This is something of an experimental piece. As you will see, there are plenty of line breaks and small jumps in time, but basically this takes a look at what happened right after the Morgause took Morgana away. Hope you enjoy!
The king! Where is the king?
They're dead. Don't worry-
My lady? My lady?
It is Gwen's voice that tugs him from his stupor, Gwen, sweet, strong, loyal, wonderful Gwen who comes running to the hall, still shaky in left-over exhaustion, nothing in her mind but her devotion to her mistress, when all the others under the spell are still sitting there in bewilderment, rubbing sleep from their eyes. She comes to a halt beside him, brown eyes wide and serious with a hint of concern, but oh gods, no, Gwen, I don't deserve that.
"Merlin? Are you alright? Have you seen Morgana?"
And he can only stare at her, dumb, broken, and shake his head.
The world goes on, as it always does. Picks itself up, shakes off the dust, looks around, and starts again. The king wakes, his anger muted, for the moment, by confusion. The people mill about, searching for those they love, clearing the rubble, carefully avoiding the place where the seven knights still lie, their chill invading everyone's thoughts.
Uther recovers soon enough, of course, and oh, how his fury rages. Gaius stands before him, hands open, as always, in a plea that is never answered, and placating words fall from his lips like the gentle rain of the heavens, but Uther does not listen. He paces, he rails, he shouts, he orders, and the knights hurry about, following him out of habit rather than true obediance. Arthur stumbles into the room, weariness and pain in every line of his body, but with the stubborn courage that has held up Merlin's dreams for two years, he takes charge, braces and encourages the men, comforts the children.
Merlin would be unspeakably proud had he seen this at any other time, but for now he can only look, helpless, vacant, and curl up tighter. So- tired.
No one has noticed the missing girl yet, and Merlin does not tell them. He just sits in his corner, staring out with empty eyes that see only the terror in Morgana's eyes and the betrayal in her face. Gwen is searching the castle, her patient steps covering the blood-spattered floor one by one by one, but Merlin cannot tell her that all her efforts are in vain, for Morgana is lost to them now. Someone else can discover that awful truth, can shout it to the world, can open up one more wound in the heart of Camelot. For once, Merlin is a coward, hiding from his own knowledge, and he cannot bring himself to care.
He does care, though, when it is Arthur who walks up to his father, shoulders slumped, and tells him that Morgana is gone. He remembers a thousand quick words exchanged between the two, affection hidden beneath sharp retorts and elaborate insults. He remembers a shadowed room a year ago, lamplight flickering on his prince's face, the dejection and the despair as Morgana fought for her life. He remembers that despite everything, Arthur and Morgana love each other, that before Merlin and Gwen stepped into their lives they were brother and sister, and shame creeps up his spine.
Uther goes still, his face stone-carven. Then his brow creases, fixing Arthur with that formidable look of his, and Merlin sees the rage gathering like storm clouds before a true tempest. And when it explodes, with how could you let this happen and you failed her and I expect more battering Arthur more truly than any sword or spell ever could, Merlin bows his head, and ignores the tears that stain his face.
The threads of this terrible muse called fate are never sewn quite right, for fate has careless hands. How well he knows that! And yet with every breath he takes he is drawn nearer to this destiny of his, like a fly to a spider, tangled in a web he can never escape.
And even if he does believe the Dragon's lies, even if he does care more for Arthur than a servant for his master, even if he can see in this golden prince the Once and Future King- what does it all mean beside all those who fall by the wayside, discarded by the world like an old rag doll? Do they mean less because they don't have great destinies?
Gaius hesitates beside him, a kind hand brushing his forehead, worry creasing the aged brow.
They leave it at that, like they always do, because Gaius knows what it means to step back and watch someone burn and do nothing to stop it, and live with it afterward, and Merlin is grateful. So he struggles up again, swaying a little, but standing, puts his hands to use cleaning rooms, fetching people, doing errands, and he does not think. He cannot.
"Sit down, Merlin."
