Morgana looks around Arthur, making a show of searching for someone that ought to be by his side and obviously taking pleasure in not finding him there. Arthur hates it.
'Where is your other half?'
The tip of her tongue pokes out and she smiles. Arthur is struck by the almost childish glee that she exudes. For the first time since Merlin decided to leave him (since Merlin chose to give up on him) Arthur feels relieved. He has no wish for Merlin to be in Morgana's presence. Gods know what would happen to him if he was.
'Has he finally got tired of you?,' she taunts him. 'Has Merlin seen sense for the first time in his life and chose to leave you?'
Arthur tenses, his stance hardening as her words hit their mark. Morgana has always known how to hurt him best. That familiar pain in his heart at the thought that, no, this time Merlin is not here at his side like he should be, like he has always been grows and weights on his heart. Merlin does not trust in Arthur to succeed. Merlin does not believe. Merlin has abandoned him.
'This is none of your concern, witch,' Gwaine spits in her direction.
Morgana's eyes widen in delight. 'I dare say it is,' she crows. 'As Merlin's absence is entirely my doing.'
Arthur freezes. He can feel his knights stand just as still behind him. Unmoveable, as if preparing for Morgana's next words to hurt them and deciding that, no matter what, they will stand unshattered.
(Arthur won't. Arthur won't be able to stand whole if Morgana has somehow done something to Merlin, if Merlin is-)
'It's not,' Gwaine declares and the certainty in his voice allows Arthur to breathe again.
'Because you think him safe in that cave in the Perilous Lands you left him in?,' she goads him.
Gwaine makes a sound then. A painful, terrible one that reminds Arthur of a dying dog as it breathes its last.
It leaves Arthur raw.
'What did you do?,' he whispers to his sister.
Morgana's lips twist into a pantomime of a joyful smile. It chills Arthur to his very core.
'I took something from Merlin I knew he could not live without. And then, once he was finally at my mercy, I took his life from him. But please, brother, do not grieve for him. I will make sure you join him soon enough.'
'She was lying,' Gwaine stresses as he follows him on their way back to their camp.
'Of course,' Leon concures. 'She is only trying to destabilise us.'
'You must not believe a word she said,' the foolish knight keeps on. 'I'm sure that Merlin is still-'
Arthur whirls around and walks over to him, stopping only a foot from him with a snarl on his face. 'WHERE?,' he bellows. 'Where is Merlin? Where did you leave him, Gwaine?!'
'You left in the dead of the night, the same night Merlin disappeared, only to come back alone. All the while there have been no signs of Merlin. And here Morgana comes saying that she knows of a cave you apparently left him in and that she's killed him!,' his voice breaks on the last word but Arthur does not take the time to break as well.
(But it's there. And it is so so close. Arthur feels like he is on the edge of a cliff, about to fall and crumble at the slightest breeze in the right direction.)
'So just tell me one thing, Sir Gwaine,' he hisses, 'just one. Did you. Or did you not. Leave Merlin alone and vulnerable in some cave in the most dangerous lands, as an easy prey for Morgana to prey on.'
The terror in Gwaine's eyes tell him more than the man could ever say.
Arthur reels back, struck by the realization.
'I see,' he says.
And oh, how he sees.
The horrible truth laid bare by his sister.
'Sire,' Leon says, his careful voice piercing through the fog that his mind has become. 'The war. Morgana is only trying to distress us to tip the scale in her favor. So she can win the war. You must not let yourself be anguished by her words. You must be strong, just like Merlin would want you to be.'
But Merlin is dead.
He would not want anything. Because he's dead.
And what is the point of fighting in a war that Arthur does not believe in any longer? Let Morgana win. She has already taken everything from him.
'Someone has to alert Gaius,' he hears himself say. 'And his mother. Hunith has to know.'
Yes, Hunith. She has to know her son will not be coming home, that Arthur failed in protecting him. Hunith has... But Arthur should be the one to tell her.
Arthur presses his eyelids closed.
'Merlin may still live,' Gwaine croaks.
Arthur opens his eyes and snarls: 'If he is, it is certainly no thanks to you!'
'It is not Gwaine's fault, it is hers.'
Arthur does not let Leon and Percival's calls derail him from his rage. 'You led Merlin into the Perilous Lands and left him to die.'
Gwaine shakes his head violently. 'Merlin had wanted to go there. I escorted him, to protect him.'
'And once your mission was over you abandoned him!'
'I would never have done that!,' he shouts. 'I had wanted to stay, I wished for nothing more. You think I wanted to come here where there are hundreds of knights to fight for you while Merlin is alone?' Arthur flinches as the derisive tone the knight uses to throw back his anger at him. 'No, I did not. But Merlin asked with his Merlin voice and his sweet, guileless eyes and as always I did as he asked. I left him to find you.'
('I'm afraid I won't be coming with you,' echoes in his head.)
'Because, like always, Merlin was more concerned about you than of his own safety,' he growls. 'Because, like always, Merlin would rather risk his life for you.' Gwaine's breath comes to an abrupt halt.
('I'm afraid I won't be coming with you.')
