Disclaimer: I own absolutely nothing, all rights belong to their respective owners, I'm only borrowing.
Might regret doing two at once, just couldn't get this idea out of my head. Takes place directly after 4x13.
It had to be around midnight when Merlin woke with a start, the remnants of a dream making his magic swirl around the room before he fell back against his pillows. Brushing his hair back with one hand, the warlock blew out a long breath, simply lying there and reassuring himself for a moment that they were safely back in Camelot, that everyone was alive and well. Or, at least, getting there. He knew the Kingdom had suffered devastating losses at Morgana's hands once again, and had spent enough years learning from Gaius to know that they had only made it to the dungeons in the nick of time. Gwaine wouldn't have survived another fight and Gaius wouldn't have lasted another day without sustenance. But they had made it there, and out of his close knit group of friends, Merlin knew that everyone was alright.
That didn't stop the dreams though. He knew he wasn't the only one, but every night he was forced to relive some of the things he had done. The caves were the main event that plagued him, Aggravaine's look of shock as Merlin casually threw him to his death. In a way, it wasn't even the killing that tormented him. Years of protecting the once-prince and the now King of Camelot had hardened him to it in a way he had never thought possible. It was the way he had instantly slipped back into a joking manner with Arthur straight away. He had protected Arthur physically once again, and then took on the role of trying to piece together his mental state once more.
Sighing, Merlin climbed out of his small bed. He knew that he would get no more sleep tonight, especially not as he had to be up at dawn anyway in order to get everything ready for the hunt. There had been a time when he had made the point of grumbling and dragging his feet every step of the way when Arthur declared he wanted to ride out into the forest. But after the last few days, Merlin found it a relief. It gave him the excuse of why he was up so early yet again, and hunts were not what they used to be. It seemed somewhat ironic. Arthur was now king, but was using a hunt as an excuse. No other people were allowed to accompany them apart from the Round Table. Even before Aggravaine's treachery had become apparent for all to see, the group would take to the woods. Sometimes they would hunt, but more often than not, they would just in the grass and let all barriers come tumbling down around them.
This was the first one they had been on since everyone had arrived back in Camelot. Resting one foot on the small box by his window, Merlin leant out, breathing the night air in deeply and letting it flood his senses. Not that he would ever admit it to the king, but he wanted to get out of the castle. For once with a legitimate reason rather than having to think of a lie which often led to the stocks, things being thrown at his head, or even worse, George. Laughing softly, Merlin shook his head with fondness when he thought of the servant that could have Arthur running for cover. The King had been forced to look through an entire pile of paperwork the last time Merlin had gone missing. Apparently George actually cleaned under the bed and found the things that Merlin had been storing there for years.
Allowing his thoughts to run away with him, Merlin just stood by the window, looking out into the night sky as it slowly began to change colour. He sighed as the first tinges of a pink hue graced the horizon, shaking the blood back into his frozen limbs and beginning to silently dress. No matter what they had just been through together, Arthur still was not a morning person, even if he was now married.
Tugging his boots on at the same time as trying to fasten his neckerchief, Merlin didn't know how he didn't manage to simply fall down the stairs as he began to creep from the physician's chambers with a strange clumsy silence that he had mastered over the years. Gaius was still snoring away, and Merlin paused for long enough for his eyes to flare gold. The covers were pulled up over the sleeping man and the fire sparked into life, the dancing flames immediately sending warmth through the chilly chambers and helping to drive away the shadows of the night. Merlin finally continued with a genuine smile, already hearing his mentor scolding him for using his magic for trivial things. But regardless of his fussing, Gaius would have a small twinkle of gratitude in his eyes that made everything okay again. In the last year or so, Merlin had seen Gaius frailer than ever, and thought that considering the old man had nearly starved to death; his ward was allowed to worry about him.
Finally though, Merlin made it to Arthur's chambers. Although he knew someone else had residence there now, Merlin still just thought of it as Arthur's room. It held so many of their moments there, defined so much about their relationship that he didn't think that it would ever be known as anything else, even if it was no longer Arthur inhabiting it. Shuddering, Merlin pressed against the wood, preparing to let himself in without knocking as usual. That particular thought process brought back memories too painful. He didn't want to think about how close it had been in order for it not to be Arthur in the room anymore. The worst part was that he knew it wouldn't have necessarily been death that would have stopped the King returning, but his own belief that his kingdom, his people, needed someone better than him. Merlin had had one chance to save him from that peril. Luckily, it had worked, for Excalibur hadn't done the trick, then the secret warlock had no idea what would have restored Arthur's faith.
