Beta: The forever amazing souleswanderer. All remaining mistakes are my own.
Disclaimer: I own nothing related to Merlin and no money was made from writing this story.
Summary: Merlin starts having a reoccurring dream, and he realizes he's going to die. How far will he go to save his own life, what happened to his destiny, and where the hell is Arthur?
A/N: This was written for vail_kagami after her generous donation to the Support Stacie April Auction.
I apologize for the extremely long lapse between updates. I really have no excuse and greatly appreciate everyone's patience. I promise I'll try harder in the future!
Merlin was exhausted, weariness pricking at the back of his eyes. He remembered Morgana’s instructions – his friend should spend more time sleeping – yet he feared the knowledge that might be gained from his dreams. What if this was his destiny? What if it wasn’t? What would happen to Arthur if he were to die before his destiny was fulfilled? Who would protect the future king? Who would look after Gaius? What would become of his mother?
Merlin shook his head; the string of endless questions was getting him nowhere, and he adjusted the covers, his hands plumping the thin pillow before flopping down on his bed again.
Despite his exhaustion, sleep didn’t come easily. He tried to fill his mind with idle things – unicorns, counting unicorns, swords, a sword in a stone, a unicorn standing next to the sword in the stone. Unfortunately this tactic wasn’t working either.
He rolled over and pressed his face into his pillow, resisting the urge to scream. If this kept up, his dreams and destiny would be for naught because he was going to drop dead of sleep deprivation. Merlin saw the irony of this and began to giggle. This gave way to Merlin questioning his sanity.
“What’s wrong with me?” he grumbled aloud, his voice muffled by his pillow. Everything considered, he thought he was handling his impending doom rather well. If there was one thing Merlin knew, he knew he had to trust himself to find a way to fix this, a way around it. He’d beaten death before. Gaius had told him he had the power to control life and death. He would find that power again and use it. He had to live. He had to protect Arthur after all, and that was more than a full time job.
He took a deep breath, holding it until his lungs ached. The muscles in his shoulders started to relax as he turned his head to the side and focused on exhaling slowly. His thoughts drifted from his breathing to nothingness as the remaining tension drained away.
Merlin felt like he was somewhere between sleep and being awake, his body trapped in that eerie space where there’s awareness but lack of control. Deep inside he knew this was not a place he wished to be. There were sensations, feelings of hopelessness and heat, searing, burning heat.
Fire. He could smell it, taste it. The sharp tang of roasting meat, of human flesh. He knew that smell. He was burning, and it hurt.
He heard laughter. Loud, booming laughter through the pain. He wasn’t the one laughing.
“Ack!” Merlin yelled, pushing with his arms and rolling off the side of the bed, landing with a loud thump that he didn’t feel. He shook his head, sending water droplets flying. His breath came in short, hard gasps, and his eyes barely opened as Gaius’ bare feet came into view.
“There was smoke coming from underneath your door,” Gaius said quietly. Merlin looked up at him from his position on the floor. “You were smoking,” Gaius clarified as he set the empty bucket aside.
When Merlin didn’t respond, Gaius asked, “Are you all right?”
“I…I think so.” Merlin glanced at his arms expecting to find his skin marred by blisters and burn marks. He saw nothing but pale, normal flesh.
“Come on,” Gaius said, reaching for his hand. “I want to look at you in the light.” Instantly a ball of circular light appeared over his head. “That’s not what I meant.” What was meant as mild exasperation was veiled by his obvious concern.
Gaius tugged on Merlin’s hand until his legs uncurled and he pulled himself up. Merlin’s eyes focused on the ball of light, his eyebrow arching as if he was surprised it was there. He blinked once and the light was gone, the room instantly falling to darkness. Gaius didn’t release his hand until he’d deposited Merlin on the bench next to the table.
Gaius stoked the fire, the embers flaring brightly as he added several logs to simmering coals. After lighting the candles on the table, he turned his attention to Merlin once more. “Let’s get your shift off.”
Merlin didn’t speak as Gaius prodded his shoulders, arms, and back. Gaius also remained quiet, and for that Merlin was thankful. He wasn’t in the mood for idle chatter.
Gaius hovered beside him. “Your legs?”
“I should take a look.”
“Gaius, its fine. I’m fine.”
Gaius sighed. “All right.” He sat on the opposite side, his fingers lacing as he dropped his hands on the table. “Tell me what happened.”
Merlin’s gaze never left his hands. “I don’t know.” He wasn’t lying.
“Were you dreaming?”
“I…I don’t know.”
Gaius reached out and wrapped his hands around Merlin’s, squeezing once to offer reassurance. “I want to help you, Merlin. Please…”
Merlin considered telling him everything – he was going to die, be burned alive perhaps. And soon. Very soon. His life, his destiny, everything he was and should have been would be for naught. It would have been so easy to open his mouth and release his terrible burden. The sordid tale very nearly tumbled out in broken words and erratic sentences until he looked at Gaius’ face and saw tired, weary eyes staring back at him.
What came out instead was a lie. “It was a spell.”
Gaius’ eyes widened. “What?”