'If Morgana really did what she told us she did,' he continues, his voice softer but no less broken, 'then... I will shoulder the guilt. I will take the blame. Because it is true that no matter what he wanted, I should never have turned my back on him. I should have stayed with him.' Gwaine's eyes shine with unshed tears. 'But I won't let you believe that I did so willingly because I did not. I. Did. Not.'
Arthur and Gwaine stare at each other. And Arthur can see the hurt that Gwaine is barely holding back, as well as the self loathing he is vibrating with. It feels like the man is barely holding himself upright. And it angers Arthur even more because it is Arthur and him only that ought to feel like that. If it is true -and it's seems like it is, Morgana has never been one to gloat about something she has not done-... If it is true then Gwaine has no right to be hurt nor to feel wounded. Because it means he played a part in Merlin being lost to him. Because Arthur judges him guilty of this crime. And he shall never offer him forgiveness.
Arthur looks away, unable to keep on looking at him. He turns to face Leon and Percival and he adresses his First Knight: 'have two of the knights leave for the Perilous Lands. They have to search for Merlin and... find him.'
Either alive or... not.
'I can do it,' Gwaine hurries to say.
'You've done enough,' he rebuffs him with scorn. 'You will only give the knights instructions on how to find Merlin. You have already failed him once, I don't want to give you another chance.'
He knows it's a low, terrible blow he is giving.
He does not care.
He does not care either that Gwaine only left Merlin because Merlin had wanted him to to go protect Arthur.
('I always thought you were the bravest man I ever met.')
What he cares about is finding Merlin. However and whatever is left of him.
('Guess I was wrong.')
What he cares about is Merlin.
('Guess I was wrong.')
(Never has he regretted words more than he does those.)
(I have failed you too.)
'I've sent Kay and Gideon,' Leon informs Percival as his friend sits next to him around the campfire.
'And I have been pushed away by Gwaine.'
Leon stares ahead and does his best not to think of the despair that had been painted on Gwaine's face when Arthur had left them.
'It is difficult for all of us.'
Percival crosses his arms on his knees, which makes his muscles bulge. 'Do you really think Merlin is dead?'
Leon holds his breathe. 'I think,' he starts, letting the air escape him, 'that Merlin has been at Arthur's side for ten years and that he would still be there if he could.'
'So it's tr-'
'Don't say it,' Leon cuts in.
He glances at the King and Queen's tent. It is several feet away from them but Leon is certain that Arthur would hear anyway. And saying it would make it real. They can not afford for it to be real because if Merlin really is... If Morgana has really done what she said she did... Then it does not matter what Leon and Percival may think, Arthur will lose it. Arthur won't care anymore about fighting for his life, even less find the strength to lead them into battle. Arthur will be lost to them. And Camelot with him.
'We win this war,' he declares, 'and then we find Merlin.'
And I pray to every deity out there that he is alive. If only for Arthur's sake and Camelot with him.
'We're going to war tomorrow. We should focus on this.'
There is blood and battle and blood and blood and blood.
It feels to Arthur that this has been going on for days. His moves are mechanical, his mind lost in a haze of parry-block-parry-push-slash and not anywhere near Merlin or Guinevere or Merlin or Morgana or Merlin.
And then, Mordred appears.
And then, Mordred betrays him.
And Arthur is too taken aback by yet another person he loves betraying him that he does not protect himself.
Arthur opens eyes he had not realized he had closed, only to gaze into Merlin's blinding smiling face.
Arthur beams, full of tons of relief at the sight of him. His Merlin, alive. And with him like he should be. 'Merlin,' he puffs out. 'I knew you could not be-'
His eyes regain focus again and suddenly Arthur realizes that something is very, very wrong.
He can see through Merlin.
Merlin who is as bluish and translucent as his father had been when Arthur had brought his spirit back to Camelot. Merlin, who'se hands are on Arthur but that Arthur can not feel. Merlin. Who is dead.
Arthur's sudden sob strangles him. 'No,' he manages to let out.
'It's not as bad as it looks like,' the idiot replies with an abashed smile.
That Merlin -Merlin whom Arthur utterly failed at protecting and who's last words at been meant to hurt- tries to comfort and appease him when he is the one dead only makes him feel more wretched.
'Shh,' he says as he shakes his head. 'Don't try to speak.'
Arthur tries to calm
his racing heart the urge to cry himself. 'Don't give me orders, Merlin. I'm the King,' he wheezes, trying to fall into familiar banter even as he feels his grasp on reality slip away.
Familiar ground. Yes. He needs something to ground him because he refuses to acknowledge he is now living in a world when Merlin does not breathe.
Arthur's eyes burn.
'The King of Prats, yes.' Merlin smiles at him. That beautiful, all encompassing smile that always
left leaves Arthur warm inside. 'What I am supposed to do with you?,' he continues, his voice filled with that fondness Merlin only ever uses when he is adressing Arthur.
'You could,' a hitch to catch his breath makes him pause. 'Stay.'
Merlin's lightness dims. Immediatly, Arthur wants to take the words back (even if he has never spoken truest words) only to put back Merlin's blinding smile on his face.
