A/N: This is something I wrote a long time ago. I planned to do more with it, but never got around to it, and now to continue with it would be to make it an AU story, since obviously so much happened in the fourth season. But I thought I might as well wrap it up into a one-shot, instead. So this is set between the third and fourth season, and yes, it is still canon. :)
Camelot was once again under the control of the Pendragons, and celebrations rang through the city simultaneously with wails of mourning. The terror had ended, peace and security had been restored, but many had died, and many hearts were left in pieces because of it.
Arthur had taken control of the kingdom, while Uther remained locked in his chambers, refusing entrance to most everyone, shocked into near madness by Morgana's betrayal. Gaius didn't seem to know whether or not the king would recover.
Lancelot, for his part, was quite happy. His dream of becoming a knight of Camelot had at last come true, and he was now a trusted member of Prince Arthur's inner circle. In the meantime, he was one of few who knew what really happened with the immortal army—how Camelot was really recaptured.
Merlin had saved them all, without anyone the wiser. Lancelot felt more than a small degree of accomplishment, knowing he had helped him, slight though his help had been.
One thing troubled the new knight, though, and it was no small thing. Something was bothering Merlin. Lancelot knew him well enough to know that it was not the lack of recognition for his deeds that was bothering him, but something was. Lancelot watched him closely in the weeks following. When with anyone, Merlin had the same, goofy grin on his face that he always had. He laughed with Sir Gwaine's jokes, poked fun at Arthur for being a prat, and continued to go about his daily routine. But whenever Merlin thought no one was watching him, his smile would fade and leave behind an emptiness that baffled and worried Lancelot.
So it happened that one day, when Lancelot happened to notice the young warlock leave the city, heading towards the woods with an empty basket to gather herbs for Gaius, Lancelot decided that he was in sudden need of going for a ride to clear his head.
It was good to get away from the city, if only for a little while, Merlin decided, as he crouched in a patch of thyme. Out here, he didn't have to pretend anymore. He didn't have to plaster a fake smile on his face, or marvel at the mystery of the immortal army suddenly vanishing. He could just sit, in the peace of the forest, and occupy himself with the mind-numbing task of picking herbs.
Or, so he thought. But when rustling brush, snapping twigs, and the sound of horse hooves approached, and Lancelot came riding through the trees, Merlin found himself repressing a sigh and once again pasting a smile onto his face as Lancelot, seeming surprised to find him there, at once stopped and dismounted.
"Good morning, Merlin," he said cheerfully.
"Morning, Lancelot," was the automatic reply. "What are you doing out here?"
Lancelot shrugged. "Needed to clear my head for a bit, so I decided to take a ride. How long have you been out here?"
Not long enough, Merlin thought. "Not long. It's peaceful though, isn't it? Being away from everyone for a while, away from all the bustle." Take the hint, he thought silently, just go away, please.
Lancelot did not seem to get the picture. Instead, he crouched down in the same thyme patch and started plucking pieces and putting them into Merlin's basket. With an inner sigh, Merlin resigned himself to more pretending.
"So how's it feel being a knight so far?" he asked pleasantly. "Is it everything you've dreamed it would be?"
"Better," Lancelot admitted. Then he lowered his voice in slight uncertainty. "Is it wrong of me to be glad that Arthur's leading us now?" he asked.
Merlin shook his head. "I've been waiting for this for a long time," he admitted.
"How's Arthur?" Lancelot suddenly asked. "He seems all right whenever I see him, but you know him better than anyone. It can't be easy for him."
"No," Merlin admitted. "It's not. But he's getting on well enough."
"And then to have to deal with Morgana's treachery on top of everything."
Merlin flinched, not unnoticed by Lancelot, but he carefully resumed his work as though nothing had happened.
Lancelot was silent for a moment, though Merlin could feel his eyes on him. Then the knight suddenly continued. "I just don't understand it," he commented. "How could she do that? This was her home."
Merlin remained silent.
"How could she let herself become so hard and bitter?"
The words were soft, and Merlin regretted them the moment they were said, as Lancelot's eyes fixed on him again. But Merlin couldn't help it. Everyone kept talking about Morgana and her betrayal. Merlin couldn't deal with it anymore.
"So that's what's bothering you," Lancelot said after a long moment's pause.
Merlin continued to pick herbs, not able to bring himself to look at Lancelot. He just wanted him to drop the subject. It was too painful.
"Look, I know I can't possibly understand. I didn't know her, after all, but you need to let her go. She made her own choices. None of us can change that."
"Maybe she didn't have a choice," Merlin answered bitterly, his anger building. "Maybe...maybe if someone had helped her…maybe if someone had helped her realize that…"
"Merlin," Lancelot cut him off, obviously knowing where this was going. "It's not your fault. You couldn't have helped her."
"I understand her, Lancelot," Merlin explained. "I know what it's like to be terrified of what you can do, I know what's it like to sit wondering why someone like Uther has to be on the throne. I know what it's like to be condemned simply for being born."
Lancelot put a hand on his shoulder. "You're not her, Merlin," he said firmly. "She's made her choice, just as you've made yours. She seeks to destroy Camelot, you seek to protect it."
"Stop it!" Merlin shouted again, jumping to his feet and looking down at Lancelot. "You think I'm so much better than her? You think I'm proof that she had another option? You don't even know me!"
Lancelot stared in shock, as Merlin stood seething over him, hands clenched into tight fists, whole body rigid. He stood slowly, aware that a sorcerer in a temper was not someone you wanted to mess with. But he had to get through to Merlin.
"How can you say that?" he asked. "I've known about your magic almost since I first met you, which no one else does. I know that you've saved Camelot dozens of times, with no one any the wiser of it. I know that you have a good, kind heart and I know how loyal you are to Arthur."
"Did you know I have a second name?" Merlin practically spat at him. "Did you know I'm not just a sorcerer, but that I'm the most powerful warlock that ever has, or ever will live? The great Emrys of the druids' prophecies! Did you know that I am the one who released the Great Dragon from his prison, that I am the reason all those people died, and that I am the reason that the last dragonlord—my father—is dead? Or that now I'm the last dragonlord because of it? I as good as killed everyone the dragon attacked! I saved the druid boy who is destined to kill Arthur! I almost got Gwen executed! I promised to protect Freya and she died! I killed the witchfinder and then I laughed about it! I lied to Arthur about his father! And on top of all of that, I'm lying to just about every single person I know every moment of my life! Do you still think I'm better than Morgana? Do you?"
Lancelot's eyes grew wider at each statement. He hadn't known any of that. But somehow, he wasn't particularly fazed. The only thing it really told him, is that Merlin had suffered far more than he had realized.
"I knew she had magic," Merlin confessed. "I knew she had allied herself with Morgause. Maybe…maybe if I had told her from the beginning about me, maybe we could have helped each other. Maybe I could have helped her see there was another way to win back our freedom.
"Or maybe…maybe I shouldn't have helped her at all. Do you know how many times I could have let her die since she turned on us? But I saved her. I just…I couldn't let go of the Morgana I used to know. I should have…"
"What?" Lancelot interrupted. "Let her die? Maybe killed her yourself? That's not you, Merlin, you know it's not. If you'd have killed her, you'd never have forgiven yourself." He paused, but Merlin didn't answer, he just stared at his feet.
What was done was done. Morgana was now their enemy. His enemy.
"It wasn't your fault, Merlin," Lancelot insisted.
How Merlin wished he could believe him.