Pairings: Merlin/Arthur, Merlin/Mordred, implied unrequited Mordred/Arthur
Warnings: violence, infidelity, angst, major and minor character deaths (including miscarriages, a stilborn, and an infant), implied past incest, incestuous undertones
Summary: "You love him," Mordred says, and it's a bit like looking into a mirror. "Do you love me?"
Note: Canon future-fic AU. As a general warning, the doc on my computer is titled 'creepycreepyfic'
Thanks: to maybelater__ for the enabling, audiencing, and the beta. All mistakes are mine
“You love him,” Mordred says, and it’s a bit like looking into a mirror. “Do you love me?”
“Yes,” Merlin says, because he does, fierce and terrible as the summer rains.
“Ah,” says Mordred, and strokes careful knuckles along the curve of Merlin’s cheek.
Merlin leans into the touch, helpless.
“It will be your undoing,” Mordred says.
Merlin says, “I know,” and kisses him.
Arthur’s skin is gold, limned by the fire.
It’s like coming home, with the gardens well-loved, the memories written into the wall, the way they come alive under his touch. They’re tangled in each other, the blankets tucked comfortably around them, and Merlin is pressing long, lingering kisses to the endless column of Arthur’s throat.
Arthur’s fingers find a bruise at Merlin’s hip, a bruise Merlin had taken but one Arthur hadn’t given.
“Don’t,” Merlin says.
Arthur smiles ruefully, his lashes an almost invisible gleam against his cheek. “Of course not,” he says.
“One day,” Mordred says, watching the sky shimmer with impossible colors, the fields glint purple and blue, the grass and the sky inverting. “One day I’ll be able to come with you.”
Merlin looks down at their twined fingers. “I hope not,” he says.
Mordred laughs, beautiful and ugly. “One day soon,” he promises.
Merlin kisses him so that he doesn’t have to see his smile, angry and thin because Mordred is a composition of angry, jagged lines, hot as the flames that are in their futures.
And then Merlin slips through the veil, because touching Mordred for too long is like being burned.
He finds Arthur in the northern tower, watching the skies deepen to red-violet, the last of the sun glimmering beyond the horizon, the night creeping over Camelot and dousing her in shadow.
“You’re back,” Arthur says and doesn’t look at him.
Merlin leans over, kisses the corner of his mouth.
Arthur’s hand curls around Merlin’s wrist, hard – and then harder. “You taste like him,” he says.
(No, is what Merlin thinks, because he’s washed in water that was faintly acidic, had soaked in it until his skin hissed in terror, and then he’d washed his mouth out, with acid and honey and acid, because while Mordred will happily sip the taste of Arthur – wine and clean sweat and adoration that tastes like shades of honey – off Merlin’s mouth, Arthur can’t bear the way Mordred leaves stains all over Merlin’s skin.)
“I’m sorry,” is what Merlin says, and tries to catch at Arthur’s hand.
But Arthur just looks tired, a silhouette of himself, because this is what Merlin does to Arthur: hurts him.
“Are you?” he says, and Merlin watches him go.
It’s like shadow and light, night and day, wrong and right:
Kissing Mordred in his cramped chambers, the way he tastes like soot and ash, strangled hope. He tastes like inevitability, his body a mishmash of angles, the way he takes and takes and demands for more. They fuck between Mordred’s cold sheets, quiet and violent, Mordred biting with single-minded focus, hard enough to break skin. It’s needy and fast and hard, draped by darkness, beams of moonlight filtering through gauzy curtains because in Avalon there’s no such thing as the sun. Merlin catches glimpses of Mordred only, like a painting that you see in flashes and never the whole thing all at once, because this isn’t love the way the bards sing of it: this is just -- this just is. Neither one of them is all that careful, and afterwards, Merlin will find bruises striped across his wrists, dried flecks of blood between his thighs. He’ll tell himself that this time is the last time, that he won’t be coming back here, to this place where magic is mangled, perverted. But when Mordred kisses him, his touch branding heat through Merlin’s tunic, when Mordred says, love me, Merlin can’t do anything else.
