Still A Secret

Merlin and Arthur (AND Gaius)

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Merlin followed Arthur, and his feet practically didn't touch the ground. A warm yellow kind of sunshine seemed to be burning him from the inside out, exhilaration coursing through every limb.

Arthur knew. Arthur didn't hate him. Arthur had knighted him.

That part was rather unbelievable. Merlin couldn't imagine how he was supposed to go about being a knight and a court advisor at once, at least without an uproar from the remaining counselors of Uther's old reign like Areth. Of course, Arthur technically would still need to knight him all over again, what with them being in a dream presently and not under the eyes of the court.

Well, that was one way to keep his feet on the ground.

Arthur tirelessly followed the flitting butterfly, and though Merlin himself didn't feel physically tired, he would much rather stop and think about the next course of action to take rather than follow Arthur on his gut feeling.

Merlin had a hard time trusting anything about this dream.

"Arthur-" he called ahead after another immeasurable amount of time.

"No, Merlin, this feels right," Arthur said over his shoulder, and his eyes were almost feverishly bright. Merlin felt a shudder come from somewhere deep, maybe even his real body back in reality. He looked around at the changing terrain and suddenly recognized a rather tall statue choked by undergrowth, glaring down at them as they passed.

"The valley of the fallen kings," Merlin said to himself, though Arthur heard him. Arthur was slowing to a halt, looking around him in growing agitation.

"I lost it," he said in despair, throwing a fist against the rock surrounding them. "We were so close! I could feel it!"

"Perhaps it's time to think over a plan of escape, then," Merlin suggested hopefully, though that hope withered and died at the look Arthur shot back at him.

"I know you think this is pointless Merlin, but it's our best bet," the king said with finality. "There's no true way to 'escape' this. We have to follow where the dream wants to take us, and keep doing so until it let's us go."

Merlin swallowed hard. "What if it never lets us go?"

For a moment Arthur's eyes softened from their steel resolve, and he gripped Merlin's shoulder with a sturdy, gloved hand. "We'll be alright. I promise," he said, the slightest of smiles gracing his face.

Merlin nodded, managing a half one himself.

But then Arthur was staring over his shoulder, surprise widening his eyes. "Merlin?" he asked in disbelief, and Merlin answered with a confused, "Yes?" before turning around to catch a figure not too far off, a man who looked much too like himself start walking away.

"Arthur," Merlin put a restraining hand in front of his king, who'd just started moving.

The glassy look in Arthur's eyes dulled for a moment. "I know that's not you," he told him slowly, jaw clenching. "But it's something."

And so they followed in the direction dream Merlin had gone, farther into the valley, deeper into the growing mist. Merlin shivered again, wondering why he was so cold, and kept his eyes on the apparition's back with almost morbid curiosity. Was that really what he looked like, from behind?

Then the dream Merlin stopped, making a sharp left turn towards a large outcropping of rock. Arthur seemed spurred on by this, picking up towards a jog again as the figure slipped from of their eyesight.

But then it stood waiting for them as they rounded the outcropping, standing at the mouth of a cave passively as Merlin and Arthur approached. "You have arrived," it told them in something eerily similar to Merlin's voice, and disappeared inside the cave.

Merlin looked into the dark opening with a heavy dread weighing his heart. The cave of the Disir, it had to be, opened like a gaping mouth waiting to swallow them whole. There had been no grove surrounding it, unlike the real cave, but Merlin didn't suppose in this dream land anything had to be set up like it was in real life.

He wondered, if the Disir tried to kill them in this world, if they'd really die.

"We have to go inside," Arthur determined next to him, and Merlin could almost feel both their death sentences materialize in front of them.

But Arthur was going - and that meant so was Merlin.

"Alright," he merely nodded, and when Arthur looked at him in surprise Merlin shrugged. "I can't stop you, can I?"

Arthur half-smiled, replying, "Perhaps you could," and Merlin's heart spasmed slightly before he realized it was alright, and Arthur already knew. He let out a shaky laugh, though it quickly cut off when Arthur's smile flattened into a grim line. "You don't have to come with me, Merlin. Truly. I think even, if you chose, you could leave this place for good. Nothing is tying you here."

"That's where you're wrong," Merlin said simply, watching as understanding slowly lit Arthur's face, and then made the first steps toward the entrance himself. Time to face destiny, he thought.

He couldn't have been more right.

.

Gaius hadn't slept in 48 hours.

And that was all fine. He'd done it many times in many many years, unable to get a wink in between caring for the castle's wounded and simultaneously attending Uther and giving his king counsel in the midst of a siege, a magical beast's attack, or an uprising in the early days of the Purge.

No, what was not fine was his boy, his Merlin, and his king, both laying in the center of his chambers, balancing on the precipice of death.

Gaius could tell when a body no longer contained its spirit. It deflated in a way, seemed smaller and less significant to the eye than a body and spirit joined in soul. That was what Merlin and Arthur looked like now, though their lungs breathed in and out shallowly every 1.5 seconds. Every hour or so it would get too quiet and Gaius would jerk from where he sat, running like his old legs hadn't in years to make sure they were still breathing.

Did it even matter that they were breathing?

