heofona_gehlidu: (Morgana)
[personal profile] heofona_gehlidu
Title: The End of the Beginning
Fandom: Merlin
Genre: Future fic, AU
Summary: Destiny is not necessarily what we think it might be
Warnings: Angst. Shades of dub con. Character death. Did I mention the angst?
Pairing: Uther/Merlin, hints of Arthur/Merlin
Wordcount: 5828
A/N: A 'what happened next' for In darkness, truth - or, what happened when everyone else found out. Much love to [livejournal.com profile] fanged_angel, who poked me about this, and to [livejournal.com profile] sparklyfizz, who suggested I might like to stop using the word 'then' quite so much

'Miasma' was a common explanation for just about every ailment going until the 19th century

When Merlin was very young his grandfather often allowed him to come along when he went fishing in the deep lake far enough from the village for his mother's voice not to reach them and, once it became clear that the boy had no inclination to sit and wait for the fish to bite, the old man had taught him instead to cast pebbles so that they skittered across the surface of the lake. Merlin had never really acquired the knack of it but the pattern of the ripples spreading out across the water had fascinated him from the start and many happy hours had been spent after that creating those shimmering patterns with pebbles, crafting them with his magic until he was satisfied with their perfection.

When Merlin was ten his grandfather died in his sleep and after that Merlin stopped going to the lake but sometimes, when his mind is quiet, he thinks about those days when everything seemed so simple and uncomplicated and he wonders what might have been if things had gone otherwise.

It is the day after the traditional feast to celebrate the anniversary of Uther taking the throne of Camelot that the king is thrown from his horse during an otherwise uneventful inspection of nearby farms and in that instant the world is changed. When the captain of the guards comes to tell him of the accident Merlin is in the library, curled up in the window alcove closest to the fire with a book resting on his knees. The man stammers and blushes - they never know quite how to address him - and won't get to the point but eventually Merlin gets the message and when he does the window shatters into shimmering shards around him.

Foolishness, Gaius says later, as he carefully extracts a fragment of glass from Merlin's cheek. It is not much of a rebuke but then Gaius is old and tired and he does not meet Merlin's eyes and his trembling hands very deliberately avoid touching the narrow collar around Merlin's neck. Merlin stares straight ahead and says as little as he can get away with and neither of them mention the word magic.

By the time Gaius has finished Uther has been brought back to Camelot: he is taken at once to his chambers so that the court physicians can attend him. Merlin goes to sit in the kitchen garden for a while. He watches the sun set over the distant hills and tries to remember when he last saw the midday sun.

A serving girl comes to fetch him, long after night has fallen. She is pale and slender and her hair is dark and for a moment the years fall away and a name is on Merlin's lips, a name he has not said in years, but as she comes closer the illusion falls away and he draws in on himself instead, turning his face away from her.

"The king has asked for you," she says, her voice faltering.

Which means, Merlin supposes, that Uther is awake. A good sign.

He obeys the summons, of course, but he takes his time about it, taking a circuitous route that was once so familiar and now is not, and somehow comes to lay his hand, just for a moment, against a door that has remained locked longer than Merlin cares to think about.

When he holds his hand there, palm flat against the wood, Merlin imagines he can feel the warmth of the sun on his face.

The guard outside Uther's chambers looks tense and wary but he nods his head to Merlin and Merlin knows even before the door opens that the room is full of people. Sure enough, when he enters the room he can hardly see the bed for the courtiers clustered around it.

"Leave," he says softly, and they do.

Uther lies propped up by pillows, pale and wan. Shirtless, his chest is wound with bandages and every breath is shallow and pained. Dried blood is crusted in his hair from a cut on his forehead. Merlin locks the door behind him, shutting out the world, and advances towards the bed.

Uther opens his eyes as Merlin sheds his robe and lets it fall to the floor. "Where have you been?" he asks, voice thick with pain and exhaustion.

"In the library." Uther's hand reaches for him and Merlin lets himself be drawn forward onto the bed. "I was reading."

"Fetch me water," Uther says, and his eyes fall shut again.

