Characters: Uther, Arthur & Merlin
Summary: Merlin does something stupidly brave with magic. This is the aftermath.
Notes: for the Transformation challenge.
Uther glanced at his son, the tight set of his jaw, the white of his knuckles. The servant boy stood between them, scared and proud, so many conflicting emotions warring on his face, and yet never yielding. Never that.
"The law is clear."
Arthur shook his head. It had a finality to it that Uther envied and feared. "I will stand against you on this."
The look on Arthur's face as he took in the boy - the sorcerer - told Uther all he needed to know. Arthur believed himself in love, or at the very least in a deep friendship. Uther remembered those feelings, the conviction that came with them. The recklessness, too.
"Yes," was all Arthur said. It was enough.
Uther felt the past creep up on him, all the anger and the loss, like some kind of judgement. "Did you know?"
There were depths to betrayal. Secrets kept for the sake of a friend, secrets kept from one's king and father. He knew that, too, knew that Arthur had been in an impossible situation, knew that his temper would be his downfall, here and now. Gaius had been right after all.
"Speak, child." The address made Arthur flinch, still, so there was at least some of the boy, some of the son left in him. "Have you deliberately kept something like this from me? Have you harbored a sorcerer?"
He hadn't realized how much the answer mattered to him until Arthur looked him in the eye and said clearly: "No."
Except, this was somehow worse. "And you would stand with him now, even though he's lied to you, perhaps bewitched you?"
"I would never-"
Uther glared at the boy. It was harder, somehow, to think of him as a sorcerer than any man or woman Uther had ever met. True, magic left no sign, no glint of evil, but this boy - there was something about him. Perhaps it was the same magic that had kept Arthur in the dark for so long.
"Silence, or I will run you through myself." The cold steel of his anger felt foreign to Uther, so controlled, so much more lethal than the white hot bursts of the past.
"I didn't give either of you leave to speak."
Arthur's eyes flared, a coldness spreading through his expression and bearing that made Uther shiver. "I will not wait to be called on like a child, not in this matter. Merlin saved your life, and mine, perhaps everyone's in the castle. He used magic to this end and as such, magic cannot be evil. I can no longer stand by and watch you descend into madness when it comes to magic."
The only reason Uther did not strike his son, the only possible reason that would bring him up short and drive all the breath from his lungs, was that in his righteous fury, Arthur looked so very much like his mother.
They were at a stillstand. Arthur on one side, his sword close by his side. The people loved him already, and the knights had been trained by him for years. Many of the younger knights would not question him at all if it came to that. Uther on the other side, still strong, but older and infinitely more tired. He'd always wanted the best for Camelot when it had become so certain that he would never again have anything good for himself.
And between them, the boy. Merlin.
"Magic corrupts," Uther spat.
Arthur matched him in everything, except in years. He looked like the king he would one day become. "As does power, father."
The slight hurt deeply, more than the cut from a dagger, more than the blunt ache from a heavy blow on his armor. "I see, so you will take both and return the land to its savagery?"
Arthur looked stricken at the implication. Clearly, he hadn't thought this through. Uther smiled, a cold thing on his lips that felt like a snake curling over his skin. "Because that is what you must have in mind, to save your servant. I will not alter my judgement."
A younger Arthur - one, Uther realized, who hadn't been tempered by the presence of this sorcerer - would have raged against him, pleaded even, knowing that ultimately neither had a chance to succeed. This Arthur before him now seemed to weigh the meaning and consequence of treason, of killing one's father to ascend to the throne, and Uther feared, for a moment, that it would come down to lethal blows between them.
He loved his son too much not to hurt at that.
But Arthur, who had so much of Igraine in him, lowered his head, stepped toward his servant and whispered something into the boy's ear. The sorcerer smiled, shook his head, and grasped his hand. Together they faced Uther and he could see what it was that would undo him.
He'd loved Igraine, loved her above all; his own life, Camelot, nothing had had meaning next to her. He would have given her the world. He had tried to give her a child. Nothing Uther had ever done had been enough. And nothing he would ever do could soothe the hollow in his heart.
"Father," Arthur spoke, "We will bow to any of your judgements as long as they apply to both of us."
For a terrible second Uther could imagine his son burning, the fire high and hot on his skin, smoke curling around his face, agony and fear, and the smell of pine. It almost made him retch.
Looking at Arthur, Uther understood that he could no more kill his son than he could tear out his own heart, and that Arthur felt the same about Merlin. He could let Gaius drug Arthur, or throw him in the dungeons, and let Merlin be executed in a hundred different ways, and it would surely kill his son...
It would surely kill his son as it had killed Uther to lose Igraine. That pain he could not bring onto someone he loved, not even if it meant the fall of Camelot. He was not that strong.
Uther could be a father, now, or he could be a king. He could not be both.
"I..." He faltered. The words gathered in his throat and threatened to choke him. "I shall leave Camelot tonight. When I fail to return, you will send out search parties, though they will not find me and it will fall to you to lead this kingdom."
Arthur's eyes widened.
"In a year's time, they will begin to call you king and not long after that will have me declared dead. Take care not to leave the coronation for too long, you must have a firm grasp on the crown or the baronets will squabble with you until they can steal it away."
Uther silenced his son with a look. He could see the beginning of greatness in him. He would be a fine king, already more mature than Uther had been at the time he'd wrestled the kingdom from the lords of the realm. "Be just, Arthur, and be firm." And then it burst out of him, the darkest and most horrible of all things. "Don't let magic corrupt you like it did me, don't make the mistake to think that because something can be done, that it should."
It was a warning, directed both at Arthur and the sorcerer, all Uther would allow himself to say to the boy.
"Leave me," he said, aware that he would not see his son again.
He waved them off, out of this small and dreadful room that had the ghost of his wife and the bodies of three assassins in it, all killed by magic. He watched them leave and could not find the dread he thought he would feel, turning his kingdom over to a boy and a wizard. They looked small as they went, shoulders touching, and quite magnificent.