Arthur rose to consciousness with a sluggish laze. His eyes fluttered open to be greeted with the sight of the dry soil and fallen leaves of the forest floor. He smacked his lips and untangled one arm from the mess of heavy blankets draped across his tired frame. He let his palm flop onto the cold dirt and contentedly breathed in deep the smell of pine and crisp morning air.
After a moment or two, he sleepily rolled onto his back and gazed upward at the sky, which was still pale in recovery from the night, and watched the wispy white clouds float slowly across the long expanse. Sunshine on the horizon caused the dew dappled leaves and grass to sparkle. He freed his other arm and folded both hands behind his head, closing his eyes for just another moment.
The morning was blessedly silent, and pleasantly cool. The musky, yet refreshing taste of forest lingered at the back of Arthur's throat.
Then his stomach suddenly growled and shriveled. His eyes snapped open and he sniffed briefly for the scent of something simmering over the fire. No food? He furrowed his brow in confusion. Normally, Merlin was making, or had made, breakfast by this time.
With irritation, he craned his neck to the side and frowned at the pile of ashes and weakly glowing embers that had once been a crackling, lively fire. There was no pot of stew bubbling or pan of eggs searing on top. He leveled his gaze past the barren sight to the form of his manservant across from him. Merlin lay on his back, but his face was pointed in the opposite direction, so Arthur could only see the back of his raven head, glistening with moisture. Arthur sighed in irritation, barely noticing the almost translucent, white pallor to his friend's hand, which was lain by his side.
"Merlin," he called in annoyance, though not loudly enough to wake the other knights. Merlin was a servant, so it was his job to be up at this time, but Arthur reckoned that the others could have another fifteen minutes or so before they would have to eat and then be on their way for a few more hours before heading back home.
Merlin didn't answer, obviously deeply asleep. Arthur rolled his eyes with a huff. He sluggishly rose to a sitting position and threw off his blanket. Leaning forward, he grabbed his boots and yanked them on one at a time, all the while giving his servant the cold shoulder, not really caring that Merlin was asleep and wouldn't notice. Once his shoes were on, he sighed and looked back at his young friend. He raised an eyebrow at Merlin, still fast unconscious, face still hidden, and tried again,
"Merlin," he repeated, a little louder. No answer. Arthur scoffed, and shifted a bit closer. He rested his arms carelessly on his knees, then raised his leg and kicked it over the fire,
"Get up, you lazy sod," he cried exasperatedly. His boot connected with his manservant's figure hard, but there was no jumping awake with a startled cry and a panicked flail. Instead, in a strange way that sent an involuntary chill up Arthur's spine, Merlin's body limply rolled over onto its side, his arm still dangling behind his back, fingers brushing the dirt. Arthur frowned deeply,
"Merlin?" he called, resolutely staunching a growth of…something in his gut. Once again, Merlin didn't answer. Still keeping his face arranged in an expression of disgruntlement, Arthur crawled over and grasped his manservant's shoulder with an insult dancing on the tip of his tongue. A hesitation snaked into the muscles of his arm, born from a strange instinct born from the disturbing sense of unease accumulating in his stomach. But he shook away the ridiculous feeling, and pushed Merlin onto his back.
The sight he saw next was haunting, and would remain an iconic figure in Arthur's nightmares for the rest of his days. But there was only one thing that he would see in his waking hours, would linger, tattooed, in the backs of his eyes and the back of his mind for years. It was not the way that Merlin offered no resistance, the way his body yielded completely to movement, flopping like a rag into an awkward position, arm sliding grotesquely beneath him, head lolling upward then wobbling briefly on a limp neck. It was not the color of his skin, pale as snow as if all the blood, all the life had been drained from his flesh. It was not even his face, the way his lips were drooped and slackly parted, marred with the same colorlessness of his skin, the way his brow held no expression, no sign of the life he had so boldly carried been left to linger there. No, it was none of these that immediately drove like a dagger into Arthur's soul.
It was his eyes. At Arthur's movement, Merlin's lids were jostled upward, creating thin slits, revealing naught but fine shreds of the still vibrant blue eyes. But they were glassed over with death, scarred with that unmistakable evidence of the soul having left the body. They were empty of Merlin. Merlin was gone.
