gigantomachy: (arthur/merlin)
gigantomachy ([personal profile] gigantomachy) wrote on March 12th, 2010 at 02:58 am
[merlin] what happens next
Notes: Oh my god, this fandom is so talented and I'm feeling a little ten years old and kinda chubby and in last year's bathing suit, vaguely terrified of even looking too hard at the pool. Alas, one of several plot bunnies that refuse to move until humored. I know fuck-all about England -- well, that and Arthurian legend, for that matter (and studying the legends isn't terribly helpful, considering how confusing those are). Still, if you can forgive the show for its inaccuracies, surely mine won't seem quite so bold.

So this is a bit of a future-fic (but not too-future), and there's spoilers for The Lady of the Lake, which is 2x ... something. Nine or ten, probably. Around 4500 words, for those who keep score. Sort of slashy, which is to say no making out, boo.

Also, I just realized that Arthur and Merlin's post-revelation relationship seems like it would go a lot like Tehol Beddict and his goofy manservant Bugg's (who just happens to also be the much less goofy Mael, elder god of the seas) did, with slightly less lulz and much more destiny. Except, y'know, Arthur was born to be king versus Tehol, who kind of stumbled into it by being obscenely clever and financially decimating his own empire, derp.

Summary: Merlin does not say "this is the water where I've buried our would-be loves, women and swords alike." Merlin takes the newly-crowned King on a fetch mission; both find far more than they expected.

what happens next
(keep staring like you've never seen the stars)

"Here, sire." There's something muted in the way Merlin breathes those words, something soft and heavy that furrows Arthur's brows and forces him to consider, briefly, the merit of a comforting word (though god only knows what for). In the end, he settles for a quiet grunt of acknowledgment and turns his head to survey the area.

Arthur's expression is unreadable as he stares out across the placid water. There's something about it that seems vaguely familiar, dreamlike and half-remembered. When he says as much, all the color drains from Merlin's face, and he cuffs his manservant-cum-sorcerous-adviser on the back of the head just to wipe that look away.

Really, everything has been going relatively well. The first months were, as usual, the roughest, but the weight of the king's crown no longer carries the additional burden of fresh grief. Neighboring monarchs have been quieted for the time, and while Uther's ban on magic has yet to be publicly repealed, Arthur's reign has already been marked by a conspicuous lack of executions.

Strangely enough, it had been Merlin who'd requested Arthur stay his pronouncement, Merlin who Arthur knew of all people would benefit the most from his decision -- but Merlin had said he'd one more thing to do, and please, and it was such a rare thing that Arthur agreed half out of bemusement that Merlin should suddenly find his manners.

Which brings them here not three days later, to the bank of a small, murky lake framed by stately oaks and birches and stands of tall fern, snow-capped peaks standing guard in the distance. It's a beautiful scene, Arthur thinks, but it's obvious that Merlin finds no joy in it today.

"Are you well, Merlin?" Though the hint of Arthur of days past lingers in his tone, it's rich with easy familiarity, undermined by a thread of quiet concern. Brilliant blue eyes swing right to regard Arthur for a long moment, and then Merlin breathes out a quiet, shuddering sigh.

"This place--" Merlin starts and pauses, his adam's apple bobbing furiously over the fold of his kerchief as he swallows. "Do you remember her?"

"Who?" The king of Camelot regards his sorcerous manservant like he is, in fact, touched in the head.

Merlin looks down and away, opens his mouth like he's got something to say and closes it. Arthur's about to give Merlin a swift kick when Merlin sighs and really, this isn't much like Merlin at all. "Sophia."

"Oh. Her."

"Mm." And Merlin doesn't elaborate, and Arthur's already got a hand on his hip, canting it in that annoying sort of I'm waiting, Merlin way that's far more effective than actually going through the trouble of saying it and Merlin suddenly blurts out, "she almost killed you, here. They. Almost--"

"Oh." Arthur says again, and he's quietly glad they're well out of earshot of court, because this isn't anything like a king's thoughtful, dignified responses should be at all. And suddenly the world makes a bit more sense again, because that's all, obviously; it's just that Merlin is an absolute girl. "Well, as you can see, they failed, and --"

He eyes Merlin speculatively. "This is another one of those 'you saved me when I wasn't looking' things, isn't it."

