Greetings Readers! Hope you are all well, and here's another update - finally! I hope you enjoy it!
Rating/Warnings: T, angst, modern AU, post series
Note: Thanks to Forbearnan for her feedback about the beginning. The title comes the song "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables" from Les Miserables, which inspired this oneshot from the get-go.
As the group ascended the hill towards the great castle, the appropriate sounds of awe and appreciation issued forth, although they were punctuated by pants and groans from the long climb. Struggling to catch their breath in the sharp, chilly air of the countryside, they paid only rudimentary attention to the middle-aged woman speaking with professional gusto. Fortunately, she had a habit of looking expectantly at her audience so that they knew when best to respond. She smiled at the lot of them like they were well-behaving children, but the smile was preferable to eliciting her anger, especially as she was brandishing a giant pair of scissors that would be used to cut the ribbon tied around the entry way.
"And it is with great pleasure," the bespectacled, frighteningly professional woman said, "that we open this castle to the British public. Immerse yourself in our fine history, and perhaps in a bit of myth. For some say," she made an attempt at quirking an eyebrow, "that this is the castle where King Arthur ruled at Camelot."
There was some robust laughter, hearty and warming as the wind rushed cooly by. The young man in the hooded sweatshirt simply shuddered in response and pulled the worn fabric tighter around his body.
A young boy riding on the shoulders of his father yanked on the older man's collar. "Like King Arthur and Merlin Arthur, da?" He waved out his arms, making the sleeves of his coat fan out, and the young man could see that the little boy could see himself in the billowing robes of the ancient Merlin.
"Yeah, Jimmy," his father nodded, "but it's only a myth."
The man in the hooded sweatshirt stopped suddenly, his breathing deep and heavy as his hand scrambled towards his heart.
"Mister?" Jimmy piped from his perch. "Ya all right?"
His father shuffled around in his knapsack. "It was a fair climb up here, do you need some water or some place to sit?"
The young man waved a hand as he used the other to pull the drawstring closer to his face. "I'm fine. I just…just need a minute."
"Are you sure?"
"Yeah," the younger man sighed, "I'm fine."
Jimmy's father opened his mouth to push the issue further, but was cut off by the woman speaking again. "Welcome," she said briskly, "to Camelot." Applause reverberated through the air as she cut the ribbon, smiling broadly at the press photographer's camera. As the flow of people ebbed into the castle, the father looked about for the younger man, but he had disappeared in the crowd.
"Da," Jimmy asked, bending over so that his face was in front of his father's, "you all right?"
"I'm fine," he nodded, "come on, let's go see that great square table."
Jimmy rolled his eyes. "It's the round table, da."
"Really," his father's eyes twinkled with humor, "are you sure?"
Merlin watched the two talk from where he stood in the corner of the entryway, the white-knuckled grip on his drawstring lessening as he smiled after them. He gave himself a chance to take a deep breath and look around. [i]They don't mean anything by it,[/i] he reminded himself, [i]besides it is nothing but a legend after all these years.[/i]
In the millennia since he'd left Camelot, about the time Gwen and Arthur's great-grandson was born, he'd grown used to how people summed up his life in Camelot. He didn't mind that they saw him as a old man, or that they missed the bloodshed and suffering of those with magic. He didn't mind that they saw his life as just a story to tell the children. He didn't even mind all the movies made about him (although he would have liked to have an owl named Archimedes). It was life, and life went on.
But it hit him all the harder now that he was within Camelot's walls again.
Noticing the curious looks from the stragglers of the group, Merlin mustered up a politely interested smile and filed with the rest of the queuing public into the great hall. Emotion nearly choked him as his fingers brushed the wooden doors, as his shoes caught in the familiar groove of stone ten paces from the door – and then he saw the table and had to bite his lip to keep from bursting into laughter. The round table, although not nearly as large as the table that had eventually found its place in the council chambers, was far more intricately painted and carved than anything Merlin had ever seen. He could just imagine the royal carpenters tearing their hair out in frustration if they had ever had attempted such a feat. To say nothing of the original construction, the carpenters would have had their hands full repairing the damage done to the table by casual sword swipes, poorly treated armor and, on one notable occasion, a basket of very rotten fish.
Despite his best efforts, Merlin let out a few snorts of laughter, causing the woman who had opened the castle to look indignantly at him. "Are you quite finished?"
Merlin frowned. "Finished?"
"Mocking this beautiful castle," she scoffed, "if you have no respect for what this place means to our country, you shouldn't be here."
"Your mockery is just as damaging as that blasted graffiti we had to scrub away," she continued on, gesturing at a patch of the western wall that looked more scrubbed than the rest of the room. "Foul disgusting words, it took ages to wipe it away." She gave him a suspicious look. "You wouldn't be thinking of-"
"No!" The white hue had returned to his knuckles.
"You mind that you don't," the woman sniffed. "I'll be keeping an eye on you." And with that warning she swept off to speak to the other group members about the restoration of the fake table.
