Title: Your hearts beat as one
Rating: R (Series rating: R)
Character/s: Arthur, Merlin, Gwaine, Queen Annis, Mordred
Summary: Queen Annis knows.
Warnings: Buckets of angst (+ teeny spoilers for 5x02).
Word Count: 2620
Prompt: #30 Ghosts
Author's Notes: This is officially not a drabble series anymore, but a fic that I’m writing in increments and with prompts to guide me. Thank you so much, Yenny2206, for giving me permission to keep going anyway.
Arthur and Guinevere are not married in this verse! The topic will be expanded upon later.
You can find the rest of this series on AO3, or here at Camelot Drabble.
Part 3 follows on directly from part 2.
The King and his knights have certainly been naked together before, discarded their armour and raced down to the edge of a lake or a river, shouting for courage against the cold water, throwing themselves in with whoops of joy. So this is not the first time Arthur has watched Gwaine rub soap into Merlin’s hair, but he’s never been so sick with the sight. He has never paused to watch as Gwaine eases Merlin back to rinse out the suds, calloused hands gentle on Merlin’s temples. Gwaine has clearly cottoned on, realised that horsing around will not fix what is broken in Merlin.
It scares Arthur to the core to think that Gwaine might find out, that Merlin might tell him. Gwaine is no saint, but Arthur has become a black and shrivelled thing, and next to him, Gwaine shines white. His judgement, as Camelot’s best knight and Merlin’s best friend, would be unbearable.
Merlin sighs, and Gwaine smiles and rubs Merlin’s shoulders. “Feels nice to be clean again?”
Merlin looks over his shoulder with a smile, but it still doesn’t reach his eyes, and Arthur thinks he might throw up as he realises that his own presence in the tub is making the water dirty. He wants to scrub at his skin until only his bones are left.
“Thank you,” Merlin says, and the sound of his voice is sweet torture. Arthur can’t take it. He turns around and climbs quickly out of the tub.
“Where are you going?” Percival asks, confused.
Arthur shakes his head, which makes his drunken dizziness worse, and he steps quickly towards the changing room.
Then, horror of horrors, Merlin is calling after him. “Do you need me to-”
Arthur shuts the door behind himself, cutting off the sound. Was Merlin really about to offer to dress him? His traitorous mind immediately supplies the scenario; Merlin following him into the changing room, naked like Arthur. He’d pick up a towel and run it all over Arthur’s body, to dry him. Then Arthur would take the towel and say “Your turn”, and Merlin would smile brilliantly, and Arthur would reach out-
Arthur rubs himself dry until his skin is red and raw, but the dirt is underneath, where he can’t get at it. He pulls his pants on and tucks his half-hard cock away quickly, lest his hands get any ideas about lingering. How can this thing unmake him in two different ways at once? How can the scene of his crime also be the scene of his dream come true?
Upon their return to Caerleon, Arthur had been given a set of clothes to replace the Saxon gear he had worn in Ismere. He pulls on sturdy, dark trousers, fur-lined boots, a proper belt for his sword, and a fine white shirt. Arthur doesn’t think he’ll ever wear white again, once he returns to Camelot. It feels like a lie against his skin.
He has to brace himself before going back outside, and he tries to keep his strides even and slow, nodding his regrets to the men who wonder why he is leaving when he only just arrived. He makes no excuses, however, as he has none. He doesn’t look in Merlin’s direction.
In his chambers he finds his jacket, a short, tough-skinned thing, also fur-lined. He stops there only long enough to pull the garment on, and then he’s walking through the castle, climbing staircases wherever he finds them, until he’s on the battlements. The wind stings here, and it sobers him up. He stands there, all alone and floating somewhere between deep thought and blank existence, until it becomes too cold, and then he sits down just inside the doorway, where he can still look up at the blue sky.
Too soon, they had been dragged out of their forced embrace and hurled back out of the circle of light. With their bound hands once more tied with long ropes to the end of the wagon, they had lain down back to back and tried to sleep. When his eyes had adjusted to the darkness, Arthur had begun to notice other prisoners watching them, eyes pitying, mocking, envious or disgusted. Slowly, the rabble around the fire had quieted down, falling asleep one by one until only a watchman remained, sitting with his back to the prisoners.
Snores had filled the little hollow.
Arthur had thought Merlin lost to the world as well, until he noticed subtle movement against his back. At first, he couldn’t tell what it meant, until he heard a scraping sound, and Merlin hissed quietly. More muffled gasps followed, until Arthur had realised that Merlin was using snow to clean himself.