Touching Arthur is like getting to taste the way the sun gilds the silver clouds gold. Arthur’s skin is slick with the summer, body languid with heat, and Merlin is careful as he unwraps him, because Merlin has learned to love Arthur’s armor, the way the chest plate clasps firmly over Arthur’s heart. Arthur’s touch is reverent, careful, and each time is like rediscovering the lines of each other, slow and warm, Arthur’s hair like spun floss between his fingers. Arthur is hope and safety, minutes that string into hours, time unraveling because it’s always been them, then and now and forever. They find a rhythm that only works here, in the hazy hang of the early dawn, a rhythm that Merlin will never, ever be able to recapture with anyone else, and afterwards, when Merlin is lying boneless across him, heady and sleepy and helplessly happy, Arthur will tuck him closer and whisper in his ear poetry that sounds a lot like love. And Merlin will wonder how he could ever think of forsaking this, Arthur, who is everything, will always be his world: the sun and the moon and the stars.
It’s like a terrible game of chess, except there are only two kings and the pawn trapped in between.
They’re sitting cross-legged on the floor, across from each other, their knees just touching.
Mordred pours wine into each goblet and then reaches up to catch the wine that slides down his palm. His eyes are blue, the sort of blue that is as bright and vast as the endless skies -- or, would be, if night ever gave up her greedy clutch on Avalon’s skies.
Merlin cups his hands around his goblet; the silver is pure, untarnished. In Avalon, everything is unadulterated: love and hate and good and evil. Mordred crowned him, once, in a halo of wreathed gold, but across the veil, in Arthur’s world -- Merlin’s world, once -- the gold had melted because it turns out that pure gold is flimsy. Worthless.
Mordred drinks his wine. Merlin watches, waits, and then drinks his.
Mordred laughs. His lashes cast slithery shadows across his face. “You don’t trust me,” he says.
“No,” says Merlin. He can’t look away from Mordred’s wine-wet mouth. “You’re like poison,” he says.
“And your Arthur?” Mordred asks, in almost childish curiosity. If Merlin allows it, Mordred’s words always turn to Arthur, Arthur Arthur Arthur, because Mordred is furious in his obsession, and Merlin is his doorway to it: if Arthur sears his love into Merlin’s skin, Mordred will nip at the marks, will spend hours dragging his teeth and his tongue against them, will ask, did he do this to you, did you like it, what did he say, what did he look like. Sometimes Merlin wonders who Mordred really wants, whose face Mordred sees when he closes his eyes.
“I love him,” Merlin says, and doesn’t say, do you?
Mordred leans close, his breath a bitter heat against Merlin’s ear. “And me?” he says, petulant.
Merlin cups the back of Mordred’s neck and shuts his eyes. “God help me,” he says, “but I do.”
Arthur doesn’t say anything about it for months and months, until October comes and the leaves go red and gold, most beautiful right before they wither. Arthur has a stack of reports to go through and Merlin is sprawled on the bed with a book, fingertips stained with ink, waiting, because sometimes new spells appear, new pages that shouldn’t fit, that shouldn’t be yellow with age, but they do and they are.
And then Arthur says, abrupt, “He was just a boy.”
Merlin looks at him, at his wide eyes -- blue as Mordred’s -- and at the tight curve of his jaw. He says deliberately, “Time -- passes differently on the other side of the veil.”
“But not for you,” Arthur says.
“I don’t stay long enough for it to matter,” Merlin says. “I wouldn’t -- stay there.”
I wouldn’t leave you, is what Merlin means, but Merlin doesn’t think Arthur would believe him.
Arthur closes his eyes and Merlin sits up properly, thinks that Arthur must be imagining it, but he has to be getting all the details wrong, because Arthur loves fiercely, is fiercely loved, is loyalty and honor and gentleness and Mordred -- Mordred is none of those things. Mordred is like a knife-edge across the throat, and there’s no going back but there’s no going forward either. Mordred is like the first sip of wine, intoxicating, and it’s not until later that you realize this pleasure is actually the slowest of deaths.