"Well, to be fair, sire, you were mostly drowned."

Arthur snorts good-naturedly, adding another mark to the tally of Times Merlin Has Saved His Life And Said Nothing, which seems to have grown rather obscenely long since he'd finally confronted Merlin with the fact that he knew. "I knew you couldn't knock me out. With a branch, Merlin, really."

But the bantering does nothing for Merlin, who watches the water with a look somehow approaching both hunger and misery, something Arthur would imagine from a starving peasant about to tuck into a haunch of his most loyal dog. Arthur glances out at the water again, sees nothing threatening and turns his attention once more to Merlin, holding back a disapproving frown -- it's not like Merlin can see it anyway, so there's little use.

The silence is slightly oppressive, and so Arthur clears his throat loudly. "Why are we here?" It's a question he feels he's been remarkably good about not asking, no matter how deeply his curiosity runs.

"I left something important here," Merlin says simply, and Arthur arches an eyebrow and offers a gesture of by all means, continue. The sorcerer's answer to that is a half-hearted shrug. "It's time."

"That's ... it." It's not even a question, delivered in that same tone Arthur has used for years whenever Merlin's done something particularly daft. Merlin doesn't respond to that either, but he swings around to look at Arthur, skinny fingers curled against Arthur's arms and really looking at him in a way that never fails to make Arthur vaguely uncomfortable because there's always the sense of something vast there behind Merlin's remarkable eyes, taking Arthur apart and studying him down to the bones.

Arthur starts to stiffen, bringing himself closer to his full height before he realizes what he's doing and that he's only being stared at by Merlin and isn't, in fact, under the scrutiny of some unknowable cosmic wisdom -- or, barring that, someone obviously important (which isn't to say that Merlin isn't someone important, only that his worth is far different, approaching incalculable), at which point he lets all the air out of his lungs and damn near slumps, just because he can.

Merlin is obviously trying to contain one of those admittedly brilliant I'm on to you smiles, and his eyes are twinkling and when he abruptly turns Arthur loose to bark a sharp, unfamiliar command and raise his hand over the water it feels a little bit like being cut adrift.

And then nothing happens. The water doesn't even ripple in response, and Arthur's not exactly sure what he's expecting but he's fairly certain there should be, you know, sound and motion and this pretty-but-not-exactly-magical-seeming lake making a bit of a show of it as it heaves up its obviously important burden and then they can go home. He opens his mouth to say just that, to tell Merlin that he's really as terrible a sorcerer as he is a manservant, but Merlin's look is expectant instead of deterred in the slightest and since when did Merlin understand the concept of patience, anyway?

They may have been here like this for minutes, or hours. Arthur shifts his weight from one foot to the other, shivering as the fine hairs on the back of his neck began to stir, gooseflesh rising all along his arms despite his heavy cloak; for once, it seems, he is painfully aware that despite the fact that he can see tree and water and mountain and sky, there is much more hidden from him, just out of range. He wonders if these are things Merlin sees, if this is why he can bear it so calmly, when Arthur's skin feels ready to crawl right off his bones and leave him behind.

Alas, Merlin's eyes are darting, tracking across the water, his frown little more than a shadow across his lips. He steps forward, drawing his hand back to his chest and curling it there. A pause, a deep breath; the wind ruffles the dark fringe over his eyes.

Arthur waits for another command, another flash of gold, an abrupt call in the language of magic.

Instead, Merlin closes his eyes and whispers, "please."

And Arthur nearly laughs at the absurdity of it -- nearly, until something stirs beneath the water, a faint ripple that grows in intensity until it seems the entire surface is affected. Merlin relaxes now, and Arthur cannot help but feel a quiet surge of amusement that in this strange world of theirs, it makes sense that something else should feel so inclined to bow before Merlin's quiet (but terribly effective) beseeching.