His face turns apologetic. 'I am sorry, Arthur.'
No, please don't say it.
'But I can not stay here.'
'Merlin,' he pleads.
Merlin shakes his head regretfully. 'I am only here for a time. I'm not even supposed to be here. This is... only a favor that was granted to me.'
'How-?,' Arthur coughs.
He feels something drip from his mouth. He thinks it might be blood.
He chooses to focus on Merlin.
Everything else can wait.
'Morgana found me,' Merlin finally replies.
His eyes are lost on something unattainable on the horizon. Arthur wants to reach for him to gain his attention again. He hates that he feels too weak to do so.
'I could not escape.'
Merlin shrugs. As if being left to die alone is something to be brushed off.
I did that, he thinks. I left him alone.
Merlin's eyes are back on him. Arthur drinks it in. 'It was a magical cave. The place magic was born in, if you're to believe it. And my last wish was to see you. I guess the cave decided to grant me that.'
Arthur has no idea why magic would agree to give a dying man his dying wish but he finds that he is grateful to it. Merlin is dead but he is by Arthur's side. It's more than he could have hoped for.
(Barring the need for Merlin to exit that cave alive and unharmed.)
He can tell him, then.
Merlin looks back at him. His left hand brushes against his cheek where, Arthur registers, tears have made their path.
He does not feel Merlin's hand upon his skin.
He wants to scream.
'Don't cry. No man is worth your tears.'
But Arthur does cry, unable to hold back any longer. Loud, wretched sobs. Because this is everything he feared. Because this is Merlin, his best and closest friend, his confidante, his Merlin. And the last time Arthur saw him he told him he was a coward, the last time he saw him he did not know he was riding to his death and never told him all he should have. Because Arthur is dying and he wishes, wishes, that Merlin would not be here waiting for him to rejoin him in death but alive and thriving.
'You are,' he pushes through his sobs. 'You are worthy.' Merlin's figure stills above him. 'You are worthy and I am so sorry I never told you so. I am so. Sorry. For so many things. And you should not have to learn it only in death. You should be,' a violent need to cough (more blood as it happens) pushes him to stop.
Arthur shakes his head. He will not be stopped.
Arthur gathers his strength and pushes the words from deep within himself: 'you are the bravest man I have ever met, Merlin of Ealdor. And I do not know why you felt the need to leave when I had to leave for Camlann,' Merlin opens his ghostly mouth, 'and I don't care,' he finishes before he can say anything. 'I should have known that you would not leave me willingly. I should not have treated you any less than you deserved simply because I felt hurt.'
'I did not want to leave you,' he murmurs.
Arthur puts his hands on Merlin's insubstantial ones. He still does not feel anything.
'I should have come with you,' he confides.
He should have. No matter that he had to lead his men in this war, against his own sister. He should have known that Merlin would not leave unless something forced him to, he should have recognised it and left with him. Maybe then, Merlin would still be alive.
Merlin shakes his head and slips his hands from under Arthur's hands. 'Keep your strength, Arthur.'
'No,' he says as firmly as he can (it is not firm. His voice comes out weak, Arthur feels weak. He can feel his lifeforce sleeping from him. How long has it been since Mordred stabbed him?). 'No. Merlin-'
A cough. More blood.
Arthur glares in the distance.
His head falls to the side.
Merlin has not moved. His focus is still wholly on Arthur. Something is gleaming in his dead eyes.
'Are you real?'
Merlin smiles reassuringly at him, yet Arthur can see tears at the edge of his eyes and threatening to spill.
He did not know ghosts could cry.
Where would the tears fall?, he ponders in a daze.
'Am I as real as I can be.'
'There is... Something. Something I have never said to you before. Something-'
Merlin interrupts him. Of course he does, he is still Merlin. And Merlin has never bothered with decorum. 'It can wait, Arthur.'
No, it can not. If it's his last chance to say it...
'Sire!,' someone screams in the distance.
I love you.
Arthur does not get the chance to say it. Oblivion takes him before he can.
'Whatever you are, get away from our King!,' Leon yells as he, Percival and Gwaine charge the figure that is standing prone over Arthur's defenceless form.
The bluish being -that can only be one of Morgana's devious creatures- lifts its head off Arthur to face them and-
Leon slows until he comes to a final stop and loses hold of his sword, letting it hit the ground. Percival is bent over himself, his hands clasped firmly on his knees and his eyes wild. Gwaine...
Gwaine stops dead in his tracks and crumbles.
'Merlin?,' Leon demands, his voice full of fear for what the answer will be.
'Hello, Leon,' Merlin's voice exits the being's mouth. 'Glad to see you're alive.'
He feels the words hit him like a blade to the heart.
Yes, Percival, Leon and he are alive. Arthur -from what Gwaine can see- is alive as well. But Merlin? Arthur was right. Gwaine left Merlin alone and defenceless in enemy territory and Morgana took advantage of it to kill him.
Morgana killed Merlin.
He feels his blood boil in his veins, pound in his head, feels the bitter taste of it soak his mouth and threaten to spill past his closed mouth.