It’s nothing like with Arthur, Arthur, who makes Merlin feel like he’s coming alive.
Arthur says, “I wish you wouldn’t go,” and Merlin says,
“I know,” and, “I’m sorry,” but it won’t ever be enough.
“I wouldn’t use anything so cowardly as poison,” Mordred says thoughtfully. “Or even magic.”
Merlin traces the shape of Mordred’s mouth, thin yet beautiful. “What?” he says, drowsy, fucked out.
Mordred catches his hand, drops an open-mouthed kiss into the arch of Merlin’s palm. “Arthur,” he says, his voice wrapping reverently around the vowels. Merlin startles, tries to jerk away, but Mordred is pressing him down, is sketching chaste kisses along Merlin’s jaw. “Shh,” he says. “It’s written, Merlin.”
“It’s not,” Merlin says coldly, turning his face away. “You don’t have to--”
Mordred smiles, drags his teeth under Merlin’s lower lip, painful. “Will you stop me?”
“Yes,” Merlin says fiercely.
Mordred hums a laugh; it burns across Merlin’s mouth. “Oh, love,” he says. “I’d like to see you try.”
Arthur pushes him up against the wall.
“You,” he says, the end of it dropping off into a snarl. He doesn’t let go.
Merlin says softly, “Arthur.”
“I can’t bear this,” Arthur says, his voice cracked into little shards that catch the light and glitter. “I can’t bear the way you leave and you -- you creep back here even though I know where you’ve been -- with him, and you--”
“Arthur,” Merlin says again.
Arthur drops his forehead against Merlin’s shoulder, trembling, and Merlin wants to fix this, wants to take him up to bed and promise him that he’ll stay this time, won’t leave, but those are promises that Merlin knows he can’t keep. So he just says, gently, “You’re drunk.”
Arthur lifts his head, looks at him, bright-eyed. “Do you think that matters? Do you think that I -- I don’t feel any differently when I’m not, I just -- I don’t know how to live like this, Merlin, I--”
He looks so wrecked, so desperate, and Merlin doesn’t know what to do, so he kisses him, kisses him until Arthur breathes into it, a strangled sob like it hurts, and Merlin hates that sound, hates it, so he swallows it, fists at Arthur’s tunic and pulls him closer, until their hearts are pounding against each other’s chests, until Merlin can feel Arthur’s pulse beneath his hands, warm and crazed and frantic.
Arthur fucks him, somewhere between pleasure and pain, and Merlin lets him, wants it, kisses him through it, whispers nonsense into his ear and means all of it, things that he doesn’t know how to say but can’t help feeling. Arthur stretches him out on the floor, covers Mordred’s bruises with his own, and when Merlin bats him away (because he hates when Mordred does that, kisses Arthur’s marks, and he hates it more now, from Arthur), Arthur catches his wrists, says, let me, hard and broken all at once, and Merlin does.
Afterwards, Arthur does up his tunic and doesn’t look at him. “I won’t touch you again.”
“Arthur,” Merlin says, and reaches for him, but Arthur moves away.
“Don’t,” he says harshly. “Don’t.”
He shuts the door. Merlin knows better than to follow.
Mordred is blazingly angry when Merlin tells him.
“I don’t understand,” Merlin says, snatching up his tunic. “I thought you’d be pleased.”
“Why,” Mordred says, “would I be pleased?”
“I love you,” Merlin says, and it aches, each time the admission rips through him.
Mordred watches him lace up his tunic with trembling fingers, and then says flatly, “I have plans: I know how I want everything to happen. I know exactly how your Arthur is meant to die, and who I will banish and who I will keep. You’re part of these plans, Merlin,” he says, and steps closer, smiling faintly when Merlin shies away. “I don’t want you to fear me,” he says, and catches Merlin’s wrist, nips gently at the soft inside of it, teeth scraping across the bluish veins that shine through, translucent.
