A/N: I've had this sitting unfinished on my computer for weeks, now. It started as a small drabble, and now… Well, I'm not exactly sure what happened. Hope you enjoy it!
Merlin was shivering, not from the cold, because it was still summer and the air thick with warmth. It was nerves, anticipation. He could feel his entire skeleton trying to shake off his skin, from his legs, to his neck, to that horribly uncomfortable spot right in the middle of his ribcage. He gathered his things with shaking hands and folded them up in a bag as quietly as he could. He took his magic book, of course, some clothes, the dragon his father had made him. Nothing more. Gaius had treated him well, he couldn't bear to think of taking anything that belonged to the physician. The thought of his mentor hit Merlin with a pang of guilt. He hadn't left a note; he didn't plan to. He hadn't told anyone that he was leaving, nor why. He couldn't.
Perhaps if Gaius ever figured it out, he'd think that Merlin was being melodramatic, that the boy had hit a fancy or broken too fast under an insubstantial pressure. He'd be wrong.
Thoughts of leaving Camelot for good had been batting about in Merlin's head for quite some time, now. He could almost hear the pitch of his destiny dropping as it spiraled into ruin. He could feel the hole in his heart dig itself deeper with every lie that passed his lips. He watched as the roots of his life imbedded themselves deeper and deeper into Camelot and her people, into Merlin's friends. All the while, his magic sharpened the blade that would, inevitably, cut his roots to the quick.
It wasn't as though Merlin didn't think that destiny had failed – not yet. But it would, if he continued on like this. He'd invested too much. He cared to much. There was too much at stake already for him to torture his emotions like that anymore. He had to let go before it was all ripped from his hands. He wouldn't give up on them, but he had to give them up. He'd help, from a distance, a safe, impersonal distance, where he couldn't inflict any more pain, betrayal, or regret than absolutely necessary. It wouldn't be easy, leaving now, but it would easier now than later. It wasn't a whim that Merlin was acting on when he snuck out of the castle in the dark of pre-dawn. It was a calculated, measured, rationalized decision that had been months in the making. It was a mercy.
As he walked down the steep path away from Camelot and found himself sniffling, he tried to tell himself that it was the pollen floating in the air. He didn't look back at the castle, wouldn't let himself.
The woods probably should have scared him at dawn; the beasts of the forest were waking up, hungry and well-rested, the light still too dim to see properly. But he wasn't afraid, perhaps stupidly, and he knew it. So he walked straight into the treeline without hesitation. He didn't know which way he was going, or where he would go. He would figure it out eventually. He couldn't go back to Ealdor, because he knew his mother would disagree with his decision, and he did not want to burden her again with supporting him. Perhaps he would make his way northwest, toward the druid encampments. Perhaps he would return to Freya's lake, build a house their like they always said they would. He wasn't sure.
It was around midday when he decided he'd ought to find something to eat. Alone and free from the supervision of any Camelot citizen, he was free to use his magic. With the assistance of a small dagger and a little magic, he'd nailed a decent sized hare that would give him food for a few meals. He set the cooking fire with magic and a little, rebellious thrill went through him at the feeling of using his power, uninhibited, to make life just a little easier. He set the hare to cook on a spit and fetched a skin's worth of water from a stream he'd found while hunting.
As he made his way back, he could smell his dinner before he'd spotted it. When he did, however, he found that it was already being eaten by a crouched figure standing over his pack.
"Oi!" He said, coming up to the fire. Immediately, the figure darted off with a theif's speed, but when the rustling from its escape stopped abruptly, Merlin knew that they couldn't have gone very far. He cast a glance at the hare on the spit. It was fully cooked and had one less leg than he'd left it with, but was otherwise in fair shape. His pack had been shoved to the side in the scuffle, but not pilfered. He sighed, and sat down, still watching the spot where his visitor had disappeared to. He could hear them, still lurking nearby. Eventually, he said,
"You can come on out, now, if you like."