Merlin willed himself not to set fire to the woman's tightly coiffed bun, and slowly unclenched his fists. With a glance of distaste at the bustling person, he slid quietly out of the room and down a darkened corridor. He reached out a hand to brush against the familiar cool stone, searching for the spot he'd put there long ago. Warmth burned soothingly through his fingertips halfway down the hallway, and Merlin took a quick look around before pressing his hand firmly against the stone. He whispered a few words, dusty from years of disuse, and he slid into the wall like smoke.
Merlin leaned against the wall, which was free of dust and dirt even though it had been years since anyone had stepped foot inside the room. He shrugged off his knapsack and placed both hands on the side of his face, willing himself to keep calm. Once his breathing had slowed, and his heart had stopped thundering in his ears, Merlin let his arms fall to his sides and looked at the round table. The first one, the true one.
With his magic, it had not been hard to move the table of the ancient kings to Camelot, and he'd been able to do it without rousing some of the newer knights. Instead, he had gone with Leon and Percival, with Gwen riding behind them with her and Arthur's son in front of her. They had heaved the heavy stone table onto a cart and pulled it along, silent in their vigil for the ones they had lost. Merlin had devised the hewing of the table's safe place from Camelot, hiding it from eyes who would request explanation that their hearts were still too raw to give. Only the four of them could find it in Camelot, and when Gwen had passed away, Merlin had sealed to all but himself, the only remaining member of the Round Table.
Merlin walked slowly to the table, his fingers meticulously tracing the figures carved into the stone. The pain filling him grew so intense he could barely stand, but the thought of abandoning a single carving, neglecting a single memory was unthinkable. He settled heavily into his chair, his fingers still clinging to the design in front of where Arthur had sat, and closed his eyes against the burn of tears.
He had gone on. He had had to. But he had never forgotten.
To those he met, he never spoke of his grief, it was a grief too deep to be spoken, a pain too lingering to express, and they were feelings that were likely to have him locked in a mental ward anyway.
Looking at the chairs, he could remember his friends sitting in them as though it was that day so many years ago. Percival's bravery, Lancelot's faith, Leon's loyalty, Gwaine's strength, Elyan's determination, Gwen's love, Gaius' s steadfastness, Arthur's –
Merlin nearly choked again, releasing his struggle against the tears, which flowed unchecked on his face. "And what good did that do us, my friends? What good did it do?" His fist clenched and smashed unforgivingly against the symbol depicting magic. "In the end, you all died! All we fought for meant nothing! It meant nothing because you weren't here to see it!" Merlin's forehead grazed the tabletop as he whispered, "No one remembers what you did – they think it all legend…I've failed you."
Sometimes, in his dreams, he would remember them as they were in life. He felt like a brother, a son, a comrade. He felt like he belonged. But then he would wake, with him still alive and they all gone, and he would feel grieved and angry. Grieved that he would never see them again, and angry because he had failed them and that he continued to live on, alone.
People were much the same, he'd discovered as long as he'd lived, but there would never be friends like them again.
When Merlin emerged from his hiding place, wiping the remnants of tears away with the sleeve of his sweatshirt, he tripped and nearly fell headlong onto the floor. A strong arm grabbed him by his shoulders and chest and pulled him upright. "Steady on there, mate," a friendly voice said behind his ear as he helped Merlin get to his feet. "Where you going in such a rush?"
Merlin opened his mouth to give a nondescript answer when he was interrupted. "Oi," the other said, "what's the matter? You look terrible – is it girl trouble, mate?"
"I knew it," the man nodded, and Merlin could see, in the dim light, the uniform of one of the security guards, "only thing that could get a guy like us all torn up. Tell you what," the guard continued, "I get off duty in ten minutes. What say you come with me and my mates, and we'll go to the pub? Get some good beer and some good girls and make a proper night of it."
"Um, shouldn't we ask your friends first?"
The guard shrugged good-naturedly. "If you'd feel better about it." He tilted back his head, "Hey Perce!"
Merlin started as the tall and muscled guard turned to his friend and shook his head. "What?"
"My friend here needs to come out and get royally pissed with us tonight, that okay with you?"
"Sure," Perce replied, "another back to lift your drunken arse home is always good with me."
"Because I refuse to anymore," another voice interjected dryly, "although I don't know if your new friend will be up to it, he looks a bit weedy."
"Don't mind him," the guard said in an aside to Merlin, "he's always been a bit of a git."
"I heard that!"
"You were meant to, Artie."
"Don't call me that!"
"Well, it was either that or Princess-"
There was a long-suffering groan. "Fine, whatever. Let's just get back to our posts, shall we? Plenty of time to warn your new friend away from your bad influence later."
Merlin's friend bustled him out of the dark corridor and into the brighter great hall. "You'll get used to him," he promised, "he's a prat but a good man." The guard looked at Merlin and stopped, and Merlin stared back up at the familiar face and brown hair of Gwaine.
"Hey, mate," Gwaine began slowly, "have we ever met before?"
A broad grin crept upon Merlin's face.
"You have no idea."
A/N: Thanks for reading!
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