A/N: I don't normally write kick-butt Merlin, but I felt it was somewhat appropriate for this situation. Hopefully he was kick-butt enough to satisfy you, but not OOC. Enjoy this last chapter!
If he had spent any time beforehand contemplating what Gwaine's best possible reaction could be given their circumstances, Merlin would probably have been disappointed by the fact that Gwaine said absolutely nothing following his hard-pressed confession.
Alright, well, that might not have been true. Gwaine might have said something following those five or so seconds of silence, but if he had, Merlin hadn't the foggiest guess at what it might have been. Fighting for his life as he was at the time, conversation wasn't exactly in the forefront of his mind.
Dodge, Gwaine had teased him moments earlier. It was exactly what Merlin found himself doing as Roland drew near and Merlin stood up to protest. The axeman took it as a threat, and started swinging. Merlin was nimble enough to make him miss the first few times, but knew it would only last so long. As soon as he was far enough away from being beheaded that he could gather his wits, Merlin looked pointedly at his attacker and yelled. His eyes flashed, a familiar rush filled him, and suddenly both Roland and Feldon were metres away, lying in the dirt. Merlin whispered some words, and both his and Gwaine's bonds broke and fell to the ground.
Across the clearing, Roland didn't move – it appeared his massive bulk had worked against him and kept him breathless on the ground. Feldon, however, was quick to his feet. Even as Gwaine breathed an incredulous "What?" , Feldon was staring at Merlin wide-eyed.
"A sorcerer!" He laughed. "A sorcerer!" He took a few shaky steps toward them. "Come to rescue your friend, eh? From his magic?" From your own kind?" Feldon was pointing at Gwaine and stumbling towards him. Quickly, Merlin moved to interpose himself in front of Gwaine.
"Stay away from him."
"Well! Isn't this something? A magician at court!" He looked between Merlin and Gwaine, and read Gwaine's expression of pure shock. He smiled wider. "But oh, a plot twist: the knight didn't know. Tell me, friend, how long have you been hiding from the executioner?" he looked to Merlin.
"I hide because I must," He said with difficulty.
"Must?" Feldon scoffed. "Friend, you ought to live like me. To hell with those bastards in Camelot."
"Do not call me that again," Merlin warned. "And you would do well not to insult Camelot, either."
Feldon seemed to find this amusing. "And why is that?"
Merlin didn't say anything for a few seconds, and stared at Feldon, assessing him. He could feel Gwaine staring at him, and chewed his lip self-consciously. Mustering a strong voice, he said, "I will give you one chance to leave right now, and to never come back."
Feldon raised his eyebrows in surprise. "An assertive pet, for a kingdom so cruel. Impressive, but I'm afraid I'll have to decline." He snarled at Gwaine. "That idiot has caused me far too much trouble – I cannot simply turn him lose until I give him and his master some trouble in return."
Merlin was shaking his head softly. "I wouldn't, if I were you."
Feldon seemed now more annoyed than amused at Merlin's threats. He crossed his arms and transformed his face into a fierce glare.
"And what would you do if you were me, pet?"
Merlin stared back, again all too aware that Gwaine was right behind him. He took a steadying breath and said, in a voice far more serious and commanding than anything he ever used on his friends,
"I would go back to whatever camp, whatever village or outpost of druids you come from, find all the sorcerers who back your cause, and I would give them this message: Camelot lies under the protection of Emrys. Anyone who threatens Camelot threatens him, and he will not hesitate to repay any attacks against her or her people." His voice inflected in a way that brought Gwaine's presence into the conversation.
From behind Merlin, the knight watched, baffled and intrigued, as some silent, powerful war waged between the two glaring sorcerers before him, until the look in Feldon's eyes changed, from annoyance, to shock, to something almost like terror. When Merlin saw the change, he spoke again, his voice unwavering.
"As I said, I am going to give you one chance to leave this place." He paused, and let it sink in. When Feldon did nothing, he added quietly, "I suggest you take it." He glanced around to where the many brigands were watching the commotion from a distance, but wisely remaining uninvolved. When no one moved, Merlin looked back to Feldon. "Now."
That was all it took. Though he looked none too pleased about it, Feldon made quick work of rounding up his men and getting as far away from Merlin as possible. They left their camping gear behind.
Once they'd gone, Merlin finally moved from where he'd been standing. The skies were growing darker, and Merlin supposed that he and Gwaine might as well camp out for the night. He poked his head inside a few tents until he found stores of food. He heard rather than saw Gwaine make his way slowly over towards the center of the camp where a pile of coals lay neglected in their ashes. Merlin lumped on fresh firewood, and with a single word, relit the fires to cook their dinner. Gwaine was sitting across from him, staring. Merlin looked up at him, but said nothing. Gwaine didn't say anything, either. Merlin sniffed.
Well, was all he could think, this is awkward.
