Chapter 1: Prologue
Disclaimer: Merlin is not mine.
Merlin was behaving strangely.
Of course, it was only Merlin who really thought that Merlin was behaving strangely. There was no one else with him who had seen him frequently enough or knew him suitably well to find his current behavior particularly contrasting to that of before his exile. There wasn't even anyone with him at all have had the chance to adjust to the quirks of his personality. Not that day.
Even then, as darkness was falling and he walked alone and as silently as he could through the dimming forest, looking for a patch of ground that could be reasonably comfortable to spend the night, he felt so very strange, yet also distantly glad for the solitude. Enough things were different now. He liked to think that he was staying more or less the same. A constant surrounded by and reacting to variables rather than being affected by them. He must not lose his focus. Not now. And not the way that he was traveling. Alone, no one was there to tell him that he was changing.
Maybe he wasn't behaving strangely. Maybe he was just behaving differently. After all, he'd spent so much of his time over the previous seven years doing the same thing and going on the same adventures and seeing that same people that perhaps this was just the way that he would have always behaved if he was taken away from what had become so normal to him. Perhaps he wasn't adapting at all. Maybe he was just…being in a different place and around different people. Maybe this was just how he was, and he'd never known.
But that didn't explain everything. No, strange actions or not, it was not so much his behavior that was unsettling him. It was the way that his emotions should have reacted to the isolation and the fact that they had not. It was the way that he supposed that he was supposed to feel.
He'd expected it to be lonely.
Not for the first time in the months since he'd left Camelot, Merlin began thinking about how he ought to be feeling and wondering if it was a good or bad thing that he was not. He tended not to dwell on it. There were generally so many other things to focus on that were far more satisfying to think about than the way that he was not feeling. At night, whether he was sleeping on a floor or mattress or the uneven and familiar lumpiness of forest ground, he was generally too tired to spend too much time thinking about himself. During the day, there were too many things to do to bother finding other things to think about.
Building fires, those were the dangerous times.
On nights when he was growing dangerously sentimental, he'd taken to actually physically building the fire. Generally, he'd just gather wood and use magic to set it ablaze, but on the nights when he was sentimental? Those were the nights to keep on going until he was tired.
It didn't always work, and he'd be left to spare a moment's envy for men like Arthur who never seemed to have too much trouble not thinking before he'd go back to the same thoughts that always seemed to visit him on forest nights when he camped alone.
This was one of those nights. So he sat on the ground, turned up the collar of his jacket, leaned against a tree and watched his carefully built fire burn into the night, blinding himself to whatever might have been lurking in the darkness around him. He rearranged himself until he was as comfortable as a skinny man leaning against a tree could possibly be, and he began to think.
He'd expected it to be lonely.
That had actually been his greatest fear with the whole ordeal. He'd felt that he could consider himself brave for the way in which he had weathered the storm that had led to his exile—after all, he'd taken it without protest. And since no one else seemed to want to commend him for getting himself banished, he simply took to calling himself brave. He imagined that it was the same sort of thing that Arthur did whenever he looked into a mirror and just did his best to emulate the king.
But there was no getting around the fact that the man who had done the banishing had protested the sentence significantly more than Merlin had. Merlin would have been so very touched by that at the time if he hadn't worked so hard to harden his heart to the whole situation. Because he understood. He had to leave. It had to be that way. For magic to become legalized in Camelot, for Arthur to maintain the show of law and order after his own manservant had been caught committing what was technically a crime by doing magic, for both men to be able to grow and develop independent of one another…Merlin had to leave. And Arthur had to be the one to make him go.
Merlin did feel bad about that. Arthur had been so tormented by the whole thing. He valued loyalty far too much for it to be an easy decision. After all, despite the loyalty that the king had always attributed to Merlin's character, hadn't the secret of his magic been the ultimate display of disloyalty? Such irreconcilable conflict must have been difficult for him to bear alone. Arthur, despite all of his claims to the contrary, tended not to be the sharpest arrow in the quiver when it came to choices that affected him personally, that struck too close to the heart for comfort, that involved smearing with shame the people closest to him.
And who had been closer to him than Merlin?
Yes, Arthur had a wife. But Merlin had preceded Guinevere's closeness with the king by enough time and with enough intimacy that the two men had a closeness and a bond that could not be duplicated. It was not necessarily stronger; it was just not to be copied. Who ever said that a friendship had to pale in comparison to a romance? They were different relationships, that was all, and to her credit, Guinevere understood that she would always be on some sort of equal level to Merlin and seemed to welcome him into their married life.
Which, now that Merlin thought about it, sounded very strange when actually put into words.
But the whole situation was strange, between all three of them, not least because the two people who spent the most time with the king of Camelot were either a former servant or a current one. If only Uther could see his son now!
It had been nice, though, when Arthur and Gwen had married, and not just because to see them happy after their many trials was a thing of beauty. Arthur's taking of an actual wife seemed to significantly reduce any teasings that Merlin had been the one to occupy that position in the king's household. Of course, accusations of improprieties tended to embarrass Arthur more than they did Merlin—after all, how many people would have had the nerve to say in the king's presence what they could say in front of a servant?—and it was satisfying in that sense. Embarrassing Arthur was always fun. Plus, once the nickname had been laid to rest, the other servants suddenly became much more deferential to Merlin. He was the servant with the highest status in the kingdom. He may have been a dogsbody, but he was dogsbody to the king.
And he wasn't just a dogsbody, was he?
Merlin smiled reflectively as he gazed into the firelight, tossing the occasional acorn or pinecone into the blazes. He had been an advisor in all but title, and it was that fact that had kept him by Arthur's side, through thick and thin, with only marginal complaining. At least, in comparison to the complaints that he didn't voice. Whenever he'd been grouchy or resentful, usually at some punishment or particularly unpleasant chore set him by the king, he'd reflect on how he would have resigned his post long ago if it were not for the ways in which Arthur seemed to need him that did not necessarily involve the changing of sheets—which Arthur for some reason seemed to believe was necessary every day—or the polishing of armor.
Plus, the whole destiny thing. There was that.
But Merlin didn't like to think about the role that destiny seemed to play in his decision to remain at Arthur's side. He liked to think that it was choice. That Arthur did not listen to him because fate had decreed it so, that Arthur did not put up with his completely inappropriate insolence because it was beyond his control, that Arthur did not acknowledge a friendship between himself and his manservant because of some cosmic interference that had dictated their lives long before they had begun.
Because that was why he stayed, wasn't it? The friendship. Merlin rolled his eyes at himself, his vision slightly blurred from the intensity of the fire into which he had been staring. He simply could not make himself believe that friendship—certainly not one such as theirs—was something that could be pre-ordained. No, their friendship had to be coincidental, something earned by a completely unlikely meshing of personalities that complemented each of them.
And, eventually, stagnated them.
Which was such a large part of why he had left.
Merlin closed his eyes for a moment, hating himself, just a little bit, for that being why he'd gone. Ostensibly, he knew, he should have made this sacrifice of life in Camelot simply for the sake of magic-users all over the kingdom and for the future of an Albion that would be safe and prosperous for all. He knew that he should be giving up everything only for the sake of the big picture.
But that wasn't it, not entirely. He was giving it all up because of his friendship with the king. He was leaving because Arthur relied on him far too much, and Merlin had grown to relish that fact far more than was natural.
Martyrdom could be so unhealthy.
Of course, he also usually counted on Arthur to pull rank and get him out of any scrapes that he'd gotten himself into. Yes, he'd usually have to deal with an angry Arthur once he'd intervened on Merlin's behalf, but Merlin knew that he wouldn't face any real danger at the king's hand.
But then Merlin had insisted on thinking about it all, and then he just had to go and realize that, as sentimental and epic as it sounded for the two of them to be destined as "two sides of the same coin," they would be far more useful as just two coins instead. Two coins in the same purse. After all, if two coins were used for the same purpose, would the purchase not be of higher quality?
Merlin sighed. Exile was making him far more metaphorical than was good for him. He'd gone off track when reflecting on the circumstances of his departure from what had become his home—whether it was sulkily or wistfully or happily—and made a variety of increasingly creative comparisons, but he'd never sunk so low as to relative his and Arthur's relationship to currency. He really was running out of metaphors.
Which Merlin decided to regard as an accomplishment. At the moment, there was no one by his side to appreciate the creativity, if not necessarily the wit, of his most recent metaphor, but that was okay. This may have been one best kept to himself.
He could do that easily enough. Having no one with him as he traveled wasn't so bad. There was never a whole lot to talk about anyway, and it made the conversations whenever he reached his various destinations all the sweeter. It was the thrill of the chase.
Actually, Merlin had never really believed in the idea of the "thrill of the chase" before he'd begun to relish the anticipation for contact on his journeys between villages and encampments. Originally, he'd just explained it to Arthur, as seriously as he could, on one occasion when Arthur had been convinced-with surprising ease-that Guinevere was secretly furious with him.
Which had actually turned out to be pretty funny. Gwen didn't always approve of the various ways in which Merlin and Arthur strove to trick one another—Merlin's usually being somewhat more subtle than Arthur's—and had called them "cruel" on more than one occasion. However, she did not seem to mind the ones that involved her receipt of gifts from a repentant Arthur, who was silently apologizing from afar for a nonexistent wrong that had apparently rendered her furious.
She'd forgiven Merlin for that one. It had been entertaining.
Arthur had been significantly less entertained it, once he'd worked it out. But that had been okay. It was worth it. And Arthur always seemed to console himself by proclaiming—fortunately, only when he and Merlin were alone and not within earshot of any others who would know better—that Merlin would no doubt go and drink his woes away in the tavern as soon as Arthur's back was turned.
Merlin was fairly glad that Arthur had not brought Merlin's seemingly frequent visits to the tavern to attention during their final meeting in the forest. Merlin wouldn't have minded clearing his name as the drunkard that the king clearly suspected that he was becoming, but Gaius had almost always been the one to state the alehouse as Merlin's refuge whenever he had been off secretly saving the day. Arthur knew that Gaius had been in on Merlin's secret, but Merlin didn't want to incriminate his guardian more than was necessary.
Merlin didn't often feel lonely—not too lonely, anyway—but he missed Gaius. He missed them all, the people that he'd left behind, but he really missed Gaius. They had been something of a team together. Gaius would give advice, Merlin would more often than not take it, they would laugh over meals, Gaius would do his best to teach Merlin the ways of the physician…Gaius had opened his life and home to Merlin when he'd had no reason beyond an inherent kindness to take him in. Merlin had wept bitterly when he had witnessed his father's death, despite knowing him for only a few days; but Gaius was his father in every sense but blood. Yes, he missed Gaius.
That was it, Merlin thought suddenly, blinking rapidly and seeing white blurs on the inside of his eyelids from the steadiness of his stare into his flame. It had been troubling him that he was not feeling more lonesome. After all, everyone that he loved other than his mother was in the place from which he had been technically banished for the rest of his life. He should have been wallowing in complete misery, probably singing songs of his woe and drinking his weight in spirits and summoning the dragons every night to complain to the two beings in the entire world who were quite literally and physically obligated to listen to him.
But he wasn't.
Admittedly, he had had his share of melancholy in the first days following his banishment. And yes, he had basically begun weeping immediately after he'd waken in the clearing—head pounding with what would probably turn into a concussion courtesy of Excalibur's hilt—and seen that Arthur had only knocked him out so that he could leave Merlin's horse behind for him, saddle bags stocked with food and even a blanket. Somehow, that had devastated him far more than anything else concerning his exile, even that awful hour when he'd had to bid his goodbye to Gaius. He'd known perfectly well that Arthur hadn't exactly been cackling with glee and rubbing his hands together at the prospect of banishing Merlin, but it made the whole process of leaving so much simpler if Merlin could believe that Arthur would be able to get over the whole thing after a few days.
Riding out alone at the crack of dawn to give the exilee a horse and provisions did not reassure Merlin of Arthur's speedy recovery. So, yes, Merlin had wept. Who knew that Arthur could have been so very considerate? Merlin may have made his own bed, but it was at that moment that it really hit him how he'd have to lie in it.
But Merlin discovered fairly quickly that the sadness that he was feeling was not loneliness, and it had been troubling him, off and on, ever since. At first, he thought that Arthur had just cracked him on the head with enough force as to seriously reduce his brainpower—after all, that would have explained a lot about Arthur, considering how many blows to the head that he'd suffered—but that seemed so inadequate. No, there was a reason. He just had to find it.
Half a year later, and Merlin still hadn't found it.
There had been the lingering curiosity as to when he'd be summoned back. As difficult as leaving had been and as sure as they had all seemed that he'd be gone for good, he had been and still was certain that he would be called back to Camelot. He'd received letters, of course. Guinevere had been a regular correspondent. Her letters had slowed lately, but he'd been okay with that. She'd mentioned that she and Arthur were considering trying to start a family, and Merlin was not particularly keen for any details that were involved with that. She was like a sister.
But she had managed to sneak some letters in from Gaius, which had been a wonderful surprise. Apparently, the old physician had figured out quickly enough that Gwen had some sort of contact with Merlin and asked her about it. When he was leaving, Merlin had asked Gaius if he wanted a way to stay in touch, but Gaius had said no. That it would be too difficult. Their goodbye certainly wasn't the easiest that either had ever experienced. But apparently the temptation for discourse had been too much, and there had been a few times when Merlin's heart had leapt to see Gaius' handwriting peeking out at him from below Gwen's purple wax seal.
But there had been no letters from anyone that so much as hinted that Merlin would be called home. That was okay. It would all be okay, surely. He had known that this would take time. Yes, surely it would be okay.
Although it was far more difficult to feel extremely certain nowadays than when he had been so frequently faced with Arthur's utter uncertainty. The inequality had given him a sense of control. But it was difficult to find the proper way to think about all of it now.
Granted, Merlin had been busy. After all, there had been mothers to see and druids to visit and sorcerers all over the five kingdoms to contact and he'd had so many ideas and plans and hopes and successes and failures that it had been difficult to find too much time to wallow in self-pity. In fact, it was just when he was able to think about Camelot with what could almost be called objectivity on that night by the fire that he realized what it was that wasn't loneliness for Camelot.
He just…missed it. He missed everyone.
And he could live with missing it.
Loneliness would have destroyed him by now. He knew it. Perhaps retreating into his head had been what had saved him. Those few times when he had been all heart had been awful…when he'd woken to find Buttercup waiting for him, stocked with food and left for him by Arthur…when he'd gone to see his mother and broken down immediately before telling her the whole story and being taken care of just as he had as a child when he'd feel so alone and rejected, the gravity of what had happened finally being allowed to wash over him…when he was spreading word that Camelot was protected, defended, watched over, even from afar…when he met a druid whose eyes were the same ominous shade of blue as Mordred's, yet lacking the unsettling malice that Merlin had helped to instill…when the first sorcerer pledged his allegiance to Emrys…yes, those times had been awful.
And oh so wonderful.
He did not feel or think about them very often. Whenever he did, he was always struck with some sensation that was so powerful and deep and striking that he could never be entirely sure if it was intense pleasure or terrible pain. It was like when he would dip a finger into a cauldron over a fire and there was that one moment when he was not sure whether or not it was very cold or very hot. The awful and the wonderful were just as close to one another.
But there wasn't time to feel them. He was far too busy. It hadn't been a lie when he'd told Arthur that he had a plan of sorts. Yes, he could miss them all during every waking moment as he traveled. But he could suppress so very much that it almost felt like company in his heart rather than emptiness by his side. He could keep it as more of a motivator than a depressant. He could live with it.
And he could do his work. That was enough for him. That was enough for now.
Merlin stretched, hoping that perhaps all of his musings—so much more serious than he liked to be—were heavy enough to tire him into sleep. He would go to sleep with thoughts of tomorrow, rather than of years past. Those could wait. Until he was called home.
And then, as if summoned by his determination to banish thoughts of all things Camelot for the night, a square of folded parchment zipped through the air and landed in his lap. In the flickering of the firelight, he could see the purple wax of the seal. He smiled and leaned back against the tree once more. This was a good night, he thought, and he broke the seal.
The first thing that he registered was that the handwriting was sloppier than it had ever been before. For some reason, Merlin began to feel anxious. It wasn't as though the sloppiness was giving him any difficulty; he'd had nearly seven years of deciphering Arthur's scratchings and recopying them for others less skilled with translating Arthurisms into the vernacular. Not for the first time, Merlin reflected on the fact that Arthur had been lucky to land a literate manservant. But he had secretly grown grateful for Arthur's ridiculous handwriting. Merlin could now read just about anyone's, and even here, Guinevere's messy scrawl was more legible than Arthur's on his best days.
Yet Merlin had to wonder why it was so messy. She'd written to him in a hurry before, and that had been entirely different. No, this looked almost as though she had been shaking very much as she had taken ink to paper. Merlin could recognize it. He'd done it before.
He folded the letter up and watched the wax reform into the seal before leaning his head back up against the tree trunk, his face tilted upward so that he could see the stars peeking through the canopy of the forest, thinking over her words. It hadn't been a long letter, just a sort of summary of events that had gone on in the castle. Guinevere had kept her promise that she wouldn't keep him in the dark about the goings-on in Camelot, and it had certainly saved lives on more than one occasion. He wasn't sure if she knew that he'd had a hand in the way that there had been surprisingly few attacks on the city since he had left, but he was used to his contributions going unnoticed. His reputation was preceding him to the others of his kind, and it seemed that those more violently inclined against Arthur and Camelot were beginning to choose to take their battles elsewhere.
And word of the changes in Camelot regarding magical legislation had caused their own stirs, independent of Merlin's broadly bland threats.
Yes, it was a good thing that Guinevere was keeping him updated, and he had been able to see the honesty, somehow, in each stroke of her quill.
Yet this letter seemed deliberately infused with optimism and positivity and a sort of cheerfulness that somehow felt unnatural in tone, even if they were written rather than spoken. She'd written of no crises or emergencies that required his help. There had been no near death experiences to put certain people into particularly forgiving and nostalgic moods. Everything was just so wonderful that it sounded as though Merlin would be needed for the sole purpose of completing the picture as it had been outlined before his terrible betrayal had been revealed to all. The whole castle was feeling so sunny that all it would take for Merlin's safe return was a surprise visit and a smile.
Or so she said.
Merlin wasn't fooled. How many letters had he written that had been full of euphemisms and truths carefully concealed under reports of the exciting things that he had seen and the lovely people that he had met and absolutely nothing about his reasons for seeking them out? How many times had he listed everything good with such effusive wording that the recipient would hopefully be so busy thinking over what he had written to consider the seriousness of the things that he hadn't?
But Guinevere wasn't to know that. All that she knew for sure was that Merlin had not wanted to leave and wanted very much to return to the people and place that he'd loved, only leaving for reasons that he could not explain. And surely she hoped that her message would make him so very happy that he wouldn't question the circumstances, not with the peculiarities hidden away in her letter. Surely she was relying on what she was telling him, that he'd be too pleased to be too curious as to the circumstances. Why wouldn't she? She basically was telling him what he wanted to hear.
And that was more troubling than anything that she'd ever written before. Including about she and Arthur trying for children.
By the time that Merlin had finally exhausted himself enough to fall asleep, thinking vaguely that there was no way that Arthur could have ever thought himself to sleep, there were three things that he knew had been in the content of her letter, both explicitly stated and hidden between layers of overcompensated cheerfulness.
He was going home.
She had not told him why.
And something was wrong.
Chapter 2: As When King Was Prince
Disclaimer: Merlin is not mine.
Two days earlier…
Well, this was turning out to be a boring day.
Arthur sighed. Who would have thought that repealing and rewriting laws regarding the usage of magic—a topic that had divided Camelot since the year of his own birth and had lead to the deaths of countless people, sorcerers and civilians alike—could have been so very dull? It certainly sounded as though it should have at least held him through the opening pleasantries.
If only pleasantries in the council chambers were not so frequently followed by papers!
It didn't help that he'd spent a good ten minutes being puzzled by the numbers that seemed to be placed at random at the end of sentences within the bodies of the texts that he was being handed. However, between the bright sunlight, cool breeze, and fact that he hadn't had nearly large enough a breakfast, the numbers did not puzzle him enough to question the writers as to their significance.
Which, as it turned out, was something of a mistake. Apparently, one of his scribes had taken it upon himself to revolutionize the world of law-writing—a surprisingly small world—by inventing a new way to complicate reading and referring to the laws of the land. He'd called it a "footnote," and Arthur did not like it one bit. Reading these things was tedious enough as it was. Now he had to shift back and forth between the text of the law and little facts on a whole separate sheaf that corresponded to the little numbers. The scribes had tried to convince him that this was a method of writing and reporting that would stand the test of time and add a simplicity to the sharing of information that would benefit all of mankind, but Arthur was fairly certain that they'd just gotten halfway through writing it all down before they'd realized that they'd left some key detail out of the first paragraph and did not want to have to rewrite the whole thing.
Thus was invented the "footnote."
And thus was a new post to be invented that primarily involved the reading and summarizing of lengthy texts presented to the king. Arthur felt that this invention was far more practical. He was creating jobs! Who said that kings weren't concerned with economy?
Unfortunately, Arthur had been focusing on what unnecessarily grandiose title he would be giving to the recipient of the new post—what kind of king would he be if his grandiosity was not unnecessary?—with so much vigor that he missed out on the latter half of the explanation of how footnotes were actually meant to work. Apparently, the second half of the explanation was the really more essential of the two.
How inconvenient and illogical that was!
But Arthur couldn't say that. He had to let them come to the conclusion on their own that their efforts at revolutionizing references were wasted. It was important that some realizations were reached without interference. There were some things that a man needed to learn for himself. Yes, it was for their own good that Arthur would not tell them why he disapproved of the "footnote."
He also did not want them to know that he hadn't been paying attention. He'd come to realize lately that apparently his "thinking face" was extremely similar to his "bored face." He'd come to that realization after it had been pointed out to him by his wife.
Which was coincidentally the same day that he stopped bringing Guinevere with him to council meetings on a daily basis.
Arthur wished that he'd brought her that day. She probably would have paid closer attention. Not because she possessed greater intelligence or presence of mind than Arthur—honestly, who did?—but because she had taken to writing much more than she had in the earlier days of their marriage. He didn't know what she was writing or to whom she was writing or why she was writing at all, but whatever made her happy with so little inconvenience to Arthur was fine with him. Why interfere with a system that already seemed to be working?
Which brought him right back to his work on tweaking the laws on magic. The whole ordeal that had brought on such abrupt reconsideration of the laws and Arthur's loss of manservant and summarizer of texts might have been avoided if only Arthur had been willing to open his eyes and interfere with an established system. Something working did not necessarily mean that it was good. He'd learned this, despite his best efforts to the contrary.
Helped along, of course, by his erstwhile manservant. As unwelcome as it had been at the time that had lead to their parting all those months ago, Arthur would have gladly accepted some more help of that nature. He could have really used Merlin just then.
What kind of name was "footnote," anyway? Just because they weren't kings didn't mean that the scribes couldn't have been somewhat extravagant with their invention of new words. It was like they knew how very stupid the whole concept was and were too ashamed to try to dress it up with any dignity.
Magic. That's what he was meant to be focusing on. Was it good or was it bad?
Well, that was simple enough. Arthur had been through this plenty of times, wracking his brain to the point of headache on his own, via confrontation with Merlin prior to his flight from the kingdom…yes, this was simple enough. Magic was neither good nor bad, he knew. Magic…was. People were good or bad.
Merlin was good. Mostly. He was bad at being a manservant and holding his tongue and walking in a straight line and obeying the law, but he was still good. There may not have really been words for what he was good at—or good for, really—but there was no doubt in Arthur's mind. There never really had been, if he was honest with himself. He'd always known. Merlin was good.
Well, there was one thing that Arthur could name as a talent of Merlin's. Lying. He was a good liar. He had the history to prove it.
But he wasn't to be blamed. Not really.
Well, not entirely. Arthur couldn't blame Merlin for not wanting to die. That was one count on which he could relate with the young man. Not wanting to die.
But there were plenty of other things that Arthur could blame him for, so all in all, it was a good system with relative balance. And that balance allowed him to keep the whole Merlin ordeal away from the front of his mind.
Unfortunately, banishing all thoughts of Merlin became more difficult on the days when Arthur and his council members were discussing magic. Merlin's name was never mentioned, but he was a constant presence in the room, if uncharacteristically quiet. Arthur had saved his own name by banishing Merlin, but he wasn't fooling anyone. No one believed in the least that Arthur's sudden change of heart regarding the illegality of sorcery just happened to coincide with the revelation that his closest friend had been practicing in secret for years. Arthur knew it. Of course he did. They were right. Arthur never would have thought to even begin to tackle the issue if it were not for Merlin's involvement in the matter.
So Merlin was always there, with them, which was frustrating to just about everyone in the room. Most of them hadn't even liked Merlin when he was there in the flesh!
It didn't frustrate Arthur too much. In some ways, it actually helped. Some mornings, when he would be moodily striding his way to the council chambers for another few hours of debate, his mind would stray to all the ways that magic had caused him harm, how it had cost him each member of his family, separately, how so many people had died because of it, how so much structural damage had come to his castle because of it…
And then he would remember Merlin and wonder how much worse all of those horrible situations would have been if it were not for the young man's interference. Arthur had been known to practice the theory of fighting fire with fire; Merlin had been one to fight magic with magic.
So he said.
Footnotes. Time to think about footnotes. And magic. And laws. And not about how this was so incredibly annoying. Processes were so annoying. He was a man who preferred to do things and then have them done. But Merlin had been right. Bans on magic could not be lifted overnight. Too many people had become so used to and frightened of them that they were frightened of the implications of all things magical. Uther had been successful in that respect. Arthur had spent the last half of a year taking frustrating little baby steps on the whole issue.
That was a whole other issue, and it was one that Arthur tended to either spend a great deal of time thinking about or a great deal of time trying to put from his mind. There were no sons yet—or even daughters—but Arthur was generally undeterred. There was plenty of time. But he and Guinevere were so young and healthy…he couldn't help but wonder if there was something wrong that there hadn't even been a blip or two on Guinevere's woman senses.
Or however these things worked. He tended to leave the room or pull his crown down over his ears whenever anyone brought anything pertaining to "womanhood" up in conversation. It was far too uncomfortable of a subject. He still didn't know how Gaius did it. That's what midwives and other women were for.
But then, Gaius was probably the type of man who would enjoy a good footnote.
Footnotes and fertility and phantom sorcerers. This was not turning into a productive morning.
And he was hungry. Hunger usually made him either more irritable or more likely to find a situation humorous that really wasn't all that funny. Merlin had always said that a lack of food made Arthur lightheaded and that his head was light enough even when properly fed. Arthur had long suspected that Merlin was somehow managing to turn hunger into an insult on his intelligence but had never figured it out. So it obviously made no sense.
There was less humor nowadays. Arthur's life had become quite a bit more serious, which he supposed was a good quality in a king. Kings must take things seriously if they want to be taken seriously. But seriousness was so exhausting. It even took the fun out of training.
That, and his new manservant tended to stay down whenever he was knocked to the ground. And he wasn't even as skinny as Merlin was. Merlin usually at least managed to get back up. He'd be sore and tetchy, but he'd be vertical. And Arthur always gave them helmets!
This was getting ridiculous. Six months and Arthur was still comparing the merits of former manservant with current. And now it was just on silly things! Ability to remain upright after being pummeled with a broadsword or stand ground holding a ring for a lance whilst being charged by a determined Arthur on horseback? Arthur must have been getting desperate.
In more ways than one. Where was a confused servant or beseeching noble or attacking army when Arthur needed a distraction? A battle to the death would have been preferable to sitting at the long council table any longer, trying to figure out how to fix something that had been broken for so long that the pieces had been dulled into unrecognizable shapes. When the room had emptied, he'd even moved to sit at the foot of the table rather than the head, facing the hearth in what had turned into a futile attempt to excite himself into decisiveness by movement. Somehow, the plan had failed him. Why did it all have to be so dull? Anything would have been better than this.
As if on cue, there was a soft knock and a creak as the council door opened. He smiled, knowing who it was. There was only one person nowadays who would knock on the door of a room in which he was alone and then enter without waiting for permission to be granted.
Arthur was growing forgetful with nostalgia again. As if Merlin ever knocked!
But that didn't matter now. Still smiling, he turned to look over his shoulder at his wife. One glance at her face, however, made him stand and turn all the way around, involuntarily shuddering as a terrible chill ran down his spine.
Something was wrong.
Guinevere looked the awful sort of sad that came when everything was just too overwhelming for tears or tantrums, where it was devastation that dominated the features, where there was such a helplessness that it seemed impossible to imagine that there was any sort of solution that could make it any better.
Yes, something was very wrong.
She didn't have to wait for him to have to ask. He could feel that his own face had shifted to match hers. He may not have known the cause, but there was no way that he could see such dreadful sorrow on his wife's face without sharing in it. He did not have to ask.
Her voice was thick with unshed tears when she answered the question that Arthur had not asked.
Chapter 3: As When Prince Is King
Disclaimer: Merlin is not mine.
When Arthur looked back later, thinking carefully so as to relay exactly to a particularly interested party how he had found out what was happening to his court physician, he could not for the life of him recall what had been said. He knew the gist; it would have taken more blows to the head that even Arthur had suffered to make him forget what Guinevere had told him that afternoon.
He had tried to remember. Much as he would have liked to forget how exactly he'd felt after learning the truth, he knew that he owed it to the young man questioning him to give as much information as possible. But that was the problem. Whenever he thought back, he was so consumed with what he was feeling that he could not bear to remember the exact words that had been so tentatively addressed to him. So much for a balance between his head and his heart.
But he would always remember what he'd been told, if not how. This was not a fact that could be nullified by a fuzzy remembrance of specifics. It was hard enough to accept it as fact without thinking long and hard about its presentation. But fact it was.
Gaius was dying.
Or so she said.
It was in these moments of personal crises, in which he had the privilege of being entitled to some emotional irrationality, that he began to think that there was exactly one good thing about Guinevere's betrayal, so very long ago, in the arms of Lancelot. It was a topic that he generally avoided thinking about, and it was one that both he and his wife had moved past—they'd had to, hadn't they?—in favor of a happy marriage. They'd both prioritized the constancy of love over the memory of a mistake, and there was no point in dwelling on it.
Unless it suited the situation, and if it was a situation serious enough that it would send him into unpleasant ruminations on what had become one of the worst memories of his life, he would come up with a very dark concept that would always give him at least a little solace, so long as it concerned Guinevere. Her betrayal had been awful, a violation of trust, a fundamental lie of action…
…the memory of which would be enough for him to convince himself that she was lying about something that he so did not like to hear her say. He wasn't proud of it, but that was how he felt. He'd forgiven—a thousand times over, he'd forgiven and been glad—but he hadn't forgotten. And neither had she.
So when he absorbed the content of what she had said to him, so mournfully, as though the man was already dead, as though Gaius really was going to die, Arthur said the first and most convenient thing that came to his head. "That's ridiculous."
Guinevere had sighed, looking utterly unsurprised, an expression of forced patience crossing her features. "Arthur—"
He didn't want to hear it. She'd no doubt have some logical argument preplanned that would be most upsetting, and he found petulance far more appealing an option. "You're bluffing."
She rolled her eyes; apparently, her patience was not boundless. "Why on earth would I bluff about something like this? That's a horrible thing to say!"
She certainly sounded upset. But no matter. She wouldn't have been the first person that he loved to be able to manipulate his emotions when the occasion suited her. Arthur was prepared. He had his own weapons in his arsenal. "Because you still haven't forgiven me for bluffing to Merlin and letting him think that I was going to have him killed. I never should have used that word, and I don't see why he had to repeat the conversation verbatim to anyone. Bluffing was just a poor choice of word. I wasn't trying to taunt him. And everyone always makes it sound so much worse than it was! Merlin would be thrilled."
Guinevere took a deep breath, her exhalations shaky. Arthur could tell that he was pushing dangerously close to her limit. "That's not it, Arthur! I mean, it is true that I'm still mad about that, but that's not it."
He knew that, but it hadn't particularly bothered him. It was the sort of annoyance toward him that she generally only brought up when they were arguing. It was selective anger, and Arthur didn't care. If anything, he had to admire her for her preparation for conflict. He would make a strategist out of her yet.
Not that he particularly felt like helping her just then. She had been given the unlucky task of telling him something that he very much did not want to hear. Fact or fiction, that was never an enviable prospect. But Arthur was king. Fact or fiction, he could fix anything.
So petulance it was.
"But what it is?" he asked, employing the most patronizing tone that he possessed. He hoped that the condescension was enough to cover the desperation. "Surely there must be a physician somewhere who can heal him. Or is it a magical sort of ailment? We could…Gaius has books, we could figure it out. He has the ingredients to make potions for everything. He may be dying, but he won't die." Arthur was growing more and more confident. There was no spiteful exaggeration in his argument. This was logic. Arthur's logic! Who knew?
Guinevere shook her head, seeming to accept and reject his unspoken implication that he'd be open to pursuing magic to heal the physician. "Arthur, this isn't some sort of ailment that can be fixed with herbs or potions. This is something that we can't heal. And he knows it. There's…he says that there's nothing to be done, nothing at all. That's why he hasn't let on before this."
This wasn't making any sense. "Then how did you find out?"
Guinevere looked resigned. Her expression suddenly reminded him of the one that his childhood nurse used to wear whenever he was making a perfectly reasonable demand for any young prince that she could not fulfill and could not quiet him anyway. What a strange thing to think of just then!
Guinevere was fortunately unaware of Arthur's sudden comparisons between herself and his nurse. "He told me. He sent for me. He knew that he was running out of time—he is a physician, after all, Arthur. He knows better that you. And he knew that he wouldn't be able to keep up his work for much longer and that there should always be a working court physician, in case of emergency. And this is Camelot. He wanted to…prepare us all, and I suppose that he thought that I would be the best one to spread the word. I can't imagine that you could have kept calm enough for him to say everything that needed to be said without…extra strain."
Arthur ignored the comment on the volatility of his temper. "He sounds healthy enough if he's summoning queens and making job recommendations."
Her patience seemed to be returning to her, fortified by a certainty that he could see clearly in her eyes. Certainty that she needed to say what she was trying to say and that Arthur needed very much to hear it. "Arthur, he was ready when I came down to see him. He had it all planned out. He's known for a long time, I could tell. And I don't think that he was just trying to scare me into believing him. We spoke for no more than fifteen minutes, and he grew more and more tired by the second. He was deteriorating in front of me. Oh, Arthur it was so awful to see…"
There was a pang in his heart. The things that he was hearing about Gaius were bad enough, but to see her so upset about anything was upsetting to Arthur, even if by proxy. He moved to touch her, to try to console her as best he could, but she stepped back and waved him away, swallowing hard and looking determined. "I believe him, Arthur."
Arthur was silent for a moment. He believed that she believed him, and he believed as well as she did that Gaius surely would not employ such base and cruel methods to convince her of his condition, exaggerating his own frailty. So Arthur began to accept the truth in her words.
But he did not have to accept their finality.
"What is it, then? What's this mysterious problem that he's convinced cannot be solved?" Arthur could hear the bite in his words and knew that he would regret the way in which he was speaking to her later. But not yet. "I am the king of Camelot. Anything he needs, I can get. What's he dying of?"
She smiled, with a look of something close to pity in her eyes, rendering the upturning of her mouth into an expression of everything sorrowful. He suddenly felt very tiny under her tenderly forceful gaze. "Age."
And Arthur didn't know what to say.
No one died of age. No one around Arthur, anyway. They usually came to violent and painful deaths, either in his name or in his place. Or at his hand. No one lived long enough to die of age. He was almost ashamed that it had not even occurred to him that this could be what was eating away at Gaius.
Guinevere had said that there was nothing to be done, and she was wrong. Of course, Arthur knew even less about medicine than she did, and he was beginning to accept that perhaps there was nothing that he could do to save Gaius' life. But there was something to be done that could at least begin to unbreak his heart before it stopped forever. There was something that could grant Gaius some sense of closure, even if it was too late to be truly appreciated. There was something that Arthur could do, and he only hoped that he had the time in which to do it.
As the pieces of his plan began to fall into place, Arthur grew businesslike, abandoning what had amounted to a royal temper tantrum in favor of a demeanor that would actually get things done. He could continue wailing about it all later. There were actions to take and to take quickly.
Beginning with his wife.
He turned to Guinevere, who seemed somewhat wary of the sudden calmness that had overtaken her husband. The wariness, Arthur thought wryly, was not entirely unwarranted. She would not like where this conversation was headed.
But there was no time to hedge. He met her eyes and spoke very steadily and very seriously. "Guinevere, I need to know. That pile of letters in your chambers, the ones with the purple seals. Who are they from?"
She looked so startled that she forgot to be unhappy for a moment. "Why?"
From the way that she spoke, Arthur knew that she had underestimated his skills of observation. Or at least had assumed that he had usually been distracted beyond the point of careful observation whenever he was in her chambers. But that wasn't always the truth. He'd been hunting since the first day that he could fire a crossbow; signs, even the smallest, were not always lost on him. That was the only way that a man could survive. Paying attention.
Of course, the abruptness of the change of subject may have also contributed to the surprise, Arthur supposed.
But he remained calm. "You keep them all together in a pile, separate from your other letters. Ordered. Just a neat little pile of letters, each bearing a seal of purple wax impressed with no emblem or sigil."
Guinevere hesitated, looking conflicted, and Arthur shook his head. He needed her to understand. "Guinevere, I'm not stupid. He was my manservant for the better part of a decade. Do you really think that I don't know his handwriting?"
There went the conflict. "You read my letters? How?"
He'd expected the anger and he's expected the surprise at the prospect of him rifling through her possessions and reading her correspondence. But he hadn't expected her first question to be of how he had made the discovery of the person to whom she had been writing. "Of course I haven't read your letters. But I could see that someone had written your name on the outside and there was certainly no sort of address on it. And I know that hand."
She nodded, her anger visibly receding. She seemed to understand that they both had a right to be angry on this subject and that yelling at each other would not do anyone any good. "Why haven't you said anything before this?"
He shrugged, the adrenaline that accompanied anticipation beginning to course through his veins. "It's not my business. I exiled him, but what do I care if you stay in contact with him? That's your decision, and I was pretty sure that you two weren't plotting a way to overthrow my reign. So what was the harm? I don't know how you've managed it, but I've known for ages."
It wasn't exactly a lie. He had known for ages and he truly hadn't particularly cared that she was writing him, but he hadn't been holding his tongue because it was of no consequence to him. He was waiting until the opportune moment to let her know that he knew.
He'd learned that particular trick from the person with whom she had been corresponding.
But Guinevere smiled apologetically, ignorant of the complexities and half-truths inherent in Arthur's explanation, and Arthur suddenly decided that he did not want to know how she had managed it. It may not have been quite so condemnable nowadays, but magic was certainly still illegal the last time that Merlin and Guinevere had seen each other. From her expression, Arthur somehow understood that there had been some sort of magic meant to allow her to keep her letters private. Arthur had known that she would not want him reading her letters; her alarmed bafflement at the idea of him being able to just cemented the suspicion. There was magic at work here, keeping to her what was hers. And Arthur did not need to hear any details of that.
She opened her mouth, no doubt to give him some sort of explanation, but he cut her off. "Guinevere, we can talk about this later. I need you to do something for me."
He could hear the sincerity in his voice and hoped that it would enough for her to switch subjects back to Gaius and away from their marriage. They could argue about the merits of having banished men for quill pals any time. There were more important topics now, and from the sound of things, there was not much time to be wasted where it concerned Gaius.
Guinevere nodded again, accepting the ceasefire. "Of course, Arthur. What do you need me to do?"
Arthur took a deep breath and said the seven words that he'd known that he would probably have to say at some point in his life. After all, he'd spent hours planning out imaginary conversations and confrontations between them. If he'd never done what he was about to do, those hours of daydreaming in council sessions would have just been wasted time, and Arthur certainly never wasted any time. So he said those seven fateful words, and was not surprised when he heard his voice quaver.
"I need you to bring him home."
Guinevere's eyes widened in what looked to be a combination of surprise and excitement, immediately replaced with the solemnity that had dominated her features since this conversation had begun. Arthur wished that he could judge her for daring to look excited about something when the situation was so dire, but he could not.
The moment when he knew that he was going to say what he had to say, Arthur had felt a flicker of hope, tempered only by a sense of dread that always accompanied realism, at the prospect of seeing him again. And he hated himself, for just that moment, for allowing himself to feel it. Wanting to see him again was one thing. Being excited to see him, in circumstances such as these, felt inappropriate enough to border on the obscene.
But no matter. Guinevere, with a strange look on her face, nodded quickly and for far too long, as though she too were struggling to maintain an appropriate countenance. After Arthur nodded back, dismissing her, she hastened out of the council room, going no doubt to her chambers to write the letter than would bring the man home.
No more words were necessary. Why should they be? Arthur had not had to say the name for Guinevere to understand to whom he was referring. Who else would he be talking about? Who else would Arthur be calling back—calling home—as Gaius was nearing his end? Who else's return would give Arthur's voice such unsteady gravity, betraying any attempts at stoicism? Who the hell else would be doing this to Arthur?
There was no question. It was all too easy.
Arthur suddenly sat down at his table again and covered his face with his hands. There were so many questions flying through his head that he was very nearly dizzied by the torrent. Yet, after a few minutes, there was one that kept rising to the top, and he was almost annoyed at the relative inconsequentiality of it. When there were so many larger issues to worry about, he just had to pick a little one.
But he could not make himself focus on anything else. He could not help but wonder, with so much dread and anticipation that it nearly hurt.
What on earth were they going to say to each other?
Reviews are appreciated!
Chapter 4: An Interlude
Disclaimer: Merlin is not mine.
Arthur was a warrior. He'd always prided himself on his abilities with spear and sword and crossbow. He'd been training since childhood to become a fighter of greater skill than anyone else in the five kingdoms, and there were few things in his life that Arthur found as cathartic as a few hours of physical training. Exertion could cure just about any worry, if only by exhaustion. Yes, Arthur was a warrior.
But he hated war.
Admittedly, he did enjoy a good skirmish. A fight every once in a while was good for the constitution, he felt. And pride was such an inherent part of his personality that there was no question that, should his honor or ability be challenged, there would be no choice but to engage in a battle or two. What was wrong with that? He was a man, well-trained and ready, and what was the point in knowing and being able to do things if there was never the chance to do them?
Not even Arthur, however, could delude himself into believing that war was a sport infused with honor and dignity. War was ugly and bloody and awful, leaving in its wake devastating losses—no matter how large or small—no matter which side had nominally triumphed—and Arthur could not have lived with himself if he was a man fond of war.
This was no secret among his advisors and knights. While there were a few of them who derided him for his lack of enthusiasm for outright warfare—generally the same men who whispered behind his back about the lack of heir thus far—most understood. Especially the older men, who had seen more war than was healthy for anyone, and who knew it. No, Arthur was certainly not the only one who disliked the illogic of the ordered marching of army against army for mutual slaughter, and he was not ashamed to admit it.
Well, he wasn't ashamed to admit that part of it.
There was another part of war that he hated, and it was so insignificant in comparison to bloodshed and death that Arthur hadn't had the nerve to voice it aloud to anyone. It somehow felt…disrespectful. So he kept to himself the other part that so frustrated him.
And that was the waiting.
That's why battle was better than war. A good old impromptu sneak attack that no one saw coming and could therefore enter into without crisis of conscience and embrace the exhilaration with no lingering guilt for premeditation. Yes, battle was exceedingly preferable to all-out war. It was so immediate!
But war…it was so drawn out. So much waiting. The actual fighting of man against man took up so little of the time devoted to the official conducting of warfare…it was all planning and strategy and equipping and assigning and dreading and so much damn waiting. Waiting for sunrise, when either they would attack or be attacked on the fields where they would meet their opponents, for good or ill. Waiting atop the ramparts of the castle from dawn to dusk, and then all the way to dawn again, acting as sentry to call the warning when the approaching army came into view. Waiting to know what was going to happen and who was going to win and what both sides would be losing and just what the hell was going on in the moments just out of reach. Everything would no doubt be horrible and devastating and everything in the world that was awful when it finally came, but it would come.
Yes, waiting was the worst.
Which is why Arthur spent the majority of the day after he had heard of Gaius' failing health sulkily wishing that Merlin would just show up already.
Objectively, he knew that he was being silly. After writing a summons to Merlin, the content of which she had not shown Arthur, Guinevere had shared with Arthur the most recent couple of letters that she had received from errant sorcerer. While Merlin had never given an exact location and seemed to have taken great pains to avoid mentioning any specific landmarks, Arthur, with his knowledge of the lands gained from countless quests and missions, was able to discern that wherever Merlin was, it was nowhere near Camelot. Some of the things that he mentioned…Arthur had no idea what Merlin was talking about, and he knew that it was not only because it concerned magic. Merlin had gone places far enough away that Arthur had no conception of where they could possibly be and what they could possibly be like, and Arthur felt an inexplicable sort of jealousy. Becoming king had meant far fewer excursions and far more meetings. But it sounded like Merlin's recent excursions had taken him farther than Arthur had ever been before.
After thinking about it for a good hour and then shaking off the subsequent headache, Arthur decided that Merlin could not possibly be near enough to make his reappearance in Camelot until at least two days after he received the letter.
It didn't help that Arthur didn't exactly know how magical letter-sending worked. For all he knew, it would take days or even weeks for the letter to reach Merlin. According to Guinevere, Merlin's correspondence could never have been called regular, and Arthur was left to worry that Merlin wouldn't even receive the letter until it was too late. Between however long it took for the letter to arrive and travel time, Arthur could not begin to truly predict a timetable.
And who the hell knew where he was anyway?
Yes, two days was optimistic, and Arthur knew it.
Which is why he felt just utterly ridiculous at how antsy he was becoming by noon of the first day. The wait was just making everything more stressful. Arthur had always been better at improvising than planning out, speaking-wise. He could give rousing speeches to his knights as they headed into danger and pep talks and reassurances to his people when doing so as reaction to a situation, but pre-meditated addresses? No, official speechifying was not Arthur's favorite part of the job. Planning just led to second-guessing and overthinking. He had enough trouble thinking things over thoroughly once. Doing it over and over again was just uncomfortable.
And he was just getting sick of having to dwell on ways in which to deal with Merlin, over and over again. He'd thought that the frustration might have faded with time—after all, Merlin had been gone for half of a year. Surely absence would have dulled the annoyance of that month during which Arthur had had to stew over how to deal with the sudden reality of Merlin having magic, while Merlin himself sat most unhelpfully and more comfortably than was normal down in the dungeons.
But Arthur loved Merlin as he always did, much as he hated to admit it. The way that Arthur saw it, they were brothers, friends, comrades-in-arms…and yes, master and servant, but still. They were many things, most of them as a unit. There had always been a troubling sense of equality that Arthur had felt in those moments when he and Merlin had had their more serious of conversations, when Arthur would grow unsettled at the evenness of ground that seemed to lay between the two, despite their significant separation of status. So of course Arthur loved him. What was wrong with that? Might and power were important, but what kind of king would he have been if he did not have the ability to love in more ways than one? A man's heart did not have to be so small as to only have room for wives or children.
Should the children ever come.
But Arthur had enough to worry about. He had to try to focus on one troubling issue at a time. He had a lifetime to worry about…that. Merlin was coming back soon. Hopefully.
Yes, he could focus. Arthur could do this.
