I'm so, so sorry I took so long to update this! Life got kind of crazy and I haven't had a day off in a month. I also had the worst case of writer's block I've ever had. For some reason this chapter didn't want to come out the way I wanted, so I finally gave up and let it have it's way. I'm not sure of the way it turned out, especially since it was literally written in paragraph chunks over the last month and a half. The backstory went way more AU, characters are still OOC, angst is still off the scale, and I kind of pushed the ending so it didn't turn out near as good as I wanted. I hope you enjoy it anyway!
Merlin trailed after Arthur, eyes boring into the middle of his back. He could tell he was walking straight if he just kept his eyes on Arthur, otherwise he tended to list slightly to the left. His head felt like someone had put it into a giant mortar when he wasn't looking and they were now trying to grind it into a fine powder. The dizziness came and went in waves that Gaius had assured him would pass. Merlin wasn't sure he counted it as a good thing when Gaius' treatment of him turned into a lesson on how to treat bruising of the brain, complete with a long winded explanation for how such bruising could occur. Merlin knew how it could happen thank you. It had happened to him often enough.
It didn't help his ability to walk any that his skin felt like it was trying to crawl off his bones. The bruises and cuts he could handle, hell even the head injury wasn't entirely unfamiliar, but this deeper wrongness he didn't think he could take for much longer. It was like there was a war going on inside him, and the thrashing of the battling foes was tearing him apart from the inside. He knew what it was, why it was happening, but that didn't stop it from making him jumpy as hell. Case in point, as Arthur came to a sudden stop in front of him and Merlin walked right into his back, jumping away as though it was on fire.
Merlin opened his mouth to apologize, but noticing that Arthur's attention was definitely not on him, Merlin stopped and followed his gaze instead. He almost wished that he hadn't as he spotted the knights at the end of the corridor, surrounding a seated Gwaine. The pounding in Merlin's head intensified as he tried not to remember when he had last been in Gwaine's position, how terrified he had been. Only Gwaine had been standing with them then, hurling words and fists and feet at Merlin until his skin and soul felt raw. Merlin had tried to keep the fact that they were under the influence of magic fixed in the front of his mind, had tried not to hate them as boots collided with already bruised ribs. He wouldn't let that bitch win.
But she had won in the end, hadn't she? Merlin had sworn not to blame them, but here he was, frozen with terror, wanting only to flee. The creeping of his skin had become worse as soon as he saw the knights, and if he was really honest with himself, it was more of a tossup between running for his life or scratching his skin off his muscles. But he knew that wouldn't really help, wouldn't really stop the battle inside. So he forced himself to remain still as Gwaine spotted them and muttered something to the rest of the knights. He didn't run, even as Gwaine stood and the group approached them. But when they stopped in front of them and reached out to him, he couldn't stop himself from edging behind Arthur slightly.
Arthur had no such problems, glaring at the knights as they came closer. Elyan and Leon paled a little at being on the receiving end of their king's ire, but Gwaine only had eyes for Merlin, and Percival was trying to retain a seeming of the strength he thought he'd lost. It surprised no one when Gwaine completely ignored Arthur and went straight for Merlin, saying urgently, "Gods, Merlin, I'm so sorry. I would have apologized sooner, but I didn't remember." He didn't seem to notice Merlin backing away slowly and rushed forward, putting his hands on Merlin's shoulders to express his sincerity.
Merlin wanted out of his skin now. Something within him had grown when Gwaine touched him, something that reacted to the latent magical infection the creature had left in Gwaine. Something that fought and seethed and clawed inside him. The crawling made it uncomfortable to be touched most of the time, but this... this was agony. Merlin felt his magic surge, wanting to fight off the intruder, and clamped down on it. No, he couldn't hurt Gwaine, he didn't know what he was doing!
"Please let go of me," he forced out through gritted teeth. "My bruises, you're... pressing on them..." Merlin trailed off, the dizziness settling back in, forcing him to swallow against nausea. When Gwaine released him suddenly, Merlin teetered back into the wall, his energy waning. He had been fighting too long. Maybe Arthur was right for once, maybe he shouldn't have gone to work today. It wasn't like it was actually going to make things seem more normal. In fact, all it had done was illustrate that he wasn't well yet.