The witch murdered Merlin.
And Gwaine is the reason why.
His knees meet the ground as he falls graceless to it.
Gwaine left Merlin behind and his friend died for it.
'Could one of you come over here and pick Arthur up? I obviously can not lift him,' he jokes.
Merlin is joking. Merlin is dead and making jokes. As if Gwaine did not leave him to Morgana's merciless hands, as if death did not claim him.
'Yes, of course,' Percival croaks.
Percival advances slowly, as if Merlin might be an easily startled deer. Merlin watches him get closer, a Merlin smile on his ghostly face. He lets him take Arthur in his hands and lift him up. He rises, insubstantial hands on Arthur's right arm, and follows the knight as he starts his way to the royal tent.
Leon slowly shakes his head but decides to follow them, his lips pressed tight together.
Gwaine is left on the ground, feeling as lifeless as the corpses surrounding him.
The first sign she gets that something is wrong is the silence that falls outside the healing tent. Since the battle started before the sun rose, it has never stopped and the sound of swords clashing and bodies falling has been ceaseless since then.
And now she can not hear anything.
Guinevere exchanges a look with Gaius over the head of a feverish soldier.
'I'm going. It may be Arthur.'
Then why is no one announcing the King's return?, she can read in his eyes.
She is thankful to Gaius for not voicing his thoughts. She has no wish for her hopes to be dashed. Arthur will live and return to her. She will believe nothing else until she has proof that her husband is dead.
Guinevere steps out of the tent. She is greeted by the sight of soldiers, both of Camelot and of the other sides, standing next to each other and watching as a small procession makes its way to the royal tent.
It is Percival -she would recognise his impressive built anywhere- and he is holding someone in his arms. Arthur, she thinks with dread. And at his side.
At his side.
Guinevere gasps, horror taking grasp of her heart and squizzing painfully.
At his side walks Merlin, rather the ghost of Merlin. Because her friend is dead.
(Leon and Gwaine are following them but she does not have the mind to be concerned over Gwaine's heartbroken face and Leon's lost one. She only has eyes for her husband and her friend.)
Percival continues to make his way to the royal tent.
Guinevere calls for Gaius before running to join them.
'What happened?,' Guinevere manages to ask once she has reached Leon and Gwaine.
Gaius is a few steps behind. She has yet to hear him say anything. She is fairly sure that the old man has yet to learn that his adopted son no longer lives. She has half a mind to stop him from entering the tent and see Merlin like that but Arthur must be hurt and may need his care and-
'What happened?,' she repeats more firmly, trembles barely heard in her voice.
Gwaine avoids her gaze and keeps his eyes firmly on the tent's overture.
Leon is the one to answer her. 'We found the King laying on the ground with a wound to his chest.'
Guinevere puts a hand over her mouth. 'Did he say anything?'
Leon shakes his head. 'He was unconscious. However, Merlin said that-'
'Merlin?,' Gaius demands has he finally reaches them. 'He is here?'
Leon stares at him with apprehension. 'Yes, he is. But Gaius, you should know-'
'Later,' the physician responds as he leaves them already to enter the tent, his energy regovirated. 'It can wait, I will take care of the King first.'
'Gaius,' Leon calls after him.
But Gaius has already entered the tent. She winces when she hears him make a wretched sound.
Guinevere can not stay away any longer. She opens the tent's flap and walks in. Arthur is lying on their bed, a red point on his left side. Percival is standing on the right of the bed and looking somehow small in the corner on the tent. Gaius is standing close to her, having stopped after only a few steps inside the tent. She puts a hand on his left shoulder. The gesture startles him out of his horrified trance.
'Merlin,' he speaks, his voice breaking on the second syllable.
Guinevere can not avoid it any longer. She lets her eyes land on Merlin's diaphanous figure, a sob stuck in her throat.
Morgana did that, her mind screams.
As if trying to kill Arthur and take their home from them was not enough, Morgana took Merlin from them as well.
'Have you got any tincture to ease his pain, Gaius?,' Merlin demands conversationally, his head bent over Arthur's prone form. 'I think a fever is also taking ahold of him.'
'Percival, could you go and fetch linens and water. We need to refresh him to break the fever.'
Percival is gone as fast as the wind. And Gaius is still stuck on repeating Merlin's name to no effect.
Guinevere clears her throat and calls to him: 'Merlin.'
'Merlin,' she hears Arthur gasp.
'It's alright, Arthur,' he replies. 'I will stay and watch over you.'
She feels tears fall and stain her cheeks. She is no longer holding Gaius but holding onto him.
'Merlin my boy what happened?,' Gaius asks in one exhalation.
Merlin finally faces them. He smiles lovingly at them and Guinevere can't.
She is thankful for the tears that are blurring her sight. She thought she could be strong when she entered the tent but she finds her strength rapidly leaving her.
Her friend is dead.
Her friend Merlin who had been by her side for better and for worse for the last ten years, through her father's death, to her struggles with her relationship with Arthur, to Morgana's betrayal and attempts of murder. Her friend Merlin who believed in her, who protected her and who steadfastly took care of Arthur when she did not trust anyone else with him. Her friend Merlin who had become a pillar in her life a long time ago, a strong and unbreakable one. Her friend Merlin who is now as lost to her as Elyan and her father
and Lancelot are.
