So year thirteen is an evil invention, of evil, invented to prevent me writing. Fortunately, it is OVER. All I can do is grovel before you and give you the next chapter, promise solemnly to write the next one soon (university, how hard can it be?) and name my first born Merlin. I am really very sorry about this. Really.
Title: The Art of Seduction (As taught by Morgana and Gwen)
Chapter Title: Merlin's Mistakes
Rating: T... because all the others are rated T and I'm a stickler for conforming
Summary: Merlin makes a lot of mistakes, some minor, some major, and some which might give him some perspective. Arthur remains an idiot. Are we surprised?
Wednesday had been expected to dawn with the groans and grunts of hung-over and tired citizens forcing themselves to return to work or embark on the journey back to their hometowns after the three days of revelry and trade that Camelot's May Fair had brought. The sun, however brightly it shone, was to be cursed and reviled and hidden throughout the morning, for all its warmth, and the music of the final bards out for the last pennies which had entertained and entranced in the previous days was to be damned and derided as an discordant din in the harrowing hours that dogged the people of Camelot. It was meant to be, as it had always been, a day for foul tempers and grumpiness on behalf of the populace.
However, with the interruption and excitement of the assassination attempt upon Arthur (an event far less common than certain bards in the centuries that followed would insist) the end of the fair celebrations had been neglected and the banquet postponed. The result was a veritable lack of hangovers and for the first time in five hundred years there was a fourth day added to the ancient festival, a fact Uther seemed eager to stress, as though he had intentionally planned his own son's near-death (which, Morgana thought wryly, was almost possible, considering the surge in popularity and anti-magic sentiment that was already showing on the streets of Camelot.) The people had never been this happy on a day usually reserved for moaning about the wife and being late for work. The church was happy, as it gave them a chance to get more tithes, the merchants were happy to flog their wares some more after the evening's drop in trade, and the people were happy to miss work yet again.
Two people, however, seemed determined to keep the true spirit of 'Black Wednesday' alive, though had one known about the other he might have felt vaguely sick. Arthur and Merlin had both spent dreadful nights without sleep for very different reasons, and both had taken the situation differently.
Merlin had spent the start of the night alternately pacing the length of Gaius' workshop or downing whole tankards of ale in one gulp, to the be- and a- musement of Gwen and Gaius. Shortly after one, when the girl and the medic were only beginning to get going, a very drunk and yet very clear headed Merlin had left the physicians quarters to roam the halls of Camelot. Despite drinking close to his own weight in ale, Merlin's mind only veered on the edge of pleasant fuzziness, the sharp steel of fear bringing him back to lucidity every time he staggered blissfully close to oblivion.
Morgana knew. She knew. After all this time, all those close misses, it was when he finally escaped the clutches (quite literally) of the royal family that he was discovered, and all because he was too stupid to let a prat get mildly killed by a sorcerer. And yes, perhaps Morgana wasn't one to talk when it came to magic and forbidden activities, but that was hardly going to stop her, she wasn't always the wisest of women. And yes, maybe he had the whole 'I saw you try to kill the king' card to play against her to keep her quiet, but both of the dark haired magic users knew that Merlin was both a terrible liar and far too nice to ever end up actually revealing her.
It was enough to make him sick and he did in fact look feverish as he wandered the corridors, with a cold sweat soaking through his shirt and wetting his hair, and his eyes rolling like a mad horse. Merlin felt like crying, because even if Morgana kept quiet (and as much as he wanted to believe she was wholly his friend, it was still a big if knowing her unpredictable temper) there was no way he was ever going to get back the easy relationship and simple place he had gained with Morgana and within the castle. No doubt he would be consulted on every dream, sent for whenever Arthur ricked his finger on a spindle or something similarly idiotic and annoying, and when that happened suspicions were bound to start; Morgana was hardly what could be called subtle at the best of times, and people like Uther, despite being ridiculously bigoted, had an unfortunate knack for being perceptive.