Merlin vaguely heard his name spoken by Arthur as he tilted slowly sideways. Oh, how he wished that was his bed rushing up to meet him, and not a cold stone floor. He needn't have worried about the floor though, as all the knights gave in to their chivalrous instincts and moved as one to catch him. The pain ratcheted up tenfold as they surrounded him, and Merlin bit his lip to smother a scream he knew he couldn't explain. One of the knights yelled for Arthur, and then Merlin gave in to the darkness encroaching over his vision, and knew no pain for awhile.
Merlin was sure he was dreaming. He knew he'd been here before. This was the night Arthur defeated the lamia, and saved them all. But that was before. It shouldn't be now. He shouldn't be lying here beaten to a pulp, knowing that the knights were out hunting the latest threat to their precious Lamia, also known as their king, Arthur, and there was nothing Merlin could do about it. This was over, he was safe from this, it had all happened before. So it had to be a dream, right?
"Tell yourself what you need to, child," the lamia hissed in his ear and Merlin felt his whole body stiffen, calling attention to aches and pains that had remained dormant. "It's just a dream, it's not real, she can't hurt me," she continued in a whining, petulant tone, then broke into a sharp toothed grin. "If you say it enough times maybe it'll become true!" Merlin sighed and turned his head away from her with difficulty. He didn't need to hear her hiss of anger to know what to expect. He rolled with it as her hand gripped his face roughly and forced him to look at her again. "Show some respect, little warlock! You don't want me to let our knights play with you again, do you? After they return from killing your king of course." She let his head drop back onto his bedroll, and licked the blood off her hand with apparent relish.
"They won't beat Arthur," Merlin mumbled, only to find himself yanked up by the hair, face to face with an enraged lamia.
"Repeat that, please," she said coldly.
They... won't... beat... Arthur," Merlin replied slowly, as though speaking to a first class idiot, earning himself a backhand across the face. Blinking against the fresh tears that sprang to his eyes, Merlin watched a mask of pure ice settle over the lamia's features.
"Why not? They beat you easily enough," she crooned, running one finger through the blood on his face, tracing patterns on the few areas that were unbloodied. "And you a powerful warlock who could have reduced them to cinders with a word. Why didn't you stop them, Emrys? Are you really that weak?"
"I couldn't hurt them, they're my friends. They're... not in their right minds." Merlin explained quickly. Too quickly apparently, as the lamia regarded him skeptically.
"Maybe it was that, at first. Some silly desire to sacrifice yourself to protect your friends. But after a while you were hurt too bad, too afraid that you wouldn't be able to get anywhere on your own, too ironically reliant on your knights to keep you alive, even as you prayed they wouldn't kill you." She giggled as she threw one leg over his thighs, straddling him, to Merlin's disgust. "Maybe a little of it was me, do you think? A little whisper inside, telling you to just take it, that you deserve it. I think it was. Why else haven't you tried to destroy me yet?" At Merlin's startled look, the lamia smiled and placed a finger on his lips, ignoring his disgusted attempts to squirm away from her hand.
"Don't be so surprised, little warlock. Magic users aren't immune to my influence. Just takes longer is all. But I find a way to weasel in there. Deep in, until you can't tell what's you thinking and what's me thinking for you." Seeing that Merlin was still skeptical, the lamia leaned back and threw her arms open wide. "Don't believe me? Give me your best shot then, mighty warlock!" Disbelieving, Merlin tried to do just that, but found himself strangely unable to reach his magic. Every time he tried to think of attacking the lamia, an answering thought rose that convinced him he didn't want to. Smirking at the fear rising in Merlin's eyes, the lamia asked, "Still believe your king will win?"
"Yes." The dead certainty in Merlin's voice seemed to piss the snake-creature off to no end. Leaning down into his face, she bared her teeth, and for a second Merlin was afraid she really was going to tear a chunk of his flesh out. Then she seemed to reconsider and that evil smirk claimed her face again.
