"You ever wonder how Camelot could have been?"
Arthur froze in the doorway, key still in the lock, and stared at Gwaine sitting in the armchair in the front room. Despite both of Gwaine's legs thrown over the far arm, his neck bent over the near one to look at Arthur upside with his hair brushing the floor, the other man looked as somber as a priest presiding over a funeral.
"Have you been drinking wine again?" Arthur asked as he closed the door to the house.
"No, but it does feel like a wine night."
Arthur frowned at his friend. Gwaine's usual drinks were top shelf liquors, typically neat, to get the party started and keep it going. To bring on adventure and stories. He only drank "soft stuff" to handle troublesome thoughts, seeking just enough distance to allow a detached analysis.
"Anyone else home?" Arthur asked, hanging up his coat.
"Lance is out with Merlin, something about a jazz concert. Perce is at the gym, and Elyan called to say his bus broke down. He'll be back tomorrow. Leon pulled the night shift." Gwaine twisted and turned, pushing himself first into the proper position to use a chair and then out of it to plod his way down the hallway to the kitchen.
Arthur went to his room, changed out of his work clothes, and entered the kitchen to see Gwaine finish filling two tall glasses with a chardonnay.
"So," Gwaine said as he slid a glass to Arthur. "Have you? Thought about how Camelot could have been?"
"You mean if we hadn't died in the aftermath if Camlann?"
"No. If we had made better choices. Were less nervous or scared, maybe."
"I'm not sure I understand," Arthur admitted, taking a sip of the wine.
"For example," Gwaine said, "If you hadn't killed Caerloen, that one time. Or sentenced Mordred's girl."
Arthur didn’t say anything for a while. "Maybe. I did make choices I regretted, but did my best to reverse them."
"Like marrying Gwen after banishing her. Or setting up that duel with Annis,” Gwaine nodded.
Both men drank.
"Why?" Arthur asked after a moment.
“Why are you thinking about this?”
Gwaine’s eyes slid over Arthur’s shoulder to a tattered book on the kitchen table. Hardback, with blue fuzzy corners, there was no title on the cover. Curious, Arthur grabbed it before returning to lean against the kitchen peninsula.
There was an author’s name on the side – Cabrera – but nothing else gave a hint as to its contents.
“Have you been peeking at Merlin’s Camelot Collection again?” Arthur said, running his fingers over the cover. “You know he said most of that was false.”
“But funny, to read all those stories. That’s our legacy, the stories of the deeds we did. Some of them are quite entertaining, though wrong. You know, a few have you and Morgana shacking up.”
Arthur shuddered. “There’s a reason I refuse to read them.”
Gwaine shrugged. “This book though, I stole from Merlin’s end table. He doesn’t keep it in the library, and I’ve seen him carry it around several times. I figured it was his favorite and worth a read. Except, well,” Gwaine drained the rest of his wine in a single go.
“Except?” Arthur pushed.
Gwaine frowned, topping off Arthur’s glass before emptying the rest of the bottle into his own.
“I think that book is true.”
Arthur opened the book to read the title. The Adventures of the Knight Lancelot and the Warlock Merlin. Intrigued, he flipped further through the book to see the table of contents. The Tale of the Griffin. Stealing Back the Summer King’s Maid. The Copper Knight. Galehaut’s Surrender. The Gawant Princess.
None of the stories sounded familiar, from his life before.
“What do you mean,” Arthur asked, flipping to the introduction page, “that these are true?”
“That intro,” Gwaine waved his glass at the book, “Talks about how the author, a Santiago Cabrera, was haunted by dreams that wouldn’t leave him alone until he wrote them down. So he did, and published them. And all the small little details in there are right, Arthur. Merlin’s young, for once, with gold flashing eyes. And that story with the griffin? Very much lines up with what Lance use to say. And the princess of Gawant? Sounds very much like the true one.
“Merlin said this wasn’t the only time we’ve come back.” Gwaine stared at the glass of white wine in his hand. “It’s just the first time we’ve remembered anything. We rose from the lake, as opposed to being reborn into new bodies. Except I think Lance did remember, once, in a roundabout way, and thought them dreams instead of memories of an old life.”
Gwaine drank deep. “Those stories? I think Lance and Merlin actually did them. Some of the stuff in there, the conversations, Lance’s analysis of Merlin. They’re painful.”
Arthur frowned. “They’re just words.”
Gwaine slammed his glass down on the counter. “It’s not just words. Merlin, Merlin treasures that book, Arthur. He’ll be pissed when he notices it gone. And even if half of what’s in there is true, it’s the same thing. We used to be shit friends to Merlin.”
