Title: Square Peg - Round Hole
Author: Alice I
Rated: G - nothing bad in there.
Spoilers: A mention of a conversation between Arthur and Merlin in the episode 'The Moment of Truth' - no other spoilers
Beta(s): Dhall, Isis the Sphinx, Serialgal, Rhia, Marsha and Oughtaknowbetter
Disclaimer: It's fan fiction
Summary: Something has been bothering Merlin, and Arthur wants to know what it is. Friendship only - NO SLASH!
A/N: This is a little Thanksgiving present to all Merlin readers out there. It is a one-shot (?) that would not let me sleep. I actually had to get up at 4 AM on the weekend and write this because it wouldn't get out of my head until I did. Sometimes plot bunnies can be very annoying that way. I hope everyone has a Happy Thanksgiving. If you don't celebrate Thanksgiving then take a quick moment to just say to yourself - I am so thankful for... (fill in the blank).
Enjoy, Alice I
A/N 3-10-10: This one-shot has become a multi-chapter fic that is still in progress. This first chapter has been beta read and updated. Chapter two will be loaded immediately. Chapters 3 and 4 are with my beta and chapter five is currently being written. I am not sure yet how many chapters this will end up being. I may very well make a sequel fic to go along with it.
Square Peg – Round Hole
Merlin put out the candle by the bedside, and the smell of wax filling the area seemed to accentuate the feeling of sadness that had surrounded the young man lately.
"Goodnight, Arthur," Merlin called in a soft voice before he silently left the room.
Arthur heard the door to his antechamber open as Merlin stepped through quietly. He listened, but did not hear the door to the corridor open. His servant must have remained in the other room, but Arthur hadn't asked for Merlin to stay. They didn't have an early start the next morning, so Arthur was left to conclude that his servant didn't want to go home. But why?
It was clear to the prince that something had been bothering Merlin for the past few days, but he didn't have a clue what it could be. When Merlin wasn't aware of him, he watched him closely. He had even seen a tear escape from time to time when his servant thought he was unobserved. Arthur missed the silly antics and quips of his normally gregarious servant. Merlin hadn't tried teasing Arthur at all over the past few days, even when several opportunities had presented themselves.
Arthur thought back, trying to pinpoint when exactly the change in Merlin had occurred. It had been going on for longer than just the past few days. The deeper sense of sadness had shown up only three days ago, yes, but if Arthur was honest the melancholy undertone in Merlin's voice had been present for weeks now. It wasn't always obvious, but Merlin was good at hiding his feelings.
Arthur shook his head against his pillows. Merlin was good at hiding his deep feelings. He was open enough about superficial issues. He was always quick to offer a smile, but lately those smiles hadn't reached his eyes. Arthur sighed heavily and sat up in bed. He listened carefully, trying to discern if Merlin had finally left for home. If he had left, he had done so silently enough that Arthur hadn't heard.
The prince slipped out of bed and stealthily moved across the room. The door to the antechamber was not completely closed and he gently pushed on it allowing it to open enough to see inside. There sitting against the wall was Merlin. He sat completely still, his eyes staring off into the distance. He was clearly lost in thought. The light of the full moon shown in through the window dimly illuminating the young man's face and Arthur once again saw the glint of tear tracks on Merlin's cheeks.
Arthur closed his eyes for a moment, wondering if he should leave Merlin alone. He knew that if their positions were reversed he would not want to be observed in a moment of weakness such as this, but the pain that the young man was so obviously feeling cut deeply into his own heart. If their situations were reversed, Merlin would not just walk away. He would demand to know what was wrong. He would pester Arthur until he cracked and told Merlin everything. Didn't he owe that same loyalty in return?
Coming to a decision, Arthur gently pushed open the door and walked over to where Merlin sat, then lowered himself to the floor facing his servant.
"What's wrong, Merlin?"
Merlin had heard Arthur open the door and step into the darkened room. A part of him hoped that Arthur had not seen the silent tears he cried, while part of him did. Either way, as the prince lowered himself to the floor, he surreptitiously wiped his face.
Arthur looked carefully at Merlin and realized that he had dried his face. Merlin didn't want Arthur to know that he had shed tears. "That's not true. Whatever it is, you can tell me."
Merlin's heart fell at those words. He knew that Arthur meant them, but he also knew that they were equally untrue. "I can't."
Arthur turned his head slightly as though he were trying to see past some disguise that Merlin hid behind. For a moment the young warlock wished that he could see – see who he really was, and his heart clenched in dismay.
"Why? Why won't you talk to me?"
Merlin sighed slightly knowing that this conversation couldn't go anywhere, and wondering if it ever would. "You wouldn't understand, Arthur."
"Are you saying I'm stupid?" Arthur sounded annoyed and put out.
"No. No, of course not," Merlin said, not wanting to turn this into an argument. The last thing he wanted was to argue with Arthur. Not about this, engaging in an argument that couldn't be revealed for what it was really about.
"Then talk to me. Tell me what's bothering you." Arthur took on that regal tone that he used when he was digging his heels in.
