They rushed to Gauis’ chambers as soon as the vampire’s remains had been handled. Gwaine entered like he belonged there.
Dean and Sam followed with a little apprehension. They were worried about Merlin as a friend, but there was also the fact that Merlin was their only ticket home. Awesome as it was, Dean really didn’t want to spend the rest of his life in Camelot.
The only person in the main room was the man they had rescued that afternoon. He was sleeping on a cot by the fire. They could hear the murmur of voices drifting down from the stairs leading to Merlin’s room. Entering, they found the small room packed with people. Merlin was laid out on the bed, still unconscious, neck bandaged but his shirtless chest exposed above the blanket pulled to his waist. The beginnings of bruises were blooming across the exposed skin. Dean cringed in sympathy. Merlin had clearly put up a fight before Clarissa had managed to sink her teeth into his neck.
Arthur sat on a chair next to the bed, the Queen stood behind him, her hand on his shoulder and her expression worried. It was quite obvious that Queen Guinevere also cared deeply for Merlin. Percival and Leon sat at the table under the window, watching, but obviously trying to stay out of the way. Gaius stood on the other side of Merlin’s bed, looking annoyed, probably because three more people had just barged into the room.
“What’s the word?” Dean asked.
“What word?” Gaius replied.
“Will Merlin be alright?” Sam asked, elbowing Dean.
“As I was just about to explain to the King,” Gaius said, and yeah, he was definitely annoyed. “Merlin has lost a fair amount of blood and needs rest, especially since, in his current state, his ability to heal is compromised.”
“What do you mean?” Arthur asked.
“Arthur,” Gaius sighed. “Do you know when the last time Merlin slept may have been?”
“Why would I know that?” Arthur asked. “You’re the one that lives with him.”
“Well, all I can tell you is that Merlin has not slept here for the past three days,” Gaius said. “Nor has he taken any of his meals with me since the night before last. And I dare say, it looks to me as though that were the last meal he may have eaten.”
Dean looked back down at Merlin, and now that Gaius brought it to his attention, he could see that Merlin looked a little on the too-skinny-to-be-healthy side. Dean glanced at Arthur only to see that Arthur was having the same realization. Gwen squeezed Arthur’s shoulder.
“I told him he could finish my breakfast yesterday,” Gwen stated. “And he’d already snuck a sausage or two off Arthur’s plate when he arrived.”
“And since then?”
“The cook wouldn’t serve him when he tried to eat with the knights yesterday,” Gwaine offered, “but he managed to steal a bread roll, and I tricked him into eating the last half of my own serving by telling him that I didn’t care for the taste.”
“He slept this morning for a bit during training,” Percival spoke up from the side of the room. “He was polishing Arthur’s armour, but he looked so tired that I offered to finish while he kipped in the corner under my cloak.”
“And I tried to give him an apple this afternoon, because just looking at him made me hungry,” Gwaine said, “But-”
“But I made him throw it away,” Arthur cringed, before resting his elbows on his knees and burying his face in his hands. “Does someone want to tell me why Merlin is not eating or sleeping?”
“According to the stable hands, they arrived this morning at dawn to find Merlin brushing down your horse, and the stable clean, My Lord,” Leon offered.
“And the washing,” Gwen said, sounding dismayed. “He came in to get it as we were getting ready for bed.”
“What about the night before last?” Arthur asked. There was an awkward silence in the room. Dean looked at Sam as they realized that that was the night that Merlin summoned them, and then stayed up until dawn getting them up to speed and coming up with a workable alibi.
“I’ll have to take the blame for that, Sire,” Gaius said. “With the recent attacks, I needed Merlin to go fetch supplies for me. I’m afraid he must have spent the night gathering them.”
Dean had to credit the old man. It wasn’t that far from the truth.
“Do I even want to ask about the eating?” Arthur groaned.
“Do you need to?” Gwaine asked. “Unless you’ve sent him on an errand, Merlin spends every waking moment by your side. Do you ever see him eat?”
Arthur shook his head.
“Sire,” Gaius said, “I think when you were a Prince, it might have been a bit easier for Merlin to attend both to your needs and work as my apprentice, but now that you’re King...”
“Now that I’m King, he also writes the majority of my speeches, helps me balance accounts, and I have far more need of him,” Arthur finished. “I won’t deprive him of his apprenticeship with you, Gaius, as I know that was his purpose in coming to Camelot in the first place – but something needs to change.
