On their return journey to Camelot, after their almost disastrous experiences with the Lamia, the Knights are unusually quiet. Even Gwaine, who would normally chat idly away to his hearts content (and often the amused frustration of the other knights) is noticeably solemn and pensive. Arthur does realise that something is wrong amongst the four of them but he just attributes it to the shock of their experience and expects that after another day or so that they will be fine. Arthur does not press them about it, knowing his closest knights have the strength of character to deal with such experiences and allowing them the space they need to collect their thoughts and deal with the trauma they have suffered.
The result of this is of course that Arthur spends much of his journey back to Camelot bantering with Merlin and talking with Guinevere. On this occasion he does not care for Agravaine's disapproval about his familiarity with two of such lowly status. Mere servants they may be, the simple fact of the matter is that they are the two most important people in Arthur's life. Guinevere his love and guiding light, Merlin his closest friend and most trusted confidant. Arthur would never have entrusted their care to anyone less than his four finest knights. Even though (and Arthur has to smile at this) it turns out that Merlin and Guinevere ended up being the ones having to protect them. Arthur is incredibly proud of both of them. Guinevere for the trail she left, and her courage saving Merlin; Merlin himself for being the first to recognise the Lamia for what it was, and for being the only man amongst them who'd been able to resist her dark arts; both of them for knowingly following the Lamia into danger in hopes of protecting their friends.
So it is that on this occasion Arthur does not care about the impression his obvious fondness for two simple servants gives. Today he shall treat the both of them as they deserve, as his equals, and he will do it for the world to see.
He does not notice that his actions are making his knights feel even worse, for it is not the shock of enchantment that ails the four knights. It is guilt. Guilt for their actions whilst under the influence of the Lamia. Gaius had casually asked if they remembered any of their experiences whilst under the Lamia's spell. Unfortunately, they do remember. Everything. Every word that cannot be unsaid, every action that can not be undone. It all remains fresh in their consciousness and as they watch their King laughing and joking with Merlin and Gwen, as his equals, when not two days ago they were lauding their status as knights above them, it is almost too much to bear.
It isn't that they haven't apologised. They have. To Gwen first, whilst she tended to them with Gaius. They have expressed their sorrow at their behaviour, admitted that they were far from chivalrous, that they should have listened to her. They call her 'My Lady' and address her with respect. She is gracious and accepts all of their apologies with a smile, brushes it all off as if friends being enchanted is an everyday occurrence. She laughs and smiles at the impromptu lesson in swordsmanship they insist upon on giving her after her heroism in saving Merlin. Guinevere's forgiveness they have accepted, and whilst the knowledge of their actions towards her still stings, it is something that is already on its way to healing.
However, whilst Gwen did suffer, it was Merlin who bore the brunt of their behaviour over the past few days. It was Merlin they lashed out at with harsh words, Merlin they threatened violence against, Merlin they physically laid hands upon. In some ways they don't even know how to begin apologising for what happened. They attempt it though, with clumsy inadequate words whilst they are preparing to leave for Camelot. They know it isn't enough though, and not because Merlin hasn't forgiven them, for the simple fact of the matter is that he has. He forgave them immediately and unhesitatingly, for his own recent experiences with enchantment are still fresh in his mind and Merlin doesn't have it in him to begrudge his friends what wasn't their fault, however much it has hurt him. Merlin has dealt with emotional scars far deeper than these, no more than mere scratches by comparison. He has the strength to come out of such things still smiling and he shall do so now, for his friends sake.
Knights are trained for observance though and, despite their complete obliviousness to certain aspects of Merlin's life, they are well used to his constant presence and his easy companionship by now. They notice all too clearly the way he stills and stiffens almost imperceptibly when they come too close, the way he doesn't join conversation quite as much as normal, the lesser frequency of his infectious smile. They can see, all too clearly, that their words and actions have affected their friend more than he cares to let on and that makes his instant forgiveness all the worse. They think he has every right to hate them for what occurred and know all to well that instant forgiveness is far from what they had any right to expect.
And so it is that the knights ride back to Camelot, Merlin on their minds, guilt in their hearts.
