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The Heartmaker's Apprentice

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The best way to mend a broken heart was to replace it.

Uther Pendragon had his heart broken and so that's what he did.

It had shattered completely, jagged edges tearing up his insides so thoroughly, that blood swelled and poured out of his mouth whenever he thought of his beloved wife. Each time the pieces tried to pump love they cut and pained him, an excruciating debilitating force that the only cure seemed to remove the fragments altogether. Reluctant though he was, Uther agreed that it was the sensible measure to take and ordered a replacement heart for the gaping hole in his chest.

Gaius took his time choosing materials. A heart was a complicated thing: the interlocking pieces that moved, the casing that kept them neat and tidy, the wires and clips for attachment. It was important that it would be suited to the wearer, for its purposes, with longevity. Crafting it by hand was the method Gaius preferred. People had developed various contraptions to assemble a heart, claiming that a person's touch could taint its purity, that a mere eyelash could change the beats. Well, Gaius had been studying hearts all his life and wasn't going to let untested theories affect his methods.

The completed heart was colder than Gaius would have liked--just the right temperature in Uther's opinion. They had the fitting on a Tuesday, spent the morning picking out as many of the slivers as possible before taking the afternoon to fit and lock it into place. Closing his chest, Uther thanked Gaius for his hard work, paid the sum, and went home to his son.

*

Arthur Pendragon fancied himself to be in love for the first time.

It started with a single strand of long blond hair wrapping around his heart, multiplying and twisting into knots and plaits. Uther had permitted it initially because Sophia appeared to be a suitable match; with her delicate features and polite demeanour there was nothing he found objectionable and Uther considered her to be a worthy of his son.

There is changing for the one you love and there is becoming so consumed by them that you become someone else. When Arthur seemed to lose the ration and restraint that he had been so carefully taught, Uther knew that there was something amiss and ordered Gaius to investigate the matter of Arthur's heart. Considering that it would require Arthur's cooperation, gaining permission to view the most private part of his person was difficult and in the end a short drowning in a lake was all that was needed.

Upon inspection it was found that Arthur's heart was wrapped in hair, the knots and plaits becoming rope that encased his heart so tight it squeezed it out of shape constricting the beats. Fortunately Arthur’s heart was yet to break. Bruised but intact. Gaius cut and picked out each strand of hair, removing all traces of Sophia so Arthur would never remember.

*

It seemed that Arthur was careful with his heart. He fell in and out of love with mere scuff marks and dents. Perhaps it was made of sterner stuff or maybe it was all of the enchantments.

To find that a heart could be easily swayed by the force of magic disturbed Uther immensely and for Arthur to be the target so many times infuriated him. Measures had to be taken, the best solution to a problem would be prevention, and so Uther decreed that for Arthur's heart to remain unbroken it should be replaced. He ordered Gaius to make a heart because an artificial heart couldn't hurt as much as a real one, could be easily replaced if there was a hint that affections were swayed by manipulation.

*

It wasn't uncommon to have a handmade heart made after a break but it was unusual to have it before one.

Arthur listened to Uther's reasons, how switching hearts would be better for him, protect him from harm and enable him to see with clarity with his emotions tampered. He agreed because it was his father's wishes and Arthur had no persuading objection though the procedure unsettled him.

It was a comfort that Gaius would be the one to handle matters. Had it been anyone else, Arthur would not have been able to make his one request.

“Your heart?”

“I wish to keep it.”

It would not be within his chest but Arthur wanted to have it within his possession in any case. Sometimes people form attachments to organs that they grow themselves. Gaius, being a dutiful servant, kept Arthur’s interest hidden from his father for who knew how he would react to Arthur’s blatant sentimentality.

When it was all done, Arthur had a metal heart ticking and his organic heart preserved in a jar of glass.

*

Arthur’s replacement heart struggled with emotions, in that affection ran through its intricate interlocking parts instead of getting caught between them. It was cold and it made Arthur the same. When he would laugh it was cruel, when he would share it was forced, when he would share it was to take a larger proportion.

It would not be long before it was replaced.

The Lady Vivian was a beautiful woman so it was no surprise when Arthur fell in love. They would have had beautiful blond children that played in a beautiful garden but it was not to be as Vivian’s father, Olaf, had a lock on her heart and was the keeper of the key. So deep were Arthur’s affections and so distasteful did Olaf find him that for the best of all involved Arthur had his heart replaced once more.

*

As the Heartmaker, Gaius had a store of crafted hearts. He had even made his own, opened up his chest and took out a heart failed by a lost love. Though his heart was that of a young man’s, it did not change the fact that his body was not. It was an eventuality that he would need an apprentice to help him in his work and that was what Merlin was for.

It was becoming difficult to collect materials and carry out the lengthy preparation process so it was fortunate that Merlin was an almost diligent pupil that only got distracted a third of the time.

*

The years went by and Arthur’s heart broke four more times.

Morgana’s betrayal hurt both him and his father. The damage was greater for Uther so while Gaius tried his best to patch up the shreds of his insides, Merlin was left to tend to Arthur’s heart.

“Are you sure you know what you’re doing?”