Merlin chose that moment to shiver and then try to roll over. The pain of moving seemed to wake him a bit and he groaned. Gaius quickly bent forward to pull the blanket up to cover Merlin’s chest. Merlin’s eyes opened slowly.
“Wha’ happ’n?” Merlin asked in a whisper. Dean wasn’t even sure his eyes were even focused enough to tell who was in the room.
“You’re an idiot; that’s what happened!” Arthur declared.
“Clotpole,” Merlin replied with a soft smile even as his eyes closed again.
“I think you’re both right,” the Queen announced. Merlin’s eyes fluttered open briefly at her voice, as he obviously struggled to cling to consciousness. The Queen moved in front of Arthur. She bent over and said, “Go to sleep, Merlin,” then kissed him softly on the forehead.
Merlin made a noise of contentment and obeyed the command. The Queen then turned and faced Arthur, who immediately wrapped his arms around her hips and rested his forehead on his wife’s belly. Dean, and everyone else in the room, suddenly found the floor very interesting.
“I’m sorry about Clarissa,” Arthur murmured.
“As am I,” the Queen replied. “I’ll take care of everything in the morning, Arthur – you just look after Merlin... I’ll have someone bring you both some supper.”
“Mm,” Arthur murmured in agreement.
“Don’t stay up too late,” she continued. “He’ll be fine, Arthur.”
Dean risked a glance up to find the Queen running her fingers through Arthur’s hair before she pulled away. Dean then studied the wall over Percival’s head.
“Knights,” Arthur addressed, his voice once again commanding. “Please see that Guinevere reaches her chambers safely.”
“Yes, Sire!” the knights chorused and got to their feet. Guinevere gave Arthur a smile and then left the room. The knights gave nods to their King before following.
Dean shifted on his feet, now feeling out of place in a room with just Arthur, Merlin, and Gaius. Arthur wasn’t supposed to know that Dean and Sam had any sort of connection with Merlin and he was suddenly worried that coming to make sure Merlin was okay instead of just heading back to their rooms would be suspicious.
“We’d like to apologize, My Lord,” Sam said from beside him. “I feel as though we should have made the connection between Thomas and Clarissa sooner-”
Arthur held up a hand without taking his eyes off Merlin and Sam immediately stopped speaking. That was good though, Dean thought, mentally thanking Sam for the quick thinking – acting as though they came to apologize would help explain anything if Arthur thought them caring about Merlin’s well-being was out of character for a couple of roaming mercenaries.
“You’ll stay until we are sure the threat has passed,” Arthur said.
“Yes, My Lord,” Dean replied.
Arthur nodded in approval, “You are dismissed then.”
Dean and Sam both nodded as the knights had done and left the room. They waited until they were in the empty corridors of the castle before looking at each other. Dean raised his eyebrows, Sam let out a low whistle. And really, that was all they needed to say about that.
The next morning it was Callum who woke them. Without Sam even asking, Callum told them that Mary had been called to attend the King and Queen, as Merlin had been ordered to stay in bed.
Gwaine arrived as they were finishing their breakfast, and invited them to join the knights’ training session that morning. Sam wanted to talk to Merlin, but he could tell by the eager look on Dean’s face that it’d have to wait until later.
Sam had to admit that it was pretty amazing to stand in the morning sun and watch Gwaine and Dean duel. Dean held his own surprisingly well. Gwaine still won, but Dean took it good naturedly and asked for best two out of three – which only made Gwaine laugh and agree. Sam didn’t get to watch the second round though, as Percival asked him for a match, citing the fact that he rarely had a chance to take on someone his own size.
Sam gave it his all, and for the duration of the fight, his focus was narrowed down to the movement of his own body and the clang of swords meeting. Since Stanford, all Sam’s fighting had been done on the job – it felt both foreign and nostalgic to engage in pure training. It reminded Sam of hot summer days spent getting his ass kicked by Dean, while their Dad watched from the porch of whatever backwoods cabin they were staying in, guns laid out waiting to be cleaned, or journal and a pen in his hand. When Sam actually managed to land a blow to Percival’s arm – carefully using the flat of the sword so as not to cause harm – Sam actually found himself turning, by reflex, to see if he had pleased his father.