He was going to die. He really was. He would be reeled out onto the very platform he'd stood by mere hours ago and – what? Have his head cut off? Or be burnt? Or some other, horrible type of death he hadn't even thought about yet, and Arthur would be watching and thanking his lucky stars, which he clearly had plenty of (probably thanks to stealing Merlin's), that he didn't bugger the servant after all, a thought which made Merlin rather angry for no good reason. Not that a very, very drunk wizard needs a good reason to have angry thoughts about his former employer and the son of his future murderer.
Eventually Merlin ended up where the night's horrific events had begun, just outside Morgana's chambers, sometime close to three in the morning. The fact that this was hardly an sensible time to visit a young unmarried woman's room (if indeed it was ever sensible to visit Morgana) only just registered in Merlin's half-panicked, half-sozzled mind and thus he was well into the room before it dawned on him she might be a) asleep, b) scared, c) royally pissed off or d) all of the above and emotional enough to reveal his secret to the next executioner that passed.
Fortunately for Merlin, Morgana was wide awake, having heard the warlock stumble against an inconveniently positioned suit of armour some way down the corridor. Unfortunately for Merlin, however, even in her best moments she had a cruel sense of humour. She sat up fast, gasping for breath, and pretended to look shocked as she turned to face the drunken young man.
"Merlin, oh, I just had the most frightening dream." This was not good news and Merlin crept closer to the bed anxiously, wondering if being on his knees would help his case at all. Morgana's smile was hidden in the dark, and the poor boy was too drunk to catch the hammy acting in her voice as she continued. "Oh, Merlin, it was terrible. There was an axe, and so much blood. Your pretty little head came clean off in one stroke." Merlin let out a strangled squeak like a de-tailed mouse and fell to his knees, mumbling faintly. Morgana ignored him. "Gwen and I were crying so much, even though you were a trai-"
Merlin made a noise that sounded like he was sobbing and Morgana cracked. Even she, with her ice cold rapier wit (and that was a mouthful to boast of), could not be cruel to Merlin for long. Picking up a pillow from behind her, she doffed him around the head with it lightly, laughing at him. Bleary eyed and bleary minded, Merlin took a few moments to stare up at her, confused, as his heart began to slow. Either Morgana was insane, (it was possible) or he had missed something somewhere. "Lady Morgana?"
"Oh, you drunkard. Merlin, stop fretting. I won't turn you in. I won't tell Uther. Your secret is safe with me, and when you're a little more sober we'll discuss it."
"But- You said- And Uther-" His expression was pained, and Morgana knew Gwen would berate her for her teasing in the morning. She hadn't expected him to be quite so panicked, and quite so drunk.
When she responded, her voice was softer, and she pulled the boy up to sit on the bed beside her, wrapping her arm around his shoulders and ruffling his hair like a mother. For all that Arthur said about her, even Morgana had the maternal instinct where Merlin was concerned. "Merlin, I understand that magic isn't always something you can choose. I of all people, Merlin – I hardly choose my nightmares, and don't pretend you haven't guessed what they mean. We may all have been overlooking you for far too long, but that means you deserve our thanks, not punishment."
"I think I'm going to be ill," was not the most appropriate response, but then the situation was very unexpected and Merlin had imbibed an awful lot of alcohol. He just managed to stagger to the open window in time, and tried his hardest to ignore Morgana's laughter as he heaved. A shiver of cold passed along his back under his shirt but for the first time in days he felt relief. When he turned around he looked awful, pale, sweaty and gaunt but at least he was smiling, a little.
Morgana was still looking at him though, in that oddly intense way like a particularly large and scary cat, and Merlin gulped. There was a small smirk on her face and Merlin couldn't envisage what impossible magical things she was going to ask of him. Or rather, he could, and they were all vaguely terrifying scenarios, like having to make her dresses even more form fitting, or making magical imps steal Arthur's things (that one he could come on board with, right up until the point where his head got chopped off) or making her mirror tell her she was the prettiest woman in the land.
The reality was less horrific, but equally dangerous. "Merlin, can you... show me something? Magic."
He gulped and ever so slowly raised one hand.