Merlin's grin is abashed. 'Morgana caught me.'
Gwen closes her eyes in despair.
'How can you be... Here?'
'The cave. The one I died in. It was magical.'
Gwen opens her eyes. 'Did it hurt?,' she demands at the same time as Gaius asks: 'How are you here?'
Gaius goes limp next to her. She reinforces her hold on him. Now, they are holding each other up.
Merlin keeps on looking at Arthur and she wonders if it is not also a way to avoid their gaze. 'Gaius, I really think you ought to come over here. Arthur needs something for his pain.'
'Yes, of course.' Gaius detaches himself from her (or she lets him go, at this point she is not sure what either of them are doing) and walks over to the bed, taking the opposite side of Merlin's spirit. He examinates the wound. 'A sword to the chest. I'm going to need more than linens, hot water and potions to relieve his pain. I need to operate.'
'Gaius,' Merlin says. And something in his voice chills her.
'....Yes, Merlin?,' the old man replies with anguish.
'I am only here until the sun sets.'
'Of course,' Gaius whispers. 'I will try to. Spend as much time with you as I can. But you. You understand, I am sure. The King. Arthur. I have to tend to him first.'
'I am only here until the sun sets,' Merlin repeats, this time for her as he faces her. 'And I am sorry. I am so sorry, Gwen. But I am taking Arthur with me.'
'What,' Gaius snaps, shocked.
Guinevere presses her lips, keeping another sob from getting out, and hugs herself.
'He was stabbed by a sword forged by dragon fire. You know what it means, Gaius. It means that Arthur can not be saved.'
She has never felt so shattered before. She swears she could burst from the overwhelming pain she is feeling.
'Arthur only has a few hours left.'
He had promised he would come back. She had never expected it would be only to say goodbye.
(She can not believe she is loosing the both of them.)
It is strange. Being dead.
Not bad. Nor good. It is not wrong, nor does it hurt or is peaceful. It is only strange.
Merlin feels as immaterial as he looks. Half in a fog. Like he is here but not. It is like that dream state you're going through, that moment where you're half alseep but still cognisant enough that you are aware of your surroundings, aware that you are not asleep.
Merlin feels like that. He feels like, if he were to close his eyes long enough, he'd forever fall asleep.
He does not particularly want to fall asleep. He still has things to do. Albion has not been built yet and Morgana is still there, somewhere, posing a threat. And even if Mordred is dead and the battle appears to be over, there is still a war going on.
And of course, there is Gwen. That will soon be a widow. And Gaius, that will be childless. His own mother, who has yet to know. Gwaine. Leon. Percival.
(And there is the life Merlin has yet to live and all the years that are slipping from his fingers.)
He is dead. What a strange thought.
But there is Arthur. And Merlin knows the only reason he has yet to be gone is because Magic is letting him stay long enough than he can leave with Arthur. The two halves of the same coin, leaving the world together.
(It should be poetic.)
(There is nothing poetic or beautiful about death.)
Soon, Merlin and Arthur will be gone. And strange will let place to something new.
Merlin leaves the tent, letting Gwen say her final goodbyes to her husband while he still lives.
Leon is nowhere to be seen. The knight must have gone to look over the remaining soldiers. Percival is running back to the tent, bearing linens and a cauldron of water. Soldiers are walking all over the place, alternating between searching for their living comrades and glancing at him.
'What happens now?,' Gwaine demands from his place behind him.
'Life, I guess.'
Gwaine chuckles grimly. 'Life,' he spits. 'When yours was ripped away from you.'
Merlin lets him speak instead of correcting him. He does not want to be the one to tell Gwaine that Merlin is not the only one leaving today.
'I'm sorry. I know that it is awfully trite compared to what Morgana did to you. But you have to know, Merlin, how sorry I am.'
Merlin turns to face him, a confused frown on his face. Gwaine is looking terrible, somehow worse than he had looked after having spent too many days at Morgana's mercy during her second take over.
'Why would you be sorry?'
Gwaine looks at a loss. 'Because I left you,' he responds, his voice small.
Merlin blinks at him. '... You think I should be angry?'
Gwaine takes a deep inhale of breath. 'You really don't have to take it easy on me, Merlin. You can say it. We both know that if I had been here-'
'You'd be dead as well,' he says firmly.
Gwaine's eyes scrunch up and, oh dear Avalon, he looks about to cry.
Merlin walks over to him and looks him straight in the eyes. 'Gwaine. You did nothing wrong. I asked you to leave. Because what I needed to do, I needed to do it alone.'
Merlin shakes his head and continues just as firmly: 'there is no but. You did nothing wrong. Morgana did.'
And even then, he thinks that he had it coming. All those fights between the two of them, all that anger and bitterness and resentment. And the secrets. And Destiny, always and forever Destiny. It was doomed to end like that: one of them killing the other.
(He just had never expected that it would be with him without his magic.)
