Merlin wasn't sure when he first began to notice.

At first, there was just too much to do for him to really think about it. What with becoming both Chief Advisor to the Queen and Court Sorcerer (titles Gwen had wasted no time in bestowing upon him after she officially took the throne), heading up the campaign to peacefully restore magic to the land, and forming and leading a group of skilled sorcerers to aid the knights in defeating Camelot's enemies with both swords and magic, Merlin was so tired at the end of the day that he generally fell asleep without changing his clothes, let alone looking at himself in the mirror. The first time anyone even called attention to it was at the feast celebrating the 5th anniversary of Gwen's coronation- and predictably, that person was Gwaine.

"I thank you all for coming to this celebration of our past five years together," Gwen's clear, confident voice rang out across the banquet hall. She looked radiant, every bit the strong, wise queen her kingdom had come to revere. Merlin, sitting on her right at the high table, thought that no one else would ever guess that she had spent most of the morning crying in her chambers while trying to prepare tonight's speech. No one else would understand why as Merlin did, either. For tonight wasn't just the anniversary of Gwen's queenship- it the anniversary of Arthur's death.

Merlin wrenched his mind away from those thoughts and forced himself to focus on Gwen's speech. For once he didn't already know what was going to be said- Gwen, unlike Arthur, wrote her own speeches.

"These past five years have not been easy ones. Camelot has been stretched, changed, crafted into a new and stronger kingdom. We have moved into a new era in Camelot's history; an era where sword and sorcery work hand-in-hand to protect our beloved kingdom. Old prejudices have moved aside in the name of peace, but achieving that peace was not a simple task. Transitions are never easy, and I can say with complete certainty that our current state of prosperity would not have been possible without all of you. Knights, lords, subjects," she paused and looked straight at Merlin, "magicians, thank you for all the hard work that you have done these last five years. Today is a day to honor you and the sacrifices you have made for the love of Camelot. Of course, we also honor those who paid the ultimate sacrifice in our quest for peace. We will never forget those we lost, but because of their efforts and yours, we can see what we have won- a kingdom where all are accepted and appreciated, a kingdom feared by all our enemies, the kingdom of Camelot!" Gwen finished triumphantly, and the whole room burst into applause.

"Long live the Queen!" somebody shouted, and the call was taken up by the entire assembly. "Long live the Queen!"

Gwen stood, queen-like, until they quieted and then announced,"Let the feast begin!" This declaration was greeted with an even louder burst of cheers, and in the frenzy that followed, Gwen was able to return to her seat and bury her face in her hands.

"That was good," Merlin said quietly after she looked up again. "I probably could have made a few tweaks, you know, made it sound just a tiny bit better, but-" He stopped, grinning, at Gwen's swat on his arm.

"Charming as ever," she replied, her voice dry, but she seemed more steady now, so Merlin thought his joke had accomplished its goal.

"Arthur would have been proud of you, you know," he said, looking steadily at her.

She looked curiously at him for a second, then said, "Thank you, Merlin." They sat in silence for awhile, which allowed them to easily hear the knights' conversation at the table just in front of theirs. Not that Gwaine was ever difficult to hear at a feast.

"Percival, you glutton-head, pass the ale over here," Gwaine proclaimed loudly.

"Absolutely not," said Percival, moving the jug of ale as far away from Gwaine as possible. "I don't know how you manage to show up drunk before the feast even starts, but I'm not going to help you drink yourself to death."

"So I popped into the wine cellar this morning for a little pre-feast celebration, so what? If I haven't died yet, it'd take more than a little ale to kill me." That made the sober knights pause, as they remembered how close they had come to losing Gwaine five years ago. Percival had come in with Gwaine's limp body, saying Morgana had tortured them and Arthur was in danger. Gaius, after assuring Gwen that Merlin could protect Arthur perfectly well on his own, took Gwaine to his own chambers and prepared to do battle for Gwaine's every last, shallow breath. For three days, Gaius stayed by Gwaine's bedside, working tirelessly just to keep him alive. When Merlin arrived back in Camelot, he used his magic to contain the poison in Gwaine's left leg, which Gaius then amputated just below the knee. Gwaine would never fight again, but he was regarded as a hero throughout the realm. A status he tended to use for not-so-chivalrous ends.