Gaius' voice is sharp, but kind, in that paradoxical way that only he can achieve. Practised hands push him down, faded eyes look him over. He blinks, but he cannot think, he will not think, or the hurt will flicker to life again and he can never pacify it, not now, this hungry pain that pushes at all his barriers till they all fall down.
"Go to the prince," his guardian says, he watches his lips form the words as they echo in his head. But oh, no, he cannot face Arthur now, cannot look into those blue eyes and see the devastation of losing her, and know that he caused it, that even now he is running from it, because he's a coward and he can't- he can't-
"Merlin," so gently, "this is not your fault. You saved us all, my boy. Now, take this up to him, it should ease bruises and aches. And use some on yourself! Off you go."
He goes, mostly because he cannot muster the words to refuse, to protest, not with this aching lethargy lying over him, this hopelessness.
He and Gwen meet in a spectacular crash, sending ointment and laundry flying in all directions. They just stare at each other for a while, wide-eyed, before Gwen takes a trembling step forward and falls into his arms. He holds her, quietly, lets her cry out her sorrow for a few precious moments, because he owes her this, and so much more, and oh, Gwen.
Brave Gwen, who lifts her head, rubs her eyes and smiles tremulously at him, leaving with a thank you he can't accept.
He is so tired.
Thank you, Merlin.
You're a good friend.
What if you don't choose magic, what if it chooses you?
Oh, Morgana, it does. It does.
When he finally ends up staring the door to the prince's chambers in the face, he's not quite sure what to do. He's scared and he's hurting and he's tired and he just wants to go to sleep, maybe forever, it would be simpler. But since when has his life ever been simpler? No, making the prince's life difficult is not an easy job in the least, he thinks, and a smile ghosts across his lips.
He pushes the door open. Normally, this would be accompanied by a loud and often inane comment, as well as unfortunate tripping over whichever item Arthur has decided to leave right in his path, but today all is silent (as a grave) as he walks in. And stops.
The night has crept up on Camelot like a scheming animal, casting its net over them, deepening the tangible sorrow to hopeless gloom. It must be past midnight by now, and only the candles are still burning in the room, flickering. His prince is standing by the window, tall frame leaning against the sill, hollow exhaustion and a deep, dreadful pain lingering behind the shuttered eyes, and Merlin can see the shadows beneath his eyes so clearly, and he straightens. Here, he has some purpose. And honestly, when was the last time Arthur slept?
(He carefully doesn't ask that question of himself.)
Arthur turns, and for one long moment his face is unguarded, and Merlin sees the man the prince hides beneath confident words and polished armour, and his heart breaks that little bit more, because for this one night it would be so much easier to serve the prince, not face the man with all he has done.
Arthur looks like he wants to say something more, but perhapst the same apathy grips him, for he only looks at Merlin, his eyes so blue and yet- reflecting the faintest hint of gold from the candles. Blue eyes, gold eyes. There they stand, watching each other, with all their words stolen by the wind and a slight girl with dark hair and emerald eyes, their eyelines meet, but they have nothing to say. They are alive, they have survived this as they have so many things, but-
"I'll fetch you something to eat, sire." And he turns, because he cannot look Arthur in the eye now, not now not ever not with Morgana's desperate hands still clutching his and her laboured breaths still stirring his blood and her trembling body in his arms, holding on to her when there is nothing left, when he has no right, rife with guilt and misery and fear and pain and I'm sorry I'm so sorry.
"Merlin." The mocking emphasis on his name is gone, and with it the hope that this at least would remain, this careless, cool pretence between them that they don't care, they can't, they never will. Because even if princes and servants can't be friends, maybe clotpoles and idiots can, but- but-
But it just makes it worse, to have dealt this blow to a friend, and he can't think about that, he can't he won't he doesn't bloody care if he's being stupid and foolish and scared, he can't face-
"Sit down before you faint like a girl." Ah, so the insults aren't quite gone. Well, he can be thankful for that. He finds himself seated in Arthur's chair, and half-rises, a protest on his lips, but is pushed down again. Arthur watches him, eyes shaded, and claps his shoulder.
"You should be in bed."
