Note: Wow…what can I say… I had thought that January was the busiest month of my year… I have never been so wrong. Trust me when I say, March has been a tale of woe that you really don't want to read. Frankly, I'm somewhat surprised that I survived to finally bring you this chapter. Speaking of finally… *shifty-look-of-embarrassment* … I had really and truly intended for this to be the final chapter of this odd piece of writing..but once again I underestimated my propensity for long-windedness (What? No!) and I got this far before being forced to acknowledge that indeed the Camelot section of the plot could only fit into two chapters. On the plus side, I did have the chance to try my hand at writing Gwaine for the first time. As tardy as the chapter was, I'm in no position to beg for reviews, but I would be eternally indebted to any Gwaine fans out there if you would tell me how you think I did with him. In any case, the final chapter is begun and will be forthcoming. As always- yoroshikutanomu yo! And thank you for your reviews, favorites, alerts, and most importantly- your patience! ~Aoi
"Merlin," Arthur remarked as he went about the usual morning preparations in his chambers. His tone spoke of a complaint forthcoming, though that was hardly unusual at this hour.
"Yes, sire?" the servant replied, as chipper as ever in the cool light that flooded the room from the bared window. They were two days back in Camelot and Merlin, for one, was deeply satisfied that things were finally back to business as usual.
"How is it that you cleaned this entire room last night, and still managed to miss that corner," he gestured to the far end of the room, "Again?"
Merlin swung around crisply to look at the corner and turned just as swiftly back to Arthur. "Ran out of time," he explained in a clipped tone and handed Arthur a shirt carefully chosen with a mind to the king's schedule for the day.
"What are you talking about?" Arthur was incredulous, "You had loads of time!"
"I didn't." Merlin corrected firmly. "You came in with Gwen quite early, if you recall."
"Yeah. And I told you the two of us were going to go stroll the promenade. So what was there to stop you cleaning?"
Merlin gave him a look that was half reprimand, half disgust. "Arthur, surely you don't think I'd ever want to watch you and Gwen stroll...the promenade..." He added particular weight and meaning to each of those last words and gave Arthur a knowing look.
The king, who had one arm halfway through a shirt sleeve, took a step back in surprise, face contorted in horror, "Merlin!" He exclaimed, momentarily at a loss for any other words.
"You," he scrambled the rest of the way into his shirt before stepping forward again and poking a finger in his servant's chest. "You have a filthy mind!"
Merlin skillfully feigned confusion. "So you two...didn't stay here?" He asked as innocently as he could manage.
"We. Did. Not!"
"And when you said 'stroll the promenade...'"
"I meant walk around the perimeter of the courtyard. Which is all we did!"
Merlin stared at his master a moment, trying to appear as if he was deciding whether or not he was being had. He finally shrugged. "Well I guess you're right:"
Arthur gave him a suspicious look.
"I did have time, after all."
The king snorted, but continued to scrutinize his servant, apparently wondering if Merlin had been replaced by an impostor.
Merlin shrugged apologetically as he proffered the next article of clothing. "I must be spending too much time with Gwaine," he said by way of explanation.
"Oh, don't get me started on that lazy drunkard!" Arthur exclaimed at the mention of his knight's name. "Did you know- he never showed up for training yesterday! Didn't show his face at his guard post either. Complete dereliction of duty! I swear, if that irresponsible git spent the day in the tavern I'll have his sorry backside in the stocks for a week, knight or not."
Arthur finished his tirade and realized that Merlin, who had been lacing the back of his padded shirt, had stopped quite suddenly. He turned to find his servant fidgeting and wearing an expression of mild embarrassment.
"I may know where Gwaine's been, sire." Merlin supplied, in answer to Arthur's unspoken demand.
The king arched an eyebrow. "Care to enlighten me?"
"Well...you see..." Merlin was clearly doing some fast thinking, "When we arrived back in Camelot he received a message...from his..." he seemed to be deciding, "sister."
Arthur stared flatly, so Merlin went on.
"She's been sick and needed him at home, so he left at first light yesterday. I was meant to tell you, but I..."