The horror Arthur felt at that moment, as complete and soul-rending as it was, did not immediately manifest itself. Instead, he simply sat there, the look of irritation still on his face, the pulse of normalcy still pounding away in his heart, hand still resting on the cool, still corpse of his manservant.
A part of him, the part deeply rooted in reality, the part chiseled and honed from birth to follow evidence to prove facts, knew that his best friend had somehow, in some cruel twist of fate, passed away during the night. Another part, the bigger part, was immediately washed in a stream of horrendous denial. Arthur threw a shield around himself, of stubborn protest and incomplete thoughts cut off before they could reach their deadly conclusions. Face blank, voice flat, Arthur's grip infinitesimally tightened,
"Merlin?" his voice was small, gentle, quiet. It was a voice that teetered on the verge of desperation, a voice begging for relief, for the answer that would heal, that would bring relief. His voice was so imploring, so near the precipice of shattered, if Merlin were alive, he would have answered no matter how close to death he was.
But there was no answer. Only the silence death could bring.
Slowly, Arthur's face contorted into an expression that couldn't be named, but was simply the indescribable, ugly manifestation of a man suppressing the realization of his grief. Arthur's fingers dug so hard in Merlin's shoulder he would have left red, angry indentations if it weren't covered by his blanket.
"Merlin, no, no, no. Merlin, wake up!" he yelled. He clutched both sides of Merlin's face, trying not to think about how cold his friend was, like the bottom of an iced over lake. He shook the boy's head, as if he could force his eyes to open and look at him, apologetic, angry, annoyed, fearful, anything, "Merlin, stop this," he commanded, teeth clenched in fury, eyes wide in agony, face inches from Merlin's, "Just wake up, dammit!"
Panting, he furiously ripped off Merlin's blanket, fighting down a rise of bile at the way his body laxly vibrated in response, and pressed his ear against the unmoving chest. He heard nothing, just the hollow sound of the breeze rustling the branches. A choked gasp fell from his lips as Arthur pulled back, lifted Merlin's shirt to expose his bare skin, and lowered his ear once again, pushing so hard against Merlin's chest, any more might have broken a rib. Arthur almost wanted to, to use the pain to wake him.
His hand was trembling as he scrabbled for Merlin's wrist, and felt no pulse. He jabbed a finger into his neck, but there was still no fluttering beat beneath his fingers. All the while, Arthur's eyes began to burn, his chest to constrict with an overwhelming panic and helplessness. His throat closed up over a thick lump of disbelief and revulsion. A tremor of horror ran up his spine, the kind that only comes when the fear for the things you never dared to think about because of an inane belief they'll never happen, become reality. Arthur's hands fluttered helplessly over Merlin's torso, then flew up to grab fistfuls of his own hair as he hyperventilated, struggling with the overwhelming feeling that he could do something, that he should do something, that he had to. But there was nothing he could do, no special procedure, no cure, no action he could think of. He could take him to Gaius, but Arthur knew, knew with a repulsive certainty, that even Gaius couldn't bring people back from the dead.
Dead. Merlin was dead.
Arthur's arms shook as he fell back on his haunches, clapping a hand over his mouth as dry sobs began to heave in his gut, though his eyes were numb and dry. He curled an arm around his stomach and brought his knees to his chest, gaze still riveted in despairing incomprehension at the corpse which had, not ten hours ago, been his best friend, alive and breathing. Desperate, unanswered questions echoed in his mind hazed with grief over and over and over.
How had this happened? How had Merlin gone from laughing and healthy, from filling Arthur's heart with pride and friendship with words of destiny, fate, and stars, to being this cold, this silent, no breath in his lungs, no light in his eyes? It was like a nightmare. One of those terrible, terrible dreams where everything goes from normal and perfect to hell on earth in the span of a few seconds. Arthur's mind whirled out of control. How could he have let this happen? People don't just…stop.