“I don’t understand,” Merlin says, and hates the smallness of his voice, “why you hate him so much.”
“I don’t understand,” says Mordred, irony sharpening his words, “why you love him so much.”
Merlin says, “He’s my king,” and Mordred backs Merlin up against the wall and says,
“He will never be my king.”
“I wish for you to attend the council meeting tomorrow,” Arthur says without looking at him.
Merlin says, “Of course,” and then, lower, “Arthur--”
“Sire,” Arthur says, terribly formal. “You will call me Sire.”
“Of course,” Merlin says again, and as Arthur leaves, he wonders how this can be love, when it feels so much like misery.
Sometimes he wonders if Mordred has cast a compulsion over him, the way Merlin burns with this need, necessary as a heartbeat. He wants Mordred in a way that he’s never wanted Arthur: wants him and knows he shouldn’t, steals across the veil and hates it, this place where love becomes hate and hate hardens into something more cruel, into a shadow that even the sun can’t banish, were it not exiled far away and long ago.
Sometimes, he wonders why he loves Mordred at all, why he needs him like air in a rotting world.
There is no softness to Mordred: he’s all lines and angles, simple geometry. He laughs when he sees one of the witches -- dressed in sheer white, with dark, loose hair, identical to all the others -- twist her ankle on the stairs. They go hunting in August, and where Arthur’s kills are quick, Mordred draws the moment out, long enough that Merlin shoves Mordred aside and puts the rabbit out of its misery, its silent screams ringing in his ears. (Mordred laughs, curves an arm around Merlin’s neck and presses his mocking smile against Merlin’s frown, and Merlin wonders if he’d made a mistake all those years ago, if he should’ve let Mordred be marched off to his death, nine-years-old and no less dangerous for it.) And when Morgana dies, shut up alone in Avalon’s highest tower, Merlin says hazily, “Do you miss her?” and Mordred says,
“Now, why would I miss her?” horribly casual, propped up on his elbow to reach for a glass of water.
“She was your mother,” Merlin says, hushed.
Mordred throws his head back and laughs, free and easy. “Mothers,” he says disdainfully, “mean nothing in this world, Merlin. It’s my father I’m more concerned about.” And then, probably because he likes the way Merlin shudders, he draws Merlin close and says, “Arthur,” into Merlin’s hair, sacred as a prayer.
But there are also moments --
on his birthday, Mordred asks him to stay, Merlin, please stay, just tonight, and his eyes are so wide and his mouth so red, and his hands are careful in Merlin’s hair, his kisses delicate, fluttering touches, and Merlin lets himself be coaxed back into bed, lets Mordred peel his clothes off him, and
in the morning, Mordred wakes him with slow, teasing touches, and his smile is bright in the moonlight, free of malice, and Merlin thinks that maybe he could stay here forever, in Avalon, where magic is as necessary as food and water, with Mordred, who can be as gentle as he can be cruel, and
when Gaius dies and Arthur is off on campaign, and Merlin can’t bear to be in Camelot anymore, so he goes to Avalon, and Mordred lets him throw things, lets him swear, lets his magic sear through him until he’s bone-dry, until he collapses, and then Mordred drags him into bed and curves against him
-- when Merlin thinks that it has to be love. It has to be.
Gwen gives birth to a boy with whisper-dark hair and wide brown eyes.
He dies within his first week.
Mordred smiles brightly into Merlin’s fingertips. “Of course he did,” he says indolently. “I’ve told you, Merlin: Arthur was only ever meant to have one child.” He kisses Merlin carefully underneath the stars. “It’s written,” he says, steady as the mantra that it is, and pulls gently at the neck of Merlin’s tunic, baring a pale swathe of skin to the moonlight and covering it with slow, calculated kisses.
“Come here,” he says, and Merlin goes to him.
