New Year's greetings, dear readers!
Again, my apologies for the slightly belated update. It was Christmas. I have siblings. The hours just get swallowed up in endless games of Cluedo and Articulate and hours upon hours of 90's Christmas cartoons. It was all rather spectacular. :)
Just inside the doorway, his hair a little windswept and his cheeks rosy from the cold but as noble and eminent as ever in his billowing red cloak, stood Sir Leon.
A myriad of emotions ran through him – fear, embarrassment, anger, guilt – but he forced these aside and instead groped desperately for the mask of indifference that he usually wore in the older man's company. Although he doubted it would do him much good; he felt disgusting, so heaven knows what he looked like. His cheeks still burned with a post-weeping flush that would have darkened his waxen skin a pinkish hue. His eyes, which always had shown a maddening propensity to remain red and puffy long after his tears had dried up, were likely to appear downright demonic given his current state, and there was little chance that the nobleman would miss something so obvious. Resignation settled upon him like a leaden mantle and he sighed tiredly, letting his shoulders slump beneath the weight of his fatigue.
"Leon," he greeted, returning his gaze to Ailith and petting her muzzle simply to give his trembling hands something to do. "You're up late."
"So it seems." Out of the corner of his eye, he watched the knight shift a bulging sackcloth from one hand to the other. "Apparently I'm not the only one."
"Mm." Merlin coughed to clear his throat of the gunk that seemed determined to make his voice waver. "Couldn't sleep."
Footsteps approached him slowly, fabric fluttered, and then Leon was standing beside him and heaving a weary sigh of his own. "That makes two of us. Thought I'd go for stroll, clear my head. I've had a lot on my mind of late."
Desperate to focus the conversation on anything but his own sorry state, Merlin schooled his features and managed an almost genuinely interested, "Oh? Anything I can help with?"
"Perhaps." The nobleman moved to stand opposite him, a fond smile curling at his lips when Ailith nickered in greeting and snuffed at his windswept curls. "See, there's this lad I know," he began slowly, reaching up to brush his fingers through the horse's forelock. "He hasn't been himself lately. And I understand his need to grieve – we're all grieving, in our own way - but I'm concerned about his health. He's not eating. He's not sleeping. And what's worse, he doesn't seem to think that anybody cares enough to notice."
A lump had formed in Merlin's throat for the hundredth time that evening. He could feel the weight of Leon's gaze upon him, but he didn't dare lift his head; the sheen of tears would be glaringly obvious in the lamplight.
"And his friends aren't quite sure how to help him," the knight continued as his right hand came to settle across the bridge of the horse's muzzle, an inch away from Merlin's idly stroking fingers, "because he won't talk to us. Actually, he's been avoiding us altogether." There was a brief pause, then a large, warm hand closed around his elbow, the grip firm and reassuring. "He needs to know that he's not alone."
Merlin bit the inside of his cheek to distract himself from the traitorous burning of his eyes. Gods, how long had they been watching him? Worrying about him? He had been so careful in avoiding them, knowing how quickly Elyan, ever the quiet and perceptive one, would pick up on his inner torment. Hiding his upset – and, more importantly, himself – from Gwaine had been the harder task; the burly knight had a habit of stumbling (often quite literally) upon every hiding place in the castle. But Merlin had thought that a forced smile and a well-placed joke had been enough to convince the older man that all was well; or as well as it could be for any of them, in light of recent events. Clearly Gwaine was more intuitive than he gave him credit for.
And now Leon had sought him out. Despite the lateness of the hour, he had abandoned the warmth of his chambers and traipsed through muddy training fields in the middle of an Autumn gale, all in search of Merlin.
It was something that Lancelot would have done for him without comment, and Merlin wouldn't have though to question it because that was Lancelot, and it was simply how things had existed between them. But the others? Leon had said 'we', the term that tended to encompass all four remaining 'knights of the round table', as they had taken to calling themselves. Were they all equally as concerned for his welfare? Gods, had they been discussinghim?
They considered him a friend, he knew that. But for them to think of him amid their own grief - to actively seek him out because they feared for his health; because they wanted to ease his suffering...
Hell, he was going to cry again.
"Merlin?" Another hand, as warm and gentle as the first, settled lightly upon his shoulder. "Why don't we sit down for a moment? You look dead on your feet. Talking can wait."
Leon began to steer him towards the row of short wooden benches that sat against the back wall of the stable. Merlin had to force himself not to dig in his heels and run in the opposite direction as bittersweet memories of those long summer evenings rose to the surface. He sat down dazedly, nodding his compliance when Leon pressed a waterskin into his hands and told him to drink. His fingers felt strangely numb and it took longer than it should have to uncork the neck, but the water tasted cool and refreshing on his parched tongue and he drank eagerly, spilling a little in the process and shivering as it ran down his neck and beneath the collar of his shirt.
When he glanced up again, the knight was standing beside Ailith's stall, slicing into an apple with the knife from his belt and feeding it to the horse piece by piece. When he was certain that the other man's attention was fully focused on the grey mare, he reached up to surreptitiously wipe the brimming moisture from his eyes, taking a few deep breaths to calm his racing heart and gripping the waterskin tightly in his left hand to keep it from trembling.