"-you forgot." Arthur finished for him, his look of skepticism firmly in place.
Then he started laughing.
Merlin blinked. Laughter was not among the various reactions he'd been anticipating.
"This!" Arthur exclaimed between chuckles, "We've done this before!" He pointed back and forth between himself and his confused servant.
"No..." Merlin not sure whether to go for bewildered or innocent.
"This is you covering for someone."
Merlin frowned and shook his head- right, shooting for innocence.
Arthur, however, was only nodding, already certain of his conclusion. "Only before you were covering for me to my father. Now you're covering for Gwaine to me!" He paused in thought. "Not, sure how much I like being on this side of it, actually."
Merlin seized the opportunity to regain composure and smoothly set back to work getting the king into his chain-maille. "Fortunately there's nothing not to like," he assured patiently, "Since Gwaine, really did leave to visit his sister and I really did forget to tell you."
Arthur looked over his shoulder at Merlin as he was shrugging into the chain shirt, "You really managed to fool my father with lies as obvious as that?" he asked with bemusement.
"Your father would have believed me from the first," Merlin grumbled. At Arthur's look of disbelief he went on, "Don't look so surprised! You know he was only ever blindly trusting where you were concerned."
Arthur looked wistful for a moment as he stood for Merlin to secure his belt. He gave a snort of derision when his impish friend gave it an extra tug to shake him from his reverie. "No, my father just didn't have the misfortune of knowing you as well as I do." He intoned.
Merlin looked up at him wearing his best self-satisfied grin, as if to thank him for the compliment, before proceeding to retrieve the boots.
"So, what, now you go to the stocks for Gwaine?" Arthur asked, looking pointedly at Merlin's still-healing ribs.
"That's usually the next order of business," Merlin answered with a grimace as he stood stiffly and surveyed his handiwork, finally nodding to indicate that the job was finished.
"Then you'd better be glad I know you well enough not to believe you!" the king said, poking Merlin in the shoulder before sweeping out of the room.
Merlin stood still, and then turned to look at the corner of the room he'd left untouched. The corner where, under several layers of discarded items of clothing, a particularly fine and particularly tarnished suit of armor was hiding. A suit of armor which Arthur had specifically asked Merlin to polish several weeks ago, at least.
Merlin smiled to himself, pleased and relieved to have so skillfully diverted their conversation away from that corner of the room.
He turned to go, but was interrupted mid-step by a voice calling back from the hallway.
"And don't forget to polish my ceremonial armor, Merlin!"
"Merlin! I've found the..." Gwaine's exclamation died on his lips as he burst in on an unexpected sight.
It was a few hours later into the same day and, ignoring armor-related orders, Merlin had made time to stop in with Gaius to ask the old physician to re-bind his ribs.
Gwaine was stood, statuesque, in front of the door, mouth slightly agape as he took in his first glimpse of his friend's half-healed frame. Though Gaius's binding covered the worst of the bruising, purple and blue shapes were fading and spreading to yellows, browns, and greens on the younger man's exposed arms and torso like some macabre exercise in portraiture.
Merlin couldn't hide his wince as he turned to look at Gwaine. It wasn't a wince of fear, though, just his sudden regret at his friend seeing what he'd taken great pains to keep hidden. He fought off the urge to grab his shirt from the table and cover himself, knowing that shame would not do anything to ease his friend's conscience.
Gaius didn't spare a glance for the intruder but quietly commented, "If only you would instruct your visitors to knock..." at Merlin's predicament. The physician made a final check of his handiwork before turning away to work on a preparation at the other side of the room, graciously allowing Merlin to address his friend in relative privacy.
"Merlin..." was all Gwaine could say as he remained frozen in place.
The servant collected himself and gingerly hopped down from the work table, making his way slowly over to Gwaine.
"Merlin, I..." the knight backpedaled, trying to maintain distance between him and the friend he'd clearly victimized.
"Gwaine." Merlin said calmly.
"I- I'm sorry. I didn't know, I..." Gwaine stammered, continuing to retreat as his friend advanced.