Yes, Merlin had grown to occupy a very strange place in Arthur's heart, much as he would have refused to say it aloud. The fact that his life had seemed to become so much more serious with the young man's departure had only become more and more apparent over their months apart. Humor and lightheartedness hadn't seemed so important in the days before their estrangement, but they left quite a hole once removed from his daily life. Merlin hadn't been good for only heart-to-hearts by the campfire and that irrational loyalty that went far beyond the official demands of his job as manservant. Yes, Arthur had missed him.
Which certainly did not stop Merlin from being annoying, and Arthur very much wanted to tell him so.
Arthur wanted to tell him something. He wanted to be able to do something. Sitting on his throne and stewing over how he hated stewing over Merlin was doing him no good. He may not have known what he wanted to say, but he felt it distinctly unfair that he was being denied the ability to say anything to Merlin. This damned waiting! It all would have been so much more convenient if Guinevere had just learned of Gaius'…troubles and then taken the initiative on her own to summon Merlin home without involving Arthur. He was fairly certain that no one in the castle actually believed that he would try to have Merlin killed if the young man were to make a sudden reappearance. Guinevere could have called him back without consulting Arthur, and Arthur would have spent a few hours being mad at them, a few days pretending to still be mad at them whilst figuring out how he could allow Merlin to stay without compromising his own authority as king, and a few months bringing it up whenever they argued. Oh, why couldn't Guinevere have just gone rogue on this one?
Arthur didn't have to dwell on it. They were married now. Trust was such an essential part of marriage—especially theirs. Of course Guinevere talked to him. He was her husband and her king…of course Arthur had to know, had to give his blessing, had to approve.
Which was fair, if somewhat aggravating. If he got to reap the benefits of being king, he had to deal with the downsides as well.
But he still very much preferred the sort of downsides that he could lock in his council chambers, delegate to others, turf onto a manservant, or forget about long enough to spend a few hours in what had become unofficially known as the King's Nap Room.
Unfortunately, just as Merlin had been his shadow when he had been Arthur's servant, Merlin's presence seemed to follow him around everywhere that he went, now that he knew that he would be coming back. At some point.
Waiting was the worst.
Although the nap was starting to sound pretty good.
Hoping to hold on to some semblance of dignity, he'd long ago privately decreed to himself that naps were always entirely justifiable so long as they took place after midday. One of Arthur's tutors had had a similar rule for himself, but that seemed to involve a certain flask more than it did napping. Arthur had always found it rather flattering that his tutor had found him such an agreeable and amenable pupil that he felt compelled to toast the young prince every day in the midst of lessons, even if the toast was surreptitiously taken when he thought that Arthur wasn't looking. Oh, what a scholar Arthur had been!
But it was still somewhat early for a nap. He hadn't even lunched yet, so he couldn't use the fact that eating had exhausted him as an excuse. Private decrees aside, he was distinctly aware that it would not go unnoticed if he just decided to go to sleep before he'd been awake long enough to get anything done. No, he was king. Kings did not need naps on a daily basis. Kings were not cranky young children who could only make it through the day with a respite in the middle. Kings were better than that.
Maybe he could pretend to be sick. Surely no one would question his taking to bed if they thought that he was actually ill. They would encourage it, if anything. When Uther had looked even slightly sickly, his peers and physician would almost always advise him to rest, lest he endanger his life. And Uther had had a son in place in case he should die! Surely it was Arthur's duty, as the sole living member of his bloodline, to maintain his health.
Of course, he had ordered everyone to leave him alone as he gathered his thoughts in the council chambers, and when he had looked as annoyed as he had when given the order, few were likely to disturb him unless absolutely necessary. So there were no people around to notice if he was suddenly overcome with a horribly deadly and disfiguring disease that could be cured only by a morning nap. And he could not even privately summon the physician to give his word that Arthur was, indeed, ailing. Actual ailment or not, court physicians were usually willing to look the other way every once in a while. But Arthur couldn't do that today.
And very suddenly, Arthur hung his head in shame with such force that his crown flew off of his head and clattered across the floor. It figured. That's what Arthur got for wearing his crown. He usually avoided wearing it unless ceremony called for the necessity, finding the gold circlet uncomfortable and boastful, as though he was going out of his way to prove his superiority to those around him. Plus, it dug into his scalp, which could not be good for the roots of his hair. And those needed to stay as secure as possible. Forever. And they would.
But it wasn't his regret at wearing the damn crown or his recurring fear of loss of hair that had led to his sudden despair. It was one of those very few moments when he realized for himself without being sullenly informed of the fact that he was being very selfish. There he sat, in his kingly finery, trying to figure out how to fake an illness and bemoaning the fact that he did not have an able court physician to come to vouch for him. As though that was what should have been upsetting about Gaius' condition!
Although perhaps it was understandable that Arthur found it easy to dismiss Gaius' health from his mind and focus on the physician's returning ward, rather than the reason for the return.
Arthur had not been to see Gaius.
He couldn't. He couldn't see the confirmation for himself. Gaius was the sole remaining friendly link to his father's reign. Yes, Arthur had inherited most of Uther's advisors, but they all seemed to be trying to at least somewhat service their own agendas rather than what was entirely best for Camelot. There was always judgment and calculation in their eyes, hidden behind deference and support. Arthur did not doubt their loyalty; they would not betray him any more than they would have betrayed his predecessor. But they still had a habit of making Arthur distinctly uncomfortable in his own council room every once in a while.
Gaius hadn't. Gaius had been part of Arthur's life since infancy, taking care of all of his troubles, from the life-threatening that worried all of Camelot to the embarrassing that Arthur still hoped that none in Camelot would ever find out. And Gaius' demeanor had not particularly changed to him when Arthur had taken the throne. That was a quality that Arthur had grown to value very much in his transition from prince to king.
So Arthur had not been to see Gaius. Truth was always much more difficult to push from the mind when proof was actually shown to him. Arthur could deny and dilute theories and ideas until he was blue in the face. Physical evidence was a whole different story. Seeing the proof.
Like when he saw stupid Merlin doing stupid magic in his stupid chambers cleaning Arthur's stupid armor.
But that wasn't the point. The point was that the news was too fresh and too awful for Arthur have gone rushing down to Gaius' chambers immediately after receiving the news and given the instruction to summon Merlin back for a reunion, if temporary, between the two men.
That was the point, Arthur realized. This was not an occasion on which he could waste time. He didn't have a month to leave Gaius alone, waiting for whatever was going to happen. He didn't have the time to wallow in indecision. Gaius was not Merlin, and Gaius had committed no crime and done no wrong that should have kept Arthur from going to see him. It was downright shameful that Arthur had not yet made that so simple trip down to see Gaius. It wasn't even as though it was a long walk! Arthur could spend his time waiting for Merlin to return to the castle, sitting in frustrated anticipation, avoiding the cause for the entire situation.
Or he could do the right thing.
So Arthur stood, stretched his limbs as far as they could possibly reach, and walked as purposefully as he could manage out of his council room, tugging the slightly ajar and very heavy door all the way open so that he could begin his journey down to his destination.
Arthur was going to see Gaius, and in only a few minutes, he'd made the journey from where he'd sat on his throne to where Gaius lay, breathing his way to his last. The entire journey lasted only those few minutes.
It was a very long walk.
And it was a very brief visit.
Not that Arthur had quailed in his determination to spend some time, evaluating the elderly man and trying to be as cheerful as possible as he spoke to him, and lying to him in futility about his prospects at living, as everyone did when visiting dying friends. No, Arthur had stayed true to his word to himself and remained by Gaius' side for as long was appropriate.
It was only half an hour before Gaius had been so tired by the encounter that Arthur had not had the heart to do anything but leave the room and let Gaius sleep.
But Arthur did not leave without summoning a nursemaid to remain by Gaius' side. The physician may have been dying, but he would want for nothing in his final days.
After all, wasn't that why Merlin was coming home? Wasn't this whole situation that had been troubling him during his early hours, thinking himself into exhaustion as he sat on his throne? Wasn't that what had prompted him into sulking over the idea—still retained—that waiting was one of the worst prospects in Arthur's entire world?
And yet it was not until he'd lain down in his bed that night, having forsaken his earlier plan for a nap, that Arthur realized that he'd never picked up his crown from where it had fallen that morning in the council chambers. His crown, golden and shining and bejeweled, was still on the floor, with the dust and dirt and bits of rock that were probably falling down from that oft-wretched ceiling. His crown was lingering where sacred items of the kingship were never meant to touch, let alone remain.
Arthur rolled over and buried his face in his pillows. It was time to sleep.
That crown could stay where it belonged.
Reviews are much appreciated!
Chapter 5: To Change Is To Revert
Disclaimer: Merlin is not mine.
Very early in his kingship, Arthur had learned to his dismay that it was far more difficult to treat his life with any sort of nonchalance than it was when he was merely prince. Everything meant something. He wasn't sure what it said about Uther that all of the people around him seemed to go wildly out of their way to accommodate the king, but he didn't like it. It wasn't that he opposed accommodation in any sense; he was the king. He was entitled to have people to bow to his every whim. But none of them seemed to understand that every little thing that he did or was done to him involved a whim that needed bowing.
Arthur had always hated symbolism. Not everything had to mean something!
But by this point in his reign, he supposed that he should have been accustomed to it. That he should have developed little ways that he could employ at the drop of a helmet to get around everyone's constant considerations. That he should have at least conditioned himself to the whole situation. He even thought that he had. But apparently, the distractions involved with his ponderings of Gaius' longevity and the uncertainty of Merlin's return had left him vulnerable to the cares and courtesies of the others in his household.
And apparently, finding the king's crown lying unceremoniously on the floor of a deserted council room was a cause for concern regarding his safety rather than exasperation for his dislike of the ornament, as had generally been the case prior to Uther's death.
So Arthur was completely disconcerted the morning after his ruminations on the inconvenience of being forced to wait when half a dozen knights and as many guards, half of them still in sleep garb, came barging into his bedchambers much earlier than Arthur had intended to be woken. He sat up, blearily shirtless, squinting at the intruders who seemed almost disappointed to find him completely alive, if not particularly happy to see them. His own manservant looked as though he was one glare away from passing out.
What was left in the back of the mind of Prince Arthur, he supposed that he ought to be touched that they cared enough to come rushing to see to his safety, that the young servant who had been in the council chamber at the crack of dawn to light the fire and had discovered the discarded crown had abandoned propriety and risen above his station to alert his betters of what was apparently the biggest crisis since Arthur's last usurpation.
But Arthur did not have the freedom to enjoy life as a prince anymore. As King Arthur, he found it difficult to be touched. Yes, it seemed that the most able-bodied fighters in the citadel had rushed to his aid and that servants were risking their own livelihoods to be sure that all was well, but he could not pretend that it was out of any personal concern for him. Not Arthur. It was concern for the king that had led to the interruption of his blessedly dreamless sleep.
Which was a very lonesome thought.
His favorite knights weren't even there, either. They'd been on patrol last night and weren't due back until a few hours after the sun rose. He tended to send them off together, their affection for each other increasing their effectiveness tenfold. Happy knights tended to be more productive knights. Especially non-conventional knights who had not gone through the same instruction for diligence and obedience as was usual prior to knighthood.
Arthur didn't like to admit that he preferred certain knights over others, but any protest to the contrary would have just sounded silly. It reminded him of whenever he would state that Merlin's primary role in his life was only as a servant. It would sound absurd, even to him.
Before the whole Merlin's-magic-fiasco, that is.
But of course Arthur had his favorite knights. Those who had been with him at the time of Morgana's first invasion of Camelot, those who had faced him from all angles in their seats at that round table, those who at the very least seemed to survive a lot longer than the others, save for Lancelot, who Arthur tended to try not to think about…those were his preferred knights, even if they had become somewhat surlier in the months since Merlin's banishment.
Well, one of them, anyway.
But Gwaine had always been something of a wild card anyway. There was no doubt in his mind that Gwaine would have rushed to Arthur's aid in an instant, if it was required. It would be surly aid, but aid it would be. Gwaine was not one to allow serious damage to occur just because he was annoyed with someone.
And Arthur always consoled himself with no small degree of smugness that Arthur would not have been the only target of Gwaine's surliness, should the other offender ever show his face in Camelot again. Arthur would have at least said goodbye!
Oh, Merlin. Arthur did not envy him to first moments of that reunion.
Or any reunions, really. Guinevere's, maybe, would be easy enough. But the others?
Yes, Arthur really could have used his rest.
He didn't even get out of bed when he finally registered what was going on and why there were far too many people in his chambers at daybreak. Yawning, he just gestured vaguely at the group of men, beckoning one to come give explanation. There was a break of several moments before anyone approached, and Arthur did not blame any of the group. Arthur's reputation throughout the castle was not that of a morning person.
When someone finally did come to his bed, shaking head to toe, to presumably explain what was going on, Arthur was dimly chagrined on the boy's behalf that it was his replacement manservant who had been given the unwelcome task. He wasn't sure whether it was out of some sense of cruelty that the knights and guards had pulled rank and sent the servant into the line of fire or whether it was because they were all still so used to the idea of Arthur's manservant being the type of man usually unafraid of telling uncomfortable truths to the king.
Before this young man got within ten feet of the king, however, Arthur waved him off and irritably gestured for someone else. If Arthur wanted to get back to his slumber, he needed it to be before he woke up too completely. Judging from the manservant's quavering approach, it would have been lunchtime before Arthur got a complete sentence out of him. He spared a moment to miss Percival. After all, if there was any man in Camelot most able to get his point across with as few words as possible, it was Percival.
But Percival was patrolling, on guard for the protection of Camelot and its peoples.
How very selfish of him. Just when Arthur needed him.
The next person who approached him was a smallish man who Arthur thought that he recognized as the newest guard who had come into Camelot from one of the surrounding villages. They'd been introduced briefly a few weeks ago. From the newness of his post and his slightness of stature, Arthur realized in the back of his fuzzy mind that the others were indeed bullying the least able to protest among their group to give explanation to the king.
Which immediately softened Arthur's heart to the new guard. Well, as soft as it could be when the sun was at that position in the sky and there was no breakfast on his table. But it was apparently soft enough to get Arthur to sit all the way up in bed and give a halfhearted stretch before gesturing to him to begin speaking.
The guard, shaking distinctly less than the manservant, was nonetheless not particularly steady as he addressed the king. "Sire."
Arthur opened his mouth to give an irritable acknowledgement when he was forced to pause.
Damn it all. What was the guard's name? Arthur had been told, but he was fairly certain that meeting the new guard had been fourth in line in his mind when they had first met, after lunch, Guinevere, and matters of state, and probably in that order. Arthur had not been listening particularly attentively at the time. What was his name?
No matter. Arthur was king. He could smoothly cover any uncertainties. None of them needed to know that he was blanking on the guard's name. If there was such a thing as middle names, Arthur figured that his would be "Smooth."
Well done, Arthur thought to himself. Smooth indeed. Maybe he would have to give his children middle names. He could start a fad! Surely middle naming would spread throughout the lands if the king himself was a fan.
Or he would have to start to give middle names to his dogs instead, if things continued as childlessly as they were. But dogs could not inherit…no number of loopholes could have ensured that. Daughters, perhaps, if he was desperate enough (although hopefully after Morgana was gone). And he was beginning to fear that that knot of twisting emotion that seemed to appear in his gut whenever he began to think about it all was of desperation…
The young guard seemed desperate himself, although Arthur suspected that it was an entirely separate topic that was giving him such an edgy tone. "We mean no disrespect, sire, to have intruded on your sleep."
Was it John? Joseph? Something like that. It definitely started with a j. "I certainly hope that you have a good reason for it!"
John/Joseph's eyes grew wider. "I…we believe so."
Job? That sounded right. He was definitely Job. Definitely probably Job. "Is Camelot being attacked?"
John/Joseph/Job winced, seeming to know where this was going. Arthur's irritated preludes to rants tended to have a format that was more or less known among underlings in the castle. "No, sire."
"Is war upon us?"
"Is the castle in danger?"
"Is the queen in danger?"
"Is the queen even mildly uncomfortable?"
"Not as far as I know, sire."
That seemed cheeky. Was that cheeky? He didn't seem like the type to be cheeky. Not a man like Joshua. Or James. Although Merlin had been capable of straight-faced cheekiness. But Arthur supposed that this man probably would not have known about Guinevere's well-being. Perhaps Arthur was just somewhat paranoid about cheekiness.
He needed to stop thinking about the man and more about the situation.
Geoffrey? Was he a Geoffrey? No, that was ridiculous. Arthur would certainly not have allowed more than one Geoffrey at court. That would have been far too inconvenient, and Geoffrey of Monmouth had preceded this young man by several decades. If he had been called Geoffrey, Arthur definitely would have either invented another name for him or dismissed him directly. And he was sure that it started with a j. So it was not Geoffrey.
Jeffrey. That could be it.
"Has a dangerous person entered the citadel?"
Arthur wanted to take the words back as soon as they had left his mouth. He'd become too distracted trying to figure out the guard's name that he'd hadn't been thinking of what he was asking. Of everyone in Camelot, only he and Guinevere knew that Merlin had been called back. As far as the public was concerned, that was a hurdle that could be jumped when the time came. And they hadn't wanted to tell Gaius for fear of upsetting him. For some reason, when Guinevere had tentatively broached the subject of Merlin coming home to see him, Gaius had been adamant that Merlin should not be brought back. Arthur thought that he knew that this was out of a fear for Merlin's safety, and though he did not have any plans for doing the sorcerer any harm, but he understood. Gaius was sick, dying. It was understandable if he was confused about Arthur's current feelings toward Merlin. So they had kept the fact that Merlin was returning quiet.
And it wouldn't be for days anyway. Merlin wouldn't have even possibly received Guinevere's letter until this morning, based on Arthur's and Guinevere's estimates of how magical post worked, judging from the dates of the letters to one another. Merlin could not be back yet.
But Arthur still regretted his question regarding a dangerous person entering the citadel. His mind had immediately jumped to Merlin, and his fears about the way in which he would be welcomed by the public—would he be considered "dangerous?" Or perhaps "wronged?"—and how Arthur was completely unprepared for however they would view it. He still had a few awful days of waiting to figure it out. And there was that tiny, distant, unlikely hope that perhaps the answer would be yes and that Merlin would be waiting in the council chamber, subdued and unhappy at the cause for his return but still so very much there, in the room, in Camelot, in, in, in….
It was far too early for this. Simplicity was the proper state of mind for any pre-breakfast dealings.
John/Joseph/Job/Joshua/Jeffrey seemed to agree. At the very least, his monosyllabic answers were a blessing. "No, sire."
As Arthur's room began to grow brighter with the rising sun, he began to grow more and more irritated. There were people in his room being noisy when he was meant to be sleeping, no one was telling him what was going on, he wasn't wearing a shirt and growing mildly uncomfortable about it in front of all of these people as he lay in bed, and he still didn't know what that damn guard's name was!
But it was too late to ask…if Arthur asked now, it would be obvious that he hadn't already known, and that would just be embarrassing. They were too far into the conversation. And it was so much easier to intimidate a person into a direct answer if Arthur could stare him down and call him by his proper name!
So Arthur settled onto the most dignified and practical solution.
"If there is no danger encroaching on Camelot, you had better have a good reason for this, J—" Arthur said flatly, coughing heavily on the last word, so that only a sort of "Juh" sound escaped. That would do. That was basically the same as calling him by his name, whatever that was. Whoever said that you needed all the letters to make a word? One letter, and Arthur was set. What a king he was!
Despite Arthur's brilliance, "Juh" seemed confused. He looked over each shoulder at the other men who had come in with them, as though waiting for one of them to step forward and answer the king's question. Arthur had been looking straight at him; why on earth would he think that Arthur had been referring to anyone else?
Sir Lee seemed to agree. "Hadrian, the king asked you a question!"
Well, he'd been close.
For approximately thirty-five seconds, Arthur was inexplicably embarrassed. There was no call for it; should the king have to know the name of every single person who worked in his castle? Arthur felt that it was accomplishment enough that he knew most of them by face. Why should names be the deciding factor when it came to familiarity? Especially when one of the parties was the king! Yet, for no conceivable reason, those thirty-five seconds were embarrassing to the still-wakening Arthur.
Then, after thirty-six seconds, when Hadrian explained himself, Arthur was just mad.
Thirty-seven minutes later, Arthur was stomping down the corridors of his castle, haphazardly dressed, hungry, tired, and far more tousled than was expected when preparing to be seen by people of significance. His manservant was trailing behind him by a good five feet more than usual, having faced a deluge of escalating verbal abuse from the grouchy king, who had dismissed his services almost immediately out of general spite with the world. Robert, unlike his predecessor, was a servant who took his responsibilities very seriously and was always extremely put out whenever he felt as though he was coming up short in his job performance. When Arthur had kicked him out of his chambers to dress himself, a rarity in its own right, the young servant had trudged out looking as wounded as if Arthur had battered him to pieces with his fists.
But Arthur didn't care. He had a ridiculously busy day, thanks both to his daily duties as king and to the fact that he'd spent most of the previous day slacking off and thinking in a very counterproductive manner, and now it was beginning several hours earlier than he'd planned. And he felt like a fool.
And Arthur did not react well to being made to feel like a fool.
Hadrian had faced a deluge of his own once Arthur understood the interruption.
Apparently, when his crown had been found on the floor of the council room, it had painted the picture of Arthur being attacked and physically dragged away, either to be killed or kidnapped, with his crown falling off in the process and being left behind by his hasty attackers. Arthur had kept a low profile the night before, not being in the mood for company other than that of his wife and the few necessary and correspondingly discrete servants, so he hadn't been seen by many since the previous afternoon. All of these factors seemed to be enough to convince what seemed to be half of the castle that Arthur was dead, dying, or detained somewhere.
Arthur was not. All he had done was drop his crown and not pick it up. That was all. And now his entire day was off to a bad start because of an overanxious group of attendants!
Being prince was so much easier than being king. And it usually started later in the day.
So, after Arthur spent an hour or so yelling and sniping at everyone who passed in, out, or past the council chambers, he finally exhausted his ire enough to snippily submit to a meal and begin his work for the day, having the single door slammed shut by his guards as a sign of tantrum-like control.
Unfortunately, today's was not work that he could do alone, so he was denied the possibility of taking frequent breaks and…sidetracking. It was discussion. Lots and lots and lots of discussion. Legislation. It wasn't even the fun kind of legislation where other people read the laws aloud in flowery terms that Arthur hadn't written and, at the conclusion, Arthur signed his name and made his seal to great applause amongst all of those in attendance. No, it was not that kind of legislation, not flattering or invigorating in the least. In fact, with a single exception, most of it wasn't even interesting.
The interesting topic occurred halfway through the docket, as it had been presented to Arthur, so he at least had a break in the tediousness of laws regarding hay bale density and cobblestone width and castle construction and fortification. Yes, halfway through concerned legality of magic.
Part of what was interesting about that day's discussion of sorcery was the fact that they were getting close to a conclusion. The beginning had been very exciting. The sensitivity of the topic and the fact that it was so very obviously introduced because of its usage by Arthur's friend and manservant made it something of a…controversial subject at the time of its introduction. The two and a half decades in which the people had been told—and, admittedly, shown by the less savory practitioners—of the evil of magic had biased immediately most of the people who caught wind of Arthur's plans for a change in the laws.
Arthur's personal bias on the matter did little to justify his stance. The suddenness of his idea was shocking and easily traced back to his closeness with Merlin. And surprisingly well-thought out. For Arthur, anyway. But he understood now. Sorcery should not be on its own illegal. Magic should only be considered as criminal when it is used to break preexisting laws. People possessing magic are not necessarily to be blamed for it. Magic was not necessarily a choice. Understanding was needed for condemnation.
Arthur couldn't lie—he had been as uncomfortable as any of them when he thought about legal sorcery in his kingdom. His steadfastness had been all but a mask; how would anyone else listen to him with any seriousness if they saw him wavering? But in truth, he had as many doubts as the rest of them. It was so much easier to say the words than to feel them. After all, how many times had he been attacked and poisoned and enchanted against his will by sorcerers? How many times had he seen his people and his castle ravaged by calamities caused by sorcerers? How much of the devastation had he witnessed in his life had been the result of sorcery? The concept of accepting it just went against Arthur's very being. It felt unnatural. Like trying to swim upstream in a raging river whose current would have taken him home. Arthur still did not know if he could have done it.
Not without Merlin.
Not that Merlin had been particularly helpful. Not proactively, anyway. No, Merlin had just enjoyed his little holiday in the dungeon while Arthur had had to work his way through it all on his own. But Merlin had been present. He still was, in some ways. Once the shock of Merlin's magic had begun to wear off, Arthur saw him for the man that he was. A man with a foot in both worlds, at Arthur's side, protecting him, as well as in a world of magic, where Merlin had more power than Arthur as king ever would. And Arthur had to reconcile Merlin as being part of what was both legal and illegal.
And still being good.
So, Arthur just tried to remember Merlin whenever he began to lose sight of why he was working so hard to convince everyone else about the potential goodness of magic and starting to dwell on all of the ways in which he had suffered because of it.
Which was ridiculously embarrassing and something that he would never ever admit to anyone else. The idea that Merlin acting as a talisman against unjust thoughts!
But the whole thing had been so new and so unexpected and so revolutionary that Arthur had been too busy defending it and enjoying the controversy and potential to grow bored with it. There was so much good that could come of it, if it worked and if Merlin was not just an exception to the rule of magic's goodness and if Arthur was doing the right thing and would be remembered as the king who had heralded in a new era of peace and justice for all rather than a king who had ushered in Camelot's downfall by opening the door to welcome murderers of the magical inclination.
Yes, it had been exciting at the beginning.
The middle, not so much. The middle was all terminology and phrasing and keeping and changing and rephrasing and eliminating and adding and doing it all over and over again. It would have been so easy to just decree that magic would be legal and then let his scribes and council members squabble over the way to phrase it for the archives in a more dignified and dull way than Arthur would have chosen. It would have been so easy.
And so impractical. His people would have had the same doubts and concerns that Arthur did, and they wouldn't have had a Merlin to help them remember that this was a good thing. It had to be slow and methodical and comprehensive.
And so very boring to a man who had already made up his mind to believe what he said, whether he liked it or not.
So, slow and methodical and comprehensive legislation it was. And the middle seemed so much longer than the beginning!
But it seemed that the middle was about to come to a conclusion. They had all so exhausted and footnoted (as far as Arthur understood the term) the law that would tentatively be put into effect that it seemed like the end was nigh. Soon would be the time for pomp and circumstance and signatures and a world changed forever. That would be coming soon, surely.
Hopefully. Arthur wasn't sure how much more of this he could take. He also wasn't sure whether it was entirely because he was bored with discussion and wanted to put an end to it or whether it was because he truly wanted to grant freedom and openness to a group of people currently in hiding and perpetual fear for their lives. There was no denying the former; he only hoped that its combination with the latter was not so lopsided as to say something rather negative about his maturity as king. Or maybe he just wanted to be able to bring Merlin home.
But he didn't have much time to dwell on his own maturity levels. He was determined to pay attention as his council members—all of whom tended to show up on the days when magic was to be discussed, whether as proponents or opponents of the changes—began to approach conclusion. Plus, in addition to the knowledge that the passage of this law regarding magic would likely come to define who he was as a king, with the dozen older men sitting at his sides at the council table, Arthur liked to look as though he was absorbed in all of the laws of the land that were under review during that session.
The absence of Gaius was not discussed.
Unfortunately, however, as interesting as was the subject of the legality of magic, it was not the only subject to be examined that day, and it was far too soon for Arthur's taste that they were moving on to deciding whether or not it was the right of the crown to determine the height of flowers growing in front of private homes. Arthur had not been looking forward to this one. The vehemence with which he absolutely did not care would have normally been enough for him to give into boredom and begin carving figures into the wood of the council table, but Guinevere was for some reason strangely invested in flower regulation. She'd taken to complaining that she, as queen, could still not have a position on the council and Arthur had had to promise to pay especial attention to representing her interests on flower height just to mollify her on the particular instance. It was easier than having to have the conversation about whether or not she should be permitted on the council as a woman yet again. Listening to flower talk was easier than rehashing that argument. Arthur could only stand repealing one longstanding tradition at a time.
Plus, he suspected that she thought him far more of a fan of flora than he really was, based on how many tasteful bouquets had been sent her way in Arthur's name, none of which had been selected by or borne notes written by the man who had become her husband. That, or this was her way of torturing him for his lack of involvement in the sending of blooms in her direction during their years of courtship.
Arthur was just beginning to wonder who the hell it was who had placed this issue on the docket and dimly suspecting that his wife had had something to do with it when an eerie sense of calm washed over him, for just an instant. He couldn't understand it. His council members were still talking with surprising animation about flower heights, there were still dozens of workers—castle staff, personal servants of the council men, wine servers, guards—milling about, his penknife still lay tauntingly on the table in front of him, begging to be taken up and used to carve his initials once more into the wood below it…it was all so very normal and expected that there was no reason for one instant to seem different from the next. For no reason whatsoever, Arthur felt himself stand up from his chair and look around him in a sense of clouded confusion. He couldn't understand what was so special about that single moment.
Until that moment passed, and everything changed.
Very suddenly, a great rumble interrupted the monotonous calm that pervaded the air, and the council chamber began to shake. Arthur could feel the floor moving unnaturally, see the walls seeming to vibrate. For a hopeful instant, Arthur wondered if it was just his knees preparing to buckle—from either boredom or the accumulated effects of countless blows to the head—that was making the room seem to shudder in its stony seat. But even through the thickness of his boots, Arthur could feel it, and he did not need to see the tiny chinks of stone falling from the ceiling to know that it was the whole room that had been affected rather than just Arthur's grip on consciousness.
Later, he would be ashamed of his immediate response to the situation. His first feeling had not been of a striking fear for his people, both in the village and the castle, who would have at least heardthat strangely overwhelming overhead thud that had precipitated the quaking, even if they could not feel it. It had not been the sense of immediate determination that always overtook him when a crisis struck Camelot. He hadn't flashed back to the last time that his council chamber had been in danger. It hadn't even been frustration at the fact that it seemed like the roof of the council chamber was on the verge of collapsing again. Why couldn't it have been the floor in danger? Floors were fixed easily enough. But no, it just had to be the ceiling.
Yet it had not been frustration or fear or determination that had taken hold of him in those first few seconds. Arthur would not have been embarrassed if they had—would those not have been understandable reactions?—although he might have phrased his concerns about the roof carefully, to avoid equating structural damage of a single room with the deaths of dozens of people. But those would have been normal reactions.
Instead, Arthur was struck with a sense of overwhelming annoyance. Gaius was dying, a banished sorcerer was being brought back to Camelot via invitation, Arthur still wasn't sure whether or not he should be mad at his wife for being able to issue that invitation, and he'd forgotten to wear his comfortable belt that day because he'd insisted on dressing himself. The last thing that he needed was another invasion or magical creature or catapult barrage from some vengeful foe or whatever the hell it was that was shaking the room and damaging the roof.
Arthur needed to start spending time in rooms less prone to attack. Maybe start having council meetings outdoors. Or underground. Or not at all. This was all just so…annoying.
Fortunately, everyone else in the room was either looking out the window and toward the sky, nervously looking up at the ceiling, or, in the case of veterans of council room crises, trying to edge their ways toward the door before the roof collapsed on them again without looking like they were edging away. So no one saw that Arthur's first visible reaction to the whole new ordeal was an eye-rolling to rival any that had ever come before.
But, luckily for the long-term welfare of any subjects under Arthur's reign (and particularly for the other people in the room with him), annoyance had only been his first reaction. His second was far more befitting a king. Or, really, any person with common sense. Still standing at the head of the council chamber, across from the door, Arthur began to shout for all of the advisors and servants to move to the perimeter of the room. It took him a few yells for him to get his message across—the servants and advisors had been primarily the ones trying to get to the door without looking cowardly, and they seemed to be too preoccupied with trying to look brave to pay much attention to anyone else's shouts. Arthur didn't blame them. They had not signed on for combat or collapsing roofs when they'd taken their jobs. So Arthur, with no judgment in his heart, kept yelling for them to move away from the center. If the roof were to collapse—again, for heaven's sake—he wanted them to be as far away from the middle as possible.
Even as he was shouting, he was winding his way between the chairs that had been knocked over by the concussion and by the haste of their occupants to flee them, his hand instinctively on the hilt of Excalibur, moving toward the guards who had crowded around the door, trying to pull it open. They seemed to be working more or less together, which was a good thing. Panicking or not (which was not helping), the door was far too heavy for a single man. That had been part of the most recent renovations. The theory was that it would at least reduce the number of assassins able to make their way in to kill the king as he lunched, should he have chosen to take his meal behind closed door. Only an army, monster, or magic should have been able to force it open.
Which had seemed like a very good idea at the time. Now, as he and the other guards began to tug at it, Arthur trying to calm them into productivity, it occurred to him that perhaps he had not entirely thought it through.
He could do that later. Now was not the time for thinking. Now was the time for not dying.
Then, even as he strained with all his might against the door and tried to ignore the fact that his and the guards' efforts were being undermined and seriously deterred by civilians trying to help, Arthur found himself moving away from the door, his body being dragged backward, completely contrary to his own volition. And he wasn't the only one. The people around him were also moving backward in all directions, abandoning the escape efforts completely.
At first, Arthur thought that there had been another earthquake or catastrophe or whatever it was that had shaken the castle, and that the concussion was knocking him backward just as it had knocked the chairs from their positions and the pebbles down from the ceiling.
But he didn't fall.
And that was when, in the very back of his mind, Arthur began to grow suspicious.
His sense of equilibrium was completely off, yes, and he was so taken aback when he was able to stop moving that he nearly fell over by the sudden cessation. But he did not fall when he'd recovered the use of his legs. Nor did any of the guards or volunteer men who had prevented them from successfully opening the door. None of them did. Not even a little bit. They were all standing, looking baffled and rather afraid, all having stopped moving a good distance away from the thick wood that had so determinedly barred them from the safety of the more architecturally fortified corridor.
Then, just as Arthur was beginning to wonder with any coherency what the hell had just happened, the door was blasted off of its hinges. Quite involuntarily, he winced and winked his eyes shut, waiting to be slammed with and probably killed by the so very thick wood that would surely be flying toward him, and not wanting to see it. It was not until he heard a massive boom that he opened his eyes again and saw that the door, pushed inward with such force that the hinges had popped cleanly off and shot against the wall like a bolts freed from a tightly-strung and massive crossbow, had not flown across the room. No, the door had just…fallen forward, landing safely where Arthur and the other men had been standing only moments before.
Arthur's suspicion began to pool in his chest, and the fear began to trickle out.
This did not seem to be the case for the rest of the people in the room. As the shadow of a figure's silhouette appeared, pushing its way into the room through the thick cloud of dust that had exploded out of the doorway with the collapse of the door, the people in the room seemed to be backing away or clutching at one another in what could only optimistically be called unease.
"Terror" would have been more accurate. The people were certainly moving back with a fair amount of haste.
But Arthur did not. Withdrawing Excalibur for maximum intimidation, he stood steadfastly directly in front of the doorway from a healthy distance and waited for the figure's identity to become apparent.
He did not have to wait long. For a man whose history included far more crippling clumsiness than it did enviable grace, it was with surprising speed that the figure picked his way through the dust into the room, walking atop the fallen door that pointed like an arrow toward the center of the floor, where Arthur was standing, chin held high and hand steady on Excalibur. The man stopped several feet away from the king stood and put his hands on his hips.
It was Merlin.
Of course it was. Arthur had known it, somewhere in the back of his mind, from the moment that he'd been knocked back to safety. Who else would have decided to make such an entrance? Apparently, Gaius' mortality was not enough to subdue Merlin into walking calmly into Camelot. Or riding calmly into Camelot.
When Arthur finally got a clear look at Merlin's face, he saw that there was a smile—a smile!—on his face. This infuriated Arthur so much that he almost neglected to take a certain look at Merlin's expression before he started yelling at him.
But he did, and what he saw stayed his tongue.
There was no smugness, no certainty, no comfort in his eyes. The smile was emptier and more lacking in genuine happiness than Arthur had ever seen on the young man's face. Merlin looked…nervous.
Arthur had not expected that. Sadness, fear, melancholy, emotions appropriate for a man returning to bid a final farewell to his only remaining father figure…those were what he would have expected to see shadowing Merlin's eyes. Or even arrogance, considering that Arthur had called him back and that he had made such an…impressive entrance. But there was only a certain wariness, an…alertness. Like a cornered animal ready to fight his way to freedom but hoping against hope to walk away unscathed, concealing his fear with a carelessness betrayed by tenseness of body. Arthur suddenly wondered if there was more that was going so very wrong in Merlin's life than just Gaius' illness.
Not that Merlin would betray it, if he could help it. His strange smile never leaving his face, Merlin opened his mouth to speak, and Arthur took a deep breath, trying to prepare himself.
There were so many things that could happen. What was there to say after six months' separation and such a…dramatic reunion? Ever since he'd made the decision to call Merlin home…to call Merlin back, Arthur tried to remind himself, he'd been trying to figure out how he would greet the young man that he had banished.
But he'd drawn a blank. And expected a few more days of preparation. How the hell was Merlin already here? Yet that was okay. He'd leave it to Merlin. Surely Merlin, with the wisdom that Arthur had been unable to recognize for such a very long time, would know what to say. Merlin would have something profound and appropriate to say at this so important of a meeting. Maybe that's why he was smiling. He knew the perfect thing to say.
Merlin inhaled deeply, and Arthur felt a thrill run down his spine. Merlin must have had a lot to say, to take such a deep breath. Yes, this was it. This was what Arthur had been waiting to hear ever since that day when he'd left Merlin unconscious in the forest clearing, what Arthur should have asked that he didn't know that he should have known. This was it.
And Merlin shrugged, sighing.
Thank you for reading! I love reviews! :)
Chapter 6: Once And Always
Disclaimer: Merlin is not mine.
As it turned out, there was nothing better for Merlin to have said as his first words to Arthur in half of a year than a vaguely disrespectful "hello." While Arthur had rather hoped for something more profound—and certainly something serious enough to have warranted Merlin's somewhat dramatic entrance—but the simplicity of his greeting gave Arthur one advantage that he would have probably been denied via his own uncertainty should he have been met with anything poignancy.
It left Arthur with use of his tongue.
Merlin nodded in apparent satisfaction, looking somewhat more comfortable than he had a few seconds previously. His smile was still rather small and odd as he began walking closer to Arthur, presumably so that they could speak without calling loudly to each other for the benefit of everyone else in the room. Arthur could imagine that whatever it was that Merlin had to say as follow-up to his greeting was not something that he particularly wanted to spread around the castle by eager eavesdroppers. Merlin probably wanted some sense of…privacy. Propriety.
As if Arthur was in the mood for granting him any favors!
"Merlin, you had better tell me something right now and it had better be a damn good answer. Why the hell did you feel the need to demolish my council room again? Bad things happen when my council room gets demolished! Other than the demolishing!"
Then, very suddenly, Merlin's smile grew completely genuine, and Arthur relaxed, despite himself.
"I can put it right, Arthur."
Arthur put his hands on his hips and glared, hoping that his stance would make him seem more intimidating than petulant in his displeasure. "How?"
Merlin shrugged, friendly nonchalance somehow present in every line of his still somewhat stiff and jumpy figure. "How do you think?"
Arthur groaned. This was so stupid. He took a deep breath and stared at the floor, scattered with pebbles, for a moment, collecting his thoughts. Somehow, he felt that showing maturity and dignity now, in their first hands-on magical interaction, was of paramount importance. Arthur had to choose his words wisely. He could do that. Calm and spontaneous speechifying was an important part of his job. He could do that.
"As if I'm going to let you magic back together a room that you magicked apart! Magicking got you exiled because it was illegal, and now the first thing that you think that I'm going to let you do when you come magicking back is more magicking? No! Don't make me exile you again!"
Merlin raised his eyebrows in what Arthur could only assume was appreciation of how impressively Arthur had been able to make up a few words in his calm response. It was nice that Merlin could still grant respect where respect was due. It was good that that hadn't changed.
Unfortunately, Merlin wasn't so good at verbalizing how impressed and respectful he was at that moment. "Why would you exile me again for doing magic? You're working on making it legal!"
Arthur chose to disregard that. "Not anymore! No, I changed my mind, just now. Congratulations, you just made magic illegal again. Double illegal! Guards, seize him and fetch my dullest sword. I'm going to kill him myself and I want it to be painful."
To Arthur's exasperation and Merlin's apparent amusement, a few of the guards actually moved to carry out what technically had been an order from the king.
"I was kidding!"
"Anyway," continued Merlin, as though he had not been interrupted by a temper tantrum of the royal variety, "I did not 'magic apart' the room, although I do commend you for the creative word usage. I mean, I did blast the door open. That was all me. But I also made sure that everyone was out of the way so that I wouldn't kill them with it, so give me some credit."
Some credit. Sure, Arthur could give him some credit. A lot? Not so much.
"So I'm supposed to believe that there was some kind of earthquake that just happened to coincide with your arrival?"
Merlin opened his mouth to respond, looking defensive. So, naturally, Arthur just kept talking. "How the hell are you here anyway? Not least that you managed to sneak your way into the palace gates and all the way to this damned room that is falling apart again, but how are you here now?"
There was a pause of a few moments in which Merlin seemed to be waiting to see if Arthur was actually going to let him answer this time, which annoyed Arthur so much that, had he not been so curious, he might have kept filibustering just for the sake of it.
As if his curiosity ever led to anything good happening!
But Merlin seized his opportunity to speak, pulling a strangely comical contorted expression that Arthur suspected was meant to convey darkness and mysticism.
"I…sensed that I was needed."
Merlin seemed to be trying to intensify his gaze as much as possible, clearly hoping to convey in his response a sense of mysterious gravity that was to be accepted without questioning, as though their separation had imbued in him an unparalleled magical wisdom that should leave Arthur with no doubt as to his claim.
He hadn't been gone for that long.
"I know that Guinevere sent for you!" Arthur informed him, more snottily than he'd intended.
Merlin looked startled, but his answer was nearly light enough to conceal the alarm that was beginning to gather in his eyes. "Ah. Yes. Gwen sent for me."
"Yes, she did." Arthur was rather enjoying having the power of information on his side in this exchange. It seemed only fair that he not be the one in the dark every once in a while.
Merlin certainly seemed disconcerted. "When did you find out?"
"She told me."
Merlin bit his lip, looking as though he had something important to ask but did not want to hear answered. "Have you…done anything to her? King outranks queen, and you do seem fond of throwing people in dungeons and exiling has become quite the fad with you lately…Is that why she brought me back? To help somehow?"
Now it was Arthur's turn to be startled. His first instinct was to indignantly protest that he would never do such a thing to his wife, not when she was so important to him and he couldn't fathom anything that she could do to warrant exile or imprisonment. But then he understood why Merlin was asking. Arthur wasn't always so good at fathoming out the sorts of things that would turn him against someone he loved, no matter what kind of love it was. Yes, he could understand why Merlin had feared for Guinevere's status in Camelot. But he didn't like having to face it.
"What? No, I knew for ages before she told me. I didn't see the point in calling her out on it. I kind of figured that you two weren't plotting how to best usurp me again. But I finally told her that I knew because I needed you to be sent for quickly and I had no other way of contacting you."
Merlin's brow furrowed. "What was the rush? I haven't received word from anyone else, inside or out, that there's any emergency right now in Camelot."
Arthur stared at him. What was wrong with Merlin? Had he be so hardened by his banishment and whatever he'd been doing ever since that he was able to be so flippant about the cause for his being summoned back? It just didn't fit with what Arthur knew of Merlin. It didn't feel right. Not in the least. But he didn't know exactly how to approach the subject without asking outright. Their familiarity did not seem restored enough for that just yet.
And he did wonder just how many sources that Merlin had, "inside or out."
But he could wonder about that later. "Anyway, I didn't ask you why you were back. And no, it's not a trap or anything, which I'm sure entered your mind. I asked how you were back. From what Guinevere said, it seemed like you were ages away. We didn't think that you could have even received word until this morning, and that was us being optimistic of however magical mail works."
Merlin's brow began to unfurrow. Slightly. "Oh. I see. Well, you both guessed right. I only got Gwen's letter early this morning and left right away."
There were several questions for details that Arthur wanted to ask about that statement, but he chose the simplest. "I don't understand. If it took two days for a letter to reach you, how did you get here a few hours after you read it? I know that you have some bizarre mental connection with your horse—don't look at me like that, I know that you much have some kind of magical link with Buttercup—but there's no way that you could have gotten here on horseback so quickly, even you rode her half to death. Which I hope that you did not."
Merlin seemed to understand. "Of course. You're right, I couldn't take Buttercup. I needed to get here faster."
"So, I took a dragon."
There was a long pause in which Arthur felt his face grow very red, Merlin began trying to bite down a smile, and Arthur tried to figure out what to say. It didn't help that the people who hadn't fled the room after Merlin's entrance were beginning to whisper after that admission. A dragon! In Camelot! What was Merlin thinking?
Arthur recovered himself as best he could. "You took a what?"
Merlin began to speak, very quickly, and Arthur knew that Merlin was nervous. He always got…manic when something was troubling him and he believed that there was nothing that anyone could do to help him. Arthur had seen him make enough bizarre claims on his own to know what it looked like when Merlin began saying something that did not sound like it should be true and had no one on his side to validate him.
And he usually turned out to be right.
So it was with as open a mind as he could muster as Arthur began to listen to Merlin's fast-paced words.
"Dragon. He's actually up on the roof right now. Him landing is what shook your ceiling. I came down here and blew open the door so fast because I was afraid that the roof might start caving in again and that I might have to fortify it. Yes, with magic. But I figured that you'd prefer a display of officially-still-illegal magic to everyone dying horrible deaths under ceiling debris. So I did that. That's what I did. And I assume that you're going to send men up to the roof to keep an eye on him, but I'd advise them not to attack, if I were you. He has instructions to toast anyone who tries to kill him, and he tends not to disobey me."
There was another pause, longer this time. There were so very many things that needed to be said at the very same time. So there was only one thing to do.
"Get out! Everyone, get out!" There was a slightly hysterical edge to Arthur's voice as he shouted, and he understood why some of his braver guards looked rather unwilling to leave him alone with Merlin. Even those who had begun to soften when they'd heard that Merlin had returned on Arthur's invitation seemed to have regained their misgivings at the news of the dragon. Everyone in Camelot who hadn't been born in the last five years had very good reasons to fear dragons and, by association, those involved with them with any benevolence whatsoever. So Arthur understood.
But Arthur was not in the mood for understanding. "Oh, for heaven's sake! Merlin is not going to kill me the minute that you're gone! He'd kill me now if he wanted me dead. I mean, he could, but he won't! Merlin, tell them!"
This did not seem to have been what Merlin had wanted to hear. "What, tell them that I could kill you now if I wanted to? Because I don't think that would help my case very much."
"Fine." Merlin turned to the guards. "I promise not to kill the king. Or hurt or kidnap or anything."
"There!" Arthur turned back to his guards. "He promises. Now leave!"
A full minute passed after everyone left and Merlin and Arthur were alone together before either of them so much as moved. Arthur didn't know where to start. He was sure that Merlin was, deep down, very anxious for news of Gaius, even if he was inexplicably acting as though nothing was particularly wrong, but he was not sure which of them should be the one to broach the subject.
So Arthur decided not to broach it at all.
"Just so you know, Merlin, we won't be alone for long. Someone will have run for Guinevere as soon as I sent everyone away. And I think it would take more than a dragon or collapsing roof to keep her out when she hears that you're back."