On the other side of the castle Gwen was watching the new manservant assigned to Arthur hover nervously outside the Prince's door. In truth she was sympathetic to the poor bloke, who was skittish at best and should never have been assigned to the Prince, but it was hilarious to see the man jump from foot to foot like a small child locked out of the garderobe just when he needed it most. She was struggling to hide her laughter behind her hand, while the two guards could not stop their shoulder plates from rattling with mirth. Nevertheless, she was Guinevere, and she had a reputation to uphold as mother hen to all servants who came within her clutches.
Shooting Gareth a reproachful look as the guard let out a barely stifled guffaw (when the poor servant nearly dropped the tray and had to dive like a startled rabbit to catch it) Gwen approached and laid a comforting hand on his shoulder. "I can take that in to the Prince, if you'd like," she offered kindly, but whatever the boy's response might have been, it was cut off by the sound of the door opening with a bang to reveal the source of all the anxiety, Prince Arthur himself. The serving boy gave a startled squeak and, quite naturally, turned tail and ran, since Arthur was looking at him as though a sword through his belly would make a nice improvement to his physique.
Except he wasn't, because on closer examination Gwen realised that look was being directed at her and she remembered the thunderous expression she'd seen on Arthur's face the previous evening. Undaunted she turned to him and held out the tray that had been unceremoniously dumped into her arms. "Your breakfast, Sire-"
"I don't need any damned breakfast, Guinevere," Arthur snapped back, and Gwen's eyes narrowed. There were dark circles under his eyes, and he didn't seem to have slept a wink, though Gwen wasn't quite generous enough to put it down to guilt over another death in Camelot. No, she suspected it had rather more to do with Merlin and the way a gesture between friends could look so very different to someone above them, in more ways than one. Arthur confirmed her thoughts in seconds, adding "Especially not from you. Shouldn't you be running along to him now? I hope you're very happy together, you deceiving... witch!" (The guards made to spring forward and seize her, until Arthur exclaimed "It was a figure of speech!") She might have been taken aback at being addressed with such severity from a man for whom she had such high hopes, but despite what Merlin had asked of her it was not in Gwen's nature to deceive, particularly where that might cause harm.
"Sire-" she began, but Arthur was already pushing past her to storm along the corridor away from her, looking slightly ridiculous in his night shirt (Gwen was grateful he was wearing one, though it hid little more than was decent.) "Arthur," she tried again, in a warning tone. Gareth and Gawain were still giggling, and Gwen finally lost her temper. She was surrounded by such a lot of silly little boys, none of whom could think sensibly for even one moment! The past few days and Arthur and Merlin both had stretched her patience more than she could bear, and though she couldn't take it out on Merlin, Arthur was fair game.
The clatter of the tray being thrown against the stone floor brought Arthur up short, and he turned cautiously as if he expected Gwen to be dressed in full armour and bearing down on him with a spear. She was, in fact, standing calmly outside his room, and he wouldn't have been able to tell she'd flung down his breakfast if it wasn't for her harsh breathing, and the bruised apple valiantly trying to make its way towards its master. "Guinevere..." he began cautiously, moving towards her like he would approach Morgana, or a particularly vicious kitten. Gwen didn't let him finish.
"My name is Gwen! Gwen, Gwen, Gwen! I am your friend, Arthur, however reluctant you are to accept that, but I can't do one thing for you if you don't trust me! Believe me, I have no wish to stand between you and-" Arthur was making desperate hushing faces, eyes wide as he pointed at the guards, but Gwen was unmoved –"Merlin, and I want you two to be friends again, if nothing else," she continued, causing Arthur to give up his gesturing and slump against the wall, "but if you continue to act like a spoilt child refusing to share his toys, I shall think better of my involvement! You'd do well to remember Merlin isn't the only person you have to prove yourself to and will you two stop giggling like a pair of lunatics?" she hissed, turning to the guards with a furious look on her face. Morgana had plainly rubbed off on her friend over the years, for the two men immediately sprang back into position and stood still as statues before her imperious look.
Arthur felt thoroughly sheepish and examined his bootless feet for a moment before slinking back towards his room. "My apologies, Gui- Gwen," he mumbled, not quite looking at her, and he was relieved when she accepted them gracefully before moving off to see to Morgana. Arthur closed the door behind him, leaving Gareth and Gawain to burst into a fit of silent giggles at the thought of the cowed prince. Their mirth didn't last long though, as Arthur's head emerged from the door again. "Well? One of you clear that up, and one of you go get me a new breakfast. I haven't got all day!"