"Gwaine." The servant's voice was strangely authoritative this time, and Merlin reached out and grabbed the knight's forearm before he could move to re-open the door.
Gwaine looked at the hand like it was burning him.
A long moment of silence passed between them.
'I've had dreams, Merlin." Gwaine said quietly at last. "We all have. I'd hoped that was all they were. Dreams. Not memories." A slight shudder ran through him.
Merlin shook his head, "You've already been forgiven, you know that. It wasn't your fault. It wasn't even you."
Gwaine looked down and swallowed visibly, when he looked up again his eyes were glistening, "Then why do I remember feeling the hate and the rage? Why do I remember lashing out? Why do I remember liking it?"
Merlin looked down with a sigh, though he still didn't release his grip on the knight's arm. "The Lamia's magic is a cruel and vicious enchantment. But it is her enchantment. You're remembering what she made you feel, what she made you do. I know you are not responsible. I know that you would never hurt me." He slowly raised Gwaine's arm till the hand came to rest on his own bare right shoulder. "All that remains is for you to forgive yourself." Merlin gave a sad, knowing smile.
Gwaine's soulful gaze lingered on his hand where it sat on that thin, discolored shoulder. His look of guilt was slowly replaced with wonderment as his eyes wandered up to his young friend's open, smiling face. There were plenty of things in Gwaine's life for which he would probably never forgive himself. But looking into those earnest eyes he knew that somehow failing to forgive himself would only serve to further hurt his friend.
He let out the breath that he didn't know he'd been holding and it eased into a small laugh. "Only you, Merlin." He gave his friend's shoulder the lightest squeeze. "You are seriously a piece of work, mate!" His tentative smile broke into its much more customary wry grin and he enveloped his friend in a gentle but very brotherly hug.
Merlin's smile of satisfaction practically beamed.
"Now," Gwaine went on, leading his friend back to the workbench and depositing a large sack on its surface with a loud 'thunk', "It wasn't easy, but I found all the..." he saw Merlin shoot him a warning look and glance pointedly at Gaius, "...items...you sent me for." Gwaine loosened the lacing on the bag as Merlin slipped back into his shirt.
They checked once more to be sure Gaius was ignoring them before opening the bag wide and peering inside.
"You wouldn't believe what I had to do to get some of these things." the knight intoned a tad smugly.
"Oh?" asked Merlin absently, busy scrutinizing the contents.
"That bit-," Gwaine said, reaching in and pointing before launching into the story, "I had to get this dwarf down in Eastfold reeeeally drunk to get my hands on that! And dwarves are mean drunks, ya know."
Merlin nodded, though he really, really didn't know.
"I came this close to losing an eye to that little bastard and his pinwheeling knives of doom."
Merlin was about to make a suitably incredulous remark but Gwaine was already going strong and there was no interrupting.
"..but one of the barmaids told me he had a weakness for big Mercian women and I just happen to know this real swarthy Mercian lass who lives just up the hill in Upper Eastfold, and when I say 'know' I mean she owes me a few favors, and I'm not just talking about the time she rescued me from those Brindian bandits back in Southend a few winters back, although that definitely does count as a favor, 'cause when a Mercian woman 'rescues' you, she considers it her right to 'rescue' you in every possible sense of the word, and I was kind enough to let her 'rescue' me several times. But I cached in those favors a few bar-fights back (she can lay a man flat with a single swing, and I don't just mean in the 'rescuing' sense) so the favor I called in for this particular bit of wooing was...lets see... oh, I inadvertently found a bride for her younger brother! By happy coincidence this little gal from Lower Eastfold got it in her head that I needed killing (she discovered that I didn't share her feelings about committed relationships) and at the same time the younger brother was trying to kill me over some horrible misconceptions about my intentions for his sister, and one near-fatal stab wound later the two of them found true love! Now what was I..."
"Dwarf," Merlin supplied, listening raptly to Gwaine's outrageous rambling, as only he ever did.
"Right! The drunken dwarf! Well, long story short: Got Gorman drunk, introduced him to Ella, and pretty soon the little man would've given me his first born son!"
