Rating: R-ish (Series rating: R)
Character/s: Artur, Merlin, Guinevere, Elena, Galahad
Summary: Emrys' secret is revealed.
Warnings: Angst like woah!
Word Count: 4848
Prompt: #50 Celebration
Author's Notes: This story will soon be ready to be posted in Camelot_Novel.
You can find the rest of this series on AO3, or here at Camelot Drabble.
EDIT as of 01.06.13: Reuploaded the chapter with edits. Fixed some cringe-worthy dialogue and bad prose.
The castle thrives with life, busy like a beehive. Arthur breathes it in, and closes his eyes as the familiarity of the scents and sounds sweeps through him. The Midwinter festival is in only a week’s time, and for the first time this year he feels the thrill of anticipation, as if he is a child again and going crazy wondering what his presents will be. In the air is the sharp, green tang of pine, the dusty smell of decorations newly emerged from the bottoms of chests, and from the kitchens drifts a warm, tantalising hint of roasting and baking. The preparations have been going on for at least a week already, but having awoken, not just from a brush with death, but sprung as a new man from Gaius’ sickroom, Arthur notices all these things as if they are new.
On the griffin landing, a group of girls are decorating a tree, and someone has tied a red ribbon around the griffin’s neck.
He manages to pretend that he is fine until he gets to a miraculously empty corridor. There is an alcove with a window and he winds up there, pressing his face against the glass and fighting to breathe, as his life is rewritten backwards, to the moment of his conception, not a union of love as he has always believed, but a ritual. Nimueh created him, placed him in the Queen’s womb to take his life from her like some ... No, he cannot go down that path. If he allows himself to think like that he will despair. Arthur looks down at his hands, and wonders that each nail, each hair, is made from magic, but when he tightens his hands into fists, he feels the calluses on his palms, where the skin has been toughened by years of hard work with the sword. It helps him calm down.
The sound of people approaching reaches his ears, and he composes himself quickly, taking off down the corridor towards his room.
Gwaine always says that a man’s actions determine who he is. How he lives his life is more important than whether he was born in a bed or a barn. Arthur believes, must believe, that he would have lived his life the same, if he had been made of the stuff everyone else is made of. He must believe that being magic does not make him the puppet of magic.
By the time he reaches his room, he is no longer sleepy, just tired. He hopes fiercely that Merlin is still asleep, so that Arthur doesn’t have to explain anything or deal with anything or think at all for a while longer. Arthur opens the door just enough to slip through.
He needn’t have bothered to be careful. Merlin is up, and he is not alone. He and Guinevere are on opposite sides of the room: Merlin loitering by the window, watching uncomfortably as Guinevere struggles to change the bed, the old bedclothes pooled around her feet. The air in the room is thick with awkward silence.
Arthur’s hopes for a long morning in bed die.
They both stop to look at him when he enters, and for a moment they are all staring at each other. Then Guinevere curtseys at him for some fool reason, like she hasn’t done for years, and Merlin, as surprised by it as Arthur, hurries to bow, a stiff, half-formed motion.
Arthur looks from the one to the other. “Has something happened?” he asks. Gwen flat out ignores him, turning back to the bed. Merlin bites his lower lip and looks at her like he wants badly to relieve her of the job, but doesn’t dare to.
Arthur dares. “Guinevere, that is not your job,” he says, crossing the room to her, and taking hold of the new sheet that she is trying to drag across the mattress. She fights him for it, her shoulder bumping into his chest as he tries to get a hold on her.
“George isn't feeling well,” she says, voice thick and foreign, “So I thought I could-. I thought ...” Her voice grows increasingly agitated, until Arthur manages to pull the sheets out of her trembling hands. She immediately walks over to the wall and stands there awkwardly with her arms around herself.
He follows her. “Gwen, what is this-?”
The first sob stops him in his tracks. She covers her mouth with both hands and tries to smother the sound of the second and the third.
Arthur looks over his shoulder at Merlin, who gestures to himself and to Arthur, and to the bed. He looks tired and unhappy. ‘She knows,’ he mouths.
