TITLE: The Empty House

Author: Shabbytiger

Show: Merlin

Pairing: Arthur and Gwen

Genre: Romance

Warnings: Spoilers for Season 3, and set after my story The Longest Day. This takes places after Queen of Hearts, and is my idea of why Gwen was not present in 3 x 11.

Disclaimer: Characters not mine :(

Comments welcome :)

Polished up and beta'd by the wonderful ElegantPaws. xxx Thank you, you truly are brilliant.

-/-/-/-

He missed her.

So many times he had ridden from the walls of Camelot, Gwen's worried eyes finding his with a parting glance whenever possible, but he had never experienced this before. Perhaps, he reasoned, the fact that she was safe in Camelot during his various adventures and exploits, had been enough to stymie the ache. Perhaps, he reasoned, his trips had been bearable since he carried his dreams of her with him, and once, those dreams were all he had.

Now, he knew her taste. His hands knew her shape, her softness, and his fingers knew her secrets. His nose knew her scent; his shoulders knew her hands, her teeth ...his hips knew her weight as she rocked back and forth in the darkness of her bedroom.

He missed her, and it was a physical thing, twisting his gut and hollowing his heart.

Time had begun to slip backwards it seemed, as his eyes searched for her smile, strained for her face in the crowd, yet still she remained gone, no matter how hard he hoped.

Merlin had commented endlessly upon his temper in the last few days, although Arthur was certain that his battle with Uther was Merlin's suspected cause. During the tournament Arthur had allowed the bout with his father to distract him, and it had done so well. He still worried at his decision to allow his father to win, still found himself staring at Uther over meals and wondering what the outcome would have been had he simply fought, disregarding familial respect and his loyalty to the throne.

Oh Uther had offered him praise of a sort, acknowledging Arthur's sacrifice, but the words were fleeting, and still his opinion on Cenred not heeded. Words were easy, Arthur mused, and his father wielded them well. Enough to appease, but they were soon forgotten, old roles resumed quickly, no purchase gained no matter what Arthur did to prove his worth.

On occasion, having a father could be difficult enough. Having a father who was King...abruptly he thought of Gwen and Tom. He cursed his foolish sentiments, knowing full well that Gwen would do anything for her father's return. He felt ashamed of his self pity and barked for Merlin.

The day had been long, and his muscles ached, but never had he been consumed with such a leaden weight before, as though time itself were bearing down upon him.

" Yes, Sire?" Merlin appeared, as always looking a little too innocent, all big eyes and scruffy hair. Arthur always felt the stirrings of suspicion about Merlin, but his manservant was loyal, a good listener, and in times of various peril, had always pulled through for him. It was this knowledge that prevented him pushing the matter further, demanding answers about things that in the end, he deemed inconsequential compared to the friendship that had sprung between them.

Not that Arthur could allow that truth to be taken advantage of of-course.

" I think a bath is in order, Merlin." Arthur groaned as he moved his shoulders, then stopped, his face heating as images of Gwen, lying beneath him, filled his head.

"Are you telling me that I smell, Sire?" Merlin grinned at him, and the moment passed, Arthur unable to contain the smile that the words wrought. His manservant's humour had been missed in his absence.

" You always smell like the stables Merlin. Why should I suddenly be interested in your poor hygiene now?" Merlin shrugged, and Arthur began to disrobe, throwing a what-are-you-waiting-for look at his servant who hadn't yet moved.

"Just fetch some water will you? My shoulders are on fire."

"Back in a jiffy." Merlin span on his heel as Arthur gazed at him, puzzled. Jiffy? The sayings the boy came out with were getting odder by the day. But they made him smile nonetheless.

Briefly, he wondered where Gwen was sleeping tonight, whether she was safe the thought too sharp to follow up on. As subtly as possible he had been following Sir Leon's reports about the outlying patrols, calculating where Gwen's party would be at any given moment.

Morgana was seriously bothering him the last few days. First, dispatching Gwen and a few others to fetch some idiotic must have item from a small market town that may as well be a hundred miles from here the time it was taking; Secondly, encouraging his father to take part in the tournament, recklessly and without thought or consequence. He had been unable to stop himself speaking up at the evening meal when she had announced how excited she was about the purchases being made on her behalf for Uther's approval. It felt like a decade ago now.

Four days earlier...

"Why would you need to send handmaids on a shopping errand in such difficult times? Surely the threat of Cenred is too great for such-"

" Goodness Arthur, you expect me to ask a guard to know the difference between peach and apricot? Gwen knows what I require. I want a gown making especially for a certain birthday celebration not far off." She had turned her eyes on Uther then, who had smiled like a boy beneath her gaze. Arthur swallowed, already annoyed with her for encouraging his father to take part in the tournament. He clenched his fist about his goblet, not wishing for another verbal battle over the table.

