vanessarama: (merlin: fanfic)
[personal profile] vanessarama
I'm not going to make this much better by prodding at it.

Title: Be The Usual Selves That I Have Known
Author: andraste_oz/vanessarama
Fandom: Merlin
Genre: gen
Words: about 2500
Spoilers: up to the season 5 finale.
Summary: The sword is for Arthur, the staff for Merlin. She misses them both so much that her very bones ache for them.
Disclaimer: These characters don't belong to me in any incarnation, and I am making no money from them.


It was her mother who named her Guinevere. The name of a princess, out of place amongst the Marys and Johns she played with. There were those who whispered later that her mother had known somehow, that she could foresee the future; even that Guinevere was a king’s daughter, illegitimate and shamed, a changeling.

Guinevere never fights rumours. They can serve as well as harm.

When her mother died, little Guinevere became Gwen. Her father used her proper name when he wanted her to pay attention. Arthur took on that habit as well. Perhaps this is why she first began to feel, however unconsciously, that he was someone who might love her.

When she married Arthur, she became Guinevere again.

---

When she takes the throne, Guinevere hopes against hope that somehow, after all these years, her body has fulfilled a queen’s proper duty. That on one of her last nights with Arthur, a child had been conceived; that after his death she might produce the son and heir she could not give her husband in his lifetime.

She remembers once going to see Gaius, in the second year of her marriage, hoping that he might know a way to aid conception. Gaius had smiled at her so affectionately.

“My lady, you are young and strong, and there is plenty of time still. Children will come or not, as nature will have it. All that is required is that a man and woman lie together." Gaius paused. "Although they could be standing. Or sitting. Or perhaps on their knees - "

Guinevere had laughed shakily, at both the joke and the shock of how bad it was, and Gaius had smiled.

Later, years later, she realises that it was for the best that that particular wish had not come true. She doubts that any child bearing the name Pendragon could escape the bitter and bloody legacy of Uther, or the utter terror which Morgana had inspired during her brief reign.

She rules not as Guinevere Pendragon, but as Guinevere of Camelot. She keeps the dragon standard, but adds her own device; a stylised rose, five-petaled for the five kingdoms, and a sword and staff crossed behind. The sword is for Arthur, the staff for Merlin. She misses them both so much that her very bones ache for them.

---

There is no-one to talk to now.

She’s never been able to confide in her maids. She has worked amongst them and she knows all the tricks; the loose brick in the buttery which hides the cup to illicitly sample wine destined for high table; the corridors to gossip and complain in where you cannot be overheard; the places to flick dirt when you're in a hurry. They do not trust her, even those who were her friends. No better than us, she imagines them saying, who does she think she is? When she does try to reach out she is rebuffed with all possible deference.

She remembers how it could be with Morgana; moments of intense intimacy, times of genuine affection, interspersed with remoteness and sharp orders. She loved Morgana, but the difference in their stations was always between them. It was so difficult to know from moment to moment whether she was with Morgana, her friend or the Lady Morgana, her mistress.

She can't talk to the ladies of the court either. Even though there are more commoners at court now, more knights from non-noble families whose ladies reside at Camelot, none of them were actually maids in the very castle where they sit in state and plenty of them remember Gwen at table, serving them.

Nobody else knows Camelot the same way she does. Nobody else has trodden the stone halls in scuffed shoes, demurely, eyes cast down, and then in jewelled slippers, head high and regal.

This is one thing she never told Arthur. He was no fool; he knew that she gave up as much as she gained from their marriage; carefree days, unfettered dress, the freedom to walk alone. He did not know that in marrying him she also gave up friendship.

It’s not that she isn’t loved, or that she does not command the loyalty of the people. She has advisors, defenders, companions. Leon is her first knight, upright and forthright, a man of the old school, trained alongside Arthur. Percival is courteous and gentle, and could not respect her more if she had a sword in her hand. But she cannot confide in them. Arthur is a golden memory for them, the truest and bravest of men; they speak his name with understanding and love, and revere him more as time goes on.