"I can't," Merlin responded in a nearly-pleading whisper. He wished that Arthur would just drop this. He could not talk to Arthur about what was really tearing a hole in his heart - no matter how much he wished he could.
"I'm your friend, Merlin. I want you to trust me."
Arthur's words nearly undid Merlin's composure and his eyes prickled with emotion. Arthur had never before told him directly that he was his friend. This should have made him feel wonderful, but instead it hurt even more deeply.
"I know," the young man whispered, calling forth every ounce of control to keep his emotions in check.
Arthur seemed to be resolved to push Merlin to talk. It was just what he would do if Arthur were upset, so it shouldn't have surprised him when Arthur insisted, "I won't leave until you talk to me. You know how stubborn I am, so you might as well just start talking."
Merlin looked at Arthur for a long moment. The earnestness in the prince's face brought him to the verge of speaking, of telling him what was wrong. The door to his heart was open for just a moment, and then he looked down at his hands, refusing to speak.
"Merlin," Arthur repeated his name, "tell me what's wrong."
Merlin realized that Arthur could see the struggle for control on his face even in the darkened room. Another tear dropped, betraying his heart, and Arthur touched the back of his hand. When he looked up at Arthur, the prince implored, "Tell me, please."
The two men locked eyes in that dark room and Merlin knew that Arthur could almost see his barriers breaking down. He may not be able to tell Arthur everything, but he could at least tell him some of what was wrong.
"I'm a square peg trying to fit into a round hole."
Bemused confusion made Arthur's eyebrows rise and he shook his head. "I don't understand."
The sadness that Merlin felt was so strong he was sure he couldn't hide it. "I know."
"Explain it to me."
There was no point in continuing this. Merlin wanted so badly to be able to just tell Arthur everything; to tell him that he was a warlock and his friend; that he used his magic to protect Arthur and would never hurt him or Camelot. He wanted to be able to express himself about the joy that magic provoked in him. He wanted to not feel like the very blood in his veins was some poison to be hidden from the world and those he cared about.
"I told you: you wouldn't understand."
"Damn it, Merlin. Make me understand," Arthur demanded, getting frustrated.
Merlin sighed. Arthur wasn't going to let this go. "I don't belong, Arthur. It really is that simple."
"What do you mean you don't belong?" Arthur asked, as his frustration began to sound more like anger.
"I don't fit. I never will - not in Ealdor, not here. I can't just be who I am. You can't see it, but it's like I'm a prisoner. I might as well be wearing chains." As Merlin spoke, he allowed his head to drop back against the wall. He wasn't looking at Arthur, his eyes unfocused and utterly bleak. "I am held hostage to a fate I have no control over, a destiny I never asked for. They're unbreakable bonds as strong as any iron shackles."
Merlin looked back at Arthur, meeting his gaze very directly. "You should go back to bed, Arthur. Don't worry about me. I'm fine. Just feeling sorry for myself, that's all."
The last thing the prince wanted to do at that point was to go to bed. Merlin was obviously in pain and that wasn't okay with him. He wouldn't just trot off to bed not knowing or caring what had affected Merlin this way. "I'm sorry, Merlin. Truly I am. I had no idea that I made you feel like a prisoner."
Merlin shook his head slightly as a sad little smile turned up the corners of his mouth. "It isn't you, Arthur. Oddly, you are actually the bright spot in my life."
Arthur frowned a little, not quite understanding, but unwilling to admit to that.
Merlin could read his thoughts as easily as if he had spoken them aloud. "I believe in you, Arthur; in who you are and what you stand for. I believe with all of my heart that you will be the greatest king this land has ever known. I believe that you will one day be the force that unites all of Albion. It is that belief - that trust - that is the key to the chains that bind me. I would have left Camelot by now if it weren't for my belief in you."
Arthur put his fingers to his temples, frowning while he ran through Merlin's words. "So you want to leave Camelot, but you don't feel like you can, because you believe in me. Merlin, you do realize that makes no sense at all? Look, I know that life for you can be difficult at times, but running away isn't going to help. You can't find happiness unless you stop running from whatever causes you pain. You told me once that you left Ealdor because you didn't fit in. Do you remember?"
Merlin remembered that conversation all-too-well. It seemed like a lifetime ago.
"When I asked you if you had found what you were looking for, you said that you didn't know yet. It sounds to me like you still don't know. Let me tell you what I see from my perspective. You have a home, here in Camelot. You are the trusted servant to a wonderful and generous master."
When Arthur said this it earned him a smile and eyes rolled in his direction.
"You have friends who care about you, a mentor who loves you like a son - and Merlin...."
Merlin looked at Arthur, waiting.
"You have me. You may be a square peg, but I wouldn't have you any other way."
Merlin looked at the prince with his signature smile; the kind Arthur was used to seeing. "Thank you, Arthur. Maybe I did need to talk to someone. You really should go back to bed though, and I should go home and make sure Gaius hasn't left the candles lit again."