A ghost of a smile reappeared on Merlin's face. "Good to know that the last six months haven't changed her too much."
Okay. Awkward small talk. That could work. Maybe Guinevere could handle the serious topic. He and Merlin could handle the awkward small talk. That seemed fair.
Merlin seemed similarly content to avoid the griffin in the room. Griffins, if Arthur was honest. There were an awful lot of uncomfortable and serious subjects that they would need to discuss…but Merlin definitely seemed just as willing as Arthur to avoid them.
Good old Merlin.
"So…sorry about the dragon. It really is the fastest way to travel, but I forgot about the roof until I felt it start to give under the weight. Mind if I start fortifying it again? Better to be safe than sorry, and trust me. This will be better than any carpenters or stonemasons in Camelot could manage on a roof that high."
Arthur nodded in assent. Whatever kept Merlin busy was fine with him. It wasn't like he really had any objections to Merlin doing magic. His earlier protest had been half for the sake of the witnesses and half out of annoyance with Merlin's destruction of the roof.
Plus, the roof could use all the fortification that it could take.
Merlin seemed to understand and casually began walking around the room, starting to follow the perimeter and then criss-crossing at the corners, staring up at the ceiling and managing not to trip over any fallen chairs or slip on any pebbles as he did so. Arthur could hear Merlin whispering words that he could not understand, and there were strange whooshes that seemed to be emanating upward, as though invisible power was being unleashed. The fallen pebbles began to float upward and reassemble themselves in their proper places on the ceiling. Still watching Merlin, Arthur began to think about the room of fire that Merlin had conjured up to give them privacy all of those months ago, and he gave an involuntary shudder.
It would take a while for him to get used to this. Merlin's nonchalance was the worst part of it. How would something be so very natural and normal to a person that Arthur thought that he knew and so strange and nerve-wracking to him?
But Arthur could be adaptable.
After a surprisingly few minutes, Merlin finished and returned to stand by Arthur, looking strangely tired, and Arthur made a mental note to ask him later whether or not magic was as draining as it looked. But at that moment, he wished that it had taken Merlin longer. He still didn't really know how to talk to him. Even awkward small talk had its limits.
"So…how's Buttercup doing? Is she going to pine for you after being left behind?"
A sudden warmth passed over Merlin's face as he began to smile, and he looked more like the old Merlin than he had since his reappearance. "I doubt it. And I didn't have the heart to bring Buttercup just now anyway, unless I had to."
He knew that Merlin had a strange attachment to that horse! They probably had strange man-to-horse conversations when no one was around. "Why not? Is riding horses unkind now? Or just Buttercup?"
Merlin rolled his eyes. "No, Arthur. But she has a foal, and he's too young to be separated from her right now. I don't know that they ever should be anyway. Mothers should be with their sons, if they can. I don't really care what species they are."
"She has a foal?"
"Yep!" Merlin grinned as though he was the proud father himself.
"How the hell did that happen?" Arthur did not grin.
Merlin rolled his eyes again. "Arthur, if you don't understand how the hell that happened, I'm beginning to understand why there aren't any little Arthurs or Guineveres running around just yet."
That comment, spoken in such an innocently teasing tone, stung far more than Arthur wished to show. It was bad enough that he thought that it was his own fault. Hearing it from someone else just…stung. "I know how it happened, but…how? Where did you get another horse of Camelot?"
"Why would I need another Camelotian horse?"
Arthur gritted his teeth. "Don't call us that! You know that it sounds stupid!"
Merlin rolled his eyes for a third time, and Arthur thought that he was just asking for a headache. He seemed healthy enough as he retorted. "You are such a child."
Completely unchildlishly, Arthur sniffed back, "Well, you didn't answer my question."
"You didn't answer mine!"
Arthur put on his high-and-mighty King Voice. "I asked mine first! And I am the king and you and the exilee!"
Merlin held up his hands in mock surrender. "Fine! I didn't get another Camelotia…fine, 'horse of Camelot.' Horses don't have to come from the same place to make little baby horses. As long as everything matches."
"Think about it, Arthur. Take your time."
Automatically, Arthur answered before he took the time to think about it. "So you left her behind, alone in the wilderness with her foal?"
Merlin looked offended. "In the wilderness? Honestly, Arthur, I haven't been living as a woodland hermit for the past six months! I left her safe and warm with a bunch of other horses. She's in a stable and everything."
"What does that matter?" Merlin sounded genuinely curious.
"Merlin!" Arthur was genuinely annoyed.
Merlin shrugged. "Somewhere on the coast. You won't have been there."
What was he on about? Arthur had been to the coast. Arthur and Merlin had been to the coast together. What was he talking about?
"I've been to the coast, Merlin!"
Merlin smiled at him, very strangely. Almost pityingly. "You've been to the west. I'm talking about the eastern coast."
And Arthur stopped talking for a very long time. The eastern coast…That was leagues away. Leagues and leagues and leagues away. He'd known that Merlin was far away, but he'd never fathomed that he could have possibly gotten that far. No one in Camelot even had maps of any reliability that stretched all the way to the eastern coast. There were stories and legends and myths, yes, but facts? Witnesses? Artifacts? Hell, for all that Arthur had known, there hadn't even been an eastern coast. Just…land.
Yes, Merlin had been very far away.
After a few minutes, Arthur managed to look at Merlin again, who had a look of patience and almost envy on his face, and there was not the slightest question in Arthur's mind as to the veracity of Merlin's claim. He had been to the eastern coast. And Arthur found that he had to say something. He had to interact, to be part of the moment, he had to feel it. Otherwise, it was just another story.
"You left Buttercup on the eastern coast. You've been to the eastern coast. Merlin…"
And then Merlin smiled so deeply that Arthur forgot to breathe for a moment. This was not going to be any story or myth or legend. Merlin knew and saw and was affected. And it was strangely touching. Arthur couldn't help but feel a great surge of gladness for the young man. Yes, there was jealousy as well, that Merlin had been so far, but it seemed to Arthur that Merlin had been meant to make it, as though it had been part of a picture that had not been completed until he had made the journey.
And Merlin began to speak so openly that it was as though he'd never been exiled. "I have, and Arthur, it's so beautiful. Truly. You wouldn't believe that such things could be real, the things that they have there. The waters are so clean and clear and cold that you almost don't want to disturb them, even to take a drink. The trees have such smooth trunks and their bark doesn't feel like bark, it's…almost like parchment, but white. Pure white. The branches have leaves that are so green that you wouldn't believe that they could happen in nature. And it snows—it snows, Arthur. Like in the books. It's…magical."
For an instant, Arthur assumed that Merlin was being poetic in those final two words, as equally sentimental as had been the previous sentences. It took him a moment to realize that Merlin was being literal. The eastern coast where Merlin had been was as magical as Camelot was not.
But Merlin was not done. "Oh, and you should see the horses, Arthur. Even their mixed breeds put our warhorses to shame. None of them were black or brown or even so white as Lancelot's was. Not really. They're…silver and gold and even bronze and look so delicate but so strong that it almost feels like you shouldn't touch them without asking their permission. And unicorns! Arthur, there were unicorns! Not just like that one that we found in the woods. Families of them. Families! They were incredible, all of them…and it was all so different. Buttercup and I stood out like sore thumbs," Merlin said, seeming unwilling to stop his account but forced by something so mundane and mortal as breath. Arthur was glad for the pause; he was able to register, in the very back of his mind, buried deep in the waves of awe that he was feeling at Merlin's words, with no small amount of gladness, that Merlin had referred to the warhorses of Camelot as "ours" rather than "yours." Merlin still belonged to Camelot, even if it seem that he knew it without knowing it.
But Arthur didn't want to think about Merlin's fundamental loyalties just then. He just wanted Merlin to keep speaking, a feeling that he had rarely ever encountered in the past. But then, when had Merlin ever spoken like this?
Fortunately, he did not stop. "Would you believe that they captured me and held me prisoner because they saw Buttercup's Pendragon livery and thought that I was a scout from Camelot, coming to devastate their stock of sorcerers as Camelot had their own? That they took Buttercup away from me to save her? But when they saw me escape, when they saw how I escaped, when they saw how easy it was when I did it but how I wouldn't flee without saving Buttercup first and they saw what I could do for what I cared about…it was so different, Arthur. I felt like…you."
From Merlin's tone, Arthur could not tell whether or not the sorcerer thought it a good or bad thing to feel like Arthur. Arthur wasn't sure himself whether it was good or bad, for a man like Merlin. But Merlin carried on, either unaware of or unworried about Arthur's doubts.
"I felt just like I was you. Like how you were born to reign over iron and steel and rock and I was born to have dominion over all things magical and elemental and natural and it was fantastic in every definition of the word until I realized that having dominion was not necessarily the way to get things done. It's no offense to you, Arthur. Really. I'm glad that you're king. But I found that I would take friends and allies and fellows of my own kind with whom I could be free and teach and learn from…but I did not want subjects. It didn't feel right. What kind of friendship could there be when one has such complete authority and superiority over the other? No, that would just breed resentment, and resentment can lead to war and battle and all of the things that I was traveling all over to try to safeguard against. I was willing to lead and decide and choose, but I won't take a title. I'd spent my entire life wanting to be around people like me. I wasn't going to immediately try to place myself above them, no matter how powerful I might be. Oh, Arthur, it was so beautiful there…"
Arthur didn't speak. He didn't dare. Merlin looked as he had never looked before, and Arthur felt as though he wasn't even in the room. He felt so inconsequential, and it felt so very appropriate. Merlin was so animated and so sad and so happy and so bright-eyed with recollection that, if Arthur were not seeing it with his own eyes, he would not have believed that it was possible for a man to look so very strong, even with emotions of such intensity and integrity playing across his face. He suddenly felt that it was no matter whether Merlin wanted a title or not. There was no conceivable title in the world that could have captured the essence that Arthur saw standing before him, still in worn boots and a faded neckerchief.
For the very first time since the moment that he had made the decision, Arthur was glad that he had exiled Merlin.
It was not until Merlin shook himself out of his reverie and looked at Arthur, acknowledging his company and surroundings once more, that Arthur realized he was crying.
And he didn't care. Not in the least. Which Arthur suspected was one of the reasons that Merlin did not tease him for it. But what a reversal! Arthur was crying and Merlin was not!
Magic was so confusing. Especially when it wasn't being used.
Merlin seemed to pick up on Arthur's growing distress at his lack of immediate understanding—after all, were these not subjects that required more consideration than Arthur could afford them just then?—and his tone was light-hearted as he spoke again.
"So. Anyway. That's why I left Buttercup behind. She has a foal. And dragons are faster."
Count on Merlin to be change from a dazzlingly solemn recounting of experiences unknown to anyone in Camelot to a topic over which they had been arguing.
Well, two could play at that game, if only for the sake of recovery time. "It just seems strange that those magnificent horses that were so different from Buttercup should have accepted her."
"I don't see why!" Merlin responded indignantly, probably on Buttercup's behalf. Was Merlin some sort of Horselord? Like a Dragonlord but with…horses?
Arthur did not voice that question immediately.
"Oh, come on! Think of it in terms of people. Wouldn't it be kind of fishy if a foreigner could be brought so easily into a group that knows nothing about her?"
Merlin shrugged. "I'm a foreigner who was brought into your royal household when no one knew anything about me."
Now Arthur rolled his eyes. "Oh, so having magic makes you a foreigner now? I see that exile hasn't made you any less melodramatic. That's good to know."
"No, Arthur. I'm a foreigner by birth, which you well know! I was born under Cenred, not Uther. And I wasn't in Camelot for a week before I got roped into playing manservant—a position that I was completely unqualified for!-to the second most important man in the kingdom! Say what you will about me keeping my magic secret for all those years. It's not my fault that the Pendragons don't have much of a screening process for their servants."
Arthur decided to ignore the meat of Merlin's retort. He did tend to forget that Merlin wasn't actually from Camelot. "Oh, so it's my fault? I seem to remember having you forced on me as manservant by my father. I certainly didn't pick you."
"I'm just saying!"
"I can't believe that I missed you." Arthur said it without thinking. He was tired and confused and so strangely comfortable in his surroundings that he just said the first thing that popped into his mind.
It did not go unnoticed.
"You missed me?" He could hear the barely-contained laughter in Merlin's breath.
"Yes, you did! You missed me! Aw, Arthur! That is…that is just precious."
"No it's not!" Arthur winced as his voice jumped higher than it had since before puberty. That would not help his case. Surely Merlin would notice.
He did. Merlin grinned as he crossed his arms over his chest in the classic defensive pose, pre-emptively denying it to Arthur. "No need to get defensive!"
Unable to cross his arms across his chest without looking like he was mimicking and therefore, on some level, agreeing with Merlin, Arthur went to sternly shove his fists into his pockets and rely on his broadness of body to intimidate the skinny sorcerer. Then Arthur realized that he didn't have pockets. It was a very inconvenient situation. The only solution that his body seemed to come up with was to raise the pitch of his voice even higher. He'd be hoarse in the morning if this conversation did not begin to swing in his favor. "I'm not getting defensive!"
Why did Merlin ever only notice the things that embarrassed Arthur? It was never, "Oh, Arthur, your room looks dusty, let me sweep it for you!" Or, "Oh, Arthur, I realized that I forgot to change your sheets yesterday and will therefore change them twice today to logically make up for it!" Or, "Oh, Arthur, your hairline is the most intact of all the scalps in all the kingdom and I envy your golden locks with every fiber of my admittedly scrawny being!" No, Merlin noticed the stupid things. And he did not notice them respectfully.
"Oh, so your voice just spontaneously raises an octave at random nowadays?"
"Yes! Wait, what?"
Arthur's flustered confusion was enough to silence Merlin for a moment before he chose to begin laughing rather than continuing to trick Arthur into digging him more deeply into his hole. It had happened before, usually when they were alone in Arthur's chambers or Merlin was whining about something on a quest and lashing out to try to justify his complaints or whenever they were just so exhausted and isolated that status almost seemed to disappear. Usually when Merlin would have had the chance to escape, should Arthur's temper turn on him at the teasing or when Arthur would not have been able to motivate himself to going after the insolent servant.
So Merlin began laughing.
And after a moment, Arthur joined him. It was all so absurd. Merlin had been recalled for the most solemn of reasons, Arthur had been the one to exile him in the first place, Merlin's arrival had threatened the architectural stability of the castle again, Arthur was deliberately avoiding talking about serious topics, Merlin was treating his return with a levity completely inappropriate both for the reason for his return and the fact that he was being permitted to return at all, Arthur had threatened (albeit insincerely) to make magic "double-illegal" and therefore nullify Merlin's reasons for allowing himself to be banished in the first place…it was all so absurd. Why should they be laughing? Why should they be laughing together? As if the illogic of their rather atypical relationship as master and servant hadn't been strange enough!
But then, Merlin wasn't his servant anymore, was he? What a strange thought. Arthur had been treating Merlin now more or less as his equal. He had pulled rank once or twice, but Arthur could do that with anyone. Even Guinevere. King outranks everyone. But that he should be treating Merlin more as an equal with his status as a returning criminal rather than as a semi-competent servant was more than a little bit unexpected. And so very absurd!
Speaking of absurdity and Arthur avoiding serious topics…
"I still can't believe that you named your horse 'Buttercup.'"
Merlin stopped laughing. It was apparently hard to complain in pseudo-exasperation whilst laughing. "Would you get over it? It's been years since I named her!"
Arthur shrugged. "I'm just saying, Merlin. She's a warhorse, not a kitten. Even if she is a mare."
Merlin pointed a finger in Arthur's direction accusingly. "I'm starting to think that the only reason that you left her behind for me, Arthur, is that you didn't want a warhorse left behind in your stable called 'Buttercup' with no one around to ride her!"
Then Merlin paused and seemed to think over what he had said. He dropped his hands to shove them into his pockets in the same gesture of vague discomfort that Arthur had been denied earlier by lack of his own pockets. "Thank you, for that, by the way."
Merlin threw half of an annoyed glare in Arthur's direction before he saw that Arthur genuinely did not know what Merlin meant and not that Arthur was trying to wring bonus gratitude out of him. "For…for leaving me Buttercup. And the provisions and blanket and everything. But mostly for Buttercup. Transport aside, she was company. And I really needed company during those first few days. So, thank you."
Arthur could not have tried to wring extra gratitude out of Merlin if his life had depended on it at that very moment. He'd never considered that Buttercup as a living companion who was not punishing him for being who he was would be one of the benefits of being at Merlin's side. He'd thought that Merlin could use food and sources of warmth and a means of travel that didn't involve him wearing out his boots before he reached the first village that he'd come across. That Buttercup was company…Arthur was more glad than ever that he'd conked Merlin on the head into unconsciousness in an act of petty revenge so as to leave her behind for a man who did not seem able to move past the necessary protests when given something unexpectedly extravagant. And whatever Merlin said, Arthur was sure that it was not only for those first few days that Merlin needed some company by his side.
So Arthur nodded in acknowledgement of Merlin's expression of gratitude, and Merlin seemed satisfied. Sometimes the traditional stoicism of masculinity was very useful for the avoidance of over-emotional displays. There had already been enough of those in the last few minutes.
The last few minutes…
Arthur suddenly swore aloud, and Merlin jumped. Arthur couldn't blame him; it had been something of a serious and quiet moment. But Arthur didn't have time to apologize. He wasn't sure that he would have anyway.
It didn't matter. He had to tell Merlin something, and if he had been a braver man, it would have been about Gaius' looming mortality and how every minute counted.
But it wasn't.
Arthur's voice was urgent when he spoke again. "Merlin, get ready for things to get really serious."
Merlin raised his eyebrows. "As opposed to—"
"Merlin, it's been almost ten minutes that we've been alone in here. Ten minutes."
Then Merlin's eyes went wide. He knew what Arthur meant. Arthur knew that neither one of them should have been dreading the coming event, but he knew that Merlin knew that this was not going to be an immediate welcome of fondness and affection. This was to be one of those instances when they were caught doing something distinctly unproductive for both of their positions and…informed of it. Sternly.
As if on cue, there was a loud banging on the thick wooden door that Merlin had wisely magicked back into its sturdy place in the doorway when he had been fortifying the ceiling. Arthur could hardly believe that knocking through those six inches of solid wood could be heard so distinctly. This did not bode well, and he began to wish that he'd been a little more forthright with Merlin than he had been. Masculine stoicism was only appropriate to a certain point. He was going to catch it…
He exchanged a look with Merlin, and they were once again united against what could technically be called a common foe. He felt somewhat disrespectful referring to this person as a "foe," but he knew that they were both in for it as soon as that door was opened, even if only for a minute.
Merlin obviously agreed. He whispered, fairly loudly so as to be heard across the distance between them and over the insistent rapping on the door, "Maybe we should just pretend that no one's in here."
Arthur opened his mouth to agree to the somewhat short-sighted plan when a voice made itself sharply heard through the wood. "Don't you dare try to hide! I know that you're both in there! And I can't believe that you didn't send for me yourselves at once!"
Arthur winced and, out of the corner of his eye, saw Merlin do the same. Incapable of opening the door on his own—indeed, incapable of doing it with the combined muscles of himself and Merlin, although that was an admittedly inconsequential addition—Arthur waited a few moments for Merlin to magic the heavy door open. When he made no movement to do so, Arthur turned and said, still whispering for no real reason, "Shouldn't you be opening the door right now?"
"I was waiting for an order from the king!"
What a coward! Now he was ready to follow Arthur's orders. He wanted Arthur to have to be the one responsible for opening the door. Arthur couldn't blame him, but still.
Well, if Merlin wanted to grasp at loopholes, Arthur could do it as well.
"I can't order someone to do magic! It's still illegal and that would be inappropriate for me to do so as king!"
Merlin gasped melodramatically. "Coward!"
"You're the coward! You talk about being the most powerful sorcerer in the history of ever and—"
"I never said it like that!"
"—and you won't prove it!"
"I have proved it!"
"Open the door!"
"Is that an order?"
"No! Be your own man! Do it of your own volition!"
"I'm going to interpret that as an order!"
And before Arthur could prepare another zinger of a protest in their whispered argument, Merlin took a deep breath and, saying nothing, turned away from Arthur. From the side, he saw Merlin's blue eyes burn golden—why did it still seem so strange to see happen?—and the door creaked gently open.
And there stood Guinevere, already scowling and with her hands on her hips.
Arthur thought that he could detect a hint of concern and excitement in her expression as she looked from one man to the other, carefully hidden beneath the anger. He also thought that he detected that the concern and excitement was not for Arthur.
But it was hard to detect much of anything behind her scowl. After looking back and forth between them, she marched forward, and Arthur was dimly happy to see that he was not the only one to take an involuntary step backward. Guinevere was the sweetest and loveliest woman that Arthur had ever had the privilege to meet and permission to love, and he had not regretted for even an instant that he had married her and made her his queen.
But when she was mad, she was mad.
Finally stopping and standing a good ten feet away from where Merlin and Arthur had stumbled into standing directly side-by-side, she finally spoke, and Arthur prepared himself for a torrent. She probably had the speech of all speeches prepared for this. Merlin was back, he and Arthur were talking with appeared to be great civility, he was sure that both of their expressions showed that there had been no discussion of Gaius' illness, and she'd been told of the situation presumably by a fleeing servant or a guard sent from the council room as per Arthur's hysterical instructions rather than by Merlin or Arthur themselves. Yes, Guinevere would have a lot to say, and he and Merlin were going to suffer, somewhat deservedly, for it. Arthur prepared himself as best he could for the speech that was sure to follow.
Guinevere opened her mouth and said a single word.
One word was enough.
Reviews are great!
Chapter 7: Sorrows and Scales
Disclaimer: Merlin is not mine.
Guinevere yelled for a while.
Arthur wasn't surprised. She hadn't been sleeping anymore than Arthur had since they had made the decision to call Merlin home, she was spending a great deal of time in the physician's chambers, watching Gaius waste away as his pseudo-son was presumably in transit, facing the same unspoken pressures and questions by everyone even slightly concerned about the advancement of the royal geneaology, and she had not been informed of Merlin's return by either of the men who should have made it a priority to make sure that she knew. This was just the feather that broke the griffin's back.
Which really was Merlin's fault, Arthur thought absently as he tried to look both very repentant and very interested as Guinevere threw scathing remark after scathing remark in his—his!—direction. After all, if Merlin hadn't decided to come crashing into the castle, probably making as much noise as was physically possible, and walked into a room filled with people who had not been expecting his return and loved a good day of gossip, he and Arthur could have taken a calm little jaunt up to her chambers to make sure that she was privy to their mature discussion of the causes for Merlin's return.
Maybe it was best that she hadn't been there for the first few minutes.
Arthur decided that he might not make that argument until she was calmer. Or on her deathbed in eighty or ninety years and probably with other things on her mind and would be likely to overlook this indiscretion. Or he'd already be dead and wouldn't have to deal with it at all. That would be a lucky break!
Arthur shook his head, wanting to rid himself of any thoughts of Guinevere's inevitable death. It seemed to be a well-timed shake of the head, for Guinevere seemed to interpret it as a head shake of ultimate apology. Taking a deep breath, presumably to compensate for the way in which she had taken advantage of every iota of air in her lungs so as to yell at him uninterrupted for as long as possible, she asked sternly, "And what do you have to say for yourself?"
Arthur took it as a good sign that she sounded as though she had exhausted herself with the initial rant. It would hopefully lessen the scolding that he would get when she found out that he hadn't spoken to Merlin about any of the more important issues at hand.
So Arthur answered, very simply and truthfully, "I'm sorry."
Realizing himself that this sounded awfully inadequate for such a serious subject, he hastily followed it with a few details, if only to show that he had been listening. Or knew her well enough to know what he was in trouble for without having to listen.
"I'm sorry that neither I nor Merlin came to see you immediately after he came in. You deserved to know. Merlin and I know that."
Out of the corner of his eye, Arthur saw Merlin glaring at him and knew why. Arthur had specifically mentioned Merlin twice in the latter half of his apology in the rather obvious hope that the queen would remember that the king was not the only one at fault for her ignorance of the situation as it had unfolded.
And it worked.
And it took almost all of Arthur's discipline as a warrior not to punch his fist in the air in victory.
And it took surprisingly little mental effort to convince himself that that would have been a natural and not at all childish reaction to throwing another man who—if not exactly a bosom friend at the moment—was at the least not an enemy in front of the metaphorical horses to be trampled by the hooves of his wife's anger.
Now that was a metaphor. If the situation hadn't been so tense, Arthur would have shared it with the others in the room. It was certainly worth another punch in the air. And they thought his grasp on language was unsophisticated!
But at that moment, he didn't care too much about his language. It was Guinevere's, as she was surer to hurl it at Merlin, that Arthur was interested in. He'd gotten his tongue-lashing. Now it was Merlin's turn. It would be nice to see Merlin yelled at. Not only did he deserve it just as much as Arthur in this particular instance, but Arthur would feel like less of a spoiled grudge-holder by not being the only one to fly off the handle at seeing him again. Yes, it would be nice to see Merlin yelled at by Guinevere. As she turned to face him, Arthur was pleased to see Merlin instinctively back a few steps away. At least he would be prepared. This would be vicious, and Arthur was thrilled.
So it was with extreme disappointment that he saw Guinevere's angry countenance melt into something far too close to welcome for the single instant that her face was clearly visible before she ran forward, tripping slightly on the long hem of her gown, and all but fell into him, hugging him as though he would crumble away and disappear unless she held him together.
Well, wasn't that just the sweetest damn thing to have ever happened in the history of ever.
This was so unfair.
After a few moments, in which Merlin had to steady himself so as to avoid falling from the momentum of her hug, absorb it, and then enjoy it with as much detachment as possible, Merlin looked over Guinevere's shoulder and smiled with a sort of friendly triumph on his face at Arthur, who scowled. He didn't see that there was any real reason for Merlin to be so smug about it. If Arthur had been missing for six months, he probably would have gotten a hug too! Absence tended to make the heart abnormally fond when the absent party was presumably off dying a horrible death in squalor somewhere. To Guinevere, at least.
But then Guinevere began to cry and all of the satisfaction drained from Merlin's face, which grew softer and more tender than most people had ever seen it, and Arthur felt his own face soften as well. It was one thing to know that Guinevere and Merlin had been such good friends, to understand that she had been the one slipping him most of his contraband comforts during his stint in prison, to remember that they had been close with one another long before Arthur had had much more than an inkling of vague affection for either of them. Yes, it was easy to remember the facts of their relationship.
Seeing it was a whole other issue. It was just like Merlin's magic. Perhaps this was a whole other type of magic. There was such unadulterated pain and sadness and happiness and relief audible in Guinevere's distinctly unqueenly sobs that Merlin's mask fell almost immediately. They were just…glad to see each other. Merlin closed his eyes.
So it was in a rare moment of self-awareness and propriety that Arthur turned away and gave them their moment with as much privacy as could be afforded in their current situation.
Unfortunately, it seemed that they required more than just that one moment that Arthur was able to so selflessly give up to their reunion. But what was he going to do? Interrupt them? Merlin could blast him into a million pieces if he wanted to and Guinevere could…well, Arthur didn't like to think what Guinevere could do to him if she wanted to. He'd rather face the blasting into a million pieces.
So they were uninterrupted as Guinevere cried onto Merlin's chest for such a long time that Arthur both began to grow bored and to wonder if Merlin had brought a spare neckerchief with him on the dragon, because Guinevere was certainly making a mess of the one that he was wearing.
Finally, they separated. Guinevere backed a few steps away from Merlin, but kept a tight grip on his shirt with both hands, as though she was afraid that he would run away and out of their lives again unless she held onto him with all the strength she could muster. Or perhaps she just needed someone to help her stay on her feet. But, red eyes and runny nose and blotchy face, she looked beautiful in her exhausted relief.
When Merlin looked up again at Arthur over Guinevere's head, Arthur saw that Guinevere's were not the only red eyes in the room. Arthur swore under his breath. There was no way that he could make fun of Merlin for crying when his own wife had probably just wept out the majority of her bodily fluids in front of him.
And perhaps there was another reason why Arthur could not bring himself to tease Merlin for the emotional release that he had just witnessed with so very much suppressed impropriety. Perhaps there was another reason…
But that didn't matter. Not now.
Merlin nodded at Arthur, perhaps reading in the king's expression that these past twenty minutes or so since his return had not been a portion of time allotted for tearful and unexpected greetings. Perhaps he sensed that his various welcomes had merely been a prelude to an explanation as to his summons back to court. Merlin had always had something of an annoying ability to read Arthur's face. And mood.
Which nonetheless never seemed to stop Merlin from being aggravating. Good mood, bad mood, impatient mood…Merlin was always ready to annoy him in some fashion.
Although Arthur supposed he ought to commend the young man for his consistency.
But this was not the time for commendations. Certainly not to Merlin. Plans for fortification and renovations aside, the destruction—even if only partial—of his council chambers was never an event that Arthur would be willing to discuss with any compliments toward the destructor.
Also, there were maybe more important things to talk about.
More important, but far less appealing.
But the important topic unfortunately had a time limit, so Arthur supposed that he should focus on that one rather than casting about for smaller areas of conversation. He could do that. He could broach this subject with Merlin. He was king! Arthur could do anything.
"So…the eastern coast. Good weather over there?"
Ease into the subject. Transition. That was the way to do it. What kind of man would sloppily bring up a completely random topic like Gaius' looming mortality? Just a nice gradual slide in that general direction would do just fine. It was the polite thing to do.
Guinevere seemed less impressed. As did Merlin, who, acting as Arthur's shadow for nearly seven years, knew damn well when the king was hedging. When his wife turned around and raised an eyebrow in suspicion tinged with more than a little bit of judgment, it was almost eerie how similar her expression was to Merlin's.
Merlin's back for half an hour and already they were teaming up against him!
Guinevere half turned all the way around, as though prepared to storm back over to Arthur, but stopped to look back up into Merlin's face. Arthur could see the wrinkles around her fists on the fabric of Merlin's shirt becoming more and more pronounced, and he knew that she did not want to let go. So Merlin raised a hand to her cheek, looked into her eyes, and smiled at her with the sort of unadulterated friendship that Arthur always turned away from. From what Arthur could see of their profiles, Guinevere closed her eyes for a moment before looking deeply back into Merlin's. She then took a deep breath, let go of Merlin's shirt and smoothed out the wrinkles with an endearingly maternal air, and turned to face her husband with a look of strange calm upon her face.
Damn Merlin and his sorcerous ways!
Or his understanding of the intricacies and importance of expression of friendship. That was another possibility.
But no less frustrating. It always bothered Arthur when Merlin had such a firm grasp on a skill with which he struggled, whether it was magic or basic reasoning skills or emotional openness. For all of the years of training with the best minds and hands available in the kingdom that should have left Arthur as the most well-rounded man in Camelot, he had learned over the past decade or so that there were some qualities that just could not be taught. And why did they have to be such important qualities?
Or, at the very least, useful qualities. Judging by the look on Guinevere's face as she walked purposefully back to Arthur, she had a useful phrase or two up her sleeve, and Arthur mentally winced, a comfortingly familiar feeling in his brain.
"Arthur." Her voice certainly was firm.
"Guinevere." It was only after her eyes, still red and puffy, regained their steely glint that Arthur supposed that adopting his lofty King Voice was not the best choice in this scenario. Judging from the laugh that he heard coming from Merlin's direction—he dared not break his gaze from Guinevere's and look—Merlin agreed.
"Arthur, shouldn't you be behaving a little more sympathetically right now?"
Guinevere's expression, Arthur suddenly realized, was not angry. It was…urgent. Significant. Almost pleading, a look that he so very rarely saw on her face. Arthur couldn't see why. He'd been plenty sympathetic and comparatively effusive in his apologies to her, and his inquiry about the weather on the eastern coast hadn't exactly been an insult that had cut to the bone. Why the hell should he be sympathetic to anyone just now? He'd been yelled at and mocked and dust from the ceiling was beginning to trickle down into his hair. Hell, why should he be amenable? Guinevere had basically given up on trying to improve his manners by this point in their marriage, so why was she lecturing him now? Banishment and recalling aside, she had to understand that Arthur would never exactly be putting on his helmet of politeness every time he spoke to Merlin. Why should he treat him any differently now, when it seemed as though nothing had changed?
And then Arthur realized, and he felt very ashamed. "Guinevere, there's something that may not have occurred to you."
Seeming to pick up on the traces of self-loathing in his voice, Guinevere's face softened. "What do you mean?"
Arthur took a deep breath. This was not going to go over well with any of the three of them. He was ashamed, Guinevere would be angry, Merlin's heart would break into so many pieces that the framework of the council room would seem downright stable…this was not going to go well.
But it had to come out.
"Guinevere, Merlin does not exactly know why he was called back."
Over the queen's shoulder, Arthur saw Merlin's face twist from an expression of amused curiosity to one of startled alarm. The deep unhappiness and blood rushing to Arthur's face had not gone unnoticed, and Merlin began to stride silently toward them. Arthur gave an involuntary shudder. This was terrible, this telling, this story that would mean that Arthur had to face it as well as Merlin, this moment of truth that would be so awful in so many ways…
Guinevere's face contained no trace of dread, however, and Arthur knew why. She would much rather be mad at him than have to aim the words that no one wanted to speak at Merlin. So he understood her anger, more exaggerated than would be typical.
"You didn't tell him why you were calling him back?"
Arthur felt himself began to rile and hoped that she could understand as well. He felt this as deeply as she did, and there was no one in the five kingdoms who would argue for Arthur's emotional stability. "I was waiting for you so that we could do it together!"
"You're a liar, Arthur Pendragon! You just didn't want to do it yourself! I wrote the damn letter and you couldn't break the damn news?"
She was swearing. That was not a good sign. She rarely swore.
Then a thought occurred to Arthur, and he almost smiled in grim satisfaction as he went on the offensive. "You didn't tell him in the letter why he was coming back?"
She put her hands on her hips. Merlin appeared, ghost-like, behind her, but Arthur did not look at him. "I didn't want him to kill himself riding back! What use would he be if he broke his neck or killed his horse by riding her to death?"
Merlin gave a sort of twitch in the background, and Arthur knew in the back of his mind that Guinevere's question of "what use he would be?" had not gone unnoticed.
Which, for some bizarre reason, just served to infuriate Arthur all the more.
"What the hell did you tell him? Did you send him an invitation to the tallest flower competition that you're so eager to hold?"
Guinevere, for the first time, averted her eyes. "Just that there was a pressing situation and that we could use his help as soon as possible. Which was true!"
Arthur, despite himself, was aghast. And they said that he knew how to hedge around a topic!
Her voice began to grow high-pitched in defensiveness, a trait that she claimed that she had picked up from him. "He would have ridden himself half to death getting here if he knew. At least half to death! How would that have helped?"
But Arthur's voice was low and terrible. Perhaps if he shouted more and more loudly he wouldn't have to hear to voice in his head telling him that delaying would just make it all the worse…"It's not Merlin who we should be worrying about dying here, Guinevere!"
Merlin gave another twitch, and this time, he spoke. His voice was quiet, but so firm and absolute that the yelling stopped immediately. It was such an unnerving situation…so much authority in every syllable from Merlin…
"What's going on? Someone needs to tell me. Now."
There was a pause in which both king and queen looked uncertainly at the banished former servant. And Arthur took the coward's route and directed himself once more at his wife, knowing what he was doing and hating himself for it.
"He needed to be here. He needs to be here!"
Guinevere was apparently more than happy to follow Arthur's train of thought. Why did this have to be Merlin, of all people?
"He is here!"
Arthur shook his head vehemently. "But he deserved to know why! This wasn't our choice to make, Guinevere!"
"Am I going to have to light the room on fire?" Merlin muttered tiredly, but seemed resigned to letting them hash this out before telling him what it concerned.
Guinevere continued as though she hadn't heard him. Maybe she hadn't. Maybe her breath was pounding as deafeningly in her ears as Arthur's was. "No, it wasn't our choice! It's never been our choice! But we made it our responsibility the moment that we decided to ignore Gaius' wishes and bring him home. It is on our shoulders, Arthur, yours and mine."
Arthur took a pause to gather his thoughts to figure out how to answer her.
An instant later, he wished that he hadn't.
Merlin took advantage of the opportunity to bring himself firmly into the conversation. His determination to let them have it out seemed to have vanished the moment that they had referred to Gaius with such desperation.
This time, all of the firmness and steadiness and assured authority were completely absent from Merlin's voice. He sounded…young.
And at that moment, Arthur regained his courage and his strength and his resolve. What was that that Merlin had called them, all those months ago? Two sides of the same coin? Well, if Merlin beginning to doubt and fear and show such dread in his eyes, Arthur could find his strength again. Balance. That's what was important. If one was weak, the other must be strong. If one lacked, the other had to share. If one was wounded, the other shared a shoulder. If one was on the verge of losing something so very dear to his heart, the other had to be willing to take up the responsibility of filling that void. Hadnt that been what happened when Uther had died? One half cannot hate one that makes it whole…had Merlin said that too? Or was it one of those things that Arthur had always known somewhere in the back of his resistant mind but never put into words until he'd taken the time to think about it? Did it matter? It was true.
One half could not hate that which made it whole.
It takes two halves to make a whole.
It takes strength and weakness and fear and bravery and uncertainty and conviction and irrationality and logic and caution and recklessness and love and loathing and everything opposite and identical…it takes balance. And Arthur knew it.
So Arthur, his heart swelling in his chest and his backbone straightening and his eyes raising to meet Merlin's, which were bright with fear of what he was asking of Gaius, and he opened his mouth to give an answer that no one wanted to be true but everyone needed to be said.
Arthur took a deep breath and said three words, and even he heard the sympathy and bizarrely uncharacteristic softness in his voice.
"He's sick, Merlin."
Chapter 8: The Son Rising
Disclaimer: Merlin is not mine.
Ever since Arthur had learned of Merlin's magic, Merlin had been one surprise after another. Of course, if Arthur was being honest with himself, Merlin had been surprising him in various ways since the day that they had met each other. The skinny peasant who had difficulty walking in a straight line following him into battle, time and time again…the young man who had been honored with the employment as manservant to the prince of Camelot and had taken few—if any—steps toward becoming more than semi-competent at his job…the ever-increasing impertinence toward Arthur, completely unbefitting his station in life…the fact that Merlin seemed to have a peculiar penchant for obtaining forgiveness…yes, Merlin had generally been a hard person to predict.
Which Arthur usually very predictably forgot. So, theirs had always been something of a surprising relationship. It was almost as though everything that Arthur learned of Merlin's true nature one day was completely abandoned the next. It was also perhaps not the best system for rooting out secret lifestyles.
It occurred to Arthur that perhaps he should stop comparing his own ways of dealing with situations to those of Merlin. Comradery—lapsed or not—aside, they were so different…
So it was with almost disgruntled shock that Arthur stared at Merlin as he began to speak. After only a few seconds of processing the gravity of Gaius' illness as had been reported by Arthur, Merlin seemed prepared to move on to the details of the situation. He had processed and adapted in less time than it generally took for Arthur to realize that he needed to have something repeated to him more slowly.
Merlin must have been using magic. That was it. Magic time-bending so that it could seem like he was thinking quickly. Yes, that was it. That made sense. Magic time-bending.
In the back of his mind, Arthur resolved to never learn too much about magic. Attributing skills of which he possessed very few to supernatural intervention was far more satisfying. Merlin was just…cheating.
But this was not the time to accuse Merlin of anything. Even Arthur did not have the heart to hurl any barbs in the sorcerer's direction. Not today. Not now. So Arthur repeated himself, as though Merlin had not understood and needed to hear it all again. Arthur repeated the easiest part of what was to come. It was so much easier than moving on to the rest of it…
"He's sick, Merlin."
Merlin raised his eyebrows, his eyes displaying an interesting combination of calmness and skepticism. Arthur had to force himself not to look away. Why did he feel guilty? None of this was his fault.
"Sick. Sick how?"
The flat incredulity of his tone made Arthur look more deeply into Merlin's eyes, which had not changed. But was that…control that was hidden behind the calmness? Determination?
And then Arthur knew. Merlin was doing what he had always done. When worried or distracted or on the verge of some revelation of which Arthur would no doubt be made privy much later, Merlin tended to pull into himself, choosing to be snarky or sulky or even silent, which was always a sign that something was wrong. When Merlin was calm and controlled and motionless, something was wrong.
Merlin was worried.
Arthur wished that he had kept his own voice as steady as Merlin's. He had no right to be the upset party in this situation. So he took a deep breath and began to speak.
That was when Guinevere decided to intervene.
"We only just found out—"
Merlin rolled his eyes and began to pace back and forth, the movement a sign that Merlin was not going to tolerate being kept in the dark for too long.
The thought of rushing to accommodate Merlin's refusals to accommodate! The times certainly had changed.
Merlin seemed to find the idea somewhat less ludicrous than Arthur. "Just tell me, okay? I don't care which of you does it. Just…tell me what you need to tell me. Sick how?"
And Arthur suddenly found himself blurting out the unfortunate truth with as little grace and consideration as he suspected, hearing the words as they came out of his mouth, was physically possible.
"He's dying, Merlin."
Never underestimate a Pendragon's capability for cruel bluntness, Arthur thought wryly.
Merlin did not speak for a few moments, just slowed his pacing and looked down at the floor. He did not give any indication that he was particularly affected by the news, but Arthur was rather selfishly relieved that Merlin had not been offended by the curtness of Arthur's response. Perhaps Merlin was so accustomed to Arthur's particular brand of poor manners that he understood when the king's bluntness was more a failure of an attempt to be sympathetic than any desire to exacerbate any discomforts. Although Merlin still seemed to have issues with Arthur's favorite method of showing sympathy in the form of physical abuse. If punches with armored fists and whacks with blunt swords were enough to cheer up a band of knights, they should have been enough for Merlin!
But that was not the point. Not now, anyway. Even Arthur could understand that punching Merlin in the arm just now was likely to do more harm than good.
Then Merlin found his voice.
Now it was Arthur's turn to take a completely undeserved pause, from which it seemed that Guinevere was now unwilling to rescue him. Oh, why did Merlin have to say it like that? Why did it have to be such a…statement? Arthur had expected furious questions and shaky queries and manic demands for information. Not…understanding. How could Merlin seem to understand when he didn't know what was happening?
This was going to be worse than even Arthur had imagined. But he had no choice. He had to continue. It was far too late to just write it all down and have a servant deliver it to Merlin or to send someone else with the news. It was all too late for Arthur to fall back to the cowardice that was so important that he deny just then. For Merlin's sake, if not for his own. What was the point of kingly dignity if it came at the expense of another man's breaking heart?
So Arthur took a deep breath and delivered the only response that could have been enough to clarify what he knew and what Merlin would so not want to.
Merlin stopped walking and approached Arthur, an energetic bounce in his step and a shine to his eyes that Arthur recognized, and his heart sank as Merlin stood before him, looking down from the height that inexplicably superceded Arthur's, and crossed his arms over his chest. This was not understanding in Merlin's eyes. It was misunderstanding. Chosen misunderstanding.
And so willingly embraced.
"So you brought me back to heal him."
A statement again. A sentence so full of confidence that indicated that Merlin was so determined to be correct that Arthur almost felt as though he was being dared to contradict him.
The flicker in his eyes showed Arthur that Merlin had correctly interpreted Arthur's tone of voice, and Arthur was not particularly taken aback when Merlin chose to interrupt him before he could get any farther. As he began to speak, Merlin began pacing again, his strides more fast and frenetic than Arthur had ever seen before, and his own heart began to crack, just a little bit. How could he do this? Why did he have to find out before Merlin?
But Merlin seemed determined to ignore the way that Arthur was speaking. The words were undeniable. The tone? Well, Merlin could misinterpret that for as long as he damn well pleased.
"That makes sense. I'm glad. If it's magic that's needed to heal him, it's good that you called me back. I don't want anyone else trying to do it. Even if you could find someone else who could. I'm the better choice. My magic is…I'm the man for the job. That makes sense. Good choice! Where is he?"
Great. Merlin was playing the "magic" card.
When Merlin interrupted Arthur for the second time, Arthur was secretly glad. He had no idea what he was going to say beyond Merlin's name. Arthur still had such difficulty navigating his way around the magic that currently—and might well always—stood between them.
Which was probably why Merlin brought it up. Arthur swore at him mentally, but did not dare speak aloud. He had the impression that Merlin had to toss out all of his theories—magical or not—before he could hear what Arthur was trying to tell him. He had no idea just how much Guinevere would approve of this strategy, but she was staying strangely silent, and Arthur was strangely glad.
"Where is he, Arthur?"
Great. Now Merlin was playing the Arthur card. Just tug away at those heartstrings, Merlin, Arthur retorted mentally, reminding himself that he would not antagonize Merlin needlessly. Especially if it involved any indication that this was affecting Arthur so…personally.
Well, if Merlin could play the "Arthur" card and appeal to their history as—was friends really adequate enough a term?—companions, at the very least, then Arthur could go right back to his bluntness. He figured that plain-speaking didn't count as antagonizing. And if he could do it quickly enough, he could get out all of the information in one swift speech.
"We didn't bring you back to heal him."
Arthur stopped speaking and cursed himself this time. Was he really only capable of doing this one sentence at a time?
Merlin apparently agreed. "Arthur."
Arthur should have just written him a note. That would have been a good solution. But how the hell would he phrase something like this, written undeniably and unchangeably with ink and paper? If only he could have gotten Merlin to write it for him. He had always been so good at euphemizing…
"Arthur, if you don't tell me the truth right now—"
Then, very suddenly, Arthur snapped. Merlin did not have the monopoly on discomfort!
"Oh, can't you shut up and let me speak for a minute? We didn't bring you back to heal him. We brought you back because he's dying!"
Merlin did not speak for a long time, allowing Arthur ample time to begin to hate himself for taking such a tone. He could have at least said it more quietly.
When Merlin finally did speak again, his voice was very small. He stood still, looking down at the ground, as though he had done something wrong and was apologizing for it. As though something was dreadfully bad and dreadfully his own fault.
"I can fix him."
In the back of Arthur's mind, he noted that Merlin had replaced "heal" with "fix."
Arthur's voice was soft, if still stern, as he answered. If he wavered, Merlin would never understand. "Merlin, you can't."
"Yes, Arthur, I can."
Now there was a tone that Arthur recognized. If Merlin wanted to do this via argument, Arthur was plenty willing.
"Oh, so you spent the last six months becoming an expert in medicine? You thought, 'hmm, now that Merlin's gone, I finally have the free time to pursue my lifelong interest in science?' Can you even spell science?"
Well, that was unnecessarily mean. Just because Arthur dictated most of his letters didn't mean that he couldn't spell! Time to throw a zinger back at him.
"Or magic? Is that what you're an expert in now? Because you know damn well that that's what I'm talking about. I can do it. You just don't know it."
Despite the desperation evident in the hunched and defensive position of Merlin's frame, Arthur was becoming legitimately annoyed with Merlin, despite his own determination to remain exclusively sympathetic. "I'm not an expert in medicine, Merlin, but Gaius is. And he says that there's nothing to be done! Magic, medicine, nothing."
Merlin waved that aside dismissively, as though he was prepared for that particular argument. "You said that Gaius didn't want you to call me back."
Where was he going with this?
"That explains it, then. He said that because he didn't want me to be killed by coming back. Those are the terms of my banishment, in case you've forgotten. So maybe he is dying now, but he can be fixed by magic but he didn't want to bring me back to die. And he didn't trust anyone else to try and fix him with magic. Easy."
Merlin nodded emphatically, looking pleased with himself. Also, rather…quivery.
