Pairing: Arthur/Gwen, Arthur/Merlin
Word count: ~3000
Warnings/Spoilers: Up to 2x07, non-explicit references to troll!sex
Summary: For the merlin_flashfic challenge "healing."
Arthur is just thinking he may go mad trying to determine what has changed in the recent past when his shoulder gives a tiny twinge and it strikes him all in a flash.
The Questing Beast. The gaps in his memory had started after he was bitten by the Questing Beast.
Arthur is not used to feeling indecisive. Indecision in court makes one appear a weak king. Indecision in battle can cost the lives of good men. His knights look to him, rely on his orders to guide them to victory. Without their faith he cannot be an effective leader -- in court or on the battlefield. That faith is based not only on his charisma and ability to command, but on his training and past experience.
Which is why his current predicament disconcerts him so deeply.
It took him awhile to notice. His words have been sharper these past few weeks, his temper shorter. These he can attribute to the continuing ache in his shoulder and a general impatience. Arthur has never claimed to be a gracious invalid. Yes, these can be easily explained away.
What is not accountable is how there seem to be sudden, inexplicable gaps in his memory.
It hits him first a few days following the disappearance of Cedric. He's practicing throwing knives to strengthen the weakened muscle in his shoulder when entirely unbidden Merlin's somber voice pops into his head, "Promise me this. If you get another servant, don't get a bootlicker."
Arthur frowns and nearly misses the target, causing him to curse. As he stalks across the training field to dig the knife out, his mind races madly in tight circles. When had Merlin ever asked such a promise of him? What had happened, that Merlin had made the too-familiar entreaty and that Arthur had allowed it? He struggles to recall more of the event, but his as a rule perfectly sound memory seems slightly smudged around the edges, this particular memory inaccessible. Giving it some further consideration, Arthur decides the scene must have followed the bite of the Questing Beast, but no further details are forthcoming.
His frown deepens as he considers the statement. With this new information, the debacle that had been Cedric took on a whole other unbecoming light. Why had he been so quick to trust Cedric? Heaven knew after a year with Merlin he knew genuine compliment from flattery. That Cedric had been able to win him over so easily with a few words of thinly-disguised fawning was not only insulting, it was absurd.
There is another thing that bothers him on reflection: why had he suddenly thought Merlin had been his manservant for only a few short months, rather than a year?
He tries to dismiss it as an aberration. Gaius had had him taking strong draughts almost religiously the first few days after he woke up from the bite of the Questing Beast, to keep the pain at bay. It is not implausible that the drugs affected his memory, caused him to forget this one conversation. The credibility of the hypothesis is enough to put the memory loss out of his mind, and Arthur finds he has nearly forgotten about the bizarre episode when without warning a few weeks later it happens again.
This time he is staying with Guinevere, who has offered him her home for the duration of the jousting tournament so that he may compete in secret. The house is sparsely furnished, with few luxuries, but it is not uncomfortable. Arthur is enormously grateful to Guinevere for agreeing to go along at all with what is -- admittedly -- largely an attempt to salve his own wounded pride. When Guinevere abruptly loses her temper on the third day and lashes out at him for his incivility, he is blindsided and frankly baffled.
"How am I supposed to know if you don't tell me?" he asks, not unreasonably he thinks.
Something odd flickers across Gwen's face. "You shouldn't need to be told to think of someone other than yourself. You're not a child."
Arthur thinks perhaps that Guinevere does not understand that princes and servants are brought up rather differently, but her words sting nonetheless. He does his best to make amends and when she offers him her handkerchief as a token, he kisses her for having the temerity to speak her mind to him. He doesn't think anyone has ever done that for him before.
Except, a few days later, he remembers she had said something similar to him once before -- when they were in Merlin's village, Ealdor. She had rebuked him when he had brushed off the porridge Hunith offered, told him how food was scarce for some people. Not to mention Arthur had had no bed in Ealdor. Morgana and Gwen had taken the bed. He had slept on the floor with Merlin.
No wonder Gwen's expression had been so odd. She clearly remembered the quest they had undertaken together to prevent Kanen entering Camelot. That is, to preserve Merlin's village for annexation. To protect Merlin. For Merlin’s sake.
Why can't he remember their reasoning clearly within his own head?
Arthur is no longer willing to dismiss what is rapidly becoming a pattern. It appears that without his knowledge at some point and in some manner, crucial parts of his memory were rendered missing. Obviously as such he has no way of telling the difference, but Arthur suspects that with those memories a number of his current actions might prove illogical, maybe even farcical. Which begs the question: is he under some sort of sorcery, and if so to what purpose?
He considers whether he may have been given something unwittingly with his food, but they have had no recent guests at Camelot. Merlin brings him all his other meals. He has received no gifts, strange or otherwise, and even his armor is unchanged, not having needed replacement for some time. Arthur is just thinking he may go mad trying to determine what has changed in the recent past when his shoulder gives a tiny twinge and it strikes him all in a flash.
The Questing Beast. The gaps in his memory had started after he was bitten by the Questing Beast.