"So." Gwaine said, staring into the night, "Magic."
Merlin stared out at the stars with him. "Yeah."
"Gotta hand it to you, mate, didn't see that one coming."
Merlin frowned. Truth be told, that offended him. "Really? Not at all?"
Gwaine let out a dry laugh. "Not in the slightest."
"I don't suppose you've been drinking some of the 'finest wine in the kingdom', too, have you?"
Merlin ducked his head. "No."
"Right." Gwaine glanced sidelong at him. "How long, then?"
"All my life."
There weren't even any crickets to compensate when their conversation trailed off again.
"Gwaine," Merlin tried to make his voice carry the sincerity he felt, "I'm sorry I never told you before."
"No, Merlin, I understand."
"It's not that I don't trust you, I was going to tell you,"
"I was, but then you didn't have magic, and I've never told anyone before, and I… I' m sorry, Gwaine, I didn't want to-"
"Merlin," Gwaine interrupted with a hand on his shoulder, and the two finally looked each other eye-to-eye. "I said it's alright."
Merlin watched him, searching his expression. "You're not mad?"
"Mad? Maybe a little," Gwaine said, looking somewhat uncomfortable. "But…" He sighed. "Merlin, these past few weeks, believing that I had magic… I've done a lot of thinking. About magic, and everything that implies. About me. Camelot. And now you." He stared hard at the ground, then began to nod his head softly before looking back up to his friend. His eyes were full of an understanding and forgiveness that touched Merlin deeply. "Believe me, Merlin, I know exactly why you didn't tell me." He gave his friend a steady nod. "And it's alright that you didn't."
Merlin looked at his honest expression speechlessly for a moment, but eventually tore his eyes away and looked down at his lap. "Thanks." He didn't know what else to say.
Sometime amidst their conversation, the awkwardness had melted away, and the two sat in a semi-comfortable silence, each to his own thoughts in the night. A light dusting of snow had begun to fall, and it sizzled in the fire as it fell and gathered on their looted blankets. Merlin contemplatively watched his breath hover in the air, absorbed in his own world of thought until Gwaine moved beside him, huddling deeper into his blanket by the fire.
"I don't suppose you know any tricks to fix this blasted chill, do you?" He asked his friend. Merlin smiled slightly. He couldn't remember the last time he'd used his gift in front of someone else. Maybe it'd been Lancelot.
Immediately, the warmth of the fire seemed to expand into a comfortable dome of heat, and the snow on their blankets melted away until the two were sitting warmly, but not uncomfortably so, in their blankets, sheltered from the brisk winter breeze. It took a moment before Merlin realized that Gwaine had begun staring at him again.
"Does anyone else know?" The knight asked. Merlin shook his head.
"My mother. Gaius. No one else." Gwaine took this in and nodded. After a moment, a memory struck Merlin and he added: "Lancelot knew."
Gwaine turned to him in surprise. "Lancelot? Ol' Lancey boy knew?" Gwaine let out a bark of laughter at the thought, and Merlin smiled with him. He knew that Lancelot had always hated Gwaine's nicknames for him, and somehow hearing them again made Merlin feel like the knight was back with them. Gwaine was shaking his head, smiling. "Of course he figured it out. He was always too perceptive for the rest of us." He thought it through, remembering, and slowly his smile faded. He looked over at Merlin. "It must have been hard."
Merlin shrugged. For someone who cared so deeply about others, he was utter rubbish at talking about feelings. "It's a bit… lonely," he said before he could stop himself. "'Specially after Lancelot…" He couldn't finish, and poked at the fire with a stick, clenching his jaw tight against the grief that threatened to resurface.
"No one should go that kind of life alone, Merlin," Gwaine said seriously, and Merlin looked up to see his eyes full of a seriousness and sympathy that Gwaine rarely let through his jovial, light-hearted mask. "I barely lasted two weeks." He shook his head, regarding his friend with marvel. "And you…" He didn't finish the thought, he figured he didn't have to. He shifted, and asked, "Why'd you tell Lance about it?"
"I didn't," Merlin told him. "He wasn't meant to find out. He saw me doing magic when he first came to Camelot – I didn't have to tell him myself."
"Hmm." Gwaine thought on this. "No offense Merlin, but… Well, Lance always seemed to be obsessed with all that 'knightly honor' business, and I can't help but think…" he frowned and fixed Merlin with a curious stare. "He was such a law-abiding knight… why didn't he turn you in?"
Merlin blushed in the firelight. "Well. He probably would have. But I was saving his life when he found out." His embarrassment intensified when Gwaine jerked back in surprise.
"Saved his life?"
"You weren't around back then, but you've probably heard about the time Lancelot killed that griffon?"
"'Course. All of the knights have."