“I was trying to conjure smoke and work on my control of fire. I must have fallen asleep while reciting the spell.” He shrugged sheepishly, a toothy grin appearing on his innocent face.
Gaius didn’t look convinced. "If you’re lying to me –"
“Lying? Of course not. You know I can’t lie to save my life. Well, to save my life, perhaps, to keep the magic a secret and all.”
“You’re not going to keep anything secret if you keep conjuring up spells in your sleep. No more magic before bed.”
Merlin nodded. “Yes, right.”
Gaius waggled his finger in Merlin’s direction. “I want your word.”
“No more magic before bed,” Merlin repeated obediently.
“Good boy.” Merlin almost felt guilty until Gaius stood and rubbed his shoulder, his eyes wincing in pain. “Back to bed. It will be daylight soon, and you look exhausted.”
Merlin paused at his doorway and turned back to see Gaius lying down on his bed. “Um…”
“Yes? What is it, Merlin?”
“I know I don’t tell you this enough, but thanks Gaius.”
“Now you’re really worrying me,” Gaius said.
Merlin smiled. “Good night.” The old man made a noise of acknowledgment and rolled onto his side.
He didn’t try to sleep again. He could smell smoke with every breath, and each time he looked at his arms he expected to see charred skin. He waited until he was sure Gaius was asleep before tiptoeing across the room and slipping out into the hazy fog of the early morning.
The stables were deserted. Few servants were required before dawn, and Merlin was thankful for the peaceful solitude. Even Arthur’s horse snorted with irritation when Merlin pulled open the door to his stall, entered and latched it behind him.
“Good morning to you too,” Merlin muttered when the stallion pushed him with his nose and turned away to face the wall. “Don’t tell me you’re pretending to be asleep,” Merlin said after noticing the stallion’s eyes were stubbornly closed. “You’re worse than Arthur.”
He gently dragged the brush he’d brought across the horse’s back, watching the muscles quiver as he went. “See, this isn’t so bad. I know you like the attention.” He continued his gentle ministrations, the monotonous movements kept his fatigued mind occupied.
When light began to creep through the stable, Merlin led the horse out of his stall. He prepared Arthur’s horse with care, paying close attention to where he placed the saddle and the position of the bridle. The stallion didn’t seem to mind the extra attention, and Merlin was thankful for the distraction.
He heard Arthur’s command before he saw him. “Gregory, my horse.”
“Of course, sire.” Merlin noted the inflection in the young servant’s voice. He probably said sire while bowing.
“That won’t be necessary,” Merlin said as Gregory appeared around the corner, nearly falling over himself to do Arthur’s bidding.
Merlin led the stallion to the courtyard where Arthur was waiting, conveniently leaving the animal between himself and the prince. “Your horse.” He silently hoped Arthur had forgotten his previous night’s command.
Arthur, however, had not forgotten anything. “I told you I’d have someone else take care of it.”
“Did you? I must have forgotten.”
“You’re not that big of an idiot,” Arthur snapped.
“I wouldn’t say that,” Merlin replied, stepping back as Arthur stepped forward.
Arthur patted his horse’s nose. “Did you sleep?”
Merlin was swatted in the face by a flicking tail. “Some.”
"What does –" Arthur took several steps forward only to be countered by Merlin – “Would you stop that? Come here!”
Arthur sighed. “Merlin, it’s way too early for this. Come here.” Short of running in the other direction, there was little else he could do. Merlin approached Arthur slowly, his fingers twisting nervously in front of his stomach.
“Good, now we can have a proper conversation.” Arthur waited, and Merlin continued studying his hands. “Well?”
Merlin lifted his head. “Well what?”
Arthur’s expression shifted from exasperation to frustration, and he crossed his arms over his chest. “You look terrible.”
Merlin glanced down at his rumpled clothing and shrugged. “It happens.”
“Not your clothes, you idiot. Although they’re barely passable as well. I’m saying you look terrible.” When Merlin couldn’t think of a suitable answer, Arthur added, “People are starting to talk.”
“Since when do you care what people say?” Merlin asked. He’d meant it as a joke, but Arthur didn’t look amused.
“You don’t get it, do you? How you look is a reflection on me. You’re my servant. People are starting to think I’m not taking care of you.”
It was a sad realization. Arthur didn’t care after all. It was all about keeping up appearances, and Merlin was a poor reflection on Arthur.
“Whatever you’re thinking, stop it. It’s not true,” Arthur said, his voice firm.
Merlin’s jaw dropped. Arthur could barely dress himself. Since when did he read minds? “What?” Merlin squeaked.
“You look like I just kicked your puppy,” Arthur replied, swinging up and into the saddle. “I don’t need you over thinking this and ultimately doing something incredibly stupid that requires me to save your sorry hide.”
“I’m ordering you to get some sleep. Sleep, Merlin. Not spending time with Gwen, not assisting Gaius, not doing whatever it is that you do when I’m not around – sleep.”
Arthur gathered the reigns before looking down at Merlin. “Do you understand?”
Despite how little Merlin understood of the conversation that just took place around him, he did have enough mental facilities to know Arthur had ordered him to do the one that he couldn’t do. He’d rather clean the stables from top to bottom, polish armor till his fingers bled, entertain Uther with magic tricks –
“Merlin!” Arthur prompted, nudging Merlin’s shoulder with the toe of his boot.
