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the island of conclusions

Merlin Fic: "Without Oaths" (Spoilers for 2.12)

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Merlin Fic: "Without Oaths" (Spoilers for 2.12)

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Title: Without Oaths
Rating: pg, gen fic (but I think you can probably read it as pre-slash…)
Genre: h/c, with a side of character study. Think of it as meta wrapped around some h/c; or maybe h/c wrapped around some meta.
Word Count: ~1.7K
Disclaimer: Not mine, no profit.
Summary: Merlin and Arthur are tired.

Without Oaths.

Merlin watched Arthur pick at his food, too exhausted even to be bored.

The kitchens knew that three days ago the prince had valiantly saved the kingdom from a malicious spell, and they had piled the tray high with delicacies without complaining, even though Arthur had come in so late from drilling his knights that the last table had been cleared.

And no one, not even Merlin, had mentioned that it was the second day in a row the prince had kept his men out after nightfall, as if they were all humoring his belief that extra training with pikes and swords would do any good against magic. Would do anything at all except leave Camelot’s finest more worn out than they already were.

Arthur held one beautifully prepared morsel on his fork—staring at it in a particularly un-Arthur-like way. Usually, he ate without looking; now he was looking without eating. Merlin sighed.

The prince’s exhaustion was written on his face. His eyes were red-rimmed and shadowed, the skin beneath them thin and fragile, pale purple-gray like a healing bruise. He had been training hard, and despite the evening’s chill his hair was dark and lank with sweat. Merlin suspected that his elbows, propped firmly on the table, were the only thing keeping him upright.

All in all, Arthur looked like Merlin felt: wrung out—as if Morgause’s spell had left a sticky residue of dullness and fatigue behind.

It was the same all over Camelot, Gaius said. Most people had simply woken up, ill-rested but otherwise unharmed, after the spell ended. They had gone about their business none the worse for wear. Some, however, had not been able to shake off the spell entirely; it had left them tired, out-of-sorts, vaguely ill. As was the case with Merlin and Arthur.

Rushing about, lugging the king hither and yon, fighting faceless knights while under its influence, hadn’t done them any good either, Gaius had pronounced, looking at Merlin critically.

It wasn’t like they’d had any choice in the matter, Merlin had protested.

The physician had just frowned and nodded, given him a nasty smelling but supposedly strengthening potion, and tried to convince him to spend the day in bed.

But if Arthur wasn’t going to take it easy—was, on the contrary, simply going to train harder in some misguided attempt to compensate for Morgana’s loss—then Merlin couldn’t very well slack off. So he’d choked down the drink, and brought an extra dose up to Arthur’s chamber—where it was now sitting untouched next to the tray of food.

Merlin wasn’t entirely sure it would help, anyway. Their malaise wasn’t simply physical, and there was a reason Arthur was trying to sweat it out on the practice field.

He wondered how Arthur would feel if he knew how close Merlin had come to killing Morgana.

He was pretty sure Arthur would have made the same decision. In fact, Merlin suspected, the prince would have probably have acted with much less hesitation, if no less regret. Given the same information, he thought Arthur would have willed the death of his childhood playmate with the same unwavering purpose with which he had flung himself into the melee of faceless knights to find an escape route for his father.

Because in Arthur’s world there was only one true, unwavering good: the protection of Camelot. All personal loves and sorrows came second to that. The prince had been bred to that belief since he was an infant, Merlin knew, but he doubted the training would have stuck, would have been refined to such a perfect pitch, if it hadn’t struck some natural chord in him, had not called forth an answer from his innermost being.

Merlin knew this about Arthur—respected his unswerving devotion to the kingdom—might even love him for it. But it wasn’t devotion to Camelot that had motivated Merlin to kill Morgana.

“Oi.” His reverie was broken by a bread pellet bouncing off the exact center of his forehead. Arthur grinned at his surprise, cheered up by the accuracy of his shot. Then he sobered, “Get your head out of the clouds, Merlin, and take this away,” the prince gestured at the almost untouched plate of food, “I’m done.”

“You need to eat something, Arthur,” Merlin protested, sounding biddy-ish even to his own ears, “you need to keep your strength up”

“And you need to stop sounding like my old Nurse,” the prince retorted. Then he narrowed his eyes at Merlin. “You look terrible,” he said, voice sharp with something between accusation and concern. “You look like you ought to be in bed.”

