Manly. Merlin is a manly and strong and awesome fear-inspiring warlock. Strong and mighty. And awesome. And strong. Did he say strong? Because he is. Like a mountain, or weather-worn boots.
That’s exactly why Merlin isn’t allowed to be put off by the tiny, creaky, wooden and distressingly old shack he and Arthur and Elyan and Gwaine are cooped up for the night. Rain falls down in sheets, attacking the shack relentlessly with a howling wind and Merlin doesn’t need to be psychic to see vivid visions of this place being torn down around them as easily as soggy paper.
“Oh don’t look like that Merlin. If your face gets any lower it’ll be on the floor,” Arthur sighs, nudging Merlin’s leg with his foot. Merlin pulls a face and huddles in closer to himself.
“I’m sorry I’m not filled with joy at the prospect of spending the night in this deathtrap.”
Arthur rolls his eyes. “It’s… rustic.”
“It’s cold, and damp, and probably haunted.”
“I feel sorry for any ghost that has to haunt this dump,” Gwaine pipes up from his hushed conversation with Elyan.
“I’d much rather haunt somewhere that doesn’t have one confused wood-worm as its only inhabitant,” Merlin frowns, hugging his knees to his chest.
“ Girls . You’re all a massive bunch of girls.” Arthur states.
“I reckon the Lady Morgana would have something to say about that, Princess,” Gwaine chuckles. He’s surprisingly easy-going about this whole situation, but then again he’s easy-going about everything. Merlin came to the conclusion a while ago that it’s because he actually has fluff in his head rather than a brain. Merlin sticks his lip out. Of course Arthur had to choose today to go camping, though. Why couldn’t he just stay home and sleep and cook and loath his boring life like normal people do?
A collective silence falls upon the shack as a roll of thunder is heard startlingly loud above. Elyan curses under his breath, but they’re in no position to go back outside and run to Camelot. The bloody horses bolted as soon as the infernal wind began anyway, and camping outside seems like an offer to be washed away by the storm. So Merlin sighs and unfolds himself. There isn’t much point in sulking right now.
“We could… play a game?” Gwaine offers.
“Like what? Guess how long the shack takes to be hit by lightening?” Merlin says, his tone significantly more light-hearted. “I’ll put my bets on ‘soon’. If I haven’t frozen to death first that is.”
“I was thinking more along the lines of eye-spy,” Gwaine says. Merlin looks around the shack, eyebrow raised, but Arthur is already bringing up the point on everyone’s minds.
“There’s nothing here to ‘spy’. Unless you count an old candle and a thread-bare rug.”
“There are windows, and wood too!” Gwaine offers.
“Well now you’ve given away all the answers.”
Gwaine sticks his tongue out in a child-like manner, and Elyan laughs at the man. Merlin feels a smile tugging at his lips too, though he finds himself pulling his legs back up to his chest. It really is deathly cold in here… He hopes he won’t freeze to death overnight. Then he really will have to haunt this hovel, and he can only imagine it as a mind-numbing experience.
“What time do you think it is, Princess?”
“You need to stop calling me that. And from the looks of it, it’s near sundown.”
“We’re going to be stuck here all night,” Merlin groans, burning his head in his hands. Arthur gives a snort.
“You’re a servant – this is luxury to you!” he says, using his arms to gesture around the shack.
“I think you’re getting ‘servant’ mixed up with ‘slave’,” Merlin responds pointedly. Then again, not even a slave would be made to stay in something as crappy as this.
“Is there a difference with you?”
“I get paid. Thank the Gods.”
At this, Gwaine and Elyan suddenly gain interest. “Actually mate, being the prince’s manservant is quite a high-ranking position isn’t it?”
“Yes…” Merlin starts, suspicious. Gwaine’s giving that look – the one he gives right before plunging into a line of usually-invasive questions.
“Well, how much does it pay?” Gwaine probes.
“It’s got to be a fair amount, but you always wear the same clothes… not that they look bad or anything,” Elyan says, looking to Merlin’s shabby old jacket. Merlin frowns and looks down to his clothes – he doesn’t wear them that much.
“Actually, I was wondering that too,” Arthur joins in. “Usually my manservants don’t last long enough to receive their first payment.”
“Probably because you’re a prat,” Merlin shrugs. “And my pay is none of your business!”
“Oh go on, tell us,” Gwaine pleads, Elyan nodding eagerly by his side. “It’s not like there’s much else to do in here.”
Merlin sighs and closes his eyes, ignoring the urge to shiver. “Right, right – okay. So I get a choice.”
“Each month, I can have three pigs, or twelve gold coins, or one horse. Oh, and I was once offered silk, but that’s not really my thing…”
Gwaine lets out a low whistle. Even Arthur looks vaguely impressed.
“What do you usually pick?” Elyan asks.
“The coins. I chose the pigs once, as a joke I think, but Gaius was pretty mad at the whole thing. I tried to take one around the market and teach it to follow me, but it tried to bite one of the kids so I had to give it away…”
There’s a stunned silence, before Arthur and the two knights burst into laughter. “Are you serious mate!?” Gwaine cries. “You’re supposed to kill the animal, not take it for walks!”