Perhaps it is simply that the land itself loves this strange young warlock. Arthur supposes he can't fault it at all, however useless he may be at cleaning a man's chambers or keeping himself out of trouble.

Or -- perhaps it is more than that. That sense of something grows, something Arthur dimly recognizes as a presence, just seconds before the lake goes still, the entire world seeming to hold its breath as a shape breaks the surface. A moment later he realizes that beyond imagining, it's a girl, skinny and pale with dark waves of hair that curl around a face that might be considered pretty in a common way, and in her hands is --

God, but she looks familiar.

"No," Merlin breathes in a small, miserable voice. "Oh, no." But Arthur has seen the blade in her hands and his own sword is halfway out of its sheath before Merlin's fingers find his wrist and curl around it, a placating gesture that does nothing to ease the stricken look in the young warlock's eyes, locked as they are on this fey girl.

He swears that dress looks familiar but it's quickly forgotten when he recalls where he's seen her before; it's hard, but between Merlin's reaction and the gentle look in her eyes, he decides to hold his tongue.

"Merlin," she says, and offers a faint, shy smile.

"Freya." And there are tears gathering in Merlin's eyes, threatening to spill over. "Did I do this--?"

That smile grows, and Arthur realizes that she is, in truth, quite beautiful. And he feels like he's walked in on something terribly intimate, something he has no business witnessing, and his mind is furiously working backwards, gathering pieces of moments half-forgotten, a handful of days when his manservant had seemed even more inclined to uselessness than usual, a few days worth of strange disappearing breakfasts and a vicious bounty hunter turning Camelot upside down for want of a cursed druid girl who'd escaped into thin air, a girl who screamed in pain and terror as she shifted into a sleek black creature of nightmare in the alleyway, a line of boots that had never been so well-tended in their entire collective existence.

And Arthur thinks he would retreat, but Merlin's skinny fingers are still curled tight around his wrist, leeching warmth. He'd like to think he understands this, as much as he can from where he is standing; he has listened to Merlin speak, haltingly in the early days when they were re-learning what it meant to trust one another, of how his power was something he was forced to contain more by wisdom than ability. He'd said what he could do was not always the same as what he should, and that was the most pressing and difficult responsibility of them all. He'd followed those quiet words with a long list of the things he'd done wrong when he could still claim ignorance (and it was an entirely Merlin thing to do, to lay out his faults before Arthur at the first, concealing each moment of triumph until Arthur had put the pieces together and would ask), mistakes that had cost lives, or nearly so.

He wonders, then, why Merlin has never mentioned this one.

"I said I'd repay you," she returns, and he jerks as if startled, a long moment of searching stillness before he nods. "It needed -- a guardian, Merlin. I chose."

(Arthur realizes now, a little numbly, that it had never been about the cold water at all, even as Merlin seems to deflate a little at his side.)

Her attention has turned, her dark eyes now study Arthur instead and he's beginning to wonder if this isn't just some thing that those with magic do. He blinks back at her, wondering and slightly intimidated because that sense of presence remains, that sense of weight that he gets in the moments when Merlin releases the power he holds inside and seems to move the world itself. And suddenly, uncomfortably, he remembers how piteous she had sounded then, how the beast had screamed as Arthur's blade had scored its shoulder, the brilliant splash of blood against black hide. He remembers the scream of the foul-breathed bounty hunter as the beast tore the life from him, the gut-churning vision of the corpses of two lovers and two soldiers with their bodies ripped open, the reek of intestines perforated and strewn in the shadows of a squalid hut in the lower town.

He wants to be sorry for the pain he caused that night, but for all of Camelot he cannot regret his action. He wishes it had been a clean thing, and that she had not -- did not still -- suffer.