Arthur shook his head in denial as emphatically as Merlin had nodded his certainty. "Come on, Merlin. Do you really think that Gaius thinks that I'd kill you as soon as you showed your face? It's not exactly the biggest secret in the kingdom that I didn't want to exile you in the first place."
Merlin frowned suddenly, and it occurred to Arthur that Merlin hadn't exactly been in the kingdom recently. Perhaps the rumors of the king's displeasure at having to banish his manservant hadn't reached him wherever he had been. No wonder he had been jumpy when he had come back.
But Merlin's frown of confusion was quickly replaced by a almost ghoulish grin that showed more than anything that Merlin was beginning to accept what Arthur was trying to tell him. Gaius was the cause for concern right now. Not the circumstances of Merlin's banishment.
Although Merlin seemed to decide to incorporate the punishment into his argument. As if that was going to win him any pity points with Arthur! He'd been banished for a reason.
"He'd know that you'd let me fix him before you kill me."
Arthur wanted to throw something through a window. Merlin was being so understandably frustrating that a random act of violence against an inanimate object would have been so satisfying at that moment.
And Merlin probably could have fixed the window later anyway. So it would have been win-win.
But Arthur had no right to a temper tantrum just then. At least, not a destructive one. Verbal, on the other hand…
"For heaven's sake, Merlin! Just listen to what I'm saying!"
And Merlin called Arthur petulant!
Arthur took a few steps closer to Merlin, hoping to emphasize his honesty by proximity. Even he knew that this was something of a clumsy attempt at commiseration, but sympathizing was not a skill in which he had been trained. "Merlin, I asked him if that was the reason why he didn't want you back."
"Sure you did."
And that was the moment when Arthur knew that Merlin understood. Imprisonment and banishment aside, Merlin knew that Arthur cared at least enough to take steps to ensure the life of his court physician. For practical reasons, at the very least.
"And he said no."
Merlin paused, and Arthur had the distinct impression that, growing comprehension aside, Merlin was forming his next argument.
"I don't believe you."
Not his most eloquent of arguments, but Arthur supposed that it would do. Pithiness on Merlin's part just made him more comfortable with his own. But Arthur suddenly found that Merlin's succinctness of speech had loosened his own tongue to giving an actual explanation without splitting it into half a dozen stilted sentences.
"Merlin, he said that he didn't want you to know. He said that you had enough troubles with being banished and everything and that the last thing that you needed was to know that he had died! He wanted to spare you that! And we decided to think of Gaius' well-being more than yours. Who were we to deny to requests of a dying man? Excuse us for that!"
And Merlin accepted. His face went through a transition of emotions—why did his face have to be so damn expressive?—that was difficult to watch. Arthur saw his countenance shift from anger to denial to consideration to acceptance to anger again and then to sadness and a terrible, awful, heartbreaking expression of such deep desperation that it almost resembled hope.
"Arthur. Are you telling me the truth right now?"
It was the first real question that Merlin had asked him since Arthur had told him that Gaius was dying.
Merlin's entire frame very suddenly slumped, and his skinniness became all the more pronounced by the sharpness of the angles of his shoulder blades as he stared down at the floor once more. Arthur distantly resolved to feed him up before he did something stupid like run off and disappear again. At that moment, however, seeing the defeat that was somehow evident in every line of his body, Arthur opened his mouth to say something, anything that might fix this. But he found that he could not speak. For hardly the first time that day, Arthur had no words.
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Guinevere's hands leap to cover her mouth for a moment before she began to walk forward to Merlin, perhaps to express in action what Arthur could not in words. Merlin certainly looked like he needed a hug.
But just as she was a few feet away, Merlin looked up, and his expression was enough to stop Guinevere in her tracks. There was determination, comprehension, and such a strength in his face that Arthur was momentarily awed. It was a combination that Arthur had never seen on Merlin's face, save for in a fleeting moment or two, but it stayed, and Arthur knew that it had been the right choice—for both Merlin and Gaius—to bring him home. The tears that Arthur had been sure had been the cause for Merlin looking down at the floor to hide were unshed, and the brightness in his eyes was augmented by a hardness that conveyed nothing so much as a sense of duty. And then Arthur knew that Merlin was saving his tears for a time when there was no one else who needed to not see him cry.
And Merlin, not looking at Guinevere, though she stood nearest and had been the one to make the overtures of comfort, looked Arthur squarely in the eye, his stance once more straight and tall and so incomprehensibly imposing. With not a quaver in his tone, Merlin asked Arthur a single, terrible question with a voice so full of determined resignation that he seemed to age a decade before their eyes, and Arthur suddenly wanted to weep as he heard the words for the third time that day.
"Where is he?"
Chapter 9: The Other Side Of The Coin
Disclaimer: Merlin is not mine.
From the moment that Merlin had summoned a dragon and given the instructions that he was to be flown to Camelot, struggling to dismiss the ever-present sadness that lingered in the back of his mind as he spoke the words in the language that no other man alive could understand, Merlin had wondered what would be the worst part about going back.
He'd assumed that it would be facing the people, the individuals who had said their goodbyes with such mixed-up emotions that they didn't know whether or not they could stand to ever see him again. The people who had become his surrogate family, so much larger than the unit comprised solely of himself and his mother in Ealdor. Or, in one case, a certain knight whom he had deliberately neglected to grace with a farewell of any sort and who was likely to be pretty damn mad at Merlin for the omission.
But Merlin knew that it wasn't the people that he was afraid of facing. In some ways, he'd known it from the moment that he'd opened Guinevere's letter, summoning him home. No, the worst part about going back was entwined in what was his greatest hope and greatest fear for the world that he had left behind…that everything would be the same as it was when he had left. That his absence had not made a difference. That his absence had not even been particularly felt. That life after he had left Camelot would have carried on exactly as it had before he'd arrived all those years ago. That it would all be the same…that he would not have been missed quite as keenly as he had missed. Or that it would all be exactly as it had been when he'd left, that the people who he loved were still as he loved them…that everything that he had missed was still there and worth missing.
Merlin had never thought that he could be so afraid of a concept so benign as familiarity. If he hadn't made himself immune to accusations of cowardice issuing from the mouth of an uninformed prince and king, he would have considered himself quite the coward for that particular fear. To fear the familiar! What kind of almighty warlock was he?
All in all, it had been far too long of a flight for Merlin's comfort. After the shock and thrill wore off, flying a great distance on a dragon's back tended to become a fairly boring experience. And cold. And, depending on how annoyed the dragon in question was at being summoned for the purposes of travel, wet. Merlin maintained that the need for stealth could not have been so pressing as for it be necessary to travel leagues and leagues through cloud cover.
Dragons tended to have such strange senses of humor.
Although Merlin, on this particular instance, found himself regretting the way in which he had rather sharply forbidden mid-flight conversation. The resulting silent treatment had left him with far too much freedom to brood uninterrupted. Even dragon jokes would have been better, and Merlin didn't understand their punch lines half of the time.
Merlin was beginning to understand why Arthur got so annoyed with Merlin's seemingly unpredictable vacillations between inappropriate humor and sulky silences.
Not that Merlin would ever think of a dragon as a servant. And he certainly wouldn't call a dragon a servant. Especially when he needed a ride.
But it was starting to make more and more sense that Arthur tended to get into his brooding mood whenever Merlin was cold-shouldering or nagging. Or sabotaging his meals.
Brooding could be so unpleasant. The lack of distractions and surprising boredom that went along with prolonged dragon flight had left him with far too much time and freedom to think and therefore made him realize how ridiculous it was that he could fly at mind-blowing altitudes with the constant risk of plummeting to his death with a smile on his face, yet all but trembled at the irrational fear of facing the familiar that may or may not have been awaiting him in Camelot. How uncomfortable irrationality could be! He didn't know how Arthur could stand to be in such a state of it on a regular basis.
It didn't help that Merlin's fears were being confirmed more and more with each moment that passed since he had made his entrance in the castle. Why did it all have to be so recognizable?
There was Guinevere, still the same unexpected queen who tripped over her hems when she walked too quickly, unaccustomed to the finery of silks and satins that were as much the uniform of her position as was Merlin's well-worn homespun was to his. Still the woman who had a doting maidservant willing to wait on her every whim and hated every moment of it. Still the girl who arranged flowers when she had nothing left to do and needed something to do because feeling useless would have been too much for her to bear alone and it was the very least that she could do to brighten a world of stone and mortar. Still the wife of a king, whose best friends were so suddenly in positions so much lower than her own and whom she could not bear to order about.
Still the friend who could not look Merlin in the eye as they walked through the corridors of the castle toward the physician's quarters, but held his arm in hers with such firmness that Merlin understood the silent sympathy and appreciated that she left him the choice as to whether or not he wanted to accept it.
And then there was Arthur, still the king burdened with the deep-seated and unacknowledged loneliness that he thought that no one else saw and that accompanied the life of a monarch with no family left to succeed him, who had faced impossibilities and made decisions that were so good that Merlin would always have to admire him despite himself, and such devastatingly awful decisions that Merlin would always have to somehow forgive him, just for the weight that they forever bore on his heart. Still the man whose leaps of logic that bordered on absurdity had made Merlin on more than one occasion wonder if he had been just a little bit too exuberant in his blows to the head. Still the boy who wore the crown of a king and used it to justify petulance and change laws to fit his own whims and threw things when upset and felt things more deeply than was warranted and denied them with more vehemence than could be quantified. Still the king who had inexplicably befriended his servant, who so foolishly and so frequently risked his life to save that of a man with a position so much lower than his own.
The man who had told him where to find his former guardian and sent Merlin on his way, with only his wife as escort, because a king has things to do and people to protect and a kingdom to rule and sometimes, just sometimes, in those moments that really matter, follows his instincts and does the right thing that is absolutely nothing at all.
There were the snider of the servants who snuck glances from behind doors just slightly ajar at the queen and the returned fugitive as they passed silently through the hallways, throwing dirty looks at Merlin as he walked. In days that seemed so very long ago, there had been the glares and eye-rollings of servants jealous of Merlin's position as manservant to the king when he possessed so little motivation, skill, and respect for a healthy portion of his official duties. And who the king seemed to be strangely convinced was a drunkard and employed him nonetheless. Now, the side-eyed sneers and lip-bitings of a strange combination of fear, curiosity, and contempt at the sorcerer returned from exile afar.
The varying levels of architectural stability in different parts of the castle, almost all significantly safer than that damn council room that Arthur always insisted on finding ways to destroy and blame on Merlin. As if it was always his fault!
The candle brackets in various states of disrepair, only to be refilled, repaired, or replaced when the risks of total darkness or unnecessary inferno were enough to be noticed by a passerby.
That random tapestry that still hung where Merlin had hastily moved it after leaving scorch marks on the corridor walls and did not want to have to explain to Arthur how they had come about or to have to try to get rid of them without making them worse. And that Merlin always forgot about until he saw in hanging there and…
Yes, the familiarity had been the worst part of his return from the very moment that he had landed on the roof of the castle, wet from flying through cloud after cloud and trying not to laugh as he felt the ceiling of the council chamber tremble beneath his feet and hope that Arthur had been in that particular room and able to experience firsthand the possibility that it was in danger of collapsing yet again…yes, that had been so wonderfully awful of a possibility that he had taken his damn time magically drying himself off and trying to figure out how to get off of the roof and down into the antechamber without breaking his legs. The fear of seeing everything as it was, that everything had remained the same, to see that nothing had changed…that would have been the worst that he could imagine.
Then, less than an hour later, Merlin saw Gaius.
And Merlin very suddenly found that there was something worse to come home to than the prospect of life carrying on without him. He was barely even aware as Guinevere, still at his elbow, beckoned the attendants who had been at Gaius' side out of the room to give him some privacy with his old mentor. How could he be aware of anything else? Gaius was more altered than Merlin had been able to imagine in the so few moments between the revelation of the illness and his trip down to Gaius' quarters.
Gaius was so…different.
Where there had been energy strangely unbefitting a man of Gaius' age, fettered only by the body that showed the years, there was an old man, breathing shuddering breaths that seemed to be the most that he could manage. Where there had been a complexion of health and life and circulation, there was nothing but a pallor that highlighted the wrinkles that had accumulated over a life of stress and worry and fear and love and the best of intentions. Where there had been flesh, there was…skin, looking as flat and dry as parchment. Where there had been muscle, there were…bones. Where there had been brightness of eye, there was now a frightening film, and Merlin had spent enough time in the care and quarters of a physician to know what it meant. Why had no one thought to tell him that Gaius had lost his sight? Or worse, was this a new development? Because Merlin knew what that meant as well…
Merlin didn't like what that meant. So, before he was more than a half dozen paces into the room where he had once taken his meals, he froze in his tracks. Merlin had been able, in the past, to slow the passage of time around him, to stretch instants into minutes, to make everything…slow. Delay things from happening and keep them from happening before he was ready for it. Yes, Merlin was a powerful warlock; he could slow time. But never, no matter how hard he tried, had Merlin been able to stop it.
He'd mentioned this inability once to Gaius, in the days before everything went to hell and Merlin had left Camelot. Merlin had complained that, if he was supposed to be the most powerful sorcerer ever to walk the earth, it should not have been unreasonable for him to be able to stop time.
Granted, at the time, Merlin had only wanted to stop time so that he could have fled Arthur's chambers before Arthur could tell him to muck out the stables again. Yes, as Gaius had pointed out, Arthur might have been somewhat baffled as to how his manservant had seemingly been in front of him one second and then completely gone in the next but, as Merlin had argued, it was Arthur. Merlin's successful concealment of his secret for nearly four years at the time couldn't have been entirely attributed to his skills of deception. He wasn't that fantastic of a liar. Arthur was just an idiot a lot of the time.
Or, as Gaius phrased it, "understandably gullible."
Merlin had smiled at Gaius' softening of Merlin's evaluation of Arthur's intelligence. Gaius seemed to spend a lot of time trying to instill in Merlin more respect for the Pendragons and emphasize their good points. But then, Gaius didn't spend nearly as much time with Arthur as Merlin did. As far as Merlin had been concerned, calling him an "idiot" had been a softer evaluation.
If the situation at had not been so serious just then, Merlin would have allowed himself to smile as he remembered that evening so long ago. When he had persisted on his insistence that Arthur was not exactly the most well-strung crossbow in the armory, Gaius had adopted his expression of paternal disapproval tinged with the trace of amusement that he seemed to believe that Merlin did not completely detect. Rather than reprimanding Merlin for his evaluation of the crown prince, as he might have done in the days before it had become apparent to everyone in the kingdom that Arthur was strangely tolerant of Merlin's impertinence, Gaius had merely told Merlin that no man should have the power to entirely stop the passage of time. When Merlin had rolled his eyes, Gaius had just told him to trust in his destiny and wash up for dinner.
Which had just led to some fairly pronounced scowling on the face of his young ward. As the years had passed, Gaius had watched Merlin grow, in stature, in maturity, in power, and in serious frustration with the whole concept of "destiny." Merlin knew it, but he felt that, of the many ways in which he must have seriously tried Gaius' patience over the years, complaining about destiny was one of the few that was actually justified. That everything should be fated and that everything bad would happen no matter what he did to stop it and that everything good that happened only happened because of predestination rather than effort? Yes, destiny was not always a source of pride with Merlin, no matter how important his was said to be.
Yet, on those moments when he saw and understood that he had such an important place in the grand scheme of how the world was changing and how it would develop, he had known that it was largely thanks to Gaius' gentle remonstrances about the importance of playing his part that he could bear to tackle the difficult tasks that befell him.
How else could he have poisoned Morgana, his friend who suffered the same burden of secrecy that he did, if it was not meant to be that way? How else could he have killed Agravaine, Arthur's uncle and only remaining link to his mother, so remorselessly? How else could he have let so many people die over the years because it was his destiny to live, and living meant keeping his secret his own, no matter what the collateral damage? How else could he have borne to do these things, these awful things, and keep going, if he could not say that they had to be done?
Not for the first time, Merlin wondered if Gaius believed in Merlin's destiny as steadfastly as he claimed. If perhaps Gaius was just doing what he could to allow Merlin to make those ruthless decisions and still be able to sleep at night. If Gaius too saw the importance of the changes just beginning in the world around them and understood that terrible things had to be done for them to happen. If Gaius couldn't allow those things to happen if it meant internal torment for Merlin for the rest of his lfie. If Gaius was just as uncertain about the role of "destiny" in the grand scheme as was Merlin.
Merlin didn't like thinking about that.
But as it was, at the moment, Merlin's uncertainty toward the concept of destiny had turned into contempt. How could the universe be taking Gaius from his life, his work, his friends turned family? It seemed so meaningless. Too meaningless. He'd always known that he would probably outlive Gaius, but this was not how it was meant to happen. A man like Gaius did not deserve to waste away, alone and abandoned by the man whom he had raised from a boy, so mockingly in the quarters of his own life's work. How awful it must have been to know that he was dying and yet be surrounded by all of the instruments and ingredients of healing! This was not how it was meant too happen. Gaius had proved himself a hero, even if only quietly, so very many times. He deserved a heroic death. This…this wasn't right.
So, as though he was doing his best to spite dignity, Merlin stopped in his approach to the cot where Gaius lay, surrounded by blankets and pillows. He had been brought back to be at Gaius' side as he died. If he was not by Gaius' side, then Gaius surely could not die. Destiny be damned. Merlin wouldn't let this happen as it seemed to be happening. Not this time.
But destiny, as Merlin had discovered time and time again, tended to be unmoved by spite.
Despite what did indeed seem to be his loss of sight, Gaius stirred. Merlin did not say a word. What was there to say? He wanted so much to not be there so that this would not have to happen.
But Gaius had never encouraged procrastination during Merlin's stay with him in Camelot.
Somehow, hearing the feebleness of his voice was worse than seeing the state of his failing body. Gaius' voice had quavered over the two simple syllables of Merlin's name, but it had not been entirely emotion. Merlin knew it. Gaius had spoken with as much strength as he could muster.
And it was not nearly enough.
But it finally got Merlin to speak.
It finally got Merlin to sort of speak.
Gaius did not seem able to sit up without aid, but he turned in Merlin's direction, his sightless eyes seeming to search for the young man. Merlin was certain that Gaius could easily picture the tableau that he was seeking; how many times had Merlin hovered in the doorway in the past, having gotten into some scrape and not wanting to rush the moment when he'd have to confess it? Merlin could picture it so clearly himself…
It was enough to get Merlin moving. Walking as quickly and calmly as he could manage, Merlin carefully maneuvered his way between tables with highly breakable devices and jars of questionable substances and piles of books, not wanting to break or upset anything. Any destruction on his part surely wouldn't have surprised Gaius, but if Gaius was relying on his ears, Merlin didn't want to alarm him. Eventually, he reached where Gaius lay on his cot and hovered uncertainly above him. Merlin wasn't supposed to be here, for so many reasons…
"How did you know it was me?" Merlin's voice came out high-pitched and childish, and he saw Gaius smile. Warmth flooded over Merlin, and he sat down on the edge of the cot, careful not to tug on any of his blankets. He took Gaius' thin hand in his own as Gaius opened his mouth to speak.
"My boy, did you really think that I was always asleep all those nights when you snuck in and out of your room?"
Although distantly indignant that his sneaking-out skills had not been quite as stealthy as he'd always believed, Merlin smiled, very touched. After all this time, Gaius had recognized his footfall.
"I thought I was sneakier than that."
Gaius' hand gave a sort of weak squeeze in Merlin's. Merlin could not tell whether or not it had been intentional. Gaius did not look particularly in control of his body. Merlin could not help but notice, however, that Gaius' voice was growing stronger as he spoke to his long-lost surrogate son.
"I hate to burst your bubble, Merlin, but it would take a boy with far more grace than you to sneak out as often as you did."
Merlin laughed under his breath, trying to stifle his amusement for a moment before it occurred to him that there was no need to try to stifle any giggles into manful chuckles anymore. Not when Gaius was…
Merlin suddenly did not want to giggle anymore, and he was glad for an instant that Gaius could not have seen his expression. Gaius was able to continue speaking without seeing the despair that Merlin could feel creeping in on his face.
"So tell me, Merlin, which of our monarchy do I have to come back to haunt for breaking their word?"
Merlin chose to ignore the implications of Gaius' allusion to "coming back" to haunt.
"What do you mean?"
Gaius' tone seemed to become deliberately light. "I gave explicit instructions to both Gwen and Arthur that you were not to be called home."
Merlin shrugged flippantly, forgetting for a moment that Gaius could not see the action. "Well, you know Arthur. You should have told him that he absolutely had to bring me back, or the fate of the kingdom would be doomed. He never would have called me home."
"So it was Arthur?"
"I think it was a mutual betrayal of your trust, Gaius."
"Well, my boy, if you don't mind an old man's selfishness, I think that I am glad for this particular betrayal."
"Are you?" The last thing that any of them wanted was for Gaius to have to waste what remained of his strength on being mad at any of them.
"I'm glad that you came back in time," Gaius answered, clarifying quietly as he shifted on the sheets of his cot.
Merlin swallowed hard. "Me too."
They sat in silence for a moment, and Merlin felt tremors begin to run down Gaius' body as it weakened before his very eyes, and he began to wonder frantically if his powers were enough to make this easier. There were still things to say, he knew, but he couldn't seem to organize his thoughts. He should have made a list…
Then Gaius spoke, and it was with such force that Merlin nearly clamped down on Gaius' hand in surprise. "Did you know that I'm dying, Merlin?"
Merlin's heart somehow found a way to sink even lower. He recognized this tone of voice. Merlin had heard men dying in these very chambers since he had first come to Camelot, no matter how he would try to seal his bedroom door. Gaius would never turn out a sick man to die in the streets, so he would keep them all in his examination area, and Merlin would hear the voices as they began to speak their last. So many of them sounded like this, bright and cheerful and blunt and beginning to fade…
"No, I did. I mean, yes. They said that…they said that you were sick. I knew," Merlin answered lamely, trying with all of his might not to speak in the reassuring tones that are reserved for the ill and dying.
But Gaius had been a physician for far longer than Merlin had been alive. The fever had not completely befuddled his brain. He knew that Merlin knew, and he grew subdued once more. "Well, seeing is believing."
"Is it?" Merlin was floundering. He had no idea what was the right thing to say at times like these. He'd hoped, on his walk down to where Gaius rested on the final bed where he would lay his head, that Gaius wouldn't…wouldn't be so close. That there would be more time. More conversations. Oh, if only Gwen had said in her letter what was happening, Merlin might have been ready for this…
Gaius did not seem to take notice of Merlin's growing panic. "Not always. I don't see you, but I believe you're here."
Perhaps he could just react, just answer the questions and comment on the comments. Perhaps he could do that so that he could focus on the right thing to say. Hadn't he done that plenty of times in the past? But how could he tune Gaius out when these lecturings would be the last that he would receive?
"I am here, and I'm not going anywhere ever—"
Gaius began to squirm and his hand suddenly clamped down on Merlin's. Merlin could almost see the lucidity fading once more. He wished so much that he knew what sort of illness this was. Even if he couldn't cure it, he might have known how this was going to happen. He wished that he could ask Gaius, but Gaius did not exactly seem to be in the proper state of mind. Merlin took a deep breath. Gaius would snap out of it in a moment, just as he had before, and he could explain it all. It would all be alright.
"That reminds me of something the king said," Gaius mumbled.
Merlin would just keep him talking, keeping him animated. Keep his eyes open. He could do that.
"Uther or Arthur?"
"Arthur…it was after you left, after he sent you away. He used to come down, invent all sorts of illnesses so that he had an excuse to come down to talk to me. I had no objection to a visit without blood or boils, but you know Arthur…"
Gaius coughed, still pale as parchment, and Merlin wondered distantly from where he was summoning the strength to make these long speeches. His breathing was hitched and his whole body was trembling at increasing intervals. But he could carry a lengthy conversation. Merlin shook his head in sad affection. Only Gaius would still be trying to give Merlin lessons as he lay on his…on his cot.
Although maybe Merlin should try to keep him calmer. Just for a little while, until he was okay to talk again. "Gaius, you don't have to talk now, we can talk later, we—"
"Merlin, Merlin, you always were an optimistic boy. I think that now might just be the right time for us to talk. Where was I?"
Gaius' words were beginning to slur as he spoke, and he smiled. At that moment, Merlin began to give in.
And Merlin began to give up.
"You were…you were saying that Arthur used to fake sick to come down to see you."
Gaius nodded as best he could from his position on his back. How could he manage to maintain so much dignity in such a helpless position? "Ah, yes. And I would pretend to treat him, because what good would it have done to let him know that I knew that he was faking? The boy needed to talk. Although when he came in complaining of the symptoms of an illness that you apparently invented yourself, my boy, I must admit that I was tempted to let him know. But your face now…I'm afraid that I'm not making much sense, am I?"
Merlin swallowed hard once more. His throat seemed to be sticking more and more as the conversation went on. "You're making perfect sense, Gaius."
Gaius nodded again. "It was Arthur, wasn't it? I was talking about Arthur…the look on his face, when he said that hearing is different from knowing because only seeing is believing. Of course, that's not how he said it. He was trying to be metaphorical about it so that I wouldn't know that he was talking about you and the look on your face is just the like one that he had then. You knew but you didn't believe because you didn't see."
Merlin set his jaw.If he was going to give up, he had to try to…he had to try one more time. He would never be able to rest if he didn't at least try…
"Let me try," Merlin asked, far more pleadingly than he would have liked. Keeping calm and steady was probably more likely to make Gaius amenable to his proposal. "Let me try. I've gotten better at healing spells. I barely even leave scars anymore, and Buttercup once had this illness that left her shuddering and sweating and sick and I knew that she was dying but I wouldn't let her because I knew that I could save her and she was all that I had left from Camelot. I mean, what's the point of having the destiny from hell and all these powers if there aren't a few perks now and then? I was going to save her because I knew that I could if she would just hold still and let me and I know that I could do this if I try and—"
Merlin heard himself rambling and was not entirely surprised when Gaius managed to laugh. Merlin hadn't spoken like that for years, but he supposed that he should be glad that Gaius found it endearingly familiar rather than annoyingly unforgettable.
"Merlin, my boy, your metaphors are not much more subtle than Arthur's. You can't save me. You mustn't think that you could."
Merlin shook his head far too quickly back and forth. "I wasn't being metaphorical. Not totally metaphorical. I really did save Buttercup from a strange illness when I thought she was going to die. I know that human physiology is a little bit different from horse physiology, but I bet that it all works more or less the same…"
This argument did not seem particularly swaying to the dying physician. Stubborn to the last, Merlin thought.
"I somehow doubt that very much," said Gaius, amusement vaguely detectable in his shaky voice.
Merlin stopped shaking his head and nodded. He didn't particularly agree; the frantic shaking of his head had just been beginning to hurt his neck, and nodding seemed like a good countermeasure. "Arthur wouldn't. He seems to have this weird belief that I have some supernatural connection with horses. Now that he knows that I have magic, he probably thinks that I'm a Horse Lord. If I say anything to Buttercup when he's not looking, I swear that he whips around to see if she answers. If I tell him that I'm one half of a whole, he'd probably think that she was the other half. Where the hell he gets these ideas, I have no idea…"
"Merlin," said Gaius, so very quietly and with so much fading gravity that Merlin's continued ramblings ceased immediately. He felt like a boy again.
Well, if he could feel like a boy, he could very well act like one.
"Let me try."
"It's not use, Merlin," Gaius answered placatingly.
"Let me try," retorted Merlin, with all of the inappropriately timed petulance that he could manage. Even he could hear how ridiculous it sounded, but it seemed to work for Arthur, so it was worth a try.
Gaius rolled his unseeing eyes before he was overtaken by a coughing fit that sounded alarmingly wet, and Merlin abandoned his petulance immediately as Gaius found his voice again.
"Merlin, I am glad that you came back."
Merlin patted their clasped hands with his free hand, carefully steadying it before the contact. Gaius couldn't see him; Merlin sure as hell wasn't going to let him feel him falling apart. "Of course I came back."
Gaius gave a single cough. "Arthur does have every right to behead you for this, you know."
Merlin smiled and wished that Gaius could at least see that. "I'd like to see him try."
Gaius placed his free hand on top of theirs. His skin was so cold…"As would I, my boy. As would I."
Merlin began to fidget, suddenly uncomfortable. He wanted to flee the room and fly away on his dragon and go back to Buttercup and try to communicate with her telepathically just so that he could come back later and try to mess with Arthur's head. He wanted to go far away.
And he knew what that meant about what was about to happen.
"Arthur wouldn't do that, Gaius. You…you don't have to worry about me. I'll be alright," Merlin said, as reassuringly as he could manage.
Gaius was not fooled, and Merlin knew it. But he seemed to appreciate the attempt. "Never mind about Arthur, Merlin. Keep your eyes open for Sir Gwaine."
Merlin smiled, then forced himself to laugh aloud, so that Gaius could hear. "Ah. Gwaine. Yes. Should I take it that he wasn't exactly thrilled that he didn't get a goodbye?"
Gaius, still smiling as much as he could, opened his mouth to answer when a shudder ran through his entire body once more. Very suddenly, he bolted up with a strength that Merlin could not have imagined him to still possess.
"Lie back, Gaius," said Merlin, startled by the sudden movement, frantic in all its feebleness. Gaius was turning his head in alarming jerks in every direction, as though looking desperately for someone through sightless eyes. When he finally stopped turning his head, he held it steady in one firm angle, as though he could see something so clearly that wasn't there.
"I need to get up, I need to…" Gaius' words trailed off, and Merlin began to feel afraid, the deep sort of afraid that comes when the terms of a worst case scenario were about to be realized. It usually related to battle, but now…
With as much gentleness as possible, Merlin eased the older man back onto his cot. "Whatever you need, Gaius, I'll get it for you."
Gaius shook his head, but he allowed Merlin to lay his head back on his pillow. "I need to clean my leech tank. Uther is coming this afternoon, and there's nothing that the king hates more than a dirty leech tank."
A chill ran through Merlin's heart. "Gaius, Uther's dead. He died a long time ago."
Gaius lay still for a moment, settling down once more, and Merlin had just enough time to breathe a shaky sigh of relief before Gaius began struggling to lift himself up once more. Finding that it would be a losing battle to try to hold Gaius down in his current…frenzy, Merlin lifted Gaius' shoulders and held him steady with as much gentleness as he could manage. He could feel the shoulder blades so sharply and, afraid that his grip would hurt him, Merlin shifted pillows into place so that Gaius' could lie elevated without having fingers digging into him.
Then Gaius began to speak. "I beg you to rethink…"
Gaius wasn't facing Merlin, but Merlin chose to believe that he was the one that Gaius was speaking to. He was the only one in the room, and if Gaius was trying to speak to someone else, that would mean that it was going to happen…
"Rethink what, Gaius?" Yes, keep him talking. Merlin could do that. Arthur was always saying that Merlin was particularly skilled at trying to carry on a conversation, especially in the grimmest of scenarios. Of course, Arthur had meant that as an insult, but Merlin would take it as a good thing this time.
But Gaius did not seem to be listening to Merlin's half of the discourse. "This is a terrible thing that you are asking to be done."
This was getting worse. "Gaius…"
"If I am to help you with this, you must promise me one thing."
Merlin's efforts to placate Gaius and bring him back to the scene were clearly not working. So Merlin chose to play whatever part that Gaius needed at that moment. Whatever kept this going…
"I promise. I promise anything. Please, Gaius," Merlin whispered.
Gaius' voice was hardly more than a whisper as well, although he did finally turn toward Merlin, sightless eyes meeting sighted. "Promise me this…"
"If I do for you this awful thing…if I ask of her what you're asking of me…You…must love the boy. It must be worth it. Whoever pays this price, you must love the boy."
"Of course I will." Merlin had no idea what he was agreeing to, but he would have promised his old guardian anything at that moment. Anything that might make this better, even a little bit. Gaius' voice was just so serious.
"Some things are not meant to be meddled with…life and death and everything in between."
Now, that was something that Merlin could understand. Not that it would have stopped him from taking drastic and borderline morally reprehensible measures to save this so precious of lives, but he understood. His experiences with the Cup of Life had at least taught him that life and death were not concepts to be dealt with—or altered—lightly. Even by Emrys. Perhaps especially by Emrys. Yes, he understood the importance of allowing balance when it came to mortality. "I understand, Gaius."
Gaius did not seem even slightly reassured. "Sire, you are both still so young. An heir may yet come without…interference."
Merlin's heart sank. Gaius thought that he was Uther. There was no way that he would have spoken in such a desperate voice if it was the phantom of Arthur whom he was addressing. Gaius thought that he was Uther. Of all of the people for him to confuse with Merlin, it had to be Uther…
And then Merlin heard the words that, as he would later realize, were muttered for the first time nearly three decades ago, before Arthur had been any more than a burning desire in the mind of his painfully pragmatic father, before Merlin would be born into a world that would cry for his head on a pike if they knew the power that ran through his veins, before the purge that had all but wiped the world clean of all persons possessing magic and had driven his father away from the life in Ealdor that he would never have the freedom to live. Merlin heard the words that had set it all in motion, the words that should not have been Gaius' last in his fever-twisted mind, the words that had been haunting Gaius for nearly thirty years.
"I do believe that she can be trusted, sire."
And then Gaius breathed his last, passing with a single sigh and a final tear into what Merlin could only pray was a world more guileless and without corruption than the one that he was leaving. Gaius, after so many close calls over his years as guardian of a foolhardy sorcerer, died, illness taking the physician.
Merlin was stunned into immobility. He'd known what was going to happen, the likelihood that he would be unable to stop it from the moment that he understood, truly understood, why he'd been called back. He'd known absolutely from the moment that he had looked into the chambers that had once been his home and saw the state of the man who had been his father in so very many ways. Merlin had seen, and he had believed.
But he was stunned, and he did not have the presence of mind for sadness. Gaius was dead, and Merlin was holding his hand, and the shallow breaths in the room were no longer those of an expiring man, but those of one too grieved to grieve just yet, and everything was ending and something was beginning but it didn't make sense, not this way. Not what had been said or done. Was dying always like this? All of the people that Merlin had seen die or even killed, even when Arthur had mourned Uther, he'd never thought…Was there never time nor opportunity for proper goodbyes? He didn't understand. It didn't make sense, any of it.
And then realization hit Merlin with such force that he nearly fell from his position, perched on the edge of Gaius' cot.
Gaius' last words were about Nimue.
His last thoughts were of Uther.
As his surrogate son sat by his side, holding his hand so tightly as though he could keep his soul in his body by the strength of the clasp, his final moments were spent in the company of a man who would massacre thousands based on the conversation and advice given so long ago. His final moments had been in the memory of a conversation that would change the world and its tolerance of magic.
And so Merlin wept at last. He wept for the loss of the man whom he had loved as a father, for the man who had taken him in as a favor to his mother, the man who had willingly kept Merlin in his charge after learning the truth about him, the man who had risked his life every day by merely harboring an admittedly reckless sorcerer, the man who had deserved nothing more than a comfortable bed, a feather pillow, and the company of the young man who had become his son his in final moments alive, the man who had instead been forced to relive the moment that had tormented him for so many years.
Merlin wept for the unfairness of it.
Merlin wept for the end of an era.
Merlin wept for the court physician who had brought him back from the brink of death against all odds on more occasions than Merlin could count.
Merlin wept for the fact that there were so few in the world who knew Gaius well enough to weep for him as he deserved.
Merlin wept for a monarchy that left the creation of an heir paramount to everything else and left so many good people suffering in its wake, mothers, queens, children, friends, advisors…even kings.
Merlin wept for Gaius and the life that he had run out of chances to live.
But most of all, Merlin wept with the deep desperation of hope that Gaius' next life, wherever and whatever it might be, would be one of peace.
And tears of hope are the bitterest and sweetest of all.
Chapter 10: An Interlude Of Four
Disclaimer: Merlin is not mine.
In the days that came before,
there was an interlude of four;
And together they ended a world.
Thus would magic die;
Thus a boy was born.
Thus a world would begin.
And paid was a price in blood.
In the days that have yet to come,
there will be an interlude of four;
And together they will end a world.
Thus can magic live;
Thus a man is born;
Thus a world may begin.
And thus a price must again be paid.
Chapter 11: The Beginning Of The Beginning
Disclaimer: Merlin is not mine.
Arthur was never going to live this down.
It was bad enough the first time that he'd done it. Granted, he had been slightly distracted by the revelation of the massive betrayal perpetrated by the man who was arguably his closest companion whom he had not married. Yes, he had been on the verge of a nervous breakdown because of the uncertainty of how to deal with that massive betrayal. And yes, the need to punch something had conveniently corresponded with a need to not have to face his own reflection and remember the eyes that were not his that had burned gold and given away his friend's secret. There were excuses, extremely legitimate reasons, for Arthur to have done it that first time. He hadn't been able to explain them at the time to anyone, having chosen the path of keeping secret the incident that had led him to do it in the first place, but he had been injured and upset. Anyone could see that, whether or not he was willing to be forthcoming with the reason for the whole thing. Anyone could have seen that Arthur needed nothing more than a bandage and a hug and a modicum of sympathy!
But then, it was apparently completely inconceivable that Arthur's troubles, concealed or not, should not have paled to the fact that he had punched out his mirror. Again. Apparently, it was more important that a queen yell at her king for damaging what was admittedly was a commodity rare amongst citizens of Camelot. Apparently, if Arthur was not going to tell her why he had done it, the only thing that would get any sympathy in the whole scenario was to be his mirror.
That he had managed to feel bad for upsetting his wife by breaking his own looking glass when he was so distracted by the complete upheaval that had befallen him in the shape of Merlin's betrayal said a great deal about how much he loved her, Arthur felt.
Still, he wasn't looking forward to telling Guinevere that he'd done it again. He could hear her lectures already. She could be so ridiculous when she was upset. She would argue that, if he needed to punch something in his chambers, he could have picked almost anything else without hurting himself to the point of dripping all over his floor. She would say that he was the king, by birthright with no relatives who were not crazed sorceresses whose goals in life were basically only to usurp him from his throne time and time again, and that he should not keep sticking his hand into panels of glass when there were some slightly important veins in that general area. She would inform him that he was probably going to get an infection and die from the glass and not getting it treated. Although, now that Merlin was not his manservant, the mirror was probably clean enough that Arthur wouldn't be stricken down with infection immediately. She would yell at him that he was so in love with himself that he was going to be barging into her half of their shared rooms to stare into her looking glass until he had a replacement installed. But how Guinevere came up with these arguments, Arthur had no idea. Women could be so vain about mirrors!
Vanity aside, Arthur was hoping for a reprieve on this one. The atmosphere for the past few days had been gloomy for both of them, so it was entirely possible that she wouldn't be able to work up the drive to go off on him. Plus, he somehow hadn't hurt his hand at all when he had punched his mirror. He had learned from the last time. There would have been a bruised knuckle or two, maybe, but there were no cuts or scrapes. If anything, it was admirable. How many kings could say that they successfully punched out a mirror without cutting themselves?
After a few minutes of congratulating himself, however, it occurred to him that Guinevere might not see it that way. So, endeavoring to act like the model husband that he was, Arthur had sought to clean up the broken glass that surrounded him in an eerily perfect circle where he stood. He would have summoned his manservant to do it, but he wanted to keep this as quiet as possible. Besides, he was the king. He could clean up a few little pieces of glass. Just because he'd never done it before didn't mean that he couldn't. So, Arthur began to stride purposefully toward the scrubbing bucket that his manservant had left in his chambers, with which he would hold the pieces of glass after he had heroically gathered them all together. There may have been no one else in the room with him, but there was no reason why he should not strut like a king, he had reasoned.
Which, Arthur supposed, was slightly related to the gash on the bottom of his foot.
But that could have happened to anyone!
And then, of course, he'd fallen to the ground, swearing at the top of his lungs and reaching his hands out behind him to try to cushion the fall onto his back.
Which, Arthur supposed, had something to do with the gash on the palm of his hand.
That was just bad luck.
So Arthur sat on the ground, clutching and keeping pressure on his injured foot with his uninjured hand, and pressing his bleeding right hand to his chest, hoping to staunch the blood that was slowly but surely dripping down and staining a healthy portion of the unfortunately white tunic that had been selected for him that day. He knew enough about injuries and had suffered enough of them in his lifetime to know that these were not life-threatening—hand and foot wounds just tended to bleed a lot. He just had to keep pressure on them and wait it out and try to think of a good excuse that he could give Guinevere as to why he had punched his looking glass that did not concern his continued frustration with the grim waiting game they were all playing as Merlin remained alone in the physician's chambers with Gaius and what he thought that he might know now had happened.
But he could focus on the most recent events instead. Namely, the fact that he probably could not conceal a hand wound to his wife without wearing gloves at all times, and that would just be awkward when it came to certain activities. So, now that he could not clean up the glass and hide the evidence of the momentary lapse in control, he threw back his head and tried to think.
Which is when he noticed the mirror frame, still holding shards of glass at random places along its edges.
Perhaps he had not thought his plan of hiding the evidence entirely through.
He sincerely hoped that no one walked into his chambers any time in the near future. It would be all over the castle in minutes if a servant walked in on him in his state. Guinevere would be bad enough. He'd never hear the end of it. Especially if she felt the need to fill Merlin in on the incident. Between the two of them, his life was quite capable of becoming a living hell of teasing.
No, he was never going to live this down, he thought dismally.
Or so he thought for the ten or so seconds that it took for him to realize what a completely inappropriate comment that was to make—even in his own head—at a time like this. And he had been on the verge of complaining that there was no physician to consult to get his hand fixed! Although he supposed that knowing that he was on the verge of complaining was basically the same as complaining about it.
Denial could be a strong motivator.
Still looking down at the jagged cut that stubbornly still oozed on the palm of his hand, Arthur suddenly felt how he was meant to be feeling and how he was so determined not to feel it and how embarrassing it was that a moment of self-awareness should have been so rare as to be mind-blowing and how he was truly on the periphery of what was happening and what he thought might have happened and his job to hold the center rather than always making himself the center. How awful he was being!
So Arthur, alone and bleeding and surrounded by the shards of his shattered looking glass, pulled himself up as best he could and fell heavily into a nearby chair. Suddenly exhausted, he covered his face with his hands and closed his eyes and tried to pretend.
He kept waiting, feeling as manic as Merlin was wont to be in crises over which he had no control, his heart pumping wildly with shame and guilt and unwillingness that he had fought to keep at bay from the moment that his fist had connected with the glass.
Arthur kept bleeding.
And remembered why.
Chapter 12: Interlude I: Of Majesty
Disclaimer: Merlin is not mine.
There was something extremely undignified, Arthur decided, about sitting in a chair in his own bedchambers, bleeding and waiting for someone to come in and yell at him.
Someone was bound to come eventually. He may have had his share of random lazy days, but there was almost always something that needed his signature or seal or presence. Someone would come. And he wasn't entirely sure why he seemed to be hoping that it would happen soon. He was bound to get into trouble for it.
It wasn't so much that he was lonely, he knew, or that recent events were making him want to cling more desperately to the people that he most loved. It wasn't even that he was just sad and wanted company, even if that company was going to be less than pleased with him. It was just that there was so much going through his head that he couldn't decide what he should choose to think about and, if he weren't alone, at least he'd have a distraction. Probably a noisy distraction.
Although he was somewhat surprised that he was being left alone. He hadn't bothered trying to keep the news of Merlin's return quiet. What was the point? It was Merlin's own fault for making what may have been the most conspicuous reappearance that was physically possible. The news had probably spread through the majority of the citadel like the fire that would no doubt some day ignite in his castle and burn down the council room, with alarming swiftness and a total absence of pity. But no matter. Arthur may have had a lot of things going through his head and may have been having some difficulty prioritizing, but even he had to admit that hypothetical future destructions of parts of the castle probably should not be very high on the list.
They would probably all happen anyway. He might as well enjoy the element of surprise.
Absently, Arthur looked down at his bloody hand. It had almost stopped bleeding. It probably would have stopped entirely by then if he hadn't kept flexing his palm experimentally every time that it started to slow. He just kept figuring that one of these times, it would have to work.
But now it was only oozing a little bit. He wiped his hand carefully on his once-white tunic—already covered with bloody handprints from his first attempts at staunching the flow—and looked at his palm again. It was still a sort of vague pinkish color, contrasted by the stark whiteness of the sliced skin that had been so needlessly opened. Examining it, he figured that at the very least, it would make an interesting scar. Most of his scars were just straight or oblong. Relatively boring. This would be the shape of the sort of lightning that struck the ground rather than just lit up the sky and that Arthur always found exciting, no matter how undesirable a storm may have been at a given time. Assuming that it didn't get infected and fall off, his hand had just become more exciting.
As exciting as hands got, anyway.
There was a sudden knock at his main chamber door—a distinct knock, knock, knock, knock that identified that the knocker as his manservant. Knights and guards rarely had the patience to knock more than twice, and most others were people with general admittance to his chambers or people who had no business being near them. Robert, even after half of a year in Arthur's service, remained uncomfortable with anything that could even slightly be construed as an invasion of the king's personal space, and he always knocked four times. Arthur, even after half of a year of Robert's service, remained slightly uncomfortable with the distance. But the knock was what he had been waiting for ever since he had cut his hand. Wasn't it?
Arthur opened his mouth to beckon the servant inside, but thought better of it. Feeling like a coward, he just sat motionless in his chair and listened to the second series of four knocks. Maybe he didn't want company. Or maybe he just didn't want that of his current manservant. It didn't matter anyway. After Arthur had not responded to the knocks, Robert would go away. He had a very strict routine for cleaning Arthur's chambers, and the only deviations came during tourneys or emergencies. He could have suspected Arthur of slowly bleeding to death within—which Arthur would be if he didn't stop reopened his wounds—and refused to enter without permission. By the time he'd found Guinevere and been granted access, Arthur would probably be dead.
As far as Robert knew just then, however, Arthur was just somewhere else and it was not time for him to enter. Merlin would have barged in, but Robert had more discretion. Arthur spent more time alone because of it.
Not that Merlin had been that great of company anyway. Just…there.
And it was all over the place.
The news of Merlin's arrival had no doubt become common knowledge among his peasants while he and Merlin were still making awkward small talk. The only topic that was currently threatening to overshadow the return of the banished sorcerer, Arthur knew, was that he had in fact returned on a dragon. And that the dragon was currently waiting patiently on top of the castle. As far as he knew, however, Arthur was the only one wondering what was wrong with Merlin that he seemed to think that the people of Camelot had such short memories that they did not recall the massacre of their friends and families during the dragon attacks of only a few years before.
Arthur was slightly worried that he seemed to be the only one wondering about that. The people were no doubt upset about the dragon, but he knew that a significant number of them were probably attributing Merlin's bringing it to Camelot as malice on the part of the young man, rather than foolishness. Stupid Merlin. How could he claim that Arthur didn't think things through?
Arthur flexed his hand again and immediately regretted it as the blood began to seep very slightly past the edges of the cut. Would the damn thing never heal? At least, heal enough for him to be able to use it without opening it up with every little twitch of his finger? Frustrated, Arthur put his hands palm together, hoping that the pressure of the uninjured hand would help to staunch the injury as quickly as possible. Sitting back in his chair, he felt rather silly as he held his hands together out in front of him. Sighing, he looked at his hands. And he saw another scar.
Not the most flattering of his many scars.
It wasn't so much a disfiguring scar. Most people didn't even know that he had it, and it was only visible if a person knew to look for it. But there it was, on his dominant hand, right between the knuckles of his middle and forefinger.
He was glad that most people didn't know that he had it.