His eyes stung but no tears fell. He felt the faint traces of shock filtering through the veil of disbelief, of an inability to understand that Merlin was gone. Merlin couldn't be gone. That was like the sun being gone, like the sunrise not following the sunset.
And Merlin just continued to lay there, absolutely motionless, absolutely dead. And Arthur only knew one thing, one thing penetrating through the suffocating fog off grief.
It was unacceptable.
It took a moment for the young king to tear his eyes away from the gruesome sight of Merlin's corpse. He wasn't sure how he looked when he turned to see Gwaine standing in the line of trees, arms full with kindling, eyes wide in confusion, glancing between him and Merlin. But it must have said something of the state of his heart, for when the knight's eyes met his, realization stirred there, a horrific, dark realization, and his eyes grew even bigger, the beginnings of understanding, mingled with abhorrence. He looked like a child, a child afraid of the dark, staring into the blackness of night.
The bundle of wood spilled to the floor, echoing loudly in the grave silence, as his arms began to shake. Gwaine's gaze reasserted itself on the repugnant sight of Merlin's body, and Arthur could see his own desolation reflected in his features as they twisted.
"Merlin?" he cried, sprinting forward and landing hard on his knees by the young manservant's side. He grasped both of the boy's shoulders, and shook him, face contorted into a mask of fear and denial, panic laced in every word as he spoke, "Merlin? Mate, wake up. No, Merlin, no! Merlin!"
Arthur watched numbly, unable to speak, unable to explain. He didn't understand himself. It made no sense. It was all so surreal. Arthur couldn't believe he had woken to this merciless, cold reality. How could he voice out loud what he was still unable to wrap his mind around himself? Merlin was dead.
But Gwaine didn't seem to be willing to accept that.
Sniffing and trembling, tears shining in his reddening eyes, Gwaine let out an anguished cry as his hand hovered over Merlin's chest, his shoulders shaking so hard he seemed like he might fly apart. Gwaine must have felt for a pulse, he must have seen the stillness of Merlin's chest, he must have recognized the glistering sheen of death over his eyes. But he must have ignored all these.
His eyes hardened inexplicably, and he began fumbling with his jacket, teeth bared even though his lips trembled. His movements were clumsy and frantic, hardly the lithe and carefree way Gwaine normally moved. It was as if every part of him was feeling the rise of despair inside of him, and was shaking in their efforts to keep it down. Gwaine managed to wrangle himself out of the garment, and quickly snaked one arm underneath Merlin's back. He lifted him up, and the manservant's head fell backward, neck exposed vulnerably to the sky. Arthur's stomach twinged, and a surge of wrongness went through him. Gwaine was trying to make him warm, still trying to…,
"Gwaine," he choked out, sounding as if he hadn't spoke in years, sounding as if he was more in control of the situation than his knight was, even though he wasn't, "Gwaine, stop. There's nothing-"
Gwaine snarled at him, fury flashing in his eyes. He looked like a madman. And in fact, there was that hint in his eyes, a small glimmer of insanity beneath what may have been the eyes of a perfectly lucid man trying to save his friend. But Arthur knew that it wasn't so, that it was useless to try and save someone who was already dead. And Gwaine knew it too.
But neither of them had the strength to admit it.
For some reason, the sight made Arthur want to throw up. He still couldn't move, could only watch as his knight wrapped the clothing around Merlin, and gathered him up in his arms. What was he doing? He cradled Merlin's head against his chest, one hand laced tightly through the raven hair, fingers digging desperately into his scalp. The other was wrapped around his shoulders.
It was a truly tragic sight, the strong man reduced to a pile of brokenness, holding the corpse of his best friend to his own warm, breathing body, eyes haunted and far away. Arthur winced as he felt his heart break.
"Gwaine…" he tried, but his voice, small and rasping as it was, cracked, and he could think of nothing at all to say. Gwaine knew what was going on, Arthur could see it in his face. Tears streamed down his grief stricken face even as he rocked back and forth, hugging Merlin's corpse to him so tightly, as if it were the only thing on this earth that could give him comfort. Perhaps, it was.
Arthur almost wanted to be in his place, to have something to cling on to.