The King's Sleep was a curse, though if the chosen could overcome it the kingdom would be blessed tenfold and live prosperously for ages to come. The king would not die-he would start off with dreams of warning, though if the warning was not entirely heeded eventually he would sleep on, till his body rotted away from lack of use and his lungs were no longer fit to hold air. That is what the legends told Gaius, some in gruesome detail.

None of that explained what would happen to Merlin.

Nothing could explain Merlin, of course. Gaius had thought he'd given up on that years ago. Still now he searched through the few records of the curse for any mention of another, another soul who was trapped inbetween it all. Would they sleep on, as well? Would they die? Gaius had always secretly worried he would live past his adopted nephew, with how dangerous a life the boy always seemed to live.

Was Merlin going to die on him after all?

"Gaius," a voice interrupted his dark musings, and Gaius lifted his head from text he'd reread at least 8 times in the past day.

It was Mordred who'd spoken, though Reida the Druid maid had come as well. Gaius nodded tiredly at them both before bustling over to Merlin's side. The poor man was shivering again, farther from the burning hearth than Arthur, and he stacked another blanket over him. Shivering was another sign of life, at least.

He already knew what Reida thought about all this. Mordred had explained; that Arthur would die if they somehow could wake Merlin, even if the curse specified only sleep for the king, not immediate death. He didn't know whether to believe her. He resented it inside, even, that there was a chance they could save Merlin but at the same time could not, thanks to the king. Arthur would be the death of him.

Reida stepped forward, though he ignored her. There seemed to be something bright but hidden in the girl's intelligent eyes, and the way she stared at the bodies of the sleeping men as the two approached made Gaius wonder if she saw more of what was happening than his little ability could. Which frustrated him to no end.

"Reida has told me she might know what it is that has cursed the king," Mordred explained, stopping to stand on the opposite side of Merlin's body.

Gaius lifted his eyes slowly. "And?" he said, cocking a brow when Mordred did not continue, but the young knight shook his head. Then Reida herself stepped forward again, expression all at once hesitant yet determined.

"S-sir," she started, and he immediately could hear she had trouble saying the word, "I've . . . been thinking of . . . what was said, s-said earlier . . ."

She looked up at Mordred in worry, but he only gave her an encouraging nod.

The druid took a shaky breath and continued. "Revenge . . . of the Gods. What if . . . the great ones . . . are only, trying, t-trying to-to right destiny . . . fix it, s-sir."

Gaius stared at her in confusion, trying to understand what she had said. "What if destiny was still going astray, Gaius," Mordred helpfully came to the rescue. "That's what she means. What if Merlin is part of righting that destiny?"

"But Arthur fulfilled his destiny, Mordred," Gaius shook his head slowly, wishing it were true, "this can't be more than revenge from the Old Religion - in every other way he has fulfilled what has been prophesied, he has even brought magic back thanks to the warning of the dream. Would not that be sufficient?"

Reida spoke again, her voice suddenly much more confident. "Something still was left. Something still had to be done, sir. I know it."

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Arthur followed Merlin into the cave, heart in his throat.

He was doing his utmost best to not be worried about what would be inside once they'd arrive. Really, bats and wildren were least on his list of worries. But the dark seemed to encroach on them the second they entered, robbing Arthur of any direction except the scuffle of Merlin stumbling his clumsy way through just ahead. It was rather a loud series of sounds in the echo of the cave, and the loudest ones made Arthur involuntarily flinch.

"Could you keep it down, Merlin?" he hissed, and he heard the other man snort.

"Why? The other me knows we're coming," Merlin answered, following another loud scuffle.

Arthur gritted his teeth, knowing the other man was right. The dream knew where they were - of course it did. Something was compelling them here, and they were listening. It was only a matter of time before Merlin and Arthur arrived.

But time had a way of slipping into an abstract idea, here in the pitch black of a place that didn't actually exist. Arthur couldn't say how long it was that they stumbled blindly through the dark, a moment or a month, before a cold kind of light began to brighten the cave from the other end of the tunnel.

"Arthur . . ." Merlin started, hushed, but Arthur cut him off with, "I see it." Then he began to take the lead, walking on a much easier path with the light to guide him. The ground swelled high up ahead, almost to the ceiling, leaving only a man's size gap for the light to leak through. Arthur was unable to see what lay beyond till he stood there, almost forgetting to crouch his head in his amazement.

It was a room like no other. A cave glowing like night on a harvest moon, except brighter, every surface cropping up sprouts of the purest crystal, white and blinding. The crystal was clearly the source of light in the room, illuminating everything and eliminating any shadow with its all-encompassing glow. Arthur felt like he'd gotten the wind knocked out of him by Percival, no less, unable to get enough air in to even properly gasp at the sight.

Merlin seemed to have no problem. In fact, he gasped and then staggered back the moment he joined Arthur at the top of the swell, looking down into the ethereal room before them in shock but recognition.

When tears sprung in the corners of his manservant's eyes, Arthur could wait no longer. "Merlin, what is this place?" he asked, not for a moment doubting the sorcerer knew.

"It's . . . it's . . ." Merlin whispered, lips twitching into a smile.