Guinevere doesn’t want to remember Arthur as a shining image of perfection. She wants to remember the Arthur of their private chambers, who lounged on the bed in his white shirt, open at the neck, and laughed when he spilled wine all down it; the Arthur whose dignity could puff up beyond imagining, and be punctured so easily; whose romantic gestures, she always knew, were underwritten by Merlin’s stealthy hand, but no less sweet to her for that; who made the most ridiculous faces, who could fart hugely in bed and be simultaneously proud and embarrassed. She wants to talk about the Arthur who secretly feared that he would never be as good as his father, but shared that fear only in whispers; whose hands, so sure on a sword, were awkward but gentle with her; whose eyes softened when he smiled.

The only other person who had ever known that Arthur was Merlin, and Merlin is gone now too.

---

There is still Gaius, of course. Her closest advisor, as he had been in the days when Arthur was away from court, he works with her on drafting the amendments which will permit the practice of magic within Camelot’s borders. He guides her steadily through the history of magic, the traditions and ideals of those who use it, and what penalties might be exacted for those who misuse it. Even more valuable, he speaks to her of Merlin’s time in Camelot and the many, many ways he had used his magic to help, save and guide. She learns so much that she is amazed, and also sorry for the huge burdens Merlin must have carried while he toiled cheerfully alongside her. Gaius’ eyes are weary when he speaks of Merlin; something bright and wonderful has gone from his life, and he misses it dreadfully. Guinevere knows how he feels.

“Do you hear from Merlin at all?” she asks one day, carefully casual.

Gaius gives her the Eyebrow, but she has never been intimidated by it. She raises her eyebrow right back at him, and he smiles ruefully.

“I have had word from him two or three times, my lady. He is well. He has been to visit his mother, but I believe he has left Ealdor now.”

“When is he coming back?” she asks brightly.

“I do not know,” Gaius answers.

“He does know he is welcome?”

“I am sure he does, my lady.”

But Merlin does not come, and Gaius does not speak of him again.

In the winter after Arthur’s death Gaius takes a fever, and Guinevere fears she will lose him. She assigns a maid to care for him, and sends to the Druids to plead for the best healer they can spare. When she next visits the physician’s chambers, she instantly knows who the figure kneeling by Gaius’ bedside is, although she still starts when he turns and she sees the high-boned hollows of his face, the familiar folds of red at his throat.

“Merlin,” she says, her voice steadier than she feels, and is suddenly in his arms. He's broader, stronger than she remembers, reassuringly solid.

“Gwen, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry,” he keeps saying, his tears running hotly into her neck as he presses his face into her hair, and finally, finally she is Gwen again.

---

She sends for Merlin to come to her chambers, after dinner when Gaius is sleeping. He enters formally, hands behind his back. His face is drawn and tired.

“How is Gaius?” she asks, gesturing to him to sit in the chair closest to her.

Merlin seats himself cautiously, as if he thinks the chair will bite him.

“He will recover. He needs a week or so in bed, and good food regularly.”

“He will have both.”

“And he should rest his eyes. Not strain them too much reading documents.” He looks up at her with a little smile. “Since I can’t trust him to obey my orders where reading is concerned, may I petition your Majesty to order that he take a young apprentice to read to him? His eyes will rest and the apprentice will learn at the same time.”

“I will do that,” says Gwen.

She pours wine for Merlin. They are not queen and subject tonight, although he does not drink until she does, and then he gulps. The wine is strong and rich, the finest in the cellars.

“Why didn’t you come back?” Gwen asks at last.

Merlin looks at his hands, lying long-fingered on his knees.

“I couldn’t come back without him.”

“Merlin –“

“I couldn’t. Not straight away.” He squares his shoulders and looks her in the eye. “I failed you. I couldn’t save him. I tried so hard – “

“How did he die?” Gwen interrupts.

Merlin flinches, but she does not relent.

“Please. How did he die, Merlin?”

Merlin begins to speak, but it is even and measured, and she knows he has rehearsed this.

“Mordred struck him down with a blade forged in a dragon’s breath. There was a fragment of the blade left-“

“No,” Gwen interrupts. “I know why he died. I want you to tell me how.”

Merlin inhales sharply, flinching as if in pain.

“My lady, I – “

“Was it peaceful? Did he speak? Did he have words for me?” She is trying very hard to keep herself calm, to not beat her fists on his chest and scream, Why didn’t you come back, why didn’t you tell me yourself, why did I have to hear of his death from Percival?

“We were nearly at the lake. We were so close…” He chokes, controls himself again.

“He knew he was dying. He asked me to hold him, and I did. He died in my arms.”