Arthur frowned as he got up off of the floor wondering why it had just sounded like his servant had dismissed him. He held out his hand to Merlin and pulled him to his feet in one smooth motion. As Merlin turned to leave, Arthur clamped his hand down on the young man's bony shoulder.
"What do you mean 'oddly', I am the bright spot in your life?"
Merlin smiled back at the young prince then ducked his head and danced out of the way to avoid a slap from Arthur. As Merlin opened the door to leave, he looked back at Arthur. "Goodnight, Sire."
Arthur responded automatically with, "Sleep well, Merlin," and then the boy was gone.
As Arthur walked back to his bed he couldn't help but feel that he was missing something important. It sounded as though Merlin had bared his soul, but had he actually told Arthur anything? Merlin felt trapped, and somehow Arthur was responsible for that. Or was he? He had no clearer understanding of what was making Merlin so sad, but now he knew that what his friend wanted was to leave Camelot. That hadn't escaped his notice.
As Arthur climbed back into bed, he stared up at the ceiling for a long time. Somehow, he now also felt forlorn. Merlin was in pain but there was nothing he could do about it except try to be his friend. He wasn't going to let this go, he couldn't, but he had no idea what he should do about it. Arthur lay there until the moon was nearly past its zenith before fatigue made his eyes heavy, wondering if Merlin also lay awake, unable to sleep. As slumber finally took the young prince, he fell asleep wishing he knew what he could do to ease Merlin's suffering. But the answer to that problem seemed as elusive as Merlin's explanations had been.
When he woke the next morning, Arthur got up quickly and dressed. Then, he set about packing up his saddle bags with clothes and supplies. He assumed that Merlin would be a little late that morning, considering that the young man would most likely be tired. Much to his surprise, though, Merlin entered his chambers only a short time later bringing a plate of breakfast and a wash basket to clean up the discarded clothes around his chambers. No trace of his previous mood remained as the young man smiled brightly.
"Good morning, Sire. You're up early today," Merlin noted, picking up the dirty clothes littering the floor.
Arthur saw that the smile, bright and welcoming as it was, still didn't reach the young man's eyes, but he had to admit that if he hadn't been looking for it, he would never have noticed.
"Merlin, put those clothes down. Sit down and eat something while I'm out. That's an order."
Merlin stared, genuinely shocked, at Arthur. "Arthur, look, you don't have to..."
"Merlin, I do believe I just gave you an order. Are you planning to disobey me?" Arthur asked, with an affected look of surprise on his face.
Merlin dropped the wash basket onto the floor and obediently sat down at the table. He didn't really know what he should do next.
"Well? What are you waiting for? Eat! You will need your strength today because we are going on a trip."
Merlin just looked at Arthur, confused.
"Don't be such an idiot, Merlin. You are to eat the food on that table while I go and tell the king that I am going hunting for a few days."
Merlin's face fell at that pronouncement. He stood up and said, "I'll go collect the hunting gear, Sire."
Arthur smiled broadly at his man servant. "You really are a dolt sometimes. I said I'll tell the king that I'm going hunting. That doesn't mean I plan to hunt."
At Merlin's incredulous look Arthur replied, "It's a trick someone taught me a while back. Tell the king what he wants to hear and then do as I wish. Now would you please eat something? You're too bloody skinny, you know that?"
Merlin obediently complied with Arthur's order. "What about you?" he asked, around a mouthful of ham.
"I'll take breakfast with the king while I tell him where I'm going. When you're done here go home and pack for a few days out in the country."
"Do you want me to pack up your spare cloak?"
Arthur was enjoying the befuddled look on Merlin's face. "Pack your own things. Don't worry about mine, that's already been taken care of," he said, pointing to the saddle bag on the bed.
Merlin set the food back down on the tray and turned to face Arthur directly. "Why are you doing this, Arthur?"
The seriousness in the young man's voice took Arthur a little by surprise, but it changed nothing. He had made a decision and he was resolved to this course of action.
"Merlin, I'm your friend. You need a break from here, from Camelot, maybe even from me. So that's what you are getting."
Merlin frowned in confusion. "If you're going with me, how is that a break from you?"
Arthur's smile was as broad as ever. "Because, on this trip you will not be my servant. We will just be two people without station going on a journey. I'll get one of the household servants to pack us up some provisions. I'll meet you at the stables in an hour's time. Merlin I won't pretend to know what you were talking about last night, because you were right – I don't understand. But that doesn't mean I don't want to, or that I don't care. You need a few days off, so that is what you will get."
With that, Arthur turned and left the room before Merlin could say anything at all. The young man sat back down and smiled. For the first time in a long time he felt good. Arthur didn't really know what was wrong, but that didn't matter. He only cared that Merlin was happy and that– That was more than the young warlock could ever have hoped for. He had lost his appetite with excitement. He collected up the meat and cheese in a cloth and took them with him back to Gaius' chambers to pack up his meager belongings for what hopefully would be just the break his weary heart needed.
End Chapter One