That was all he had left. A week. Merlin couldn't make sense of the words as they fell from Gaius's trembling lips. They were foreign and warbled, nonsensical. They wouldn't register.
He was saying other things, too. Things that Merlin couldn't hear over the loud thumping of his heart in his ears, and the hard breaths passing in and out through numb lips, which he was mystified by, like his ability to see and hear and touch. Because he would have thought that, if he had a week left to live, something should be feeling different.
"The spell," Gaius's voice was saying shakily, "It didn't, simply, wear off like we thought it did." Merlin's heart began to palpitate, and his throat closed around a cold lump of…something. Everything was fuzzy, and reality wasn't fit to wrap his mind around. He realized Gaius was holding his hand, worn and gnarled palms gently stroking his own. He thought Merlin was in shock. Merlin distantly wondered if he was.
"The spell is…" Gaius swallowed hard, eyes brimming with misery and unshed tears. Merlin didn't like that look. It looked hopeless. But that was wrong. They should be figuring out a solution, thinking up some cure. There was always hope. But Gaius's eyes were devoid of it. Suddenly panicked, Merlin tried to pull his hand away, but it didn't work. His muscles had gone numb. Other than a faint tingling at the tips of his fingers, his senses were overshadowed by a rapidly growing buzz in the back of his head. Gaius continued, unaware of the fact that Merlin's tongue was stuck to the roof of his mouth and his stomach was wrung with disbelief. Every breath he drew felt like a lie.
"It is…traveling toward your heart, sensing the source of life within you. By my estimate…it will take a week, no more, no less," Gaius's words were crass, and unembellished, but the raw emotion breaking his voice, and shining through his face, belied their simplicity. Merlin was having trouble thinking clearly, but his mind's eye was immediately filled with images of clashing swords and flashing lights. His body shivered in remembrance of the agony he'd felt taking the full brunt of the sorcerer's spell, straight in the chest where it would have hit Arthur instead, had he not acted. His ears were filled with the long-gone echoes of voices shouting at him to stay awake.
But everything had turned out fine. Merlin had recovered in a day's time, as if from nothing more than a mild flu. Aside from some dizziness and lag, Merlin had felt no side effects from the battle. He'd assumed that his magic had absorbed the spell, and destroyed it instinctively, like an immune system. He went back to work right away. Everything had been fine.
Merlin's breathing became shallower, and feeling suddenly claustrophobic, he sprang to his feet, clutching at the sides of his head and struggling not to hyperventilate.
"But-but I thought that it was gone. You said it was gone!" he rounded on Gaius, eyes wide and terrified. Gaius lowered grief-stricken eyes to the floor, hands folded and trembling in his lap. Merlin felt his heart plummet.
"I researched the spell you told me the sorcerer used. Your magic is delaying its purpose but…there's no way to stop it, Merlin."
Merlin was shaking his head, though he didn't know when he had started,
'No, no, this isn't possible. There's got to be a way to stop it, something I can do! I'm bloody Emrys, damn it, I should be able to fix it!" he was pacing again, arms gesticulating wildly as he racked his terror filled mind for some kind of answer, for anything. His breath came in short, ragged gasps as he tore at his hair and rambled incoherently. Denial filled every pore of his being, beating rhythmically with the pounding of his heart. This couldn't be happening. It just couldn't. He had so much left to do. He-
The world tilted in front of him, and suddenly he found himself sitting with his head lowered between his knees, a strong, calloused hand massaging the back of his neck reassuringly. Merlin clenched and unclenched his jaw, staring obstinately with blurry vision into the woodwork of the floor, realizing for the first time what color it was.
"Shh, my boy. Shh…" Gaius soothed to him in a wavering voice. A moment of silence passed where Merlin curled his hands into white-knuckled fists and pressed them against Gaius's thighs. He bit back the impending whimpers clawing at the back of his throat, and a silent tear tracked down his cheek and dripped off his nose onto the floor. He bit the inside of his cheek and a soft keening sound broke free of his closed, aching throat, a thin sob that threatened to be only the first of many.
"I'm so sorry," Gaius suddenly whispered, and his voice sounded as if he might cry. Perhaps he already was.
Merlin didn't know what to do. Whether he should sit or stand, weep or grit his teeth against the flow of emotion spilling forth. Or, perhaps, tell Gaius that he had nothing to be sorry for, that Merlin could, would, be brave. He wanted to tell Gaius that it was okay, that he wasn't afraid. But that would be a lie.
He drew in a shaky breath, wanting to be able to think rationally, but his mind was still racing in a thousand different directions, searching for some thin strand of hope to grasp on to. Or, some way to feel peace.
But there was nothing, nothing to save him from falling ever further into an abyss of regret. Grief, rage, denial…fear. They seemed to fill every crevice of his heart, weighing it down to the point that Merlin was sure it was no longer beating. But it was. It was, though he knew, deep down, it wouldn't be for much longer. And Merlin couldn't help but speculate how slow or fast time passes differently when it is no longer measured by minutes and seconds but by every beat of your heart.
There were more tears ready to fall, lingering at the corners of Merlin's eyes, a warm sheen across his vision, a salty moisture clinging to his lashes. But he didn't let them.
Instead, he opened his mouth to speak, and the plan to say something wise or reassuring dissipated into thin air, and all that left his mouth was a small question, the only one that made sense or mattered, the only one that seemed important at that moment,
"Will it hurt?"
Merlin's voice was rasping like that of a child's, and he would have scorned it had it been anyone else but Gaius gently rubbing his neck and holding his head in his lap, combing his wise old fingers through Merlin's hair,
"No, miboy," Gaius answered, his voice surprisingly level, though Merlin could sense the lump the words were being forced past, "You won't feel a thing. The spell is supposed to kill instantly, no symptoms. When your magic can no longer hold the spell at bay, you will simply…" Gaius's voice cracked, and Merlin could almost perfectly picture his weather worn features, wincing from the sting of grief, "…cease."
