Out of the corner of his eye, Merlin saw Lancelot’s cloak flick past the door to Gaius’s chambers—flick past with somewhat unusual haste, he thought.
With a noise somewhere between a curse and a sigh, he scrambled to the doorway and peered up the hallway. Just as he’d suspected, Lancelot was alone.
“Where is he?” Merlin’s tone might have been a little sharper than he intended it to be.
Lancelot ground to a halt with a deflated little slump of his shoulders. He turned and shrugged. “Slipped out the back when I wasn’t watching. With Hulda, I think. That’s her name, isn’t it? The one with the—“ He made a descriptive gesture in the region of his sternum.
“That’s the one. Honestly, Lancelot, you were supposed to be keeping an eye on him.”
Lancelot followed Merlin back to the chambers, arms raised apologetically. “What can I say? He has a way with the ladies.”
Merlin snorted and started mixing tisanes and tinctures again for the next day. Lancelot regarded him quizzically.
“It is still Gaius, after all,” he said. “Why worry? You told me he remembered everything, even in his, um, present form.”
Merlin paused, a pestle in one hand, a handful of burdock leaves in the other, and considered how to explain. “Aging, and, uh, de-aging spells are—complicated,” he said. “The mind remembers how things were before, but the body—the body is controlled by the, uh, the physical conditions of the age it is at the moment.” He had visceral memories of this disconnect himself—of the futility of trying to force an eighty-year-old body to move with a young man’s urgency—but couldn’t think how to communicate this to Lancelot.
Luckily, Lancelot was able to piece things together for himself. “So, you are saying that our friend remembers everything that Gaius knew, but cannot help himself from reacting to situations—such as the one with Hulda at the tavern—with the, erm, shall we say, the impulses of youth?”
Merlin nodded. “I hope she’s gentle with him.”
Lancelot laughed. “He’ll come to no harm with her. Though I still don’t understand what happened.”
Merlin didn’t really understand himself. All he knew was he’d woken that morning to find a gawky, hawk-nosed lad sprawled across Gaius’s cot. He’d shaken the youth awake—which had taken some doing—but before the demand to identify himself had left his lips, Merlin had realized who it was.
“Gaius,” he’d said, dropping onto his knees next to the bed, “what’s happened? Who’s done this to you?”
The youth had regarded him, an expression of sulky defiance on his acne-splotched face that Merlin had never seen on the face of the Gaius he knew.
“Oh,” he’d said, with sudden insight. “You’ve done it to yourself, haven’t you?”
Gaius had swung his bare legs over the side of the bed, pushed the stringy brown hair off his face, and come clean.
“It’s just that, well, my bunions, and—other things—have been bothering me more than usual lately—and—well, I remembered that ten, even five years ago, they hadn’t been so bad. So I made up some of that potion you use for, you know, and I thought I probably had enough magic to take me back ten years—just for a day or so, until the rush we’ve been having is over. But—“
Even his voice had been different—lighter, clearer, deprived of the warm gravity age had lent it. He’d drawn one of his feet up onto the thigh of the opposite leg and was running a thumb along the smooth, bunion-less ball of it. It was a position Merlin hadn’t been able to imagine the older Gaius managing, much less holding for any length of time.
He’d shaken his head to clear it. “—And something went wrong and now you’re sixteen.”
“Eighteen,” Gaius protested.
“Let's say seventeen. Really, Gaius, I don’t know what you were thinking.” Merlin had started to huff in exasperation, but stopped when he realized it would make him sound exactly like his own mother. “Never mind. Get dressed and we’ll sort out how to undo this.”
But Gaius had balked. “Look, Merlin,” he’d said, almost wheedling. “Now that I’ve gotten back here, to, er, seventeen, it, well, it feels good. Since the spell is going to wear off anyway, perhaps I could, well, stay this way for a bit?”
He’d looked up, as if asking permission. And though Merlin supposed that, if he wanted to, he could probably reverse the spell, whether Gaius was willing or not, imposing his will on his friend and mentor wasn’t something he wanted to try right now.
“A sort of holiday, you mean? A holiday from being, um, mature?” he’d said, grudgingly.
“A holiday from being old,” Gaius had said. “Just one day when everything works the way it’s supposed to.”
