Leon had to keep his eyes on Arthur.
Elyan had come to him the other night, eyes wide and sad and hopeless as he told him that one of the guest rooms had been beaten to a pulp. Leon, still in his nightclothes and blinking away sleep, had sighed and gotten dressed in a hurry.
Elyan knew a lot of the maids, because Guinevere had known a lot of the maids. So when unruly guests arose, the maids always approached Elyan or Merlin. That night, the maid in charge of that wing of the castle had come to Elyan. Everyone knew where the king was, but no one dared approach him with a trivial matter such as this. Elyan had confided, though, that he feared the king had done this himself.
It was unsurprising.
The knights had been on an extended leave of absence, as they each grappled with what they had seen in their own ways. Percival had gotten quieter than ever, retreating into his own mind and own self, seeming smaller than should have been possible for a man of his stature. Elyan had thrown himself into training, anger and righteousness making his blood boil. Gwaine, oh gods, Gwaine. He had almost dropped off of the face of the earth completely, only seen when Percival retrieved him regularly, piss drunk, from the tavern.
Leon applied himself to his work with more fervor than he felt he could handle.
The king, while here, was absent, and Leon would be damned if he let anything happen to Camelot while he was grieving.
That’s not to say Leon wasn’t grieving—he woke up sometimes with a pain in his chest so intense that it felt like the world was spiraling out of control—but as the knight with the most seniority, he had an obligation to head the training and the council meetings and the regular goings on of the palace.
Leon had always taken care of Arthur, cleaned up his more childish messes and smoothed over his abrasions with a calmly placed word.
On Arthur’s worst nights—when he was just a boy, barely a teenager, and Uther expressed his distaste more…aptly—Leon had held him and comforted him with platitudes while the boy shook so hard Leon was afraid his bones would rattle apart.
After Arthur’s first raid—the one in the woods that slaughtered men, women, and children indiscriminately—Arthur wouldn’t speak to anyone for weeks. He carried a haunted, terrified look in his eyes that Leon tried to warm with comforting words and strong hands on his shoulder.
Arthur had turned to Leon for years for help, counsel, comfort.
Now that he had Merlin, his requests for Leon’s assistance were fewer and farther between, but Leon held no grudge for it. He himself loved Merlin too much for any grudge against the man to last longer than a couple of days. Leon was incredibly grateful that Arthur’s small circle of confidants had widened, even at his own expense.
Arthur was also coming into himself, becoming stronger, more self-reliant, more assured. Leon was proud to see the transition. If he were any more braggadocious, he would like to think that he had something to do with that, perhaps planted the seeds that made Arthur into the man he was today. Like an older brother, perhaps, if he were feeling particularly sentimental and indecorous.
But Leon had always cleaned Arthur’s messes and protected him when he could, and he wouldn’t stop now.
Walking into that room had broken a part of Leon’s heart off, chipped away little by little like a sculptor with a chisel. If this chaos was what Arthur was feeling on the inside, he was more lost than Leon had thought.
As he busied himself with cleaning—aided of course by the maid and Elyan—, Leon couldn’t take his mind off of the man that inspired all of this rage.
Merlin, the unofficial mascot of the Camelot knights, had been unfailingly loyal and intensely protective of Arthur almost as long as Leon had known him. As far as Leon was concerned, Merlin earned all of the loyalty that the knights had sworn to him. Leon had met some of his closest friends because of Merlin, and he owed him a great debt for being so continuously protective of Arthur, especially when Leon himself couldn’t be there.
Once most of the debris was cleared away, Leon and the maid busied themselves setting right what they could. They worked in efficient silence.
“Most knights wouldn’t help with this, sirs.” The maid piped up, using a broom to hang the untarnished curtain in the room back on its pole. Leon and Elyan shared a look. Leon noted the resilience in his gaze and fortified himself with it.
“We are doing our part for the kingdom, …” Leon raised his eyebrows, questioning, and the woman flushed a deep pink.
“Leia.” She muttered, wiping her dirtied hands on her skirt and looking away. She looked so much like the girl that Morgana had been a decade ago when she had first come to the castle—dirty, sad, determined—that Leon had to look away.
The rest of the work was done in amiable silence as they finally had to remove the parts of furniture that were too broken to fix. Leon hefted what was left of one door of the dresser out into the hallway and wiped his sore hands on his trousers. Elyan, properly winded himself, came to stand beside him.