Merlin nodded into his mentor's lap, but said nothing. He didn't trust himself to speak. If he spoke, if he moved, if he lifted his face to meet the cruel light of day, it would make reality far too real. So he stayed that way, his face buried into the warm, coarse fabric of Gaius's robe, breathing in and out the musty, familiar scent of his mentor.
He stayed that way for a long time.
The rag slipped against the overly polished wood, and Merlin gasped as a splinter snaked into his skin. He cursed and inspected the imbedded twig, then looked back up at Arthur's bed post, glaring at the ridiculous sheen he'd created.
His gaze flickered over to the king's desk where Arthur barely spared him another cursory glance before returning to the papers strewn in front of him. Merlin frowned and turned back to his fruitless, meticulous tidying.
Just tell him, Merlin thought to himself as he bent down by the hearth and began wiping the grout between the tiles for about the fifth time that afternoon. He looked back at his injured finger and grimaced, do it before you end up prematurely killing yourself.
Merlin's hands stopped in their tracks as the thought passed through his head. Dead. He would be dead in a few short days. The span of time seemed so small, paper thin. Almost nothing.
Well, then, you better get on with it, shouldn't you?
But something kept stopping Merlin. Throughout the afternoon he had found himself, on a number of occasions, with his mouth open and his fingers fidgeting as he turned to face Arthur. But the words would always die before they made it past his lips. Anytime he came close to telling the truth, his whole stomach would jolt violently, his heart would tighten in fear, something in the air would choke the air from his lungs, and he would turn back to cleaning like a madman, wiping away every visible speck of dirt, and even some invisible, to wipe his mind clean of the thoughts telling him to quit putting it off. But what was he so afraid of?
You know what, Merlin's head said to him, and he couldn't help but agree. He knew.
Whenever he turned to tell Arthur the truth about his fate, he would see his king's face. Arthur's bright blue eyes would energetically scan the paperwork in front of him. His broad shoulders, which were forced to carry the burden of a whole kingdom, seemed impossibly light and strong. His brow, which had been puckered and lined with a perpetual frown of loss for such a horribly long time, was now inordinately smooth. Everything was right for Arthur, now. His kingdom was at peace, his people optimistic and well-fed, his economy flourishing. He was married to his true love, who was now more than four months pregnant with their first child. Arthur, for the first time in a long time, was truly happy.
When Merlin saw all this, his fear of death grew stronger, his sadness heavier. But most of all, a conviction grew inside him. If he told Arthur what was happening, he would go berserk. He would run all over the kingdom, searching for a cure. Him and the knights. He would be frantic and miserable, and would only refuse Merlin's attempts at trying to give him peace.
Merlin didn't want his last days to be filled with the torture of his friends. He wanted his last days to be just like all the other days. Happy. Normal. He just wanted to play pretend, like this was any other week. And not his last. He wanted to be alive until he died.
Resolve bubbled up inside of Merlin, and he clung to it.
"Merlin, you do realize it is far past my dinner time, and you have yet to bring me my food?"
Merlin took a deep breath, steeled himself, and split his face in a wide, open grin,
"Well, I don't know, sire," he turned around to face Arthur, looking exactly the same as he had before yesterday, when he had found out that life had decided to cut his short, "You must remember, in your state of mind, it's very hard to remember whether one has eaten already, or not."
It was only when Merlin flew out the door, narrowly avoiding a goblet to the head, that he let his smile fall, and the creases of sadness reappear on his face.
It would be the last thing he did, but he would make this week count.
"You didn't tell him," Gaius's voice drifted over from across the table. What he had said, though, wasn't really a question. So, Merlin nodded, and looked up from his stew to peer at his mentor.
Gaius appeared to have aged a decade over the last day or so. The wrinkles on his face seemed deeper and more numerous. His eyes were shadowed and pained, with dark circles underneath. Merlin frowned, finding it somehow inexorably wrong that Gaius should be losing his health over him.
"No, I didn't…I-" Merlin paused, trying to find the right words, his gaze wandering towards the window where the sunset was setting the world on fire, "I don't want him to know. I want time to…to be okay with everyone, before I…" he faded off, unable to say it. When he met Gaius's eyes, they were shimmering with tears as they studied him. Merlin forced a smile as his own eyes stung, and choked out with a wet sniff and quiet chuckle,
"I guess I am just a coward after all, huh?" he laughed weakly, and wiped at his eyes and nose with his sleeve, staring hard into his meal. It was his favorite. Gaius used to only make it on his birthday.
How ironic, Merlin mused, that it should now be meant to soften death.
He buried his face in his hands, feeling a terrible guilt settle over him. What he was doing was cruel. His friends deserved to know, they deserved a proper goodbye.
But, just the thought of them knowing, of all the tears and grief and horrid, horrid goodbyes caused a terrible burden to settle in his heart. He couldn't do it. He just couldn't.
He started when he felt a hand on his shoulder, and looked up to see Gaius looking down at him with love and pity in his eyes,
"Oh, my boy. You are anything but." He wrapped his arms around his ward, and Merlin lifted one hand to grasp the withered hand of his mentor, his teacher, his father. He let out a shuddering breath, and allowed a few tears to roll down his cheeks.
"I don't want to die," he finally said, almost as a whisper, and the admission was finally enough to break down whatever he had hardened inside himself, and he began to weep.
For the first and last time, Merlin mourned.
The air was cool and dry, the gray pallor of the sky lessening more and more by the second. The rising sun peeked over the rooftops of Camelot's houses, creating a bright burnished backdrop for Merlin to stare into with awe. He blew into his cupped hands and then rubbed the warm moisture over his knuckles.
"Merlin," Leon's voice. Merlin turned towards it and smiled at the knight it belonged to, who was staring at him with slight bewilderment, but delight as well.
"Leon, what are you doing up so early?" Merlin replied. Leon chuckled and sat down on the stone steps of the courtyard next to the manservant,
"I could be asking you the same thing," he said. Merlin smiled a small smile at him, and then resumed watching the sky progress from dawn into day.