Instead of John though, he saw King Arthur, standing by the rack of swords and looking on thoughtfully. Sam quickly turned back and met Percival’s counter swing, and then was surprised when Percival nodded at him and dropped his sword.
“If that had been a real strike, I’d be too pained to continue,” Percival admitted, sweat beading down his temples. “You’ve won.”
Sam took a deep breath and smiled.
“Only just,” Sam said. He turned to look where he had seen Dean last. Only to find Dean sprawled in the grass next to Gwaine, grinning at him.
“Good job, Sammy,” Dean called. “But don’t go thinking this means anything – you weren’t up against the best swordsman in Camelot.”
“The hell that matters,” Sam shouted back, “I won and you lost.”
“I can still kick your ass,” Dean replied.
Surprisingly, the “Prove it!” came not from Sam’s lips, but from the sidelines – Sam turned to see Arthur gesture with a smile. Sam looked at Dean, adrenaline still high from his duel with Percival.
“Did you hear that, Dean? The King Arthur of Camelot just ordered me to kick your ass!”
“I think you’ll find that he ordered me to kick your ass,”
Sam just made a ‘bring it’ gesture with his free hand while he twirled the sword in the other. The knights all moved to the sidelines, as Dean twirled his own sword and slowly approached.
They circled each other once. Sam’s smile felt wicked. Dean gave him a wink and then their swords met. It took only five parries before Dean managed to disarm Sam with a well placed blow to the back of his hand. There were yells from the sidelines – as though the onlookers thought that just because Sam was disarmed the fight was over – but they quieted abruptly as Dean swung again, only to have Sam duck low in a bit of a bastardized martial arts move. Dean swung at nothing but air, allowing Sam to spring up and disarm him with two swift blows to Dean’s right arm. Although he lost his sword, Dean spun and then attacked with a kick. Sam saw it coming and blocked with his forearms, bringing his own leg up to unbalance Dean while all Dean’s weight was on one foot. Dean countered with his own purposeful drop, followed by a leg swipe that, unfortunately for Sam, was successful. Sam found himself on his back with Dean standing over him, lowering the sword he had recovered to Sam’s throat.
Sam had found the hilt of the other dropped sword, however, and knocked Dean’s sword away. Surprised, Dean’s sword flew out of his hand. Sam’s sword followed as he purposefully discarded it. Not bothering to make the effort to get himself off the ground, Sam wrapped his legs around Dean’s and pulled him down. They rolled on the grass, Sam using every wrestling move he could remember as he attempted to pin Dean.
Unfortunately, Dean also remembered his wrestling, and the next thing Sam knew, he was on his belly with his arm pulled up behind his back and Dean’s weight holding him down.
“Tap out, Sammy,” Dean said, his breathing just as ragged as Sam’s.
“Ugh, fine,” Sam panted, collapsing limply into the ground. Dean waited the standard three seconds to be certain it wasn’t a ruse before releasing the pressure on Sam’s arm and shifting to sit on the grass beside him.
Sam closed his eyes and tried to get his breathing and heart rate to slow. He started at the sound of someone clapping, the noise increasing as others joined in. Sam planted his hands underneath him and hoisted himself onto his knees, to find Arthur striding towards them, holding two water skins.
“That was... interesting – impressive,” Arthur said, handing water first to Sam and then to Dean.
“Thanks,” Sam answered, before gulping down the water.
“You were going easy on my knights,” Arthur said. “As I suspected, you fight completely differently with each other.”
“Those were sword fights,” Dean explained. “That’s different.”
“You started out with swords,” Arthur countered.
“But we knew we didn’t have to end with them,” Sam said. “Dean and I aren’t actually used to swords so much as knives and fists. We also know each other’s moves – so we tend to fight a bit dirty. We’re pretty evenly matched.”
“Says the guy who just got his ass kicked,” Dean teased.
“Shut-up, I almost had you and you know it,” Sam shot back.
“Yeah, yeah,” Dean said, but it wasn’t quite sarcastic enough, so Sam took it as the agreement it was.
“Well, one thing’s for certain, you are indeed brothers,” Arthur said.
“Was that in question?” Dean asked.
“Everything’s in question,” Arthur replied, and then he turned away to address his knights. “Alright men, we have been privileged with a demonstration of skill – pair up and put what you’ve learned into practice.”
Sam moved out of the way of the sparing sessions that were springing up on the field. The shirt under his leather armour was soaked with sweat. Someone in Camelot really needed to invent showers.
