So, uh, I haven't died! In other news, my computer did for a while. It was gone for a WEEK, right over the finale of Doctor Who and the premiere of Merlin. I suffered, I really did. But here I am, attempting to get back into the swing of things. :) Writing again felt a bit rough, but hopefully it's not too bad. The only way I'll know is through reviews!
It was the first thing in Arthur's head when he woke. Well, second - the first was always, What happened? It was a question rarely answered, and this wasn't an exception to the rule.
Arthur put a hand to his head and felt gingerly for a lump, but there wasn't even a tender spot. Starnge. He didn't remember the blow that knocked him unconscious, but there had not have been one. Hadn't there?
Nevertheless, far more concerning than nonexistent head injuries was the fact that he was still alive to think about them.
It was a difficult-to-ignore fact that while he'd been with a group of three others previously, he was alone now, standing and staring at the altar behind which the Cailleach had invited him to sacrifice himself. She was gone, and with her, the veil.
How, if he was still here?
"I will take your place."
Arthur allowed himself to feel sick for a long minute, then blamed it on a concussion he knew full well he didn't have.
He should have bloody known Merlin really was that stupid. The second those words left his mouth, Arthur should've shaken some sort of sense into the obviously senseless boy. This had been Arthur's burden, damn it all! Hadn't he made it clear the case was closed?
His fist slammed into the rough stone of the altar, and he felt his skin split. He cursed out loud, but it had nothing to do with the sudden throbs of pain.
This wasn't the future he had planned for when he rode out from Camelot. He wasn't supposed to spend days worrying over his manservant, only to lose him at the very moment that life was meant to cease being Arthur's problem.
And to make it worse, he'd been forced to feel the exact same way only yesterday.
Lancelot's version of a joke had made Arthur forget to breathe for several seconds. He would've punched the knight in his grinning face if his knees hadn't gone weak from the pure relief of seeing Merlin step out from behind him.
A shadow appeared in the archway. Arthur drew his sword left-handed, berating himself for his stupidity and exceedingly grateful for his ambidextrious abilities. The shadow stopped just shy of entering the light.
"Show yourself!" Arthur barked after a few moments of waiting impatiently. He thought he should have been more concerned for his safety - the Dorocha were gone, but who knew what else was out there - but his head was filled with a dull buzzing, and thoughts of Merlin'sdeadMerlin'sgoneMerlin'sdead left little room for other cares.
The shadow remained paused in the gloom, and Arthur took a few steps toward it. "Move forward! I am Prince Arthur of Camelot, and I demand that you-"
"Yes, I know who you are," said Gwaine's voice as the man in question stepped into the light. "You never let anyone forget it."
"Gwaine!" Arthur relaxed, but only slightly. It had only just occurred to him upon seeing the knight that the others might not know the truth yet, at least not for sure. Hating how his voice wavered and cracked, he said, "Gwaine, Merlin is-"
"Back in the camp we've set up," said Gwaine, his voice turning solemn. Arthur's heart dropped lower; he didn't think he could stand seeing the body. It had been bad enough, seeing him so pale and unresponsive after the Dorocha touched him, but to see him even paler, lifeless...
His mouth completely dry and his breath fogging in the chilly air - a natural chill this time - Arthur followed Gwaine away from the heart of the Isle of the Blest.
"We considered leaving you there," said Gwaine on the way to try to lighten the mood, "but Sir Leon didn't think the people of Camelot would take kindly to that."
"Smart man," said Arthur, only half-listening. He was preoccupied with their destination rather than the journey.
Gwaine continued on, and Arthur began to suspect that while he himself needed to brood with his thoughts, Gwaine needed to keep his mind focused on trivial things. "I was still unconscious myself when he left you there, so you can hardly blame me. He could only care one of his, and as I'm better in a fight, I'm obviously the one he decided to bring back on the first trip. Then he got a bit... preoccupied."
Arthur nodded. "They were good friends," he said thinly through the taughtness in his throat. "Makes sense he'd be grieving."
They didn't say anything after that until Arthur saw a fire at the seaside on the isle's shore. "That's it?" he asked, nodding toward it.
"Home sweet home," Gwaine confirmed, and they strode down the hill, Arthur mentally preparing himself for what they would find when they got there.
There was Elyan, talking quietly to Percival on a fallen tree trunk. There was Leon, stoking the fire lazily, although the branches inside were arranged perfectly already.
There was Merlin, curled up on top of a blanket, asleep or pretending to be so.
Arthur stopped dead.
Gwaine stopped a few yards ahead of him, turning back when he noticed Arthur wasn't following anymore. He frowned. "The ghosts are gone, Princess," he said uncertainly. "Time to stop looking like you've seen one."
But Arthur had. "What..." he croaked, and ran the rest of the way down the slope, Gwaine reacting too slow to catch up with him until Arthur had reached the bottom and come to a halt again.
"I don't understand," said Arthur slowly, looking from each face to the next. He was on his third round of this when it finally did hit him, and even when it did, he continued to blink in confusion. There was one knight missing...
Merlin sat up, no longer feigning sleep, and met Arthur's gaze, which had come to a rest on him. In the flickering firelight, Arthur could see the redness and puffiness of his eyes. He could see the drawn quality his whole face had adopted, and it was awful to look at.
But not as awful as what Arthur had been expecting.
He couldn't deny it, the sweep of shock turning into a downpour of relief, of manic joy, even. Merlin was alive, and Arthur didn't know whether to shake him or hug him, but he didn't move a muscle for fear of doing one or both of those things at the same time.
He thought back to his brief conversation with Gwaine. Neither had ever said who they were talking about, had they? Arthur had assumed Lancelot had carried Gwaine back to camp. Gwaine had apparently assumed Arthur knew better.
Yet even well the better part of Arthur's mind was praising and thanking whatever deities there might be, the rest was wracked with guilt.
Merlin's alive. Lancelot isn't.
He hadn't wanted Lancelot to die. He really hadn't. It should've been him.
But if it couldn't be him...
Arthur turned his eyes uncomfortably from Merlin's. He couldn't look at Merlin with these thoughts in his head. As he'd said, Merlin and Lancelot had been friends. Close ones, at that. He would never understand how Arthur could be so all right with the turn of events.
Leon stood and cleared his throat softly. "Bad news, Sire." Bad news again.
But the thing was, it just wasn't.