Arthur takes a deep breath and releases it in a long, silent sigh. Then he firms his jaw, reaches out and pulls Guinevere resolutely out of her huddle, and into his arms. He holds her tight against his body, and strokes her hair while she breaks down and sobs helplessly into his shoulder.
“I'm sorry,” he says. “I don't know what else to say.”
She shakes her head, but can’t speak yet, and so Arthur just holds her for a while, stroking the nape of her neck. She has braided her hair and twined it around her head, leaving only a few loose curls to frame her face. In her simple dress, she looks years younger. Sweet like a girl.
“I'm so h-happy that you solved things ... between you,” she says eventually, resting her forehead against his breast, voice sore and small. “I don't know why I ... I mean, I was really hoping you would ... It's not like I have any right-.” Her voice breaks, and she shuts her mouth quickly, fresh tears spilling from her tightly closed eyes.
Arthur cups her cheek and makes her look up at him. He kisses her temple. “You will always be my love, and if I am still yours then I think it does us credit. You have every right.”
Merlin makes a tight, pained sound. He stands alone in the middle of the floor, watching them hungrily, fearfully. He looks like he wants to bolt.
“Come here,” Arthur says, and it comes out rough. He extends a hand, but Merlin looks uncertain, looks to Gwen, and doesn't come.
So she adds her hand. “Come, Merlin.”
And now Merlin comes, taking both their hands and pressing them to his chest. “I wouldn't come between you,” he says fiercely, not looking at them. “If you wanted to try again.” And that's just so typical him: sacrificing everything, denying himself.
Gwen seems to think the same, and shares a knowing smile with Arthur through her tears. “It's too late for that.”
Merlin frowns, blinking fast as his eyes grow shiny. Guinevere pulls him in for a hug, murmuring comforting nonsense. Arthur extends his embrace so he is holding them both. It feels strange, to have his arm around Merlin's waist, to feel him stand so close without them having been driven to the intimacy by cold, or fear or necessity. It feels good. He wishes he could have them both, the boy and the girl. The familiar scents of their bodies sting deliciously in his throat, better than pine and smoking fires, and the warmth of them sink into his bones and heal him. Magic did not make him who he is today. The two people in his arms did.
“When Arthur asked me to make my choice,” Gwen whispers to Merlin. “We talked about Lancelot, and how he would always be with us. That it would be a marriage of three. And we didn't talk about you at all, because Arthur was too shy to admit to me how much he loved you.”
Arthur's face goes hot and red, while Merlin lights up like it's his birthday. Really, was that necessary?
“Guinevere,” Arthur singsongs, warningly.
Oh, but now they have matching grins, and Arthur feels himself outnumbered and in trouble.
“Our King has trouble sharing his feelings. You should have heard him going on about you before you confessed to each other,” Merlin says. “I had to fill in half his sentences with my imagination.”
“I am right here,” Arthur reminds them helpfully.
But Merlin has selective hearing at the best of times.
“It's a wonder he's done so well for himself, considering how much of a constipated prat he is.”
Guinevere smothers laughter against Arthur's shirt.
“You are not getting any presents from me this year,” Arthur says. His tone is not sullen.
But he catches Merlin's eyes, and there is so much love there, and happiness. Arthur finds himself swallowing around a dry throat. For a long moment he can't look away, actually can't move, and when he tears away at last, Guinevere is watching them, happy and sad at the same time.
She takes a step back, removing herself from their embrace, catches their falling hands and joins them together. “It seems unfair that we should all be so unhappy because of an excess of love.” She sighs, but a moment later she lifts her chin and is firm and steady like a rock. “I was given a choice, and that, Arthur Pendragon, was the greatest gift anyone has ever given to me.” She smiles bravely. “And I am very happy. For myself, and for you both.”
Merlin fidgets in place. “Can I hug you again before we remember that I'm just a servant?”
This time, Arthur steps back, giving them room. He has a sudden memory of seeing their dark heads bent together in secret exchanges, their light feet running across the courtyard, solemn eyes watching him side-by-side from a crowd. He remembers the time Merlin tried to confess to sorcery to save Gwen.
Years later, Emrys would do the same. Gwen inspires compassion in everyone ... except Uther, Arthur's blind, grieving father.