Merlin stays where he is for a while, until it becomes clear that Uther is asleep, and then he gently disengages himself, wraps a blanket around his shoulders and goes to sit by the fire.


He hears the first whispers that night. Nothing is said openly, of course; no one would dare to speak up yet. No one dares to even whisper it if they know Merlin is near but it is said, all the same. Spoken in the dark corners and silent passageways of Camelot until it becomes a roar in Merlin's head.

Uther sleeps all the next day, and the day after that. Dressed in the finest robes he can find, Merlin sits curled up at the end of the bed all the while, silently watching the physicians tend their king. His presence makes them uneasy but none of them dare ask him to leave.

On the morning of the third day Uther wakes. "Arthur," he says hoarsely, hand reaching blindly like a drowning man grasping for aid.

Merlin stays where he is, still and silent, until Uther falls asleep again.


Merlin sleeps at the end of the bed every night for the next week while Uther's injuries heal. By day Merlin sits by the fire. He can sit motionless for hours, watching the flickering flames, as good as invisible while the life of the court goes on around him. Uther sits propped up in bed, advisers sat round him on hastily brought in chairs, a veritable army of scribes hurrying to and fro bearing armfuls of papers.

Uther detests weakness. It will take time to heal, the physicians tell him again and again. He is not as young as he was. Merlin turns his head away so that they will not see his expression; if Uther was healthy and whole they would never dare speak to their king so.

Uther rises from his sickbed on the first day of the second week, pale and trembling and leaning heavily on Merlin. Merlin dresses him in his finest clothes and then he admits the courtiers who have been waiting outside and, one by one, they enter to pay homage to their king. Uther stands stiff-backed by the fire, his face inscrutable. Merlin wonders if he is the only one who can see the pain etched deep into the lines of Uther's face.

"Do you think me a fool?" Uther asks him later when they have all gone and Merlin is divesting him of his fine clothes once more.

Merlin says nothing. The bruises on Uther's chest are beginning to fade but he is still careful as he tugs Uther's shirt over his head.

"I am tired of them looking at me like that," Uther says as Merlin fetches a clean nightshirt. His voice is quiet, reflective. "They no longer trust me. They see weakness in their king, and a king cannot be weak."

"They see what you allow them to see," Merlin says mildly.

Uther's eyes flash with irritation and Merlin is unsurprised to find himself pushed back against the bed. The robe is roughly stripped from his body and thrown to the floor.

"And what do you see?" Uther hisses. His fingers dig into Merlin's hips, hard enough that Merlin knows there will be bruises tomorrow.

Merlin meets Uther's glare with unflinching resolve. "Perhaps more than you would wish me to."

Uther's mouth twists; his hands relinquish their grip on Merlin's hips. Merlin finds himself turned round, pushed down over the bed. His knee catches on the bed frame but Uther's hand is on the back of his neck, forcing his face down, and his pained cry is muffled in the blankets.

"I am your king," Uther hisses in his ear.

Merlin manages to twist out of his grip. "No," he gasps in the brief moment of freedom he is allowed before Uther's hand clamps down over his mouth and nose.

"I am your king," Uther says again, and this time Merlin has no breath to reply.


Uther has his manservant bring water for them, afterwards. The man - not much more than a boy - cannot bring himself to look at Merlin without blushing furiously and nearly falls over his own feet in his haste to get out of the room when he is done. Uther scowls and mutters something about useless servants but he is gentle when he raises Merlin's head with one hand and holds the cup to his swollen lips with the other.

"Drink," Uther says softly.

Knowing that Uther will not relent until he capitulates, Merlin sips at the water. When Uther is satisfied that Merlin has drunk enough he sets the cup down and gently lowers Merlin's head back to the pillow.

"You look pale. Perhaps I should get you something for the pain."

"It doesn't hurt," Merlin mumbles.

If Uther sees through the lie - and Merlin knows he does - he seems disinclined to argue about it. "The physicians will no doubt be furious at me for exerting myself," he says instead as his fingers trace the marks left on Merlin's face.