"You shouldn't blame yourself, you know," Leon spoke, his gaze still trained on Ailith as she took another slice of apple from his upturned palm. "None of this was your fault."
Merlin suddenly wished that he hadn't consumed quite so much water. It churned ferociously in his stomach - a cold, sickly ache that threatened to make its way back up again at any given moment. He set the waterskin aside carefully and took another deep breath, wrapping his arms about his midriff and catching tight fistfuls of his baggy tunic. Surely Leon didn't expect him to talk? Fie, in his current state he could scarcely draw breath.
"I know you feel differently. I know that you realise there was little you could have done to prevent it all from happening, but you choose to blame yourself regardless. And I understand why...perhaps better than most." The bearded knight glanced towards him briefly, his face grave, his eyes clouded and weary and so very, very old. "To ride out knowing beyond all doubt that the battle is to be your last, with a comforting certainty in your heart that your death will serve to protect those you love." He paused, and his hand tightened around the hilt of the dagger. "Only to then find yourself the lone survivor of a patrol party of forty men, staring at the broken corpses of friends and kinsmen for whom you would have lain down your life in an instant."
The nobleman's voice had taken on a bitter tone and, though his face remained impassive, a fierce sorrow seemed to burn behind his eyes. Then he shuddered and blinked, coming to himself again, his back straightening imperceptibly. "It would be my honour to die protecting Camelot and her people, Merlin. To fall so that my brothers might endure... that is the life we freely choose when we swear the oath of fealty; there isn't a man among us who wouldn't sacrifice himself to save Arthur."
Merlin looked away, hands curling into fists. But Lancelot didn't sacrifice himself for Arthur's sake, he wanted to say.
He had died saving Merlin.
"Lancelot knew what he was doing." Leon wiped the dagger clean on the sleeve of his tunic and re-sheathed it smoothly, his hand lingering on the hilt as his gaze drifted to the floor. "It was a brave and noble death, one that any knight would be proud of. Although that offers little in the way of comfort for those who mourn him."
Merlin felt anger coil up within him. He was speaking before he could stop himself. "It wasn't his destiny to die as a...as a sacrifice."
"Nor was it yours."
"But I'm just a ser-"
"Don't." Leon's voice was hard, sharp.
Surprise made him glance up again, only to find a pair of keen, cobalt eyes boring into him.
"A man's worth isn't always defined by his status," the knight went on, his tone softening. A smile tugged at the corners of his mouth. "You taught me that."
Merlin said nothing, lowering his gaze again as his face began to heat up. Leon gave Ailith a parting caress before moving to sit down beside him on the bench, their shoulders barely a hair's breadth apart. A moment of silence passed, tense and uncomfortable. Merlin felt the older man shift uneasily.
"Merlin, we...we should talk."
Despite the intermingled grief and dismay that surged up within him at the suggestion, Merlin felt his lips twitch. "I thought we already were?"
Leon huffed a short, surprised laugh. "Ah. There you are." His shoulder bumped against Merlin's and stayed there; a solid, reassuring warmth. "Feeling better?"
Merlin nodded, twisting his fingers in the loose fabric of his tunic and staring resolutely at his knees.
The knight leaned across him to grab the sackcloth from the far end of the bench. "Hungry?"
"No. Not really." He ran his tongue over his cracked lower lip. "Sorry."
Leon sighed again, more quietly this time. "Merlin, you need to eat." The older man's shoulder pressed into his a little more firmly. "You shouldn't deny yourself food, not out of guilt. If this is a way of punishing yourself, it muststop. I won't stand by and watch you starve. None of us will."
"Come on, I'm getting you off work early." Hands slid beneath his arms to haul him upright and Merlin squawked in protest as he was unceramoniously dragged from the armoury. "Don't worry, I've already cleared it with Arthur. He'd been intending to dine with his father tonight anyway."
"Where exactly are we going?" Merlin queried, trying to shake his wrist free of Lancelot's grip and failing miserably.
"To dinner. And I expect you to eat twice as much as I do." White teeth flashed in a teasing smile as a finger prodded him in the ribs. "You're far too skinny, peasant boy."
His eyes burned anew. Lancelot had forever been nagging him about his weight. Although it hadn't always been Merlin's fault; his face tended to look gaunt if he so much as skipped breakfast. Compared to the gangly, stick-like thing he'd been as a boy back in Ealdor – all knobbly knees and sharp angles – his body had never looked healthier. He had more food at his disposal here in Camelot than he'd ever had at home. Lancelot had always insisted that he needed to eat more, but therein lay the cusp of it; Merlin wasn't used to such a rich diet. Back in Ealdor, eating your fill meant that you wouldn't go to bed hungry, and that was a luxury often only reserved for three out of the four seasons. Winters had never been kind to them.
He swallowed back the nausea, squeezing his eyes shut. "Please. I'm not hungry."
