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Merlin Fic: Winning Isn't Everything 1/1

September 29th, 2011 (07:02 am)
Tags: ,

Title: Winning Isn’t Everything

Disclaimer: Not mine.

A/N: I wrote this a long time ago. Obviously :) Beta’ed by sendintheklowns. Remaining mistakes are my own.

Warnings: Spoilers for 2.01

Summary: Saving Camelot was something indeed--overcoming Sigan was a mighty blow--but if he still failed to save Arthur’s life, then Merlin was not sure what it was for.



-o-

Winning felt good.

In the many struggles of his young life, he took the payoffs where they came, especially since they could be rather few and far between. Back home with his mother, such victories had been sparse and trying. After all, what use did a small village have with a strange boy whose only gift was unspeakable? Many turned a blind eye, and that was the most Merlin could hope for in his years there.

In some ways, coming to Camelot had been better. Gaius offered sound tutelage and though his room was small and cold, it was still his for all that was worth. His magic was still a secret, but it had a use now. A purpose. A grand and noble destiny. To protect and serve the future king.

He hadn’t realized when he embraced that destiny what a trial it would be. As if it weren’t enough that Arthur was the head of the army and was assigned sundry dangerous duties, the idiot had more honor than he did brains and sent himself headlong into danger just because he deemed it to be the right thing to do.

The right thing to do was to survive to fulfill his destiny, and Merlin often found himself stumbling head over heels to keep up with the royal moron.

So winning really did feel good. Vanquishing evil. Disseminating threats. Overcoming insurmountable odds. That was the kind of thrill he had never gotten back home, the kind of thing that made him feel alive and one with this so-called destiny the dragon went on and on about.

It made him someone. It made him more than he was.

Because there he was. The prince’s manservant. And he had done what a legion of knights had been unable to do. What Arthur himself, with all his training and bravado and honor and duty, had failed to accomplish.

Merlin had saved Camelot. Fought Cornelius Sigan from the inside out, let him inside only to crush him there. It hadn’t just been a spell, and true, Merlin had had some extraordinary help, but it had still been a battle of wills and Merlin--peasant and servant that he was--had come out on top.

Which was why it was so easy to meet Gaius’ concerned gaze and smile. Like a little boy coming in first at a contest. A child who won his father’s favor. Victory was a sweet, sweet thing, and given how difficult the last few days had been, he was willing to soak it up while he could.

Gaius’ old face hesitated for a moment, before breaking into a grin. The hug that followed was a beautiful release, a celebration shared between mentor and apprentice, father and son. The “Well done, my boy,” was warm and welcomed praise.

Given the last few days, Merlin felt he was probably overdue for something like that. Being tricked and scorned and locked up was trying even for his best spirits, and Gaius’ doting was a balm to his tired soul.

When Gaius pulled away, the old physician was still smiling, and Merlin felt his pride swell. In a position such as his own, glory was a rare and beautiful thing which he often dared not covet. “I did have a little help from the dragon,” he admitted with only a hint of sheepishness. “But we’re lucky it worked.”

Gaius scoffed. “With you, I highly doubt anything is luck. But still, you are the most confounded boy I have ever met,” he said with genuine surprise. “I thought Arthur had locked you in the cells.”

“He did,” Merlin responded, a bit smugly. “But the guards were rather distracted. I figured they might be able to use an extra hand.”

Gaius snorted a bit. “Normally I would not encourage such flagrant displays of your power, but I must say, I am glad you took the risk this time.”

And how could he not be. Camelot had been saved from certain destruction. This wasn’t just Merlin’s victory; it belonged to all of them. “Well, I appreciate that,” Merlin said jauntily. “It would be something of a disappointment to go through everything I’ve just been through and get a lecture for my troubles.”

Gaius inclined an eyebrow. “This time, I will spare you,” he said in assurance. “However, you may still need to make amends with Arthur before you can commence life as before.”

Just like that, Merlin’s exuberance was stifled. After all, it was difficult to celebrate a victory when he could not be certain it was not yet a loss. Saving Camelot was something indeed--overcoming Sigan was a mighty blow--but if he still failed to save Arthur’s life, then Merlin was not sure what it was for.

Glancing over his shoulder, Merlin could still see the lax form of the prince. Limp on the pavement, Arthur had not moved from where he was sprawled. He’d gone down with his sword in his hand, true to idiot form. It was more proof to Merlin that he had no inclinations of the knighthood, even if he had been of noble birth. He believed in doing what he needed to do, but facing certain death with nothing but a piece of metal was simply not in his character.