Merlin huffs, before sneezing roughly. “Oh shut up,” he sniffs. “Like I would slaughter a pig – I wouldn’t even know where to start!”
“What did you do with the other two then?” Elyan asks, being the first to calm down. Merlin’s cheeks burn as he remembers, and he lowers his head into his chest.
“… I leddem go,” he mutters, hardly audible over the raging storm.
“What?” Arthur says, a grin firmly plastered on his face. Merlin fights the urge to zap it off with his Mighty Warlock Powers.
“I let them go,” he says more clearly. Gwaine looks baffled.
“What, like, into town?”
“No, I… I led them into the woods and set them free.”
There’s a long pause, and the Elyan stands up. “I… have to go… over there.”
Without another word Elyan dashes to the other side of the shack and lets out a howl of laughter. Gwaine and Arthur stay put but are already doubled over in mirth.
“Shut up! You can all shut up! I’m not a monster like you lot who kill animals for fun!”
“You could have fed the bloody castle with all that and you just… You just set them free!”
“Did you weep as they trotted off? ‘So long my friends!’ ” Gwaine says, badly mimicking Merlin's voice.
“That’s brilliant! Absolutely hilarious!”
“An entire month’s pay in the waste!”
Merlin would be lying if he said he wasn’t smiling too at this point, but he quickly pulls his expression straight as he can and waits for the group to regain themselves, his cheeks still burning. Though, thinking about it, his forehead feels as though it’s burning too…
Yet again Elyan is the first to compose himself. He sits by Merlin’s side and pulls him in for a totally-manly embrace. “I’m sorry, Merlin, it’s just… the pigs!”
“Yes yes, laugh it up,” Merlin sighs, fighting a grin again as he pushes himself away from Elyan. As he does, the other two men still laughing, he jumps as Elyan frowns and suddenly pulls Merlin close again, placing his hand on Merlin’s forehead.
“… What are you doing?”
“You could cook an egg on that head! Are you okay mate?”
“What? Of course!” Merlin says, pulling back. Elyan is still frowning and makes to lean forward. Merlin doesn’t fancy the prospect of being manhandled again though, so he quickly jumps to his feet.
“Stop fretting, I’m fi-“
The room swirls and sways violently as Merlin stands up, and a thick nausea permeates him as he loses the floor beneath his feet.
“Merlin!” Elyan shouts, as Merlin crashes down. He passes out before he hits the ground.
Merlin wakes to the image of Arthur’s face inches away from his own. He jolts up, surprised, and immediately regrets it as his forehead smacks off Arthur’s nose.
“Mwy noze! Gods, Mer’ln!”
“What…?” Merlin says, his head forced back onto something soft.
“You passed out,” Gwaine says, now kneeling over him. In the background Arthur is chanting ‘is it bleeding? It’s bleeding isn’t it? Get me a cloth!’ Merlin frowns deeply.
“I don’t… eh?”
“Fever, I’d wager. Arthur was all like ‘Oh no, get him back to Camelot!’ but to be honest, dragging you out in the storm seems like a crappy idea if ever there was one.”
Merlin groans and closes his eyes. His breathing feels erratic and his entire body is burning. It’s only then that he realizes he has a one of the Knight’s cloaks spread over his body. He tries to remove it, though his limbs feel strangely jelly-like.
“Leave that!” Arthur says, suddenly by Merlin’s side again. Blood is streaming from his nose, but Merlin can’t muster the strength to be concerned.
“Hot – boiling, Gods, ” Merlin pants, wanting to cool off desperately. Gwaine and Arthur exchange a look.
“He needs to get back,” Arthur states, crossing his arms. “He might get worse.”
“And how do you reckon we do that? Swim?”
“We’re going to have to wait it out,” Elyan pipes up. “How you feeling Merlin?”
“Too hot! Get this stupid thing off me!”
Arthur only rolls his eyes, pinching his own bleeding nose. “It’s freezing in here, and you’re sick. You’re keeping it on.”
Merlin groans, but he hasn’t the strength to move it. Mighty and powerful warlock indeed – floored by a fever. That will be heavily edited in the legend – perhaps he’ll tell them he was killed fighting a mighty dragon…
Merlin only realizes he’s said all that aloud when he looks at the horrified faces of his friends looming over him. Oh, bloody hell…
“Oh Gods, he’s delusional now,” Elyan mutters. Merlin fights the urge to cheer – that works too.
“Merlin, do you remember your name?” Gwaine asks.
“You just told him it you idiot!”
“Oh… Um, do you remember your name, friend? ”
Elyan slaps his own forehead. “For crying out loud…”
“I’m fine guys, really. I’m just gunna… I’ll just close my eyes,” Merlin says, suddenly feeling tired as hell.
“Should we let his sleep?” Arthur says.
“I don’t know, I –“
Merlin’s passed out before they can stop him.