'You want to blame someone,' he says, shaking those thoughts away. 'Blame her. Not yourself.'
'Merlin, you're dead!,' Gwaine suddenly screams, startling Merlin. 'Do you understand that? You're not-' Gwaine stops and his face twists into something ugly.
It takes Merlin several moments before he can put a word on what he is facing. But then he understands all too well. Despair.
'You're never. You're never going to touch someone or to be touched or feel something. You're never going to live and grow old and realise whatever dreams you have. Because you're dead. Dead. And just because you're here and we can see you and you can see us does not change that. Stop acting like everything is alright because it's not. Be angry. Be depressed,' he yells, spit flying as he rages. 'Hate me for the part I played in this!'
'I'm not staying.'
Gwaine's enraged rant cuts itself. His eyes somehow go darker as he demands quietly: 'What did you say?'
'I am only here for the rest of the day. I will be gone by nightfall.'
'Gone,' he repeats, apparently not making sense of the word.
Merlin pursues his lips. 'Yes, Gwaine. That's what happen when people die. They disappear.'
Gwaine's mouth parts and lets out an inaudible sound. He looks at the ground and somehow folds on himself. His shoulders fall, his head hangs low and his legs look barely able to support him. Merlin is concerned the man will fall to the ground (and break).
Merlin can not let that happen.
'I remember when I lost-' Will, Freya, my father, and 'Lancelot. I remember that I was...' a sad mess, he thinks. His grin takes a bitter edge. '... woeful. Angry at the unfairness of it all. And most of all hurt. I understand that even if I am still here, now, I understand that you must already be feeling that. But Gwaine. There is no reason for me to feel the same. Because it is all over for me.'
'It's my fault.'
Merlin shakes his head and puts his hands on his shoulders. The gesture is familiar and, even if Merlin can not feel him, he hopes it comforts Gwaine.
'I needed to go to the Perilous Lands. But I needed not to ask you to come. I only did so because I wanted to have a friend by my side. Because I wanted you to come with me. And then I asked you to leave. Because I wanted to continue on my own. And that? That final decision? It had nothing to do with you. It was my decision. Made of my own free will. No one could it take from me.'
'I apologise, Guinevere.'
Guinevere lifts her head, taking her eyes from Arthur's palid face to regard Gaius. The poor man seems to have aged ten years in the blink of an eye.
'There is really nothing to be done, I regret,' he voices, winded.
Guinevere has to prick up her ear to hear him, despite knowing already in her heart what he is trying to tell her.
Arthur is lost to her.
Guinevere tenderly passes a hand through Arthur's blond hair. It had taken no longer than minutes to clean it from the blood that had tainted it. She lowers her hand and carresses his left cheek.
This is the last time she sees her husband.
Stay strong, she thinks.
The people of Camelot, her people, can not afford for their Queen to lose herself at the loss of her husband, no matter that the only thing Guinevere wants to do is scream at the injustice of it all, beg Arthur and the gods a thousand times for him to stay, and hunt Morgana down to rip her in pieces for what she has done.
(Sweet Gwen, lady Morgana's maid would have gasped in shock and horror at that last thought and the viciousness that Guinevere feels. But she is no longer sweet Gwen, she is Guinevere Pendragon.)
Camelot needs her, now more than ever considering that they'll soon be without their golden King. Camelot needs her. Which means that Guinevere can not afford to fall apart.
She squizzes her dear husband's hand within hers.
With all my heart, she had vowed.
'I know,' she voices regally.
Merlin will take care of you.
'I understand, Gaius. I do not hold it against you. I know that you did all you could.'
I know that there was nothing to be done. Morgana made sure of that. Arthur can only leave in peace.
'Percival,' she calls, feeling more than seeing the knight approach her side of the bed. 'I want you to look after him.'
I have yet to say all of my goodbyes.
She rises, places a soft kiss on Arthur's brow, presses his hand one last time and leaves.
With all my -
You are my heart.
Merlin lets him go. And it is not like Gwaine could have felt him, because he did not -he did not feel his hands on him, feel the warmth of his immaterial body, feel the breath of non existant air exit his mouth- but it does not mean he wants him gone.
When Merlin takes a step back, Gwaine takes a step forward.
'What was so important you had to go alone?,' he asks. Because yes, he has to know, but also because if he can not feel Merlin's presence he has to keep hearing his voice.
(One day he will forget his voice. That day will come too soon.)
Except that it is not Merlin that answers him.
'Was it your magic?'
Merlin and Gwaine swirl to face the Queen as she exits the royal tent.
Guinevere looks as terrible as Gwaine feels, yet it is only because he knows her so well that he recognises it. For all appearances and to untrained eyes, the proud Queen of Camelot appears to be as noble and regal as ever.
He glances at the tent's overture and wonders if Arthur really is going to survive. Or if Gwaine will have to lose another friend today.
'How did you know?,' Merlin demands.
Gwaine rapidly turns back to face him. If Merlin really only has a few hours left, then Gwaine is not going to lose one second staring at something else than him. He does not wish to forget one line of this ethereal face. And forgetting Merlin's face is exactly what he
knows fears will happen.