"What's going on?" a voice said. Arthur turned to see Elyan rising from his place on the ground, brow puckered in trepidation and confusion, "Is Merlin alright?"
At his words, Gwaine began sobbing. Full, gut-rending sobs that tore from him as he swayed back and forth even harder.
Elyan's face morphed into understanding,
"Oh my God," he said, voice tremulous, "What…What happened?"
Arthur shook his head, the lump in his throat growing so fast he thought he might choke on it. He gasped in a breath that turned into a sob, and he couldn't control himself anymore. He buried his face in his knees and let the tears fall freely. His face felt hot and flushed, his throat ached, his eyes and nose burned. His chest felt so tight with grief and sadness and loneliness that he felt as if he must be dying. He felt as if a part of him were gone, leaving a giant, black hole in his heart. He fell completely into the agony of grief, weeping like a child and not giving a damn who saw him. Because Merlin was gone, gone, and it hurt more than he could even begin to understand.
He didn't know how long he stayed that way, when he suddenly he felt a strong hand on his shoulder. He looked up, nose running and eyes puffy, sadness weighing him down into the ground like a stone tied to his heart. Leon looked down at him, eyes shining with pity and his own tears,
"Sire," he said, voice quavering, but semi-steady, "We must go home. We cannot stay here."
Arthur didn't say anything, didn't even nod. He looked down, leveling his gaze and feeling the full brunt of the state around him.
Gwaine still clutched to Merlin tightly, though he no longer moved. Somehow, Merlin's hand was cushioned against Gwaine's chest, though the other swayed gently at his side, as though he were still, even in death, trying to offer his friend some kind of consolation or comfort.
Gwaine simply sat huddled, face buried in Merlin's hair as soft keening moans broke through his chest over and over. Arthur had heard people cry over lost loved ones before, and he knew that he would never become immune to the terrible pain in those sounds, the strange, animalistic inflections that would tear at anyone who had even a shred of humanity. But it was even worse now.
Because this was Merlin.
Reality once again hit Arthur like a slap in the face, knocking the breath from him. And he wondered distantly how many more times that would happen. When he woke up in the mornings to anything other than Merlin's sloppy appearance and broad grin? When he turned to whisper a joke to his wayward manservant, only to find no one there? Merlin was like a habit, a piece of him. Being without Merlin would like being without one of his arms.
How would he learn to live without him? Part of Arthur believed that he never would. Part of him wanted to refuse to, to tear the fabric of reality and just bring him back.
Percival was kneeling by Gwaine, silent tears leaking down his stoic, hardened features. His eyes glinted with pain, though, as he tugged at Gwaine and murmured kindly, but firmly at him to let go, though the knight only shook his head vigorously and clung tighter to his dead friend.
Elyan was stunned, still on his bedroll, cheeks glimmering with wetness, but otherwise there was no reaction from him. He was staring at Merlin with his mouth hanging open, eyes blank with shock.
Arthur looked up at Leon and nodded shakily, trying to force some self-control and purpose back into his demeanor. Inside, he still felt as if he might fall apart at any moment, misery still clawed at his heart, but he held it at bay, using it to fuel his resolve. He had to get them all back to Camelot. He had to bring Merlin to Gaius.
He rubbed at his eyes and sighed shakily. There were so many things he would have to address. Funeral arrangements, rites, breaking the news to his friends and family, his mother…Oh, God, how would Gwen react?
He felt the tears reforming and had grit his teeth to hold them at bay. He felt sick inside. It felt so wrong to be considering these things with Merlin. Merlin shouldn't be dead. He just shouldn't. Arthur wanted to shake his fist at the sky, rave and rant against fate, scream as loud as he possibly could, let the darkness of his heart envelop him entirely. He wanted something to kill, to make bleed, something to make pay for this.
But instead, he stood on wobbling knees, waving away Leon's attempts to help him, and pulled his shoulders back. Inside, his heart was squeezed in an iron vice of grief, threatening to burst it. Outside, his eyes were hard and kingly.
Percival had managed to pull Gwaine away from Merlin, and the knight was now standing, face and fists pressed into a nearby tree, shoulders still bobbing as he wept.