Arthur struggles to recall what Gaius had said about the Questing Beast. Something about how the Old Religion said it foreshadowed a time of great upheaval. Well, if the Old Religion had something to say about it, then the creature was almost certainly magical.
Did that mean its venom was magical too? He clenches his shoulder tightly as another idea occurs to him. Perhaps the labilium Gaius had found had only managed to neutralize the non-magical part of the creature's venom, prevent him from dying. Perhaps the magical part was still coursing through his veins.
Arthur carefully cuts the pad of his thumb, but his blood tastes the same as ever.
Still, Arthur feels with a peculiar certainty that his theory is correct. There is no other logical explanation for the gaps in his memory, gaps that are specific to the time before the Questing Beast's bite. What he does not know is what can be done to fix the situation. Whenever he has seen Gaius prepare a snakebite remedy before, the physician has always required the fang of the serpent responsible.
Arthur had never asked what became of the Questing Beast. He ruminates on asking for a few days but in the end, simply tries to guide Merlin toward where he remembers engaging the creature while out on a hunt. In response, Merlin flounders most impressively and hastily attempts to redirect Arthur's attention toward a barely discernable eight-point stag in the distance. Merlin being so clearly distressed as to encourage actual hunting (as opposed to thrashing about, making noise, and generally being a nuisance by scaring off all the potential prey) gives Arthur pause, and he decides not to pursue the fang that day after all.
It occurs to him afterward that the beast is probably long since decomposed, or -- as in the case of the unicorn -- has simply vanished into the ether.
(Arthur puzzles over what occasion would lead him to bury the tusk of a unicorn -- surely it would be a sign of prowess and a great prize for Camelot -- but only can conclude that this is another memory the venom has tampered such to be incomprehensible.)
In any case, the Questing Beast's fang is gone and Arthur is bereft of further ideas for counteracting the toxin in his veins.
He cannot be an effective leader while his memory is divided, so he resorts to writing down when he notices his actions provoke a startled response in those around him. It isn't easy. His father has always assumed any odd behavior on his part to be a product of his youth and inexperience. Morgana has been increasingly withdrawn of late and he hardly ever sees her except at supper. What memory he has of Gwen doesn't suggest much significant contact between them before the bite of the Questing Beast.
Which leaves him, more or less, with Merlin.
Fortunately, Merlin is easy to read, his every thought written plainly across his face. His innocent look as he sneaks Morgana flowers screams his guilt so loudly Arthur wonders why he bothers hiding the flowers at all. (Come to think of it, when did Merlin start giving people flowers? Wasn't that more the sort of thing Gwen did? Perhaps Merlin had asked tips from her, even though she had fancied him once, the insensitive clod.)
So when Merlin's eyebrows practically fly off his face at Arthur's declaration that his father would never let him marry Gwen, his mind pauses for analysis even as his mouth carries on the conversation, keeps on forming words.
Why is he so determined to pursue Guinevere? Certainly she has been a source of comfort lately, the person he least worries about offending or incurring suspicion by forgotten memory, but that alone should not lead him to desire marriage with her. It all feels almost too pat, like the unquestioning obedience of a sorcery-led mind.
Unbidden, the memory surfaces of another sudden infatuation. Sophia. She had appeared and within two days Arthur had stood before Uther to ask permission for marriage. He had been willing to risk everything for her, right up to the point where he had woken up to Gaius and Merlin's worried faces and a throbbing lump on his head.
(There wasn't a lump on his head. Of course there was. It was good that Merlin had been there to stop him.)
He is almost certain now that that had been sorcery. Gaius and Merlin must have decided not to tell him, fearing his father's reaction. Arthur understood completely. It was the same reason he continued to conceal his own magical ailment. There was no telling what response the disclosure of a magical affliction, however benign, would provoke in his father.
He does not think that sorcery is entirely at work in his affection for Gwen. He does care for her a great deal, much like he cares for both Merlin and Morgana in his own way. This all-consuming focus on her does seem a bit odd, though, and he resolves to be more circumspect in his actions once they have saved her and returned to Camelot. When he sees the looks she and Lancelot exchange as they escape, he cannot deny he feels a tiny twinge of regret, but mostly he is just relieved she won't think he's led her on.
He takes encouragement in the fact that his memories appear to be returning more quickly now. Arthur is no physician, but he hazards that his body is somehow slowly curing itself of the Questing Beast's venom --and this in turn is restoring his memories.
He recalls now innumerable instances of friendly banter with Merlin, of rapid back-and-forth that charged the air and could go on for hours. The next time Merlin comes in to clean his chambers, Arthur forgoes his usual habit and does not leave. Instead, he sits and chats with Merlin while he performs his chores, striking up a conversation about the latest of his recruited knights. Merlin seems surprised, but responds eagerly with the castle gossip about the man from below-stairs. The moment feels easy and light -- the sort of thing they should always do -- and Arthur wonders how he could possibly have forgotten this, how Merlin could have let him forget.
Then Merlin bursts in one day, eyes wild, with a tale of how Lady Catrina is actually a troll, and Arthur wonders whether he really does in fact have a mental affliction.