Arthur clears his throat. “I ... I have something I need to tell you both.” Adrenaline and fear rushes in, but he needs to share this with his dearest companions. They will not judge him. They will understand how raw, how small he feels in the wake of Gaius' revelation.
They separate, and look at him expectantly. Arthur tries to smile reassuringly, but it comes out tremulous. “It's sort of a long story.”
They sit by the fireplace, Merlin on the rug, Arthur and Guinevere in the chairs. Guinevere's hand is warm and solid in Arthur’s as he slowly recounts the story Gaius told him.
When he done, there is a pause.
“I was the King’s champion in the fight against magic,” Arthur says. “Each victory strengthened our belief that swords and sweat, and the King’s law were more powerful than spells and potions. The wisdom of healers was considered a fair price to pay for ridding our land of deviant sorcerers and devouring dragons.” He swallows bile. “How my father boasted of me. His bloodhound. While all along, the thing he was celebrating was a creation of the enemy. And he knew.”
But Guinevere shakes her head. “I will no longer believe that magic is evil, if it created you.” She leans forward, insistently. “Arthur, you are who you are, and Camelot has never known such peace and prosperity as under your rule. Whether man or magic, you have done well.”
Arthur figures he must have done something right, since life granted him this angel at his side.
But Merlin is silent. He sits with his back to the chairs, looking into the fire, shoulders raised and tense. Arthur knows the way Merlin looks when he has been caught red handed stealing from Arthur’s plate, or when he is bursting with criticism but knows he isn’t allowed to speak. This is not like those times. This is a different kind of guilt and restraint, of a niggling, but unplaceable familiarity.
“Whatever you knew,” Arthur says to those shoulders and the back of that dark head. “Whatever you have kept from me ... I don't want to know it, Merlin. I understand that Gaius is like a father to you, and that you are loyal to him. I will forgive him, in time, and I forgive you now. Gaius told me he did his best to keep you in the dark, and I have accepted his word.”
Merlin grows smaller, and it doesn't matter how much muscle he has put on in the past three years, how far he has come from the scrawny puppy that used to stumble his way around Arthur's chambers, he is still just a boy underneath it all. A boy who cannot bear to be guilty.
It provokes Arthur, makes his voice harder. “What I cannot bear is another lie. Not one more, Merlin. Not from Gaius, not from anyone. Do you understand?”
Merlin doesn’t move.
“Do you understand me, Merlin?”
Merlin nods, jerkily.
Arthur sighs, falling back in his chair like he has fought a battle. “Get me some clothes, will you?”
Merlin scrambles up and away without meeting Arthur’s eyes.
“Shouldn’t you be in bed?” Guinevere asks. “Both of you?”
Arthur looks at her with raised eyebrows.
Her eyes widen. “I didn’t mean-! You should be resting. Merlin has a fever, and you ... you ...” She opens and closes her mouth while Arthur struggles not to grin. “Arthur Pendragon, you know what I meant.”
He laughs. “I promise not to overexert myself ... or Merlin.”
She rolls her eyes, but smiles as she rises from the chair. “I will leave you to dress, my lord.” He takes her hand as she moves away, and they share a look, affirming that they are alright, or at least will be, in time. Arthur cannot say he faults her for having chosen freedom, when the choice was offered her. She had been so surprised, as if no one had ever asked her if she had any dreams of her own before.
And Arthur, for his endurance of the pain of losing her, and for his later generosity to her, has been rewarded with Merlin. Difficult, remarkable, foolish Merlin, who is currently pausing in the act of selecting a shirt for Arthur, to receive a peck on the cheek and some secret words from Gwen.
She leaves. For a while there is only the sound of Merlin rummaging in the wardrobe. Then he comes over with the clothes, starts to lay them out on the table.
Arthur waits to be called.
What comes first is something else, though. “What will you ask Emrys, when you meet him?” Merlin asks quietly.
Arthur snorts. “Many, many, many questions. We’ll start with his life story, the full extent of his powers, and what the hell he thinks he is doing in my kingdom.” He counts off on his fingers. “But most importantly,” he says, his heart aching as he thinks of the pale boy in Gaius’ sickroom. “I intend to demand that he heal Mordred.”