Arthur swallowed hard, knowing he looked just as terrible as he felt, then looked down at Merlin's body.
Gwaine had lain him down tenderly, put his arms by his sides as if to make him more comfortable. Arthur felt something inside of him scream and die at the sight of Merlin's lifeless, pale face, unmarred by age, but touched by death, then knelt down and gently closed his eyes completely, watching the blue orbs disappear beneath the ashen lids. He stopped, fingers lingering, and softly brushed Merlin's hair through his fingers. He wanted to say something, to say goodbye, to say thank you. But he couldn't. His voice, his words, were lost to him.
Feeling impossibly old, Arthur rose once again with much struggle, then addressed his knights without turning his gaze away from his manservant,
"Saddle the horses. We must return."
As they rode home, Arthur found his eyes glued forward into the trees. He felt impossibly weak, heavy with sadness. It was like a thick stone in his chest, an ever-present affliction that only seemed to get worse with each passing moment. One hand grasped the reins of his horse tightly, the other lay on the bundle in front of him, draped over the horse where the pommel was. He resolutely shut off his mind of what was wrapped in the layers of blankets. He tried not to think about the bruise that would have formed on the soft flesh from being in such a position, if blood were still running through the veins. Or, perhaps, one still would. He really didn't know, and thinking about it made him feel sick and tormented.
But he pushed those emotions into the background. The part of him, the boy struggling to understand how he was going to deal with his best friend being taken from him, was being muffled by the part of him that was a king, that felt the responsibility of every life he had ever known, the part of him still gravely running through his thoughts, fighting to find an explanation as to how this had happened, and how he hadn't seen it coming.
His mind roved over the past few days, studying every memory of Merlin, despite the pain that thinking of him alive brought, searching for some sign, some clue that he had missed. But there was nothing. Merlin had seemed normal, perfectly fine and healthy. There was no physical tell that he had been ill, or even feeling poorly. In fact, he had seemed even better than usual, even…
Arthur's horse spurred to a stop, and a cold numbness spread over him, along with a terrible, terrible awareness. The others stopped and stared at him in concern. Arthur whispered something with blank eyes at the ground,
"Sire?" Leon called, "What did you-?"
"He knew." Arthur said more loudly, more painfully. He felt Leon draw closer, and looked up to see disbelief on the knight's face, and, perhaps, denial,
"Sire, what do you mean?"
"He knew!" Arthur cried, hands clenching into fists, not caring that the horse beneath him was starting to stomp in irritation, "It explains all of it. The picnic, the-the things he said at the river. Oh, God. Oh, God, I should have said something different. I should have told him…I…" Arthur felt bile rise in his throat, and the blood drain from his face. But before he could even think another wretched thought, Leon snatched his wrist and made a hard face at him,
"Arthur, you don't know that," he said, using the king's real name, though Arthur hardly noticed,
"But it makes sense!" he cried, "He seemed scared to go to bed last night, and he was…"
Arthur's mind's eye ran over images from the past week: Merlin, hesitating before turning to smile at him in his chambers. Merlin, singing and dancing as loud and boisterously as he could, eyes bright and shining. Merlin, turning to him with heavy, knowing eyes and smiling as he told him to strive for greatness. Merlin's eyes, sad as Arthur clapped him on the shoulder good night, an emotion almost impossible to see by the wide, crinkly grin on his face.
All these things had seemed so small, Arthur hadn't even noticed them. Only now did they make sense, were they conspicuous in his memories. Guilt filled every fissure of his being, becoming so tangible and heavy that he wanted to hang himself by it. But Leon dragged him from his morbid thoughts,
"Arthur. Arthur, look at me!" Arthur looked up involuntarily, eyes meeting of his lifelong friend, who himself looked guilty and downtrodden, though his gaze conveyed compassion, "Don't do this to yourself. If Merlin knew, and we don't know that he did, he must have had a good reason to…" he swallowed hard, "To keep it from us."
Arthur shook his head. What reason could he have had? He should have told Arthur! They would have fixed it…together. They always fixed things. Why couldn't they have done it this time? And even if there hadn't been a way to save him, though Arthur found the though strangely hard to grasp, why couldn't he have told Arthur anyway? Why hadn't he trusted him, cared enough to let him know the truth?