"The Crystal Cave," his voice said, but it was not him. Both Merlin and Arthur whipped their heads back behind them, where dream Merlin smiled at them as he approached. He moved past them and into the cave before turning back and morphing, figure changing in an instant to another Arthur recognized.

His initial thought was to brandish Excalibur. It was the sorcerer who'd killed his father after all, or so he'd told himself for years after. He knew it not to be true any longer. In fact, based off the knowledge Gaius had begrudgingly given him over the past year, this was another form of Merlin.

The old man's face crinkled into a rather maniacal grin when Arthur's hand relaxed from his sword handle. "What are we doing here?" the real Merlin asked by Arthur's side, sounding as confused as Arthur felt. "If this is not the cave of the Disir . . ."

"The Disir!" the old man cackled, grinning wider. "You think those useless old crones had anything to do with this great work? Oh no, dear boy, you've been mistaken. Their judgment of the Gods was righted a long year ago by my handiwork, anyway."

"Then what are we doing here!" Merlin shouted, surprising Arthur by the sudden anger in his voice. "Why are we still trapped in this dream?"

The dream frowned in what looked like disappointment. "Because there was something left. And now it's been righted." The old man looked at Arthur meaningfully, and immediately the recent memory of Merlin kneeling before him, admitting his magic and pledging his loyalty, washed over Arthur like a rushing wave. He understood.

"Now," the dream apparition said briskly, clapping wrinkled hands together. "That's all been cleared up. You've been brought here merely as a reward; a chance to see what good works your deeds will wrought. Behold, my young friends." He spread his arms, walking back a little to indicate the crystals around them.

Arthur approached, ignoring Merlin's protest, and beheld.

He saw a united kingdom; he saw prosperous people and a peaceful land. Then Arthur looked into another and this time saw him in the Great Hall of Camelot, Merlin on one knee in front of him in rather expensive clothing as the entire court and many from the citadel bore witness. He turned his head toward another crystal, this one so small he could barely make out the little child with bouncing curls that Guinevere was playing with, or the boy on his lap as he read reports with a rather thick beard on his face, or the older girl with Arthur's eyes next to Merlin, sounding a foreign word before the same eyes flickered to gold.

Arthur came back to himself only to find he was on the ground, silent tears streaming down his cheeks.

Merlin helped him up; he had a rather shuttered expression on his face that confused Arthur, looking at the ground as he murmured, "Was all well, my lord?"

"You did not look?" Arthur asked in disbelief, and Merlin lifted his eyes quickly to shake his head, though immediately he grinned.

"I've looked once too many," he said. Arthur opened his mouth to answer the previous question, then, but after a moment he merely shook his head and closed it. Merlin's smile grew so wide it nearly split his face, and he turned back to face the old man with no hint of anger left. "We can leave now?"

The dream apparition rolled his eyes and made a shooing motion with one hand. "Fine then. Off you go. Can't appreciate my gift to you, I suppose. Oh well. Leave the cave, and you'll wake."

The old man turned as if to go, but Arthur stopped him with a, "Wait! Could we please have a light, then?"

The wide, happy smile the man answered with in return was nearly identical to the one his manservant just had, and made no sense until the old man looked pointedly at Merlin.

"You want me to . . . oh," Merlin said, his cheeks darkening. He took a deep breath, and without even an incantation his eyes flashed and a globe of pearly blue light swam above their heads. The fact Arthur swore he almost definitely recognized the orb from somewhere would definitely be addressed at a different time.

"Off with you now; you both have a kingdom to run," the old man said, and Arthur shrugged, frowning in mock denial before turning back towards where they came. He couldn't keep the smile off his face for long, of course. He couldn't even find it in him to miss the dreams for what they had become the past few weeks; not a warning, but a glimpse into the true importance of the two of them, working together. Because now it could become reality.

Merlin joined him, and for a moment when their eyes met Arthur thought perhaps it would take time - but it would happen. Everything he saw in the crystals would come true.

Destiny watched them as they left, congratulating itself on its life-saving intervention all this time.

.

The kingdom almost started a new holiday in their burst of rejoicing and celebrating the day of the king's dramatic recovery. And the cure was immediately accredited to his favorite manservant, who rumor had it was not only a sorcerer but soon would rise in rank to sit at his right hand at the Round Table.

Of course, one couldn't listen to gossips like Sir Gwaine who would rave on and on about it at the Rising Sun. Still, word had it from more trustworthy sources, like his comrade Sir Mordred, that it was more likely fact than fiction.

Who wasn't actually there for the great and joyous day when it in fact did arrive; the maids had it in the know that Sir Mordred had actually already gone on a trip to visit the druids with a new sweetheart, one of their very own apparently.

Queen Guinevere came to the ceremony of course. She stood there prouder than any as Merlin rose, equal to her in rank once again. It was actually her very last public ceremony for some time, thanks to an ever-protruding belly to conceal for months to come.

And then there was Gaius, who said it was the happiest day of his life to any patient who would listen, and ended up being one of his very last.

The kingdom never truly understood how close it came to peril, to destruction. No. That stayed close-kept, forever-guarded, still a secret to the very end.

THE END


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