"I suppose you could," he conceded quietly. It felt somehow wrong to raise his voice any higher than a soft murmur at this time of day. They both sat in companionable silence for a few moments, then Leon spoke, sounding strangely peaceful. His breath fogged out in front of him as he sighed,
"I sometimes come out here, in the mornings. I like the solitude, the silence."
Merlin chuckled, and began rubbing his arms, leaning forward to rest his elbows on his knees,
"I can understand that. Never have much time for that, myself."
Leon turned to him with glowing eyes, lips quirking in an understanding smirk,
"Men like us never do, Merlin. We're servants, the both of us," he waved his hand at Merlin's confused glance and turned his attention back to the sky, "Yes, yes, I know I'm a knight. I wouldn't presume to know what it's like to labor the way you do. I was born into a noble family, after all," his eyes grew thoughtful, and…sad, somehow, "But, in retrospect, we are both servants. One way or another, we live to answer our call for duty. I am Arthur's knight, you are his servant. But that resolve to keep him alive, to serve him, is just as deeply imbedded in you, as it is in me, if not more," he grinned at Merlin, suddenly looking far younger than his normal demeanor, weighed down by responsibility, made him seem, "We don't live for ourselves anymore. Perhaps, we never did."
Merlin gazed at him for a long time, even after Leon turned away. He didn't know what had brought on this sudden openness. Maybe, Leon had sensed something of the foreboding Merlin was feeling. Maybe, this was just a different Leon, the one that wandered the streets of the city. Leon the man, instead of the knight.
But at Leon's words, he was suddenly overcome with a terrible fear. Arthur. What would he do when Merlin was…gone? Who would protect him, who would protect Camelot? Merlin didn't want Leon to know what was going to happen to him, that was by far the last thing he wanted.
"Leon," Merlin said reproachfully.
"Yes?" Leon answered, the light of the rising sun reflecting off his eyes.
"You're…you're a good man, Leon. A good friend," the knight turned to look at him curiously, "If…"
Merlin averted his gaze, and took a deep breath,
"If ever I weren't…here. T-to protect Arthur…could I count on you? To take care of him, make sure he, umm…" Merlin tapered off, biting his lip and reasserting his gaze on Camelot's glowing rooftops,
Leon waited, silently.
"I-I guess what I'm saying is…would you protect him, at all costs?"
He forced his eyes to meet Leon's, and was surprised to find nothing but earnest respect and honesty shining through. His face was serious when he spoke, his words weighty,
"Of course," he said, but immediately put his hand on Merlin's shoulder and furrowed his brow earnestly, "But nothing will happen to you Merlin," he chuckled deeply, "Arthur wouldn't let it."
Merlin breathed out a sigh, and gave Leon a grateful look,
How wrong you are. He thought.
"Thank you," he said.
Merlin's arms burned with exertion as they pumped up and down. The cold water of the wash basin sloshed violently against the sides of the buckets and the metal rack as he scrubbed the cloth with all the force he could muster. He breathed harshly through his teeth, mind working furiously to gnash the questions running through his head.
What was going to happen when he was gone? Who was going to know that Arthur liked his paperwork numbered in the corners in order of importance and priority? Who was going to offer Gwaine a shoulder to lean against on his way home after a night at the tavern, and listen to his drunken ramblings and stories? Who was going to tutor George on the weekends with his reading? Who-?
Merlin yelped and cringed as his hand slashed against the slightly broken edge of the metal sheet. He pulled it back and stared in irritation at the thin, but deep red line across his palm.
"Need some help?"
Merlin's head snapped upward to see Gwen standing at the doorway to the washroom with a fond smile on her face, her warm brown eyes shining with an affectionate light.
She looked beautiful. Her hair fell unclasped about her shoulders in long, loose ringlets, gently caressing the soft fabric of her flowing, pale pink gown, with silver embroidery and a cream, lace shawl. Her swollen belly poked outward from behind the gentle cotton, lifting the front of her lengthy skirt to show her feet, garbed in silk slippers. There was a slight blush to her cheeks, an indomitable happiness and glow to her aura. Merlin smiled back at her and had to forcefully repress a wave of tears.
She would make a wonderful mother,
"I hardly think Arthur would find this work befitting of a queen. Let alone one carrying his child," he managed to quip steadily. Gwen waved her hand dismissively and made her way over,
"How silly. I've been doing this kind of work since I was a little girl."
She began sitting down, and Merlin bounded to his feet, gently holding her elbow as she lowered herself to the floor,
"Ahh, there we go," she said satisfactorily, fanning out her skirt and rolling up her sleeves. Merlin ambled back over to his place and plopped down. He reached into the water to retrieve the shirt he'd dropped, but couldn't entirely conceal the wince of pain as his cut met the cold water. Gwen didn't miss a thing, of course.
"Merlin, did you cut yourself?" she asked with exasperation, snatching his hand and tenderly scrutinizing the wound. Merlin couldn't hold back a smile at her concerned frown,
"Well-" he began, but she cut him off,
"Come here," she beckoned with her hand, and he scooted around the basin. She reached underneath the layer of her skirt to reveal a plain, cotton underskirt. She grabbed the tattered trim and tore some of it off, ignoring Merlin's protests.
"Here," she held out her hand, and smiled at him tenderly. He returned the gesture and place his hand in hers, and she began wrapping the cloth around his injury.
He watched for a moment, but soon his gaze slid off her hypnotizing movements and landed on the round bump protruding over Gwen's crossed legs. His eyes lingered there, images of a small body wrapped in blankets filling his mind. He wondered vaguely if Arthur would tell the child about him. Would he tell all his children stories? The good and the bad, or just the good? Merlin knew well that sometimes only the positive memories of those you lost are the ones that remain after they're gone.
"There you go," Gwen said happily, tying the strip off into a tight knot and leaning back on her hands. Merlin opened his mouth to thank her, but was cut off as Gwen let out a little yelp of surprise and jumped a bit, eyes flashing with glee and excitement,
"The baby!" she cried joyously, pressing her hands to her stomach, "He's kicking, this is the first time I've felt him!"