There was nothing like a near escape from death to bring out the prattishness in Arthur, and now he was left alone with his thoughts again his mind turned back to the ideas and memories that had kept him awake. It had not just been the idea of Gwen and Merlin, though that was troubling thought enough, she being so sweet and he being so good it seemed a match made in heaven, except for the forlorn Prince it left outside it. Even now he was not sure of Gwen, not sure anyone could resist Merlin's charms. But there was more to his foul mood than that. Every execution in Camelot brought a new line to its Prince's face, every magical attack made the kingdom seem less secure, as if it could tumble down around him. Last night's had been different, felt more violent and more dangerous in a crowd of drunken revellers and with Morgana and Merlin there. Arthur had grown used to their absence, to quelling the questions and wonderings that brought up with an iron fist, so while to have them there should have been reassuring, should have banished doubts about her dreams and his inclinations (Arthur could not forget Will, the surge of jealously and anger that Merlin had befriended a sorcerer), Arthur only felt more unsettled than ever.
When his breakfast arrived, Gareth balancing it perilously as he placed his feet as carefully as a dancer, Arthur could only pick at it listlessly and it took very little thought to decide to go see Morgana instead. He dressed quickly and hoped Gwen hadn't told Morgana about his mood – he didn't need a dressing down from Camelot's most notorious royal.
Arthur had never learnt to knock but the shocked faces when he entered Morgana's room seemed a slight overreaction to his lack of manners. Then again, he was taken aback himself when his eyes met Merlin's wide round ones, and he hardly noticed the way a vase on Morgana's bedside table was rocking back and forth as if it had only just landed there, nor that her hairbrush had been falling so slowly one might almost call it floating until she plucked it from the air. Indeed, Arthur was very good at not noticing suspicious goings on, but never more so than when he was watching Merlin watch him. He was close enough to touch yet Arthur didn't dare to move, couldn't even pull his eyes away, even though the surprised soft look in Merlin's was quickly hardening into something harsh and ugly.
All was awkward silence until Morgana cleared her throat and asked, slightly breathlessly, "Arthur, what are you doing here? I'm not up yet." And indeed she wasn't, Arthur noted, still in her nightgown at this late hour. Still in her nightgown, in her bed, which Merlin was sitting upon, practically clasped in her arms. His Merlin. Arthur's eyes swung back to Merlin's again with a look akin to panic. He was relieved when he spotted the same in the other man's eyes, though relief gave way to utter disappointment when Merlin scrambled out of the room with a mumbled word of apology to Morgana. Too late Arthur called his name to try and halt him, try to apologise, but he was already out of earshot, or pretending to be, and Morgana gave him a pitying look. "Why are you here, Arthur?"
"I came to talk to you about the feast tonight. Why was Merlin here? More importantly, sitting on your bed? Think of the impropriety!" Arthur's voice was accusing, but Morgana didn't even deign to blush.
"Don't be ridiculous, Arthur, it doesn't suit you. Gwen's already told me about your stupid accusations to her this morning – been at the wine again, have you? – so you should have learned your lesson. Merlin is my friend, remember, and if you had a single thought in that daft head of yours, you might have realised that maintaining that friendship is probably the best way to get him to think of you positively again. As for impropriety, I'm not the one who attempted to maul him, so shall we ignore that burst of hypocrisy?" That Morgana could deliver such a speech in a sweet voice, merely raising one eyebrow to accentuate her displeasure, was a complexity of womanhood Arthur would never be able to understand. "Anyway, you were saying about the feast?"
"Er, um," Arthur fumbled for a few moments, still reeling from Morgana's verbal punches and the fact that Merlin had been in his presence not five minutes before. "The feast. Oh, yes. You're going with Percival, I believe? What gown are you wearing? Because Father said last night that in the light of recent events we should all dress to match as royals, to show Camelot is undivided. He was touched that you were there, at the execution, by the way," he added, ignoring Morgana's wince. "Anyway, this matching thing apparently means catering to your whims because women care about 'complexions' and colours. Speaking of which, were your curtains always blue?" he asked, distracted by the thought. He'd been sure that a few days before they'd been red, like his own.