And there had been something about the way he said it—a childish pleading combined with a very un-childish depth of experience in his eyes—that had twisted Merlin’s always vulnerable heartstrings.
“But who will take care of the doctoring?” he’d asked helplessly. They had indeed been having a bit of a rush—a late winter storm had iced the streets, and there’d been falls and other accidents as well as the usual season maladies.
“I will,” Gaius had exclaimed, fairly leaping out of bed. “I’ll be twice as efficient this way, you’ll see.”
But of course, he hadn’t been. He’d been almost laughably distractible, rushing about to see different parts of the castle as though it had changed and not him. Even when Merlin had been able to get him to pause over the table to prepare remedies, his leg had jittered like a colt's.
Finally, Merlin had had to leave to attend Arthur, so he’d summoned Lancelot—the only one he could trust with the results of such magical goings on—and told him to keep an eye on Gaius Redux, as he’d taken to calling him in his head.
Lancelot, perhaps not fully understanding the situation, had taken Gaius to the tavern.
“I’m done in,” said Merlin now, tossing the tincture he’d mixed wrong for the third time into the slop bowl. “I don’t know how he has the patience to concoct so many of these things.”
“Go to bed,” advised Lancelot. “He’ll turn up sometime, and things will look better in the morning. Perhaps he will have regained his more familiar form.”
But he hadn’t. Merlin awoke the next day to the same bony frame sprawled on Gaius’s cot, face down and snoring. His clothes--Merlin’s clothes, lent to him when New Model Gaius had scorned long robes—were decidedly the worse for wear. Wherever Hulda had taken him, it seemed to have involved straw.
Merlin tossed a stale bread roll at him, but Gaius merely groaned and shifted so that his back was to the room.
“Lazy sod,” Merlin muttered, with a disconcerting stab of sympathy for his own mother, trying to wake him for chores on winter mornings. He grabbed a slightly fresher piece of bread and set to work with the herbs and medicines again—the first patients would probably start trickling in within the hour.
He cast a few annoyed looks at the boneless lump in the bed, then paused to wonder why he found the situation so annoying. It wasn’t because he was used to Gaius being up before him, usually with a bowl of warm if bland porridge waiting on the table—or at least not only that. It was more general—the vague irritation of having to look after one of the few people who ever looked after him. But why should that bother him? Merlin was in the rare position of actually knowing how burdensome the ordinary discomforts of age could be—the aching joints, the tired eyes, the slow hands. How could he begrudge Gaius a brief release from that?
“Oi,” said a sleepy voice over his shoulder. “You’ve put in twice as much willow bark as you’re supposed to. You’re going to poison somebody like that.”
Merlin cursed and tipped out the tisane. Behind him, perched limber and catlike on the meal table, Gaius gave him a half-mocking grin. The smile, if not the posture, were so entirely Gaius’s own, that Merlin finally felt something inside him relax.
“You do it then,” he said, holding out the willow bark, “since you’re the expert.”
“I guess I’d better.” Gaius jumped lightly down from the table.
They worked side-by-side in companionable silence for a little while. Then the door banged open in a way that could only signal the approach of one person.
“Merlin, I need you,” Arthur barked. “My armor isn’t going to polish itself.”
“Yes, Arthur, sorry, yes,” Merlin said, casting a nervous look at Gaius and hoping he wasn’t going to have to explain.
No such luck. “Who’s this?” Arthur asked, pointing his sword at Gaius in a vaguely threatening way.
“It’s, er, my cousin, Gai—Gailen, just come from the country,” Merlin sputtered. Next to him, Gaius smiled and bobbed his head in what he must have thought was the manner of a country cousin.
Arthur ran a disapproving look over Gaius’s red eyes and unwashed hair, the bits of straw and twigs still sticking from his clothing. “What’s the matter with him?”
“Oh, Let me guess. He’s spent the night at the tavern. What is it, some kind of congenital weakness in your family?”
Merlin smiled and shrugged to show that Arthur had guessed correctly. Arthur shook his head sadly. “Ah well. Better tell Gaius to mix another batch of his morning-after cure. Where is he, anyway?”
“Yes, Gaius.” Arthur had worked up a full head of irritated sarcasm now. “The person whose rooms we’re in now. That Gaius.”
