Chapter 15: Two Servants
Arthur knew it would feel worse the second day. The morphine they'd given him immediately was down-graded to a nice but decidedly second-rate Demerol. He thought he knew how a tennis ball must feel, post-Wimbledon. Or a soccer ball after the World Cup. Or a golf ball…
"Or a hockey puck," he announced at the door of Merlin's room.
The sorcerer was cross-legged on the bed, hunched over his old battered laptop resting on the green cotton blanket. Merlin looked up at the odd greeting, the intensity in his eyes and the bruising on his face making him seem, for a single instant, dangerously malevolent. Then he grinned, and his features resumed good-natured familiarity.
"Arthur!" he said. "I'm surprised they could get you out of bed – I told the nurse I could manage it for them, easy –"
"Shut up, Merlin," Arthur said amiably, directing his wheeled IV-pole into the room and easing himself down in one of Merlin's guest-chairs next to the bed.
"They told you, no solid food for non-ambulatory patients, didn't they," Merlin said, nodding sagaciously. "I told them, Arthur won't get out of bed for a bowl of oatmeal, no, he needs sausage in the morning –"
"Shut up, Merlin!" Arthur warned. He looked around for something to throw as Merlin snickered.
It occurred to Arthur how often Merlin had hidden his true feelings behind that wide grin. Not that the smile wasn't genuine… it was, he felt, every time. But Merlin was surprisingly complex, emotionally, and it was difficult to tell what else was going on behind the open friendliness. Especially for someone like Arthur, who had never excelled in sensitivity where the feelings of others were concerned.
"Merlin, are you – happy?" he asked awkwardly.
Merlin gave him an I-can't-believe-that-just-came-out-of-your-mouth look. "Why wouldn't I be?"
"Answer the question," Arthur said.
There was that three-second pause of complete innocence again. "Of course," Merlin said, and it was a lie. After a moment in which Arthur tried to think of another way to come at the question, and Merlin studied Arthur warily, the sorcerer added, "I mean, the drones are all taken care of, and we're safe, and no one was hurt."
But was that enough? "Well, it's all over now, and… you've had some time to think," Arthur stumbled over his words. "I mean, are you mad about having to do all this –" he waved his hands in the air to indicate the hospital, the conspiracy that had sent them there, the whole situation – "all over again?"
"What do you mean?" Merlin was being evasive, Arthur thought.
"Don't pretend like it was easy for you, when I was prince – or king - because I know it wasn't," Arthur commanded. "I'm sorry about that – you don't know how sorry – but now that we have another chance -"
"You don't have to be sorry," Merlin said.
"Will you stop interrupting and answer the question?" Arthur was irritated and impatient with his own ineptness.
"I would if I knew what the hell you were trying to ask," Merlin said, puzzled.
"Screw Destiny," Arthur stated. "You always have a choice. I want to know, if you want it to be different this time."
"Hell, yes," Merlin said.
"Different how?" What was Arthur going to do if Merlin decided he didn't want to throw himself in harm's way for any of them anymore, hide his magic from a disbelieving world, work hard with little thanks or recognition? What if he wanted nothing to do with them anymore? And for that matter, what came next? He couldn't quite believe that they had finished the job Destiny had returned them for, that they would be left alone to live their lives in peace.
"Well, for one thing, I'm not washing your socks anymore," Merlin scoffed.
Arthur rolled his eyes. "Forget it," he said. "What are you doing?" He gestured at the computer.
"Working." Merlin shrugged, and grinned again, but this time Arthur wasn't fooled. This time he knew Merlin.
"You know – this and that. Gaius said he talked to your father and my job is safe at least for now so it looks like we'll still be working together in Camelot after all – or at least we will be when they get the building fixed –"
"Merlin," Arthur interrupted, not following his friend on the long distracting side topic. "What are you working on?"
Merlin sighed, and chose honesty. "They've asked me to see if I can track Mordred down," he said.
"Arthur Drake?" A voice spoke from the doorway, carrying more authority than the nursing staff. More authority than Thomas Drake, almost.
A tall, serious-looking man in a comfortable dark suit looked down on Arthur, dressed in hospital pajamas and rubber-treaded socks, and leaning rather heavily on an IV pole. Arthur struggled to his feet to meet the man face to face.
"I'm Gibson Chance," the man said. He looked over Arthur's shoulder to give Merlin a nod in greeting. A glance back showed Arthur that Merlin had gone back to his laptop, and he ushered the man back to the hallway. "There are a lot of people who'd like to meet you, Mr. Drake, thank you in person," Chance began.
"Arthur," he said.
"Just – call me Arthur." Mr. Drake was his father.
"I have to say, you have impressed many people, in influential places," Gibson Chance continued. There was no hesitation in his manner, no hint of self-consciousness. Arthur knew he was in the presence of a professional, and appreciated it. It was very like meeting another king in person.
"I had no intention of impressing anyone," Arthur said. "In fact, I did very little. The credit must go to my computer wizard here." He gestured to the skinny teenager hunched over the battered laptop on the hospital bed.
"That's funny – Marvin said as much of you," Chance said. "But your friend here has gotten ten different job offers in as many hours.