He watched from the corner of his eye as a small mop of hair rose up above a bush, then two bright green eyes, and then messy, youthful cheeks.
"I'd have shared with you anyway, had you been nice enough to ask. There's enough for the both of us."
The boy that came around from his hiding spot would have been labeled as a street rat, had he been in Camelot. However, something about the woodsy smell on his tattered clothes and the sticks tangled in his dirty blonde hair gave him a wilder look. He was watching Merlin with wide, perceptive eyes as the man took down the hare and cut off portions of meat. He put some onto a large, clean leaf and handed it to the boy, who took it without thanks. Instead, he said,
"You have magic."
Merlin looked at him quickly, almost angrily, but eventually looked away and began eating.
"You started the fire with magic," the boy spoke through a mouthful.
"And?" Merlin asked.
"Aren't you scared someone will catch you?"
Merlin let out a humorless laugh. "Well, they haven't so far, have they?"
The boy smiled, revealing a mouthful dirty teeth, two of which were just beginning to grow in their second set. He bit hungrily into his meal, smacking impolitely, hunched over his meal like an animal. He seemed generally unaware of all social graces Merlin had been raised into. Hunith may have been a simple peasant woman, but even peasants had manners. Merlin wasn't quite sure what to make of this boy.
"I take it you aren't scared of magic, then?"
"Only of the bad kind," he said.
Merlin quirked an eyebrow. "Oh? And what if I'm the bad kind?"
The boy snorted, as though this were funny. "You aren't, though."
"And how do you know that?"
"You're Emrys," and he said it like it was the easiest thing in the world.
Merlin stopped eating, and stared. The boy went on munching happily, wiping his hands on his dirty shirt and paying Merlin no attention whatsoever. Merlin, meanwhile, found that despite the water he'd been drinking, his throat was suddenly dry.
"How did you know that?" Merlin asked, very seriously. The boy looked up at him.
"I'd have to be daft or dead to not notice. Coulda smelt your magic coming a mile away." He bit into a stringy drumstick and spoke through his chewing in an unpleasant way. "Knew it was your camp when I saw it."
Merlin was growing rather irritated with this… this imp. "And you took my meal?" he asked incredulously.
"I didn't take all of it. And besides, I'd always been told that you were a generous one, thought you wouldn't mind too much. And I was hungry."
Merlin's eyebrows were in his hairline. So not only had this boy known who he was, he'd known his reputation, and exploited it in a completely disrespectful, uncivilized manner. He glared at the small face sidelong, but was unable to voice his anger. He was just a boy, and no matter how horrible he was, Merlin couldn't find it in himself to grow angry at a child he hardly knew. He made himself eat several bites of food before he spoke again.
"How long have you been scrounging around out here?"
"Oh," the boy took a bite too large for his mouth. "a while." Merlin winced when specks of meat fell out when he spoke. "most people don't camp out 'round here. I hunt, usually. Nice to smell real cooking."
"Right." Merlin tried to tone down his grimace. As the boy bent over his food, Merlin frowned. Peeking out from behind his threadbare collar, there was a dark tattoo, a triangle with cords spiraling out from the corners. Merlin paused mid-bite, but quickly recovered. It wasn't too surprising. He knew who Merlin was, he was comfortable around magic – although whether he had any himself, Merlin was unsure. Still, he wanted to confirm his suspicions.
"Are you a druid?" he asked. The reaction was unexpected. The boy's eyes shot over at Merlin with a glint in them that made Merlin think, for just a moment, that he might have to defend himself. The boy glared for a moment, then resumed chewing.
"I was." He said. Merlin frowned. It wasn't like the druids to forget their own.
"What do you mean?" he tried to make his voice softer. This was obviously a touchy subject.
"My mother and father were druids," the boy explained quickly, "and so was I. Then they died."
Merlin nodded, although he didn't fully understand. So the boy was an orphan. But why not a druid?