For a moment Morgana seemed to falter, her eyes widening as she glanced from the curtains to Arthur to the door Merlin had just left through, but she composed herself quickly. "Don't be an idiot, Arthur, they've always been blue. This is precisely why Uther wants me to decide, you have no taste whatsoever. I shall be wearing the red gown with the burnished lacing – that's gold string to you -, so that should make it easy for you to match. I should send a not to Percival, I suppose, so that he doesn't clash," she mused and Arthur frowned at the slightly dippy look on her face.
"Morgana, I'm sure I don't have to remind you that as a junior knight, Percival should not be privy to your full attentions and- mphphdf!" Arthur suddenly found a faceful of pillow obstructing his brotherly words. Morgana, it seemed, was less than amused.
"Arthur Pendragon, don't you dare lecture me on what is and is not appropriate with junior knights, particularly not ones you bedded yourself not four nights ago!" she shrieked, making the Prince cringe as yet more soft fluffy projectiles flew towards him.
"I'm sorry, I'm sorry! Morgana, stop it! I apologise, do whatever you like with Percival, just don't tell me or Father about it... what are you smiling for?" he asked, arms still raised over his head protectively as he neared the bed. Morgana's enigmatic smile was always the most dangerous, and he feared for his safety as he watched it. As he did so, however, it softened, and a genuinely happy look appeared in her eyes.
"Oh, nothing. I just noticed that the curtains, the blue, matches your eyes. Exactly. That's all."
Arthur shook his head, marvelling at the woman's battiness, and left to attend to his father. He left Morgana with her soft smile as the cleverest royal in Camelot thought there just might be a chance for Arthur after all.
Merlin hated feasts, but then usually at feasts he was the one serving Arthur wine, or getting poisoned, neither of which were the best way to enjoy the revels. But this was the May Day feast, and it was for one and all, and past a certain hour of the evening it was generally accepted that the townsfolk and castle servants should be allowed to enjoy themselves as much as the gentry, particularly as they were celebrating Arthur's escape as well. Now that he was not Arthur's manservant he was free to enjoy them as the other servants did, loitering near the musicians, helping himself to the leftovers and utterly ignoring the head table and the occupant of it who was staring at him it seemed for every moment. It was a miracle that Arthur hadn't tipped wine on himself his eyes were so fixed on Merlin, not that Merlin would care if he did. The red jerkin the prince was sporting looked entirely too plush and handsome for Merlin's liking and after the destruction of his own neckerchief by wine it only seemed just that Arthur should suffer the same. Not that Merlin cared. Oh no.
Somewhere between his escape from Morgana's chambers and his meeting Gwen to dress in their finery (or what passed for finery) for the feast Merlin had decided that ignoring Arthur rather than confronting him at every turn would be the best course of action. Not only because confronting Arthur would no doubt get him into trouble with higher authorities very quickly, but also because he had heard the note of hurt in Arthur's voice when he had called him back and received no answer, and the vindictive angry part of him enjoyed it. His mind was in confusion after what he had done, saving Arthur when he was quite sure he hated him, and it was easier to let vengeance take over than to explore what that might mean.
But it was difficult to ignore the prince when he could feel the weight of his gaze at every moment. What did it mean? If Arthur was sorry he made no sign to show it, and Merlin was left feeling like a prize put out of reach, an object the other man wanted simply because he couldn't have it. It was hardly a pleasant feeling, so he was relieved when Gwen ran up to him, bursting with mirth and probably a drop too much mead.
"Merlin! You must dance, you can't keep stuffing yourself with pheasant all evening!" (Ah, so that was what it was, Merlin thought, mildly amused. There were so many different birds on offer Merlin had never learnt which was which and Arthur had often scolded him for bringing the wrong one to the table – but Merlin wasn't thinking about Arthur) "Come on, you must know this one," she cried again, tugging him towards the twirling ladies and knights who, now Merlin looked properly, were being joined by the common folk in a happy dance. With barely a word of protest he followed her into the noisy fast moving throng.