Arthur thinks he would have liked to turn around, pull Merlin around to face him, scoot down and peal his trouser flaps away with stiff fingers, lean in and lick melted snow and bitter spend away, dragging his mouth over sensitive skin until Merlin made softer, more urgent sounds.
He jolts awake in the doorway, his body aching from being curled up on the unyielding stones, and feeling windswept and empty. He senses that he’s late for the feast.
He gets lost on the way back because he refuses to ask the guards for directions, but once he gets to the ground level of the castle, he regains his bearings. At least until he finds Mordred in the hallway outside the feasting hall. The young man is standing indecisively before the door, arms hanging limply at his sides, and he turns too soon, as if he senses Arthur before he hears him.
Every step forward takes Arthur back; the torches on the wall become a campfire, the Caerleon soldiers at the door become bandits, and Mordred’s eyes weigh him down with what they know. I saw, they say. But as usual, there is no judgement to be found, no trace of what Mordred might think of Arthur in the wake of that night.
Arthur clears his throat, stopping next to the young druid and gesturing to the door. “Waiting for an invitation?”
Mordred smiles, looks down and shakes his head. “I am used to taking my meals alone and out of doors. I am unfit for celebrations such as these.”
Arthur understands. He recalls that Mordred was not at the baths either. “Don’t worry,” he says. “You’re one of us, now. You’re welcome.” He pushes open the door before he can lose his nerve, and they enter together. There is a lull in the merry-making as people turn to see who has arrived.
Merlin straightens up too fast from where he was bent close to the Queen, and whatever she was saying dies on her lips. Merlin is dressed in plain Caerleon fashion, but rather than make him plain in turn, the dark browns enhance the whiteness of his soft, clean skin, and the shocking blue of his eyes. Arthur feasts on the sight because he’s a glutton for punishment, and because his closed throat will allow him no other sustenance tonight.
“Forgive my late arrival, Your Majesty,” he says as he walks along the table to his seat.
Merlin backs away, holding his jug of wine in front of himself like a shield. He needn’t worry; Arthur won’t be calling on him.
When Arthur sits down, Annis’ smile is quick, but her eyes are not kind, and it makes Arthur wonder. Servants come with trays, and he lets them fill his plate, though his body protests the sight and smell of food. Slowly, the noise level rises again, as the knights, lords and ladies drink and laugh together. Arthur picks at his food in order to avoid questions, and catches sight of Mordred further down the table, sitting between Sir Bedivere and Sir Pelliam.
Finally, Queen Annis asks lightly, “So, Arthur, will you regale me with your adventures in Ismere, or must I wait for the bard's version?”
Her tone is too light, her expression too carefully neutral.
Arthur puts down his knife. “Of course, my lady. Though it’s not much of an adventure.” She leans back in her chair expectantly. He begins at the beginning, with the uneventful ride they had through Caerleon into Ismere, coming quickly to Morgana’s surprise attack on their party only a few miles past the border. He wonders out loud how Morgana knew of their plan, expressing his concern for Camelot, left behind without a ruler, but he soon moves on because the Queen’s expression is becoming impatient.
As he speaks of the battle, the flow of his words slow down. “I was ... wounded, a blow to my back, after which I remember nothing until I woke up in safety.” He swallows, breath heavy in his chest. He is surrounded by eager listeners, with eyes trained on his narrative, and this is the part where he cannot avoid the name anymore. The name he hasn’t spoken for days. “But I have come to understand that ... Merlin dragged me from the melee and hid me from Morgana.”
Before he can go on, the Queen turns and beckons to Merlin. Merlin, who is all the way over by the wall. Merlin, who comes only reluctantly, eyes on the floor like he’s done something wrong.
“You impress yet again, Merlin,” the Queen says, “Spiriting Arthur away right under Morgana’s nose. I should like to know how you did it.”
Merlin shrugs. “I didn’t do anything special. I just ran.”
The Queen looks from Merlin to Arthur, clearly expecting some comment from him. Arthur mirrors Merlin’s shrug. An awkward moment passes in which it becomes clear that this is not going to develop into a conversation, before Arthur tries to save the situation by moving his tale forward. His next words place himself and Merlin at the foot of the citadel, looking for a way in. Everything in between is a bad dream.
He explains how they rallied the slaves and overwhelmed the unsuspecting Saxons. He leaves out the Diamair, but gives what details he can on Morgana, especially her new pet dragon. While he speaks, he goes through the events mentally, recalling each look that passed between himself and Merlin, trying to interpret the nature of the silence that hung between them, and bitterly longing to experience again the sweetness of Merlin’s eager sacrifice of himself to the dragon, and the equally sweet, simple choice Arthur made to go after him. He wonders if they’ll have to be in mortal peril from now on in in order for their old ways to return to them.