It was so stupid. Noble, royal, and utterly nonsensical. That Arthur would so gladly throw his life away on fool’s errands, that he somehow believed that risking his life was worth it when most of the battles were nothing but vain displays of grandeur.

If only Arthur knew, if only he understood. That he was fighting forces of magic with pitiful blades, swinging wildly like a child against the wind.

This was why Arthur needed him, and yet there he was. Unmoving on the cold ground, as lifeless as the other victims of Cornelius’ wrath.

Gaius followed his line of sight and pursed his lips. “Is he...?”

Merlin shook his head, starting over toward him. “He’s alive,” he said, begging that it was still so.

As he went to his knees, Merlin was hit with doubt. The prince looked worse than before, his complexion ashen in the moonlight, the garish smear of blood trailing all the way into his hair. There was fresh blood on his torn chain mail, the jagged rip looking bigger than Merlin remembered.

Shaking, he put a hand to Arthur’s face, trying to distinguish any kind of life there.

Gaius’ footfalls sounded on the cobblestone behind him. “How bad is it?” he asked.

Merlin pulled his hand away, looking up into his mentor’s face. “Bad,” he said.

With effort, Gaius went to his knees, hands ghosting over Arthur’s still frame. He lingered on the tear in the armor, lifting the layers to try to get a better look. With a frown, the physician moved his hands to the prince’s face, turning Arthur’s head toward him. “We need to get him back to the Citadel,” Gaius said roughly.

“Will he be all right?” Merlin asked, realizing for the first time that the answer might actually be no.

Gaius met his eyes grimly. “Go quickly,” he said.

“Gaius,” Merlin said again, desperate for an answer he could cling to. The feeling of victory was fleeting, and in its place was a growing terror. Losing Arthur would be no victory at all. Rather, it would be the crushing defeat, one that he was not sure he would ever recover from.

“Now, Merlin,” Gaius ordered this time, the sharpness in his voice sending a shiver down Merlin’s spine.

Merlin looked at Arthur again, looked at the blank face, the blood staining his skin, and felt his heart skip a beat.

“Merlin!” Gaius said, louder this time, his brevity saying all that his words could not.

Winning felt good; losing was not an option. So Merlin got to his feet and ran as fast he could to the Citadel to fetch help.

-o-

It all happened very quickly.

The king had been swift in his deployment of men to fetch Arthur back to his chambers, and Morgana and Gwen had put it upon themselves to transfer a smattering of supplies they thought Gaius might need. The king had went forth to prepare, and left Merlin with terse instructions to lead the knights to the prince.

This, Merlin did with his usual lack of grace, but it got the job done. They ran past other bodies--mostly corpses, Merlin could only assume and did not have time to otherwise consider--boots pounding on the cobblestones. The night was eerily silent still; Cornelius Sigan and his curse were gone, but the aftermath was no less terrifying than the assault. The loss of life alone would be devastating to so many and Merlin was struck again by how hollow his victory suddenly seemed.

It was not hard to find Arthur. Though the prince had not moved since Merlin had fled, Gaius seemed to be the only living soul in the entire quarter. On his knees, he waved to the knights readily, who were quick to comply.

There was little to do about what happened next. Gaius got to his feet, the knights going down to lift Arthur.

The prince still showed no sign of movement, his head falling back limply as he was elevated off the ground. His body sagged as the knights positioned him between them, working to get a steady grip for the trip back.

“Careful, careful,” Gaius had coached, but he did not tell them to slow down.

Merlin could do nothing but watch, could not help support Arthur as he was carried from the streets, leaving nothing but blood on the cobblestone and his hard fought courage on the battlefield.

Merlin made himself useful by opening the doors as they went, clearing the way as best he could as the knights’ carried their precious cargo to the castle. It was still a slow and tedious work, one which Gaius oversaw with a tense mask of uncertainty.

As for Merlin, it was all he could do to keep from tripping over his own feet in the fear of it all. After a year in Arthur’s service, he was so conditioned to protect the prince, that the thought of failure was horrifying.

Arthur’s chambers were already open, and the bed was stripped down, a bowl of water and some bandages by the bedside. Gwen was still lighting the candles as Morgana was fetching another pitcher. The king was waiting expectantly at the bedside, his eyes passing over Merlin and landing on his son.

