Do No Harm

Dec. 21st, 2016 11:45 pm
gwyllion: Merlin-Forever (Merlin-Forever)
[personal profile] gwyllion
Title: Do No Harm
Author: gwylliondream
Genre: canon era
Pairing: Arthur/Merlin
Rating: PG
Words: 5,162
Warnings: None
Summary: Merlin is offered a job as a physician in another kingdom. He must choose between staying with Arthur and leaving. Arthur has made it difficult to choose to stay.
A/N: I wrote Do No Harm as a [community profile] merlin_holidays gift for [profile] argentsleeper. Thanks so much for all the prompt notes that you left in your gift request. I tried to include as many of your angsty likes as I could. I hope you have a very Merry Christmas and a magical Merlin holiday! Thanks so much to my beta [personal profile] lawgoddess, my cheer-reader [profile] gilli_ann, and to the wonderful mods of this fun fest!
Disclaimer: I did not create these characters. No disrespect intended. No profit desired, only muses.
Comments: Comments are welcome anytime, thanks so much for reading.



When the battle of Camlann finally ends, Merlin finds himself wandering the field of war, the air sharp with smoke and blood. He turns one corpse over to look at the face. Anguish floods his heart. A knot forms in his stomach. He finds another corpse and another. His muscles strain at the effort of sifting through the carnage in search of their fallen king.

Merlin slides over the death-slicked bodies, stumbles over severed limbs until his ankles ache from the twists and turns his path leads. He crawls past knight after knight with unseeing eyes that will never fall on a beloved king again. Merlin’s body tires, but his mind still reels from what he saw from his perch on the ridge. He buries his head in his hands, cursing the day he learned of his destiny to protect Arthur. He bears the guilt for not striking down Mordred where he stood.

He lifts his head when he hears Arthur groan, clutching the bloody wound in his side. Arthur’s golden hair plastered to his forehead, his skin pale and clammy with the trauma of battle.

“Don’t stand there like a startled stoat, Mer lin,” Arthur says, his voice a broken command. He makes to stand upright, but collapses to the bloody ground again.

Merlin’s not sure why that makes him laugh, but he does, sitting back on his heels to ponder the sight of Arthur alive and breathing amidst his ruined army.

Arthur lies where he fell. He watches Merlin carefully, as if he’s waiting for his breakfast to be served or for Merlin to help dress him for the day.

“Not today,” Merlin whispers. Not when Arthur has come so close to death.

Merlin slips his hand into a fold of his ratty brown jacket that he has mended more times than he can count. The parchment is still there. For a moment, Merlin hoped that it would be lost on the battlefield so he wouldn’t have to think about it anymore. His fingers smooth over the scrap with its neatly penned message from the scribe Mithian enlisted back in Nemeth. A physician was needed in the capitol of her kingdom. Permanently. The job was Merlin’s if he wanted it.

“Anything I can help with?” Arthur asks, and Merlin laughs again, because he knows Arthur doesn’t mean it.

“No, thanks,” Merlin says instead, taking his hand out of his jacket.

He’s not surprised when Arthur collapses into a boneless semblance of death, the blood seeping from Mordred’s deadly blow.

Merlin wordlessly helps him off the battlefield, his heart heavy with indecision. He knew it would one day come to this. When Arthur awakens, Merlin knows it’s time.

“I’m a sorcerer. I have magic.”

It’s not nearly as big an admission as Merlin always feared it would be. It’s different now, with Mithian’s job offer that still stands. He can leave Arthur whenever he wants. He has a future that doesn’t include Camelot. He yearns to be free of his burden.

Night falls and the cool glade envelops them, keeping them together in the same physical space, although their thoughts couldn’t be more different, more distant from one another’s. Arthur can’t get far enough away from Merlin, begs him to leave him to die. Merlin dithers about whether to leave for Nemeth while Arthur sleeps what may be his death slumber.

In the morning, Gaius presents another solution, but Arthur refuses.