"So should you," he retorts, and they are both do their best to not look at each other.
In the end, Arthur calls another servant to fetch them both a meal, though neither is hungry. Maybe they never will be again.
Merlin stares outside. The suffocating blackness of the deepest night is at its peak, and he shudders. Maybe Morgause will hold Morgana's hand, and cool her brow, and take her into welcoming arms. Maybe. And yet.
"When... when was the first time you killed someone?"
No sooner than the words are out of his mouth he regrets them, partly because Arthur cannot help but suspect now and that wasn't quite the question he wanted to ask, anyway. He's killed before. Just not...
Arthur studies him, but to Merlin's everlasting gratitude, he does not ask. "I was... I don't know, eleven or twelve? A bandit attack in the woods. I threw a dagger, it wasn't even close." Merlin swallows. Sometimes, behind the gilded image of feasts and wealth and fancy titles, he forgets how much Arthur has given and worked and bled for this, this country and this land and this people. When he was twelve he was watching rabbits hop around a field. And playing tag.
And softly, just when he thinks Arthur has finished, "I'll never forget his face."
He remembers every nuance of Nimueh's face, every quirk of her lips and flicker of her eyebrows, the shape of her cheekbones and the set of her nose. He should, after all. It haunts his dreams so often.
Quietly, for he is almost afraid of breaking this spell that seems to hold both of them enthralled, sitting there and simply exchanging questions and answers in a way he knows could never happen in normal times, "Have you ever hurt or killed a friend?"
Arthur's head is bowed. But he does answer, and a warm glow is lit in Merlin's heart in a place he'd thought long cold, that Arthur trusts him with this-
"It was... hardly a few months before you bumbled your way here, I think. A small skirmish with Cenred, was what we thought, but he had a sorceror. Enchanted one of the men, turned him into a raging beast, attacking us left and right- I killed him."
You did the right thing dies on Merlin's tongue before it reaches his lips, because it wasn't. It is never the right thing. And yet.
"You did what you had to," he says.
There is a long pause. In between the words he fits all the things he wants to tell Arthur, the I killed her and she'll never forgive me and you won't either and again and again and again I'm sorry.
"So did you."
The words are so soft that for a second Merlin thinks he misheard, but- Arthur looks at him, and there is no absolution in his eyes but there is understanding. "Whatever it is you did."
A breath catches in Merlin's throat. And if his eyes glisten as he meets Arthur's gaze for the first time this night, it is the candlelight and nothing more.
Wisdom in the form of Arthur Pendragon comes in limited quantities, he learns once more when the prince stands up and sways, grimacing. Merlin curses both of them to the depths of hell when he sees Arthur's hand pressed to his side.
"You're hurt," he snaps a little more impatiently than he meant, but Arthur just glares at him.
He sighs and shakes his head, reaching out to help Arthur to the bed, because really, did he expect him to fight seven immortal knights while under a spell and survive completely unscathed? The cut is not deep, but it's bled all over the place and very ugly, and the bruises he sees make his own arms ache. Neither speaks as Arthur submits too quietly to Merlin's ministrations and Merlin takes it without mock surprise, for all their words are spent tonight.
Merlin takes a glance out the window. The night has faded a little, giving way to the mists of dawn, the cold, fresh air of mornings and beginnings. Maybe-
He looks down, but Arthur has finally fallen to sleep, and he watches each breath make its way in and out with tangible thanksgiving. Nothing is as it was, or ever will be again. He will never forget the look in Morgana's eyes when his treachery was realised, and Arthur will bear his father's anger and his own grief once more when the sun rises, and Gwen will haunt the castle like a lonely ghost with no lady to serve. One day soon, he will wake to the echoing words of a Dragon in his head, and he will take up a sword and go to the dungeons and unleash yet another curse upon this city. Nothing will be the same again.
Arthur breathes, and lives, and forgives. The heart of a king beats within the arrogant body of a prince, and if it takes a stubborn warlock to coax that greatness free, then the warlock will go to the ends of the earth and pull the skies from the heavens to make it happen.
He is not so tired that he cannot go on.