The look of horror was instantaneous, and Merlin was struck by how human it was. With the crown, Uther was often a difficult and cold ruler, a demeanor often carried out in his interactions with his only son. But there were moments--few though they were--where Merlin saw the king not just as a leader, but a father.

And in those moments, Merlin realized he was not the only one pinning his hopes on Arthur’s survival.

The knights laid Arthur out on the bed, positioning his arms and legs in some approximation of repose. They did not need a word to be dismissed, and the clanking of their chain mail was a distant sound as Gaius moved to Arthur’s side.

“We must remove the armor,” the physician said brusquely, even as his fingers peeled open Arthur’s eyelids. He looked up, meeting Merlin’s gaze. “Quickly.”

Merlin fumbled to action, getting to Arthur’s bedside just as Guinevere did. Together, they pulled Arthur to a sitting position, the prince’s head leaning limp against Merlin’s shoulder as they tried to maneuver the awkward layer of armor off his torso. Merlin had to hold his breath to keep his emotions in check, and the heat on Arthur’s head did not help allay his fears any.

It was an effort, and even the king had to lend a hand to successfully remove the outer layer, but the ripped shirt underneath was much easier to remove. When it was done, they lowered Arthur to the bed, settling back against the sheets and pillows gently.

Gaius moved with a speed that belied his years, working quickly and efficiently to first clean out the wound on his side. Despite Gaius’ ministrations, the wound was garish in the candlelight, the starkness of the blood clear in the dimness.

Merlin did not recognize the poultice Gaius administered, but he helped the physician pack it tightly, maneuvering Arthur’s heavy form off the bed to allow for the bandage to be properly secured.

When that tedious task was done, Gaius moved wordlessly to Arthur’s head, turning the prince’s face toward him once again. This time, he fingered the bloody mess on the side of his head, taking a new cloth to start to wipe it clean. Without being told, Gwen stifled a gasp and went to fetch a new bowl.

The blood came off easily enough, and the wound looked somewhat unimpressive, but Merlin knew it was not as trivial as it may have appeared. Not if Gaius’ disposition was anything to consider. The silent, terse treatment said more than any diagnosis could.

Still, Merlin did not dare ask. None of them did. Even Uther himself stood stony and silent as he watched.

When Gaius finally pulled away, rinsing his hands in the latest bowl Gwen had brought forth, it was Uther who broke the silence. “How is he?”

Gaius contained his sigh well. “We will have to work to ward of infection,” he replied. “Lots of rest and fluids.”

“And the head wound?” Uther prompted, giving voice to the concerns they all shared. Because they all knew Arthur. They knew he did not sit still, he did not lie prostrate. At least not by choice. The fact that none of them had seen him open his eyes since before he left for one last mission to save the people was a hard fact to swallow, for king and servant alike.

“You must understand, sire, that head wounds are very unpredictable in nature,” Gaius explained. “It does not appear to need any special treatment, but I cannot say how long it will be until he awakens.”

“But he will awaken?” Uther asked, voice taut and grating.

Gaius pressed his lips together, just for a moment. “Only time can tell, my lord.”

Uther took the news as well as could be expected, bracing against it like a physical blow. But he held his head high, squaring his shoulders. His jaw worked, and he nodded. “I require one servant on duty all night, to stay with us as we need assistance. I want the candles to remain lit, and I hope you plan on staying, Physician. We will wait out my son’s recovery together.”

Gaius inclined his head. “I would think of being no other place.”

“Uther--” Morgana started.

Uther shook his head. “It has been a long day, Morgana,” he said, and he looked at her. “Take your servant and retire to your chambers. I will send word when Arthur is awake.”

Morgana looked as if she wanted to protest, her eyes darting from Uther’s stoic face and Arthur’s still body. But her protests failed her and she nodded her head. “Come, Gwen,” she said softly, heading to the door swiftly.

Behind her, Guinevere hesitated, her eyes settling on Arthur just for a moment before she, too, followed suit.

Uther was pulling up a chair, taking a station by the bed. Gaius organized his supplies and Merlin nearly startled when Uther’s hard voice broke the silence once again. “The candles, boy,” he said. “Bring them closer.”

Merlin fumbled to comply, almost forgetting his role as a servant entirely. It was by sheer luck alone that he did not set the chamber on fire, and he brought two of the candles to the table by the bed, placing them as prominently as he could.