"You don't have to tell them." Merlin is too exhausted to keep his eyes open; he is aware of Uther's laboured breathing and Uther's hands on his over-sensitised skin but he is detached from it all, his mind drifting.

Uther chuckles softly. "I don't think there can be much doubt over that when they see you."

"Keep me hidden here then."

Merlin speaks without thinking; Uther stills and some part of Merlin's mind that is still functioning tells him he should open his eyes but he cannot bring himself to do so.

"If I did that once I would never set you free."

Merlin says nothing and, after a moment, Uther pulls away; Merlin makes a noise of protest but just as quickly Uther is back and Merlin feels the reassuring click of the leash being fastened to his collar once again.

"Will this do, for now?"

"For now," Merlin whispers.


Merlin knows exactly where he will find Gaius; even though the old man is no longer court physician there is no question of depriving him of the dignity of his position at court. Today, however, he cannot help wishing that Gaius had chosen a retreat on a lower floor, since it hurts to even walk and climbing stairs is a torture. Merlin is panting for breath by the time he gets to the top of the stairs, half-wishing he had never set out on this quest in the first place.

Gaius is sitting by the window. He does not look round when the door opens.

"I brought you some food," Merlin offers.

The room is cold and somehow seems darker than Merlin remembers. Rain hammers against the windows and Merlin shivers. He wants to sneeze too; servants never come up to this room and every surface save for the single chair reserved for Gaius is thick with dust .

"Don't bring food to me," Gaius says eventually, still staring out at the rain. "Take it to Igraine. She needs to eat, for the sake of the child."

"Igraine is dead, Gaius," Merlin says patiently even as his heart aches with sorrow. "Years ago." He advances into the room and sets the plate he is carrying down at Gaius's side. "I'm Merlin, remember?"

Gaius looks at him then with eyes faded by something more terrible than any sorcerer's curse. "I've never seen you before in my life. What are you doing in Morgana's room?"

"Nothing." Merlin says with deliberate calmness. "I just brought you some food."

Gaius frowns, and Merlin imagines for a moment that he sees a flash of recognition in Gaius's eyes. "You look familiar to me..."

"I'm Merlin." He drops to one knee, gazing up at Gaius as if he can somehow restore the old man's faculties through will alone. "Hunith's son. You remember me."

A hand brushes his cheek. "You..."

"Yes. I'm Merlin. Don't you remember me?" Merlin asks desperately.

The hand moves lower, brushing against his collar. Gaius closes his eyes. "He doesn't say it until it's too late to say," he murmurs. "Don't you see?"

"No." Merlin sighs in frustration and gets to his feet. However much he wants to it is becoming increasingly hard to deceive himself. "I don't see."

Gaius opens his eyes again and whatever recognition there was is gone. Merlin leaves before that indifferent gaze is turned back to the rain.


"How is he?" Uther asks, halfway through dinner.

Merlin scowls at the untouched food on his plate. "It's a bad day."

There is no need for him to say any more. They both know the bad days are becoming more and more frequent.

"Did he recognise you?"

"I thought for a moment he did."

Uther toys with his knife. "Perhaps one of the physicians could give him something..."

"Drug him to sleep?" The idea revolts Merlin but when he weighs it against his fear of Gaius tumbling down the turret steps it is cast in a different light.

Uther clears his throat. "Not that extreme. Something to prevent him ... wandering. It would be for the best. You know it will only get worse."

Merlin stares at the tabletop and thinks about sleeping draughts and unlit passageways and the accidents that might befall a frail, confused old man prone to wandering the halls of Camelot by night. "It's not that bad," he lies. "Not yet."


Morning sees Uther in a more cheerful mood, inclined to fond gestures and kinder words and even providing Merlin with a cushion when he pushes him to his knees after breakfast. Unfortunately in his haste to comply with Uther's wishes Merlin forgets to bar the door and when Uther's manservant walks in the boy is so startled by what he sees he seems to entirely forget the message he has been sent to give.