“Right back at you,” Merlin said wearily. “If you’re not going to eat, you should at least get some rest.”

“Not yet,” Arthur said impatiently, “I still need to go over the reports from the border patrols. Our enemies know something happened here this week and it’s making them curious. They’re looking for ways to exploit any vulnerability.”

“Uh-uh,” Merlin said, without much sympathy. “Well I doubt they’re going to be doing much exploiting for the next hour or so. Sleep for a bit,” he coaxed, “I’ll wake you.”

Arthur ignored him, pushed his chair back and stood. And immediately put his hands back down on the table, as if rising had dizzied him. He blew out a shaky breath. “Alright,” he said reluctantly, “one hour. And if you don’t wake me, I’ll have your head.”

“Decapitation,” Merlin said, “got it.” He tried as surreptitiously as possible to steer Arthur towards the bed.

A couple of slightly off-balance steps, and the prince sagged onto the mattress. And sat there, hands lax on his knees, staring blankly at a spot over Merlin’s left shoulder.

When it became clear that Arthur wasn’t going to move again any time soon, Merlin knelt and pushed up his trouser leg to get to his boot laces. The prince’s skin was warm to the touch—too warm, Merlin thought, frowning, worried that the fever might have lingered along with the lethargy of the spell. He held the contact for a moment, trying to judge, but Arthur shifted irritably, so he busied himself with getting the boots off, knowing the prince wouldn’t thank him for fussing.

“Why don’t you drink the potion Gaius sent?” he asked instead.

“No,” Arthur shook his head, “…just ma’ me groggy.” He was slurring his words a little.

“Right,” Merlin muttered under his breath, “because you’re so clear-headed now.” But Arthur didn’t seem to hear.

Under other circumstances, it would have been funny to watch the heir to the throne fall asleep sitting up, execute a slow, uncharacteristically clumsy fall into the pillows, dragging his feet up behind, and ending up sprawled like a child’s rag doll. At the moment, it just made Merlin’s chest tighten in sympathy and worry.

Once Arthur seemed well and truly out, Merlin risked laying a palm flat against his forehead. Not hot, but definitely feverish. Arthur hardly stirred under his touch, and Merlin suppressed a twinge of worry about what that might mean. He’d go down in a moment, see if Gaius had something stronger for him when he woke up. Although it felt strange to take the liberty, he brushed Arthur’s damp hair off his face and pulled a coverlet over him—he’d be cold soon.

Then he looked down on the sleeping prince, and thought again about trying to kill Morgana.

Before he'd come to Camelot, Merlin had never really thought about whether Uther deserved to be king—he simply was the king. And now…Now, to his sorrow, he knew too much to believe that Uther’s word was infallibly right. Although it made him uncomfortable to admit it, even to himself, he could understand Morgause’s anger at Uther’s lies and persecution, could sense what had made Morgana shift her allegiance. In the deepest recesses of his mind, he didn’t think it was impossible that Camelot might be better off with a different ruler.

But that would never happen by his hands, for the simple reason that Arthur did not want it to be so. Because somehow, without a ceremony, without an oath, he had pledged himself to Arthur, pledged to use his power to uphold Arthur’s will. Morgana had threatened Arthur’s kingdom—and so the decision to kill her had been nowhere near as difficult as he would have imagined.

He admired Arthur’s devotion to Camelot, to its people, but he knew now it was too abstract for him. Morgause’s spell had revealed that his own loyalties were much more limited, much more personal.

Arthur muttered something in his sleep, a small noise of anxiety or discomfort, and shivered. Dragged out of his thoughts by the sound, Merlin tugged another blanket over him, smoothed it into place.

His hands were gentle on the prince, but just under his skin, Merlin could feel the thrum of power. Barely masked by the dull cloud of his fatigue, the force he had used to break the dragon’s chains cracked and sparked along his nerves.

It was as troubling as it was exhilarating. He thought that maybe joining his own magic with that of the eldritch blade of Medir had freed something in him—even as it had freed the dragon. He felt as if a torrent magic were eddying in him, restless, searching for a way to jump the confines of his body, to follow its own paths and desires.