In the chair, Uther’s face was bathed with the dancing flame. His face was drawn and pensive. He swallowed hard, his eyes not leaving Arthur. “I suggest we all get comfortable,” he said. “Because this may be a long night.”

Uther didn’t need to tell him that; Merlin already knew it to be fact. From Arthur’s injury to Sigan’s attack to the words of doubt that Merlin could not erase from his brain, it would be a long night, indeed.

-o-

Winning. It was a distant joy now.

Long hours had passed, and the night had waned to morning. The king had retired to his chambers in the early dawn, but Gaius had not left Arthur’s side.

For his part, Merlin was not sure if he should stay or go. The king did not seem aware that Merlin was supposed to be cooling off in the cells, and in the chaos, the guards did not seem keen on recouping their prisoner. Yet with his freedom, Merlin was not entirely sure he still technically had a post, but he was loathe to abandon it nonetheless.

They all had bigger things on their minds. Like cleaning up Camelot, taking care of the wounded. Rebuilding the damaged city and restoring order to the streets.

Ensuring that the prince made a full recovery.

Merlin knew that Gaius would do everything he could, though sometimes he wondered how much that entailed. In the hours they had sat in Arthur’s chamber, Gaius had done little. He had changed the bandage on his side a few times and seemed to check his fever frequently, but beyond that, the physician mostly sat.

Waiting.

For Arthur to wake up, Merlin could only assume.

But when--Merlin did not dare ask.

Instead, he waited in silence, fetching water when Gaius requested it and keeping the candles lit. He slept some from time to time, dozing off in his chair.

When he awoke, the scene was much the same. Arthur on the bed, tucked easily beneath the sheets. The bandage on his side was stained again with blood, a sheen of sweat breaking lightly over his forehead. Gaius was standing close to the bedside, his frown deeper than before, though Merlin had not thought it possible. He was leaned over, swiping a cloth on the young prince’s brow, before leaving it to rest there.

When he was down, he stepped back, shoulders sagging with a sigh.

Merlin knew Gaius--knew him well. He knew how much he cared for his patients, from the king himself to the lowly peasants. He was good with a reassuring word, but he also was keen on the truth. And there was no hiding the worry in his stance now.

“You’re still worried,” Merlin observed.

Gaius’ glanced at him, face bearing little surprise to the comment. His expression remained composed as he settled heavily back into the chair next to Merlin. “Blows to the head can be tricky things. There is no way of telling how serious it might be until he wakes up.”

“So he will wake up?” Merlin said carefully.

Gaius sighed a bit, looking at the recumbent prince. “I have never known Arthur to give up a fight willingly,” he said.

“That’s not an answer,” Merlin countered.

Gaius looked at him. “There are no potions or poultices that can cure the things people sometimes do to their heads,” he explained. “Under such circumstances, we will not know whether or not he will wake up until he does.”

Or doesn’t. Gaius didn’t say it, but he didn’t have to. The physician was skilled in many things, and the art of breaking bad news in the gentlest way possible was among them. Gaius was no fool for hope, but he also did not deny comfort when he could give it. It was a delicate balance, and while Merlin respected Gaius’ intentions, it did little to assuage his worry.

His eyes lingered on Arthur once again The bandages on his chest were soaked through with blood again, but the scrap on the side of his face looked no worse than before. It was hard to imagine that the bloody wound was not the one that clearly worried Gaius the most.

“You hoped he’d wake up by now,” Merlin said finally.

Gaius offered him a simple smile. “I had hoped to avoid such a catastrophe to Camelot all together,” he said.

Still not an answer. At least not the one he was looking for. He pursed his lips. “He’s an idiot sometimes,” Merlin said, a tad sulkily.

Gaius looked at him quizzically.

“Well, he is,” Merlin said, matter of fact. “I mean, what does he think he’s going to do with a sword or a spear against all that he faces?”

“Arthur has been trained since birth to face all enemies with confidence and skill,” Gaius said. “He is very brave.”

“And very stupid,” Merlin said harshly. “I mean, look at him.” He gestured to the bed. “Still unconscious after throwing himself into a fight he can never win.”

“Sometimes perhaps it is the fight that is the important part,” Gaius suggested diplomatically. “Not necessarily the winning.”

Merlin worked his jaw, not willing to concede the point. This made his life so much harder, and unnecessarily so. Why was it his job to protect someone who not only didn’t believe he needed protection but seemed so determined to throw himself in harm’s way? “Well, he’s still unconscious for it, and leaving the rest of us to worry over him.”