Merlin closes his eyes and feels something settle inside him. He could resign himself to this. He can walk away. Arthur dead and a new opportunity for him in Nemeth. The thoughts of what life could be like in the welcoming Nemethian community warms him. No more mucking out stables and serving meals. No more risking his life to keep Arthur safe. No more hiding his true self. He opens his eyes and watches Arthur wracked in pain. Gaius insists there’s a chance that the Sidhe can heal Arthur, but it’s risky and there are no guarantees.

The horse whinnies when Arthur takes its reins. He groans as he puts his foot into a stirrup. He casts Merlin a sheepish smile. “Stop wasting time, Merlin. Get up.”

“What?”

“You’ll need to lead the horse. You heard Gaius. I can’t walk all the way to Avalon.”

Arthur rarely follows Gaius’s advice and even more seldom does he listen to what Merlin has to say. The trust, cautious in Arthur’s voice, touches Merlin so deeply that at first he thinks Arthur is joking. He looks at him imploringly.

“I’ll go.”

“You’ll go?” Merlin asks, as if he can’t believe him.

“Only you can lead me there,” Arthur says, flashing a small smile from beneath a wave of pain.

Merlin remembers the day he first arrived in Camelot. Arthur’s pride at being his father’s son gave him all the confidence he needed to put Merlin in his place. Merlin tried to stand up for the stable-boy that Arthur used in weapons practice for fun. Ten years later, Arthur still doesn’t respect Merlin for his medical knowledge, his loyalty, or his magic. It’s too late for Merlin to make a second first impression, but he’s surprised when Arthur trusts him to lead the way to Avalon. He shrugs and takes the reins. He leads him through a forest of perils, dispatching a Saxon patrol with no more effort than he used to warm Arthur’s bathwater.

“You’ve lied to me all this time,” Arthur tells him simply, and Merlin carries on, as if the magic no longer matters.

Arthur grins.

Merlin wonders if Arthur understands the truth of his power. How its revelation makes it easier to accept Mithian’s request. How it will allow him to be free of Arthur at last.

The forest spreads out, a tangle before them. Most of it is covered with dense growth, the trees providing so much camouflage that Merlin can’t tell how close it is to nightfall. He pickets the horses and helps Arthur from his mount. Arthur looks apologetic when Merlin neglects to use magic to gather wood for the fire.

It seems strange to use magic in Arthur’s presence. Usually, Merlin wouldn’t give his magic a second thought. He’d disguise it behind an outcrop of rock, blame the dispatch of enemies on the wind and a tree limb that would have fallen in the next storm, speak the ancient words only after he magicked Arthur into deafness.

“You outwitted me, the day we first met,” Arthur teases, the pain of his wound an afterthought.

“I beat you, using magic,” Merlin confesses.

“You cheated,” Arthur quips, and for a moment, Merlin remembers that Arthur is a warrior, trained to kill from birth. Cheating will not be taken lightly.

“I suppose so,” Merlin says, his hand finding the contract that Mithian sent to him. It lurks beneath the folds of his jacket just as it lurks in the corners of his mind, occupies his every waking breath. His fingers skim over the parchment with reverence. If he and Arthur escape this madness that Mordred’s sword inflicted, a future awaits Merlin in Nemeth—a future where Merlin won’t ever again need to worry about the penalty Arthur will inflict on him for cheating or any other of his many transgressions against the king.

Mithian may assure Merlin that his secret will be safe, but it doesn’t matter anymore.

Arthur doesn’t even look angry. Despite Merlin’s betrayal, his will to live is strong.

“You can rely on my magic to get you to Avalon,” Merlin says. “Let’s get that far and we can worry about my punishment when you’re healed.”

Merlin’s mind wanders. He doesn’t question whether the Sidhe will heal Arthur. He questions whether Arthur will understand why Merlin must go to Nemeth as soon as he is able. There are people to heal, a salary to be collected, a life to build—free from the constraints that Uther has impressed upon his people, and upon his son. There’s no undoing the pyres and beheadings that Merlin has witnessed. Arthur is Uther’s son.