"Very well, if you're so sure your king will rescue you, perhaps I'd better give you a parting gift," she whispered lasciviously, her hands trailing down his sides and across his chest. Merlin felt nausea bite at the back of his throat, but he couldn't seem to make his body obey his command to throw her off. Even as her touch ghosted across his neck, even as she claimed a firm grip in his hair, Merlin didn't move a muscle. He didn't scream his horror and rage into her face as she bent her head until her lips were inches from his. "Don't worry, little warlock. This won't kill you. Probably. If your magic is powerful enough, it'll fight off my spell, and you'll live. But it'll be slow and agonizing. I wouldn't want to be you in the next couple days."
At least I'll still be alive in a couple days, Merlin thought at her as hard as he could. Her only response was another smirk, and lowering her lips to his. It wasn't what Merlin expected, at first. There was no sensation of being drained, but rather of being invaded, like her kiss was a drill into his soul and she was planting a little piece of herself inside. Merlin jerked, his body involuntarily trying to buck her off, but she wrapped one hand around his hip and held him down easily. She kissed him long and thoroughly, fingers working their way up under the hem of his shirt, until Merlin realized that she was actually enjoying it. The deep wave of revulsion he felt broke through the trance she had him in. He twisted his head away from hers and used a quick burst of magic to throw her off him.
He wasn't prepared for the effect this had on the spell she had infected him with though. The magic surged forward, like a pile of snakes writhing through his insides, touching everywhere, draining the energy from everything they touched. Merlin's back arched involuntarily, his teeth gritting. The lamia lunged back up and whipped her head toward him, but paused when she found him practically convulsing on the ground. She studied Merlin for a minute, then nodded to herself and crouched next to him.
"You know, normally I would reabsorb the spell and as much of your life-force as I could get with it, but I'm almost inclined to let you live. After I kill your king, I think you'd make a truly excellent pet. So why don't you wait right here while I go do that? Try not to move around too much, it'll only make the pain worse." She gave him a parting caress along the jaw, her very own twisted version of a smile, and ran off into the ruins, her form changing even as she faded from sight.
Merlin was left to fight the pain and pray that Arthur would be successful in killing that thing. But hadn't Arthur already killed it? Hadn't Merlin woken up in his room and been told the story of Arthur's epic battle with the monster? This was a dream, had to be. And suddenly all Merlin wanted to do was wake up from it. He didn't want to be laying here any longer, trapped in a nightmare. He wanted to wake up right now.
"Gaius, I think he's waking up!" Merlin heard the words as though he was underwater, slow and nearly unintelligible. He pushed forward, upward, determined to reach consciousness. The many aches of his body made themselves known one at a time as he swam upward. It was almost enough to push him back under, but he remembered what was down there and kept fighting. He wouldn't let the nightmare drag him back down again. "Merlin, calm down, you're safe!" Hands on him, holding him down. He had to get free! "Merlin!" He continued to struggle wildly, until the owner of the voice registered.
"Arthur?" he asked, finally opening his eyes and looking around, absurdly comforted to find his unassuming room around him, instead of stone ruins and bones. His gaze finally falling on a concerned Arthur, he broke into a wide grin. "So you did kill it! I knew it." Arthur continued to look at him as if he was afraid he'd finally lost his mind. Merlin meanwhile was performing a mental check of himself, and was coming up surprisingly good. No skin crawling, no dizziness or nausea, most of all no epic battle going on inside him. It seemed his magic had finally won the fight while he was out. That reminded him...
"How long have I been here?" he asked, turning to Arthur, who seemed rather put out at his sudden recovery. Merlin cocked his head at him, wondering if Arthur had actually enjoyed playing nursemaid. Arthur looked away quickly, clearing his throat.
"You've been lazing around here most of a day. I always knew you were a layabout Merlin, but honestly, fainting in order to get a day off? That's low even for you," Arthur answered playfully.
"I didn't faint to get a day off!" Merlin countered indignantly. "I fainted because..." He trailed off, unsure how to continue.
