The Red-Rose Knight Chapter One
Set after The Coming of Arthur Part 2, spoilers for all of S3.
Merlin/Arthur friendship (feel free to read it slashily if you wish though!)
I'm back, hope you don't mind (please be kind even if you do – I'm sensitive)... I've had a year off from writing but got inspired by the season finale. Sorry it's so long for a first chapter.
Nothing's mine, OF COURSE.
"Uther's just weak," said Gwen. "Like most bullies." In the half-dark in her little cottage, Merlin could barely see her face. But her voice was cold with hatred. She was staring around her destroyed home, with something like despair. Gwen had been living in the castle for weeks, until the Lower Town had been got into some kind of an order where it was safe for people to return to their houses.
Merlin didn't answer, thinking instead about the changes in Gwen this year, the confidence in herself that her love for Arthur had given her, the clear-eyed view of the world she took with it. He envied her that. She now had very firm opinions. He supposed he loved Arthur too, in his own way, but the love didn't make anything clearer, or give him any more confidence in his actions. Quite the opposite, in fact. Gwen flopped down into the chair beside him. "And he isn't fit to rule anymore."
"Arthur won't usurp him." Lancelot said. Merlin had almost forgotten he was there; he was just standing by the window, looking out into the street. Merlin had thought how at ease he looked in Gwen's house, how familiar, as though he came here often, and had tried to banish the thought. But it kept coming back, however much he tried to ignore it. When Lancelot had tagged along with Merlin, he had given no indication he had seen Gwen recently. Merlin forced himself to take things on face value. Lancelot glanced over at them. "He would never dream of doing such a thing." He spoke with authority. He spoke as though it would be a bad thing if Arthur did do such a thing. It would be a bad thing, Merlin had to remind himself.
"I know." She was irritable, unable to sit still, and got up again, moving a few more items around. "I hate Arthur as Prince Regent almost as much as Uther as King."
"Gwen –" began Merlin, reproachfully.
"Well, I do. It's like the world is being held back all the time."
It's like you and Arthur are being held back, thought Merlin, but was too wise to say it out loud. Instead he watched her petulantly throwing broken dishes into a box. "He's not liking it too much either," he remarked, glumly.
"I wouldn't know. I never see him anymore. Lady Elaine keeps me too busy with her stupid hawking."
"I like Lady Elaine," mused Merlin, fairly.
"She's fat," Gwen bit out, "and ugly." Then Gwen stopped. She sat down again, heavier than before. She was a kind girl who couldn't bear injustice even in a petty mood. She wasn't used to having tantrums, and didn't like the things she said in them. This wasn't who she was, and she knew it. "That isn't fair," she admitted, "Elaine isn't fat and ugly. And she doesn't work me too hard. And I don't think Arthur's anything like Uther." She passed a hand in front of her face. "I'm just so tired of it, Merlin. I feel like I hate everyone and everything."
The bells in the fortress rang out in the heavy summer evening air. Merlin roused himself. "Spect that means Bayard's party's on the approach." He stretched, got up, and squeezed his friend's hand. "It'll get better, Gwen. Soon, I promise."
Gwen shook herself a little, fixed her most cheerful smile and said energetically, "Yes, you're right."
But they both knew he wasn't, not necessarily. Walking back through the Lower Town, all of Camelot seemed to be moving a treacly speed. A malaise had lain over Camelot for weeks. After the drama and excitement of Morgana's rule, the people had looked for Arthur, knowing he would come for them, and of course he had, and he had won, and he had stayed, and 'now what?' was on the lips of all citizens. This wasn't how everyone had imagined it. This stasis. Even the laundrywoman had recently asked Merlin when Arthur was going to start acting like a king. "He isn't a king," Merlin had pointed out, crossly. And she had just rolled her eyes because everyone knew that old Uther had finally gone mad. And the knights...those proud new knights who had believed every word Arthur had said, who had put their lives on the line for him and his new dream...those knights were now mooching around the castle wondering if, after all, they'd been fighting for Uther. If you were for Arthur, they were wondering, were you really against injustice? It was a question even Merlin was finding in his heart these days. No, there hadn't been any executions under Arthur's regency yet, but surely it was just a matter of time. And then the son would have become the father. Grim thought.