Merlin stops what he is doing. “Heal Mordred?”
Arthur realises Merlin probably isn’t aware of what happened yesterday. He rises, comes over to the table. “I wasn’t the only one injured,” he says, fingering the thick, red jacket that Merlin has spread out on the table. “Mordred took a blow to the head when he fell from his horse. His other wounds are healing, but he won’t wake. Gaius says all we can do is wait.”
Merlin’s face is white, the clothes he is still holding forgotten. The room, Arthur, all the world seems to have disappeared for him as he stares, unseeing, into the fire in the hearth. Arthur wonders. He knows from speaking with Mordred that he and Merlin don’t get along very well. Is Merlin afraid he won’t get the chance to change that? Arthur grips Merlin’s shoulder, catches his eyes and brings him back to the present.
“Don’t worry, Merlin. Emrys can heal Mordred, and he will, or his stay here in Camelot will come to a very unpleasant end, that I promise you.”
Merlin nods, looking like he didn’t even hear what Arthur said.
The bundle of clothes falls unceremoniously to the floor, and Merlin follows, kneeling down and taking Arthur’s hand in his, pressing his forehead to the knuckles.
“What’s gotten into you?” Arthur asks.
Merlin grimaces like he is in pain, rubs his lips against the inside of Arthur’s wrist and presses himself closer, hands sliding up the back of Arthur’s thighs to hold on tight.
Heat rushes through Arthur. He traces Merlin’s lips before giving him his fingers to suck. Merlin takes them with a hungry moan. His mouth is hot like a furnace, and he sucks hard, making Arthur’s very veins tingle with pleasure.
And still, Merlin looks like he is in agony.
Arthur runs his free hand through Merlin’s hair. “What’s this then?” he asks again, gently. “So wanton suddenly.”
Merlin lets go of Arthur’s fingers only to fasten his lips to the front of Arthur’s sleep breeches, opening his mouth wide to take as much as he can of the hard, urgent flesh trapped and held there. Arthur hisses as Merlin’s applies his suck to the thickening root of Arthur’s cock.
He tightens his grip in Merlin’s hair and makes himself pull him back. Merlin’s protest is almost feral, eyes fever-bright as he tugs against the hold, wanting back on his prize, but Arthur holds him still, makes him look up.
“You said you would wait for me,” he reminds Merlin sternly.
Merlin whimpers, nails digging into Arthur’s thighs. He closes his eyes and says in a rush, “I need to be with you.”
Arthur hauls him up and into his arms, holds him hard enough to bruise, one hand still in the boy’s hair. “You are with me.” He rubs their cheeks together, trying to soothe, to gentle the wild, trembling creature in his embrace. Merlin’s skin is burning. “As I am with you.”
They pull back to look at each other. Merlin looks broken.
“Forget what I said earlier,” Arthur says. “Tell me what’s wrong.”
Instead, Merlin leans in and kisses him. Merlin’s kisses are sweet. He seems always to start with his lips puckered, like he is seven years old and stealing a kiss from a playmate, but once Arthur get’s his tongue in Merlin’s mouth, it’s all honest need and enthusiasm. Merlin is shameless in greed and inexperience both and it sets Arthur on fire, gets him all ready to conquer. There won’t be any new territory explored today, though; Arthur still isn’t ready. He settles for dominating the kiss, and teaching Merlin what feels good and what feels even better.
Little by little, Merlin melts, until he is quivering with pleasure rather than the strange emotion of before. Only then does Arthur ease back, holding Merlin gently by the throat to keep him from pursuing.
“Strange creature,” he says affectionately, and gives Merlin one more peck on the lips.
Merlin scrunches up his nose in dissatisfaction. “Tease.”
Arthur laughs. “Me? You were rubbing yourself all over me just a moment ago.”
“I would have followed through,” Merlin says stubbornly.
Arthur growls and tightens his hand around Merlin’s throat, leaning in. “Who says I won’t follow through?”
Merlin struggles to swallow, going limp in Arthur’s hold, while red fills his cheeks. This has always been a contradiction in Merlin; most of the time, he responds to authority like a cat takes a bath, but other times he will lap up Arthur’s commands like cream. Arthur decides he might as well take advantage while it lasts.