"I hope you have an excellent reason for disturbing me," Uther tells his manservant coldly, while his hand fists in Merlin's hair to hold him still. Every inch the king, unconcerned by what lesser mortals might think of him using his - whatever they describe Merlin as - in this way.

"My lord, I..." the boy stammers.

"Get to the point," Uther snaps. "This had better be a matter of supreme importance."

He will regret those words, Merlin thinks later, as they look down upon Gaius's body, lying crumpled at the foot of the turret steps. His eyes are still open and Merlin cannot bear it, but Uther is the one who kneels at the old physician's side and gently closes them for the final time.

"The man he was died a long time ago," Uther says heavily as he gets to his feet again. His hand rests on Merlin's shoulder for a fleeting moment. "It is for the best."

"I know," Merlin lies.


Merlin does not weep when he helps to lay out Gaius's withered, broken body.

He does not weep during Gaius's funeral, nor at the funeral pyre.

The emotion that rages within him finds no means of expression, although others avert their eyes when they see him, perhaps sensing his rage or seeing some hint of it in his face however carefully he thinks to mask it. Merlin walks among them like a living ghost, face set and body held stiffly, doing all that is required of him and nothing more.

"You cannot go on like this," Uther tells him at the end of the first week. He too is pale and drawn, the ravages of grief all too evident in his face. For all that Uther has seen men die before, Merlin knows that Gaius was the last link to something Uther held dear and now that he is gone Uther too is cast adrift.

"Why must I not?" Merlin says dully.

"Because I will not allow it," Uther replies simply, in that tone of voice that denies all argument.

Merlin fights him that night nonetheless, twisting and struggling against the hands that hold him down until Uther forces him into submission and takes what is rightfully his and only then does Merlin weep, a flood tide of grief and rage that submerges him entirely and leaves him empty and drowning and choking for breath.

"He was like a father to me," he whispers against Uther's shoulder, later, when the flood has ebbed and there is nothing inside him but a hollow, aching emptiness.

"You were a son to him. The son he never had. " Uther's hand settles on Merlin's hip, holding him close. "Remember all that he gave you and remember him as he was."

Merlin sighs and rests his bound hands against Uther's chest and closes his eyes against the dark.


It has been years since the Yule feast was one of celebration but this year's is more dismal than ever before, marred as it is by rumours of unrest in the north. Uther sits at the head of the table, Merlin at his side, scowling at the ranks of nobles who studiously do not meet his eyes. Conversation is muted; the air itself is heavy and oppressive. Servants flit from one pool of candlelight to another, every move and every gesture betraying their unease. The food is rich and over-spiced and Merlin cannot bring himself to eat more than a mouthful of each dish.

"Eat," Uther tells him sternly after the third course is taken away. Under cover of the table top, he pinches Merlin's thigh, hard enough to make Merlin wince.

"I'm not hungry." The fourth course is laid in front of him; as Merlin looks down at his plate he catches the flickering shadows at the very edges of his vision.

There are too many ghosts in this hall; too many reminders of the past. If Merlin closes his eyes he can imagine for a moment that he has stepped back in time and that when he opens his eyes again all will be as it once was.

The reality is not so simple.

There is entertainment after the meal; a band of travelling musicians arrived at Camelot the previous day and Uther seems pleased by the diversion, although to Merlin's ears the music is harsh and discordant. The boy singing is pretty though; Merlin flushes when he realises that Uther is watching him more closely than he usually might.

"You won't have him executed, will you?" Merlin says later when they are alone together again.

"I found the music pleasant enough," Uther's voice is calmly amused but the vicious thrust of his fingers gives the lie to his relaxed tone. "And the boy had his charms. He certainly found you interesting. Perhaps you would leave with him, if I gave you the choice."

Merlin fists his hands into the sheets as pain blossoms deep inside his body, determined not to make a sound.

"Should I give you the choice, Merlin?"

Merlin closes his eyes when Uther fastens his leash. One day, he thinks. One day they might forego the illusion that without it he would be able to leave.