(He does not wish to lose him and yet it has already happened. And there is nothing Gwaine can do to undo it.)
'I could say that I did not know until I saw your spirit,' their Queen answers. 'However, I think some part of me always knew. Ever since you tried to make me believe you were psychic.'
Merlin beams. Guinevere responds with a smile of her own and something passes between the two old friends. Gwaine is not frustrated at not being included, he knows how close those two
were are?... It only gives him the chance to see Merlin happy and loving one last time.
It is wrenching how much Gwaine wants to take him in his arms and embrace him until he can not feel anything in his arms or until Merlin laughs and tires of him (which Merlin has never done, to his never ending awe). It feels like such a long time since Merlin has smiled this honestly, this genuinely. It is despising that he had to die to be able to do it again.
'And you are not angry?,' Merlin demands, pure curiosity shining in his eyes.
A corner of Guinevere's lips tilts upward. 'No, I'm not. I am pretty sure Arthur will be though, once he...' She stops and looks at her joined hands.
Gwaine glances at her before he looks back at Merlin.
'I really am sorry, Gwen,' he says, apology plain in his voice.
Gwen -because she is Gwen right now- gives him a strained smile.
Merlin's eyes turn softer as he takes her in. He approaches her and his hands rest on each side of her face. Gwaine does not think Gwen can feel them on her skin -just like he did not- nonetheless she appears to be drinking in the feeling of his touch.
(He understands the feeling too well.)
Maybe it is why she decides to close her eyes and keeps them firmly shut. Maybe Gwen is trying to feel Merlin's presence as if he was really here, alive and fleshed and boned and standing among them, his warm warm hands on her cheeks, his warm warm chest standing inches from her, close enough that she could rest her hands on it and feel his always beating heart.
(Maybe. If Gwaine had listened to his heart instead of Merlin's voice, maybe if Gwaine had chosen to stay with Merlin instead of leaving him at the mercy of a mad witch, maybe if Gwaine had stayed, it would be exactly what would be happening.)
'Don't go,' Gwen-Guinevere Pendragon-Merlin's oldest friend begs.
(Don't go, Gwaine's heart echoes her plea.)
Merlin's face turns impossibly tender. 'I am already gone, Gwen. This is only a small delay. I can not stay with you. Neither can Arthur.'
So Arthur also-
This day really is the worst of his life.
'What I am going to do without either of you?'
'You'll live. You'll thrive.'
Gwen shakes her head in denial and her beautiful face passes through Merlin's hands without her notice.
Gwaine notices and he struggles for breath.
This is yet another painful reminder that Merlin is already gone and is never coming back. There is no place for fantasy here. This is only a delay before he departs forever from their lives.
(Gwaine has really lost him.)
'You'll make us proud,' Merlin proclaims.
He closes on her and presses a kiss onto her brow. Gwen lets out a sigh and he wonders if, this time, she has felt Merlin.
'I know you will,' he speaks against her forehead. 'Because I know you and I believe in you.'
Merlin does not want to leave Gwen and Gwaine, especially considering the broken looks on their faces, but he has been allowed time after his death to say goodbye and there is someone he needs to see before he departs with Arthur.
Unfortunately, it seems that he can not leave the ground of Camlann.
He feels like it should leave him nervous, to be forced to stay in the place Arthur was failed. Instead, the fog becomes heavier on his mind and prevents him from feeling any bad emotions.
Merlin walks (or does he float? He is not sure) aimlessly until he sees Leon talking with a knight he faintly recognizes as Sir Geraint.
The knight sees him first, as Leon has his back turned, and gulps before he seems to regain his composure and simply points to him. Leon turns.
'Merlin,' he greets him.
'I can't go away.'
Leon swallows hard and Merlin thinks that maybe he should be trying to be a bit more mellow with him. It must be arduous, after all, to talk to a dead friend. But he finds it harder to exit the dream state he is in than when he was with Gwen and Gwaine only moments before (has it only been mere minutes? It seems like the sun has moved in the meantime).
'Why would you?,' he hears Leon ask as he looks at the sky.
Merlin slowly shakes his head before looking back at Leon. His friend has walked closer and is now starring patiently at him. Sir Geraint is nowhere in sight.
'I would have liked to visit my mother before leaving.'
Leon nods, understanding crossing his face while something else flashes in his eyes. Or maybe Merlin is just too slow to catch it. Yes, maybe this is it. He definitely finds it more difficult to stay aware than he did earlier.
He shakes his head more vigorously. He only has a few hours left, he can not let it go to waste. He needs to sharpen and fast.
'But I can't,' he speaks more firmly. 'So I'd like to write to her. One last letter. Would you mind writing it for-'
Leon interrupts him before he can finish his question, a thin, fond grin on his face. 'You don't even have to ask, Merlin.'
Merlin gives him an impish grin.
(Leon takes a deep inhale of breath and does not think about losing both his King and two of his dearest friends.)
'What do I write?'
'I had Leon write a letter for mom.'
Gaius' shoulders fall. 'Were there some things you could not get written that you wanted me to tell her?,' he inquiries, his words coming too slow for the usually sharp man.
