It is really rather sweet, the way Lancelot positions himself in front of Guinevere, sword at the ready, as if he actually believes he can protect her, even now—but, then, the man has always been a little naïve, hasn’t he? For all his worldly experiences, for all his sins, he is still the same idealistic young fool that stumbled into Camelot all those years before, armed with naught but an unwavering dream and a misguided sense of honor. Merlin’s lips quirk, but there is no humor in his smile when he steps out of the concealing shadows with a wry chuckle: “You truly are the Queen’s Knight, aren’t you?” Merlin says placidly, enjoying the way Lancelot flinches under his sharp gaze, the way Guinevere peers around her lover’s shoulder, uneasy and delicate in the flicking firelight.
Shame swells thick and palpable in the air, every bit as suffocating as the smoke billowing forth—and far more damning. For a moment, Lancelot wavers, sword dropping a fraction, and the raging anger—the thirst for vengeance—consuming Merlin from the inside out banks, just a little, to be replaced by something softer, sadder—more fragile. Just days before, he had grasped this man’s hands and hailed him friend. Just days before, he had bowed to this woman with fond devotion, seeing in her all that was good in this world. How had they come to this?
“Merlin…” Guinevere whispers tearfully, pleadingly, and dares to rest her head intimately against Lancelot’s shoulder. The memory of his king—his beautiful, noble, trusting Arthur—weeping in silent agony on the floor of his chambers, brought his knees by love’s betrayal, rises unbidden. His own heart throbs, even as his rage flares anew, echoed in the sudden spiting of the campfire, angry and hot. The fallen queen, the plotting Delilah, the harlot stumbles back with a terrified yelp as sparks lick at the ground near her feet with menacing intent. She reacts too late, the hem of her pretty skirts alight.
Fitting, Merlin thinks, that she should burn like the traitorous snake she is. But, no—there had been a pier waiting for her in Camelot, too. She would have burned, had Arthur wished it. Merlin will not contradict his king’s mercy, even if he feels it is undeserved.
He permits the fire to be doused by Lancelot’s frantic scrambling and indulges in a moment of bitter pleasure as he takes in the sound of gasping sobs and uneven breathes and the sight of the two singed wretches on the ground at his feet. They both sport numerous burns, but his training under Gaius all those years ago was not entirely useless. A cursory scan of their injuries assures him that his fit of temper has caused only very minor damage. Probably they will not even scar.
Lancelot’s grip on his sword when Merlin approaches this time is firmer, more certain.
“You’ll protect her to the last.”
“I will do what I must,” Lancelot says firmly, rising cautiously to his feet. This time he blocks his mistress entirely from view. Merlin can still hear her sobbing. “For love, I will do anything. I have long counted you as a friend and I have no desire to hurt you—”
“And did you not love Arthur?” Merlin spits. “Did you not count him as a friend? What thought did you have for him when you took his wife to your bed? Did you think this would not hurt him? Did you think this would not break him?”
He should have been more vigilant. He had been a fool not to see what had been going on. In hindsight, it was all too obvious: the furtive glances, the blushes, the friendly excursions into the countryside. Were they anyone else, Merlin would have known in an instant—but he had put his faith in Lancelot’s loyalty, had counted on Gwen’s tenderness to make Arthur happy where he could not, and so he had been incautious. Always had he been sure, so sure, that their mutual love for Arthur would be enough to keep them in line. Perhaps Lancelot was not the only one who was naïve.
“But we do love him!” Guinevere cries. She has somehow managed to stagger to her feet and is trying to make her way toward him, but Lancelot blocks her path, drawing her back into a protective embrace. He does not lower his sword arm, not for a second. She reaches her hand out beseechingly. “We will always love him—but this thing between us, between Lancelot and me… It’s… We tried to fight it, really, we did! I never wanted to cause Arthur pain…”
“Bang-up job you’ve done of that.”
“Merlin, please! You must understand…!”
Feeling quite suddenly tired, Merlin falls back, landing on the throne of coiled branches and winding ivy that rises up to meet him with a sigh. “I understand,” Merlin said. “I understand a great many things.” And he does. Love is a burden he has long been familiar with, weighing on his shoulders with all the force of destiny. To deny love, is to deny self—but sometimes self-sacrifice is necessary. Merlin has sacrificed too much to see all laid to waste now. They should have known better. They all should have known better.
“What I don’t understand,” he continues lowly, the leaves under his white-knuckled hands blackening with frost—with the muted force of his cold fury, “is how you could have mistook my meaning when I warned you both all those years ago, when you, Gwen—” the nickname tastes sour on his tongue, because his friend Gwen is dead “—married your prince, and you, Lancelot—” his fingers clench, and the branches under his fingers sprout thorns, tearing viciously into soft flesh “—pledged yourself to a king who bestowed upon you more honor than anyone of peasant upbringing could rightfully expect. I—I—warned you to keep him safe, not to fail him. Love him as I love him, I said. Be loyal, be true. Because I have pledged myself to protect Arthur, at any cost. But—you—weren’t—listening.”
When he looks up his eyes are glowing, inhuman, gold.
Merlin rouses to the sensation of fingers brushing affectionately down the curve of his cheek. He doesn’t have to open his eyes to know who has dared to violate the sanctity of the Lord High Magician’s private chambers at such an unholy hour. He would know that touch, calloused and rough, anywhere. “Arthur?” he rasps thickly, wincing at the grating scratchiness of his throat. He feels like he’s been screaming for days—or as though someone has been rubbing at the sensitive tissue of his larynx with one of those abrasive tools carpenters like to use for polishing wood.