"What is your name?" He asked. The boy looked disappointed when his meal ran out. He wiped his mouth on the back of his sleeve.
"Aodan," Merlin repeated quietly, committing the name to memory. "Why aren't you a druid anymore?"
Aodan looked annoyed. "I told you, my parents died."
"I don't understand. Did your clan reject you because… because of your parents?"
"I don't have a clan," Aodan spat, and just as Merlin was about to ask, added bitterly, "they all died, too." Merlin's brows slackened in sudden understanding. He could have predicted it what Aodan said next, "and if you're lucky enough to escape a Pendragon once, you learn that being a druid is a bad idea." He was ripping angrily at the leaf his dinner had been served on, and began to mindlessly weave the strips together.
"I'm sorry," Merlin said, feeling awkward. He'd gathered before that he, or rather, Emrys, (whose identity he still couldn't quite equate with himself) was regarded as something like royalty among the druids, and yet here he was, the ally and protector of the very same man who'd massacred this poor boy's parents and clan.
"How long has it been?" Merlin asked quietly.
"Three years," Aodan said. Where the boy couldn't see, Merlin winced. Aodan couldn't have been more than twelve or thirteen years old. To lose his parents so young and live on his own… Merlin could scarcely imagine. All at once, the bad manner, lack of hygiene, and general rudeness made sense.
"You said… A Pendragon did it. Which one?"
"Well, he's not dead yet, if that's what you're asking."
Merlin closed his eyes. Arthur. When he opened them again, Aodan was looking at him again, his eyes stuck somewhere in between curiosity and accusation. "Is he really supposed to be the Once and Future King?"
Merlin watched him, his heart weighed down with sadness. He could hardly believe in this grand destiny business himself, and now, he was looking down into the eyes of a child, scarred beyond imagining by the same man that Merlin was sworn to protect. And Merlin wasn't sure if what he was about to say was really true or not.
Aodan looked disappointed, but resigned. "I knew you'd say that," He said, curling his legs up under his chin. "You're his Emrys, after all."
Merlin wasn't sure he wanted to agree, because it made him sound altogether too sure of himself. He assumed a similar position as Aodan, and the pair sat for a while like that, one clean, lanky figure bent up beside a smaller, far dirtier frame. "I know he's not much to be proud of," Merlin said, half to himself, "not yet, at very least." He sighed. "I'm trying to give him time."
"Yeah, I know," Aodan said, nodding in an unexpectedly calm way, "Destiny, Albion, and all that."
Merlin actually looked at him in surprised. "What do you know of Albion?" He asked. You may know more than me, he wanted to say.
"My father spoke of it." And the tiniest hint of happiness touched his green eyes when his thoughts drifted back to those times. "He told me your prophecies like bedtime stories. Mother would laugh at him for it, but he couldn't help it. His father, my grandfather, was a seer, you see. He grew up on the prophecies and stories, got all excited at their mention." Merlin was blushing bright red, embarrassed at the thought that he, scrawny, clumsy, big-eared Merlin would ever be the topic of bedtime epics. Aodan had begun to frown. "He always told them as thought they'd happen years and years in the future. We were all at peace, then, magic folk. We were too far away from Uther's reach to know of his madness when it first started." Aodan's eyes had lost their happiness, and he stared out into the forest with a the resigned sadness of a man far older than thirteen. "The Purge took years and years to reach our outpost. We'd heard rumors, of course. Dragons being slaughtered, the talk was. No one wanted to believe it, and we didn't have any seers in our clan to tell us truth from lies. By the time reality finally set in…" He paused, and sniffed. "Well, Pendragon had already trained his son up well enough to kill by then. We weren't prepared. My mother made me run."