All of that is unimportant when the lady, now Queen Catrina, accuses Merlin of the theft of her family seal. Arthur may not yet have full control of his memory, but he knows precisely what he intends to do. He purposely misdirects the search party to all the places Merlin wouldn't possibly be this early -- the lazy sod -- and then makes a beeline for his chambers, where sure enough Merlin is fluffing pillows or collecting laundry or somesuch domestic nonsense. Without wasting a breath, Arthur warns Merlin of the charge and orders him to leave Camelot. Merlin protests his innocence, and for a moment Arthur believes he will be an idiot and refuse to leave. The incessant pounding on Arthur's door seems to make his mind up for him, though, and Merlin flees the scene without another word.
The next few days in Camelot are odd, to say the least. Perhaps the oddest bit of all is that Merlin turns out to not have been speaking figuratively when he described Lady Catrina as a troll (which Arthur wouldn't have dismissed if he had clarified, the stupid git.) This revelation results in a number of positively revolting aromas being spread around the castle and in the sudden and dramatic increase of taxes for the lower townspeople.
Arthur watches with displeasure as the castle guard bullies the working people of Camelot into giving up their livelihood. The memory returns to him with startling clarity of another time, another peasant, another instance when resources were scarce. Arthur hears Anhora implore him, "Be merciful and kind, my lord. This will bring its own reward."
And Arthur knows what he must do.
His father's anger is not entirely unexpected. Arthur has defied him before, but rarely so publically. What is unexpected -- and unfathomable -- is the disinheritance that follows. Uther had never used the loss of Arthur's title as a threat before, even in jest; more often he used Arthur's title as a reminder of his responsibilities. It is then that Arthur realizes how strong the sway of the enchantment the troll has him under must be.
It makes him wonder at the strength of the still lingering venom in his own veins.
Gwen comes to visit him before the disinheritance to express the lower town's gratitude. He finds himself watching her lips as she talks, because listening to her words, he finds she sounds exactly like Merlin when he is one of his "the crown lives to serve the kingdom, the people are the kingdom" rants. Her words are beautiful and passionate, and for once she isn't stumbling when she talks to him. He would almost kiss her again, but in that moment he can't quite figure out whether to tip his head up or down.
When Arthur prepares for bed that night, it is with a strange heaviness in his heart. The people are suffering, his father is married to a troll, and he has lost both his title and his closest friend all in the space of a few days. So he really can't be blamed for overreacting when Merlin calls out to him from under his bed and the stupid grin he sports on his face as he pops out leaves Arthur feeling entirely justified in asking whether he has been there the whole time.
It is the rapport they've rebuilt over the past few weeks and that rapport alone that sustains Arthur as Merlin and Gaius proceed to outline their admittedly rather insane plan. Arthur is not sure he can be wholly comfortable with any plan that includes his possible death as a necessary component. He is forced to admit he has no better ideas, however, so he agrees to it without much argument. As he raises the vial to Gaius and to Merlin and then to his lips, he is struck by the realization that he has done this once before, has raised a glass to Merlin's health as he drank to his own death.
He still feels as if he is missing some details, but when he comes back to consciousness to slay the troll and her tailed companion in a moment of fortuity, he feels more complete than he has in some time, as if something very precious that was missing has been restored to him.
The aftermath of the accidental troll marriage goes as smoothly as Arthur has come to expect in Camelot. Following an appropriate (and extremely brief) period of mourning, Uther repeals the new taxes on the lower town, restores Arthur's title in a proper ceremony, and tries to not to gag at the realization he has spent three days with a troll in his marriage bed. Arthur for his part is asking no questions.
He does catch Merlin, however, and -- after a fair exchange of good-natured ribbing -- thanks him for his part in exposing the latest magical being's attempt to bring down Camelot. (Arthur wonders sometimes if any of the neighboring kingdoms have this problem quite so regularly. It disturbs him to think it might be unique to Camelot.) At any rate, Merlin seems happy to have been thanked and when he mistakes Arthur's abortive attempt at a shoulder clasp for a hug, Arthur can't really find it in himself to do any more than poke a little fun at Merlin for his over-affectionate ways.
He doesn't really know if this means he's cured or if the venom has just lost its potency. There are still moments, less frequent, which leave him feeling disoriented and confused. With no small amount of grief, Arthur resigns himself to the fact it may be months before he can say with any certainty that all the effects have gone.
In the meantime, though, he has Merlin again, really has him -- not the spineless twit who allowed Arthur to demand he bring a mattress for a perfectly adequate floor, but a true friend -- and he has come to realize that that is no small thing. If necessary, Arthur figures he can rely on Merlin to keep him from being too big of a prat. (Though Merlin must understand that a little prat is necessary. It comes with being the Crown Prince.)
With shoddy cleaning, deplorable footwork, and courageous poison-drinking (and how had Arthur ever forgotten that?) all at his disposal, Arthur feels as though any upcoming challenges cannot possibly prove insurmountable. When Aredian accuses Merlin of sorcery, when Merlin charges Aredian in a fit of fury, when Merlin in the guise of Gwen argues for Gaius' life; Arthur no longer feels the need to pause, to wonder what he will do.
He will be king.
And Merlin will stand beside him.