"Because you had a head injury, and like the stubborn ass you constantly claim I am, you ignored it and pushed yourself too far," Arthur finished for him, his face and voice taking on that serious manner that usually made Merlin's insides squirm with shame, despite the fact that the owner of the voice was the biggest prat ever.
"I'm sorry," he found himself murmuring, not really knowing exactly what he was apologizing for, just that he was really sorry.
"Merlin, you scared us," Arthur admitted, showing one of his rare moments of emotional vulnerability. "Gwen's been beside herself, she blames herself for leaving you alone with the lamia to look for me. And the knights..." Arthur stopped himself abruptly, giving Merlin a searching look. Merlin stared back at him blandly, giving nothing away. Finally Arthur sighed and continued, " The knights have been terrified that they killed you after all." Suddenly Merlin found the wall of his room extremely fascinating, his eyes tracing patterns and swirls in the stone. Arthur gave up trying to meet his gaze, and looked at the floor instead. "Merlin, I know this has been... hard, for you. I know it would be hard for me to forgive, if I were in your position. But you have to realize, the knights were under her control, they couldn't help themselves."
Merlin opened his mouth to reply, to ask Arthur if he thought Merlin didn't know that, to demand to know if he really thought that it wasn't tearing Merlin apart inside that he couldn't make himself stop feeling this way, couldn't stop being afraid of people he had once counted as friends. Maybe still counted as friends. But he was interrupted when Gaius came bustling in, delayed only long enough to finish bottling some foul smelling mixtures that Merlin had no doubt would find their way down his throat by the end of the day. Sensing the tension in the air, Gaius raised one eyebrow at Arthur. "Merlin is supposed to be rested, not agitated, sire. Perhaps you could go inform everyone that he has awoken."
Merlin sometimes thought Camelot was a strange land, where a king would sit vigil at his injured servant's bedside, and a physician could, with only a look and a polite question, both chastise and banish said king. Arthur, looking slightly abashed, nodded to Gaius and made a hasty exit. Merlin noticed the penetrating gaze Gaius was giving him, and almost wished Arthur would come back. He was so much easier to lie to somehow. Probably because Merlin was forced to be duplicitous toward Arthur on a daily basis, whereas Gaius had known his secrets and been his confidant since he came to Camelot. How could he lie to him? But Merlin knew Gaius was about to ask uncomfortable questions that Merlin really didn't want to answer.
"Merlin, you want to tell me what happened?" Gaius asked calmly, proving Merlin right of course. When Merlin remained stubbornly silent, Gaius sighed. "I know you didn't collapse because of your concussion, at least not entirely. So what happened?" Merlin debated refusing to answer, then asked himself why he hadn't told Gaius in the first place. Something interfering with his magic like that could have serious consequences for his ability to heal properly. Gaius should have known. So why hadn't he told him?
Merlin gave serious thought to telling Gaius everything that had happened, sparing no detail, and felt his stomach twist sickeningly in response. Ghost hands lingered on his skin, fisted in his hair, and Merlin fought the urge to brush wildly at his body in a futile attempt to be rid of them. How could he tell Gaius he let that... that *thing* touch him? How could he admit that he hadn't fought like he should, that he had just lay there and let her invade him with her magic? Hot shame washed through him, bringing the blood to his face. Unable to bring himself to look at Gaius, he dropped his head into his hand. He was being pathetic and he knew it.
Feeling a hand touch his shoulder, he resisted the instinctive urge to flinch away from it. This wasn't the forest, there was no lamia here, no brainwashed knights to make every gesture seem a threat, no crawling of his skin to remind him of it either. He had to stop this. It was done, time to get over it. He straightened his spine and looked over the hand on his shoulder into Gaius' accepting gaze. For a second he just stared at him, soaking in the knowledge that, whatever he told him, Gaius wouldn't judge him. Then he felt his mouth opening and words tumbling out, but he wasn't aware of what he was going to say until he said it.