But Gaius has lost his son. You can not expect him to feel sharp and vivacious.
'No. I said everything I wanted. There is no longer need to keep my secret anyway.'
That ball of anguish that has stuck itself in his throat since he has seen his dear boy's pure and shining soul grows.
'I will have it delivered to her.'
(He has failed him. Both him and Hunith.)
'I know what you're thinking,' his dear boy -
except that Merlin has not been a boy for a long time, has he? And now he is not even a man any longer, just a piece of the man Gaius has loved for the last ten years and cherished. The man Gaius will spent the rest of his life grieving for.
(His grief has dealt him a blow he does not think he will recover from. He does not expect to live many more years.)
-'I have had enough people apologizing today,' Merlin continues. 'I don't want you to do the same.'
'I don't want you to feel sorry. It happened and there is nothing that can be done now.' He faces him and smiles that ingenious smile Gaius has not seen in a long time. It frees something in him even as it leaves his heart with more wounds. 'I guess it simply was not our time yet. For me. For Arthur. For Albion. But.' He turns away from him and stares at the sun. 'I do not think it means it is the end. I think that between all of you; Gwen, you, Gwaine and Leon and Percival, you're going to build something.' He focuses his eyes on him and Gaius' breathe catches in his throat for the umpteenth time this day, this time not from grief however but at the glimmer that shines in his son's eyes. 'I have faith that you will do something good for everyone. Both magic users and not. Something that will live long in the minds of men.'
Merlin's left hand comes to rest on Gaius's right arm and Gaius swears he can feel his boy's warmth through his sleeve.
For you, my dear son, I will.
They all reunite in the royal tent as the sun begins its descent.
Guinevere sits next to the bed, her hands on her husband's, her eyes on his fair face. Gaius stands opposite her, his hands joined together and his eyes alternating between staring at his ward and his young King. Leon, Gwaine and Percival stand guard at the foot of the bed. The last living knights of the original Round Table, soon to be without their chosen leader.
And amongst them, always standing at his King's side, is Merlin. His attention is only for Arthur, not for his Queen and oldest friend, not for his father figure, nor for three of his dearest friends. But for Arthur who will soon join him.
They stay still and deep into utter silence as the sunlight slowly trickles away from the tent.
And then, night falls. Darkness fills in the tent like it falls into their heart. There is no candle to give them light, no magic to lighten their heart.
None, except for Merlin's glowy spirit.
It is beautiful and morbid. That a person's soul be the only thing left to give light to a darkened place.
(But Merlin has always been a guiding light to Arthur. Maybe it is fitting that his soul be there to light the path Arthur will take to his last resting place.)
They watch as Merlin's ghost walks over Arthur, lowers his head and murmurs in his ear: 'rise and shine, you lazy daisy.'
And then, they're both gone.
(And then, there's only the dark.)
Gwen sends the three of them to the Perilous Lands to retrieve Merlin's body.
(Gwaine thinks of Arthur's harsh words before that final battle that cost his friend his life: 'you've done enough.')
He accompanies his closest (living) friends, leaving the Queen alone with Gaius to lead a procession for Arthur and their fallen comrades back to Camelot.
(He takes note of the differences between Guinevere the Queen that bears her loss with grace and Gwen his friend who would not be separated from her husband's body even after Merlin took his soul. He thinks she may understand better than most the differences between Sir Gwaine who lost a friend and Gwaine who lost Merlin.)
They do not talk during their journey, not even to make some attempts at stilted conversations. And it resembles too much the days that followed Lancelot's first death.
(Except than there is no Merlin to comfort, no Arthur to lead them and no Elyan to encourage them to soldier on.)
(They make for a sad procession themselves.)
Once they finally reach the cave (Gwaine had left Merlin to die in) they are welcomed by the grim faces of Kay and Gideon.
'We could not free him,' Kay says, making Gwaine confused.
They understand his meaning only when they find Merlin's lifeless body.
It is lying in the middle of a cave full of crystals that glow from within (almost like Merlin did when he was alive and made everything shinier and happier). The ground surrounding his body is full of flowers which meanings are lost on him. Most importantly there are hundred of thin roots on Merlin's body, tying his legs, his torso and arms to the ground, like hundreds of hands trying to keep Merlin from leaving earth.
Trying and failing.
Because Merlin is no longer among them.
Gwaine finds that he can not look anymore and turns his face away, only for his gaze to fall on the sword he had given his friend. The useless sword that did nothing to help him.
(When he finds that witch he swears he will make her death a slow and painful one.)
He closes his eyes and focuses on the memory of Merlin's smile.
He hears Percival's deep footing walk away from them -closer to what is left of Merlin. 'It's alright,' the man whispers. 'You can let him go now.'
They lay Arthur's and Merlin's bodies side by side in a boat, as close in death as they had been in life, and send them to rest. It is a funeral fit for a King and it is for Arthur and Merlin both. Because Guinevere has never ruled alone, because they had been three to take care of Camelot, because they had been three to protect her and her people (because they had been three in this just as they had been three in this marriage)