“Leon, I don’t know how much longer the king can be out of court.” Elyan confided, out of breath, in a low voice. “You know as well as I that the council members expect an audience with the king, soon.”
Leon shook his head, pushing the curls out of his face and inhaling a deep breath. His response was cut off by Leia coming out of the room, a bundle of ruined linens in her hands.
“I’ve got the rest, sirs.” She said, curtsying. “Thank you for the help.”
“No, thank you for keeping this discreet.” Elyan said, nodding at her once, eye contact intense. Leia took the hint. Her eyes sparked with a glint of determination.
“Anything for Merlin.” She said, power in her voice. Then, she was gone.
Arthur loved Merlin. He loved him, he loved him, he loved him, he loved him.
He didn’t know what he was going to do. Arthur held Merlin’s hand in his, pressed against his mouth. Arthur stared at Merlin, trying desperately not to blink. He didn’t want to see Merlin bloodied and broken again. And he didn’t know how much longer he could stand to see Merlin like this, either. His skin was a sickly shade—a ghostly, ghastly pale that made Arthur’s stomach twist unpleasantly. His eye sockets were more prominent than ever, and his cheekbones were sticking out so far Arthur could see the press of Merlin’s teeth against the sallow skin of his cheeks. He looked like a dead man, a skull where Arthur once only saw warmth and light.
Arthur closed his eyes.
Arthur moved his small finger, only slightly, to press into Merlin’s pulse point. It thudded weakly under Arthur’s touch, each small twitch seeming to tell Arthur, I’m here, I’m here, I’m fine, but not for much longer.
This was a nightmare that would never end.
With Uther, death had been quick enough. He had declined, then just like that, he was gone. Every man that Arthur had lost on the battlefield he could list by name, but their deaths had been instantaneous, quick, merciful. Even when people were burned or beheaded in the castle courtyard when Arthur was a boy, their deaths were quick. They felt pain only for a second, before they could feel nothing at all.
Arthur hadn’t prayed since he was a child, but every breath he exhaled was a wish that Merlin wasn’t feeling any pain.
Merlin’s death was far from instantaneous—it had been six days since Merlin had been stabbed.
Gaius called it a miracle that Merlin was still alive. Arthur saw it as nothing short of hell.
Every second that ticked by was agony, every breath Merlin took rattled like a coin in an empty jar, every time Merlin twitched Arthur’s heart jackknifed painfully. Merlin was there, Merlin was there and alive, but he couldn’t be farther away from Arthur’s reach.
And Arthur was entirely powerless.
Arthur didn’t have the power to retrieve Merlin from the depths of his own mind, he didn’t have a flower to retrieve or a monster to fight or a curse to break.
Merlin’s affliction was entirely, completely human.
And Arthur couldn’t control it.
“Tell me what to do,” Arthur whispered against Merlin’s knuckles. His hands were clammy with sweat and so pale that Arthur could see every vein underneath his papery skin. Arthur felt the sting of tears behind his eyes but they refused to fall. Arthur didn’t know if he was too tired to cry, or if all of his tears had been shed.
Arthur didn’t know anything.
“Tell me how to fix this, Merlin,” Arthur whispered again. His voice was ragged and crackly with disuse. He didn’t expect a response, but his heart still ached when only silence greeted him.
The thing Arthur wasn’t expecting now that Merlin was gone was the silence that haunted his every waking moment. Arthur didn’t realize how much he had come to rely on Merlin’s near constant chattering to fill the silence in his life. Arthur had grown up silent, surrounded and suffocated by cold silence so that his only choice was to like it. Arthur seeped in the silence of an absent father for years, until Merlin incessant chatter disrupted it.
Arthur remembered hating it at first. His constant need to narrate what he was doing and tell Arthur everything that was going on in the kingdom that day was exhausting. Arthur didn’t care what the baker and his wife were fighting about today, nor did he care that Tommy in the lower town had a cough and Gaius was annoyed that his mother kept summoning him. Arthur had to supervise every single person in his kingdom, he couldn’t be bothered with the menial everyday problems of the common-folk.