“Absolutely…” Merlin inspected Arthur’s replacement heart, turned it over in his hands to check for any flaws. “Not.”

“Don’t even joke about that. You have my actual life-depending internal organ in the palm of your hands.”

Arthur found his eyes following Merlin’s fingers as they traced over the interlocking parts, diligently searching for any imperfections: dents, loose hinges and the like.

“Hmm, looks fine to me. Are you ready?”

If he were honest, Arthur would have answered in the negative; heart replacements were now being associated with bad times and he couldn’t help the uneasiness of having himself exposed. He wondered what the twisted dagger that Morgana had so expertly thrust into his heart would look like. What would Merlin think of it?

But Arthur was not being honest.

“Of course.”

Merlin had him lay down on the bed, gave him a tonic, and opened up Arthur’s chest.

“Gaius told me you’ve had this done before,” Merlin attempted some kind of casual tone as he made the first touch inside.

“A couple of times.”

Arthur closed his eyes and tried to feel what what Merlin was doing. Merlin had one hand on his arm while the other carefully inched around, feeling for the dislodged parts.

There were three main pieces and seven smaller ones. Arthur counted them. It was all he could do. Soon enough it was time for his replacement heart. Arthur felt the emptiness and there was only Merlin’s touch to remind him that it would not last forever.

The clips were in and Arthur could breathe once again.

“Done.” Arthur opened his eyes just in time to see Merlin smile.

He supposed that the tonic wore off as he felt his first heart beat.

*

Gaius had done his best. He was the Heartmaker who could only make hearts. There was only so much he could do for Uther when it wasn’t his heart that was broken.

His father died despite all their efforts. Arthur spent his time alone considering what to do next. There were people who needed him and he knew the loss could overwhelm him. He admired his father, wanted to be the son that would make him proud. How would he know now if his father was gone?

On the new day he found Merlin waiting.

“I thought you might, maybe, need a replacement.”

He wasn’t quite broken but Arthur wanted it just the same.

*

The heart Merlin gave him was beautiful, had it not been in his chest he would have displayed it, the decorative piece it was. Silver with gold, engravings all around, it shone bright and Arthur was sure it would hold love well. With it, he fell in love with Guinevere and was joyed to find she loved him too.

Arthur was not to know that there was a fleck, a kernel, a significant portion of Guinevere’s heart that loved another. Rationally he knew that it could not be helped, no matter how much he loved her, it could not erase the history of a heart. The part of her that loved Lancelot grew and slowly overcame the part that loved Arthur.

He could see how pained she was to have herself torn in two and it would have been cruel to ask her to have her heart replaced. Still, it hurt. The petty part of him wanted to hurt her, so she could understand the helplessness he felt. There was nothing he could say that would change the way things were.

Arthur requested Merlin prepare a heart for him. Merlin pleaded, tried to reason that Guinevere’s heart would sway back in Arthur’s favour if he just gave her a chance.

Arthur made his request an order.

*

Enough time passed for Gaius to retire as Heartmaker. His hands were no longer steady and he had neither the strength for the construction nor the eyesight for the detail work. Merlin took on the role and all the broken hearts kept him busy.

After Guinevere, Arthur was cautious with his heart; there was Elena and Mithian and they were wonderful--truly they were--yet Arthur’s heart wasn’t enamoured in the way he wanted to be.

“You did something, didn’t you?” Arthur had to question because there was no other reason that plausibly came to mind.

“I didn’t do anything.” Merlin laughed, clearly amused by Arthur’s assumptions. “You’ve got a regular heart.”

It was odd. Arthur felt a flutter in his chest, an unusual twinge of which he made note. Merlin went on with his business at the workbench, polishing casings and cleaning out the pipes. Arthur watched as he did so, observing the thoughtful wrinkle in his brow and the bite of his lips.

“What about yours?” Arthur asked, curious if Heartmakers--so used to matters of the heart--differed from the normal folk.

“Bruised but never been replaced.”

“I’m surprised, never had someone break your heart?”

“I’ve fallen in love but, um, no. Never been broken.” Merlin seemed to almost be embarrassed by the admission, his stupid dimples showing and his cheeks dusted pink.

It was then Arthur recalled that, in a way, it was true for him as well.

*

Gaius spent his retirement having the latest research on hearts read to him by an assistant. His eyes tired easily trying to decipher the complicated diagrams but he found it interesting to learn about the advances that had been made now that he was no longer in competition with them.

Arthur knew that he would find Gaius at home and went to enquire about the nature of hearts. He had an inkling that there was something a little peculiar in the way his current heart would warm within him.

“Any other symptoms you’ve been experiencing?”

“It feels tight sometimes, like my insides are caught between parts and my heart tugs at them. I've never felt this way with any of your hearts. Did Merlin do something?”

Gaius fixed him with a hard stare and a frown that soon gave way to something more concerned.

“Merlin is a wonderful heartmaker. His hearts are beautiful vessels. I'm sure yours is working perfectly fine.”

That wasn't an answer but Arthur could hardly find it in him to push an old man for information he could get elsewhere.

*

Merlin was upset.