“Sleep while you can,” Merlin tells the king.

“I’m tired, Merlin,” Arthur says, as if it is a crime for a king to tire.

“Sleep then,” Merlin agrees.

“Goodnight, Merlin.”

Minutes later, Merlin’s fingertips are stained red from Arthur’s blood as it issues from his wound. Arthur closes his eyes to sleep, and Merlin wonders when Arthur became so complacent about sleeping outdoors when an enemy could strike. Merlin has never known Arthur to throw caution to the wind. Perhaps what Gaius said was true. A shard from Mordred’s sword has lodged in Arthur’s heart. No matter how many times Merlin has threatened to kill Arthur himself, he knows he never could follow through with it, despite Arthur’s behaviour as a prat. Murdering the king is one thing. Failing to get him to Avalon and moving shop to a kingdom, a day’s ride away, is quite another. Arthur’s eyes open as if he has heard Merlin’s thoughts. Merlin freezes. He can’t give away his plan right now, not when Arthur is near death.

“The comfrey helps,” Arthur says, and Merlin nods wordlessly at him.

“Sticklewort would have been better,” Merlin finally says, but Arthur is already asleep again.

In the morning, Merlin prepares a bowl of porridge for them to share. He lets Arthur sleep as long as he dares. The sun burns through the morning fog, but the forest remains damp and cold. He spoons a mouthful of porridge into Arthur’s mouth when he’s awake enough to accept it.

Merlin imagines resting by the beach on Nemeth where the southern climate warms the sand, unlike the highlands of Camelot where the wind blows from the sea, covering the hilltops in white snow if the winter is cold enough. Arthur swallows the porridge. He doesn’t show any sign of knowing that Merlin’s thoughts are elsewhere. He should understand how tempting Mithian’s offer is to Merlin. If only Merlin can muster the courage to tell him the truth.

The forest seems quiet enough to travel without fear of ambush, but Merlin senses Arthur’s pain when he mounts the horse. The sound of hoofbeats echo in Merlin’s ears—too distant for Arthur to hear—but Merlin’s powers extend beyond the five senses. His eyes burn gold when he carves a view through the forest. Arthur watches when he leads Morgana’s patrol away from the path to Avalon.

"You've done this before," Arthur says.

Merlin doesn't take it as a compliment. He remembers when Gaius told Arthur that he planned to send him to investigate the sickness in a nearby village —“Merlin can’t find his own backside most of the time”—Arthur had said. Arthur couldn’t see what he sees now, the patrol careening through the forest, and Merlin breathing easier because he’s dared to use his magic in front of Arthur. The king treads carefully around Merlin now, wary of waking the beast that lurks beneath his golden eyes.

“We’ll rest for an hour,” Merlin says when afternoon comes and Arthur tires again.

Only the thinnest yellow light sneaks past the edges of the forest to illuminate Arthur’s resting place. His skin glows with the sweat of exertion. Merlin doesn’t dare remove his armor. He fears that jostling the wound may hasten the journey of the shard from Mordred’s sword.

He remembers the heat of Arthur’s armor under his hand earlier, remembers the urge to put his hands on his skin to check the bleeding. But it does no good to reminisce about what might have been.

Beneath the grime of battle, Merlin knows that Arthur’s skin is as soft as butter. He brushes his thumb against his cheek, wiping away some of the sweat and dirt that covers him. He has long looked upon Arthur while he slept. There were days when he couldn’t tear himself away from the golden king. Arthur has only grown more beautiful as the years have passed. He wonders what might have happened between them if Arthur was inclined to view Merlin as something more than a friend. But Arthur made it clear from the very beginning that they were not friends. He once admitted that they might have got on if Arthur were not born into royalty, and Merlin a peasant from Ealdor, looking to learn the healing arts from Hunith's friend Gaius. But that was years ago when neither of them knew if they would survive the night.

Merlin watches Arthur's chest rise and fall, the slight flare of his nostrils as he breathes. His lips are tinged with pink and Merlin resists the urge to touch them. He draws back the pad of his thumb and reconsiders. He should wake him so they can continue their journey to Avalon.

