Gaius sits on the bench of his master's study, eyes raking across the patterns and runes of the book resting on his knees. It's way over his head, but even just thinking about magic excites him, so he wants to know what to strive for.
His master calls up to Gaius, "Come down, boy! His Majesty is here!" and Gaius trips as he rushes to put the book on the table and tumbles down the stairs. He's never seen royalty before and the thought of it makes his limbs heavy and his head slow.
He hears the young king chuckle -- breathy, arrogant -- and though Gaius wants to crawl back up the stairs, he forces the anxiety down into his gut as he stands, head bowed.
"Your Majesty, this is Gaius, my new assistant. Feel free to call on him if you've need of anything."
"Of course," says Uther, and the voice is smooth and confident. Gaius dares to look up and accidentally makes eye contact; it jolts him, shakes his nerves and he forces his head back down. Uther's face is angled and strong, and something about it and the way his dark eyes poured over him made his cheeks flush.
"It's an honor to meet you, Sire." Minding his manners, he gives a full bow and finally the attention is lifted from him. He hopes he might get to see the king again.
When Uther is rushed in leaning on the shoulder of one of his knights, Gaius's first fear is that he won't be able to find his master in time to help. It turns out, however, the physician isn't needed. The king is set on the bench and the knight barely gives an explanation before he's off again.
"It seems one of the nobles has something against my charming face," says the king, pointing to a gash on his jaw. Gaius's hands clench at his sides, and he digs his nails into his palm to try and soothe the anxiety in his stomach.
"Gaius, was it?" the king says when Gaius hasn't moved. "Think you can do a little healing spell?"
"Yes, Sire, I believe so," Gaius breathes with a thoughtful frown. He sets his hands to work, hoping the herbs he chooses are the right ones as he fills the poultice and lights a bundle of sage. When he chants the spell, he feels the magic surge through him. He knows he did it right.
"It should be healed by the morning, Your Highness," Gaius says with no small trace of satisfaction. As he dresses the remaining wound, he can feel Uther staring.
"Remarkable," he says, and his lips slip into a crooked smirk, one that Gaius thinks is actually rather charming. He hopes to please the king again.
"Is it just you, Gaius?"
Uther's voice. Gaius looks up from his phials and affords the king a small, warm smile before turning back to his work.
"I didn't hear you come in, Your Majesty," he says.
"I'm looking for the physician today, I'm afraid." He steps up behind Gaius and puts a hand -- large, warm, firm -- on Gaius's shoulder. "I've a quest, and I'm in need of his advice.” As he speaks, his hand trails down and stops to rest on the small of Gaius’s back.
His cheeks flush, but the attention pleases him. "Perhaps I can assist, Sire?" he offers, his stomach brimming with nerves and his will filled with resolve.
"Perhaps," Uther says. He reaches out and stills Gaius's hands on his work. "Maybe in another way."
Gaius's instinct is to pretend he doesn't understand the implications, but as Uther's hand slips around to Gaius's side, he finds he can't even speak, let alone deny it.
He manages croak out a small, "Perhaps," with a shy smile and a creeping blush. Uther turns to leave without another word. Perhaps he should be more cautious, but Gaius feels a strange fondness and loyalty for the man who laughed at him the first time they met.
Uther's bed is soft under Gaius's back. He hasn't slept on it, but he's lain in it enough times to know the way the fur feels on bare skin, or how the plush of the mattress curves around him, gives into their shared weight; he knows by now how the heat lingers, even without the blankets, and even when their bodies go from hot to cold as they come down together and their sweat evaporates into the air.
He's draped over Uther's bare chest now, eyes closed and breathing ragged, and he tries not to think about how long this might go on. It's passionate and irrational, hardly safe or reliable, but it feels as comfortable as using magic and he knows he doesn’t want it to end.
Gaius squats by the fire pit and ignites the wood with a single outstretched hand, his palm immediately rewarded with the heat of the fire. He feels a hand on his shoulder and knows it to be Uther's even before glancing up and meeting his proud eyes with a warm smile.
The king likes it when Gaius is useful. He likes it when Gaius's magic gives the knights an edge in battle, when his incantations brush aside the prickly bushes, or when his lights dazzle and entertain Uther's otherwise rowdy men. What Gaius likes in all of it is the pleasure in Uther's eyes; he likes to feel like the king notices him, has use for him, needs him, wants him, and he knows as long as he keeps up his studies, as long as he practices his magic and his medicine, he'll have a place at Uther's side.
Reading about the benefits of sticklewort isn't enough to distract Gaius. It's been almost a week since the king called on him, and even the last time had been a relief after the days Gaius spent waiting.
"I asked you to clean the leech tank," his master says; it's not quite the distraction Gaius cares for. He's about to try and find work elsewhere, in the library perhaps, or gathering herbs, but the knock on the door punctuated by the king's manservant stepping in interrupts his thoughts. Hope lifts his spirits.
"His Majesty requests your master's presence," he says, and Gaius feels completely useless. Peripheral. Unnecessary.
"He won't be needing me, then?" Gaius asks as the two are already on their way out the door.
"It would seem not," says the servant, and Gaius shrinks back wondering where he went wrong.
When Gaius first sees the young woman with a halo of golden braids, he already knows who she is. Her name is Ygraine, and her hands are much smaller than his, her smile brighter, her skin clearer, and her lineage more noble.
He wants to hate her.