Not that it hadn't been an enjoyable night when he'd received it. No, it had been fun up until the…incident. He hadn't married Guinevere yet, so there was no one waiting for him so as to exclaim over the stained handkerchief being clutched over his hand. It was altogether a clean affair, so far as it was possible for kings to cut themselves with daggers in taverns. Kings shouldn't even be in taverns. It had been a bad idea from he start.
Fun, though, for an inappropriate tavern game.
Merlin had wisely refrained from joining in. He was still known to nick himself when handling Arthur's broadsword before a battle or tourney; engaging in an activity that involved repeatedly stabbing the wood between his fingers with as much speed as possible seemed like a distinctly un-Merlin sort of game. And Merlin had seemed to be feeling slightly uncomfortable with the whole situation as it was. It had been primarily a night free of duty for the knights, and friendship aside, Merlin was always aware of the lowness of his own status in comparison.
Plus, as Arthur found out later, he hadn't counted on Arthur being present. So he was there at Arthur's side, as he had been so many times before, but not as Arthur's manservant. He had just been there as a…man. He couldn't blame Merlin for being uncomfortable.
Arthur also hadn't known until later that Merlin had actually been asked along for the evening. It shouldn't have surprised him—Merlin was as much a part of the group of knights as it was possible for a non-knight to be. But he'd assumed that Merlin had just been off in the tavern on his own, as he always seemed to be whenever Arthur needed him. Maybe he only liked to go to the tavern on his own when he was supposed to be working. That seemed far more conceivable than Merlin taking part in their game that night.
Gwaine wasn't playing either, although that hadn't been his choice. He had been, by general consensus, forbidden from playing by that point in the night. He was actually by far the best of them at this particular game and had insisted rather loudly that they were only disqualifying him because they knew that he would beat them all. However, as his insistences were distinctly slurred and he seemed to be seeing two hands for every one that he possessed, it was for his own safety that they had disqualified him.
Mostly. Drunk as he was, he probably would have won. Hell, playing with drunk Gwaine would have been comparable to playing with sober Merlin—it would have been entertaining and well-worth a few wagers for a while, but someone was sure to end up bleeding. As Gwaine had been past the point of feeling whether or not he had severed a thumb on one of his four hands, they had forced him out of the game.
In hindsight, one of them probably should have pointed out that it was not the wisest of games for the king of Camelot to be playing either. Especially in public. He hadn't exactly been as far gone as Gwaine was, but he knew now that kings should probably be entirely sober before stabbing a table between their fingers. So, really, it was entirely their fault that Arthur had ended up bleeding all over the damn table. No, Arthur was not to have been blamed, he thought in entirely righteous indignation. Knights were supposed to protect their king, were they not? Yes, it had been entirely their fault. Arthur's mortification was completely misplaced!
It didn't help that the table had been thereafter known by seemingly all of the patrons of that particular tavern as the King's Table.
Stupid knights. At the very least, they could have laughed less and focused more on providing a buffer between himself and the other drinkers of the night. He'd gotten the handkerchief from Merlin, who wasn't even a knight and wasn't even meant to be helping Arthur with anything that night.
Arthur sighed and dropped his hands back to his lap. The memory was serving to do nothing more than thrust him back into the problem that he was trying to avoid. Apparently, embarrassing memories were no better of buffers than were his knights on social occasions.
But it was too late. He'd thought about the people and the people had reminded him of Merlin and magic and legislation and it was all far more inconvenient than remembering self-inflicted wounds of the drunken variety.
The people…Arthur was just glad that the majority of the citizens clamoring about Merlin's return had not yet begun to wonder why he had come back. While he had no problem with the news of Merlin spreading around, he was not particularly anxious for news of Gaius' illness to get around. Not yet. They would find out, of course. They deserved to find out. Gaius had been their physician as well as his own. But this was a time for goodbyes, final goodbyes, and such farewells are worthy of privacy and focus. Merlin had the right to mourn for Gaius when the loss was fresh; those who knew him only as kindly old man and dispenser of potions could express their sorrows later.
Unfortunately, however, Arthur had already focused on the privacy of what he knew had been the final conversation that he would ever have with Gaius, and that had been…
That was also extremely low on the list of things that he wanted to think about. Structural damage to the castle and what he had said and what Gaius had said and what he might be saying to Merlin and whether or not anyone would be able to tell if blond hair ever began to turn white. Hypothetically. He could think about those things later. Or maybe never. He'd go as long as he could.
"As long as I can," Arthur said aloud, as though vocalizing the idea would make it all the more possible. He knew that it was silly, but he was the king, and if he wanted to be silly in the privacy of his own chambers, he would damn well be silly.
Plus, Guinevere always started laughing whenever he made any variations of that statement in her presence. She still wouldn't explain why, but he'd always had the distinct impression that the laughter was directed at him. Which made absolutely no sense.
Women could be so frustrating, Arthur thought absently. And then he wished that he hadn't. He had been so determined not to think about Merlin and what Merlin was going through, but then Arthur just had to go and think about femininity, which usually made Merlin pop into his head. So much for lasting long.
He did not say that aloud.
Arthur forced himself into an exaggeration of a yawn. He wasn't remotely tired—well, not tired in the sense that there was any way that he would be able to sleep anytime soon—but he vaguely hoped that going through the motions of winding down could trick his body into winding down. It seemed farfetched, even to Arthur, but Merlin always accused Arthur of going through the motions of most duties in his life and of being fundamentally vague. Maybe it was worth a try.
So he tried. He tried for perhaps a bit longer than was dignified. Or feasible. After nearly a minute of trying to hold a yawn, he'd achieved nothing more than a sore jaw. Swearing under his breath, he took his uninjured hand to his chin and began to rub it grumpily.
And there was another scar.
This one was nearly unnoticeable and, as far as the majority of the kingdom knew, nonexistent. All that they knew, if they knew of it at all, was that it had occurred on one of his hunting trips when in pursuit of a particularly vicious boar. The public story was that Arthur had suffered the wound after being gored by the boar but being so strong and determined a king that it would not stop him from capturing and manfully slaughtering his prey. Yes, as far as most people knew, the scar was just a remnant of a battle of man versus beast that man had, of course, won. After all, the man in question was Arthur.
Or so Arthur had reasoned. The only other witness of the suffering of the actual wound in question happened to disagree. Merlin had unfortunately been present on the occasion when Arthur had, when shaving, managed to sink his razor deeply enough into his own skin to cause him to bleed alarmingly. He hadn't even noticed at first; Merlin actually managed to sharpen this particular blade with semi-frequency—which Arthur assumed had to do with its diminutive size in comparison to his broadsword and the workload that accompanied each—and it was sharp enough that there hadn't even been pain until Merlin had stopped making fun of his attempt to do something himself to point out that he was bleeding.
Then it had hurt.
It wasn't even the pain that was the worst—it was the fear. Merlin had actually become somewhat sympathetic when he'd seen Arthur's face twisting into an expression of dread rather than hurt, but when he'd learned that Arthur was afraid more for permanent marking on his face rather than the blood that was running down it, Merlin's words of reassurance very quickly became far less concerned and far more insulting. Which was completely unfair. Granted, it was just about the only thing that Arthur attempted to do on his own, but Arthur had also been proven far less likely to accidentally kill someone with a blade than was Merlin. Arthur was clearly the far more qualified of the two of them to safely handle a razor near another person's neck. He could hardly be blamed for wanting to keep Merlin out of the whole ordeal. Besides, Arthur had been a prince at the time. He had to look the part.
Merlin hadn't agreed with that reasoning either, but he'd had enough sense to at least agree to keep his mouth shut whenever Arthur looked as murderous as he knew that he did on that day. He'd even helped by suggesting that they leave the castle for an hour or two for the swelling to go down, the bleeding to stop, and his pride to stop smarting to the extent that he'd throw something heavy at anyone who dared look at him with anything other than reverence. Arthur had approved of the plan and even took it upon himself to expand upon it. Merlin had clearly hoped for a leisurely ride through the forest or the sort of examination of the grounds that Arthur generally took whenever he wanted to do nothing productive whilst looking like he was doing something important. So Arthur wasn't surprised to find that Merlin was rather displeased when Arthur had changed his proposal of leaving the castle for an hour or two into leaving for a day or two so as to go hunting.
And Merlin's displeasure was enough to make him behave completely illogically for the entire excursion. Arthur knew that Merlin hated hunting trips, but that was bloody well too bad. He didn't pay Merlin a completely adequate amount of money—no matter what Merlin claimed about common decency when it came to wages in relation to life-risking tasks—to allow him to slack off on tasks that he disliked. Hunting wasn't so bad. Besides, he let Merlin get away with enough slacking off with his daily tasks back in the castle. Merlin didn't have the right to complain about hunting. His job was to help.
Although his help was usually useless. When Arthur had informed Merlin of his plan for recounting the story of the wild boar and his subsequent goring, Merlin had started whining about the unlikelihood that Arthur could manage to be gored by a wild boar and have the only evidence be a tiny nick on his chin and the fact that they would have to somehow find and kill a wild boar for the story to hold up. Merlin had instead proposed that they alter the story to replace the boar with a deer, which were admittedly rather easier to find. But how was he supposed to have been gored by a deer? As if his massive facial wound could have been caused by a tree branch whipping in his face during his furious pursuit or the death twitch of a stag's antlers! Merlin could be so stupid sometimes.
Arthur was proved right anyway. After the two days in the wilderness turned into four days in the wilderness and they had been reduced to increasingly small rations that were good for the constitution no matter what Merlin said when trying to convince him to ride for home, they had caught the wild boar and brought it back to the castle with triumph in their eyes, weariness in their limbs, and nothing in their bellies. But they were back and Arthur had his story.
Arthur did have to admit that it was possible that Merlin's eyes had been more exasperated than triumphant. But Merlin's expression in Arthur's presence could so often be interpreted as exasperated that Arthur had long ago chosen to believe that that was just pride and wonder at his great fortune for his position as manservant to such an undemanding prince as Arthur reflected in his face. That would make much more sense anyway.
A shiver ran very suddenly through Arthur's body, and he glanced over at the windows in his chamber. He hadn't remembered opening one, but there it was. It must have been Robert in his attempts to be at all times solicitous. Arthur also didn't remember it being a particularly chilly day, and he wondered vaguely if he was growing cold with blood loss. It didn't seem likely. He hadn't bled that much, and he was barely even fidgeting with the wounds anymore as they tried to clot. Save for his bloodstained clothes, he probably could have almost passed for the normal sort of person who did not on a semi-regular basis punch out his mirror with a bare fist. There weren't any pools on the ground or anything. A few drips and footprints, yes. But who was to say that those hadn't always been there and Guinevere just hadn't noticed?
Or maybe another argument would be better.
As it was, he knew that he probably couldn't blame the chill on blood loss. It could be all sorts of other things that were normal and understandable and not at all indicative of his emotional state!
Or maybe it was just reflective of the indecency that he so acutely felt just below his casual remembrances of shaving scars and hunting trips. But it felt equally indecent that he should be thinking about Merlin's status in Camelot, and that thought seemed to keep drifting to the top of his collection of problems. It just wasn't right. This was not the time…this was not what he should be thinking, he somehow knew. This should not be his focus. He could think about something else. He would think about something else. Of all of the qualities that King Arthur of Camelot did not possess, Arthur thought with no small amount of pride, willpower was not one of them. If he did not want to do or say or think about something, it just did not happen.
But what the hell was he going to do with Merlin? That was the question. There were so many variables, so many choices, so many unpredictable outcomes that Arthur didn't know how he was supposed to go about deciding.
So he started with the things that he knew.
Merlin was in Camelot, despite being banished.
That was okay. That was not one of the problems. Merlin had come back at Arthur's request, via Guinevere. Merlin's return had not been some impertinent or vengeful attempt to get back at the king for exiling him. Merlin was innocent.
Merlin was innocent in this, anyway.
Everyone knows that Merlin is back and Camelot, and there have been no riots or gatherings of pitchforks and torches.
Arthur hadn't had a firm grasp on what his people thought about his work to legalize magic. Not really. Whenever he asked anyone, they generally just either agreed with him or said whatever they thought that he wanted to hear, Guinevere excepted. Those were times that he would have relished having Merlin around. A second honest opinion would have been more than welcome. Arthur just didn't know. He generally didn't let public opinion change the way that he made the truly important decisions, but this was different. This affected everyone and changed one of the laws that had most significantly defined the carrying out of what had been called "justice." It was a big change and, even disregarding altruism and the importance of legitimate justice for all subjects of Camelot, magical and non-magical alike, the possibility of revolt among the populace was a very real and uncharacteristically serious concern of Arthur's. Civil war certainly wouldn't help anyone, magic or not.
Sometimes he wished that he was as stupid as some people thought that he was.
The repealing of magic is happening soon.
That was actually something that had been troubling Arthur since before he'd had to call Merlin home, before any of them were ready for it. It all depended on how a person looked at it, Arthur knew. Either Arthur had caught Merlin doing magic and banished him for sorcery, or Arthur had caught Merlin doing magic and had banished him for breaking the law. Or, of course, the fairly popular theory among certain of his peers was that Arthur had caught Merlin in a lie and banished him in a fit of childishness that happened to last for an extended period of time. Arthur didn't like that one.
He couldn't deny that the betrayal had stung, of course. The lying. But was that why Merlin had been exiled? Was that why he had exiled Merlin? Sometimes even he didn't know why he'd done it. There were so many reasons for it…why couldn't he think of the one that must have been the deciding factor and tipped the scale when he'd done it?
But that wasn't the point. The point was that, if Merlin had been banished for illegal sorcery, couldn't he be brought back for good once magic was legal again? Yes, he had broken the law, but who was to say that half a year of wandering around wasn't punishment enough? If Arthur had been able to forgive Merlin, it sure as hell should have been enough for the king to pardon the sorcerer. He could do it. It would be something of a questionable decision, but he could do it. He just didn't know if it would be a good idea for everyone else.
If only the selfishness allowed to a prince had carried over to the duties of being king.
There were doubts. Lots and lots and lots of doubts.
Arthur had to tread lightly. He knew it. Metaphorically tread lightly. Physically treading lightly would have been easy. He wouldn't have had to think about that. He had been many times described as "lithe as a cat and silent as a shadow" when he was in hunting mode. He was good at silently stalking and killing. And, now that he thought about it, good at paraphrasing what other people said about him.
Life was so much easier when it wasn't being metaphorical. Figurative light treading was not something that he'd been taught as a child. It wasn't even something that they had tried to teach him and that he had ignored, like writing speeches and foresight and long division. It just hadn't been present in his education.
Not that he would have run to his father to ask for more lessons, had the omission occurred to him. He usually didn't even need to. His might not have been the most openly affectionate of fathers, but Uther had taken Arthur's education seriously and had done what he could to make his son realize that understanding sums and responsibility and words and other such silly things could be useful. It wasn't Uther's fault that all of the lessons hadn't exactly been taken to heart. Or head. But despite Uther's extensive interference with Arthur's education, he hadn't forced Arthur to struggle to pretend to pay attention for more hours than he already did. It was actually strange, now that Arthur thought about it. He was the heir. But no matter. Arthur wasn't offended. Uther was probably busy lighting people on fire.
That was something that Uther had tried to teach his son.
And it was not something that Arthur had yet come to regret neglecting in his studies.
But Arthur liked thinking about Uther even less than he liked thinking about Merlin just then. Merlin was losing his own surrogate father. Arthur didn't want to make himself relive how he had lost his own.
So he would tread lightly, and he would figure this out.
How would he assuage even a few of the doubts about the legalizing of magic that he knew were in the hearts of a good percentage of his people? It was one thing to decree something. Making them feel it was a whole other matter. They had to see that Arthur truly trusted that what he was doing was right. Arthur had to be public and open about this. Didn't he? He couldn't just let it happen. He was making it happen, and the people deserved to be able to see that he meant what he said. How else would it stick?
So he would accept it in front of everyone. He could do that. He would embrace it.
Maybe that was where Merlin could come in.
Not that Arthur was planning on embracing Merlin. Things rarely got so desperate as for that to happen. Physically. He could embrace metaphorically.
Looking down at his floor, Arthur smiled, and saw his own face, dozens of his own face looking back up at him from the shards of the mirror that he had punched out, each face pale and drawn and smiling with so much weariness that he almost mistook it for a grimace. Was that how he smiled now?
It didn't have to be. Arthur breathed deeply and took a pause to give himself a moment to congratulate himself on his mastery of the metaphor before he dove back into the abyss of all things responsible.
He was getting pretty good with metaphors.
So he would metaphorically embrace Merlin as a sorcerer. He could welcome Merlin back to court and Merlin could…
What the hell could Merlin do? Taking him back as a manservant was ludicrous in so very many ways, and as far as Arthur knew, Merlin didn't really have any skills in any other areas. Merlin barely had any skills in that area. But he couldn't bring Merlin back without giving the man some purpose. It would look like he was just snagging the only sorcerer that he knew to act as the figurehead of the new "magic is not evil" campaign.
Besides, if Merlin didn't have something to do, he would either dog Arthur's steps and annoy him so much that Arthur would have to kill him and therefore completely undo the whole thing, or Merlin would be so bored that he'd start fiddling with his magic and things would start collapsing or turning purple or blowing up or collapsing or catching on fire or turning into toads or collapsing…
That damn council room.
Yes, Merlin had to have something to do. Arthur could do that. Of course, he couldn't make Merlin a member of the household staff again, not least because he had no doubt in his mind that Merlin would refuse. Merlin hadn't even volunteered for the position as Arthur's manservant when he had received it in the first place. And Arthur wasn't sure how welcome he would be amongst the staff. And his current manservant was already afraid of Merlin from a distance; how would Robert be able to get anything done if Merlin was actually working near him? Everything would be in shambles. It would be like having Merlin for a manservant all over again.
And he was not knighting Merlin. Merlin may have been able to kill a thousand men with a wink of his eye or whatever he claimed to be able to do, but unless he could pick up a broadsword for battle without hurting himself or maintain a hold on an iron shield for more than five minutes without his arms buckling, he was not knight material.
Besides, "Sir Merlin?" No. That was just…no. The man had named his warhorse Buttercup. Gwaine may have been an unconventional choice for a knight, but at least he rode a stallion called Stormsword. Merlin had chosen a black mare and named her after a yellow flower that he inexplicably claimed that she resembled. Telepathic connection or not, that was not the way to treat a warhorse, mare or not. No, Merlin was not going to be a knight. Ever. Not even a little bit. Arthur bit his lip, thinking. What sort of job was the opposite of the gallantry and fearlessness of the knighthood?
Arthur could always put him on his council of advisors. That would give him something of a title. Sort of. And why not? Arthur wasn't entirely sure what most of his advisors were meant to be advising him on anyway. He had long suspected that some of them had just been recruited off of the streets to make sure that all of the seats at the long table were filled. He'd inherited nearly all of them from Uther; maybe it would be a good idea to bring some fresh—if somewhat moronic—blood into the mix.
A court sorcerer. An official court sorcerer. Why not? There was a court appointment for just about everything else. And what would legitimize the legalizing of magic more than Arthur's personal inclusion of a sorcerer amongst his advisors? It's not like he would be obliged to listen to any sorcerous advice anyway. Advice was advice, and he could ignore all of it just as much as he pleased. Yes, Merlin could be an official court sorcerer.
Arthur shifted in his chair, uncomfortable for reasons that he knew were unrelated to the cuts on his hand and foot. Something seemed…off about making up a title and giving it to Merlin, just like that. It seemed ceremonial, even to him. Gratuitous. Like he was bringing a sorcerer right into his inner circle to try to justify what he was doing.
Bring a sorcerer back into his inner circle was more accurate, he supposed. At least this time he would be known for what he was. And this would be official.
Anyway, wasn't the whole point of this whole mess to show that sorcerers were just like everybody else? Appointing a court sorcerer just seemed like he was setting them apart all over again. Hell, maybe deep down in the part of him that was still the prince to Uther's king, he was still setting them apart. Yet making "sorcerer" part of a title invented for Merlin just somehow seemed counterproductive.
He could always just give the court sorcerer a generic sort of title that he wouldn't remember anyway. He'd gotten to the point that he just referred in his mind to some of his lesser advisors who never spoke as Big Hat or Shiny Shield or Red Shirt or some other descriptor that seemed infinitely more practical and entertaining than the name, house, and title of an adviser who never advised.
Besides, if he needed to know something about magic, if he was ever being usurped by it again, he would be able to just ask Merlin. That would be fairly convenient.
Assuming, of course, that Merlin stayed.
Arthur scowled, annoyed at himself. Of course Merlin would stay. Why wouldn't he? There was no reason not to stay. Probably no reason not to stay. Yes, Merlin would stay.
Merlin had better stay, Arthur thought grouchily.
Maybe Merlin would need a gesture of some sort, something ceremonial and flattering to convince him that he was needed. That had been known to work on Arthur. And Arthur understood that Merlin's first instinct might be to flee the castle that was undoubtedly a constant reminder of his relationship with and the death of Gaius. Arthur could understand that. He himself had nearly wept the first time that he'd had to sit in his father's throne. The memories, he'd learned to his dismay, could be even worse than the death. The happy times forever contrasted by the knowledge that there were no more to come…yes, maybe Arthur would truly need a grand gesture to convince Merlin to stay. And to make sure that it didn't look like it was out of pity for his predicament. Which it absolutely was not.
Which it absolutely was not entirely.
But maybe the people would need the ceremony as well, unappetizing as it may have been to Arthur just then. Maybe he had to make it real, not just another piece of legislation that they couldn't read and that he hadn't bothered to care about before stamping his seal onto it. Maybe there needed to be some legitimate and official attention. Royal approval. After all, as much as he was trying to show to everyone that he wholeheartedly believed that sorcerers were more or less the same as the rest, who was he really kidding? Of course they were different.
Arthur's head was beginning to hurt. He blinked furiously, trying to focus.
Yes, everybody was different. Everybody had different skills. In the grand scheme of things, Arthur may have been far more important a man than any village blacksmith, but he knew damn well that that didn't mean that he could make a horseshoe.
Then again, blacksmiths hadn't been summarily executed whenever their practiced their craft for the past two and a half decades. There was that.
Inexplicably, Arthur's mind suddenly made the jump to another of his scars. At times, the workings of his brain baffled even him. Almost unwittingly, he moved his uninjured hand down to touch the scar that marred one of his legs.
There was no amusing cause for that particular injury, Arthur remembered grimly. It had been one hell of an arrow wound, poisoned to the extent that he'd required Merlin's support to travel the corridors of the castle with any semblance of stealth. Merlin had risen to the occasion and been far more stealthy with Arthur hanging onto his shoulder for dear life than he usually did when trying to walk in a straight line on his own. He'd say that for Merlin—the boy could keep his head in a crisis.
But try as he might, Arthur could not put any positive spin on this scar. He'd suffered the wound on the day of Morgana's first usurping. Or was it the second? He'd been injured on both occasions. He considered for half a second, but he knew. He would never forget. It was on that first fateful day when he'd learned that his friend Morgana was actually his sister Morgana and that his sister Morgana was a sorceress and that his sorceress of a sister Morgana was usurping his father in a move that would break the king's heart and harden Arthur's to a point from which it would never entirely soften again.
But out of the dust of Morgana's betrayal had risen several new knights, knights that would grow dearer to his heart than any who had come before, save of course for Sir Leon. He had lost a friend and sister that day, but he had gained a circle of brothers.
So there was that.
But that arrow had hurt.
Then, before Arthur could grope about his body for another scar to think about before he did what he was going to have to do about the whole magic situation, the knocking on his door resumed once more. Grateful for the distraction, Arthur rolled his eyes, assuming that it was Robert again and halfheartedly wondering if he should just let the boy in to stop him from banging on the door at the top of every hour. Robert was an…enthusiastic servant. This could very well continue past midnight until Arthur made an appearance. Still debating, Arthur waited impatiently for the fourth knock.
It never came.
Arthur had just enough time to grow baffled before the door opened. Guinevere walked it, taking tiny steps and looking at the floor. Arthur winced preemptively. She was going to yell at him, and he still hadn't recovered entirely from the last time that he'd been on the receiving end on one of her admittedly justified rants. And he'd had Merlin to at least face the wrath with him the last time. Now it was just him.
He couldn't blame her, though. Not really. She loved him too much, he knew, not to be mad at him for something like this. It wasn't as though he had some brilliant argument as to why it was a good idea for him to punch out his mirror, especially considering that he'd done it before and knew what tended to happen. So it was with a tentatively placating smile that he looked at his wife, loving her too much to insult her by attempting to rationalize any of it. He opened his mouth to say something that he probably should have planned out ahead of time, but was spared the humiliation of improvising a dignified explanation for the reasoning that had led to his current state. He couldn't speak. She looked as though something…he just didn't know what to say. He'd never seen her like this.
Guinevere did not look angry or annoyed. As she faced him, he half believed that she hadn't even noticed the blood and destruction that Arthur had wrought in his own chambers. Her hands were clenching and unclenching, clasping together and pressed tightly against the skirt of her gown, the hem slightly puckered as evidence that she had stumbled over the yards and yards of fabric sewn into the dress of a queen. She hadn't done that for quite some time. She looked curiously pale with an expression so close to devastation that his heart gave an alarmed twitch. But it wasn't pure devastation that he saw, not really. She looked…frightened. And so very dreadfully sad.
Forgetting his own wounds in an instant, Arthur stood and began to approach his wife. Whatever had happened, all that he knew was that he had to let it happen to him as well if that could make it somehow easier for her. This was not a time for him to be a king. He would be a husband.
And then he stepped on another shard of glass and found himself swearing at the top of his lungs.
The obscenity seemed to awaken Guinevere to her surroundings, and she looked over Arthur with a critical eye. Her eyes darted over him quickly, her countenance changing rapidly from annoyance to worry to fear to some frantically dreadful and strangely guilty expression that he could not identify for the life of him.
Not being blind, she had noticed what was wrong with him, and from the deep breath that she took as she began to stride hurriedly toward him, thankfully wearing shoes that would spare her feet the gashes that afflicted his, he was about to hear all about what was wrong with him that led to this that was wrong with him.
Not being a total idiot, he had noticed that something was wrong with her, too. Something was very wrong with her, something that was hers. He had seen her worry for him and for Merlin and for her brother and for the kingdom and, most recently, for Gaius, with such capable empathy that he almost envied her for it. But she was worried for her now.
And Arthur suddenly realized that he did not know whether or not his wife would tell him why.
So he kept bleeding.
Chapter 13: Interlude II: Of Motherhood
Disclaimer: Merlin is not mine.
Why did it seem like so much of her life revolved around blood nowadays? Being a wife wasn't supposed to be like this. Not all the time, with everything a constant reminder. War and illness and stupid little accidents that no one sees coming and stupid husbands who do stupid things and the things that she could see coming because it always came but always hoped against hope just might not happen this time. She hadn't thought of any of this on her wedding day. It hadn't even occurred to her. She hadn't known that it was such a big part of being a wife.
But then, Guinevere hadn't realized a lot about what it meant to be queen.
So she worried about blood far too much. The spilling of that of those she loved, the spilling of that of those she hated, the Pendragon blood that ran through Arthur's veins, the common blood that she knew ran through hers, the mix that seemed to not want to mix, the magical that condemned the innocent, the normal that saved the guilty, the blood that men lost at war and the blood that women lost at…did it always feel so unnecessary? And so very unbidden?
And yet here it was again. Just as it was over and over and over again.
She didn't know whose fault it was. For all she knew, it was both of them. But what were the odds of that? It had to be just one of them.
She almost wanted it to be both of them. It had to be both or neither. If it was both of them, it was no one's fault. Just bad luck. If it was neither, then there was nothing wrong. This was just a fluke. A fluke that had been carrying on for nearly a year. A fluke that became more worrying every single time that it didn't happen. A fluke that they didn't talk about because it was so much easier to not talk about such things until they happened. A fluke in spite of the fact that they were both young and healthy. It was just a fluke.
Was she never going to be able to do this? And would he never forgive her for denying him it?
Or worse, would she never forgive him for it? Did they love each other enough to wallow in mutual sadness rather than blaming the other? She thought so. She hoped so. There was no way that it would ever happen if they didn't love each other. She didn't know much, but she knew that. Trying couldn't be enough. There had to be love and intent.
Although that didn't explain how Morgana came to be.
But that didn't matter. Heirs didn't bear themselves. That was what mattered.
She had to tell him. He deserved to know as much as she did. She had to tell him.
But how could she? Gaius was dead and Merlin was off somewhere mourning and probably irrational enough with grief to do something desperate and the knights were getting anxious at the avoidance of their king and Arthur was destroying things like a child and was bleeding all over his floor and what did it matter if she wasn't pregnant when there were so many other things to worry about?
Would he even want to know?
She didn't like wondering about that. She'd always wanted them. They were always meant to be part of her life. She was meant to live a little life, and children were always part of the little lives of women. There were only so many things that women in the life that she'd been born into were capable of doing, and having babies was one of them. Yes, she had always wanted them.
But Arthur needed them, and that made everything different. It almost didn't matter if he wanted them for any reason other than the fact that the last thing that the kingdom would need if he died was a power struggle or an opening for Morgana to return with a blood claim. Guinevere had never even asked him if he wanted them for anything other than fulfilling the duty that came with his position. She hoped so. But she didn't want to know. She half believed that he hadn't even thought about it in those terms, in terms more associated with desire than duty. There were things that he had to do, that he'd been raised knowing that he had to do. He'd known that he had to do this before he knew how it was done. Live as a prince, become a knight, survive his quest, take a wife, father a son, rule the kingdom, and die an honorable king who would be remembered respectfully in the songs that they would sing of him. He had been working on that list of duties from the day that he had been born.
And he was making progress.
Not that she considered herself nothing more than "progress" to Arthur. Of course she didn't. She knew better than anyone that nowhere in his training of the rules of life as royalty had it been mentioned that he could choose his queen from the home of a blacksmith. No, Arthur hadn't been blindly following the set of goals that had been drilled into his head since infancy. He deviated enough to become his own man and was all the better for it. But the goals had remained fundamentally the same.
And they were good goals, she knew. They made sense. They were Arthur's, but they had become Guinevere's from the moment that she had wed the king and accepted her own crown. Husbands and wives may have been meant to be equals—well, at least in her opinion—but king will always outrank queen, especially when that queen achieved her rank via marriage. After all, she knew perfectly well that even if Morgana had been legitimate, she would have been second in line for the throne to her brother. Her younger brother. Guinevere had been a servant for the majority of her life, and the only nobility of her family that was not a product of marriage was Elyan's knighthood. And that was hardly the result of a long and noble bloodline.
Now she was queen, and she could curtsy politely and welcome courteously and sit composedly on the smaller throne that stood beside and below Arthur's. She could do all of that for the people, and they had not turned on her. Some of them even loved her for personifying the ability for a commoner to become more than she was expected to be.
But she was young and healthy and no matter which way it went, it would be her fault. The novelty of a servant rising to royalty only went so far. Arthur had been so popular, the perfect little golden prince to the people, his arrogance always hidden behind his bravery, his temper always hidden by his loyalty. They had all loved him…even now, more than a year into his reign as king, they remembered that perfect little golden prince who had charmed them so many years ago. No, he would not be blamed. Besides, Uther had fathered two children—one unintentionally, and probably would have produced more if he'd had the wife to do it. Arthur's mother had died in childbirth. It would be easy to say that Uther's son was just as hearty as he had been and that it was only the weakness of the woman's body that had prevented Arthur from having a brood of younger siblings.
If only he did. That would make everything so much easier.
But he didn't and he never even wanted to talk about how his mother had died to her even though she knew that Merlin knew that she wanted not to be hurt by that but it was okay because she loved him and they all loved him and maybe Arthur had a point when he worried about his hair changing color. The little golden prince…
Well, he may have been that same little golden prince to his people, but they never had the misfortune to walk in on him whenever he'd done something ridiculously stupid alone in his chambers. She'd accepted long ago that he would inevitably end up doing stupid and probably dangerous things from time to time. He was the king and he got bored, and this was a bad combination. Of course he would be an idiot sometimes.
But was it really too much to ask that he be an idiot with someone else in the room with him? It was times like this that she really missed having Merlin at Arthur's side. Merlin might not have been able to stop Arthur from doing stupid things or stop himself from suggesting stupid things for him and Arthur to do, but he was perfectly capable of applying pressure and running for help. That's all that she asked. Basic safety precautions. That was all.
So she felt distinctly justified as she yelled at him. Besides, as stressed as she was with Gaius' illness the uncertainties surrounding Merlin's return and her own troubles, yelling was downright cathartic.
And definitely justified. Why on earth did Arthur have to pick now to throw a temper tantrum and punch out his mirror?
Now that she thought about it, that was a very good question.
"Arthur, why on earth did you have to pick now to throw a temper tantrum and punch out your mirror?"
Standing before him with her hands on her hips, she saw him wince, then look at her strangely. He'd been staring at her ever since she had entered, as though he expected her to collapse into a sobbing heap at his feet. She was admittedly upset about what she had found out hadn't happened to her again, but she wasn't going to tell that to Arthur just now. He could stare at her strangely all that he wanted. He was the idiot who looked like he'd either just narrowly avoided being murdered or like he had just murdered someone and fled the scene. And if he had expected her to collapse into a sobbing heap and swoon because he was bleeding, he had another thing coming.
But his voice was urgent and steady as he brushed away her question. "Guinevere, never mind the mirror. What's wrong with—"
As if she was going to allow his concern for her well-being distract her from yelling at him! Honestly, sometimes it felt like he didn't know her at all.
Smiling slightly at the absurdity of the thought, Guinevere interrupted him. Smiling very slightly. She didn't want him to think that she wasn't entirely serious about the very obvious things that she shouldn't have to be pointing out to him. "It's a trying time for me as well, Arthur, but if you go over to my bedchambers, I think that you'll find that all of my possessions are perfectly intact. Would you like to know why?"
Arthur pulled the expression that he always seemed to think conveyed innocence. She didn't know why he still tried to use it. It had never once worked on her.
Probably because she wasn't stupid.
But it didn't stop him from trying. "Actually, I'd really rather if you wouldn't tell me why until you've stopped yelling at me and instead told me—"
He had blood on his face. He had blood on his hands. He had blood on his tunic. He had blood on what had once been his white tunic. He had blood drips on his pants. There was blood on the floor. And he was trying to dismiss this as some mistake that could be tabled for later discussion?
It was almost cute that he thought that that might work.
She crossed her arms over her chest. "Would you like to know why, Arthur?"
It sounded much less like a question than the first time that she'd asked.
But Arthur hadn't spent the last six months trying to repeal a law against something so controversial as magic without being frustratingly stubborn when he put his mind to something. He would not be diverted into explaining himself, apparently. "Guinevere, what I'd like is for you to tell me what happened that—"
"Arthur! Would you like to know why!"
Finally, Arthur paused for a moment and seemed to begin weighing his options. Guinevere waited as patiently as she could. Arthur thinking tended to require a lot of patience, so she was somewhat practiced. And she knew what he was trying to decide anyway. He had to know that he was going to be yelled at no matter what and that he probably wasn't going to be getting any information about the source of Guinevere's distress that he had obviously noticed until she got the yelling out of her system. He should probably just let her yell at him, and he knew it.
That was his first option.
His second option was to act like an egotistical pride-monger who couldn't bear to have his wife point out with relative calmness why it was a stupid idea for the king of Camelot—lacking in all blood relatives—to thrust his hands through sharp shards of glass when alone. Or to thrust his hands through sharp shards of glass ever.
It was actually a nice surprise a minute or so later when Arthur apparently chose the first option.
"I would very much like to know why, Guinevere."
Pleased, Guinevere tossed her head and started. "Good! It's because I am not an infant who decides to take out her woes on whatever objects happen to get in her way."
"That is an excellent point, and I will definitely take it into consideration in the future—"
As if she was going to let him off easily if he just started agreeing with her! "That's what you said the last time that you punched your mirror! And honestly, Arthur, who punches out their mirror twice? Once is bad enough, but twice? Honestly!"
Arthur bit his lip. "Another excellent point. I will have a lot to think about. Anyway, are you alri—"
"You shouldn't have to think about it! It's just common sense. You see something hard, you don't punch it. You see something sharp, you don't try to rub it against your wrist. You punch out your mirror once, you don't do it again!"
Arthur shrugged his shoulders and didn't answer. She was surprised that he wasn't even attempting to give some excuse that might make his most recent act of self-destruction sound at least slightly reasonable. It was nice that he seemed to recognize that there was no way that punching his mirror could ever be considered reasonable. Perhaps he was learning from his mistakes in trying to improvise flimsy excuses. Of course, the punching of inanimate objects being a bad idea was probably a more important lesson for Arthur to gain from his past errors, but she'd take what she could get. Baby steps.
She could also tell that he genuinely wanted to ask her what was wrong. She had truly seemed to frighten him by entering in her state. She hadn't realized that she looked that bad—she would have waited to compose herself a bit more before coming in to try to tell Arthur what she did not want to have to tell him. She really hadn't meant to scare him.
Maybe she should let him off the hook this time. He did seem to understand that it had been a stupid thing to do. And now that it had happened for the second time, she could always hope that he would avoid doing it in the future if only to avoid a fight with her, since apparently it was so much fun to do that it merited a repeat performance. Maybe he'd get a few big scars and decide not to further risk his own perfection by marring his skin. How could someone so fond of viewing himself want to punch something like a mirror? His mirror was his most adoring fan.
Yet he was trying to make up for what he'd done. She could see that easily enough. Yes, maybe she should let him off the hook.
But Guinevere was having a very bad day in a series of very bad days and she was sick of being sad for everyone that she loved and she was sick of feeling helpless for everything that was going wrong and she was altogether in a foul mood. And there was really only one thing that she could do at a time like this, for the good of everyone.
So she yelled at him some more. Because that's what she did when things like this happened. She yelled at Arthur and loved him and hated him and prayed that he was going to be alright because she loved him and she needed him and they all needed him and because of blood and she loved him and he had to be alright and she didn't want to be a queen because if she wasn't queen then this would just be sad by she was a queen and he had to be alright.
But after too short a period of time, she'd run out of yelling to do, and the only thing that was left was for her to do was to let him know why she had come in and why she looked so upset and why it was all so bad that she had to yell at him like that…
She opened her mouth to tell him. He deserved to know. It may have been her empty womb, but it was just as much his business as hers. She took a very deep breath.
Then, before she could speak and very suddenly, there was a strange sort of whooshing sound that seemed to come from nowhere and everywhere at once, and for only an instant, the air in front of her seemed to shimmer as though it was superheated, like what used to happen in her father's forge when he'd been working all day. But she felt only a chill. She glanced uncertainly over at Arthur, who looked right back at her, his expression wary and alert.
Then, all at once and in a single sharp movement, all of the doors in Arthur's bedchambers banged open with such a force that she was sure that she heard a crack. His windows shot open and all of his drawers ejected themselves from his cabinets, scattering his various possessions all over the floor, spilling over the edges with the momentum of their slide across the floor. His dresser doors flew open with such force that they immediately banged closed once more after colliding with the wall on either side. From the corridors, now visible through Arthur's open doors, she could hear bangings and crashes from every direction, and she knew that the sudden destruction had not been limited to Arthur's room. It was happening all over the castle, all of this horribly harmless chaos. That much was clear. It was almost as though there had been a power long restrained hidden away in the crevices of the castle, and the control over all of them had finally snapped at the very same moment.
And then there was silence.
Guinevere looked at Arthur, who appeared as shaken as she was.
"Gaius is dead," she said.
"Yes," he agreed.
"Yes," she answered. What else was there to say?
Guinevere just stared in Arthur's direction. She didn't think that she could bear to look around at the destruction of Arthur's chambers just yet, knowing that it was grief that had ravaged it and knowing that it was awful, just so very awful, that any person should be capable of doing it. And to have been driven to feeling what it took to do it so recklessly…Power was not meant to be like this…power was meant to be rationed, not pooled.
She had known that Merlin was powerful and she had known that Merlin was emotional.
She just hadn't realized how dangerous a combination that made him.
She knew as well as anyone that there was nothing like losing a father to make a person lose control. When her father had died, however, she mourned as all people were meant to mourn for those they loved. She had shuddered and wept and secluded herself as best she could. She was heartbroken and stricken and so very normal in her reaction.
Merlin had quite literally unbalanced a citadel that had never without treachery been breached.
It was a very good thing that Merlin was on their side, she thought.
Then she covered her mouth with both hands and closed her eyes, hunching over her knees and trying to stifle the urge to vomit.
When the sudden nausea passed, she opened her eyes and looked at Arthur, who looked as though he felt about the same. Unlike her, however, he seemed unable to look away from what had happened to his chambers, and she finally followed his gaze.
Everything was everywhere. Papers and pillows and books, all scattered all over the place. A breeze was blowing in through the windows now ajar, and a pane was banging softly over and over again against the stone wall. Guinevere thought absently that they should be grateful that the glass didn't shatter.
Although, now that she looked, she noticed that nothing seemed to be legitimately broken. Ink pots had crashed from one side of the room to the other with shattering. A torch had fallen from its bracket onto a pile of Arthur's clean clothing, but nothing was burning. A glass drinking cup had fallen from his desk and lay on its side, undamaged. Documents had been blown into the puddle of water that trickled from the intact cup, but the ink was as clear as it had been when first laid on the page. How could there be so much destruction but so little damage? The only thing in the room that looked as though it hadn't moved so much as an inch was the table on which Excalibur lay gleaming, as it always did, innocent and undisturbed amidst the destruction.
Guinevere shivered. It was such an eerie sight, the exquisite sword still and sleeping while the rest of the room had been ravaged. She'd known that there was something magical about the sword, but Excalibur now seemed almost threatening in its placidity. It had taken such great power to enact what had happened in the room…how much power was in the sword that it had been immune?
Guinevere shivered again. Arthur was also staring at the mysterious sword, but his expression was one of awe and wonder that Guinevere recognized. As the wielder of Excalibur, Arthur had an almost unnatural attachment to the blade. The only other swords that he would use since he had retrieved it from the stone were his gilded ceremonial sword and the blunted sword that was customarily used during intense knight-on-knight training.
When he finally looked up at her, however, his eyes had grown dark and his face grown stricken. When he spoke, his voice was hushed and urgent and somehow muffled amidst the destruction that surrounded them.
"Whatever gods there are, Guinevere…"
He didn't seem able to complete his sentence, and he was beginning to breathe shallowly. This somehow managed to alarm her more than she already was. Arthur could not lose his composure now. He would be needed. So she prompted him. "What do you mean, Arthur?"
He cleared his throat and nodded at her, the very image of confidence betrayed only by the way that he kept running his hands through his hair. "Guinevere…if there's a god or gods somewhere up there, Guinevere…"
She almost didn't want him to finish the thought. "Yes?"
Arthur's eyes were hollow and he suddenly looked ten years older than his age. "May they have mercy on anyone who ever truly makes Merlin mad."
And there was only one thing to say to that.
Chapter 14: Interlude III: Of Might
Disclaimer: Merlin is not mine.
Merlin was back.
Merlin was back and, by all accounts, perfectly healthy and perfectly capable of speech and perfectly ambulatory, probably frolicking around the castle with Arthur and doing all kinds of stupid things and trying to hide them from the queen and having grand old times and acting altogether like a child, as though he had never left in the first place. It was completely inappropriate.
As if Gwaine couldn't do those things! And he could absolutely manage them without doing something like neglecting to run a kingdom, unlike someone else! And, to top it all off, he'd had to hear about it from a pair of gossiping servants! And now the castle was falling apart? Did nothing make sense?
Gwaine swung out of his bedchambers irritably, stomping in his boots so as to make a satisfactorily loud clumping noise as he turned randomly down the hallway, going nowhere in particular. All that he had known was that he needed to be moving, andlying on his bed and fuming wasn't nearly as cathartic as stomping around and scowling. Besides, after his room had exploded and his door flung open, it was like fate was tempting him to leave.
And he certainly wasn't going to clean it all up any time soon.
Yes, Merlin was back alright, and he was not going to be receiving an open-armed welcome from a certain knight.
At least, not right away. But how annoying it was that his room—and apparently, the rest of the castle, judging by the state of the corridor as he walked—had thrown itself into disarray on its own and that all he could focus on was the fact that his friend had returned and he wasn't sure if he should be furious or happy.
Not that he wanted Merlin executed on the spot, or dragged to the dungeons, or whatever was the equivalent of punishing a sorcerer capable of turning them all into radishes if the mood ever struck him. Or so Merlin had said. Gwaine had never been sure if he should believe that particular claim. A spell to turn people into radishes seemed awfully specific. Although it probably would have been fun to see. He would have liked to see that one in action.
Gwaine had enjoyed spending time with Merlin back when he'd thought that the young man's most defining qualities were being an inexplicably still-employed servant to the king, almost universally friendly, capable of engaging a man in heart-to-heart conversations at the strangest of times, and so bad at holding his ale that he was an irreplaceably entertaining companion at a tavern.
But then he'd found out that Merlin was a sorcerer, and once his mind had taken the four and a half seconds that it needed to stop reeling at the revelation and accepted it for what it was, as Merlin had healed the wounds that had afflicted the better part of Gwaine's sword arm, he'd realized that having a sorcerer for a friend was all in all a pretty great development. And why the hell not? Gwaine was allowed his sword, Leon his crossbow, Arthur his temper tantrums. If he could make objects float around and heal burn wounds and turn people into radishes, all the better for Merlin. And now that his magic was out for everyone to know about, Merlin would have been completely invaluable on the many ill-conceived missions into the forest.
Which Gwaine had told him.
Which Merlin had seemed to find very touching at the time, no matter what Arthur said about how easy it was to get Merlin to tear up.
Which was still apparently not enough for Merlin to given him so much as a wave as he walked out of the castle forever. Forever! It didn't even matter than Merlin was back now. It was the principle of the thing. They had been friends, Gwaine thought indignantly, still stomping determinedly.
Unfortunately, however, he'd been thinking indignantly that he'd forgotten to watch where he was going, and he tripped over a fallen tapestry and landed heavily on his knees, his palms stinging where they'd been thrown in front of him to keep him from bashing his face into the stone floor. His scowl somehow managing to become more pronounced, he shoved himself to his feet, and saw with a perverse sort of pleasure that the tapestry had apparently been hung in order to cover a scorch mark. Stupid Arthur. As if a tapestry would never be moved! The truth would come out eventually—it always did. Well, it was there for everyone to see now. Gwaine did nevertheless tend to have sympathy for burn victims. Apparently, even if it was a wall.
Well, stranger things had happened.
Although everyone whom he had passed in the hallway so far had seemed far more preoccupied with the amazing self-propelled objects that had jettisoned themselves from their places fifteen minutes earlier than with revealed scorch marks. He could concede that it was bizarre and certainly worth investigating, but he didn't really understand the fear on so many of their faces. It seemed that no one had really been injured. Even the things that had been scattered seemed miraculously undamaged. A little bit of cleaning and it would all be back to normal. Besides, freak accidents happened in Camelot all the time. As long as nothing was on fire and the council chamber was intact, Gwaine wasn't too upset by something so victimless.
Well, not at the state of the castle, anyway. He did half hope that either Arthur or Merlin had been sitting on a chair when it decided to throw itself across the room. They wouldn't have to die or be seriously injured or anything. Just a little banged up. Maybe a smidge embarrassed. Gwaine wouldn't have protested.
It wasn't that mean, he thought defensively, beginning to stride furiously and aimlessly down the hallways once more.