"Yes. Well, it was Lancelot who killed it, but… I enchanted his lance so it'd actually work." Merlin glanced at Gwaine. "After he got the credit, he let me know that he'd seen what actually happened." Merlin smiled and shook his head. "Scared me nearly clean out of my skin. I didn't know him back then. But he promised not to tell anyone." Merlin shrugged. "He was always a man of his word."
"That he was." Gwaine was staring again, as if he hadn't looked at Merlin in years. "Enchanted…" he said. As he thought more about it, a laugh grew in his throat, and his eyes lit up with curiosity and wonder. "You are full of surprises, my friend. Any other life-saving adventures you care to share with me?"
Merlin couldn't help it when he let out a sudden laugh. "A few," he said with a smile.
"Any involving me?"
"And what about Arthur?"
Merlin let out another long-suffering chuckle. "Oh, you have no idea," he said with feeling.
Gwaine shook his head. "Trust the Princess to need saving. A right damsel in distress, I'd wager." Merlin burst out laughing at this, his eyes crinkling up in a smile. It was the intended result, and Gwaine watched him with a smile of his own. After a moment, when Merlin's eyes wandered over to his, he nodded seriously. "Thank you, Merlin." Gwaine didn't know it, but it was the first time Merlin had ever heard those words from the mouth of someone who knew – even if only slightly. The sorcerer nodded back.
"You too, Gwaine."
After several more minutes, the two silently agreed turn in for sleep at the same time. They lay awake in thought for a while; Gwaine ruminating over his newfound thoughts on magic in light of Merlin's revelation, Merlin wondering at the feeling of having someone else know. It was a sacred, introspective kind of air in their small camp, even in silence, but after a calm moment, Gwaine turned his head and asked through the darkness,
"You've always had magic, right?"
"I was born with it."
"Why do you ask?"
"Well, I was wondering…"
There was a pause. When Gwaine's voice came back, it held an air of mischief that was so Gwaine, Merlin had to roll his eyes.
"What happens when a sorcerer gets drunk?"
Merlin sighed heavily and rolled away from the knight. "Goodnight, Gwaine," he said grumpily, but hidden from his friend, a smile lingered on his face. He couldn't have described how such a stupid question made his heart feel lighter than it had in years.
The next morning, the two ate a quick breakfast from the leftover goods from Feldon's camp and spent some time trying to figure out whether or not the Borrower's potion still had any effect over Gwaine's actions. After some experimentation, Merlin concluded that Feldon himself must have done something to halt the progress of the enchantment. Gwaine was magic-less once more, and happy for the fact.
"Merlin," Gwaine asked as he bit into a pilfered apple, a thoughtful expression on his face, "I gather from what you said last night that you protect Arthur quite a bit, but…" another bite. "that would mean you'd have to protect all of Camelot, wouldn't it."
Merlin froze. He wasn't sure he was comfortable with this line of questioning. "What do you mean?" He asked innocently, rolling up a blanket.
"Well, it seems that, most times, when Arthur's in danger for whatever reason, it's because there's some Morgause or Morgana or other such person trying to take over Camelot." He took another bite and had to speak around a mouthful of apple when he added: "and yet they never seem to succeed, against Arthur or otherwise." He swallowed and fixed Merlin with a look. "You wouldn't happen to have anything to do with that, would you?
Even as the words came out of his mouth, Merlin wondered if he should regret them. "I might do." He bent back over the pack he was digging through to find warmer outerclothes.
Gwaine gave him an appraising look and stepped closer. "You mentioned someone to Feldon, before he left. Emrys, or something such like." Yup, Merlin thought, definitely regretting this. "You wouldn't happen to know him, would you?"
Merlin stood up and stared. He couldn't lie. He couldn't deny it. But then, why did he get the feeling that Gwaine would hound him to no end if he told him? Merlin eventually opted to say nothing and fixed his eyes very pointedly back on his task. Somehow, Gwaine read through it all and got the answer he was looking for. He stepped closer.
"And just who is this Emrys chap, that the sound of his name sends sorcerers running home with their tails between their legs?"
Merlin's face was scarlet by now, he could feel it. He shrugged and tossed one of two wool cloaks at Gwaine. "He's… known." He shouldered a pack of supplies that would last them the day or so walk back to Camelot. "Among the druids. And sorcerers."
Gwaine raised an eyebrow. "Is he now?"
"Yeah." Merlin wasn't looking at him. "Some prophecy nonsense. Destined to help the Once and Future King to his throne. Or something like that." He explained casually. Eventually, his eyes found their way back up to Gwaine's face, and the two studied each other, trying to understand. Merlin broke the tension by continuing in an irritated tone, "If you ask me, he's far too often a Prat to be a thing of prophecy, but…" He shrugged. "Apparently destiny doesn't give a damn." He began to walk off.
Gwaine jogged to catch up to him and the snow crunched under their boots as they walked.