That’s what he had been told, and that’s what he had believed until he brought Tommy a toy solider when he went with Merlin into the lower town as he ran his errands. The little boy’s face split open into such a wide and trusting grin that Arthur’s heart fluttered. He knew immediately that this was what kind of king he wanted to be. Merlin’s smile was no less radiant, and Arthur felt jittery all over, like he was ready to fight a thousand wyverns. Arthur wanted to be a king that the people loved, that knew their names and knew what they were doing. Merlin refused to cease his delighted chatter for the rest of the day, and Arthur couldn’t begrudge him.
As much as Arthur whinged and hemmed, he really didn’t mind. Merlin’s voice was so telling of how he was feeling. If his vowels were lilting, he was happy; if his consonants were harder than usual, he was annoyed; when he was silent, he was sad. Arthur had come to hate the silence. Merlin’s verve and joy for life were so contagious that he couldn’t keep it all in his idiot mouth. So when he was quiet, he was hurting.
Merlin hadn’t made a noise in days, and Arthur felt each encroaching minute of silence like the weight of his armor—oppressive, familiar, suffocating.
Merlin always told Arthur what he should do. He couldn’t keep his opinions to himself if he tried. He was always blathering on and on about one thing or another and his opinions were there more than anything else. He didn’t like how one of the eldest council members kept trying to undermine Arthur’s authority, he didn’t like the new tariff on crops that was proposed today, he didn’t like that coat on Arthur because it made him look like his father, he didn’t like how Arthur wouldn’t talk to him for a month after Gwen left, he didn’t like how Arthur kept his emotions locked up about Morgana where no one could see them, he didn’t like this soup, he loved the sun when it poked through the clouds, he loved the smell of cinnamon whenever they passed the baker’s, he loved the new red cloak that Arthur was gifted from a kingdom Arthur was creating a treaty with, he loved that Arthur was mending the rifts that Uther had taken great cares to make.
Merlin was an enigma wrapped in a mystery. He was blathering on one second and then just like that, he was sober and silent, watching Arthur with those big, blue eyes of his. He went from annoying and youthful from one moment to wise beyond his years and sage in the next. Arthur couldn’t understand him and was genuinely looking forward to the years he would get to attempt to.
But now Merlin could give no advice.
Arthur wouldn’t be given the time to understand.
Arthur wished Merlin was awake right now.
Arthur stomach twisted. He pressed a kiss to the back of Merlin’s sweat-soaked hand in his.
“I’m sorry,” Arthur managed to croak. “I’m going to find a way, Merlin, I promise.”
Arthur knew of only one way to bring someone back from the brink of death. Arthur was terrified, he was completely and utterly undone by fear at just the thought of it. But Merlin deserved to live his life. And Arthur would pay any price to get him that chance.
Gaius was sitting at the desk on the other side of the room. He had been asleep for the past hour.
“Gaius,” Arthur called, and the old man snorted and shot up, almost falling off of his stool.
“Sire!” Gaius straightened himself, shooting Arthur a bleary look.
“Can magic heal Merlin?” Arthur asked. Arthur felt the muscles in his body tense, ready for a blow that would no longer come. The person who delivered them at the mention of magic was gone.
“I—I want to use magic to save Merlin’s life.” Arthur said. “Please, Gaius. I’ll do anything.”
Gaius didn’t move or speak for a beat. Arthur couldn’t even tell if the man was breathing. He was about to prompt him when Gaius snapped back into motion, like a startled deer. He slid off of his stool, and rounded the table.
“Arthur, what you’re asking isn’t a simple feat.” Gaius said, crossing the room to the huddled king and his servant. Gaius pressed the back of his hand to Merlin’s sweaty forehead, almost to preoccupy himself as he spoke next. They both knew that Merlin wasn’t running a fever. He was freezing. Deathly cold. “Merlin living this long was a miracle. He’s…” Gaius’s voice hitched. “He’s on Death’s threshold.” Painfully, slowly, Gaius met Arthur’s eyes, and he could see the reflection of everything he was feeling in those icy grey eyes. Pain. Guilt. Mourning.
“Please, Gaius.” Arthur’s voice was barely a rasp. “Any price, I’ll pay it.”