She looked so happy, so utterly happy. Merlin felt as if he were intruding upon something that didn't belong to him, a moment of perfection in a world of bitterness and mistakes. But Gwen didn't seem to mind. In fact, she grabbed Merlin's hands, and before he could even react, lay them flat against her tummy,
"Do you feel it, Merlin?" she beamed at him, unabashedly welcoming her friend to experience some of this moment that was hers. This time, as the motions and movements beneath Merlin's fingertips let him know of the tiny body and beating heart growing inside, he couldn't hold back the tears. They welled up in his eyes, warm and bittersweet. Gwen's eyes were shining, too.
"What…What are you going to name him?" he asked, voice choking and quavering. A solid lump had lodged in his throat, not of dread and fear, but of gratefulness. Using his magic, he had probed Gwen's womb, and found nothing but a perfectly healthy baby inside. Her pregnancy would be smooth and unencumbered. The baby would be born into Gaius's steady, capable hands. It would be swaddled in the loving arms of friends and family.
Merlin would never know this baby, never personally. But he or she would experience everything Merlin had worked so hard to protect. The thought made him…warm.
"Well," Gwen's eyes glinted, and she cocked her head, "If it's a girl, we were thinking of Ygraine."
"And, if it's a boy…we thought Amr Merlin sounded lovely."
Merlin couldn't hold himself back then. He hunched forward and rested his forehead on Gwen's warm belly. The tears rolled down his cheeks, as Gwen hummed a lullaby contentedly.
Another day and a half passed. And that was all it did. Pass. It went by so quickly, effectively, unaffectedly, inconsequentially. It made Merlin terrified.
He paced back and forth in his chambers, mind awhirl with worries and fears as he chewed his lip pensively, arms crossed over his chest and fingers tapping a rhythmic dance along his bicep.
Mostly, his thoughts were consumed with how his friends would react to his death. He hoped to God there wouldn't be anything gruesome about his appearance. He hoped Arthur wouldn't hate him. He hoped they all could forgive him.
He sat down on the end of his bed and dragged his hands through his hair. Dead, dead, he was going to die. It was still so incomprehensible.
He kept finding himself mentally inspecting his own body. He would listen to his heart, his breathing, would test every muscle, magically inspect every organ. Nothing was off. By all means he was a perfectly healthy young person. Even when he finally brought himself to search for the spell, it was nothing more than a dark glimmer, a thin sliver of black magic. Hardly a curse at all. To think that it could, would end his life within the next few days was almost impossible to grasp.
Sometimes, he would find himself entertaining the idea that Gaius was wrong. That he was completely fine, that the next few days would pass and then a hundred more after. But he knew, deep inside, this was all just denial.
He chuckled morbidly to himself. Denial was one of the stages of grief, after all. He just never thought he would be feeling it for himself. He rubbed his eyes wearily, and let his shoulders slump. Even in death, he couldn't be anything but bizarre.
But past all the internal persuasion, forced acceptance, denial, what have you, the fact remained. He didn't want to die. There was so much he still had to live for. After everything, this was how it was going to end, when things were just getting started. Well, if he hadn't known it before, he did now.
Fate's a bitch.
Speaking of which. Merlin raised his eyes to see Gwaine poking his head through the cracked door into his room, an inquiring look on his face,
"You okay, mate?" he asked, a grin on his face. Merlin tried hard to return the smile, but really only managed a bitter grimace. Go figure.
"Yeah, fine. Thanks," he replied. After a moment, Gwaine sauntered forward into the room, and plopped down next to his friend. He folded his hands behind his head and arched his back with a crack and a satisfied sigh. Merlin didn't look at him, it was like his head was made of cement. Everything about him felt heavy, his head, his heart, his legs.
He felt Gwaine's eyes on him, assessing, concerned, imploring. After a pause,
"You know what I could really go for right now?" Gwaine asked loudly.
If it had been anyone else, Merlin would have reverted back into that normal, cheery act he'd been keeping up by now. But with Gwaine, it was different. Merlin knew he wouldn't poke or prod or ask painful questions. His remedy for every usually had something to do with boos or girls or pickled eggs. And sure enough,
"A nice warm flagon of frothy ale!" he crowed enthusiastically. Merlin managed to raise his head a fraction and meet his boisterous friend's eyes. They were so light and manic, Merlin could see that he was trying very hard to make him feel better. He was practically daring the young warlock to cheer up. Merlin smiled, not caring if it was a sour, pitiful little thing,
"You know what?" he slapped his knees and stood up, reaching for the jacket dangling from his bed post, "That sounds great. Let's go,"
"Come on," he seized Gwaine's elbow and dragged him from the room.
Merlin's head felt fuzzy and clouded. No truly coherent thoughts seemed to be penetrating the alcohol induced fog, and Merlin found the sensation very pleasant. He forgot to think about dying. For now, he could simply raise his mug to the ceiling and scorn the world with the rest of these insane drunkards.
"Well, thaz the thign, Meerlin," Gwaine slurred as Merlin stared across the table at him through blurred vision, "Nooo one, appreciamates men like you…," he hiccupped, jabbing a finger at himself, "And me," he swiped his hand along the table's surface, smearing the remnants of pickled eggs and ale along the rough grains, "We're not o' the ckommon rabble," his lips blew raspberries on his b's.
Merlin nodded, feeling as if everything made complete sense in here. He shook his head through the hazy warm film on his brain and croaked in agreement,
"Yeah, yeah, yeah," he mumbled through numb, uncooperative lips, then sniffed and licked them to see if they would tingle, "Arthuur ne'er says shanks!" Gwaine bobbed his head rapidly, and stumbled to his feet, hand raised to the heavens as if he were about to break into a speech, but instead he knocked over his chair by accident and sent himself into peals of laughter. Merlin found his face extremely funny and began wheezing and cackling himself, a finger aiming at his friend.