" Morgana, we are currently hosting the largest tournament in the land. Cenred will be aware that our resources are being stretched, I merely meant-"

" Arthur you do worry so." Morgana fluttered her eyelashes, and her pale skin glowed in the candle light, and Arthur shivered involuntarily. Morgana smiled brightly, placing a hand on Uther's arm, and Arthur gritted his teeth. "You can't seriously be telling me that Camelot is now a land where we are unable to travel safely from one town to the next? I had no idea things had gotten so bad."

"Nonsense." Uther was incensed at the implication that Camelot was weak, as Arthur winced at his father's tone. "What exactly is your issue with this Arthur? Why are you so concerned about this errand and intent on having us cower to a bullying wretch like Cenred in our own lands?"

Arthur swallowed, his eyes flitting on Morgana's, noting a passing emotion that looked uncomfortably like satisfaction.

Merlin widened his eyes at him from behind Uther's chair as he fetched a water jug, shaking his head in warning. Caught in a moment of suspended peril, Arthur thought quickly, all too aware of Uther's suspicious stare, knowing full well he would be thinking about Gwen, and Arthur's "enchantment" for her.

Thanks, Morgana.

"Father my only thought was that we are losing four good guards and three maids during a tournament when we were playing host to the best of the kingdom, when we need only have lost a courier." He took a long slug of his wine, striving for neutrality in his tone. "Of-course Cenred is a worry. I simply feel the lost resources could have been put to better use serving our guests. I was forced to send two Knights as escorts for a couple of dignitaries from the eastern border. Practically speaking-" he almost choked on the words-" that is a guard's duty. Our guests are well aware that Knights are not usually dispatched for such tasks. It makes us appear that we have something to worry about."

Uther nodded thoughtfully at this, ripping a piece of bread in his hands as he mulled the explanation.

"Arthur is quite right, Morgana. Having our Knights perform such roles makes us seem overly concerned. However," he patted her arm kindly, " such matters are men's worries, I am sure the repercussions had not crossed your mind. Arthur is right to comment on matters of security, and organising the guard is his responsibility."

"I understand, Sire." Morgana bit the words out. "I had thought his concern a little strange, after all, my handmaiden Gwen is mine to do with as I wish. Now I see the bigger picture, I'll be more thoughtful in future."

Arthur's eyes flew to hers, shock hitting him square in the chest. Her arch smile was a challenge.

"Gwen you say?" Now Uther was all ears again, the bread in pieces on his plate as he looked between them. "Wait, wasn't she-"

" Morgana, do what you like with your maid. Leave the guards is all I ask." The quick retort stopped Uther's query, and the lie burnt his throat, but Arthur couldn't allow his father to examine this too closely. He had said his piece now. They had already departed, much to his dismay, no chance to say goodbye, since Morgana had gone above his head to arrange her frivolous mission.

Seemingly satisfied, Uther smiled, finally eating one of the fragments of bread he had destroyed, holding a hand up to quell Morgana's response.

"Enough, children. No more bickering. I have a tournament to prepare for, and do not need the distraction."

Morgana preened then, and began to compliment and tease Uther in equal measure, bolstering his pride whilst chipping at his ego. It was skilfully done. Arthur pushed his plate away, stomach in knots. The daddy's little girl act hadn't registered with him as a problem, mostly since her getting her own way had not impacted him before. He decided he would pay more attention to this new tactic of his "sister's". It was starting to grate.

-/-/-/-

"Merlin, seriously, how long does it take to fetch hot water? What on earth are you doing, chasing down summer rain-clouds to squeeze dry?" Arthur's irritation spilled from him, and he sighed, placing his hands on his hips and staring at the floor trying to regain his composure. He knew he was behaving poorly, every inch the spoilt prince she had so defiantly informed him in heated tones so long ago. Blowing out his breath heavily, he looked up, and grimaced at Merlin's hurt expression.

"Look Merlin I-"

"It's perfectly fine, Sire." Now Merlin was huffy as he sloshed a steaming bucket into the large wooden tub, shoulders hunched, face closed. "I shall inform the water on the stove that Prince Arthur is waiting therefore the usual laws of physics regarding boiling should be ignored for his relaxation is of far more importance. I am sure once the water is aware of its mission it will comply without complaint."

Arthur blinked, surprised and a little ashamed at his man servant's outburst. Despite being naked but for a towel wrapped about his waist he felt hot with embarrassment and coughed lightly, aware of Merlin's disdain. It made him feel small. Gwen's reproving eyes seemed to float before him, her mouth tight with disappointment. Sometimes, Arthur thought, he could be a real ass.

"I'm sorry." Merlin's stiff shock was palpable, making Arthur even more uncomfortable. Was he so arrogant that his apology could elicit such disbelief? It was a sobering thought. "I know I have been a little...the last few days have been difficult. It has been unfair of me to take it out on you."