He had discovered that Arthur had gone to Gaius and doubted the heart Merlin had made. If there was a problem with it Arthur could have asked him, could have turned up unannounced and Merlin would have made time for any of the obvious things Arthur was likely to have missed.

He made all that clear the next time Arthur dared to turn up.

“Do you not trust that I would do whatever would make you happiest? Did you truly suspect that I aimed to sabotage?”

“There's just something that hurts inside,” Arthur had said and Merlin knew exactly what he meant.

*

The jar of glass containing Arthur's preserved heart sat upon his shelf collecting dust. It was a better alternative to the wooden chest of old trinkets and clothes that he used to hide it from his father when he was alive.

What would he make of Arthur now? Arthur suspected that it would be not much which made sense because that was how Arthur thought of himself.

In truth, he did not ask Merlin about his heart because being with him made it feel worse. The tingles, the pulling, seemingly trying to turn itself inside out, it was just easier to talk about it with Gaius. It seemed that the tangible something he had with Merlin was now broken and Arthur sought to find a way to amend it. Somehow.

So there Arthur was, with both his hearts, trying to find a way to show he loved Merlin.

Of course, he did. Of course, that’s what it was.

How could he have misinterpreted the motions of his heart? Well, probably because, all things considered, Arthur was yet to experience this kind of unrequited yearning. Of all the loves he ever had, magically induced or otherwise, Merlin was starkly different in almost all the ways possible. Arthur reasoned that he couldn’t not be blamed for not recognising the speck had grown with every moment of their companionship.

Merlin had once tried to explain the construction of his designs but Arthur was too busy admiring the length of his eyelashes, the bow of his lips, the reddening of his ears as he dropped bits and pieces. On the subject of matters of the heart, Merlin had attempted to describe the collecting debris that rattled around, soothed by the close proximity of a heart that felt the same.

*

There was a hypothetical theory that a broken heart could mend.

Merlin liked the idea because it would be economical for people to replace the parts that were broken instead of the heart in its entirety. It was difficult to find people wanted to do it. No one knew the risks of having parts that remembered with parts that didn’t; most didn’t want the past lingering around. It was a nice theory, Merlin thought, but there was something else more pressing that needed his attention.

It started as a bit of breathlessness. Merlin thought that perhaps his dusty workshop was getting to him so he spent three days trying to wipe every surface clean. It would have taken him less time had he not gotten distracted by various items of knick-knackery from three years ago.

The short-windedness was intermittent but it worried Merlin when he couldn’t find a reason for it. For a while he thought that it might have been a mere case of needing to get some fresh air so he went to visit his mother in the countryside. He really thought it would work but, if anything, Merlin felt worse; there was the addition of an irregular heartbeat and odd sleeping patterns. In the end, even the comfort of home cooking wasn’t enough to do anything about the upside-down feeling, the one that told him he had felt something important behind.

“If you’re ill you should stay a little while longer.” Hunith poured out a bowl of chicken soup. “I do worry.”

“There are people needing hearts so I’ve got to go back. I’ll be fine, I promise,” Merlin found that as he said so, he actually felt so.

*

Arthur missed Merlin while he was gone, greatly and with painstaking reminders of his absence whenever he thought of his heart. He honestly thought that it was close to breaking and there was nothing he could do but hope that Merlin would return in time to replace it.

He sometimes thought of Merlin’s heart, squishy and bruised as Merlin had described it. Of all the people he had met, it was only the very young who seemed to have their own-grown hearts so for Merlin to have kept his for so long he must have been very careful. Perhaps he had never allowed himself to fall in love, that was the most likely scenario in Arthur’s opinion. Of course there was also the possibility that no one had taken an interest in Merlin in that way. But that couldn’t be. Definitely the first one.

Arthur had learnt that his level of articulation, especially in terms of feelings, left much to be desired. Conveying affections through words wasn’t something Arthur was exposed to much during childhood, he hadn’t the experience nor the practice so he decided that a gesture would be be best.

“You’re giving me your heart?” Merlin looked down at the jar Arthur had placed on his workbench.

“Not quite. I want you to put it back.”

“I don’t-- Why exactly?”

“I have feelings--for you, I mean--and I think that I would like to have you be the one to break it--my actual heart, that is. Not that I’m expecting you to.”

Merlin stared at the heart and Arthur stared at Merlin.

A full moment passed before Merlin replied.

“You would really do that for me?”

“Of course.”

*

Arthur was a stupid, noble fool. Stupid and noble and foolish. Merlin had always known it to be true and yet Arthur could still surprise him with the lengths he would go to, not to prove he was a good man but because he was a good man.

Replacing Arthur’s own-grown heart would be a simple procedure since Gaius had preserved it well so Merlin’s only apprehension was that perhaps once it was over, Arthur’s heart wouldn’t take to him in the same way as his handmade one. It worried him that whatever Arthur felt for him would be gone the moment Arthur was closed up and that would break Merlin’s heart.

To lose Arthur like that, by his own hand, would be devastating.

But he knew they would try because Arthur was risking just as much as he was, and that would make the heartbreak worth it.