Letting himself in, Merlin blinked.
"You're up. And ready."
"Shh." One finger rising to his lips, Arthur smiled softly as he glanced over at the bed, Gwen still sleeping peacefully. Merlin had to smile. Another sight that had come too close to being lost forever.
"Come on." His order given, Arthur strode from the room, thrusting a bag into his servant's arms as he did so. Merlin grinned, casting one last look back at Gwen before following Arthur. Previously, Arthur would have made it as awkward as possible for his manservant to get him out on time, but King or not, Arthur would not risk waking his Queen.
The rest of the Knights were waiting for them in the courtyard, although Leon did have hold of the still-pale Gwaine's arm in such a way that Merlin was sure that it was the only thing stopping the man going back to bed. He knew that although they had all been back for a few days, this was the first chance they had to go out. Not everyone would have been strong enough before – both Gwaine and Elyan being ordered bed-rest by Gaius. Elyan had wormed his way out of it by promising to eat a few good meals, but Gwaine had found himself closely watched by Percival and Leon when they heard what he had been through. From the rumours Merlin had heard, Gwaine was not a good patient.
Yet it was not Gwaine that had him glancing over his shoulder as he took up his usual position at Arthur's side. It was just a sign of how close these men were, and how much they valued loyalty and friendship over bloodline, even Leon. Not one of them said a word about the fact that it was a servant riding next to the King. They just knew it was one man riding next to his best friend, one he could have lost, even if neither of the people involved would have admitted it themselves. Merlin had heard from Gaius what Elyan had suffered through, and the fact that he had been brought back from the brink of madness through being forced to look after Gwaine had the physician worried. He had asked Merlin to keep his eyes open whilst they were out and to report back if Elyan didn't seem to be coping.
"So what has you flinching like a maid with a mouse then?" Arthur's drawling voice made Merlin turn his head forward again, and he couldn't help but offer his master a cheeky grin.
"Have you ever seen Gwen with a mouse?"
"She's your Queen, Merlin..."
"You know what they say, once a maid, always a maid..."
"I thought you asked me a question?" Arthur reached over and cuffed Merlin around the head as his servant attempted to duck away whilst still keeping upright on his horse. His grin slipping slightly, Merlin glanced over his shoulder once more before sighing.
"Gaius is worried about Elyan." It showed just how much Arthur respected both men in question for he didn't scoff in the slightest, or make some comment about his knights being able to handle anything. Instead, he glanced over his shoulder himself.
"I heard it was pretty bad." He eventually muttered, and Merlin could already see the heaviness once more settling on Arthur's shoulders.
"It wasn't your fault, Sire." Arthur offered a half-shrug before digging his heels into his horse and cantering away. Almost immediately, Leon had ridden up to Merlin's side, clearly preparing to go after his disappearing monarch. Merlin shook his head the smallest amount though, an action that was not lost on the knight.
"He's fine. Guilt issues as normal, the prat." There were no other men that Merlin would have felt comfortable in insulting Arthur that causally in front of. "Here a good place?"
"Good as any." Leon confirmed, giving the signal for the men to stop. They all knew that Arthur would return within the hour, a smile back on his face even if it didn't quite meet his eyes. Yet Merlin also knew that an hour after that, the smile would be genuine as he relaxed with his men, with their friends.
The men set about swiftly making a camp up. If Percival steadied Gwaine getting down from his horse, nothing was said. If Leon went to greet Arthur on his return and the two spoke quietly at some length before returning to the camp, no one commented on it. And if they often caught Merlin watching Elyan, Gwaine and Arthur – often trying to see all three at the same time – with worry reflected in his expressive eyes, silence greeted the action. They all knew what they had been through, they could appreciate if not understand what the others had been through, and knew that words could offer no comfort. The concern alone was doing that.
But as the sun continued to rise and then proceed across the sky, the tension slowly fell away from the group. The special treatment of one another began to disappear and the lines of worry soon turned to lines of laughter as they fell back into their old routine of trying to wind each other up. Gwaine and Arthur were sparring with words, Percival smiling softly to himself over the fact that Gwaine seemed to be winning, the king ending up tongue-tied and flustered as his knight twisted whatever comment he had just made. Leon was leaning casually against a tree, dagger in one hand and a piece of wood in the other as he carved away, Merlin occasionally having to swallow past the lump in his throat as memories of his father were brought back to the surface. Elyan had a piece of leather in his hands that he seemed to be twisting into a shape, but Merlin hadn't yet worked out what it was he was trying to create. He kept the forge going as much as he could in between his knightly duties, and Merlin had seen enough to know that the man was talented with his hands.