Arthur comes into his chambers just as the sky pales with the promise of dawn.
“I don’t understand,” he says, his breaths coming shallow and too quick. His hair is messy, too long, and his shift is rumpled across his chest, highlighting his newfound angularity, the angularity of the old and tired, the angularity no thirty-year-old man should be wearing. He looks wild with sleeplessness, a sleepless night which rolled into weeks which rolled into months, and now it’s common knowledge among the castle staff that the king hasn’t slept the whole night through since that morning when the nurse had gone to check on the little prince only to find him still as a doll.
“He’s everything you should despise,” says Arthur. “He’s full of hatred and anger and cruelty—”
“I know,” Merlin says, lacing his fingers together in his lap so he doesn’t try anything so foolish as going to Arthur. Sunlight peeks through the curtains, catching on Arthur’s hair, on his skin, and Merlin has been helpless with want for three months now, remembering the trembling shift of Arthur’s throat under his mouth, how Arthur goes liquid under his touch. When he’s with Arthur, he only thinks of Arthur, and when he’s with Mordred, he only thinks of Mordred: it’s deceptively simple, this thick, invisible wall between them.
Arthur laughs tiredly, kneels at the side of the bed, bows his head. “How can you love him and me?”
Merlin reaches out uncertainly, threads his fingers into Arthur’s hair. Arthur makes a wrecked noise, thick in his throat like he’s been in pain for years, and maybe he has, Merlin thinks, stroking Arthur’s hair back from his brow, tracing the weary lines of him. Maybe they’re all in pain, maybe that’s all this is.
“I don’t know,” Merlin says. “I don’t, I’m sorry.”
He curves his palm around Arthur’s cheek and Arthur sighs, leans into the touch.
“If I asked you,” Arthur says, “to stop. If I forbade you to go there—”
His eyes are bright with exhaustion, a painfully familiar blue through gold lashes.
“I wouldn’t go,” Merlin says.
“But it would make you unhappy,” Arthur says unhappily.
“I love you,” Merlin says fiercely, “I’d do anything—”
“But do you love me more,” Arthur says, halfway between a question and an answer.
Merlin snatches his hand back: it’s a bit like being burned. Arthur has never asked him to quantify it before, maybe because he knows that Merlin doesn’t know. Or maybe because he suspects that he wouldn’t like the answer.
“Don’t ask me that,” Merlin says, the consonants fraying, ragged.
They stay like that, close but not quite touching, until the morning slants into the room, haloing Arthur in gold but falling short of where Merlin sits, just out of reach, in the shadows.
Mordred wants to know everything about Arthur:
What kind of food does he like, is he partial to sweets? and
Is his swordplay as good as they say, how is he at jousting? and
Does he bed any of the ladies of the court? Or the lords? Or the servants? and
Does he laugh a lot, Merlin, or is he somber like my mother was? and
Do his knights fear him or do they worship him, like the god he thinks he is? and quieter, soft as a secret,
Would he have loved me, do you think?
Merlin only answers the last question.
Yes, Merlin says, yes, yes, he would have loved you if you’d only let him.
Mordred doesn’t touch him that night, and Merlin goes back to Camelot in the morning.
There are things that Merlin will never tell Arthur:
I almost left Camelot forever on the day of your coronation, and
Camelot will burn, will crumble, will clog the earth with blood, and it will be my fault, and
Gwen will leave you, because after two miscarriages, a stillborn, and the loss of a week-old son, she won’t be able to stand the sight of you anymore, but most of all,
Mordred is your son.
(You are Mordred’s father.)
They’re sitting on a hill in Avalon, watching for falling stars.
(“Vivian says they’re men,” Mordred says, “falling from grace.”
“Vivian lives to fill your head with nonsense, don’t listen to her,” Merlin says.)
Merlin says carefully, “You don’t have to kill Arthur—”
Mordred says, “Yes, I do.”
Merlin reaches out, plucks up Mordred’s sleeve between his fingers. “He hasn’t wronged you, Mordred.”