As though reading his mind, Lancelot squinted up at the fortress, shimmery in the light, and said, "do you suppose, eventually, he'll send me and Gwaine away? We are technically exiled. Do you think he'll ever go against his father's law?"
"I don't know." Merlin had to admit.
"He wouldn't do that," said Lancelot, again. Merlin looked sideways at him, as he batted a dozy fly away. He was relaxed, utterly confident in the prince. Merlin wondered where he found that confidence. Merlin believed it was real, he believed Lancelot's loyalty, and he believed Lancelot's passionate belief that Arthur had shown him a true way in life. But the love Lancelot had for Arthur was for the idea of Arthur, a complacent adulation for the notions Arthur put forth. That was the difference. Gwen and Merlin loved the person, and people can frustrate.
"He may have to," said Merlin, darkly. Because it was true. The idea of Arthur was one thing; the reality was that he was, as ever, utterly in the thrall of his father. Should Uther be moved to ever set down the law again, Arthur would follow it. Sometimes Merlin felt like they were walking around in circles.
Lancelot just looked at him, but didn't believe him.
Merlin pushed open Arthur's bedroom door. The Prince Regent was sitting on a chair, feet on a desk, scroll on his lap, staring out the window. "Evening, sire," said Merlin, with a chirpiness he did not feel. He began holding out Arthur's formal clothes. Arthur snapped out of his daydream and took them.
"Bit late, aren't you? Bayard's practically here already." He spoke without energy. He went behind the screen.
"I was at Gwen's," said Merlin, as lightly as he could manage. But Arthur didn't respond. "She's well," he continued, cautiously. Still nothing from behind the screen. "Have you seen her recently?"
"When do I have the time?" snapped Arthur, in a tone that told Merlin that he had hit a spot.
"Maybe if you find the time," said Merlin, "you'll both feel better." And then, because he was tired and annoyed and depressed by the doubts crowding his mind, he added, "Lancelot was there too."
"Shut it, Merlin," and this time Arthur's tone closed the conversation. He emerged, hair ruffled and face slightly flushed. Merlin helped him on with his jacket. No more than ten words were exchanged between them for the rest of the evening. There wasn't anything else left to say.
"Does anything ever happen around here?"
Merlin had found Gwaine in the tavern. The feast had been long and boring, and Arthur had gone to bed immediately. Merlin, finding himself in no mood to sleep, had gone for a walk in the still-warm summer night air, and had located his friend where he expected to. He ordered another round from the barmaid and sat down. Gwaine had clearly been there awhile already, he looked quite thickheaded. "There's been a feast at the castle tonight."
"That's something happening."
"For the hundred people invited. And you were there and you look bored witless."
"I remember when we used to be at war with Mercia," commented Merlin, gloomily. "Last time Bayard was in town I nearly died after I drank Arthur's poison." He swirled the tankard and took a long gulp. "Whenever something's happening, I never want it to be."
Gwaine looked at him as shrewdly as someone can after imbibing three pints. "I thought the taking back of Camelot was very exciting."
"We were nearly horribly killed."
"That's what I mean."
"Don't you get scared?"
"Exactly. Keeps you awake, you know?" he beamed. "You never feel more alive than when you're about to die."
Merlin considered this and couldn't argue with it. That exhilaration was addictive and, indeed, sourly missing. "You can always leave," he said, finally. "It's not like you're really meant to be here anyway."
Gwaine looked at him closely. "You can always leave, too," he pointed out.
Merlin snorted and drank again. "No, I can't," he said, with more bitterness than he meant. He immediately felt uncomfortable. He could feel Gwaine's curiosity. "Not while Morgana's still out there," said Merlin, weakly.
"Arthur's a big boy. He can look after himself."
"Not really, no."
"Well, he can find someone else to look after him."
Merlin didn't look up. "It's a loyalty thing, Gwaine," he said slightly coldly, as though introducing Gwaine to a foreign concept. He immediately hated himself. What was going on? First Gwen grew a second head and now he was turning into a monster.
"I see," Gwaine took a long draught. "Well I wouldn't know anything about that."