While he admittedly had not had a relationship quite so unhealthily constant as had been the relationship between the king and his former manservant, he'd thought that he and Merlin had had a strong enough bond to merit a goodbye, he mused as he jumped over a fallen vase—still somehow intact—that obstructed his path through the corridors. Even a short one with Merlin so choked up about his banishment that he could only manage a few words about the eclipsing importance of their friendship. That would have been enough. Gwaine had heard whispers that Arthur hadn't gotten a goodbye either, but that had been fine, as far as Gwaine reckoned. Arthur had banished Merlin in the first place, and after imprisoning him for the better part of a month. He didn't deserve a goodbye.
Unlike some people!
When he'd heard that Arthur was working on legalizing magic and the surprise at the fact that Arthur was actually working on anything had worn off, Gwaine had supported it wholeheartedly. If it had the potential to bring Merlin home or to make Merlin's life easier, even if from afar, then it would have Gwaine's support.
Because at least he knew how to be a good friend.
It was not as though he was blind to the dangers of magic in the wrong hands, Gwaine reflected grouchily. He'd been imprisoned by Morgana and forced to fight for scraps of food barely edible, and hers was the most powerful magic that he'd ever witnessed.
Up until the fire room that Merlin had conjured after one of the occasions on which the council room had nearly collapsed—Gwaine had lost count—and that had nearly cost him use of his arm, anyway. But perhaps it was because Morgana had used her magic for destruction and Merlin had used his to be completely awesome that Morgana's powers seemed so much more potent. And they had nearly led to Gaius' death down in the dungeons.
Anyhow, nearly losing his most important limb to that fire room didn't make it any less amazing to have seen. The room comprised of fire had been amazing to behold. Not so amazing to feel, but the pain had faded. Gwaine's impression had not.
Yes, Gwaine knew that he could not judge all sorcerers by Morgana. Wasn't Merlin proof enough of that? He just figured that sorcerers were defined more by their personalities than by their magic. Gwaine hadn't exactly been banished or threatened with execution because of his skills with a sword. Granted, he had been banished and threatened with execution more than a few times in the past, but those had been mostly unrelated to his general ability to use a blade. They were generally related more to who he chose to threaten with that blade. Which could happen to anyone, honestly.
Besides, from what he could decipher from the vague deflections that Merlin had tossed in his direction when he'd asked about how Morgana had turned out the way that she had in one of their conversations through the bars of Merlin's cell door back before his banishment, Gwaine had gathered that part of what had contributed to Morgana's descent into what Gwaine had come to describe wholeheartedly as evil had been the way in which she had been forced to bear the burden of possessing magic—a trait that she could have apparently not prevented, had she wanted to—in complete secret. It was just such a shame that the people of Camelot seemed to base all of their opinions of magic on her.
Which, as Gwaine had figured, was why Merlin needed to come back. It was just like how in his own past, when he had shunned his own lineage as nobility and assumed that the lords and ladies of the lands all but exhaled disdain for the people of lower classes.
Then he had met Arthur.
Of course, Uther had been a prime example to confirm Gwaine's beliefs about the self-perceived superiority of the royalty, and he'd had something of an aggressive encounter with a pair of men posing as knights in defense of Merlin's life and had been the sole party of the affair to receive punishment, due to his lack of title.
But that wasn't Arthur.
Well, that wasn't entirely Arthur. But Arthur had been so fundamentally contrary to what Gwaine had expected of a crown prince. Relatively respectful to Gwaine, despite his projected lower status. Willing to speak up for Gwaine to at least try to prevent his banishment from Camelot. Strangely attached—if not particularly kind—to a servant whose status in life was just about the opposite of his own, and Gwaine knew that that was no spellwork. It was Arthur.
Besides, Gwaine had the distinct impression that Arthur would have stepped in to keep the two imposter knights from killing Merlin just as aggressively as he had. He just wouldn't have been banished.
And that one example—Arthur—had made Gwaine rethink his bias against the nobility. That one example of fairness and willingness to listen had changed everything that Gwaine assumed of others of such stations in life. Arthur had been a good example.
Up until he'd insisted on banishing every other person who offended him. First Guinevere, then Merlin…Gwaine half believed that Arthur was just working his way through his list of favorite people and banishing them, one by one. He didn't know why Arthur would do such a thing, but a lot of the things that Arthur did seemed to defy logic. Maybe he just got confused and mislabeled his lists. Gwaine had gone through nearly a full day—admittedly a day tainted by something of a hangover—wondering if Arthur was in fact only a few steps above illiterate. What kind of king moved his lips as he read? Gwaine also half-believed that Arthur that only reason that Arthur read all of his prepared speeches ahead of time was so that he could sound out all of the words to make sure that he could pronounce them semi-properly. Gwaine entirely believed that Arthur didn't know what half of the words in his own speeches actually meant. Having shared this belief with Elyan, he'd found himself most vehemently disagreed with. When he'd pointed out that it was very unlikely that Arthur had one style of handwriting for how he labeled his doodles and one for how he wrote his speeches, Elyan had most loyally to his king refused to change his position.
When making bets, however, loyalty could be very costly. Gwaine grinned as he walked past the kitchens, seeming to surprise a pair of grim-faced maidservants who knelt on the ground, picking up cutlery that had been flung from a cart just outside the doorway. Gwain paid no notice and instead spared another moment for his bet with Elyan regarding Arthur's speeches…all that he needed was proof…
But that wasn't the point. It was a good point, but not the point just then, Gwaine mused. The point was that if Arthur's good example of nobility could countermand Gwaine's negative views on that whole portion of the population, why couldn't Merlin serve as a good example of sorcery and work to countermand the negative views on magic as held by a significant portion of the overall population? Why couldn't Merlin have stayed? Surely Arthur could have come up with some other way of punishing Merlin for the betrayal.
Although Gwaine had a hard time believing that a man keeping a secret that, if known, would lead to his own execution should be considered a betrayal of any sort. After all, if Merlin's secret had come out only a few years before it had, it would have resulted in Uther condemning him to death rather than Arthur banishing him, so reluctantly. And what a waste it would have been to execute Merlin! And what a waste it must have been to execute all of the other sorcerers who had been taken to their pyres over the years! It wasn't even the waste of the magic that could have been used for good that was the most galling to Gwaine. It was the loss of life. It was why he drank and caroused acted in all sorts of manners unbefitting a knight of Camelot. He lived.
He was somewhat ashamed that none of this had occurred to him until Merlin had stuck himself in the middle of it all. But then, Arthur had done the same thing. He could pretend to be as honorable as he liked in front of his council members, claiming that it had been a natural progression of his growth as a king that had led to his decision to repeal the laws against magic, although probably doing so using words far more monosyllabic. But no one believed it, not really. Especially those who knew Arthur. He hadn't truly thought about legalizing magic until it concerned Merlin.
Merlin, the man who had decided that being a damn martyr to his own cause included not seeing certain of his friends before he left forever. He was as bad as Arthur. Did they really think that by making themselves more miserable that the results would be more poignant? For two such different men, they always seemed to agree on the most annoying things.
Still, Gwaine wished that he understood more about Merlin's magic. There was so little that he knew, other than that Merlin was good. He didn't need to know about what spells Merlin had cast in secret over the years to know that Merlin was good. Anyone who knew Merlin ought to have known that. But Gwaine just wished that he knew how it all worked. When he'd finally given up on his silent treatment of Arthur after Merlin's departure—which had lasted an impressive two and a half weeks, despite their frequent interactions—he'd asked the king as sullenly as possible what he knew of what Merlin could do. If he knew what Merlin could do, maybe that would help him understand what Merlin had done and allow him to focus all of his anger on Arthur, rather than splitting it between the two.
It was always more fun to complain about a king than to complain about a servant.
He shouldn't have bothered; the question had been little more than a waste of breath. Arthur had just muttered something incomprehensible about fire rooms and curtains and blows to the head and something that sounded strangely like "horse language," although Gwaine assumed that he'd misheard the last one. But honestly, if Arthur couldn't lie about what he knew of Merlin's magic, he could have at least admitted that he was as much in the dark as the rest of them! Gwaine would grant him the fire room—after all, he'd all but burned off his own arm in trying to penetrate its walls in a bout of admittedly poorly thought-out gallantry—but curtains and head wounds and equine communication? Gwaine may not have had Arthur's years of largely ineffectual tutoring, but he wasn't an idiot.
Gwaine, still scowling, turned a corner in the corridor, jumping over the debris of what had once been a chandelier than had fallen from the ceiling during the disruption of a few minutes ago, or whatever it had been. He just had time to wince as he heard a series of crinklings beneath him that told him that he'd managed to crush some of the fallen glass when he saw the king walked toward him. That damn corner had kept Gwaine from spotting Arthur ahead of time, and they were too close for Gwaine to have snuck away before having to talk to him.
"Sir Gwaine," said Arthur, nodding tiredly but allotting the respect owed to a man with the title of "Sir." He must have been truly exhausted indeed to not have noticed the look on Gwaine's face.
"Arthur," Gwaine responded as snottily as he could manage, lifting his chin as high as possible in what he hoped was a gesture of complete disapproval and ignoring Arthur's proper title.
Gwaine was unsurprised to see Arthur roll his eyes at Gwaine's tone. While his sulkiness toward the king had somewhat lessened as the weeks following Merlin's banishment passed, it still tended to crop up in random bursts from time to time. Although Arthur probably shouldn't have been surprised this time—Merlin's not-so-secret return was certain to bring out the bitterness.
When Arthur had finally called him on it after a particularly long and trying trip through the forest—apparently Arthur did not know "horse language" or else he would have had no lack for conversation during the journey, still apparently missing the constant chatter of his former manservant on such occasions—Gwaine had compared his bouts of silent treatment to a lifelong disease that could lie dormant for years at a time with unexpected outbreaks that could occur at just about any time. And that, if a person was not careful, could be very contagious.
Gwaine had been slightly disappointed that Arthur had not asked what disease Gwaine was referring to. And how it was caught. That would have been entertaining. Ever since he'd been married, Arthur had turned into such a prude. Arthur would have turned so very red…Gwaine smiled. Oh, the things that a man could learn in a tavern…
Besides, Arthur had all but invented snotty gestures of disapproval. It would have been like Merlin threatening Gwaine with a sword. Just…unwise.
Gwaine bit his lip, trying to decide whether or not he would try to spite Arthur by coming up with a particularly biting slight on his looks or just remaining completely silent and pointedly refusing to look him in the eye. Both were appealing options.
Then he noticed something about Arthur. The king did not look merely exhausted. He looked distinctly like he had just committed a murder and was doing a very poor job of covering up the evidence. There was blood everywhere. For an instant, Gwaine's concern jumped up over his annoyance with the king, and he opened his mouth to inquire what had happened. If Arthur needed a shoulder to lean on whilst going down to Gaius' chambers for a healing potions and set of bandages or a pair of hands to help him move a body to a more secluded location, Gwaine could manage. Hell, if there was any of his knights to help him move a body, Gwaine was probably the best choice.
Arthur was walking, though. And he didn't look as troubled as a man with Arthur's moral compass would if he had killed someone outside of battle. He wasn't even stumbling, although he did seem to have something of a limp, and there was a bandage wrapped around one of his hands. There was blood on his trousers, and his tunic seemed bizarrely fresh in comparison. He must have changed it before leaving wherever he'd been bleeding, although why he hadn't thought to change trousers or wash up was beyond Gwaine. Arthur looked chastised more than anything else. And very confused, but Gwaine barely even registered confusion on Arthur's face anymore. It was like how he had grown able to hold tremendous amounts of ale that would have felled far larger men—once he was exposed to something often enough, he just got used to it.
But…was that confusion? Now that he thought about it, his confusion seemed to be tinged with what looked very much like sadness. Devastation, even. And so very tired. And…old. Arthur had never looked so very aged. It was as though his weariness had added a decade to him.
Or maybe he was just really confused, Gwaine rationalized. It did seem like Arthur spent a lot of time confused. And not the sort of confused that garnered any sympathy from Gwaine. The last time that Gwaine had felt even slightly bad for Arthur's confusion had been sporadically during the weeks of Merlin's incarceration, generally when he was not cursing the king for locking Merlin up or cursing Merlin for not escaping despite all of the refused opportunities and still holding onto the hope that the whole thing was just typical Arthur taking a month to understand something.
Then Merlin had been exiled and Gwaine found his sympathies for Arthur's confusion far less prominent than before.
Besides, it was hard to feel sympathetic every time that Arthur was confused by the prospect of dressing himself or getting out of bed on time like an adult or what to call an apparently mind-boggling meal that was later than breakfast and before lunch. From what Gwaine had gathered from one of Arthur's more talkative advisors, he'd spent a good portion of a council meeting pondering that massive conundrum. They usually had no way of telling what it was distracting Arthur during any particular meeting, the man said, but Arthur had apparently on this particular day begun to wear that pained expression that he always wore when he was thinking before sitting up and very suddenly yelling out "Lunkfast!"
In the months since Merlin's departure, Gwaine was never sure whether or not he should be laughing as hard as he usually was when he heard stories like this or fearful for the state of the kingdom.
Or perhaps if he was being a little hard on the king.
Or if Arthur understood how some of the things that he did looked to everyone else. Making up new words for mundane concepts like the union of breakfast and lunch during council meetings was really not the best way to make his legislative crusades seem the most rational.
Or if no one really understood the ways that Arthur had to try to cope with being a king, if yelling out or carving unidentifiable shapes into tables or thinking random thoughts kept him from nodding off during dull meetings when he'd probably been up all night, unable to sleep for worrying about something legitimate—about his kingdom or his people or his health or his hairline.
But honestly. Lunkfast? Was it so difficult to just say that he was eating a late breakfast or an early lunch? Or calling it something more sensible like…"brenchfast?" Arthur was lucky that kings obtained power by inheritance rather than selection. Some of his decisions were just nonsensical. He should just leave the invention of new words to Gwaine.
"Brenchfast." Now that was a word. He should probably track down Geoffrey of Monmouth and get him to write that one down, he thought absently. Arthur should just focus on eating his meals at the proper time and saving himself the very real possibility of a headache that did not stem from one of his surprisingly many—although strangely decreasing in frequency over the past few months—blows to the head.
But "lunkfast?" Who on earth had Gwaine sworn fealty to?
Not that Gwaine was holding a grudge about anything.
Or slightly suffering from his own headache from the activities of the night before. Although at least he'd managed to play a certain tavern game without stabbing himself in the hand like an idiot. Even if he had, Gwaine would have at least had the good sense to be drunk past the point of reason by that point. Arthur should probably practice before he tried something like that again, he thought, then snorted. As if Arthur would practice anything that did not concern physical prowess or the attractiveness of his own signature!
Although he was covered in blood.
"How have…things been progressing as of late? Your…duties?" asked Arthur, clearly trying to imbue some sense of authority into his voice as he ran his fingers through his hair with his bandaged hand. Gwaine saw that there was blood on the king's face, and knew this wasn't the first time that he'd rumpled his hair in frustration.
Gwaine pondered how to answer the question. His sympathies were being aroused, despite himself. But there was a reason that Arthur had inquired after Gwaine's "things" and "duties" with such vagueness. Arthur had been all but nonexistent among the knights for the past several days, and he clearly had no idea what they'd been up to. If it hadn't been for Sir Leon, they would have undoubtedly been doing nothing productive.
"The things with out duties have been progressing just as you intended them, sire," answered Gwaine stiffly. He may have been growing sympathetic, but that didn't mean that he should let Arthur bluff his way through pretending that he knew what had been going on. If he was to be king, he ought to act like it, no matter what little thing was bothering him.
"Good," said Arthur distractedly, Gwaine's blow clearly not landing. "Good, I'm glad."
He didn't sound glad.
Gwaine crossed his arms over his chest, wishing that he'd worn his sword. It wasn't that he would have drawn it against his king, but he usually felt more comfortable with it at his hip. More imposing. More respectable. "How have your things and duties been progressing, then, sire?"
Arthur roused himself enough to look mildly surprised. Gwaine didn't usually ask questions such as that, and he certainly didn't usually ask them in such a tone. "They've been…fine."
He didn't look fine.
How was it possible for a king to be such a poor liar? At least he was young, Gwaine mused. There was time for him to become duplicitous. "I hear that Merlin's back."
Gwaine hoped that that sounded much more aloof to Arthur than it did to his own ears.
Arthur looked up suddenly, then shrugged, looking tired once more. "What? Oh, yes. He's back. Got back this morning. Destroyed the council room again. Fixed it, though. So that wasn't bad."
Arthur certainly didn't sound like a king whose direct order against returning had been disobeyed by an exiled sorcerer. He didn't even sound annoyed with Merlin. Even the sentence about the council room's destruction had been curiously flat. And that was a topic usually certain to rile him up.
Gwaine was uncertain how to continue. "Is he going to be staying, then?"
Arthur shrugged again, and Gwaine started to get angry. How could Arthur be so nonchalant about Merlin staying? What else could possibly be on his mind at a time like this? What could possibly eclipse Merlin's future in Camelot? Arthur could be so self-centered!
"Or is he going to enjoy another month in the dungeons while you make up your mind again?"
Arthur gave him a sharp look, the expression in his eyes curiously contrasted by the stoicism of his face. "Sir Gwaine, I would suggest that you not try to sound as though you know anything about what's going on."
Gwaine was pushing it, and he knew it. "Off to see him, then? Have you found another way to destroy his life?"
Well, that just sounded childish, but Gwaine kept a straight face. He was Sir Gwaine, knight of Camelot, dashing swordsman, drinking champion. He regretted nothing.
Arthur hadn't seemed to register the second question. He'd exhaled with such force after the first that Gwaine figured that the rest of the world had been drowned out.
"If I can find him."
That sounded awfully honest. Arthur seemed to be vacillating bizarrely between regal distance and intimate truthfulness as they spoke. Gwaine, on the other hand, was vacillating between the urge to punch him in the face or the urge to punch him in the arm. That was Arthur's favorite method of providing comfort.
"It shouldn't be too hard. Merlin's all anyone is talking about. Everyone's trying to figure out what he's doing back. You should hear all the theories."
For some reason, that seemed to shake Arthur into something resembling alertness. "They shouldn't talk about what they know any more than you should."
The urge to punch him in the face was beginning to take the lead. "Well, maybe they should be told something."
"Yeah, I'll get right on that."
"I'm sure," retorted Gwaine, not troubling to disguise his sarcasm.
It did not go undetected. Arthur's voice began to rise and he answered. "I have more important things to do right now, Gwaine!"
"I'm sure you do. Are you actually planning on doing them today?"
"Gwaine, don't you have something you should be doing right now?"
"So sorry, sire. I'll let you get on with your looking for Merlin. Good luck with that," sniped Gwaine, suddenly ready for them to part ways for the moment.
Arthur nodded dismissively. It was apparently fine for Gwaine to get the last word so long as Arthur got to be dismissive at the very end.
That was fine. It just wouldn't be the end. Before Arthur could move past him and down the corridor from which Gwaine had appeared, Gwaine stepped in his way and kept speaking.
"Well, when you find him, make sure that you tell him that he needn't come to see me whenever he remembers that I exist, and give him a kick up the—"
"No." Arthur was beginning to get annoyed, but Gwaine was surprised with the brevity of the answer. He'd expected at least a lengthy denial of Gwaine's request, with plenty of thin reasons behind the response. The cursory "no" just seemed…off.
Arthur sighed and ran a hand through his hair again. There was blood on the tips of his bangs, standing out starkly against the shine of his blond. "I'm not going to do that, Gwaine."
"Fine. I'll do it myself," he answered, sounding so snobby that he almost wanted to hit himself for it.
Arthur restrained himself from doing the hitting on Gwaine's behalf. Perhaps Merlin had trained him so well in tolerating insolence without any real violence better than Gwaine had thought. "Gwaine, just—don't. Not now."
Well, thought Gwaine, at least that one wasn't snobby. Petulant, maybe. But not snobby. Nothing wrong with that.
"It's…you'll understand later," responded the king, a note of finality in his voice that hinted with a distinct lack of subtlety that Gwaine should be finishing up his side of the conversation in the very near future.
"Well, if it's something that you understand, it shouldn't take me too long to figure it out."
"Sir Gwaine," Arthur snapped, and that was enough. Gwaine could finally hear the warning in his voice. He was surprised that it had taken Arthur this long to get fed up with him. Gwaine usually didn't go so far to provoke him, and Arthur was his king. He was due a certain amount of respect. Besides, whatever Gwaine might think of him and whatever he thought he knew about how Arthur tried to rule the kingdom, there was no denying that Guinevere would not marry a fool and Merlin would not so resolutely have stood by the side of a man completely heartless and Uther would not have had so much trouble controlling Arthur if Arthur had not been a man so unlike his father. He respected Guinevere and missed Merlin and hated the memory of Uther. He could count on those feelings even when he could not count on his own. After all, family was more than blood, wasn't it?
Stupid Merlin and Arthur. Some people said that they brought out the best in each other. Others said that they brought out the worst in each other and that Arthur would have never befriended or married a servant before Merlin came along and that Merlin would have never grown so insolent if Arthur hadn't let him get away with it. Gwaine said that they brought out the craziness in each other and were just lucky to have good enough intentions that it usually worked out for the best. "Endearing" was another popular descriptor among those willing to look past the differences in status in favor of the unlikely friendship.
When in something of a temper, Gwaine preferred "codependent."
He had only said that aloud a few times, however. Merlin tended to just look sad and Arthur would just treat Merlin particularly poorly for the next few days, as though trying to prove to the universe that he certainly did not need Merlin for anything other than a fondness for shoddy serving skills that only Merlin could satisfactorily provide. It would almost seem as though they did not need each other for some completely inexplicable reason.
But then Uther would order Arthur off on a solitary mission and Arthur would immediately seek out Merlin and order him to start packing for the both of them, Arthur would forget his duty in battle in order to rush away a wounded Merlin, Arthur would use all of his resources his king to track down a missing and probably dead Merlin, Arthur would have at his right hand Merlin as he sat at a certain round table and made decisions that would define the king that he would become, Arthur would volunteer to fight to the death in Merlin's place despite the fact that his own life was worth infinitely more than that of his servant's, Arthur would seek Merlin's advice over almost anyone else's, Arthur would stand up for Merlin to his father time and time again, Merlin would know more of Arthur's secrets than Arthur's wife, Merlin would deal with having things thrown at his head and insults thrown in his direction for the better part of a decade without leaving his post, Merlin would ride toward what was likely to be his death so that Arthur would not have to do it alone, Merlin would mouth off to the crown prince so that he would become a king with some semblance of tolerance and mercy, Merlin would neglect himself to care for Arthur…
Merlin and Arthur would spend half their time trying to either kill or die for each other and it was all so stupid that it was almost sweet and Gwaine loved Merlin as his first genuine and selfless friend so that he had to love Arthur almost as much because he'd never had brothers and now he did and they were such an unlikely pair of friends that it was so annoying to try to understand and he was so glad that Merlin was back and Arthur didn't deserve it but they were brothers, all of them, and now it could all be whole again and Gwaine didn't want to shout at Merlin but he would because they were brothers and Arthur was his king and his commander and his savior in so many ways that Gwaine didn't want to be mad at him either but he could, damn it, and he would because they were brothers and they would all end up loving each other anyway.
So Gwaine said, "Go tell him whatever the hell you want. I couldn't care less about any of it."
And he walked away.
It was all going to be okay again.
Chapter 15: Interlude IV: Of Men
Disclaimer: Merlin is not mine.
It was such an honor. He had never believed that he could have ever risen as far as he had, not in a million years. And certainly not at such a young age! He was barely even in his twenties! When he'd received the summons and been told that the position was his if he wanted it, he'd nearly passed out. It was the job of his dreams. It didn't matter that he had been chosen by the steward rather than by the man whom he'd be serving, and only because the situation had grown so dire that it was worth the risk of royal retaliation to send him in. It didn't matter that his master didn't even know that he was coming or expect anyone to be coming or—as he had been warned—be at all welcome to anyone coming. It didn't matter that there was the very real possibility of revenge from the man whose position he had usurped, even if that man was in jail for treason. He would risk his life for this. This job was bigger and more important than any that he had ever had before. Fear was nothing, no matter how often it threatened to overcome him in the presence of his master. He could do this, and he would. And he would be proud to do it for the rest of his life, even if his master often threatened to shorten it for him.
Yes, being the manservant to the king was such an honor.
And the best part of it was that it was becoming more than an honor now. The comradery between them was growing by leaps and bounds every day. He just knew it.
Robert smiled as widely as he ever smiled. He'd been trained for service since infancy, so his widest smile was politely demure and completely without judgment. The only time he ever showed his teeth, Robert reflected proudly, was when he was speaking.
And that was only when spoken to.
Robert shivered, a pleasant sort of feeling running down his spine. He almost felt…wicked to be smiling like this. No one was even there to see him! He straightened his perfectly straight collar and laughed as raucously as he ever did, his silent exhalations or mirth eventually becoming so rapid that he grew faint before the fear of passing out outweighed the amusement. He was suddenly glad that he was alone in the king's chambers. His shoulders had nearly shaken with his outburst of most disrespectful giggles; they may have been silent giggles, but to have laughed in the presence of the king when it wasn't because the king had tried to make some sort of joke just seemed unkind.
So Robert knelt down on the floor and began picking up the shards of mirror from the floor of the chamber. He didn't really understand how the mirror had broken. Everything else in the room—and indeed, the castle—had been thrown helter-skelter all over the place when the inanimate objects all over the citadel decided that the time was right for them to make a dive for freedom from their places. Robert had nearly had a heart attack when it had happened, followed by a queer sense of delight that he so rarely felt in situations unrelated to his work. Helter-skelter meant that he had duties. And so Robert had rushed off to find the king and neaten what had been unneatened.
Still, all of the things that had been spilled and upended in the corridors as he raced toward the king's chambers had been strangely intact. Nothing was broken. Vases had been knocked the to the ground without shattering. Windows had banged open without cracking. Chairs had been flung across rooms without ending up with so much as a wobbly leg. The kitchens had been ransacked by an invisible hand without losing a single dish.
But the king's mirror had shattered.
Robert shrugged, trying to rid himself of the feeling of how strange that was. When he'd burst into the chamber, dust rag pulled from its usual place of honor at his belt and at the ready, the king and queen had been staring at one another. Both seemed rather pale and shaken, and Robert supposed that they had been taken quite by surprise by the chaos. They didn't even look up when he entered, only seeming to notice him when he shut the door behind him.
Their first reactions were…unexpected. The queen had coughed a few times (Robert clenched his hand around his rag, vowing to rid the room of any dust that had so crassly aggravated her royal lungs) and the king began stretching his arms back behind him. Both looked as though they were trying to rouse themselves, somehow. It didn't make any sense to Robert, but then, he reasoned, perhaps they just didn't know what to think about what had happened. Robert certainly didn't. But it wasn't his job to think. His job was to follow orders. He was good at that.
The king finally managed to give him some. He was even somewhat more verbose than usual, which Robert took as a sign that they were well on their way down the path to best friendship. Usually, the king would have probably just gestured at the mess, pointed at Robert, scowled what Robert assumed was a scowl of growing affection, and banged his way out of his door, presumably just for the sake of making noise.
The king could pretend that he didn't care, thought Robert, nearly allowing himself to smile again, but if he thought that Robert didn't notice that he'd learned his name, the king had another thing coming! And that "thing" was called friendship.
Robert just knew that one of these days, the king would tell him that he could call him by his name as well.
That's why Robert wanted to have children. Just so that he could eventually tell them of that day.
As it turned out, it was not that day. But the king did directly address him.
"Robert, see that you clean this up. And look into finding me a new mirror. And I've been meaning to tell you, you don't have to save all of the rubbish that you find lying around my room to ask me if I need to keep it. If I throw it on the floor and it's not clothes or gear, I don't want it. Just…get rid if it."
The king had turned to leave, banging his way over to the door and opening it for his wife, only scowling a little bit at Robert. Robert supposed that he was just distracted.
But the queen hadn't moved. "Arthur, why don't you tell Robert why he needs to clean up your mirror?"
The king glared at her, his cheeks turning slightly pink. "Because, Guinevere, the boy has eyes, and he knows that his job includes picking up broken things and throwing them away. Even if he does for some reason always seem to save them for me to look through every night."
Robert had bitten the inside of his cheek to keep his face completely straight. He'd been told that the only expression that he ever truly showed was one of fear and so he spent a lot of his time looking terrified, but that was okay. The king would keep him safe so that one day, there would be nothing left to fear.
And the king had sort of just complimented his eyes! Robert had just known that the king had noticed the ways that his eyes were good at seeing. He was much more observant than people seemed to give him credit for. And Robert was very certain that the final sentence of the king's statement to the queen had been directed at him.
The queen had not seemed keen on giving the king credit just then, however. "I think that you should tell him how your mirror came to be broken in the first place."
The king paused and seemed to think it over. "…I think that it doesn't matter how it broke."
The queen scoffed. "I think that it does!"
The king turned to Robert, his cheeks pinker than ever. "Robert, tell me. Do you think that it matters how my mirror broke?"
Robert had been momentarily struck by terror. He was so horrified that he almost did not hear the queen giggle and see the king roll his eyes in reaction to what was most certainly not the expression on his face. But what was he to do? He had been spoken to, so he could speak. But shaking his head could also suffice. Should he just shake his head?
Or should he nod? It seemed like the king wanted him to say no and agree with him, but maybe this was just one of the king's legendary clever tricks. He wanted Robert to agree with Guinevere and disagree with him.
Robert didn't know why the king would want that, but it would surely be legendary. Another one to tell his future children about!
But that was for later. What was Robert to do to resolve this dilemma?
Robert cleared his throat. "I think that it is quite a shame that your mirror has been damaged, sire."
When all else fails, Robert thought nervously, deflect.
It seemed to have worked; the queen laughed aloud and the king looked at her with a very satisfied expression on his face.
"You see, Guinevere? Robert agrees with me."
The queen was still laughing when she answered him. "He didn't say that!"
"Yes, he absolutely did," responded the king, rather primly.
"Were you even listening?" She sounded so fondly exasperated that Robert felt very lonely for a moment.
"Do you want me to ask again?" The king was blushing again, in what Robert knew to be a blush of righteous indignation at his queen's inability to understand the situation. He and the king were always so in sync with one another!
And Robert knew that the king loved taking any excuse to talk to him. No wonder he wanted to "ask again."
"Oh, Arthur, don't put the boy through that."
"I'm not telling him."
"Fine!" She was still smiling. "Just…don't do it again."
The king crossed his arms manfully over his chest. "Fine!"
She laughed again, the incredulity audible. "Why do you say 'fine' like you're making a huge sacrifice for me? You're bleeding! You're in pain! You should be eager to say that you won't break your mirror like this again! And you should not need me to tell you about it."
The king waited a few seconds and gazed at her expectantly. "Are you done?"
She crossed her arms across her own chest, copying his pose. "Oh, I'm sorry, do you have somewhere to be?"
The king lifted his chin up rapturously. "Yeah, actually, I do. I am a king, Guinevere. I have things to do."
"Like what?" She almost sounded insulted, and Robert wondered if they had some prior engagement that her husband had forgotten about again.
The king shrugged and looked almost embarrassed, the lines of his faces tight with stress. "I'm…missing something."
The queen's expression softened, and the king seemed to take it as leave to exit. As he was about to step over the threshold into the corridor, she called after him.
"Arthur?" She waited until he turned back to face her until she kept speaking. The king's face was still rather stressed. Or was it distressed?
"What?" he asked, looked as though he could not meet her gaze.
"I hope that you find him."
The king's face finally relaxed, and he grew all the more handsome for it. Even Robert could see that. The King strode forward and kissed his wife gently on the forehead, so very lovingly that Robert felt that pang of loneliness once more.
"I will," the king said softly.
And the king left without looking back, leaving Robert and the queen alone in the room. After a moment, in which Robert fingered his dust rag uncertainly and wondered if he had to wait until she left to begin his cleaning, the queen turned to look at him, and he wobbled on his feet. His conversations with the king were rare; his interactions with the queen were rarer.
But the queen seemed to require no serious interaction. With a strangely serene expression, tinged perhaps with a bit of pride and tinged certainly with a bit of love, her rather bright eyes found Robert's.
"Arthur will, you know. Find him."
Robert gulped. "Find who, my lady?"
The queen smiled and wiped at the corners of her eyes. "Never mind, Robert. No matter."
Robert nodded. He had been spoken to, but even if he wanted, he could not for the life of him have come up with what to say.
The queen did not seem bothered. She picked up her skirts just enough so that he could see that she did not wear the so very high heels that most of the ladies wore in favor of clean grey boots that looked far more comfortable—and practical—and walked quickly toward the door. Robert knew that she didn't want to trip over the hem.
Robert turned to face the room and began to strategize. There was a lot of cleaning to do. Then, over his shoulder, he heard the queen call out one final sentence before gently shutting the door with a click behind her.
"By the way, the mirror's broken because Arthur punched it out."
The king gone and the queen gone, Robert had taken his leave to pull up a scowl of his own and try not to shudder. The king had punched out his mirror? That meant only one thing, and it was the one thing that Robert had dreaded for nearly half of a year.
Merlin was back.
Robert only hoped that he hadn't come back to retake the position of manservant. Maybe he wasn't even back for good. Just a…visit. Exilees were permitted those, weren't they? A visit now and then? No matter. Surely he wouldn't want the job back. The king was making magic legal. Surely Merlin would have more important things to do. He could do magic.
And that was just fine with Robert.
Chapter 16: What Falls
Disclaimer: Merlin is not mine.
He wanted nothing more than to lay down his head and go to sleep. What a relief that would have been! Even dreaming would be alright, because he would wake and he would know that his dream had been a dream, and there would have been that glorious instant between sleep and awareness when he wouldn't have remembered that any of the sadness that enveloped those closest to him was actually real.
But there was no way that sleep could come to him.
Anyway, Robert was in his bedchambers, and while the servant would have undoubtedly gone to great pains to somehow clean the entire room silently and would have no doubt accomplished it with that eerie effectiveness of his, Robert was just a little bit…off. How could someone so enthusiastic for his job have so little to say? Arthur had gone almost a full week believing that the boy had had his tongue cut out at some point and no one had remembered to warn him. But, no. Apparently, speaking was always far less of a priority for Robert than seeing to the king's socks. Arthur had considered dismissing him in favor of someone a little less eager to fulfill his duties, but he half suspected that Robert would just keep cleaning up after him anyway, no wages required. And that would have just been strange.
It was a sign of how Merlin had ruined him that he was made uncomfortable by a particularly attentive servant, but Arthur still suspected that Robert was too eager for his own good. He would have almost believed him a spy from some enemy—probably a damn sorceress because they all seemed to want to attack his castle—but Robert spent so much time either cleaning for Arthur or cooking for Arthur or utilizing that completely unsettling ability of his to predict where Arthur was going to be for the day and cleaning those rooms in anticipation that he wouldn't have had any time to report back to anyone trying to spy. Arthur had wondered more than once if his steward had taken note of how anti-Merlin that Arthur had appeared during the month when he'd left Merlin to rot in the dungeons and just scoured the kingdom to try to find the servant who was so very opposite of Merlin that Arthur was bound to like him.
Arthur couldn't deny that his steward had succeeded on that count.
But who would have known that the opposite of Merlin was even more annoying than the actual Merlin? And why did he always look scared? Granted, Merlin had looked scared a lot of the time and Arthur had found a peculiar sort of joy in calling him a coward, but Merlin always ended going into whatever situation it was that scared him anyway. Robert would probably have just behind stayed and cleaned.
So Arthur had left his bedchamber. Robert had practically wet himself with joy when he'd seen all the mess that required neatening as it was, and Arthur did not need to be there for that.
If he was to be honest with himself, he knew that he was leaving anyway. There was no way that he could have gone to sleep or wasted time on paperwork that he only looked after when there were dreadful things for him to do or even sit and talk through their shared grief with his wife. He had to go find Merlin, and he had to do it alone. It didn't matter that Guinevere had been Merlin's friend before Arthur had, and it didn't matter that she was in almost every way better at being considerate. It didn't matter.
Arthur had always been the one off-kilter by their interactions of late. Merlin had been the one who knew. Even when Merlin had shown up earlier—was it really only that morning?—not knowing that he had been summoned so as to be by the side of his surrogate father as he died, it had still felt as though Merlin had the upper hand. It felt as though Merlin had had power in the interaction that had nothing to do with his magic.
But now it was Merlin who was off-kilter, and it was Merlin who needed the balance that Arthur had so sought during his times of distress ever since the whole magic ordeal of the past year had begun. Guinevere had been Merlin's friend and confidante in so many ways, but Arthur was Merlin's opposite and his identical. It may have been as unhealthy as all hell, but it needed to be Arthur who found Merlin now. Confidence had grown out of their opposition to one another, faith out of their inexplicable affection for one another, trust—despite everything—out of their tolerance of one another. They were too close to each other, even when so far apart.
And Arthur had never thought that a particularly good thing.
Still, it was far too late to do anything about it. So Arthur was looking for Merlin.
He just didn't know what to do.
He knew what he had to do, of course, but the what was far too closely associated with the how, and since he damn well had no clue how he was supposed to do what he had to do, he might as well settle for not knowing what to do.
Which he didn't.
And which made total sense.
It was his castle, and he had lived within its walls for his entire life. It wasn't a matter of Merlin having some hiding place that Arthur would never discover. Given enough time, Arthur would find him. It was just that it might take a lot of time. It was a big castle.
Arthur sighed and stood still. He was doing an awful lot of complicated thinking just then, and he had learned from experience that it was best for him if he did not try to walk and complicatedly think at the same time. He was already bleeding from the hand and limping from the sole of his foot; the last thing that he needed was a bump on the head from a collision with a wall.
Or the knowledge that he'd collided with a wall.
Or to have to explain that he'd bumped his head by running into a wall.
So he stood still and he thought about what he was doing.
Part of him wanted to find Merlin to provide a shoulder for the young man to lean on. Part of him wanted to find Merlin to make sure that whatever magic that he had done that had exploded the innards of Arthur's castle had not also exploded Merlin's innards. And part of him wanted to find Merlin so that they could talk about nothing and it would be stupid and Arthur would be right about whatever it was because he was the king and Merlin would be right just as much because he was a sorcerer and claimed to know something about everything and so they would argue and it would be normal and Gaius wouldn't be dead and Merlin wouldn't be mourning and so Arthur wouldn't have to mourn and it would all be okay if he could just call Merlin a name and throw something at his head so that Merlin could mutter an insult under his breath that was just loud enough for Arthur to hear and they would fight each other and follow each other and fear each other and it would all be okay.
Well, whatever the reason, he had to find Merlin. That much he knew.
He figured that it probably wouldn't even be too hard, the size of the castle aside. Merlin's return had already been a talking point amongst a good percentage of the people in the citadel; combined with the random destruction that had seemed to have wrought itself that just so happened to occur only hours after the sorcerer's return, Merlin's presence anywhere in Camelot, no matter how remote, would not remain a secret for very long. Merlin would be found.
The only problem was that Arthur couldn't help but feel that he ought to be the one to find him, rather than allowing word to be rushed to him as he did whatever leisurely activities that he chose to distract himself as he waited in a manner most befitting a king, delivered by some random servant who didn't know Merlin and who didn't know Arthur and who had no business bearing witness to Merlin's grief when it was still so very raw. Merlin didn't deserve that.
The manners that befit a king were not always necessarily befitting to Arthur.
Plus, if Merlin was so out of control that his magic had just destroyed all semblance of order within Arthur's castle, he didn't really want to inflict an unbalanced Merlin on any unsuspecting staff. He was already more than a little bit afraid of what Merlin had just proven himself capable of and, while the chaos had been limited to the non-living tenants of the castle, Arthur did not have the heart to risk the safety of anyone else. He may not have known much about Merlin's magic, but of one thing he was absolutely positive: it had been no spell or enchantment or anything remotely deliberate that had dismantled his bedchambers. That had been force, unrelenting and overwhelming and random. That was just pure magic.
And Merlin was out of control.
Which did not sound to Arthur like a good combination.
Arthur wasn't at all angry—how could he possibly blame Merlin for losing control at a time like this? In the past twenty-four hours, Merlin had received a mysterious summons back to Camelot from exile, flown on the back of a dragon from one side of the lands to the other, destroyed a council chamber, fixed a council chamber, learned of his surrogate father's illness, witnessed his surrogate father's death, all while being followed by the whispers of the inhabitants of the castle who didn't know why Merlin was back and wondered if he was safe to be around and wary and frightened and everything that rendered them all but unrecognizable from the servants beside whom he had worked and laughed. Merlin had the right to be a little stressed out. If he wanted to lose control, Arthur had no objection.
He just hoped that any further losses of control were less damaging to his property.
When Arthur lost control, he yelled at people and ate large servings of unhealthy dishes and punched things like pillows and people and mirrors. He was never at his most dignified at such times, but he was manageable. But he had never managed to trash an entire castle—and Arthur sincerely hoped that the damage had been limited to the castle walls—in a single instant.
Although, in all fairness, he'd never actually tried.
But then again, he was almost entirely certain that Merlin hadn't tried either.
Arthur sighed again and began walking, rather aimlessly, down one of the corridors outside of his bedchamber. He chose the direction at random. He hadn't decided where he ought to look for Merlin just yet, but he knew that just moving would help. Besides, Merlin was all about feelings. Maybe Arthur should just trust his feelings and end up where he needed to go.
Suppressing a shudder at the idea, Arthur quickened his pace to nowhere. In the back of his mind, he wondered idly if he was trying to hurry his way away from the obvious that was looking him square—and rather judgmentally— in the eye.
And it was fairly obvious. His first stop should have been Gaius' chambers. It would have made the most sense. That's where Merlin would have been when Gaius had died, and if Merlin grieved at all like Arthur had, it would have been unlikely for him to have moved from the spot where Gaius had breathed his last.
But there were a lot of things that Merlin did that weren't at all like Arthur, so it was entirely possible that he'd fled as soon as he was sure that there was no more that he could do for the old physician.
It was a weak excuse not to go down to where Gaius lay, and Arthur knew it. But he couldn't do it. Merlin wasn't the only one grieving, and to see Gaius' lifeless form would have been too much just then. He could remain controlled and be there for Merlin so long as he did not need to be there for himself. He could keep it all distant while he was still needed. All that he had seen with his own eyes that told him without a doubt that Gaius had died was the way in which his room had destroyed itself.
Some people mourned by gnashing their teeth and rending their clothing and tearing at their hair. Merlin destroyed things with his mind.
To each his own, Arthur supposed. It was all the same principle. And who was he to criticize anyone for reacting violently to bad news?
Still, Arthur could not go to the rooms where Gaius had lived and worked. Even if Merlin was there, and even if Arthur could somehow avoid looking at Gaius, he did not think that he could bear to see Gaius' chambers torn apart as had been his own. He did not know if Merlin would have had the control to spare Gaius' chambers, but he somehow doubted it. And Arthur did not want to see them destroyed. They had always had the sort of scattered charm that seemed to have no pattern to the average eye but that the owner could navigate knowingly without a second thought. It was why it was usually simple enough to figure out when Gaius had been abducted. Someone would always try to tidy up the scene of struggle to prolong the period before anyone noticed that the physician was missing, but tidying up those chambers to any sort of standard order would have been the equivalent of messing up a tidy room. The differences would always be there, so long as a man knew where to look.
And Arthur did not want to have to look.
Then, very suddenly, Arthur stopped walking, looked around, and laughed. He had walked himself right over to the staircase that led to the roof of the council chambers. Of course he had. At a time like this, what made more sense than going up to the roof of a room that seemed for all intents and purposes to be cursed to face off with a dragon that would most likely be more than just a little bit cranky to meet up with anyone called "Pendragon?" So much for following his feelings. No wonder Merlin was always getting into trouble. This was ridiculous. Arthur's mission was to find Merlin, not to tempt fate by facing off with a damn dragon. No, Arthur would just keep walking past that staircase and look for Merlin elsewhere, somewhere that made sense.
So Arthur wrenched open the door that led to the staircase and began to ascend.
This particular staircase hadn't been there for a particularly long time; he'd finally allowed the court architects to install it after the last time that the roof had collapsed, so that it would be somewhat simpler to put it all back together again the next time that it happened. Even though Merlin had fixed the most recent damage to the room—which he had caused, so Arthur's gratitude was fairly limited—Arthur was glad for the staircase. It made everything so much easier now.
After all, if he was determined to go up to a great height from which there was no swift or safe escape to peek at a deadly creature, why should it have to be difficult? That would be just too convenient.
Arthur began to climb the stairs quickly, taking them two at a time. After a minute or so—the roof was high and the staircase designed sturdily—Arthur finally found himself near to the top. He saw that there were positioned about ten steps from the open archway that led out onto the roof the guards that he had ordered up to guard the dragon. It then occurred to him that that had not been his most practical of orders. What on earth were two guards with spears supposed to do if a dragon decided to go on a rampage of the castle? The dragon would just start with them as a first course and then move on to the rest of the citadel. What a waste those guards had been!
Plus, now there were witnesses to Arthur's decision to go up to where Merlin had left the dragon. Arthur would have preferred to get away with this rather impulsive sidetrip without anyone knowing about it. Or he would have died and it wouldn't have really mattered one way or another.
It took the pair of guards a moment to notice that their king was approaching them. They had both been leaning heavily on their spears and gazing with rather blank expressions on their faces down the staircase, looking bored to the point of exhaustion. Without stopping to give them any orders, Arthur merely jerked his thumb over his shoulder toward the direction from which he had just climbed, and they immediately began to navigate the stairway downward. Whether it was because Arthur looked particularly intimidating or because they were just very anxious to leave their posts—Arthur wouldn't have blamed them for either—he was almost surprised that neither of them actually fell down the steep staircase in their haste. But no matter. Arthur had not wanted company for this.
Or for any of his guards to fall and break their necks and die. That too.
Taking a deep breath, Arthur jogged up the final few steps, trying to hurry his way across the threshold before he had time to talk himself out of it. So it was far too quickly that Arthur walked out onto the roof into the lovely pinkish orange overhead gleam of looming nightfall and beheld a vision unlike any that he had seen before.
There, sleeping soundly on the black pebbles that were scattered across the roof, was a pure white dragon, his wings folded against his body and his tail curled around his back. He was huge, and Arthur thought dazedly that he looked even the larger than the Great Dragon, whom he had fought and presumed to have killed all those years ago. But then, the Great Dragon had been flying about and spouting flames at Arthur. Perhaps his size perspective had been off. Terror had the tendency to do that, he knew.
But this time, looking at this dragon, Arthur had never felt less terrified in his life. Maybe because it was sleeping. Maybe because the pure white of his scaly skin seemed so much less threatening than that of the dragon that had been so determined to kill him. Maybe because Merlin had promised that this dragon would not kill any man who did not attack him. Arthur didn't understand, but he accepted it. A peace that he had not felt since before he had first seen Merlin doing magic spread over him and, when he raised a hand to wipe at his eyes, he found that he was shaking.
And it was wonderful.
"He's called Aithusa."
Arthur did not have to turn to know who had spoken to him. The voice had been soft and very serious, but Arthur somehow wasn't even surprised to hear it coming up behind him. He hadn't detected the young man approaching from the archway, but Arthur was too mesmerized to be shocked. Plus, Merlin weighed about as much as a pair of Arthur's boots, Arthur figured, so hit footfalls were bound to be light.
"He's beautiful," Arthur answered, the awe in his voice rendering it so very quiet that he would never be entirely sure if Merlin had heard him. He could not tear his eyes away from the creature in front of him. In the back of his mind, he wondered how his father could have possibly ordered the slaughter of these beasts. Maybe he had never seen them sleeping. Maybe he had never seen them at peace.