The old man's winter friend, Merlin heard Gaius call it once, and it seems all the more cruelly ironic that it should afflict Uther as winter at last turns to spring. There is no warning of it, no time for preparation; Merlin is awakened abruptly one morning by Uther coughing fitfully and as he sits up he can already feel the heat of the fever radiating from Uther's skin. He is still leashed to the bed. Merlin tugs at the chain but there is no moving it. Merlin calls out, panic in his voice, and the guard outside comes running.

After that everything goes quickly. Physicians are summoned, and they frown as they listen to Uther's harsh, shallow breathing and shake their heads when they test the heat of his skin for themselves. Uther would reprimand them for their insolence if he were aware of it but he lies insensible and unaware of the indignities being inflicted on his body.

"Congestion of the lungs," one of the physicians says sharply when a courtier dares to ask what ails the king. The man blanches.


"Undoubtedly." The physician, a tall dour man Merlin has never bothered to remember the name of, takes pains not to look at Merlin as he continues. "The bedsheets must be changed, these must be burned. This room must be aired and scrubbed."

"Should we move him to other rooms?"

Merlin can see the man's mind working and he cannot hide his own wry smile. The only other rooms fit for a king have lain empty for years.

"No. Just make sure that these chambers are scrubbed thoroughly."

It is the guard who unfastens Merlin's leash, eventually, when it seems that the servants will make the bed around him. Merlin goes to the side room to wash; as he carefully shaves himself he can hear the maids whispering to each other as they scrub every inch of the floor.

By the time he goes to the kitchens to find himself some breakfast those whispers are all over Camelot.


Uther's condition worsens as the days pass. That once-proud body is shrunken and straining, racked with violent coughing and burning with fever. When Uther opens his eyes - an increasingly rare event as time goes on - he does not seem to recognise those around him, not even Merlin. The physicians are afraid and no longer ashamed to show their fear; they wind cloths around their faces and carry posies on cords around their necks to ward off miasmatic air.

Herbs and potions have not worked. Bleeding has not worked. Uther is drowning and there is nothing Merlin can do but watch.


Merlin is almost asleep when Uther's hand closes over his. He jerks back to wakefulness, startled by the unexpected lucidity in Uther's eyes.

"It is cold in here," he rasps.

"The window is open." Merlin rubs sleep from his eyes. "I'll close it."

"Leave it," Uther says softly. "You can close it later. There will be all the time in the world then."

The physicians have left for the night, the castle is still and quiet. The candlelight softens Uther's features, eases away the passage of years, gives colour to waxy skin. Merlin leans forward and presses his lips against the scar on Uther's forehead and Uther's hand tightens its grip.

"Have they summoned Arthur yet?" Uther asks when Merlin pulls away.

The use of the name is shocking; so much so that Merlin flinches. It has been years since Arthur's name was spoken so openly in Camelot. "I don't know," he lies.

Uther's mouth twists into a smile. "Of course you don't." A bout of violent coughing interrupts whatever he might have said next.

"I can fetch a physician," Merlin offers. He starts to move but Uther's grip is unrelenting.

"There is nothing they can do for me now." Uther has to force out every word but he is still smiling. "Strange; I thought to die in battle, not in my own bed."

There are almost certainly platitudes to be properly used at a time like this but Merlin cannot bring himself to speak them; he has lied to Uther enough over the years to wish to lie to him now. He crawls closer to Uther instead and curls up at his side, winding his limbs around Uther's body as if by doing so he can somehow impart his own life-force to the dying king.

After a moment's hesitation Uther's hand slides over his hip, reaching round to lay his hand against the faded brand on Merlin's back.

"Would you go, if I ordered you to do so?"

The answer is as warm and familiar as the hand pressed against his skin. "No."

Uther's breathing hitches. "When I am gone..." Another bout of coughing prevents him from finishing that line of thought but Merlin understands all too well what he means. Without Uther's patronage he has no status at Camelot, and if the courtiers pity him for Uther's use of him that pity is matched equally by their resentment at his place at Uther's side.

"My place is here," Merlin tells him and that is the end of it.