“Oh, Merlin,” Mordred murmurs, and pushes Merlin down so that he can lean over him, can sip a kiss off Merlin’s mouth in a mockery of tenderness. “You don’t understand. I want to kill him.”
Merlin’s hands tangle in Mordred’s tunic. “But why?”
“Because I love him,” Mordred says, and slips his thigh between Merlin’s. “Because I hate him. Because I’m meant to kill him. Because I dream about him all the time, in this wretched place, where it’s always night, where you always dream, where you wake only to realize that your nightmares are real.”
Merlin says, with hushed horror, “You love him.”
Mordred’s smile is thin, shadowy. “Maybe,” he allows, his breaths warm against Merlin’s mouth. “Maybe I’m in love with him. Maybe all I want is to touch him, and maybe that’s all you are, the closest that I’ll ever get to him.” He presses an ashy kiss to Merlin’s eyelid. “Or maybe I hate him because he banished my mother and me here, to this hell. Maybe I want to do the same, want to claim what is rightfully mine.” He lifts the hem of Merlin’s tunic, fingers skittering hot as blood against Merlin’s skin. “Does it matter?” Mordred says, peering up at him. “I’m still going to kill him.”
Merlin’s hands knot in Mordred’s hair. “I’d kill you first,” he promises.
Mordred laughs and bites his way down Merlin’s thighs.
(What Mordred doesn’t understand is, in that instant – Merlin means it.)
Merlin finds Arthur in one of the gardens outside the queen’s chambers, the flowers in early bloom with the first tendrils of spring. He’s wearing a tunic that was once deep red, and has now faded into a softer shade, well-worn through the years. Merlin has always loved that tunic on Arthur, has worn it himself when Arthur had been gone on long campaigns, and had wanted Merlin to be wrapped in Arthur’s regard.
Arthur looks at him warily. “What is it?”
“Do you,” Merlin says, “believe in destiny?”
Arthur’s glance is warm as a touch that Merlin doesn’t deserve. “No,” Arthur says. “Perhaps it exists and perhaps it’s just a bedtime story mothers tell their children, but a king can’t believe in destiny: I have to believe that people are responsible for their own actions, that we make our own ways in life. Maybe prophecies are real, written in the stars, but it’s people who make those prophecies happen, and it’s people who can decide that they won’t be pawns on a chessboard.”
Merlin says honestly, “I always thought my destiny was to be at your side.”
“Well,” Arthur says, and looks away, “that proves that destiny doesn’t exist, then: you’re never here when I need you, these days.”
Merlin doesn’t know what to say.
“Soon,” Mordred says, unlacing his tunic, shrugging out of it. “Soon you and I will be in Camelot, Merlin, and she will bow to us. We’ll have the whole run of the castle, and I’ll go brown in the sun, and we’ll eat well, and get drunk on good, sweet wine, and I’ll fuck you in the king’s chambers, because you and I will be kings.”
He lowers his face to Merlin’s, tries to catch his mouth in a kiss.
Merlin says soberly, “And how many will have to die for that to happen?”
Mordred’s mouth curves in amusement. “You always make me out to be some sort of villain. Only the one, I promise you. The rest of them: my lovely stepmother and the knights and those subjects that are, as you say, so loyal to Arthur, can leave if they so choose. If they stay and make nuisances of themselves, then they’re the ones forcing my hand.” He pushes Merlin’s hair out of his eyes, slides his thumb between Merlin’s bruised lips. “Why don’t you understand that this is a good thing, Merlin? It’s time that Albion is ruled by magic again, as she was for so long. It’s time for the word sorcerer to stop being a curse, and to start being praise.”
“That’s not why you’re doing this,” Merlin says sharply. “You don’t care about any of that.”
“No,” Mordred agrees, laughing, “but it’s what will happen, anyway.”
“Don’t do this,” Merlin says, despairing.