The hand on his face vanishes and when Merlin manages to open his eyes, there is a glass of water on offer and then Arthur is bracing him up against the pillows and helping him to drink. It says quite a lot about Merlin’s current state that he doesn’t even put up a token protest about being manhandled like a helpless child, but he doesn’t want to think about that.
When Merlin has had his fill of water, Arthur sets the glass aside without a word and leans back against the pillows beside Merlin with a weary huff. “You are as hopeless as ever, I see,” Arthur mutters, tilting his head back to stare at the ceiling. Even through the dim gloom, Merlin can make out the darkened bruises under his friend’s eyes, the frown-lines along his mouth, and he regrets having made him worry—not that he could have done anything else. “Any village idiot could figure out that when the king sends a servant to see to his health and comfort, he shouldn’t send the poor creature away in tears.”
Merlin flinches with a twinge of guilt, which Arthur must notice, because those familiar fingers are petting his hair and dark eyes are peering at him with something like exasperation. “Is she…”
“The girl is fine,” Arthur states, “if embarrassed—a hair-curling curse, Merlin? Really? If you’re going to start threatening the staff, couldn’t you think of something better than that? Even a back-country hag could manage a decent toad or enchanted sleep or something vaguely intimidating. The other sorcerers are laughing at you.”
“I was tired,” Merlin says defensively, “and I didn’t want to hurt her.”
“You were tired,” Arthur repeats sardonically. “Yes. And that’s why you ignored my request that you retire for the night, exiled the girl meant to help you, and continued your research for a few more hours, until your inevitable collapse. I appreciate that you are concerned for Gwen and Lancelot, but their conditions are perfectly stable and they will certainly suffer no ill effects should you steal a few hours for a proper night’s sleep!”
Merlin blinks. “Collapse?”
“Yes, you fool, collapse. I found you on the floor when I came to check on you.”
Arthur tugged Merlin’s hair pointedly. “Do you remember climbing into bed?”
“Well—” Actually, no. Merlin flushes. How embarrassing! But, still, he’d had things to do, important things, that he couldn’t leave unfinished, or it all would have unraveled… Searchingly, he calls forth his memories and is relieved to recall having finished his work before his…humiliating retirement. “Oh.”
“Oh,” Arthur snorts. “Just…don’t scare me like that again, yeah?”
Merlin nods—and leans his head against Arthur’s shoulder. “I’m sorry.” Arthur sighs again and tilts his own head to rest against Merlin’s. Forgiveness granted. “So why haven’t you gone to bed yet yourself?” It is late, just a few hours before dawn. “I’m surprised you haven’t crawled into bed with—” not Gwen, Gwen is dead “—your wife, who probably needs you right now. This all must be very confusing for her—for she and Lancelot both—waking up without any memory of the past few years…”
“Yes,” Arthur says after a long moment, “very confusing I’m sure, but the physician is checking on her incessantly and I—”
Merlin frowns. Could Arthur possibly suspect…? He had been very careful to leave no trace of memory or evidence of Guinevere and Lancelot’s fall into disgrace, but if anyone could possibly be immune to his magic, it would be Arthur. Manipulating friends, family, or even the entirety of Albion’s people is something that doesn’t even phase him any more when the situation demands it. Arthur, on the other hand—something in him resists the necessity every time. He once promised to never lie to Arthur and he hates himself a little for going back on his oath. A lie is a lie even when it is contrived for the benefit of king and country.
“You…?” he prompts cautiously.
“I just…don’t feel like seeing her at the moment. I—I…” The words trail off with a painful edge, bordering on a sob, and Merlin reaches down to take his friend’s hands, squeezing gently. Worry gnaws at him, heavy and oppressive. “Gods, Merlin!” Arthur bursts out violently. “When I first saw her, saw them both, all burned and bruised and terribly confused, I was glad! Some small part of me took pleasure in their pain and I—I don’t even know why! I am a terrible person, a terrible friend, a terrible husband! How could I…”
Half-laughing, half-crying, Arthur allows Merlin to pull him into his arms without resistance. Desperate fingers dig into his hips—there will be bruises tomorrow—and already he can sense the dampness of his hair. Under other circumstances, Merlin might have made a wisecrack about getting snot in his hair, but really that’s the least of his concerns and this is no time for sarcasm. “Arthur,” he says, rubbing his friend’s back up-and-down like Hunith had once done for him, when he was nothing but a scrawny boy with few friends and too-many secrets. “Arthur,” he repeats again-and-again. “Arthur.”
“Have you had any luck?” Arthur asks some while later, when they are both calm again, and teasing the edge of sleep. Merlin hums, fingers tickling the back of Arthur’s neck as they always do when Arthur rests with him like this: head pillowed against his chest, a welcome weight over Merlin’s heart. “With finding the sorcerer that erased their memories, I mean?”
Merlin is quiet.
“I see,” Arthur says, and does not ask again.
They drift to sleep in the comfort of shared warmth, in the blanket of perfect love and perfect trust. Merlin will never be everything Arthur needs—will never share with him the delight of conjugal intimacy, will never stand beside him in a battle of sword and spear, will never kiss him or love him as he does in his dreams. But he can be the shoulder Arthur leans on, the hand that guides him, and the arms that carry him when it all seems too much. He can be the shadow that protects him—from all that may do him harm.
Maybe Arthur would not thank him, should he ever learn of the romance—the treason—Merlin had erased, but for his love, his liege, his lord, he would do far more than that: he would topple the world.