"I didn't mean..." he trailed off, to Gwaine's disbelieving stare. "I didn't mean that. I have to stay, that's all."
"You can always come back if he needs you. If he ever does anything."
"What can he do? His father's still alive. His hands are tied," Merlin delivered the excuses wearily.
"Camelot must be grateful to the happy day that brought the Pendragons to the throne," remarked Gwaine, sourly. Merlin wondered if anyone would ever be cheerful again. He stared miserably at his empty tankard and barely noticed the barmaid bash another one down in front of him. He really didn't need another pint, not after that one and the wine he'd had on the sly at the feast, but his muzzy head was a relief from the clarity of his doubts. He started drinking it again. Finally, Gwaine said, lighter, perhaps after seeing the misery on Merlin's face, "you know, I don't think I will go anywhere."
"No?" Merlin said, glumly.
"No. Usually I would. But not now."
"No. Because for a few days there, I thought Arthur was the real deal. I think he still will be, one day, for what it's worth."
"One day," agreed Merlin, surfacing from his pint again and aware of the loosening of his tongue to the rising bile in his mood, "yes, everyone says that. I say it all the time. When will that day be, I do wonder?"
They both stared into their beers.
"I don't have time to go hunting. Since when do you want to go hunting, anyway?"
"I don't. I thought you might. I thought maybe Gwen could – "
Now Arthur was staring at him hard. "I don't have time for this."
"Arthur," said Merlin, as calmly as he could manage. "Camelot won't fall and burn if you leave it for an afternoon." Except of course it had before. More than once.
Arthur waved him to the door.
"I shouldn't've brought it up, during one of your moods."
"I'm not in one of my moods."
"I think you are."
"I don't have moods."
"You really do."
Arthur just turned away. "How's Lancelot settling back in? I've barely seen him since he got back."
"He's been describing the beast to the court artist, so it can be added to the bestiary." Lancelot was just back from a quest - a terrible beast had been reported in the borderlands. Arthur had wanted to go. Arthur had always wanted to go. But he couldn't, not anymore. Not now he was Regent. Now he had to stay and rule, and send others, and it frustrated him beyond all imagining. Not least because it was usually Lancelot who went, and came back, covered in glory. It was Lancelot now who galloped into the courtyard to an amazed population, Lancelot who regaled the court with tales, while Arthur sat on the throne, and listened, and said 'well done' and did nothing himself. He seethed with resentment. But only Merlin knew. Everyone else thought how gracious Arthur was, and how much pride he took in his knights. Only Merlin saw the expression, now on Arthur's face, which betrayed the fact Arthur would have cheerfully caved in Lancelot's skull for a go at the beast himself. But there wasn't anyone else to spare – Gwaine's interest in questing was strictly spur of the moment, Leon was now in charge of training the knights of Camelot, Elyan was in charge of the armoury, Percival was busy receiving formal training from Leon...
In a slightly strangled voice, Arthur said "been spending a lot of time in the Lower Town?"
"He's been all over, I think," said Merlin, blandly.
Arthur looked at him, a little sadly. He seemed aware that Merlin had fully understood that he was really asking if Lancelot was spending a lot of time with Gwen, and seemed aware that the answer was yes, and Merlin didn't like it anymore than he did. A lot unspoken; as always.
"Sometimes I think he's living my life."
Merlin raised his head, Arthur had spoken so quietly and indifferently as he sat down at his desk. "What?"
"Hm?" Arthur looked up. "Oh, I was just thinking before. You, him and Gwen all hanging around together, him going off on quests..." he shrugged, as though he didn't care, as though it was an idle thought, but Merlin could see the pain.
"Arthur –" he began. It really isn't like that! He wanted to say. But Arthur was glaring at him and began talking about how many boots had to be polished, and Merlin knew that the ranting meant he didn't want to talk about it, that he had given that piece of himself and was now regretting it and wanted to say no more. Merlin picked up the tray and left without another word.
Merlin was in Gaius' rooms when a page burst in, breathlessly informing them the prince regent had requested their presence at an emergency meeting of the court. By the time they arrived, Arthur was sitting on the throne, grey-faced. It had surprised Merlin how quickly he had got used to seeing Arthur on the throne, but he hadn't yet got used to the look of responsibility, of weight on his shoulders.