"Wait, 'Ella?'" asked Merlin.
"What, you know her?" Gwaine was skeptical. He knew his friend didn't get out much, leastwise without Arthur dragging him along, and he happened to know that Arthur was not partial to Mercian women, not for lack of effort on Gwaine's part.
Merlin shook his head. "No, it's just...'Ella'...it seems like such an elegant name..."
"Merlin," Gwaine used his most stern tone and put a firm hand on his young friend's shoulder, "Its no good judging a person on their size or background, mate. I'll have you know that Mercian women are among the most elegant you'll ever meet, whiskers notwithstanding."
As expected, Merlin looked completely aghast, and quite possibly a little sick.
Gwaine burst into laughter. "'s a joke, Merlin!" He finally said, but then shook his head to contradict himself, leaving Merlin to forever wonder if Mercian women really did grow facial hair.
At Merlin's continued look of confusion all Gwaine had to say was, "The lads and I have really got to get you to more taverns!"
Merlin just grimaced and chuckled uneasily. The last thing he needed was for Arthur to see him coming out of a tavern with Gwaine (or anyone else, for that matter)
When at last he'd got done having his laugh Gwaine finally pointed back toward the sack, "All that is to say- that one piece there is worth several dozen times its weight in beer and bodily fluids!" The knight grinned.
Merlin nodded sagely, for the most part succeeding in masking his disgust.
"Now this," Gwaine fished an item from the bag that looked like some strange combination of a gnarled root-vegetable and a brushy herb, "I don't even rightly know what this is," he gave the thing a shake for emphasis (Merlin didn't actually know either- it was simply on the the reagents list for the spell, and he wasn't about to tell Gwaine that), "But, believe it or not, I had a hell of a lot more trouble getting my hands one one of these!" The knight pulled up a stool and sat down with his elbows on the table, hands up and ready to help animate yet another tale of adventure and peril. Or, as Arthur frequently called it, "mindless chatter."
Merlin pulled up a stool of his own and sat attentive, as always both fascinated and horrified, ready to engage in what he considered to be some quality time with his best friend.
"So apparently in Brindia the women use ...whatever-this-is... for...you know." He let the statement hang in the air until Merlin looked sufficiently appalled, then went on, "I know- I thought I knew everything there was to know about Brindian women, but I found out how wrong I was when I walked into a Brindian tavern and started asking about these by name! Suddenly I'm surrounded by half a dozen women brandishing the sharpest looking daggers you ever saw in your life, and each of them looks like she knows how to use it. So the only thing I can do is..."
Whether it was several minutes or several hours before Gwaine finished recounting the tales of his acquisition-related adventures, neither of them could tell, but before long Gwaine was finishing with a, "So I haven't the foggiest idea what all of these things have to do with forging, but they're all here. Every last one!" He looked expectantly at Merlin, waiting to be informed.
"Well... it's science, Gwaine," Merlin attempted to explain. "Isn't that right, Gaius."
On the other side of the room Gaius, to his credit, just nodded.
"You know, chemicals reacting with heat and pressure...that sort of thing." Merlin went on.
Gwaine gave him look of mild incredulity. "And when did you become learned in the "science" of forging rare metals?"
Merlin grinned, "I'm apprenticed to the most learned man in all of Camelot. Eclectic knowledge comes with the trade."
A snort issued from the other side of the room where Gaius failed to conceal it as a cough.
Gwaine shook his head with a smile. "Whatever you say, mate. This whole scheme is a damned strange request, if you ask me. When we offered to make recompense...I dunno if a gift for Arthur was what we-"
"Trust me," Merlin cut his friend off, "this is twice the gift to me that it is to Arthur."
Gwaine gave him a long look. "Right then. Well," he nudged the sack full of strange items towards Merlin, "Then it looks like my part is done."
Merlin nodded gratefully, "Thanks, Gwaine."
The knight stood and pushed aside his stool, "My pleasure!" he said with a mock bow and a broad grin.
Having just listened to a full accounting of Gwaine's exploits in acquiring those items, Merlin could well believe it was.