“In some ways, the unconsciousness is good for him,” Gaius mused. “Arthur does have a tendency to be rather hard headed about recovery.”

Merlin snorted a small laugh. “You mean he’s a stubborn idiot.”

Gaius shrugged. “As it is, this gives us a chance to manage the wound on his chest so that it does not get infected. The prince may think himself somewhat invincible at times, but his body needs time to heal, just like the rest of us.”

It was a placating kind of thing, and Merlin was not quite ready to accept it. It was hard not to resent the fact that Arthur charged into battle blindly and it was Merlin who had to save him, get none of the credit, and then still hold the bedside vigil.

When was it Merlin’s turn? Would it ever be his turn?

“You should get some rest,” Gaius said softly.

Merlin glanced at him, surprised. Sometimes these things came so naturally to him, and after all he’d been through to protect, the thought of leaving him ran contrary to his nature, even if he resented the entire prospect at the moment. This was still all he had, meager and frustrating though it may be. “It is my duty--”

“To protect him, I know,” Gaius said, a wry smile on his face. “It may be some time before he is awake, and knowing the prince, he would probably prefer an awake servant as opposed to one who cannot keep his eyes open.”

The words were said with a joking air, but Merlin could not bring himself to laugh. “I guess that assumes he’ll want my services at all,” he murmured, fiddling with the hem of his shirt. With the excitement of saving the day, he had somewhat conveniently overlooked the fact that Arthur had all but relieved him of his duties and sent him to the cells.

The memory was a bitter one. The joy of victory had made it easy to forget, but such euphoria was not a permanent thing. Maybe it was the lack of sleep, perhaps it was the injustice of all that had transpired, or it could just possibly be the even Merlin could just lose his patience, but it was hard to swallow it back this time. Hard to believe that this was simply how it was supposed to be. Because where was the justice in this? Arthur made an ass of himself, and Merlin was the one feeling guilty. Arthur was the one who ignored all warnings, and Merlin was the one still trying to gauge if even had a job.

Gaius pursed his lips, sighing for a moment. “Are you still bothered about what happened between you two?”

Merlin looked up, incredulous. He’d worked hard to keep himself in check, had focused himself on helping restore Arthur to health, but that did not change what had happened--no matter how much Merlin may have wanted it, too. Merlin did not like to dwell. He had a peasant’s life; he understood that life was not entirely fair and that the best he could hope for was to be happy with what he had, be it little or great. And that attitude had served him well in all things, especially during the more trying times in his time as Arthur’s servant.

His ability to accept the way things were didn’t mean that sometimes he didn’t think about what could be. About what he was capable of doing--who he was capable of being.

He could still hear Sigan’s words. Arthur didn’t respect him. Arthur never showed him the thanks he deserved. Arthur was trifling and silly at times, fighting with blind bravery, never knowing how perilously close to death he often came. Never knowing just how many times it had been Merlin to save the day.

Even this, it was Arthur’s victory. There had been no other story to tell. To take the credit he so truly deserved, Merlin would be asking for a death sentence. Heroics or not, even saving Arthur’s life might not be enough to keep Merlin from the chopping block if Uther knew the truth.

It was already news about the town. How Arthur had saved the day. In his suicide mission, he had turned the tide, evicting the evil from Camelot’s walls with his virtue alone.

Merlin had to allow him the victory and the glory, and usually that was alright with Merlin--it truly was. It was better to serve a good man than to rule with an evil one.

But sometimes--

Sometimes he had to wonder if the prat of a prince really was such a good man. The last few days were compelling evidence to the contrary. He was hedging all his bets on the words of a dragon and destiny he wasn’t sure he’d ever live up to. It was a distant promise of better days, but so distant. So dim.

Gaius’ simple question was not so simple at all. Was he still bothered? How could he not be bothered? It had only been weeks ago he’d nearly sacrificed his mother in Arthur’s stead and this was a cold thanks, indeed. “He relieved me of my duties then put me in the cells,” Merlin exploded, unable to keep himself from sounded petulant. Willing as he was to save Arthur’s life, Sigan had been right when he said it must have hurt to be so easily cast aside.

Gaius merely nodded, thoughtful. “You did attack another servant,” he said.