Then Merlin walked into Arthur's eyeline, right up to the sleeping dragon, and patted him wearily on the flank. He looked exhausted, and Arthur was sure that it was over. His eyes were red, but he seemed otherwise composed. Arthur had known from the moment that his castle had exploded from within, from the moment that he'd seen that Excalibur lay undisturbed amongst the chaos of his bedchamber, from the moment that he felt for the first time the cold pang of fear at just what Merlin could do when he was upset. Arthur had known, and he hadn't grown so distant from Merlin over just six months that he would insult him by asking if it had happened.
So Arthur finally averted his gaze from the white dragon and looked carefully at Merlin. "Are you okay?"
Merlin sighed and rubbed his face with his hands, leaning back against the dragon in a casual move that Arthur would have never dared to try. "I don't know. Maybe. It's not really…maybe."
Arthur nodded. He wanted to approach Merlin. He didn't know why. Despite the young man's love for hugs, Merlin did not look like he would be particularly welcoming to an embrace at that moment, even Arthur had been so inclined. If anything, Merlin looked like he didn't want to be touched. He had closed his eyes and leaned back against the dragon, his body rising and falling softly with the steady breaths of the sleeping creature. He didn't move at all.
There was always the arm punch of manly sympathy, Arthur knew, but that just felt inadequate somehow. And he wasn't sure how the dragon would take to him punching Merlin. So he stood awkwardly, trying to convey sympathy from a good fifteen feet away.
After a minute or two, Merlin opened his eyes and gave a very small and very sad smile, looking as though he understood why Arthur was not coming any closer. And looking very much like he desperately wanted to talk about something else than why they were both up on the roof, sad and sorry and awkward. Arthur was just fine with that. He glanced at the dragon again, wondering how they could be so uncomfortable and confused when the dragon seemed so strangely dignified, even in slumber.
"You can touch him if you want," Merlin said quietly, noticing Arthur's glance. He propped himself up off of the dragon's side on his bony elbows, and Arthur felt his eyes almost pop out of his head, despite the seriousness of the situation.
Apparently, the expression looked as ridiculous as it felt, and Merlin actually laughed. "He won't hurt you."
Arthur shook his head, feeling like a coward and not caring. He was afraid of a genuine conversation and he was afraid of dragons, and there was no shame in either of those, he figured. "He could wake up, Merlin!"
Merlin matched Arthur's movement and shook his own head. "Come on, Arthur. Between the two of us, who do you think knows more about dragons?"
That was a good point. Merlin had ridden the dragon. But Merlin was a sorcerer. And too damn lovable for his own good. He and the dragon had probably just met casually in the forest and gotten to know each other over a campfire. "I do not have to be an expert on dragons to know how they like to kill people, Merlin."
Merlin shook his head again, once more looking very serious. It made the sadness all the more pronounced. "They don't kill unprovoked, Arthur. Your father kept Kilgarrah imprisoned under his castle for twenty-five years and killed the rest of his kind. Can you really blame him for wanting revenge?"
Yes, as a matter of fact, Arthur could. A lot of innocent people had died for that revenge. A lot of people who hadn't imprisoned the dragon under a castle for twenty-five years. But this didn't seem like the time to argue the point. "Kilgarrah?"
"The Great Dragon."
"It had a name?" Arthur didn't know why that should surprise him.
"'He.' And yes, Arthur. This one is called Aithusa," Merlin reminded him.
Arthur looked back up to the head of the white dragon. Aithusa. Did they all look this peaceful when they slept?
"Where did he come from? Not that he's not…incredible to see, but I thought that all the dragons were dead. That's what my father told me, anyway, and I've never had reason to believe otherwise."
A ghost of a smile returned to Merlin's face. "Remember a while back, when you took the knights and me on the quest to find and destroy the last dragon egg? And you and the knights were poisoned and out of commission when I came out of the building and it collapsed right after?"
Arthur gaped. "You didn't."
Merlin's smile grew. "I did."
Why was Arthur even surprised anymore? He should have guessed that a mission on which a building had collapsed had had something to do with Merlin, some sneaky underhanded method of wreaking havoc on all things architecturally stable. This probably wasn't even the first time. Lots of things fell apart on their journeys. Literally and figuratively.
But surely this wouldn't have been the only quest on which Merlin would have…cheated to get his way. At least he didn't knock Arthur on the head this time. Arthur supposed that he ought to be at least somewhat grateful for that. One more knock on the head and he might have trouble supposing anything. Not that Arthur was willing to admit that he tended to blame all of the head knocks for his occasional lapses in intellectual perfection. Lapses of great rarity. Lapses that were absolutely not his fault. So, knock on the head or not, it wasn't Arthur's fault that he'd been unconscious for Merlin's secret egg-retrieval mission.
"Poisoned? You poisoned us?"
Merlin held up his hands in a conciliatory gesture. As if Arthur was going to attack him when he was leaning against a dragon! "I didn't poison you. The man we were chasing did. I saved you, actually, so, you know, you're welcome."
Arthur fell silent for a moment, hoping to make Merlin think that he was mad. Anything to prolong the conversation that was keeping them from really conversing was fine with Arthur.
Then, curiosity got the best of him. "And it just happened to hatch after you got the egg? It had been locked away for thousands of years, and it happened to hatch after you retrieved its egg? That's convenient."
Merlin laughed again, and Arthur had the impression—not for the first time—that Merlin was enjoying knowing things that Arthur did not. "'He,' Arthur. And remember Dragonlords?"
Arthur began to grow suspicious. "Yes, Merlin."
Merlin laughed again, the joy in the sound so free that Arthur believed for a moment that Merlin really was successfully pretending that Gaius hadn't died and everything was as it was. Arthur couldn't help but envy him.
"Remember how I eventually told you that Balinor was my father?"
Arthur didn't like where this was going.
Merlin shrugged and spoke very quickly. "Well, it turns out that the ability to be a Dragonlord is passed from father to son. The father dies, the son inherits."
Arthur stared at him. "You have got to be kidding me."
Merlin shrugged again and didn't answer, and Arthur began to wish—certainly not for the first time—that he'd remembered to ask Merlin about the dragon back before he'd banished him.
"That's how you got rid of the Great Dragon? Kilgarwhatever? You killed him with words? I assumed that you used magic."
Merlin telling the dragon to go off and die seemed distinctly anticlimactic. Having apparently failed to do it himself, Arthur had been assuming for the past six months that it had taken a great deal of powerful magic to blast it into a million pieces. Merlin talking it to death was a far less exciting image. Although it was with surprising ease that Arthur found himself willing to accept the premise of Merlin talking someone to death.
But Merlin shook his head. "I didn't kill him. He's not dead. I only brought Aithusa because he's younger and more up to the long flight. And doesn't really have a huge grudge against Camelot. I just ordered Kilgarrah to stop his rampage. Dragons kind of have to do what I say."
Well, that was handy.
"Well, that's handy," said Arthur.
Merlin smiled, a distant sort of sadness in his face, and Arthur knew that he was thinking of the purge of the Dragonlords and how he had lost his father.
So Arthur said, "Can I really touch him?"
Merlin's smile brightened again, no doubt at the prospect of seeing the increasingly antsy Arthur go any closer to the dragon than he already was. "You really can."
So Arthur approached the sleeping dragon, very slowly. When he was within two feet of the beast, he extended a palm tentatively, ready to touch it as softly as possible. No matter what Merlin said about being able to control it, Arthur still preferred sleeping dragons at this point. He would just go very quietly and then…
"What the hell did you do to your hand?"
Arthur jumped about a foot into the air. Did Merlin really have to yell that at him? Did he not see the enormous fire-breathing fanged clawed monster slumbering in front of Arthur? Merlin may have been a Dragonlord, but Arthur was a Pendragon, and he imagined that roasted Pendragons were probably quite a delicacy among dragons.
"What?" Arthur hissed back.
Merlin raised his eyebrows and seemed to force himself to banish his smile. "I asked what you did to your hand."
"Why are you yelling?"
"I'm not yelling. I'm talking like a normal person. Why are you whispering?"
Arthur glared. This was a dangerous situation! "I am whispering because there is a sleeping dragon right here!"
"I already told you. He won't hurt you."
Arthur would have sworn that Merlin was speaking more and more loudly just to irritate him.
"What if he roasts me before you have time to tell him not to?"
Merlin looked legitimately confused. "Why would he do that?"
"Merlin!" Arthur whispered back, aghast.
The corners of Merlin's mouth twitched upward. "He wouldn't! I meant, he might be faster than me, depending on how well he's slept. But he'd probably give you second look before he killed you. Most likely. Even if you are wearing a sword."
Arthur immediately took off his belt and scabbard and threw them both at Merlin, who caught them automatically, no doubt out of six years of habit that would apparently take more than six months of separation to fade away. Then he completely defeated the purpose of why Arthur had thrown them at him in the first place and dropped them noisily down onto the roof on which they were standing. Arthur scowled. He could have done that!
"Why would he give me a second look? I wouldn't give me a second look if my father had done to my kind what he did to his kind."
Merlin kicked Arthur's scabbard further away from him, a horribly loud scraping noise reaching their ears. "He's heard stories about you. He's probably curious."
Arthur was strangely flattered, given the situation. "He's heard stories about me?"
Merlin seemed to realize that he had said something to add to Arthur's admittedly stout ego, and he grew immediately defensive. "Hey, sometimes a banished sorcerer wants to talk when he's traveling without company! You know, because of being banished. And it's not like I ever got time off to go have any adventures that didn't involve you. And Aithusa's a good listener."
Arthur snorted. "Because he doesn't have a choice."
Merlin scowled. "You want me to wake him up?"
That was not what Arthur had been going for. "No, I just want to know what stories he's heard about me before I go poking him."
"Well, don't poke him—"
"Why does it matter what stories he's heard?"
Arthur adopted the most sarcastic voice that he was capable of. "Gee, Merlin, I don't know. How about the story of how I banished you? For what was supposed to be forever? Or how about the story of how I went on a special quest to smash his egg before he could be born? Or how about how I tried my damnedest to kill the Great Dragon? Or how many surname is Pendragon?"
Merlin waved Arthur's protests away as though they were nothing. "Just don't attack him!"
"Stop arguing in a whisper! You sound ridiculous!"
Arthur would have stamped his foot if he hadn't half-believed that it would wake up the dragon and lead to his untimely death. "I don't want to wake the dragon!"
Merlin rolled his eyes, far too nonchalantly for Arthur's taste. "He's a dragon, Arthur. He'll wake up when he damn well wants to. Or if I wake him up. You're probably safe."
It seemed that six months of exile hadn't been long enough for Merlin to learn to stop provoking Arthur when he was stressed. "Probably?"
Merlin put his hands on his hips—a strange position, as he was still leaning against the dragon—and began to lecture Arthur in a strangely maternal manner. "Do you want to touch him or not?"
Arthur had never had a mother, but he assumed that that was how a young man would customarily respond to his mother's query.
"Fine!" snarked Merlin back at him, his maternal airs gone as quickly as they had come.
So Arthur took a deep breath and another step toward the dragon, warier than ever, and held out his hand one more.
"Oh, yeah," interrupted Merlin again. "What the hell did happen to your hand?"
Well, at least he wasn't yelling anymore.
Arthur didn't look away from the dragon. "I punched out a mirror."
"What, again?" Merlin's sounded more amused than surprised.
"Yeah," responded Arthur through gritted teeth.
"Probably not the best idea." Merlin's tone was conversational.
"The thought had occurred to me."
"This is, what, the third time?"
"No, it's definitely the third. Remember when you lost that tournament because your lance broke and it wasn't my fault so you couldn't take it out on me and—"
"It is officially the second."
"Ah. So I shouldn't tell Guinevere, then?"
"Merlin. I am trying to touch a dragon."
"Well, get on with it already!" Merlin's voice, which had been amused and casual whilst he had taken part in the strangely frequent conversation about Arthur punching mirrors, turned genuine and encouraging, and Arthur was suddenly heartened. Of all of the dangerous and terrifying things that he had encountered in his life, this was what was immobilizing him? Ridiculous!
So Arthur approached the sleeping dragon one final time, very slowly, and as quietly as he could. There were no more words. There were so many more questions that he could ask Merlin—for his own safety, if for nothing else. But all of the sudden, this moment had nothing to do with Merlin. This was…more. It was between Arthur and the dragon that had lived despite Arthur's and Uther's best efforts and grown into this beautiful beast that had more power than Arthur ever would, and was sleeping peacefully on top of the castle that housed the son of the man who had killed all of the rest of his kind, save for one. This was a meeting between the old and the new, the past and the present that were creating a future. He knew it, somehow. This was the future, and Arthur felt his fear drain away as his fingers lingered on the pebbled skin of the white dragon.
"Aithusa," he murmured, feeling more insignificant and fitting than he could have ever believed.
Arthur stood there for a few moments, unable to speak any further, even if there had been any words. But he was no Dragonlord. He sniffed and turned to look over at his companion to see a look of complete pride and satisfaction on his face, and Arthur had the impression that this serene meeting between dragon and Pendragon was something that Merlin had never expected to be truly possible.
Merlin nodded, sniffing himself, and smiled for just a moment longer before his face fell once more into the sadness that had hidden beneath each of his smiles and laughs ever since he had joined Arthur and the dragon on the roof. Arthur wasn't surprised. Merlin's distraction couldn't last forever. Merlin heaved himself up away from the dragon, all elbows and heels and bones that were most definitely poking the dragon, and Arthur backed away a few steps before he could help himself. It would take more than a few moments of acceptance for him to truly get used to the idea of a good beast such as this that wouldn't kill him immediately upon waking.
Arthur gazed at it—him, Arthur reminded himself—for a few moments longer, then turned. The moment between man and dragon had passed. This was a time for humans. Arthur was sure that dragons were wonderful creatures to speak to in their own way, but surely they couldn't understand. Not things like this. Not really.
But Arthur thought that he probably could.
It took him a few seconds to locate Merlin. Twilight was approaching, and his eyes were still full of the bright whiteness that was Aithusa. Merlin hadn't moved back down the stairs to the main part of the castle and he hadn't moved to the other side of the dragon. He was sitting on one of the broad stones that lined the top of the wall that separated the balcony from the drop, a hundred feet down onto the rock of the courtyard. They had stood there together, side by side, watching the goings-on below on countless occasions, seeing the land and the people that they fought and lost and lived to protect. They had stood there to look down at the people that they did not know but that they cared for so very much.
And Merlin wasn't even from Camelot.
It never occurred to Arthur that Merlin might jump. That wasn't the kind of man that Merlin was. He might sulk or whine or go on suicide missions, but he wasn't the jumping sort, especially if it was only out of despair or self-pity. No, it would have been inconceivable that Merlin might jump.
It took Arthur only that one glance to understand what Merlin was doing. He had lost his guardian, the man who had become his father in every way but blood, the last person in Camelot who had always loved him and who had not turned him away when the secret of his magic had come out…Merlin had lost Gaius. And there was only one thing that Merlin could have been doing, sitting atop the rampart that evening, in the company of a sleeping dragon and a waking king, swinging his legs over the side and holding onto the rock beneath his palms with all of his strength because he needed to hold onto something, rather than of any fear of falling, facing the fading of the day before him. Yes, there was only one thing that Merlin could be doing.
Merlin was watching the sunset.
So Arthur climbed up onto the rampart and sat next to Merlin to watch the sunset by his side. He placed a single hand cautiously on Merlin's shoulder, and he saw out of the corner of his eye as Merlin's grip on the stone loosened, just a little bit. He hung his head, and Arthur gazed forward, out into the sky before them.
After a moment, Merlin raised his face once more and followed Arthur's gaze out into horizon.
And the sun began to set.
Chapter 17: Rises Anew
Disclaimer: Merlin is not mine.
For the first time in what felt like ages, he didn't know how he felt. It seemed as though he was an entirely different person, inhabiting this body that was nevertheless his, and trying to feel the things that he knew that he was supposed to be feeling. Merlin was supposed to be curled up somewhere, weeping and raging and bemoaning his state in life to anyone who would listen and if no one would, he would just bemoan to the universe, because his surrogate father had died and he could bemoan just as much as he damn well wanted to.
But he wasn't. He was sitting on the roof of a castle with a dragon and a king and watching the sun go down, ending the day from hell with such peace and separation that it was as though he was watching someone else's dream—so very sad but so very distant because it mattered to someone else and someone else would hurt right now and he would be the one who was okay and if he cried so much as Arthur said he did, why wasn't he weeping anymore? Had he run out of tears after he had left Gaius' chambers? Had his explosion of grief that had apparently upset the order of the entire castle been so cathartic that he was too frenzied and drunk on his own power to remember to feel why he'd lost control in the first place?
Why was he functional? He wasn't at his best or most emotionally healthy—he was at least aware of that—and he knew that he was far too sad to make anyone really understand. That's why he had sought out Aithusa—dragons may not think like humans or feel like humans or love like humans, but there was something so soothing about just being near such huge and powerful creatures and knowing that they were there for him and that they wouldn't need him to say anything or talk about his damn feelings until he was good and ready and they would be warm and solid and it would have helped.
But then Arthur had been there, and that was helping too. It had been something of a surprise to see the king of Camelot just standing there, gazing at a dragon, but despite the urge for solitude and rest that had driven Merlin up to seek refuge under the wings of one of the only two dragons left in the land, he found himself not at all bothered that Arthur was there.
They hadn't talked about much. They weren't always the best at talking about serious topics. They seemed to prefer hedging the uncomfortable issues with largely inappropriate jokes and comments until they couldn't anymore. And so they had.
And then Arthur had touched Aithusa and Merlin had wept, just a little bit, tears that were completely unconnected to the loss that had driven him to the roof. Arthur had touched Aithusa, despite his reservations, and something had happened that Merlin didn't yet entirely understand, and everything grew serious and poignant again and so Merlin had decided to sit on a rampart, legs dangling a hundred feet over the very hard stones of the courtyard, and to watch the sun set over the horizon from which he had been absent for what felt like so long. Exile seemed so much worse now that it was over, somehow.
Especially once Arthur had walked silently over to the rampart, climbed to sit next to him, and placed a hand on his shoulder. Merlin had learned long ago that Arthur was a man for whom actions usually spoke more eloquently than words, and he heard what Arthur wasn't saying.
And he'd been just a little bit more okay than he had been just a moment before.
Maybe that's how it was going to be. He would feel it all a moment at a time, the sadness would be so piercing and so awful for an instant before he found something that would make it all seem just a little bit better. Hopefully he wouldn't lose control of his magic and destroy anything else. Moment by moment sounded much healthier.
He just didn't feel so healthy himself.
The sun was bright orange, glowing against the pink and purple of the sky that was particularly beautiful that night. Merlin was half pleased and half insulted that the evening should be so lovely. It was fitting that Gaius should be able to have had his final day be one of pleasant weather, even if conditions inside had been not so pleasant. But then there was that feeling that it had been such an awful day that the universe should have done him the courtesy of being gray and miserable and damp and cold, just to give a sense of…respect to the loss.
But it was beautiful, and he watched.
Then, very suddenly and without planning it at all, Merlin spoke.
"I don't remember what my father looked like."
Arthur glanced over at him sharply, clearly startled at his sudden speech. After a moment, however, his expression softened. He seemed to understand what Merlin meant.
He wasn't thinking of Gaius, and he almost loathed himself for it. It was Gaius who had died that day, but it was of Balinor that he was thinking. Or trying to think. He remembered meeting Balinor and pretending to be someone other than the son that he didn't know that he had and pretending that it was okay that the man who turned out to be his father didn't want to help Camelot until he decided that he did want to help Camelot and the tiny wooden dragon that he had carved for the son that he'd just found out that he had. He still had the dragon, and when he thought of it, he could picture it perfectly.
But when he thought of Balinor, all that he saw was a tall man with fuzzy features, and those features grew fuzzier each time that he tried to remember. He'd known his father for such a short period of time, and while he had gained more than the carved dragon from his father in the form of his ability to speak with and command dragons, there had been no time to truly know the man that his mother had loved and that he loved without knowing why other than the fact that the man had sired him without marrying his mother and that—at least in Merlin's visions, which for all he knew were inventions of his retroactive fantasies—he had the same eyes as Merlin.
But his face…no matter how Merlin tried, he could not remember his father's face.
Which he had never said aloud before, not even to himself.
It seemed so stupid.
How could he miss his father when he'd never had a father to miss? He'd grown up without a father; why should the loss of Balinor—the man who was all but a stranger in all practical senses—have left a hole in his heart?
Merlin knew why. It was because as soon as he arrived in Camelot, he'd gained a father. There was no blood connection between the two of them, and indeed, Gaius was far too old to be a likely candidate to have fathered a person of Merlin's age. They had never even met until Merlin was practically already a man grown. But Gaius had become his father and Merlin had become a son in the way that no boy can truly be as a child of only a mother, no matter how loving, and Merlin had become whole in a way that a boy of Merlin's power needed to survive, in so many more ways than just the maintaining of his life. Gaius had become his father, and meeting Balinor as his father had done nothing to diminish Gaius' place in Merlin's heart. Gaius was his father and Balinor was his father and now they were both gone and losing one had made him treasure the other all the more, and losing both made him ache more deeply than he'd ever ached before.
He wanted very much to see his mother, like a crying child with his first skinned knee or an excited child who had realized that it didn't matter if he had lost his flint because he had discovered that he could do it all with his mind anyway and a devastated child who learned that he had to use flint and tinder to do it if he wanted to survive and a scared child who was being sent from his home for his own safety. He wanted his mother more than he had in years, even more than when he had gone home to see her, his heart all but broken, in his exile.
Arthur shifted next to him, and Merlin almost laughed aloud. He had been wishing for his mother, and fate had given him Arthur. Arthur would just love that. Arthur, the Once and Future King, sharing his secret maternal wisdom with a wistful sorcerer.
Arthur…Arthur had just heard Merlin admit something that he'd never admitted before. It felt strange, being so open with Arthur. He'd lied and kept secrets for so long, and to bear something that felt so fundamentally wrong about himself felt…strange. But, as he thought about it, it was good strange. He was very glad that it had been Arthur whom he had found on the roof with his dragon.
Even if Merlin had had to say aloud something that he hated to even say in his head.
Then Arthur cleared his throat and removed his hand from Merlin's shoulder, almost nervously, as though he did not want Merlin to feel how he had stiffened.
Merlin absently thought that, if that were the case, Arthur should really work on not doing something before trying to cover that something up.
But the thought flew from his head in an instant when Arthur spoke.
"I don't think that I'll ever be able to have children."
There was a pause in which it seemed like something more ought to be said, but Arthur said no more. Merlin chanced a look over at the king, who was still staring resolutely ahead at the sunset. For half a moment, Merlin was struck by a deep stabbing of fear that Arthur was repeating the mistakes of his father, that he was going to ask Merlin to use his magic to ensure an heir in the same way that had cost Arthur his mother before she'd had more than a chance to do any more than see his face, that Arthur would try to turn Merlin into Nimue, that Arthur's newfound acceptance of magic was taking him too far too fast, that Arthur did not understand that some things were not meant to be meddled with…
But after the other half of that moment, in which Arthur would not look at him, Merlin understood and matched Arthur's movement, staring straight into the setting sun. He did not want Arthur to see the expression on his face, should he decide to turn.
Arthur was not talking to him like the recently returned traitor that he knew that he was. Arthur was not talking to him like a sorcerer whom he did not understand. Arthur was not talking to him like the servant that he'd been for so long. Arthur was afraid, and he was speaking to him like a friend, and Merlin somehow knew in his heart that this was a fear that Arthur had never spoken aloud to anyone before, any more than Merlin had spoken of the loss of his father's image.
Arthur was scared and sad and so was Merlin and it was okay that it was for different reasons because they were both sad and scared of the same thing as well and it would be okay. It had to be.
At first, Merlin did not know what to say. Strangely enough, Arthur often seemed to say things that could calm him down, although usually unintentionally. Sometimes they were unexpected kindnesses from a usually dismissive king, or simple acknowledgements of their places in each other's lives, or statements so bizarre and illogical that they pulled Merlin right out of his worries so that he could focus on trying to stop Arthur from doing something that was no doubt insanely brave but mostly insanely stupid that would probably end up working anyway. He wasn't sure whether it was because so many of the moments that had defined the man that he had become had occurred in Arthur's presence that made Arthur's unlikely and unwitting displays of sympathy even slightly reassuring, but they often did. And now it was Merlin's turn. He opened his mouth, knowing that what he was about to say would either be incredibly insensitive and lead Arthur to rather justifiably shove him off of the ledge, or maybe it would be exactly the right thing.
So Merlin shrugged his narrow shoulders and said, "Well, you could always make me heir to the throne."
And Arthur laughed. After a moment, he looked over at Merlin, a strange expression on his face. It was the same expression that he'd worn that day at the round table, after he'd informed Merlin that he had no choice but to join Arthur on his suicide mission to retake the throne from Morgana and then looked again to check for legitimate assent. It was the same expression that he'd worn on the day of his coronation, when he had looked Merlin in the eye for an instant after snapping at him as he was attempting to choose the proper cape for the prince to wear as he became king, asking if he was really prepared for it in a way that ways completely unrelated to which cape he would wear. It was the same expression that he'd worn on his wedding day, when Merlin had come in to make a final check of Arthur's ensemble before he headed into the hall to stand in the proper place befitting his position, his nervous eyes asking wordlessly if this marriage was to be the final torch tossed onto Uther's pyre. It was that same expression that Arthur had worn when he had met Merlin's gaze for the first time after Merlin had deliberately done magic in front of him, conjuring a room of fire and changing everything and making Arthur look as though he wanted nothing more than for Merlin to have changed nothing. It was a silent admission, of fear or guilt or excitement or hope or some unlikely combination of them all. And it was what he was not saying to check and make sure that Merlin was not saying what he thought that Merlin was not saying.
Arthur laughed again, thickly through a constricted throat, and rubbed face with his hands. Merlin knew that he understood enough to not want to shove Merlin to his splattery death on the stone courtyard below them, which was good, in his opinion.
But this was important, so Merlin said it anyway, his voice low. "You don't have to have children to have a family, Arthur."
Arthur smiled, bitterly. "I have to have children to have a dynasty, Merlin."
"I know," said Merlin. He didn't try to say that he was sorry for Arthur, to apologize for what wasn't anybody's fault. There were no words of sympathy that he could give that Arthur hadn't already heard or would hear or that he had tried to tell himself. He couldn't bear to reassure Arthur that it was all in his head and that it would work itself out. After all, it was entirely possible that Arthur was correct. He hoped not, but he had learned long ago that hoping was never enough.
"If I asked you to help me," began Arthur, turning back to the sunset and avoiding Merlin's eyes. "Would you do it?"
Merlin knew what he meant, and a shiver ran through his body. He would have been afraid of Arthur's intention in asking the question if it had not been for the flat weariness of the voice. Arthur had to ask, even if he already knew the answer.
But it chilled Merlin all the same to hear Arthur ask. This was a conversation that had happened before, and while Arthur had been the result, there had been such dire repercussions…
"I won't use magic to give you a child, Arthur," said Merlin firmly.
"Could you, though?"
"I don't know the way exactly, if that's what you're asking. But I'm sure that I could, yes," answered Merlin quietly. What was the point of lying to try to soften the blow? Merlin had lied enough to Arthur about magic to last a lifetime. Anyway, judging from the destruction that he'd apparently wrought through the entire castle, the power that he'd always tried to convince Arthur that he possessed had finally done the convincing for him. Arthur was smarter than most people gave him credit for, usually including Merlin. Yes, Arthur knew that Merlin could probably do it if he wanted to. But he had to ask. He had to know because he had to try everything. No matter what Arthur said, Merlin knew that this was about more than a dynasty.
"But you won't," said Arthur. It was not a question.
Arthur nodded, not looking surprised or even particularly disappointed. "Why not?"
Merlin bit his lip. It wasn't that Arthur sounded at all offended by Merlin's flat refusal; if anything, he just sounded curious. Merlin couldn't blame him; Merlin himself probably knew more about the circumstances of Arthur's birth than Arthur did, and he certainly hadn't yet explained much about his magic to the man at his side. But he had to tread lightly to give an honest answer. This, more than anything else, was not something about which that he should be anything but absolutely truthful. There were just so many things that he could say to try to explain it, so many reasons…
So he chose the one that said them all. "Because you are not your father, Arthur."
Arthur nodded again. He had never looked so sad or so defeated in all of the years that Merlin had known him. "Yeah, Merlin. I know."
Merlin considered putting his hand on Arthur's shoulder. He knew what was going through Arthur's head right now, and not just because he was wearing his confused face. Arthur loved his father; Uther had been the only parent that Arthur had ever had, and whatever else his failings may have been, he had loved Arthur very much. Arthur missed his father and had spent most of his life intending to be a king just like him.
But not anymore. Arthur did not want to be the kind of king that Uther had been, and Merlin knew that he hated thinking about that. Arthur was very sensitive to betrayals—Merlin had the banishment to prove it—and Merlin knew that he felt like he was betraying the memory of his father every time that he looked with disgust or disapproval upon any of the decisions that Uther had made during his reign. Arthur wanted to be like his father and wanted very much not to be like his father. It was not a good combination.
Merlin did not touch Arthur. It didn't feel like the time.
After a minute or so, Arthur cleared his throat, and his confusion turned into thoughtfulness as he resumed his gaze into the distance. "I'm not my father," he repeated softly.
He looked so tired and so old and it didn't seem fair for someone so young and healthy…so Merlin went with an old Arthur Pendragon standby.
Merlin changed the subject.
He rolled his eyes. "Oh, good, we're still talking about you. Gaius just died, my life is basically falling apart in every single way, I seem to have accidentally destroyed a lot of the castle and have no idea how to fix it, but let's definitely talk about your problems some more, Arthur."
Arthur snorted. "You are my problem."
Merlin smiled. "That's fair. Although if you say 'I'm not my father' again, I might just shove you off of this wall."
Arthur did not look particularly bothered by the threat. "You wouldn't dare. Magic is still illegal."
"I wouldn't need magic," said Merlin, with an air of stating the obvious. "I know that you don't think much of my upper body strength, but it wouldn't take much more than a nudge to knock you right off of this wall. Besides, I would have thought that you'd be more preoccupied with telling the banished criminal that 'regicide is illegal' rather than 'magic is illegal.'"
"Regicide…" Arthur's face grew soft again.
Well, that wouldn't do.
"It means killing a king," Merlin informed him loftily.
"I know what it means!"
"You just seemed a little confused there, Arthur."
"I am being thoughtful, not confused, Merlin!"
Merlin nodded and gestured apologetically. "So sorry, Arthur. Go on, then. Be thoughtful."
Arthur glared halfheartedly, but was apparently so absorbed in what he was thinking about that he couldn't work up the energy to be too frustrated with Merlin. That was a rarity.
"It's just…regicide. Did you…Merlin, when my father was…at the end, when…when you were the old man and…"
Arthur seemed almost afraid to finish his question. "Spit it out, Arthur!"
"Merlin, did you kill my father?"
Merlin nearly fell off the wall. Arthur's tone hadn't been angry or accusatory in the least, and it wasn't that he was necessarily surprised that Arthur was asking—Arthur knew that Merlin was Dragoon and that Uther had died shortly after Dragoon had done something to him with magic, and even if he didn't really believe it, Merlin had always expected Arthur to ask. Just not so bluntly and not so…strangely timed.
"No, Arthur, I did not kill your father," answered Merlin, trying not to sound annoyed. It had been a legitimate question.
Arthur nodded again. His expression did not change, and Merlin found his annoyance fading as quickly as it had appeared. Arthur seemed to be tying up his loose ends, preparing to move forward somehow. Something about his contact with Aithusa seemed to have changed him…
"I'm glad. I wouldn't have blamed you if you had, really, for what he did to your kind, but still…I'm glad that you didn't kill him," Arthur said lightly, clearly trying to sound flippant.
"And you are not your father," Merlin repeated. It seemed that Arthur really needed to hear it, and Merlin could say it, no matter how many times it took.
Arthur shook his head back at forth, as though he had splashed water on his face and had forgotten a cloth with which to dry himself. "So you're going to kill me?"
Merlin scowled, slightly amused beneath the frown. "Seriously, Arthur. You're right on the edge. No magic needed. One little push, and you're just a splatter on the courtyard."
Arthur rolled his eyes. "Magic, magic, magic. Always magic with you. Don't you have anything else to talk about?"
Merlin smiled. "Stop making fun of magic, Arthur. It has saved your life more times than you will ever understand. Besides, you were born of magic."
Merlin regretted the words almost as soon as he said them. What was wrong with him? It was bad enough that they were all but joking with one another so soon after Gaius had died and they'd both made their fearful confessions; now he was talking about the circumstances of Arthur's birth and, by association, his mother's death with a smile on his face?
Arthur remained composed. He smiled for a moment before his face fell back into that strange look of distant thoughtfulness. "I'm not my father. And you're not Gaius."
There was a pause, and Merlin waited for Arthur to keep speaking. He was not about to interrupt him when he was being thoughtful. Even for Arthur, that sounded like a statement that should be followed by something. It was only after a minute or so of silence that he realized that Arthur was waiting to see if Merlin was able to speak about Gaius yet.
Merlin found that he could. Something had changed. Something was changing.
"No, I'm not Gaius," he answered, and he could hear the surprise in his own voice. Why should he have been surprised?
If Arthur detected the tone, he chose not to comment. "It's really all over now, isn't it?"
That was certainly how it felt. The castle almost didn't feel like it was the same castle that he'd walked into, so carefree, all those years ago. And not just because he'd magically destroyed most of it.
But it wasn't all over. Just…some of it.
"I think that this is just everything starting all over again."
Arthur frowned. "You think that all of this is just going to repeat all over again? All the awful things that have happened to us will happen to whoever comes after us? It's all some big cycle, and we have no control over it? I'm starting to understand why you're always whining about having a destiny."
Merlin ignored the jibe on his rants about his destiny. If he started complaining on the subject, he'd probably keep on going for a while. Apparently, part of his destiny was to complain about it. "Yeah, I think it's all going to happen all over again. But I think that we can do it all differently, because we're not them, Arthur. I think that we can make different decisions this time, you and I. We know better than to do what they did."
Arthur rubbed his temples. "The king and the sorcerer. All over again."
Merlin shook his head. "Arthur and Merlin, Arthur. You're not Uther and I'm not Gaius. We know what they did and what happened. Not that I'm not glad that you exist and were born and everything, but…it shouldn't have happened like it did. And we can love them without thinking that what they did was right."
For once, the look of guilt that always seemed to cross Arthur's face whenever anyone alluded to the fact that his mother had died so that he could come into the world was completely absent. Merlin hoped that Arthur was finally beginning to accept that none of what had happened because of his birth was at all his fault.
"The sins of our fathers," said Arthur quietly.
"The sins of our fathers," repeated Merlin. It almost felt like they were sharing a toast, commemorating the past and the era that had ended with Gaius' last breath and believing that the next era would be different, hoping that their children would someday be toasting their memories in a far more positive light. No, it was not a toast. It was a vow.
"Yeah," Arthur answered, and Merlin rubbed his eyes.
"I think that tomorrow is going to be a very long day."
Arthur coughed out one final weary laugh. Merlin saw him shiver, and realized for the first time that the evening was growing chilled. He considered suggesting that they head back indoors, neither of them dressed to sit outside as darkness fell around them and the cold of night set in. He glanced over at the king beside him, but Arthur did not seem to be conscious of the cold. He had shivered because of something completely unrelated to temperature, and Merlin felt himself shiver as well. Something was changing.
But nothing important happened. Not really. Still looking thoughtfully ahead of them into the sky, Arthur absently wiped his nose on his sleeve like a child, and Merlin couldn't help but smile.
Yet, even as he smiled at the boyishness of the king's action, there was no trace of the child in Arthur's face as the laughter faded away and the lines of his face grew hard, and the smile on his face remained determined and so very adult across the firm set of his jaw as he turned his head to look over at Merlin.
"Merlin, I think that the rest of our tomorrows are going to be very long days," said the king. He clapped Merlin on the shoulder once more.
So the warlock sat with him, and together, Arthur and Merlin watched the sun go all the way down, sinking down into the horizon of Camelot, ignoring the cold in favor of seeing the end of the day and witnessing the setting of that sun. After all, it would not rise tomorrow over Camelot. It would rise tomorrow over Albion.
And then it could all start again.
Chapter 18: A Price In Blood
Disclaimer: Merlin is not mine.
Merlin found himself inexplicably nervous. He'd been to dozens of these ceremonies, inflated with pomp and circumstance and applause every minute or so, no matter how half-hearted. Plus, he'd known how the whole thing was supposed to go. He'd been walked through it step by step, presumably because they thought that he'd manage to mess it all up if he wasn't told explicitly what to do.
He would have been insulted if he hadn't agreed so wholeheartedly. It was just that he was usually in the audience for these things, his place in the crowd moving up a few rows every year as his role in Arthur's life grew more and more prominent until he'd finally hit the front. He supposed that taking part in the ceremonies was the natural progression.
That didn't mean that he had to like it.
Still, it was embarrassing that he should be so nervous about this. How many times had he ridden or stumbled into a battle for which he was completely unprepared? How many times had he had to face his own inadequacies when forced to battle a sorcerer, so much less powerful that he but so much more knowledgeable about spellwork? How many times had he had to watch the people that he loved dying or injured or sick and lacked the ability to save them, despite all of his powers? Even if things always more or less worked out in the end, the experiences tended to be just a little bit more nerve-wracking than some ceremony ought to have been.
Yet Merlin was nervous. How could he not be? This was a huge moment. He half thought that Arthur had only included Merlin in the whole ordeal because he was aware of how controversial this still was, even months after Merlin's reintegration into life in Camelot, and if he had to finally make it all official, he was damn well going to make Merlin stand up there at his side. Merlin was pretty sure that, somewhere deep down, Arthur still somewhat blamed Merlin for all of the trouble. It was true, sort of. None of this would be happening if Arthur hadn't caught Merlin doing magic, nearly a year ago.
Still. Arthur was king. New position or not, Merlin was hardly a necessary part of the ceremony. Arthur could have managed just fine without him. Arthur could have managed just fine without him on this. He'd been trained for these sorts of things since birth; the only thing that Merlin had been trained in that would have been at all applicable in such a situation was the ability to stand up straight and not crack an inappropriately-timed smile. And he felt that he probably shouldn't be trusted to do either of those the whole time either.
Of course, these sorts of things tended to happen without the need for ceremony or assembly. They just…happened. Often without notice. No one tended to care about the laws that were passed concerning flower height or cobblestone integrity. But magic? Magic was still something of a touchy subject, and Arthur had figured that the people of Camelot should hear it from the mouth of the king if they were to believe and obey. That the son of Uther Pendragon was repealing the laws against magic. And that it wasn't all a trick to try to flush out all of the secret sorcerers and have a mass burning.
Merlin only hoped that his presence in front of the assembly wouldn't lead any more people to believe that he'd enchanted Arthur into doing as he liked. Considering Arthur's surprisingly extensive history with being enchanted and the suddenness of Merlin's welcome back into Camelot after his exile, he could understand where they were coming from. That didn't stop him from sincerely hoping that no one would be bringing spears of crossbows to aim in his direction as he tried not to blush furiously. But he understood.
Of course, as long as he saw them in time, he'd almost certainly be able to stop any spears or crossbow bolts hurled in his direction. But it was the principle of the thing.
Still. There were a lot of people. Had the hall always been able to hold so many people? It seemed unnatural somehow. Objectively, he knew that there were more people than there had been for such occasions as Arthur's coronation or wedding. The benches had all be removed, and the aisles were nonexistent. Arthur's manservant had been all but appalled when Arthur had informed him that the seats were to be removed and the doors opened to anyone who wished to attend. Merlin would have thought that such a dedicated servant as Robert ought to be flattered that Arthur was trusting him to deliver the message to the other servants whose duty it would be to alter the arrangement of the hall, but he seemed too busy having a polite and almost eerill subdued panic attack at the prospect of the looming disorder to pick up any flattery. Merlin had considered warning Arthur that Robert might tweak the orders to make them somewhat less drastic than as he had instructed, but he didn't bother. Merlin may have taken it upon himself to paraphrase an order from Arthur that he did not particularly like, but Robert seemed more likely to hurl himself to a particularly painful—although probably still tidy—death before he disobeyed a direct order.
It was almost cute. Arthur had gotten himself a hell of a replacement manservant. Merlin was almost surprised that the young man's name was "Robert" rather than "Anti-Merlin." He almost smiled at the thought.
Fortunately, he remembered himself and his promise that he would do his best to remain composed throughout the ceremony, figuring that cracking a smile about how annoyingly competent Arthur's new manservant seemed to be was not the worthiest of causes for the disruption of what was meant to be solemn.
Besides, if he began to feel comfortable enough to smile, he might lose focus and immediately forget everything that he was meant to do. Arthur definitely had the biggest role to play in front of the crowd; Merlin's was almost negligible in comparison. If Arthur could make his way through this without stammering or blushing or falling into a faint, then Merlin had to do the same. Or at least avoid the fainting. After all, for all of the times that he called Arthur stupid, there was no way that he would be able to live down acting like an idiot in front what looked like all of Camelot.
Merlin had actually started to try to count them all a few minutes into the ceremony; Arthur had finished his first speech, and Geoffrey of Monmouth was just beginning his and Merlin was still about six speeches away from having to do anything other than stand still and keep his mouth shut, so he figured that distracting himself might make the time go by faster.
As it turned out, trying to count how many Camelotians had shown up to watch magic become legal, with Merlin as the example of "magic," was not the most soothing of distractions.
Fortunately, he'd been able to meet Guinevere's eyes for a moment. She'd given him a comforting smile that was only about half amused, so that had helped.
Arthur was still speaking. He could have such gravitas sometimes, Merlin mused. No wonder he could inspire men to follow him on even his more unlikely of missions. The way he spoke sometimes just made it sound as though whatever he was saying was right. Not necessarily smart, but right. It was like when he had sent away the princess whom he had announced his intentions to marry, only to withdraw his word due to a love of the then-exiled Guinevere. It was how he had expressed himself when he had refused to carry out some of Uther's more ruthless orders, when he would choose his duty to his people over his duty to his father. It was when it would be obvious to everyone—even those not privy to Arthur's quiet moments of self-awareness and foresight—that there was an intelligence and desire to do right by his people beneath the exterior that so often seemed to be far more comprised of brawn than brain. It was when it was obvious that there was a deeper quality required for being an effective king that was so much more important than all of the tutoring available in the kingdom and all of the crowns that could be forged and all of the laws of heredity that had granted the throne, and that Arthur had it. He was a true king underneath it all, despite everything and everyone who tried to mold him into a more practical ruler or a less self-sacrificing ruler or a more dismissive ruler or a more prioritizing ruler. Arthur had been born to be a king; it almost didn't matter how he had nearly been ruined by some of the ways in which he'd been raised.
And, as Merlin half-listened to Arthur's third speech, he felt that queer sense of immense awe and pride and affection and admiration that he always felt when Arthur was being fundamental. It was why he had followed Arthur through hell and back for all of those years, why he hadn't really held any sort of grudge when Arthur had had to exile him, why he was grateful to come back to court, why he counted himself fortunate to be friend and semi-constant companion to the man who spent half of his time being unnecessarily unkind to him, why he always came back and always forgave and always sought forgiveness. It had become obvious to everyone who'd been willing to give it some thought why Arthur needed Merlin; at the very least, he'd needed Merlin just to stay alive.
ButMerlin needed Arthur because he needed an example that someone could be so misguided by what he had been taught and still willing to try to help. Arthur overcame, time and time again, the blows struck him from every side. Betrayals by family, treachery by friends, death, injury, injustice…Arthur had seen so much of them before he'd been alive for even three decades. And Arthur was still good. He was an example of a man that Merlin wanted to save. It wasn't even that it was his destiny to keep Arthur on the throne. Destiny with his desire to protect Arthur had become all but moot within months of his service to Arthur. He needed Arthur by his side, and it wasn't because a captive dragon had told him so. And he knew that Arthur needed him by his side as well.
Maybe this was why Arthur was always randomly going off on angry tangents about balance.
And maybe it had something to do with the accusations of their codependence and Merlin tricking the king into not beheading him for insolence years before his magic had come out and accusations of Arthur having two wives instead of one.
Which were ridiculous.
Suddenly, Merlin realized that silence had overtaken the hall, and he glanced over to where Arthur had been speechifying only moments before, it seemed. He was not there.
Stifling the urge to panic and vaguely hating himself for being such a coward about the whole thing, he tried to look around the room for Arthur without looking as though he was looking around the room for Arthur. After all, he'd been meant to be paying complete attention the whole time, not veering off into overly nostalgic thoughts whenever the speaker paused for breath.
Then, there he was.
Arthur had moved from the steps where he and Merlin had stood, side by side, before the crowd, elevated above them so that they could hear what Arthur was saying and see that Merlin's eyes weren't glowing and note that neither of them seemed to be waiting for the perfect opportunity to slaughter the other. He had stepped up to the podium that had been erected specially for this occasion on the step behind them, where Geoffrey of Monmouth stood and a pot of ink with two quills lay innocently above a piece of parchment, long and covered with writing that had grown steadily smaller toward the end. The scribes had seemingly forgotten until very near the conclusion approached that they needed to leave room for the signatures, and Merlin saw that there were numbers scattered all throughout the final paragraphs. Footnotes. Arthur probably loved that.
But Arthur's countenance remained steady as he stood above the parchment and ran his eyes over it. Merlin knew that he was only pretending to read it for the sake of the crowd; Arthur had dictated the whole thing—with a few interjections from Merlin and Guinevere, the two people in the world who cared for him most—to the men whose job it was to take Arthur's spoken words and transform them into illuminations on parchment, with a few tweakings of grammar and editing out of the swears that Arthur had tossed out, mid-dictation, at his increasingly interrupting companions. Arthur had insisted that they take special care to make this particular scroll rather beautiful; it was without a doubt the most important law that Arthur had enacted since he had become king, and he had wanted it to look as important as it was.
Soon, Arthur finished pretending to read the document and looked up at all of his people, who had come to hear him speak. For the first time, Merlin thought that he could detect a hint of nerves in Arthur's eyes. It wasn't an expression that gave him any impression that the king was about to vomit or forget his words or anything that Merlin was currently dreading for himself. It was a sort of excited and fearful expression that made him look his age, not even thirty years old yet, and made him look like this was not to be the end of something. The document would be completed; the whole transition would not.
And, heaven help him, Arthur looked excited.
Then, Arthur lift his chin high so that he could have looked every man, woman, and child in the room in the eye if he so chose. The early afternoon sun that filtered through the windows glinted off of his crown, and his hair shone golden. Cutting a figure of authority and certainty, the king raised his voice and spoke.
"As king of Camelot and on behalf of all its citizens, I, Arthur Pendragon, son of Uther Pedragon, sign into law this document, hereby legalizing the practice of magic throughout the lands of this kingdom for the rest of my reign and countless years beyond."
And Arthur signed his name.
There was silence.
His head light, Merlin found himself climbing up the stair himself, standing next to the podium and glancing down at the parchment, the ink of the king's signature still wet, but very much there. Merlin noticed through his fog that the significance of the moment hadn't stopped the king from adding unnecessary flourish to his signature. Although this parchment was likely to be examined and reexamined in the days and years and eons to come. Perhaps it was best if Arthur didn't just make an A and then scribble the rest.