"It-it just went," he spread his hands in a climactic gesture, and mimicked the sound of the chair crashing, cheeks bloated and spittle flying from his lips, then collapsed against the table, heaving with giggles. Gwaine doubled over breathlessly, but lost his balance and careened to the floor, legs briefly sticking up in the air. Merlin completely lost it, tipping over in his chair and falling to the floor himself. He crawled over to his fallen friend, still laughing, the world tilting and swirling around him, and dug his fingers into Gwaine's stomach. The man wheezed and weakly slapped at the tickling hands, to no avail,
"Nah, stop! Stop!" he cried sloppily, lips split in a broad, maniacal grin, eyes squeezed tight into wrinkled slits.
Eventually, Gwaine gained the upper hand and the two began to wrestle. In actuality it was a pathetic and slobbering attempt at clambering over one another and shouting witless insults, but eventually, they found themselves exhausted, sprawled on the floor with no idea as to the disapproving or glazed eyes watching them, and voices laughing at their expense.
Merlin stared up at the ceiling, one hand grasping Gwaine's hair in a clenched hold, while his head was wrapped in the crook of the knight's elbow, head pillowed on his arm and Gwaine's other fist resting on his head, knuckles digging weakly into his skull. They both just giggled obliviously for a long time.
Merlin woke with a blistering headache the next morning. He groaned at the intrusion of consciousness and buried his face into his pillow, trying to ward off the pain of sunlight and sound. As stars danced in his vision, reality once again weighed down on top of him like a cold blanket. He felt a horrible bitterness morph in his stomach, and bit his tongue against an angry moan. All he wanted to do was lay here for the next several hours and not think.
Unfortunately, it was not to be.
Gaius threw open the door with little sympathy and no hesitation. Merlin heard him loudly part the curtains and groaned at what light managed to penetrate into his vision.
"Merlin," Gaius said, shuffling over to the bed and plopping down on it. He touched his shoulder and Merlin shrugged him off,
"No," he moaned hoarsely, but Gaius was having none of it,
"Merlin, sit up. You must take this, it will help."
Merlin sighed resignedly, and began levering himself up on a wobbling elbow. Nausea swirled through his stomach and his headache worsened with every jostling movement. Merlin found himself in a slouched sitting position, staring resolutely downward away from the morning light filtering through the window.
Grudgingly, he grabbed the bottle Gaius was holding out to him, and downed it in one go, biting back a wave of sickness at the putrid taste.
"That's awful," he stated with a grimace, and Gaius plucked the bottle from his fingers and stood up,
"It will help," he repeated and exited into the main chamber. Merlin watched him leave thoughtfully. He'd never seen Gaius so…distant. Digging the heel of his hand into his temple, Merlin sighed for what felt like the hundredth time the past few days and struggled to stand. He dragged himself to the door and rested his hand against the knob.
Gaius was puttering about the room, picking up books and rearranging them, mixing potions which were hovering on steel stands above small flames. He was avoiding looking at Merlin. He seemed somewhat…frantic in his movements. It was hardly noticeable. Just a slight jitteriness to his motions, a nervousness to his step that was barely detectable.
"Gaius?" Merlin called tentatively.
"You really shouldn't stay out so late, Merlin. It's not good for your health, or mine," his voice sounded normal, but there was a strange flatness to it. Merlin couldn't hold back a humorless snort as he looked at the ground,
"Well, it doesn't really matter now, does it?" he said, voice laced with a bitterness that surprised even him. He immediately regretted the words, for though he didn't see Gaius's flinch, he certainly felt it.
"It's important to be responsible," Gaius replied, not quite so flatly as before but still in a robotic, forcibly controlled manner. Merlin lifted his head again and saw that Gaius had stopped moving and was now chopping herbs on a table, facing away from his ward.
Merlin felt guilt rear up inside of him, and concern. Gaius was acting so composed, so normal. It was as if he were trying to…pretend it wasn't happening. Merlin bit his lip and hugged himself, leaning his weight against the doorframe and chewing on his words before he spoke,
"Gaius do…have you really…accepted this?" the words were inadequate, poorly spoken, but Gaius didn't react badly. Even worse, he hardly reacted at all, other than a slight tensing in the shoulders. An awkward silence passed, and Merlin took a step forward,
"Well, I don't know what you want me to say, Merlin," Gaius suddenly blurted out, his voice level and calm, if somewhat rapid. He continued to chop the bushel of herbs, though as he spoke his movements became faster, "We know what's going to happen, I ran the tests myself, the results were indisputable. There's nothing we can do, nothing to say," with his last words the knife slipped from his fingers and clattered to the wooden table. A deathly silence followed.
Gaius brought the trembling hand to his forehead and rubbed at his eyes. Merlin's heart sunk with sadness.
He strode forward, ignoring the blast of pain in his head, and hesitantly rested a hand on his mentor's shoulder.
"I'm sorry," he said so quietly it was almost a whisper, "I'm so sorry."
Gaius whirled around, eyes red and wet, and gathered his ward in a tight, back-breaking hug,
"Oh, my boy, my boy," he choked, "What will I do without you?" the question was almost a plea. Merlin swallowed hard, and offered a shaking smirk that he knew Gaius couldn't see,
"No Gaius, you've always been the one to take care of me. You made me believe in myself, in my destiny. I wouldn't have made it this far without you," tears tracked down his face and into Gaius's shoulder, "Thank you, for everything. You're…home to me."
A sob broke through Gaius, and he pulled away from Merlin, and held him at arm's length. He stared straight into his eyes,
"No, Merlin, thank you. You've saved all of us," he smiled, "You saved me. When you came, you brought hope, and love, and joy into my life, and everyone else's. I-" he took a shuddering breath, "I love you very much, Merlin."
"I love you too…Gaius," he said, and once again wrapped him in an embrace.
When Merlin finally released him and left at the sound of Arthur's voice approaching down the hallway, he looked back before closing the door behind him, and shared a look of understanding, compassion, and grief with his mentor, where everything they had ever wanted to say was exchanged between their eyes. And then the lock clicked shut.