Merlin was watching Aodan's face, but eventually looked away, ashamed of himself. It wasn't his fault, not really. But was it? This was his duty, to these people, to this land, to magic. Arthur was, in respect to the druids, Merlin's responsibility. And he'd failed miserably so far. Arthur may have been the Once and Future King, but Merlin was Emrys. And Emrys was supposed to know the answer, supposed to provide a way. But out of everyone, Emrys was the man who knew the least about anything. Merlin ran a shaky hand over his face, feeling once again the weight of destiny and unwanted responsibility on his shoulders. He'd fled out here to escape it. It was following him, it seemed. "I'm so sorry," Merlin said, surprised to hear how thick his voice had become.
"It's not your fault, Emrys," Aodan replied. Before he could stop himself, Merlin snapped back,
"Don't call me that!" Aodan jumped at the bite in the words. "I-I'm sorry," Merlin stuttered, "I'm sorry, Aodan, I didn't…" he sighed, and Aodan saw how his hands were shaking. "It's… That's not really my name, you know."
"It is, though."
"It's not!" he said, forgetting again that he spoke to a child. "I'm Merlin, my name is Merlin!." He cried, almost desperately.
Aodan was looking at him, unafraid, but obviously unsure of what to do. He watched the older man for a while. It was Merlin's turn to hide his face. "Is that what your parents named you?" Aodan asked.
"My mother," Merlin told him, and he wasn't sure why he was opening up like this to a dirty, orphan druid. Perhaps because there was no one else. "My father… I didn't know him, growing up."
"He left?" Aodan's tone was benign, but there was a subtext of condescension in his voice.
"He fled," Merlin corrected defensively. "Yours weren't the only parents Uther hunted. I met my father only once, a few years ago, before he was killed."
Aodan's expression was unreadable. "He had magic like you?"
"Yes," Merlin didn't say anything about the dragon tongue.
"Did he teach you how to use it, then?"
Merlin sighed. "In his own way."
"You knew you were Emrys, then, when you met him?"
Merlin frowned at the question. "Well, yes."
Aodan squinted at him. "Then why are you here?"
The query left Merlin nonplussed. Why was he here? Well, he was eating his dinner. Was, at least, until this… this waif came along. He'd been camping, enjoying a sunny day, away from Camelot, away from Gaius, and Gwen, and the knights, away from Arthur. He was… leaving. He wasn't running away. He wasn't a coward. He was making a conscious choice to fulfill his destiny in a way that would be better for everyone. But why did he have to explain himself to a child?
"None of your business."
Aodan watched him as though he could read thoughts. "He can't make in on his own, if you run away, you know."
Merlin was growing irritated. "I'm not running away."
"Walking away then, if you're keen on semantics," Aodan said, suddenly sounding far more intelligent and… witty than the sloblike mess that had stolen Merlin's dinner an hour ago. It was a change that the warlock did not appreciate. "But you can't walk away. If you know you're Emrys, and you know how to use your magic, you have to go back to Arthur."
It was the first time Aodan had said Arthur's name. "You should hate him, you know, he killed your entire clan," it was a barb more hurtful than Merlin would ever normally use. "Why do you care if he gets along better with or without me?"
"Because there will always be more," Aodan said, voice strong, "until you're able to turn a Pendragon into a king, there will always be more druids, more parents, more people like me. It won't ever stop if you run away." Aodan watched him. "And you know it."
Merlin did know it. But could he really stop it? Could he really do any good, staying so close? That's why he'd chosen to leave. Why didn't this boy understand? "If Arthur ever finds out about my magic, all will go to hell," He told the boy, who he'd forgotten was a boy because he spoke like a man, "I can't stick around and wait for that to happen. I'm not running from destiny. I'm just running from Arthur." And Merlin felt surprised at his own words when he'd finished. Aodan hadn't batted an eyelid.
"But isn't that the same thing?"
"Have you even read the prophecies?"