What weighs on Sir Leon's mind is the way he had taken charge under the enchantment, dismissing all of Merlin's warnings and suggestions, even going as far as telling Merlin that he was nothing but a servant. The remembrance of this of this stings because Leon knows how far this is from the truth in reality. On this occasion Leon was supposed to have been fulfilling the role of protector, not leader. For the first time, Arthur had entrusted that role to Merlin. It had been a big step for Merlin, to be recognised as someone who could be competent and make well judged decisions, rather than the incompetent fool he was often mistaken for. Leon had been pleased with the Kings decision; he has seen Merlin remain at Arthur's side in the deadliest of circumstances, whether it be facing certain death against a dragon or knowingly throwing himself in harm's way. He has seen Merlin inspire his King to action in the direst of circumstances and most of all, he had seen Merlin teach Arthur how to be a better man. Merlin had earned his chance to prove himself and Leon had all but ruined that. Furthermore, Leon remembers all too well the round table. Merlin might be no knight or physician but it was Merlin, no knight or physician that sat at Arthur's right hand then.
Sir Percival on the other hand is agonising over the way he had actually gone as far as to lay hands on his friend. Whilst he is incredibly strong he can also be incredibly gentle and it distresses him to think that he could have been so rough with Merlin. It isn't that Percival considers Merlin to be particularly weak, for Percival has seen Merlin survive blows that others would find near fatal. There is just something about him that tells Percival that he needs to be protected. He cannot fathom why this should be the case exactly. He has trouble explaining it even to himself. All he knows is that whilst Merlin is easily one of the bravest men he has ever met, he is also the most fearful. There is something more, something even the quiet, observant Percival cannot see that makes Merlin constantly on edge. He remembers all to well that the only times he has ever seen Merlin truly at ease were spent with Lancelot. Since Lancelot's passing Percival has noticed that Merlin has been more fearful than ever and so has since taken it upon himself to try and keep a distant eye out for him. Percival looks at what happened with Lamia and knows he has failed.
Sir Elyan, out of the four of them, is probably the least traumatised by what happened. He had the misfortune of being the first to fall victim to the Lamia's kiss and as such spent much of their 'adventure' unconscious, apparently being cared for by a distraught Gwen and a concerned Merlin. Whilst Elyan does feel guilty for his behaviour, for what was said, what troubles him more is that he put both Merlin and Gwen into that situation at all. Elyan remembers all too well Merlin's protests, his complete obliviousness to the snake girls charms. Some would consider Merlin's immunity suspicious. Not Elyan. All Elyan sees is his own failure in being unable to match up to his friend's wisdom, courage and strength of character. He should have seen the girl for what she was, he should have been able to resist her enchantment. He should have been stronger. As it is, he fell first, left Gwen unprotected and distraught over his condition, left Merlin alone to plead the truth and yet he still can't help but feel guilty, and selfish, for being almost glad that at the very least he was spared what the other knights went through. He knows they all came close to death. He hates to think that he might have been in a situation where he could have unforgivably hurt anyone he cares about beforehand.
Sir Gwaine on the other hand is easily feeling the most guilt for what happened. It isn't that his actions were any worse than the others for that simply isn't the case. Gwaine is feeling the guilt more acutely because he, of the four of them, is closest to Merlin. Merlin who befriended him when no one else would, Merlin who saw the knight beneath the vagrant, Merlin who knows Gwaine's deepest secrets, Merlin who would go to the ends of the earth for his friends. Merlin is more than Gwaine has ever had a right to deserve and he has never felt like such a traitor before. Not when he was more than happy to deny all his values, deny everything that he has ever believed about status and nobility to laud himself over Merlin and all for the sake of some girl. Not when he even threatened fire against his truest friend. Gwaine though is a man of action. He knows the only way to get over this guilt is to find a way of making things up to Merlin. He also realises that dragging him over to the tavern probably won't cut it. It would only end up with Merlin getting into trouble with Arthur, who would then make a point of giving him more work than usual, something Gwaine knows that Merlin really does not need. Not the most effective of apologies. Gwaine therefore is spending his journey back to Camelot musing over what he can possibly do for his friend.