They helped Arthur coach the knights for a while, until Leon and Dean got into an argument about which one of them was a better shot and Arthur was called to judge their archery contest. Sam decided to make his excuses and slip back into the cool corridors of the castle.
He toweled off in his room. He really didn’t want to put back on his sweaty shirt, so he left it to dry on the back of a chair and then made sure the hall was empty before sneaking into the room next door – Leon’s, he thought. He borrowed a shirt that looked big enough. Hopefully Leon wouldn’t notice the shirt missing until after Sam and Dean left.
Sam decided that he might as well see Merlin on his own. Dean would probably be playing at being a knight for a good few hours yet. Sam arrived at the physician’s room to find it empty, so Sam climbed the steps to Merlin’s room, knocking lightly on the door.
There was a rustle of cloth, then, “Come in!” Sam poked his head in the door. Merlin was sitting up in bed, wearing a simple loose white shirt, and it was only seeing him now that made Sam realize how unrested Merlin had been before. His skin seemed to have a healthier glow than before, and apparently the bags that had been under his eyes weren’t meant to be permanent, because they were absent now.
“Oh! It’s you,” Merlin said, with what seemed like relief. He looked over the edge of the bed, and a book leapt into his arms. Merlin opened the book over his knees. “I thought you might be Arthur,” Merlin explained at Sam’s look. “I have to hide the magic books from Arthur.”
“Sorry to bug you,” Sam said. “I just wanted to see how you were doing, and... you know, apologize, I guess.”
“Apologize for what?” Merlin asked.
“For not realizing about Clarissa?” Sam offered, pulling a chair over and sitting beside Merlin’s bed. “For you getting hurt?”
Merlin rolled his eyes, “Please, I can look after myself, and I’m fine. Arthur is making a big deal about nothing.”
“I don’t think so,” Sam said. “You’re so busy looking out for him that you forget to look out for yourself – but you don’t realize that he needs you too... and, yeah...”
Merlin was fiddling with pages of his book and not looking at Sam, and Sam felt decidedly awkward trying to talk to the other man about feelings – but someone had to.
“It’s kinda like...” Sam continued into the awkward silence, “sorta like Dean and me, in a way.”
At that, Merlin looked up in what for a moment looked like hope, before it was shuttered behind a more neutral expression.
“Do you really think so?” Merlin asked.
“Yeah,” Sam said, “yeah, I do.”
“It’s just... your legend, the stories,” Merlin started hesitantly, “I always liked them, but since I came to Camelot – and especially in the last few years – they’ve kind of given me a bit of... hope, I guess. It feels so strange to actually talk to you.”
“What are the stories?” Sam asked.
“I’m not going to tell you your own story like a fool,” Merlin gave Sam an unimpressed look.
“Why not? I already know what happens,” Sam said. “I’ve lived through it – and I’m curious as to what’s been said about me. Us. Besides, Dean’s busy pretending to be a knight and I’m bored – and I bet you’re bored too.”
“Well, I was trying to research something,” Merlin muttered, but Sam waited patiently. He had a hunch that Merlin was as curious about Sam as Sam was about Merlin. Finally, after Merlin looked from Sam to the open book and back again, Merlin sighed. “Fine, but...I’ll just sum it up quickly, and you should know this is going to feel ridiculous for both of us.”
Sam smiled, but didn’t reply. Merlin carefully marked his place in the book and then closed it, though he kept it on his lap, running his fingers over the embossed lettering on the cover.
“There are many different adventures,” Merlin said. “But the heart of the story is always the same, no matter the bard, and this is believed to be the truth of the legend. There were two brothers, and they rode around the countryside in a black chariot pulled by a black horse named Impala... and this horse was no ordinary horse, for it had the strength of four hundred horses.”
Sam grinned; he’d have to tell that to Dean later.
“Is that true?” Merlin asked.
“In a way,” Sam replied.
“Part of me wished you would have arrived with her,” Merlin said. “I wanted to see her with my own eyes... but I guess it would have been a bit hard to explain to Arthur.”
“You got that right,” Sam laughed. “But stop trying to change the subject and continue with the story.”