He looked to see the knight's reactions, unsurprised to see Elyan looking shocked and heavy-hearted. Percival looked aged with grief. Gwaine was still staring at the ground, as he had been since leaving their campsite, since wrapping Merlin in those blankets. He looked like misery incarnate, shoulders hunched, eyes rimmed with red, skin pale. Arthur felt the way Gwaine looked. One man expressed his emotions physically, the other bottled them up, feeling unworthy to acknowledge them.
Eventually, they all ducked their heads and pressed on. Camelot would be upon them soon, and a world of agony awaited.
Arthur would never forget riding into Camelot that day. He would never forget the curious, gawking eyes of the people in the streets as he rode through them. They whispered amongst themselves, words about where Arthur's manservant was, what that thing was on the king's horse, and various gasps of understanding when they realized why the party looked so sad. He heard some people make sounds, and small moans of regret. One woman's voice stood out to Arthur among the softly murmuring, largely confused crowd,
"Such a young soul. Such a tragedy," she said, her voice old. Arthur agreed with her, so much it burned.
But nothing of the many horrid things that greeted Arthur that day could compare with what happened when he entered the courtyard.
Gwen was there to greet them, trotting down the steps of the castle, dress and hair flowing behind her as she smiled widely at their return. Her happiness hit Arthur like a punch to the gut. She was with child. He had wanted so bad for Merlin to have played with that child, been with that child, smiled at that child and brought that happiness that only Merlin could bring.
But he wouldn't. He never would again. Arthur's eyes filled with tears as he watched his wife's expression morph from happy, to hesitant, to confused, to understanding. What came next was all a blur. She screamed a piercing wail of agony as her eyes recognized what the shape on Arthur's horse was. He immediately jumped off and ran towards her, heart aching. He tried to embrace her, but she pushed him off, sobbing and crying shrilly as Percival lowered Merlin's body to the floor. She fell to her knees beside him, pressing both hands over her mouth and nose as she convulsed and threw herself over the still, wrapped corpse.
Arthur watched for a moment, overcome with guilt and despair at seeing his beloved in such a state. The combined weight of her grief and his own was almost enough to cripple him. He managed to walk towards her before his knees gave out, and crumpled to the stone beside her. He wrapped his arms about her shaking, seizing frame, and she immediately threw her arms around his neck, burying her face in his shoulder. He held her tight, just as much for his own comfort as hers. He cried with her, letting the tears fall quietly as she continued to sob hard into his shirt. He stared at the long form, the shape of arms and legs painfully apparent inside the thin layer of brown, coarse fabric. Merlin's face was hidden in the blanket, as well, and Arthur felt a wave of guilt wash over him, thinking of the suffocating silence, the dark Merlin would be experiencing if he were…
Arthur pressed his face into Gwen's hair, breathing deeply in her scent, tears spilling into the dark brown strands.
Some time passed, filled only with the stagnant, heavy weight of their shared pain. Then Arthur felt a hand touch his shoulder, drawing him from the darkness, once again. He looked up from Gwen, who was still weeping in his arms, still trembling beneath him, and saw Percival kneeling across from him, on the other side of Merlin's body.
His body. It was all so unreal.
"We must bring him to Gaius," Percival said, eyes kind yet earnest. Arthur had to take a moment to push down his grief and process his knight's words, then nodded. Percival nodded in acknowledgement, then snaked his hands beneath Merlin, and easily lifted him as he stood, as if it were nothing, as if his limp lifelessness was adding no extra weight.
Arthur swallowed, then gathering Gwen closer to him, and murmuring soothingly in her ear, stood as well, his wife still clutching to him and gasping like there was no air. He slowly disentangled himself from her, and lay one arm across her shoulder with his free hand holding hers. They started in the direction of Gaius' chambers.
Percival was already making his way up the stairs, Gwaine following behind, hands white-knuckled fists at his sides. Elyan had gone ahead to break the news to Gaius. Leon remained respectfully with the horses, head bowed. Arthur knew that Leon was mourning in his own way, and somehow recognized that that included solitude.