It isn't until they have retuned to Camelot that Gwaine gets the inspiration he has desperately been seeking. Arthur, true to form, takes the first opportunity he gets to pile as many tasks upon Merlin as possible after their return. Gwaine feels his customary displeasure at this. He does not approve of the way Arthur overworks Merlin. He knows that, despite Arthur's gripes about Merlin's incompetence, his friend is capable enough at what he does and has also observed that Merlin never seems to stop. Gwaine does understand that the reason Arthur gives Merlin so much to do is at least partially because he likes his friend to be at his side, but really, after the past few days, Merlin should be given the afternoon off, not so much work that it will be almost nightfall before he can finish. Gwaine smiles as he realises exactly how he can make his penitence known.
It is later in the afternoon, at a time scheduled for training between Sirs Gwaine, Elyan, Percival and Leon that Gwaine first makes his intentions known. Leon is surprised when Gwaine requests that he miss their immediately forthcoming practice, stating that he will make up the time he misses alone, in the evening, once his tasks for the day are done. Despite his reputation, it is actually most unlike Gwaine to be tardy when it comes to his duties. Once Gwaine explains however, Leon understands completely.
It is about an hour later that Merlin walks into the Armoury, looking for the large pile of polishing he knows will be waiting for him. He is somewhat puzzled when he finds that it isn't actually waiting for him at all. He knows he left it there. The only obvious solution is that Arthur must have needed it sooner than expected. Merlin can't help but groan as he goes in search of the King. If Arthur is irritated it will probably end up with Merlin being given yet another lesson with George.
Somewhat puzzled turns to outright bewilderment when Merlin finds Arthur and finds that he doesn't have his armour either. Arthur, for his part, only makes a comment about Merlin's increasing incompetence before deciding that his armour can wait as he needs Merlin to accompany him while he goes in search of Sir Leon.
When they reach the training field and find that Sir Leon is not there (and notably, that Gwaine, Percival and Elyan missing also) outright bewilderment turns in to a full blown mystery. Thus Arthur and Merlin's search for the four knights begins.
It is the stables where they are finally found. This itself isn't all that unusual. The knights all have horses after all. What is unusual is what they are actually doing. Gwaine and Elyan are sat outside, polishing what Merlin quickly realises is Arthur's missing armour whilst Leon and Percival are inside, mucking Arthur's horses out. Both tasks that Merlin realises he was supposed to be carrying out this afternoon. However, before Merlin gets the chance to question them about this, Arthur already has, and he immediately takes the opportunity to ask why it is that Merlin is so lazy now he needs to get Arthur's knights to do his job for him. As Arthur is completely unaware of the treatment Merlin had received whilst the knights were enchanted, it is to be expected that he doesn't realise the significance of their actions.
It is Leon who explains. It doesn't surprise him that Merlin hadn't told Arthur, for Leon knows Merlin well enough to know his friend would not have considered it important. He does though so he finally tells Arthur everything. Every time they raised a hand to Merlin, every time they lauded their status, every insult that came from their mouths. Throughout this Merlin desperately wants to interrupt and tell them that it is unnecessary, that they were enchanted, that there was never any fault to forgive but he allows Leon to explain uninterrupted, realising this is something the knight feels a need to say. It is only when Leon explains that they felt it necessary to make it clear to Merlin that they do not consider themselves above him in any way, that as far as they are concerned Merlin is their friend, and that status is meaningless between them does Merlin finally understand. He realises that this is their way of healing, their way of forgiving themselves for what happened and also, with without a doubt, that the friendship of these four men made everything he suffered worthwhile, allowing him to finally finish healing too. He smiles then and suddenly finds himself lost for words. His smile has already said everything he needed to for him though and, for the first time in days, the knights finally find themselves able to meet his smile once more.
Arthur thinks that he, no more than observer in this, gains the greatest thing this day. A lesson in humility and the sure knowledge that as long as he has these five men beside him, he may yet find himself able to lead the kingdom for the better.