When Merlin wakes, he’s on the front of a horse and the sun is shining brightly.
“You’re awake? Finally,” Gwaine’s voice chuckles. There’s a note of relief in his voice. Merlin’s skin is still hot and he feels foggy at best, but he’s way more coherent than he was before.
“What the hell happened?”
“You kinda just… I dunno, got a really bad fever? The thing was positively eating you last night – Arthur was one step away from giving you a piggy-back to Camelot before it suddenly just broke. ”
“I was not!” Arthur says, and suddenly he’s beside them on a horse of his own. Elyan isn’t far behind.
“You looked like you were ready to kick the door down with Merlin in tow,” Gwaine comments happily. “You would have been proud Merlin – he was all ‘I shall save you my love!’”
“ Gwaine! ”
“… Perhaps in fewer words, then.”
Merlin shakes his head, bewildered. “And where did these horses come from?”
This time Elyan speaks up. “They were just… waiting outside, as soon as the storm stopped. It was crazy, they were completely dry – like magic!”
“Ohhh, don’t say that - Princess will start burning things.”
“Don’t be stupid Gwaine,” Arthur scowls.
Merlin chuckles nervously. “He wouldn’t burn them even if they were – they’re helping aren’t they?”
“You say that now, but just you wait – they’ll turn us into apples! Delicious, delicious apples!” Gwaine cries.
“Kind of a waste of power if you ask me,” Arthur frowns.
“Oh, and what would you do?”
“You can’t ask me that! I’m the crown prince of a place that destroys all magical conduct!”
“Yeah, but if you did?”
“Have magic, silly!”
Merlin’s interested now, and slyly looks towards Arthur. Arthur isn’t looking at anyone, instead focusing firmly on the horse’s route.
“I… I don’t know.” Arthur seems to be picking his words very carefully. “Keep it a secret, obviously. I wouldn’t want to put myself in danger.”
Merlin feels his breath hitch.
“Oh that’s boring! What else?”
Arthur’s gaze tears from nothingness and falls on Merlin. Merlin looks away quickly.
“I’d… use it for good, and nothing else. Keep my friends safe. Camelot safe. And I’d know that one day, even though no-one accepts me now and it seems almost impossible, they would eventually. And they’d be very… very grateful.”
The group falls silent for a while. Merlin’s over-thinking every word – he knows? He can’t … he doesn’t – Arthur shouldn’t know at all! Does he? What does -
“Well, I’d zap myself apples every day.”
“What?” Elyan sighs. Merlin could positively feel Gwaine’s grin.
“Yeah, I’d have apples like all the time. I’d give them to everyone. Unless I didn’t like them in which case they can sod off. No apples for you!”
“Fascinating. Please keep your ideas to yourself,” Arthur deadpans.
“And you, Elyan? What would you do with magic?” Gwaine continues, ignoring Arthur completely.
“I don’t know. Maybe start a business? I could entertain people.”
“I’m pretty sure this is all treasonous talk,” Arthur sighs. Nobody listens to him.
“Actually, that’s a pretty cool idea,” Merlin hums. “You could do lightshows and stuff.”
“Ahh, yes!” Gwaine cheers. “Elyan’s Epic Lights – Come one come all!”
“That’s quite catchy,” Elyan grins in approval. Arthur groans and sinks his head in defeat.
“So what about you Merlin,” Arthur then says quietly. Merlin almost believes he didn't say it, until Arthur looks at him. There’s an even, questioning look in his eye. Merlin’s heart pounds in his chest.
“Um… I… I don’t know.”
“Well that’s no fun!” Gwaine coos. “Go on, spill!”
Merlin pauses, carefully looking at Arthur. Arthur holds his gaze. He knows he’s going into dangerous territory – Arthur has not explicitly stated his knowledge of Merlin’s situation at all. It’s possible he knows nothing. “I’d… definitely want to help people. But not just those without magic – those with it too.”
“Eh?” Gwaine says.
“I don’t… Maybe… Not everyone with magic is evil?”
The group is quiet. Arthur continues to look at Merlin. “And you believe that?” he says, voice low over the trot of the horses.
“I think… Perhaps, that… Yes. Because I’m not a bad person, I think – and so, if I had magic, in this completely rhetorical situation, I think I would still be good. Definitely. I would define me by my own path, not the tool I pursue it with. Or something.”
Arthur looks away, completely silent. Merlin hopes – pleads, even, that his message got through, and then Arthur looks back. He’s smiling slightly.
“Certainly a… thought-proving answer. Yes.” Arthur says. Elyan is nodding too, and Gwaine lets out a hum of approval. Then Arthur raises his voice to something more regal. “Though this goes without saying – not one of us had this conversation. Treason is a very weighty sentence, my friends.”
The atmosphere gets a bit heavier, and Merlin’s still quite tired. He lets himself droop a little, Arthur’s words playing strongly in his mind. He can feel a smile stretch large against his lips non-the-less.
“… I’d still zap myself apples though,” Gwaine says
A groan harmonizes throughout the group.