TITLE: Observations of a King
SUMMARY: Post 5.2. There was something about his newest knight, and Arthur couldn't quite put his finger on it. No slash. One shot.
SPOILERS: Minor for 5.2. Posted before 5.3.
DISCLAIMER: Merlin is not mine.
AUTHOR'S NOTES: Okay, I hadn't planned to write this, but Mordred is interesting.
Arthur was patient.
He watched and he waited, he'd figure it out.
Because there was something about his newest knight, and Arthur couldn't quite put his finger on it ...
It wasn't Mordred's reserved nature: more often than not, Arthur's newest recruit blended unnoticed into the background. Mordred was quiet, but that wasn't it.
It wasn't that he was new to their ways and ignorant to their quirks. It was true that he was still an outsider looking in, who didn't yet know what would be water off a duck's back to Gwaine was likely to leave Elyan fuming. Mordred wasn't a part of them, not yet. But that wasn't it.
Mordred was a druid; and his background, his beliefs, all that being a druid encompassed, it could be ... but no, it wasn't that either.
It wasn't even that he could have magic. Arthur had considered the possibility, but there was no sign of it, and not all druids had magic.
There was something about him ...
And as Arthur pondered the enigma of Mordred, he also pondered his manservant's uncharacteristic anger. It'd been two weeks now since he'd knighted Mordred, and Merlin's unusual outburst still lingered in the back of Arthur's mind; always there, sometimes half-forgotten, but ready to call up and examine again at a moment's notice. His manservant, his friend who hated hunting, who urged compassion and mercy in battle, who'd rather flee than fight, yet ... Merlin had said twice, shouted twice, You should have killed him. You should have killed him, when you had the chance.
But Arthur's sword gave a blessing and not a curse, and Mordred knelt before him.
Something ... whatever it was, was just out of Arthur's grasp. There was something about Mordred, something that reminded him of ...
No, he couldn't quite put his finger on it.
And so Arthur watched, and as he did, he learnt something new: Mordred watched Merlin, and Merlin watched him back too. There was something there between the two of them, something Arthur couldn't understand, something he wasn't privy to.
Despite all this, or perhaps because of it, Mordred quickly became part of Arthur's inner circle.
Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer.
Mordred. Merlin. Arthur noticed the careful, blank stares they traded when they thought no one was looking; almost as if they were communicating in some silent, hidden way.
Whatever it was between them, it wasn't a game: Arthur knew his manservant well enough to sense Merlin's tension, but whatever Mordred felt was harder to tell.
He saw the way the two of them weren't entirely at ease when forced too long in each other's company.
Yet, his knights liked Mordred.
Mordred was important to Arthur, his first druid knight.
But Merlin ... he shouldn't ... why did he ... but then, whenever he revisited that path, Arthur always remembered Agravaine and Morgana: and any criticism he might have voiced went unspoken.
A druid knight. He wanted Merlin to welcome him. He had to hope they'd work it out.
And then one day, the silence between them diverged into something new.
A crowd of near-hysterical villagers from one of the northern towns was ushered into the throne room one morning. It was a fearsome monster, they said. A head of a goat, the body of a lion, and a tail that might have ended in a massive serpent's head. It'd killed two cows and a pig, all in one night.
Gaius was solemn. It was a chimera. Arthur's plan of action was clear. The king would lead a contingent of knights out the very next day.
And as the village elders chorused their thanks to him, Arthur saw a change in this on-going, always-silent duel.
It was Arthur's habit to keep an eye on the two of them now, and at first the usual blank exchange of glances between them gave nothing away. But then it became something new: the slight frown on Merlin's face morphed into a slow nod and a fleeting smile, and Mordred answered with a brief, flashing grin. When the court was dismissed, they both disappeared.
Arthur didn't know when they left Camelot, but he saw when they passed back through the main gates, as dusk was falling that same night. He watched from the shadows in the battlements with Gwen by his side, and even from a distance he saw a new ease to the movements of the two men below him; they walked now with a shared companionship.
They passed beneath him in the courtyard, but he pulled Gwen in closer to him and didn't call out. He was amused: a substance that could only be dry, crusted mud coated Mordred's legs up to his knees, his face and hair was filthy too, but a smile was playing over his face. Surprisingly Merlin was completely clean, he was grinning to himself, slightly smug.
They never found the chimera.
And as he watched them, Arthur was pleased, because finally the oddness between his best friend and his newest knight had eased, but as the long, lazy burn of summer began to sharpen into crisp autumn nights, Arthur realised this wasn't truly the case. Because still they avoided each other, except when they didn't. It puzzled him.
Then, as the days too grew cool and short, the truce fractured: Merlin's thoughtful glances turned hostile; Mordred's silent pleas grew into glowers until he kept his head down and turned away. Arthur didn't know whether he was amused, touched or just plain exasperated when he found he could barely move through the castle without tripping over his suddenly extremely attentive manservant.
Yet he said nothing, because he hadn't forgotten Merlin's fury.
You should have killed him. You should have killed him when you had the chance.
For how long this might have gone on unabated Arthur didn't know, but again, one day, it changed.
There was a sickness sweeping through the lower town, it was in its early stages but with five already dead; Gaius was run off his feet, and Merlin was equally exhausted.