"She touched me, Gaius," he found himself saying quietly, his gaze falling to the floor. "And not just outside either. She put a piece of herself *inside* me." He paused to swallow against the rising nausea. The last thing he wanted was to compound his embarrassment by losing control like that in front of Gaius. "My magic fought it, but it was like she was still there, squirming around just under my skin. And when the knights came near me, it was worse, because she's in them too. That's why I collapsed. It felt like getting clawed, ripped apart from the inside." He could feel Gaius' eyes on him like a weight, and desperately wondered what he was thinking. Was he disappointed that after all he had taught him about magic, Merlin couldn't even fight off one little girl?
"I tried to get her off me, Gaius," he said urgently, looking up long enough to give Gaius his most earnest look. "But she was in my head, and I couldn't use my magic. Couldn't move. Couldn't yell..." He trailed off uncertainly, arms coming up to wrap around his chest.
"Why didn't you tell me this had happened?" Gaius asked, his voice completely emotionless, not reacting even when Merlin glanced up at him and quickly away.
"I... I don't know really," Merlin responded haltingly. "I think... I think I was... embarrassed or... something. I'm sorry."
"Merlin, you know that this was dangerous? That you could have died?" Still no emotion.
"Yes..." Merlin answered reluctantly.
"And yet you still hid it from me." Merlin cringed a little inside. He hated it when Gaius was angry or disappointed with him.
"I'm sorry," he repeated softly. When the hand touched his arm this time, he didn't have to fight not to flinch away from it. Quite the contrary, Merlin had to resist the urge to jump up and cling to Gaius like a sobbing baby. Merlin had always enjoyed a good hug, and it suddenly seemed like the thing he wanted most in the world right now was a simple human touch that didn't seek to take something from him.
Almost with a sense of awe for the man's ability to know his heart, Merlin felt the hand on his arm encircle his wrist and gently pull him to his feet. Before he knew it, strong old arms wrapped around him, offering silent comfort and asking nothing in return. Breathing in the herbal smell that was uniquely Gaius, Merlin felt the sting in the back of his eyes that had become so familiar over the past days, and swallowed against the lump growing in his throat. He had to strain his ears to catch the words that Gaius whispered, but he heard them.
"It wasn't your fault." And suddenly Merlin had to fight to keep the tears from overflowing. He hadn't known that was what he needed to hear until the words left Gaius' mouth. Hadn't known how much he blamed his own weakness for this whole mess until that blame was lifted by another. He clung tighter to Gaius and buried his head into his shoulder, trying to deny the growing wetness on the tunic under his face.
"I know," he finally whispered, voice muffled by fabric. "I'm still sorry I didn't tell you. I just didn't want you to think..."
"That you were too weak to beat her? That you maybe didn't fight at all?" Gaius asked, gently tugging him off his shoulder and holding him at arm's length, the better to look him in the face. At Merlin's defeated nod, Gaius huffed. "I'd never think that Merlin. I'm perfectly aware of what a lamia is capable of, and the fact that you were able to resist her at all shows how strong you are."
"I'm not strong," Merlin denied. "Even with my magic, I couldn't make her stop."
"Merlin, listen to me," Gaius said sternly. "I've known many sorcerers in my day and only the priests of the Old Religion could resist a lamia. Any other man will eventually fall under her spell. That you did too isn't a sign of weakness, just more proof that you're just as human as the rest of us, despite your gifts."
Finally Merlin nodded in acceptingly. "You're right. I'm sorry I got so mopey."
"You don't need to apologize to me, Merlin. I understand." Watching Merlin's face soften, Gaius continued, "And speaking of human weakness and apologies, there's a group of knights that desire nothing more than to prostrate themselves before you and beg for your forgiveness." Merlin's face shut down instantly, like a door slamming behind his eyes.
"I don't... I don't think that's necessary," Merlin mumbled, eyes darting away from Gaius to the door, as though expecting the knights to come bursting through at any moment. Given how long Arthur had been gone, that was a very real possibility.
"Merlin, you can't actually blame them for what they did while under the control of the lamia," Gaius said disbelievingly. "You of all people should know how impossible it is to resist her."