It was like Gaius to point out the other side of things; cool, calm, and rational, even to a fault. Sometimes such perspective was something Merlin could appreciate. All things considered, this was not really one of those times. “Who turned out to be the host of evil incarnate.”

Gaius allowed that. “Arthur had no way of knowing.”

“Except that I told him!” Merlin said, getting to his feet now and throwing his hands out. Because this was the heart of it, the part that hurt the most. “I told him plainly, and he did not believe me. He could have stopped all of this before it got this far if he’d just listened to me.”

Gaius remained seated, unfazed by Merlin’s growing frustrations. “You must appreciate how difficult it is for someone to make the right choices when they do not have all the information,” he said.

Merlin shrugged coldly, glancing at the still form on the bed. “Maybe,” he conceded. But it was more than that. It wasn’t just that Arthur didn’t believe it, but that he dismissed him so readily. That Merlin took his insults and his chores and everything else the prince could throw at him, and it still wasn’t enough to earn much in return. “But he still was willing to let me go.”

“Merlin, if he had wanted to get rid of you, you would be long gone by now,” Gaius said, with a small shake of his head.

Surprised, Merlin turned back toward the older man. “What?”

Gaius shrugged. “The prince is under no obligation to keep any servant he deems unfit,” he said. “No second chances required.”

Merlin’s brow furrowed. “Are you trying to tell me I should be grateful?” The notion was almost too ridiculous to entertain. Because Merlin was patient by nature. He was forgiving in his very soul. But sometimes--just sometimes --it was all too much. To be ridiculed, to be rejected, and then to be told to be grateful?

Even Merlin had his breaking point, long in coming though it may be.

With a sigh, Gaius repositioned himself in his seat. “Not necessarily,” he said. “After years in this castle, I am aware of Arthur’s sometimes difficult disposition.”

Merlin’s eyes went wide. “Difficult disposition?” he repeated. “You mean the fact that he’s a selfish prat.”

“As are most men of noble birth,” Gaius observed.

“That’s no excuse,” Merlin said indignantly.

“Perhaps not,” Gaius said. Then he paused tilting his head. “But have you considered that Arthur is by no means required to keep your employment?”

Merlin frowned. “I think he made that very clear.”

“And yet, you’re still here,” Gaius pointed out.

Merlin shook his head. “So you keep pointing out.”

Gaius sighed again. “You really are dense sometimes,” he said somewhat crossly.

“I’m dense?” Merlin asked incredulously.

“Yes,” Gaius returned. “Because you forget the fact that Arthur has dismissed servants for far less than I have seen you fail at on a daily basis. The fact that he tolerates your tardiness, sloppiness, and total lack of regard for his position says a tremendous amount regarding his trust in you as a servant and a friend.”

“I am not his friend,” Merlin snapped, feeling the words grate against his throat. He had believed once that he was--he had his life and soul on the idea of it--but now, after what had happened he could not be so sure. Arthur’s callous behavior was hard to explain away, harder still with Sigan’s cruel words to drive them home.

Gaius inclined an eyebrow. “Not that either of you would admit to it freely, of course,” he said. “But why else do you think he tolerates a servant like you when he could have the pick of any in the kingdom? Why, before you came along he went through them on a monthly basis? Sometimes weekly? He enjoys your company. And he’s changed immensely since taking you on as his servant.”

Merlin could only stare, considering the words Gaius had spoken. It was a salient fact that Merlin had never spent much time pondering. He was so focused on living up to his duty, on defending Arthur no matter what, that he had sometimes failed to consider that he was still a part of Arthur’s life by Arthur’s choice, as well as his own. Their partnership, as unbalanced as it seemed at times, was a mutual one.

His eyes went to Arthur once again. Seeing him so still, laid low like he was, was a hard thing. Not just because it was his duty to protect Arthur, but because they were friends. It was the reason Merlin had risked everything to save Arthur’s life after he’d been bitten by the Questing Beast. It was the reason why being replaced had been so difficult to understand. Not because he was concerned about his destiny, but because he’d wanted to mean more to Arthur than that.

But Arthur’s station did not afford him the luxury of friendship. Merlin knew that--he truly did--but he had never considered how hard that would be--for both of them. The expectations everyone heaped on Arthur were plain and powerful. Things the prince would never escape. Merlin still had a choice. If he wanted to walk away from his destiny, he could and no one would ever be the wiser.