“Merlin?” Arthur asks, voice cracking with sleep, and Merlin steps back. “Is everything all right?”

“Yes,” Merlin tells him, but everything is not all right.

Merlin hesitates to speak. He knows he should say something, but the parchment in his jacket weighs his thoughts down. Grounds him. It would be best if Arthur didn't know that he has considered the offer every moment since he first received it. He says nothing. He can't bring himself to tell Arthur how worried he'll be about the king if he is not there in Camelot to protect him. He fears that Arthur will simply laugh at him and call him a useless servant.

Even with his magic revealed, Arthur surely thinks Merlin useless.

Merlin readies himself for travel again, helping Arthur to sit on a tree that has fallen across their path. He should tell him the truth, if only to prove that someone doesn’t think he’s entirely useless. Mithian thinks he will make a fine physician. He tries not to think of Arthur dismissing him if he learns of the job offer, casting him aside to march to Avalon injured and alone.

Instead, Arthur has other thoughts. “Why did you never tell me?” he asks.

Merlin fidgets before stating the obvious, “You would have chopped off my head,” he says after he catches up with the meaning of Arthur’s question. He had seen Uther in action too many times to doubt that Arthur would take the same action as his father.

Arthur tries to cover up the years of crimes against magic users. “I’m not sure what I would have done.”

Sparing Arthur from making the decision seems like taking the high road to Merlin. It will have to suffice.

“Some men are born to plow fields, some live to be great physicians,” Merlin says.

The scrap of parchment he carries in the folds of his jacket makes him ache. Perhaps he could be a great physician, healing others both with magic and with the skills he has learned from Gaius. Perhaps one day soon, he’ll be able to take credit for his skills.

In Camelot, Merlin has felt alone for so long. Arthur has spent the last ten years devaluing his talents. He wakes the king every morning, his main chore when the sun breaks over the horizon. Arthur greets him with disdain, ridicules his greeting, throws things, hits him. Merlin is a disappointment to Arthur. He could never hope to be of use to a king.

“Others to be great kings,” Merlin continues. Despite the abuse, he loves Arthur enough that he will give him this last affirming accolade: “Me? I was born to serve you, Arthur, and I'm proud of that, and I wouldn't change a thing.”

Although, in truth, Merlin would change everything.

Arthur doesn’t seem surprised when Merlin wants to move on. It’s late and they’ve rested far too long. Merlin readies the horses while Arthur takes one last sip from the waterskin.

They say nothing as they mount the horses and ride side by side along the forest path. Arthur slumps lower into the saddle as the afternoon passes. Merlin glances over and worries when Arthur looks like he’s about to fall off the horse. Sleep washes over Arthur and Merlin hopes he’ll be able to wake him in time to dismount.

“Arthur?”

Arthur doesn’t respond. Merlin blocks the path of Arthur’s horse with his own. He reaches across to grasp Arthur’s horse’s reins.

“Arthur!” Merlin fears that Arthur has slipped into the sleep of death. The exertion of their journey has proven too much in his frail state.

“What? Oh… Merlin?” Arthur asks, dazed from his condition, his grave injury.

Merlin sighs. His feet touch the ground and he goes to help Arthur off the horse. “We’ll make camp here,” he says.

Merlin raises a hand and uses his magic to set out the makings of camp. A fire flares in a circle of stones. The straps loosen on the blankets that the horses carry. Merlin arranges the bedrolls for himself and the king—the king he has promised to serve until the day he dies, despite the writing on the parchment he has come to treasure.

Arthur lets Merlin manhandle him over to his bedroll. “That’s no way to treat your king,” Arthur says.

Merlin withdraws his hands, afraid to touch, afraid to offend. He expects a frown from Arthur, but his eyes are light and his mouth curled into what could only be described as a teasing smile.

“You should treat your king with more respect,” Arthur says, pulling a face.

“No telling when he’ll snap and chop off my head,” Merlin retorts.

