Standing vigil at somebody's bedside, Arthur decided, should never feel this wearyingly familiar. He'd held it for his father many times before the last, long year; for brave men who'd done their duty to Camelot and to Arthur; for Merlin, like now, as often as Merlin had done for him.
Except this time was different: Merlin was quiet, unmoving, nearly as pale as the clean linen on which he lay. Merlin usually sweated and struggled and, once, screamed himself hoarse when he was brought low by the assorted poisons, curses, and vicious creatures regularly sent Arthur's way. Between the two of them, Arthur was the one who suffered silently, determined to show his father that he was strong. Though it was remarkable how Merlin's presence could inspire noisome complaints from him when they were alone - such things must be contagious.
"All these years you've whined to me when you so much as stubbed your toe," Arthur muttered. The crackle in his voice told of long hours of disuse. "Don't tell me you're going to slip out now without so much as a parting remark." A pause. "I forbid it. I'll tell everyone about how you stole all those dresses on the laundry line and draped them over the Mercian delegation's horses."
"If I remember correctly," said someone from the door. Arthur didn't bother turning; her voice was unmistakable, and in any case, there was only one person whose steps were so quiet, and whom the guards would admit into Arthur's presence without question. "It was you, all along, but you got him drunk the night before and convinced him that he was the one who'd done it."
Arthur chuckled. "I watched him scurrying around the citadel all day, avoiding my father and trying not to look guilty."
A warm hand came to rest on his shoulder. "You were quite awful to him, at first," said Gwen fondly.
It was difficult, all of a sudden, to take the next breath. "Still am," he whispered.
A coward's confession. But Gwen, dearest Gwen, who knew how to take a person's heart into her very capable hands and keep it safe, merely said, "At least now he knows that you care."
"Does he?" The uncertainty in his voice did not at all belong to a King. But, he reasoned, every person in this room had seen him at his worst a dozen times over.
"You could be a little clearer about it," said Gwen gently, "But yes, of course he does." He closed his eyes. Thought about how he loved Gwen, truly, and likely always would. She squeezed his shoulder, then pulled away. He followed the light tread of her soft shoes, the swish of her skirt, back across the room. The door opened quietly.
"He didn't leave Camelot," said Gwen, as if in an afterthought, "He could have, easily, but he didn't. He was waiting, Arthur."
There is a legend, in the old country, that says:
The world is a dragon’s dream.