"Yes, you are," Leon pressed, not unkindly. "You've just forgotten what hunger feels like. There's a hollow ache inside you that doesn't go away even when you eat your fill, and a sickly feeling that worsens at the thought of food. Eating has lost its appeal because everything tastes like ash in your mouth and sits like lead in your stomach. Avoiding food altogether seems like the lesser of two evils, does it not?"
Merlin could only stare at him, wide-eyed. Leon smiled, a mere twitch of the lips, but his eyes when they caught Merlin's gaze were sombre.
"I know what it's like to lose someone irreplaceable, Merlin. There are days when you wish yourself dead because that seems like the easier option. Days when it feels as though you'll drown in the grief and guilt and shame of it all. But I promise you, it does get better, in time." Leon's voice was low, rumbling murmur, and although Merlin could not see the knight's expression (his knees had suddenly become very interesting), he could hear the warmth that would be reflected there.
"It will be a long, slow process, and some days will seem as dark and hopeless as the first," the low voice rumbled, a soothing balm to the painful turmoil of emotions that roared within him, "but even the deepest wounds heal with time. And until that day dawns, it is your duty to honour him by living. Otherwise his death was for nought."
Merlin's breeches blurred as his eyes misted over. His throat ached and his head throbbed and gods be damned, he was going to cry in front of Leon.
"Merlin. Please," the knight murmured. "We've already lost one brother. Don't make us bury another."
The tears brimmed over, falling swiftly to leave two darkened ovals on the fabric of his breeches.
A warm hand settled across the nape of his neck, squeezing gently, before sliding over to grip his far shoulder. The solid weight of the muscular arm across his back spread a renewed warmth through his limbs and he sagged into the hold gratefully, swiping a sleeve across his stinging eyes. The arm tugged, lightly at first but then with renewed purpose, and before he knew what was happening Merlin found himself wrapped up in what could only be described as an embrace.
It was hardly a foreign experience; Lancelot had never been one to shy away from physical contact, particularly when he sensed that Merlin needed it. And Gwaine's bone-crushing hugs, although often quite painful, were as commonplace as Elyan's reassuring shoulder-squeezes or Percival's affectionate-but-jarring backslaps.
But Leon? The man had never gone beyond a gentle squeeze at the nape of his neck or a fond hair-ruffle. The whole thing should have felt a good deal more awkward than it did, all things considered. He was still crying, for heaven's sake. Perhaps he was just too tired to care any more.
After several minutes, he pulled back shyly, dragging a sleeve across his face again to wipe away the last of the tears with a mumbled "sorry".
"Don't be," Leon replied, reaching for the waterskin, his shoulder still pressing solidly against Merlin's. He poured a little water onto a handkerchief that he had produced from somewhere on his person, folding the cloth into a long strip and passing it to Merlin with a soft smile. "Hold that against your eyes for a minute or two, it'll help with the sting."
Merlin did so, leaning his head back against the wall of the stable and sighing in relief as the cool, damp fabric soothed the painful burning of his overtired eyes. Leon pressed the waterskin into his hands again and urged him to drink; he obeyed without complaint, too weary and contented to put up a fuss.
The scent of food hit his nostrils and he was surprised to find that, despite his earlier protests to the contrary, he genuinely wanted to eat. Not much, mind, but it was a start. It had been a while since he'd last felt hungry. Tugging off the cold compress, he blinked to clear his blurred vision, eyes squinting even in the low, flickering light of the oil lamp.
"Here." The knight smiled knowingly as he passed him a thick chunk of bread, soft and white and sprinkled with seeds. "And there's cheese and dried meats and apples to go with that. But let's see how you manage the bread first. I take it you haven't eaten since this morning?"
Merlin felt his face heat up. "Not really." He cleared his throat awkwardly. "Wasn't all that hungry."
"Well, you'd best make up for it now, then. Now," the knight said cheerfully, slouching down on the bench and crossing his ankles, "did I ever tell you about the time that Arthur fell down a well in the lower town?"
Merlin had to swallow quickly to keep from choking, shooting the older man a startled look. "He what?"
"No? How negligent of me. " Leon shot him a lazy grin, his eyes alight with amusement. "You're going to like this one. It happened years ago, back when Arthur was still a lad - fourteen summers at most. King Uther had asked me to supervise his son's training; I had taken the oath some months earlier and was still trying to find my place amongst the older, more experienced knights of Camelot, so I was eager to prove my worth. Perhaps a little too eager..."
Merlin smiled to himself, nibbling on the bread as he listened to the nobleman's tale, feeling a hollow within him slowly begin to fill. And it wasn't just the food.
He felt better than he had in weeks. He'd eat anything and everything the knight placed in his hands; after what Leon had done for him this evening, he owed him that. That and so much more.
He might even manage an apple.
Thanks for reading, folks! I hope you've enjoyed it.
After much deliberation, I decided that this ending was simply too fitting to change. I'd initially intended to extend the story to five chapters, but I feel all the issues I'd wanted to address have already been answered and resolved by Leon, the wonderful man that he is. So instead this story is now complete. And after several months of silence, I'm now preparing to write another story. Incoming Grapefruit, folks! Beware!