“When the younger boy was but a babe, and his brother not much older, their mother was killed by an evil spirit and the babe was changed, because years before she had sold her second-born’s destiny to the evil spirit for the life of her lover,” Merlin continued, looking at Sam carefully. Sam nodded. “In response, their father trained them be warriors to hunt the evil spirits for revenge and the brothers devoted their lives to doing so. They became great warriors, the greatest of their day. There came a day, however, when their father died – and before he died, he gave them a warning...he said that...”
Merlin stopped, nervously fiddling with his bed sheet where it was pooled at his waist.
“He said that Dean would either have to kill me or save me,” Sam finished, relieving Merlin of the words he didn’t want to speak.
“Yes,” Merlin nodded. “The father believed that the younger brother was destined to turn evil. But the older brother loved the younger brother so greatly that he could not harm him. And it came to pass that indeed, the younger brother was tempted and possessed by the evil spirits and made to do their bidding.”
Sam swallowed. “That’s uh... that’s one way of putting it, yeah.”
“And all hope seemed to be lost,” Merlin continued, “Except, upon seeing his older brother on the battlefield, the younger brother could only remember the love that had always been shown to him, despite their father’s words... and he was so overcome with love for his brother that he turned on the evil spirits and defeated them. Some legends end with the younger brother dying in his victory and the older brother mourning until the end of his days... but other stories have the good spirits rewarding the brothers for their love by bringing the younger brother back from death, so that the brothers could continue their fight against the evils of the world.”
“Surprisingly accurate,” Sam said around the odd lump in his throat.
“Which was it?” Merlin asked, “The ending, I mean.”
“I’m here, aren’t I?” Sam smiled.
“I’m glad,” Merlin smiled back.
“You didn’t know our names,” Sam stated. “Were they not in the stories?”
“They vary a bit,” Merlin explained. “I’ve heard Deinoil and Sawyl, and having met you, I know now that those were the closest. Other bards use different names. I’ve heard everything from Sion to Meirion to Urien, if you’re named at all. Part of me half expected you to be nameless.”
“Our initials were in the summoning,” Sam said. “S.W. and D.W. – Sam and Dean Winchester.”
“Ah,” Merlin said. “I wasn’t sure what those letters meant – but then, I didn’t know what any of the other lettering meant either, so I wasn’t too concerned.”
“So, tell me... what about our horrible story gives you hope?” Sam had to ask.
“Well... Dean loved you,” Merlin muttered, “even when you seemed to be everything he was raised to hate. And I just thought, maybe Arthur... I’m not saying I’m evil. Magic isn’t evil. Except... except Arthur sees it that way...”
“And you want him to love you anyway,” Sam finished.
Merlin studied the cover of his magic book like it might answer for him.
“Dude, you have to tell him about the magic,” Sam said. Merlin looked up with wide-eyes. “Hear me out,” Sam continued. “The longer you leave it, the more the fear that he’ll react badly is going to eat you up inside.”
“I’m not afraid of Arthur,” Merlin said, his chin lifting defiantly.
“Then why haven’t you told him?” Sam asked.
“I just – don’t want to put him in a position to have to choose between my life and the law of Camelot,” Merlin answered.
Sam raised an eyebrow and stated bluntly, “That might be the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.”
“It’s not stupid,” Merlin said, brow furrowing.
“You want him to change the law, don’t you?” Sam asked. Merlin nodded. “Well, he’s not going to unless he has a reason, and you said yourself that the only sorcerers he ever sees are trying to kill him. He’s not going to find a reason anywhere other than with you, Merlin.”
Merlin looked sullenly down at his magic book and Sam actually did feel kind of bad for giving the kid a hard time about his life choices.
“Hey, I’m sorry,” Sam said. “It’s just, my opinion, you know? One legend to another.”
Merlin smiled, but before he could reply there was a noise from the other room. Merlin quickly shoved the magic book back under the bed.
“Merlin?” Gaius called.
“I’m resting, I swear!” Merlin yelled back. Sam bit back a smile as Gaius appeared at the door to the small room, one skeptical eyebrow raised.
“Oh, hello, Sam,” Gaius greeted. “How are your arms?”
Sam shrugged, but apparently that wasn’t enough of an answer, because Gaius quickly had Sam shirtless and having his bandages changed, all while Gaius used him as a teaching example for Merlin. Luckily for Sam, since it was just the three of them, it became a Merlin’s teaching example in magical healing, and by the end of it, the bandages were just for show. One set of scars Sam wouldn’t have to worry about.