Arguing was a futile battle anyway. “Yes, yes, I understand.”
“Good,” Arthur said with a nod. Two of Arthur’s knights emerged from the stable leading their horses. “Nice day for a ride,” Arthur said in greeting before returning his gaze to Merlin. “An important friend of my father’s is arriving this afternoon. I expect you to be at the evening meal.”
Merlin nodded, his gaze shifting to the ground as he noticed several raised eyebrows from Arthur’s knights. He stayed until Arthur had ridden from view before turning and stalking back to his chambers.
Gaius was awake and bustling around the room collecting vials and herbs to prepare the daily medications for his patients. “I didn’t expect you back this early.”
“I wouldn’t have been if Arthur hadn’t sent me home,” Merlin replied petulantly.
Gaius raised an eyebrow. “Sent you home? What happened?”
Merlin plopped down on the bench, dropping his chin onto his hand. “Apparently I’m unfit for service.”
“Did he say why?” Gaius pressed.
“He thinks I look terrible, and that’s somehow a bad reflection on him.”
“Some might say the prince is trying to be nice,” Gaius said reasonably.
“Others might say he’s being a prat.”
“You’re tired, Merlin. Don’t you think you might be being unreasonable?”
“Since when was being tired an excuse for getting out of your duties?” Merlin asked. He wondered when Gaius had put the three apples in front of him. When he reached out for one of them, he realized there was only one.
“Since you worked for someone that cared enough to notice.”
“Well, you better do as he says.”
Merlin swallowed the bite of apple he’d been chewing. “What?”
“I’m not going to go against the prince’s order. Go back to bed.”
“Everyone is becoming way too concerned with my sleep cycle,” Merlin grumbled, making no effort to stand. On any other day, the concern would be considered flattering; however, today was not any other day.
Gaius added a few herbs and powder into a goblet of water and placed it on the table within Merlin’s reach. “Drink that.”
Merlin took the goblet and sniffed the contents, his nose crinkling at the foul odor. “What is it?”
“It will help you sleep.”
Merlin shook his head, his mind filling with images of Morgana. “I don’t need –“
Apparently Arthur wasn’t the only one with mind-reading capabilities. “It’s not a sleeping draught. It will only take the edge off, relax you.”
Merlin gripped the base of the goblet until his knuckles turned white. “Do I look like I need to relax?”
Gaius’ eyebrow rose once more like he wasn’t sure if Merlin really wanted an answer to that question. “Drink it.”
Too tired to continue the struggle, Merlin complied, the concoction disappearing down his throat in two swallows. “Sleep well, Merlin.”
“Thanks,” Merlin said, pushing to his feet and plodding into his room. He closed the door, not bothering to undress, and flopped onto the bed.
When he peeled his eyes open much later, he realized he’d actually slept. There had been no dream, at least that he could remember. Merlin blinked several times, stretched out his legs and arms, and realized he actually felt better.
He thought he could sleep for another ten hours, but remembered Arthur’s instruction that he was to attend the evening meal. Merlin changed into what he deemed presentable to a noble visitor.
Merlin knocked twice on Arthur’s chamber door and waited for the instruction to enter. He closed the door and turned around, his body freezing in place once he got a clear view of the prince.
Arthur rolled his eyes. “I realize this may come as a shock to you, but I do know how to dress myself.”
“Really? I hadn’t noticed.”
Arthur opened his mouth to respond, but noticed something – what, Merlin had no idea – and he smiled instead. “You’re feeling better.”
Merlin tugged at his sleeves. “So I don’t look terrible?”
Arthur’s gaze raked up and down his body. “I wouldn’t go that far. Barely passable is more like it.”
“But still passable.”
“Get through tonight’s feast without tripping over your feet or pouring wine on one of the knights and we’ll see.”
Merlin crossed his arms over his chest. “That only happened one time!”
Arthur turned away. Merlin knew he was hiding his smile. When he turned around, his expression was neutral. “Let’s go. And do try to keep my goblet filled tonight.”
“You’re such a prat,” Merlin muttered as he followed him out the door.
Arthur stopped, nearly causing Merlin to collide with him. “What did you say?”
“I said you’re wearing that?”
Arthur bumped him with his shoulder and continued down the corridor with Merlin trailing behind him, smiling for the first time in days.
The doors opened as Arthur approached the massive hall. Uther’s voice echoed off the walls as he greeted his friend who had arrived moments before.
“Lord William, it’s an honor to have you in Camelot,” Uther greeted, one hand grasping the nobleman’s hand and the other holding his wrist.
“It is my honor, your highness,” William responded warmly. “How long has it been?”
“Too long,” Uther replied, his eyes narrowing. “You haven’t aged a day.”
Lord William laughed – it was a loud, booming sound – and Merlin froze in the doorway, the color draining from his face.
“If only that were true, your highness,” Lord William replied.
Merlin knew that laugh. He smelled the smoke from the fire that wasn’t burning and felt his flesh scorching from the flames that didn’t exist. Yes, he knew that laugh.