But there's something so genuine, so warm, in the way she rushes up to him and takes his hands in hers. And when she says to him, "Uther's told me so much about you," he knows already she'll make a wonderful queen.
Uther is positively gloating behind her, proud, excited, a way Gaius has never seen and would never erase.
"I'm afraid I've heard little about you," Gaius says, and he doesn't even have to force a smile. She is lovely, and he loves her already.
It occurs to him as he leads Ygraine to have a seat and prepares her tea how truly he loves Uther.
When Uther's brought to the physician's chambers, blood pouring from a gash over his right eye, Gaius doesn't care what Uther wants; he readies the poultice and the sage to heal him as he had before. He moves without thinking, steady and calm and doing his best not to fall apart. This new war against magic is maddening and stupid and Uther is so full of so many regrets, and he will not let Uther suffer.
But Uther grabs his wrist. He jerks the poultice away, yanks it out of Gaius's hand and throws it on the floor.
"What do you think you're doing, Physician?"
The words leave Uther's mouth in a hiss of distaste, and Gaius is too tired from this battle to feel shaken. Even just staying at Uther's side through this war has been against his better judgment – he should be on the side of the sorcerers, the mothers and children dying in the name of a foolish man making stubborn, hateful choices in grief.
But he loves Uther and he cannot leave him, even know.
So he purses his lips, raises his eyebrow, and he lets Uther call the shots with a casual, "Very well, Sire."
He treats the wound without magic knowing it will scar.
The comforts of Uther's bed feel foreign to Gaius; he finds the caress of the fur on his skin gives him goosebumps, and the sheer decadence of the plush mattress turns his stomach. But there’s a kind of solace in their old habits.
Many years have passed, and with many of the people they've both loved long-since gone (execution, desertion, fleeting for their lives) there is no one left for either of them to touch. Sometimes, Gaius can convince himself to feel as naïve as he had been when it first started.
But not tonight.
"You always have been a good friend, Gaius," Uther says as he crosses the room, pulling his tunic over his bare chest. "A trusted ally, with your knowledge of magic. It has always been a benefit to me." Still naked and hot, it makes the young man who feels much too old for his age sick with shame. "I hope it will continue to do so," Uther goes on, as if he's testing him, as if having gone this far he might turn back.
"Of course, Sire," says Gaius. It’s the moment he stops caring to find out what it’s like to stay the whole night.
Neither of them are young anymore. Gaius doesn't think he'll ever understand why Uther is in such denial about that. They've both grown crow's feet at the corners of their eyes, and the color of Gaius's hair is fading while Uther grays at the sides.
Uther's son is old enough to start looking at girls in a different way.
Gaius thinks at some point Uther will stop coming to him like this.
But he persists. And he’s here now, as old and fat as they've both become, in Gaius's chambers with his hands on his waist. He whispers in his ear,
"It's time for a break."
"I can't," Gaius snaps before he even thinks about it, and he's too tired to make any disrespect right. He’s too old, too jaded, too angry at Uther for making this his life. Turning to look Uther in the eye, he searches for the first excuse he can find.
"I'm to finish this before dusk,” he says as Uther takes a step back, wearing a frown of his own. Gaius knows he’s not used to rejection. “And I've no assistant to help me." He feels his own brow rising high, and he's almost disappointed that Uther doesn’t try to argue -- except for how irritated he is that they're even having this conversation.
"Perhaps after," Uther presses. Gaius thinls maybe Uther can read the bigger conversation in this, about whether or not they’ll carry on at all.
"It won't do," Gaius says. It doesn’t comes as much of a relief to say. After all this time, he thought standing up to Uther might bring him peace of mind, but he just feels as emotionally arrested as ever before.
"I'm to be up before daybreak if I want to gather the herbs I need."
Uther falls back, and a small, bitter part of Gaius hopes Uther feels that unrest, too, even while another part of him longs to tell him it’s alright, Ygraine loved you, I love you, Arthur will grow up just fine.
"I see," is all Uther says, and it's the last thing either of them ever says on the subject.
Gaius walks the castle halls, restless and impatient, and unsure what to do with himself now that the concept of free time has been reintroduced to his day. Merlin is a bit of a handful, but for all the grief, he's well worth his keep.
Still, his presence is the erasure of a long-held excuse and he can't help but feel a little on-edge whenever he's around Uther.
Perhaps now is the time, he thinks, tucking a hand into his pocket, thumb roving over the cork for the small jar there. He knocks on the council hall, enters when he hears Uther's voice, and he stands heavy and awkward in the threshold, eyes down, lips pursed tight.
"Yes, Gaius? What is it?"
Gaius can hear the remnants of what was once intimacy, though he doubts anyone else would notice it.
"I prepared a tincture," he says, removing the concoction as he steps forward to place it on the table. "A new solution, if you will. It will relax your muscles."
"Ah." Uther rises and walks across the table to lift the bottle. Gaius wants to do something: move closer, maybe. But he's too old and too jaded to think about things like touching Uther's face or pulling him into an embrace. That hasn't been them for a long time.
"For my battle wound," Uther concludes, and he gives Gaius a smile.
"Yes, Sire." Gaius's return smile is tight and awkward, barely present.
"Thank you. I will use it tonight." He holds it in his palm and points a finger at Gaius. "You are a true friend," he says, and Gaius's smile does turn warm – perhaps it's relief.
"It's an honor to serve you, Sire," he says with a bow, and finally he feels comfortable again. He hopes to bring the tincture again tomorrow, and every night thereafter.