He wondered if, in Merlin’s situation, Arthur would have kept his word and set the dragon free—free to do unknown future damage to Camelot. Or whether the prince would have broken his pledge, placed the safety of the kingdom over even his personal honor.

Merlin hooked his hands into his armpits, as if that childish gesture would contain the all the savagery and glamour of his magic, and kept watch over Arthur’s unquiet slumber.

  • Loved this. Brilliantly written and very insightful. There have been far too few fics written based on 2.12, so seeing this was great.
    • Thanks--I'm so glad you enjoyed it! I couldn't get the episode out of my head--I wanted to know more about what consequences, both physical and psychological, would be.

      Thanks for reading and commenting!
  • (no subject) -
    • Hey--thanks for reading! I'm glad that you thought some of the writing worked--it was really hard to write, somehow--hard to find a "not-Dean" voice after doing so many fics that way...But it's good to mix things up, I guess!

      *smishes you*
  • This was very well done. Loved how worried Merlin was about Arthur and how he thought Arthur would have made the same decision. Great job.
    • Thanks! Merlin's decision in the episode seemed so fraught, I wanted to explore how he would process it...And I kinda love thinking about the boys being worried about each other...

      Thanks for reading and commenting!
  • Brilliant writing in this fic. It's interesting reading a fic that takes place just after the events of 2.12 and what effect it might have had on the two boys.

    • Thanks! There was so much packed into that episode, I really wanted to explore the physical and psychological effects it might have had on them...

      Thanks for reading and commenting!
      • I really wanted to explore the physical and psychological effects it might have had on them...

        Which is why I like this fic so much, as sadly I fear it won't really be explored as much as I'd like, in the actual show.
        • Oh, I know...the show seems to shy away from actual angst...but that's what fic is for, right? ;)

          *off to watch 2.13 now*
  • This is amazing. I love Merlin's understanding of their different devotions, Merlin to Arthur and Arthur to Camelot. It's kind of sad, the way Merlin does everything, even if it harms himself, to save Arthur.

    Great fic.
    • Thanks! It is really poignant, I think, that Merlin is willing to protect Arthur's devotion to Camelot and to Uther after the events of 2.08...I don't think he can really believe in Uther himself anymore--it's just his devotion to Arthur...

      Thanks so much for reading and commenting!
  • Brief, powerful and perceptive - I LOVED it!
  • I envy your ability to weave what so many of us were wondering about into such an intimate little ficlet. Writing about meta is hard enough, but you took it to another level. I particularly liked that phrase about how Arthur's devotion to Camelot is so engrained in him not just because of his position but because it struck a "natural chord." A one-sentence summary of what makes him the one and future king. Thanks for sharing!
    • Thanks so much for the lovely feedback! I do think Arthur's devotion to Camelot must go beyond any simple love for or allegiance to Uther...

      Really glad you enjoyed the fic
  • Usually, he ate without looking; now he was looking without eating.
    I really like this line. A subtle but telling way of showing Arthur's mood.

    I really love your characterization in this. Very believable. The parallels of Arthur's devotion to Camelot and Merlin's devotion to Arthur are wonderful, if not a bit sad. Your analysis of Arthur is spot-on as well! Love it.
    • I'm so glad you enjoyed it! It is sad that Merlin's devotion to Arthur allies him with a regime (Uther's) that hates who he--Merlin--really is...But kind of interesting, too!

      Thanks for reading and commenting!
  • Ah

    Lovely. Insightful and unbiased. Love this :)
    • Re: Ah

      I's so glad you enjoyed it! That episode really got under my skin--

      Thanks for reading and commenting!
  • I really do admire Merlin's devotion to Arthur even at the detriment of himself. Poor wizard.
    • I know! *pets Merlin* It is admirable, though sometimes you wish he'd just sock Arthur *g*

      Thanks for reading and commenting!
  • u painted an interesting portrait here, capturing Merlin's inner monologue to perfection.
  • Hey I just started watching Merlin and I'm so addicted already. Loved this! Great tag!
    • Oh, cool, I'm glad you started watching Merlin! It's so much fun, and surprisingly moving at times, I think. S3 has its ups and downs, but stick with it, b/c S4 was flat out amazing!

      I'm really glad you enjoyed this--thanks for letting me know!
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