for nothing, sorceress. You die knowing the might of Camelot is strong enough to defeat any threat against her, and you die knowing you have failed. Burn her."

Hands grabbed against her arms and dragged her forward, but she marched proudly between them, letting her tie her to the pyre. Merlin wavered beside Arthur as he watched, panic replacing blood in his veins and breath coming at a nearly hyperventilating pace. How could he be so stupid?! Of course she could easily spell a bird to send a message! He didn't even think about it and now—Camelot could never hold up to an onslaught of Tamers and their captured sorcerers willing to walk straight into suicide for their masters.

And this… this….

"Light it." Arthur's voice was firm and unwavering, unaware of Merlin's hysteria beside him. The torch came up and then… dropped. The flames leapt as if spelled, eating through the woods until it moved towards her toes.

"You think this is a victory!" she shrieked, "but you are doomed!"

Then the flames reached her feet—then her legs—and then she was engulfed and there was nothing but screaming.

Merlin couldn't do it. The screams hit him in a place that he couldn't handle, staggering backwards and shoving at Arthur's arms as if he was going to throw him on the pyre next, panic pervading all of his actions and stumbling backwards, attempting to run. He was too weak and only made it halfway across the balcony before he collapsed onto his knees, heaving with dry sobs formed by terror. The screams were all he could here, reverberating in the back of his mind and hitting through his body—

That could be him.

Him.

His entire body convulsed, landing on the ground, trembling, sobbing, and hyperventilating.

They were coming. Tamers. The entire colony of Tamers in Albion knew who he was. He couldn't hold them all off by himself—he was entirely useless against Tamers. They would get his permission somehow and they would take him in and all his free will would be eliminated. They would get Arthur and kill him and take Camelot—

And then Arthur was there. His hands were frantic and Merlin fought against them at first, the panic of nightmares in waking hours causing him to pull away, screaming to nearly match the pitch of the woman dying down below. Thankfully the majority of the citizens were watching the pyre and not the King's hysterical servant sobbing up above.

"Merlin…" Arthur pleaded, stroking his hand down Merlin's back and petting his hair—gentle touches until Merlin's breath wasn't coming so hard and fast that it threatened to break him in half. Eventually, after a minute or so, Merlin let out a few more strangled sobs and Arthur folded him into a warm embrace, wiping the tears and the vomit off of his face, whispering soft words of comfort.

"We're doomed," Merlin whispered softly—not able to speak of his other fears, of burning, of dying, of being Tamed. "They're coming."

"Shhh," Arthur said, rocking him back and forth like a child. Merlin buried his face in Arthur's chest as the crowd let out a final cheer—she was dead. Arthur held him close like a vice, back to the misery down below as if in an attempt to shield him. "I had no idea a burning would affect you like this—but then again, this is your first one, wasn't it? And you're already so weak… I'm sorry, Merlin. This is my fault. But it's alright, shhh, love…"

The pain was like fire itself, licking against his face, and Merlin whimpered. But Arthur's presence was warm and gentle and after a moment was able to gather himself together enough to take a few long, shaking breaths in and out, falling exhausted against Arthur's chest.

"We're not doomed," Arthur soothed. "Sorcerers say comments like that all the time before they're burned. Promises for retribution, and so on. But there's a reason Camelot has never truly been taken—we've the strongest military in the world, Merlin, it's going to take more than a few sorcerers to beat us. Plus, I'm certain with all the luck we have that we both have some sort of guardian angel up there, watching over us. I'm going to protect you, Merlin, for however long it takes."

Merlin nodded miserably, knowing all the things Arthur didn't know about Tamers and feeling the weight of responsibility fall on him. A kiss dropped into his hair and he reclined into Arthur, closing his eyes and letting all the panic slowly fade away, like it had no place in Arthur's arms. He'd protect his King, as usual.

Maybe things weren't going to be as different after all.