And she nods as if she's read those thoughts, a smile emerging once again, different than the one she'd favored Merlin with but Arthur will certainly not begrudge him that. He finds himself smiling back, an instinctive, crooked thing that tugs at one corner of his lips, slightly nervous and slightly boyish and fading as she lifts her hands, offering the sword laid across her open palms.

"Arthur Pendragon, son of Uther," she says, and her voice is as clear and striking as the midnight bell, "once and future king, beloved of Albion and the old ways. To you I return this sword, and all the power it contains."

"Return?" Arthur asks, looking away from the woman and the blade just long enough arch an eyebrow at the warlock.

Merlin draws his hand away at last, and while his voice is still shaky, a trace of his fire has returned. "A long story, sire -- now shut up and listen."

Her voice is far softer, but no less intense when she asks,"do you accept?"

Arthur glances down at the blade -- it's only meant to be a brief look but it's the most beautiful sword he has ever laid eyes on, burnished to a strange golden hue, just a glint of delicate script along the fuller and he's only aware of the passage of time when Merlin coughs almost delicately beside him. Belatedly, he realizes that his hands are already raised to mirror Freya's, just beneath the naked blade.

"I accept." And if his voice is more solemn than he intended, well, it certainly feels like an appropriate sort of moment.

"Heed its words." She lowers the sword onto his outstretched palms and Arthur shivers the moment the steel makes contact with his skin; he can feel the power, the quiet promise of strength and victory contained within. He is holding something that feels almost as magical as Merlin himself, and he can feel it.

"When it is over, it must return to this place," Freya says softly, and she is staring at Arthur in that mildly unnerving way once more, her expression smooth and unreadable as she presses his fingers closed over the blade. "You must promise me this, Arthur Pendragon. It was created for you, and you alone. No other mortal may wield it, lest calamity strike the heart of Albion. Do not relent until you are certain of it."

There is no hesitation. "I promise."

Here Merlin steps back, crossing his arms. "It's not going to happen again, honestly. Even if I have to drag the damned thing here myself."

Arthur can't miss the way the girl's composure falters at that; it's just a brief flash, really, but it twists like a hot knife in his guts all the same. She doesn't need to say a word for Arthur to understand, and he silently entreats her not to speak, to hold back whatever knowledge she possesses. It's foolish; his is a kingdom ever poised on the brink of war and he has had a lifetime to come to terms with the concept of sacrifice, of loss, but this --

This --

"You will not," she murmurs, and Arthur takes a a deep breath as her attention slides away from him, to the gangly young warlock at his side. "Emrys." There's power behind the word, and Merlin comes to attention like it means something important, eyes wide and expectant and haunted, still. "We shall not meet again, in this life of yours." And she smiles with something that looks to Arthur a little bit like love, bare feet digging into the sandy bank as she lifts herself up on her toes to press a brief kiss to his forehead: a maiden's gesture, a benediction. "Merlin ... thank you."

Merlin shakes his head, his mouth open in what Arthur can already tell is going to be one of those brilliant moments of senseless denial; he lowers the sword for lack of anything else to do while his friend moons over what Arthur is fairly certain is a very powerful, very dead druid girl who is also something much more. But he's saved the trouble of actually having to say it, by the fact that a heartbeat later the girl is gone, as if she'd never been there at all.

Arthur blinks at that; for a moment he thinks he might have dreamed the entire thing, but there is a wonderfully balanced sword in his hands, and Merlin is staring at a pair of smudged footprints in the damp sand like he's just been gutted, hands clenched into tight fists at his sides, skin white around the knuckles.

And he feels he's intruding again, so he turns his attention back to the sword -- a safe enough thing that does not twist the tight knot in his chest into something near unbearable. Take me up, reads on one side; cast me aside the other. He recalls his father talking about the most perfect sword he'd ever touched, once Arthur had decided to speak to him again following the incident with the mysterious black knight. Strange, the king had said, that a servant should commission such a thing for his master. Equally strange, that it had disappeared so soon after, and Uther had never had the opportunity to ask about another before Tom was dying a traitor's death in the halls beneath the castle for magic that had not been his own.