“He, uh, he’s on holiday.”
“Holiday?” Arthur shifted from mockery to bewilderment. “At this time of year? When half the castle is down with the winter grippe?”
“He was tired,” Gaius himself put in, somewhat defensively. “He deserved a rest.”
Arthur looked between them, with the pursed-lipped expression he got when he knew something was going on that he didn’t understand.
“He’ll be back soon. In fact, I expect he’s on his way back right now.” Merlin gave Gaius as meaningful a look as he could manage. Gaius suddenly became very interested in his own shoes. “In the meantime, Gailen here will take care of patients.”
“Him?” Arthur said incredulously.
“He’s quite a promising physician, believe it or not. As long as he pays attention to the matter at hand. Not girls. Or drink.”
As he followed Arthur from the room, Merlin wished wholeheartedly that Gaius would take the hint and transform himself back to his usual self before anything else happened.
Of course, something else did.
Merlin was in the stables, mending harness leathers, when they brought Gwen in. He heard some bustle in the passage way outside, shouts and exclamations as a story passed from mouth to mouth. Poking his head out the door, he asked one of the grooms what had happened.
“It’s the prince’s favorite,” the man said, using the castle’s general name for Gwen, and pink with the excitement of it all. “She’s had an accident, some kind of fall. They’re bringing her to Gaius right now.”
Merlin dashed away without even thanking the groom for his information.
In Gaius’s chambers, he found Arthur and Lancelot glaring at each other over Gwen’s entirely conscious body.
“Listen to him,” Lancelot was saying.
“And why would I listen to Merlin’s idiot country cousin in a case like this? What I need is my court physician, the one who has apparently decided he needs a holiday.” Arthur’s voice was as steely as ever, but Merlin thought he heard a thinness to it, something very close to snapping.
“I’m fine,” Gwen herself protested, stretched out between them on the cot Gaius used to examine patients. “There’s hardly any blood.”
“Don’t move,” the two men shouted in unison, with Gaius’s youthful voice added to the mix.
By now, Merlin was close enough to get an idea of what had happened. There was indeed very little blood—a scratch on Gwen’s cheek, and rip in her bodice with a tiny trickle of red beneath it. The worrying thing was that something thin and metallic protruded from that hole—a wire, or a darning needle, it was hard to tell.
“Hey,” he said, crouching by Gwen’s head and pushing a curl off her forehead. “You alright?”
“Yeah,” Gwen smiled, though her face was ashen and her skin clammy under his hand. “Slipped on some ice, silly me—I was carrying some mending and—.” She gestured at what must be a needle.
“They’re right,” Merlin told her, catching her hand in his. “You mustn’t move until we figure out what to do.”
She nodded, and he plucked at the sleeve of Gaius’s tunic to draw him away.
“Could you do it?” he asked urgently. “Could you get it out without hurting her?”
Gaius nodded, a grave expression sitting oddly on his youthful, blotchy face. “Yes. It’s very near the heart. But yes, I could do it.”
“Even in your current form?” Merlin pressed.
“Yes. Everything I need is here.” Gaius tapped the side of his head.
Merlin tried to look more confident than he felt about that notion; Gaius’s confidence had a cocky boyishness about it he didn’t quite trust. Nevertheless, he said, “Right. Let’s see what we can do,” and turned back to the two men hovering over Gwen. “Arthur, I think that Gailen—“
But Arthur started shaking his head vehemently before Merlin could finish. “No,” he said, “No. No way is that tavern-going whippersnapper touching her. I will ride out if I have to and drag Gaius back by his aged ears, but, no—“ He sputtered to a stop and crossed his arms.
Gaius and Lancelot exchanged worried looks, but Merlin seized the opportunity. “Well, he did mention something about a little inn in the mountains near Hartscrag. It’s not that far away.”
Arthur looked determined—thrilled, in fact, to have something concrete to do. “Merlin, saddle my horse.”
“Yes, Sire. But don’t you think it would be better if I remained here? To look after Gwen and keep an eye on—“ He jerked his head towards Gaius.
“Quite right. You stay, too, Lancelot. I will return as soon as I can.” Arthur bent over Gwen, said something Merlin couldn’t hear that made her smile, and swept determinedly from the room.