"Gwaine, you have got to stop bribing people to get you drinks just because you're you," Leon said disapprovingly. "You'll be old before your time!"

Gwaine burst into drunken laughter. "You shouldn't be talking, Leon. I think I see some gray hairs in that curly mop! Feeling your age, old man?"

Everybody laughed at that, even Leon. "I think everyone can say that, Gwaine, even you. We're not exactly the strapping young lads we were five years ago."

"I am," Percival said, striking a pose to show off his formidable muscles.

Gwaine elbowed him in the stomach, breaking his pose and making the rest of the table laugh more. "I don't think so, Percy-boy. Getting a little bit of a gut, don't you think?"

"Not as much as your beer-belly," Percival mumbled.

Gwaine ignored him. "And... yes, I believe I see the dreaded wrinkles appearing on thy youthful brow." More laughter followed.

Percival chose not to take offense to their teasing. After all, it was true- they were all getting older. "Well, we can't stay young forever, I guess. We're all different from how we were five years ago."

All three knights glanced around the room, looking for other changes. The most obvious was the absence of Gaius- the court physician had finally grown too old to make it to the feasts, and spent much more time in his chambers than he used to. The queen was as lovely as ever, but even she had lines on her face that had not been there five years ago. Everyone seemed to have changed except... "Merlin's not," Gwaine said, pointing up at the high table.

Merlin started and glanced at Gwen. She looked as surprised as he felt, but she studied his face for a second and then nodded.

The knights were also looking at him. "I never thought I'd say this, but you're right, Gwaine," Leon said. He peered closely at Merlin while Merlin pretended to become very interested in his plate. "Merlin works harder than any of us, but he looks the same as he always has."

That did it. Merlin stopped pretending he wasn't listening and grabbed an empty silver platter to study his reflection. His face stared back at him- pale skin, blue eyes, high cheekbones, big ears. Exactly as it had looked for the past five years. He looked for any sign that he was approaching 30 years old, but found not even a single wrinkle.

Gwaine had noticed Merlin's reaction and called up to him. "Hey Merlin! What kind of wizard keeps himself looking fresh and leaves his friends to wither? You couldn't be bothered to work that spell on me?" Then he laughed and hiccuped, obviously not aware of what he was saying.

"Oh, come off it, you drunken sot, Merlin's not using a spell," Leon said, attempting to keep Gwaine distracted while Percival slyly moved the tankard of ale to the next table over.

Merlin decided to help him. "Yes I am," he said. Gwaine and Leon immediately fixed their attention on him. Merlin winked at Leon before saying very solemnly to Gwaine, "You've found me out, I AM using a spell to keep myself young and handsome."

Leon snorted, and Gwen choked on her goblet of wine, obviously enjoying the performance. Gwaine, however, seemed to buy every word. "Really? Can you do it on me?" he asked.

Merlin got up from the table and turned, unable to keep a straight face any longer. When he had composed himself, he got down from the dais and walked over to the knights' table. Percival was returning, having taken advantage of the prolonged distraction to move the ale to the other side of the room. Merlin smiled and turned to Gwaine. "I can, but it's a very powerful spell. Are you sure you want it?"


"Okay, if you're sure..." Merlin leaned in close to Gwaine and said in a staged whisper, "It's called not being a drunken clotpole!" And his eyes flashed gold.

When Merlin pulled away, the entire assembly roared with laughter. Two donkey ears had appeared on either side of Gwaine's head, and a rope-like donkey tail poked out the back of Gwaine's seat. Gwaine tried to give an outraged yell, but a loud bray emerged from his throat instead.

"You- you've d-done it, M-M-Merlin," Leon spluttered. He could hardly sit up for laughing. "He looks b-better already."

"Handsomest ass I've ever seen," Percival barely got the words out before he broke down, laughing so hard tears came to his eyes.

Eventually, Gwen told Merlin to put Gwaine back to rights (though she had to wipe her own eyes before she could give the order). The rest of the feast continued as usual, long and merry, and neither Merlin nor anyone else gave another thought to Merlin's appearance.

Until six years later, when Gaius died.