"NSA, FBI, the Pentagon, Microsoft, Interpol – to name a few." Gibson Chance's serious demeanor cracked enough to allow a slight smile.
At last Merlin was getting the recognition he deserved, from folks that mattered. He'd once said to Merlin, you never sought any credit – and now he understood why. As King Arthur, it was part of his position to be seen by the people - defeating enemies, protecting the kingdom, wearing that target squarely on his back - in some sense the most powerful servant of Camelot. The centuries had changed that. Publicity, he instinctively felt, was no longer his friend. As for Merlin, however, would he accept one of these offers?
Gibson Chance unknowingly answered the question, "He said, his place is at your side – if you wanted to take a job outside your father's business, then so would he. Otherwise…" Chance shrugged.
"He said that?" Arthur glanced behind him through the door of the hospital room, ridiculously gratified, and humbled.
"It's unusual to find loyalty so – unswerving, in one so young," Chance observed.
"Merlin's always had loyalty in spades," Arthur said proudly.
"Merlin?" Polite curiosity.
Arthur smiled blandly. "A nickname," he said.
"Merlin, and Arthur," Chance said. "In Camelot." The agent's tone made Arthur uneasy. This was not a man who laughed off coincidences easily. "I was told, you both have been interns at Camelot Technologies for about two weeks?"
"Yes, that's right."
"Had you two ever met before that?" Again, the polite curiosity.
Arthur assessed the man openly. Of course the truth was unbelievable, but he felt sure this man would know a lie if he heard one – and he would have the resources to prove it. "Does it matter how long we've known each other?"
"No, I suppose not." Gibson Chance studied him, and he wondered if he was very much different from other college graduates, corporate interns, CEO's sons. He wondered if, maybe, the crown showed, to someone like Chance. "But the two of you act like some long-term partners I've known."
Partners. That was a good description of their relationship, wasn't it? A good picture of what he'd be perfectly satisfied with, in the future, no matter what the future held for them.
The man smiled enigmatically, but Arthur had the feeling he wouldn't simply let the matter go. The agent's eyes returned to Merlin, speculatively, and Arthur followed his gaze, looking at his friend objectively. Merlin worked the keyboard with one hand, resting the one in which the IV needle was inserted. In profile, Merlin's eyes weren't visible, whether blue or gold.
Beside this intuitive government agent, Arthur had a sudden urge to warn his sorcerer to caution and secrecy – and felt overwhelmingly nauseated at the bitter irony of that inclination. It wasn't a question anymore of legality or illegality. It might be just as dangerous for Merlin now, for his magic to be exposed to the wrong people, as it was when Uther would have executed him for it.
Merlin lifted his head to meet Arthur's gaze as if he could hear the former king's thoughts – and Arthur wouldn't be surprised to learn that for truth, either. Merlin gave him a whimsical smile, as much to say, that's okay. Don't worry about it. I'm used to hiding, and don't mind it much.
I use it for you, Arthur, only for you – and if Arthur knew, if Arthur respected and appreciated, that was all Merlin needed.
He hoped someday he'd deserve that devotion.
"Another story for another day?" Gibson Chance suggested. Arthur shrugged noncommittally. "Speaking of stories," the agent continued, "this is shaping up to be one hell of an investigation. We'd like to arrange a time and place convenient to get your testimony on record, yours and Marvin's – answer the questions only once, you see."
"Sure," Arthur said. "Whenever they release us from here." He thought he'd speak with Camelot's legal team also – all of them would, the knights and Merlin also. No good would come of incriminating themselves in a deposition, and handing leverage to whoever might want to ask awkward questions, or force cooperation.
Gibson Chance handed him an embossed business card. "Let us know what works for you," he said, and let another small smile escape. "Bear in mind, please, that our superiors are exceedingly anxious to hear your story – and to use whatever evidence you can supply in bringing these perpetrators to justice."
"One more thing," Arthur said, pointing the business card at Merlin. "You've got him on the trail of the Mordred who hacked our system and programmed the drones?" Gibson Chance nodded, and Arthur added, "You're paying him for that, right?"
This time the smile was genuine. "You know, Arthur Drake, you have quite a team. You may be hearing from us on a consulting option. Until then, we look forward to hearing your testimony."
Arthur sighed, watching the agent walk away. There were times, he reflected, that it was damn inconvenient to be an ordinary citizen. He re-entered Merlin's room in a mood slightly more foul, flicking the card away from him onto the green cotton blanket.
"You'd prefer a feast or a banquet," Merlin murmured, "to celebrate victory over attacking enemies?" He glanced up at Arthur, gold fading to blue in his eyes below the edge of his shaggy black hair.
"Over the miles of red bureaucratic tape?" Arthur sighed. "Any day."
"Well, you always did have a preference for commemorations where food was included…"
"Shut up, Merlin," Arthur warned, then decided that his friend's attempt to lift his spirits had done just that. He smiled and shot back, "So when do they serve lunch?"
…..*….. …..*….. …..*….. …..*….. …..*…..