Merlin woke the next morning in a cold, sweaty panic. His eyes roved the darkness of his room for but a moment of absolute terror. Tomorrow. Tomorrow was his last day. He had to make the time count. He had to.
In a mad frenzy he threw off the covers and dressed, bursting in a flailing dash out of the chambers and into the castle corridors.
He spent the rest of the morning until dawn in the palace kitchens, cooking better and harder than he ever had before. He baked herb encrusted bread and gathered dried, spiced meat from the back pantry. He brazed goose with butter and saffron, and tossed a salad of almonds, various fruits and fresh cabbage. He gathered strawberries, cherries, blackberries, raspberries and rhubarb to make a honey-glazed tart. He chopped and sliced and minced and cored. Roasted lamb marinated in verjuice, wine and vinegar. A glorious conglomeration of spicy, sweet, sour, bitter, and tangy edibles, smeared in sauces, stewing in broths, permeating the air with wondrous scents of ginger and saffron, cardamom and pepper. There was fish and soups, wine and mead, and even wild boar.
By the time he was done, the sun was just beginning to rise over the horizon, and he had gathered everything he needed into the essential baskets and pots. He took a gander at his creation, tightly sealed and ready for portable use, and swiped the back of his hand against his grease-stained forehead.
The rest of the morning he spent gathering people. He found Elyan in his father's smithy, Percival and Leon on the training grounds, and Gwaine in the tavern, of course. Though they were suspicious, after a number of explanations, they warmed up to his plan. He sent them on various errands for some added supplies and then headed into the palace. He waited outside Arthur's council meeting, and was soon joined by the rest.
Arthur was accosted by the group the moment he exited the council meeting, and with little to no coaxing and quite a lot of shoving, they finally managed to get him and Gwen out of the castle, despite the king's blustering protests about paperwork and responsibilities.
Laughing and playfully teasing each other, the seven made their way to the long, sprawling meadow behind the castle, a flat expanse of lush, untrimmed grass. Leon layed out the blanket he'd found, and Percival the baskets he had managed to carry over all by himself. Merlin unloaded the food, feeling very pleased at the compliments (and disbelieving mantra on Arthur's part) he received from his friends. He ignored the questions of when he had time to cook all of it, or what had brought this on, and simply smiled and said he thought they should all just have a good time.
At his signal, Gwaine picked up a merry tune on the flute which Merlin had asked him to bring, and the celebration began. Celebrating what? Nobody seemed to care too much. And save for a few curious, albeit happy, glances, Merlin was not grilled for answers on why he had spontaneously arranged this little party.
At first they danced. From various peasant folk dances to snobbish courtly ones, the companions twirled and leapt and knelt and hooked arms. Merlin felt a carefree bliss fill every core of him, causing the reality of his life to shrink into the depths of his subconscious. He shimmied and shuffled and jigged with abandon, as if no one could possibly see him. After the dancing they collapsed to the ground and feasted on Merlin's creations. Many compliments and thank you's were sent his way, filling him with joy.
Next, they sang. Merlin threw back his head and let his voice fly with all the gusto and shameless enthusiasm he had in him. If the others were surprised by his behavior, they did a fairly good job of hiding it. As if inspired by his unabashed demeanor, they too sang long and loud and clear. They sang of love and loss, trials and triumph. Gwaine sang all the drinking songs he knew, while Percival's deep baritone told the grim tales of war. Arthur sang songs of silly courtiers and public scandals, and Gwen of lover's quarrels. They all sang together, whatever they knew, and some things they didn't.
Finally, they played. Using Merlin's neckerchief as a blindfold, one person would wear it and grapple blindly at everyone else, cursing as they danced just out of their reach. At one point, Arthur became so frustrated with Merlin's goading, he took a flying tackle in the direction he'd heard his voice come from, and the two went sprawling haphazardly in the grass. They played a game of wits, charades, and riddles. At last, they took turns acting out famous legends in pairs. Merlin and Arthur had a dazzling fake sword fight, with exaggerated thrusts and parries and impossible movements, which ended fantastically in a victory for Merlin, who had the pleasure of pretending to stab Arthur through the heart, much to the king's annoyance.
It was only very late afternoon when things began to wind down. The sky began to darken ever so slightly, the grass to cool, and Gwaine played a soft, serene melody on his flute. Merlin began packing, despite the tightness in his chest as he did. His hands shook slightly as he stuffed the remnants of their lunch into the baskets. He just didn't want it to end.
Eventually, they all scattered in different directions, to their homes or duties. Merlin, Arthur, and Gwen all walked into the castle together, and Merlin smiled at Arthur's worried frown as he held Gwen's hand, helping her up the courtyard steps. Gwen hugged Merlin tightly and whispered a goodnight and a thank you in his ear. When she stiffened to pull away the first time, Merlin's arms tightened against his will, and she returned the gesture and allowed the embrace to last a while longer. Finally, she let go, brushed his hair behind his ear and turned to leave. Arthur slapped Merlin on the shoulder and gave him a lopsided grin, bade him goodnight as well, and spun on his heel catch up with his wife.
Merlin watched them turn the corner with a salute, and as soon as they were gone from his sight, let his hand fall to his side, and his smile from his face. Sadness washed over him in a cold wave, but no tears came. Today had gone exactly as he'd wanted. It had been perfect.
But as he gazed out the window at the rapidly darkening sky, he couldn't help but calculate exactly how much time he had left. A day. No time at all. He had tried to make every day linger and last like a taste in the back of his throat, but they had seemed to just fly by.
He looked down at his hand and speculated thoughtfully. There is so much time in life, but it passes so quickly unless you count it.
The morning of the last day was the worse. Merlin woke without a start, his eyes simply fluttering open to the sight of his darkened ceiling, and his first thought was that this was the last time he would ever wake to a new day.