Gwaine wound his way towards the exit but stopped just before reaching the door, "Say," he said, as something occurred to him, "Did you manage to excuse my absence to Arthur?"
Merlin grimaced, "Not exactly."
Gwaine cocked his head.
"...well, I'm just not sure he was entirely convinced."
"Ah." Gwaine said, and then shrugged. He didn't appear overly upset by the news.
"But if he asks you, we might have a chance if you tell him that you got word that your sister was ill and you went to visit her. That's the story I went with."
"My sister?" Gwaine laughed, "Merlin, I've told you about my sister! She doesn't get ill! She's too nasty to get ill. If anything, she is the illness!"
Merlin was shaking his head, Gwaine didn't know why.
"If I ever go to take care of my sister, it'll be to take care of her once and for all, if you know what I mean."
Merlin coughed once, quite loudly, looked pointedly over Gwaine's shoulder, then gazed guiltily down at his own feet.
Gwaine paused, then, "Arthur?" he asked Merlin.
Merlin nodded fractionally.
"Standing right behind behind me?"
Merlin grimaced and nodded again.
Gwaine spun around with a flourish, hands in the air, wearing his most charming grin to which (unfortunately) only Arthur ever seemed completely immune. "Your highness!" He said with a surprisingly graceful bow, "Fancy meeting you here."
The king, who had just been passing by when he'd heard the familiar wisecracking of his missing knight, glared, "Your voice carries, Gwaine." Arthur growled.
Merlin shuffled backwards in an attempt to slink away, mumbling "...I think I should go help Gaius with the..."
Twenty minutes later saw Gwaine and Merlin side by in the stocks, down in the lower town.
The squishiest of rotten vegetables were flying at them in a steady barrage.
"Well..." Gwaine said looking at his friend, still grinning madly.
Merlin turned his head toward the knight, wearing a smile of his own.
"...that could have gone better!"
Back in his own chambers, Merlin eased his tomato encrusted shirt over his head and began using the cleaner side of it to scrub more of the stuff loose of his hair.
"And what manner of foolishness earned you a visit to the stocks in spite of your current...condition?" Merlin was fairly unsurprised to see Gaius stepping into his room.
"Well, I sent Gwaine to get some things for me and then I covered for him to Arthur...badly."
Gaius gave him a markedly disapproving glare, but decided not to pursue that line of questioning. He looked his ward up and down. "No new bruises, I see."
Merlin smiled, "Between angry rants Arthur somehow found time to ensure no heavy projectiles were in the arsenal today. If it wasn't Arthur, I'd swear he'd done it by magic."
"Take care not to underestimate your king, Merlin. It may be difficult to see past the prince you served as a friend, but Arthur is growing into the ruler he's destined to be and you may want to consider that he is growing in wisdom and perspicacity, not just responsibility."
Merlin blinked, "Are we talking about the same Arthur?"
Gaius frowned as only Gaius could. "To that end-" he began in an even more grave tone, "You may have fooled Gwaine about the purpose of those items you had him procure, but I know magical reagents when I see them. Whatever you're planning, Merlin, I trust after all these years that I don't have to warn you against recklessly performing magic in the castle..."
Merlin gave a half smile as he held up a fresh shirt and began pulling it on. "Gaius, you don't know how many times I've performed magic right under Arthur's nose and not been noticed."
"Nor do I care to. I'm not concerned with the times you've gotten away with magic, Merlin. What concerns me is the one and only time you fail to get away with it."
Merlin stood and stretched, settling into his too-big red shirt. Then he pulled a blue neckerchief off of a shelf with a snap and began fastening it about his neck. "Then you have nothing to worry about." he assured his mentor. "The only magic involved in this is subtle enough that even you might not notice it. In fact, there's no more magic involved than Uther himself unwittingly permitted." The warlock grabbed the belt off his bed and made for the door.
Gaius frowned archly. "Just, promise you'll be careful, Merlin!" He called after his retreating apprentice.
"I always am!" Merlin answered cheerily as he went out the door.
Gaius blew out a breath. Just what he was afraid of.