Arthur’s failure, on the other hand, would always be much more profound. Maybe that was why his victories were so important to celebrate. Because Arthur was a mere man, a mortal with nothing but his courage and his sword to fend off the curses and destiny and the maladies of fate.

With another sigh, Gaius got to his feet, moving slowly toward Merlin. He clapped the sorcerer on the shoulder. “You do deserve more than you get,” he said, a note of sympathy and commiseration in his voice. “And I cannot promise you that all will be well when the prince awakens or even that he will appreciate you like he should. But I do believe he is trying, which is as much of either you can be expected to do.”

The best they could do. Sometimes Merlin felt like the best he had to offer was never enough. He was always saving them from the brink of disaster, one misstep and the whole thing would fall apart. There were times he felt as though he were barely holding on at all.

And yet, here he was. And here Arthur was.

They bore the bruises of this battle, not just with Sigan, but with their joined destiny. And Merlin was not so naive to think that the only battle scars worth noting were visible.

And Arthur carried his share. For the prince did try. Prat though he was, he did the best he could, even when it was woefully inadequate. There would be a day, he knew when he and Arthur would meet on more even terms but until then he could not expect the prince to fully understand all that Merlin had to offer.

Until then, Merlin would offer the services that he could, and trust that when the truth was finally laid bare that Arthur would make the right choice. That would be Merlin’s victory. That would be the day he truly won, and even if it did not come for years, Merlin knew the power of persistence, the importance of holding true.

After all, believing in impossible causes was what Arthur had taught him. To stand up and do the right thing because it was right was what Arthur lived day in and day out.

“Now,” Gaius said, gently. His tone shifted, warm and fatherly. “Go back to your room and get some rest. I wish to stay with Arthur until he awakens, and then I will be back down to report to you.”

There was part of Merlin that still thought to protest, but he was tired and his body ached. He craved rest, and as Gaius had point out, he had done the best he could, and he had nothing left to offer.

Sometimes the greatest victories were the ones he didn’t fight for, the ones he just accepted as they came.

He smiled a little, suddenly feeling sheepish. “Thank you,” he said, as honestly and plainly as he could.

A small smile tugged at Gaius’ weather features. “Things will be better in the morning,” he said soothingly.

Merlin cast a glance toward Arthur, noting the flush of fever in his cheeks, the pallid tone in his complexion.

But Gaius’ words were so comforting and Merlin’s body was so tired and Arthur was too stubborn to die like this and there were too many things yet they had to do...

But not now. Tomorrow, though.

Tomorrow.

Blinking sleepily, Merlin nodded one last time before heading to the door and back to his quarters for a long and overdue rest.

-o-

If things were better in the morning, Merlin certainly was not aware of it. It was rather difficult to assess, after all, while sound asleep.

However, when Gaius woke him in the early afternoon, things were decidedly better.

Yes, he had an awful crick in his neck from the way he’d fallen asleep haphazardly on his bed. And true, his mouth felt dry and sticky from the long hours without refreshment. But Gaius was there. If Gaius was there, that meant--

Merlin sat up abruptly, eyes wide. “He’s awake!”

Gaius’ smile was reserved but genuine. “He awoke a few hours ago,” he replied. “A bit dazed and disoriented, but he had his wits about him soon enough. Though he cannot recall felling the beast with a mortal blow and he has no recollection of how the tides may have been changed. But I have tried to assure him that it’s nothing to worry about.”

Merlin had to grin. “That much is probably for the best.”

“Yes,” Gaius agreed wryly. “I suppose it is.”

“And he’s going to be okay?” Merlin prompted, just needing to be sure.

“A little sore, perhaps, but no lasting damage,” Gaius reported.

Merlin had to laugh. The events of yesterday seemed distant all of a sudden, horrible and trying as they were, the sun was shining again and Arthur was going to be okay.

His eyes widened once again, his smile fading as he remembered another pertinent point. “Did he say anything about me?”

Gaius tilted his head thoughtfully. “I’m not sure he really had much chance to think on it,” he admitted. “His father was quite insistent on talking to him about the outcome of the battle. I hardly think Arthur had much time to think of anything before I managed to get him to eat and go back to sleep for awhile longer to get his strength back up.”

Somehow, it was disappointment. His employment, or lack thereof, was a pressing issue for Merlin. That it was less so for Arthur was perhaps understandable, but no less frustrating.

“Come, come, you mustn’t dwell,” Gaius coaxed. “I have a little something for you.”

Merlin frowned. “Something for me?”