"I don't blame them!" Merlin exclaimed, whipping his head around to glare at Gaius. Confronted only with the man's most calm and amiable expression, Merlin took a deep breath and tried to collect himself. "How can I? It wasn't their fault. They didn't mean any of it." Merlin really wished he sounded more confident about that, and not like he was trying to convince himself.
"if you believe that, why do you react like that whenever someone mentions them? Why is Arthur telling me that you won't let anyone near you?" Gaius' voice was infused with the deep concern he felt, and Merlin found it impossible to react with the anger his gut told him would be most appropriate.
So instead he replied with as much sincerity as he could muster, "That was mostly the lamia's spell. It made people touching my skin... uncomfortable."
"Merlin, that doesn't explain..." Gaius began, but was interrupted by the king of Camelot bursting through the door, followed by the very knights Merlin had been watching for. Arthur couldn't have had worse timing if they had been discussing Merlin's magic. Gaius swore Merlin went white as a sheet, and he wasn't the only one to notice. Every one of the knights looked crestfallen, while Arthur looked vaguely disappointed.
Merlin mentally kicked himself, the shame flooding through him again. What kind of friend was he, to continue to treat his friends like they were the enemy? He knew they hadn't done anything wrong but he couldn't stop being frightened of them. Hypocrite. That's what he was. How could he forgive himself for allowing the lamia to control him, and not forgive them? "Sorry," he found himself whispering for the hundredth time that day, unable to look any of them in the eyes.
Of course it was Gwaine who finally got the courage to approach him. Leaving the rest of them clustered uncertainly in the doorway, he came forward and slowly knelt in front of Merlin, head bowed. Merlin fought the instinct to scramble backwards and forced himself to remain still as Gwaine spoke, slowly raising his head to look Merlin in the face. "Merlin, we don't deserve any apologies from you. If anything, we should have to spend the rest of our lives begging your forgiveness. I do, I beg your forgiveness. I don't expect you to give it, but I will spend the rest of my life trying to make it up to you."
Merlin froze, completely at a loss for words. Gwaine was too close, far too close, and the only way out was through the others. But they weren't going to hurt him. Merlin repeated it to himself like a mantra, fingers curling in the itchy material of the blanket beneath him. They weren't going to hurt him. They were sorry. It wasn't them in the woods. It was Percival's hand that had backhanded him when he brushed against him too forcefully, Gwaine's foot that had slammed into his back when he took too long gathering firewood, Leon's mouth that had spewed hateful words at him, and Elyan's knife that had drawn his blood, but they hadn't been in control. They didn't want to do it. They wouldn't do it now.
"I don't know what I'm supposed to forgive," he finally said quietly. "You... you didn't mean it. It was her. She made you do it. Right?" his voice cracked on the last word, revealing the lingering doubt he had been denying to himself. Merlin's head bowed under the weight of six pairs of eyes, so he didn't notice the knights move as one in a hastily aborted attempt to comfort him. They shared equally helpless looks with Arthur and Gaius, before Leon stepped forward.
"Merlin," he said softly, ignoring the deep flinch that resulted when Merlin looked up and saw how they surrounded the end of the bed. "Of course we didn't mean it. I didn't want to hurt you, but it was like there were two of me and one of them really wanted to watch you suffer. And I couldn't stop it. I could only watch myself do it." Leon's voice had a familiar haunted quality to it, and Merlin found himself looking up into sad, scared eyes. He knew that look, had worn it himself minutes ago when he had to tell Gaius about the lamia controlling him.
It was like a light going on in his mind as he suddenly realized what he had somehow overlooked. The knights would understand. They'd know exactly what it felt like to be invaded and controlled by that creature. Gaius and Arthur could try their best to console, but they'd never know what it was like. The knights knew. They'd shared that horror, and come out of it blaming themselves, just as he had. Well the blame stopped now. No one was at fault here but that monster in a woman's skin.
"I know that. Believe me, in here..." Merlin said, tapping his chest. "...I know it. But it's... it's like instinct now, to tense up when you're around, to always watch your hands just in case, to feel safer the further I am from you, but I'm going to work on it..." Merlin trailed off, watching the knights' faces fall, much to his chagrin. "I don't blame you, honestly I don't, and I wish I didn't feel this way. You're my friends and in my heart I trust you, but my head has a different opinion and it rules the roost sometimes."