“You are deceiving me, Arthur Pendragon.”
Annis’ voice is hard as flint, her mouth set in a thin line, but Arthur can only stare uncomprehendingly back at her. The Queen lets her hand sweep the room. “Look around, Arthur, and see if you can’t recognise a few of the faces at the table.”
Arthur looks, sees his own knights, but obviously that’s not what Annis means, so he keeps looking. And then the first familiar face appears, and a second, and a third. There are men here at court who were Ragnor’s prisoners at the same time as Arthur and Merlin. Like ghosts, they have torn themselves out of Arthur’s bad dream, and sit at the table in the guise of mortal men. Arthur knows better, though; they are but spectres come to destroy him.
He can’t breathe. He tries to sense Merlin’s presence behind him, but Merlin has retreated back to the wall, and Arthur can’t turn around, cannot complete the connection the Queen is asking him to make, in front of the ghosts who know.
The Queen looks triumphant. “So you see, I know more than you think, Pendragon. Now will you tell me-”
“No!” He’s standing, horrified. How can she suggest that he speak at all, let alone here? His heart is beating so fast.
Her eyes widen in surprise and outrage. “But I demand it.”
He pushes his chair back in order to retreat, takes a step.
Queen Annis stands slowly, a pillar of strength, raising her hand once more to sweep the table. “Don’t you think my men deserve an explanation? How can you call yourself their saviour, my friend and ally, and commit such acts behind my back?”
Arthur is wild and lost. He backs up another step. All eyes are on him now, wondering, judging, burning him.
And then Merlin charges in between Arthur and the Queen.
“Your Majesty,” he appeals to her. “Please stop-”
“Merlin, don’t!” This cannot be Merlin asking for mercy on Arthur’s behalf. Arthur’s heart will break for sure.
Merlin turns to him. “She has no right to ask this of you!”
Queen Annis goes white. “You will teach your fool manners, Pendragon.”
Arthur grits his teeth. “Merlin, let me handle this.”
Merlin looks as wild as Arthur feels. “But it was my fault!”
Arthur’s heart breaks.
“Arthur!” Mordred. He is standing as well now. Silence trails in the wake of his shout. He looks down at the table, clearing his throat. “I think she means me.”
Arthur shakes his head, uncomprehending. “What?”
Mordred bites his lip. “Her Majesty has been informed that I was in Ragnor’s party. She wants to know why you brought me here as one of your men.”
The Queen casts Mordred a look full of anger, but it is softened by confusion. “Is that not what we were talking about?” She turns back to Arthur, anger draining further at what she sees in his face.
“Oh,” Arthur says, his legs turning liquid in combined relief and mortification.
“Oh,” Merlin echoes softly.
Annis raises an eyebrow. “What on earth did you think I was accusing you of, Arthur Pendragon?” she says, her tone considerably gentler.
Arthur can feel his whole face glowing hot. His heart is still thundering away in his chest, and now his eyes are tearing up as well.
Merlin blames himself.
Merlin is staring down at the table, face and ears as red as Arthur’s must be, body still like a statue, as if he thinks he can disappear from the spot if he ceases to move, to breathe.
Arthur breathes for him, deeply. “I ... Mordred saved my life. He deserves a second chance.”
The Queen is, however, no longer quite so interested in Mordred. “You two should sit down, you look ready to faint.”
Arthur shakes his head. “I need to retire. ... Merlin?”
Merlin nods quickly and is suddenly all movement, putting his pitcher down so hard he spills wine on his own hands, backing up and walking stiffly down the table’s length towards the door. Gwaine is up a second later, going after him. Now, Arthur thinks, Now he will know.
Arthur bows shortly to the Queen and forces himself to meet her eyes.
“We can speak of Mordred in the morning, if it pleases you. Until then, perhaps the man himself can convince you of his worth better than I can.”
He takes two steps backwards, turns on his heel and walks out with his eyes fixed on the door, pretending his voice was not shaking, pretending he doesn’t hear the Queen call his name, pretending he doesn’t hear the whispers that have risen like the tide.
Merlin is not outside, and neither is Gwaine.
Humiliated and wretched, Arthur can barely make his leaden body carry him to his chambers, and once outside that door he tries and fails to brace himself for what comes next, but when he finally manages to go inside, Merlin isn’t there either. The bed is still made, the hearth is cold, and the curtains are drawn back from the window, through which Arthur sees a world that has changed utterly.