“Because the Camelot in there,” Gwaine pointed to the book, “That’s the Camelot I wished I lived in. A Camelot where my best friend wasn’t terrified of what I might say, where he didn’t base his whole self-worth on the words of a cryptic beast and his ability to please someone he thought might kill him if he knew the truth. In that Camelot, in the periods of openness between Lance and Merlin, magic worked alongside a sword and did so much good. In that Camelot, Merlin was actually happy. Didn’t you notice, how after Lancelot died, Merlin seemed to get more melancholy? Lurked in corners more? Smiled less? I –gah.”
With a roar, Gwaine chucked his glass at the wall. Arthur jumped at the noise it made when it shattered, glass ringing as it fell to the floor.
“I knew, Arthur, I knew Merlin had magic. If I had just told him, I could have had that Camelot. But more importantly, I wish that version of Camelot didn’t have to be kept under wraps.”
“You wish magic was legal.”
“Gods, yes.” Gwaine stared at the glass on the floor. “I think Camelot would have been better for it.”
“Gwen abolished the restriction on magic. For Merlin,” Arthur pointed out.
Gwaine spun around to snarl at Arthur. “Gwen shouldn’t have had to do that. You should have. For all Merlin did for you. And if not for Merlin, because it’s not like he told you, what about the Druids? Mordred? You knew he had magic, and yet prohibited him from using it. Or for Morgana, when her magic was revealed. You should have tried to understand, tried to make her feel less scared.”
Arthur stood up, slapping his hands on the counter.
“Don’t tell me how I should have ruled. Magic is-“
“Don’t you dare say evil, because saying that means you think Merlin is too.”
The two men stared at each other until a click in the lock turned their attention to the door they could see across the house. Percival, feeling hostile gazes on him, froze as he opened the door.
“Everything okay?” Percival asked.
“Yeah, we’re fine.” Gwaine ran a hand through his hair.
Percival’s eyes flickered to the bottle of wine on the counter. “Oh, one of those nights. I’ll just go shower, and then you can tell me what you’ve been mulling over.”
Arthur and Gwaine watched as their friend headed up the stairs.
“You ever wonder,” Gwaine said, already opening the pantry to grab the broom, “Why no matter how often we ask, Merlin refuses to move into the house with us?”
“He had his own place before we all walked out of the lake.”
“He’d leave it in a heartbeat, if he really wanted to live here.”
“He’s probably worried I’d make him do all the cleaning.”
“I think that’s part of it,” Gwaine admitted, dumping glass shards into the trash, “The other is as soon as he’s around us, as soon as he’s around you, he clamps up. I’ve seen him at home, he uses magic a lot. Moving in with us would mean giving that up. Hiding a part of himself. He did that already back in Camelot, he shouldn’t have to again.”
“He would,” Gwaine cut Arthur off, “Because he knows it would make most of us uncomfortable. Specifically, you.”
Arthur pursed his lips.
“There’s a reason, Arthur, why Merlin is out tonight with Lance and not the rest of us. He used to hang out with you all the time, back in Camelot. Followed you everywhere.”
“He was my manservant.”
“Yeah, and here? Now? Despite your destiny and all his waiting? After the reunion and all the touchy-feely emotions that come with returning to life, I’d label you as acquaintances. You only hang out when we’re all together. You still order him around when he’s over. You can’t accept his magic, can’t see past the role he played, and you’ll lose him for it. This book,” Gwaine walked over to tap the table of contents Arthur still had it opened to, “Showed me what I missed out on. And what I now want.”
“An honest, accepting, equal relationship with Merlin.”
Gwaine stepped back, shaking his head.
Arthur watched him, not sure of his own thoughts. Had his relationship with Merlin really disintegrated so much? Had it been, as Gwaine implied, unbalanced?
Percival interrupted them again, skin still wet under his pajamas. “What are we mulling over tonight?”
“Merlin,” Arthur said.
“Nothing,” Gwaine snorted. “I’m done. Lance told me the bar he was going to. I’m heading out to join him.”
The other two men watched as Gwaine left the kitchen, crossed the front room, and grabbed his leather jacket out of the closet. He didn’t slam the door, but Arthur flinched all the same.
Percival gestured to Arthur’s water glass, still half full of wine. “We still talking about Merlin?”
“No,” Arthur said, rubbing his fingers along the side of Lance’s book. “I want a quiet night to read.”