A shame, for it had seemed a blade fit for a king.

Arthur thinks only Merlin would be bold enough, stupid enough to deny Uther what he wanted. Even for Arthur's sake.

He wonders what he's going to do with the sword already scabbarded at his hip.

He wonders, really, what he's going to do with Merlin, who apparently hasn't seen fit to move yet -- or to make any indication that he's still among the living at all. Arthur frowns harder as he glances back at the warlock, the way he seems so much older now, his face wiped clean of all those insolent, careless expressions.

It surprises Arthur, how much Merlin's misery affects him. In a way, Merlin has become the compass Arthur revolves around, measuring both his success and failure by the joy or disappointment Merlin carries in the following moments, always worn openly and without apology. It's not enough to sway him when he feels another direction is necessary, but he feels the dissonance acutely. It's a little frightening sometimes, this secret he keeps from Merlin, but there are moments when he is almost certain Merlin feels it, too.

"Merlin," Arthur murmurs, and there is nothing, not even a flash of recognition. "Merlin."

Arthur turns the sword in his hand and thrusts the tip deep into the sand, and this time Merlin flinches, casting a quick, questioning glance at his king.

"Come back," Arthur says, and holds out his hand, palm up. Were it anyone else, it would almost be a plea.

Merlin's eyes flicker down to it and back up to Arthur's face, displaying an unnatural nervousness. Rather than commenting on the obvious, Arthur wiggles his fingers and huffs a quiet, impatient sound. "I swear, Merlin ..."

They regard each other, Merlin's eyes veiled and dark, Arthur's concerned and edged with the first hint of impatience. And then Merlin smiles, wan and tired, lifting a pale hand. "You're so demanding, sire," he mutters, and Arthur knows he has him. He doesn't wait, but reaches out to clasp Merlin's hand tightly in his own and drag him forward, quick enough that Merlin stumbles, overcompensates, finally balancing himself with his other hand pressed against Arthur's chest.

Arthur watches him in silence the entire time, without apology, without pity. Merlin blinks up for a moment, lips parting to speak, but Arthur only shakes his head. Merlin takes what he is offered then, and leans his forehead against Arthur's shoulder, eyes shut tightly; Arthur thinks that it's odd, that for all Merlin's power he should feel so small and fragile. He remembers the druid girl's words, and feels that familiar stab of ice in his gut again. He imagines it will always be so.

Arthur knows Merlin is afraid. He wants to say that all is well, that whatever wrong happened it cannot be of Merlin's doing because his intentions are good, but that is a lie and poor consolation. The truth is that they are both ignorant of the extent of Merlin's power, and that is knowledge both exhilarating and terrifying. Instead of forcing contrived words, Arthur slowly, awkwardly (because he is still Arthur and because he does not express himself well even now) wraps his arms around Merlin's frail shoulders and anchors himself there, a silent promise of solidity and warmth. He leans his cheek against the top of Merlin's head and breathes a quiet sigh, watching dark hair dance beneath his nose on the exhale.

"Thank you," he says at last, quiet and solemn.

Merlin struggles until he realizes Arthur will not let him go, and stills once more. "For what?" The words are muffled against the heavy cotton of Arthur's shirt, the warmth of Merlin's breath seeping through to tickle his skin beneath, but Arthur presses on, intent.

"It's a beautiful sword. Powerful. To trust me with such a thing--" Arthur lets that hang in the air for a moment, because that's the heart of the matter, isn't it? He believes it is, from the fine tremble of Merlin's shoulders as he says it.

Arthur is not afraid -- not afraid of Merlin, at least. Arthur does not know if Merlin has pressed a dead girl into service to guard an impossible sword beyond the span of their own lifetimes, but he believes it, because he trusts that Merlin would not -- even unintentionally -- and he wills Merlin to understand that as well.

He is content to wait, just as they are, until he does.