“I have to,” Mordred whispers, stroking a hot line up Merlin’s thighs. “It’s the only thing I’ve ever wanted.”
Merlin wakes from dreams of dust and ash.
He’s trembling; he can’t breathe, choked with foresight he shouldn’t have.
He looks over at Mordred, the shape of him beneath the covers, silvered by moonlight. He looks young in his sleep, vulnerable, beautiful: sleep softens him in a way that makes Merlin’s chest hurt. He catalogues the pieces of him: the dark sweep of lashes against pale cheek, the thin arc of mouth, the sweet brush of hair, the virtuous furl of fingers.
And he thinks: he’s delayed this for too long.
And he thinks: there’s a choice to be made.
And he thinks: he already made his choice, years and years ago, because the only place destiny is written is in Merlin’s heart.
The throne room is lit gold with sunlight, and Merlin is kneeling in front of Arthur.
He says, “There’s something I should’ve told you, a long time ago.”
They’re eating a meal. Lunch, maybe, or dinner – time passes oddly in Avalon.
“I’m leaving for Camelot in three days,” Mordred says, peeling an orange.
Merlin’s hand is steady as he cuts into his meat. “You’re only one man, Mordred. Arthur has many loyal knights and servants. You won’t be able to get near him. And if you think that I’ll—”
“Ah,” Mordred says apologetically. “I’m afraid I can’t let you leave here, Merlin. Not until the task is done.” He takes a sip of his wine and Merlin watches him through half-lidded eyes, tracking each movement. “I’ll send for you afterwards,” Mordred says lazily and reaches for another orange.
“You think you can hold me here?” Merlin says, idly sliding his finger around the rim of his wine goblet. “How do you know that I’m not sitting here, biding my time until I break your neck? How do you know that the lives of your witches matter to me at all, when weighed against Arthur’s life?”
Mordred looks pleased, his lashes dipping low: beautiful, Merlin thinks.
Mordred drinks the last of his wine; it smears on his lower lip, red as blood. Mordred pours some more.
“For the same reason you didn’t kill me when we first met, when I was nine-years-old and already a threat to your Arthur. For the same reason,” he says, leaning forward, his skin flushed rosy with the first hue of color Merlin’s ever seen in his skin, “that you haven’t slit my throat in my sleep. For the same reason you keep coming back, even though you know that I’m the arrow that will pierce Arthur’s armor.”
“Perhaps,” Merlin says, “I’ve changed my mind.”
Mordred laughs, leaning back in his chair. Merlin can’t help but notice the red gleam of his mouth.
“Have you,” Mordred says, and then reaches over to pour Merlin some wine, only to find that his goblet is full. “So suspicious,” he chides, dipping a finger into Merlin’s goblet. It comes away red. “The wine isn’t poisoned, Merlin, I’ve been drinking it all night.”
Merlin catches Mordred’s hand, sighs a kiss into the inside of Mordred’s wrist.
“It is poisoned,” Merlin says. “I poisoned it.”
Mordred’s face is blank: he looks terribly young, horribly innocent. Merlin wants to kiss him, but his mouth is painted with poison.
“No,” Mordred says flatly. “You wouldn’t. You—”
“I had to,” Merlin says, and pushes his chair away from the table. “I can’t let you do this, Mordred.”
“Soon,” Merlin says, and reaches for Mordred, but Mordred shoves him away. He shoves the table too, and the wine spills across the wood, across the floor, so very red. Mordred stumbles back, ankle snagging around his chair, falling to the floor. He falls too hard and Merlin hears something snap – his wrist, by the way Mordred stares at it, the delicate joint of it mangled, ugly.
Soon, his body will shut down, and he’ll be painfully aware of it all: the slowing of his heart, the give of his lungs. The way all the air is snatched out of him, the numbing of his hands, the way the world starts to go dim, a blackness that even the torches can’t ward off. The sound of far-off chanting – the witches at prayer, praying to goddesses too terrible to have names – will fade away, until Mordred hears nothing at all.