Suddenly, he was overcome with a need to see. He remembered the day he'd left Ealdor. From the time he'd been packing to his mother's kiss goodbye to his silent trek from the village, his eyes had scanned over everything in a desperate hurry to catalogue what he knew so that he could remember it later. He'd gazed at feature's on his mother's face he had before taken for granted. He'd studied the imprint in the dirt where he'd slept. He'd stared at every grain in every plank of wood of every house just because he'd thought he never would again, or for a very long time.
But that was just him leaving his hometown. How does one prepare to leave their life?
With an intense ardour he struggled to memorize every cranny of the ceiling, he rolled over onto his side and noticed for the first time the exact shape of the windowpane's shadow on his floor in the moon and starlight. He sat up and made his way quietly to the window, gazing out and penetrating his gaze into every detail of the view he had seen so many times before. He would have stayed there until the sun rose over the rooftops, but today he was supposed to go on a hunting trip with Arthur.
He dressed slowly, relishing the feel of the fabric against his skin, the rise of static on his arms as the sleeves scraped against them. He tied on his favorite red neckerchief, forming the knot with a meticulous care, just so he could know exactly how his fingers did it.
He grabbed his pack and stepped into the main chamber, turning around to give his room, the place he had been for the past ten years, one last look. He closed his eyes, and tried to picture it, then opened them, and shut the door.
He walked past Gaius's sleeping form. His eyes roved affectionately over the wise physician, and a lump lodged in his throat at the familiar loud snores. He bent down pulled the covers closer about his mentor's shoulders. He gazed at the weary wrinkles, born from so many years of laughing, crying, frowning and smiling. For a moment, he had swallow down the desire to call out Gaius's name, just so he would open his eyes, and look at Merlin one more time.
But he wouldn't do that. Merlin knew that he could never say goodbye to Gaius, not in this way. Clutching his satchel, Merlin reached inside and brought out the letter he'd written the night before, and leaned it down on the table next to the man who had been a father to him for so long, despite all his mistakes.
Merlin stood back and let his gaze rest on his mentor, his father, his friend for just a while longer. His hands balled into fists at his sides, and a single tear tracked down his face.
With a long breath through his nose, Merlin hoisted the pack higher up his shoulder, closed his eyes, and turned away.
He left without looking back.
"Merlin, there is a certain amount of something required for this particular activity, and do you know what that is?"
"Arrogance, idiocy, bloodthirstiness?"
"Skill," Arthur growled, giving his servant a mock glare that didn't quite reach his eyes. Merlin just beamed back at him, and the king rolled his eyes, returning to his silent vigil through the bushes. Merlin made a face behind his back, and Gwaine snickered. Arthur tensed, but continued to stare into the clearing through the brambly hedge hiding him from sight.
Merlin readjusted the pack of equipment on his back and crept forward a bit more, sidling up next to his king and ignoring the look it provoked. He peered through the opening Arthur was looking through, and flinched a little when a deer bounded into view.
It was a beautiful stag, with tall proud antlers and a lithe, graceful physique. It's liquid, black eyes stared unknowingly into the trees as it bent to graze.
Arthur immediately raised his crossbow, and Merlin carried out his normal routine. He pretended to lose his balance, and fell into Arthur's side. He was thrown off balance immediately, hands slipping on the crossbow, sending a bolt careening just off its intended path, into a tree far behind the stag. The deer straightened and bounded off into the woods.
"Merlin!" Arthur yelled in incredulity and irritation, "That was going to be dinner for the council banquet tomorrow," he rounded on his servant and snarled.
Merlin negated his expression of fury with a wide-eyed innocent one,
"I'm sorry, Arthur," he shrugged, the corner of his lips tugging in barely suppressed amusement, "I tripped."
Gwaine howled, Leon smothered a laugh, Elyan and Percival tried and failed to look impassive, and Arthur gave Merlin three seconds to run.
"Why do you do that?" Arthur whined as he splashed his face with water. He and Merlin were sitting by the creek as the others set up camp a ways back. Birds twittered in the trees nearby, and a cloud of mosquitoes hovered over the gurgling water. Merlin felt oddly…at peace. The fear was still there, of death, of what he would leave behind, or what came after. But it was subdued, by the warm sunshine on the back of his neck and the soft chill of…inquisition. Everything seemed brighter, warmer, clearer. ecause this was the last time he would see any of it, it hit him with sharp clarity.
Merlin shrugged as he poked a stick into a small depression where a tiny gaggle of impossibly small fish were swimming. They reacted to the vibration and fell into a fearful frenzy. He smiled. Normally, he would have answered Arthur with some friendly banter and an insult, but today was…well, today was different, of course.
"To keep your attention, I suppose," Merlin said, and felt Arthur look up at him,
"What on earth does that mean?" Merlin watched the sunshine ripple on the surface of the water,
"Well, it's my job to keep your head above water, after all. I disrupt you when you get too immersed in things like that cause…just so that I know I still can. Sometimes, I would like to think our friendship goes beyond the flying goblets and made-up insults."
Arthur was silent.
"Do you ever think there's more than this, Arthur? Do you ever wonder if there's anything passed what our eyes can see, a standard to strive towards that's far greater than anything we could make for ourselves?"
Merlin looked over his shoulder to see Arthur watching him with narrowed eyes, not angry, just discerning. He looked uncomfortable, but Merlin pressed on,
"Well, I do. And that's where I think your destiny lies, Arthur. I've told you before, but it never seems to sink in. You're destined to become the greatest king Camelot has ever known, or any other place for that matter. You're meant to see passed the stars and glimpse that greatness, the one that none of us can ever reach. And you have to take a piece of it Arthur. Seize it with everything you have."
Arthur seemed mesmerized now, eyes gleaming with wonder and not a hint of skepticism.
Merlin turned back towards the creek, and continued on, voice softer than it had been before,
"But that was never why I was your friend, Arthur. I didn't do it because of the king you will become, but because of the man you are now. It's nothing so divine or prophetic as all that. I care for you, oddly enough. Even though you are a prat," he smirked and turned back towards the king, "So thanks for that."
