The drumming in Merlin's head worsened as he climbed the stairs to Arthur's chambers. Each fall of his foot jarred the steady rhythm in his mind, and the monotonous beating soon turned into a tempest raging against his skull. He paused for a moment, eyes fluttering closed, but the drums pounded violently against his eyelids, little hands trying to break their way out from the suffocating darkness of Merlin's mind.
Gwen – sweet, light, innocent Gwen with her shy half-smile and unclouded mind – passed by, a basket of Lady Morgana's clothes in her arm. She placed her hand on his arm, giving it a gently squeeze.
"Arthur and Morgana had another fight. Be prepared for the aftermath," she warned, a hint of laughter in her voice. "And possibly an entrance from the Lady herself."
Merlin forced a smile. Every word from Gwen's mouth sounded muddled and distant, as though through waterlogged ears.
Gwen's smile drooped. "Are you okay, Merlin?"
Merlin just smiled again, and continued his trek up the stairs, the chaos raging through his mind drowning out the sound of Gwen's concern.
Gwen might have called his name.
He wasn't sure.
The drums carried on.
Morgana grasped at Merlin's tunic, tears welling uncharacteristically in her eyes. He stood still, frozen like one of the marble statues of long-lost kings in the catacombs of the castle.
"Don't." Her voice was low, rough, and told of her sleepless night. "Please, don't."
"Don't what?" He asked, but his voice was devoid of emotion or curiosity.
Morgana drew back, brows furrowed together indelicately. "I know what you're planning, Merlin. I saw it."
"You just had a nightmare, m'lady," he said, pulling away from her grasp. "I'll ask Gaius to make you another sleeping draught."
"Merlin." She caught his wrist, fingers thin and cold, and for a second Merlin considered telling her everything. But when he looked into her eyes – brimming with fatigue and anxiety and absolute fear – Merlin clenched his jaw tight. Morgana had her own issues; she didn't need his.
"I'm not planning anything," he said after a minute. "I never plan anything."
Morgana loosened her grip, letting him gather the boots he'd been taking away to polish before she'd ambushed him. For a second her face thawed, melting into true concern and confusion.
"I never plan anything," he repeated again, voice cracking just a little. "Because it's not up to me. Everything is planned for me. I have a destiny that I can't escape, and nothing I do will change that."
Morgana reached for his hand again, but he dodged away, drawing in on himself. She visibly deflated, looking smaller and more vulnerable than Merlin had ever seen her before.
"It's my life, and I'm not even in charge of it."
It came out as a whisper; a ghost of words that were never supposed to see the sun. The lady blinked, taken aback.
"I really must go, m'lady," Merlin said hurriedly, and he could feel the pressure build up in his chest. His arms, his legs, they all felt so heavy and thick; he could barely walk. His lungs ached for air, but no breath felt like enough. "The prince requires my assistance."
Merlin trudged down the hall, wishing that he could just sink into the floor, become weathered stone and sleep until the sun set fire to the sky and burned the world to dust.
With each step, the drums marched him away.
Merlin approached the water barefoot and shirtless. It was a cold autumn day, but he didn't feel the chill wind or icy lake. He didn't feel anything, really; nothing but the pounding in his head and the heaviness in his limbs.
The boy waded out into the water, until it reached his chest, and waited. She had to come – she had to. Freya was the only one he could talk to.
An hour passed, and Merlin started to lose hope. He leaned back until he was floating on his back, belly arched towards the grumbling sky.
Merlin felt water creep over his neck, lap at his chin and hairline, draw in over his forehead and mouth. His eyes drooped sleepily, and he let his swollen, leaden body sink further into the lake.
The water was cool and heavy, a shield between Merlin and the rest of the world. It plugged his ears and clouded his eyes and soothed the rapid beating of drums in his head. Darkness surrounded the young warlock, and for the first time since coming to Camelot, he felt totally in control.
As Merlin sank deeper and deeper, he heard Freya call to him, voice sweet and cool and loving. He reached out to her.
The drums stopped beating, and everything went still.
Merlin awoke, warm and happy. He turned on his side, eyes cracking open in search of Freya.
Instead he found Arthur, sitting rigidly at a bedside vigil. Merlin glanced up, and realized he was in his own bed.
"You're really an idiot, you know that?" The prince's voice was hoarse with emotion, and Merlin closed his eyes once again. "Useless, too."
"If only you knew," Merlin whispered, longing for the deep fatigue that the water brought. He gripped the bed sheets and imagined the cool rush and the heavy, sinking feeling of drowning, the longing to see Freya again.
"I do. I do know." Arthur looked and sounded like he'd been king for a hundred years, tired and old and weathered to the point of crumbling into dust. "Everything you've done. You don't have to hide anymore, Merlin. Just don't do that again."
Merlin stared at his prince, who was pleading for his servant's life instead of threatening it, and found that his emotions were betraying him. Tears fell from his eyes, and a rough, warm hand found his.
"You'll be okay," Arthur said, not meeting Merlin's eye. "You will. You have to be."
Silence fell in the room. Absolute, indescribable, overwhelming silence.
Gaius hugged him. Gwen kissed his cheek. Morgana slapped him.
Arthur never let go of his hand.
Merlin sat on the wall overlooking the lower town, hands folded neatly in his lap. Beyond Camelot, the sun was setting.
"You're lucky Morgana came to me," a voice said from behind him. "You could have drowned. What kind of simpleton decides to take a nap in a lake?"
Arthur hoisted himself up onto the wall next to Merlin, looking out at the pink sky in the distance. Merlin gave a half-hearted chuckle.
"A tired one."
Arthur gripped Merlin's shoulder tightly, as if to keep him from ever leaving Arthur's side.
"Well, did it make you feel any better? That ridiculous nap of yours?" Arthur's words came out slow, like he was carefully crafting each sentence for fear of his speech trembling or voice cracking.
"Not really," Merlin said quite honestly. "The nap was a bad idea."
Arthur tightened his grip, just a little. "Obviously."
"Yeah." They heard the squealing laughter of playing children in the lower town, and the goodbye calls as vendors and shoppers alike went home for the evening. "I don't think I'll to nap again."
"Finally, the world's laziest manservant decides to do something useful." All mirth was gone from Arthur's voice, and he loosened his grip on Merlin's shoulder. "You really upset me- Gwen, you know. And I think you personally insulted Morgana."
"I'll have to apologize." Merlin stared out at the town again.
"They're just happy you're alright, really." Arthur never took his eyes off of Merlin. "I'm happy you're alright." There was a pause, then, "You are alright, aren't you?"
Merlin turned to Arthur, a small smile spreading across his face. "Almost."
Arthur rolled his eyes. "Then we'll just have to change that. Or are you too lazy?"
Merlin's laughter rang through the city, light and happy and so very welcome. "Prat."
Merlin stood by Arthur's side, robes silky and blue and they felt so much like the cool, flowing water of Avalon, but so, so much better. They were heavy and handsome and quelled every fear Merlin had ever had.
Summoning his power, the young warlock gave life to the dying crops before him, restored health to the famined family at Arthur's feet. The husband wept and the wife kissed his hands and the children danced and laughed and sang.
Merlin looked to Arthur, to his king, to his friend.