“Maybe after we reach Avalon,” Arthur says.

Merlin feels a warmth bloom in his chest. It feels good. It feels right to have Arthur joke with him again, when his situation is so dire.

“Sleep now,” Merlin says, calming. “I’ll wake you when dinner is ready.”

“Just like old times,” Arthur says, leaning back on his bedroll.

Arthur sleeps and Merlin sets a pot of water to boil on the fire. He pulls the vegetables and dried venison from the saddlebag. He slices an onion to make the stew.

Perhaps if Arthur gets to Avalon in time, he’ll live. Their relationship will be changed, no doubt. The revelation of Merlin’s magic was always going to be the watershed, in Merlin’s mind. He knew there would be no turning back. Perhaps the experience of near-death might make Arthur appreciate Merlin more, despite his magic. Merlin can only hope. He watches Arthur sleep and Merlin shakes off the dream that Arthur will accept him.

Unrealistic.

Impossible.

Arthur has smiled and laughed with Merlin only once since he revealed his magic and it’s all Merlin can think about. Arthur’s laugh. His skin warm beneath Merlin’s hands.

It was only one pathetic smile, Merlin tells himself. Forget it.

One thing remains certain. Merlin is a sorcerer and Arthur has spent a lifetime defending his father’s view of sorcery.

Merlin remembers when he first arrived in Camelot. The execution of those suspected of practicing sorcery taught him to keep his secret. When he saved Arthur, using magic to divert Mary Collins’ blade from him, Uther named Merlin as Arthur’s manservant. He would need to serve Arthur, whether he wanted to or not. Then, Kilgharrah spoke to him. If there was any doubt that he had to protect Arthur from harm, the dragon convinced him that he must. Each week arrived with a new disaster for Merlin to circumvent or a new princess that threatened to take Arthur away from Camelot and his destiny.

Mithian.

Merlin takes her offer from the folds of his jacket while he watches the stew come to a simmer. Mithian was among the best of princesses to arrive in Camelot, her father wanting to secure a partnership for her with Arthur. Merlin had packed a picnic lunch for the pair. They got on well enough, compared to some of Arthur’s prospective brides.

Merlin wonders if they slept together some night in the castle when he let Arthur out of his sight, entrusting him to Mithian for a time because she was easier to trust than any of the others.

She’ll make a fine employer.

The image of Arthur and Mithian fades from Merlin’s mind. He replaces Mithian with himself as Arthur’s lover. Merlin imagines what it must be like to touch Arthur’s skin with trembling fingers. After years of serving him, Merlin knows where Arthur is most sensitive. The way the soft golden hair creeps from his smallclothes.

Arthur sighs, shifting on the bedroll.

Merlin notices he still holds the parchment in his hand. He stuffs it away.

He wants to touch Arthur so badly, but he’s lost his chance to feel the heat of sex coming from the sleeping king. Perhaps Mithian would have taken the chance.

What would she think now, with Arthur so near death? Because Arthur is near death. Merlin knows it deep within. His magic torments him, makes him feel the life leaving Arthur. Merlin raises the ladle from the pot of stew. He tastes it, gets to his feet, paces in front of Arthur.

He’s a man of many talents. He’ll easily succeed as a physician in Nemeth. It’s an acceptable position, compared to a sorcerer. Mithian needn’t even know, if Arthur is not alive to tell her about his sorcery.

A quiet puff of air escapes Arthur’s lips when he begins to awaken.

Merlin makes sure the parchment stays secured in its hiding place when Arthur wakes. They sit in the dark forest, illuminated only by Merlin’s magicked fire. Merlin meets Arthur’s eyes and can’t fight the guilt he feels at considering Mithian’s offer. He stirs the stew and fills Arthur’s bowl. He ladles a bowlful for himself, but he’s not hungry enough to eat it.

“Tell me Merlin,” Arthur begins. He grimaces in pain, but Merlin isn’t sure if it’s from the pain from his injury or from the next words he utters. “Did you perform magic on the night my father died?”

Merlin drops the spoon into the bowl.

