"How are they using me, Merlin?" Arthur looks back up at me, jaw clenched in frustration.
"I don't know," I answer, my own gaze faltering a bit.
Arthur just stares at me. "You do," he decides. "You don't want to tell me."
"No," I correct him. "…Something similar has happened. You remember Princess Elayna? How you thought she was different that morning of the wedding? She was a changeling, Arthur- possessed by a Sidhe from birth, until Gaius and I rid her of it."
Arthur is more startled than disturbed. "You think I'm possessed by a Sidhe?"
"Look, I just don't know," I confess. "You've shown none of the signs that she did- but I'm not sure what else to think. I'll find out, though, Arthur, I promise."
His face is set. "I'll not be used by them. I don't know what they think they'll get out of it- this is my chance for an ordinary life, and I am going to take it."
"I'm not sure how ordinary you'll find life these days," I murmur in reply.
Arthur studies me closely. "You don't think I mean it, do you?" he asks, half-doubtful himself.
"I know you, Arthur," I tell him simply. "I know if it comes down to a choice- whether you become the leader that people need you to be-"
"These aren't my people," Arthur cuts me off. "I don't… understand them, or know what they're like, even. They simply aren't my own."
"You wish harm on them, do you?" I ask lightly.
"Of course not, Merlin, but-"
"Then you're willing to protect them." I raise my hands almost in defense. "Arthur, I know it's not the same as it used to be, or the way that it should be. But I remember your sense of 'greater good.' And I'll always trust you to do the right thing. I know you'll protect anyone who you think deserves it."
He won't admit it, stubborn as he is, but he realizes my point. I can see it in his eyes. He looks back to me slowly. "…You're sure the Sidhe weren't trying to kill you last night?"
Something like a grin covers Arthur's face. "Here I thought I was just a good swimmer."
I chuckle a bit at that.
"You shouldn't laugh- you're the one who taught me, after all." (A/N- see 'To Swim or Not to Swim')
"…I-" Rummaging through my memories, I leave the question hanging.
"You don't remember?" Arthur asks.
Try as I might, I just don't- but I'd really rather not admit it.
"It's alright, you know," he tells me softly, though I can tell he's not untouched by this.
"…So much time passed," I explain. "I can't begin to tell you how much I've forgotten. But there are a lot of memories- many concerning you, Arthur- that were too precious to ever forget." I reach far back to prove it to him. "When the Crystal of Neahtid was stolen, because your keys had been taken from your chambers, you lied to your father to protect me."
The memory dawns on Arthur's face. "I was so angry with you for that," he recalls aloud. "I shouted at you; I treated you like dirt for it- but it wasn't even your fault, was it?"
"You had cause to think it was," I remind him. "And you hated coming short of Uther's expectation."
"…Do you remember when I threw water over you?" Arthur can't keep his hope off his face. I'm glad not to have to disappoint him.
"You put me in a chokehold, ruffled my hair and assured me you weren't fat," I say, folding my arms. "It was always so hard for you to express your feelings."
"I thought it cheered you up," Arthur defends.
"It did," I affirm.
"But it was a clumsy attempt?"
"No- yes." I have to laugh a bit, mostly in the face of my friend's good-humored annoyance. "From anyone else, it would have been confusing," I tell him. "But I understood you, so instead it proved to me that you'd noticed I'd been unhappy. That you did care, in spite of everything."
Arthur gives a weak smile. "I'm sorry that you ever had to doubt it."
His admission throws me off. I can't tell him that I didn't ever doubt his concern for me- there were many times when I did, especially in those early days.
When the silence grows uncomfortable, I go back to our original topic. "You know… it's a lot harder to find information about the old religion these days- so much has been fictionalized- but after a while, I started keeping everything I could get my hands on."
"But subjects on Sidhe magic?"
"Especially them. Anything involving Avalon, Arthur, I've kept- though now, I'm not so familiar with types of human possession- inhabitance," I amend, deeming it a gentler word. "I'm going to go look in the basement- do you want to come?"
"If you think I can help," he replies- and grabs my arm before I can pass him. "Merlin- please don't think…" He sighs at himself. "Don't think I'm not, happy for you- it's only that now… I'm afraid I'll lose you."
"Welcome to my world." It was my instinctive response, though once spoken, I see it's truly not as humorous as I meant it to be. Arthur doesn't even smile, but is dead serious about this whole thing- and well he should be. "You won't lose me," I assure him.
"How did I know you'd say that?" he replies half-heartedly before once more sobering altogether. "But last night…" He releases my arm, shaking his head. "I'm sorry. I know it's not fair of me- after everything that you-"
"Tell me," I prompt, laying a hand on his shoulder. "Tell me."
I watch his façade crumble to its knees, and the last night's scare comes back to him full and hard. "For an hour that was like a day, I thought you dead, Merlin, and I've never felt so alone and-… so lost without you. I just never want risk that."
"I understand," I whisper. "Better than anyone, I understand that." I pull him into my arms as I speak.
Arthur wedges his face between my neck and shoulder, hugging me back with strength he was afraid to use last night. It's difficult to breathe, given my still-sore ribs and chest, but I resign myself to the hindrance.
As always, he's worth his trouble.
A/N- I hope you all liked reading this story as much as I liked writing it- though there's a singular pleasure that comes with creating one's own story, as probably all of you will understand. How long can anyone read fanfiction before breaking down and writing some of their own? Reviewing is so easy with that little box now- just thought I'd mention. ;)