It was only on the second time Merlin whirled Gwen around giddily that he caught Arthur's gaze, graver now, and noticed the tighter grip the Prince had on his goblet. Despite all assertions to the contrary, Merlin was not daft, and he soon caught the drift of Arthur's thoughts. He pulled Gwen a little tighter and span faster, catching Arthur's gaze at each turn and smirking inwardly at the hurt and anger he saw there. It was addicting, a rush of cruelty he didn't know he had spurring him on at every glimpse. The music seemed to be getting louder and faster, everything more vibrant as he slowly took Arthur apart, showed him that he couldn't have everything, spinning Gwen round and around and closer to the open door until just before they would move out of the hall and out of sight, Merlin dipped Gwen and kissed her.
No kiss could have been less loving. Merlin loved Gwen, he truly did, as his closest friend and confidant, and he could have kissed her a dozen times for a hundred different things and put more love in it than then. No, as he felt Gwen gasp and turn her head away from his mouth, as he felt the music reach its pinnacle and yet somehow over the din hear a chair scrape back and fall at the high table, Merlin could only feel smug.
Then he was pulling Gwen out of the hall and into the silent corridor, the split second view of Arthur on his feet, face white, eyes wide, mouth open in shock and horror, making him grin from ear to ear.
Grin, that is, until Gwen slapped him. For a moment he gaped at her, his brow furrowing as he thought of how to reprimand her, before he saw the distressed look in her eyes that stopped his tongue. She too seemed to be struggling for words, her eyes searching his face for an explanation but finding none.
"Merlin! What were you thinking? You don't- you don't think of me like that! Now Arthur will think that we, that you and I are- together!" Her voice was more hurt than angry, confusion leaking into it and making her seem small and pathetic to her own ears, as she leaned against the wall, hands holding her face. Merlin's euphoria died away and he scrambled to explain.
"Let him think that! It's not true, Gwen, but I wanted Arthur to feel-" Merlin had thought his plan was perfect, but Gwen cut him off before he could explain it to her, and made his stomach drop through the floor with her words.
"What? Hurt? Betrayed? Because I certainly do!" The corridor was cold and quiet and away from the dizzy rush of the hall Merlin suddenly felt shame pricking at him under Gwen's gaze. "You used me, Merlin. And in that you are no better than him!" He flinched at that, and turned away, scared of the upset quaver in Gwen's voice, as though she were about to cry. He didn't want to be the one to do that.
"Gwen, I- I'm sorry, but he has to know! He has to learn he can't have everything he wants, that not everyone thinks he's brilliant and noble, that some people want other people, not him," he gabbled, desperate now to make it up to his friend, his best friend, as he stepped forward and tried to lay a hand on her shoulder. Gwen shied away and took a few steps back, holding out her arms to keep him at bay and yet still fixing him with a sad, sympathetic look that only she, in her infinite goodness, could supply when so offended.
"But you don't, Merlin. You don't like other people. You don't like me, at least, and there's never been anyone- So, so maybe you should think about why you want Arthur to hurt so badly. And maybe you should think about who your friends are, and how you treat them, and, and- Maybe you need to think about a lot of things, Merlin!" she exclaimed, before her backing away turned into a full out run, and the tears that had been threatening to fall did so. Merlin was left in the corridor, feeling wretched and alone.
Next time there should be some Morgana and Percival and Arthur at the feast, and their differing perspectives of Merlin's idiocy (ok, not so much Percival), Merlin tries to win back Gwen and gains some perspective, and perhaps Arthur will finally manage to say sorry to Merlin. Or at least start practicing in the mirror.
Hey, look, there's a shiny review button. Ok, yes, I probably don't deserve it, but I'd really like it. I wasn't quite sure about the balance of comedy and drama in this chapter, and it took me forever to write, so I could use some feedback to get back into the swing of things. And I'm ill, so you could send me lemsip! To the 225 of you who have this on alert (and wow, that's a lot) I am really sorry it took so long, and it was thinking of you lot that finally made me sit down and write it. Thank you.