"We may have a report of Morgana," he said. His voice was utterly unlike his own, he had invented this character of a king, and played it unnervingly well. He fully inhabited it. He only shed it with Gwen and Merlin. This role was for everyone else's benefit. He was making sure they would all go away and say how wonderful Arthur was, how stately, how born to it. "Her camp is some miles away, we've heard from some travellers, exiles from the west." He stared ahead, not looking at anyone, as though staring down a corridor of history that no one else could see.
A clamour rose. Leon was saying that the knights could ride at once, Gaius was urging caution, and then Arthur raised a hand. "We can't leave Camelot undefended," he told Leon.
"What defence is possible?" asked one of Uther's old counsellors, despairingly. Voices rose again, panicky.
"Sire," said Lancelot, and the babble died instantly. Everyone turned to look at Lancelot, the conquering hero, the person Arthur used to be before ascending above them to a place where heroics were less glorified because they were wholly expected. "Sire, with your permission, I can ride out quietly and confirm or debunk these reports. I can go alone, and not risk leaving an undefended city."
"It's too dangerous, Lancelot," said Arthur.
"With respect," Lancelot almost cut him off, as though he had known what was coming and couldn't wait to answer it, "with respect, sire, you have done many similar journeys, alone."
All the eyes of the court swivelled back to Arthur. He finally met Lancelot's eyes, and Merlin could sense the resentment. "I was never alone, Lancelot. Well..." he paused, uneasily, and only Merlin and Gwaine knew why "...I was never alone. I always had at least Merlin with me."
And then, with a dreadful certainty, Merlin saw how effortlessly Lancelot had moved his chess pieces. Now it was his turn to know exactly what was coming. "In that case, sire," said Lancelot, smoothly, carelessly slotting his final piece into place, "in that case, sire, may I request Merlin come with me? He knows the landscape, and the Lady Morgana, and I think we work well together..."
But Merlin had stopped listening by this point. He was staring at Arthur, who was now completely white with rage. His features, however, were completely immobile.
"...and surely you have other servants who can replace him in the meantime?" concluded Lancelot.
It was a clever move. What could Arthur say? Deny Lancelot a servant? "Well," began Arthur, and Merlin could see the frantic thinking. But Arthur had realised too that Lancelot had closed the trap effectively. "I can't order a servant into danger," he said, finally, though he always did. "Merlin? Are you happy to go?"
"You're happy for me to go, sire?" asked Merlin, a little dazedly. He tried to think of a way around it. He felt that Arthur was being humiliated in a very serious way, yet probably – hopefully – only he, Arthur, Gwen and Lancelot would feel it.
"That's done then," the words fell out of Arthur's mouth. "You two had better pack. Court dismissed." He got up so suddenly that the guards almost couldn't open the doors in time.
Merlin stood still for a moment as people began to move, before he became aware of Lancelot at his shoulder.
"I needed your magic," he said in a low voice. He must have been able to sense Merlin's anger, because all he said afterwards was that they should leave before dark.
When Merlin went to say goodbye, Arthur couldn't look him in the eye. His white-faced fury had become a tinge of humiliation around his cheekbones.
"Did you want me to say I wouldn't go?" he asked. "Because I'll tell him that, if you want."
"Don't be ridiculous, Merlin. I won't have people say you are a coward when you're not. It's completely fine. I have a castle full of servants who can polish my boots."
That was true. But what was also true was that they were best friends. It was something Merlin barely thought about and something Arthur almost certainly had never and would never think about, but it was true. Arthur and Merlin rode together. It had become almost a joke amongst the court. And now Lancelot had taken that, along with spending time with Gwen, along with the triumphs of the tournaments and glories of the quests, Lancelot had taken that fierce inseparability from the friendship. And the only reason he had been able to take it all because Arthur had been forced to give it all up and it stuck in his throat. They would never talk about it, of course, but they both felt it.
"Be careful," he told Merlin, briefly. He shrugged and sat down, looking over papers, as he always was nowadays. "Make sure you bring him back safely," he added, not looking up. "He's useful to me."