"No!" Merlin was suddenly on his feet, face angry. "No, I haven't even laid eyes on them! You know more about me than I do. You know more about destiny that I've ever had the chance to learn, and you seem to bloody well know what Arthur is capable of, what he needs to become, but you're not the one who has to get him there! I don't know what I'm doing. I never have. I don't know what I'm supposed to do, or how, or even why, all I know is that somehow I ended up as the most powerful sorcerer in existence who's so damned afraid that he's been lying to his best friend every day since they met, and now has some druid boy reprimanding him for trying to keep the betrayal from growing any worse!"
In the silent pause that followed his outburst, Merlin felt a blanket of bitter anger come over him. Bitterness over the subject of destiny, of Arthur's friendship which he knew he would lose, over how tired he was. Anger because of Aodan, who Merlin couldn't decide was stupid, annoying, or telling the truth.
"Would you forgive him?"
"If he lied to you about something every day, if he were afraid of you, and it all came out, would you forgive him?"
In truth, Merlin was having trouble mustering the imagery. "Well, of course I would."
"Then surely he'll do the same for you, if he ever finds out."
"No, no… That's different," Merlin said. "Arthur hates magic, magic killed both of his parents, cost him his kingdom,"
"And a Pendragon cost you your father and your freedom," Aodan said easily, "and yet you say that he is your best friend."
"That's because… that's because I know it doesn't have to be like that. Because I know Arthur. He doesn't know the first thing about me."
Merlin wanted to shout NO at the top of his lungs, but something about Aodan's tone stopped him.
"You are magic, Emrys. Whether you like it or not." Merlin looked up at the boy, wondering how such a dirty, irreverent ruffian could sound like a sage. "Arthur Pendragon has been friends with Magic for a long time. What he knows about you, he knows about Magic. Real Magic. The rest is a matter of clarification." Merlin was frozen, stock still, watching Aodan's eyes. There was something deep and resonate in those eyes, and for some reason, Merlin knew in that moment he would remember the boy's words – no matter if he ever wanted to forget them or not – for as long as he lived. "But he can't know Magic if there's no Magic around. You have to go back. Clarify. Teach. Forgive." Aodan smiled. "Be a friend. In time, he'll do the same."
Merlin stared, still frowning, part of him still wanting to fight, but eventually, he lifted his head up with a sigh. He tore his eyes from the boy after a while, and poked at the dying embers of his fire. He could smell dusk coming.
"Do you have magic, Aodan?" He asked after a long quiet.
"No," The boy answered, looking just as disgusting as before, but sounding so much… more. "but I can sense it." Merlin frowned at him.
"How do you mean?"
"Magic, I can… read it. Smell it. Taste it. Tell you if it's good or bad. I can see what it touches, watch enchantments form. Pick out the strands and intricacies. I breath it, eat it, bathe in it, but… I can't use it."
Merlin frowned. "I'm sorry," He said.
Aodan smiled, his eyes crinkling slightly. "You would say that. But you shouldn't."
Merlin wasn't quite sure what he meant by that, but he smiled anyway. The two sat in silence for a long while after that, and watched as the sun and the fire finally died in the darkening sky.
"I suppose I ought to go," Merlin said offhandedly into the dark, and rose. Two eyes peered up at him from the forest floor. He regarded them ruefully. "You're not surprised, I suppose."
Aodan giggled. "No."
"Are you ever?"
Merlin squinted at him, and smiled. "I hope we meet again, Aodan." He wouldn't have ever wanted to say it until that moment. "Until then, thank you."
Aodan smiled back. "Thank you, Emrys. Your destiny isn't an easy one. Just know, bearing your burden doesn't forbid you from friendship, from forgiveness. Magic doesn't work that way."
"How do you know?"
"It told me."
And before Merlin could as what exactly he meant by that, Aodan was gone.
After one last glance and shake of his head, Merlin shouldered his pack, turned his face back toward Camelot, and braced himself for a life back in Destiny. The starlit sky twinkled above like nothing very remarkable had happened that day, but the magic seen by a dirty orphan knew better than to believe it.