Arthur was growing up.
Then Arthur replaced his quill in the pot of ink that lay above the parchment and looked over at Merlin. When Merlin did not move, Arthur raised his eyebrows and nodded expectantly at him. Distantly, Merlin wondered if Arthur wasn't enjoying having the upper hand in this particular exchange.
Well, there was a first for everything.
But Merlin was also wondering if Arthur understood, truly understood, how momentous this was. It didn't effect him, not really. Not the way that it did Merlin and all of the others like him…making magic legal! Even he, in the weeks since his return, had not been able to do any magic in public, and it was hardly a secret that he was a sorcerer. He, who would have had to do a hell of a lot of destructive magic to receive any truly painful punishment from the king. Hell, after having a hand in destroying the council chambers on more than one occasion—one of which Arthur didn't even know about yet—it wouldn't have been unreasonable of Arthur to forbid magic from ever occurring in that room. Or at the very least to forbid Merlin from going within twenty feet of it.
But it didn't seem to matter. How was that logical? Not that Merlin was complaining, but still…
For the first time, it occurred to Merlin that perhaps Arthur's occasional lapses in logic were actually good qualities in a king. He became so much more forgiving.
Magic was going to be legal….Merlin had known that it was coming to this. Even in exile, his various letters from contacts in and around Camelot had kept him apprised of the situation well enough to let him know that Arthur was keeping his word about working to repeal the laws against magic. He'd known that, barring Arthur's death or another usurping or some other tragedy that he would not be back in time to try to prevent, no matter how many dragon rides he insisted upon, magic would be legal again, and he would probably be allowed to return home, even if in disgrace. And Merlin had known that it would not be a significant legislative change for him alone, no matter if he had been the one who had unwittingly instigated it all. He'd known that sorcerers all over Camelot, trying in secret to stifle and conceal their powers, would benefit. The burdens of keeping such a secret were so overwhelming…
Yet it was not until that moment, as he stood in front of what seemed like the entire kingdom, that he understood the true gravity of what was happening. Of the sea of people before him—nobles, peasants, guards, servants, merchants, children, adults, fools, scholars, the elderly and the adolescent—how many of them had magic? How many of those faces were nervous and doubtful, not because of the threat of magic being made legal in their kingdom, but because of the possibility that this was really going to happen and that they would be able to leave this room at the end of the day without having to fear for their lives with every step that they took? How many people in this room had carried a secret like Merlin's, that had tormented him and aged him beyond his years ever since his mother had discovered his powers and knew what they meant for his safety? A secret like Morgana's, that had driven an innocent girl into spite and bile, that had turned her into a sorceress of such dangerous power? A secret that did so much more harm than good? Beyond lives…how many hearts and souls and minds was this going to spare?
He had always known that this was so very much larger than himself. But at that moment, he saw it.
Merlin gulped. This was not the time to start crying. He would never hear the end of it from Arthur.
Plus, it probably wouldn't leave the hundreds of pairs of eyes currently staring at him filled with a great deal of confidence in the steadfastness of the man who would become, with the signing of this parchment, the most powerful sorcerer in an entirely different way than he had always been. His unofficial status as advisor to Arthur would be able to become official. Political power as well as magical…
Yes, this was not the time to start crying. Power on two such fronts was somewhat more important than him allowing himself to become emotional. Political power…
Which, Merlin felt, seemed somewhat anticlimactic in comparison to all of his fire-and-brimstone powers, unparalleled in the past and to be unsurpassed in the future. Those sounded like exciting powers. Those were fun to play with when he was bored. But politics? He began to grow nervous again. His signature wasn't even nearly as impressive as Arthur's. Although Arthur had had far more practice.
Arthur, who gave a little cough that Merlin only hoped was too quietly done that none in the audience would have been able to hear. Geoffrey of Monmouth, perhaps, who still stood behind and between them, would have heard, but he was hardly the type of man to tell tales. Besides, he had been Gaius' friend, and no matter what his personal opinion was of the sort of man that Merlin had become, Merlin knew that Geoffrey would never try to shame him in any way, if only in memory of the friend who had passed before him.
But no matter. Arthur's pointed cough was enough to finally spur Merlin into action.
Merlin moved forward toward the podium on which the parchment, covered in the numbers for the footnotes and filled with dozens of opportunities for the more pessimistic on the council to draft codicils, and swallowed deeply, trying to clear his throat. Croaking out what he was going to say was hardly dignified method to begin everything that would begin.
Merlin opened his mouth, and was suddenly very glad that he had so well rehearsed this line. He almost hadn't even read it out of spite when it was given to him. It had seemed so unfair that his line was so much longer than Arthur's, ignoring the king's lengthy speeches that would precede either of their vows. And he was sure that Arthur had done it on purpose.
But he could complain about that later. And he probably would. Now…now was the time for something much more important. Merlin took a deep breath, closed his eyes for an instant and, when he opened his eyes, he spoke.
"As a man possessing and practicing magic, residing in Camelot and working in the king's household, I, Merlin, sign this parchment, hereby accepting on behalf of fellow possessors of magic the legal right to exercise their abilities, both physical and magical, throughout the lands of this kingdom, as decreed by Arthur Pendragon, Once and Future King of Camelot."
His voice had been steady, but when he signed his name, it was with slightly trembling fingers.
He didn't care. The ink was there.
Placing down the quill, Merlin reflected on his little speech. He had thrown in the "Once and Future King" on his own. It would doubtless make very little sense to the crowd in the room, but Arthur would have understood. The rest of the speech had been carefully worded by Arthur's scribes, who had insisted that the word "sorcerer" not be spoken in any capacity. That was fine with Merlin—there was still something of a powerful and seriously negative stigma in Camelot about "sorcerers." "Possessors of magic" would do for the time being. This was a process that would go step-by-step. Leaps and bounds would hardly do.
Merlin looked out at all of the people in front of him. There had been customary applause after each time that Arthur had spoken, save for his statement as he signed that corresponded with Merlin's . Arthur was king. Of course he'd receive applause. But now, once more, there was silence.
Suddenly devoid of nerves, Merlin surveyed the audience curiously. The silence did not seem to be entirely a result of people who opposed this law. From the expressions on so many of the faces, they had not actually believed that this was going to happen. Whether it was because some of them had seriously believed that he and Arthur might spring a trap and kill each other or whether Arthur would just change his mind about the whole thing, there was an air of uncomfortable disbelief in the room. They had not thought that a new world would really be allowed to spring from the stiffly scripted sentences written by those other than the man who had spoken them.
Merlin could relate. This was happening. It had happened. The signature of the king had preceded his own, dark against the yellowish white of the parchment. Merlin chanced a glance at Arthur—this all seemed almost too big and too intense to look anyone directly in the eye. For all that he knew, he was too overwhelmed with the moment that he couldn't guarantee that he wouldn't accidentally explode the head of anyone who met his gaze for more than a few seconds. His grief-fueled destruction of the castle had not been forgotten.
But Arthur looked him square in the eye, and no one's head exploded. If anything, Arthur looked rather touched, and Merlin realized with no small amount of satisfaction that his reference to the "Once and Future King" had not gone unnoticed. Or unappreciated. And his eyes were for once just as bright as Merlin's, although distinctly less likely to induce any explosions.
There was another small cough, this time coming from between and behind the king and the sorcerer. When they looked back in unison, Geoffrey of Monmouth was looking at them expectantly. Merlin automatically took a few steps back, giving him room to move forward and make the seal. As huge and savory as the progression of this moment was, Merlin was fairly anxious for it all to be made completely official. Moving back and away from the podium, Merlin stood up as straight as he could manage and clasped his hands behind his back. Without noticing, he had assumed the respectful stance that he had always taken and usually managed to maintain as a servant during very serious moments.
Glancing once more at Arthur, he saw a strange expression on the king's face as he watched Merlin once more take the position of a man inferior. It was almost a frown.
Then, Arthur, with more authority and steadfastness than Merlin had ever seen in him, turned to Geoffrey of Monmouth and held up a hand, stopping the old man in his tracks. From the expression on Geoffrey's face, he hadn't expected this either. Arthur was going off script, and Merlin began to grow nervous again. When it wasn't related to battle or crises or the occasional fluke, Arthur's improvisational skills were not always the most impressive. Gwaine had once mentioned something about "lunkfast" that had been slightly alarming. And amusing.
But Arthur did not look in the least nervous. Merlin had not seen Arthur look this certain about anything since…well, since before this had all began. Since before Arthur had seen him doing magic. A thrill ran through Merlin. This was going to be a fluke. He knew it.
Arthur turned toward the audience and took a few steps forward, so that he stood front of the podium that bore the single sheet of parchment that was going to change the world forever. His eyes looked more blue than Merlin had ever seen. Was it because of the lighting that was coming through the windows, the angle at which Merlin was viewing him, the fact that Merlin usually didn't pay much more attention to Arthur's eyes beyond that they were blue?
Or was it because Arthur was suddenly seeing things so very clearly?
Arthur looked back at Merlin and jerked his head forward, beckoning him toward the front. Hastily, Merlin stepped forward as well and stood before all of the people who would have, a year before, had him killed on sight. His heart beat very quickly.
Arthur turned, and Merlin automatically mirrored his movements. He hadn't a clue what Arthur was planning on, but if he was doing it, Merlin figured that whatever actions they were, they wouldn't make him look like a fool. So he copied Arthur.
Arthur did not seem annoyed. If anything, a look of satisfaction raced across his face before it was replaced once more with regal stoicism.
So they faced one another. Then, Arthur did something that surprised Merlin more than anything that Arthur had in the past or ever would do. Arthur withdrew Excalibur—the sword forged by man, fortified by dragon, and bestowed by magic—from the scabbard that fell at his hip. For the first time, Merlin realized that Arthur had not chosen to wear his ceremonial sword for this assembly, and Merlin knew why.
This was a moment for Excalibur.
With Excalibur in hand and Merlin apparently very clearly having no idea what Arthur was going to do, Merlin heard the crowd gasp, and it took him a second before he realized that they thought that the time had come and Arthur really was about to strike him down. Save for that serious expression on Arthur's face, Merlin would have laughed. Not because he could easily stop Arthur from landing any blow—which he probably could, if he saw it coming—but because the idea of Arthur attacking him now seemed so preposterous.
Arthur paid no heed to the reaction of the crowd. He looked Merlin squarely in the eye for the second time, frankness obvious in his stance, even if his intentions were still a mystery to Merlin. Then, in a single swift movement, he took the blade of Excalibur that never had or ever would require sharpening, and he sliced a single cut through the palm of his right hand.
If the crowd had gasped when he'd withdrawn his sword, it was nothing compared to the mass inhalation that followed Arthur's wounding of his own hand.
Merlin did not gasp, but he could feel his eyes bug out of his head for a few seconds. This was unexpected.
Once more, Arthur did not turn or acknowledge the reaction of the crowd. His hand bleeding enough to smear on Excalibur's hilt as he held it, he laid the sword reverently down, leaning it carefully against the podium so that it was visible to everyone in the room, his blood shining red on the blade. Arthur did not attempt to staunch the bleeding.
Then, Arthur Pendragon, Once and Future King of Camelot, turned back to face Merlin.
And he extended his bleeding hand.
It took Merlin a good five seconds—for which he was teased mercilessly later that day—to realize what Arthur was doing. What Arthur had done. And what Arthur was trusting him to do in return.
And this time, Merlin did laugh.
It was so absurd and so touching and so brilliant that he couldn't help but laugh. Yes, Arthur had most certainly been born to be king.
So Merlin nodded. He held up his own right hand, his arm steady and straight, in front of him so that the crowd would be able to see. He did not otherwise acknowledge their presence any more than Arthur had.
Then Merlin did something that he had done many times before. With a single muttered word, a small flame burst up in the palm of his hand, and he held it easily. His skin felt only a strangely pleasant tickling sensation; there was no pain, no burning. A third collective gasp rushed through the crowd, and Merlin almost laughed again. Nervously. He was about to do something that he had never done before. Of all of the times that he had conjured flames, to shoot out and burn walls and tapestries and trees and, hell, people, he had never tried to do this. He only hoped that it would work; this was far too important a moment for him to ruin.
So, with a lingering glance at the small fire in his hand, Merlin focused the flame downward rather than upward. For the first time in his life and of all of the times that he had cast this spell, he was burned.
He only kept it up for a few seconds, long enough for everyone to see what he was doing and see that now it was hurting him and for a brief enough period of time that he wouldn't swear at the top of his lungs in front of the hundreds of people who had showed up to observe the expected solemnity of this ceremony. But those few seconds, in which he had burned his own hand with his own magic, had been enough.
The palm of his right hand was bleeding.
It was bleeding fast.
Merlin looked up again, up at Arthur, who had managed to keep a steady countenance throughout Merlin's little display. Merlin knew that Arthur was still relatively unused to seeing Merlin doing magic, and this would have been a new one.
But Arthur was King now. His hand was still extended forward, and Merlin could just see that the blood was trickling downward. Yet the hand, still extended, had not even begun to shake from the exertion of being held unsupported in the same position for however long it had take for Merlin to wound himself. Despite the certain discomfort, Arthur's hand was still extended.
So Merlin did the only thing that could be done, and he extended his own.
And there, in front of hundreds of men and women and children of Camelot, with each of their palms bleeding freely into the other, Arthur and Merlin clasped hands.
And they shook.
Unnoticed by either, the sudden pressure on their wounds forced blood downward, and it dripped, oh so slightly, down onto the floor of the pristine room. It was not until much later, when a servant had come to clean up after the ceremony, that it was discovered that the stain could not be removed, no matter how it was scrubbed. Not even magic would be able to lift this stain of the blood that mixed with blood. But at that moment, no one cared. There was not a sound in the room, even as the pressure from Arthur's hand began to staunch the bleeding of Merlin's, and the pressure from Merlin's hand began to staunch the bleeding of Arthur's.
The dripping soon stopped, and the king and sorcerer stared at each other, neither daring to look around and see what they had done and how it had been interpreted. What they had just sealed in blood. It almost didn't matter, not just then. Something had finished.
And something had begun.
The royal blood of a king had mixed with the magical blood of a warlock, and their worlds were enmeshed irrevocably.
Merlin blinked rapidly. This was not the time to cry. If Arthur could be solemn, then so could he. Why wasn't there a spell for this?
Then, Arthur smiled.
Merlin laughed, sniffling despite himself, and Arthur yanked him forward by their still conjoined hands and embraced him.
And that was when the applause started.
For the rest of his life, Merlin would never be sure why the applause had started. A healthy amount of the crowd had been hesitant about supporting the legalizing of magic—after all, it was not so easy to transition from being told that magic is evil to being told that magic is legal. Some of them certainly opposed it. There were some wholehearted supporters, yes, but it had been a tense assembly of citizens in the hall that day. No, Merlin would never be sure why they had begun applauding. Maybe they were just glad that this rather extensive ceremony looked to be finally ending and they would be able to go find a place to sit down somewhere and have a drink. Maybe they just wanted to do something remind the two men before them that they were there. Maybe they had been just as tired of the world that they had lived in as had been Arthur and realized that now was the time to show it. It could have been anything. Arthur later accused him of enchanting them, but both he and Merlin had known it had been some different kind of spell, a type that not even Merlin was capable of manipulating.
So they applauded, and no one knew exactly why.
But that was okay.
Merlin had wanted to step back once he had Arthur had let go of one another, retreat back to the sidelines and heave the spotlight to the king and the forgotten Geoffrey of Monmouth, who was no doubt very uncomfortable by that point, but Arthur stopped him.
"Don't move," he said quietly. "Let them have this."
Yes, Arthur was King.
So Arthur and Merlin stood, side by side, in front of the crowd, allowing them to see and absorb and accept.
Still mildly uncomfortable with the attention and not entirely able to shake the instinctive fear that still ran through his body whenever he did blatant magic in front of strangers in Camelot, Merlin resorted to an old standby of relieving tension.
"So, Arthur. That was very touching," said Merlin, very seriously, trying not to move his lips as they stood before the crowd.
He saw Arthur roll his eyes, the movement visible even in profile. "Shut up, Merlin."
"No, it was," insisted Merlin, as earnestly as he could manage. "Touching. And inspired. Smart. I didn't know that you had it in you."
Arthur sighed dramatically. "Well, one of us had to use our brains up here, and since you only have half of one, I thought that I should step up."
Merlin nodded, a slight movement that would have been unnoticeable to the spectators but that he was sure that Arthur caught. "I think that you just wanted a hug."
Merlin smiled as he watched Arthur try not to scowl in front of his people. "I think that you should watch your mouth before I pick up Excalibur again."
"I think that you should watch your mouth before I turn you into a toad. Magic is legal, you know."
Arthur lifted his head higher into the air, somehow. Merlin was sure that he would have a crick in his neck by the time that the day was over. "Geoffrey of Monmouth hasn't placed the seal yet. It's not official."
Merlin rolled his own eyes. "Oh, please, Arthur. Like a seal of wax could be more important than a seal of blood!"
"Do you think that we should go back up their and put our handprints next to our signatures? I used to do that all the time in Ealdor, although usually with mud instead of blood. Maybe that's why my mother sent me away, now that I think about it. It was pretty messy."
"Merlin…" Arthur voice was low and threatening—a tone with which Merlin was quite familiar—as he face twitched back and forth between regal stoicism and annoyance.
"I'm just trying to compliment your ingenuity, Arthur," Merlin continued, ignoring the warning. "Really. A blood bond over a law? That was brilliant."
"Thank you, Merlin," said Arthur, the sarcasm somewhat tempered by the fact that he seemed to have picked up on the fact that Merlin was being more genuine than his tone implied. Merlin was glad, and he nodded. He allowed a moment's pause, in tribute to what hadn't been said. Then he spoke again, his voice bright and cheerful.
"Kind of gross, though."
"We are so blood brothers now, Arthur. That's so sweet."
"Well, I didn't think that a spit shake would have the same impact!"
"Spit shake?" repeated Merlin distastefully. "That's even grosser."
Arthur actually glanced over at him incredulously, forgetting himself in front of the crowd for a moment. "How is that grosser? We just bled into each other's open wounds, all for the sake of a handshake."
"It was your idea. You started it."
Arthur continued as though he hadn't heard Merlin's protest. "Bled into each other's open wounds! That's not just gross, Merlin. That's unhealthy."
Merlin shrugged. "I've handled your blood plenty of times. You battle wounds never applied pressure to themselves, Arthur. If you have any weird blood disease, I caught it years ago."
Arthur paused. "You may have a point there."
Merlin nodded. "Blood brothers."
"That's not a thing, Merlin!"
"It is now."
"It is not!"
"I bet you anything that Geoffrey of Monmouth includes this conversation in his account of the ceremony. It will live forever."
"He's not listening, Merlin!"
"He might be, Arthur!"
"He is not, Merlin!" answered Arthur, his voice whiny.
"Then I'll tell him, Arthur!" Merlin shot back, turning his own voice into a mocking whine of his own.
Arthur squared his shoulders. "Like hell you will!"
Merlin didn't bother copying that movement. He could square his own shoulders until the end of days. It would never have the same effect as Arthur. Why did he have to be so much broader?
"We'll see about that!"
Arthur didn't answer, looking suddenly preoccupied, and Merlin grinned, assuming that this was one of those delightful occasions when Arthur was sincerely hoping to have an intelligent comeback but could not think of one. Then he glanced over, trying to gauge Arthur's mood before goading him further, and he felt all of the mischief drain out of him. Arthur did not look frustrated or confused or like he was considering abandoning the attempt to insult Merlin and to just hit him instead. Arthur was looking out at the people—his people—in front of them, and his face softened into the thoughtfulness that usually meant that he was being openly sincere, despite his kingly barriers. Merlin followed his gaze and saw the people, rather than the crowd.
And there they were.
And yet, there they weren't.
There was no nameless manservant, quivering in the shadow of the king, fearing that every minor transgression would lead to dismissal and exile. Instead, there was Robert, known by name and face, who admittedly did tend to quiver in Arthur's shadow and believe that the world would end if he made any mistake, but Merlin figured that that was just an idiosyncrasy unique to Robert. Robert probably would have got on quite well in Uther's household, he imagined.
There was no Gaius, conflicted and worried but proud all the same. Instead, there was Gwaine, the knight who had sworn that he was not going to show up for the ceremony because Merlin deserved to know what it felt like to be abandoned for no good reason and that Arthur just deserved to be stood up for prompting to abandonment in the first place, standing straight and strong in the front row, not even bothering to try to look begrudging or bitter.
There was no Queen Ygraine, blonde as Arthur would be and beautiful as a daughter would have been if she had lived to bear another and belly swollen with the boy who would change it all, but there was Queen Guinevere, who had lost so much in the name of magic but was willing to look forward and see what could be gained by embracing it.
There was no Uther, grey-haired and loving still a woman lost to magic and loving the son who'd been bought by her life and dedicated to hunting those gifted and cursed with the power that had brought it all about. No, there was no Uther, but there was King Arthur, proud and tall at his side, abandoning his father's revenge on all things magical to try to atone for his own mistakes, growing up motherless because of magic but have grown into a man of mercy, willing to condemn but willing to listen before doing so.
And there was no Nimue, willing to interfere with the laws of life and death for the sake of a friendship that, falling into the darkness of vengeance that could be so easily justifiable when considered alongside the great purge of magical practitioners. Instead, there was Merlin, who loved his friends too much to ever help them as she had helped hers, who was more powerful than Nimue had ever been, who had a destiny to create Albion alongside a king, who could speak to dragons, who was capable of more powerful magic than had ever been seen before or would ever been seen after he had gone, whose spells could be more devastating—in ways good and bad—than even the most imaginative could invent, who could do those spells now, without fear of repercussion.
Merlin, whose very first legal spell in Camelot was to cast a tiny flame without flint or tinder.
And he would have had it no other way.
Devastating displays of power could come another day. This day? This day, instead, as he stood beside Arthur and overlooked the people of Camelot, Merlin lit a candle, all the way across the room, with his mind. It took no more than a blink of an eye, but after that instant, the candle burned more brightly than any of the others in the room, and that candle was damn sure never going to go out. It was never going to be moved. If Arthur's ancestors, years and years and years from that day, decided to outlaw magic once more, they could do so. But that candle would burn on, as a reminder that a king could try his hardest to stamp out magic but would be doomed to fail. If Arthur's ancestors decided to hold fast to the decree that Arthur had just signed, that candle would remain as a symbol that magic could exist harmlessly and helpfully within the confines of a castle without wreaking havoc or devastating the lives of the non-magical. It was a promise and a threat and a truce. It would never burn any flesh or melt down into nothingness or set aflame any council chambers.
Also, it was a purple candle. Merlin hadn't been able to help himself on that count. Arthur may have grown up a great deal over the past ten months, but it would be interesting to see if he would throw a hissy fit over the fact that Merlin had gone out of his way to make sure that the everlasting candle in his castle would be purple.
That would be fun.
It was a very purple candle. Arthur did not appear to have noticed it yet, but that was okay. There were slightly more distracting sights to see in the hall just then, namely, the hundreds of people of Camelot who had showed up to see the end of the world and seen as well the beginning of a new one. No, Arthur did not notice that single candle that had turned in an instant from white to purple and seemed to burn with a whiter flame than any of the others in the room. But that was okay. Merlin smiled anyway. Arthur would figure it out eventually. From what it sounded like, there was a lot of work that was going to be happening in this room.
Once, Merlin would have been afraid. Not cripplingly so, and not so much that he would have fled rather than face the business of the day at Arthur's side, even if it had been as manservant. But there had always been that fear whenever Arthur dragged him to a meeting in this room, and all that he would tell him about it was that it was "official" and "important" and it would all be done with such a grim face that Merlin would feel that twinge of fear that maybe, just maybe, this would be the day when they would all know and he'd have to pay the price for his years and years of lies. It would be half-exciting that Arthur was growing to trust him well enough to bring him to "official" and "important" meetings, but there was always be that fear that it was all because his secret was out and it was all going to end and anticipation had been one of the feelings that Merlin had come most to dread.
But no longer. The feeling of anticipation did not seem nearly so frightening anymore. Now, Merlin felt that he could wait forever for whatever was going to happen, because the truth was out and the truth was okay and suddenly he was free.
So Merlin smiled.
After all, after today, anything could happen.
Chapter 19: Epilogue: A New Adventure Awaiting
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
Disclaimer: Merlin is not mine.
Camelot was a mess. The sorcerer had come back and stayed back and the king had legalized magic and the sorcerer was still back and there was chaos—absolute chaos—throughout the entire citadel. It was as though the castle had turned upside down. His world certainly felt as though it was in complete disarray. The worst part of it was that he was the only one who really saw it. He could understand that, of course. He was closest to the center, where the problem originated and was at its worst. No one else had the access to understand just how much everything was going wrong. He almost envied all of the others. Their lives were more or less uninterrupted by all of the changes. But his? It was ruined.
The only good thing about Merlin coming back, Robert mused bitterly, was that he hadn't tried to reclaim his old job. Of course, that also proved once and for all that Merlin really was an idiot, just as the king always said. But Robert wasn't complaining. If Merlin didn't want to put up a fight to retake the best job in the kingdom, Robert wasn't going to go out of his way to provoke him. Robert wasn't even sure if he had it in him to provoke anyone at all. It was a point of pride with him.
He was such a good servant, Robert thought, brimming with as much self-pride as he was physically capable of maintaining without prompting a nosebleed. He almost allowed himself a smile as he walked through the corridors of the castle. Feeling gracious in his superior servitude, he was even willing to concede that there were perhaps two good things about Merlin being back. There were a lot of people—magical people—who were still alive and free than there had been in years past.
That was almost as good as Robert having no challengers to his position.
But Robert couldn't smile, and not merely because it would have been unbefitting his role. Unless the king was trying to make a joke or looking for obvious affirmation, it wasn't his place to smile. The king was the king. He deserved the best of everything, and if Robert was happy, he could do it inwardly, like when he overheard others complimenting him by calling him "serious" and "focused" and "unnaturally capable of going extended periods of time without blinking." Even if they couldn't say it to his face, it was nice to know that he was appreciated.
Yet still, he could not smile. The sorcerer was back, and Robert had just been informed that he was in the king's presence. Why had the maidservant felt it necessary to add that Merlin was with the king? Robert had asked about the king. It was like the whole castle found it amusing that Robert was engaged in a silent war with the returned sorcerer, whose only defense seemed to be pretending that he did not know that he and Robert were meant to be fighting about anything. As if Robert was going to fall for that obvious ploy!
For a nemesis, Merlin seemed awfully passive.
And now there he was, back in the presence of the king. Wasn't it enough that he was back in Camelot? Didn't the two see each other often enough for business purposes? Didn't they have anything better to do? It was bad enough when the whispers were that they spent time together for social purposes. Now they were in Arthur's bedchambers. Merlin was absolutely trying to take away everything that was precious to Robert. That was his domain.
Stupid Merlin. Why couldn't he just break another big law and get himself exiled again?
Robert sighed imperceptibly and glanced down at his parcel. He had been entrusted with a message to deliver to the king. He had almost swelled with pride at the importance of the duty, but the pride had been immediately replaced by horror. He had been just handed a scroll and been told that it was for the king. It was like no one else in the entire castle had any sense of propriety when it came to handling items intended for the king.
It had taken Robert nearly half an hour to locate a red velvet pillow of the correct size and adequate tassel length but, as he had observed how majestic the scroll truly appeared on its cushioned pedestal, he knew that he had made the right decision. If he was going to do something, he was going to do it right, no matter how long it took.
He only hoped that the message hadn't been particularly urgent.
Robert rounded a final corner and found himself in the hallway that led to the royal bedchambers. He paused took a deep breath, taking a moment to straighten his clothing and make sure that his hair was neat. His walk up from the kitchens had been brisk, but he did not want to appear as though his pace had been anything other than of appropriate speed.
Finally certain that his appearance was satisfactory for an audience with the king, Robert rapped his customary four knocks on the king's door and, as always, waited to be granted access. After a few seconds, in a voice that was so muffled through the thick wood of the door that it almost sounded exasperated—which of course it wasn't—the king yelled for Robert to enter. It was amazing how he always knew that it was Robert without the young man identifying himself. He supposed that it was possible that he just yelled "Open the damn door already, Robert!" at everyone who knocked, out of the sheer hope that it was always Robert, but he knew that the king was too clever for that.
Robert entered as bidden and immediately went into a bow. He had originally always knelt when entering the presence of the king, but they were now so close with one another that the king no longer had to keep yelling at him to stop doing it before Robert would realize that he could just stop it on his own without having to be told. What understanding they had!
After his thirty seconds of bowing had passed, he stood up as straight as was humanly possible and as he practiced each night before he went to bed. He looked around the impeccably clean chambers. The king was sitting at his table with his back to the windows, leaning so far back in his chair that Robert was positive that a lesser man would have toppled backward, and tossing something dark and spiky up and down in the air over his face. He didn't look up as Robert assumed a respectful stance. And there, leaning against one of the posts of the king's bed, was Merlin. Merlin, who was actually looking at Robert and smiling in that openly friendly expression that he so frequently threw in Robert's direction.
What sort of mind game was the sorcerer playing with him?
Stupid Merlin. There was such a thing as manners. The king should have kept him in exile. It didn't matter about the magic. Why should he care about the magic? Surely the king could have found another reason. Robert certainly could have.
Finally, there stood a knight in front of the table at which the king was sitting, looking as though he was giving a report and hoping very much that the king might look up at him as he spoke.
Robert knew the feeling. As if the king ever did that when he was speaking to anyone! Robert scoffed silently, smug in his knowledge of the workings of the king's mind. And soul. And heart.
The knight glanced at Robert and gave him a cursory nod before turning back to the king. He seemed to be done speaking.
So Robert seized the opportunity and cleared his throat as noisily as he dared.
It took another three throat clearings for anyone to hear him. He assumed that the only reason that the king hadn't noticed and become concerned for his health was because he was so distracted by the noisiness of the other two people in the chambers.
"Did you want something, Robert?" the king asked wearily, actually looking at him.
"Yes, sire," the servant answered, trying his best to conceal his excitement. Judging by the look of general disinterest on the king's face, he succeeded. He waited politely for further prompting. The king finally sat himself up and stared expectantly and not at all angrily at him.
"And what did you want, Robert?"
Ah, the opening that he'd been waiting for.
"I was asked to deliver a note to you, sire," said Robert respectfully. "Very secret. No one was to know of it but you."
The king raised his eyebrows. "Why did they give it to you, then?"
Robert decided that the best course of action was to ignore that comment.
The king evidently discerned more quickly this time that Robert did not intend to provide any more response beyond a continued unblinking gaze. "Who gave you this note?"
Robert straightened his shoulders. "Maggie from the kitchens said she got it from John at the stables who got it from that new apprentice blacksmith at the backup forge who got it from a man on a horse who said that he got it from the guard at the gate who said—"
The king made a vague had gesture that Robert had come to recognize as a sign that he should stop speaking.
"That's strange, Arthur," interjected Merlin, ignoring the gesture that was almost certainly intended for both of them.
The king did not seem to mind. He just nodded, finally looking slightly interested. "Someone is trying to cover his tracks," he said thoughtfully. He looked at Robert again. "What does this note of yours say?"
Robert was aghast. "Sire, I did not open the note! It was expressly addressed to you!"
He saw the king throw a glance that was half reproachful and half bitter at the sorcerer. "See, Merlin? Some manservants know how to respect the privacy of their masters. Some don't spy and read letters that are meant for their king. Robert didn't read my note."
Merlin shrugged. "I regret nothing."
The king suddenly turned back to Robert and looked him up and down. "Wait, can you read?"
Robert was wounded and almost let it show. How could the king not know?
"Yes, sire, I can read."
The king made a sort of "hmmm" sound that made Merlin laugh, not entirely unkindly. "Maybe he just doesn't know how to reseal wax after breaking it and that's why he hasn't read your notes."
Robert allowed the corners of his lips to turn downward. The rogue was trying to take Robert down with him!
The king at least did not seem to believe Merlin's accusation. "Or maybe he's not a secret sorcerer who uses magic to spy on his king's personal correspondences."
He threw the spiky ball at the sorcerer, in a casual lob. Merlin caught it, wincing slightly at the spikes. "Come on, Arthur. You already used the 'secret sorcerer' excuse twice today. Come up with something more original every once in a while or it's going to lose its impact. Keep it up and I won't even feel properly guilty anymore." He threw the ball back at Arthur, who caught it easily, not at all wincing.
"Besides," Merlin continued. "I answered half of your 'correspondences' on your behalf. Don't whine about it, for heaven's sake."
The king just rolled his eyes and leaned backward in his chair once more.
Robert cleared his throat again. Merlin was clearly a bad influence on the king. The king had never been so carefree and unfocused when Robert was the only best friend in his life.
"Yes, Robert?" Arthur asked, his voice tired. Merlin tried and failed to cover a snicker.
Robert held up the cushion that bore the scroll that had indeed been sealed with wax. Not that he had wanted to violate the king's trust and read it anyway. Besides, it was surely only a matter of days before he would be answering the king's letters. Especially now that the king knew that he was literate. "The note, sire?"
Robert heard Merlin snort. "Nice pillow."
The king rightfully ignored Merlin and gestured vaguely at Robert. "Go on and open it. You can read, you said. Read it aloud."
Robert bodily shivered from the level of intimacy that the king—no, Arthur, he thought daringly—was proposing. Take that, Merlin!
But he couldn't do it. Not with the instructions that he'd been given when he'd been entrusted with the scroll. "Sire, the note was meant to be private. For you only. No one else."
Except maybe me, Robert would have added if he hadn't known that Arthur would assumed that it was implied.
Arthur sighed and reached for the ball again. From his position leaning backward in his chair and looking at the ceiling, he had to grope around on his table a few times before he got it. He began to toss it up and down over his face once more. "Fine, I'll hear it alone. Sir Jason, you may go."
Sir Hadrian gave the king a slightly confused and rather wounded look before heading out of the chambers. Robert sympathized. The king did seem rather bad with names. But that first day when he was called "Robert" instead of "Roger" was one of the best that he could remember. So what if the king was generally bad at remembering names? Everyone had to have at least one flaw.
Or maybe two. He'd dismissed Hadrian, but Merlin still stood, leaning casually against Arthur's bedpost, with what Robert could only describe as insolence that might have on another man's face appeared as amusement, in the room, giving no indication that he was planning on going anywhere anytime soon.
Robert cleared his throat yet again, and he saw the king clench his hand tightly around the ball in his hand and take several deep breaths. Robert only hoped that he wouldn't end up with any new hand wounds as a result. The queen seemed rather touchy whenever the king was injured in some sort of preventable incident. But Robert recognized the gesture as the universal sign of annoyance and the desire to throw something at someone.
Merlin must have been really annoying Arthur.
Stupid Merlin. He probably still thought that he was the only manservant capable of befriending the king. How unreasonable! If Merlin could do it, so could Robert. And better. Robert was by far the superior manservant—even the king had expressly stated it so on more than one occasion. So he would have naturally by extension make a far more effective friend.
And someday, Arthur would see it.
To Robert's slight disappointment, Arthur did not throw the ball at Merlin. "What now, Robert?"
"I was told that this note was for only you," Robert answered, enunciating clearly. Arthur had to understand what he was getting at. Or at least, Merlin probably would, and hopefully have some sense of courtesy, take the hint, and leave on his own.
The king suddenly nodded, and relief flooded over Robert. "Oh, of course. I'm sorry, Robert."
The manservant nodded right back at him. Arthur still wasn't looking at Robert, but he was sure that the king would be able to sense how in sync they were.
Then Arthur continued, his words pointed and rather sharp. "Thank you for reminding me that this is meant to be confidential. I had forgotten the meaning of the word."
"Only for you," Robert added helpfully, encouraged by the king's enthusiastic response to his reminder.
"Yes, Arthur. Only for you!" agreed Merlin brightly. The king tossed a glare in the sorcerer's direction. Robert had no idea why, but he would certainly never object to anyone ever glaring at Merlin.
"Right. Robert, you may go. Just…throw it on my bed. I'll get to it later."
Robert was momentarily speechless. That had not been what he was going for. It was as though the king was deliberately trying his patience! But the king would never do something like that, Robert knew. He would have understood and even approved of being sent away if Arthur's intention was to read the note completely alone.
But he really only would have understood and approved if stupid Merlin had been sent away as well.
It was so unfair.
"I was told that I was to watch you take it to make sure that you read it."
That was a lie. But desperate times called for desperate measures.
Merlin was even managing to bring out Robert's amoral side!
"I'm busy," answered the king and tossed the ball up higher than he had in any of his previous tosses, sighing fondly in Robert's direction. If Robert hadn't known him so well, he would have almost thought that the king hadn't deliberately used irritation to disguise his affection. He probably just didn't want to make Merlin jealous. Besides, if the king said that he was busy, he was busy. That ball wasn't going to throw itself up and down in the air. "Give it to Merlin."
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the sorcerer roll his eyes and hold out a hand for the scroll. He looked slightly amused and not at all surprised by the king's direction.
Robert didn't move. "I was told to only deliver it to you."
"Lay it on the table, then. Or is that too close to Merlin? Do you need to measure?" The king didn't so much as bobble the ball as he tossed and caught it over his face, leaning back and not looking at his servant.
The king's ability to focus was so admirable.
Robert slightly raised his voice, hoping that the king would understand via volume how urgent the situation was. "Sire, I was told that it was specifically for your eyes only. I was not even to let you read it within the eyeline of the queen."
If he was going to lie, he might as well lie.
"Oh, for heaven's sake!" exclaimed Arthur. He finally extended a hand toward Robert, who assumed with a pang of sadness that he was reaching for the scroll rather than for Robert's own hand to enjoy a spontaneous moment of fraternal bonding. Robert maintained the composure of a career servant and handed the scroll to the king, resisting the urge to throw a smirk of slight smugness at the sorcerer. This was a triumph. Oh, what a tale it would make to his children some day…
Then the king took the scroll out of Robert's hand and tossed it to Merlin, who caught it automatically. "Read it aloud, Merlin. I'm busy."
Robert completely lost all control and found himself hanging his head. So, he did not see Merlin's face as he spoke.
"Honestly, Arthur, I beginning to think that you're the one who can't read. You learned to sign your name and just stopped there with the whole literacy concept."
"Look, if don't want to read it and would prefer to act like a child, then you can leave right now and give it to Robert to read."
Robert's heart leapt. Was this to be the day when it all changed?
Then Merlin answered. "Well, I didn't say that. It's just that your concept of being busy is a little bit different from mine. And every other adult in the five kingdoms."
"I asked if you wanted to toss the ball back and forth with me!"
"Are you referring to when you proposed that we spend the afternoon with you throwing the broken end of a mace at my head over and over again?"
"I didn't say it like that," Arthur protested half-heartedly. Robert had the impression that they had semi-arguments such as this rather frequently.
"I got the message," answered Merlin, in a bizarrely prim voice.
"Oh, right," said Arthur, suddenly remembering. "Message. Merlin, read the damn note already. Why is this taking so long to work out? You'd think that 'two sides of the same coin' would get things done a lot faster," the king said, taking the time to glare at Merlin, who with an admirable attempt at discretion nodded in Robert's direction. The king rolled his eyes.
"Right. Robert, you may leave. Go polish something," Arthur ordered. Merlin gave a completely unnecessary wave in his direction.
Robert stood as straight as he could manage and laid down the pillow that he had taken such care to find for the king. This was a defeat, but that was okay. He would endure. With a stiffly polite nod that turned into a stiffly polite bow, Robert turned and walked out of the room.
He'd meant to follow the king's order and to go find something to polish. He'd absolutely intended to do as told, as he always did. Besides, there was something cathartic about a good polish.
Then, Merlin spoke.
"Close the door on your way out, please, Robert."
He said it neutrally, no hint of smugness or triumph in his voice. A simple request. But it was too much for Robert. Merlin was not his master. So what if he said please? He took orders from the king.
So Robert exited the room and pulled the door behind him, leaving it open a crack. He crouched down outside of the so slightly ajar wooden door, silent and still.
And he began to do what was possibly the rudest thing that he had ever done.
He began to eavesdrop.
"I have to say, Arthur, I cannot get used to that boy."
"You're just jealous because he's a better manservant," retorted the king, rising gallantly to Robert's defense.
"Yes, Arthur, I definitely miss being your dogsbody. Although I wouldn't mind have a title."
The king snorted. "What, you want to be Sir Merlin? Lord Merlin?"
Robert saw the sorcerer cross his arms over his chest. "Not that kind of title. A job description. They're all calling me the 'court sorcerer.' If that's it, fine. Just make it official, will you? It's been weeks, and everybody else gets a title!"
He heard Arthur snort again. "Court sorcerer? Really? What on earth do I need one of those for? Honestly, Merlin, you'd think that the only reason that I didn't re-exile you was because I wanted your powers. You can be…I don't know, 'official advisor to the king.' Will that do, your highness? I know that it's kind of generic, but I don't really care because I'm the bloody king and if I want to make up generic titles than I damn well will and—"
"You don't want me on your council just because of my magic?" Merlin voice was completely different as he interrupted. Softer. Surprised.
Robert nudged the door open a bit more, and he saw the king shrug, apparently trying to appear nonchalant. "Well, if I ever need a sorceress or two tossed into a fireplace, you'll be the first person that I ask. But you were an advisor to me before I knew about your magic, manservant duties aside. Why should that have necessarily changed just because you can light a room on fire with your mind?"
There was a pause, during which Arthur looked at Merlin and Merlin stared at the ground and Robert hated Merlin for turning this conversation into something poignant and wondered vaguely why Arthur always seemed preoccupied with Merlin's ability to light rooms on fire. Robert needed to learn that trick.
"Do you mean it, though?" Merlin's voice was still soft, but almost embarrassed now.
"Yeah, Merlin. I meant it."
"Although I won't say no if you ever feel like being helpful in matters of magic."
"So, 'official advisor to the king?'" asked Arthur lightly, and rather teasingly.
"I suppose that it will have to do," answered Merlin, and he began to fumble with the wax seal of the scroll. Finally, thought Robert.
Then Arthur's voice stopped Merlin. "Oh, and Merlin?"
Robert jumped and almost fell over as he heard Merlin start to laugh. He laughed for more than a few moments—and heartily!—and when Robert looked at Arthur to see the disapproval, he was surprised to see a rather self-pleased smile on his face.
After half a minute or so, Merlin was able to speak, his face rather red. "What did you get me this year, Arthur, another holiday down in the dungeons?"
Arthur shrugged. "Why the hell not? Judging by your last experience, you'll have more comforts in your cell by the end of the day than I have in my own rooms."
"It's okay. Bad things seem to happen whenever you try to give me a birthday present."
"I did get you something, Merlin. It's called forgiveness."
"Is that so? Because it really just sounds like you forgot my birthday until just now."
"I did not."
"How old am I?"
To Arthur's credit, he did not appear to bother to try to even try to remember Merlin's age. From the expression on his face, Robert could tell that Arthur was just trying to find a way to gracefully get out of providing an answer.
Unfortunately, his skills of graceful improvisation seemed to fail him. "Shut up, Merlin."
"Unbelievable! I know what time you were born, and I don't think that even you know that. And you don't want to know how I found that out." Robert heard a crinkling of paper that meant that Merlin was finally getting around to opening the scroll that Robert had taken such pains to deliver. "I may have only been your servant, but I was your servant for six years. That means that I had six of them. Thanks so much for caring, Arth—"
Merlin stopped speaking very suddenly, and Robert dared to lean a few inches further past the crack in the door. He was just in time to see Merlin sit down very hard onto the king's bed, the post of which he had still been leaning against, and stare at the unrolled scroll in his hands. He had gone very pale very quickly.
The king apparently noticed Merlin's broken sentence and looked up from where he was still tilted back in his chair, the spiked ball of the broken mace clutched in his hand, already prepared to be tossed back into the air.
Then, the king saw the look on Merlin's face. He immediately sat forward, a loud clunk echoing through his suddenly silent chambers as he looked at Merlin. His face almost looked frightened, and even Robert, from his place uncomfortably crouched in the corridor, could detect the tension that had so suddenly filled the room.
"Merlin?" Arthur's voice was very quiet and very steady. Cautious. "What is it?"
Merlin didn't answer. He was still looking down at the note. Robert would have bet just about anything other than his job that he hadn't even heard Arthur speaking. Arthur had to repeat himself several more times before Merlin looked up, eyes blue and hollow.
"Merlin, what the hell happened?"
Merlin shook his head back and forth a few times, looking as though he was trying to rouse himself enough to be able to find words once more. Finally, he held up the curled parchment addressed to Arthur and spoke to the king.
"Arthur? We have to go," he said, just as quietly as Arthur. There was no denying that he was serious, deadly serious, his jests about his birthday forgotten in the face of whatever was written down in that note.
Arthur sat very still in his chair, his frame stiff. "Why? What's happened? Merlin?"
Merlin shoved himself up off of his seat on Arthur's bed, all elbows and knees, where he had fallen after reading whatever had been on that parchment that had so alarmed him, and wobbled his way over to where Arthur sat at his table. Without saying another word, he handed the note to the king and leant forward onto the tabletop, forearms pressing parallel into the wood so ornately carved with Arthur's initials in the king's own hand, and looked intently at the king's face as he took up the scroll.
It took the king only a moment to read the message, and there was fear spreading across his features as he looked up and met Merlin's gaze. Robert had the feeling that he could have run into the room and begun turning cartwheels whilst singing, and neither of the men would have noticed just then.
"No one can know," said Arthur.
Merlin nodded and stood up tall, beginning to pace in front of the table. "Arthur, does this mean what I think this means?"
Arthur stood as well. "Yeah. Merlin, go and get whatever stuff you need and whatever supplies you can sneak. Call no attention to yourself. We need to be far away before anyone realizes that we're gone and has time to send anyone after us. I'll get some horses sorted. Go now."
Merlin stopped pacing, but did not turn to obey the king's order. "Arthur, can this be done?"
Arthur ran his hands through his golden hair. "I don't know, Merlin. I just…"
The king's voice trailed off. Merlin did not speak for a few moments, clearly unsure whether Arthur had more to say.
"What is it, Arthur?"
Arthur bit his lip and looked Merlin almost beseechingly, his eyes suddenly even more hollow than had been Merlin's. He looked so very young. "I hope to whatever gods that there are out there that Guinevere is pregnant."
A good few minutes before Robert was able to, Merlin absorbed this, absorbed what Arthur was saying about what would happen if they did what they were apparently planning on doing, and stood up very straight. He had known what Arthur wasn't saying about what their odds were for coming back.
Merlin shook his head almost immediately. He looked Arthur square in the eye and shrugged, and there was no doubt in Robert's mind that, whatever the risks involved in whatever it was that they were off to do, it didn't matter. Merlin was going with Arthur.
But not optimistically.
"Me too, Arthur."
Finally, Merlin moved to exit the chambers, and Robert scampered away as quickly as he could, his limbs stiff from his prolonged crouching. It seemed very important somehow that they not know that he was eavesdropping, more important than he could have imagined. There was the familiar creaking sounds as the heavy door opened and, just before he rounded the corner, he heard Merlin say just one more thing before he was completely out of earshot.
"And Arthur? Forget about the horses. I think that it's about time that you learned what it's like to ride a dragon."
Then, Robert heard no more.
And he wondered if something big about to begin.
Thank you for reading! There's a sequel of sorts coming up--pre-written. It's more of a bridge between THIS long fanfic and the next one, so I hope that there will be some readers for "When Magic Meets Strength." :)