Arthur seemed a bit shell-shocked, and opened his mouth as if to say something, but was cut off,
"Merlin, Princess! Get on over here before Elyan eats all the stew!"
Merlin beamed at Arthur and jumped to his feet, brushing off his breeches,
"Shall we?" he said, and began bounding forward. But a hand grasped his arm and held him in place. Merlin turned around to see Arthur staring at him with a slightly lost, slightly determined expression,
"Merlin, I…," his mouth flapped open and closed as he struggled to form words. But in the end, he just looked Merlin in the eye and said resolutely, "Thank you…too."
Merlin smiled understandingly at him, knowing what Arthur had wanted to say, and only feeling a little sad that he didn't. It was good. It was normal.
"Come on," Merlin beckoned, and the two walked companionably back to the fire, with the occasional shove or tease.
Merlin gazed into the flames of their campfire, not needing to look at the sky to know how quickly it was turning dark. He drew his knees up, hugging them to his chest, and rested his chin on top. Gwaine chortled in the background, a muffled voice amongst the din of laughter reverberating through the group, and the steady crackle of the fire as the wood burned away into a black heap.
Merlin's heart pounded against his ribcage as he drew in one shuddering breath after another. His spine tingled, his chest ached with terror and sadness. It wouldn't be long now. He had an hour, maybe.
Finally, he looked up at the sky and watched as dark clouds passed forebodingly across the treetops, and the sky turned a deep, navy blue. Crickets sounded in the distance, an owl hooted, and the sound of a twig snapping set Merlin's nerves on edge. The blood rushed in his ears, his chest tightened with fear.
"Hey, you alright mate?" Gwaine asked, and the loud roar in his head came to an abrupt stop. Merlin met Gwaine's concerned gaze, as well as the others, and managed yet another smile, one that was more fake than the last ones had been,
"Yeah, thanks," he said politely, and Gwaine nodded at him with a grin.
The fire collapsed a bit and a wave of smoke billowed up towards the branches. Merlin watched the gray cloud fade, then returned his attention to the lapping, flickering flames. Gwaine began telling a story, then, one Merlin had never heard before, and he listened intently, trying to get his mind off the fact that he could be gone at any moment.
He laughed when something funny happened in the story, and groaned when something disgusting did. All the while the emotions inside swelled to the point where fear and panic and disbelief were itching at the tips of his fingers. But he kept his mask in place, and did not once let it crack.
Arthur threw another log on the fire, and announced that they should get some rest. Merlin, in a moment of sheer horror at the thought of laying down and just waiting, quickly suggested that they stay up a little longer and tell more stories, or have a game of riddles, or-
"No, Merlin. It's time to sleep."
Sleep…sleep. No, he couldn't sleep. He'd never wake up again. Never. He wouldn't ever see the sun again, not ever. Oh, God, why hadn't he watched the sunset more closely?
But before he knew it, he was on the ground, beneath a thin, coarse blanket, shivering. Horrible shudders ran up and down his body, and his breathing fogged out in front of him in the icy air. His hands gripped the edge of his blanket so tight that his skin was pale. As if he were already dead. As if it had already happened.
What if Gaius had been wrong? What if it did hurt?
He lay across from Arthur, and could see the outline of his face in the dim glow from the fire. His eyes were already closed. Was he already sleep? How could he be?
Merlin wanted to call out to him, tell him to wake up, to grab his sword, they had to go on a quest, they had to find a cure, or save a small village, or slay a great beast.
But he didn't. His voice caught in his throat, and Merlin realized that he would have no last words. He had nothing to say.
His breath kept making clouds.
He closed his eyes and took a long, deep breath, the longest he had ever taken or would ever take again on this earth. He felt the way the air filled his lungs, the way his breath hitched just before exhaling.
He looked at the other sleeping forms of his companions, and felt fear have its place taken by sadness, and acceptance. They would miss him. The thought gave him mixed feelings.
He stared into Arthur's face with desperation, wondering if there was any expression he hadn't seen yet, something he wouldn't know by heart. But every line was familiar, every bump. Merlin almost jumped when Arthur's mouth opened in a large yawn, before he rolled over, so all Merlin could see now was his back.
With nothing else to do, nothing more he could think of, Merlin shifted onto his back, and gazed into the stars. He lay one hand on his chest, the other at his side. He was inordinately conscious that any rise and fall could be his last.
His mind flashed over the events of the past few days. He thought of Gaius's loving eyes, Gwen's swollen belly, Gwaine's sloppy grin and the rest of the knights' willingness to help him. He thought of the sun in his face and the taste of warm stew on his tongue. He thought of colors and light and darkness and tears. He thought of everything he had done in the past ten years.
He thought of Freya and Balinor and Will. He thought of every close call, every tragedy and every miracle. He thought of Lancelot's sacrifice and the shimmering lake of Avalon. He thought of all his friends, so many people he had cared for and still does. He thought of Arthur and he, and all the times they had torn each other part, only to put each other back together. He thought of fairies and goblins and dragons, swordfights and hunting trips and far too many close escapes.
He thought of how now there wasn't any escape. There was absolutely nothing he could do. And now, after having his life literally flash before his eyes with the strength and beauty of the thousand victories he had not won all by himself, as sometimes he had felt. And instead of feeling helpless, he felt…peace.
A smile broke across his face, and his eyes welled with tears of gratitude, love, and remembrance.
And somewhere inside of him, a thin sliver of black magic crept forward from the shadows, a sinuous, snaking curse of darkness. It drove straight into his furiously beating heart, and the pumps immediately ceased.
A breath passed through Merlin's lips as his chest fell in finality. His eyes slipped closed as his body slackened against the dirt, his hand sliding from his chest to land with a thud on the ground.
The next morning, he would not hear the voices screaming his name.
A/N: Oh. My. Gosh. I have never felt so guilty about writing anything in my entire life. Oh, gosh, oh, gosh, oh, gosh. *Hides in a dark corner and cries* Anyways, *sniffle*, please review?
Update: sequel, Refuse, is posted!