Beta: The forever amazing souleswanderer. I tinkered so all remaining mistakes are my own.
Disclaimer: I own nothing related to Merlin and no money was made from writing this story.
Summary: Every life has value, even a life that was meant to end.
The first time he watched Merlin take a life, several lives; it took little more than a flick of the sorcerer’s wrist before the witches burst into bright flames. Arthur turned away from their screams, yelling for his knights to fall back as the orange heat of the inferno licked the skies above.
Merlin did not turn away, his shoulders squared and his eyes gold, and not just from the reflection of the fire. Arthur swallowed the rising sensation in his stomach. This was not the first life his friend had taken. Somewhere between the rising flames and the acrid smoke, Arthur realized, once again, that Merlin really was a sorcerer.
There was no regret or remorse when Merlin turned and walked away, and Arthur watched him go.
Arthur wasn’t afraid of him, fear wasn’t an emotion he entertained, but Arthur was no stranger to battle, no stranger to watching lives ended at the edge of his sword. He was shocked to realize that somewhere along the way he’d lost count – ten men? Fifty? It was most likely more, many more, but he didn’t dwell on it. Still, he always remembered. The nearly black eyes of a dying man, the soft spoken pleas for leniency barely wheezed from a collapsed lung.
Later that night when Merlin was stretched out beside him, one arm folded behind his head and the other casually tossed over his eyes, Arthur spoke, his voice quiet in the darkness of his chambers. “Why did you watch?”
“Hm?” Merlin’s voice was surprisingly alert for someone who claimed to not have understood the question.
“In the forest, you watched them burn.”
He heard Merlin swallow and watched as his head rolled to rest against his bent arm. “Yes, I did.” There was no hesitation in his response.
Arthur turned on his side, curling one arm underneath his body. “Why?”
One candle burned on the table, and Merlin’s face was cast in eerie shadows. Arthur wished he could see him better, his eyes, his expression. Time crawled by, and Arthur figured Merlin wouldn’t answer, didn’t want to or simply couldn’t, as if he didn’t want Arthur to know the truth. Another thing Arthur tried not to dwell on – the power of Merlin. He didn’t know why he was surprised that Merlin had killed before. When Merlin had come to him and admitted he was a sorcerer, it was soon after Arthur had taken the throne. He’d said he’d been magic all his life, and for whatever reason, Arthur had let it go at that. Now he wondered if he should have extracted each and every detail of how Merlin had used his magic in the past. If Merlin had killed, Arthur knew it was most likely for him, but it was his callousness, the nothingness in his eyes as he watched them burn. It was an expression he’d never expected to see on the gentle face of his closest friend.
Merlin’s voice drifted through the darkness and sliced through Arthur’s thoughts. “Because I owed them that much.”
Arthur pushed up on his elbow, leaning over Merlin, unsure if he’d heard him correctly. “What?”
He saw Merlin blink, his eyes focus. “I owed them that much,” he repeated. “I killed them. It was the least I could do.”
“Do you regret it?”
Merlin laughed – it was more of a bark, inconsistent and short lived. “They threatened you. They would have killed you. No, I feel no remorse. None at all.” His voice wasn’t cold or harsh; he was simply stating fact, truth as seen by Merlin.
Arthur reached out, his hand gently shifting Merlin’s face so he could see his eyes. The embers in the fireplace rekindled, and they were bathed in warm light. “Better?” Merlin asked.
Arthur nodded, noting Merlin’s unwavering attention no matter the circumstances.
“I’ll always pick you,” Merlin continued, his eyes nearly black. “Make no mistake, King Arthur, it always was and always will be you.”
“But you watched,” Arthur repeated. “Why do that to yourself?”
Merlin glanced at the stone ceiling, searching for words to answers he didn’t know how to form. “Because it was the right thing to do,” Merlin said. “I took a life today – three lives – and it shouldn’t be easy. I don’t want it to be easy.”
Arthur pushed the hair off Merlin’s forehead, noting the tiniest shift as Merlin leaned against his touch. “Are you punishing yourself?”
Merlin caught his wrist and pressed his lips against the sensitive skin underneath Arthur’s forearm. “I’m not suddenly going to start flogging myself or developing masochistic tendencies if that’s what you think. I just…need to remember.”
“For being a great and powerful warlock, you’re more human than anyone I know,” Arthur said as he dropped his head on the pillow and wrapped his arm around Merlin, drawing him against his chest.
“I’ll take that as a compliment,” Merlin replied, his body naturally curving to fit against Arthur’s side.
“You should,” Arthur agreed. “I’ve never called you a great and powerful warlock before.”
The fire died down, the light vanquishing from the room as quickly as it came.
Merlin’s voice drifted through the darkness. “That wasn’t the part I was referring to.”
Arthur kissed him just behind the ear. “I know.”