Gwaine nodded, but said nothing. They walked in silence for several more minutes until Gwaine spoke again. "You never answered my question, you know."
Merlin frowned over at him. "What question?"
Gwaine was smiling in that Gwaineish way of his. "What happens when Emry- 'scuse me, when a sorcerer has a tankard too many?"
Merlin glanced uncomfortably over at him. "Nothing good." He said seriously. "Alcohol gives some men loose tongues. And some men… loose magic. It's not pretty."
"Aww, come on, Merlin! Sure it's at least a little entertaining?"
"No, Gwaine, it's not!" Merlin rounded on him, and Gwaine looked surprised at his friend's outburst. Merlin quickly calmed down, and sent him an apologetic glance. "I know it sounds all fun and games, Gwaine, but… it'd be my head on the block if I ever did anything where someone could see." He started walking again. "Even if I was drunk."
"So I take it you aren't actually ever off to the tavern, then?" Gwaine asked at length. Merlin snorted.
"I can't believe Arthur still buys that. He should know by now I can't hold my liquor. No, that's an excuse Gaius made up a while back."
Merlin realized his mistake too late. Gwaine didn't quite yet know the extent of his 'adventures'. He found that he was blushing scarlet again. "Well. When I. You know." He glanced at Gwaine sidelong. "Adventures. Arthur. Destiny, and all that."
"But Merlin," Gwaine said, disbelieving, "Arthur says you're always at the tavern!"
Merlin glanced at him shyly. "Well. Not always."
Gwaine laughed and tossed an arm around Merlin's shoulders. "Alright then, I want to hear about them. All of them."
"Your adventures! Protecting the Princess has to be interesting, at least – and what's this destiny you mentioned?"
Merlin let out an uneasy laugh. "That could take a very long time, Gwaine."
"And it is a very, very long walk back to Camelot," the knight quipped, tossing a walking stick at him. Merlin caught it before it could hit him. "Start talking, Magic Boy." The warlock sighed, shaking his head. It was a few minutes of footsteps and quiet before he said,
"It's weird, you know. Not even Gaius knows about all of them. I've never told anyone else."
Gwaine frowned at that. 'It's a bit… lonely,', Merlin's words echoed in his mind. Gwaine lived off of telling stories, sharing his life. It made the parts that hurt hurt less. And yet somehow, Merlin had gone through his entire life hiding, taking care of an entire kingdom and a destiny and a secret so deadly it'd had Gwaine shaking in his boots for a fortnight. And he'd done it all with a smile on his face, tripping over his own feet, forever finding the good in everyone. Gwaine shook his head. He remembered in times gone by, when Lancelot was still alive, seeing the knight interact with Merlin in a special way – with a certain… respect. Admiration. Love. He'd never really understood what their friendship had been. Now, he understood what Lancelot had discovered years ago.
Merlin was the bravest of them all.
"You know Merlin," Gwaine said after a lengthy pause, "I don't think it'll always be like this." He said. Merlin looked over at him, frowning his confusion.
"What do you mean?"
"You. This. Having to hide. I don't think it'll last."
"Really?" He seemed slightly surprised. He hadn't even spoken of Albion, or what exactly his destiny entailed. He hadn't mentioned what he was working towards, and yet, somehow, Gwaine understood anyway.
Making a face, the knight shook his head. "Nah, the Princess may be thick, but he's not entirely stupid. He'll come around eventually."
"You really think so?" Merlin sounded skeptical. Gwaine smiled.
"He'll have to. You said yourself, destiny doesn't give a damn."
Merlin couldn't help it when he smiled. Gwaine smiled with him.
"You'll see, Merlin. One day, you won't have to hide. One day, you'll tell everyone your stories, and have the Prat finally fess up to how much he needs you there to keep his head on his shoulders. You'll be able to pull rank on every druid you meet, and I'll even let you make me your own batch of that ridiculous potion and try and teach me whatever you know."
Merlin was smiling, and was surprised when he felt tears behind his eyes.
"And when that day finally comes, you know what I'm going to do?"
Merlin looked over at him. "What?"
A slow grin spread over Gwaine's face. "I'm going to take you down to the pub, and get you and your magic righteously sloshed."
Merlin let out a laugh, and couldn't seem to stop. Smiling, he nodded against tears he was determined not to let Gwaine see. Gwaine laughed with him, and would never mention it when he saw Merlin swipe at his eyes.
Out of everything he'd learned over the past few weeks, about magic, about himself, about Merlin, about the good and evil that faced them every day, Gwaine had come out of it all with only a handful of concrete lessons in hand, but chief among them was this:
No burden, no matter how great, was meant to be carried alone.
As the pair walked the very, very long path back to Camelot, their stories and laughter floated between them, muffled to all other listeners by the snow that surrounded them. It would melt, eventually. But in that moment, they were company enough for each other.