Arthur didn’t need to say it aloud for them both to catch his meaning. Gaius turned away sharply, as if looking at Arthur proved to be too difficult a task. He took a deep breath, and Arthur could hear it shudder through his lungs. Arthur had forgotten how old Gaius was, but now he looked every year his age, perhaps even older. The lines in his face were deep—a spiderweb of story. A laughter line here, a dimple mark on the right side of his face from when he pulled a one-sided smile, the lines above his brow prominent there. Gaius wiped a hand over his face, swollen knuckles pressed to his mouth for a second, as if to gather strength, before he spoke.
“Sire, Merlin saved your life for a reason.” Gaius’s piercing gaze was on Arthur again, and Arthur felt like a little boy again, feeling indelibly stupid and naive as if the older man had patched him up from an injury he got while doing something he shouldn’t have. “He believed—believes—“ Gaius corrected himself quickly, eyes shining. “in the future that you will create. He will never forgive you if you give that up—if you throw away the chance he’s given you. And he’ll never forgive me for letting you.” Gaius’s gaze was intense, and Arthur felt that they were talking about more than just Merlin’s loyalty to him, but he couldn’t fathom what.
Arthur looked back at the man on the bed. Merlin’s eyes twitched under his sockets, once, as if in a dream. Shame curled low in his belly, but Arthur didn’t know why. He felt wretched, disgusting, selfish again, but why? Merlin’s life was worth just as much as his, so why did he feel so guilty for wanting a trade?
Merlin will never forgive you, Gaius’s words, spoken mere seconds ago, reverberated in Arthur’s head. It pounded against the sides of his skull, wanting release, wanting a denial. But Arthur knew it was true.
Maybe he just didn’t care if Merlin forgave him. Merlin would be alive, Arthur would be…gone. It wouldn’t matter.
Arthur’s entire life had been lived on two basic rules, and he knew what they were.
“You’re right,” Arthur said, once he realized Gaius was awaiting a response. Arthur brought Merlin’s hand to his lips again and pressed one last kiss there, closing his eyes tightly.
I’m sorry, He thought, pressing the intention of his words so deeply into Merlin’s skin he hoped that it reached him, wherever his mind was. If Gaius was surprised to see this display of affection, he didn’t show it as Arthur stood and turned for the door.
Every step away from Merlin’s prone form physically hurt, but Arthur knew what he had to do. He felt the finality of it settle into his bones and he closed his eyes tightly, bracing himself for what was to come.
“Goodbye, Gaius,” Arthur said, taking one look back at the older man—his guardian, his friend—before closing the door.
If Gaius wouldn’t help Arthur find magic, he was going to have to find it on his own.
Gwaine was waiting by the stables when Arthur had found time to sneak away from his chambers.
“Finally,” he muttered, kicking the worn toes of his boots against the doorpost. He rubbed his hands together, blowing warm air between his cupped palms. His eyes looked hollow in the thin, watery light of the torch above the door.
He gave Arthur a roguish smile as he approached, one Arthur had seen time and time again but now lacked its usual bluster. Arthur ducked behind the stable with him, hand gripping his bicep so tightly Arthur felt a little bad about it.
“Hey, hey, hey, princess, hands off the wares!” Gwaine griped, shaking his arm out of Arthur’s grip and making a big show of rubbing it out.
“What are you doing here?” Arthur hissed, pushing the hood of his cloak down to see him better. Gwaine nudged a rucksack at his feet.
“Same as you, I reckon.” Gwaine said, nodding at Arthur’s own rucksack slung across his back. Arthur shifted so it was less visible. “Knew you’d be over here eventually.”
If Arthur were any more amiable or any less tense, he would have made a retort, or demanded Gwaine return to the castle. As it stood, he could find the energy to do neither.
Gwaine tilted his chin up, mistaking Arthur’s silence for deliberation, and looked Arthur defiantly in the eye.
“I’m not slowing down for you,” Arthur said, pressing a finger to Gwaine’s sternum. Gwaine barked a laugh, that Arthur quieted with a swift jab to the ribs. Gwaine kept laughing, and Arthur felt his lips twitch into a thin smile.
Things felt, for a split second, normal.
Guilt snatched Arthur between its sharp claws immediately, ripping through Arthur’s skin and down to his bones.
Arthur had felt that there was no joy in this world without Merlin, no way that Merlin could be dead and Arthur would be alright again. Arthur didn’t know that he had repeated the words until they felt like a vow—a vow that Arthur had just broken. He had proven just now that Arthur could be okay without Merlin, even for a second, and that felt like such a betrayal that it left Arthur breathless.