“I would never have harmed your father,” he answers.

“I didn’t ask whether you would harm him,” Arthur says. “I seem to remember a sorcerer. Old and withered like you were when I saw you on the ridge above Camlann.”

Arthur lies back, an unexpected calm washing over his face.

“It was me,” Merlin says with nothing left to lose. “You were distraught about your father’s injury. You would have done anything to save him.”

“I should have known,” Arthur says.

“Morgana… it was she who cursed him so no matter what magic I used, it achieved the opposite effect.”

Arthur sits, thinking. He takes a spoonful of stew. “I asked you what you would do, if you were me. You tried to help.”

Merlin agrees. “I did.”

“Because you didn’t want me to lose my father,” Arthur tells him.

The feeling of failure pierces Merlin’s heart as severely as Mordred’s blade has pierced Arthur.

“I tried,” he says sadly.

“I know,” Arthur says.

Merlin means to leave as soon as he finds the Sidhe. He means to be a physician in Nemeth, to start a new chapter in his life. He means to never see Arthur again, dead or alive, after this day. Instead, he’s questioning whether he can ever free himself from Arthur’s service.

“You performed magic for me.” The wonder in Arthur’s voice startles Merlin.

“I had to do what I could,” Merlin says. It’s the best apology he can give for all his lies.

“In front of my father,” Arthur says.

Merlin drains the last of the stew from his bowl. He wonders if it will help to point out that Uther was barely conscious when he tried to heal him.

“You really are a fool,” Arthur says. “You could have been killed.”

“I had to do something to try to save him,” Merlin says, the truth.

“All your magic, yet you’ve never sought credit,” Arthur says.

“That’s not why I do it,” Merlin reminds him. Arthur doesn’t know about the dragon’s prophecy and the destiny that binds them. It’s better that he doesn’t know. It will only stress his weakening heart.

Arthur grimaces in pain. “Whatever happens….”

“Don’t talk,” Merlin insists.

“I’m the king, Merlin,” Arthur says. “Don’t tell me what to do.”

“I always have,” Merlin says with a laugh. “I’m not going to change now.”

“I want you to always be you,” Arthur says.

Merlin knows it’s a lie.

Arthur will never be able to forget that Merlin has kept secrets from him for so long.

Darkness falls over them. Arthur’s face fades to a paleness that suggests death is near. A rustle in the forest disturbs the horses. They whinney and neigh, straining at their tethers. The fear is too much for them and they trot off in the night, dragging their reins behind them.

By the time Merlin checks on Arthur again, Morgana lies dead between them. He barely remembers hoisting Excalibur and felling her where she stood. Arthur struggles to breathe as the shard from the other sword that was forged in a dragon’s breath does its worst to the king.

The waters of Avalon glimmer on the horizon. The moon brightens the sky, casting a golden glow over the forest. Merlin can pick out the trees that line the lake and the mound of a hill that rises from its far shore. Merlin considers dragging Arthur the rest of the way, but he knows it is futile.

“It’s just a bit further,” he says anyway, slinging Arthur’s arm over his shoulder.

Together, they stumble through the forest, Merlin’s eyes watching the lake grow closer with every step. The parchment he has hidden is his jacket makes him burn with guilt. He can promise Arthur that there will be no more secrets, but Arthur can’t know about the parchment.

They walk, one painful step at a time, hastening toward Avalon until they nearly reach the water’s edge.

Death overcomes Arthur and he falls to the ground. There’s no way out of it. Some small, quiet part of Merlin is glad of that, knows that’s why he stayed to see Arthur to his end. He has kept his promises, but tonight is another opportunity to tell the truth. He won’t do it—he can’t bear to tell Arthur the truth. Sparing him from learning his plan, he’ll leave for Nemeth as soon as Arthur takes his last breath.

Arthur hasn’t been quiet long enough to be dead, of course not, despite the exhaustion that travelling has placed on him and his straining heart.

“Merlin?” Arthur mumbles, and Merlin sinks to his knees.