Time passes; how much Merlin has no means of knowing. Uther's hand on his back is a steady, reassuring pressure even as Uther's body falters. Two of the candles burn down, leaving the room lit only by a single guttering candle, but Merlin is reluctant to leave the bed to light another and, even now, he cannot bring himself to use magic in Uther's presence.

"You are not afraid of contagion," Uther remarks some time later, his voice little more than a whisper.

Merlin thinks about that before he replies. "It never occurred to me to be afraid."

Uther chuckles softly "You are a strange creature, Merlin," he says.

"So I've been told," Merlin mumbles.

The guard changes at midnight. Merlin listens to the murmured conversation outside the door and his heart clenches at the mention of Arthur's name. He had thought Uther safely asleep but when he turns his head Uther's eyes are open and fixed upon him.

"They speak of Arthur," he says and there is no pretending he has not heard.


Uther closes his eyes and sighs. "You will serve my son as you have served me," he says softly. "Look after him. He will need you."

The last candle finally burns out and the room is plunged into darkness.


Uther's manservant arrives shortly after dawn to find Merlin still wrapped around the body of his king.

Merlin hears the clatter of the water pail as the boy drops it to the floor, hears him run from the room shouting for the physicians.

Merlin could have told him it is too late; Uther is gone and Arthur's reign has begun.


They do not speak to him, even now. Merlin sits by the fire, dry-eyed and silent, and watches the servants preparing Uther's body for burial. No pyre for a king who condemned so many others to the flames; Uther's body will lie in the crypt below the castle, entombed in marble until the end of time.

Uther was respected, feared but not loved. Already his people talk of Arthur's coronation. Ordinarily there might be dispute - crowns do not pass easily from father to son and an absent son might lose all claim on the throne - but in Camelot only one name is spoken and no other dares challenge for it.
Merlin remains by the fire even when Uther's body is taken away and he is left alone.


There is still a guard outside the door. Merlin hears the change of guard, every six hours, and it is only that and the meals brought to him twice a day by Uther's manservant - more out of habit than anything else, he suspects - that give him any structure to the passing days. He suspects too that he is a prisoner but he does not care to put it to the test.

He listens though; to the murmurs of the guards when they hand over their watch, to the chatter of the servants as they go about their business. He listens and he waits until the day when Camelot stirs with excitement and when it does Merlin knows that Arthur has returned.


It is Gwen who comes to see him first, except she is no longer the serving girl he knew but Guinevere, Arthur's queen.

"Hello, Merlin," she says softly but it is so long since Merlin spoke to another human being that he cannot find the words to respond.

She advances into the room anyway, her eyes taking in every aspect of Merlin's cloistered life in the space of a heartbeat.

"It's been a long time," she says, and there's a hint of the Gwen he knows there, underneath the fine clothes and jewellery.

"Yes," he croaks. And, because he can't not say it, he adds: "You married Arthur."

Her face softens. "Yes," she says. "I did."

"Is he still an insufferable prat?"

She smiles but the smile is tinged with sadness. "Not as much as he was. Not as much as he was with you." She takes a step closer and Merlin has to force himself not to take a step back. "I'm sure he'd like to see you."

Merlin looks at her incredulously. "I'm sure he'd like to throw me in the dungeons, now he's king. Have you forgotten what he said, right before he stormed out of Camelot?"

"Oh, Merlin..." She breaks off, looks around at the uneaten food on the table, the unmade bed. He wonders if she will go on but it seems even her courage is not great enough for that. "Lancelot is here," she says brightly, and something about the way she says it makes Merlin look at her more closely. "I'm sure he'd like to see you too."

Merlin almost - almost - tells her they can come to see him if they wish but he knows without needing to ask that neither of them will want to set foot in Uther's chambers.


Lancelot comes to see him the next day. Merlin is so startled by the sudden appearance at the door of a knight in armour that he drops the goblet he is holding and water spills over the floor.

"I didn't realise I was so frightening to you," Lancelot says gravely, and then his stern expression dissolves into the most genuine smile Merlin has seen in weeks. "It's good to see you again, Merlin."