He couldn’t find enough air to fill his lungs as he swung open the stable door. His saddle wasn’t where it usually was (Oh, Gwaine muttered, eyeing the place where it used to hang. It, was unsalvageable.) so Arthur grabbed another blindly.
Just like that, they were out into the night.
The wind felt incredible against Arthur’s skin, and he hadn’t noticed how stifled and hot he had felt before. As the houses thinned into plains, weight dropped off of Arthur’s shoulders. His chest heaved once, twice, thrice, over and over again until the sickening air of Camelot was out of his lungs.
Arthur could pretend, here, in the dark, that everything was fine. He could pretend that the familiar presence riding a horse behind him was someone else entirely and he was going into the woods for a reason not associated at all with what he was doing now.
But everything was definitely not fine, and Arthur had a job to do.
They found the shack exactly where Arthur and Merlin had left it, all those month ago, when Arthur was a boy, a child, who didn’t know what the weight of the crown felt like on his head.
Gwaine sidled up to Arthur as Arthur he stared at the house on his horse, not daring to dismount.
“I’ve been trusting that you know where we’re going, but…” Gwaine looked back and forth between Arthur and the house. “This place looks abandoned.”
Arthur dismounted, unable to look away from the front door for even a second.
“Gaius told Merlin that the most powerful healing sorcerer he had ever met lives here.” Arthur said, and realized suddenly that this was a terrible idea. “We” Arthur’s voice cracked but he pressed on, “visited him once.”
Gwaine tilted his head to the side, but dismounted as well, leading Arthur’s horse away as well as his own.
He returned a second later, but Arthur barely registered it over the roaring of blood in his ears.
“Will he help us?” Gwaine asked, pressing forward towards the door. Arthur wanted to reach forward and pull him back, but he knew that this is his only chance of saving Merlin.
“I don’t know,” Arthur answered honestly, following in Gwaine’s footsteps. The night was brisk and cool, the forest so dark and still behind the house that it felt like a separate entity looming over them. “The last time we parted it wasn’t on good terms.”
“Wait a minute,” Gwaine spun on his heel and was suddenly right in Arthur’s face. “Is this the bastard that ‘healed’ your father?”
Arthur should’ve expected this, but Gwaine’s words still felt like manticore acid splashed on his skin. When he didn’t do anything to deny it, Gwaine threw his hands up in the air.
“What were you thinking?” Gwaine spat, spinning on his heel again to pace in the other direction. He tore his hands through his hair, kicking at the dirt. “Merlin’s life is not something to be fucking gambled, Arthur.”
Arthur felt his hackles rise.
“Of course it’s not!” He shouted, stepping after him with purpose. “This is the only choice we have, Gwaine. There is not a single sorcerer in the world that would help me. This man is the only man who at least tried to help me. Gaius told me that my father had been cursed by Morgana and I don’t have a choice right now but to trust him. Don’t you dare think for a second that I value Merlin’s life any less than you do!”
Gwaine still had his back to Arthur and slapped Arthur’s hand away when Arthur tried to spin him around. Arthur heard him sniff, hard, and stopped. Arthur softened.
“Gwaine, we don’t have many options.” Arthur prodded. He steeled himself for what he was about to say. “I-I’m afraid because I don’t know if he will help us.”
Emotion on anyone, especially a king, was weak. Arthur made a point to never reveal his emotions to his knights, knowing that faltering could cause his men their lives. But this wasn’t a battle that Arthur could fight alone. This wasn’t a battle Arthur could win. Arthur needed as many allies—no, he corrected himself—friends as he could get. And Gwaine wouldn’t react to Arthur’s brave face. He had the uncanny ability to see through people, know what they really meant and how they really felt. Arthur supposed, if pressed, that’s why he and Merlin got along so well. Merlin could do the same thing.
Gwaine turned then, meeting Arthur’s blue eyes with his watering brown ones. Arthur felt relief and certainty settle into his bones. They were in this together.
“But I’m not leaving here until he does.” Arthur swore, searching Gwaine’s eyes for understanding.
Gwaine nodded, once. He swiped a hand down his face, and when he looked back up, cold resolution stayed in his eyes. He grinned. One could almost believe he meant it.
“Right, princess.” He muttered, turning back to the house. “Let’s get this over with.”