“Get my clothes up off the floor, Merlin, and there had better not be a wrinkle on them.”
Sure enough, Merlin’s eyes darken like he loves it, and he is swiftly back on his knees when Arthur lets him go.
Getting the clothes on proves to be a process full of distractions, but not unpleasant such. It just means it takes a little longer before Arthur can pull his boots on and put his arms into the sleeves of his thick, red jacket. Merlin steps back to admire his work, while Arthur waits with a lifted eyebrow.
“Not from so little, Sire,” Merlin replies cheekily. It’s true, they are both in a bit of a state, but Merlin is calmer than he was, at least; Arthur’s promise seems to have gotten through to him.
Arthur gets his sword belt off the table and thrusts it into Merlin’s hands. “Patience, Merlin, have you heard the term?”
Merlin helps Arthur on with the belt, and goes to get his sword to hand by his side. “I’m just a poor servant, my lord, I don’t speak any foreign languages.”
There is a knock on the door.
The door is barely opened before Galahad comes running through, trailing what looks to be a blue curtain from his little fists. Princess Elena follows him. She stops to curtsey, and Merlin bows to her, but Galahad feels no such necessity, and runs right up to Merlin to hold out the curtain to him.
Merlin takes it slowly.
It’s a cloak, Arthur realises. It has a hood of sorts, but mostly there are just yards and yards of ornately embroidered, blue fabric.
“That looks familiar,” Arthur mumbles. He feels it with his fingers, and wrings his mind to remember where he is has seen it before.
Elena takes Galahad on her hip. “Emrys wore it last night, when he met us on the road. Galahad must have found it somewhere. I thought we should bring it to you.”
Arthur’s eyes widen. Yes, this is the same material of the clothes he wore in Caerleon, but there was no such cloak in that ensemble.
“Galahad,” Arthur says, trying not to sound too shaken. “Can you show me where you found this?” There is a rushing in his ears, grim excitement making his heart pound.
The boy nods enthusiastically and wiggles out of his mother’s grasp. He grabs Arthur's hand, and almost pulls him to his knees in his eagerness to get going. Arthur follows as best he can, startled by the contrast of the child's soft little hand with the memory of Merlin's large, slender one. They have a similarly strong grip, though.
“Merlin, you should stay,” Arthur says in the doorway. “Your fever isn’t down yet.”
“I’m coming with you,” Merlin says, and something in his voice keeps Arthur from arguing.
Once in the hallway, Elena coaxes Galahad to let Arthur go by offering the child her own hand instead. Fair and light-footed, mother and child lead Arthur and Merlin towards the South Wing.
Galahad doesn't hesitate for a moment, descending staircases and weaving left or right down hallways. Finally, he turns a corner and takes off at a run, stopping in front of an open door. There is nothing remarkable about the room beyond. Arthur steps inside and looks around. It's simply an abandoned room, stacked with all kinds of old and useless things, but there is a clear track in the dust from where the cloak has been dragged across the floor.
“I don't understand,” Arthur says to the room at large. “Why would he leave it here?” The unbroken dust on everything else suggests that if Emrys was here, he didn't linger, but then again, for all Arthur knows, the old man could have replaced the dust with magic. The trail from the cloak must come from when Galahad found it.
“It is rather conspicuous,” Elena comments, taking the cloak from Merlin and holding it up. “This is not a tailor's work.”
Arthur agrees. The thing looks bizarre, the length of the hem uneven without being broken, and the hood protruding from the edge like an afterthought. It is also far too big to be convenient.
“Once he was inside, perhaps it was easier to hide without the cloak than with it?” Elena suggests.
Arthur shakes his head. “How could he hide? All my guards have his description. Many of my knights have met him in person, or seen him from afar. With or without the cloak, he would have been stopped.”
He looks to Merlin, but Merlin just shakes his head mutely. For once, he has nothing to offer.
Arthur has a thought. This wing lies far from the entrance hall, and Emrys certainly did not enter that way, but there is another way in, one few are aware of. “He must have used the crypt to get inside,” he says to Merlin.