Arthur, Leon and Gwaine disappeared as the sun reached its peak, determined to find the rest of them lunch whilst Merlin built up the fire and Percival selected berries from a nearby bush. It was small details like that which betrayed their common background. Percival in particular knew how to survive in the wild, and Merlin had found that he had already picked up several tips from him about what improved flavours of a stew created in the middle of nowhere. In return, Merlin had passed on some of the medical properties he had learnt from Gaius, and the pair often wandered off together when on these group sessions, coming back covered in scratches and stings, but satisfied grins on their faces.
Merlin had let Percival go alone this time, the giant of a man swiftly being swallowed by the surrounding vegetation. The warlock was failing at getting the fire started, and it was driving him mad. With Elyan very much in earshot, he couldn't risk using magic and had already managed to scrape one of his fingers with the flint.
"Here." Looking up, Merlin found that Elyan had clearly been watching him for some time with an amused expression on his face. Surrendering the rocks with a grin, Merlin was more than content to watch the master of the flames bring them under his control. The way Elyan knew how to direct the fire always made Merlin smile – he couldn't even manage that properly with his magic without it attempting to buck away from his control.
"Thanks." But Merlin's gratitude seemed lost on Elyan. He had completely frozen, eyes locked on something that was out of Merlin's sight, the grip on the flints so tight that they were beginning to cut into his skin.
"Elyan?" Rising to his haunches, Merlin reached forward. The knight didn't even seem to feel Merlin's attempt to prise the flints from him, and worried that he was going to hurt himself, Merlin dropped his head. Letting his eyes flash, he breathed a spell and simply tugged the rocks away from the man, placing them somewhere safe before slowly standing up.
"Elyan? El? Elyan, can you hear me?" Moving slowly so as not to alarm him, Merlin cautiously began to edge his way around the fire. Elyan's breathing had clearly quickened, and it was almost as if the man couldn't quite draw enough oxygen into his lungs as his gaze stayed fixed on something. Glancing between Elyan and the ground, Merlin followed his eye line and felt his breath catch slightly as something slithered away into the long grass, the heat from the flames scaring it off.
"Oh." Merlin didn't know what else to say. Even though the snake was now gone, Elyan had yet to move. Suddenly, Merlin was glad that none of the others were here. They would have mocked – meaning nothing by it but not understanding the depth of Elyan's fear. Merlin, however, did. He could feel his blood freezing even as his heart began to pound uncomfortably hard, the back of his neck burning and aching with the old pain that had been so familiar in the following days of his possession.
Swallowing hard, Merlin blew out a long breath. It was just a common grass snake, it wasn't going to make him do anything. Bending down, Merlin picked up a long stick and took a step towards where the snake had disappeared. He gave the grass a violent poke, but when nothing happened – a clear sign that the snake had gone – he threw the stick down and stepped back. All thoughts of comforting Elyan were gone as the servant sank into a crouch, focusing on getting his breathing under control and his hands to stop shaking.
"You too?" The quiet voice made him jump, and Merlin looked up to find that Elyan was practically clinging onto a tree, looking as if he had seen a ghost. But the fact that he had moved and was talking again Merlin was sure had to be a positive sign. Mutely, he nodded.
"Don't tell Arthur? He'll never let me hear the end of it."
"As long as you don't tell him about me?" Merlin managed a weak smile, one that Elyan returned just as feebly, both men not wanting to admit their fears, but knowing they had been caught out in the open. Merlin may have promised Gaius that he would keep an eye on his friend, but didn't realise one of the things plaguing him was something that still occasionally gave Merlin nightmares. Silence fell across the pair as Elyan slowly began to sat down and Merlin moved closer to the fire, attempting to hide the fact that he was shivering despite the warmth of the sun,
"What was it?" Elyan asked softly, and Merlin looked over in surprise. The man shrugged. "I've heard you went against a dragon without armour. There is no way you are scared of normal snakes, what happened?"
"It was called a Fomorrah. Right in the back of the neck." Merlin shuddered, his hand running over the small scar he had there. Ironically, it wasn't from the snake itself, but Gaius' numerous attempts to stop him from killing Arthur.
"The time when everyone thought you were dead?"
"Gwen told you?"
"Not really." Elyan shrugged, moving closer to the fire as he did so, the fear finally beginning to leave his eyes. "But I do know that it wasn't bandits and you ended up as Morgana's prisoner." Merlin flinched. He hated being reminded of the fact that he hadn't used magic to get away from her, something that could have potentially cost Arthur his life. He wasn't sure how Elyan knew that, not being aware of how much Gaius had told Gwen in those days, but didn't question it. There was no hints of accusations in Elyan's voice, he simply wanted to know what happened.