As a mournful procession, they made their way slowly through the halls. Arthur closed off the world around him, gripping Gwen's hand tightly, rubbing slow circles on her knuckles. She returned his hold with equal desperation. He couldn't bear to think of how Gaius would look. The way he cared for Merlin…it was impossible to measure.
Gwaine sullenly opened the door for Percival when they reached the physician's chambers. His whole face radiated rage and misery. Arthur looked down at Gwen. Her eyes were huge and aching with shock and desolation. She still shivered, as if from cold.
Elyan was waiting for them when the door opened. He stepped forward, shaking his head with sadness, then quietly stepped out and left down the hall. Arthur watched him turn the corner, then walked into the chamber after the others.
Gaius was sitting by the patient bed, one hand resting on the thin cushions which had been lain out, one in his lap, holding what appeared to be a folded piece of paper. He looked weathered and worn, his mouth set in a deep frown, his eyes stricken and ebbing with grief. His shoulders were hunched with a great heaviness. Arthur had never seen anyone look so…weary.
Without a word from any of them, silence so complete it was almost sacred, Percival stepped forward and gently, deliberately laid Merlin's body down on the patient bed. Gaius drew in a shuddering breath and rubbed a hand down his face, eyes brimming with unfallen tears. Percival squeezed his shoulder, then turned and gave Arthur one last look of strength and sadness before walking quietly from the room.
Gwaine stared at the body, shaking with what looked more like fury and injustice than sorrow, though his face was twisted in a horrible affliction of grieving. After several moments of silence, he strode forward and laid one hand tenderly on top of the bundle. He bowed his head and closed his eyes, as if in prayer. Arthur thought he looked very old.
Finally, he sniffed and raised his head, eyes hard, dry, and bloodshot. Without a word, he bent down on one knee, laid both hands on Gaius' shoulders, and stared into the old man's woeful features. He murmured something, something Arthur couldn't hear, and then stood. He nodded at Arthur, then reached forward and rubbed a tear from Gwen's cheek with his thumb. She looked at him with grateful, shining eyes. Gwaine smiled a quivering shadow of his normal, vibrant grin at her, lowered his hand as he gave his dead friend's swaddled body one more look of remorse and other swarming emotions, then strode from the room, back straight, yet somehow dark and fragile, as he closed the door behind him.
When Arthur looked back, feeling himself like a piece of glass, Gaius; hands were shaking as he unwound the ropes keeping Merlin's body within the wrappings, and carefully, almost ceremonially freed his body of the coverings over his face and chest.
Gaius couldn't seem to hold back the brief moan of sorrow which escaped his lips at the sight of his ward's ghostly face, the touch of life swept from his relaxed features. He fell back onto the chair, one hand covering his mouth as the tears released to fall down his cheeks, slipping and flowing through the deep, worn lines of his face. He leaned forward and tremulously grabbed one of Merlin's feeble, limp hands in his own,
"Oh, Merlin," he lamented softly, "Oh, my poor boy."
Arthur knew that it wasn't his place to be here, and gently shushing Gwen's renewed sobs, made to leave. But a cold hand shot out to grab his elbow, and Arthur looked down to see Gaius staring up at him determinedly, face still wet, suffering still piercing through his eyes,
"No, Arthur, wait," he said hoarsely, then swallowed and faltered, "I…I want you to know that this wasn't your fault. Merlin made this decision on his own,"
Gaius looked horrified,
"No! No, I'm sorry, not like that," he sighed and rubbed his eyes, looking as ancient as the tomes he carried, "Merlin…," his voice cracked on the name, "Merlin knew this was coming, and…" he lowered his hand to the parchment on his lap, fingering it as he glanced down, "He wanted me to tell you that it wasn't your fault. He wanted you all to know that…that it wasn't because he didn't trust you. He wanted to be happy with all of you, before his time came."
He looked up at his king, imploringly,
"Can you understand that, Arthur?"