Short, harsh words. Gwen looks at Merlin; his fists are clenched, his chest heaving as if he’s been running. In a way, she supposes, he’s been running for months.

“I’m glad he was not alone,” says Gwen at last. “If he had to die far from home, there is nobody else I would wish to be at his side. And I know there’s nobody else he would have wanted to be there.”

She drains her goblet and refills it, and then refills Merlin’s as he follows her lead. She laughs a little as he spills it a little in his eagerness, and he gives her a half-smile. They could almost be servants together again, illicitly enjoying wine left over from a feast, with Uther on the throne, Morgana sleeping uneasily in her chambers, and Arthur about to bellow down the corridor for Merlin.

“Where does he lie?” she asks. There is a stone bier, near Uther, bearing Arthur’s likeness, but it is not the same.

“He’s on the isle of Avalon.” A little smile plays over Merlin’s lips. “No mortal can visit there, but I glimpsed it once. He’s there now, as fresh as if he were sleeping. He’ll never turn to dust.“

Gwen’s breath catches, thinking of Arthur’s face, peaceful in sleep and looking so young as he always did when unguarded. Merlin leans forward, his face intense.

“Please, please forgive me. Gwen. If I had known I could not save him –“ the tears are thick in his voice again, “I would have brought him here, to be with you at the end.”

Gwen looks at his face and knows the truth of what he is saying. She doesn’t want him to know how many times she had railed at him in her mind, bitter and angry and savage with grief, how she had longed for just one look at Arthur’s face again, just to stroke his hair and hold his hand.

Merlin puts his head down on the table. Gwen puts her hand on his back, feeling the muscles move under his skin, tremble as he breathes; it’s so long since she has touched someone, actually touched another warm living body, in anything but the most formal of ways.

“Why did you never come back to us?” she asks.

Merlin doesn’t answer.

“I had to hear the truth of it from Percival, after he saw you at the lake. You didn’t tell me yourself what had happened.” She hears her voice growing thin. “Merlin, I needed to see you so badly, I needed to know. I needed you. You were the last person with him when he died.”

“I couldn’t save him,” whispers Merlin.

“You already saved him,” Gwen tells him. “So many times. I would never have had him at all if it hadn’t been for you.”

“Sometimes,” Merlin says, raising his face to her, “sometimes when I’m just doing nothing, or anything at all, just walking or fishing or washing my clothes, I hear him calling me. Not calling – bellowing out my name. Merlin! Like he used to.” Merlin’s fists are clenched. “And the moment after that is always the hardest moment of my life.”

He puts his head back down, as if he's admitted something shameful. Gwen strokes his shuddering shoulders, his hair, in silence. She wants to put her arms around him, to lay her cheek against his. This was the last person to touch Arthur, and the urge to pull the memory of that touch from his skin is overwhelming.

---

Later, she asks Merlin, “Will you stay?”

He is stretched out on the rug before the fire, which he’s kept going with mere whispers while they talked. His face is quiet, in repose, but it’s not peaceful.

He knows what she means. “I can’t.”

“Why not? Merlin, you would be welcome here. You have friends who miss you; you will always have a place among us. And we need you.”

Merlin hesitates, swallowing.

"I feel him here, more than anywhere else, Gwen."

Do you think I don't feel him too? Gwen wants to ask. She swallows it down.

“Maybe Camelot is where you need to be, to lay that ghost to rest,” she suggests.

“Or maybe it’ll be even worse here.”

“And you don’t have the courage to find out?”

Merlin doesn’t flinch.

“I will stay until Gaius is well.”

“And beyond that?”

“I can’t say.”

At the door she gives him her hand, and he raises it to his lips.

“Arthur would be proud of you, Gwen,” he says softly. “Your care for your people, for your kingdom. There can be no better steward for the kingdom that he made.”

The spring is gone from his step, she realises as she watches him walk away from her. He was always so eager, so quick. There is a deliberation to the way he moves now that wasn’t there before, as if he’s walking through water.

“The king made the kingdom, Merlin,” she whispers, “but you made the king.”



---

Notes: The title is taken from this poem by Joyce Grenfell:

If I should go before the rest of you,
Break not a flower nor inscribe a stone.
Nor when I'm gone speak in a Sunday voice,
But be the usual selves that I have known.
Weep if you must,
Parting is hell,
But life goes on,
So sing as well.
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