"Oh it's all right." Now Merlin was his cheery self again, dismissing the apology easily, diffusing the awkwardness in the room with a grin. His eyes grew sly as he hefted his bucket ready for another trip down to the kitchen. The service pulley was broken, and Gaius had refused to let him mend it magically, adamant that the miraculous fixing of the split turning wheel would be a step too far. Sometimes he really hated his abilities, especially when they were utterly unusable. Merlin watched his master, noting the sleepless eyes. He made it to the door before daring to speak, knowing Arthur would not appreciate the teasing but unable to resist.

"The battle with Uther was hard on you, Sire, but you did the right thing. It can't help that Gwen is away either. You must miss her. "

" I-" Hearing the truth stated so boldly stunned Arthur speechless. Merlin grinned and ducked from the door sharpish, before his master regained his wits.

-/-/-/-

Her house was cold. He lit the stove to warm it up, his imagination seeing her everywhere in her home, her laughter in his ears like a whisper, her sighs as he held her to him trailing his spine, the memories stark and vivid. He closed his eyes, feeling foolish for being here, but unable to stay away. Being here, as bitter-sweet as it was, was wholly preferable to tossing and turning in his own bed, wondering.

He hung his cloak on the coat stand next to her sheepskin wrap, and his lungs lost air, images of her wearing it over her cream smock and those trousers she wore on particular journeys...she always looked ready for adventure like that, with her boots and sure skills on horseback.

Instead her own travelling cloak was missing, and he wondered if she were warm enough, safe enough. He felt like he had a Gwen shaped hole in his chest every time he pulled in a breath, and it sliced him with need. For a blinding fierce moment of pure longing he stared at the bed through the curtains, and part of him resented her for having such a powerful hold on him. He was no fool. Gwen was not a girl full of romantic notions, though she felt deeply, he had witnessed that. But he would not convince himself that she suffered as he did, that she missed him with this unbearable ache that hampered every thought, invaded every cell. How could she? She wore her serenity like a halo, there was no way, even in his wildest fantasies that he could believe she bore this torture each time he rode from Camelot, and the realisation hurt worse than he cared to dwell upon.

Merlin was unaware he had sneaked from the castle, and Arthur knew that now his ever curious servant was back in Camelot, such night time exploits would not long go undetected. Tonight he had a reprieve, since the tension from their earlier words still lingered, and Arthur had been unable or unwilling to speak to Merlin further once his bath water was finally delivered. Merlin's comments about Gwen had cut far too close to the bone, and as if sensing he had overstepped some line, Merlin had been quiet, and finished his duties efficiently before saying goodnight. Arthur could not stay. There was also little point, in an empty house, chilled without her presence.

The stove was finally warming up, and he was transported to another night, that first night, and how he had passed the time whilst waiting for the wood to heat. He grew hard just thinking about burying his face in her dark curls. Gods this was intolerable. Conscious of alerting the neighbours to his presence, he dare not light a candle, and could only hope that the smoggy night would diffuse the smoke from the chimney. Since most had their logs dwindling in the flames till they died out into the night he wasn't too worried, but remained alert to any noises outside.

The place still smelt like her, though she had not been here for days, her scent imprinted in the fabrics of her bedding, the lilacs she loved at the table had long gone, but he had replaced them, not liking to see the floral reminder of how much time had passed. It stretched on interminably.

Pausing at her bedside, he ran his hand over the soft throw. Before he could question his actions, or the sanity of them, he shed his boots and belt and climbed into the bed, burrowing into the cold sheets, yearning for the comfort the familiar position provided. The dream catcher swung above his head, and he stared at it for an age, as moonlight and shadow played upon the far wall from her window. The tournament replayed in his head, his father's face as he bore down upon him, and the relief he saw in his eyes as his sword clattered away. The moment was a knot in his chest, and coupled with the bubble of Gwen that seemed to want to lodge itself in his throat, sleep was impossible, and breathing became a chore. He wondered whether loving someone this much was proper for a Prince, whose duty was to his people, to his land. Gwen was the first to point out his obligations, when flights of fancy sped him off. It probably wasn't wise he realised, to be solely at another's mercy this way.

Right now, the need to have her home was a desperate keening in his bones, and he knew he'd give anything to see her face, hear her voice, in this fractured panicked moment. It wasn't wise, he thought. But it was also undeniable, and undo-able. Gwen was the space between heart beats. Without her, it stumbled blindly, missing the gentle pause that kept its steady rhythm.

He drifted to sleep as warmth stole over him from the thick comforter, and the shadows of the dream catcher painted his face with an intricate web, the chiming beads a lullaby of sorts, as his eyes closed and sleep took hold.