As soon as he’d gone, the three remaining men let out a collective sigh of relief.
“Gwen,” Merlin said, kneeling next to her again. “It’s not something I can explain to Arthur, but Gailen truly is a very skilled physician—I believe he can remove the needle safely.”
Gwen looked slightly more worried and pain-ridden than she had while Arthur was present. She glanced at Lancelot.
“I, too,” he said, taking her hand. “I believe he can do this.”
She nodded. “I trust you both. Let him try.”
Gaius busied himself for a moment with the bottles and vials on his table, finally handing Merlin a small glass of liquid. “This should relax her,” he said. “She needs to be very still while I attempt this.”
The potion didn’t push Gwen into sleep, but it did seem to induce a kind of dreamy insensibility. While Lancelot held her head and shoulders steady, Gaius rolled up the sleeves of his tunic and grasped the slender metal rod.
It was almost more than Merlin could bear. His head knew that Gaius’s experience and wisdom lay inside this callow youth, but his eyes screamed at the wrongness of a mere boy attempting this. He focused on Gwen’s face instead, tried to will her to be strong.
Gaius pulled very, very slowly, and for a few moments everything seemed to be going well. Then Gwen’s regular breathing hitched and altered. She gasped for breath, her body arching up off the cot, pulling the embedded needle out of Gaius’s fingers.
“What is it? What’s happened?” said Merlin, while Lancelot held Gwen, trying to steady her.
“The thing must be barbed,” Gaius said unsteadily, his hands were frozen in front of him as though he were too scared to move again. “I must have damaged a lung as I pulled.”
“Well, fix it,” Merlin almost yelled. “You know what to do for a punctured lung—do something.”
“I—“ All color had drained from Gaius’s face and beads of sweat stood out along his upper lip. “Alright—“ But his hands didn’t move. He swallowed once, twice, convulsively, then turned on his heels and fled the room.
“He panicked?” Lancelot sounded as shocked as Merlin felt. “I never thought I’d see the day when Gaius panicked.”
“The Gaius we know had all the panic burned out of him long ago,” Merlin said grimly. “This boy, though, has a lot to learn. Keep her breathing. I’ll bring him back if I have to magic him old again myself.”
He headed out into the darkening afternoon, refusing to think about what would happen if he couldn’t find Gaius in time. But Gaius was nowhere to be seen. With an increasing sense of foreboding, Merlin searched the likely spots—including the tavern—but could find no sign of him, nor anyone who’d seen a tall, hawk-nosed youth with brown hair and prominent teeth. Finally, a cold knot of dread in his stomach, he mentally assembled his few scraps of knowledge about punctured lungs and went back to their chambers.
He returned just in time to find Gaius—wearing his wrinkled, sagging, much-beloved face again—washing his hands. Lancelot sat by Gwen, looking as if he’d recently wiped tears from his face. He didn’t look up when Merlin came in. Gwen was naked now, but as Merlin watched he could see the sheet that covered her rise and fall gently with her breath.
He went to Gaius and pulled him into a fierce hug. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m sorry to have doubted you. I should have known you’d come back.”
“No,” said Gaius, gravel-rough and weary next to his ear. “It is I who must ask forgiveness. You were right to doubt me. And I was wrong to think that knowledge made up for patience and long practice.” He pulled back and looked Merlin in the face. “The boy I was could not bear to see a person die under his hands; the man I have become has faced that consequence and learned to endure it.”
“But she didn’t die.”
“No,” said Gaius, and gave Merlin his sly, timeless half-smile. “She didn’t die.”
Gwen was out of danger now, but by mutual agreement the three of them sat with her waiting for Arthur’s return. After a while, Gaius levered himself stiffly to his feet and mixed something in a low basin. He removed his shoes, and sighing, lowered his bare feet into the concoction.
“Age has its follies, too,” he said ruefully. “For which it is punished with increase of bunions.”
When a saddle sore and nearly desperate Arthur arrived in the wee hours of the morning, he took in Gwen’s peacefully sleeping face first, and then turned grateful eyes to Gaius.
“I must have just missed you,” he said, “at Hartscrag.”
“Yes, Sire,” Gaius replied. “I believe I was already on my way back.”