Merlin looks momentarily startled, then lapses into a sort of helpless shrug. Arthur frowns, and raises an eyebrow to ask, again, what is wrong, while Galahad distracts his mother by playing hide and seek under the cloak.
Merlin shakes his head, swallows. “Yeah. He must have.”
Arthur leads the way when they leave the room, with Galahad skipping along beside him. The child seems tireless. Arthur on the other hand feels restless, jittery. Emrys is here. He might be in the castle right now, hiding somewhere. But why? How does he go unnoticed? How many tricks does the crazy old goat have?
And if he can come and go in the castle as he pleases, why not stay in the forest, rather than inside, where he must take pains to hide and disguise himself?
Arthur stops abruptly. “Your Majesty ...”
Elena cocks her head, waits for him.
“Even with the cloak, there was never any doubt that it was Emrys who saved me. We all knew it was him, and Gaius didn't pretend otherwise either. So why did he disguise himself in the first place? Why wear the cloak at all?”
It seems like a monstrously important question all of a sudden.
“Maybe he was cold?” Merlin supplies, and of course, when he finally opens his mouth it's to say something stupid.
Arthur grabs a handful of the cloak, which is back in Merlin's arms. “This thing wouldn't keep you warm in the summer.”
They have stopped again, so Arthur paces between the walls. “Why does a man disguise his appearance, when his identity is not in question?”
“Come on,” Merlin says sullenly. “We should go look at the crypt.”
Galahad is already at the next corner, bouncing on the balls of his feet.
They come to the stairs. The handful of guards they pass all straighten up in alarm when they see the King. Arthur walks by without comment; he would slouch too if he had to stand guard in an empty corridor all day. The little party descends until they reach the crypt. The light from Arthur’s torch reveals a wide path through the dust, same as in the room above.
“The cloak must have trailed on the floor,” Arthur mumbles as they walk towards the light at the end of the tunnel.
“It was certainly long enough,” Elena comments. “He was none to steady on his feet, though.” The trail careens wildly from one of the tunnel to the other, like Emrys was drunken, or exhausted.
Arthur shrugs. “He is an old man, and from what I have been told, he performed an impressive feat of magic, healing me.”
“Old man?” Elena has stopped.
“Yes.” She wouldn't know, of course, because of the cloak. “He's old. Long white hair, long white beard, and the rest of him is all bent and wrinkly. Think curmudgeon.” While in Caerleon he was willing to grant Emrys greater depth, he is beginning to think the man's mood swings are actually down to insanity.
“The sorcerer last night was not old,” Elena says. “He rode like a young man, easy in the saddle, and though I could not see his face, I would have seen if he had a beard.”
For a long moment, Arthur can't speak. He looks at Merlin, and their eyes share between them the enormity of this information.
“Merlin,” Arthur says carefully.
Merlin shakes his head. He looks as surprised by this as Arthur is. Arthur gives him a hard look, and Merlin trembles like a faun, but he has been like this all morning.
“I thought he was old,” Merlin says finally, voice little more than a whisper. “I haven’t seen him more than a couple of times.”
“Are you absolutely certain of this?” Arthur asks Elena.
She nods calmly. “Dagonet will confirm it. Old men do not ride like he did.”
Arthur breathes in carefully. “So that’s what he was hiding underneath the cloak. Disguising the lack of disguise.” He turns to Merlin so abruptly that Merlin startles and almost drops the cloak. Arthur rolls his eyes. “Don’t worry, Merlin, you’re not going back to the stocks. I want to call the round table immediately. Invite Lord Caradoc as well, if he feels up to it, and I have to see Dagonet to confirm Princess Elena's account. Use any and all knights you meet to get the word out.”
Merlin stands stiffly, like the barrage of orders is threatening to topple him.
“Well, hop to it!” Arthur says.
Merlin turns, steps on the trailing hem of the cloak and almost falls before he gets his feet under him and is on his way back down the corridor.
Merlin stops and looks back. Arthur can't make out his face in the darkness.
“Return to me as quickly as you can.”
Standing in the open entrance at the other end of the tunnel, Galahad reaches his chubby little hands towards the light.