Finally, Merlin lifts his head (and Arthur is beginning to think Merlin isn't half as smart as he'd like everyone to think he is if he's this slow at such simple concepts), his gaze a little owlish as he blinks at his king. But there's a smile there that wasn't before, something livelier and more to Arthur's taste, just a little sheepish but unmistakably fond.

"Thank you." It's Merlin's turn to say it, and Arthur doesn't have to ask why, only nods like he was expecting this all along. "Though I daresay you'll look a bit silly wandering around with two swords."

Arthur arches an eyebrow at that. "Who says I'll need two?"

"You're not just going to leave your other one here, are you? It's a perfectly good sword -- I sharpened it just yesterday."

It's a little effort to suppress the sigh of relief that threatens to burst from his lungs. A chattery Merlin is a good Merlin, and he can work with this. "You'll have to carry it, of course. You wouldn't want your king to look a fool, after all." Merlin's scowl only makes Arthur smile. "Besides, you're still my servant."

"No I'm not."

"Oh?" Arthur tries to hold back a smile, his heart suddenly racing in his chest. "This is certainly news to me." He takes a breath, and then another, willing himself to be calm. They'd spoken about it, yes, but Arthur is still nervous, still giddy and half-afraid that Merlin will sidestep him again in the wake of the druid girl's appearance.

He lets Merlin go, only so he can step back and look at him properly. There's a spark of quiet pleasure at the way Merlin seems to lean for a moment towards him before straightening into something approaching alert and somber.

"Does that mean you'll be my sorcerer?" Arthur asks at last, the words coming out in a rush, Arthur cursing himself mentally for sounding like such a fool.

Merlin tips his head, eyes narrowing in consideration. "Do I have to carry your spare sword back even if I say yes?"

And Arthur thinks this is right; this is the way they are, the way they should be. "I suppose it'd be rather beneath the station of such an important title," he says at length, feeling the corners of his lips curve upwards despite himself.

"I might as well, then," Merlin says airily, offering a shrug that manages to look both entirely nonchalant and somewhat put upon. "There should be some king fellow floating around here somewhere; a bit of a prat, I hear, but pretty handy with a sword. Make him carry it."

Arthur blinks at Merlin before laughing outright. Though he can tell by the tenseness that hovers around Merlin's eyes, he's not riding the wings of some miraculous recovery, but he's working on it. For now ... for now, all is well enough.

He claps a hand on Merlin's shoulder and watches him stagger; he thinks he'd kiss him, but he doesn't know who might be watching, and he's done his share of offending the living of Albion without starting in on the spectral as well. "I suppose he'd better, if he intends on getting home before supper," he says, and draws the sword once more, unable to help running his fingers along the steel before slipping it into his belt to hang opposite the other.

Merlin smirks; obviously, Arthur looks just as silly as Merlin expects him to. But he doesn't feel the sting of injured pride, only a moment of warm pleasure that he has been able to chase away the shadows for a while.

Besides, he has his own source of amusement, one he's been planning for months, that he knows will serve him well for years to come.

"Don't get too comfortable," Arthur says, slinging an arm around Merlin's neck as they turn back towards the path, towards Camelot. "Just wait until you see your new hat."

Merlin groans loud and with feeling; at his side, Arthur's smile is angelic.



"Believe in me that believes in you" amirite? Someone shoop me up some Arthur in Kamina glasses, stat.

Seriously? I'm just glad to have this thing finished, sob. It was flowing so easily when I first sat down with it, and then I got dragged away for a bit by these other two beasts that got finished, and when I came back it wanted to play coy and just ... ugh. >| This is what happens when you run headlong into something without a clear ending in mind; it devolves into one of those episode ending things where no matter how deep the trauma, you get big smiles and a sense of camaraderie by the time the screen goes dark.

I know what's next, though, because it has been kicking in my head for longer than I should have let it, and I'm totally amused by the idea of writing a dramatic shippy fic where one member of the ship isn't even there.
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