The morning's training session had just begun; Mordred was paired up with Leon and they were half-way through their sequence of blocking drills when the younger knight jerked around as if he'd been nipped on the rear by a wilddeoren. He dropped the point of his sword, almost earning himself a hit across the upper arm before Leon managed to check his upward swing.
Arthur followed the direction of Mordred's distraction and was unsurprised to see Merlin in the distance at the far corner of the paddock, near the farrier's new shop.
A nod of Merlin's head was all it took for Mordred to answer his summons, tossing his helmet and sword in the direction of a table, and brushing aside a squire who stepped forward to unbuckle his chainmail.
He left in quick strides without a backward glance, and Arthur swallowed down his irritation, turning his back on Leon's frowning astonishment and busying himself correcting young Gavin's technique.
Training was over when Merlin and Mordred returned to the castle, with Gaius. All the knights bar Leon had disappeared; Leon had lingered to catch his king's ear, he wanted to discuss next week's planned patrol of the outlying land to the west.
Arthur pitched his gloves into George's waiting hands as Gaius made his way slowly up the steps at the front entrance of the castle, Merlin and Mordred either side of him. They all stopped at the top for a moment, then Mordred moved off to the right, while Gaius and Merlin exchanged a few words before Gaius left. Merlin was an island for a moment in the crowd of people coming and going; then he straightened his shoulders and moved with a determined air in the direction Mordred had taken.
Arthur found himself reaching the limit of his tolerance. He was weary of this, of not knowing, of not understanding anything, of having Merlin more distracted and invisible these past few months than he'd ever been.
Arthur murmured a curt farewell to Leon and dismissed George's attempts to carry his helmet and sword, and followed.
He trailed Merlin through several passages until he glimpsed his manservant's back entering the armoury. The passageway was empty, all the knights long gone. He heard Merlin utter Mordred's name.
Arthur had every intention of barging in and demanding an explanation for everything, but as his hand closed on the doorknob, he hesitated. The door was propped open just a fraction, he could see them both, and again, they surprised him. He'd half expected to hear angry words, but instead the prickliness he'd observed for weeks had gone.
Arthur moved away from the door, leaning back against the cool stone walls of the castle, folding his arms across his chest. He tipped his head back, and closed his eyes for a moment, sighing. He didn't understand them, he didn't understand their odd connection that might or might not be friendship, he was missing something, something that should be obvious. And after Agravaine, after Morgana, and even after Gwen's betrayal, he wouldn't let things go, if there was something that made Merlin uneasy about Mordred, then Arthur had to know.
He risked a quick glance through the half open door again and shifted so he could see them both; the passageway behind him was dark, he'd be unnoticeable in its shadows.
Merlin had his back to the door, half-sitting propped against the edge of the armoury's table as he watched Mordred tug the heavy hauberk over his head. The chainmail caught on the knight's hair, and Merlin leant forward to untangle him, saying calmly, "Careful. It's too tight around the neck for you."
"Yes." Mordred was equally quiet. "Gwaine told me to get a row of links taken out."
Merlin nodded, and settled back on the edge of the table as Mordred slid the chainmail over a padded hanger and hung it carefully on a hook against the wall. He smoothed the links down slowly, then, with a glance at Merlin, settled into a chair at the other end of the table. He said matter of factly, his voice low, "They'll all survive now, every last one, all thanks to you."
Merlin made no response for a moment, then he sighed. "Yes. But I didn't know how, until you ..." He shook his head. "I should have been able to do so much more than that, long ago. I ... worry, sometimes. And I wonder if I've left it all too late."
There was silence for a long moment, as Merlin idly ran the pad of his thumb up and down the worn edge of his medicine bag, while Mordred eyed him thoughtfully.
"Too late? No, I cannot think so. There's a new dawn at the beginning of every day." He waited but Merlin appeared to be concentrating on the object in his hand. "And you had the ability, you know that. You didn't need me."
"The ability, perhaps, yes. But not the theory." Merlin shifted against the edge of the table and said reluctantly, keeping his voice down so Arthur had to strain to hear. "I appreciate your ... assistance. Your ideas are new to me."
"And yours to me." Mordred picked up the wooden practice sword he'd been using and dumped it on the storage rack. "So again, I have the theory, you have the ability. Much like last time, although I still say you had an unfair advantage; I've always been terrified of snakes."
Merlin grunted an acknowledgement.
"So, wouldn't that make us a team now, right?"
Merlin snorted and shook his head, reluctantly amused. "That remains to be seen." He stood up, collecting the helmet Mordred had left on the table, and slotting it in a space beside another on a shelf against the wall. "And it changes nothing. I'm still keeping an eye on you."
Mordred shrugged and responded lightly, "And I'm learning to expect nothing less."
Merlin fiddled with the knots on his medicine bag. "Gaius invited you over to share the chicken." He didn't move from his perch on the table.
"Really?" Mordred stood and pushed aside his chair. He eyed Merlin cautiously. "Well? We'd better not keep him waiting."
"Yeah." Merlin didn't move.
Mordred sighed and stepped around the edge of the table. "It's not too late, for anything. And I am on your side, you know." Then Mordred dipped his head, almost like a bow: when he looked up, his slight smile was almost gentle, almost sad. His eyes locked with Arthur's through the gap in the doorway, and it shocked Arthur to realise he'd been seen. Mordred put a hand on Merlin's shoulder. "Come on," he said. "Let's go, Emrys."