"You too." Merlin mops ineffectually at the spillage before giving up the pretence. Lancelot raises an amused eyebrow as the water pours itself neatly back into the goblet.

"Fortunate for you that magic is no longer outlawed in Camelot."

"I would have thought Arthur had just as little love for magic as his father." Merlin takes a seat opposite Lancelot. The years have been kind to him, he thinks. A few lines in his face, some added muscle, but still recognisably the Lancelot of old. He is truly a knight now. Arthur's knight.

Lancelot gives him a strange look. "You'd be surprised." He settles back, eyes raking over Merlin in a way that makes Merlin feel uncomfortably exposed.

One mention of Uther, he thinks, and it will be unbearable.

"You should go to him," Lancelot says instead.

"Arthur? He wouldn't want to see me." Merlin remembers that last confrontation, the bitter words Arthur had thrown at him. "There is no reason for me to go to him, and so I will not."


He has never knocked at Arthur's door before but too much time has passed for Merlin to simply walk in as he had done when he was Arthur's manservant. He waits until he hears Arthur's response before he pushes open the door.

Arthur is stood by the window, and the sight of him takes Merlin's breath away. Uther might have issued a decree banning all mention of his son while he was alive but Merlin heard talk of his exploits when the servants thought themselves unheard, the stories told and retold until truth became myth and myth became legend. There is no doubt now about what Arthur has become. The Arthur he knew was a boy prince, loved by his people for what he might become; this Arthur is truly the king of Camelot and however familiar his pose might be, however familiar the surroundings might be, there can be no going back to what was.

Once upon a time Merlin thought destiny was a simple matter; he had only to make Arthur king, and in doing so he would fulfil his own great destiny. But the Arthur who stands before him is already a legend, and Merlin does not know what he is.

"Where have you been?" Arthur says, without looking round. As if the years that have passed mean nothing, and Merlin is a servant who is merely late with his master's breakfast.

"I am not yours to command," Merlin points out.

Arthur's body stiffens. "I am your king," he says coldly, and Merlin's heart clenches.

Instead of replying he moves to stand by the window. In the courtyard below Guinevere is supervising the unloading of a baggage train. Effortlessly in command, she is every inch Camelot's queen. Lancelot is with her, Merlin notes, ever attentive at her side.

"I don't think it was supposed to be like this," Arthur says softly.

The sun is breaking through the clouds, the first sun Merlin has seen in weeks. The window is filthy, caked with grime; Merlin wonders how long it took the servants to make Arthur's old chambers habitable again.

"You will find yourself some more appropriate clothes," Arthur tells him abruptly, and Merlin flushes and looks down at his robe.

"What's wrong with this?"

"Everything," Arthur says grimly. "If you are going to remain here at my court you should be dressed appropriately."

"Appropriate for what?"

Arthur scowls. "I could order you to wear whatever I want you to wear."

"Yes, but that doesn't mean I will."

"I see time hasn't improved your grasp of doing what you're told," Arthur says darkly. "Do you think you could manage to obey me in this, at least?"

In the courtyard below Lancelot takes Guinevere's hand in his own and raises it to his lips. "Probably,” Merlin says.

"Liar. Find something, or I'll make you wear that hat again. With extra feathers."

He is smiling, and Arthur is too, and for the first time since Uther died Merlin can see a pattern emerging. Destiny, he thinks, is more complicated than he ever thought possible. Every choice made leads to a different path, every stone cast only adds to the pattern, and once it is made it cannot be remade. Yet for all that, despite all that has happened, he is still Merlin and Arthur is still, well, Arthur.

Arthur's destiny - Camelot's destiny - has already been set on its course but it will be Merlin who crafts it from his place at Arthur's side.

"I know you're a sorcerer," Arthur says casually, almost as an afterthought. The king turns, and his fingers tap meaningfully against Merlin's collar. "You don't need to wear this. It comes off."

"No," Merlin says, and in his head the dragon roars once again.

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heofona gehlidu

April 2011

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