Friday afternoon, Landmark Mall was crowded, but not unpleasantly so. The giggling groups of teenagers were amusing rather than obnoxious, the young lovers sweet, the families inspiring. Even the pairs of old ladies in track suits and tennis shoes brought out Arthur's charming smile, as he sauntered through the middle of the lower floor, Gwen on his arm, heading in a leisurely manner for the food court.
Ahead of them, Gwaine hailed a female acquaintance, a trim blonde with a Macy's bag on one elbow and what looked to be an older sister or cousin at the other. He dragged a semi-reluctant Leon over to where the two young ladies had halted at Gwaine's call, exchanging glances and smiles. Off to one side, Kathryn had pulled Percival to a stop at a jewelry store's display window.
Beside him, Gwen chuckled, squeezing Arthur's hand before releasing it and quickening her steps to join Kathryn. Arthur lagged a moment to bring Merlin into step beside him.
"You're not nervous about letting Gwen window-shop in a jewelry store?" Merlin teased.
Arthur faked a shudder, and rolled his eyes. "You know Guinevere," he said. "She'll want something small and I'll try to get her to agree to more carats… Elyan said we had to wait til he had shore leave, again. How'd your deposition go?"
Merlin smiled a secretive smile, and shrugged. "Fine. I overwhelmed them with unnecessary and convoluted technical explanations, and they finally gave up asking the more awkward questions," he said.
Arthur scoffed. " 'I have no idea, I was in the tavern at the time'?"
Merlin threw back his head and laughed, his voice mixing with the patter of water droplets from a fountain they were approaching, and it was such a welcome sound, a happy sound, that Arthur smiled, pleased and satisfied himself.
"And Mordred?" Arthur said. The name no longer brought the same cloud of foreboding to either of them – it was a name only, a hacker's alias. And Merlin, to Arthur's mild surprise, had turned out to be quite the cyber-hunter.
Another smile, of satisfaction. "He was in Belgium this morning," he said. "If he somehow gives them the slip, I'll find him again."
"Have they talked you into joining the agency yet?" Arthur asked. He kept his tone light, so Merlin would not know how incredibly important the answer was to him. Partners… the first servants of the kingdom.
Merlin's answer was also light, but meaningful. "That," he said, "is a hell of a thing for you to say to me." Arthur fought back the urge to punch Merlin's shoulder, then reconsidered, and did it anyway, just not very hard. Merlin said "Ow," and made a fuss, but he was smiling too.
As they came up along the fountain, Arthur idly noticed a petite brunette, wearing a burgundy sundress and gladiator sandals, seated on the tile ledge surrounding the fountain. She looked up from dangling her fingers in the spray, looked at the two of them with warm brown eyes – looked at Merlin, and smiled one of the sweetest, happiest smiles Arthur had ever seen.
"Agent Chance said they had some training scenarios they'd like us to run through," Arthur mentioned. "And by us, I mean you and me, Leon, Gwaine, and Percival. My father is thinking of promoting Leon to the head of Camelot security – and Percival and Elyan are both receiving commendations from the military." Gwen left the jewelry display and returned to Arthur's side. He continued, "My father is trying to talk me into going back to Brown for a Master's this fall, but – you're not listening to me."
Merlin had stopped walking. Gwen questioned Arthur with a look as she took in the sorcerer's expression. "Arthur," he said. His voice sounded odd, like some great inner delight was clamoring to erupt, and he was struggling to contain it. "Can I meet you later at the food court?"
Arthur said, "Yeah," and Merlin turned to look directly into his eyes, a strange wild light in his own blue ones.
"Can I bring someone with me?" he said.
Arthur said, "Sure," half-laughing at his friend. He didn't mind at all seeing Merlin behave more like an 18-year-old than a mature sorcerer aware every minute of his great responsibilities.
Merlin turned and loped back to the fountain, to the girl who had smiled. In his hand was a single rosebud, materialized from thin air.
"Hey," Arthur objected, speaking to Gwen. "Did he just do magic to hit on a girl?"
Gwen was smiling. "Don't be hard on him," she said. "He's had a pretty lonely time of it. A nice girl might be just what he needs – and she looks like a nice girl."
Merlin slid onto the tiled ledge surrounding the fountain, and offered the single rose to the girl, who dimpled as she accepted it, leaning casually against Merlin's shoulder. Both of them looked ecstatic, and Arthur wondered what his own face had looked like when he'd seen his Guinevere again. Love at first sight…
The girl put the rose to her nose to sniff it, and Arthur caught a gleam of gold from Merlin's eyes as a tiny white butterfly emerged from the bud to flutter in the air before the couple. Arthur held his breath – surely she'd seen that. She'd scream, she'd run, she'd brush him off with some fabricated excuse…
The girl laughed, and Merlin grinned, happy and content. He looked across at Arthur and nodded, and Arthur nodded back, Gwen's hand in his. Because they were partners, weren't they? And always would be.
A/N: Thank you everyone once again for your encouragement and support in the way of reviews, favorites, follows. Hopefully most of you are pleased and satisfied as I am!
And a mug of hot chocolate to whoever spots the Tombstone reference!
FYI: The sequel has been started: The Emrys Strain. Chapter 1 posted, more to follow… :D