“We need to go,” Merlin says, nudging his thigh as he crawls beside him.

Arthur grumbles but tries to get to his feet.

Merlin tugs at Arthur’s hand, but he can’t make him stand, despite the power of his magic coursing through him. He considers calling Kilgharrah for help, but the dragon looked so shabby the last time he saw him, that it will take ages for him to reach the lakeshore even if he calls him immediately.

Merlin takes a deep breath. “It’s just a bit further,” he reminds Arthur as his eyes roll back into his head, the pain of his injury too much to bear.

Merlin drops back to his knees and Arthur sleeps again, and this time he doesn’t move when Merlin crawls over him. He can see the pain on Arthur’s face, the chest that has stopped rising and falling. He can see the way Arthur holds his breath to ward off the pain.

Merlin lies beside Arthur on the forest floor. His heart aches.

A chill sweeps through the woods, across the lake, and over Arthur’s still form. Merlin brushes one hand along Arthur’s side to check his wound. Through the armor, he can feel the rise and fall of Arthur’s chest as he breathes too shallowly.

He brushes the hair from Arthur’s eyes and pleads for him to awaken.

“No,” Merlin says. His voice is rough, he knows. He hopes that Arthur doesn’t hear his sobbing. He slips a hand beneath his shoulder to support him.

Arthur draws a shuddering breath and Merlin moves closer, resting a hand on Arthur’s armored chest.

“It’s too late,” Arthur says, shaking his head. “Too late. For all your magic, Merlin, you can’t save my life.”

“I can’t?” Merlin asks. He lays his head on Arthur’s shoulder, breathing him in, the sweat and grime from the nape of his neck where his scent is the most potent. “I’m not going to lose you.”

“Just… just hold me please,” the words spill from Arthur’s lips, tortured and heartbreakingly sincere.

Merlin knows he was wrong to lie about his magic for so long. And as for his destiny, it is abusive to think that he will be able to go to Nemeth when Arthur lies dying before his eyes.

“There… there’s something I want to say…” Arthur struggles to breathe.

“You’re not going to say goodbye,” Merlin insists, although he’ll deserve every cruelty Arthur’s death heaps upon him if these are his final words.

“No,” Arthur says, his voice steady and bold. “Everything you’ve done… I know now. For me, for Camelot, for the kingdom you helped me build—”

“You could have done it without me,” Merlin can’t help but interrupt. And it’s true. Arthur needs Merlin for nothing. Absolutely nothing. Arthur is the golden king who wields every power capably.

“Maybe,” Arthur relinquishes a little ground. “But I want to say something I’ve never said to you before.”

Merlin feels Arthur’s gloved fingers ruffle his hair.

“Thank you,” Arthur says before closing his eyes.

“Arthur,” Merlin cries, but Arthur remains still. For a moment, Merlin wonders how Arthur would react if he kissed him. His hands shake as he touches his fingers to Arthur’s lips. He slides his thumbs along the pale skin of his cheekbones.

“Stay with me,” he says, pressing his lips to the king’s.

Merlin closes his eyes and the tears fall from them, raining on Arthur’s lax face. Arthur is still, but soon there are two gloved fingers, solid and sure on Merlin’s jaw. Arthur’s lips move against his and Merlin can’t imagine leaving Arthur’s side now. When Merlin lifts his face away from Arthur’s, the lake boils with foam.

“The Sidhe,” Arthur says weakly.

Merlin bites his lip. Across the lake, figures emerge from the foamy waters. They chirp pleasantly to one another when they take in the sight of Merlin and Arthur on their shore. Merlin sighs with relief as he watches the Sidhe gather, rising from the bubbling lake as a new day dawns. Without leaving Arthur’s side, he reaches into the folds of his jacket and finds the parchment. Holding the contract aloft, Merlin’s eyes glow as he magicks the scrap into a spray of water. The droplets leak from his palms and splash onto Arthur's face. Merlin’s hands are empty.

“Are you ready?” Merlin asks cautiously.

Arthur grins. “Yes.”

The end

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