Gaius’ eyes twinkled from the doorway of Merlin’s chamber. “It’s not much, but you’ll have to humor the best efforts of an old man,” he said, before easing his way out of the doorway.

Perplexed, Merlin got to his feet. He took a minute to assess his state. His clothes were somewhat worse for wear, but he was far too hungry to bother with bathing and changing. That was a matter for later. Running a hand through his hair, he absently said a spell to tidy his bed to a presentable level before heading out into Gaius’ workspace.

Gaius was busying himself over by the stove. “You know you won’t get any thanks Merlin.”

Merlin was used to that by now. “I’m not a complete idiot.”

Gaius brought the bowl over, handing it down. “It’s not much, but you deserve something.”

It was more than he’d expected. Merlin accepted the bowl happily.

He didn’t even have the chance to take a bite, when there was a knock at the door. Merlin looked up, surprised to see Arthur.

He was walking and upright, but the bruising on the side of his face was spectacular. Still, he strode in purposefully. “I came to see Merlin.”

Merlin shifted uneasily. It was one thing to face the prince when he was unconscious, but they hadn’t had the best of terms recently. It occurred to him briefly that Arthur didn’t even know about his escape from the cells.

As Arthur approached, he regarded Merlin coolly. “I’ve not forgotten about your lazy, insolent ways, or the fact that you called me a clotpole, but I do have to admit that there was some truth in your accusations against Cedric.”

The insults, he had expected. The concession of guilt, however, took Merlin by surprise. “Does this mean you’re admitting that in this occasion, I was actually right?” he asked, almost gleeful at the thought.

Arthur’s expression darkened. He shifted, taking a breath. “Not exactly, no,” he said. He leveled a look at Merlin. “It means that I have a knighthood to bestow first thing tomorrow and no one to clean my armor.”

With that, the prince lifted the bag, dumping the armor unceremoniously on Merlin’s lap.

Merlin stared at it. “All that?”

Arthur nodded happily. “Yep,” he said, throwing the bag at Merlin.

With that, he retreated the way he came, leaving Merlin staring incredulously after him.

Turning back to Gaius, he looked for some kind of surprise.

Gaius’ expression was wry and he leaned down in knowing humor. “Clotpole?”

And really, Gaius had a point.

Gaius’ food, Arthur’s pile of armor: they were pittances, small tokens in face of what he’d faced and overcome, but in so many ways, all the ways that counted, they were the greatest victory of all.

Sitting back, Merlin took a bite, picking up a piece of the armor and inspecting it carefully. It was indeed dirty. He must have done a poor job the last time he tried.

He grinned, devouring another bite. It would take him all night, and he probably still would never do it as well as he was supposed to. But somehow, he knew, that wouldn’t matter. Not to Merlin, and not to Arthur. Because winning really did feel pretty good, no matter what form it came in.

Comments

Posted by: leavingslowly (leavingslowly)
Posted at: September 29th, 2011 11:13 pm (UTC)

Oh, I like this. There aren't enough hurt!Arthur stories out there!

Posted by: do i dare or do i dare? (faye_dartmouth)
Posted at: September 29th, 2011 11:50 pm (UTC)
arthur prince bw

I sort of surprised myself by being more of a hurt!Arthur kind of girl. Part of me thinks logically I should be all about hurt!Merlin, but it's just not what I want to write :)

Thanks!

Posted by: leavingslowly (leavingslowly)
Posted at: September 30th, 2011 01:03 am (UTC)

I think I just have a natural preference based on Arthur being an easy target on the show. I mean, let's tally it up: He's been knocked out more times than an NFL line backer (I can't keep track). He was poisoned by the questing best, shot in the back with an arrow, shot in the leg with a (poisoned) arrow, attacked by the Great Dragon, drowned by fairies, and I'm pretty sure he got his ribs broken by a mace. Oh, and once by a lance, too! Am I missing anything?

Posted by: do i dare or do i dare? (faye_dartmouth)
Posted at: September 30th, 2011 01:28 am (UTC)
arthur is screwed

LOL. This is true. And it certainly does make the show quite enjoyable for me. Now you've made me seriously want to go rewatch quite a few eps.

Posted by: leavingslowly (leavingslowly)
Posted at: September 30th, 2011 01:55 am (UTC)

I did forget a few things - he was also given two sleeping potions, and a fake death potion. See, we could go on forever here. The follow up on all of this begs for fic!

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