"I was lucky, I don't remember much of it. But I'm told I tried to kill Arthur multiple times." He glanced away, still ashamed that he had been turned against the man he had sworn to protect. A gentle hand on his shoulder made him look up.
"I betrayed him, and I do remember. You have nothing to be ashamed of, Merlin."
"But I should have fought harder." Merlin argued, momentarily forgetting that Elyan wouldn't believe for an instant he had a chance of being able to fight against Morgana. After all, he was a knight of Camelot and had fallen victim to her. What chance did a supposedly helpless manservant have against a High Priestess?
"That's what I thought. Did you know a Nathair is harmless most of the time? Unless magic is involved..." Elyan broke off, his trembles more than obvious as he glanced away from Merlin. Returning the man's previous gesture, Merlin gripped his arm lightly.
"You have nothing to be ashamed of, Sir Knight." He said softly, trying to demonstrate how much he still respected the man. "Gaius told me what happened... apparently they weren't sure if you would pull through it, and think that it is only because Gwaine needed you that you came back to reality."
"I betrayed him though..."
"And a lesser man would have done the same thing just by being in the room with Morgana. Trust me, Elyan, you did all you could. No one could ask for more of you, and at the end of the day, you kept Gaius alive for me."
"And you kept Arthur alive for me." Elyan responded, and both men simply looked at each other in mutual understanding. Elyan had helped Gaius fight, meaning the young warlock had a mentor to go back to. And Merlin had somehow kept Arthur safe and made sure the knight still had a king to protect. Bound together by a fear that the others wouldn't be able to truly comprehend, the two of them were equals. Neither of them said anything for a long moment, before Merlin hastily coughed and pulled his hand away. Elyan started before doing the same, but he didn't withdraw it all the way. Instead, he offered it out to Merlin.
"Down with all snakes?" He muttered, clearly trying to get them back into a more comfortable conversation before the others came back. Merlin smiled, a genuine one this time, and took the offered hand. Grasping it firmly, he nodded his head.
"Down with all snakes." He confirmed, his heart feeling lighter than it had done for a while. He hadn't even told Gaius how the sight of the slithering beast made his palms sweat and the roof of his mouth go dry, yet he had found someone who completely understood. When he reported back to Gaius that evening about how Elyan was doing, he would truthfully be able to say that he was taking a step forward. Knowing that someone wouldn't penalise him for a fear he had no control over, it looked as if the tension had left the knight.
"Hear that, Gwaine? We leave them alone for two minutes and they are planning how to assassinate you, you snake." Merlin jumped, Arthur's voice coming out of the trees directly behind them and causing the servant to spin around. He was just in time to catch the two rabbits that were thrown in his lap, Arthur gracefully stretching out on the ground by the fire. Gwaine walked over Arthur's leg – literally – and sat himself down as Leon resumed what he had been doing before as if the hunt hadn't just happened. Merlin rolled his eyes and picked up one of the rabbits, but a hand entered his vision.
Elyan took the other out of his lap, drawing his dagger and setting to work even as Percival could be heard returning. Merlin just sat there, staring, for a long moment until the knight looked back up, glancing at him questioningly. Merlin just shook his head and set to work, a small smile on his face. Arthur's fist nudged him none to gently in the leg, causing Merlin to look the other way.
"He okay?" The king muttered quietly, clearly thinking back on their earlier conversation and seeing the interaction between his knight and his manservant. Merlin looked back towards Elyan, watching him work in silence for a long moment. The man was frowning slightly as his hands moved effortlessly, but this time, Merlin knew it was with simple concentration rather than anything haunting him. Was he okay? Merlin wasn't sure, but he knew for certain that Elyan was improving, that he would be given time.
Glancing back at Arthur, the warlock felt his smile widen. The king may act cold and dismissive at times, but there could be no denying his concern for his friends was real. You could fake an expression, but you couldn't mask the message the eyes gave out.
"Yeah. Yeah, I think he is.
"Good, now hurry up, I'm hungry." As Percival reappeared and began crushing some of the berries he had found, Merlin sighed , the smile still on his face. The sting of Morgana's and Aggravaine's betrayal might take slightly longer to heal this time, but he was certain that they would get there.
After all, they were the Round Table. Bonds of friendship, trust, loyalty and honour created not through who a man was born as, but who he had chosen to become. Up against a bond like that, not a lot could stand in their way.
Up next, Elyan and Gwaine.