Arthur slowly, reluctantly nodded. Because he did understand it. And he wanted to be angry at Merlin, he wanted to be hurt. And part of him was. But…how could he possibly blame him for this? He would have been completely helpless to save his friend.
Arthur was suddenly overcome by a horrible, dense feeling of…inadequacy.
He looked at Gaius, wanting to offer words of comfort, or acknowledgement. But there was nothing to say, nothing he could bring himself to conjure into words.
Finally, he settled for a nod, and forcibly turned himself to leave, but Gwen once again halted his agonizing efforts. She weakly parted herself from his embrace, and trod to Merlin's side. She stood there silently for a few moments, tears streaming down her face. Then, she shakily reached forward with her small, yet strong hands, and gingerly gathered Merlin's hand in her own, then delicately splayed the long, pale fingers over her swollen belly. She ducked her chin and let a small, broken sob escape her. Arthur watched with a heavy heart and misted vision as she squeezed her friend's relaxed digits in her own, then bent over and kissed him tenderly on the forehead.
She then straightened, and slowly departed without another word. Though, she looked over her shoulder to give Arthur a sad, loving smile, before closing the door behind her.
Arthur felt an icy, pregnant void fill the air at her absence. He felt suddenly conspicuous, awkward. He purposefully kept his eyes anywhere but on Merlin's corpse, feeling as if he wanted to be anywhere else, but unable to bring himself to leave. With a start, he felt a gentle touch at his arm, and turned to see Gaius give him a fleeting, understanding glance before wading regardfully from the room.
And then it was just Arthur and Merlin. Merlin who was dead. Merlin who was cold, and lifeless and breathless.
And Arthur felt suddenly angry. Not for Merlin's silence, or even for what may have been his lies, but for the fact that he had had to go and die in the first place. While Arthur still needed him, when they both had so much more to look forward to. In all his plans, in all his musing, all his daydreams for the future, Merlin had always been there. An upright, steadfast figure in a world of turmoil and mishaps. Imagining a life without Merlin by his side was…inconsiderable.
Finally, Arthur found he could not take the silence any longer, the vacuum of lost hopes and severed possibilities. If he allowed it to continue, he would start to think of what he had lost, all the jokes and smiles and words of advice and encouragement that he would never experience. These things that had seemed so inevitable, so right.
He forcefully dragged his eyes over to the table where Merlin lay, or rather, Merlin's body. Arthur stepped forward, and couldn't help but study the features of his manservant in disbelief and horrid fascination. It certainly looked like Merlin, that mop of black hair and those sharp, angular features. Those ridiculous, dumb ears. But it wasn't Merlin. It was just a body, cold flesh and stagnant blood. Arthur's hand fluttered towards it as his vision darkened with that familiar, fond intolerance for his uncompromising friend,
"Well, at least you're consistent," he said, and a partly bitter, partly affectionate smile tugged wearily at his lips, "You never let yourself get too predictable." A lump lodged in his throat as the smile fell. He drew in a deep, shuddering breath, eyes clouding with pain, chest suffocating with grief. When he spoke next, his voice was brimming and hoarse with emotion, as his hand raked with brotherly affection through the raven locks, thumb brushing the pale skin beneath his scalp,
"I just kind of wish this time, you might have let me catch a break, you know?"
He stood there for awhile, letting the pain run through him unbounded, feeling his very veins burn with the strength of his loss, then leant forward and brushed his lips across his brother's cool forehead, as a poor, wordless means of farewell.
Insides heaving with barely contained emotions, Arthur stood straight, gave his friend one last, longing look, and made his way with a spectral silence towards the exit. The wood creaked as he pulled open the door, but slid gravely smoothly into its place as he closed it behind him, not daring to look back, for fear of never being able to leave. As the latch slid into place with a hollow click, he expelled a prolonged sigh, trying and failing to adequately measure the amount of loneliness, of hopelessness he was feeling. He gazed into the empty hallway, knowing Gwen would be waiting for him just around the next corner, and thought.
He thought of all the good and bad things come before, and all the things he would have to go through in the future, all the trials which would be worse than their predecessors. All the things he would have to go through…without Merlin.
And he suddenly knew that the oblivion of night could not come too soon.