“I never loved you.” Mordred spits out the words and wine as well, or maybe it’s blood.
“I know,” Merlin says gently, and slips his cloak on. “But I loved you.”
“You’re a coward,” Mordred says, wide-eyed, and whether those are tears or just his body giving in to its final, interminable sleep, Merlin doesn’t know. He doesn’t dwell on it.
“Yes,” Merlin says, and opens the door. “I should’ve done this years ago.”
He shuts the door on Mordred’s scream, pitched too high, rising until it becomes something else, something otherworldly, and maybe he was always something otherworldly. Maybe Merlin should never have loved him at all, because loving Mordred is like loving a rabid wolf: something that will never, ever love you back because it doesn’t have the capacity for love, because to it, love feels a lot like hate.
Merlin leans against the door and listens to Mordred die.
“Where will you go?” Arthur asks, watching Merlin pack his trunks.
“South, I think,” Merlin says. “I’ll stay with my mother for a bit, and then – I don’t know.” He casts a sidelong look at Arthur, the sun catching on his hair, adoring her king. “Maybe I’ll go see Nimue.”
“You could stay,” Arthur says, but he’s not looking at Merlin, so Merlin doesn’t think he means it.
Merlin reaches out, traces the shape of Arthur’s cheek in the air between them. It’s as close as he dare gets, but Arthur willingly leans into his hand, lets Merlin touch him. “I can’t,” Merlin says, with quick snatches of breath, trying to memorize the blue of Arthur’s eyes, the exact shape of his mouth, the way his hair glitters gold. “You know I can’t.”
“Why not?” Arthur says, and his voice drops, becomes hazy, petulant. He slips his hands underneath Merlin’s shirt, his palms hot and huge at Merlin’s waist, insistently pulling him. “You could stay,” he says, and the words curl at the edges, tempting, promissory notes. “It’ll be summer soon, there’ll be tournaments and festivals – we’ll have a feast for your birthday.”
Merlin closes his eyes and imagines the way Camelot will sprawl out with the summer: blue skies, the fields rolling on forever in an endless sea; honeyed wine and sticky kisses; the way the sun feels on his skin, all golden warmth; colorful banners unfurling, proclaiming this lord’s name, that knight’s; the sultry hang of night, stolen moments underneath the stars, falling asleep, tangled in each other, only to wake up and do it all over again.
Except, this summer, there will be no slipping past the veil into Avalon.
And Merlin says, “I loved him, Arthur – and I killed him.”
He expects Arthur to push him away, but Arthur just regards him thoughtfully. “Did you love him because he was my son?”
“No,” Merlin says, and then, “yes,” and then, “does it matter?”
“No,” Arthur says, his smile faint. Merlin thinks that it will take years and years for Arthur to remember how to give him a real smile – for Arthur to slowly forget how Merlin betrayed him. “I suppose not.”
Merlin packs the last of his clothes away, locks his trunk. He looks around at his chambers, at the emptiness, all the memories that he’s either packed away deep in his heart or discarded completely. The room looks impossibly clean, as if Merlin had never stepped foot in here – as if Merlin had never existed.
“I’ll come back,” Merlin says fiercely, winding his arms around Arthur’s neck. “I will, I promise you.”
“When?” Arthur says, mouth agonizingly close.
“When it’s easier,” Merlin says, his breaths ruffling Arthur’s lashes. “For both of us.”
Arthur kisses him. He tastes like sweetness, like home: he tastes like goodbye.
“I won’t see you off,” Arthur says. “I won’t say goodbye.”
And it’s not until Arthur has long left the room, until the sun is high in the sky, until the shadows are swept back into exile, that Merlin lets himself say it, spills his love to the empty room, to the walls, in hopes that they’ll remember -- that Merlin’s love for Arthur will forever be memorialized here: that Arthur will never forget that Merlin has loved him, once and always.
The title is inspired by/stolen from the song Sisters of Mercy by Leonard Cohen.