Merlin forced himself to look up and offer a small smile to each of the knights in turn, keeping the expression in place despite the shiver of fear that went through him when he met Percival's stony visage. Sometimes he wondered how he ever kept his secret since he was apparently emotionally transparent as glass, as Percival's angry look immediately changed to the most apologetic puppy dog face Merlin had seen on a man since the last time Arthur pissed Gwen off. Mutually guilty eyes locked on each other, neither looking away, until Percival abruptly moved forward, pushing Gwaine out of his spot kneeling at Merlin's feet. Slowly, oh so carefully, he took Gwaine's place instead, hesitating a second before tentatively placing his big hand over Merlin's clenched fingers.
Even though he hadn't known Percival as long as the others, Merlin had considered him a friend almost from the moment he met him. The man had just exuded calmness, kindness, and a quiet strength. No longer. Now he was nervous and sad, just like the rest of them embroiled in this mess. Now his hand shook just a little over Merlin's, and it seemed the most natural thing in the world for Merlin to stop the vibration with his other hand. Percival gave him a surprised smile, gently squeezed Merlin's fingers, and softly said, "We don't expect you to get over it right away, Merlin, and we know that you're trying. We just want you to know that we're here, and we'll be waiting as long as you need."
Swallowing hard, Merlin blinked against the tingling sensation at the back of his eyes. "You guys are pretty good friends, you know?" The watery smile he graced them with this time was far more genuine than the last one. The room was suddenly full of the sound of clearing throats and stifled sniffs, as everybody found an excuse to look away from everybody else.
"We shouldn't let them do this to us," Elyan suddenly put in. At everyone's confused looks, he elaborated, "Make us doubt our friendship. The creatures, the evil sorcerers, Morgana, that's what they all want, isn't it? To tear us apart, leave us with no one to rely on. Well we can't let them."
"What do you mean?" Merlin asked curiously.
" I think we should make a vow not to let magic get in the way of our friendships, not to let them get to us with something that small." Stunned silence met his words, until Elyan stuttered, "I mean, maybe it's a bad idea... It was just a suggestion..."
"I think it's a good idea.," Merlin interjected. "It'll help to remind us what we have."
"Oh, ok then," Elyan responded a bit uncertainly. "So we swear not to let magic or creatures interfere in our friendships..."
"Not to blame each other for what magic does..." Percival continued.
"Not to lie to each other about it either," Gwaine interrupted. Merlin's head dropped for a moment, then he looked at Gwaine and nodded.
"Not to wimp out when we need to apologize to each other," Leon almost whispered, the others all nodding in agreement.
"So we swear," Merlin finished. "Until we die." He was unable to stop the little uplift at the end that made it sound more like a question than a statement.
"Until we die," Percival responded, giving Merlin's fingers a reassuring squeeze.
"Until we die," Gwaine agreed, placing his hand carefully on top of Merlin's.
Leon and Elyan repeated the sentiment, adding their hands to the pile. The five then turned to Arthur and Gaius expectantly. Gaius immediately joined in, but Arthur hesitated, gazing at Merlin pensively, as he had been for half this conversation. until Merlin squirmed uncomfortably under his gaze. Then Arthur nodded to himself and put his hand authoritatively on top of the pile. A secretive smile played across his lips.
"Until we die."
There you have it, the chapter that has tortured me for the past month. Hopefully it's not as bad as I suspect it is. And yes this is the last chapter, I leave it up to you to figure out what exactly happened between Merlin and the knights, and what I was implying at the very end, and whatever else I alluded to but didn't spell out. Have fun! I almost forgot to say, again, that you guys' reviews are pretty much the only reason this got finished. It got to be no fun for awhile and I almost abandoned it, but then I'd go back and read my reviews and decide I had to finish it or I'd feel like a turkey. Your wonderful comments gave me the happy giggles on many a day. Thanks!